Wednesday, January 25, 2012

I went running today.

For the second time since I've lived in Baltimore. For the first time, probably, since the summer.

I ran for: 41 minutes and 42 seconds. I traveled a distance of 2.92 miles. I burned 356 calories. My average pace was 14'15", but I'm not sure what that means. Per minute? That can't be right.

(I know these things because my robot phone told me so.)

(My robot phone also shows me a map of the route I ran, colored green where I ran the fastest and colored red where I stopped to walk.)

I never once stopped to lean against a lamp post or a tree.

(This is untrue. I stopped once to wait for a crosswalk sign, and I was kind of mad when it switched to walk before I was ready. That was my first break, and when I was stopped I had to swallow once to keep myself from throwing up. I stopped a second time to put my hand on a tree and lean over and breathe.)

I listened to a WTF podcast as I ran. It was the episode with Donald Glover. After I got home I remembered that the last time I ran it was the summer, and I'd listened to a WTF podcast with Dan Harmon. Donald Glover is Troy on Community and Dan Harmon is the creator of Community. I didn't do this on purpose, except that when I looked at the list of recent WTF guests Donald Glover was the only one who looked interesting who wasn't Russell Brand.

(I really like Russell Brand. Mostly from his talk show appearances, where he comes across as being very charming and funny. I also really liked Arthur. I went to see it by myself at the movies after one of the times Kari moved out of our house in Vermont. When (spoiler alert!) Hobson died, it made me cry. I re-watched Arthur on HBO one and a half times last week and when (spoiler alert!) Hobson died, I felt a gravity in my guts and I teared up a little bit.)

I went running once in Vermont when the snows were heavy. I ran on the bike trail and had to kick my knees up high and leap for the footprints of whoever went running before me. The footprints only went one direction, so on my way back I had to kick my knees up high and leap for my own footprints.

I bought new pants to run in that have a little zipper and pocket right over the butt where I can put a housekey. This removes a lot of stress from my run. I still have to carry my phone, because I haven't bought a new arm-strap-thing and I don't know where my old one has disappeared to. I didn't wear my glasses and once I thought there was a fashionable young lady walking my way as I was running and I thought I was going to impress her with my athleticism, but as we passed I realized it was actually a private school boy. I bet I impressed him with my casual friendliness.

I'd like to go out running for about the same period of time (or less), but cover 5 miles. I don't know the best routes to take around Hampden. Some streets in Baltimore don't make me feel nervous at all, and some do, and sometimes I feel both ways about the same streets at different times. Sometimes when I run down streets where I don't feel nervous about crime I feel nervous about people thinking I'm dumb to be running, or assuming I won't go running again after this run because my running clothes are new and my belly is not that of a regular runner's. But today I got mud on the legs of my running pants, and I'm not even going to wash them yet. So what do you think of that?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Emoticon, Emoticon, Emoticon

Chris Hunt is my uncle, and he wrote a book. It's called My Life with the Scorpion Kitten and it's about his life over the five-year period he spent with Mathias, a cat he adopted with his wife, my mom's sister, my aunt Tina.

Early in kitten-hood Mathias got a severe eye infection that cost him an eye, and left him blind in the eye he still had. He also had the feline leukemia virus, so I'll tell you straight up, dudes -- the book can carry the sadness at times. But from my personal perspective, what I found most interesting was the insight it offered into my family and some of the people in it.

The book covers the 5 years of Mathias's life, from 2003 to 2008. I lived in Chicago when it started and was just starting to wade back into the life of an undergrad. I started college right out of high school (CLASS OF 97 RULES), but after two years of bopping through the University of Cincinnati, I gradually dropped out of all of my classes. My last semester at UC had basically been a money pit, where my body knew I had dropped out (sleeping til 2pm or so) long before my brain had accepted it (obviously, blowing off my English Lit classes was simply the first the step toward changing my major to anthropology). But in 2003 I was attending classes at Columbia College Chicago as a Fiction Writing major. By the spring of 2008 I had earned my BA, left Chicago, and was wrapping up my MFA in Writing at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Which is to say -- it was an eventful time in my life and I probably wasn't paying the best attention to family goings-on in Ohio. So in a lot of ways reading Chris's book was like reading one of those novels that gives a parallel view to stories you think you know well.

My grandmother passed away on Christmas Eve of 2004, and the way Chris writes about that night is different from the way I remember it. Chris is probably right -- I'm just surprised that I'd filled in so many details so incorrectly. I remembered our entire family being at Chris & Tina's that night -- my folks, my brother's family, my mom's older brother John and all of his kids. Grandma Mathews had been sick for a long time, and she'd been moved from hospice to Chris and Tina's, and she passed away while we were all there in the house. It was a strange, significant, sad Christmas. But Chris writes that John and his kids weren't there at all, and that John only came after Grandma had passed. I think that's probably true, but in my memory I'd created an entirely different sequence of events. Without reading Chris's book, I never would have entertained the thought I was wrong.

Mathias, the Scorpion Kitten in question.

Chris's book has rippled quietly through the family, if it's even fair to say that much. I've been writing my novel for -- yikes dudes -- almost ten years now. I'm certainly near the end, but it's more than a little humbling for Chris's book to start off by saying that he's writing the first words in 2008, and for it to include a section in which he reads my novel-in-progress, and wondering when the end will come. All of which is to say, I've known for a while he was writing a memoir of his life with Mathias, but it was still a surprise when my mom called one day to say that it was available on Amazon. She sounded kind of excited, but not in a pleasing way. I think it's fair to say that my family doesn't always talk to each other easily about -- you know -- feelings. It's always been that way, and it's always felt uncomfortable (at best) or even like an act of great contrary will to talk to each other about things that we feel, or about things that someone else feels. Chris married into our family, but I get the feeling that this could be true of his family life too. So for him to write and publish a book that is almost entirely a journey through his inner life, examining what he feels and why, and how he feels about others, is, I think, causing some turmoil around the Jent/Mathews axis.
I don't think it's bad or wrong of him to do this. But my mom was nervous about the book, I think Aunt Tina is too. My writing about him writing about it is probably a cause for tense nerves too, but what I read in Chris's book is an attempt to have a conversation with his friends and family about things that are hard to talk about. The bulk of the book is about Mathias and the other cats Chris & Tina have lived with and cared for, but an undercurrent of it is their attempts -- or, Chris's wishes -- to have children. They never did, and in the book's afterword he simply states that "We also learned that we are unable to have children." I feel like that's what the book is really about -- much of it is concerned with the passage of time, with family and friends who have passed on. The cats Chris and Tina adopt are loved by them, but people live a lot longer than cats. They are born and live and pass on while people are still around. Children are meant to survive their parents, to carry on and to be part of a continuity of family and love. Cats are loved -- I have one of my own -- but they're not comparable to children or what children represent. They just can't be. When I asked my mom if she'd ever talked to Tina about their desire or ability to have kids, she said she'd never asked. She didn't think it was her business. 

And I guess that's kind of true? But the truth of that statement is getting in the way of a deeper kind of connection that I think everyone in my family lacks, yet desires very much. I was home for a week and half this Christmas, and it was good to be home, but it was a tense time. The specific reason is difficult to pinpoint. But it seems like everyone walks on spiderwebs -- not putting too much pressure on any specific place, or else the whole thing might fall apart. We joke with each other and watch TV together or Christmas shop together, but it's hard to have a conversation that runs deeper than surface concerns. 

My dad and my brother in particular are having trouble connecting, because when they talk they have a hard time getting beyond "here are the ways you've wronged me." Both have strong points of view, and their relationship goes back 40 years, you know? Chris writes in his book about times he's been angry with people in our family, or his mother, but in a way that I think is remarkable healthy and honest. I hope it's not something that causes a rift or a fight, and I don't think he ever says anything that anyone should be offended by. But the act of communication can be offensive to some -- or, at least, it is alien in a way that causes gut-level offense, due to its strangeness. I think the best thing that could happen to my brother and my dad is for them to get caught in a log cabin during a snowstorm.

Or, you know when Spider-Man and J. Jonah Jameson used to get handcuffed to a bomb together and they learn to set aside their differences and work together? Something like that could work.
They only need to talk, but they need to talk for a long time. Like when you're having a fight with your boyfriend or girlfriend or husband or wife, and the talk goes over peaks and valleys that are good, then bad, then good again, and you wind up in a place where you're exhausted, but emotionally vulnerable, and saying things that are honest and straightforward and hopefully helpful to everyone.

Well. I've definitely gotten off track here, and the entirety of this post falls under the realm of Things We Don't Talk About in Public, but surely one of the things that's kept me from blogging ever since I read Chris's book is that I knew in order to write about it I'd have to write about things my family doesn't like to talk about. Chris's book is really good and I'm really proud of him for writing it and putting it out in the world. And it could be that saying it here is better than not saying it at all?

Friday, January 13, 2012

Strength Is How Strong You Are

Hey guys. What's new?

I have a new Dungeons & Dragons group. My last regular group was during the LA Days, and we played 4th edition. That's the one where the core races & classes are split up over multiple players' handbooks, and everyone gets sweet special moves when they level up. If you get through 2 or 3 combat encounters in a single session, then you're moving at a pretty quick clip.

If it sounds like I'm being harsh toward 4E, then it's because I'm being kind of harsh toward 4E. In general it's true that your D&D game is as fun as you make it, but after running a 4E campaign for a good three months of weekly sessions, by the end it was just lots of searching through papers for the proper power and, to me, a lot of restrictions on what I could make happen on the fly. The encounters in 4E involve a lot of different types of the same monsters -- Kobold Minions, Kobold Skirmishers, Kobold Slingers, Kobold Dragonshields, Kobold Wyrmpriests and Kobold Slyblades -- and a reliance on miniatures that made game prep lots of work and not a lot of fun. In general I'm not a snobby kind of dude, you know? But I think I really decided that 4E isn't for me.

But! After the move to Baltimore I found myself with a cadre of new friends who were interested in some D&Ding. I don't remember now how the idea first came up, but I know that Kate and I invited more people than we thought would/could come, because I figured it was the kind of event where folks would try it, get bored with it, and then maybe half would become regular players. But this very eve we're going to launch our fourth (I think?) session, and so far everyone has come back for more. The players are mostly new to D&D, and I don't think anyone is an RPG aficionado, so I took the opportunity to foist my preferred edition unto their unsuspecting nerd-holes:

In the words of Pierce Hawthorne, "I won Dungeons & Dragons! And it was Advanced!"

I chose 2nd edition partly because I already have a lot of the books, but mostly because my memory of AD&D is that it fosters more role-playing. The rules are there, but kind of loosey-goosey. Even as they expanded into more campaigns and realms of greater PC-customization, there was a core make-it-up-as-you-go to the game that was surely rooted in playing it in high school when no one wanted to actually read the rulebooks cover to cover, but also, I think, inherent to the system. The jump to 3rd edition brought great satisfaction to the players and DMs who wanted every question answered somewhere in the rulebook -- take a look at the size of the Pathfinder Core Rulebook, which is built on the bones of D&D 3.5.

It's probably more true that whatever version of D&D you come to first will be your D&D, regardless of the reasons. Wizards of the Coast have just announced "D&D Next", being the next edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and they did it in the New York Times of all places. 4E came out in 2008, 3E in 2000, and 2E in 1989. That's a slight acceleration of a few years with each new edition, and the reasons are pretty clear. D&D started with Gary Gygax and Dave Arenson at TSR, the product of a couple of guys playing games in their figurative basement. It grew and changed through licensing deals and cartoon shows and toy lines -- re-reading 80s New Mutants comics lately have led me to some rad ads for D&D the game and D&D the product line -- but in the 1990s TSR was bought by Wizards of the Coast, who made their mark on the gaming world with Magic: The Gathering. A few years later, Wizards of the Coast was bought by Hasbro, toy and gaming overlords whose history is the same as most successful 20th century corporations/brands. They had success in the mid-century with things like Mr. Potato Head, and have grown since through mergers and acquisitions. This means that the people currently making Dungeons & Dragons have corporate bosses and conference calls and R&D meetings. I'm not saying Gary Gygax didn't have those over the course of his career, or that AD&D is pure and 4E is not because one was homegrown and the other was playtested at Hasbro-sponsored events. But I am saying that the development of a new set of rules is now more about selling a ton of new core rulebooks, rather than collecting new rules and revisions that have been developed organically by the gaming community.

Part of any given Dungeons & Dragons Edition lifespan is now a planned obsolescence. Maybe that was always true and I was too young or naive or disinterested in such things to observe it before. Maybe it's from having a professional life and seeing office politics play out in a number of environments, so that I can understand better the benefits a major rules overhaul would bring to Wizards of the Coast/Hasbro's year-end sales.

But what I feel in my bones is that I'm having friends over tonight to play AD&D, and the only things it's going to cost us is the price of snacks and beer. Kate & I are going to make a pasta bake and a pot of chili and we're going to sit in my office and pretend to be elves and dwarves and kobolds and owlbears. I'll leave the fighting and the pre-ordering to somebody else.

There's a big difference between playing D&D and being an active member of the D&D online community. As with most online communities, it's full of dark corners and bad attitudes -- but there are two blogs I've been reading since getting back into the game that I feel bring enthusiasm to the topic and show their love of the game. One is Grognardia, written by an RPG creator & enthusiast whose allegiance lies with 1st edition, and the other is The Id DM, written by a gamer who returned to D&D after several years away, and who currently plays 4E. Also, The Escapist did a great series of articles on D&D's Past, Present, and Future, the latest of which is a little outdated now after the "D&D Next" announcement. But still worth a read if you're interested in the game and its history and the people who are invested in either. It's especially illuminating with regard to the switch to 3rd Edition, the Open Gaming License, and the resulting "Edition Wars" that are bound to break out all over again when the new version premieres.