Dice Tower

I’ve written about Dungeons and Dragons related things a couple of times now. What was a hobby I had undertaken semi-begrudgingly for my son’s benefit has become something I’ve begun to spend time on for my own interest. I watch Critical Role with interest now (not every episode and not always full episodes, but I’m sort of hooked). I spent many hours over the last couple of weeks preparing for session three of the Lost Mines of Phandelver campaign that my neighbor and I are running (alternating turns as DM and players) for our kids, and our third session yesterday ran to nearly six hours. I’ve looked at lots of game play accessories (dice, DM screens, dice vaults, dice towers, miniatures, and so on) online, and as a result, I’m now seeing ads for a lot of these things in Facebook, and I click them with interest.

Initially, I had sort of sneered at the idea of having a DM screen and certainly at the idea of having a dice tower. Who needs a special box to roll dice when it’s dead simple to just roll your dice by hand? But after I made my DM screen, I began to hanker for a dice tower after all, so I picked up some more wood and made one. What is a dice tower, you ask? It’s an apparatus you can use to increase the odds of a fair roll rather than relying on what might be a bad toss from the hand. The tower is essentially a box with some little ramps inside that a die will carom off of as it descends through the tower and rolls out onto the table (or, if you’re really fancy, into a dice tray).

I didn’t take step by step photos as I did when making the DM screen. Construction of the tower was, in theory, pretty simple. But I twice glued the thing together incorrectly and had to dismantle parts of it, sand, and reglue each time. Finally I got it put together correctly and then sanded a little and applied another coat of stain and another of finish. It’s not the best made or most beautiful thing in the world, but it roughly matches my screen and is surprisingly satisfying to chuck dice into. The dice make a nice fast rattling sound as they tumble through the tower.

Here’s the tower as seen from the front (the players’ view, if I’m using the tower myself as DM):


Now here’s the view from the back, with the opening that the dice come tumbling out of:


Looking down into the top, you can see one of the little ramps (mine has three, with the bottom one angled so that it sends dice shooting out of the opening):


Since I didn’t join the two hinged panels of my DM screen together, I can place the tower between the two panels, which gives me a little extra width on the screen and lets me easily pop dice into the top of the tower when I need to make a roll:


The tower’s height doesn’t match the height of the screen, so I suppose it looks a little weird. I enjoyed having it, at any rate. Wonder what random thing I’ll add to my growing D&D collection next?

DM Screen

I worked for years as a computer programmer, and one thing programmers often do (in fact, this is what gets a lot of people into programming in the first place) is to turn a minor annoyance into an excuse to spend a lot more time building a solution to the annoyance than the annoyance itself costs. I don’t write much code these days, but I apparently still have that programmer mindset.

I wrote a couple of months ago about how I had been trying to help my son realize his desire to play Dungeons & Dragons. We finished the campaign I wrote about in that post, and I began preparing to be the Dungeon Master (DM) for the D&D starter set, which includes an adventure titled The Lost Mines of Phandelver. For somebody new to the game, it takes a lot of prep to feel ready to DM a game. I read the campaign a few times, took some notes, made note cards for the various monsters we would encounter, made some notes for myself about things like how to run combat, and made index cards with key information about each of the players who would be in the game. Then, a couple of weeks ago, we had some neighbor friends over and started playing.

It was fairly fun, and I didn’t do terribly, I don’t think. For example, I drew a map of one of the dungeons on a big whiteboard, covered it up with paper, and ripped apart bits of paper to expose parts of the map our campaigners had “seen” as they forged ahead. We used lego mini-figs and a few other little figures from the toy box to represent our characters and to help us visualize combat. It’s perhaps not the best DM prep in the world, but it didn’t seem too bad for my first time out. Here’s a photo of the adventure in progress:


As the game progressed and we met more monsters, I found myself juggling index cards with monster and character info, the book containing the adventure info, a couple of cheat sheets I had made, a little book I was keeping notes in, and so on. I also had some monster figures hidden away in a box on the floor, so that I didn’t telegraph prematurely what monsters we’d be facing (though in one case, I had to use a lamb figure as a wolf, so I don’t suppose I was telegraphing much beyond whether the creature was a biped or a quadruped). It was a lot to juggle, and it was frustrating to rifle through papers while trying to keep the game moving.

DMs have been using things called DM screens for ages. Think back to when you were presenting a science project at a science fair in school — DM screens are foldy things that stand up and provide both a way to organize information in front of you and a way to hide things you’d like to hide, such as DM die rolls, info that might spoil what’s coming up next, and figures to use in upcoming combat. I had looked at DM screens online but didn’t really want to pay for a cardboard screen that contained different info than what I really wanted in front of me. They tend to have loads of info by default, and while I need a lot of it, it can be pretty overwhelming. If I was to use something, I wanted something that could be a little more customized.

In my browsing the web for DM screens, I saw some neat, expensive ones and some fancy homemade ones. I’m not handy at all, but my programmer mentality kicked in and I decided to spend a lot of time trying to engineer a screen that would meet my needs (that is, help me avoid shuffling papers and cards around) and that wouldn’t look terrible. I found this explanation of how one person made a simple, functional screen and picked up the necessary materials. I carefully measured and sanded and drilled and stained and had all the components of a lightweight, wooden screen ready to go, but when I tried to attach the hinges, the very thin wood splintered, and I could tell that it wasn’t going to work. It was a little frustrating, but I wasn’t ready to quit. I would refactor instead!

I had some roughly 1-inch plywood left over from some house project a while back. I hadn’t used this initially because it seemed pretty bulky and heavy, and I had hoped to have something a little smaller. But, as clumsy a carpenter as I am, I figured my odds of not messing up were probably greater with less fragile materials. So I cut two of the boards (which were conveniently already each about 2 feet wide) in half.



Next, I and placed my hinges so that I could draw hinge placement guides and drill some pilot holes, and I sanded. You can see here that I really am a bad carpenter, as that middle hinge is way off center in spite of some attempt to space them evenly.



I had gotten some rare-earth magnets to embed in the panels so that I could affix things to the front. In my first failed attempt to make a screen, the panels were thin enough that the magnets would just barely fit, and they even stuck out a little from the surface. My intent originally was to glue them into their holes but have them exposed. With the new, thicker panels, I had enough depth to be able to drill deeper to embed the magnets fully in the panels and add some wood filler to cover the holes.



Some of my magnets were a little bigger than others, so I had to break out a bigger bit and cross my fingers that I wouldn’t damage the wood as I drilled.



I figured out hole placement using index cards. I can fit as many as nine cards per panel (though I doubt I will), or of course I can stick plain pieces of paper or paper of other sizes on as well. The player (vs. DM)-facing side of each panel also has a magnet at top center, in case I decide it’d be useful to hang something on the front of the screen for their view. Next, I sanded the wood filler patches down.


Now it was time to stain each of the boards. I put three coats of dark walnut stain and three coats of oil-based spray-on finish on all of the surfaces. The picture below shows all coats of stain and, on the left panel, a first coat of finish. One thing I’m not really happy about is how much the wood-filled magnet holes show through the stain. I had hoped they would blend pretty well, and a couple of them do just look like little knots, but they stand out more than I had hoped they would (they’re more visible in person than in the pictures).


Once the panels had dried, it was time to hold my breath and attach the hinges (the part of the project at which things went sideways in my first try).


These are simple brass-looking hinges, and I didn’t do anything fancy to try to recess them in the wood or anything. I’m sure they’re not all perfectly aligned, but they’re good enough that the panels swing smoothly. Each set of panels stands alone pretty sturdily. Initially, I had planned to hinge the two sets of panels together as well so that they would accordion fold, but for now, I’ve decided not to. For example, I could imagine adding a dice tower between them one day, or just liking having fewer moving parts to worry about. They stack up fairly well when not opened, and though they’re not super precision panels of fine carpentry and are a little heavier and bulky than I had hoped for originally, they look decent.


I just finished them today and so haven’t played with them yet, but I wanted to see how they’d look and how functional they’d feel with some of the real papers I’ve used in the past affixed to them, and they seem potentially pretty useful.


I can imagine it’ll be a heck of a lot better than having all those index cards in a stack to shuffle through while also jotting notes, reading from the story itself, wrangling dice, etc. If you find the really nice DM screens out on the web, you’ll see fancy things carved or burned into the player-facing surfaces. I’m less of an artist than I am a carpenter, so I’m leaving mine plain (at least for now! — a month ago, I wouldn’t have imagined that I would use a screen, much less sink a few hours into making one, so who knows what I’ll do in the future).


My son and the neighbors we started a campaign with a couple of weeks ago are planning to play again this weekend. The other dad and I are going to switch of DM duty, so I’m on the fence about whether to let him break this in if he’s inclined or whether to hold it back for myself


Kitchen Remodel

Our house is 15 or 16 years old, and we’ve never loved the kitchen. It was a little dated by now, and though I had always thought it looked like there were plenty of cabinets, we constantly had trouble fitting everything in. We have 9-foot ceilings downstairs, which makes room for taller upper cabinets, which seems great — except that we are short people, and the upper shelves aren’t all that useful. This year we decided to do an update, which follows on two floor replacements (one planned several years ago and another more recently that we hadn’t planned but had to do thanks to a leak that ruined our subflooring) and a revamped pantry a few years ago.

Our initial plan was to paint the cabinets (figuring that without major construction on the home, we couldn’t really do much to improve the cabinet space itself) and get a new counter-top, but when we went to price the countertop, the cabinets didn’t seem as outlandishly expensive as I had imagined. I mean, it’s still godawful expensive, but not as expensive as I had figured it would be.

Here’s a picture of our old cabinets, early on in the demolition process:

There’s a base cabinet and an upper cabinet missing where the trash can is, and then off to the right of the frame is a four-foot section of cabinets plus a fridge with the little useless, unreachable upper cabinets over top of it. I’ve torn all of those out by the time I’ve taken this shot. I’ve also ripped up the bar that expanded out from the half wall behind the sink there. We decided to shorten that wall and extend the main countertop out beyond it to give us a shorter bar area, or an extended counter-top, depending on how you want to use it at any given time.

We ordered some KraftMaid cabinets from Home Depot. They took about four weeks to arrive, and a couple of days before their arrival, I started pulling all the cabinets down. I was nervous about this, but it was surprisingly easy. My brother-in-law stopped by one evening to help me finish pulling out some of the heavier cabinets pictured here.

I paid a plumber an arm and a leg to disconnect the plumbing and properly disconnect the gas range, and once I did this (a couple of days before the install, so that I’d have time to pull out the cabinets containing the plumbing), we were pretty limited in how we could use the kitchen. We could basically use it as a hallway that happened to contain a fridge.

Here’s a look at the kitchen with everything torn out:

That cabinet to the left there is an upper cabinet that I’ve turned around to shield some pipes and messy wiring from the pets, who I feared would chew on them and break things or hurt themselves. You can see here that some tile we had put in a couple of years ago was tiled up to but not underneath the existing counters. My cabinet installer built these sections up to the tile level so that the cabinets would all be at the same height.

Rather than chipping the backsplash away, my contractor just ripped out the drywall it was attached to. Here you can see that, as well as the initial work to cut down that half wall:

Home builders apparently think of the unfinished home as sort of a big garbage can and throw their trash into areas they know won’t be exposed. It’s oddly unsettling to discover this sort of thing:

The contractor had to do a lot of prep work to replace the drywall, install plywood to raise the un-tiled portion of the floor, finish up the half wall so that it would be flush with the tops of the cabinets, and probably a few other things. Actually installing the cabinets went surprisingly quickly. Here’s a shot of that work nearly completed:

We got a new microwave because plastic pieces (including the handle) of our old one had started breaking off over the last few months, and we’re leaning toward stainless steel appliances anyway. Here we see that installation, plus drawer pulls and molding. The fridge is back in place, and so is the stove.

Now I could get our gas to the stove turned back on. We had been cooking on the grill, so in theory, having a stove again opened up our options a lot, but we still had no water or dishwasher, and we were doing any dishes in a small pedestal sink in the half bath that buts up to the kitchen (right behind the wall the stove backs up to). Washing big pans or really messy things in that sink was a no-go. I was excited enough to have the stove available again that I texted my wife this photo right after it was reconnected, though in practice, it wasn’t that much of a step forward:

The cabinet install took a little under a week. Next up would be counter-tops, which would take yet more time to arrive. You can’t get measured for counters until the cabinets are done, and we lost nearly a week waiting for the counter-top vendor to fit us into their measurement schedule, but they got us in and then we had another 2 – 3 weeks to wait for the quartz tops to be ready.

Meanwhile, although my contractor had quickly eyeballed my sink and said it’d be a fine fit for the cabinet, I decided to double check and freaked out a little when I discovered that it did not in fact fit:

Of course, I didn’t think to try this until the counter-tops had been measured for, and I panicked, fearful that I would wind up buying tops that had a hole in them for a sink I could not in fact use. I sent a couple of frantic emails and my contractor called me back and talked me down. It was going to be fine. It’s standard practice to cut out those little side pieces that were preventing the sink from fitting into the cabinet. He came out a few days later and took care of it for me.

Finally, our tops came in, and they were installed yesterday. You have to wait a day or so before putting plumbing back in, so that the caulk or adhesive or whatever for the tops can cure. This morning, I had the plumber come out again to re-connect the dishwasher and disposal and to install the faucet, and now I have a fully functional kitchen again:

The counters look great, and the cabinets are pretty nice ones. The doors are impossible to slam, and they self-close once you push them far enough toward the closed position. There’s a little toe-kick bit under the fridge-adjacent cabinet that we can store things like cookie sheets in. There’s more sideways storage in that same cabinet, and the big drawers on that cabinet have a neat set of pegs you can move around to subdivide the drawers to map to what things you want to put in them (the kids and I have tended toward more of a “let’s make a cairn of the dishes and slam the door shut before they can fall down” approach, which is (understandably) frustrating to my wife). The silverware drawer actually has two half-height drawers inside of it to add more storage space. Rather than a little dummy piece right in front of the sink, we have a little tilt-out drawer for sponges and such.

There’s still the backsplash to install (that has to wait until tops are done), and we need to paint, but the hardest part of this is done. We usually order pizza on Friday nights, but tonight we’re going to finally cook a real meal in a proper kitchen again.

Dungeons & Dragons

I was never into Dungeons & Dragons as a kid. I grew up in a hick town that I later thought kind of just never got the memo about D&D. We were more of a chewing tobacco and cow-tipping people. In recent years, I have run back across childhood friends who, it turned out, at some point or another, did get exposed to D&D. Whether that happened in our podunk town or later I’m not sure. After my sophomore year of high school, I attended Governor’s School, and I recall that there was a D&D contingent there, but I managed not to get folded into that group. I was more sporty than nerdy at the time, I think. When I was a kid, there was a D&D cartoon that I liked a lot, and in fact I did a pretty spot-on impression of this little unicorn companion in the show, and for a while I had a recurring dream in which a one-off character in one of the episodes and I became friends. Anyhoo. I think probably that when I was a kid, my mom would’ve discouraged me from playing had the opportunity presented itself, on the basis that it was probably just veiled devil worship. A couple of years ago at a company gathering, there was an opportunity to play D&D, and I thought about trying it out, but I chickened out because I figured I’d be too self-conscious to do the role-playing bits. That’s pretty much the sum total of my exposure to D&D until recently.

Fast forward a whole lot of years to my now-11-year-old son’s exposure to Ready Player One (first in book form, as is our way) and to Stranger Things, in both of which D&D makes appearances.

For his birthday this year, my son asked for the D&D starter kit, and I blindly bought it for him, not really having thought about the fact that it would require that he have people to play it with him, and furthermore that it’s a complex game with lots to learn. In other words, it was likely to require a bit of an investment on my part. His birthday was in March, and he’s been patiently waiting ever since for some way to play this game. I found the whole thing daunting. Would it require that I go into public and do role-playing things with people I didn’t know? Perhaps worse, would it require that I do with people I do know? Was the horror of extra-familial human contact a sacrifice I’d be willing to make so that my son could play this game he was desperate to play?

I’ve spent a few weeks ramping up. First I read a bunch of the rules. Then I found a local Facebook group about D&D, where I learned that I could indeed sign up to meet strangers in public to play, a prospect I really did not relish. Then I found some campaigns to watch on YouTube. Then I read the rules some more. Then I bought a campaign that I had read could be played with just a DM and a single other player, so that my son and I could ease in. And we started playing it. And my son is wild over it, and I don’t hate it either.

I mean, yes, it is kind of weird. It’s a mix of sort of fun collaborative story-building and annoying arithmetic and game mechanics whose vagaries I have a lot of trouble navigating confidently (“which die do I roll for this? do I need to do a saving throw? does Thrognar have a bonus action? is a gray ooze fire resistant?”). But it’s also sort of fun. I’m a terrible dungeon master when it comes to the game mechanics, and I think probably I’m too dependent upon the specific narrative the campaign lays out (mostly out of a fear that if I mess up one encounter, it’ll cascade to later encounters that then won’t make sense), but I think I may have enough of a flair for bits of the story-telling that I’m at least able to keep my son engaged for a few hours at a time with it. We played a couple of sessions over the weekend and logged nearly three hours last night that went by in a blink.

Once we get through this campaign, we’ll see about finding a couple of his buddies who are interested in playing, and I’ll try my hand at DMing for them, and we’ll see how that goes. Meanwhile, I’ve by now watched hours of videos about how to DM by Matt Colville (these are really great, and he has cool stuff to say about gaming and fun and social interaction and even bits here and there about like ethics and philosophy) and have started watching Critical Role to see a really magnificent DM in action. I watched the end of their first session last night and was cackling one moment and riveted the next, and I mean this is just a bunch of people sitting at a table talking to one another (I’ve watched campaigns by other groups that are real snoozes). I think that once I get some of the basic mechanics a bit more by rote and have a few more best practices for DMing down (I’m playing right now with Trello for managing the game), this could be fairly fun and I could be not horrible at it, at least as far as the standards of 11-year-olds go.

I’ve got more dice on the way, and I’m trying to decide whether to keep this Tiefling Rogue character I started with or whether to go with something less flashy, and the next time you see me, I don’t know, maybe I’ll have grown my beard long and braided it and be in full dwarf regalia and speaking in the Scottish accent we tend to assign to dwarves and suggesting that you roll for Charisma if you’d like to chat with me.

Bookshelves #15

Here we end the penultimate row in my bookshelves series. Along the top there you see various and sundry notebooks I’ve picked up over the last few years for long-hand writing and a spiral sketch-pad I bought when briefly (and it turns out optimistically) thinking “I’d like to learn how to draw.” I don’t know why these’ve landed in this cubby, but they have.

The Burned Children of America is a short story anthology I got because it had a David Foster Wallace story in it. It also has several other good stories by well-known authors of Wallace’s generation like Saunders, Eugenides, Bender, Moody, Lethem, Lipsyte, and Foer, and it’s got one by Julia Slavin that really knocked my socks off.

I first tried reading Ulysses probably 20 years ago, and probably three or four times after that failed attempt, I started it and didn’t get very far at all past stately, plump Buck Mulligan. Finally, back in 2010, I led an online group read of the book and did make it through. I surely didn’t love every minute of the book, but I was glad to get through it at last, and though at the time, I said I didn’t know if I’d ever read it again, I suspect I probably will (and indeed have been feeling the itch a bit lately). This one I’ll hang onto if only to avoid sending my silly margin notes out into the world for others to read.

I don’t love this Moby-Dick children’s book, but I keep Moby-Dick books. I did read this one to my kids a lot when they were little.

I apparently misread Americanah. It read as a fundamentally sad book to me, but Adichie apparently laughed all the way through writing it. I think my misreading stems from my discomfort taking as comical the struggles of characters whose experience (and whose sense of humor about it) is so very far removed from my own privileged experience. Anyway, misread or not, I didn’t love it, but I do think Adichie is a fantastic novelist (her Half of a Yellow Sun garnered a rare 5-star Goodreads review from me and is one of my favorite reads of the last few years), and I’ll likely reassess this one at some point.

I remember nothing about Your Fathers…, but Goodreads suggests that I liked it quite a lot. I suppose I’ll look at it again some day.

When I was in college many years ago, regional author Alan Gurganus gave a reading that I believe was from Plays Well With Others, though I don’t recall whether the book had yet been published. I don’t remember loving the reading, but I did go out and read his well-known Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, which I forget how I felt about. And at some point, I picked up this book, which I vaguely recall as being biting and sort of angry and sometimes probably a little boring and sometimes very funny. I’ve read a little bit more by Gurganus since and not loved it, but I would like to try this one again in the future, as I was still a pretty young reader when I last went through it.

I had never read Watership Down until we picked it up as a family read a few years ago. I had always assumed it was some sort of naval adventure based on the name (though that actually doesn’t make sense either). I loved it. It’s so well imagined and just awfully well put together. I recently suggested a reread to my family.

Tristram Shandy was a real labor. I read it as part of reading a series of sort of foundational frame tales a few years ago. Yes, parts of it are hilarious, but it’s also just so very tedious and annoying that it was a real labor for me to get through. I tend to retry the hard ones, though, so I imagine I’ll go back to it again some day.

I have a probably irrational antipathy for Jonathan Franzen. I thought The Corrections was reasonably well written, and I really hated Freedom, which just felt ham-handed and improbable (though in the realist tradition) and dumb. I didn’t read Purity because by the time it came out, I had read enough of Franzen’s other work and read enough things about him that I just didn’t really want to be connected to more of his work. I think that if his books really did the trick for me, I could put the antipathy aside, but I really just don’t think the work is all that good either. I’ve never read this earlier book of his, but I hang onto it just in case I brush this chip off my shoulder one day and decide to give him another chance, as I’ve heard this is a good one (but I mean you hear that about all his books).

Tom McCarthy generally writes things that tickle some fancy of other of mine. It’s been a bit since I read C, but I vaguely recall it as sort of Pynchon-lite in its treatment of war, technology, and spiritualism. I’ll generally try anything this guy writes and think of him as somebody to maybe revisit overall one day.

Ah, Mencken, what a troll. I first encountered him in a Southern literature class in college, and I bought this anthology of his work a few years later to get a broader sampling. I’ve never read it cover-to-cover, but it seems like the kind of thing I might dip back into from time to time for topical readings.

Next time, I’ll do a carriage return to the next shelf of cubbies, which features some good books but also a bunch of cookbooks that I won’t likely go into detail about and a mysterious background layer of books that hides some of my deepest shames.

Bookshelves #14

I started this bookshelves series as a way to force myself to write a post a month, but I’ve wound up with other things to write about, so I’m lagging a bit. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to say something useful in June about Pride Month, but I’m having trouble articulating what I want to say, so for now, here’s shelf number 14.

For many years, I had intended to read Proust, and finally this year I picked up Swann’s Way, which I did not love. I imagine I’ll go back to it one day, so I’m keeping it on the shelf for now. Bastard Out of Carolina was a gift and a really good book. Donna Tartt is consistently good. The Goldfinch actually probably isn’t even my favorite of hers, but I’m sure a sucker for books that touch on the art world, and I can surely imagine going back to several of her books one day, this one among them.

I don’t know why I hang onto A Hog on Ice. It’s one of those weird little word nerd reference books that I’ve never actually read but but I also don’t like to get rid of because maybe one day (inevitably the day after I get rid of it), I’ll have cause to look up a phrase. The book purports to give the origin stories for colloquial phrases, but they’re in no discernible order, so as a reference, it’s not actually all that useful. As a bathroom book, it might be ok. The internet has likely rendered the book obsolete.

Carver writes one heck of a short story, and I dip back into his work occasionally. Where I’m Calling From is chock full of good ones.

Ozick I keep on principle. I forget the details of The Puttermesser Papers, but I find her work consistently smart and satisfying.

Signifying Rappers I own because I used to fancy myself an aspiring owner of all works by Wallace. It’s ok as a book, I guess. Farther along in the shelf, you’ll see Everything and More, another Wallace book that to me was so-so but that I keep because maybe I’ll read it again some day and in part because once I’ve bought Wallace, I don’t get rid of Wallace.

Arranging your bookshelves by color has its downfalls, as I was reminded this weekend when I purchased a copy of Frankenstein for my daughter’s summer reading for next year’s schoolwork. I was fairly certain we owned a copy already, but I was looking in the blue and black sections of my shelves and overlooked this slim pale volume. So now we own two copies (the new one has a black spine).

I haven’t read DeLillo’s Players in many years and don’t remember liking it much when I read it, but I tend to keep DeLillo, thinking that one day maybe I’ll dip in and do a study of him or reread everything at least.

Evangeline is lovely, and I reread it every so often (I’m way overdue for a read). I also have this poem in the beautiful two-volume Longellow collection back on shelf #7, but this one makes for more convenient reading.

In general, graphic novels and comics don’t do a whole lot for me. I find them annoying to read (which, to be clear, says more about me than about the form). I do try to get out of this mentality from time to time, and a few years ago, a few people had suggested Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, or The Smartest Kid on Earth. I read and enjoyed it and will almost certainly read it again some day. I’ve heard good things about Ware’s Building Stories but haven’t ever yet managed to work up the gumption to try it out (it sounds more annoying even than trying to visually parse graphic novels).

Portnoy’s Complaint is hilarious. With Roth recently dead, I suppose I ought to go and read a lot of his stuff, though I resist for now because I imagine him to be pretty far afield of the more diverse sort of reading I’ve been trying to do over the last couple of years. I’ve read a couple of others of his and have several others lying unread around the house.

I sort of hated Vineland, but I hang onto Pynchon with aspirations of doing a reread of the whole body of work one day, and maybe one day I’ll appreciate it (I hated Gravity’s Rainbow my first few abortive and probably my first full time through it too, and it grew on me, so maybe this one will too). Against the Day was surprisingly enjoyable and, for Pynchon, easy. I keep it in part because I keep Pynchon and in part because I’d like to read it again one day for enjoyment (rather than as medicine, which is sometimes how Pynchon goes down for me).

And finally, Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness is great. I like her work a lot. Every story has this feeling of having been bolted together just perfectly, and even when they’re a little dull, they feel so well constructed and often enough have this little central darkness to them that it’s hard not to admire Munro. I’ll read and reread her forever, and it’s good to have a collection I can pick up and leaf through when the mood strikes me.

Controlling Black Bodies

People of color are systematically mistreated in the U.S. both by individuals and by the organizations charged with protecting the people. People of color in the U.S. can’t go to a park, drive a car, play in their own neighborhoods, walk to the homes of their grandparents, hold a bag of candy, go to their prom, wait for a friend at a restaurant, or any number of other pretty routine activities without having to worry that they’ll be singled out and harassed (in the more benign case) or in far too many cases physically abused or even murdered by citizens and government enforcers alike.

White people can do just about anything they like. For example, I routinely exceed the speed limit, sometimes by quite an unsafe margin. I know that if I get caught, the worst that’s likely to happen to me is that I’ll get a brief talking to and a speeding ticket. I feel a little nervous or annoyed if I get pulled over, but it has never occurred to me to fear for my safety at a traffic stop. It’s never occurred to me that I might be removed from the car and restrained or that my car would be searched or that I would be hit or choked, possibly to death. Heck, I might even feel like I can joke around with the officer a little to win them over and see if they’ll reduce my penalty. I don’t imagine that people of color in the U.S. have the privilege of adopting the same pretty casual stance. I imagine they feel pretty vulnerable.

I think that most white people are probably largely blind to this privilege. I know that I was for much of my life to date. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily willful or malicious blindness. You are to some degree a product of your environment. I am a white man who grew up in a racist backwater town in the South. I went to school with black kids and was friends with black kids, but I also fell into the sorts of default attitudes and behaviors my environment taught me were appropriate. I didn’t know any better at the time, but it makes me feel ashamed now anyway. I was a product of my environment, and until I had enough experience and knowledge to begin to see my way out of those default perspectives, I don’t believe I was morally culpable.

But once you are mentally capable of moral culpability and once any blinders have been removed, failing to adjust your perspective and take reasonable actions to correct your behavior is immoral. Acting to keep blinders in place for yourself or for others is also immoral.

In 2016, NFL player Colin Kaepernick started kneeling for the national anthem played before his team’s football games. It was a powerful peaceful protest of police brutality against people of color — the more powerful because players traditionally take a knee when a player is injured on the field of play. Kaepernick’s action eventually led to many other players making the same silent protest, and this collective, public, high-profile protest has been (or should have been) a removal of blinders for any who have observed it. No one familiar with the protest can truly have failed to understand the message now that there has been a lot of public dialogue about the context for his kneeling: People of color are being brutalized disproportionately by our government, and Kaepernick, et al, would prefer to kneel in protest of that injury than to salute the flag of a country that fails to acknowledge or abolish institutionalized racism that causes that injury.

You can disagree with Kaepernick’s position, but you can’t at this point say that you don’t understand it. You can claim to be a patriot who reveres the flag and the anthem, but to do so in a case such as this is to revere the veneer of patriotism rather than the substance of patriotism, such as the precept that all people should be treated equally and are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Suggesting that Kaepernick should stop his protest is like suggesting that a rape victim not call for help. To willfully prevent Kaepernick from protesting (whether by force or implicitly by collusion or penalty) is to gag the rape victim yourself.

This week, the overwhelmingly white NFL owners instituted a policy that any players or staffers on the field must stand for the national anthem, out of respect for the anthem. Failure to do so will result in penalties for teams and/or players. Players are of course welcome (the owners allow) to stage their protests out of sight without penalty. The owners are not preventing the rape victim from calling for help, but they’re making sure the call cannot be heard. It’s a difference without a distinction. I suppose this felt to the owners like a clever concession, but I believe it is morally bankrupt. It is of course their right to conduct the business of the organization as they see fit, but they are morally culpable here and should feel ashamed, as should anybody who supports them.

When I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me a couple of years ago, I didn’t fully understand his emphasis on the black body, but the more I’ve read and the more black people I’ve seen treated as bodies to be manipulated rather than as people, the more I’ve begun to understand his emphasis.

The NFL is led by wealthy, mostly white, owners whose enterprises rely for their profit on the physical use and abuse of what are effectively owned bodies, many of them black. It’s easy to think of these millionaire football players as autonomous, empowered human beings who could do more or less what they like, but this move by the NFL really underscores that these men are still black bodies to be manipulated by the white people who own them.

The owners have here said: You may protest if you wish, but your body must be hidden from view while you do so. This to me seems not so very distant from pushing black bodies to the back of the bus or to their own restrooms or away from the lunch counter. These behaviors in turn were driven by racism that led to brutality (mob and police) against people of color, which continues today in the form of disproportionate police brutality against people of color. What we see today isn’t so terribly different from the use of dogs and fire hoses to control black bodies in the 60s. Some of what we see today — some of what Kaepernick and company have protested to the chagrin of the owners — isn’t so terribly different from hanging black bodies from trees, and a failure on the part of those of us with white privilege to acknowledge this and to push back against it renders us complicit and morally culpable.

The Greenville Cup

This weekend, I attended and played in my first hurling tournament. Because teams are few and far between in the U.S., regional teams come together a few times a year to play one another, and Greenville, South Carolina, hosted this weekend’s tournament. It was to be a stormy, nasty weekend, but weather turned out to be much better than expected (mostly overcast or sunny, with one 10-minute downpour late in our second game). Only three teams were able to make it to this one — the host team, the Atlanta team, and Knoxville. The plan was to have each team play each other team and to finish with a championship game between either any teams who won twice or the two overall point leaders in the event of a tie.

There was a tournament in Charleston a couple of months ago, but I didn’t go to that one, mostly because I was still nursing an injured ankle. The ankle is mostly ok now — it remains a little tender and swollen, and I remain afraid I’ll re-injure it, but I’m able to get around on it about as well as before. So this was my first tournament experience. It was, mostly, good.

I’ve been practicing the sport for a few months now with our small team. We typically have 6 – 10 people come out for bi-weekly practices, and we occasionally play matches we optimistically call “city league” games in which we get as many to show up as we can and play tiny-team scrimmages with 20-minute halves. We were unable to field a full team in Charleston and had to borrow players from other teams. This means of course that we tend to be light on substitute players, which in turn means that with two matches back-to-back and the prospect of a championship match, we got pretty tired. We did start with three subs in Greenville, but one guy had to leave early in the second game and another took a stick across the thumb and had to stop playing (the thumb would later turn out to be crushed — fractured in multiple places). Because I’m fairly new and honestly not very good yet, I was (thankfully) a sub, which meant that I played probably about half the time.

We played thirty-minute halves and played two games, so I stood around and occasionally jogged and more occasionally sprinted or jumped for balls for probably an hour or so total spread out over the two games. It was more exertion than I’m used to, and though I thankfully sustained no injuries, I’m a little sore from a greater diversity and intensity of movement than I get even at our more exerting practices.

I did nothing to distinguish myself, really. The game is fairly physical, and I never played any physical sports as a kid; learning to do so in my 40s is a bit of an adjustment, not least of all because I’m the sort by nature who does the whole “oh, after you” routine when another person and I seem to be moving toward the same space. I did get a little physical and shoulder check some players, and one of these efforts led to my winning and scooping the ball out to a teammate who scored, which was neat. I had maybe one other play that was ok, but otherwise, I felt mostly like I was running around without a clue.

My son is playing baseball this year for the first time since a year of tee-ball and a year of coach-pitch several years back. He hasn’t watched a whole lot of baseball, much less played competitively, so he mostly doesn’t know what he’s doing beyond the very basics. His coach will try him out in a new position without warning (there hasn’t been much practice time for instruction), and I have to sort of post mortem his games to help him understand things he didn’t understand about how to play that particular position (e.g. if you’re in left field and a runner is on second with third base open, passed balls are so common in this league that you have to be prepared to back up a botched throw to third to catch a steal). My experience in this tournament was much the same. I’ve watched a handful of pro hurling matches, but it’s so fast-paced and I’m so little familiar with field sport strategy in general and hurling in particular that it’s been hard for me to grok the nuances of how to play the various positions. Add to that the fact that the camera tends to follow the ball, and I had no idea how to play positions that are frequently off camera — a couple of which I played this weekend. So there was an awful lot of time during which I felt like a clueless kid sort of wandering around and expending energy but not actually contributing much. This will get better with experience, of course.

We won our first game, against Greenville, and we ran out of gas against a fit and rested Atlanta team in our second game. Losing two players so that we had less of a bench to sub from didn’t help us any.  Atlanta and Greenville played next, and there was an injury and some unsporting behavior that resulted in the match being called off, with Atlanta retaining possession of the prized Greenville Cup, which they had won last year. To end the day on a better note than a called game, the teams agreed to play a final inter-squad game (teams picked by tossing participating players’ hurls into a pile and then randomly dividing them up to form two teams), and this was pretty fun to watch (having escaped injury so far and wanting to keep that record, and being pretty tired, I merely spectated).

I left the match a little sore but grateful that I hadn’t been injured. Skinned knees and bruises and wrenched joints abound even when there aren’t more serious injuries. While leaping for a ball, I took one really solid hit that grounded me and knocked the wind out of me, but walked away from that unhurt. I also walked away feeling like I want to do some conditioning to get myself in better shape so that I can be a better support to my team members in future matches. I’ve always hated running and sprinting and plyometrics and such, but being a member of a team makes me (for now, while sitting comfortably and not quite ready yet to tie on the shoes and go for a sprint) want to do these bizarre things.

It was a good experience on the whole, and I’m keen to learn more about how to be a better player in games. Doing drills at practice, and even scrimmaging my teammates, is a much different, less intense sort of play.


Here I am watching from the sidelines in the game we won.

Between games, I asked for some instruction about how to play a couple of the positions I had subbed in for that had been unfamiliar to me, and a couple of our more experienced players kindly helped me out.

Here I’m getting more instruction. I had been playing a full forward position (or maybe it was full back — I played both) but coming way too far off the goal as play went beyond midfield.

A rare shot of me “in action” — which for a fair bit of my playing time meant standing around waiting for the ball to come to my end of the field and then running in the general direction of the ball only to have somebody else do something useful with it. It’s almost surprising that I’m sore given that so much of my play was me just standing there waiting.

Seven Years

On May 2 of 2011, I started work full time at a little company called Automattic that didn’t seem so little at the time. The company worked and still works remotely, meaning that many of us work in our pajamas from home or from wherever in the world our wanderlust takes us. I had worked for a company called Flock for about six years before, and that was a remote job too. The oldest of my two children will be 14 this summer, and I’ve worked from home for all but a few months of her entire life. It’s been such a privilege.

Every year, Automattic hosts what we call the Grand Meetup (“GM” for short), in which all who are able come together in one place. My first GM was in Budapest in 2011, and this was my first travel ever outside of the U.S. and Canada. We were about 80 people, and that gathering is pictured at top left in the photo below. Each year at the GM, we do a photo like this, and mine from this past September just arrived in the mail (see bottom right). We’re a little over 700 people now.

I don’t think of myself as a sentimental person in general, but I do have a very soft spot for these annual photos. I keep them grouped together on top of a filing cabinet in my office. I’ve worked one job or another, full- or part-time, since I was in my early teens (when I worked on farms and was paid in cash under the table), and I’ve been working as a grown-up with real grown-up jobs for very nearly half my life now. Although I’ve had any number of coworkers I liked, I’ve never worked with so many whom I liked so very much and with whom I’ve connected with as sincere a fondness as I do with many of the colleagues I’ve met through Automattic.


Slaw blogging

At dinner with the family the other night, I turned conversation, as one does, to Bob Loblaw, the character from the television program Arrested Development. If you don’t know the show, Loblaw is a lawyer. At some point during the show’s events, he decides to take up blogging, and his blog is called The Bob Loblaw Law Blog.

As I encouraged my son to take a portion of slaw, I thought “what if Bob Loblaw had a slaw blog?” Who wouldn’t be riveted to The Bob Loblaw Slaw Blog? Further, I thought, what if there were some sort of tort law pertaining to food preparation and there were fascinating legal codes pertaining to slaw? Would we then have the opportunity to read The Bob Loblaw Slaw Law Blog? Or, further yet, what if there were a whole industry around slaw blogging and eventually, due to fierce competition and similar other factors in the slaw blogging market, a niche that an expert like Bob Loblaw might fill for blogging about the laws applicable to this very specialized slaw blogging industry? Might we then have the opportunity to read The Bob Loblaw Slaw Blog Law Blog? And, further still, what if The Bob Loblaw Slaw Blog Law Blog really took off and demand arose for a behind-the-scenes peek at how the blog gets made? Might we then know the pleasure of reading The Bob Loblaw “Bob Loblaw Slaw Blog Law Blog” Blog?

As I outlined the thrilling possibilities my son’s slaw had opened my eyes to, the family quietly rolled their eyes and carried on with their meal, desensitized by now to these outbursts on my part, the philistines.