Happy International Women’s Day

I saw today in various forms of social media a number of friends posting photos of the multitude of strong women in their family. Which made me wonder how unique this is. I mean, I had never known anything but. Though to be fair, my strongest connections are with the Italian side of my family.

door-county-splash

Strong, independent… maybe a little insane.

Specifically, I felt it was prudent to share several short tales from the family lore. In my case, ones that have popped up organically in conversations over the years. I do offer the caveat that I am in possession of a rather dark sense of humor. There are things I find funny that most people are disturbed by. Just ask my wife. After pretty much any rated R movie we ever go see.

Several years back, one of the students in my department took to calling me a “poor man’s Wolverine.” Mostly due to the amount of damage and abuse my body had taken without stopping. I believe his tirade was prefaced with, “Dude, why don’t you just lie down?” So I shared with him the following tale from my family.

Back when my Nona and Auntie Anna were still alive, my parents had traveled to Boston to go visit them. The two of them lived with my Auntie Judy (my father’s sister). One afternoon, while napping in front of the television, they noticed something wrong with Anna.

My father went to work tending to her, while someone else went for help. Notibly the nurse and cop that lived across the street. Between the three of them, they got her heart started again, but she kept slipping away. And then the ambulance pulled up.

The EMTs went to work as well, getting similar results. By that point they were pretty sure that was it, so they needed to get to the hospital for the doctor make the call. She was on the stretcher, in the back of the ambulance, with the EMTs packing in their gear so they could head out.

Anna came to (I remember hearing “sat straight up”, but I’ve done the stretcher ride before… there ain’t not “straight up” in those things), and proceeded to bitch out the EMT for tearing her house dress. You guessed it, she was fine. The EMT was probably fine too… after some therapy.

My student laughed like it was a good story. Before I told him, you think the mafia are the Italians you need to be worried about? There ain’t no boss in the world that’s gonna “talk smart” to his Nona. She’ll whoop his ass without having to lift a finger.

You want to know why I don’t just lay down? When you have a great aunt in her 80’s flatline five times and still get up to bitch at the person trying to save her for ripping her house dress? That set a standard to be met. A little TBI is nothing compared to that, yeah?

Keep in mind that the woman that raised Anna (and my Nona) was as tough as they come. She held the family together and provided for them. I hear stories about the farm she ran (which apparent is now where the Braintree Mall is). And more so, the description of her wake at the house. The same house I had been visiting at since I was a baby. Senators, Mayors, police chiefs and more came to pay their respects. I never knew her, as she passed before I was born, but I damn sure knew the legacy she left behind. It was now our legacy.

And it doesn’t stop there.

About a year after my spinal surgery. I was walking with a cane still as it didn’t 100% reverse the damage, but it definitely kept me walking. We were back out in Boston to do some genealogy searches (of which a gamer’s brain is well built for apparently), and visit family. Another aunt had just turned 90 that year, so we stopped by to visit. She was living with one of her daughters, but we were visiting during the day, so it was just us there with her.

My father opens with, “So, how are you doing, Madeline?” To which she answers, “Well, you know… if you stop moving, you die.” And here I was in my late 30’s with a cane. One I could honestly walk without, but not without discomfort. Again, there was a standard set.

I remember leaving to head back to the house and telling my mother, “Well, now I have to ween myself off this damned cane too.” They assured me that wasn’t the case, but the reality is that 95% of the time I don’t really need it. But it does usually stay in the back of my truck in case I do have need of it.

I really feel that these (and other) women that I grew up with are what helped shaped me into the man that fell in love with my wife and married her. She has faced quite a bit of adversity, but has come out the better for it. Not only is she the main source of income for our family (as I am a state employee and therefore not paid a fraction of what corporate America makes), but she also does most of the tool-related things around Casa de Zombie, while I do most of the cooking and baking.

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Not as independent, but she’s definitely one of the ladies in my life.

Yes, for those of you in Adventurers League who just experienced the Iron Druid Cupcakes last month… that actually was my work. Decorating the cupcakes… now that is her gig. I just make the frosting and the cakes. Piping and decorating is not really my thing.

My only hope is that our grandchildren learn from her example as I did from my Nona before me. They learn and grow up to become strong and independent like her. Or find women to have in their lives who are.

Take Your Broken Heart…

This blog has been rather anemic for a very long time. This past year the only thing that held the forefront of my mind was politics, and nobody wants me spewing about politics. In fact, I had been told that as a writer (even an aspiring one), it is best to not discuss your politics in social media as it could turn away potential readers. And I’m not sure I agree with it, nor care if it is true.

But this is only about politics in an ancillary way.

During the Golden Globes this year Meryl Streep gave a speech that touched on politics. It was about the despair and pain she felt at the outcome of this past year. It put out a call for compassion and understanding, and for those with a voice (as she was losing hers in a literal sense) to join in with protecting the press who would face a more difficult job during this incoming administration.

This isn’t about her speech, or the politics behind it. It has nothing to do with my feelings about her motivations – even though I agree with everything she said. No, this has to do with the quote she gave as inspiration towards the end of the speech. It came from her friend Carrie Fisher, or as she said, Princess Leia. Being an old school Star Wars geek, I have been inspire by those characters – not to mention their actors and writers – most of my life. So I wasn’t shocked when this statement held meaning for me. I’m a sucker for a good quote…

Take your broken heart. Make it art.

If you look back through my archives I have blogged next to nothing this year. The past couple really. Mostly reactions to the deaths of artists that inspired me. My Twitter feed features more photos of our puppy than any real writing. I know the reason why, though I never speak of it. Until now. Now, I will make it art.

Before we adopted Ginger, Aladdin was our family dog for over fifteen years. When his cancer was so bad we could physically see him struggling even though he’d never show any signs of pain. That was his personality. Part of me felt like he didn’t want to show any reason to leave us, as he was always looking out for us. So that July, while in the middle of Camp NaNoWriMo, I had to make a call to have a vet come out to our house for his last walk. And it broke me.

I have done that walk before. My childhood dog when I was 21, married and not living at home. She had been my best friend through my childhood. And I took it with as much stoicism as I could. I was there when she entered my life, I would be there when she left it. I felt it was my responsibility. I did that with our cat, even thought he was arguably my wife’s cat. I brought him home and allowed him to get used to the house before the kids came home so he wouldn’t freak out. We were the ones that took him for his last ride.

But this was the first time I had to make the call. Nobody was with me, and I had to apologize to the vet because it took me several tries to get the words out. After several curse words under my breath.

We gave him the best last day we could. Gave him steaks we had intended to take camping that weekend. Gave him pets all day long. Let him take one more nap with his boy. Pet him to sleep one more time like I did when we adopted him as a 9 month old puppy.

After that first weekend, I still had a deadline ahead of me. I held on to a line from the Walking Dead delivered by Scott Wilson as Hershel. “We’ve all got jobs to do. This is mine.” So I finished writing the short stories through the end of the month. I hit the word goal, but not the story count (which really was my own goal, not the challenge).

After that I felt broken. Like I’d lost my voice, but not the physical one. The one that whispered stories into my ear at night. The one that fed the gorilla (as the branding of my site from a different quote would call it).

In a sense, that is part of the reason we discussed adopting another dog. During the nights, with our son moved out (especially on the nights when my wife was in Milwaukee), I sat in a quiet house. There was a hum to the rooms once the television was off. Like it was hiding a secret from me. But the secret was the voice that would fill that space was gone. At the very least it had turned down the volume to barely a whisper.

With Ginger in the house, my nights became about her. She had such a hard life for the first year to 18 months, that she needed someone to show her how to live. So I trained her, and bonded to her. She learned to not fear touch. Her tail spent most of its time in the upright curled position and not between her legs. She found her voice – and promptly scared the shit out of my wife with a single bark while standing right behind her.

Now, with Ginger being more of a real dog, waking me up by playing the way puppies do (something she never had before), I am still working my way slowly into a writing routine. I still feel that loss from two and a half years ago. The hum of the empty rooms rings in my ears from time to time. Especially when the power goes out in the Door County house and I’m the only one awake.

I’ve lost loved ones before. The first was a friend at the age of 11. My grandfather when I was 13. Most recently a friend who wasn’t yet 30. I remember buckling a bit during the funeral for my uncle – military services cut through my armor pretty well. But most of the time I feel the eyes on me because I’m oddly cool or detached during those times. I held it together during my Nonna’s funeral. So how does that guy admit that something broke his heart to the point it has altered him?

Maybe it was just  a breakthrough game like from Arkanoid or one of the levels of Tron (for you old school video gamers). Eventually enough of the blocks in my wall were broken out and one hit home. Or possibly the closeness with which I bound to Aladdin made it hurt all the more. I do know the guilt I felt that due to my spinal injury there were things I couldn’t help him with. I couldn’t lift him in the end.

The truth is the loss of Aladdin, the first dog we chose as adults, has broken my heart. It has left me concerned with the closeness I have with our current puppy, Ginger. Can I survive this again? My answer has always been that one moment of hurt doesn’t invalidate the years of joy.

When we went to Cave Point County Park in Door County on Christmas morning (now that we have a place up there, we can holiday up there), I saw him as he would run along the beach chasing the gulls. Climbing up the rocks as he loved to do with Robin. Cave Point was his favorite place, and now its ours. Would it mean that much to me if I hadn’t gone through everything with my dog? Maybe. But it means so much more to me now that it’s his spot.

So, like I am standing at a podium in a community center with burnt coffee and stale donuts on a folding table at the back of the room, I am testifying. “My name is Zombie Joe, and I have a broken heart.”

But thanks to Carrie Fisher and Meryl Streep, I now know what to do with it. I’ll wrap it around me like a warm blanket (even though I hate to many blankets). I’ll use it. Make it into art.

Veterans Day: Let Me Tell You A Story

It has been a while, but today I feel a return to this is needed. Every Veteran’s Day I will thank folks I know who served. Heartfelt Happy Birthdays are given to Marines I know. This year I want to do something different. This year I want to tell you a story.

hallofheroesBefore Gamehole Con this year I had an idea. Make a banner with Hall of Heroes on it. Where folks could come up and write down the names of the characters that didn’t make it back from an adventure, or (more importantly) the names of players they had lost from their game tables. What does this have to do with Veteran’s Day? Well, the motivation behind it.

Several years ago I met someone at Encounters (the precursor to Adventurers League). He was a student at the UW completing his degree after a 6 year stint in the Army as an infantryman. He had done at least one tour in Iraq. I was looking for more butts to fill my game table, and we seemed to get along well. So he joined up.

Blaine played with our group for his entire time in Madison. After graduation he took a job in Chicago. He and his wife (they had married during the time he was playing with us), moved there. Before leaving, he had gifted us with his megamat, Orcus figure and some of his books. Though he said he had no use for them where he was going, I assured him the library would always be there for him should he change his mind.

We also took a trip to Gander Mountain to go shooting before he left. He was genuinely surprised at how good of a shot I was. Maybe because he knew I was horrible with distance viewing – especially without my glasses. I assured him I was born and raised in Wisconsin and had actually been a hunter for a while.

With his character Guthryn, we had this thing. He would do an area attack against everything in a zone. This was the days of 4th Edition, and he was playing a crossbow shooting rogue sniper. He would roll his attack and then spent time doing all the math involved on his damage. As he was doing that, I was picking up the figures for the minions in the zone – flunkie monsters with only 1 hit point. Once all the math was done, he would look up at his figure in an empty room and simply say, “Son of a bitch!”

It was such a thing with us that we kept track of the times it would happen. That and the art of being taken out by an aura without ever being attacked directly (this edition, it would be more like an environmental effect or lair action), were his two things as a character.

Speaking more to him as a person, he would post images to social media of the cakes and treats we would make for our game nights. The time I made the melting chocolate cakes from our cruise, he posted that with something like, “This is how my DM treats us every week. What do you got?”

Well one day I had made ghost cupcakes. They were baked and served in foil “cups” shaped like ghosts. I had explained the the players a couple of times that night that I had filled them with a cherry caramel from our trip to Door County. Everyone was into it and dug in. Blaine just nodded as he was working on his character. As soon as he took a bite, he looked up with a distraught look on his face. With a sullen voice he said, “Awwww… what’s in my ghost?” Apparently the surprise texture squigged him out as he didn’t hear either of the times I explained what the cakes were filled with.

While he hadn’t gamed with us as long as some of my friends, he had quite a volume of great stories that revolved around him and his interactions both in and out of our game.

Still you might be confused. We all have friends like this. A staple at our table. Why would this inspire the banner mentioned above?

This year, after returning from a three week anniversary cruise with my wife, we found out that Blaine passed away unexpectedly at the age of 29. So early on in the travels, I believe his memorial service passed before we were back in the country. So I broke the news to our group, and we toasted him with shots of the best whiskey served in Casa de Zombie. (The kids at the table got juice in their glasses.)

As I stated to the room at 8am Friday morning of the convention, during the dedication of the Hall of Heroes, he was a son, a husband, a veteran, a gamer and a friend. It was my way to ensure he made it to the convention with us.

During the 2015 Rock n Roll Hall of Fame inductions, Laurie Anderson said that a person dies three times. The first is when their heart stops. The second is when they are buried or cremated. But the final time is the last time someone says their name. Someone from the crowd echoed “Lou!” just after that line.

hallofheroesfinalAs long as we have our stories, they are never truly gone. And for me, this was like our gamer version of the Ghost Feast. We set a table for him, so that he knew his story was being told. So he could rest.

This Veteran’s Day, I choose to thank the young man who served our country with honor and distinction, brought the same dedication and honor to our campus, and was a great friend to everyone at our table. I thank him, his wife and family. And let them know at least once at every convention I work at (and several times a year at our home game table), we tell a story of this larger than life figure.

hallofheroesdedicationI haven’t decided, but I think I will be asking my wife about housing the banner in the large garage in our retirement property we just picked up in Door County. The question is, who will take the next one on as a ward? And who will serve as that banner’s dedication?

Another Hit to Art

There are many times when celebrity deaths are lamented in social media. I recognize it happened. Maybe post a tweet on it and call it a day. Like recently when Lemmy passed away. Yes, I was a fan and it was a sad day. I recognized it and moved on. Not today.

When we lost Robin Williams to depression and an incurable disease it hit me hard. Dead Poets Society was a huge influence on me when I needed it. I was extremely good at math and physics, but I loved the written word. The performance as well, provided the writing was good. That movie convinced me along with the words of Polonius from Hamlet. To some, they were his only true words of value… “To thine own self be true.”

Robin Williams (in the form of John Keating) was my Captain. “…if you’re more daring, O Captain, My Captain.” David Bowie was my king. No teen growing up in the 80’s wasn’t aware of the movie Labyrinth. And being a multi-classed geek with specialties in drama, choir, gaming and creative writing, Jareth was both siren and muse.

Also in college I spent time doing side jobs as a DJ as well as having a Sunday night radio show on the college station. This meant I had developed an eclectic taste in music long before we had things like Pandora or Spotify to cultivate it. I had metal and rock because I was a kid of the 70’s and 80’s. I had 80’s pop music because I was working every dance the school put on due to my involvement with Student Council. Reggae and funk was introduced to me at my dojo by my Sensei. Punk and Alternative (which a lot of Bowie fell into) was picked up from older siblings of friends, or at the radio station.

I remember the first time I started digging through the vinyl at the station in college. My roommate Doug and I tag-teamed our show. We had similar tastes in music, and while he loved spinning the records, he wasn’t a fan of taking on air. That meant we had time to dig. We found copies of Queen records (A Night at the Opera was a huge one for me), a CD of the Clash’s Greatest Hits (CDs were brand new back then and we only had like a dozen), and copies of Diamond Dogs as well as Scary Monsters and Super Creeps.

To that point, Glass Spider (from Never Let Me Down – his recent release) was on the top of my Bowie list. I knew he had a long career before that, but didn’t have access to it. Thank you liberal arts colleges of America. You offered me more access to the music of tomorrow than I’d had previously. Well the music of today (for that time) and of tomorrow.

We used to play a game. How fast could we scare the guy doing the Christian music show before us out of the station. You’d be surprised some of the things that got him running. Like the Screaming Blue Messiahs song “I Wanna Be A Flintstone.” I can’t remember which, but I distinctly remember wondering how anyone could be freaked out by the Bowie song we played at the intro one week. It may have been Heroes if memory serves.

But here we are twenty five years later. It’s a Monday. And now, cancer has taken family members, friends, my best friend and four legged brother Aladdin… and now it’s taken my King.

I answer this injustice as I did last time. Fuck Cancer.

But I cannot end on that. It focuses on his death, not his life. Let’s end on the note I kept repeating to myself the weeks before and after losing Aladdin. “We all have jobs to do.” For all of us, our job today is… Let’s Dance.

The Church of Punk Rock

I just heard the news today that Lemmy passed away after an all to short bout with a very aggressive cancer. Though Motorhead is more heavy metal, there are a lot of similarities to punk. More so, as I reflected on a man that influenced music for so long, playing still at his age, I considered one of my favorite spoken word poems from Neil Hilborn called Punk Rock John.

Specifically the lines as follows;

John told us, “the church of punk rock was always open. If you wanna pray, just crank up the stereo until your ears bleed. If you wanna pray, just grab your brothers and sing. Sing out of tune, sing the wrong words, just sing… LOUD!”

This also leads me to remembering the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductions from last year. Lou Reed’s wife Laurie was giving a speech for the rocker who had passed away. She spoke of the idea that a person dies three times. The first is when your heart stops, the second when you are buried or cremated and the final time is the last time someone speaks your name. From out in the crowd you’d hear yells of “Lou!” and she even lead the room in a call of his name at the end of her speech.

For an artist, I propose an adjustment to the third death. I pose that the final time a person dies is the last time their name is spoken, their novel read, their painting admired or their song played.

Today while I work I intend to pray at the church of metal. I will turn my iPod (the modern day stereo for you kids to young to get the reference) and turn it up until I can’t hear shit. And you can bet that Lemmy will be pulling the baseline more than once today.

Reflections of a Mute Dungeon Master

In considering telling this story, I was looking into whether to put it on this blog or over on my gaming blog (which I use mostly for campaign notes in our home game). Understanding that many people that would read it on this one will have no connection to me in the gaming world, and likely have no idea about the community and pastime of Dungeons and Dragons. But when have I ever shied away from scaring the normals?

GHC-mapSo this weekend was Gamehole Con. A “new” gaming convention in Wisconsin. (It is in it’s third year of operation.) And for my money, one of the best run events I have been at. Any problems we experienced had nothing to do with the convention. Like when a DM had a car breakdown on his multiple-state drive to get there. Nothing the convention could do about that. So we dealt with it.

If the worst problem you are facing is that your events were sold out (as Adventurers League was all day Saturday and Sunday), then count it a good day.

In an effort for full disclosure, that really wasn’t the worst problem we had. Technically one of the DMs lost his voice as he was still recovering from being sick. I jumped in and ran his next slot for him so that he could drink some tea and rest his voice. So by the end of the night I was losing my voice. It was a vicious circle that hit a good number of us. Even one of the players at my table had lost his voice. Not “con crud™” but definitely not the optimal situation.

final-countdownOf course there were the instances of awesome. Like watching DMs jump in to help cover slots where they could. Not everyone can just wing it. But those that could were backed up by those willing to jump into slots that they could run. The “winging it” didn’t end there either. I watched one DM run a mod as a single player adventure to make sure the one person who showed up with a ticket to his game Friday night had fun. I even ran two players (both playing non-combative characters) through a challenging module to make sure they got their event in and had a good time.

Sunday, as we were all reeling from the lack of sleep, nursing raspy voices, I found evidence of the reason I not only volunteer at events, but often run more than I play (I played one 2 hour slot this past weekend). One of my players from a previous day bought me coffee for all the hours and work I put in to make their games go off. Another bought tea for me (and her husband as he was the previously mentioned player who lost his voice) so that we could make it through the last game of the weekend. And yet another came back for Sunday with the infamous “crit or shit” die from the Studio 6d6 booth even though he saw the horrible luck I was having with mine.

I also watched as a player took his Players Handbook around asking for the DMs that ran a particularly good game for him to sign his book. It was somewhere between the last day of high school and being a celebrity. It was also the first book I’ve signed where my son has signed it as well. In fact I think he was the player when I gave my name and DCI number at the beginning of the session for their logs said, “Oh, are you related to Nick?” (A running gag in my family, and the topic of another blog.

owlbear-gaggleI also picked up a first for the convention in their first plushie. Other than food, it and their first adventure (signed and numbered by Ed Greenwood) were the only purchases I was able to make. In hindsight, I probably would have tried to fit in a demo and probable purchase of Three Pillars the ghost investigating card game from Scare TV. I am a fan of some of the ghost investigation shows, so it would have been a natural fit. Not to mention there was a promo card in our con bag offering Gamehole Con as a location. And after 30 hours of DMing (not to mention several of printing and prepping adventures on the fly), I felt like I was haunting the venue.

There were some interesting highlights from my games as well.

  • A group of 4 players. Two guys and a husband and wife. The wife was playing a male drow and her husband a female drow. The characters were brother and sister as opposed to spouses. The other two guys were drow as well, one female and one male. (I accused them of trying to break my brain at 8 in the morning.)
  • That night, for the final slot, they were back at my table only now the remaining male drow was female. I had my first character in a game that was a transgendered drow rogue.
  • The Carnival. My mod I ran on the fly (read through it in about 15 minutes), was a carnival gone wrong. The table had 3 brand new players, including one kid who was probably around 10 years old – plus or minus. So I couldn’t go full American Horror Story. But it was pretty close. I even had one character trying to protect the villain as she had gained an infatuation with the ringmaster through a developed insanity effect. (Gotta love season 3 mods!)
  • One of the Critter Community players jumped in on the one mod we were running with banshee in it. He was the player at the table to take the “token” which made him the primary target in the final fight. Dropped him and the cleric to 0 hit points with the banshee scream. Had I not been so tired, I might have consoled him with, “At least the door wasn’t locked.” (Inside joke for fans of Critical Role.)

Storytelling 101: Keeping it 100

After the impromptu story yesterday, I felt the jolt of November starting up. It used to get me looking to the fields on the way into work, clutching at the key pocket in my jeans to see if the spare round for my rifle was stashed there or not. These days its more about coffee, talking stories with NaNos (or WriMos… everyone has a different name for it) and storytelling.

keep-it-100_percent-tee-design1If I am going to “keep it 100” (see The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore), since my Aladdin died, I have been off in my writing. I made it to 50k last year, but I don’t feel it was anything I could use. As for this year, I have had a slow start to finishing up a middle grade story I’ve been throwing stones at since late spring. This November I want to not only hit the 50k but produce 50k of workable story. Something I can sell, produce, or at least print.

The going belief is that if you can exist without telling stories you’re not a writer. So does that mean I’m not a writer? I don’t think so. My storytelling outlet has been gaming this year. Role Playing is like storytelling without all the writing and editing. Well, some of the writing. Players get away with little to no writing.

To explain, allow me to tell a story. Several years ago (like seven or eight), some guys were talking in my building. Right outside my office. “Dude, I’m bringing D&D back!” (Said sarcastically, of course.) I stick my head out to ask if it went somewhere. They kind of chuckled at me and commented on how I was probably that guy at work that still played D&D.

“I haven’t played D&D for years,” I said. Of course when I was telling that to my gaming group that Sunday they looked at me rather confused. Understandable as we were setting up the D&D game for the week. Even more so  when I informed them I didn’t lie at work.

“I don’t play D&D. I’m the DM. I run it… you guys get to play.”

Being the DM is like leading a group storytelling exercise. I throw things out there, the characters react to them, and we all tell a story together. It was one of the things that lead me to wanting to become a writer in high school. Granted there were more impactful motivations that fit the traditional model, but gaming was part of it.

This past week the show Critical Role (on the Geek & Sundry Twitch channel) lost one of its actors. Not entirely sure why he had to leave the show, but he did. It made me think of all the changes my groups have gone through over the years. The gaming group from the above story only had two players in it that are still in my game. Of course one of them is my son, so that is nearly a given. Though the other player has his 13 year old daughter playing with us now.

For those young writers in training and the older ones alike. My strongest piece of advice is to Keep in 100. Own your weird and flaunt it proudly. Most of the genre writers I know have some serious eccentricities to them. And frankly I wouldn’t have it any other way.