COVID-19 Update #2

I hadn’t anticipated writing about this again quite so quickly, as I hadn’t anticipated much change. But there has been some change. Late last week, my city mayor made an executive order that bars and restaurants no longer provide dine-in service. Over the weekend, the governor (after initially saying something to the effect that he trusted the citizens of Tennessee to make good decisions) finally also issued an executive order limiting the same sorts of things. So, we’re in semi-lockdown.

It’s not a police state or anything, thankfully, though Trump has deployed the National Guard in California, and I can’t really imagine what that’ll mean for people in California. I hope it doesn’t mean that the most vulnerable people get treated (more) poorly, though that does seem to be the general modus operandi of the current administration.

I went to the grocery store on Sunday partially to resupply myself with candy but also to get food for our meals for the coming week. The shelves were a lot more bare this time. When I went a week ago, it was mostly rice, flour, and paper goods that were in short supply. On this trip, there was very little meat, just a scattering of canned goods, no snack cakes, no bread, no butter, and a much smaller selection of cereal than usual. Chips were fairly picked over too, as were frozen vegetables. Soft drinks and candy (historically my most important food group) were thankfully abundantly available.

I’ve seen photos of downtown, which has been fairly bustling in general over the past few years but which now is apparently a ghost town. I’m surprised and relieved that people may be seeming to get the message to keep a distance from one another.

I’ve seen more neighbors walking their dogs and pulling children in wagons than usual, though we are heading into Spring weather, and these activities always pick up after winter draws to a close, so maybe this isn’t pandemic-specific. A neighbor proposed to the neighborhood Facebook group that people put teddybears in windows to give little kids out walking sort of a scavenger hunt, and I find the idea sort of charming. Another floated the idea of bringing a food truck to the neighborhood one night a week so that we could help support local businesses without going out. I’m mixed on this idea — I like the notion of supporting such businesses, but it’s hard for me to avoid thinking that somebody cooped up in a food truck all day and passing food and money back and forth is a pretty effective germ vector.


Although we have sub-freezing weather every year, the state I live in is not well prepared for winter precipitation. E.g. I think we have about a tablespoon of salt to put down for the whole state’s icy roads. Every once in a while, when a big winter weather event is in the forecast, everybody will scurry out to buy bread and milk and be ready to stay home for a few days, or maybe even a week or two. I’m a bit of a hermit and don’t mind staying home — in fact I prefer it — but I don’t like feeling as if I might be stuck at home with no way to get the things I might need. About a week’s worth of isolation from the grocery store is enough for me.

A week ago, I went out and bought about a week’s worth of food. Truthfully, I bought a little more than that — an extra jar of spaghetti sauce, some extra noodles, a ham that’d last several meals and veggies for turning it into a soup. The store was out of toilet paper, flour, and rice. I had no intent to panic buy, but having the little extra safety net of a reasonable supply of the staples seemed rational. I told my wife that if things got bad enough that we’d have trouble surviving week to week, we were screwed in the longer term anyway (being basically helpless consumers in general), so there wasn’t much point in buying for the longer term and contributing to the panic.

It had never occurred to me that events would occur in my life that would make me worry a little about basic survival. And I’m not worried, really. Or not so much. I don’t think I am, at least. Not yet. But what if this is after all the beginning of an unraveling of civilization into a future that looks rather like something out of The Road? Is it hysteria to wonder? Maybe. I hope so. Surely it is.

Even so, I do feel like the current moment is a remarkable moment in history, precisely because what is happening is actually happening, because somehow we’ve landed in a position in which what is happening can possibly happen. It’s almost unfathomable to me.

But here we are. Maybe it’ll pass. I occasionally see headlines about things like scientists using supercomputers to find things that will mitigate COVID-19, and in those moments, I think, “Aha, here is the deux ex machina. This is how the movie ends. We’re going to be ok.” Because of course we’re going to be ok. That’s how it works for privileged people like me in privileged nations. But then the story isn’t quite so positive as the headline. Or I read another about how even if we slow the spread of the disease in the short term, we’re a year or more away from a vaccine that would lead us to actual global safety, and a failure to persist in social distancing in the mean time will simply start the cycle again. It’s a sobering thought. Maybe this isn’t just a snow week with a twist. Maybe this is a new reality. Maybe I should go ahead and plant a garden and learn to create fire.

Things are ok for my family right now. Hopefully they’ll stay that way. I wanted to record a few little snapshots of reality for my future self to look back on (internet and electricity willing). With any luck, I’ll look back on this in a couple of weeks after some miracle cure has fixed everything and realize I was being silly to worry at all, to want to record the state of things. But just in case things do get bad, and as a point of reference if they get bad and then better, here are some observations about my world right now.

Gas is around $2 per gallon right now, maybe a few cents north of that.

I have reliable internet, electricity, and gas, and my heat and air work reliably. Our water runs clear, and our hot water heater works well. Our toilets flush our waste away. We have soap and shampoo and are able to shower daily.

Yesterday was the first day of Spring, and in the morning, I hear loads of birds singing. It has rained most days over the last few weeks (it’s raining now, and thundering now and again), and I’m a little tired of it, but I feel like it’s probably preferable to drought right now, depending on what’s to come.

Knoxville didn’t seem to’ve had much urgency about COVID-19 until maybe today. I went (a little reluctantly) for takeout last night from my son’s favorite restaurant for his birthday, and many of the restaurants I passed had lots of cars in their lots and people dining in, though the general advice world-wide for a couple of weeks now has been that we should minimize such congregating to minimize spread of the virus. Today, the Knoxville mayor issued an order at last to shut down dine-in service for restaurants and bars.

I worry a lot about small businesses, little breweries, game stores, my local donut shop. I worry about the people who work in these places, often people who are making below minimum wage and relying on tips. I worry that my charming little local bookstore will shut down. I’m afraid though to go patronize any of these places, as I don’t want to spread any germs I may have or pick up germs from anybody else. I worry that in the coming weeks and months, so many places will shut down and that so many lives of people living close to the bone will become even more desperate. I’m tipping well when I have occasion, and I keep trying to think of cockamamie ideas I might suggest to small business owners I know, to help them through this time, though it’s really a little silly of me, if well-intended.

Grocery stores do still have food, but selection isn’t what it was a month ago. I wonder if we’ll go out one day to find the stores broken into and looted by people with no other realistic choice. I realize this sounds a little dramatic and that I may look back soon and chuckle at my naivete (I really hope I do).

The government is appalling. Partisanship aside, it seems very clear to me that those who are supposed to protect the interests of the citizenry are aggressively failing to do so.

It’s hard to know what to believe about the world. This isn’t brand new, but it seems worse to me over the last year or two.

This week was Spring break, so the kids were going to be home from school anyway, but school is as of now on hold until April 6. Some teachers are trying to gather material students can work on online. Universities have moved to an online format in a hurry. I’m very skeptical that school will resume for this school year, and I’m a little paralyzed about what to do about it. Should I figure out how to homeschool? That feels like a big responsibility. My kids are bright; should I just figure they’ll be ok and can just pick things back up whenever school resumes?

I do not fear for the physical safety of my family. We have shelter, transportation, and food for the reasonable short-term.

My family is healthy on the whole. There’ve been some cold symptoms in the house, but nothing symptomatic of COVID-19, no fevers, no respiratory distress. My daughter has asthma, so I worry about what may come, but for now, we have medicine and she’s fine. We’re all fine. We eat too much junk food, I’ll grant.

Life is 99% normal for me, with no significant changes from our routines over the last few years other than the dismissal of school. We read, play games, talk, listen to music, do laundry, make messes, vacuum, feed the pets, quarrel from time to time, and everything else that’s been usual for us of late.

I’ve worked from home for years and continue to be able to do so. I’m able to keep in contact with people via the internet and my phone, though being not especially social on the whole, I don’t do so as frequently as I probably ought to.

There’s plenty more to say, but this is a snapshot and not a photo album, so I’ll stop there, as this is feeling a little tedious and maybe silly already.

Bookshelves #20

Bookshelf #20 keeps us still mostly in the neutral colors, but a rare and only approximate additional organizational scheme emerges here. These are mostly books of poems and/or books (poems, anthologies, and a couple of essay collections) written or edited by one of my college professors, who I looked to as a mentor (meaning mostly that I attended probably every single weekly office hours session he offered for the four or so semesters I studied with him). I like McFee’s poetry and his essays, however biased I may be, having also admired him as a professor.

The other thin poetry books are ones I’ve liked quite a lot. Chitwood taught at my university starting some time after I graduated and is buddies with McFee. Hudgins writes really great stuff. The Donald Hall book is full of feeling about his experience with the death of his wife, writer Jane Kenyon. Ferlinghetti is always fun (I heard him give a reading at my university some 24 years ago and it was marvelous and made me a fan, even though I never did have much of a thing for the beats in general). Wrigley writes these marvelous meditations (as the title of the one selected works anthology suggests), often involving animals (as the title of the other suggests). I don’t read a whole lot of poetry these days, but he’s a poet I can dip into at any time and feel good about, rather than, as I’ve often done, kind of shaking my head and wondering what is even happening here. Atsuro Riley I wrote about nearly 16 years ago here. The Oyster book I own because acquaintance and artist Matt Kish did the cover art and I wanted to support that. I dip into most of these books occasionally when thinking about trying to get back into reading more poetry, though usually I find that while these books are pleasing to me, most of the other stuff I run into is less so.

Nestled in among the poems are two books by David Foster Wallace, both well worth reading (but if you’re new to Wallace, start with the lobster book; his essays are often a good gateway to his work, and Oblivion has some especially challenging or abstruse stories in it that to my mind make it not the best starting point).

Evan Dara is a puzzle. Nobody seems to know if he’s real or if he’s some other author incognito. Many loved this book. I don’t remember much at all about it, though my Goodreads review tells me that I found much of it sort of annoying and the last 120 pages dazzling, and that it was one I’d likely want to revisit.

The Bright Hour is a memoir a college friend and classmate in my poetry classes in college wrote as she was dying of cancer. I’m biased because I knew her when we were young and have lots of positive memories of her early work and of her sensitive and nuanced workshop feedback, and the book thus feels a little personal to me, but I did think it was a beautifully written book. The little volume stacked on top of it is a chapbook she published a few years before her diagnosis.

Finally, there’s an Ondaatje book a colleague who loves Ondaatje recommended as a way of seeing a bit into some of the culture of Sri Lanka.

And finally finally, there are a few more poetry books stacked behind these, but none that I recall as being especially worth a mention.

Next up are two shelves of recipe books, which I may give only an appetizer-sized treatment of.

Books, 2019

I read 67 books in 2019, significantly down from the prior couple of years. A couple of things contributed to this slowdown. One, I began devoting a lot more time to playing Dungeons and Dragons, which requires lots of reading and writing and planning of its own that is time I would otherwise have spent with regular old prose books. Two, my family reading slowed down a lot. We went through several books that were real slogs, we stopped one in the middle, and we skipped a lot more nights this year than we’re used to skipping, as we had more evening commitments. I learned last year not to focus overmuch on how many books I had read, but in general I also just felt this year like I was a shallower or less committed reader. I spent a week or two each false-starting on rereads of two Pynchon books (Against the Day and V) and Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon (this was the family read we stalled out on, though I would’ve liked to’ve continued, as it was a reread I was enjoying). I read the first 2ish books of the Lord of the Rings series to my family, but we stalled in the middle for no good reason and moved on (this was a second or third family read-through, in any case). I read a lot of fantasy this year — much of it related to D&D — and a lot more science fiction and nonfiction than I had remembered. Seven of these were rereads (in addition to the three rereads I stopped partway through).

30 of the 67 books were written by women and 16 by people of color. Another was edited by a woman of color. This feels like a pretty poor showing with respect to the diversity of my reading — far better than my reading in 2015 after which year I began paying closer attention to diversity in my reading but far worse still than my reading in 2016 and even in 2018 when only about a third of my reads were by straight white men. So, I still have some room to keep expanding my horizons beyond the experience closest to my own.

Highlights were Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers, a couple of the Drizzt books by R.A. Salvatore, J R by Gaddis (though I liked it less on this my third or fourth full reading of this book than I did prior times), The White Goddess (which made me use my brain as much as any book I read this year), Confessions of Max Tivoli, So You Want to Talk About Race, and the first two books of Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy.

Here go the books by rating:

Five-Star Books

  • J R, by William Gaddis

Four-Star Books

Three-Star Books

Two-Star Books

One-Star Books

And now the same books broken into a few categories:



Science Fiction

Young-Adult or Kid Lit

Christmases Past

Christmas was always a huge deal when I was young. It was my mom’s favorite holiday by far. We would always crank up some Christmas songs on our giant cabinet stereo (later a smaller model) and deck out our formal living room (which we used pretty much only ever for Christmas and my parents’ occasional bridge club). It’s a tradition I’ve carried forward into my adulthood with my family.

I hadn’t thought about the old family traditions a whole lot until my wife recently brought home a candle chime device similar to one I grew up with that I had entirely forgotten about. The idea is that the heat from these four little candles set into a base rises and turns a horizontal propeller, which in turn causes little metal figures to twirl about. They dangle little metal rods that ting against a couple of bells. It was always such a treat to get this thing out and fire it up when I was young, so it was a nice bit of nostalgia this year.

Remembering this device made me want to go back and look at some old Christmas photos, and I here share a few for posterity. Reader, be warned: I was an unlovely child.

The quality of Santas has really gone up since I was a kid (pictured here in 1978). I clearly wasn’t buying it.
A year older and wiser, I’m more willing to give this guy a chance, though I’m clearly not convinced. Also, Lou Ferrigno as The Incredible Hulk called — he wants his haircut back.
Christmases were always huge when I was a kid, just loads and loads of big toys from Santa, plus lots of packages under the tree. Stockings were fruit and nut heavy, though.
In 1981, I guess both the Hulk and the Lone Ranger were popular.
I believe the outfit here is an Army type uniform, with the white section you could write your name on. There may’ve been a helmet too, and I think maybe walkie talkies. I hang some of the ornaments seen here on my tree still today. The little red and white stocking ornament was one of many that my grandmother crocheted.
At six, I seem to’ve become resigned to Santa lap-sitting, clearly less than joyful perhaps because prosthetic beard technology has really not improved at all during the whole of my life to date.

3D Printing

Well I sure didn’t need another hobby, but a few months ago, my son asked me if we could try out 3D printing. I had given it some thought myself already, just as a matter of general curiosity and with the idea of printing miniatures for D&D in mind. Wouldn’t it be neat, I thought, to need a miniature of a goblin, say, and just push some buttons and have one spit out of a 3D printer?

Yes, that would be neat. But it turns out that that’s not how it works. That’s not how it works at all. It turns out that 3D printing takes a lot of patience and troubleshooting and tedious manual work, and even then, your prints don’t necessarily come out looking very good at all. I’ve mostly printed abortive miniatures and a few things like throwing knives for cosplay for my son. I recently played D&D with a guy who had some cardboard miniatures that you put in these little stands. I ordered some, but mine came without the stands. This was the perfect time for a functional print!

So, I found a design online and did the steps necessary to get it ready for printing. I printed the 10 little stands that were part of the design. They were ok, but they didn’t clip my minis tightly enough, so the cardboard figures slipped out of the bases. Surely I could improve on the design. I also wanted to have more than the 10, for large combat. And I wanted to build them in such a way that I could also print bases with a bigger diameter, for bigger creatures who might show up in combat.

So, I went into this online free software called Tinkercad and designed a mini by making the component shapes and fusing them together. My first try looked like this:

It’s a little rough. I didn’t even notice initially that the original bases I had printed had nice little rounded corners. The vertical clip pieces were also wider on the original. I needed to try again. My second version looked like this:

It’s closer! The corners are rounded, and the clips are wider. This looks a little nicer. But the corners are still sharper than in the original design, and I liked the original design. So I made another attempt, and at this phase, I refined my process. I had been making the base and then the clippy bit, which I then copied and spun 180 degrees to make the second clippy bit, like so (this is sort of a scratchpad I was working in in Tinkercad):

But this made it hard to position the pieces precisely, and precision — making sure the width between the clippy bits was exactly right — was what prompted me to undertake this project to begin with. So I tried another design, pictured here from the side:

Here I made a single wide block centered on the base. Viewed from another angle (not pictured), you’d be able to see the rounded corners, which required that I fashion the main orange block here out of two rectangles and two circles, all fused together. Once I had that, I used negative space (the gray boxes) to cut out a center section of precisely 2.4mm wide and to round the bottom bits and make the clip pieces narrower. Once you’ve got all these things laid out, you group or sort of merge them within the software to get a single shape (like the orange base in the image prior to the one just above). The printed result:

This is very nearly identical to the original design, but with a more precisely measured negative space between the vertical bits. My minis fit perfectly, with no slipping. Obviously I still need to do some more work with the X-acto knife to clean this one up a bit. But now I’ve got my own file I can manipulate and refine further (e.g. to make larger bases).

Once you’ve done the work to create the 3D model file, you pull it into software known as slicer software that lets you tune the settings for your specific printer and the plastic you’re using. You can change all sorts of settings, from filament temperature to the speed the nozzle moves to what pattern is used to print the inside bits of solid pieces (depicted in one of the printer shots below). Pulling the model into the slicer looks like so:

You can see here that I took my original base and duplicated it 15 times, changing the numbers. This gives me a single print job of 16 numbered bases, which lets me use up to 16 identical cardboard minis in D&D combat and to keep them distinct from one another using the number (this makes more sense if you’ve played D&D). With my settings tweaked, I export a file that the printer can understand, which basically offers some config info and a bunch of essentially coordinates and short-hand instructions for how to move the extruder and printer bed around and what to do with the filament. Here the things are being printed:

That honeycomb shape is called an infill, and you can (in your slicer software) define different methods of infilling. Using an infill rather than printing the pieces solid saves both material and time, while providing support that other layers can be extruded on top of. Here’s the print job finished:

But you’re not done at this point. You still have to pop the pieces off, trim off the little brims, take an X-acto knife to the many little burrs and imperfections, and, if you’re more industrious than I am, prime and paint them. This print, which I ran three times to get three sets of bases, takes about 8.5 hours a pop to print, plus the time to set up the printer and trim the final pieces. It’s hardly plug and play. The end result is kind of neat, though:

And, with the minis clipped into a couple of them:

I’ve gotten pretty decent at printing the smaller pieces. There are still some things I need to troubleshoot about the bigger ones, which you can see here still have a lot of imperfections. I’ve tweaked several slicer settings (and even tried a couple of different slicers) to try to improve those, so far with little success. It’s frustrating because you’ll get an imperfect print after sometimes hours of printing, tweak a setting that you hope will fix it, and then run another potentially flawed print. So, again, it’s very different from what the process I had envisioned in which I’d push a button and have a beautiful printed item a little while later. It’s neat when you do get a good print, but it’s pretty frustrating the rest of the time.

I’m using a Creality Ender 3 printer (a pretty low-end one) with PLA filament. I’ve tried a couple of different slicers and mostly use to Slic3r; I initially used Cura to slice, but it’s got some bugs with using support materials (which I didn’t even get to in this post — it’s a whole other level of annoyance and tedious manual after-work that I’ll spare you further details of for now).

QR Code Puzzle

For a few years, my family and I’ve done some birthday trolling of a kid my wife and I have watched grow up. This year, he graduated high school, and it seemed like maybe it’d be the beginning of the end of the times during which we’d do big involved birthday things for him (he’ll grow up, move away, no longer be a kid you can really troll, etc.). So I decided to do a more elaborate setup than usual. I sent him on a multi-stepped puzzle scavenger hunt for which I acquired props such as a hollowed-out book, a cipher wheel, a wooden puzzle box, and a cryptex. I came up with a few riddles and lined up the puzzles in such a way that one, once solved, pointed to the next.

The first puzzle was a sheet of paper with only this printed on it:

Huh? What the heck is that? I also had this ready to share in case he needed it:

You can begin to see that there’s a pattern. If you know that it’s a birthday thing, you can maybe begin to see that the patterns might read (in part) “Happy B-Day” if the squares with the slants pointing from bottom left to upper right are filled in. Eureka! You’ll now know that you need to shade in the equivalent squares on the other sheet. And when you do that, you’ll get something like this in place of the first image above (slightly modified, so it doesn’t point to anything real):

That’s pretty quickly recognizable as a QR code. It linked to a little web site I set up that offered a riddle that, when solved, pointed him to the next clue, and so on.

I fancy myself a bit of a nerd, but this felt like really nerdy stuff indeed. But that’s not all!

See, when I first made the QR code thing, I drew it by hand, using drawing software on my computer. First I had to make a 25×25 grid, and then I had to print out the QR code I had created for the web site and copy its filled-in squares onto the grid as diagonals. Then I had to fill in all the other diagonals going in the opposite direction. Then I had to print it out, fill in the squares by hand using a Sharpie (to test real life operating conditions), and hope I hadn’t gotten any of the 625 little diagonal marks mixed up (spoiler: I messed them up a number of times because it was a tedious, manual process). Then I’d lather, rinse, repeat until I got it right. It was tedious, but finally I had a file that worked.

And then the QR code that I created using an online generator expired. I hadn’t realized it would have an expiry. This meant I’d need to make a new QR code and repeat the tedious (and actually sort of painful, repetitive-stress-injury-inducing) process all over again.

I wrote code for many years professionally and for side projects, so at this point, the lazy programmer in me woke up. I figured it wouldn’t be too hard to write some little program that’d output the QR code for me and save me lots of frustration — and also be pretty easy to reuse later should I have another QR code expiry issue or another weird project for which this pretty narrowly-focused output would be useful.

I knew how to output image files, and I knew how to use php code to draw simple lines and shapes. The rest was just figuring out how to input the QR code data and how to make it fairly configurable, so that I could run the same code with different options set and output either diagonals or filled-in squares, saving me both drawing and testing time any time I needed to tweak the QR code.

It’s not especially elegant code, but what I came up with is here. A next update should I ever go back to it would have me figuring out how to just turn a url into a QR code and automatically outputting the image based on a url input, whereas right now, you still have to fill in a data array using ones and zeroes to sort of map out the squares in the code. But for now, it’s a fun little piece of code with a practical — if rarely practical — application. Should you ever have a need to generate such a thing, the code is yours for the taking. It really does make it very easy to map out a QR code and easily display either the shaded version or the more cryptic diagonal version.

Mostly I wanted to share it as an example of how a silly/fun idea can turn into a neat little code project that can later save time, as I spent less time and much less frustration writing the code for this than I did creating the original version manually.


I’ve noticed people doing this neat thing called Inktober in which (I gather) you draw something every day of the month. Everything that follows in this post is tongue-in-cheek and is just me being silly and not denigrating people who do these sorts of month-long challenges. I’ve done (well, failed to do) a few myself! I think they’re neat ways to motivate yourself to do a thing you’ve had trouble forming the habit of doing. But being who I am, I can’t have a one-off, (very) mildly humorous thought and leave it be. I have to poke and prod any potential little humor opportunity until I’ve teased all the pleasure out of it. Read on for my good-natured ruination of the “blog a thing every day in a month” challenges.

It all started when I kept hearing about Inktober. What if (I said to myself — these asinine things almost always start with a “what if”), since I can’t draw at all, I put my own twist on it and made it Oct-toe-ber and just posted a photo of one of my toes every day. Sure, I’d only get through part of the month or have to get creative by staging my toes in different ways or asking people if I could post photos of their toes (what one will do for art!), but it’d be something. (No it wouldn’t. I was being silly, picking and pulling at the thing to remove all real humor while pretending that I was actually being funny, which is how like 90% of my jokes go, which maybe explains some things about why I laugh at more of my gags than others do.)

Not content to leave it at that, I thought about blogging challenges I might propose for each of the other months too (putting aside the more established ones that already have a foothold, like the familiar NaSomethingWriMo challenges). Here they go.

June-uary. Re-publish every post you published on the corresponding day last June. You’re on your own for the 31st.

Fibruary. Publish a fib — not an outright lie, but just a little fib.

March. It’s hard to get too creative with this one. March around your neighborhood and write about the experience. March is a weak link in this series. Stage a 31-day protest about how weak a link it is. Hold a march each day. Post about it.

Ape-ril. Post something about an ape. If that’s not especially inspiring, consider celebrating Apiary-il instead and post something each day about beekeeping.

May. This is another tough one. Consider it a wildcard. I guess… you may post whatever you like each day.

Jan. Re-publish every post you published on the corresponding day last June. You may donate the extra one to the prior month’s quota.

Ju-lie. This one’s sort of like Fibruary, only you tell real lies this month.

Dog-ust. Post something every day about a dog. This one’s a hair less un-nuanced than it seems, since we do talk about the dog days of August. If you don’t like dogs or have ready access to information about them, you could go with Ore-gust (write about mining different ores) or UGG-ust (write about your stylish boots) or Auger-ust (there’s potentially some overlap with Ore-gust here).

Suptember. Post something each day about either your supper (it’s a good month to phone it in with some photos) or about different experiences you’ve had either greeting or being greeted colloquially (“s’up?”).

Oct-toe-ber we’ve already got covered. If you’re squeamish about feet, you could go with any number of other things like Rocktober (stones or music or sometimes, when rolling, both), Bocktober (chickens), Bachtober (music), Croctober (more stylish shoes), Jacques-Cousteau-ber (marine exploration). Really the possibilities for this one are almost endless. A colleague recently proposed that the favorite month of the humble potato was Octuber, so you could go that route if you don’t have eyes for any of these others (if you really like potatoes and don’t mind taking some more liberties with the naming conventions, you could do back to back months with Spudtember and Octuber).

Nah-vember. Nah, don’t worry about this month. Take some time off to cultivate that beard you’ve always meant to grow for Movember.

D-cember. Every post this month is about the letter D.

Bookshelves #19

Here we are in the dull neutral tones section of my bookshelves, pretty firmly on the home stretch in this series. Let’s start at the top.

Lethem is pretty strong in general, and this short book was clever and funny. I liked it, and since it wasn’t a stinker (as one or two of his have been for me), I kept it. Salt Houses was a lovely story, good by any metric but especially good for a first novel (and one of my favorite reads of 2018); I’d like to read more by Alyan. Lauren Groff has been ridiculously consistent and is one of my favorite living authors. The Monsters of Templeton Place was my introduction to her work — and a lucky random bookstore find — and I’ve been a fan of her work ever since. Salt I have not read; it was a gift to my wife that somehow wound up on my shelves. Maybe I’ll read it one day! Native Son is one of those classic books you sort of have to read, and I’m glad I finally did. My brief Goodreads review read “harrowing and eloquent.” I imagine I’ll revisit it one day.

The Pale King is David Foster Wallace’s posthumous last novel, and while it is very far from being perfect, it contains some of his best writing, and some writing that departs significantly from his other work. I’ve read it once or twice and false-started another time and will definitely reread it one day. Look a few spines to the right and you’ll also see Wallace’s posthumous essay collection Both Flesh and Not. I’ve not read this cover to cover, though I think I’ve read most of the pieces in some form or another.

Weird and Wonderful Words was a gift probably 20 years ago. Although I like this sort of book, I’ve not read this one cover-to-cover and likely never will, but it’s neat to have a reference handy.

I remember nothing about Ozick’s Dictation, but Ozick is a marvel, so I keep everything of hers I pick up.

This edition of The Inferno came out when I was in college. Its translator, Robert Pinsky, was going to be coming to my university to read his own poems and participate in some activities with the writing students at the school. I had never read The Inferno and figured it was as good a time as any. So I got the book and sat alone in my dorm room one night reading it aloud, I believe in one setting and until I was hoarse. It was good! I’m a dork! Maybe I’ll do it again some time.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti also came to my university a year or two before Pinsky did, and he and his work had a pretty big impact on me at the time. I didn’t go out and become a Ferlinghetti-ish writer (though I did then read a lot of Beat work), but I have always had a soft spot for him. He was a great reader.

The Moby Dick item is a game and not a book. It was a Kickstarter I funded, but of course nobody would ever play the game with me, and I don’t imagine it’s too much fun anyway.

Tom McCarthy is pretty much always worth a read, and I keep his books when I get them. I don’t remember much about Men in Space.

Gass sure befuddles me. He’s so dang smart, and I can’t keep up. Middle C was more accessible to me than some of his other works of fiction, and I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it. Still, I keep Gass when I buy him, out of a naive hope that one day I’ll be smart enough to read him properly. See also his Finding a Form a couple of spines over — I’ve read some but not all of these essays.

I’ve always wanted to like Donald Hall, since way back when I was studying poetry in college. A couple of grown-ups I admired pointed me to his work. And I liked some of his work (his gut-wrenching poetry collection Without also appears among my shelves). I just haven’t gotten around to this one yet.

Barthelme and Markson are sort of experimental writers, and I like that sort of writing in theory. I’ve read a lot of Barthelme’s stories but haven’t gotten around to his Snow White yet; I’m waiting for the mood to strike me. Wittgenstein’s Mistress was a big important text for David Foster Wallace, and as I did with so many of the things I knew had influenced him, I picked it up many years ago. The Markson didn’t resonate with me, and as with Gass, I figure maybe I’m just not smart enough to get it.

Finally, there’s a collection of Pynchon’s short stories. I think I’ve read them and I think I felt meh about them (at any rate, I remember nothing about them). One day I may go back and reread all of Pynchon, and these’ll be worth revisiting if I do so.

Update: I had forgotten until months later (I’m adding this in late February, 2020) that lurking behind these books are some computery books, a Bible, a couple of other random things, and perhaps my the books I’m most ashamed of — several if not all of Ayn Rand’s major works (and some minor ones). I got these, predictably, when I was in my early 20s and ripe to be taken in by Rand’s thinking.

D&D: DMing Storm King’s Thunder

I’ve written a few posts about playing D&D and about the neat stuff I’ve made or collected as a result of my last year’s developing interest in the game, but I don’t think I’ve said much about serving as dungeon master, which I’m now doing.

It’s fun, and it’s difficult. Pictured above is my setup for my latest session, which includes maps, monster stat blocks, many pages of notes, various tokens and minis (some of which I 3D printed), and of course lots of dice.

What makes it difficult is partially my still nascent familiarity with the game itself. There are still rules I need to refresh myself on sometimes, for example. If a wizard is concentrating on a spell and takes attack damage, does she lose concentration on the spell? (Answer: Maybe. Take the higher of half the damage or a rolled d20; if greater than 10, concentration is lost and the spell’s effect drops.) When do you roll for random shenanigans for sorcerers? If somebody wants to ride a horse, how do you resolve travel? There are all sorts of oddball scenarios that are covered by the rules but that you don’t even always know you need to know until you run into them mid-game and bring things screeching to a halt while you look them up (or make a potentially incorrect and frustrating ruling).

And then there’s improv. Your party is in a town and somebody asks you some random question about the history of the town or someone in it. Well, sure, you can make something up. But then you need to think about how your making things up on the fly might impact other things in the game. If you’re working from a published adventure (as I currently am), you have to try to make something up that won’t either break or spoil later important pre-written content. Here’s an example: I recently introduced a non-player character (NPC) who the written adventure describes has having a streak of white in her hair. I had forgotten the hair detail. Meanwhile, I had also introduced a teaser about another future potential NPC of my own devising who I had also given a streak of white in her hair (perhaps coincidentally, perhaps just inadvertently bringing in the detail from the original NPC). This entirely unintentional detail made my party perk up. Now they’re in the position of wondering what the significance of the detail is. Is something causing women to grow white streaks? Can we infer anything about people with white streaks in their hair? What if my character has white hair? Is this the key to unlocking the whole adventure? There’s so much room for inadvertent pitfalls like this.

Then there’s the need to give life to NPCs, and to have a stock of NPCs ready for whatever may come up. I’m not especially comfortable doing accents or voices, especially among grown-ups. I’m trying to push out of my comfort zone, though, because without a little play-acting, it’s hard to distinguish NPCs from one another and to give more texture to the game. Once you’ve invented a distinctive personality for a given NPC, you then ought to try to remember it and switch into that personality when playing the NPC, and this too can be tough if you have a bad memory like me (using distinctive personalities from your life or from TV/movies as references can help with this). And then there’s the case of the randomly spotted NPC to whom you must give a name and some personality and perhaps a memorable physical characteristic, without necessarily imbuing any of this with a great deal of significance (see above re white streaks), and without having them divulge things they shouldn’t or send players down the wrong paths. And without having everybody be “uhh, Kevin, who uh looks kind of average and sounds pretty much like me.”

Managing combat can be tough too. In my latest session, I ran four hours of multi-stage combat that incorporated something like 30 monsters, the four player characters, and four NPCs the players also operated. This battle included two big hand-drawn maps, four or five different character types whose weaponry, health, and other stats I had to track, and combat on two fronts that could have gone in any number of directions. One player split from the rest of the party right off, and I had to try to spend some time on his lone combat without neglecting the other players, and vice versa. The players could have chosen any of several paths I had prepared, or they could’ve done something bizarre and unexpected.

Because I’m new at this and still lack confidence in all of the areas above, I spent loads of time preparing. I’ll bet I have 12 hours of prep work involved in being ready for that combat session, for example. This I believe will get easier over time as I develop more comfort with the overall game mechanics and with improvising when something goes in a direction I hadn’t imagined it might.

Don’t get me wrong — this is a lot of work, but it’s also pretty fun, and I think it’ll get more fun as I get better at it.

Right now, I’m running my son and a few other people through an adventure called Storm King’s Thunder that so far has been really fun. We’re heading into a part of it right now that’ll afford me a lot of leeway in terms of what we do. It’s what you call a sandbox style of play. This is cool because it gives me a little latitude to steer things however I’d like to. It’s also tough because I have to sort of make up a lot of it and be more ready to improv if the party heads in a direction that the written adventure doesn’t really cover, or if they head in a direction very different from where the next portion of the adventure really calls for them to go. In our next session, we’ll head toward a city called Waterdeep that’s well known within the D&D canon. It’s neat because there’s a lot out there about Waterdeep; it’s intimidating for the same reason because there’s so much I could get wrong and there’s so much opportunity for the players to push me to improvise. I think and hope I’ve done enough prep that I can make the next session fun.