Flickering Lights

Last week my back gave out. In the space of a few minutes I went from a minor twinge in my lower back to significant pain. A few hours later I was in absolute agony, trapped in bed and unable to so much as lift my head or shift my legs.

At its worst, I wasn’t thinking about much of anything at all. I debated waiting and seeing how things unfolded, versus calling for an ambulance to take me to the emergency room. I contemplated the jar next to the bed, and whether I’d have to use it or whether I might manage to escape the bed long enough to make it to the bathroom. I looked at my ceiling and counted the screws in the old, sealed and painted-over light fixture. Two of them. Flatheads. I counted them again. They were still a pair of flathead screws. I started to fantasize about having a screwdriver and making them turn. About what a fixture would look like up there, and what I’d want it to be.

I turned the pages on my Nook, dimly aware of what I was reading. A Warhammer 40K novel about the crippled Inquisitor Gideon Ravenor. I thought about his character trapped in a chair, a mind roaming free but pinned to a ruined body. Then I’d think about how tired my arms were, holding the reader over my head. I’d plan my next move. Maybe I’d try and wriggle a few inches toward the wall, so I could get my head propped a bit. Not yet, it still hurt too much, but maybe in an hour.

Eventually things started to get better. A friend called, a physical therapist, and she told me what was probably going on and how to start fixing it. Some videos followed a few minutes later, showing me how to do things like get out of bed without screaming. She said I had to get out of bed: standing and moving was the only thing that was going to help. I mentioned that was going to be tough and got a glimpse of her professional side: understanding but also uninterested.

“Yeah, it’s going to suck. Get out of bed.”

She was right, of course. With MK’s help I was able to stand and start shuffling around the apartment. It hurt. A lot, and then a bit less. And then less after that. Enough that I could even start to joke about it.

I guess I’d say I was startled. Not by the injury, really. The truth is I probably should have seen this coming. I have lived in my office chair since September, pulling ever-longer days on oh-so-urgent work and professional play. I kept waking up with a stiff lower back, a pain that was in no way normal but became normal through habituation. My weight was slowly but steadily increasing, well beyond any numbers I was comfortable with.

But all of this was trouble for later. I needed to work, needed to make money. After that, I could address all the other things I was letting go to hell in my life. I never noticed that there was no “after”. That I was saving health, fitness, and rest for a time that would never arrive, because work never ends. So when my body finally shut me down, I wasn’t surprised. It was almost part of the plan.

But what did surprise me was how quickly my life reoriented itself around my health. How everything that had been important on Monday was irrelevant and forgotten by Wednesday night. Unlike anything else, it revealed how distorted my perspective has become over the last year. Work that I thought was urgent, too important to be delayed even an hour, was set aside indefinitely without a second thought. Editors that, in my head, I imagined as waiting impatiently for my next draft were the first people to tell me to forget about work and not to worry. In the space of 48 hours my overbooked and stressful life became simple and uncluttered.

Nobody wanted me to hurt myself. Nobody needed anything so badly that I should put it ahead of my well-being. All of that worry and stress that contributed to this injury proved to be my own creation. Everyone seemed to have a better sense of what my priorities should be than I did.

And as the agony of Tuesday and Wednesday fade into memory, I begin to worry I’ll forget the clarity brought on by a few days of near-paralysis and over a week of pain and discomfort. I worry I’ll forget what healing felt like, what it felt like to put my well-being first. I worry I’ll once again start telling myself that I can’t take a walk or a trip to the gym because it’s more important to publish a preview two hours earlier.

I guess I never really did take my health that seriously, in part because my chosen pursuits and occupation are all mental, not physical. Aches and pains would be nice to live without, but it’s not like I needed to be all that fit to do what I do. My always-limited time seemed like it was better invested in more work, play, and reading. Things that could translate to me being better and more effective at my job.

But having briefly lost my health, I finally see how everything hinges on the physical soundness that I took for granted and abused. There’s no life of the mind when you’re pissing into a jar and thinking, for the first and only time in your life, how nice a catheter would be. There’s no play when you can’t sit down and, even standing, your thoughts keep getting yanked toward the lances of pain shooting through your back and down into your hips.

It all just went away, briefly, like a brownout on an over-capacity powergrid. And as I lay there in the darkness, I realized I would have done anything to have the lights come back on, to have my life once again be about the things I can do, instead of the things I could not.

Go Bid the Soldiers Shoot

We finally retired my Falcon Northwest 2008 Fragbox due to a slowly failing motherboard. My pal Drew drew up some new specs that could recycled the parts that still worked, and I am now once again on a high-end gaming rig. But it was still a bittersweet moment as we retired the old machine, and I was moved to say a few words.

Moments later I sang “Danny Boy” and read some Yeats over the Jameson-soaked case. In memoriam:

The Fragbox FalconWumpus was activated on October 31st after its predecessor Broken Piece of Shit Fragbox failed after two weeks. The first game I played on it was SWAT 4. It was paid for with money from The Escapist and my blind faith that I could get enough work as a freelancer to justify the expense. Through its efforts and stability, running for almost four years with only two or three isolated blue-screens, I was able to focus on writing and gaming. Though gaming slowly left it behind, it never delivered less than adequate performance. It enjoyed a brief renaissance this last year after PC Gamer Editor-in-Chief Logan Decker helped with a major upgrade. Our love was renewed over maxed-out Crysis, but it was not to last. It spent its final days playing Max Payne 3 and Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion, and watching StarCraft 2 streams with its family.

It is survived by a GeForce 560 card, a 750W power supply, two hard drives, a Falcon Northwest coffee mug and its freelance writer. It will be a missed.

Rediscovering Reading

I used to read almost a hundred books a year. Sometimes more, but the 80-100 range is where I usually stayed. Funny the things you take for granted. My experience as a child and young adult reader (with sincere but nevertheless slightly affected precocious tastes) was of weekends lost to the pages of books, and of weeknights disappearing into an unexpected dawn as I finally finished the books I could not put down. Then I would creep out of bed and pull away the towel I always stuffed beneath the door in order to keep my parents from spotting the light.

In college, I felt like I read less, but I probably ended up reading even more. I would lock up a booth or a table in my favorite coffee shop for hours on end and retreat to what Prof. Kern called the “historian’s research lab”: stacks of primary and secondary sources, surrounded on all sides by notes. I still miss that active sort of reading, the purposefulness of my college studies. Maybe that is why I almost stopped reading entirely. Once college was over, there was no further need to spend eight hours a day reading and memorizing, and I had almost forgotten other reasons for doing it.

Or maybe I simply got tired of getting bad book suggestions from NY Times reviewers and NPR, two sources that can always be counted on to recommend topical new history that is irrelevant almost as soon as it is published, who seem to love plodding literary fiction, and who seem never to have encountered genre at all. I tried to reserve my time for only the best books, but all I ended up with was a stack of obligations that I didn’t really enjoy.

All that, and then I’ve been busy. I put off reading until I could get some free time for it, except the nature of nearly full-employment is that there are no more long stretches of free time. I can’t cruise by on five hours of sleep a night anymore, and I can’t blow off work to crank through a paperback. So I basically stopped reading.

Not all reading. But books and magazines dropped out of the rotation, and about the only thing I could find time for was articles on the web. A few good blogs, and whatever Twitter said was good. But that’s the kind of reading that doesn’t quite count. The nature of the web itself doesn’t help, of course. Crowded with links and ads, a hundred things on each page clamoring for attention, and that’s before you even look up at the browser tabs and their illusory promise that you really can keep from missing a thing, and that you wouldn’t want to. I was a consumer of content, a voracious one, but not a reader.

Oddly enough, it was my friend J.P. Grant who snapped me out of it, although he didn’t mean to. He simply gifted me with several volumes of Warhammer 40K fiction as a Nook-warming present, a gift that was as much a joke as anything. We love the unrestrained, arch-Gothic gravitas of the Warhammer universe, but I never imagined I would actually want to read more than a few pages set there. But maybe it was the knowledge that I was reading the literary equivalent of junk-food (and we are talking Bugles-and-fried-Twinkies levels of junk-food here) that let me drop all my pretensions, including respect for the written word as something to be consumed in life’s quieter, more thoughtful moments. When you’re reading about Space Marines blowing each others’ heads apart with bolters, or Imperial Commissars enjoying romantic dinner dates with Inquisitors after a hard day of destroying Necron tomb-worlds, you might as well just read the damn thing in whatever fragmented fashion you can manage. It’s not like you’ll want a silent room in which you can enjoy the sound of the prose.

But those books served their purpose: they reminded me how much fun it can be to tear through a novel just to find out what happens next, and how relaxing it is to become absorbed in a story. They also showed me that I do have time to read, just maybe not the way I used to. Most importantly, however, is that they reminded me how nice it is to read without too many expectations, to encounter a book on your own terms without an idea of idea of how you “should” react.

So when I was on vacation this last week, I managed to finish Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy of fantasy novels, and on the flight home I grabbed Dennis Lehane’s Moonlight Mile and renewed my acquaintance with Patrick Kenzie and his partner Angie. I’ve got A Dance with Dragons on the table next to me, and after I finish that, I might catch up with Michael Connelly or maybe get started on Terry Pratchett. Hell, there are even some comics I’ve been meaning to get caught up on. I won’t completely abandon my reading list, with its tomes on Russian political philosophers and Irish recession fiction, but I’ll remember that it’s what I get out of reading that matters, not whether I could hold my own at an author’s reading in Manhattan. If it’s a choice between barely reading Important Books or reading lots of enjoyable genre stories, I’ll take my dog-eared paperbacks and impulse Nook purchases. It’s more fun to have stories back in my life.

Break Time

I’m coming up on four years as a freelancer, and in all that time I’m not sure I’ve ever had a proper vacation. Under-employment, which was my status the first two years, is not the same thing as having time off. You have the luxury of taking the day to play games or go hang out in a coffee shop nursing a single latte (they love it when you do that, by the way), but that free time carries feelings of guilt. “Why aren’t you pitching?” is a constant refrain. And if you ever hope to be more than under-employed, chances are you work harder at getting work than you would if you had a steady job.

Anyway, I’m on break now. I didn’t go home for the holidays this year, the first time I’ve not spent Christmas with my family, but it has been the right move.  No travel, no dividing time among families, no coming home in early January more tired than when I left.

So what have I been doing with all this leisure? Well, trying to remember how to enjoy it. The thing about a long-overdue vacation is that you realize all the ways you have let yourself get a little crazy. It’s not just a matter of stopping work and picking up a book. The day after Christmas, I noticed I was tempted to start writing up pitches and get started on some deadlines due in mid-January. Watching people returning to work on Twitter, and half the editors I’ve ever known suddenly getting new gigs, I start to feel like I’m already back at work and I need to start surveying the freelance landscape. It’s even more complicated for me because my home is my office, which is awesome until you realize all your work habits persist right into a break.

So oddly enough, I’m working really hard at not working. I was flat-out exhausted by the end of 2011, and I still need some time before I can get back to fulfilling assignments. My last few months, I felt like the creative part of my work was completely overtaken by the dictates of deadlines and professionalism. If I’m to have a productive and happy year, I need to adjust that balance.

I have plenty of help right now. I’ve spent a lot of this break with friends old and new, and this weekend I’m heading out of town for a weekend of experimental cooking. You can usually find me curled up with a good book and a glass of whiskey, or perhaps I’m under a blanket watching a movie. I just finished Arkham City and will have a lot to say about that soon. Bioshock 2 “Minerva’s Den” and The Witcher both beckon. And I’m even getting a nice walk in just about every day. Who knows, I might even make it to a gym before I head back to work!

But seriously, if it ever looks like I might be working too hard, or I go silent for too long, feel free to drop me a line and let me know I might be overdoing it. Because I find the times I most need a detached perspective are the times when I absolutely lose mine.

 

The Happiest Happy Hour – September 23

Last weekend some friends of ours got married in one of the best ceremonies and celebrations I’ve ever seen, but that wedding also meant two other things. The first is that MK’s summer break was over, and she had to leave to do the second part of her extended internship. It also meant that I didn’t get any work done over that weekend, which meant that three days’ worth of work had to be crammed into Monday and the early part of Tuesday.

I honestly couldn’t tell you what happened on either of those days. I know that for one of them, I started working at 10 am and finished my last assignment after 1 am. A pizza box on the floor of my apartment and a couple receipts from an Indian and Chinese restaurant indicated I somehow ate this week. But really, it’s been a blur of games, printed drafts covered in red ink, screenshot editors, and a blinking text cursor.

But it’s over now, and I have a couple precious days to cook, clean, and work on some pieces for next week. I feel like I just turned in my last final exam, and I half-expect to find my fraternity brothers waiting for me at the campus bar, a rail gin and tonic with my name on it sitting in its little plastic cup.

Instead, though, it’s just me in my living room with two fingers of Johnnie Black on the rocks, and OK Computer on the stereo. Not bad, but I think I could do with loud laughter, crude sex jokes, and Star Trek discussions.

Still, I can only feel happy and relieved. I survived my first week as a PC Gamer blogger, and you can find me every weekday over at pcgamer.com. This week I was just trying to keep the lights on, because this job arrived on short-notice in the middle of a full freelance schedule. I didn’t do any original pieces. That all changes next week, however. I plan on doing a lot more interviews, impressions pieces, and perhaps even some original reporting. I’ll be linking all of it through my Twitter. Longer, meatier pieces I will link here, on my Work page.

For a moment, then, all is right withe the world. Lara Crigger and I were laughing about how long it takes, and what a huge milestone it is, for a freelancer to break the poverty line. I think I’m there and if things keep up like they are right now, I might actually be making the equivalent of a decent starting salary in a real career.

This, by the way, is why you are unlikely to find me writing anything about how to become a games writer. Until this year, my fourth, I did not earn enough to entirely support myself.  I have a long way to go before I would even be able to contemplate supporting a wife or a child on my own. I say that only because careers are supposed to provide a measure of independence for you and security for those you love. As yet, my work does not. I think it will, eventually, but every time things start going well, some outlet is closed or an editor cancels a regular gig. That’s another part of the freelancer’s life.

I don’t recommend it. If you can do something else, do that, because “making it” means working incredibly hard just for the chance of maybe making a living wage. Knowing that major sources of income could vanish with a couple emails.

Me, I can’t do anything else. Maybe someday. But not today. Today I am proud of my work, and am looking forward to Monday.

Scattered Words about Football

One thing I didn’t see too much of in the first week of this season: hard hits and stretchers. I hope this is a trend that will continue. There are times I think the NFL being dubbed the “No Fun League” makes perfect sense, and officials can be too strict or too arbitrary about how they enforce player safety regulations. I hate seeing a great defense getting dinged for 15 yards because someone fell in the QB a second after he made a pass.

But I still saw plenty of sacks, aggressive pass rush, and tough coverage in the secondary. I just didn’t see those bone-jarring hits that I’ve enjoyed less and less lately. By the end of last season, it sometimes seemed like the cart was coming out at least once every game. Then I’d see the last play on replay and my stomach would turn. Heads whipping around at unnatural angles, legs bowing and then folding as two or three more players join a tackle.

Oh, it’s great when one player demolishes another and they both get up fine. I used to love watching receivers go up to make a catch, knowing they were going to get crushed for it. But I can’t enjoy that anymore, knowing how often guys don’t bounce right back. Knowing that even if they do, football still can do lasting, invisible damage.

Football is working toward a different balance now, and I’m willing to put up with hiccups along the way. Is the game worse for it? So far, I don’t think so, despite glitches. Turns out that I love the strategy of football and the finesse of good play, and don’t really need the hard hits. The ordinary everyday violence of the sport is good enough for me.

See Our Ad in Golf Digest

Cialis has weird ads. A camera gazes through a filter so sickly green that it’s like watching from inside a Jameson bottle, and then rugged men solve manly problem ruggedly. But the strangest things is that each ad exhorts you to see their ad in Golf Digest, which leads me to the inescapable conclusion that Golf Digest enjoys the limpest readership in the world.

Super-Duper Tastelessly Cold

Coors has realized they have a major problem, and that some Coors drinkers might accidentally someday taste their Coors Light. So they’ve introduced a revolutionary new piece of technology, the “Cold Bar” that shows when your beer goes from “Cold” to “Super Cold”. This leaves Bud Light with nowhere to go but “manning up” with nitrogen-cooling.

Da Bears

I had written-off the Bears this season. This was going to be a Packers – Lions fight for the division, and the Bears were going to enter into the freefall that usually accompanies a contract extension for Lovie Smith.

So the Bears’ merciless beating of the Atlanta Falcons has me cautiously optimistic about our chances of taking the division again. At the same time, the Packers look even better than they did last season, and Jay Cutler is still making risky passes that could totally kill any momentum the Bears have. It’s going to be an exciting season, I think, but the Bears have a long way to go before being a conference contender.

Perhaps the most terrifying thing I saw, however, was Tom Brady and the Patriots. Rodgers had a tougher opponent, but I didn’t expect Brady and his receivers to be looking so good. And it’s not just a matter of one or two targets. He has an offensive arsenal to choose from. Branch, Welker, Gronkowski, Ochocinco. A good QB can be neutralized by a rush and a good coverage, but how do you rush someone with that many weapons, and how do you cover them all?