Sunday, May 29, 2016


So just when I said I was going to start reading the Game of Thrones series I had to put it on the back burner for a couple of days while I drove to Philadelphia to spend some time with my mom.  The highway patrol tends to frown on reading while driving – it leads to litter all over their nice clean interstates – so I had to find other ways to amuse myself.

Yes, I had a lovely time visiting my mom, thanks for asking.

Usually on these road trips I go with other people – sometimes just Kim, once just Lauren, most of the time with the whole family – so there are people to talk to during the ride.  And when I go by myself, I either leave things quiet or just listen to the radio or CDs.

Yes, my car has only a CD player, not a Bluetooth adapter for gizmos I don’t actually have anyway. 

I make use of it too, since for long stretches of the ride there is really no other radio besides country music, classic rock, fundamentalist rantings, or right-wing political lunacy.  Sometimes all of them at the same time, for which you have to admire their dexterity if nothing else.  I once read that the South begins approximately forty miles outside of any major American metropolitan area, and as someone who has spent more than a few hours on this great nation’s interstate highway system I can vouch for that.  So I bring my CDs.

Kim went to the library before I left and borrowed an audiobook of Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline, so I spent most of the ride there and back listening to that.  You should read it – it’s really quite entertaining, especially if (like me) you grew up in the 1980s.  It’s set in the 2040s, but much of it hinges on 80s pop culture, most of which I did not really remember.  I wasn’t much for the popular culture of the 80s even during the 80s, but it was fun to listen to all the names roll by even if I couldn’t quite place the songs or movies.

But there was one reference that finally answered a very old question.

Much of the book concerns old computer games.  The basic set up is that by the 2040s most of the world spends most of its time in a vast online immersive world called The Oasis, while the real world slowly falls apart.  Cline doesn’t really do much with that dichotomy, much to my regret – one character has an impassioned little speech about it, but Cline lets the issue drop as he’s mostly concerned with The Oasis itself and the stories of the protagonists who more or less live there.  The engine of the plot is a contest.  One of the creators of The Oasis has died and he leaves his vast – seriously, you can’t imagine how vast – fortune to the first person who can piece together the clues left in his online journal (“Anorak’s Almanac”) and somewhere in The Oasis find three keys, pass through three gates, and reach the final Egg.  Since the creator was an 80s junkie and thoroughgoing nerd, most of the references and clues have to do with old computer games, SF/F novels, movies, and the like.

Also, the audiobook was read by Wil Wheaton, who at least twice has to read Wil Wheaton references in the text, which I found amusing.

One of the clues centers on a computer game called Zork.  And as Wheaton described the game play, it finally hit me – yes, I had played that game.  It was the game that turned me off of computer games for the rest of my life.

By rights I should have been a computer game junkie, I suppose, since I was precisely the target demographic – bright, socially awkward young middle-class male in the 1980s who read SF/F, did well in school (especially math, but most other things as well), and lived mostly in his head.  This described a good portion of my friends as well, many of whom did in fact enjoy computer gaming.  They even got me to play D&D once, but that never took either.  Not sure why, really.  Just how it worked out.

Sometime in the spring of 1983 three of us – me, my girlfriend Sharon, and my friend Jill – took the Amtrak train from Philadelphia to West Hartford, Connecticut, to visit my friend Julia for a long weekend.  We had a great time, visiting parks, wandering around Mark Twain’s old house, spending an evening at a Pink Floyd laser show and another at a showing of Monty Python’s Meaning of Life.  We even spent a day walking around Julia’s high school with her, which was more fun that it sounds. 

One evening we were over at Julia’s boyfriend Tom’s house when he pointed us to a computer.

This was long before personal computers were standard household items as ubiquitous as televisions or indoor plumbing, and while I had worked on a computer before – a dumb terminal in a classroom connected to a mainframe in my high school’s administration building – I had never seen one in someone’s home until then.

Yes, I’m old.  Thank you.  Now fetch me a bourbon and let me finish.

Tom had a computer game that he wanted us to try, and we each took turns on it.  I don’t remember if Julia played it or not that evening – she would have seen all this before – and I don’t recall what Sharon or Jill thought of it.  I do know that when it was my turn I sat down and booted up the game not quite knowing what to expect.

The game was a text-based adventure.  You’d get a bit of description, and then you could enter commands for action such as “turn left” or “open door” or “pick up object” or some such.  You started in a field near an old, empty house, and from context it was clear that you were supposed to go inside.

So I did.

I wandered around the inside of that digital house for nearly forty-five minutes, never once finding out what the next step was.  I went out.  I went back in.  I peaked in cupboards.  I went from room to room.

Eventually I decided that this was not an entertaining way to spend time, so I exited the program and found something better to do.  Everyone else had long since moved on to some other room, so nobody asked me how I did or gave me advice about what I should have done.  I just chalked the whole thing up as a lost cause and moved on.

Somewhere in central Pennsylvania Wil Wheaton started reading about Zork, describing the opening scene of the game and it hit me – that’s the game!  I remember that set up!  I remember that house!  I never did know the name of the game back in 1983, and here on I-76 thirty-three years later (and well over forty miles from the nearest metropolitan area) the answer had appeared. 

I waited to see what I should have done, all those years ago.

Apparently there was a carpet that you were supposed to lift up, revealing a tunnel or staircase or something that led you down into a subterranean world of computer adventure.  Who knew?  Well, who knew besides almost everyone else who ever played that game, I suppose.  Clearly I was not cut out for that kind of thing.

It’s a good book, and while there are a few plot points that go unresolved it does provide a very entertaining story and some interesting things to think about.  I’d recommend it, even if I still have no particular intention of picking up computer games.

Now it’s back to Game of Thrones.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Diving Into the Deep End of Popular Fiction

I have started to read the Game of Thrones series.

I’m on page 4.  So far it’s pretty good.  Nobody has died yet, but I am told that I can expect that to change shortly if for no other reason than statistical probability.  It’s one of those series.  I’ve seen the little meme where someone stuck post-it notes in the books every time someone was killed and it looked like a neon-colored fringed buckskin shirt.  There will be blood.  But so far, so good.

Reading these does represent somewhat of a change of heart for me. 

Not the fact that I’m reading the series at all – oh, no.  This is my genre, after all.  There was a period of my life where I read The Lord of the Rings annually and could write in two different modes of Tengwar.  I can still do one even now.  And when I’m not reading books that have footnotes and bibliographies, I’m generally reading SF/F.  Sometimes even the SF/F has footnotes, but that’s a whole other problem. 

I actually bought most of the series a long time ago with the intent of reading it.  It looked interesting on the shelf in the bookstore – the HBO series hadn’t come out yet, at that point - and Kim eventually picked up the most recent one when we were in Sweden back in 2012.  The European version (yes, in English) was printed on slightly nicer paper than the American version was, which meant that it was about half-again thicker.  Schlepping that wood pulp brick across the Atlantic was just one of those heroic feats that get lost in the general shuffle of one’s life, I suppose.

Those who know me already know why I haven’t read them before now.  I like to read complete series, and I read too many books to memorize them as I go. 

The last book came out four years ago.

The previous book came out six years before that.

The one before that one came out five years earlier.

The next book has been rumored since 2012 and may well come out sometime before Lauren graduates college, or may not.

Each of these books is roughly cubical and contains more words than all of the cumulative performances of Hamilton to date, including the announcement about turning off your cell phones.

So what we had here, in other words, was a linear foot of novels of notably complexity coming out roughly once every presidential term, with the concluding novel being continually pushed out at least two and possibly four novels into the uncertain future, the whole thing written by a man who is in his late 60s and who is, by all appearances, not a health fanatic.

I thought to myself, “Well, I’m just going to hold off until he is either finished or dead, whichever comes first, because there is no way I’m going to go back a decade from now and reread all of those novels so I can remember what happened when the last one finally crosses my doorstep.”

And I’d been doing pretty well with that resolve. 

It’s not like there is a shortage of good books to read in this world.  My to-read shelf is pleasantly full, in fact, and since I am extraordinarily easy to shop for (“Another Amazon gift card!  How thoughtful!”) it continues to grow no matter how much I chip away at it.  Life is good, in other words.

Also, I figured that by the time I read it, the HBO series would be long gone and over and I could buy the whole set for $19.99 at a discount store somewhere and watch it then.

But Kim has wanted me to watch the show with her for a while now.  “It’s a great show!” she says.  “It’s got great writing and lots of action and all that good stuff!  You’ll enjoy it!”

“It’s got boobs!”

I confess that every time I walk through the living room when the show is on I see only blood, not boobs, but she assures me that were I to take the time I would indeed see plenty of boobs.  This, Kim feels, is sufficient enticement for me to watch the show.

She knows me well.

But she feels you can’t really watch the show without reading the books, and I agree – the books are always better.  Well nearly always.  I read the first twenty pages of The Bridges of Madison County once, and I cannot imagine a movie that could be more painful than that.  But as a general rule, the books are the place to start.

So I have started.

This may take a while.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Problem With Pink

Where were you this afternoon? 

We were launching rockets from the stage at Home Campus.  You should have been there.

The 4H Drama Festival comes along once a year to consume whatever free time you might have thought you had, in a constructive and generally enjoyable sort of way.  This year Kim and I found ourselves entirely in charge of our club’s troupe, as our directorial colleague from previous years had moved on to other things such as having a life.  Kim focused on the directing side, and the tech side was mine.  But mostly it’s the 4Hers themselves.  The whole point of this exercise is to let them do as much of it as is practicably possible.  How else will they learn?

Our play this year – written entirely by Tabitha, Lauren, Hailey and Taryn (no pre-made plays for us, nosirree!) – was called The Problem With Pink.  They spent a couple of months writing it.  The local library has a few rooms you can reserve for projects like that, which is nice for the parents dropping them off since we could sit and read while all the creative action took place. 

We began rehearsing in late March with some read-throughs, and eventually progressed to running the play live.  Add in a couple of Saturdays (and at least one Tuesday) of tech work – painting backdrop canvases (kids, it turns out, love spray paint - who knew?) and hanging them from the rigging, building a portable car, and fitting the world’s heaviest door box with outriggers so it wouldn’t fall over and create a black hole there on stage, that sort of thing – and we were set.

I also built some stomp-rockets.  If you’ve never tried stomp-rockets, you’re missing out.  They’re incredibly easy to make – just PVC pipe, empty soda bottles, and some scrap-wood bracing to keep the whole thing upright – and they are seriously rewarding in terms of spectacle for unit work expended.  It doesn’t take much to get the little paper rockets to zip off into the stratosphere, really.  One of them ended up on top of the ductwork in the Home Campus theater during Friday’s rehearsal.  They also make a pleasing thunk when you stomp on them, and this cannot be overlooked. 

Plus for those of us of a certain age they call to mind obscure Tom Lehrer references, and that’s all to the good.

The play tells the story of a trio of 4H kids, lost on the way to the County Fair.

The trio has achieved what many people in the modern US would regard as impossible – they have found a place where there is no wifi or cell service, much to the dismay of the one who lives her life as an extended Snapchat story.  After some entertaining bickering (which the judges singled out as particularly well done), they decide to knock on the door of the nearby creepy house, because isn’t that what always happens?

I think there are not enough creepy houses in my life, to be honest.  I live in places where creepy houses tend to be rezoned, torn down, or rehabbed, which means my ability to get into scrapes like these is pretty limited.  It is a sad, sad thing to be so gentrified.

This house is not only creepy, it is deservedly creepy.  It has earned its creepiness, and can wear it with pride.  There is an old lady living there with her flock of ghosts (the most adorable ghosts, really, which cuts down on the creepy a bit but so it goes), and when she finds out that there are 4Hers at her door, well, as one ghost says, “Yep, she’s gonna mess with them.”

Not that our intrepid 4Hers are too bothered.  There seems to be enough wifi for Snapchat, anyway, and that makes up for a world of creepy.

The old lady has other plans, though, and the action switches to flashback mode as she goes into the long story behind her bitterness toward 4H.

At this point Tabitha – our rigger – lowers the backdrop for the flashback scene, and Liam – our spotlight operator – shifts the audience’s attention over to that side of the stage while the scene changes and new actors appear.

Can you tell I am the tech guy?  Because that’s what I end up looking at, after all.  When I was in high school my parents got tickets for me and my girlfriend to go see Richard Harris in a touring production of Camelot as a graduation present.  When I got home they asked me how it was and I raved on and on about the sets and lighting until my mom finally interrupted and asked if there had been any, say, actors on the stage?  Oh, I said.  Yes there were, as I recall.  Several of them, in fact.  They had sung quite a bit.  Nice work, really.

So there’s that.

Apparently the old lady had been in the Rocketry part of the 4H Fair way back when.  She had been proud of her rocket, and figured she’d be the easy winner, but rockets are kind of like computers in the sense that sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t and who knows why one happens and not the other is what I want to know.

She ends up with a pink ribbon – the 4H equivalent of “nice try, kid” – and swears off the 4H forever.

The ghosts are not amused by this.  They have been trapped here in this house with this grumpy old lady because of a malfunctioning rocket?  Seriously?  “For 50 years we’ve missed the Fair for that?” one asks.

It’s a valid question, when you look at it that way.

The 4H kids and the ghosts then convince the old lady that it was probably just one of those things, that a pink ribbon is not the end of the world and nobody was out to get her, and she should give the 4H another chance.  There is also a cream puff in there, which is as good a clinching argument as you’ll ever find. 

She is, indeed, convinced, and vows to accept the 4H back into her heart.

At this point the ghosts demand to go to the Fair to show things there, and it turns out there isn’t really any rule specifying that exhibitors must actually be living.   It is through such loopholes that good times are had.

And there is much rejoicing.  Cream puffs for everybody!

There followed an extended period of milling about in the hallway outside of the theater, general relief that it had gone so well and was now over, and – eventually – judges’ critiques.  At the award ceremony later that afternoon our troupers were all given blue ribbons as well as a number of technical awards such as Best Teamwork, Best Use of Props, and Best Use of Stage Crew.

Congratulations, Players!


Once again, we were fortunate enough to have someone record the play for us, and for those of you who missed it the first time, here it is:

Thursday, May 12, 2016

News and Updates

1. I aten’t dead.  I know it seems that way - and sometimes it feels that way - but the fact of the matter is that my world has gotten into another of its periodic blurry phases where I find myself rushing about from task to task without any intervening time for reflection or energy to do much beyond those tasks.  The sad thing about modern American life, however, is that no matter how busy you are you can’t really complain to anyone because they listen patiently and then say, “Well, let me tell you about MY life” and then there is a Great Sad Among The People there is no winning that.  Plus, it has been a long spring for many reasons, and to be honest writing has been fairly low on the priority list.  Here's hoping for change.

2. Track meet season has started in earnest here in Our Little Town, as the athletes from Mighty Clever Guy Middle School have been whirling around the oval or hurling themselves across long vertical or horizontal distances.  So far I’ve made it to two and a half of these meets – 1.5 in the town south of us, and one here.  The first one was held in gale force winds on a grey day that felt more like March than May.  The second, held a week later in the same exact place, was early summer.  Today’s was more spring-like.  Lauren has been doing very well – she has very good form in the high jump (she came in first place in today’s meet among the girls, and didn’t lose out to the top boy by much), enjoys the triple jump, and seems okay with the 4x200 relay team.  Her relay team came in third today because they were one of the few teams who know how to pass a baton.  I sympathize with this, having been single-handedly responsible for a week’s worth of baton practice during my ill-fated track career back in high school, so yay Lauren!  My role in today’s meet was to be one of the timers.  Nothing good happens on its own, and this way I got to see the end of every race.

3. Theater season has also started in earnest.  Way back when, I taught Tabitha how to run a spotlight for 4H Drama.  She will never be unemployed because of that.  She has run the spotlight on the last two plays down at Local Businessman High, including the recent production of West Side Story.  It was a fun production – more than worthy of the high school’s efforts, I think – and it left me humming random snippets of the musical for weeks.  So, win.

4. I can now chew on the right side of my mouth again, which is a bit of a victory.  Of course it involved going to the dentist and having an old, cracked filling removed and a new, theoretically uncracked one put in, so there was that.  But it is nice not to have to think carefully about the logistics of things every time I try to eat something.  I learned how to eat when I was very young and it’s been mostly autopilot ever since.  Autopilot is a good thing.

5. The turkeys are getting bigger, which is perhaps the one thing that turkeys really excel at aside from being the most ridiculous creatures on earth.  We still have six of them, which boggles our collective minds – domestic turkeys are not known for their robust natures.  I’m the one who usually lets them out in the mornings, which they just love, and I find it soothing to hang out with them in an odd sort of way.  I’ll sit there with them for a few minutes and they’ll wander on over and hang out with me and there we are.  I think to them I’m just another turkey, and perhaps they are right.

6.  If anyone can explain to me why the police officer insists on parking in the Stop & Go lane of LBHS precisely during the peak drop-off time in the mornings when there are invariably multiple open parking spots mere paces away, I’d be glad to hear it.

7. Tabitha was once again honored by LBHS for keeping her grades high, which is a nice thing.  They have these Academic Award ceremonies where they gather everyone in the auditorium and hand out various prizes depending on how many years the student has achieved the required levels of success.  They’re the great ceremonies – you show up, there is a brief welcome, they read the name of every student who has won the award this year (maybe a hundred names, arranged by class, out of a total population of about 1400) while the students walk across the stage and get their award (so you can photograph your child), they say nice things about the valedictorian, and they send you back out into the night, the whole event lasting precisely twenty minutes.  Perfect!  This was Tabitha’s second award, so this year she got a letter for her as yet unpurchased school jacket.  It fit with her t-shirt.

8.  Yes, somehow I have become a fan of Panic! At the Disco too.  You would as well, if you listened.  Sometimes it pays to have kids who are hipper than you are.  You find out good stuff.

9. I have to put something in here about politics, otherwise Lauren will feel cheated.  She finds the political stuff to be boring but has come to expect it.  But politics has taken a rather dark and dangerous turn of late, now that Donald Trump has actually become the nominee of one of the only two major parties we have.  Trump is by far the most dangerously unqualified grifter ever to have been nominated for higher office by a major party in this country’s once-proud history – a bloviating bullshit artist, trust-fund baby and serial bankrupt, a man who has led the Republican nomination process for nearly a year now without ever once having put forward a single coherent idea or policy (which speaks volumes of the GOP base) and who can only be excused from being called a Fascist because he hasn’t got the intellectual heft or consistency to pull it off.  The thought that this nation has sunk so low that him winning the presidency is even remotely within the realm of possibility is a damning indictment of American culture and intelligence, and this is especially true given the collection of blank-stared empty suits, theocrats, meat puppets, half-wits and has-beens he steamrolled over to get that nomination.  Yes I will vote for Hillary.  Or Bernie.  Both of them have actual brains, both of them understand the American constitutional process, neither of them has recently promised to destroy the global financial system, crash the dollar, eliminate the Separation of Powers, or subvert the US military, and that puts them miles ahead of the Republican nominee.  Who wants to write about this?  It will just scare the horses.  And anyone who cares about the future of the American republic as well.

10.  I built a gas grill on Sunday.  We used it that evening for Mother’s Day dinner.  There was no fireball and I still have both of my eyebrows.  I consider that a win.