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Squinting at another reality

She was shuffling around Nakamise Dori, the shopping boulevard that leads to Sensō-ji in Asakusa. She touched a lot of elbows trying to speak to people who pulled away and ignored her. This did not phase her. She kept moving through the crowd, sizing up the passersby with a laser-sharp focus that seemed to cut through the communal illusion that we are all okay and everything will be fine…

(Asakusa, Tokyo 2015. See more of my work here.)

CATEGORY: PersonalNarrative

Tempeh sausages with pepper spray on the side

By Tamara Enz

A few weeks ago in a random historic-site parking lot in far-flung western Colorado I met a 60-something woman from Atlanta.

CATEGORY: PersonalNarrative“You’re traveling alone? Well good for you. I always wanted to do that but I just don’t have the courage. Some day I will. You’ve never had any problems?”

This is a common question when people see me alone. A few variables in wording, some more direct language about scary people and places to avoid, but the sentiment is the same.

I’ve worked alone in many remote places over the years. I have occasionally stepped out of sight when I felt unsure about what was coming my way. I’m more often worried about destroying an axle on my pickup, not finding my way out of a random maze of canyons, or falling off a cliff than about other people.

Continue reading

Mean street cutie pie

There was no child’s garden in sight…

She was tagging along while her dad walked his dog along Palou Avenue in Hunters Point in San Francisco. Dad and the dog are on the left. On the sidewalk nearby there was trash, discarded clothing, and a dead raccoon. Hunters Point can be that kind of neighborhood. But that didn’t keep her from skipping, giggling, hugging dad’s dog, and being the cutest thing lighting up the street that day…

(Hunters Point, San Francisco 2016. See more of my work here.)

Find the kitty: Hollister, CA

Find the kitty

Neighbors told me the story; the cat confirmed it…

The neighborhood story is the old man who lives in this house is a millionaire widower whose wife died 25 years ago. She was a beautician, the story goes, and the man keeps the old-fashioned hair drying machine on the porch to preserve her memory. He comes out at least once a day and sits in the hair dryer, watching the world go by but never speaking to anyone.

(Hollister, California, April 2016. See more of my work here.)

SuperShuttle-Sucks

SuperShuttle satisfaction survey: you people need to get your act together

SuperShuttle is a smoldering dumpster fire.

I returned home from vacation this morning. I had reserved a lift with SuperShuttle to save a few bucks on airport parking. Never again.

As we landed I flipped on my phone. I had an e-mail from SuperShuttle explaining how to check in on the mobile. Sweet. I followed the instructions and proceeded to the baggage claim. I was to select “Downtown” or “Not Downtown” and submit once I had my bag. Here’s where it went sideways.

  • I was instructed to go out door 505 on the east side and head over to the shuttles on island 5. I did. Found SS there, gave the guy my reservation number, he says cool, and I hop in.
  • Once in we got into the “where are you going?” process. Turns out I was in the wrong van. Continue reading
Book-Review

Book Review: Waving Backwards: A Savannah Novel by V. L. Brunskill

V. L. Brunskill’s Waving Backwards is a bildungsroman with a twist; the heroine must find her way forward by finding her way backwards….

Waving Backwards: A Savannah Novel by V. L. Brunskill

I wrote last week about Lee Smith’s excellent bildungsroman Black Mountain BreakdownIn that essay I defended Smith’s work, which falls clearly in the realm of what is sometimes unfairly dismissed as “lifestyle fiction” as a work of considerable power and a bildungsroman with a true twist: its protagonist collapses when she encounters her existential moment.

V. L. Brunskill’s Waving Backwards is similar to Smith’s novel in that its young female protagonist is trying to reach her existential moment, to come to terms with who she is as a person and what being who she is means. It’s also similar to Smith’s novel in that Waving Backwards might be dismissed as “lifestyle fiction,” as another example of what is often described as that peculiarly Southern form of lifestyle fiction called the “Mama and them” book. Such works are invariably coming-of-age tales, usually with female protagonists, that look at the eccentricities of growing up in a Southern family.

Brunskill’s novel is certainly about “Mama and them,” but in Waving Backwards the theme of “Mama and them” gets taken places that readers have likely never considered.  Continue reading

CATEGORY: ArtSunday

Arnold Gingrich: a well tempered angler

“Actually, though being well read must be a part of the process, an angler is tempered chiefly by practice and experience, by learning and attempting to reach the successively higher goals of his sport, and thus acquiring, through any amount of disappointment and frustration, the satisfaction of knowing that he is doing the simplest thing in the hardest way possible.” – Arnold Gingrich

The Well-Tempered Angler by Arnold Gingrich. image courtesy librarything.com

A slight detour from my pursuit of world literature classics via the 2015 reading list. I’ve had a couple of gifts this past week, both from my son Josh. The first gift is a new granddaughter, Susanna Quinn, our first grandchild and a wondrous new addition to the life of this old writer/professor/musician. Of course, in that endeavor he had notable assistance from his lovely wife Sandra, so credit where credit is due.  The second gift Josh bestowed upon me was a book – you may let your shock and awe begin. We were on our way  to pick up some dinner the evening that the amazing and lovely Susanna was allowed to come home from the hospital and when I got into Josh’s car, there was a book in the floorboard. “Take that, Dad,” he said. “I’ve been meaning to give it to you.” It was a copy of The Well-Tempered Angler by Arnold Gingrich. Having just muddled my way through Andre Gide’s Corydon and just become a grandfather, I was feeling the need for something – shall we say, self-indulgent? The Well-Tempered Angler fit the bill perfectly.

The book is on fly fishing, my favorite sport.  I’ve written about fly fishing, on a number of occasions now. You can read this and this and this if you feel so inclined. I shall probably write about fly fishing again.

I think we have established that I have a certain fondness for fly fishing. So did Arnold Gingrich. For anyone who finds the literature of angling of any interest at all, or for those with a curiosity about how those of the New York literary scene lived back in the heady days of White, Thurber, and Parker at The New Yorker, and Hemingway and Fitzgerald at Esquire, the various sections of this book will be delightful.  Continue reading

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Encountering Mt. Doom: hiking the Tongariro Alpine Crossing

15 - 2Completing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in on March 25 was neither what I anticipated nor hoped for. My husband,  John, and I have been planning our trip to New Zealand for months and since seeing the trek described as “one of the world’s top single-day hikes” we had put it at the top of our to-do list.

New Zealand consists of two main islands and Tongariro National Park sits in the middle of the North Island. For people who are not trekking enthusiasts, the way that the park is most familiar is that it was the filming site of the fictional Mt. Doom in Peter Jackson’s adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. There are several volcanic peaks in the park. Mt. Ngauruhoe, an iconic and stark volcanic cone became Mt. Doom–from which the One Ring was forged and to which it had to be returned.

First, let me say that the 19.4 kilometer “Crossing” was more of a “climb” than a “hike.” If I had understood more about the nature of much of the trail in advance–I might have had second thoughts. I read through the website, did some other research, looked at the beautiful pictures. The incredible scenery was all there when I did the hike. But, not surprisingly, there are not a whole lot of pictures of the narrow hogbacks that had to be climbed or descended (probably because few people are of a mind or stomach to stop and pull out the camera under those circumstances).

Continue reading

Health

Something fishy in the air from the Voice of America

OMG. Beware the fast AIDS! Oh, and Cuba!

Turns out there was an article in eBioMedicine, an Elsevier service, so legit as far as I can tell. The paper appears to be by a bunch of legitimate researchers. According to eBioMedicine, the article is in press, publication stage: In Press Corrected Proof. To wit, no publication date as of yet. So far, I’ll be damned if I can figure out when it was originally written. Just skimming the intro, it appears that the research started in earnest in 2007. In the Discussion section, the most recent reference date is 2013. Maybe there’s been no further publication/debate/controversy on the subject since then. Plausible.

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WordsDay: Literature

The oyster climbs the Great Chain of Being: Eleanor Clark’s Locmariaquer

“…But thilke text heeld he nat worth an oyster….” – Geoffrey Chaucer

The Oysters of Locmariaquer by Eleanor Clark (image courtesy Goodreads)

Anyone who reads Eleanor Clark’s classic The Oysters of Locmariaquer will come away from the book convinced of two things: 1) cultivating oysters is a complex and difficult task that might well suck the life out of one foolish enough to try to do so; 2) if the people from any place are up to the task of cultivating oysters, it is the Bretons. Clark’s book falls into that interesting category of nonfiction made famous by the great John McPhee. That is, Eleanor Clark, like McPhee, combines meticulous research (there is more in this book than anyone this side of an ichthyologist would want to know about the biology of oysters and the history of human/oyster relations) with personal narrative (there are stories of the lives of Breton villagers who are tied to the oyster industry – or to Brittany – that can move even the most jaded soul).

Of course, Clark antedates McPhee, and perhaps he owes her a debt for combining the scientific and historical with the personal in ways that can engross the reader and make one learn in spite of oneself. After all, Clark won the National Book Award for Nonfiction with this tale of Belon oysters and the Breton people who raise them in 1965, the same year McPhee published his first significant workContinue reading

Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Black Thursday

Thanksgiving is now Black Thursday and Black Friday is upon us: what should America not be thankful for?

The nation gives thanks … for what?

I was never a William Burroughs fan, but I nonetheless find myself thinking about his 1986 “Thanksgiving Prayer,” surely one of the most caustic (and insightful) takes on our great American holiday. I’m in this sort of mood for a reason. Or two, or three.

First off, you may have noticed all the static around the news that more and more businesses will be open today, getting a jump on tomorrow’s appalling orgy of consumerism, Black Friday. That term originated in the early 1960s, apparently, with bus drivers and the police, who used it to describe the mayhem surrounding the biggest shopping day of the year. Continue reading

CATEGORY: WordsDay

WordsDay: Trout fishing in one part of America…

Fishing on top of the old Smokies

Smoky Mountain Trout Fishing Guide by Don Kirk (image courtesy Goodreads)

In an entry written not too awfully long ago, I confessed to one of my great passions and pleasures in life: fly fishing for trout here in my native North Carolina mountains. As you might guess, on my bookshelves reside books related to that passion. Some, like The Orvis Fly-Fishing Guide, might reside on the shelves of any serious angler. But some are specific to the sort of trout angling I do here in NC.

Such a one is the book in this review, Don Kirk’s exhaustive look at trout fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (and nearby environs), Smoky Mountain Trout Fishing. Kirk does a fine job of offering suggestions to anglers about where to find trout, stream sizes, casting difficulties that might be faced by anglers (especially important to fly fishers), and the remoteness of streams as well as the strenuousness required of fishers for reaching them. This is all great info for any angler interested in pursuing that beautiful and elusive creature, the Southern Brook trout, affectionately known to mountain natives as the “speck.” Continue reading

Sunset, Dacozy Beach Resort, Moalboal, Philippines

Novel Journey 8: In which the author submits

Sunset, Dacozy Beach Resort, Moalboal, Philippines

Sunset, Dacozy Beach Resort, Moalboal, Philippines

Eventually there comes the moment when any author has to submit what they have written to the jaded palate of agencies. Friends have enjoyed what I’ve written, but one always receives a bit of a free pass from that quarter. Today I started the process of seeking representation. Continue reading

Bonsai Farm, Moalboal, Philippines

Novel Journey 3: In which the author goes snorkeling

Bonsai Farm, Moalboal, Philippines

Bonsai Farm, Moalboal, Philippines

It is a 20 minute walk from Dacozy to Panagsama village through the village where the folks who support the tourist industry actually live.

There is one cluster of small houses where everyone seems to have gone made for bonsai trees. I’m not sure if it is a very enthusiastic hobby or something raised to sell elsewhere. Continue reading

Panagsama Beach, Moalboal

Novel Journey 1: In which the author goes forth

Panagsama Beach, Moalboal

Panagsama Beach, Moalboal

My father passed away three weeks ago.

His cancer returned in May and I flew home for a few weeks to spend time with him and my mom. He had just completed a round of radiation therapy and was recovering his fitness. My mom was retiring early and they were hoping to go travelling together, bringing forward plans originally slated for my mom’s 70th birthday, still two years away.

When I left, only two months ago, all seemed well. But it hangs over everything. Every conversation. Each moment.

My dad’s sister visited from Australia six weeks ago and, again, everything seemed fine. Then the phone call and the hasty trip to South Africa.

I started writing my first novel, Tartarus One, when I was 12 years old on my father’s first computer. It was an IBM clone with a tiny green cathode ray screen. I wrote about 10,000 words before stopping. The story then was about a man who was unjustly imprisoned in a jail in space, who escaped by building a small craft, and crashed in central Africa before returning to exact vengeance.

It was a clever story but I realised quite quickly that the voice and approach I was writing in wasn’t my own. It was Stephen King’s. And I knew that wouldn’t do.

I tried off and on over the years but, unless one has a trust fund or a supportive, wealthy and understanding spouse, writing full-time is too expensive and the returns too insecure. I have always worked and never earned sufficient to give it a go.

Over the years Tartarus One became Tartarus Falls. The story evolved, became more complex, then simpler, then honed. But I never wrote it.

I arrived on Monday afternoon. He was in bed and hadn’t moved for a few days. He was thrilled to see me and my normally physically reserved father held my hand tightly as we spoke that afternoon. Him in short, exhausted bursts. Every word leaving him panting from the effort.

He didn’t look well. His face swollen and blotchy, pale. His skin cold, even though he said he felt warm. He couldn’t lift his arms, so I helped feed him, change him, drop water into his mouth with a syringe.

But he was cheerful. Chatty, even. He wasn’t in pain, except when we moved him.

He seemed to think that he could recover even from this. The nurse who arrived left me in no doubt how serious things were. He hadn’t urinated in days, his kidneys had stopped.

I’ve always worked hard and have taken tremendous risks with my ideas, ambitions and choices. Sometimes that worked, sometimes that didn’t. My life hasn’t been dull.

A year ago, with an awareness that life is shorter than one may hope but still long enough, I contacted a writer mate of mine. Jon Evans has written a few novels and even sold sufficient of them to pay for an expanded life-style, although he does keep a regular software job as well. He travels and writes and works.

Let’s go somewhere with a beach, sufficiently low-cost to keep us there a while, good internet access, and good diving, and let us each write a novel, I suggested. He thought it a good idea and we began hunting though island nations.

Cuba meets most criteria, except for being an evil Stalinist dictatorship. So the internet is crap. Papua New Guinea is just fucking expensive. Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand … either of us have already been.

That left the Philippines. Which consists of several hundred islands. Next question, which one?

My brother arrived on Tuesday. By then, my father could only speak a word or two before losing consciousness. I called the UK and let my wife speak to him.

They’ve always had a very special relationship, going to see cricket together at Lord’s in the UK. Could it be only a year ago that my wife made my dad run for a bus to get to the grounds?

“I love you dad,” she said.

My mom, my brother and I sat around the bed, playing music, telling stories, laughing, sometimes crying. We remembered.

My story, while being science fiction, happens to be set in Nigeria. Why? Well, when my hero escapes from an orbital jail which uses a space elevator to transfer goods and people, it has to be sited over the equator.

I was fortunate to have spent a month in Nigeria over this year, working on a local data transparency project for the Edo State government. I also took a few days to visit some of the places where the story happens. I found books on Efik culture and cuisine. I did my research, discovering I could make my villains much more terrifying than I had originally imagined.

I worked out the structure of the story, the set-pieces, the characters.

My sister-in-law and nephews arrived on Wednesday. He wasn’t able to speak anymore although, at least in the morning, he was able to acknowledge that he was still listening.

When I helped move him, or dress him, or feed him, I could see the dark splotches under his skin that must be part of the cancer spreading throughout his body. If a thing could be said to be evil, they looked it.

“Wait,” he would gasp. Short, stubby words. Every time we needed to move him.

Through the day, he got weaker.

Even as I booked my plane tickets and reserved accommodation, I was worried. What happens with my dad’s cancer? Would he live long enough for the book to be published? He was never much of a reader and the cancer meant that he couldn’t see very well, but he could know that it was written. That it was done.

I never expected the call to come so soon.

At 16h00 he asked me for peanuts. I put a little peanut butter on a teaspoon and he sucked it. Then he asked for cheese and onion chips. I couldn’t give him that. I placed some water in his mouth with the syringe.

He refused food at 17h00. Clamped his jaws shut and wouldn’t take anything. Then he slept, his mouth open, gasping.

I was already exhausted when I packed for Moalboal. I had just returned from South Africa, spending the night before working through my dad’s documents with my mom, helping her prepare for the accountants so they could settle his estate.

There had been no space to mourn yet and it would be another two weeks before I would get any rest. I still had a conference to prepare for in Geneva, several projects to close out, a number of proposals to write and submit, and a report to finish.

I stayed with him till 23h50. It had been three days since I last snatched more than a few hours of sleep and I left my mom alone with him.

She woke me at 00h28 on Thursday morning. I checked that he was no longer breathing, that his heart had stopped, and I covered him with a sheet.

We called the Chevra Kadisha and we sat quietly together. My brother, my mother, and me.

This morning I woke up with the sound of the ocean against the shore. Two-and-a-half days of travel behind me.

For the next four weeks, a novelist’s journey ahead.

CATEGORY: American Culture

Death, Iowa and being 30 minutes late to an orgy with Marcia Brady and Laurie Partridge: What’s the best time zone in America?

The United States spans six time zones. I have now lived in four of them (Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific), visited a fifth (Hawaiian-Aleutian) and flown over the sixth (Alaskan), so I feel comfortable addressing the question of which one is best with some authority.

Eastern Time Zone

I begin with a certain bias. Like most kids, I hated going to bed. The big reason: I was afraid I’d miss something. I knew that other people were still awake and doing things, and it drove me crazy. Truth is, this is the same thing that bothers me about dying. Death doesn’t scare me, but I think about things like all the Chelsea FC matches that will be played without me and again, it drives me bonkers. And yes, I’m actually serious about this. Continue reading

CATEGORY: EnvironmentNature

Six snake stories

It’s the dog days of summer, the time when it becomes hard to blog. Dedicated and serious bloggers push through it and write brilliant, meaty pieces on the new constitution or nuanced and warm offerings about choral singing and fly fishing or whimsical asides about larping. The less dedicated among us stare at the list of blog topics we intend to tackle, heavy duty pieces about entitlements or the positive role of corporations in politics, then turn away and go back to playing poker on our cellphones.

Better something than nothing, I figure, so today’s blog is about snakes, inspired by the comment thread on Booth’s recent post on fly fishing.

I don’t like snakes, but I don’t dislike them either. We have snakes here on our farm in Indiana and when I see one, I walk around it. Occasionally we’ll have to shoo an aggressive black snake away from the garage with a broom, and I suppose if we found a copperhead or rattler too close to the house I’d probably kill it, but for the most part they go their way and we go ours.

However, I’ve lived much of my life in places where there were snakes, poisonous ones, and have accumulated some stories. Growing up in south Georgia it was massive diamondbacks, huge snakes as thick as your arm that would stretch across the narrow, sandy roads as they sunned themselves. In West Africa, it was mostly cobras and green mambas. In Louisiana, it was water moccasins and in Australia tiger snakes.

1973—West Africa I

Peace Corps training was based in Kenema, where we were housed in a low cinder-block dorm, just a long row of concrete cubicles, each with a cot and a door that was nothing more than a thin piece of cloth on a string. We were playing cards when someone stuck their head in the door and yelled “Snake charmer.” Three of us jumped up and flip flopped across the compound to the street where the snake charmer was performing in front of a crowd of about thirty people.

Snake charmers traveled from village to village performing for tips. They wore black, pajama-like outfits and fluffy headdresses made from black-dyed rags. They carried their snakes in burlap sacks. There was no anti-venin available so locals were terrified of snakes and snake charmers. Snake charmers could handle snakes with impunity because they had “medicine,” what we would call black magic. In other words, they were evil men who’d made a bargain with the devil. If a snake charmer loaded his writhing sacks onto a local jitney bus, called a lorry, everyone else got off. If he came to a village and needed a place to sleep, he got not a room but a house, and afterwards the medicine man performed elaborate rites before anyone would sleep in it again.

This snake charmer was a scraggly man, with brown teeth and the faint odor of palm wine. His act consisted of pulling a snake from a bag, throwing it on the ground so that it faced the crowd, who immediately jumped backwards and screamed, “Wayah!” He’d then reach out, snag it by the tail and return it to the bag. We got there just in time for the spitting cobra. He reached into the bag, pulled the snake out, and threw it to the ground. It took off toward the crowd, who immediately bolted, except for me. I stood where I was and grinned at the snake. Behind me people screamed, “Wayah! Wayah!”

The snake crawled toward me. When it got about eighteen inches away, it rose and hooded, its head level with my bare knees. It swayed back and forth, deciding. The snake charmer looked at me as if I was crazy, then reached out and grabbed the snake by its tail, tugging it back and dropping it into the sack. He tied the top. We stood, legs akimbo and hands on hips, staring at each other. I am sure he was wondering, “Who is this smart ass ruining my act?” I was thinking that these snakes had to be defanged. With exactly the same hubris as a thousand white men in Africa before me, I refused to yield to silly native superstition. Instead of shorts and sandals, I should’ve worn starched khakis and a pith helmet.

After a moment he turned and walked back. Grunting, he lifted his biggest sack, and untied it. He walked over to me. By now I stood on my own little island because the crowd had retreated six feet or so behind me. Looking at me appraisingly, he untied the sack and dumped a cranky, fat Gaboon viper with a head the size of my fist into the dust. It crawled a few inches, felt the heat from my bare foot and coiled into striking position. The snake charmer watched me. I looked at him and smiled.

The crowd was going crazy behind me. Children buried their heads into their parents’ legs and wept. Adults slapped each others’ shoulders and whispered. Wayah! Wayah! The snake charmer looked back and forth from the snake to me. Finally, apparently resigning himself to the reality that I was now part of the act, he shook his head, reached down and grabbed the snake behind the jaws.

Another Volunteer snapped pictures like a photographer at a fashion shoot, racing around, kneeling, turning his camera sideways. Klick, klick, klick, klick. My fans cheered me on. The “wayah’s” of surprise morphed into “wayah’s” of encouragement. Wayah! Wayah! Wayah! The snake charmer hung the heavy snake around my neck and released his hands. He hugged me. He smiled for the camera. I smiled for the camera. The viper smiled for the camera. Klick. Wayah! Klick.

Then came the money shot. The charmer grabbed the snake, held it between us, flipped it over, pried its jaws open and using a small stick raised up a fang fully an inch long. A crystal drop of poison glistened on its tip. I stared at that hypodermic-sharp fang that had been less than an inch from my carotid artery and felt the blood rush down from my head. I felt my knees soften and struggled to hold myself upright. The world went silent. I no longer heard the klicks or the cheers. I couldn’t stop looking at that fang. My tongue was made of dust.

And then I did the single bravest thing I have ever done in my life: I smiled, waved to the crowd and calmly walked back to the dorm.

1973—West Africa II

After training we did visits in the villages of Volunteers who’d been there awhile. In Joe’s village, I went to the latrine. When I came out, I looked down and there, perfectly parallel between my two feet in their plastic sandals, was a short, flat arrow-shaped snake. I didn’t move. Nor did he. We remained like that for what seemed like a very long time. Finally, he slowly turned, his flickering tongue almost touching my bare foot, and crawled away.

Back inside the house, we looked up the snake in Joe’s book. It was a death adder—the same snake that killed Cleopatra.

“Why didn’t you kill it?” asked Joe.

I shook my head. “You kill it. Me and that snake had a deal. I wouldn’t kill it and it wouldn’t kill me. A deal is a deal.”

1974—West Africa

Since it was always warm in West Africa, some Volunteers slept on waterbeds they’d brought from home. Ray was sitting in his living room one day when out of the corner of his eye he saw a small black cobra slide around the corner and into his bedroom. Without thinking he jumped up and yelled, “Kalii!” which means snake. Instantly every adult male in the village poured through his front door, each with a machete. Ray tried to yell stop, but before he could get the words out his mouth a stream of pinkish water poured through the doorway. Inside his bedroom, the dead cobra lay in pieces on his shredded water bed.

1977-Louisiana

We were laying pipe through the Atchafalaya Basin. My job was to follow the excavator digging the ditch in a small aluminum boat. Once or twice a day I’d fuel the machine or lubricate something, but mostly I sat in the boat and watched, there more for safety than for anything else. Every day I’d wash my boat, prepare lunch for the operator of the machine, read and in the middle of the day when it got hot, slip into the bayou for a swim.

This drove the operator and the supervisor crazy, because they rightly thought swimming alone by yourself in a deep black-water bayou with snakes, strong current and the occasional alligator was unsafe. The supervisor would try to talk me out of it by telling me stories like the old urban legend where a man jumps into a river and comes out with fifty snakes hanging on him. I’d just laugh and say that was nonsense, that snakes couldn’t open their mouths underwater or they’d drown.

One day we were sitting on the tracks of the machine and a cottonmouth swam by. A cottonmouth is a very bulky snake and swims very high in the water. Instead of its head poking out of the water at an angle like most water snakes, they form a sort of “S,” almost like a camel’s neck with the top of its head parallel to the surface. This one held a fish in its mouth. The supervisor looked at me, but didn’t say anything. I never swam alone in the bayou again.

1989—Australia

Australia has 6 or 7 of the ten most poisonous snakes in the world, depending on how you count. (You’d think it would be straightforward, but it’s not. Some snakes have very toxic venom, like the sea snake, but have small fangs and rarely bite. Some have venom that is less toxic, like the tai pan, but are quick to bite and inject larger amounts, and whose bites are often fatal.)

A friend was burnt out from work. Another friend offered the use of his country retreat near Melbourne. The first friend went down at night and settled in. The next morning he got up, took his coffee out to the back veranda, and there sunning themselves on the stone path leading into the garden, were half a dozen fat black tiger snakes. Tiger snakes are very poisonous, very agro, and very dangerous. He took his coffee, slowly retreated into the house and went out to the front to sit and have his coffee, where there, laying on the welcome mat was another tiger snake. He quickly packed and left.

2013—Indiana

The other day I was running along Woodall Road and I saw a black snake, actually a Southern Black Racer, dart across the road. I stopped to look at it. It was about three feet long, as thin as a ribbon, and like most Racers, aggressive as all get out. This one coiled up in the leaves, hissed at me and then put his tail up against a dry leaf and began shaking it furiously. It was a pretty good imitation of a rattlesnake. I’m a believer in evolution, but it’s still amazing that behavior this specific could occur through natural selection.

Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (TSR)

HobbyWeek: ShadowRun, Rifts, and Dungeons & Dragons – oh my!

Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (TSR)

Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (TSR)

I started playing role-playing games (RPGs) when I was in 4th or 5th grade. It was the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set pictured here, actually, complete with crappy plastic dice that turned to powder in the sun. I don’t remember where I got it, whether it was a gift from my high school-aged sister (who was playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons [AD&D] at the time) in order to get me to stop watching her game all the time or if I saved up my allowance or what. At this point it hardly matters, because that basic set that I only barely played was a gateway to worlds ranging from classic Tolkien-based fantasy to cyberpunk to space opera.

There was never a large enough group of people in junior high and high school to actually get a game established, and I knew that adding RPGs to the mix would have made me even more of an outcast than I already was. So I didn’t play much from the time I got that basic set until I got to college. Penn State main campus is so large that there is a critical mass of people for just about any hobby you can imagine, including tabletop gaming. And so it came to pass that I started playing RPGs in my freshman year of college. I’ve been playing more or less constantly ever since, through grad school, dating, marriage, a career, and two kids (who are starting to show some interest in tabletop gaming themselves). And at this point most of my closest friends are guys whom I met when I advertised in a Boulder, Colorado game store in 1996 that I was starting a ShadowRun campaign.

Over the course of the last 21 years of gaming I’ve done it all – player, game master, built my own fantasy and cyberpunk worlds, and even homebrewed up a semi-custom system based on the 2nd Edition ShadowRun rules for one of my worlds. I initially created those homebrew rules as way to define some rules for an alternate cyberpunk Earth in which I was (and still am) planning to write SF short stories and novels.

If you asked me whether I liked playing or running the game (game mastering, or GMing for short) more, I’d have to say GMing. There’s something addictive about matching my wits against five to eight very smart people, and it’s an amazing feeling when I can craft some adventure that they enjoy and yet still find challenging. It’s fun to watch a player’s jaw drop when something totally unexpected happens (for my gaming friends who I know are reading this, “He got up”). But I’ve come to really appreciate those moments when my gamers outthink me and throw me such a curveball that I have to toss all my planning out the window as a result. In my group we call that “filing a flight plan” for reasons that will become apparent in a moment.

I GMed a multi-year long campaign in the magic-meets-cyberpunk game ShadowRun. The game was largely set in Seattle after the United States had broken up and Seattle had essentially become a city-state. The party (group of player characters, or PCs) had been hired as bodyguards for a woman who needed to make it to Denver safely several days later. The party got attacked several times by my bad guys and had successfully kept the woman safe, but I had planned a major ambush at the Seattle-Tacoma airport for when the party delivered the woman to her scheduled flight to Denver.

One of the PCs owned a small jet that he kept at a small area airport and I had previously established that he could fly the plane around Seattle without filing a flight plan so long as he wasn’t planning on flying outside the borders of city. I had guessed that they might try to fly the woman from the area airport to Sea-Tac airport and had prepared for that, but after privately discussing how best to get the woman to Denver, they called me back into the room and informed me that they needed to file a flight plan. I reminded them that they didn’t need to file one to fly inside the city of Seattle, and they said “We know – we need to file a flight plan.” And that’s when it hit me that they were going to fly her directly to Denver, bypassing entirely my carefully planned ambush.

I remember looking down at my pile of maps and NPCs and saying something along the lines of “Well, I guess I don’t need these anymore.”

Moments like that are why I love GMing so much. Sure, GMing can be frustrating sometimes. The way I run my games is a major time commitment for me. And given I run multi-year campaigns, decisions I make during character creation have been known to come back and bite me in the ass months or even years later. But those inevitable frustrations are worth it every time the party files a flight plan or they tell me “you suck” because of the green slime I hid in the mine tunnels (underwater where they can’t see it or burn it off, of course).

While GMing games is the most fun for me, even I get burned out and need a break from time to time. When that happens one of the players steps up and offers to run a game and I get to play. At this point I’ve mostly played D&D, but I’ve also played some ShadowRun in college, In Nominae, Champions, Rifts, and a little GURPS cyberpunk. I’ve been a Star Wars cyborg (pre-Episode 1, thankyouverymuch), an angel, a hacker, a Macross Valkyrie pilot, and more wizards, clerics, and monks of different D&D races than I can even count. I’ve also had my character’s gender changed via reincarnation or other magic so many times that it’s become a running gag.

Playing is a lot less time consuming than GMing and it’s easier to do while raising kids. But it also gives me an opportunity to create characters in one world that I can then re-purpose for my own world. For example, I took a female monk I played in one of my friends’ games and imported her into my own D&D world. And sometimes I’ve taken major NPCs I created for a game I was GMing and played a version of them in another. It’s fun to be able to pretend to be something I’m not, or to take some part of my own personality and build a character around it to see just what happens.

Over the years I’ve had lots of hobbies. But only a few have been important enough for me to stick with them through hell and high water. Science fiction is one, collecting and building LEGO (especially Star Wars LEGO) is another. Blogging is a third. But the one that I’ve stuck with the longest, and quite possibly enjoyed the most, is role-playing games.