Saturday Morning Musing

In most of my circles, social and professional, I’m known for having long hair. Typically, I grow my hair out for two years, get a buzz cut, donate all the hair, and then let it grow for another two years. Because my hair grows very quickly when it’s short, I spend a lot of that two-ish years with what would be considered “long” hair for a guy. Right now, it’s long enough to touch the bottoms of my shoulder blades and I’ve gotten to the point where I’m wearing it up or pulled back almost all of the time because it makes my neck sweat during the summer and always falls in front of my face when I’m configuring hardware at work. Which also means I’m considering cutting it.

This time is a little different, though. Now, in my mid-to-late twenties (I’m getting close to twenty-seven), male pattern baldness is firmly taking grasp of my head and my hair is thinning to the point where it doesn’t seem to be growing any longer, aka my hair is falling out faster than it’s growing back. I’ve always had a pronounced widow’s peak, but now I’m getting a widow’s mountain and the peak is slowly sinking back into the rest of the mountain.

There are plenty of options out there for the man who wishes to fight back nature and hold on to his hair, but most of them are a lot of work and no method is certain to work. Nor is any method cheap. I wouldn’t call them expensive, especially in terms of medical procedures or many life-sustaining medications, but they cost enough that I’d have a hard time justify sticking them into my budget since they’re nowhere near necessary. I like having hair. I like long hair I can pull back, that is thrown around on windy days and can that I can run my hands through when I’m busy thinking about something (stroking your beard only works for so long, so it’s good to have a backup). However, I’m not so attached to the idea of having hair that I’m going to freak out about losing it or spare no expense in trying to prevent it from disappearing entirely.

Honestly, I’m pretty lazy and only started growing my hair out originally because I didn’t want to take the time or spend the money to go to a barbershop in college. Donating it just became an easy, go-to explanation to give when strangers (usually older people) would inevitably demand to know why I had such long hair. However, after donating it the first time and getting to see the wig made from my hair (there was actually a local organization that’d take your hair, turn it into a wig, and donate it to the big cancer center nearby), I decided to stick with it. It kept my life easy, did a good thing, and I got to enjoy having long hair without needing to deal with too many “get a haircut, hippy” comments. I’d like to keep growing it out and donating it, if I can. I think that’s a good cause and it makes me feel good to be able to contribute something.

That being said, I’m getting to the point where I’m not sure how well my hair’s going to grow back after I get it cut the next time. I’m pretty sure the length of my hair has done a fair amount to conceal just how thin it’s getting up top. Without some kind of medical or pharmaceutical intervene, this next haircut will probably be the end of growing it out. One of my uncles had the same problem around the age I’m at now. He had long hair and, when he got it trimmed for a wedding, it never really grew back enough for him to want to let it grow out.

To make matters worse, my beard is still slowly filling out because genetics. I apparently inherited the slow-arriving-but-eventually-thick facial hair from my mom’s side of the family and the once-per-generation male pattern baldness from my dad’s side of the family, so I’m pretty follicly challenged. The only thing I’ve really got going for me is how soft all of my hair is. Which doesn’t count for much when most of my hair is going to be on my arms and legs a year or two from now. The chances are good that I’m going to go bald but, unlike all of my bald associates and family members (there are only two of them and they’re both on my father’s side), I won’t be able to grow a lustrous beard to compensate for it. Which is a total bummer. I want nothing more out of my hair than to eventually have a giant wizard beard. I feel like that shouldn’t be too much to ask considering how hairy I am in general, but my beard is still slowly working on connecting over my upper lip.

Personally, I’m getting to the point where I kind of want to just shave my head. For one thing, I feel like a nice big change is exactly what my life needs right now. I already moved my room around, so maybe I should just change something about myself if I really want to feel like something is different now. For another thing, I’d save a lot of money on shampoo and a lot of time in my morning routine if I no longer had hair that needed washing, combing, and drying. Plus, it’d be easy to maintain. Heck, I could ask my roommates to just buzz my head clean every week and then I’d never need to do anything but buy a new trimmer every few years. Or I could learn to do it myself, since I’ll like live with the remnants of my hair for the rest of my life, just like my grandfather and uncle. Aside from the need to shave/trim regularly, going bald would make everything much easier.

I’d just really miss having long hair. I enjoy having it and not needing a hat during the winter because it keeps my ears cold. At some point, probably soon, I need to make a decision. Shell out the money to try to get my hair back into sustainable condition or commit the bald look and figure out where to stop trimming near my ears so my beard looks natural. Is it where the sideburn reaches its consistent width, or is it level with the part of my ear that connects to my head? Or do I just trim to until the hair is all the same color (my facial hair is a reddish-brown and my head-hair is dark brown)? There are so many unanswered questions and I don’t really care enough to seek out the answers. Maybe the knowledge will just come to me when I pick the bald route. Spontaneous knowledge, like my parents expected to happen when I first started growing facial hair.

Is it common for parents to not teach their kids how to shave, or was that just me? My childhood was weird, so I’m not sure I can take my own experiences growing up as an indicator of the general way things go…



At End of Day

When the day is done and the fire’s stoked,
When the night is fresh and the world is cloaked
In star-soft mantle of darkening blue
I still have one last job to do.
I compile the words I have found,
Feeling out their shape and sound
As I sort them into categories
In preparation for all the stories
I haven’t had the chance to tell,
Until the fire’s down to a sullen swell
And the first glimmers of morning sun
Tell me that my work is done.

A Date with Destiny

After several months of delays, flaking, and people doing that thing were they commit to something but understandably have to bail when their mental health, physical health, or life gets in way, I am finally set up to do the raid on Destiny 2. I’ve literally been waiting to do it with this group of people because this group of six is my clan, they’re the people I want to play this game with. I’m not a hardcore gamer, I don’t really care about having a top-tier character or the best loot, and I don’t really enjoy grinding away (repetitively repeating tasks in order to reap the completion rewards as much as possible) in most games, so I was never going to do this with a group of strangers. I like to play video games with my friends, so I’m fine waiting until they’re all ready. Usually. The past 8 months of waiting have been a bit much, though.

It isn’t only Destiny, either. I’m having trouble getting friends together for almost any of the “old” online games. I used to play Overwatch a minimum of twice a week, but now it’s getting rare for me to play it at all during any given week. People have moved on to other games. Heck, I have as well. I spend more time playing Switch games than I do on playing computer games. I had a brief affair with Borderlands 2 again, and I even got to play it with a few of my friends, but that first week of playing it was all we had. We’re back to doing our own things for now.

Most of the time, that’s okay. It’s perfectly natural to go through cycles of spending more time with friends and then less time with friends. The same of true of bigger games without any real end, like Overwatch and Destiny 2. Something will prompt you to return to a game like that and then you’ll play a lot of it until something else captures your attention. If that was all of it, I wouldn’t mind it that much. I’d be quietly waiting for the cycle to come around again with some other game and then I’d dive right back into it with my friends. For the Destiny raid, though, it’s different.

My roommate, the head of our little clan and the center point for the entire group (since I only know half the guys in the group because of him), has been actively trying to organize a raid for months. Our clan has changed members and he’s even gone so far as to get a new person into the game and leveled all the way up JUST so we have a sixth person to do the raid with. And, you know, cause he’s a really nice dude who wants to share his interests with his friends, but also because of the raid thing. He’s found strategy videos for use to watch, shared diagrams and charts on how to navigate the read, done extensive research into the tricks of the raid, helped everyone optimize their characters, come up with a list of the best gear for each class, helped us all get the gear we want to use, and even managed to make the raid sound like a lot of fun despite the amount of work it sounds like from his pile of diagrams, videos, and charts.

And yet here we are, 6 months after the closest we ever came to doing the raid (we had four people online for it and the remaining two flaked last-minute). We’ve got a time set, we’ve got gear picked, we’ve got characters optimized, we’ve got teams picked, and people have actually started watching the guide videos. But only four of us are firm commitments. One has left some wiggle room in his commitment for last minute cancellation and another has committed, but he’ll be coming back from dog-sitting for his girlfriend and, as often happens when people encounter their significant others, he is liable to be distracted. I wouldn’t hold it against either one if they wound up bailing on us in order to go on a date/prepare food for the week or because they wanted to spend some time with their loved one, but I can see my roommate getting more and more frustrated.

Not only have people been flaking out or ignore his attempts to organize raids in the past, but they start asking if we’re ever going to do a raid after all of the dates my roommate set in the survey has passed by with only him and I responding. Neither of us can nag any of the people into responding to the surveys or queries, and no amount of enthusiasm on our parts has been enough to get four other people to commit to a date and time for a raid. It is incredibly frustrating to try to get people organized, have them ignore us, and then have them start complaining that we’ve never done a raid. I can only imagine how much worse it is for my roommate since he actually wants to have a fully optimized character and all the best loot (which is only possible if you grind through the raid at least once a week).

I mean, if I was in his shoes, I’d have lost my temper with this group and just done it on my own, with a bunch of strangers. There’s even a feature in the game for finding a group willing to random players join them for stuff like the raid, so it’d be easy to do, if somewhat time-consuming. He knows I don’t really care and the only other friend who cares would just do it on his own as well, so the only reason he’s still trying to organize us is because we’re his friends and he wants to play with us.

So I’ve cleared my night. I’ve had a couple of quiet conversations about the importance of honoring commitments. I’ve watched the videos and will do so again before the raid. I’ve responded to the messages and reviewed the charts and pictures. I’m ready enough to back up my roommate and be the second leader he’ll need to make sure everyone stays focused, on-task, and working as a team. I’ll be taking an hour or two before our scheduled time to get ready, including making sure my outfit and accessories are appropriate. Honestly, it feels a lot like preparing for a date that’s been a long time coming, minus the emotional turbulence and anxiety since I don’t need to worry about someone liking me.

I don’t think I want to pursue that metaphor too far. I don’t think I’m ready to make any kind of commitment, not while I’m still hung up on Breath of the Wild… And I know Destiny 2 isn’t the kind of game that will settle for an occasional fling. They’d be fun, but we’d both know that I’m mostly wasting both our times if I don’t make a serious commitment. For now, I’m just going to focus on the raid and we’ll see how it goes from there.

This Superhero Anime is a Smash Hit

One of my roommates recommended that I watch My Hero Academia since I was looking for something to watch while I was on vacation. We both expected me to sit down and watch two to five episodes at a time, like I’d down with pretty much every other show I’ve watched, but that is not what happened. I got sucked into the show immediately, lost track of time, and watched the first whole season that afternoon and evening. The following day, I spent the entire day watching all but the last five episodes and I would have watched those if I didn’t have an event the next day that required I get up early. It was close. I almost decided to just stay up so I could watch the last few episodes even though it would have left me bleary and exhausted for the day of watery adventure.

My Hero Academia is, on the surface, your basic action anime that hits all the requirements: teenage male protagonist, male rival who is both a friend and enemy, the hero has a great power he can’t properly wield, he’s in training to be some kind of action hero, and there’s some vague threat looming in the background that slowly becomes more apparent as the series goes on. The protagonist even has the same personality markers as all the other male protagonists of similar anime: a heart of gold/unwavering belief in his peers, the drive to work harder than everyone else, a casual disregard for his own well-being when it comes to protecting people, and a hair color that stands out from his peers and elders (with exceptions for genetics). If all you do is look at the surface, it is simply a fill-in-the-blank action anime with a delightful superhero twist.

The minute you start to look beneath the surface, which is actually easy to do because the show does a masterful job of peeling back the layers for viewers of all ages, there is a startling amount of complexity to all of the characters. The protagonist, Izuku, is not only a hard worker, but he’s also very clever. His analytical abilities lead to more victories (and often less costly victories) than the use of his potentially overwhelming power. His inventiveness, when it comes to finding ways to make use of his rather unreliable powers and applying the powers of his teammates, is unmatched. If he seriously tries, he can usually find a way to make use of the “quirks” (the special powers that most people in the world develop before they’re four) of his peers to defeat whatever foe or obstacle he’s facing. Not only is he intelligent, he’s actually pretty in touch with his emotions and good at reading people, so he has a tendency to find ways to help the other conflicted teenagers he attends Super Hero High School with.

All of his classmates at U.A. High School are heroes in training as well, and a lot of them are still working on why they want to be heroes or what kind of hero they want to be. There’s a guy with engines in his calves, a woman who can turn things she touches weightless, a dude that sweats explosives from his hands, some guy with a tail, a woman who can create objects which pop out of her body (which is most of the cheesecake in the show, since her costume is revealing so as to not tear when she pops out a cannon), an invisible girl, and a guy whose whole body hardens into some kind of metallic-y stone substance, and so much more! The personalities of the cast are, for the most part, just as diverse as the powers. Sure, the explosives guy has anger issues, the invisible girl is constantly afraid of being overlooked, and the dude with engines in his legs is incredibly driven, but they’re also more than just that facet of their personality. Explosives guy wants to be the top-ranked hero and proves his drive despite appearing to be a villain-in-waiting. The invisible girl is a solid hero who wants to keep her friends safe and isn’t afraid to do whatever she needs to in order to succeed. The drive young man is also willing to learn, sharing a surprising depth of wisdom with his classmates and proving to be a capable leader in the few instances he isn’t overshadowed by the protagonist and his rival.

Even the teachers aren’t the rather shallow caricatures they appear to be. Each of them gets their time to show the various aspects of their characters, the wisdom and strength they’ve attained throughout their lives as heroes, and the strength of their conviction when it comes to their pupils. Even the hero who is passing his power onto the protagonist, All Might, shows a surprising depth of character considering his surface-level is just some big muscle-y dude who punches stuff really hard while shouting the names of states or cities in the US while smiling. It turns out he carefully crafted the image of himself as the ultimate hero, the “Symbol of Peace,” in order to discourage villains from attacking all the time and to give the non-hero populace someone to believe in, even going so far as to sacrifice his physical health in order to stay that symbol when he probably should have retired.

That being said, the plot is actually pretty standard. The protagonist wants to be a hero, gets a one-in-a-million chance to become a hero, constantly throws aside the rules in order to do the right thing, and continuously overcomes all the boundaries between him and his goal by trying harder. The big change comes in how the other people in the world react to that and the consequences he faces. It is illegal in his world for people who don’t have a hero license to use their quirk to hurt someone, and he almost goes to jail for doing just that. His super-powered attacks take an incredible toll on his body and, while there is a certain amount of  “Ta-da! You’re magically healed!” there’s also a point VERY early on where he learns that he will eventually suffer irreparable harm if he continues to damage his body and have it healed. Most of his cleverness goes into figuring out how to use his powers while minimizing their impact on his body. Unlike most similar protagonists, Izuku actually has the potential for serious consequences and, even when he tries to “technically follow” the rules, he almost gets in a huge amount of trouble. Even his mentor takes him to task for being reckless.

I would recommend watching My Hero Academia because it is a really fun action anime with depth of character and actual consequences for being a reckless moron (I’m looking at you, Naruto). Finally, you can watch something about a kid who just wants to be a hero and succeeds by trying hard without feeling the little bit of guilt you (or at least I) always feel when watching adults just let kids get away with some really dumb shit. It’s a responsible action anime!

Coldheart and Iron: Part 20


When I woke up again, I was back in the bunk room again. Thankfully, I wasn’t strapped to the bed this time and Natalie was waiting beside my bed rather than Lucas. I turned my head over to her and smiled. “Hey, gorgeous.”

Natalie looked up from the papers she had in her lap and smiled back at me. “Ah, sleeping beauty awakes!”

“Oh, I don’t know about that.” I put my head back down, yawned, and mimed falling back asleep. “I haven’t been woken by true love’s kiss, so I think I might go back to sleep to wait for that.” I closed my eyes and gave a few loud, fake snores.

“Then allow me to be your gallant prince, my sweet.” I heard Natalie’s chair clatter as she stood up and then, as I puckered up for the kiss, I felt a slimy finger stick into my ear.

“Ugh!” I opened my eyes and tried to leap to my feet. As I sat up to do so, Natalie placed her hands on my shoulders and pushed me back down to the bunk, laughing all the while.

“Sorry, Marshall.” Natalie leaned over and kissed me on the lips. “I couldn’t resist!”

“I bet you couldn’t.” I glared at her as I wiped at dampness clinging to my ear. After Natalie returned to her seat, I pulled myself into a sitting position and checked out my leg. Camille must have done a good job because the swath of bandages wasn’t showing the slightest hints of red. A few lances of pain seared through my leg as I twisted it around, but that was it.

“You have been out for almost ten hours. You woke up a little when the painkillers Camille wore off, but only enough to drink a little water.” Natalie picked up her papers again. “Camille is currently out with the prisoners and I’m working on trying to figure out possible routes so we decide what to do once you’re awake.”

I poked at my leg a little, check that it still had feeling. As I turned to Natalie, I poked one of the spots that must have held a larger chunk of shrapnel at one point and the sudden wave of pain almost laid me out again. “How-” I gritted my teeth and forced myself to stay up while silently berating my own idiocy. “How much longer until Camille gets back?”

“She left two hours ago, so it’ll probably be another six to ten hours.”

“Alright.” I propped my leg up on the bunk and shifted around so I could lean back comfortably. “What are our options?”

Natalie unfolded what turned out to be a map and pointed to a single green dot in a sea of black lines and little notes. “This is where we are.” She pointed to a few red dots she had marked. “Here are all of the supply cache locations I know of. I suspect there’s one over here and another to the south.” She pointed to two yellow dots. “But I’m not certain. Without Jonathan around, I’m not willing to risk it on my memory alone.”

I nodded. “Why do we need to hit a supply cache? Even if the bandits ate all our food first, we should have had enough stockpiled in our base to entirely resupply.”

Natalie looked down and shook her head. “They’d brought in everything we’d stockpiled and trashed the base.”

I could feel my stomach descending through my body, weighed down by dread. “Then why are we sending people out for supplies? There should be plenty here?”

“The last of the bandit resistance burned the food stores. Almost everything we brought, everything we’d stockpiled, and most of the food the bandits had was destroyed.” Natalie stared down at the map in her hands. “Camille didn’t want to mention that last night, not while you were still so tired.”

“Right.” I sighed and rubbed my face in my hands, ignoring the flashes of pain I felt as I touched bruises from a few days ago. “Which is why we’ve only got three weeks.”

Natalie nodded. “Yes, and that’s only if we go for the closet supply cache, which would mean going due south on a long path toward St. Louis. Any of the others would change how long we can rest.”

“Damn.” I took a few deep breaths while I processed this. “Well, since we’re not taking the laborers to their destination anymore, I suppose our old plans don’t really matter.”

“Yes. The Nomads will follow us wherever we go, since they wouldn’t stand a chance out here on their own, now, even with all the guns we could give them from the arsenals here. Given the extent of our injuries, though, I think we should probably head back north or east, even though that’s one of the furthest caches. We’re too too injured and we’ve lost too many people to maintain our normal operations.”

“How many people do we have, total?” I scratched at my beard and tried to remember the last reports I’d read on the areas outside of our intended path.

“Twelve Wayfinders in good health, two who might still make it, and one who probably won’t. Eleven Nomad adults and all seven Nomad children, all of whom are in excellent condition.”

“Way too many untrained people for stealth, then.” I almost had to physically bite back the desire to which Wayfinder wasn’t likely to survive. There’d be time for that once a decision was made. I took a moment to clear my mind and then nodded to Natalie. “Tell me what we know about all the other routes.”

I listened as she spoke, talking about routes, the last reports she could find, the distance and terrain separating us from the caches along her proposed routes, and the kind of resources we would have available to us at each of our potential end destinations. Eventually, as the silence following the last route outline grew, I sighed. “I guess we’re going to Chicago. We’re going to need a lot of supplies and that is the hub of the midwestern Wayfinders.”

Natalie nodded. “I agree. This is our best long-term option. I’ll start figuring out how we’ll need to ration our supplies in order to get to the cache once Camille returns.”

“Good.” I lay back down on the bunk as Natalie stood and wearily closed my eyes. “Wake me up when she gets back. I need to handle the bandits and Laborers.”

“Of course, Love.” Natalie bent over to give me another kiss and I smiled up at her. “I’ll do my best Prince Charming impression, my sleeping beauty.”

A few hours later, when Natalie woke me with a kiss, I actually managed to get to my feet. The twinges in my leg were still bad, but not so bad that I couldn’t ignore them when I walked. I did a few turns around the room while Natalie watched to make sure I could maintain it before following her out of the room and down the hall to the large storage room we were keeping the prisoners.

When I got there, I found Camille and the two uninjured Wayfinders standing guard at the door. Just inside, there was a large crate with a smaller crate next to it and, beyond that, were all of the prisoners sitting with their arms behind their backs and the legs folded beneath them. I stepped up onto the taller box, flanked by the two Wayfinders who just so happened to be carrying the automatic rifles that Laborers on the balcony had been wielding, and Camille stepped up onto the smaller box beside me.

“You’re all probably going to die.” I glared out at them, resisting the urge to just have them all gunned down where they sat. “Some of you are traitors and the scum of the earth. The rest are lawless bandits preying on innocent travellers.” One of the laborers leaned for, opening his mouth to speak, but I cut him off. “I don’t care how you feel or what you think. The only reason you’re not all dead right now is because we had something for you to do. That’s done. The only reason you’re not getting gunned down for your crimes right now is because it would be a waste of bullets.”

A different laborer rushed to his feet and was shot in the chest, three times in rapid succession, by Camille. A couple bandits and a few of the laborers, in the process of following their companion, froze. I chuckled. “There’s always one. For those of you listening, I said you’re only probably going to die. Those of you who aren’t morons know this means you have a chance. That chance disappears if you do anything but silently sit here and listen.”

All of the people frozen in place settled back to the ground and one of the laborers off to the side started weeping. I carried on. “You’re going to be stripped of everything but your clothing and sent out into the city. If you come back here, you’ll be shot dead. If you try to follow us when we leave, you’ll be shot dead. If you can survive until we’ve left here, you can have what’s left of this place once we blow up anything resembling a fortress or a cell.

“There are plenty of supplies and warm nooks in this city, but you’ll have to find them on your own and then stay there. If we see so much as a glimpse of any of you, we’ll assume you’re trying to follow us and kill you. Stay away until we’re gone and you should be able to survive. That is, assuming you’ve got any survival skills and weren’t planning to rely on stealing from people passing by in order to survive. If we get any reports of bandits out this way, I will personally come back here and hunt down every last one of you.”

I looked each one of them in the eye, though most of them wouldn’t meet my gaze. The only laborer who would was the crying laborer who started talking as soon as my eyes landed on him. “Please, Captain Marshall. I had no choice! All of them decided to betray you to the bandits and there was nothing I could do!”

I stepped off the box. “You could have done literally anything to warn us. Leave a message, take one of us aside, help us escape, or just argue against their plans. But you didn’t. You threw your lot in with them and now you will face the same consequences.” I walked over to him and looked down at his red, tear-stained face. “I lost more of my friends and family guaranteeing your safety and the safety of people like you than I want to remember. Thinking about it makes me angry and, the longer I think about how many burials I’ll be attending tonight, the more I want to just shoot you all now.”

I turned around and walked back toward the door. “You will be released one at a time, starting with you.” I pointed to the bandit nearest the door. “Stand up and come with me.”

I guided the shackled man through the hallways of what used to be his base and dropped him off at the processing room where Lucas and one more of his scouts were waiting with thirty sets of winter gear, taken from the storage rooms near were I’d been imprisoned. Once he was uncuffed and suited up, I guided him to the door. “Leave.”

The bandit looked at me out of the corner of his eyes and then took off running. I watched him go for a minute before returning to the detention room for the next bandit. I repeated that for all twenty-eight of our other prisoners and only one person, our third prisoner, tried to escape in the equipment room. Lucas stabbed him through the winter coat he was wearing and then dragged the body out into the snow beside the door. The red stain on the concrete floor seemed to convince everyone else that doing as they were told was their best bet.

By the time the last Laborer was pushed out the door, night was falling. I watched them go and turned around to find Camille behind me. “Thanks, Camille.”

“I’ve always got your back, Marshall.” She punched me in the shoulder and then pulled my arm over her shoulders. “Now let’s get you to the mess hall for dinner and get you a crunch so don’t make your leg any worse.”

“That sounds fine to me.” I sighed and let Camille half-carry me through the hallways. “We’ve got to leave in a week if we’re going to make it to the cache. We’re heading towards Chicago.”

Camille grunted. “Natalie had said as much. I’m going to have to find some snowshoes and build you a snow crutch or something.”

I laughed, imagining how awkward it’d be to hobble around with three snowshoes. Two was hard enough as it was. “I should be better by then.”

Camille was silent for a moment and, when she finally spoke, it was so soft I could barely hear her. “Lucas won’t.”

I nodded. “We’ll figure something out for him and any of the others who are too hurt to walk. We aren’t leaving anyone else behind.”

“Even if they volunteer so they aren’t holding us up?”

“I will personally tie anyone who even suggests that to a sled.”

Camille chuckled a little. “I’d like to see you try that. Almost all of the surviving Wayfinders could kick your ass without breaking a sweat, even as injured as they are.”

I shrugged. “Sure, but they can’t kick yours and you already said you’ve got my back, so you’re stuck fighting all my battles for me while I’m injured.”

I could feel Camille roll her eyes and I smiled as she shifted my arm into a more comfortable position. “Sure thing, Captain.”

“Now that we’ve gotten that straightened out, let’s go get some dinner so we can bury our friends on a full stomach.” My stomach twisted in a knot as I said that, but I had already ordered every Wayfinder to show up at dinner so I couldn’t exactly skip out either. Even if we were eating reduced rations, the icy tundra that was our home wouldn’t forgive us for skipping a meal. It was going to be a rough month without facing starvation in the frozen wilderness and there was no guarantee we’d even be able to avoid that.

Tabletop Highlight: The Appeal of the Classics and Why Fifth Edition is Perfect for That.

Some days, all I really want to do is throw aside all of my current Dungeons and Dragons campaigns in favor of returning to what I always call the “simple roots” of the game. My main campaign is a complex game with political intrigue, long-term mysteries, a fully customized world, a huge history full of references for my players to explore, a whole range of villains the players can kill or continuously encounter, and is an absolute delight to run despite being completely exhausting. I put a lot of work into keeping the campaign running smoothly and making sure my players are enjoying themselves, so I often fantasize about running something a little simpler. Something smaller-scale, really.

I have a tendency to let my imagination run away from me so even something I’ve described as a “shiggles” (shits-and-giggles) campaign winds up with a complex political landscape and more customizations than I can easily manage without a lot of reference work. My main campaign was supposed to be a simple campaign, focused around a small area and with tons of adventure for the players to find without pulling in politics and “Grand Adventure Across the World!” so I could enjoy running without constantly exhausting myself. That plan lasted maybe half a dozen sessions before I thought of a great story I could tell my friends. I don’t regret it and I enjoy running my campaign, but I’m starting to crave something a little simpler again.

Starting to play the fifth edition of D&D has magnified the craving. The system is set up much more simply. For example, the numbers are easier to manage across the board in fifth edition versus any prior edition. My main campaign, using the 3.5 edition set of rules, has a rogue with an Armor Class (how difficult it is to hit someone with an attack) of 19 and a scout/ranger with an AC of 31-35 depending on how much he’s moved during his turn. Depending how much effort each character puts into their AC, this gap could shrink to nothing or grow to be even larger. As a result, it is difficult to give my players enemies that are a threat to the higher-AC characters without being over-powering to the lower-AC characters. The same goes for attack bonuses (the bonus a character gets when attacking that contributes to their attempt to overcome their opponent’s AC) since the Paladin can get a bonus of 20 or higher while most other characters of the same level are working with something in the 10-14 range. This also complicates things for the same reason the AC disparity complicates things.

In fifth edition, the bonuses don’t get much higher than 15 and ACs rarely hit 30 for anyone. There’s very little ability for a focused, driven player to get their character’s attack bonus or AC to a level that would make it almost impossible for an enemy to fight them. In fifth edition, it is super easy to fudge numbers as I need to since the players will have a smaller range for me to consider. In 3.5, it can be difficult to fudge numbers because they fudge for everyone and all stats were NOT created equal. This means I need to spend more time on the front end making sure the encounters are balanced so that the low-AC rogue who turns invisible before literally every attack (which means he can only attack every other turn at most) has the ability to not only survive the fight but contribute to the damage at a level that at least comes close to the amount the scout/ranger and Paladin can dish out in their frequently optimal situations.

In 5th edition, all I’d really need to do is make sure I’ve got a general idea of the location and purpose of whatever the players decide to explore. I can make up numbers on the spot, fill in encounters as dictated by the players’ ability to handle them, and even make an easy encounter a bit more difficult by just making everything a bit tougher. I’d be able to focus on maps and letting my players explore than needing to quietly direct them behind the scenes so they wind up someone I’ve got prepared for them. Hell, I could build the entire thing early on and just give them a continuous string of “the mayor’s daughter was kidnapped” and “there’s some gnolls out in a cave who’re raiding merchant caravans” quests until they got tired of playing or have literally bought the entire country they lived in with all of their fabulous adventurer wealth. The whole story would be about creating their legacy and achieving fame and fortune rather than some problem in the world that only they can fix.

In my mind, that’s classic Dungeons and Dragons. I’m willing to bet D&D has always been a pretty even mixture of the simpler style stories of just wandering around a world full of danger and treasure and of being sent on a quest to defeat a series of sequentially stronger Big Bad Evil Guys. I just have a tendency to run campaigns that are mostly the latter and hear about wonderful, fun campaigns other people played in that are the former. I want to run one of the simpler style campaigns, or maybe even a pre-made campaign. It would be interesting to be able to focus on the stuff specific to being a Dungeon Master instead of a story creator when running a game. I bet I’d learn a lot about what makes for good tabletop storytelling.

Before the Beach House

Thomas opened the door and looked down at the woman lying in the sand at the foot of his porch. “Do you need help, Sue?”

“No.” Susan looked up at the darkening sky and felt her heart throb in her chest as the shock of her skid across the asphalt started to fade.

Thomas stepped out onto the porch and looked down the street after Susan’s partner and then eyed the blood staining the sand underneath Susan. “You sure? That looked painful.”

“Everything’s fine here.” She lifted a hand up into the air and waved it in Thomas’ direction. “You can go back inside, Tom. I’ll follow in a few minutes.”

“Alright.” Thomas turned away but paused at the door. “Make sure to brush the sand off before you come inside.”

“But it’s a beach house, Tom.” Susan let her arm fall to her side and tried to turn her head toward her older brother. Her neck screamed in protest, so she stopped.

Thomas sighed and turned around again. “Yes, but I want the beach to stay outside.”

“Sure thing, Bro.” Susan smirked and pointed two finger-guns at the sky. Thomas walked inside. “Yep.” Susan let her hands slowly fall back to the ground as a wave of pain swept through her again. “Everything’s pretty alright.”

Half an hour later, as the sky finally gave in to the sweeping darkness and the first stars appeared, Susan rolled to her front and stood up. Her back was caked in bloody sand, but she didn’t seem to notice it. Instead, she stared after the ex-partner who’d decided assault was an appropriate response to being bought out of a business she’d been holding back. Daisy would be someone else’s liability.

Berserk rages didn’t belong in shopkeeping. She’d be happier as an adventurer again.

Saturday Morning Musing

After spending almost two months reflecting on my emotional state and then doing everything but reflecting on my emotional state for a few weeks after a breakup, I’ve found myself finally settling back into some kind of normal life. I’ve processed the breakup to the point where all I need to do is let more time pass and keep myself from getting caught in any thought spirals (which is something I need to do regardless) and I’m back to monitoring my emotional state with regular (if much less extensive) meditation and reflect. As a result, I’ve achieved a sort of emotional neutrality I haven’t felt in a while. For the most part, it’s kind of nice. I had a small depression episode today that only lasted for about an hour because I knew exactly what was on my mind and what to do about it in order get through it quickly. The only real downside is that I’ve got this emotional state that is in discord with most of the music I’ve been listening to for the past six months.

Music is super important to me. I struggled with silencing the intrusive thoughts from my OCD and anxiety when I was younger, but eventually discovered that listening to music on top of doing normal activities like reading or playing video games would keep them at bay. Music was also what got me into meditation because a retreat I did in high school had a guided meditation where one of the retreat leaders talked to us while we listened to some calming music. When I wanted to achieve that same level of mental clarity again, I turned to music to help. Music has been the basis for my meditation since then, even if I no longer need it. I usually play the song in my head if I can’t clear my thoughts or I’ll get it playing on my iPod if my thoughts are drowning out the mental music.

Even as I write, music plays a huge role. I’ll create playlists full of songs that make me feel a certain way and use them to get me into the right mindset for particularly difficult or emotional scenes. When I need to write something that involves dredging up parts of my past that I’ve purposely buried, music keeps me from getting lost in the memories. When I’m trying to write a poem to help deal with something I’m feeling, I’ll find a song that resonates with that feeling and play it on repeat until the poem is finished. Hell, the meaning of songs at a particular moment in my life has inspired entire stories. The one I worked on during 2017’s National Novel Writing Month was inspired by a song and a book I read. Last week’s Flash Fiction was inspired by a song I was listening to and a TV show I’d been watching.

Musical is an integral part of my everyday life. I use it to help me deal with my emotions by influencing them in one particular direction or another. If I want to focus on feeling an emotion and accepting it, I’ll play something that resonates with it. If I want to focus on pulling myself away from the emotion, I’ll play something that feels similar, but pulls me in the direction I want to go. If I need a temporary but drastic mood change (when a big depression wave hits at work and I just need to get through the rest of the day), I’ll listen to something that sort of counter-harmonizes with the emotion. I keep a huge amount of music around and am constantly building more playlists because I like to weave music into my life. Which is why the current discord is stressing me out so much.

Right now, I feel like everything is pretty alright. Nothing is great, but nothing is terrible either. Nice things happen and bad things happen, but they move along quickly so everything just flows up and down around neutral. However, all of my music is tied to other mental or emotional states. My old neutral music is now tied existential reflection and emotional delving. Some of my favorite low-mood resonance music is now tied to the emotional tumult I felt as my relationship came to an end. Most of the rest of the music from the past six months is songs that remind me of the relationship I’m no longer in or how love feels, neither of which is useful right now. All of this music is discordant with my current emotional state and trying to just let the music wash over me and wipe away my intrusive thoughts is actually making things worse. I get frustrated and antsy. I can’t sit still or focus on anything for too long.

In order to get through this now-frustrating neutrality, I’ve spent the last week trying random songs on YouTube, screwing around with only Pandora playlists, and letting Spotify recommend songs until I want to throw my headphones across the lab or my room in frustration. Thankfully, one of my good friends does the same thing I do and we have enough connections in our musical taste that we can make good recommendations for each other on occasion. She had a brand new album she’d been listening to that not resonated with me, but had a few more albums show up in YouTube’s autoplay feature that also resonated. Thanks to her suggestions, I’ve now got a new playlist for this particular feeling. After spending the last couple days listening to it, I finally feel like I’m working through this neutrality and will be able to leave it for something more positive soon.

While listening to the music, I tried to pick through what was responsible for the downward trend of this neutral feeling. It wasn’t until this morning, as I lay in bed and fought against the desire to spend the day in bed that I realized that the hardest part of my breakup is that I’ve now got an entirely empty summer. Just over four weeks ago, I had a summer full of new things to do, new places to go, and new people to meet. It was exhausting to think about, but also so incredibly exciting. Now, I have nothing but free weekends. I’ve got nothing major happening this summer and very little to look forward to from one week to the next. What’s worse, I don’t even had anything I want to do. D&D is great, I’ve got tons of great books to read and review, there’s a new marvel movie out, I’ve got at least 100 Steam games I’ve never played, and I’ve got so much I want to write. Unfortunately, during the spring, I decided that spending time with my girlfriend was more important than most of those things and going out to do new stuff in new places with new people was just as important as she was, so now none of that stuff feels exciting or new. Interesting and engaging? incredibly so, just not exciting or new.

I’ve thought many times about reclaiming my summer, filling it up with other things I can do with my friends or trips to visit people, but the neutrality (which turned out to have a decent amount of apathy mixed in) takes over before I get anywhere. Throw in the fact that thinking about why my summer is so empty almost always leads directly to a negative thought spiral and I find myself unwilling to really consider what I’m even going to do for any given weekend until I’m waking up Saturday Morning.

I really need to get more active. Schedule some trips and do something fun with people I haven’t seen in forever. It may not keep me feeling emotionally or mentally positive, but it will at least keep me busy and that will keep the apathy and negativity away. If I can also keep myself supplied with the right kind of music throughout the summer, I might actually come out of this feeling better than I have since I graduated college.


These words
           have been made by people
           who were born with their own lives.
My words
           are not the same as the words
           that other people have made.
Using their words
           is not the right thing for me to do,
           but I’m still trying to find my own.
I write
           a lot on the subject, but I’m
           not sure how to make it any easier.
My stories
           come from a different place than I do,
           but I’ve always thought
           it would work
Borrowing these words
           only means I can’t afford
           to use my own.
Filling in the blanks
           was my original
           goal, but I’m still not sure I understand
           what this means.
           I might make my own words to say
           I want you to hear,
But I think
           you should know
           that this was made
           from someone else’s

This Mario Game Was Super. What an Odyssey.

I have a bit of a strange history with Super Mario Odyssey. I got it the day it came out, left work early to play it, and spent my entire afternoon and evening playing it, exploring the mechanics and getting invested in the story. Then I set it down for the night and didn’t pick it up again until last month, at which point I played it for an entire weekend before setting it down and not picking it up again until this past weekend. Which I only did because my roommate started playing it and I wanted to grab a few more power moons since I had fifteen minutes to kill.

This game is simultaneously a ton of fun to play but difficult to pick up. Odyssey takes me back to one of my first major gaming memories, when I tried to get all one hundred twenty power stars in Super Mario 64 on my own, but it feels even more rewarding now since there is no real interruption when going from one power moon to the next. In 64, you got brought out of the level after every power star (except for the 100 coin stars), but Odyssey lets you flow from one power moon to the next with only a small “got moon” cut-scene. The only exception is when you’re altering the map as a result of pursuing one of the ongoing plot points (such as causing an upside-down pyramid to rise into the sky, exposing a sinkhole or beating a mini-boss and returning to the level following the storm that was the backdrop for your battle. The fluidity of the gameplay is important because there are power moons EVERYWHERE, with a wide-range of difficulties associated with them. Some or simply sitting on the top of a tower you need to climb, while others are buried behind quizzes and mini-games or secret doors that are only revealed if you notice every tiny little detail or spend your time attacking literally everything. If there was even the relatively short “get sun” cutscene from collecting a Shine Sprite in Super Mario Sunshine after getting each power moon, it’d be a real drag to collect them since your gameplay would constantly be interrupted.

Mario’s moveset has grown again, which is part of what has made this huge variety of difficulties possible. In addition to his classic air-dives, long jumps, spins, wall-jumping, this game introduces a companion, Cappy, a hat-spirit that replaces Mario’s destroyed hat and gives him all kinds of new abilities a whole range of attacks based around throwing Cappy, like a mid-air jump (by throwing Cappy out and then landing on him), and the ability to take over the bodies of various enemies. This lets you do thinks like turn into a T-Rex, a tank, a Hammer Bro, or do crazy things like create a tower of Goombas that stretches into the sky (my current max stack is 20), all of which is often a requirement to find hidden power moons or progress through the level. In addition to these powers, Mario can also roll around (for the first time in a 3D game) if you hold the crouch button while running, which so far seems like a great way to pick up a little extra speed when going down a hill. It’s a bit silly at times, but it can be super convenient despite the difficulty of steering Mario when he’s on a roll.

These abilities, combined with levels designed as somewhat “open-world,” means that it is entirely possibly to string together move-combos that entirely by-pass the mini-games that allow you to access secret areas or let you avoid lots of obstacles by moving over open-air that you probably shouldn’t be able to cross. If you spend any amount of time looking, you can find tons of creative solutions to the puzzles in the games that bypass using the intended mechanics for something either much faster or something incredibly and ridiculously over-complicated. The inventiveness required to get some of the power moons in the earlier levels does an excellent job challenging the player to think outside of the box when it comes to the usual linear approach to collecting power whatevers in a Mario game. It leads the player to consider the wide variety of options available when it comes to moving through space and then, after the second or third level, just starts dropping power moons everywhere and letting you figure out how you want to get them. The range of difficulties in the puzzles also means that less experienced players can find enough power moons to move the story along while still providing challenges to the more experienced players. It also cleverly helps newer or less exacting players find the more difficult moons by incorporating a hint system and a coin-based system to help you figure out the puzzles. With enough time, any player can find all the power moons.

The biggest downside to me, and the sole reason this game isn’t easy for me to pick up and play is that it almost requires you to play with the Switch on the TV and the two JoyCon in your hands. Because of the huge variety of moves available to Mario, there aren’t enough buttons or button combinations to let the player control Mario with button inputs alone. Some of the moves require specific motions to be made with one or both of the JoyCon. These moves can be reproduced using only inputs, but they are almost always incredibly complicated strings of inputs that combine other moves together to produce a move that can be done by simply shaking the JoyCon. They can also be done using the Pro Controller or the Switch in Handheld mode, but they become incredibly clunky (and create a significant risk of accidentally dropping the controller or system) because the JoyCon are meant to move independently. As someone who primarily uses the Switch as a handheld device, I’m super afraid of trying to perform one of the “controller twist” moves and accidentally flinging the Switch at the wall or the ground, so I only play this game when I’m feeling like lounging on my couch, in front of the TV.

That’s pretty much the only fault of the game, though, and is more on Nintendo for, once again, pushing a frustrating gimmick (I mean, most new games for the 3DS don’t even pretend to have a “3D mode” anymore…). I’d definitely recommend this game to everyone if it was easier to play without the JoyCon separated from the Switch, but I’m only going to recommend it to the TV players. The game is fun, but it’s not so fun that I’m willing to play it with a super frustrating control mechanic.