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The Last Shrine: first chapter.

            The sun bore down; bright and hot, glaring as it had every day of Skander’s life. He shielded his eyes and squinted as a red-tailed hawk traced a lazy circle through the desert sky. It dove, and Skander imagined himself as its prey, heart beating fast in terror, or possibly, unaware, calmly nibbling a morsel of foliage in its last moments on this beautiful spring day. The young cleric lost the bird among the sharp rocks that towered above his home; the small shrine known as Sundial Spring. Here in the lee of the bare mountains, Skander had lived out the last ten years of his life, tending to the needs of the trickle of worshippers who bothered to make the laborious climb from the cool river valley below.

He exhaled slowly as he turned from the mountains, his eyes settling thirstily on the shimmering blue waters of the spring. Their impassive surface sent a dancing reflection playing against the bright limestone columns that surrounded the pool. Six pillars remained of the colonnade that had once bounded the spring. Skander searched his memory. Had he ever read when the columns were erected? Perhaps they had once seemed impressive, but today they seemed pitifully dwarfed by the massive blades of amber-hued sandstone that towered behind. The highest spire cast its long shadow into the town below, tracing the curve of the Sossin River as it meandered through the valley. Sundial Spring was dedicated to the mountain god Anak, whose heavy-browed, black-bearded visage scowled out from carvings on every stone surface, but Skander saw the god’s true monument in the rocks themselves.

The cleric tugged uncomfortably at the woolen vestments that clung doggedly to his body in several chafing, sweaty places. There were many places in the vast realm of Batarrna where clergy of the mountain gods snuggled cozily in their icy eyries, grateful for such warm vestments. Sundial Springs of the boiling Near South was not one of them. Perhaps Anak, omnisciently aware of the impractical choice of garments, would understand if Skander only dipped his toes in the waters. He leaned over for the thousandth time to see if he could see the submerged cavern that led into the underworld. If he dove in, he could finally glimpse the water’s source. Skander frowned at his own blasphemy, blanching at the dread, statue scowl of the Bone Breaker. The god brandished his fearsome halberd in a threatening pose. “Forbidden!” the cleric shouted; voice gravelly in his best impression of Bishop Gustav. “For the gods have fixed their canon ‘gainst it!” Skander smiled, fondly missing the old man, and a bit in the hopes that he would not look mad if someone saw him talking to himself.

“Skander!”.

The cleric’s heart jolted. It was the first voice he had heard in three days. Making a conscious effort to calm himself, he turned and saw Bodrick, a shepherd who tended a small flock in the nearby hills. Bodrick was running, panting. Skander had run with the shepherd many times over the years, if he was breathless, he must truly have come here at a dead sprint. The cleric watched him approaching. Bodrick was flushed with the run, and as Skander saw his friend’s fit, athletic form, he felt the usual flare of jealousy, his mind drifting to his own failings in that regard. He ran a self-conscious hand over his bulging middle.

“Hey, Skander,” Bodrick breathed, holding a hand out as if to ask for a moment. Even Bodrick’s clothing gave Skander a pang of envy. The shepherd wore a loose practical tunic with short sleeves, perfect for a life in the desert hills. He took off his dingy short-brimmed cap and wiped his brow.

“Who’s minding your sheep, boy?” Skander hoped his face looked impassive. On the one hand, he knew it took very little to break up the monotony of a shepherd’s days, but on the other, he had to admit to a mild nibble of curiosity. Nonetheless, calling Bodrick ‘boy’ was ridiculous. Skander was slightly the taller of the two young men, and the gods knew he was much heavier, but as far as the cleric had ever been able to learn, they were only weeks apart in age. He couldn’t resist the awkward jab though. The last time they had seen each other, perhaps several months ago, they had wrestled. Despite Skander’s size, Bodrick had thrown him and pinned him quickly. Not such a big deal really, but of course Seleriya had been there watching. Skander felt a whirl in his stomach and a rush of blood to his face just remembering the way her beautiful green eyes had flashed with laughter to see him floundering on the ground.

“Macey’s got them,” answered Bodrick. There wasn’t a trace of wind in his speech. Skander marveled that he could have recovered so quickly from the run. “Ever since she scared that big Merino, the rest just fall in line. She’ll be fine. Look at this.” The shepherd fumbled for something in his belt pouch.

From what he could see, the small object Bodrick found was a stone. “A stone, Bodrick? Your pastures are practically desert. I’m sure that’s not the first stone you’ve found.” He couldn’t help teasing a bit more but immediately felt he had gone too far. Since the shepherd’s father had died, he and his mother lived in poverty, eking out a living from a small plot of the least productive land in the valley. He was ashamed of using it against his friend and promised himself he wouldn’t do it again.

Bodrick came closer and seemed to brush aside the barb, or at least not to let it diminish the proud grin on his wide-featured face. He held out a thick, callused palm. In the middle of his hand was a hunk of rock that even Skander’s untrained eye could see was more than a mundane pebble. It was green; the subdued glassy green of jade, and its smooth surface was pitted with craters like the surface of the Great Moon seen through a scope. “It’s not natural rock,” said Bodrick. “I think its manmade. You know? Like something left over from mining…” He accented his final word, raising his eyebrows suggestively.

Skander began to see where his friend was going with this. “Mining? You mean like…”

Bodrick cut him off excitedly. “It has to be from the mines! When I asked him about the legend, my father told me that if there were mines in these mountains, there would be slag left. And he’d never seen any sign of it.” The shepherd shook the stone between two fingers, smiling. “Well, I think I found it. This has got to be it. Right?”

Skander was genuinely surprised to hear anyone over the age of eleven saying such things. He knew the myth of Enderion’s Delving. Of course, he did, just as every person in North Bend Valley knew it. He remembered asking Bishop Gustav years ago and receiving a similarly dismissive answer. The legend claimed that centuries ago the last of the Lonely Kings had drawn valknite from the ground here, refined it, and turned it into the enchanted weapons that had unified an empire. As an adult and a scholar, Skander knew the stories for a fantasy. He had read many of the histories of the early imperial conquests. Enderion hadn’t needed magical rocks to unify the Batarrnan realm. The great king had updated his army’s weaponry, crafted new echelon formations, and adopted innovative methods of conscription, all to brilliant tactical effect. Skander agreed with the historians, that was how you won wars, not with mystical stones. He felt the same thrill he always did when dredging up facts and figures from his learning. Skander’s pride left him feeling of magnanimous. He knew valknite was a figment of the folk imagination, but he decided to humor Bodrick.

Skander held out his hand and was surprised to see a flicker of hesitation before his friend placed the stone in his outstretched hand. Whatever the truth of the stone, the cleric saw that Bodrick believed it held power. Skander turned it over, feeling the smooth and rough surfaces alternately slide pleasurably against his skin, then lightly abrade his soft fingers. The color was unique and called to mind the volcanic stones that were common in the Near South; but those were red, brown, even glassy black, never green. He tried to affect a scholarly frown of concentration for his friend’s benefit. “It is strange, Bodrick. Like nothing I’ve ever seen.” Skander meant it. “But that mine is just a silly legend.”

Now Bodrick smiled, a strange, confident smile that Skander hadn’t seen before. Without speaking, he held out his hand. Bodrick’s lips were an inscrutable grimace, but his eyes danced mischievously. Now Skander felt a slight reluctance as he handed back the nugget. He watched as Bodrick drew out a worn piece of leather attached to a cord. The cleric watched as the shepherd nocked the stone into what he realized was a sling. “See that little hollow near the top of the spire?” Bodrick asked.

He was gesturing back in the direction of the sun and Skander had to squint as he followed the pointing finger. The sun made his eyes water as he strained to force himself to look. At the highest point of the formation known as Twelvespike, the gnomon of the sundial that cast its shadow over North Bend, he could just make out an indentation. It was hard to gauge from here how big it was. “I see it,” he said, careful not to say anything stupid. “But that must be 300 feet up,” he added. He knew next to nothing about slings, but he could guess what Bodrick had in mind and it seemed like an impossible shot. Many times, he had watched Bodrick sling with deadly accuracy, training on improvised targets and even hitting the occasional predator that troubled his flock; but at this distance, with such an oddly shaped bullet? He sensed an opportunity. “Why don’t you let me put a few flinders on it?” Skander said and winced, realizing that once again he had forgotten his friend’s situation. He wondered if Bodrick had a single coin to his name, much less anything to bet.

Bodrick answered with a wicked smile and a violent, lightning-like underhand spin of the sling. The smooth, practiced motion was a blur that Skander tried and failed to follow, but the puff of rock dust a second later was clear enough. The cleric felt a thrill seeing that the impact was right in the center of the target and felt a cheer burst from him despite how wrong Bodrick had just proven him. Instead of griping, he slapped Bodrick’s outstretched hand hard. Without thinking, Skander followed through and caught the shepherd’s hand again on the reverse, the way they had done as children. “Astral,” he heard himself congratulate, a strange feeling of pride for his friend swelling inside him. “So, we’ve established that I know nothing about slings, which we already knew. What of it?”

Bodrick shook his head. “No, you were right ‘mano. I could never make that shot. Straight up? With a stone shaped like that?” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. Skander noticed for the first time that a few dark hairs were poking through and felt another wave of nonsensical jealousy. “Maybe with the smoothest rock from the river. Maybe on my best day. But maybe not even then,” Bodrick continued.

“I’d like to see you do it again.” Skander meant it. He pictured himself accompanying Bodrick to the games this coming harvest season. The shepherd was unlettered and naïve, perhaps he could use a friend if he went to compete, a more educated, sophisticated person to help him avoid the pitfalls of the city. A realization cut Skander’s reverie short. “Voids,” he cursed. “Too bad you wasted it on target practice. We’ll never find it in all those rocks.”

Bodrick’s expression was another Skander had never seen. For a few awkward seconds, he watched his friend’s face, looking for some hint. Then Bodrick seemed to make a decision. “Skander,” the shepherd said. “That’s where it gets really weird.” Without explaining further, he strode uphill leaving the cleric to follow. He hadn’t gone far when he bent to the ground and picked up what appeared to be the same stone from the broken jumble of sandstone talus that littered the slope.

Skander felt his eyes widen. “What the?”

“I know,” answered Bodrick. “I’ve been shooting it all day. The first few times I kind of accidentally found it again, but then I realized I seemed to know just where to look. I never find the normal stones I shoot. You’re right, my pastures are filled with stones, but every week I walk down to the river and find more of the smooth, round ones that are best for bullets. This is…” Bodrick paused as if unsure whether to say more. “It’s a little scary,” he finally admitted. “And you haven’t even seen what the stones do to the things I hit. You think it’s easy to make a cloud of rock dust we can see from three hundred feet away?”

Skander felt an odd, boyish thrill. He couldn’t contain his excitement anymore. “Could it be valknite?” he asked aloud, letting the words linger.

He had meant the question rhetorically, but Bodrick surprised him by answering. “I don’t think so,” he said. “You would know better than me but wasn’t valknite a shiny metal. Like silver or something?”

The cleric was flattered as he always was when his friends came to him with such questions. He focused. Pages turned in his mind like a book in his hands. Yes, there it was in an illustration he had seen; a metallic sheen like silver twig coins. He had seen precious few silver coins in this backward region, but those he had were imprinted in his mind as well. Skander’s mental eye rarely failed him. He smiled as he realized they needed more information. “There’s only one way to be sure. Let’s go to the library.” As usual, the thought of heading into the book collection brought a broad smile to his face. Without waiting for Bodrick’s reply, he whirled and walked toward the three-story building attached to the shrine.

Bishop Gustav’s small library was a calming place for Skander; his favorite part of a small world. He had no other words for it. Since he had come to live with the bishop, and he had very few memories of the time before, the cleric had whiled away many happy hours among its shelves. He knew the tomes and scrolls lining its walls like friends- perhaps better than he knew he friends- but somehow there were always new possibilities for exploration.

Skander stood at the entrance to the library, an intricate series of columns, doors, and hanging panels that formed a maze of sorts. It had been a long time since Skander had thought about the path he needed to tread to get through, but now he looked at Bodrick. Something about the shepherd’s appearance troubled him. “You’re filthy. Scrape your boots here.”

“Really?” Bodrick said with a raised eyebrow.

Skander felt annoyance. “Yes, really. I know you’re not much for reading, but this place is as holy as the waters outside.” Canonically speaking that was not true, but it felt right.

“Fine,” grumbled Bodrick. “But quit brushing at me like my mother. Next thing you’ll be licking your hand and smoothing my cowlick in place.” He stamped his boots and brushed his tunic, knocking a cloud of grime and dust.

Skander watched in fascination as the warm air leaving the library lifted the dust, gently dragging it and wafting it away. The cleric remembered Gustav’s explanation that the elaborate labyrinth served to bring cooling air into the main chamber of the library. The room was lit by an ancient six-foot-high stained-glass window. Its ornate panes told a visual story of the legend of Bimmuk the shepherd. During the day, the images cascaded onto the worktables from the window. As an acolyte, Skander had often traced the projections into his copybook, laboring over Bimmuk’s battle with the mole dragon. He winced remembering the raps on the knuckles when Gustav had seen him wasting paper. The brilliant windows should have filled the library with air heated by the desert sun, but in some way, the builders had created the maze at the doors so that warm air would filter out and cool mountain air could get in. Gustav had called it an ingenious feat of ancient engineering, but as Skander watched the dust gather up and leave as if on its own, he suspected there was some glamer of minor magic on the building.

“There, your fussiness. Am I presentable?” Bodrick performed a mocking bow.

“It will do.” Skander moved over the worn flagstones toward the shelves. His instincts guided him to the southeastern wall, to a stack just below the great window. He passed over the reflected image of Bimmuk loosing a sling bullet and for the first time felt a glimmer of recognition. He said nothing about it to Bodrick, staying focused on the task at hand. “I thought I saw something here once.” He ran his hand gently over the books, calmed by their familiar feel, passing the thick leather spines of Tridorio’s Great Trees of the Northwest, The Uses of Ever Blessed Cinnabar, and Fifty Beasts of the Dryptic Deeps. It was exactly where he expected. The book was a broad tome of light tan hide: The Tales of the Lonely Kings. Wrinkling his nose at a musty smell both acrid and faintly pleasant, Skander pulled the volume down. He couldn’t make out what animal the hide cover had come from, but it bore large, black spots and was worn through to the leather in several places. The fine hairs edging the title were green with age. A sensation of deep time made the cleric woozy as he wondered just how old this book was; a hundred years, two hundred? He gingerly opened the cover and thumbed through the pages with a sense of purpose, sensing rather than actively remembering what page he was looking for.

“Here.” He held the heavy book out to Bodrick, hoping his friend wouldn’t see the slight quiver he felt in his arm muscles. The page was an illustration; a drawing of a bulbous blue nugget of brilliant blue with a caption that read: valknite in victorious sunlight, middle latitudes. What in the dark, black void did victorious mean? “It’s blue not silver, but it still doesn’t look like our stone.” He felt a surge of disappointment, but a lingering doubt nagged at him. Skander never forgot a picture. So, where had he gotten the idea that it was silver?

“So, it’s not valknite,” said Bodrick. Skander heard annoyance. “What is it? Ore? Something else?”

The cleric knew Bodrick had little time for books and the things written in them, but he found himself frustrated with the shepherd’s impatience. “Give me a second.” He ran his finger over the lines below the drawing. Skander had a sudden flashback to a long-ago session with Bishop Gustav, making his way through Zalanday’s painfully translated version of the epic of Dressik. There was a poem covering the bottom half of the page. He felt a revulsion. What was wrong with prose? “I can’t get anything from this,” he complained.

“Yeah, me either,” said Bodrick flatly. Skander noticed he hadn’t even looked at the page.

It was hard to strike a thoughtful pose with three wispy, nearly translucent blond hairs on his chin, but Skander made the gesture anyway. He turned a broad page, gently, attempting not to crack the dry leaf. “Maybe there’s more, something about slag, or mining,” he murmured. He found another illustration, a black and white copy of an engraving depicting a trapezoidal building with a cavernous opening. Men in heavy leather aprons busied themselves around the building. There was a caption: Of the extraction of the Godsmetal from the sully earth. Skander sighed in frustration. Beneath the drawing were more lines of verse. He read the first line four times without getting any sense of the meaning. “Who wrote this damn thing?” he grumbled. The cleric felt Bodrick pacing behind him. It wasn’t doing anything to help his concentration. “Can you sit down or something?”

“Did you find it? Is it slag? Is it ore?”

Skander fought the impulse to shove Bodrick into a chair. “I don’t know. Give me a few hours and I might be able to puzzle out this page.”

“Hours? Forget it. If it’s slag, there was a furnace.”

“I didn’t exactly say it was…”

“If there was a furnace, there was a mine. Let’s go find it,” he said beaming. Bodrick’s voice had gotten much louder, his eyes were wide with excitement. He looked ten years younger.

The shepherd was heading out the door by the time Skander had carefully closed the book. He left it on the table with a sharp regret not to have placed it back on the shelf. The cleric promised to finish reading later. “Wait for me!” he called out, tracing his usual quick path through the maze. He emerged into the morning sun, blinking. Bodrick was nowhere to be seen. Skander toward the hills. Was the shepherd that much faster than he was?

An echoing voice gave him his answer. “Voids, Skander! How do you get out of this damned thing?”

Skander laughed to himself as he retraced his steps. In the gloomy labyrinth, dazzled as his eyes were, he strained to find Bodrick facing the wrong direction, his face six inches from an enameled wooden panel. Skander reached out to help him.

“I know you’re not trying to hold my hand,” said the shepherd suddenly, startling Skander with a rapid about face.

“Of course not,” lied Skander. Bodrick had just looked so childlike for a second. “Follow me.” He led the way through a quick series of turns.”

“I swear I followed your path exactly,” complained Bodrick.

Skander ignored him. “Where should we go?” he asked. He hoped to salve Bodrick’s pride with the admission of his own ignorance.

The shepherd studied the hills and Skander admired the way his cool gaze projected authority and knowledge. “I found the stone… there. At the north end of my fields.” He pointed to his hardscrabble plot. “It must have washed down from the mountains somewhere above. What do you think?”

Skander tried not to smile. There was nothing he could offer Bodrick by way of advice about this landscape. The shepherd knew every inch for ten miles in every direction, while Skander spent most of the sunny days in his library. Of course, that had taught him a bit about water and gravity. “I think the stone probably came down, yeah.”

“I’d say Twelvespike Arroyo is the most likely place.”

Skander followed his gaze to a small canyon that opened high above them in the mountains. Above it stood the massive plinth of Twelvespike. The formation got its name from the shadow it cast down on the town, but Skander had always seen in it the finger of Anak, pointing ominously toward the town of North Bend. He frowned, realizing what Bodrick had in mind.

“What do you say? You up for a bit of a hike?”

Skander wasn’t, not even remotely. It wasn’t quite noon, and he was boiling already, standing here on flat ground. The thought of trudging into the mountains made him queasy. Skander looked at Bodrick; hale and healthy, rocking on the balls of his feet like a player about to run onto a ballcourt. He would be damned if he would let his friend know how little he wanted to climb into the mountains. Skander breathed deeply and summoned a smile from the depths. “Lead the way!” he commanded. His hoped his false enthusiasm was convincing.

Why You Like It: the science and culture of musical taste- Nolan Gasser

                The second I saw this book on the shelf I wanted to read it. The question why I like the music I like has always fascinated me and I envisioned getting the answer here. I should have been forewarned. The author helped create the Music Genome Project on Pandora. Back in the pre-social media, pre-app days of the internet, I discovered Pandora using a website called Stumbleupon. I don’t know whether that site still exists, but at the time it was a great way to find cool websites that were related to my interests. I had a dreadfully dull job and needed to kill time.

                I was excited to discover Pandora because at the time it was billed not as a music streaming service alone, but as having a scientific process that would break down your tastes and recommend things based on the attributes of your songs. My first few forays were very disappointing. I was recommended songs that used techniques like ostinato or had major chords. These were true statements about the songs I liked, but what I found was that the entire cultural, personal, and psychological experience of a song was more important than the technical facts about its composition. The recommendations weren’t appealing.

                So, I shouldn’t have been surprised that Why You Like It wasn’t what I had hoped for. The first 300 pages read like a textbook on music theory, a fairly entertaining textbook, but a textbook, nonetheless. The technical terms came fast and furious and as soon as they were introduced, sometimes as many as a dozen on a page, they wormed their way into the text as if I had absorbed every one. This may have been a good explanation of music theory, but it was too dense for the light reading I was planning to do. I brought the book along with me on my trip to Alaska (at 600 pages it wasn’t a good choice for travel), and while I planned to be learning from it, I did not want to pause and take notes as I went. Thus, I was quickly swamped in sentences like “the distinction normally concerns the disposition of eighth notes within a 4/4 or 3/4 meter”. I’m sure many people with a musical background understand what this means, but for me as a reader breezing through a book on music, I began to skip these types of sentences. I wasn’t getting anything out of them. At one point, Gasser says, “in part this is a reflection of my confidence in your ability to process formal schemes.” Considering that I barely know how to parse this as an English sentence, I think that confidence was misplaced. Perhaps a book is a bad place to learn about time in music, or perhaps I could have gleaned more if I had treated the book like a textbook, but that wasn’t what I was there for.

                Which brings up another point. This book is filled with written music, which I can’t read and get almost nothing out of. Again, it’s just not the kind of time I was willing to invest. I would not recommend this book to anyone who doesn’t read music, at least not anyone with my completist mentality. It irks me to just leaf past pages that I can’t understand in much the same way I hate to skip equations in a book on science, but that was my only choice. That was at least, until I started using a Spotify as a companion to the book. When I had the time and the inclination, I played whatever song was being referenced. I still didn’t understand the music theory points being made, but at least I learned a few new pieces while I was reading.

                Halfway in, I began to enjoy the book a great deal more. Once the music theory bit was over, the author began a discussion of genres, why people like them, and gave the kind of information about the artists that I had really been looking for. I thought it was illuminating how honest the author was about the problems of classifying music and defining genres. He discusses pop, rock, classical, jazz, hip-hop, electronica, and world music. I realize now that country music is conspicuously absent, and that highlights the difficulties of classifying any music into any of these genres. What would count as country? Taylor Swift is discussed as pop, which seems correct to me, but she could easily be country as well. Clearly “world” music is the most problematic. What does that even mean? Apparently, it encompasses everything outside the Anglo world, meaning that a singer like Edith Piaf is world music. That seems nonsensical to me. My first thought was that it would mean things like gamelan or classical Indian that have completely different rules from western music. Instead, it seems to be a completely worthless category that captures almost every form of music on planet earth. When Sting has an Algerian singer back him on “Desert Rose” does that suddenly make it “world” music even though the song is completely western in every way? In fairness, Gasser does discuss this, but it really stuck in my craw regardless.

                Honestly, when it comes to musical taste, I think the book would have been much better served to have just talked about popular music. I may be outing myself as a philistine here but are there really non-musicians whose taste extends to things like jazz and classical? I listen to those and get some pleasure out of them, but I mostly do it to edify myself and because those genres are less distracting while I’m working. Don’t most people have those kinds of reasons for listening to non-pop music? I don’t know, but if I have my druthers and the music is the point, that’s all I listen to.

                The final chapters of the book focused on the sorts of things I really came in looking for. Finally, there was a mention of the personal psychological connections we form with music. In my untutored opinion, this is what really determines what we like, and that is the reason why the music genome project felt so lacking to me. How can a computer take a song you like because you listened to it on your first date with your wife and suggest something with a similar emotional valence? It’s impossible. Still, I wish the book had gone into greater detail about the locus of personality and musical taste. Gasser touched on it at the end and left it mostly unexplored. That would have been fascinating even if I don’t put much stock in personality type testing of any kind.

                My overall take on Why You Like it is that there are two ways to approach and enjoy this book. One way, which I think would be rewarding, is to get out a pad and pen, take notes, and treat this like a textbook or a class on music theory. You’ll learn a ton. But if you don’t have that level of investment or time, read it like you would read a particularly wooly popular science book. Don’t expect to understand everything, soak in what you can and don’t stress about what you don’t. While my read was a bit of slog, I did come out with a lot more musical knowledge than I started with. Of course, my baseline was pretty low to begin with so do with that knowledge what you will.

Farewell to Ghilani

                Well, now I feel guilty.

                I bought the books for fifth edition Dungeons and Dragons and put together a homebrew for a family game. I was excited. The artwork on the new system is gorgeous and the streamlined combat rules seemed like a welcome break from Pathfinder. The books are masterwork artifacts that look snappy lined up on my shelf.

                Homebrewing is a passion. It gives me a chance to write and then hold people hostage to interact with what I’ve written. It’s customary to thank a DM for running a game and it always seems paradoxical to have people thank me for that experience.

                A listing of real-life gods and pantheons in the back of the Players Handbook captivated me, so I decided to create a world based on Ancient Greece using “real” gods like Athena, Ares, and Apollo. They even get domains suggested for their clerics, which is a fun read. I drew up a world in which two city-states had been warring for centuries. As part of their most recent peace agreement, they sent citizens from each polis to found a new colony in the middle of the territory they had been warring over. Unfortunately, the settlers of the new town of Ghilani forgot to honor Ares. This angered the war god enough that he came down to Geos in the form of a great red dragon. Now the town needed to find champions strong enough to face the dragon and prove to Ares that it deserved to exist.

                That was my campaign idea, and the first adventure centered around bringing together a group of adventurers at first level to confront a pack of kobolds (red dragon branded of course) that were terrorizing the farmers of Ghilani. My ten-year-old played a dwarf fighter named Chainsaw (props for a cool if anachronistic name). My brother created an elven thief and local hobo. My oldest daughter was a tiefling sorcerer and my youngest was a dragonborn cleric named Dragonina (she’s five).

                The five-year-old ducked out early in our first game, that’s just too little for rules and imagination within bounds, but the rest of us played a series of five short games. The characters saved a few homesteads from burning, cleared a few areas of winged kobolds, and fought a pack of the little creatures at an abandoned temple to Athena.

                Then they made the fateful decision to descend into the home warren of the kobolds. Traditionally, kobolds aren’t great fighters. They survive by digging subterranean homes and then filling those homes with nefarious traps. My players delved in and fought off several packs of kobolds. This is where I began to notice a difference in the new (to me) edition. Lots of damage gets dealt. Lots of damage can be healed too, but it takes some adjustment to get used to this altered ebb and flow of the action. In past editions, only magical means could heal in a significant way. Now, short and long rests can be used to keep a party in the field for much longer spells. Unfortunately, death is much closer in fifth edition, especially at low levels. Once a character reaches a negative number equal to their hit points, that is it. Even when you reach negative hit points at all, you begin making death saves, which is an exciting, if terrifying mechanic.

                 But in a dungeon, it is hard to rest. Every time my party attempted it, I rolled up a kobold encounter during the night. Somehow, my poor first level characters survived these waves to the point where they had nearly cleared the dungeon. They rested and were back at full health when tragedy struck. The thief decided he just had to disable a trap that he had spotted. He botched the roll, bringing a cavern roof down on him (on the bright side, the other players had thought to move out of range of the collapse). This did so much damage it killed him outright. I felt terrible, but my brother was able to take over the cleric, so we played on.

                Now the game was even more deadly with three players. I should have let them level up. They were close. Instead, they crawled (kobold dungeons are not people-sized) right into a boss fight at first level. Immediately, the kobold opened up with arrows, getting advantage on the shots on crouching enemies. The tiefling was reduced to one hit point before she knew what was happening. The cleric got in a lightning breath weapon attack, but all three targets took half damage when they made their reflex saves. Chainsaw heroically took out a kobold and the sorcerer, despite being at death’s door, got another one with a shocking grasp. But kobolds get advantage when working together, and they did so. First Dragonina went down, then the tiefling sorcerer. Poor Chainsaw fought alone, also at one hit point, and struck a mighty blow at the human fighter helping the kobolds.

                But it wasn’t enough. The next volley dropped him. I couldn’t imagine these evil characters keeping anyone alive, and certainly not healing them, but we went through the mechanic of death saves anyway. No one succeeded, and my poor son rolled multiple ones for an instant death. It was a bitter defeat. In dork vernacular, a TPK (Total Party Kill). I’ve seen it happen only once or twice in my decades of gaming.

                My debriefing is that out of inexperience I overpowered the trap. When the thief died, things just spiraled out of control. There is also the fact that I am used to a seasoned group of gamers (other forty-year veterans of roleplaying) and I innately expect their level of tactical expertise. That is a mistake with new players. Basically, this was all my fault.

                I confess. I killed my family.

War Dogs (2016) R 1h 54m

War Dogs

A solid, fun movie made when Jonah Hill was fat, and Miles Teller was famous.

                I don’t like to spend time on YouTube, but sometimes I have something I should be doing, and I fall down a procrastination rabbit hole. One day, I had a suggested video called “Most Badass Moments in Movie History”. I clicked and was unimpressed. It was an assortment of “badass” moments for the kind of guy whose favorite movie is Scarface. In other words, a Bro. There was one scene from War Dogs that caught my attention though. Jonah Hill’s character Efraim tries to buy drugs, gets scammed, and then pulls an automatic weapon on the guys who scammed him. It’s not a great scene. Essentially, it’s a fantasy of a fat white guy scaring four black guys, the kind of thing a neck beard dreams about while sitting in his mom’s basement. There may be a connection because the director also made Joker, infamous for airing out similar violent fantasies of retribution. But, despite the lameness of the scene, I picked up on a Three Kings vibe in the movie. I loved that movie, and this one starred two actors who were great in other things, so I added it to my wish list. (Add me on IMDB if you want to see it).

                Things linger on my wish list for a long time, but suddenly War Dogs popped up on Netflix this week. So, I started watching over my morning coffee, planning to pause and finish in the evening. Instead, the movie was easily entertaining enough to suck me in. So that should stand as a positive review right away. This piece of entertainment does that basic job quite well, which isn’t as faint praise as it may sound. The actors are good, even though they are playing fundamentally unlikeable people. The constant use of the word “bro” is like a frat boy’s fingers on a chalkboard. Jonah Hill has a Zach Galifinakis-like energy throughout, which makes sense since Todd Phillips also directed the Hangover movies. It’s shocking how huge Hill was back then, bigger than he had been in Superbad by a long shot, and this movie was only four years ago. Since then, he has transformed so much that he reputedly lost the role of Penguin in The Batman, probably a good trade.

                Kevin Pollak has a supporting role as a Jewish drycleaner, which considering his part on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is apparently his own ecological niche as an actor. That brings up an ugly point. The role of the characters’ Judaism strikes me as problematic. The film is based on a true story, so the writer has that cover, but there is a lot of attention called to it. Considering the overall criticism of the role of money in war and the shadowy operations of people who “never see a battlefield”, I don’t think you’d have to go far to link this portrayal of Jewish people to an idea of them as profiteers. The movie targets left-leaning audiences, so the anti-Semitism may have been intentional. There certainly could have been a version of this story where the characters were just assholes, I see the hand of a writer trying hard to make the point that these are Jewish assholes. It’s ugly.

                But Ana de Armas is not. She made a big impression on me in Knives Out, and she does it again here despite not having a hugely demanding role as one asshole’s wife. I was going to see the next Bond movie anyway, but she is yet another argument for it. Which brings me to her husband, played my Miles Teller. He’s a good actor, he turns in a solid performance, but there isn’t much in this role. What happened to that guy? For a fleeting moment, he was Hollywood’s hottest commodity when he dazzled in Whiplash, but that was seven years ago now. Since then, he hasn’t done much at all aside from playing Richard Reed in the Fantastic Four flop. Basically, it seems like you really should avoid off brand Marvel movies. They killed Andrew Garfield too. The proper Marvel movies nail casting over and over again, with the possible exception of Brie Larson. She seems to barely conceal how much she hates the gig.

                Overall, War Dogs tries to tell a story of a wild west period in defense procurement during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. When things fall apart, the FBI calls this company “a case study in all that is wrong with the government procurement process”. That is exactly what this film is. The writers use a Goodfellas structure, voiceover, meteoric success, and location shoots to call into focus what a mess this is. The feel is just like a mob movie. How are these guys making so much money? How can our society allow this to happen? And like Goodfellas, Blow, Narcos etc. we know these characters are in for a fall. We know they are bad people because they say “bro” and do cocaine (which reminds me to ask, is that always a sign that a character is a bad person, it seems to me that it is. Why is that drug singled out for such characterization?). One constantly asks why they would be given this much of a role in the procurement process. But this is paradoxical, one moment Jonah Hill’s character seems like a prodigy with a huge knowledge of the whole business, but the next he is so stupid he doesn’t know what IBM stands for.

                Some of the best moments of the movie are definitely fictional. On a gun run from Jordan to Iraq (which vividly reminded me of my time in Jordan) the characters are saved from a Fallujah militia by the timely intervention of an attack helicopter. That part was fun, but never happened. My take on this movie? Enjoy it like that, as fiction, as an engrossing tale of some louche characters getting rich and then getting their just deserts. Enjoy it the way you would Goodfellas, as part morality play and part power fantasy. It succeeds in that role.

The Things They Carried- Tim O’Brien

One great metaphor is all a writer needs.

When I was growing up, the Vietnam War was still very present in the American consciousness. The “Vietnam Syndrome” loomed over American policy so heavily that George H.W. Bush felt it necessary to call it out after the Persian Gulf War. He declared that the “ghosts of Vietnam have been laid to rest beneath the sands of the Arabian desert.” Sadly, that may have been premature. I imagine there will be a similar hangover in the wake of the Iraq/Afghanistan experience. My son’s generation will most likely live with it well into the 2030s. I hope they live in a world where they won’t need to have “their war”.

                But Vietnam wasn’t just a political phantom. Many of the people who found themselves on the losing end of the war became refugees and settled in the Northern Virginia area where I grew up. When I was little, my parents gave us permission to walk to the nearby shopping center. It was a grand adventure and my first taste of freedom. Unfortunately, I neglected to bring more than a few dollars, quickly consumed by baseball cards, with me. When we got hungry, a nice, older Asian man at the local pizzeria gave us a plate of fries free of charge. Do you know who that nice old man was? Years later, I learned that he was Major General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the guy firing a bullet into a captured VC guerrilla’s brain in the famous photo. The Vietnam War wasn’t just a memory, it was in a very real sense still going on. I had a friend whose father had been shot while working for the South Vietnamese government. In the eighties, five journalists were murdered by right wing Vietnamese groups in Fairfax County.

                But Tim O’Brien’s book, while set during the Vietnam War, strangely has very little to say about that particular conflict. It isn’t a book about one war, it is a book about War. The opening quote about Andersonville said that loud and clear. What could Union soldiers captured during the Civil War have in common with Americans fighting in Vietnam? Only the common, nasty, experience of an infantryman on the frontlines. All the rest is just detail.

                Not that Tim O’Brien fails to use the details of Vietnam. The book is a catalog of them. Page after page lists the contents of each man’s pack, giving the weight of each weapon, each round, and each personal item. The lists give rise to the central metaphor of the book. The things the soldiers physically carried lead into a story of the things they carried psychologically. It is a good enough metaphor to build the entire novella on. The word these infantrymen used for carrying things was “hump”, a strange sometimes transitive, sometimes intransitive verb. I learned to use it when working as a mover in the summer of 1997. Many of the older movers were of the Vietnam generation. I imagine they learned the word there. O’Brien’s characters don’t just hump grenades, or an M-60 light machine gun, they hump a photo of a lost love, and mentally hump an obsession for her, or a “distrust of white men”. They both physically carry the items and “an awe for them”.

                But metaphors are tools a writer uses, to tell a story, or to make a point. What story is O’Brien telling? What point is he making? As I mentioned in my opening, the whole point of this writing is to illustrate the experience of men who go to war, primarily, the disillusionment they experience, and the impossibility of squaring the transformation they undergo with the static nature of the life they return to. Early in the book, the lieutenant in O’Brien’s platoon is so wrapped up in mulling over a woman he left behind that he gets a man killed. The incident sharpens his focus, allows him to realize the girl is gone for good, and gives him a new resolve to maintain tactical discipline. He drops the “thing he is carrying” and becomes a new warrior.

                A much longer passage tells a strange story of one man who manages to have his stateside girlfriend flown to the battle zone. Clearly, we are in the realm of magical realism here, but the girlfriend serves as a stand-in for all the people, especially women, who were left behind. What would happen if they were deployed to ‘Nam? This woman, Mary Ann, slowly becomes transfixed by the war. She dives right into the land and the people. At first, I thought O’Brien was leading toward a feminist conversation about what would happen if women were deployed to the combat zone. Would they embrace the situation, learn more, and dialogue with the people, possibly leading to a less violent resolution? But that is not at all where he was going. Instead, Mary Ann embraces the gods of war, diving into the bloodiest aspects of the conflict and making a permanent transition to a sort of warrior jungle cat goddess. She is a symbol of both the transformation the men undergo in country, and of the idealized Penelope at home.

                This sort of clearly fictional digression is a hallmark of the style O’Brien uses throughout the book. He consciously plays with the line between fact and fiction to the point where I was unaware of the fictional nature of the book until I was well into it. The author expressly discusses the divide in a metatextual way. He talks about the choices he is making and does so in detail. For example, O’Brien expressly calls out his own decision to accentuate the natural counterpoint between a clean lake in Iowa and a deadly, flooded field of shit in Vietnam. In one passage about war stories, he says that a story that is literally false holds greater truth than a factual one. That is a profound idea and one that cuts to the heart of not only literature but religion. It is probably the one aspect of this novel that elevates it to the status it has.

                O’Brien’s book has become a part of what all Americans carry in regard to the Vietnam War. I noticed a number of details that have been taken on by films made in the years after the book debuted. Forrest Gump, a good movie made from a mediocre book, was enriched by many of the images and events of The Things They Carried. The description of monsoon rains bouncing up from the ground, soldiers sleeping back-to-back, tunnel rat missions, and a wound in the buttocks all feature in both book and film. I don’t think that is an accident. Sadly, films feature much more heavily in the common perception of historical events than either reality or literature.

                But this book is part of a pattern of misperception in the Vietnam War that I have seen in nearly every work of fiction that deals with it. According to fiction, the war was characterized by grunts slogging through the jungles and rice paddies until suddenly being attacked by the Viet Cong. I studied the war as part of my master’s thesis, and it quickly dawned on me that in reality, most soldiers served, and most casualties occurred, on the front lines with the North Vietnamese army. I don’t know why we have this sampling error. Movies about the Vietnam War should mainly involve large units exchanging fire across the DMZ, but we almost never see this. I don’t know whether this is because of the stunning visuals of the Vietnamese rainforest and delta, or because an unconventional fight highlights the confusion of combat to serve an anti-war narrative, but it is certainly inaccurate and over-represented. In my dalliance with military history, I noticed that this is a common phenomenon. The historical memory of a war is often out of synch with reality because people are trying to tell a story about the war.

                As I have said though, O’Brien isn’t saying anything about the Vietnam War in particular. His story could be set in any war. The point is about the hardships of warfare, a fact completely divorced from geopolitics. It didn’t matter to a soldier caught in the Battle of the Bulge or starving on Guadalcanal that the Second World War would one day have an image as a “good war”. He was cold, he was hungry, he faced death, he saw friends die. That happens in all wars. No book written from the perspective of someone “in the shit” can be anything but anti-war. It doesn’t matter why the war is being fought. It is all bad, and that is the end of the conversation.

Could the Resistance Era be Redeemed?

Is there a writer out there who can do for the Sequel Trilogy what Dave Filoni did for the Prequels?

                Watching what Dave Filoni has done for the Clone Wars, I have to ask myself, could anyone perform the same miracle for the Resistance Era? Is the setting of the Sequel Trilogy redeemable? The issues are nearly opposite. The prequels had an excellent setting, an era with a distinctive look, new ships, new characters, and therefore a much more interesting playground for the imagination. The movies failed because they lacked character, story, and heart. These problems were so completely solved in the cartoon series that it is almost impossible to remember how little I once cared about the fates of Anakin and Padme. A good writer came in and told compelling stories, breathing life into a setting that George Lucas deserves credit for creating but failed to utilize.

                It took me a minute to get around to finishing The Clone Wars. To be honest, there are too many episodes. The whole story about Ahsoka running around in the underworld of Coruscant went nowhere. Filoni isn’t perfect. But once I’d watched The Mandalorian, I was inspired to go back. The episodes where Ahsoka participates in the siege of Mandalore, gets her lightsabers, faces Darth Maul, and then survives Order 66 were some of the best Star Wars there is, animated or otherwise. I began to wonder, were the prequel movies better than I remembered? A quick perusal of some Revenge of the Sith clips on YouTube reminded me that no, they were just as bad as I thought. The acting is flat, the characters unmotivated and uninteresting. Villains like General Grievous and Count Dooku were dull and unused, nothing like the fleshed-out, fully breathing personalities of the cartoon. The actors all look they are waiting to get paid so they can go home, only slightly more lifelike than Boris Karloff in Plan 9 from Outer Space. Filoni’s work had been alchemical, taking George Lucas’ leaden world and spinning it into gold.

                As I said, the sequels had a completely different problem. The movies, even the worst ones, were fun and funny. You were made to feel something for the characters in a way that never happened in the prequels. For myself, it was only after thinking about the movies afterwards that I realized what a mess they were. The story and setting were at best knockoffs of the Original Trilogy and at worst completely unintelligible. Just as a trivial example, why were Han and Rey able to see the Starkiller’s beam from another planet? What the hell was supposed to be going on there? Why were characters like Finn, Rose, and Poe, even in the story? What idiot came up with the Palpatine storyline from Episode IX? I’ve talked about these problems before, but the real problem for any redemption is the setting. You can retcon technological issues and flesh out dull characters to make them more sympathetic. You can take a dumb idea and repurpose it. If The Mandalorian can refer to Midichlorians without provoking a gag response, anything can happen with bad ideas. But what can a writer do with a dull setting?

                The place to start when rebuilding is to ask what was good. For example, a strength of the prequel era is the existence of the Jedi in full flower. The exploration of a world with many Jedi is a major part of the Clone Wars. The rubber masked knights of the prequels have no more story impact than the aliens in the Mos Eisley cantina. In the cartoon, Plo Koon, Ki Adi Mundi, and Luminara Unduli get whole episodes and backstories. There is one part of Revenge of the Sith that works better now. Now that I know who these Jedi are, their deaths hit harder when Order 66 comes down. It’s as if you watched Avengers: Endgame, then watched all the individual films to get context. You’d be left saying, wow, this could have been great!

                So, what is worth saving from the Resistance Era? I think one critical thing to remember (and this was only vaguely stated in the films) is that whole conflict between the First Order and the Resistance takes place in a small corner of the galaxy. The Empire isn’t resurgent everywhere in at least Episode VII. There is a New Republic ruling from somewhere called Hosnian Prime, but they aren’t involved in the Resistance. So, one thing to note about the galaxy in the Resistance is that it is fractured, with probably more centers of power than just the New Republic, the Resistance, and the First Order. That could be interesting. Maybe the Hutts are resurgent, maybe the Chiss, who knows? There’s a lot to work with. Inevitably, this would lead to conflict and disorder. It would be easy to paint imperial sympathizers as sympathetic in this situation. There would be espionage everywhere, arms races, and potentially a multipolar version of our world’s cold war. One element of the setting that is effective is the ubiquitous wreckage of the Galactic Civil War. Timothy Zahn had some good ideas along these lines as well, with familiar vehicles repurposed into interesting new combinations like Lando’s mobile mining facility attached to the back of AT-AT walkers.

                The Mandalorian shows some signs of existing in this world, that the writers are fumbling toward a more intriguing version of the post-Endor galaxy. The imperials have changed. They are simultaneously more fanatical, more flawed, and more diverse. Will we see aliens among their ranks at some point or will Thrawn remain one lone non-human? The chaotic galaxy I envision would certainly drive more than just humans into the ranks of an entity devoted to order, but will they be welcome? Perhaps there are more than one imperial remnant, perhaps one faction of imperials has different views on aliens than the others. The more I think about the task of building something out of the wreckage of episodes VII-IX the less unenviable I think it is. I think I could have fun with it.