revolver (last part)

(You might be late! Here are parts one, two, three, four, and five.)

My father is missing part of one of his thumbs. Instead of a thumbnail, it ends in a rounded stump at the knuckle. He told me that he lost it when he was about sixteen, being careless while chopping wood. The story is never told in detail and when it is told it always changes a little. It’s a long time before I realize there’s a lie in there or at least an omission: I am very sure now that he did not lose the thumb because he was careless while he and his brother were chopping wood. I suspect that the truth is they were fucking around, maybe throwing the axe near each other, daring each other to be tough guys, and that went wrong.

I don’t really know why he would lie about that since the truth of it is probably the better lesson. So for the first time I think I see my father simply embarrassed by the truth. Ashamed.

He did tell me with some significant detail about the aftermath, though. They sewed the tip back on but it didn’t work. It turned black and smelled horrible within a few days and they had to go back to the surgeon and have it removed, debrided, sewed closed, and packed and bandaged. At sixteen he had to to re-learn how to tie his shoelaces. I spent a lot of time as a kid trying to tie my shoelaces without using my thumbs in case I too were to lose one of mine in an axe accident. To this day I tie my shoelaces without my thumbs, even though they both work fine. I have not had a lot of experiences with axes, mind you, so the risk has been very low.

The next time I see the revolver we are both somewhat older. He has it out on the bench again, the same bench, the same towels, but a new TV. He has reading glasses on. I’m not certain now that I lived there still — I may have been visiting shortly after moving out with my girlfriend and if so then I have brought over my new pellet gun, a .177 calibre revolver that takes six pellets at a time. I am disappointed with my purchase but it’s fine. It’s not what I really want and it’s mostly plastic and feels cheap, but dad grins his perfect false teeth grin when he sees it and gets some cheap sodas out of the fridge. He also gets me a beer, one of the ones I’ve brought over. He’s very generous with this — it would be a while before I realize that all he really wanted was a Miller or, to celebrate, a Heineken. My twee choices of stouts and cream ales could not possibly have impressed him but he says nothing about it, just drinks it with me, and thanks me for it. There’s a hint, though, that I’ve embarrassed myself a little: he calls me “young man”.

We set up the soda cans on a patio table in a makeshift range and shake them up. Then shoot them with the little pellet gun. They rupture hilariously, jets of cheap soday sprawling all over. My mother will be unimpressed with the waste, but neither of us see this as waste. This is just the price of fun, maybe 35 cents a shot, and it’s cheap. Neither of us, I realize, are having a lot of fun these days and this bright spot is worth a few dollars.

We don’t shoot that long, not like the old days when we would shoot for hours. We just kill a few cans and then laugh and put the air pistol away. I am so disappointed with it that I’m not sure I even bring it home with me (and if I did I never got it out again; it became one of those things that moves from home to home at the bottom of a box until one day you throw the box out). He gets out a couple more beers and brings the little .32 down from the cupboard.

“God, you still have that.”

“Mhm”. He unwraps the towel and starts taking the pistol apart. He puts the barrel in the bench vise and bends it over with a hammer.

I raise an eyebrow and drink my beer as he carefully does the exact opposite of what he’s programmed to do with a machine: he wrecks every single piece so it can never go back together. It’s not violent, he’s not in a rage. It’s quiet, efficient, deliberate, and calm. It’s purposeful. Each piece of the trigger group gets bent over. The hammer spring is bent backwards. The pin that holds the cylinder in place is bent over.

He can’t figure out how to wreck the cylinder. It’s too short to get any leverage on — it won’t bend. He wraps all the pieces in the towel and tapes it up with black electrician’s tape and throws that on the top of the trash.

“Why now?”

He looks at me and drags on his Player’s Filtered. “Just time.”

I look at him for a while. “Okay.”

We never talk about the revolver again. Within the year they have sold the place I grew up, the place where we shot cans and yucca plants, the place my uncles exposed themselves, the place with the cherry tree and the shitty tree fort, the place I buried a treasure trove of comic books and army men, the place we boiled stolen crabs in oil drums, the place I burned my heel stepping on a live coal, the place the bamboo spread its roots across the lawn, poking up spear-like shoots where we played. The place I got stung trying to kill a bee with a football. The place I found the thumbnail-sized green frog. The place with the pear tree. The place my father partially built, covered in blood from saw bites. The place with the French doors.

The place the revolver last sat intact, potent, exactly where I knew it was.

Their new place is strangely dead, holding no memories. The fireplace is electric. There’s no space in the back to shoot. My mother hires a gardener. My father owns only one car, and it’s not cheap.

The fridge in the “work shop” is enormous and the television is much, much better. I hardly visit at all any more.

revolver (part 5)

(Part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4 for the tardy)

The revolver makes only two more appearances in my memory.

The first is at some indeterminate time later. I’m visiting my father in his work shed which has our old orange black & white television in it. My father has his work light on and is working on something at the bench. There are those strange work space towels, almost cloth but actually paper, that were only ever in these kinds of places. I have no idea where you get these because I am not a handy man but they seem super useful. They are always a pale green or a pale blue for some reason. They are one of the Secrets that real men keep, part of a club I was never really invited to and never tried to sneak in. It smells of cigarettes and oil and my father is smiling as he works.

“Hey,” I say. Even at this young age I am a brilliant conversationalist.

“Hey old man.” says my father. Sometimes he calls me “old man” and sometimes he calls me “young man”. I once asked him why he did that, why he switched between the two. “Sometimes you seem like an old man,” he said. “Sometimes you seem like a young man.”

I’m bored and thinking about building rockets or shooting my pellet gun or something. Anything. Our bicycles hang from the ceiling on my left. Maybe I’ll ride my bike.

“Whatcha working on?” I ask.

He pats the stool beside him. “Come have a look.”

I do. Arrayed on the Real Man work space towels are all of the parts of the little silver revolver pulled from my grandmother’s wall. It’s small, almost a toy, but there is something densely real about it. It would not be mistaken for a toy. It was a little .32 rimfire revolver I’d guess now and that would make it pretty illegal even at the time — a prohibited weapon. My father had no license for owning even restricted weapons (like a more typical handgun) and pretty much no one gets a license for a prohibited weapon. At this time, though, I don’t know how illegal this tiny gun is but I do know it’s illegal. I know we don’t have the paperwork to own it. It shouldn’t be here. It shouldn’t exist at all really.

“Is that the gun from grandma’s?” I ask.

He nods. “Yup.”

“Cleaning it up?”

“Yup.”

This is what he does with anything mechanical. I realize that this is built into his brain like wiring: he has a machine, he takes it apart, cleans everything, polishes what needs polishing, fixes what’s broken, and puts it all back together. Put any machine in his hands and this is what he will do with it. At this age I’m starting to wish I was like that too — I like machines, mechanical ones, and some of them fascinate me but anything I take apart is ruined forever. I don’t have the gift he does. But I recognize how autonomic this behaviour is because my next question, the rational next question, is not “why?”

The pistol is in suprisingly few shiny pieces on the table. It has a strange potential for danger. A kind of energy is stored in it. It could change from an array of parts to something lethal, genuinely lethal, not like a pellet gun. I sense the philosophical weight of it. I have no desire to touch it. My father begins to reassemble it.

“What’ll you do with it?”

He takes his cigarette from the old gold glass ashtray, and draws on it. It’s a Player’s Filtered like it always is.

“Put it away,” he says around his cigarette. He indicates the big cupboard that stores all of the fasteners and things over the work space. “Up there.”

“Will we shoot it one day?”

“Nope.”

I’m fine with that and he seems to know that. There are so many more questions, we both know, but I don’t ask any of them.

“Want a beer old man?”

I’m fourteen. This might be my first beer but I doubt it. “Yeah.”

“What’s your brand?”

“Miller’s”. At this time in our lives that’s usually all that’s in the fridge I know, the gold cans of Miller’s. So that’s kind of a joke. But there are also special occasion beers and he pulls out a couple of Heinekens, pops the caps off with the bottle opener nailed to the work bench, and hands me one.

I drink the special occasion beer, enjoying the exotic skunkiness of it that the usual beers don’t have. The green glass and tall neck at a time when beer comes either in cans or brown stubbies.

We drink our beer and watch TV and dad puts the revolver together, wraps it in clean Real Man towels and puts it in the cupboard. At no time does he ever hold it like one holds a gun. It goes on the top shelf, a little out of sight. This is clearly so my little sister doesn’t get at it because I can reach it there and he knows it and he makes no attempt to hide it from me. He trusts me today.

The next day I go back to check that the revolver is still there. It is. I am a little embarrassed that I tested my father’s trust, that there was any doubt in my mind that it would be there. I feel like I stained something otherwise perfect.

I don’t touch it. I get my bike down from the ceiling hooks.

revolver (part 4)

You might be arriving late, in which case start at part 1. Here’s part 2 and part 3 as well.

We arrive at my grandmother’s house. I have mostly fond memories of this place since it’s where Christmas dinner often happened and when lots of people cook for lots of people the meals are usually pretty wonderful. At the very least you know there’s going to be some diversity.

There’s the fridge where the Grey Cup pool matrix goes when we’re there to watch the Grey Cup. That’s a pretty big deal.

There’s the dining room with its stand up piano that at least one member of the extended family plays well when suitably lubricated (and then shortly after that can’t play much at all). This is where the Christmas dinner happens when it happens and there’s dark fruitcake, a classic English pudding really, with coins wrapped in wax paper baked into it. It’s served with a sauce that everyone makes ecstatic noises over but that no one ever actually tries to replicate outside of my grandmother’s. It’s not that good, just sort of whipping cream incompletely whipped with brown sugar. But it seems to excite everyone and when it’s being made the brothers and sisters fight over who gets to lick the spoon. It has the tone of a ritual. But today there’s no Christmas pudding and no special sauce.

Stairs lead up from the dining room to the attic rooms that were built for the youngest daughter. They are the coolest rooms, covered in dayglow posters. Black light bulbs are in the sockets. The record collection is great and you can step out of the window onto the roof. It’s kind of a dream room for a young kid and I spend a lot of time up there over the years.

In the living room there are ashtrays everywhere. Big ones like we all had in the 70s. Murder weapon quality ashtrays. They are bigger than the candy dishes which, around Christmas anyway, contain ancient fused ribbon candy and humbugs, hard candy that has endured several years I’m sure. Occasionally the candy bowl has fresh candy but you only get excited about that once. It’s not as good as it is colourful.

There’s a nice recliner but that’s for Grandad Hopping, an ancient and uncommunicative old man and I can never remember just who’s father he is. He’s great at cribbage and the brothers play against him consecutively, often losing. He paints strange landscapes based on PBS painting show instructions and he’s actually pretty wonderful. He has a cane with a rubber snake nailed to it and I think it’s this visit that he gets a new cane and one of the brothers sets to work nailing a new rubber snake to it. I’m reasonably sure old Grandad has Seen Some Shit, maybe knifed some Germans during one of the wars. He’s unreadable, really. When he gets up to go to his room he lets out a ripping fart for the entire trip and it’s not clear that he knows it’s happening. I see his face though. He knows.

He could be anyone really. His persona in his old age implies nothing about his youth.

The wall between the kitchen and the living room is coming down or the doorway opened or something. I’m not clear on what the renovation is and I’m busy trying to find something to be busy with since nothing here is really for me. There’s a first generation Atari game machine but I’m already bored of Tank and Pong and Space Invaders. There’s a shelf full of Reader’s Digest version of various famous novels, all attractively bound, a showcase of literature. I’m uninterested. They are all practically brand new even though they’ve been there since I was old enough to look at them. I’m already snooty enough to sniff at an abridged version of anything even though I’ve never read the full version of any of them. At this stage in my life it’s pretty much Arthur C. Clarke or nothing.

I probably play around the house outside, picking the brightly coloured crystals out of the strange dangerous stucco that was popular at the time. It’s like a cake that’s way too old to eat, hard white icing and tooth shattering sprinkles. It’s very strange to me now that this was not strange to me then: what an absurd way to decorate a house. But as a kid I guess you’re still collecting things to make a guess at normal and so this is normal. This is the only memory I have of my sister at this location, both of us ruining the house’s stucco. Is that strange? She’s only three years younger than me so she must have been there most of these visits, and we would usually be the only kids so we’d be playing together. But I have nothing in my head there at all that relates to her. It would probably be forty years before I connect with my sister properly: something was (almost) permanently broken then.

I come back into the kitchen just as they are pulling the gyproc off the frame behind the stove. And in the wall is a small silver revolver packed in with newspaper. No one says a thing. I want to say that one of my father’s eyebrows goes up, like Spock, to perfectly punctuate this scene, but honestly I don’t remember anything except the revolver because that’s what I stared at. The gun in the wall.

Someone may have said, “Huh.” but I’m suspicious of that because it’s a pretty good scene closer as well.

We drive home in silence. I have no idea what the gun was about or where it is now. Dad puts an 8-track in the machine under the passenger seat. “Born On the Bayou” starts in the middle.

By the time we pull up to the car port at home it’s dark and we’re all singing along with Jim Croce, who’s already dead.

revolver (part 3)

Here’s part 1 and part 2.

So let’s circle all the way back. We’re on our way to a family handyman event. I’m looking forward to this since they always turn out well (partially, as I would understand only much later, because the whole family were alcoholics).

Once my father asked his brothers to come help fix the roof. It needed the shingles replaced. Again some of this I would only really understand later, but here’s what happened at the time.

So several brothers and their wives show up to help re-shingle the roof. And my aunt on my mother’s side (Robin, who this is not about, but maybe one day I’ll write at length about her) and her husband. All the guys are on the roof in cut-off jeans and mostly shirtless because it’s summer and it’s hot. I am allowed to come up on the roof which I am never ever allowed to do, so I do that a bit but mostly I’m in the way and I stop going up there except to bring up drinks and bring down empties.

The shingling is going well — I think we’ve established the sort of flawed perfectionist my father is — but less than a third of the way through we’re out of shingles. This is of course impossible. Well it turns out someone read the instructions wrong and the shingles have been going on a third from the top instead of a third from the bottom of the last row. We are putting on three times more shingles than we need to and we’re almost third done. So as my father reads it there are two solutions: we can tear up all the shingles and throw them out since he’s not putting up new shingles with holes in them and go buy one more load of shingles. Or he can go buy two more loads of shingles and have a triple shingled house. I’m pretty sure you can guess which choice he made. Besides, we’re all having a great time and the neighbour is cute and sunbathing in her back yard, well aware of the audience on our roof. My uncles are largely beautiful men, half naked, sweating in the sun.

Now there are two parties here — there’s the roofers who are working hard and drinking and laughing and there are the non-roofers, mostly the wives and kids, who are not working hard but are laughing and drinking and shouting a good deal of encouragement. And enjoying the sight of these lovely men.

I don’t know who said it or exactly what they said (there are varying accounts) but someone in the backyard party demands that the boys drop their pants.

This is captured on film. There is a photograph somewhere (labelled “The Murrays of Atholl” which we are) of the brothers dropping their cut-off shorts to revealed their sculpted asses. Their personalities are captured by how far down the shorts are — by how fast they respond to this request. At least one has pants around ankles long before the camera gets the shot. The highest, slowest is at the knees and on the way down. Honestly I suspect a hearing problem more than modesty. And Robin’s husband, the other side of the family is standing there, pants intact, staring baffled. This was my family and I love the memories I have of them. Later I would realize that our neighbour got the other half of that view. I never liked her.

The other major family renovation party I recall involved a tree removal. One of my uncles had proudly announced that he had a new toy — a cordless electric chainsaw. This was pretty novel at this time, probably late 70s or early 80s. And my father had a tree he wanted removed. Or rather I think he invented the problem — on hearing about the chainsaw he thought about what tree he could afford to lose. A party was scheduled.

The tree came down early in the day and was chopped up and set out to dry for firewood. The chainsaw was an awesome toy. The records came out (likely Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Bayou Country” — a record that will forever call up images of my father) and so did the beer. By evening everyone was full of dinner and dessert and a good deal of liquor and my mother is talking home decorating with her sisters-in-law. “I often thought about knocking out that wall,” she points, “and putting in French doors to open that room up to the living room.”

My uncle’s eyes light up and he looks at my father. They grin. They go get the chainsaw.

This is the first time I think my father is not functioning properly because it’s crafting but it’s careless. They can’t find a tape measure so the measure so they pick a cutting point on one side, mark it, and measure the distance from wall to cutting point with their arm and walk it around to the other side and mark. You might be out by an inch this way but that’s fine, they are just going to cut to the nearest stud anyway. No big deal.

But the wall on one side is where the front door is and it’s about four inches deeper than on the other side, so the first cut is into the electrical box behind the light switch.

This is exciting but non fatal. There are sparks but no fire. There is a lot of laughing and some shrieking from the front room. The realize their error, re-align, and cut a ten foot wide hole from floor to ceiling in our living room. Now, my father says, I guess we have to put those French doors in. I think he always felt that a project started had to be finished and the only thing stopping him was the starting. And he was right — once you put a giant hole in the wall you need to fix it. Before the hole you don’t have to do anything no matter how badly mom wants French doors.

revolver (part 2)

Here late? Here’s part 1.

I’m not sure how best to present this part as there are chickens and eggs, but let’s start by saying my father was a profoundly gentle man. He didn’t want us doing anything dangerous and certainly nothing violent. He didn’t watch boxing or wrestling and he didn’t want us doing it. He wouldn’t stop us if we were keen but he definitely disapproved. Maybe gentle isn’t quite right: he was a peaceful man. I never heard about him fighting anyone ever. I suspect there was a pathology here — that he was so peaceful, so gentle, that it was almost a neurosis. He seemed, in retrospect, terrified that any harm would come to anyone he loved.

But under his bed was a .22 bolt action rifle and it fascinated me.

And in his clothes drawer was ammunition and that fascinated me as well.

And he had a .22 calibre CO2 air pistol and we sometimes shot targets with that. And that fascinated me too.

The rifle was taboo — we talked about it exactly once and he never shot it in my presence. I doubt he shot it at all after I was born. It was a burden, something that he just didn’t really know how to get rid of properly. So it stayed under the bed. It was not discussed. It just…existed there.

Except when I took it out.

You can’t really do that to a kid — you can’t declare something fascinating is just off limits and we will never talk about it again and certainly never look at it or handle it or use it. This pretty much guarantees that a kid (well, me, anyway) is going to get that rifle out while you’re not in the house. I’m pretty sure that if we regularly used the rifle that’s not what would have happened. It would have been de-mystified.

So I used to take out the rifle and work the action on it. I would try to understand how all the parts worked together to load and fire the bullets. I would point it (in a safe direction — I wasn’t a stupid child; fact is I probably handled it more safely than father ever did) and pull the bolt back. Tip it up and push it forward. Dry fire it. That didn’t stay satisfying though, so eventually I took some of the ammunition out.

This is probably not going where you imagine. First of all, there’s only so much ammunition you can steal from a not quite full box before you can’t really steal any more without being found out. So this was not going to happen a lot. Second, as I said before, I was not a stupid child. I was not going to fire a live .22 cartridge. But I really wanted to see the whole action at work. I wanted to load it and have the bolt allow a cartridge to pop up and slide into the chamber. I wanted the bolt to extract the cartridge and eject it. I want to operate the machine. I would love to have shot it but honestly that wasn’t the compulsion. The compulsion was to operate it.

So I stole a handful of cartridges and took them out to the shed. There I put them in my father’s bench vise and pulled off the bullets with pliers and emptied the gunpowder out (and I kept that because gunpowder wasn’t what I thought it was — it wasn’t powder, for starters) and then tapped the bullet back in to the cartridge. Now I knew there was still a primer there (I had done some research) but I was pretty sure it didn’t have the power to pop the bullet off a cartridge that had no gunpowder in it. So I took my empty cartridges (and my gunpowder) and I loaded the rifle and worked the action. It was unsatisfying — the cartridges never slipped out of the magazine properly, never chambered properly, never ejected properly. Something was wrong with the machine or the operator. I was done with the rifle.

I set the gunpowder on fire in the back yard. That was the most satisfying part of the crime.

As far as I know my father never found out and I don’t know what happened to the rifle. I never sought it out again.

It was a long time before I thought about this rifle in terms of failings of my father because he’s always been heroic in my mind, but he had a rifle he didn’t want and yet he never did the work to get rid of it. It wasn’t illegal — a .22 bolt action rifle was and is an unrestricted firearm in Canada and at most he’d have to register it. I suspect he fell into the same trap I fall into sometimes — a deadline came and went and I didn’t do the thing and it became easier to just lock the evidence away somewhere you can’t see it and forget about it. But this meant that there was a functioning unlocked firearm (stored near accessible ammunition) in a house with kids. And we all knew it was there. It’s a strange thing for my heroic vision of my father to do. In fact it’s far worse than strange. It’s completely inconsistent. But it happened and so that’s when that image first started to tarnish. Not too badly though — I recognize his failing as one of my own. How can I not forgive it?

So that’s the rifle and the ammunition. It never became dramatic, it just quietly went away one day. The air pistol, though, that we shot together. It took CO2 cartridges and big fat lead .22 pellets and did wonderful damage to tin cans and paper targets and 1:72 scale airplanes and tanks. It put neat holes in yucca plants that we would claim never happened. When pressed we would agree that the other did it. I doubt my mother was satisfied but boys will be boys.

I never took this gun out without permission. It was interesting to operate but being a single-shot pistol it was not very complicated. It was interesting but not fascinating. It felt great in the hand though.

Eventually he would buy me my own air rifle, a break-barrel piston job in .177 calibre. Not powerful, no CO2 cartridges, not fascinating. But fun. We shot a lot of stuff we shouldn’t have and laughed a lot.

But there was a rule and one I never questioned: we never shot anything that looked like a person. No silhouettes, no pictures, nothing like that. Ever. And that’s stuck with me; I have a powerful aversion to shooting anything but bulls-eye targets and soda cans. I despise that guns have ever become about “self-defense” because this is a lie. We all know this is not why we like guns. We like them because they are fun. My father had made this peace: it’s fun, now how can we keep it fun (that is, safe) and his solution was to stick with air guns and treat even those with tremendous respect. But still have a great time shooting mom’s yucca plant. I wish we could hate guns as weapons and still have a great time with them because they are fun. But the lie has cast a shadow over the fun, made us think about guns in terms of murder instead of fun. So we both hated them. And loved them.

And so that was our relationship with guns. After a while I would develop a fascination for auto-loading handguns. I would buy accurate models of them, and tinker with them, disassemble them, assemble them, operate them. But he never went there with me. He was not fascinated. I think now that he was instead terrified but I have no idea why. There was a lot of fear in my father and I don’t think it was for himself.

revolver (part 1)

Part 1 of some number of parts.

When I was in my late teens my father drove the family to my grandmother’s house because there was some maintenance work that needed doing and this was how my father’s side of the family operated. Some significant subset of the brothers and sisters (there were five brothers and two sisters in all) would heed the call, gather their favourite tools, and rush to the location that needed work. Then they would proceed to get moderately drunk and get the job done. Roofing, plumbing, drywall, hell even erecting a whole new addition to a home. If there was a reason for tools, they would congregate and use them. This and crab theft were the biggest reasons to gather that I can recall now. Oh and holidays. But mostly tools and crab theft.

At least this is the way I remember it now. In reality perhaps things were more pedestrian than that, more usual, but that’s not what stands out and it’s not how I choose to remember my father. So it’s not how I’m going to remember him to you. So for now we’ll stick to family handyman gatherings and work-related crab theft. And his oh-so-gentle drunkenness.

I didn’t know my father was a drunk until after he died. It was only then that my mother would talk really freely about it, about how the time he spent tinkering in the shed or the car port was not really tinkering. It was just getting slowly shitfaced in front of a tiny black and white television. There were lots of tools in those spaces and many projects, most of which got done. But they didn’t need all that time. Getting properly tanked up on beer took the time. As I say, though, I never knew. Never even suspected. He was such a quiet, gentle drunk. He never hit me, never abused anyone that I know of, never so much as raised a slurred voice. In fact I can’t even recall a slurred voice or a stagger. His drunkenness was, I suppose, a private one.

And his projects were real. He usually had a car brand he loved for a while and he’d buy several of them. Cheap, shitty cars that amused him in some way. Cars he could afford to have several of so he could take at least one apart to clean every single piece. Polish it, replace or repair what was broken, paint it, and put it all back together. I bet you never drove around in an Austin Mini with the engine painted bright yellow, but I did. Well, I never drove it. This is perhaps the way I disappointed my father, never learning to drive, but maybe not. He seemed to respect the choices I made that made me distinct from him. I’m sure I’m inventing it, but I will choose to believe this was a thing he loved about me.

And I imagine that at first the projects were indeed what the time in the shed was all about. That the objective was to go and finish that model airplane or re-assemble the neighbour’s lawnmower engine, or restore that blowtorch he found in his mother’s tool shed, and the fridge full of beer was just there in the work shed as well as the project. It strikes me as an easy priority shift to have happen to you, to eventually head out to the shed for a dozen beers while telling yourself that you need to finish that model boat your son gave you. In your thirties it was about the boat but somewhere before fifty it was about the beer.

Certainly he never did finish that boat, but let’s use that particular project (since it was later in his life) to understand what kind of a drunk my father was. This was an all wood sailboat model, about three feet long (and we’ll use imperial measures here only because this is part of setting this mood about my father — when you eulogize my drunkenness you should use metric). It was so detailed the to make the hull you had individual wooden planks that you had to steam and bend and then nail into place with tiny brass nails. This is a lot of detailed work and anyone would be excused for leaving it incomplete.

But the last time I saw that model boat, after years of “work” in the shed, all that had been complete was the hull. No work on the deck, the superstructure, the mast, the sail, the rigging. Just the hull. But he had bent all of these individual tiny planks and nailed in every single tiny brass nail. Imagine the look of all that magnificent detail, none of it cheated, all of it real.

But you have to imagine it (as I have to imagine it) because he then sealed and sanded and painted the hull. It was perfectly smooth, a shining black surface without a single blemish. It represented hundreds of hours of sanding and painting and sanding and repainting and buffing. Hundreds of hours of laborious, tedious, perfectionist work that would all undo the evidence of the other hundreds of hours of labour. My father, as you might guess, did not care what you thought of him much. He didn’t need to leave evidence of that labour. He only left incomplete perfections and never complete imperfections. I suppose he was more interested in the journey than the destination.

When my father bought a pick-up truck in the 70s, an old powder blue monstrosity, the first thing he did with it was drive to my elementary school and take me and my sister out of class. He piled us in the bed of the truck where there were blankets and not much else. My mother waved through the glass from the passenger seat. And we drove for hours (with several breaks) up towards Whistler mountain. At that time Whistler was not a big deal and the route was twisty and only a single shared lane in places. We would pass many “watch for falling rocks” signs and a couple of fallen rocks. We stopped short of Whistler, at Alice Falls, and had a picnic. We played in the stream (clear, green, pebbled bottom, when I remember it I want to drink it). We gathered our trash and drove home.

The journey, you see. An hour at the destination and maybe four on the road. Because he had a new toy. In this way he and I are very similar. The toys took (take) us places and so the need for the toys wasn’t (isn’t) just acquisitiveness. They are launching points. They don’t all launch. That’s fine. They don’t always start journeys that you would recognize as valuable. But we do. Trust us. We know what we’re doing here.

I haven’t entirely lost the thread here. We’re coming back to that trip to my grandmother’s place. The handyman journey. But first there’s another facet of both my father and I that we need to establish.

We both love(d) and hate(d) guns.

[end of part 1]

structure then content

When I design a game one of the things I want to pin down early is structure. A lot of people start with a story to tell and then attempt to realize it. I’m not that person. There might be a kernel of an idea or a theme (like, say, the theme of lost legitimacy in The King Machine) but the detail doesn’t come next. Structure does. The reason for this is that detail eventually demands structure but doesn’t easily imply it. Structure, however, demands and directs detail.

So let’s look at an example here. I started this morning thinking “what happens with occupations?” So you family are all fisherfolk (this is a common fantasy theme for me and I have no idea why — I don’t fish or row boats or make nets) but what does this tell us about you? How would this affect your character? And I don’t want to talk mechanism yet because I don’t know what’s happening with this at all. It could fit into something else, it could be its own game, it could be destined for the bin. Dunno yet.

So as with most things I start with a list. A few minutes and I have:

  • Fisherfolk
  • Merchants
  • Bandits
  • Warriors
  • Leaders
  • Famers
  • Herders
  • Wizards
  • Assassins
  • Entertainers
  • Harvesters
  • Beekeepers
  • Mystics
  • Sailors
  • Shippers
  • Dockworkers
  • Clerks
  • Sages
  • Bakers
  • Engineers

Not exhaustive, not even representative, but enough data to start thinking about structure. And bullets are good because they imply more bullets and indentation: we are already going to have a hierarchical structure and relationships. You could mind map this if you think that way. Same thing, different visuals.

So let’s grab fisherfolk. Since I’ve already decided on a hierarchical structure the question is how to subdivide fisherfolk? There are a million possibilities and each choice will take us in a different (maybe very different direction). I choose to break it down by types of water to fish in. Subdivide and detail:

  • Fisherfolk
    • Coastal — You are familiar with rough water and beaches. You know your way around nets and netmaking. You can swim and you can dive, holding your breath for long periods of time. You take pride in your calloused hands and resilience in bad weather.
    • Deep sea — You can navigate by the stars. You are unafraid but respectful of the large ocean animals, and you know how to catch them. You know your way around boats and can predict the weather.
    • Freshwater — You know the maze of river and lake waters and can find your way between many points on land using these waterways. You know small boats and have one of your own. You can make fish traps and nets and lures. You know the animal life around (and in) lakes and rivers. You are resistant to (or at least ignore) insect stings.

The little blurb of detail invites me to further subdivide but now I’m thinking about re-usability and regularity. While these subdivisions are dependent on the top level item (Fisherfolk) I think I want the next level to be the same for every occupation. I vaguely have fantasy in my head so I decide that each of these should be divided into a Supernatural power and an Expertise (natural but exceptional) power. This way a character can decide a path that’s magical or mundane but still awesome. I’m already wondering how to turn this into a life path system, maybe randomized, maybe point buy, maybe something else. Patterns from other games are intruding.

  • Fisherfolk
    • Coastal — You are familiar with rough water and beaches. You know your way around nets and netmaking. You can swim and you can dive, holding your breath for long periods of time. You take pride in your calloused hands and resilience in bad weather.
      • Supernatural: you can make nets that can catch other, more specialized things. Not necessarily fish.
      • Expertise: you can hold your breath for ridiculous amounts of time and dive very deep indeed.
    • Deep sea — You can navigate by the stars. You are unafraid but respectful of the large ocean animals, and you know how to catch them. You know your way around boats and can predict the weather.
      • Supernatural: you can calm bad weather and control the direction of the wind.
      • Expertise: you have the equipment and skills to lure and catch and kill even the largest things in the ocean.
    • Freshwater — You know the maze of river and lake waters and can find your way between many points on land using these waterways. You know small boats and have one of your own. You can make fish traps and nets and lures. You know the animal life around (and in) lakes and rivers. You are resistant to (or at least ignore) insect stings.
      • Supernatural: there is always a river path to wherever you want to go as long as you start at a river or lake. Or whenever.
      • Expertise: you can befriend any animal come to drink at the shores of lake or river.

I’m just riffing here but a world is emerging. Time travelling river folk. Spirit trappers. Geomancy.

This is the way I work: I invent tools through structure to order data which in turn inspires new data which in turn starts to define an imagined space. It’s not the only way I work and it’s not the best way to work but it does get words on the page.

Now there’s nothing new here — this is just outlining or mind-mapping or whatever the mot du jour is for hierarchical data presentation. But there’s a reason it works. Well, reasons. It organizes and constrains, which creates regularity. And it invites detail. For example, I never planned to have supernatural blacksmiths, but now when I get there I will be inventing them because I made a data structure decision that all of these things have a supernatural and and expertise element. Similarly I never thought about the mundane aspects of wizards, but now I need to.

As for the specifics, a lot of this comes back to world building we did many years ago (and played insufficiently in) with a lizard species that managed to defy their bloodlust (their uncontrollable animal nature to kill and eat mammals and sometimes each other) by taking up fishing. Their bloodlust was satisfied by fish and though they were sickly (fish being insufficient) and unhappy (fish tasting bad) they were able to coordinate with humans and each other long enough to stay literate and build a civilization that could be communicated and reproduced. And have a history. These fishing lizards and their sacrifice to their own future are always in my head.

what is your game about?

When I first seriously considered designing and publishing a game it was in the mid-2000s and the Forge was ascendant for independent designers. It was churning out strange and wonderful games from strange and wonderful people — Vincent Baker had produced Dogs in the Vineyard, Paul Czege had made My Life With Master and Nicotine Girls. I and the authors knew what these games were about since they were built with great deliberation and starting with that knowledge. I didn’t really understand what these games were for, though. Not at the time.

(I hold no malice towards any of these people. What I will describe is not about a person but rather about a culture. Many of these folks made great games and would go on to make even greater games. I respect most if not all of them. I have learned a great deal from them. I still like you.)

Still, I very much wanted to be a part of this group, to have my work taken seriously. When I tried to engage, however, I encountered several obstacles.

First, a lot of discussion was around the Forge’s sacred texts, the essays of Ron Edwards. The relevance of these has since been minimized by most parties but at the time they were important enough to both be adhered to and yet also be debated. I read them and found them interesting where they were penetrable. At the core they implied you should be deliberate: understand what you want to do and then set all design effort towards doing that. This is pretty good advice. Be deliberate. In the details it got more contentious.

comm 9
This is actually one of my own diagrams.

Second, the group was entrenched. There was a core group who did the bulk of the interpretation and many wrote elliptically (echoing the style of the texts) rather than plainly, alluding and planting metaphors. They used diagrams that buried meaning under a layer of more coded language, obfuscating rather than clarifying. The core group, the ones that had been there forever and helped established the culture, nodded and winked in understanding. From the outside it was less explicable but not nonsense — you just found that lacking a few years of immersion in that culture that you didn’t know the language. You were a foreign visitor with limited language skills and the locals weren’t really interested in teaching it to you. As with any local, they may not have been aware that their dialect was unusual.

Finally, the group had a gate that was well kept.

When approached to consider a new game idea, they would (almost in unison) ask: what is your game about?

img_0259
Because laser.

On the surface this sounds like a deep question. And it is! But it’s also a way to guard the gate. The question, see, determines whether or not you embrace a top-down design methodology. And it does so unquestioningly, disregarding any other methodologies. If you couldn’t answer this then you couldn’t make a “coherent” game, which was the holy grail of the sacred texts. I’m not actually against this: I think coherence (as in tight focus, like a laser, not as in comprehensibility — people get hung up on this word unnecessarily) is a very desirable trait in a game, though perhaps I came to understand it in a more general sense than it was intended at the Forge.

I would use this question afterwards as well but that was a mistake. If I “helped” you with this phrase and you found it demoralizing, I apologize. It would be a while before I would realize what it does.

Knowing what your game is about before you design is part of a top-down design process: you decide and define what you want to accomplish (your requirements) and then you start designing mechanisms that all further that goal. You start with your intention and you develop your realization, drilling down into greater detail as you go. You develop mechanisms that serve your purpose.

This is a really good way to design things (especially very large and complex things). It’s not a bad thing to teach this methodology and expand on it.

But when I was asked that question and couldn’t answer, I felt rejected. Like I couldn’t answer what my favourite colour was at the rope bridge of doom. The gate was shut (and it doesn’t matter if this was the intent — this was what happened regardless of the intent). And so I bounced off the Forge and while I made some effort to understand it, I was never welcome and I never performed the necessary genuflection to be accepted. I could mouth the words but I didn’t believe.

That’s because there are other ways to design. There really are. You can start with a cool setting idea and start planting mechanisms in it that you dig and slowly assemble a game. And then refine it. Along the way you may well discover what the game is “about” and at that point you can continue to refine it, gradually focusing it on the target. Coherence does not only emerge from one design methodology. I often wonder if that metaphor can be pushed further — it seems like the top-down Forge methodology produced great accuracy: the games hit the nail on the head when they work (I had so many play well one night and fall flat the next). They did what they were supposed to do, usually. By contrast, other methodologies may be better at precision: whatever they do, they do it reliably again and again.

Anyway, I always felt rejected by the Forge. In point of fact I bounced off the gate so hard that it would be wrong to say they rejected me — you have to have some kind of deliberation, some assessment in order to reject. I was never given enough attention to reject. I just ricocheted.

now it’s personal

Okay brace yourself because this isn’t going to be about science or about gaming.

Queen_The_Game
The sharp reader will note that I was 15 when this came out. It’s not an album from that summer but there were a couple of summers.

I fell in love for the first time forty years ago. It was summer and I was 14 and I met a girl a grade ahead of me (to be fair I already knew her, but I fell for her that year) and we spent the whole summer together. Shopping, talking, listening to music, and making out. It was a sexual awakening with no sex and it shaped my life forever. Kelly’s still out there and we still talk and she’s still on my mind. Chatting with her tonight I had a bit of a revelation about that and about exactly how it impacted me.

Ever after I lost partners (well one, anyway) because I wasn’t interested in sex. Well, that’s not quite right. I was interested but I also wanted my romance to be that same clunky romance I had at 14: I loved kissing and knowing it was not going (much) further. I wanted that to happen forever. And it doesn’t — I had an intuition that sex would change everything and I was right but I put it off for as long as possible. I wanted adolescent fumbling for as long as I could get away with it.

We would normally say “she broke my heart” but I think it’s unfair to put that on Kelly. She didn’t break my heart. We wanted different things and what I wanted was her and so I broke my heart and frankly it was a … great feeling? Not that. It was awful, it was agonizing, it was tear-my-hair out horrible but there is also a certain joy in that heartache. When you feel so much so hard and it’s all about you, all about your pain, about your loss, it’s kind of addictive. And, I think, extraordinarily selfish after a certain point. You’re allowed your pain but it’s a little weird to cling to it.

And I think for a long time afterwards that was my model for romance: infatuation and heartache. And kissing. Those were basically my romantic goals for what seems like decades but was in fact only one (at most). Why does the short time in our youth seem so expansive and the later years tick by like seconds? It feels like I spent almost all my life between 14 and 24, pursuing heartache.

elvis_costello_the_attractions_-_this_year_s_model_base
Oh Elvis. You’re so broken but you spoke to my own broken.

My musical tastes tracked this (this was the thing I realized while chatting with Kelly this evening). Before that summer I listened to the Beatles and Queen and I can’t even remember what else. Afterwards I moved to early David Bowie and then Elvis Costello. Elvis was lyrically in the same space I was — clearly in love with his angst, with his heartache, with his bitterness. And he made it angry, which was kind of vindicating. It would be many years before I could see the degree of selfishness needed to make a heartache all about yourself. Enough to be angry rather than just sad. So it resonated — it was how I felt and the message was that I could keep that pain for as long as I liked. And I liked it.

The_Cure_-_The_Top
Around the time I found the Cure I was spending my angst dancing. A lot. Not necessarily with anyone.

I wasn’t unhappy, mind you. Just in constant pursuit of heartache. I wanted that summer back, the strongest feelings in that summer, and one of those was the heartache. I still kind of love it. It’s not very different from falling in love. The ending and the start have the same clutch and pull. Being in love for me was a constant joyous terror that it was all going to end at any point. Is that a kind of masochism or does everyone feel that? Well if it’s unusual then clearly that summer was a defining moment for me, because that pain still brings a kind of joy. I like to feel hard. I cry at a well-crafted commercial. I’m cool with that.

Tom_Waits-Heartattack_and_Vine
Tom Waits was part of my recovery period. I wasn’t craving the heartache any more. I was enjoying a deeply flawed stability.

I won’t go through the relationships up until now. There was a pattern and then there wasn’t. I hurt some people and yet I loved every one of them dearly. I wanted each relationship to last forever unchanged and I wallowed in each ending. I fell in love with people who didn’t even like me, possibly so I could skip straight to the heartache. It was a strange decade. I behaved badly but, at least, earnestly. If I could find all those people I’d apologize but finding people who are now in their 50s is surprisingly difficult. And stalkery. So I’m sorry. You know who you are.

I put a paragraph in there about music because this period of my life has a soundtrack and it’s important: the music triggers the feelings. If I’d figured this out earlier I could have just replayed one heartache over and over with a song or an album or an artist instead of inventing impossible relationships to agonize over. And maybe I still do that to some extent. Maybe we all do.

There is no gaming content here and no rocketry. I contain multitudes, as they say. You get all of it. I can’t pick and choose what I write.

Well, I choose not to anyway.

ray tracing

When I was just a scamp in my 20s I used to ray trace high resolution (320×200) 24-bit colour depth images on my 286. Don’t panic, I had a 8087 math coprocessor in there so it went super fast. A day or two per image.

Now you might very reasonably wonder what renderer you could get in those dark days in the 80s. What sort of interface would you have available? Surely Blender wasn’t around yet, right? AutoCAD 3D maybe?

In those days we cranked out images with POVRay.

POVRay is what is known as a “constructive solid geometry modeller”. Whereas these days (and even a lot of those days) we render meshes of triangles and use a surface normal function to fake the reflection of light rays into curves (yes, a modern rendered sphere is actually a mult-faceted gem and the renderer lies to you about its smoothness), a constructive solid geometry (CSG from now on) modeller uses primitives like spheres, cones, cylinders, boxes, and toruses that are described by their analog functions. So no impure faceted surfaces (unless you want them). Your light ray returns are pure. You are not being lied to.

The difference to the eye of course is uninteresting. But there’s a lot of joy in purity for some nerds, like me. Hell when gaming I don’t even like the d10 because it’s not a Platonic solid.

But what can you do with such appropriately named “primitives”?

Just about anything, as it turns out (though partially because one of your primitives is a bicubic patch but that’s for another time). The reason you can do plenty is because of the “constructive” part. If you know set theory you probably know what’s coming. Because in addition to placing cubes all over the place, you can perform constructive operations on them.

So, for example, you can take the intersection of two objects — what’s left and therefore rendered is the volume that exists only in both shapes. Or the difference: take a sphere and cut chunks out of it with boxes and cylinders. Or the union of course, just gluing them together. With these functions you can do an enormous amount of work before you even get to the tricks of texturing and colouring and finishing. Here’s what I’m working on right now with what is really the same POVRay I used in 1988.

asymptote small
That Jupiter image is a JPL image enhanced by the amazing Sèan Doran. I licensed it from him for use in Diaspora Anabasis a while ago and it sits nicely here. The ship is from our current Diaspora game — that’s the Cinderella.

That’s still a work in progress, as I say, but largely complete. Just needs some work on lighting and colouring.

But what, you ask, does the interface look like? Is it at least better than Blender?

Well hell yes it is. While there are third party interfaces that glue on to POVRay (which is super easy as you’ll see in a sec), the input into POVRay is a descriptive language. Like my other love, PostScript, POVRay uses a scene description language: you just type your description of the scene into a text file and then drive the renderer over it. Your image falls out the bottom.

That “just” is a little flippant. Here’s the code for the crew module of that ship:

#declare cabin_xlate = -25;


	  merge {
	  	
	     difference {
	       sphere { <0, 0, 0>, 2 scale <2,1,1> translate <cabin_xlate,0,0> }
	       cylinder { <-28,1,1>, <-24,1,1>, 0.3 }
	       cylinder { <-28,-1,1>, <-24,-1,1>, 0.3 }
	       cylinder { <-28,1,-1>, <-24,1,-1>, 0.3 }
	       cylinder { <-28,-1,-1>, <-24,-1,-1>, 0.3 }
	       
	       box { <-23,10,10> <-23.1,-10,-10> }
	       box { <-25,10,10> <-25.2,-10,-10> }
	       box { <-28.5,10,10> <-28.6,-10,-10> }
	     }
	
		difference {
			sphere { <0, 0, 0>, 1.95 scale <2,1,1> translate <cabin_xlate,0,0> }
			cylinder { <-28,1,1>, <-21,1,1>, 0.3 }
	       	cylinder { <-28,-1,1>, <-21,-1,1>, 0.3 }
	       	cylinder { <-28,1,-1>, <-21,1,-1>, 0.3 }
	       	cylinder { <-28,-1,-1>, <-21,-1,-1>, 0.3 }
	       
			texture {
				pigment { Black }
			}
		}
	
		object { plate translate <cabin_xlate,0,0>}
		object { plate rotate <90,0,0> translate <cabin_xlate,0,0>}
		object { ring translate <cabin_xlate,0,0>}
		
	     cylinder { <-25,0,0>, <-24.8,0,0> 2 }
	     cylinder { <-24,0,0>, <-23.8,0,0> 2 }
	     #declare store_texture = texture {
	     			normal { ripples 1 scale 0.2 }
				pigment { color rgb <0.2,0.15,0.1> }
	     			finish {
	     				ambient 0
	     				diffuse 0.2
	     			}
	     		}
	     	#declare fasten_texture = texture {
	     		 pigment { color rgb <.2,.2,.2> } 
	     		 finish {
	     		 	specular 0.8 roughness 0.001
	     		 	reflection { 0.4 metallic }
	     		 }
	     	}	
	     	merge {
	     		sphere { <-20, 0, 1>, 1 texture {store_texture} }
	     		torus { 1, 0.1 translate <-20,0,1> texture {fasten_texture } }
	     		torus { 1, 0.1 translate <-20,0,1> rotate <90,0,0> texture {fasten_texture } }
	     		}
				merge {
	     		sphere { <-20, 0, -1>, 1 texture {store_texture} }
	     		torus { 1, 0.1 translate <-20,0,-1> texture {fasten_texture } }
	     		torus { 1, 0.1 translate <-20,0,-1> rotate <90,0,0> texture {fasten_texture } }
	     		}

				merge {
	     		sphere { <-20, 1, 0>, 1 texture {store_texture} }
	     		torus { 1, 0.1 translate <-20,1,0> texture {fasten_texture}}
	     		torus { 1, 0.1 translate <-20,1,0> rotate <90,0,0> texture {fasten_texture}}
	     		}

				merge {
	     		sphere { <-20, -1, 0>, 1 texture {store_texture} }
	     		torus { 1, 0.1 translate <-20,-1,0> texture {fasten_texture}}
	     		torus { 1, 0.1 translate <-20,-1,0> rotate <90,0,0> texture {fasten_texture}}
	     		}
	
	     	merge {
	        cone { <0,0,0> 0.2 <-40,0,0> 0.001 rotate -45*z rotate 90*x translate <-25,0,0> }
	        cone { <0,0,0> 0.2 <-40,0,0> 0.001 rotate -45*z rotate 180*x translate <-25,0,0> }
	        cone { <0,0,0> 0.2 <-40,0,0> 0.001 rotate -45*z rotate 270*x translate <-25,0,0> }
	        cone { <0,0,0> 0.2 <-40,0,0> 0.001 rotate -45*z rotate 0*x translate <-25,0,0> } 
	
	        texture {
	           pigment { color rgb 0 }
	           finish {
	              ambient 0
	              diffuse 0.2
	              specular 0.9  roughness 0.0001
	              reflection { 0.6 }
	           }
	        }
	     }
	
	     texture {
	        pigment { body_pigment }
	        finish{
	           ambient 0.0
	           diffuse 0.3
	           specular 0.9 roughness 0.001
	           reflection { metallic 0.4 fresnel 1 }
	        }
	     }
	     
	    translate <-4,0,0>
	  }

Yeah okay that makes my “just” seem like a bit of an over-reach. But besides the nerdy joy I experience writing any kind of code, I adore the precision of this: things go exactly where you want them because you tell the machine exactly where it goes. No nudging of objects in the modeller’s mesh preview. No snapping to grids. Everything goes exactly where you say you want it. It gives me a rush every time.

Now I don’t expect anyone else to get off on this, but consider: this renderer I’m running is essentially the same today as it was 34 years ago. A few little features go in as processing improves (though it hasn’t been updated in some time now) but the renderer is basically complete. I can render a file (if I had a floppy disk drive) from 1989 without change. That’s like getting a WordPerfect file to load (and I was TODAY years old when I learned that WordPerfect actually still exists so bad analogy, Brad).

Anyway, I’m not trying to sell you on this dinosaur but rather explain the little joys I get from using it. The naked code, the purity of concept, the precision, and, of course, the nostalgia.

asymptote
Here she is at 320×240 by the way. Some things do get better.