Saturday, April 23, 2016

Book 30: The least amazing thing is that I knew before I went to look at a picture of Gary Gygax that he would be an old white guy with a beard.

I never really got into Dungeons & Dragons all that much, and yet I think it's had a pretty big influence on my life.

The first time I remember playing D&D was probably in about 7th or 8th grade, so around 1982, only a few years after it had been invented.  My friend Jim had gotten the game, and invited us all over to play it.  We created some characters and explored a dungeon and that was about it. It was okay.

Over the next year or two, I probably played D&D a few more times; often enough that I owned some of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons books and adventure packs, and understood how to play. I can recall sketching out dungeons on graph paper during study halls, marking places where there would be pits, and making tricky layouts like double-helixes that players would have to get through.

In reality, though -- a weird segue, for a D&D-based post-- I played the game far less than I thought about playing the game. I had a paper route when I was a kid, and used to sometimes spend the 30-45 minutes per day that I was on the route imagining new adventures for the game. It wasn't just D&D, either. We had a spy-based game, and a space game, too, that we played sporadically, so I would think about characters and missions in those games, too.

As time went on, I kept on adding to the adventures I was planning, in each of the games. I'd walk my paper route as the snow melted alongside the road, longing for the nicer days when I could ride my bike and get it done way faster, and think up more and more ideas. At one point, I had invented an entire continent with several cities and a war that was being fought, with one side having dragons and the other side having the ability to conjure really big giants -- giants the size of skyscrapers.  I had several characters that would be leaders in the game and be important.

The thing was, we never actually played those adventures. I had some maps and ideas and plot points, and I'd sketch out what the characters or places look like on the backs of notebooks and folders, and think about them while I delivered papers or mowed the lawn, but actually playing the entire thing?  I never got around to it. There are probably a lot of reasons for that, the chief among them being my friend Jim committing suicide when his parents were getting a divorce.  That episode seems like it divides my childhood from my teen years; before that happened, me and the few friends I hung out with would get together and play games or organize bike races around the neighborhood and plan on going to the Great America amusement park as the reward for getting a "Student of the Quarter" award (perfect attendance and all As for a quarter.)  After that, we started high school and focused on driver's licenses and dating and trying to drink beer.

D&D wasn't the first thing that ever made me imagine stories, of course. I'd read comic books since I was 6 or 7 (my uncles, not much older than me, collected them and shared them with us kids), and we used to play superheroes, climbing around on jungle gyms as we pretended we were flying or shooting lasers from our eyes.  When Star Wars came out and action figures got small and cheap enough for kids to own a lot of them we would play that, too. (I think the advent of action figures is an unheralded moment in how kids play, because prior to that what we had were 7 1/2" or larger dolls, Evel Knievel and GI Joe and poseable superheroes or Star Trek figures, but they were expensive and you never had too many of them.)

What D&D did more, I think now, looking back, is encourage me not just to re-create scenes and build on them slightly, as we did when we'd use my dresser as the Death Star, but to invent something all brand new (or mostly brand new.)

That's one of the theses of the book Of Dice & Men: that D&D is more than a game, it's a creative effort that draws people into it because the adventures are ones they make up themselves, for the most part.

The early 80s was a sort of birth of adventure-creating for kids around my age. Not only did we have D&D (which only vaguely was associated with satanism around our city, so while it was sort of frowned on we didn't have parents trying to forbid us from playing it) but Choose Your Own Adventure books came out around that time, too, and home videogame consoles were coming out, featuring games like Adventure! that didn't follow the usual boardgame rules of rolling dice and trying to collect things.  We played a lot of Risk and, later, Axis and Allies, wargames that let us plan strategies and try out different things.  It seems to me that toys and games around that time took on a D&D-esque role of setting up a framework for people and letting them fill in the blanks on how to enjoy that thing.

The lasting effect of the game was, I think, that I like to tell stories. I once kept a list of all the stories and books I wanted to write, plots that are fleshed out enough in my head to constitute a book, if I took the time (if I had the time!) to sit down and write them out.  Sometimes, when I'm sitting in traffic or taking a break from 4 hours of reading HUD regulatory letters (how I spent Tuesday afternoon this week), I think about what it might be like to be a writer, with your sole job being to get up in the morning and tell stories. I remember reading Piers Anthony's author's notes about how he writes, his shed in the back field with no heat where sometimes he has to wear fingerless gloves to go spend 8 hours typing, and think that's the life for me.

The reference to Piers Anthony shows that it wasn't just role-playing games that inspired me to start creating stories. Piers' author's notes gave an insight into his life that made writing seem like a thing people could do. Instead of books just being there, with some person's name on them, reading Anthony's notes about his life drove home the point that real people, people who might have once had paper routes and played football with friends, told stories that I'd go buy in book form at the mall.  Reading those, and thinking about the adventures I could have set up on the D&D game, helped me start writing down the actual stories that I thought up.

That's, as I said, one of the main points of Of Dice & Men, a book I saw at the library on the 'Staff Picks' table. (Seeing books laid out all attractively and allowing me to find books that I might not otherwise is one of the big attractions of libraries and bookstores for me. I like to just walk around libraries and bookstores even when I don't have money on me to buy something.)  The author talks mostly about his own love of D&D and what it meant for him, while frequently mentioning that one of the big lures of the game is the freedom it gives game players to make up their own rules and adventures within a loose framework.

The book's engaging enough; he's a good writer. But it feels like a magazine article or blog post expanded out to book length, at times: it's pretty light on history and detail of the game. It deals with the multiple lawsuits between the various people who created the game and who ran the company that published it, in about 1 paragraph. The same for the controversial era when D&D was being blamed for kids disappearing or killing themselves. (I don't think D&D had anything to do with my friend; I think he was just a depressed 8th grader with access to guns. It's amazing how people will blame anything -- D&D, heavy metal, videogames, "The Matrix" -- for their kids' problems, rather than undiagnosed/untreated mental health issues and the alarming and sad proliferation of guns in this country. Would my friend still be alive if his parents didn't own a shotgun that he had easy access to? Who knows? But you have a better chance of being found and rescued from a suicide by pills, hanging, or car-in-garage than by shotgun to the mouth.  Guns and cigarettes are the only two products that I know of which, when used as intended, are fatal. Both should be illegal.)

There are only cursory interviews with some people in the gaming world, and glancing references to D&D in pop culture, with barely any examination of the differences in the 40 years' worth of D&D  games, or how they might be treated differently in foreign countries.  Mostly it's just one guy talking about what he knows about D&D and his efforts to learn a bit more about it.  The history of how the game got created gets the most time -- about a chapter or two -- and is somewhat interesting, describing how the game grew out of a couple of guys deciding to take existing wargaming ideas and port them to fantasy adventures.

Here's a good example of an interesting fact that the author lets go entirely undeveloped. Near the end of the book, when he's quickly running through a couple of examples of D&D in pop culture today (The Big Bang Theory, mostly) he mentions that Vin Diesel wants to make a biopic of Gary Gygax, the guy credited with inventing D&D.  The book itself mentions some interesting things about Gygax, like his time in Hollywood spending big and trying to turn D&D into what must have been imagined as a precursor to the Marvel empire now, and how the corporation, TSR, Inc., was mostly set up to enrich the owners of it at the expense of corporate management and employees -- both of which go undeveloped or unexamined, as well as what connection Vin Diesel could possibly have to D&D.  I had to go read an article on The AV Club to find out Diesel claims that Frank Miller (creator of The Dark Knight Returns comics, among others) told Diesel that Gary Gygax wanted Diesel to tell his story.  (Even on The AV Club, this story goes largely unreported.)  The book is an example of the Slate-ification of reporting: an emphasis on personal experiences, mostly or completely unfleshed out by research or investigation or analysis.

As I said, it's not poorly written but it does feel like a lot of fluff and filler.  As a book to get me thinking about a game that played a minor but still significant role in my life, it was okay. As a history or examination of D&D it was a bit of a letdown.

Friday, April 22, 2016

I had this moment

where I was sitting up at 3:05 a.m. on the night the first snow of winter fell, 

and I read a story
where the author said wishes don't matter,
about which I thought

they do.

because I knew
you have to fight
wherever and whenever
they're attacked.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

15,842 New Words: Shtum kids. Shtum. Dad's trying to take a nap.

“Must be tough,” says Jonah, “your father being so far away.”

 I shrug. Mum told me to keep shtum about the divorce.

Slade House: A Novel (p. 16)

Shtum means to be quiet or noncommunicative. It's a Yiddish word of relatively modern origin, dating back only to the 1950s. Who knew they were still inventing words in the 1950s? It seems like we'd have had all the words by then.

To have a word recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary, there have to be several uses of the word, for a reasonable amount of time (generally at least 10 years). The OED looks for word-usage that is not immediately followed by an explanation of the word; their reasoning is that a word can't be in common usage if it has to be explained constantly.

Apropos of nothing, "almost" entered the English language in 1330. Just thought you'd want to know.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Book 29: Wherein a mouse makes me ponder the philosophy underlying my basic beliefs, as good parables do.

Elect H. Mouse State Judge is a weird book, and not just because the main character is a mouse running for judge.

The basic storyline is this: on Election Day, H. Mouse (a village councilman with some sordid events in his past) has his daughters abducted by religious fanatics. H. decides not to call the police because they would have to investigate him, to clear his name, and he doesn't want them to find out about some of the things he's done. So he hires operatives Barbie and Ken to track down his daughters, who are being held in a van by a toy called "Father Sunshine" and indoctrinated into something called "The Power" that is sort of a religious pyramid scheme.

That's all weird enough, but, as I said, the main character is a literal mouse, as are his daughters. Barbie and Ken are toys who live in their dream house with Skipper, and the rest of the 'people' are toys or small animals who nonetheless have county elections and run pornography and sex-slave shops and drive ATVs.

While I read the book (which is really short, just over 100 pages) I kept trying to figure out whether it mattered that H. Mouse was a mouse, that Barbie and Ken were actual toys instead of people named Barbie and Ken.  For most of the book, I thought it didn't really matter, that it was just something thrown in to make the story weird, like how indie movies throw in some sort of magical realism or something, a way to in effect put a bird on the story

But after I finished it and thought about it for a while, I decided that making the characters be mice and lizards and toys actually worked really well on an almost subconscious level.

One of the best and most hauntingly creepy short stories I ever read was Melt With You by Emily Skaftun. You can read the whole thing here, but in summary it's a story in which everyone in the world has been reincarnated as knickknacks, garden gnomes, yard ornaments, and small toys. They have the ability to move and think but otherwise are limited to their physical forms. The story is told by a man who has become a plastic flamingo, together with his wife. They hop around on their one metal leg and try to make a new life until a group of religious fanatic garden gnomes starts a holy war.

It's a story that is terrifying on an almost primal level, mostly because of the ending, but also because of the sheer madness of the world it posits: a world in which people believe in God and do vicious things in his name, but a world which could in no possible way be one created by a God with any sort of gentleness or love in him, given how horrible that kind of ... "life"... seems to be.

If we believe in a God who is all-powerful and all-knowing, can that God be all-good, too, while evil exists? I know that's a question that's been pondered by smarter people than me.  There is an argument about God's omnipotence that goes like this: If God is all-powerful, are there limits on what that power could be? For example, could an all-powerful God make a rock so heavy that God himself could not lift it? On the one hand, if he is omnipotent, then he can make such a rock -- but if he could not lift that rock, then he is not omnipotent.

I bring that up because both Melt With You and Elect H. Mouse State Judge deal with moral and religious issues in an offbeat way that allows them to discuss the message without being didactic. The message I think they are discussing is the question of whether everything happens for a reason.  This is something that I believed for a long time, but have begun lately to question. In one sense, yes, everything does happen for a reason: earthquakes occur because the continental shelves are moving and create areas of friction.  You end up working a certain job because of where you went to school and what you studied, which in turn is a result at least in part of where your parents decided to live and how they raised you.  I often say that the only reason I live in Wisconsin is because my grandfather settled here in the 1930s, so my parents were raised here and stayed in Wisconsin which meant that I could get cheaper tuition and automatic admission to the Wisconsin bar when I graduated law school.

In that sense, my being a lawyer in Wisconsin happened for a reason, but that's not how people (including me, in the past) meant it. We meant that God had a divine plan that made it necessary for me to be a lawyer in Wisconsin for some higher purpose.

It's nice to think that. It's nice to think that people get cancer or have autism or are poor or die in a tornado at age 3 because it's all part of a greater plan. But is it true? Can it be true?

Do we want it to be true?

I mentioned in an earlier review of a book that the phrase in a song I found out I am really no one was sort of a relief for me: the idea that we are nobody and that our every action is not laden with portent can be a relief to people.  Could you imagine living every moment of your life as though it was your last? Who would ever do laundry or clean the kitchen or show up to work? If we all act like we'll die tomorrow none of us would be blogging or reading blogs.  Similarly, if everything you do affects the vast machinery of the universe in some important way, if choices you make this morning might mean that history turns out differently 50 years from now, the burden you would have!

I frequently point out to people that their absolute positions are absurd when taken to absolutes. When my brother said he would never go shopping at midnight on Thanksgiving I said "What if they were giving $1,000,000 to first 10 people through the door?" He said well of course he'd consider that -- so never went out the window.

Any position you take as an absolute can almost immediately be contradicted.  I would never punch a baby in the face, you say. Unless doing so was the only way to save 100,000 people from immediate horrible death.

Everything happens for a reason is an absolute: it sets up the absolute meaning of every single thing we do, makes every choice meaningful, but at the same time it defeats the idea that choice is meaningful or even exists: if everything happens for a reason then you are freed from any moral responsibility for your choices.  I shot those two bank security guards for a reason.

In Melt With You, many of the characters believe in God, but God has allowed them to have a startlingly freakish life -- and one that gets so much worse at the end of the story that I can't hardly think about it but also can't stop remembering it.  It's easy to say everything happens for a reason but it's hard to see what the reason could be for that type of thing.

These are modern-day parables, fables, helping us understand our beliefs better by setting up something so outside the norm that we don't feel as though our beliefs are being challenged --  something that makes our minds close up -- even as the story itself does attack those fortresses of certitude we've erected.

H. Mouse is widely believed by everyone in the county to be a great moral character. He is a shoo-in for judge, almost hand-selected by the retiring state judge. They are wrong. There is a scene in the book where H. Mouse is sitting at his kitchen table, tired, and nearly drowsing. He is a day away from being sworn in and his daughters have not been found; he hasn't told the authorities about them, relying on Barbie and Ken to find them by his inauguration.  He thinks to himself how sad he is with them missing, and for a moment tells himself that he would give anything to have them back safe and sound.

Then he realizes that, no he wouldn't because he opted to continue the election and not go to the police rather than have his past uncovered.

He is not a great mouse, H. Mouse.  Barbie and Ken, as idealized toys that work in a morally ambiguous world -- at one point Ken suggests that if they can't find H. Mouse's daughters, they should go to the child slavers and buy him two more to fill in-- set up a contradiction in thought that helps demonstrate the moral vacuum people can exist in, convinced they are doing good even when they clearly are not.

In the end, as I've written this, I went from thinking this was a pretty good book to it being a great book. I think that by putting these horrible situations into the lives of mice and toys, Reifler has created a story that allows us to think about the meaning behind the story.  If it were simply a basic story of a man whose daughters get abducted, no toys or mice or lizards, it would still be a pretty good story. But by putting it firmly into the unreal situation it is, Reifler makes the questions behind the story more real.

Reifler doesn't offer answers to the questions, either. Like Melt With You, and like many great books, the story just serves up questions.  When I was in college, taking a writing course, the teacher said that one way of looking at writing is that we write the things we will never understand.  I think the same can be said of reading.