Being a Man

Is part of being a man doing things that you don’t enjoy?

I’ve been mulling this over lately. There’s a certain perception that men should do classically manly things. Even small things that you might not think of. Drinking black coffee, for example. How many TV shows have you seen where the wannabe pussy-man orders some fru-fru coffee drink with four sugars and plenty of cream–or, in this modern heyday of Starbucks and its own brand of coffee culture, some kind of soy latte frappa-whatever-cini? Right? And then the manly men on the show, usually characters with whom our sadly feminine main character is trying to gain masculine acceptance, all laugh in his face as they drink their burning hot black coffees and smoke their unfiltered cigarettes. Because that’s what men do.

So why is that? I’ll be honest with you. I’m not a huge fan of black coffee. But for a while I tried to be. I assumed that it was more mature to like black coffee, and so I tried to condition myself to liking it. A good friend of mine is a stout believer in the virtues of black coffee, and I have to wonder if he initially liked the taste, or if he had to learn to appreciate it. Because of course it’s possible to come to like something. But why? Why do we strive to appreciate things because we’re supposed to appreciate them?

You know how I like my coffee? With lots and lots of cream. Heavy cream or half & half and, again, absolute tons of it. I just finished my second cup today, and I made sure to add even more cream the second time around because the first time the coffee was still vaguely coffee-colored, and that ain’t the way I like it. And I’ve only learned to like it this way after having started a low carb diet that doesn’t allow me to add sugar to my coffee. And guess what? I put some artificial sweetener in the other day, and holy damn it was delicious. Sweet coffee tastes good, and I’m not really sure why I find it hard to acknowledge that.

It’s not just coffee, either. My girlfriend got me a pipe for my birthday, because I’m the type of prematurely old and cantankerous weirdo who would love to receive a pipe as a gift. And–thank God–I really enjoy smoking it. The smoke tastes and smells nice, there’s a level of simple but satisfying skill to pipe smoking that appeals to me, and it looks super cool. But I’m fairly confident that, even if I’d hated smoking the pipe at first, I’d have stuck with it until I enjoyed it, because to my mind it seems to be the sort of thing a growed-ass man should enjoy. The kind of thing you could offer a less virile friend to try, and then laugh with satisfied smugness when he spluttered and coughed, confident that you had won the manly day.

The list goes on, too. Whiskey is another obvious one. I like whiskey. I’m a big fan of bourbon, in particular. I like bourbon and coke. I like bourbon straight. I like Manhattans. But I’m pretty certain that I didn’t really like it when I first tasted it. I’ve come to like it and appreciate it now, and I feel like a straight up boss every time I drink it.

But what’s the use, really?

I read some comments online about dieting recently that brought these thoughts to my mind. The question posed was something along the lines of, “What should I use to sweeten my food?” and the low-carb advocate’s response was, “Why do you need to sweeten food? I encourage to learn to appreciate the way food tastes.”

I read that and thought, yeah! You totally should learn to appreciate the taste of food without sweeteners.

Then I stepped back a moment and analyzed my reaction.

Wait, what? Why? Why should you feel pressured to like something that, upon first experiencing it, you don’t enjoy? Of course it’s possible to learn to like something, and liking more things is good, generally speaking. But who says that you can’t dislike things? Especially as an adult. It’s accepted that kids are picky, but once you become a man you’re supposed to like manly things? Shouldn’t adulthood be the point where you no longer have to pretend to like shit? Shouldn’t a tall, bearded son-of-a-bitch be the last person to have to like certain things?

Of course, you can’t blame it all on the pressure to seem manly. There are plenty of things we do once we grow up that we don’t really enjoy, but feel are appropriate to do. If we’re lucky we learn to enjoy them. “Yes, I train Muay Thai. Hm? No, it doesn’t hurt to get hit in the face. It’s awesome! What’s that? Oh yes, I like to wind down after sparring with a glass of Scotch and a cigar, followed by a drunken walk in the woods, avoiding clearly marked trails at all costs, of course.”

Well, guess what? I don’t like getting punched in the face, and I ought to be able to admit that. I don’t like Scotch. I do like the woods, true. And I do like cigars. But I don’t like having to learn to like things that rub me the wrong way, even if I do so anyway.

So here’s to being your own version of manly, womanly, or whatever you want to be.

And here’s to coffee with sugar (or Equal) and lots of cream. Because face it–black coffee tastes like a kick in the teeth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Tabletop Role-playing: Revenge of the Worldbuilding

 

Oh, tabletop role-playing games… You have brought me back to my roots. Back to the pure, unadulterated joy and excitement that I first felt before ever I became bogged down in the drudgery of writing complex characters and interesting plots. Or the successive disappointment I experienced when I realized that my plots and my characters were pretty shitty after all. But oh, role-playing games! I find myself once again reliving my salad days: drawing maps, doing write-ups of city histories and regional lore, imagining political and religious conflicts…

Yes folks, I’m talking about worldbuilding, undeniably the most fun part of writing a book and, luckily for me, the largest part of creating a module for a tabletop RPG. Now, I know that to most people a lot of that stuff up there doesn’t seem very fun. Political and religious conflicts aren’t exactly the stuff of daydreams. At least not for normal folks. But I’ll tell you why it actually is fun, and also why you’re wrong if you still disagree. Why do you always need me to convince you, reader? You’re really starting to piss me off, you know.

Er–well. The point is, the worldbuilding is fun because it is the sole reason that most of us got into writing fantasy in the first place. When we all read Tolkien for the first time, those of us destined to write in his genre were struck by a few things: his languages, his cultures, his histories, and his beautiful, beautiful maps. But most of all, we were impressed with his creativity. And that’s what worldbuilding is–pure creativity. That’s why we got into books, right? That’s why we’re fantasy nerds and not just people who like to read.

Or wait.. I’m the fantasy nerd. I keep assuming that you and I are the same, reader. But you probably wear cool European clothes and read Noam Chomsky, and you’re only reading this blog until you inevitably discover that other people know about it too, at which point you’ll toss my paltry words to the wayside proclaiming, “I read Discipulus once in a bar with, like, five other people.”

Anyway, I’ve been doing my worldbuilding nonsense. I’ve been just creating. Not worrying about the structure of the writing, but just recording made-up facts, drawing maps, and relishing every moment.

So. A status update. At this stage in our journey to Tabletop-Gamingtown I’ve written six pages of material. I’ve drawn a city map of our starting location. I have come up with a number of potential quests. I’ll share with you two revelations I have had about the process while doing these things.

Firstly, it is hard to avoid clichés. I have a bit more sympathy now for people who design video games. Perhaps I’ll complain a little less the next time I have to do a fetch quest or escort some wuss without any semblance of artificial intelligence through a dangerous sewer. These clichés happen, I now realize, because of the restrictions of a story-telling game. Namely, if you want your characters to fill out much of the story for themselves (and in tabletop RPGs especially you do), then your options are limited. It boils down to: I can have my characters go somewhere to collect something, I can have them escort someone, and I can have them go somewhere to kill something, plus any combinations of those three quest types.

It’s the background of your tale that makes these simple types of story compelling. So the realism with which you portray your world has a serious effect on how seriously your players will take the quest. Fighting might be fun, but if all of your fights are against mere goons then people will stop giving a damn after a while. Some of this comes down to your live storytelling skills, but a lot of it has to do with how much effort and thought you really put into your world. A play that takes place on an empty black stage might impress a few theater snobs, but it’s hard to argue that the experience isn’t a hell of a lot more immersive when the actors are surrounded by a spectacular set, and their lines and behaviors reflect their surroundings and their times.

The second revelation is this: that I have no clue how a city is organized. Drawing a map of a city (the first time I’ve done something with this level of detail) was an eye-opener. “Wait… where do the churches go? How much of the city is walled? How much open space is there within the city, again? Wait… where do the markets go?” During the creation of this map I probably spent more time staring, drooling, and scratching my head than I did actually putting pencil to paper and sketching.

But in the end I like the way things have turned out so far. So now I need to meet up with my fellow GM, the man who will run the numbers while I tell the majority of the story, and hammer out the details of how to get this thing started. More to come on my descent into the heart of dorkness in future episodes!

Farewell, gentle reader.

Why All Music that I Don’t Like is No Better than Elevator Music

Today I want to talk about something besides writing. I’ve got a few ideas for writing-related posts on the back-burner, but we’ll take a short break from that after the epic conclusion to my fight-scene trilogy two days ago.

Today, I’d like to talk about music–how it affects people; why it’s so important to me and some of my friends but not to other people; and why it can be so divisive a subject. Music is something that has meant a lot to me… since high school, I guess? It actually started before then. In middle school. (By the way, here’s an interesting tidbit–where I come from, the fact that I just used the words “middle school” would immediately tell you that I am most likely not Catholic, and attended a public school. Catholic private school kids say “grade school.” Now you know.) Anyway, yes. My love of music began in middle school.

I used to play in the school band. Clarinet was my thing, and I was the best player in the class, despite the fact that I never practiced outside of school. I’m not being a braggart. It’s merely the truth. I don’t know if it just clicked for me, or what. But I really enjoyed making music. I always had favorite parts of the songs we were currently learning, and I got the sense that most of the other kids weren’t even listening, just following along, waiting for lunchtime. But I listened to those songs. There were always details that stuck out to me. And me and my friends used to teach each other how to play Iron Man and Smoke on the Water and Crazy Train on our woodwind instruments. In the later years of middle school, the band teacher let three of us form our own band and play at the Christmas concert. I got to play the Star Spangled Banner Jimi Hendrix-style with a wah pedal, and then I and two other kids played some faux-metal nonsense that we had written over the course of a few weeks. I got to see a bunch of grandparents applaud music that they would have spanked their kids for listening to.

When I got to high school, music became an even bigger part of my existence. I wasn’t the type of kid who really connected to lyrics–I didn’t start really listening to lyrics with intent to understand until I got into hip hop a few years later–but I just connected to the sound, and the feel of music. I connected to the particular atmosphere that certain songs cultivated. And in high school, where clique and lifestyle are defined almost entirely by clothing and musical taste, my ideas about music became more and more clear, and more cemented.

I realized that music is not just background. Listening to music is an activity in itself. I once listened to a whole album in one sitting while looking out the window of my college dorm, sitting in the dark and just… listening. Just the sound of the music, and the way it made me feel. The melody and the rhythm. Other times, when I do listen intently to lyrics, I really appreciate when serious effort is put into making them mean something. It’s not a deal-breaker if lyrics are an afterthought, but good lyrics can make a mediocre sounding song interesting.

A brief aside: Some people are under the impression that you must agree with the lyrics of the music you listen to–this is the basis for uninspired Christian rock’s entire existence. But that’s bullshit. I’m not so dull that I need my music to think for me, or agree with what I already think. The lyrics are a snapshot of a moment in that artist’s life. When I listen to Neil Young’s “A Man Needs a Maid,” I don’t suddenly think that relationships should be based around having someone to clean your house, fix your meals, and then leave. I think, Gee, that must have been a tough time in Neil’s life. I think of all the similar crazy thoughts that have jumped into my head over the years, and how those fleeting emotions are important because we can all connect to them.

Anyway, my innate sense of pacing tells me that this introduction has gone on far too long, so let me get to the point. What makes music important to us? For the vast majority of people, it seems to be the desire to dance. I hate to sound like my high school self, but much of it also seems to stem from the desire to belong–to any group, be it clique, religion, or just the masses of average, unassuming people.

For me, music is important. It speaks to me. And that’s why I have, ever since I discovered music’s power, sought it out. I emphasize this because I am struck by the fact that the majority of people don’t seem to find music. They don’t go out in search of the next little bit of sound that will really move them. They just let the music come to them. And this is whence (third time I’ve used that word on this blog–boy am I proud) much of my hatred of popular music stems. Pop music is just too easy. It’s right there. Yes, everyone’s eyes–ears, rather–are first opened by something they heard on the radio. But then you should go and discover more. It’s out there. There is so much good, underappreciated music out there, in literally every genre.

So why the hell don’t people look for it? When I tell people what kind of music I like, I usually start by saying “I listen to just about everything.” Which is broadly accurate. I like my fair share of metal (screaming and singing alike), bluegrass, folk, indie (which isn’t much of a genre description, but whatever), classic rock, hip hop–you get the idea. It’s a mix of whatever I like. But then I realize that that’s the answer people give when they don’t give a shit about good music. When most people claim that they listen to “everything,” what they really mean is “I listen to the top 40 on the way to work.” See, that’s not everything. It’s not even remotely close. And I don’t want this person to think that I don’t give a shit about music. So I’ll add to my statement. “Well, I listen to a lot of music. You know, metal, rock, some underground-type rap…” Hm, I’ll think, how do I clarify this jumble of words? I know: “I listen to basically anything that isn’t on the radio.”

That usually clears things up. Now they at least know that the music I like they won’t have heard of, so they’ll leave me alone. Time to pop the headphones back on. But recently someone picked that little statement apart. “So,” they said, which much snark and self-satisfaction, “You just don’t listen to it because it’s on the radio?”

“No, no,” I replied, not wanting to look like an obnoxious hipster. I covered my tracks with some lame explanation, but I was left thinking about the remark. And I realized: yes. I do avoid things that are popular. And I recognize that that’s stupid. The fact that something is well-known does not guarantee that it is of poor quality. But I’ve associated pop music with a lack of creativity for so long, that I can’t help but make the distinction. My wiring has officially changed, and my brain now designates just about everything I hear on the radio as sub-par. I know I’m like the kid who eats liver and onions and loves it until dad tells him what it is, but I can’t help it.

Because music is important to me, and it truly irks me that it’s not just as important to other people.