WordWacker is 5!

A cake with frosting baloons and the number 5, with text: Happy Blog BirthdayWordWacker is five years old today!

In some ways, this has been a rocky year, with good news and bad. I’m still lamenting the passing of the WordPress Photo Challenge, which ended in May 2018. I tried my own photo challenge for the second half of 2018 (you can see the first entry here). It worked, in that I posted a photo a week, one for every letter of the alphabet, and I liked the structure of it. Still, it felt awkward and never garnered much enthusiasm (though I did appreciate the constant participation of Olga Godim). I didn’t continue it past December. Then I didn’t post at all for the first few months of 2019. I needed to regroup and find a new direction.

I came back in mid-March, though, and participated for the fourth time in the A-Z Blog Challenge with another set of haiku puzzles (you can see them starting here, if you want).

Since the end of April, I’ve been posting once a week with Something for Sunday. There have been 11 of these posts so far on a range of topics, starting with an essay on how a popular movie movie relates to an important facet of human evolution and ranging through public celebrations like Mothers Day, private milestones like my anniversary, and a meditation on the complex relationship most of us have with our belongings.

This has been a year of modest growth on social media.

  • I posted 68 times on this blog.The biggest category was the A-Z blog Challenge, followed by my own photo challenge.
  • The number of new followers grew by the same number: 68, which brings my total followers up to 32. Welcome! I am sincerely grateful to all my followers. This blog wouldn’t exist without you. Thank you for coming, and I will try to provide you with content that’s worth the visit.
  • I’ve been participating more and more over on Twitter, where my follower count is up to 282, more than doubling the 121 followers I had this time last year. On Twitter I mostly post haiku (I wrote about it on the blog here), but I also follow various writing groups there, including #amwriting and #WritingCommunity. If you’re on Twitter, check me out @Celia_Reaves.

What do I see looking forward to the next year?

  • I’m going to get the my novel in shape to begin querying. That’s been a long time coming, but I think I can see the finish line from here.
  • I’ll keep up the Something for Sunday posts at least through the end of 2019, and see how it goes after that.
  • I’m going to look into becoming more active on Instagram. I’ve got an account there but haven’t done anything with it. I intend to figure out that platform and participate over there at least a little.

So, here’s to the end of another year on the blog. A good year, if not an outstanding year. Again, many thanks to all my followers for sticking with me, and I hope to make it worth your while for another year.

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Getting Lost: Planning a Changeling Game

Books (Changeling: The Lost and World of Darkness) with a scattering of 10-sided dice. Text: Something for Sunday; July 14, 2019; Getting LostI’m a gamer: tabletop roll-playing games, to be precise. I’ve written before about my love of Dungeons and Dragons (see here and here and here). D&D is the game I mostly play at home with my family, and it’s wonderful. But I’m a promiscuous gamer, and with my Friday night group we generally play a different game.

Changeling: The Lost is one of the games in the World of Darkness system (New World of Darkness, in case you were wondering). It’s the same basic idea as D&D, with each player taking on the role of a character interacting with other characters as they overcome challenges in a world of magic. There are some overt differences, in that Changeling takes place in our current, contemporary world (plus the magic), and uses only 10-sided dice, as shown in the image. However, the biggest difference is less obvious. Changeling games tend to emphasize role-playing and character interactions over fighting. This is the reason why, as much as I love D&D, I think I love Changeling just a little bit more.

Now that I’m retired, I’ve decided to run a Changeling game at home with the family. Planning this game has completely obsessed me for weeks now. I’ve got to understand the system more deeply than I do as a player, and I’ve got to figure out all those challenges. The players will need certain information in order to overcome the challenges, and I have to find ways for them to get it in the context of the game, as they play their characters, so they know what they must know in time to prevent disaster. The solution must be something they can figure out and implement, but it can’t be too simple or obvious. This is complex and frustrating and enormously fun. Here are just a few of the wild and crazy ideas I get to play with:

  • Exploring the Chinese system of five seasons/elements to understand the major plot challenge
  • Designing stalls in the bazaar of the bizarre known as a Goblin Market, like the one where the old crone sells buttons that give you specific moods, charging you one song you will then forget
  • Creating a companion for the characters I call a sootling: a little snarl of black string with eyes that talks and has information they need

In many ways, planning a game is much like writing a story. This is no new insight on my part. In fact, the person who plans and runs a game in Changeling is referred to as the Storyteller. The story is the key to what makes playing these games so compelling, and so much fun.

I’m a writer, with a novel currently in revision. So writing the story for a game should be the same, right? Well, no. When I write a novel, my reader goes through my words in sequence as I’ve written them down. Suppose the reader needs to know Fact A before Event B happens. It might take some skill to work Fact A into the story where it needs to be, but once I’ve done that then I can rest assured that the reader will find it there. With a game, though, my best-laid plans are completely at the mercy of decisions made by the players. They may not go where I expect them to, do the things I’ve planned for, taking the story somewhere I never thought of. In fact, this is probably going to happen at some point. Here’s an image that expresses this idea beautifully.

A bottle of Coke labeled "My planning," and a hand holding Mentos labeled "My players"If you don’t get it, then you don’t know what happens when you add Mentos to Coke (especially Diet Coke): You get an explosion of foam all over the place. Gif showing a bottle of Coke erupting in foam after Mentos are addedSo what I need to do is not just storytelling, it’s nonlinear storytelling. I can’t, and shouldn’t, force my players to do certain things in a certain sequence. They need to be able to make choices and have those choices influence what happens. But it’s still my job to make sure they have a good time, which means they face challenges that are intriguing and worthwhile, and find the tools they need to overcome them. It’s like writing a book, only more so.

One interesting result of the overlap between planning a game and writing a book is that the game has been absorbing all my creative energies for weeks. I haven’t made any progress on my book! In part this saddens me. However, there’s a voice in my head saying, “You’re having fun, being creative, making something that others will enjoy. What’s wrong with that?” I have to agree with this voice.

So, for now, my WIP is this game. I know this obsession will pass, as we get to actually playing it and then we finish it. Until then, though, the book will just have to wait its turn.

Do you play games?
What absorbs your creative energies?

Stuff and Nonsense: How Our Possessions Possess Us

A pile of random stuff. Text: Something for Sunday; July 7, 2019; Stuff and NonsenseWe recently got new carpet installed in every room upstairs. We’re excited about getting rid of the 30-year-old stuff, but what we hadn’t been prepared for was the task of clearing out everything from all those rooms so the installers could work. We could leave the big stuff (the beds and dressers) but all the drawers had to go, and the chairs, and containers, and everything on top of all that furniture. We crammed stuff in the family room, in the basement, up on closet shelves, and most of all in the second upstairs bathroom nobody uses now that the kids are grown.
The image shows a very small part of that room. Until we went through this process, we hadn’t realized how much stuff we had. It took days to get it all cleared out, and it will be weeks before we get it all back where it belongs.

Though we kept a lot we don’t need, we are not hoarders. Compulsive hoarding is actually a serious, diagnosable mental disorder, which involves keeping things to the point where it causes significant problems with health and safety. It is closely associated with anxiety disorders, including obsessive compulsive disorder, and sometimes with dementia or schizophrenia. Fortunately, that doesn’t describe us. When things are broken or no longer useful, we get rid of them. To take just one example, I recently donated two old cameras to the photography program at my school, even though I felt really attached to them. There are no rooms in our house too crammed to get into. Well, except that bathroom. As I write this we’re going through and discarding a lot of what’s there, including papers from my kids’ elementary school days, keeping much less than we’re getting rid of. By the time you read this, it will be once again empty and ready for guests to use.

That’s not to say we couldn’t still stand to get rid of more stuff. Like many fortunate people, we definitely have more belongings than we need. Researchers at the University of California have documented that middle-class Americans have more possessions than any other group in history, and that this can lead to high levels of stress. This short video describes the cluttering of America and the effects it has had.

Now that we are both retired, we’re going to start working through our belongings systematically. We expect we’ll want to downsize before too many more years, and that will be so much easier if we’ve cleaned things out a bit before then. Our future selves will be grateful for whatever we can do now. It’s time to take charge of our possessions.

Do you have too much stuff? How do you relate to your belongings?

In Praise of Boxes: Structure and Creativity

A pile of cardboard boxes. Text: Something for Sunday; June 30, 2019; In Praise of Boxes“Think outside the box.”

That’s a common piece of advice about creativity. Do the unexpected. Break through limits. Color outside the lines. Don’t be limited by those pesky boxes.

There’s certainly a lot of truth in that advice. However, I’m here today to defend the importance of boxes, and discuss how they can help our creativity.

Here’s a personal experience of my own. For years, I posted an image almost every week in response to a prompt provided by the WordPress Photo Challenge. (You can see some of my favorites here and here and here.) When they shut down the Photo Challenge just over a year ago, I was heartbroken. The structure of a weekly prompt was the box that inspired me to look at the world differently and more creatively. I missed it so much that for six months I ran my own personal photo challenge, posting an image every week based on a letter of the alphabet. It worked for me, but didn’t catch on and I dropped it after Z. Still, it got me thinking every week, looking for images relating to a particular letter, and that was good.

Here’s another example. I posted recently about how much I love writing haiku. In that post, you’ll notice that in every case the little poems are a response to a prompt: a letter in the A to Z Blog Challenge, a daily prompt in the #HaikuChallenge, or a weekly prompt for #ScifaikuSaturday. I can’t just sit down and come up with a haiku without some kind of structure. I need that box.

Structure helps creativity and productivity in many ways. Science fiction author Ferrett Steinmetz wrote a post on Chuck Wendig’s blog (“Five Things I Learned Writing the Sol Majestic”) in which he shared a number of suggestions for writers. One section is headed “Restrictions Breed Creativity.” He put rules on himself, limiting what he could do or how he could do it, and found this unleashed his thinking. Once again, the boxes helped.

There are any number of other examples. Why do people engage in NaNoWriMo or the more flexible Camp NaNoWriMo options? If you can write 1667 words a day in November, why couldn’t you do it in October? The key is the added structure. Daily productivity can be boosted with systems such as the Pomodoro Technique or a whole suite of suggestions from Elizabeth Spann Craig on “Setting Yourself Up for Success.” It’s nothing but boxes, and it works.

So remember: You can’t think outside the box without boxes. Thank you, boxes!

How does structure help you work?

Saying Goodbye: Meditations on Retirement

A yellow carnation corsage with text: Something for Sunday; June 23, 2019; Saying Good-ByeI’ve been a teacher forever. When I was five I went to kindergarten and fell in love with school. I remember dragging some tables, chairs, my younger sister, and several neighbor kids into my garage and setting up my own little classroom. We practiced coloring, counting, and letters. I couldn’t think of anything more fun to do on a Tuesday afternoon.

In college, I worked as an informal teaching assistant for one of my professors, and in graduate school I led a summer seminar of my own. My first official teaching position was in 1980, and I began teaching full time in 1981. I’ve had 31 wonderful years as a full-time professor in a single institution.

And now I’m done.

Saying goodbye has been a slow process. I announced my intention to retire more than a year ago, so that my department could adjust. Last fall I taught my favorite course, Cognitive Psychology, for the last timer. This past spring I taught the course I developed and have been the primary teacher for, Research Methods, for the last time. Every class meeting has been a strange experience. I’m used to finishing each time by making notes about what went well and what I want to change for next time, only now there is no next time. I said goodbye every single day for the last year.

My college said goodbye at the annual employee recognition meeting. All of us retiring this year got corsages (the photo shows the one I wore). They said some nice things and I got a set of crystal glasses. Then last week, at my department’s annual end-of-year party, they gave me a lovely print of Escher’s woodcut “Sky and Water I.” This image is appropriate on many levels. I’m a big fan of fish (I’ve posted earlier about that), and this print also illustrates the interplay of figure and ground (something I’ve also posted about before, using this same print as an example). I’m going to hang it above the desk in my work area, where I can look at it every day.

As of Friday my job was officially over. I didn’t have a lot to do that day: clean some files off my computer before they turn it over to someone else, turn in my last key, tidy the office for its new occupant. Then I drove away from campus for the last time, with a little mist in my eyes.

As much as I loved my job, I’m happy to be retiring. It’s time to move on and devote that energy to other things. Time for one last goodbye.

What goodbyes are you saying these days?

Climbing Rock: A Father’s Day Tribute

All vital human relationships are complex, and this one is no exception. Some think of their fathers with pain, some with loss, some not at all. My story, though, is one of love and strength for which I will be forever grateful.

Here is a picture of my father from around 1949, when he and my mother married. He was already a veteran of WWII, having served as a radioman in Paris after it was liberated from German occupation. He had graduated from Georgia Tech with a degree in Electrical Engineering and been hired by AT&T, the company that held a monopoly on telephone services for decades. Working for a big company like that meant frequent reassignments, and he and my mother moved every two years until I was in middle school, at which point his career took him to corporate headquarters in New York City and we settled in New Jersey.

This is a more recent picture, from around 1970. This is my father as I remember him. After my mother’s death he remarried, and after he retired they moved to Florida where he lived until his death in 2005.

For most of my early life, my father was my rock. Since we moved so much, and since I’m an introvert at heart and don’t make friends easily, family was the main constant in my life. This mostly translated to a reliance on my father. Mom started showing signs of the illness that killed her while I was in grade school, and the only other family I had was a younger sister who looked up to me, rather than the other way around. In this environment my father was a source of strength and stability I relied on every day. My rock.

That metaphor has a problem, though. Rocks are strong and dependable, but they also weigh you down. That doesn’t describe my father at all. Without any specific words being said, I knew my future could hold whatever dreams I wanted. For instance, he had no hesitation about sharing his love of science and engineering with his daughters. I remember when I was maybe 10 years old sitting at the kitchen table while he drew diagrams and we worked through what would happen if someone fell into a hole that went all the way through the center of the earth and out the other side. After discussing the ideal case, which leads to perpetual oscillation as you fall down one side and up the other and back again, he brought in the idea of wind resistance, and then the final closing argument about the impossibility of such a hole in the first place. That was the engineer in him, focused on practicality.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized how unusual it was for a man of his generation to treat his girls with respect for their minds and their hands. He let me and my sister play around with the oscilloscope in his workshop and taught us about frequencies. We were his assistants as he re-wired electrical circuits in the house. I could barely hold a hammer when he gave me some scrap wood and a box of nails and coached me until I could drive them straight and true. I still bristle when I see pliers in the jewelry section of craft stores, marketed to women, with built-in springs to open them up again after gripping something. They don’t think I know how to use pliers? This wasn’t just his attitude toward his daughters, either, but toward women in general. He told with glee about the time when he and my mother were building a small electric organ from a kit that included basic electrical components, including resistors. One of my father’s colleagues from work called the house one day asking for Dad, but Mom said he wasn’t home. After dinner the colleague called back and told Dad he was embarrassed to say he couldn’t remember the resistor color code (a system of using little colored stripes that specify the resistance value in ohms). Dad answered his question, but added, “Judy could have told you.” Yes, way back in the 1950s my father called out a colleague for his casual assumption that a woman couldn’t know a basic feature of electrical engineering. He never, not once, implied that I might be limited by my gender.

So here’s to all fathers who give their children, boy or girl, the tools and confidence to reach their dreams. Rocks made for climbing, for launching into a bright future. Happy Father’s Day.