Monday, December 29, 2008

Day From Hell

Every once in a while, we all have days that make us so insane we want to fire a bazooka at traffic. If the Department of Homeland Security reads this blog, that was a joke.
It's just that I'm very pissed off today.
It wasn't any one major horrific thing that happened but a series of them, each rendering me senseless with their total crappiness.
First ,there's this issue of my apartment, I have a friend who wants to move in with me, and I sort of told her yes, but now I'm having second thoughts. It's not anything personal, but I have a bedroom I use as storage space. There are so many boxes in this room, stacked six feet high that it resembles the warehouse scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. So if she moves in, I'd have to relocate the boxes elsewhere, meaning I'd have to pay to put them in storage or I'd have to pile them in my study, two options I don't want to do.
Secondly, a buddy of mine wrote a letter to the editor criticizing a story I wrote, basically calling it worthless mind candy. Now I can take criticism from your average douchebag on the street. People hurl venom at me all the time and it just washes off. But this dude was my friend. Friends aren't supposed to criticize each other in public, and the letter was just bad form, so that bothered me.
But the third and final thing which became the cherry on my shit sundae was a phone call I got from a guy who sounded like he was drunk or on crack. The guy wanted to speak to the editor, who wasn't in the office. I tried telling Dopey McCokehead that the editor wasn't there, but he babbled on about some councilman and the editorial cartoon and something about wearing tinfoil hats so the Illuminati can't read our surface thoughts or some crap. I kept telling him, nicely, that I didn't know where the editor was. He became belligerent and called me an asshole and hung up.
I know, I know. Crack is such an unforgiving drug.
Thing is, I didn't feel anything. I just was so numb because of this cavalcade of bullshit that I simply shut down.
There are times when I question my career choice. My grandmother once told me as long as I'm happy doing what I'm doing in life, I made the right choice. I'm really not so happy these days. Work is starting to be a monotonous freak show instead of something I'm happy doing.
Some insist I take my job too seriously and that I should lighten up and relax. These are the same idiots who go to Jimmy Buffet concerts and have mixed drinks with fruit in them. When they're not bopping to "Cheeseburger in Paradise," they're watching "American Idol" or some jejune reality show featuring a slice of the Midwest blended with everything that's vile and rotten from the East Coast.
My high school English teacher and mentor, Mr. LaVoie, once said that I don't suffer fools gladly. He was right about that. Yet with this job, that's all you do - suffer fools gladly. You have to be prepared to take abuse from anyone, from mayors to councilmen to guys on crack who sound like they're juggling ball bearings in their mouths.
There's little reward with a profession like this. You go into the office, transcribe your notes, make phone calls and spend time writing your stories. You try getting all the words and facts right, try making it halfway interesting, try to do better than you did the previous week.
I'm beginning to understand why journalists drink. It's not because drinking makes you happy; it's that drinking makes you forget all the bad shit, like promising an apartment to someone, having a friend criticize your work or being called an asshole by someone who sounds like Fat Albert's friend Mushmouth.
Oh, well. Tomorrow is another day...

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Thing About Christmas

The thing about Christmas is its meaning changes the older you get.
When you're young, Christmas is that magical time of year you giddily yearn for, wide-eyed, anticipating Santa Claus and his traveling reindeer. Everything is cloaked in awe, wonder and miracles, from the tinsel-covered tree to the gigantic pile of wrapped presents. Christmases past always represented toys, gifts and playthings you ask for and hope Santa will deliver in the middle of the night, personally visiting your house and stumbling around your darkened living room to leave presents under an evergreen tree laden with shiny ornaments.
Then you get older and Christmas means something different. It's not a religious holiday marking the birth of Jesus, Prince of Peace. It's now a commercial holiday to be sold cheaply from shop windows, a retailer's dream and the chance for shops to reap a profit before the year's end. But despite the endless loop of carols played ad nauseam in the malls and the letters you get from friends describing every ailment, misfortune and awkward moment from the past year along with a studio photograph of their kids, and the many gaudy and unnecessary things that are boxed and wrapped and sold, Christmas signifies something more the older you get.
On a fundamental level, Christmas is about family and friends and sharing good times together. It's celebrating your surviving another year, of forgetting all the hardship and misfortune. It's a comforting womb, a place where you share time with the people in your life who matter to you. This year I dreaded the hassle of getting in the car and driving to visit relatives. But as we devoured two giant meals - one on Christmas eve and the other on Christmas day - and as we played charades and exchanged presents, it wasn't the material gifts I cared about but the gifts of experiencing close comfort with family.
You can never choose your blood relatives, and not every family in the world are the Brady Bunch. Yet the pettiness, dysfunction and faults melt away when you're together at Christmas. The holiday has a way of disarming us and making us vulnerable. All the arguments lasting years can be diffused over an eggnog and a few pleasantries.
The older I get, the more I realize these people who I've known my whole life won't be around forever. This epiphany leads to a whole new way of perceiving things, especially Christmas. For all of our petty jealousies and imperfections, we can come together for a few days and experience the peace and goodwill, the sort of things bandied about by greeting card companies but seldom felt in today's cynical age. Christmas doesn't become just a slogan or brand name - its something real put into action. It's togetherness on a cold night, of laughing and playing games, of feasting and acting silly with the ones you love.
It's what we want all year long, but rarely manage it.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Ravaged Earth on The Game's The Thing

Ravaged Earth gets a mention from Sean Preston of Reality Blurs on The Game's The Thing, a podcast about tabletop gaming. The show's hosts, Ron and Veronica Blessing interviewed Sean about Iron Dynasty, Realms of Cthulhu and Ravaged Earth on the podcast.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

To Bettie Page

Well, you're gone now, and the world has lost someone who defined the cheesecake pinups of the 1950s - the curvaceous figure and innocent girl next door look that reminded many men of their old high school sweethearts. And yet, you were more than a pretty face with bangs and red tarted-up lips. You were more than the light bondage pics you posed for when times were tough and New York was an alien world populated by strangers. You transcended all of that, and became iconic, like Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield. You became a timeless beauty, yet inside there was a spiritual longing, a religious calling. There was substance and soul. There was a power in your photos, not just to arouse the appetites of males, but to satisfy a craving for art, in the most intelligent classical sense of the word. It's an American version of the Athenian beauty, a high iconic ideal art professors lecture about. You provided a sense of that ideal and trapped it in photographs, made it timeless and by that nature, preserved it and made it endure. Yes, because of you, I bought Bunny Yeager's photograph books. Yes, because of you, prefer brunettes. Yes, because of you, I laugh at the cheesy reconstructions of the Rocketeer's girlfriend in comics, who you're modeled after.
You became a part of pop culture, a winking, smiling embodiment of youth and beauty.
Goodbye, Miss Page. You shall be missed.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

My Game Is Out

You know that scene at the end of "Back to the Future" where the cool George McFly gets his science fiction novel sent to him and the whole family basks in the warm glow of his literary accomplishment?
"If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything," he intones.
A parallel thing happened to me, sans the time travel.
My role-playing game, Ravaged Earth, the one that's been in development hell for years, was finally published. It's been a long road since I created the game as a series of documents and posted them on a web forum in 2003. A company bought the property, altered its name slightly, made me sign a non-disclosure agreement and started development in January 2005. Three years later, the project still chugged along, like a gasping locomotive, slowing down and inching towards completion. Earlier this year, the property reverted back to me, due to circumstances out of my control. But the Chinese have a saying about one door opening after another one closes (I think it was the Chinese) and Ravaged Earth found a home with Reality Blurs.
Sean Preston of Reality Blurs gave Ravaged Earth the royal treatment, editing and cleaning up the manuscript and putting the necessary "oomph" into the game. He turned the book into a stellar product, one that we can all be proud of.
If I may gush, like a proud parent gushes over their children, Ravaged Earth is a great pulp game. Set in an alternate 1936 almost 40 years after the War of the Worlds, Ravaged Earth allows players to create masked avengers, super heroes, magicians, gadgeteers, dashing aviators - really any stock pulp character. It's 140 pages of illustrated pulpy love.
Recently, Sean named me "line developer" for Ravaged Earth. I've been hard at work writing another sourcebook for the game, "Secrets of Aetherium", which is due out in 2009.
For now, I'm basking in the warm glow of fisticuffs, .45s and masked crusaders pummeling Nazis.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Redaction Action, What's Your Faction?

A few weeks ago I had lunch with a man who handed me some documents containing 13 copies of applications he obtained through the Open Public Records Act (OPRA).
The State of New Jersey Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control issues permits for non-profit organizations, allowing them to conduct events where alcohol is served. The applications must provide the name and purpose of their non-profit organization, where the event will be held and the kinds of alcohol served at the event.
Since Ocean City is a dry town, where the production and sale of alcohol is illegal, these permits serve a purpose for non-profits to legally temporarily serve alcohol. Civic, religious or educational organizations must pay $100 per day to the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control with their applications. All other non-profit groups must pay $150 per day with their applications.
The man said he didn’t want his identity known because he conducts business with various people in town. I respected the confidentiality of my source, and he showed me the permits he obtained from the city.
He said he asked for the permits and told the city clerk to include information about the names of the non-profits and the location and dates of the events where alcohol would be served.
Yet what the man received from the city were documents that looked like something out of the Pentagon Papers: information redacted with thick black lines, blotting 11 of the 14 fields of information applicants provided in the 13 applications.
When the man questioned why the applications, which were public documents, had more black lines through them than the JFK assassination files, he was told the city administration redacted the information.
Flustered, the man contacted the New Jersey Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control and, through OPRA, received the applications with all of the information intact.
The story I wrote was about the man’s experience in receiving redacted documents from the city and unexpurgated applications from the state. I talked to the city clerk, who said she redacted the information because the man only asked for the name, place and date of the events. I also talked to a councilman who supported the city clerk’s decision.
But the real shit storm came from a reproduction of the two documents side by side on the front page. We chose a document at random to give a visual representation of an un-redacted document next to a redacted one. The documents were reproduced in their entirety, including the address and phone number of the non-profit organization’s contact person.
When we were editing the paper, I asked if we should reproduce this person’s contact information and I was told the unexpurgated application was a public document, obtained from the state through OPRA.
So we run the story and, predictably, the contact stormed into the newspaper office and expressed her rage at her information on the front page. She said the story “made it seem” like she was being singled out, which she wasn’t. In fact, her group was mentioned in the story as an example of what was redacted and not redacted from the documents. I also mentioned the names of the other non-profits and groups whose information was redacted.
She wanted to know who the anonymous citizen was who dared to make OPRA requests and dig up the applications, and after making a request at city hall she found out. So now my source’s name is known publicly.
I called him today and explained the situation. He wasn’t angry, but preferred his identity remained unknown because of his business dealings.
The story was newsworthy because local municipalities shouldn’t redact information from public documents. Period. Save that shit for countries with the words “People's Republic of” in their names. This wasn’t about who specifically requested the documents; it was that a citizen requested public documents and someone in the city chose to censor them. The citizen only found what he was looking for when the state provided the unaltered documents.
The state didn’t see a need to redact anything from the applications – the city did.
It's the Open Public Records Act, not the Open At Our Discretion Records Act.
As for reproducing the contact’s name, address and phone number, that was not intentional, but the information was on a public document. We Googled the contact’s name and found her address and map to her house, plus how much she donated to Barack Obama’s campaign. Our personal contact information is out there, whether we like it or not.
Another issue is dealing with anonymous sources. I don’t like them, but I don’t reject them, either. I take my job as a journalist very seriously and won’t reveal my sources if they choose to remain anonymous. I respect that. Reporters have been jailed for not revealing their sources. It’s a dicey game, but any serious reporter shouldn’t sell out their sources. Trust and integrity are important and if you don’t have that, nobody will ever talk to you. Imagine if Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein had screwed Mark Felt by outing him as Deep Throat.
Sadly, journalism ethics are lacking everywhere, especially when the reporter has friends they don’t want to embarrass, or an agenda they want to promote over objectivity. You don’t get Woodward and Bernstein today. You get the douchebag who exposed Valerie Plame as a CIA operative. You get whiny commentators whose journalistic credentials are microscopic to nonexistent, who’d be comfortable hosting Entertainment Tonight and talking about style over substance, asking the president what brand of suit he wore when he signed the wiretapping legislation.
George Orwell wrote, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
Maybe people don’t want to hear their city is censoring information from innocuous public documents.
So what?
Journalists dispense news. Whether it’s uncomfortable news or pleasant news is irrelevant. If you want to inform the public, become a journalist. If you want to keep people in the dark and dispense pabulum, go into public relations.
My lot is with the journalist.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

My Facebook Life

Social networking websites like MySpace and Facebook revolutionized communication by connecting people worldwide, organizing many specialized groups and affiliations like a massive community bulletin board that can be viewed by subscribers.
When I took a comedy class in 2006, the instructor touted MySpace as a great way for budding comics to network and alert other comics and potential fans about upcoming shows and appearances. Yet besides imbedding videos and customizing your page and increasing your friend list, it really felt limiting for me.
At my high school reunion last week, people were telling me I should get on Facebook, that it would be a great way to keep in touch with old friends. Little did they realize in that innocuous, innocent suggestion would turn into a new mania for me.
What MySpace lacked, Facebook had in abundance. It had a cleaner look, a more adult feel and resembled a networking site. You don’t go on Facebook to dazzle people with your wallpapers or imbedded tunes – you’re there to connect with others.
I joined Facebook last September, but rarely used it. The account just sat empty, unused and receiving no love.
That is until two days after the reunion, when I took the plunge and returned to Facebook. I found a few high school buddies and requested their friendship. Instant success! I posted a note on one of my friend’s message boards, something Facebook calls your “Wall”. Twenty-four hours later I had over 50 friends and was completely obsessed with Facebook for all the wrong reasons.
For the first few days, I started amassing Facebook friends. Don’t get me wrong; I want to keep in touch with my friends, but adding them to my Facebook friend’s list is only the icing on the networking cake.
The night I reconnected with Facebook, I reached out to everyone I knew, searching for their names and hoping they were members. To my surprise, many of the names I requested were already Facebook devotees, so requesting their friend status was only a mouse click away. One of the oddest things about Facebook is a verification process when you’re adding friends. Unlike Myspace, which only requires you to confirm an invite, Facebook forces you to type in two randomly generated words or numbers as a security check. Some of the combinations are bizarre like “calculation” and “Ennis” or Ferrabini” and “spelled” or “97” and “feeding”.
So there I was, adding more names every time I logged in.
Hours later, a sprinking of friends joined. I thought of more people I could add, and looked them up. People from my science fiction group, my gaming group, my co-workers at the newspaper, friends of friends and people I met only a few times. Success! After more requests, a few more joined and my friend totals edged upwards.
When I received my first few friend request, I felt honored. The more people I added, the more other people wanted my in their Facebook lives.
Sometimes you think you’d like to add someone, but they don’t want to be your friend. Facebook lets you confirm or reject them, and as with everything, rejection hurts, even if it’s from total strangers. One woman sent me a private message to my inbox that simply said, “do i even know you???”
That’s what people don’t get about Facebook: it’s a networking tool. You can use it to meet people, to chat and get to know them. I thought I knew this person when I requested her as a Facebook friend, but it turns out we were complete strangers.
Facebook users can fill out an information section that lets others know your preference for movies, interests, music, books, TV shows, where you went to school and work and whether you’re single or married or just looking for friends.
After a few days, I had over 70 friends and the total keeps climbing. I update my status, knowing all who care that I’m at work, or chilling out or going to bed. Whether they care to know this or not, Facebook provides a way to tell them.
That brings me to this final point: There’s something really quaint about Facebook. I’m connecting with people I haven’t seen or heard from since high school. Just seeing their photos and reading their stories and exchanging notes and messages is comforting, in a way. Without Facebook’s many individual pages, groups and networks, I might not know what became of them.
While not the greatest technological marvel of our age, it does allow us to reach out across the void and connect in a very human way, and there's something to be said about that. It's not a sterile, impersonal, automaton-like way technology is integrated into our lives.
It's fulfilling the human need to connect with each other, while at the same time allowing us to exchange photos of our pets.