Dear Herman Melville

I am finally getting around to reading your great American Classic, “Moby Dick”. Looking forward to it. I am hoping, like all great American Novels, that this has spawned many sequels, none of which is as good as the first, but will feed the desire in me that easily identifiable charachters will be put in harm’s way, only to eventually succeed and find, love, fortune and good friends. I am hoping one of the sequels includes the phrase “Laser Harpoons”. Regards, me.

… My suspicion is that when you wrote the first meeting between Our Hero and Queequeg, the muscular, tattooed, large, possibly cannibalistic Noble Savage you were looking for a situational comedy kind of vibe- two vastly different people find each other thrown together by fate and form a bond of friendship. I get that. Tried and true idea. You went a bit overboard. I hate to point this out, but today it reads like a turgid gay romance novel. It’s also doing no one any favors that so far there are no female charachters, and once they get to sea there are not likely to be unless you throw in an Amazonian Mermaid Battle or two. In my mind this book is now scored by the Village People. Not your fault, I realize, just letting you know. Regards, me.

…For most of the introduction of Queequeg I imagined him looking large, muscular, imposing and ferocious but with a strong moral and noble demeanor. Kind of like The Rock but with more hair, less smarm and face tattoos. But when he told Our Hero “I would die for you”, he instantly transformed in my mind into Prince with weepy mascara. This may color the rest of my reading of your book. Regards, me.

…Queequeg is a facinating charachter, and I look forward to reading about him in your sequels. He is the Chewbacca to Our Hero’s Han Solo. Hey, maybe you could work a deal with Disney to do a crossover! After all, there was that big space worm in “Empire Strikes Back” that almost ate the Millennium Falcon, maybe Han hires the crew of the U.S.S. Sausagefest (or whatever the name of the ship is) to hunt it down! Regards, me.

…I have been to New Haven, Mass, Mr. Melville. It does not warrant this many chapters. Regards, me.

Going Places…

     OK this week we do not have another episode of Bartlett spits bile all over the room. Mea culpa. It’s been a bit of a wacky week for me, so instead I’m going to post a bit of fiction I wrote years ago. But first- Backstory!

     About ten years ago I was a designer for a card game based on a game called “Cyberpunk”. In addition to helping to design cards and figure out game theory, flow, balance and other wacky game stuff, I and some others wrote some short fiction for the card game. This is one of those pieces. Unlike most cyberpunk fiction, there is no violence, cool tech or ultra suave protagonists. I don’t think you need to be fluent in Geek to enjoy this, but I may be a bit too close to judge. Any commentary and advise is welcome. Enjoy…  

 

     John’s hands trembled as he held the envelope. It was thick. It was bulky. It was manila. Rejection letters are not this bulky, he told himself, they are generally a single sheet full of nothing but “you’re a loser.” He should know. Jonathan Randolph Smith had received twenty- six rejection letters so far. None looked like this. Well, The one from Biotechnica Technologies Ltd. had been pretty thick; but then they’d returned his entire medical history and even his blood sample. When they returned your blood sample you knew you were screwed.

John was on his last leg. He had graduated from a decent college and earned his MBA. He had a spotless criminal record, an acceptable credit rating and a small but solid stock portfolio. Yet still all of the large corporations had brushed him off.

John held a respectable job at a local bank, but it was hardly what he was aiming for.  He wanted something more. He wanted The Deal: corporate housing, corporate car …heck, corporate life. His current job was fine, in fact there were plenty of people who were satisfied with their lot at “Night City Savings and Loan”. But not John. He was a visionary, an idealist, and an extraordinary resource just begging to be tapped.

John glanced out the window as he fiddled with the lip of the envelope, imagining its contents.  He couldn’t stand the fact that he lived in such a dangerous neighborhood. He had to pay extra for a garage so the local gangs wouldn’t tag his car. The building had no daytime security and only a lazy night watchman, but when John complained to his landlord about the lack of safety, he was quite thoroughly ignored.

He opened the letter and almost fainted. There was an opening for a Second Class Junior Assistant to the Assistant Junior Department Subhead of Payroll, Temporary Employees Division, Neo-Arasaka Ltd, a subsidy of Arasaka Ltd, a subsidy of Arasaka Int. His interview was Tuesday, 11:45 am. He only had… 137 hours, 13 minutes to prepare. He jumped to his feet and ran down the 3 flights of stairs to the street. He had work to do.

He took the week off from work to prepare. John updated his resume, cleaned his best suit, familiarized himself with Arasaka Corporate etiquette, changed his mind and got a new suit tailored, read and reread the initial offer of employment, got the tailor to change the color and cut of the new suit, procured and studied an unauthorized copy of Arasaka Payroll procedures, picked up the suit, and started learning Japanese. The only thing left was hiring a bodyguard.

According to a recent issue of Corporate Quarterly, the best way to determine a corporate employee’s status was the presence and quality of their bodyguard. A bodyguard says that you are wealthy enough to afford one, stylish enough to recognize and employ the best, and valuable enough to be a target for assassination or extraction. If you came into an interview with a bodyguard, people would know. People would talk. People would take notice.

The only problem was that John did not know any bodyguards. The security guard at the bank was an old, retired N.C.P.D. officer, and he would not do. He considered hiring an off duty policeman, but they would probably be on Arasaka’s database and John would be caught with a ringer. He’d need someone who wasn’t on the database, preferably someone who looked violent, but would be willing to take on a more suave demeanor.  He also needed someone who would work cheap. He made a few calls, and talked to his old collage roommate, Benny.

Benny had been smart but disgruntled at the university, and dropped out his junior year. No big loss, according to John. Benny had been liberal arts major, anthropology or something. He’d stayed in contactwith John sporadically, and apparently he’d been doing the “starving artist” thing and playing in a rock band. John figured where there’s rock, there’s drugs, and where there’s drugs… there’s violent people.

Fortunately, Benny claimed to have the perfect man for the job, and wished John luck on his interview.  At least, John was pretty sure that’s what Benny said.  It was a little hard to tell with all the loud music and what sounded like farm animals in the background.

The night before the interview John planned to meet his new bodyguard. The person Benny had chosen was going to spend the night since the interview was in the morning, and John did not trust any friend of Benny’s to show up on time.  He had arranged for his family spend the night at his sister’s so they would be safe from his bodyguard.

At eight that night the buzzer rang, and John opened his door to find a monster outside… exactly what John needed. The man was large, ill mannered and looked like a hoodlum. In fact, he probably was a hoodlum. He stood well over two meters tall, and his long blonde hair hung in dreads. His clothing was not much better: grimy tee shirt, a leather jacket, big boots, and a lumpy oversized backpack. John swallowed hard, trying not to imagine what this beast of burden might be carrying.

“You John Smith?”

“Uhhhh… yes.”

“’m Olaf. Benny sent me.”

“I’d hoped. Please come in.”

Olaf lumbered into the apartment and looked around. He went to the couch and flopped down, putting his feet up on the coffee table. John followed nervously, noting, with horror; the muddy tracks Olaf’s cinder-block boots were leaving on the carpet.

“C-can I get you something to drink?”

“Nah,” said Olaf digging into his backpack, “I brought my own.” He pulled out a brown glass bottle of dubious liquid and opened it with a loud POP.

“Oh. Ummm. Well, let me get you a glass.” John briskly walked to the kitchen and willed his hands to stop shaking as he retrieved a clean glass from the cupboard. Attempting an attitude of confidence, he returned to the living room… just in time to see Olaf slam the now empty bottle down on the table with a loud belch.

“Oh. Here’s a coaster.”

“Thanks. Ya got any chow?” Olaf rooted in his backpack again and pulled out two more bottles. POP. POP. “Here, try this.” He put the beer down on the table in front of John.

“Dinner will be ready in about half an hour. Till then I was hoping I could get your measurements.”

“Why’d you want those?”

“Well, tomorrow I’ll need you to act as my bodyguard when we go to the Arasaka Compound, and you’ll need to wear a suit. Now I’ve gone so far as to get a nice conservative cut for you, but it’s in a general size.”

“Dude, what are you talking about? Benny told me you’d only need me till tomorrow morning. I didn’t sign up to go nowhere, and I sure as hell ain’t going to Arasaka. Now shut up and drink.”

John felt his heart leap into his throat. He obediently swept up the bottle and sucked down a mouthful. He knew he couldn’t count on Benny. He was a fool to try this. Still, he had to try to salvage the situation. Desperately fumbling for a reply, he recalled an article on Employee Negotiation Strategies and took a deep breath.

“Now see here, Mr. …Olaf, I have retained your services for the next …” John checked his watch,” 17 hours and 32 minutes, and so long as I ask you to perform no illegal or immoral actions, you are contractually obligated to serve as my bodyguard until that time. So what I, your employer, need from you, my employee, is to change into the suit I’ve just spent a week’s wages on. Then escort me to the Arasaka compound by 10:00am tomorrow. You shall wait for me to finish my interview, at which point I will pay you the sum of three hundred Euros, in addition to keeping the aforementioned suit. If you do not agree to these terms, you will be in remiss and subject to garnishing and possible forfeiture of wages In addition, you may suffer legal action, and a strongly worded letter from my human resources department.”

The speech went well right up to the point when his voice squeaked out “human resource department.” Still, he could not let his employee see him waver. Olaf stood up.

“Lemme get this straight. All you want is for me to wear a suit and be your bodyguard for a job interview? And I get 300 bucks and the new suit?”

“Th-that is the agreement.”

“I don’t gotta break no legs?”

“No.”

“Ya didn’t piss anyone off?”

“No.”

“Ya just need me to play bodyguard for a few hours.”

“Exactly.”

“What the hell. Least I can do is give ya a drink.” Olaf trudged to the bathroom, taking his bottle with him.

John stood still for a second, and let it all seep in. He’d done it. He had issued an order and it was carried out. He was a deal maker. He was a go-getter. Arasaka would be foolish to let him go. He sat down on the couch and opened the beer bottle with a pop.

The fitting went well. Olaf was a large man, so the sleeves and pants were a little short, but he looked acceptable in them. Olaf changed back to his street clothes and they had dinner, all the while digging into Olaf’s seemingly limitless cache of beer.

After dinner they wandered back to the living room, and Olaf produced two more beers.

POP. pop.

“…So what’s so big about getting a job at Arasaka, man?…”

POP. pop

“…So how did you get to be in gang, anyway?…”

POP. pop

“…I wish I’d a stayed in school sometimes…”

POP. pop

“… Sometimes I feel like I haven’t even lived yet…”

POP. pop

“…I’m free to do whatever I want, man. No one tells me what to do…”

POP. pop.

“…I want the deal, man. The personal car, the jet, the penthouse….”

POP. pop

“…chicks, man. Drive ya crazy every time.”

POP. pop

“…chicks, man…Drive ya crazy eve’ry time. Hic…”

 

A bomb exploded in John’s head as early morning sunshine screamed through the blinds. Somehow, last night he had made it to his bed and now his bleary eyes focused on his alarm clock. It was playing music. Loud music. Angry music.Damn you, Beethoven.

John sank back into a miserable oblivion until his ocular nerve processed what it had seen: 7:45am. His brain kicked into autopilot. Interview at 11:45, hour and a half for prep time, 45 minutes travel time, 45 minutes for initial paperwork, security scan and entry. He could afford to hit the snooze button three more times.

WACK…. WACK…WA..CK.

Was that three of four? John’s head still felt like a rugby team had a bar fight in it, but he had to wake up. He pried open his eyes and looked at the clock. The numbers glared back at him, daring him to move. 8:47. He was doomed.

John lept out of bed and raced to the bathroom. He showered, changed and woke Olaf, directing him to the shower.  John set out Olaf’s suit, and started the coffee. They ran outside and got in John’s Burowagon.

He didn’t trust Olaf to drive, so he drove to the Arasaka Ltd. Compound, pushing the speed limit all the way. His hangover had shrunk to a dull shrieking in his left ear as he pulled up to the compound’s entrance. He dug out his temporary ID and passed it to the guard. The guard considered the piece of paper as if it were guilty of treason.

“OK, You clear, Mr. Smith. How about your friend?”

“What? Oh, ummm, this is not my friend, he’s my bodyguard.”

“Bodyguard?”

“Yes, Bodyguard.” John said petulantly,” Anyone on the way up has a bodyguard.”

“Not if they want to get in here.”

“P-pardon me?”

“Your temporary identification pass is a grade red 4, it allows you on the grounds for no more that five hours. It does not include guests, entourage, family… or bodyguards. You can go in, but your bullet catcher has to stay outside. Don’t worry, we’ll make sure you don’t get assassinated.”

John looked around nervously. His gaze finally settled on Olaf. “Ummmm. Mr. Olaf, it appears that your services are no longer required. While we appreciate your…”

“Look, man, I’m still getting paid, right?”

John’s life flashed before his eyes. He dug out his wallet and began saying: “Of course I’ll have to pro-rate your salary based on time spent,” but after the first two words his survival instinct kicked in and shut him up.

Olaf raised an eyebrow.

“Whatever.” He took the proffered cash and got out of the wagon. “See ya, man. Me and the guys are drinking at the 404 tonight. Come join.” The cash disappeared in Olaf’s pocket. He gave him a bone-jarring pat on the shoulder. “Good luck.”

“Thanks.” John drove into the compound and found his assigned parking lot. He got out, grabbed his portfolio and started to the main building. This was it. The big time. John Smith, you are going places. But first, a quick trip to the toilet to throw up.

He walked up to the Arasaka building and stared up… and up and up. It loomed above him. He straightened his tie, buttoned his suit jacket and marched in to meet his destiny.

He showed his badge to the security guard at the door, then to the secretary as he signed the register. He was directed to the 12th floor, room 12125, and told to look for the “Prospective Employees” sign. After a brief detour to the restroom, and a whirlwind relationship with the cool porcelain of the toilet bowl, John was ready.

He was herded into the elevator with other personnel and as it rose, he felt his brain explode against the sides of his skull with the change in air pressure.  John was surrounded by Arasaka employees so he could not risk a groan. He slowly rubbed his temples and wished for medicine, maybe a breath mint, or a quick, painless death.

The door mercifully opened and John stumbled out. He wandered around until he found the right room, took a deep breath, matted down his hair, and walked in.

It was a large lobby with uncomfortable plastic chairs circling the walls. Low quality speakers bleated out a soft rock song from 20 years ago performed by an orchestra. Each chair was occupied by other hopefuls; each one John’s mortal enemy. The unnatural lights seared his poor, bloodshot eyes. Only one person here would get the golden ring, the rest would be losers. John was determined to win… if he could keep from throwing up again.

John marched to the secretary and handed her his resume with as much flourish as he could muster. She looked up from her magazine and said, “ Thank you. Take a number and have a seat. You will be called in the order in you entered.”

John headed to the beverage station and looked for coffee. His coffee from earlier had worn off, and he was starting to get sleepy. His headache was still lodged in the back of his eyes, and he needed to get the nasty taste of vomit out of his mouth.

He grabbed a disposable cup, filled it with sugar and cream, and pressed the button that poured coffee from the dispenser.  Nothing. Great. No coffee. He could feel the eyes of his rivals upon him, mocking his pain. He tried to casually dispose of the cup in the wastebasket, but it made a loud thunk as it hit the bottom. Now everyone knew he was a non-coffee drinking loser. He was tempted to redeem his pride by complaining to the secretary, but he was too tired and in too much pain to bother. He spotted the last empty chair and sat down. The chair was uncomfortable, and because the room was full to capacity he was forced to sit with the outside of his legs brushing up next to his competition. They both squirmed uncomfortably, but gave John a plastic smile. John grunted and did not throw up all over them.

Observing the competition, John came to a particularly uncomfortable realization. They all looked like him… just like him. Same haircut, same suit, same glazed look of hopeful fear John that always wore. All wore the same look of ratlike desperation, fear and superiority. They all looked nervous, eyes darting back and forth. They all realized that this was the big time. His resume probably looked similar to everyone’s here as well. Oh well, thought John, at least I’m here. The hard part’s over, I can close my eyes. I can relax…

“DING. Number 58. Number 58. Last call for Number 58.” John came out of his daze. 58 sounds familiar. I’ve heard that somewhere before. Recently, too. 58. Hmm.

John’s eyes creaked open to look at his ticket. There it was. That rat-bastard “5” right in front of that traitorous, smirking “8”.

John lept to his feet as if the chair had been electrified. He held the ticket up as he walked to the secretary. “Here I am. Number 58. 58, that’s me. It’s not too late, is it?’

The secretary took the ticket. “No. Go through that door.” She pointed a beefy finger to a large double door. John opened it and walked in.

The room was dark, which John appreciated more than he would have thought. At the end of the room was a large desk with a perfectly manicured man sitting behind it. He ushered John in with a wave and offered a seat.

“Congratulations, Mr. Smith,” his voice boomed with authority, “Welcome to the Arasaka family. My name is Michael Williams. I will be your adjunct senior supervisor for your first term here. Here is your contract. Do you have any questions?”

John’s voice almost cracked as he said, ”What? Aren’t you going to interview me?”

“No need to, Mr. Smith. We are familiar with your work at NCS&L, and we found it acceptable. Your coming here was a test of character, that’s all.”

“How? How can you make this decision without even knowing who I am?”

“Oh, we know who you are, Jonathan Randolph Smith. We have your records from ten years back. We know your family, friends, and patterns. We didn’t know what you are like under pressure. Now we do.”

John could not begin to fathom what was going on. He was not just a fish out of water; he was a fish who didn’t even know what water was. He hoped he was not drooling.

“Mr. Smith, that waiting room was designed to maximize the inherent fears and discomforts one experiences in a corporate environment. The lights were overly bright, the chairs uncomfortable, the coffee nonexistent the music horrifying. These factors are designed to cause the applicants heightened paranoia and unease. The seats have biomonitors attached to them, so I was able to record each applicant’s vital signs, approximating their mental and emotional stamina. Of all 67 people in that room, you, John Smith, were a constant. You even fell asleep for a few hours. In my ten years here I have never seen such a performance. You never even flinched. We need that kind of person here at Arasaka.” He extended his hand.

John stood slowly, reaching out to grasp William’s handshake and mumbling something like, “Thank you. ”

“Marie out there will direct you to processing and orientation.  We’ve contacted Savings and Loan, your employment with them is concluded. And I’d hate to bring this up, but we suggest that employees of your level have a bodyguard.  The expense is yours, of course.  If you do not have access to protection, we can not guarantee your safety once outside Arasaka property.”

John’s equilibrium pitched to the side from the motion of standing, and he still reeled from the headache that ripped a jagged distraction through his amazement. “Bodyguard… No, thanks. I can take care of it,” John said, attempting the same diplomatic grin that Williams was beaming at him. “I know just the man for the job.”

“Welcome aboard, John.  The recruiter rose to escort him out, “You are going places.”

 

Scrooge was a quitter…

The Grinch was a simp. Kids cry all the time, get over it ya big softie. Frosty was a boy toucher, don’t deny that you thought so too. Santa is just a kid’s introduction to the NSA. Yeah, yeah, fatman, bring the coal. I have a coal stove, so you’re not gonna be totally useless this time. And let’s remember the ‘reason for the season’- well hell, Dec. 25 is just as likely to be Baby Jeebus’s birthday as any of the other 364.  In other words, I don’t like this time of year.

It’s not for me. I’m not gonna harp on the “War on Christmas” crap, or the rampant commercialism of November to December. Hell I like buying stuff just as much as the next person, so I’m not gonna bitch about that. I’m sure there are plenty of bloggers that can go off on well researched rants about that. No, my hatred for this time of year is much more personal. So here we go. Ho ho ho.

Look to any of a billion “Holiday Specials” and what are the common themes? The short answer to this is “Things I no longer have, don’t like or suck at, so hey, thanks for reminding me of all the poor decisions I’ve made in my life. So let’s celebrate them.” Family. Loved ones. Snow.

I remember watching any number of crappy “Christmas Specials” on TV when I was growing up, and they always had some sappy moral. The most egregious offenders would rip off “A Christmas Carol”, with the grumpiest character being Scrooge for a scene or 2, then magically turned around by the end. This always fell flat to me- What’s to say this guy isn’t going to go back to being an asshole come December 26th? Nothing. There is no morality here, just a wave of saccharine crap and cultural bullying trying to tell you that Being Good is Good. It smacks of that most dangerous of ethical thought- that by Helping Others you get a leg up, AKA Don’t be good if no one’s watching. That’s no way to establish a moral center.

Another omnipresent aspect to these things is snow. Damn I hate snow. Hate the cold, hate the mess, Hate the excessive clothes you have to wear. Over it. And don’t give me that crap about how if you are cold just put on more layers. I wind up looking like the kid from”A Christmas Story”. Not to mention driving in snow, shoveling, and the basic ass pain of even walking on ice and snow. Plants look dead, most animals have left or are sleeping. The charm is gone.

But not all of us deals with snow. Some Smart Cookies live in or haul ass to places where snow is nonexistent. They are still browbeaten into thinking that snow and cold is somehow sentimental, romantic and pretty. Anyone who had to shovel a sidewalk in -2 degrees may see the flaws in this attitude. I’m certain one of the reasons my parents had me was so they no longer needed to shovel snow, mow the lawn or change the channel on the TV.

Yes, I’m that old.

The religious aspect of the season is lost on me as well. In High School I went caroling, as I was a choir kid, but aside from learning how to sing in Latin it was not my cuppa. I preferred jazz to sombu-tastic classical pieces about the baby Jeebus and angels swooping in and saving Christmas or whatever it is they do. And I’m not a very religious person anyway, so the whole “Birth of the Son O God” thing leaves me with more questions than warm fuzzy feelings. The most emotion I get this time of year is for the Jews, and that’s just a sort of empathetic embarrassment that one of their least important holidays has to be kicked into the cultural wrestling ring to go against Big Daddy Santa and the Kid. Even the Solstice is just a demarcation to me that we made it a ways around the sun. No grand feeling of universal oneness to the Great Cosmic Thingy, no connection to The World, just one day a little darker than others.

Let’s not forget the family aspect of the season either. Well, most of my family has passed away,   so this season is just a month long reminder that most of the people who loved me are now gone. This is not a positive thing. Now don’t get me wrong, I have many wonderful, awesome, incredible, giving friends whom I value. It ain’t the same. I have a lot of friendships, but no love. I’m not likely to get my own family, so what’s gone is gone. Loss. Let me break out the champagne and sing songs to that, shall we? 

I guess I’m a bit contrary. Living the life I have, when most folk play is when I work. This means if I am ever in a place where a lot of people are relaxing and having fun, the odd little reptile part of my brain thinks I should be working. Same thing with costume parties or cosplay events. Just can’t get into them. It’s not fun, it’s a missed opportunity.

I do not like being told where, when, or how to have a good time. I enjoy life when I’m happy, and when I’m down I don’t. No amount of cheery music, booze or festive hats and decorations can change it.  Given the evidence above, it is quite difficult to get me in a good mood this time of year.

I realize it’s not any outside force here. It’s me. I’m not looking to convert people into my particular brand of Holiday Hatred, just trying to put this malaise into words. I’m sure some people need this decompression. They need an excuse to give gifts, act nice, be merry, dress goofy and think about The Good Old Days. I don’t. Or maybe they need it as reinforcement- a festive reminder that being nice is something people should do more often, and they use this to get them through the year. I don’t know. Have them write their own blog and maybe I’ll check it out. I’ve no interest in that.

Before I wrap this up, let me be clear it’s not just this Festivas Season I dislike. Most holidays I don’t care for. If we put this much effort into Arbor Day I’d be screaming “Fuck trees- leave me alone!” My distaste just gets louder this time of year because the Fun is cranked up more. It gets on my nerves. Despite living in New Orleans for years I have not celebrated Mardi Gras since 2006. This is the reason for that.

The only holiday I enjoy is New Year’s Eve, and not just for the booze and the fact that the party starts at midnight. I think it’s a good time for reflection. I can look at the past year, realizing fully it’s in my rear view mirror and see what it is I’ve done. Its also a time to look ahead at the coming year and dream and plan. It’s the most optimistic and nostalgic holiday. The past few years I made a ritual of standing on the bank of the Mississippi in the French Quarter and watching the mighty river flow by, just like it always does. I’ll miss that this year, but I planned that. December 31, 2012. 

Break out the egg nog…

I rolled a 4… does that hit?

The year was 1978. My mom told me that one of my neighborhood friends had picked up a new game, and he had no one to play it with. It was called “Dragons and Something” according to Mom, and I should go over to his house and try it out.

Little did I know that Mom’s desire to get a little time without me underfoot would shape my life. I am a gamer. I game. I play games. Still do. I look forward to being in the old folks home with several carefully chosen friends and gaming till my oxygen tank empties and they wheel my cold corpse out of the home grasping my favorite d20.

Of course I had no idea what that one afternoon would bring. We had no idea what we were doing. The rules were arcane, complex and confusing We had one module, “The Keep on the Borderlands” and we just played that one module over and over, creating new characters each time. We were amazed that there were rules for 3d level characters, because we had no idea how to advance a character that far in one session.

I’m sure some of you are sniggering “whatta bunch of N00bs”, or some such computer generated jargon, but you are late to the game. The fact that most of you, even those of you who have never rolled a die (singular of ‘dice’ BTW) in anger, understood that last paragraph shows us how far we have come. I want to spend a paragraph or so easing most of you into the phrases involved in gaming so you won’t feel totally lost, but I feel at this point it’s unnecessary. If you have played any computer RPG, shooter or tactical game involving creating a character you know all the ideas I’m going to use. That will be most of you. That blows my mind to no small degree. So back to 1978…

After a few weeks of this we got a few other friends involved in it, and we’d meet after school, a brave adventuring party of 2-5  (1d4+1) of us any given day playing this odd little game. One day one of us came up with the idea of creating characters and actually keeping them from game to game. After we played the Keep on the Borderlands to death and back, we wanted more adventure. We needed more. So one of us decided to be the Dungeon Master, aka The Geek who Makes Stuff Up. Cue impressive music.

We were unconstrained now. We heard about other modules. More stories. We ate them up- we went against the Slave Lords, we defeated the Giants, explored the Barrier Peaks, and took on the granddaddy of killer dungeons, the Tomb of Horrors. When we weren’t doing those we invented our own stories, defeating evil and crushing our enemies with the fervor only teenage betas and gammas can muster.

We played other games- the early 80’s was the first great wave of gaming- Runequest, Aftermath, Dragonquest, Universe, Space Opera, Gamma World, Elfquest, Call of Cthulu, Palladium, Chilvery & Sorcery, I could go on. But the 300 lb gorilla in the room was D&D, which by that time had become AD&D. Middle school became High School, and while some of my original group had quit and gone on to cars, girls, sports, or just lost interest, I maintained my passion for this silly hobby. I made maps, read up on medieval history, knew the difference between a rondel and a cinqueneda. I was, in short, un-layable. 

In the short term this was a bad thing, but in the long term I breezed past some of the issues that  a lot of teens wrestle with. I didn’t drink, my friends were just as unlaid as me, so teenage pregnancy was a near impossibility. Cruising (in the Midwestern sense of driving slowly down the main drag) seemed a waste of time. Gangs, drugs, fights, even school sports were seen as stupid. My high school experience was about evenly split between theater, choir and gaming. I was an odd bird. I’d stay out late on weekends, but after a few rocky times my parents knew I’d be at one of my fellow geek’s homes, monitored by another set of confused parents. We were safe. They knew because every few times we’d game in my living room. Or dining room. Much to their chagrin. Having half a dozen overcaffinated teens in the house hunkered around a table looking at maps and talking about dungeons, elf maidens and medieval warfare would drive an adult crazy, especially if they had no context. Today’s parents can at least think of tabletop gaming as computer gaming with no computer. Back then, they didn’t even have that. Heck, most parents I know game or plan to game with their kids. If we were allowed to run rampant with unlimited cash and a dozen ‘get out of jail free’ cards we’d probably just order pizza and a lot more Mountain Dew.

Goddamn I was lame.

Then came college. Indiana University, Bloomington, In. I managed to not game for about a semester before I found the IU gaming groups. This was the Big League. The games got more complex,  the numbers got crunchier (Hello, Chart Law). One of my friends was a grad student in Military History, and for the record I’m not sure if he ever left his home to do anything other than go to class or game. Games changed, but the dynamic stayed the same, only this time we had more responsibility, so I gamed on weekends only.

Till I found my dorm gaming group. These guys did not really care much about the rules, they just wanted to tell stories. This was my introduction to Improv. No lie. It was also my introduction to gaming being a social tool, not a social crutch. We’d get together at lunch and the conversation would flow from game stuff, to how to tell a story, to character building chat, history, philosophy, comedy to improv techniques. And what was odd to me was that people who didn’t game seemed to be kind of interested. Some would show up at games, not really wanting to play, just watch and listen. And not to mock. (at least I don’t think so).

My social sphere expanded. Now contrary to popular opinion, there were girls who gamed back then. I knew some of them, and lemme tell ya, they were just as into gaming as I was. I met people of all types being a gamer. Some casual, some Geek Kong. I gamed with the wealthy, the poor, country mice, city mice, hippies, conservatives, gay, atheists, religious (despite the wingnuts) the pie in the sky optimists and the gritty realists. Gaming brings people together. Who cares what your personal opinions are so long as your thief can pick that lock? Common ground, even on something as simple as a game, can go very far in creating understanding and friendship.

The hobby is relatively cheap- less than one hundred bucks up front, and you are ready to go. Of course back in the 80’s it was closer to $20-30, plus about $5 for dice, paper, pencils, and sundry incidentals. That, oddly enough, is one of the problems of the hobby. There used to be (and I suppose still is) a huge DIY aspect to the hobby. Note my now growing LEGO collection.

Consider the cultural impact this silly little game has made- It birthed CCGs (Collectible Card Games- Magic, Pokemon, and hundreds of others), Movies (Hawk the Slayer to Lord of the Rings), Books, and the 300 pound gorilla in the room- computer games. I’d even make the argument that the recent rash of Comic Book movies came from, in part, the cultural cache garnered by gaming. TSR ( the company that started D&D) never made a lot of money by corporate standards, even at their height. When I found that out you could have knocked me over with a kobald.

In an almost mythological turn of events, in the mid 90’s a company called Wizards of the Coast came up with a little card game called Magic: the Gathering. It started the hobby of CCGs, and a short time later (1997) it bought out TSR. Then Hasbro bought out WOTC. Yeah, Gaming hit the Big Time.

The 90’s also saw the birth of a company called White Wolf, and the game Vampire: the Masquerade. Modern day horror where you play a newly minted vampire. This led to a whole new flock of gamers to the hobby- Punks, goths, anarchists, acting types, now had a game for them. Character was all, mechanics secondary. Most of the books were more scene setting and back story than charts and rules. It also led to the stepchild of the tabletop game (as opposed to the computer game)- the LARP- Live Action Role Playing. People would go to a house, bar, public place, boathouse, whatever, and actually play their character- a la a play with no audience. Everyone is involved. The game mechanics (aka the “rules”) tend to be simpler, and attention spent on character and plot. I’ve seen and heard of LARPs with 20+, 50+ even 200 + players at one time and place. Some players hardcore dedicated to the scenario, some following the game and trying to get ahead, others kind of involved, some roped in by their significant other, some just want a shot and a beer and to watch. Gaming is a social thing. Done by nonsocial people. Or at least it was. It was used as an excuse by some socially awkward people (like Yours Truly) to interact with folk. No matter where you were, if you were stuck for something to say or do, conversation could always drift back to “the game” and face could be saved.

I will not take the hipster trope of “I was there before it was cool”. OK. Fine. The hell I won’t. I was there before it was cool. There, I said it. Now pass me a PBR and some chunky glasses. And WOW was it uncool. It served as cultural short form for “Geek” before Geek was a positive word. One of the reasons I loved “E.T.” was because there was one quick scene where the kids in the movie were playing “D&D”, and they were not seen as social pariahs, murderers or psychopaths.. That was a breath of fresh air.

We’ve come a long way, Orcy. I remember my parents played bridge a few times a week with my aunt and uncle, they’d get together, have a few drinks and chat while playing cards. It took me years to realize I was functionally doing the same thing, just with books, miniatures and dice instead. The game does not matter, the people you play with does.

So now I look at my gaming habits in recent years. What started with mountain dew and pizza, moved on to a bong, Mountain Dew and pizza to Beer, Likker, Mountain Dew and pizza to Craft Beer, nice whisky, someone home cooking a meal and various healthy snacks, sometimes with kids rumbling around.

And the people I now game with? Artists, doctors, lawyers, professors, engineers, teachers, bartenders, tour guides, professionals. We now can’t have the marathon 24 hour game sessions due to Other Things, but we still meet once a week. The game goes on.

Roll initiative…

Ethel’s Last Kindness…

Dear Momma,

 

Hi. It’s been about six years since I last saw you and thought I’d check in. Give you and dad and Aunt T and Uncle Pipe and my brother Tim a brief update. In short, I’m doing OK. Took up playing the ukulele, and knock around a bit with it. Still no steady job, but I get by. No significant other but plenty of significant friends. Still an Endangered Species, but I’m healthy. Well, healthier.

I guess it’s not true that I haven’t seen you in years. You and the gang pop up in my dreams every once in a while, but you are never the momma I last saw. You are the you I’m used to- Smart, acerbic and yet innocent, funny and practical. So’s dad- he’s gruffly loving, full of bad jokes and good tomatoes, a beer in one hand, a cig in his mouth dangling like Gary Cooper. I remember one dream where I wandered into a huge house on a hill. Pipe was in the garage working on some fancy old car, Dad throwing a football to Tim, younger than I’d ever seen him- probably 12 or so. Inside Aunt T was in the kitchen (like she always was) and we had a brief talk about nothing at all, which are still my favorite conversations. You were upstairs in a giant closet going thru a fantastic collection of clothes. You looked up from a pile of lush fabric and smiled that wonderful smile of yours. We talked for a while, then we hugged and I said I had to go. You said what we’ve said to each other since I could remember- “Bon Soir”. It was afternoon. When I woke I remembered one of the few bible quotes I know: “My Father’s house has many rooms”.

I miss your hugs. All of them. The huge ones that engulfed me as a kid, to the ones I got daily from first grade thru high school, to the occasional ones after I left home to the last time I hugged you- December 8, 2007. That time I engulfed you, like I had done every night since September of 2005 when I moved back in with you after Katrina.

Yeah August of 2005 was the worst month of my life, and I’ve had some crappy months, believe me. Early in the month Margret, your maid (that you really didn’t need- I always assumed you just wanted another strong minded woman to chat with a once a week) called me and told me I needed to come home and take care of you. I thought she was being overly protective of you, as you were a widow in her 80’s living alone- you hated the idea of going into a home, and were doing OK once you got a small one floor home in a nice neighborhood. But then I talked with you and you seemed a little off. Confident but confused. You had mentioned that Dad was out, but doing OK. Dad had passed away in 1993. I started saving money for the move. Then I was kinda forced to move.

I won’t go into deep detail about Katrina, but let’s just say I lucked out. I got out just in time and went to Dallas via Mississippi because it was quicker. I woke up the next morning to see the city I loved under water. I only lost stuff. Took the train up to Indiana and after an Adventure found out what was going on with you. Alzheimer’s

For the record- Fuck that guy.

I remember spending the first few weeks with you not really understanding what was going on till I did some research. Short form it gums up your brain. The synapses get clogged, and fewer and fewer of them connect till at the end you are a vegetable, not able to even remember to swallow. I can not think of a more un-momma way to go. 

I think we have what I’m gonna call the Meeks Family Curse- we die from what we love most. Dad was very athletic and loved his beer and cigs, so let’s give him emphysema. Set it up so he can’t do anything active and he’s trapped watching his world shrink till at last he’s tied to his bed by an oxygen mask. And let’s give him alcoholism so he can’t even have a simple drink to help ease the pain without feeling like he’s betraying his family or failing.

As for my brother? He lived like Hemingway, without the bother of writing. Early in his life the U.S. Government invited him to visit Vietnam on an all expense paid trip. He declined, and wound up in Paris. Lived the last 30 years of his life in France drinking, smoking horrible French cigs, carousing, playing go and chasing women. He was a disaffected intellectual (sound familiar?) who lived day to day and had friends of all type. He had “Une crise cardiac”- a heart attack- while walking home with some friends from a bar. He died on the street outside his apartment in the historical part of Perpignon, in the south of France. It was quick.

And you, momma? You were always the smart one. You didn’t admit it, but I knew your bookshelf- Darwin, Bertrand Russel, Shakespeare, Spinoza. I think sometimes you had me just so you could talk to someone who liked reading as much as you. If you were born today you’d be some type of Great Thinker, but a little girl from depression era Ohio can only get so many breaks. Your mom worked in a factory and when you graduated from high school she sent you to the Big City – Fort Wayne, Indiana- to go to secretarial school. She did not want you standing on concrete for 30 years. You didn’t. I remember you trying to read The Bible from cover to cover, but you never made it through because there was “Too much sex and violence in it”. 

I am proud to say I got some of my humor from you. You were always unassuming, never beat people with your brains, but you had them. One of my fondest memories of you was near the end, just after I’d moved back and you knew something was Wrong. You woke me up at something like two in the morning, turned on my bedroom light and asked me calmly “Bart, Am I going bonkers?”

Now if you read the literature on Alzheimer, they will tell you to not be confrontational with the person. Lie to calm them. Don’t make waves. Get them back to their routine- routine saves them. Well, ironically my momma didn’t raise me like that. I struggled for a few seconds as I thought about what to say. Here’s how the conversation worked out:

“Bart, am I going bonkers?”

“… yes, momma. You have a disease called Alzheimer, and it affects your brain. You forget stuff and are easily confused. I’m here to take care of you.”

“oh… Well, OK. I guess that’s just nature’s way of telling me to slow down.”

Ladies and Gentleman… Ethel Meeks.

That line has gotten me through a lot of hard times, Momma. Thanks. Now a lot of people think that if someone is smart they have to be cold, unemotional, or overly logical. You were not like that. Now don’t get me wrong, you and Dad were kind of distant, but you were both there for me, and that is a wonderful thing. You came to all of my concerts and plays, you supported me in whatever I did, and you both were excellent sounding boards for my wacky ideas. I find it tragic that my childhood is now in the minority- single income, parents never divorced, 3 meals a day, a roof over my head and paid for four years of collage. The American Dream. Remember that? Most kids today don’t.

One other thing you said that got me through many a hard time: You went to your 50th high school reunion in Bryan, Ohio years ago, and when the six or seven women who were left went on about their kids as folk will do you stood up for me. While they regaled each other with how their kid is a doctor / lawyer / homemaker with four kids you looked at them and said “Well, I don’t really know what Bart does but I know he’s happy and that’s enough for me.”

Do you have any idea how much damage in our culture would be removed if more parents had that attitude? Anti-depressants would evaporate! Dominatrix’s jobs would slow to a crawl! Daddy issues would resolve for millions of twenty something women! We could stop feeling sorry for ourselves as a country and get back to being great! You were awesome, in the best possible use of that word.

So When you needed me I came home. I won’t say it was easy. It wasn’t, but it was the best action at the time. You and dad took care of me for 18 years, I could spare a few. But watching you mother slowly deteriorate in front of you is hard. Once again I had a support system- friends both local and distant, family would drop in to check on you, and oddly enough, Dad.

Dad was a retired Air Force Lt. Colonel, and you lived on his pension reasonably well. Not like our needs were extravagant, but unlike so many other people in need we never really wanted so long as we lived simply, which we kinda had too. His health plan was amazing as well. Anyone who thinks the gubbmint can’t do health care is, as far as I can see, wrong. You never wanted and we paid very little out of pocket. The first year I was there I took a part time job because you didn’t need constant watching and you would not stand me loafing around the house. It also got me out of the house and I met some good people. One in particular saved my sanity, which has never really been a close friend to me. I have to call him “Mr. Sanity”.

When the day came you needed daily supervision it almost destroyed me. I came home and found a stove burner red hot and you’d lit a cigarette you’d forgotten about. The ash was almost entirely  attached, and it was -thankfully- in the ever present ashtray near your chair. You were watching TV vacantly. I don’t know how long you had been there, but I knew I could not risk it anymore. I drove to work, gave my notice and broke down in front of one of the managers.

The last year we were together you never said my name without being prompted, but you always acted like you knew me. That was kind of odd according to the literature, as near the end you only remembered your childhood and the recent present, but you were always polite and loving to the strange man living in your house. Thanks.

In the end it was not Alzheimer’s that took you but rather cancer. You’d been smoking since before there were Nazis, so I guess that came as no surprise. By the time we’d found it it had metastasized all through your body and I’m surprised you were not in constant pain, but you took it in stride unless you had to stand up for a long time. I carried you to the car in my arms the last time we went to the hospital.

We went to the hospital because you were trying to garden. It was one of the precious few hours a week I was out of the house and you snuck away from Margret to go outside and pull up some dandelions. You cannot stop an 86 year old German woman  from tidying up I guess. You fell and broke your arm. During the exam the docs found cancer, and I knew I was officially Out of My League.

By that time I did not know how long you’d last, but I knew I could not care for you anymore in good conscience. You stayed at the hospital while we got the affairs in order. I was alone in the house for the first time, and I feel bad saying I slept well those first few days. We got you settled, and the last time I saw you was in the hospital.

I remember the crocs the nurses wore. It was 07, and they were largely still a secret only nurses and a few other folk who spend time on their feet knew about. I thought they were odd looking, and mentioned it to you. You said if nurses wore them they must be comfortable. I looked in on you for a few minutes, figuring I’d let you rest and I’d do a proper visit once you were settled into the home. Denial, thy name is me. I’d brought you one of your knitted comforters, one your mom had knitted years ago, along with a few other sundries. I kissed you, hugged you and we went through the ritual one last time.

“Love you, momma. Bon Soire.”

“Love you. Bon Soire”.

And that was it. The call came later that night. You’d been transferred to the home, and were gone four hours later.  I think of it as your last act of kindness. By this time I was a bit fragile, I’m not ashamed to say. I’d let myself go, and my only desire was to outlive you. If you died on a Monday and I got hit by a bus Tuesday I’d have considered it a win. I was always on eggshells, and my greatest fear would be to be the one that Found You. I was unhealthy, surly, and felt like crap.

Six years on and I’m doing better now. I’ve moved onward and upward. Not that I’ve forgotten you all. Hell, I’m crying like a baby as I type this. But I’ll stop. And it’s not the gut tearing crying of loss, it’s rather the gentle weeping of missing my loved ones. You, and Dad, and T and Pipe, and Tim, made me what I am today, for better or worse. Thanks.

And the Meeks family curse? If we’re on schedule to paraphrase Jack Benny I’ll be shot by a jealous husband when I’m 150.

Bon Soire.

 

Addendum:

When I first heard this story I thought about momma, and I think this is brilliant, kind and a great way to treat those with dementia. Give it a listen. Also, Radiolab is amazing in general, and I recommend it to everyone:

http://www.radiolab.org/story/91948-the-bus-stop/

Addendum…

just a few more rules from the Old Man Meeks. I kept thinking about this and came up/remembered a few more. Maybe I should be an advice columnist. Geekgumbo’s Advice for the reality impaired?

 

*If ya can’t hit the breaks, hit the gas, AKA Be Not Half Assed- Have things gone all sideways? Has the fecal material experienced a collision with the oscillating rotators? If you cannot (and I mean Can Not) back out, press ahead for all you are worth. Even if it becomes a shitstorm it will be your shitstorm to own, and you will at least get a good story out of it. Or a very interesting eulogy.

 

*Parsimony- when learning something for the first time, or trying to understand something complex, break it down to it’s simplest parts. This is how I learned to juggle, and minds greater than mine figured out the secrets of the universe and such. Occam’s razor is a great tool. Use it.

 

*Escalate that shit- Have a problem and are talking with some asshat that cannot/will not help out? Use the phrase “I’d like to speak to your manager.” Don’t be confrontational. Don’t be mad or take it out on said asshat. Asshat is probably just doing their job, and has heartaches of their own. Don’t add to their drama. Just ask to speak to their superior. When you’re re talking to the superior ask them if they have the ability to resolve your issue. If they say no, escalate that shit. Repeat as needed. 

 

*Own Your Shit- Know thyself. Know your strengths and weaknesses. Count on the strengths, work on the weaknesses. Just because you are great at one thing does not mean you fart roses and rainbows. (unless that’s your Thing.)

 

*Live within your means- Both my parents grew up during the depression, and they beat into me the adage “Don’t have your things own you”. Steer clear of unresponsible debt, and if you do, have a plan how to manage it. Wanna know how to live on the Road? Low overhead.