Back once again with the renegade master.

OSR fuelling NaNoWriMo

by xaosseed

I wrote a draft novel for Nanowrimo this year and short circuited a lot of the world-building by setting it up the road from where my current campaign is set.

This had one or two neat pieces to it because it was easy to have the characters rattle on about their concerns and what was happening in the background because all that was already in play, I knew what was going on.

What was super useful, that I did not expect, was setting out the layout of the city where a lot of the action took place was greatly simplified by using some of the quick and easy world-building tools that are sloshing around in the OSR scene at the moment. In particular, I pulled up the glorious In Corpathium city generator to quickly block out where things were and what was happening in the various places. Read the rest of this entry »

Great Falls Interlude

by dixie

I lived in DC for four years as a college student, which breaks down to three academic years and four summers. Students have a very different relationship to their settings than non-students do; undergrads experience their universities differently than postgrads do, and that’s different again from staff or faculty. Living as a student in college during the academic year was different from the summers when I lived in various suburbs and commuted to the lab every day, the last summer when I had a car was different from the years I’d spent without one, and so on. The experience of growing up in DC would have been different again, as well as that of living there as an adult. Because I didn’t live there as a “real person,” I missed a lot of stuff.

Every time I spent more than a few waking hours in DC during the month of flying (which was rare), I bored my hosts with stories of far-flung cities I’d visited and the most recent airport drama. I think after a few weeks of this the natives wanted to show off bits of DC that I hadn’t experienced yet, mostly because as a student one misses a lot. My hosts had an annual pass to Great Falls national park, so one weekend we packed up and headed out and spent a relaxed few hours strolling through the trees and seeing the giant rushing water of the Potomac fall line.

Great Falls Overlook

Does what it says on the tin.

My experience of the Potomac while I lived in DC was spending an inordinate amout of time crossing it in order to get to the Metro station closest to “swift Potomac’s lovely daughter” where I went to college. I did not know that just a few miles upriver the river drops 145 feet in a short space as the rock underneath goes from the solidness of the Piedmont to the squishy coastal land closer to the ocean. The calm, placid, and irritatingly wide river I’d gotten to know as a college student bore no resemblance to giant rapids I got to see on this visit. I stood on a bridge over the river and watched brave kayakers navigate the rapids while the sound of big water filled my ears. The last time I spent any time with or on or in rapids was rafting in Colorado almost a decade previous, and while taking pictures I remembered how much fun it is to navigate fierce waters.

There were totally kayakers navigating this.

There were totally kayakers navigating this.

Places get frozen in time when you leave them. Whether it’s the sunny holiday destination that lives on in your memory saturated with the freedom and warmth of time off, or the place you lived as a child but left when you “grew up,” or any of the places you pass through on the way to where you’re going. They’re big and slow to change, but they do change, just like people do. And like people, if you don’t turn up and say hello and stoke the fires of your relationship every now and then, your memory of the place will become increasingly out of sync with the reality of it. One way this manifests is the disconnect between the romantic American perception of Ireland, an image from the 19th century passed down unaltered by people who emigrated and raised families on stories of the Old Country. The country doesn’t exist anymore but the stories do.

Another, more universal manifestation is the “you can’t go home again” idea; where both you and the place have changed so much that you can’t repair the relationship.

I got to check in with both people and places while flying around in April. My relationship with DC remains a perfect reminder of how good this kind of checking in can be.

Connections: Chicago

by dixie

Chicago always knows what I need and cheerfully gives it to me. Over the years I’ve been in and out of Chicago for work, college, family visits, and randomness. If one is to spend a month flying United, it would be easier to cross Ireland without passing a pub than it would be to avoid O’Hare airport, and I did indeed pass through ORD a few times (though not as much as I’d originally expected). It’s funny that it’s taken 20 years of flying for me to merely connect through O’Hare, when that’s the only experience many people get of the city.

All my memories of Chicago focus on little things that the city has offered just when I need them. There seems to always be music in the air, something only matched by my beloved Dublin. I wasn’t expecting music this time as I wasn’t leaving the airport (if one doesn’t even leave the secure part of an airport, can one be said to have visited the city?), but Chicago delivered anyway.

Light tunnel at ORD

Lights and sound and travelators, what more do you want?

There’s a tunnel between the C gates where I arrived and the F gates where I left from on my way to North Carolina, and it’s lined with rainbow walls and spangles of neon colour along the ceiling. I can only assume this is to cheer travellers who are racing through in order to make a too-tight connection — on one of my connections 43 minutes passed between an on-time landing and being able to step out into the airport, which is a very long time if you’re someone trying to make a tight connection — but it’s fun to enjoy when you don’t have to do any sprinting. The light show was accompanied by a variation of Rhapsody in Blue, barely recognisable through the trippy arrangement and the background noise of one of the busiest airports of the world.

If you think you haven’t heard Rhapsody in Blue before, take a listen (Gershwin on piano here, but arguably Bernstein’s version is more definitive). It’s Gershwin’s mini symphony, and although I personally feel it’s an ode to New York it’s clear that Chicago has tried to take it for its own as well. It suits Chicago’s man-made canyons of steel and glass as well as it does New York’s, and I have a hunch Chicago appreciates it more. Years ago United bought the rights to the music to use as background music for its advertising and in-plane recordings, so I heard a lot of it during my month of flight.

I would have been sufficiently cheered by the lights and the music, but Chicago was not done with me. When I arrived at my departure gate, I was delighted to find it had everything I needed: a spacious table, power outlets, and a nearby coffee stand. A handy Traveller’s Aid desk even consented to post my Chicago postcards for me, which was an unexpected delight. (There is a post office in Terminal 3, but it was far away and the woman I’d asked about it offered, so…)

Many people’s worst travel stories are set in O’Hare. So far the place has been nothing but good to me.

Asheville: An unexpected draught of life

by dixie

Asheville is an achingly hip, craft beer soaked, delightfully southern town nestled in the heart of the first mountains I ever loved. I’d been there as a kid, travelling with a youth choir, but I was curious to see what I would make of the place as a grownup.

Tulips at Biltmore Estate, Asheville's primary tourist attraction.

Tulips at Biltmore Estate, Asheville’s primary tourist attraction.

I noticed instantly that people seemed genuinely friendly, in stark contrast to the icy standoffishness I experienced in Beaufort. Here the slow drawls carried actual warmth. It’s possible I was just in a better mood, smiling more and more comfortable in the mountainous South than I was in the Spanish-moss-draped costal South. Whatever the reason, it was lovely from beginning to end.

I didn’t have a plan for Asheville other than to turn up and see what I could find. I learned over and over again during the month of flying that if I expected things to work out okay, even if I didn’t have a specific plan for how that was going to happen, they would usually work out. In Asheville this happened through that fantastic genuine friendliness: I found a good pub in town, ended up in conversation with a schoolteacher couple, and was invited to a poetry slam.

This poetry slam thing deserves some explanation.

Imagine the stereotype of beat poets in smokey cafes, rooms full of achingly hip people focused on one speaker (possibly at a microphone, certainly in a spotlight) who holds forth in a string of rhythmic words on something they feel strongly about. The audience might click their fingers to show approval at a particularly pithy turn of phrase. Now imagine it in the modern day, on stages and in schools. It’s gotten some press as an opportunity to get at-risk kids into something that isn’t dangerous. Grownups do it too “Dear Straight People”, and the results can be pithy (“Dear shitty parents of the kids I teach”) and lovely (“To the boys who may one day date my daughter”)and touching (“My grandmother never taught me to pray”). One of the teachers I met was running a high school poetry slam competition that night.

I was incuriated, so I went along and was briefly called upon to judge. I spent an evening listening to teenagers bleed words and feelings onto the stage. I listened to kids outline ideas and complex issues that I didn’t even figure out for myself until I was much older (if at all). And I watched impressed as their peers in the audience were receptive, kind, and supportive through each soul-baring performance.

I flew out the next day after a brief and dramatic dash through Biltmore Estate to find and send postcards, but as far as intensity-per-time of experiences goes Asheville stood up well. Slam poets pack a lot of life into three minutes of carefully crafted words, so an evening of it was a heady mix. I realized that speaking out, which those kids were doing, does two things. The first is that it makes you feel a lot better, but the second is that it lets other people know they’re not alone.

Small but perfectly formed

by dixie

I grew up thinking airports were gigantic things, self-contained cities in their own right, whirling and spinning, the equivalent of a class 5 white water rapid in the river of moving humanity. I eventually discovered this was not the case, though it wasn’t until my first trip to Italy to really appreciate how small an airport can be. I was leery of these tiny airports with nothing in them.

I am convinced now that small airports (provided they are not running over capacity) are infinitely preferable to giant ones. I do not need fifteen different restaurants serving the same kinds of overpriced food and desperately sad fruit, nor do I need cookie-cutter newsagents brimming with chocolate and roasted/salted legumes. I need minimal drama, and barring that, I need a place to sit, a cup of decaf coffee, and a power outlet. Extra points if there’s also free wifi. Small airports, where you can be at your gate within ten easy minutes of walking in the front door, nearly always delivered this for me while I was travelling North America.

The Asheville airport is not the kind of place you’d want to be stuck in for a long time unless you’d brought your own entertainment, but it’s a perfect, tiny gem of an airport. I knew it was something special when I went through security. Not only did it forego the obnoxious milliwave scanners in favour of the more traditional metal detectors, but the TSA agents were genuinely friendly. The woman who checked my ID complimented my passport cover, and we chatted for a few moments about holders and packing and travel documents. The guy who waved me through the metal detector complimented my hair, and we talked about the trials and tribulations of having very long hair (which he did, at one point in his life).

Asheville really digs its craft beer scene.

Asheville really digs its craft beer scene.

Once I got through security, I browsed the one shop there, which featured pint glasses branded with logos for many of the local craft beers. You get a discount if you buy one of those glasses and fill it with the indicated beer at the shop’s bar. I realized then that the shop was, in fact, more of a bar that has a shop attached.

I declined the beer in favour of the usual cup of decaf coffee and made my way to the gate. The Asheville airport has rocking chairs, which always wins my heart. (The Charlotte airport is my favourite for this; I’ve watched several spectacular sunrises from the east-facing windows, nestled comfortably in a rocking chair.) As you settle into one of the rocking chairs to enjoy the fast, free wifi and plentiful power outlets, you might notice that the walls are faced with stone. This combines with the rocking chairs to create an atmosphere that might allow you to believe, especially if you are fuzzy with travel-tiredness, that you are in a cabin in the mountains rather than an airport.

Rocking chairs for the win.

Rocking chairs for the win.

It’s true that there’s a reason why no language has produced the phrase “As pretty as an airport,” but if more airports were like AVL that might be different.