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Category: boston

D&D with the kids: First notes (sessions 0-4).

At the turn of the year I finally worked up the courage/energy to run a D&D game for my son and four (soon to be five) of his friends, all 10-11 years old, and we’ve been playing every Sunday since 3 January. I’ve wanted to run a game of old-school 80s D&D since the actual 80s, when it was the new school; normally the phrase ‘a dream come true’ is mere figure of speech, but here it’s literally true.

We’re using the Basic/Expert rules from 1981, in the form of the ‘retroclone’ Old-School Essentials.

I gave them randomly rolled-up 1st-level characters, they concocted a ‘We meet at a tavern’ scenario (the bard was performing, the elves were passing through, the thief was drinking her sorrows away with her small but vicious dog, the cleric was outside talking to his pet rock Josh), and we were off to the Tomb of the Serpent Kings.

Prior to our game, two in the group had no D&D experience but had played Skyrim or World of Warcraft, one (soon two) played a lot of 5e at Pandemonium in Central Square, and two had a couple sessions of table time under their belts.

I won’t run through the campaign in detail — perhaps another time — but I do want to share a couple of observations, by no means original.

  • The old-school saving throws are unintuitive at first, but they work. I’ve read enough about them — including the underrated AD&D 2e corebooks, which explain how the saving throw sieve works — that I figured I’d have no problem. But if you’re just starting, how do you adjudicate a trap that fires a magic beam down a dungeon hallway? What if it’s a paralyzing beam? What if it’s a spray of magic? ‘Use the first saving throw that applies’ still means a judgment call of sorts. (The answer in the first instance is ‘Save vs Wands’ by the way.) How do you save against a falling boulder? Finicky questions, but knowable — and they drive you toward a certain fiction-first intution about the gameworld. After a while the saving throws make perfect sense, and the wisdom/utility of class-based (vs 5th edition’s ability-based) saving throws becomes clear.
  • OLD-SCHOOL ESSENTIALS is the final form of Moldvay Basic/Cook Expert D&D. Aaron Allston’s beloved Rules Cyclopedia stretches the D&D rules across 36 levels and provides domain-rulership and mass-combat systems, as well as additional classes, monsters, treasures…but you don’t need that stuff for 90% of campaigns, and there are better tools available for free online if you do. Plus its layout is catastrophically bad in keeping with the house style. Gavin Norman’s OSE retroclone collects the original Moldvay/Cook rules, organizes them intuitively with a delightfully accessible layout, and judiciously includes the most common houserule (ascending Armour Class) as a built-in option. It is the perfect re-presentation of the original ruleset, nothing added. (Which, to be clear, means pure vanilla flavour; look elsewhere for magical evocation.)
  • You need (magic) items. I’ve learned this in the breach. In searching the dungeon, the kids have mostly found trinkets, coin, small-bore treasures — but they need useful items, not necessarily magical. The trick is to fire up their lateral problem-solving skills without simply erasing the dungeon’s challenges. Flash powder, spoons that refill magically with food, a wig, a blanket that smells of refuse, a coin that always matches the call, a leash that lets you hear a cat’s thoughts — these low-level items encourage low-stakes usage. The kids have found a ring that causes the wearer’s eyeball to pop out and roll around while retaining the power of sight, a perfect example of the kind. Disgusting, handy, and potentially extremely risky to the user. (I need to remind the kids that they have it.)
  • You need spells. Low-level PCs in B/X have only minimal access to magic — a spell a day, plus the houseruled cantrips I’m allowing. But a low-level party really benefits from the survivability boost that a single sleep spell grants. Alas, the kids blew theirs to give the dog a nap after a nasty fight.
  • Arguing is the best/worst part. In the first session the kids spent more than a half-hour joking, arguing, debating, improvising in character, and generally just being smart creative little fools while standing at a trapped door they weren’t sure how to get through. The consensus is that it was the best part of the adventure so far; I certainly thought so. This is why 1-on-1 D&D (which my son and I have played, at Thunderdelve) can’t come close to competing with a decent-sized party and a DM willing to let them faff about. That said, our one experienced player has been losing his mind over the mix of hesitation and impulsivity which is the group’s overall vibe. That’s the main downside of a big, relatively inexperienced party: an unstable power-balance between puzzlers, instigators, et al. We’re working it out quite sensitively, because it’s a bunch of kids from Cambridge+environs and that’s what the children of the bourgeoisie do. But it’s important to stay aware of the group dynamics and vary the approach at times. Sometimes you play tight changes, sometimes you play free, sometimes just keep a groove going. Kids like structure and they like freedom.

I’m loving this game, and while the prep makes me mildly anxious — what if I fail, and ruin my beloved son’s life? — and the play is totally exhausting, it’s been a highlight of my week, every week.

There will be more to say when there’s time to say it.


Wicked pack of cards: Circle, or Zuihitsu.

‘Circling the fire,’ ‘tiptoeing around the issue,’ ‘going in circles,’ ‘chasing your tail,’ ‘in a spiral,’ ‘back where we started,’ all of them meaning at some point Will you fucking get on with it.

My left eyelid has been twitching for a week. I’ve wondered daily when it will stop; more recently I wonder whether I can stop wondering. I know both that anxious attention is anxious, so worrying isn’t helping — anxiety never ever helps anything, don’t let anxious salesman fool you — but one level deeper I know that ‘helping’ isn’t necessarily necessary. ‘That’s a lot to work with,’ the adept says of some irritant, not only to tolerate or ‘live with’ but to build on. This idiot twitch is really happening, and while I want it to stop, one level deeper I want Someone to acknowledge my wanting and do something about it. I want to be able to reward someone with love for making the problem go away.

Of course, treating love as a reward is a problem in itself.

‘One measures a circle, beginning anywhere.’ I keep coming back to that phrase.

Of course I can’t bring myself to read an entire book of Charles Fort, almost no one can. I didn’t read Being and Time for Professor Rota’s Being and Time seminar either, but it changed my life all the same, which might make me a fool but we’ve learned — as if we didn’t already know — that there are worse things. What makes Fort both welcoming and troubling is that, having made private sense of things, he presents his findings and surmises — presents himself — in a way that admits of possibility and error. He’s all middle (nor was he a thin man).

Even Fort’s straightforward recitations of reported fact, his summaries of eyewitness testimony, feel like modest proposals — beyond his dry (‘telegraphic’) style Fort committed to a rigorous ambivalence, which only sounds like laziness or a cop-out until you try it.

Note: what makes Fort’s disciples so much easier but less interesting reads than their inspiration is that (with rare exceptions like RAW or John Keel) they aren’t, in the end, committed to Fortean epistemological radicalism: they’re interested in the effects that Fortean skepticism can generate, whether for aesthetic pleasure and as intellectual/creative toolkit, but the modern ‘Fortean’ worldview isn’t broken-open in the way Fort’s was. As such, today’s Forteans have boring pragmatic but reassuringly solid ground to push off of, where Fort was always in the middle of radically disconcertingly open intellectual space. It’s not hard to see why; maintaining a mind so open that bugs can get in is…well, hard work. And there are bugs.

I’ve kept bringing up Fort in the context of this tarot series partly because they’re close neighbours in the concept-map of postwar American ‘fringe’ interests, mostly because the playful rigour which Fort brought to his (perhaps mad) collecting and writing is the very definition of antirational systematic — i.e. ‘magical’ — thought and praxis. ‘Underlying oneness!’ is the hook, but ‘sit with nonsense until it starts to make sense’ is the boring, fulfilling work.

Insofar as the Fool’s Errand — by which, here, I’m content to mean ‘the “divinatory” tarot as inspirational tool’ — is about patient engagement (with one’s many selves, circumstances, perceptual frames, possible futures, abandoned pasts, misapprehended alternate presents), sitting/wrestling with the World until you realize you’re in it or just it, Charles Fort perfectly embodies its lessons (no, its arc, or method or just uhh vibe?). ‘The truth will out’ is usually presented as a threat but Kekulé and his ouroboros-vision of the benzene ring manifest the other side of that circle: ‘Visions come to prepared spirits.’

Not that circles have other sides, is the whole point of the whole point.

Professor Rota’s class met 7-10 on Friday nights and we’d spend hours in his genial company banging our heads against Being and Time — though the class was mostly Husserl if I’m being honest — and then adjourn to Deli Haus in Kenmore Square, three or six or more of us, to bang our heads against some sandwiches and the broader difficulties of being 20 at the turn of a broadly difficult millennium. I liked the teriyaki+pineapple on grilled chicken. We’d talk about what it’d mean to be ‘authentic,’ whether/how that was possible, pronouncing the word in Rota’s marvelous Italian accent (with hand gestures in the same accent), taking thinking seriously without taking ourselves that way…

One of the key concepts in the class was the hermeneutic circle, that conceptual movement between whole and part, theory and practice, class and instance, idea and example, form and body, fact and function, proposition and encounter — each ‘pole’ of the oscillation becomes in turn context for the other and vice unsurprisingly versa as a network of (hopefully) ever-clearer, ever-saner associations forms. The world is constructed by this back’n’forth, which isn’t meant as a sexual metaphor though I can’t stop you taking it that way (especially now).

The circle was a tool for imagining (encompassing) an experience of destabilizing incompleteness and contingency. At Deli Haus we’d linger until midnight or more trying to figure out how we were supposed to live, and while in retrospect the answer seems not just obvious but singable — ’round and round and round and round…’ — at the time I certainly wasn’t able to imagine that uncertain in-progress state as itself desirable, any more than I could imagine sexual pleasure in terms other than the orgasmic or conceive of a well-lived life that wasn’t in some material sense rewarded or acknowledged by…Someone.

‘That special someone,’ maybe. Someone qualified to judge, i.e. not me.


The first time I saw a therapist — possibly the very first session — he told me to make a schedule and carve out blocks of free time. ‘Oh, so when I’m working I’m really working,‘ I responded with certainty.

‘No,’ he responded with confidence. ‘So when you’re not working, you’re really not working.’

Years later I announced to him that people cry when they don’t know how to express what they’re really feeling, and he gently corrected me, saying that people cry because it perfectly expresses what they’re really feeling.

During another session he gave me a rubber band to wear on my wrist. ‘When you find yourself biting your nails, gently snap the band…’

‘…to punish myself so I stop doing it?’ I jumped in. Maybe you see a pattern forming here.

‘No.’ Again, confident: ‘There’s no need to hurt yourself. Gently snap the rubber band and focus your attention for a moment. If you still want to bite your nails at that point, you can go ahead. But after you snap the rubber band, the next thing you do, do it intentionally.’

That worked, and so naturally when the rubber band broke I could never find Just The Right Replacement so I demolished my fingernails — which were, at the time, the longest they’d ever been.

I want to say ‘They were never that long again, either’ — please think about the fact that I want to say that — but the deflating truth is, they actually have been. Once. At the outset of plague I managed to go a month or so without pulling or biting them. Didn’t use a rubber band either! Nosiree, I just… Well, I don’t know what I did.

I did something.

Here is what fucking galls me: fundamentally, now is no different from then. But it seems impossible, not just to get back to it, but even to imagine it. If you can’t simply will your desires into being, isn’t it the case that you can never attain them, and so you must be unhappy? Forced to collaborate with the actual universe, which is a losing proposition — it doesn’t wanna help and is full of idiots, many of them carbon based — how can we think of happiness as anything but an accident, how can we believe in a happy ending?

Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.’

Dr Manhattan’s whole thing, after all, is that he’s free to exist outside of linear time, and everyone hates that it doesn’t make him happier (i.e. more willing to lie). ‘Time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so,’ said someone equally wise. Dr Manhattan isn’t ‘happy’ because he’s moved on (not simply to say ‘up’) to the synthesis. Now he’s just real, a concept wholly alien to his superhero colleagues, including the mad ‘villain’ Ozymandias — who misunderstands a realness he might actually’ve been open to, if he’d wanted.

‘One measures a circle, beginning anywhere.’

We all read ‘Story of Your Life’ and watched Arrival and got it, right? Not just ‘noticed how clever Ted Chiang is’ but felt the loss/love story down deep?

The worst thing, I hear, is being stuck in the middle of things. I want to say otherwise but don’t trust my wanting. In the meantime — all time regresses to meantime — we can ask the cards.

The parliament.

The goddamn birds have returned, and I react well and otherwise.

They nest in a hole in the side of our house beneath our roof, fluttering and thank God not chirping too much, and have done so for — what, a couple of years now? It’s spring, springish anyhow, Cambridge weather: irritatingly chilly half the time, palatable the rest, with just a touch of ‘the whole world is in bloom’ stuff to remind you that Greater Boston’s tiresome changeable weather patterns won’t be hurried. I’m in a synth-down jacket on my nighttime walks rather than the hoodie that’ll see me through May.

The birds, at any rate, would appear to be back. I want to take this for a sign. ‘Nature is healing’ is the current boring punchline, but ‘nature’ is in here just as well and I’m fairly sure that what it’s doing is organizing and metabolizing just like always.

They are noisy, and I am stuck here in the house for who knows how long, and I’m glad they’re back — ‘Life, uh, finds a way’ — but wish they’d keep it down.

Irreal Life Top Seven, early plaguetime edition.

Note: These posts have nothing to do with the Greil Marcus columns to which the title refers; nor is there anything particularly ‘irreal’ about all this, not by design anyway. This go-round, at least, it’s just a collection of short things glued together into a longer thing. I gave no thought to what I was going to write until I’d begun typing, and none after I’d finished the first draft of each paragraph. This post is a mess. But so’s everybody else and so are you, or you wouldn’t be reading this. On we go. –wa.

  1. Rediscovery. The ostensible essence is so often only a contrast effect; I won’t be fooled into thinking the world is ‘truly’ this or that just because I long for it to be so under conditions of relative deprivation. Still, the blue sky’s seemed so much bluer, my friends’ faces on the vidscreen so much dearer, that I’m lulled into that sort of thinking: of course I’m ‘rediscovering’ the world, getting back to Reality, instead of seeing it in a way that’s (sadly) only available now that I’ve been away from it so long. ‘All seeing is seeing-as.’ Plaguesight brings ordinary things into sharp relief. Death is near, along with boredom, and people are far away. My perceptions have breathing room, for a time. And when we return to Ordinary Time I’ll go back to another way of living that will come again, in time, to seem inevitable. I’ll call this ‘innocence’ and long to recapture it. I’ll probably call it ‘truth’ or something, too.
  2. Meditation. Before plaguetime I was meditating almost daily, and working my way into Buddhist literature, the Dhammapada not only; now I’m reading more and meditating less, for fanciful reasons mostly, though ‘fancy’ has come to seem both lighter and much weightier than it was. The thought — the recollection, really — that people have survived much worse in living memory, aided specifically by these cultural technologies of survival, has borne me up somewhat. And the simultaneous ambivalence and tight prescriptivism of ancient Buddhist literature, the Buddha something of a repetitive stickler in his canonical form, imbues the ‘come specifically as you are’ practice of breath meditation with a welcome intensity and purpose: programmatic without needing a fixed teleological program, you might say. I miss sitting, though now I’m ‘sitting’ all day in Work From Home mode, but the sense of what sitting is and can be has begun to diffuse through everything else, slowly, partially, one (un)conscious act at a time. The way seems open.
  3. Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, 11/25/19. Listening obsessively to the Althea > The Eleven and Reuben and Cherise from this show has reopened the Dead’s songs for me — not ‘their music,’ which was an improvisatory ritual invocation unique to them, but the songs themselves, the astonishing tunes they’ve passed on to contemporary bands facing rock-improvisatory problems armed with the library of solutions the Dead (and Phish even more, if we’re being honest) developed Back When. ‘Althea’ in particular is an extraordinary Garcia/Hunter song, and JRAD pair it perfectly with Lesh’s ‘The Eleven’ — the latter more an excuse for jamming than anything else, which is no insult. A friend describes JRAD as ‘The Dead with cheat codes,’ which I take as praising with faint damnation, as every American rock band after the Dead has made use of their cheat codes. Regardless, Russo and his murderers row sink their teeth into every second of the music, and the full-band crescendos and seamless transitions in ‘The Eleven’ attain levels of Rawk Majesty that the Dead — a psychedelic country-rock fusion band, Back When — never dreamt of. JRAD’s ongoing tribute to the Dead’s legacy is one of the best live shows going: the first new ‘jam band’ since The Slip to fill me with this desperate need to Be There.
  4. San Juan, the card game. Its progenitor game Puerto Rico is a classic for a reason, but it’s also one of the purest mechanical exercises in eurogaming, and frankly takes too long to play; its smartypants tableau-builder brother Race for the Galaxy has a steep learning curve owing to its reliance on a huge icon-set. San Juan, meanwhile, is a perfect little ludic appetizer, with bare-minimum setup/cleanup and an intuitive play structure that takes 5-10 minutes to teach. Not the deepest game in the world, it’s all about compromise: adapting to the shifting boardstate while pursuing a (hopefully flexible, else fragile/boring) strategy. My 9-year-old son tolerated it, then liked it, while my wife took to it immediately, meaning we have another alternative to the goofier King of New York for plaguetime tabletop nights. Not, I’ll note, the wildest fun you’ll ever have — but people are dying by the thousands, and this game gifts me a curious sort of analytical peacefulness for which I’m suddenly grateful.
  5. ‘So What.’ Walking up our street, no cars or pedestrians anywhere nearby — and crucially none expected, rules are rules — I gave myself permission to scat every single note of Miles’s, Trane’s, and Cannonball’s solos, loud as I pleased. More than half my life I’ve known these notes, but I’d not had an experience like this: blowing along with the band in open air, in my own neighbourhood, alone atop the world. For a minute there I lost myself, myself-as-we-now-are, and picked up something I’d lost a long time ago.
  6. Salesforce ‘trailhead.’ Title: ‘Use Sharing Rules for External Users.’ Subtitle: ‘Sharing Rules for External Users.’ Opening line: ‘What’s next in our sharing adventure? Sharing rules, of course.’ Death is too good for these people.
  7. Herbie Hancock Sextet, ‘Rain Dance.’ The first track of Sextant is driven by Gleeson’s experimental synth patterns, which is to say, by Herbie’s interest in the possibilities of electronic sound. The album stands as perhaps the most successful early attempt to imagine Computer Age jazz, relating in a novel way to the way music plays on the ear and the air — jazz as pure sonic experience or atmosphere. Jazz after the Beatles, in other words, designed to stand as artifact without sacrificing a connection going back to King Oliver and before. Electronic ritual music. The entire album speaks to heads, to the head, but never turns from the body: ‘Hidden Shadows’ is a math exercise and a relentless psychedelic funk track, ‘Hornets’ tethers wild free blowing to Williams and Hart’s insinuating sidewalk rhythm. Wandering through an almost entirely deserted Porter Square this morning in grey rain, I found myself lifted up out of my own head into my body, my hips, my shoulders, my feet in 6/8 and then 5/8 and then two bars in 4. Enveloped, every channel maxed out. It seems impossible that music this sophisticated and complex could be this powerfully sensual — but that’s just the yadda yadda of low expectations talking. Of course it could be, and is, and should be.

The tower.

The tower touches the ground a couple of blocks away but we live beneath it all the same. The entire neighbourhood does. It’s like some Silicon Valley sociopath’s ‘disruption’ of the Eiffel Tower: of course they’d paint it alternating strips of red and white, of course they’d stick blinking lights every few feet. Of course it would double as communications infrastructure and tool of surveillance, transmitting the Unique Numeric ID and occasional bursts of thought or word from every area phone ‘user’ to wherever the monsters are.

‘Text messages’ are transmitted in place of dummy data that your phone would send to the tower anyway — they require no additional bandwidth, only a miniscule amount of additional processing power in the monster room. They used to charge $0.05 apiece for text messages, because they can’t live without your blood, and they want to live. Now we’re permitted to send ‘unlimited’ text messages. We’re grateful for no limits. We’re grateful for permission. We’re grateful. We’re grateful.

Fly slightly less casual: My second X-WING tournament.

Alright, enough effusion. I went to the weekly Pandemonium tournament, had a wonderful time, but screwed up: grabbed the currently popular Dengar/Nym Scum list and copied the cards manually into an online squad builder, but left Guidance Chips off both ships — yeah, I know. Always check your work!

Anyhow, that probably gave away 12-15hp over the course of the night. Can you goddamn believe?

I crushed a new player, drew even with a superior player (flying his own ordnance-laden Firespray/Nym list) in a match that ended with a genuinely dramatic nose-to-nose Nym joust, and got tabled by a Chewie/Leebo tank list. Here’s how bad that last match was: Leebo had a Range 1 donut, and I didn’t get inside it even once. Afterward Ian (the pilot) gave me good advice (I forgot I had Glitterstim, failed to set up an alpha strike, and sacrificed my most potent weapon by not keeping Dengar’s arc trained on the bad guys at all times) and nicely complimented my maneuvering, which made my evening despite how pissed off I was at my poor final-match performance.

In short: a fantastic night out, which was only possible because my wife handled childcare and housecare duties for the evening. Thanks love! May the Force beNEVERMIND

Fly casual: My first X-WING tournament.

I played in tonight’s X-Wing Miniatures Game tourney at my FLGS, Pandemonium Books and Games in Central Square. It was my first grownup X-Wing experience; until tonight I’d only played with my son and his friends, and he’s six. C’mon now.

I played two matches, then kibitzed awhile and headed home early. How can I put this? It was fantastic.

For the first hour it was as if I had loaded dice; for the second the godly favour went to my opponent, which seems fair. I went 1-1. And I loved every minute of it, except maybe the bit where my TIE Striker boiled away into space after taking a single desultory potshot.

Among the nerds

I felt incredible social anxiety about going, but as my wife could surely have told you well in advance, I needn’t have worried. The X-Wing community’s official motto is perfectly chosen, and they mean it: ‘Fly Casual.’ This manifests in big and small ways — casually lending out tokens, helping each other out with rules questions, trusting your opponent to handle maneuvers and check ranges on the far side of the table, not freaking out when ships and obstacles get bumped… This was a seriously nerdy crowd, man, with a full quota of fat pimply nerd dudes in ill-fitting Star Wars shirts, and everyone was incredibly kind and relaxed to the extent that he or she was physically able. (The one player with the offputting inability to modulate his facial expressions or tone of voice turned out to be an easygoing helpful guy able to laugh at himself.)

It was a young crew, mostly guys in their 20s (the organizer is a redheaded trans valkyrie named Cat), and the vibe was unfailingly supportive and relaxed — again, to teh extent that everyone was able. My second opponent was (1) socially awkward, no question about it, but (2) endearingly trying his best, meaning any lingering awkwardness was my problem not his, plus he was (3) super easygoing about rules and norms and chitchat once we got past my thoroughly unheimlich lack of preparation or sang-froid.

It was glorious. Am I making that clear? As I said to Cat on the way out, if I’d had a store like Pandemonium as a kid, a community of nerds like that one (this one), I’d have been a completely different human being. At a minimum, maybe I’d have been less of a teenage grump.

I can’t wait to bring my son back to fly as partners.

And — this should go without saying, but times being what they are, nothing wonderful goes without saying — I’m so grateful to my wife for clearing space for me to go out for the evening.

This bit’s for X-Wing types

Here’s my 96-point dogfighting squad:

Carnor Jax — PTL + Royal Guard TIE + Targeting Computer + Stealth Device (34pts)

The Inquisitor — Lightning Reflexes + Tracers + TIE/v1 + Shield Upgrade (32pts)

“Duchess” : PTL + Adaptive Ailerons + Engine Upgrade (30pts)

It’s a casual homebrew list, can you tell? I wanted to be dodging arcs all sneakylike and using Carnor to shut down my opponents’ action-economy tricks, but I kept failing to avoid jousts, which worked against an ARC/Y-Wing list but failed utterly against a tricked-out Ryad/Inquisitor/OmegaAce list. The Defender hits goddamned hard! That tractor beam is murder; I’m not sure how to neutralize it, and don’t want to read too much about strategy online.

I was flying three fragile ships, and even with Stealth and Shield++ on Carnor, I needed to be more detail-oriented, um, than is my wont. Hot dice bore me through a Y+TLT assault in the first game, but Carnor was up against three target-locked killers in the second.

If I go back next week, I’ll proxy some Autothrusters for Carnor, or else try out a Fenn/Manaroo list, which looks super fun (Fenn will give me the daredevil experience I like best about X-Wing, and Manaroo will force me to manage resources and fly like an adult). On the other hand, do we really need to see more toilet seats in competitive X-Wing?

C’mon now.

(with pleasure)

It’s 60+ degrees in Denver all week, I’m sitting on the porch this morning in a t-shirt. We head to Denver Internat’l Airport. Security takes forever, we miss our flight. Book on another airline, $1,500 for the three of us. Horrible meal at O’Hare. Arrive Boston three hours later than planned. We’re in the long-term overflow parking lot — the RED LOT yes — but we get on the bus for the regular long-term lot, so that eats 30 extra minutes.

Boloco on the way home, I inhale my teriyaki chicken burrito.

Step in the house, my son washes his hands.

A pipe bursts.


Wellllllll, but perhaps we are about to discuss a paraphilia or two.

(This I wrote in mid-January, for reasons I can no longer recall, and wouldn’t admit to even if I could. Onanism? Yes, I suppose it is. But here you are, Reader(s), subjecting yourself to the one-man show. –wa.)


Light. As a man of wealth and^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H^H taste, I naturally keep a variety of notebooks — not quite ‘one for every occasion’ but I do cover the bases. I’m not a fetishist, really, but there’s a lite ritual quality to my notebook buying. I keep Leuchtturm 1917 books, which look like Moleskines but with (1) nicer apparatus in a bunch of small ways, e.g. the contents listing, page numbers, dots, rear folders, and (2) different proportions, which I much prefer. I’ve got a stack of used/filled Moleskines upstairs; they’re fine too.

The day-to-day is an A5 (5.71×8.27). Compared to trade paperback size (6×9), it’s a touch roomier on the line and the slight but perceptible squatness feels great in the hand. Big enough to feel like a proper notebook/journal, small enough to stack with works of plodding workmanlike lunacy like, say, Montauk Revisited, about which more later.

Last year I picked up an A4 notebook for (hahaha) big picture stuff and schematic notes — this is where, say, book outlines go. This is where my son and I are mapping our expedition to Thunderdelve Mountain. Dotted pages, twice the size of the A5. Taking it out feels decadent and faintly ludicrous — it monopolizes the table — but filled A4 pages feel just ace. There’s a curious psychic pressure to write only ‘impressive’ things in this book. I knew that’d happen, frankly, and that’s half the reason I bought the book, for that novel mildly unpleasant sensory/emotional weirdness. It does feel nice to write in a carefree way on a large canvas — ask any kid. There’s a biohazard warning sticker on the front. A notebook without a sticker feels like ostentation.

worldbuilding. I’ve also got a handful of pocket Moleskines around. What’s the term, ‘ubiquitous capture’ or somesuch? There was a genuinely humiliating cultural moment when people with expensive degrees used the term ‘hipster PDA’ to mean ‘a stack of 3×5 cards clipped together in your pocket.’ I wrote a book lampooning these people, called Fixing You. Excerpts appeared in a self-published essay/&c. collection of mine, Falsehoods, Concerns. Maybe someday I’ll rewrite the abysmal last chapter (with its decent last line) and publish the whole thing.

On 2 January, feeling resolute, I rode to Bob Slate to buy a planner. Instead I picked up this odd little ‘Some Lines a Day’ journal. The schtick is that each of 365(!) dated pages is divided into five sections, each with a little ’20__’ space for the year; you work through it over the year then start over, one section down, for five years. Neat little structure, and it’s a solid notebook — too thick to comfortably carry anywhere, though, and not made for full-on journal writing. But I don’t do that anyway.


Carry a highlighter. Trust me.

Two pens. First, Dr Grip, which uses G2 gel refills so it’s cheap and which has a big rubber grip so it feels nice in the hand. My wife and I have gone through a bunch of these over the years — for some reason they split in half easily. Totally worth it though. Actual pen fetishists have problems with G2s for reasons I can’t begin to fathom. To hell with those guys; normal human beings will do quite well with one of these.

Second, one of the silliest things I own, a Baltz pen (from the Kickstarter). It was a Christmas gift from a dear friend with more refined taste in pens than I can afford to have. With the original ink cartridge in, it was the most sensually pleasurable writing experience I’ve ever had: this perfectly weighted and proportioned bullet of a pen which moved like silk over skin. The refill cartridges I’ve used have been underwhelming.


I write most weekdays at Render Coffee, down in Boston on Columbus off Mass Ave. (Or I did, until the brake line snapped on my bike.) It’s about a five-mile ride from my house, straight shot, so when the weather’s decent the ‘commute’ is a perfect mental reset before and after work. One hesitates to call Boston biking meditative — everyone who drives here is a murderous asshole — but I enjoy the ride. Render serves good coffee, plays fine writing music (until mid-afternoon, when things get more intrusive), and serves excellent rosemary-potato breakfast sandwiches. I like the baristas, who with one or maybe two exceptions are extremely relaxed human beings.

herrod-on-the-reik, the steel city Failing that: the Cambridge Public Library (main branch) has loads of uncomfortable seats and the most natural light in town, Le’s in Harvard Square will sell you a day’s worth of calories in the form of the fried rice combination plate for $9, Life Alive in Central Square has killer vegan meals and is handily close to Rodney’s Bookstore and our local nerd store Pandemonium Books & Games, the BPL is a superb work environment when the jackhammers aren’t running (in summer the courtyard is Boston’s loveliest writing spot, though a bit antiseptic some days), and Cafe Luna puts out one of the heartiest salads in Cambridge.

Venue is important, though less so for me than for, say, a sculptor or painter or playwright.


Carry earplugs. ALWAYS CARRY EARPLUGS. They’re cheap, they work, and they instantly turn most urban environments into quiet writing environments.

Instrumental music, obviously; writing to other people’s words, sung or spoken, is hard. Stars of the Lid, Jon Hassell, certain Phish/Dead improv, Ornette’s Prime Time, Jonny Greenwood’s soundtrack stuff, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, the Solaris score, Frippertronics, Soft Machine, and recently a lot of Software.

Learn to make a proper seal with your ear buds — it’ll allow you to hear clearly at low volume and will restore proper bass response, so you won’t have to blow out your eardrums. Remember that hearing loss is generally irreversible, and take it from me that tinnitus is potentially dangerous to your mental health.


I don’t know how people can carry only one book around and live with themselves.

atonement with the father. Lately I’m reading a bit of Joseph Campbell, Timothy Zahn’s original ‘Thrawn trilogy,’ some Barbara Tuchman, some Philip K Dick, some David Simon (I’m not convinced that I need to finish Homicide). I just read Kripal’s Mutants & Mystics, which I’m hesitant to review at present for complicated reasons, and the first two books of Viriconium by M John Harrison, which make me embarrassed for for nearly every SF writer who isn’t M John Harrison.

(The hero’s-journey pic is actually from Andrew Rilstone’s book on Star Wars, which I heartily recommend.)

With the Kripal book I started using David Seah’s book outliner, which I’d printed ages ago but couldn’t be bothered to actually try out. It works. Give it a go.


Cranium-shattering levels of genius wasted, WASTED, on absolutely vapid content.

Sunday Funday 1+1+1day

Woke to pale blue sky and the smell of my wife’s hair, got to cleaning the bathroom and living room floors, enjoyed a Skinny Zesty Egg White sandwich from Bruegger’s. My son ate the same. He’s such a little guy and I worry about his weight but he did well and was issued one of the chocolate chip cookies our adorable new neighbours brought over the other day. Added the next weekly line to my son’s Allowance ledger — he’s learning the hard way, but with good humour, that money doesn’t grow on trees — and with an unexpected $10 Frequent Buyer bonus burning a hole in our wallet we’re off to Henry Bear’s this morning to buy Legos or a book or, indeed, whatever the hell he wants.

Even brushing our teeth together is perfect. Even sorting the recyclable junk mail from the months-old medical bills. Even just lazing through the day.

For the first time in a long long time, I look at the bookshelf and see things I’m excited to learn rather than obligations I’ve dodged.

I hear him upstairs say, ‘Instead of armadillo can we do, like, “harmadillo?“‘

Once we were going to live forever, and now we know we won’t; nothing has been lost.