Nostalgia ( Part I )

A D&D Classic – Dungeon Module Q1: Queen of the Demonweb Pits

I went to the art store the other day (playing a support role while art shopping was being done). They say that scent is the sense most closely tied to memory. When I walk into a modern art store of a sufficient shape and size (in this case a Blick, previously a something else) it takes me back to a very specific location in time and space — a store called Hobby Works, that used to be in the outdoor Laurel Mall.

The first time I experienced this, it took me a while to think of why they shared so much in the ambience, but let’s face it — Hobby Works had a huge inventory overlap with an art store (and I hadn’t been to a Pearl or anything like that when I was a kid and first went to Hobby Works, so it imprinted on me well before any of that). A good deal of the “hobbies” in question were arts and crafts that could be found in an art store, and so the materials (and the aromas they emitted) were very similar. Paper and poster boards, foam core, notebooks in and out of plastic shrink wrap, pens, paint of various varieties (from watercolors to spray paint to Testor for models) — the wood pulp scent of the myriad product derived from trees countered with the more chemical smells of plastics (packaging and models) and solvents (paints) — it was like a library with a chemistry lab buried somewhere inside it, but only barely peaking out into the scent spectrum, until you went to certain parts of the store. I smell a hint of this sometimes when I go into our office and the art supply drawers are all open . . .

Hobby Works (being for “hobbies” versus “art”) obviously had many hobby supporting products. These were were shortcuts for creation: partially done arts (or in miniature) and crafts that were there to speed up processes needed to get to the end results in the hobbies. The hardcore could have done it from scratch (and some dedicated few did), but for the just slightly less obsessed there were rows and rows of partially assembled worlds (landscape trays, tiny fake trees, rails, roads, ponds, clouds, you name it) waiting to be combined into scale landscapes populated by the small vehicles, miniature buildings, tiny figures, and imagination.

In hindsight, it was an homage to the shortcut, the time saver — for most of these hobbies that were already about intense consumption of time and effort to make things that were not real — and for what? But at the same time, so many people used to do these physical practices of creation, and derived tremendous joy even if they didn’t make every bit and piece from scratch. The telling part (years later) is that likely, if they had to make everything from scratch, most would never have even started down that road that brought them so much joy . . . But being given those tiny packages of pre-created building blocks, they then happily completed the picture, with probably a lot more imagination than the person initially gluing the tiny trees together somewhere else had imbued their creations with.

There’s an analogy in there, somewhere . . .

Amusingly, aside from a short foray into model rockets for a year or so, and the occasional pinewood derby (for a few years in cub scouts) kits and accessories, most of my many, many trips to Hobby Works were really for shortcuts for the mind, versus the physical world — because Hobby Works was also the first place that I knew of locally (other than a few volumes at some bookstores) that sold role-playing games, and more specifically, supplements and modules. Sure, I remember that later, Crown Books, at some point, had 2nd edition D&D books for a short while, but in those days, even though they were in “book” form, such obscure tomes were not the content of bookstores, but they were a HOBBY. Borders and Barnes & Noble came much later.

I would often petition for time to go look around the store when we made our semi-frequent family shopping excursions up to Laurel Mall — and though the intense, expensive gas-driven RC car models at the front of the store stole the show visually, and occasionally the higher end model rocket kits tempted me to go back to those few moments of triumph (but more often failure) in parks around the DC area, it was the world of imagination that was contained in the shrink-wrapped magazine-like volumes with a variety of different styles of sometimes embarrassing fantasy art on the covers. Many trips were spent hungrily reading the splash text on the back covers, long before you could go online and seek “reviews” or spoilers about the different sourcebooks and adventures.

Then every so often — a precious one out of many of those trips, far less often than I would have liked — the alignment of money, parental permission, and persuasion would align so that I could actually BUY one of those precious modules (or *gasp* – a full sourcebook or rulebook!). And then my shortcut would be made complete. I could (and often did as a younger child) make up entire worlds in my own play. But a few years later, here were myriad worlds and stories that were partially made for you — with the combination of ideas fleshed out and rules and statistics already written down so that you and your friends could simply take it the rest of the way in the magical experience we called gaming: Reaping a fully built, mutual fantasy world for only a fraction of the work.

And that’s the long version of why I apparently will always think of Dungeons and Dragons when I walk into an art store.

— Doug

PS — I am pleased to say that although the exact location that so impacted my memories is closed, apparently the business is still going at a different location nearby!! –

What I learned in 2016 ( Part I )

It has been suggested that I put down some of what I feel I learned from 2016. The definitive and concise version, would take forever, so I’ll put down some pieces, and we’ll see what they amount to.

Not sure about changing something? Try to measure something that can influence your decision.

In late 2015, I was very unsure about my job versus my career. On the surface, depending on what you derive success from, my job was pretty good — I managed a great team, I was getting paid well for what I was doing, and (best/worst) there was plenty of room for coasting. Larger organizational issues often allowed me to carve out internal goals for my team so that they had something to do and goals to achieve, but left me swimming in a place where I often didn’t have direction, and the immense effort I put out trying to pull parts of the organization together wasn’t being reflected by my position on the org chart. So while my “job” was good, my “career” was stagnating.

I set milestones to see if both A. I was progressing in my personal career, and B. if the company was progressing towards a place I wanted to be that supported my career. I structured these as regular “check-ins” spaced throughout the end of 2015 and 2016. Every check-in turned out the same way — I had not progressed in the ways I wanted, and the company had not moved in a direction that supported me. Rinse and repeat.

By the time I got to the middle of 2016, uncertainty as to whether I should move on to something new was completely removed, and I left to go to my next position without hesitation when the opportunity arrived. Ironically, the team I led was probably in the best place they had been since I had taken/over created that team years ago. I still like the company, I think they are doing great things — but by measuring where the organization was going and enabling me to go for my personal goals, I was able to not only determine it was not a good fit for me anymore, but see that clearly in a way that freed me up to make the move I needed to without regrets.

You can’t run from yourself

Many, many times over the years, I have seen people (from close friends to barely acquainted) repeat the same mistake over and over again: they uproot their lives and run off in dramatic fashion when the problem they are struggling with is really themselves. I remember the first time I really had this revelation (a stagehand I knew shortly after college picked up and ran off at short notice to another city, trying to get a fresh start — and then all reports for the near future after that were about how magically the new city had all the same “problems” as the old one). Following that, it was amazing how I could look back and see all the other instances of this that I had witnessed (and would in the future). While I personally haven’t really picked up my life and moved the whole thing (living situation, job, circle of friends) drastically at once, that revelation has helped me to be able to identify when self-criticism and growth are the necessary solutions versus trying to blame something in the environment. Often a problem is truly rooted in BOTH, and only addressing both will truly let you move on.

Moving on from my last job definitely removed an entire layer of stress and malaise caused by the death of momentum my career had been suffering, but it also still left me with some things that were now glaringly NOT specific to my job once that “excuse” had been removed. There were things that were still very much on me. It made me refocus on outstanding health issues that I had put down to job stress (and some of it was, but some of it clearly was NOT, and needed to be investigated), and some it was bad habits (be it thinking or acting) that I had developed during that malaise that I needed to break. Going through those is likely another entire post or more in and of itself. One notable one is how I had just pushed writing (other than work product) completely to the side.

And thus I needed to start writing again

Most of “what I do” when you remove any technical or domain specific aspects of it has to do with facilitating or creating communication. Writing is probably the second most powerful tool in that arsenal (I still feel, if it can reach many, speaking is first). The emerging growth of video on the intarwebs non-withstanding, the written word is probably still the most powerful (and now sadly, much perverted) tool of communication that we as a species have. To let that atrophy is unforgivable. But there were some great excuses, and also, though well hidden, fear. I would often point out that I wrote all the time for work — and I often did (emails, whitepapers, presentations, briefs, instant messaging) — I worked remotely from most of the people I needed to interact with, and online video meetings aside, almost ALL of that communication was via the written word.

But this type of communication is only one facet of writing — and it’s limited to the sphere of trying to communicate mostly inside several bubbles (the company, security or tech nerds, and then the even smaller communities of people working on specific projects inside of all that). Communication in those specialized environments becomes overly specialized and focused in and of itself, and it becomes like exercising only one set of muscles over and over again — that one set might become gigantic, but it may actually ultimately hurt your overall physique if it’s out of balance to the body as a whole.

So, in trying to exercise the greater whole, I picked up this blog again (and have started journaling daily (though privately) and am looking at some other projects. Currently, this post feels almost masturbatory at this point, but sticking to making sure there’s an entry every week, so there’s that.

We’ll see where it goes . . .


A humble Resolution . . .

Everyone makes new year’s resolutions at some point, and often they just lead to regret or quick abandonment. I personally think that conducting Lessons Learned on a year is a far more valuable practice than resolutions for the new one. Hopefully I’ll get to that soon for 2016.

I’ve thought a lot about writing the way I used to over the past few years, and frankly, amazing tool though it can be, the modern internet is a good reason NOT to write – so much anger, fear, and hatred, and the ability of all the negative of humanity to be amplified alongside the good. Who would want to go back to writing on that playing field, exposed for all to see? It’s a great excuse to stop trying, and in a way, I did that many years ago. I write all the time in private venues — why put out a public edition as well, just to expose one’s self to all the negativity out there, with no real gain? But ultimately, it’s an excuse not to write at all, and therein lies the problem.

During the holidays, one of our family tasks was trying to preserve some of my Dad’s writings. Unbeknown to most, he was a frustrated noir suspense and detective fiction writer, in the vein of Cornell Woolrich, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and others. He wrote many stories when I was a small child, and to my knowledge never got any of them published. But still, he kept at it, until moving from Chicago to be with the family on the East Coast. I think after that point he stopped, or at least he stopped trying to write things for publication.

I found this (actually several of these) in going through his writings, as we scanned them into PDF, so we’d no longer have to rely on the aging paper to retain the ideas . . .

a rejection letter from a pulp or noir mystery magazine
From the Editors at Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine . . .

It immediately reminded me of The X-Files “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man” — in which one of the most powerful and dangerous men in the world really only wants to be a writer, but is frustrated by his constant rejection by the pulps of his day. I draw no connections between my father’s back story and the villain from Mulder & Scully’s universe, but the irony is there — the disapproval and negativity of a small minority of uninformed shouldn’t make you stop trying — even if you are rejected and ridiculed again and again and again in a way that people would never to do you in person.

Ultimately, it didn’t work out so well in either case — my Dad stopped writing in the long run, and died younger than all would have liked with only a few, barely seen publications to his name, and the Cigarette Smoking Man briefly realizes his dream only briefly, to then see it dashed by re-interpretation of his material to boost sales in the modern market place (another painfully accurate analogy to the modern internet). But they both gave it a good college try. And so it seems like a resolution to try (at least for a little while) writing in a public (and “published”) medium again. We’ll see how it goes.