Murder Mystery Masquerade Party – the Report

It’s been two weeks since the party. I said it then, and I’ll say it again: It was the best party I ever hosted. I don’t think I’ll host a better one for the rest of my life.

This is one of my longer blog posts. I want to get all the details down so that if I ever do this again, I can learn from my successes and failures.

I’m mindful that people doing web searches on “Ravenwood Mystery Party” might find this post. I’ve done my best to avoid major spoilers.

Privacy note: I’m going to refer to individual guests by their characters’ names. This is to preserve their privacy in a public blog post. The exception will be the characters who were the victim and the murderer; I’ll refer to them as V and M.

Background

Let’s back up a bit.

For my prior two birthday parties, I hosted a LARP. They were at best moderately successful; some people just didn’t get the hang of improvisational role-playing.

A few years ago a friend of mine hosted a professionally-written murder mystery party. She offered me the role of the murder victim, since it required someone who could role-play well. In the game as written, the murder victim could come back as a ghost. I decided to take it to excess (a typical pattern in my life) and use the murder as an excuse for a role switch.

Before the murder, I was a tough take-no-nonsense gangster:

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After my character was murdered, I went into the bathroom, shaved my beard, changed my outfit, and became the victim’s older brother. He was a total milquetoast:

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As my 60th birthday approached, I became more enamored of the idea of hosting a similar mystery party. There was no reason to suspect a LARP I wrote would be any more successful than what I’d done before. Let a professional do the writing!

When I searched for murder mystery parties one could purchase on-line, I found a different company from what my friend chose. On their front page was a masquerade party. I felt that was a concept everyone would understand.

The guests

I wanted to get some idea of how many people wanted to come. The mysteries from MyMysteryParty have three levels: the basic mystery with 18 or so characters, an expansion with 6 additional characters (who can also be team leaders to accommodate more guests), and a second expansion to accommodate up to 16 more characters.

I wrote an initial blog post to get an idea of how many people were interested. I got enough of a response that I knew I’d have to get the base mystery and expansion #1 immediately. I followed that post with another more formal invitation. I got enough RSVPs that I purchased the second expansion as well.

MyMysteryParty offers a web site that hosts can share with the guests to so the they can see what other characters might come to the party. I didn’t like it. Mystery parties of this sort have “key” or “required” characters who must be there for the story to work; every other character is optional. On that web site, it doesn’t take much insight to realize that the key characters were listed first. I didn’t want any of my guests to feel they were second-class citizens.

So I copied over the character information from the mystery’s list of characters, but put the characters in alphabetical order by last name, from Omari Black through Riley White. It was a bit of an effort, but it also acted as a bookkeeping device so I could see which roles were available as more people RSVPed.

After I knew who was playing which character, I sent out materials via postal mail. It included:

  • a colorful invitation that was supplied in the mystery party kit
  • a description of the character (along with costume suggestions and optional pre-game activity)
  • a copy of the newspaper cover page from the bottom of MyMusteryParty’s Ravenwood page
  • the party kit’s guest instructions so they’d know what to expect
  • for most of the guests, a copy of a ticket to the party

A couple of “uninvited” characters did not get tickets: John and Jane Doe. I knew they’d be there anyway.

I quickly discovered that I needed some way to keep track of all the guests, their characters, their email addresses, and their postal addresses. I used Microsoft Excel for that. For repetitive documents like the invitations, mailing labels, guest badges, and game envelopes, I used Swift Publisher 5. These tools showed their worth as I handled late-comers who asked to come after the RSVP deadline, and when I had to deal with a last-minute substitution.

To communicate with everyone, I set up both a Facebook event page and a mailing list. Every time I sent an email to the list, I also posted it on the FB page. This was to handle both those folks who were not on Facebook, and those who never check their email.

At its peak, the guest list had 37 people, more than any of my other parties! As we got closer to the date, 3 of them could not make it, leaving 34. That was a better attendance rate than my previous parties; typically a third didn’t show up. Thanks, folks!

Masks

One of the reason I chose a mystery set at a masquerade party is that it made costuming fun and simple. The characters all had last names based on colors (Mel Mauve, Izzy Maroon, and so on) so all you needed was a mask of the appropriate color. I knew better than to insist that everyone wear a mask, but as it happened everyone wore one anyway. (Again, thanks for that, folks!)

Most folks got or made their own masks. Ashton Jade went on a business trip to New Orleans, and offered to get masks for folks from the Land of Masks. She got some nice ones. Here are a couple:

Drew Golden's mask
Drew Golden’s mask.

Once meant for Pram Peach
The mask originally intended for Pram Peach. Pram couldn’t make it, so now the mask is mine! Muahaha!

There were people for whom finding a mask of the right color was a challenge; it’s not easy finding one for Furen Copper or Carney Cobalt. So I purchased a set of white masks and offered to airbrush them in an appropriate color. Several folks took me up on this offer.

Airbrushed masks
Most of the masks that I airbrushed. At the time I took this picture, the masks were intended for (left-right, top-to-bottom): Frankie Vermillion, Furen Copper, Tele Taupe, Finn Burgundy, Pizzy Sapphire, Bat von Aqua, Carney Cobalt, and Dylan Salmon. Some of these masks were later repurposed for other characters. Others I made just in case someone wanted to attend at the last minute, but that didn’t happen; Frankie, Pizzy, Bat, and Dylan were not there.

Mustard mask
Front and center is the mask for Mickey Mustard. He could not attend. I got my revenge as you’ll read below. Behind that mask are a couple of white masks, one for Bruno Ivory and one for me to wear as Riley White.

The pictures above show the masks before they were decorated. The Guest Formerly Known as Robyn Teal (see below) came over and added details with glitter glue and metallic paint markers.

Looking at Masks
These are masks I purchased rather than made. I originally planned to wear the one at the top, but I discovered that the paper masks were far more comfortable than the plastic ones. For the fate of these unused masks, see the next picture.

Leftover masks
After the party, I was left with about a dozen masks. I mounted them on my walls to join other mementos. Here I show as many as I could conveniently fit in a single photo. Riley White’s fully-decorated mask is on the far right. Freddie Fuchsia’s mask is on the far left; she left it behind after the party.

For over a decade, my Wicca group has wanted to do ritual work with masks. Now we’ve got the tools to do it!

Party prep

Like most mystery party games of this sort, the Ravenwood Masquerade had a series of cards for each character. Each card is revealed in three successive rounds.

I purchased the game as a set of PDFs. MyMysteryParty offers pre-packaged kits with all the cards printed out and rolled up with a ribbon. I chose not to use that, and went with something fancier: I printed out the cards and created sets of envelopes, one set for each round. Each round’s cards were in envelopes of a different color, so both the players and I could tell which envelope applied to which round. All the envelopes were labeled with the character’s name, player’s name, and round number; Swift Publisher was handy for this.

I created another set of “pre-game” envelopes that I gave to the guests as they arrived. Each envelope contained the character’s name badge and a starting amount of play money (more on that below).

The PDFs came with images to be used as name badges. They weren’t bad, but I chose to use my own. I created these with Swift Publisher:

A stinkin' badge

I got badge holders that came with clips. I also put double-sided fabric tape on the back of the plastic so the guests could choose the way they wanted to wear the badges.

In the PDFs from MyMysteryParty, they have suggestions for additional games to play along with the mystery. I took one of their suggestions, and offered an award for the player who had accumulated the most play money by the end of the evening. I told the players, “We shall be shocked (shocked, I tell you!) if this encourages bribery, blackmail, extortion, or illegal gambling.”

I had decks of cards and social tabletop games at the party just in case someone wanted to play poker or something to get money. In the end, no one touched the cards.

I also created a trivia contest. All the questions had to do with real-life lives of the people at the party; e.g., “How many have taken a martial arts class?”, “How many have been to Australia?”, “How many have fed a tiger?”, “How many have been in a shipwreck?”

I created a sheet with the trivia contest, instructions about the play money, and space for people to vote for various awards: Most Suspected, Most Amazing Costume, Best Role-Playing, and so on.

I’ll tell you how well the money and trivia games worked below.

Since I knew these questions and votes (and later on, notes on the mystery) would require writing, I purchased a couple of packs of pens, both black and colored. Getting clipboards for each guest would be expensive, so I went with getting a pack of chipboard. I even got some of the colored pens back at the end of the party. I’ll use those for my own art projects.

I also arranged for a photography station, since I knew a lot of folks would want to preserve the memories of their costumes. I got a photography backdrop. Wolfe Indigo was kind enough to set it up at the party. He warned me that a backdrop of that size would accommodate only two people at most. As you’ll see from the photos, he was right.

Surprises

The expected

The victim

If you remember the start of this blog post, I did a complete costume change when I was a victim at my last murder-mystery party. I considered being the victim to do the same thing again, but after 15 seconds of thought I realized that as the host I couldn’t be away from the party long enough for a costume change.

I glanced through the cards in the PDFs just enough to determine which character was the victim. There was one potential guest who I knew was as into costuming as I was. When “V” RSVP’ed, I contacted them and asked if they’d consider playing the role of the victim. They enthusiastically consented.

V decided to play the victim role in the manner MyMysteryParty suggested: To come back as a non-speaking ghost. After V’s “body” was discovered, V changed into an all-white version of the same costume they’d been wearing. They then proceeded to creep out other guests through silent stares and body language.

The drumming

I knew that I was going to end the evening with a drum circle, and told the guests in advance. To transition into it, I worked out a bit of theatrics with Peyton Pewter: At the end of the awards, I said, “And now, the final award, for the most persistent drummer goes to–“. Peyton didn’t let me finish the sentence; he just started drumming. He got the drumming started and won an award at the same moment!

There was one more fun surprise. This one involved Ashton Jade, and I’ll describe it below.

The unfortunate

There was one unwelcome surprise: As I mentioned above, some roles in the mystery are “key” roles; the story can’t proceed without them. When casting the roles, I tried to be sure that the most reliable people I knew were given those roles. (I myself took a key role, to be sure.)

On the day of the party, one of people with a key role tole me they couldn’t make it. It was a health issue, and I wished them well, but it left me a slot to fill. The role was Reese Cerulean, so I started by looking at those guests who might have already purchased a blue costume. I contacted the first one I saw on my list, and she accepted.

That was how the Guest Formerly Known As Robyn Teal became Reese Cerulean. She only had a couple of hours to prepare, and she did an excellent job, really getting into the role!

The unknown

There was an unexpected surprise: a stranger showed up. I was confused; I thought she might have come to dispute the hall rental. It turned out that she’d seen in the event in the hall’s rental list and decided to check it out.

I left it to others to describe what was going on. At one point I overheard her say with anticipation, “Is it possible that I could be the murderer?”

As it turned out, she could have been. Finn Burgundy had to leave just before we started read to the cards for Round Three. I asked the stranger to read Finn’s card in Finn’s stead.

During the drumming, the stranger danced with us.

In no way was this advertised as an open event. I’m not sure what she expected or if there might be consequences down the line. But she did leave her email address and asked to be notified of any future events like this.

She might have to wait ten years.

The party

Before the mystery

Most of the guests arrived a bit early; I’d said they could if they wanted to help me set up. At my previous parties, many guests had a problem absorbing the idea of role-playing. At this party, to my delight, the guests got into their roles the moment they walked through the door.

The trivia contest went better than I hoped. I did not anticipate that the players would form teams and share whether the answers applied to them. It gave people something to do for first hour of the party, before the mystery started: “Yes, I’m taking Tae Kwon Do. How about the rest of you?”

Photos

Charlie and friends.jpg
At left is Charlie Periwinkle. He would win the award for the most Amazing Costume. In middle, Brad Olive chats with Danny Magenta. To the far right, Drew Golden lounges.

Riley White Pontificates
Mayor Riley White pontificates. On the left, Ashton Jade and Gary Gray look on.

Listening to the Mayor
The guests listen to the Mayor as he speaks. Who is that person in the lower right-hand corner? Does anyone remember inviting a “Jane Doe”?

Celebrity guests
Mayor Riley White introduces the celebrity guests. From left-to-right: Bruno Ivory, Omari Black, Deadbee Cyan, Brad Olive, Ashton Jade, Tele Taupe.

Clue Reference #1: “I’m sorry that astronaut Mickey Mustard could not make it. But after that interview he gave in Playboy, I’m not surprised. He’s now in big trouble. It seems that on the International Space Station, for the first time in space, “Colonel” Mustard did it in the lounge with a lead pipe.”

Brad Olive

Brad Olive.

Clue Reference #2: “Why do I have a problem with Brad Olive? Last year, Finn Burgundy put on that great production of Beauty and the Beast. Cass Chocolate did the amazing set design, and Izzy Maroon worked on the make-up effects. Well, that ham Brad Olive played Lumiére. His costume and his attitude caught the eye of my wife. And… well… Mrs. White did it in the bedroom with a candlestick.”

Scarlet and Black

Madison Scarlet and Omari Black.

Clue Reference #3: “We all know how kinky that federal agent is in her private life. In fact, just last week, Miss Scarlet did it in the kitchen with a rope!”

Bruno Ivory

Bruno Ivory.

Bruno Ivoey's card

Bruno Ivory got so into his role that he had cards printed up and handed them to other guests!

Scarlet and Mint

Madison Scarlet and Dr. Brin Mint. I was told that Brin also had cards printed up, but I didn’t get one.

Pewter and Scarlet

Peyton Pewter and Madison Scarlet. Peyton won the night’s award for Most Gentlemanly Costume.

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Freddie Fuchsia. Freddie won the night’s award for Most Ladylike Costume.

Lou Violet

Lou Violet captured our attention with her card tricks and her conspiracy theories. She wove an elaborate tale of corruption involving Riley White, Omari Black, and Reese Cerulean. Her paranoid ravings were absolutely accurate, but we didn’t have the heart to tell her.

White and Charcoal

Mayor Riley White and Alex Charcoal.

Carney Cobalt and Furen Copper

Carney Cobalt and Furen Copper.

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Avery Lemon and Wolfe Indigo.

Wolfe won the award for gaining the most play money at the end of the night. It was a beautiful bluff: He walked up to everyone and said, “I don’t understand how we’re supposed to get more money.” So people handed him money to show him!

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Deadbee Cyan was so cool that he didn’t bother to wear his mask. It stayed in his pocket most of the time.

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Logan Plum and Charlie Periwinkle. Logan Plum would win the award for the Most Likely Suspect.

Acorn Garden gang 2

A special circle of friends. Counter-clockwise from the left: Stevie Pink, Izzy Maroon, Mel Mauve, Cass Chocolate, Reese Cerulean, and Riley White. Note that Cass Chocolate’s mask is actually made of chocolate!

IMG_20191207_210907026 (1)
Oh no! There’s been a murder! And one thing’s for sure: Someone’s responsible!

What’s that money lying about? Is her hand holding a piece of paper with the number “1” written on it?

Whodunnit?

As the evening progressed, something fascinating happened: Whole new stories developed that had were not on players’ cards. Examples:

  • Charlie Perwinkle made a deal with Maria Lime to dump well-wrapped six-foot-long parcels out at sea and not ask any questions.
  • Riley White paid Furen Copper to tell Freddie Fuchsia that there was nothing wrong with her horse Dark Sail.
  • As Riley White, I made a deal with Danny Magenta to handle my social media presence for the next election.
  • I pointed out to Mel Mauve that if Omari Black got the lead anchor role at CBC news that she (Black) would have influence on what new shows got on the network.

With all the role-playing, I think few folks made a serious effort to solve the mystery. I shared the clues on my card to whomever asked. I remember Tele Taupe, Drew Golden, and Madison Scarlet trying to put the facts together.

As we sat down for Round Three, I asked for a vote for who people thought was the murderer. Most people picked me, but I declined the award since I was the host. I gave the award to the second-most suspected character, Logan Plum.

We then read the Round Three cards. Whodunnit? “M”, of course!

The big finish

There were some other awards, then we went over the trivia contest. The answers surprised me: It turned out there was more than one person who had fed a tiger. There was some friendly debate over what constituted a shipwreck; my final decision is that if someone made jokes about a three-hour tour, it was a shipwreck.

When we got to “how many at this party had LARPed” one of the guests (I believe it was Maria Lime) pointed out that everyone here had LARPed… at this party. I realized she was right. Brad Olive objected, saying that the question clearly was about the time before the contest. I had to reply, “You were role-playing at the moment you walked in through the door. You were LARPing! You are a LARPer! I call thee LARP!” He conceded the point.

But the trivia discussion was, in part, a smoke-screen. Its purpose was to give Ashton Jade a chance to sneak off and change into a belly-dancing costume. When the drumming started (remember the theatrics with Peyton Pewter?) Ashton Jade jumped into the circle and started dancing.

IMG_4935 (1)
If you look a bit left of center in this photo (stop staring at Ashton for a second) you’ll see Jane and John Doe. They rivaled Ghost V in their ability to creep people out.

I pulled out my drums and other percussion instruments and started handing them to people. Some joined in the music, others in the dance, and others watched or talked or whatever. In other words, a typical finalé to a party, though a standard beginning to a pagan celebration.

The awards

I created award certificates using Microsoft Powerpoint. They came out fairly well, I thought.

Certificates sample

After printing them all out, on the day before the party I realized I spelled the word as “EXCELLANCE” on the seal in the lower right. I quickly revised the certificates and used Staples to print them out on card stock. A couple of folks commented that misspelling “EXCELLENCE” was a cute joke, but I wanted it done right.

To the best of my recollection, here’s who won the various awards:

Celebration Dedication [1] Finn Burgundy
Masquerade Support Madison Scarlet
Masquerade Support Wolfe Indigo
Masquerade Support Reese Cerulean
Portraying the Victim V
Most Suspected Logan Plum
Being the Murderer M
Best Role-Playing Brad Olive
Most Gentlemanly Costume Peyton Pewter
Most Ladylike Costume Freddie Fuchsia
Most Amazing Costume Charlie Periwinkle
Gaining the Most Money Wolfe Indigo
Most Trivia Questions Answered Correctly Izzy Maroon
Cleaning Up After the Party Too many to remember, but they all got awards

[1] “Dedication” in this case meant she was at my 40th, 50th, and 60th birthday parties. Such a long time putting up with me surely deserves an award.

Cleaning up

It was in the rental hall contract to leave the place at least as clean as we found it. About 10 people stayed late and made sure everything was spic-and-span. (If any of those folks did not get a certificate, let me know.)

It was only when I got home that I discovered that the clean-up crew had put almost three trays of leftovers into my car. SO MUCH FOOD! I spooned it into plastic Chinese take-out containers I’d saved and put it in my freezer.

It’s almost two weeks later and I’m still having the leftovers for dinner. I’ve got at least another week’s worth to go.

One last thanks

I’ve thanked a lot of people for helping me out. It was an amazing experience, and it was my guests who made it so.

My final thanks goes to Dr. Bon Blossman, the author of the Ravenwood Masquerade Murder. We didn’t play the game the way you intended and we didn’t follow the solution to the mystery. We still had fun!

60th birthday – the invitation

I invite my friends (new and old, near and far) to my 60th birthday party.

Date: Saturday, December 7, 2019
Time: 6PM – 11PM
Location: This is a public blog post, so I’ll send the address separately. It’s the same place as my 40th and 50th birthday parties, and a few Yule celebrations.

The event: A professionally-published murder mystery, set during a masquerade ball.

If you’d like to come, please respond by Tuesday November 5 (Election Day!) with the information below. You can reach me via email, send me a message via Facebook, or text/call; my contact information hasn’t changed in 20 years. (I advise against replying directly to this WordPress blog post, as it’s visible to the public.)

Guests are welcome, especially those friends who did not see this invitation either via Facebook or email.

For each person who’s coming, I’d like to know the following information.

  • Your postal address, so I can send you game materials in advance.
  • An email address so your fellow players can contact you in-character before the party. If you only want to be contacted some other way, tell me; bear in mind that some of the other guests don’t use Facebook.
  • Your level of commitment to the mystery:

    • Category 1: “The show must go on! Neither daemons pouring from the gates of hell nor hosts of angels with flaming swords shall bar my way to Ravenwood Castle!”

      People in Category 1 will receive key roles. One of them may be a tragic victim. One of them may be a foul murderer.

    • Category A: “Stuff happens. I plan to be there, but I can’t make a firm commitment.”

      If you choose Category A, you’ll be in a role that offers clues to solving the mystery. You’ll be missed if you’re not there, but the other guests can forge on.

    • Category Alpha: “It’s hard for me to commit in advance. I might not even know if I can make it until a few hours before the party, or I could be late.”

      Those in Category Alpha will have auxiliary characters. If you can make it, you’ll be able to participate and provide more clues. Who knows? Your character might even be innocent of any wrong-doing.

  • The characters have color-based names (e.g., Finn Burgundy, Reese Cerulean). The game suggests people wear costumes and masks of that color to identify themselves. Let me know if you’d like me to help out with your mask.

    (You don’t have to come in costume, or even wear a mask. I’ll have name tags for everyone.)

We’ll coordinate food (it will be semi-potluck) and rides (e.g., more than one person may be coming from Philly) as we get closer to the date of the party.

Remember: NO PRESENTS! My response to any presents will be Shakespearean.

I look forward to seeing you there!

60th birthday – interested?

For my 20th, 30th, 40th, and 50th birthday parties, I organized events centered on gaming. As you’ll see if you click on the links in the first sentence, for my 40th and 50th I set up a LARP party. For my 60th birthday party, I’m going to take a simpler approach and host a murder mystery.

This is not an invitation to that party, at least not yet. This is to get a general idea of how many of my friends would like to come.

All I know right now is the date of the party: Saturday, December 7, 2019; the place is somewhere in the Rockland County/Bergen Country area. The exact location, the setting of the mystery, and other details depend on how many are coming. I’m leaning towards a masquerade party, but we’ll see.

If you’d like to come to my 60th birthday party, please let me know.

Fiddly bits

  • Please let me know before mid-October.
  • You can reach me via Facebook, or send me e-mail, or text me, or call. None of my contact information has changed in the past 20 years.
  • If you reply to this WordPress blog post, please leave your name. Otherwise the only thing I’ll see is the IP address, which won’t be enough for me to know who you are.
  • Guests are fine, but please let me know how many would be coming with you. The total number of people affects the location of the party and possibly the mystery’s setting as well.
  • I’m not asking for a commitment to attend, just general interest. I will ask for a commitment when I start assigning roles for the mystery.
  • Unlike the adventures of my last three birthday parties, which I wrote, the mystery will come from a professional publisher. Even I won’t know whodunnit.
  • NO PRESENTS!

    I was a dick about this at my 40th. I was a total dick about this at my 50th. I’m prepared to go completely Richard III at my 60th.

    I don’t want stuff. I have enough stuff. Friends and laughter and back rubs are what are important to me at this point in my life.

    One more time:

    NO PRESENTS!

Geela

I first met Geela Naiman in the early 1980s. There was an SF fan gathering at my house. Sherry Nehmer, an editor at Analog, was the featured speaker. Near the end of Nehmer’s talk, a friend of hers arrived to drive her home. That friend was Geela, though I didn’t hear her name at the time.

After he rose to fan prominence, I joked about Geela’s name: We had to keep Geela Naiman from ever meeting her anti-matter duplicate, Neil Gaiman. According to a Star Trek episode, if they ever met the universe would be destroyed. Since the universe still exists, I guess we dodged a bullet.

A few years later, in 1987, I was working on my thesis experiment at Fermilab near Chicago. One of my fellow grad students was Walter. After I moved to Nyack to perform the data analysis of my experiments, I met more of Walter’s friends and became a part of that circle: Geela, John, Deborah, and Jon. Typically we played D&D together and visited Ren Faires.

John and Geela got married. They held two wedding ceremonies, one for their family and friends in the NY/NJ area, and another for those in the Chicago area. I was one of the few who attended both ceremonies.

As an outgrowth of our D&D games, I suggested that we join a LARP. Here we are:

bronze-rose
This is the Bronze Rose adventuring group at what was then NERO-NJ, circa 1991-1992. (NERO-NJ later became LAIRE, the Live-Action Interactive Role-playing Explorers.) Clockwise from the left, here are Janet, Jon, Paul, Bill, Geela, and John.

Geela played a Halfling Rogue, Periwinkle Pipe. For her role, Geela wore a gray hooded cloak and sneakers that she covered with fur. The fun thing about adventuring with Geela is that she didn’t need any special “rogue skills” for the game. When she walked through the woods dressed in her costume, you really couldn’t see her, even when she was part of our party and we knew where she was!

After a few years, the Bronze Rose group faded and they stopped coming to LAIRE.

Geela entered a more difficult time in her life. She’d had bouts of mental illness before, and they finally reached a point where she had to go on full disability. She occasionally stayed in hospitals during that time. John stood by her and did what he could.

Eventually Geela and John got divorced. It was not only mutual, it was better for both of them. In the years afterward, they’d describe themselves as “happily divorced” and say they were a much better couple now than they had been when they were married.

I hosted my 40th birthday party in 1999. It was a LARP party. Geela came dressed as her character from LAIRE, but in a more colorful outfit suitable for celebration. Here she is, dancing during a Bardic Circle we held:

dancing5

A couple of weeks after that party, Geela invited me over to her place. John was there, but he left early and I was a bit surprised. Later, I achieved understanding when Geela made a pass at me. I joyfully intercepted.

We dated for a year or so. During that time she attended some Wiccan events with me. She liked the people and the mood, but there were elements of the rituals that bothered her; for example, everyone saluting the Quarters in unison. I accepted that Wicca was not for her. It surprised me in 2002 when she attended Free Spirit Gathering, but in short rations: she stayed with Sherry Nehmer (who lived nearby) overnight, and only attended the bonfire once. For her, the wild moment of the event was when Vann painted a few simple vines her arm.

She was the one who ended our relationship. She was growing closer to her family and community, and they were Orthodox Jews. They’d never accept her dating a Wiccan. Even if I’d been willing (and I was not) to pretend to be Orthodox in their presence, for years she’d told them stories about her friend Bill the Wiccan. A switch on my part would simply not be believable.

We remained friends, though.

With her LARP experience, I thought Geela would enjoy attending Mystic Realms. She attended an event and enjoyed it, though not enough to come back. What I remember most about her visit is her leaving early and getting into difficulty. She was in the parking lot and getting her car out, when she suddenly felt weak and disoriented. I went to her, and we raided the kitchen to get her something to eat. Presently she felt better and was able to drive home.

At a later visit to my place, she commented that what she experienced at MR was one of the symptoms of her mental illness. She said it most often occurred when she was in a supermarket. She’d be a food aisle and trying to make choices, and then gray out or feel disassociated.

I commented, “To a diabetic everything seems like diabetes, but what happened at MR and at the supermarket sounds an awful lot like low blood sugar. May I use my kit to measure it?” She consented, and I got a reading of 50. For comparison, 80 is normal for most people who haven’t eaten, and we had eaten a little while before. I strongly advised her to see a doctor.

She did. The doctor took her blood sugar, saw the reading, then immediately walked out of the office. He came back with a muffin and told her “Eat this now!” She was diagnosed with hypoglycemia and was given medication for it.

I was glad I was able to help her, but I was also furious. Geela had real mental problems, and I don’t mean to diminish them. But she was also being treated as if her physical problem of low blood sugar was a psychological disorder. She was in a hospital and being treated by doctors. Why didn’t they recognize the symptoms when Geela described them? Were they so focused on mental illness that they couldn’t recognize the obvious?

Let’s shift the focus back to Geela and her love of Judaism.

I’d invite Geela every year to my Passover seder. She came to my first one in 1994, but since then she attended the one given by her family. For some reason, she was available just once in the early 2000s. She came, and my seders forever changed.

My seders are based on the practices of my family that I learned in the 60s. Geela brought ideas with her that I’d never learned: Miriam’s Cup (an acknowledgement of women in Judaism), the orange on the seder tray (an acknowledgement of gays and lesbians in Judaism). But what made the greatest impression is what we later called the “Rocky Horror Plagues.” My family had solemnly listed the ten plagues and left it at that. Geela brought with her a “ten plagues kit” with props for us to play with and scripts for us to read.

Since then, I’ve had my own kit that I bring to each Passover. For a while the hosts of my seders could look forward to cleaning up plastic locusts for a few days after each ceremony. I’ve since graduated to ten-plagues finger puppets. None of that would have happened without Geela.

Going into the 2010s, I saw Geela less frequently. We’d make plans to visit, but most of the time she had to cancel due to illness, mental or physical. I got the impression that life was getting harder for her. The last time I saw her was when she and John paid me a visit during my medical convalescence.

Last Sunday, John wrote me to let me know that Geela passed away on the evening of Saturday, September 14, 2019. She will be buried in Israel on Tuesday, September 17.

So it goes.

Postscript:

One of my students learned a few years ago that they were technically Jewish through matrilineal descent, even though none of their family in that line practiced Judaism. That student had become more interested in their Jewish heritage.

On the night Geela passed away, there was a Wiccan gathering at my place. The discussion had turned to hamsas. I had a hamsa sitting on a cabinet. It had been a gift from my mother. It was pretty, with a ying-yang symbol in the palm and several pieces of colored glass around the base of the palm. It had a Hebrew inscription, which I did not know how to read. On the back was printed “Made in Israel.”

I picked it up. I told the student, “I’ve had this for years, and I’ve never used it or carried it. If you’d like to have it, to connect you with Judaism or for any other reason, please take it.” They did.

I think Geela would have been pleased. I am saddened that my student will never get a chance to meet Geela and share their heritage with each other.

11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica

My father is giving away one of his prize possessions: the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, published in 1911.

According to my father, this was known as the “scholars edition” because it was the last edition that could be used as a primary resource. For example, the article on penicillin was written by Alexander Fleming; the article on Communism was written by Leon Trotsky.

The taker would have to pay the postage if they wanted it shipped to them. That would be substantial since technically the 11th edition had 33 volumes, though I don’t know if my father has all the supplements. If a library wanted it, my father would consider paying for the shipping.

The volumes are not bound uniformly. My father assembled the collection over the course of years, and the books come from at least two different printings.

Any takers?

Sky: Children of the Light

thatgamecompany is known for making computer games for people who wouldn’t otherwise be interested in computer games. Sky: Children of the Light is their attempt at making a MMO (Massive Multiplayer Online) game for people who would otherwise not be interested in MMOs. In my opinion, they did not succeed; if you’re not already a gamer with some experience and/or aren’t willing to face some bitter disappointments, you’ll find Sky a difficult game.

The rest of this review contains spoilers, so: SPOILER ALERT! Since the game is meant to be played over and over again, at most I’m only going to spoil the experience of the first run-through. Or maybe I’ll spoil the game by giving a critical review to what is may be a delightful MMO if I got over my own limitations. Once again: SPOILER ALERT!

Background

In the first thatgamecompany game I played, Flower, you play a breeze guiding a flower petal to gather more flower petals. It was delightfully non-competitive. You could revel in the beauty of the environment, blowing past flowers to make them bloom and collect their petals. For the most part, you were playing with the game and not against it.

Their follow-up game, Journey, had you making an epic journey through several worlds to get to a light on a distant mountain. It introduced player interaction: In the second world, you met another player who could accompany you on the trip. You could only communicate through simple beeps. Your behavior options were limited: you could help the other person progress, or you could ignore them and proceed solo. There were hazards to avoid in a couple of the worlds, but the worst that could happen is that you’d lose the ability to fly somewhat and you wouldn’t be able to get some of the achievements.

When you complete Journey, you can play the game again. The incentive (apart from achievements) is that each time you’d meet someone else. Their behaviors could make each run-through different: Would they help you? Could you help them? Would they go off to journey solo? It didn’t matter that much from a game-play perspective, since the game didn’t require much skill to give a sense of satisfaction and completion. There was a zen-like quality to the worlds and the journey that made replays rewarding even if you didn’t meet anyone else.

Sky is similar to Journey: You travel from world to world, heading towards a light in a distant mountain. Your key mode of transportation is based on your cape; as you travel, you collect items (in Sky these are the Children of the Light) to improve your cape and let you fly longer. The design of the worlds in Sky is very similar to the worlds of Journey: the desert world; the skiing world; the world where monsters attack you; the world of the tower; the struggle to reach the summit of the mountain.

Children of the Light

The differences between Sky and Journey begin with your cape. In Journey the cape was useful but not required; in Sky it’s almost essential. Therefore visiting the Children and collecting their Light is a key component of the game. You can’t even visit the final world in Sky without collecting at least 20 of them, and if you consult the hint guides they suggest collecting at least 40 or more because of the difficulty of that level. My own experience is that you’d want at least 50.

Collecting all that Light is important. As you might guess, some of the Children are easy to find. Some are in locations so obscure that even with a hint guide you might not be able to find them. And some are in locations that are difficult to reach unless you have very precise control of your character.

In Journey, controlling your avatar wasn’t difficult. In Sky, the difficulty of controlling your avatar is a complex function of environment, world, cape energy, and whether you’ve just been slammed by a creature (more on that below).

More than once I’ve tried to do some precision flying in an environment and just clip some surface. The avatar starts ping-ponging all over the place, zooming uncontrollably, only able to turn slowly. If you were in the room at the time, you’d hear me screaming at my iPhone: “Why are you going over there? I didn’t tell you go there! Why aren’t you turning when I’m telling you to turn? Go up! I’m pushing the up button! Why aren’t you going up? Why are you flying when I’m telling you to jump? Why are you jumping when I’m telling you to fly?”

It makes me glad my cat is almost deaf.

As you might have figured out from the paragraph above, right now Sky is only available for iOS, on iPhones and iPads. When iOS 13 is released later this year, it will be possible to use a PS4 controller with iOS games. Perhaps then I won’t experience the frustration of trying to do precision movements on a touchscreen.

Hostile environments

As I said above, Journey had creatures that could damage your flying cape, but that wasn’t important to the overall trip. Sky also has creatures that can attack you and steal your Light, and gathering Light is basically the goal of the game. If your avatar loses Light and therefore flying power, you might have to start the game again from the first world.

Unlike Journey, in Sky these creatures are in dark environments where the screen contrast is very poor, even when when I crank my iPhone’s contrast to maximum. It can be hard to see the creatures, places you can hide, even exits from the area you’re in. There are worlds where standing in water drains your Light away.

Once, I was knocked by a creature into a dark area, my flying gone. The pit was filled with water, surrounded by blobs of blackness. I watched my Light disappear. I didn’t know what to do. (There’s a Sky equivalent of a Hearthstone in World of Warcraft, but I didn’t know about that option at the time.) I splashed around desperately, but there was no escape. Finally my avatar “died.” I found myself in another world of darkness, though with stars in the night sky at least, until I finally figured out the direction I was supposed to go.

If you play a game like Dark Souls, this sort of thing is par for the course. It certainly doesn’t match the zen-like joy of Journey or Flower. It’s as if thatgamecompany was trying to appeal to both hard-core gamers and the audience for their other games.

Other players

In Journey, you could meet with at most one other player in a given world. In Sky, when you enter an area there can be up to five players initially, and up to eight total (there’s a way to teleport to the location of one of your friends).

In the first couple of minutes of Sky, you’re limited to the same level of communication with your fellow players as in Journey: beeps and sitting down. That rapidly expands as you encounter Spirits, also known as Emotes for their basic reward. A Spirit takes you on a small trip across the landscape, with varying degrees of difficulty depending on the world. At the end of the trip you receive a new gesture, pose, or sound effect for your avatar.

There are something like 36 Emotes in the game, so potentially you have access to a wide range of expressions. Often you’ll see a group of players standing around in a common area showing off the Emotes they’ve acquired to each other. This sort of “playing around” is certainly not possible in Journey!

For more direct communication, there are chat benches in all the vendor areas of the game and scattered throughout the rest of the worlds. If two players sit on the same bench, they can type text messages to one another.

Another annoyance: The “microphone” key is not available on Sky‘s keyboard, so you can’t use the iPhone’s dictation feature.

For my part, I only found someone willing to sit on the bench with me twice. The first time they typed in Japanese. I tried to apologize for not understanding them, but they promptly left. The second time I was seeking help to get through one of the monster-laden worlds; the other player expressed ignorance and left before I could say more.

The next level of social interaction is to become Friends with another player. This costs a Candle (more on currency below). This allows you to assign a name to that player. For the few couple of Friends I took the time to compose names for them. After that I just hit “Randomize” for a quick name, so most of my Friends have names like Ewotuka, Acoc, Oyes, and Isefa.

The game is easier when you travel with other players. When you’re close to another avatar, the cape energy passively regenerates. When you’re Friends with another player, you have the option for one of you to hold the other avatar’s hand and lead them, guaranteeing the energy regeneration. You can even form chains of up to eight avatars, each one clasping the hand of the next one. There are Children of the Light that are almost impossible to reach unless someone else is there to help you regenerate.

You can see an example of this in the (spoiler-laden) videos available in the Sky wiki: https://sky-children-of-the-light.fandom.com/wiki/Sky:_Children_of_the_Light_Wiki. In those videos, the player forms her own chain by playing Sky with four devices at once, regenerating cape energy rapidly.

All of this sounds wonderful, but there’s a communications gap: Without text and with the range of Emotes available, you can’t tell if someone wants to accomplish a game task or just wants to play around.

Here’s an example: Someone offered to become Friends with me. I accepted. They offered to clasp my avatar’s hand, and again I accepted. They promptly dragged me into the initial area of the most monster-laden world. Then they go of my hand. I interpreted this as they were asking for a guide to get through it. I knew something about the region. As I alluded above, I’m crappy at dodging the monsters and precision flying so I couldn’t give them a complete tour, but I could offer something. I offered my hand, they accepted, and I took them deeper into the world.

It wasn’t until we were deep into that world that it became clear that the other player wasn’t looking for a guide, they had been looking to play with Emotes or something and had picked the most dangerous world at random. In a dark area, they activated a spell that made their avatar glow. This is a purely cosmetic effect; it does not illuminate your surroundings in any way. But in a dark zone, it made my iPhone’s screen wash out with the bright glow. I could no longer see the dark terrain and the dark exit to get out of the dark zone. There was only the glow of my companion.

I didn’t want to abandon them in a zone they didn’t understand, but I was stuck fumbling around blind. I tried to initiate a text communication with them, but they refused. (I later learned that Japanese speakers are often embarrassed that they can’t communicate with English speakers.) I continued to try to find a way out, but finally we met up with someone else who knew what they were doing and I joined them, leaving my first companion behind.

That’s just one incident, and I’ve experienced others. The bottom line is that there’s no way to express ideas like “Please, I need some help” or “Please, let me help you” or “I just want to dance” directly. You only have guesses based on behavior. In the incident I described above, I tried to be helpful only to come across as rude in the end.

Of course there are ways around this, but they’re the standard MMO tricks. In this spoiler-laden video (https://youtu.be/Ah_-W3XKEfY, recorded just last night as I type this) you can see a Sky expert coordinating with her friends using some communications program; I can’t tell if it’s Twitch, Discord, or something else.

Eventually this will all shake down. Some standards will emerge and communities will form. Perhaps there will be default communication channels for each language. Something like this happened with World of Warcraft, except that WoW provided open text communication from the beginning, and servers were already segregated by geographic region. Maybe a sort of pidgin will evolve based on the available emotes.

This is far from the contemplative joy and basic companionship in Journey.

Currency

There are five currencies in Sky: Candles, Hearts, Ascended Candles, Seasonal Tokens, and Seasonal Candles. The last two are for cosmetic improvements only, so I’m not going to discuss them further.

Candles are the basic currency. Once you’ve interacted with an Emote and gained a new expression, that Emote becomes a vendor in a world’s social area. Candles will let you purchase some upgrades for your avatar.

Candles are also the basis for social interactions between avatars. When you make an offer to become someone’s Friend, the cost is one Candle. To upgrade interactions with that Friend costs more Candles. To be able to text-chat with that Friend costs yet more candles.

Candles can be forged by collecting wax from other candles in the environment (something I do in real life) and from other sources. It’s possible to spend time in the game each day grinding for wax. According to one of the videos I linked above, you’d get about 15 Candles for two hours of work each day.

Here’s where the real-world money comes in the free-to-play app: You can also pay for Candles. For example, for $20 you can get 60 Candles (actually, it’s presently 72 for $20 as a new-game promotion). That lets you make Friends freely and purchase quite a few minor improvements for your character.

You may ask, given that my critical review of the game thus far, did I resist paying for Candles? I’ve already confessed that I’m a former WoW pet collector, so you can guess the answer.

If you want serious cosmetic improvements to your avatar (hairstyles, masks, trousers, capes), you have to move to the next level of currency: Hearts. These costume items have no effect on the game. They’re a digital good, like WoW pets, that solely affect the appearance of your character. The cost of new trousers might be 5 Hearts; the price for a really nifty cape might be 30 Hearts.

Hearts can’t be directly purchased through real-world cash. You can purchase them from the Emotes/vendors at a price of three Candles for one Heart… once for each vendor. Since not every vendor sells a Heart, you might get 35 Hearts this way (at a total cost of 105 Candles, which takes us back to spending real-world money for Candles).

You can also get Hearts from Friends. If you send a Friend a bundle of three Candles, they’ll receive a Heart. So the way to get Hearts is to give them. You send Hearts to your Friends and hope they’ll reciprocate. Of course, there’s no guarantee that this “investment” of Candles will pay back in Hearts, especially if you haven’t paid Candles to initiate a text chat with that Friend to arrange any deals. You send out bundles of Candles and hope for the best.

This leads to another my criticisms of Sky, in the choice of their iconography. Suppose a newcomer to the game meets me. I could use someone else when visiting a difficult world, so I offer to be Friends with them. They accept, we travel around, I show them where some hidden Lights are. Later, I send them a Heart to see if we can work out an exchange.

Is this how they perceive it? There’s nothing obvious in the game about the informal Heart economy. You can read about it in fan-based web pages (that’s how I learned it) and it may be implied in the optional game tutorials (I haven’t checked).

In other words, a newcomer adventures with a stranger for a brief while and later they get a Heart from them. It might be perceived as a creepy gesture. I wish the Heart wasn’t a “heart” but some other icon without the same connotations.

That leaves Ascended Candles. They are a reward for going through the final world successfully; if you recall above, that’s the one that requires at least 20 Light to enter. The more Light you enter that zone with, the greater the potential reward… if you can manage a challenging environment.

The Ascended Candles can be used to purchase “permanent” cape upgrades from the Emotes/vendors; most vendors offer one such upgrade and a couple offer two. Each upgrade means that when you start the game again, your cape starts out with additional Light. Overall, this gives Sky some of the visceral feel of Diablo: You go through the same adventure each time, but you get a bit more powerful and maybe you can handle some tougher challenges.

Ascended Candles can also unlock the most potent Friend option: To be able to Warp to a Friend’s location within the same game world. Since Ascended Candles are so hard to get, I’d only use this option on someone I really, really trusted.

Unskippable Cutscenes

I wanted to mention the unskippable cutscenes in this review. Have I talked about the unskippable cutscenes yet? There are unskippable cutscenes. They’re annoying after the first playthrough, especially if you’re in the middle of a complicated maneuver that gets interrupted by an unskippable cutscene. There are skippable cutscenes, but not enough compared to the unskippable cutscenes. If you think this paragraph is wordy and annoying, just wait until you have to deal with the unskippable cutscenes.

Conclusions

I investigated Sky because a friend of mine was a big fan of Flower and Journey. They were looking forward to another game from thatgamecompany that echoed the meditative qualities of those two. I offered to test the waters for them and walk them through Sky when they were ready, as I had when I introduced them to Journey.

Sky: Children of the Light is not the game I think they were expecting. When my friend finally has the chance to sit down and play the game with me, I think they will be disappointed. It’s not likely that they’ll read this review (my blog is so obscure that not even my good friends read it), but I’ll keep the critical tone out of my voice and let them make their own judgements.

I’m neutral on the monetization of the game. You can play Sky without spending a dime. You can forge your way through the game solo, get the 20 Light to be pounded in the final zone, emerge to see the game’s ending, then never play again; I think you’d have more fun doing basically the same thing in Journey. You can also make Friends and gain Hearts by grinding for Candle wax, but you’ll spend time instead of money.

I think my WoW friends would perceive Sky as a very light MMO. I can easily see some of them playing Sky with one hand as they tank Ragnaros with the other… if they cared to play Sky at all. There’s definitely a market for people who like light MMOs; Second Life is one example. But I believe there’s more to do in Second Life than there is to do in Sky.

Sky is too much of an MMO to be like Flower and Journey. I’m turned off by its occasionally frustrating controls, difficult environments, and player communication issues. I hoped for better from thatgamecompany.

References

Warning: This post contains self-indulgent meanderings on the passage of time. If you young’uns can’t handle that, skip this post and get off of my lawn.

A few weeks ago I was in the lunch room of Nevis Labs. I was the oldest one there. The rest were summer students about 20 years old. The topic had shifted to assigning everyone there an alignment according to the D&D system. I was assigned “Chaotic/Good”, which I accepted.

I’ve had problems with the D&D system that were older than the students there, and its alignment system is one of those problems. In an attempt to be satirical, I said, “Okay, now we can figure out which of us is Samantha, or Carrie, or Miranda, or…”

Dead silence. They looked at me blankly. They had no idea what I was talking about.

I muttered something about Sex and the City and retreated into my private thoughts. Three feelings washed over me:

  1. I felt the usual disappointment of a geek who made a reference that no one else got.
  2. I felt old. I’m almost three times the age of the summer students this year. In a couple more years, I will be more than three times the age of summer students at Nevis. Will I even be able to understand what those kids are saying as time goes on?

    After all, it’s normal for most culture to be ephemeral. A couple of personal examples come to mind:

    • Back at Cornell in 1978, I had a friend named Adams Douglas; his mother wanted to remind him that he was a great-to-the-nth descendant of John Quincy Adams. You can try to do a web search on Adams Douglas, but he’s hard to find because you’ll get thousands of results about some other guy.

      Adams was the son of the actors Jan Sterling and Paul Douglas. They were household names in the early 50s. But by the time I knew Adams, they were already forgotten, footnotes in cinematic history.

      Adams himself has become a footnote. He passed away in 2003, a year before his mother did.

    • Also in 1978, I happened to read a play called Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines. It was written in 1901, and assumed that the audience would be familiar with a song of the same title that was written in 1868.

      The song had been popular for 33 years at that point. It probably felt reasonable to assume that it would stand the test of time. It didn’t. When I read the play 77 years later, I had no idea that the song existed. It’s now 41 years after that, and despite an opera written in 1975, I’m probably one of the few people left who still remembers that the song/play/opera ever existed.

  3. Triumph! The geeks had won after all!

    Let’s look at some dates. Sex and the City was broadcast from 1998 to 2004. It’s only 15 years later, and it’s beginning to fall off the “cliff of relevance”. If you consider the Nevis summer students as a representative sample (and there are many arguments that would suggest they are not), then if you’re 20 years old or less you will never have heard of it.

    Dungeons & Dragons was first published in 1974. It’s 45 years later, so it’s three times older than Sex in the City. (Note the similar age ratio of me to the summer students.) Some of the students took the superior-intellectual stance and claimed they had never played D&D, but they all knew what it was and knew about the alignment system.

    I got my copy of D&D in 1975. (I still have it; it’s probably worth some money.) I remember parental disapproval, the claims that D&D caused teenagers to commit suicide, the claims that it was Satanic (BADD). All of that has pretty much fallen off the cliff of relevance (though my father still doesn’t “get it”).

    What’s survived? The D&D alignment system, obviously. So have half-Orc Barbarians, Lawful/Good Paladins, dual-class Sorceror/Rogues, Dwarven warriors, Elvish wizards, Mages’ towers, Lich pits, Demogorgons, Beholders, platinum pieces, Bags of Holding, armor classes, experience points… and of course, dungeons filled with treasure and dragons filled with menace.

    They’ve not only survived, but thrived. Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha are fading. The geek dream lives on!

Obviously, I’m glossing over a lot of cultural complexity in order to make a mildly amusing point. Sex in the City appealed to thirty-something women looking for relationships; that’s not likely to have much appeal to 20-year-old science students. For my part, I may have seen no more than three episodes out of the 94 made, though I do know about SitC‘s four-fold path.

Also, the “cultural competition” associated with SitC is different than that of D&D. There are lots of relationship comedies out there, and the genre is continually reinventing itself as new issues come to light. For example, did SitC ever explore the difficulties of the transgendered to find relationships? (I have no idea.) I know such series exist… but they’re not SitC.

On the other hand, D&D is a tabletop role-playing game fixed in a general fantasy setting. The existence of other media in the same setting (the Lord of the Rings movies, the Game of Thrones TV series) tends to increase interest in D&D, not push it off the cliff of relevance. Even the existence of competing fantasy role-playing games such as Pathfinder and Rolemaster tends to reinforce the ideas and memes associated with D&D even if their players have never read the D&D rules.

Does this mean D&D will pass the “test of time”? By my own arbitrary definition, we won’t know until everyone who was alive in 1974 has passed away. If they’re still talking about hit points and character stats by then, then the geeks can score permanent victory. By that definition, I will never live long enough to be certain.

In the meantime, I can stave off some of the pang of aging into cultural irrelevance by shouting out with glee: “Stuff it, Carrie! And suck it, Captain Jinks!”