Casino Showdown

Time for another Interlude. I love doing these. Here’s hoping you enjoy them, too.

Christian walked into the Rushti Interstellar Bar and Casino, eyes peeled. The colorful lights and decorations of the casino glared off the chrome of his blue exo-suit. He fingered a button on the side of his earpiece to soften the din of the slot machines.

He narrowed his brilliant green eyes and scanned the crowds as he walked towards the bar. If the suspect was here, they were well hidden. He sighed, sitting down on one of the less questionable stools.

The bartender, a slightly blob-like creature with pale yellow skin, wondered over to the Interforce officer. He slung a grimy towel over his shoulder. “What’s your choice, mister?”

“Nothing on the clock, I’m afraid.”

“Then go get lost, deef.” The bartender turned to leave, shaking his head, his jowls wiggling.

“I’m looking for someone.” The bartender paused. “I’m sure an upstanding citizen such as yourself could make time to help an officer out?”

The bartender turned slightly. “Possibly?”

“A rather rough-looking Andeluvian was spotted coming in here earlier. He would have had a glowing yellow pendant on his chest.” Christian made a triangle with his fingers and thumbs on his own chest to demonstrate.

The bartender sniffed, considering the officer. He finally shook his head. “No. Hard to keep track of so many.”

Christian quietly placed a gold coin on the bar. “How hard, would you say?”

The bartender eyed the coin greedily. “Very difficult.”

Two more coins appeared. “I’m sure you’re concentrating, now.”

“Yes. I’ve just recalled.” The bartender snatched up the coins. “Your friend is relieving himself just now.”

“Interforce appreciates your cooperation, citizen.” Christian stood up. The bartender grunted, pacing down to the other end of the bar.

Christian settled near a card game by the restrooms, feigning interest in the action. A gray-skinned, demon-like alien emerged a short time later. A long scar cut across his face, squinting one eye. One of his pointed ears was half-missing. A yellow pendant glowed dully on his chest.

The officer kept the alien in his periphery. The suspect drifted towards the middle of the casino. Christian followed, putting a healthy distance between them.

The alien sat down at a seemingly random slot machine. He inserted a player’s card and pulled the handle twice in rapid succession. He took no other action. He sat and stared at the screen.

A minute later, another of his species sat quietly beside him. Like his compatriot, he inserted his player’s card and pulled the handle twice. The suspect nodded his head. His companion passed him something at waist level.

The second alien stood and walked away. As much as Christian would have liked to take down both of them, he had to remain focused. The suspect stood up and walked away from the machine.

Christian tapped the side of his earpiece. “Suspect identified.” He quickly closed the distance between them. He reached out and grabbed the alien’s arm. “Interforce. We need to talk.”

The alien growled in response, shaking off Christian’s hand. He spun around and shoved the officer to the ground. He ran into the gasping crowd, shoving unsuspecting patrons aside.

“Damn it!” Christian shot to his feet and reached for his earpiece. “Suspect is…” There was no earpiece. He sighed. “Great.” He spotted the alien and broke into a sprint.

It was easy to track the suspect’s movements by the groaning casino-goers left crumpled on the ground. “Interforce! Stop that man!” People stepped clear of the suspect, much to his chagrin. “Perfect,” he spoke under his breath.

The suspect turned left, heading for a nearby exit onto the promenade. A server-bot chose that moment to push a large rack of prepared food into his path. The alien slowed, but couldn’t stop completely. The rack shook violently, sending plates and platters crashing to the ground.

The server-bot began babbling angrily. The suspect cursed at it in his native language. Christian caught up, breathing heavily. He held up his phase-caster pistol. “Time’s up! Render yourself!”

“Not today, officer!” The suspect grinned, speaking in a gravelly voice. He smacked the yellow pendant on his chest. It glowed brilliantly. The alien’s body grew and stretched, turning a reddish-orange.

The massive alien howled, shaking the air. “Oh, shit…” Christian opened fire on the suspect. The alien seemed unfazed by the blue blasts of energy. He swung one large fist at the weapon, knocking it from the officer’s hand.

The suspect flailed out with the other hand, sending Christian tumbling several feet to the side. He rolled over, groaning. “I… said… render yourself!

Christian stood and knocked his forearms together. He brought them down sharply to his sides, fists forward. The sound of whirring motors and sliding machinery issued from his exo-suit. The chrome panels on the suit extended out, expanded.

The officer stood facing the alien, now at an even height, fully encased in heavy armor. A blue helmet wrapped itself up and over Christian’s face. The eyes lit up yellow. He spoke through the helmet’s intercom. “Your move, punk.”

The alien screamed, charging at Christian. The officer swung an armored fist into the creature’s abdomen, knocking the wind out of him. The alien’s eyes flashed surprise. He smashed the suspect’s face into his knee.

The suspect shoved blindly, knocking Christian back far enough to allow the alien to regain his bearings. “Come get me, scum.” The alien spit before turning and running.

Christian sprung to his feet. He sprinted after the alien, his armored feet booming with each footfall. He lunged onto the alien’s back, sending them both tumbling forward into a row of slot machines.

“Graaahhh!” The alien shouted, shoving both of his fists into Christian’s chest. The officer stumbled backwards, his armor dented. Alarms screamed in his ears.

Christian thrust first one arm, then the other at the alien. Two small missiles fired from each arm and crashed into the alien. One missed it’s mark, hitting a slot machine and exploding.

The alien fell back into the slot machines, groaning. He shook his immense head and shot Christian a dark look. He spun around and ripped one of the slot machines free from its base.

He swung it around and smashed it into Christian like an oversize baseball bat. Christian crumpled. The alien brought the twisted remains of the machine down on top of the officer, smashing it to pieces.

Sparks and hydraulic fluid poured out of Christian’s exo-suit. He retracted his helmet. He struggled to move. “Will you just render, already?”

The alien blew out a guttural laugh. “Not today, officer.” He smacked the yellow pendant on his chest. The alien shrunk down and inwards, his body forming into a perfect hourglass shape.

The alien tossed her ebony hair away from her olive skin. She winked a bright yellow eye at the officer and smiled. “Maybe next time.” She turned and bounded out onto the promenade behind her.

Christian watched her go, helpless. He looked over his broken exo-suit. “This, is going to be expensive.” He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, blowing his breath out at the ceiling above.

Did you enjoy this interlude? Let me know on Twitter, @fatmopzoo, and maybe I’ll revisit Christian’s story. Thanks for reading!

 

Generations

I remembered a conversation I had with a younger coworker a few years ago. At some point, the opportunity to use the well-tread phrase “ancient Chinese secret” reared its ugly head. Naturally I jumped on it.

He didn’t know what I was talking about.

With a silent thunderclap, I suddenly felt… old. I figure, if you have to explain a tagline to someone, and you think you shouldn’t have to, then you are old. That’s precisely what had just happened to me.

That led me to thinking about generations. I don’t necessarily mean the rigid, unbreakable definitions of Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials. What I picture is more organic, like rolling generations.

What people claim as their own, culturally speaking, seem to center around the ages of 18-25. That’s when people are arguably coming of age. That’s the period of time they are going to look back on most fondly(in most cases.)

Because of that, it’s possible that people born in 1949 see Woodstock as the pinnacle of music history, while other born in say 1964 may see the eighties as a major, transformative time in music. The point? Both sets of people are considered Baby Boomers. One generation.

These things seemed to come in waves for many decades. We seemed to have clearly defined pop-culture and musical periods of time from the fifties through the nineties. Each decade had its own set of defenders who just happened to largely fit into that 18-25 demographic during that period of time.

What’s interesting, but not all that surprising, is that as these people grow older, the love for those years grows. Eventually that period of time becomes a golden era of cultural progress. Anyone who doesn’t agree just doesn’t get it.

The other stereotype is, of course, that “kids these days” don’t know what good music sounds like. The music today is uninspired. Movies today are just ghostly echoes of the great movies of the past. Television is a mess.

I don’t necessarily see this as a sign of stubbornness. These are people feeling the pressure of time. They are worried that the small window of history that was “theirs” is quickly being forgotten.

So I don’t think old people are being curmudgeonly, I think they are scared of being left behind.

Recent developments in history are only serving to muddy the waters. As I’ve shown, delineating specific periods of time as being one generation doesn’t work very well. Using decades as a marker has also been pretty-well blown out of the water.

The 2000’s, while an amazing milestone, was also a major game-changer. Now, I know I’m getting old, but I find I can’t look back to the 2000’s and say “Oh, yeah! These songs and movies made the 2000’s!” In fact, there’s a good chance at least one or two of the songs or movies I came up with would turn out to be from the 2010’s.

There seems to be some weird “millennium effect” that’s muddied the waters somehow. We had the orderly progression of the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. Now the 2000’s has somehow broken the system, and the second decade of this millennium seems to just be blurring into the first. At least to me, it is.

Another game changer came into its own in the late nineties, just in time to enhance the millennium effect:  the internet.

Granted, the world wide web as we know it had been around since the early nineties. It wasn’t until the end of that decade that it began to truly revolutionize how we consume media. The idea of music-sharing was born in Napster all the way back in 1999.

For the first time, people were able to easily share individual songs. A simple thing, but a revolutionary one. Instead of investing in whole albums, people could cherry pick singles that they enjoyed. That meant they could have songs from multiple decades all together in one playlist.

The birth of social platforms like Myspace and Facebook further promoted this concept and grew it to include movies and television shows. Those people coming of age could now simultaneously have an affection for Eminem and The Golden Girls. The very concept of generations is getting washed out in today’s wired world.

Nobody can even decide what this generation, or generations, should be called. Millennials are supposed to cover everyone born from 1982 to present, though I’ve heard the cut-off pushed earlier than 1982. That makes me a Millennial to some, a Gen Xer to others(I think Gen Xer sounds way cooler, personally.)

Also in the mix is Generation Y, sandwiched between X and Millennial, and believed to be derogatory by some. There are those that consider Generation Y and Millennials to be one in the same. Still others say there’s a Generation Z in there somewhere after the Y people. Or something.

Despite the muddling confusion, there is a surprising bright spot in all of this. Parents and children are connecting more than ever. Even Grandparents and their grandchildren are finding common ground.

A teenager enters a “phase” of digging music from the sixties. Well, guess who was around to appreciate that period in person? Yup, Grandpa.  Who better to help develop your 60’s playlist then the man that heard it blasting out of his stereo speakers for the first time so many years ago?

At the same time, parents can easily reminisce about the music and movies they grew up with thanks to Netflix, YouTube, and music services like Amazon Prime and Apple Music. It also makes it easier to share those things with their children. In turn, those children create memes that unwittingly bring two generations into one.

I think we are quickly coming to a period in human history where generations will be a thing of the past. I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing. If variety is the spice of life, then we are living in savory times.

Togetherness is increasingly important in a world that appears to grow darker and more pessimistic with each passing year. The internet, for all of its quirks and pitfalls, is helping people connect; people that would have never had anything to say to each other. People that used to think their generation was best.

You know what? Come to think of it, I think I know what this generation should be called.

Generation Us.

Soulfire Point

Here I am, being odd again. I felt like rolling up the old writing sleeves again. I hope you enjoy my momentary lapse into fiction.

Gabriel gently urged Ezekiel on with a gentle kick to his flank. He grimaced as he did so, knowing the pain the creature was in. He hugged himself closer to the dragon. “Only a little farther, old friend.”

The blue-black creature looked back with one unfocused eye, crowing weakly. It slowly craned its head back around and down as it redoubled its effort to keep them in the air. Gabriel nervously rubbed Ezekiel’s neck, trying to reassure both of them.

The young man sat up in his saddle and surveyed the land below them. This was the final journey. He had wanted to give Ezekiel one last thrill, one last  journey, together. A single tear slipped down his cheek. His lip trembled.

Ezekiel cried out quietly, flinching his head and wobbling dangerously. Gabriel clinched the pommel horn with white knuckles. “Easy, old one. Easy now.” Ezekiel mewled. A tear like a jewel pooled at the corner of one eye.

Gabriel stared off to the horizon, where the last rays of the sun stretched across the forest below. Lake Hanover came into view on their left. The gentle waves rippling on its surface twinkled like golden diamonds from up here.

The forest below gave way to arid grasslands beneath them. Ezekiel’s breathing became slower and more labored. Gabriel laid across the dragon’s neck and held him tight.

He watched the ground rush by below them. The grass faded and dispersed, replaced by lifeless sand and gravel. He squeezed his eyes shut and hugged the struggling dragon. They were nearly there.

He pulled in a hitching breath and blew it out forcefully. He sat himself back upright and reluctantly patted his friend on the back. “Alright, Ezekiel. Descend.”

The dragon weakly cried out  at the sky and slowed its wing beats. Gabriel held on for all his worth as Ezekiel lowered them unsteadily towards the ground. He nearly pitched forward as they crumpled to the earth below.

Ezekiel roared in pain. Gabriel righted himself and massaged the dragon’s neck. “My poor beauty! My poor friend.” Tears rolled down his cheeks. Ezekiel looked back, mewling. Pain and fear burned in his eye.

Gabriel slid to the rocky ground, sniffling. He looked forward. There was Soulfire Point, just off in the distance. To the two companions, it appeared miles away.

“One more time, friend. Hup!” Ezekiel struggled to find his feet. His body trembled, ultimately collapsing. It cried out in pain, a brief burst of orange-blue flame licking from its mouth.

“Oh, Ezekiel!” The boy hugged the dragon’s neck. He caressed the side of Ezekiel’s face. “I know it hurts, friend. I know… but you must find a way.”

He stepped back. Ezekiel wearily raised its head and turned towards the boy. Gabriel nodded nervously. The dragon lowered its head and pushed with all its might. Its massive body slowly lifted from the ground.

“There’s the way. Come on, now.” Ezekiel lurched forward. His breathing came in sharp rasps. Gabriel placed a gentle hand on his friend’s shoulder and walked beside him.

The cliff edge drew closer, an uncomfortable representation of the end that was coming. It all hardly felt real, and yet here it was. Gabriel felt a queer sense of relief, interspersed with a grieving that felt like icy death itself clutching at his heart.

Ezekiel squealed in pain and fell, shaking the ground below him. “No! Ezekiel…” Gabriel looked towards Soulfire Point. So close, and yet it may have been a mile away. He began to cry.

He pressed himself into the dragon and wept. “So close! You’re so close…” Ezekiel cried weakly. “I know. You’re too tired, old friend.” Gabriel stood and looked to the sky. “I don’t know what to do!”

Somewhere in the distance, a ground-shaking roar tore through the twilight sky. It was joined by a second, louder roar. Twin jets of blue-orange flame peeled across the sky, illuminating the dragons behind them.

“Look, Ezekiel! We are saved!” The weary dragon weakly turned its head skyward. Its one good eye sparkled. It clucked weakly.

The two dragons, one blood red, the other a blackish-green, touched down gracefully behind the weary travelers. Their immense wings pounded the air, sending dust and debris swirling into the darkening sky. The rider of the red dragon held up a solemn hand. “Hale, friend Gabriel!”

He patted and rubbed the dragon beneath him. “Darien caught Ezekiel’s cries on the winds.” He surveyed the broken dragon soberly. “So it is time.”

Gabriel nodded, tears in his eyes. “It is so. I fear he doesn’t have the energy to finish the journey.”

The rider held up his hand. “Speak no more.” He turned to the other rider and nodded. The other rider nodded back and nudged his dragon forward.

The dragons settled on either side of the fallen dragon and his companion. Gabriel stood before Ezekiel. “Spread your wings one last time, old friend.”

Ezekiel squeezed his eyes shut and raised his wings onto the other two dragons. Darien and his companion effortlessly stood, lifting their fallen comrade from the ground. Ezekiel’s feet gingerly pressed into the ground.

The three dragons slowly, solemnly made the short trip to the edge of Soulfire Point. Ezekiel lowered himself painfully to the ground. He breathed a sigh of relief. He rested his head on the ground and gazed at the last rays of the sun that were quickly slipping away.

The other dragons quietly retreated, heads bowed. Gabriel looked to the red rider uncertainly. He nodded back. “It’s time, son. Make your peace.”

Gabriel ran to Ezekiel and hugged him tightly. He whispered, tears falling from his tired eyes. “Goodbye, old friend. It’s time to go now.”

Ezekiel locked his gaze on Gabriel. The look was one of serenity, and gratefulness. Gabriel stood, then stepped back hesitantly. The darkness stole away the last of the sun’s warming light. Ezekiel’s eye closed for the last time.

“Hale! Ezekiel! Great dragon of the north!” The red rider cried. “Seek peace, and fly your way to eternity.”

A brilliant white light poured from beneath Ezekiel’s body. It licked up over his body, shimmering and flickering like flames. Its tendrils tracing over and enveloping the old dragon.

The light grew in intensity, blinding the others. It slowly faded, revealing a brilliant translucent blue dragon. It stood proudly, unfurling sparkling wings.

It turned its massive head, looking one last time upon its faithful companion of old. It turned to the rising moon and flapped its powerful wings, lifting into the night sky.

Glittering points of light like diamonds fell away from its wings as it flew into the night sky. With a mighty roar, it disappeared into the nether realm, leaving it’s companion for the last time.

The red rider looked to Gabriel. He placed his fist to his chest, and solemnly bowed his head. The two dragons took flight, returning the way they had come, leaving Gabriel to mourn.

The young man silently walked to where his friend had lain. He knelt, placing a hand on the still-warm earth. He closed his eyes and smiled, tears on his cheeks. “Goodbye, Ezekiel.”

He sat upon the edge of the cliff and watched the moon rise. He would leave here without his friend, but knew in his heart that he would never be alone again.

Time

I AM THE BEGINNING AND THE END
Ain’t nobody got time for OH MY GOD

Time is a very curious thing. It consumes every moment of our lives, pun semi-intended. Sometimes we’re out of time, time runs short, we wonder if it’s time yet, we ain’t got time for that…

I think most people don’t really think much about time. After all, who wants to think about the inexorable drumbeat that draws us ever nearer to the veil of our own existence? We all mill about, looking to make the best of the time that we do have, but don’t consider what time really is to begin with.

Those who do consider the subject usually think of time as being the fourth dimension. You have length, width, height. Time is the fourth dimension that the three other dimensions exist within. Kind of makes sense, I suppose.

The problem is that if you ask a mathematician, they’ll call bull. It turns out that equations can be solved without time being taken into consideration. So from a mathematical perspective, time doesn’t exist.

So that brings up the question about how time runs at different speeds for different people. One of the fun facts about NASA’s Twins Study is that Mark Kelly is now another five milliseconds older than his brother Scott thanks to travelling far faster than him while he was on the space station. This is called time dilation, and no one seems to understand it very well.

That’s the most confusing thing about time. Everyone experiences it, experiences the effects of it, but it seems supremely difficult to quantify it. While it’s easy enough to mark its passing — with seconds, minutes, hours — it seems nearly impossible to accurately describe it in any meaningful way.

The confusion multiplies when you consider the mind-numbing concepts of the past and the future. Now, I know those two concepts seem simple. It’s when you start asking questions about those concepts that your brain starts hurting.

Take the past, for example. The past is what has stopped being the present. Everything that you have done is now in the past. Kindergarten stuff, right?

But what happens to the past?

OM NOM NOM
Oh shit, oh shit, OH SHIT…

Is the past still tangible? Is there someway to go back in time? (You knew that was coming.) If you went back in time, could you interact with the past? Or would it just be like a three-dimensional movie? Would it be like the Langoliers? And if it is, oh my god that’s horrible, run?

So the general consensus seems to be that it’s impossible to go back in time for a couple of reasons. One is more scientific than the other. We’ll start with that one.

As mentioned earlier, time can be slowed down for an individual if they go faster than everyone else(a gross simplification but, you know, this is an entertainment website.) This means that if you go near the speed of light, you “travel” through time faster than everyone else, therefore staying young and beautiful while everyone else turns to dust, etc. So what if you reached the speed of light?

In theory, time itself would stop. Therefore, surpassing the speed of light would result in time running backwards for you, right? But that’s not what happens on Star Trek!

The thing is, Star Trek is a work of fiction. I know, I was bummed out too. But also, as far as anyone can see, one can’t even reach the speed of light, much less surpass it. So that’s that, right?

Well, maybe… This brings in the idea of wormholes, those wonderful tears in space and time. They allow a proposed starship to travel from one end of the universe to the other before light even ties its sneakers. You’d have to take some Enterprise-sized leaps in logic for wormholes to even exist, though.

First of all, despite scientists’ best efforts, it’s like really hard to rip a hole in reality, you guys. The universe seems really keen to stitch any evident holes back together within milliseconds of their appearance. But let’s pretend that’s not an issue.

So let’s pretend they can stay open, and be large enough for a starship to navigate through. Okay, yeah, you beat light particles to your destination… So, what? You can beat your brother to your grangran’s house if you take a shortcut on the back roads, but that doesn’t mean you arrive last Tuesday, does it? So it goes for beating the light to your destination.

Alright, so what about travelling to the future, you say? The above information pretty much proves that’s a possibility, right? Yup! The end!

Okay, not really. In order to get significantly ahead of everyone else in the time game, you have to approach the speed of light. That’s no mean feat. It would also take a long time to accelerate and decelerate, if you didn’t want to turn into a greasy splatter. Thus, much of the benefits of time travel would be negated.

Speaking of benefits, what would you benefit, travelling to the future? You don’t know what the future holds, but you do know that everyone you ever knew and loved would be like, so totally dead. World War III could be raging, super-herpes could be spreading everywhere, a childlike megalomaniac that used to be a TV personality could be president… And there would be no way to return to the past, remember?

So the past might as well might not exist. We can “travel” to the future, but it’s really just like fast-forwarding. So just what the hell is time, then?

This is heavy...
Erased… from EXISTENCE.

The bottom line is… time might not even exist.

It kind of makes sense if you stop to think about it. You exist now. The future doesn’t exist yet because it’s now. The past doesn’t exist anymore because the past is no longer now.

Everything you ever do in your life you do in the present. Sure, you have pictures and memories of your fifth birthday party, but only because those memories and pictures exist… wait for it… now. You don’t have memories or pictures of the future because the future doesn’t exist yet, simply because it’s not now yet.

It’s a somewhat complex thing for humans to wrap their head around. After all, nobody wants to think that the warm memories they have of the past are lost forever. That is at the very heart of time travel theory, I think: The drive to reconnect with the things in our lives that made a difference.

If there’s a lesson to be learned in all of this, it’s to live in the moment. Remember that the past can never be changed, and the future will never truly be here. All you have is now. Make the most of it… while you still have time.

Fallout

NCR for life, bitches!
Join the NCR today!

I was introduced to the world of Fallout with Fallout 3. A guy I worked with suggested both it and Fallout New Vegas to me. We were working together that day, and he expounded on all the crazy things you could do in the games for well over an hour.

I started off by getting Fallout 3. I was immediately impressed by the immersive quality of the game. You were given a main storyline to follow, but were given full license to wander across the burnt earth and twisted steel of the Capital Wasteland.

This spoke to me immensely. I was coming off of the whimsical world of the Nintendo 64. My favorite games were Super Mario 64Conker’s Bad Fur Day, and the Banjo Kazooie games.

What endeared them to me the most, as a casual gamer, was the wide-open feel they had. A straightforward path to follow? Nah. You have this much time to complete it? Nope! In fact, some of the most rewarding experiences in the games were had by purposefully wandering off the beaten path.

Power armor FTW
“I’m the best!”

Fallout 3 was like Banjo Kazooie all grown up… and irradiated, I guess. Instead of learning new moves, you leveled up your character. Instead of finding a secret path to a hidden jiggy, you found an abandoned vault full of old-world goodies.

Another mechanic that endeared me to the series was the ability to mold the story as it progressed. I was also a fan of Final Fantasy VII and VIII. These are the only two Final Fantasy games that exist, as far as I’m concerned, by the way. Part of the fun was being able to influence events in the game with dialogue choices.

Fallout 3 took that shit and ran with it. Just like with the Force, you could follow the light or turn to the dark side. Certain possible companions could only be hired if you were an asshole. How you handled Megaton at the beginning of the game would determine if you were pursued by an elite gang of thugs or a posse of wasteland cowboy justice bringers throughout the rest of the story.

I absolutely loved these elements, but there was a definite lean towards gunfights and sneaking… and subways. There were lots and lots of subways. Like, SO MUCH SUBWAYS, you guys.

While I was playing though, I was checking out details on Fallout New Vegas. The more I read, the more I liked. Here was Fallout 3, but somehow bigger and better. I abandoned the Lone Wanderer for the time-being and got acquainted with the Courier.

It was the best damn decision I ever made in my life.

Advanced riot gear, activate!
“No, I’m the best!”

People say they play video games as a hobby, I play Fallout New Vegas as a hobby. I have nearly 130 hours logged on it as of this writing, and I only get like an hour or two to play it in a week. What I’m saying is, I kind of like this game.

It took everything I liked about Fallout 3 and turned the knob to the right. It literally drops you into a small town in the middle of the desert and says go anywhere. Well, just not straight to New Vegas(hello, blind deathclaw!)

From the very beginning, you start molding your own character. He or she can be made to look like you, or any which way you want. You take various “tests” to determine your base stats and demeanor. This all happens before you leave the home of the doctor that saved your life.

Once out in the world, you’re encouraged to follow the tutorial-like first quests to learn the basics, but after that the world is your oyster. It’s like Banjo Kazooie on Forced Evolutionary Virus. Go anywhere you want in this big old map, full of things to discover only tangentially related to the main storyline.

Some people complain about the vast tracts of nothing between locations in the Mojave, but I think it adds to the realness of the world. The layout of locations also does a good job of guiding the player along the main quest line while gently nudging them off the trail to explore.

Another considerable improvement was in the ways you can influence the story and the outcome of not only the main quests, but several smaller quests as well. Black and white decisions have been replaced with ones tinged in shades of gray. Sometimes there simply isn’t a “best” option, and this is a beautiful thing, to me.

All of your choices culminate in an epic slide show at the end of the game. The fates of all the places and people you’ve touched throughout the game are revealed for better or worse. My desire to give them better fates has pushed me to play through more than once.

Fallout New Vegas also, hands down, has the best DLC content I’ve ever seen. You have four new story lines that feed directly off the main game, but stand alone as their own tales. Just like the main game, your decisions greatly influence your outcome as well as the outcome for characters and places in the DLC.

Chief among these four is Old World Blues, which gives a fascinating window into the links between the past and the future. A close second is Lonesome Road, which serves to tie together the three previous DLCs. This story shows the connection between the hubris that brought human civilization to its knees, and how those same machinations may see it brought to the grave.

"Behold my enhanced Power Su... Oh, wait. Need a new power core..."
“Durrr!”

So it was with much excitement and impatience that I looked forward to the release of Fallout 4. I paid extra to get the premium Pip-Boy-including edition. I didn’t even have an Xbox One yet, and wouldn’t for months afterward.

While I was waiting to play I heard some… things. The Sole Survivor had his own voice. The marketing really pushed his specific appearance as well. He also did the “War never changes” speech(BLASPHEMY!) These things really make it hard to make that character yours. They also made John Cleese record like, five thousand names so Cogsworth could say your name, so there was that.

Alas, it was much worse than I had imagined. Even painting my face over that of the Sole Survivor did not make the character my own. It was me with some dude’s voice talking to other characters.

Then you had the dialogue options. While you could still make decisions that influenced the path of the game, you could be a saint or… sarcastic? One of the funnest things about New Vegas was being able to be a psychotic asshole if you wanted, and the game would tailor itself to your whims.

The only way to be evil in Fallout 4 is to kill people. No epic dialogue demeaning them beforehand, just kill them. And the game acts to discourage this behavior.

Also discouraged is playing the field, actions-wise. In New Vegas, you can move through most of each faction’s quests without being vilified by the other factions. Doing the same in Fallout 4 would require multiple play-throughs.

This game also goes back to Fallout 3‘s habit of heavy gun play. Diplomacy and skill are largely ignored in favor of weapon mods and constant battle. That’s great if you love Call of Duty, but… I don’t love most FPS in general.

The one saving grace are the graphics. The world in this game is GORGEOUS. There are still numerous places to explore, and they do reveal some world-building and player-growing tidbits. But the fact that this has been the most enjoyable part of the game for me so far should be a big red flag.

In fact, after starting the game twice, I’ve gone back to do one more extra-thorough play through of New Vegas. After that? I actually might go back and finally play through all of Fallout 3. I just can’t face Fallout 4 quite yet.

Like Obi Wan to Anakin, I say to Fallout 4, “You were the chosen one!” After learning the lessons from the previous two titles, this game should have been absolutely amazing. To an extent it is, but for a Fallout fanatic like me, it’s a dull whisper of what it should have been.

I’ll still hope for the future, but for now, you can find me in the Mojave.

 

 

 

 

An Interlude

Continuing my line of experimentation, I decided to go off on a tangent this week. I thought it would be fun to whip up a fictional scene apropos of nothing. If there’s enough interest in it, I might do this more often. Please enjoy!

Jacob sighed and stretched in the sunlight filtering down between the massive trees that surrounded him. The sounds of a gentle breeze and distant chirping birds were a welcome change from the constant roar of cars and rude people he was accustomed to. He smiled, pulling some of that cool breeze deep into his lungs.

The smile faded into a subtle frown as he realized his situation. He’d been walking for what felt like hours and still hadn’t found the portal the frog (a frog!) had told him to seek in these woods. It still beat dealing with rush hour traffic.

Yet here he was, trying to find his way back to it. He laughed to himself and started walking. What else was there to do?

A small white blur in the corner of his vision caught his attention. He stopped and scanned the ground. There it was! A rabbit, no larger than a mouse, stared back at him attentively.

Jacob raised his eyebrows. “Well hi there, little fella.” The rabbit twitched an ear before turning tail and running a short distance away.

He followed the rabbit, intrigued. It was sitting staring at him once more. Come follow me, it seemed to be saying. Jacob obliged.

The rabbit would hop along a short distance, always looking back for its new companion. Jacob dutifully plodded along behind it. It soon picked up enough speed that Jacob was fairly jogging along to keep up.

It was a short time later when he rounded a tree and came to a hard stop. The rabbit cut to the left and bounded to a sprint. A grizzled-looking old man growled at it before spitting on the ground.

Jacob took a few steps forward and then stopped. The old man appeared much like a farmhand. He wore a battered old Stetson. His faded green button shirt and blue jeans were coated in dust.

His leather boots were coated in something else entirely. Jacob could smell the stranger from where he stood. The old man grabbed the oversize silver buckle holding his belt together and hoisted it jauntily.

He was standing on a series of stone slabs that lazily sloped up to a raised dais. In the middle of the dais raised two large marble pillars. The air between them appeared to be shimmering. The portal!

The old farmhand spit to one side and gave Jacob the stink-eye. “The hell you starin’ at, shithead?” His voice had a texture not unlike burlap and cigarettes, weighed down by a heavy Southern accent.

Jacob looked indignant. “Not much, by the look of it!”

The farmhand’s face screwed up in anger, flashing crooked, tobacco-stained teeth. “I’m worth three of you put together, and you’d still owe me fifty cents!” The anger on his face melted away a moment later, leaving the man guffawing.

“Get the hell over here, ya varmint!” Jacob hesitated. “Oh, come on now! I don’t got no weapon. What am I gonna do, piss on ya?”

Jacob snorted despite himself. He ventured a little closer to the man and the portal, stepping on to the weathered stones that led up to both. He half-waved a self-conscious hand.

“So whatcha doin’ way out here, Mister Cowboy?”

Jacob smirked. “Cowboy?” He shook his head. “I’m about as far away from being a cowboy as you can get.”

“Bull. Shit. Just look at ya! Tee shirt, jeans… Okay, girly ass tennis shoes but slap a clean hat on you and shit on it. You’re a god-damned cowboy!”

“Right.” Jacob tried to peek around him. “Look, I’m sure you’re a great guy and a fantastic conversationalist, but all I’m really interested in right now is getting to that portal behind you.”

“Porthole you say! Ha! A porthole. Ain’t no damn ship around here, cowboy! Gotta walk about oh, ten miles thataway I’d reckon.” The farmhand pointed off into the woods to his right.

“No, portal. The thing behind you!”

“There something behind me? The devil, you say! I didn’t see anything behind me when I came here…”

Jacob rolled his eyes. “You had to see it! What, did you walk here backwards?”

The farmhand shot him a dark look. “Do I look like a fool? I walked right the hell forward, head held high, right through that portal. Ended up here, haven’t turned around since.” He sniffed indignantly.

Jacob thrust his hands brusquely, gesturing toward the portal behind the old man. “You mean the portal right fucking there?”

The farmhand whipped his hand up. A gigantic silver six-gun sat gleaming inside of it. “You show me some respect, you New-York-loving son of a bitch!”

“HEY! WHOA!” Jacob through up his hands. “Easy! I thought you said you were unarmed!”

“I am!” The farmhand squeezed the trigger. A thin stream of water shot across the distance and hit Jacob square in the chest.

Jacob grimaced “Ugh!” He wiped at his shirt, stumbling back.

The farmhand threw the water pistol aside and doubled over laughing. “I told ya… I told ya! I’d piss on ya! Ha ha haaa!

“Yeah, real fuckin’ cute.” Jacob stared at the sky, sighing impatiently. “Okay…” He eyed the old man. “So yeah, there’s a portal behind you.”

“I know there’s a damned portal behind me. It’s the other end of the one I went through!”

Jacob closed his eyes and rubbed his brow. “Oh, Jesus… You didn’t see it because you came through it.”

“And I ain’t turned around yet!” The farmhand flashed his yellow grin.

“Yeah. Okay. Fine, look…” Jacob spread out his hands. “Can you just let me by so I can get to it?”

“What, the portal?”

“Yes, the portal.”

“No.”

“Why the hell not!” Jacob took a step forward.

“Chill yer rockets, Mister boatswain McDickerson!” Jacob paused. “You can get up there to your porthole in just a beat. But first… You gotta do something for me.”

Jacob sighed. “What?”

The old man leaned over and cupped a hand to his ear, a plaintive look on his face. “Ya gotta say the magic word.”

Jacob looked stone-faced, but acquiesced. “Please.”

The farmhand snapped back up. “Well, sure!” He sauntered to the side, spreading his hand out toward the portal. “Step on up here, you glorious son of a bitch!”

Jacob warily climbed the stone steps. The old man watched him with wild eyes as he passed. Jacob nodded nervously.

The farmhand gave Jacob a wild slap on the ass on his way by. “There’s a good boy! Give ’em hell and damnation!”

Jacob whirled around, looking quite offended. “What the hell, old man!”

The old man almost looked hurt. “Just passing some good luck on to ya.” Jacob turned away from him and continued on. The old man mumbled. “Jackass.”

Jacob stopped before the portal and looked over his shoulder at the old man. The farmhand flashed him a shit-eating grin and flipped him the bird. Jacob sighed and turned back to the portal.

The air between the marble columns was sparkling, waving and bobbing like the surface of a lake. In the deepest waves he could catch the briefest glimpse of what lay beyond. He closed his eyes and stepped forward into the portal.

I hope you enjoyed this brief interlude. If you did, and would like to see more posts like this, or even see this story continued, let me know on Twitter: @FatMopZoo. Thanks for reading!

 

On Writing

Sweet Home
Home. (Photo on VisualHunt)

The past fifteen months have been interesting for me.

I’ve undergone a bit of a transformation, though beautiful butterfly I am not. I have become more aware of who I am. Perhaps I’m a little more assertive than I once was. I’ve certainly become more prone to reminiscing about my younger years, though I’ve weathered a number of repressed memories as well.

Amongst all this, something curious began to happen.

A constant throughout my life has been daydreaming. It’s partly how I dealt with upsetting situations. I’ve suffered from social anxiety (never officially diagnosed) ever since I was a child.

For whatever reason, the way schools dealt with this issue was to, well, ignore it, really. With nobody listening to my concerns and no help given in regards to how to cope, I was prone to acting out. I have precious few happy moments from my childhood. Unsurprisingly, I am alone in those few happy memories.

The one coping mechanism I came upon by myself was daydreaming. Ahead of any social interactions, I would try to imagine every possible scenario I’d be faced with, and how best to handle it. Sometimes it backfired, but more often than not I found it beneficial.

A natural offshoot of this behavior was a healthy imagination. I soon grew fond of dreaming up random characters and the adventures they would go on. I’d occasionally try to put these imaginings to paper, but finding nobody to read them, typically relegated them to the big garbage dump in the sky.

I never left behind my precious coping mechanism. I still use it to this day, though I’ve made some progress combating my social anxiety. As a result of flexing that muscle for so many years, I’ve also become really good at daydreaming.

Jump back to fifteen months ago. I was going through one of the darkest periods in my life. I was facing the real possibility of having to start my life over once again, both financially and emotionally.

Needless to say, I was doing some seriously deep thinking during this time. I frequently daydreamed not just to make it through the day, but to distract myself from my misery. It was in this daydreaming that I had a thought.

That thought was of an encounter between a young man and an old man, who was sitting on a porch. One had a plasma pistol, and the other didn’t seem to care that it was being pointed at him. That thought grew into a great story idea.

That story idea grew into After, my first novel.

Working on After became another form of therapy, a way to escape. I worked on it late into the night after everyone had gone to bed for the night. For an hour or two, everything went away and there was just Alex, me, and a journey.

It would turn out Alex and I both were on a journey of self-discovery. I found my way to, if not the light, a brighter place in my own life. Meanwhile, I continued to forge a meaningful life for Alex.

I released After at the end of March 2017 through self-publication. I had no great hopes for it. The novel was my first published work and I had zero social media presence.

I swallowed (some of) my social anxiety and forged a Twitter account to go along with my new website(another love of mine.) I did my best to start garnering interest for both the website and my new novel. I also paid for some pell-mell advertising and crossed my fingers.

Imagine my surprise when I almost immediately had people reading my book on Kindle Unlimited, and even buying copies of the eBook edition. I even had some sales of the physical edition. Could I be on to something?

Spurred on by my accidental success, I worked up another idea I had about a detective murder mystery set in the future. Spurred on by the (relatively) astounding success I had with my first novel, I began my work by mid April of 2017. That idea would of course grow into my second novel, Preservation Protocol.

Skip to November. This was a big deal for me. Here I was, a brand-new author, poised to release my second novel in less than a year. Preservation Protocol was longer, more detailed, and showed real growth for me as an author(at least to me.) I even had a pre-order on it for the eBook edition a few weeks ahead of its official release.

Then something curious happened. I only had two pre-orders, and I was one of them. The day of release, I sold three copies. Fast-forward to the present: January 2018.

I haven’t sold any more copies.

I’ve thrown far more money at advertising the book than is reasonable. I’ve moaned and groaned about it on Twitter to the point of annoyance, I’m sure. Still, no takers.

It’s as if Preservation Protocol is in some weird black spot in everyone’s consciousness. I’ve actually seen a recent surge in interest for After again, but no follow-up purchases of my latest novel. Anyone who has said anything about After has been largely positive.

What people have said about Preservation Protocol has also been positive, for that matter.

Needless to say, I’ve not taken the wholesale rejection of my latest offering very well. I started writing my third novel, Something Deeper, shortly after releasing Preservation Protocol. I’ve struggled to find the same fire I had in my soul for the first two novels.

I’ve fought to convince myself that I’m a good writer, or even a passable writer. I’ve walked down the dark road all writers follow at least once in their lives. Maybe I should just put down my pen, maybe for good.

Maybe I should stop working on this new book. Maybe I should delete this new book. Will anyone even ever read this new book? Is it even worth punishing myself late at night by continuing to work on it?

Yes. It is.

I’m not sure what changed between my first release and my second, but what I know hasn’t changed is my passion for writing. Despite all the negative thoughts I’ve had, I’ve never stopped enjoying the process of creating and exploring new worlds. I’ve struggled, but I still want… need… to see what happens to Simon Travers in Something Deeper.

So I will continue to write. I will continue to release novels, even if only a handful of people ever enjoy reading them. I’ve decided it doesn’t matter, because I enjoy writing them.

Just over six hundred people read After last year. That’s nothing over a nine-month period, but it’s everything to me. I will hold that in my heart going forward.

I may never grow rich or have thousands of fans, but I will have fun. I’ve discovered a trick so few manage to pull off in this world. I can create whole worlds.

I can see untold tales from lands far away and people long gone. I feel the emotions of people not yet born, in realms yet to be discovered. I hold the darkest secrets of the most holy.

I am their seer, their scribe, their friend. I accept my duty to commit to paper their stories. I will sing their songs and preserve their names.

And I will always find joy in it all.

Star Wars: Flawed Perfection

This is not the alt text you're looking for. Move along.
It’s been a long, drunken journey

Yeah, I’m going there.

I will start off by saying that I enjoy the Star Wars movies. I was introduced to them as far back as three years old. My earliest memory involves me picking out a Darth Vader light saber and insisting that the red one was the good guy’s sword.

That said, the Star Wars saga is a twisted, convoluted mess of a series. There was no clear plan for the very first movie, let alone for a nine-movie-long saga. Quite frankly, George Lucas didn’t know what the hell he was doing.

Lest anyone forget, Lucas’ first movie, THX 1138 was not a success by any measure.  It could be argued that the only reason American Graffiti turned out as well as it did was due to it largely being based on Lucas’ own life. Star Wars was similarly based on a love of Lucas’.

No, I’m not saying that George Lucas is an alien. Everyone knows that, anyway. As many people know now, Star Wars was a love letter to the old Flash Gordon serials of Lucas’ youth. When he couldn’t obtain the rights to Flash Gordon, he basically set out to make a rip-off of it.

Writing the original Star Wars was a giant mess in and of itself. Looking back over the Wikipedia article about the writing process, Lucas didn’t seem to know what to do beyond write something science-fictiony. Looking over it as a whole, Lucas was relatively clueless as to what he was doing.

It would take him three years and uncountable rewrites and reimaginings before he finally put down the script… just as they started filming the movie. Lucas has admitted he was heavily influenced by numerous different sci-fi adventures he had seen and read. Star Wars was a lasagna whose different layers were built upon other writers’ works.

It kinda worked out okay though, in the end. Star Wars was a huge hit, and it is a good movie, but I think a large part of that is owed to luck. The movie is a veritable hodgepodge of other movies and books mixed together with a heaping helping of classical adventure archetypes added in for spice. That said, it would seem that Lucas had found his footing in Star Wars.

Except he had not. Lucas didn’t even write the base script for The Empire Strikes Back, though he would ultimately polish it into the story we saw on the big screen. It also wasn’t until this point that the trilogy… well… became a trilogy. It’s also the point that Darth Vader became Luke Skywalker’s daddy.

Darth Vader had not been destined to be Luke’s father when the first film was made. This introduced the first of many contradictions in the continuity of the series. It’s also the main crux of my argument, here.

From the beginning, Star Wars has always been a crapshoot. The first movie was supposed to be another movie entirely. The second movie morphed the series into a trilogy. The third movie, as far as I know, was supposed to end the trilogy.

Also, as far as I know, there was no grand plan of doing three prequels to the original trilogy. Insert your “Spaceballs: The Search for More Money” joke here. It should be said that Lucas claims he always wanted to do the prequel trilogy, however.

Whatever the truth is, the prequel movies were made, and the nerds rejoiced. Again, I enjoyed all three movies, though many swear they were terrible. Both sides are right.

The prequel trilogy showed a level of writing not seen in the first three movies. The plots and storylines were much more polished and coherent. It was evident that careful thought and planning had gone into the over-arching story that bound not only the three movies, but the prequel trilogy to the original triology.

My main beef with the prequels is twofold. Firstly, while the writing is cohesive, it is also emotionally flat. George Lucas has come a long way in his writing, but handles emotion with all the grace and nuance of a mentally deficient refrigerator.

The other major problem with the prequels was that the story they had to tell was set in stone, and had to be spread out across three movies. This problem can be seen the most in the first movie, which feels like it could be simplified to “pod racing and baffling good luck.” While The Phantom Menace does a good job of setting up the rest of the trilogy, it meanders relentlessly on its way there.

That brings us to the sequel trilogy. I can honestly understand at this point why George Lucas didn’t have much interest in doing the “final” trilogy. These movies, thus far, epitomize everything that’s wrong with Hollywood today.

There is no clear outline for this trilogy. It is literally being hammered out as they go along. The first movie was a total and complete send-up of the original Star Wars film. Kylo Ren is Darth Vader, rebels are trying to bring down the establishment, Starkiller Base is the Death Star, a lot of time is spent on a desert planet, etc.

The Last Jedi, if anything, seems to be an even more confused mess. It feels more like a generic sci-fi action/adventure movie than ever before. Without getting too deep into the plot of the film, it epitomizes the idea of delivering over-the-top moments versus building plot and character.

Speaking of character, Luke Skywalker comes off as more of a convenient plot device then the continuing arc of a beloved character. Leia Organa similarly seems to be there simply for the character recognition and as a place-holder. Her big “force” moment in the film feels like tacked-on lip service for the nerds in the audience.

At this point, I don’t know if there will be a truly satisfying end to this third trilogy. Disney seems more interested in delivering over-the-top cinematic moments than developing a mythos. Bottom line: Disney gonna Disney. And if their past is any indication, the third movie in the trilogy will not be the last.

Sure enough, there’s already been an indication that the original main movie line will continue, though not necessarily continuing with the Skywalker clan. These movies will undoubtedly continue to make way more money than they have any right to. These movies will continue to spawn more movies and spin-offs, and I’ll probably watch them all.

I truly am a fan of the Star Wars universe. I truly enjoy watching the movies. I’m simply disappointed that, after all these years and all these movies, the powers that be still can’t get their shit together and create a cohesive universe.  Flying by the seat of one’s pants might have worked out for Han Solo, but that doesn’t mean it will continue to work for Disney.

The Star Wars films are great popcorn movies, but they can be so. Much. MORE. Disney has the power and the talent to weave a storyline to rival that of the Marvel movies. The only real question now is, why aren’t they doing it?

 

 

 

Christmas

And Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy etc...
Merry Christmas, y’all.

It’s Christmastime. You know, Santa spoils your kids, you drink some eggnog, you put up with your relatives(again,) stuff like that. Everyone enjoys their extra day off, goes to work hungover, and waits a week to do it all over again, minus the presents.

It’s not that simple though, is it? I mean, it’s not for me. Humans like to paint with a broad brush. The truth of the matter is that everyone celebrates the holidays in their own way. Furthermore, not everyone feels the same way about the holidays.

I’m not just talking about people that celebrate Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, either. Some people have elaborate traditions that must be honored and adhered to. Others go through the motions, smiling around the growing ball of stress in their stomachs. Then of course you have the people that just want to blink and have it be over with.

It’s a fascinating look into the psyches of people. Christmas is unique in that respect. Few other measures cover so many aspects of the human mind with a single stimulus: Christmastime.

Now obviously most people first experience Christmas as children. This is one of the earliest opportunities parents get to pass down generational traditions and beliefs. For children, it’s their earliest exposure to the idea of such concepts.

My earliest memories only involve the jolly fat man bringing me presents on Christmas morning. We had to watch the Peanuts Christmas special, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. That was it, in the beginning.

There was no baby Jesus. There was no midnight mass or We Three Kings. My parents weren’t religious at all. I still recall with a smile a moment from later in my life that sums it all up quite well.

We went through a period of going to church and some of us, well, grasped it better than others. I said to my father in passing that we were Christians, and he replied “No! Don’t tell people that! We’re not Christians, we’re Catholic!”

Religion was not really our thing, is what I’m saying.

That moment came after my father remarried following my mother’s passing. My step mother was absolutely religious. She even had one of those cool/creepy Jesus figurines ripping its chest open to point at its little Jesus heart.

Now understand I totally fucking hated going to church. It was Catholic church on top of it, so even worse than normal church. Christmas was different, though.

I still couldn’t wait to leave church as soon as I got there, but there was something… different… about midnight mass. It had an altogether different feel to it than normal mass. It felt peaceful, almost magical, dare I say sacred.

At the time, I didn’t really understand it. I think I was between nine and twelve when we went to midnight mass. Looking back, I think it was the specialness of it.

It was night versus day. I was up instead of in bed. We sang old Christmas songs instead of those weird Catholic hymns. There was a charged feeling to the atmosphere, an air of quiet anticipation, all with that underlying feeling of sacredness.

While I didn’t miss my father’s second wife, I did miss that feeling when Christmas rolled around. It took a number of years to realize that it wasn’t the church I missed, or all the strict, arcane rules that surrounded it. I missed that quiet, peaceful, sacred feeling that came with Christmas eve.

Years later, I think I have a better grasp on it. We humans hit the ground running at top speed (some of us terribly hungover) at the beginning of the year. We don’t really get a chance to slow down and catch our breath until the end of the year grabs us by the face and makes us pay attention.

It’s like a good, hard slap. The year is almost over. It’s time to celebrate, though for many of us it’s just one more stress-point in a year full of stress-points. For people like me, it signals it’s time to realize that we’re nearly out of money and that life-saving tax return is so, so far away.

I actually see people getting angrier, not more cheerful, as the year draws to a close. Modern life has dictated that this be a stressful time of year. The bills pile up, we bleed money to buy gifts for everyone. Budgets get stretched to the limit. We drag our corpses out of bed before the sun rises to go to work until after the sun sets.

All during that time we are supposed to laugh, put on a happy face, and enjoy the season. Is it really such a wonder that everyone just wants it over? So few people remember the reason for the season, and no, I don’t mean baby Jesus.

For me, this time of year has become a time for reflection. It is a time to look back at who I was this year, and to make peace with it. It is a time to remember who I am, and try to find my inner peace before the race begins anew.

I think of the struggles I’ve faced this year. Somehow I’ve managed to survive the year without resorting to bankruptcy again. I’ve held together my marriage. My children haven’t devolved into bratty little hooligans.

I think of poor old Tom, my father in law that passed on two days before my birthday. I think of everything he did for me, how he transformed me. I think of how I will miss seeing his smiling face and listening to his boisterous stories.

I think of the reality that I am now a published author. I savor the reality that people actually want to read what I write. I must accept the reality that, at least for now, I will not make a living with my writing. I also must accept that, for whatever reason, nobody is interested in reading my second novel.

I revel in the fact that I ultimately don’t care, and am happily writing my third novel. I will continue to write and publish novels. I have nothing to prove, except that I will not give up.

These thoughts burn. They tighten my chest and bring tears to my eyes. These thoughts are who I am though, and I will learn to process and accept and fucking embrace them.

And as I sit here tonight in the dark, when the last of the presents are finally under the tree and a glass of scotch is in my hand, I will smile as I watch the lights twinkle.

Despite all that life has thrown at me, throughout all of the trials and tribulations, I have survived.

I sit here typing this, realizing that for the first time in a very long time, I know who I am again. I can accept my shortcomings again. And I can love myself again.

Yes, tonight I will sit here alone in the dark, soaking in the sacredness not of Christmas, but of the transition from one year to the next. The pain of the year will fade as the I prepare for the brightness of tomorrow morning. This sacred moment of silence when everything is possible, and hope can grow eternal, will envelop me once more.

May you all some day find this sacred peace. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and many happy returns.

Changes

So different...
The same, but different…

I’ve been thinking about my childhood lately, for whatever reason. One place that I kept going back to time and again (both in my head and in my childhood) was the Berlin Mall, appropriately enough in Berlin, Vermont. It occurred to me that this mall saw me grow up and change, and it changed right along with me.

The mall, as best as I can remember, opened up some time in the mid to late eighties. Before then, the only option was the University mall in Burlington, Vermont. That was a forty-five minute drive from where I lived back then. The idea of having a place you can go to, with a whole bunch of stores, ALL under one weather-proof roof was amazing to me.

Going there was a treat for me. I still remember many of the original stores. The toy store was Kay-Bee Toys(later K-B Toys because… reasons?) Almost across from it was an independent pizza place. Further up was a magic shop (I believe called The Magic Shop?) Just past that was a candy shop where you could still get candy by the piece.

Further up ahead was the other restaurant in the mall: The prerequisite Orange Julius. They had the best pizza dogs in the universe. The other end of the mall had a flower shop, with a Walden books across from it.

Then there was a Footlocker, and an optometrist. There was a largish music store called The Music Shoppe that sold musical instruments and video equipment in addition to tapes and CDs. Up and to the left was a tee-shirt shop of all things. They even did custom air-brushed shirts. They didn’t last long.

Beside them was the mandatory video arcade, imaginatively called the FUN Arcade. It was a bit on the small side, but there was always something new to play for a number of years. Surprisingly, it played a smaller role in my life than the other stores, though it remained a constant as I grew up.

The Berlin Mall only had two stores to begin with: J.C. Penney and a Rich’s department store. A few years on it gained a Jo Ann Fabrics in the middle. I remember how much it blew my mind, seeing a huge store appear where once there was only a blank wall.

The mall became a much larger part of my life as both of my parents found jobs there. My mother worked at the pizza joint. My father worked at the Kay-Bee Toys. He would finish his stay there as assistant manager.

It was great fun for a time. I got to go hang out in the toy store with my father. I’d go over to the pizza joint to see my mom and have lunch with her. It was a classic kids’ dream, but it wasn’t to last.

The first change came in 1989. That was the year my mother died of Leukemia. It’s one of the prime reasons my memory of my childhood is so spotty. Needless to say, losing the person your world revolved around is profoundly damaging.

One of the most profound healing moments I had happened at the Berlin Mall, however. My father and I were hanging out with one of my father’s friends at the mall. He was a big guy that we all lovingly called Bear. He’d end up changing too.

But at the time, he was an anchor for my father, and almost a surrogate uncle to me. We were in and around the flower shop for whatever reason. I got it in my mind that I wanted to write a letter to my mother and float it to her with a balloon.

I wrote the letter, and my father got me a balloon from the flower shop, knowing that it wouldn’t provide enough lift to take it away. Surely enough, the letter didn’t even lift off the ground. In stepped Bear to buy a second balloon for me.

That didn’t do much to budge the letter, either. By this point, the story of what I was trying to do started getting around. My father, somewhat embarrassed, was telling Bear not to waste the money. Bear was pretty-well ignoring him at this point.

After about twenty dollars (in eighties money!) and a few contributions from others, my letter was finally buoyant. Bear, my dad, and I went out the middle entrance of the mall. Tears in all of our eyes, I let the letter go.

It floated up and up. Others stopped to watch the large wad of balloons as they soared higher and higher. I watched until they had turned into nothing more than a dot in the sky, smiling.

I think in my heart I knew the letter wouldn’t actually reach my mother. All the same, it was a large step towards beginning to heal for me. It was made possible by my father, Bear, and to a lesser extent, the Berlin Mall.

The years crawled by, and I grew older. Eventually I began riding my bicycle to the mall. It was a grand journey for me: About two and a half miles on busy roads.

I was a solitary child. We moved every couple of years, it seemed. I never managed to stay in one place long enough to make permanent friends. Over time I preferred to just be off on my own.

My trips to the Berlin Mall became my happiness. I’d take whatever meager amount of cash I’d managed to scrape together and find something cheap to treat myself with. More often than not, that was Bazooka Joe bubblegum at the candy shop.

There was more than shopping to be had at the mall, though. At one point during the summer there would be the boat show. I’ve never been much of a boat person, but it was impressive to see all those big, shiny boats inside the mall!

The prerequisite parking lot carnival would pop up once or twice a year. Then the circus started coming there. It was the only circus I ever got to see in my life. My most notable memory was riding an elephant that would eventually go on a rampage a few years later. It was ultimately gunned down by police.

Perhaps my fondest memories were from Christmastime at the mall. I remember walking there once in the middle of a snow storm. I went to the Orange Julius and used some of my pocket change to get a small coffee, the world’s youngest adult.

I had to go. I was going Christmas shopping, and there was plenty to sift through there. Every season, Christmas-themed shops would pop up in empty store fronts, or set up booths throughout the mall. You could get everything from hand-made ornaments, to statuary, to original paintings and everything in between.

I remember spending hours wandering around, just taking it all in. I was alone, but not alone. The mall had become my friend. It was someone I would come to visit, we’d have an adventure together, and then I’d go home to whatever.

Things changed as I grew older. Rich’s eventually folded, robbing the mall of one its most important anchors. A dollar store (incorrectly called All For a Dollar) also folded. It had been a treasure trove for a poor kid like me. The magic shop had died and gone long before either of those stores.

Over time, the magic began to fade. The mall had become barren, robbed of its life as people had fewer and fewer reasons to come visit. I was finding other interests as I grew, but part of me wept for this old friend.

Eventually, the world’s (seemingly) smallest Walmart moved in where Rich’s once was. The mall experienced a rebirth as shoppers once again filled its hallowed halls. Things would never be the same as before, though.

It continued to struggle, and so did I. Now out on my own, I took a job at that Walmart. My old friend had now become home to me. I was a cart pusher. I spent a beautiful summer getting thin and bronzed, prowling the parking lot for stray carts.

But Walmart is Walmart, and when I hurt my knee, they kind of shrugged and did nothing about it. I limped around trying to do my job for a few days, but to little effect. Eventually I just didn’t come in one day.

I went on to make a series of not-so-good decisions in my life that took me away from my precious mall. Perhaps, in a way, that was a good thing. It continued to change. Stores continued to move out and change hands.

I used to pine for my mall; to return one day and try to find that childhood magic I remembered so fondly. I don’t want to go back now, though. You see, my friend has grown up, too. He’s no longer recognizable to me.

It’s been a while since I checked, but I do believe every store I mentioned at the beginning of this article is now gone. I’m not even sure the arcade is still there. My best estimate would put maybe two stores remaining that date back to the earliest days of the mall’s existence.

Like me, the Berlin Mall has grown and changed. In some ways it’s been for the better, in other ways for the worse, not unlike myself. It stands as a strong symbol to me of the path life leads us all on.

We are born, and we grow. We find happiness where we can, before life and work take us away from what we’ve grown to know and love. We make do and find new ways to thrive and be fruitful.

But those childhood memories will be with us… with me… forever. I know now that I can never go back, but I can close my eyes and remember. For me, those memories are an escape from a world that has grown so, so cold.

I don’t miss the Berlin Mall, I miss what the Berlin Mall once was. I miss who I once was, but both of us have changed.

But I will always remember what we both once were.

Goodbye, old friend.