Archive for the ‘ A Quiet Normal Life ’ Category

Rat at Rest

“Every time I come out here,” I tell Julian while the steaks sizzle on the grill, “I realize how crazy Boston makes me.”

“Well, but how much of a rat race are you really running?” he asks.

It’s a fair question. When I feel my spirits starting to sag, I remind myself that, reduced to its essence, my life only really requires that I play games, write, read, and cook. For most other people, that’s a vacation, and I don’t ever have the right to feel bad about it.

Except for the last couple months, I have felt bad about it, and then I realize what I’m feeling, and feel even worse about having those feelings in the first place. Which is how I came to be here in the middle of November, at the Rivendell that Julian has carved out of the backwoods of Massachusetts, fleeing what is starting to feel like the depression I fought in college.

If I were running the rat race, I’d have a respectable reason for feeling burned out or overwhelmed. I could blame my boss or my coworkers. I could resent the drudgery of office work, the early mornings and the late nights. I could vent to family and friends about how hard things are and they’d understand and sympathize, in a way they can’t with someone who is ultimately his own boss in a professionalized pursuit of pleasure. I could sympathize and forgive myself, because the fault could reside somewhere outside of me.

In Boston, I can’t escape accountability. I dwell on the things I haven’t gotten done, or haven’t done well enough, and I go into each day feeling like I need to catch up on weeks worth of work. My “to-do” list gets longer and less flexible, and I start putting in day after day of nonstop effort to catch up. Except I’m feeling frustrated and defeated, so everything gets harder as well.

Most of my friends have jobs, and they have lives. The two don’t perfectly overlap. But if you work for yourself, chasing a passion? You enjoy no such existential escape.  You chose to do something, you and your loved ones have made sacrifices so that you can do it, and now you’re tired? You need a day off? Too fucking bad. Get out of bed and get over to your desk and be creative. Or play a game for ten hours, like your life depended on it, because that’s the job. You wanted to play games? Fine, but you don’t get to choose anymore. Oh, and if you’re tired of looking after the house and baking and cooking all the time, maybe you ought to make more money so that you can occasionally afford a night out. The answer to every problems is always mercilessly simple: work harder.

There is no limit to what we can ask of ourselves. But there is, however reluctantly and shamefully we admit it, a limit to what we can accomplish. The reasons might not be obvious. You might have the time you need, and the opportunities. If you were just more efficient… but you’ll never be the machine in your own factory. You try to become that and you end up breaking your own spirit, with too much to do and no energy or confidence left to do it with. And it will look to all the world, yourself included, like laziness. Or indulgence.

Julian is skeptical that I need this break as badly as I say I do. I get it. I’m skeptical, too. But it doesn’t change the giddy sense of relief I feel.

Somewhere on the floor of my apartment is a bag with a laptop and a folio, gathering a thin layer of dust in some corner of the living room. Fully loaded the bag doesn’t weigh much more than seven or eight pounds. But as we stand here beneath clear, cold starlight, about to sit down to dinner with our friends and loved ones, I feel like I have left something much heavier behind.

Donate to the Brian Wood Memorial Trust

Labor Day morning I saw a story making its way around Twitter that Brian R. Wood had been killed by a drugged and reckless driver. She was apparently high and driving a carload of similarly intoxicated friends around in her Blazer when she decided to take off her sweater, and asked her friend to hold the wheel. The friend sent the car into the oncoming lane and killed Brian, along with passengers in the back of the Blazer.

Brian’s pregnant wife, Erin, was in the car with him. A day later, it came out that Brian saw the collision was inevitable, and turned so that his Subaru Outback took the impact broadside rather than head-on. In other words, he put himself between that car and his nascent family. If his death was tragic, it was also rather heroic.

The death got a lot of attention in the gaming community because Brian had worked as a designer on the Company of Heroes series, probably one of the best and boldest RTS games released in the last decade, and was at the helm of the new Company of Heroes Online project. At 33, he had already done great work and was set to ascend to the top of his profession.

A day later, I found out that he was also a member of my fraternity, the Mu Chapter of Phi Kappa Tau at Lawrence University. He left a couple years before I started there. Lawerence is a small school and Mu Chapter is a pretty tight-knit group, with a long history of being a haven for some of the most intensely nerdy and talented young men at the school.

For all these reasons, I haven’t really been able to stop thinking about this tragedy. I didn’t know Brian, but he was a member of one of my extended families, and also a member of the community to which I belong. Doubly then, I feel he is one ours.

His friends and family started a fund to take care of his wife and their child. It would mean a great deal if you could donate. What happened should not have happened, and he died taking care of his family. If we can help, as brothers, schoolmates, colleagues, appreciative fans, or just people of compassion, then we should.

More details at the website for the Brian Wood Memorial Trust.

Making It Suntory Time

Last week, MK and I blew out of town to go hang out with Julian Murdoch for a few days, and the ensuing visit was like a G-rated Swingers: hard drinking, gaming to exhaustion, running around in a forest, playing games with Jen and Peter, dinner with Hasbro’s Rob Daviau and Lindsay Braun, and a surprise visit from the ATF.

OK, that last part isn’t strictly true. But it was pretty awesome nonetheless.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that the board gaming strategy scene is far healthier than what we generally have on PC. It’s not that the games themselves are superior, but their variety and playability leaves me envious. So many board games can be fully understood by the end of the first or second turn, while I can play a game like Europa Universalis or Starcraft II for months without really grasping what’s happening underneath the hood. If strategy depends on understanding, then board games get players strategizing almost instantly. With PC games, there tends to be a long, perhaps endless, period of fumbling in the dark before the game becomes clear. Board games have a short run-up from Learning to Fun. PC games tend to play a more dangerous game, promising that more and deeper fun awaits if you’re just willing to play these half-dozen tutorials and wear out your “alt” and “tab” keys  flipping between the game and the PDF manual.

Different platforms, different markets, I know. But still, I love the straightforward trade-offs of Fresco and Agricola, with their cruelly limited number of actions per turn and scant resources. I was amazed at how Formula D, a board game about auto racing, so successfully translated the essence of racing onto a playing field of spaces, dice, and counters. Rob and Lindsay brought over a game, Catacombs, that involved little more than hurling little blocks across a board and stealing turns, but it managed to offer great team play and fast-changing tactics.

On the other hand, board games have it easy because the game’s community is right there in the room with you. Who cares how big the player base is, when all it takes to get a game going is one copy and a couple friends? Board games can court minimalism, and choose oddball themes, because they require so much less of an audience than do PC games.

Beyond that, I also learned valuable information such as: G’vine gin makes a brilliant martini, Suntory’s Yamazaki single-malt is a solid but indistinct scotch, and the new Sherlock is brilliant except for one little problem: the mysteries and plotting are actually not very clever at all, which leaves Moffat’s Holmes looking uncharacteristically dense and careless at times.

Final thought: I love the setting and the themes behind Bioshock Infinite, but I hate the Bioshock branding. More than that, however, I resent a gaming community that complains about branding and lack of “original IP” (a term which adopts the bloodless corporate term for what we used to call an idea) while doing nothing to create an environment that fosters risk-taking and originality.

Year 28′s Delightful Beginning

A streak of bad birthdays finally broke yesterday, despite the best efforts of the MBTA and an underwhelming food truck festival in the South End. The Red Line wasn’t running between Kendall and Park, but nobody bothered to tell MK and me as we climbed aboard the train parked at the inbound platform. There are few things more disconcerting than having the T suddenly lurch in the wrong direction, leaving you wondering whether or not something has gone horribly awry and you are at that very moment in the path of another train hurtling along the same track.

So our friends came and rescued us, but by the time we got to the festival, the bare handful of food trucks were running low on everything you might want. There was nearly a riot when people who had been waiting for an hour for ribs were told that there was nothing left but cornbread.

Still, things can only be so bad when it’s a beautiful summer’s day and you’re out with friends. And they’re bound to get better when you all come home for an evening of drinks, cake, and games. Jason taught us mahjong, a game at which I am complete crap but enjoy very much, before we rounded out the evening playing one of my favorite games: Agricola.

I have argued before that Agricola is an RTS in turn-based strategy’s clothing. Each round, you can only perform as many actions as your farm has family members, and you can only perform an action if its space on the board is currently unoccupied. So even though you play sequentially, you still have to anticipate how the other players will change the board during their turn, while sparing a thought for the harvest round, during which you must ensure your family has enough food.

I eked out an extremely narrow victory over MK, who for once went a Polyface Farms direction rather than playing like Monsanto. I ran a more aggressive, higher-risk game than usual, probably because I’ve been playing so much Starcrat. I basically took a big risk on being able to feed my family in exchange for expanding early. Having an extra action each turn so early in the game meant that I could rapidly expand and diversify the farm.

Anyway, it was a vastly improved birthday over last year’s food-poisoning and the previous year’s heatwave-induced depression and drunkenness at the apartment on Linnaean.

Beyond that, there is the undeniable fact that life is simply better now than it was a year ago, or two years ago. Previous birthdays here in Cambridge have been lonely affairs, because everyone in my life besides MK was a thousand miles away. But in my 27th year, I finally started living my life here rather than passing time. I became friends with Troy, who then brought me aboard Three Moves Ahead and busted me out of the Freelance Isolation Chamber. PAX East came to town, and I finally started meeting colleagues and kindred spirits. Drew, Bryan, and Jason became invaluable local comrades. Julian brought me into the Gamers With Jobs circle, where it turns out I had a bunch of friends I simply had not met. This year, I feel confident that I’m finally figuring out how to work this.

It All Comes Back to Me Now

The weather report says it will never be cool again.

Or at least it say that it probably won’t be cool again in the next week or so. In the meantime, summer has finally caught up with my air conditioner and the apartment is beginning to swelter. Morning comes with a feeling like a hangover because of overnight dehydration. This morning I found myself seriously contemplating a gin and tonic at 10 as I sat like a vampire, shades drawn and lights out, in the living room of my apartment.

Two summers ago I lived in a hell-hole near Porter Square, drunk from mid-July through mid-August, since rum and gin were my substitutes for air-conditioning. Temporary relief would arrive in the form of a sunless sky and a sudden downpour, but then the humidity would siphon whatever life was left in the apartment. My neighbors, who refused to put trash in dumpsters because they were rich and paid a guy to collect trash every couple days, left their dainty little trash bags mouldering in the fire escape doorways that led down to the building’s basement. Doing laundry was a descent into hell, and then the roaches arrived.

So this could be way, way worse.

Still, it’s late and I’d like to go to bed, except it’s an inferno in there and MK is already asleep in there, slowly melting into the sheets. And to be honest with you, this is the first time it’s been bearable in this apartment all day. I want to enjoy the respite from this heat.

Would it be crazy to go nocturnal?

Tango On

This is a trite observation, but I am amazed by how much easier life is with friends around. Thursday night a WordPress update and a server error combined to sink this blog like the Lusitania and I was locked in a downward spiral by midday Friday. I couldn’t get the blog straightened out, I wasn’t getting anything else done, and I was falling behind on every front as I entered the weekend.

Then Cory Banks gave me a phone call out of the blue. He was here on some business and stuck in Boston with nothing to do. He had a place to stay in Arlington, but he didn’t want to go sit by himself in the burbs for four hours while working himself. So he got my number from Julian Murdoch, and I invited him over.

In no time, we’d discarded the whole idea that he’d be staying in Arlington. He would crash at my place throughout the visit, and I gave up on meeting any of my goals. But as we sat around drinking, he started fiddling with my blog until he had quietly fixed the problems and gotten it 95% restored. We were also half in the bag from supplementing the air conditioning with cocktails. That meant it was time to go have dinner with Julian and Jess, Dave Lennon and his wife, and Ken Levine and his wife.

I will pause for a moment here and simply observe that my life has changed a great deal in the last year. For me, people like Ken Levine and Julian Murdoch both existed in another world, providing entertainment and intellectual companionship through ice-blue Wisconsin winters. I treasured dispatches from people who cared passionately about the things I cared about, and did the kind of work I wanted to do. Sitting at dinner on Friday, it dawned on me that by some miracle, I find myself living in the world I chose.

The nine of us passed the evening arguing about the best squares along the Red Line, the dubious merits of Quincy, and the best way to dispose of old electronic equipment. Lennon’s company had the best solution: one of their employees takes old CRT monitors and server stacks out to a shooting range and proceeds to unload on them until they turn into modern art. After dinner was over, Julian and Jessica took us out for ice cream in Harvard Square, before leaving the MK, Cory, and myself to go bar hopping around Cambridge.

The plan for the next day was that the three of us would grab crepes and then meet with Julian at a games store in Central Square, but Julian and his family decided to go to a fair in New Hampshire. Cory adores the entire Murdoch clan, and while I didn’t really want to go hang out at a fairground, I figured, what the hell, it might be fun.

Which it was, because fun has a way of following Julian. The three of us barreled out of Boston after a late brunch, and an hour later we were being led from arcade to arcade by Julian and his son. I had my first funnel cake, heard about Julian’s life as a medieval battle re-enactor (is use the term loosely), and stole a few licks off MK’s soft-serve ice cream cone. Peter played air hockey against MK and they fought each other to a draw, but he didn’t have as much luck with me in skee ball.

Julian also made a point to introduce me to some truly superb pinball machines, like Stern’s excellent Pirates of the Caribbean.  There was a point where Julian, Cory, MK, and myself were all lined up at different machines, hunched over the flippers while we juked and twisted in a futile effort to control the ball through psychic energy. I also came away with a new appreciation for pinball: there’s a lot to be said for the tangible thrill of launching the ball into a nest of bumpers and watching the score counter go berserk while the machine shudders beneath your fingertips with the clicks and snaps of the machinery.

Finally, the three of us went out for an evening of food and drink. If you’re ever feeling a little low, I can only suggest you attempt to get a dinner date with Cory. Over burgers and beer he spent two hours finding alternately stroking my ego and demanding that I go get the work and career my talents deserve. By the end of the meal I was ready to call it a night and spend the rest of it writing pitches and taking on the whole Empire myself.

Today, Cory and I were too wiped to do anything more than stay inside playing Summoner Wars, hitting the Steam sale, and watching The West Wing, which he and I have a habit of quoting at one another. He and I wrapped up the weekend with pizza, a stiff cocktail, and the opening episodes of Season Two. It wasn’t really the weekend I wanted or planned. It was quite a bit better than that: just a series of delightful surprises from great friends.