Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Exciting news, and why I love the internet

First, the exciting news: Wizards of the Coast has posted Chapter 1 of In the Claws of the Tiger on their web site. Go check it out! Read it! Start panting and drooling for more! Pre-order the book, using the link below and to the right!

And now, why I love the Internet. I got this email today:

Re: Flat on my back, continued...

I found this post on a search for percoset and nausea, as I am sitting here now dealing with both.  This entry was both entertaining and enlightening and took my mind off it for the moment.  Thanks, but now that I'm finished with it I need to go puke.  Not your fault, of course.
I was a little stunned that a search for "percoset nausea" on Google brought up my page as the seventh search result. "Holy cats!" I thought. "Drug companies would pay millions to get that high in the search rankings!" Then someone pointed out that the drug is spelled percocet. So it turns out that I made a random connection with a complete stranger because neither of us knows how to spell the name of the drug we are or were taking.

I blame the Percocet.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Two books in one weekend? Madness!

I got through How to Be Good and still had part of a long weekend left over, so there was another bookstore trip in my life, followed by my first exposure to Dean Koontz. I read Dark Rivers of the Heart on Sunday and yesterday, and (unfortunately) stayed up until 2 AM to finish the darned thing. Based on my reading of this book, I'd have to say... Koontz is not a great writer. He's got a way with outrageous similes which is probably best illustrated by examples, but I don't feel like wading through the book (and going upstairs to get it) in order to provide some. There were also a lot of "as though" type things that struck me as equally outrageous. I'm not sure how to explain what I mean. So an example I made up: "The sky glowered with heavy thunderclouds as though it were ready to pour the filthy water of a fifteen-year old fishtank down a partially clogged drain." I guess that's a form of simile, too. 

Anyway, so now I'm convinced that I am technically a better writer than Dean Koontz and Dan Brown put together. And that realization, despite appearances, is actually quite humbling, because it forces me to realize that there's more to being a writer than the technical skill of it. I mean, through both this book and The Da Vinci Code, I was scoffing the whole way through—at the similes in this book, the "history" in Brown's—and yet I stayed up until 2 AM to finish it, didn't I? And I read Da Vinci in 5 hours, pretty much straight. So there is artistry there, there is something that right now I can only hope to aspire to. 

Going to give Grisham a try next. I don't think I can read Crichton after his "journalism award."

Sunday, May 28, 2006

The randometer doesn't go high enough for this one....

A bunch to babble about.

A New Novel
I have officially entered novel-writing mode now, getting my second novel underway. I'm still working on the outline (fleshing out the initial pitch, which was my third pitch before I hit a home run, if you can follow that twisted metaphor, and trying to smooth over the plot issues that the editor and my boss identified in the pitch), but novel-writing mode means that for two days in a row now I have spent a couple of hours at the local Starbucks, sipping mocha Valencias in between banging my head and/or fingers against the keyboard.

Imagine my horror, then, when my friend Dave told me the other day that Starbucks was phasing out Valencia syrup.

I walked into Starbucks yesterday morning and met the manager by the door. I said, "Tom, tell me it isn't true!" He looked at me like I was crazy, and how could I blame him, and said, "What?" "Starbucks is phasing out Valencia?" He assured me this is not the case, that a directive did come from On High to relocate the Valencia syrup from the front shelf to the back, but it's a permanent fixture and won't go the way of the cinnamon dolce latte—that heavenly beverage that, this year, made the annual passing of eggnog latte season so much easier to bear. I was relieved. Honestly, I hadn't been sure how I was going to get this novel written with no mocha Valencias. 

Um, right, novel mode. It's another Eberron novel, in case I hadn't made that clear. There's no explicit connection between it and my first one, though I'm thinking about throwing in a few subtle links. I'm planning on spending at least half of every Friday through the summer working on it, rather than every morning. I don't know yet what impact, if any, that will have on my World of Warcraft playing... 

I'm Really a Grownup Now
I have a vivid memory of the day my first dog died. She was clearly very sick, but I had plans to go—gosh, I feel like it was skiing. Maybe that's why I never went skiing again. My father took her to the vet while I was gone. When I returned home, he tearfully told me that she was gone.

I remember being struck by his tears. My father never used to cry much (he's been different since his very serious illness about six years ago), and I never thought he was very fond of that dog.

My son just lost his first pet. It was a triops, a little crustacean akin to both horseshoe crabs and Sea Monkeys. We hatched it in April, just after returning from our trip to Legoland (did I ever write about that?). On Friday morning, after he left for school, I noticed that it was on its back and not moving its legs much. Friday night we were out late, and we came home and put him straight to bed, but I noticed that it had stopped moving entirely. I didn't tell him until Saturday morning. He took it very well, I guess because he always knew that it wouldn't live long. He alternated between tears and talk of mummifying it, all actually very sweet.

And I finally realized that my dad's tears all those years ago had less to do with his feelings for the dog than with his feelings for me. 

More Nick Hornby
This past Friday's trip to the bookstore resulted in another Nick Hornby novel, How to Be Good. Surprisingly, I found this book about a woman trying to deal with her husband's abrupt spiritual conversion far more depressing than the one about the four people who meet while preparing to kill themselves. It was just bleak. 

Perhaps bleakest was its portrayal of what I've begun calling the suburban dystopia, also exquisitely depicted in the hysterically funny movie Over the Hedge. The husband's spiritual conversion leads him to get the people on his street to take in homeless kids—basically, to put their money where their liberal mouths are. I am forced to admit that my family is one SUV (and perhaps weekly soccer practice) away from total absorption into that suburban dystopia, which was never what we intended. Hmmmm.

Lest you think that I never even think about D&D any more, here's a little tidbit from my work week last week. I was trying to fill a little white space in the Castle Ravenloft book that's coming out in October. It's in the hands of our exceedingly wonderful Managing Editor, Kim Mohan, right now, and the new adventure format demands nicely-fitting two-page spreads. So I figured I'd fill out an encounter spread by including helpful text about Improved Grab and Constrict. I went back to the D&D Open that Andy Collins and I wrote two years ago, where we included similar text for a shambling mound. I came to the part where it described how the shambling mound deals 4d6+12 points of damage on a successful grapple check. And that was the first time I realized that, when we say, "A shambling mound deals 2d6+7 points of damage on a successful grapple check," what we really mean is, "A shambling mound deals an additional 2d6+7 points of damage on a successful grapple check, for a total of 4d6+12." You have to go to the MM glossary entry on Constrict to find that out, however. I'm going to have to see what I can do to fix that.

Mike's Game
My only regular gaming recently has been in a lunchtime game that Mike Mearls runs. I'm playing Lucan, a middle-aged human cleric of Pelor. Funny roleplaying story: I decided, before showing up for the first session, that as my roleplaying hook I would pick one other PC that my sister was in love with. And I'd just be along because I promised her I'd keep that character safe. I picked spells like shield other so I could do the totally defensive cleric to the T. Then I show up, and the other characters include a kobold sorcerer, a goliath binder, a dwarf druid mounted on a camel, a shifter fighter/barbarian/something-or-other, and a human scout. In retrospect, I'm not sure why I didn't pick the human scout—it seems like that would have been the most obvious choice. But I sort of halfheartedly picked the goliath. Then that first session, I tried to cast a cure on him and it turned out that the particular vestige he had bound required him to fail a save in order to be affected by divine spells coming from a good deity. *sigh* A couple weeks later, that character died—the one fatality of the campaign so far. So much for my roleplaying hook. Fortunately, I never told anyone in the group about my character's sister. :)

Anyway, it's a fun game. Mike is doing all the between-combat stuff over email between sessions, and tries to build big encounters that will pretty well fill the hour. I mostly show up and kill things—my time between games is too cluttered. But it's fun. And I'm hoping to restart my monthly games (both the one I run and the one Andy Collins runs) pretty soon.

Speaking of Andy Collins, my son and I were at his house Friday night (when we got home late to find his triops dead). We were participating in the sort-of-monthly werewolf game that he and Gwendolyn host and run. And no, I don't mean the White Wolf roleplaying game; I mean the bizarre party game where you try to suss out who among the group is the werewolf who's been slaughtering townsfolk during the night. Every day the villagers hang someone, and every night the werewolf(s) kill someone, and the werewolves win if their numbers ever equal the number of remaining villagers. It's fun, trust me.

Well, I am almost never the werewolf, which is good, because I'm not a good liar. But this time around I drew the werewolf card three times in four or five games. And the werewolf team actually won I think two of those times. Good stuff.

And that's it for now. Deep and enlightening, right? Um, I mean, pretty much totally random. Oh well. Better than nothing, I hope.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Alternate realities

First, let me link downward to my ramblings about The Da Vinci Codesince I and others have been pointing people to it.

Now, on to my random musings of the day.

It's possible that my "midlife crisis," such as it is, began one day when we lived in Berkeley. I was walking through the city (what a beautiful city; I miss it) and thinking about crows. Wondering what kind of social groups they form, how they've adapted to life in an urban environment, that sort of thing. Neurons associated with that memory seem to be closely linked with neurons associated with the memory of reading something about how smart crows are: they can figure out how to get something hanging on the end of a string by pulling on the string, holding it in place with a foot, then pulling more, repeating until the tasty morsel is in reach.

The point of this being that, at that point, I started constructing an alternate identity for myself: an urban ornithologist. I'd study crows and other birds that adapted to urban environments. (I heard on the Scientific American podcast just yesterday morning that those populations are among the few bird populations that aren't in trouble due to human expansion, as you'd expect, I suppose.) 

Over the years, I have imagined other alternate identities. Around the same time, I started working through The Vein of Gold, a sequel to The Artist's Waythat's about unlocking your creativity. (Never made it all the way through; can't really recommend for or against.) One of the things that book asked me to write about was, "If I had 5 other lives to lead, I would be..." My answers, on 2/20/1999:
(a) an astronomer (SETI, cosmology)
(b) an ornithologist! (crow behavior)
(c) a computer programmer
(d) a bestselling novelist
(e) a composer

The ornithologist one is actually kind of amusing, because I was really into birds when I was in elementary school, and thought at the time that I wanted to be an ornithologist when I grew up. 

So the other day I was thinking about the question again. I alluded to the professor of New Testament alternate life in an earlier entry. I've got a random new one: A cultural anthropologist. Specifically, I'm fascinated by the little crosses you see erected on the roadside to commemorate someone's death on the road. There's one I pass every morning driving my son to school, and I noticed the other day that it's been cleaned up, maybe replaced. Who's doing it? When do they come? Why that site, rather than a grave? Is there a message it's intended to convey? How does it fit in to rituals and psychological processes of grieving? 

Wow, look what I found. Fascinating! Oh, and this one too.

Science tends to play a big role in my alternate realities, which is also kind of funny, because of how fully I turned my back on science in college and since. Maybe one could argue that I have embraced the emotional, spiritual, and creative parts of my personality while neglecting the rational-scientific. One of the things I really enjoyed about doing web and multimedia design was that I felt that work used "both sides of my brain"—the creative aspect was in perfect synergy with the technical work. To an extent, I think that's true of game design. So maybe my recent renewal of interest in science serves to counterbalance all the creative energy I've spent writing novels and such. :)

So the professor of New Testament is an alternate career I could theoretically still pursue. The others seem less realistic somehow. Well, bestselling novelist isn't too far-fetched, I guess, especially depending on how far down the New York Times bestseller list you still consider to be "bestselling." 

All right, enough rambling. Quickly: I've been back at work this week, with my back mostly better. Still some discomfort, and I'm writing this from my accustomed place on the couch, knees up. But I actually think that it's helped to be up and around. And it's been good for my spirits (and spirit) to be back at work and out of the house and such. I'm still working on an outline for my next Eberron novel, but I hope to start writing in earnest within the next couple of weeks. I started a new WoW character on Khaz Modan so that I can, once again, play with others. Play Horde on Khaz Modan? I'm Shazu, currently a 9th-level troll shaman. The weather has been beautiful the last several days. This afternoon, a quorum of the D&D design staff held our twice-weekly meeting at Baskin Robbins. I didn't even notice any funny looks as we talked about dwarves and elves. 

Hey, on that topic: What races do you play? What goes into your decision of what race to play? How much is it a mechanical choice, and how much do you make the decision based on other factors ("I like dwarves" "Elves look cool" "Goliaths have a really interesting culture")? Beyond the mechanics, what do you feel it's most important for you to know about a new race if you're going to play one?


Thursday, May 11, 2006

More Reading

Yes, still flat on my back. I've finished a six-day course of steroids (a prednisone taper, which I remember fondly from my days writing documentation for medical records software—we liked to show off how easy it was to code a macro that would prescribe the gradually decreasing dosage), and I can now stand up easily and remain sitting or standing for short periods of time with only occasional burst of relatively mild pain and a slowly increasing dull ache. Hm. I think I need to go back to the doctor.

In the meantime, I've been doing more reading, in addition to working on the outline for my next novel and playing World of Warcraft (my warlock on Argent Dawn, Dairon, is now 35th level, though my friends on that server are either off on different servers or engrossed in D&D Online right now). Irish Cream by Andrew Greeley was a pretty light read with little in the way of lasting impression, and I'd have to say the same for Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart, though that was a pleasantly amusing fantasy. Then today I finally broke down and read The Da Vinci Code, because I didn't want to see the movie without having read the book. Now I'm not sure I want to see the movie.

So, it was a good story. Even as I was snorting and occasionally yelling about grievous inaccuracies in historical and Biblical scholarship in the book, I kept turning the pages. I read the book in about 5 hours. I can't say it's hugely well-written: there are long sections of exposition, at least three places where characters respond to things that other characters have thought to themselves rather than spoken aloud, and one terribly inconsistent chapter (chapter 63, with the cars). But it kept me turning pages—all 454 of them—so I have to admit that the story was an effective thriller.

Of course, I had problems with it. This is not my first exposure to the elaborate Grail legend that proposes a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, leading to a bloodline traced down to the Merovingian kings. I don't believe it, but not because I cling to the idea that Jesus was a celibate. Heck, I know Peter (the "first Pope") was married, because Jesus healed his mother-in-law (Matt 8:14, Mark 1:30, Luke 4:38), and you can't have a mother-in-law without being married (and why would you want to?). As this book and many others have pointed out, if Jesus had not been married, that would have been strange enough that it would likely have received comment or explanation in our canonical gospels. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn't. I also know from the Bible and respectable Biblical scholarship that Jesus was hardly ascetic in other aspects of his life—eating and drinking, with whoever would share his table, was a significant part of his ministry, and he wasn't drinking grape juice. 

My problems with the whole Holy Grail—Mary Magdalene thing is twofold (there might be a third, but it's a relatively minor point):

1) According to Brown's version of the legend, Mary was pregnant at the time of the crucifixion and, with the help of Joseph of Arimathea (Jesus' uncle? where did that come from?), fled to France to protect her baby. Hm. Maybe. And yet Jesus' brother, James (Matt 13:55, Mark 6:3) held a position of leadership in the church after Jesus' death (Acts 1:14). The fact that there's a letter of James in the canonical New Testament indicates that his authority was respected, at least partly because of his blood relationship to Jesus. Same thing with Jude. So if the brothers of Jesus didn't flee, but used his spiritual and hereditary authority to take leadership in the Church, why would Jesus' wife and daughter flee rather than claim their own authority?

2) Speaking of Mary's own authority... By some accounts Mary Magdalene is the first witness to the Resurrection (I guess she didn't flee to Gaul until after that, anyway), and "the apostle to the Apostles" by virtue of being the one who told all the men that Jesus was risen (Matt 28:10, John 20:17–18). There's some evidence to suggest that her authority in the ancient church was, in fact, more considerable than any surviving records tell us, and was, in fact, suppressed by the expanding Roman church as it consolidated its power and spread its brand of orthodoxy. But that authority derives from her role as an apostle, not from a role as a wife and mother. The Grail legend, as Brown retells it, subverts her genuine spiritual authority into a consequence of her being Jesus' wife. If anything, the Grail legend as recounted by Brown actually supports the position of the Roman Catholic Church in granting authority to women only in subordinate roles. It continues to deny the spiritual authority of women.

3) The relatively minor one, but I'll mention it anyway. It strikes me as pretty darned Eurocentric to propose that the bloodline of Jesus and Mary linked up with a French royal line. Eurocentric and all pro-monarchy and stuff. That alone doesn't mean it's not true, but it does make me wonder about the political agenda of the people who came up with this stuff.

And quickly: 

• The tetragrammaton (YHWH) is derived from the androgyne name Jehovah? No, "Jehovah" is a clumsy Christian attempt to read the tetragrammaton with the vowels of "Adonai" superimposed on it.
• The Council of Nicea didn't introduce the idea of Jesus' divinity. The only question under debate at that Council was whether the Word that had incarnated in Jesus (the Logos mentioned in John 1:1) was equal with God or was simply the first of God's creations (the Arian position). Nobody at that time questioned that the more-or-less-divine Word had been incarnate in Jesus.
• To argue that the Nag Hammadi texts (and the Dead Sea Scrolls, which to my knowledge are all pre-Christian), all the gospels that were not incorporated into the canon, (a) were earlier than the gospels that were included in the canon, and (b) portray a more human Jesus, is just absurd. Reading those texts, it is often hard to recognize the Jesus they portray as remotely human. In fact, there were gnostic teachers who argued that Jesus was so pure and perfect that he didn't go to the bathroom. The Synoptic gospels we have in the canon (Matthew, Luke, and especially Mark) do a darned fine job of portraying a very human Jesus.
• And while he's busy touting the divine feminine, his one female character—who's supposed to be a great cryptographer, by the way—is pretty stupid and helpless through the whole thing, and her main purpose seems to be being reunited with her family and falling in love with the hero (who completely forgets about the other love of his life somewhere along the way). So much for the divine feminine.
• The discussion of phi was interesting. It makes me want a widescreen PowerBook. (The 1024 x 768 of my 12-inch PowerBook is only 1-1/3:1. The widescreen models are both 1.6:1, much closer to the Divine Proportion.)

So here's the thing. It seems to me that there are two threads that the author is trying to weave together, here. One is the Grail-Magdalene-Merovingian legend, and the other is the importance of the divine feminine. I actually think that those two themes work at cross purposes (no pun intended). He tries to argue that the church suppressed evidence of Jesus' humanity, including his marriage to Mary Magdalene—and he ends up turning Mary Magdalene into a Goddess. And, as I discussed before, he subverts Mary's spiritual authority by suggesting that her only claim to authority was as a wife and mother. I am sympathetic to the need to reclaim a sense of the divine feminine, as well as a more inclusive attitude to the role of women in religious life (but no, not a return to the hieros gamos, except insofar as an actual marriage can be holy, which I think is significant). But I think Brown errs in yoking that agenda to the Grail theory.

Thursday, May 4, 2006

Flat on my back, continued...

Well, I saw my doctor yesterday, then this morning I had an MRI of my lower back. Turns out I have a herniated disk—more or less the same problem my father had 25 years ago, when he was just about 5 years older than I am now. What the heck do you know.

So I am off work for at least the rest of the week, and starting to get bored. Although the Percoset makes some things particularly interesting. It used to be that standing up from prone, besides being a move action that provokes attacks of opportunity, was simply an exercise in excruciating lower-back pain. Now it has the added fascinating dimension of dizziness and nausea! Good times never cease.

I did not set out to whine. I'm not sure what I did set out to do, besides write as a way of killing the mind-numbing boredom. And I figured I could say anything I darned well pleased, then blame the Percoset. I took another dose about a half-hour ago, and things are definitely getting funny.

Rob Heinsoo had this response to my post about midlife crises:

I certainly acknowledge that roads not taken *were* not taken, but I'm slightly more assured that interesting flashing shadows are still available in our ongoing lives. Nothing is ever really over. 

I acknowledge and welcome that truth, but in my mind, there's something significant going on that is about accepting that some choices close off other options. I know that, in theory, I could leave my job, go get a Ph.D. in New Testament studies, and possibly get a new job as a professor. I could do that, and I could create a new life for myself that would make me happy—possibly just as happy as I am with this life. But I feel like the important thing for me right now is to realize and accept that I'm probably not going to. That thought doesn't make me particularly sad, perhaps a little wistful. It's like going through boxes of old photos and packing them up. ("My yesterdays are all boxed up, and neatly put away"—Sheryl Crow) 

I suppose that people who turn midlife into a crisis react to that realization with panic. They might look at some of their not-taken paths and decide they need to pursue them now. And so they quit their jobs and leave their wives and start chasing their other dreams. I don't even mean to be as judgmental about that as I sound. I guess what I'm trying to say is that, hey, I'm entering midlife now. I'm not going to have a crisis about it. It's merely interesting to observe. And it's drawing me back into a more reflective state of mind than I've experienced in a while, which is something of an added bonus for those of you who enjoy reading my doped-up ramblings. (Yes, both of you.)

I had an additional thought on Us and Them, since I finished it the other night: In describing an experiment conducted in 1954 where the researchers artificially created, and then broke down, a strong sense of us-and-then thinking among a group of young campers, Berreby writes: "Freud arrogantly called this kind of line drawing 'the narcissism of minor differences': the boys stretched to set each tribe apart precisely because they were so alike.The arrogance lies in the assumption that someone else... can decide which differences are minor and which are not... His catchy phrase invites you to condescend to people whose differences don't matter to you, letting you imagine that this gives you insight into your problems. But it doesn't. When it comes to human kinds, all differences are equal: equally minor, because we can find differences so easily between any two people; and equally grave, because once a difference is taken seriously, it has power to alter thoughts and feelings."

I remember the college religion class where my professor introduced the idea of "marginal differentiation." In the context of discussing the Gospel of Matthew, which takes pains to point out the differences between Jews and the early Christian community which produced Matthew's gospel, small differences in the interpretation of Jewish law were taken extremely seriously. Why? Because in every other way, my professor argued, the two communities were so very similar. He compared it to advertising campaigns that make a big deal out of ribbed condoms (do they really make any difference) or ridged potato chips. (To this day, I can't see a bag of Ruffles without thinking of ribbed condoms and the Gospel of Matthew. Huh.) I think this concept of marginal differentiation is more or less the same as Freud's "narcissism of minor differences," minus the condescension. 

Which reminds me of another story. The private school my son attended several years ago was trying to get up to speed on issues of diversity, and to that end brought in a very interesting guest speaker to talk about racism. He started the workshop by having the attendees divide ourselves into three groups based on our answer to this situation: You drive along a stretch of highway every day, and you know that the left lane is closed some distance ahead. At what point do you merge right: early, at the last minute, or somewhere in between? Once we had grouped ourselves, he had us talk to each other about why we chose the way we did, and that discussion actually got pretty heated.

In making the transition from that conversation to a discussion about race, he said something to the effect of, "Look how much emotion got stirred up when I divided you according to the way you drive. How much more emotional do people get when we talk about race?" I actually raised my hand and said, "I don't get worked up about race. I don't care what color your skin is, but people whose driving is dangerous or selfish have an impact on me every day of my life!" The way we group people into kinds, as Berreby says, has a lot to do with the emotional weight we attach to those kinds. That's about the only thing that makes some kind-groupings more important, more "real" in some sense, than others. Any grouping is only as significant as people make it, in much the same way that money only has value because we all agree it does. 

Why am I going on about this? Well, because I think it's interesting. And blame the Percoset. :) For more thoughts:

I guess that's about enough for tonight.

Tuesday, May 2, 2006

I've been reading lately...

Maybe because my novel is finished, and I still have yet to plunge into the next one, maybe because World of Warcraft is starting to lose some of its appeal, maybe because going to the megabookstore has become both a favorite Friday-evening family event and what my wife and I do on the rare occasions we get dates, but I've been reading some books. It's pretty cool, this reading thing. You might think I read a lot—it sure seems like a lot of "our kind" (more on that in a minute) do, but the painful truth is that I buy more books than I read. I have too many other things competing for my attention, including writing books. And given that my day job involves writing books, it's sometimes hard to spend a lot of time outside of work with words. 

But I love words, and books. I can't get around that. And now that I've started reading more, it's feeling really good, and I don't want it to stop.

And right now I just want to blather about some of the books I've been reading. (I am flat on my back today, as I was yesterday. I did something inexplicable to my back—I think it was nothing more elaborate than sitting on the floor to play Xiaolin Showdown with my son, but I'm pretty well immobilized. Fortunately, I have a laptop,which allowed me to spend most of the day yesterday playing WoW. This morning, though, was server maintenance, so I read instead. Hence this post.)

A couple of months ago I read The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger. It was a really interesting premise—a man who involuntarily travels through time, visiting his wife in her childhood as well as his own childhood and some glimpses of the future. But it actually left me depressed for like three days afterward. I'm still not entirely sure why, but I think the main part of it is that I was dissatisfied with Claire spending her whole life waiting for Henry, including a period of many years after his death. Hope that's not too big a spoiler for those of you who haven't read it yet. Still, the book was well-written and enjoyable.

I've been making my way through The Tales of the Last War, the Eberron short-story anthology that includes a sort of prologue to my novel. It's very cool to read other authors' takes on the world and the war, and it is definitely inspiring my work, though I haven't finished it yet.

On Saturday I read A Long Way Down, by Nick Hornby, to whom my only previous exposure was the movie version of High Fidelity. That was quite good. During a relatively melancholy period of my life a couple years ago, I referred often to the sentences that open High Fidelity: "What came first, the music or the misery? Did I listen to music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to music?" I had observed my tendency, when feeling blue, to put on melancholy music (made so much easier by my iPod), which only fed the misery—to the point where I could never be sure whether I had actually been feeling blue before I put the music on or not. Then I created a playlist called The Happy Drug, and I've been feeling much better, thank you. 

Anyway, you'd think that line about misery and my experience with The Time Traveler's Wife should have warned me off of Nick Hornby. That, and the fact that the book's cover copy clearly states that it's about four people who meet on a rooftop, planning to throw themselves off. But it was actually a very enjoyable book, with no lingering depressive aftereffects.

I've also been reading Scientific American recently, thanks to my discovery of the Scientific American podcast. I am not a scientist by training—in fact, I took no hard science in college at all, meeting the requirements (or guidelines, at that time) by virtue of the AP physics I did in high school (as well as AP calculus and the one semester of multivariate calculus I took my first semester of college). Nevertheless, I enjoy both the magazine and the podcast a great deal. 

And that's what led me to the book I'm reading now, which was what prompted this post and the couple of wacky things I'm going to talk about in a minute. The book is Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind, by David Berreby. (I'm sorry, folks, but I'm hopelessly frustrated with the Amazon affiliate system, so you're just going to have to look the books up on your own. However, if you'd do me the courtesy of clicking one of the links to the right to get to Amazon in the first place, I'd sure appreciate it.) 

The book was reviewed in Scientific American Mind and discussed on the podcast. It's basically a neuroscientist's approach to the question of how and why our brains seem inclined to divide people into categories—fundamentally, to decide who is "Us" ('like me") and who is "Them" ("not so much like me"). It is not a frighteningly scientific book—in fact, I spent the first several chapters wishing he'd hurry up and get to the point, because I felt like he was ccarefully laying groundwork that I didn't need him to go over. I'm getting into the meat of it now, though, and again, finding it very interesting. 

At some point in this last chapter, though (Chapter 10, for those of you following along at home), I started thinking about "D&D players" as a human kind of which I am a member. I certainly appreciate that talking to other D&D players makes me feel included, like there's a common language we share. And I've heard other people talk about what a great relief it is to find other players after a long period of isolation—almost like a homecoming, such a relief to find other people who understand what you mean when you're talking about paladins and mind flayers. 

Andy Collins posted a bit on his website recently about "lifestyle games," those games (including D&D) that, essentially, define a kind of person in a way that family games generally don't. (To speak of "Sorry! players" as a meaningful human kind would, I think, be a little facetious, although "Scrabble players"—or at least, "serious Scrabble players" has more weight to it.) And it's certainly the case that the folks in charge of the D&D brand and marketing have begun to embrace that concept recently, of which the D&D bumper stickers are but one sign. 

But whenever I think about that idea, and the related concept that "geek chic" is gaining acceptance in the U.S., that, somehow, it's becoming cool to be a nerd, I think about the guy at GenCon in 2003, who wasn't attracted to the cool shoulder bag with the D&D logo that we were giving away with a purchase of the 3.5 core books. He wasn't comfortable admitting his identity as "the kind of person who plays D&D," and I know there are lots of people like him out there. And I think Berreby's book makes some key points about why that is.

"All people are members of human kinds, and so whenever human kinds are the subject, the conversation feels personal. Reading the news in the morning, we're pained to learn that studies show 'our people' are fat, or do poorly on math tests, or don't spend enough time with their children. We're proud and pleased when our athletes win at the Olympics, or when we read that our troops acted nobly. We're scared when we learn about a human kind that threatens ours." (p. 27)

"Ever felt anxious that you're not a good mother? Or said some act—burning the flag, torturing prisoners—was 'un-American'? You were referring to the map of human kinds to place yourself.
"That act makes for strong emotions. We want other mothers to be good to their children, even if we never meet them; we want soldiers of our nation to behave decently, even if we'll never know what they did. We want to feel good about our human kinds and, through them, ourselves." (p. 44)

I think that's the key thing. Many of us have had a lot of exposure to people we'd have to include in "our kind"—D&D players, or fans of fantasy fiction, or gamers in general—that we're a little uncomfortable identifying ourselves with. It's not just a question of the stereotypes that other people have of gamers, but of our own exposure to people we'd just as soon not be lumped in a group with. If I tell you I'm a gamer, or if I walk down the street with the D&D logo emblazoned on my bag or drive around with a D&D bumper sticker on my car, I am inviting others to group me in with a human kind that a lot of people have had very limited, and not very positive, exposure to. 

Because of my job, it's almost impossible for me to avoid identifying myself as a D&D player. What's been surprising to me since I started this job, over six years ago now, is how rarely that has ever been a negative experience for me. My experience in The Sound of Music last fall is a good example. So here I am, a D&D designer working with an explicitly Christian theater company. Hey, I'm a Christian, I don't have a problem with this, but I sort of expect to meet some raised eyebrows, at least, since conservative Christian churches have typically been among the least welcoming for "my kind" of people. (Among other kinds.) What do I find instead? The director's brother works for GenCon. The guy who's playing the Captain has a brother-in-law or nephew or something (I can't remember now) who's into D&D. The young woman playing Liesl—her husband is into Magic and D&D. Two of the stage crew are active players. I ended up bringing in autographed copies of a couple of my books for all these people, and never once met with a, "Isn't that Satanic?" sort of response. In fact, about the worst I've ever heard is, "Wow, do people still play that?"

Surprise, surprise. Maybe the marketeers are right, and "geek chic" is in. It's certainly true that wearing my hobby on my sleeve has prompted a lot more positive interactions than negative ones. There was the guy on the street in Key West, Florida who saw my 3.5 T-shirt and struck up a conversation, and actually knew who I was once I told him my name. My optometrist used to play D&D, back in high school. And of course there's the good Christians in The Sound of Music. Not to mention all of you who bother to read my random, bed-ridden ramblings, many of whom I will never meet except by email.

You know what? It turns out that "our kind of people" can be pretty darned cool.