Nerd Herding

I'm bad at it. Twice last weekend I was asked to help round up groups, and I failed in interesting ways both times, including by mis-hearing responses that were in the affirmative.

One of the aspects of

Camp Nerdly

that I appreciated for the first time this go, my third go (see also








) were the many cultural overlaps between stereotypical nerd culture and stereotypical camping culture. Both require an enthusiasm for making life a greater challenge, amongst other specific conditions that supposedly "normal" people would fear or disdain. Both involve improvisation, moderated with a healthy dose of research and acquired knowledge. Both generally associate with high-calorie foods. Both environments typically eschew the strictures of social norms such as fashion and strict codes of hygiene. So yes, camp is an excellent place for fellow nerds to gather, and be unabashedly nerdish.

I am one such nerd. In point of fact, I don't think of myself as a nerd per se; not because I find the term derogatory, either. Rather, I think specifically of a "nerd" as someone very intelligent and good with details. I am not


intelligent, at least not in that way, so consider myself something more along the lines of a geek, or dork. Spaz, too -- which I have fortunately parlayed into a rewarding career as a physical comedian. At least, it's philosophically rewarding, when in no way else.

Despite my self-imposed sub-nerd status, I am allowed (nay: encouraged) to ally myself with other nerds on an annual basis at Camp Nerdly. I just did so last weekend, getting my yearly dose of straight-edge, pure gaming. "Gaming" in this context, by the way, refers to just about any actively challenging effort that is endeavored largely for the sake of fun and entertainment. It was a special occasion in several respects, owing to the fact that

Expatriate Younce

was in attendance, all the way from Leeds. (That's in England.) I have a funny sort of response to gaming. Expatriate Younce actively encourages it, as do other friends of my hometown, while

Wife Megan

and many of her circle, at best, do not understand its appeal. So I have some strong influences on either side of the debate as to the relative value and appeal of gaming. Then I get to the actual gaming, and have a response similar to when I've been away from a rehearsal process for over a month: "Oh crap. I have no clue what I'm doing here." Of course, I gamely (see what I did there?) fake it until I catch up again. And how do I feel about gaming? Well.

The first game I played on arrival this year was a collaborative board game called


, and I have only good things to say about it.

Clinton R. Nixon

was the gamer who introduced it to me and my fellow novices, and we had a great time discussing strategy in trying to clear the world of four rampaging diseases. We also got our butts handed to us by the game, which only serves to make you want to play it more. Sadly, I never found another opportunity. It's way more interesting to play a board game that is both collaborative and difficult to beat than it is to play something like Monopoly, wherein a winner is guaranteed and somebody's going to regret buying real estate.

Next that night was a session of

A Taste for Murder

, run by another favorite gamer of mine,

Jason Morningstar

(perhaps cool names are indicators of future nerdom...?). We gathered at "The Castle," de facto cabin for any games likely to involve more adult themes, and we possibly made those themes more adult than they were intended to be.

A Taste for Murder

seems meant to be a story-telling game with a fairly strong and regular dice element, where the "winner" of scenes is determined by competitive rolls. The setting is like an Agatha Christie novel, and you choose your characters based on family and estate relationships, trying for a broad range of class/status. In the first act of play, the relationships are built up and controversy well-established. It culminates in


. In act the second, the player of the murdered character plays the detective on the scene, and the back-stabbing begins. We played it a bit grotesque, I'm afraid, for the genre. Not enough class warring. I played the rebellious son of the estate, and all audio was recorded for the game's creator. Well, some. We kept running down batteries. It was a good game. If I ever play it again, I'll focus less on winning the game, more on building my character.

Saturday morning started out with a game called

Sons of Liberty

, a role-playing game that used playing cards to drive the game function. Essentially, playing chosen patriotic figures both real and imagined (much of the imagination having something to do with steampunkiness), I and two others played a card game against the house ("the house" in this game represented by one Mr. Jeff Hosmer), using our hand at a given moment and the resulting win or loss to narrate how that particular struggle against the Tories went down. In most cases, it went down to the ground, and Hosmer trounced our sorry, albe-they rebellious, butts. I played a saucy cross-dressing Frenchman, hungry for rebellion (non-historical, btw). It was a fun game, and collaborative in its own way. The balance between card play and role-play landed heavily on the card side, but this created a very urgent dynamic that was also fun. Imagine playing Spit, and having to make up a whole team-written fiction, simultaneously.

The early afternoon was my most undecided slot, yet ended up being the most overall satisfying experience of the weekend in terms of gaming.


is a unique role-playing game in many ways. The game has most of the players playing the women of a feudal Japanese village, trying to woo and/or seduce a ronin who has wandered into their town, in the hopes of finding love and saving the village from some great threat. The history of the game itself is unique; dreamed up by a male-to-female transsexual who was contemplating female identities, and since carried through a fairly extensive development by her friend -- and Nerdly attendee --

Danielle Lewon

. In our game, a woman played the samurai, and I and three other women (including Danielle) played the women of the village. My character was a very young, innocent girl who loved the nearby mountains and cultivating bonsai. We conceived it all as taking place in a fishing village, one haunted by the spirits of the men lost at sea, and the story ended up being


. To make a long story short(er), this young ronin, out to prove himself, was variously wooed by very different women, none of whom wanted to tell him the problem of the village for fear of scaring him off. He eventually does confront the ghosts . . . and fails. Throughout this game, this growing story, we were moved. Some of us to tears. It was amazing. It was magic, nothing short of it.

My follow-up was similarly strong in narrative, although less of it was created out of thin air.

Montsegur 1244

takes a very cool, tiny section of history and makes a game of it. You are given a very specific setting, choice of two characters (a primary and secondary) and play through the story of about a year within a community that now-a-days we might be inclined to call a religious cult. Your church, town, stronghold has broken off from the church and set up a rather different set of beliefs, principal among them that earth, life, is in fact a kind of testing hell. It can be transcended, and those who do are religious leaders known as "perfects," who try to guide their people out of the cycle of imperfect, passionate living, into true existence. With pre-established characters, setting and scenarios, the game really takes a lot of the burden of narrative structure away from the players (something we appreciate in Zuppa del Giorno when trying to build a play from improvisation) but there's plenty of room to play in the cracks. I played a quasi-heretical patriarch and a young orphan boy, and the highlight for me was a scene played out with Mr. Jason Morningstar, who was once again running the game. We had a negotiation scene that crackled like good theatre for me; he may have missed his calling, that one.

Finally that day, after dinner, was a


free-for-all, run by Jason (people will say we're in love),

Remi Trauer


Emily Boss

. I wrote a bit about Jeepform last year after my first experience with it, and it still intrigues me. Essentially, it is a very interesting hybrid of improvisatory theatre and role-playing gaming. It has its own philosophy, and makes efforts to stand apart from both forms (as any self-respecting hybrid ought). This year was a somewhat more technical exploration of the methods and tactics -- as opposed to last year's straight gaming -- and one which eventually descended into Absurdist madness. Each of the leaders led us through a different Jeepform trope, all three in the context of superhero fiction. This was, perhaps, a contributing factor to the eventual eruption of silliness, as people (read: nerds) had a ton of clever ideas about how to riff on comicbooks. They tried to tell us: The best choice is an obvious one. And we tried to listen, but by the time we got around to the fourth section -- a trial held in a strange,


-inspired universe -- the gaggy gloves were decidedly off. I was as guilt as any, and it was a little too much fun to stop. Yet the surprising virtues I observed about Jeepform held true. People were taking turns, not interrupting, and a story was gradually developing on its own.

There was much discussion after that, rather late into the night (late by fresh-air standards, anyway), about gaming and improvisation and story-telling. There's something about people being excited to talk about that which is oddly fulfilling for me. I went to sleep feeling quite sated.

Sunday mornings at Camp Nerdly are often hungover affairs, but not the usual variety. People are bushed from all the thinking and playing of the day before, and many elect not to play anything at all, but there is a slot for gaming between eating and cleaning up the site.

Mark Causey

filled my slot (hey now) with a little game called


. It was reminiscent of my first year and Nerdly, when I discovered just how much fun it could be to create a whole fictitious world from the ground up. Of course, as an improviser and writer, I do this all the time, but I take it for granted somewhat. It's a means to an end. Putting it as the primary purpose makes for some lovely synchronicity, especially when its collaborative, and thereby synergistic.


offers nothing but variables, an idea for context ("aetherpunk," says the ad) and a device for conflict resolution and lets the players make the rest up. It would be a tricky terrain for someone unused to working without rules, but for someone like me who knows roughly what to expect, and just wants to run free imaginatively -- a lovely way to spend a Sunday morning.

And like that, it was over. Some mopping, some laughing codas, a bus ride for me and the next day Expatriate Younce was bound homeward as well. My annual alliance with 50+ smart, creative thinkers done for the year.

When I was too young to fully appreciate the sentiment, someone mentioned to me the following axiom: When you are young, you love someone because you need them; once you have lived, you find true love when you need someone because you love them. I knew I was too young at the time I heard it to fully appreciate it, but there's nothing to be done about that. We all grow in our own time, and can only listen to the advice we are ready to hear. Yet I remembered it, and whereas it concerned me, made me worry about the nature of this or that relationship, when I was younger, now it is a comfort to me in all of my loves. When I was a kid, and started gaming, I loved it, and I really needed it -- for interaction, to work out my own fears and ambitions and to feel accomplished. And now, I love it. It wakes me up, engages me, gives me ideas and allows me to make the big picture the priority. I'm made happier by having it a part of who I am and what I do. And that's a great feeling.

Stories about Story Games and their Story-Gamers

Weekend the last, I did it again. I ventured south and stopped in at

Camp Nerdly 2.0

, a role-playing and story-gaming conference that is held annually in NoVa, and which was co-founded by

Expatriate Younce

. You may recall that I attended teh Nerdly for the first time last year (and if'n you don't, see


), which was a somewhat grandiose personal return to gaming in general. I was a D&D geek back in my early teen years, but lost touch with that community as I got older and committed more time to theatre, and other distractions. My best and oldest friends, however, still game regularly. They're good at it. Camp Nerdly is my opportunity to take a little time off from acting to visit them in their world and, uh . . . act.

The breakdown of my time is very nearly a progression from discomfort to comfort. The games I feel most at-home with are, naturally, those more focused on characterization, improvisation and storytelling. The ones I feel like a nerd who's out of polygonal dice in are those in which the emphasis is on . . . well, polygonal dice. And other devices and systems of applied conflict resolution. (Most of the other Nerdlians thrive on these, because they're wicked smart; if a game involves math, I tend to feel as though I'm trying to figure out my taxes.) The first game I played was called


, and involved a bit of such conflict resolution. Fortunately,

Friend Davey

was there to see me through the 1d12s (if I was lucky) and the interconnectedness of the players' rolls. Thereafter I played


, a game in "playtest" (in development) that was mainly a team strategy game involving cards and quantity relationships. After that was a brief sojourn into a board warfare-strategy game called

Memoir '44

(the success of which I very much owe to Davey again), and then another playtest, this one for an RPG based on


called, aptly enough,

Something Is Rotten


The Upgrade

was my first "jeepform" experience, which is essentially a role-playing game that takes after improvisational theatre, and the last game of the weekend was


, a competitive deductive-reasoning game. So by-and-large, I progressed from incapability to comfort, insecurity to confidence. Rather like a rehearsal process.

I'm not sure I had the same profundity of insight this year as I had last, but I attribute that to there being less novelty this time around, less of a surprise in having had a good experience. I did spend some time meditating on the similarities between theatre and gaming, naturally, and found a few ideas that are helpful to both. One unexpected benefit, however, was to spend so much time playing with two old friends in such a way that we were often mentally working hard together. Think about it: When you see your friends, do you more often aim to relax and let go of strategy, or engage in complicated efforts at problem-solving. Both types of activity hold merit. I don't do nearly as much of the latter as I'd like, particularly with my buddies in NoVa.


is a game set in mythic Greece, in which the players work as a team to complete some kind of mythical mission (think Odysseus), but also to come out on top, as the hero who accumulated the most glory (think Jason ["and the Argonauts," not "Morningstar" {although, you know what--

think him, too

}]). This game was run by

Remi Treuer

, who did a great job creating an engaging story and rolling with unpredictable players, though the mythos got a little bent in the process. (In this world, Kore [Persephone] and her mother apparently had some kind of resentful relationship causing spring weather when she descended to the underworld, and Orpheus was double-timing Eurydice with her.) I was


out of my depth with the system (which is relatively simple, know...) but suffered more from having a pretty weak sense of the character I had designed for myself. I had meant for him to be a spy sort, a cunning lurker, and he ended up serving the game best by singing (of all things) most of the time.

In Jason Morningstar's


, one plays a German dissident during the latter eccentricities of World War II. One does so for as long as one can, I should say, since there is the distinct likelihood that one will be investigated by the SS and summarily executed during the game. In fact, only Friend Davey survived the experience in the same avatar throughout. Again, I was a slow monkey on this system, but I certainly picked it up better than I did


, and the teamwork appealed to me far more than the blend of teamwork/glory-hounding. Plus the game makes for Nazis killing Nazis. That's, like, the universal equation. In spite of the thrill of succeeding to assassinate Hitler and create an uprising against the Nazi party, the game did ultimately lack much of an involved character-play or storytelling element, at least the way we played it. Not that I necessarily consider that a fault, mind. It was hella fun, and you could do it with a campier crowd than we determined conspiracists.


Clinton R. Nixon

(whose name I must admit I envy) invited me to play

Memoir '44

, and I had immediate post-traumatic stress over every lost game of


I ever played. But when Clinton R. Nixon invites you to play something, only fools dare refuse. Let me tell you something:


is for little jerks who can't figure out the concepts behind checkers. (That'd be me; fortunately, Friend Davey was there with his able strategisms once again.) The best part about

Memoir '44

is the way it weaves chance into strategy through its use of randomly drawn cards for available actions. I'm buying it. End o' story. (Though I may go for one of the less based-on-actual-human-tragedy varieties. So now: True end o' story.)

Kevin Allen Jr. is featured in ma' 'blogroll. If you've never yet been to

The Mountaintop Lair of Alex Trebek

, go immediately, and once there, shave your head in devotion. It. Is. A. DELIGHT. (If you're an utterly cynical geek [which I is].) I met him at Nerdly the First, and when I saw he was running a game that was a "hack" of


, I knew I had at least one time-slot permanently filled.

Something Is Rotten

was very much in playtest, so half of our time was spent in (fascinating) discussion of how to make it operate better as a game. There was actually some confusion on my part as to whether Kevin was aiming to actually make a game, or rather use gaming to gather ideas for a story he wanted to write. It hardly mattered. The playing was great fun for me, weaving in references to the play some times, and at others completely disregarding conventional concepts of the characters. For example, when I played the Hamlet-type, he was outwardly angry with the Claudius-type, something he could never do in the play. And at one point I jumped in as a yokel waiter in a diner, spreading the rumor that the circus (or, the players) were coming to town. I walked away renewed in my enthusiasm for the idea of blending improvisational theatre -- audience and all -- with gaming, which has been a topic of much musing 'twixt Youncey and me.

The Upgrade

continued the trend of the improvisational, though this with less of a story-telling aspect, and more of an emotional and status-combat interplay. Clinton and Jason (Jason had also been in on playing

Something Is Rotten

, which naturally ruled) ran this game, which is modeled after reality TV, specifically shows that involve couple-swapping. The game is considered a "


" one, which is a Finnish style of game that has the most in common out of any game I've ever played with the sort of long-form improvisation that

Second City

is famous for. J and C were assisted in the running by a couple of more experienced "jeepformers" by the names of

Emily Boss


Epidiah Ravachol

, who played ancillary characters and offered great perspective on how the game went when all was said and done. I could go on and on about this game, but the most significant experience of it for me was how uninvolved I made myself. This was owing to being AMAZED at what I was witnessing. Over the course of a couple of hours, I watched a large group of non-actors progress at amazing speed through stages of development as improvisational actors. By the end, something amazing had happened. People were no longer chasing punchlines, but feeling involved in their characters' struggles. We had a group scene with six people in it and boisterous action throughout, and as if by magic, everyone managed to pass the focus without interrupting, overlapping or lagging the action of the scene. DO YOU HAVE ANY CONCEPT OF HOW DIFFICULT THIS IS? I'm still reviewing the events in my head. I'm sifting through cause-and-effect, and believe I'm heading toward the conclusion that a relatively non-competitive game environment, if nurtured and given its own time, promotes communication. Profoundly. More on this . . . well, for the rest of my life.

My Nerdly excursion ended with


, and that was fine. A little anticlimactic, but challenging and fun. It was interesting: Davey and Mark and I were planning to sort of huddle to ourselves over this (or another) game. But people became interested. By the end, there were some eight-to-ten people playing or watching (mostly playing), who had been drawn in by the camaraderie. My initial impulse was to resist this, to stick with the monkeys the scent of whose poop I recognized. But we're not monkeys, and Nerdly is all about making those new connections through games and teamwork. It seemed to me this year, for whatever reason, that Nerdly was less well-attended than last. That's problematic for me, because it's an event that is fun, cheap, accepting, beneficial and, ultimately, important. You can develop and expose your game there, you can meet new friends, etc. But what's really unique and important about Camp Nerdly is the way it improves seemingly everyone who attends. Everyone grows, opens up a bit, and learns. Never mind that it happens through gaming. Or, rather, take note. Games are good for you. I want to make Camp Nerdly live, and next year, if I don't have a career obligation that irrevocably conflicts, I'm going to run a game there.

More about it down the line. My thoughts about gaming as it applies to theatre require their own entry.

Revenge of the Nerdly

Last year, not too far off from this time, I wrote to you about my experiences at

Camp Nerdly





), the weekend excursion for people who enjoy role-playing and story-telling games. It is true to its name, and is a brilliant excuse for people who are "old enough to know better" to go out into the woods and play pretend. I was hesitant to attend last year. Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but it took

Expatriate Dave

keeping an eagle's eye on my ever-changing schedule to get me suddenly signed up and ready to go. I was all, "I'm going to Italy then; I can't," and he was all, "Are you still?" and I was all, "Well, no, not then, but--" and he was all, "Hey, you're signed up and paid and do you need me to bring camping gear?" I couldn't help a sense of dread. I stopped playing that sort of game in my later teen years because I found it started inhibiting -- instead of hosting -- my social life. And now I act for a living (well, for certain periods of said living) and why would I do that, in effect, without pay? I couldn't conceive of feeling comfortable, much less having fun, at the event. Nevertheless, I attended, because time with Dave is invariably well-spent, and because at that moment I needed a little quiet time to myself with some trees. Boredom be durned.

Boredom be durned indeed. I ended up having an incredible time. It was like a renaissance of creative wells I had plum (get it?) forgotten about over the years. Hence my return this year. Well, that, and the fact that Childhood Friends


and Mark are going to nerd-out there, too.

Last week I found myself in conversation with Friends





Rodeo Bar

, when I brought up my return to Nerdly. Adam naturally resorted to our glib repartee vis-a-vis (all this, and not a day of French class) "rolling 20s" and "+1 to attack," but Geoff, being of a somewhat less nerdly sort (he watches [and understands] organized sports) did his best not to mock me. Which I congratulate him on: A for effort. Instead, he tried to understand why in God's name I would ever spend time and money on such a pursuit. Having to explain myself in terms a fellow actor could understand proved to be an interesting challenge. I'm not sure how successful I was, though Geoff seemed satisfied enough to not follow up with D&D jokes.

Why? Why why why? Well, to begin with, let me dispel a few misconceptions. Camp Nerdly is primarily adults, so I'm not going in relishing the idea of appearing as a God (or, as a rather pathetic 30-year-old) to a bunch of pubescent SciFi/Fantasy types. Nerdlians have jobs and lives, generally speaking. They do this for fun or, in many cases, it


their job. They get paid to work on games. Also, Nerdly is not a huge LARP (Live-Action Role Playing [the ones you fear, who costume themselves and have sword fights in public areas]) festival. I've got nothing against that kind of gaming per se, but if it was the dominant form at Nerdly I probably wouldn't be interested. Finally, when you read "role-playing games," you have to think past bedroom secrets and children getting overly excited over rolling dice. Think, as well, of story-telling.

I get naturally high (booze and drugs are banned) off of attending Camp Nerdly, because it's three straight days of creating unpredictable stories with very intelligent and creative people. When I was all done last year, I rode a wave of creativity for weeks. Creativity is like one's physical muscles, in that the more one works with it, the stronger and more adept it becomes. And, similar to physical training, adding elements of competition and/or teamwork (gaming & collaboration [which, together, you might as well term "improvisation"]) heightens and specifies the exercise. Camp Nerdly allows me to bounce off game designers, writers and even some fellow performers, who all compel me to stretch and strengthen my imagination. Plus, I dig fantasy, man. Everyone does, in their own way. I'm just a little less limited in my appreciation than some ... and way more limited than others, most notably many of the attendees and game-hosters at Camp Nerdly.

So I'm looking forward to it. Now all I have to do is not get acting work that conflicts. My friends might kill me. It can be hard to help people understand how having a freelance career means it trumps almost all other plans. It's all just a roll of the dice.

Going Out with a Bang

I usually prefer a quiet celebration of the New Year. You know: a few friends, some laughs, feeling self-righteous about not subjecting ourselves to the cold and hassle of watching the ball drop in person. That's just how I was raised, really. In NoVa, that seemed like all there was to do on such a holiday. Stay in.


go over to a friend's so you can feel sociable. Drink that really cheap champagne that makes you wonder why anyone in their right mind would want to drink champagne on a regular basis. Count down with everyone until you get to pretend the words of

Auld Lang Syne

actually mean something to you. Then you wait a bit--because of course no one else out reveling will think of waiting a bit--before driving home.

This year, I will usher in the new at the

Hammerstein Ballroom

, enjoying the dulcet tones of Velvet Revolver. For those of you unacquainted with this hybrid band, I understand it to be comprised mainly of the members of Guns n' Roses (plus one guy from Suicidal Tendencies), but with Scott Weiland--of Stone Temple Pilots fame--fronting instead of Axl Rose. They are, in short, a rock band. And in a matter of ten hours or so I will be hearing them live for the first time through newly purchased earplugs.

There's no shortage of contradictions in life. Paradoxes abound. Every time I find myself at a concert that requires earplugs, I also find myself wondering, sometimes even aloud, "Why the hell am I here?" The absurdity of the situation is inherent. Some argue that they want the music to be loud enough to feel the bass in their chest cavity, and I can appreciate that, but I'm also aware that all that really requires is a decent subwoofer placed on the floor. It does not necessitate creating the decibel equivalent of a breaking subway car. But that's rock and roll for you. No one said it ought to make sense.

In many ways, this is an increasingly appropriate way of spending my New Year's. Maybe it was just turning thirty this year, but a lot of the good parts of it have been spent in reclamation of things of my past, trying to make good on promises to myself and reconsider what's truly important to me. I came into the year as uncertain and detached from myself as I've possibly ever been and I leave it with, if not certainty, a very surprising yet somehow familiar intimacy with myself. Reclaiming one's life involves a lot of confrontation: confronting perception, confronting contentment and, perhaps most strange, confronting assumption. There are many ways in which I did this, quite subconsciously, this year. I attended Camp Nerdly (see


), which I never would have thought I'd find myself doing, right up to my arrival there, I returned to Italy (see


), which was a touch-and-go promise right up to the flight, and I managed to push myself to a fairly new physical dimension for

As Far As We Know



), an objective I'd long held and never before dared to commit to.

But the most satisfying illustration for me of reclaiming some of my favorite parts of life, chewing over where I am and where I want to be now, comes from music. You can see over on my Library Thing widget that I recently read a book that had a lot to do with mix tapes. This inspired me to try and make one again for Christmas. For a few years now I've been mailing out what I call "MiX-mas" CDs to close friends, which are compilations of new (to me) music I have on my computer that has meant a lot to me over the course of the year. Processing my music through the computer has had an interesting effect on how I listen to it. It and my iPod urge me toward new music all the time, and I come to appreciate songs over whole albums. I love the access and maneuverability of the format, and it quickly usurped my CDs as the source of my musical accompaniment. When I first became capable of MP3 audio, after importing maybe a third of my CDs, out of a concern for space I stopped. It has, ever since, been an intended "when I have the time" project of mine to crack open the CD binders again and import more music. Just the good stuff. Some day.

In deciding to make a mix tape, I had a lot to do. I actually had to purchase a CD player with a tape deck. I have been using computerized music for so long, I had found my boombox fairly neglected a while ago. If I wanted to listen specifically to a CD, it was usually a mix someone made for me and I'd simply play it over my DVD player or alarm clock. So I bought the cheapest boombox (more a toot-orb) I could find, and felt a certain sense of relief upon finding that, yes, people still sell blank audio cassettes. Then I cracked open the CDs and sort of just gave a listen to anything that I hadn't heard in a while.

I remembered some simple things, like using the "pause" button between changing CDs and keeping an eye on the amount of tape left on the left-hand reel. This is why I was so surprised to be reminded of some other aspects of mix-tapery. I mean, I had been making mix tapes for over a decade before switching to the seductions of laser-guided lyric lathing. Yet it took turning the pages of forgotten albums and the engaging mechanics of an actual tape player to bring back certain things. The main thing was how differently I listened to the music when it was relying on me to cue it. A lot has been acknowledged about the flirtation involved in passing on a mix, but few (to my knowledge) have exposed the complex back-and-forth between music and a mix maker when it comes to real-time recording. For example, does music these days tend to use a fade-out less? Or is that only my perception after making this tape of predominantly 90s music, as I would perk up at any diminution in tone or volume on the songs I was laboriously copying to cassette? I forgot how I would turn the volume all the way up at the end of song to be sure I captured the end of the diminution, and the rush to depress the button before the next song leapt into the speakers. And remember that? "Song"? Not "track," but "song"?

Anyway, I'm not calling for a return to tape format, or anything like that. What I am calling out is myself, as someone who too often takes progress for granted. I do it in two ways: assuming that as it happens, it ought to happen, and I take it for granted in the sense that progress is a given. Time proceeds, progress is made. It isn't so, but it's very easy to fall into that thinking. I had an amazing time making my first mix tape in some five years. It made me remember good music, which was difficult to take for granted in that context, and it slowed me down. I had somehow forgotten how fulfilling it could be to surrender to a song, rather than treat it as a score to my life. I had forgotten just how long 90 minutes, one song at a time, is. You can fit a lifetime of experience in there! Most of all, I was reminded of how it feels to meditate on the moment. It feels wonderful.

I'm glad I didn't know, during the 90s, how much I would miss the music in the years to come. A sense of nostalgia-to-come is akin to a sense of impending doom, and the gift of this year for me has been the opportunity to reflect on old times without nostalgia; rather to approach them as songs I still sing. Back in the day, I favored Metallica over Guns n' Roses, Pearl Jam over Stone Temple Pilots. The beauty of age, I suppose, is in being able to appreciate all of it in some way. It seemed contradictory before. Now it just seems full, and well-realized. And, after all, should old acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Should old acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne?

"When there is nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire."

I have spent far too much time here at work trying to find the source for this quote. What I have mostly found, are 'blogs. Endless fields of 'blogs. The quote, as I know it, is a vocal sample at the start of a song called

Your Ex-Lover Is Dead,


The Stars

. It sounds rather like Orson Welles to me, but it could very easily be someone trying to sound like Orson. No clue. It's frustrating. I really need to know who said this, and as a part of what.

Because I want to tattoo it on my chest.

Just found it. It's the lead singer's father,

a noted actor

. (Dag! No wonder I was having trouble finding it.) Yet I am still context-less, apart from the album itself, which is mostly about breaking up and breaking down. (Such a novelty in a pop album.) It sounds so much like a classic quote, and Mr. Campbell is noted for his association with

The Stratford Festival

, so the possibility persists. In the meantime, I'll just have to go on ascribing my own meaning, on which more in a moment.

This is one of those strange things from strange places. The album was released some three years ago, and I'd never heard of it. The song came to me in the form of a mix CD made for me by a relative stranger (though we did pretend to tromp together through deepest Africa once) from

Camp Nerdly

. He handed it off to sort of drop cargo on his way out, originally intending--I believe--to barter with it at the Nerdly goods swap. It's all scratched up from transport and informal packaging, and I frankly couldn't be sure it would load into ye olde iTunes successfully. Yet it did, and weeks later it is rapidly scaling my "Tha' Jams You Can't Leave Alone" chart.

What does it mean? Not the fortuitous and coincidental nature of my acquisition, mind you, but the words: When there is nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire.

Well, kids, for me this is a pretty direct statement. I mean, I do spend some time involuntarily picturing men in the arctic north who've set fire to everything and are now drawing lengths of rawhide to see who gets shoved in the flaming pile of sleds, dogs and clothing. But I quickly


such an image to my usual metaphor: acting. Also: life. Generally: inseparable, when you're doing something right.


Friend Patrick

might put it, fire has been a recurrent symbol in my life lately. Literally and figuratively, come to think of it. I loved my parents' fireplace back in

Burke, Virginia

, and lots of rituals surrounded it in the winter months. Whenever I get the chance (the last such chance being a rooftop barbecue last Sunday, and prior to that, Camp Nerdly), I put myself in charge of the fire. It's methodical and physical to build, dangerous and unpredictable in practice, but also warming, soothing and inspiring. So perhaps it's natural for me, especially now, to link the notion of fire with acting. There's a great quote from

Slings and Arrows

about why actors act that I can neither remember, nor find online, but it says something about why anyone would want to return to normal life once they had experienced the kind of truth one can achieve through a successful performance on the stage. That's setting yourself on fire.

As for having nothing left to burn, well, here's a couple of different thoughts on that:

  • Maybe that's the job of the actor, to find that level of stakes and desperation for the appropriate moments on stage. Not every character is despondent, but every good character should want something so badly that he or she comes to a point--at least once--of not knowing what to do about it.
  • That happens all the time to most actors in America, and dare I say the world. Even when our personal or financial lives aren't a shambles, we tend to work ourselves past all endurance on parts we play until either epiphany or disaster occur. Either we pull off the trick of a phoenix . . . or we don't.

Of course, none of this probably has much of anything to do with what the songwriter(s) intended. But that's the beauty of pop music, isn't it? It means what you most need it to mean at the moment you need it.

When there is nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire.