1945: Our New Card Game

As some of you already know, Liam and I are designing a card game. It’s called “1945”, and is an easy to learn, fun to play, strategic game in which each player captures territories using a combination of armed forces, subterfuge, and special abilities.

We’ve been working on it since last summer, and have been getting enthusiastic responses and excellent suggestions for improvements from the folks who have graciously tried out our rough prototypes. We’ve recently enlisted Emily to do the artwork for the game, and after having received our first set of cards from the printer (with only 10% of the final art), are pretty excited about how it’s all starting to come together.

I don’t want to spam my personal contacts whenever we reach a milestone, but if you’d like to keep up on our progress, help test it, or have any ideas for the best ways to produce and promote such a thing, we’d love to hear from you. You can keep up on our progress through:

Big thanks to everyone who has played and supported us this far. We hope to release the game by Autumn.

Kids’ Day Out: 2011(ish) Edition

Each Summer, while the kids are out of school, I arrange a full day out with each of them. Sometimes that means taking a day off of work; on other occasions we squeeze it in on a Saturday. Regardless of when it is, it’s one of the things I look forward to a ton each year (and seems to be a highlight for the young people too).

This year, the first adventure was with Liam. Thanks to Kevin Huffaker, a friend of mine from the university who is not only an amazing polymath but also a tremendously generous guy, we were able to start our day with a SCUBA primer. Neither Liam nor I had ever been before. We both love being in the water, and found the experience utterly delightful. While the river was running low and water conditions turned cloudy pretty quickly as people upstream swam around, we had a great time learning how to control our buoyancy and seeing a bit of the river from a new vantage point.

From there, we treated Kevin to lunch at Valentino’s, Liam’s favorite pizza place in San Marcos, and then caught the then-current Harry Potter movie. A trip to the Blazer Tag center up in Austin was next, where he and I emerged 1st and 2nd in our game with 30 other people. (All those video games do pay off!) The center in Austin is one of the best arenas I’ve been to, and was a ton of fun. We finished off the day with a visit to the Nazi Pirate at Peter Pan mini golf, where I was able to salvage a bit of my honor after the thumping Liam gave me at laser tag.

Next up was my day out with Maggie. She loves nothing more than to be in the water, so Schlitterbahn has been the natural destination for us for many years. Repeatedly voted best waterpark in the country, it’s only 20 minutes away from our house, and is a much more agreeable experience than many amusement parks these days. (Free parking, bring your own picnic, and new stuff every year.) We were a bit disappointed to see that Family Blaster, a ride that uses high-powered jets of water to shoot a raft containing up to 6 people up a hill, had been retired, but we did spend a delightful day climbing on floating crocodiles, navigating our tubes down 20-minute long tube chutes, and slipping down slides. We even invented a word game while we were waiting in line that’s become a standard in-car activity for our family.

I took Abigail out next. Our first stop was Tacodeli, a vegetarian-friendly taco joint that’s both delicious and a quintessentially Austin experience. After that, we wandered Barton Creek mall for a bit, and then went to see Cowboys & Aliens, which I’d been looking forward to since seeing the first preview. Our next stop was Mozart’s, a wonderful coffee shop on the banks of Town Lake. We got tasty beverages, I introduced Abby to cannoli (one of my favorite treats), and we both pulled out guitars and played and sang together down by the water while the turtles looked on appreciatively. When our fingers tired, we moved on to Pinballz (the best arcade I’ve ever visited) and played Addams Family, Twilight Zone, and other pinball classics. Our last stop for the day was at the Alamo Drafthouse for Abby’s first Master Pancake Theater show: Twilight! She was a fan of the books, and had been disappointed by the first movie, so I figured a lampooning would be the ideal way to enjoy the second. She agreed.

In addition to the goal of simply having a grand time, I also set Abby and I the task of both taking lots of photos along the way, and picking out our favorites along the way to edit and post on Facebook as a record of our day together. Here are the 8 shots we deemed best.

Unfortunately, I had a dreadful time coordinating Emily’s and my calendars, but in March of the next year, we finally managed to find a day we both had open. After hearing of Liam’s mini-adventure, Emily was keen to try SCUBA as well, so we rounded up Kevin again and my friend Jason and set off for a larger-scale run: near the headwaters of the San Marcos River down to the whitewater course at the other end of town. Since we’d finally had some rain after a tremendous drought, the water was running clear and fast, and we had beautiful visibility as we swam under waterfalls, through valleys of endangered Texas Wild Rice, and past a variety of water creatures. Emily filled a bag with treasures she found in the water, and I reveled in the opportunity to see the river as we never had before.

After our swim, we regrouped at the house while eating big Subway sandwiches, and then Emily and I went north for her first Master Pancake Theater show: Back to the Future. The lads did a terrific job with it, and we had a great time eating, drinking, and laughing our heads off. We even got the surprise treat of getting to overhear some of a Young the Giant show as we walked past — a favorite of Emily’s that she hadn’t even known was playing that night.

I had a terrific time getting to enjoy each of our kiddos individually, and treat them to some unique experiences they all enjoyed. Thanks, squirrels, for the great time. Now, let’s get cracking and plan this year’s adventures!

My Standoff with the Police

Last Saturday, I took three hostages.

I had gone to the apartment where my ex-girlfriend lives with her parents to find her and get her back. After four months of living together, she had moved out a couple of weeks earlier, and I was desperate to find her. Unfortunately, she wasn’t there, and as things got heated with her parents, her dad stepped up on me, so I shot him in the shoulder. Shortly thereafter, the police showed up. I guess I should have expected that, but it took me by surprise.

The police had a negotiating team with them who called me to try to sort the situation out. They kept trying to get me to release her dad. I probably should have let him go, but I was scared, and felt like I’d lose my leverage without him there. Besides, they kept promising me things and then going back on their word, so I wasn’t too inclined to cooperate with them. About four hours into the standoff, my girlfriend’s sister escaped out a window, and I panicked for a while, boarding up the apartment and trying to make sure that nobody could get in the same way she got out. But I guess I knew at that point that it was only a matter of time. After repeated requests, they finally put my lawyer on the phone, and after talking with him for a while, I decided to surrender. I stepped out of the apartment with my hands above my head about 6 hours after the whole ordeal began, and was immediately arrested. I’ll be going to trial in a few weeks.

None of this, of course, actually happened.

This was all part of a training exercise for various police negotiating teams, and I was only playing the role of a hostage-taker. My dad is an expert in such matters — he literally wrote the book on crisis management– and helped to organize this training exercise. When he was looking for participants, he sent me and my brother a note saying “I need actors to play emotionally unstable, biploar, hostage-takers on the 10th of December (Saturday). Of course, you two came to mind, immediately.”

While I wasn’t actually holed up in an apartment, I did spend about 6 hours on a phone, talking with various negotiators from the New Braunfels team and giving them a chance to exercise their skills. It was fun, but exhausting, to play the role of a frightened, intransigent, irrational man-boy for that long. The negotiating team did a great job, maintaining their cool while I was being quite bellicose and disagreeable at times, and working hard to establish rapport and empathy without validating the destructive actions my character had taken. I was nasty enough that I felt the need to, once the exercise was done, apologize to them all and individually shake their hands. To their credit, none of them took advantage of the opportunity to shoot me — a homicide that, under Texas law, I’m pretty sure would have been considered justified at that point.

Thanks to Dad for the opportunity to be a part of the shenanigans, and to the whole crew involved for putting together such an interesting day. It seemed like the teams got something good out of it, and my siblings and I certainly got a fun story to tell. And delicious breakfast tacos. (Ironically, feeding me tacos is just about the best way to keep me from taking hostages in real life, so the crisis would have been pretty short-lived in reality.)

My Wife, The Bag Lady

Today I want to brag on my wife a bit.

Kathy is great at trying to meet the needs of people she meets. One group which has always tugged at her heartstrings is the homeless. Austin has a large homeless population, and we’re up that way often enough that we encounter them regularly. On our anniversary weekend, we spent Sunday morning at the Church Under the Bridge, a worship service cosponsored by a group of local churches for the benefit of the street people of that city.

The most common encounter we have with these folks is at traffic lights, where one will often be holding up a cardboard sign, ranging from the plaintive (“On the road, my dog needs food”) to the tongue-in-cheek (“Why lie? I need a beer.”). Of course, we have all of the usual concerns about handing out cash to people we don’t know. We have done so at times, but it’s always been with a measure of unease, not knowing whether that money will help or ultimately fuel some destructive downward spiral.

It was with these concerns in mind that Kathy hit on a brilliant idea: why not have the essentials for life packed up and ready to go whenever someone asks? She brainstormed, planned, visited the dollar store, talked with others, and soon had her first batch of large plastic bags filled with water bottles, nonperishable foods, shampoo, washcloths, hand sanitizer, soap, and often a small New Testament. We stashed these in the van, ready for our next stoplight encounter.

Now, when we come to a halt and spot someone in need, there’s a mad scramble to find a bag and to hand it over before the light turns green. The recipients have been almost universally excited to receive the bundles, and it’s been great fun to actually be able to help in such a tangible, immediate way.

As time has gone on, she’s started making larger batches of these bags, not only for us to carry around, but also for other interested people to have available. She’s distributed them to others in our church, to family members, and to a variety of friends. She’s had a couple of bag-making parties at the house, where the attendees will work together to assemble 100 bags in a couple hours. And she’s assembled and organized donations from a variety of sources, as well as found the cheapest and best places to get all of these essentials.

And now she has discovered Bags of Grace, an organization up in Austin with a similar mission, run by a dynamic woman named Rita with whom she shared a lunch and great conversation recently. I expect they’ll be meeting up more in the future to share strategies and combine efforts.

So if you’re interested in supporting some of “the least of these” in our society and want to help assemble or distribute these bags, give Kathy a call. She’ll be glad you did, and so will some people you’ve only ever met at a stoplight.

South Padre Family Vacation

Last week we all took a break from our usual goings-on to head down to South Padre Island, the southernmost beach town in Texas. This was a big deal for me, as Emily is now 19, graduated from High School, and is making plans to move out before long. Thus, this would likely be the last time we would all be under the same roof, doing a trip together as a family, and I wanted it to be a special time.

On our way down, Emily’s boyfriend Andres joined us. The extra vehicle gave us more space for packing, and we all enjoy Andres’ company and were glad to have him along for the first few days of the trip. (Unfortunately, he had to return to San Marcos for work, and wasn’t able to stay longer.)

One thing we did this time that worked out well was to designate an “Entertainment Committee” that was responsible for taking the money that we budgeted for fun on the trip and deciding the best way to spend it. This had a couple of important benefits: 1. Everyone on the Committee got a chance to work together and have a good voice in how our money would be spent. 2. I didn’t have to be on the Committee.

The biggest single expense that the Committee decided was that we would all go parasailing. (This was not something I would have chosen, but the pleasure of not having to be responsible for making the decisions far outweighed any angst I felt about the outcome.) After we signed the terrifying liability waivers and set out to sea, our boat’s crew immediately managed to dunk the parachute into the water, expressing their bafflement as to what was going on in the strongest (and bluest) terms. They eventually got it up in the air properly, and Liam and I mounted up for the first ride.

We soared above the waves, able to see miles in any direction, buffeted about by the gusty wind until I got motion-sick. While I generally have decent sea-legs, and the boat had given me no trouble, the bouncing about we received up in the air was more than my stomach wanted to deal with. Fortunately, it didn’t get to full-on, reverse peristalsis, fish-feeding revolt, but it did diminish my enthusiasm for the time aloft. Abigail and Emily went up next, and both had a grand time. Maggie and Kathy brought up the rear, and were promptly dunked in the water as soon as they were off the boat, nearly submerging Maggie at the same time it pulled her swimsuit askew. Once they were in the air, however, they had a great time as well.

Another highlight of the trip for us was a visit to Sea Turtles, Inc., a rescue center for various sorts of Sea Turtles that nest in the area. Favorite bit of sea turtle lore learned: the leatherback turtle, which weighs up to 1,500 pounds, must eat approximately its own weight in jellyfish each day to survive. As we enjoyed the jellyfish-free beach, we were grateful to these reptiles for their diligent culling of the less-pleasant sea denizens.

The best part about the sea turtle experience, however, was probably getting to see a nest of about 70 Kemp’s-Ridley turtle hatchlings released into the ocean for the first time. Kathy took some great photos and video, which I later edited together to show friends:

(See it here if the embedded video doesn’t work.)

Other highlights:

  • Body surfing with the whole family.
  • A visit from my cousin Tanya.
  • Watching a movie projected on the side of the Port Isabel lighthouse.
  • Gathering shells on the north beaches where the sand dunes are steadily subsuming the roads.
  • Playing “Fortress”, where we build sand castles imprudently close to the waves and then see how long we can keep it from crumbling by building levees and moats around it.
  • Browsing the art galleries and import stalls in Port Isabel.
  • Delighting in the fact that, for the most part, the kids really got along well and even enjoyed each other.
  • Playing lots of games and reading together.
  • Watching “True Grit”, one of my favorite movies of recent vintage, as a family.
  • Playing guitar by the pool with Maggie singing along.
  • Designing, creating, and play-testing a new card game with Liam.

It was a terrific time, and a great start to the summer. Thanks, family, for the splendid vacation!

My Wife: A Titan of Industry

I just got back from three weeks in Switzerland as part of my new job with Magnolia. (You can see some photos on Facebook if you’re interested.)

Now, when Kathy travels and I’m in single parent mode, I consider myself as having accomplished quite a lot when I end a day with the same number of live children as I started it with. Actually getting anything done during that day is lagniappe.

Consider, then, then awe with which I walked into our house and saw that, while I was away, Kathy had accomplished a huge list of tasks: painted our bedroom, cleared out a gigantic pile of brush from our backyard, painted our front porch, bought and installed (from Craig’s list) a new bed and mattress in our room, painted all of the shutters on the front of the house, cleaned out our shed, weeded and groomed our decomposed granite paths, bought and planted a big pear tree, went out into the hills and come back with a two loads of limestone for landscaping, cleared a bunch of scrap metal out of our backyard, sold our decrepit Ford Escort, re-stained the back porch, and a host of other things I’m probably forgetting at the moment. (She did get some help from Bobcat Build, though that added “fed 25 college students” to the already impressive list.)

With all of this on top of usual business of keeping a family running while taking college classes, it’s no wonder she finally took the opportunity once I was back to sleep much of the day!

Thanks for all you did and do, sweetheart. You’re a champ.

Jon Anderson Show

When I was growing up, I had musical tastes decidedly out of step with my peers. I went through a year or two of listening to nothing but The Beatles, then only gospel music for a while, and loved to blast early Andrew Lloyd Weber (on vinyl) and the Star Wars soundtrack (a much-loved gift from my folks) on our stereo. (I also enjoyed cranking up the car radio as loud as it would go to play “Puff the Magic Dragon”, though that was mostly to confuse the people we drove past.)

One of my very favorite albums, however, was Yes’ Close to the Edge. Since it was released when I was two years old, none of my friends had any affinity for it. I don’t recall ever trying to share it with anyone or convince others of its delights: it was my personal music space that I loved, a place to go to be alone and to enjoy that solitude. In a way, I think sharing it or finding someone else who loved that album might have ruined it for me.

Over the years, however, I haven’t kept up with the band or their goings-on. It was therefore with some astonishment and considerable delight that I read my friend Barry Brake was going to be conducting a choir that would be backing up Jon Anderson, the band’s distinctive vocalist, on Monday at the Majestic theater in San Antonio. I enthused with Barry, who is immensely gifted both as a musician and as a finder-of-interesting-opportunities, about his chance to meet and work with “one of the greats.” He reciprocated by offering to help us lay hands on tickets for the family to come down and see the show — largesse I was thrilled to accept.

To sweeten the deal even further, it turned out that Jon was being backed up not only by the choir, but also by the Youth Orchestra of San Antonio, an excellent symphony orchestra with which I played as a teenager. Though none of the people associated with the group were the same as during my era, it was an added delight to see that group performing again. (And to observe that Orchestra Nerds still look the same 25 years later.)

So Monday night, we all trooped down to the delightful Majestic theater for the show. We arrived early enough for the curious to go roaming through the place, giving ourselves a tour of its baroque wonders as we waited for the music to start. Finally, the lights dimmed, YOSA played an introductory musical segment, and Anderson took the stage.

He was terrific. Even at age 66 after having dealt with some significant health issues, he has a great vocal instrument, and smoothly transitioned from soaring melodic lines to staccato percussive stylings with apparent ease. His trademark high-pitched range is intact, and carries over into his speech. He did a mix of songs he’d done with Yes and his solo work, and was backed up ably by the orchestra and choir. While he apparently performed solo at other points in his tour, I was glad for the additional musicians on stage with him. (After all, what’s “I’ve Seen All Good People” with only a single singer?)

While it was clear that, of our group, I was the one most enjoying the show, the evening as a whole worked out to be a delight for everyone. Maggie, while not much into the performance, enjoyed exploring the Majestic and picking out all of the decorative details. The Brakes’ company is always a delight and, since it was the start of Spring Break week for the young folks, we were able to all troop to Chacho’s for absurdly large piles of nachos and cheap margaritas afterwards.

So big thanks to Jon and Barry for the great start to our Spring Break week!

Little Shop of Horrors

This past January, Abigail had her first experience with the theater. Her high school was staging a production of Little Shop of Horrors, for which she auditioned and got several parts. Given her expressive and dramatic nature, I fully expected her to really cotton to the experience, and was not disappointed. I have a bit of a soft spot for that show, as friends of mine have been in it and I played in the pit band for it at Texas State a couple of years back, so was particularly pleased that would be her inaugural theater experience.

She came back from each rehearsal thrilled with the chance to be part of the show, overflowing with stories about the various things she had worked on that day. All the while, she was accreting a new collection of friends involved with the show whom she seemed to quite enjoy. Rehearsals went on for a long while, with the director eventually pushing the performances back a month or two from their original schedule.

Finally the show started in mid-January, with a scheduled run of three weekends. We had been planning to go on opening night, but Abigail was nervous, and asked that we hold off until the next weekend. We were a bit indignant that some of our friends were getting to see her before we did, but were OK with giving her a little more time to prepare.

Finally, we ventured forth to the 80 seat Black Box theater at the high school, a tiny venue that sold out regularly, but which the director hoped would help the actors better connect to the audience — a good strategy, given that we nearly had actors in our laps at several points. Abigail got to be a member of a crowd scene during Downtown, a TV reporter, a guest on the radio show Seymour was a part of, and a tortured dental patient — a role in which she was able to exercise her considerable talent for ear-splitting screaming. She did a terrific job all around, and it was great fun to see all her work pay off at last.

In addition to Abigail’s thespian talents, we got to see some of Emily’s work: she and the other members of the Art Club had worked together on the various puppets for Audrey II, and did a great job with them. (The smallest of the puppets was entirely Emily’s doing, and looked terrific.)

“Well, what did you think?” I asked Abigail after the run was complete. “Would you do it again?”

thought for a moment about all the hard work, the funky hours, the blisters on her feet, and the stress of trying to keep up with schoolwork, responsibilities at home, and the theater. Then she smiled.

“Yes, definitely.”