Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Fiction in Two Parts; Pt. II

Part 2; the conclusion.

After school, I creep back into the classroom. Mr. Stowe disappeared around the corner in the direction of the principal’s office; I see him in there every afternoon. I should have just enough time to replace the book before he returns. That will be the easy part. The hard part will be facing him and my friends tomorrow. Now I know the teacher’s secret, but I haven’t been able to tell anyone. I don’t know what to make of it myself. The closet door closes with a hush and I turn.

“Thank you for putting Jesse back,” breathes Mr. Stowe, sitting on one of the desks; my lips feel like sandpaper.

“Jesse?” I finally utter stupidly. He nods in the direction of the closet and rises from the desk. He seems taller than usual, or maybe I just feel smaller. “I’m sorry.”

“I hope so. Maybe I can trust you again.” That voice; the solemn whisper seems so familiar, but at the same time I feel like a stranger in my own skin. He continues as though there has been no pause. “That notebook was Jesse’s. She was in my class five years ago.”

I glance back at the closed door of the cabinet though I don’t know why. Half of me wants it to go away, the other half wants to know more. Wanting to fill the silence, I say: “She was really smart.”

“All of my students are.” He smiles, but at the cabinet, not at me. He used to smile at me like that. Will he ever smile at me again? “Do you keep all their reflection journals?”

“Only if they let me. I ask.” His response makes my face burn; I swallow with difficulty.

“Why do you keep them?”

“Why do you think?”

I resist the urge to roll my eyes at his typical teacher response. Something tells me this is anything but. “They remind you of better times?” I ask.

“Not better...”

“Will you want mine?”

He smiles down at me at last. I feel about to burst. “We’ll discuss it tomorrow, after I read your reflection.”

“Which one?” I ask; though I think I know, and the notion fills me with hope.

“The one you’re writing about this afternoon.”

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

A Fiction in Two Parts; Pt. I

Back in school I wrote a short piece about a teacher I had in elementary school. Actually the teacher in the story is a mashup of two or three teachers I have especially respected. One day maybe I will be the inspiration for a student like they were for me. Thank you to all the teachers out there.

Part 1

           Earlier today, I thought I saw something. From the corner of my eye, some furtive movement while the class silently reflected on the math lesson. Then it happened again, just after literature circle. I couldn't believe my eyes! Our teacher, Mr. Stowe, is not what he seems. I think he may be magic: a wizard! I was finishing my writing journal and I looked up just in time to catch him. He was closing a closet behind his desk. I had never noticed that door before. I dropped my eyes to my journal just as he scanned the room to see if anyone was looking at him. I don’t think he saw me looking. But now I know. And I must find the truth.

           This morning was a perfect example of why I am suspicious. The back of my neck prickles as I recall the lost morning, I think back to other days. It always seemed something wasn't quite right. We come in everyday; breathing the smell of pennies and pine needles. There are always the complaints that we don’t want to be here. One morning, I told my best friend I had a headache. “I’ll ask Mr. Stowe if I can go to the nurse. She’ll call my mom and I’ll go home and sleep.” My friend nodded with a smirk; we both believed it would happen just that way.

And somewhere between Mr. Stowe’s: “Good Morning, Everyone!” (his booming, deep voice quiets the buzz in the room), and the first pieces of his lesson on the wallboard, (that all too familiar squeaky marker…) I no longer see the sunlight lancing warmly into the room. Instead I notice the posters lining the walls. “Living Charts,” Mr. Stowe calls them. We made them together as a class; they remind us of the things we are supposed to do--our rules of the room. We add to them now and again using colored pens: directed splashes of color.  Lunch is upon us before I remember my imagined headache. Where did the morning go? Did it go into that closet of his? Or did he pull something out that made us forget our own priorities? Every time I have seen him access that doorway, we have been at his mercy. Whatever is in there, I must discover it. At lunch I plan.

           Silent reading begins after lunch, and that’s when my friend distracts Mr. Stowe. I am standing near the sink when he moves away from the area behind his desk and grants me my opportunity. I glide noiselessly up to the darkly grained wood and grip its silvery handle, slipping the mysterious panel open as softly as I can. Just a crack is all I can manage before I feel premonitions of impending creaky hinges. I gaze in eagerly. SCREAK!!! Someone’s chair scrapes the floor! I shut the door, spin around, and drop behind the teacher desk as Mr. Stowe looms upward from among the student desks. I catch my breath and regain my desk just as he stops at the front of the room and surveys us predatorily. Pretending to search my own desk, I quickly stash my prize and wipe the back of my neck.

Notebooks! I almost lost my head at the sight: row upon row of spirals, folders, and black composition books. Not at all what I expected, but maybe they contain his secrets, scrawled in spidery runes from ages past. Fighting a chill of anxiety creeping up my spine and a furnace of guilt boiling in my belly, I crack open my teacher’s book, unprepared for what I would find…

To Be Continued.

Monday, March 2, 2015

What’s In A Name

Have you ever been accused of not knowing how to spell your own child’s name? Did you spell it uniquely because you wanted it to be as special as your child? Was the unique spelling meaningful in some way? Or do you have a name which represents something important to your parents or heritage. Does it hold the same value to you?

I wrote my first short story when I was 10. Titled: The Arena, it was one notebook page long--no paragraph breaks--and told the “story” of a fictional, futuristic coliseum where mutants fought for the amusement of a “brain-in-a-jar” emperor on a holiday called “dependence day.” Symbolism aside, it was special to me; the story represented a step towards my dream of being a writer. One of the characters--and the only one named, directly--was a mutant lizard man who went from being the underdog in the fight to the champion, and hero, at the end of the story.

The name stayed with me for years after. It was the name I used for a mutant lizardman with a poison stinger-tipped tail in a role-playing game called Gamma World. I briefly toyed with changing my own name to it, legally, while I was in middle school. In high school, I had the name engraved on my class ring.

Forward to 1991, my wife and I are expecting our first child. My amazing wife agrees to let me give the name to our firstborn son. My thoughts are: he will be as unique as his name and he will overcome obstacles like his namesake in that arena story. He was born one month early and spent his first week of life under an oxygen tent in NICU because his lungs weren’t fully developed. At the end of that week the doctor took the tent off, saying our son needed to breathe on his own, or he never would. After a tense and tearful couple of hours he did breathe and today I cannot remember the last time he was sick. He is as “healthy as a horse,” my Papaw would say. He did overcome his own titanic battle, and has become quite a man.

The name has presented it’s own challenges over the years. Many people pronounce it incorrectly and when we correct them, some get it and some don’t. A relative accused me of not knowing how to spell my own son’s name when she got the birth announcement (my wife and I still laugh about that one today, 24 years later.) Some teachers didn’t get it as well, and early on, I determined not to fight it if my son didn’t want to embrace the uniqueness of the name; the sentiment attached to it was mine, not his; although, I did give him my old class ring to keep (it had his name on it, after all). But he did embrace it in his own way and even he corrects people on the pronunciation.

Today, I see a lot of unique names around. And many parents naming their children with unusual spellings and pronunciations. Is it a form of rebellion against the naming conventions of the past, is it the beginnings of a change for the future? I wonder how many parents are trying to imprint a uniqueness on the child and how many have a story like mine, a name that came from a special source and they wish to pass it on through the family.

Every child is unique and special, ask any parent (or Shakespeare.) Its not the name; the name is just a brand, the being makes the difference. What the child is and what they become determine their uniqueness, not the hopes, dreams and wishes we lay on them when we write on their birth certificate.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Game of Dejarik Part 2: Meet the players (or rather, the pieces.)

Continuing with a breakdown of the dejarik game from Star Wars: A New Hope, I identified the pieces and their positions. Each piece has a detailed bio and history on Wookieepedia, but this actually hampered my progress and made me dizzy (trying to determine whether the physical traits of the monsters were clues to its place in the game: maddening.)

Chewie’s pieces:

Chewie 11x7.jpg

R2 D2’s pieces:

R2D2 11x7.jpg

The unique nature of the pieces suggests that each has individual movement and capture rules, or that each piece represents a hierarchy, like the rook, knight, bishop and royals of chess. Star Wars expanded universe books have suggested that the pieces are generated randomly at the start of each game and the players must use what they are given, forming a strategy based on each unique mix. That idea would eliminate the possibility that certain pieces are mirrors of each other. Rather than each player having a “king,” “queen,” “bishop,” etc., each piece provides a unique set of moves the player can choose from during the course of a game.

In earth chess, each piece has a point value based on its power in the game but there are many subtle variations on this calculation and many depend on whether the piece is mid- or endgame (another maddening part of my research.) I decided to skip this complication and focus strictly on movement and capture capabilities.

I think I will save the “individualized pieces” idea for a more complex rules variation. For now, I will work with the idea that each piece represents a type. Offensive (queen: no limits; an attack piece), Defensive (rook and bishop: mobile, able to hold swaths of board from a single position), Controllers (knight: move them into position and control multiple spaces at once; watch the enemy squirm.) To determine which piece is which, I looked at the moves and actions shown in the movie. The finished game should be able to duplicate the movie’s game in principle, thereby maintaining consistency.

The moves shown in the movie progress like this:

Move 1.JPG

R2’s Ng’Ok moves through the center-point to end in front of Chewbacca’s Monnok. He also turns his back on the Monnok (the only piece to change its facing during the game); does this mean it has nothing to fear from the Monnok? I make a note of this.

Move 2.JPG

Chewbacca’s Monnok slides left one space, ending adjacent to R2’s Grimtaash and diagonal to the Ng’Ok. This looks like a threat move to the Ng’Ok (was it blocked from moving to the center? Or can it only capture diagonally, like a pawn in chess?)

Move 3.JPG

The Houjix now moves to the center. This could indicate defensive positioning with respect to the Ng’Ok (if the Monnok moves in, it will be threatened by the Houjix.)

Move 4.JPG

Instead of capturing, Chewie moves his Kintan Strider around behind the Houjix (however, it does not change its facing toward the Houjix.) Threepio’s warning for R2 to “be careful,” makes me wonder about the Strider’s positioning. Most likely it is a stand off: R2’s move could begin a series of captures, reducing the population of the board.

Move 5.JPG

Instead, R2 eliminates the undefended piece. The Mantellian Savrip literally throws down with the Strider and Chewie gets angry (a frustrating loss because he cannot respond in kind? Potentially, if his Monnok captures the Ng’Ok--as I suspect its threat to be--it could in turn be captured by the Houjix from the center-point. And now that the Strider is out, the Houjix has nothing to fear?)

Move 8.JPG

Things here get very weird. The conversation about Wookiees ripping arms from sockets occurs and Han makes the statement, “Let him have it.” Does this imply that the capture should be rescinded? In any case, we do not see the game board for a time because the scene focuses on Luke’s lightsaber training, but when it is shown again the Savrip is back in its original spot, the Strider is still missing, and the Monnok slides two spaces sideways: still diagonal from the Ng’Ok, but closer to the K’Lor’Slug (maybe it is in a position that can be defended by the Slug?)

The game ends here as the characters rush off to discover the fate of Alderaan. My biggest question is the Savrip’s return to its space of origin. did it give up the advantage of center space positioning as a concession to Chewbacca? (Was this in response to Han’s warning?) Or was it a rule of the game that once it eliminated the Strider it returned to the outer ring? (This seems arbitrary and unlikely. Reducing the game to a points-war of elimination seems to devolve its value from “chess” to “tic tac toe.”) While that is not impossible, I doubt valuable star ship space would be devoted to a high tech game of circles and exes.

What do you think of the game’s breakdown? Do you see something I missed? Post in the comments below, please. I welcome other viewpoints. Next time I will explore each move more fully and what I see as the piece’s strengths and limits, hopefully developing a ruleset that stands up to play-testing.

Next: Part 3: Moves and Threats (the strategy of the game.)

Thursday, November 6, 2014

When I Feel...

You can feel however you want to feel, as long as you don’t hurt anyone, even yourself.”

My wife and I always said this to our children, because sometimes--in our respective extended families--emotions were suppressed. People were not allowed to feel or to express what they felt for fear of upsetting things or offending people. There is a fine line between being aware of how your thoughts and words will affect those around you, and not being concerned with what others think of you. Expression is important, and so is fair treatment of others.

As human beings, we are going to have some very extreme thoughts, things we would never in a million years want others to know about, actions that we would never actually go through with (how many times have you said you wanted to kill that driver ahead of you in traffic and how many times have you actually done it?)

Allowing ourselves to feel the way we feel is important. If you are constantly pushing your feelings down without at least reflecting on them briefly, you are doing yourself a disservice. Suppression and repression are what lead to anger management issues, self-loathing and sudden violent temper tantrums. We need to remind ourselves that it is okay to be angry, sad, disappointed just as much as it is important to feel happy, excited and joyful.

We have these emotions for a reason, and we are still reasoning beings. Just because we picture in our heads the obnoxious politician being run over by his own bus, we know that would not solve anything. The sudden movie in our heads is just a passing flash; life goes on and we can write an angry letter, peel some potatoes with a very sharp knife or just snap our fingers at it and dismiss the inconvenience from our consciousness (okay, I wish it were that easy.)

The point here--getting back to it--is to give our children (and ourselves) the tools to handle life’s challenges. And part of that is the emotions we feel. When I was in school, we had an assignment to write our own children’s book. We could do whatever topic we wished, whatever format we liked but it had to conform to children’s literary standards.

I created a book out of construction paper using circles, triangles, squares and other shapes to convey simple scenes with one line of text at the bottom of each page. It was similar to a poem in structure with each back to back set of pages showing a before and after. For example, the first page would go something like:

MomDadGetLoud Branded.jpg

Turning the page over would then show this:

MomDadGetLoudB Branded.jpg

The idea was to show a situation and the response from a child’s perspective. My thinking was to provide a talking point for parents and their children to discuss potentially difficult topics. But in class, some suggested that it gave the children permission to feel unsure about things, that not everything had to have a conclusion and that was okay.

I began to think about this again recently. Here is a more light-hearted sample:

5secondruleA Branded.jpg

Wait for it…

5secondruleB Branded.jpg

What do you think?

What do you do when faced with things that are frustrating or disappointing or downright infuriating?

Tell me how you feel in the comments.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Drive Time

 Drive Time
By David

My youngest son is taking driver training and practicing his skills in the family vehicle. Helping him to put the training book rules into practice is a challenge sometimes; it has required me to do some intentional thinking about how I drive. What are my driving habits? What do I do--subconsciously--as I navigate the streets?

I used to play a boardgame called “Car Wars,” (pictured above) a game of cars with mounted guns trying to outmaneuver other, similarly armed, cars. The game provided a template you set next to your piece; decide how sharply you want to turn and the template showed where your vehicle ended up afterward. Obstacles, and other cars, were easy to see (not always easy to avoid.)

Out on the real streets things are not so cut and dry. Analyzing my own driving habits led me to a pair of recurring actions: I check the rearview mirrors almost constantly--for lane orientation and blind spots--and I spin the steering wheel back at the halfway point in a turn to avoid overcorrecting. I shared these habits with my son, I don’t know if it was the last one, but lately his turns have improved.

Often, we clash over the book (information in the driving manual and what he has learned in the class) and the street (experience with other drivers) The rules don’t always interact well with the traffic on the road. For example, he stops 5-6 feet away from an intersection. Now, I think he should be pulling forward closer to the corner for better visibility, but he does not. Was this instructed to prevent new drivers from stopping too short? It can make for some frightening situations when a tree or other obstruction prevents seeing traffic more than half a block away: either he pulls out without a clear picture of what is coming, or he hesitates too long and misses a window into traffic.

Note: Despite my above questions, we are happy with the driving school we chose. We picked this particular one as it only hires police officers to instruct classes. It is important to start them out on the right track. (And to my children’s credit, they have not had any tickets or accidents so far--two of them have been driving for eight years, combined time.)

Thinking about how I drive led to a discussion at home about “metathinking.” Literally, thinking about thinking. How do we analyze what we know or the way we do things in order to teach others? Breaking processes down into their component parts to make them understandable and comprehensive. The math sentence 2+2=4 seems easy until you think of what is involved in getting to that point. You have to know what a number is, that it means quantity (visually, it is much easier to explain this concept; teaching it verbally requires teaching vocabulary as well.). You have to be able to read the sentence, which means you must know that the symbol “2” means “two,” which means a “pair” of things. Likewise, you have to know the symbols for “plus” and “equals” and the meaning of those terms. You need to know your numbers at least up to four. That is a lot of background just to get to something so simple, don’t you think?

Now, what if the person you are teaching learns differently than you do? You have to be able to present it in a way they will understand and process the information to get the most out of your instruction. How do you approach helping someone to understand and learn something you know? Do you think about such details, or am I overthinking it? (Mega-meta-thinking)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

D & D, the 1d4 edition

By David

Dungeons and Dragons turned 40 this year and a new edition was released. It is being called simply: D&D or Dungeons & Dragons. No number added, no advanced moniker. A starter box is being sold to provide a start up point for new players (it covers just some introductory rules with pre-made characters so a group of players can jump in and try it out before committing to something more. The Basic Rules is available as a free PDF download here. Anyone can take a look, read it and even play it before deciding whether to invest in the printed books (which contain more character options and other extras.) All of this is very encouraging in tone and intention, and I have read many articles and blogs by all sorts of gamers giving the new edition a read and/or try. I have also read many who give it a qualified thumbs-up. Comments range from this being their new system of choice to: its okay, but they are going back to “You can insert other system or edition here.”

Like many, I followed the public playtest--an unprecedented event (at least, it was to D&D’s parent company) and I was impressed. The rules were intriguing, the idea of having a voice in the development was appealing and it seemed they were trying to follow through with the promise of drawing from D&D’s rules history and player feedback to create a game for nearly everyone, even promising rules modularity (player groups can add to, or take away pieces of the rules set to suit individual play styles.) This design, if carried out, would be a formalization of something from the beginning of the game. The oldest editions can be pulled apart, sections altered or rewritten, and played without the entire game collapsing. The original rules were not elegant, but they were very customizable.

So, in theory, one could play the new version of D&D as if it were:

Edition 1 (Advanced, or AD&D) Formalized and comprehensive rules (even though every rule was handled with a different mechanic), intended to provide consistency of play even if you played with different groups. Characters were very individualized, everyone did something special or unique.

Edition 2 (Second) A few tweaks to the AD&D rules, including more survivability (the beginning of adding “plot armor” to the player characters, so no one would feel they “lost” the game.) And more character options (a booklet for every class and race!)

Edition 3 (3.5) Lots and LOTS of crunchy rules (a rule for everything; no arguments, unless it was over rule-interpretation.) Although, most were handled with the same simple die roll: easy to remember which dice to use.  Also, more character options (create nearly ANYTHING you can imagine.)

Edition 4 (4E) Boardgame-like rules. Epic characters (players are unquestioningly the HEROES, complete with full “plot armor” and a menu of options and cool maneuvers (with names, like “Falling Star Strike” and “Rub Some Dirt On It”!)

I like this notion of being able to play your way as a concept; I love tinkering with game rules to run things the way I--and those I play with--enjoy most. I also like several aspects of the new rules set:

Advantage/Disadvantage a simple mechanic for modifying any die roll: most challenges are decided by rolling a single die; if you have advantage, you roll 2 dice and pick the best, disadvantage means you roll 2 dice and pick the worst. In other editions there were, literally, pages and pages of +1, +2, -3, etc., modifying various die rolls for various conditions. The advantage mechanic is a convenient “on the fly” rule simplifying things during play.

Optional special abilities As characters progress, they gain new benefits and features; this can be handled as simply or as complex as a group wants. This is evidence of the modularity they spoke of in the beginning. I like this as a limiting factor in the menu options at the table; I want players to be able to do whatever they imagine, not feel limited to just what is written on their character.

Ease of creation for the referee 4E did this really well and it seems to have carried over to the new edition. There is a lot that goes into a session: trying to give each player a chance to shine, providing challenges, making it all fun (for both the players and the referee) It shouldn’t feel like work to prepare for a night of D&D; this new set seems to understand that for the most part.

What I don’t like is the execution in some areas of the new rules (admittedly, these rules could be removed or altered):

Superhero aspects of the system.

Healing. I understand it is no fun to lose a character; especially when you put a lot of time and creativity into it. And I am not suggesting that characters should be easy to kill. But there is something a little too super about the way characters can recover from near death wounds in this edition. Jeopardy is what makes us care about a character; immortality becomes tiresome.
Magic. Even basic spells are phenomenal. Apprentice wizards are a little more like Nicholas Cage and a little less like Mickey Mouse.

Character advancement and improvement.

Characters begin with too many special abilities--in my opinion. It is far more satisfying to begin simply and gain in power than to begin powerful. Of course, it is a matter of taste. Would you rather be the commoner who aspires to kill the dragon? or the dragonslayer who seeks to slay another?

Monster presentation

The stat block for monsters has too much mechanical detail (it looks very much like 3.5, which pushed me away from that edition and keeps me away from Pathfinder) I don’t want to memorize--or even refer to--a single monster with its own character sheet, especially when I may need to juggle five or more different monsters in a single session.

As an overall complaint, I don’t see the promised modularity of the system yet. Currently it is as customizable as any edition has been, so it may be a non-complaint so far. And the modularity may be something yet to come, but if this is the base from which to decide what to add from here on out, I am not satisfied that it is basic enough (since I would want to remove parts to run it my way.)

Finally, despite the niftyness of the Starter Set ($20) and the convenience of the basic rules with promised updates (all free), I am very discouraged by the price point of the printed books (Player’s Handbook, $50; Monster Manual, $50; Dungeon Master’s Guide, $50; $30 each on Amazon.) Even considering inflation since I purchased my old edition AD&D books (1980’s, $20 each), that is too much money to invest in a rules set I will not use in its entirety.

I think I will sit this edition out and instead stick with the nostalgia of my classic (Moldvay) version.