Tuesday, August 30, 2011

"Hello, I'm a Reporter. May I Scare the Shit Out of You?"

Hurricane Irene hit New Jersey on Sunday, a Category 1 hurricane with 60 mile per hour winds, storm surges and torrential rains. As I sat huddled in my basement Journalism Bunker and Global Command Center, urine dribbling down my right leg and hyperventilating into a Dunkin’ Donuts bag in the throes of a panic attack, I wondered why I was frightened.

Then I remembered; I watched the entire hurricane play out on local television news.

The Philadelphia news stations had round the clock coverage of Hurricane Irene as she flew up the eastern coast, dumping rain, causing tornadoes and creating more havoc than a 200-megaton nuclear bomb. Watching the meteorologists and weather reporters on TV painting a shitty picture of widespread chaos and disorder, I wouldn’t have been surprised if they interviewed the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

TV reporters engaged in a choreographed circle-jerk of pathos and destruction that made a weather event seem like one of those mental indoctrination “Duck and Cover” films of the 1950s.

The poor bastards reporting live, wearing ponchos and standing on the Boardwalk, blasted by torrential rains and buffeted by a typhoon, can’t be taken seriously.

“Well, Don, as you can see behind me the 20-foot wall of water breaching the dunes and flooding the entire town makes the Japan tsunami look like a trickle of beer piss. I’m holed up in a hotel without electricity and things are pretty bad. Pretty bad indeed. We’ve resorted to cannibalism like in that ‘Alive’ movie. We gnawed off the cameraman’s leg. It’s only a matter of time before the entire eastern seaboard drowns in this thing, Don. Once again, a reminder that humanity is only the mere playthings of a wrathful and vengeful God.”

Philly TV reporters have a fetish for death and destruction. They pray for the worst scenario at any given time because it means pictures of dead bodies, carnage and destroyed buildings. They can hone their acting abilities by staring at the camera and feigning concern.

Because Hurricane Irene turned out to be a dud in the southern New Jersey shore, there’s nothing to exaggerate or inflate for ratings. The doom and gloom train is derailed and the pathos party over.

“Don, I’m standing on the Boardwalk during the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. Unlike Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there aren’t waterlogged corpses floating through the town, nor are there any widespread instances of looting or vandalism. We do have a few uprooted bushes though, and somebody scraped their finger trying to open a can of Mr. Pibb. We will bring you that shocking story after more stock footage of tornadoes and euthanized kittens.”

By deliberately ramping up the situation and over-saturating the airwaves with pandemonium, they create a frightened population of jittery sheep. If the situation is bad, tell them. If an expert predicts a storm will be bad, tell the people that with attribution. Just don't stand in a puddle of water and tell people of a theoretic deluge.

Emergency management officials made a good call telling people to evacuate Cape May County. But telling the public if they choose not to evacuate, to "write the names of their next of kin on an index card and put it in your shoe" isn't productive. Scare tactics can have the opposite effect.

The one place this frenzied fervor didn’t thrive was online. Social media sites and instant messaging such as Twitter and Facebook gave people living in the hurricane’s path a way to communicate with each other and exchange information without a filter.

Those who remained shared their experiences online with evacuees. Reporters from the local news affiliate, NBC40, provided updates through social media sites.

Public disdain for traditional media continues to increase, and with it, distrust and skepticism. Traditional media outlets prove they are obsolete and can’t deliver unvarnished accounts when such reporting matters most. Idealistically, reporters should tell the public what is happening, free of embellishment. Prognostications of a horrible cataclysmic storm when the reality doesn’t match do a disservice to a public already edgy and nervous.

When the storm was over, we learned Irene killed 42 people and caused $7 billion in damage in the United States. Most of the deaths were caused by falling trees and inland flooding. In New Jersey, seven people were killed. Cape May County suffered no fatalities or severe damage. Instead of the 14 feet of water forecasted, Hurricane Irene sped up before high tide, sparing the New Jersey coastline. Random luck we dodged a bullet, and the damage could have been much worse.

In the storm’s aftermath, the sun came out, temperatures warmed and surfers headed to the beach to ride epic waves. TV stations turned their attention northward, to the severe flooding in Vermont and Massachusetts.

Because when there’s a hint of a disaster, there’s always some schmuck with a microphone and camera to scare the shit out of us.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Goodnight, Irene

Surveying the apartment, I decided what to pack and what would remain. Hurricane Irene threatens New Jersey and where I live, on a barrier island in Cape May County, is particularly vulnerable. Meteorologists and emergency management officials I interviewed spun tales of the “100 year hurricane”, that one mighty storm which manifested once every century over the New Jersey coast and wreaked havoc and destruction. They said we were long overdue for a hurricane to make landfall over New Jersey.

Irene granted their wish.

The county issued a mandatory evacuation effective today. On the Boardwalk, shops shuttered, plywood over their windows. Gas stations are inundated with cars and traffic off the island is bumper to bumper. Such dire scenarios play themselves out on TV in the Carolinas and Florida, but not in New Jersey.

Like the Chinese say, “May you live in interesting times.”

An earthquake on Tuesday and hurricane on Sunday. How about we go for the tornado of human feces or flaming asteroid strike for a trifecta?

Officials tell us Hurricane Irene will strike New Jersey and we should secure our properties and evacuate.

Get bottled water, a flashlight and head for the fucking hills.

So I’m sorting out my life in a lone duffel bag and backpack, deciding what’s important enough to take and what will be left to nature’s cruel elemental forces. A change of clothes necessary toiletries, important papers and two computers made the cut. I'm also taking two jump drives with my current writing projects and a list of work contacts. My cat Smuttynose will also accompany me, although he has no choice in the matter.

There’s a real possibility the storm surge will inundate the island, that the apartment will suffer water damage and my furniture, books and other possessions will be lost. This apprehension and worry kept me up for most of the night, a fretful insomnia born from the knowledge my home of four years will be an aquarium.

In emergencies like these, you do the best you can. You think rationally about what you need to take and move on. When you return and find waterlogged wreckage, you take stock, do what you can and survive.

I don’t know if I’m going to return to damp carpets or floating debris. Nothing of this magnitude has happened here, and people are muddling along the best they can, devouring as much information as it becomes available, making preparations and evacuating inland where the flooding and storm surge risks are severely minimized.

Still, you wonder: Will our island home be uncomfortably damp or a new Atlantis?

We’ll have to wait until Monday to discover whether Irene is a shameless flirt or a sadistic, ballgag-choking dominatrix.

Until then, I’m packing up my shit and getting out of Dodge.

Stay dry, people.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Gencon 2011 Report

I've been back from Gencon since Sunday, but it's taken me a few days to decompress and gather my thoughts. Traveling to and from Indianapolis was time-consuming, especially with delays at the airport, and the hotel's air conditioning system being broken and switching hotels and all of the hassles that come with modern metropolitan living.

Still, the convention was probably the best I've ever attended.

It marked my girlfriend's induction into playing RPGs and the gamer culture. She's a self-admitted geek with a penchant for SyFy shows, Doctor Who and unicorns.

Yes, unicorns. Oy. Don't ask.

For her, Gencon was an opportunity to see me rubbing shoulders with fellow gamers and those in the gaming industry who produce the wonderful products people play. It was also our first real vacation together, since our hectic and hellish schedules leave us little time for travel.

Day One: Thursday, Aug. 4
Because of a delay our flight, which was scheduled to leave at 2 p.m., didn't actually leave until 2:30 p.m. We arrived at Indianapolis after 4 p.m. which gave us precious little time. When we arrive at our hotel we're informed the air conditioning was broken and the rooms would be ready for Saturday. The hotel was nice enough to arrange for our stay at a hotel located across the parking lot from theirs. We settled into our new temporary digs, then walked to the convention center where Gencon was underway. After some wrangling we got our badges and headed into the exhibit hall with a half hour to spare.

I made a beeline for the Studio 2 booth and snagged a copy of Savage Worlds Deluxe and chatted with some colleagues from Reality Blurs and Pinnacle.

After that, the girlfriend and I had dinner at Claddagh Irish Pub before heading back to the hotel and sleepyland.

Day Two: Friday, Aug. 5
After a power breakfast at the hotel, we headed out to the convention center. Gencon affords one the rare and unique opportunity to witness an abundant amount of cosplay. There are only so many photos one can take of women dressed like Princess Leia or Japanese ninja schoolgirls.

Like this chick.

Or this Smurf/fish girl or whatever the hell she's supposed to be.

Putting the eye candy aside, we spent the morning in the exhibit hall.

Since it was my girlfriend's first gaming experience, we procured her a dice bag and set of polyhedral dice. I obtained a few more goodies: a copy of Hellfrost Player's Guide signed by creators Paul "Wiggy" Wade-Williams and Robin Elliott; The Path of Kane , an adventure book for The Savage World of Solomon Kane; the Sticks & Stones card game and Echo Nouveau, a book of Art Nouveau illustrations by artist Echo Chernik.

There's no such thing as having "too many" dice.

Reality Blurs products! Note they only had the Deluxe Edition of Ravaged Earth left.

Following lunch at Noodles & Company, we went to JW Marriott, a brand spanking new hotel where my Ravaged Earth game was scheduled.

I ran a Ravaged Earth game I wrote, "The Vril Machine". The party consisted of Dawn Star (hobo psionicist), Conroy Rockefeller (dilettante), Coleston Baker (explorer), Thomas Alloy (gadgeteer), Abdul ul-Rashid (mystic) and an unnamed Man of Mystery. The adventure lasted four hours and pitted the intrepid explorers against the Vril Society in Germany. The group sneaked into a secret Nazi research base, freed two trapped Martians and battled members of the SS. The players had such a good time they applauded my game mastering talents.

Behold! The elusive and powerful Vril Machine!

Following the game, we visited to the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. Vonnegut is one of my favorite authors and the prospect of an entire library/museum dedicated to his life and work filled me with childish glee. Chatting to the staff and viewing the artwork, murals and artifacts (including Vonnegut's typewriter and Purple Heart from World War II), only rekindled my appreciation of the man's work. He had a unique style and vision and his writing spoke to me during my teenage years. I remember heading to the shore for summer vacation and buying his paperback novels at a hole-in-the-wall bookshop and devouring his words on the beach. When I got to college, Hocus Pocus was published, and I wrote him a letter gushing about how wonderful I thought he was and what advice he had for young writers like myself. He never replied to my query, but I remained a devoted fan of his work for many years.

If Warehouse 13 needs another artifact, try Vonnegut's typewriter.

We had a delicious dinner at The Old Spaghetti Factory, then headed to the Subterra Lounge for drinking and dancing. Actually, my girlfriend drank and danced. I just chaperoned and escorted her back to the hotel. Chivalry or just too damn tired? You decide.

Day Three: Saturday, Aug. 6
We relocated back to our original hotel and spent most of the day at the exhibit hall, making final purchases and soaking up the rich geeky atmosphere. Gaming is a hobby I enjoy and its participants are intelligent and funny people. Just walking around the exhibit hall and watching the cosplay, the vendors and playing a few demos was a great way to unwind. Though it's a chaotic, noisy exhibit hall, everywhere you look you saw a reference to pop culture, science fiction or fantasy. I'm proud to belong to an industry with such eclectic and creative people and some of the best fans on the planet.

Gamers gaming.

I would play Flapjacks and Sasquatches based on the name alone.

Redneck Life is like Milton Bradley's Life only with rednecks and trailers. The object is to not lose your teeth. I AM NOT KIDDING!

After hanging around the exhibit hall, we went to the Pinnacle seminar in the Marriott. As a licensee, I spoke about the wonderful products in the works from Reality Blurs, including Agents of Oblivion, a game of supernatural espionage, a revamped Ravaged Earth, and more Mythos Tales for Realms of Cthulhu and additional Old School Fantasy adventures.

Following a much-deserved nap, girlfriend and I had dinner, then went to Savage Saturday Night at the Omni Hotel, where I ran another Ravaged Earth game I authored, "Slave Pits of Agharta." The Jennings Ballroom was packed with tables filled with gamers playing various Savage Worlds games. In "Slave Pits", a group of daring explorers ventured deep into the dark caverns underneath a small town to locate a missing child prodigy, only to find themselves emerging into a new world - the Hollow Earth realm of Agharta! The players battled a dinosaur, brigands, warriors, a wizard and a dragon and had a blast doing it. This group also gave me a standing ovation following the adventure's epic finale. Savage Worlds fans are some of the best in the industry.

Thog the Jungle Lord maneuvers onto a pissed off T-Rex.

Day Four: Sunday, Aug. 7
Homeward bound. Not much to report here, save the Indianapolis International Airport has a clean and pleasant terminal. Oh, and there was also this to remind us of how things still suck in the publishing world:

Gencon 2011 was the best gaming convention I've ever attended. Within that whirlwind of bizarre costumes, pop culture references and RPGs and boardgames and card decks lies the heart of how important this hobby is to me. It's a strong community of people who share an interest in gaming. It's a group of strangers distanced by geography and time sitting around a table and adopting an alternate identity to cooperate and achieve goals as one. These goals may be epic quests over fantasy realms, or epic battles during World War II or exploring the uncharted depths of outer space. Whether they're fighting flesh-eating zombies, shooting Nazis or slaying dragons, these strangers interact together and share stories and laughter. I can think of no other panacea for loneliness than gaming. The chance to meet some wonderful people and build friendships makes Gencon special every year for me.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Meatgrinder World

Occasionally I become lethargic and mired in the quicksand of mundane existence and my writing suffers. In the past few months, I've been writing, head down buried in my keyboard sluggishly churning away at two adventures I'm running at Gencon. Besides this creative outlet, there;s been precious little else on my proverbial writing plate, save the drudgery of work.

Work is drudgery, you ask?

Journalism is not the exciting, adrenaline-pumping, whip you around by your nutsack world of orgasmic thrills and spine-tingling adventure?

In a word, no. Not everything you write will grab you, shake you by the lapels and slug you with the pearl handle of a snub-nosed .44.

The meatgrinder world sucks sometimes, and the mannequins floating by you glower with plastic, emotionless faces. And you have to interview them and draw words out of them like thick molasses, laboriously gathering their quotes and crafting them into readable prose.

Yet its this insane craft of writing, this bizarre exercise of downloading thoughts from my brain and dribbling them onto the screen via keyboard that both intrigues and horrifies me. Finger taps a few select keys, words form and suddenly I'm the Writing God, splitting the atom and breathing life into characters.

I haven't been able to partake in this wonderful exercise, this primitive creative process lately because my meatgrinder world job gets in the way. Though the meatgrinder world job grants me a salary, keeps me from homelessness and hunger and gives me a meager sense of accomplishment (journalism, yay!), I still long to stretch my wings and fly out into the ether, past the mundane atmosphere to where dreams grow.

The problem with journalism is it's boring. Gathering information, interviewing subjects, sifting through official documents is time-consuming and about as exciting as listening to David Attenborough drone on in detail about the planting and care of hydrangeas.

The most successful journalists are the ones who can stay awake. If you can, you begin fashioning this mountain of information into your story. Here's where the meatgrinder world erupts into a geyser of suck. Journalism writing, the actual way news stories are written, are simplistic and bare-bones. You present the facts without embellishment, without a hint of bias or personal flavor. It's like cooking a steak without spices. You just have a bland piece of cooked meat.

Over 45 years ago a group of eccentric madmen geniuses (Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Gay Talese, Truman Capote and Norman Mailer) created a style of reporting called the New Journalism, which put the writer in the story. News read like novels, with descriptive and rich prose that both entertained and informed. It was the written equivalent of today's infotainment news channels except it didn't pander to the audience or insult the reader's intelligence. The New Journalism brought writing back into the news room, with journalists flogging the meatgrinder world through fascinating, well-written stories.

When you write brain dead, bland stories, you might be an objective journalist only sticking to the facts. You might use basic words a fourth grader could easily comprehend. You might be a wizard in your J-school writing class. Yet as far as engaging your brain and opening the third eye of a true writer, as far as pulling the tiny imps hiding in your imagination out and fasten them to the page with a nailgun, then you fail.

For me, writing must engage me thoroughly, and when it doesn't I feel out of place, as if I'd lost equilibrium. Merging the meatgrinder world job and the grandiose craft of writing will only make me shine as both a journalist and writer.

If I lose passion at any time, it reflects in my work.

The secret is to never lose passion and to regain momentum.