Don’t Let the Door Hit Ya, and Other Snark

Enough, and probably too much, has been said about 2020. Things started off well. References to eyesight were thought clever. January itself was quite the event-laden start-off:  A US drone kills Soleimani, with 35 Iranians killed in a stampede at the funeral. A travel warning is issued for China, following their December 31 announcement of a respiratory outbreak in Wuhan (hence COVID’s 2019 designation). Harry and Meghan announce a step-back. The Houston Astros are caught in a sign-stealing scandal. Impeachment articles are sent from the House to the Senate. The virus officially arrives in the US. Kobe Bryant and his daughter are killed in a helicopter crash. Travel from China is banned. Yes, that’s just a bit of January 2020. Maybe we should have known.

Even by early March we were calm. At my English teachers’ conference, we thought to set out hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. Days later neither was readily available, and homemade recipe versions (often grossly inadequate) proliferated. Bread-making (especially sourdough) began. Masks were out, then they were in, and sewing projects began. Daily press conferences did little to help as the death watches began. FaceBook filled with memes as we tried to improve our panicked mood.

Now, and I think inexplicably, we are looking forward to 2021 with hope. A particularly contentious election will result in an unpopular/popular president leaving office. More will be written here on January 18 regarding that particular event. Half the country is thrilled; the other half, despondent or worse. All things considered, no one knows how different—if at all—life will be in 2021. If 2020 has taught us anything, we should expect the unexpected and the worst. (Apologizing for lack of sunniness here.)

So poor 2020 goes out with a whimper, not a bang. The snarkiness began weeks ago, as people tried to be sunny. The phrase that came to my mind: “Don’t let the door hit you on your way out.” A hateful thing to say, of course. “Good riddance” is common. I’m just going to withhold judgment until I see what 2021 brings.

There is a hymn sung only once a year called “Ring Out, Wild Bells.” Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote the words, but we use only three verses. Here is the second:

  1. Ring out the old; ring in the new.

Ring, happy bells, across the snow.

The year is going; let him go.

Ring out the false; ring in the true.

The year is going; let him go.

Ring out the false; ring in the true.

     Of particular interest is the 8th of 9:

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

So, no disease, no greed, no war. The last line is apocalyptic in the Biblical sense, as is the last verse:

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

Not that the word “apocalypse” occurs in the Bible, because it doesn’t. And not that most people know how bad things are supposed to get before that time. We use the term more often to discuss zombies upon us, which is not likely.

As for snark, I’m coming out against it. The year 2020 may be the worst in recent memory, but it seems to lack to horrors of 1942, for example, or 1918. Lewis Carroll wrote The Hunting of the Snark, described as a long novel/nonsense poem. I haven’t read it; perhaps you have. It may not have anything to do with the term “snark.” I’m watching a YouTube episode of “Stuff Made Here” on a self-correcting golf club. It’s one of those clever engineering things. The wife plays a role as a peanut gallery commentator. She says, “Your golf club stinks.” He replies, “Maybe you stink.” She gives the death stare. Now that’s some snark. We wonder aloud if he has a real job.

Problems exist. We work at solving them. Time, itself, isn’t the problem. Usually, people are responsible for whatever problems we have. Often people are the solution as well. That’s called resilience. We’re going to need more of that than any amount of snark. And we are going to need divine help, if not intervention, to avoid the worst of it.

“…if only in my dreams.”

Christmas is this Friday, and I am (almost) ready to give out gift cards. Some years ago, I lost the ability to plan for and purchase gifts. Earlier years of making lists and shopping seem so distant. Don’t pity me. If the gift of giving is gone, it’s gone. No need to apologize. Fewer gifts to receive, too, but that’s fine.

Blogging for several years now, I seem to have also used up my best stories, poems, and Christmas music. Here are links to three favorites: 2017 “Given”, “Christmas Favorites (While I Avoid Shopping)” 2018 “Luci’s Mary’s Song” Notice the shopping theme in the second.

This year has been hard, almost beginning to end and for the last nine months. Many have hopes it is ending with a good outlook for 2021. Still, so many restrictions rankle. Too many people catch and spread the virus, even with precautions. Maybe next year will be better. Maybe a meteor will strike. Away with such thoughts! Vaccine. Vaccine. Vaccine!

But needing something for today, I started thinking about a topic, the only necessity to begin. Which anagrams to “being,” of course. Another time maybe. At first I thought about a line from “O Little Town of Bethlehem”: “Above thy deep and dreamless sleep/The silent stars go by.” Evocative. Made into a movie based not on the carol but on Dante’s Inferno. A 1970s TV series. An album of some sort (looks grim). A puppy calming audio. Episodes of Dr. Who and The Last Post. I cannot get the connection. You can hear the traditional melody here, sung by Elvis Presley. The British version uses a different melody, here.

What about “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”? Here’s Judy Garland singing it in the movie Meet Me in St. Louis. She had asked for a change in the original lyrics, finding them too depressing. The story is interesting, and I can see her point. Yikes: “Have yourself a merry little Christmas/It may be your last” and “From now on, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” No, she isn’t dreaming of 2020. She’s just bemoaning a move to New York City. Singing to her little sister, though, the words were probably too depressing.

Finally, I decided on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” It’s also a decent reference to our current situation, with Dr. Fauci asking us to stay home. At a concert recently, the conductor said the words were written by someone in World War II longing for home. That’s not true, but perhaps I misheard. This is a story not the story in that it talks about an event that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the real story, but this is the real one from the Library of Congress . Kim Gannon was the lyricist, with music by Walter Kent, copyrighted 1943. The recording earned Bing Crosby his 5th gold record.

The line “And presents on the tree” has always seemed odd to me, and sure enough, some artists sang it that way, but the closer to our day, the more I heard “by the tree” or “beneath the tree.” A few used “count of me” instead of “plan on me.” I can’t imagine anything more minor, but probably I listened to too many. Oddly, the song itself is really short—just 8 lines. You never know where fame and fortune will strike. Gannon and Walter Kent also wrote “The Lord Is Good to Me.” I grew up knowing it as the Johnny Appleseed song. Good grief. I should get on with my work, but the laundry is done, the floors mopped. Soup to make. All is well. The planets align tonight. Don’t miss it.

Merry Christmas!

*************

I’ll be home for Christmas

You can plan on me

Please have snow and mistletoe

And presents on the tree

 

Christmas Eve’ll find me

Where the love light gleams

I’ll be home for Christmas

If only in my dreams.

Apparently out of control very early Saturday morning, I listened to 17 versions of this little song when I realized the Library of Congress was right that “countless” recordings were available. And actually there were 18 if you include the COVID parody I left out for you to find on your own (Sara Bareilles, language). Choose an era or an artist. Have fun. Remember those who are missing either getting home or missing those who are there only in their dreams…

People I know but who were not my generation of singers:

Bing Crosby

Perry Como

Frank Sinatra

Dean Martin

Mostly my generation but very early:

Elvis Presley

Johnny Mathis

Not my generation either, and I don’t really know anything about them:

Michael Bublé

Rascal Flatts

Blake Shelton

Josh Groban

Home Free

Brian McKnight

Amy Grant

The Petersens

Sarah Niemietz

I know who these are, and they are great:

Whitney Houston

Pentatonix

 

Let’s Play!

Today’s title comes from the new Netflix mini-series The Queen’s Gambit. When our hero Beth Harmon has completed her final victory (not a spoiler—how else could it end?), she sits down in a Moscow park with an older chess player we had seen earlier (of course, as foreshadowed) and says, “Let’s play.” Actually, she says, “Поиграем,” since she has learned Russian for this very moment (and a revealing moment on an elevator). Side note: the older man she plays in the park is almost surely the same actor who played her first teacher, Mr. Shaibel. It’s a good series, though to my taste too much about addiction. Beth is a prodigy, but this isn’t based on a true story like one of my favorite movies, Searching for Bobbie Fischer, a tale of two other prodigies, Bobbie Fischer and Joshua Waitzkin. Since apparently everything I look at must connect in some way, Josh’s teacher, Bruce Pandolfini, consulted on the Netflix series AND the original novel AND had a cameo in Episode 6.

And that’s just the title. Today’s topic is board games. Chess is considered, by some, the best board game, but since I’m easily conquered by the average 10-year-old, I’m happy to learn others. As a child, I played Scrabble and Anagrams with my grandmother. We also played Canasta, a card game invented in the 1940s. It was complicated, and I remember only that it would irritate my grandmother if I did something with a red three. Later, I played Monopoly and Clue with friends, and bridge with future former friends.

Not long ago, I heard someone say that he worked in the field of board game convention planning. It sounded intriguing, and Jeff Anderson graciously agreed to an interview, with my asides in brackets[]:

Tell me about your background with board games, growing up or in your own family.

When growing up, we played the typical games like Risk and Monopoly, though I didn’t so much as a teen. When I was an adult, perhaps 25-30, a coworker introduced me to Acquire [1963, mergers and acquisitions category]. It was a lot of fun, and then I tried Settlers of Catan [1995, now known simply as Catan, strategy] which is a gateway game that captured the attention of lots of Americans and, like many board games, came from Germany. It was a newfound hobby, and the tip of the iceberg. This kind of playing style was more fun for adults. Social and strategic thinking were the real goals.

How many games do you own?

My personal collection is 100-120, which is small to average for hobbyists. For a time, I was custodian and caretaker of the games library for BoardGameGeek (BGG), the company I work for. I lived near an airport, and there was an airplane hangar in my back yard that housed over 6000 games and convention equipment. The collection outgrew that hangar, and the library now occupies 14,000 square feet of warehouse storage.

What are your favorites? Why?

I like games that have a story as well as cooperative play. Currently, I’m enjoying GloomHaven, an adventuring/role playing game ranked #1 at boardgamegeek.com, our company’s website. Just One is another—a simple and fast word game.

What prepared you for your current position? Education? A mentor? Serendipity?

Mostly serendipity, and the willingness to volunteer. Normally, I’m a software developer with a BS in computer science, and with 2020, I’ve returned to that full time. But for the last 3-4 years, I’ve worked with BGG hosting conventions. At first, I volunteered with the company after being associated with it as a social site. In 2005, they decided to run a convention, and 200 people came together in downtown Dallas. In 2006, I volunteered to help set it up, and during 2007-2008, I worked my way up to helping run it for 500-600 people. In 2015, we added a second convention in the spring, plus a cruise that year. Now 4000 people attend the fall convention with 2000 in the spring, and 200 on the cruise. [A Channel 5 story and interview about the 2017 convention here.]

What is your favorite aspect of this field?

I enjoy bringing people together and making new friends. With games you are always learning a new system, so it’s a challenge each time. I like organizing events that make other people happy.

Your least favorite?

I need to negotiate contracts and wrangle exhibitors, but when information has all been already available in an email, I still get emails with questions that were already answered. [Nobody reads anymore.]

What in the history of board games interests you?

The rise of modern board games, including new books and new movies, has been exciting to see. These games are a lot more engaging than what I grew up with. Germany leads the world with new development. It’s common for adults to socialize by playing board games there, and many of the prominent board game designers who work full time are in Germany. Each year their Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) gets much attention, almost like the American Oscars. Once the game winner is announced, 400,000 copies of it will sell. It was a big deal when an American won Game of the Year [Ticket to Ride, Alan R. Moon, 2004, BGG #1 gateway game] [American Tabletop Awards began in 2019, but there are also many other award sites, including BGG’s.]

Do you usually work in an office?

Although I could do everything from home, BGG does have a building that includes an office. My wife Christine runs the store with help from some friends; she processes orders for the company as well.

How often do people confuse you with the Hasbro General Manager and Senior VP Jeffrey Anderson?

Actually, I didn’t know anything about him. I figured my name was so common that I’ve never Googled it. Hasbro [originally Hassenfeld Brothers] is the last of the mass market game producers in the world [Hungry Hippos, Candy Land, Battleship, Operation, Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble, Monopoly, and many more].  They do not sell designer games or Euro games, which are the more modern board games.

Why do people still love board games anyway?

Now more than ever, when there are so few alternatives, board games are a great socializing tool for families. There’s been a huge boom because of the pandemic. It’s a good way to spend time together.

Why are they better than electronic games?

I wouldn’t say board games are necessarily better, though maybe they are for some. Lots of people play both. We do that in our family. I prefer them because of the interaction, being face to face with people. Using my brain is part of it, but there is a physicality to it as well, and the tactile sensations of the pieces and the movement.

What is the future of board gaming?

I expect that we will be right back into conventions next year, hopefully. Playing board games is an important element of human nature, just as play is an important element of our development

Lots of my students used to say they want to be game designers, but they mean videogames. What is the world of board game designers like?

There is some crossover with designers, and there are different challenges. Computers can do things for you, while there is a simpler rule set for boards, and typically there are fewer designers. Perhaps 20-50 people in the world can do it as a full-time living, but many others do it with another day job.

And in conclusion…

There is so much variety these days, so it’s not just Monopoly. For example, Just One is a party game that came out last year, and it is a lot of fun [Spiel des Jahres winner 2019; “ingenious in its simplicity”].  There is a gift guide on BGG’s website, sorted by categories like card games, dexterity, family, Disney, Harry Potter, and many more. There is a game for everyone, though not every game is for everyone.

Thank you, Jeff Anderson!

Side Note/Side Interview

I work for a media bias/reliability company, reading articles and listening to podcasts. Yesterday the shift facilitator, Brandon, asked if anyone had done anything interesting lately. I piped up about the Jeff Anderson interview, learned Brandon has an identity with BGG, and heard that there are lots of conventions. As a naïve newbie to this world, I assumed there was just the Dallas one. But no: there are hundreds in this country and around the world. One in Germany hosts 175,000 attendees. This site gives the 2020 list and warns that many sell out ahead of time, confirmed in the TV interview linked above.

Brandon gave a list of favorites: Ticket to Ride with various versions [a video with no narrative just visuals, plus age range and time of play] and The Pillars of the World [BGG explanation that includes various details and data; this is a literature-based game from the Ken Follett novel which has an 8 episode mini-series now streaming]. His experience with adult games began when his family started playing Balderdash [a word game that I’ve also played in which players submit real or fictional definitions for obscure words, BGG here]. He used the phrase “and then the dam broke” when he discovered the other newer games. Jeff’s was “tip of the iceberg.” (No more Monopoly!]

Knowing I like music, Brandon included this video that sings. Odd, and a bit…well, odd, though with insights. It starts with Pandemic and Codenames, not yet mentioned, and more. The channel is Actualol with Jon Purkis. A 28-minute offering lists his 15 best 2018 games. [Caveat: While I like how Purkis says “Amazon” and “whilst” like other Brits, he has some videos with humor that is a bit off-color and might offend some.]

Brandon used the phrase “with/against others.” [Some of us are more competitive, so winning can be important, maybe even the point.] While the companionship is a component, planning, thinking, strategizing, and flat-out thinking are perhaps even more compelling. Sometimes, games are virtually silent, either by design or by choice. [One doesn’t chat over chess, for example, or lots of card games. Others can be intense and addictive. I’ve been waked up with a kid saying, “Wanna play Exploding Kittens?”]

Thanks, Brandon. Who knew?

A public service: Here are some links to lists: Wirecutter in New York Times includes prices, ideas, and a smaller set of choices. Games Radar includes many more in similar categories, prices, and the pros and cons of each. New York Magazine’s list of best family games includes lots of classics with many new ones as well such as Exploding Kittens and Suspend. This British version offers a quick guide then longer explanations and different games than on the other lists.

Finally, you can explore the history of games for the past 5000 years or the scholarly study of the role of games in the ecology of family experiences, but, all things considered, neither sounds like much fun. We have more time on our hands these days, and we are inside. Board games are, apparently, a richer option than I had any idea. And presumably, fun.

Full disclosures: I cheated at Chutes and Ladders when the kids were little, bought The Ungame for a non-competitive communication (read quiet) option, have three games from the lists in my Amazon cart, and love Trivial Pursuit best when I win. Game on!

 

How to Keep Christmas, How to Give It Away

My dear British friend asks me when I arrive, “And how are you keeping?” I reply that I am quite well before going on into a few details that might not support that conclusion. The phrase itself is indeed British, for which we have no equivalent. The only similar American idiom I know is “for keeps.”

When we talk about Christmas, we usually use the word “celebrate,” a great choice because of its meaning: “commemorate or honor with demonstrations of joy.” This year, the longest, most irritating in our experience, it seems that we do want to keep Christmas. Lights and decorations went up early, often before Thanksgiving. That happens in stores, of course, which I no longer begrudge, but 2020 was a time for normal people to seek the joy and the light a bit more fervently than usual.

So, keeping Christmas is something different than celebrating it. Peter Marshall was a Scottish preacher who came to America in 1927 and became Chaplain of the Senate two years before his death. His widow Catherine wrote a popular biography called A Man Called Peter that some of us remember. He also wrote an article called “Let’s Keep Christmas,” condensed here or read in its entirety by Dick van Dyke here. It will seem odd this year, decrying shopping crowds. But then I didn’t go out for Black Friday and won’t go to a mall even if paid this year. The sentiments are good in his piece, however strange they seem.

Henry van Dyke (a coincidence to the actor, by the way) was another American preacher, in the early 20th century. He wrote the words sung in hymnbooks for Beethoven’s setting on Schiller’s “An die Freude,” heard in the last movement of the 9th Symphony. (Here is a brief version in German with English translation. Here is Otto Klemperer in 1957, with the 4th movement beginning at 47:08, singing at 53:35. This version is from The Piano Guys. Titled “Ode to Joy to the World”; it uses both melodies but mostly Beethoven’s with Schiller’s poem. The singers and bell players are shockingly close together, and the pianist and cellist don’t use written music, also shocking.)

Back to van Dyke. His words have little to do with the original other than the theme of brotherly love. Here is the group formerly known as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, lyrics included. The German includes sentiments like “Wir betreten feuertrunken” which means “We enter, drunk with fire.” Vivid, perhaps more than Sunday fare though. Here is a cool version from Sister Act 2, including a glimpse of Maggie Smith way before she was the Dowager Countess.

Back once more to Henry van Dyke, now that you know where you know him from. You may also know his short story “The Other Wise Man” (1895) made into a film The Fourth Wise Man (1985). The magi Artaban misses the caravan but spends the next 33 years looking for the King they were seeking. A short version here, and the real thing (worth it) here.

What am I am? The fourth return? This preacher-writer gives us also the poem (or short essay, depending on how it’s typeset) “Keeping Christmas.” I prefer the former because it is easy to see what he’s doing. The idea begins with “Are you willing…?” and proceeds to ask what we might think of if we are to “keep” Christmas: remembering others, doing service, understanding the power of love.

And finally, to van Dyke 5, for two thoughts on giving away Christmas. Here is a tiny set of snippets from talks given through the years, each referencing his short story “The Mansion,” which you can read here. As are all these works, it is predictable with an intent to spur us to better things. However, one line particularly caught my attention. A heavenly guide is taking a certain John Weightman to his mansion, having left others at great and beautiful ones. They arrive at a particularly wretched hut, much to the surprise of this prominent philanthropist. But this is how the guide explains the poor quality of the place: “That is all the material you sent us.” Ouch. As in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” our hero awakens to a second chance to mend his ways.

The paradox, then, is keeping by giving. Not so much the gifts, which are a challenge on their own, but quietly lifting and helping. My uncle and my mother-in-law both did these kinds of things, and I didn’t even know for years. Children were involved for both. My uncle, who had none, volunteered both time and money to a non-profit daycare center in the projects. My mother-in-law spent years greeting children at the nearby elementary school, then making copies for a teacher.

When we think of self-esteem, sometimes we suppose it is given by others, in how they treat us and how they build us up. I think the opposite is true: it is the “self” that must give us a better view of who we are, as we earn our place in the world. Giving some of that self away  proves a good way to fortify it. “Self” can include substance. According to Charity Navigator, fully 31% of charitable giving comes in December each year, with 69% of it coming from individuals (then foundations, bequests, and corporations). It’s one of my least favorite parts of the season. Giving that’s good in December is also good in July. Tiny Tim says, “God bless Us, Every One!” But it’s Scrooge who “knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”

Someone challenged a group of us last week to give double what we might. That hurts. It’s not for the reward. If anything, more challenges are likely. Recently, I gave a certain amount to sponsor parking passes for an event. The next day, a slab leak was diagnosed that cost way more than I had given. On one hand, you can’t give anything away, really. It all comes back, sometimes after a trial. What you always get, however, is peace. That’s the real keeper.