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games history Life Uncategorized

Invented adventure

From kindergarten through eighth grade, I attended a private Christian school. After nine years, that sheltered environment felt familiar and comforting. It was also expensive; by the summer before my freshman year of high school, my family could no longer afford the tuition, and I was forced to transfer to the local public school.

It was a rough transition. I now had 150 classmates instead of twenty; I felt lost in the crowd. To my naïve astonishment, kids brazenly smoked in the restrooms. Fist-fights broke out on the lawn outside the school almost daily. Like clockwork each day before lunch, snickering bullies shouldered me into the lockers. Worst of all, I knew absolutely no one in my class; I had to start new friendships from scratch, years after most cliques had set in stone.

Starved for social contact, I treasured those few friendships I had outside of school. In particular, I clung to a younger neighbor from our low-income neighborhood. We rode the same bus (he attended the junior high), so each day we’d hunker down in the same seat.

And there, on that bus, we’d invent worlds.

Over time, we had developed a sort of spoken role-playing game that translated well to the bus trip. My friend would talk his way through an interactive adventure that I imagined and described. I’d place his character in some godforsaken place—an abandoned warehouse, a subterranean lair, a tall tower—and he’d have to “battle” his way out. He’d tell me each move he wanted to make, and I’d explain him what happened as a result. Each bus ride became an impromptu, oral performance of a text-based adventure game—think Zork or Hitchhiker’s Guide.

This imagined world was haunted by pop culture’s most famous arch-villains: the Joker. Chucky from the Child’s Play horror movies. Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Kreuger. My friend’s avatar faced off against each in turn—a series of “boss battles,” advancing from the least threatening to the most vile.

Who was that chief bad guy? None other than the Terminator, everyone’s favorite homicidal android. We so adored the Terminator films that we even named our game “Zzz-ching”—the noise the robot made as it stalked my friend through deserted corridors. Zzz-ching became our default pasttime, on the bus and off.


That year in public school was scary. I felt lonely and overwhelmed by an unfamiliar, chaotic context. As silly as it might seem, our little game represented a welcome escape. It was a world I could control completely, when the real world seemed dangerously unpredictable. It was creative work that someone else appreciated, when I felt ignored in the mass of other students. For a few minutes each morning and afternoon, Zzz-ching provided some distraction and camaraderie—just enough to make public school a bit more bearable.

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history Uncategorized

The fine line between archaeology and grave-robbing

Construction excavations in Rennes, France recently uncovered several forgotten grave sites beneath the town’s convent. Among the dead was the well-preserved corpse of the “Lady of Brefeillac,” who died 350 years ago. Her body’s remarkable condition is being hailed as a spectacular archaeological find.

Here’s my question: at what point does exhuming a body cross over from desecration to legit archaeology? How many years have to pass until it’s okay to dig up someone’s remains and pick them apart? Most of us would probably object if historians unearthed our grandparents. What about your great-grandparents? Or great-greats? Is 100 years the safe benchmark? 200? 

Or is fame the important metric? Many Americans would grumble if Ben Franklin’s body were exhumed. What about an anonymous farmer from the same era?


Speaking of desecration, am I the only one who thinks the late Lady of Brefeillac looks like she’s made of delicious fried chicken?

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history sports Uncategorized

Living links

We saw Twelve Years a Slave last night. It’s not a perfect film,[1] but it offers an honest, heart-wrenching account of the most shameful “secret” in American history.

Because lawful slavery ended long before we were born, we might be tempted to dismiss it as a half-remembered relic of a less-civilized age.

That’s too easy, for several reasons. First, human trafficking continues to occur here in the U.S. and around the world. In addition, 150 years is not so long a time, after all. Using historic photos, we can leapfrog our way back to the Civil War in just a few moves:

  • The (still-living) George H.W. Bush once met Babe Ruth.
  • Babe Ruth posed for a photo with Pittsburgh Pirates legend Honus Wagner, with whom Ruth’s career briefly overlapped.
  • President William Howard Taft cheered on Honus Wagner at a 1909 baseball game.
  • Taft delivered an address at the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Bull Run. Many aging Civil War veterans attended the ceremony.

Another thought: the last surviving Civil War veteran didn’t pass away until 1956.[2] Although he was a contemporary to Lincoln and Lee, he lived to witness the first automobile, the fall of the Third Reich, and the dawn of the atomic era.

We tend to compartmentalize history into distinct eras. But individual lives transcend these neat mental barriers—and bring history’s injustices uncomfortably close.


  1. Steve McQueen, the film’s director, seems to love uncomfortably long shots of nothing in particular.  ↩
  2. There are several dozen children of Civil War veterans who are still alive, as of October 2013.  ↩
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history Uncategorized

Sinking ships fascinate me

It’s an incredible thought: a ship, once upright, now nose-down, propellers thrust into the sky. This massive world-unto-itself, suddenly violated, upended, and swallowed whole. Familiar environs—bedrooms, kitchens, TV lounges—plummeting towards the ocean floor. A sinking skyscraper, lights still shimmering, plunging down, down into the night.

There’s a more morbid fascination here, too. Panicked passengers, entombed in their staterooms. Trapped submariners, tapping out a hopeless SOS. Stalwart captains, chained to the wheel. It’s hard to imagine a more lonely, terrifying way to die—and that’s why it holds such mystique.

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history TV Uncategorized

Spoiling The Civil War for my wife

Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary boasts a beautiful, nineteenth-century-inspired soundtrack. One particular piece, “Ashokan Farewell,” serves as the miniseries’ de facto theme song. It’s gorgeous: a plaintive string band ballad with a a heartbreaking melody.

I’ve spoiled this song for my wife.

Every time we hear “Ashokan”, I provide an impromptu voiceover, modeled on many we hear in The Civil War. Typically, I pretend to be a lonely soldier, writing home to his sweetheart on the eve of battle. You know; a letter so sickly sweet it makes you gag? Something like this:

My dearest Clementine,

It has been now three score weeks since I have seen your lovely face. And now, on the brink of this terrible battle, I cannot help but wonder whether I have looked upon it for the last time in this life.

Now, do not mistake me, my dearest friend. I do not fear battle, nor do I fear death. Indeed, what is there to fear, but this one thing: that you will mourn me all your days and go to the grave a childless widow? Nothing fills me with more dread. Should I fall tomorrow, then, Clementine, you must spare me this awful sorrow. You must promise to love another, bear him many children, and live a full and happy life.

Know that I have loved you, do love you dearly, and will love you, for all time, Jebediah Jackson, Fifth Maine Infantry division

(Imagine me reading this with some awful, unidentifiable nineteenth-century accent.) My wife rolls her eyes. But I think, secretly, deep down, she eats it up.