The Staunton Pawn and the Vandal Girl

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“No,” he said. “Don’t be. But I have to go.” She was before me, looking up. “This is not what I came for.” He touched her cheek. “I have felt you already, much better that this—just as you feel and think, just as you are. But these hands—this is not how I am. And that”—the Staunton stood vacant in the corner like a bedpost, stiff and limbless—“that only holds my place. All of this is temporary. This is flesh and wood, and it’s not why I’ve come, to drink or smoke your pipe. I am only here to tell you, tell you so you can hear it with your ears—“ Her eyes were brown on green. “What the old man said was true. From the moment you appeared, I have been in love with you, and I grow more so every time you return.”

She pressed my palm against her cheek, and I could feel her tears.

“Here.” He opened my hand, and rolled the thread from my finger. “If strings are for remembering, then I want you to wear this.” He hooked the thread over her ring finger, which was so small he had to loop it twice. “So that you will always be reminded, when all these things are ash and dust, you and I shall be together.”

He tried to pull my hand from hers, but she held to it fast. “Please don’t go.”

He stroked her hair. “But I am not going anywhere,” he whispered. “I will be here.” Her forehead was warm. “And I will be here.” Her heart was beating.

—Brooks Hansen, The Chess Garden

Crack my heart open when I die, and you will find a map of The Antipodes and something from Eugene’s rook there.

Video te iam, nisi

My 11-year-old son just used Google Translate to make the joke that the motto on our family crest should be the Latin for “I see your point, but…”

In a Shocking Twist,

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The thing that kills me is that the takeaway for a lot of people here will be “don’t use two-factor authentication”, not “maybe don’t participate in a platform run by a criminal organization”. If almost any other company did this, especially Apple, people would be screaming about it. On Facebook.

But if back-to-back stories about Facebook exploiting kids doesn’t do it, nothing will. These last two months have been the social media data security equivalent of Sandy Hook. Kids got hurt, no one cares.

I got to make my daughter cry two weeks ago when she asked me if she could download a free messaging app to stay in touch with her friends. It was Facebook’s, so I had to let her down. It was fun trying to explain gently to a nine-year-old that the friendly people with the fun app see her as livestock.

A Fifth of Bliss

He who clings to the void and neglects compassion does not reach the highest stage. But he who practices only compassion does not gain release from the toils of existence. He however who is strong in practice of both, remains neither in samsara nor in nirvana.

—Saraha

Galactic Scoundrels

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My son and I just got back from the local tabletop game store (which rules, by the way), where we hung out at the kickoff party for Galactic Scoundrels, created by a local game company we backed on Kickstarter a few months ago.

It’s a storytelling game played with cards, dice, and (in our case) an appreciation for fart jokes. You’re collaboratively creating the dumbest or weirdest or bawdiest space western you can come up with. The game benefits immensely if you commit to either creating an over-the-top story or becoming a cartoonishly Randian scumbag.

Everyone in the game plays at being an off-brand Han Solo. You’re a space pirate with a ship that starts out as cheap crap and a moral code that hopefully ends up the same way. You try to bluff your way into a job (smuggling, theft, etc.) for some quick cash. If you get it, you do your best not to screw it up. While everyone else tries to screw you. Unless they’re trying to help you. For a price. Assuming they aren’t lying. Which they probably are.

It was me and my 11-year-old boy playing with an eighth-grader and one of the store’s employees, and we were all friends by the end of the first round. We faced everything from black holes to wormholes to a-holes to awkward sexual tension. We had only our guns, our wits, some bribing cash, and not a little bit of smarm to help us. Sometimes we could face a problem head on, sometimes we had to jettison unstable cargo or use a paying passenger as a human shield.

And we laughed. We laughed a lot. This thing was made for parties. It’s silly and funny and things are perfectly structured so the storytelling experience can fall anywhere on the spectrum from PG to Pornhub, depending on the crowd.

So far I’ve noticed only two weaknesses that really aren’t. One is that our first game, playing all three “episodes”, took well over an hour, so a full game isn’t quick. It feels like that’ll speed up as everyone gets familiar with the rules, though. And you can always play just an episode or two or use special “house rules” to accelerate things if you want to keep it to 30 minutes or less.

The other is that the biggest strength of the game is also its potential weakness: the story. The mechanics are fun enough, but the reason I’m bothering to write about the game at all its storytelling aspect. If you’ve got a group doing paint-by-numbers plots where the hacked data you’ve made off with is “spy secrets”, you won’t have as much fun. But if you’re playing with people who’ll imagine the data is the galactic president’s browser history, you’re going to have a ball. Story is such a big part of it that I didn’t care who won. I just wanted to see what happened next.

Right now I don’t know how to buy if you aren’t a backer and don’t live in central Arkansas, though you may be able to buy from Game Goblins’ site (the first link up top). I’m sure the creators would be delighted to help you if you contact them. They’re delightful nerds who made a delightful nerd game that made my entire weekend. I can’t imagine they’d be anything less than helpful. Here’s hoping this will be a springboard to even bigger successes for them.

On the Nature of Angels

Of course we dance on pins and level cities. We deliver up the Jews from Pharoah, unto Buchenwald. We flutter tender in the first kiss, flap in agony above the last row in a draughty kitchen. We know what fellatio tastes like and how childbirth feels. We climb upon each other's backs in shower cubicles to flee the fumes. We are in the serene molecular indifference of the Zyklon and the dull heart of the man who turns the wheel to open the ducts. We are forever standing on those bank steps in Hiroshima as the reality surrounding us collapses into an atomic hell. That moment when you reach your orgasm together and it is the sweetest, the most perfect instant that you ever live through, we are both of you. We keep slaves, and we write Amazing Grace.

Of course we shout. Of course we sing. Of course we kill and love. We cheat in business and we give our lives for others. We discover penicillin and we dump the children we have strangled in back alleys. We bomb Guernica just to create that painting, and the bursts of smoke and scream from beneath us are our brush-marks. We are from the realms of Glory; we are from the nursery, the school, the abattoir, the brothel. How could we be otherwise? You fold up into us. We fold up into Him.

We are in every second of a billion trillion lives. We're every ant, each microbe and leviathan. Of course we're lonely.

—Alan Moore, Jerusalem

Christmas 2018

Dear Everyone,

My brother and I were each conceived in New York City, almost exactly two years apart. We happened during an annual diamond show my dad used to attend for the family business (well, more accurately after the show, not like in the middle of it, which, let's be real, would be impressive). Mom tagged along twice, got two boys out of it, then decided she wouldn’t go back.

My favorite story she tells of those trips took place in the elevator in the very secure and very unmarked building that hosted the show. One time they got in and, right as the doors closed, a massive and hairy arm shot between them, and an honest-to-God Hell’s Angel stepped in, big as life and twice as unconcerned. Mom, new to the big city, naturally assumed that this would be the moment of her death. But he quietly rode up to the diamond show with them and was waved through security without so much as an ID check.

Turned out they were using Hell’s Angels as couriers. Because, really, who would think a large, leathery beardo who might have punched up a 1969 Rolling Stones concert would have $100,000 worth of diamonds in his saddle bags? Who on earth would try to look?

I heard the story decades ago, and it never left me. It was one of those early glimpses into my parents' history that made me start to wonder what else they'd been through, what they'd seen that I hadn't. You grow up thinking that your parents are boring…well, parents. You learn by fits and starts that there've been things going on when your back was turned. Or, indeed, when you were a steak dinner and two glasses of scotch away from existing.

There was the time Jennifer came home from college, where she’d gotten an earful of students discussing their heritage. This one was German-Irish, that one Ashkenazi Jewish, another whatever bare fraction of Native American. She’d had no idea of her own heritage, so she asked her dad, what am I?

He thought for a moment and said, “Well, I guess you’re half hillbilly and half swamp.” That opened up overlooks of identity and history she hadn’t explored before. She carries that with her now, as I carry the story of the bejeweled biker, little pieces of our parents that they broke off and slipped into our pockets for safekeeping.

We have bucketfuls of these pieces. My own dad used to wake my brother and me up by pretending to be a superhero named Underwear Man, barging into our bedroom with tighty-whities yanked down over his head. Mom once heard us listening to Cyndi Lauper LPs, charged into our room wearing every bracelet she owned, her hair frit up into some insane and hasty architecture, and proceeded to dance. Jennifer’s mom once watched me politely choke down her banana pudding, learning the hard way how much I hate bananas but love Nilla wafers and the approval of potential in-laws, and from that day on made me my own tiny banana-free pudding at family gatherings.

More trinkets: I have never been in the military but can report with the confidence of an expert that you can safely burn plastic explosives and use them as a makeshift campstove. Just don’t try to stamp out the fire. Dad taught me that. I know, because of mom, how to make giftwrapping ribbon curl up by running scissor blades down one side of it. I know how to set up a sewing machine because my mom showed me, and then I forgot, and then Jennifer showed me, which she could do because her mom showed her. Her dad taught me every contour of the yard my children now play in, including where the surveyor's pins are buried and the details of the deal he struck with a neighbor to not have to mow the far side of the creek.

So many fragments of them, bits of colored glass etched and rounded by grit and time. I stumble across them everywhere, in coat pockets with wrinkled bills, at the bottoms of desk drawers, in neglected storage boxes and scattered among the roots of the dogwood out back. They make a satisfying clack when I put them in my pocket, next to Molly McGee's old watch.

My mom and dad have moved nearby. I haven't been this close to them in over a decade and a half. It used to take a four-hour drive to go have coffee. Now I walk Mugsy to their new home on Saturday mornings, after I've got the kids situated with donuts and cartoons, and mom pours me a cup. I bump into them at the grocery store. I may have to build a shed to hold this new cascade of pieces, souvenirs of what might prove to be their last big adventure together.

So too with Jennifer's dad, though for different reasons. Time and circumstance have whittled away at the life he knew until only the pure shape of him is left, the love and humor and concern he used to steer himself and his family through the last eight decades. He needs us to care for him now, in much the same way he cared for the woman I love. He's wheelchair-bound and sometimes understandably frustrated at what he perceives as his lack of usefulness. I want him to know that his use is not gone but distilled. He doesn't see what we're collecting in the wake of his wheels.

There's pain and fear in all of this, of course. That's the price of admission. For my part, every now and then I'm struck by the weight of time, by the bone-deep awareness of how temporary this flood of fragments is. So I hoard them like a crow. I don't organize or catalog them, but I keep them close by, tucked hither and yon with no easily perceivable strategy or plan. God's own filing system.

Sometimes I cast them on the ground like chicken bones or yarrow stalks to tell my fortune, and it always comes up the same way: Quit screwing around with nostalgia and look around you. Let what you see change you. Go do something. Rilke put it better:

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final. Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life. You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

I nod and gather the shards back up, and I know I'll go looking for more. Maybe it's because I wonder if the lesson will change. More likely it's because I know I'll forget it. But it's also because I want to show these pieces to you, the scratched and stained facets of the love that built us, because I want you to hold them up to the light and watch how they cast their colors down on you.

“I don’t give a fuck about your horse”

Somewhat stranded in a different country (Mexico) and a different state (uncertainty), plagued by flaming assholes of both the literal and metaphorical variety, caught in the crossfires of ongoing dick-measuring contests and consistently reminded that no one considered him a threat in this regard, Robert Vaughn was tasked with embodying an emasculated dandy. And, seemingly unfazed by any of the above, he went about his work and played the absolute hell out of him.

This essay about the cast of “The Magnificent Seven” spraying diarrhea from their butts and insecurity from their egos is dang near perfect. It’s funny as hell and gets right to the hollow core of the cultural golden calves we’ve constructed to worship an era and an ideal that never existed.

Better than Drakkar Noir

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When you have a friend who makes ads for a living, the one-off text conversation jokes operate on a whole ‘nother level.

The Cruelty Is the Point

Trump’s only true skill is the con; his only fundamental belief is that the United States is the birthright of straight, white, Christian men, and his only real, authentic pleasure is in cruelty. It is that cruelty, and the delight it brings them, that binds his most ardent supporters to him, in shared scorn for those they hate and fear: immigrants, black voters, feminists, and treasonous white men who empathize with any of those who would steal their birthright. The president’s ability to execute that cruelty through word and deed makes them euphoric. It makes them feel good, it makes them feel proud, it makes them feel happy, it makes them feel united. And as long as he makes them feel that way, they will let him get away with anything, no matter what it costs them.

That’s the upshot from the final paragraph, but the whole thing is worth a read as a document of our viciousness and how little progress we’ve made.

The final nail in the coffin of my both-sides-ism was the 2016 conventions. One party kept stressing how its members were bringing aid to those most in need. The other was pointing out who should be locked up.

Pachydermatous Outer Melon Layer

Ricky Jay died this weekend. If you have the time, I strongly recommend you read this New Yorker profile of him from 25 years ago.

If you don’t have the time, I strongly recommend that you watch him throw playing cards at a watermelon.

If you want to learn how to do that, you will have to pay for it.

A delightful man, unsurpassed at his craft, who evidently hated kids. I never met him, but I will miss him.