Departures, a return to interactive fiction.

Departures
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I have been in love with interactive fiction ever since the first time I slipped the first 5¼” floppy of Infocom’s “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” into my Commodore 64’s disk drive. It was an intoxicating melange of Douglas Adams’ peculiar brand of surreal silliness, devious puzzle-solving, and the idea that I could slip inside a story and become part of it.

Later, I would find some measure of satisfaction in constructing scenarios and settings within MUDs, but did not know enough about coding to do much more than world-building and Easter-egg-hiding. Role-playing was firmly within my wheelhouse, though; as a theatre brat who dabbled in playwriting, stage directions and emotive word-choices were second nature to me. I decided that role-playing was my bag, and I’d leave interactive fiction writing to the professionals.

But interactive fiction popped up on my radar again when I came across Zoe Quinn’s “Depression Quest”. It hit me hard the first time I played it, then harder on replay: certain options you wish to take are simply unavailable to you. They sound good. You know you should do them. And yet you cannot. This, to me, communicated an intrinsic aspect of depression. It was a brilliant piece of game construction. The rest of it is also excellent, but this part stuck with me. I was curious about how it was built, and that’s when I first heard about Twine, an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories. I noodled around with it a bit but didn’t have a story idea begging to be told this way, so I promptly forgot about it.

Recently my friend Gavin Inglis wrote an interactive story called “Hana Feels”. “Story” seems like a flaccid descriptor here because the project’s goals are much larger than telling a story. “Hana Feels” teaches us how to talk to people who self-harm. It exercises our empathy muscles. It asks us to push past our own experience to connect with another human who needs it most.

“Hana Feels” is a poignant and dismaying and important piece of writing, not only for addressing the stigma of talking about issues such as self-harm but for showing us there is still a great chasm between what we say, what we mean, and what someone in distress is capable of hearing and understanding. I don’t want to spoil it for you, so see it for yourself (note: it is still in beta, with the final release later this month). Gav created this story with Twine, and experiencing the complexity of “Hana Feels” inspired me to reconsider using Twine to write interactive fiction myself. And then he told me about Twiny Jam, an event that ended just this morning, in which creators use Twine to make a 300-word interactive moment and share it with each other.

The prospect scared me. So I knew I had to do it.

Some time ago, I confided in a dear friend that the worst part of saying goodbye is the moment where you could, if you wanted, turn around and just not go. Just stay. I described this particular feeling in an airport — when we were still able to accompany our loved ones to the gate — but you can think of it in any setting, physical or not. We encounter this moment all the time and yet we somehow make the choice, the reasonable choice, over and over.

The idea for this particular story came from not making the reasonable choice. Most of the story was cut due to the jam’s word-count limit, but I’ll tell it in longer form someday. For now, it says what I wanted it to say. It’s called “Departures” and I hope you enjoy it.

This Week

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Sunday morning in Scotland: seen on my walk to work. (Hi, I'm back!)

Life

I missed you last week. Every time I sat down to write to you, my to-do list glared back, so I wrangled that instead.

The big event recently was FunkyPlaid’s reading weekend. Halfway through it I had the bittersweet realisation that it was our fourth and final time away with this great group of history scholars, sharing ideas and laughter. Although I remember being very nervous about going away with a bunch of strangers that first year, I got over it, and I know these moments will stand out in memory when I think back to this time in our lives.

Even knowing this was my last reading weekend, I struggled to stay present. We all talk about being present a lot, and yet so much of our modern lives are constructed around the opposite. I read this article and it hit me pretty hard. Sometimes when I allow myself to think about those last years in San Francisco, I realise just how not-present I was, and how many times I flaked, sometimes for health reasons but also sometimes because I overcommitted even when I suspected I wouldn’t have the energy or time to follow through.

The consequence is that now I miss all of those flaked-on friends desperately. I daydream about zapping myself back in time to un-cancel just once, whatever the plan was, it doesn’t matter.

So at the risk of lecturing you (because I’m lecturing myself just as much): Be present. Enjoy what you have while you have it. It goes by so fast.

Okay, that’s quite enough mushy talk.

I am halfway through the wellness programme, and feeling better in a general sense. My immune system has seemed stronger, but I haven’t figured out how to measure that other than “I don’t feel sick most of the time.” I’ll take it.

Misfit Shine activity points: 5269 and then 5533 out of 7000, compared to 5059 of two weeks ago. I started running again, so that helped. My running confidence is next to nil so I’m starting all over again with a 5K training regimen.

Work

FunkyPlaid and I are slowly cleaning the JDB1745 location data together, which consists of looking up each place-name mentioned in the transcribed records and figuring out which type of place it was (parish, county, town, etc.) before standardising it. It is about as thrilling a task as you might imagine. Good thing we make each other laugh.

I have a couple of weeks off from the weekend gig, which couldn’t have come at a better time as I am feeling pretty burned out.

Writing

Have you heard of the Magic Spreadsheet? I am vaguely allergic to those words together but I heard about it via HabitRPG — which I will write about at length someday — and gave it a shot. The premise is simple, building on the “streaks” concept of positive habit-building: write every day, and don’t break the chain.

The power of the Magic Spreadsheet is that there are many other writers tallying their word totals and streaks alongside yours. If you are at all competitive, or if you really dig shaming yourself, I recommend this method of motivation.

As of this moment, I have written 9,031 words in 2015. That number is about one-third of what I wanted it to be at this time. Instead of thinking, “Hey, I haven’t been writing as much lately,” I have the numbers staring me in the face. That’s powerful motivation right there.

Thank you, Magic Spreadsheet.

Food

I made chocolate pudding with chia seeds. It tasted like chocolate pudding with slimy seeds in it. But I shall not be deterred! I’m going to give it another shot. Chia seeds are good for me, after all. Also, I like eating bee pollen but I’m not sure I should be doing that. Some say it is a superfood but I cannot find the science that confirms this. It seems pretty mean to steal pollen from bees for no good reason.

Media

Halou, one of my fave bands ever, is playing in San Francisco this June. I can’t attend but I’ve got to get the word out.

I’ll spare you my top listened musical artists for the past two weeks because I have been listening to my workout mixes and nobody needs a list of Journey songs. (Except me.)

Still reading “The Bees” but now I admit I am reading much slower than I have to in order to keep the book from ending. The hive is such a wonderful escape, especially on cold and snowy days. FunkyPlaid also surprised me with Iain Banks’ book of poetry, which I dipped into delightedly just yesterday.

Recently, a friend reminded me how much I enjoyed Fallen London so I started playing it again, and am now even more curious to know if I would enjoy playing Sunless Sea. How can you not love a game with the tagline: “Lose your mind. Eat your crew. Die.”

FunkyPlaid and I finally finished watching season two of “Pushing Daisies”. I am glad that it’s over because I had started to grow weary of some of the characters, which was my problem with “Dead Like Me” as well and made me wonder if something about Bryan Fuller’s shows makes extended time with the characters difficult.

Remember “Night Court”? FunkyPlaid and I were chatting about it and decided to re-watch the very first episode. My word, it had a charm about it. Part of that has to do with some of the naivety of the plots: a judge who liked stage magic and unorthodox approaches to the law! A philandering husband almost shot and killed by his enraged wife but they work it out in the end! But part of its charm was how far off the rails I know that it went in later seasons. I don’t think I can watch all 193 episodes but I wouldn’t mind seeing a few here and there as a palate-cleanser.

I saw “Focus” in the theatre and enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Mostly it left me confused with which genre it wanted to be. Gerald McRaney was tops, though.

Ink o’ the Week

March’s Ink Drop from Goulet Pens brought me my new favourite ink: Pilot Iroshizuku Ku-Jaku. As soon as I saw it in the sample vial, I knew it would be a daily carry ink. Look at that shading!

Pilot Iroshizuku Ku-Jaku. #ink #fountainpen #nofilter

A photo posted by Halsted M. Bernard (@cygnoir) on

This Week

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Bob.

Life

If I had one wish, it wouldn’t be a clever or altruistic one. I’d like to say that it would be, but I know myself better than that. If I had one wish, if that genie popped out of that Nutella jar and asked me what is the one thing I would want more than anything else in the whole wide world it would tumble out of my mouth before I could stop it because I have dreamed of it for decades.

My wish would be to own a train car.

Not just any train car: my train car would be magic because it could be hooked up to any train in the world, and it would be completely self-contained: it would have a library, hideaway bed, galley kitchen, observation loft, and of course an aquarium. Why an aquarium? I do not exactly know, but it was in the first designs of the train car when I was a little girl and hasn’t been revised out of them since.

I think about this magic train car, and my wish, every time I board a train. Sometimes while on the train I think I’ll doze off and wake up and be in my magic train car, and the sheer thought of it is enough to keep me smiling for hours. 

I hold onto bits of magic like this a little closer when weeks like this one happen, full of loss: friends losing parents, family members losing relatives, much-anticipated plans falling through. And then Sir Terry Pratchett died.

I’m so upset about this last part that I don’t even want to write about it. Some blog, eh? 

Amidst all this, there were some bright moments. The Writers’ Bloc meeting in Glasgow was fun and productive, and I met up with two other friends during the week as well.

Week 4 of 12-week wellness programme has not been going so great because I’m horrible at giving up all the foods I’m supposed to give up (hummus, I’m looking at you). However, I have successfully given up white potatoes, no small feat in a country basically made of chips.

Misfit Shine activity points: 5059 out of 7000, compared to 4208 of the week before. Improvement! 

O, and I chopped off more of my hair. Rather, I paid someone to do this in a fancy way. 

Work

JDB1745 required more than a bit of project management this week, which involved reworking our Trello project board and getting some stuff out of my brain and into Slack. Are you using Slack? I never want to work on a project again without it. Those endless email threads give me the wobbly dread feeling in my gut; I just know things are being missed and there isn’t any way to get them back. Centralising all of it makes me so happy. 

The weekend gig was smooth until literally the last two minutes of my last shift, which almost made me miss my bus but I hustled and caught it … except it wasn’t going anywhere because the bus had broken down. That’s the kind of week it has been.

Writing

I still haven’t managed to write the last book-club posts, but that’s because I’ve been scribbling notes on an idea I have for an ARG-ish thing. I also started a piece of flash fiction that is turning into a tribute to Terry Pratchett.

Food

I finally renamed the “Hobbies” section. I don’t even know what that word means anyway. But I do love food, and talking about it, so here we go.

Marks & Spencer in Waverley now offers gluten-free sandwiches! This means my train food is not limited to weird crawfish salad with chilli dressing! (Why is that so popular?) I had a chicken sandwich on the train to Glasgow and I was like a normal person and everything. Well, as normal as I get, anyway. Very exciting.

Union of Genius has become my favourite restaurant in Edinburgh. Their soups and salads are delicious (and many are gluten-free), but that isn’t why. They offer something I haven’t seen on a menu before: a “suspended” coffee which is a pre-purchased coffee for someone who cannot afford it. You just add this to your order, pay, and add one to the tally on a small chalkboard. They do this with soup, too.

I think this should be available everywhere, for anything.

Media

Still reading “The Bees”. I’m such a slow reader these days.

My top artists this week:

Season two of “Pushing Daisies” is not as enjoyable as season one. 

Ink o’ the Week

I’m sorry, but I can’t hear you over the sound of J. Herbin’s 1670 Stormy Grey in my Lamy 2000. What does that sound like, you ask? Nothing, silly! Ink doesn’t make noise. But it’s beautiful.

This Week

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Green smoothie lantern.

Life

When I was a little girl, I had a dresser drawer that was filled with small things, buttons and badges and beads, rubber animals, seedpods, scraps of paper. Among my favourites in this drawer — if I was forced to choose — were these teardrop-shaped faceted beads with an iridescent sheen that looked like they belonged in a minuscule chandelier in tiny Versailles. 

It is a mystery to me how this week I found myself transported back to a memory when, as a child, I stood on tiptoes to peek inside this drawer and pick out one of these chandelier beads, hold it up, and watch the light dance around the room. 

It might have been a glimpse of a dangling earring, reminiscent of the sparkly treasure. It might have been that, in a week full of family upset and distant tragedy, something settled into place in the tangled nest of wires I call my brain. I don’t know what that something was yet, or I don’t have words for it, only the feeling of that moment with a piece of plastic and refracted winter light.

Snap out of it: we’ve got a status report to write.

Week 3 of 12-week wellness programme introduced me to oil pulling. (Please do not click that link if you are squeamish.) I have not noticed any health benefits so far but something that disgusting has got to have at least one health benefit. I am hoping for two, even. Also I tried to reduce my caffeine intake further but roasted yerba mate tastes like ashtray coffee. The best I’ve been doing is getting more sleep and drinking the hell out of my spinach and kale smoothies.

Misfit activity goals met on 0 of 7 days. Let this be the nadir of my exercise motivation.

My friend Julia and I have exactly opposite days off work but this week the stars aligned! She came over and we made lunch together (pan-seared pork loin, chickpea and dill salad) and then chatted the daylight away. That visit plus plenty of Skype time with family kept me in higher spirits than last week.

Work

The location authority structure is in place and location data — such as it is — has been loaded into JDB1745. Now comes a whole bunch of cleaning up transcription variants and other fun stuff. I am looking forward to this a little because I’m much better at focusing on a task like this than I am on straightforward data entry.

The weekend gig involved a special treat this week: I participated in a Wiki-edit-a-thon. My fellow editors and I worked on improving articles about several women in STEM careers. We spent a few hours researching these women’s biographies and CVs and ensuring that their Wikipedia entries were up-to-date and correct. The edit-a-thon inspired me to take a more active role in Wikipedia than I have in the past. Did you know that only 13% of Wikipedia editors are women

Writing

No blogging this week. (I haven’t forgotten those last book-club posts!) Mildly more fiction-writing, but I had a legitimate how I love writing moment this week, which felt wonderful. I love my lumpy, crummy drafts.

Hobbies

What even goes here? 

Media

Still savouring every page of “The Bees”

I mostly listened to podcasts this week and not music, but I did rediscover a mixtape (can we even still call them that?) that FunkyPlaid made when he left for Scotland back in 2003. Like that shiny bead, the songs yanked me back to before I had ever set foot in this country, wondering what she got that I don’t got and other self-absorbed, younger worries. Plus, FunkyPlaid just has great taste in music.

This American Life’s two-part series on policing in America is excellent.

So far as the tubular pursuits, FunkyPlaid and I finished our season one re-watch of “Pushing Daisies” and are on to viewing the second season for the first time. Exciting! 

I also watched the first two episodes of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” which is a must-watch if you enjoyed “30 Rock” or if you have a heart.

I’m saving the latest season of “House of Cards” for when I am not so twitchy because Frank Underwood makes me so tense.

Ink o’ the Week

High off the pink excitement from last week, I tried another from that Goulet Pens’ Ink DropDe Atramentis’ Red Roses. I should have used a wetter writer, because my Pelikan M205 isn’t showing all the lovely variation I’m sure it has. But it is pretty, a darker red than the Caran d’Ache Divine Pink, and scented like roses. The scent wears off quickly but it feels very fancy while I am writing with it.

This Week

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Politics have no relation to morals.

Life

This week started with a birthday bang and ended with a wistful whimper.

First of all, thank you for your birthday wishes. It made my day so much brighter to hear from you. I smiled all day long.

Well, almost all day long: that evening, poor FunkyPlaid got hit with a nasty flu. We spent the rest of the week huddled inside our chilly flat with bowls of homemade soup and purring cats. Not such a bad way to spend the time, except for the flu part. (He is feeling much better now.)

One of my birthday gifts from FunkyPlaid was a Misfit Shine activity and sleep monitor! I finally got to switch from Fitbit. I’ve used Fitbit devices since 2010 and all of them have had miserable battery life. The Shine uses a watch battery that should last 4-6 months at a time. It also tells time, and I can wear it many different ways instead of just in a crappy plastic wristband. So far, I’m pleased with it. Time to take it for a run and see how it does.

Week 2 of 12-week wellness programme: I am doing well with some aspects and not so well with others. I already have a lot of experience with paying attention to the various foods I shove into my face. However, I’m rubbish at group interaction because it’s all done through Facebook, plus most of my group is in a different timezone. But I have a peer coach now and we’re going to work together via email, so I feel okay about that. 

In general, I’m not feeling that great about my life right now. The birthday week was a good distraction, especially because I was more social than usual; I scheduled plenty of Skype sessions with faraway loved ones and had coffee with Babs at Artisan Roast. But now all that is done and I am again facing a bunch of unhappiness.

And Leonard Nimoy died.

Work

Not much progress happened with JDB1745 this week, as we rethought how to structure the location authority. I cannot wait until this part of it is finished, mostly because we have been doing authority work for what feels like forever and its payoff is so “of course, that’s what a database is supposed to do.” 

One thing I learned from the weekend gig this week: many of the “life hacking” feeds I read don’t mention the importance of being a good coworker. I think it is far more essential to be a good coworker than it is to achieve inbox zero every day.

Here’s my top three suggestions on how to be a good coworker:

  1. Leave your bad mood at home. I’m not talking about venting here and there; we’re all struggling with our lives outside of the workplace, and it’s good to be able to share your gripes with your friendly acquaintances. But the second we allow the residual negativity to impact how we do our work, it becomes everyone else’s problem too.
  2. Refrain from discussing your religion or your politics. Think of how you’d feel if someone started expounding the virtues of something you really, really disagree with — and you are trapped in an already awkward social situation like a workplace, where you’re not sure how to confront someone on that without it impacting your future working relationship. 
  3. Do something that will make a coworker’s life a little better. If you appreciate the job that someone does, tell them. If you know one of your coworkers likes a tidy workspace, tidy up a little bit of it. It doesn’t matter how small this is, as long as you show that you realise that our lives intersect in this place called work.

Writing

No blogging this week. What started as a birthday-day break ended up a week-long break. I have a few last book-club posts to write.

I took a bunch of handwritten notes for a short story in progress. Handwriting my drafts is working so much better for me, I’m kind of surprised that I forced myself to work against this for so long.

Hobbies

I had these once, I think.

Media

I finished reading “Turning Pro” and restarted “The Bees”

FunkyPlaid and I saw “Birdman” and I loved every moment of it.

Top artists I listened to this week:

  • Postmodern Jukebox, again, always.
  • Bo Burnham, and I’m still on the fence about him. He’s a bit frantic but I love the wordplay.
  • Kevin Hart, which won’t happen again. I made it through four tracks of his live comedy album before giving up.

FunkyPlaid and I gave up on watching “Dead Like Me” and switched to “Pushing Daisies” which is superior in every way.

Ink o’ the Week

I received five new ink samples from Goulet Pens’ Ink Drop, although I’ve only tried one so far, the lovely Caran d’Ache Divine Pink in my Esterbrook Dollar Pen. It’s fuchsia, in the best way.

The Lamy 2000 still has J. Herbin’s 1670 Stormy Grey in it. Still so good.