On Chess

For the vast majority of my life, my dad ran “sep Computers” (despite looks, dad insisted on it as an initialism, S. E. P., even though he refused to write it that way.) It was the tech support style business that came to be dominated by Geek Squad (or Nerd Herd for Chuck fans.) For much of my adolescence he (and I) would solve computer problems for customers. Need a new home computer? Bought a new gadget and couldn’t get it to work? Need to network your office? Did you computer get infected with a virus? Ready to go Office Space on your printer? We helped solve all your technocentric problems.

Dad worked incredibly hard while also being a loving father. Being self-employed, he valued the semi-control over his schedule and the ability to be free during some afternoons and weekends to be with us.

As a kid, I remember dad being a night owl. He’d work into the wee hours of the morning, go to bed, be up at a normal time and then rely on naps through the day to get by.

It wasn’t until I was older that I came to appreciate that at least some of that was him bending his schedule to allow him to be around us during the day. And when he that wasn’t enough and he had to do work, he would often take over the kitchen counter peninsula in the middle of the house. Now, his office was often an utter disaster with massive piles on his work tables. And part of this relocation was unquestionably due to that, but I have also come to think it was partly so he could be around us and wasn’t shut away from us in the back office all the time.

When he didn’t have appointments in the afternoon, he would prioritize us and our lives. He loved watching us play sports, watching TV with us, attending church activities, etc. His work wasn’t making us rich monetarily, but it was keeping food on the table and enabling us to have dad be more involved in our lives.

Trust me, all of that was a necessary lead up to my discussion of chess.

I was in elementary school when I decided I wanted to learn chess. I think it was because some friends were playing it at school, or maybe I had seen Searching for Bobby Fischer, I can’t remember for sure. Searching released when I was ten years old which was probably a little late to have been the impetus for my learning, but even if that is true, that film is inextricably intertwined in my infatuation with the chessboard.

So, wanting to learn something new, I naturally went to dad and asked him to teach me. And… he directed me to the family’s set of physical encyclopedias. Writing that sentence has aged me another decade and makes me feel exceedingly old given that I was on the tail end of people who needed to consult the book encyclopedias before the arrival of digital encyclopedias and today’s marvelous Wikipedia.

Screencap from the film, Searching for Bobby Fischer.
To this day, I still romanticize the idea of playing chess in New York Central Park. I’ve never had the opportunity, but this movie engendered that idea in my head.

I think he wanted to see if I would keep the interest or if this hurdle would derail me. (Spoilers: It didn’t.) I read the entire entry that explained the game, discussed each piece and how it moved, went over the rules, including castling and capturing en-passant. And, that was my start with chess.

Armed with this knowledge I went back to my dad and said I was ready to play. My recollection is that the time we played was very brief, a span of a few weeks or maybe months. It ended because once I started being able to beat dad he stopped wanting to play against me. But that wasn’t something I, an elementary school kid, understood. I kept asking him to play with me over the course of days and weeks and he would always decline or redirect me.

Eventually, I grew visibly frustrated and wouldn’t take no for an answer without an explanation. I was upset because I enjoyed playing this new game, sharing it with dad, and on top of that: it was something I could win at! Do you have any idea how exciting that was? For a kid my age, it was a notable feeling to win based on skill and not the luck of cards against someone who I regarded as so much smarter than me!

So, I stood my ground and demanded to know why he wasn’t playing with me. He sat me down and explained that it was because he was working so hard for the family, and when he wasn’t working he wanted to just relax. Playing chess against me was becoming work. (He never admitted it, but knowing my father’s competitive streak, I think he also struggled to accept losing to his son.)

Looking back, I get it. He did work hard. He never, to my knowledge, said no to a job due to workload. If he had jobs that required an 80-hour week, he lowered his head and dove into the work since he couldn’t be sure if next week would be as busy. It could very well have been one of those times, I don’t remember, it was nearly thirty years ago now.

The other truth is that dad was never a big boardgame player, he much preferred cards. In college he was a competitive bridge player with his brother Herb. He also loved poker, and a game our family played that we called ‘Nasty’ – which is played with one (or two) normal decks of playing cards, and plays very similarly to Uno.

So, I get why dad wasn’t eager for the mental effort of chess just to face the possibility that his pre-teen son might bruise his ego. Looking back now, I understand.

But, even though dad wasn’t a willing victim for my nascent love of chess, he did continue to support me in it. He and mom bought me numerous chess books over the years (many of which I still have), small handheld chess computers, and eventually computer software such as Chessmaster. (Anyone else get nostalgic thinking about the old man on the software cover?) And when I got caught playing chess on paper against the pastor’s son during church, they didn’t get mad.

Box art for The Chessmaster 2000
I spent hundreds of hours “winning” against this software.

Eventually I got a copy of Chessmaster 2000. To me, this was Deep Blue. This was the unbeatable computer juggernaut. But more than that, once we got Chessmaster, I had a willing enemy for endless games of chess. Game after game after game. Hour upon hour. I would hog the family PC as I battled against it over and over and over.

Except, here’s the thing. I wasn’t great at chess and no one had taught me how to actually study chess. I was just playing and playing and I was playing wrong.

A tangential story: dad had gotten a golf computer game (I think it was Links 386, but I could be wrong) and I would sit down and play it. One day I proudly called him in to see my 18-hole round where I had a score of just 25 strokes total. He was stunned and amazed. Then he saw I had taken something like 3,238 mulligans to get that score. He didn’t stop laughing for days.

The same logic which led me to this amazing round of virtual golf, was something I applied to my battles of chess with Chessmaster. I would play game after game, and when I screwed up I’d back up and let the computer tell me the best move and resume play from there. Essentially, I’d take a mulligan. Shockingly, using this method, I kept winning against the computer! I was clearly amazing at chess.

Narrator: I wasn’t.

Australian International Master, Andras Toth, gives a great example about how people learn chess or study chess incorrectly. He gives the example of a math teacher asking his students “What is 37 + 22?” The student he calls on says, “78!” And the teacher responds, “No, it’s 59.” – He immediately gives the answer and doesn’t walk the students through the exercise of how to get there. That isn’t teaching the student how to get the right answer, that is teaching the student the right answer. Two very different things. And in some areas, such as math and chess, exceedingly not useful for the student.

Looking back, I can clearly see how I was doing this with Chessmaster. I made a bad move, the computer told me the right one. I made the right one and proceeded in the game. I didn’t realize that the real exercise was to stop to ask “why is this move better and mine worse?”

And on top of that, even worse, as a kid I let myself be lulled into believing I was better at the game than I actually was. Look how much I was beating the computer! And I was better than most of my friends, and even my dad didn’t want to play me – clearly, I was a chess expert. Except, if you asked me to explain chess, such as why Chessmaster suggested I move the knight rather than my queen, I’d give you a wrong answer.

Portrait of Garry Kasparov
Garry Kasparov, considered by many to be the greatest chess player of all time.

As I grew older, widened the pool of people I played with, and realized I was not the next Garry Kasparov. I eventually got better at studying chess and realizing these shortcomings as a youth. But I have only really had a breakthrough in terms of improving my game in the past year during the Covid crisis. This year has seen serious growth in my abilities over the chessboard.

In general, my most fond chess memories are when it was not a solo activity. This goes for most games, the way for me to maximize my enjoyment of games is to utilize them as a basis for socializing.

Whether I was playing chess to connect with friends in my college dorm, as part of the handful of clubs I’ve participated in, or even the few times when I took my chess set to the mall and set up in the food court with a sign offering games for random passerby (my closest parallel to play in Central Park.) I far prefer chess with people than against a faceless computer. And it is the clubs or groups I remember most clearly.

First was the middle school chess club. We would meet in a teacher’s classroom after school and compete on a ladder for ranking, each week we would alternate evens & odds who challenged up the ladder. In the ladder, the lower player challenges and if they win, they swap spots with the higher player. I remember being excited as I neared the top of the club’s ladder, though I don’t recall ever reaching it in the club.

The second club I think of was during college. We would meet up and play in the commons on Georgia Tech campus on Fridays. I found myself frequently winning any chess games played in my dorm hall, but when it came to the club on campus I was small fish in the pool of sharks. Even though I had realized I was outmatched, I still enjoyed the games and socializing.

I can remember playing bughouse. Bughouse is a chess variant that has four players face off in two teams and involves trading pieces between players rather than just making moves. I played Bughouse in high school and middle school as well, but my most fond memories of it are at college because we discovered it was likely to draw crowds of other students since it often was more high energy and could get quite boisterous. Fun times, but those days weren’t ones where I would sit down and study chess.

The third one is one I’m in right now, and it is entirely virtual (quite representative of our current era.) I came across the “Morphy Chess Club” which is named for Paul Morphy, one of the early chess greats. It’s a Discord server for people to come and chat about chess, but it also has amazing features like weekly classes for intermediate or advanced players, chess lectures by Masters, etc. (In fact, it was through them that I discovered Andras Toth, the player I quoted earlier.) It’s growing into a great community and I attribute lots of my recent growth as a player to having it as a hub and resource.

As I near the one-year mark since my most recent period of focus on chess, I am reminded that the reality is that my love of chess has not been continuous. It comes and goes, depending on what other distractions I have. I’ll get into it heavy for a few weeks or months and then I’ll burn out or get distracted or grow frustrated and go off to do something else for a while. But, I always come back.

I can’t be sure if this latest stint was caused by Covid-19 or just coincidental or not, but I have been playing chess almost daily since March last year and I’ve really seen my skill improve over that time. Since March my rating has gone from the low 1300s to cresting 1800 for the first time back in October, before I hit a wall and dropped for a while. Only this week have I regained my form and reached new peaks in my rating. As of this post, according to lichess.org, the site that I primarily play on, I am better than roughly 85% of players on the site.

My rating chart on lichess since March of last year.
My rating chart on lichess since March of last year.

I made a mention of it above, but this year I really feel like I’ve come to understand enjoying chess and the study of it. Sure, I’ve had books and used them to learn the game, but I never really mastered how to study my own game and improve it.

In fact, for much of my life, I consciously knew that my skill at the chess board was largely in being better to evaluate the current board position and find the better move. I wasn’t actively thinking multiple moves ahead, I just relied on being better in the moment.

Andras Toth had another quote that I really liked during one of his videos which was “You don’t play the present, you play the future.” He is speaking to the critical nature of analyzing, making moves and playing for the future of your chess games rather than simply addressing what is happening on the chess board.

Internalizing that, and working on it as a mindset for chess games, has been a major part of my focus. Andras’ video with that quote came out last month but it was an excellent distillation of the thing that has made my growth in ranking possible for the last year. Learning to better analyze and evaluate positions, as well as understanding the base theory of chess, along with the critical understanding that I have to mentally push myself to calculate positions, it isn’t something that just happens.

By that, I mean that if you show me a chess position, I can look at it and make an instant reaction of what I think of it, what I would do or what I think the move would be. But that is going back to what I was doing when I was younger. Instead I have to force myself to stop and begin looking into the future. If I do something, what might the opponent do? It is a conscious act to calculate deeper, not something that simply happens for me. I’ll play games of chess online and catch myself slacking and being unfocused and just playing surface level complexity, and I’ve reached a ranking where that is almost always going to be punished.

Two pictures of Bobby Fischer, left, during his prime, right late in his life.
Bobby Fischer was the first American World Champion at chess, and he ended up hating the game.

As part of the ongoing study, I’ve been seeking out the greats, including Bobby Fischer. Fischer was the first American world chess champion, and his victory came during the Cold War era when no one thought the Russians could be unseated. Fischer is a problematic character, he turned antisemitic and conspiracy driven as he grew older, but it is undeniable that he had a huge impact on the game. One thing I found interesting was an interview with him from late in his life, where he talked about how much he hated chess. This was when he was in his fifties or sixties in Iceland. He hated what he felt the game had become, that the game had become about memorization and preparation rather than the moves made in the moment.

This was brought up in the context of him discussing “Fischer Random” which is a variant of chess that he created. Today, it’s also called Chess960. The core is the same as chess, but what it does is it randomizes the back row of each players’ pieces, with a few rules, such as ensuring bishops end up on alternating colors, etc. This idea means that opening memorization goes out the window. You are forced to evaluate the board fresh each game. I’ve never played more than a handful of games of 960, but it is definitely interesting. I haven’t reached the stage yet where 960 / Fischer Random really entices me; I am still interested in seeing how far I can push myself at normal chess. But it’s there when I decide to explore it.

The truth about this post is that it has been in draft for several months, I wrote the very first draft in July of last year. It’s been that way because I didn’t know how to end it, to make a gratuitous chess reference: I couldn’t find checkmate. It was just me rambling about chess and talking about how I’ve interacted with it through my life. But I never reached a conclusion.

The ending to a game of Chess is always what one must keep in mind. My best rated victory on lichess came against a player 126 points better than me, and ended in 12 moves because my opponent missed an obvious checkmate. That sort of victory somewhat undercuts my satisfaction in winning that game, but the point is – I still won.

The winning position from the game I discussed.
Had my opponent played Nxc6 instead of Bxe3, they would have most likely gone on to beat me.

Playing for the future during games of chess, checkmate is what we strive for. Whether it’s an anaconda-like squeeze which slowly forces your opponent to retreat into smaller and smaller spaces for fear of losing pieces, or if it is a bombastic series of fireworks with pieces coming off the board after every move, so long as your king is left standing, that is all that matters. Or, sometimes, there are games where you just have to waste time, waiting for your opponent to make a mistake that allows you to slip in and capitalize.

Blog posts are worse than that. There’s no opponent to slip up. There’s just you and the keyboard and time. Time to write, rewrite, and rewrite again. Eventually though, you have to find your in, and exploit it.

When I sat at the desk in my room, the encyclopedia open in front of me, reading how the chess pieces moved I had no idea what this game would end up being to me.

When I sat across from my college dorm mates and played game after game after game of chess with them, I had some idea of what this game meant to me.

And now, as I write this, and think back over the past year of growth for me over the chessboard I see that this game means a lot to me. As a means of self improvement. As a tool for mental exercise. And as an outlet to channel some of my mental energy everyday.

Marketing graphic from Netflix for "The Queen's Gambit"
Overall I quite enjoyed the series, it won’t supplant Searching for Bobby Fischer as my favorite chess film but it is well worth the watch.

Chess is what you make of it. For some, that is as a narrative device in Netflix’s Queen’s Gambit – and that is absolutely okay. For some, like Fischer, they fly too high and burn out. Chess isn’t for everyone. Not because they can’t learn it, but because we’re all individuals who live unique lives and find fulfillment in unique ways. We play the game in our own ways, whether that game is chess, Magic, Fortnite, Settlers of Catan, or Dungeons & Dragons. It’s about getting enjoyment and enjoying the journeys these games take us on.

Today

In summary: Today has been a fucking day.

New York Times front page after Iran’s attack on US bases in Iraq.
Further down the same frontpage on the New York Times.

If Iran attacking Iraq, then suffering a planecrash unrelatedly, wasn’t enough – don’t forget there was also an earthquake in Iran today.

It felt like today was on the knife’s edge of tilting us into another war. So far, the US has not further responded, and Iran has said this was their retaliation for the assassination of their military leader. I have to wonder what I will wake up to tomorrow.


And, because I find humor in including something that is cosmically irrelevant, but statistically improbable; this was a tweet I posted during tonight’s D&D game. [Disclaimer: I work for Wizards of the Coast.]

If I did the odds right, there is a 0.8% chance of me not succeeding at least once with those rolls.

To Boldly Go

Space… The final frontier… These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: To explore strange new worlds… To seek out new life; new civilizations… To boldly go where no one has gone before!

I can still hear those words with the underlying theme song for Star Trek. Its opening is deeply ingrained in my psyche. I began watching it back around 1990. Catching up on the missed seasons thanks to the numerous reruns, and I watched it up until it went off the air.

I was 10-ish years old when my mom took me to the Little Professor book shop for a Star Trek fan gathering in the store. I was very excited to go meet other people who enjoyed the show, like me.

See, I was a child. I had nothing to compare against and I was convinced I was a hardcore Trekkie for the following reasons:

  • I had watched the entirety of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s run up to that point by calling dibs on the television as soon as I got home from school, enduring Rosie O’Donnell’s talk show solely because it lead directly into “Next Gen.”
  • I had seen most of, maybe, the Star Trek movies released by this point.
  • I owned two books about the fictional engineering for the ships in the Star Trek universe, specifically the Enterprise schematics and technology used in both The Original Series and Next Generation.
  • I was 10-ish years old.
These two books made me believe that the world of Star Trek was real.

Now, I feel it is fair to say that simply by owning the above two books, puts me in the bigger-than-average fan group; but I thought I was the hardest of hardcore Star Trek fan.

So, imagine my shock when I arrive at the bookstore and see a dozen adults, half of them in full uniforms. People had their own Star Trek Uniforms!?

I was the youngest attendee by probably a dozen years. And when it came time to answer trivia, I quickly realized I was out of my league with just the first trivia question was: “In what quadrant was Data’s body discovered?” I had watched the show but I had idea what the answer was. People knew these sort of trivia?! The realizations of that day did not diminish my love for Star Trek, but it certainly humbled me about what it took to be a ‘hardcore fan’ and made me question whether I actually wanted to be one.

Not that they were bad or annoying or anything negative. Everyone there was very nice to this random kid. But it showed how much more they cared and knew about the show than me. It was an important realization to find that I didn’t care about the show as much as they all did. In some ways that was freeing to realize I was “just a fan.”

When Picard and his crew went off the air in 1994, my Star Trek fandom flagged. Sure, I would watch Deep Space Nine, or reruns of the previous series when they came on, but it was no longer must-see television for me. I remember being at the grocery store and an entertainment magazine in the checkout aisle was talking about Janeway being the Voyager captain, and I tried watching the first season before my dad and I lost interest.

Actually, thinking back, I think my interest in Star Trek was very reflective on my life and mindset. I fell for the show during an age when I was socially awkward and I sought escapism. When I stopped watching, I had reached the age of being a busy kid with lots of after school activities that my parents ferried me to, or that I was tasked to help my father with his work on computers.

Since this was back during a pre-DVR era, I didn’t get a chance to regularly watch it and had to rely on reruns. Sure, dad would record shows on VHS, but those were almost always his shows and not stuff for me.

Regardless of the exact reasons, I never bonded with a Star Trek show the way I did with Next Gen. I still loved space and Sci-Fi, I did end up being a huge fan of the Battlestar Galactica series on Syfy, but each subsequent iteration of Star Trek, Voyager, Enterprise, and most recently CBS’s Discovery; never captured me in the same way.

The Star Trek I remember is about the sense of discovery. It is the utopic world where Maslow’s hierarchy of needs have literally been solved and society can, free of those base needs, turn to what now becomes attainable. This is echoed by the show’s creator as well:

‘Star Trek’ was an attempt to say humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in lifeforms.

Gene Roddenberry

The Federation are an exploratory space force of planets who have attained this level of technology and capability. It also acts as a sort of United Nations for the planets, trying to ensure peace among them in the name of this greater goal.

Of course, for an entertaining show, this must be continually challenged. So, enter the Klingons, Romulans, Borg or even the demigod alien of Q. And from them many conflicts of the show took place, though each series brought in their unique villains. Next Gen took the core mission of exploration more seriously than The Original Series. Voyager was a ship that found itself thrown across space to regions not yet reached by the Federation. Deep Space 9 wasn’t about a ship, it was the space station where many of these races would come together, though ships would play a big part of it.

The fascinating evolution and reimagining of Klingons from The Original Series to Next Generation to Discovery. The image is not mine, was found online.

Most of my blog posts end up sitting as a draft for a long while and this one was no different. I began working on this post as a memorial for my friend Ben who died unexpectedly early this year but I couldn’t find the motivation nor thread to finish.

Ben loved Star Trek. We would talk about it in some way almost every time we got together. Maybe not for long periods but he would tell me episode plots and what he thought of the CBS Discovery series. We even talked about Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville and how Ben was impressed with how much it was a Star Trek show despite not being one officially.

How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life.

James Kirk , The Wrath of Khan

I miss those conversations, among others. Our friendship wasn’t entirely based around Star Trek. He played in my D&D campaign for a while. He loved our dog Elwood. He was a Sounders fan and season ticket holder with our group. He gave me a Game Boy Advanced and a copy of his favorite Tetris cartridge, something I still have and treasure.

But, even with all of that, at the heart of my and Ben’s relationship I find Star Trek.

Elwood and Ben sharing the couch.

Writing this is hard. This post has sat unfinished for months as I grieved and processed and found myself unable to put into words the feeling of loss which grows all the more familiar as I grow older. Over time I continued to fiddle with this post, but the impetus to finish this post came from San Diego Comic Con and the trailer, the first real look we’ve had, at the new Picard series.

I, like so many others, got excited. I loved it. It isn’t going to be a classic Star Trek show, but it features one of my favorite characters ever played by one of my favorite actors ever, reprising a role I never thought I’d see again.

This trailer made me realize that Jean-Luc Picard, a character who helped me form my moral compass, is back.

This trailer reminded me that I do love Star Trek, even if it isn’t the utopic technologically driven space opera that I grew up with. I love the universe. If a piece of media can make me fall in love with its universe, then it will capture me. It’s happened with Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek. I watch most of what is put out in these universes because I just want an excuse to detach from my daily life and escape into their worlds.

Sometimes we all need to escape. It’s the wonder of our imaginations, even without any outside material it is possible to be somewhere else, someone else, at some other time. I can imagine a world where I could excitedly text with my friend Ben, or my dad, about this Picard trailer.

And I am eager for next year to roll around so that we can join Picard on his next adventure.

“Live now; make now always the most precious time. Now will never come again.”

Jean-Luc Picard

Four Years of a Life Time

His name was originally Bart. A listing had popped up on PetFinder for a 2-month old great dane puppy available for adoption. I immediately reached out to the dog rescue to see if he was still available. He was! I let myself get excited. Today’s blog post is entirely about dogs. Specifically, dogs I’ve owned.

I am a firm believer that the phrase, “We don’t deserve dogs,” is quite often true. Dogs are animals who have been bred to love us and so often we take them for granted.

All my life I have wanted a big dog. I grew up with a husky and then a golden retriever during childhood and adolescence. There was a beagle (I think it was at least) when I was a young kid but I only barely remember him.

The husky, named Lady, was our family dog when I was a kid. I was probably 10 years old at most when we rehomed her. Looking back I didn’t appreciate her for what she was, I thought of her as just any other toy – no different than an action figure or a matchbox car. I only wanted to play with her on my schedule. I mean, we walked her and fed her and loved her, but it was purely perfunctory and what was required. Rarely did we do a lot more than that.

After having her for a few years I hit that childhood age where I had a lot of activities after school, so did my sister. My dad worked and mom was driving us around often. And as a result Lady was often left tied up in our back yard while we were gone. She had food and water and everything but, thinking back I feel guilty that that is what her life was. I didn’t realize and I didn’t appreciate her nearly enough. Eventually she got pregnant and she had puppies and, for some reason, the parents let us keep one of her puppies. My guess is they thought that doing that would reengage us with the dogs but instead it went the other way and the family was quickly overwhelmed. Our schedules didn’t change, but the time needs had increased. And we weren’t able to do that. So we found them, Lady and her puppy, a new home.

The golden retriever we adopted was named Chester, named that way because I was trying to think of Clifford the big red dog but our family couldn’t remember Clifford and landed on Chester. I was a little older and wiser when we got him, and I played with him more, but still life interfered often. School, sports, church, boy scouts, etc. Life kept me busy, and when I got home I would rub his belly and scratch behind his ears before starting on homework. The family kept him until my sister and I both went off to college.

Chester, in our family kitchen. Around 1999 I think.

Chester had a propensity for taking off and running if he could slip out the front door. We never managed to train him (or Lady for that matter) to stay inside and only exit with permission. A thing which was manageable when I was at home and able to help catch him and bring him home, but once me and my sister were not at home it became problematic. So they rehomed Chester. I was pretty sad about it but I understood, both of my parents were getting up there in age and I was off at college, it was a logical decision.

It wasn’t until years later, at this point what society would call an “adult” when I would get my next dog. I had moved in with my then girlfriend, that we took a trip to the dog pound “just to look” and we ended up adopting a little cocker spaniel who we named Mattie. We named her Mattie for two reasons: first, her fur was badly matted and knotted; second, we had just gotten home from a trip to Manhattan and we felt it was a suitable nickname.

Mattie looking a bit furrier than usual, but her ears did an adorable flopping when she looked up at you.

Mattie was a sweet little old lady, she loved to have her but rubbed and treats. She loved to eat. But having her, I discovered the truth was that I really wanted a big dog, not a small lap-sized dock. I dreamed of getting a big dog, a Trick sized dog. (For those of you who are unaware, I am 6’6″ or 198cm for you wise metric folk.)

Tyson dozing on one of our couches. His eyebrows were wonderful.

So, jump forward 4 years to 2011, my wife and I drive across the country and move to Seattle. We drive our Honda Element with Mattie, the Mattie cocker spaniel, and Tyson, who was a black Schnauzer mutt, riding with us. Tyson was a wonderful sweet dog who we inherited from a friend. He was closer to a big dog, and just wanted you to love him. He also had a habit of howling along with emergency vehicle sirens. Unfortunately he was struck with stomach cancer in 2012, within a year of moving to Seattle and so we had to put him to sleep to remove his suffering. It was heartbreaking.

For several years here in Seattle, Mattie was our only dog. She was a sweet princess, hated walking in wet grass, hated dog parks as she much preferred humans to other dogs. And we still had her when I saw that puppy listing on Petfinder.

The deal between me and Katie had been that I could get a big dog when we bought our first house. So, as soon as we closed on the house, I had begun searching for the puppy. And six months later Bart appeared.

It was four years ago yesterday that we took our trip to get Bart, which turned into a bit of an adventure thanks to some car trouble.

He was out in Yakima, which was a two and a half hour drive from our home. Thankfully I worked half-days on Fridays and so we got to head out with the sun still up. It was a cold January day and we headed out to meet with the rescue. We were, ostensibly, just going to see Bart. I hoped we’d come home with him but it wasn’t definite. That is, until we actually met Bart.

Katie likes to say I got out of the car and held my arms out for the puppy immediately. And as soon as she saw me hold him she knew we were leaving with him. He was so tiny. He was just 14 pounds!

Our drive back from the meeting was rather eventful. We were outside of a town named Ellensberg, in pitch black on a series of hills, and as we are going down one of the hills I notice that my foot on the gas pedal is on the floor and the car isn’t accelerating. My accelerator seemed to have no resistance and did not do anything for the car. Uh oh.

I navigate to the edge on the side of the road and turn on our emergency blinkers, then make use of our AAA membership. Thankfully the tow truck driver was more than happy to have us and our new tiny puppy in the cab with him. He had three dogs of his own and was happy to talk about them.

It was in the cab of that truck that I came up with the puppy’s name. We knew we didn’t want to leave his name Bart. So we began brainstorming and tossing names back and forth. It was in the tow truck, with Bart in my lap, that I came up with the name: Elwood.

The AAA truck dropped us at the dealership we regularly took our car to, and we had a friend come pick us up. He had the reward of being the first friend to meet our new puppy. Thanks again, Scott!

And so our life with Elwood began. Mattie wasn’t too happy but she endured him when he was a puppy smaller than her. But that did not last long. Within a matter of weeks he had grown to be her same size, and then as he grew larger than her, she grew to like him less and less. She was a little old lady and she just wanted to be left alone. Elwood only became more playful, trying to constantly get her to play with him.

One of the quiet moments with Elwood and Mattie.

It ended up that she spent much of her time retreating and hiding to get away from him. She tried to get him to understand but he was determined and kept annoying her. It got so bad that she eventually took to making messes in the house out of stress from him and that’s when we had to make the hard decision: We decided to rehome Mattie.

We found her a wonderful home that had several similar older dogs, all sharing her temperament. The parents worked from home and they had kids who would give her plenty of love. She would not want for anything from them. I miss Mattie, she’s still on my desk picture frame, but I’m glad we could find her a happier home for her.

The question of rehoming Mattie vs rehoming Elwood was one several friends challenged us on when we talked about what we were doing. And the reality is I truly believed then, and still do today, that we would have an easier time finding a home for Mattie than for Elwood. Elwood is a great dane and I don’t think a lot of people who adopt them understand what they are in for, and I worried he would just end up going to another home and another after that as he grew. I could be wrong, but that was the logic we followed.

With that change though, we became a one dog (or depending who you ask, one small horse) family. Katie was emphatic that this was my puppy. Not in the sense that she didn’t want it, but that she knew animals tended to quickly grow an affinity for her and she didn’t want to interfere with me and Elwood bonding.

For the first three nights while he adjusted to our home, I slept on the floor next to him and poked my fingers into the cage for him to sniff and lick, trying to help him adjust to his new environment.

Over these past four years he’s become my fur baby. My friends make fun of me for the amount of photos of him I take and share. And I couldn’t be happier. I’m hoping for many more years of happiness with Elwood.

A snapshot from Cedar River Dog Farm, where we kennel him when we have to travel.

Moving Back In

I can’t remember the name of the site now, but my first online journal was on some now defunct journaling website when I was in high school. From there I eventually launched a blog using Blogger (pre Google’s acquisition of the service.) As I grew to enjoy blogging and getting into other people’s blogs I started wanting to do more. To do things I couldn’t do on a free blog provided by Blogger.

That is when I started RoninCyberpunk.com (my first self-hosted blog, using Movable Type as I recall.) By then I was in college, some 15 years ago. In 2007 I registered TrickJarrett.com and transitioned my blog over to it. I think I felt RoninCyberpunk.com was no longer representative of who I was, and I wanted to present a more professional face.

My online evolution continued with the rise of social media sites. That, combined with my professional career providing me an outlet to write, caused my own blog to decline in use. In the past two years I’ve only made two full blog posts prior to this one: One was a list of books I wanted to read in 2018, and one remembering Anthony Bourdain. The only innovation coding-wise on here was done in the middle of the year when I began to track my “Media diet” as a means to share movies, books, and TV. But that too quickly fell by the wayside.

A few weeks ago WordPress updated to version 5.0 and I updated the theme I used without thinking. Doing that broke the new media diet functionality and so I found myself having to re-code it. The silver lining was that by doing it the second time, I did it the right way and made it better.

So, as you might have surmised: I’ve been thinking about this blog and wanting to use it more.

Then, this week, I read this article, linked to by Kottke.org. Secondly I read Mike Elgan’s Nicebook post. Both come from the perspective of quitting Facebook. Elgan’s is a walthrough of his implementation for photo sharing using Google Photos. The first is an article discussing how and why Facebook dominated, but noting it doesn’t have to.

Both of these articles echo wants which are similar to mine, though I’m not looking to explicitly quit Facebook yet. As problematic as it is, I do still value it as a communication platform with an array of friends, acquaintances, and family.

For me one of the drivers for this is that so much of my time online is devoted to just a trio of websites: Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter. So often I’ll close a tab of one of those websites and suddenly find myself opening a tab to go there just seconds later. It’s done without thinking. So deeply ingrained is their presence in my mind.

These websites are addictive because they are the conveyor belt of content. We can just refresh and be presented with new stuff, or as it often is, the same stuff for the ninth time in ten minutes. It might be nostalgia, but I miss the days when there were thousands of individual websites that had to be discovered.

(All of this is ignoring the issues that sites, most recently Facebook, have raised in how they present content and target users. Those too weigh on me in this discussion.)

To step back and put it more philosophically: I want to create more rather than consume when I’m on the Internet. I want to write and build my own thing here again.

Back during my peak, I could honestly name my blog as one of my primary hobbies. If I wasn’t writing on it, I was tinkering and changing how it looked or I was coding some new functionality. Generations before me might have had a car they worked on in the garage, or a woodshop to work in. I had my blog. And I miss that. I miss having a website be one of my primary hobbies.

I’m moving back in.

Looking Back Over 2014

Farewell and good riddance 2014. That could be my comments on the year in its entirety but that is slightly unfair. So, to help me to look back over this year, I downloaded my Twitter archive and reread every tweet I posted in 2014.

January

This tweet took on unimaginable significance given how this year progressed.

I’d been doing WhatTheCast for years with the same crew of guys, but our lives changed. We moved. Changed jobs. Grew. And life changed around us. And so we made the decision to end the show.

February

A simple tweet that just shared the link to my blog post where I discussed grief around the loss of my grandmother. In many ways 2014 was a truly brutal year for me. I lost my grandmother and my father, while Katie lost her grandmother and her aunt.

Kudos to House of Cards for providing one of the most powerful moments of television of 2014.

Reblogged from my Magic Twitter account, because I truly enjoyed visiting Valencia and our venue was spectacular. I did do a fair bit of wonderful travel this year, including Valencia, London, Nice, and more.

March

Of course one of the most stirring international political incidents of the year, we can’t review 2014 without realizing that Putin launched his gambit this year.

teaching

My sister and I have always been fairly close, but this year I feel like we grew closer and definitely utilized social media for communicating more.

This tweet came after I made (and killed) a presentation at work.

April

This year is definitely marked by the fact we’re now homeowners. This is the first tweet I made acknowledging the process and in fact it was the day we put the offer in on the house that we would eventually close and move into.

May

Professionally this year was very much about learning to be a manager. Ed Catmull’s book was my favorite of the year that related directly to business and being a manager.

While this year was marked by loss, it was also marked by new life. I added both a niece and a nephew to the family, and it just so happened the niece was born as I was already flying to Atlanta for work.

This tweet encapsulates my love of Android tweaking and the World Cup. A good capture of the year.

June

How I announced that we had officially closed on the house.

This habit of dad’s was actually brought up by my nephew at his memorial service. It was a very endearing habit of his to click like on every post.

Facial hair is a subtheme of the year, with this shaving mishap and then my Movember beard it proved a diverse facial hair year.

I got very excited for the World Cup and USA’s performance at it.

Evidence my wife loves me very much, when getting cable set up in the new house they had some problems. It so happened the US Men’s team played that evening. She demanded Comcast get us set up and they sent out a cherry picker to fix the cable wiring.

Another tweet which is all the more poignant at the year’s end.

One of the first real big lessons which showed me how much I have to learn about being a homeowner. I couldn’t figure out why the washer was rocking hysterically, it literally damaged the floor it was on. As I learned, it was basically working with the parking brake on.

July

I did a fair bit of disc golfing this year, far from enough though. This comes from the arrival of two friends who moved to Seattle. I’ll have to look to do more in 2015.

From my trip to London, a truly awful selfie. But, I regret nothing.

August

Watched and read a lot of awesome things this year, including classics.

While not a member of family, given his improv background and his general omnipresence for much of my life, his death hit me pretty hard.

The biggest social movement of the decade, if not my life, happened in front of me and online. I am one of the unaffected but it still shocks me to see things like this happen in today’s world, when we’re supposed to be so sophisticated and, well, better than this.

As I mentioned above, this year professionally is about learning to manage as my team at work expanded to 7 in 2014.

The World Cup definitely fanned the already burning flame for my love of soccer, but I had several days like this where the entire day was watching soccer from around the world.

September

Work brought me back into the iOS world with a work iPad.

I bought the tickets back in 2013 and finally I got the opportunity to see Neil live when he came to Seattle in September.

October

Yeah.

Turned 31.

My buddy Drew flew in for my birthday and we went to the Sounders match that weekend.

As I learn to be a photographer here’s four snaps from a camera safari one day with Drew.

November

See, facial hair.

Moving into and customizing the new house continues.

December

The Sounders lost the western conference finals to Los Angeles, who went on to win the MLS Cup.

I could have kept the beard but decided to shave it off for the time being. It might make a return, we’ll see.

Some snaps from Nice, France.

Picked up a bug in France, and came back to the States feeling like crud.

‘Tis the season!

After a bunch of flying, and also headaches on various flights, it feels very awesome to finally get Gold on United. It brings a handful of benefits which are good, such as lounge access, but also picking seats (including extra leg room) at the time of booking.

Adding to the new tech of the year, an Asus Zenwatch!


And there we are, caught up to today, that’s the end of the year via my Tweets.

Words For My Father

This weekend I spoke at my father’s memorial.

He passed away three days before turning 73, after a seven year war with cancer where he won three separate battles. Below is the text I wrote for his memorial. A recording of the service won’t match this verbatim, as I followed the outline and spoke freely except when things would get tough. I did my best to keep it light and fun, only turning serious and mournful at the end.


Good morning.

Many here watched me grow up, but for those of you who didn’t, my name is Patrick. But to dad I was more often Paddy. Or son. Or honey. Or sweetie. Or once or twice I was even Chester, which was the dog’s name. He had many names for each of his kids, but all of them conveyed one important thing: love.

My dad loved his family. He loved us more than anything else in the world. He loved us so much that much of my childhood is filled with memories of him bragging on me and my siblings to friends, customers, and strangers in the line at the grocery store. Anyone who would listen was subjected to these stories.

This habit of his was only slightly mortifying to a gawky teenage boy. And so, with that in mind, I stand up here to accomplish two things:

1) exact just a little bit of revenge on my father by sharing stories of his life, and

2) make us all smile and laugh a little as I share.

Dad would have loved to be here to see all his friends and family gathered together. It seems like that is said for every memorial but I know it’s the most true it ever has been here today. He would have loved to catch up and hear about what everyone was up to, and of course brag on each of his kids and grandkids.

Dad loved being involved in anything his kids did. For me that ranged from church choir to scouting to watching me play football. Dad felt football was a great teacher of resilience, teaching me to get back up after life knocks me down.

I was a sophomore at Edgewater and practicing with the JV squad after school when the coach came around asking if anyone “knows who that guy is in the bleachers?” We all turn around to look and there’s my dad. He had finished up work early and was just enjoying the Florida sun, the Orlando Sentinel (something he read cover to cover each day), and most of all his son’s football practice.

Coach Campana was quite upset by this spy in the stands. He clearly thought a competing school was doing some scouting. You have to understand doing that was tantamount to a declaration of war. So, he was visibly upset trying to figure out if we were under siege.

And so, slightly embarrassed to have stirred up this ruckus, I had to raise my hand and say, “That’s my dad sir.” I don’t know what I expected, I think I expected it to be something that would lead to me running laps or something. I’m not sure why. But the truth is that once the mystery was solved it wasn’t a thing at all.

So after practice, I told dad about what his appearance stirred up, and he just laughed and laughed. He loved that story. And as I think back I honestly can’t think of another parent who came and watched the team practice, just dad.

As I said at the beginning, dad never left anyone in doubt of where they stood. His kids and grandkids all got asked an important question, to which there was only one correct answer.

He loved to ask “Who loves you?” To which the correct answer was only “You do!”

But kids being kids, most of us discovered another game we could play, sometimes to exasperating levels for dad I’m sure. He’d ask us “Who loves you?” And we’d name anyone, everyone, and everything except him.

Mommy does.

Sister does.

God does.

The president does.

The dog does.

On and on we’d go. But he was persistent. You weren’t free to go until you said the all important, “You do.”

This was just one of the ways he made sure you could never doubt… never question… his love for you. For us. For me.

Another feature of dad was his keen engineering mind. He was always curious how things worked. He loved marvels of engineering and space, both were endlessly fascinating to him. He loved to explain how things worked, he loved to teach. I’ll tell you a story of one of his more unusual venues for a lesson I learned.

In 1988, when I was five, the family took a trip to Colorado for skiing. Being five years old I was old enough to believe I could do anything grown-ups could. Including ski.

Now, dad made sure both Charlotte and I took ski lessons and and then once we had mastered not falling down on the bunny slope through careful use of the all important snow plow, dad took me up on a green slope and after successfully making it down, I was handed between family members to keep me out of trouble. Dad… mom… my brothers.

My brothers, not to be dissuaded by being saddled with their five year old brother, decided that I was a good enough skier to join them on a slope more difficult than the beginner level “Green Circle.”

Now, for those of you who don’t go skiing, given the fact we’re here in Florida I am guessing there might be a few of you. Ski slope difficulties go bunny slope, Green Circle, Blue Square… Black Diamond.

Now, my brothers meant well, and knowing me I probably begged them to take me on a big boy slope. So when I tell you they took me up the mountain to a black diamond, don’t judge them too harshly.

I mean, I’m here today, I made it down in one piece. I knew enough to fall down quite frequently as a way to manage my speed. Get up, ski down, fall over, stop. And so on. And so we reached the bottom of the slope and I had survived.

Later, when my father learned that my excursion with my brothers had included this… experience. I think the only fitting word is that he was apoplectic.

As any good father would be.

BUT… and here’s the thing that is just so dad. Rather than let that experience just be what it was and admonish me to never do it again…

He took me AND Charlotte up to the slope again, and made us ski it again. So that he could show us how to do it properly.

Dad believed strongly in making sure his kids were prepared. Always prepared for what might come. And he wanted to make sure I knew how to handle a black diamond slope in case I should ever find myself at the top of a ski slope again whether by my, or my brothers doing.

I could go on and on with stories like this.

My dad’s legacy is in this family. He poured his soul into the family. He wasn’t perfect. But with those imperfections he loved us all and wanted nothing more than for us to love him and to love one another.

I visited with him just a few weeks before he passed and at the time he knew what none of the rest of us knew – he was dying. I wasn’t ready to accept it and I tried to convince him otherwise, but we ended up having the talk that only really happens in the movies. We talked as if it was our last conversation. Quietly, lovingly, holding hands. We got to have a closure he didn’t get when his father passed away.

He told me he was proud of me. He told me he was so excited for the family I’d eventually raise because he knew I’d be a good father and sad because he wouldn’t be around to see it. And of course he told me he loved me.

That conversation will stay with me for my entire life.

I don’t believe what he told me was unique, but that I think I was simply the recipient of the message from him. A message which is meant for the whole family.

He was proud of each of us. He was excited to see what the family would become, whether children of our own or just how it would grow. And he loved each and every one of us.

As if there was any doubt.

The Evil F-Word: Fine

Businesses have discovered that the less we move, the more they can market to us. Whether on our couch, on our phone, or in a theater, so long as we’re listening or watching their content then our wallets are open. Like slot machines, they have to keep pulling our levers and waiting to hit jackpot. Give them enough spins and they will hit. For this reason it is in their best interest to make sure we move as little as possible. If it means we all weight four hundred pounds and are more akin to sumo wrestlers—so be it.

In fact, I feel like as we are enveloped in a modern world which does everything to help us down the path to the dystopian Pixar-envisioned future in Wall-E. A future which seems all too scary to envision for the ease with which it could transpire. We’re already a Dr. Oz special away from drinking a slurry mixture for three meals-a-day.

Time for lunch, in a cup!

The truth is that it is very hard for marketers and businesses to make us truly happy. And they’ve discovered that it is much easier for them to manufacture happiness for us. The up beat music at the end of movies to convince you that you enjoyed what you just watched. The advertising campaign around convincing you that you find happiness in the bottom of a fry holder. The manufactured joy that comes with a shopping bag. It’s easier to convince us that what we’re feeling is happiness, simply because we can’t tell the difference. If I’m not in active pain, then I must be happy, right? I must be fine, right?

This future won’t arrive as part of a conscious decision to accept it. It isn’t a future being created by some super villain who is hatching a plot to ruin humanity through heart disease. No, it will arrive as we continue to take small steps towards comfort, accepting the comfort improvements as they come. Tiny offerings which drive our life to be unthinkingly “fine.”

Syndrome from Pixar's The Incredibles

In case you couldn’t tell, I have a serious problem with fine.

If you think of a scale of -10 to 10, -10 being “very bad” and 10 being “very good” then, to me, fine should occupy the space from 0.1 to 2. But life usually forces us to have it be -2 to 2. We’re fine when we’re acceptably bad. We’re fine when we aren’t happy, but aren’t bad enough to take action against whatever is making us that way. Markets go further and they mask what we might feel, or convince us that -2 is actually 0, or even 2. They convince us that where we are is good, and it’s easier to just believe them.

Happiness is, as my friend Joe put it recently, a choice. And the truth is that enduring happiness is more than that, it’s work. Either you work to accept the reality you’re given so that you can be happy, or you work to change your situation so that you are actively keeping yourself in your, yes I’ll say it, happy place.

This is my call to action for you all: Strive for a life that isn’t fine. Either be good or bad. Recognize where you are and if when asked how you are, your inclination is to answer with the F-word, then look around and figure out what you need to do to get to “good” even if that means going outside your comfort zone.

Society wants you to think you’re happy, but they want to do that by spoon feeding you endless amounts of fine and telling you it’s good. Smack society’s hand away and grab your knife and fork and cut off a slab of the steak that is true happiness. Continually work to get out of your comfort zone and never look back.

Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone

Me, Neil, and the Great Cosmos

While I mostly skated through school with minimal effort, science was something which, once I progressed beyond the basics, continually confounded me in school. I want to be clear: I do not blame my teachers. This wasn’t a single year where I failed. It was a repeated failing from middle school into college. This remains, to today, a major consternation for me.

I joke that as far as I’m concerned all science is, is magic. But that’s a joke to cover my discomfort with my relative naivete with the subject.

Neil deGrasse TysonSo when I tell you that I have been eagerly waiting for the new Cosmos series for two years, I want to make clear it is not because I am some sort of science nerd. When news broke that Neil deGrasse Tyson and Seth MacFarlane were working on it, I was cautiously excited. And for two years I would occasionally check in on the show looking for news on its production.

Finally they announced the air date and I marked my calendar. March 9, 2014.

I will be honest, the reason I am so excited for this series, is that I hope to perhaps break through the wall which has stood between me and more-than-casual understanding of science. I am hoping Neil deGrasse Tyson succeeds where I and my previous science teachers have failed.

But more than that, I hope he succeeds in igniting the spark of science in those younger than me.

The first episode succeeded in many ways, it opened my eyes and explained things which I didn’t understand before. From the multiverse theory, to the rings of Saturn, to the utter depth of time since the universe began.

Here’s to next week’s episode!

My Winter Holiday Plans

One of the perks of working at Wizards is the fact that the company closes down between Christmas and New Years Day. I’m putting some vacation to use and as such I am off work until I return to the office on January 2, 2014. Since Katie and I aren’t travelling I’ve put together a starting list of things I am going to do during the break.

Box Up Unused Clothes – The truth is, I wear a fairly slim section of my closet. So I plan to box up clothes which I didn’t wear at all in 2013. Some of them haven’t been worn because I can’t fit into them, others because I no longer want them. So they need to be boxed up and either donated or stored in the garage.

Chores – There are some chores which have built up. Need a good cleaning around the house.

Wedding Website for a Friend – My go-to wedding gift for friends and family is to give them a wedding website. I am working on a website for a friend and so I need to work on it over the holiday.

Learn to Develop Android Apps – I love my Nexus 7 tablet and I have a handful of app ideas. So I’m going to learn how to develop for Android (which is based in Java.)

Exercise – With so much time when I’m not in the office I am making sure I get to the gym here in the apartment complex and exercising. Today’s workout was jumping rope and walking on the treadmill!

Reading – I have built up a small pile of eBooks I’ve been eager to read. I’m aiming to read these five books over the break:

The schedule and plan are still coming together as to how this plan will happen but I’m super eager to enjoy these days off and dive into all these projects for the next two weeks! We’ve also got some plans to get together with friends so that will also have to play into the plans.

Header image taken from Flickr user Sebastien Dooris and is Creative Commons licensed.