Cover of the book.On a friend’s recommendation, I read and enjoyed You Never Forget Your First, Alexis Coe’s short and punchy biography of George Washington. It seems a little uncertain about its own thesis, and ends up a sort of collection of founding-father marginalia, written and published from a 2020 vantage point. But I didn’t know any of it before, and I found myself surprised again and again from all I did learn, so I had a pretty great time.

Coe’s introduction sets the mood by dragging the entire Washington-biography oeuvre — noting with raised eyebrow the obsession that its near-universally male authorship holds with the general’s manly physique, calling the whole bunch “thigh guys”. She found that the women in Washington’s life, meanwhile, tend to get short shrift from biographers — especially his often-demonized mother Mary — and the uncomfortable truth about all the people his family held as slaves gets papered over, except from those books that make it their sole topic.

This made me expect something like a biographical version of Emily Wilson’s Odyssey translation. This, too, overtly set about to retell an objectively unchanging story by casting more light onto the supporting characters — the women, in particular — letting them blossom into as much color and detail as the original text allows. In her introduction, Coe states her intent to let this approach have a rising-tide effect, defining everyone better to the shared benefit of the central male figure.

I am not sure this book hits that target. While clearly the work of an energetic writer and historian eager to share the fruits of her research, it never really presents a core thesis after its introduction — except, perhaps, in the way it unapologetically elides all the stuff that the “thigh guy” books drool over. All the glorious (and often losing) battles of Washington’s Revolutionary career get reduced into a single table of locations and outcomes, with the author far more interested in their personal effect on the general, his colleagues, and his family.

You Never Forget does, however, bring deep detail to one confrontation, early in its subject’s life. At the Battle of Jumonville Glen, a hotheaded young Lt. Col. Washington led a group of his fellow British soliders and allied Native Americans to ambush and massacre a French encampment, despite having orders to merely assess and communicate. Coe portrays it as a fiasco, while Wikipedia’s sources (I see in a skim) feel less certain about its intent-versus-outcome. Either way, the attack directly sparked the French and Indian War, a fact I had no inkling of prior to reading this book.

One gets the impression that Listen to this! I had no idea, did you? is, in fact, the book’s operating principle, as it presents in a series of short chapters — with frequent breaks Buzzfeed-ready bullet-lists — chronologically ordered facts about (and, frequently, letter-excerpts from) Washington’s life that exist outside the realm of popular history or national myth. We see the forces, even lightly sketched, that transformed Washington from an impulsive warfighter to a more subtly ambitious family man. The love of Martha and her children (he never fathered any himself; I had no idea, did you?) helped temper him into a more reserved general, and finally a president extremely aware that every action he took would set precedents, and who acted accordingly.

The most provocative of these normally unlit historical threads, and one woven through You Never Forget, involves the hundreds of enslaved people who lived on Washington’s farms. It’s hard to hear and easy to wave away, to one who grew up with a typical 20th century American education. Coe’s book isn’t about these slaves, but the author nonetheless keeps their presence known throughout. Named and given voice as much as records allow, they step on-stage from time to time, quietly but consistently making their existence undeniable. Eventually, the reader stops denying it. The book ends with a lingering shot of modern historians examining the slave quarters’ unmarked mass grave behind Mount Vernon, withholding an American creation myth with a morally clean finish.

This led me down many contemplative paths I still tread, days after finishing this book, and that’s all I could ask from such a slim volume.

This article was also posted to the “books” section of Indieweb.xyz.

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A close-up photograph of the wedding band described in this article.I very much enjoyed Jimmy Maher’s thoroughly researched and thoughtful Digital Antiquarian article about the “Clean Wehrmacht” mythology that allowed for the publication of games like Panzer General, which invite players to imagine themselves in command of a Nazi German battle group—without a shred of deeper reflection about the ethical questions this raises.

The article addresses a specific question that has lurked in the back of my mind since last May, when Peterb of tea leaves, a fellow admirer of popular war games, asked it in a lets-play video about the 1979 computer game Dreadnoughts. “Can we say how weird it is,” he said, “that so many of these war games put you in the position of the Germans generally, but the Nazis specifically?”

I agree with both him and Maher that anyone can enjoy playing any of these games as intended without morally imperiling themselves. I believe that we humans generally seem hardwired to enjoy the drama and tension that comes from stories of glorious battle, and games’ ability to make these stories interactive—at a safe remove!—has an irresistible pull. It’s an attraction worth exploring, especially if we can do so mindfully of historical context.

I type this article using hands decorated with one of two wedding bands designed by Jade Moran, its exterior tiled in engraved hexagons. Lines and symbols variously applied suggest rivers, bridges, forests and buildings on a command post’s map. All this refers to how my wife and I played a lot of Richard Borg’s Memoir ‘44 when we first dated, intimately exploring one another’s head-spaces through these tactical tête-à-têtes. It never once seemed strange to either of us that one or the other would pretend to command an army Actual Literal Nazis, No, Not Even “Proud Boys Are Literal Nazis” Literal Nazis, Literal-Literal Nazis.

And Memoir ‘44, in the style of Panzer General and other popular games, encouraged this mental dodge: not a single swastika appears anywhere in the game’s artwork. Where the Allied player uses tokens decorated with French Resistance banners, U.S. Rangers patches, and other real-world emblems, the German player’s tokens have… icons of German helmets. The twisted symbol those helmets fig-leaf seems so flinchingly obvious, in retrospect.

It reminds me of how the concept of slavery remains a thematic bugbear in historically themed board games, whether used generally in deep-historical settings, or specifically about the chattel-trade and forced labor of enslaved Africans in the Americas. Memoir ‘44’s direct predecessor, the U.S. Civil War-themed Battle Cry, also dealt with this question by just declining to even mention one side’s desire to commit profound atrocities that lay behind the immediate tactical situation on the tabletop.

This sort of “negative-space slavery” exists most infamously in Puerto Rico—a beautiful game design, rich and rewarding to play, and extremely literally a simulation of owning plantations in colonial-era San Juan, with all that implies. Just as the WWII games hide away all Nazi-specific words or symbols, Puerto Rico tries to dodge the s-word by calling the tokens representing enslaved people “colonists”. They arrive packed into “colonist ships”, and then you set them to work for indefinite terms in your sugar-cane fields.

I have a friend who enjoys Puerto Rico but will play it only on the condition that everyone at the table agree to a re-theming: the game shall take place aboard a futuristic orbital colony, and the “colonists” are non-sentient robots who regularly arrive via interplanetary transport, ready for hard labor without moral queasiness. I like this approach, transplanting a beautiful game design out of an ethically murky history and into an optimistic future.

There exists another way, requiring less creativity, and one we can—and probably should—retroactively apply to all extant games whose themes bind them to uglier realities of the past. Acknowledge it and own it. This goes for the publishers and the players both.

Let those producing these games not shy from the worst elements of the history they portray: you don’t need to fill the Memoir ‘44 box with swastika-tokens, necessarily, but I would solemnly welcome a printed acknowledgment of the German’s army’s true aims, much as Maher suggests. The scenario descriptions in the rulebook could not just outline how a certain battle played out in history, but also imply the fates that villages in contested countryside would likely face at the hands of the Einsatzgruppen, should the German army—under the command of one of the players!—succeed in repelling the Allies.

Let that profundity sit with the players, and let each one square for themselves the untidy reality of history with the delicious tactical feast that it has made possible. It seems healthier, to me, than the traditionally aggressive papering-over of the historical evils whose real-world practice inspired these legitimately fascinating tabletop scenarios.

A Puerto Rico player isn’t an enslaver, nor a Memoir ‘44 player a Nazi. But each, by definition practices an act of delicately limited sympathy for the sake of a good game, and both should acknowledge the line, so that they can tread it with all due care.

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A few thoughts on the November 13, 2020 episode of Jay Springett’s excellent weekly podcast Permanently Moved, titled “Rooms as UX Metaphor”:

As preface, I must express my pleasant surprise to encounter a fresh reaction to 2011’s IF Theory Reader. We all acknowledge it of niche interest, as asserted here, but I also felt glad to hear it recommended to anyone interested in the working of Twine games. Hypertext overtook prompt-and-parser games as IF’s predominant mode, starting around 2012—that is, soon after the publication of this book, whose authors had only the older forms in mind. So I like knowing that the Reader, product of a little community I put so much of my prior-decade time and attention into, can still prove relevant to new readers.

The episode focused its discussion around Nathan Jerpe’s essay “The Room as Metaphor in Interactive Fiction”, and its potential applicability into real-time chat systems on the modern internet. And here, I confess, my own reactions have less to do with IF than with “Scaredychat”, one of my own works-in-progress whose relationship with interactive fiction is only glancingly tangential—or is it?

I can tell you that another name I have considered for the program (which, embarrassingly, I have yet to release, two months after that brag-post) is “Wallflower”. This stems from, yes, a metaphor I began to hold in mind while I contiued to work on the project. I imagined listening to several conversations going on around you at a party, but keeping one’s distance while doing so. Monitoring the gist of each, without presenting as a participant—until one does feel moved to step in to a particular chat. (Indeed, when the program sees you participating in a certain conversation, it stops tracking it for a while.)

There is also the case of 2020’s Roguelike Celebration, which did employ a more-literal-than-usual room UX metaphor for its virtual conference space, by way of Em Lazer-Walker’s Yet Another Browser Mud. Alas, I did not attend the event; I merely saw the delighted reactions to the experiment on Twitter.

I naturally remain deeply unsatisfied with the predominant online chat UX of a zillion windowed tabs barking for attention, and hunger for anything better. Obviously, the Wallflowery work calls to me, many weeks after I set it aside.

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Tor Books has published a new edition of The Dragon Waiting, John M. Ford’s 1983 masterpiece of alternate-history fantasy—and a book that took fourteen years to return to print, after the author’s untimely death threw his creative legacy into disarray. I heard the news from a tweet by Andrew Plotkin, who sold it to my mood quite tidily:

Well, I enjoyed it a great deal, even though I spent much of my time struggling to follow the action. Zarf’s “strange, meandering, oblique” politely understates the book’s structure, a series of concisely presented but obscurely related adventures happening over the lifetimes of its four protagonists. Their story-threads gather and separate and re-entwine with a vast gallery of other characters with varying connections to history. And across all this time their motivations shift for uncertain reasons, and sometimes without their conscious knowledge. But I found Ford’s prose deliciously readable—and, as we shall see, I had some additional help.

The novel starts off graspably enough, in a YA-fiction mode, exploring the childhood traumas that drive two of its protagonists. Their simplified viewpoint helps make clear, at the outset, the world they inhabit: a fairly recognizable 15th-century Europe, albeit one where Christianity never quite took root. The Byzantine Empire has not just avoided collapse but has become a rapacious world power, rolling right over Italy’s independent states and chomping its way westward. Magic exists, too, of the kind that I prefer in my fantasy fiction: expensive magic, where wizards are rare, weave their spells subtly, and always at terrible cost.

And then the third protagonist stars in a tale of court intrigue and spy-hunts in Medici-era Florence, and the fourth debuts in a two-part locked-room murder mystery set in a blizzard-bound inn. At its resolution, the motley company—a Greek soldier, a Welsh wizard-scholar, an Italian surgeon (and vampire killer), and a German artillery engineer (and vampire)—commence a series of chapter-length episodes no less diverse in tone than those that came before. It all somehow culminates at the Battle of Bosworth Field, where the four all assist in concluding the Wars of the Roses Dragons. Each winds up getting the thing they sought, even if none really get what they wanted. It’s just that kind of book.

Zarf, ever-humble, did not name another reason to read The Dragon Waiting today: his own Draco Concordans, an exegesis of Ford’s novel which he assembled as a densely intra-linked website in the late 2000s. I happened to know of this project’s existence—being coincidentally present for its creation—and so dove into the novel in part out of a desire to finally enjoy this work of Plotkin’s that I’ve heretofore declined to read. As its own front page states, after all, it assumes its audience to have already read The Dragon Waiting at least once, with no plot details left to spoil.

I cannot lie: I only made it to the Florentine section of Waiting before, head spinning, I started peeking through the chapter-by-chapter analysis in Concordans. Happily, I found that Zarf wrote this with a much greater affordance to the spoiler-averse than his own warnings imply. Concordans, when read as a companion to Waiting in this way, avoids spelling out anything that someone reading the novel for the first time couldn’t piece together, given all the pages read so far. (I mean, theoretically, given also a preternatural level of attention and recall, and vast knowledge of real-world history.)

And so I interleaved my reading of text and commentary, flipping back and forth with each new chapter, and had a great time. I enjoyed it much as one might enjoy reading fan-theories or behind-the-scenes podcasts in between episodes of a new TV show. But in this case, the additional material all comes from one person who really put the work in, creating a thoroughly researched explainer pointing out all the subtle energies and easily-overlooked historical details that fill most every page of The Dragon Waiting.

Whether you read the two works as I did, or in the more pure one-then-the-other fashion that Zarf intended, or just let Ford’s word-sorcery carry you away unaccompanied, I recommend this serpentine experience.

This article was also posted to the “books” section of Indieweb.xyz.

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Yes, I title this post in an act of anti-sympathetic magic against a title I wrote four years ago. I remain convinced that, in a tiny but real way, I helped clear the path for that year’s terrible outcome by bracing for its possibility as a public act, and encouraging my readership to join me. Really, it seemed wise at the time. I had no idea.

This year’s different. As I write this, more than one-third of all adult Americans have voted, and it isn’t even November yet. The country expects to see its highest voter turnout in at least a century, and maybe its whole history.

In modern America’s skewed political configuration, high turnout reliably helps the Democratic party far more than any other. Not only, then, do I expect a Biden/Harris victory, but I anticipate a definitive landslide that easily sweeps aside vote-suppressive Republican malfeasance—and I dare to hope for a full-trifecta Democratic seizure of the Senate as well.

No, none of these outcomes are guaranteed. But they’re where I set my gaze, tonight, as the calendar, the terrible 2020 calendar, ticks into its penultimate month. At last we arrive at the clutch of days that countless millions all around the world have anticipated with mingled hoped and dread for so long.

So I do write this out as a ceremonial reversal of my 2016 post—but I also mean the title as an admonition to read literally. If the Democrats win—even if they achieve an overwhelming win that scatters and demoralizes the Republican party exactly as much as it deserves—then we Americans who care about moving the nation and the world into a viable, shared future need to follow up.

We cannot afford a repeat of 2008, where I and innumerable colleagues high on Obama’s victory left the trenches of political involvement en masse, trusting that the American machine was at last set right. You know what happened next: while we short-sighted ones worked in happy, “post-political” ignorance, the Republican party quietly surrendered itself to white-supremacist authoritarian ideologues, who then used their new veneer of populist respectability to smash its weakly opposed way to a national takeover that culminated in 2016.

To hell with doing that again. We must forever stop treating elections like the Superbowl. This is not a situation where my team wins one year, and yours the next, and we have a good time passing a trophy back and forth that otherwise doesn’t affect either of our lives in any objectively measurable way. Politics is power, and the stakes are now too high: to cede power is to cede the future to those who would squander it exclusively upon themselves, leaving everyone else to eat ashes.

The Democrats, the infuriating, bickering Democrats, can win this. And we, their constituents, must be ready to keep riding with them once they do.

Where we help steer the party will be up to us. I, for my part, plan to use what voice I have to call for the reversal of all Republican-fronted laws and policies that make voting more difficult. Keeping Republicans permanently disempowered in this way strikes me as a prerequisite to all further future-saving work.

Maybe you disagree with that as a first next step. Good! I hope that the near future of American politics features a whole cacophony of empowered voices yelling and stomping about the right path to move the country forward, because then I’ll know that the people in power all agree on the right general direction, at least. Everything after that is just detail work.

See you on the other side. Be ready to push.

This article was also posted to the “politics” section of Indieweb.xyz.

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Cover of 'Deep Down Dark'I learned about this book in a pleasantly indirect way. A review of Héctor Tobar’s most recent novel in the New York Times offhandedly mentioned his earlier and much-lauded Deep Down Dark, a 2014 account of the harrowing ordeal and miraculous rescue of the 33 trapped miners in 2010. “Well that sounds good”, thought I, and had a checked-out ebook edition from NYPL on my phone within the minute, while waiting for an eye-doctor appointment. Not bad!

I remembered the rescue, of course, but knew very little of its details. I had watched videos of that purpose-built elevator on Twitter. I read shortly afterwards that the miners had told media that they’d agreed to a mutual secrecy pact about what had transpired during their weeks trapped in the earth, and I recall that same media assuming that this meant their experience was simply too terrible to tell. So, learning that an entire book had appeared just four years later, compiling interviews with many of the miners and their families, really stirred my curiosity.

Deep Down Dark reminded me of how much I love to read these sorts of moment-by-moment accounts of disaster that focus on how the people caught within manage to pull themselves through via resolve, ingenuity, and mutual support. And in this case, one key to all the miners’ survival was the fact of their great number, which meant that they had many incidental skills among them that benefited the whole group. It read like a gripping post-apocalyptic novel about a small group of diverse people banding together to survive, but without the unnecessary baggage of zombies coming to eat them, or any betrayal from within.

Tobar introduces us to each of the many miners he collected stories from, as they depart their respective homes around Chile or Bolivia and make their respective ways to the mine for their week-long shift. That primes us with a strong sense of their different backgrounds by the time the disaster happens: a skyscraper-sized mass of stone slicing guillotine-style through the mine, sealing away everyone who happened to be working or resting within one particular section of the mine’s downward-spiral ramp.

Dislodged, too, was my vague idea that the thirty-three men had done little but await rescue in the bottom of a dark pit, crammed together in a single filthy shaft and surviving through an unimaginable miracle. The true story of their subterranean situation is of course so much more complicated and interesting. For one thing, the trapped miners still had access to a sizable length of mine: a long, curving main corridor blocked at either end by that fallen slab, with a number of side tunnels and chambers, including a little kitchen area. They also had several vehicles with them, capable of moving heavy loads, and various pieces of large mining equipment that they could strip for parts and (dirty but emergency-potable) water.

After the shock of the mine’s collapse, they took stock of their situation, and as a group planned how to use their incidental but real resources to survive as long as possible, while keeping up hope that the rescue-drills would find them. Among their number was an electrician who set up dim but permanent lighting, from scavenged headlamps and vehicle batteries; a man who had nursing skills from taking care of his ailing mother; a natural jester (and clearly Tobar’s favorite interview subject) who kept everyone’s spirits up, and who encouraged another miner with a side-gig as a preacher to commence daily prayer gatherings. And one miner had the skill maybe most crucial to the book’s existence—an affinity for writing, enough that he kept a detailed journal of the adventure, even during the darkest times when he assumed its readers would find it by their long-dead bodies, if ever.

Their story enters only its second half when the first drill-bit of the rescue teams breaks through their prison, after which all the miners become worldwide celebrities with high-speed internet access and dreams of ongoing wealth and fame, even as they remain stuck inside a mountain with no clear route of escape. And this, it turns out, lay at the heart of their code of silence: not that their adventure was simply too awful to relate, but that they all agreed to carefully control its telling, with no single miner claiming any exclusive rights to it. The miners went as far as requesting a lawyer help them draft paperwork for all to sign prior to their emergence, sent to them via pneumatic tube. Even after they returned to their homes and families, the thirty-three remained bound by their shared story, not as mere memory but as a living pact they made together and whose revelation would happen only when they once again all acted together; which, in a few years’ time, they did.

Now’s as good a time as any to have read a true story about people thrown into a dark and terrible situation and managing to not just see each other back into the light, but follow through, so that none became forgotten afterwards. This book’s pretty great.

This article was also posted to the “books” section of Indieweb.xyz.

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Photograph of the lake and jetty described within the article.I took an unplanned month off from writing here — arguably my first break in the nearly six years since I began Fogknife — due to an interesting collision of minor life events, leading to an experimental change of habit that encourages me to revisit the the ol’ roll-top writing-desk.

In late September, after helping to once again launch this year’s IFComp, I quietly began the followup work to the Perl documentation work that sent me into such a reverie last spring. The job now in front of me involves defining some new documentation standards for Perl — a project once again funded, with my gratitude, by The Perl Foundation.

Unlike the rather cut-and-dried task of editing and improving a couple of extant man pages, this work takes the form of an entire research project. Over the last several weeks I have browsed a number of Perl’s contemporary (and, yes, rather more popular) open-source language projects to learn how they style and manage their respective user manuals. I immediately found myself awash in positive models and inspirational ideas, and I have written a lot. This includes a 6,000-word style-guide draft, whose picking-over by subcontracted editors only now commences, promising more writing to come.

This alone contains the total length of a half-dozen Fogknife articles, and I don’t find coincidence between this math and my dry spell here.

I began this blog as a full-time software engineer who loves and needs to write regularly — and who missed LiveJournal, and for whom Twitter proved a inadequate full substitute. This situation maintained through March of this year, when I retired my single active programming contract in order to experiment with changing up my professional gearing a bit. (Yes, just in time for things to get “interesting”. I envision my controlled exit as resembling a cartoon character bending down to pick up a shiny nickel just as an unseen wrecking-ball swings over their shoulders.)

The new documentation project, begun in earnest four weeks ago, satisfies my need to write on topics I care about — and it also exhausts my energy stores for doing so. For the first time in many years, no blog posts impatiently try to punch their way out of my head while I debug clients’ gnarly old CGI scripts. The post I write today happens only because my work’s reached a natural break-point, and I force myself to think about different things for a little while. (For similar reasons I made myself sit down and watch a movie last night for the first time in weeks.)

I frame none of this as a complaint, and more of an unexpected but perfectly sensible side effect as I gradually achieve my goal, set two summers ago, of redefining myself as a writer.

This shift carries a second-order payoff, too, an equally unpredicted inversion: with my days no longer full of managing other peoples’ code, I have rediscovered my daily need for left-brain-leaning games and diversions. I filled this at first with long-delayed personal programming projects like Whim, but once those shipped I turned instead to pleasures and pastimes that I stopped pursuing with much fervor when I began software freelancing in the late aughts.

It happens that I spent a whole week, earlier this month, in a vacation rental at a North Carolina beach town. I had a fantastic time. While there, in a place so different from the neighborhood I’ve otherwise failed to leave since Covid moved in, I got up every morning excited to start my day, and I did all kinds of things — including, but not limited to, chipping away at the documentation project. And the morning after I returned, waking up in New York as usual, I felt shrouded in the terribly familiar doubts as to my own purpose and function.

Close at hand, though, were memories of how I felt just days earlier, and I resolved to claw some of that mindset back to Manhattan. I wanted, if nothing else, that kick out of bed. Well — as it happens, there literally was one, during those days at Carolina Beach. On a lark, during my first morning there, I strolled down to a nearby artificial “lake”, took a seat in a covered wooden jetty, and solved the day’s New York Times crossword puzzle on my iPad. I would end up doing that every subsequent morning, coffee in hand, surrounded by the squabbling geese who dwelled on the lake.

And so that’s my new habit. Back home now, I drag myself out of my morning tangle of covers and cats, bounce through a few minutes of exercise, make or buy a coffee, and then park somewhere and tap through the Times app until it rewards me with its little “hey you did it” bass-and-piano ditty some twenty-to-sixty minutes later. And then — the theory goes, and has proven true so far — I am fully awake, brain humming healthily, and willing to apply myself to do something productive.

It happens that many of my friends, including the one to whom I am married, are puzzle fiends. (Our friendships all tended to begin around a shared appetite for brainy games, back in the earliest years of this century.) All are only too happy to help teach me the secret language of modern crosswords, and the Times’s in particular. I had already known that they get harder as the week goes on, but I didn’t know which weekdays reliably had themes, or tricky gimmicks, or what forms they tended to take.

I don’t plan on becoming a hint-resistant hardcore solver, like my friends; I “cheat” with web searches freely. This still leaves me on my own to discover the delights I heretofore had no idea the Times puzzles held. Last week, for example, one puzzle hinged on figuring out that several vaguely-worded clues actually described hand gestures (e.g. VULCANSALUTE, HANGLOOSE), which culminated in an in-puzzle punchline. Another had a hidden Australian theme, whose topical answers (VEGEMITE, KANGAROO) fit the grid only when filled in backwards, per the way the water swirls Down Under.

Here ends my check-in. Certainly I do not think Fogknife is in any “danger”, though I suppose that if all this keeps up I may wish to reset its expected update-frequency. For the present, this blog remains central to my identity as a writer, even as I put more energy than ever before into reeling out whole pages for a primary audience other than myself, with mental-health breaks in between for writing predestined letters into tiny little boxes.

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Joe Biden and Kamala Harris

Four years ago, I announced my intent to vote Democratic, and humbly suggested that my American readers do the same. Today I repeat this request, but with a little less humility. I aim it specifically at those friends of mine who would never vote for Trump this year, but who view the Biden/Harris ticket — “an old white man and a cop” — with distaste.

Putting the positive assertion first: Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are worthy of your vote. Biden, in particular, has put enormous energy over the summer and into the fall to demonstrate his sympathetic understanding of the country’s most pressing social and environmental issues, including racial justice, pandemic response, and climate-change mitigation. His party acceptance speech, centering on grief, describes the correct place that we will need rebuild from after four nightmarish years of loss and pain. Comprising itself from a broad coalition of American leadership, a diverse Biden administration would represent our best hope for a free future.

Every American of voting age who desires this future must now put a little effort into making it real.

Today calls each of us to lend all the muscle we can into wrenching the levers of power away from Donald Trump and his zombified Republican party. We all know they will very literally stop at nothing to hold onto it, and we know this because they we can see them constructing an anti-democracy machine in broad daylight, right now. To stop this machine, we must make our collective voice as large and as loud as possible, using our votes. The more lopsided we make this election’s results, the better chance we have of gummming up Trump’s contemptible machinations against American democracy before they can wreak terrible and lasting damage.

After we do democratically defeat the Republicans through overwhelming numbers, we must scatter them. We have to immediately take steps to buy America time: this might mean dismantling the electoral college, reversing gerrymandering, packing the Supreme Court with uncorrupted justices, or anything else necessary to forever drain the Republican party of its voice and power. With some breathing room thus established, the nation can turn to pass all the social and environmental legislation it needs to survive — and assist the whole world in surviving — the coming global challenges.

From there, the country can proceed to politically redefine itself, perhaps allowing the Democrats to formally split into separate progressive and conservative parties (and allowing the latter to absorb any ex-Republicans showing an ounce of remorse), both willing to face the coming challenges instead of denying them. Try to envision a future national election whose ballot contains more than one viable candidate whose victory you would accept! That’s the future I want us aimed at.

This leads to my negative assertion, which I know some of you will take issue with: Any action other than voting for Joe Biden and other Democratic candidates directly supports permanent white-nationalist minority rule over America.

Yes, this includes abstaining from the vote altogether, or voting third-party.

I sympathize with the frustration inherent with living in a two-party state, today. I understand the drive to vote for one’s heart by ticking the box beside — or even writing in — the name of a candidate who most thoroughly represents you and your desires, even if they have negligible chance of winning. It feels good and fulfilling to listen to your heart, when it comes to political action.

However, the choice you make when voting should come from a different place than the more personal choices you make in political volunteering, donations, or direct action. Voting is a time to show up and do the work cut out for you. In this case, that means selecting which of the two viable candidates serves as the better approximation for the future you wish America to move towards.

I have seen one wise person invite their readership to think of elections as public transportation. You don’t refuse to board a bus just because it doesn’t literally take you right to your doorstep; you still use the route that gets you to the right vicinity. A compromise with all your neighbors, in order to get the most people more or less where they need to go.

And, friend, it’s so important that you get on this bus with me. If we don’t do this together, I’m not sure we’ll ever get home again.


Here is how to register (or check your registration) and vote in your state. Compared to past elections, you likely have an expanded ability to vote early, or by mail. If so, please consider casting your vote as soon as possible.

Here is how to become a poll worker in your state. American poll workers are traditionally elderly retirees — the population most at-risk from Covid-19. With this year’s expected high turnout, your state is likely in desperate need for more help, especially from younger people. Please consider signing up as a poll worker, if you can.

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Front cover of 'A Snowflake in my Hand' by Samantha MooneyAccording to my archived receipts, I ordered a copy of Samantha Mooney’s A Snowflake in My Hand in April of 2013. I cannot remember how I found this particular title, but given the timing I surely purchased it as inspirational fuel for a never-commenced project, a followup to 2010’s The Warbler’s Nest that I’ve long thought of as “the sad cat game”. This also means that it would have shown up at my house right around the time my parents’ health crisis began, kicking off an immensely challenging half-year that reset all my intentions and priorities. So I did not read this book, let alone make the game.

These Covid times, however, have found me dipping into my personal library — specifically, that fraction of it that has traveled with me over the years, sometimes across a dozen house-moves or more, surviving the printed-matter cull that each one involves. Snowflake has racked up four points on this particular board. After I had visited with some much older friends from my bookshelves, this slim volume pulled at in my attention. While I still have no plans to make the cat game, our world’s pervasive melancholy plus the recent passing of Shadow, my brother Ricky’s cat, guided me to read this book at last.

The title comes from a poem framing the book, a verse-memory of the author’s favorite cat: Fledermaus, a runty, harelipped all-black that briefly served as mascot for the New York veterinary clinic where Mooney worked in the 1970s. Her prose is significantly blunter than the book’s evocative title or the haunting watercolor she painted for its cover, depicting little “Maus” gazing out a rainy windowpane, on the verge of fading into the gray air herself.

But the book isn’t really about Fledermaus, or even Mooney’s loving memories of her. Maus’s brief life flickers through the middle pages of a strictly chronological recitation of an eventful year or two in the author’s life. One month follows another, down through the chapters, and for each one she describes all the people and animals that happened to have passed through.

The narrative locks its focus on its cats, both the ones in Mooney’s home and the feline patients at the clinic. The patients’ owners receive secondary attention, and every other human subject — Mooney’s friends, colleagues, and even herself — stay in the background. The author describes her own role so slightly, in fact, that it took some reading before I realized she was not a doctor but a junior technician, taking a half-load of undergraduate courses alongside her clinic work, and moonlighting in a restaurant as well.

Snowflake’s log-book approach offers some tantalizing glimpses of a young woman’s life in New York during the 70s. I squinted to pick out details about the apartment she rented, and the friends who sometimes crashed there. At one point she and Fledermaus vacation at “The Playboy Club” in New Jersey, a detail that reads rather bizarrely today! A minute of online research showed how this was a resort hotel that ol’ Hef did indeed build in the freewheeling 1970s, and which lost its branding at the start of the Reagan era, and has since gone to seed.

The narrative ends when Mooney notices that an emotionally intense period of life, growth, and death among many people and animals dear to her has come to a close, letting her drift into a period of quiet reflection she didn’t realize she needed so badly. This reflection becomes the text of A Snowflake in My Hand, concluding with the latter half of the opening poem: aching to hold a tiny loved one again, a sweet memory that can only melt away when grasped.

For all the workmanlike recollection that comprises most of Snowflake, it does contain a nicely subtle structural turn, opening with a study of what “quality” means to veterinarians, and closing on how the same word applies to their patients and clients.

To the healers, and especially those who focus on often terminally ill animals, “quality” means quality of life: the thing they try hardest to maintain within their patients, and the presence-or-absence of which directs all their actions. Mooney gets quickly into hard decisions that the clinic’s staff and clients must make about the patients — not just when to end an animal’s life, but when and how to extend it. An early scene relates how a client and a doctor surprised one another as they decided together to amputate an 18-year-old cat’s disease-ruined leg, rather than taking the more typical route of euthanasia. An otherwise robust old cat, it rebounded and adapted quickly once the source of its suffering vanished, and it lived joyfully for three more years.

(The book counterweights this happy story with a profound scene some chapters later, where Mooney briefly revives a terribly ill cat with a transfusion, letting it enjoy a single day of comfort and affection after a long misery, and before a peaceful, guided death.)

At Snowflake’s end, Mooney revisits “quality” in another sense, as in the many qualities that make up a personality. The work a person puts into keeping a pet healthy and happy, she writes, becomes energy invested into a long project. Seen this way, a long-lived pet exists largely through the exercise of its human companions’ personal qualities. And in those cases where a pet outlives its owner — as happens in one of the final events of this book’s recollections — it continues to serve as literally living evidence the departed person’s quality, their goodness and care, for the rest of that animal’s time.


I don’t have any good photographs of Shadow, but she’s easy to describe. You’ve met her type, probably: a gray blobby homebody quite content to move very little. This is how she spent the latter seven years of her life, meatloafing in Ricky’s one-bedroom apartment in Bangor.

She had a deep memory, and would bellow a greeting at me every time I visited Ricky for the first time in a while. Ricky felt an especially deep rapport with the cat; he’d often talk to her late into the night.

Before living with Ricky, Shadow was our parents’ cat for more than a dozen years. I came to understand that Ricky saw Shadow as the last living link to them. When middle-brother Pete suddenly died earlier this year, Shadow became the only nearby family that Ricky had left. And now she’s gone, too.

Ricky was close to Pete, and his untimely death upset him as much as you can imagine, but he worked through the pain swiftly. Shadow’s long-expected death, literally in his arms, crushed him. It haunts him still, many weeks later. These days I have two scheduled phone calls per week with Ricky, and he describes every time in his Down East dialect how he misses Shadow “something awful”, in the way he used to talk about missing “maw” and “pop”.

Ricky has singled out a particular large stone on the banks of the Penobscot River, within walking distance of the apartment where he now lives alone, declaring it Shadow’s Rock. He goes there frequently to remember Shadow, and imagine her presence as a little nearer somehow. I know that he means this literally: it really is the departed cat that he turns his mind to. But I understand better, now, all the passed-away he remembers at once via lazy gray cat, that accidental inheritor of all quality from our diminishing family.

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I plan to read this tomorrow afternoon, as my family bids a pandemic-delayed farewell to my brother Pete, who died in January.

A panel from the first Spider-Man story, depicting the title character walking away, into the darkness.I first met Pete when he was fifteen, and I was zero. As an unplanned child, I was given largely into his care by our mid-career parents, and he took up the job with joy. With a pure heart, uncluttered mind, and unerring attention to the people he cared about, he would act as both surrogate parent and playmate through all my single-digit years.

His role model during his own long childhood was Peter Parker, from the comics: an awkward but brave boy who faced his outsized responsibilities with courage, perseverance, and humor. Pete would every day try to emulate his namesake by balancing his roles as a watchful protector and a playful teacher. I felt so lucky to have my own personal superhero in Pete. Whatever foundational love I have for humor, games, and play comes from this time with him.

When I moved on from our home, Pete searched for other ways to fulfill his call to act as a caring protector. After a perhaps over-literal stint as a night watchman, he found his true calling as a caregiver in group-homes for adults with cognitive disabilities, a taxing and thankless career that he willingly poured all of himself into. This work, leavened by following with his whole heart the ups and downs of the Red Sox’s fortunes, defined his life for many years.

When his wife Janice took ill only a short time into their marriage, Pete followed the only path he knew, shifting the entirety of himself into her care and protection. So much of him has gone into the earth already, with her tragic passing six years ago. His superheroics ended alongside Janice. We today lay to rest only that part of him that stayed behind.

In these latter years he found love and support in his Bangor families, both given and chosen. His older brother stepped up to become Pete’s own protector, now that he finally needed one himself. Pete also found understanding and solidarity among his fellow struggling souls at the city’s Clubhouse International chapter, where he rebuilt new friendships. But he left us very suddenly, before he could finish redefining himself.

So, it’s that superhero, his truest nature, I say goodbye to today, as I turn to face my own great responsibility to continue expressing his best virtues into the world. As the first benefactor of his loving, playful selflessness, I will carry an echo of Pete’s amazing spirit within myself for the rest of my life.

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