I have a weird confession to make

There are any number of movies I’ve seen multiple times. I’ve seen Alien and its sequels many times. I’ve seen the original Star Wars and Indiana Jones¹ trilogies lots of times. There are lots of Pixar and Studio Ghibli films I’ve seen many times… unavoidable, when you have kids. I’ve rewatched a bunch of Tarantino, and Fincher, and Gilliam. There are probably hundreds of films I’ve seen a couple of times, once when I saw them in the theater and a second time when I shared them with my sons.

But the film I’ve seen more times than any other — probably over 100 times — is Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It turns 30 today.

I don’t know why I love this movie so much. I had a VHS copy in grad school and it was just the thing I would turn on at night after programming or studying all day. It was my wind-down film, one I’d have a friend over and throw on to watch over beers. There was a period of time when I’d just put it on randomly once or even twice a week, when my then-girlfriend was asleep, on low.

I don’t think it’s a perfect film. But I do think there’s something simply wonderful about its tone and I do think the structure is pretty great, too. It has an almost earnest sweetness to it, on top of an admittedly silly conceit. But that silliness leads to pleasures that just connect with me for reasons I’ve never been able to satisfactorily explain, even to myself.

If you somehow have never seen this movie, let me try to get you a quick plot description². The film opens with two teens — Bill S. Preston Esquire and Ted Theodore Logan, played by Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves respectively — being informed by their history teacher that if they don’t absolutely ace their history presentation the following day, they will flunk the class and have to retake it over the summer. The stakes are high; if this happens, Ted’s father will send him to military school in Alaska, and that will kill Bill and Ted’s dreams of being in a band together. It turns out that the stakes are even higher — we are given a glimpse of the far future with Rufus (the late, great George Carlin) describing the utopia that the world has become… as a result of the music and philosophy of Bill and Ted. Rufus is tasked with getting Bill and Ted across the finish line of their history report through the use of a time machine… and we’re off to the races. They’ll visit various time periods, kidnap historical figures, and trash the local mall, all on the way to acing that report.

The absurdity of this premise leads to some wonderful places. It’s so peculiar and specific; the very idea that all the students of San Dimas³ high school will all give history reports to an auditorium filled with students is insane. The selection of historical figures is great; Napoleon, Joan of Arc, Abraham Lincoln, Genghis Khan, Sigmund Freud, Billy the Kid, Socrates, Beethoven. What would these historical figures think of San Dimas 1989? Well, we get to see. There are several wonderful montages: Napoleon enjoying a water park4, the teens kidnapping the historical figures, the figures enjoying the local mall, and the final presentation. The jokes are very frequent, though sometimes understated, and mostly motivated by character. There are a ton of tiny delights that never fail to make me smile, like Clarence Clemons being the apparent leader of that future utopia or the way Keanu Reeves will refer to Joan of Arc as “Miss of Arc” or Bill’s confession of a minor Oedipal complex (it’s a long story) or funny little time travel bits.

I was 18 when this movie came out, and I actually missed it in the theater, because it seemed too silly to me; to this day I don’t watch a lot of comedy. I caught it as a rental a year or two later and it just completely connected and I eventually got a copy of my own that I wore out. I don’t know how it has changed my brain to have seen this movie so many times, other than to say that it informs some of my sense of humor. Bizarre as it is to say this, it’s one of a few films that reflect something about my psyche, and the only one of those films that is lighthearted.

I haven’t watched it in a few years. I’m going to watch it again today. Happy thirty years, Bill and Ted. Thanks for being excellent to me.

¹There are only three Indiana Jones films, released in 1981, 1984, and 1989 and I will fight you on this. (back)

²Better yet, if you’re an Amazon Prime member, you can go and watch it there for free. It’s a lean 90 minutes. (back)

³Ever since I got a phone with a weather app, I’ve made one of my stored locations San Dimas. I’ve never been there, but sometimes on a rainy day I’ll just look and see that it remains beautiful weather in sunny San Dimas. True story. (back)

4A few years back Cameron Kunzelman made a trivial little web game that he shared with me on Twitter that recreates this scene in a minimalist style with the music playing… I laughed for a solid five minutes with joy. Cam, if you’re reading this, you have to send me that game again, it’s not on your site. (back)

Fuck Activision Blizzard and Fuck Its (Mis-)Management

I heard about the Activision Blizzard layoffs last night via Jason Schreier’s reporting, and read Patrick Klepek’s opinion piece on Waypoint this morning.

Layoffs are horrible; I went through a painful one at LucasArts in 2004 as we were finishing Republic Commando. I’ve been lucky, in an industry that is full of them and with a career of more than 20 years now, that I’ve only experienced one — and that I got to finish that game and see it on the shelf to boot¹. It was all pretty terrible and is easily the most traumatic thing that has happened in my professional life. I’ve been pretty lucky in that regard.

Usually this sort of thing happens for business reasons — “we didn’t hit our sales targets,” or “we didn’t get the contract we needed to survive,” or what-have-you. The company can’t continue as it once did. Even then, it’s a failure of management. Management didn’t anticipate the problem, wasn’t prepared for the business environment, or failed some other way.

Which makes this Activision Blizzard announcement from yesterday particularly galling. After a record year with $2.4 billion in revenue, they felt the need to excise 8% of their workforce. This is a failure of conscience. It is a failure of fairness. It’s a failure of morals. It’s also a failure of both leadership and creativity.

You see, I’ve also worked with a company that had a title come out and take longer to reach profitability than had been hoped — that was a company that might have felt the need under those circumstances to cut back. It had no other titles in development, it was carrying several developers who didn’t have a lot to do. That company found temporary contract work for several of its developers, so that the financial burden of those salaries could be partly borne by others. This gave breathing room to pursue other revenue sources and look for that next contract that would keep everyone together. It was a creative solution to a common problem.

And that’s why I call this failure by Activision Blizzard a failure of leadership and creativity. I can understand that, after a breakup with Bungie, they may not need all the production services people that they have, going forward. I understand that. But you’ve invested in these people and they’ve invested their trust and faith in you, as well. With the amount of revenue from last year, and the investment that those people represent to your company, why not spin off a production services division as an independent entity that continues to serve Activision Blizzard’s needs in the near future and go out and drum up additional business? There aren’t tons of companies like that for games and there’s every chance there’s work out there for them, and potentially other work, too, in other entertainment industries. They had an opportunity to create something new.

Patrick ends his essay by pointing out a bump in Activision Blizzard stock following the announcement. The financial sector loves its cost-cutting, it just loves that, and as I had a guest say on our podcast this past year, “nobody ever got fired for saying no.”² Financial markets don’t care about the human cost. Apparently they don’t care very much about the lost investment in these people, either, money the company spent to make these people good at their jobs; hopefully other companies will benefit from that investment going forward.

Even better than cutting, though, is creating something new. Every single company that gets traded in the financial markets today was a new company once, founded to compete in a niche often — but even better to create a new one it could own.

With the amount of money Activision Blizzard brings in, they could have helped a new services company along as it slowly cut the cord, on a reasonable schedule. They could have created something, perhaps even a new niche. Given it time to sink or swim. Put the jobs of these people into their own hands. If it had made it out of the cradle, they might even have been able to sell it for a tidy profit down the line. Who knows?

But no, instead it’s clear that the “C” in Activision Blizzard’s “C-suite” stands neither for chief, nor for creativity, nor for courage. That “C” stands for cowardice. That “C” stands for cravenness. Fuck Coward-in-Chief Bobby Kotick and his whole suite of cowards.

Game workers, unite.

¹In that case, the studio contracted and then spent the next couple of years trying to expand again enough to support even one AAA-scale project on the XBOX 360 / PS2 level of hardware. The company’s reputation was tarnished, and it really never fully recovered that before it shut down permanently after the Disney acquisition. (back)

²It was this episode. (back)

A couple of great things from the end of EarthBound

Recently I played through EarthBound for the first time — it’s the most unconventional JRPG I’ve ever played, with bizarre choices in monsters, a setting that seems to be more or less on our own planet, and a progressive strangeness with which I’m still struggling¹. But there were a couple of things I really loved about the ending section of the game.

In case it was not abundantly clear from either the title or the preceding paragraph, this discussion must necessarily spoil plot points from the end of EarthBound.

Powering up the player… and maybe it’s not enough. Once you finish the quest to free the eight stones and unify their song, or whatever that’s about, there’s a mechanical boost that occurs to the player. The player gets dramatically stronger, gaining maybe 30% more hit points and for me I think about doubling his magic casting resources as well. What’s wonderful about this is that when you then make your final approach to take down Giygas, you are still… kind of underpowered? I died a few times on the way just to get to him from the randomly placed enemies, and then it took me four tries to defeat Giygas himself². So despite the fact that they’ve made you comparatively really powerful, it’s still balanced in such a way as you feel like you’re the underdog. You’re not, of course, because you’re functionally immortal and can basically level indefinitely… though if you don’t figure out the trick to beating Giygas, you might spend a lot of time looping there. Still, it’s a neat feeling to see your character get dramatically stronger only to still feel like you’re barely hanging on.

Aftercare. When we talked with Jill Murray on Dev Game Club, she brought up the idea of “after care” with respect to players. Tim had observed that we’re really good at stirring up emotions like fear and aggression in our players, and maybe not so good at warmer feelings, and Jill specifically lamented that we don’t take the time to care for players after we’ve brought them to that point. It was a good point and it’s notable that EarthBound does this pretty well, as do some others of my favorite JRPGs³. It’s different from simply allowing the player to go around and do lots of clean-up tasks, as most open-world games have tended to do these days. Here, we literally have a little celebratory moment with various characters, say goodbye to a couple of our party, and escort Paula back to her home before returning home ourselves. It’s lovely; we retrace our steps, characters thank us, there are no threats. The game also lets you know that it’s about to end, should you care to save and maybe go visit other characters now that you’ve saved the world. It’s really, really pleasant, and while modern game design often doesn’t allow for it, that’s to the detriment of modern games.

Anyway, very worthwhile to return to this 20+-year-old title, which I did via the SNES Classic. Lovely bit of hardware, that, and the presentation of the games is really great. I’m looking forward to playing a few other titles on there that I’ve never had the chance to. You can play EarthBound there, or I gather it’s also available on the 3DS.

Until next time…

¹Some of this made my jaw drop (suddenly changing the size of the player sprites when you descended to the Land That Time Forgot or whatever was a highlight) and some of this I’m not sure was used to good effect (particularly numerous abstract enemies that were surreal in some way but had no real unifying theme that spoke to me). One tends to want to forgive something like that because it’s unusual, but one still must ask — sure, this is all pretty surreal and unusual, but what are you trying to make me feel? (back)

²The first time I failed was because I didn’t know what the mechanic to defeat him was (though I looked it up and was also then informed by my stream friends), the second was because he overwhelmed me with attacks, and the third due to some bad luck using a combat mechanic. The signaling of the mechanic to defeat him was so subtle that I missed it entirely — it was the only time in the game whatsoever that I was really lost as for what to do. So I won’t dwell on it, but that wasn’t my favorite — mostly because there was a lot of retreading of combat to get to try your hand against Giygas again. (back)

³Final Fantasy IX, aka the Best Final Fantasy, immediately springs to mind. There’s a bit of post-final combat falling action, then a rising action to a different sort of emotional payoff. Most of it takes place in cutscenes, both pre-rendered and in-engine. (back)

What I Read, Watched, and Played: 2018 Edition

I used to write up a sort of look back at the year in cultural objects I examined and I’m going to try to get back to that. For years I’ve kept a list on the blog of the books I’ve read, the movies I’ve seen, and the games I’ve finished. This has usually been for my own benefit — it’s helpful when I’m in the library and looking at a book quizzically to be able to search for it on my site via Google. But at the end of the year, it also helps me look back a bit.

2018 was the year I read. Hoo boy, did I read. I finished reading 279 books this year, which is about 100 more than the next nearest year I’ve had with books since I’ve been listing them in the blog. There were a few reasons for this:

  • I wasn’t able to play games due to an injury. More on the injury in a week or two, but less time spent playing games meant more time reading books.
  • My kids are grown. Less time spent with kids means more time reading books; it also means fewer movies, since in any given year I’d probably watch upwards of 50 movies that were with them.
  • Fewer films. See above. I saw a bunch of movies this year but fewer than most years. Part of that is having the kids out of the house, which meant that I spent more time with the movies I prefer and less with stuff that appeals to kids.
  • Getting off social media. I decided to leave Twitter for good in August, and had been lessening my use over time through the year as well. It wasn’t making me happy. I deleted my Facebook account for good this year, although it had been disabled for years, and although I dabbled with Instagram I remembered that it too was Facebook and I quit that too. I love being able to be in touch with folks I know mostly through Internet connections but… the draw to be always on those things is strong. So, goodbye to all that, as they say. (I do still manage the Dev Game Club account, but that’s strictly for interacting with listeners, the only account it follows is Tim’s.)

Aside from that, though, there were some other trends in my reading.

  • I read more by women than men. A few years back I read only women authors for a year, and that had the intended effect: it exposed me to more women authors with whom I keep up on a regular basis. I had looked at my list in the couple of years prior and seen them hover in the under 25%, and that dismayed me, because it meant I was missing out on huge swaths of reading about the human experience, which is why I read so much anyway. I’m really happy with this trend, and it’s essentially 50/50 now.
  • I read more by people of color. I don’t have hard numbers on this, but I look through what I’ve read and I see names where I recognize the authors as people of color. I didn’t make a special effort, this just sort of happened, but it’s a nice trend.
  • I read a ton of genre fiction this year. Part of being exposed to more women authors was that I was looking specifically for those authors who might expose me to new ideas in genres I already enjoy, and the other part was that after Ursula K. Le Guin’s death early in the year, I both read (or re-read) several of her books and started looking for other voices. For horror, that meant a couple of books by Tanarive Due, for example. For mysteries and thrillers, that was Karin Slaughter and Kathy Reichs and Laura Lippman (and also Dorothy B. Hughes, who wrote novels back in the 40s). For fantasy, that was Laura Anne Gilman and N. K. Jemisin, for example.
  • I like reading projects. I have a bunch of them going on right now, and these tend to be series of novels in the case of long-running character genre stuff, or reading all of John McPhee, for example. I started doing this sort of thing a few years back when I revisited all of the Spenser series and all of John MacDonald’s Travis McGee series. So I often have a few of these on the go.

As far as films and games go, the biggest single influence on my film-viewing this year was probably attending a film festival with a friend. We watched a lot of movies together and I’m hoping we’ll get the chance to go again this year. With games, I was pretty much limited to what we played for my podcast with Tim Longo, Dev Game Club.

The biggest change in how I play games, though, has come from streaming them as I play. Around the middle of the year I thought I might start streaming those games on Twitch as I played them, and now I’m finding myself playing games as much as six or seven times a week on my Twitch channel¹, which is fun. It really enriches my experience of the games to be a more social experience. I don’t have tons of viewers, but I enjoy my chatter with my regulars tremendously. In addition to whatever we’re playing on the podcast, which is what I normally play on weekends, I also try to fit in a couple of hours with a JRPG most weeknights. It’s a welcoming group and while we talk about the game in question at times, we also just shoot the breeze.

So, what next?

I said above that I like to have reading projects going, and I do, so I’ve definitely been thinking a bit lately about what sort of projects I’d like to pursue as far as reading goes in the next year.

Naturally, I’d like to see the balance in my reading continue, and I’ll keep a vague eye on that. I’ve found that really enriches my reading experience. But I’d also like to move away from the fairly steady diet of genre fiction to other sorts of things — more classics and deep reads. I’m going to have to figure out how to do that. In all honesty, if I read fewer books altogether but more books that left a lasting mark, I’d consider that a big win — this includes looking to read something like Moby Dick or War and Peace this year.

As far as films go, I’m going to try to winnow my Netflix streaming list down to things I actually will watch and consider cutting that particular cord this year. I will maintain the DVD service, because most of what I enjoy from Netflix is actually not streaming anywhere. I’m also going to try and mix in films from Kanopy, which is available to me through my public library. I didn’t even watch ten movies a month this year, so having that many available to me each month through Kanopy might just be enough, in addition to what I see in the theater.

With games, I’m enjoying playing down my backlog through regular streaming play. I’ve got hundreds of games I’ve paid for and never played, which is silly, so no time like the present. Plus, I enjoy hanging out with that gang.

Last but not least, I’m also hoping to spend more time blogging this year — I’ve made it kind of a goal to blog once every couple of weeks as a minimum. This will continue to be the sorts of things I’ve wrote about in the past, whether that’s some particular aspect of mechanics or just general commentary on some game I’ve played or am playing.

I hope all of you out there reading have a great 2019 in culture. I’ll continue to measure out my life in pages and frames.

¹Obligatory “like, share, and subscribe” message here. Also: shout-out to a podcast listener, Matt Alan Estock, for his help in getting me squared away as far as getting going with streaming, especially with retro games. It was hugely helpful. (back)

The gentle layered failure of Spyro the Dragon

I love it when a game feels like it’s rooting for you.

Over this ten day weekend that comprises the holidays, I’ve been playing the remake¹ of Spyro the Dragon. So I want to talk about the way the game handles failure gently and in a way that tries to give you a leg up to success.

I need to give you a bit of a sense of the structure of the game to discuss the topic, so here we go. As a platformer of its time, it has “lives².” Spyro has a starting number of lives, like Mario does; when he runs out of lives, the game is “over” in some sense (we’ll get to that). The world in which the game takes place consists of a number of hubs, which are themselves game levels, from which Spyro can reach other levels via magic portals; additional hubs can be reached by accomplishing certain in-game goals. The current state of the game is saved every time Spyro enters or leaves a level, or when he rescues a dragon. The game state consists of what collectibles he has collected (gems that are either distributed loose, in chests of different kinds, or dropped by defeated enemies), which dragons have been rescued, and a smattering of other small details. Collectibles, once gained, are gained forever³. That’s the rough outline, and I’ll fill in more as we go as I discuss the various ways the game makes you feel like it wants you to succeed.

So, the first way it wants you to succeed is to make it harder to lose a life. Spyro is accompanied by a dragonfly named Sparx, he flits alongside him as he has his adventures. Sparx acts effectively as a renewable shield; Sparx will take three hits for Spyro before he disappears, and then Spyro will be unguarded and further damage will end this particular life of Spyro’s. It is as if Spyro has four hit points, which can be depleted one-by-one by environmental hazards or walking into enemies or being hit by their attacks. The three hit points belonging to Sparx can be regained by finding non-threatening ambient critters (sheep and rabbits and that sort of thing). All of this is fairly standard mechanical stuff going back to Mario and probably before; Mario eats mushroom to get big, Mario can now take two hits before he dies, if he takes one he can eat another mushroom to regain it.

One way it differs from Mario’s 2D games is that these ambient creatures are both fairly plentiful and more importantly, they respawn a little time after Spyro has gotten Sparx to consume them. So although good level design tends to place these critters after significant challenges for Spyro and the player, it’s almost always possible to go back and find some before you engage in these challenges. The game is happy to have you be at your best before you take on its challenges. So that’s one layer of encouragement to the player, to protect these lives.

Above, I mentioned how rescuing dragons saves the game state; it’s also true that returning to a place where Spyro has rescued a dragon will save the state again; typically we call this a checkpoint. The game state that is maintained while Spyro still has lives includes which enemies are alive or dead in the level he is currently in, but as noted above, collectibles such as gems are collected once and forever. If Spyro loses a life, therefore, any enemies he has encountered since the last save point are restored — this is done to maintain a level of challenge to the actual moment-to-moment play4.

Since gems dropped by enemies are collected once and forever, the game then goes further to give the player another benefit from defeating them a second time. On any subsequent defeat, an enemy will drop an orb which, when Spyro grabs it, will fill up a meter that grants an extra life once filled. It’s as if the game is saying, “Oh, I see you had trouble with this section, perhaps this will make it up to you.” Enemies similarly respawn whenever Spyro re-enters a level, and since the hubs are themselves levels, enemies will be recreated whenever one returns to them, giving Spyro an additional chance to earn these orbs and thus earn extra lives. There are also items in the levels which grant a whole extra life at one go.

Finally, on “game over,” the game can be continued and Spyro will be returned to the hub nearest to his final death — since enemies are restored when levels are entered, the enemies in the hub will be restored. On continuing the game with five new lives, then, the player is subtly encouraged to go ahead and add another life or two before continuing with whatever challenge ended his prior game.

I love these sorts of layered failure states, which is why I went into all of this so pedantically. It just feels like a pat on the back from the designer, a sort of “hey, you got this” cheer and a little boon to help you finish the game. It allows you to fail with a sort of forward momentum at each stage.

Sadly, none of these carry over into the final level5, which requires a nimbleness of the player which hasn’t really been strictly required up to that point, except occasionally. That final boss requires real agility and doesn’t contain any enemies that allow you to start building up new lives. If I were a player who had leaned heavily on the fail forward mechanics of the rest of the game, I’d be frustrated. Endings are hard.

Just thought I’d document all of that to help explain to myself why playing these games again feels like seeping in a warm bath.

¹I was surprised to discover it’s a remake, actually. I had assumed it was a remaster of some kind though I realize how difficult that would likely be and it’s not something we see too often from PS1 to PS4. (back)
²”Lives” mechanics are a holdover from the arcade era, where they were used to force a “game over/put in another quarter” loop. As of the PS2 era, I remember talking with Nathan Martz about how the mechanic was almost certainly going to die off. I’m sure it hasn’t, entirely, but it’s no longer a staple and indeed when Insomniac released its first PS2 platformer, Ratchet and Clank, they had abandoned it. (back)
³To be fully pedantic about this, collectibles once gained could be lost if the game were turned off before another save, but as long as the game is running, a collected gem is Spyro’s forever. (back)
4As a collection-based platformer, returning to empty levels just to search for remaining collectibles might be more tedious without combat distractions; mileage will vary for and individual player’s tastes. (back)
5Sadly, these mechanics do not apply at all to a certain class of level, in which Spyro must fly through a timed obstacle course; however, it might be possible to complete the game without engaging with these levels at all. I didn’t do the math, but I generally skipped them in favor of returning to them after I had defeated the final boss, so I think that’s the case. I did come back to them later, for the cheevos. 🙂 (back)

A little economic analysis

I’ve been seeing a repeated commercial through the World Series about relief donations for hurricane relief from a major mobile carrier. They’ll give $10K per home run in the series, up from $5K per home run in the post-season generally. They’ll also give $2 per tweet with a particular hash tag, but I’ve never seen it trending¹, so we can probably assume that’s negligible.

It would be unusual to see as many as four home runs per game in the series, but even if it hit that, and even with a seven game series, you’d only be looking at 28 home runs. So, they are looking at a donation that is probably at an absolute stretch no more than $300K.

One thirty second spot of advertising for the World Series in 2014 cost $520K. Each night, there’s at least one thirty second spot and usually three or more 15 second spots, as well as mention by the announcers. There’s probably some bulk economics at work for this as a large ad buy, but I think it’s reasonable to think that they are dropping $1M per game.

If the series goes all seven games, that means they’ll have at a minimum spent more than 20 times as much to tell us how charitable they are than they are actually spending on charity. And that’s with me being very generous to the offense of the teams.

I’ve looked and this carrier has, like other carriers, provided free service to those affected by hurricanes in the past, as well as providing some support services in those areas to help people get chargers and phone use as well.

I’m glad this company provides those services. But I’d sure love to see them spend a lot more on the charity and a lot less making us think about their charity.

¹”But Brett, I thought you were off Twitter!” And I am, but I still maintain the Dev Game Club twitter and check it every so often even when watching the game. (back)

Softening the landing

Caveat lector: this post discusses the end of the book Bel Canto, so if you’d rather not know, you’ve been warned.

Today I finished reading Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, a book I had been reminded of because recently there’s been a film adaptation¹ and I had wanted to read it when it was originally out but I did not have the same amount of time to read then that I do now. I was happy for the reminder, through it on my holds at my local library, and picked it up a couple of weeks ago.

Reader, it is terrific. It’s everything I could want in a literary novel, cleanly written yet capable of deep insight, drawing you into these characters’ lives, allowing you glimpses of their soul. You kind of get lost in it. I even copied out a couple of brief passages to the notebook I carry around with me. It spoke to me, often. I may even give opera another try.

If you’re not familiar with the novel, it’s fiction based on real-life events. In late 1996, hundreds of people at a party in the Japanese Embassy in Lima were taken hostage by a little over a dozen revolutionaries². They were in a heavily fortified building and the standoff lasted for 126 days; I can remember it happening. As far as I know, the only hostage who died was killed when the military stormed the building. All of the revolutionaries were killed, and some of them were later determined to have been killed “extrajudiciously,” which is to say, they were murdered after having been subdued or having surrendered.

So, I knew where this book was headed. Talking it over with my friend who had also recently read it, I said that the process of reading it was like watching an enormous tree that has been cut through, to fell it, and much of the book felt like watching a moment where the tree was teetering before it fell. Except that here, that moment lasts the hours it takes you to read the book. And, more accurately, I felt that for a few hundred pages, I was that teetering tree.

As I neared the inevitable, I started to wonder how the ending would be handled. I thought a little bit about how I might end the book; I considered that I might end it just as the assault began, just cut it off entirely short, let the reader envision the violence. I thought maybe the book would end in the violence itself, with the shock of the survivors as they were rescued and witnessed the deaths of these people they had spent months with, who they had come to know and who had revealed surprises about themselves. Both would have been kind of staggering gut-punches.

Both of those endings and others like them seem to me to be maybe the very male way to end the book. To attempt to gain for the book a little more critical heft, leaving the reader in that state of being just absolutely drained emotionally by what they’ve read. I can even imagine the sorts of words the reviews would use: daring, unsparing.

Patchett took a different approach. She attached a very brief epilogue, the specifics of which I won’t go into but which look just a little bit forward. It’s hopeful, and it’s tender.

It’s also very generous to the reader. Having been through what we’ve just been through, in those final pages of the novel, just how gut-wrenching it has been, in part because of how it’s been building to its inevitable conclusion, Patchett gives us a moment of comparable grace. It feels like a more feminine approach, I think — it cares more for the reader, it gives you a glimpse of a future, a reason to go on. It doesn’t throw you to the wolves, it doesn’t leave you soaking in the pain.

I felt really well cared for in those last few pages, and I think the novel is better for them. I felt like the author was there with me, knowing the ache I had in the pit of my stomach, that sadness I was carrying with me as I was preparing to set the book down. I felt her holding me for just a few pages, helping me return to the world. Helping temper that sadness. Helping me go on. Reminding me that you can. We do.

¹Reading it, it seemed like a film adaptation would be a tough job, one that would need a truly visionary director to find the heart of and communicate, like a Schnabel or a Todd Haynes or others along those lines. Although I understand why they chose the director they did, because of superficial similarities between this and a show that director executive produced, Mozart in the Jungle. Looking at his film credits, I think it’s safe to suspect that this was a cynical, near-Oscar-season kind of attempt at a prestige grab and I am going to pass. Overall it seems critics have not been tremendously kind. (back)

²Generally speaking, they are referred to as terrorists in what few articles I’ve read. I’m not really comfortable with that term, based on the events. Absolutely they took hostages, and did exchange gunfire with the military, but were not notably violent towards their hostages. I’m not sympathetic to their violent acts by any means, but terrorism is the inspiration of fear as the tactic, and this was more like a negotiating tactic. (back)

An unexpected trip

We hadn’t been dating very long, though we had started sleeping in the same bed, from time to time.

Her dog was just a puppy, still, but a big breed, more than 60 pounds already. Energetic and exuberant and proud of some of the privileges he had. Including sleeping on the bed, which there wasn’t as much space for when I was over. More reason to claim it as early as possible.

We were getting ready to go to bed at her place. She was adjusting the sheets or something, and the puppy decided that her presence in the bedroom meant it was his time to get up on the bed.

He jumped, leading with his skull. Her forehead was in the way. Skull met brow and it opened up three quarters of an inch along the ridge of her eyebrow. I wasn’t in the room, but I heard her yell, and by the time I got there it was already running down her face and she was staunching it as best she could.

Maybe not a million-to-one shot, but somewhat long odds.

We got in touch with her daughter, who in her sociology work had seen this sort of thing from time to time. She thought that it would need to get looked at.

In the end, we agreed. Ice hadn’t slowed it much, it was clear it might need stitches or glue. We went to the hospital. At ten o’clock at night. An apparent couple, the woman with a facial wound and the man unharmed.

At every stage they tried to separate us, and eventually I realized why. When we first came in and filled out the paperwork, they asked her to join them in another room and she said, no, he can stay with me. When we were in an examination room, the nurses would ask if maybe she’d rather just be alone with the doctors. The doctor did, too. And the nurses did again. I say it like it was a handful of times, but in retrospect each step probably had a couple of different ways of trying to separate us. So that the truth could be known.

I don’t think it was the first time they tried to separate us that they thought I had hit her. It may not have even been the second time. Certainly by the third time it had dawned on me the assumptions they had made. They had seen it all before. I definitely hadn’t.

She ended up with a bunch of stitches.

I ended up a bit queasy at having been thought to be the cause.

Here’s what I didn’t do. I didn’t go on the offensive, once I realized what they were insinuating by trying to separate us. I didn’t let any anger burst out of me. I didn’t accuse anyone of anything. I didn’t shout, or get red in the face, or tighten my lips, or sweat, or demand anything of anyone, or ask barbed questions like whether the doctor ever hit his wife.

I just realized what they so often dealt with. I appreciated what they were trying to do. Sure, I felt some shame, that they thought this of me. But the demographics were not in my favor — white guy, late 30s to early 40s — I got it, once I got it. She understood it a lot sooner than I did, which is why she kept explaining that it had been the dog that had done it.

It hadn’t stopped them asking.

It was subtle enough that it took me awhile to even realize what they were trying to do, to separate us so that she could tell them I had hit her. Even if I hadn’t.

But that was what they saw. And a lot of indignant male partners, husbands or what-have-you, who didn’t want to be separated. Who didn’t want her telling her side of the tale.

She’d say later that I went above and beyond the call, that night, early in a relationship. I didn’t feel that way, even though I had realized what was going on, and had mentioned it to her even as we waited for a doctor to come in and put in the dozen or so stitches. I felt it was just what you did — you’re with someone, they get hurt, you go with them.

I guess she meant the assumption that I had been the cause. It was a reasonable assumption, though, however wrong it had been in that case.

When I see a man railing against how awful and unfair it is that they be questioned? I think: that’s a guilty man. Because the rest of us, if we’ve been paying attention? We know the score. We know why the questions get asked. We might feel a sense of shame that someone might think that of us, but we also know: they don’t know us. They know the statistics, and they know their personal experience. Their personal experience is: it’s never a fall, or a door walked into, or good-effin’-christ a dog? Are you kidding me? It’s the man who brought them in.

The systems which question aren’t wrong. They are born from experience. It’s the rage, the “how dare you,” that is wrong. That’s the guilt talking.

In the end, the scar was nothing. It faded within a year or so.

The understanding, on both of our parts, that stayed. She knew it already. It was my turn to learn.

Quick Answers to Random Ask.FM Questions

Almost all of these seemed random and not particularly directed at me (and some I just ignored), but here are very brief answers to the oodles of these things that have been piling up for some time. (Also, I find it highly irritating that just logging in to ask.fm will cause it to throw a question at you immediately afterwards, to… keep you engaged, I guess? It annoys the heck out of me.)

How often do you read stage plays? Virtually never.

How much of a mess is your room? Not too bad, lately. Definitely dusty but otherwise pretty orderly.

Is it possible to break down programming a game on the scale of Fallout or Skyrim? For example 70% coding the game,25% rectifying problems,5% fixing bugs. It’s possible in theory, I suppose, but difficult in practice. You could look at the core team in the credits and get a percentage by headcount that way.

Mind sharing what’s going through your mind right now? Meow meow meow meow, meow meow meow meow, meow meow meow meow meow meow meow meow.

Can you sum up your day so far in just one word? No.

If you had the opportunity to go somewhere and start a new life, where would you go? What job would you have? And how do you imagine your house there? Always wanted to be a writer, likely in the Pacific Northwest, with a house spare in everything but books.

If someone wants to talk to you , what are the steps they should proceed to reach your acceptance of giving them a portion of your time to listen to ? I answer non-spam email from virtually anyone, on the topics of game development and programming therefor.

What do you like in life? To see my enemies driven before me.

Are you happy with the amount of information in your head? No.

Would you rather be a philosopher, an astrophysicist, or a psychologist? Why? The questions of philosophy tend to interest me most.

Do you believe in super natural powers? Nope, I’m a materialist.

If you had one word to describe yourself, what word would it be? Unsimplifiable.

Do you prefer to ask questions or answer them? Asking questions without making an attempt to answer them seems pointless.

If you could replace anything from your body, what would it be? The joints.

If you could travel the world with only one person who would you take? I have a high school friend whose conversation never flags and often fascinates.

Are cats or dogs smarter? Essentialist arguments are b.s.

Do Moorcock’s novels age well for you? The Elric novels mostly did, though they have the sexism problems of the age, but having read a couple Hawkmoon books I probably won’t read any more of him.

Why Quit Twitter?

I’ve left Twitter, deleting as much of my history¹ as I could as I went out the door. Why?

There’s a million reasons, I think, but fundamentally it’s this: I need more space in my life. I find that I often fill the empty space in my life with dopamine-seeking ephemeral activity, and I think that’s unhealthy for me. One of the biggest things I’ve spent idle time on in the last decade or so² has been social media, and since I left Facebook some time ago, that’s meant Twitter³.

It’s this itch I can scratch all day long. Heading up to the bathroom? Why not check Twitter before I head back to the basement office? Done the crossword but water still boiling for coffee? How about a few minutes on Twitter? Walking by where the phone is charging? Why not check Twitter? Reading, watching a movie/baseball game/TV show/cutscene? How about Twitter?

And the minutes just add up. I find I’ll look up from my phone and ten or fifteen minutes have just disappeared. Just gone, forever. It’s the unthoughtful way this happens that bothers me — I know I’m always going to lose some time in my life to just being idle in one form or another, but Twitter takes me out of the world in a way that I find really not good for my self. I spend that time and I might find a link to an article (that I’ll probably skim) or get enraged over something (that I’ll not do anything useful about) or go down a rabbit hole of looking at the account of someone who’s just followed me or who has been retweeted or “liked” into my timeline and it just… never ends, and nearly all of it is entirely forgettable to me. I can’t really remember much of anything that happens on Twitter, and that might be argument enough for me.

I don’t know, maybe I’m just running out of minutes to spend this way. This has been coming for a long time but I’ve noticed I just feel lighter without my phone in the last few months. I went to a film festival this past June with a friend and decided that although I was certainly going to bring my phone, I’d just leave it in the safe and use it when I was in my room. Part of that was that I’d be in screenings mostly anyway, of course, but part of it was that I just didn’t want to miss out on time with my friend, who I see far too infrequently4. On occasion she’d dip into a store and I’d just take a break from shopping and wait outside, and little moments would happen in my life that wouldn’t have happened if I was looking at my phone, little things I’d notice or moments of small connection with another person, just eyes meeting or a friendly word exchanged, even a nod.

I ended up feeling more present than I have felt in some time. On the drive up there I had started getting myself ready for this lack of phone time, and when I stopped in a diner for lunch I had left it in my pocket. While I waited for my sandwich, I listened to5 an old woman who related a story from when she was a waitress probably fifty years earlier. It was a delightful story that I won’t repeat here because I’m going to use it somewhere else some day. If I had been looking at my phone, I’d have missed it entirely… and it has stuck with me in a way that nothing on Twitter ever seems to. I go into the Twitter fugue, and I come out of the Twitter fugue, and I don’t know that I am enriched by that.

That week started me thinking about my relationship with my phone and being online generally, which was not the first time I’d thought about it. Someone had said to me on Twitter a little bit ago that being on Twitter was itself conversation, when I mentioned that I hadn’t talked to anyone for days. That really struck me, because I feel like Twitter is not remotely like conversation at all. There’s so much missing! Tone of voice, all those subtle facial queues, the rhythm, the gaps. That’s so much richer. Twitter is not conversation, and please do not impoverish conversation by saying that it is.

So, I’m leaving Twitter. There are things I’m sure I’ll miss, and there are other reasons I’m leaving, but this is probably the root of it all. Mostly what I think I’ll miss hasn’t been there for quite a while, and that was the smaller sense of community from when I started out on it. But that hasn’t been there for a long time, and no amount of curation of my experience will get that back. I like blogging better, and my early Twitter experience really just grew out of blogging. I don’t know if anyone will be reading, but you can find me here.

Here’s a quote from T. S. Eliot that I jotted down in my notebook earlier this year. It seems somehow apropos. It’s from Choruses from the Rock:

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

__________
¹Turns out, I deleted about nine thousand tweets, but apparently it won’t retrieve them back beyond a certain point. I used TweetDelete and it was kind of fun to watch 3200 disappear at a time. (back)

²Eleven years, according to Twitter, which notified me while I was on the break during which I considered this change that I’d had my “Twitterversary,” which is not a real thing. This is kind of an insidious thing that corporations do, to adopt the trappings of richer relationships or events. Twitterversary. Egads. Reason enough to leave, really. (back)

³I gave Instagram a brief trial period of maybe six weeks or so earlier this year, then remembered it had been acquired by Facebook, and struggled for a bit with that. Facebook has been shown to be damaging to a free society, and so I won’t be a part of it. I also had a mastodon account I used for about ten minutes, and Peach? Remember Peach? I never did figure out what that one was for. (back)

4There was actually another thing that happened while I was at the film festival. I had seen a movie star on the street outside my hotel on the way in and had tweeted it. And I learned that people have Twitter searches on movie stars, which makes sense in retrospect but was not something I had previously considered, as I’ve literally never used Twitter that way myself. And so there was suddenly a bit of a kerfuffle in my mentions about it and I deleted the tweet to stop the madness as quickly as I could. What a weird world we live in. What a strange world we decided to build. (back)

5Okay, okay, I was eavesdropping. But eavesdropping is a total pleasure sometimes, and one I will not deny myself and you can’t make me. (back)