LITCHerally the Best Guest Post Ever

You're litcherally my favorite person!Matt Mitrovich asked me to write a guest post at Alternate History Weekly Update about my second forty-second career as an ebook-cover artist. I don’t think I’m qualified to write a how-to article on tying shoelaces let alone designing ebooks, but I scribbled some criteria and design ideas for his readers anyway. Matt has been phenomenally helpful in promoting Altered America, which in turn played a large role in its sales spike a few weeks ago.

Rereading said post, I find its upbeat tone almost unrecognizable to me, particularly in the last graf. I’m a much different person than I was a few years ago. A big part of that is due to our house, which is very near completion (the last contractor finished today). It has been a transformative 11 months. I’ve become even more Ron Swansonish about institutions — banks, insurance companies, governments — but more Chris Traegerish about individuals. Throughout the process, so many faceless bureaucracies were lined up against us yet our skins were saved time and again not just through our own tenacity, but also because of the effort and understanding of all the people who’ve worked on the house or supported us. If I go through the day without having to extinguish some kind of brushfire crisis — What’s that? You’re NOT cancelling my homeowner’s insurance for arbitrary reasons? Hooray! — then it’s a great day. I think that optimism has spilled over to how I feel about others and their projects and ambitions.

Samuel Smedley: Man of Fairfield!

Samuel Smedley, Connecticut PrivateerSaturday I’ll be at the downtown Fairfield University Bookstore to present about Fairfield’s Revolutionary past. Along with Rita Papazian — two for the price of free! — I’ll be discussing Samuel Smedley, Caleb Brewster, and the 1779 burning of Fairfield. The talk runs from 1-3pm on the second floor.

And if you’re a fan of Caleb Brewster, the first episode of Turn debuts this Sunday night on AMC. The five-part series dramatizes the events of the Culper spy ring, the famous Patriot intelligence network that developed in New York and Long Island after the city’s fall to British troops and Loyalists. Brewster, a native of Setauket before decamping across the Sound to Fairfield, was a crucial link in the ring, ferrying information about British goings-on from Long Island to Connecticut and thence to General Washington. And as if he wasn’t enough of a bad-ass already, Brewster was also handy in a fight. The Journal of the American Revolution has seen early episodes and given it eight Huzzahs.

Everything Old Is New

1899

O Jackson, where art thou? you may ask yourself while stopping by this blog only to see it hasn’t been updated, like, again.

My absence from this blog, from writing, from even my own life has been due to my greatest historical project ever. In June, Mrs. Kuhl was out for a walk when she saw a For Sale By Owner sign. Next thing I knew, we were buying and restoring a dilapidated 1899 Dutch colonial revival. It was a horror movie from the beginning — most banks didn’t want to touch it. So we spent the summer assembling the financing while simultaneously evicting the then-current residents, a tenacious family of raccoons. Only after three months of hair-pulling and tooth-grinding did the real renovation begin. Applications for historical appropriateness. Demolition. Tree removal. Wallpaper removal. New kitchens and baths and windows and doors. Repair of rot and gaping holes in walls. Conversion to natural gas from oil, which had replaced the original natural gas. Painting and trim work. Landscaping and clean-up. And we still have about three months to go.

There aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything needing doing. But at least when I jump out of bed running, I land in a nice house.

Bard’s Tale 3 @ 25

Sit right back and you'll hear a tale.

Twenty-five years ago Electronic Arts released the best video game I ever played.

Picking up right after the original The Bard’s Tale — and completely ignoring the tedious sequel, BT2: The Destiny Knight, which was designed under the theory that if the first game was good, the same game a thousand times longer is great — the CRPG Bard’s Tale III: The Thief of Fate offered a number of innovations, including better graphics, automapping, advanced character classes (meaning you had to reach a certain level before you could unlock them), and most of all, an incredible story.

The first BT ended with the destruction of the evil wizard Mangar, servant of the Mad God Tarjan and scourge of the city of Skara Brae. BT3 opened with Skara Brae atomized by Mangar’s vengeful deity. Gone were the shops and taverns; home base became a campsite among the ruins. After conquering the starter dungeon (you could import characters from previous BT games or start with a fresh crew, in which case the starter dungeon would bring them up to speed — I chose a middle road, importing my BT2 team but replacing weak links) and its boss, the Tarjan lackey Brilhasti ap Tarj, you launched across the dimensions in a quest for the assorted mystical thingamajigs necessary to take down the Mad God.

It immediately became clear, however, that your band wasn’t just traveling across space but time as well, and like the Doctor and River Song, you ended up crossing chronologies by encountering total strangers who had met you before or landing in places long after key events had occurred. Upon escaping his magical prison, Tarjan went on a rage bender across the universe slaughtering the gods who had shackled him, and gradually you pieced together the events that led to Tarjan’s release. Spoiler: one of the gods broke a celestial law against creating new life. Double spoiler: it was a blacksmith god who inadvertently made a robot. The robot — who, IIRC, was depicted as a cross between The Thinker and Hamlet, sitting in Alas-Poor-Yorick contemplation of a skull — was hunted by the gods and their minions to rectify this crime of existence but, being more human than human, ultimately helped you on your mission. There was a forest world and an ice world and even a war world, which was actually a schizophrenic tour through besieged Troy, World War II Berlin, and other earthly hellholes. And if you persevered and killed Tarjan, your party ascended to divinity, becoming a new pantheon to replace the corpses you spent all game stepping over.

But this twisty narrative with its unexpected commentary on mankind’s condition was only half the experience.

Bard's Tale III cover.The summer of 1988 was the summer between my junior and senior years of high school. Usually I hated summertime; my friends went away to relatively glamorous lifeguarding or sandwich-joint jobs down the shore while I was stuck working in the back of the local grocery store or toiling with my old man on the weekends. Unlike, I think, many people who turned misty-eyed at graduation, I chafed at the bit to start life. My hometown was like a waiting room in some municipal building: empty, bland, offering little excitement beyond a few worn and outdated magazines laying on a shaky end table. It was the summer at the boarding gate: still waiting like I had waited every other summer — for friends to return, for a thunderstorm to break the heat, for anything — but knowing that a big change in environment was about to occur. Dumb, cocksure, naive, I had no idea of where I was going or what was needed to arrive there. But it was the first summer I remember where things were beginning to happen.

My besties, Bart and Chris, didn’t disappear that summer. They were also Bard’s Tale fans and when the third title was released, we hit the stores. Bart bought it for his Apple while Chris and I, both Commodore-64 players, pooled our funds to purchase a copy, which Chris ripped for me (the game came with no write-protection, supposedly to make it run faster, but was instead packaged with a special code wheel needed to answer prompts during gameplay; said wheel was immediately dismantled, photocopied, and reassembled). Soon a race developed where the three of us, playing on our own between shifts at various minimum-wage jobs, would meet in the woods at the end of my street, today as flattened as Skara Brae. There we would smoke cigarettes and discuss our individual progressions, offering our theories on the story, trying to unriddle the convoluted timey-wimey plot. What do you think about this? Can you believe that? Got a light?

I don’t recall who finished the game first and certainly I know none of us cared. But I remember that feeling as we each dungeoneered and puzzled our way to Tarjan’s stronghold, the excitement mounting as we stood on the edge, the planes of the multiverse unfolding before us.

 

Miami

South Beach, Miami, FL.

My family and I visited Miami. We had never been.

We went to

Biscayne National Park.

and saw

Biscayne National Park.

and also a manatee feeding alongside a dock but in the photos it looks like a submerged log.

We went snorkeling and saw

Snorkeling in Biscayne National Park.

Snorkeling in Biscayne National Park.

My oldest snapped those two photos with his disposable. The sea fans are every shade of purple and violet you can imagine.

The next day, me and this hot mama

Fire woman you're to blame.

rented bicycles with our sons. We rode them through Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park and saw

Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt.

and

Go go Godzilla.

Miami is overrun with iguanas. They’re everywhere — climbing palms, sunning themselves in the grass. Not just the darker kind seen here but also bright green ones like you see in pet stores. Once while we were riding, a herd of iguanas stampeded across the sidewalk in front of us. Let me stress those words again: a herd of iguanas.

In South Beach, I went on an art-deco tour.

No gods or kings. Only Man.

Remember that racy Obsession ad from the ’80s?

Could you pass the sunscreen?

It was shot on the — heh — backside of the Breakwater’s sign.

Breakwater, South Beach.

The deco buildings of Miami Beach were originally painted shades of gray, beige, or off-white. In the 1970s when many of them were threatened by demolition, a member of the Miami Design Preservation League attempted to enlist public support for the buildings by concocting a bright palette of pastel colors. Eventually these colors transferred from the buildings to local fashion, both of which were immortalized by Michael Mann in Miami Vice.

We swam a lot in Miami. Ate a lot. Later we went home.

Miami skyline.

But I want to go back.

You Got Me Running Going Out of My Mind

I finished Sunday’s Fairfield Half Marathon in under two hours, shaving more than four minutes off my previous time in 2011 when I ran the morning after Mrs. Kuhl’s big birthday party with a case of the Irish flu.

Never say never but I think that will be the last time I run the course. This year I made sure to train for the hills but I realize now it’s not the elevation (pdf) — it’s the heat. There’s just no way you’re going to run a half in late June and not become dehydrated. I GUed every two miles and gulped water at almost every station but I was a wreck in the last 5K (one old lady hosing the runners by the curb told her friends, “This guy looks like he needs some water,” before blasting me). If you ran the same course in October it would be a completely different race. Although some people can clearly handle it: a friend of mine finished in 1:37, an inconceivable time for me. Then again I have another friend who didn’t finish at all. People were dropping left and right; I saw EMTs assisting a girl flat on her back before mile 4 and I heard that at the end the medical tent was so full, organizers were discouraging people from seeking treatment unless they were in serious distress. I implemented my usual recovery, which is to grab as much water as I can carry and go soak in the ice-bath of Long Island Sound. I swear that sensation makes the entire race worth it.

A huge thank you to everyone who came out to cheer, clap, hose, wave signs (“Worst Parade Ever!”), hand out water, and sweep up our garbage. Thank you, thank you, thank you. We could not run without the volunteers.

Of my four half-marathons, this was my second-best time — and only two minutes longer than my PR. I’m already looking forward to shifting into 5K mode and my first zombie race is next month.

All I need is a week off and a bottle of Advil.