Roleplaying Wrapup

In roughly two sessions I’m going to wrap up my first stint as GM for our role playing group. And, while I did own the original set of Dungeons and Dragons, I didn’t really play until a few years ago. And, it was time to try my hand at running a game, so that only took 30 years or so to accomplish. With my time as GM (for now) coming to a close, I’ve been thinking a bit about what I’ve learned.

Co-operative Storytelling

I mentioned previously that my latest attempt to explain role playing games to non-players is that it’s cooperative storytelling between the GM, who acts as the ruleskeeper and owns the general flow of the story and the players who give the story its energy.

Unfortunately, it’s still true that people who haven’t played any roleplaying games (RPGs) may have some unfortunate cliches in their heads about what a game is like or what the players are like. Yes, it’s probably more guys than girls. Yes, there may be snacks involved. But what it does not include is a bunch of anti-social folks. It’s been my pleasure to discover that role-playing gamers are, in fact, highly social and get to use this opportunity to act and act out in ways they would no in day-to-day life. They stretch their imaginations and engage with the storytelling to flesh out a character with motivations and backstory for the nearly sole purpose of entertaining each other and ourselves.

A game without good players would be torture for a GM and having a GM who can’t tell a good story would be unpleasant for the players. When those two meet, it’s amazing fun.

Crunchy versus Fluffy -or- Roll Playing versus Role Playing

One of the ways players describe game systems is based on whether there is a great deal of number crunching, stats and calculation (crunch) versus a focus on story and playing the roles of the characters (fluffy). Different systems come down on various places on that spectrum.

I won’t claim to be an expert on systems. I’ve only played a few: Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (4th Edition), Savage Worlds, Warhammer 40k RPG and now Dragon Age. The common element in each is the use of some combination of dice to help determine the odds of success of a variety of actions and characters (somewhat) defined by a set of skills or powers which help define what they can do well.

Dragon Age, the system I am GMing right now, is a light system in terms of rules. Dungeons and Dragons (4th Edition) has many, many books and the body of knowledge that make up the system is probably measured in the multiple hundreds of pages. And, by the way, that’s a lighter system than some prior versions. Dragon Age, on the other hand, has two small books, one for the Player and one for the GM, each of which is only 64 pages of good-sized type and 25 pages of the GM book is the starter adventure. So, Dragon Age definitely is “rules light”. This is a good thing for me because it means I don’t have to worry about knowing the minutae of a system that has accreted over a decade or more. Plus, it means I start on even footing with the players since this system is new to all of us. This is a good thing!

At the same time, it does mean that some of the things that are covered by very specific rules in some systems (how to handle flanking, aiding someone in a test are two examples) are left unmentioned in this system. That means it’s up to the me, the GM, to determine whether those concerns are in play for us. I’ve tried to come down on the side of common sense approaches, but also tried to keep things light and keep the game moving and, ultimately, keep it fun!

Rails versus Sandbox

Another characteristic of these kinds of games is whether stories take place “on rails” or not. The issue here is whether there is room for the players to go off those rails and do something completely unexpected by the GM or whether the GM has to struggle with the players to keep them on the story the GM wants to tell.

In our current over-arching campaign, which will come to a close (at least for now) after about six months, the players have only once threatened to take things off the rail but, in the end, they came down on the side of letting me know that they were willing to defer their desire to seek revenge against someone they perceived had wronged them until a later date – but they wanted that revenge eventually!

The reality is, there’s a bit of a dance between the GM and the players with respect to them walking the path the GM has laid out for them, at least in my limited experience.

Imagine the case where the Party has found a Temple which the GM intends they explore for riches and fame. On one hand, the Party could look at that and decide that they have suddenly become risk averse and that they’d rather go back home to the Inn and drink. Hopefully the GM has given them some motivation for why they find themselves at this Temple. Perhaps it’s to search out some magical artifact which will save the world. Perhaps it’s to rescue the mayor’s daughter and save her from a terrible end. But, at the end of the day, the Party has to be willing to walk that path. By that same token, the GM has to be flexible when the Party does things which were unexpected. That’s definitely an area I need to grow in, but I think I’ve done alright. Again, if you come down on the side of keeping the game moving and keeping it fun, odds are you’ll be okay.

The Connective Tissue

In my campaign, I’ve leveraged a number of existing modules or adventures to form much of the meat of the campaign. This is valuable, at least for me, because I’m new to being a GM and my tendency is to write alot of stuff down where a more experienced GM might have been just fine with some notes and general sense of the arc of the story they wanted to tell. So, there’s no way I could have produced all the content that we consumed, so leveraging existing content and adapting as necessary became critical for me.

But, while I did use that existing content, I also created a fair bit of connecting tissue to customize for my players.

For example, in the very first adventure, they decided, as a team, to ransom some kids who, in their defense, had already been kidnapped – and their dad was kind of a ass anyway, so he sort of had it coming. They ransomed these kids back to their parents, made some cash and went on their way. Now, if this was a simple stand-alone adventure, there would really not have been any consequences from their actions. But, given that I knew this was going to be a six-month or so run, I decided that there would, indeed, be consequences. So, as an interlude between that adventure in the next, they discovered there was a price on their heads and that bounty hunters were on their trail. So, that recurring theme of consequences and this very powerful guy who wanted their heads for ransoming his kids continued to play throughout the campaign.

In another example, the bad guy in one of their other adventures was a shape-shifting magic user who was behind some political upheaval that the Party helped settle. Unfortunately, they came down on the side opposite this magic user so in terms of the game, at that point, they became mortal enemies and that bad guy continues to plague them as well. In fact, at the end of the last adventure, he showed again to assassinate one of the characters as way to turn up the drama and the revenge element. To add immediacy, he also left a note which appeared to implicate the very powerful figure from the first adventure.

I also enjoyed creating an adventure that involved one of the characters being put on trial by his people for acting contrary to their cultural/military philosophies. I also took the time to effectively split the Party so while one was on Trial, he was aided in court by one of the other Party members. Meanwhile, the daughter of the innkeeper was kidnapped for dark purposes and the rest of the Party had to get to the bottom of that. In the end, their success in rescuing the girl helped work in favor of the trial results, so it all connected by the time it was done. I really enjoyed the world building in that one because it all came from my own head.

All of this leads in to this final adventure that the Party has just started. The goal with this has been to put their own interest in revenge and profit at odds with a larger threat against not only them but their entire land. Dragon Age wants to be not about the black and white choice, but about the grey areas in between, so I thought it would be fun to put them in a position where they have to choose to either act in the greater good or in favor of their more base interests and instincts. Either way, I have to be prepared to allow them to play out either scenario. This means I may have spent hours preparing parts of this adventure which may not happen if they choose to behave in a way contrary to how I might like them to choose, but that’s the compromise if I don’t want to story to be simply on rails.

Props

I also had a very good time creating both the content and some real-world artifacts.

When the Party got involved in the kidnapping and ransom, I had them hunted by Bounty Hunters. That led to them finding their wanted poster.

I was ridiculously proud when one of the guys wanted to take it home to show his wife.

When one of their Party was put on Trial, he was served with a letter which was sealed with a wax seal with the sigil of his house which I made from scratch and carved just for that purpose.

The letter used language and words that were a combination of made-up by me but also largely leveraging an online table of known words from the Dragon Age games to give it the feel being of that world.

I realize these are the kinds of things I might not do for every time I’m a GM, but I loved making things to try and enhance the world that we played in by connecting it to the real world of things.

The Big Bad

As I look back over the last six months, I do notice that there are parallels between how I structured their adventures and similar structures in popular media. Kind of like a season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer or X-Files, there have been a series of largely one-off adventures but providing the connective tissues between have been adventures and interludes which attempt to tie it all together in to one, larger, over-arching story. I even borrowed the idea of a “Big Bad”, a large, powerful and possibly nefarious character who seems to be hellbent on their destruction. The reality might not be so black and white, but I wanted them to feel as though their actions have consequences and their actions don’t take place in a few short sessions and have no connection from one adventure to the next. I don’t know how successful I’ve been, but it’s been a lot of fun trying to weave these stories together so there is some connection and larger arc and trying to bring all that has come before together and culminate with a face-off with their nemesis and leave up to them whether they try to kill him or choose to work with him for a potentially larger good. In any case, it plays out really well in my head!

All Good Things

‘there is an end to everything, to good things as well’

Chaucer, 1374

Odds are, when we wrap up this latest adventure, it will bring to a close the story of these characters and this Party. I realize that for many in my group, they go through characters and they’re fine more or less suspending their stories and knowing that they may never get to continue with this particular character.

I’ve enjoyed watching them discover their characters, watching them inhabit them and give them life and idiosychrasies.

Gorgar is a Qunari (imagine a beefy seven foot tall guy with giant ram horns on his head – his society is martial and pretty socialist) and is an agent of a foreign power, only working with the rest of the Party to seek our intel for his government to help plan an eventual invasion. He observes and takes notes in a small notebook when something interesting or surprising happens that challenges his cultural assumptions.

Tarrant is a swaggering Lothario and sometimes reluctant leader of the Party. He is more interested in seeking out creature comforts than killing things. He is particularly proud of his codpiece.

Lanaya is an elf (elves in this world are second-class citizens) who has had a tough life, often mistreated. But she is also a terrific bowman and sniper and the sharpest senses of the Party. It is often she who detects surprises before they happen. She looks out for her brother, Tarrant.

Matty is a little, old lady and a hedge mage. She has to keep her powers quiet because unlicensed magic is a Bad Thing in this world. But, as she is elderly, she never sees things first and often sleeps through the early rounds of combat because she has a tendancy to sleep on her horse and is very difficult to wake. She is hard of hearing and has it out for dogs. She seems to have taken a liking to Gorgar, often climbing atop him during a fight.

Duska was our Dwarf. She was crazy and always first to enter a fight and not afraid of taking things head-on despite unfavorable odds. In fact, she was probably congenitally incapable of calculating odds, so she always came down on the side of hitting things. She was killed just as she was reunited with a long lost member of her family.

Gerrold is Duska’s son and rides in her place for revenge against those who done her wrong. Gerrold is sweet and prefers to hug things rather than hitting them. But, he’s a brawler and when wearing his bladed bracers (a gift from his mother), he’s sort of deadly. On the other hand, he suffers from a bit of irritable bowel syndrome and can “go off” in a way that’s equally debilitating to the bad guys as well as his Party. Additionally, he thinks he’s an excellent musician, but he’s not. The Party is actively trying to steal his instrument and/or destroy it on a regular basis.

As you can imagine, I had next to nothing to do with forming these characters, they’re entirely out of the imaginations and psyches of the Players and they are a ton of fun to spend time with.

When we wrap this up, we’ll have spent roughly 16 nights of at least four hours together, so 60-70 hours spent in this world with these characters (and they are characters!). I suspect I will miss them and will certainly miss helping to tell their stories.

Crunch Time

We’re in Crunch Time at work. That means we’re working extra hours and we’re deal with all the stresses that attend trying to complete and ship a product. This is not one of my favorite times of year…

I only have real experience in the software industry, so I don’t really have much to compare with – I don’t know if manufacturing jobs have similar periods, I don’t know of anything like this for a teacher or a policeman, maybe this is similar to the crunch that tax preparers deal with yearly.

One of the maxims that I learned early that applies to software projects and most projects in general is this: Projects are dominated by three factors: Scope, Schedule and Resources. You can pick two of those and fix them or set them as unchangeable but you can’t fix all three. So, these three factors form the triangle of legs which hold up the stool which is my product release.

Early on in a Release you start talking about what it is you want to do with the next Release of the product. That becomes a Feature list which forms the Scope for the work to be completed. Often you spend time determining a rough sizing for the work to be completed as well as a rough priority for that work. Typically it’s the case that some of the work is a “must have” and some of it is “nice to have” and some of it is related to either maintaining or improving the quality of the existing product and may not be customer visible at all. That last one is one to keey your eye on because it appears to be easy to drop or reduce because it’s not customer visible, but if you do that you quickly accrue what is called in our industry “technical debt” and technical debt is more expensive to deal with or pay off the further you get from the work. Accrue too much technical debt and you can drown in it and kill your product or make it so expensive to support that you can’t easily innovate. Failure to innovate quickly means someone else will come along and take away your business.

Schedule is often either a function of a regular release cyle (“we release twice yearly”) or it coincides with when you want to put a new product in either your customers hands or your sales folks hands. Think about the release of a big game for your computer or XBox or PS3. The market for games is huge around the holidays and almost non-existent (comparatively) in January and February. So, for schedule, it’s critical to get that game out in, let’s say, mid-November so it’s on the shelf for all the folks buying for the holidays. Miss that schedule and you’ve probably halved or quartered the amount of money you make from that game which probably means the difference between financial success and failure which, in turn, may lead to layoffs or other unpleasantness.

Resource, in the most simple case, are the folks who will do the work, though sometimes it can also include physical resources like computers and other hardware.

So, you can set or fix Scope and Schedule by saying that we’ll do the following 10 Features by April 1st, but in that case you need to be open to bringing on more folks to help. That’s expensive, though, so often Resources are considered fixed for the most part.

Schedule, for all the reasons we talked about above, may be fixed because of business reasons. We need to get that release out by April 1st because if we don’t, our sales guys won’t have a product to sell and if they don’t have a product to sell, they’ll sell something else offered by the company and our group will suffer for the lack of those sales. Sales are what keep our group and our company in business and make sure that I get to keep my job because we, as a group, produce a lot more money for the company than what it costs to employ us. As a result, for lots of legitimate reasons Resources and Schedule are often considered pretty fixed. Having said that, schedules do slip and how organizations handle that is what differentiates a successful organization from one that will likely suffer. Frankly, how to deal with a schedule slip is an entirely separate conversation but suffice to say it’s a combination of hard work, compromise and weighing the needs of the company and customers to try and produce the best product you can as close to the committed date to still satisfy your customers.

The other leg on the stool, Scope, is where I best like to work when it comes to managing a product release while still working hard to reach dates with a given set of people.

I’m a big proponent of the Agile Methodology of software development (though it’s been noted that Agile can certainly be applied to most any goal setting and delivery task like writing a book or learning to play an instrument). I like that it requires regular reviews of progress and adjustments based on the reality of the situation. Prior to Agile, projects tended to use something called the Waterfall Methology which involved planning up front for a mythical ship date out in the future and then working towards that. Very little to no opportunity for adjustment once that process was launched. Agile addresses that shortcoming with the notion of fixed iterations of work (say, two to four weeks), regular review of progress and priorities and a prioritized Backlog of work to be completed.

That last item, the prioritized Backlog is an important and effective way to manage Scope. If you have rational Product Owners, you can have a conversation about those 10 Features we mentioned earlier and determine which are Must Haves and which are Nice To Haves. Couple that with a rough sizing and you can start to figure out what will fit and what won’t in the alotted timeframe and have conversations about how we get to done.

Back to Crunch Time. Even in a good, positive and well meaning organization, you can and will still have Crunch Time. Even though we all know that all estimates for what it will take to complete a chunk of work are bogus and even if management applies our bogosity multiplier to a given estimate, there are still surprises. Bugs take longer to fix. Or you have more bugs than you expected. Folks get sick and Real Life intrudes on the best of plans. It’s said (or paraphrased) that no plan survives contact with the enemy. The enemy in this case is reality. Plans are made with the best of intentions and with the best data available but they are inherently fictional and the degree to which they are fictional is only known in its entirety in retrospect. Agile can help with that, but at some point you still have a release you have to get out the door by a given date.

Crunch Time has always had an unfortunate effect on me, personally. Especially since I moved in to management and our ability to make that release date is part of my job and my responsibility. As things get close and we move in to this phase, I find that I’m not able to disconnect from the job and work the way I do during the rest of the year. I consider it a strength of mine that I can usually leave work at work and by the time I’m at home my brain has shifted gears appropriately for being at home. Crunch Time breaks that model. Technology, unfortunatley in some ways, exacerbates that. Smart Phones means I can check work email anywhere and anytime, even in the bathroom. That means I can respond at 7pm or 10pm. I can check email as soon as my eyes open at 6am and all it takes is something that requires my involvement and the brain engages in work mode and home mode is gone. And I need home mode. Home mode is when I hang out with my wife, do the things that are important to me and do things that are not work. It’s that work/life balance. If I don’t get enough of that, and I assume that’s true for everyone, then I start to suffer. And that suffering isn’t limited to just the work hours.

The net result of this is that Crunch Time wears in a way that is unique. I don’t have a good way to manage it. I don’t have to check email in the morning but I do because if I see an issue and get it unstuck or addressed then, it may save someone 3 hours later in the day. If I can respond to an email at 10pm, it may mean the folks we work with in other parts of the world are also not stuck. That doesn’t happen daily, by any means, but it still requires a shift in to work mode and that’s expensive for my brain. Context switching is always expensive and the context switch from work mode to home mode is always a difficult one.

I do try to slip in time to take a walk or exercise when I can. I make time for the relationships in my life because despite being an introvert, I know that those relationships are critical to my happiness. Meantime, I’ll buckle down, do what I have to do and we’ll try to once again conjure the miracle that is an on-time delivery of a complicated software project with over one million lines of code written by a team of 40-50 folks from at least three locations across the globe and tested with thousands of tests and thousands of hours of cpu time on computers running all over the world to increase our confidence in the quality of what we’re shipping. And, you know what? It’ll still have bugs and some of those will be ugly. And we’ll start fixing those and start talking about what the next release has to have and how quickly it has to have it and start the process all over again!

August at Loon Lake

The amazing weather we’ve been having has me thinking about summer and August specifically. There was so much to love about the summer when I was a kid much of that took place in July and August and some of my best memories took place at Loon Lake.

My grandmother and her husband had a cabin at Loon Lake which is about 30 miles north, northwest of Spokane. Loon Lake is not particularly large, it’s only 1100 acres, roughly two miles wide and a mile long. It has a maximum depth of 100 feet. I didn’t know that growing up. When I was a kid it seemed as though it was immense and filled with mystery and unfathomable depths. Certainly it was the scene of many adventures when I was growing up.

My grandmother lived at the lake for most of the summer and stayed there occasionally throughout the year. It wasn’t a particularly large plot, but it was distinct in my memory.

It always started with loading up the car. Sometimes it was with my mom and my dad. Sometimes it was riding with my aunt and as many of her kids as would fit in the station wagons they had over the years. Traffic never seemed to be particularly heavy but the anticipation was enough to make those 30 or so miles crawl in my recollection so the 40 or 45 minutes of driving seemed to take forever.

Talk in the car, at least amongst the kids, was all focused on the lake and most often on who would be able to get out of the car and in to the lake the fastest. Bets were made, challenges set, pride put on the line.

Eventually, after what seemed like far too long, we’d pull off 395 north out of Spokane on to the South Road which wiggled up and down the shore along the lake, passing the many cabins that surround the lake. We knew we were getting close by this time so the excitement amongst the kids in whatever car we were in mounted as we’d catch flashes of the blue lake in between the trees.

Depending on the time of the year, the lake varied from chilly to very comfortably warm. June was a bit iffy in terms of temperature, it was still warming from the cold winter and spring. By Fourth of July, the lake could be counted on to be nice and warm. August days at the lake were days filled with warm water, sunshine and food. They were my favorite.

There was never parking down below so the adult parked cars above the cabin on the street above or in the little pullout for guests to the cabin. There was a reasonably steep hill and driveway from the car parking down to the cabin, the beach and the water. The goal was to be entirely prepared for when the car came to a stop and the doors would explode open and a clown-car’s worth of kids would burst from the vehicle to race down the hill in a mad race to make it to the lake and in to the water first. I always had glasses so I don’t think I ever won these races, at least not against my cousins as all the boys were at least a year older than I was. I also had to stop to take off my glasses and put them somewhere safe. That said, the goal was still to tear down that hill as fast as we could.

There were hazards to contend with, to be clear. Chief amongst those were the parents and adults who wanted to immediately task the kids with carrying things, usually food, down the hill for them. Reasonable? Certainly. Welcome? Absolutely not! Additional hazards included the occasional fall, but that was pedestrian and an unacceptable excuse. There was always the chance that grandma would be out and you absolutely had to stop to give her a kiss and say hello. That was understood.

But, if none of those things slowed us, we would tear down that hill, across the backyard area where the adults hung out and drank beer and visited, down across the narrow, sandy beach, throwing towels and shoes and shirts everywhere then out the dock as fast as our feet would carry us and then leap from the end of the dock, fly through the air and sunshine and be that first person in the water. It was glorious.

That lake was my (and probably my mother’s) motivation for learning how to swim. If you were not a strong swimmer, there was a clear understanding that you had to wear one of those bright orange life jackets if you were going to be in the water past your chest. And only the little kids would be caught dead in the water at the end of the dock dog paddling around in the bright orange jackets. What you wanted to be was one of the big kids who knew how to swim because those kids could swim from the end of the dock all the way out to the 10′ square ski dock which was probably fifty feet away from the end of the dock.

When I was little (eight or so), the really cool kids were the ones who were swimming without life jackets and swimming out to the ski dock and laying in the sunshine out there. That’s where I wanted to be!

As I said, Loon Lake wasn’t large, but in my mind it had once been filled with large fishing vessels and there was clearly mystery to be found beneath the surface. There was a small rowboat that the bigger kids could take out and the expectation was that you occasionally had to take out the little kids with you. It was something done reluctantly and not without some resentment. We weren’t allowed to go very far but there was a small island with a cabin on it to the west and we would row around that telling stories about the hermit that probably lived on the island in the cabin because we never saw anyone there, ever! To the east a bit there was a long rowboat of some sort that had probably sunk after breaking free from a dock and with the sunshine just so and if the visibility was sufficient, we could rover over top of that boat and look down and just make it out in the depths below. That, of course, became some sort of sunken boat with attendant stories of people drowning in the storm and their bodies never being found. I remember those stories being very effective as I went through a short period where I was convinced that skeletal hands would reach up from the depths to pull me under! These were not rational fears as I also went through a period where I was pretty sure that a shark attack was a possibility. If nothing else, it served as a motivation to swim fast across the top of the water to reach the ski dock and pull myself out before whatever was below the surface either ate me or grabbed me.

I know the adults would fish in the lake but for the kids, fishing meant sitting on the end of the dock with one of the many small poles. We would bait the hooks with small pieces of niblet corn which my grandmother always seemed to have on hand. We could dangle the corn and the hook down a few feet and within a few minutes be almost certain of catching a fish. The lake was filled with sunfish which were just a garbage fish in the lake. Usually we would remove the hook by carefully running our hands down the line from the front towards the back to hold down spines of their fins, grabbing the body and freeing the hook. We were pretty sure the same fish would be back on the line before lunch time. The game there was to keep count and see who could catch the most fish. It wasn’t hard, though, because even if there were no fishing rods, all it really took was about six feet of line, a weight and a hook and you could catch fish. Not a bright fish.

One of my most visceral recollections was sitting on the dock fishing. One of the rules was you weren’t allowed to cast because the last thing you wanted was a little kid flinging a hook around back and forth amongst a bunch of other kids. My mom was down there for some reason and I was down there and suddenly I felt a sharp pain and a slight tug at the corner of my eyelid! My mom yelled “STOP!” at the top of her lungs and everyone, for that is the force of a mother’s voice, stopped everything, probably within a hundred feet. Turns out one of the kids, not a cousin, not a regular but someone’s guest, had tried to cast, had flung the rod back over their shoulder and the hook (baited with a small piece of niblet corn) had caught in my eyelid! Had that kid flung his or her cast forward, bad things would almost certainly have happened but because my mom had caught it, she was able to remove it before the fishing went badly that day.

Eventually, as with all things, the cousins started growing up, my grandmother got older and there were fewer events hosted there. I was probably 15 the last time we went out to the cabin on Loon Lake.

Years and years later I took my own kids up to Spokane and we stayed at a rental cabin on Loon Lake. One day we rented a canoe and, here was one way I came to understand that the lake was not immense body of water it had been when I was little, we paddled across the lake to the cabin that had been one of my favorite places to be. My grandmother and her husband, Frank, had passed and I think the cabin was owned by his kids but I never knew them so we just paddled by as I pointed out the cabin to my kids.

Before we went back, I made a point of going just a few cabins further along and told my kids the story of a boat full of people out on a stormy lake sinking and no bodies being found and sure enough, as the late August sun lanced through the murky water below, I was able to point out to them where the remains of that boat remained after all those years, hopefully leaving my kids with the same spooky possibilities that had made my adventures there so memorable when I was growing up.

Excuses

“Excuses are like assholes, Taylor, everybody got one.”

Sgt. O’Neill, Platoon

I find myself suffering a bit of fatigue in my goal to write once a week for a year. So, I’m going to think about and write about that a bit this week and we’ll see if I satisfy my requirements that way.

I wrote last week but I completed it late and it just barely made my word count minimum. I wasn’t proud of it and the material was pretty boring, not particularly well thought nor insightful in any way. In my opinion it sucked a bit. Maybe more than a bit.

As a result, I violated one of my rules for this exercise:

  • After the posts are up on the blog I will post a brief note on Facebook and Twitter

I guess I’ll have to make up for that by posting a link to both despite the fact that don’t care for the work I produced. It satisfied the minimal requirement for this exercise, but not much more.

I also find that I’m struggling a bit with what to write. Before I started this, I brainstormed a set of starter ideas to draw from and I’ve worked through most of those. I thought I’d write some short stories, but those aren’t easy, either.

One of the goals of this exercise was to tell stories to my kids either about me or their family or about them because I wanted to pass those stories down to them in a form that could be captured and persist more than just verbal retellings. The challenging part of that is if I choose to write something as part of this exercise, it has to be something I’m willing to make public and that actually limits me in some of the things I might and will eventually hopefully write about, either because it’s not something I would choose to share publicly because it’s not my story or because it is not an appropriate story to tell publicly on the Internet. So, I do have a list of things I would like to write about and add to this exercise, but they’re not currently written – because if they were, I might choose to alter my own rules and consider them written and thus complete, relieving me of the requirement to post them publicly.

Which brings me to the other thing which has impacted my writing. My work life is very full right now. My typical work weeks starts with getting up at 6am or so, getting ready for my day, getting out of the house, perhaps commuting with my wife and dropping her off downtown, spending the day at work, leaving to pick my wife back up and getting home. I choose to count my door-to-door time as “work time” which means from the time I leave my house till the time I return to my house which averages 11 hours per day. Two to two and a half hours of that is commuting and I don’t get paid for that, but it’s time not doing other things, so I consider that time lost to work. Additionally, I’m required to attend at least one weekly call that takes up at least an hour one evening a week. Also, the phase of the project we’re in right now is requiring more time and attention from now through the first part of November as we approach a major release. This increases the stress in my life. I end up checking up email somewhat compulsively – one of the pitfalls of having a smartphone that allows me to check my work email as easily as I check my personal email. So, my brain is in “work mode” a great deal of the time right now and that doesn’t leave me much time to think about much of anything else, which means I’m not spending time writing.

I know this is not in any way uncommon and I’m sure is something that anyone who wants to write but has to do other things for a living struggles with constantly. The difference, I expect, is that if someone is truly focused on improving that skill, they will make time to practice it consistently. In my case, I find myself tired, both mentally and physically, and that doesn’t lend itself well to sitting and writing. It does lend itself to passive, consuming activities like randomly surfing the web or watching television or playing a computer game. So, that’s my struggle. I’m just barely keeping on top of this commitment, I say as I’m writing this at 9:05pm on a Sunday evening and I wanted to post this by 9pm each Sunday. So, rather than barely keeping on top of this, in reality, I’m already late. Le Sigh.

It would be a fair question to ask where my weekends go. I certainly ask myself that same questions. Where do they go?

A certain amount is lost to simply catching up on my rest. I sleep in till 8am!. I might lay in bed even longer than that. I did take a 45 minute walk on Saturday, so there’s some time spent exercising and paying attention to my health, which is a good thing. But, the two things that probably take up the bulk of the remaining time are chores, the necessary evil that keeps our lives functioning with minimal investment during the work week, and spending time with my wife because I really like to do that. So, it’s fair to say that I split my weekend between what I have to do and what I want to do. And the occasional nap though I was robbed of that opportunity this weekend!

Okay, I did choose to go see an okay movie (“The Wolverine”) and we did go to our local County Fair. The former was definitely me time and the latter was definitely in the bucket of time spent with someone I really enjoy spending time with, so that is always good for refilling my battery.

As a result, I will go in to my work week tomorrow reasonably refreshed and ready to deal with all the interrupts and unexpected things which come up in the course of the week, especially during this phase of the release cycle.

If I’m lucky, this being summer, I’ll get to take a lunch or two and play volleyball with my friends. That always does me a lot of good and certainly is good for both my health and my general demeanor.

But, on the whole, the focus will be on spending those 11 hours a day or so thinking about work and doing what I can to add value to company and the group I work with. That’s my job, that’s what they pay me for and I want to do that job well. It’s what allows me to provide for my family and, increasingly, hopefully put away towards some day retiring before I’m too old or too senile to enjoy it!