Lydia Burgess: A remembrance of my loving mother

Lydia Burgess: A remembrance of my loving mother

This year, due to COVID-19, was the first Mother’s Day in my life that I did not spend with my loving mother, Lydia. It now seems prescient to what would befall our family yesterday, in that we lost her to natural causes in the depth of the afternoon.

She did like her wine!

My mother was a lovely, beautiful woman, but only 5’1” and three-quarters tall (she’d bristle if I failed to mention the three-quarters). Yes, although I top out at 6 feet, my mother was quite tiny but she packed a lot of life and love into that diminutive frame. In her eighty-one years, my mother endured a lot. While her childhood and earlier years included more than her share of loss and pain, things changed when she met and married my father in her early twenties. I enjoyed recently hearing a cousin of mine say it was like a fairy tale wedding, my dad coming in as a prince to marry my princess of a mother so they could begin their happily ever after. Their love affair would last over fifty years, produce three children and four grandchildren. I go there quickly because that’s what made my mother happiest: Family.

My parents when they were dating.

Everything my mother did was about her family. She was the mother who put everyone in her life ahead of herself, the mom who would happily trade a meal with you at a restaurant if you didn’t like yours. She would watch the film you wanted to see, she’d go to the store you wanted to visit, and even play the board game you picked out. And she went above and beyond just your health and immediate happiness. In Disney terms, I’d call it “plussing it up.’ She didn’t stop at what you needed, she’d do more to make sure you were happy and felt she cared. I still recall one day when I was extremely ill as a child, how she left work early to come home and spend more time with me. Yes, she brought the medicine to make sure I felt better. Yet, she also stopped at the Clarks Drugs counter and bought me an Atari cartridge so that when I felt better, I had this little ‘feel even better’ gift to enjoy. That’s a tradition with us now, we all tend to give little feel-better gifts when someone is really not well (my sister just sent one to my daughter). That was my mom’s way and it counts, that stays with you – notably, I can tell you that the game was Laser Blast (she had called and made sure it was one I wanted) because I still feel good from her generosity that day, almost forty years ago.

My mom and dad were so cool, they loved Star Wars.

When I was older and learned of the difficult life my mom endured as a child, I was flummoxed. How did she live through that trauma and still turn into the most generous, kind, and wonderful mother? She simply took pain and transformed it into love; it became a desire to protect and to care for her children deeply. She was always was ready to help. She really didn’t want much for herself but she delighted in giving and helping. Not that she was entirely opposed to receiving something. If you had a yummy dessert on your plate at a restaurant, she would collect her ‘taste’. From when I was very young, I recall she’d tell us that if she didn’t get a little bite of whatever you had, she’d ‘get a bump on her tongue.’ I can recall getting to an age where I saw through the emotional appeal. I demanded to see the bump, to which she’d say that it’d only manifest if I were to be so ungenerous as to NOT give her a bite. I always did. All that time, I never saw a bump. She could be pretty persuasive.

My mom was also a fibber. I will use that term instead of ‘liar’ because all of her falsehoods were of the ‘white lie’ variety. She would often tell a fanciful version of things to avoid hurting people’s feelings. But she’d also dial them up to get herself out of trouble. As she got older, it was easier to catch her in these little fibs. When she’d say she took her pills to avoid getting hassled for forgetting. We’d catch her and she’d laugh at her deception and demand to know who told on her. She’d get away with it every time. She’d earned it.

Big drinker? Not really, but she was always ready for take a silly photo.

She also had a sneaky sense of humor. While she was quite proper for the most part, I recall her laughing loudly (her mirth was high-pitched and catching) at some pretty raunchy jokes when we went to see Chasing Amy in the theater. My own fault for taking my parents to a Kevin Smith film. She also happily participated in practical jokes. My dad told traditional jokes, which I’ve never done. But I definitely got my tendency to deliver deadpan ludicrous details to prank people from my mom.

Both of my parents taught me compassion. While my father spoke about it intellectually and did what he could in his noble work, my mother was a passionate debater that would get into it with someone as he rarely would. While she wasn’t a deeply churchy person, her Catholic ideals of protecting the meek and poor never faded for a moment. She hated bullies, she railed against the obscenely rich who exploited the weak, and she expressed tolerance for everyone. I can recall trying to pull her away from arguments with family who found a way to believe otherwise, but she didn’t go away quietly. In this kind-hearted woman, this is where she got fierce. She was a person of enormous compassion for the common person. I will always love and respect her for that; it was an extension of how she protected her family and loved people.

At The Magic Castle in LA. My mom wanted to go anywhere, do anything.

If my mom’s generosity as a mother was huge, it was truly epic as a grandmother. Her grandchildren could basically do no wrong. Her kids – sure, we were an imperfect bunch but she loved and defended us anyway. But the grandkids? They were her perfect angels and no amount of reality could get in the way of that. Did a grandchild break something? Her fault for leaving it on such a high shelf. Did they misbehave? She’d clearly failed to address all their pent-up energy. Did they do something that their parents directly said not to do? Well, clearly her child failed to make rules that worked well for her grandchild. As a parent of half of those kids, I can tell you that this could be very irritating! Grandma was something of an enabler and when I’d determine a punishment suitable to a crime, she’d openly defy and discount the judgment. Definitely not helpful for young parents, but I knew it came from her indomitable love of her grandchildren. For my kids, she would host sleepovers and they loved to go. She’d make those nights so special for them, with treats and games. I recall her telling me how much she loved them being over. She told me once that they both crawled into bed and snuggled with her, one on each side and how that, for her, was “heaven.” She would do anything for her grandkids. In all cases, she was the primary or only grandma, the one who was closer (physically and emotionally) and participated the most. I bet they’d all say that she more than made up for lacking a partner, so ample was her attention and her care for them. I’ve learned ‘grandparenting’ well from her example, and my children will just have to deal with it. I fully intend to be the exact same way.

Some of my fondest memories of my mom are from the trips we took. As a youth, we didn’t take too many vacations, although I got to do a special one with my mom and dad back to the Northeast and mid-Atlantic when I was sixteen. I was old enough to truly enjoy the time with my parents as an almost-adult and we had so many good discussions. Better yet were the many times my parents and especially my mom came with my family on vacation. When my son was a baby and my daughter was still on the way, we planned a trip to Walt Disney World. My dad wasn’t all that into it, but my mom loved every minute. And she carried my son EVERYWHERE. She knew my wife was already ‘carrying’ a baby, so she took care of my son. I kept offering to take him after we’d walked all day across the massive theme parks, but she would never give him up. To her, carrying a grandchild did not add encumbrance. She joined us many times on so many trips, with and without my dad, when we went down to Paradise Point, our favorite getaway in San Diego. She was always there to spend time with her grandkids, to let my wife and me have some quiet time together, and to be part of our joy. I’m also so grateful that we got to take her and my dad on their final big trip, a return to Hawaii and the islands we visited as a family when I was just eight years old. We stayed close to where we had before on Kawaii and revisited many of the locations, now with my wife and children in tow. As always, my mom was the MVP, helping wrangle the kids, watching them so Christina and I could get a break, and making any and every sacrifice to ensure others had the best time (those famous food-swaps, or indulging the kids with souvenirs and treats) and just being a listener at any moment, and a companion to share in the wonder and the joy. My kids’ grandma could out-grandma just about any other grandma, I can tell you.

In Kauai, with my children.

Many say you look to your parents for the qualities you seek in a spouse. I was quite conscious of that when I asked my wife Christina to marry me. She has my mother’s care, compassion, and generosity. My mother knew this from the beginning and embraced my wonderful wife immediately, treating her as just another one of her children, similarly loved and defended. I can recall complaining to my mom about marital challenges at times. She’d listen but didn’t ‘take my side’ because she wouldn’t speak ill of her daughter-in-law. She was just another one of her children and I love my mom all the more for that. We lost my mother-in-law twenty-one years ago, and my wife has spoken of how my mother did what she could to fill that gap. She took so much care of our kids and helped us so much. My parents moved close to us when our kids were born so they could be those grandparents that are always around. And it’s no surprise that my wife took amazing care of my mom, too, also out of pure love.

My dad’s stroke some fifteen years ago changed all of our lives, but hers the most next only to him. The lifelong caregiver had to go into overdrive and she was more than equal to the task. She spent over a decade caring for him night and day, making adjustments, doing everything she needed to do to care for her precious husband. Her strength through this was amazing, even as she faced these struggles without my father’s endless optimism. It was tough, but she took such good care of him as they grew older and needed more care, moving from their townhome to a mobile home and eventually to my home (with my dad across the street in a board-and-care facility).

After my father passed away in early 2018, my mother was never the same. While she’d been touched with dementia in the year leading up to his death, the illness grew – often in aggressive spurts. She moved from our home to assisted living and then memory care. Although she had bouts of anxiety and difficulty at times, she remained thrilled to see me when I would visit her each week. We’d go out for breakfast even though she’d have already eaten. She’d delight in a second breakfast with me (I’ll refrain from the hobbit joke based on her size – oops!) and ask about the kids. Sometimes, she’d need to repeat that question rather a lot because her memory was fading, but that was always top of mind. Yes, there were anti-Trump diatribes (of course she hated him, he’s everything she despised), but mostly it was her seizing on and enjoying the details of how my children and my niece and nephew were carrying on. Each small detail was greeted with pure joy; her ambrosia was knowing the family was thriving. I really believe that the isolation from all of us had an impact on her. Yet, she’d have had it no other way. She’s want people to be safe and to be practicing physical distancing, even as it kept her from hugging her children and grandchildren for a couple of months. I cherish that last visit Alaric and I made just before the lockdown. Even as she wasn’t expressive in words, she closed her eyes with joy as she hugged her grandson and then me, knowing she had done well by the world and by her much-loved family.

Wedding Picture

As I kissed her head a final time, I was taken by how much she still looked like my mom despite the tubes, the state of her health, and the wear of decades. Throughout my life, she never looked different; she remained her same beautiful self from when I was young – perhaps even, back to the image of her wedding picture a decade before I was born – that shining princess smiling as if she knew, already and for sure, how much happiness she’d experience and create in her life. It wasn’t the hair dye. I looked at her that final time as I always did, with the love she showed me how to experience – the power to soften wrinkles, cloud patches of gray, and obfuscate whatever else had changed. I still saw my mom full of a desire for her family to be healthy, happy, and safe. Before I sat vigil next to her in the final minutes, my sister whispered to her that she didn’t have to take care of us any longer – we were ready to care for one another. I also said what I could to comfort her; I told her that all was well, that her family loved her and that it was time to be at peace. The words strung together and ended up in a kind of chant to ensure that her last thoughts would be free of the worry we both would tend to feel. I hope she trusted me about it. I believe she did.

Our last picture together, March 2020

Since my father passed away in early 2018, I feel his presence in my daily decision to greet the world with optimism. My mom is now by his side, reminding me to love before I judge and to work at converting the sense of suspicion we shared into a careful wisdom. That’s how I believe it will play out, although it’s still quite fresh in my head and my heart. Right now, it feels like her telling me to simply add love in heaping spoonfuls to every recipe for living life. It worked for her and I can hear her calming, sweet voice telling me that it should work for me as well.

For those who would like to donate in her memory, we have a funding page for the American Heart Association: https://bit.ly/lydiamemorial. Thank you for reading about our mom.

Chuck Robbins: A Remembrance

Chuck Robbins: A Remembrance

Like so many in the Southern California tabletop gaming community, I’m deeply saddened about the recent passing of the mighty Chuck Robbins, the owner and operator of Game Empire in Pasadena, California – one of the finest tabletop gaming stores we are honored to have in Southern California. We were friends and I always enjoyed visiting the store for the games but even more to chat with my buddy Chuck. I’ve known him since before he opened the store and I’m happy to have had a small part in him achieving his dream, which he sought to pay back recently. Let me tell that story in his honor.

Chance Meeting

Chuck and I first met years ago when I happened to wander into his brother’s store (also called Game Empire) in San Diego while I was on holiday with my family. When I travel, I love to patronize local game stores and Game Empire was place of choice that trip. After browsing through the store, I wandered into the play area (a hallmark of Game Empire is that there is always great space to play games) and Chuck actually chatted me up when he saw I had a copy of a two-player Kosmos game in my hands. We got to talking and he found out I was from Los Angeles. Before long, he told me of his desire to open a local game store in Pasadena.

Now, if you are reading this blog, you may know that I used to have a podcast called Boardgame Babylon from 2005 to about 2015 (with occasional revivals here and there). That’s still the name of the blog, of course, and maybe the podcast will be back one day. I digress; one of the key things to know about my podcast is that I had a journalistic bent to some of my shows because I have been a journalist in one form or another for some of my professional life. One of the features of my podcast was to do occasional series. Notably, I did one about the Demise and Rise of the Friendly Local Game Store, which had me talking turkey with many a game store owner in SoCal.

Now, I have lived near Pasadena for most of my life so when Chuck talked about that area, I had a perfect frame of reference. We connected about the area and discussed the gaming and shopping options we have had in the San Gabriel Valley over the years, from the long-gone Game Keeper in the nearby mall, to the Last Grenadier’s Arcadia haven, The Gaming House in Pasadena, to Lionheart in La Verne and Gameology (originally in Claremont), All Star Games in Diamond Bar (and their cool, brief stint in West Covina), and all the tiny shops that opened after Magic: The Gathering broke. If you had a game store in SoCal in the last 35 years, I’ve been your customer and Chuck appreciated my comprehensive knowledge of the stores in town and thereabouts.

Having just talked to one of the staffers at Pasadena’s only game store at that time (Game Zone), I told Chuck that the store was for sale. I said why not just buy it and develop it out as he clearly would do. Pasadena would love him for it.

He told me, no – the owner had told him it was NOT for sale and made it clear in no uncertain terms. He’d spoken to him fairly recently and it had led Chuck to scout out other areas in town, knowing he’d have the established player to take on. He knew he could outwork Game Zone, which was a pretty oldschool FLGS, with all trappings you might expect.

For those who don’t know, The Game Zone started as “THE ZONE”, a game retailer who used to have a regular table at Strategicon. He got attention and sold games the old fashioned way: Discounts and shouting. Bill, the owner at the time, was loud – calling people over to his booth as they tried to walk by and not make eye contact (hey, we’re geeks!). He had discounts, he had ding and dent games, and he might have bought closeout games. I don’t recall completely, although I do remember buying the Warhammer Mighty Fortress foam castle from him years ago, which was never really used but it looks sweet and his price was right. Eventually, Bill opened The Zone and, while it was fine for a while, he eventually sold it and had to get a day job. In those days, he had more competition from the Last Grenadier in Pasadena and another game store in Eagle Rock (Something Unusual), so it was probably harder. But he sold it and I’m not sure how many owners there were before the last fellow bought it.

Now, I knew the current owner a bit and he was a quiet, unassuming fellow. Chuck – well, he was not. Chuck was an attorney for many years so he said what he meant and did so powerfully, with confidence you don’t always find among the geeks and nerds in tabletop gaming. He wasn’t rude, but he also didn’t mess around. I always admired that about him. Yet, I thought it might not work well when he spoke to the Game Zone’s owner.

When I insisted that Game Zone was for sale and that I knew the owner was looking to exit the business to pursue other concerns (quite positive ones, actually), Chuck went back and got the deal done. Some time, not too much time later, I actually interviewed the Game Zone owner before he officially sold the place and it came out that I was the one who had told Chuck the store was absolutely for sale. To his credit, the guy wasn’t mad at me but he was surprised and perhaps he just eventually realized it was what he wanted anyway. His staffer who told me may have gotten some heck thereafter, I suppose, but what was I to do? I was a podcasting journalist. No one told me it was off the record – something I have always respected (believe me, there are a few stories I’d LOVE to tell that I never will because they were told in confidence by some cool folks).

Game Empire Pasadena Arises

A thousand, indeed – Game Empire is well-known for its selection.

Chuck took the space at the Game Zone, and the space next door and built out an almost exact duplicate of his brother’s Game Empire in San Diego. Both stores were intelligently designed to entice casual visitors at the front with more traditional items, and as you walked in, you got more exposure to the more hobby-oriented games. Although both stores would move locations and abandon some of that concept, I appreciated how Chuck and Cliff built their businesses. Both offered friendly service not always seen in game stores of the past, a wide selection of titles and they made sure they provided a clean, well-lit game space to play. They built community with events and by building friendships with their patrons.

I had nothing to do with the car that went through the window of the old Game Empire but I recall Chuck’s incredible retelling of the experience. Photo: Google Images

I frequently visited and enjoyed patronizing such an excellent store. I’d usually spend 20% of my time shopping and 80% of it talking to Chuck about the business, the industry and new games. Some time later, I had a conversation with Chuck where he mentioned to me that he was in the process of bidding to buy our thrice-yearly tabletop game conventions in Los Angeles, Strategicon. As a nearly life-long Southern Californian, I began attending Strategicon back in 1986 (after my first con, Origins ’86 – which was hosted in L.A.) I had been a regular attendee into the early 90’s but stopped around 1995 or so. So, it had been about a decade since I had really attended a convention and the word was that they had gone steadily downhill. I figured new blood in leadership was probably a great idea.

At the time, Chuck told me that he was bidding against two other groups. One of them was led by a fellow who used to run conventions AGAINST Strategicon, the same weekends, often just down the street. I knew him just a little bit and that was more than enough. The current Strategicon ownership had little interest in selling to someone who was focused on hurting the cons in the past – a position I definitely respected.

Chuck didn’t know who the other people were. I wished him well in the process, as he had become a key retailer in the dealer room and I felt Chuck would do a lot of good for Strategicon since he’s transformed the tabletop store options in Pasadena. I was excited to see what he could do.

Big Mouth Strikes Again (with apologies to The Smiths)

Not long after that discussion, as part of the Demise and Rise of the Friendly Local Game Store series, I interviewed the primary owner of Strategicon, who also ran a game store in Southern California that has since closed down. In the course of the discussion about him running his game store for decades and the story of when he acquired Strategicon alongside many of the SoCal Game Retailers, I mentioned that I knew about the sale of the conventions. He was momentarily upset that I knew about it, paused the podcast, and then we continued talking – although I would say that he seemed a bit off for the rest of the show.

Later on, I heard from another person that the Strategicon owner was really upset that I was spreading information about the sale of the convention. A mutual friend of ours kindly reminded him that I was a journalist and it’s my job to know what’s going on in the industry for SoCal. I’m told he eventually accepted that and turned his ire on Chuck. He decided that this breach disqualified Chuck from bidding for the cons, so he went with the other group.

Chuck was upset at me, apparently. But his brother noted what my other friend did; when you talk to a journalist, you need to note if something is on the record or not. Nothing like that passed between us and, to be honest, I think Chuck probably told me a lot of other things that were sensitive that I had not revealed before. But this came up in my process of covering my stores so it came out. Chuck told me later that he’d forgiven me because, yes, he knew full well that I was a journalist and spoke to all the game store owners regularly.

We remained friends thereafter and I always enjoyed stopping to chat with him when I came in to get my board game fix. Even when I would fail to get to the store for months or even a year, we’d talk like no time had passed. I attended playtesting events at Game Empire sometimes, but always made time to talk to Chuck about business, what I was doing at my various software startups and such.

The Wisdom Lasts

Last year, I visited him after a long while and I was surprised to see him sporting a bald head. He told me immediately about his healthy challenges but that he was prepared to beat the big ‘C’ in the same way he took down his enemies on the miniatures table. I had full confidence he would.

More importantly, he expressed his always-present interest in what was going on with me. As I said, Chuck cultivated relationships with customers – we were his friends, not just patrons. I told Chuck how I had left a startup after a really rough time. I had put my heart and soul into a business for three and a half years, only to have it not get there because of nonsense outside my control.

Chuck offered me words of wisdom: He made me take stock in the years of professional life I still have in front of me (let’s just say it’s fewer than I have behind me). He quizzed me, pressed me to come up with the person who has the job I wanted more than anything. Then, he told me to do everything in my power to get there; to get to that place where I loved every day of my work.

I knew this stuff, but Chuck’s fervent words reminded me and inspired me to take action. Like most people, I had gotten caught up in the challenges of life, including some recent losses and tough times with transitions in life. His powerful words helped me find clarity and focus back on what’s important. I really appreciated his concern and his effort to get me back on track.

Chuck was a wonderful guy and I’m so glad he was my friend. I could go on for a lot longer about all the conversations we had over the years as I held a game in my hand, ready to buy but not until we had gotten through all the subjects in front of us. Yet, this last conversation last year is the one that will continue to have a lasting effect on my life and I’m so thankful to him for that.

Thanks to Chuck for the great community he built right here in the SGV, for the amazing store he built for local gamers to enjoy, but mostly for being my trusted friend who knew when I needed a poke to get my life back on track. RIP, good sir – our community is so much richer for your efforts, your humor, and your humanity.

My Year With Books: 2018, Part 1

My Year With Books: 2018, Part 1

2018 was the hardest year of my life. Work became more challenging, I lost my father early in the year and my mother had an increasingly difficult time with her cognitive abilities. There was more loss, including ongoing grief from losing an aunt and uncle with whom I was quite close the previous year. Add to that the fact that my sister, who is a source of a lot of support and joy in my life, was living in England for the year again and this was just a really tough year on top of all the usual stresses of having a wife and kids to support. My son left home for college, my daughter made another school adjustment for her final year in high school and both proved to be daunting for our family.

So my solace from reading was needed more than ever. Despite these issues keeping me so busy, it was clear that I sought peace in fiction and learning from the increased number of books I read throughout 2018. I enjoy summarizing my reading year because those intimate moments with the stories and just knowledge that I gain from my consumption of prose are deeply meaningful. Sure, a lot of the content is for work, or lighter fare to amuse me. Who cares? I don’t think what one chooses to read should be put under real scrutiny, but if I read something I can recommend and help someone else find a book that helps them or just delights them, more’s the better.

In 2016, I grouped the books as I saw fit, with no rhyme or reason. In 2017, I wrote about my books with some sense of chronology and that was too tedious – I don’t think I even finished. Now, I think I’ll summarize instead to group the books together.

Fantasy Makes a Comeback

During 2018, I was dragged back to role-playing games after nearly 30 years. In a separate post, I’ve written about this journey back to RPGs but suffice it to say that it led me back to reading more fantasy fiction in 2018 than I had in ages. The other key factor was the publication of a new book in the Black Company series after about two decades. While the story published (which I wrote a small bit about) took place between the first and second books, I opted to do the whole series to see if I liked the later books more now that I’m (much) older. That led to re-reading other books as well, and this will flow into 2019 because I’m still running that D&D game for my son, wife and oldest friends

The Black Company Series from Glen Cook

The Black Company Series – This series inspired me to run my own D&D campaigns back in the early 80’s. I had played but this is the series that made me want to chuck the modules out and create my own world. The Black Company is gritty, feels real and I know that George R.R. Martin says it was heavily influential on him when writing Game of Thrones. I can definitely see how he took a lot of elements of the book as inspiration: particularly, the focus on telling the stories of the bad guys.

I re-read the 10 original books in the series in 2018, from the first trilogy, which dazzled me as a young person and still held up pretty well now, through to the Books of the South, which got worse as they went, and the four-book cycle of Glittering Stone, which I found less and less appealing until the final book. The last portion, as Cook switched up narrators, felt like he was losing his way. Long sequences of boring going’s-on, and super-lazy cliched language that takes you WAY out of the narrative with its anachronistic feel (an occasional problem in earlier books) just took hold. The new one brings back his principal narrator, Croaker, also the best character in the series. While I gave it some praise in an earlier post, it was still not among his best. I’d recommend the first three to anyone, but you may lose interest after the fifth or sixth books.

Original Trilogy: The Black Company, Shadows Linger and The White Rose (Port of Shadows technically happens between The Black Company and Shadows Linger)

Books of the South: Shadow Games, Dreams of Steel, The Silver Spike (this is an odd book that kind of happens out of sequence)

Glittering Stone: Bleak Seasons, She Is The Darkness, Water Sleeps, Soldiers Live!

Majipoor Series from Robert Silverberg

Robert Silverberg is an author that I discovered because of Harlan Ellison writing about him. They were friends and, if you believe the Ellison anecdotes, they were pretty rough with one another – in a cool way. Silverberg’s fiction is absolutely glorious, but I’d stuck with the science fiction up to this point. Tower of Glass, Thorns, and The World Inside were among some of my favorite sci-fi books that I read in college/high school. This year, I thought I’d check out his Majipoor series, including Lord Valentine’s Castle – a book I had acquired years ago, but never gotten around to reading. What a mistake! Like Silverberg’s other works, the Majipoor series are both modern in feel and classic in nature. Silverberg isn’t a ‘hard sci-fi’ writer at all. He was a talented composer of prose who knew how to pack an emotional punch in his work. I loved the first and third books in the trilogy, while the second, an episodic side-story, was good but just not as compelling. Majipoor is a rich world with interesting politics and creatures, but it’s not like your normal fantasy world with elves and the like. Silverberg crafts something uniquely his own. I highly recommend Silverberg, an author whose entire collected works are either on my read or to-read list.

Lord Valentine’s Castle, Majipoor Chronicles, Valentine Pontifex

Drizztland

Some years ago, I bought the Dark Elf trilogy for my niece, who was fascinated with them at the time. While most of the time, branded content can be pretty bad, the reviews on this series from R.A. Salvatore were solid. My wife had taken to playing a Drow Elf character (although she knew nothing more about them than what she learned viewing the enjoyable (if depressing) documentary The Dungeon Masters. So, I thought I’d read this series and get some background I could share with her.

Like so many other readers, I really enjoyed the main character, Drizzt, a noble person in a world that wanted him to be evil. Maybe it’s because in our modern day, we seem to over-love the antihero, the rogue, the broken character that I kind of found this throwback good guy (who was raised to be a bad guy) so appealing. I followed him through the first three books, enjoying his story and the exploration of the Drow elf culture. Salvatore is an author to whom I am returning in 2019, particularly to see where else Drizzt goes.

Homeland, Exile, Sojourn

Second Chances on Fantasy Classics

Most of my consumption of fantasy novels happened in middle and high school. There were times when I tried series that just didn’t work out for me and so I thought I’d give some of those another go. The ones that didn’t work out:

  •  Swords and Deviltry – Fritz Leiber was a huge influence on D&D, but I found this book of Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser to be unappealing and dated.
  • Dragonflight – Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novel didn’t really excite me as a teenager and it’s still not working now. The writing is pretty old-school hard-sf, and it hasn’t aged well.
  • The Swordbearer – Glen Cook’s one-shot book of this name was a bit of a slog, like his Dread Empire series that I also never got into.
  • A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms – This collection of George R.R. Martin stories were fine, but I mostly just wanted another of the main books. I didn’t find the stories of Dunk and Egg terribly compelling in the same way that the Harry Potter side-project books are also sub-Silmarillion.

On the other hand, revisiting some other older works were a joy:

  • Elric of Melnibone and Sailor on the Sea of Fate – Michael Moorcock’s series still resonated with me and I promptly encouraged my son to read them, who enjoyed them immensely.
  • The Princess Bride – William Goldman’s book was one I thought I might read one day, since I loved the film. I did so and it was fun, but I’ll still take the film over this perfectly enjoyable novel any day.
  • The Dresden Files – Late in 2017, I read the first book in the Dresden Files, which had been recommended to me a lot. I also watched two episodes of the television show and found out there was a board game based on the series. That was enough for me to give it a try. In 2018, I plowed through the next four books, with the 4th in the series being a definite highlight. Harry Dresden is a throwback, too, with a goofy chivalry that sometimes gets to be a little much, but I still find Jim Butcher’s novel to be like a can of soda – probably too sugary, but fun every once in a while.

That’s enough for now. Next up, biographies and history in 2018.

Good Men: A tribute to my father, Robert Leo Burgess

Good Men: A tribute to my father, Robert Leo Burgess

2018 got off to a rough start for me, as I spent a lot of January with family concerns. My father’s health failed and my mother is also dealing with issues. At the end of the month, I lost my father to long illness and I wrote this note about him on Facebook. I heard from a few people that they had shared it because my note on Facebook about the wonderful father I was honored to have seems like it inspired some good discussions and consideration about what it means to be a father. I’ve slightly edited it to remove some personal points that are not as relevant to the casual reader, but kept what I think was the heart of the piece.


January 30, 2018 – Late Sunday night, as I was watching a Netflix film about funny people and trying not to think about what was imminent, my father passed away after a brief time in hospice.

I have been uncharacteristically silent on social media because I am still processing the loss, which I can only do with words. There was further delay from a paper cut on my right index finger that I gained while filling out the paperwork to release his body for cremation just moments after I arrived at the hospice. I was first to arrive, had driven over in a haze and, at that moment, appreciated the sharp pain of the cut popping my consciousness back into place before I went in to see my dad one last time.

As I sit here in the dark of morning a day later, I am thinking one could say that my father was not a great man. Great men change the whole world in some way. Maybe it’s how business runs in a particular space, how we think about something important or even how we view change and evolution in a broader sense. What I do know about great men, as I’ve known a few, is that they make sacrifices for their greatness and for whatever cause that matters more than anything to them.

That wasn’t my dad. He was a good man.

Good men attend to everything across their lives at some level from acceptably to amazingly. They love their families, they work hard to get educated and then at a job to make sure, as they say, the ends meet. They are far from perfect but their desire to make sure everything across life happens well enough is admirable because they don’t believe in kids getting ignored for a job or constantly needing to be off in their man cave or out with buddies to pretend they don’t have family obligations in real life. Good men make room in their lives for their spouse and their children; the best of them give their family an outsized space.

The good men find balance. They shift gears when the family is formed. They might even seem a bit boring, at times. But, good and boring pays the bills. Good and boring shows up to their children’s recital. And good and boring leaves a legacy of loving memories and kids who adore them.

And, if you knew him at all, how could you not adore my dad? If you found a way, well, too bad for you. The rest of us were crazy about him.

Robert Leo Burgess was born on December 7, 1933, a while before that date was Pearl Harbor Day. The youngest of nine kids, he was shorter than all of the men in the family, which he often attributed to there ‘being nothing left’ when he finally came around. As the baby of the family, he was very loved and received a lot of attention. I feel confident that my father’s passionate commitment to our immediate family came from the constant support and love he got from his own mother and siblings, who might have been compensating for my grandfather being less than affectionate.

Dad was a bruiser and a tough guy all his life, but it manifested much differently later because he was gregarious almost to a fault. He could walk into a room with ten people and they were all his friends before he left it. Now, if you’re reading this, you probably know what it is like to be in a conversation with a Burgess. We talk and talk…sometimes you’d think we just like to hear our own voices (yes, they do sound good), but, really, we like telling stories.

In my dad’s generation, I often say the nuance in the stories and their purpose changes from sibling to sibling. My dad focused on the funny. He was far more likely to tell you a joke than a story. He was always fond of them but, after his stroke a decade ago, he became a veritable sit-down comedian. Everyone nearby was subjected to them and he left most of the many, many hospitals since his stroke with nurses sorry to see him go because he kept them laughing and always had a positive attitude. It could be a problem, though. When we’d tell him, “Dad, that waiter kind of needs to actually go put in the order,” he’d say, “It’s good for his health! I’m helping him!” No one was safe from his laugh therapy. I tried to give him new joke books every year but he stuck to the old faithfuls most of the time, including one-liners that would make Henny Youngman proud. As he became increasingly difficult to understand, it wasn’t hard to listen for the moment when he was going to laugh so you could laugh along with him at the right moment.

My father’s major passion in middle life to late life was reading. He took a speed reading course as a younger man and never lost it. When I was young, he took the bus to his office in East L.A., reading on the way there and back, plus he’d hit the pages during two tea breaks in the morning and afternoon and also at lunch. With that, he’d polish off close to two books a day. Of course, these were not studies on neuroscience or impenetrable postmodern novels; his interest was in mysteries and biographies of pop culture icons. He also had zero interest in retaining those yellowed paperbacks like talismans of accomplishment – he was constantly moving the books he’d read out for the next batch and watching like an addict for the next library sale where books were a buck a bag. In the last year, I was his dealer, hitting all the library sales and used bookshops to round up enough books to keep him reading all day, every day. My Saturday morning ritual was to show him the books I’d gathered all morning in hopes that I’d get approval for more than 50% of them. I succeeded most of the time.

Among the lighter reading, he’d find time for some of his favorite literary authors and I’d bring them over for a re-read. He had an affinity for authors who seemed to write the same book over and over again – Bukowski, Kerouac (on whom we disagreed), Fitzgerald (on whom we agreed), and Thomas Wolfe – his favorite writer. Something about Wolfe appealed to my dad – maybe the overwhelming emotion in his prose, the questing real-life narratives, or the grandiose diction. Whatever the case, he delighted in Wolfe’s work and life, often repeating biographical details like Wolfe’s tendency to write while leaning against his refrigerator or how he died from TB after contracting it from a hobo he met when he jumped a train. A complete collection of Wolfe’s work is among the slim library my dad retained on his small shelves.

His other passion was the silver screen. He was an avid film lover and moviegoer. But he didn’t travel with film into the modern day. His love for moving pictures remained largely in the black-and-white. As a young man, he worked at a movie theater for some time and all those free movies might have developed the habit. He did love to talk about films and one of our rituals for ages was watching Siskel and Ebert in their various formats on Sunday evenings before dinner. Yet, huge swathes of film, and even music were unavailable to him because he didn’t like the performer. All those biographies gave him details about actors, singers, and directors that were lousy to their families, their wives, or their colleagues. After that, he wouldn’t want to see anything with that person involved. I used to tease him about it – “Who cares if Robert De Niro is a jerk? Raging Bull is amazing.” He wouldn’t budge. Even this last Christmas, he reminded me when he heard a Bing Crosby song on our playlist that the performer was ‘a terrible parent.’ Now, I realize this was just an extension of my dad’s goodness; he didn’t want even exceptional art if it came from bad people.

My dad’s passion for the written word on the page and on the screen inspired my own. Despite my love of technology, I followed in his footsteps and studied literature in college. It worked out in the career I have chosen that blends our great loves. While I tell stories in software more often than I do in prose, there is still the structure and the passion to tell a tale that will enlighten, inspire and enrich the life of the reader, here a user. That came from my dad.

The games came from him, too. Dad was a poker and cribbage player but mostly because of the society of play. Winning meant nothing to him; he craved card play for the chance to interact. When I was young, the monthly poker games my Dad attended was a highlight. Most of the attendees were family, my uncles and older cousins made up the bulk of the group, but some old friends of theirs often rounded out the table of freewheeling dealer’s choice. Yes, it was nice to play but it was mostly about the conversation. Dad played so he could tell and hear jokes, share family news, and spend time with his favorite buddies. The poker nights were an excuse to stay connected with family and friends. I see that in my own board gameplay now, that desire to hold on to my closest friends through regular sessions, keeping the creation of precious hours in regular production.

My cribbage memories are mostly of just the two of us playing. He was an incredibly generous player. He’d call ‘muggins’ if you missed points in your hand, but he’d give them to you anyway. This was a reaction to his own father who was notorious in the family for cheating. He’d back-peg and do all kinds of questionable stuff against even his own kids. I’m glad that what my dad learned from that is what NOT to do. I’ve learned well from his example here.

As we have lost so many of my dad’s generation in the family recently, I’ve often thought about how to distinguish the Burgessness of them all. Yes, that’s a word; it needed invention for that last sentence to work. My generation, of which I’m the youngest, know what I mean. There was a powerful sense of Burgessness throughout them all.

What was my dad best at? Sure, there was the humor I spoke about. Yet, there was also a sense of compassion in him that I admired. As the youngest of his family’s generation, I would like to think he was among the most modern with regard to accepting others. If the decades of time in social work taught him one thing, it was compassion for his fellow man and woman. My dad spent a lot of time with people who were facing the worst days of their lives. He had a positive spirit in his heart at all times so he could console, he could inspire, he could help. While neither of us had much use for organized religion, our Catholic upbringing did instill a concern for the weakest in society, which we both extended to tolerance. He believed in the common good and that America was about all people, not just your own tribe. Dad championed the underdog and the weak like all heroes do. I will always admire him for his lack of cynicism and interest in seeing real action over words.

As a father, he was devoted to making sure we had what we needed. He made sacrifices, neglected to have much of any kind of a mid-life crisis – other than briefly listening to more Willie Nelson and Jim Croce than was generally advisable – and was true to our family and his wife. He was not handy around the house; Dad couldn’t change a light bulb. He was certainly no gourmet unless you consider a predilection for peanut butter and butter sandwiches, or Velveeta on graham crackers to be avant-garde in some way. He blew the Santa thing by walking into the house with an Atari 2600 under his arm from Clarks Drugs when I was a kid, but at least he brought the thing home, despite an irrational fear of anything electronic. He didn’t drink, except for the occasional pina colada (of which I’d get a sip!), and never smoked because his own father had shortened his life with both of those vices. His kids are the same way as a result.

Dad would always drive you where you needed to go, pick you up when you were in a bind, help, throw money at a problem (what is money for, anyway?), and console you when things went wrong. Dad was always okay with your mistakes; he was there to help clean them up and get you back on track. Dad was exceptionally good at being supportive and not throwing something in your face when you failed because you didn’t listen to his advice. He never said ‘I told you so,” never wanted to “teach people a lesson”, never wanted to make it hard on someone when they were already down. He was a supervisor at work and I can remember how hard the employees fought to be on his team – they told me so without asking. They knew he was the kind of leader who worked with you and offered guidance, not the kind who obsessed on hierarchy. The masses at his retirement party years later spoke volumes; he was much-loved at work, too.

Dad never made us feel like we were not good enough, that his love had any strings, that his judgment was against us. He was generous with compliments, acknowledged the good things, and praised like no other. Even in the last days before he became largely incoherent, he was telling us we ‘were the best’, expressed his love for us, and talked about how wonderful his grandchildren were. He spoke this way to everyone. He saw value in spreading positivity as often as possible, and in every situation.

Dad stopped walking about a year ago and for most of that time, he was at a board-and-care facility just across the street from my house. I loved the fact that I could look out my front window when I got home from work and see if his light was on to know if I could visit. It was easy to slip over there; the people who ran the place knew me well enough that I didn’t need to sign in. Dad would always be happy to see me. His mind would start clouded and he’d need to get some ideas out of the way; he’d often start mid-sentence as if I’d walked in on a conversation he was already having, talking about the book he’d just read or some detail that was important enough that he returned to it with some frequency (like his brief time on the set of “Touch of Evil” or when he and I met Harlan Ellison, who tried to convince him to kick me out of the house when I commented on Ellison’s car commercials of the time). But once you got past those anecdotes that were sitting on top of his consciousness, you could really talk to him. We had so many good chats about what was going on these days (of course he hates Trump – he’s an awful person) and how the kids are doing (he would cry from joy when we discussed my son’s Eagle Scout rank or my daughter’s exceptional talent as a singer). He hasn’t been at full cognitive power for more than a decade, but he didn’t lose his sense of justice nor his deep love of his family.

I’ve had twenty years to get used to the fact that I would lose my dad one day. In 1998, he had bypass surgery and, in short order, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I thought I was going to lose him then. But he recovered. Then, the stroke hit in 2007 and again, I thought I was going to lose my dad. But he recovered. Seizures, minor strokes (perhaps) and an endless number of falls occurred in the next decade. We went to the ER a lot, each time prepared for the worst. But he recovered somehow again and again. We have had so many extra years to consider that we might lose him, which gave me a ton of time to express my appreciation for him. He met all of that with love. After his stroke, he often couldn’t contain his emotions so I would do my best to express my love with a laugh so he could laugh, too. It worked most of the time.

For me, this was all ‘bonus time.’ I am so grateful for every day of it.

Last Wednesday was the last day when Dad and I communicated directly. After the doctor called me and let me know he recommended that we let Dad enter hospice, I drove out to the hospital and woke him up. He recognized me by my voice, heard me tell him how much I loved him and responded with the same. He could no longer intake water so I used swabs to soothe him a bit, as I had done with my Uncle Bill just six months before. I was reminded to take that moment to express what I needed to, as I had with Uncle Bill. With Dad, though, I remembered how often I’d repeated what I wanted to say. He knew how much I loved him and appreciated him. He loved how I told him that his brother Bill had added to my personality as much as he had. He loved that I acknowledged my Uncle Ed as a similar inspiration in my life. He thought the world of them both and told me I was smart to not just learn from him because he’d done the same and learned so much from his brothers and sisters, even more than from his own father. We understood each other well. I didn’t have to say it all again. I just had to hug him and hold his hand and tell him I loved him.

So, I’m going to revise my earlier statement. My dad was a great man to the people in his life, to the people he helped and befriended – who are legion – and the people who he loved so much. He neglected being great for the world so he could be greater for all of us, those who knew him and, inevitably, loved him.

2017: Boardgame Babylon’s My Year with Books, Part 3

And, here is 2017: My Year With Books, Part 3. This is continuing my list of books I read in 2017 and some light commentary. I read a lot of fiction, marketing, data, and design books – with the smattering of books on music and musicians, theme parks, and various obscure concepts. To get the full story on this series of articles, please see my previous posts 2017: My Year With Books, Part 1 and 2017: My Year With Books, Part 2.

2017: My Year with Books, Part 3

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F_ck by Mark Manson – Non-Fiction – New Read
Another one from that list of gifted books on Product Hunt, I immediately realized I didn’t need this book because I was living so many of its principles. Manson’s manifesto is pretty simple: Stop expecting the world owes you things, work hard, and make real contributions rather than fussing and moaning about things. This book immediately felt like the antidote for the stereotypical Millennial. It knocks self-obsessed, narcissistic people onto their duffs, tells them to shape up and start taking part in the world without worrying so much about nonsense. I immediately wanted to give it to a few people I know, but it would likely offend them just the same. A great gift from the self-absorbed people you meet.

2017: My Year with Books, Part 3

Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity by David Lynch – Non-Fiction – New Read
A slim volume of seemingly random observations, Lynch’s comments are pragmatic and sometimes odd, like his work. I enjoyed the quick read through but nothing really stuck with me as instructive in life.

2017: My Year with Books, Part 3

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg – Non-Fiction – New Read
How we develop habits and the ability to harness the power of them is the subject of Duhigg’s work. I found elements useful for design as well as our psychometric analysis of social speech that we do as part my company’s technology, so this one was highly useful. I enjoyed the book immensely and will highlight some material in particular for use. Seeking his other books now because this one was a definite winner.

2017: My Year with Books, Part 3

Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days by Jake Knapp – Non-fiction – Re-read
Read this first when it came out but wanted to apply more principles of it to our work, so I read it again. The clear methods for attacking design and production of software – really, modern products in general – and it is like a textbook for us when building something completely new.

2017: My Year with Books, Part 3
RIP Harlan Ellison

Ellison Wonderland by Harlan Ellison – Fiction – Re-read
Harlan is one of my favorite writers, despite him personally trying to convince my father to throw me out of the house when I was nineteen (yes, I’ll tell that story fully one day). Ellison Wonderland is a great set of stories and I wanted to recommend it to Alaric. In downloading it on Overdrive, I found it contained new introductions and since Harlan’s non-fiction musings are often as enjoyable as his fiction, I decided to give it a listen. What a delight to hear these stories from Harlan’s own mouth and realize most hadn’t aged much. Still one of my favorite collections of sci-fi; funny, poignant and interesting works. Harlan never really did novels, but he has the short story down cold. Recommended!

2017: My Year with Books, Part 3

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan – Fiction – New Read
Delightful romp for bibliophiles and startup kids alike, the book is a finely spiced stew with plenty of geeky moments and tech knowledge to keep them engaged. While I won’t reveal the central mystery, Sloan has done a nice job of building a mystery with some useful points and a healthy amount of just enjoyable text. A light, but compulsive read.

Rework by Jason Fried – Non-Fiction – New Read
Another good book on running a successful business and one that I immediately acquired after an electronic read. Many common-sense notions of how to get work done quickly and I appreciated the frank attitude about how much you can do on a regular basis without having to get this or that before you can start. Just start. A reasonable textbook for our business that was helpful for some of our process improvement.

Set the Boy Free by Johnny Marr – Non-Fiction – New Read
Morrissey’s autobiography has been on my shelf for a bit and aftersuddenly reading this on a whim, I will get to it in 2018. Marr’s book is a light read that tells his version of everything and in a rather pleasant light. Little is discussed about the conflicts that the two had, with Marr focusing instead on a travelogue of his career before, during and after the Smiths with the light air of an only casually-interested biographer. Still a pleasant read, but I would have liked to hear it warts-and-all. As it is, Set the Boy Free is fine for big Smiths, Electronic or Marr fans but probably not a lot of others.

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nicholas Nassim Taleb – Non-Fiction – New Read
Another book from that list of ‘Most Gifted Books’, Taleb’s book has a great message – that we are tested by the tough things in life that make us stronger – and then goes on to use examples that I flatly didn’t think supported his claim. Not every aspect of life can work with this principle but Taleb seems to think, as the proverb suggests, that everything looks like a nail. Yet, quite a bit later I see how how Taleb’s overall thesis remains strong – those who learn to take change as a natural evolution that can be turned a positive way (rather than resisting it and fighting to keep things as per the status quo) are ready for modern challenges where the world’s changing at an incredibly rapid speed. Antifragile is highly recommended for those seeking success.

Haunted Empire: Apple After Steve Jobs by Yukari Iwatani Kane – Non-fiction – New Read

Some books by journalists really benefit from the immediacy of their storytelling and detailed accounts. Not this one, however. Haunted Empire is mostly focused on the horrors of the Apple-Foxconn relationship and how it tarnished the image of both Apple and Jobs’ replacement, the uninspiring operations man they call Tim Cook. Little time is spent on the subject of how the creative aspect of Apple was affected by Jobs’ death. Notable is the fact that Cook’s crimes related to Foxconn would have happened with or without Jobs at the helm. It’s not like Steve was keeping them out of that kind of trouble. As a result, the book reads like a series of articles about Apple without much internal access. A snooze.

The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt and Jeff Cox – Non-fiction – New Read

A useful book that I read after hearing this was one of the three books that Jeff Bezos makes his execs read. It’s a great argument for Kanban and thinking through the things that actually produce work rather than old-school ideas of resource and time management. The lessons in the book are highly useful, but the format of telling it in a novel feels contrived and uninteresting. A distillation of the ideas would be better in a PowerPoint.

I guess we’ll continue with Part 4 next time because I’ve still got a few more to review briefly. Thanks for reading along and I hope you found something to add to your own list this year. I’m already deeply into my 2018 Reading Year and it’s been enormously satisfying.

2017: My Year With Books, Part 2

As promised, here is 2017: My Year With Books, Part 2. This is continuing my list of books I read in 2017 and some light commentary to see if you might be interested in checking them out. I read a lot of fiction, marketing, data, and design books – with the smattering of books on music and musicians, theme parks, and various obscure concepts. To get the full story on this series of articles, please see my previous post 2017: My Year With Books, Part 1.

Light Boxes by Shane Jones – Fiction – New Read2017: My Year with Books, Part 2

Another find from scoping out books for my father at the library, Light Boxes was my airplane book flying over to Germany this summer. It’s an otherworldly fairy tale that is short but powerful. I’d highly recommend this fanciful, luminous book to anyone who likes the odd, the macabre and the fantastic. The bird masks on the cover definitely caught my eye and got me to buy it (the $0.33 price didn’t hurt either).

The World’s Shortest Stories, edited by Steve Moss – Fiction – New Read2017: My Year with Books, Part 2
The other book I read on the plane to Germany, this collection of 55-word stories reminds me of my own time composing super-short stories like these. I had a good time with them and enjoyed the way this economy of words pushes stories ahead with twists and interesting diction. Brevity is indeed the soul of wit, and for someone given to overwriting (isn’t this article series proof of that?), the limit is welcome creative pressure. If they do another volume, I’m interested in contributing.

The Rise and Fall of the D.O.D.O by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland – Fiction – New Read2017: My Year with Books, Part 2
Read this while touring through London last year, missing a signing with the authors by one day. Reading like a collaboration between Stephenson and Terry Pratchett, this wild tale is on the light end for the former and leans into the sillier work of the latter. It’s a good experience, but those expecting a deep, thoughtful book like Stephenson often writes should lower their expectations and enjoy this funny tale that pits technology and magic against one another.

Lent to me by my colleague and friend Kai, I polished this one off quickly because a lot of the instruction is pretty Marketing 101. Understand customers, give them what they want, explain it simply – that kind of thing. In fairness, there is real magic in effective marketing, and this book makes that clear. Yet, when you do more than this, that’s when you make the magic. Good for those who are just getting into the business and at least it’s not called something with “dummies” or “idiots”. Knocked off this slim one on the train from Frankfurt to Goslar.

I keep hunting for another Bossypants by Tina Fey and I still haven’t found one. The closest was the very enjoyable Yes, Please from Amy Poehler. But this one, from another Friend of Fey, falls completely flat. Far more focused on telling real stories in detail than finding ways to bring some poignancy to the proceedings while keeping things moving, this quick but unsatisfying read was fairly boring for most of the length of the pages. Some SNL stories were interesting but the rest was only finished because it was relatively short and I only had so many books with me on the plane back from Europe.

Another book that could have been a Power Point, Pozen’s techniques are nothing special and the stuff that you see in Medium articles that people write just to get more people to follow them. Didn’t learn anything I didn’t already learn from smarter folks.

Of course I love the idea of Johnson’s book – that we must play to learn how to innovate, solve problems, and enrich our lives. I believe this fully as both a game designer and a person who knows leisure gives you the ideas you work out when you are actually working. No one comes up with great ideas while sitting at a desk in a stuffy office.
Johnson has a lot of nice examples to illustrate his point, including many I’d heard before, but the book still reads pleasantly throughout with some examples that drive things well.

Having loved the film version that Alexander Payne did, I’ve read the novel and also the sequel, Vertical. While book 3 is a lot more of the same without an attempt to figure out another direction to reference in the title, it was a lot of fun to follow Miles down to Chile to explore the wine world in the budding region.
While a certain amount of the story is surely autobiographical, Pickett does add more thoughtful observations than I often saw in Vertical, which seemed to want to add some outrageousness to match key moments in the film. I’d say that Sideways 3 is an even more enjoyable read than Vertical, but I also think it’s time for Pickett to move on.

As it happens, this was my first book read in 2017. The woman who inspired and wrote a lot of Elaine on Seinfeld is definitely also no Tina Fey. But her observations are funny in a Boomer kind of way. She definitely was better off writing with a group (she was part of the staff on the recent Academy Awards, I noted) but her biographical book is still enjoyable and her revelations are genuine and interesting at times.

Career of Evil (Cormoran Strike, #3) by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling) – Fiction – New Read2017: My Year with Books, Part 2
I quite like the Cormoran Strike novels, even as they want to push the limit on what I’d like to read about modern deviant behavior. For those who don’t know, this is a series of crime novels from Robert Galbraith, the pseudonym for J.K. Rowling. I guess it is Rowling finally getting a chance to explore things that would have been a problem if you’re writing young adult fiction so she really pushes it with fairly dark parts of humanity. While it lacks the interesting literary world of The Silkworm, Career of Evil trades a bit on an obsession with the band Blue Oyster Cult, who I happen to casually admire. Strike and Robin are enjoyable characters and I’m glad we’ll have seven or so books of their exploits, told in Rowling’s quirky and punchy prose.
I do feel a sense of sadness, however, because with the passing of my father early in 2018, I no longer have an excuse for buying the new book for him and then reading it so we could chat about it. Our reading tastes were pretty different so these rare overlapping titles were welcome. As the series continues, I feel sure I’ll still have a pleasant conversation with my dad somewhere in my head.

7 Against Chaos by Harlan Ellison – Fiction – New Read2017: My Year with Books, Part 2
I found out about this graphic novel Harlan did earlier this century from one of his introductory essays in Ellison Wonderland. Despite being just a few years old, it has an old school sci-fi feel in both tone and artwork. A mild diversion and a fair story that has that Ellison feel but isn’t one for the ages. Worth a look if you’re a fan of his, as I am. Most amusing about this was my mother picking up the book and her saying, “You are reading comic books?”

Hey Nostradamus! by Douglas Coupland – Fiction – New Read2017: My Year with Books, Part 2
Easily the least of the great Douglas Coupland’s books, Hey Nostradamus reads like a homework assignment. Better write something about gun massacres! It lacks the wit and useful commentary of his books, replacing it with second-rate Raymond Carver. Still has flashes of wit, but hardly justifying the read. How the mighty man who wrote Generation X has fallen.

Kicking & Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock and Roll by Anna and Nancy Wilson – Non-fiction – New Read
Yes, Heart from the 70’s are great. And Heart from the 80’s are a guilty pleasure. I was a teenager then and deeply in love with the gorgeous, powerhouse singer Ann Wilson. I’d say her infamous weight gain might even have informed my own passion for the

2017: My Year with Books Part 2

Rubenesque. She always looked lovely to me and besides, true love does not see these things as a problem! But I digress.
Heart’s charming book is a quick read told from many points of view. That includes the Wilson sisters and some friends, band members and even the occasional former boyfriend. They tell it pretty warts-and-all (that’s how these books should be told – see the not-warty Set the Boy Free later on this list), which makes for a page-turner that I loved reading in the pool last summer. It also made me return to their music and discover anew some tracks they loved most. What a delight for my head and my ears.

To be continued…

2017: My Year With Books, Part 1

2017: My Year With Books, Part 1

The BGB 2017 Year in Books

Last year, I read an article that suggested CEOs need to read 60 books a year to keep up with what is happening in the world. Presumably, that means a cross-section of books that would make them effective leaders, track what is going on in the world that would have an impact on their business, and maybe some notable new books about non-fiction subjects on what is to come.

My interest wasn’t in just doing what the CEOs do. I wanted to read what I wanted, which would be a mix of books about being more effective at my job (sure, that one’s similar and what I do for a living), data and social sciences (this is what we work on at my company, and it’s something I’m passionate about), and a smattering of fiction to keep myself level. This makes me laugh, thinking of the quote in Sideways (yes, I saw the film first) when the soon-to-be-father-in-law of Jack says, “I can’t read fiction, it’s all made up.” So funny to think you can’t learn from fiction.

Anyway, I was more inspired by the number, the sheer volume of knowledge flowing into the heads of these exceptional CEOs than their subjects of choice. But I also didn’t want to set myself up for failure. New Year’s resolutions are kind of a joke. We break them all the time because we set goals too far beyond our ability or in categories we just don’t care about. Then, we buckle. So, I went low. I thought one book every two weeks would be a good place to start. So, I set the goal in Goodreads for 26 books.

To my delight, I surpassed that quickly and hit 64 books for the year with a combination of reading physical books, Kindle books, and audiobooks when I would commute. In this way, I can read two to three books at all times depending on the circumstances. Next year, I plan to double my goal to 52 books, one per week, to see if I can match this excellent reading year.

I would note that I consider all of these options ‘reading’ a book. I have some friends who think otherwise, suggesting that listening to an audio book is somehow less pure than reading the words on a page. That’s hogwash, of course. Douglas Adams famously noted that people who are concerned about this are ‘mistaking the plate for the meal.’ If the information flows into your head, you read it. The whole point of reading is to get that information into your head so it will be knowledge you have available to filter against everything else that comes out of your mouth (or your pen), not so you can consume it in a certain format that will allow you to line shelves in your home with your accomplishments. Reading 60 books a year isn’t about showing off, it’s about learning enough to feel you spent that part of your life well this year.

Why do I read so much despite a busy life with work, family, and time-consuming hobbies like tabletop board game design? I have been asked this a few times this year – ‘how do you find the time?’ Well, as a Franklin Covey class taught me over twenty years ago, you don’t ever ‘find’ time. You make time. You schedule, you keep conscious of where you waste time (e.g., the television and now, the internet), and you just simply turn over some of that time to books. Not all of it, because the reality of the situation is that most modern people want to spend some amount of time consuming content. That’s what the books are anyway: consumption. But it’s not empty consumption like watching sitcoms or crime shows. It’s the vitamin-enriched meal, versus the junk food, and moderation is key.

With that, let me jump into my list for 2017. I find my year in books to be, in many ways, as compelling as a lot of physical experiences. The flowering of one’s brain should really be enjoyable on the level of exercise from being out of the woods, or effective days at the gym.

While this last year was a grim one in many ways both personal and political, my reading year was truly wonderful.

BGB 2017 Year in Books

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams – Fiction – New Read

Geek confession, I suppose. As someone who called a BBS in the 80’s called The Dark Domain where you needed to know the books in Adams’ famous series to understand what people are saying, I had read the first novel when I was 14 years old. But I never got to the other novels in the series because that first one gave me a sufficiently solid grounding to understand why someone was called Hitchhiker, someone else Trillian (his girlfriend), someone else was Arthur Dent, etc. I’d say thatanyone from the geek persuasion needs to, and will, in fact, enjoy the series. So, when my son Alaric read the first one and asked if the others were any good, I had to say I wasn’t sure. That would not stand. My friend Kai has been encouraging me to read more books for pure fun (although he’s been pushing Douglas Adams’ fantasy counterpart, Terry Pratchett), so I thought I’d give the second novel in the series a try. It’s not Hitchhiker, with the wall-to-wall uproarious entries from the books that gives the series its name, but it is funny and a quick read to delight geeks, nerds, and thoughtful people in general. I will continue the series in 2018.

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell – Non-Fiction – New ReadBGB 2017 Year in Books

After seeing Mr. Gladwell on a talk show last year, I’d meant to read his books. I first tackled Blink after finding it at a used bookstore for a great price. This exceptional book had a major impact on me. Blink explores the human tendency to make judgements quickly, for better or worse. Interesting examples of both abound and it made me consider how thoughtful I can be about judging people in the world, and how often a gut reaction can help when considering the response to a situation. That ‘gut’ just needs a history of context to be useful. A wonderful read that I found rewarding.

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell – Non-Fiction – New ReadBGB 2017 Year in Books

Perhaps a week or two after finishing Blink, I took up The Tipping Point, which was an earlier book that made Mr. Gladwell quite famous, it seems. While it similarly takes on the subject (journalist that he is) of explaining a concept through stories, I found The Tipping Point to be a lot less intriguing. Sure, it’s mildly interesting to think about why some things hit big and others do not (that is the titular ‘Tipping Point’), the revelations from the book were only somewhat useful to me as a marketer. Worth a quick read, but it doesn’t have the impact of Blink.

Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson – Fiction – New ReadBGB 2017 Year in Books

One of the more popular and well-respected games of the last few years is a monster called Terraforming Mars. I don’t call it a monster due to its size, but due to the enormous number of cards in the game. My first play was just okay, due to an early card mix that tended towards attacking cards that seemed to just slow the game. The second one was better, and by game three, I understood why so many of my hardcore gamer friends were playing it: it was rich in game-play like Race for the Galaxy, another exceptional game that had so much to explore. Word on the street was that the designer of Terraforming Mars had been inspired by Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy that began with the novel Red Mars. I had not read the series but I recalled it from my days working at a bookstore in the 80’s. It was hard sci-fi, the type I typically only read if it is from a Golden Age author like Clarke, Heinlein or Asimov. Yet, I was excited to check it out due to its inspiration for the game. I got what I expected: hard science fiction heavy on plot and details of scientists doing scientific things, low on character development. The novel is rich in details easy to turn tiny plot points into cards within the game, so it was ideal for this purpose. It’s a hefty book and playing a little ‘spot the card’ was a side activity while I read through the novel. I might read the sequels (Blue Mars and Green Mars) as I explore the board game with my son (who loves it), but they aren’t on the top of my list.

When Breathe Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi – Non-Fiction – New ReadBGB 2017 Year in Books

Picked off a list on Product Hunt about the most gifted books, Kalanithi’s book does not fit any of my normal reading areas, except maybe the unspoken one about being a better human being. The difficult narrative follows the life of a budding surgeon who gets a diagnosis of cancer that will end his life. The acceptance of that situation and the choices one has to make once one knows that time is short are essentially the subject of the book. While I would not opt for anything Kalanithi did (including having a child so he could feel the experience of fatherhood, while robbing said child of having a father for most of her life – or pursuing a career as a surgeon and putting people at potential risk), his story of letting go, learning to accept that there are others in your life who might have the right perspective to help you, and, finally, focusing on family, were insightful and useful to me. At times, the book was very hard to read because I lost two important people in my life this year, including my Uncle Bill (someone who was like my second dad and an inspiration for much of my personality) and my father early in 2018. The book was also illuminating and made me value the life I have and think ahead about planning for the world without me. I plan to make a chatbot. 😉

Nightwings by Robert Silverberg – Fiction – New ReadBGB 2017 Year in Books

Silverberg has always struck me as one of the underrated writers of speculative fiction. Within the sci-fi world, he’s been recognized but he doesn’t get enough mainstream respect because he writes things that can be a trifle odd. His work is consistently interesting, he knows how to create great characters, and he has a head for new ideas that can match the Golden Age greats and a weirdness that can match those 60’s sci-fi greats like Philip K. Dick and Samuel R. Delany. I had read Nightwings was one of his best (probably in a Harlan Ellison essay) and I’m glad to report that it certainly is right up there with Tower of Glass, my favorite of his works. A heartfelt piece of science fiction taking place on an alien world, Nightwings still conveys a lot about the human condition and is possessed of Silverberg’s lovely prose. I will be hitting more of his books in 2018 for sure. It’s a crime that I haven’t read them all.

The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google by Scott Galloway – Non-Fiction – New ReadBGB 2017 Year in Books

My love of Prof. Galloway’s L2 videos is hard to overstate. While they have gotten sillier (not ideal), the main appeal is his no-BS take on brands, society and the world in general. His book takes a lot of his observations on the power and damage to the world done and potentially to be done by these massive companies and puts it into book form. While I think most would probably be just as well served by watching his recent Ted Talk on the subject, I enjoyed the detail and examples he provided as I am a student of these four companies and share similar concerns about their power and influence. A fun read, and a quick one, too. And he just did a board game themed episode so, here’s an embed.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz – Non-Fiction – New ReadBGB 2017 Year in Books

The founder/VC/Product leader Horowitz quickly became a member of my CEO crush list (including Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Marc Benioff) with his no-nonsense guide to getting tech companies right. While Mr. Horowitz had his ups and downs over time, he’s learned a ton and generously shown it off here, down to the details of hiring, managing and operations for tech startups. This book is like a textbook for the biz and I immediately purchased a physical copy after reading it on Kindle so I could make use of it. Highly recommended for those who work in technology or startups in general.

Artemis by Andy Weir – Fiction – New Read

The Martian is a very pleasant book, a good film and on the basis of BGB 2017 Year in Booksthose facts, I definitely was going to give Artemis a try. I heard the audio book, which is narrated by Rosario Dawson – a woman with one of those voices that sounds more pleasant than a Chopin composition. The book itself is a heist story set on the moon and feels like Weir wrote it with the expectation that it would hit the big screen soon enough. Based on the success of the last story getting into movie form, this is a fair assumption, but it also makes it read a bit like a screenplay. Not a bad thing – Artemis reads quickly, which makes its initially-unlikable heroine easier to like as the story moves fast. It’s not as awesome as The Martian but Weir’s version of the moon’s society is interesting (although I’ll take Heinlein’s version in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress over this one for sheer oddness-while-plausible). Worth a look if you really like the author.

Storm Front by Jim Butcher – Fiction – New ReadBGB 2017 Year in Books

My friend and colleague Kai pushed me to read this one and I’m glad he did. Butcher’s Dresden series will likely get read entirely because the easy style of this wizard-detective in modern times goes down like sweet tea. Butcher’s take on magic-users in the now is clever and while the mysteries themselves will probably not interest me from the POV of trying to solve them ahead of time, I did enjoy the ride. Not quite bringing me back to the fun of Glen Cook’s old Garrett Files, but there’s a little something there. Also, there’s a new game based on these books but it’s another deckbuilder. Sigh. I think we’ve had enough.

Couch by Benjamin Parzybok – Fiction – New ReadBGB 2017 Year in Books

Every week, I go to the Glendora Library and pick up used books for my father to read (until his passing in early 2018). He lacks mobility here in his mid-80’s but his mind still wanders constantly among the stories and books I bring him. And the man reads fast. He used to do two books a day when he was a younger man, reading on his bus ride to work, at lunch and breaks, and on the ride home. Insane. I can’t do that, and I’m not sure I want to try. But this means regular trips to find him new material now. The upside of these regular hunts is that I find books for myself sometimes, too. Couch was one of those finds. It’s an odd book that I knew wouldn’t work for my dad, but would work for me. Three geeky slacker friends are forced to move a couch from their apartment and that process unearths an adventure that takes them to the sea and into another country as they realize there is more to this piece of furniture than they ever imagined. Strange, delightful and well-written, I recommend Couch to anyone who likes oddly diverting fiction that just tells a good story.

To be continued…

Film Review: Game Night is Game for Gamers

Film Review: Game Night is Game for Gamers

Board games and movies have had a rocky relationship. I recall loving the film Clue from the beginning, even though it got terrible reviews when it was originally released with three separate endings. You had to check the newspaper listings (yes, we had those), to see which version was at your local theater (I saw A and B, C wasn’t playing locally). Other board game movies that are out there are few and far between from the truly terrible Battleship movie (I can’t bring myself to link to it) to mostly children’s fare. But Game Night sounded intriguing to me as the (overlong) trailer had a few good laughs in it.

Game Night doesn’t really move into the realm we tabletop gamers would hope; meeples and a Settlers of Catan city piece get a cameo in the opening but what’s played thereafter in the game sessions is purely mass market stuff. Let’s pause for a moment to say that these people should not be bringing old copies of Life to parties. They’d definitely be doing Settlers, Cards Against Humanity, and maybe Dixit. My gosh, these things are at Target and Barnes and Noble now.

Game Night

But whatever. Game Night delivers on the promise of its trailer by providing 90 minutes of brainless fun. Two overly competitive people meet and marry (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams – funny and charming people), establishing a regular game night with their friends. One finally goes awry when Bateman’s older brother sets up a more involved murder mystery game, which bleeds into real life. Jesse Plemons is funny as the guy you are happy to let drop out of the Game Night. Really, all of the cast is good, the jokes (too many of which are shown in the trailer) are solid, and things proceed along quickly. Even some amusing issues with unwanted guests, problematic details getting revealed and the like get highlighted, which adds to the theme of the film. I do wish there was more game humor, but I guess I’ll just have to write that movie. 😉 Bateman remains funny as ever (he’s still immortal to me because of “It’s Your Move”, a classic short-lived sitcom) and McAdams is charming and lovely, if a bit young for Bateman.

No one is going to talk about how Game Night was robbed when those Academy Award noms fail to come through, but I enjoyed the film enough to recommend it for gamers seeking a silly night at the movies. It’s R-rated for language mostly, but it’s not too bad and probably could have been softened to a PG-13 with some unnecessary F-bombs excised.

Boardgame Babylon says: Rental is fine unless you have MoviePass, which is completely awesome.

Photos: Property of New Line Cinema