Domestic Disturbance

April is visiting her mother today, so I walked home from church. I generally enjoy the walk, as it’s not very long and our neighbourhood is relatively quiet, but today I heard shouts and cursing from a side street just a couple of blocks from our house. I started to walk past, but then decided to detour to make sure everything was OK.

Mostly, I wondered if I needed to call the police or not. The situation appeared to be that an ex-wife was visiting because it was a child’s birthday, but the ex-husband and his new girlfriend/wife didn’t want the ex-wife there. Meanwhile, the ex-wife accused the ex-husband of stealing her stuff because he wouldn’t let her come in to claim one particular item. He responded that she could come and take everything, but he wasn’t going to let her in if she wasn’t moving all of her belongings out.

Lots and lots of shouting. Lots of expletives. I went back and forth about calling the police, and made note of the address just in case, but as I slowly walked past the house and decided to stop in the park (which is the center of our community), I decided to pray. I sat on a stone wall and prayed for about ten minutes.

And I wondered as I prayed whether it would do any good. Would an angel appear to minister to them, or to quell their tempers? Would the ex-wife suddenly realize she wasn’t handling the situation maturely and, instead of shouting curse words, calmly explain why she was upset and seek a way to fix the situation? Would they suddenly remember that kids were around and maybe they shouldn’t be screaming at each other?

I prayed, and finally asked God what I should do, and he told me to go home. He’d take care of them. As I walked away, I had a moment of Schadenfreude as I thought, “At least I didn’t have to go through that when I was young.” Then I remembered that I went through exactly that, and I wondered why I had forgotten.

I turned out OK. I didn’t have the competing exes thing going on, but I did have to hear my parents scream and fight while I tried to stay out of the way. And though an angel never appeared, and though my parents never honestly confronted the obstacles that lay between them to deal with those and sort everything out, God was with me. He didn’t fix the situation in the moment, but he did fix me, eventually. Or, to be more accurate, he remains faithful and continues to work on fixing me. Though I wasn’t really Christian, though I hadn’t fully given myself to God, God gave himself to me. He took care of me through it all.

I prayed that God would take care of those kids, and he said that he would. I could go home. I got a cup of coffee and sat on my porch for a while, listening to the wind in the trees and the chatter of the birds. God took care of me. He takes care of those birds and of the leaves on the trees. He can take care of this disturbance too. I have faith in him.

Two-Way Mirror

Folding handkerchiefs one afternoon, I was reminded of my father.

One of his many jobs after leaving the military was as a security guard at the Holiday Inn Express here in Springfield. He would regularly take me there of an evening, and I recall walking into the shadowed hallway in the bowels of the hotel, down white painted corridors, and to his office. It had a large window on it that was a perfect mirror when the office lights were off, so you could sit inside and see people as they went past on their way to the pool.

I would often go swimming for a bit then dry off in the office with the lights off, naked and nervous that someone would see me, but reveling in the freedom of being invisible. I was at my most vulnerable in that office, completely myself with nothing between me and the world except that two-way mirror. Sometimes I would lie on the floor, or read for hours, or just sit and think. It was a dangerous place, that office, because while I couldn’t be seen I also recognized the instability of the moment. It could end with the flick of a light switch, or the opening of a single door. It was foolish and wonderful.

I don’t think I will ever again experience that thrill of stupid liberation.

My Love Affair With IRC

You may not know this about me, but I was quite a shut-in as a young lad. It began when I was about eight years old and we first moved to Springfield.

Our home had been ironically named Trouble’s End by my parents, a hopeful epitaph following my father’s retirement from the military and marking the reunion of my parents after a separation filled with lies, poor financial decisions, adultery, and culminating in my father’s assignment to Korea for two years (unrelated to the separation, of course–he was required to go to Korea prior to retirement). It was out in the country, as my father desired, and also closer to his family (also his call), which put me in the unfortunate situation of being out of the suburbs for the first time ever. I had no friends, and the few people I met on the school bus lived too far away to visit.

Between my parents’ troubles, the bullies at school, and my burgeoning interest in girls coupled with their complete rejection of me, I elected to escape my circumstances rather than confronting them. I dove into books, escaping into fantastic worlds where good and evil were clearly defined, chivalry and honour were always rewarded, and the main characters were close friends who stuck up for one another.

My obsession with fantasy fiction resulted unsurprisingly in an attraction to roleplaying, and I subsequently became involved with Dungeons & Dragons in eighth grade. My father hosted the games at his house (my parents were divorced by this point) after I cajoled him into DMing for my friends and I, which lasted for a wonderful few months where we made character after character, fought countless orcs and even a few dragons, and generally had a lot of laughs and pizza. We played for the time we spent together rather than the game itself, and I loved every minute of it.

I was never fully one-way-or-the-other with roleplaying: I loved both the social aspects and the appeal to imagination. The immersion in a fantastic world where I was the hero with a company of comrades who watched my back and took care of one another. It appealed to my intellect and ingenuity, challenging me to find solutions and giving me a chance at glory when I came up with the right ones. I was a star.

And then I discovered Carcassonne Haven.

Carcassonne was a roleplaying game run over IRC (Internet Relay Chat) with a website for character sheets, inventories, maps, and everything else needed. A dedicated group of GMs (definition: Game Master, a title similar to Dungeon Master (DM) and generally used with every game not-D&D) coordinated the storyline and kept everything going, with adventures run every couple of nights in two hour blocks. Because all of this was over IRC, it required all actions and roleplaying to be typed as quickly and descriptively as one could. Extra points were given for creativity, but you had to keep up with  everyone else so you had to write fast.

It was challenging, fun, and a great community, and it sparked my love of IRC.

I had already been extremely active on talkers for years, so the transition to IRC (which predated talkers and was significantly simpler) was an easy one. The difference seemed to be that IRC was far less dramatic because there was a great deal less investment in an IRC channel than there was in a talker. Talkers were like BBSs on steroids, hosted by someone on a server and often painstakenly coded to have all sorts of neat things like unique rooms with descriptions, games, fun commands to display different text items, etc. When you connected to a channel on IRC, you just hit an IRC server and typed /join #room and bam, you’d joined #room (or created it if it didn’t already exist) and were done. There were hundreds of IRC servers with thousands of rooms, so you could always go elsewhere if you wanted to find other people. The emotional investment wasn’t in building the space or coding the rooms, but in simply chatting with people and getting to know them.

And I had found an IRC server with nothing but roleplaying games, with Carcasonne as the crown jewel.

RPing on Carcasonne taught me a great deal about how to interact with people who didn’t like you. It was obviously a game and we all understood that any negativity was in-character, not out-of-character, but I was playing a good guy and that naturally made the bad guys dislike me. Similar to my real life, the bad guys tried to kill me, to stab me in the back, and to generally hurt me every chance they got.

But unlike my real life, I had friends who protected and defended me, and with whom I could commiserate and share my tribulations. I even had an in-game romance that went my way for once, unlike so many of my bungled attempts in real life. I learned how to deal with challenges in a mature and healthy way, and in particular the game planted the seeds that helped me learn how to cope with loss, death, and destruction.

The stories we spawned in Carcasonne Haven would make for a wonderful and epic novel, but unfortunately the woman who ran the game claimed copyright on everything and the stories are so tied to the characters that I have trouble changing the names and writing it. It’s unfortunate, but though I’d love to share those stories, I don’t feel like they’re mine to share. They were ours, built collectively and wonderfully, and even if I were to put them into the public domain, I would feel like I was stealing something from each of the players.

But at least I have the memories, coupled with the lessons and the typing skills I learned from RPing on IRC. Though such games seem to have gone the way of the DoDo, I remember them with fondness and hope that someday they will rise again. The sense of community and the fun of the game surpasses any MMORPG I’ve played.

I hadn’t been on IRC since high school, when Carcasonne Haven slowly dissolved and I moved on to college and Star Wars Galaxies (followed by World of Warcraft, Dungeons & Dragons Online, Eve-Online, and then back to WoW). But with my recent registration for the Penny-Arcade Expo, I saw that they had an IRC channel and decided to join.

Unlike most of the tech IRC channels I’ve hopped into over the last couple of years for answers to Linux questions, this one actually had people chatting. Friends who knew each other, and who were part of a community, were sharing their lives and jokes one scrolling line at a time. Laughing out loud at their inane chatter, I realized with amazement how long it had been since I had joined a good Internet Relay Chat. And as they asked me questions and we talked about where we worked, the games we played, and how best to escape zombies, I sat back and sighed.

I was home again.

On Adventure and Job Security

He had spent years in search of boredom, but had never achieved it. Just when he thought he had it in his grasp his life would suddenly become full of near-terminal interest. The thought that someone could voluntarily give up the prospect of being bored for fifty years made him feel quite weak. With fifty years ahead of him, he thought, he could elevate tedium to the status of an art form. There would be no end to the things he wouldn’t do.

– On Rincewind from Sourcery

“Matt, would you walk me to my next class?” Erin asked me breathlessly, her eyes wide with fear behind her slightly oval-shaped glasses. We had sat next to each other most of my freshman year of high school in geometry, but hadn’t begun speaking to each other until relatively recently. To be honest, I hadn’t even noticed her until last week.

Despite having been in close proximity to this girl for over a semester and a half, she always avoided notice by wearing big flannel shirts, keeping her hair over her face, and never saying a word. But when she walked into the dance the previous Friday night, it was like beholding an angel. I swear she shone with a pure white light, and her laughter swept me from my feet. She was enchanting, and when she told me that we had a class together, I was flabbergasted.

Today she was hiding again, though. Boots instead of high heels and flannel rather than lace, the only distinguishing mark about her the fear that was plain on her face. Of course, I agreed to walk her, and gently cajoled the story from her as we crossed the campus.

A band of pagans (not true satan worshippers, nor actually powerful witches) had forced her to a shrine they had built with the intent of harming her. Whether it would have come to rape or murder is hard to say, but Erin was terrified (she had escaped by kicking one in the groin and bull rushing past the one with the knife), and being the gallant witch I was, I vowed to protect her. For the next several days, I ditched out of classes early so I could walk her from place to place, and cast guardian wards wherever and whenever I could to keep her from harm.

I served as Erin’s bodyguard for only a week before she disappeared. Finally tracking her to Texas, I learned that she had fled the state out of fear, but was thankful for my help. Helluva reward.

***

Over the last couple of days, I have had a somewhat sobering and comforting realization. Despite my frustration at being unable to write due to the muddled nature of my mind on pain medication and the constant throbbing of my jaw, I have found myself uniquely blessed. It has occurred to me how truly wonderful it is to have a real job.

Not that writing isn’t a real job, for those who make an income from it, but in this moment, I’m kind of glad it isn’t my real job. I have a secure position at a major university which provides me with sick leave, vacation time, retirement benefits, and a steady paycheck based on the work, services, and knowledge I provide.

Writing is, to my mind, kind of like adventuring. You put yourself out there, go out on a limb, and pour yourself into something. You do it out of love and excitement and perhaps a certain amount of naivete. Sometimes this pans out and you make a paycheck here and there, but it’s not steady or secure.

Being unable to write for the last few days, I’ve felt a bit like a failure. I haven’t been producing, and subsequently my self-worth has faltered. But now it occurs to me that, at least at this stage in my life, that’s OK. My job isn’t writing; writing is a hobby I enjoy, but it’s not what pays for our house or our food. I have no obligation to a muse or a mission, I’m just (supposedly) doing this for fun.

***

I met a lot of people when I started college who wanted to go on a big adventure. They wanted to get out and see the world, to “start their life,” and to see what it all had to offer. I thought they were fools.

Adventure always found me whether I wanted it to or not, and it was never truly pleasant. Rather, I sought boredom, because boredom meant nobody was trying to kill me or mine.

I didn’t find boredom until I became Christian, and even then, not until after my first year or so of college. Once I placed myself under Jesus’s banner, I found that I no longer had to fight everything on my own. God takes care of me.

This was kind of a depressing realization at first. Part of me still thirsts for adventure, for the thrill of cheating death, for striding where so few go and daring everything for the next great leap. There was no point in keeping myself in good physical shape anymore, in pushing myself in certain academic pursuits, or in preparing for the great battles. There were no more great battles, and there was no more adventure of the sort I knew.

But there is certainly joy, and the last few days has highlighted that most dramatically. April has been truly wonderful, taking care of everything for me with love and gentleness. She has done the dishes and cleaned, cooked for me, catered to my every need, and somehow not resented my listless and constant napping.

All-in-all, I’m fine to be rid of the adventures of my youth. I could fill a book someday with them, and I probably will, but I’m not anxious to repeat them. I’d rather have this comfortable bed and our kittens, my beautiful wife and our home, and a secure job where I am valued and sheltered in the warm bosom of the university’s bureaucracy. I know from experience that there’s simply no end to the things I wouldn’t do.

Lacking Transitional Staying Power

It was Halloween, and I was in eighth grade. Over the previous summer, I’d decided to give up on most everything I’d previously held in my life. I began dressing differently, listening to different music, stopped caring what everybody thought about me, and embarked on becoming my own person. I had always been looked down upon as uncool, but you know what? I didn’t care anymore.

And subsequently, became accepted and somewhat less of a dork than I had been. So, I was hosting my first boy-girl party. The entire event was orchestrated so, at some point in the night, the music would spontaneously slow down and I would propose dancing. The girl I liked would be the first I asked to dance, and we’d have a romantic, wonderful evening that ended with us taking a stroll around my parent’s property and perhaps even kissing.

I cooked and put together an assortment of snacks, decorated our shop (we had a large workshop on our property, the first room of which was for work and the second for storage; I cleaned this out and used it as something of a retreat at times), and sent out the invitations. Considering my lack of popularity, the turnout was decent: mostly girls, at least ten people, and the girl I liked had shown up. Things were going well, I thought.

But instead of dancing, we ended up playing some basketball, and when we came to the moment I’d waited in such anxiety for, I ended up dancing with my friend Kendle. She looked around the shop, smiling benevolently, and declared that I would make a very good husband someday.

That statement haunted me throughout high school, as it proved accurate on a variety of levels. I was a great friend, and most of my friends were female. They turned to me for advice, talked with me about anything (even things most guys shouldn’t or don’t want to hear about), and looked to me like a big brother. I was reliable, gentle, and intelligent. I didn’t push anything on them and didn’t even pursue a relationship when it was obvious to me that it would never happen. Everything they might want in a friend.

But I was a terrible boyfriend. Not that I had much of an opportunity to find out, but I knew it would be the case, because I simply didn’t want to be a boyfriend. Since a young age, I had wanted to be a husband. To have a family, to settle down and commit to one another. Once you reach a certain age, that attitude is desired and admirable, but teenage girls weren’t looking for that.

I wanted a deep, committed relationship, but I wanted it before my time, so to speak. If I’d developed that attitude in my early to mid-twenties, no problem. At twelve… well, there was a whole transition there between “friend” and “husband” I just wasn’t capable of exploring.

It’s obvious that this desire came more out of my need for a stable family than out of any real maturity, emotional or otherwise. I would make a good husband because I was committed to it as an idea, and willing to work for it. Because once I committed, that was it; there’s no backing out, no renegging. But a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship is supposed to be more casual, testing the waters, spending time learning about one another and about oneself in a relationship.

Suffice it to say, the girl got away, which was probably for the best in the long-run. As for me, I did manage to become a boyfriend the next year, in one of the rockiest and somehow longest relationships of my life.

Kickback

I had a dream the other night in which I stood on the old playground at my elementary school, talking with a blond-haired man about the school and how it had changed. We were the ages we are now, with little kids running all over the place, playing and having a good time, but the field next to the playground was largely empty.

He asked me what the school was like back then, “Was it crowded?” he asked. “Were the kids separated?” When I attended, the building housed both the elementary and the junior high school, and the elementary kids were confined to the north wing while the junior highers had the south wings. Elementary students were not permitted in the junior high hallways, and were largely afraid of the big kids there, who were perceived as bullies (even though we had next to no interaction with them).

Now, according to my dream, all of the kids were mixed up because there simply wasn’t room or optimal spaces to accommodate all classes and sizes. Rather than dispelling fear, it increased confusion, and the school was a bit of a zoo. Nevertheless, it seemed like less kids were at recess, or at play.

I told him about kickback, the one sport I excelled at in elementary and junior high school. Besides in the classroom, dealing with academic questions and grades, there was little I could show off with at the time, but at kickback I reigned supreme.

Kickback is similar to kickball, in that there is a ball involved and you kick it. Other people try to catch it. Beyond that, they differ drastically, and the reason I preferred it is because you didn’t have to run much. The goal, rather than kicking the ball away from people so you could run around the bases, was simply to kick the ball as high and far as possible.

Two teams would face each other across the field, and a single soccer ball (or whatever similar ball was handy) would be drop kicked back and forth across the field. The goal was to kick it to an area of the field within the boundaries (usually demarcated by some trees or something) but in a place where someone on the other team would not be able to catch it. If the ball hit the ground, your team got a point. If they caught it, they got a point.

I was the best kicker, able to get the ball higher and further than anyone, and I loved that. I loved playing in that field, where there were trees and open skies, but by junior high, rules started to thud down around us. No playing tag. No hide and seek. No running around in the field, it’s too dangerous. In the game of tag, you have to… you know… tag someone. But that was too much like hitting, and therefore was banned. In my dream, the rules took it so far that most of the playground was empty because it was deemed unsafe. Too violent or dangerous.

Nevertheless, it was nice to think back and be nostalgic about something from my childhood that was purely pleasant. I remarked to the blond-haired young man how amazing it was to think back on those shining moments. With all the horrible things that happened at that school, all the bullying, beatings, and concussions, all the fear and angst, that there would be something there to think back on with fondness was a blessing. At least it’s not all bad, I said with a smile. Though I do miss kickback.