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Category: Know Thyself

The Time of Our Lives

The Time of Our Lives

One of our patterns at home is that later in the evening, the rest of the family has retired and it’s just Aileen and I in the living area, and we would like to watch a little more TV before bedtime. As I explained in another post years ago, when you are watching streaming video with your family, you need different shows for different subsets of people, since you can’t continue watching any particular show without everyone you started watching it with being around. The latest show that we’ve picked for when it’s just Aileen and I has been Downton Abbey. This is a show which Aileen had watched some of in the past, but I had never seen. I am typically about ten years behind pop culture trends, but that’s OK because everything is conveniently saved on the Internet now.

This show is a delightful historical drama, set in a country estate in the 1910s and 1920s, and depicts the lives of both the aristocratic family that lives there, and of their domestic servants. There was a similar show in the 1970s (remade in the 2010s) called Upstairs, Downstairs that was set in London in the same time period, but we haven’t watched that one.

Period elegance on the set of Downton Abbey.

Downton Abbey, as far as I can tell, is historically accurate, and I enjoy recognizing historical moments and trends as they come up. I absolutely love the period costumes, especially the 1920s dresses – and, oh my, the automobiles – which are just gorgeous. The show is also quite sentimental, rather a bit of a soap opera, but that suits our late night viewing needs just fine. We’ve become very invested in the characters and their stories as we’ve blazed through the episodes (we’ve finished the last season already – good thing there are two movies to watch, too).

The show gives equal time to the aristocrats and to their servants, and focuses a lot on daily life. Yes, there are big differences in how characters live, depending on their economic class, but since we are binging the show so fast, I can’t help but notice how everyone, well – they just have their routines. Whatever their station in life, everyone just repeats the same behavioral patterns from episode to episode, only shifting into a new pattern if they experience a major life change, like a new position or a marriage.

Kind of like me, I think, as I go through my own routines. In my head I can hear the show’s opening theme, a stirring symphonic piece titled “Did I Make the Most of Loving You?” I’m not a servant getting breakfast ready for the household, or a countess being dressed properly by a lady’s maid before emerging from my chambers, but nonetheless I have my allotted role to play. Work from home computer guy, starts the day with coffee and the daily Quordle. Since the pandemic began, I am very much in the same pattern day to day, week to week. Not even switching jobs meant much of a change for me. Each week repeats the same cycle, another sweep of the second hand on the clock of life, ticking away to the last midnight.

It’s hard to believe it, but we’re already a third of the way through 2023. Did we binge the year too fast? Should we have tried to pace it better? The summer is almost upon us, though you wouldn’t know it from the cold rainy weather. I know it from the way some of our work is winding down. High school theater season has come to an end; there’s nothing left for the Philadelphia Independence Awards except for the awards ceremony itself. My work on Neil’s book is done. We need to get our garden planted – it’s a bit late, even for us. Did you know the kitchen gardens at Downton Abbey are quite impressive?

Our sweet sunshine kitty is holding on. Aileen is proud of her for staying with us, though it’s so hard for her to eat. We just keep giving her as much of the soft, pureed food as we can find. It’s clear that she wants to be with us, that she’s staying for love, and that we must make the most of it. What else is there to life? We’re just pushing through time, from one moment to the next, each inflection point marking out our story, until we get to the finale. How many seasons are left, and will we make the most of them?

Thrown Off Balance

Thrown Off Balance

Last week I received somewhat shocking news when I logged into work on Tuesday (Monday was a holiday so this was the start of the week). Apparently, for cost cutting purposes, some positions had to be eliminated, and unfortunately mine was one of them. I was told that my last day would be January 27. In other words, I was given two weeks notice.

This was unexpected as I recalled having been assured at the end of 2022 that my contract was extended for 2023. I guess they just meant for the start of 2023. What a raw deal. Now I am faced with the prospect of looking for work, always a challenge and ever more so as I grow older.

I might have known something like this was coming, since the amount of work the team was doing had been declining. But I guess I thought it would happen to someone else, not to me. Apparently there’s been a trend of tech layoffs, and I got caught up in it. I wonder if it’s a sign of more widespread economic troubles to come.

The manager on my project says he wants to hire me back, once they have the funds. It’s just a question of if there is anywhere they could move me to in the meantime; they say they are looking, but I’m not sure how much faith I have. A sneaky paranoid feeling makes me think they’re just blowing smoke in my eyes and are glad to be rid of me.

I went for a walk later in the week, and on my walk I stumbled on the uneven sidewalk and took a spill. I couldn’t catch my fall and hit the ground hard, luckily onto my side so I didn’t hurt myself badly, except I did skin my knee. It is still raw and red and painful, and I have a little limp from avoiding bending my leg. Was it clumsiness that caused my fall? My failing vision? It feels like this unexpected news threw me off balance, and so I literally lost my balance and fell, and now I bear this painful limp like a mark of my misfortune.

I’m sure it will heal quickly, and I’m sure I’ll get back on my feet again and be stable soon, one way or the other. It’s just getting wearying trying to stay on the path.

My 2022 Retrospective

My 2022 Retrospective

In world events, the two big stories of 2022 were clearly the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the confluence of the Jan 6th committee hearings and midterm election results, which I will call the slow death of MAGA. I thought it was impressive that the Biden administration was able to rally the West in support of Ukraine, and also dodge the expected “red wave” repudiation of the executive term. Is this inching towards a “blue wave” consolidation, and a revitalization of the Western alliance, after the setbacks of the previous administration? Or is it just pulling the partisan tension ever tauter, in anticipation of a reckoning still to come? Either way, I would like to take this opportunity to extend a middle finger to all of the MAGAts in the Putin/TFG camp, and heartily wish them more failure and humiliation in the new year.

In my own life, the best new thing to happen to me was being hired to work on the end notes for the sequel to The Fourth Turning. I’ve been a fan of Strauss & Howe generations theory for 25 years now, nearly half of my life, and it’s an honor to be included in Neil Howe’s process of writing the much anticipated sequel to their 1997 book (Bill Strauss passed away in 2007, sadly). It has been a lot of hard work, and I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute and to prove myself (I’m pretty good at methodical information organization).

I say this is the best new thing to happen to me, because there is much to be grateful for in 2022 that is a continuation of past trends. I really am one of the luckiest people in the world. I get to work from home in a time of plague, and while the Covid-19 pandemic is about to reach its three year anniversary, my extended family and network has for the most part mercifully been spared the worst outcomes from the disease (though enough of us have caught it, Lordy). Our family is financially stable, even while our national economy is not. And though I have Boomer parents and Millennial children, I am not really “Sandwich Generation” in the sense of being responsible for caring for family both above and below me on the age ladder. My parents, thankfully, have retirement savings.

I’m also very lucky and grateful to be with my partner, Aileen, after almost ten years since we reunited at our 30th year high school reunion in 2013. We started off visiting each other frequently from our respective homes 400 miles apart, and ended up living together under one roof. Being in lockdown together tested our relationship – could we stand continuous contact for months on end? Turns out we could. Pandemic lockdown and moving in together have only strengthened our partnership, and I look forward to many decades together to come.

My big hope for 2023 is more opportunity for creative work, for myself and everyone else in the household. I know, it might seem crazy to wish for work. Didn’t I just enjoy a week off from that? But we Gen Xers are in our peak earning years, so it’s very good for us to keep that going at this point in our lives. I for one will be hitting the ground running next week, rereading Neil’s book while also swamped with work at my computer job. Aileen has had her contract at West Chester University extended, which is great because it means she will get one full year there to put on her resume. As for the young Millennials in our family, I hope for more opportunity to learn and grow, and figure out where they want to go in life. We will, of course, be there to support them.

To my readers, I say thank you for checking out my blog, and I invite you to keep visiting as I continue to chronicle these challenging times. We don’t know exactly what the future holds, but we can be sure there is significant change coming. I hope you have a foundation in your life like mine, because that will so helpful for getting through this crisis era. All the generations will need one another for a safe and prosperous New Year.

The Work from Home Routines of Cats and Men

The Work from Home Routines of Cats and Men

Princess Sashimi and I both work from home, and sometimes I think she has an easier job than I do.

My routine consists of waking up, having some coffee to dispel my brain fog, then logging on to my work and personal computers (it’s called multitasking) and getting stuff done. I do try to start off with reading a book, just so that I don’t jump immediately into a screen first thing in the morning, but that’s generally for half an hour at most.

Around 9:30, my first work meetings start, and then I’m usually pulled into meetings for the rest of the morning. In the afternoon is when I get a chance to be productive. Somewhere in there I fit in a little time for breakfast and lunch, often eaten at my desk. I also work simple chores into the schedule, such as emptying the dishwasher or doing a load of laundry.

Sashimi, meanwhile, sleeps all day.

So it does seem that her job is easier than mine. But would I be able to do her job as well as she does? For instance, would I know when it’s time to move from the blanket on the floor to the bed upstairs? She does that at some point in the day, and I don’t think I would understand the correct timing if I was trying to fill in for her. Timing and sequencing are the key to doing anything right, so I think it’s best to leave the day sleeping to the professional. Each of us has our own contribution to make to the world’s well-being, and I should stick to what I do best and not compare myself to others.

How to Act Your Class

How to Act Your Class

In my last post, on the Netflix series Inventing Anna, I noted how Anna’s posing as a German heiress had reminded me of a concept I learned about in a workshop on “Bridges out of Poverty.” This concept is “The Hidden Rules of Economic Class,” basically different attitudes and approaches to life based on whether you are poor, middle class, or wealthy. It was Anna’s attitude about money that made this connection for me; she was living a luxurious life as if money didn’t matter (wealthy approach), when it might have made more sense to be circumspect and manage her money like her friends did (middle class approach).

I’ve included the graph of hidden rules above (you can easily find this with an Internet search). You might notice that the wealthy approach to money is to conserve it, not to spend it, but my point is that the wealthy live in a higher tier of consumerism, and don’t relate consumer spending to money management. Instead, consumer spending is a way of signaling membership in the wealthy class. That is what Anna Sorokin was doing: living large to bolster the credibility of her invented heiress persona, and for awhile successfully pulling it off.

This kind of large living is only sustainable if you actually have a vast reservoir of capital on which to draw, which Sorokin did not have. That capital is what the wealthy want to conserve and invest, whereas the middle class, happy to have what little capital they do (at least they’re not poor, with zero capital), simply want to manage it so that they can enjoy as good a life as is feasible.

One way to think about it is with respect to end of life spending. If you’re middle class, you save up for retirement, so you can finally stop working (you probably won’t be able to work in your old age, anyway), but then all that savings gets consumed in the last decades of your life. You leave this world with nothing, just like you entered it. With retirement costs being what they are, you probably will burn though all your savings in your twilight years. It’s like the system is rigged to suck up all your energy, hapless little Matrix battery that you are.

But if you were wealthy, you would presumably want to leave the world with more than you started with. I mean, if you had a billion dollars at some point, you would want to die with more than a billion dollars to your name. You wouldn’t spend all that money on jet planes and yachts; you would want to leave a legacy, a foundation or something. That’s the wealthy “conserve and invest” rule for money.

There are other rules of economic class aside from how money is treated. For example, with respect to personality, for the poor it’s important to be fun and likeable (so people will want you around and take care of you), but for the middle class it’s more necessary to be emotionally stable and achievement oriented (so you can secure a wage income stream). This difference came up in conversation with Aileen back when she was doing the 2020 census. She noted that when she was in poor neighborhoods, people were nicer and more cooperative than the people in middle class neighborhoods, who were often outright hostile.

Now, there was some selection bias among the folks she was visiting, since census non-responders probably include people who don’t want to be bothered by the government in the first place. But when Aileen shared this observation, I immediately thought of the hidden rules of economic class. So I “Steveplained” (that’s the term for when I mansplain) to her that poor people are nicer because they don’t have much choice; they have nothing else to offer the world. Middle class people can afford to be jerks and to alienate others, because they can satisfy their needs with market transactions, seeing as they have money to work with. But if you have no money, you’d might as well be obsequious and hope for a handout.

I find this hidden rules concept fascinating, and have put some thought into how it might make sense to borrow rules from all the classes in order to be a well-rounded person. After all, there might be some scenario in which your class suddenly shifts, and it would be best to be prepared to fit in anywhere in the graph. Well, the most likely shift is from middle class to poverty, due to personal misfortune or possible society-wide economic collapse. But why not be resilient and even something of a class-doppelganger, like Anna tried to be?

So this is what I came up with.

From Poverty:

  • Have a sense of humor and cultivate a likable personality. Be a person that others would want to have around, because you never know when you might suddenly be utterly dependent on others.
  • Be mindful of the present circumstances and the local environment; don’t become isolated from your immediate surroundings. Get to know your neighbors!
  • Be prepared to adapt to sudden change.

From Middle Class:

  • Cultivate professional skills and the ability to continue earning income. Society hasn’t collapsed yet, and you want to earn while you can.
  • Manage your money well, and also your physical and mental health, with consideration for the future.
  • Be aware that choices matter and that you can change yourself for the better.

From Wealth:

  • Think about what you can preserve for posterity, especially considering that you will never actually become wealthy. But you can still think of leaving a legacy of specialized knowledge, valuable collections or keepsakes, and your philosophy of life.
  • Network. It’s always good to have connections.
  • Maintain traditions and a sense of decorum.

That’s what I distilled out of the hidden rules of economic class. I can’t honestly claim that I follow all the rules in the lists above fully. Rather, I gravitate toward the middle class way, being something of a shut-in, and relying on my skilled wage income to buffer my family from life’s hardships. I like to think I’m a nice guy, but sometimes I get very cranky with my fellow human beings! I’m sure you understand.

I hope you have found these ideas illuminating, and are as intrigued as I am by this framework for understanding economic class. Maybe you will recognize some of these rules at work in your own life, in ways you hadn’t thought of before.

So You’re a Covidiot Now

So You’re a Covidiot Now

Early on during the pandemic I had these recurring dreams where I was out in public and then realized suddenly that neither I nor anyone around me was wearing a face mask. Shock and guilt would wash over me as I remembered that we were in a pandemic and that everyone was being irresponsible. What were we thinking?

Sometimes in these dreams I would be out walking around in a commercial district or in a city center; there would always be crowds. Frequently I would be at a gaming convention, sitting around a table with other gamers, setting up a board game. I was sure I missed the experience, and that’s where these dreams were coming from; we didn’t go to a board game convention after January 2020 for over two years. We went to one in Oaks, PA for one day this summer, and everyone (almost everyone) was wearing face masks.

And then we went to an annual con that I’ve been attending for over ten years, and spent four days in a hotel with a couple hundred people, most of whom were not wearing face masks. I mean, the pandemic is over, right? That’s what the President said.

My dreams turned out to be prophetic, as when we returned from the convention, I tested positive for COVID. I was feeling crappy on the Sunday drive back, but attributed it to burnout from all the marathon board gaming. When I still felt sick on Monday, I took the rapid antigen test and got the positive result.

I suppose it was inevitable, given how contagious the virus is, and given that we pretty much stopped the non-medical interventions. Not such a good idea, I guess. Luckily Aileen did not get sick, possibly because she had already caught COVID in May (when I was the one who dodged the bullet). This is just how it goes in Pandemic Phase II.

I’m not the only one who got sick at the con, either. Turns out it was a superspreader event! After all the tut-tutting I have done over people not following pandemic protocols, I got all casual and went and caught the bug. As the proverb says, “there but for the grace of God go I.”

So it’s not too bad. The worst symptom is tiredness and sleeping a lot. In the pre-corona era I would have just thought I had a bad cold and taken a couple of days off work and slept it off. The worst side effect of having COVID is being isolated from the family. No more dinner together or TV night.

I was able to get a prescription for PAXLOVID. I mean, quickly. I called my doctor’s office, and they set me up with a Zoom consultation that felt like a formality. “You tested positive and you have hypertension which is a risk factor – ok, I’ll send over a script…” Within a few hours I had the pills (a housemate picked them up since I am isolating).

So we’ll see how it goes; hopefully I will be back to “normal” soon. Back to normal but very conscious of what non-medical interventions can achieve. I think I will be spending a lot of time at home, nose to grindstone, for a couple of months. I’ll still be risking exposure since Aileen has to go out for her work. Time for our second boosters?

The Old Grognards Are Fading Away

The Old Grognards Are Fading Away

Grognard” is a word for an old soldier, but the term also has a special usage in gaming circles, meaning “Someone who enjoys playing older war-games or roleplaying games, or older versions of such games, when newer ones are available. [Example:] James is such a grognard, he only plays the original edition of Dungeons and Dragons.” I’m thinking about this term because I’ve been updating an old web 1.0 site that I still maintain which has some gaming content on it. As I’ve gone through the pages to clean up the content, I’ve discovered dead links which, from the structure of the URLs, clearly belong to the early days of the world wide web, and to an earlier generation of Internet users. That’s expected, since I set up the site twenty years ago. Often there are usernames embedded in the URLs of the dead links, and I have to wonder – what happened to those users? Did they move on to popular platforms, to social media? Did they just give up on updating their web sites and let them die off? Are they even alive any more?

I was updating my old site because I wanted to add some pages dedicated to a fantasy war game called Titan, which I used to play a lot back in the day. Both of the designers of this game, I have learned, are deceased. They would have been from the first generation of grognards, and they died too young. Their legacy lives on in the fan base surrounding their creation, but I have to wonder, how many of us fans are from the older generations, too? How many gamers from the younger generations are even aware of this old game’s existence, given all of the new games available today?

Don’t get me wrong – I’m grateful for the board game Renaissance that we live in today, with it’s incessant stream of new titles. I love trying out new games. But each wave of new board games can seem like a tidal flood, pushing the old games away. My little web site update project, revisiting an old game with an old style, has made me acutely aware that time is passing by the old ways. It’s left me with a wistful and nostalgic feeling. Will anyone miss us old grognards when we’ve all faded away?

How Board Games Saved My Life

How Board Games Saved My Life

In my last post I presented my “Board Game Biography” – a summary of my life of playing board games. There was one paragraph in there where I mentioned a period in my life when I was in a deep depression. A “dark night of the soul,” so to speak. I think many of us have been there. In my case, board games played a role in pulling me out of that darkness. In this post I will tell that story.

How exactly I got into this dark state isn’t important at this juncture. Let’s just say I had been going through some tough times, and had recently lost my job. I was living alone, in a big house which I was house-sitting for some friends who were living abroad. This was when I lived in the Research Triangle in North Carolina. I had all my possessions Tetris’d into a Fonzi-space; ie. a finished room over a garage. Some of my stuff was still in boxes in the garage itself.

I was seeing a psychiatrist, and was taking medication. Prozac, to be exact. I was in my early 40s, and I suppose I was having a severe midlife crisis. There’s something almost cliché about the whole affair. But I shouldn’t downplay it: I was very deeply depressed.

I would sleep until noon or later. When I awoke, it felt like a huge, oppressive weight held me down. Like the whole firmament was pressing down on me. I didn’t want to be awake, but inevitably I would be forced out of bed by the pestering cats. In addition to house-sitting, I was cat-sitting, and the creatures needed to be fed. Despite existing in a dark fog, I was able to muster the energy to briefly emerge from the darkness to take care of necessary tasks, such as feeding the cats, or feeding myself.

I suppose you could say that the cats saved my life, with their incessant daily pestering – with their very existence, which created an obligation on my part. They kept me on life support while I robotically went through my meager routine. After feeding them, I would go and lie down on the couch in the living room, and I would sleep the day away.

If you’ve never experienced a feeling of having no interest in life or any desire to do anything, I’m not sure that I can explain it to you. It’s just where I was in that time. All that I cared to do was the barest necessities to keep myself alive, and then I just wanted to shut down. Like I was a robot with no function to perform, in a state of suspension.

In the evening I would stir, and feed myself. Then would come my busy hours – I would watch the late night news on TV, and then the late late night talk shows, until the wee hours. And then I would go to bed. Rinse and repeat. I would do nothing but sleep and watch TV, day after day.

I should have been looking for work, and I suppose I must have had some savings to burn through, because I didn’t bother. I must have gone out for groceries from time to time, or I would have starved. And I know I was going to my appointments with my psychiatrist, because he eventually gave me the advice which was to be the springboard out of my deep, dark place.

I was neglecting other responsibilities. One day I noticed a flyer taped to the front door. I’m not sure why I opened the door at all, or if I saw the flyer from outside. It was a citation from the town, warning me that the grass in the lawn was too high, and that I would be fined if it was not cut down by some date in the near future. I had not been mowing the lawn, as I was supposed to do in my role as house-sitter. It looked like a wheat field. I took care of it, and learned how hard grass is to mow when it gets that high.

Another thing I learned was a bit about how the post office works. I would usually only check the mail once in a blue moon. I didn’t leave the house for days at a time. When I checked the mail, the mailbox would be stuffed. It would be a struggle to extract the contents. One time, surprisingly, the mailbox was empty when I checked it. It should have had some mail, considering how long the intervals were between the times when I looked inside it. But no mail came any more, not even days later. I called the post office to find out what was going on, and they told me that they had stopped delivery because it looked like no one was picking up the mail. Apparently that was their protocol. I assured them that I lived at the address, and they confirmed that they would resume delivery.

As you can tell, I had some inkling of an ability to function when needed, though for the most part I was wasting my days away doing absolutely nothing. I was constantly in a very depressed mood. I was talking things through with my psychiatrist, and he suggested that what I needed was a social life. I really wasn’t seeing anyone at all, since I lived alone and was unemployed. He thought that the best thing was to use a hobby or interest as a way to meet people.

A logical choice for me was board gaming, which I had done a lot of in my life before, just not recently at this time. There was a game store I knew about not too far from the house where I lived, and I figured they must have some kind of regular open gaming, which is normal for board game stores. The hard part was going to be getting me to change my habits and actually go there, given my state of mind.

The first thing I did was drive to the store and just check it out from the outside. I figured out that they had board games nights weekly on Wednesdays (I think this was posted on the outside window). I resolved that I would attend. On a following Wednesday I drove to the store, but I couldn’t bring myself to go in. Or even get out of the car. I turned around and drove back home.

Every Wednesday thereafter I got a little closer to participating in the social event of board game night at this store. The next Wednesday I actually got out of the car and walked up to the store before I turned around to go back home. The Wednesday after that I went into the store, walked through it to the back, then turned around and left. The store was full of people sitting at tables, playing board games (maybe about half a dozen tables with a few people at each one).

Why was this so hard for me? If you’ve never experienced agoraphobia, let me tell you it is no fun. For me, it was this intense anxiety and self-consciousness when approaching or potentially mingling with a crowd of people. I just wanted to run and hide, which is exactly what I had been doing for months now, living in my shell of despair, alone in someone else’s house, with no company except cats. But that little inkling of a voice inside me was telling me that I had to overcome this fear, or I would be trapped in my shell forever.

On my next visit I entered the store, and this time I walked more slowly through it. I found a table where a guy was sitting alone, setting up a game. I asked him about the game. I must have said something like “that looks cool.” It was a wargame called “Commands and Colors: Ancients,” and he was supposed to play with someone who hadn’t shown up yet.

This is the game that began my journey of recovery.

And then he invited me to play. He said his friend wouldn’t mind if I took his place, that his friend would understand since he was running late. So I sat across the table from this guy and he taught me how to play. His name was Henry, and I am eternally grateful to him for inviting me to be his opponent in Commands and Colors, and thus to begin my journey of recovery from depression and isolation.

His friend did show up, and just as predicted was cool with sitting with us and watching as we played. I don’t remember who won the game; it was probably Henry, since this was my first time playing. But I had plenty of opportunity to play more games with him in the future, and even joined his role playing group.

Eventually, I started going to a different game store, and met even more gamers. From there I got hooked up with other fun game nights at people’s houses, and a really cool board game convention in the area. There is no doubt that this increased socialization did wonders for my mental health. My psychiatrist had the right idea, and I thanked him in the best way I could – by stopping my medication and never seeing him again.

I got a new job in 2007, and when my friends for whom I was house-sitting returned stateside, I started looking for a house of my own. In the summer of 2009 I bought one and moved out of my friends’ house. I said good-bye to them and their cats. All the stuff I had crammed into the space above their garage exploded into a three bedroom townhome. Suddenly I had lots of space to work with.

I had moved on to a new and better phase of my life. In some ways, my dark time was a bit of an aberration. I usually have been a socially active, fun loving person. But I also have had bouts of depression going way back into my past. I hope that this story might help anyone reading it who has experienced or is experiencing mental health problems. Know that there is a way out, that the dark night won’t last forever.

I believe that at the root of mental health is having meaning in life, that it is better to address the need for meaning and purpose than to rely on medication, which is at best a stopgap measure. For me, board gaming as a hobby and being part of the very large community of friendly gamers has been an important source of meaning. For you, it might be something different.

In this one case I describe in this story, the kind invitation of a friendly board gamer willing to play with a total stranger helped to pull me out of a very dark place. And that is how board games saved my life.

My Board Game Biography

My Board Game Biography

Considering how much I love to play tabletop board games, it’s a little odd that I haven’t posted about the subject so much on this blog. That’s partly because I started In the Zeitgeist amidst the political turmoil of 2016-17, and stayed focused on generations-based political and social analysis. There was a lot going on in my personal life to post about as well. This blog was meant to be part commentary, part diary, and I had a lot to say about what was happening around me, just not about what board games I was playing.

But believe me, throughout all of the troubles and changes of these times, I have been playing lots of board games. It is one of my favorite hobbies, one that I’m passionate about, and it’s a wonderful form of escapism and distraction from the real world. I am a very imaginative person, and love to immerse myself in a game setting and just imagine that I’m off in another realm, playing some other role. And I really enjoy strategy games that make you think, and solve problems.

In this post I’ll relate my gamer biography.

I honestly couldn’t tell you when I started playing board games. It must have been when I was very young, in the 1970s. As a Gen X kid, I would have been exposed to the classic board games of postwar America. I mean games like Monopoly, Clue, Careers, The Game of Life. If you’re from my generation, you played them too. Then at some point I got into the more nerdy strategy board games that were available in that time period. A major company of that era was Avalon Hill, which made board games such as Titan, Diplomacy, and Civilization. I played all of those games with my nerdy high school friends.

When I started college at Virginia Tech, I joined a club called “The Wargamer’s Club.” I met a bunch more nerdy gamers there, some of whom I am still in touch with after all these years. We played games such as Illuminati, Nuclear War, and Cosmic Encounter. These are all games that could be considered “old school.” They had rules that were a bit more chaotic and luck-based than is the norm in board games today. There is actually a significant rift between the style of these older games from American companies and the modern style that began in Europe in the 1990s. More on that in a bit.

Another game that was very popular in my college and immediate post-college days was Axis & Allies, a World War II based wargame. Some friends of mine and I were so obsessed with this game that we ended up expanding it with extra rules and creating our own maps for it, so that we didn’t get bored playing the same game on the same map over and over. The game itself has a great system, and now there are a myriad of versions and variants with different maps, focusing on specific theaters or time periods of the war. But back in the late 1980s and early 1990s we didn’t have these new versions, so we had to make our own.

In the mid 1990s I was still in my college town, working at the University’s Computing Center. It was there that I was first introduced to Eurogames, by a work colleague who started a lunch game day (we played every Wednesday). He introduced some of us at work to a new wave of board games that was coming out of Germany. The first one we played was “Die Siedler von Catan,” which translates to “The Settlers of Catan.” You may know it today as simply “Catan.” It has become quite popular in the United States, and today’s young players weren’t even born when it first came out!

Me holding my 1st edition copy of Die Siedler von Catan

We played other games coming out of Germany in this time period, such as Entdecker, El Grande, and Modern Art. We ordered our copies through a web site called The Game Cabinet, downloading translations of the rules in English, since the games came from Germany and usually only had German rules in them. We all got hooked on these new titles, and would put in big combined orders to save on shipping. I still have all these old German editions of the games in my collection, too.

What was so appealing about these new board games? Well, they tended to have more carefully balanced and streamlined rules than the older ones. There was less luck involved, and more structured play that always took you to an end game in a reasonable amount of time. There was also no player elimination, so everyone got to play all the way to the end. You were trying to optimize your score versus that of the other players, not necessarily trying to tear down what they were building up in a bid to be the last one standing, as it used to be done. This was the beginning of what became known as “Eurogames,” to distinguish them from the American style of games we had been used to.

Over the years since, there has been a veritable explosion of board games in this style. The hobby has taken off worldwide to heights unimaginable back then, and there are so many thousands of titles it boggles the mind. You might call it a board game Renaissance, and even the mainstream media has caught onto it. If you know me on social media, I’m sure you’ve seen all kinds of interesting board game pictures in my posts.

But before we get to the state of board games today, more of my board gamer biography. I left Virginia in 1996, and after a bit of wandering ended up in North Carolina. I met more people there who liked tabletop gaming; I guess it’s just inevitable when you have a certain mindset that you will meet likeminded people wherever you go. One game I remember that we liked a lot back then was Twilight Imperium, which is an epic space exploration and empire game featuring massive space battles. It was really more in the older style of board game or wargame, with rigid turn orders and intense conflict, and it could also take a long time to play. I guess the old style still had its appeal.

At some point in the 2000s I stopped playing games much, and in fact entered a dark period in my life, where I fell into deep depression. I became a complete recluse, never leaving the house except for necessary errands, which included seeing a psychiatrist. My psychiatrist recommended reviving my social life, and suggested that I might have some hobby that could be a way to meet people. Board games was an obvious choice. So, with much personal effort, I got myself back out there and started going to a local game store (“FLGS” is the conventional term) and my board gaming life picked up again. This would have been around 2007.

I met new people, discovered new board games, and even started going to board game conventions in the area. These are gatherings (like any other convention) where all you do is play board games for days on end. There are even bigger game conventions (I’m sure you’ve heard of them) which include other kinds of games, panels and guests, cosplay contests and merchant dealers – they’ve got it all! I’ve been to a few of those, but honestly I prefer a smaller local convention which is mostly people who know one another, where it’s easier to find a game to play and to focus on the gaming itself.

The mid-2000s would have been about the time that the board game hobby was really taking off, as I already mentioned. Meanwhile, I recovered from my mental health issues, bought a house, and progressed in my career. It was like my personal life and the board gaming world were sharing a trajectory of rising growth and prosperity. There was an endlessly flowing cornucopia of new board game titles, and ample opportunity to play them with different gaming groups. My game collection grew and grew as I picked up copies of the new games that I liked the most. I was now heavily into modern style board gaming as a hobby, though I pretty much stopped playing wargames, which I do sometimes miss.

In 2013, I attended my 30th year high school reunion, where I met up with my dear old friend, Aileen. We reunited in life, and started travelling a lot together. Much to my delight, she also likes to play board games. In fact, we had played games together back when we knew each other in high school. She came to some of the gaming conventions that I was already attending, and we brought games with us when we travelled, playing in the hotel lobbies or suites where we were staying. In 2018, I sold my house in North Carolina and moved up to Pennsylvania, where she lives.

Then, in 2020 when the pandemic hit, I moved in with her. We combined our board game collections, which at this point consists of many hundreds of titles. I do my best to keep them organized, by theme and by type of game (for example, abstract or wargame), and by size of box (since they store more easily that way).

Aileen is ready for a game of Stratego

We continue to play board games when we can, though not so much at conventions or game stores since the pandemic began (but just last weekend, we did go to our first game convention in over two years). Mostly Aileen and I play two player games. We’ve even dug out some copies of games that we played back when we first met as teenagers. For example, not too long ago we played the old classic, Stratego. Yes, we have the same exact copy of the game that we played together in high school!

After careful deliberation, I make my move

I also play online sometimes with some of my North Carolina friends. A lot of board games, new and old, have digital implementations, easily accessible online. Sometimes you can play them for free, sometimes you have to buy them like any other computer program. I enjoy online play well enough, but much prefer sitting around the table, interacting in real life with people, and physically manipulating the components. There’s just something especially satisfying to me about that tactile and physical presence aspect of board gaming.

I’m very grateful to be living during this Golden Age of Board Gaming, even though I know I’ll never have the time for all the games that are out there. It’s enough to have time at all for the fleeting pleasures of life.

If you like board games, you probably should check out the web site BoardGameGeek, where you can learn about every board game ever made, and join an online community of board gamers who review, discuss, and share their experiences with board games. You can check out my user profile there to learn more about me, and even see our collection, which I maintain meticulously. I even made a GeekList (that’s a BGG thing) about that Axis & Allies variant that we played so much back in the early 90s. There’s a lot more I could write about my life of gaming, as this post hasn’t even touched on other kinds of games, such as tabletop roleplaying games or collectible card games, which I’ve also played a whole lot in my life. Who knows, they might be subjects of some future post.

A small sample of our board game collection, including some of my old German edition games

Mind Over Matter in a Game of Chance

Mind Over Matter in a Game of Chance

Last Christmas we got a cool new board game, called “The Quacks of Quedlinburg.” Its theme is brewing potions, and its primary game mechanic is drawing ingredients out of a bag, trying to draw as many as possible to score the most points. But some ingredients, if you draw too many of them, will cause your potion to explode, costing you points. You don’t want that! Tension comes from the fact that you need to keep drawing to get points, but you might go too far, and – BOOM!

Good game design requires some feature like this to generate tension, to keep the game interesting. This particular mechanic, in game design terminology, is called “push your luck,” and it is a pretty reliable way to do it. But there’s another thing about this mechanic that I wanted to bring up: apparently some people have more luck to push than others do. I say that because Aileen wins the game every time we play!

We must have played half a dozen games by now, and every time, when she is drawing her ingredients, they come out in a nice friendly order and she scores a lot of points, whereas I draw the dangerous, exploding ingredients and have to carefully consider whether to keep going (push my luck) or settle for fewer points. I end up falling behind in points, and then complain to Aileen, “this game has no catchup mechanism,” to which she usually replies, “you only say that because you always lose.”

Aileen offers an interesting explanation for the disparity in our luck. She says she does well because she doesn’t care what she draws out of her bag, whereas I am motivated by fear when I draw, and so my anxious energy is affecting my outcome. It’s poisoning the potion, so to speak.

Could this be? Could one’s attitude about a random event actually affect the random outcome? This has been studied scientifically, by the parapsychologist Helmut Schmidt. He conducted experiments on mental influence on the results of random number generators (recorded on computer disk), and found a statistically significant deviation from chance expectancy. What’s fascinating is that an effect is shown even with prerecorded events, providing no one inspects the record before the subject attempts to influence the results.

But how can this happen? An answer lies in the primacy of consciousness model of the universe. In this model, mental reality manifests in parallel with physical reality. Mental objects of experience – thoughts, intentions – are quantum objects just like the physical ones that surround us in the material world. They come into existence in the same way that the physical world does – by the collapse of the quantum wave function by unitive consciousness, which is the fundamental ground of all being.

Going back to my game of Quacks, when I draw from my bag, unitive consciousness simultaneously collapses the wave function of my mental experience (carefree or anxiety-ridden) and the wave function of my physical draw from the bag (favorable or unfavorable by the game rules). In my individual ego-consciousness, I experience either exultation at a fortuitous draw or frustration at an unfortuitous one.

But the quantum dynamics of my mental experience – the meaning ascribed by my mind to the outcome of the random draw – is tangled up with the quantum dynamics of the physical draw itself. By worrying about a bad draw, I am skewing the probability distribution of the physical event. My expectation is biasing the result! That is how this is a case of “mind over matter.” I need to learn to be chill when I’m drawing my potion ingredients, to open my mind up to more possibilities.

This model even explains Schmidt’s strange finding that mental influence can affect an already recorded (but not observed) random number generation. The collapse of the wave function (“state vector” as the experimenter puts it) occurs in the moment of conscious observation, and no sooner, as implied by the famous double slit experiment. In other words, until the record on the computer disk is observed, its state is undetermined, just like that of Schrödinger’s cat.

You might not give much credence to the work of Helmut Schmidt, since he was a “parapsychologist,” a field which is generally considered to be pseudoscience. But haven’t you ever been playing a game with dice rolling and experienced the right number (or wrong number) come up just when you needed it (or dreaded it) the most? Maybe in a table top roleplaying game, where the story meaning is particularly entwined with the dice outcomes, where the fate of a beloved character hinges on a critical hit or miss, or on making or failing a saving throw. I know I’ve experienced it.

I’m sure we’ll play Quacks again, and I will try to release my fear and let the flow of good luck come to me. But I will have to fight my own nature. My competitive edge and my ego-identification with the outcome of random draws from a bag is what tangles me up, even though there are no real stakes in the game other than whether or not we’re having fun.

Where do I get this stuff? If you’re interested in learning more about primacy of consciousness as a model of reality, a good place to start is the book “The Self-Aware Universe” by Amit Goswami.