Where You Hang Your Hat

And, like that, I’m now stupendously in debt (translation: I just bought a house).

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RIP Terry Pratchett (I’m getting really tired of writing these)

It was only about two weeks ago that we lost Leonard Nimoy and now the news has come that Sir Terry Pratchett has passed. Terry was sick with a form of Alzheimer’s, a disease he had struggled very hard against.

Say what you will about his beginnings, which I heard many people characterize him as trying to be the fantasy version of Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett’s books grew and got smart over the years. He used Discworld, in many ways, to lambast the real world, whether it was pointing out the stupidity of war in Jingo to tackling racism, religious dogma/tradition, and the struggles of being a father in Thud!, or dealing with racism and land-greed in Snuff. His books held surprising depth that was still easily accessible, that you only had to peel back the thin veneer on the story to get at the lesson underneath.

And that’s what I’m thankful for, that Terry’s books made me think. The second book I read by him was Small Gods (the first was Pyramids which is just kind of ridiculous) and that went a long way toward helping me deal with some of the anger I’ve felt in my life toward religion. Sam Vimes angry recitation of “I’ve Lost My Cow”, his son’s favorite book, when he goes to rescue his son echoes in my mind at times when I care for my own son.

I’m sad that we’ll never get to see Sam Vimes retire and enjoy his son’s childhood or Rincewind’s final appointment with Death that he couldn’t quite miss. I’m sorry we won’t be able to see Granny Weatherwax finally lay down her burden of making other people think or Vetinari, finally, give control of the city over to the more-than-capable Carrot (something, I think, he intended all along).

An hour ago, whoever manages Terry’s twitter account wrote, “Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.”

I’d like to think that while Death did the job because it was his to do, that even Death felt sad doing it.

Goodbye, Terry. Thank you.

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The Finest Three-Year Old Blasphemy

Me: Connor, go to the table now please.
Connor: Ok, ok! Cheesus!
Me, pausing, because that kind of blasphemy isn’t common in our house: Connor…what did you just say?
Connor: Cheesus.
Me: Who is Cheesus, Connor?
Connor: You know, Cheesus. He’s a cheesy guy. He’s covered in cheese.
Me, trying not to laugh, looking at Michelle who is also trying not to laugh: Cheesus.
Michelle: He’s a cheesy guy.
Me: He’s covered in cheese.

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What Good Customer Service Looks Like

For most of my life I’ve worked in some sort of customer service capacity. My first job was for a sandwich shop called Togo’s and from there I’ve worked in phone centers and HR (which, IMO, is best approached as a customer service role). The only time I technically didn’t work in customer service was four years I worked in government, but since it was a publicly-facing office (the elections department), I think it’s pretty close. Good customer service is very important to me, not just as a customer, but also as an employee. Good customer service can make or break a person’s relationship with you and can mean the difference in a bad situation improving or getting worse (or, at the very least, managing it in a positive fashion that makes the situation tolerable, even if it doesn’t get better).

Something I haven’t talked about on here is that my wife and I have been in the process of buying a home. This will be the second house she’s purchased, the first for me, and the process has been, in a word, intimidating. Thankfully, my wife has a lot of experience with this as she used to sell homes for a living as a real estate agent and so I’ve been relying on her to take the lead on this whole thing and I’ve been doing what I can to support her.

While I don’t normally like to talk about particular aspects of my personal life, such as finances, I’m going to bend that rule a little bit for this story. You see, we’re using an old IRA account I had from a previous job as a down payment (first-time home purchases being one of the few exceptions to withdrawing IRA money early without a tax penalty). We did some looking, found some houses we liked, put an offer on one, which wasn’t accepted, got over the disappointment, and then made an offer on a second house. That one stuck.

Considering how important the money in my IRA account was to the process, I’ve been very paranoid about it. Paranoid about investing that money because I could lose it, nervous about that money being tied up in investments possibly making it difficult for me to get when it came time to pay up. The IRA was through Capital One’s Sharebuilder service and, after multiple calls, I was assured I could get the money easily with a little bit of prior notice.

So when our offer for the house was accepted we needed to move quickly (we were doing a short escrow). I called Sharebuilder, put in the orders to sell what investments I had, and waited for the sell orders to close, which happened that same night. The next day, toward the end of the business day, I logged into the website to submit the request for the distribution to send that money to my personal bank account (so that we could then in turn give it to someone else). As I was doing this Michelle called me.|

Her: Hey, you heading home soon?
Me: Yeah, I’m just taking care of the distribution.
Her: Awesome, when will that be done?
Me, reading from the confirmation page which was loading as we talked: “Your distribution request was received and will be completed on June 1st.” What…
Her: June 1st?

Now, with all my skill in writing I don’t think I can adequately describe to you the tone of her voice except that every person married has heard it. It’s the tone that says, “Something is wrong, it may or may not be your fault, but you need to fix it and you need to fix it now.”

Me: Calling them right now to find out what’s going on.
Her: Good. Bye.

I called up Sharebuilder, spoke to one guy, explained my situation, and I can say he seemed to get my concern very clearly and took it seriously. Sharebuilder is set up into a couple of different groups so he forwarded me over to the people who handle IRAs. I spoke to a woman named Elise, explained again my situation, and, again, she took my concerns to heart. She did a little bit of digging and discovered that Sharebuilder had given me some money as a promotion for being a good client, but that money was tied up and couldn’t be accessed until June 1st. She spoke with her manager and let me know the fix was simple: cancel the distribution, then resubmit the distribution for the amount of my account minus $300. That worked like a charm and the distribution would be processed the next day as I had originally intended. Throughout the call she was understanding and took the time to explain what was going on.

Me: Thank you so much, I can’t tell you the amount of panic I was in. I mean, can you imagine that conversation with my wife, that we weren’t going to be able to get the money to buy the house we found?
Elise: You’re buying a house?
Me: Yeah, doing the first-time home buyer exemption. We just had our offer accepted and we’re in escrow.
Elise: Congratulations, that’s exciting.
Me: Thank you, Elise, you’ve made me and my wife very happy. You helped us buy a house tonight.
Elise: Awwww.

That was on a Friday. I think it was Tuesday when I came home and Michelle was standing by our kitchen, holding a small envelope for me.

Me: What’s that?
Her: Just look at it. You’re going to like it.

I took the envelope from her and the return address, written by hand, said Sharebuilder. I took out the card.

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I opened the card.

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I don’t know if Elise did that on her own or if that’s something that Sharebuilder does, but either way that right there is excellent service. Even if she hadn’t included the gift card, that little personal touch, in addition to what she did on the call, pretty much made me a customer of theirs for life.

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Leonard Nimoy, RIP

I just read the news that actor Leonard Nimoy passed away this morning after being reportedly admitted to the hospital for chest pains within the last few days and it hit me surprisingly hard.

While I wouldn’t call myself a Trekkie, I grew up watching the syndicated ST:TOS with my father and so the cast of the show does hold a special place in my heart and my childhood. Watching Gene Roddenberry’s Wagon Trail to the stars, I can hear young Shattner’s voice saying “Space…the final frontier.” and it still gives me shivers. I remember gold lame Klingons and troubles with tribbles, salt vampires and red shirts dying by the score.

I also remember those seriously hit or miss movies, my favorite of which, I think many would find unsurprising, is Wrath of Khan. I still remember watching it for the first time on television and hearing Kirk’s cry of dismay for his friend, finding him collapsed in the reactor room, and their now famous exchange through the safety glass as Spock dies.

A few days ago Michelle and I showed Connor Star Trek, the first of the remakes, for the first time and something he has been working out has been Kirk and Spock’s relationship. He doesn’t have the context that we have, knowing about what the original characters dealt with together, the trials they faced, their friendship spanning both life and death, but it’s been fun getting to share this experience with him, watching him wonder like I did at the exploration of space, hearing little bits from the movie end up in his imaginative play (like when he “beams up” a toy he’s playing with).

I’m sad today, like I’m standing on the other side of the glass watching helplessly, unable to change something I wish I could. Thank you, Mr. Nimoy, for bringing some wonder and a love of science fiction into my life and helping create something that has spanned the years that is now filling my son’s life with wonder.

You have been, and always shall be, our friend.

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Movie Review: Fifty Shades of Grey (Yeah, yeah…), Part One

Friday night I flew down to Los Angeles to join my cohost from Your Book is Why Daddy Drinks Tyler. My wife, who delights in my suffering, had offered to pay for the plane tickets if I saw the movie and I figured with the rest of the weekend spent at a gaming convention it’d be worth a little pain.

Oh, I don’t know if I was right or not. Let’s just get to it.

Fifty Shades of Grey (from here on 50SoG) is the story of Anastasia Steele and how she comes to be in a relationship with the millionaire (maybe billionaire) Christian Grey.

First, I will note that this story originally started out as a Twilight fanfic called Master of the Universe so you can already guess at the quality level of the fiction (let’s just say, at one point, E.L. James has Ana going up at “terminal velocity”, something that’s not possible), which is not to say that fanfic is bad per se, but that when you’re starting with a turd it’s difficult to craft a diamond.

Moving on, as you have probably heard the relationship in both the book and the movie involves what many would consider “BDSM”, being tied up, being blindfolded, some spanking, some flogging. At one point Christian insists that if Ana is going to be in a relationship with him then she needs to consent to a very formal and “legally binding” contract that stipulates all kinds of kinky and sexual things (which leads to, in both movie and book, a scene where they have a business meeting to discuss and revise the contract). Ana never actually signs the damn thing but Christian still does a whole host of things to her.

Both movie and book progress until the end when, after having a lot of conflict over Christian being unable to have a “normal” relationship (such as sleeping in the same bed, having normal sex (despite there being a lot of fairly normal sex as far as most couples are concerned), or doing things like go out on dates), Ana pretty much demands Christian show her what it would be like for him to punish her. This apparently involves six slaps with a belt while she is bent over a table. Which is somehow different from all the other spanking that happened in the movie, so different that Ana apparently is horrified at what Christian is and storms away from him after telling Christian he was never going to put a hand on her again.

Now, a lot of hay has been made about the books already about how they illustrate an abusive relationship and, I’m not going to lie, they do in my opinion. Christian does shit like show up places unannounced where Ana is, even after she’s asked him for space (including flying across most of the US to get away from him), selling her car and replacing it with one of his choosing without any input from her, more or less breaking into her apartment. Then there’s the usual Edward schtick of “Stay away from me, but I’ll stalk you, but no really you should run because I’m bad for you, but I’ll keep chasing you until you have no other option than to be around me.” He’s physically, emotionally, and mentally manipulative (calls her outright stupid several times), physically abusive in several instances, and he’s got some pretty severe anger issues in the book.

How was the movie?

From the perspective of the book, it is both accurate in the meta/grand scheme of things and lesser in the details. The anger is toned down a lot, the insults are mostly nonexistant. The scene where Ana gets drunk and her friend Jose doesn’t take no for an answer and creepy Christian swoops in to save her (while apparently MAGICALLY finding the one bar out of all the bars in Portland where Ana was opposed to all of the multitude she wasn’t) is mostly accurate, although in the movie he comes off as more concerned/creepy because he’s never seen her drunk before and in the book he’s outright furious, how dare this grown ass woman decide to get drunk at a bar. The physical abuse and anger were more or less written out until the scene where she tells Christian and her family that she’s going to fly out to Georgia; Christian’s hand is on her thigh under the dinner table and, when she reveals her trip, his fingers dig into her leg and he angrily asks her “I didn’t know about this. When were you going to tell me?”

For as toned down as the anger might be, he’s still fucking creepy. He still sells her car and, at one point, she texts him a message that is basically “Thanks for everything, bye.” which any normal person would’ve taken as a “break up” (in so much as they weren’t actually dating), but not Christian. Nope, the dude breaks into her apartment without asking with a bottle of wine and two glasses, tersely confronts her about her text message, and then proceeds to have sex with her.

Which is after her virginity, it seems, was a “situation” that need to be “rectified”.

As for the BDSM, it really wasn’t that prevalent in the movie. Yeah, Ana gets blindfolded twice and she’s restrained a few times (twice with the now famous tie). Ice cubes are used briefly in one scene, some light spanking (apparently punished by being spanked over Christian’s knee bare-assed with the flat of his hand is ok but with a belt isn’t). Honestly, the “kinkiest” the movie gets is when he uses a flogger on her and I say that only because the rest don’t require a level of investment that any vanilla-sex couple wanting to spice things up a little couldn’t easily do. I mean, if you wanted to see a movie featuring a couple heavily involved in BDSM with an emotionally unavailable male lead, watch Secretary. More about this later. Back on topic, the sex was kind of meh but I will give the movie credit in that Christian was very good about using condoms. Safe sex, in a movie like this? Good show!

Ana felt like she had a LOT more agency in the film than she did in the books, even to the point where she straight up mocked Christian to his face for pulling an Edward, but when you’re starting out from almost zero, raising the agency factor by even a little feels epic. The other good thing that didn’t happen in the movie was that they DIDN’T USE THE ZIPTIES! Ana, in both movie and book, works at a hardware store and Christian surprises her at work soon after their first meeting and buys a number of things used for restraint, electrical tape, rope, and zipties/cable ties, which get used later in the book if I remember correctly.

Please, if you take away one thing away from this review, is that under no circumstances should you ever, EVER, use zipties to restrain a person directly (as in on their skin). The reason for this is that zipties ONLY tighten, they do not loosen, and in order to get them off you have to cut them. Now, imagine that you’re playing with your partner sexually. They have zipties around their wrists. They’re into the moment, so into it they don’t realize until after it’s happened that they’ve started to lose feeling in their hands. Maybe the zipties are dug into their skin. You think it’s going to be easy to cut those off quickly with a possibly panicking partner? Would you really want to try to cut them off with a pair of kitchen shears or a knife with the zipties dug into their skin, their flesh possibly swollen around it? Most professional dominants keep a pair of safety shears (also called paramedic shears) with them at all times and even with those they still wouldn’t use zipties because of how easy they are to tighten too much.

Something I was imminently thankful for was that character’s internal dialogue can’t be conveyed in a movie the same way as it can in a book and the reason I was thankful was because Ana’s internal speaking is annoying as hell. She reuses lines constantly, especially referencing her “inner goddess this” or “her inner goddess that.” Her inner goddess cheered, her inner goddess danced the samba, her inner goddess decided to file a restraining order against E.L. James to get her to stop referencing her.

As for other good things, that’s it. That’s the best I can say about that movie specifically and, in general, that it wasn’t as bad as the book, which isn’t saying much. As for the movie watching experience, that was incredibly positive and I’ll write about that in another post.

The thing that still gets me about this movie and book is how they present BDSM. They present it as this all or nothing thing, that Christian (supposedly) can’t get along without it in his relationships (despite the first time they have sex having NOTHING to do with kink). There is no nuance and, while a lot of actual kinky things are discussed, like electricity and fire play and fisting or the contract (which can and do happen depending on the kinky person), what is shown is so tame that it might’ve come from a sex advice article from Cosmo.

And while it is so tame, it’s presented as being bad. Christian is constantly referring to how his life started hard and in a bad way and that his kink is partially from that and, also, partially because he was sexually abused at the age of fifteen. Those who practice BDSM in mature, safe, consensual ways will talk your ear off about how good it can be (something I know from personal experience) and yet 50SoG manages to make some of the most mild expressions of BDSM look to be the workings of a fucked up person.

Indeed, the movie version makes the final scene even worse than the book, almost rape-like IMO. Ana is bent over the table, her face twisted to the side, her expression kind of sad, even a little dead like she’s just waiting for it to be over. She counts out each swat of the belt in a monotone, “let’s get this over with” voice while Christian stands behind her, swatting her across the ass, his eyes closed, looking incredibly turned on. While Ana did consent to it, specifically asked to experience it, it’s very, VERY clear it’s not what she wanted and a real top should have refused to do it. A real top and/or dom wouldn’t have lost touch with their bottom/sub the way that Christian did, would’ve seen that they weren’t into it and ended things. Hell, a mature person, let alone a kinky one, wouldn’t have gone there.

The movie very much makes it clear that Ana is uncomfortable with kink. In the moment, a few times, she might enjoy it, but over all she’s not happy with the things Christian asks for or the boundaries he expresses, wanting to violate those almost as much as he violates hers. The whole relationship isn’t a healthy one. While I would hope that this movie would get people thinking, get people asking questions, maybe even act as a normalizing influence on people who are kinky but are a little freaked out by their desires, it’s upsetting and unfortunate that a lot of people who haven’t ever experienced anything remotely like that kind of BDSM-influenced relationship (such as it is in the movie) will now have this as a point of reference.

Honestly, if I was going to recommend a more mainstream movie centered around kink, go watch Secretary. While Secretary does have a male lead (who is also the top/dom in the relationship) who is unhealthy, he’s not unhealthy because of his desires but because he doesn’t know how to handle emotional intimacy. In many ways, James Spader’s Mr. Grey (I’d forgotten that was his name, how funny) uses his kink to keep Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Lee distant from him, using the structure of that relationship (as well as their business, boss/employee relationship) as a wall. It’s only when she uses that kink, uses his own tools against him by taking control of the situation as a sub, that she forces him to confront his feelings for her. Kink is shown as something they actively, positively participate in, even with Lee doing things intentionally to make Grey punish her because she likes it and is into it. She gets pleasure out of the act and she, as the sub, enjoys what he does to her and enjoys the fact that he also likes doing it and that he gets pleasure from it. Their play is mutual and cooperative. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

Please, skip this movie and just rent or buy Secretary instead.

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Game Review: Cthulhu Wars

Today I finally got to play our initial test run of Cthulhu Wars, a game I and a friend of mine backed quite some time ago and finally received a few weeks past.

In short, Cthulhu Wars is the story of the struggle between the factions of Great Old Ones and Elder Gods who have brought about the functional destruction of the world and are now fighting over what is left. In the base set the factions are Cthulhu (obviously), Nyarlothotep, Shub-Niggurath, and Has…Has…ok, that one that never gets invited to parties who is very easy to summon if you just say his name three times.

First off, while the base game is a bit pricey, the game itself, from a quality stand-point, is top-notch. The box is made out of heavy card stock that you’d have to put some effort into messing up and has a nice, glossy finish and great art. Inside the the tokens are made out of equally sturdy stock, the art on them is nice. However, the real quality is the game pieces themselves.

Go up to that link and take a look at them. They’re freaking huge! Cthulhu alone is longer than my entire hand with my fingers stretched out. The level of detail on all of them is incredible and, even better, they come assembled so those people without experience with miniature gaming don’t have to futz around with Krazy Glue and stick their fingers together (or worse). While you could paint them if you want to, each faction has its own colored plastic and so telling apart the pieces is very easy.

Holding these pieces in place in the box is a large, sturdy, molded piece of plastic that fits snugly inside. Have you ever had a game that had those flimsy plastic bits that pretty much crumple with the barest amount of pressure? The ones that become so warped over time that it’s less frustrating to do without? Yeah, this isn’t it.

The rest of the figures, the cultists and smaller monsters that make up each faction, fit inside the box underneath the plastic shell. This is the one complaint I have about the box because getting them to fit, AND have the plastic fit inside the box, can get a bit dicey and may require some effort to do.

Cthulhu Wars is one of those games where, looking at it, the game seems incredibly complex however my three friends and I went through the rules while taking our first turn and it ended up being very straightforward; I have no doubt that without the rules I could teach someone how to play. It’s a little like Cthulhu Risk.

While we didn’t get to finish the game due to time constraints (it’s a 1-2 hour game), I’m looking forward to completing one!

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