Fare thee well….

Friends, I’m sorry to report the passing of Steven A.L. early this morning after a long illness. He was a good friend since we met at SUNY-Binghamton in the late 1980s. Steve was a committed political idealist, a fine teacher, and a great husband and father. He was 48.

I met Steve through student organizations as a freshman, and I soon joined him and the rest of the “Bellevue-Camelot” crew in many misadventures, both inside and outside our tabletop role-playing games. Those circles included our later wives Janice and Michele.

College chums
The “Bellevue-Camelot” crew, 1987

That cohort has many fond memories of Steve’s Halfling Thief “Branador the Bold,” Half-Elf Ranger “Mouse/Ereval” (who later became king of the Waletku kingdom in the “Vanished Lands”), and more.

Steve was also an avid cyclist, musician, world traveler, raconteur, sports fan, and all-around good guy. As others have noted, he was the most virtuous of all of us. He and Michele adopted a son Nathaniel, who is now 15. Our thoughts are with Michele and Nate.

Reunion in New York City
Friends and family in Brooklyn, November 2012

Janice and I were fortunate to join our college friends in Brooklyn to see Steve one last time together two weeks ago. We watched the Monty Python final reunion DVD, and we expect to come together again for the funeral. I’ll pass along information on where you can send condolences once I hear more from Corbin.

Steve joins my high school Game Masters Bill B. and Ray C. and Boston-area alumnus Rob A.S. at that table in the sky. He will be missed.

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Return to the desert

I’ve already reported on the time that Janice and I spent in Phoenix around her conference for work. On Thursday, 22 May 2014, we drove a rental car down to Tucson for more sightseeing. The last time we drove through the Southwest’s deserts was to the Grand Canyon back in 2006. If only the roads around Boston were as straight, wide, and smooth!

We visited the Mission San Xavier del Bac, a historic Roman Catholic outpost  serving the Tohono O’odham people. (The day before, we had looked into Saint Mary’s Basilica near our hotel.) It was interesting seeing the layers of aboriginal, Spanish colonial, and American history. As we had seen at the Heard Museum, much of our history of treatment of Native Americans and other non-whites is shameful, but their descendants continue to persevere and try to follow traditional ways.

On a lighter note, Janice and I then drove to the Mini Time Machine, which was more sophisticated than we expected. We had seen similar dioramas and miniatures at Roadside America in Pennsylvania and the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, B.C. The Mini Time Machine’s collection of dollhouses from the past 200 years was impressive, and we recognized some figurines from our own collections.

From there, we went into downtown Tucson, where we had lunch at Bison Witches, a hip bar and deli. Unlike the sparkling new business and arts district of Phoenix, the neighborhood we visited in Tucson was more hippie-friendly, despite being deep in a “red state.”

We also stopped at Campus Candy Yogurt (we had previously visited Yogurt Time a few times) before driving back to Phoenix for dinner at My Big Fat Greek Restaurant. We had previously hesitated eating there because of the name and the fact that it was emptier than its neighbors, but the food was good, and it may just be that fewer people noticed the restaurant or like Mediterranean food.

On Friday, we shipped a box of conference proceedings, maps, and laundry home. We then took the Metro to the Desert Botanical Garden, which gave us insights into the various terrain types of the Southwest. Fortunately for us, the temperatures were only in the 90s Fahrenheit. Janice and I saw numerous species of cactus, as well as hummingbirds, ground squirrels, baby quail, and cute lizards. We also had pity on the park staffers having to disassemble many Chihuly glass sculptures. After walking on some trails, we had lunch at Gertrude’s Restaurant.

Gene in Arizona
Saguaro cactus

Janice and I then stopped at the Mill Avenue shopping district and the area around a campus of Arizona State University. Again, we experienced a different vibe from downtown Phoenix or Tucson. We got our daily yogurt fix at Moja Yogurt and checked out Pop Culture Paradise, a nice comic book and game shop.

For our last meals in Phoenix, Janice and I ate at Pizza Studio on Friday night and Matt’s Big Breakfast at the airport on Saturday. It’s a good thing that we had a substantial meal, because our departure was delayed for about an hour and a half because the pilot’s seat needed to be replaced — a first for us. I read the graphic novel Trickster, which compiles Native American tales.

Overall, we liked sprawling Phoenix and the other places we visited in Arizona. While our few days of sightseeing were shorter than a proper vacation, it was nice to get away from our cubicles. Fortunately, we had the remainder of the Memorial Day weekend to get over any jetlag.

Since our return, we’ve been catching up on work, e-mail, phone calls, recorded television (about which I hope to blog soon), and gaming sessions. We’ll likely be busy with the usual rounds of visits to and from family and friends later this summer.

Arizona vacation, or A Week Without Pants

On Saturday, 17 May 2014, Janice and I flew from Boston’s Logan Airport to Phoenix Sky Harbor for a week in Arizona. She attended a Society for Technical Communication conference, and I tagged along for sightseeing.

New Southwest
Downtown Phoenix

After checking into the Hyatt Regency, we had a very good Southwestern dinner at Canyon Café. We then took in the Cirque de la Symphonie, a performance of classical music by the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra accompanied by impressive acrobats.

On Sunday, May 18, Janice and I had breakfast at the Hyatt’s Terrace Café and then went to the Heard Museum, which had excellent exhibits of Native American art. We had lunch at the museum and dinner at Boka Pizza at Arizona Center.

From Monday through Wednesday, Janice attended convention sessions, and I logged into work from our hotel room. We’d typically start each day with a workout in the Hyatt’s exercise room, shower and dress, grab breakfast at Einstein Bros Bagels, and then meet again for lunch and dinner. The cost of real estate and meals was less than in comparable cities back east. Despite the ongoing drought, it was easy to see the appeal of living in the Southwest.

On Monday, we had decent pub grub at the Tilted Kilt, a theme eatery similar to Hooters, with scantily clad waitresses and at least one kilt-wearing busboy. That evening, we returned to the Arizona Center in downtown Phoenix for a simple dinner at the Corner Bakery Café, which I’d compare to Panera.

With high temperatures in the low 100s Fahrenheit early that week — not that I minded the dry heat and hence the shorts — we didn’t want to walk too far. On Tuesday, I had a selection of cheeses at the Arrogant Butcher and had a more down-to-earth dinner at Steve’s Greenhouse Grill across the street from our hotel.

On Wednesday, Janice attended the STC’s closing session, so I went to Potbelly Sandwich Shop for lunch. We then joined some of her colleagues via the Metro light rail to the Phoenix Art Museum, which had exhibits of international art, Southwestern modern art, and Hollywood costumes.

As a pasta fan, I was pleased to have dinner at the Old Spaghetti Factory near the museum. I hope that restaurant chain makes it into the Northeast. In my next blog post, I’ll cover more of our vacation in Arizona!

March movie madness, 2014 edition

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen more movies than I usually see in months. I enjoyed Mr. Peabody & Sherman, 300:Rise of an Empire, and Veronica Mars, but I wouldn’t recommend them to everyone.

On Saturday, 8 March 2014, Janice and I went to the Apple Cinemas in Cambridge, Mass., for Mr. Peabody & Sherman, which is based on cartoon shorts by Jay Ward, who’s best known for the subversive Rocky and Bullwinkle. The computer-animated movie retains some of the original’s cleverness and expands on the character relationships.

If you’ve seen the trailers or Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, you know what to expect. Genius dog Mr. Peabody (voiced by Modern Family‘s Ty Burrell) and his adoptive son Sherman adventure through time with difficult Penny Peterson. This Dreamworks film is aimed at younger audiences, with a PG rating, but its script includes a few adult gags. I’d rate Mr. Peabody & Sherman an 8 out of 10, four out of five stars, or a B+. It’s not as witty as The Lego Movie, but it was still fun.

By contrast, I advise lowering one’s expectations for the sword-and-sandals 300: Rise of an Empire, a sequel to Frank Miller and Zach Snyder’s 2007 ahistorical epic. On Friday, March 14, I met fellow Game Master Jason E.R. for dinner and Rise of an Empire at the Reading 3-D IMAX.

Loosely parallel to the events of the previous 300 flick, in which elite Spartan troops tried to hold back hordes of Persians at Thermopylae, Rise of an Empire depicts Athenian general Themistocles leading the Greeks in naval battles against Persian despot Xerxes and his right-hand dominatrix, Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus. Miller and company clearly subscribe to the “great men” and “clash of civilizations” ideas, despite the fact that the Greeks weren’t yet enlightened democrats, nor were the Persians mindless, monolithic barbarians.

The first third of 300: Rise of an Empire is arguably the most accurate, showing some of Themistocles’ tactics and the daunting odds faced by the Greek hoplites. The middle of the movie would be a decent sword-and-sorcery film, with Xerxes ascending to weird demigodhood and Eva Green a better Belit from Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories than Artemisia.

The last third of the movie features huge set-piece battles and lots of repetitive speechifying. It also manages to have the Spartan navy get credit for an Athenian victory, well-oiled bodies in slow motion, and yet more gratuitous beheadings. Jason and I were surprised to see young children in the audience, and at a hard “R,” that’s not a good idea.

I would recommend 300: Rise of an Empire to those who enjoy swordfights but aren’t too worried about actual history (which is interesting enough in its own right). I’d give it a 6 out of 10, 2.5 to three out of five stars, or C+/B-.

As a contributor to the Kickstarter campaign for a cinematic follow-on to the Veronica Mars television series, I was predisposed toward this sleuthing sequel. In the noir TV show, Kristen Bell played a precocious adolescent who solved crimes around Neptune High School in southern California. I met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. for lunch and saw this film at the AMC Loews Boston Common.

"We used to be friends"
The cast of “Veronica Mars,” then and now

The Veronica Mars movie picks up about a decade later. Veronica is interviewing for a high-powered lawyer job in New York City when murder and intrigues draw her back home. It was great to see the TV show’s entire supporting cast, as well as a few celebrity cameos, and the darkly comic tone was pleasingly familiar, not unlike Joss Whedon’s “Buffyverse.”

The Veronica Mars movie is definitely a gift to fans; like Firefly/Serenity, newcomers won’t understand most of the jokes or appreciate why some of us liked the original so much. The first season of the TV show was its best, but we should be glad that, with Bell and others busy, we still got a fond reminder and wrap-up. I’d give Veronica Mars, which is rated R, an 8.5 out of 10, four out of five stars, or an A-.

In the coming weeks, there’s Muppets Most Wanted and Captain America: the Winter Soldier, and I’m also looking forward to Amazing Spider-Man 2 and the latest incarnation of Godzilla. I know it has been a while since I’ve blogged about non-gaming topics, but I’ll keep trying to find the time!

A weekend with the Westchester crew

This past weekend, Janice and I hosted Damon F.P. and Carlo R., two friends of mine since high school. They arrived from New York’s Westchester County on Friday, 19 July 2013. Janice made chicken enchilada casserole for dinner.

After a pancake breakfast on Saturday, we went into town for sightseeing. We stopped by the Outside the Box festival on the Boston Common and at Government Center. We also browsed at Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market before a satisfying lunch at Cantina Italiana in the North End, Boston’s Little Italy.

Fraters
Damon, Gene, and Carlo at Faneuil Hall, July 2013

Everyone was tired from the hot, humid weather, so we had gelato at Caffé Paradiso before heading back out to the suburbs (we avoided most of the crowds for the Yankees-Red Sox game). I showed the guys my office, and we had a salad dinner. We also touched base with other high school and college friends, including Steve M., Ron J.K., and Steve M.R.

It was great to chat about old times, relationships, politics and religion, and recent and upcoming genre entertainment. Carlo and I co-wrote The Zarkonian Bomb, a movie script, back in the early 1980s, so he was interested in the current “Vortex: Terra’s Pride” space opera game. Unfortunately, the guys didn’t get to meet any of the local role-players.

Speaking of genre entertainment, we watched the latest episodes of time-travel drama Continuum, the new and surprisingly strong animated Beware the Batman, and conspiracy show Zero Hour. Looking back, we rewatched Back to the Future and episodes of Star Trek: the Next Generation and Teen Titans. We didn’t get to the theater to see supernatural buddy-cop flick R.I.P.D.

On Sunday morning, Janice did her regular volunteering stint at the animal shelter. Damon and Carlo attended a Tridentine (Latin) mass at Mary Immaculate of Lourdes, a Roman Catholic Church in Newton. Janice made sloppy Joes for lunch, and the guys left at midafternoon.

After a year of no houseguests, we’re making up for lost time, with David I.S. & Sandra K., Byron V.O., and now Damon and Carlo! In two weeks, I’ll be seeing Stuart C.G., Ron, and Dave around the Boston Comic Con.