Sometimes you just gotta Skyrim

So my thirty loyal readers may have noticed I missed last week’s post. This is hardly so surprising, since my cadence lately has been more fortnightly than weekly. (Crazy to think at one point I wrote blog posts daily, or even more than daily! They were shorter, and not amazingly well thought out or written. As opposed to these posts… um, yeah.)

I often have really good excuses of why I’m too busy to do something. Sometimes I go through these periods where my schedule bounces between insane and crazy with only period stops at out-of-control. But I have to be honest with you – last weekend it was the video game Skyrim.

Lots of people are having a hard time right now. Across the Caribbean, there are folks who are struggling to keep body and soul together. Many are leaving homes they may never be able to return to, in the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and other smaller locales. Houston and Florida are still drying out. The West is burning. The air is unbreathable and the flames have claimed more than 35 lives. We refuse to even admit that global climate change is a problem, so it feels like there’s little hope of fixing it. The Dreamers wonder if they’ll be sent to exile in countries they do not know, whose language they do not speak. And there is fear, anger and hatred on every channel, Facebook check and news article. Heck, even the sports news is bad around here. The US Men’s Soccer team won’t be going to the World Cup, the Red Sox went down early and easily and the Patriots are not looking quite like the machine they once did. Also, football nastily kills or maims the boys who play it for our entertainment, so good luck enjoying that.

I’m a gamer, and we describe the characters we play using attributes. So for instance, your Cleric might have a 16 wisdom, a 13 charisma and a 10 strength. You would roll a 20 sided die to try to do something, and if the number is under your attribute you succeed. If it’s over your attribute, you fail. Sometimes, you get things that temporarily modify your attributes (like poison damage) that make it easier or harder by increasing or decreasing your attributes. So instead of a 16 wisdom, if your character say gets drunk, they might have a -2 modifier that means there wisdom is temporarily only a 14.

That’s a really long digression to say – I feel like everything I’m doing right now has a -3 modifier for the state of the world. Sure, I still usually am fine. But things that used to be easy are harder. And hard things feel almost impossible.

Generally I try to be a good steward of my time. When the weather is beautiful, I try to drag my kids on hikes. I exercise. I read. I make time for friends. I cook meals from my farm share vegetables. I LIKE video games, but I don’t really play video games because I carefully write thought-provoking blogs posts instead.

But man, these last few weeks my coping skills have run out, my well has run dry, and I’ve wanted nothing so much as a problem I can solve with a few fireballs and flame atronach. Grey had a sleepover for his friends last weekend where they mostly played video games together. And honestly? There were a million things I probably should’ve been doing. But what I was doing was getting my character up to level 29. I feel guilty. I actually think video games are a pretty bad way to recharge. A good book, exercise, clean living… much better ideas. But I’ve just run out of the will to keep making these healthy choices as often.

So if you’ll excuse me, I heard from a guy who used to be an adventurer like me (until he took an arrow to the knee) that there’s a dragon near Ivarstead that needs my attention.


How about you? There must be some people out there pleased at the way the world is going – are you one? If you’re not, what are some of the coping skills you’re using to face your every day?

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Gotta Catch ‘Em All!

So. You might have heard about this “Pokémon” thing sweeping the world. It’s called Pokémon GO, and it’s an augmented reality game. Chances are good you already have an opinion about it – whether it’s “That’s so stupid, why would anyone waste their time on something like that?” or “I don’t understand these technology things” or possibly “GOOOO TEAM MYSTIC!”

I say, "Gooooo Team Mystic!"
I say, “Gooooo Team Mystic!”

I was a late adopter to the game. It came out on Wednesday, July 6. I didn’t install it until Friday, July 8.

That week was a grim week during a grim month. Coup attempt in Turkey. Bombings in the Middle East. Police shootings – on both sides of the gun – here at home. My Facebook page was full of heartache that week: both mine and others. And there came a point where I just started feeling numb and overwhelmed. My coping mechanisms just weren’t up for the drumbeat of sorrow this summer has brought.

And into that week came an augmented reality game built around walking through your community catching the Pokémon living among us. Is it any surprise that it overtook Twitter for active monthly users in the first week? That Friday, I stepped out into the long, late evening walking hand in hand with my sweet youngest son (whom I’ve dubbed the walking Pokédex). In this, I was the learner, and he the teacher. “That’s a flying type Pokémon.” “Oh, that’s a good one mom. Eevees can evolve into many different types!” We walked and walked through the weekend (I got a crick in my neck). And we weren’t alone. There were teenage boys as you would expect. But there were teenage girls, too. There were some older folks, walking in the identifiably Pokémon tempo, stopping to catch those Pidgies. And there were other parents like me, walking with children like mine. In fact, I’ve met at least three other parents of my sons’ classmates, out with their kids, while I was walking with mine.

Stoneham Common packed with Pokémon players
Stoneham Common packed with Pokémon players

I’ve had some great conversations. There was the big brother there with his three siblings. He was a young, black 20 something guy. I wouldn’t have known how to start that conversation in June. In July, I could just ask which team he was on, and get to know him. There was the epic, over-powered teenager who works two jobs and spends all the rest of his time walking around taking down gyms. I’ve offered tips to grandparents who are slightly embarrassed to be caught in pursuit of an Oddish. And I’ve become both conversant and interested in something my sons are passionate about. And I’ve done all this outside, in the soft summer evenings, walking for hours.

This isn’t my first augmented reality game. I played Ingress, the predecessor to this game. (Fun fact: all the Pokéstops and gyms were previously Ingress portals, but not every Ingress portal became a stop). I really enjoyed that game too, where you would battle between two teams to take control of portals and connect them. But everything that made that game less fun… well, the Niantic team should be incredibly proud. They really learned from their first experience, and blew it out of the water with this new game. (Of course, using one of video gaming’s most valuable franchises probably didn’t hurt.)

So, what is Pokémon GO, and what would you need to do if you wanted to play it?

Pokémon GO requires a relatively modern cellphone with both GPS and data coverage. While you can play a little with only wireless, it would be a frustrating and limiting experience. It did use a bit more data than my standard use, but much less than (say) streaming music. You can download it from either the Google or iTunes App Stores.

When you turn it on, you start by customizing your avatar (the digital representation of you) and picking a user name. Other users will see this name and picture when you do cool things, like defending gyms with your Pokémon.

Then you’ll get a chance to practice catching your first Pokémon. This took me a bit of time to figure out, but you basically fling the ball at the Pokémon with your finger. (No need to throw your phone or anything!!) Your first Pokémon you get infinite balls. After you catch your first, you get a bunch of gear. But every time you throw a Pokéball, you have used one of your collection.

So how do you get more gear? That’s what Pokéstops are for. Inside the game, you’ll see a map. That map represents where you actually are in the real world. (That’s why they call it augmented reality.) The Pokéstops look like lollipops scattered across a flat world. They’re most likely to be found in areas with interesting public art or attractions – like town squares or tourist locations. You get gear from a Pokéstop by clicking on it so it takes your whole screen, then spinning it sideways. The stop will “drop” gear. (You don’t have to click on each piece, you can just close the stop and it will all be added to your gear.)

In addition to Pokéstops, you may see multilayered, colored things (more rare the Pokéstops), with cool characters on top of them. Once you hit level five, you can start interacting with these gyms. At level 5, the first time you go to a gym you’ll be asked to pick a trainer. This is where you pick your team. There are three: Blue is Team Mystic, Yellow is Team Instinct, and Red is Team Valor. (You may soon start seeing people wearing clothes with weird logos – each team also has a logo! Adam just brought me home a Team Mystic t-shirt from Gencon…) You can’t really change your team after selection. Blue is the most common, Yellow the most rare.

With gyms, it depends on whether the gym is your gym, or an enemy gym. If it’s your color gym, you can train one Pokémon from your deck against the gym. It can be really hard to make it through more than one or two! But if you defeat your friendly Pokémon, you get XP (which helps you level up) and the gym gets stronger.

With an enemy gym, you pick a team of six Pokémon to fight. There’s some strategy here. For example, fire type Pokémon (like Magmar or Flareon) are vulnerable to water type Pokémon (like Gyarados or Vaporeon). It’s ok if you don’t know that at first – you’ll have a suggested set of Pokémon which are usually a pretty good choice. But it can be fun to argue with your kids about which order of Pokémon to attack with. The strength of the Pokémon are called “CP” (combat power). The higher, the better they are at attacking! They also have hit points, which indicates how much damage they can take before they faint. Pokémon who faint can be revived with the clearly named “revive” medicine. Wounded Pokémon can be healed with potions.

The last important bit is the eggs. Eggs hatch cool, powerful Pokémon. But you can only hatch eggs by putting them in your incubator (click on the egg to do that) and then walking. Eggs can be 2km, 5km or 10km. You only make progress on them if you move at a speed of under 10 miles an hour while you have the app open – so I mostly work on hatching them when I’m out and actively playing.

There’s quite a bit more in the finer points… how to attract wild Pokémon, how to encourage Pokémon to stay captured once you’ve thrown your Pokéball at them, etc. But the game is designed to teach you by playing – and to encourage you to share tips with the players you meet along the way.

No game can cure the ills of the world. It is just a game. But when I’m outside, walking with my son and meeting people in my community… I’m not fixed on the sorrows of the world. I can enjoy the things that are funny and silly and light, and remember that the world contains much more than sorrow.

Unlike Grey, I have not yet caught a Pikachu
Unlike Grey, I have not yet caught a Pikachu

PS – if you can’t figure something out on your Pokémon GO game, I’m happy to help!

Why we have children

Role playing in paradise
Role playing in paradise

When I was pregnant, I used to joke with people that we were having kids so that my husband would have a built in gaming group constantly available. Anyone who has ever been with my husband on a quiet evening and seen the glint in his eyes and he pulled out a dice bag and asked who was up for a Cthulu one shot knows that I wasn’t really kidding.

Still, kids have had more of a dampening than enhancing effect on our gaming life. Our weekly game has survived (the fourth kid has recently been added to the table in the person of a wee little boy born on Christmas Eve), but… well… let’s just say that Adam missed Gencon hotel reservation because he was picking up a sick kid. If anyone has an extra spot in a Gencon hotel let me know. He’ll only be there from midnight to 7 am.

But lately the kids have been getting old enough to do some real actual gaming. Grey is a full on reader, and pretty patient with games. What Thane lacks in literacy he makes up for in spacial reasoning genius. I refuse to play the game, but I bet he’d whup me in Ricochet Robot.

Adam has been playing games with the boys for years. He’s taught them to roll dice and simplified systems. He’s drawn maps and created compelling npcs with silly voices. Grey has played “Eric of the Golden Sword” for years. Thane calls his 1:! game with dad “Lord of the Rings” (it’s not).

On the plan to Cozumel – in which tropical island I currently find myself – Grey read a 7 page Fate rulebook. (Reading a rulebook cover to cover puts him one up on me…) And right now, on the front porch, Grey is running a game he’s been working on all day. There are puzzles and NPCs and monsters and props. Thane and Daddy are sitting with the GM, enjoying the story. Grey is doing a great job – I’ve played in worse games than he’s currently running.

Adam may not have been waiting for this QUITE his whole life. But he has been waiting for it all Grey’s life. Let the gaming begin.

Blogger/Reader conference

Last night was my first ever “Parent Teacher Conference” with my sons’ teachers. Grey’s held few surprises. His teacher hadn’t managed to peg his reading level, but stumped him on ‘refridgerator’. Since Grey self-reports well, it was nice but not groundbreaking. I was more curious about Thane’s. While he talks a ton for a not-quite-two-year-old, it doesn’t involve a very good answer to “How was your day?” (Thane’s reply: “BU CAR! BU CAR VROOM! Thane’s BU CAR! My turn!”) The funniest moment’s of Thane’s were the note that Thane does not accept correction. For example, he will misidentify a color “Bu Car!”. You will correct him, “No, that is actually a black car.” “No! BU! CAR!”. He will wear you down until you give up, and he will never admit that it was indeed a black car. This is SO TRUE.

Anyway, afterwards I had a phone conversation with my sister where I updated her on some of the stuff I’m doing, and she was surprised. How can anyone be surprised about my life? I have a blog, which OBVIOUSLY everyone reads with bated breath! (Or not…) So I thought I’d give you an update on what’s been going on with me lately.

1) I’m thinking about running a 5k. (My sister’s response “What, did you fall on your head recently?”) I’ve been working out more often than I have since, hmmm… well, maybe since the summer before my wedding? Or maybe since I managed to lose my baby weight from Grey (a feat I have not yet managed with Thane’s baby weight). Anyway, I’ve been doing this two mile loop, and I’m getting faster and better. Like after I’m done now, I feel good, instead of feeling like I just got out of the tumble dry cycle. And I don’t wish I was dead at the 1.2 mile mark any more. There’s a 5K in Melrose that Grey has been BEGGING to go to… and I think I might try it. Crazy, no?

2) We fixed stuff on the house. Four days of Mr. Handyman’s time and all our window sills are hardened, caulked, repaired and painted. So is the rotting wood on the porch I totally didn’t know about and the basement window cover that was caving in. My husband finally fixed the overhead light in the living room. (Seriously, remote controls for lights? I bet it sounds brilliant when you’re 70 but what a PITA when you have small children. And when you lose the remote, and your light mysteriously turns off, your husband spends his ENTIRE Columbus Day trying to figure it out to no avail. Then you finally go buy a new light fixture, because it is getting dark these days ya know. Then while your poor, put upon husband is taking down the old light fixture and putting up the new one, he finds the little bit of wiring that connected to the remote control you lost two years ago, and now the light works FINE. And you have the new one on your dining room table, but it doesn’t quite fit back in its box. But hey, LET THERE BE LIGHT.

But hey! Our window are no longer rotting! The porch has been structurally rescued from water damage! I won’t have a guilty pang at the basement window every time I walk past! And I have a light in my living room again!

Next up: bats in the attic. At least Mr. Handyman put up the bat house I bought, so I won’t feel quite so horrible evicting them.

3) I got a promotion at work. I’m now a Business Analyst. I’m actually very excited about this, since it is really what I’ve been trying to articulate as the perfect job for me for the last several years. Who knew there was a job title (if a generic sounding one) that means that?! And like books and certification and stuff. I mean, it’s almost like a real job! I like my new boss. I like my new job description. There’s still tons of uncertainty during the reoganization, but my brain is fully engaged at work, and I like it. (I’m also pictured in this year’s benefits package. The picture tells me I badly need a new haircut.)

4) My husband has talked me into doing a solo-player RPG. He let me pick the system, so we’re playing Pendragon. I think it’ll be a lot of fun — I’ve never played a generational game before. He’s been reading this blog non-stop in his free time, which has inspired him greatly. (He says I shouldn’t read it because it’s spoilery.)

In related news, I’m trying an MMORP (LOTR) for the first time with a fellow gamer-parent. Because I need to have fun, that’s why. How bad could it be? I mean, MMORPGs aren’t addictive, right? Right? (If this paragraph didn’t make any sense to you at all, don’t worry. Go read this and feel comforted.)

5) I’ve started wearing makeup. Woooooo. OK, this is actually more of a big deal than you might think. Given #3, and another significant number (32), I have decided it’s time to figure out what level of makeup I can live with every day. That’s the danger of makeup. You start to get used to seeing yourself like that, and then it’s hard NOT to wear it or you look bad. And given #1, I will often have to apply said makeup twice a day. But I think I’ve gotten it to a level I’m comfortable with and I think it does help me look more grownup.

6) Possibly in rebellion to #5, I’ve decided to start liking football this year. You may not think that’s how it’s done… who DECIDES they’re going to like something? But that’s exactly what I did with baseball and it turned out wonderfully, thankyouverymuch. So you may now feel free to invite me to your football watching parties because I’m game. I’ll cheer with the best of them when the Patriots get their first downs, and marvel at their tight ends, and, um, stuff. OK, so maybe I still have a lot to learn….

So that’s what’s up with me. What’s up with you?

The Marathon

Sometimes your schedule sneaks up on you. Husband gone for 5 days, no problem! Hosting 20 – 30 people for pie? Sounds like fun! Bring it on! Church every Sunday morning and Wednesday night? But of course! Regularly scheduled roleplaying game? I do love some Deadlands (this game in particular)! But then all of a sudden you look at your calendar, and you realize that these things are happening back-to-back-to-back-to-back, with no unscheduled or off days in between. Oops.

I’m just getting off of one of those. While I could outline exactly why I’ve been super duper crazy busy every single night for the last week and a half (and every day of the weekend), let’s say that last night at 7:30 was the first full hour I could sit down and do something non-productive in about 7 days. And booooy was I ready for it!

This was not all the pies
This was not all the pies

On the upside, most of the stuff I’ve been so incredibly busy doing was a ton of fun. I’m happy to report that Piemas was a success. (Of course, you’d have to be an idiot to have Piemas be a failure. Make pie. Have other people bring pie. Eat pie. It’s not rocket science.) There was, to my great surprise, a preponderance of sweet pies. I thought that the savories would be overabundant, but no. They went quickly. There were also, as will surprise no one who has attended any sort of gathering at my house, a number of games going on. We did a quick an innovative redesign of the kitchen layout to permit the epic 2.5 hours of Agricola in which I was fortunate enough to get my hat handed to me.
Alternate kitchen layout for Agricola
Alternate kitchen layout for Agricola

My only regret with these fake holidays I love so much is that I don’t get a chance to talk to all of my friends in as in-depth a manner as I would wish.

In other news, my job is going super duper well (I think). The analogy I’m using is that I’m like a plant that’s been repotted. I was root-bound in my last position. Switching jobs has taken me out of that pot, broken the old root ball, and put me in this new, larger pot. In response, I’m throwing out new growth from all angles. I love it. It’s making me super happy. In the three weeks I’ve been here, I’ve met probably 150 people, learned an entirely new programming language and paradigm (and delivered real code to production!), participated in oodles of meetings, done the voice-acting for a quarterly presentation for the web team (which, for the record, I am not on), asked an apparently high profile question at the Town Hall meeting when we met the folks who will be our new bosses, and been asked by the Sustainability Director if I’d be willing to be in a video employee highlight discussing the role sustainability played in my decision to sign on here. New people, new tools, new technologies and I feel like I’m thriving. Hopefully my boss feels the same way!

The boys are doing pretty well. This was not my finest parenting weekend. I keep telling myself that as long as the boys do get focused attention, are loved, and it isn’t the only way life works — that learning to entertain one’s self is not a bad skill to work on. Grey seems to mostly really like his new preschool. It has the ups and downs that relationships with other children do have. Someone calls him a name and he’s down in the mouth. He plays tag with a new friend and he’s jazzed. But academically it seems superior. He’s just so much more alert to the social aspects, that he’s bound to spot any problems.

The DS is usually restricted to car use only
The DS is usually restricted to car use only

Thane. Ah, my Thane! What a giggly joy you can be. How frustrated you are getting. This was a hard weekend for him. He wanted to play the board games too! (Note: dice are a fantastic choking hazard!) He wanted to be with me at all times. He wanted to be down, he wanted to be up. I suspect he really wants to get out of the house. The deluge of rain this weekend was not amenable to this.

Anyway, we’re all doing well! I’m having a fantastic time professionally, and my life personally is full full full of love, joy, friendship and board games. I wouldn’t have it any other way!

I love data

I usually think of myself as a liberal arts kinda girl — all about poetry and language and music and history. But back in high school, I took the ASVAB (the military’s aptitude test) in order to get out of class and (this is the real reason) because I always liked taking standardized tests. (I know! I’m sorry!). Anyway, the results of this test weren’t wildly surprising except one: I aced the code-breaking section. According to the military and my fuzzy 15 year old memory, I was unusually good at translating one list to another. It indicated that I might be a capable computer programmer. I scoffed.

And here I am, a computer programmer. Go figure. I guess what I’m saying is that my image of myself as a words only person is just that: an image. I actually do have this well of unappreciated ability in the less subjective. One of the places this shows up most is in data sets.

I just cannot resist real numbers. If it can be measured, it makes me happy. For example, as you may recall, I carefully measured and calculated my milk production while pumping at work, doing my best to note and avoid problems with my data set. Why? Um, because data is cool? And of course, halfway through you think of other data you should’ve collected (time spent pumping, quality of audio book being listened to, frigidity of server room and impact on milk production).

So for Christmas my brother bought me a Wii fit. It plays exactly into my weakness. Oh, the Wii throws off fantastic data! It has charts and graphs. How much of the time I spent in my workout was done using strength training exercises? How consistent have I been? How many calories did I burn doing X activity? What is my BMI, with a precision of 2. Love! Love love! Data! It gets even better for me, because I find data highly motivational. Give me a measurable objective and watch me make it and then exceed it by a little bit because, um, that’s just how I roll. So fantastic, right?

Well…. there’s just one problem. Let’s say I have half an hour to workout (aka: a miracle has occurred). Which activity is likely to produce the best fitness results: Wii fit, or a half hour fitness workout (I have a Bollywood dance workout DVR’d I’m dying to try)? Chances are the non-Wii workout will get my heart rate higher longer. But! But but! It won’t provide me with the delicious, delicious data I crave. I’ll have to go by estimates and feelings! Bah!

Exercise isn’t the only place where I face this conflict between the measurable and the likely more effective. This happens all the time in food. For example, which one of these is probably all-over better for you: the delicious turkey-burgers my husband made for dinner last night, or a frozen Healthy Choice dinner? Right. Homemade food from actual ingredients has numerous benefits over prepackaged “food” products – not the least of which is taste. Now, which one of these is easily quantified? That would be the prepackaged one, of course. On the other hand, this “from scratch” food may have nutritional surprises. I’m pretty sure that the turkey-burgers were pretty healthy, but what about the chili that I make about once every two weeks? I think it’s pretty decent nutritionally, but I could be wrong.

So I can rigorously and accurately count calories, or I can make my food from scratch.

The last time I set about losing baby-weight, I accomplished it through rigorous calorie counting in both intake and output. I believe that I switched the way I ate from a mostly home cooked to more prepared. That’s harder now, because there are more people eating the food we cook. I don’t think I’m willing to do that again. (Also, the site I used for calorie counting is still stuck in Web 1.0 and has a painful interface. Oh, for an iPhone with a food and exercise log app!) It will be interesting to see whether I can pull this off: reduce calories and exercise regularly without constant data streams and numbers. So motivational do I find numbers, I’m actually not entirely sure I can.

What about you? Do you love data or find it irrelevant or constrictive? What pointless data sets do you obsessively maintain? What are other circumstances are there conflicts between an optimal outcome and a measurable outcome? Which one do you pick when they are in conflict: optimal or measurable?

Battle Lines and Blind Side

Sunday night, an hour or two miraculously appeared after the boys were in bed. As my husband finished the story-reading, I delved in our well-stocked game cupboard for a new offering for the evening. After sorting through various boxes “The claim that this game plays with two is a lie” “Why do we even own games that have a 3 hour play time?” “I don’t have the 2 hours we’d need to assemble this game”, we settled on Battle Line.

It’s a lightly themed logic and planning game. It incorporates significant elements of poker (to my disadvantage — I’ve never played) in terms of winning card combinations and card counting. You also can gain an advantage by having a poker face, or being able to read your opponent’s intentions. However, there are six “suits” up to 10 cards, and a deck of “break the rules” cards which kept play interesting and unpredictable.

We both loved it. We split two games. We’re champing at the bit to play some more (although if your partner is, like mine, an optimizer, this might be an appropriate game to break out the play-timer for). It’s a small, light game, which means that it just shot to the top of our list for travel. I think it could be even more compact if you replace the “flags” with regular playing cards (they’re simply place holders). This is also the rare game that I believe will be able to handle numerous repetitions of play. There are lots of games that are fun to play 2 or 3 times, or once or twice a year. There aren’t as many games (like chess) that have much higher play potential — that can be different every time you play them, even if you play them for a year.

Then on Tuesday, a second Christmas miracle occurred. We had a free night. And we had a babysitter. I know, I know. Astonishing. Seriously, I think our last evening out together was late September. ANYWAY, I’m a sucker for a heart-warming story, so I’d really wanted to see “The Blind Side”. Ah, friends! Go see it! It is a story of radical hospitality and courage. It is a story about small and great kindnesses. It is a story about the best of people. And, most of all, it is a true story. Mom, this one is rated “K”. I was inspired and warmed by this increasingly rare vision of people behaving with love towards each other, in a family full of kindness.

I also see the movie as a challenge. I wish I had her courage and compassion.

It was awesome to spend time with my dearly beloved, and to have the time so rich. Nothing is so disappointing as making all the effort to get out, and then have your meal/movie be a total dud. These two were the opposite of dud-ish-ness!