Friday, December 31, 2010

Adventures in DC Universe Online

A few weeks ago I got an email invitation to join the DC Universe Online beta. This gave me the (free) opportunity to take the game for a spin before it became publicly available. For all my game playing I’ve never spent a lot of time with a massively multiplayer game. Here are my impressions, playtest notes, and wish-list.

At first I was quite disappointed by the MMOness of it all. It feels very much like World-of-Warcraft-with-tights. There are lots of fetch quests and beat up X guys missions. There are loot drops and raids. Weak character development and very weak story all around - even by deeply diminished video game standards. The well-populated persistent world mean nothing really changes. I’m supposed to beat up Scarecrow’s thugs and rescue my fellow citizens from his fear gas. But an infinite stream of bad guys and infected bystanders keep showing up as fast as I deal with them. I knock out baddies and free bystanders to make my quota and leave the rest for the next guy. It doesn’t feel very heroic.

Character generation is flexible and fun. You choose hero or villain and have a wide variety of costume and appearance options. Choose a power set, a weapon, and how you get around. Choose your awesome super-name. Realize that your awesome super name was already taken. And your first 6 somewhat less awesome backups are also taken. Settle for some kind of vaguely appropriate but available name. Now you’re ready for action!

The graphics and combat are only OKish relative to their single-player counterparts (like Prototype or Batman: Arkham Asylum). But they are solid and enjoyable for a game of this scope. Combat feels more more kinetic, twitchy, and action-oriented than what I would expect. Giant spring-loaded boxing gloves send characters flying. Attacks can be dodged with a quick acrobatic roll. Rhythmic button combinations lead to spectacular, leaping, flourishes of Demon Fist’s deadly power-quarterstaff. At its best it feels like you’re playing a fighting game or a brawler.

Many of the MMO conventions are present. To a superhero fan and MMO novice like me they can seem out of place or are simply baffling. Having loot drops seems odd for heroes. The appearance changes are kind of fun. But the stat changes you get from the super-pants you got from beating up Doctor Psycho are too subtle to really get excited about. Having decaying equipment seems pointless. And facing the Queen Bee with a bunch of busted gear can be especially frustrating. Collecting money seems inappropriate for the genre (if you’re a hero). And there’s not that much to buy. So I’m not really sure what the point is.

Characters can have different roles (Damage, Control, Tank, and Healer) that seem like nods to knowing WoW fans. But I wish they were more intrinsic to the characters rather than different roles my character is supposed to take on from mission to mission. Character generation provides a wide variety of power and weapon selections. Fire and ice. Flying and super speed. Magic and brawlers. But then, they all get kind of homogenized in the name of balance. Everyone seems to wind up with similar offense and defense options to work out to the same amount of damage points per second.

The biggest advantage a MMO has over a single player game is the availability of all these other players as heroes and villains. This remains my greatest disappointment with the game. I hate chat windows and can’t imagine spending my precious gaming time typing in one. All my players interactions so far have been incidental, brief, shallow and random. I wish the game did much more to encourage player interaction and helped form enduring partnerships and rivalries between the players.

If I’m dong a mission and another hero is doing the same mission right next to me, the game should ask us if we want to work together. If we do, scale the mission, open a audio chat channel, and make us a team. If we complete the mission, ask us we want to be friends. If we say yes, let us find each other and team up in future sessions.

If a villain comes along and beats me up, offer me a revenge mission that let’s me track him down. If I succeed at the revenge mission, ask us we want to be enemies. If we do, let us track each other down and do battle in future sessions.

Instead of a “Tank” mode, I want a “Social” role. When in social mode characters should not be able to attack or be attacked. Their controls  should allow them to strike a variety of poses and make a number of canned, context relevant, statements. Before a battle (or even in the middle of one) heroes and villains should be able to target each, go “Social” other to swap some banter and strike poses for a few seconds before the action resumes.

What I really want is more, deeper, more personal mission-based PvP. Give a villain a mission to go rob a bank. Tell my hero that I need to go stop the bank robbery. We both have to get to the bank and get sent to the same instance. I fight my way through henchmen. The villain fights through the guards. We meed in the middle and only one of us can be the victor.

Unfortunately, DC Universe Online doesn’t offer much of that kind of social-engineering. It does offer a lot of flash,  fireworks, power progression, and different ways to be super. I think it’s probably a good MMO. It's just too conventional for my taste. I might buy it when it comes out. But I’ll continue to look to the skies and search the rooftops. Someday a real hero will come. Someone will serve up some real stories and save us from MMO grinding and drudgery. But who? And will they be too late?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Everyone Gets a Tax Cut

A few thoughts on the announced tax-cut deal between Obama and the Republicans:

Generally, I like the deal. Everyone gets what they want (even if we can’t pay for it). Taxes don’t go up for everyone next year. We even get a little tax cut. Unemployment benefits get extended for another year. And the earned income tax credit get extended. So, tax cuts for everyone and the most needy get a little extra.

It’s absurd that there had be to any negotiations at all. The Republicans get a say because they have 42 senators and Democrats only have 58. Since it takes 60 votes to do anything, 42 is as good as 58. If the senate doesn’t kill that rule at the start of it’s next session then the Democrats are insane. I’m looking at you Jeanne Shaheen. What the heck, I’m looking at you too Kelly Ayotte. Just because you’re a Republican doesn’t relieve you of the responsibility to end this foolishness.

Liberals who are apoplectic about this deal need to rethink their priorities. Would the world really be a better place if taxes for everyone went up next year? And unemployment benefits ended? This is a stealth-stimulus. It’s not a very efficient stimulus. But it’s better than nothing -- and will be much more popular.

I support progressive taxation. I opposed the Bush tax cuts. I never liked the Democratic plan to extend 75% of the Bush cuts. I don’t think it’s a moral imperative that rich people pay higher taxes. We need a lot more revenue to balance the budget. When we get serious about the nation’s fiscal health I would like to see a little extra come from where it’ll cause the least hardship - people richer than me. But everyone will have to share the burden. We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking otherwise.

But we aren’t serious about balancing the budget. Nobody cares. Not this year. This deal piles on another $600-$900 billion on the deficit. It also settles taxes and economic stimulus issues for the next few years. Maybe this is our last big bender. Hopefully, this opens the door to serious negotiations around a big picture deficit reduction plan (like Simpson-Bowles) where everything is on the table and we look at the kinds of real, structural changes that are required in tax policy, defense, medical, and entitlement spending.

Speaking of negotiations- Obama is clearly at home with them. He’s much more interested in being the presidential centrist than leading the charge as the front-man of the Democratic party. I admire this quality. But it drives “the base” berserk. Obama will get plenty of opportunity for negotiation over the next two years. The man himself is such a stark contrast from the communist-socialist rhetoric that comes from the right. I hope that’ll become increasingly apparent, that the fever will break, and that American center will realized Obama is one of them.

In this highly polarized era there may not be much support for a President-as-centrist-negotiator. But that’s his job. And I’m glad Obama is the one doing it.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Two True Stories About America: Part 2

It order to understand the actions of the Obama administration you have to understand the mess he inherited. Critics of Obama ask when he will stop blaming Bush for all his problems. But it will always be true that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were started by Bush. It will always be true that Bush ignored the problems global climate change and exploding health care costs. It will always be the case that massive tax cuts and runaway spending meant Obama inherited a federal budget awash in red ink. We can never forget that Bush presided over the housing bubble and watched as his economic policies led a massive, systematic, economic collapse.

These things will always be true. We must never forget that.

Seen in their proper context, the actions of Obama administration were smart, aggressive, and necessary. However bad things are, we were saved from a fate much, much worse. Critics of government intervention need to consider what would happened if those interventions had not taken place. Think about the destruction of the automotive and insurance industries. Consider the insolvency of the institutions that own the homes of most Americans. With the entire banking system teetering on the abyss we were facing the death of the capitalist system itself. Without banks, without loans, without lines of credit, without mortgages, without capitol - every business in the country, every employer large and small would be facing bankruptcy, failure and collapse. The actions taken by the Obama administration were essential to securing stability and protecting our future.

Amidst this crisis it may be harder to see the urgency of reforming our health care system. But our safely net is unraveling. Dealing with soaring health care costs and creating a system where every American can afford health insurance is more important than ever. The Obama administration and congressional Democrats were right to act now. We won’t see radical changes. Many Americans will see hardly any change to their health plans. But once the local health monopolies are broken, once everyone has some choice about their health plan, when health care costs are no longer rising without competition or constraint, when our financial and family health is no longer dependant on the whims of an unknown underwriter, when we have options beyond clinging to what we have - then there will no going back. We will never miss the old, arbitrary, overly expensive system. We can be grateful that action was taken and look forward to a more fair, more secure, less expensive system of health care.

Dealing with the multitude of problems that confront us requires dedication, focus, and a willingness to confront reality. Only the Democrats have shown that focus. The Republican party has abandoned its principles and policies in naked pursuit of politics and power. The politicians and cheerleaders who lead us into this disaster have refused to confront it. Rather than work towards solutions, they have worked to thwart them. Instead of trying to alleviate disaster they have worked to prolong it. The Republican party and its supporters fanned the flames of discontent and disillusionment. They oversaw our economic collapse. Rather than recover from it, they seek to exploit it, and channel the anger and misery. Republicans seek to regain power without regard for the public good.

There is no way to stop the march of history. There is no alternative to confronting the issues before us. It is impossible to take our country back to some imaginary days of yore. We need to look to building a better future. We need to remember that things could have been, and could still get, much worse.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Two True Stories About America: Part 1

As soon as Obama took office he turned on the money spigot. Hundreds of billions for the banks. More hundreds of billions in “stimulus” funds that went towards politicians' dream projects. Every few weeks they announced some massive bailout project that cost tens or hundreds of billions of dollars. Banks. Insurance companies. Car companies. Mortgage giants. It seemed like everyone who caused this disaster was getting a huge payout.  In two years the taxpayers got nearly $3 trillion deeper in debt.

On top of all this the Democrats passed their health care reform, which will cost another trillion dollars. They spent 12 months arguing amongst themselves, in the middle of this crisis, to pass a massive, expensive, unpopular bill. Most of us already had health health insurance. And it’s not as if this great law has stopped health care costs from shooting up. Since they passed their law, health care costs have been rising faster than ever. So, what was the point of that?

After spending all that money it’s not as if the Democrats have much to show for it. The unemployment rate still sucks. Jobs are impossible to find. Housing prices are still plummeting. Those same banks that got their big bailouts aren’t lending money. And they are busy throwing people out of their homes. Where did all that money go?

The jobs disappeared and it is not at all clear when, or how, they are going to come back. Manufacturing in the US has been dying for while. The housing and construction boom that kept blue collar families going is done and dead. People are watching their net worth evaporate just as they lose their jobs. We know people in other countries are willing to do what Americans do for half, or a fourth, or a tenth, of what we need to pay the bills. Not only that, but those same foreigners are now all over the US competing for same jobs right here. Now there are millions and millions of illegal immigrants, living is this country, working illegally, while millions of hardworking perfectly capable Americans can’t find jobs and are struggling to take care of their families.

And the change doesn’t end there. We’re told that just by driving our cars around -- to go shopping or go to work -- or because we’re trying keep our houses warm - we’re destroying the planet. They want us to pay even more for gas and more or heating oil. Even if we can’t see it, we’re supposed to believe that we’re destroying the planet. Not only that, but Al Gore has plan to fix this. And God Almighty does not.

When election time rolled around, the American people looked around. They could see all the money the government is spending. They could see the debt piling up. They could see an economy going down the tubes. They had had enough change. They had one word to say to the government and that word was “STOP”.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Health Care Economics: A Personal Case Study

Our family has health insurance. But our plan has a high deductible. We pay for first $5,000.00 in medical expense each year before the insurance kicks in. Part of the reason we got a plan with such a high deductible is that it saved us money on premiums. The other reason is that, after watching our premiums soar up year after year, we wanted to be responsible for our own health care utilization. With $5,000 of our own money on the line we had an incentive to consume health care services wisely. We would be the change we were looking for.

But managing your health care bills is not so easy. We learned that the hard way.

The Case

At first our decision to go with the high deductible plan looked like a good bet. Other than routine checkups, we had minimal issues. Then I got the call. One day last spring Christine fainted at work. She felt woozy all of sudden and sat down. The school nurse checked her out, called for an ambulance, and called me. I ran over. I arrived in time to check in and see how she was feeling before the ambulance took her to the emergency room.

At the ER, we were mostly ignored while the staff dealt with more severe cases. Eventually a doctor appeared. They ran a few blood tests. They ruled out anything that was an immediate concern. Then they kind of shrugged and sent us home.

Over the next few days Christine’s wooziness and weakness came and went. She always felt a little “off”. Sometimes she was too weak to stand. She missed a lot of work. Christine visited her doctor twice. They ran a few more tests. Then her doctor suggested an MRI.

We scheduled the MRI. Christine started to feel better and we thought about cancelling. Then she had another dizzy spell. Whatever was causing these spells had been doing it for three weeks now. Something was wrong and we had no idea what it was. We kept the MRI appointment.

We didn’t hear the MRI results right away. Christine started to feel better. And the problem went away. Eventually, we learned that the MRI didn’t show anything interesting.

Whatever the problem was, it went away on its own. At no point did Christine take any medication or undergo any treatment. We never even got a firm diagnosis. In this case, the outcome was the same as if she had never gone to the doctor at all.

The Bills

The ride in the ambulance cost: $758.60

The visit to the ER cost: $2,061.38

The visits to the doctor cost: $524.49

The MRI cost: $3,367.52

Health Care Economics

Before we consider the economic factors at work here, I would like to consider this question:

Why do I have such a crappy television?

We have a old, not at all flat, and rather small television. I have considered purchasing a new television on several occasions. There are lots televisions available. There are many manufacturers. Sometimes there are sales. Each year the price of new 42” flat-screen gets lower and lower. Over the years we have spent lots and lots of money on lots of different things. But we have consistently chosen to not spend our money on a new television.

This is classical market economics at work. There is competition based on quality and price. Information is available on the cost and features of each model. Retailers compete to get me to buy from them. I can make an informed decision about whether the product is worth the cost. And I can decide not to purchase anything at all.

Notice that when it comes to health care, none of these basic market principles apply.

The school did not consult with us or get a quote from the ambulance service before calling for it. The minute you set foot in an ER the meter is running and nobody is going to tell you how high. As she handed over her credit card, Christine asked the woman at the intake desk how much her scheduled MRI would cost. The response was “How should I know?”. When you get the bill, learn what the MRI cost and decide maybe it wasn’t worth the three thousand dollars, you can’t return it for a refund. And since you’re dealing with your health, something more important to you than money, you can’t opt out.

The principles of competition and selection that control costs everywhere else don’t apply to American health care. In other countries the government is paying the bills and sets the price -- controlling costs by fiat. But not in the US. With neither market forces nor government price controls, the entire system is price-blind, and costs rise without constraint. Even if we can’t control these costs we still have to pay for them - through rising insurance premiums, higher taxes, and shocking bills that arrive in the mail.

Bringing our nation’s health care costs under control will require application of some basic market principles, stronger government intervention, and a cultural shift to recognize the costs and limitations of modern medicine.

Our doctor would likely be shocked by the suggestion that she factor in the costs of tests and treatment. The doctor has a hard enough time sorting out sets of vague symptoms and trying to keep us healthy. She’s recommended the MRI because it might show something serious she can’t detect with a stethoscope. Her instincts, training, concern for her patients, concern for malpractice suits, and her own salary are all aligned. All of her incentives are pointing in the direction that says do more. But the doctor needs to recognize that, while we are deeply concerned about our health, it is not our only concern. She does us no favors by being blind to or concealing the costs. The patient is on the hook for the bill. The cost portion needs to included in the cost-benefit analysis.

We also need to recognize that, when it comes to our health, and the health of those we love, traditional cost-benefit analysis does not always apply. In an emergency, when dealing with a horrifying unknown, or with any serious medical condition - we will want more than we can pay for. The rational answer to the question of “Shall we save your life?” will always be “yes”. Cost be damned. You can’t take it with you. It is assured that some people will require vastly more medical resources than others. And at some point in our lives, most all of us are going required significantly more medical care that we can afford. We need private and public insurance plans to insure, at any given moment, the the large number of healthy people are paying in, and covering the costs of the few who need the most. Government regulation is needed to insure access and costs are broadly distributed. When market forces can’t produce an efficient outcome we require governmental intervention.

The major shift that needs to happen is cultural. Americans don’t like to talk about money. We don’t like to talk about our health. And we definitely don’t like to talk about, or even know about, our medical bills. But we are the ones who vote for the those who enact policies. We are the ones who either ask the questions of our doctors, or don’t. We are the ones have to pay the taxes, pay for the premiums, and pay the bills.

P.S. This isn’t really meant as a tale of personal woe. Paying out $5,000 sucks but won’t be an unbearable burden for us. In that other great American tradition, we recently refinanced our home to a lower rate. We took out a little extra to help cover the bills. Maybe we’ll even buy a new television.

Friday, November 5, 2010

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

It is easy to get wrapped up in elections and their meaning. In victory or in defeat it is tempting to conclude that in judging our candidates for office, a judgement has also been rendered on our nation, on our philosophy, on our selves. We can forget that politics is a means to an ends. And though we may disagree on the best means, we have a shared vision of those ends. The point of politics is not to grant power to Republicans or to Democrats. The point Democrats and Republicans, and politicians of any creed is to advance the causes of liberty and prosperity.

There are many factors that contribute to the mad mood swings of the American electorate - reason and propaganda, hope and fear, optimism and despair. Politicians are swept in and out of office on these waves. Sometimes their electoral fate is deserved. Sometimes it is not. Whether they are coming or going, our representatives are best judged by their accomplishments on our behalf.

Viewed through this lens, I’m sorry to see Carol Shea-Porter and Paul Hodes will no longer be representing New Hampshire in congress. They were both elected as part Democratic wave of 2006. In the past two years they’ve been active participants in Obama’s “do something” congress. Both supported the significant legislative accomplishments that provided stability in the face of economic calamity. They enacted essential and overdue reforms to our health care and financial systems. They were the rare politicians who were willing to engage with the real and serious issues facing this country. They served during a brief era when congress took on big issues and things got done. In all likelihood that era ended this week. I’m especially sorry to see Carol Shea-Porter go. She is someone I genuinely admired as a person and politician and is someone I hope to support again in future elections.

Shea-Porter and Hodes have been replaced by Republicans Frank Guinta and Charile Bass. In the senate Kelly Ayotte replaces retiring Judd Gregg. Their predecessors confronted a number of tough issues but left plenty of unfinished business. How will we restore robust economic growth? How will we put an end to trillion dollar budget deficits? What are we going to do about the millions of undocumented aliens living and working in this country? Will we confront the challenge of catastrophic global climate change? They sought and have been granted this power. It is now the responsibility of Frank Guinta and Kelly Ayotte to answer these questions.

Based on their election rhetoric and policy positions, I am skeptical that my new representatives have plans to confront the problems we face. I hope that this skepticism is not shared by the majority of New Hampshire voters. I assume that their supporters see opportunity where I do not. What solutions will they support? How do they plan to move the country forward? Our new representatives have the power and responsibility to legislate on our behalf. We’ve elected then. Now all of their constituents, especially the majority that voted for them, need to hold them accountable.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Support Carol Shea-Porter

Contempt for politicians is part of a rich American tradition - especially around election time. But here in southern New Hampshire, in the 1st congressional district, we are represented by someone we can be proud of. It would be a shame to give that up.

For the last four years Rep. Carol Shea-Porter has served us faithfully- supporting health care reform, voting for efforts to get the economy back on track, and fighting for New Hampshire residents.

Carol’s smart and reliable advocacy on the issues that matter are the best reasons to support her.

But there are plenty of other reasons. When she scored her come-from-nowhere, upset victory in 2006, Carol Shea-Porter became the first woman to represent New Hampshire in national office. Before her election Carol was best know for getting kicked out of a George W. Bush rally for wearing the wrong t-shirt. Our representative is not some vat-grown politician. Her background is one of noisy citizen turned public servant - something I can certainly get behind.

I’ve witnessed Carol performing ‘live’ in two different settings that could not have been more different. I’ve seen her facing down a cranky mob at a health care town hall. I’ve seen her rallying a crowd of Democratic supporters. On both occasions I’ve been impressed by her intelligence, commitment, and good humor. I’ve seen her stand up and take the tough questions. She comes off as open, principled, informed, and inspiring.

We are fortunate. Our representative is someone worthy of our respect and worthy of our vote. Vote for Carol Shea-Porter on November 2nd.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Paul Hodes for NH Senator

Here is a letter I wrote that ran today in the local newspaper, The Portsmouth Herald:

We know Paul Hodes will fight for us in Washington. Working for us in the House of Representatives, Paul Hodes has fought to improve access, reduce costs and make affordable health care a reality for all. He has extended essential support for unemployed men and women in New Hampshire. Hodes voted for economic recovery bills that have put our state back on track. Paul Hodes fought for the financial reforms we desperately needed and an end to taxpayer-funded bailouts.
New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg helped get us into the mess. Then Senator Gregg spent the last two years doing everything in his power to insure nothing improves. Gregg opposed the economic stimulus. Gregg refused to help us address our crumbling health care system. Senator Gregg refused to extend benefits to unemployed New Hampshire citizens. In the wake of the massive financial collapse that had a devastating impact on New Hampshire businesses -- Judd Gregg opposed essential, overdue financial reforms.
Whenever there was a chance to help the people of New Hampshire Judd Gregg said “no”. Now that Gregg is retiring, we don’t have to take “no” for an answer any more. We don’t want more of the same. We have a chance to replace the Republican Senator who has been working against us with a Democratic Senator who will work for us. We need a US Senator who cares about the people of New Hampshire. We need Paul Hodes. Vote on November 2nd. Vote for Paul Hodes.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Twenty Percent Solution

How is this possible? The Republican party was cast out of office in disgrace only two years ago. Since then they’ve merged with the even-more-irresponsible Tea Party. How can the Republicans be making a comeback? How could the majority of Americans be falling for this? Again.

Here is the silver lining. The majority of Americans are not falling for it. Not even close.

Mid-term elections in America have very low voter turn out. In recent years about 37% of eligible voters showed up to vote. Those votes are split between two parties. Getting 19% of voting-age Americans to show up and mark the ballot for you means a whole bunch of big victories.

Can they get the majority of Americans to believe the President of the United States is a secret socialist bent on enslaving them? They can not. Can they get a much smaller number of Americans to believe that government is coming to take their guns, their money, their freedom and then issue a summons to appear before a deal panel? Yes. Yes, they can. Once people buy into that story, those people are going to show up and vote. And they are going to vote for people that “share their values”.

It’s a problem. But there is a solution.
  • Do you believe the government works best when it’s run by people trying to make it work for us instead of being “part of the problem”?
  • Do you think all Americans should have access to health insurance they can afford? Would you like to try that out, see how it goes, rather than see it taken away?
  • Do you believe that the separation of church and state is a pretty good idea?
  • Do you think “science” might not be cruel hoax invented by Al Gore to sell books?
  • Do you believe the solutions to the problems of the 21st century won’t all be found in texts from the 18th century?
  • Would you like to be represented by someone actually working to solve our nations problems?

These ideas are pretty radical. I don’t expect all Americans to agree with me. But. We only need 20%. There must be at least one American out of five who believes as we do. Surely 20% of Americans are willing to stand up and vote for what’s right.

Maybe you could join us. Maybe you know other people who would be willing to vote on November 2nd. You could talk to them. You could join us. The few. The patriotic. The citizens who give a shit. The elite. The people who don’t sneer when they say elite. The 20%.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

What is the Tea Party?

What is the Tea Party? The movement has been evolving rapidly over the last 18 months. It was a potent force in the Republican primaries, and gets lot of coverage and commentary. But what is it? And where did it come from?

It’s not a party. That’s the first thing Tea Party members and sympathisers will tell you. You may think that with a name like Tea Party that they are, or aspire to be a political party. But they aren’t and don’t. It’s more of an advocacy group (think NRA or - but less structured) that is loud, vague, and angry and doesn’t actually advocate for any particular polices (other than “not taking it anymore” - which they support).

An early invocation of the term “Tea Party” came from Rick Santelli’s bizarre rant from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Unless you’re setting it on fire, the CME seems a particularly inappropriate place to start a populist movement. But somehow the image of a bunch of post-bailout financial traders (which Santelli calls “a pretty good statistical cross-section of America”) railing against the injustice of federal intervention struck a nerve. Santelli’s complaint was that the government was bailing out homeowners. As millions of former-homeowners learned during their foreclosure, no such program existed. But a movement was born, and with it the rich Tea Party tradition of being incensed over purely imaginary federal programs.

Sensing another opportunity to rally gullible people angry at Democrats, Fox News quickly got in on the act and put its stamp on the young movement. The network sponsored and promoted Glen Beck’s 9/12 project, giving the Tea Party national exposure. The nation was not impressed. The obvious extremism on display gave rise to the impression that Tea Party members tend to be racist or insane.

Since those early outings, the movement has controlled its message a little better. Local groups appear to be somewhat more reasonable. The Tea Party has gained strength an pulled together a powerful coalition.

The Tea Party has been effective at re-branding of the Republican Party. They’ve got all the energy in the party and have had an impressive show of force. Even establishment candidates like John McCain have had to dance to their tune in order to win the primary. They’ve been able to bring back a lot of conservative voters that bailed after the Bush years. Being a ‘Tea Party Patriot’ running as a Republican is much cooler than being a ‘Bush Republican’. And they can rope in and energize the independent conservatives and libertarians.

Andrew Sullivan has described the difference between how the Tea Party members see themselves and conventional Republicans:

I think what the tea-partiers would say is that they are for real - that, unlike Bush, they won't spend the country into oblivion, that they won't bail out the banks, that they won't pass unpaid-for entitlements, that they actually will make sure that abortion is illegal, that they will round up illegal immigrants and enforce the border, and will not pretend that we are not fighting Islam in a civilizational war. And that they will refuse to raise taxes even if it means the most radical dismantlement of the entitlement state since the New Deal. 
This attitude has swept through the Republican party. The question remains whether it will be popular with the rest of America. As much as they’ve been a force in the Republican primaries, it’s not clear they are going to be so helpful in the general election. Any group that thinks the likes of Glen Beck, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann are to be taken seriously is going have hard time getting themselves taken seriously by the American people. In the 2010 mid-term, where energy and base turn-out trump, they’ll be about a wash. After that, it’s not clear what the Tea Party does for a second act.

I would like to hope the Tea Party will pull the Republicans away from meddling in social issues and towards some actual fiscal conservatism. But real deficit reduction means taking on tax policy (and not just cutting taxes), controlling health care costs, and reducing defense. The Tea Party doesn’t offer serious proposals on any of that.

Actually, the Tea Party doesn’t really offer any policy proposals. They mainly like to complain about Democrats, say “freedom” a lot, and talk about the Founding Fathers. It is telling that the few members who seem to have policy ideas got very quiet about those ideas very fast after winning their primary. This suggests they are well aware that their actual plans may not be so popular with the general public.

The issues that motivate the Tea Party- health care reform, TARP, economic stimulus - are not the issues that will be confronting newly elected Tea Party members when they take office in 2011. TARP and the stimulus funds are spent and there seems to be little appetite in either party for more. Health care reform will continue and there may a fight over funding and implementaion. But full repeal will be unpopular and impossible.

The actual battles of the next congress will over deficit reduction, tax policy, immigration, the Defense of Marriage Act, Afghanistan, and corporate campaign disclosure. In theory, a libertarian-aligned Tea Party would be more sympathetic to the President’s positions on these issues than the conventional Republicans. In practice, we’re likely to find that the movement’s contempt for President Obama overrides any (as yet unseen) pragmatic impulse. Gridlock will get worse, even on issues when there is general agreement.

Once a few Tea Party members are elected they’ll have to take votes and support legislation. They won’t be able to stay in the realm of dreamy platitudes. If they want to remain relevant in 2012 they’ll have to do something to improves the lives of the American people. Since they’ve pledged not work with the President on any issue, it’s hard to see how they’ll do that. Unless Democratic voters get energized and vote this November, we’re about to find out.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

You Are What You Eat

Over on Slate John Dickerson is considering a strange phenomenon. Voters prefer Democrats and Democratic policies to Republicans and Republican policies. But a majority are planning to vote for Republicans anyhow. Groping for an explanation Dickerson comes up with this analogy:

You're a long-haul trucker on the highway, and you're hungry. You wish you'd eaten a good healthy meal, but those are time-consuming and expensive. You see a choice at the next exit: McDonald's or Burger King. You're not thrilled about either, but in general you prefer McDonald's to Burger King and, if asked, you'd probably agree that you like every comparable menu item (fries, burger, drink, Happy Meal toy) better at McDonald's than at Burger King. But you've eaten at McDonald's for eight straight days. So, you go to Burger King.

That’s not bad. But Obama’s only been in office for a year and half. So I think we need to modify it a bit to really capture the national moment:

You're a long-haul trucker on the highway, and you're hungry. You wish you'd eaten a good healthy meal, but those are time-consuming and expensive. You see a choice at the next exit: McDonald's or Burger King.

You used to eat at this Burger King all the time. For year after year you had nothing but Burger King. It was terrible. It didn’t taste good. It wasn’t good for you. The service is terrible. But they have a big flag out front and they keep their prices low. As it turns out, the owner was philosophically opposed to meddling “food safety regulations”. The last time you ate there you got E. Coli and it nearly killed you. “That’s it!” you swore. No more Burger King for you.

You were pretty hopeful that McDonald’s would be better. And it is. You suppose. Can’t complain really. The food is better and the staff seems to be trying really hard. The problems is you’ve still got that stomach infection from the E. Coli you got at Burger King. All this gastrointestinal pain and massive diarrhea is kind of ruining your dining experience (not to mention all the long-haul trucking). Where did you get this stomach bug again? You forgot. But McDonald’s just isn’t quite what you hoped it would be.

Oh, look. Burger King got an even bigger flag!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Story of the Storyline

Vampire: the Eternal Struggle Storyline events have traveled down some dark and dangerous roads. They have explored sinister conspiracies, infernal pacts, desperate power struggles and terrible secrets. Only now can I tell the deepest and darkest tale: the story of the storyline itself.

Well, maybe it’s not that dark. Or deep.

The story of my path to VTES storyline coordinator starts with my work on the Player’s Guide. Robert Goudie was coordinating that effort. I was asked to edit a version of an article I had written on strategic postures for the guide. I said the article could be included on the condition I was allowed to submit ideas for other pieces. Robert agreed and my persistence was rewarded with more assignments. I was also willing to pitch in with whatever was needed. So, I received a variety of assignments like: write 300 words on strategy for the True Brujah (Step 1: Make a good deck. Step 2: Add a True Brujah).

By the time the manuscript was complete The Powers That Be were generous enough to bestow me with a co-author credit. I was able gaze proudly at my name on the cover of that fine volume, search for myself on, and check out our Amazon Best Sellers Rank at any time (#2,183,000!).

After the book, Robert and I exchanged a few emails where I pitched some storyline theme and plot suggestions. When a request came along for someone to write up the Millennium Cultist aftermath fiction, I was happy to pitch in and take that on. When it came time to prepare and design the next event, the torch was passed to me.

I was excited to take on the VTES Storyline. It’s a great, unique format - a series of design and narrative experiments that bring together the strategic depth of VTES with the rich World of Darkness source materials. Robert deserves a lot credit for conceiving of the series, making it real, his great designs, and running all those events in the early years.

When I took over as coordinator my lofty goals were:
  • Make storyline events a more frequent, predictable, integrated supplement to VTES
  • Coordinate the themes and timing of the storyline with the core sets
  • Establish the setting for VTES and it’s relationship to the (defunct) old World of Darkness
  • Create some character and story continuity between the events (and include prior events in that continuity)
  • Raise the stakes and explain how the events of the storyline are important to the game setting

My tenure as storyline coordinator got off to a slow start. I got my first sense of the long lead times involved in game production. By the summer of 2008 I had been coordinator for a year and still hadn’t run my first event. I did learn the set themes for 2009. So, before Anarchs & Alastors started I had a road-map in place that would take the storyline through to Battle Lines.

Searching for a common meta-plot that might run through the storylines, I settled early on the legend of Lilith a useful theme. In the source materials Lilith is presented as a powerful, counterpoint to Caine - sometimes an equal sometimes and enemy. Her role was significant enough to serve as a useful foundation and vague enough to suite a wide variety of my purposes. The Bahari proved to be useful device- versatile enough to applied to event themes including anarchs, Montreal, and Africa. Initially those purposes would be mysterious and in the background - the shadowy cult sought by the anarch gang or the force motivating the power struggle in for the Kaymakli Fragment. In Battle Lines the Lilith followers stepped to the forefront. I was especially pleased to come up with an event concept that could encompass all (and only) the diverse bloodlines.

The peculiar structure of the storyline means that the coordinator writes the introduction to the story. Then players around the world play the middle. Then we have to take all those results and produce an outcome. The aftermath fiction should reflect the actions of the players, and be the story of their games. But it also needs to make sense in the story. No matter what the players chose, the ending should read like that was the plan all along.

In terms of sticking to the script, storyline players were remarkably generous. Infernal Helena reunited with her lover and rival Menele and claimed victory in the Montreal event. A Black Hand Seraph lead the anarchs to their destination, lending the series a bit of intrigue. I had no expectation that Count Germaine would return to play a prominent role in the Imperator. And it was a pleasant surprise to find the source materials implying Germaine’s rival Karsh was also a pawn of the infernalists. We established Dmitra Illyanova as a key Germaine supporter (and thus a likely Bahari). She conveniently reappeared to lead the Brujah in an effort to ignite Gehenna in Eden’s Legacy.

In Battle Lines, a new set of characters came forward. The dilemma facing the Kiasyd had been in the introduction. The rise of the Baali within the Bahari conformed to the overall storyline arc. This provided a reason to revisit the ideas introduced in the Infernal Plague and an excuse to bring back Nergal. With each event, member of the Lilith cult claimed victory. The faction grew in power as the storyline progressed. For continuity purposes, this was a happy outcome.

While I was deeply involved in the overall story, I recognized that VTES is at heart a strategy game. I have always loved the narrative aspect of VTES game - they way the card interactions lend themselves to storytelling. But ultimately it’s card game, not an RPG, and many players care more about the mechanics than the “fluff”. Storylines are also about introducing strategic experimentation and mechanical variety. In that regard, I thought the storyline designs worked well.

I was most worried about the Anarchs & Alastors event. That was my first storyline event. And I wanted to start off on a solid footing. White Wolf had requested a sealed league format. My design focused on the anarch and trophy mechanics. Each of these could fall under the heading of “things VTES players think suck”. I added in some Assamites to complete the set. But the auction mechanics were an interesting addition to the format. Among the players willing to try a draft league at all, the event went over well.

The original plan for Rise of the Imperator was to sell a fixed Imperator deck as part of the kit. But, for art-rights reasons I couldn’t get permission to reprint most of the cards I wanted. No one seemed overly upset that organizers were asked to construct their own decks for the event. And the the mixture of decks added variety. In the rules you could use a master phase action or a discard phase action to cycle a card out the deck. Players focused on getting rid of cards that hurt them over finding cards to play. If I were to do it again, I would still say you can do a discard during either phase. But I would add a rule that a player can’t do both in the same turn.

I was pleased with the Eden’s Legacy rules. The Laibon had enough of a boost to encourage their use, but didn’t dominate the event. The four motivations were well balanced in the standings. I expected the Jyhad-bleed boosting motivation to be the strongest, but it came it last, far behind a dead-heat of the others.

Battle Lines ended up as the least well balanced of the events. I was pleased by the outcomes of the bloodlines-only rules. And the relaxing of the slave and scarce mechanics allowed for some novel deck opportunities. I was surprised by the strong showing of the Baali given their general lack of defense. Maybe removing the infernal cost only after they because Bahari would have been a better rule.

A greater source of the imbalance was difference in the relative strengths of Lilith’s Blessing and Guide and Mentor. Earlier versions of Lilith’s Blessing were used during the untap phase and cost a pool for each use. I didn’t fully comprehend the changes until they were pointed out to me during the second round of the event I played in (“Why are you paying a pool?”). I should have been more observant. At the very least, the printed pool cost of Lilith’s Blessing should have been maintained and paid for at the start of the event - which might have encouraged players to choose loyalist by default.

Overall I was pleased with the events and their reception. I was glad to be able to complete the initial arc I had envisioned. At this point, it is not clear if the storyline can or will continue. But I hope it does. The storylines played an important role in establishing the VTES setting after the RPG ceased its run. With White Wolf ceasing production the need for something new will be stronger than ever. Being storyline coordinator was a lot work and a lot of fun. It was a great experience for me. But all great things end.

Perhaps it is time for the storyline torch to be passed once again.

Lost Secrets of the Storyline

During my time as VTES Storyline coordinator I designed a few events that never made it off the drawing board. I thought I might share them now. Interested groups can take them for a spin or just gaze at them longingly - imagining the storylines that might have been...

Wars of Ascendancy: This was my first pitch when I became storyline coordinator. The idea was to start things off with a bang and a global war. And it wouldn’t have required any new cards to be printed. But White Wolf wanted a sealed league so I pitched...

Secrets of the Mazzeri: I was trying come come with a sealed league to go with the Lords of the Night set. The independent clans don’t have much in common. Their origins do have share a rough geographical proximity around the Mediterranean. That was the genesis for this theme.
Then I found out that Lords of the Night had already been printed and next set would be Twilight Rebellion and so my focus went to the Anarchs & Alastors event.

Siege of Mexico City: This is an event design I had waiting in the wings as a possible next event after Battle Lines.

VTES Storyline Credits

A lot of work went into creating and running the VTES Storyline Events. It was an all volunteer effort, and I’m proud of what we were able to produce. I want to thank those donated their time and talents to make it all possible. This is all going to come off like a cheesy awards show. But hey. This is my blog, and these people deserve an award.

Todd Banister registered, designed, and hosts the storyline web site. At my request, he built it to mimic the core VTES site. We wanted our site to be part of the core VTES web experience and while still being under our control. Without Todd’s help, if I had been reliant on the notorious White Wolf web maintenance team, the storyline wouldn’t have been possible.

When I saw Greg Williams gorgeous Whispers in the Dark storyline design I was immediately envious. I’m grateful that Greg agreed to extend his talents to core effort. And I’ve tried not to be too jealous when the document layouts themselves gathered more praise than the words I carefully selected to place upon them.

I was not the only one writing those words. Daria Patrie offered her assistance just as the storylines were getting under way. We met for the first and only time at the NAC in Montreal where we plotted out the overall story and how we might collaborate on it. Daria wrote the aftermath for Black Miracles and Lies, the aftermath for Anarchs & Alastors, the introduction and aftermath for Rise of the Imperator and the introduction to Eden’s Legacy.

The storyline fiction is not an easy format to write for. I had very specific demands for the plot points I wanted the fiction to express. And the strange requirements storytelling-by-spreadsheet mandated for the aftermath pieces could drive any writer to insanity. Daria handled it all with great skill and patience. Her storyline writing established characters, action, scenes, and settings with a level of quality, detail, an emotion I could not match. I’m truly grateful for her work and what her writing brought to the series.

I also want to thank Eric Chiang. He might prefer to have his role remain obscured but I’m going to drag him into the light. Eric was a great help, always engaged, whispering in my ear with excellent suggestions, fixing my many egregious errors, and keeping me on track. Thanks Eric.

While I’m here, I need to thank the makers of the great game itself. Thanks to Oscar for being the defender and advocate of the storylines and to White Wolf for letting me play in their big, scary sandbox. Thank you LSJ. Thank you for having that unique, curious combination that make you a an intensely creative game and set designer, the pedantic precision that makes you an excellent card text and rules designer, and for having the patience and commitment to be such a responsive issuer or rulings and the ultimate net-rep all these years. Thanks for using your powers for the good of VTES.

Last of all, thank you to all the friends and players and everyone who took part and helped forge the storylines. Thanks for all your feedback and criticism. I hope you’ve had half as much fun as I did.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

At the End of the Eternal Struggle

Yesterday White Wolf announced that they have ceased production of the Vampire: the Eternal Struggle (VTES) card game. VTES has been a preoccupation of mine for many years now. The news marks, for me, of the end of an era. Production of the greatest game ever has ceased.

“Greatest game ever” may sound excessive. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise to people who know me. I’ve been in involved as a player, playtester, designer, writer, author, international competitor, and fan of VTES for 16 years now. If there was a game I regarded as superior, I like to think I would have had the good sense to play that instead. But no. It’s been VTES. I’ve spent a lot a time, creative energy, and no small amount of money on this game. And my efforts have been rewarded.

I remember my first game. It was 1994 shortly after the game was introduced. It was called Jyhad then. The name was wisely changed to Vampire a year later. Erik had a bunch of cards and taught me and few friends how to play. I brought out Don Cruez, the Idealist and Dre, Leader of the Cold Dawn, and got ousted quickly. I left the game with my head swimming, attempting to come to terms with its complex mechanics and deeply intrigued by it’s endless permutations, enthralled by the creative and strategic possibilities.

The core group of friends from that first game-- Jeff, Keith, Matt got hooked and we stuck with it. We each built up a card collection. We alternately cursed and saluted the player fortunate enough to own a Dreams of the Sphinx or a Torn Signpost. We developed our signature decks and play styles. Gangrel-Malkavian hybrids and Toreador-Ravnos team-ups were reoccurring themes. Individual cards came to invoke little songs and catch-phrases “Igo to torpor”. “He makes me Ig-nauseous”. We only played against each other. We were a closed ecosystem developing our own mutations and eccentricities, playing in isolation - unaware of the wider VTES world. When Wizards of the Coast stopped publishing the game in 1996 we just played on. For added variety, we designed our own leagues and rules variants. After these games we wrote bits of fiction to explain the outcome, celebrate the victor, and taunt the vanquished.

In the year 2000, as my sister is still fond of reminding me, I declared myself the Vampire Prince of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. My regular group had dispersed. White Wolf had acquired the game and was printing cards again. VTES was back and I wanted to play. The prince system, in addition to bestowing gamers with a goofy title borrowed from the source materials, serves a useful purpose. With any group activity someone needs to organize, schedule, promote it, run events and resolve the inevitable disputes. The Princes takes on these duties and have been crucial to the game's longevity.

I wasn’t much of a prince. My interest are in the playing and designing. Not so much in the organizing and promoting. I spent a few lonely evenings a a local game store - waiting and demoing the game. I ran a few events. The chief benefit of this was that a few players from Boston showed up. I because aware of the the vibrant community there and, through them, the wider world of VTES.

I quickly abandoned my local organizational duties and became a regular player with the Boston group. I began a routine that continued for almost a decade. During that time, I changed jobs four times. My second son was born and grew to be a formidable gamer himself. But my routine was constant. Most every Monday night I drove for over an hour down to Davis Square in Sommerville, grabbed a burrito at Anna’s Taqueria and then headed over to Your Move Games to play VTES. I would play as many games as I could until the store closed at midnight. Then I headed home, typically arriving something after 1am. I got a few hours sleep and got up, bleary-eyed, for work the next morning.

One day the system administrator at the tiny technology company where I work mentioned that, on-line, she had met “the Prince of Pittsburgh?”. I blessed their union and they were married shortly thereafter. When John Eno moved to town there were suddenly two hard-core VTES players in Portsmouth and John joined me for our weekly gaming expeditions. We swapped news, game and movie reviews, newsgroup gossip, and deck-building theories during our many long trips to Your Move Games.

The Boston group has grown and shrunk over the years, with an interesting cast of characters coming and going and coming back. It also maintained a remarkably stable core of players, good friends with whom I’ve shared innumerable games. Something about the combination of complexity, depth, and social interaction means that the people drawn to VTES tend to be interesting, fun, well-adjusted and intelligent. We’re definitely on the nerd spectrum but, as a rule, VTES players a quite high-functioning. Around the world, the game draws a consistently enjoyable crowd. These good people crowd my Facebook lists and have been crucial to my enjoyment of the game.

Early in my competitive VTES career our family vacation to Paris was fortuitously scheduled to coincide with the VTES European Championships. Upon meeting the French side of Christine’s family for the fist time, I had to explain to them why I would be abandoning them for several days. It’s a card game. It has a vampire theme. No we don’t dress up. No, I’m not going to win any money.

“These are the moments that make up a fulfilling life. This is the thing that dreams are made of.” That’s what I told Christine a few years later, trying to explain why I should fly off to Budapest for an extended weekend of card games. I was right. It is wonderful to have a hobby that takes you to other countries and allows you to meet interesting people. To compete in a European Continental Championship, to strive to be among the best in world at a competitive activity, however obscure- these are worthwhile pursuits, memories I hold with pride.

Earlier this summer Your Move Games closed it doors, uprooting the old Boston VTES group. Now, the game has been canceled. The last Vampire card has been printed. It is the end of era. But 16 years is one hell of a run. I’m glad I was part of it, and grateful for the little card game that became part of my life.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Remembering J.P. Plumez

Some of my first memories of college are of J.P. When I arrived at Hamilton in the autumn of 1990, J.P. was a member of the orientation team. He was among the group there to welcome us to our new homes on “the Hill” and there to be the friendly face of Hamilton College for us, the fresh, anxious batch of first-years. I don’t remember much about that orientation. But I remember J.P. He stood out as the funniest, the showman, the most welcoming, the most lively of the bunch.

At the end of my first year at Hamilton it came time to consider housing for the next year. I had steered clear of the fraternities. Sophomores were last in line for dorm housing. So, with some friends, I took a look at joining the Emerson Literary Society. ELS had the unique position on campus of being a private house, like a fraternity. It was also co-ed and not selective. Anyone who wanted to could apply to live there. And this self-selected group of young men and women were a family of sorts. We divided up the rooms of the big, ramshackled, old home. We shared meals, a living room, and cleaning duties. We held parties and enjoyed the unique blessings of college life.

There was an ELS “type” but I have trouble defining it. ELS attracted a curious mix of scholars, radicals, stoners, and iconoclasts. But whatever the definition was, J.P. embodied it. Recognizing him among the cast of characters helped motivate my decision to join the club. Memories of J.P. loom large from the ELS era. Not just J.P. though. At the time he was really part of a duo. J.P. and Brian. Two tall and lanky guys with identical grins and heads piled with thickets of dark curly hair. Any given day would, inevitably, involve multiple passes by the big dining area during my various comings and goings. Frequently J.P. and Brian could be found there. It was always a worthwhile diversion to stop and hang out for the ritual shooting of the shit. Time well spent.

For my junior year I went abroad to the University of Edinburgh. One side-effect of such a decision is that the class ahead of your will have graduated by the time you return. But it was during that year that J.P. was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s. He missed a lot of school and we learned  he would be returning the following year. I felt bad for him. But I will admit to takings some selfish pleasure at the notion that J.P. would be around to share my senior year. I opted not to return to live at ELS. But I was a frequent visitor and would check in with J.P. Generally I had no particular purpose, but the visit was its own reward.

After graduation came the inevitable scattering as we departed Hamilton. I returned to New Hampshire. But a substantial contingent of my friends, including J.P., moved to New York. Gatherings that once required a trip across the quad, now required trains and cars and hours of travel time. We got together less frequently. Sometimes Christine and I would venture to the big city and sometimes we would entice of a group to come visit us. We enjoyed a lobster diner on our deck and shared the frigid pleasures of a New Hampshire beach. J.P. had set a goal of visiting all 50 states, a goal he came much closer to achieving than I ever well. In pursuit of that noble goal we took a quick trip across the bridge to set foot in Maine. Because the distance made friendships harder to maintain, our time together was valued more. In these years came the winnowing between “college friends” to the select group with whom, however infrequently you gather, you see yourself sharing the events of your life.

Christine and I got married shortly after my 25th birthday. When you get married, at any age, but especially at that age, the event involves bringing together people from the various aspects of your life. These are the people you care about and who care about you. And so they are a reflection of you, your character, and your background. I was especially pleased to have my friends from college there. Having ventured from my home town in New Hampshire, I was proud of the fun, cosmopolitan, very “New York” crew that had been enticed to celebrate with us on a hilltop in Vermont. I have fond memories of J.P. bantering with my old math teacher and dancing with my sister Anne.

My memories of these years are distorted. I remember the pleasant times. The fun times. But we only saw J.P. during the healthy times. We got together during months of recovery and remission. Sometimes we heard other details and diagnoses and sometimes J.P. was unable to join us. Even when we heard the Hodgkin’s had returned we assumed it would be beaten. We were young. We knew he would be getting the proper treatment. After our daughter Mattea died, I remember commiserating with J.P. However horrible, arbitrary, and cruel the vicissitudes of biology may seem, I felt certain we would be ok. We would look back on the dark times as strange, disruptive chapters that stood in contrast to the normal textures of our lives.

It wasn’t hard to be optimistic about what awaited us. We seemed to be approaching the lives we envisioned for ourselves. J.P. got a job in the world of New York advertising. He was dating Joy, a delightful woman who wholly lived up to her name. Talk of the latest Lean Cuisine campaign or a Saab photo shoot in Scotland began to pepper our conversations. I remember a sunny summer day we spent exploring J.P.’s home town of Larchmont. We were two lucky young couples in a fancy convertible. J.P. showed us around to the various sites and stomping grounds that had occupied his youth.

Shortly after that, fighting the disease became a full time occupation for J.P. The prognosis reports became increasingly dire with talk experimental treatments and cross-country trips for a bone marrow transplant. Nothing could stop the spread of the disease. They ran out of treatment options. And so J.P. returned to home. He was 29 years old. We made the trip to to see J.P. one last time. At his wedding.

I brought a gift. It was a plant. It was an ugly plant - a two foot tall, thin green stem with two or three plain green leaves at the top. If my memory serves, on the attached note I wrote:

Dear J.P.

I would like you to have this plant. I do not offer it because it is a very fragrant plant. In does not seem to have any particular smell. Also, it’s not an attractive plant. It is quite plain. Ugly even. But it does have some special significance.

In the fall of 1990 each member of Hamilton’s incoming class was given a plant during their orientation week. This is the plant that was given to me. Somehow it survived my years at Hamilton and the years that followed. I believe it is the last of its kind.

I have fond memories of you from that time and from our years at Hamilton. This plant has been a reminder of those times. It is also a symbol of longevity, of perseverance, and of beating the odds.

We are thinking of you and hold you in our hearts.


J.P. and Joy were married at the Guggenheim museum. We celebrated and said goodbye with the vast spiral rising above us and around us. J.P. arrived in a wheelchair, thin and bald, but still showing flashes of the wide grin we remembered. He stood and danced. A slow dance. The bride and groom held each other close. It was a beautiful, sad, profound moment. It was a gift to all off us who were fortunate enough to know J.P.

We will remember him.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Knocking on Doors for Democrats

On Saturday I joined my local get-out-the-vote effort and spent a few hours knocking on doors for the New Hampshire Democratic Party. It was a beautiful day to be out walking around, and I enjoyed the activity. For me the central pleasure is having an excuse to engage strangers to talk about politics. I was armed with stickers on my shirt and a clipboard. Clearly, I was duly deputized to ring people’s doorbells and ask whoever answered how they thought their elected representative in congress are doing.

I was fun. And I learned a few things about my neighbors and fellow citizens.

One thing I learned is that people really don’t take care of their doorbells like they used to. Homes with functioning doorbells were a distinct minority. The other thing I learned was that the good people of Portsmouth appear to have better things to do on a gorgeous Saturday in August than staying home to attend to random canvassers like myself. Nobody was home.

But I was able to engage a few people. The people I spoke with were uniformly pleasant. They were not angry or overly disillusioned. Times are tough. But most places seem to be worse off than Portsmouth. Peoples’ concerns were general and economic. We’re in a hole, but the Democrats are the ones trying to dig us out. Even the guy who was “definitely not a fan” of the Democratic party applauded my civic-minded purpose.

Mostly, my mission was to not take more of people’s time than they seemed inclined to give. I wanted to be sure and state the names of our candidates. Representative Carol Shea-Porter. Paul Hodes for senate. Governor John Lynch. I was on their doorstep to extend a personal invitation to come on out and vote in November. I wished them a pleasant weekend and was on my way.