Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Fat City

I returned from Pittsburgh about a week ago, and am pleased to report that not only is it still there, but it is a better place to find parking than most of Seattle. In addition, the Steel city also has an increasing number of really good places to eat. But, alas, I must also report that I have done too much of the latter in recent months, such that I really need to shed a few pounds.

I must admit I am overweight, and have been for the past two decades (at least). The stylish photo to the right of this text shows me in my natural garb, but conceals an increasingly large waistline. I rarely button my overshirts, and get pants with elastic waistbands from Big Ed’s Hulking and Huge store. Still, I have not until this trip realized how far down the road I have gotten.

The first warning came from Rex Stout, through his creation Nero Wolfe. I’ve been reading the Wolfe detective novels in the Bantam series of the books, and the early one placed the corpulent hero at a seventh of a ton, or 285 pounds. Which was my fighting weight about 15 pounds ago. Yes, later (post-depression) books boosted the weight to tipping the scales at nearly 400, but still, when you state that this detective sat around the office, he sat around the office, you must give pause to realize he was lighter than I currently am.

Then the airline industry got into the act. Two of my four flights this trip required a seat belt extender, and for one I had to move my seat from the emergency row (because one cannot wear a seat belt extender in the emergency row - of course I checked later) and so I was packed off the back of the airplane, where a smaller seat with less leg-room was provided, but at least I could wear the extra four inches of fabric to keep me from leaving my seat during an emergency. (and mind you, two the four flights had sufficiently long belts, and they were on older planes, which can lead one to conclude the it was the belts that got shorter as opposed to my waistband longer, but still, I am apparently eating my way out of particular seat class).

And then there was the car rental. I have a long torso, so the Nissan line of mid-sized was out due the fact I would have to crouch to see through the windscreen. But to discover I could no longer slip behind the wheel of a Chevy Cruz was maddening. I pulled the seat all the way back and pushed the steering column up and still found I could not enter the car without using the Ryker Maneuver over the steering wheel. So that is another warning, and I fear I am going back to watching what I eat, and eating less of it.

Which is easier now than earlier, because Pittsburgh has a growing number of excellent places to eat. To wit – Andora on Mt Nebo Road is particularly nice, with a variety in house specials and, most important to the Lovely Bride, an excellent patio garden. Their shrimp bisque is very good. Mallorca on the East Carson Street, right at the end of the Birmingham Bridge, was a true delight and discovery, specializing in Spanish Cuisine (which is not Mexican, but really SPANISH). The prosciutto filled squid was excellent and the veal was tender enough to cut with the side of one’s fork (this is preferred, according to my sister-in-law in the restaurant business). And more on the workaday end, the Paradise Island Bowl on Neville island makes a darn good cheesesteak panini, and has a summertime patio from which you can enjoy the river.

But alas, all those pleasures must be put aside for a while, since I am now verging on the level that I will not be marketed to, and instead suffer a bit of economic fat-shaming. I should be grumpier about it, and will likely be so after a week on water and flerkorn from IKEA.

More later,

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Theatre: Blarney Stone The Crows

Outside Mulligar by John Patrick Shaneley, directed by Wilson Milam, Through May 17

What is it about Irish plays? Or rather, what is it about plays about the Irish? Plays about the English, the French, or the Americans all embrace differing groups or attitudes, but if the play is about the Irish, then the overstuffed cupboard door gives way and let all the tropes, archetypes, and stereotypes come flying out. Rural poverty. Drinking. Violence. Depression. Grand gestures. Oaths. Tempers. Family feuds. Superstition. Signs and voices. Religion. Self-destructive behavior of all types. It is like that when you choose to write about the Irish, you get a kit, and you're expected to use all the tropes in the kit.

I can see how it attracts, of course. The language can be eloquent, and an Irish lilt can make even asking for directions to the bus stop seem otherworldy. Initially, the words seem to come tumbling out at such a rate that you feel like you've grabbed onto a moving roller coaster, but soon the calluses in your eardrums build up and you can follow well enough. And one of the tropes of the Irish play is that its characters simultaneously speak their minds and hearts without thinking, plus are emotionally prickly enough to take offense at anything being said.

So, anyway, Outside Mulligar is a relatively simple comedy wrapped up in tropish Ireland, where no Blarney Stone goes unturned. The Muldoons and the Reillys have been neighbors and rivals for generations. At one point father Tony Reilly (Sean G. Griffin) sold the road access for his farm to the Muldoons, and this has been a burr in the saddle for Reilly and his son Anthony (M.J. Sieber) ever since. The passing of the Muldoon patriarch creates a chance to get the land back, first from Oeife (Kimberly King) and later from the surviving daughter Rosemary (Emily Chisholm).

Of course, nothing is that simple, being an Irish play, and there is a cascade of family secrets, lost loves, snarling arguments, misunderstandings, accidents, and incidents. Passions flicker on and off like erratic rural electrics, and despite modern references (the Chinese Olympics, modern farm machinery, in vitro fertilization), it still feels like we are but three steps from the Potato Famine. There is romance and happy ending, but the path is strewn with thorns, mostly planted by individuals who consider themselves unworthy in the first place.

And the reason it works at all is from the efforts of strong actors. Kimberly King as the hard-as-nails, romantic-at-heart Rosemary (another Irish trope) does most of the heavy lifting. M.J.Seiber has a harder road - he's simultaneously called upon to be sensitive and oafish in turns, committed to the land but harboring his own secret, which may only be comically revealed. He acquits himself, but it feels like he is dragged in multiple directions and while you want him to be happy by the end of the first act, and you similarly want to shake him until he rattles. Sean G. Griffin and Kimberly King are the parents who provide grounding for the entire operation and set up the fireworks in the second act between Rosemary and Anthony. All of them are REP vets, ranging from Glengarry Glen Ross (which sounds like an Irish Play, but isn't), to Pullman Porter Blues to Inspecting Carol. So kudos to a production that puts the Repertory concept to work at the REP.

It is all in all a good performance for an OK play, and pales only because there has been so much good material this season from the REP. The two monstrous LBJ plays loom large, and August Wilson stands out in any season he is presented. Yet Lizard Boy was every bit as good as The Piano Lesson, and The Vaudevillians was a tasty opening morsel that allows people to say they saw Jinx Monsoon just when she was hitting the big time. Outside Mullingar follows after these, and Dear Elizabeth after that. The weakest play was The Comparables, and even that would have been merely average in previous seasons. This has been the strongest season in years, and fitting testament to its Creative Direction, Jerry Manning, who passed on this year. Next year has its work cut out for it.

More later,

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Political Desk: Microtransactions

To the surprise of many King County residents, there is an election Tuesday. This is offest of the off-off-season elections, consisting of one main item (funding to replace the King County emergency radio network), but depending on your locality, there may something on transportation funds, schools, firefighting equipment, parks, or one case, an annexation.

The intent is good - we could really stand to upgrade the network and it makes things better for police, fire, EMTs, and other first responders.  But this sort of thing reminds me of nothing less than something in my own neck of the woods - microtransactions.

In games, in particular in tablet-games (Android, iPads), the current vogue is to give away the game for free, at the cost of the download and the fact that the manufacturer has some information on you. Then, you are offered small purchases within the game that cost real money (or more often, an in-game currency that is then purchased with real money).

There is a spectrum to how microtransactions are used - there are microtransactions which are cool-looking but do not directly affect game play (hats, special outfits, pets - fair warning, we do all of that in GW2), ranging to the point where to do almost anything in the game, or remain competitive with other players, you have to dish out some dosh (at which point I tend to walk away).

I'm thinking about microtransactions in this case because we have the baseline services of the community, paid for by a variety of taxes, service fees, guaranteed bonds and the like. And then something like THIS shows up, a good cause, good for the community, improves safety, and this improvement costs over and above the baseline.  And it is a good cause, because it is ALWAYS a good cause when they put this offering in front of us - I have yet to see proposition to, say, raise the mayor's pay or increase the number of county-owned vehicles. Because THOSE are covered in the budget, which we don't get to directly vote on.

But it is for a good cause. Such a good cause that the arguments against section in the voter's guide feels required to say "Of COURSE we need a new radio system". But then the "against" team worries that, should we tie this to the property tax, and then those property values drop, we would have to lay off first responders. Which sort of begs the questions of how these first responders are being paid in the first place, that they would otherwise be immune to reduced property taxes. Worse, the opposition team provides no alternative to the tax to raise funds for this.

And one more thing (who knew I would get so much mileage out of a single vote?). The "for" team has sent out fliers about how the original system was put in place in 1992, and as such is practically antique. Well enough, but the fliers also list the top five contributors to the campaign, and number one on the list is Motorola Solutions, which (you guessed it) makes radio systems for first responders.

Despite all this, I am still voting to Approve this tax hike, because, when it is all said and done, we really DO need to upgrade the system.I just want to be able to fund the salaries of the King County Councilpeople in the same way.

More later,

Friday, April 24, 2015

Theater: Local Hero

Lizard Boy written and composed by Justin Huertas, Directed by Brandon Ivie, Seattle Rep through 2 May.

This one had a lot to live up to. The Lovely Bride saw an early draft of it a year ago in the New Play Festival at the Poncho (a performing space in the REP) and loved it. She went to the tech rehearsal the week before opening and liked it even more. And she's been talking about it for a while. So this one had a lot of front-loaded expectation to it.

And (spoilers) it lives up to those expectations. This is an excellent play with excellent performances. It is also a strange thing: A personal, private musical, firmly entrenched in a particular time and place. On one hand, I could see this going large, getting a special on Netflix, or a fair time off-Broadway followed by a 40-city run. On the other, it fits so snugly in the pocket of Seattle, circa the second decade of this century, I don't know if it would play the same way in Omaha or Chicago or even ten years from now.

Lizard Boy is a three-person musical about a gay superhero who plays the cello and draws comics. To quote said hero - "Whaaaaaa?" Justin Heurtas is Trevor, who was bathed in dragon's blood (the dragon having escaped from Mount St. Helens - shades of Shadowrun) and has a lizardish skin condition as a result. He's a bit of a folk hero (there's a "Lizard-Fest" in the play, where people dress up like him - not something unusual for a city that sees cosplayers from PAX, Sakuracon, and Emerald City Comics Con in its downtown). He has also spent the past year in his room as a result of a bad relationship. He contacts Cary (a lovably goofy William A Williams) over Grindr (a gay hookup app) for an awkward first date that involves Dick's Burgers and the Crocodile. At the club he encounters Siren, the "Girl of his Dreams" (both literally and in the pages of the Stranger), who is a tough-talking, hard-living singer who has a deeper connection with Trevor. And then dragons attack.

And it all works, pretty much. It is not so much an origin story or a coming out story as it is a coming to terms story. Lizard Boy hides his lamp under a bushel, and only when pushed does he discover his abilities. Sort of Peter Parker if he had decided NOT to become Spider-Man. The story itself shuttles from pillar to post with numerous flashbacks and "meanwhiles", but does so effortlessly and including the audience in its motions. Cary and Siren do support work on-stage when their characters are not in the thick of the action, and there is little dissonance in their presence.

Further, I enjoy the fact that the plot actually moves forward through the songs. No, bear with me on this one. "Traditional" American musicals have a nasty tendency to bring everything to a stop when the music begins. The character states that she is lonely, then launches into three minutes of song about her loneliness, while the audience gets that she is indeed lonely and just follows along with the nice music. There is actual exposition going on in the songs, so pay attention.

There is a stylized nature in Lizard Boy as well, with comic sketches displayed against the background, that works as well. The combat at the end of the play (hey, it's a comic book. Of course there is conflict) is much, much more effective than the comic rolling-about in The Comparables. It is neatly choreographed and more evocative than if the protagonist was web-spinning his way over the audience.

Perfect? No. It has a couple of challenges. Trevor's lizard-boy disfigurement is presented as few green spangles on his cheeks, and it requires a sense of disbelief to grok that he looks radically different, as opposed to a guy with shiny jade freckles. And some of the dancing falls into a trope of more modern American musicals - jarring the floor to indicate emphasis. Stomp has so much to answer for.

So yeah, this is one of the good ones. It is an original, local production, the result of talented individuals at the Rep working and refining the piece. It has a few raw edges, but it occupies a magical location called Seattle at a unique time. Go see it.

More later,

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Gaming (and Writing) News

Item One: The Origins Award Nominations have been posted, and I am shocked - shocked and surprised - that things that I like are not on the list. I must therefore organize a take-no-prisoners campaign to create a slate of my own to ... wait a minute. Hang on. No, no, actually it looks like a real good year, and there is a lot of stuff that I like there, and a lot of people whose work I respect who are being recognized for their efforts.

Nevermind. Carry on.

Item Two: Fellow Alliterate Will McDermott has a new novel, Nature of the Beast, that is already showing up (although Amazon is giving it a drop date of next week). Nature of the Beast is set in the universe of Mage Wars, a cool boardgame that combines concepts of collectible card games with miniatures battles.

Item Three: Fellow ArenaNet writer Angel McCoy is launching a kickstarter for her new magazine, Another Dimension. In addition to being a mighty fine writer, Angel has for the past few years been running the Wily Writer e-zine (and yeah, I wrote a story for her back in the early years). If you are a fan of horror in the Twilight Zone mode, check it out.

And Items Four and Five: And I would be remiss not to point out that former ArenaNet Community Coordinator Donna Prior is in the waning hours of  HEr kickstarter for Orcacon, a convention up in Everett. Similarly, woe to me if I failed to indicate that puzzle-master Mike Selinker has launched an kickstarter for his new Apocrypha Adventure Card Game. Yes, they've made the base numbers, but still are worth checking out!

More later,

Friday, April 17, 2015

Leonarda Obarski: 1934-2015

Leonarda Obarski, Kate's mom, passed away this past Tuesday. Here is her obituary:
Leonarda Obarski, aka Nardi Novak, age 80, recently of Kent, Washington, passed away April 14, 2014. “Nardi” was born August 15, 1934 in Camden, New Jersey to Herbert and Stephanie Obarski, and lived many years in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She is survived by her daughters, Catherine Grubb, Sharon Novak, Elizabeth Thorpe, her grandson John Michael Thorpe, and her sons-in-law John Jeffrey Grubb, Michael Weiss, and John Thorpe. 
Nardi and Me, many years ago.
Nardi graduated from Collingswood High School in New Jersey and attended Temple University for 1 year. While raising her 3 daughters, and serving as a Girl Scout leader, Nardi went back to school and graduated magna cum laude with a BA in English Writing and a Masters in English Literature from the University of Pittsburgh. She was a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society. Before retirement Nardi worked as a teacher at University of Pittsburgh, Robert Morris College, Dusquesne University and Pennsylvania’s Edinboro University and as a trainer at the Center for Victims of Violent Crime in Pittsburgh, PA, but her first love was acting and the theatre. 
Nardi studied acting from childhood and she appeared and directed on many stages in the Pittsburgh area, had small roles in a few movies and a soap opera, and later worked with the Haddonfield Plays & Players. She was a founding member of the South Park Conservatory Theatre and of the New Works Festival in Pittsburgh. She also worked as a patient simulator, helping medical professionals craft their skills. She was a member of AFTRA/SAG.  
 In lieu of flowers, please consider a donation to your local theater.
Leonarda was a wonderful human being, and we will miss her dearly.

More later, 

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Riding the Storm Out

Here's one I've been meaning to post for a while, now.

Twenty years ago TSR was looking for a new campaign setting. I proposed one called Storm Front (also called Stormfront) which involved ships sailing on clouds. These days every anime seems to have ships sailing on clouds, and I will point back to Peter Pan for an earlier incarnation, but here were looking for a new concept (a "gizmo") to hang the game on. 
Inspirational Illustration from Winsor McCay.

I had lost the original two-page proposal, but Steve Winter (who had mentioned it in a podcast) did not, and dropped me off a copy, which I am presenting below. The other sources referred to in the first paragraph were other concepts that were bouncing around at that time, which were either naval-style campaigns or monster-dominated "reverse dungeons" where the bulk of the world was hostile. So this is the last of a series of similar proposals, and reflects the input of others on the TSR team.

I am leaving the text as it was originally written, with corrections in [red brackets] and footnotes.

The story of how Stormfront came to be, and what happened to it, can be found here. I wanted to get this out there before an entire year had passed since my last mentioning it. Some fans have responded to the stories about it with interest, and now you know as much as our management did at the time about the product. 

Storm front1
A Campaign Setting Proposal by
Jeff Grubb
5 January 1994 

Note: This proposal combines elements of a number of previous proposals from other sources, including the Under Siege collection of monster-dominated worlds, the Water Worlds, including Sea of Shadows, The Illythids, and the Earth-Sky proposal[s], and I hope it to be a synthesis of those ideas, dealing with the objections raised for each.

The Nugget: Man shall live on Mountain-Tops, and the world beneath is wrapped in clouds, storms, and shadow.

The Images: A world of eternal cloud cover and storms, where the forces of good and law can only survive on the few mountain-tops which pierce these clouds. The cloud layer is at a set altitude and is regular, and cloud-traders sail its surface in magical ships. Beneath the surface of the clouds the land is ruled by evil and chaos, by huge ever-changing nations and gangs controlled by beastly monstrosities known as the Abominations.

The Back Story: Long ago, Stormfront’s world was much like the Realms, perhaps a little further advanced in the magical department. A human dared to challenge the power of the sea gods, and best [bent] them to her will. The harnessing of the sea gods brought a golden age of power to the land, but in the end the powerful sea-deities revolted. The gods could not deluge the land without wiping out followers or causing other gods to step in, so they instead pumped much of their water vapor into the air, enchanting it as they did so. The result was a continual cloud cover which wrapped the cloud [world] save for its highest mountain chains. The land beneath the clouds changed, and its people changed with it. Lush vegetation in riotous colors broke out everywhere, deserts flooded, cities were inundated, fields became swamps, and civilization collapsed. The good and lawful races retreated upwards in the face of this onslaught. Those which remained were twisted by the magical rains in warped forms, and the most warped of these developed great powers – they became the Abominations.

Life Above the Clouds: The Nations of Light survive among the peaks of what were Stormfront’s highest mountains, and the largest of these is the Spine, a ragged archipelago with a main island a thousand miles long and a few hundred miles across at its widest. Spine is heavily populated and its population is clustered into huge cities, the bulk of its land needed for farming to feed its people. Where the mountain-nation descends to the cloud level is the Fogwall, a continually-guarded fortified wall which keeps those creatures which climb the mountains at bay.
            In addition to the Nations of Light, there is a polyracial alliance known as the cloud-skimmers. When the clouds first overlook [overtook] the world, their founding wizards found a method to travel on their tops. They are the transportation and communication guild, and are as powerful as any nation. They also may be dealing with the Abominations, but this is merely rumor.
            The other races live with the humans, but a few have their own settlements. Dwarves tunnel beneath the peaks, seeking to extend their domains downward, eventually linking up with their original homelands beneath the cloud level. Some elves have abandoned the world entirely, forming great floating orbs hovering over the surface of the cloud-ocean. Halflings live as pirates in stolen cloud-skimmers, providing an alternative (and a threat) to the power of the cloud-skimmers2. The gnomes dominate the cloud-skimmers, particularly in the higher reaches of power, and are a more solemn, threatening people.

Life Beneath the Clouds: The land beneath the clouds is one of continual shadow and darkness, at its brightest the color of an overcast day. Storms move a random across its surface, and rains of blood, dead animals, snow, and insects are common. Those humans which remain beneath the layers are worn, beaten, and very, very depressed, such that most have abandoned hope of the light and follow dark masters.
            With the transformation of the oceans, new life appeared beneath the cloud cover – sea creatures and their twisted spawn now could live in the wet, thick air, and air-sharks, orcas, flying squid, and coin-bright swarms of piranhas are common. Locathah and sahaguin live on the surface (though they cannot live on the mountain tops of light, and hate the inhabitants there for that reason).
            The most powerful creatures of the darkness are the Abominations – creatures that once may have been mortal, or even human, but now are a combination of life and living natural force. These are the most evil and chaotic, and each seeks to establish itself as the dominant Abomination on the planet, slaying or enslaving everything else (This permits a variety of powerful bad guys, one of which may succeed the next over time).
            In the shadow of the Abominations are the Mind Flayers – non-psionic traditional types who interact among the Abominations much as the Cloud Skimmers3 do among the Nations of Light. They have their own secret societies and hidden agendas, and seek to gather enough power that they may control the Abominations, and with it the rest of the world.
            The land is wet and dark, the ground generally marshy and uneven. Areas are regularly flooded, and even recent mays may be altered at will. The level of the true oceans has dropped as a result of the god’s [gods’] manipulation, and the swollen rivers now wind far out from the original coasts, pitching finally over the edge of the continental shelf in huge waterfalls. In these extremely salty oceans lay the domains of the sea gods, still angry regarding their once-enslavement.
            The land beneath the clouds also holds the remains of the human nations and cities, and the knowledge within. The Nations of Light must continually send brave adventurers down into this rain-darkened land to recover now-long [now-lost] magical knowledge to keep the Abominations and the forces of darkness from completely taking over the planet. That’s here the adventurers come in. A typical “dungeon crawl” may be taking a Cloud Skimmer out to the location of an Ancient City, parachuting down (a difficult, but not impossible task), raiding, and the (the tough part) walking back.
            If we need an epic (after the first year or so) here goes – the level of the clouds is rising, and threatens to finally consume the Nations of Light. The heroes must seek out the most powerful Abomination to destroy his holy McGuffin and return the world to stability (in [if] not to the time before the floods).

Benefits of this world:
·         Takes advantage of the water-worlds (new monsters, sea travel, swashbuckling, pirates) without the disadvantages (drowning rules, 3-D movement on a regular basis, fire and spell modifications).
·         Gives us a large number of bad guys in the form of the Abominations (similar to the various evil organizations in Faerun or the Lords of Ravenloft).
·         Gives us a “gizmo world” (a physically different world from standard AD&D) which uses standard AD&D rules.
·         Gives us a world with one big problem (the gizmo – in this case the continual cloud cover) which cannot be cured – that is the status quo. A lot of little problems (abominations, other nations, the cloud skimmers, pirates) become problems the player characters can deal with.
·         Creates the “surrounded citadel” approach of good besieged by evil, without making that citadel dark itself. (the nations are in light, not in a dungeon, but still surrounded).
·         New monsters as the marine creatures have “thick-air” variants.

What do you think, sirs4?

1 – I would like to say the “Storm front” name, with its odd capitalization, was a pretentious affectation intended to make the name look artier, but it looks more like a globby typo after I went back and forth between two words and one.
2 – This is probably the most unclear sentence in the presentation – It should read – “Halflings live as pirates in stolen cloud-ships, providing an alternative (and a threat) to the power of the cloud-skimmers.” The gnomes would be a dominant force in the magical/merchant version Cloud Skimmers
3 – The cloud-skimmers became the Cloud Skimmers (as an official organization) over the course of writing the proposal, and the word was used to refer to both the organization and the ships they sailed. The legal department once got mad at me for Spelljammer, which I used as a noun, a proper noun, a verb, and would have been an adjective if I could have gotten away with it. I did that sort of thing again here.
4 – Yes, that is a MST3K reference. 

More later,