Sunday, October 30, 2005

Mmm, games.

From 11AM to about 3AM today, I played games.

Got to do some playtesting with two pretty cool dudes for their separate games. One fellow, Mark, is ramping up his own game company here in Austin. He had perhaps four or five different prototypes in various stages of completion: A word game I didn't play, a trucking game I didn't play, a cooperative zombie-fighting card game which I did play (big surprise), and a very clever two-player game simulating spies in the Cold War which I also played. Overall, good stuff.

The other fellow, Dan, had a very promising game about monkeys escaping from a lab. I think we played perhaps six rounds of this game, tweaking the rules slightly each time- I had an absolute blast observing and participating in the evolution of a game. It really made me want to pick up my extant game ideas and develop them. Maybe I'll post a flyer for playtesters.

Also during the course of the day, I introduced a slew of people to Carabande, an awesome and out-of-print German racing game what won the Spiel des Jahres 1996. Also got to play Wiz-War (shades of high school), now sadly out of print. Write your Chessex representative.

Past midnight, after a long game of Wildlife, ran into a few guys with Steve Jackson Games, talked a little biz (freelancing) and got to play a prototype of a James Ernest game called Cowpoker.

Overall, a good and serendipitous time.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Gaming is good

Every Friday night, a local game shop by the name of Great Hall Games has open gaming night. More than Monopoly and Yahtzee- More likely than not, you know the kinds of games I mean. Clever little German boardgames that play so well, and the American equivalents.

At any rate, Great Hall only had a three groups playing games- perhaps a dozen people playing Settlers of Catan, a fun resource-trading game to which I could devote an entire blog; one of the 18XX games, a railroad game; and some two-player Lord of the Rings card game. The owner told me that nearby a gaming convention had all the people. So I hopped into my car, drove another five minutes, and wound up at Millennium 8, a small local gaming con. It's primarily a miniature con, but there seemed to be plenty more going on.

I got into playtesting two different games by two different folks- both are local, so I forsee more gaming in my future. w00t!

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Moving bits and moving atoms

I realized again today how much of my life is spent with bits and not atoms. I seem to recall that the difference between the two really sank in for me with one of Neal Stephenson's writings, quite possibly his excellent In the Beginning was the Command Line, though I believe that Nicholas Negroponte brought up the ideas before that circa 1995 in Wired magazine and in Being Digital. (Shamelessly, if you buy stuff from Amazon via those links, I get cookies.)

We are creatures of the physical world. We necessarily must then concern ourselves with atoms. Food, shelter, clothing together all together nourishes and protects our forms. Not until we have intelligence and develop society do bits really matter, primarily as education, information and entertainment. When you buy a book, you buy a chunk of atoms that contain bits; the same is true of a DVD or a photograph, or newspaper. Speech makes its way into our brains via a medium of moving atoms.

Given the current state of the Internet, you can download a movie, a song, or an e-book, or watch video from across the country of your home. The stream of bits flows into you, and as a consequence of thinking and processing, the atoms within your brain change. Gutenberg captured bits in ink on paper; Edison in wax and celluloid. Interestingly, an invention of his begat the modern tattoo gun- another method of encoding information into atoms.

I read in an older column of Negroponte's how he had asked Penn Jillette to read his book for its production into an audiobook. When I went to check Amazon to confirm the fact (it is) and to discover if it remained in print (it isn't), I noticed that the top buy-me ad on the Amazon front page was for a home defibrillator- list two grand.

Such a device, housed in atoms, protects our form by shocking the heart with a common medium of bits- electricity. Once again, bits flow through us and change our atoms.

Bits fascinate me, no matter their containing atoms. An MP3 of your favorite song could exist magnetically on your hard drive, on the flash memory of a USB memory key, optically on a disc, printed out entirely on dead trees or even handwritten on stone in blood. A different representation of the song also would do just fine, no matter if printed as guitar tab or musical notes, or even the lyrics or title, to jar the brain into producing the memory of the song. For all I know, we could see scifi-style holographic memory cubes in five years.

Whenever I start thinking about bits and atoms, it all seems so terribly important, like I'm about to cross over and make an incredibly insightful observation about the human condition and what it Means in the Information Age. After a few minutes, it settles down and I realize that we're going to be stuck with translating bits to atoms for a long, long, time.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Celebration time!

Today, two landmark occurences have er, occurred.

One: All the laundry is done. By "all," I mean that the fifteen or so loads of resuced-from-New Orleans clothing have been washed, and sterilized, and dehumidified, and debugged, and debriefed, and clarified. Actually, we just had an extra-strong detergent and did everything in hot water.

Two: We got mail. By "mail," I mean that the USPS has delivered two pieces of mail from our New Orleans address: a Netflix Cat already reported missing and the light bill. From last month.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

News Roundup

I haven't posted in a few days, so please, my loyal readership, accept my apologies. Here's a few things going on in my world.

Salvaging from New Orleans was a little easier this time. I had my apartment to myself, needing to call out for a ride when I got done. It no longer really felt like mine, so perhaps I'm adjusting to apartment complex life. Lakeview was another matter entirely. The whole neutral ground between West End and Pontchartrain is a staging area for garbage. Trees, gutting insides of houses, it's all there and piled three stories deep in places. Again, there's signs at every intersection showing services

My brother found another site that shows what's open in New Orleans and marries it to Google Maps. Check out

Saturday, I drove downtown thinking I could salvage an item or two from my office in the Tulane School of Medicine. The CBD, like Lakeview, was eerily empty. It looked like the area took five feet of water, and I realized again what it means for the city to be below sea level. As a child growing up, I never thought much of it. For some reason it really sunk in while standing in the nearly deserted CBD. Both my building and the hospital across the street had huge umbilical tubes for the dehumidifiers into the main entrances. I saw a long line of Port-O-Lets and sanitation stations. I saw a trailer labeled MEDICAL WASTE - BIOHAZZARD. I started to rethink my plan to salvage from my office, but as I was only a few feet away, I decided to keep looking. My normal walking autopilot kicked in and I began to enter via my usual route- but the door was boarded. At the next entrance, I discovered an end-of-E.T.-like plastic barrier a few steps inside. I saw a shadowy figure moving behind it, who moved to unzip the barrier. A worker in full messy gear strolls out- bunny suit, dual-filter breathing apparatus, goggles. I changed my mind very quickly about salvaging without protection.

While I was in the neighborhood, I got a chance to talk with Tim, my boss. I don't know if he realized it, but it was a very Yoda/mentoring/father figure/old man of the mountain moment for me. He definitely helped me get into a forward mental gear.

At the airport, I picked up the Sunday Times-Picayune. The feature article, Where They Died, discussed the dead. I couldn't find the map online, but it was pretty sobering. Imagine a ZIP code by ZIP code breakdown for Orleans parish and individual dots for individual bodies found in Jefferson.

I made it safe and sound back into Austin. Interestingly, my cab driver back from the airport was a laid-off city planner, so he knew the city extremely well. Perhaps I just have bad luck with cab drivers, but it seems that more often than not, we get a cabbie who's out of his zone or new to the job.

Almost instantly after getting home, I needed to run back out again. Austin has a sizable population of didgeridoo players, and Sunday afternoon marked a get-together and jam session. It's the first time I've been around more than one skilled player. I had a great time playing and talking to others. We swapped a few sticks and I got to play an agave didj for the first time. Incredibly light and with a full, loud, sound, I definitely was impressed. I may actually look into picking one up for keepsies. I did manage to pick up some beeswax, so I'll be able to fix the mouthpiece. I'm extremely stoked to be playing again. With luck, this will be a weekly happening.

I'm also trying to get my collective act together by using the Getting Things Done methodologies. More on this later.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

The food, I miss

Yesterday for lunch, I had a roast beef poboy, dressed. For dinner, the other half of it. I tried a poboy place in Austin, but their poboys looked wrong, as they were not on French bread. Heresy! I shudder to think when I'll next get a muffeletta.

Last night, I had beignets and cafe au lait at the Cafe du Monde on Vets. Oh my god, it was good. Their wonderful coffee and chicory blend, dunking powdered-sugar-covered fluffy greasy good old beignets... wearing a black shirt. I think it's some kind of cosmic law that one (read: ME!) must wear black whenever eating beignets.

As a suprise for Cat (Hi, honey!), I'm getting some whole bean Columbia Supremo coffee from PJ's, hence the net access.

Maybe I'll open a franchise.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Where shall we have lunch?

Today, I heard about The New Orleans Restaurant Daily, which has a daily updated list of which restaurants have re-opened.

I had read that pre-Katrina, the GNO area had more than three thousand retaurants. The "open" list now has 210.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Back to the land of LAMRON

For those of you keeping track at home: Taxi, plane, train, bus, plane, car.

I'm back in New Orleans for the next few days, leaving Sunday AM. Today has been eventful and exhausting. A quick overview:

Up til 4am last night, waffling on the decision to go and by what means. Bought an early flight ticket, woke at 6:30 AM, caught my 8:45 flight, arrived NOLA at ~11:30. Had lunch with my mom and Maw-Maw and Paw-Paw at the welcome Zea Rotisserie & Grill, who quite simply make the best damn grits I've ever tasted.

Ate a medium-well burger ...sigh. ...but I had a side of roasted corn grits! W00T! Also, the interim Zea waitstaff tshirts brought a smile.

Swung by Nextel, saw my good friend Carl; swung by USPS, picked up some mail; swung by UPS to ascertain status of shipped package, found the storefront stripped to the studs; went back to the apartment for a final final pass at collecting stuff.

Packing has been like uncovering the archaeological Mischa. Today I found items an memorabilia from before meeting Cat, from college, from high school, from middle school, from grade school, and from being a small child playing with toys.

Spent about four or five hours in the apartment, which amazingly had power- so I could breathe mold and funk, but at least it would be air-conditioned mold and funk! I retrieved the little didj and a bunch of photos, the key to the firebox and a handful of books what got overlooked, some computer gear and a lot of keepsakes. Gave a TV to Carl.

Got a ride with Bennett, watched he, Leslie, and his parents eat sushi- they'd just gotten back power after being on the generator. Visited, enlisted Bennett's aid in driving my stuff back to my mom's. Ate some leftover macaroni and homemade meatballs.

Tomorrow I wake on time to go to Lakeview. Honestly almost more preoccupied with starting the day without a breakfast Dr Pepper.

Planes, trains, and automobiles

[Ed. note: this post is from paper notes.]

I do not like to fly.

Between the privacy-invading TSA, the inefficient and false security, the piped stale air on the equipment itself, the notion that you're on something no more glamorous than a flying bus, the financial investment of a ticket, my physiological responses to flying in my ears and sinuses, and the raw dehumanizing fact of commercial air, the whole experience just rubs me the wrong way.

Between AUS and IAH, I rode on an decently sized three-and-three jet. Modern enough, too- there's a Verizon phone in the middle seat, and we were treated to a little video presentation on fold-down LCD monitors of the "sit down and shut up" flight prep speech. Notably, Continental Airlines' CEO and flight literature refer to all of the human sheep as "customers" instead of "passengers." Welcome, however, is the constant GPS updates on the little screen as to heading, altitude, flight time, and weather superimposed on various map projections. Very nifty.

I had less than an hour's layover in Houston, and naturally needed to go almost to the other side of the terminal to reach my connecting gate. Landed at E, need to get to B. To make this voyage more sci-fi, I got to ride the little monorail (aka "train") between terminals. When I got to my terminal and started towards my gate, I heard them announcing my flight. So suddenly I find myself in a movie where the character needs to get to the plane and runs at a half-jog instead of a full-out gallop. (Think the opening sequence of Jackie Brown.) When I reach my gate (again, at the end of the terminal), what do I see awaiting me?

A bus.

A bus to drive me to my tiny little plane.

The short puddle jump from Austin to Houston - about a half hour in the air - was on a real plane. Now I find the longer puddle jump from Houston to New Orleans - about an hour in the air - is on a tiny little baby plane. Not as eensy as a Cessna, mind you, but a small little jet that I at first mistook for a private plane. Continental has a whole flock of these little "express" planes with fifty seats in them- two on one side, and one seat on the other.

One stewardess, limited drinks service, and a nice chatty single-serving friend who relocated to Bisbee, Arizona (a town of about five thousand near Tombstone), who had yet to return to the city to see the damage. She says she lived near City Park, so who knows. I tried to help her brace for some of the sights she's encounter.

What's really different about the city? The sounds and smells of a city without industry, lying supine with a mortal wound.

On the road again

Even though I rather the night, preferring to go to bed late and sleep in, there's still something undefinably tranquil about the ass-crack of dawn in the desert that can't quite happen at any other time. The cool air, the darkness that's different from dusk, the total lack of normal people moving about on the road, the slightly rosy sky, all are very soothing qualities that I find I miss.

Right now, it's about eight minutes to eight in the morning. I'm in the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS). I booked a ticket last night at about four AM to come home. To go to New Orleans. I got perhaps less than two hours of sleep, and will shortly partake of the elixir of life, Dr Pepper.

This little last-minute excursion is partially inspired by my landlord saying he's going to throw everything in the house out. Also by the fact that my grandparents might appreciate my help as they move into their new apartment, or when they see the inside of their home for the first time. (Ed.: I just got a call from my mom, who told me that Maw-Maw cried when she heard I was coming in. I'll be able to make it in for a group lunch. And mom, I have my camera.) I also miss people, my friends. I know that only a handful will be in the city, and I'm short on time - aren't we all? - but I still would like to see everyone I can, since I'm not going to be under the same kind of hectic time-crunch as last time.

I also think dark thoughts about the TSA and civil disobedience.

I sit here, watching the mundane activities around me: an apparently ex-jarhead staring intently at the New Yorker, a hipster chick listening to headphones and untangling a ball of yarn, an older gentleman with a seeing-eye dog, an overweight middle-aged man fiddling with his Blackberry and withearing a UT orange polo, a guy with a banjo case, kids, students and grandparents. There's no overt signs of distress on their faces, and as always, I wonder why these people chose to fly at the same time I did, and where they'll end up at the end of their voyage. Will anyone else that I can see go to New Orleans today?

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Why I love Netflix (today)

If you've been living under a rock since 1997 or so, you may not have heard of this wacky rent-dvds-via-snail-mail called Netflix. Short story is that you pay x amount of money which gets you unlimited rentals per month, but only y per month. In case you're interested, you can check out the Netflix fee calculator to see exactly what individual discs cost.

Their main page says they have more than 50K movies available, way more than any rental place that might bust down the block. One of the most rocking things about Netflix is the ability to keep movies for next time so you don't have to constantly tell them to send you the next movie you want to see- it's all very lean-back. Netflix support pages allege that most of their customers keep 10-20 movies in their queue, backlogging whatever movies they want to see next.

I've got 500. That's the limit.

There's a wonderful joy in shotgunning your way through the list of "Other members enjoyed" and "More like this" and "Roger Ebert picked" and "Also starring J. Random Actor" or "Also directed by J. Random Director." So between picking-and-choosing movies that I've heard of, or always meant to see, I also get to pick ones that I'd never otherwise pick up in the store or see on any kind of broadcast medium. (Insert obligatory comment about The Long Tail. If you haven't heard the phrase, read the article. I mean it.)

Today I got The Human Face, a fascinating documentary miniseries about, er, well, about the human face. It's hosted by John Cleese, so bonus. When before could I ever see a 2001 BBC miniseries? Hooray for Long Tail/New Economy/Internet/Technology/On-Demand entertainment. There's some fascinating stuff here about why we see faces the way we do and what happens when things go wrong. Science and accidents and genetics and crime and beauty and psychology and comedy. Definitely worth watching.

If you want to get a free two-week Netflix trial, give me a shout. If you already have Netflix, you can see what's on my biscuit by sending me a friend invite.

Another gaming Katrina relief project

I recently heard about this fundraising effort and want to spread the word. I've recently made a promise to myself to not spend money on gaming until I get a job. Or a game group.

Greg Stolze, co-author of Unknown Armies and a bunch of other really good gaming material, has put together a new game with a few other names in the industry. The game is called Executive Decision, and sounds pretty cool- sort of a political LARP-like reminiscent of the National Security Decision Making Game, except this is confined to the White House. From the game's plug page:

Executive Decision is a white-knuckle game of political decisionmaking and brinksmanship set in the Oval Office. Players take on the roles of the President and his top advisors, then plunge into the middle of a crisis demanding leadership.

Right now, the game is being held for ransom- if enough people collectively pony up $1000, the game gets released for free. That grand gets directly donated to the Red Cross. According to the site, there's just over a fortnight left and more than 75% of the funds collected.

Furthermore: My copies of Beyond the Storm shipped Monday. w00t!

PS: Don't forget to donate blood if you can.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Life and times of a big-shot game designer

Cycle, my third game, didn't win a Ronnie. But I got runners-up! Better than that, I got an email from a random guy (ironically also named Ron) who offered some good feedback. Better than that, a friend of mine in New Orleans actually played a session!

Coincidentally, Issue 284 of Roleplaying Tips is about blogging one's game session. I'm not positive if this link will work until the issue is posted, though. FYI.

Grandparents' Day (observed)

The real Grandparent's Day officially falls on the first Sunday after Labor Day, so declared Jimmy Carter in 1978. In my personal chronology, I think it happened yesterday.

Cat, Josh and I drove down to New Braunfels/Gruene yesterday to see Ina, our step-grandmother. The city is a small one, about 36,000 people. The drive took us about forty-five minutes- a nice, normal zip down a highway in my Saturn with very few farm ranch country highway road routes. About a week ago, I said that if I'd never see another highway again, it would be too soon. I don't want to fully retract that statement, but this zippy trip felt like nothing compared to past excursions.

My grandfather, my mom's dad, Paul, died in January. He was a good man, and is sorely missed. It was pretty rough for me.

We've seen and talked to his second wife, Ina, a few times since then, but not much. Cat and I have meant to visit her since we've relocated to Austin, but admittedly at a lower priority than getting settled into our new lives. Mid-last week, we finally coordinated schedules with Josh to make time to make the drive down for lunch. The original plan was that she'd make us a casserole, but when we got there, we were pleasantly surprised with Rudy's BBQ brisket. Yum.

She doesn't know it, but Pepper (pictured right) says hello.

We spent a nice three or four hours visiting, then needed to break to beat the traffic. It was nice to see Ina again, but very strange to be in the house my grandfather and grandmother built without them around. I've got a few holiday memories from that house, of Christmases and Thanksgivings and a birthday. I'd have to dig for photos, as most are still in boxes now. I miss them both. We did not visit their graves this trip.

On the way back, Josh called my mom and put her on speaker, so we got about a twenty- or thirty-minute update on the "Mo and Glo Show," detailing my dad's parents' escapades with getting back to the city. They've been staying in a casino hotel in Tunica, Mississippi since a day or two before Katrina and haven't yet been back inside their Lakeview home yet. Only yesterday did they see the outside of the house for the first time. My mom has arranged, though her amazing social network, an apartment for them in the next day or so. Right now, they're able to stay at a friend's place. Pretty much the entire ground and first floors are gone; the second and attic-level floors are all right, but mold and mildew are steadily advancing. I may go back to the city in the next few days to help them out and to see people.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Should I stay or should I go now

While talking with others about their future plans, I have seen folks splitting into two different camps depending on if they want to stay and rebuild or relocate to alternate locations. Mostly, the line of truth falls between those who own and those who rent. I don't think it's restricted to generation, either.

A few of my friends own their homes. They're staying. No matter if they got a few feet in the house, water to the eaves, or just bad leaks in the roof, they are returning to New Orleans to pick up the pieces. Almost all of the folks I know who rent are now elsewhere. Seattle, Fort Lauderdale, Blacksburg, Los Angeles, Baton Rouge, somewhere in Wisconsin, the West Bank,... Austin.

I love New Orleans. I miss her.

Today, driving around Austin between a Big Lots and a Wal-mart on the quest for more bookshelves, I looked around at all the strip malls and SUVs and asked Cat, in dead seriousness, "Is the rest of America really like this?"

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

It's like Madison avenue

I've tweaked the settings for the display of inline advertisements. Give me a shout if anything seems amiss.

Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Gasoline Sheik

You guessed it. There's another Ilsa movie. Ain't the IMDb great?

So we wait in the Burger King. I call my mom, who has expected us in Metairie by now. All of us are road-weary. She helps me see the unreasonableness of it all and suggests that we get a room for the night and to get U-Haul off their sorry, lazy, asses and get their acts in gear. (If you know my mom, this isn't the sort of thing she'd say. But the spirit rings true.)

More back and forth with script-reading Latina drones of customer service entails. We eventually somehow get connected to talk to the mechanic directly, who lets Roxy know that he's been driving around the Burger King, looking for a U-Haul. Somehow, the fact that the damn thing was broken down by the side of the road didn't make it into the dispatch. At this point, nothing is surprising. We clarify where the beast is hiding and arrange to meet him there shortly. A nice Crowley, LA family asks us if we have someone picking us up, as they've heard a good deal of the saga. Luckily, there's still the minivan.

When we get to the LZ, we see a van parked nearby. At first, we rejoice, as we think it's the mechanic. But no, it's some suspicious looking character who we think was trying to either boost the vehicle or siphon some gas. Our presence chases him off and we wait. The next person who stops by appears to actually be a good Samaritan and asks us if we need help. We tell them the nickel version ("The mechanic is on his way"), and they leave. Finally, the mechanic arrives.

Milton is great. He quickly diagnoses that we ARE OUT OF GAS.

He lets us know that we should only be expecting six miles per gallon. Empty.
He lets us know to expect four mpg loaded.
He lets us know that although we have a sixty gallon tank, the suction hose is such that we can only get fifty gallons.
He lets us know to judge the tank based on either a dipstick or by calculating mileage traveled.
He lets us know that a sudden lack of response is normal for this truck when running out of gas.
He lets us know that no engine sounds are right and correct for such a truck with no gas.

"Now," says Milton, "We need to get yall some gas."

"We've got gas in the truck!" we shout.

The look on his face was priceless. I know that he's somehow going to cadge drinks off this story for some time- "And then they says to me they already GOT gaas! Hee, hee!" I knew that we should bring gasoline for this trip. I knew to have it on hand, knowing the total lack of infrastructure in New Orleans. It never occurred to me that the vile orange lorry needed a drink to maintain her evil.

Once we filled her up with five gallons, it was a cinch to make it the mile up the I-10 and fill her up with gas. Now, for the rest of the trip, we learned that when the needle got to half-full, we would be out of gas. So once again, the three-quarter rule came into effect- we filled up when the gauge showed three quarters of a tank, regardless of the reality. We also carried a dipstick to test the level of gasoline.

And made it safely to my mom's house a little after midnight. The whole trip took some fourteen-plus hours.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Mischa, where be thy muse?

I'm a gamer. I roleplay mostly, but I also play weird board and card games, and have been known a time or two to pick up console or computer games, no to mention steeping my childhood in a healthy dose of coin-operated video games. The Forge is a site dedicated to independent role-playing games. I don't want to discuss any hardcore theory here about the "indie movement," but just know that many folks are rabid about game theory.

Myself, not so much. I like to play. I have a notion that I want to be a game designer, though. But like the wannabe writer whose real writer friend fears the wannabe has no stories to tell, I know that I don't burn with a passion to create games the way some of the more prolific authors (both conventional, pardon the pun, and independent) out there seem to. But sometimes I get an idea and I run with it.

This post kicks off the October 2005 Ronnies, one of those time-limited directed-creativity catalyst events that seem to catch me unaware. At any rate, I saw the creative keywords last night and two of them connected in my brain and started thinking about a game.

At this point, do me a kindness and pretend that I inserted a pithy yet maddeningly appropriate classical quotation about how fickle be mine muse.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Ilsa, the Tigress of South Louisiana

When we last left our intrepid heroes, they were suspended mid-air in a burning hang-glider, flying over the edge of a cliff, below which ran the Amazon river, the lurking home of thousands of man-eating piranha and crocodiles.

Or actually, in a large U-Haul with no gas control. Once again, my mad driving skillz honed by years of travel and video games came to the rescue. I turned on my right clicker (which never had a problem) and eased into the right lane. By this time, we were going just under forty-five. By this time, I half-expected to see a state trooper give me a ticket for driving too slowly. Luckily, the brakes still functioned. I can't imagine trying to use the gorram electro-pneumatic parking brake to cease the motion of Ilsa. Cat started to freak out a little at this point, as I was locked into that silent stoic Zen state you find yourself in as all comedy centers in your mind shut down so the survival-focused lizard brain can take control of the eyes and body.

I managed to ease the rig onto the shoulder and find the hazard lights. I first tried to start the engine again, but I only got the accessories (lights, radio) but no engine sounds. Empty, the whole truck shook back and forth from the wind and air pressure each time a large SUV or real truck drove by. By this time, night had fallen. Cat and I climbed out the passenger side of the cab to meet her parents (who wanted to know what's what). I'm trying to juggle the keys, the cell phone to call U-Haul, Cat, her parents, and about seventy dozen mosquitoes who wanted a sip of my sweet Russian blood.

Even as a small child, I had mild allergies to mosquito bites, such that the bite would swell larger and itch more than the next person. For some reason, mosquitoes have always liked me. Standing by the side of the Interstate near a nameless service road and a runoff ditch, I had literally about a half dozen fat mosquitoes the size of capers attacking me, while the other three were relatively unmolested.

I got through to U-Haul's emergency number. Their on-hold music was interspersed with messages like "If you have jumper cables, and someone is willing to give you a jump, go ahead and try that." and "If you have another roadside assistance service like Triple A, feel free to give them a call." and "If the vehicle is drivable and it's after five PM, go ahead to your destination for the evening and we'll call you in the morning." What sort of problems could one have that you'd need to call the emergency number and the vehicle could still run? Surely, U-Haul would not encourage one to flee the scene of an accident!

Cat had the dubious privilege of talking to the U-Haul rep while I worked controls in the cockpit of the beast- evidently U-Haul outsources Latina script-readers for their mechanic dispatch. At least three times, we were asked where we were and if we were in a safe place. Imagine, if you will, Cat holding one ear and screaming into the phone over the rush of passing traffic, "No, it's not safe! We're on the side of the interstate!" Of course, now it's funny. But when you're told that you'll be called back in a half an hour and to wait where you are on the side of the highway about to fall into a dark ditch full of carnivorous mosquitoes, it's a little stressful.

Jim and Roxy did some reconnaissance and found a nearby exit with food services about a mile up the road. They picked us up and we left llsa, hazards a-blinking, on the side of the road. As we were all pretty hungry, we went to Burger King and ate- by the time we sat down, it was about a quarter past seven. After scarfing some food, we proactively called back U-Haul to discover the status of anything. I told the rep that we were off the road, that we had left the equipment by the side of the highway, and that we had made refuge in a Burger King. I heard a little lightbulb go on over her head, and she asked me for a street address of where we were. I told her we were in a Burger King off exit 80 in Crowley, LA (thanks, Mr. Receipt!) and awaiting assistance. She asked me for an address, and I tried to explain to her that this was a little wide spot in the road, there was only the one Burger King, it was visible for a mile in either direction down the highway, and that the mechanic should have no problems finding the location. How can you miss a thirty-foot hulking orange-throated gas guzzler that's blinking?

She asked me for a street address. "Can't you go inside and ask someone for an address?" These are Burger King employees, I explained. I reiterated that this Burger King was the only one off the exit and that it was easily found by travelers, much less a local mechanic.

She asked me for a street address. "Can't you go inside and ask someone for an address?" It was like talking to a damn parrot. I knew she had a little form to fill out, likely in an web pages displayed in Microsoft's Internet Explorer, and she had to put something in there before she could click submit. I asked her to hold.

I then learned that Burger King Employees do not know where they work. I asked one for a street address, and she looked at me blankly. She looked at crew member #2, who looked at me. I asked #2 for a street address of the Burger King and she said, "North Parkinson." I thanked her and asked for the street address. #2 asked #3, who asked #4, who asked #5. None knew where they worked, but they all agreed it was North Parkinson, all right. (Google later tells me it's North Parkerson Ave.) #5 got the idea to go into the back and ask someone. Eventually I get the correct street address out of the Burger Doodle employees ("Is it a street or avenue, sir?") and relay it to the U-Haul rep. She fiddles about and puts me on hold while she talks to the mechanic. She comes back in a few minutes and tells us it'll be an hour and a half. be continued...

Was there a fourth Ilsa movie?

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Can't stop the signal

I've seen Serenity, the Firefly movie, twice now. It's good stuff. I
can't say that it's a life-changing experience, but I can hope that is
means we'll get new shows or a second movie.

There's fans and there's fanatics. I'm firmly in the 'fan' category-
with maybe a bit of fanboy in there.

Ilsa, the Wicked Wideload

Of course, now we can laugh about it. At the time, it was less than funny. The photo here shows Ilsa basking in the beautiful downtown Beaumont sunshine. Note the gathering storm clouds.

I drove over 1100 miles in Ilsa with:

  • No air conditioning

  • Bad alignment

  • No left brake light or left turn signal until Beaumont

  • A broken gas gauge

  • A faulty gas overflow protector

  • (discovered while we unloading) a leaky cargo compartment

  • No air conditioning

Did I mention that we ran out of gas?

I've only run out of gas once before in my life. Once. This was more than ten years ago in the Buick (some of you faithful readers may remember the Buick Skylark) while I was at LSU, and I had the car a block away from the gas station going to fill up. You know how it is as a starving student- gas lives lower on the priority list than books, food, and entertainment.

We filled Ilsa up in Austin. The Beast had a sixty (60!) gallon tank. This was, I believe, the only time that the gas gauge worked, as we picked her up with a quarter tank showing on the meter. I don't recall how many times we stopped for gas, but the important thing to note is that we carried two five-gallon cans in the back, just in case. We didn't know the situation in the city, but a lot of us have been living by the three-quarter-tank rule: Don't drive with less than three-fourths of a tank, and fill up when you have the opportunity.

After passing several U-Hauls in Houston, we decided to stop at the next one we saw and see if they could help us out and swap the equipment for one that worked. This next one happened to be in Beaumont, Texas. Now, whatever I've said about U-Haul in the past, Jose and his guys in Beaumont were extremely helpful, courteous, sympathetic, and professional- extremely notable since they had to pick up their own Rita-damaged location. Explaining the situation, they quickly replace the left bulbs, and viola, we've got blinker and brake lights. They decide to take a look under the hood and see if anything can be done about the air- after all, it's blowing, just not blowing cold. It's immediately obvious that there is no belt between the engine and the air compressor- so they should be able to kite a belt from a down unit, and we can be on our way in cool luxury.

But it was not meant to be.

As soon as they had the belt in place and started the engine, we heard a great loud screech from under the hood. Evidently the compressor clutch was shot, and Wonder Man or one of his cohorts had removed the belt and not fixed the compressor. So we could do nothing. They also had no other truck available for us as a replacement, so off we drove. At this point we get the great idea to get some ice so that we can at least keep cool with chunks of ice. So far, we've had to drive with the windows down, making conversation impossible. I also start wearing a bandanna to keep the wind from whipping my hair into my eyes while driving.

About a hour and a half into Louisiana, we're merrily cruising along when suddenly the gas pedal stops responding. I mean nothing- I couldn't press down on the pedal at all. So I find myself in an out-of-control multi-ton electric and gas death machine of steel and glass speeding down a dusky highway at a mile a minute. be continued...

The land of LAMRON

My mother has coined a phrase to cover the situation back home. She calls it living in the land of LAMRON. That's "normal" spelled backwards.

But Nick, my mom's husband, has said something more telling: "At least we're only burying food."


Wednesday, October 05, 2005

That's no rental truck, that's a space station

I have returned- and therein lies a tale.

We got on the road about 10 this morning, after a delightful breakfast of IHOP and a pickup of a Ilsa, She-U-Haul of the SS from Wonder Man. More on Wonder Man and Ilsa the thirty-foot behemoth later.

We crossed the border into Louisiana at 5:15 PM- the first time I had been back to the state since Katrina. It's been about six weeks. As Ursula, the sea U-Haul witch of the interstate, crested the bridge over Sabine river and Cat and I saw the mundane green sign announcing the state of Louisiana, we both broke out crying. It is a testament to my mad driving skillz that we maintained course down the bridge on the other side. I pulled off at the first exit and into a destroyed Shell station, next to an allegedly open casino called "Starz" (sic). I held Cat and she held me for several minutes while the tears came- I'm not sure that her parents grokked the act, but they understood and empathized. I grabbed a bit of dirt from a no-longer-landscaped bit of shubbery, and gazed at my home soil.

For real.

In the first chapter of Ilsa Rides Again, soon to be published by Scheissekopf GmbH this fall, we discover that the reservation Cat made a week ago and confirmed the day before had been let loose upon the world. I think of the original equipment as a cross between Botticelli's Venus and a twenty-four foot mermaid- the one that got away. Venus had air conditioning, I am sure. Wonder Man, whom we awoke within his establishment prior to the escape of the chariot of Venus, found us instead our Helga, the valkyrie-like, impregnable, thirty-four foot five inches from stem to stern, truck.

We drove off thinking the air would cool off. By the time we were on the other side of town, we realized out choices were slow-moving hot air from the vents or fast-moving hot air via the windows. We chose the latter, and I still have concert ears. Cat and I are quite a pair with our twin bandanas to keep the wind out of our eyes while we drove. I shall keep this picture secret until I offload images from the camera.

By the time we got to the city itself, it was a bit past midnight. The city's glow from down the spillway was noticeably dimmer than I recalled; the darkness and the night-time helpd to conceal much of the wounds of the city, though duct-taped refrigerators are a new form of life, not to be disturbed. I almost wish that we'd see a toxic zombie shambling down the street, but then I'd never hear the end of Cat's mom being right about wanting to bring in a shotgun.

And now, it is Time to get five hours' sleep before being physically and emotionally beaten tomorrow. More on the continuing voyages of Ilsa and the findings of the house tomorrow. The TP says mail is available for pickup in my ZIP code- so another errand needs to happen.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Go east, young man

Tomorow is a day of driving. Our plan is to circumvent the swollen urbanosphere that has become Baton Rouge's poorly planned civic layout by driving a secret ninja route. The not-so-secret ninja route is highway 90 from Lafayette through Morgan City, then on to the 310, then the I-10.

I'm looking so forward to seeing home again, but there are many caveats. How big is the collapsed ceiling in the bathroom? How bad is the leak in the bedroom? What effect did Rita have on the house? Can I even get to the house? What's the neighborhood like? Is the library undamaged? Can I handle seeing the damage to my city and my home? The last is the biggie- to some extent, I've been operating in survival mode. I can only imagine that I will experience what the Red Cross so delicately refers to as a "perfectly normal reaction to an abnormal event."

The next post will be from my mom's place in Metairie. I'm not yet sure how I'm going to share pictures. But rest assured, they shall arrive.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Beyond the Storm available as PDF!

Some of you may recall that I occasionally play a game or two. About a month ago (go figure) I saw this post on the Forge (a site promoting indie roleplaying). David "Blue" Wendt has since organized the Beyond the Storm project, a way for the gaming community to give something back to New Orleans. All profits go the the Red Cross.

I stepped up and wrote a fun little RPG about working in restaurants called "Don't Wanna Make Groceries." I also did some editing work, which helped me remember how good it feels to work with words again.

The print-on-demand version will be available soon, but the PDF of Beyond the Storm: Shadows of the Big Easy is available here!

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Wednesday is the day

New Orleans is opening again, starting Wednesday.

The plan is to drive in Tuesday with a Uhaul, Cat's parents and a minivan. We'll stay that night with my mom in Metairie, then all day Wednesday is the day of days. I know it's going to be a long day, both physically and mentally. There's the sheer labor of lugging boxes down stairs, but there's the added layers of sorting and judging: do I take this or that? Some of it's clear-cut, like the library and the DVDs and the photos.

I've always heard that money is power, but I don't think I've known that money is power and freedom until Katrina and life after her. If we didn't have a stash of money, we wouldn't be able to get gas or hotels or food. I know that man needs to break his back for his day of leisure, or to keep the devil's playthings out of idle hands, or another mixed reference regarding work, survival and fun. I've had a job of some kind almost constantly since the middle of high school. My mind keeps going back to a Danny DeVito line in a movie I can't recall about why they call it money. It's because everybody needs it.