I need some personal inspiration. It’s been a long December, a long winter, a long year. I’ve seen other authors out there, posting their 10 favorite things they’ve written in 2016, and my first thought was, “did I even write 10 things this year?”
Yes, I did, but not much more than 10. Here’s my pick for the best of my writting this year.
This old bar, on the last Friday before Christmas, was full but not packed. I picked the window table, but the chair facing away from the view, so I could see the folks sitting at the bar, and the other patrons. Though I could turn my head to look at the sidewalk and the street with constant traffic.
Was Multnomah Village ever this busy when I lived here, 22 years ago? It doesn’t seem like it.
And there wasn’t a corporate for-profie medical clinic across the street, that’s for damned sure. That whole idea feels like dystopia to me, alone. It sits next to the frozen yogurt shop, which metaphor escapes me right now.
I sip my strong Irish Quaalude and poke at my pocket smartphone and think about the end-of-the-world politics of the country in which I live. The reality TV star is going to have the power to order nuclear launches soon. We’ll find out about the next war when he taps out 140 characters or less and posts it to Twitter. How many retweets and faves will the Armageddon get?
22 years ago I was renting a basement from a co-worker not far from this bar. It was a money saving idea for both of us. We worked at Powell’s and idly dreamed of unionizing and I did my job, terribly and despondent. I was at Powell’s, off the clock but still hanging around, the night America elected Bill Clinton, the Comeback Kid from Arkansas, and my roommate tried to cheer me up (I was not political but still very cynical) by saying, “Hey! The good guys won one this time!”
In comparison with the presidents who followed him, maybe Bill Clinton was a good guy. I’m still not 100% certain, though. My idea of a good guy would be someone with politics like Bernie Sanders, but maybe a person of color or a woman so they’d actually speak for the most vulnerable in our country with the voice of experience.
22 years ago I would sit in this bar with a sci-fi book and read and eat and drink. I remember it being mostly empty. I remember the fancy dark wood paneling. I remember the upside down clock over the bar. I remember tasting gazpacho for the first time and wondering why a bar that touts its Montana roots would make a cold Spanish soup. It was good soup, though. Tasty. Gazpacho is not on the menu tonight, however.
Tonight, I’m sitting in the bar, tapping out my memories on a pocket supercomputer that’s constantly connected to a global information network, eating and drinking. Fancy wood paneling intact. Upside down clock still there. Montana roots still evident, at least on the menu. Evidence of totalitarian economy on view out the window.
This Christmas season, I’m feeling like I’m finally getting the dystopic cyberpunk future I was promised all those years ago.
The picture above is one of my favorite Christmas memories. My family, seated around a table in a dining room in Cancun, Mexico, eating Christmas dinner. No gifts (except for Max, my nephew, who still believed in Santa Claus), just all of us, good food, booze, and warm sunny beaches.
Starting in 1996, my family began a tradition of celebrating Christmas with vacation trips, almost always to warm, tropical places. It began when mom won her first battle against cancer, and has carried on in some form ever since.
The first trip was in ’96, I believe, and the family went to San Diego and Tiajuana. I had just started a new job, though, and could not go with them, so I house-sat for my sister in their new house in the West Hills. We got an ice storm that year, and I ended up trapped by a fallen tree, and missed some work.
Calling in Sick From Mexico
The next year, the year in the picture, I was able to afford to go, except for not having enough vacation time to cover it. I had left that job for a short stint doing phone support for a different company. I’ve never told anyone about this, but I fell into a deep depression, and basically didn’t show up for my new job for 3 or 4 days. Luckily I was able to go back to my previous job, but in doing so I lost my scheduled vacation time, even though the trip was paid for already.
My solution was to go on the trip, not tell my boss, and then call in, making up a story about being stuck at the beach and unable to return. When I got back, my boss, a very patient woman who was probably the most empathetic and understanding manager I’ve ever had, asked me point blank if I went on the planned Mexico trip. When I admitted it, she just shook her head and said, sadly, “we could have worked something out.” I earned some demerits (company policy) and lost a promotion, but remained at that job for almost another year.
The Alphabet Game
It was all worth it, to spend Christmas with my family. Now I have the memories, and the stress of that job is long forgotten.
That trip was the year David (Bill’s brother, my sister’s brother-in-law) and I played a drinking game where we drank one drink for each letter of the alphabet. In one day. It was epic. He and I and my sister and her husband were sitting around in the afternoon and noticed that the names of all the drinks we were drinking started with the letter B, or included the letter B? It’s a little unclear. But we joked about drinking the alphabet.
Lisa and Bill dropped out, but David and I took it as a challenge. We made it to the letter S (I believe that drink was called the Seven Seas and featured that many kinds of rum), or possibly R? I barely remember making it back to my room. In the morning, I woke up to Max pounding on the door, because it was Christmas morning, and it was time to open presents.
This Year, and Next
This year, I’m house-sitting again, in a different house in the West Hills. My dad and Carol are going to Carol’s kids’ house for Christmas dinner. My sister and her family are on a cruise in South East Asia. And I’m sitting here, remembering Christmases past, and vowing, like always, next year I will go away, to a warm sunny place, and celebrate.
Merry Christmas, everyone. I hope whereever you are, and whatever you do, you’re surrounded by people you love, warm, safe, and happy.
I composed and sent this email to the members of the Electoral College on the evening of 18 December 2016, just prior to their vote to select the winner of the US Presidential election. Posting it here for the future.
I could have said more. I should have said more. I will say and do more, and more, in the days ahead.
But this is what I said two days ago.
My name is Brian Moon from Portland, OR.
I don’t even know how to describe the fear and depression I have felt since finding out that a minority of voters have somehow managed to provide enough electoral votes to put the dangerous demogogue Donald Trump into the White House. He is a man who lashes out at the slightest resistance, enabling his angry and armed followers to inflict violence on the most vulnerable people of our country; hate crimes have increased dramatically after November 8th, particularly in my home state of Oregon.
With Donald Trump’s blundering bombastic Twitter account, he has already raised tensions with China, a nuclear nation with whom we compete and attempt to trade, and that’s even before Donald Trump has taken office. Who else will suffer if the leader of the free world tweets without thinking, once in office?
And Donald Trump appears to be planning on using the highest office in the land to rake in more billions. He has used the office to expedite stalled business dealings around the world and I do not believe he would be making decisions based on the interests of the people, but rather his own personal gain. If there are consequences, again, it won’t be him paying them; it will be us, the rest of the country.
Please consider your duty to the nation, and to the Constitution, and put that ahead of party or tradition. America, all of America, needs to be served, but most especially, those who do not have a national voice except in our numbers.
Thank you for your time and consideration, I appreciate and respect the role you serve in our electoral process.
My sleep pattern of late, of the last month or a bit longer, has been disrupted and wildly inconsistent.
Generally, on a work night, I can manage to drag myself to bed around eight and a half to eight hours before the alarm is set to go off. As I crawl into bed, I will congratulate myself for leaving myself enough time for a good night’s rest, plenty of time.
The next hour or two, however, is spent trying to get to sleep. I toss and turn, fretting about money, about the stresses of my commute and the fact of being a contractor, but especially worrying about the politics of our time. This is usually when I realize my sleep has been horrible at least since around Election Day.
When my mind spins off into those bouts of anxiety, I will try again to drag it back to a blank state so I can drift off to sleep. After many tries, usually several hours after getting under the covers, eventually, sleep comes.
Then I dream.
I don’t have recurring dreams; it’s never the same scenario that plays out, but the dreams are haunted, and anxious, and upsetting. They’re dreams of disconnection, dreams of fear, dreams of loss; and they force me back to consiousness, repeatedly.
Once awake, I’ll check the time, or not, and roll over and try to go back to sleep.
At some point, typically with only a couple of hours until the alarm is set to sound, I will usually fall into a deeper, more restful sleep.
And then I dream. But this time, it’s nicer.
They’re not recurring dreams, but these dreams, the dreams I have when I’m at what feels like the deepest level of sleep, the level I only reach after what feels like hours of effort, share a theme. They’re dreams of connection. Dreams of peace. Dreams of warmth.
Then the alarm goes off, and I am dragged away from that gentle place to the real world, the world with a long commute to a job in a giant corporation where I have no guarantee of a future to earn only a little more than I need to pay my bills.
And it’s all I can do to not just roll over and try to go back to that warm, welcoming place I was just dreaming of.
These days, every once in a while, but more and more often, I do just that. Type an email to ask for a sick day, a mental health day, and then pull the covers up and try to go back to the safe, connected, loved place I was dreaming of.
Sometimes I reach it again. Mostly I don’t, though either way, I end up spending 12, 13, or more hours in bed those days.
Which is a problem, of course, of course. I can see that. I will work on that.
I have to work on that, because this isn’t working.
Some of the funniest moments I’ve had in Skyrim were almost assuredly completely unplanned by the people who designed it.
Skyrim, like the previous titles in the series, or the other major gameworld from Bethesda, the Fallout series, uses scripts to tell all the various characters in the game where to be at certain times of the day, and how to react to events around them, and to moderate how each person feels about the player and the player’s actions.
Radiant Quests, Repeating Forever
Many of the basic quests available to the player are also randomly generated. There’s a list of quest-givers, a list of random loot or rewards, and a long list of possible locations for these quests. This is the Radiant system, and it adds a certain amount of unpredictability to every playthrough.
The game is big, with far too many moving parts, with everything governed by an interlocking set of scripts and triggers, all built on top of an engine that has been expanded and patched over the years. Toss all that together with an unpredictable human player who has been given the freedom to go anywhere, talk to (or kill) almost anyone in the game. You end up with a system that mostly works, but can break pretty easily.
Some of those breaks are predictable and repeatable and become exploits that a gamer can use (or not, if they would rather). And some of those breaks are chaotic, unpredictable, and hilarious. These bugs create some of my favorite moments in the game.
The Unbound Dremora
On one of my most recent playthroughs, I’ve been playing a pure mage, eschewing swords and armor for spells and potions. My character had been only using the various schools of magick to attack, defend, or otherwise complete quests. And eventually she had maxed out her skill in conjuration, the ability to summon things and creatures from other planes of existence.
Having reached this level, there was only one thing left to do: approach the instructor for conjuration at the College of Winterhold basically to complete my degree. The instructor gave me a ritual to perform: summon a dremora (a creature of the plane of Oblivion with great power), defeat it in combat three times, and order it to bring back some powerful artifact. All this, I did, and ran off to give the artifact to the instructor, Phinis Gestor.
Some time later, maybe a week or more in real time, my character was returning to the College to sell off a bunch of loot I’d found, and heard a noise behind me as I entered the dorms. I turned around, and came face to face with the red devil face of the unbound dremora I’d summoned earlier.
The dremora was not hostile. In fact, it seemed listless, quiet, almost depressed. Instead of bellowing threats, it said nothing at all. As I watched, it wandered across the atrium and up the stairs to the second floor. I ran after it, curious, but only watched as it went out the door to the roof. I couldn’t stop laughing. Apparently I’d forgotten to dismiss it after I was done.
That dremora is still there, on the roof, staring out to the horizon, stuck here, unable to leave or return to its home dimension. I’ve even tried attacking it to see if killing it will dispell it. Nope. It’s glitched out. It’s immune to attack, and it will not fight back. The College has gained another student, or a mascot.
Unpredictability Is Fun
A downside to the Radiant system is that after a while, these Radiant quests become boring and repetitive, despite the randomness, because they all boil down to “go fetch this thing for me”. It’s clearly not special to that NPC because they keep losing some random weapon or piece of armor in some other random tomb, cave, or dungeon, and only the player can go there and find it for them again.
I assumed that the unbound dremora should disappear, or at least become an enemy you can fight (and loot), after completing the quest. Its persistence is a bug, one that should have been fixed by a patch (and is fixed by the Unofficial Skyrim Patch, a crowd-sourced update provided by fans of the game). But it’s much funnier to have it hang around, observe, and act depressed at its fate.
In almost 1,200 hours in Skyrim, I have never played a Khajiit, Argonian, Orc, or any kind of Elf.
I don’t know what it means. I’ve just never had the urge to play a non-human. I have played an Imperial, a Nord, at least twice as a Redguard, and several Bretons.
From a lore standpoint – oh, maybe I should explain that further, what it means to say something like “from a lore standpoint”?
The Elder Scrolls universe started out as a Dungeons and Dragons type of universe, with elves and orcs and humans and magic, but as it’s developed over the years, it has built on its basic Tolkein-esque High Fantasy foundations and has acquired an extensive and deep history.
Who Lives in Skyrim?
The basic humans have become several different races with their own cultures and special abilities. Nords, warriors from the cold wastes of Skyrim. Bretons, who are courtly and full of intrigue and may have a bit of Mer in their background. Redguards, desert nomads with a penchant for piracy and smuggling. And Imperials from the great human Empire at the starry heart of the continent of Tamriel.
The elves have differentiated into the Mer: Altmer, haughty, proud, and more than a little oppressive towards everyone else; the Dunmer, a reclusive culture that worship their ancestors and a triumvirate of demigods; the Bosmer, cannibalistic carnivores who live in mobile giant tree cities. And the Dwemer, who tinkered with magic and science and who conducted an experiment a thousand years ago that probably wiped the entire race out in a single swift mystical extinction event but left their ruins and artifacts laying around everywhere.
And then there are the “beast races”, the Orcs, the cat-like Khajiit, and the lizard folk Argonians, each with their own culture and history and spot on the map to call their own.
Environments Tell Stories
Shortly after becoming immersed in the game of Skyrim, I discovered that there was a lot of backstory I was missing, and, like any new fan, I would spend hours prowling the Unofficial Elder Scrolls Page and Elder Scrolls wikis, and read posts and threads on the Reddit group TESLore. Timelines, famous historical people and places, demigods and demons. It was endlessly fascinating to me, and the more I learned, the more I realized it was all reflected and expanded by material I found in the game.
So many books. In the game. If my character found a bookshelf, each book on the shelf could be opened and read. Some were in-universe fiction. Some were in-universe history. Plays, journals by explorers. Even erotica. It can all be found, read, collected. Some would start off quests of their own, tracking down a powerful weapon or rescuing trapped adventurers.
Bethesda, the company that writes and produces the games, is an expert in what they call environmental storytelling. In a dungeon you can find a journal that fills in what someone was looking for, and then a little further on, you find a body, killed by an unforeseen trap just inches from achieving their goal, and a story, with a beginning, middle, and end is told, economically. And this kind of thing happens over and over and over again. Without leading your character along specific path, you gain insight into the living world you’re adventuring in. It’s beautiful, and beautifully done.
Meaning From Small Scenes
One of the first examples of this that I found in the game, on my first character, was near the starting tutorial area. My character, out exploring, found a path that lead up from the road into the woods. The path led to a small underhang on a cliff face, with a statue of Talos, the founder of the human Empire who was worshipped as a god, and a shrine. And laying around the shrine were bodies labelled “worshiper”, dead, in pools of their own blood, wearing simple clothing, unarmored, weaponless.
Alongside those bodies is an Aldmeri agent, in his distinctive dark purple and gold robes, also dead. On his body can be found a note titled Thalmor orders, which explains that the Thalmor are rooting out, arresting and executing any Talos worshippers they can find. The note is signed by Elenwen, an ambassador who shows up later as a real NPC during the middle stages of the main quest.
One dead Thalmor, four dead human worshippers, and a motivation gleaned from a small notes.
A player seeing this scene can make a choice. They can just loot everything and move on; those robes alone are worth a couple of hundred gold pieces. They can feel empathy for the worshippers. They can side with the Thalmor and feel disgust for the humans who think a mere man can rise to godhood, clearly a heretical thought. All of those choices are open, none of them have any direct benefit or effect in pure game mechanics. To a role-player, though, the scene gives a chance to insert their character into an ongoing narrative, and expands on the feeling that the land of Skyrim is a living one with lots going on.
What did I do the first time I saw this scene? I can’t remember but I probably looted everything and moved on, tucking the note away to save it for my collection. But it moved me, and I felt a tiny bit of sympathy for the dead worshippers, and it motivated me to look more closely at this whole Talos crackdown. I was still new to this world and history. I didn’t know enough.
My reaction the next time I saw it, however, was through the eyes of a different character, a Nord who was returning to their homeland to fight the fascist Aldmeri Dominion and their Thalmor agents. I had a visceral reaction to it, and it shaped my new character’s story, motivating her to join the Stormcloaks under Jarl Ulfric in Windhelm, taking a side in the civil war tearing Skyrim apart.
Skyrim, more than any other game I’ve played, encourages that kind of role-playing. That’s the standard that leads people to put hundreds and hundreds of hours into playing.
Traditionally we celebrate Thanksgiving by going to their beach house in Lincoln City and spend the whole four-day weekend, and that year, Bill and Max had brought their XBox down because they were both addicted to Skyrim, which had been released just a couple of weeks earlier. I watched them play, and I played a little bit myself, and it was impressive as Hell.
At one point Max decided he wanted to fight two dragons at the same time, as a way to up the challenge. So he fast-travelled to somewhere near Darkwater Crossing, hoping to trigger a random dragon on top of the one that lived in the hot springs of Eastmarch.
He got his wish, and the dragon fighting music started up, and the fight began.
And somehow, somehow, another dragon showed up. Two dragons are a challenge. Three dragons was epic. I cheered Max on as he died several times before eventually bringing defeat and stealing the souls of those three dragons.
My Turn to Play Skyrim
When I got home from the trip, I went out and bought a used Playstation 3 and a copy of Skyrim to play on my giant plasma TV, and promptly fell headlong into the game for that entire winter. And then some.
I would play all night and drag myself to work on a complete lack of sleep and try not to regale my co-workers with Skyrim stories. Meeting the talking dog. Going on a cross-province adventure retracing my steps after blacking out from a drinking contest with the demigod of debauchery. Meeting the mind behind the mysterious and reclusive hermits that train you to shout as a weapon. The spooky night I finally explored a Dwemer ruin and saw the pathetic creatures that had been their slaves, the Falmer.
And plenty of dragons. Always an awesome battle to fight dragons. I never had the bad luck Max did; one at a time was always plenty for me. But the game didn’t run so well on Playstation. There were memory leaks and for such a huge, open world, it pushed the hardware much further than it had any right to.
I had about 250+ hours on my first character, a Redguard with no backstory (because I didn’t really know that was a thing to do yet), when I got my first, and last, dragon spawn inside a city. Poor Riften. I assumed so many people were going to die that day, decimating that town. What I couldn’t foresee was that it was my hardware that wouldn’t survive. The game slowed to a crawl, becoming a slideshow, and finally the whole thing just shut down completely. My used PS3 would never start up again. Skyrim killed it dead.
So Good I Bought It Twice
But I still had more Skyrim to play. It wasn’t too long after that I purchased a Windows 7 license and installed it on a BootCamp partition on my MacBook Pro, just to see if I could get Skyrim to run. I bought the game a second time, this time from Steam. It ran on medium display settings, even though the fans on my laptop would run up to jet-airliner-taking-off sound levels. I found someone who could break the Sony DRM on my PS3 save files and kept playing my original character, finishing every quest, visiting every named location, and becoming leader of every single guild. He became a dragon-riding all-conquering badass.
So I started new characters, to do it all over again. I installed mods to make it run better, fix problems, and add new items, clothing, characters, and locations to the game. And when Skyrim Special Edition came out last month, I started a brand-new character, this time with a backstory and a goal, and I’ve added another 100+ hours to my total play time, which is now approaching 1,200.
I’ve defeated Alduin, the world-eater, several times. I’ve played the DLCs through at least twice each, discovering the island of Solstheim and the beautiful Forgotten Vale, and I’ve built my own home from quarried stone and lumber I’ve chopped myself. All in simulation.
A Short Skyrim Series
There’s always something to do in Skyrim, some place to explore, some story to tease out of the left-behind books or notes or snippets of conversation, or some new thing to craft from found materials. I can spend time just gathering butterfly wings and blue mountain flowers for a potion, or go hunting dragons, or anything in between.
Over the next several posts, just for fun, I’m going to write about some of the funny, sad, and touching moments I’ve had playing this silly game. I can’t believe how much I’ve gotten out of wandering around the snowy frozen norther province of Tamriel, home of Men, Mer, Khajiit, Argonians, and other even stranger beasties.
Like many of you, I’ve found it really tough to be thankful for 2016. Almost from the first day, this year has thrown so much bad news at us. It’d almost seem weird if we don’t all have some level of depression.
But today, at least in the US, we’ve set aside a day to give thanks. Even in the darkest times, there is still some light. Here’s a short and woefully incomplete list of things for which I am thankful. Some may be silly, some may be profound.
I’ve discovered I really like Kettle Pepperoncini potato chips. Just discovered that this week, actually. They’re yummy.
Of course, of course, I’m thankful for my friends. I don’t get to see any of them nearly often enough, but thanks to the miracle of always-on internet they’re never far away. My closest friends are close because they know me well, after having spent years, even decades, with me. And from them knowing me, I’ve learned more about myself.
I’m thankful for video games. Much more involving than movies or books, games have given me moments of beauty, moments of sadness, and moments of triumph. Oh, that I could write as well as some of the stories that I’ve lived through and agonized over decisions for.
In particular, I’m thankful for Skyrim above all others. I’ve spent over 1,100 hours playing around in it, and the design of its open world has created some encounters that I’m sure were never dreamed of by its designers. I should write about those someday.
I’m thankful for my dad, and my sister, and the family that surrounds both of them. They’ve all known me my entire life, have seen me through wins and losses, and never fail to help me when they can. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for them.
I’m thankful for computers, without which I may have had to get a real job. I like using them, I often like tinkering with them to see what else I can make them do, and I especially like showing other people how to use them or fix them. I love knowing things (I am a white male in late capitalist America, after all) but what good is knowing things if I can’t share that knowledge?
I’m thankful for the weird people in my city, the ones who protest abuse and corruption, the ones who write and dance and sing and paint because they couldn’t not do it, the ones who think opening a business catering specifically to cats or selling that one delicious thing they know how to make is the best idea. The folks who glue thousands of things to an old car and drive around just because. I love you all, and this city, and the world, would be a poorer place without you.
I’m thankful that despite everything, including (let’s be real) my own laziness and poor decision-making, I still have a roof over my head in a part of town I love. Next year I may have to leave this cheap run-down apartment in Sellwood, but for now, for today and the near future, I am here. It’s my base of operations from which I plan and dream and observe this crazy world. I’ve lived here longer than any other place in my life, and it, more than any other place, is home.
I could go on, but that’s a good start for now. I need to get showered and dressed and drive across the river to see people I love, eat too much food, and avoid talking about politics, in the grand tradition of our country.
Happy Thanksgiving to anyone and everyone reading this. May you always have a roof over your head, good food to eat, and friends and family that love you, until the end of days.
1. The brief moments of being warm in bed, having woken up before the alarm goes off, wondering why I even bother setting an alarm if my brain is just going to wake me up anyway, but knowing if I didn’t, I would sleep in too late and miss work, because brains are mysterious and mischievous.
2. Taking a hot shower.
3. Smelling the coffee being brewed.
4. Drinking coffee, especially that first sip. This is listed separately because it might not happen until #5 or later.
5. The calm 5-10 minutes before leaving for work, sitting in my dark office bathed in the glow of my computer screen.
6. The actual drive to work, listening to music or podcasts, enjoying the lack of traffic at 5:00 AM.
7. Hearing people’s accents from around the country, but especially Tennessee.
8. Bacon from the cafeteria on my first break.
9. Being able to explain something to someone in a way that helps them understand said thing in a way they didn’t previously, and particularly their delight in response.
10. The chicken strips from the cafeteria on my second break, which is basically my lunch time, since my second break (in an 8 hour shift) is at 11:30 AM, which are delicious and cheap, especially with ranch dressing or barbecue sauce.
11. Not the drive home itself, since there is more traffic and requires more attention, but the fact that I am driving home, instead of taking the bus or riding my bike, primarily because of how much less time it takes.
12. Getting home while there is still plenty of daylight outside if I feel like going out there and doing things.