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 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?

Sports Fan

You know, I could never imagine buying Sunday Ticket. When I lived near Chicago, the only thing I cared about was the Bears, and so football was a sport that only engaged me for about 3 hours a week during the season. A great game here and there might capture my attention, but I didn’t really love the sport so much as I loved my team. That’s how I used to approach most sports. Ferrari and Michael Schumacher, not F1. Jordan, Pippen, and the Bulls, but not basketball. I think one reason I never got into baseball is that the Chicago teams were mediocre to disappointing throughout my childhood.

Yet MK and I just paid DirecTV over $300 without hesitation, because football has become such a part of our lives that we can easily, happily spend nine hours on Sunday watching the games. Fantasy football has certainly changed my relationship to the sport (I’m in two leagues now, and have to track about forty players), but it’s deeper than that. Sports can surprise us in ways that few things can anymore. There’s no script to anticipate. Watching Tony Romo melt-down against the Jets in the 4th quarter is dramatic, but not inevitable. He might be redeemed someday, or perhaps the NFL will turn its back on him as a talented but fatally flawed player. I don’t know what will happen, but it’s become one of the league’s ongoing storylines.

Cam Newton had a career game against the Cardinals on Sunday, but I will remember how angry and solitary he was on the sidelines near the end of the game. You’d think a man would be thrilled to have silenced his doubters and secured his position in a single game, but I got the sense that Newton didn’t care about that. He seemed like someone who had merely affirmed what he already knew: he was a good quarterback and the right person for the job. That decided, he lives and dies with his team’s fortunes. On Sunday, people kept patting him on the back and he accepted their praise uneasily, his body-language screaming, “But we still lost.”

I think it is the reality of sports, and the beauty of the contest, that draws me to them. Careers are at stake. People are living out their life’s ambition, or still trying to realize it. Along the way they push themselves closer to the realm of the superhuman. Jenson Button driving at the Canadian GP, coming from last place to take the victory away from Sebastian Vettel in the last, rainy laps of the race. Tom Brady’s savage dismantling of the Dolphins on Monday as he passed for over 500 yards, working in perfect harmony with his receivers and linemen. Devin Hester breaking the NFL record for touchdowns on kick-returns with two of them in a single game. The Blackhawks almost willing themselves back into championship contention as they took three straight games from the Canucks.

I suppose I am just a bit tired of being told stories, either through filmmaking or writing. I know the tools, I know they usually adhere to formula, and even “twists” follow their own set of traditions. With sports, the stories emerge from earnest contests where the outcomes are never certain, and the process is the payoff. Years later, documentarians might arrive and tell a story that everyone can understand, and people might say, “I had no idea there was this great drama behind the scenes.” But those of us who follow sports know exactly that, and our lives and memories are richer for having watched it happen.

Upgrades and Changes

I’ll be updating the blog here in a few minutes to fix an ongoing issue with WordPress. Hopefully it goes smoothly and the issue is resolves. But in my experience with WordPress, hope is the first step on the road to disappointment.

So this site might be FUBAR for a bit. Sorry in advance if it goes that way.