10 Jul



Recently, a friend asked to interview Squiddy and me for his thesis on how RPG players’ characters relate to their real life personas. The topic basically had our names written all over it, and we were happy to oblige.

One topic that we kept skirting around during the interview was what we thought of the act of playing RPGs. What an odd thing to do! What did we think of it? We didn’t have anything interesting to say about that part, actually. RPGs have always seemed like a totally natural and intuitive hobby. Partly this is because (and this is the reason we gave him) we both write and have for a long time. We tend to think of RPGs as a structured extension of fiction.

However, this is also partly because, speaking loosely, we have always been an RPG since the week we met at summer camp.

We were 12 and 13 respectively, and we started writing a funny story together. It had two main characters, and she took one and I took the other. When we went home, we would type out lines to each other over AIM (old school!) or spoke them over the phone. Eventually, it morphed into a serious story. Then we finished it. Then we started it over again, but different. Rinse and repeat a few times. Then we started a different story, with different characters.  Then we did another one.

There were always two main characters and we always each had one that was ours, and split the others between us. Of course, this wasn’t an RPG qua RPG; there weren’t rules and dice rolls. But it wasn’t exactly writing fiction together either. Often these stories never got written down, except maybe piecemeal in chat logs. We didn’t care as much about characters that weren’t our own. The world and the NPCs would sometimes get pretty fleshed out, but other times they were just cardboard set-pieces and they always existed primarily to further the arcs for the main two. Both of us do write fiction, but obviously we wouldn’t write a story that way.

People who spend time in fandom communities will be familiar with the idea of RPGs referring to an activity where people do exactly what I just decribed, narrating actions and lines to each other in the persona of characters from their favorite books and movies. We were doing the same thing, but with our own characters (well, mostly).

We have been doing this consistently since we were kids. There has been almost no point in the last ten years at which there wouldn’t have been an answer to the question, “What story are you doing?” We’re about 3/4ths of the way through one right now. They’ve varied in length-to-tell from a few days to several months, and lord knows they’ve varied in quality, plot, setting, and just about everything else. The only consistent factor has been that the story is about two people and how they relate to each other.

So, as you might imagine, RPGs came pretty naturally to us – just like doing story, but with friends and more rules, right? I don’t know that there is a terribly consistent relationship between our characters, in RPGs or story, and our actual personalities. It’s the relationship between our characters, more than the characters themselves, that says something about us, I think.

It occurs to me that this is probably an extremely odd activity, though it never struck me that way. I mean, on some level, sure, I guess I knew it was unusual. We’ve never talked to anyone about it; it seemed personal. It’s the only hobby (and it’s time-consuming enough to be a hobby) that never makes it onto the list when I’m asked. But really, it’s as much a legibility thing as anything else. How do you describe that in two words or less? At least D & D players are a trope.

But I don’t think it occurred to me until recently that I’m genuinely uncertain what other couples do with that time. I mean, we all (hopefully) talk about our lives, feelings, ideas, hobbies and what have you with our partners. But you still (probably) spend a ton of time together. Is it usually just more of the same, or do other people tend to have Things they do together? Major projects and hobbies that are just for the two of them?


Gamify Fitness

28 Apr



I like this gamification thing the cool kids are doing these days. I’m very motivated by games and I like thinking in terms of them. Creating and building characters is one of my favorite pastimes. This is why Fitocracy was such a great idea – what better way to get the nerdly masses (or the masses in general) off the couch than letting them turn themselves into an awesome character that they can level up? I also like metrics and statistics a lot. It’s probably a disease.

I’ve been having trouble keeping up my sanity-preserving exercise time the last few months, so I thought I’d try Fitocracy out.  So I signed up, downloaded the app, joined a few groups, and waited for the magic to happen.

Unfortunately, I think there are some implementation issues with the system that render it largely ineffective for me.

For one thing, leveling up is too easy. I went for an 8 mile walk the other day – which, you know, is better than not going for an 8 mile walk. It is exercise. But honestly, I was ambling along at a leisurely pace and it took me nearly two hours. It’s not the most strenuous thing in the world. When I entered it into Fitocracy, I immediately leveled up twice. Now, I don’t want building my real-life character feel like I’m playing Exalted. It makes the whole system feel unrealistic and devalues leveling up, gutting the whole motivation system. If I can get my mesolimbic reward circuit totally satisfied while engaged in less-than-healthy levels of physical activity, Fitocracy’s doing me no good. It’s telling me that my achievement is unlocked when it isn’t.

"Yeah, I'm in pretty good shape. I take the stairs sometimes."

“Yeah, I’m in pretty good shape. I take the stairs sometimes.”


Another problem I have with Fitocracy is that it has no model for atrophy. Let’s say I work out every day for a month like a true fitness fiend, then am totally inactive for six. I don’t even get off the couch to change the channel. At the end of six months, Fitocracy still treats me like I’m in the same excellent shape I was in at the end of fitness month. But I’m not; I’ve lost stamina and muscle tone and probably gained some weight. Yet again, Fitocracy is telling me that everything is a-okay, when in fact I seriously need to get moving again.

I have some other smaller quibbles. For instance, you’re spoilt for choice as far as the available list of possible exercises goes, but since there’s no way to comprehensively list all possible activities, there are still activities I engage in all the time aren’t available. As it is, this wealth of options makes the menus hard to navigate, since they are cluttered with semi-redundant activities*.

Also, Fitocracy only has one stat – all points go into the same bucket. So the app tracks cardio and muscle-building with no differentiation. Another impediment to getting an accurate portrait of how fit you are: Young Arnold Schwarzenegger and Usain Bolt would look basically the same in Fitocracy terms. Even if Arnold couldn’t run a mile and Usain could barely do ten pushups.

All in all, Fitocracy seems like a cool idea that got simplified enough that it doesn’t really perform as an effective game or an accurate reflection of the user’s fitness. The Map My Run app gives me more relevant information about how I’m doing and is more satisfying, even though it doesn’t explicitly gamify anything and is very cardio-centric.

So, to try and rectify this injustice, I’m going to do what any good nerd would do and write my own little program.

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F*cked Over by Gender Roles: Not Just For Women

18 Apr

Here are two paragraphs:

#1 Christine is an employee of Boring Company. She has a low-level but crucial job. She is good at it, but unreliable. Her hours are irregular and she sometimes disappears with no notice for weeks on end. Everyone at Boring knows she has a longtime, live-in boyfriend that she complains a lot about and they break up and get back together every month or so. When they break up, he kicks her out of the house and she needs to sleep at a friend’s or in the office. She sometimes comes to work with a black eye, scrapes, and bruises. People say they are from her boyfriend. Usually she doesn’t comment and when she does, she says she walked into a door.

Imagine this response from the bosses at Boring:

“Yeah, don’t bother Christine too much this week. She’s fighting with her boyfriend again, heh. Men,” shake of the head. “So she might be out the next few days on a bender. I might have to bail her out again – you just can’t trust some people with money. Anyway, fill in for her job for a little while.”

And this response from her coworkers at Boring:

“God, I hate it when Christine takes off for days just because she’s fighting with her boyfriend. It’s so unprofessional. ”

#2 Chris is an employee of Boring Company. He has a low-level but crucial job. He is good at it, but unreliable. His hours are irregular and he sometimes disappears with no notice for weeks on end. Everyone at Boring knows he has a longtime, live-in girlfriend that he complains a lot about and they break up and get back together every month or so. When they break up, she kicks him out of the house and he needs to sleep at a friend’s or in the office. He sometimes comes in with a black eye, scrapes, and bruises. People say they are from his girlfriend. Usually he doesn’t comment and when he does, he says he walked into a door.

Imagine this response from the bosses at Boring:

“Yeah, don’t bother Chris too much this week. He’s fighting with his girlfriend again, heh. Women,” shake of the head. “So he might be out the next few days on a bender. I might have to bail him out again – you just can’t trust some people with money. Anyway, fill in for his job for a little while.”

And this response from his coworkers at Boring:

“God, I hate it when Chris takes off for days just because he’s fighting with his girlfriend. It’s so unprofessional. ”

[For maximal bonus points:

“I mean, she/he seems like her/his boy/girlfriend is abusing her/him. That would make it really hard to function.”

“Yeah, I guess. I switch between feeling bad for her/him and just being really annoyed. She/he’s lucky to even have a job in this economy and it drive me nuts to see her/him blowing it.”]

Being an Ally

16 Apr



I’ve been  trying to answer for myself the question of what makes a good ally,  defining ally as someone who actively supports the rights of an underprivileged group of which they are not a member. I occupy a reasonably privileged place in society and I often feel like in an ineffective advocate for equality. In the name of self-improvement, below is a list of all the key points I could articulate. If anyone reading this has ideas for additions, I’d love to hear them.

1. Be informed. Know the history, know the current politics, talk to people in the underprivileged group about their needs

2. Do advocate – when someone says or does something messed up, call them out even if it’s awkward and even if it wasn’t directed at you. Don’t let your PC decency paralyze you. As in, don’t be too afraid of saying something wrong or being an outsider to get involved. Also don’t assume that your work is already done and that the battle is already won.

3. Don’t ‘white knight’. It’s okay to be, say, offended by a racist comment when you’re the caucasian in the room. But don’t try to speak for an individual in the underprivileged community when they’re there and can speak for themselves unless they have told you they would appreciate this.

4. Do listen. Make sure to actually listen to members of the underprivileged group and to add your voice as a secondary  support to theirs. Signal-boost. Pass the message on. Also, they will tell you who they are, how they feel, and how they’re going to act. None of those are things you should be telling them.

5. Don’t appropriate. An ally does not a member make. You don’t have to claim an identity that isn’t yours to be one of the good guys. This is one of the best bits of ally-writing I’ve ever read. It makes trans equality a personal issue for the author, without ever veering into appropriative, self-congratulatory territory.

6. Don’t use being an ally to offload privilege-guilt. That’s something you need to deal with on your own. No one can magically make your privilege go away, including you. Having privilege doesn’t make you a bad person, but it is something you’re going to have to be aware of. Your good intentions won’t make you immune to saying and doing problematic things.

7. Apologize where it’s called for. If you mess up, ‘fess up (I’m sorry, I wanted to rhyme -alliterate? whatever – so bad). So many people get defensive about how they’re not a racist/misogynist/etc, therefore they can’t have said something screwed up about race or gender. They didn’t mean it like that and that should have been obvious, etc. Don’t explain yourself. A sincere apology and examining your words does more to defend your enlightened reputation. Good people screw up sometimes.

8. Remember the underprivileged group is not a homogeneous block. They will not all have the same opinions and identities. They will not all be ‘model minorities’. They will not all be – and do not have any obligation to be – activists. Also, you are not obliged to totally agree with any given individual in the underprivileged group, as long as you are respectful of their opinions and watch your own privilege.

9. Do  self-examine. Sort of a corollary to #7  – just because you want to be enlightened and decent, doesn’t mean you automatically will be every time. Try and think about the -ist things you might be doing subconsciously or carelessly. Notice where you’re privileged or reinforcing privilege.

Thoughts? Additions? Criticisms?

Radical History

14 Apr



When I was in college, I wrote my thesis on the first Rainbow Coalition, militant namesake of Jesse Jackson’s current organization. Theirs is a lost history of radical empowerment – part of the struggle of writing about it was simply trying to find any sources at all. Many of the websites that put me on the trail of the coalition’s history are gone now. The primary sources I have access to at the moment I can pretty much count on my fingers. James Tracy, who was himself one of Uptown’s organizers in the 1960s and 1970s, is pretty much the only person to have written a book on the subject.

The Rainbow Coalition arose from the least mainstream end of many minority communities in Chicago; the Black Panthers, the Young Patriots, the Young Lords, I Kor Wen, and more. The Panthers, neglected in civil rights history as they are, are easily the most well-known of these groups. Some sources for the history of the Young Patriots do exist, mostly in the form of films and documents obscure except among extreme left organizers. The invention of portable video cameras was the first information revolution – and the activists of 1960s and 1970s Chicago kept their history alive and accessible through film.

One of the biggest problems I had getting my thesis idea approved was in answering that most fundamental of academic questions, why does this matter? Why is this group influential? How does this fit into the literature? I managed to answer these questions well enough to convince my advisor to give me the go-ahead, but with distance I can tell you that my answers were pretty thin. An activist can say, these people mattered because of what they tried to do, not how well they succeeded. The fact that you don’t know about them is in itself a reason to write about them. But that’s not a very academic response. In retrospect, I view that paper as a failure not just because it wasn’t terribly good, but because it split the different between academia and activism. I tried much too hard to bring aloof intellectualism to the history of a group that was meaningful because it wasn’t run by aloof intellectuals.

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The Fantasy of The Snail

11 Apr



Reading Annamal’s blog got me thinking about stuff. I mean things. You know, material possessions. Crap. I have an interesting (and listening to her write about it, probably woefully under-explored) relationship with stuff.

When I was a kid, I had this totally impossible fantasy of having one room, my bedroom if you like, which I could keep in my pocket or summon to me whenever I liked. That room would have everything in it that I really, truly cared about or needed. It wouldn’t have to be a terribly large room, though it might be a bit overstuffed. When I had that, I wouldn’t need anything else. I would be able to walk around totally unencumbered, but also totally unconcerned. I could carry my little safe space and all my things with me like a snail carried its shell.

I come from hoarders. Not my parents – for all their angst about it, our house was always pretty reasonable. Full but not bursting. It was clean and bright, and most things were piled neatly on shelves. But my father’s family, particularly my uncle and grandmother, were always amazing hoarders. I think it would be hard for most people to actually envision what my uncle’s apartment looked like. It was pretty big for New York, two stories. You couldn’t see the walls in most places. My uncle used to be a trapper and there were pelts and skeletons lining the walls, dreamcatchers, statues of wolves, action figures, steel cages, twenty year old plastic snow globes from Coney Island. It felt like some combination of being in a hunter’s cave and the inside of someone’s pocket. It was incredibly dark.

My grandmother was somewhat more reasonable; she hoarded the way grandmothers do, oversaturating their house with jewelry and lace. When she died, the stuff become an enormous factor for the family to contend with. I won’t go into that whole tawdry story, because it isn’t the point. Suffice it to say, some of it came to me. Mostly things everyone thought I should have, as the female grandchild. The major items were five or six jewelry boxes, stuffed not just with the delicate, classy things that were her mainstay, but also with broken beads, bits of glass, and plastic bracelets.

I kept every single one.

About 5 or 6 years ago, I wrote this about it: A watch of mine broke today. It meant more to me than anyone can imagine who hasn’t seen someone they loved reduced from a human being to an epigram and pile of small objects whose only merit is that the person you miss touched them day to day. There’s something precious in the belongings of the dead, some stamp of routine that added rice-paper layers to the thing, building up an essence which resounds just below the surface, unnoticed until the source is gone, like a candle in front of the sun.  

I still feel that way in a general sense, even though I’ve learned that you shouldn’t, can’t, imbue every little bit of detritus with meaning. I have similar urges with objects I found during particularly happy or sad times in my life – I think in hoarding there’s always some desire to stop time and keep things that can’t be kept. My little snail fantasy as a kid was rooted in a fear that I would lose all the things I loved if I wasn’t looking at them right now, along with a desire to no longer be burdened by looking.

I used to get into panics, as a wee one, if I couldn’t remember where I’d put some arbitrary object. It wasn’t that the object was particularly special to me, just that I would suddenly not know where Nippy the Cat was and the not-knowing terrified me. There was an inexplicably existential panic associated with losing or destroying things for me. Getting over this was very liberating and very necessary, but there are probably still some objects in the world that could trigger it.

I also always thought everything might be useful later. I hated waste with the sort of illogical, over-applied hate of an environmentalist’s daughter, and I thought I was a tiny MacGyver.  I always wanted to be prepared – the paper clip could be a lockpick if I was trapped somewhere! I could fold the receipt into a swan! Don’t throw that string away, what if you are in a situation where you desperately need string!? The pockets of every winter jacket I ever owned broke with the weight of the things inside them, pouring paper clips, mints, and scraps of paper into the lining.

In college, when I started playing RPGs, I indulged both impulses even as I tried to shed them IRL. RPGs are kinder than life and let you do that; my character needs this many things to do his job, to define himself, and they are all in his pockets all the time. My characters are all snails in a way that people rarely can be. They have always lost almost everything, irrevocably. Thus they have few enough possessions that what they do have all fits in their pockets, backpacks, or maybe a car. This way nothing can ever be taken from them again, until they die, and they’re always as ready as they’ll ever be.

In a manner of speaking, my bedroom back in the house I grew up in is my real life little snail shell. Or maybe more like a hermit crab shell, since I abandoned it to live in a new one? But it still has all my things in it, sorted into neat piles. I have a very visual memory and I can navigate through it in my head, remember which of grandma’s necklaces is in the enameled wood jewelry box with the flowers on it, sitting on the third shelf down on the southern wall. Every object there is a touchstone in the house of memory. Occasionally my mother moves something and when I return, things aren’t exactly the way they were before and I’m not sure if or why it matters. Also like memory.

I don’t clutter my current shell the way I did my old one. Partly I have Squiddy to thank for this. She will look at my pockets full of ticket stubs and all the tiny plastic animals on the shelves and ask me if I really need to save them, and nowadays that’s usually all it takes to get me to say no and throw them out. Also, I’m a cheapskate. I mean this as a good thing – I don’t kick up a fun-killing fuss about it, but I don’t like spending money, except maybe on experiences. So I own fewer things and I feel a bit lighter.

Sometimes I forget all my good intentions and get unduly upset about damage to one of my things – I’m still capable of being unreasonably upset that cups break and clothes tear – but more often I know that the things that matter can fit in my pockets if they have to. But I also know that room at home exists. Sometimes, instead of throwing something out, I take it back home and leave it there instead. I haven’t even seen some of the stuff in there for years. Maybe I don’t even want to see it, just to know that it’s there.

I Should Print Business Cards

5 Apr

What do you think? Too wordy for a business card? I need to get the design down pat before I have a hundred printed.

Business Card Star - Make Business Cards

Or what about something more multi-purpose? Don’t want to pigeonhole myself.

Businesscard 2

Or maybe brevity is the key here.

businesscard 3

Captain Awkward

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In defense of the sanctimonious women's studies set.


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