Sunday, January 28, 2018

Contemplation of Disinterment

Today I dug a hole for our guinea pig, mainly because I thought it might finally be time to reclaim that shoebox-sized space in our freezer.  I would say it took me a good half an hour to dig a hole which is perhaps a foot square and maybe half a foot deep.  If I’m being generous.  The whole time I was performing this arduous task, all I could think about was all those people on TV who discover they have to dig up a body, because there’s some vital clue that was buried with it, or there’s some lost artifact in the coffin, or because the body itself is a necessary component in the spell that’s needed to save the world, and, several minutes later, there’s one or two characters at the bottom of a hole they have to jump up to get out of.  And, as I was thinking about that, one word kept recurring to me: bullshit.

Also, why do these people always have shovels handy?  Before I spent half an hour digging the hole, I had to spend half an hour locating the shovel, which I guess I didn’t put back in the garden shed from the last time we had a pet die.  If you had come to me last night at this time and told me I needed to help you dig up a body, I’m pretty sure we’d have still been digging when the sun came up this morning, and probably not in any danger of getting that nice satisfying “thunk” of shovel-on-coffin any time soon.

But perhaps I’ve spent too much time thinking about this topic ...

Sunday, January 21, 2018


This month, I’ve decided to do another Whole30.  Now, I’ve talked about my take on Whole30 before, and I don’t really want this post to be a regurgitation of that one (although some repetition will be inevitable).  But I think it’s worth delving into some more detail about what I’m talking about when I say I’m “doing” a Whole30.

To briefly recap, the concept behind Whole30 is that you spend 30 days eating a very narrow variety of things—partially to reset your taste buds and digestive tract, and partially to remind you of what real food tastes like—and then you add things back in, slowly, maybe never getting around to adding back in the really bad things at all, like donuts or McDonald’s food.  This works well, but, as time goes on, you will unavoidably start slipping more and more, so it’s a good idea every now and again—perhaps no more than every year or two, even—to start over.  For me, the last six months or so have included three food-centric holidays,1 a pretty stressful family medical procedure, and an atypically intense project for work.  So I’ve not so much fallen off the wagon as been run over by it.  My weight has crept back up, and my digestive system was gradually starting to revolt.  So another reset seemed like a good idea.  Plus, The Mother wanted to do it as well, and, as I’ve mentioned, it’s always easier to coordinate my diet with hers.

But I’m not that interested in being as strict this time around as I’ve been in the past.  I think that’s it’s okay to make small exceptions—or even big exceptions—as long as you’re clear with yourself exactly what the limits are up front.  Where you get into trouble is when you try to leave it “flexible” ... which is code for “I’ll just cheat whenever I feel like it.”  The problem with cheating—even tiny, insignificant cheating—is that it feeds itself.  You cheat a little here, and the world doesn’t end, so you cheat a little there, and, next thing you know, you’re less cheating and more abandoning.  If you set up the modified rules beforehand, and you stick to them, then you’re not cheating at all: you’re just playing a slightly modified game from everyone else.

Before I lay out my guidelines, let me be clear that I don’t recommend something like this for your first Whole30.  The first time around, you should stick to the rules more closely.  Only once you’ve been doing this for a while should you consider deviations such as the ones below.  And of course many will say even then it’s not acceptable.  But I’m a little more open to variations in the core plan.

So let’s look at the broad categories of banned foods for a standard Whole30 and what exceptions I’m personally allowing for this particular reset.  Note also that every exception must have a frequency as well: just because I’m willing to allow something doesn’t mean I think it’s okay to eat it every day.

No grains.  In general, I’m all in favor of this restriction.  I personally find that cutting out grains makes my body much happier.  That may not be true for you—one of the things that makes nutrition such a devilishly tricky thing to advise people on is that everyone is different.  But I definitely do better when avoiding grains of all types, so I’m sticking to that, broadly.  The only exception I’ve made so far is that we cooked one meal which included whole kernel corn, which I thought was okay as long as it wasn’t an everyday thing.  I think it’s worth staying away from the myriad forms that corn is tortured into, in general, and just eating corn straight off the cob does not do my digestion any favors, but a bit of actual corn as part of a larger meal seems okay.  As long as it’s infrequent—I probably wouldn’t want to do this more than one a week, say.

Oh, and I’m still okay with corn starch used to keep my shredded cheese from clumping.  But not for anything else.

No legumes.  So, first of all, it’s fair to note that even rigorous Whole30 allows one exception to this rule: green beans (a.k.a. “string beans”).  This is because, while there’s technically some bean in there somewhere, the vast majority of what you eat when you eat a green bean is the pod around the relatively tiny beans.  The actual legumes you manage to consume are minimal.  But the truth for me personally is that, outside of peanuts, there aren’t really too many legumes I’m even tempted by.  I don’t actually care for string beans, really, and I’ve always been decidedly “meh” on peas.  I like kidney beans, but I don’t miss them in chili, and what’s the point of red beans and rice if you can’t have rice?  I used to enjoy pork-and-beans / baked beans, but that involves sugar.  And I dig refried beans, but you can’t really eat Mexican without corn, so there’s another dead end.  Soy sauce is a bit of a blow, but it turns out that coconut aminos are a reasonable substitute.  And there are other nut butters besides peanut butter, and you can make hummus out of cashews instead of chickpeas, if you’re particularly dedicated to it.  So far I don’t think I’ve consumed any legumes or legume products at all, and I don’t plan to.

No added sweeteners.  If you’re doing a strict Whole30, all your sugar has to come from fruit: whole fruit, dried fruit, or fruit juice.  99% of the time this is plenty for me.  However, I do allow just a few exceptions here:
  • Honey is very natural and I don’t have anything against it.  Still, I hardly ever use any.  One exception is that, once a week, I make a big batch of smoothies, mainly for my kids.  But you can bet I’m having a big ol’ cup myself as well.  And sometimes (not every time), my taste testers inform me that whatever particular combination of fruits I’m using that week is too tart.  And the answer to that is honey.  And I’m not going to make them drink smoothies that they think are too sour, and I’m not going to skip a delicious smoothie just beacuse there were a couple of squirts of honey in 8 cups worth of the finished product.  So, while I try to use sweeter fruits to avoid needing honey at all (bananas and pineapple are the best options there, if you’re curious), if I have to, I have to, and I don’t beat myself up about it.  Also, I’ve been experimenting with making my own Whole30-safe granola, which I’m supposed to make with date syrup.  But, really: is honey any worse than date syrup?  I don’t think so.
  • I make my own Thousand Island dressing, which has no explicit sugar and isn’t particularly sweet.  But it does have ketchup, and ketcup contains sugar.  You can’t have ketchup without sugar ... trust me, I’ve tried.  Again, this is more of a once-per-week type of thing rather than an everyday one, but, as long as I stick to that frequency, I think it’s okay.
  • Did you know that even low-carb diets such as LCHF and Atkins will let you eat chocolate, as long as it has no less than 85% cocoa solids?  It’s like their only exception to the absolutely-no-carbs rule.  That’s good enough for me, man.  Most days the tiny amount of sugar in my preferred brand of 85% dark chocolate is often the only actual sugar I consume in a day.  And the taste is strong enough that I don’t want to eat too much of it at a time.
  • As a super-special exception, I allow myself a small glass of eggnog no more than once a week.  I stocked up on the stuff at Christmas, but it ain’t gonna last forever, and it’ll probably all be useless right about the time I’m done with my 30 days.  And I love me some ‘nog.  So I cut myself some slack here.
Even with all those exceptions, though, it’s still a pretty radical reduction over the amount of sugar and other sweeteners I’ve been consuming lately.

No dairy.  Okay, so this one is right out the window.  The only benefit I ever got from this part of Whole30 was my introduction to ghee (ghee is the only official exception to the “no dairy” rule), which I now use almost exclusively instead of butter.  These days all our milk (for both drinking and cooking, although I rarely just drink it) is lactose-free, because our middle child is even more lactose-intolerant than I am, weirdly.2  But even that’s a small amount of my dairy intake.  Mainly, for me, it’s all about cheese and yogurt.  Cheese is excellent in salads,3 and it’s a decent late night snack instead of the usual chips or cookies or candy.  And yogurt is simply awesome, if you can find any without any added sweeteners.  Toss in some of your own fruit, or some of that homemade granola I was talking about, and it’s amazing (and filling).

No alcohol.  I’m really irked about this one.  Multiple studies suggest that avoiding alcohol entirely may actually increase your chance of heart disease, and I’ve yet to hear any cogent defense of the no-alochol rule from the Whole30 folks.  So I have a very simple rule: I will allow alcohol as long as whatever it was originally made of, before it was fermented, would be allowed under the plan.  So the number one thing that allows is wine; I’m not much of a wine drinker, personally,4 but it’s nice to be able to allow good wine sauces or good dijon mustard.  But if you can track down good vodka, that’s made from potatoes (cheap vodka is made from grain, so I stay away from that crap).  And good vodka is a pleasure to drink, so that’s nice too.  Gin works as well, although it’s defnitely a distant second in the liquor department as far as I’m concerned.  And I think tequila might be okay by my rule, but I don’t really like tequila, so I’ve never bothered to do enough research to verify that.

No chips or fries.  I’m pretty down with this rule.  The only real exception I allow is roasted plantain chips, which I think are significantly different from fried chips.  First of all, they’re not particularly good to just eat a handful of, so they’re no replacement for potato chips (or even fried plantain chips).  But they’re perfectly good to double as crackers with some cheese, or to crumble on a salad instead of tortilla chips.  So, since they enable me to avoid two things I really don’t want to make an exception for, I voted them in.

No sulfites or other preservatives.  The official exception to this is balsamic vinegar, and I extend that to wine, reasoning that, if it wasn’t already banned by reason of being alcohol, it should be allowed under the same logic as vinegar.  I also eat a braunschweiger which contains sodium nitrite, but A) that’s more of a curing agent than a preservative, and B) I don’t eat braunschweiger that often.  Other than that, I’m pretty religious in following this one.

So that’s my version of Whole30(ish), and I try to stick to it.  Anything outside these explicit exceptions I consider cheating, and I feel appropriately guilty about it, and vow to do better.  But I’ve only cheated a couple of times so far, and I expect to make it to the end with the total number of cheats enumerable on the fingers of one hand.  And I can live with that much.  Perfection is a nice goal to aim for, but it doesn’t make much sense to beat yourself up if you don’t achieve it, because you never will.  The most important thing is to see a big improvement in your diet, and this represents that for me.  And that’s good enough.


1 Yes, I include Hallowe’en.  If you’re not binging on crappy candy as part of your Samhain tradition, you’re doing it wrong.

2 I say “weirdly” because lactose intolerance is commonly something that gets worse with age.  But if the Smaller Animal’s condition gets any worse he may not be able to look at a milk carton without having to run to the toilet.

3 I talked about my favorite cheeses for salads in my Saladosity series, specifically when I went shopping for meat and cheese.

4 My alcohol of choice is beer, but that’s just liquid bread.  So that’s out.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Gone But Never Forgotten

Tomorrow we celebrate the birth of a man who was instrumental in the development of modern America.  Unlike many years, this year Martin Luther King Day is actually on King’s birthday: Januray 15th.  Most years I celebrate very simply, by just reflecting on the words and the life of Dr. King, and typically listening to “Southern” by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.  Obviously Dr. King’s life can’t really be reduced to 3½ minutes of a song by a synthpop band, but I always found OMD’s tribute moving nonetheless.

Toward the end of 2016, I did a blog post where I shared a few quotes from Jesus, and I noted that, regardless of whether you believed in his status as Messiah and Savior, his words were still powerful.  Dr. King holds a similar position in my mind: you may not agree with everything he stood for, but even if you agree with our current president that Nazis can be good people too, or you’re a little nostalgic for the “good old days” of separate-but-equal, it’s still hard to ignore powerful statements like the following.  Here are my favorite quotes from the man:

Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.

I submit to you that if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.

We must either learn to live together as brothers or we are all going to perish together as fools.

One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?”  The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust.  I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws.  One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws.  Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.  I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

It’s wrong to hate.  It always has been wrong and it always will be wrong.  It’s wrong in America, it’s wrong in Germany, it’s wrong in Russia, it’s wrong in China.  It was wrong in 2000 B.C., and it’s wrong in 1954 A.D.  It always has been wrong, and it always will be wrong.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

So, tomorrow, I’ll reflect on these words, and be happy that my three little (and not so little) children can live in a nation where they are exposed to ideas like these, where words such as these are considered important enough that we set aside a day to contemplate them.  We’re all benefitting from Dr. King’s dream.  Obviously we still have a ways to go before we get to the promised land, but I do believe we’re on the path.  And we have one man, and his relentless dream to thank for it.

So, thank you, Dr. King.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Expression of Tension

A few weeks back, in my capacity as D&D enthusiast, I was perusing the articles highlighted in EN World Weekly.1  I found this article by Lew Pulsipher particularly interesting: “Tension, Threats And Progression In RPGs.”  The content of the article was very good, and I encourage you to read it.  It’s actually quite similar to one of my cornerstone GM philosophies: I don’t kill characters.  There are a lot of similiarites to what I wrote, but also some intriguing differences.  I like that the article is well-balanced: it asks both “How do we structure an RPG, or for that matter any adventure, so that players’ loss aversion is not activated?” and “Without the possibility of loss or failure, what tension can you put into a game?” ... which are fairly diametrically opposed questions.2

But the most interesting part of the article, to me, were the comments.  Now, I very often don’t read comments on the Internet.  In general, it’s a good way to get pissed off and lose faith that the human race can survive as a species.  One needs to constantly remind oneself that people who post, say, YouTube comments are not representative of anything other than jackasses who have nothing better to do with their lives than post YouTube comments.  But there are certain online communities where the comments can be more or less safe to peruse, and EN World is a place where the folks in charge maintain a certain level of civil discourse.  Sure, the banter can get a bit rowdy sometimes, especially for particularly contentious issues, but most of the time the comments are intelligent and thoughtful, or at the very least heartfelt and not just designed to provoke a negative response.

The comments for this article (mostly) fall into two broad categories: the grumpy old grognards grousing “back in my day we had ten characters a day killed off, every game session, and, dammit, we liked it!” and the snot-nosed kids whining “if you take my character’s toys away, that’s not fair and I’m not playing!”  As a long-time advocate of balance and paradox, it wil not surprise you that I find both of these extremes incorrect ... and, at the same time, think they both have a valid point.

First, let’s look at the amusing way I characterized the two groups.  (At least I hope you found it amusing.  You didn’t take me seriously there, did you?)  The truth of the matter is, the concept that the old fogeys of the hobby are prone to being fine with having characters killed off willy-nilly is a complete stereotype, as is the idea that the younger players are going to be the ones most prone to loss aversion.  But stereotypes nearly always have some basis in fact, and actually the article even encourages a bit of this thinking, demonstrating reasons why the older players are more likely to be comfortable with character loss—because they were raised on wargaming3and why the younger players are more likely to be holding on to loss aversion—because they were raised on videogames.  And it’s true that wargames have a tendency to teach you that everyone is expendable, while videogames have a tendency to teach you that you just need to learn to save before you try to fight the big boss, and that way you can do it over and over again until you not only win, but you do so without losing any significant resources.  But this is an oversimplification.  People are just wired differently, and I believe there are plenty of kids out there who are just fine with their characters dying, and plenty of graybeards out there who would be appalled at the concept that their 20-year 17th-level ranger might be permanently killed.  In the end, we hope that all the “expendable” folks find each other, and all the “indispensable” folks find each other, and everybody will just play the game they want to play.

But there’s a broader philosophical question here, and it’s what Pulsipher was digging around at, and it’s what the commenters were struggling towards as well.  Setting aside that this is not really a question with any one “right” answer ... what’s the right answer?

First let’s look at why both the answers offered up by the two main groups of commenters are wrong.  The concept that characters are expendable is clearly wrong, if we agree that roleplaying is storytelling.  To sum up that chain of logic, if roleplaying is storytelling, and if, in storytelling, character is king, then your character is obviously the most important part of the game, and therefore cannot be considered expendable.  Of course, perhaps I’m wrong that roleplaying is storytelling.  D&D was born out of wargaming, in fact, and Gygax—who is tellingly quoted by Pulsipher as saying that “death walks at the shoulder of all adventurers, and that is the true appeal of the game”—was inordinately fond of killing off his players’ characters.  And he invented the game, so he must be right ... right?  Short answer: no.  (I’ve already dealt with the “sanctity” of authorial intent in another post and won’t re-belabor it here.)  What D&D was when it was invented is not what it is today, and likewise the reasons people play it are not the same.  The game still aims to support those who want to play it as a sort of glorified wargame—the sort of “how long can I keep Joe Warrior alive before he’s smashed to a pulp and replaced by his cousin Moe Warrior?” style of game—but the game openly acknowledges that that’s just one style, and not even the most common one.  Other RPGs beyond D&D have made even stronger stances that that just ain’t how roleplaying works in the modern age.  If you’re interested in playing something closer to Gygax’s original intent, that’s fantastic ... but I’d argue that modern D&D is hardly the best choice for that.  Trying to play D&D today as a character-expendable wargame is just about the same as trying to roleplay a game of chess.

So the folks who say killing characters is perfectly acceptable are wrong.  What about those who say that their characters should never have to face any losses at all?  These are people who are not only saying that you shouldn’t be allowed to kill off their characters (and, remember: I agree with that part), but that you shouldn’t be allowed to kill their hirelings, their families back home, their pets, their mounts, the townspeople they met 3 sessions ago ... hell, Pulsipher even calls out “destroying the player’s favorite magic wand” as potentially going too far.  I shudder to think what the sensitive advocates of this position would say to my policy that, while I won’t kill your character, I’m perfectly happy to lop off an arm or take out an eye.  And gleefully tell you that it builds character afterwards.4

But it should be clear that this position—that of avoiding all loss whatsoever—can’t be right either.  Roleplaying is storytelling, and storytelling has to have conflict.  Reward without risk may make for a lovely videogame,5 but it’s a terrible story.  You know that famous story where everyone gets everything they ever wanted without having to do any work for it?  No, you don’t know that story, because no one’s ever told that story, because it’s boring.  In The Hobbit, Tolkien describes Bilbo and the dwarves’ stay in Rivendell thusly:

Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway.

Like it or not, it’s the danger, and the loss, that makes the story interesting.  What we love about a good fantasy (or a good sci-fi tale, or a good horror story, or a good spy novel or adventure tale or any of a dozen more types) is the perseverance in the face of adversity.  But there must be some adversity there to face.  Otherwise you’re not persevering ... you’re just trundling along.

In fact, I believe you can make a compelling case that outright death is necessary for a good tale—although not the death of everyone.  While there are some stories in which everyone (or nearly everyone) dies, they don’t make very good roleplaying models.  I don’t think anyone would consider it very fun to play Hamlet, or Macbeth, in a D&D game.  Inevitability can make for compelling drama, but roleplaying requires a bit more free will than that.  So you can’t just off everyone (despite what Gygax would recommend).  But the occasional character death just adds depth—it ups the game, raises the stakes for the remaining party members.  Think of all your favorite fantasy epics: the Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, Wheel of Time, Harry Potter, the Chronicles of Narnia, the Dresden Files, the Chronicles of Amber, many many more.  Does anyone die in any of those series?  More like in all of them.  Can you think of an epic fantasy series in which someone important does not die, in fact?  Death is often an excellent motivator, which is why I refuse to take it off the table for tangential characters, especially those you’ve specifically put into your backstory.  We may have never actually seen your wise old mentor in our campaign, but I still know that if I dump his body into your campsite one day, interesting events will be set in motion.  But, while the possibility of actual player character death is far more realistic (and, yes, perhaps even makes for a richer story), there are just too many logistical issues to make it feasible.  Because you put a lot of work into creating that character, so it’s now your bailiwick, and only you can make the decision as to when and if that character will die.6

So I think it’s reasonable to say that killing player characters is bad, but that’s not the same as saying all loss is bad.  Eliminating loss from the story altogether just doesn’t work, and to be fair most of the commenters (even those on the side of avoiding character death) realize it.  They talk about “story losses”—meaning loss of status, or failure to achieve goals—but those are still losses.  Only a few people talk about just having a goal of obtaining more items and achieving greater power, and therefore not advancing is the “penalty” for failure.  But I would argue that that model doesn’t work.  It makes an okay game—although I still might be a bit bored by it, personally—but, as a story, it’s awful.  Imagine talking about the Lord of the Rings in terms of “remember that time when Aragorn didn’t get any better at killing things for like 3 months? ... man, that was tough!”  It’s completely unworkable because it removes your ability to tell stories about your character’s achievements afterwards.  Without ever having faced any obstacles, your character’s victories are hollow, and not worth bragging about.  Your audience wants to hear how you stared death in the face.  How you cockily slaughtered everyone because you knew there was no chance you’d get seriously hurt ... it just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

We can’t eliminate tension and loss altogether from our roleplaying, and we shouldn’t try.  But that doesn’t mean we have to consider our characters expendable and “just get over it” if they’re permanently removed from the story.  The truth is we can have loss—real loss—without character death, and we should not only accept that, but actively seek it out.  The risk of loss is what makes our epic fantasy games epic.


1 As I do every week.  If PnP RPGs are your thing, you should be checking them out too.

2 There was one idea which I found mildly problematic in the article, but I think I’ll save that for a separate blog post.

3 There’s certainly more than a grain of truth to this: as you may recall, my wargame of choice is Heroscape, and around our house we use a motto that I stole from one of my fellow dads on the Heroscapers forum: everyone dies in Heroscape.  If you want to teach your kids wargames—even chess—you have to teach them to be okay with losing pawns.

4 No pun intended.  Okay, maybe a little pun intended.

5 I would actually argue that it makes a fairly crappy videogame, but that’s a whole separate topic.

6 And, honestly, the wise old mentor is your character too, so realistically I’m not going to just kill him off without clearing it with you first.  But it’s definitely an option, is all I’m saying.