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The Croc Hunter is not a crock

You know, I finally remembered to check out "Croc Week" on the Discovery Channel. Steve Irwin has gone from being someone I think is so far gone he belongs in a rubber room to someone I see has a great love of animals, and an immense amount of knowledge on how to deal with them--as well as a below-average fear factor. Gawd. Watching him capture 12-foot crocodiles simply amazes me.

Crocodiles and alligators are a particular fear of mine. You see, when I was a child, my father would bring me and my two brothers to the Staten Island Zoo. Among other exhibits was an Alligator Pit, which in those days was just a great big concrete lake filled with alligators and crocodiles (I still can't tell the difference and frankly don't care), and it was several feet below the walkway. There was a concrete wall topped by a metal railing. As someone who was always short, I used to climb onto the top of the concrete wall and hold on to the metal rail--tightly. My father used to think it was absolutely hysterical to sneak up behind me and grab me around the waist and pretend to throw me into the pit.

Ha, ha.

He also thought it was a good idea to put me on the Cyclone in Coney Island when I was just tall enough, to be allowed on. It remains one of my most horrifying memories to this day. I thought for sure I was going to slip out of the belt, since I was so tiny and in those days, all a roller coaster needed to have was a single lap belt.

Both of these events, you see, had a purpose. My father thought that they would make me tough. He was of the school that thought you conquered a child's fear of swimming by throwing it into the deep end of the pool.

Nowadays, this is known as The Asshole School of Child-rearing. I also call it The Guy Thing. Women don't do this. Most mothers don't sneak up behind their children at their greatest moment of fear and scare them even more. Most mothers don't say, "Get up, I got a bet on you" when their children fall down. And I have yet to see a single pair of mothers playing keep-away from their children. I've seen my brother and his brother-in-law do that to his brother-in-law's kid.

It's a guy thing.

Maybe next time I'll write about my Y chromosome theory, and what it's responsible for. But guys get really mad when I'm straight with them about it. We'll have to see.--MAY



NERO my woods to thee, Part II

On rereading my blog about NERO, I see that I forgot to mention the running part. You see, even though I was playing various stupid or undead creatures, the last thing you want is to be killed by the PCs, so if you can, you run away. Now, I wasn't stupid enough to run full-tilt through the dark woods Friday night, like SOME people, but I did do a lot of running. And ducking, and lunging with foam weapons. So by Saturday afternoon, after having spent three or four hours as an undead Friday night, and then spending about three more hours as a goblin Saturday morning, both times in extreme heat and humidity, I was, to put it plainly, wiped out. I was careful to drink lots of water (and boy, the tap water there was excellent!), but I am rather out of shape. I could barely walk by Saturday afternoon. When the Monster Master called an official timeout for all monsters until 2 p.m., I was already dead in a chair with my feet up insisting I'd never walk again. And the little smartass Sean, who kept insisting he wasn't tired and wanted to go back out, had his head handed to him by me the fourth time he said that. He's fourteen. Actually, it wasn't just me. "Mom", the oldest NPC and a biology teacher, told him to be quiet because he was only on his second life. She was referring to how the body regrows cells so that every nine years you effectively have an entirely new body. She told Sean to talk to us again when he was on his fourth body.

The pain I was in Saturday was as nothing compared to Sunday morning. Just getting out of bed was an effort. Ouch. Hurt to walk on Monday, too, but I'm all better now.

The Big Battle

I actually didn't go anywhere for about two hours. I decided I'd have enough exercise until it was time for the big battle, scheduled for 4:00. (Nothing all weekend started on time, and apparently it never does.) The big brouhaha had all of Monster Camp dressing up as undeads again. We were to attack in a reverse wave. Instead of sending out the cannon fodder first then the bigger and bigger creatures, the big kahunas went first. We were given a stack of cards telling us what we were. We were to rip off the top card as we died and continue until the battle was over. It was an interesting experience, and one I probably won't ever repeat. There were dozens of PCs and around 40 or so NPCs. The first wave of the battle looked just like a battle scene in a movie--people screaming and lunging and hitting and getting hit, all noise and confusion.

One of the things I discovered I don't like at all about NERO is getting hit with foam weapons. Especially since the PCs all have weapons that are longer than the NPCs, so they generally get to beat the shit out of you while you're lucky to get in a hit at all, particularly if you're brand-new at the game. And there's that macho thing--most of the guys hit hard. Foam-covered PVC pipe stings. I have bruises on my right arm from the weekend. The PCs all tend to hit harder when they're worried that you can do some actual damage. Most of them didn't work too hard to "kill" me when I was a goblin, although there was the occasional asshole, but during the battle, every single person that I encountered hit as hard and as fast as they could. Which is why I quit the battle long before my lives were over with. After I got tired of getting beat up, I started to wait for the PCs to come after me. The only ones who did were the ones with polearm weapons--at least six feet long, which actually didn't hurt as much. But there were a few PCs who were heavy-duty enough to go through our lines behind us, and that would be about when I quit. Getting hit is a major hot-button issue with me. I've never found things like Indian burns and "friendly" punches acceptable. So that battle got me to the boiling point, as I felt the PCs were being excessively hard on the NPCs. All of the veterans told me that PCs always do that when they panic, it's an adrenaline thing, etc., etc., etc. Yeah. Right. Whatever. I'm still not interested in being used as a punching bag.

So I left and went back to Monster Camp and told Rachel that I wasn't going to be a fighting NPC for the rest of the weekend. Roleplaying only. Actually, that wasn't very successful, either. But thinking everything over, I think I might go again. I did have a lot of fun, and it sure took my mind off of being unemployed in a down market.

Tick, Tick

I was resigned to getting mosquito bites all weekend, what with the number there were and the fact that I was out in the woods. What I wasn't expecting to get was ticks. Do you know, I've never had a tick in my life, and this weekend I got two? One of the little suckers fastened itself to the back of my knee. I'm certain I got it Sunday morning while walking to Monster Camp with all of my belongings. I felt something funky there while I was on the highway, but I couldn't stop and check it out because I was driving through the last of Tropical Storm Allison and just wanted to get home. So when I finally stopped, at the kosher butcher shop where I was going to pick up dinner, I checked, and it was a tick. Okay, I thought, it can wait ten more minutes until I get home. Except I locked my keys and my pocketbook with the spare key in my car, and it took two hours for Chrysler Roadside Service to send the locksmith to get my keys out. So now the tick has been in me for seven hours, and it's got most of its legs under my skin, and it's in that awkward spot to begin with, so I didn't get all the legs out. The other one was on my upper thigh, and I thought it was a loose scab until I saw the first tick. That made me check again. It was burrowing in head-first. Yum. Got that one, too, and decided to go to the doctor yesterday to make sure they weren't lyme ticks. He said they probably weren't, which is what I thought to begin with. Lyme ticks are the nymphs--you can barely see them. The doc said I'll know for sure if they were lyme ticks if a bullseye rash comes up in the next two months.

Oh, yeah--I never did get a mosquito bite. They don't seem to like the way I taste very much.--MAY



If you think too hard about this, my head will explode

The next installment of my NERO story is going to have to wait. I was struck by a Timequake on the way to Massachusetts. That is, I went to the library and borrowed the audio book version of Kurt Vonnegut's novel, Timequake, and listened to it on the way there and back. I suppose I really ought to say I was hit by a Vonnegutquake, as I dug out my old copy of Cat's Cradle two weeks ago and reread it, remembering how much I used to like Vonnegut, and how I thought he'd stopped writing anything worth reading after Breakfast of Champions. It was Slapstick that made me think that. Now I'm going to have to go back and reread it and see if perhaps it wasn't my being twentysomething that made me think that.

Anyway. The Timequake has been getting stronger and stronger, to the point that I went back to the library today and checked out both it and the last two books Vonnegut wrote. I'll be reading him backward instead of forward, I suppose, which completely suits Vonnegut, if you think about it.

I'm starting to think that Kurt Vonnegut may be a member of my karass. A karass is a team that does God's will without ever discovering what they are doing. Of course, you have to remember that Vonnegut is a humanist, and Bokononism is the religion he made up for Cat's Cradle, and that Bokonon says of his own religion: "Foma! Lies! A pack of foma!"

But epiphanies come of their own accord, and they always mean some kind of change either in the way I think or the way I act, and a Vonnegut epiphany is, at the very least, amusing. But it's more than that. It's changing the direction of my novel.

Gee, that's really cold

The other book I borrowed from the library is An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, by James Randi, otherwise known as The Amazing Randi. It was published in 1995, and the entry on "cold reading" is particularly fascinating for me. Realize that this was written years before John Edward, the failed ballroom dancer turned psychic, became famous. There were others before him, of course, and they used the same methods Edward uses now.

Some extremely interesting excerpts:

"Performing cold reading by throwing out common names and hoping that someone will 'link' with one of them, following up by guessing or simply asking the relationship of a name that has been selected out and 'accepted' by a sitter [member of the audience], the medium is well on the way to convincing an unwary listener that he or she has contacted the dead."

"The cold reading routine includes a number of excellent methods for extracting information from the sitter without it appearing as if the medium has actually asked for it. Comments like 'Why is this person laughing?' or 'She's shaking her head as if to say no' will often elicit a response. …Some questions don't appear to be questions at all: 'I get this person in spirit' or 'Somehow, I feel Jim was related to you or lived near you' are examples. Even more useful are those modifiers that generalize or fuzz up the statement so that it has a greater chance of being successful or of evoking an answer. Phrases like 'I think that…' or 'I feel as if…' or 'I want to say…' and many other try-ons are used for this purpose."

The killing blow in the Randi book: "By means of cold reading, a proficient operator can readily convince a sitter that contact with a departed person has been firmly established. That's what it's really all about."

Now, anyone who has ever watched an Edward performance will recognize all of the above examples. I suppose, though, that I shouldn't be surprised by the gullibility of the average person. We are brought up in a culture that encourages us to lie to our children from the cradle. Millions--probably hundreds of millions--of people around the world teach their children that Santa Claus brings them presents on Christmas Eve. We teach children that the Tooth Fairy will give them money if they put their baby teeth under the pillow. We tell them that the prince and the princess live happily ever after.

I was relating a story about my friend's seven-year-old, who has never fallen for any of my yarns (my exaggerated stories that I pretend are not stories, like making up a story about Queen Wormhelmina, the worm queen that lives underground in a child's backyard), lost her first baby tooth this spring, while I was visiting. She told her mother that she didn't want to put it under her pillow. She wanted to wait until all of her baby teeth fell out so she could put them all under her pillow and get $32 instead of one. Heidi bowed to inevitability and that, we thought, was the end of that. One morning, however, she discovered that her daughter had decided to test the Tooth Fairy. She put her tooth under her pillow without telling her mother, and when she woke up, and found the tooth and no money, she knew the Tooth Fairy was a yarn.

I told the above story to a friend who has two daughters who did fall for many of my yarns, and asked for more. She said that she was glad to have children who were a lot more credulous. I thought I agreed with that, but now I realize that what I want more than anything is to have a child who will be credulous. A child who will perform scientific tests of her own, and who will develop critical thinking skills early. Because Heidi's daughter is still very much a normal child. She likes to play pretend, and dress up in Mommy's outfits, and put on plays with her friends and make up stories. She has an active imagination. She writes little stories that she keeps in a string-bound "book". But she also has figured out that she doesn't have to believe things just because people tell her they're true.

They should rename the media the mediocre

ABC's 20-20 Downtown advertised a piece about "ghostbusters" tonight, so I watched it. It was perhaps a minute, there was no real information whatsoever, just a woman who is a self-proclaimed "paranormalist" and her buddy holding electrical devices that emit beeps and boops, filmed in night-vision green, showing us pictures that had light circles in them as "evidence" of ghosts. Oh, and the beeps and boops were also evidence of ghostly presences. No reporter asked them a thing. It was a completely uncritical reporting of the so-called ghostbuster. This is what passes for journalism in the 21st century. I become more and more ashamed to admit that I used to edit my college paper.--MAY



NERO my woods to thee, Part I

Okay, so where have I been this weekend? Well, I was running around the woods wearing white and black or green makeup, carrying foam weapons, pretending to be various undead creatures, goblins, a reporter for The Raven's Herald (the newspaper of Ravenholt) and a peasant at the Ducal wedding (which nearly didn't come off, what with the second Duke Graystone showing up and claiming that he was the real Duke Graystone).

I went to Sturbridge, Massachusetts, to be a non-player character in something called NERO, the New England Roleplaying Organization, Massachusetts chapter. My friend Rachel has been playing in NERO for years, and trying to get me to join. I've been refusing, as it's a four-hour drive and I won't drive four hours for less than a weekend visit, and frankly, I didn't think I'd care for it. My college years are long gone, and so is my desire to play Dungeons & Dragons. Been there, done that.

NERO is a live-action roleplaying game. Instead of tossing dice and reading from papers, you essentially have your D&D game live, with real, breathing human beings as player characters and non-player characters. It's rather like a combination of storytelling and improvisation. There's a Plot Committee who write the basic scripts. What happens next is the improv part, as there's no guarantee that the PCs are going to stick to the script.

The old Plot Committee retired this weekend, and the new plot committee took over. A major plotline wrapup was planned, as well as a brouhaha so the old committee could go out in style. But in order to go out in style, they needed lots of bodies. So the word went out to find enormous numbers of NPCs for the event. Rachel can be very persuasive. It's that Jewish guilt thing. She knows how to work it as well as I do. And she always knows how to work it on me, alas. So I went.

It was held at a campground used by, among others, Boy and Girl Scouts. I got there around three o'clock Friday afternoon, and realized that I had never camped out in the woods like this even as a child. The summer camp I went to was a day camp--we were bused from Irvington to somewhere in western NJ every day, and returned to the Y every evening. Twice per summer there were overnights, but that was it. We slept out in a clearing in the woods, on one of the grass fields, or, if it rained, on the wooden pavilion where we did arts and crafts and had Shabbos services on Friday afternoons. I'd never slept in any kind of bunkhouse until two days ago. I'm here to report that I really don't think I was missing anything. Gawd. No air conditioning, mosquitoes the size of crows, zillions of other bugs, dozens of people under one roof--actually, I got away with having only three roommates, then one, since I switched to the "Med Shack" after worries that there wouldn't be enough room at Monster Camp for all the NPCs that were showing up. Rachel's NPC campaign was so successful that she wound up with about 60 of us, many of whom had never played the game. There were more than that number of PCs, I believe, judging by the number I saw during the final battle on Saturday afternoon.

Monster Camp

Monster Camp is the name of the main NPC/organizational building. It's the nerve center of NERO, the main bunkhouse, and the place where monsters are made and unmade. The check-in desk is where NPCs register, and then where they check in to see what roles are available. Monster Camp is also where the PCs can come any time they have a question and need a marshal to settle an issue. There are two huge closets filled with costumes and weapons, a table covered with makeup, several coolers filled with water and Gatorade, munchies for the NPCs, and all of the myriad things you need to create monsters and peasants and warriors and Ducal guards and the rest of the cast and crew of a NERO weekend. The bunks were in the room upstairs, which was like a giant loft with dozens of bunk beds. The NPCs slept there, when they slept--which wasn't often.

What an NPC did after checking in was report to the Monster Master or the Monster Mistress, and ask what's available. The Monster Person then checks the stat sheets and says something like, "We need ghouls." If the NPC wants to be a ghoul, s/he goes to the makeup table and puts on white makeup. Each color makeup signifies what kind of monster you are, as the costuming is sometimes difficult, and the PCs need a way to tell what they are meeting. We were all told to bring black or dark sweatpants and t-shirts. I picked up a new pair before I came, for which I am incredibly grateful, as my dark blue sweats are woolen winter sweats. The new ones are cotton. It was high 80s and 90 percent humidity Friday and Saturday.

Bug Shack

I renamed Med Shack "Bug Shack". It had screens on all the windows, and the doors had been kept closed, yet it had bugs of every kind everywhere. Crane flies, mosquitoes, flies, moths, spiders, unidentifiable large crawly things--last night I was sleeping with the cover thrown over my head to keep the mosquitoes off me. Well, until my bunkmate came in around 5 and filled me in on what I'd missed by going to bed early (midnight). Saturday morning, when I turned on the shower, a host of bugs flew up above the stream of water. It was the first shower I've ever taken where I had to pause to kill mosquitoes every so often. Bug Shack also has some kind of creatures living in the walls, which drove my roommate crazy. They didn't bother me, because I'd remembered to pack earplugs. Which was a good thing, as Roomie snored big-time. Oh, and the hot water didn't work in the Bug Shack. Cold shower. Fun, fun, fun.

Med Shack was apparently one of the least desirable places to sleep, but not because of the bugs. Friday night, as more and more NPCs showed up, Rachel began to worry that they wouldn't be able to find places for them all to sleep. She was discussing it with some of the others, and when I heard there were other, smaller cabins, I volunteered to go elsewhere. "What's your psychic rating?" one of the organizers asked me. "Zero," I said with a note of disdain in my voice. "Then you can sleep in Med Shack," he said. "Come to think of it, so can my boys." So he got his two teenaged sons' equipment and walked me out to a small cabin up a hill, by itself in the woods. Apparently, when the NERO staff were cleaning the camp, the fact that a boys and girls camp had a fully equipped medical table with stirrups on it caused much speculation about why the stirrups were needed. Add to that old clothes found with blood on them, and the regulars decided that Med Shack was haunted because something horrible had taken place there. I laughed at the stories, even when my roommate insisted he'd seen a ghost there that very night. I saw no ghosts during the weekend, not even on Saturday, when I went to bed early and stayed by myself in a pitch black wood for five whole hours.

Goblin Day

The most fun I had the entire weekend was Saturday morning and early afternoon, when I played a goblin. Goblins are extremely stupid and easy to kill, so they're great cannon fodder and amusement for the PCs. The group I spent most of my time with was pretty creative. We became the Stinky Brown Leaf clan (think about it a second), the Want Farm clan, and the Big Head clan. This was because we got killed fairly often. I got a kick out of naming some of the other groups, particularly the Stinky Feet clan. (They were the Ugly Face clan before they got killed and we met back at Monster Camp.)

Our first foray into town brought us to the Healer's Guild, where we approached the closed building shouting out, "Food? Shiny? Food?" Goblins are always hungry, love shiny things--gold pieces or brass buttons, they don't know the difference--and quite easily distracted. So instead of getting into a battle, one of the healers brought out a tray of food for us, which in reality was a candy dish filled with candy. We grabbed it all, since that was what our characters would do. I realized immediately that it was much more fun to play a goblin than a ghoul, since as a ghoul I was reduced to shuffling slowly and moaning, then getting slaughtered fairly quickly by the PCs.

Another favorite moment was when our leader told us that we were going to fool the humans by pretending to be trees. He instructed all of us to pick up a branch or leaf and put it on our foreheads. When we saw our next group of PCs, we all said, "Goblin tree!" (goblins don't use verbs very often). The trick didn't work. We ran away.

The best trick of all came after we'd been killed a few times. The group leader was an experienced NPC (and I think PC). He thought we would know enough about Dark Mage rituals to pretend to perform one ourselves. As the goblin leaders are Shamans with spellcasting powers of their own, he wanted to mess with the players' heads and see what would happen. We went back to Monster Camp on this one to check with a Marshal, as we weren't sure goblins were smart enough to figure this out. I added that if we'd observed Dark Mages, we'd be most likely to do an abbreviated version of the ritual. The Marshal agreed with us that goblins were smart enough to do it, so we went to the Mages Guild, perfecting our ritual on the way. We had our Shaman draw a huge circle in the dirt, say "Ritual start!" and throw what looked like a spell packet. Then the rest of us danced around the circle, screaming "One, two, three ritual!" (my contribution). The mages completely bought it, thought we had some huge new power, and launched major spells at us, including lightning bolt (which killed my character) and ice storm. But mine was the only casualty--we left and went looking for more PCs to fool, elated by our success.

I'll add part two tomorrow. It's late, I'm tired, and sore, and have two tick bites that are bothering me. And now I look down and see that Tig has found a caterpillar that has somehow gotten inside here. It looks like a Gypsy Moth caterpillar. Sigh. One of them was on my sleeping bag at Monster Camp. Yuck. They're following me!--MAY