Snow and classes

January 18, 2018

Spring classes started yesterday. Unfortunately, we also got a snowstorm that started in the wee hours and kept going all day. I expected classes to be canceled, but the university decided to stay open. That meant I had to get up early and shovel out the driveway so I could get to campus, and that more than a few of my students didn’t make it to class.

Despite those difficulties, it was a good first day. It takes a couple of weeks for classes to settle in and develop their personality, but I have a good feeling already about my students this semester. There are a bunch of former students of mine who are in my spring classes, and a few of them are in more than one—it’s like having an entourage.

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New Restaurants in Town

November 25, 2017

Not long ago, if we wanted to go out to eat or get takeout in our town, we had a choice of six different pizza places. If we wanted anything else, we had to drive at least twenty minutes in one direction or another. Things have gotten much better since then.

A great new restaurant opened up a few years ago, serving an eclectic American/Asian fusion. We’ve become regulars there. Earlier this year, the former pizza place nearest us was replaced with really good fresh bagels. We like to stop in there sometimes when we’re walking back from the library after a morning visit.

Just a few days ago, another one of the former pizza joints reopened as a Mexican restaurant. We walked over last night to get take-out and see what they have to offer. They weren’t quite open yet when we came by, so we went strolling around town a bit and came back. We ordered our take out, went walking a little more, then got our food and came home to eat. The food was okay, nothing special. Their kitchen seemed to be running a little haphazardly and I don’t think they’ve worked out a smooth routine yet, so we’ll give them a little time to settle in and go back later to try them again. It’s probably not going to become a special favorite, but it is nice to have another option within easy walking distance.

Autumn Summary

November 12, 2017

Once again, I haven’t posted in a while, so here’s a rundown of what’s been going on:

My classes have been keeping me busy this fall. I’m teaching two first-year seminars, which I enjoy teaching but which also take a lot more of my energy and time than my other classes. We’ve also had several incidents of racist graffiti on campus. I know that other universities have lately been dealing with much worse, but making time for my students to talk about these incidents has also been an added weight to carry.

I coordinated a conference for the Historical Association of which I was elected vice president last spring, which meant receiving all the paper proposals, organizing them into panels, and communicating with the presenters, attendees, and our local hosts in Connecticut. I’ll be doing the same for our spring conference in New Hampshire. I really enjoyed working on the conference, but it was another steady drain on my time and energy.

Last weekend I presented a paper at another conference, held at my university. I was talking about religion in the provinces of the Roman Empire, specifically Britain, and arguing that there was a deliberate attempt to accommodate not just different Roman and native religious traditions but different ways of combining those traditions. There was a good audience and I thoroughly enjoyed my presentation. I’m going to be reworking some of that material for another conference presentation next month in Edinburgh.

It’s hard to remember that it’s only been a couple of months since I submitted the final drafts of my book chapters. I suppose it’s no wonder that I feel worn out. I’m always tired and stretched thin by the end of the semester, but this fall feels heavier than usual. I am thinking about what changes I need to make in my work for the spring to give myself time to recover.

LARPing at Worldcon

September 30, 2017

Here, finally, is an account of the LARP (Live Action Role-Playing game) that I played at Worldcon in Helsinki back in August.

There were five players in the game. Most of us had played tabletop role-playing games (like Dungeons & Dragons) before, but only one of us had any experience with LARPs, and that was only as a side character in a larger game. It was nice to all be relative newbies together. We played the game in English, although two out of five of us were not native English speakers. Sometimes we had to restate things so that everyone could understand, but we managed quite well. A coordinator explained the game to us and helped us get out feet on the ground, then left the room and just let the five of us play things out.

As in any role-playing game, each of us took on a new character. Unlike in most tabletop roleplaying, we stayed “in character” throughout the game. It was like an extended dramatic improv scene without an audience.

The setting was that our characters, twenty years ago, were a group of paranormal investigators. Then something happened and one member of our team died; we all split up and went our separate ways, but we’ve come back together in the place where it all went wrong. We were each randomly assigned some background for our characters (I was a small-time con artist who had never believed in the paranormal stuff but helped the team get into places and out of trouble, who had gone on to minor celebrity as an author and television personality), but the rest was up to us to work out. We first just sat around and talked, figuring out details of how we had gotten together as a team and what had gone wrong with our last adventure. Then we got into character and spent the next hour and a half just playing out the events of our reunion.

There was no set story for us to follow. We each decided for ourselves what our characters were trying to accomplish by getting back together and then had to try to work through our individual stories. Another interesting mechanic that the game had was that we each at some point (that we chose ourselves, when it felt right for the story) became possessed by ghosts who had their own motivations and goals (also randomly assigned to us at the start of the game) and which propelled the story in new directions.

It became clear to me fairly early on as we were coming up with the background for our characters that the major story was a tangled love/envy/hate triangle between three of the other characters and that my role in telling the story was to step to the side and help them work through their relationship. I quite enjoyed taking on that role; it appealed to the same narrative instincts I rely on when writing stories or guiding a class discussion. While the other players were busy focusing on working through the complicated emotions their characters were experiencing, I was trying to create opportunities for the story to progress. The game also reminded me of some of the improvisation exercises I did when I took some theatre classes in college.

We were told ahead of time by the coordinator for the game that this game can play very differently depending on what the people involved want out of it, that it doesn’t always have a happy ending, and that it can get emotionally intense. It was indeed an emotionally intense experience, but all of us players, without having planned it ahead of time, worked our way towards a satisfying happy ending. By the end of the game, old feuds had been patched up, broken friendships restored, the dead were at peace, and we were getting the gang back together again to keep hunting ghosts.

I really enjoyed this game. I hope I have the opportunity to do some more LARPing of this kind in the future.

August travels: Helsinki

September 3, 2017

For our Helsinki lodgings this trip, we tried something we haven’t tried before: AirBnB. We found a little one-room apartment in a neighborhood of eastern Helsinki we haven’t spent much time in before. It turned out to be a very good choice. The apartment was small, but there was enough room for us to spread out comfortably. The kitchen was basic but functional and stocked with simple staples like cooking oil and salt. It was on the top floor of a very quiet building; the street in front was noisy and busy, but we could close the windows and have some peace. The nearest grocery store was just on the other side of the block and there were stops for several different tram lines right outside.

Our big reason for being in Helsinki this year was to attend Worldcon, a big science fiction and fantasy convention that is held in different cities each year. This is the first time Worldcon has ever come to Helsinki and we were excited to be part of it.

Unlike, say, a Star Trek or Lord of the Rings convention, Worldcon is about genre literature broadly rather then being focused on a particular author or franchise. Much of the schedule is panel discussions among authors, critics, scientists, and other experts on various topics ranging from writing advice to costume design. I saw a lot of interesting panels on fiction writing, history, translation, and language with some great presenters. Unfortunately, there were also a lot of panels I didn’t get to see because of some planning problems with the convention. They were not prepared for the number of attendees who showed up and many panels had been scheduled into spaces that were too small for the crowds who wanted to attend. I frequently found myself sitting in a hallway reading a book because all the sessions I wanted to listen to were full.

After a couple of days of being frustrated by how few panels I actually got to attend, I decided to try something different. Another event at the convention was a series of LARPs (Live Action Role-Playing games). In the US, LARPing has been largely shaped by classic tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and often consists of not much more than running around in the woods hitting people with foam swords, but in Scandinavia there has been a development of LARPs focused on character development and collective storytelling. It’s something I’ve been curious about for a while, so I decided this was a good chance to give it a try. I had a remarkable experience at the LARP, which I’ll write about separately, and I look forward to future opportunities to play Scandinavian-type LARPS.

We encountered a lot of old friends in passing at the convention (including an old fellow student of mine from grad school days) and we spent a good deal of time hanging our with E’s sister. I still had work to do, so I fitted that in where I could. We also scheduled ourselves some rest days before and after the convention to have some down time away from the noise and crowds.

All in all, it was an excellent vacation, both restful and productive.

August travels: Oulu

August 20, 2017

Our travels went fairly well. We first flew from Boston to Reykjavik, then on to Helsinki, where we had a long wait before our flight up to Oulu. It’s getting harder to do these long travel days as we get older. Fortunately we know where the good cheap food is in the Helsinki airport and we found a quiet corner with benches were we could take turns stretching out for a nap.

In Oulu, E’s father kindly picked us up at the airport and gave us a ride to our hotel, which was right by the market square. We had just enough energy left in us to wander out and get some lunch/dinner (smoked salmon savory pancake with chocolate strawberry sweet pancake for dessert, yum). Then we collapsed and slept for about fifteen hours.

I woke up in the wee hours while E was still asleep and got some book work done (it was a working vacation for me). After breakfast, I needed to go back to bed for a nap while E went out and happened to find her youngest brother and his girlfriend in the market.

The next couple of days were a whirlwind of family visits and good food. We saw old friends and new apartments and some days we ate at roughly two-hour intervals. We played with the niece and nephews. In the moments in between, I kept on working on materials for the book. I was mostly assembling illustration recommendations, something that made me very glad to have the internet.

After a long and wonderful weekend in Oulu, we flew to Helsinki for the next part of our trip.

(I stupidly forgot to pack the camera for this trip, so I’m afraid there are no pictures to share.)

How does my garden grow?

July 21, 2017

Not quite as high as an elephant’s eye.

Well, the corn is starting to look like corn, and I have lots of young green bean plants growing. (I mistook them for clover when they were young, so I’m glad I let them grow!) So far only one cucumber has shown up, but I’ve also got some volunteer tomatoes and potatoes. It’s a bit of a chaos in the garden patch just now, but hopefully something yummy will come out of it all.

Book work

July 6, 2017

Here’s where the book work currently stands.

I have finished first drafts of all the chapters—13 in total, plus a short introduction. What’s left to do is:

  • Revise the chapters. I have feedback from multiple readers to incorporate, although on some chapters the comments are minimal. Even where I don’t have suggestions from the readers, I still want to give everything another polish to make it all consistent (my sense of the book’s purpose and tone evolved over the two years it took to draft all the chapters) and try to shorten it up a bit. Fortunately, I don’t have to make any large cuts, but if I can streamline some things, it will be good for the book. It’s currently looking like it will come out around 240 pages and I’d like to get that closer to 200 if I can.
  • Go through each chapter and make a list of terms to go in the index.
  • Make a list of possible illustrations for each chapter. Fortunately, the publishing company will handle sourcing images and getting rights.
  • Decide how many maps to include and what should be on them. This is going to be a little trickier. I think the book needs a lot of good maps, but maps are expensive and the cost will come out of my royalties. I’m trying to strike a balance between putting in the maps I think are necessary and what can be consolidated or left out.
  • Figure out a cover image.

It’s a lot to do, but I’m still excited about the project and looking forward to seeing it come together.

In any case, this is why you haven’t heard much from me this summer.

Strawberry enclosure

June 15, 2017

We have a little patch of strawberries out back and I’ve tried various arrangements in the past few years to keep the critters out of them, but I wasn’t quite satisfied, so today I built this little netted enclosure to go around them. We’ll see how that does.

To keep the rabbits and chipmunks out of our berries

Back yard friends

June 2, 2017

We had some friends visit our back yard last night: two rabbits and a chipmunk. I only got one poor picture of a rabbit, but we watched them hop around munching on dandelions for a while.

Do you hear something, bunny?

Our friends seem to like it when the grass is long. I suppose it gives them more cover to hide in from the hawks and foxes we have around. I mowed the lawn today, but I left a strip of long grass at the back so hopefully they’ll come visit us again.