I wish I could say this was inspired by something more monumental, like a big life event or existential epiphany, but the truth is far simpler: The Ghost of Tsushima is just that great.
In every way, the game is an (A+) work of art. While the duels among cherry blossoms and battles amid flames are thrilling in their own right, I’m in it for picking flowers, petting foxes, writing poems. If it weren’t for all the swinging massive razors and duty-bound murder parties, I’d HELLUV been a samurai. But since those things are kind of a package deal…oh well.
May I present, some amateurish poetry…
Haiku Pause, breath, and reflect. Flower on a windy cliff, breathe and be nourished.
Moon A light amid dark Silent, blossoming brilliance Gate to the cosmos
Supper Food in my belly Warmth spreading through my body. This is just the best
Can I lead up at the top that I appreciate you? Whoever you are, though I don’t know your name, your voice, your favorite food, or whether you prefer high-five’s or fist-bumps – I think you’re pretty great.
Out in California, right now we’re all collectively preparing for fire season. Mostly that means expecting power outages, preparing (at least mentally) go-bags we can quickly pack or grab in the event of an evacuation, and taking stock of what things are important enough to warrant inventory space and which might need to be committed to flames (worse case scenario, obviously).
Most of us have an idea of what we’d bring, and what that does is highlight what matters to us. It also usually highlights how many things of ours are…just things. And when that happens, it leads to a deeper appreciation for what we have. This could lead into a never-ending rant about how Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and how I think it suffers the incredible irony of being severely underappreciated whilst getting crushed under the stampeding boots of Christmas shoppers- BUT we’ll leave that for another day.
In a largely roundabout way, what I mean to center on is that it’s a common thing for most go-bags to include a small stack of a person’s favorite books. Now, while fiction is my first love, and my treasured collection of Witcher novels would need to be pried out of my cold, dead hands, another that would need to come with me is Thomas Paine’s “Age of Reason.”
Enormously controversial in its day, I’m sure it could still be seen that way nowadays. In short, Paine describes it simply as his thoughts on religion. No wonder why then, in the mid-eighteenth century, the book landed him in some pretty hot water (and, actually, totally in jail). The second half of the book was written from prison, and it’s essentially his dissection of the Bible and the reasons why, in his view, it’s complete cockamamie nonsense.
I don’t love it for its second half. I love it for the first half.
The first sixty-eight pages (of my edition, anyway) are Paine outlining his own personal form of Deism – deism being a viewpoint that sees the universe as having a supreme, creating intelligence, but one that is separate from and does not intervene in the material world (Creation).
And while I want to, I’m not going to quote anything here – because I insist you read it yourself (found easily enough as a pdf right here —> Here!); and if you do, scroll down to pages thirty-three and thirty-four to get a taste of the root of his outlook.
In brief, he doesn’t see God necessarily as being a big bald-headed man in the clouds with a big floofy beard. Whatever name you want to give the force greater than understanding, more universal and common but as mysterious as consciousness itself, doesn’t matter so much.
But what is important is that the worship is in seeing. It’s in listening. In feeling. In smelling. In tasting. Taking in the world around us, trying to comprehend it, but above that – appreciating it.
Not to get too ‘woo-woo’ on us, but do you ever take a moment to recognize that you exist?
Just the fact that you, the awareness behind the eyes, inside the body, and behind the thoughts of whoever you are – are real. For no discernible point or purpose, from a mysterious some-say-unknowable origin, as a cosmic phenomenon…you exist. AND you’re able to contemplate that fact. Cogito, ergo sum, after all.
Worship is in appreciating what’s in front of you. What’s in you. What’s happened, or all the unknowable things that will happen. All of the heart-breakingly beautiful shapes and creatures on the planet, or those things our astronomers have shown us out in the cosmos.
It’s such a warping thought to know it’s so large that to even try comprehending the full breadth of it is unimaginable from the start.
Anyway, I’m feeling lost in the weeds now. We’re FULL rant. But…gah, things to think about right?
TL;DR – I appreciate you, things are awesome, good to think on that sometimes, woo-woo.
First things first: it bugs me to no end that often times spellcheck will give the little red squiggle to “axe” if you spell it with an ‘e’ at the end, but “ax” is perfectly fine even though “axe” is already perfectly fine.
That was stupid.
What’s up everybody?
I’m not sure what reminded me the other day of the following story, but I’m glad whatever it was did. Back in 2016 was when I tried submitting my first-ever piece of fiction to an outlet. I didn’t know how to format it, hadn’t really tried writing like that ever before, never tried researching a market before, or had any practice addressing editors – I just went for it. You know who the outlet was?
For the uninitiated – they’re big; at the very least much, much, much, MUCH bigger than a kid trying his first EVER tale had right to reach for. But they were cool, polite, and cordial when they dutifully rejected the piece I rushed to compile for their submission window.
But I thought that was how you did it. I thought you went for the big fish. Adjusting my approach (still incorrectly), I then thought it was about thoroughly researching a market, tooling a piece of fiction tailored to them specifically, and spending months finely polishing it for them before perfectly and carefully crafting the impeccable cover letter to whet their appetite for the fruits of your labor; like a sniper lining up for a half-mile bullseye: check the wind, curvature, your breathing, your trigger discipline, time it between beats of your heart.
Turns out, a better approach is a lot more like laying down on the trigger of an uzi. Spray and pray, til you’re empty, reload, rinse, repeat. Tenaciously.
There’s a publisher called DreamForge that’s pretty great, and on their site they have an essay that attempts to outline why a story submitted to them might be rejected. And the answer in a nutshell is thus: any of a million reasons.
It could be that they find it poorly written; could be too many typos; could be they didn’t understand it; could be they didn’t care for the expression of the stated genre; could be they find it doesn’t fit their project’s theme tightly enough; could be word count conflicts with their budget; or it could be that it’s well written, but the editor wasn’t quite in the mood the day they read yours; or they love your story about kickass ninja vampires fighting ogre assassins on the moon, but they just happened to read and accept another story in their stack about kickass ninja vampires fighting ogre assassins on the moon right before finding yours.
The point is that it’s sort of a lottery, if you’re an independent writer starting out. Making sure your work is well-written, cleanly done, strong in concept, and appropriate for the market you’re submitting it to are all the right ways to increase your chances, but in the end you’re still competing with an unknown amount of other writers, of unknown quality, against unknown standards and tastes – a gamble.
Captain Picard said it best:
This tortuously long preamble brings us to a few summers ago in 2018. I was working in an optics lab at the time, preparing to leave that job for a writing sabbatical. I was feeling burnt out, tired of my day-to-day, and wanted to embrace the daydreams I kept cooking up. The budget I wrote up figured I had about a year to do that before reality would come calling. (Reality would catch up way quicker than that, and I’d find myself caring for my ailing mother two weeks after leaving my job – but we’ve talked about that life-asteroid to death already.)
About a month before leaving my job, Mandy and I were at a friend’s birthday party. Also present was a young woman we’ll call Delilah. Before I say anything moving forward, I want it clearer than crystal that I’ve nothing but fondness, respect, and best wishes for her, for reasons we’ll lay out here and in great part for the lesson my encounters with her taught me.
Turned out, Delilah was also going into writing freelance at about the same time, or had started about a month or so before. She talked about how (I believe I’m getting this right) she was a housewife at the time, and wanted to pursue it while she had the time. She went to an event or workshop of some sort down in San Francisco, delivered a stand-up set she’d prepared, met an editor, and snagged a gig for a that outlet.
On the one hand, easy-peasy; two weeks into freelance writing and you’ve bagged a job and a contact. On the other, it takes guts and no lack of panache to do what she did.
So she shares this with us and while the group dissolves a little into its various chat circles, I overhear Mandy and Delilah talking. Mandy’s sharing that I had an intent to pursue something similar, and Delilah’s asking questions. I’d wandered away, but was told later than Delilah’s response was more or less: “Oh…that’s his plan? I wouldn’t, if I were him.”
Even though it was just birthday party hearsay, probably said off-hand, it was a little dismissive remark that stuck with me. It bit me with this sort of stinking moral superiority that would gnaw at me for months later. The first five months of my sabbatical were literally nothing but hardship and rejection; and every time, I would think of Delilah’s quick-won success and her “I wouldn’t if I were him,” remark.
And every time, I would close my eyes, tell myself to shut up, and get back to it. I didn’t have a network, hadn’t made contacts, was learning through trial and error, had a lot outside of writing work on my plate, but dammit I would make it work out.
Then, luck struck, and I had my first story picked up. Shortly thereafter, lightning struck twice and I had a second acceptance, which came with being an interview on the podcast where the story aired (as well as a follow-up appearance later to talk movies). And since, I have had three more fiction sales, some traction in fiction contests, and been fortunate enough to work for a few local papers and magazines. It’s been hard-won, organic, independent, and with large amounts of tenacity and dumb luck.
A year after that party, the birthday boy had another (as is usually the case with birthdays), and we bumped into Delilah again. We caught up around a little campfire circle and naturally were each asked about how well writing was going. Delilah recounted how it was going well, but [paraphrasing] “her editor had relocated to a different outlet and gone radio silent, so that was dead now and a bummer; and while she was going to produce a podcast with a partner, said partner was being a c*** and so hadn’t come to fruition yet.”
When the question came to me, the host of the party (birthday boy’s wife) did me one of the greatest compliments/blessings I’ve received in my life.
“And you were going to be a writer too, right?” came Delilah’s question. And the host interjected with, “He’s been published, in fact,” then motioned for me to explain.
Doing me that honor, saving me that modesty, and acknowledging that achievement all in one swoop has been, to date, one of the deftest moves in etiquette I’ve witnessed in person; and I was thrilled to be its subject.
I did my best to continue that modesty through my explanation, but I’m sure some pride leaked through. I give myself a pass, though, because the truth is I was proud of it, and especially in that moment I felt vindicated. The slow, steady, organic grind of failed attempt after failed attempt after failed attempt finally becoming a small success triumphing over – at least as was the way my mind viewed it – over the model of quick but fleeting satisfaction…felt great.
But in that was also a lesson. And the markets and guidelines I’ve seen all point to an average acceptance rate of somewhere in the neighborhood of 2-3%; but usually it can be more like 1%. That means, if you do everything right, you can hope for or expect one success for every one hundred attempts.
So, try one hundred times. And after that, try a hundred more. So on and so forth until you can begin to count your successes. And be okay with them being small, they’ll get bigger.
At least, this is what I tell myself. But I will say that the math checks out.
My plan was to join the California Writers’ Club after my third independent fiction sale, and while I still plan on it because I’m eager to see what opportunities that might afford, the struggle of the independent author has been one I’ve come to enjoy the fruits of.
Ah, I just remembered what kicked this all off, actually. The other day, I was looking on my body of work (which feels hilarious to say, given how tiny it is) and feeling unsatisfied where I used to feel proud. And so mentally running back through the journey of the past couple of years was a good chance to review, take stock, and realize the accomplishment it is; especially as any beginning writer would likely agree, five months is actually a startlingly turnaround for one’s first printing. So I recognize the element of luck in this experience.
In the end, the message doesn’t really change. Help or not, friends or not, network or not: keep swinging the axe, keep trying.
Did you ever hear about the three-legged dog that walked into the saloon?
He looks at the bartender and cocks his hat to the side. Bartender asks, “what can I do ya for?”
The three-legged dog answers, “I’m lookin’ fer the man what shot my paw.”
Yup, that was pretty dumb, or so says the numbers. When I was first told it, I literally threw my head back laughing and literally slapped my knee. Ever since, whenever I’ve retold it, though, doesn’t seem to resonate the same way with others.
But, ah, such is the fate of puns, no?
Been a bit of an absentee lately, BUT it’s only because of good news. Recently sold not one but TWO pieces of fiction, and as well have been doing some work for a few local papers and magazines (solicited, to boot!); all while trying to get this book done and manage…well, life.
Beyond that, not a whole lot of noteworthy occurrences to share…
Um. Sat at a cafe a little while ago. Got yelled at by a homeless man and watched a kid take a whizz on his mom’s car. Bold, too. Just right out there in the parking lot.
Do you remember in History class, or Social Studies, or whatever it was called where you went, and in the lessons you might be told, “People of this time thought ‘X’,” or “Members of this culture believed ‘Y’,” right?
I took a college course called ‘History of God,’ as well as a number of other religious studies curriculum, and one thing I will love my professor for forever was a distinction he drew: no matter what time period or culture you’re talking about, it’s not 100% true of all its members. Which is to say, it’s inaccurate to assume ALL people of a given time, given movement, or given culture can be attributed a given attitude or belief.
Many of us are familiar with the popular myths of the Egyptians, Greeks, Babylonians, Norse cultures, so on and so forth, but you can’t declare that those beliefs were held by all members of that time. Did many believe a stroke or seizure was a person being struck by an arrow of Apollo? Maybe, but were also many who heard that and thought, “Eh, I doubt that?” Yeah, totally. Were there Norse folk who thought the clouds in the sky were the brains of a frost giant? On record, yes. But might there have been those who saw the rain and quietly disputed that explanation? Of course.
Now, this is going to be a rough segue, but bear with me.
Was there a massive outcry following the finale of Game of Thrones, calling it garbage, full of ‘bad writing,’ and character abandonment? Yes. Are there also millions of us who acknowledge some of its flaws, enjoyed it massively regardless, and hold a lot of the outcry to be a bandwagon bit o’ bitching but just didn’t feel like shouting about that. Yes, God, and please remember that.
Was ‘The Last of Us’ a fantastic video game experience, whose sequel has fallen under fire with an enormous amount of controversy and outrage? Yes. Are there those of us who recognize the work, skill, creativity, and direction that went into it and are wondering why there’s so much hate? You bet your butt.
The sad thing is that the outrage is the louder voice, and so will be the one that’s heard and remembered. But, there’s an opportunity in that.
Imagining the future, where the archeologists and historians of tomorrow will look back on the records of today, they’ll see and know the hordes of angry fans, they’ll hear the desperate braying of upset followers, and recognize those things as the attitudes of the time…
But the astute among them will know there was another side of that time. A secret society of those of us who knew the true worth of those creations, whose job was to quietly safeguard the integrity of those arts, to hold them and keep them through the turmoil and the chaos until a time when they no longer need hide; and that they may fall into the hands of truly worthy, respectful recipients.
I literally stood by a window looking out at the sky while rehearsing that block. It brought me peace, breath, and probably an undue sense of importance; and I hope it can bring you the same.
I went back through my history of posts on here to see whether or not I’d covered this thought before, and couldn’t find it leaping out at me; but even if I had, it’s worth another visit.
I don’t often get jealous. Or mad, really. There’s a whole range of emotions, and while, like, duh, I’ve experienced both, they just come up very rarely. Don’t get me wrong, I consider it a good thing, but it means that when it happens, it’s usually a bit more serious.
The jealousy I’m about to speak on runs kind of deep, and I only found out I had it a few months ago. If I may, I’d like to start at the beginning, about a year ago (and no, don’t let that frighten you, I’ll keep it brief).
I was helping a friend move, and while her boyfriend at the time and I took a truck load of furniture to the new house, he asked me what I do. I mentioned at the time that I’d just left my job and was trying to find my way as a freelance writer and fiction author. He gave a polite gasp of awe, said how cool that was, and how tough it can be to be a writer (preach, my brother); and remarked how he could never write stories.
What I’m about to tell you – you, right there – I know to be truth. It’s an undeniable part of the fabric of being that I feel in my bones that anyone and everyone has the capacity to be a storyteller, without exception. We are ourselves, each a living, breathing tale in the making; so how could it be anything but natural when the art form is a part of our being? Do I appreciate his reverence for the craft? Absolutely. Does it take patience, perseverance, will, and a vulnerable, heartbreaking openness and respect to do properly? I believe so, yeah. And is it a practice that’s ever finished? No, I don’t think so. But no matter the case, his reaction – while flattering – stuck with me beyond the compliment.
Skip ahead a number of months to my friend Micah’s graduation party. He’s graduated with a degree in (sorry Micah, I’m about to butcher the facts by guessing here) music theory with the intent to teach (which is confidently true, because he teaches now). The point being, he was a music student. Consider it as owing to my own conical viewpoint, but I asked him if he’d had any interest in composing his own music, and his answer surprised the crap out of me: he said “no.”
Let’s put a pin in that really quick.
If you’re nice to yourself and enjoy the good things in life, you’ve probably seen Ratatouille, the movie about a talking rat that wants to be a chef; if not, well…that’s…that’s what it’s about. It’s great. And in it, there’s a scene where the main character Remy is trying to teach his brother, another rat that scarfs garbage, an appreciation for flavors and the art of cooking. He has him try a bit of strawberry, and a bit of cheese, then a bit of each together, all with his eyes closed and coaching him on how to savor it and ruminate on the experience. It’s visually represented with a black background and ribbons of color drawing themselves in the air as the different flavors are experienced. It’s well done. (It’s also a good time to note here that, since seeing the movie, any time in the past twelve years I’ve eaten an exceptionally good meal, I do the same thing.)
By every fiber of the word, I’m an amateur writer. I’ve been blessed with a few paid successes here and there that I appreciate deeply, but it’s rooted in a love for story crafting. There are few pleasures above being brought a fantasy from the ether, honing the ability to capture that experience in words, and give it to someone else. A confession: that’s not really what gets done on here. This is fun, a routine-keeping tool (that I sometimes fail miserably at), and a place to vent, speculate, experiment with thoughts, and do exercises. Most of the time, the root of a story comes from a thought, a real-world parallel, an ideal, a what-if, or… …a piece of music.
A musical number will start, and like those ribbons of light in Remy’s brother’s head, a scene can start. It’s murky, like it’s being seen and heard, absent of context, through a window thick with frost. Then as you think on it, let it grow, allow the theater of mind to work, the ice thaws and it gets clearer and clearer, more and more refined, until you have a tale to share.
<removes earlier pin>
I have no idea at all, but I have tried so hard so many times to imagine the mind of a composer when an idea takes root. To put myself in that black space, floating in the void as the sounds come into being, layering on top of one another, an orchestra working in harmony. Imagining how they grow and morph, becoming the pieces of clockwork that produce flavor and emotion and memory and resonance, then to have the sense of responsibility settle on you that charges you with capturing it so it can be shared is all a process so beautiful tears well up thinking on it.
But I can’t.
My imagination in that regard begins and ends with that silent, empty blackness. No sounds bleed into being, no ribbons draw themselves in the air to inspire and awe.
And that shit is…just…heartbreaking, I find.
When Micah answered “no,” my immediate reaction (besides bewilderment) took it almost as a slap in the face of an art that I didn’t even share in; which might be weird, I admit now. Later, I asked my buddy Peter (a bassist and songwriter) what he thought of Micah’s answer, and he was nonplussed. Paraphrasing:
“Yeah, no surprise. Just because he has a masters in music doesn’t mean he knows how to compose, or likes doing it. Like, having a degree in philosophy doesn’t make you a philosopher. Knowing old philosophy doesn’t mean you’ll produce new ones, or that you’d want to.”
I took his word for it, and over time it’s come to make sense. Just because we watch movies, doesn’t mean we all want to be filmmakers, or if we enjoy murals downtown, doesn’t mean we necessarily want to take up painting.
So, I don’t know why this feels so different to me, but damn it does. You know that old, “If you could pick one superpower, what would it be and why?” Like, obviously telekinesis or teleportation is high on the list, but being tuned into whatever frequency lets you hear and craft orchestral pieces is a contender.
For now, I content myself with a vicarious imagination. Letting the ribbons draw themselves and dance while listening to the music that came to someone else. And really, it’s not too different from other arts. There isn’t anything to separate it from the eye of a photographer that sees the beauty in a captured moment, or the bones of a dancer that know the feel of a performance.
We’re all antennae for the arts, and that’s pretty cool.
I had a thought the other day that I’d like to share with you. Yes. You. And the person to your right. There isn’t anybody to your right? You wanna bet? What about the guy behind you- BOO!
Okay, that got stupid.
But for real, I woke up the other morning and my first conscious thought was thus: “Hmm…I wonder how far it is, like, what’s the distance in vertical miles to outer space?”
I asked Amanda to look it up, and the answer is “roughly sixty-two miles” (62). I did a little bit more googling, and it turns out there’s a measurement called the Karman Line, which is the boundary from Earth’s sea level directly up 100 kilometers, where the planet’s boundary ends and suborbital space begins.
Then I had another thought.
I live in California, right? So I looked up the distance from me to Sacramento, the state’s capital. You know how far I am from the state’s capital of Sacramento, a place I’ve driven to and driven through plenty of times? About sixty-six miles (66).
What about Fresno?
Two hundred thirty-four miles (234).
Oh…my…God. Sacramento is further away than…hell, I’m FOUR TIMES closer to the dark, cold, IMPOSSIBLY INCOMPREHENSIBLE, INFINITE expanse of OUTER SPACE than Fresno, California.
Anyway, that realization about fits with 2020 so far. And it is my gift to you. Enjoy.
<a dust cloud swirls, carrying light bits of debris across a deserted street>
<a tumbleweed is stuck up against a wire mesh trash can with a missing lid, bobbing in the breeze>
<the manhole cover in the middle of the road bumps once, twice, then grinds its way over to the side>
<a man with tired eyes and a messy hairdo pulls himself to the surface, wipes his nose, and looks around>
God damn. It’s been a second, ain’t it?
I had a dream the other night that taught me a pretty powerful lesson. In it, I was touring Elon Musk’s SpaceX facility alongside Milo Ventimiglia, for some reason. Like in any good dream, I had no recollection or thought as to why Milo or I was there, but we were guests and it was pretty sweet, so I decided not to question it.
Elon (I get to call him Elon, because we were on a first-name basis) showed us around dark, gray, concrete corridor after dark, gray, concrete corridor, and I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was in the villain HQ of 007 Goldeneye. There were people in lab coats, a lot of restricted sections, a ton of “sciencey stuff,” but no armed guards, which I guess should have been odd but didn’t feel that way at the time.
The most striking feature wasn’t the collection of rocket boosters and shuttles under construction, but the giant vats of glowing green liquid. There were people in lab coats around each one carrying a clipboard, looking official, but that didn’t keep them from feeling out of place. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end, goose-pimples rose along my arms, my ears strained their peripherals…
Something was about to happen.
Now, some might remember the time I stopped a fight inside a Grocery Outlet. I don’t know how to fight. I KNOW I don’t know how to fight. I haven’t trained the correct way to uncork a punch, how to establish a proper take-down, how to aim a kick in a way that won’t snap my foot like a weak-spined fish. I know a few things ABOUT the subject, but I RECOGNIZE my own physical ability regarding them.
Which is why it was a good thing what happened next took place in my head.
Of a sudden, Milo shouts, “Look out!” as one of the scientists pulls out of a bowie knife (why’d it have to be a bowie knife? Because my subconscious holds an aspiration to be Crocodile Dundee, I guess), and he lunges at Elon. Like Ip Man, I Wing Chun the shit out of the villainous egghead’s wrist, disarming him of his wicked blade. I kick his foot out from under him, and as he falls to a knee, I bring my own up to his forehead, rendering him unconscious.
It was sick.
At the same moment, another scientist removes his hat (for the sake of it, let’s say he was wearing a tall trucker hat) to reveal a menacing sneer and obviously evil scar over his eye. He grabs a vial of something that looked important, and a chase ensued.
In short order, I catch up to the ne’er-do-well, he sets the vial down, rips off his shirt to reveal an absolutely STACKED physique, and the fight bell rings.
I want to be the matador, not the bull, so I stand my ground, taunt, give him the ol’ “bring it” hand curl, and he charges. Wide punch misses, my counter punch to the body lands, but the f*cker’s body is like an oak table, so he’s unaffected. I take a knee to the chest, stumble, and eat a follow-up left to the face. I fall to my rump, and he follows me to the ground to end it – his fatal flaw.
Like a spring tap, my legs shoot up, wrapping around his neck the extended arm he’s punching with. I twist it to the side, lock my left leg over my right ankle, and sink in the triangle choke. He twists and struggles, flailing his free arm’s fist about, but slowly loses steam. Finally, some seconds later, his body goes limp and collapses to the floor.
Did I best an evil-doer with jiu-jitsu I’ve watched but never practiced? Hell yes. Did it feel incredible? You bet your tush. Did I return the vial to Elon only to find out he’d arranged the whole thing, murdered Milo, then betrayed me? Yeah, that sort of happened too.
But was it all worth it?
Still yes, but learn from my example and when you see a group of villains steal from a billionaire, maybe sit it out rather than play the hero because you mind just wind up double-crossed as a reward for your sick-ass parkour and martial arts skills.
I’d love to sit here and say this was something I put together for you, something I sat on and thought about and pored over and worked on for your enjoyment and betterment – but it’s not. This is about to be an anecdote for myself to come back to later and be embarrassed that I put out to the public.
This is about the time I caught…The Glow.
I started playing Magic: the Gathering (yup, and there goes anyone that made it even this far) back in the Summer of 2018. I’d heard the horror stories of how much people can just pour money into the hobby, how much it financially drains you, and I was determined not to be another statistic. I bought two little 60-card starter decks and said, “That’s quite enough for me. THIS will be my Magic collection and I’m happy with it.”
Suffice it to say, it did not stop there.
To date, I’ve built and dismantled more Modern decks than was ever worth counting, and maintain a rotation of eight Commander/EDH decks with themes all important to my heart and soul: Izzet Artifacts, Elves/Tokens, Blue-Black Mill, mono-Green Hydras, Jeskai Time Wizards, Rakdos Goblins, Boros Angels, and Liliana Necromancy/Zombies. With the exception of Time Wizards, who has yet to ever come through for me meaningfully and was probably a mistake, I love each of them dearly.
So, now that the stage is set, our tale…
I was over at my good friend Josh’s house for a day of cards with friends. These same friends, mind you, put me through a baptism of fire when I first started playing – which was good. As I was learning the basics, they beat the ever-loving shit out of me most games. But I persevered, learned, and took those lessons of brutality to heart. All for this day…
First game of the day was just against Josh, since I showed up first (a rare occurrence). I pulled out my ‘Selvala, Heart of the Wilds‘ Hydra deck and got to business. That said, Josh was using his pride and joy, a Sliver Overlord tribal deck that cost, probably, about two grand. Selvala, bless her heart, held her own valiantly, but was ultimately overcome (it’s okay, every hero’s journey needs to begin with struggle).
It was close, and to this day I’m convinced that if I hadn’t drawn into so much goddamn land, I could have taken him. Or, if I’d used my pride and joy, my first love, my Saheeli, the Gifted artifact deck, I could have had him up and out of there in no time. (She was the underdog of her Commander block in 2018, but together, we trained her up and put some real power behind her punches with practice, study, and plenty of steroids.)
Once our friends arrived, the REAL show began.
I’m not sure what it’s like with other people’s play groups, but it tends to be within ours, that when a person wins a game between four players, it’s in a single, fell swoop: an infinite combo (thankfully rare), an “if X, then win the game” condition, or a huge move like a surprise Craterhoof Behemoth stomping that takes out all other three players at once.
This day…this day was different.
We start off, it’s a table with FIVE of us, which is a lot of players for a game of EDH; not monstrous, but a lot. I pull out my Rhys the Redeemed elves/tokens deck for this one. His main win condition is either cheating out a Felidar Sovereign for a sort of cheaper win, or raising an army of saprolings, squirrels, and elves, then plopping out the ol’ Craterhoof Behemoth trick; either way, its quickest route to victory involves annihilating the table or the game all at once.
This day, however, I knocked out each of the other four players through combat damage, individually. It was a deadly dance of politics to incite a fight with only another player at a time to not draw any undue aggression, healing up my wounds with lifelink abilities after each skirmish, and maintain token numbers to be a reasonable presence without being a threatening one. It was kind of like a fight scene out of an action movie, where the hero is surrounded by henchman who come at him all-at-once-ish, but really one at a time, and by the end of it, it’s the hero who’s done all the ass-whoopin’.
It. Was. Glorious.
And it came down to a razor finish. I knocked out the third of my opponents, trying to leave enough defense to withstand my final opponent’s turn since I was the only remaining threat, when he equips a Colossus Hammer to one of his soldiers and swings all out at me. I had enough tokens remaining to block enough of the assault that it left me with two Life left…TWO. Then I was able to counter-swing on my next turn for the finish.
So I sat back, packed that deck away in its box, and contentedly notched my name in the win column for that night, feeling good. I’d gotten my win out of the way, and it was awesome. So, for the next game, I go back to my Selvala – Hydras deck, to give it another, Sliver-less try.
This time, there’s far more in-fighting at the table, with there being more aggressors than just myself, finally. Combat damage is being dealt back and forth among players, but no one is going for the knock-out yet, presumably so everyone can stay in the game until it ends; a noble gesture, but not a lesson my hard Magic upbringing taught me to embrace with them. I see an opportunity late game to flash in a Hydra Broodmaster on an end step before my turn begins. If I remember right, I had Unbound Flourishing on board, so I got to make her go monstrous where ‘X’ got to be something nice and big like ‘8,’ and then for combat on my turn, I throw down an Overwhelming Stampede and do exactly what one might expect…
…I stampeded the table.
Playful groans and gasps made their way around the table. And my proud triumph turned slightly to embarrassment….embarrassment that I was still inexorably proud of.
So I threw up my hands and said, “Woooof, y’all. Alright, my bad. I’ve had my fun for the night, had my fair share. Shit, I’m sorry,” all while laughing with them. “Looks like I caught The Glow tonight. I’ll change it up and just be a spectator for this next one.” I put away my Hydras, rolled up my foresty-colored play mat, and pulled out my Blue-Black Mill/Persistent Petitioners deck, headed by Phenax, God of Deception.
(My FAVORITE game ever of Magic is a story for another time if I ever again feel baseless enough to do another one of these posts, but I will say that what follows here might be my SECOND-FAVORITE ever game of Magic I’ve played.)
For the uninitiated, Mill-strategies in the Commander format are widely seen as a pretty unwise route to victory as, instead of the directness of combat damage, you’re trying to empty out your opponent’s 100-card deck. 1) It can be pretty slow, understandably. 2) It also usually has to be pretty focused, so with multiple opponents, your capacity for offense has a built-in cap. 3) To make up for its weaknesses, a mill deck usually has to be pretty focused on that goal, so defense can be somewhat lacking, leaving you kind of open. 4) Lastly, people, on average, fucking hate being milled and seeing their stuff get dumped into the graveyard, so it builds your villainy meter at the table pretty quickly (ie Players cheer when someone kills you in the name of public good, nobody mourns your loss, and they line up to poop on your grave).
This game was different.
Some brief stage-setting: It’s a 5-player game this time around, and since I don’t imagine any of them will EVER read this, I’m going to be using their real names. To my left, was my buddy Brent, who was playing mono-red Dwarves; to his left was Kopa, who was playing a Blue-Red-White ‘Voltron’ deck; followed by Woody, who was playing Blue-Red-Green elementals; followed at last by our illustrious host Josh, who was borrowing someones mono-blue artifact deck.
I draw my opening hand to see that I have two Petitioners, three land, a counter spell, and Thrumming Stone. In case it’s confusing as to why that’s cool, here’s the break-down: Since I can have as many Petitioners in my deck as I want, I run twenty-eight as a multiple of four per the card’s ability. That’s enough of a percentage that they come up commonly enough and have good odds at the Ripple ability without clogging up my draws. Thrumming Stone basically says if you cast a Petitioner, you can look for another one to get played, which will look for another one to get played, which will look for another one to get played, yatta yatta, on until you have all twenty-eight of your Petitioners out – if you get lucky to roll on like that and provided none have gotten killed.
In my mind, I immediately see what I have to do: stall and be ignored long enough to drop Thrumming Stone and a Petitioner in the same turn – a seven mana cost – to hopefully let the Ripple effect take over. So if I can draw well and keep below radar until about Turn Nine, I have a shot at totally fucking over the table. Plus, hang onto that counter spell as an insurance policy.
So the game begins, and right out the gate Josh takes an aggressive lead. He rolls out artifacts and gadgets left and right, big equipment to buff his creatures, and throwing hot damage around the table. In addition, he starts lightly milling the table, which is where my Greatest Performance of Deception begins (Phenax would be proud).
We’re all getting milled for one or two cards at a time. With the rest of the table, I playfully and dramatically groan, pleading for him to maybe just forego the effect rather than having it go through, and commiserating with the other players at our misfortune, but inside I’m thrilled. Every card that gets skimmed off the top that isn’t a land card or a Petitioner is fantastic. He mills my Mind Funeral? Great, I don’t need the heat anyway. He dumps my Consuming Aberration? Super, I have something to jokingly “complain” about not getting to play. Every one of those is another turn closer to the land base that I need.
And so it goes, Josh battles and harasses the rest of the table while I draw, maybe play a land, pretend to have my hands tied, and pass. It comes to a point where I have six lands out and I’m just waiting for one more before I can pull my move, but I’m worried to death about something that would destroy my Thrumming Stone. Josh has become a huge threat at this point, in a night that’s twice seen a single player butcher the table (#humblebrag), and he gets up to go pee. Everyone else starts conspiring as to how to turn the tide against him.
“Hmm,” I ponder aloud. “Hey, do any of you have any artifact-removal? That way, we could get rid of his [insert specific dangerous artifact here that I’m totally blanking on].” “No,” says Brent. “No,” replies Kopa. “No,” laments Woody. “Ah, bummer,” I say, looking down at the artifact in my hand.
I play Phenax, just so it doesn’t look too much like I’m intentionally doing nothing. Josh comes back, then Kopa pulls a huge play that sees him kill Josh outright, but one that fortunately makes him become an even larger threat. So Woody follows that by detonating the board with an All is Dust (thankfully the turn after I used that counter spell to stop him playing an Eldrazi). With Josh dead, it comes to me, and I draw my seventh land. I figure if ever there was a blessing from the God of Deception that I’d played my role well and it was time to set the plan in motion, it was now.
So I do. I plop down that land, set out my Thrumming Stone, and play a Petitioner, which chained so marvelously well into all the rest that I exploded from a board state of absolutely nothing, into twenty-eight Petitioners out and proud (total milling potential of 84 cards, basically lethal at that point). Plus, with that All is Dust, everyone needed to rebuilding their boards to pose any threat.
Brent’s turn, he plays a couple of dwarves to reconstitute his board, and at his end step, I mill out Kopa. Playing Jeskai colors and the potential he had for out-of-nowhere kills, he had to go. So after that, it’s just me, Brent, and Woody. On Woody’s turn, he plays Nikya of the Old Ways to regain some board presence which, if you ask me, made my next decision really simple.
It came back to me, and Brent starts talking to the late Kopa that “if I just had one more land, I could blow up his entire fucking board.”
With Woody self-handicapped and unable to cast non-creature spells – meaning no big bombs, no board wipes, no nothin’ – and with Brent openly admitting he might draw into a way to kill me…
…yeah, duh, I milled the shit out of him.
Final turn came down to just me and Woody. His turn comes up, he plays a creature that can’t attack on account of summoning sickness, swings all-out for about 11 damage which I readily greet headfirst. Turn comes to me, I mill him down to dust to make my bread and make it my third straight full-table victory of the night.
A feat of which I was so embarrassingly proud, I just spent the last too-many hours bragging about it on an internet blog.
One minute, you’re writing a poem for your crush in the fourth grade, and the next, you’re thinking back on the decade since you last saw them, quietly browsing through their life on Facebook, wishing them well.
One minute, you’re a ten-year-old kid opening their bright blue lunchbox on the first day of fifth grade, and the next, you looking at that same, now-gray and weathered lunchbox while you’re twenty-six, emptying the pantry to move your mother out of her home.
One minute, you’re just a bunch of teenagers. Pot smoke, skateboard bruises, burgers, and savory high school politics, and the next, you’ve just come home from work, maybe you have plans with your colleagues maybe you don’t, and you’re reminiscing on those times you hadn’t thought would end.
Maybe you think of the cousin you’ve grown up with. Think of the man or woman they’ve become, then think back to the child you grew up alongside and realize that somewhere in the middle one became the other.
Somewhere in all those memories is the splendor of watching a huge web roll out (because “unfurl” would sound a bit pretentious here) like a gigantic road map of lives, seeing where the kids we knew somehow became the adults we know (or don’t, anymore).
“It is possible to make no mistakes and still lose. This is not a weakness. This is life.” – Captain Picard
Moments like this, where we zoom out for a second, realize we’re twenty-six now, and we get to see how far we’ve come and how far we still get to go (if we play our cards right).
We knew kids…that became adults and then died.
We knew kids that didn’t make it that far.
We’ve probably seen friends accomplish really cool things.
And known others that have spun out.
Maybe we’ve fallen away from people who we were really close to.
But then again, met new people we’re glad to know now.
Nihil nove sub sole – “There is nothing new under the Sun.”
None of this is meant to be some epiphany or great revelation, some wisdom I’ve found that I’m sharing to waiting ears. This has all been figured out before and gets figured out all the time. It’s more like a moment in a reaaally good meal – just taking a second to savor what you’ve got. It’s a way to harness the good times, to get more out of them. We tell ourselves to do it all the time with struggles. “When times get hard, just think about how strong you’ll be on the other side.” Same thinking here. If you don’t take a moment here and there to examine the life you’ve had and the one you’ve got, how can you ever be sure of what’s important?
Pain sucks, but it’s part of the human experience, and thus can be a pleasure.
Loss sucks, but its memory can be used to make warmth.
Regret sucks hard, but its lesson is a real straight road to wisdom and experience.
A long time ago, a farmer would walk to a far away well for water. He had a yoke on his back which held a bucket at either end. He would fill the buckets and carry the water home. Well, after the years, one bucket became weathered and cracked, unable to hold water with its leak. “I’m sorry,” said the bucket. “I’m old now and cannot work like I used to.” “Not to worry,” replied the farmer. “When next we gather water, look to your side of the path.” When next the farmer gathered water, the bucket saw that its side of the path was covered in fresh flowers, watered from its own leak. “I planted seeds,” the farmer explained. “You see, as we grow older and acquire new qualities, they may all be turned to good advantage.”