Sunday, February 24, 2013

Meditations on the Apocalypse

I've given some thought to the apocalypse, and I've come to some conclusions.  It doesn't matter to me whether it's a Biblical Armageddon, a zombie apocalypse, a nuclear holocaust or an environmental collapse; when the Terminators come to wipe out all humanity, I don't want to be one of the survivors.

Is that a shocking admission?  Shouldn't we all want to survive?  Well, of course I don't want to die any more than the next person.  But I know I don't want to live in a world that is dramatically different from the current one, especially not if it involves destruction of our modern support systems and amenities.  Most apocalyptic visions of the future include a lot of fear, destruction, and struggle for basic necessities like food and water.  I don't want to deal with that stuff.  I like my indoor plumbing, central heating, instant foods, internet and cell phones.  I don't want to live in a world that doesn't have those things.

There are lots of people out there building bunkers and stocking them with supplies to survive an apocalyptic scenario.  Although I don't know any people like that, the ones who appear on television all seem to be planning to save only themselves and their families and friends.  They appear to me to have no room in their plans for strangers who need help.  Do they really intend to turn away anyone who comes to them for aid?  Will they shoot strangers?  If the world after the apocalypse is only populated by people like that, it's not a world I want to live in.  Perhaps I've seen too many post-apocalyptic movies, and it wouldn't really be like that.  But if it is, I don't want to be there.

It's not like I'd be essential to the survival of anyone else anyway.  I don't have any children to care for, and I wouldn't be any good at caring for other peoples' children.  I can't reproduce and continue the human species; I had all my reproductive equipment removed years ago.  I hate physical activity like gardening or building.  I sew and cook poorly. I don't have any special skills or knowledge that would be useful for surviving in a post-apocalyptic situation, unless moderate knowledge of Mandarin would come in handy.   

I don't really believe there will be an apocalypse of that sort, to be honest.  If an asteroid hits the earth or North Korea starts firing nuclear missiles at the US, I doubt there will be enough of the world left to turn into Mad Max world.  If there's a societal breakdown or an environmental collapse, the changes won't be that dramatic, at least not right away.  Global warming isn't going to bring us to Waterworld in a year or even a hundred years.  I'm not a Christian, so if the Biblical Armageddon suddenly occurs I'll be in for a very rude shock. 

But in case there is some unforeseen circumstance that brings modern society to its knees in a very short period of time, I'll be thinking about checking out as soon as it's apparent that things aren't repairable.  I'd prefer oblivion to struggling desperately to get by from day to day, and I'd definitely prefer it to constantly hiding from the zombies. 

Friday, February 22, 2013


Falling down on the job on my plan to put links in my blog so they don't get lost in my Facebook news feed.

An uplifting story involving celebrities.  Sometimes fame and wealth don't make you into a jerk.  The Lifelong Friendship of Robin Williams and Christopher Reeve.  From Buzzfeed.

A depressing story from Time about our totally broken for-profit healthcare system. 

Yes, we really are all related to royalty.  The Atlantic explains why in The Royal We.

We've been rotting our teeth for 7500 years according to this article from Io9.

Someday I want to visit this place.

A writer friend of mine posted the link to this "Is Your Character a Mary Sue?" quiz.  I took it twice, for two different original fiction characters I created.  To my relief, if I answered as honestly as I hope I did, neither of my characters is a Mary Sue.  Both fell well below the critical Mary Sue level. 

If you don't know what a Mary Sue character is, you can find out here

Some nice photos from National Geographic, including one from a garden I frequent and am very fond of.

If only more proponents of teaching Creationism as science would read this article. Teaching Creationsim as Science Insults People of Faith.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Persistence (Or Not) of Memory

I read this Huffington Post article today, and it mentioned a topic of particular interest to me:  the unreliability of human memory.  As a chemo patient, I deal with "chemo brain", which can disrupt memory as well as focus and reaction time.  I've lost some memories, or clarity of memories, about things that happened immediately prior to my previous chemo treatment in 2003.  But while I find that frustrating and disappointing, I don't find it as disturbing as the artist in the article found it when he realized that his memories of his aunt weren't accurate.  That's because I know my memory is fallible.  I know there's stuff I've remembered incorrectly, and other stuff that never happened at all.  I don't place such reliance on my memory that it disturbs my sense of self to find that it's wrong.

The first time I can recall realizing that my memory wasn't entirely trustworthy comes from a childhood recollection.  When I was young, around six I think, my family went to Arkansas to visit my great-uncle, who had a dairy farm.  We arrived in the evening and I was tired, so I fell asleep.  I dreamed that there was a buffalo in a pasture next to my uncle's farm.  For years I believed that dream was reality, until one day I happened to mention the buffalo to my mother and she gave me a "What are you talking about?" look.  There wasn't any buffalo living next door to my uncle's farm. 

This knowledge of the weakness and malleability of memory is further confirmed when I try to recall my childhood and recognize how many of my memories are missing the presence of my father.  He did die when I was a child, but I was twelve, so there should be a few relatively clear memories including him.  But my memory, in an effort to reduce the pain of grief, seems to have excised him from occasions where he was undoubtedly present, just as Titus Kaphar's memory added his aunt in places where he wished he'd had her support.

Unfortunately we (meaning Americans of the 20th century) seem to have developed an inaccurate picture of memory.  We don't want to admit when our memories are wrong, because we perceive that represents some fault in us, as if we didn't try hard enough to remember.  Numerous psychological studies have shown that our memories can easily be manipulated, that stress or morals or socio-economic background can affect how we remember things or whether we remember them at all, yet we persist in believing that our memories are accurate and unassailable, as if we are video cameras recording every event of our lives and storing those recordings in impenetrable vaults (don't get me started on how unreliable film and video are as documents of reality).

My own opinion is that we should learn to doubt our memories more.  Perhaps if we stopped holding so tightly to the correctness of our own memories, we might be better able to understand others, to empathize, to let go of rigid beliefs and opinions and accept that the beliefs and opinions of others are just as valid as our own.  Perhaps we'd be less willing to accuse, to insist on our own rightness, to point fingers and try to enforce our rightness on others.  We'd also be more sympathetic to people who do have genuine problems with memory, such as Alzheimer's or mental illness, if we could admit that we all have moments in which our brains betray us.

The next time you get in an argument with someone over whose memory is correct, stop yourself and ask yourself, am I really right?  Or am I just insisting that I'm right because I don't want to admit I might be wrong?  Admitting that your memory isn't perfect doesn't mean there's something wrong with you, that you've gone mad or that you have the onset of Alzheimer's.  It just means that you are human and your brain works the same way everyone else's does.  

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Change Is Scary

There's an advert, for a bank I think, in which a man talks about not wanting to work for someone else and finding a new job where he works for himself.  He's shown riding a bicycle in some wilderness area, someplace like Moab, Utah.  It all sounds lovely: Be your own boss, earn your living doing what you love.  I suppose some people are actually able to do that.  But I've never been able to imagine doing the things that I love for money, or at least nt as my primary source of income.  I fear that if I tried to make one of my favorite activities into an occupation, it wouldn't be fun anymore.  That doesn't prevent me from daydreaming about finding a way to turn speaking Mandarin into a career, though.

The thought of changing careers, however, frankly terrifies me.  I've worked for the same employer for nearly 20 years.  I'm out of practice at applying for jobs and going through interviews, and the job market has changed dramatically since the last time I was searching for a job opening.  I'm in my 50s now, and employers these days all seem to be looking for younger people with college degrees in whatever field the opening is for.  I have a Master of Fine Arts degree in a form of artistic endeavor that scarcely exists any more.  My specialty has been replaced by digital technology. 

There aren't a lot of openings for people who do what I do at work, either.  I'm a programmer for an application that isn't commonly used, so the likelihood of finding another opening working with that application in the city in which I currently live is very small.  I don't even know if there are any other businesses here that use the particular application.  I'm also an administrator for an Oracle database, but it's a home-grown database.  I'm very knowledgeable about it, but I'm not sure how that kind of knowledge would carry over to another employer. 

The things I've done in the past don't give me much else to build on, either.  I've taught something that no one does anymore, I've cared for mentally ill and developmentally disabled adults,  I've done retail and fast food.  I don't want to do any of those things again.  I would like teaching, but I don't know what I would teach these days.  I feel that my working life so far has made me less capable of change rather than increasing my flexibility in the job market.

Thinking of changing jobs is scary for other reasons besides not knowing what I would be qualified for.  I have good benefits at my current employer.  I don't want to lose those.  At my age I need health, vision, and dental insurance.  I need a 401k plan and a pension.   If I change employers, I might end up working for a company that doesn't offer all of those things.  I might have to start over at the bottom rung of the ladder.  I get four weeks of paid holiday now, because I've been with my employer so long.  If I was in a new job as a new employee I might not get that.

I like to watch programs about people searching for homes in other countries.  Often on these programs, the house hunters are seeking a home overseas because they've been relocated by an employer or have sought a new career.  I admire and envy these people.  I wish I could do something similar.  But it seems staggeringly difficult to do that kind of thing at this time of my life.  My husband has health issues that need regular care;  would we be able to easily get that care overseas?  My mother-in-law is elderly and has no other family members to look after her if she becomes unable to take care of herself.  I've had cancer, twice.  Even if I could find an overseas job, dare I give up the security I have here and abandon my family to pursue it?

When I was in undergrad school, more than 20 years ago, I decided that I wanted to go to Japan.  I had always wanted to visit that country, and I felt that since I had no responsibilities to family or a job, I was at a perfect point in my life to pursue that desire.  Initially I intended to go on my own, but I happened to mention my desire to a fellow student, who then told one of my professors.  As it happened, that professor knew of a professor at another university who was taking a group of students to Japan.  I was put in touch with that group, and as a result that summer I went to Japan for a month and did some incredibly amazing things that I will detail in another blog.  I have always been very happy and proud that I didn't let fear or hesitation prevent me from pursuing that goal.   

It makes me angry and ashamed to be so afraid now.  I don't want to fear change.  I want to explore, to try new things, to live a full and exciting life.  I want to take leaps of faith and enjoy the rewards as I did when I went to Japan.  But I don't know how to do that now, and that makes me sad.  

Monday, February 4, 2013

Queen of the Grand Cinemas

A friend's recent Facebook post brought this gorgeous preserved movie theatre in Queens to my attention, and set me off on a nostalgic train of thought.  I love seeing these ornate old theatres, and I love it when they are kept in their original state, or as near to it as possible without violating current safety regulations.  There was one not far from where I currently live, the Egyptian, that I've heard was formerly gloriously decorated in the style of its name.  It's been converted into a church, too, but sadly unlike the Valencia, it was completely gutted and now isn't even a very attractive house of worship seen from the exterior.

I grew up in a small town in Texas.  It wasn't large enough to rate a theatre like the Valencia.  But it did have a movie palace, originally the only one besides the drive-in.  It was called the Granada, built in 1929, when my mother was 4 years old.  The exterior was done in a Spanish theme, with Moorish arches.  I remember that the ceiling had midnight blue velvet covering (or at least I thought it was velvet) with twinkle lights to make it resemble a night sky.  There were little alcoves in the walls made to look like fountains with shells inserts.  It didn't have the miniature cityscape of the Valencia, but it did have scenic murals on the walls with a similar idea. 

There was a balcony that was like a cherished secret place to visit, since I was never permitted to sit there separately from my parents.  The ticket booth wasn't terribly ornate, but it was a similar kiosk shape, and I think there was tile work on the lobby floor.  I recall being fascinated that the restrooms, which were on the balcony level, allowed one to look out through the Moorish arched windows over the marquee.  I loved the black and white tiles on the floor.

In the 1970s when multiplexes began to appear everywhere, a twin theatre came to town.  It was a boring shoebox and I liked it only for the films it showed, not for its complete lack of architectural style.  At about the same time new owners acquired the Granada.  It wasn't a big theatre, but they split it in two and stripped out all of its interior period decor.  It became a second, smaller shoebox, with no more personality than the interloper on the outskirts of town.  I was only in my late teens when that happened, but I remember being sad even then.  I've always liked old things.

I remember going to see movies like Mary Poppins, Born Free, and The Poseidon Adventure (the original version) at that theatre.  I remember having to get a notarized birth certificate so the theatre staff wouldn't try to charge me an adult ticket price when I was 11.  I remember getting lost on the way back to my seat when I was six, and standing anxiously in the dark trying to recognize my mother's silhouette by the light of the movie onscreen.  I remember cartoons before the movie, and an intermission that never seemed to be long enough to get me back to my seat before the lights went down. I think the last movie I ever saw there may have been Cocoon in 1985, the last movie I saw in a theatre with my mother.

I've just found some links indicating that someone may be trying to restore it.  If you're interested, here are some photos.  They don't show much of the old decor, but it seems that a few relics were left behind by the remodel in the '70s. 

Friday, February 1, 2013

My History of RPGs

Talking about gaming and miniatures recently has made me want to chronicle my history of roleplaying games and what has become of them.

I started participating in roleplaying games in about 1995.  I had only been vaguely aware of them up to that point, mostly of D&D.  But my then-boyfrined (now husband) played regularly, and one Sunday when I didn't feel like staying home while he went off to his weekly game, I asked if I could come along and watch.  He gave the GM a call to ask if it was okay, and the GM suggested instead of just watching that we arrive early so I could roll up a character of my own.  That was my entry into roleplaying games, and I've never looked back.

That first game wasn't D&D.  It was a RuneQuest campaign.  It kept going off and on for about 10 years, with changes of players and characters, until the GM moved to a new house farther away from everyone else.  Despite the fact that the house had a perfect gaming space in the basement, we didn't play there.

It wasn't long after my entry into gaming that our second game appeared.  One of the RQ players wanted to start up a Warhammer Fantasy game of his own, and most of the RQ players joined in.  That game ran for about a year, on a weekly basis (often twice a week), until our PCs had become great heroes of the Empire and retired from adventuring.

It's a challenge now to recall the exact sequence of games that came after that, but I think our next game was a D&D game, AD&D to be exact.  We also started participating in a Champions! campaign run by the player who usually hosts our games at his apartment.  There was also a Fantasy Hero campaign (same system as Champions! but designed for magical fantasy), which my husband and I joined briefly.  But just after we joined the GM first pressed the reset button, causing our character histories to be erased, and then he stepped out of running games altogether to help his wife start a new small business.

Edit:  I'd forgotten that somewhere in here one of the players from the original RuneQuest group started running a Star Wars campaign using the old West End Games rules.  He eventually stopped inviting the rest of us to play with him; we always suspected it was because we kibbitzed too much, though we never knew for sure.  At the same time the  RQ GM also ran a second RuneQuest game in which all of our PCs were anthropomorphic animals, a campaign which has led us all to have an intense dislike of lemurs ever since.

After that came another Champions! game run by one of the other players, a D&D 3rd edition game in 2001 when that new rules system was released and set in a setting of the GM's own design, the land of Thystra (our first game with that GM, too).  We ran that one for maybe a year, until our PCs slew the evil black dragon.  Then another D&D 3E game with another new GM.  This one was known as The City, as it took place in an ancient city so vast that our PCs never got outside the city limits or even knew where those limits lay.  That one sort of petered out after I was unable to participate during my first cancer experience in 2003.

By that point in time we were playing two or three times a week.  I used to think that if I could roleplay every day I would.  Games came and went.  The second Champions! campaign, known to us as the San Angelo campaign because it was set in that game's fictional core city, went on hiatus while the GM dealt with some personal issues and never came back.  But the same GM started up a Fantasy Hero campaign of his own, The Dreadnaughts, that ran for three years as our PCs went from a small mercenary company to an international army combating overbearing gods.

Our AD&D campaign morphed into D&D 3.5 edition and continued, leading us through a set of modules that resulted in an NPC becoming a goddess and one of our PCs becoming a demigod.  The GM of The Dreadnaughts decided to start a D&D game of his own after The Dreadnaughts ended, and our PCs set off on a long quest to find out what had happened to some of their friends and family who had gone missing.  That campaign was also interrupted by my cancer in 2003, but it kept going and continued into the next year or two, until it sort of ran out of steam and had a quick wrap-up. 

Then that GM started a D&D game in the new Eberron setting, which eventually was adapted for Pathfinder rules after those became available.  The D&D game run by our host finally came to an end as he decided to concentrate on trying to create a setting and rules of his own.  His Champions! game also came to a close, citing player apathy.  It was a little sad, since that campaign had been running since 1994.  But by that point I realized that gaming every day wasn't something I was capable of anymore.

Edit:  We also had a couple of Mutants & Masterminds campaigns during this period, one that ended with some player dissatisfaction with character choices, and a second that ran for a short term to a more successful conclusion. And earlier we had a modified Risus game inspired by the movie Mystery Men, in which we played comical superheroes.  I'd also forgotten an earlier GURPS Black Ops campaign with our operatives fighting aliens, a short-lived Stargate campagin, and a Star Trek game that ran for several years on a combination of FASA and Hero System rules.  Then there was the Risus game that ran only occasionally for several years, in which our characters were operatives of the real Kitchen Stadium, acquiring special ingredients like manticore flesh as we combated the enemies of the Iron Chef.  And we had an annual Risus game at Christmas for several years, too, playing a gang of weird characters trying to save Christmas.

 Our host/GM then ran a short-term post-apocalyptic fantasy campaign using Savage Worlds rules, followed up by a campaign inspired by the tv series Firefly using modified d20 Future rules.  I dropped out of the Firefly game to concentrate on my new interest in studying Chinese, but stuck with a Pathfinder campaign run by the wife of the Eberron GM, using the Curse of the Crimson Throne Adventure Path.  The GM of the old AD&D game had also started up a D&D 3.5 campaign with some modified rules, so my gaming plate was still pretty full. 

Then the GM of the Curse of the Crimson Throne campaign took a hiatus from her game, so her husband filled the gap with the Council of Thieves Adventure path.  That one was limited to only 4 players, so when his wife dropped out the game collapsed.  At the same time, this took a toll on our sole D&D 3.5 game, which also had only 4 players and was very dependent on that specific group of characters, so it didn't adapt well to any changes.

Additionally, this affected the Eberron campaign, which we call Raptor Queen after the elemental airship our PCs possess in the game.  The GM's wife was integral to that game as well, so when they split up and she moved out of town it became a little difficult to decide where to go with the game.  We had a new player join, and while the GM of Raptor Queen figures out where he wants to go with that campaign, our new player has been running us through the Pathfinder adventure that I described briefly in my 'Adventures in Adventureland' post.

So there we are.  Currently I'm only involved in one game, though my husband plays in a couple of others.  I hope we keep playing for a long time to come.  I'm not as eager to try out new rules as I used to be, and as I mentioned above I no longer think playing every day would be the ideal situation.  But I have no intention of giving up roleplaying.