I’ve talked a little bit about being a D&D nerd back in the day; My interest was intense for a period of time in the 6th grade, and then casual for a few years after that. I was also into a sister game called Gamma World, which was basically D&D in a post-apocalyptic setting. Something about this game caught my interest a lot more than dragons and swords. Some history:
In 1982, my family moved from blue-collar New Jersey to a town in white-collar Connecticut, and I started at a new school. We were bused in from a remote cul-de-sac on the far side of town. I was pretty isolated until school started (the only other kid on our street was two years younger, and all he wanted to do was sit inside and play Mrs. Pac Man) but after a rocky couple of weeks I met up with a guy who lived less than a half-mile from my house through the woods. He introduced me to a bunch of his friends, who lived nearby, and one of the things we bonded over was a game I’d never heard of before: Dungeons and Dragons.
I didn’t understand how the game worked at first. There were dice, and rules, and they gave me a character to play, and I enjoyed using our imagination to solve problems. We played on and off again that fall, between building forts in the woods around our houses, riding bikes, and Pitfall! I enjoyed one of the best Halloweens of my life that year when my friend’s father showed us how to melt the plastic tip of a can of shaving cream to shoot the foam in ten-foot streams; we roamed in and out of epic battles with older neighborhood boys, using our knowledge of the local woods to escape and regroup.
My parents gave me the beginner’s box set of both D&D and Gamma World that Christmas, and after that I was obsessed. We played through the spring until school let out, when my friends vacationed out of town. I spent a lonely August swimming in the pool, reading books from the library, and creating Gamma World campaigns for my friends to play through when they all got back.
That fall, we started at the middle school across town. I was dumped into a new system where I knew no one, and all of my friends from 6th grade had dissolved into other classes. D&D suddenly wasn’t cool in the cutthroat atmosphere of 7th grade, and I was adrift in rough social waters.
When we moved to New York, I spent one lonely semester in 8th grade until I made it up to the High School, and found new friends. One of the things we did was play D&D and Gamma World informally here and there; I’m not going to lie, but I miss those Coke and pizza-fueled sessions with friends, because we had a great time. (I remember an epic 10-hour session during an ice storm my Junior year).
Fast forwarding, I had a little credit with Amazon last week and decided to find a game that Finn and I could play, as well as one that I’ve been dying to try for years: Fallout 4. Fallout is a series that’s been around since 1997, but Fallout 4 was released two years ago. It’s as if they took about 90% of Gamma World and made a video game out of it. You control a character who awoke from a cryogenic vault 200 years after a nuclear war, and you spend the game wandering a gigantic wasteland, killing evil humans and radiated monsters (if you can) while picking up objects along the way. You can use these objects to craft new weapons, structures, or special items. You can start settlements for people, working to keep them happy and safe. You can find special powered armor suits which help you defeat huge, powerful monsters. In short, everything that was cool about Gamma World but without your friends playing by your side.
I’m already about 20 hours into the game and I can’t put it down.
I got a little burned out on playing the Division 2 last week, so I pulled the disc out of my Xbox and put Fallout 76 in, for the first time in months. It took a little time to get used to the controls again, and get my bearings for where I was and what I was doing. I looked around the map, did a little exploring, and shot some bad guys. And I was bored. I left the game when I realized my style of gameplay was holding me back and that if I wanted to advance further I’d have to go spend hours searching for stuff to build more powerful weapons and armor, running to and from areas on the map and completing missions I’d already done. Jumping back in, I quickly remembered why I’d stopped and it held even less interest for me now than it did before.
The Fallout series got me through chemo and some cold dark winter months last year, and for that I’m grateful, but I don’t think I need to go back again. It looks like I might be hunting for a new game to play soon.
When I first started playing video games back in 1997 with a demo copy of Marathon, I played by myself on story mode and got into a habit of avoiding multiplayer games that stuck with me for decades. Partially because I always had Macs, and even though Marathon offered a co-op mode, it was only for LAN and nobody else I knew had a Mac to play on. When I worked at the game company I played HALO at the office in co-op mode and enjoyed it immensely, but that was at a time when I didn’t own a console myself and wasn’t really interested in purchasing a gaming PC good enough to join my co-workers in overnight games of Counterstrike or Dark Age of Camelot. It wasn’t until much later that I found a cast-off Xbox at a yard sale but most of the games were so old the servers had been shut down.
When my family sent me the new Xbox to help get me through chemotherapy I avoided online games because I really didn’t want to talk to anybody at that point and I also wanted to avoid a monthly subscription—I am, after all, a cheap bastard. But most modern games require a game pass of some kind, and when I sprung for Fallout 76 I had to bite the bullet. I’ve avoided all multiplayer until recently, but in The Division 2 I’ve reached the limit of what I can do solo before running up against missions which require a team effort to overcome.
So, on Friday afternoon I joined a mission with another player to test the waters, was matched with someone who had their microphone on. I was treated to a one-sided discussion punctuated with wet coughing while their in game character stood motionless facing a wall. I disconnected to go eat dinner but after the girls went to bed I tried again and had more success. I was paired with two players at my level and we ran through several missions successfully. Despite all my misgivings, I had a great time. Nobody had their mic on so I didn’t need to talk to anybody, but we communicated well enough to make short work of the enemies we faced. I put the controller down at midnight, my right thumb sore, and went to bed happy that I finally stepped out of my comfort zone and didn’t get fragged by a 12-year-old named DaRk_SlAyEr_2121.
This game is really amazing to look at. It’s set in Washington, D.C. and while I know they’ve taken liberties with the scale of the city, I’ve been able to Google Streetview some of the places I’m exploring and see a pretty close 1-to-1 with real life. I’m dying to go to the block where my office is, but it’s inside a Dark Zone where players can kill each other and loot their gear, so I’m a little hesitant. Maybe at 1PM on a Tuesday before school lets out I’ll give it a try.
As of Saturday, all but four bays of the eaves are scraped and painted on the front of the house. As of Sunday, the east side peak above the new bathroom is 4/5 scraped, sprayed and painted. It was mostly direct sun all day so I couldn’t sit on the exposed roof for long, and I wasn’t interested in hanging my ass out over the backyard like Tom Cruise on the Burj Kalifa, so there are sections at either end that need to be finished. But the majority of it is done, and it looks 100% better from the road, which is what I care about the most. It’s not visible from the road but the roof up there looks like it snowed for a couple of hours. I came inside covered with a layer of paint chips an inch thick.
I need to use the roller to reach a tiny spot on the east side over the driveway but the west side of the front facade requires some more planning and construction—I’ll need to build a sturdy platform to level off the slope on that side so that I can put up a ladder and reach the last couple of bays. Pretty much everything else is done other than the shutters, and there’s no decision on color for those yet. If the weather would only cooperate…
Things in the greenhouse are going reasonably well, although the first couple of Purple Cherokees coming in have blossom end rot. I bought bonide spray at the hardware store yesterday and sprayed the leaves down in the hopes that the rest of the plants don’t suffer the same problem. Outside, the trees have been dropping tons of sap on the plastic, which has been getting filthier by the day. I put a ladder up and washed both sides, first with a mop and then with a rag to get the dirt off. The south side cleaned up better than the north, and now everything in there will get better sunlight for growing.
Here at the Lockardugan Estate, we’ve been getting along through COVID lockdown the best way we can. It’s been a challenge to be around each other all day every day without killing one another, and we’ve each been through the soul-crushing phases of denial and acceptance at least fifteen times. I used to think our house was big, but after having been shut in here like a biodome, I’m aware of just how cozy everything feels. The boom in the housing market makes a lot of sense in retrospect.
Last week, Finley had had enough of being trapped (been though she’s going to school two days a week) and asked if I could take her to the mall. Also monumentally bored, I immediately agreed and we decided to go right after finishing dinner. We got a late start out the door. Walking inside, I could immediately sense something was wrong: the security gates were coming down and people were headed to the exits. Turns out they close at 8 and not 9. So we went to Target so that we could walk around and look at things and just be out.
One of the things I found in a bargain game bin was a copy of The Division 2, a first-person shooter I’d read about last year. I picked that up along with some other small items and we headed home. After waiting a full day for the game files to copy and then update, I tried it for the first time the other night—and was immediately impressed. It’s set in Washington D.C. and the environment is breathtakingly detailed. The first missions were well-balanced and interesting, and I’m getting used to the game mechanics. Hopefully it’s got a lot more content to keep me involved; I see myself playing this one for a while. I’ve been getting tired of Fallout 76 for some time, and this game scratches the itch for action without having to deal with running from place to place or worry about picking up or crafting or fixing stuff.
Jen has been organizing the piles of crap we’ve thrown up into the attic, and one of the things she came upon is an old chair I’ve had since college, something my roommate Pat gave me when he left town: a Scandinavian chair of unknown origin with ratty leather that we had to retire when the cats began tearing it apart and baby Finley was eating the foam. I decided we’d Freecycle it just to get it out of here. In order to find some information on it for the listing, I googled the sticker underneath and found that the brand is Westnofa, a Norwegian manufacturer of midcentury modern designs, usually featuring laminated wood framing with leather upholstery. Apparently this furniture is worth some money in good shape; I’m obviously rethinking my earlier decision to give it away. It’s a very comfortable chair that we both like, but we’d been quoted a lot of money to have it redone before it was retired. I think we need to do a little more digging before we make a decision.
Our house is coming up on its centennial in just a few years. At the turn of the century, this whole area was still sparsely populated with gentleman’s farms and vacation homes for Baltimore’s wealthiest residents; The track for the trolley from the city is still embedded under Frederick Road in front of our house. From our back windows we can see Summit Mansion, one of the largest of the local mansions, whose frontage was subdivided into our current neighborhood in the early 1900’s.
When they put these houses up, the practice of home insulation was still in its infancy, and I’ve been playing catchup for the last sixteen years. With the weather in the teens overnight, I’ve been concerned that our seedlings will get frostbitten in the basement once they’ve grown large enough for me to take the covers off, so I figured I’d make a plan to move them upstairs. The best location I could find was in the den, on the cabinet under Finn’s gallery wall, where there’s lots of natural light during the day and several available plugs for the lights and the heaters.
I built a frame out of scrap wood for the grow lights so that the fixture sits directly over the trays and put some plastic down on top of the cabinet before getting everything situated. Once I’d moved the old light fixture up and plugged it into the timer, it refused to work, so I picked up a new one from Lowe’s and wired the plug into it from the old one.
The new covers are excellent. They give the plants tons of room to stand up, and they feature two vents on the top to let the condensation out. By Sunday evening, everything was standing tall and enjoying the new location.
Other than that, and a bunch of chores and other small projects around the house, I did absolutely fuck-all this weekend. I’ve made it through a bunch of minor quests in Fallout 76 solo and participated in one event with a bunch of other random players, but I got absolutely smoked in a cave by a giant mutated turtle trying to complete a major quest and spent the rest of the weekend licking my wounds.
- December 26: playing Fallout 76, watching The Professor and the Madman (verdict: not bad! ), bingeing the first episodes of True Detective season 3 (verdict: SO MUCH BETTER than Season 2)
- Dec. 27: Bingeing the first episodes of His Dark Materials season 2 (verdict: good, and they’ve tightened up some of my issues with the second book), Taco Bell for dinner. NACHO FRIES! (verdict: disappointing. The Dorito-taco-thing was very good. The resulting Run For The Border was as urgent I remember it from 20 years ago. Some things never change)
- Dec. 28: Working on the workbench, burgers for dinner, finishing True Detective Season 3 (verdict: I highly recommend this series.)
- Dec. 29: Working on the workbench, His Dark Materials season ender (verdict: I’m very curious to see how they approach the third season, as everything in that book goes off the fucking rails. And I wonder if they will give the main character any agency of her own, as it all disappears midway through the second book)
- Dec. 30: Finishing the workbench, Onward (verdict: that’s the hardest I’ve laughed during a movie in a long time. Not quite standard Pixar-level, but recommended.)
I’ve been playing Fallout 76 for about four months now. After spending roughly 2.5 years playing through Fallout 4 and its various expansion packs, I was bored. When it became clear COVID would shut things down for a while, I found a cheap used copy online and bought an Xbox Live Pass, which it requires in order to run. It’s designed entirely around cooperative play but they do make allowances for solo players like me, and with a series of updates and patches they’ve made the game much better in that regard. Since booting it up for the first time, I’ve been sneaking around the map by myself, hiding from other players, slowly leveling up, and mostly enjoying myself. The few times I’ve encountered other players have been pretty amicable. But early in the game a high-level player jumped into the middle of a fight I was in with multiple enemies and I twitch-shot him once. He turned around and wasted me pretty quickly, which I didn’t think was very nice; it was an honest accident.
Last night I was finishing up in a particular area, eliminating the last couple of enemies. I’d just cornered a final ghoul to finish him off when an online player hopped over a fence and shot me. He paused; I was annoyed but finished off my kill when the guy shot me again, and then a third time. I stood up, aimed my rifle at him and took a few steps forward: knock it off. He was at a level 5 while I’m a level 32; his little popgun wasn’t actually doing much. Before I could call up a quick menu and flash him the “mad” sign, he fucking shot me again. So I blew his head off with a shotgun. Chuckling to myself, I continued on my way.
About five minutes later, he showed up again in my general area, and I was invited to join a party with he and another player. I thought about it for a minute. He was a level 5, the other a 7. These were two guys who probably know less about team playing than I do; why the hell not?
The controls in Fallout 76 are still somewhat confusing. I’m still half used to two years’ muscle memory from Fallout 4 but they’ve added a ton of other features so it takes a while to understand where they’ve moved things. The first join request timed out, but they sent a second request and I was able to sort out the issue.
At this point it’s helpful to understand how teams work (as I understand them): We’re supposed to be able to chat with one another within a team, while you can’t just talk to randos you meet out in the world. Thus, I couldn’t tell the guy to quit shooting at me. I ran to get my headphones and plugged them in; if anyone was going to talk I’d be able to reply. But I didn’t hear anything. We spent some time standing around. I waited for them to do something, got bored, continued on my original path and they tagged along behind me. I used the in-game gestures to tell them to follow me into a structure I’d already been to, and we cleaned it out pretty quickly. When we were done, I got an alert that one of the players had sent me an audio message through the Xbox. It took me a few moments to figure out how to access it. A voice no older than Finley’s asked me, “Do you have any fusion cells to trade? I need one for my laser pistol.”
Laughing, I gave up on trying to figure out how to trade—it’s even more confusing than the Join mechanics—and continued on my way. They followed me for a while and then one player dropped out. A little while later, my would-be assassin’s player froze in place in a basement. He probably had to go take out the garbage. By that time it was 11:30 so I dropped out of the game and went to bed.
I spent most of the weekend working around the house with headphones in, listening to a podcast called 13 Minutes to the Moon, the first season of which detailed the Apollo 11 moon landing:
The host, a BBC World News host, spent a lot of time traveling to meet the surviving astronauts, Mission Control specialists, and NASA scientists responsible for one of this country’s best efforts. Given everything else that’s been happening, it’s been a welcome boost for my spirits. Season two goes into the Apollo 13 disaster and I’m about halfway through already.
A few weeks ago I got an Amazon alert that used copies of Fallout 76 were on deep discount, so I grabbed one. I’ve played its predecessor, Fallout 4, pretty much nonstop since my family bought me an Xbox during chemotherapy two and a half years ago, so I figured that plus a 3 month Xbox Live pass (required for this new game) was a good investment. So far, it’s everything Fallout 4 was plus a bunch of new problems to solve—there’s no pause, starvation and radiation are real game mechanics, and it’s a multiplayer environment. So far I’ve not had problems with other players, but the threat of someone coming along and murdering my character for fun is a real threat. The first couple of hours were confusing and stressful but I’ve figured out the big questions and I’m settling in to enjoy the game.
Hazel was up to pee at about 7:10 so I put on some warm clothes and snuck her out of the house to let the girls sleep in. It was brisk outside. Yesterday was 80˚ but overnight it dropped into the 30s and it was only just beginning to warm up as the sun rose. Hazel and I wandered over behind the school and down the hill to the Junction, where I tied her up in front of the local café and ordered some breakfast and a coffee. I was the second person in the door this morning. Usually there are a crowd of eight or ten people at the tables on their second cup discussing the paper or news on the TV, but today it was empty. It was strange.
We walked back home up the trolley trail and by the time we got home the girls were awake, so we all ate breakfast in the living room and played with the dog for a little while. I then went downstairs and set up a seed starter for three varieties of tomatoes in the hopes that I’ll have more luck this year than I did a decade ago when I tried it on the workbench. I’m going to build a platform for them under one of the basement windows so that they’ll get daily sunlight and hope that a warming pad will regulate the temperature under the plastic properly.
Then I went outside and assembled our new pressure washer, 1/2 of which is my birthday present from Jen. I got a Craftsman gas model on sale—electric pressure washers are crap—and had it clearing green mildew from the garage doors in about a half an hour. I went around to the front steps and cleaned all the green off the Trex, rinsed the siding, and anything else that needed a wash. We get mildew on the front of the house yearly because it faces north, so I’ve rented or borrowed a pressure washer for the past five or six years to clean things up. After I’ve put this one to use this year cleaning the rest of the siding, washing the engine and undercarriage of the Scout, cleaning the back deck, lawn furniture and Finley’s playset, I think it will have paid for itself.
I’ve had trim for the bathroom waiting to be picked up for a week, so I headed into Columbia to grab that before they closed and then circled up to the gucci Giant to stock up on some essentials—a little bird told us that statewide lockdown is imminent. I was able to get most of what we needed, but the paper product and soap shelves were empty (we could use more hand soap but we’re generally OK for now) and the frozen breakfast aisle was wiped out along with all the ice cream. Then I stopped at the liquor store and stocked up some extra beer.
At home we set to work putting it away; one of the first things I did was go to the garage and plug in our old fridge. It took a little to get going, but began cooling itself down quickly after that. Then I stuffed the extra beer and groceries inside. It’s been a pain to fit in the limited space available, but now I’m glad I didn’t Craigslist it like the last one.
After a quick break, I broke out all of my brewing equipment and fired up the burner in the backyard. I’ve had a Shiner Bock knockoff kit sitting in the basement since last fall, and I got tired of waiting for my neighbor to get his act together to brew with me. By 7PM I had it in the carboy and all of the dishes piled on the back porch, but it was time for dinner by that point.
Now I’m settled on the couch in the den with a cold beer in hand, Hazel snoring at my feet—the first time she’s been calm all day—and Fallout 4 loading on the Xbox. Time to relax.
6:45: I wake up and give Hazel some belly scratches until she wakes up fully. Belly scratches used to make her nervous, but now she won’t get out of bed without them. This dog is weird.
7:00: I shove three pills down Hazel’s throat: a giant frozen horse pill that’s supposed to help her ear condition, a Prozac, and a tranquilizer to keep her from shaking her head every five minutes. Then I mix up some food with some fish oil and feed her. It smells like ass.
7:10: In the new shower. The heated floor feels nice.
7:30: I kiss the girls goodbye and head out the door.
7:40: I’m sitting in the car, parked a little ways away from the train station. I’ve got about 10 minutes to kill before I have to walk to the platform, so I sip some coffee and search for some new podcasts to follow.
8:00: I’m on the train, listening to Sidedoor, the Smithsonian’s podcast about things in their collection you might not see in the museum. Highly recommended.
8:45: Filing through Union Station, following hundreds of other people on their morning commute.
8:50: I drop my bag at my desk in the office. Then I spend about 15 minutes warming up my oatmeal, sipping coffee, and reading the day’s headlines while I eat.
9:10: One of my designers asks me for some help with a visual in Flourish, our interactive charting software. We spend the next 20 minutes trying to get it to do what we want (showing percentages in a popup for data in a bar chart that is represented by numerical values). I’m able to get it displaying percentage data from a different part of the spreadsheet but I can’t crack the particular formula it needs, so we send an email to their enterprise support team.
9:30: I meet with my video producer, who thanks me for the noise-cancelling headphones I got for him, and asks for my help transferring a project from Final Cut Pro to Premiere. I spend the next half-hour directing him on a wild goose chase; he’d heard that previous versions of Premiere would import FCP files, and we have several machines that are running older versions. This proves to be false. He finds a way with a third-party application, and gets to work.
9:45: I set up my production manager’s new MacBook Pro with a Dropbox account and begin syncing about 35GB of data.
9:50: Down to the café to reset the Amazon Fire stick running the display software for that room; the TV has been set to shut itself off from 7PM-8AM and the Fire stick didn’t reboot itself. The batteries in the remote are dead, so I source some new ones. I update some settings and do the same for the three lobby displays upstairs. Fire sticks are unreliable. I’ve returned two of them and another is acting strange.
10:00: I leave a message with a data visualization candidate I’m hoping to hire: I’ve got some good news for her.
10:15: Going through email, sorting out the day’s priorities and tasks (I have 5 hours blocked out on my calendar for actually producing some work, and I’m able to take advantage of about 1 hour of it).
10:40: I get a callback from my candidate and offer her a job! Best part of my day. She’s excited and we work out some of the details.
11:00: I dig up a slide deck from 2017 to answer a question from the London office about getting a map of our locations printed for their walls; the map they like is three years out of date. I find a suitable replacement, set it up for print, and send it to them.
11:15: I shoot an email to my data viz candidate about a side project she sent me a link to (Muppets!) and offer some feedback. Now I have the Muppet Show theme song stuck in my head.
11:18: We get an email back from the Flourish folks, who say they’re working on a solution.
11:30: Reviewing some videos from an international office and fielding questions from other folks on our team, then request a meeting to review the strategy.
11:45: I have to look over some design changes from the folks who are building a system to create interactive reports for us; they’re going into production this week.
12:00: Cleaning out my email inbox, which has filled up again.
12:15: I set up a blank drive and begin cloning the internal drive on my old laptop so that I can return it this week. When that’s done I check on the Dropbox syncing on the other laptop.
12:30: I run out for some Chipotle and bring it back to eat at my desk. I’m not finished with it when…
1:00: …I jump into an hourlong meeting with an external web vendor to talk about design needs; the first 45 minutes is spent going through data spreadsheets until I ask to change direction, and we accomplish everything I need to in the last 5 minutes of the meeting.
2:00: I go directly into another meeting to talk about the IO videos and sort things out.
2:30: I’m called out of that meeting to go shoot some pictures of one of our program leads, who is getting an award from the DOD for being a great boss and giving one of his employees enough time to join the Air National Guard and go through a 6-month training program. I sit through a very low-key ceremony, then have the lead and the DOD rep follow me to our step-and-repeat, shoot some standard grip and grins, then go to a different spot and repeat the process.
3:00: I go back to finish the video discussion, and help come up with a strategy.
3:45: Following up on more email. So much daily email.
4:15: Both laptops are done, so I wipe the drive on my old machine and install Catalina.
4:20: I finish final details with my data viz candidate and arrange for the offer letter to be sent.
4:25: Reviewing about 20 new candidates for our Graphic Design position, taking notes, and narrowing down to 4 for follow ups.
4:40: There are about 20 shots of the award group to go through, so I cull them down to 5 good ones, color-correct the best two, and post them to our Flickr feed. Then I send an email to the DOD rep and our internal team to kickstart the social media posts.
4:50: I lock all the cameras, laptops, and other gear away and attempt to straighten up my desk.
5:05: I’m out the door and on my way to the train. Listening to Broken Record, a podcast with Rick Rubin interviewing various musicians.
5:20: my train pulls out of the station and I’m on my way home.
5:58: I hike back to my car and drive to the liquor store to replenish our beer supply. Jen gets a 6-pack of Harp and I choose a six-pack of Victory Cloud Walker, a hazy juicy IPA.
6:30: We sit down for some dinner: a southern beans and rice recipe Jen found that includes chorizo. Yummy.
7:15: I help Finn go through her homework to make sure everything is complete.
8:20: Jen and Finn head upstairs to bed. I let Hazel out for an evening pee.
8:30: Playing through Fallout 4 as a new character, because I’m lazy and I don’t feel like learning a whole new game. Hazel is settling at my feet, after wandering the first floor worrying at her bones.
9:15: Watching an episode from the latest season of The Venture Brothers on Hulu. Just as funny as it was in 2004.
9:50: I put Hazel out for her last pee of the day. She comes back in and waits by the stairs for me to pick her up and put her over the baby gate.
10:15: Laying in bed and reading through some dumb Internet before going to sleep.