Choice of Water

Molten Waters

I have to choose what water looks like. I have a lot of choices. I’m not sure what to do.

Let me explain.

I am about to play Thief 2 for the first time. This is an old and very important game from the early 2000s. It is the sequel to Thief, which was as important and influential a game as anything that isn’t literally a household name. I wouldn’t put it up against Pac Man, but almost anything else. Thief largely invented serious, well-implement stealth in computer games, and as such was responsible for a great deal of the fun I have holding a mouse over the last 15 years that didn’t involve an adorable but sadistic feline.

I never finished Thief when it came out. I played it and loved it but I got stuck the place where a lot of people got stuck: the level where sneaking through a stronghold populated by human guards with clever dialogue is replaced by crawling through caves and fighting monsters. The game loses its focus and its charm in those levels. However, it was still such an amazing experience that I never lost my resolve to go back and finish it. I’ve tried a few times over the years. Finally, a few months ago, I did it. It was a glorious experience. The gameplay has really held up. There are a few clunky interface issues that no designer would implement these days. The industry have learned and moved past them. But they aren’t as bad as lot of the clunky interface issues that the industry hasn’t moved past.

The visuals are another matter. Thief came out in 1998, in a time when rendered polygon graphics were both ubiquitous and hideous. The levels and a lot of the objects in Thief looked good. The characters looked terrible then. They look worse now.

But so what? Right now is an amazing time to play old games on PCs, especially if those games were popular or influential. A game as big as Thief is nearly guaranteed to have a player-designed mod that replaces all of the textures in the game and makes it look better. And it does. I installed it, and the game looks much better.

I should add at this point that I don’t care how it looks. Not really. Visuals don’t matter that much to me, and to the extent that they do I am more moved by art design than technology. Gabriel Knight is still a gorgeous game despite being 22 years old. Chrono Trigger will never not be beautiful, any more than Ancient Egyptian art will stop being beautiful. Limitations of technology, even when they are obvious, are not aesthetic poison unless you believe they are.

So why bother with the extra aggravation of installing  a mod? Immersion. Graphics are a threshold issue for me. Some old games look old, but it’s easy to lose yourself in them because they still look good. Some old games shove their ugliness in your face. Usually those games weren’t that impressive visually in the first place.

The same way some old movies and books come across as painfully dated. As much as I love The Terminator, if I could install a filter on my digital copy that would update the color and remove the 80s hair I would do it. That way I wouldn’t have to focus on those things. I would still respect anyone who wanted to watch the movie in its original form, and I wouldn’t want to thrust my version on them. But what an amazing situation to be in to have the choice.

So I played Thief with the HD texture update, and it was marvelous. Now it’s time to play Thief 2. There is a fan patch to fix bugs, an HD texture mod, and some other  visual enhancements. It’s a bit of work to install them, but worth it.

Except now I have a problem.

It’s not a real problem. Not something to complain about. All of these mods are free. This is enormous benefit to me for no cost but a little extra work. So I present this “problem”more as something to think and ponder about than as a real complaint.

I have to choose my water.

The visual enhancement includes a few other mods people have made, all packaged together. You get to choose between them. This includes the water mods. That is, mods to change what water looks like in the game. There are six of them. So when I play this game I get to (have to?) make a choice between six different styles of what the water looks like.

Nothing in my life has prepared me for this.

In The Paradox of Choice, author Barry Schwartz explores how getting to choose between 50 different mustards and 200 varieties of soap every time we shop causes us more stress than it does joy. Our brains didn’t evolve to have that kind of choice, and although we believe that more choice just makes us happier–the standard neoclassical economics approach, to be sure–it often isn’t the case.

Video games crank this up to 11. Those of us who are indecisive can lose a lot of time and tear out a lot of hair on the most irrelevant decisions. Some games let you adjust hundreds of variables when designing your character’s face and body. Often times this agonizing and fairly irrelevant process–since in many of these games you barely see the character much after the initial design process–is followed up by a painstakingly complex set of screens where you then pick your character’s statistics, again with hundreds of  variables.

I’ve spent hours or days on this process. I’ve gotten so stuck on this stage that I never even started the game in some cases. I am not remotely alone in this.

So here we are. I’m ready to play this game. It’s a simple game, as these things go. You play one character, with no stats, and you only ever see his shadowed face in cut scenes. The mods are installed. It’s all ready to go. All I have to do is pick my water-style, which I care next to nothing about. It is literally the least important decision in my field of awareness at this stage in my life. Which of my  toenail clippers to use matters more. What angle to scratch my back at matters more. Which brand of tissues to buy when I run out in the next few days matters much, much more. It’s just a game. It’s just water. I don’t care about it at all.


This could take a while.

The Sensitive and the Trickster


I think I am a Highly Sensitive Person.

I don’t know for sure. I haven’t read the major book on the subject by Dr. Elaine Aron, although now I am going to as of this writing. Inspired by my own blog post! How about that!

I don’t know for sure, but I read an article about it a year or so ago and it was one of those lightning storm in the brain moments. I have a lot of the symptoms, both positive and negative.

I need the volume on the TV to be at a precise level. If it is too loud it overwhelms me and I can’t concentrate, and if it is too low I don’t find it engaging.

Direct sunlight really bothers me. When I was a teenager and we went on car trips I used to often say that I wish you couldn’t actually see the sun. I wished it was just soft, distributed light across the sky. My family made fun of me. It went into the general file of “that’s Jesse!” It was a big file.

I’m also empathetic and highly sensitive to the moods of other people. Especially pain and anxiety. It’s a problem much of the time. I get overwhelmed by my perception of suffering if I focus on it. Sometimes I can’t help it.

The weird thing is, I’m also completely not like that. I don’t care a whole lot about pain. I feel it acutely enough. It’s just that some types of pain don’t bug me that much. It’s even more true for temperature. I usually wear a sweatshirt even in cold weather.

One winter in Massachusetts the only shoes I had were canvas. They wouldn’t have been waterproof at the best of times, but in this case they wouldn’t have been waterproof even if they had been made of mink-oil coated rubber, because the soles were split wide open. We got 2 feet of snow that winter, and when I walked around the snow got right into my shoes. I might as well have been walking barefoot. I didn’t avoid the snow. I often walked through it, in fact, so I could yelp hilarious and put on a big show.

That’s the other thing. Highly sensitive people are supposed to be shy and reserved. They’re supposed to be careful and deliberate about what they say and do. To think before they speak. I know people like that. Or, I should say, I know of them. These are not my people.

Okay, that’s a lie. Some of them are good friends. But I am, to put it mildly, not like that. I value outrageousness as a righteous and desirable quality. I stand up on tables in public dining areas. I’m that guy.

Kind of. I’ve never been able to figure out if I actually am that guy or if I’m just putting it on. I think most of my friends understand that I’m not as much that guy as I act. Or, perhaps, that guy lives inside of me and sometimes he wakes up. Like a wacky version of the Hulk. The Motley Hulk.

I’ve known the real that guy. The fearless, totally self-confident types who don’t question the awesomeness of their own impulses. I envy them, and also I don’t.

The Tricksters. I’ve long wanted to be a Trickster. But empathy stops me up. In college I wanted to really become one, to play pranks and stir up gentile revolutionary chaos. I came up with ideas but I chickened out pulling them off. Not because of fear of consequences. At least, that wasn’t mostly it. It was fear of hurting people. I couldn’t help but think through what might happen and who might suffer. Once I locked the door to a bathroom stall and then crawled underneath to get out, so it would appear occupied but actually be empty. That old chestnut. I was perfectly willing to press my chest to the dirty floor for the sake of a good wheeze.

I laughed, and walked out of the room. Then I felt terrible. What if someone really had to go? I promptly turned around, crawled back under, and fixed my mistake.

I think a lot of people wouldn’t understand why I would want to lock that door. And I think the people who get it wouldn’t understand why I had to go back and fix it. My brother, for example. He’s a true trickster. He does things like send out dramatic letters about personal experiences and tragedies from a fictional persona to random strangers. I think that’s hilarious. But when I mentioned that I would have trouble doing that because it might cause actual harm, he shrugged and said, “Nah, I think it’s not a big deal.”

So I don’t know where I stand. Maybe there are two of me. Maybe I’m not a trickster, but a twin god. Two faced Janus. Gemini. All of those Hindu gods who do stuff like that who I can’t be bothered to look up right now. The Sensitive and the Trickster. One who can’t bear the sun and another who walks barefoot in the snow.

Who is the real me? Is there a real me? An impossible question.

But I’ve got that book now. So, you know, probably I’ll know soon.

The Chef and the Compliment

Hell's Kitchen

The chef that fired me never liked me. That isn’t some kind of lame excuse, or anything. “Why did you get a D in math, Johnny?” “Mrs. Appleslog never liked me!”

Chef Dean never liked me. I don’t know if it was personal or not. It wasn’t arbitrary, though. It wasn’t just a personality conflict. He was precision oriented, thought that little mistakes were just as bad as big mistakes, and that cleanliness was slightly above Godliness.

I do not share these traits. I can cook up a storm, but I can’t achieve perfection. I work better when I can be fast and loose and make modifications. Plenty of restaurants work that way, and when I worked in those people loved me and thought I was fantastic. Not at this place. This place was very expensive, and that means everyone gets a stick up their ass. Chef Dean’s stick had its own restaurant.

So he never liked me. He never complimented me.

Except for once.

He wasn’t the chef of the restaurant itself. He was the Corporate Chef of the entire restaurant group. He had been chef of this steakhouse until he got a brain injury and couldn’t work the line anymore. Everyone said he ran the place with an iron fist. They said that he had mellowed since then, and that is terrifying.

Everyone was scared of him. My boss, Chef Jerry, lived in absolute quaking fear of Chef Dean. When he found out Chef Dean was coming around he dropped everything and got to work making the place just how Chef Dean liked it. Chef Dean liked things a certain way, and some of these ways were widely acknowledged as stupid.

He wanted us to use just salt and pepper on the asparagus instead of our seasoning blend, even though the seasoning blend was much tastier. So when he was around for an inspection we used salt, and the minute he disappeared through the huge double doors we went back to using seasoning.

I worked as the prep cook much of the time. The prep position at that job was more difficult and demanding than lead saute and grill positions I’ve had at other, lesser restaurants. It involved baking cheesecake and cooking lobster tails and making hundreds of crab cakes from scratch in 20 minutes. There was often 12 hours of work to get done in an 8 hour shift if nothing went wrong. Things went wrong.

One of the big ones was Chef Dean. The restaurant was closed at night, so during the day only the prep cook, Chef Jerry, and the daytime dishwasher/cleaner were in the kitchen. When Chef Dean showed up to these shifts there was no one to deflect him. He watched me like a hawk.

He criticized how I moved around the kitchen. He criticized how I cut the bread. He once flipped out so badly when he found that I had drained the veal stock in a certain way–the same way I had every week for a year and a half–that Chef Jerry intercepted me coming back from the bathroom and told me to just go home to avoid the firestorm.

Mostly, he criticized my cleanliness. I won’t fault him for picking the right target. I worked messier than the other cooks, who were all immaculately clean. I didn’t know how to work cleaner than that. I also got more stuff on my apron and my coats. At the end of the day you could tell exactly how hard I worked. Chef Dean did Not Approve. There’s an old adage that to see how good a chef is, look at his shoes. In fine dining this is a biblical passage. I should never have been in fine dining. I was a walking violation of the Law of Sanctity, and Chef Dean was its high priest.

The days Chef Dean showed up during my prep shifts were truly terrible. I work worse when I’m stressed, and he stressed everyone out. They were terrible.

Except once.

I’m not sure what was different that one day. Maybe my workload was lighter than usual. Maybe I got enough sleep that night. Or maybe I was just hitting my stride on my work at that place. I whizzed through the whole day, getting everything done right and getting it done fast. Even Chef Dean didn’t slow me down, even though he followed me around and kept stopping me to ask questions and make long-winded points, as usual. But I handled it. I handled it with style and we even had a few really good conversations.

As I was leaving that afternoon I said goodbye to Chef Jerry and the other cooks who had shown up for the dinner shift. Then I turned to Chef Dean. “Good evening, chef! Always a pleasure!”

I meant it, too. In that moment. Because I did always learn from him when he was there. It was neat to hear his stories and tap into his vast experience. It was always a pleasure, even if it was always more of a pain. Life is complicated.

“Jesse,” he called to me as I walked out the door. “You’re doing a better job of keeping this place clean. And yourself.”

I beamed.

I don’t know if it was true. I don’t think it was, really. Maybe I worked a little cleaner that day, but I was never a slob. Not really. I just didn’t clean as I went very well. I had to do it in shifts.

No, Chef Dean gave me the only compliment he ever gave me for one simple reason: I complimented him. He meant it. I’m sure he did. But he felt it because of the bond we shared in that moment.

In the fictional version of this story that was a turning point for me and Chef Dean. After that we became friends, and he took me under his wing as his protegé. I took over the restaurant and to this day we laugh about that story over drinks.

That didn’t happen. The next time he saw me it was business as usual for both of us. A year after this he fired me. He was nice about it. He told me I was a super nice guy but I just didn’t fit here. I guess that’s a compliment, too.

But that one doesn’t count.

Rain Through the Window


It is rainy and gray outside.

My friend wrote me an email and told me that he still feels some of the magic from rainy days that he felt in his childhood.

seeing the exact color of the grey outside through the window and having that color seep in through the house, and hearing the patter of the raindrops on the roof and the skylights

I envy that. He is capable of doing that with many things. Just seeing them as they are. He can experience what happens in front of him and nothing more. Mindfulness, you might call it.

I’m not very good at mindfulness. Or, I don’t know. Sometimes I am. I can lose myself in books and movies. I can lose myself in a bite of delicious food. I am capable of pure joy, although I don’t experience it as often as I used to. How can I? The older I get, the more I understand consequences.

In many ways consequences are the enemy of joy. Small children experience pure joy in part because what happens to them means nothing more than it means. They are all texture and no context. They have no caveats.

I’ve walked through the rain too many times. Waited at a bus stop without a shelter while my jeans soaked through and I knew I was going to have to work for hours with soaked jeans that would never really dry until I got home. Just looking at the rain gives me some of that, even though the color is beautiful.

It’s beautiful in this room right now, as the soft light through the window and the soft light of my monitor mingle into a white-grayness, washing over my fingers as I type. But there’s more than just that when I look out the window. There’s also wet jeans.

My friend is not incapable of understanding consequences. Far from it. I think he’s a more consequence-oriented thinker than most people about a great many things. But in some ways he’s like a child. In a good way.

Sometimes I try to practice mindfulness. But it’s hard when thoughts of consequences trigger your anxiety. And it’s hard when you recognize the importance of consequences. Children experience pure joy, but they make terrible accountants.

I don’t think there’s a perfect balance. How can there be? It’s an imperfect universe, and the human brain is the messiest thing we have ever discovered. I know I can’t stop thinking about consequences. And I can’t live without pure, unadulterated, consequence-free joy.

My mind tells me that if can’t achieve balance, then why bother. But that is trap. The quest for perfection is poison to mindfulness. You have to leave the warmth of the fire eventually and trek out into the storm. That’s where the future lies. But you can’t live in the storm.

So for now, I will just sit by the fire, look out the window, and enjoy the rain.

Cold Shower

a frozen kind

“You never challenge yourself.”

I said it to my girlfriend, but it wasn’t directed at her. Not really. It was directed at everyone.

It was 12th grade, and one of the things the senior class did every year at that school was to spend several days at a camp ground. One of the things everyone dreaded about this trip was that we would only get to take cold showers. Like peasants! Like animals!

I was excited. About the trip and about the showers. I knew it would be terrible but I was ready. Ready to face it down. To have to face it down. Other people did not share my view on the subject. It was one of the first times I really grasped that most people try to avoid things that cause them pain and discomfort unless they have a really good reason to face them. I already knew that, of course. In the straightforward sense. In the “stop touching the hot stove” sense.

But I kind of liked pain. And discomfort. And public humiliation. I didn’t really know that about myself, yet. And I didn’t really know that this was an aspect of my psychological makeup that made me different that most people. It’s a difficult thing to articulate, partially because it is complicated and partially because we have a very poor vocabulary for discussing the small differences in our respective mental processing and outlook.

I used to assume that everyone spelled words out in their heads while other people talked. It turns out that’s pretty rare, too. We don’t realize that we have these differences from each other because we don’t talk about it. We aren’t trained to think about it.

Yesterday I read that cold showers have a number of heath benefits. I ran into it on Facebook and I couldn’t believe it. Could something that simple really be that good for you? It sounded like a scam. So I looked into it. And then I kept looking.

It looks legit. Taking cold showers appears to be really, really healthy. I didn’t believe it because it seemed too easy. A health practice that takes balls, but not really any effort? Oh, I am so down.

A lot of the articles talked about how difficult it was. How to psyche yourself up to doing it. How hard it would be at first.

It won’t be hard. Not for me. Uncomfortable, yes. Painful, even. The instant the water hits my skin, I expect that the part of me that cares about the physical condition of my body will pull away, like it sometimes does. Like it did in 12th grade, at camp. It will float above me like a ghost, and stare with detached amusement and excitement at my wet, quivering flesh. It will remember the last time I did this deliberately, which was a long time ago.

“You never challenge yourself.”

Is it a challenge, if it is within your nature to overcome it? If something doesn’t intimate you to paralysis, if the thought of it frightens you less than it frightens others, are you really stepping outside of your comfort zone?

I don’t know. I may or may not be about to find out.



Enough May or May Not Be Enough

I think I am losing my mind

Crazy Thought Induced By Working On Novel Of the Day:

Should each of my characters represent some kind of cognitive bias? And the whole structure of the story can be a metaphor for the brain and the flaws in human thought, and how they emerge to create a functional whole that is both capable of amazing things and unable to understand potentials and limitations of its own capability?

Because, you know, the 8 viewpoint characters and the 3 main plots and many sub-plots all squidged precariously together like a precariously built sandwich aren’t complicated enough.

Unexpected Corpses

Archaeological Dig

I think that most of us have never seen a truly messy room. I don’t mean stacks of old pizza boxes and piles of socks that date back to the Carter administration messy. It is possible for a room to become so cluttered with stuff that it transcends the status of Messy Room and elevates into Archaeological Ruins. Most people never really run into this until, say, an older relative dies, and you have to sort through the vestiges of their twilight years, when the part of their brain that allowed them to throw stuff out had long since atrophied.

My father in law had been living in that variety of twilight for some time when he had a stroke and had to move to a nursing home. And I’m pretty sure the part of his brain that let him throw stuff out just never developed. I think it was smothered in utero by the part of his brain that would later grow up to collect 8 copies of the same edition of the dictionary. It’s in this particular Archaeological Wasteland that I am currently trying to excavate. Those dictionaries are one of the two shelves in that room that house collections of dictionaries. There are also more dictionaries scattered throughout the room on various bookshelves and various surfaces. Oh, and the other collection of dictionaries is on another shelf downstairs, in the living room.

He has been in the nursing home for five years now. We’ve been living here for 8. We’ve used that room, the Den, for keeping kittens in, for playing games, I used to use it for Hermetic rituals, and I currently use it for exercise. It is terrible for all of these things. It is just too damn cluttered. There is a roll-top desk, and a couch. Neither of these are flush against their respective walls because behind them are piles of books and filing boxes and luggage and stacks of old Northwest Regional Cadillac Club member renewal forms from 1992. And dictionaries. There are plenty of dictionaries.

It’s time to take that room back. So I am going on a grand purge. The worst kind of clutter is that kind that developed organically. Once the bookshelves and the cabinets were full, they started to stuff things wherever they would fit. This room transforms that kind of clutter to an art form, if an art form can also be an infectious disease.

I am throwing out old files and magazines, even though it’s painful to do so. What if we need to look up something that happened in Astronomy in 1979? Now that opportunity is lost forever! And I find it difficult to throw out anything with handwriting on. For all I know my father in law had a secret lover during World War 2, who was on the side of the Nazis, and he wished to come be with him but he couldn’t betray his country no matter what it was turning into. And I’m throwing out the only evidence of their love!

You know, actually maybe its better that no one find out about that one. Although if his wife found out he was secretly gay she’d probably like him better. She has a thing.

It’s difficult to purge like this. It isn’t my stuff. But that room has been a calcified memorial for far too long. It’s unlikely he is ever getting out of that nursing home. Plus, he had a problem. Today I threw out piles of unopened mail that was almost as old as I was. They moved to this house in the early 90s. That means some of that mail came with him from the previous house. And he still never opened it. Maybe he got it from Pandora. I should probably check before I open one and let out some evils or something.

I found a lot of old candy and snacks. In one cardboard box, among the desiccated chocolate coins and rock hard candy orange slices, were two bags of lemon drops. One of them had dried out completely and fused into a single entity full of white powdery cracks. The other had gotten warm and melted into a single, semi-translucent entity. Within that one box were two different demonstrations of the horrors that time can inflict on this one variety of candy. So now I know.

In the desk I found several different Texas Instrument calculators. My father in law was an early adopter, and these seven chronicle the lifespan of this technology over several decades. I didn’t throw those out. In a tiny box nearby I found at least five medals of various sorts he must have earned while he was in the Navy. I didn’t throw those out either.

The biggest surprise from yesterday was that behind the roll-top desk, among the books and boxes of books, was an entire 5 foot high wooden filing cabinet. There had been no evidence that it was there before that.

Today I excavated behind and around that filing cabinet so I could move it. On the floor, I found was looked to be a small pile of those black rubber tips that go on the ends of things. It was weird that there were so many of them in the corner of this room, but it wasn’t the strangest thing I’d found. It was dark in that corner, so I pulled out my phone’s flashlight.

They were bugs. Except, were they? They weren’t moving. And they didn’t appear to have legs or anything. It turned out that they were bugs. Emphasis on the word “were.” What I saw was the remains of some kind of black beetle. They had died so long ago that all of their soft tissues were nowhere to be seen. I bent down to get a closer look. There were more of them in the corner.

On the corpse. At first I though it was a bird. Then I realized it was the wrong shape, and it was probably a squirrel. Now let me ask you, have you ever looked at either a bird or a squirrel and been confused as to which of the two you were looking at? That should give you an idea of the state this thing was in. It was mummified to the point that when I worked up my nerve to deal with the mess it was surprisingly okay. I have a thing about bugs. But these weren’t really bugs. They were fossils.

It does make me wonder how the corpse of an animal could have been in the corner of this room for what must have been several decades without anyone knowing. My father in law spend a lot of in this room. Wouldn’t he have noticed a smell? Or bugs crawling around?

I’ve given the matter some thought, and I’ve come to a conclusion. That corpse was so old and so well preserved that I don’t think random chance can account for it. I think, in fact, that it was from the old house.

Like the mail.