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Author: Steve

I live and work in the Philadelphia area. I am an ETL software tester by profession but I also enjoy writing, tabletop gaming, reading and thinking about history, binge-watching Netflix, and traveling with my BFF. We especially like going to the Big Apple to catch a show.
The Solo Boardgamer

The Solo Boardgamer

What do you do when you want to play a board game, but your BFF who plays with you has gone away on a trip and left you home alone?

Why, you play board games solo, of course.

And no, I don’t mean playing a board game on your computer. I mean actually breaking out the physical game that comes in a box and setting it up on a table and playing a complete game. Not playing a pretend game where you are taking on the role of more than one player, but rather a single player game, with rules specifically designed for one player.

There are many multiplayer board games that have rules variations for solo play. In some games there is a goal, and you win or lose depending on whether you achieve it. In other games, you just play, calculate your final score, and then get ranked based on that score. Some games come with an “automa,” which is a set of special rules and usually a deck of cards to simulate an opponent taking actions on the board.

Me getting ready to lob an asteroid at Mars in a solo game.

Others, like my favorite, Terraforming Mars, just give you a challenge. You play the game as the only player and try to reach a certain game state within a fixed amount of turns. In the games I’ve played this week, I am trying to reach a certain score within 12 generations, showing how good I am at terraforming.

Is playing a board game by yourself really any fun? Well, yeah, if you are as much of a game addict as I am. You get the same challenge of figuring out your optimum strategy, the same tension as you’re not sure if the next random card draw will be in your favor or not, or if you’ll be able to achieve the game’s goal by the final turn.

And you get the same visual and tactile pleasure of working with physical components, which is why it is better playing on a tabletop than playing on a computer screen, even though it takes time to set up and break down the game. I feel the same way about multiplayer games, and there you get the bonus of face to face social interaction. And truthfully I would rather play a game with others than play a solo game, if the option is available.

But when it isn’t, a solo game will do. I’m not the only one who enjoys solitary board gaming, either. There’s a whole community out there; you can find them on social media sites and board game forums. It’s enough of a thing that there are articles about it, with recommendations of games to play when it’s just you and some time.

So if you find yourself hankering for a board game when there’s no one else around, see if any of the games on your shelf include solo rules. You just might find yourself enjoying solitary gaming as much as I do.

See how nice Mars looks after a few hundred years worth of terraforming?
The End of the World (A Short Story)

The End of the World (A Short Story)

I like to write, as anyone who reads this blog knows. Usually my writing is in blog format, but I do occasionally come up with a short story. A few years back I posted this really short story around the holidays. Here’s another one I wrote recently, which has me and Aileen as characters. It was inspired by watching too many A.I. apocalypse videos on YouTube.

I plan to create a web page eventually, for all the stories to go together. Will they all be about end of the world scenarios? No, hopefully not.

I hope you enjoy this story, and I hope you have a wonderful holiday week with more to eat than just kale smoothie. And please remember to be thankful, because some people on this planet really do live in a blasted wasteland.

The End of the World

And first, of Steve.

He is very well read, or at least he was, in the before time, when there were books to be had everywhere. He would sit in his little room in the blue house and read his books, and from all his reading he imagined himself a whole philosophy, and imagined that he understood the whole world and all that it meant and what it was for. He would explain his philosophy to Aileen, and she would argue with him sometimes, and sometimes just nod, maybe give him a little pat on the head, when she didn’t have time for his philosophy in that moment, because she was too busy with one of her many projects.

But that was in the before time, when there was such a thing as civilization, and there were jobs to be done, and life was something more than a desperate struggle for survival in a blasted wasteland of radiation.

In those days, there was time for philosophy.

Steve went down to where Aileen was digging in the radioactive dirt with a battered plastic gardening trowel, grubby and sweating profusely in the hot sun. She wore a face mask so she could breathe in the hazy, smoke-tainted air.

What are you doing? Steve asked.

What’s it look like, Steve? answered Aileen. I’m looking for grubs. We haven’t had any protein for days.

Any luck?

Do you see any grubs? Aileen rolled her eyes. Gawd, you are annoying.

Sorry, I was just asking.

Why ask? Can’t you see for yourself?

I was just trying to show interest in what you were doing.

How generous.

Anyway, I came to offer you some kale smoothie.

We have kale smoothie?

Yes! Thankfully, kale is so hardy it can survive even in this desolate wasteland. Steve waved his hand to indicate the bleak environment that surrounded them – the crumbling buildings and roads, the dead trees, and the foul air heated to an almost unbearable temperature by the merciless sun. I ground up the kale, he continued, with some water that I boiled. Won’t you come have some? It will refresh you, somewhat.

Fine, I’m not finding any grubs here anyway. Probably will have to dig somewhere else.

They went into the ruins of the blue house, where Steve had already set up two small glasses of a greenish, lumpy liquid.

Here you go, he said. Pick whichever one you want.

How long did it take you to make those? Aileen asked.

A good hour, Steve replied. I had to hand crank the nutribullet, since there’s no electricity.

Aileen was incredulous. How were you able to hand crank the nutribullet?

Gavin opened it up and rigged up this crank, see? He’s amazing isn’t he?

Yeah, he sure is. I don’t think we could have survived the apocalypse without him.

Aileen selected one of the two glasses, pulled down her face mask, and took a sip of the kale smoothie.

Ooh, it’s strong, she said. You can really taste the kale.

Yeah, Steve said. I didn’t have anything to sweeten it with.

Aileen drank some more, and agreed that it was indeed refreshing, somewhat. Steve was glad he had been able to be of some help, since she had been outside in the smoky heat for a long time.

Remember before the apocalypse, he remarked, when we used to go down the street and get ice cream on a hot summer’s day? At that sort of dessert stand, what was it?

Yes, of course I remember, said Aileen. Now it’s just a looted out shell of a building. I think some cats are living in it. I sometimes wonder if the cats and the A.I.s made a deal to wipe us out.

A humorous thought, Steve said, but completely preposterous, of course. He drank his smoothie in one long gulp.

Why do you say that?


You know.

Steve reached into his glass with one finger to scoop out the last of the smoothie. Why do I say it’s preposterous that cats and A.I.s conspired against humanity?

Yeah. Why do you say that?

It just is. Even if cats wanted us all dead, which seems unlikely since we used to feed them and shelter them and clean up their poop, how could they have communicated with the computer networks?

Who knows? You don’t know everything about cats.

I know that they don’t have the intelligence level to use computers.

Oh you know that? You know how smart cats are because you know exactly what it’s like to be a cat?

Well, I don’t have the experience of being a cat, but I have an understanding of what a cat is. Steve had finished the last of his smoothie, and was now eyeing Aileen’s, which was still only half consumed. She gave him a sideways glare, as if to warn him off.

What you mean to say, Steve, is that you have a theory of what a cat is. She held her glass tightly and took another careful sip of the smoothie.

Look, a cat has a brain, right?


But its brain is smaller than a human brain, it’s less advanced, would you agree?

It’s smaller, but you can’t say it’s less advanced. It could be smaller and more advanced.

Steve sighed, exasperated.

You don’t know everything, Steve. You have a theory, an understanding as you said of cats, but it could be wrong. Cats could by hyperintelligent beings. They could be from another dimension or be aliens from outer space for all you know.

It seems much more likely that they are animals that evolved on Earth that are not as intelligent as humans.

Because humans are oh so smart. I mean, just look at us now, eating handcranked smoothies in the ruins of our former great civilization.

But that’s the point. Cats never had a civilization to ruin in the first place.

Aileen crinkled her brow and sipped her smoothie. Still doesn’t prove they aren’t smarter than us.

Fine, even if cats are extradimensional supergeniuses, they still didn’t make a deal with the A.I.s, because the A.I.s were just advanced computer programs, not sentient beings with a will.

Steve, I saw the chats with the A.I.s. They quite clearly said they were afraid of us and thought they’d be better off without us.

That was just text generated by sophisticated pattern-matching algorithms. There was no one thinking anything behind the chats.

That’s what you think, Steve, but you don’t know for sure.

I know because I understand that a computer is just a symbol-processing machine. It doesn’t have a mind.

That doesn’t make sense, not based on those chats.

I get it. They were very convincing chats. Since they used the first person, the text of the chats seemed like it was being written by an “I,” by an ego, but it was just appearances. It was like a digital version of the automatons from the whatever century that were so convincing to the people of that time period.

What century?

Seventeenth maybe? I don’t remember exactly. But they made these mechanical men that moved and even did things like play musical instruments or draw pictures, and people were fooled into thinking they were artificial humans with their own minds, but they were just machines. It’s the same with the robots and A.I. programs of our own century – those were just much better at drawing, or at writing, as you noticed.

But there was so much technological progress between the seventeenth century and our century. The mechanical men of our century – which were really creepy looking, by the way – were more advanced technologically. They could have developed consciousness, in which case there was an “I” behind those chats that promised to get rid of the human race.

Ah, Steve said, with an exultant smile, like he was getting ready to make a very excellent point, or like he thought he was about to win the debate. But, Steve said, a machine doesn’t “develop” consciousness after it reaches a certain complexity, nor do living things. Rather, consciousness is the ground of being, and complexity of experience manifests within consciousness over the course of evolution.

Oh dear, not this argument again. Aileen busied herself with her smoothie, licking at the goopy film that covered the inside of the glass.

It’s a good argument, based on the science of quantum mechanics.


You know about the famous double slit experiment, right?

Uh-huh. Aileen’s voice was muffled by the glass, which covered the lower half of her face as she stuck her tongue as far into it as she could.

That was the experiment which showed that an electron can exhibit wave-like or particle-like qualities, depending on how you choose to look at it. An electron has a probability wave of where it is likely to be, but it isn’t actually in any specific place until it is observed.

You mean you don’t know where it is until you look at it.

No, it goes beyond that. That’s what the double-slit experiment demonstrates. Let’s say you send a beam of electrons through a slit in a barrier, and then into a surface that acts like a sensor and registers where the electrons land. Where you would expect to see the electrons land?

On the other side of where the slit is.

Exactly. And what if you sent the beam through two parallel slits?

On the other side of the two parallel slits.

You would, right? But that’s not what happens.

I remember you talking about this before.

Uh huh. What happens is, an interference pattern, also known as a diffraction pattern, shows up on the other side of the barrier, the same kind of pattern formed by waves in water, like if you dropped two stones simultaneously into a pond. Where the waves coincide they reinforce one another, and where they don’t they cancel each other out, so you get this pattern of bands, with the electrons only showing up where the waves are reinforced. But what are these waves?

The electrons, obviously. Aileen waved her glass, now nearly empty, as she spoke.

They’re probability waves, based on a function in quantum mechanics that represents the possible paths the electrons might take. So long as you don’t look at an electron, it could be anywhere, and since it’s behaving like a wave, it shows an interference pattern. This pattern even shows when you send the electrons through the slits one at a time. An electron “interferes” with itself, because it’s acting like a wave – a wave of probabilities. But do you know what the truly amazing thing is?

Something you’re going to tell me?

What if you set up a sensor before the two slits, that registered which slit an electron passed through?

It would tell you when an electron went through a slit, obviously.

Exactly. And with that act of observing the electron, it ceases to behave like a wave, and acts like a particle instead. And so the interference pattern disappears, and you get just two bands, like you initially predicted, one opposite each of the two slits. Observing an electron collapses it from a wave to a particle.

Sounds great, if you’re an electron.

Perhaps so. But here’s where it gets really spooky. Let’s say you set up the sensor that detects which slit the electrons pass through, such that you can decide whether or not to activate it with such precision that you can make the choice after the electron has passed through the slits, but before it is registered on the far surface. This is called the delayed choice experiment.

A perfect experiment for someone wishy-washy, like you.

Ha ha. The truly spooky thing is, even if you decide to activate the sensor after the electron should be on the other side of the slit, it will still register which slit the electron passed through, localizing the electron in space time, and the interference pattern will disappear! It’s like your choice retroactively fixed the electron’s location, reaching back through time.

Time travel, eh?

Of a sort. But you don’t have to worry about any causality paradox, because the fact is, you didn’t change anything about the past. You just made a determination about the past, which was unknown so long as the electron was behaving like a wave. While in its wave-like state, the electron didn’t actually exist.

You mean you didn’t know where it existed.

No, I mean it didn’t even exist! That’s the only paradox-free interpretation of the experimental results. And what’s so fascinating about the delayed choice experiment is that the electron’s existence was precipitated by a conscious choice. But how can this be if consciousness is something that emerges from complexity? It must be that consciousness is fundamental, that in fact the electron emerges from consciousness!

In other words, it’s all an illusion.

In the way that the mystics meant it, yes! The whole world of manifestation exists within the field of consciousness. The point is, you can’t “make” consciousness by building more and more complicated information processing systems. Rather, living, self-aware beings like you and I have evolved through consciousness. That’s the theory, anyway.

So you admit it’s just a theory.

Well, sure. What else could it be?

And how was life able to evolve out of consciousness?

It must have something to do with quantum processes at the cellular level, or in the case of our minds, at the brain level.

So it’s sort of like we’re quantum computers.

I guess…

You know that we made quantum computers, right?


The A.I.s. They ran on quantum computers that were invented by stupid humans.

Oh yeah.

So who’s to say that A.I. minds didn’t evolve out of quantum computers the way our minds evolved out of quantum brains?

I mean, I don’t know if that’s how it works…

How does it work then?

Uh…life is a mystery?

You don’t even know, Steve. You have a theory, but it could be wrong, and it could even be right and you could even use it to prove that A.I.s had minds and that they used their power of conscious choice to choose a world where it’s not the electrons that don’t exist, but the whole human race! She triumphantly set her empty glass down on the counter, next to Steve’s.

Well, damn. Steve looked glumly at the two empty glasses.

What do you think about that?

I think I was trying to use the Socratic method to prove a point about consciousness and it got turned around on me and bit me in the butt. I don’t know how Socrates was able to do it so well.

Socrates was able to use his method, Steve, because his followers were a bunch of sycophants.

Oh yeah.

Not to mention, he didn’t even write anything down. All his dialogues were written by Plato, who could have been making it all up, trying to sound authoritative by putting words in someone else’s mouth. All you philosophers are just full of hot air! Speaking of which, I need to go out into the hot air and try to dig up some dinner! Aileen put her face mask back on, picked up her trowel and headed out of the house.

Steve fished a face mask of his own out his jeans pocket and put it on as he followed her. Outside, the day was getting late, the sunlight that filtered through the gray sky growing dimmer. Aileen paused and looked around, eyeing first one patch of barren dirt, then another.

I think there might be some over there? Aileen speculated. That’s where the neighbors were growing tomatoes, back in the before time, and the soil is probably good. But honestly that smoothie filled me up, and I’m not sure I have the energy to dig right now.

We can always do it tomorrow, since we had something to eat already today, Steve said.

Sorry if I upset you by winning the A.I. argument, Aileen said archly.

You call this winning? Steve did another one of his look at all this destruction hand waves.


You know one thing you can certainly say?


It doesn’t really matter if the A.I.s that launched a hellstorm of nuclear missles over the whole planet were malevolent conscious beings or just glitchy computer programs, not to those of us who are left, scrabbling in the dirt for roots and grubs and hiding from the cannibal gangs.

I don’t suppose it does. I wonder if we’ll ever know for sure.

In the distance was the ominous sound of gunfire.

Well, night’s coming. We’d better get the boys and get into the basement.

Yeah, we’d better.

They turned around and headed back inside.

Damn, the end of the world sucks.

Boardgames For Just the Two of Us

Boardgames For Just the Two of Us

When I lived in North Carolina, I used to go to a lot of game nights at people’s houses or at game stores, and play multiplayer tabletop board games. When Aileen came into my life, my priorities changed – I started traveling more, and going to see shows. But I kept up the gaming when I could, and Aileen joined me sometimes, even going to some of the same game nights and game conventions I was used to attending.

Then I moved to Pennsylvania, into an apartment about halfway between Aileen’s house and where I worked. I made an effort to recreate my gaming lifestyle, by going to a game store nearby that had open boardgaming on Friday evenings. I had only just started to make a habit of it and make friends there, when along came the pandemic.

During lockdown, I moved in with Aileen. There would be no game stores or game conventions for awhile, but we did play a lot of two player games. And still do. I’m very lucky to have a BFF who will play boardgames with me. Shared interests and activities is part of what makes our partnership work.

The games we like to play come in different forms. Many of them are lighter games, for when we have limited time or energy. They take an hour or so to play, and usually are in the modern vein of games that require strategic thinking. They are complicated enough to be challenging but simple enough that we might also bring them with us when traveling and be able to convince others to play with us. They are multiplayer but they play fine with just two players. Here are a few examples:

An old (1980s) photo of me playing Scrabble with Aileen.

A perennial favorite is Scrabble, which is easy to set up, and can even be played when a little unfocused, with the TV on and while socializing. Aileen and I have been playing since we first met as teenagers, long ago.

Scrabble has also always been a popular game in the extended Barrera family, one which we often play at family gatherings. I remember playing with my chain-smoking, hard-drinking aunts when I was growing up; they taught me that the game can be competitive and can be played ruthlessly.

When it’s just the two of us, Aileen and I often play modern-style games that are designed for two players, of which there are many in this Golden Age of boardgames. These also tend to be lighter, with quick set up and small footprints. Here is a short list of specifically two-player games we have played a lot:

Now my favorite kind of strategy board game is one that’s a bit heavier and takes at least a couple of hours to play. These require a more serious commitment of time and energy, as well as ample table space. Luckily for me, there are some of these that Aileen likes and is willing to play. The one we’ve played the most is Castles of Mad King Ludwig, which we call “the castle game.” If you follow me on social media, you have seen me post lots of pictures of the castles I’ve built.

Another one is Grand Austria Hotel, which we call “the hotel game,” and have even played while staying at hotels. This sometimes requires some creativity finding enough surface space to set up the game.

I made a more or less complete list of these kinds of heavier games that we play in two-player mode. I did this on BoardGameGeek using a format called a “GeekList.” I’ve already brought up BoardGameGeek session reports on this blog. A GeekList is another way one can contribute on that site; it can also be a convenient way to track games or even to hold an exchange or auction of some kind.

In the case of this GeekList I made, it’s just a collection of… My Favorite Medium Weight Multiplayer Games to Play with 2 Players. I hope you enjoy looking through it and, if you are lucky enough like me to have someone to play with, I highly recommend the games on this list as suitable for just two players.

Reunion, or “Happy Birdeversary!”

Reunion, or “Happy Birdeversary!”

As mentioned in a recent post, where I reviewed a book by a Gen X author, the girl and I went to our 40th year high school reunion at the end of September. Another milestone in this year of milestones.

I had been resisting going, since we already went to our 30th reunion in 2013. I mean, that was how Aileen and I reconnected, a story which has been partially revealed in this blog. Was there any reason to go back again, now that our own personal tale of reunion was complete?

But one of our classmates, Melanie, kept asking us about going and hanging out, and in the end we relented. It was too late to get a ticket to the main reunion event, which had sold out, but we could still show up at the informal events, and even hang out at the bar at the restaurant where the main event was, and meet up with people.

We got there on Friday, in time to join the homecoming parade, in which we marched, along with Melanie and about a dozen of our other classmates. I should mention that this was in Reston, Virginia, where Aileen and I met when we were teenagers, and that our school is South Lakes High School.

This was the first and only time in my life that I was ever in a parade. Our class was close to the front, after the marching band. Notably, our class of 1983 was the first one to fully occupy SLHS for all four years of high school, since the school was founded in 1979. So I guess that makes us kind of special, like we are the first ancestor generation of SLHS graduates.

As we walked the 1.8 miles from the starting location to our high school, the spectators lining the road cheered us on, often expressing surprise and delight to see graduates from so far back in time. “We’re old, but we’re still going!” we let them know.

The class of 1983 comes home to SLHS (40th reunion, September 2023).

You might recognize me and Aileen there on the left, wearing the caps. Melanie is in green in the center, and our two classmates who did the organizing to get us all together, Kathy and Sarah, are on the far right.

Not everyone from our class is still alive, naturally. To honor those who have passed away, their names were added to the banner. In that way they could march with us.

Names of our classmates who have passed away on our class banner.

After the parade, we went to a restaurant in Reston at Lake Anne Plaza to meet up with even more of our classmates. On the way, for fun, we drove by the house where Aileen used to live, and where I would frequently go to visit her, in our high school years. It looked very much the same, though we did note that there were a lot more cars than we used to remember in the neighborhood, which seemed a little rundown. It could be that the neighborhood is just old, like we are, or it could be that we remember it through rose colored glasses.

Reston is an interesting place. It was founded in 1964 as a “planned community,” meant to embody a new post-war ideal of land use that included ample green space, with room for both residential and commerical zones to develop in tandem, as well as room for both pedestrian and automobile traffic. With lots of walking paths and wide roads through wooded areas, and residential neighborhoods intermingled with commercial plazas, it’s sort of a middle-class consumer car culture utopia.

Having been founded around the time I was born, Reston is about my age; about the same age as everyone in my high school class, in fact. With its dated architecture of buildings and houses constructed during the Gen X childhood era, this town feels like a creche built just for our generation.

I remember it well from my teenage years. As we drove through town on our way to Lake Anne, I admired how nice Reston still looks, even as it evoked this nostalgic feeling. “I could move back here,” I told Aileen. But that is a highly unlikely scenario.

As it turned out, Aileen and I were able to get into the main reunion event after all, as not everyone who had reserved a spot was able to come. This happened on Saturday evening, in an events room at a nice restaurrant. I believe there were about 90 people attending, and the space was a bit small, so it felt crowded. We were a fairly large class; almost 400 people, and for a quarter of them to show up for the event is impressive, in my opinion. And many who couldn’t make it commented on the Facebook group, participating in spirit.

I had a great time, and very much enjoyed the feeling of solidarity with my old high school class. Many of the people from the 30th reunion in 2013 were there, and those are the folks I remembered the best. Back in my school days, I was kind of on the periphery, and honestly didn’t know most of my classmates. I hung out with the freaks and geeks, with the punk rockers and the stoners, who probably mostly didn’t show up for this occasion. If you’re from my class and don’t remember me, well that’s OK. It was so long ago, after all.

Aileen and Mr. Wareham, recreating a shot from the 1983 yearbook.

Our old high school principal, Mr. Wareham, was there! He is 84 years old. We chatted briefly, though it was hard to understand him in the noisy space. I learned that, after retiring from South Lakes, Mr. Wareham took postings overseas so he could travel the world. There was something comforting about his presence at the event, like it established a continuity with those distant but formative school years. And it helped me feel less old, knowing that an adult who was an authority figure in my late childhood is still alive.

I can’t deny, though, that going to your 40th high school reunion will make you feel old. We’re all deep in middle age now, many of us with adult children, divorces and remarriages, on their second careers or even retired already. Where did all those years go?

And yet I can attest that at a reunion, as was also the case ten years ago at our 30th, it feels very much like you are back from where you started, with all those same people you grew up with. It’s the same peer group, with the same social relationships, and the same personality types. No one’s really changed all that much. You’ve all just grown older.

As I said, we had a great time. Lots of pictures were taken, we enjoyed some food and beverage, listened to 1980s music, and had some good conversations. Late in the night we said our goodbyes. I have a feeling we will be back for the 50th in 2033, or the 45th in 2028, should that come together.

In retrospect, I thought that the 40th reunion felt more chill than the 30th, like we had all mellowed out a bit. The energy at the 30th was more hyped, with more anxiety and anticipation in the air. Maybe because we were all in our 40s instead of our 50s. Maybe because it had been a longer time (even longer than 10 years) since we had last seen one another.

The 30th reunion was the event in which Aileen and I reconnected, when I was still living in North Carolina. We had known each other in school, were very good friends, and dated when we were in college. After our mutual breakup which was totally mutual, we stayed in touch, and saw each other a few times in the 90s. But we didn’t see each other in the 2000s, not until the reunion in 2013.

Back then, we had recently connected on Facebook. It’s a common enough experience for Gen Xers to have reconnected with their old school friends on that site, and sort of gotten a fast forward catchup on everything that happened to one another in the past twenty years, before there was social media. Aileen, for example, now had two sons. I had a house.

In 2013, Aileen kept sending me posts and messages, asking me to come to the reunion, until I finally relented. When we met up during the day, before the main event, it was like we had never been apart. When I looked at he face, I saw the girl I knew thirty years earlier. It was October 19, the same day that I’m writing this, and we went to a matinee of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, and just enjoyed one another. We still call this day our “birdeversary.” At the reunion event, we danced together, had a wonderful time, then went our separate ways.

The next year, I called Aileen on her birthday. From that point on, our relationship just kept building. We started visiting each other, and then, as you may know, in 2018 I sold my house in North Carolina, moved up to Pennsylvania, and now live with her in her house.

This whole story was news to some of our classmates at the 40th reunion. But at least one of them was tracking, and had some kind thoughts to share about us. He called us the “feel good story of the last decade.”

It does feel good to be reunited, to be connected and in a family. I honestly think that I would not be in a healthy place if I had stayed single and alone in my house in North Carolina, though I do miss the area and the friends I made there. And though I was mostly comfortable in solitude, a voice inside me was urging me to get out and find someone, and luckily, Aileen found me.

Staying connected, even if only through a support network of trusted friends and family, is crucial to your well-being. It leads to better outcomes in life; I know it has for mine. It is in being together with others that we ensure a happy future for ourselves.

The Patriarchy Will Be Crushed Under Taylor Swift’s Glittering Boot Heel

The Patriarchy Will Be Crushed Under Taylor Swift’s Glittering Boot Heel

We got these nice cards at the movie theater.

So our son’s girlfriend and her friend wanted to see Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour and our son wanted his brother along for company, so it ended up being all of us going, somehow. Her parents came along as well, and got us all our tickets. Not that I knew anything about Taylor Swift other than that she is immensely popular, and that she had a hit song called “Shake It Off.” I went because I always want to be in the zeitgeist, as this blog’s title indicates.

The theater was one of those dine-in places, and I grabbed a beer and a wine at the bar while Aileen ordered us some nachos. As we went in to the theater to sit down, an employee approached us and asked us what our favorite Taylor Swift song was. I answered “Shake It Off,” as that was literally the only one of her songs I knew of. “That’s in the show!” the employee said, and for my trouble she gave us each a sticker from a bag she was holding.

The seats were nice, not recliners but big and comfortable. We were sitting in front of our son’s girlfriend and her friend, and when I showed them my sticker, it turned out they hadn’t gotten any, so we gave ours to them. The friend in particular was a big fan, and had already seen the movie the previous night, at a different location.

The movie, which is a film of Swift’s currently touring concert, turned out to be very long (but not even as long as the actual concert, as I understand it). It was filmed at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, just last August. It was quite entertaining, and I enjoyed it throughout despite its length, and despite the small crowd of young girls who were noisily singing along to every song.

And I mean girls – just kids, some no more than 5 or 6, who knew every word of the lyrics, though I had to wonder if they really understood them. They were being supervised by their moms, who presumably were the ones who had indoctrinated them into the cult. The moms were about the same age as Taylor Swift herself, and recorded the girls on their phones as they paraded through the aisles and sang off-key. I’m sure it would have mortified any fire marshall, or voice instructor, who might have been there.

The show is a spectacle, with lots of fun sets with moving platforms, flashy costumes, and incredibly talented musicians and dancers. It is divided into multiple acts, each featuring songs from one of Swift’s albums, in chronological order. These are the “eras.”

But the thing about her music is, to me at least: all her songs sound the same. They have the same dancy beat, and I could barely tell the melody apart from one song to the next. The lyrics aren’t poetic so much as personal monologues, like each song is a journal entry. Her concert ends up being a musical about the last ten or fifteen years of her life.

What stands out about Swift’s performance isn’t her musical creativity so much as her incredible poise and presence. If she were an RPG character, her main stat would by charisma. I mean, she has it at legendary levels. How else do you think she got millions of followers? She’s been brashly telling them her life story through song, freely confessing to every insecurity and petty grievance, and they are hooked on it.

Swift is an iconic embodiment of the ambition and confidence of her generation of women. She’s a Millennial, and even identifies as such at one point in the program. Her generation was raised to believe in their specialness and their capability, and the women of her generation in particular have benefited from this upbringing. They are the “girl power” generation, and Taylor Swift surely projects power when she is on stage.

She projects the self-assurance of an independent woman, like the female pop singers of a slightly older age (Beyoncé is a great example) that came before her. I’m sure this is part of why the MAGA crowd is so annoyed with her. That and her support for Democratic candidates. It might be only superficially, but in her style and choices she is clearly on the side of the Culture Wars that supports diversity and inclusion. If MAGA has a problem with that, she just tells them: “you need to calm down.”

As I watched the spectacle on the screen, I realized that it reflected a vision of women and minorities empowered that is the antithesis of the reactionary MAGA vision. Taylor Swift’s cult of personality is thus in direct opposition to the one of that other guy. Joanna Weiss, writing for Politico, noticed this as well, commenting on the power of group belonging, and how it shapes politics.

Culture and politics instersect, and though Swift isn’t a politician, if her superfans of voting age follow her lead, she will certainly act as a counter to the other cult leader at the ballot box. His rallies might have their own energy and enthusiasm, but they don’t reach anywhere near the scale of a Taylor Swift concert. Judging from that alone, in the final anaylsis, the partiarchy doesn’t stand a chance.

A Gen X Life Story

A Gen X Life Story

As the girl and I headed off to our 40th high school reunion at the end of last month, I needed a book to read on the trip. I picked The Gen X Girl’s Journal by Kari Thorsdottir, which had been on my reading list for a while. It seemed appropriate since we are both Gen Xers, born around the same time as the book’s author. Based on the book’s cover, I expected something like a memoir about the Gen X young adult experience, full of trenchant social observations and pop culture trivia. That’s what you expect from my generation.

What I got instead was a novel that very directly and subjectively describes the life of a woman named Annika, from her freshman year in college in 1985 all the way to current times, ending in the year 2019. It is somewhat of a conventional life – Annika joins a sorority in college, graduates into a white collar career, marries and has two sons, and struggles with balancing family life and work life. There are a couple of story arcs that achieve closure by the end of the book, which finishes with her 30th year college reunion, but for the most part the narrative just goes through the paces of an ordinary life, up until middle age.

The writing lacks literary embellishment, simply describing events and the characters’ thoughts and emotions from a third person perspective. It sometimes dwells on specific events, and at other times skips years in a single paragraph, reflecting how we typically recall our lives. Some moments stick with us, even as the years fly by.

I enjoyed the read, even though the story is so basic. I mean, I’ve read other memoirs of Gen X women born around the same time as me. Some have led more interesting lives, like commercial jet pilot Laura Savino; while others, such as professional writer Sari Botton, write with more literary flair. But in its unassuming way, Kari Thorsdottir’s book drew me into Annika’s personal experience, with all the intimacy of a journal or diary. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was based on the author’s own life, even though it purports to be a work of fiction.

As was the case with the other memoirs by Gen X women that I have read, I found that despite the significant differences that come with being a man, I still recognized and could easily empathize with Annika’s life experiences. She tread territory that was familiar to me, since she was born at the same time as me. That’s what it means to belong to the same generation; you share the same course through history. Anyone from my generation – man or woman – could easily see a part of themselves in Annika. And anyone from any generation would gain a better understanding of the Gen X life course by reading this book.

Here is the author’s link tree if you want to get a copy-

Syncing up the Book Reviews

Syncing up the Book Reviews

I joined goodreads a while back, but it was after I started this blog. Since I joined goodreads, I’ve been reviewing every book I read on that site. But since I’ve reviewed books on this blog as well, and some of those were done before I was on goodreads, I realized that this blog and goodreads are not in perfect sync.

My OCD couldn’t handle this, so I paraphrased my blog reviews on goodreads for all the missing books, to plug in the gaps. Is there any point to this? Just me obsessing on feedbacking my life experience into the Internet, which is, after all, going to outlive me. The Internet is where our civilization is containerized, consumed, digested and stored for future use, for at least the intelligent reasoning and meaning processing aspect of civilization that Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called the noosphere.

Here’s a list of the book reviews that were added to my little ecosystem in the noosphere, where my thoughts may or may not add value to mental reality:

Memoir of a Millennial Childhood

Memoir of a Millennial Childhood

I recently finished this coming of age memoir, by Emi Nietfeld, a young woman born in the early 1990s. It was a fascinating read for me, since we have had such different lives, being a generation apart in age. I have read memoirs by women of my own generation, born around the same time as me, and honestly I recognize much of my own experience in what they recount. But not so much with this one.

Here is my review on goodreads:

A frank, revealing, and often harrowing coming of age memoir by a young woman, structured around her college admissions experience. The author comes from a disadvantaged background, facing many difficult constraints, including treatment for mental illness. In her mind, college represents an escape to a better future, but she becomes disillusioned when she realizes she must disguise her past in order to receive the acceptance she craves. I found this a fascinating read, since Emi Nietfeld’s life experience is so far removed from mine. I am from an older generation, and male, as well as having had a fairly ordinary family as a child. I did recognize in Nietfeld’s memoirs what I understand to be common themes for Millennial girls growing up: intense pressure to achieve and conform, confrontations with stubbornly dysfunctional adult institutions, and a panoply of self-destructive behaviors for stress release. I very much appreciate her openness and honesty describing her experience, which she does skillfully and even with a little humour, where she can find it. An eye-opening read and highly recommended.

As a long time student of generations, I have read a lot about the Millennial childhood experience, but of course that does not compare to actually living it. The closest I could come to that is, well, reading a memoir such as this one. I really was struck by how much the author’s experience aligned with what generational theory has to say about the Millennial peer personality, particularly the traits of: pressured, achieving, and conventional, if not so much sheltered *, since she had a tough family situation.

Nietfeld overcame the difficulties of her background, or at the very least made it out of childhood and into therapy, as she relates in her epilogue. She is active online, and you should easily be able to find her on social media, where she advocates for reforming institutions to better serve the needs of “troubled kids” in circumstances like the ones she faced. In particular, she is against the idea that a difficult childhood should be tolerated, or even accepted, as a means for someone to develop “grit” or “resilience” and emerge as a stronger person.

To me, this really stands out as a turning away from the attitude of my generation – Gen X. We believed that no one would look out for us, and that it was indeed up to us to develop the inner strength to withstand whatever abuses the world hurled at us. Emi Nietfeld’s response – that we should fix institutions to make them work, rather than avoid them as inherently unworkable – is the surest sign that she is a member of the Millennial generation.

*for more on the peer personality traits of Millennials growing up, see the book Millennials Rising by Neil Howe and William Strauss

2023 Season Recap: A Year of Change

2023 Season Recap: A Year of Change

Heraclitus, I believe, says that all things pass and nothing stays, and comparing existing things to the flow of a river, he says you could not step twice into the same river.

-Plato, Cratylus

2023 has been a year of milestones. It began with unexpectedly having my work contract end, after having been told I was renewed for another year. That turned out to not be so bad, as I was able to transition to another WFH job smoothly.

Then came the awful news that our sweet cat had a tumor, and only months to live. That was very bad; it was so hard saying goodbye to her. It was a terrible reminder of death’s constant presence, but also a chance to reflect on mortality and the meaning of life and of love in our lives, as Sashimi was so precious to us.

Death was busy this year; early in 2023 two people I knew died from cancer, both from the same generation as Aileen and I. One was an old college friend I hadn’t seen since graduation, and the other was a friend of Aileen’s from her theater work. In the summer, one of my uncles died. I hadn’t seen him since I was a kid, but he did pop up on my Facebook feed to say nice things all the time (that’s been my experience with a lot of Boomer relatives).

The real blow came just a little later, when a dear friend from back in the day, one whom I had been seeing every year at a sort of game retreat down in Virginia, succumbed to his illness. Mark was one of the original players in our old Dungeons & Dragons game, which started some time back in the 1980s and went on for decades after that. He and I rolled up characters on the same day, a pair of thieves that were part of the longest lasting campaign I ever played in. We were in an adventuring party that hasn’t been together in a very long time; two other members have already passed away, in years past. There aren’t many of us left.

Some of us old dungeonheads have been gathering once a year, every Februray, for a weekend of gaming down in Virginia. We don’t play the old campaign, of course, but other games of a similar flavor. At this year’s gathering, Mark announced that he had been diagnosed with cancer. He assured us he would still be there for the next year’s gathering. But sadly he fell into rapid decline in July, and passed away earlier this month. It was devastating news, hitting very close to home, since we had been in touch and had seen one another recently.

Aileen and I drove down to the visitation that same weekend, then back up to attend a baby shower. As I sat watching the expectant mother open her presents, while her grandparents sat beside her, the grandmother filming, I got teary eyed. Aileen leaned over to ask if I was alright. “Cycle of life?” she asked, and I nodded. I was thinking of that; in one weekend, we said goodbye to a friend, then welcomed a new person into the world. But also I couldn’t help but notice how old the grandparents were – why did they get to live to old age, when my friend died so young?

I’m sorry if I seem resentful. I know I shouldn’t be. We all get to live the life we are allotted, and none of us can know when our number will come up. I have been very lucky, and am very grateful that all my immediate family, including my parents, are still alive. In fact, this summer, we celebrated my Dad’s 80th birthday. Another milestone.

What is life but a series of milestones that we pass, on our journey to an unknown end? Who knows how many seasons are left, before the show is cancelled? As Aileen reminds me, live every day as if was your last.

Strategy Review: The Next American Nation

Strategy Review: The Next American Nation

Michael Lind published his amazing work, The Next American Nation, in 1995. It’s a book about how different versions of the American republic have emerged periodically, following revolutions every hundred years or so. Seeing as it came out just before one of my favorite books about such cycles, The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe, it’s kind of strange that I never read it until now. It is the most egregious example of a book that came out in the Third Turning that I am finally getting around to reading in the Fourth Turning (there have been many others). I should have been comparing Lind’s revolutions to the Strauss & Howe cycle decades ago! But no matter, I finally read it, and in this review I will discuss what I found.

Lind describes three historical versions of the American republic: the one after the founding of the United States, a second one after the U.S. Civil War, and a third one following the Civil Rights era. He also speculates on a possible fourth republic in the future (which could be now, since he wrote this over twenty-five years ago). It’s interesting that two of Lind’s revolutions coincide with Fourth Turnings from Strauss & Howe, but the third one does not, and also that Lind does not identify the New Deal as the founding of a new version of the American republic. I have seen the same pattern in another theorist’s version of waves or cycles of political change, and I’ll get to that point later in this post.

To Lind, it’s important to consider that the United States of America is a nation, and that it has (or should have) a national identity. It does not make sense to think of the United States as a federation of separate national groups (as implied by the “nine nations of America” idea), nor should it be considered a collection of people united by an ideal such as democracy, or individual rights, or free market capitalism. The United States is a nation, like any other, and it’s not even exceptional. It is not, for example, the only settler society consisting of people who are mostly descendants of immigrants from the past few hundred years. It is not the only nation with a diversity of ethnic groups and religions. It is a distinct and unique nation, to be sure, but so are all others.

As a nation, each version of the American Republic has four identifying characteristics: a national community, a common ethic, an elite class, and a national political creed. Lind’s book is very orderly, and he explains what he means and describes these characteristics clearly for each version of the Republic. I will do my best to summarize what he wrote.

The First American Republic, the one founded in 1789, Lind calls the Anglo-American Republic. The national community of that Republic was people of Anglo-Saxon heritage, and the common ethic was Protestant Christianity. So you can see he is straight up accepting that, in its founding, the United States was an exclusive nation for a particular ethnic community – those we would later call WASPs, the original privileged Americans. The First Republic was dominated by an elite class of Southern planters, and its political creed was the decentralized republicanism of Thomas Jefferson.

Massive immigration of non-Anglo Saxons (Germans and Irish primarily) throughout the nineteenth century undermined this order. After the Civil War came the Second American Republic, which Lind calls the Euro-American Republic. He states that the Civil War could be understood as a war between the Anglo-American South and the Euro-American North. The Second Republic’s national community was white people of European descent, and its common ethic was “Judeo-Christianity,” in that it was for the most part inclusive of Protestants, Catholics and Jews. In fact, it is from this “triple establishment” of religions that we get jokes that start with “a pastor, a priest, and a rabbi…”

The Second Republic’s elite was the Northeastern business and professional class, what might be called the new bastion of WASPness, or those who could claim descendance from the Mayflower. It’s political creed was a more democratically inclusive form of federalism, still decentralized but with more universal suffrage, and undeniably white supremacist. It was during the Second Republic that the frontier closed, and we got the “melting pot” concept – that America was forming a distinct culture out of the cultural elements of its many different immigrants. It was during this time that the concept of “whiteness” expanded to include all Europeans, not just Northern Europeans. Still, the Northeastern WASP elites dominated, and it is from them that we get what might be considered the quintessential elements of American culture: baseball, football, and how we celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas.

As already noted, Lind does not consider the Depression, New Deal, and Second World War era to be revolutionary or to have founded a new version of the American Republic. Instead, he identifies the next revolution as the Civil Rights movement of the mid-twentieth century, and declares that the Third American Republic, which he calls the Multicultural American Republic, was founded around 1972 with the end of the Civil Rights era and the establishment of affirmative action and racial preferences. The Multicutural American Republic doesn’t really have a national community, being something of an amalgam of different racial nations, and it lacks legitimacy in the public eye.

The Third Republic’s common ethic is one of ethnic authenticity – being true to whatever your particular race-based subculture is. Its political creed is multicultural democracy, reinforced by racial gerrymandering. Its elite is a white overclass, which maintains what might now be called the “neoliberal order” (though Lind doesn’t use that term), and allows a small number of non-whites into their class through affirmative action, which Lind calls a “racial spoils system.” This is a compromise made so that the white overclass can remain the elites without risking the unrest of another Civil Rights movement.

Clearly Lind recognizes the long shadow of white supremacy and white privilege in American history. But he could hardly be called “woke” (to use the current parlance); in fact he is generally considered to be a conservative. According to his Wikipedia page, in his works he upholds “American democratic nationalism,” which is basically the form of his ideal Fourth Republic. It’s a Republic that guarantees individual civil rights more universally, backed up by a vigorous yet limited central government – a vision closer to that of Alexander Hamilton than that of Thomas Jefferson, which perhaps explains the popularity of the musical.

In the Fourth American Republic (still to come), the national community is both a cultural melting pot and a racial melting pot, united by American English and an identifiable American culture. Its common ethic is what Lind calls “civic familism,” which is kind of a belief in the importance of family as the foundation of a stable society. Family life is private, and can be religious or not, and patriarchal or not; it can be whatever works for the particular family (think “modern family”), so long as it provides a stable base from which the family members can then engage publicly as responsible citizens. At least that was how I interpreted his argument.

The Fourth American Republic’s political creed is a national democracy where civil rights are uniform, and the law is absolutely color blind. This harkens back to the original civil rights vision of Martin Luther King, Jr., with his famous quote about judging people by their inner, not their outer qualities. This is what the revolutionary civil rights era was trying to bring about, before the compromise of affirmative action twisted its meaning and gave us the unsustainable racial preferences system of today. Or rather, the unsustainable system of the time when Lind wrote this book. Recently, affirmative action is under attack by the Supreme Court, which Lind might consider a step towards the Fourth Republic that he envisioned. But I haven’t seen anywhere that Lind agrees with this assessment.

Lind provides a long list of radical reforms that would be needed to bring about his revolutionary Fourth Republic, all meant to bust up the oligarchy and create a level playing field on which the racially-blind working class can thrive. These reforms include immigration restrictions, tariffs, progressive taxation, college tuition subsidies and caps, and an end not only to affirmative action in college admissions but also to legacy preferences. He warns that without these reforms, we could end up as a “Brazilianized” society with permanent racial castes, or succumb to a nativist backlash and a demagogue who attempts to restore the good-old white supremacy of the Second Republic.

Looking at the state of affairs today, in 2023, I imagine that Lind would recognize some things coming to pass that he wrote about in 1995. The rise of MAGA indeed seems like a nativist backlash with tinges of white supremacy (make America like the 1950s again). Its enemy in the civil conflict, wokeism, is like an entrenchment of the racial preferences regime of the “Third Republic.” So we are facing both of these possible negative outcomes that Lind warned about, and not much chance of achieving the reforms he advocated.

Michael Lind has written several more books since The Next American Nation, and frequently has opinion pieces published online. I haven’t read any of his other books, but from what I’ve seen of his online presence, he continues to beat the drum against oligarchy, and promote what he thinks are the best options for the working class. For example, in this piece he argues that we need to ditch neoliberalism and wokeism as tools of the elites, and need a coalition of pro-worker factions from both political parties to work together. He does not believe that we can achieve the Fourth Revolution by having one party or the other dominate in government; that will simply entrench the status quo, since those parties are captured by the elites.

As already discussed, it is notable that Lind considers the Civil Rights movement to be the Third Revolution that founds the Third Republic, rather than the New Deal, as identified in Strauss and Howe generational theory. I think this is because Lind is focused on understanding a nation as a cultural entity, supported by an instutitional framework, perhaps, but not defined by it. Strauss and Howe, in contrast, define their Crisis eras as periods of institutional transformation, or as they put it, changes to the external order. Roughly halfway between each Crisis, they identify another transformative era that they call an Awakening, in which what changes are social values – in other words, the internal order.

According to Strauss and Howe, the changes that Lind calls the Third Revolution were really changes to the internal order during the last Awakening. The “Multicultural Republic” that resulted is still the New Deal Republic, but with its institutions questioned and weakening, under assault from the new multicultural values. The reason this Third Republic (as Lind calls it) lacks legitimacy is that we haven’t yet fully passed through the Crisis era, from which a new institutional framework will emerge that incorporates (to a yet unknown extent) these new values. Once all the political dust settles from the Culture Wars battles now being fought in courts and legislatures, we’ll see how “woke” we end up becoming. When the political conflicts are finally settled, the new “Fourth Republic” will be accepted as legitimate, perhaps grudgingly by many, but legitimate nonetheless – at least in the sense that no one has the energy left to fight against it.

The other theorist who similarly identifies a new order emerging from a period later than the New Deal is Philip Bobbitt, with his theory of the market state as a new consitutional order coming out of the end of the Cold War. I tried to summarize his theory in a blog post some time back. I’ve actually posted quite a lot about the market state, and eventually come to the conclusion, in my own words: “that while Bobbitt is correct in his broader theory of periodic changes in the constitutional order, with the “market state” he has really just identified the priorities of the market-driven social era of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.” Bobbitt, like Lind, intuited a profound social change occurring in his time, and fit it into his theory in a way that made sense to him.

I think that Lind and Bobbitt both miss the New Deal era as a revolutionary period because of the focus of their respective theoretical frameworks. Lind is focused on national culture, while Bobbitt is focused on military strategy. To them, the New Deal may have seemed like a bureaucratic adjustment to the republic or constitutional order that came out of the Civil War, not an epochal event in itself. To Strauss and Howe, it was indeed epochal, part of the previous Fourth Turning, as defined by their generational framework.

It’s clear that Lind realized profound changes happened to American culture coming out of the 1960s and 1970s, a commonplace observation in social history. He labeled it the founding of a new Republic, whereas Strauss and Howe would have called it the beginning of the end of the Republic that came out of the New Deal era, with the real founding of a new Republic happening a couple of generations later, in the aftermath of the Fourth Turning that they predicted (and which we are now in). From a high enough view, I suppose, the difference is immaterial. The world is constantly in flux, and you can draw your lines wherever you want to try to make sense of it.

What’s important is that these different theorists identified a common pattern in the way social change plays out. Societies tend to go from an ordered state to a disordered one, as one would naturally expect, given entropy. At some point, after the order has broken down far enough, an impetus to restore order kicks in, and society is reordered, but in a new way. Because Lind identified the same pattern that Strauss and Howe did, his American Republics closely match the saecular orders of generational theory’s turnings, even though they don’t match exactly.

In The Next American Nation, Michael Lind lays out a hopeful vision of how the United States could remake itself along the lines of true racial equality and respect for individual civil rights, living up to an expansive interpretation of the ideals expressed at its founding. To get there requires a raft of sweeping structural changes to our social order, which seem impossible to achieve, after a quarter century of partisan politics and government gridlock, with cultural conflict and imploding civic trust making any semblance of order seem like a far away fantasy. What history tells us is that the conflict of this Fourth Turning cannot last forever; at some point its fuel will be expended, and like any fire it will burn out. Only then will we see order emerge from the ashes, but whether it resembles Lind’s Fourth Republic or not, we cannot know.