Friday, May 25, 2018

Chris sez SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY is a great fun ride that put him in his place!

Well, they sure showed me.

Toward the end of Solo, there is a brief scene with Emilia Clarke's character Qi’ra.  And maybe it shocked the audience and made jaws hit the floor but for me it was much more upheaving.

Without spoiling for anyone who hasn't seen this movie yet, let's just say that one of the reasons I haven't written anything about the Star Wars animated series The Clone Wars and Rebels is because I have seen very little of them.  Not only because there was lack of time to adequately invest myself into those shows but primarily that I hadn't taken them seriously at all.  And at the heartmeat of the matter is one character.  No offense meant to Dave Filoni but the moment they announced this person was getting injected into The Clone Wars I lost all interest in that show and then again in Rebels.  It was cheap, petty, reeked too much of being "gimmicky".  So it is that in my own personal canon of Star Wars, The Clone Wars and Rebels didn't exist.  And for years I've said this to countless many fellow fans: "The only way I will possibly accept Filoni's animated shows as legitimate Star Wars is if (redacted) is brought into the live action films and confirmed there to be (redacted)".

Last night at the first showing of Solo, seeing it with Codename: Dot Matrix and being haunted afterward until the sun arose wondering what this sweet and lovely lass must have thought when her friend went into full-tilt wacko Star Wars existential crisis upon seeing THAT particular character on the screen, big as life and twice as ugly (wait, was that a double or even triple entendre?)...

Dear Dave Filoni and Star Wars Story Group head honcho Pablo Hidalgo: well played, boys.  Well played indeed.  I suppose now I really will have to watch aaalllll of those seasons of Rebels and The Clone Wars.  Expect fat bonuses from Disney for this particular stunt as sales of Blu-ray season sets and digital downloads will crash through the ceiling after this weekend.

So here it is.  Solo: A Star Wars Story.  The film that some were scrying would be as bad or worse than Batman & Robin.  That movie was Detroit sewage on the Ross Ice Shelf and two decades later some of us still can't expunge its cinematic reek out of our nostrils.  But certainly a Star Wars movie couldn't be that bad... right?  RIGHT?!?

The odds were against it.  Solo's production history has been the most beleaguered of any Star Wars movie to date.  Leaked stories about how much of a mess the script was, Alden Ehrenreich's alleged lack of sufficient acting talent for the role of Han Solo, the dismissal well into filming of co-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller necessitating bringing on Ron Howard to take over... all signs pointed to this being a disaster.  And then there was plain and simple matter of "Do we really need or even want this movie?  Is the story of young Han Solo something that merits being told?"

Friends, Romans, countrymen, fellow geeks and nerds and dweebs, lend me your auditory organs!  You can be of good cheer: Ron Howard and his crew have indeed turned in a fine and enjoyable addition to the Star Wars mythology.  And it gets this Star Wars uberfan's hearty Seal of Approval™.

But there are some things that I feel obligated to address about Solo: A Star Wars Story in writing a review:

There have been an astonishing four Star Wars films released over the course of the past two and a half years.  And of that quartet, Solo is by far the most light-hearted and least cerebral.  And maybe it's not the Star Wars movie we "needed" per se, but as a one-shot side tale complementing the heavier drama of this franchise it's a terrific lil' ride.  Solo is not necessarily a movie that a fan must see over and over again during its theatrical run, but it's certainly worth catching at least once.  Many have projected this to be the least-earning to date of any of the Star Wars movies.  I can understand why that would be, but that wouldn't and shouldn't be a reflection on the quality of the film itself.  Solo is a summer popcorn movie.  The kind you see with friends and family and you can unplug yourselves for a few hours and just throw your hands in the air and holler and laugh and throw yourselves into the moment.  Y'know, like what A New Hope must have been forty-one Mays ago today.  Before The Empire Strikes Back cranked up the gravitas and pegged the needle three years later.

Solo: A Star Wars Story isn't required viewing to keep up with the saga.  But it certainly is a fun one.  Whether you see it in the theater now or some months from now on Blu-ray or whatever at home, preferably with those aforementioned friends and family.

It's not without some due criticism though.  After a rollickin' desperate ordeal for our hero in the first part or so the film tends to slow down, though the pace does pick up again.  Maybe too much too fast though.  The rumors of script problems were not without a threat of truth: some of Solo is hard to follow.  Confusing even.  It reminded me of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.  The betrayals, backstabbing and conniving in that movie made it genuinely difficult to follow for too much of its running time.  Solo isn't quite that bad, but the Kasdan Boys could have tightened this script up and made it a tad more cohesive.  And something I've read mentioned by others since the film opened last night: Solo is dark.  Not "it's a very dark story" but that it could have been more brightly lit in terms of cinematography.  At first I thought it might have merely been the particular screen that Codename: Dot Matrix and I saw it on, but others are likewise reporting it at their own locations.

That being said, hey... it's a fun film.  It's a Star Wars movie for a Memorial Day weekend, though let us not forget the real reason for this holiday.  To honor and remember those who gave all so that the rest of us can have movies and everything else that this land has been abundantly blessed with.  To be thankful for that.  I hope that we can be.

Alden Ehrenreich's portrayal of young Han Solo was spot-on perfect.  He brings the smile and swagger that we recognize and cherish later on in the saga.  But if even perfection can be eclipsed, it certainly is done so by Donald Glover's portrayal of Lando Calrissian.  Every moment of Glover as Lando is a whole heap o' hootworthy delight.  Glover doesn’t just "get" Lando, he IS Lando.  I had been quietly hoping for a "works every time" homage to Billy Dee Williams but alas!  Not this time.  And speaking of Glover as Lando: he is not a "social justice pansexual" despite what co-writer Jonathan Kasdan said a few days ago.  I thought Lando in Solo was definitely a lady's man.  Though it should be duly noted that Lando doesn't care WHAT form the lady comes in, be it human or alien or droid.  If that's pansexual, then just think of Donald Glover's Lando as a supercharged James T. Kirk from the original Star Trek and your conscience can be comforted.  It certainly shouldn't be enough to dissuade parents from taking their small children to see Solo.  And I hope it never becomes that for any Star Wars film, but I addressed that issue a few blog posts earlier.

Joonas Suotamo, successor to Peter Mayhew as the one in the Chewbacca costume, does great honor to the man who brought everyone's favorite fuzzball to life on the screen in 1977 and so many times since.  Woody Harrelson can now proudly boast a Star Wars notch on his belt: his Tobias Beckett is a strong figure in the life of Han Solo.  Very much a Long John Silver type, and that was intended apparently.  Emilia Clarke as Han's now grown-up childhood friend Qi-ra had depth.  Perhaps not as much as seven or eight seasons worth of Daenerys on Game of Thrones can afford, but she turns in a good performance that portends we may see more of her in the role.  I did want to see more of Thandie Newton though.  She has become a powerhouse presence on HBO's Westworld as the rogue host Maeve and seeing her in a Star Wars film was something I had increasingly been looking forward to.  Paul Bettany, as crime lord Dryden Vos, reminded me of Al Capone as Robert De Niro played him in The Untouchables, though Dryden doesn't wield a baseball bat (he uses something much more wicked).  Lando's droid L3-37 quickly endeared itself to the audience, much as K-2SO did in Rogue One a year and a half ago.  It would be wonderful if L3's presence could be asserted again in a future Star Wars film, because Phoebe Waller-Bridge was obviously enjoying herself waaaaay much and it paid off.  And be listening for Linda Hunt as Lady Proxima early in the movie.  I've long been a fan of her, especially when she was the voice of Management in Carnivale.  And now Linda Hunt gets to make her mark on the Star Wars saga, which makes Solo all the better.

Solo may not be requisite material for a Star Wars exam, but there's plenty of extra credit to study up on.  We finally get to see Han's homeworld of Corellia.  The "expanded universe" of Star Wars literature may be kaput but it's yielding up a LOT of juicy material getting folded into the new canon.  Teräs Käsi is now a legitimate Star Wars martial art and attentive fans' ears will perk up at the mention of Carida and the Maw (wait... did this movie just have references to Kevin J. Anderson’s Star Wars work?!  What the...?!?  Is the Apocalypse looming over us or what?).  And then, yeah... that cameo.  The one that overturned my own personal table of Star Wars lore.  It's not a gimmick anymore and I can accept it.  I think most likewise hesitant fans will too.  I'm now curious to see if Lucasfilm and Disney are "grooming" that character into becoming a future threat down the line, as happened with Thanos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Perhaps for the rumored Obi-Wan movie or the just-announced Boba Fett film.  Time will tell.

Meta-wise, I couldn't help but think that Ron Howard was injecting some of the spirit of American Graffiti into Solo.  Especially that first scene on the mean streets of Corellia.  Ron's brother Clint, long a beloved presence in the Howard movie stable, gets some screentime (but if he was drinking any tranya, I must have missed it).  I was somewhat disappointed that the brothers' father Rance Howard, who recently passed away, didn't get an appearance.  Perhaps circumstances didn't allow for it.  And this, the second Star Wars film to not be scored by the legendary John Williams (although he contributed a few pieces) adds another excellent work of composition to the catalog of soundtracks.  John Powell's score has just enough of the familiar themes without being derivative at all.  A Star Wars movie should be a unique vision of its particular filmmaker, its music no less so.  I think Powell's will prove to be an excellent set of tracks to listen to, especially while driving.  Y'know, like how some of us back in the day got speeding tickets from playing "Duel of the Fates" (and that's definitely a double entendre).

Solo: A Star Wars Story isn't the best film of the franchise, but it's not an Attack Of The Clones either.  Its its own animal altogether: a fun-filled romp through the galaxy far, far away that doesn't care as much for dramatic weight as it does for "Faster! More intense!" thrills that Lucas was screaming from the director's chair thirty years ago.

And if nothing else has persuaded you to check it out, consider this: Solo finally addresses that ridiculous "Kessell Run in less than twelve parsecs" boast that armchair physicists and professional astronomers have been fanwaking themselves about for the past forty-one years.  It now makes sense, even.  If that's not worth twenty bucks for tickets and a minimum of outrageously overpriced confectionary, I don't know what is.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

A federal judge just turned Twitter and Facebook into public utilities

In what might be the most hilarious case of unintended consequences in recent memory, today Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York has ruled that President Donald Trump was wrong to have blocked users from his Twitter feed... which inadvertently has officially designated Twitter (and by extension Facebook and YouTube and other social media outlets) to be common carriers like the telephone system!

In a 75-page ruling, Judge Buchwald declared that Twitter was a "designated public forum" on which Trump could not discriminate against selected readers by blocking their accounts. "This case requires us to consider whether a public official may, consistent with the First Amendment, 'block' a person from his Twitter account in response to the political views that person has expressed, and whether the analysis differs because that public official is the President of the United States," Buchwald said in her opinion. "The answer to both questions is no."

So let's tear this down...

If a person is a "public official", that person can not "mute" communication between himself or herself and selected members of the audience based on their political views.  It is effectively giving the President a right to be heard whether he wants to be heard or not.

So when do these same protections get extended to ordinary citizens like Diamond & Silk, who have been chronically banned (and reinstated after considerable public outcry) from Facebook and other social media venues?

The documented cases of those who have seen their Facebook posts, tweets, and YouTube clips purged down the memory hole have have had one outstanding factor overwhelmingly in common: they have pertained to those who hold what are often deemed to be "conservative" beliefs.  Too many have been banned outright or have been "shadow banned": made to look as if they are broadcasting their message out but in fact have had their posts and tweets throttled down or shut down completely by Twitter or Facebook or whoever.  Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is now an open secret that there is extremely active discrimination being practiced on the part of self-ascribed "liberals" and "progressives" within the tech industry against those who they disagree with.  So much so that some have wondered if there might be RICO charges on the basis of advertising purchased with these companies only to have potential audiences algorithm-ed out of sight and out of mind.

But now thanks to Naomi Reice Buchwald, Twitter and other social media platforms have been officially defined to be "common carriers" like AT&T, Comcast, and a lot of other companies.  In business but also subject to regulation by the government to ensure fair practices and privileges for all.  And if users of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram are being censored not because of inappropriate behavior but purely on the basis of ideology, well...

This is gonna be totally fun to watch as it unfolds.  Wouldn't surprise me if Twitter came down on Trump's side if it keeps them and every other social media outfit out of regulatory jurisdiction.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

For those who are graduating...


This is the season for graduations. For some it has already happened and for a few it's still in the next week or so. And I know that countless commencement speeches have been given already and better minds than mine have had reams of wisdom to impart. Even so...
Earlier this month someone who has become a very special person in my life graduated from college. Someone who God blessed with an abundance of intellect, talent, and beauty. She is graced with more faith than most, including I. And her parents and family and friends are very proud of her. For the first time in my life I sent a graduation card and, ummmm... guess I didn't know what quite WHAT to say! But I gave it a try.
Maybe these words will be of some use to others who are also walking up to get their diplomas. So here is what little I have to share to them:
- Take the high road. No matter how much the world or your friends or even family insist that you stay safe.
- Never compromise on your convictions.
- Know what you believe, but also know why you believe it.
- Think for yourself, because there is always someone who will try to think for you.
- Always try with your best, but do not be afraid to fail.
- Humbleness is always greater than pride.
- Be kind. But also know how to love even when it hurts.
- Never stop learning. When you stop learning, you stop living.
- Laugh hard. Run fast. Love, always.

Warhammer 40,000 now needs Pre-K books (and I'm here to help!)

If you're at all a fan of Warhammer 40,000 whether you play the game or just are fascinated with the astounding body of fiction and art it has inspired, you probably got the the news yesterday that there are are childrens books coming out soon based on Warhammer 40,000 and its fantasy sibling Warhammer: Age of Sigmar.  At first I thought it was a joke but a quick look at Bell of Lost Souls confirmed that these are indeed being released in the near future.  Here are the first two:



Reaction from the fanbase has been mixed.  Some are applauding it, some think it's "too immature" whatever THAT means... especially coming from players of a game during which screams of "WAAAAGH!" are common.  Still others think that Games Workshop is playing a strategy of "get 'em while they're young" like tobacco companies, Democrats, the John Birch Society and freemium iPhone apps.  Personally, I like it!  Makes me wish I had a kid or two to justify getting these books (and it could still happen someday...)

'Course, it goes without saying that there are aspects of Warhammer 40K that are going to require a delicate hand in addressing for younger audiences.  Like f'rinstance, oh... I dunno... maybe Slaanesh (the Chaos god of sensual pleasure) and the whole thing about how the Dark Eldar like to spill out of nowhere to raid for victims to suck the lift force from.  And the Inquisition.  And why do Commisars seem to enjoy killing their own soldiers so much?  How the heck are they going to put Tyranids into this new series?

Well, I'm of the opinion that this is going to be a great success.  But since this is Games Workshop and their Black Library division we're discussing, maybe we should prepare for the inevitability of 40K books for an even younger readership.  Like, ages 3 through kindergarten.  So with that in mind, I took the liberty of making the first in the series of the next generation's introduction to the far future:




Dear Games Workshop: disregarding the fact that I am not a British subject, please feel free to contact me about my percentage of the sales.  I'll take either Pound sterling or an entire company of my choice of Primaris Space Marine miniatures (including the new Roubute Guilliman).  And if you ever bring Lorgar back I'll take him too.

Monday, May 21, 2018

New SATURDAY NIGHT MASSACRES battle: Han Solo vs. Peter Quill!

The first epic matchup of Saturday Night Massacres ended this past weekend.  With 62% of the vote Robin Hood decisively out-archered Katniss Everdeen for the rabbit dinner!  Not a bad way to kick off this bi-weekly battle across the multiverse.

But hot on its heels is a contest that no doubt a BUNCH of y'all out there will be wanting to cast a ballot in...

The Setting:
Big and Little Enos must get the shipment to the big rally for Zaphod Beeblebrox. Unfortunately taking Coors outside the Solar System is bootlegging and highly illegal. And Bandit's rig is strictly two-dimensional. The Burdettes have no choice but to cut deals with two seasoned pros in the art of stellar smuggling. First to deliver their cargo of beer to Zaphod in less than 24 hours wins the cash!!




That's right folks: Han Solo and Peter Quill are taking it to the starlanes to see who will get their shipment of Coors beer to Zaphod Beeblebrox.  Big and Little Enos Burdette are taking no chances.  Too bad that Bandit's rig is limited to the continental United States and can't even get much outside the southeast much less past the orbit of Mars.  But one way or another the illegal suds are going to get to Zaphod's big party.

Voting is open until noon EST on Saturday, June 2nd.  As for the next matchup... I haven't decided which to use yet but there are some ridiculously awesome ones on the card.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

North Carolina schools: Dark sarcasm in the classroom...

Photo: Gerry Broome, AP
Apparently following the recent examples of others throughout the country, today thousands of teachers from across North Carolina descended upon the streets of Raleigh to demand more money, resources, and... well, what exactly?
Many and perhaps even most school systems in North Carolina cancelled classes entirely.  There were not enough substitutes to fill in for the full-time teachers who had declared their intent to be absent.  Effectively abandoning their students while they themselves, festooned in new red t-shirts, took bus caravans to the state capital.
How much in scarce financial resource got burned up for today's exercise in political activism?  And why couldn't it have been done on a Saturday, when school was out and even more teachers would be free to make the trip and show solidarity?
"Yes Miss Loudermilk, I can spell 'hypocrisy'.  H, I, P, P, O..."
Fine.  Let's look at the facts:
North Carolina teachers have seen a 19% increase in pay over the past three years and another increase is happening this year. The funding already exists and there is PLENTY of it.  Public education is already more than half of the state government's annual budget.
Unfortunately administrative waste is at an all time high.  Both in the central offices in Raleigh and throughout too many of the local systems "from Murphy to Manteo" as the song says.  THAT is the real drain on the coffers.
Slash and burn away the unnecessary detritus in administration costs and there is more than an ample supply of funding for the teachers, for classroom supplies, for new technology.  And if some proceeds are allowed to be freed up from the North Carolina Education Lottery instead of being earmarked for new school construction (ehhhh... it IS going to new school construction, right?) the teachers will have more money for purposes of education than they would know what to do with.
So how much more money must be demanded? When does the actual problem finally get addressed? What was the purpose of today's march that was so direly pressing it required closing entire school systems? And... if I may dare to ask... would this same event have been organized had the party makeup of the state legislature been different?  Who paid for all of those red t-shirts anyway?  King and Gandhi didn't need name branding in the furtherance of their causes.  And they still succeeded!
At the risk of alienating some, I am compelled to remark: today's "march" was as much an abandonment of common sense and impartial motive as it was abandonment of the students themselves.  Nothing... I repeat, nothing... is going to be accomplished because of it.  And were I to be governor of North Carolina, there would be a dire consideration to fire every public school teacher who left their children behind for sake of this spectacle.  To not only fire them them but to furthermore forbid them employment ever again as a public teacher in North Carolina.  This was dereliction of duty and desertion of post, as much so as a soldier on guard detail.
Am I suggesting that the right to protest be revoked?  No.  Absolutely not.  But there is a right way and a wrong way to do this.  And the teachers in Raleigh and the organizers of this "march" (WHO organized it exactly?) not only violated that line, they also set a terrible example for the children they had made it a professional responsibility to nurture and encourage and educate.
If for no other reason, I would have fired every one of the teachers because they have demonstrated that they do not hold to the rule of law that is to be acknowledged and respected in this country.  Instead they opted to demonstrate something we are seeing too much of in recent months: rule by mob.  When students can leave their classes on the say-so of a young demagogue like David Hogg with the basis that it is a "media event", then those students should be penalized with an absence or an "F" for the day.  If the kids believed enough in their cause, they should be willing to suffer and endure for the cause.  Otherwise the consequence is that students can walk out of classes for any rationale at all.  "Equal access" and all of that.  Unless the schools wanna start writing lots and lots of checks to attorneys representing "aggrieved parties" denied the same accommodation.
The rule of law or the rule of mob.  We can have one or the other, but not both.
Which do the teachers want the students to better appreciate?

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Chris is enchanted by his first DUNGEONS & DRAGONS game ever!

After being gone for almost a year I ended up back in North Carolina this past weekend.  Guess I’m still in "journey mode" since leaving Reidsville in June of 2016.  It was a few days to take care of some business, hook up with longtime friends, make new friends, do a lot of writing... and playing Dungeons & Dragons?!?

It happened, all two of this blog's faithful readers!  Saturday night in Burlington.  At the HyperMind game store on Church Street: the one owned by my friend Denise and her family and that I've written about a number of times.  The day before on HyperMind's Facebook page there was a notice about "Dungeons & Dragons for Beginners" on Saturday evening.

Those who know this blog and its strange curator are well aware: journalist that I be, I'll report on anything within reason.  Like the Facebook Live I did from a marijuana store just over the Colorado side of the border with New Mexico   And now here was a golden opportunity that had fallen into my lap to not just observe the return of a cultural phenomenon but to also participate firsthand.  The Muse was beckoning.

I had never played Dungeons & Dragons (often abbreviated D&D).  Not once.  Although when I was a wee lad somehow I had in my possession "the red box” now spoken of in whispers and hushed reverence at tables of geekdom laden with soda cans and Doritos bags.  Suffice to say, I was beyond out of touch with whatever had become of Gary Gygax's legendary RPG (that's "role-playing game", not "rocket propelled grenade"!).  I knew that it was now being published by Wizards Of The Coast (having acquired the original TSR company many moons ago) and that it was in its fifth edition.  And also that somehow lately Dungeons & Dragons has become crazy popular again.  It's more a widespread success today than it was during its celebrated heyday of the Eighties.  Celebrated... or condemned.  Yeah I well remember the bad rap that D&D got about how it supposedly encouraged witchcraft and Satanic rituals and child sacrifice.  Witness the thoroughly authoritative investigative work of one Jack Chick in his treatise "Dark Dungeons":


That's the only one of Chick's tract's to be adapted into a motion picture.  Behold the trailer:


And some people still think of Dungeons & Dragons as that.  When it's really just this:

A bunch of guys, ages 11 on up to late fifties, sitting around a table with various books, papers, pencils, and laptops and tablets.  Yeah mobile devices 'cuz this ain't your daddy's D&D.

"Dungeons & Dragons for Beginners" kicked off at 5 on Saturday afternoon at HyperMind.  And as always, we were hosted by the ever lovely and effervescent co-owner Denise.  And she and her family would no doubt love for y'all to come and see their wonderful shop and ogle their wares, which includes everything from Candyland and Monopoly to Settlers of Catan to Magic: the Gathering to X-Wing Miniatures and Warhammer 40,000.  They've also a sweet game room that's somehow mysteriously expanded since I was last in the area a year ago.

There were six newbies who showed up to an introductory game with a dude named Mike serving as "Dungeon Master".  The Dungeon Master... or DM as he or she is often called (would a female Dungeon Master be a "Dungeon Mistress", or is that too dominatrixish?)... is the one who "runs the game".  That means drawing up the outline of the adventure, populating it with various monsters and vagabonds, and trying to keep things on track as the traipse through the Forgotten Realms or Ravenloft or wherever draws toward it's intended conclusion (or not).  Think of the Dungeon Master as being the conductor of a symphony orchestra the members of which can't decide if they want to play Mozart or Rush or "Weird Al" Yankovic.

Here is Mike.  And he definitely knows what he's doing!  He's been involved with fantasy role-playing since the original D&D back in 1974:


First thing on the agenda, the most crucial part of the experience because everything else blooms from it, is to create our characters.  And you've a WAY humongous latitude here.  Not just what "class" aka career you have like Fighter or Druid or Thief etc. but also what race to be.  If you wanna take a break from being a baseline human for awhile you can be a dwarf or a half-elf or one of a jillion other species (I seem to vaguely recollect the Dark Sun campaign setting having giant grasshoppers you could choose as your race).

Anyhoo, I decided that befitting my surname I would be a Paladin.  Which is kind of a crusader knight but he can also use magic effects like healing people who need it.

Here’s where things took a WILD deviation from anything I'd expected.  A few years ago Wizards Of The Coast introduced an online tracking system that lets you record and manage how often you play, or something.  Since this was an Adventurer's League that means you could theoretically roll up a character in Burlington and bring it to play with others in Emporia, Kansas.  But you need something called a "DCI number".  Which most people in the group already had because they played Magic: The Gathering also.  And it can be used with Dungeons & Dragons.  It wasn't necessary per se for this evening's event but still kinda made it official.

I whipped out the iPhone and went to the Wizards Of The Coast website and created an account and got my very own DCI number.  Using a smartphone to play an old-school pen and paper RPG.  Huh.  Never saw THAT one coming.  I suppose that now that I'm "logged into the system" with a DCI tracking number it means that I have consigned myself to an eternity of torment.  Because the Wizards Of The Coast website is tied into a massive Cray cluster-booted mainframe known as "the Beast" controlled by George Soros somewhere in the bowels of the European Community bunker in Brussels and my name is now registered on it.  That's how some of the lingering hysteria over Dungeons & Dragons would make it out to be...


Or maybe not.

So, got my race (human) class (Paladin) Alignment (Lawful Good) who is part of some faction called "Order of the Gauntlet" and now a DCI number.  It was at this point that Mike whomped everyone upside the head with the announcement that we would be playing a pre-designed adventurer called "Tomb Of Annihilation".


WHAT?!?  PLEASE tell me this isn’t related at all to "Tomb Of Horrors".  Even if you've only a cursory knowledge of D&D and never actually played you've heard of "Tomb Of Horrors".  The infamous adventure module from 1975 and created by Gary Gygax himself in order to humble all the "hacker and slasher" players who thought they could simply murderize their way through a quest.  And... how shall I put this?  Let's just say that fewer players have survived "Tomb Of Horrors" than there are Star Wars fans who have survived watching the entire The Star Wars Holiday Special:


Yeah.  It's THAT perilous.

If "Tomb of Annihilation" was inspired by or derived from "Tomb Of Horrors", I didn't get to find out.  Most of the fun with a role-playing game is to just ride along and see what happens and act in character.  So it is that I didn't inquire about anything potentially spoiling the experience.

Dungeons & Dragons isn't set on any one particular "world" per se.  It’s actually a vast cosmos of settings, from the prime material physical universe on through various dimensions of being (and our own Earth is in there somewhere).  I think my personal favorite campaign setting world is Ravenloft because of the Lovecraftian horror atmosphere of the place though obviously I've never played a game in it.  So after Mike announced we were seeking the Tomb of Annihilation he also noted that this was the classic Forgotten Realms country of Faerûn.  Oh yeah, and because of something called the "death curse" associated with this particular officially published adventure there was NO resurrecting dead characters.  Which normally would cost a bunch of in-game gold pieces.  Not here though.  Your character dies, there's no coming back.  High stakes indeed!

Here is a map of the part of Faerûn we'd be romping across.  It's on the players-facing side of the Dungeon Master's screen.  That's the gimmick which the DM uses to hide all his notes and plots and ambushes from the players.


Okay well, we were all creating our characters, using the core material like Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook (which shot up to #1 selling item on Amazon when it came out... and I mean #1 selling item of EVERY category of merchandise!) and some official apps on iPad and whatever.


Being a Paladin, I got to have two "spells" which in the D&D realm are really like different prayers that the character's spiritual order has.  Starting out with a first level Paladin you get "Divine Sense", which "senses evil to sixty feet" four times per day.  And also "Lay On Hands" for healing.

"Lay On Hands"?!  Far from Dungeons & Dragons transforming me into a Satan worshipper... it had converted me to a Pentecostal!  At least Paladins are by default "Lawful Good" in alignment.  Had it been "Chaotic Neutral" my character would be running around the wilderness like a medieval Benny Hinn.  But at least he would have made his money the old fashioned way: by earrrrrning it.

(Award yourself a thousand XP if you know what that's a reference to and which actor without having to Google it.)

It was about this time, an hour or so into the characters getting created, that it dawned on me.  That this was already a whole heap of fun.  It was creative writing of a sort that hadn't been engaged in for so long that I'd forgotten it was there at all.  All around me other players were doing the same thing.

Role-playing games can exercise the imagination as few things can, right from the getgo.  No wonder Dungeons & Dragons and other RPGs are roaring back into popularity.  This kind of imagination on the part of the player is almost a novelty in a time of Xbox consoles and mobile gaming.  And the interaction is with living, breathing people who you are seeing and hearing and not looking at pixels of screennames.  There is a need for authentic gaming in our era.  Board games are returning with wild acclaim and traditional "pen and paper" RPGs with them.  And that primal need for real human interaction is an enormous reason why, no doubt.

Okay well my character has got his stats, his equipment and his spells, now all he needed was a name.  Once again consulting the iPhone (or as I often call it "the Mother Box") Google found a website that generates fantasy character names, for RPG use or hiding from the Internal Revenue Service or whatever.  Several "next screen" clicks in and there was Denvorn-something.  "Brother Denvorn" had a nice ring to it as a warrior monk, so that's what I went with.


And as a Paladin he's equipped with chainmail armor, a sword and shield, and also a holy symbol of his order, which can be worn as an amulet or emblazoned on his shield.  I thought on the shield would have greater psychological value.  I didn't have to design the symbol but there's space on the character sheets for a character description and I wanted to do at least a rough sketch.  So here's Brother Denvorn with his sword, armor and holy symbol-equipped shield:

Lookin' good!  Well enough to go into dungeons to fight dragons.  Or at least into thick hedges to fight unwary orcs.

And now we were all set.  Our merry band consisted of a Wood Elf Druid, a Ranger, a Sage, a Warlock, a "Self-Appointed Inquisitor", and yours truly the Paladin.

Mike's launch of the adventure was most ideal.  A quick synopsis: that we'd been hired to move some cargo for this rich dude on a wagon following a road down from Neverwinter.  However it seems that the guy and his guard had gone missing.  First order of business: decide who is riding on the cart, who is walking beside it and who is walking ahead and at the rear.  Since I was playing a Paladin the noble thing to do it seemed was to go in front of the party and act as a scout.  And we were on our way!

It was some time later that our little caravan came upon two dead horses in the road.  When asked the DM reported that they hadn't been there for more than a day.  We also found some ransacked bags and an empty map case.  Brother Denvorn moved closer to investigate, joined by Jaeger.


Roland and Azrael wanted a better look also, so they arrived and examined the scene also.  Little did we know however that there were four goblins lurking in the bushes!


The volley of arrows they let loose did little damage to us.  Had to make something called an Initiative roll:



We went into full retaliation mode.  And Brother Denvorn went charging at the assailants, shield hefted and sword raised...

BAM!! Two of the goblins went down.  But they bounded back and Leroy Jenk... I mean Brother Denvorn, who had been a hearty 12 points of health, got wounded by 5 points and went down to 7.  Our Mage was likewise hit.  One of the goblins was killed and after the melee I did the "laying on of hands" on the Mage and healed him for 2 and then gave myself a boost of 3.

A fine little battle to start the adventure off!  However, we now had a dilemma.  One of the goblins was greatly wounded but alive.  What to do with him?  An argument began: were we going to waste him now or keep him hostage and potentially extract information from him?  None of our characters spoke any of the languages of goblins.  I suggested that we keep him bound and then when we got to a town we would find someone to translate our interrogation.  Furthermore that we should give him some healing, demonstrate "a quality of mercy" that might loosen his filthy mouth.  And that’s what we HAD decided to do…

...except that TJ, the young lad playing Jaeger, went mad with power and with bloodthirsty relish made it an action to exsanguinate the goblin on his own.  And now we had NOTHING to go on.  Smooth move, kid!  You were ALLEGEDLY a ranger of somewhat marginal good character.  But then you had to go full Dexter Morgan-mode and now we've no leads on what happened to our employer.

Well, except that some of us had noticed a trail of dragged bootprints going off the path and into the woods.  Should we keep going as planned, or go looking for what might be our employer?  There was a chance he and his guard were still alive, and if we rescued them we might get rewarded with precious gold pieces.  Taking a risk by leaving the wagon unguarded, we followed the trail.

Shortly after that, two of us fell into a shallow pit, and one of us almost triggered a snare.  We decided that we had gone as far as we should for the night, and that it was time to camp and fully heal our wounds.  By this time it was almost 9 PM in the real world and HyperMind was about to close for the night.  Mike proclaimed that we woke up the next day, all healed up and with 75 experience points each to record on our sheets.  Thus ended this first leg of the journey toward... I'm assuming... is the Tomb of Annihilation.


And that was my first time playing Dungeons & Dragons.  And I had a blast!  I can readily understand now why it has come back with a vengeance.  Why it's rapidly gained appeal across a wide array of people, many of whom have never approached any role-playing game before.  This is NOT something confined to the basements of geeks, dweebs, nerds, and unbathed comic book guys.  Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition is a REAL thinkin' person's pastime.  One that requires and demands being able to act, to adapt, to bring forth wisdom and foresight toward a situation.  You know, much like skills needed in real life.  After playing even this brief introduction to the game, one can easily envision a role-playing game like D&D being a useful tool in corporate training, psychiatric counseling, teaching civics and ethics to high school students and perhaps younger... there are all kinds of practical applications for what Gary Gygax came up with more than forty years ago.

And since some will no doubt be wondering about it and maybe even leave a comment about it: at no time during the game or afterward did I feel "the pull toward evil".  Neither did I develop any inkling of obsession about it.  I doubt that I ever will either.  It was a few hours spent with a great group of people, and afterward we left feeling that it was a very enjoyable time and then we departed the store and went on with our lives.  Might some people out there get too much into Dungeons & Dragons than is healthy so far as normal interactions with others?  Yes, I would have to agree with that assumption.  But it would be no more so than being obsessed with video games, or sports, or eating, or drinking, or anything else taken to excess.  In that regard, a role-playing game is utterly mild in terms of hazard.

And neither did I have the sense that my spiritual life was impacted.  Was there a religious component to my character?  Yes, certainly.  But however that figures into him as a character, it starts and stops there.  Any further elucidation was not necessary, any more so than I would need to know the religious practices of Frodo Baggins or Princess Leia.  And as with them, Brother Denvorn and his adventure was put down like any other book or movie until next time.  And much of the next day was spent in time devoted to the relationship I have with God in the real world, with no thought whatsoever about how Denvorn might be spending his own quiet time.  Gary Gygax himself was a devout Christian.  Had he known that his creation would be an instrument to tempt people to turn away from God, he would not have published it in the first place.

So if you've been boggled at how a game that needs no board, no LCD screen, no batteries, and no wi-fi has made a raging comeback and has exploded at last into the mainstream, look around for a Dungeons & Dragons gaming group in your area.  Or form one with your friends and dive on in.  It's a LOT more fun than what you might have expected of it.

Oh yeah, one more thing: get yourself a set of dice.  They come in all kinds of sizes and colors and textures.  Like Harry Potter's wand, a good set of dice during an adventure becomes a part of you.  And it's just really neat to roll around that 20-sided die in your hand while weighing your options when suddenly confronted with one of those blasted rust monsters.


Thursday, May 10, 2018

BEING BIPOLAR, Part 8: Illumination

"Sir please return to your room.  PLEASE sir it's dangerous!"  A fleck of dark red was on her cheek and plainly she was anguishing to clean off her face, take a shower and likely dispatch her uniform to the incinerator.  Red smears also on front desk.  A crimson palm print, vigorously violent and vaguely human, on one of the support columns.  Not far away on the floor: shards of broken glass.  Some stained red like those among the ancient windows of Notre-Dame and other holy places I had seen in Europe long ago.

But it didn't register that it was blood... lots and lots of blood... until I was heading back up to the fourth floor.  Three hours later, as a commercial hazmat crew was finishing with cleaning and decontaminating the lobby, the desk clerk phoned up the "all clear" signal.  Once again the elevator doors opened onto the lobby.  The pungent smell of ammonia flooded into my nostrils.  And the same desk clerk who had screamed at me earlier, now in fresh clothes, told me what happened.

A man had walked into the lobby, began screaming about things that weren't there, and then he slammed his bare hand through the large-screen television just inside the front door of the hotel.  In doing so he slashed open an artery.  If it had caused pain he didn’t seem fazed by it, I was told.  He just kept raving and ranting about the dirty women all around him, and the irony of his own tattered clothing and penetrating stench was apparently lost upon him.

He had stood there screaming and flailing his arm and throwing blood all over the lobby and onto the two young ladies behind the desk for a number of minutes, then had fled back through the front entrance and into the streets of downtown San Diego.

I never learned if he had been apprehended and given medical treatment.  I've always assumed the best.  That much dark red pumping out of an arm or a leg would require a tourniquet if all else had failed in dire circumstance.  I pray that he was picked up and given attention.  That he didn't become another of the nameless men and women found dead every so often.  Nameless and abandoned and seemingly unloved, like so many other homeless I had seen around San Diego and in places like Phoenix and Dallas during my journey.

Late one night I was ravenously hungry, realizing that I hadn't had a meal since breakfast.  I headed out at 1 a.m. and my dog Tammy riding in my lap as she had for 10,000 miles across America.  There were few empty tables at the McDonald’s near Mission Beach.  Occupied, but not with customers.  Men and women slept at most of them.  The cashier told me that they were homeless.  That they came every night to sleep and that it was pretty much mandatory to give them their space.  It was the only place they had to sleep on a winter night like this one.

It would not be a far reach to declare that of all the homeless individuals that I saw and even had the chance to talk with a few times, not one of them could fail to be diagnosed with mental illness of one variety or another.  They were men and women from so many different backgrounds.  And the one common denominator of each of them was that they suffered delusions or hallucinations or uncontrollable mood swings, or deep depression.

Like me.

That could very well have been me on the streets, with no place to call home and no friends and family to encourage me and lift me up when I needed it.  Particularly in those times when I have been more than a little tempted to end it all and with grievous intent slash open my own wrist.

“There but for the grace of God…”



Being Bipolar is an ongoing albeit wildly irregular series (the most recent installment was five years ago!) documenting what it is to have a mental illness.  Specifically, Bipolar Disorder Type 1.  As has ever been the case, I am doing my best to chronicle this with candor, with honesty, without embellishment, and also with levity and humor whenever possible.  Because, y'know... this is something you NEED to be able to laugh about when you can.  If you are new to this blog feel free to peruse the other articles in the Being Bipolar series.  And the rest of this site isn’t too boring either!



"Meanwhile back at the ranch..."

So.  Five years since last time we did this series.  And needless to say, a lot has happened in that time.

Lost a relationship.  Then lost my father.  Lost all desire to live for a while.  Have been hospitalized twice: once voluntary, the other not.  Tried to finish writing a book about having bipolar disorder but Dad's passing took the wind out of my sails on that one, though I’m hoping to return to it sooner than later.  And then through circumstances which don't have to be shared here, there was the need to leave my old hometown in North Carolina.  So I set out with my dog and a car packed with "the barest essentials" and headed out across the fruited plain.

That didn't work out as I had envisioned either: with God leading me to someplace new to put roots down at.  But here it is now, almost two years since embarking upon the road, and I'm in a new place that I had never thought about coming to.

And now?  There is, at last, the shot at real happiness that I've been searching and grasping to have, for so very long.

But the bipolar disorder is still there.  Still throwing a shadow over my mind.   The "dark fountain" erupts every so often, as it has since the winter of 2000 when the symptoms began.  The flood of depression and racing thoughts that I have to struggle to keep my head above those black waters, lest I drown.

Thankfully the meds are still working.  Pretty much the same regimen, albeit with some tweaking of dosage, that I was on last time.  The one significant thing that’s changed is that I’m no longer on lithium.  It wasn't out of vanity that I stopped taking it because of massive hair loss.  But it was out of concern about what else it might be doing to my body.  A few months after stopping the lithium my hair was as thick as ever.  However as I wrote three years ago, being on lithium carbonate seemed to have been a potent anti-allergen for me so far as hay fever goes.  There might be something to that because ever since the use of lithium ceased my seasonal weed and grass allergies have been as wretched as ever.  Oh well.  Guess even in bioengineering there's always a trade-off.

"You won’t be the same."

Something happened to me when I was out on the road.  And I still count myself as being on the road even now.

What it was, is most difficult to express.  Except that I began to come to see my own mental illness in a different light.  Maybe that is a gift that God has given me.  Perhaps it is the prize of my quest, though I didn’t and couldn't see that in the beginning.

Because the Chris Knight who last wrote words for this series was very much a bitter and angry and confused person, who was desperate to find meaning and purpose in his condition.  He was hurting himself in his vain effort to "be normal", to be accepted and recognized by others as "just as good" as everyone else.  I think it's valid to say that he was also doing his damndest to force God to weigh in on the issue.  To make Him explain why it is that even in a world as fallen and corrupted as this and with this weak and failed flesh, that my own neurons are so whacked.

It hasn't seemed fair at all.  And there is a spiritual component to this.  How DARE God let anyone have a medical condition that might imperil one’s very soul?!  Or are there some people who He allows to go mad because, hey, SOMEONE has to be populating Hell, right?

That’s what it's been like for me.  So often then.  And even at times now.  When it's night time and I want God to tell me that He has heard me all along.  That He hasn't abandoned me.

He never does.  I've come to accept that He never will. Not in an audible voice anyway.  But that doesn't mean He hasn’t been hearing me.

Looking back over the past two years since leaving my original hometown, though it wasn't the journey that I thought it would be... it was still being directed by God.  And all the people and situations and predicaments that came about along the way and are still coming about.  Those have had an enormous impact on my life.

Maybe that's how God works now.  Maybe it took making that leap of faith two years ago into the unknown to be prepared for what He was guiding me to.  It wasn’t a "destination" that I was going to be led to so much as it was the journey.  The process that God was going to use to radically alter my life as it had never been altered before.  When Gandalf saw Bilbo again after his adventure to the Lonely Mountain, he exclaimed that Bilbo looked different.  Indeed, he had told him that if he came back "you won’t be the same."

So it has been with me.  I'm not the person I need to be.  Not yet.  Probably never will see that work completed in this lifetime.  But the Chris Knight with bipolar disorder who went out is not the same Chris Knight with bipolar disorder who returned.  THIS Chris Knight is more accepting of who he is and what he has.  He is far more thankful for what he has than resentful about what he does not have.  He also recognizes that despite how his neurobiology might be he has had a life that most never get to experience and it's a long ways from being done with yet.

That could just as easily been me, with filthy clothes and a tattered sleeping bag and empty hopeless eyes and wandering the streets of some major city with no promise of food in my stomach or of being killed for a few dollars of potential drinking money.  Instead, God gave me more than many with mental illness have or ever get to have.

Appreciating the Warmth

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the author of The Gulag Archipelago, once shared about how he had visited the office of a Soviet general.  The winters are fiercely brutal in Moscow, and the general's office was toasty warm from the crackling fireplace.  Solzhenitsyn – who had lived through winters more brutal still in the distant east of Siberia's prisons – observed that one cannot appreciate the warmth without having first endured the cold.

All of these past several years I have been bitter about the dark, when it could have been far, far darker.  Turns out, things were brighter in my own life than too many ever get to enjoy.

I have good therapists. Good psychiatrists.  The medications are working well.  Most of all, I have been blessed with friendships who are as true as any family.  They have seen me through situations where many would have been abandoned as beyond all hope.  Even when I forget it during those times in the valley, God has provided and has sustained me through much.

I should not be here.  Not in clean clothes and with an iPad to type these words into.  Not even alive.  A dozen times over and more, I should be dead.  But I'm not.

If nothing else was gained from the road behind me, then I will have gained this.  Thankfulness.  Humility.  Appreciation for what I have that others do not.

And I look forward to taking those along the road still ahead.

This chapter of Being Bipolar is dedicated to the many who my life has crossed paths with during the course of the past two years since I left Reidsville, North Carolina.  I could not have come to the place where I am now... in mind and spirit as well as body... were it not for God letting them be met along the way.



Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Video Post: Stop Hating Donald Trump!

So this is not only the first video blog post I've made in... well a VERY long time.  It's also the absolutely FIRST blog post that I've made about now-President Donald Trump ever!

To be fair though, it's not about Trump himself.  It's about what I've seen waaaaay too much of in the way of hatred toward the guy.  It's not warranted and it's not worth it.  Anyhoo, roll the clip!


Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Snoke is just a gigolo

Had to get a few supplies yesterday and on a lark I went to the Star Wars toys to ogle the stuff from the upcoming Solo movie.  The timing was fortuitous apparently because some fresh figures had just been put on the pegs including... gasp!... one of the new Supreme Leader Snoke 3.75 scale figs!

"AYYYYYY ain't got no-BAAAH-day!"
Ever since The Force Awakens I've been wanting a Snoke action figure.  Most of my own Star Wars collection got sold a few years ago before I left North Carolina.  The thing about collecting Star Wars: you don't need to get everything.  Just whatever interests you.  Some collect nothing but Artoo-Detoo memorabilia, others for Yoda and some are into Darth Vader.  Snoke has intrigued me from the moment I saw him and now my new collection is complete for now.

But in all seriousness...

EVERY time I see a picture of Snoke from The Last Jedi - either as a still from the movie or as a toy - in that ridiculous gold lamé bathrobe and matching slippers it makes David Lee Roth's voice singing "Just A Gigolo" start playing in my head:



Could be worse, I suppose. I mean, Kylo Ren's waist supporter didn't get much screen time after all, right?