Favorite Movies

This is a sticky topic for me. When people figure out I was a film major in college they tend to think I should be able to rattle off a list of my all time favorite movies and moreover think they should be able to then judge my taste based on this list. Eh. I’m not really what some people expect from a film buff. I’ve seen the best of the heralded best or so I’ve been told. I understand films on some levels other people don’t always consider I suppose. I appreciate composition, direction, performance, complexity and metaphor. But, I don’t always. More often than not I am along for the ride like anyone else and things like my mood, time, comfort of my seating situation and hunger all effect my preference of one film over another. Not to mention it takes time to think of all the movies I’ve seen, I don’t keep any written record so, who knows, maybe I missed a great one somewhere. Some of these films I appreciate for just pure enjoyment purposes, others are saying something that at least interests me — profound or not. Others I find compelling for their accomplishments in technical ability or in their ability to push the capability of the visual medium. Mixed bag. Finally, I attempted to do a top 10, I don’t know how stuck to this numbering I am. If I did this tomorrow I might change my mind entirely.

Honorable Mentions

Wall-e  – Woah! I’m started with a pixar animation? Yeah. That’s the kind of list this is going to be. Listen. This is a meaningful story about the destruction of the habitability of the earth. Not only is it saying something interesting, the pacing is great, the visuals are superb and the story has a good bit of seriousness and whimsy. Do it all with a robot that says one word, and do it well. It’s a damn good animated film and you can watch it with your kids.

Kingdom of Heaven — I don’t even know if this is considered a good film. The plot has holes, the acting at time is a little weak. Yet, I really like it. A world grappling with it’s competing religions, a man grappling with his past and future. As forced as it might be it spends some time considering some of the big questions and I like that with a little bit of sword fighting mixed in. Not a great one maybe, but, this is my list because I like it.

Gone with the Wind — Ah yes. Everyone who even wants to think about movie-buffness has seen this one. The glorious american south. Civil war. Southern Belles. Yeah. It’s big, it’s long and I found it compelling and filled with great performances and equaling imagery. I think it was an ambitious story to tackle and well done all around.

The Searchers — If you’ve never seen a John Wayne film directed by legendary western director John Ford and don’t plan to in the future — I’d still say this is one to look at. John Wayne was good at what he did. This movie has a darkness to it as well,  following a man searching for his missing niece with the will to do anything to retrieve her. I had a hard time between this and Stagecoach which I see as sort of equals; both great watches.

Rear Window — A Hitchcock masterpiece of set construction and studio film making. The film is focused down to the level of a play but uses space and shot composition in a way that would never work on stage. Suspense and intrigue in a film that many people will point to as a cinema classic. It lives up to billing and is very accessible while others of its caliber can sometimes be harder to embrace.

Braveheart – This movie highlighting the Scottish legend William Wallace is just a cliche of itself at this point. I don’t know how well it was received when originally in theaters but I think now it’s mostly viewed as cable movie trash. I found Gibson engaged, intense and powerful in this one. I found the plot available and easy to watch at any point. I’ll even go back to this when I’m sick or tired as something familiar to which I can return. Between this and The Patriot which are honestly pretty similar movies I have maybe seen them 5 or 6 times. Neither fails to give me a little tingle near the heroic ending. The modern hero movie with super powers and explosions might be flashy but William Wallace had passion and it gives me little goosebumps when his memory fuels that final battle his people yelling his name as they charge into battle. Might be a guy thing, but, I’m a guy so deal with it.

10. The Big Labowski

I had to fit a cult classic somewhere in this list. I could have gone with Super Troopers or something like Sean of the Dead but I think TBL has such a special feel to it that I think it gets the spot on this list just for sheer acting talent. Jeff Bridges might make the movie what it is but John Goodman certainly does his bit to help it along too. The pacing and story is very unique and the cohen brothers are known for this style of using unconventional plot devices to create a story that seems wandering at times but ends up having a great arc.

9. Back to the Future

I once themed a party around watching the back to the future trilogy. We wound up getting drunk based on bad rules to a drinking game based on memorable lines. The problem was Back to the Future is full of memorable lines due to the fact that we were seeing Michael J. Fox in his prime in a well written and directed series that combined the 1980′s and time travel. By scrutinous film connoisseur standards this is probably a marginal movie. By mine? It’s a classic. Watch it 5 times and that’s probably not enough.

8. My Neighbor Totorro

I am a fan of Hayao Miyazaki. A big fan. They are a breed of kids movies that takes the time to appreciate the beauty of quality illustration and animation. They have their own pacing and sometimes even dark story lines tied to the pure bright beauty of the studios animations. My neighbor Totorro  is a classic of the group, while not the most acclaimed (Spirited Away), kid friendliest (Ponyo) or the most visually striking (Princess Mononoke) it does end up being a sort of poster child for the Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli movie franchise. My interest outside of the visual whimsy is the story revolving around two young girls who are dealing with their mother’s poor health in a new house, new school and new place. They are growing up and struggling against the unfairness of life. With two daughters of my own (who love Totorro) I have a certain sentimental soft spot for this great film.

7. Magnificent Amberson’s

Orson Welles cinematic classic Citizen Kane was no doubt a masterpiece. In its time however it was not well received (probably because the unwashed masses don’t really care about shot composition or metaphor). When it came then to his second films in complete creative control the studio decided to relieve him of his direction near the end of the filming process and edit what they had as they saw fit. Without the vision of Welles the film was mangled and released by RKO with a happier ending and cutting 40 or so minutes from the production. All that said. This film was the a masterpiece of Welles deep understanding of visual story-telling. Shot composition and camera movement were superb even in what was available. This is a mix of what is, which is good, great even and  notion of what could have been.

 6. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

I like Jim Carey in his comedic roles, but this film proved  his acting chops don’t stop there (by the way, the whole cast was great). His performance, along with the deep and complex storytelling and visual metaphors put a fairly recent film in a place, in my mind, to compete with other great films of the past. Here though, there is something very watchable about the film. There is a lot going on, time is a little non-linear but it’s also something to settle down with on a rainy day or a winter evening. It’s heady, but I think the relative newness and modern visual treatment gives the film a very accessible feeling. Film buffs and people who just like movies can all find something to like here.

5. Pan’s Labyrinth

Gueillmo Del Torro, perhaps better known for his Hellboy films, has put out a couple dark, spanish language films about fairy tales and monsters. Pan’s Labyrinth is certainly dark in both the daylight and the night when the fairy tales are real. The world of hidden fairy tale secrets is not a sunshine and rainbow filled escape for the young girl who is the protagonist of the film, it’s equally dark and scary as the Spanish Civil War being fought all around her. The result is a haunting, beautiful and scary world and a great film.

4. Gangs of New York

It’s a masterpiece for a number of reasons I hardly feel the need to get into. Foremost of these is the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis. Yeah DiCaprio is the main character and he does well in his own right but this movie belongs to The Butcher and his portrayal by Day-Lewis. Not only is this really well done, interesting and capture the wonderful world of old New York in all it’s grittyness — but it also has a great historical context ending in the Draft Day Riots of 1863. I can’t help but trying my New York accent and throwing the kitchen knives every time I see this one.

3. Bicycle Theives

This one is a little tougher to get your hands on and your head around for a number of reasons most notably because it’s a little older (1948) and originally in Italian. But it’s characters, plot and cinematography are both beautiful and heartbreaking. I’m not sure if it’s possible to see this film without a tear in your eye even if you’re not a parent. I haven’t done it yet and I don’t expect to now that I have children of my own. This is one of those films that will always show up on the lists of greatest films and has every right to be there.

2. Moonrise Kingdom

There was a point in movie making in the 2ks or 2010′s where there were a lot of these films that had this purposely against the grain, strange takes on real life feel type of feel to them. A type of film with which I was just on the edge of being sick to death. Just before I gave up on trying to watch some of these films– looking for one of them to say something interesting — I found this film about a boy and a girl and fell in love. It was weird, quirky and met every expectation of that indy genre with ease, yet it had something deeper down at the heart of it. As the plot meanders every which way I defy anyone who has ever been in love to not adore this film.

1. 8 1/2

This film has pretty much everything someone who fancies them self a film buff would like to sink their teeth into and is frequently called the greatest film ever made about film making. Creative use of every part of cinema; every element deserves, if not begs for a second look and a second thought. The exploration is of the self here and moving into the mind of a film maker and creator in such a way presents plenty of bizarre, non-linear story telling opportunities (which are fully exploited). I think what might distinguish this film a bit more so though, are the moments where madness seems to take over but is then weaved back seamlessly into a graceful dance Fellini orchestrates masterfully.

That’s the list for now. We will have to see how it changes going forward but, some really great ones here many of which I am now anxious to re-watch.

Prayer for my Godfather

I wanted to share this Prayer my Godfather gave at our wedding. He was thoughtful enough to type it out for us and now, this week, after he passed away this past Saturday I can look back on it and him fondly.

Heavenly Father,

We come to you with humble hearts and joyful spirits to express our gratitude for the union in marriage which we have just celebrated between our godchild David and his lovely wife, Lauren.

As David and Lauren embark on heir new journey, we ask you dear Lord to surround them with your light and love. Guide them, protect them, keep them safe and help them to never lose their sense of humor along the way.

We also ask you, loving Father, to bless this meal prepared in honor of David and Lauren. In your kindness, bless this gentle young couple, their gracious and kind parents and grandparents, all of us present, and those who cannot be with us at this happy celebration.

As companions on a journey, may we be mindful of our blessing and in turn, extend a helping hand to those in need – especially the last and the least.

Merciful Father, kindly grant us your blessings in the name of our Lord, Jesus.

-

And now I think I owe him and his family one.

Heavenly Father,

Maurice has come home to you to be welcomed into your arms. He is now whole again in your love — healthy, smiling and at peace.

Please now use us, your faithful servants, family and friends of Maurice and his family to be there and comfort the family he leaves behind. Help Ellen find peace and be there for David and Dan as they mourn for their father.

I ask of you these things in love and remembrance of Maurice, who lived a righteous life and believed wholeheartedly in your eternal power and glory.

In your name; Amen.

Patience

Today I am 28 years old. I don’t think much of the day really. It’s not like I’m turning 30 and have to have some kind of a crisis about the whole thing. There have been many events that have made me consider my age considerably more than this particular day. For instance my eldest daughter started asking me questions about the moon the other day.

“How do I get up there?” She asks. I smile at her; we have done this before.

“I don’t know, Hannah, how do you get up there?”

“Maybe in a rocket ship.” She says reaching up to the darkening sky.

Smart kid. This makes me consider my age. I’m 28, and I’m having a conversation, about science, with a two-year-old — my two-year-old.

My age is a product of times I’ve gone round the sun. It’s the struggles of the earths daily rotations. Laughter, loss, love, dept, overcoming obstacles, crashing down to the earth and then getting up. 28 years of life and I don’t feel much different in many ways. I’m in comparably better shape than I was 5 years ago. I am slightly more world-aware; more world-weary too. What, though, can I say about being 28 that should mean something to somebody?

So far, the difference between 28 year old David and say 21 year old David is the great amount of patience that comes with age. Some people call this wisdom. I’m not sure I want to quite go that far. I have learned to be patient at this point in my life. I don’t press through things forcefully anymore, I will wait for an opening and slide in where resistance is lightest. Screaming children are just a moment that will pass. I’m not afraid to just sort of enjoy that moment and know that they will soon be too old to have a good crying tantrum. I vividly remember being ready to jump into action at any time, for good or ill when I was younger. Make something happen. Solve a problem, fix a break, mend a tear.  Now I want to just soak it in a little bit before I get too busy I miss the whole thing.

Patience.

It’s what you get when you’re an adult. Oddly, it’s the sense of having time to wait for things, time to enjoy things. And yet, I have less time now than I have had in the past. Less time on this planet remaining, less time available with everyone’s busy schedules. But, patience. That’s what I’ve accomplished in 28 years.

Now I have to teach Hannah a little of that patience; she’d like to go up and visit the moon.

Modern Art

a short story, just for fun

I should have been happy. Check that, I should have been elated. I was finally going on a date with Jessica. Jessica. The girl with the shiny brown hair I spent most of my sophomore year following across campus in hopes that she’d drop her left glove so I would have a reason to talk to her. Jessica. The girl who sat two rows down in my biology seminar and laughed at all of Dr. Hammersteins stupid cell division jokes. It had finally happened; she had leapt from the pedestal of my desire and into my life. We had become something of friends, or at least acquaintances, and finally I had mustered the courage to ask her on a date.

That is, if you consider her assignment to take notes at the Art Institute a date. That’s where we were going. I meant to ask her to lunch but before I could get the words out of my mouth she was on about her Art History class and how she could use some company — and besides I had taken the class last semester so I could “help her out.” Her words, not mine.

“Sure,” I said. Hardly before my brain had registered what my plan for a semi-romantic lunch date, and then who-knows, had turned into. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to spend time with her, but, Art History, the Art Institute, those were two things I preferred not to revist. How can anyone find anything romantic about 20th century german expressionism?

“Great Jeremy, I’ll see you there.” And with a smile and a graceful whirl of that long, brown hair she turned and stepped out into the quad, and was lost in a crowd of 20-somethings sporting fall jackets, shuffling through the soggy, fallen leaves.

On saturday we took my car out of the parking ramp and set off for the Art Institute. She in her purple striped scarf she had knit herself tucked into her denim jacket; I in my Game of Thrones hoodie and cleanest pair of jeans I could find in my hamper. The ride was quiet. We made some small-talk but it mostly all led us back to her assignment and what parts and exhibits we were supposed to see. I liked Jessica, a lot. I could hardly keep the car in our lane for watching her nurse her coffee snuggled into my passenger seat, but I couldn’t hardly imagine going to a more boring place for what I was still stubbornly considering our first date.

At the Art Institute I tried to pay for her ticket, but, wound up getting cut off by an elderly couple who managed to take up the entire entryway with their wheelchair and walker. By the time I had caught back up with Jessica she had her billfold out and was handing over a credit card. ‘Alright, stay cool,’ I managed to coach myself. ‘It’s still a date. This is modern times when women are strong, independent and pay for their own food and entertainment.’

We proceeded through the exhibits: postmodernism, cubism, impressionism. She asked questions of me and I dragged up as much of my previous semesters art knowledge I could muster.

Her question sheets and notes were just about completely full when we entered the German Expressionism exhibit. My head was starting to ache from lack of hydration and my feet were killing me over the last two and a half hours of talking about art I didn’t care for and trying to remember stuff that I had tried as hard as I could to forget. She sat down on a bench in the middle of the space and I took the seat beside her. We looked at the central painting for a few minutes which oddly reflected my feeling about this art exhibit fiasco quite well. Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

“Hey, Jeremy?” She asked in her note taking tone. I made a sound to let her know I was listening halfway between a grunt and a sigh. “I wanted to thank you for doing all this with me. You’re a really good guy to spend your afternoon helping me.” My head spun up into a whir. Were we having a talk? About me? About her? Certainly not a talk about us, or was it?

“Yeah, uh, I mean, I don’t mind helping,” I paused for a moment to gather my suddenly pitching and rolling insides. “It’s no big deal,” I finally sputtered out.

“It is a big deal!” And as she said that she turned her head from the painting and looked me right in the eyes. Brown, brown, brown. Deep wells of beautiful brown eyes. My stupor, hunger, love, lust, thirst, attraction, headache and everything blended together on puree—all in an instant and my stomach turned. This girl that I had been dreaming about for over a year, who just used and abused me to finish her homework in the world’s most boring dungeon of creativity, who had the most beautiful brown eyes I had ever seen was looking straight at me and telling me what I did mattered to her—that I mattered to her. Her gaze cut right through me and made everything swim together.

“Jeremy, I like you.” She said brazenly, eyes locked impossibly on mine.

Yes! Yes, yes yes! I thought. I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. She wasn’t using me for homework; this WAS a date. This was a moment when it happened — when everything started. I saw it all at once like a movie had started in my head. I saw our first kiss, our first dinner together, candlelight flickering on white linen. I saw us furnishing our first apartment with the furniture from my parents basement, our wedding, our kids, growing old together every clichéd moment down a path that was starting right now, in this very moment.

My head pounded and my stomach gave another sickening lurch. As quickly as my joy lit through me in an emotional tour of the rest of my life, it was gone. Oh no! Oh, no, no, no! I felt a tempest welling inside of me, an unavoidable monster of anxiety, relief, shock, emotion and sick. Sick, sick sick. I was going to be sick. The white walls, the bright lights, my pitching stomach, my pounding head, the screaming man, our future, my past, beautiful brown hair and eyes to match, cell division, everything together all in this moment where I had to say something back to her. Here it was, here I was, the rest of my life hinged on this moment.

“Well?” She asked. Her face played into a smile that said she knew about my crush, that she knew me right down to my soul but it all blended into the churn of my feelings, my memories, my imagination, my stomach.

All I could say was, “I’m going to be sick.”

As I said it, I stood. As I stood, I saw the look on her face change. As I saw the look on her face change, I saw the flashes of the rest of our life dissolve into one last sickening lurch of my stomach. I’d like to say I found a way to do anything gracefully at this point. I’d like to tell you she wasn’t horrified; I’d like to say I pulled myself together and made something good from something bad.

All I can say is that I ruined some old ladies shoes, there was an awkward and silent ride home, and that was all.

Lord of the Rings: War in the North Review

There are so many games available at the click of a button and the authorization of a credit card these days that critic ratings, meta scores and top notch marketing generally differentiate the games that people are even willing to try to the games that never get a chance. Frequently buying a game, especially on PC or Console is an all or nothing proposition — a leap of faith. You might spend $60.00 on a game you play for 2 hours and $3.99 on a game you play to completion multiple times. Aside from rare demos, having a friend who already owns it or the occasional beta, there is usually no way to know if a game will be something you will like or even if it is any good. Generally, this leads gamers to lean heavily on meta score, marketing campaigns and general hype. When it comes to even trying a game that requires co-op play and multiple people to own the same title trying the game is nearly an impossibility. So how did Lord of The Rings: War in the North sneak through this barrier for me? War in the North has a meta score of 66, a bevy of so-so reviews, and requires multiple licences (one per player) to play cooperatively online.

Where it went right for me personally was showing up in a Humble Indy Bundle and the familiar LotR franchise name. I recall the bundle was not enticing to me at all, but, thanks to a theme I enjoy and a set of mechanics I usually like (RPG, Co-op) I decided to attempt to get someone else on board to play with me. I managed to talk my brother into getting the game and it appears as if one of my other friends also got the bundle, perhaps for this game or perhaps for another. Either way, I know three people who own this game — so let’s play right?

Well, truth be told, I have not played every game I own. I don’t know how many I have played and how many I haven’t but, I’d go out on a limb and say I have played only 65 or 70 percent of the games I own. This is a growing issue for many people who game via steam. Thanks mainly to bundles and holiday sales we now face an overflowing wealth of available games that we already own but haven’t touched yet! The 10 year old me with an super nintendo with 6 games is baffled by that last sentence. Compile that weird problem with my advanced age (I’m 27), a job, 2 kids and other responsibilities I am facing more potential gaming than possible gaming — that is the place where sale items and bundled games go to die.

So now Lord of the Rings: War in the North has to grapple and wrestle with the 157 other games in my steam library and attempt to eventually emerge as the game that is going to get played at a particular moment. Months went by and there were a few times when my brother and I almost got a chance to play together and then… it didn’t work out. Other games came and went and War in the North waited. That is until this weekend when my daughters were napping (one on my lap) and my 13 year old nephew was hanging out for the afternoon. We had, what turned out to be, two whole hours with nothing to do and two computers to do it on. Thanks to fast internet and two steam accounts with the game in the collection waiting to be downloaded we were off and running in 15 minutes. War in the North was getting its shot to impress us.

What it is

Lord of the Rings, War in the North is a 1-3 player, co-operative, action rpg. In some ways it brings games like diablo to  mind. Baddie killing, loot hunting action from the 3rd person. On the other hand, the 3rd person camera is tighter, and the combat is a little less clicky in ways that draw comparison to playing skyrim in 3rd person view. Characters have stats like Diablo 2 that grow as you level: Strength, Stamina, Dexterity, Wisdom, etc. Characters also have a skill tree like some of the MMO’s and RPG’s of old (and one of my favorite newer RPG’s: Torchlight). Combat is mostly clicking (or button mashing on a controller) to swing your weapon with a nice addition of toggling to a ranged weapon which requires first-person shooter like aiming via cross-hairs. Your character also has a few special abilities that can be used via an energy meter and skills generally augment those abilities. As I mentioned I played this game with my 13 year old nephew who, when asked, claims his favorite game is Skyrim. This game fits into that general fantasy theme, features skills and magic and at times did have a very skyrim type feel to it. I personally wont claim a favorite game but will admit: I like the genre, I like Lord of the Rings and a game that features cooperative fighting really lands in my wheelhouse. We were both a little confused up front, but stumbled our way through the controls and the early story. Essentially we were a group of heroes fighting orcs and goblins doing something for Aarogon (who I assume is King of Gondor at this point). What exactly the point of our mission was, well, we weren’t sure. We also didn’t mind not knowing because the game starts out with a bunch of enemies running at you and before you know it you are elbow deep in orc blood just trying to stay on your feet.

Here are my quick takes:

The good

  • Combat was fun, rewarding and challenging for us even on the normal setting. It’s not complicated but with just a few general moves you can have a lot of fun. There is a block, dodge, two weapon swings, arrow shooting, and 3 special moves for each character. Enemies can be weak and numerous, large and boss-like, have spells or can be rigged with explosives. Missions can be hold out in an area, kill all the enemies, attack a position or defend an NPC. All of that just in the first couple hours of gameplay. What’s more, the combat has a very rewarding feeling to it. When you hit an enemy they are knocked back and you can press the attack and pummel them into the corner or dodge away and manage a few foes at once.
  • Coop was mandatory but fun. Even if you play this game solo, your get two allies that fight with you. We chose the fighters while the 3rd healer character was an AI. The AI was actually not too bad, generally helpful, got into fights that it shouldn’t have here or there but overall wasn’t a problem. Playing with a friend or two (in my case 1) was a blast though. We could double team difficult foes, call eachother over for help or when one of us was “down” (meaning we were at 0hp) we could call the other over for healing (a mechanic similar to Left4dead where a teammate needs to help you up).
  • Loot was exciting and not overdone. A lot of time the problem with and RPG like diablo is that you spend half your day managing all the junk you pick up along the way. This game gave us items that were more or less useful without making us spend too much time managing them. We traded some items back and forth and sold some of our stuff 1 time while playing (and we could have opted not to). The combat was pretty non-stop and we, so far, hadn’t felt the need to spend time buying and selling items to progress in the story.

The bad

  •  As much as I wanted to be playing this game with a controller, the xbox controller implementation was lackluster. Maybe it was just me, but, having to control the camera with the other joystick and having to aim with the 2nd joystick is a major turnoff for a fast paced action game like this. Also the special abilities wound up being odd key combinations and just felt unnatural. I like that the support is there, but I just didn’t prefer it. Your mileage may vary.
  • The story was ‘meh’ and the game felt arcade like in it’s railroaded plot. I suppose this is a matter of opinion, but, it didn’t feel like anything that we did mattered to the story (I don’t think it did). There were times when the character had to talk and you got to choose the speaking lines… but, I don’t think the choices mattered at all. I also feel like there was no strategy level to level. You pretty much just kill everything as fast as you can… and that’s it. Not bad per sey, but, if you wanted a more meaningful experience this is not the game for you.
  • Forced 3-player co-op. I think the game is fine with 2, I’m sure it’d be better with 3… and that’s sort of the downside. You have a game that probably wont play well single player because there really is no true single player. There is single player with two AI team-mates you have no control over… eh. Even knowing that I like the game, I’d probably pass on it single player. And honestly with a $20.00 price tag and your friends needing to also drop $20.00 if they want to play on their own machine via steam… yeah, that gets to be a bit of an issue.

Final Thoughts

It’s not perfect — likely not for everyone and there are some serious barriers to getting this game played. Those barriers aside, it is a better game than its meta scores and reviews would lead one to believe. I personally am always on the lookout for a meaningful co-op experience; if you combine that with good combat and entertaining RPG elements you end up with a very limited scope of games to choose from. Lord of the Rings: War in the North is well done for what it is and despite its pitfalls is an overall fun experience. I can’t say I’d reccomend the game for $20.00 a piece but if you have 2 friends who want to play a co-op with better than average combat, a great theme and RPG elements I don’t know that you could much worse than Lord of the Rings: War in the North at your next available Steam or other platform game sale. Even at a measly 30% off I’d recommend it.

 

My Grandfather, Erwin Mickelberg

I’m not quite sure how to write about the passing of my grandfather from this life to whatever it is that awaits us after the death of or bodies. My instinct is to pontificate on the circumstances and the meaning, the cause, the moments near the end and all sorts of other things. That’s just the way my brain works. Find something to take away, find a lesson, search for a meaning. That meaning, that lesson probably really has already come.

My Grandfather, Erwin Mickelberg, by all accounts lived a pretty good life for 87 years. In the end he was not himself. His last few years have been a constant battle with the worsening symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. What can I try to teach anyone about that? It’s a horrible disease and an end unfitting to any human. There is no lesson to be learned at the end of this process. Something comes to end us all in or time, this was his. I can’t pretend I understand, I can’t pretend I see any light or positive in the circumstances around Alzheimer’s disease, yet, the end was unavoidable in one way or another.

What I can do? And where should my thoughts should dwell at the sad end of a wonderful story? After some consideration, my second instinct is to consider the things he has left behind.

Erwin Mickelberg, who my siblings and I call Pakki, leaves behind a loving, devoted wife of 65 years, my Grandmother Carolyn Mickelberg. Together they had 2 daughters, one of which is my mother and they must have done something right in raising her because I think she is a pretty great lady. He leaves behind me, and six other grandchildren, we all carry a little part of him physically, and a variety of memories which I’ll get into later. The chain goes on, what he gave to his daughters, what they gave to their children, we continued on. Pakki will leave behind 6 great grandchildren with 2 more on the way. A lot things had to happen to make all of these people part of his and my life, but we all have to give him part of that thanks.

I only know a fraction of what my mother and her sister know. Of even the grandchildren, I know less than some but, what I do know is enough to at least get a good picture of the life he lived.

Erwin was born and raised near enough to Lacrosse, Wisconsin it doesn’t matter. As a boy he was too clever by half and didn’t have to work real hard at school so he made a bit of trouble. I can imagine it wasn’t too much but, he did have a good sense of humor and made plenty of jokes. He was, as far as I ever heard an all around fun, relaxed guy. He enjoyed duck hunting with his dad and uncle’s and caught the eye of my grandmother at a young age. Who was more enthralled with the other? I couldn’t tell you.

Then the war came. My grandpa enlisted in the navy at 17, which required parental permission. World War Two claimed a lot of lives and I’m sure my grandpa used a bit of his wit to stay off the front lines. He first used his voice to become a singer in the navy choir. To this day I’ll never forget his impossibly melodious rendition of happy birthday and the constant, pitch perfect whistling, a habit I certainly picked up from him (the whisteling anyhow, not sure on the pitch perfect stuff). Later when the war was coming to a close, Erwin was in the South Pacific doing what he would do for a career later on life; he was teaching. He taught soon-to-be vets about their post war benefits. He loved to teach, next to his family I am not sure he loved many other things more than he loved teaching.

The war ended. Erwin came home and married my grandmother, Carolyn Ryan. I’m not sure what transpired other than he wanted to go to school and some of the military benefits helped to finance college education. So the two of them moved to Minneapolis. From there my mother was born and my Grandfather finished school and began teaching biology at the college where he earned his degree. I heard stories of how poor they were at the time, how they lived at least one summer mostly in tents so my Grandfather could do field research. I’ve heard how their family and neighbors banded together to get dinner on the table. I know somewhere in there my Aunt was born and Paki began a 39 year career as an Augsburg College Biology Professor. I am sure there are stories that are escaping me now, but, we’re working 100% on stories I have heard about the old days at this point and second hand knowledge can only do so much.

Eventually Grandchildren started to come along. My older brother Jeff (who is 12 years older than me), the first grandchild had the honor of creating names for my Grandparents. Pakki was his early attempts at asking for his Grandpa to Rock him. Bagga, my grandmother was just grandma I believe. Pakki and Bagga became an iconic set of names that is total nonsense to anyone who isn’t in my direct family, but, sort of nice that those names hung around.

We lived just a couple of blocks down from my grandparents from the time I was 3 to the time I was maybe 10. I believe Pakki was still working at the time, either that or he was working with the church. He had worked with the church most of his life, serving as president of the congregation for some amount of time. I remember hearing about a time their church burned down and how he not only took a leadership role in rebuilding the church, but also ran into the burning building to save the member logs and other important documents.

After he retired, an occasion for which there was a party (which I remember vaguely), he began working with the elderly members of the church. Never ceasing his relentless desire to stay busy he visited elderly members of the congregation and talked to them, read with them and generally helped them get their church in when they could not make it on Sundays. Somewhere in there he dealt with a multi-vessel bypass surgery and prostate cancer. None of that seemed to slow his work with the church much. Around that time my mother brought me and my younger brother to visit somewhat frequently in our teenage years. We would just visit them at their appartment, talk, laugh and tell them about the mundane details of our lives that grandparents love to hear about. That was before his later years when Alzheimers began to set in.

I’ve mentioned Alzheimer’s being a terrible, terrible thing. It is. But there is some good to find in any situation. I was in college when the disease began rearing its ugly head. I spent some time searching myself as any college student is like to do and I think there was a lot of me to discover from looking back and my family history. I made films all through college and began digging into the rich history with the college to which I had recently transferred. Augsburg college holds a lot of family history, staff remembered both my older brother’s career as a student and  my grandfather’s career as a teacher. One of those teachers was Dale Pederson, a former student of my Grandfather, and current chair of the biology department. I spent some time digging into the history of my grandparents and part of that research brought me collaborate with Dale to set up a meeting of old students and colleagues. At that point Pakki had been losing some short term memory but still remembered the old days and the meeting with everyone still sticks out as one of the better things I have done in my life. I filmed it all and made a couple of projects on that and other material. Either way, the old friends were happy to see each other. Pakki was back in his element and I had a chance to see a little bit of what that was like.

It all slips away. Eventually you forget everything with that disease. The confusion heightens, the fear and stress heightens. Through it all he would always rise to visitors, he faked knowing what was happening really well. Even when he was totally lost he was all smiles and jokes. My eldest daughter Hannah had a chance to see him, to sit on his lap, to share her special little-girlness with him. I’ll never forget how excited he was for me and my growing family. He had nothing but compliments for my wife Lauren. He frequently joked about how he had no idea how I had ever got her to marry me. He knew, to the last couple of weeks when we saw him awake and alert for the last time, that my little family was going to be a great and wonderful thing, and I know he was thinking of how special it was when he had his kids and grandchildren. He loved family through it all. Even when he could hardly put together a sentence, he told me how special it will be to see my kids grow up. When we left I asked my shy little Hannah to give him a hug before we went, she cuddled right up on his chest and hugged in. I wont forget that image for all my life.

I am sad to see him go, but, until the last few years it seems like you could hardly ask for a better life. I do wish my kids could have known him better, Hannah would have loved him. He would have loved to hold Madeline who will be born this summer but, Great Grandparents don’t often hang around real long and he has been one for 13 or more years already (my oldest nephew got to know him pretty well). I can’t do any more than thank God for such good grandparents. He and my Grandma have done nothing but show me love and support and praise all the things I have done. I believe with what I know about him I will continue to do him proud. After-all I am following in his footsteps a little more with 2 girls of my own here. I will miss him. I will think of him at every happy birthday, every visit with my grandma, every Christmas, Thanksgiving, or whenever one of his Norwegian phrases or little jokes slip past my lips. That’s good stuff maynard.

So, rest easy, be with God, be in peace, share that smile and laughter and witty charm with your parents, with whomever, however, or whatever it is that comes after life. I believe we will stay connected because I will always have a bit of you as part of me in my blood, in my thoughts, in my heart. I think we will stay connected, but, my goodness will I hope to feel your life and light again when I get to the end of my journey. I wont hurry though, you have written a good story — a great one even and I have work to do there before I can hang up my hat and see you again.

I love you, I will miss you, I will remember you,

David

P.S. I wrote most of this sitting at his bedside over the last week. I won’t lie, I shed some tears listening to the declining breathing while I worked through those last couple of paragraphs. It is now after 10am on Saturday, May 3rd, 2014. He has gone on as of a few minutes ago. My younger brother called me from his room. I had been editing this document as he passed. As he breathed his last, his wife, my two brothers, father, mother and sister were there beside him. I am happy for that and that he no longer has to suffer his final hours. Rest in Peace.

Mission: Space Exploration

Last night, after some recommendations from David and James I finally started up a game of Kerbal Space Program. The game is a sandbox rocket-ship simulator. As it is new and still in development the game is a little rough, the tutorials are not all there and there is a propensity to just be dropped into a world of rocket building of which you have very little understanding. That said, I had a rare moment of pure elation and excitement I rarely experience from a video game  and I wanted to write about it quickly.

I started the game and jumped right into sandbox mode. I didn’t understand the controls but I fumbled my way through and combined some number of parts into what I imagined would be a functional rocket. I was very wrong. This thing tipped over on the launch pad and exploded just before I ejected the pod with the astronauts who rolled away lamely. I tried this a few more times before I sighed and decided I needed to use the tutorial. I did two of the tutorials: Flight and Construction. I passed on space controls because I didn’t really expect plan A to work, so, I figured I’d sort that when I got that far.

After the tutorials I had a couple more rockets explode on the ground before I finally built a small rocket that managed to climb somewhere around 12k meters before running out of fuel and dropping like a rock. The tutorials were okay over-all but, they didn’t explain how to do anything better than a single engine rocket. I then built what I will call the mach 1. My first multi-engine rocket that worked. This thing was not pretty but, it got me up somewhere around 10k meters before the inevitable death of my pilots (we lost so many good astronauts last night).

Now it is about 11:30, I knew I had to be up at 6am for work but dang-it, I was determined and I have learned when a game makes you determined it is doing something right — go with that experience. So, I revamped my rocket, more fuel, more fins for control — better, stronger, faster. The mach 2 was ready for flight. I launched the rocket and everything looked great, great stability, plenty of fuel and finally I broke into earths atmosphere. I was doing it! At the moment where you cross the threshold from atmosphere to low orbit your view shifts. The stars come into view in bright focus, soft music begins to grow, the noise of the engines is gone and it was a moment of emotional happiness I look for in every game. I crave those moments where a game makes me really feel something, comradery, friendship, joy or even the bad emotions are okay because nothing is worse than walking away from a game saying “It was okay” and feeling like the last hour was just ‘blah.’

I was in space, I saw the stars before me, a universe of exploration — never-mind I was totally out of gas — the music had rolled in and I shivered with delight. It came from figuring something out, it came from my imagination of what people feel when they really make it into orbit it came from my human desire to achieve something through hard work that takes you somewhere unknown; and all of this in a simulation.

A real emotional experience. I was elated.

And then my rocket fell back to the earth because apparently you don’t just hang out in low orbit. Oh well, more work to do and you better believe I will do it and you should too. Go get Kerbal Space Program, have that moment and enjoy it. They are hard to come by.

My Criteria for backing board games on Kickstarter

I have become a pretty big fan of kickstarter. Being a fan of a service that is a way for game designers to get their games financed is a great thing to support, but can also be a problem for the wallet. The core problem being that there are a lot of great looking projects being made; each vying for your precious dollar and the attention of the masses. I would like to give my money in so many different places, help so many awesome people get so many great games made, but I just can not, and frankly I should not. Not every game is worth the investment, but how can anyone possibly know where the dollar is best spent on a site where unproven games, indy games, known developers and popular remakes all stand shoulder to shoulder? I have come up with some basic rules I follow.

Proven games don’t need to work too hard

Often times there are kickstarter project that are either remakes or reprints of a game that already has a track record Usually these are good track records hence the project to get a reprint or make of the already beloved game. This is ultimately a higher tier of kickstarter for me. It is a lot easier to put a games like this up against a game I might buy at my FLGS or online. The games tend to have reviews, fans and atleast someone on /r/boardgames who will say it is their absolute favorite game ever (for whatever that is worth) — but I digress. Say you like the game, watched the review are excited for the game and are ready to spend your money – however, there is still one catch. The difference between paying for shipping or taking the time to go down and get the game is the wait required by a kickstarter project. Most projects you will be waiting for at least a few months, maybe more. There are production runs that need to be approved, previewed, finalized and produced and this usually applies to cards, boxes, tokens and many other details. This waiting time can be worth it for getting a discount (below msrp prices) or, if the game attracts a big enough following, by offering stretch or earlybird rewards – but more on these later.

Proven games I have backed: Odins Raven’s, Werewolf, Coup

Indy games need to play the crowd or bring the price down

Now, what I am saying is based on nothing more than my history as a kickstarter backer. I have not run a campaign, I have not done in depth research on the subject of kickstarter effectiveness or crowd funding. I have read and considered almost every board and card game kickstarter for the last 6 or 8 months and I have voted with my dollars.

What I have seen is that the indy game maker (and I love you guys) needs to work harder to make their kickstarter work. Just throwing a game out that has nothing but a description a rule book and a video of play-through does not do enough for me. I am buying into a game that hasn’t been printed yet, hasn’t won any fans or awards and I have very little insight into the testing process or really anything about the company behind the game. So we start on shaky ground. Investment into art is nice to see, a play-through of the game, especially one where people are having fun playing the game, is also great. But more importantly if I am going to back you on your project that may be the next big hit, and may be the next big flop, I want a few things.

  1. I want to be getting a deal. Listen, I know I am going to be one of the first! I could even have my name in the rule book. I don’t care. You are getting to hold on to my money for as long as it takes to get the game made right? I want a deal on it. It doesn’t have to be big, and I know margins are tight, but I want a deal, you knock 5 dollars off what you will sell it for later and I am already starting to get interested.
  2. I want rewards. I know rewards are typically given as prizes for having a good campaign, and that is fine. I need the game to be gathering steam as you go (yes, I will tell friends and co-workers to help out). If you are gathering steam and rewarding people while you pick up more and more sales, yes, get those rewards out make them fun, make them cool. You don’t need to reinvent the game, get sleeves for the cards, get new art, more art, better art. Give away 1 more role card, better meeples, bigger meeples. Little things like that that make you feel like you are getting something extra for my support go along way.
  3. I want an experience. I know you are busy and you have things to do. So do I, and while I’m at work, it is pretty cool to get an email every couple of days updating the project, where you are, what strech goals have unlocked, what ones are coming up. Even remind me to tell my friends or like it on facebook. I have stuff going on and I can’t watch your project all the time. But email detailing the experience you and hopefully your supporters are having is critical to make me continue to support (and maybe even add more funding) to your project.

Are my criteria for backing a game sharp and strict? Possibly. I have a lot of things I could be doing with my money and even a lot of other games I have yet to play or add to my collection. Kickstarting can be a really fun experience for everyone and if there is enough of an incentive and your game looks fun (don’t forget my previous statements are predicated on if I think the game looks fun) I will back your project wait out the production of the game and hopefully you will make some money for your hard work. I want you to be successful, I just have to be a consumer, not a charity.

Indy games I have backed: Dungeon Roll, Compounded: Better Gaming Through Chemistry, Dragon’s Hoard.

Ticket to Ride: Game Review

2013-02-20 18.33.09I have to start this review with a little bit of my history with this game. Ticket to ride has been one of my wife’s favorite games since the moment we opened the box and played it the first time. I have been reserved. At first, believe it or not, I was confused by this simple game. It was so straight forward I couldn’t figure out how I was supposed to have a meaningful strategy that would effect my chances to win. Eventually I figured out how to build routes together and when to draft cards vs. playing trains etc. Ultimately I still felt the game was still won and lost on random chance. Getting the right routes led to winning the game and getting the right routes was all a chance. I love figuring out strategy and I had hit a wall with ticket to ride. I was still firmly against that wall when I got my wife Ticket to Ride: Europe (selfless I know, but she liked the game so much I thought she would like another version) and after playing a few games, I was pleasantly surprised with how much the game had been improved.

The Europe installment solved all of my issues I was having with the game with new routes, new mechanics and the addition of  train stations. I now find that Ticket to Ride: Europe is one of my favorite games. The original has some good points but, also some bad points. I’m getting ahead of myself, let me break down the game before I go any further.

Premise

In Ticket to Ride you are placing a trains along routes on a map of some part of the world (Base game is United States, Europe is the other base game and there are others). Cities have tracks between them and are different colors and cards that same color need to be played in runs to occupy the path. The cards can be taken in pairs from the 5 face up train cards or randomly from the draw pile on you turn. Wild cards are also available but taking a face up wild card is the only card you can take on that turn. On your turn you need to decide if you take cards or take trains. The last piece of scoring are the route cards. At the end of the game you either gain  or loose points based on if you have or have not completed the route. Routes are accomplished by creating a path connecting the two cities indicated on the route card. These can be drawn on a turn during the game in addition to the 3 each player gets at the beginning of the game. Finally the player with the longest continuous path gets an additional 10 points, which surprisingly can be pretty important.

Critical Review

Once again here is what I am looking at in each category. Scored out of 10.

  • Point of entry – The ability for new players to get involved. This also will take into account the rate at which a new and experienced player will become competitive.
  • Mechanics – The stuff that makes the game work. The way the game flows, the turns pass and how the board or structure is organized all factor in.
  • Replay-ability – The ability to play the game many times with enough variety of play and competition to ensure many more enjoyable plays.
  • What comes in the box – The tactile game pieces, the box organization and the way which they compliment the game.
  • Aesthetics – The design elements including colors fonts, white-space, etc.
  • Fun factor – Is this game fun to play? What makes it fun, who will most enjoy it and when it is best played.

Point of entry  – I think with little knowledge of the gaming community most people who attempt to dive into games to any extent have heard that Ticket to Ride is a game for beginners. Rightly so. I almost thought the game was too easy for beginners. Needless to say, anyone, and I mean anyone should be able to sit down and play a game of TtR at any time. Grandparents, kids probably 6 or 8 and up, anyone. 10/10

Mechanics – I still think TtR, the original north american edition, can be broken by getting the right routes. It isn’t so much getting overlapping routes, it is the amount of longer routes in the west, north and south vs. the shorter midwest and east coast routes. This allows for playing trains in some parts of the map to just not be equal to playing trains in others. When two players who have both played their share of games can each complete 4 or 5 routes, the competition is not who did so most efficiently or who completed them with the most trains or creating the longest route — no, the win will typically go to who got more routes in the right parts of the map to earn bonus points for 5 and 6 train routes. I think TtR: Europe fixes this problem quite well by not really having many 5 or 6 train routes. Rather, all parts of the map are evenly dispersed with short and long paths, and the winner ends up being the one who can strategically build a path that entails their routes and block others from achieving the same thing. I, at this point, would recommend going right to Europe and not messing with the original.  That is, unless you are a newer gamer, then I would stay start simple and work your way up. Other than what I see as problems with the map on the original TtR, the mechanics are sound and fun and one of the few games that makes me sweat to finish my routes by the end of the game. 6/10.

Replay-ability – I think a lot of  ”gamers” can get sick of this game pretty easily because they favor the longer more immersive games. That is all well and good, but, even when some people feel above the game they get surprisingly engaged when they sit through a game. I think the game is endlessly replayable (my wife has played over 200 games on the iPad for instance), but, be wary. If you are used to more complicated games, this one might get dull for you quickly. 7/10.

What comes in the box – The sheer numbers of trains makes it mandatory that they are little plastic pieces and not wood ones (wooden trains would be nice though). The original version I got came with the miniature travel size cards and I just can’t understand why. TtR: Europe came with  normal Euro size cards and that is considerably better. 7/10.

Aesthetics – Train cards look much nicer when they are not tiny travel size cards. Overall, the colors are clear, the map looks nice and I really like the box and map art style. That little hint of old-timey, late 1800′s train station fare is quite nice. 8/10.

Fun factor – This game is still a fun one, there is no doubt there. I think especially for newer gamers and non-gamers, this is one to get into and have a ton of fun with and really get into playing more games. I still think there is more fun to be had with TtR: Europe, but I do believe there is a right crowd for the original TtR as well. Overall this game should keep you having fun for some time, and when it stops being fun, get the sequel and I think that one should keep you playing even longer. Despite some lack of ability to make any like number of route cards win, I believe the game is a  blast and I always look forward to playing it. 8/10.

To sum up this sort of 2 game review I want to just make my notes about which game is stronger where. Ticket to Ride is a really strong game for families, non or limited experience gamer friends and just generally having a fun time. That said, it is one I would skip for gamer crowds and heavy thinking strategy people in general. For those gamer crowds and people who want to play a more strategic game I would say Ticket to Ride: Europe is a major improvement over the first game. I even think people who have played TtR for a while and are getting a little sick of it, find the game breaking problem I have found or just want to advance to something a little more difficult would benefit greatly from picking up the sequel –  I highly recommend it. I give the original Ticket to Ride a 7/10 while I give Ticket to Ride Europe a 8/10.

If you ever have a kid, get one of these

I don’t have too much to say here other than the fact that as a parent of a small child being able to have the kid in a position where they are comfortable and being able to use both your hands comes primarily at nap time or when your partner is doing the holding. Kids like to be close and feel secure but you still need to make dinner or do other normal household chores.

Hannah in her carrier

When it comes to all of that, I highly recommend you get yourself one of
these baby carriers. You can put it on your front or back, and carry the kid facing you or facing out. Hannah is a big fan and it lets me cook, clean and play games all the while she can look around or tuck in and snuggle– whatever makes sense at the moment. I also took this thing for a spin at the Mall of America a couple weeks ago. I think aside from Hannah’s mind being blown on the spectacle of the thing, she was pretty happy to ride along and see the sights from the safety of her carrier.

Point being, if you have a kid get this on the registry, you’ll thank me later.