Dungeons & Dragons & Dropped Calls


Well, that was a bust, albeit a fun one. The first play session of the JPAG D&D campaign was plagued by internet issues -- Skype dropped the call constantly (probably because we had six people on at once), and we couldn't get our initial choice of game mapping software up and running appropriately.

There was, of course, plenty of smartassery, however. It was fun despite the stupid problems with technology, and Marie did a great job setting us up to have a practice combat encounter. We just never got to finish it because of tech issues. But I did get to use my kewl dice!

So for next time we are using Ventrilo, which is a favorite among online RPG players of all stripes, I understand. Now to find a better whiteboard/map application.

It would be nice, however, if some people in the party bothered to learn how to play the damn game, rather than show up with no clue of how their character functions. Yeah, I'm talking about you, JPAG Show co-host! Time to fish or cut bait, pal.



I've fallen way, way behind in editing podcasts. As in, I had to publish two episodes of the JPAG Show last week, and am on track for publishing two more this week.

It's a weekly show, mind you. Not zesty.

I also am fighting with encoding tricks to get the first episode of the podcast I'm hosting/producing for work up and running. What's tricky about it, you ask? Well, the show is destined to be published in the context of our online course management platform, and specifically in the context of a built-in podcasting application that instructors can access. It's partly to show what can be done, and partly to set a solid example, and partly because it will be edifying, and lastly because it's fun. Trouble is, the built-in app has to have .spx files, and if you upload an .mp3 or a .wav file, it converts them to the former format. And quite apart from the sound degradation that inevitably ensues upon conversion, the .spx format is a pain to work with -- very few programs have any kind of support for it, and none of which I'm aware have any kind of intuitive or full-featured options. It's a tricky process of trial and error.

What makes it even dumber is that the podcasting app in the CMS has a filesize limit on uploads of 10MB. You can imagine what a 30-minute podcast with multiple voices and music sounds like after crunching it to that size.

Since the D&D campaign starts tomorrow (well, tomorrow's really a test run through a combat encounter to make sure we don't shoot each other), I have to figure out a recording solution for that, as well. I think we'll be using Skype, so I think the usual JPAG Show recording method will serve.

But I'm seriously considering switching hosting solutions. Podomatic, where the show currently lives in all of its 44-episode glory, is not a cost-effective host, once your backlog of episodes gets high enough; more terrifying is how quickly bandwidth usage spikes when new people subscribe (because they go back for the earlier episodes too). We need a host that doesn't meter bandwidth, and the more I look the better Podbean looks. We'll have to see, but right now it looks like I could essentially halve the cost of running the JPAG Show, have better support, and more intuitive control of publishing options. Probably try to make a move in the next month or so.

Many Partings


Continuing the Tolkien references, but in a wholly different direction, I got a haircut the other day. I realize now, looking back, that every time I've gotten a haircut -- and I mean every time for the last two decades -- I have had to tell the stylist that no, I actually part my hair on the other side. I part my hair on the right side, which is apparently unusual because every stylist assumes I part it on the other.

When I have my wits nearby I remember to voice this important detail early in the haircutting experience, and the chances of a satisfactory coiffure dramatically spike. When I adopt the pollyannish perspective that my longtime stylist will remember for once which way the part goes, I end up with a haircut that goes the wrong way. You know, it does make a difference.

Now, thanks to my most recent haircut, my hair doesn't quite know which way it should part. I'm trying to decide whether I should let the natural part reassert itself over time or try to adopt the common side approach. Meanwhile, I have both parts, or neither, and look somewhat monkish when I stop paying attention.

There and Back Again


So we met Eric and Sarah Catherine today for lunch and hangtime. They've returned from a two-year stint in London with Eric's job at PWC.

They are dealing with reentry issues, not least of which is what seems for all the world like a version of the archetypal journey of the hero. If you've never been subjected to Joseph Campbell, it goes a l'il somethin' like this:
  1. Home community discovers a great need or impending disaster.
  2. Help and/or requisite knowledge to heal the land lies beyond the borders of the familiar home community.
  3. Our hero decides to go get that help/knowledge/Holy Grail/Golden Fleece etc.
  4. The hero crosses the threshold of initiation into mystery and the unknown.
  5. The hero performs various feats of derring-do, gains the favor of the gods etc., and more or less labors in obscurity, finally gaining the sought prize knowledge/item/etc or addressing the threat to the home community. In the process of seeking that outcome, the hero has been changed, irrevocably.
  6. The hero returns to the home community, where he is no longer as he left. Sometimes he is praised; other times he is seen as a threat; still other times he is simply misunderstood and ignored.
Basically, some trips out are one-way tickets. You may save the Shire, but not for yourself, as Frodo says.

I don't know how well that applies here, but I think E and SC are feeling a lot of displacement, particularly since they are returning to old environs and finding themselves utterly changed.

Yes, I suppose it has


Several weeks ago I attended my 20th-year high school reunion. Out of a graduating class of 50+ students, I was one of nine or ten to attend the get-together. I was petrified going in. Flying back to Birmingham, all I could think was "this was a huge mistake. What am I doing here?" In fact, I stood indecisively for several minutes on the curb outside the wine bar where the first of the two evenings was being held (this one with all alumni, the next just with my particular class). With my suitcases.

But I took a breath and drove myself in.

It turned out that as soon as I had a drink in my hand I was approached by three people from my class -- two of whom I disliked during school -- and they were great to see. All of them were a delight to talk with, and as a few more of our classmates showed up, I was surprised to find that I hadn't a single negative thought about any of them. We had grown up, I guess, and each of us looked like an adult (except for me, of course, who still looks like a kid). I found myself talking to people I'd never spoken to, and who wouldn't have given me the time of day in school, and wouldn't you know it, we had things to talk about.

In fact, the weirdest part of the weekend, all told, was the effect that familiarity had on me: specifically that I began to lose sight of all the intervening time. This was nowhere more true than out at Richard Cusick's parents' house. I stayed in the upstairs garage apartment, as I had done many evenings two decades before, and it felt like I had never left. I sat in Pia and George's kitchen, and relaxed with Richard over beer, and tromped around the woods at the farm, and it felt like I was in high school again, and that I could be that guy so easily, and now without all the messed up crap that high school kids deal with all the time.

And Mara was there. That scared me, a bit, because things didn't end well, back then. Yes, it was high school, and what kind of relationship does end well when you're figuring out life for the first time, but nevertheless Mara left a deep impact on my heart as a young man of 17. She had exactly the same mannerisms, exactly the same voice, and the same eyes. She seemed happy; just married a year ago, to a gentleman who coaches aspiring pro tennis players, I think. Seeing her wasn't like slipping back into my younger self. I was conscious initially of the distance there, but still welcomed her with a hug. I wish Shel had been with me, frankly.

So, not that night but the next I had the opportunity to sit down with her and find out what she's been up to since then, and it's been a lot: tried a career as a singer/songwriter, learned to play guitar and piano, collects guitars, works all kinds of odd jobs, was a webmaster for some years, learned to translate Greek at St. Johns, traveled to Japan to play music for a while, etc. etc. I found myself overwhelmed somewhat, and I exclaimed "When did you manage to do all this?"

Her reply made me realize how dangerous the feeling of familiarity was: "It's been twenty years, Randall."

Twenty years since those formative days of my life, gone. I've now lived longer since those days than I had lived up to and including them.

If I think too hard about it I feel like I'll fly apart. Is this what it is to get old? Do you lose yourself as you leave the places and people who were there in your making? I'd like to think they actually come with me, but that feels untrue. There's an exchange, maybe. I leave something of me there, and take something of them and that place with me. What does it mean to be whole again, as memory accumulates?

Maybe I should try reading Proust again.

Because my hair is not worth it


I got the amazing haircut yesterday, and was also tasked by Shel with getting more product: shampoo, conditioner, and I needed some hair schtuff. I collect the three items after I'm shorn, and make my way confidently to the counter. The woman at the register happily cha-chings up a three-digit sum, a reaction to which I only barely managed to conceal by dint of actor training. Good god! What happened to two bits? I didn't even get a shave!

Lazy day in Oak Park


So today was a day off. I did a whole bunch of nothing, including:And now I sit down to write. Really, I'm just putting off doing more work on that podcast episode.

I've adopted the habit of solving technical glitches with elevator music, or with the sound of white noise cutting in and out. I wonder, however, if I am going to have to take more drastic measures here.

Nah, those guys are probably just being self-deprecating.

I hope.

R getting some R & R & GTD


So since Saturday is July 4th, our school is closed on Friday, and I am taking tomorrow off too. Great Success! I do have one pesky inescapable conference call, and likely several people running around panicking will contact me tomorrow, because I do a lot of, er, wiping in my job. That's okay, though, because I am thoroughly looking forward to a four-day weekend.

Shel is already trying to engage me on things to be done re: home improvement during this time, but I've been careful to point out the need for serious planning well in advance, and also to suggest that Sunday night might be the best time for such a planning conversation.

I don't think she's buying it.

In other news I'm once again considering the prospect of getting a degree in counseling. I'm a little tired of being an armchair psychologist, and several folks have suggested I look into further developing this skill (coincidentally, usually while sobbing, and just before hurling themselves from this or that bridge or skyscraper). So it turns out that one option is to go through one of the partner schools my own college works with, since one such school is actually quite distinguished for graduate degrees in the field. I'm talking to my boss now about it.

The whole GTD methodology that I posted about a year ago is still very much in mind. Lately my approach has been to adopt/adapt Merlin Mann's1 Inbox Zero approach with my work email. The biggest challenge is keeping my inbox literally zeroed out on a daily basis. When I started, I cleared out 17,000 messages in one day. But I literally get hundreds each day, and staying on top of sorting them demands CONSTANT VIGILANCE! My latest innovation has been to follow a set of Lifehacker tips regarding toolbar shortcuts for an Inbox Zero approach. You can check them out here. The best tip so far has been the one about the Copy and Move toolbar commands.

1Merlin Mann is well known for his productivity work. But what he should be most known for is his work on You Look Nice Today, quite possibly the greatest podcast evar. Just subscribe to it already.

2009 Bulwer-Lytton Winners


Yes, folks, that famous strike-a-single-sentence-blow-for-purple-prose challenge has been decided once more. The 2009 results are in!

If you don't know it, the Bulwer-Lytton is a contest that has been sponsored and run by a professor at San Jose State University since 1983. The rules are simple: in one sentence, compose something in the most florid, turgid collision of low concept and high style that your wits will allow. Then drink a few Red Bulls, try again, and submit that, too.

Personally, I still don't think anyone has topped the 2005 winning entry:
As he stared at her ample bosom, he daydreamed of the dual Stromberg carburetors in his vintage Triumph Spitfire, highly functional yet pleasingly formed, perched prominently on top of the intake manifold, aching for experienced hands, the small knurled caps of the oil dampeners begging to be inspected and adjusted as described in chapter seven of the shop manual.

   -Dan McKay, Fargo, ND

Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, keep moving


So I've been recollecting myself over the past week or so, following my trip to Seattle on family bidness. Oddly, only yesterday did I start to tell Shel about the trip, and how it went. Too busy and/or exhausted before that to talk about all that went down. But, the weekend was full of good sleep and loafing, and we finally caught up on our Naruto Shippuuden episodes. I played a little Prince of Persia but not too much, and recorded Episode 43 of the JPAG Show. We took a walk last night because the weather was so nice.

And I finished my character for this sure-to-be-amusing Dungeons & Dragons campaign that I am undertaking with a few members of the JPAG. The DM is a hardcore tabletop RPG aficionado, and I think we're in for a treat. Too bad all the players are smartasses like me. Or maybe that's actually way better. I tend to think so.

It's funny, since I had all that D&D stuff when I was 12 or so, and had no one to play with. Going back through all of this stuff again, getting dice, and building a character has been great fun. The idea that we can play for real and still have a fun time being stupid has a lot of appeal to me.

And I got some sweet dice that look infernal. Black with red elvish runes all over them. Have a look here!

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