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A letter to 2014

So I tumbl now, but this should go here because it's me and I would like it if people read it.

http://sohkrates.tumblr.com/post/71952250258/a-letter-to-this-year

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That Dragon, Cancer

Today I hate myself.

Over the weekend I received an email from work. There was an armed assault in a mall in Kenya, and among many others the father of one of my coworkers was killed. We were informed because the media was trying to get a angle on the story, and we were given strict directions to keep our coworker's privacy and tell everyone else to kindly fuck off.

Today I find out, through an email forwarded from my stepmother that was originally sent to my aunts (why I was not on that original list of recipients, I do not know) that my father spent this weekend after his birthday in agony. He suffered stomach pains for two days, relying on pain killers from the emergency room, rather than a drug from the cancer clinic meant to treat this particular side effect of his chemo therapy. The clinic is closed on weekends. I called and messaged him but didn't get a response until the afternoon. He sounded tired, he was still in some pain but not as bad as it had been. That was a relief.

Fuck it. This isn't helping.

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Vigilo, Confido

SPOILER WARNING: In explaining how awesome the end of my time with this game, there's no way around talking about some of the plot points in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, especially in the late game.  If you care about spoilers for this game, stop reading.

About 15 minutes ago I finally managed to finish XCOM: Enemy Unknown.  This was my... fifth attempt?  My first play through was interrupted by some rather unlucky encounters with sectopods and a bad choice of save points.  Each attempt after that was plagued by bad luck, soldiers dying in the first few encounters, bad building decisions, whatever.  I put it down for a while out of frustration, and started a new run earlier this year in an attempt to clear my 2012 backlog.  Plus it was winning Game of the Year awards all over the place, so it seemed like it would be worth it.

Little did I know I would be treated to the most white-knuckled climactic ending I've ever experienced in a video game.  I honestly have a hard time believing it wasn't staged to end this way, so I'll go through the whole set up and the final encounter just to show how fucking balls-out crazy this was.

First of all, I started with the tutorial mission, which sets up your first encounter with the alien collective that is attempting to invade Earth and enslave humanity.  By design every member of the squad you're controlling dies, and the sole survivor becomes your first specialized unit.  It's a good way to start the game, and if you're having issues in the beginning, I highly encourage leaving the tutorial on.

So my first decorated XCOM soldier sees all of his friends murdered shortly after first contact.  In the game each soldier gets a nickname after a certain amount of experience.  They're assigned randomly, but like most of your soldier's characteristics you can edit it.  In this case, I called him "Avenger".  It seemed fitting.

Later, in the midst of intercepting UFOs, thwarting alien terror campaigns, and assisting the various nations of the world, a female soldier joins my op team with the same last name as my go-to heavy soldier, Avenger. They're from different countries, so I start to think that maybe she's his daughter, previously estranged, but following in his footsteps by working her way into the XCOM team.  Eventually she is just as decorated as her old man and they both get to the highest rank of Colonel.

This is one of my favourite parts of XCOM: Enemy Unkown, it drops lots of opportunities for emergent narrative.  The only story that exists is humanity's desperate attempt to keep up with the alien threat.  The units in the game are blank slates, and by changing their names or physical characteristics you can make any backstory for them you'd like.  Part of why I quit playing the first time was because some of my favourite units had been killed and I had no way to get them back.

In the later stages of the game you discover that some members of your team may have psionic abilities, which would level the increasingly unbalanced conflict for control of the planet.  After I set up the psionic lab, one of the first test subjects is Avenger, and 10 days later he is the first to exhibit signs of the psionic Gift.  As the war progresses he becomes my most adept psionic soldier in the team.

At this point, I'm at the final encounter of the game.  We have captured a psionic device, some kind of node the aliens have been using to coordinate the invasion from orbit above the earth.  The XCOM scientists, who have spent the last year passing up hundreds of potential nobel prizes in an effort to turn the alien's technology into things we can use to capture or kill them rather than cure every known disease, tell me that if we utilize our latest discoveries in psionic technology, and our most gifted psionic, we could use this to track down the alien leadership.

Guess who's my volunteer.

Avenger, now wielding incredible psionic power, leads the best of my soldiers (including his daughter) in an assault on the alien mothership.  After facing several waves of enemies, the six person squad breaches the inner sanctum, containing 2 powerful psionic aliens, 2 well armed and armored honor guards and the Big Bad alien hierarch himself.

The alien hierarch also happens to be a skilled psionic, as he obliterates 3 of my soldiers with one psychic blast on his first turn.  Avenger uses the same power to kill the honor guards, but can't see anyone else other than the hierarch.  My finest sniper, a Canadian named Jill "Vampire" Davis, climbs to higher ground and manages to score a critical hit on the hierarch, reducing it to 6 health.  She dies on the next turn, and Avenger's daughter "Whiskey" is mind-controlled by one of the ethereal aliens, and with tears and confusion in her eyes, turns her gun on her father.

Avenger is critically wounded, there are 3 aliens left, 2 of them still at full health, and the only other survivor's will is not her own.  The aliens have the high ground, there's nowhere for Avenger to go.  He has a 35% chance to use his psionic mind flay ability that will do 5 damage if it hits, but the alien hierarch has 6 health remaining. I don't even know if killing him will end the game. But that's what I'm banking on.

Avenger's heavy plasma gun also has a 35% chance to hit, and will do enough damage to kill the hierarch if it does.  I take a deep breathe and hit the button.  He levels his gun at the alien leader.  The units don't talk much, except to acknowledge orders or report that they're totally flanked and how that's really not okay.  But as he locks eyes with the ancient alien, the two of them floating in an alien fortress hovering over the Earth, I imagine him saying,

"This is for my friends, you son of a bitch."

The camera pans around the two dramatically as his gun belches hot green plasma.  It's a hit!  The alien dies, the screen fades to black.  I'm cheering, but it's not over.  The hierarch's death has made the psionically controlled ship go out of control, Avenger can see what's happening, there is so much energy in this space ship that as it collapses in on itself it will pull the whole planet apart.  It's too close, and no one else can control it.

Whiskey is calling for him to get out and get back to the transport ship, her mind freed from the hierarch's grasp.  Avenger turns and yells, "GO!" pushing her through the entryway using a psionic blast, sealing the door behind her.  As the XCOM transport leaves, Avenger uses the alien controls to raise the ship, pulling it up into space where it safely detonates.  Burning pieces of wreckage fall to Earth as the transport heads back to XCOM HQ, carrying the only survivor of the final assault that saved the earth, Avenger's daughter.  Just like her father had done when all of this started, ready to continue the fight in the face of overwhelming losses.

It was unbelievably perfect.  I could not believe it wasn't staged that way, but obviously it wasn't.  Avenger had to survive from the beginning of the game to the very end.  The new unit I got halfway through the game had to have the same last name to set up that familial connection.  Avenger had to test positive for the Gift, and be the first to help make that discovery.  He had to advance to the level to become the volunteer that located the alien mothership, survive to the end along with his daughter, and get that final 1 in 3 shot to kill the alien leader.

It was unbelievably perfect.

The Academy

"Aright," Professor Vale said loudly, rapping his slim wooden cane on the tables in the front row. “Lessons!”

The few students in the front row roused quickly from their mid afternoon naps, sighing as their bodies almost immediately sagged again.  The morning’s physical training had been just as exhausting as Timothy had expected, and like his briefly startled companions he was in no mood for Professor Vale’s long, raspy speeches and sneaky, whip-like cane.

“Lessons, lessons!” he repeated, banging his cane on any nearby resonant surface. “Today we review villains.” More sounds of exasperation.  More raps of the cane on desks and the dusty blackboard. “Villains, as every young adventurer must know, come in four distinct types. The first are of course the greedy,” which he wrote in bold letters on the board using a flaking hunk of chalk. “Those who are motivated to evil for want of wealth, knowledge, or power.  Timothy!” Tim blinked and his back shot up straight as his name was called, his body fearing Vale’s cane before his mind had time to process what was happening.

“Sir!” Timothy blurted.

“Some examples, please.”

Tim reminded himself not to roll his eyes and instead recited the text he had memorized years ago.

“The greedy cover villains such as thieves, burglars, and guilds thereof.  Organized criminals, necromancers, litches, and last but not least dragons.”

“Correct,” Vale’s cane shot up in the air, it’s point landing just underneath the words he had written: ‘The Greedy’.

“And we must not forget wizards, sorcerers, and mages, as well as scholars, and erstwhile bards.  Man’s hunger for knowledge can be just as nefarious and all-consuming as his passion for wealth and power over his fellow sentient beings.  We must be on guard for all types of greed, hoarding, and secret keeping.  A cache of books can poison a person just as sure as a vault of gold.”

Tim felt annoyed.  He had said necromancers and litches, he thought that had covered it.  Sorcerers and mages weren’t always villains, were they? And certainly not bards.  Robert was majoring in song, and was a whizz with a wand too.  Tim looked to his left to peer bleary-eyed at his friend sitting next to him.

Rob was no villain.

“The second class of villain are the vengeful,” Vale continued and wrote ‘Revenge’ just below ‘The Greedy’ on the blackboard.  “Examples?” Vale asked as he turned to his somnambulant audience.  A yawning silence, saved from the perforation of Vale’s cane on the ankle of an unsuspecting student by Robert’s answer.

“The wronged, either real or imagined.  Any who believe they have moral justification in seeking vengeance and reprobation in wrongs committed against themselves, their property, or their loved ones.  Examples include but are not limited to the undead: ghosts, witches, ghouls, vampires, wights, and zombies.”

Tim smiled inside.  Rob had been quoting from the text as well, the same dog-eared, moth eaten tome they shared in their first year.  It made Tim happy to know that he wasn’t the only one who was bored with this and didn’t mind showing it.

“Good, but be careful. Any being who seeks lethal or unsavory or illegal means to establish what they personally believe is fair is capable of falling into this category. Due to the long life of various undead beings, they most typically fall into this category.  Next?”

It took the class a moment to realize that Professor Vale was asking for the next classification as he stood at the board, chalk held inches from the black paint, just below ‘Revenge’.

“Chaos,” Timothy said, tired of waiting.

“Let someone else have a chance, Master Leeroy. You there, Lady Hollander, say it another way.”  Sabrina Hollander slowly inclined her head up from her desk to look at Vale and said simply,

“The insane.” The professor cleared his throat and began writing ‘Chaos’ on the board.

“That’s right,” he said, “those who wish to create discord and unease in the world.  With no regard for the laws of man or of any decent moral law.  They burn the world.  They are psychopaths and the criminally insane.  Any race may fall here, though likely they are immortals, or those cursed with long life and have spent too long amongst the laws and ethics of civilization.  They grow tired of the world, and the Sickness beings to set in.”  Vale became quiet for a moment, and no one in the room spoke.

“And finally,” he continued eventually, “the fourth and final classification of villain.  One that most adventurers will never see, and by far the most immoral, the most infernal.  Those who will never cease to justify themselves, and win over others to their cause.  These are the villains that attempt to save the world,” Vale said as he wrote ‘Heroes’ on the board, at the bottom of the list.

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Meet Joe Black

I follow a rather useless bot on Twitter, @tesla_bot.  I say it's uselss because it quotes the man mostly in ways that aren't that interesting, and it does so repeatedly.  I follow this account not for these nuggets but to keep the man present in my mind, and to remind me about details of his life for the story I'll write about him one day.  One of them is this:

"As I uttered these inspiring words the idea came like a flash of lightning and in an instant the truth was revealed."

The inspiring words he is referred to come from a passage of Goethe's Faust, which at that point Tesla had memorized, along with several other pieces of poetry and probably almost every creative thought he had ever had.  It took me a while to verify the quote, and even remember where it came from:

The glow retreats, done is the day of toil;
It yonder hastes, new fields of life exploring;
Ah, that no wing can lift me from the soil
Upon its track to follow, follow soaring!
A glorious dream! though now the glories fade.
Alas! the wings that lift the mind no aid
Of wings to lift the body can bequeath me.


That passage came to Tesla as he was walking through a park with a friend.  He had been ruminating on the problem of the AC motor, something that had been explained to him was, at the very least impractical, and at the very most impossible.  But at that moment, he saw it all, everything he would ned to make his dream into something real.  All he had to do was make the parts, assemble them, and turn it on, and it would work.  Because that was how his mind worked, he could assemble whole inventions in his imagination, test them, and see them work.  He did not dream, he predicted.

I don't know whay I wanted to say that.  I think I just wanted people to know that a piece of poetry in Faust, in a way, gave us the present age, and how that man's mind worked.  There's a lot people should know about him.  Because he was interesting, and we should turn our minds towards interesting people. They can teach us a lot about ourselves, and how far we can go.  What our limits are, and what they aren't.  

Tonight I didn't go to a party because I wanted to write.  I felt bad about that because I missed out on seeing someone that wanted to see me.  But I need to write, and it's okay to make these sacrifices.

Once she asked if she could drive a train.

The last time my Grandmother visited Vancouver, years ago, she haggled with the a manager at Sears over the price of a pair of gloves.  She had talked to the customer service person, who had patiently and then with mounting confusion, explained to her that the gloves were a certain price.  My Grandmother explained to her, and then later to the manager, that this was all well and good, but the gloves simply weren't worth what they were asking, and she would be happy to pay what she thought they were actually worth.

It can't have been a difficult negotiation. After living through two World Wars, after walking out of a bombed out building with her children in tow, after staring down armed soldiers in Franco's Spain, it's obvious that at some point she had sat down with Fate, and explained to them that while it was all well and good that most people only lived to a certain age, but that simply wasn't what life was worth to her.  Perhaps it was when she was growing up in India, a little girl holding court with Death as tiger cubs played around their feet.  I can see her demurely sipping tea, and explaining with perfect diction to the something in the dark sweltering hood that she never planned to give anyone more or less than what they were worth.  

She walked away from this life on her own terms, with an existence longer and fuller than most of us could hope for.  

She spent the last few years of her life in a nursing home, and we were told that she died whilst napping.  I wonder, if I was in that situation, would anyone not die peacefully, whilst napping after tea or in the middle of the night?  If she died in agony, choking, or after a massive heart attack, would I really make the call and say, "I'm sorry Mr. Elliott, but after a prolonged struggle, wherein several medical professionals attempted for almost 20 minutes to keep your panicking relative around for a bit longer, giving her injections and CPR, we were unable to save her."  Why not just say they died in their sleep?

Unlikely, and probably unfeasible, but it's where my mind goes.

Her name was Pearl, and she was the one who introduced me to Omar Khayyam.  I discovered a copy of the Rubaiyyat in her bookshelf and she let me keep it.  Even when I had to remind her what I was doing with my life every day she could quote quatrains to me.

"There was a door to which I had no key,
There was a veil past which I could not see.
Some talked a little while of thee and me, it seemed,
And then no more of me or thee."

I still have that book, it sings among 3 other copies of the Rubaiyyat.  Khayyam is one of my favourite poets, and there is more than a little bit of 11th century Persian trivia in my head because of my love for that poet, and not to mention a few quatrains that I can recite.  If nothing else, I will always owe her for that.

I had an aunt who died a few years ago.  I didn't know her very well, but she was a poet and wrote a piece about my grandmother that does a good job of summarizing her life.

The Pearl
By Susan Chilcott

The sun is soft and not yet warm,
The hum perhaps, was bees,
The years a great kaleidoscope
The rug tucked around the knees

And far away the peacocks cry
Stirring the mists of time,
From dung baked walls, a Mullah calls
In Bellary, home of mine.

Have I seen, or do I dream
The saffron sari'd girl,
The bangle chink, the water gourd
Now in my past they swirl

The Ayah's eyes, a fathom deep,
Did she not have a name?
Those arms that rocked the child to sleep
That played each childhood game.

I smell the scent of hot dry earth,
I feel the heat of day
Have I no kohl upon my eyes,
India is in my blood to stay

And shrill once more the jarring call
Takes flight my mind with me
Kashmir slips in my dreaming eye,
Prayer wheels in far Lamasery

Again, again, I hear that cry
And Stanley Park I see,
Was I not there, with Grandson fair?
To feed those birds with me.

Or was I in America
Deep in forest green
Where ticks and things torment the flesh
And white-tailed deer are seen.

Or was that the forest further north,
As north as one could be,
Where once a Sachen Indian
Stood looking down on me

Did I really see a bear?
Slashing a luckless tree,
Mouse quiet, watching lest he turn
To test those claws on me.

And now how I hate those evil men
Who stole my babes from me?
Heil Hitlering their jackboot way
Up to the very sea.

Did I not drink a bitter ale?

When from my breast they tore
My babies to another place
To live throughout that war.

All those years lost, who can reclaim
Those memories are not mine
Two childhoods stolen from my life.
My pearls before those swine.

Can I know that call again?
From bird to royal plume
Wrest from my soul the phantoms sad,
Those memories of doom.

The sun is soft and not yet warm,
Bestir myself I must
For all we have are memories
Before we turn to dust.


I once met a man, an old friend of my fathers, who had met Karl Popper.  Anxiously I asked what he was like, and instead of describing to me his one brief and awkward visit, he pointed me to a book of his poems.  When I asked for me, he said he didn't have more to say than what was in the poem.  

I was annoyed by that.  I wanted details, I didn't want to stumble through his metaphors, I just wanted to know what the guy was like.  

Now I know.  Sometimes poems are easier.  She lived to be 103 years old.  What else is there to say.

1. Best High-five: Priest near the Catholic church on Dunsmuir.  I was talking with a friend about why I like the show Community and he overheard us as we were walking passed him.  When a man in a dark suit and a white collar goes up top, you either meet him there or risk the fate of your soul.

Seriously though, Greendale for life.

2. Worst Thing: probably Kanye

3. Best Thing: Also probably Kanye, or Dungeons & Dragons.

4. Best Hug: First episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.  

5. Best Moment: -REDACTED-

6. Best Moment not Covered by an NDA or Personal Insecurity: Getting to know someone and becoming almost immediately infatuated with them.  I cherish everything about that process, and I missed it.

7. Something You're Proud of: Getting a job that could very well be the first step in my dream career, or dream job, or dream sandwich. They make pretty good sandwiches there.  Really all that it did was make real a few impulses and ideas that were mere fantasy for me up until now.  Now I get it.

8. Something You aren't Proud of: I didn't write enough, but I never write enough, so same net loss really, which cancels itself out, right?  Also I'm still bad at math.

9. Something Else You're Proud of: Teaching people older than me about religion.

10. Seriously 2011 was a mixed year.  I spent a significant portion of it either unemployed or working in jobs I hated, made all the more significant by being hired as at a temporary job that has turned out to be one of the highlights of my entire life.  I spent part of the year in a relationship with a remarkable and intelligent woman with whom I couldn't quite connect, and I regret that--the not connecting part, not the rest, that was pretty awesome and I miss it: Yep.



 
"So, what do you want to talk about?"

Lately, that's how I start my writing.  When I sit down to Get Something Done, whether it be a column for TC&TC or something for D&D, the first thing I do is get honest with myself and outright ask,

"What are you going to be doing?"

It helps to get things moving, to focus my mind on the question that I'm trying to answer and weed out any other worries and distracting thoughts.  So I 'spose in this, one of many efforts to get me and my head to Shut Up And Write, it may help to start in the traditional way. At least it will get a theme going.  Themes are important. At least it's not "sex between people of varying heights, can Britain take it?" That wouldn't be a good theme.

So, what do I want to talk about?




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There's Nothing Left

 It's weird missing something that you didn't realize was there in the first place.  I don't know what it was that allowed me to write, helped me get up in the mornings, or really care at all about my life and what I'm doing.  Whatever that was, I don't seem to have it anymore.

I would hate to admit that it was money, but if I'm going to take a tally of the things I don't have anymore, that would certainly be one of a few.  No money, so no way to buy food.  I'm going through whatever remains in my fridge and in my shelves.  Most of it has gone bad, and what is still edible only remains because I couldn't bring myself to eat it in the first place.  Not much to eat means not much energy, means not much of a sunny disposition.

Which all makes it harder to write and look for work.

At this point I could invoke the metaphor of a snake eating it's own tail, but I'm not that desperate for imagery.  Not yet.

Several good opportunities have passed me by because of this slump.  Good gigs, jobs where I could be writing.  Heck, I could even be making my own opportunities right now.  Live that life, dream that dream.

I resolved to do just that, not too long ago.  I was tired of just signing up for whatever would pay my bills, I was frustrated because no matter what I was doing, I never seemed to be able to get my act together and find myself a career- a job that I wanted and wanted to do well, that I could do well.  That thought, just being able to tell myself that this is what I was going to do, made me happy.

But I have no money.  No money for food, or rent, or bills, or PAX.  So I don't have that luxury.

So here I am back at the beginning, wondering what I'm missing, and wondering how long I will last this time before I give up. Again.

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