Bloctober

For the past few weeks, a combination of day-job stress and personal blahs has given me quite the case of writer’s block. I could go into a long screed on writer’s block — why’s, wherefore’s, theories, strategies — but not only has that stuff been tackled before by far greater writers than I, it’s boring. Suffice it to say that I hereby declare the month of October to be “Bloctober!”

What is “Bloctober?” I don’t know for sure what form it will take, but in the lead up to National Novel Writing Month (that’s November for the uninitiated) the goal is to work out the writer’s block and get in good mental and creative shape to be able to power through a novel come next month. The crux of that simply writing, every day, even when I don’t feel like it or aren’t creatively “there.” It’s like “100 Days, 100K” but without the overinflated sense of self worth.

Here’s to Bloctober! Hope to see you there.

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Transtemporal Psychoportation

A NOTE: I do not intend for this blog to be overly personal, but it is a place where I express myself through writing. That said, these kinds of posts will be few and far between (hopefully).

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Yesterday, I discovered the secret of both time travel and teleportation. These problems, long fodder for science fiction writers and more recently very real conundrums for physicists, would seem insurmountable for a guy with a bachelor’s degree in English literature (regardless of how many Arthur C. Clarke stories I have read) but I nonetheless learned how to traverse both time and space in the blink of an eye. What’s more, you need neither a Large Hadron Collider nor a vessel moving at Warp speed while skirting the event horizon of a Sun sized star. All you really need is helplessness and terror.

 

It happened suddenly yet nearly imperceptibly. One moment, I was on a construction site at the harbor, waiting for the contractors to call on us for survey. The next moment, I was miles away and nine months in the past, in the parking lot of Sandy Hook Elementary School waiting for my children to come out alive.

 

When the Boston Marathon bombing occurred, I suffered something of an existential crisis. Somehow between December 14 and Boston, I had managed to “forgive” the universe for being so cruel, for allowing such evil to flourish, so the bombing hit me very hard, especially the news of the death of a child. I was thrown for a loop, enraged and wounded and in shock. What I was not, though, was transported back to Sandy Hook.

 

The Washington Navy Yard was different. That event did send me hurtling through time and space. It was not just that it was a deranged gunman on a murderous rampage in what should have otherwise been a safe and secure institutional facility — though now that I think of it, i realize how alike the incidents are in that way. No, the Einstein-Rosen bridge was my brother. Just like in Sandy Hook, I was waiting to find out if my family would survive a madman’s killing spree. Technically, I knew he was safe but I could not yet believe it.

 

At about 10 that morning I received a text message from my sister in law telling myself and a number of others in a group message that my brother was okay. I know my brother travels a lot for his work as a Navy contractor (he was an officer for 20 years and recently retired) so I responded with, “Where is he?” Almost at that moment, before she could respond, it hit the top of the hour and the radio station went to the news. It said there was a mass shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington.

 

It is a fairly common cliche in prose to describe thoughts “falling into place.” It is an ugly and generally ill-fitting metaphor that says far more about the author’s craft than it does about the experience of the character in the narrative. yet, here I am, trying to express how the realization came upon me and all I can imagine is pieces falling into place like a slow motion, horrific game of Tetris. My brother, Navy yard. Shooter. Okay. The blocks turned and fell and when they came together they disappeared and in the void was this reality: for the second time in less than a year, a gun was pointed at my family and I was helpless to do anything but wait.

 

I called my sister in law immediately. She had been able to speak with my brother. He was in lockdown. No one knew where the shooter was, or even how many there were. He was as “safe” as long as someone did not shoot their way into his location. I offered her what comfort I could. I told her I loved her.

 

Hanging up the phone was, I think, the Big Red Button on the quad-dimensional-trans-locationator. In a blink I was in the purgatory of an uncertainty that it indescribable to anyone who has not felt it, a dread so pure it redefines you, not just then, but forever. I was acutely aware that I was surrounded by construction workers and engineers and municipal bureaucrats and that I alone was feeling this. Worse still, at least in the Sandy Hook parking lot, I was able to focus on helping my wife through her own fear and holding her up. There was no one else to hold up then, and no one to hold me up. All I had was a determination to keep my shit together, if for no other reason that the last people you want to see you cry are construction workers.

 

Relief came slowly as news trickled in and my wife held me up through my phone. I was drawn in tiny steps back to the time and place from which I had been transported as it became increasingly clear that my brother was, in fact, safe. It was a long 12 hours before he was finally home with my sister in law and I was able to speak with him, at which point the wormhole closed and I was free to live in the here and now again.

 

On “Of Dice And Men”

Of Dice And Men (ODAM, hereafter) is a book by journalist and self described nerd David M. Ewalt. It is, essentially, three kinds of books in one: a history of Dungeons and Dragons, the story of Ewalt’s re-discovery of his love for the same, and a collection of in-character fiction from the games in which Ewalt is involved. I will address each of these three aspects of the book separately before discussing the work as a whole.

As a history of Dungeons and Dragons, ODAM is both entertaining and informative, if not exhaustive. Playing at the World by Jon Peterson is a much more detailed and scholarly take on the mergence of the role-playing game in general and Dungeons and Dragons in particular (Ewalt admits as much and references that work in his own) but as such feels like a dissertation. For those with a serious love of gaming history and detailed analysis, Playing at the World is the better choice. For the rest of us, ODAM serves perfectly well as a primer. in fact, I decided to pick up ODAM simply because after a few hundred pages I found it increasingly difficult to force my way through Peterson’s treatise. A historian, I shall never be.

Ewalt (intentionally, I think) omits a lot of the nuance in the events that led to the creation of the first role-playing game, but manages to include the strange characters, weird plot twists and tense conflicts that shaped the game. This is a good description of his book overall, in that Ewalt is driving a narrative that while not necessarily false, is designed more to engage and entertain than to educate. Ewalt wants to tell us a story (or three, as stated above) and he does so admirably. He goes so far as to advise the reader who might want a more detailed history to seek out Peterson’s book.

The secondary narrative in ODAM is Ewalt’s own, about his engagement with Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) after a long absence. It is similar to Ethan Gilsdorf’s Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks in that regard, except that Gilsdorf made an effort to try on every geek hat in the wardrobe while Ewalt was interested primarily in picking up a twenty sided die again (though he does engage in a little LARPing on the side).

I found myself disliking Ewalt sometimes, in that same way that we gamers sometimes dislike our fellows on internet message boards. It is not that I thought him a bad guy, just that his perspective and persona as the author and in the narrative of his own rediscovery of D&D clashed significantly with my own views and experiences. We are of an age, for example, yet I never left the hobby as he did so I never felt the self-loathing he seems to take great pains to both describe and overcome. In addition, Ewalt’s constant description of gaming as an “addiction” bothered me. In my opinion, he over emphasises the metaphor to the point of making gamers, himself included, look bad. He recovers to some degree, but never quite washes the bad taste out of my mouth. In his LARP experience in particular he exposes the depth of his self consciousness and hints of self loathing I found uncomfortable and off-putting.

As a narrator of fantasy adventure, I put Ewalt somewhere between R.A. Salvatore and Christopher Paolini. Note that neither of those names should be considered a compliment from my perspective. Ewalt often uses in-game narrative to further one of the two narratives described above — sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t — but just as often he is simply describing how awesome his character or his campaign is. There is nothing wrong with that and it certainly fits the tone of the book, but there were times when I barely skimmed the “fiction” in order to get back to the well written parts of the book. This sounds uncharitable, of course. I don’t mean to be too harsh, but Ewalt is definitely a better journalist than fantasist. That said, both the campaign in which he plays D&D set on a post apocalyptic, Vampire controlled Earth) and plans to run (a fantasy world on which a future-Earth, nanobot infused, Godling-AI controlled mothership crash landed an age ago) sound like awesome fun.

One aspect of the final portions of the book that bothered me was its emphasis on D&D Next (the upcoming, 5th edition of D&D) and its complete failure to mention Pathfinder. Given the latter day history of D&D, I don’t think it is possible to describe what has happened to the hobby and its fans without delving into the WotC/Paizo split, the rise of Pathfinder and the very real fracturing of the player and fan base between 4th Edition and Pathfinder.

Overall, I think ODAM works well as both a history and a peak into the mind of a lapsed-and-reborn player. It is not a terribly long or difficult book and is well worth the e-book Kindle price. If you are a former or current D&D player, nostalgia will likely grip you throughout certain parts of Ewalt’s narrative. If you are new to D&D and interested in the hobby because of an interest in fantasy, video games or because of the involvement of loved ones, it is a good primer to understands the way the game might be played and how it came about.

A New Look

As you can see, I decided to change the look of the site a little. The background image is a concept art for an Elysium-like habitat via NASA in the 1970s.

I may, of course, fiddle with it some more, or even spring for a premium site theme and/or some custom art, but in the meantime I will get my ass back onto the chair and my fingers back onto the keyboard (to paraphrase the astoundingly prolific J. Michael Straczynski).