Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Can You Guess My Name?

Tagged by Paula I have been...

[Pick a band and answer the following questions only with titles of their songs. I think I'm supposed to tell you who it is, but you have to guess.]

1. Are you male or female? He Who Laughs Last

2. Describe yourself: Theory of Revolution

3. How do some people feel about you? Narrative of Soul Against Soul

4. How do you feel about yourself? Modern Epic

5. Describe your ex boyfriend/girlfriend: No Poetic Device

6. Describe your current significant other: Catch a Hot One

7. Describe where you want to be: ...But Home is Nowhere

8. Describe how you live: Dancing Through Sunday

9. Describe how you love: Sacrifice Theory

10. What would you ask for if you had just one wish? Cult Status

11. Share a few words of wisdom: Lower Your Head and Take It in the Body

12. Now say goodbye: The Leaving Song

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Welcome to the Fellowship

Flutes play, a beautiful garden scene greets you, a butterfly flits about the screen. A lovely title in spring colors rests in the leaves of the surrounding trees, the most uplifting opening sequence of the series, truth be told. You feel like a bright, loving new age is upon you.

Then static.

The screen changes to a swirling blue. In the center something forces its way through. It's a face, a red face of seeming stone with malevolent yellow eyes. It gazes at you, then bellows,


Ah, Ultima 7.

What brings on this little burst of nostalgia? Today I will receive my first new PC in a couple of years. I didn't buy it for practical reasons. I bought a gamer machine, cuz I wanna play games.

Now, I don't go much in for action games. In fact, when I used to play Doom or Wolfenstein 3D, I'd just play it in god mode so I could get all the baddies out of the way and find all the secret doors and easter eggs. Saving the game and trying to kill the same monster fifteen different times is completely inane to me. I like the story and the puzzles, that's all.

In preparation for receiving this beautiful device, I went out on a little software spending spree and bought a few games, like The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion.

That will be cool. Really.

Yet I don't believe anyone will ever match the magic that was Ultima 7. Now, you'd have to be bit of a roleplaying geek to appreciate that, and you'd really have to be one of the ones who bought the first run of Ultima 7, opened it up, found the usual cloth map and the black moonstone and the little black book entitled "Fellowship," and said to yourself, "What the hell?"

While there are many wonderful games out that capture a sense of adventure, mystery, and mayhem, I don't think you can just recreate the sense of unsettled foreboding good-hearted Avatars felt upon opening that book.

For those of you not in the know, the Ultima series was the first PC RPG to put story above sword-wielding, and moreso, the entire goal of Ultima 4 (another incredible classic) was to become a virtuous "Avatar" by following the moral code of Britannia, the Eight Virtues. This became the basic code of behavior for episodes 5 and 6, though the story lines were different.

Anyway, unlike most product manuals, you aren't given a bit of background to the current story. You're only told that a couple hundred years have passed since your last "visit" to Britannia, and that things had changed a bit. The virtues were found wanting these days, and a new organization called The Fellowship had given people renewed hope and purpose through their Triad of Inner Strength. It's presented as the new moral code for Britannia. Yet you're left feeling uneasy, like something's not quite right.

Of course, something is NOT quite right, and that uneasy feeling gives way to outright panic (gamewise, anyway. I'd hate to think players actually panicked!) as the true nature of things becomes known.

Nowadays games have incredible graphics, and amazing capacity for depth and development, just by virtue of massive storage capabilities. Yet Origin Systems (may she rest in peace) accomplished this back when a 120MB (MB, not GB) drive was huge and the 386-33 was still a pretty fast machine.

They didn't put their heart and soul into the programming. They put it into the story. That brilliant story was crafted cleverly and with great attention to each detail, so that your realization was gradual, and you had moment after moment of "A-HA!" The graphics were good for their day, but very clunky by today's standards. Yet that didn't matter.

I love roleplaying games, and I love 'em on the PC. I enjoyed Baldur's Gate, and Elder Scrolls III, and so on.

But I doubt I'll ever get to experience that wondrous sense of immersion, that small pit of foreboding, that excellent balance of story, character, and action, all topped off with a blazing finish, that was Ultima 7.

Long live Lord British, wherever he is.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

He is Risen Indeed

Luke 24:1-6a

1 On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb.

2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb,

3 but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.

4 While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them.

5 In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead?

6a He is not here; He has risen!

A blessed Easter to you all.

Friday, April 07, 2006

I'll See You All This Coming Fall...

I was listening to my "O Brother, Where Art Thou" soundtrack again and was struck by the lyrics of the song "Big Rock Candy Mountain."

One evening as the sun went down
And the jungle fires were burning,
Down the track came a hobo hiking,
And he said, "Boys, I'm not turning
I'm headed for a land that's far away
Besides the crystal fountains
So come with me, we'll go and see
The Big Rock Candy Mountains

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,
There's a land that's fair and bright,
Where the handouts grow on bushes
And you sleep out every night.
Where the boxcars all are empty
And the sun shines every day
And the birds and the bees
And the cigarette trees
The lemonade springs
Where the bluebird sings
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
All the cops have wooden legs
And the bulldogs all have rubber teeth
And the hens lay soft-boiled eggs
The farmers' trees are full of fruit
And the barns are full of hay
Oh I'm bound to go
Where there ain't no snow
Where the rain don't fall
The winds don't blow
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
You never change your socks
And the little streams of alcohol
Come trickling down the rocks
The brakemen have to tip their hats
And the railway bulls are blind
There's a lake of stew
And of whiskey too
You can paddle all around it
In a big canoe
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,
The jails are made of tin.
And you can walk right out again,
As soon as you are in.
There ain't no short-handled shovels,
No axes, saws nor picks,
I'm bound to stay
Where you sleep all day,
Where they hung the jerk
That invented work
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.
I'll see you all this coming fall
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

We've all heard or read the stories of the shiftless bums and hobos. If nothing else, we've read "Cannery Row." But it made me think about what it would be like to be a man like that. To be shiftless and lazy, picking up cigarette butts, riding the rails, running from the bulls and staying out of sight of the brakemen, in and out of jail.

What life was that? What did you think about and dream about? Where did you find significance. What did the future mean? The past? And what would death bring you when you hadn't even lived a day in your life?

Now I suppose I'm lucky. I have a great job that pays me enough to live well. I'm not rich and I won't be buying Man U from the Glasers any time soon, but I have a house, lots of creature comforts, I support my wife and kids comfortably, and I have money to buy a few things.

But it wasn't always that way. When I was young and a little ways out of high school, I had decided that I didn't want to labor away at college and the like. I wanted a good job now. I didn't want to work my way up and through like everyone else. I wanted people to recognize my innate brilliance and hand me a great paying job right now.

You can imagine where that attitude got me. Sure, I fooled a few people for awhile, but eventually my lack of experience, work ethic, and self-discipline caught up with me. I remember being in my living room, lying on the floor, a pen in hand and pad of paper before me. I was working on the budget. There was my wife on the couch, playing with our five-year-old daughter. My wife was moving slowly because our second child was taking up most of the room inside of her and had pushed well out into the normally empty space right in front of her belly button. She was oblivious to whatever I was doing at the time.

We were out of money. I had no prospects. I had no degree. I was working a job making less money than I had in years, and even those years had been thin. I didn't know what to do.

I looked up at my cute little daugther, and my lovely wife, so great with child, and it hit me.

There is nobody in the world who is going to take care of those three people except me. Their lives are, in a sense, in my hands.

When I say it hit me, I mean it hit me. It was a definite, physical sensation that nearly knocked the wind out of me.

It seems it would have been obvious, but I had spent the first 30 years of my life so self-involved that this realization was a true revelation to me. Holy crap! I'm not the center of the universe. I'm not even the center of MY universe.

I looked back down at all the minus signs and asked myself again, "What am I going to do?" Now I had a new answer. "Whatever I have to."

At that moment I dropped most of my reservations and decided that even if I had to work sixteen hours a day at two jobs, those three people were going to be cared for. (And yes, my wife was working at the time, too, but we need both of us to be pulling down a decent living wage, and I wasn't even close. Plus my wife was about to go on leave for a few months.)

That change in perspective also afforded a change in criteria. It was time to swallow my horribly misplaced pride.

I looked back and thought about all the jobs I had had up to that point. I had basically screwed the pooch on every single one, mostly through a lack of discipline and a lack of a sense of responsibility. I got my first job when I was 10 years old, delivering the Reno Evening Gazette. Over the year I went from a decent paperboy to a terrible, irresponsible one, finally getting fired right around my first anniversary. Mrs. Kerr was nice about it, but she meant business. That pattern never really stopped.

Now, I had a day job that didn't pay very well, so I went looking for a night job. My sister-in-law had a night job, and they had openings.

Delivering the newspaper.

I almost didn't do it, but I saw the faces of my wife and daughter, and what I imagined was the face of my as yet unborn son, and I went for it.

Now, there was a lot of other stuff going on in my life, much of which was just me trying to figure out how to finally grow up and be damn adult. I was initially ashamed to be a paperboy all over again. But in my spirit I felt something different. There was something inside that was almost excited, that said, Okay, time to start over again. What do you want to different?

What do I want to do different? All right. If I'm going to get my ass out of bed every morning, 365 days a year, at 1:30 or 2am, then I'm not going to waste the time. I will be the best delivery person they have.

What your hand finds to do, do it with all your might. That's biblical.

So I did. I worked harder and smarter. I folded my papers neater. I was always on time. I rarely missed a house. I earned several jackets as the "Carrier of the Month." It sounds so droll, in a way, yet I was proud of myself, not because I earned those things, but because I didn't let my pride get in the way of doing a good job at the only thing I had going.

I didn't let myself do much kvetching, either. I tried my best not to complain. Yeah, when you're getting up with Santa Claus to go throw papers on Christmas morning, it can be hard not to grumble, but I did my best.

Best of all, I was making just enough to make ends meet. Yeah, we really had to stretch and pull the ends together to get them tied, but it made all the difference.

Through a strange and providential string of circumstances, I stand here nearly nine years later, working one great job, almost a dream job, making ten times what that paper route paid me. Now I wholly take care of those three people, plus one more. I still believe, and will always believe, that I have this job because I got the chance to start over and do it right. Because I did my very best at a really crappy job, because I didn't allow myself to be ashamed of my "low station" and just did what needed to be done.

During this time, my brother paid me one of the highest compliments I've ever received. He said, "Bro, you're are one of the hardest workers I've ever known." As a guy who had lived most of his life chronically lazy, and still struggles with that, that lifted me up to incredible heights. He wasn't ashamed of what I was doing. He was impressed that I was knocking myself out to do what was right.

Now, I feel like I'm sitting here patting myself on the back. Sorry if it comes off that way. That's not my intent. My intent, indeed my point, is to reflect back on the song at the top of this post. What if I had decided that pride and comfort were just too important to give up? What if I was just too lazy to get off my ass? Could I have lived with myself? Could anyone? I know work is sometimes a pain, but isn't the act of productive labor itself an elixir of sorts? How could anyone just drift through life looking for handouts and hideaways?

I don't understand it, and listening to that song makes me very sad, because it's the song of someone who has lost not only his way, but his very soul. He is beaten and his spirit is dead who cannot find a reason to put his hand to the plow one more day.

Monday, April 03, 2006

History of the World

I've done a good amount of reading about history in my time. I love history, did as a youth, and even moreso now. However, I've always read bits and pieces, the Greeks here, the Irish there, the Romans over here, etc. Yet I've never really done a complete survey.

So I bought and am reading J.M. Roberts New (Penguin) History of THE WORLD (that's the way it looks on the cover.) I'm still in the very ancient world, having covered prehistory, Sumer and Mesopotamia, Egypt, and am rolling about with some of the smaller civs of the day, such as the Hittites.

What fascinates me the most is to try and get inside of the head of the people who lived in that day. Richard Dawkins, in his book The Ancestor's Tale, talks about the arrogance of the present. In other words, we have a tendency to view our current society as the pinnacle of civilization and evolution, and to view the past societies as aiming at the present, rather than being in and of themselves very present and, in a sense, their own pinnacle. It is in some ways a very fine point to make, but an important one. The people of ancient Egypt didn't sit there thinking, ah, someday we will all mean something when the whole world is populated and connected by magical communication machines and flying devices to travel the world over. They lived thinking, Ah, here we are, this is what God meant when he made people. Think I'll build a pyramid!

What did it mean to have hopes and dreams in Sumer? How did people view themselves and society? What did they feel? What did they feel when their children raced in from playing outside, laughing, arms outstretched? I would wager that they felt much the same six thousand years ago (get your mind around that) as we do today. Did they analyze their feelings? Did they try to find themselves? Did they become discontent? Did they have a midlife crisis? What did it mean to live your life by the light of the sun and the oil of a few lamps? What was entertainment? What was work? What was leisure? What was war? What was it like to march out with spear and shield, away from your family for months or even years at a time, no letters home, no email, no communication. Those lucky enough to return finding their young children grown, even married. What was a global perspective? How did you learn?

What was the meaning of life?

The questions can keep coming all day long. That's the beauty of history. Those that don't care for learning history miss the most glorious aspect of it: That history was made by flesh and blood people like you and me, who lived, loved, cried and died, leaving their little marks on the world so long ago.


It's about me, dummy!!!


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