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Somber News

It's been a while since my last update, and I had planned to talk some about books I've read and events I've enjoyed, but recent events have dictated a change in those plans.  I returned yesterday from a trip to San Jose with bewcastle .  We'd originally planned on making the visit to her mother and sister next week, but bewcastle 's mom took ill, and we headed up early to help her with her various doctors' appointments.  She'd been feeling poorly for several weeks, suffering shortness of breath and occasional disorientation. Tuesday's visit to the respiratory specialist revealed that the CO2 levels in her blood were very high.  The doctor checked her into the hospital immediately upon concluding the examination.  She's still there, and bewcastle has remained in San Jose to help care for her.   Her general weakness is creating some obstacles to treatment, and while some aspects of her condition have improved, the core problem of the CO2 levels remains.  We are definitely still in the woods. 

bewcastle will be staying on for a few more days - we're hopeful that we'll see some improvement before work commitments require her return to LA.   I'm back due to commitments at school this week, but ready to head back up on short notice if things take a turn for the worse.

Needless to say, it's a stressful tiem for us both right now.  We're grateful for the support we've been receiving from our friends, and keeping our hopes up that things will improve over the next few days. 

I'm sorry this has been somewhat more somber a posting than my usual breezy observations on books and social events - but we both thought our friends would want to know.  Thanks to all for the support we've received so far!

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In Which I Return From a Vacation

I am back at work, dear reader, after a lovely long weekend in San Diego with bewcastle , citizenbrown , and Rzelle. 

We departed late on Friday morning, and headed straight to Mission San Diego de Alcala, planning on visiting there before checking in to our hotel. Our plan to visit the mission on Friday and not another day of our trip turned out to be a good one, as the parish was making preparations for a major weekend fair of some sort - there were booths and a stage and lots of chairs in the courtyard, all promising a crowded and lively weekend.  Given my experience at Durham Cathedral, I will say that a major celebration - be it a parish fair or the commencement exercises for Durham University - are not the ideal conditions under which to visit a historical church.  But, our timing being good, we took in the nicely restored church and the accompanying gardens and museum with hardly a soul to accompany us.  Of particular note was the museum display, which included a number of archeological artifacts uncovered during the renovations of the church divided into rough chronological eras - the native inhabitation of the site, the mission period, the Mexican secularization, the American military occupation, and the renovation.  A number of impressive Baroque items, including statues of saints, gold chalices, etc., marked the mission period, while the American military occupation was witnessed mainly by whiskey bottles and an old rotted domino.  The playing cards apparently were lost to the ravages of time...

Friday evening, after a delicious meal of Lebanese delicacies at the Aladdin Cafe we repaired to our room and busted out our latest board game acquisition, "A Touch of Evil".  It's a cooperative game set in a vague Regency setting in which the players gather clues and items that will allow them to take on the Big Bad Evil that is plagueing the town - or see Darkness descend!  We triumphed eventually over the werewolf that was leaving a bloody trail of carnage through Shadowbrook.

Saturday we headed out to the San Diego Zoo, where we say polar bears, a tiger, hippopotomi, meerkats, gorillas, zebras, and an antelope who helped me add to my collection of 'photos of ungulates pissing', among many other animals.  We didn't even get to half of the zoo, missing the elephants, rhinos, giraffes, and most of the big cats.  We definitely need to go back.  The rest of Balboa Park, seen from the zoo's aerial tram, looked equally engaging - more cause for another visit!

Saturday night we ate (and drank) in as citizenbrown regaled us with another episode of his long-running Farlam Court Regency-era RPG.  A great deal of hilarity and a decent dose of suspense ensued - and all that before we cracked open the nice bottle of port I'd brought along.  In true Regency fashion, the port did not survive the end of the evening.

Sunday we headed over to the waterfront, north of the convention center, to see the Maritime Museum.  We spent an engaging afternoon looking at the Star of India, one of the first steel-hulled sailing ships, a replica of a British frigate used in the fliming of Master and Commander, and a Foxtrot-class Soviet attack sub.  We also perused the extensive collection of model ships (some up to seven feet long and all incredibly detailed) displayed in the old ferry from the late 19th-century that used to ply the route from San Diego to Catalina. 

After having our fill of nautical history, we secured a pedi-cab to the Gaslamp District, where we hoped to peek in some shops before finding a place for dinner.  Alas, the Gaslamp District's supply of interesting shops was paltry indeed, and after passing the fourth shop full of the same rather indifferent San Diego tourist kitsch and sports memorabilia we started to wonder about the wisdom of our choice to head over there.  (A parenthetical, rhetorical question for the shop owners - why do you have Eli Manning jerseys on sale?  For burning purposes?  Super Bowl MVP or no, shouldn't he be personna non grata in San Diego sports circles?  But I digress).  Fortunately, we headed into an Irish pub called The Field for a quick refreshment, and found a raucous live music session underway.  Delighted, we tucked in for several hours and several pints, enjoying a delicious pub meal along the way.  Thanks, proprietors of The Field, for saving our Gaslamp excursion from disaster!

Sunday evening was taken up in more engaging conversation and convivial consumption, followed by a reasonably early bedtime to accommodate our check-out on Monday morning.

I had thought that a weekend would be enough to explore San Diego's attractions - boy was I wrong!  We'll be back, San Diego - you've been warned!
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In Which I Enjoy Some Fun and Games

Fun and games filled this delightful weekend, starting on Friday evening with a wine tasting curated by gotham_bound  and attended by bewcastle , richardabecker , citizenbrown , Rzelle, Miss Brazelton and her beau, and new friend Susan the Goth.  We tasted six hand-picked wines, including the delightful Dr. Loosen's Riesling (my personal fave - I definitely think I'm becoming a Riesling fancier!) and noshed on complementary snacks.  Even bewcastle , who doesn't drink alcohol, partook of  some of the vintages on hand ,although our attempts to find some end-around for her general aversion to alcohol enjoyed only the barest of limited success.  Great drink, great food, great company and great conversation that ranged from the wine to politics to film noir.  A wonderful way to start the weekend!

Saturday I trekked down to Orange County, where I joined fellow ELGL designers aaronjv and hagdirt at the latest installment of Melodramatic Mysteries, a regular series of live games written and produced by two of the players I met at WyrdCon while running Monsieur Beauregard's.  The setting was the Nirvana Farm commune in upstate Vermont, the year was 1969, and the problem was murder.  The band Psychadelic Toad had suffered a tour bus breakdown on its way to a little music festival in Bethel, NY, and whle waiting for the bus to be repaired, the band's manager had turned up dead.  I played the dead man's younger brother Bobby, the band's head roadie.  While I wanted to see my brother's killer brought to justice, I also wanted to step out of my brother's shadow and take over management of the band. The latter goal took precedence, and after replacing our lead singer, securing the master tapes from our latest album, and cementing our record deal with Groovytunes Records, we headed out onto the road to win fame and fortune.  There were plenty of twists and turns along the way and I enjoyed some great roleplaying in a marvelous setting.  Our hosts were most welcoming, and the care and commitment that went into designing the game - from the amazing handouts to the Psych Toad t-shirts that each player received as a gift at the end of the game - were nothing short of amazing.  I am thrilled to have made some new friends, and look forward to joining their troupe for future events down the road! 

Speaking of new friends, today we headed up to Burbank to watch the World Cup finals with PopeBabylon, he of the amazing board game collection.  The game was not exactly what I'd call a stirring introduction to the sport for casual fans - but cup finals tend to be played a bit tight - but the company was excellent and afterwards we played a game of Tales of the Arabian Nights to our great delight and amusement.  I suspect that bewcastle  and I may be becoming board game geeks a little bit.  Not that that's a bad thing at all - some of those games are great fun!

Another week at work - although some fun will be liberally sprinkled amidst all the course planning - and then it's off to San Diego for a long weekend!  More updates later!

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In Which I Ponder Motivation

While up on Monterey for my AP Euro training institute, I finished Daniel Pink's book on motivation, Drive.  This is another of several books that have appeared recently (including Carol Dweck's Mindset and several books by Malcolm Gladwell) that challenge conventional notions about performance and motivation.  Pink cites a number of studies demonstrating that regular, conditional material rewards actually serve to decrease overall performance, especially for more complex tasks requiring creative thought.  Now, Pink is quick to point out that he's not saying that material compensation isn't important - if material compensation isn't fair and adequate, then motivation deteriorates sharply.  But given a compensation rate that takes care of the basic concerns, further material rewards are actually counterproductive! 

So, you might ask, what does motivate people?  Pink identifies three things that seem to drive us: autonomy, demonstration of mastery, and meaning.  We want to engage in tasks that afford us the freedom to figure out the best way (for us) to do things; we want to be able to demonstrate mastery of a task (the Goldilocks effect - tasks that are too easy are boring, tasks that are too hard are frustrating - the optimum is a task that stretches you but leaves the chance for success); and we want the work we do to have some larger meaning to us.  Look at Wikipedia, Linux, Apache, and a host of other open-source stuff out there, argues Pink.  Heck, I"d add look at all the people who went to WyrdCon and designed and ran amazing LARPs, look at all the marvelous costumes the players put together. 

Pink's analysis of what truly motivates people beyond the performance of simple mechanical tasks seemed especially meaningful as I talked with my fellow teachers at the AP training institute.  Boy, do I have it good!  Less than half of the teachers in our cadre had volunteered for AP - most had been assigned it without any input (there goes the autonomy!)   Many of them felt ill-prepared and ill-equipped - quite literally.  Most had no choice about the book they were using (more loss of autonomy), some were saddled with outdated editions because their districts didn't have the money to pay for the latest ones, many were being saddled with open enrollment, handlng students woefully unprepared for an AP-level curriculum (there goes the demonstration of mastery!) and many felt they were at the mercy of the whims of school board members and administrators who lacked even a basic understanding of the challenges they faced and the support they needed (there goes the meaning!).  Fortunately, we had a dynamic instructor and a very supportive group dynamic that left everybody feelng encouraged and better prepared than when we arrived. 

But if the woeful condition of our schools is truly of interest to policy makers, they could do worse than to consider  the environment in which they ask teachers to teach. 
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I'm typing this entry from a dorm room at Cal State University, Monterey Bay, where I'm attending a summer institute for AP Euoprean History.  We start classes tomorrow after a general introductory meet-and-greet BBQ this evening.  High marks for the Jamaican-spiced chicken and our instructor's relaxed yet professional demeanor.  Solid marks for the comfy if modest dorm room accommodation - although if I had enjoyed during my college days a single room with six pieces of univesity-provided furniture including one of those cool rocking desk chairs, a free-standing bookshelf/media console, *and* a loveseat, I would have thought myself living like a veritable Eastern potentate.  Pretty posh digs for dorms, I must say. 

Driving up to the campus was a rather startling experience.  You see, dear reader, CSUMB is on the site of the former Fort Ord, and the Department of Defense has been releasing land to the university for development in piecemeal fashion.  So when I turned off onto the appropriate road, I was greeted by a row of abandonned, boarded-up buildings - relics of the old military base. It was an eerie, solitary experience - I half expected zombies to come shuffling and staggering from the old barracks blocks.  But a turn down a narrow road and over a small rise revealed a very modern campus layout behind the ghost base.   I wonder if they've got a LARPing club here - those old buildings would be a great setting for any number of different scenarios.  Except for the unexploded ordinance danger, of course...

By the way, the mascot of CSUMB is the otter.

Before making the drive up from LA this morning, bewcastle and I took in the Silk Road mummies exhibit at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana with gotham_bound , citizenbrown , and Rzelle.  There were some amazing artifacts there from excavations in Western China's Uighur region, where the remains of Caucasian settlers from around 2000BC have been uncovered.  For many years the Chinese government suppressed the discoveries, concerned at the political fallout that might arise from revealing the diverse cultural heritage of its western provinces.  I wonder if the upsurge of Uighur nationalism and claims that the Uighurs have always lived in their homeland have prompted a reevaluation of this policy.  Whatever the reason, some truly stunning items preserved in the dry desert sands of the Tarim Basin can be seen there, on loan outside China for the first time, including three spectacular mummies - one of an infant, one of a very tall (over six feet) merchant, and one of a striking red-haired woman.  The texts accompanying the artifacts did not, unfortunately, reach the same standards of impressive excellence.  I thought they sounded as if they'd been written either in haste or by a student intern, or both.  Rzelle astutely observed the stilted style and suggested that the texts might be literal and/or poor translations from the Chinese - perhaps a condtion of the exhibit was to use texts provided by the Chinese officials coordinating the loan?  I think she had it spot on.  Fortunately, the limitations of the text did little to mar our enjoyment of this fine exhibit.

Afterwards, we repaired on gotham's recommendation to the center of Old Town Orange, a picturesque roundabout centered by a fountain and surrounded by turn of the century buildings.  We had lunch at a nice Cuban place called Felix's where the food was plentifuland delicious, and the company couldn't have been better.  Afterwards I made the rash decision that I wanted ice cream, so we headed off to a century-old drug store with an authetic soda counter.  On the way, my excellent rice and seafood dish made clear to me that further indulgence would be foolish, so I demurred from an ice cream soda.  We did manage to enjoy our visit, though, as an examination of the drug store's candy selection served as a sort of pop-culture coda to our earlier museum visit.  Licorice pipes!  Candy cigarettes!  Wax lips!  Candy bars whose names and packaging evoked an earlier and simpler era.  I can't believe they still make some of that stuff!  But it was a nicely whimsical end to a lovely day. 
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In Which I Hopefully Get Back on Track

Now that things have settled down a bit, dear reader, I hope that I can get back to more reguar weekly updates.  Three items of note this time around:

Taipei-style dumplings are amazing!  The ole Serenity crew got together for a reunion meal, avec significant others, this past weekend.  ian_tiberius suggested we go to Din Tai Fung, a critically acclaimed dumpling restaurant in Arcadia, and everybody agreed.  So, bewcastle and I, casketgirl and Dr. Fiance, shad_o ,  ladyeuthanasia , richardabecker gotham_bound karteblanche 
Miss Brazelton and her beau all gathered for some southern Chinese dumpling-y goodness.  We had a long wait for a table, but boy was it worth it!  The dumplings were all outstanding - I particularly liked the vegetarian ones, but I was most impressed by the culinary artistry required to pull off the juicy pork dumplings, which had a center of not just pork, but juicy broth!  Apparenlty we missed the soup and dumplings, in which the soup is in the dumpling ,not the other way around.  A tour de force of kitchen virtuosity, and for a very reasonable price!  Great conversation and conviviality - once we had plowed through the first batch of dumplings like the Mongols through Manchuria, that is.  I definitely want to go back!

Next, I finally managed to finish Dennis Lehane's The Given Day, his latest and most ambitious novel.  Set in Boston during the police strike of 1919, the story follows the parallel and intersecting paths of two men, one white and one black, as they try to make their way through the cesspool of corruption, greed, and hypocricy that marked the beginning of the Roaring Twenties.  Beautifully written and tightly plotted, the suspense never lets you go.  If I had one complaint, it was that some of the villains were just so horrifyingly, irredeemibly E-vil that it was sometimes hard to read.  Lehane is unflinching in his portrayal of the corrupt, self-satisfied, small-minded smugness that characterized the powerful in that era.  Maybe the fact that man of the words mouthed by the most vile and selfish characters in the book echo so closely  the rhetoric coming from some corners of the political landscape today set my teeth on edge as much as it did.  But any book that evokes such strong feelings deserves a proper recognition.  The hatchet job on Calvin Coolidge is richly deserved, and makes one wonder if we really managed a single decent president between the  Roosevelts.

Finally, I went to the optometrist today, and received the word that I really need to consider what they call "progressive" lenses.  They're fancy bifocals with a sort of blending of the prescription from top to bottom to accommodate vision at various distances.  I've heard mixed reviews from those who've had them, and I may end up just having 'reading glasses" and "driving glasses".  But I'll give 'em a couple weeks - I'll keep you posted!

I mentioned earlier this month that, with my decision to step away from football coaching, I was going to try to do "one creative thing" each month.  Well, it's amost the end of June, and between graduation, meetings, WyrdCon, and an upcoing week-long training institute for my new AP European Histoyr class, June's pretty booked.  So I'm going to cheat and point to Monsieur Beauregard's Hollywod Speakeasy as my June "creative thing" (even if I did most of the work for it in May) and look to do something else in July.

One possible plan - a sequel to the "Snow White" LARP that I enjoyed so much at WyrdCon.  Stay tuned...


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In Which I Recap WyrdCon

I was at WyrdCon this weekend, enjoying a full slate of LARPs.  After banding together with a number of other game designers, mostly from Enigma, to form the Enigma Live Game Labs group (ELGL for short) we procured the Presidential suite of the Hilton where the Con was taking place as our headquarters for the weekend, planning on running games there.  Despite my initial concerns that the undertaking would be a miserable failure, with a few boffer-toting folks in fantasy garb rattling around the meeting space like peas in a can while we sat around upstairs in the Presidential suite drowning our lonely sorrows in booze, things couldn't have been more different!  Our games were all full, the players complimentary and enthusiastic, and the convention overall lively, energetic, and bustling throughout the weekend.
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In Which I Wrap Up the School Year

As I mentioned a few weeks back, dear reader, things have been a bit... hectic of late.  While there is still graduation and the usual spate of year-ending faculty meetings to fill the week, classes have been concluded, exams administered, and final grades submitted.  I can look with some anticipation to the summer.

Despite the hectic stuff at school, there have been a number of intersting things going on, and I thought I'd catch up on the high points ahead of getting back to regular postng.

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In Which I Surface Briefly for Some Air

I have watched with some alarm, dear reader, the growing space between that nice bolded-in date of my last entry, and the date current.  I'm faling behind in my reading and finding myself limited to the brevity of Facebook updates.

You see, we had a crisis of sorts at school recenlty - a teacher had to depart suddenly for personal reasons- and the upshot is that my contribution to the crisis management is to take over this teacher's two classes.  This represents a doubling of my teaching load with only some minor relief to my administrative duties.  So these past few days I have been, shall we say, working efficiently. I mean that mostly serioulsy - I"m not overwhelmed or pulling my hair out or working 'round the clock, I'm just...busy.  I wouldn't want thsi workload full time, but for two weeks it is eminently doable, especially considering that needs must and all that.

So I'll return with longer updates and more observations and ruminatons once my time has freed up - probably towards the end of the month.  Until then!
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In Which I Post Some Long-Delayed Reviews

I'm back to the grind after Spring Break, which isn't really so bad, dear reader.  But I have been remiss in providing the latest evaluations on recent books, a category I am now expanding to movies, classes, and other entertainment experiences.  I hope you don't mind.

Spring break was not only about a social whirl - although I thoroughly enjoyed all the hanging out with friends chronicled in my last entry, and it's probably the thing I miss most about being back to work - but it also afforded me some time to dive into a more substantial scholarly book that I'd been saving for just such a big chunk of free time: Civilizations by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. 

Collapse )I also read Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island over break, after havinig seen the movie.  I was interested to see how he pulled off the surprise ending in print. Collapse )

In addition to Shutter Island I've seen two great animated films - one from a big studio, and one a small, independent effort - How to Train Your Dragon  and Secret of KellsCollapse )Finally, I've been taking a medieval sword-fighting class in North Hollywood these past two weeks - along with ian_tiberius and Kev of castle_kevorah .  The system is derived from a series of late medieval German fencing handbooks and features the two-handed sword.  I rather like the fact that the fighting vocabulary is all in German - an overhand cut is an oberhau, and underhand cut an unterhau, a stabbing strike is a stich, etc.  I also very much like the commitment and organization of the instructor, who is dedicated in his approach, timely and conscientious in his communication, and skilled in his mastery of the art.  So far I've learned several strikes and some basic footwork.  No defense yet, except some basic dodging footwork, but this fits in with the philosophy of the style (called Kunst des Fechtens - or Art of Fencing), which emphasizes aggression and attack.  I know, who'd've thunk it based on German manuscripts, eh?  I'm particularly impressed by the fact that the school emphasizes not only technical proficiency but also a cultural understanding of the broader context in which this style evolved, so advancement to the higher levels requires not only demonstration of proficiency of swordsmanship, but some knowledge of medieval history.  Yeah, I could totally get into this. 

So watch out - I'm adding a two-handed sword to my tacking and scrummaging chops from rugby!