There and Back Again

Sunday, March 2, 2014

(Quick note: There are a lot of large images in the next few posts below. If you’re not seeing some, wait a minute and they should show up.)

And we finally made it back to New York City. After nearly a full 24 hours of travel, including a wait of several hours on the tarmac at LAX. I hate flying, so I won’t say much about this trauma except that our flight took off in Auckland at 11pm New Zealand time on Friday (5am NYC time) and we got to the apartment at about 3:30am (NYC time). The only interesting thing to really happen during that time was that I watched Captain Phillips (and enjoyed it) and our plane between Auckland and Los Angeles had hobbits painted all over it. Dignified. We got home, the cat seemed excited to see us for about fifteen minutes before switching back into her total apathy mode, and then we crashed out. Only to wake this “morning” at 1pm feeling like butt. Got my standard El Monterey burrito and latte from Lodge, and now I’m in the mood to write.

So that final day. We did have all day on Friday to explore NZ between checking out of Underhill at noon and dropping off the rental car at the airport around 7pm, so we went to the Kiwi House in Otorohanga to (finally) check out an actual kiwi bird. We met a great spotted kiwi named something like “Awe” or “Ate” (ah-way or ah-tay) — I forget at the moment. They’re nocturnal, so we had to go into a special large dark room area where they ran day and night backwards so the birds would be up while the tourists were coming through. This kiwi was a female on the large side of things — maybe 20lbs or so, mostly in the form of a round lump of downy feathers. With a spindley beak coming out of the front and two legs coming out of the bottom end like sapling trunks, terminating in big, clawed feet. Kiwis are fairly silly animals to watch. We watched her being fed and she’d run around excitedly with an off-kilter bouncing gate, sometimes doing a funny little hop move. Kiwis are very animated, it turns out (for the few hours a day they’re awake and active, apparently), and have surprising personalities that come out. They’re apparently quite feisty and territorial, as well, and get crafty when it comes to trying to explore their caged-in spaces and escaping. Anyway, that was a lot of fun. The Kiwi House also has an extensive collection of birds and lizards to check out — and we saw an eel feeding — but that felt fairly standard-issue. We were there for the kiwis.

Otherwise, Friday just involved a lot of driving. I think we were getting worn a little thin on it and were getting a little grouchy, but only because we’d driven so much over the past few days and New Zealand highways tend to be winding and inherently confusing since they have to cut through such complex terrain. So it was frequently difficult for me to get my bearing and feel comfortable that we knew just where in the hell we were. Christin played navigator, though, and did a pretty good job given the limitations.

We stopped for a late lunch at a place near Otorohanga called the Big Apple — which seems like a diner from the outside but actually turned out to be some kind of large buffet / kid entertainment zone with a large balcony and a rather extensive farm out back with kiwifruit plants, an orchard, chickens and roosters running around everywhere, and a little quail pen. I had some pancakes and Christin had an English breakfast, and we were on our way.

And then we drove back to the Auckland airport, dropped off the car, had a couple of beers (and watched some rugby) while waiting for the plane. And that was that.

So.

I realized I missed documenting just one other day: The day we drove from the farm at Kynjarmin to Havelock North. I think I blogged that day before we left. At any rate: We wandered up to Jenny’s and her husband’s house at Kynjarmin to use the wifi on their porch as we had been doing, but I ran into Jenny as she was driving out and she hadn’t turned it on. So I ran into Christin and was wandering back to our house to get ready to leave when we ran into Jenny’s husband driving in his truck out of the area where they kept their pigs. He was quite chatty and seemed to enjoy talking politics and musing about whether the United States might ever decide to break up into smaller parts and telling us about how New Zealand’s isolation drove a lot of its culture. He’s the one who noted how it had been difficult for New Zealanders to get out of New Zealand in the past, so whenever a foreigner turned up they were always very curious to pick their brains for news. And he mentioned how New Zealanders had a crafty streak brought about from the fact that back in the day boats bearing resources would only show up every six months or so, so they had to learn to made do with whatever happened to be on the island. I did reflect something we found almost universally true about New Zealanders: They seem both crafty and very, very chatty.

So that day involved a bunch of driving, but we did take time to see some natural wonders, as well. We visited Huka Falls, a kind of cross between a waterfall and roaring rapids which we found quite beautiful, and then we took a hike around the nearby Craters of the Moon. So. The Craters of the Moon is essentially a big, open, rocky field with no trees or vegetation higher than a couple of feet. For the most part. It’s an active volcanic zone, not unlike White Island in some ways — the area is littered with smoking (steaming) holes in the ground and bubbling pits of mud and larger, deeper crags with boiling evil deep inside of them. Given the hot day with no shade and the literal heat coming out of the earth, we found the hiking experience interesting but ultimately exhausting and not really worth it given that we’d just seen the 100x more impressive White Island. A few bubbling holes in the ground just no longer cut it for us. We need entire volcanic islands.

But, anyway, those were the highlights of the day. At least as I remember them now, back in the dining room zone of our apartment back in NYC.

One last thing, though.

I actually almost completely lost track of days in New Zealand. Hence the lack of references to specific days in my writings. Being on vacation will cause that to happen naturally, but having days almost completely offset from our “natural” New York City days also caused problems. We kept having to play games, like, “well, it’s Wednesday morning here, so it’s [ponder] Tuesday afternoon there” when writing e-mails and communicating with the outside world. So let me end with a kind of official schedule of what happened on what days. New Zealand days. New Zealand is 18 hours ahead of New York City right now, so you can almost just subtract an entire day to know what day of the week it was in New York. If that makes sense. At any rate:

  • Thursday, February 18th: We arrive at 5am. Wander around Auckland.
  • Friday: Waiheke Island.
  • Saturday: Drive from Auckland to Kynjarmin farm near Matamata.
  • Sunday: Hobbiton.
  • Monday: White Island.
  • Tuesday: Drive from Kynjarmin to Havelock North. Huka Falls, Craters of the Moon. Pipi’s Pink Pizza.
  • Wednesday: Biking wine tour in Havelock North / Hawke’s Bay area.
  • Thursday: Long drive from Havelock North to Underhill near Hamilton. Stopped over for lunch at Lake Taupo.
  • Friday: Drive from Underhill back to the Airport. Kiwi House. Heard Pharrell’s “Happy” on the radio about sixteen times.
  • Friday #2: Travel 22hrs from Auckland home to NYC.

(Yes, that final Friday lasted 42hrs for us.)

PS: Here’s a screenshot from iPhoto which maps where I took each photo. The red pins represent pix. It gives a good overview of where in New Zealand we traveled. (Click to enlarge.)

And that’s that. Now it’s back to the real world for a bit. And then off to Austin on Tuesday, thus completing our record-setting attempt at visiting every city in the world with more than a million people that starts with “Au.”

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Last Days in New Zealand

Friday, February 28, 2014

Well, I guess I just took my final shower of this trip. In something called a “washcave” at the place we’re currently staying, a hobbit hole sort of place with no power called Underhill. “Glamping” is the term, I suppose — a portmanteau of “glam” and “camping.” A couple (Jessie and Craig) have a farm outside of Hamilton, and there?s a small lake in a valley a bit of a ways from the house with a hill into which someone has carved a cozy hutch and set up for visitors. We arrived later than expected yesterday evening (around 6:30, after about eight hours on the road — way more than we anticipated) and Jessie drove us down to the spot on her ATV with a trailer attached for our bags. We got down here, relaxed for a few minutes (I half-slept while Christin poked around), and then explored a bit, enjoying the scenery and making fun of the animals (a collection of sheep — eating sheep, not shearing sheep — live in the yard adjacent to the lake and hut where we’re staying). After that, we lit the million candles that provide the only nighttime light and Christin prepared some lamb racks on the grill (I helped out with a corn and tomato salad), we ate and had some wine, and then hung out under the stars for a while chatting. Hamilton’s not a big city, but it’s close enough to light the sky at night. So the stars weren’t quite as spectacular as they were at Kynjarmin near Matamata, but you could still see the band of the Milky Way and, at any rate, way more that you can see from our terrace in New York City. Jupiter still hung as the brightest object in the sky, just off the shoulder of the inverted, southern-hemisphere Orion.

Quick note: I’ve been informed by Christin that I’m making up facts about this trip. So please consult her for the real story. It’s possible we’re not even in New Zealand.

So, yesterday was take up mostly by driving here from Havelock North. We left there around 11am and took a quick break at Lake Taupo for a hamburger at the Jolly Good Fellow right on the lake — and so Christin could get a few minutes to wade in the water. Lake Taupo, to note, is the volcanic crater left over from an eruption around the second century AD, if I remember correctly. (Wikipedia this to confirm.) The eruption put enough ash into the atmosphere that apparently the Romans, Chinese, and South American civilizations at the time made note of it. None, of course, knew of New Zealand, which had yet to be seen by any humans when this happened. Anyway: It’s a huge lake amidst low-flung mountains. Very nice. After that we had a frustrating four-hour drive to our current spot, made worse by a fire that had on of the major highways closed off. We’ve been seeing “extreme fire warning” signs on the highways all around here, so I guess we weren’t incredibly surprised. Annoying, nevertheless.

Continuing back in time… We came here from Havelock North, a town on Hawke’s Bay that reminded Christin of Sarasota. But with vineyards and mountains. We were told that the area is the wealthiest in New Zealand, which seemed right. And it also seemed like the oldest. The only other folks staying at our bed and breakfast — a cute if somewhat over-saccharine place that kind of felt like your grandmother’s idea of a romantic getaway — were all retirees on trips of at least a month. The b&b served breakfast each morning to the people staying the the three rooms at the place (the rest of the house being the family’s home), so we got to meet our co-residents: An older Canadian couple and Australian couple (the latter of whom sounded rich-rich) the first morning and an English couple the second morning. All very nice. One funny observation about the people, here: the New Zealanders (and Australians and Canadians we mostly come across — very few Americans) have been incredibly chatty. Jenny’s husband at Kynjarmin attributed NZ chattiness to the fact that it’s hard to get off the island, so whenever foreigners turn up, the locals feel the need to learn as much about the world from them as possible. Obviously it’s easy in the 21st century to get off the island and learn about the world, but not long ago I suspect you were pretty much stuck here. No cheap overnight flights to the States. Anyway, I pegged the English couple as being English before we spoke because they were the first people we met who were super-outgoing. They seemed shy and didn’t break the ice until I asked where they were from. Very nice people! But I found it funny how people fit their national stereotypes sometimes.

I only have a few more minutes until I have to wrap up. It’s 11:30am and we’ve got to be out of here by noon (when Jessie arrives on the ATV to wheel us out of here).

The one full day we had in Hawke’s Bay we took a winery tour on bikes. We rented a couple of bikes from a company that dropped us off at Black Barn vineyard at 11am and scooped us back up at another vineyard (name forgotten) at around 4pm. We hit a couple of vineyards, then stopped for a snack at a cafe called Tandem — where we actually ran into Jenny, the proprietor of Kynjarmin where we stayed previously, and her sister. Quite a coincidence. They’re very nice people, so we hung out for a while with coffee and scones and chatted. After that, we biked on a raised trail through many vineyards down to the coast where we found yet more vineyards. We had a drink at Elephant Hill, a very sleek and trendy spot near the water, and would up getting some food at our final vineyard — name forgotten. We had a very talkative guy give us our tasting and we then sat outside and ate whilst defending our food for a very curious rooster. The place was mostly under a tent and had a casual vibe that fit us well. That evening (after a rest) we had fancy dinner at Craggy Range Terroir and that was that.

The previous night in Havelock North (our first night there), just to note, we grabbed pizza at Pipi’s Pizza, a very pink little restaurant recommended to us by the woman who ran the bed and breakfast. I had a Hawaiian pizza. Good food. But literally everything was decorated in bright pink. And you had to grab your own beers from the fridge.

I don’t know if I got every detail, but time to run. Our flight is at 10pm, so we’ve got some more stuff planned today. Probably have to write about that when back in New York.

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Hobbits, Volcanoes, and Driving on the Wrong Side of the Road

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

For the past three nights we’ve been at a small farm called “102 in the Grove” or “Kynjarmin.” Both labels are on the signs. I’m not sure which actually refers to where we’re staying (although Christin might). It’s a beautiful place, tucked in the rolling hills between Matamata and Tirau in the kind of north-central part of the North Island of New Zealand. Our residence looks straight into a large corn field (“maize,” they call it) and up to some pastures with a roaming mix of sheep and cattle. The whole area is lush and green — fairly idyllic.

We left Auckland on Saturday by car. With me driving. Which meant I had to quickly get a hang of driving on the “wrong” side of the road. And, for that matter, in the “wrong” side of the car. After a few days, now, I’ve pretty much got the hang of it. But that first day. Wow. It really shocked my sense of orientation for the first hour or so. Driving on the left-hand side of the road at first seems profoundly wrong. I had to force my brain to shut up and just do it the first few times. And my first big left turn I did accidentally turn around the cars stopped in the center lane of the cross street as if I were in the states and turning into the right lane. Christin shrieked. I quickly corrected and aborted the turn. No harm done except I clipped the side mirror of a parked car (no damage). Other than that snafu, we’ve been doing pretty well with it.

And driving in New Zealand is complex. There are very few highways of the sort we’re used to in the States around here — it’s mostly two-lane highways that wind around over and through the hills and mountains of the area. They’re beautiful — every single spot around here has a nice view of some sort or other — but they can be a challenge to navigate. Especially with our limited mapping options (we have no mobile phone data, so we’re limited to printed maps and whatever map data I can cache on my phone before we leave — just like the original Maori people used hundreds of years ago when they first settled this area). But all-in-all it’s been fun driving around.

On our drive from Auckland to the farm, here, we took a bit of a scenic route out of the city and stopped at a little grove of food tents on the side of the road to pick up snacks and supplies. And coffee. And then we hopped on the highway through Hamilton, where we again stopped off. But Hamilton was a bit of a surprise. So, the entire country otherwise has been completely charming. Everything’s kind of like a cute and laid-back mix of English and California cultures. (I know they wouldn’t call it Californian here, but that’s the closest comparison I’ve got.) Northern Californian. Maybe like the Pacific Northwest in the States. Auckland does have a very Seattle sort fo vibe to it. Anyway, everything’s well taken care of and feels kind of generally happy and positive. Except Hamilton. Which Christin and I agreed felt like a decaying southern town. We stopped into the mall to get some food and to get oriented (and take a break from the left-side driving) and it felt like malls I’d been to in the 1980s in dead parts of Alabama. Tacky. Depressing. Empty. We mentioned it to Jenny, the woman who owns the place we’re currently staying and all she really had to say was that Hamilton is one of the few cities in New Zealand that’s landlocked — both physically and culturally. So strange. But. Enough ragging on poor Hamilton. I’m sure it’s not all that horrible, we just had quite an experience.

Otherwise, the day of the drive we just made our way to the farm, here, and then stayed put. Jenny’s little dog (Shelby, I think, although I’m probably mistaken) made quick friends with us, so we played around with her: I’d throw a stick I found at the edge of the corn field out and she’d bounce after it and then, instead of returning it, would shred it down to its small constituent parts. Christin could get her to return with small chucks we could continue to throw, which went well. The pup would excitedly spring about while one of us wound up our shot and she’d then bolt off into the olive trees to chase down the stick part and return with it. (They also have olive trees at the farm and make olive oil). Shelby is not allowed in the house where we’re staying, so she spent a good amount of time sitting right at the edge of the wide doors that opened out from the main living room and kitchen area to the yard and corn fields outside. (And as I write this, she just walked by the window I’m sitting in front of, probably looking to play fetch some more.)

There’s also a cat that comes around occasionally and another older, scruffier looking little dog that has come by once or twice to say hello. A couple of nights ago we were sitting in bed (around 10pm — we’re on a very unusual (for us) 10pm-7am sleeping schedule) and the motion-activated light kept flicking on and off outside the big double-doors that open from the bedroom to the outside world. First flash: No animals. Second flash: Cat. Third flash: Cat and dog. You probably had to have been there. Incidentally, this was also the one clear night we’ve had (although the daytime weather has been spectacular). So the night sky was probably the most star-filled I’ve ever seen. Almost like a canopy — no space not filled with a mist of stars and galaxies. Pretty amazing. My parents might get that effect in Newfoundland, but I don’t think I’ve every seen something like that in the States, even in rural parts of Texas miles from nowhere. (Also: Different constellations in the southern hemisphere.)

So, okay. The tourist stuff.

Two days ago in the afternoon we went to Hobbiton. Yes, this is just about the most tourist-trappy think we’ve done, here. (Probably in running with the Sky Tower in Auckland.) And it’s expensive (NZ$75). And it started off poorly, having to wait at a dumpy little rest-stop sort of place with expensive beers and hideous-looking food. So I was worried. Especially when the bus came to pick us up to drive down to the set — a frumpy, white bus that looked like it’d be brought in from Yugoslavia circa 1983 and hosed off. Oy. But. Once we got down to the set we had a really good time. It’s yet another extremely attractive plot of land, but this time done up with permanent hobbit holes and buildings. It’s the actual place they used to film the Lord of the Rings movies, and it’s extremely well kept. Our tour guide gave us a walking tour of the forty-four fake hobbit hutches and the various other elements in the area — trees, lakes, little farmed plots, etc. All, again, very adorable and fun to photograph. (I’ve got a whole collection, now of Christin standing in front of a wide range of round little doors.)

So we toured around for a couple of hours and then got our free beer at the replica Green Dragon (exterior from the movie, but not the interior). We also had a snack. Then caught the bus back up through the dry, rolling, sheep-laden hills back to the home base. Then back in our car. We decided to go into the city of Matamata to find dinner. Christin wanted pub food — fish and chips. We wound up sitting in the large window of a pub called the Horse and something — no fish and chips, but Christin got an open-faced steak sandwich and I got some pasta. It was alright.

Oh, another quick aside: That first evening we also drove into Matamata to go grocery shopping and Christin made a couscous and venison meatballs dinner for us here at the farm. Which we ate while a small gray dog circled the table and begged for a bite.

Yesterday was a long day. We took a day trip out to see White Island, the active volcano off the coast, here. We got up early (well, not really given our current sleep schedule). But around 7am. And got driving around 8am. And reached Whakatane after a couple hours on the road. The drive, again, was pretty nice. We passed through Rotorua and drove especially winding roads over the mountains that separate the interior areas of the island from the northeast coast. But we made it just in time to buy our tickets and hop the boat out to the island with about thirty other people. The boat ride lasted about ninety minutes. Only took about fifteen minutes for me to start turning green, so Christin and I had to relocate from our nice perch up on the second floor of the boat down to the less tumultuous rear of the boat — the infirmary, I later called it, because the staff kept sending seasick people back there and by the time we got to White Island, there were maybe a half-dozen (or more) pukers back there. I, just to note, never actually threw up and actually did alright. I just had to sit still and concentrate outside the boat.

So we got to White Island. White Island’s the real deal. There’s no tourist information center. There’s no dock. There’s a century-old mostly destroyed sulfphur factory that’s a few rooms large, and that’s it. So we had to go in groups of a dozen our so in a little black inflatable motorboat to actually get to the island and then climb over some large-ish roacks to get onto the island proper. Which, again, is not the usual vision of a south Pacific island. White Island’s a dead crater (actually two connected dead craters) which nothing living in in. It’s all various shades of light and dark gray with stark yellow patches here and there from all of the sulphur. Dead. Like being on the moon or Mars. Very alien. And as we walked closer and closer to the caldera, there were more and more pools of bubbling mud and little holes in the earth spewing steam.

Our tour lasted a couple of hours — oh, and we were given hardhats and gas masks before leaving the boat — always a positive sign — the hardhat we were required to wear and the gas mask we could optionally weat if the sulphur smell got too intense. Which it did a couple of times. (One of our two tour guides also gave us hard candies to suck on, the idea being that they’d keep saliva in our mouths and eclipse some of the sulphur flavor in the air. Which they did, I guess.) So we walked around in our group for a couple of hours. Saw the main opening of the volcano (which, interestingly, is a kind of volcano that only spews ash up into the air — no lava.) Saw the old semi-demolished sulpher factory. Tasted various elements of the volcano: Sulphur powder. Sulphur water. Iron water. Water with all sorts of minerals in it. And such. And then back to the boat for a ruturn trip. We would up making friends on the return trip — I sat next to a couple from Wellington near the front of the boat and Christin chatted with some guy from Stuttgart. The Wellington couple had been to North America on a five week trip and were really, really into talking about sports. The guy was very interested in all American sports. I believe he was a book-maker and she did some kind of rubgy-related work. We talked for most of the trip back (and ate the little box lunches the tour group gave us for the ride back) and had a good time. I didn’t get nauseous at all, thankfully, and we even ran into a pod of dolphins that swam along with the boat for a while. This is an excellent adventure if you ever happen to be in the area, by the way.

So then back to driving. We drove up to Tauranga, also on the coast, and finally got that fish and chips we were looking for. And a few beers. At a water-front pub place that had a trivia night going on. (What’s the color in the middle of the German flag? What four-letter country is Timbuktu in? Etc.) And then drove back to the farm at night, which proved rather harrowing. The left-side driving plus curvy mountain roads plus having a difficult time sometimes figuring out where were made it tough. But we got home around 9pm. And after an attempt to watch TV (and only really finding old SNL episodes to watch), we gave up and went to bed.

And, so, back up this morning. I just went for a run, played a little fetch with the dog, and am now writing this!

PS: I edited the previous post about Auckland to include some photos.

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Auckland, a Quick Recap

Friday, February 21, 2014

We’re checking out of the quite nice Heritage Hotel in Auckland this morning. In about an hour. We just finished our third breakfast at their rather extravagant breakfast buffet (featuring — amongst the usual eggs, sausages, and cereal sorts of stuff — build-your-own miso soup and little cups of coconut yogurt with tiny turkey-baster-like squeezy things full of berry jam). Christin’s downstairs doing some e-mailing and I’m up in the room making sure we’re all packed up and ready to roll to our next stop near Rotorua.

I’ll attach some photos below if I have time (and if they get from my iPhone to the laptop fast enough over this questionable wifi). (Note: Photos added!) But here’s the basic outline of the trip so far:

We arrived in Auckland around 5:30am after a little over 24 hours of travel time. Six hours in the air from New York to San Francisco. Twelve from San Francisco to Auckland. I’ve been on a few flights of more than twelve hours, but I think this may have actually been the easiest. The six hour jaunt had so exhausted me that I basically slept through it. I usually have a very hard time sleeping airplanes, so thank god. Anyway, we arrived at the hotel just as day was breaking, checked in, and sat down for our first breakfast buffet. And then took a walk down to the waterfront and poked around the city a bit. The waterfront’s nice, but not super-exciting. This, in fact, kind of describes Auckland. It’s a lovely city, but it seems like you could get your fill after just a few days. We passed by some start-up tech conference happening at a small convention center on the water and looped around the various docks and inlets to find a place to sit and have some coffee. After what felt like a day’s worth of wandering, we’d only reached about 11am.

So we went to the Auckland Sky Tower, figuring we’d get that out of the way. Very cool! It operates more-or-less like every space needle-like structure in the world. You go up, marvel at the view, take some pictures and head back down. It had a couple of unique features, though: First, you can jump off of it in a kind of rig that’s a cross between a zip-line and a bungee cord. We didn’t do this, of course, but mounted above one of the windows inside the viewing area was a red LED sign that would read “2 minutes to jumper” or “30 seconds to jumper.” So every few minutes we got to see one of these ballsy people swoop down in front of the glass on their way down to a target painted on the street-level below. The second unique feature: When walking around the outer ring, some of the floor is glass. So you can see straight past your feet and down fifty or sixty stories to the street below. I managed to summon the will to walk across. Christin did not.

After this we finally got to go to our room and take a shower and a rest. It felt like we’d completed a full day, but I don’t think it was actually past 1pm. So we took our nap and then headed off again, this time to Auckland Domain, which seems like one of their main parks (although Auckland seems to have many parks — it’s a very green (and hilly) town). We cut through Albert Park and through the Auckland University campus to get there. Quite a hike, but neat to see a different part of the city. In Auckland Domain we sat and watched some casual cricket matches being played — and tried (unsuccessfully) to suss out the rules. We then walked around and bothered some fowl at the duck ponds and tried to enter the Wintergarden glass houses (closed earlier in the day) before wandering up to the Military Museum (I think) and then down back to the city through a path called “Lover’s Lane.” Lover’s Lane is, in fact, a dank trail through dense trees and the loud, shrill howl of a million cicadas. One thing I’ve learned about New Zealand so far: There are cicadas everywhere. And they all are making loud, shrill buzzing and clicking sounds. It’s overwhelming sometimes. We experienced this during the summer in New York (when we left the city), but the woman we asked the next day at one of the vineyards on Waiheke Island said it happened every year. Wow.

Anyway: I’ve got to wrap up, here. Our first evening here we went to a place — I forget the name and the internet at the hotel SUCKS so I can’t check online — just west of the Hotel that had a few interesting kind of upscale comfort food places set up in a parking lot kind of area. We went to one called “The Food Truck.” I had a red beet burger along with a 50/50 — half beer, half seltzer water — and Christin and “lamburger” and what tasted like a virgin Pimm’s cup. Very good place. Very Austin-like in atmosphere, as well, we thought. Then back to the hotel and, after a half-hour or so on the rooftop deck where Christin sat in the hot tub and I watched an episode of “The Soup” under the stars (and rapidly color-changing Sky Tower), to sleep. Finally.

That was two days ago. Yesterday we had our usual breakfast (and I ran for a half-hour-ish) and then caught the ferry to Waiheke Island. The day was extremely warm and sunny, which was great after the months of ice and snow in New York. So we ferried over — through the million gorgeous islands that pepper the bay, here — and then caught the crowded little bus to vineyard #1, Goldie’s Vineyard. That was the plan: Catch the bus from vineyard to vineyard and taste the wine and maybe hit a beach. Well, we got to win-taste at one vineyard. Then learned that the bus ran hourly, so we decided to hoof it to the next vineyard. Which took an hour. In the sweltering sun. Which was lovely! But exhausting. We did meet up with some other guy also walking between vineyards and chatted a bit. He was from Philly and making the rounds from beach to beach and vineyard to vineyard. So we did finally get to vineyard #2, which featured archery and a beer and lunch menu, in addition to wine. So we just parked it there until 5pm. I had another beet burger and a couple of beers. Christin had wine. And we watched the people playing chess with those big, over-sized piece and bocce ball (which they call something else, here). We didn’t get to shoot anything, but we did finally wrap up and catch a bus to the beach at Oteroa — very nice — and then we walked back to the ferry terminal in the late-afternoon sun and caught the ferry back to Auckland and, from there, to the hotel. Which we arrived at completely sunburnt and exhausted. Evening dinner plans were off. We ordered room service and watched the second half of the 80s movie “Commando” (starring Arnold Schwartzenegger) before dozing off.

And now, this morning. Another breakfast. Cleaning up the room. And then getting out rental car out of Auckland for the rest of the trip.

I’ll post photos later, when I get the chance. (Note: Done!)

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A Rant about Game Design and Education…

Sunday, January 19, 2014

So I got roped into going to the CUNY Games Festival yesterday. Kristana Textor gave a talk about the class we taught together and also submitted Gametron 7000 to their festival arcade floorshow thing, so I agreed to show up and participate. I’ve been so busy lately, I probably wouldn’t have gone on my own accord. But. The conference was enjoyable. I went to a few of the talks and enjoyed meeting people during the arcade.

Anyway, I had a few quick impressions and opinions that sort of fell into the “too long for Twitter” bucket, so I figured I’d dump them here. Note! This is more of a rant than anything. It’s definitely not an attack on anyone or any conference. It’s just some thoughts that have been building up in my little pea brain and that I need to get out…

And so.

Early in her talk Kristana asked for a show of hands: Who, amongst the educators present, considers themselves a “gamer?” Only a few hands went up. Now, the term “gamer” is loaded and people (self included) have a habit of not responding to “show of hands” questions at conferences. So this definitely wasn’t a scientific survey. But although Kristana kind of moved on from the point, I thought it got to the heart of one of the difficulties in many parts of the “gamification” movement in education and elsewhere: These “gamifiers” oftentimes don’t play enough actual games. And if they do, they’re not doing so critically. And so problems arise:

1) They don’t know what’s out there. For example, there are, in fact, very popular AAA games that deal with topics you can teach in high school. Civilization V comes to mind as a very obvious example. It uses elements of history to color the game world — real people, places, and things — but the core gameplay is built around a particular philosophy of history, one which (I would think) you could very easily identify and critique with high school or undergraduate students. This is just one example. If I had to take a stab as to why people don’t dig deeper to learn about existing game design practices and culture, I might argue that “games” are still perceived by many as frivolous and shallow activities. Checkers! Hearts! Hide-and-seek! So instead of being treated as a subject with just as much depth (or potential depth, at least) as literature, cinema, or music, people assume they “know games” via only a very surface-level exposure. Which leads to…

2) They don’t really understand what a “game” is — or what a game can possibly be. Almost all of what I saw in the talks had to do with either alternative measurement systems to the usual American A-F grading system or with incentive systems to get kids to do the same old boring work they’d otherwise be forced to do. The concept of procedural rhetoric made an appearance or two (although I never heard the term used), but generally the “gamification” I saw seemed to entail mostly just reskinning the same old educational strategies. Putting cheese sauce on the broccoli, so to speak. And this is actually fine. If it leads to the kids eating more broccoli, I won’t complain too much. But it vastly underestimates the power of game mechanics as educational tools. Again, to use Civilization V as a reference: The core game mechanics — how players’ civilizations grow and decay in the game — can be discussed in an educational context. It’s not just “write a history essay and get 50 points if you do it.” That’s the same old broccoli, but with cheese sauce. Civ5 is more like learning how to cook vegetables properly in the first place so the kids don’t require a pile of cheese sauce to eat right. To stretch the metaphor.

The lack of real-life context is, I feel, one of the major impediments to kids not being interested in some things. “I’ll never use calculus in real life.” “Who cares if I write a five paragraph essay about Millard Fillmore?” Games can simulate this context by creating situations in which these skills are required to play well. And I’m not ever talking about computer games. I think the board game “Diplomacy” could be another great one for high school students to play and then discuss their experience in the context of other historical diplomatic entanglements: The Cold War. World War I (Diplomacy’s setting, sort of). Being able to reliably pass a mid-sized orange ball through a ring of metal suspended ten feet in the air is just as esoteric as being able to take the square root of a number, when it comes down to it. Except kids have a shit-ton of context about shooting baskets that they don’t have for simple math. The former can make you in a rich celebrity with women and cars and your own line of sneakers. The latter? Who knows. Some job that’s probably boring. A well-made game can add some context that makes the simple math, in this case, relevant to the student.

Also, I’m not convinced that you’re going to reach tuned-out kids by substituting one “gamification system” — the traditional American A-F system — with another one that involves points and badges instead of letters. If I don’t care about an A, I don’t care about 50 points and a badge that says I know what a pronoun is. The trick — the very hard part of game design — is getting people to give a shit. There are strategies for creating engagement, but I really think this is the “art” of game design. You can learn techniques, but you really just need to have a sense of it and personal intuition about what could work. And room to test your ideas in the real world, of course. How do you create the building blocks to do this? Play games. See what works on you. Watch people play games. See what works on them. Then get to creating.

Side note: If you’re giving a talk about “gamification” in education or elsewhere, please don’t quote Jane McGonigal. She’s a lovely, bright woman who I’m sure does good work. But. Her book Reality is Broken is a mess and many of the talks I’ve seen her give have substituted colorful boosterism for serious thought. Reality is not broken. Game design is not a panacea. Game design is also not an “epic win” (a term I hate). Game design is a practice with a set of tools that can be used well or used poorly. For good or for evil. It’s actually quite easy to make shitty games. (Trust me.) And “gamification” is used all the time for nefariously manipulative purposes. Businesses and political groups use all sorts of little game-like tricks to get you to fall in line and do their bidding (especially technology and social media companies). So you must realize that you can make things worse by introducing any kind of “gamification” into your educational toolkit. I might guess that the biggest way to make things worse with educational games is to make them distracting so students have fun and remember the game, but don’t retain anything of what you were actually trying to teach.

There’s an increasingly tall pile of awesome books about game design which are very thoughtful and very accessible. They deserve your attention if you care about game design. For example: New to game design? Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun is a fun and quick read. Ian Bogost is also great. His How to do Things with Video Games is a good one for getting your brain stewing about different ways to apply game design.

Anyway, this is just a rant and not targeted at anyone in particular or even this conference in particular. It’s just some frustrations I’ve had at these kind of events and at these kinds of talks in the past. I love it that teachers have picked up on game design as a tool to get kids engaged and learning. And I hope this becomes more common and that some great new ideas filter into the academic mainstream.

PS: I don’t care for the term “gamification.” It’s a catch-all that’s too vague to be useful. If you’re trying to get people to do or not do something, that’s “incentivization.” If you are trying to increase engagement with avatars or somesuch, that’s “personalization.” Making things more exciting for the senses could be called “adding juiciness.” If you’re trying to teach via the game mechanics themselves, “procedural rhetoric” is a good term. Etc. I think using these more precise words make it clearer what you’re actually attempting than plain old “gamificiation” does.

End of rant.

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Music. Labels. Curation. Kickstarter. Drip.fm.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Back in the day record labels were one of the more significant units-of-importance in my musical world. I dealt mostly in relatively obscure electronic music, and in many cases I picked up music based on the name of the label as much as anything. Warp. Merck. Morr Music. Ghostly International. Sonig. Rephlex. Etc. And friends’ local labels like Notenuf Records and Artificial Music Machine. And when I booked musicians for my own events (my “Oscillate Nights”) it often happened through the labels. Meaning, if I knew the particular artist planning a tour, I’d often coordinate with their label and then sometimes also get an opener or two I hadn’t heard of who shared the same label. In the particular electronic music universe I lived in between 1998-ish and 2005-ish, labels weren’t just business entities — the good ones were also curators who promoted a certain style, sound, or similar sort of estoteric creative approach, for lack of a better term. I guess more traditional art galleries work this way, although that’s never really been a scene I’ve had much to do with directly.

These days my musical exposure is a little more catch-as-catch-can. I buy stuff off of Bleep and iTunes and recently started using Spotify — all of which have been great, but all of which kind of suffer from a similar sort of overwhelming wave of options. Having access to all music from forever is kind of a mess if you don’t know what you want to listen to. Bleep’s recommended lists are somewhat useful, but iTunes’ and Spotify’s are absolutely not. (The iTunes front page currently most prominently advertises music by Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus, for example — music literally no one wants to listen to. Spotify’s main page advertises John Meyer and then goes on to suggest I might enjoy some artist no one’s ever heard of named “Beck” — then recommends that maybe I’d like to revisit Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up,” since it was released at some point during my youth and because I have never once in my life wanted to listen to Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up.”) Social recommendations are somewhat helpful. iTunes’ now defunct Ping proved a useful simply for the fact that the three or four people I knew whose musical opinions mean the most to me happened to use it. And at least on Spotfiy I can go find friends with fairly good taste and see what they’re listening to. But it’s still all kind of decontextualized and just kind of feels random. When looking for new stuff I sometimes also hit up sites like Pitchfork that I’ve respected in the past, but again: I don’t read these regularly and the whole experience still feels kind of arbitrary. (For new music, that is. If I just want to reminisce about high school with some Smashing Pumpkins or Toad the Wet Sprocket, well, Spotify’s great.)

Anyway, one exception to this is Soma FM. They’ve been around since around 2000 — at least, that’s when I remember first discovering their site. (They still feature that hazy photo of a solitary DJ spinning in front of a wall of night-lit windows, and it still kind of takes me back to the House of Commons days when I first listened to it regularly. It’s a great picture.) I still listen regularly today because it’s well-curated by someone with good taste. And because they’re reliable about finding good music that I’m not familiar with. And not in some “an algorithm did this” sort of way: A real person’s on the other side of that site, picking music and putting it together in a certain order. It’s great.

See, there’s an art to curation. And I feel like this is being ignored in the aggregated and auto-recommended world in which we live. Obviously Pandora and Spotify Radio and whatever this new iTunes Radio thing is — those are all examples. But even “recommendation engines” that try to figure out what you’ll like based on what you’ve already listened to or what your friends like. And (to pick on Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus some more) I have to believe that pop music as it exist today is an example of some kind of exploit of this system. In a world in which there are no curators, all you have to do is build up the illusion of popularity and suddenly all the other algorithms (software-based and human-based) kick in. You’re on Clear Channel’s radio stations all over the nation every fifteen minutes, so of course MTV has to have you their awards show and American Idol has to have you as a guest and iTunes has to put you on their front page and people will think they have to listen to you because 1) they don’t know any better about how to find music and 2) most people really don’t seem to care about it, anyway, so who gives a shit — they’ll like Katy Perry as much as they’ll like anything else. Yes, this is my extremely snooty-about-music side.

And this aggregation actually creates another set of problems, in addition to just turning music curation into something mechanized and impersonal rather than something human and expressive. It appears to hurt the economics of music (unless you’re a Katy Perry or Miley Cyrus sort). The power of those who would champion good music has dwindled. And if there’s no point in championing good music, no one will (except a few die-hards or the rare handful who can make a living at it). Why waste the time? And so we fall into the hands of the algorithm. It’s weird: We live in a time when the tools of music creation and distribution have been put into the hands of pretty much any middle class person on planet Earth who wants them. Garageband comes for free with every Mac. And yet, I suspect that more great music than ever before gets created and literally never heard by anyone beyond the creator and a few of his or her (or their) friends. Strange, right? That there’s an unprecendented amount of creativity happening and the fact that we’re locked into algorithms that promote Beck and “I Wanna Sex You Up” (to me, at least) force it to remain unheard.

And so, Kickstarter.

It’s got all sorts of problems. I never felt particularly comfortable giving money to projects from people I don’t know, but I have used it to support friends. I also have never given money to help people on musical projects. My friends are more of the “I’m making a game” or “I’ve got a wacky idea” variety, so I just don’t have much opportunity. But, Kickstarter’s warts aside, I do understand and respect what they’re trying to do. (Or, at least, what they were trying to do before they seemed to become a semi-corrupt start-up launcher.) By putting the money ahead of the creative process, they force you as a consumer to face a choice: If this band or musician (or whatever — but I’m sticking to the musical theme, here), if they don’t get the money they need to make their album, then no album. So if you respect them and want to hear more from them, chip in! It turns the issue of piracy and the near-total devaluation of recorded music on its head and makes you feel like you’re working with the artist and pitching in, being a part of making this thing happen. And then once you’ve put money into the project, you’re invested. Literally. But also figuratively: You’ll listen. You’ll experience. You’ll think about it. “Man, I gave $10 and that album was awesome.” Or “I can’t believe they took my fucking $10 and released this garbage.” Emotional response. The Laptop Battles I used to take part in did something similar: They’d force the audience to judge and therefore emotionally invest. And once you’ve done that, you’ll listen. You’ll pay attention. You’ll care. And, of course, Kickstarter helps fix the economics by making music feel like something that needs financial support to exist, rather than something that just floats around out there and, y’know, doesn’t hurt anyone if I just pluck it out of the air for free.

I’ve signed up for another site called Drip.fm that I think aims to solve the musical curation problem in a different way. (Maybe other services do this, but it’s the first I’ve seen.) It works like so: They work with labels and make a subscription service where you pay a certain amount every month to a given label and you get, say, an album a week, every week. I subscribed to Morr Music’s channel, for example. It’s $9.99 per month. Each week I get an e-mail with an album for me to download. Now, I can’t go download stuff they’ve released in the past. Just whatever they release as long as I’m paying. And it’s not all new stuff. It’s a mix of older albums, compilations, and newer releases. But it feels curated in a good way. I like Morr Music — they’re a Berlin-based label that releases a lot of mellower electronica and electronic pop. And though I don’t know all of their artists (although I do know a bunch), I do trust them to find good stuff. And so far it’s worked: I’m a couple of months in and have found maybe four albums (out of seven or eight) that I really enjoy and hadn’t been exposed to before. (“Don’t Want to Sleep” by FM Belfast has been the soundtrack to several of my recent runs. And I’m listening to “Mister Pop” by The Clean right now — it’s good writing music.) And it doesn’t feel random or arbitrary — the music fits together in a sort of thematically oblique way and subscribing kind of makes you feel like you’re supporting the label and a part of a cool little album-of-the-week club. And, like Kickstarter, I think it has the potential to change the economics a bit. It’s almost like a rolling Kickstarter: Instead of supporting one project, I’m kind of giving ongoing support to something that’s already churning out good work.

Potential. Kickstarter works, I guess. Although it has opened up a whole new universe of exploitation channels. Drip.fm and whatever competitors it has — I don’t know if these will survive. Drip.fm seems very new. And simple. They offer a few dozen labels and the service is very simply designed. Which is fine. But it feels like they’ve got just a few people working on it and I can easily see the business model falling apart for them. (The last music service that I thought made a really interesting stab at a new way of listening to music — theSixtyOne — seemed to die soon after I decided I liked it.) They’re in that rough space where it’s probably unclear whether the experiment will work or not.

But I hope it does. I think more people should be aware of the importance of curators, and promoting well-run labels is a great way to do this. Algorithms can be great for some things, but I have found them frustrating when it comes to music. Maybe it just makes me sound like one of those cranky farts bemoaning the loss of the album in the age of iTunes, but I have to believe that people would enjoy music more and understand it more if it came to them through curators — advocates with opinions about good music and the resources to express themselves through musical selection. Any service that seems to promote this I will support. Honestly, I’d pay way more than $9.99 per month. Maybe other people would, to. I hope.

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Panic Attacks

Monday, March 25, 2013

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012. Started like a fairly average day. I had an iced coffee. Got some work done. Went for a long run (about three miles) around the neighborhood and picked up about a hundred feet of rope light for the terrace at a funny little Jewish lighting shop that seemed to specialize mostly in tacky chandeliers. Grabbed another iced coffee. Then a meeting with Bob Giraldi that afternoon to make plans for “The Interactive Idea,” the class we teach at SVA. And after seeing Bob, I started feeling a mite peckish (I hadn’t eaten much that day), so I decided to walk over to Hill Country Chicken at Madison Square Park to get one of those upscale Chik-Fil-A-style sandwiches I love. I had my headphones in and was listening to a podcast, as I often do whilst wandering the city. “Savage Lovecast” this time, I remember quite well.

Around 22nd street and Broadway I started feeling a little lightheaded. Probably just hungry. Let’s get to the restaurant. Then, as I hurried my walk I felt dizzy. Then my heart started fluttering and I quickly became very quickly dissociated. The audio in my ears sounded weird, so I pulled out the headphones. I walked quicker, just to get some food, I suppose, but also out of fear. Then tingling in my fingers, hands, legs. My vision tunneled. My heart went berserk. My mind fixated: A heart attack. I’m having a heart attack. I’m dying. I started dialing 911 on my phone and got as far as “9” and couldn’t get any further. So I stumbled to the first random stranger I saw walking towards me on the street, handed them my phone, and said in a strained voice, “I think there’s something wrong with my heart — can you dial 911 for me?” He was another guy about my age (Merlin, I think he said his name was), and I imagine his first reaction was a kind of confused annoyance — crazy people are not rare on the streets of Manhattan — but as soon as he realized what was up, he became immediately helpful. Called the ambulance and communicated between emergency dispatcher and me. Had me sit down. Kept an eye on me. Asked if there was anything I needed. I calmed down. My heart stopped feeling like it would explode. My limbs stopped tingling. The ambulance eventually arrived and a couple of EMTs helped me inside, stuck a bunch of plastic monitors all over my chest and arms, and gave me the once-over. I mentioned the heart thing. “Your heart seems fine — healthier than mine, in fact,” one of the EMTs informed me. I hadn’t eaten all day and had consumed three iced coffees. And had been running and walking around almost all day, apart from the meeting with Bob. Probably just a blood-sugar crash mixed with a little dehydration. No need for the hospital. Get something to eat. Go home. Relax. Maybe take it easy on the caffeine. I got a hot dog from the closest street vendor and took a seat at one of the tables set up on Broadway by Madison Square Park. (A very nice spot on a weekend afternoon, by the way.) I called my parents and Christin (who was in Florida) to let them know about it and see if they had any thoughts on the matter. I still felt weird — and very freaked about my heart — but I eventually caught a cab home and tried my best to relax. Going to sleep that night I still felt on the edge of something catastrophic. Like my heart might just go out on me at any moment and I’d fall over dead. Doom.

I didn’t die. In fact, the next day I felt better. Christin arrived at home. I laid low and didn’t really leave the apartment. Until Thursday. We decided to go walk and get some breakfast. I got about a half block before it came on, again. Light-headedness. Heart beginning to accelerate (although nothing as severe as the first episode). I immediately sat down. It got worse. Call a car, we’re going to hospital. Which we did. Good old Wycoff Heights Medical Center, the same place had my fingers fixed after those two episodes a few years ago. Emergency room. I sat there, still thinking that, once again, I was having some kind of minor heart attack. I say for almost two hours while those idiots apparently forgot about me. I was somewhat out of it, feeling like shit and like I might die, but if I remember correctly they basically forgot that I had been sitting there. My understanding is that they’re pretty much supposed to clear the way when someone thinks they’re having a heart attack, time is so much of the essence. Maybe I’m wrong. But either way: They took their sweet time. I finally made it into the ER, where I got probulated for about six hours. My blood pressure was through the roof. No one seemed to have any idea what was up, except to keep informing me that nothing appeared to be wrong. Except the blood pressure. Which as I calmed down also came down.

My regular doctor was unavailable, so I made an appointment with someone else at his clinic the next day and went in with Christin. “You had a panic attack” were basically the first five words out of his mouth.

Okay. So I finally had a firm diagnosis. I assume Manhattan physicians see panic attack patients about, oh, a dozen times a day. I don’t have any numbers, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if New York were the panic attack capital of the United States or the world. Or the solar system. Probably not the galaxy — many of those new exoplanets they’re discovering look pretty stressful. I’m honestly surprised the EMTs didn’t suggest it — and I’m not reassured that the doctors at Wycoff Heights couldn’t figure it out after a day of running tests of me. Especially since, now that I’ve read a thing or two about panic attacks and general anxiety disorder, I realize just how common panic attacks are. Two good friends have had them and I didn’t find out until after I started talking to people about my experiences. Tony Soprano had them (and so did his son). I just today happened to watch a video interview with one guy from the web comic Penny Arcade about his history of panic attacks. People talk about panic attacks quite often in all sorts of media — and knowing about them makes some of the behavior of over-scrutinized celebrities make more sense because they can make you act really, really bizarre. I never thought twice about them, but now that I’m acutely aware of their existence, I see stuff about them everywhere. Weird.

So I had a couple of panic attacks. And not particularly major ones — I didn’t collapse or anything like that. And only the first one had any major symptoms like the racing heart and tingling in the limbs and the imminent threat of fainting (“syncopy,” as the cool kids (doctors) call it). But it triggered my awareness of something else in me which had been building for a while: general anxiety disorder. The term sounds silly, but it’s definitely a thing. Ever since that panic attack I’ve had problems doing things like going out and doing things in the city, I’ve had problems being in crowded spaces, sometimes the idea of walking a single city block seems unsurmountable, sometimes for no reason I’ll just feel Fear and have trouble holding my shit together — it feels like I’m literally about to die sometimes. Or, failing that, like I’m going insane. Like there’s something I can feel broken in my head. My understanding is that people with this condition often feel like they’re about to have a heart attack or like they’ve got a brain tumor. I understand why this is — that’s how I felt. That’s how I still feel sometimes, although now I know enough about what’s going on to be able to see through the shitty illusion my anxious brain is creating for me. I’m not dying. I don’t have heart problems. I don’t have a brain tumor. I am, as far as anyone can tell me, pretty healthy. Even my blood pressure is even just fine, despite the initial fear that there might have been some problem there.

I’m writing this because one thing that has helped settle me when I’m experiencing a rough patch is to get online and read other people’s experiences with panic attacks (PAs) and general anxiety disorder (GAD). I’ve never been one for using the internet to diagnose medical conditions, but PAs and GAD are mental issues and, as far as I’ve been told and experienced, the way to deal with them is to not get caught in their downward spiral. The slightest trigger can build into a spot of worry which can cascade until you’re having a full-blown attack. The trick is to understand when you’re experiencing a little trigger and to psychologically not allow yourself to go down the dark path. Reading about how other people have experienced something similar and helped themselves helps me.

My primary doctor, when I finally got to see him a few weeks after the event, likened it to being chased by a bear. Like: A bear jumped out at me from the clear blue and scared the living shit out of me. So for a while, anything that reminds me of that experience will cause me to clench up, fearing that once again the bear will leap out. Again: Sound a little goofy to write, but it’s relatively accurate. I guess it’s a very, very, very light form of PTSD.

I joked about this with Christin, but it’s sort of true: We watch Dexter, the show about the serial killer who also works for Miami Metro Homicide. He regularly blathers on about his “dark passenger.” That’s kind of what this feels like. I’m not going to murder anyone, of course, but I feel like there’s something wrapped around some of the nerves in my head, neck, shoulders, and back. Something that can take over and put me in this bad state if I don’t control it. That sounds cheeseball, but it’s honestly how I feel sometimes. The GAD can feel like a physical thing that I want excised from my body.

Okay. So this has been going on since August — about seven months or so. And I am getting better. It’s what I would call a controlled problem at the moment. I haven’t had a real panic attack episode since October (I was in Austin alone and also had the flu, which all combined into an obnoxious series of attacks). While I have had some issues going out in public and going to crowded restaurants or music shows, that seems to mostly be behind me. I don’t feel afraid to do basic things like I did for a while. I don’t feel unhealthy. (In fact, besides this I feel quite healthy, especially since all of the tests I’ve had as a part of this have come up clean. And my exercise levels are also back up, which is a good general barometer. And I’m very attuned to my physical health at the moment.) I’m getting better, so I wanted to briefly discuss what I’ve been doing and thinking to help fix the situation.

The main fix has been a combination of going to therapist and being my own therapist. The “anxiety” in “general anxiety disorder” comes from somewhere. Work, for me, has been consistently pretty stressful for about the past two or three years. This past summer isn’t the worst it’s been, but I had a lot of work stress and I think it had just compounded and compounded until I finally blew a gasket. And, let me make this clear: It’s not a particular client or project. I really like almost all of my projects and clients! Especially now that I’ve got the ability to be selective about who I work with. They’re smart, interesting people who like making things. I get along with my clients. The work stress more came from how I worked. I put a lot of weight on my own shoulders when I work. I can make things much harder on myself than they need to be. I guess I don’t want to get into too many specifics, but the past seven months I’ve been doing much more deep thinking about how I want to work and what my work-life balance should look like. I’m not a graduate student anymore: I can’t just blast through projects, spending 14 hours each day banging out ideas and code. It’s very stressful. And it’s been, I feel, a major contributor to my GAD. So I’m working on that.

My therapist has been good. Christin pushed me towards this option, though I was resistant at first. I’ve been seeing her for about four months, now, and she’s been good at giving me techniques for managing the disorder (like breathing and stretching exercises) and she’s been good at giving me perspective when I talk about how I’m trying to do things like reassess how I work to reduce stress. And I talk about my tricks. I come up with a new trick every now and then which actually prove quite helpful with stress. For example! I guess my natural mental image of the people I’m working for is that they’re somehow angry at me for not being good enough or fast enough or whatever. They’re totally not in real life (for the most part!), but even when things are going great, that’s an odd kind of pressure. And it’s probably rooted in something much deeper in my past — the details, there don’t even really matter. But there’s a part of my brain that drives pretty damned hard to always better, always improve, and it’s really hard for me to shut that part of me up. It’s got to be connected to that. So. Just consciously envisioning people I work with being happy with me can help out quite a bit when I’m feeling overwhelmed. Minor trick. Seems silly! But just thinking of them being happy with me appears to help. (This was made easier a couple of weeks ago: I launched a couple of apps for clients who I also hung out with in Austin and they were visibly happy. As an aside: It can be tough for a developer to gauge client satisfaction. Tell your developer when they’re doing a good job — otherwise, all they ever hear is BUG REPORT: YOU DONE BAD! I exaggerate a bit, but it can be tough to read whether people think I’m doing a good job or not.)

Like I said above, just reading other people’s experiences online has been important. One trick someone pointed out on some forum or other: If they felt an attack coming on, they’d tell themselves that it might happen, but in ten or fifteen minutes it’ll be over. Like it’s a bit of aircraft turbulence and shortly you’ll be back in smooth air. Which I’ve done. It just kind of breaks you out of the feeling of falling into the endless abyss to know that even if you do you start feeling strange, you’ll be out of it soon enough. Takes the pressure off. Another technique someone mentioned is to just decide to let the panic attack happen. My therapist even once suggested that it might not be bad for me to actually faint from a panic attack just so I would know what that felt like and that it wasn’t the end of the world. This trick is similar to that, but it actually kind of scary to do in practice. The idea, though, is that it’s stressful just trying to hold yourself together when an attack starts to come on and that if you’re just like “fuck it, I’m not going to die, let just get this over with” you neutralize the fear that causes the attack in the first place and you mitigate it. Another thing I’ve found myself doing lately is reacting to the feeling of an attack not by saying to myself, “oh, fuck fuck fuck fuck,” but instead saying to myself, “Christ, not this horseshit again.” Being dismissive of it seems to help. Anything that removes the feeling of fear.

Another thing I’ve been doing with myself: Aversion therapy. I think that’s what it’s called. But the basic idea is to dive straight into those things the GAD has made me irrationally afraid of. Driving. In October in Austin I could barely drive without causing myself to go into a state. I wasn’t unsafe, but just sitting in a car made me feel enormously and irrationally afraid. Sort of a random thing, but probably connected to the feeling of being trapped or out of control. So I had some issues driving after I got to Austin a few weeks ago for SXSW. I want to stress, here: I never felt like I was unsafe driving or I wouldn’t have done it. I just felt a big irrational fear. So I kept driving. Short drives in the neighborhood at first seemed daunting. But eventually I got myself up to driving thirty minutes out to the Salt Like and to the airport and by the time I left Austin last week I was quite enjoying driving again. I’ve always found it fun to drive around Austin, now I have that back. Aversion therapy.

Same with running and doing things in New York. When you’re constantly worried that your heart might explode, running and exercise gets kind of hard to do. It’s uncomfortable to try to run a few miles and have “I’m going to die any step now, I’m going to die any step now” racing through your brain. It’s irrational. But that’s how it works. But I’ve forced myself to keep running and playing soccer and am doing much better, now, as well. I’ve run more in March than I had in any month since July, when we were in Berlin and I was taking regular long-ass meandering runs all over the city.

Also, for Christmas Christin got me a book called When Panic Attacks by David D. Burns M.D. I’ve read about half of it, and it has some good advice and perspective. And, again, it’s been helpful just to understand what I’m feeling and what’s actually going on with me. But I tried to do some of the written exercises he recommended and, honestly, they didn’t do that much for me. I’m probably getting the same effect (but better) just doing my own thinking on the issues and talking with the therapist. The only thing it’s left me with so far is my new habit of asking myself “what’s the worst that can happen?” when I get anxious. Just answering that in a realistic way can kind of take the edge off of a stressful situation, even something like flying where the answer might be “die in a fireball” I can follow it up with, “and what are the chances of that happening?” To which: Well, basically zero.

One thing I haven’t done, yet: Medication. Well. I had a prescription for lorazepam that I was told to take to calm down if things got really bad. I took one every once in a while. And then had a super-stressful week working in New Orleans during which I popped a couple a day. But that’s it. SO my doctor recently suggested I get on a light Prozac prescription for a while. I’m resistant to that idea at the moment for a few reasons: 1) I feel like I’m getting better on my own and that maybe it’s more important to solve some of the underlying psychological issues through thought and therapy that it is to spackle over the problems with drugs. 2) While my GAD feels shitty, I’ve heard of people who’ve had much more debilitating forms. I think I’ve got a relatively light case. It’s still a huge piece of shit, though, so when I hear about people who faint regularly from PAs or who have essentially become shut-ins because they can’t bear even stepping outside — well, I can only imagine how completely crushing that might feel. But I feel like I’m managing mine — and I suspect that no one would even know I had an issue unless I mentioned it. My behavior hasn’t become weird. (Well, it hasn’t become any weirder, anyway.) 3) Related to the above, I just don’t want to take pills if I don’t need to. Simple as that.

I got a light prescription for Prozac, but I haven’t filled it for the above reasons. Next week I’ll see the doctor again and we’ll go over where I’m at. I’m 100% in favor of taking input and advice from all angles, even if I ultimately decide to not do something.

And I think that’s the biggest thing. I’ve found a lot of help just talking to people — friends, doctors, etc — about the situation. People I know who have gone through this have offered good advice and perspective. So much of controlling GAD and not getting panic attacks appears to simply be not letting yourself get wound up about it. (If only all disease were so easy to cure.) Hearing about other people who’ve gotten through the worst helps give perspective.

I’m sure I’m leaving out some major thoughts, here. This has been a topic I’ve thought about every day since my first panic attack back in August. It’s consistently with me. So I’ve got a ton of thoughts on the matter. And this is maybe odd to say, but I think that overall it’s been a strangely positive experience. The PAs and GAD suck, but I’m confident that I’ll get it under control and maybe even get rid of it entirely. But it’s shocked me into realizing my own mortality in a way that’s got me making changes for the better. I’m off caffeine, for example. And I’m exercising more, now. And much better at understanding and managing life’s stresses. So, y’know. Lemonade from lemons.

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Notes on Teaching Game Design to High Schoolers

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

I’ve written a handful of posts, now, about the high school game design classes I’ve been co-teaching with Kristana Textor. The brief history, for those just joining in: In 2011, I got the opportunity to teach a summer class at the Academy of Urban Planning in Bushwick. Though it was a mild mess, we ultimately found some degree of success and I got invited back to teach at AUP during the Spring 2012 semester, this time with Kristana. Last fall we switched venues to McKee High School in Staten Island. (Yeah, that’s a long commute — about ninety minutes each way — but it’s also an almost entirely water-based transit, which is actually kind of a nice bit of relaxation during the day. I usually take the East River Ferry from Williamsburg to Wall Street and then hop the Staten Island Ferry the rest of the way. But I digress.)

We missed a few weeks of class in the Fall due to Hurricane Sandy, so we’re still wrapping up the semester this January. Going out there twice a week has been kind of intense, but ultimately I very much enjoy it and I think I’m beginning to see a little bit of light as far as understanding teaching techniques and having a good strategy for getting a group of most high school freshman and sophomores to create a functional, playable game together. Which is what I want to talk about, here.

Class Goals

The class that Kristana and I teach is structured like so: The class schedule has two parts of about equal length, a “game appreciation” segment and a “game design” segment. Kristana teaches “game appreciation,” the first half. For the class we’re currently teaching, this lasted from September through about November. I don’t attend these classes, generally, because I’m usually just kind of overwhelmed with other work, but Kristana has the kids talk about games and prompts them to think a bit more deeply about their own experiences and opinions about games and game culture while also exposing them to how games function as art, as business, etc. I think of is as the “liberal arts” part of the class. The kids play games. They talk about games. They think about games. And hopefully reach some fresh insights and understanding.

My half of the class, which kicked off in October and will last until the end of January (due to Sandy), is about getting the kids to apply this new thinking about games and to get them to actually produce something real. One of my current students had a shocked moment earlier this semester when I started talking about the game they would be making: “Wait, what — we’re actually going to have to make a game?!” Yes you’re really going to have ot make a game. As far as these kids are concerned, video games are mystical creations forged from magic by wizards and elves in far-off lands. They haven’t quite made the connection that game designers and game builders are, in fact, humans — many rather young humans — and that their craft is anything but magical. The demystification of this process is important.

But also, through this process, we get to touch on a ton of different topics. We talk about storytelling. Graphic design. Computer programming. Ethics. Interactive design. And, of course, straight-up game design. Game design encompasses so many other disciplines — I consider teaching game design an amazing way to sneak in all sorts of other content. The last class I taught at AUP, for example, we had a student with some learning disabilities who completely glommed on to the storytelling aspect of game design. He had a tough time working with the software to make game graphics or design levels, but he seemed to love sitting down and writing out page after page of scripts for the cut scenes in the game. (Sadly, we ran out of time and couldn’t actually implement these — but he did get up in front of hundreds of people and read through his scripts, presenting his ideas.) And this is not to say that I think storytelling should be the focus, but it can certainly be a focus.

And part of this, as well, is that I’ve found that different students will have different things they’re interested in. Some like graphics. Some want to make levels. Some want to write stories. And the format of coming together to produce a single project works great in that it allows students to play to their aptitudes and get some exposure to new stuff.

General Organizational Strategies

I have a web-based game-building tool I’ve created called Gametron 7000 (GT7K). But I’ve decided that putting the kids in front of the software tools too soon create problems. For one thing, they have no sense of direction and no idea what they’re supposed to make, so they just kind of vaguely poke at it and then get distracted by YouTube or whatever. So my strategy right now is to spend several weeks simply brainstorming game ideas with the students and doing as much pen-on-paper design work as possible. Then during the last half of the class we actually get into GT7K and do the actual production.

Buy-In

Getting 15- and 16-year-olds to sit down, be quiet, please pay attention, please turn off the computer monitor and listen to me, turn off the monitor, please, right now, thank you, NO FOOD IN THE COMPUTER LAB, and you’re going to have to leave if you keep being disruptive — it’s a huge pain. Oh, lord. They’ll come into class hyperactive to begin with and then sometimes totally jacked on shit like Rockstar Energy Drink (no joke) and often on cookies or candy or whatever. And they’re kind of spazzy gamer kids to begin with, so they want to play with the computers and tend to bounce around with short attention spans.

So the first thing I try to do is get buy-in. I want them to feel invested in what we’re doing. We’re going to make a game. It will exist on the web for anyone to play — including your friends. So let’s put some thought into it.

I have all of the students work together on a single game, so we start with forming a “game studio.” I ask them to name some game studios they know (Valve seems to be the most well-known) and we talk in a basic way about how those companies are organized. I also introduce the concept of independent game studios, which they’re less familiar with. Then we pick a name. The kids throw out ideas and we vote. And then no one’s happy with the result, so I repeat the process the next class. We throw out names and vote. And wind up with a much better result since everyone’s kind of had a few days to ponder the issue.

I’ve found that just having this name gels the class to a certain degree. It’s an after-school class, so attendance varies. But my core game designer students seem to lock in to the process a bit after this step. I think it’s the same sort of feeling of making a club that makes high school kids want to form rock bands or other little creative groupings. And because they named it, I think they feel a sense of ownership. Which is good.

Because my role is facilitator. I do a lot to smooth out the whole process, but major decisions I want them to make and own. And, to be frank, these kids know games. So they will make good decisions if there’s a good process. A lot of it is simply having systems for surfacing ideas and letting them respond to one another, incorporating the good ideas and dropping the bad.

Sketching

Once we have our game studio set up, I have the kids do several rounds of game idea brainstorming over the course of several days. I get a stack of paper and some pens and I instruct them to quietly draw out ideas for any kind of game they might be interested in making. What does it look like? Is there a story? What’s the main game mechanic? Is it top-down? Side-scrolling? Platformer? Something else entirely? (I explain that GT7K is fairly basic, allowing mostly for 2D early Nintendo Entertainment System-era types of games: think Zelda, Mario, Metroid, etc. Which is actually fine by them, since retro-ish stuff like Super Meat Boy and Minecraft seem to be quite the thing with the kids these days.)

They hate this. Sitting down with pens and paper. At least to start. Getting the kids to stop talking, focus and actually think is a pain-in-the-ass. Sucks, but true. This current group at McKee has some issues with focus, so the first half of any brainstorming session involves a fair amount of scolding. Which I’m getting quite good at. I’ll even yell at the little monsters, on occasion, which I suspect most people who know me will have trouble specifically envisioning. (Maybe not.) I’ve found that the surest way to command the room is to be the loudest thing in it, and thankfully I’m a big dude with a big voice when I feel like using it…

They will, though, eventually break down a bit, quiet themselves, and brainstorm. The bitching and whining about not having any ideas will give way to scribbling down one idea, and then the floodgates will open for some of the students. A few in this current class seem to willfully shut themselves off a bit, taking a sort of “I’m cooler/smarter than you, so this is kind of below me” attitude, and a few others just might be too shy or scared or whatever and can’t relax and think. But many of the kids will suddenly find themselves having a lot of fun thinking about game ideas and seem like they’ll do it all day and into the night if I didn’t eventually have to get home myself. Part of my challenge is shielding these students who are engaged from the ones who want to distract them.

After a few days of this, though, we do wind up with a stack of game ideas. Some bad. Many quite good. These kids have mostly played a ton of games, so they have fairly good intuition about these things.

I have each student explain each of their game ideas to the group. We talk about them. And then we vote. And then no one’s happy with the result, so I repeat the process the next class. We talk about their game ideas. And then we vote. And the two times I’ve done this process, we reach consensus pretty darn quickly. Both times all of the kids have eventually voted for and been most excited by one idea, so that’s what we’ve rolled with.

For the record, the current class settled on a top-down game of underground labyrinths. The player plays a character with a flaming head that’s the only light source in the game, leaving room for plenty of surprise moments and scary puzzles. The more health the player has, the brighter the flame and the more you can see. The less health, the less bright. So you play this flaming-head-guy character and have to navigate through a series of mysterious labyrinths. It’s a legitimately good idea!

Establishing Rapport

Okay. So I’ve done more yelling at teenagers the past few months than ever before, like I said. It’s a brave, new world. An opening up of vistas. I hope to eventually move on to yelling at young children and old people. Then waiters who don’t bring out the water promptly enough and compound the problem by bringing tap water when I clearly asked for sparkling, and where is your manager, anyway? No tip. Etc.

So. Learning to communicate with these buggers — the students — is obviously very important. I have a bit of a leg-up, I think, because I’m not exactly a teacher in the same way their other teachers are, and (despite the scolding) I try not to present myself as an authority figure. “I do this kind of stuff in the real world. People pay me (fairly well) to do it. If you want, I would love to help you go through this process and learn a bit about how it works. If you’re not interested, I don’t care — but you’ve got the leave the room so the rest of us can work.” And I’m honest about that: They can leave. I will try to get shy kids involved, but I won’t force anyone to participate.

But these are mostly boys on the nerdier end of the spectrum and I do think they look up to me and see me as one of them. Christin hates my Valve video game t-shirts, but wearing them to class seems to help. We have normal conversations. We talk about what games we’ve been playing. Even when bitching at them, I try to always maintain the tone of “hey, we’re all working together, here — let’s keep it together so we have something cool to show.”

And it does seem to work. I think I have a good rapport with most of them. A couple come in and just kind of tune out and won’t do anything I ask — those I essentially ignore. Again, if they’re not interested in participating, then they get left out of the club. Sorry. (I do feel like I’m aware of distinguishing shyness from disinterest, and I will go out of my way to figure out how to get shy kids to open up.)

Anyway, I feel like this has been working. The kids seem excited to be there, for the most part, and I do feel like they’re fairly comfortable around me, for the most part.

Fleshing Out the Game

After we’ve got a game idea that we want (the flaming-head-guy-labyrinth game), we repeat the sit-down-with-pen-and-paper sketching process, but instead of drawing whole new game ideas, I have the kids draw screenshots from the game we’ve picked. I pose it like so: Imagine you’re reading reviews of this game after it’s been made. What do the screenshots they use from the game look like? The idea is to get them to visualize specifically what the game will be like to play, and in doing this brainstorm all of the various elements of the game. What might the labyrinthine mazes look like? What does the player look like? Are there bad guys? Obstacles? What are they? What do they look like? How to do they move? What do they do? We do this for a few class sessions and I try to create a list of all of the ideas for what might be in this game.

I also take this opportunity to talk about theme and story in the game. When pondering what kinds of bad guys might inhabit their game, for example, it could be helpful to think of what the story could be. Is the main character rescuing someone? Defeating someone or something? Collecting things? Why? To what end? Or: Are there any fun ways to play with the theme? On student in our class, for example, started pondering the guy with a flame for a head — and it dawned on him: Why not make all of the bad guys out of water? And suddenly there’s a sort of light-weight game story behind the mechanics of the game. Fire guy versus the water people. Or whatever.

This stuff is tough, but I think it’s really satisfying. These details are what turns some random idea into something that feels like it could be a real game. And, to be honest, we get to talk about the terrible blandness and repetition in many game stories and scenarios. Feeling like they’ve got an idea that might actually be better than many of the game ideas they’ve experienced is a big deal.

Production: Creating Assets

So now we have a game, a story/theme, some ideas for levels and a sense of what else might be in the game. Now we have to make it. This is where I’m currently at with my class. We’re making assets.

GT7K is nice because it makes it incredibly easy to reuse any assets already in the system, so I can start them out with a basic game framework and it’s very easy for me to have the kids make accounts and then show them how to make a level and test it out.

But I try to add some structure, because we’re on a timeline and we have to ship a game at the end of the class, so after they’re a bit familiar with the tools I sit them down again and try to break things down a bit.

Last week, we started with visual assets. What kind of art do we need? A player graphic. Some walls. Bad guys. Coins. Doors. Etc. We listed some things and then each student got to pick one and make it. (For the record, this Flash-based pixel art tool called Piq proved a huge hit — they really enjoyed using it, for the most part. Some kids also used the iPad, though the aesthetic is quite different.) So over the course of our couple of hours, they make their graphics. And this is tough — they’re not used to creating graphics that will fit into a game, so we have to talk about it. And they’ve been kind of tentative, for the most part. But I feel like simply getting them to do anything and then seeing that thing actually in a game moving around will be significant.

I’ve been trying to communicate my philosophy that the first time you do something creative, it will suck. You’ll be tempted to compare your first try with some profession game designer’s twentieth try — and that’s an unfair comparison. Your game isn’t going to be perfect. Your art is going to be kind of weird. Your levels might not be that fun. But, y’know what: Everyone’s first game sucks. But after you’re done, you’ll be better at making games. And maybe your second game will be awesome. Or your third. Keep trying and eventually it’ll start to click. That’s how art works.

So part of this process is simply getting them to produce anything that I can then take and glue together into a semi-cohesive game.

We’ll do this process with levels this coming week. It’ll be more of the same thing. They’ll be sort of confused and I’ll try to get them to push through and create something that I can stitch together for them.

Gluing it All Together

Finally, like I said, I will take everything they’ve created and bring together their game. There’s a lot of technical stuff which they can’t really do on their own, and I’ve decided that I’d rather them spend their time being creative than spend their time learning to do technical stuff.

My thinking: If they’re inspired to create games, they will eventually have to figure out how to use computers and progra on some level. So get them excited about designing games, they’ll have to pick up the computer skills somehow. And I think in many ways creative thinking skills trump technical skills. And I’m someone who codes most of the day — I love technical stuff. It’s obviously important. But I also know how it can affect creative thought in a negative way. It’s something I battle against almost daily.

So, we haven’t reached this point with my current class, but if all goes well I’ll glue together their game, built from all of their ideas, and we’ll do some play-testing and let other students take a look. We’ll make some tweaks, and then launch! I’ll put it up online for the world to see and for them to be proud of.

The Princess is in Another Castle

One more thing.

I’ve left this subject towards the end because I’m not entirely sure what to make of it, but — yes — my class at AUP was all guys and my class at McKee is mostly guys with one or two girls coming by occasionally. I don’t know what to do about this. I try my best to engage and include girls when they do show up, and I feel I’ve had some success, but it’s tough in the context of the class because they don’t attend regularly enough to really be up-to-speed with what we’re doing. There’s a group of four or five boys who really drive the class — which I think is great. They get excited and they want to participate, making it a little tougher for any students who doesn’t regularly appear. The lack of gender diversity, though — I am not yet ready to call it a problem, exactly, but it’s something I want to know more about. If girls aren’t interested in this particular game class and are happy doing something else, well, I’d rather not have a bunch of uninterested people lingering around, male or female. If girls want to be there but aren’t showing up because they’re feeling intimidated or out-of-place or like they don’t want to deal with noisy, stinky boys… That’s a bigger problem. But I still don’t know the solution. If anyone has better thoughts on this, please advise.

Another quick diversity observation: Almost all of my students in both classes have been minorities. I think we’ve had just one caucasian student attend semi-regularly in the current class. Just interesting to note.

Onward

So that’s my thinking at this point. Learning how to teach game design is an ongoing process for me, my techniques and opinions may change wildly each time I do this. But I figured it’d be useful to document my thinking right now. Hopefully it’ll be useful to someone else. And I do think it’ll be very interesting to look back on this and reflect upon how my attitudes have changed over time.

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