Arsenic And Old Cake

October 29, 2013

On October 28, 1922, a man named William Wrey Sterrett died at Bryn Mawr Hospital in Philadelphia. He seems to have been the quiet type in life; an accountant for Price Waterhouse, he lived an uneventful life with his wife, Martha Campbell Sterrett, in Devon, Pennsylvania. The couple had been married for eight years and had no children. Nor, apparently, did they have an extensive social life: the friends dredged up by newspaper reporters all had kind words to say about him but most of them centered around how unassuming he was. “A home type,” several friends told the Chester County Daily Local News. In an article printed on October 31, The Philadelphia Inquirer quoted more anonymous friends as having “nothing but praise for the dead accountant … while not a person of the kind that made idle boasts, he was always willing to enter into discussions of various sorts, and his advice was generally regarded as good.”

Apart from these modified raptures, the only other distinctive pieces of information about “the dead accountant” were that he and his wife had just bought a new house and that they also liked to go antiquing on the weekends. So far, so unremarkable — until Thursday, October 26, 1922. That afternoon, Mrs. Sterrett picked up the mail at the Devon post office and discovered that she had received a package “about the size of a pound candy box” (according to the October 29th Daily Local News), addressed with a typewritten label to Mrs. W.W. Sterrett. It had no return address but had been postmarked in Philadelphia. The postmistress, Mrs. (or Miss — the papers differ) Gillies, turned out to be happy to share Mrs. Sterrett’s reaction with newspaper reporters. Under the subheading “NERVOUS AT POST OFFICE,” we learn that Mrs. Sterrett, speaking in an “excited manner” speculated on the contents of the box and said that she would hurry home at once to see what it contained. However, “the box remained unopened until the arrival of Mr. Sterrett on a later train, and when the box was uncovered it was found to contain a piece of brown cake known as `devil’s food’ and it was covered with a pink icing. Mr. Sterrett partook freely of the cake, but Mrs. Sterrett, it is said, did not eat as much.” (Newspaper accounts of the cake would differ: according to The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer, both publishing on October 29th, the cake was golden and, as the NYT stated, “had the appearance of having been cut from a large wedding cake.” Later, the Inquirer occasionally referred to the cake as having been devil’s food. One thing was certain: the Sterretts had between them eaten every crumb of it).

“What’s In The Box?”


Recently Read: Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

January 16, 2013

Girlchild, by the improbably-named Tupelo Hassman, is in spite of itself fast becoming my favorite recent novel. I know, how very middlebrow of me. Actually, the technical title is Girlchild: A Novel, but one of the few things I hate more than genocide is when a book feels the need to condescendingly point out that it’s A Novel, as opposed to garden hose or a life insurance policy or a cabbage or something, so I will just ignore that. Today, I will explicate three reasons you should read this book (or four, if “Miranda really liked it” counts as a reason). As a brief summary, Girlchild is the story not only of Rory Hendrix, who grows up in a trailer park community in Reno, Nevada in the 1970s and 1980s, but of the women in her family. It is fundamentally a character study.

1) Girlchild doesn’t shy away from class issues. In America, in literature, we seem to only acknowledge poverty if it’s within the context of someone’s ascent out of it, and yeah, I’m sure there are exceptions that commenters can helpfully list, but Girlchild depicts the underclass in a sensitive, nuanced way that resists simplification or fetishization. A significant part of the novel shows Rory’s early awareness of the divide between her neighborhood and the rest of the world. The life depicted in the Calle (the trailer park where Rory and her mother live) is the reality for the majority of Americans, and this voice is needed in a society that is irrevocably divided between the tiny group of haves and the masses of have-nots. While this depiction is imperfect, delivered as it is through a medium of privilege and made possible by more privilege, I think it’s the kind of story we need more of in order to work for a more empathetic society. Oh, sorry, my Marxist is showing. tl;dr! Let’s go on to –

2) Girlchild utilizes pastiche in one of the most effective ways I’ve seen so far, and this makes for one of the most memorable narrative voices I’ve encountered in recent fiction. One major trope in the novel is Rory’s desire to be a Girl Scout, and this is used to emphasize the tasks and trials she undergoes (as well as to highlight the absurdity of the traditional Girl Scouting program in the face of poverty and semi-neglect). Girlchild incorporates a rich variety of voices and texts, yet the story is Rory’s own, and everything is filtered through her perspective. Too often, pastiche tropes just work like collages or overstuffed casseroles, throwing in a bit of everything until it’s nothing, but Girlchild manages to incorporate a wide variety of styles while still integrating them into one coherent and cohesive voice.

3) Girlchild resists easy answers and simple narratives. I know, what a cop-out, right? That’s the ultimate easy answer in a book review. but hear me out. In some heteroglossic move, Girlchild isn’t just Rory’s story, nor even that of her mother and grandmother. The book has been criticized for a slow-moving plot, when I don’t think that’s as important as the development of the voice and the depiction of a place and time. It isn’t just about Rory’s in/ability to get out of the Calle and follow what the audience would have her do (college! scholarships! rewarding career!). It isn’t just a coming-of-age story. Like other works I greatly admire that incorporate other narratives and voices into a deeper whole, Girlchild is actually the story of many different people, which sets the title at odds with its content. Many of the more critical reviews on Amazon and Goodreads seem to come from those who expected an easy, “Oprah-style” narrative of someone overcoming their past. Instead, Girlchild is terribly human – not novelistic – and while some may hate it for that, I respect it even more. That being said, the book is not without flaws. For example, early in the book, I think that Hassman resorted to what I could cynically call a cliche in coming-of-age / adolescent novels, but what I respect is  that the book is not about discovering that this event occurred and rendering justice (cf. the far-overrated Perks of Being a Wallflower) but instead, its repercussions and incorporation into the larger context of a life.

It’s hard to find any actual information about Hassman, other than the fact that she lives in Oakland, CA (a fact that the Amazon biography mentions no fewer than three times) and has an MFA from Columbia (mentioned twice in the aforementioned Amazon blurb). While the “MFA-ification” of American fiction has been criticized, and rightfully so, I am excited to see what Hassman writes next. In the meantime, I command you to read this book.

(For a full list of everything I read this year or at least until I forget to update, this is my Goodreads 2013 challenge.)


Up a Creek and Against All Odds – Blowback Role-Playing Game

February 16, 2011

Blowback Cover

As Giorgio Agamben establishes in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, human history can be summarized in terms of sovereign states separating citizens (with rights, privileges, protections) from “bare life” – mere human bodies excepted from the law and fully subject to the forces of the world arrayed against them.

Blowback by Elizabeth Shoemaker Sampat is a role-playing game that explores what happens when citizens with exemptions (i.e., government-backed operatives) suddenly become bare lives, which then threaten the mere citizens (i.e., the civilians) about whom they still care.  This “caring” transforms from a passive activity into an active, perilous dance.  As Sampat beautifully puts it:

All you have, all you are, is you. So you make nice with the few people who’ll have you, and rely on them more than you should – but if you’re too cold or uncaring, they’ll turn on you. And if you care too much, the people who are after you will exploit them to hurt you. And if you cared about them at all, you wouldn’t care about them even a little.

Sampat has framed the game as “heavily inspired by the American teleivision show Burn Notice and movies like the Bourne trilogy.”  Some reviews have mentioned the game overstates this influence a bit, but I appreciate that the game knows where it is coming from and proudly wears this badge on its shoulder.  The media that inspire the game are just a springboard, however, for a whole host of questions concerning our ability to function under stress – specifically the stressful conditions imposed by our would-be action movie – and what that does to our relationship to our environment, ourselves and, well, our relationships.

In Blowback, you play a mixture of Professionals and Civilians who have suddenly become interconnected by a botched mission.  While this premise appears incredibly specific, it appears to be to the spy genre what the dame-walks-into-the-private-eye’s-office trick is to film noir: Salt (2010),  Eye of the Needle (1981), The American (2010), The Replacement Killers (1998) — they’ve all got traces of the “botched job” trope.  The GM plays The Agency opposite them, whose role is to turn up the heat under the characters at strategic moments, all the while teasing us with details about the botched job.  The player-characters often find themselves caught between their past and present, with the future virtually unforeseeable (except as a repository for further anxiety).

The game system itself puts you into a fairly rigorous but easy-to-follow flowchart of action, with a lot riding on the tense web of relationships generated in the early part of play (this is an indie game, after all).  The dramaturgy of every session is structured by an individual Job — a man wants to be extracted from his company, a little girl hires you to track down the man who killed her father, whatever — that is further subdivided into the Analysis, Operation and Blowback phases.  Each offer you a chance to indulge in all the cliches of the spy genre while inventing your own:  Analysis is where you trick cameras and bribe informants, Operation is when your plan goes awry but generally alright, and Blowback is where you find out that it’s not okay for you to kidnap visiting state dignitaries and put them in your brother’s garage.  You get a certain number of overall actions, and legible flowcharts within each phase let you figure out the consequences of your decision-making/dice-rolling.  Game echoes of Cyberpunk or Shadowrun, where you assemble crack teams for jobs, mix with the television-relationship dynamics of games like Smallville or Primetime Adventure.  As Sampat was on the playtesting crew for Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World, her careful delineation of The Agency’s responsibilities in making the player-characters’ lives “not boring” remains in dialog with Baker’s game on many levels.  Unlike Apocalypse World, however, “opportunities should always seem like the result of what’s happening in the game, not a result of the roll.”  The game’s architecture insists that story remain queen of the realm.

The system and the book itself (printed in glossy full-color) aside, Blowback has some philosophical subtlety built into its design.  The bare life principle, for example, foregrounds the notion of human expendability in the face of modern systems of control and governance.  You as the player-character suddenly begin to take a good, hard look at your surroundings and ask yourself: what are my resources here in Great Falls, MT?  Who here can I trust?  Where does this podunk town fit into the great game?  Then you open your eyes and see it:  at least in the United States, the military-industrial complex surrounds us. It has hardened into a kind of invisible carapace that nevertheless locks us into untenable courses of action:  wars we cannot win in distant countries, mass-scale corruption, families dependent and vulnerable on the few industries that remain, guns sold over the counter to dubious people, and so forth.  And the beginning of heroic action against/within this complex comes from our interpersonal relations, that we ourselves might personally experience the consequences of violence and intrigue and try to spare others from the same.  Blowback thus co-opts the often corporate-fantasy-dominated spy genre for the purposes of exploring what happens when the insulation that keep our professional and personal lives apart is removed, when the ugly foundation of world power is exposed through a seemingly inconsequential “gray op.”

On the one hand, Blowback is all good guys, bad guys and explosions.  And on the other, it’s all instant pain, hope and social critique.  Honestly, what else are you looking for in a role-playing game?

And beyond that, can any of us – Pro or Civilian – survive being cut off?


Hopi Hopes and Navajo Nightmares: How We Came to Live Here

August 6, 2010

In honor of the currently-in-progress GenCon Indy 2010, where this game is in the running for an ENnie Award for Best Writing, I give you a review of Brennan Taylor’s How We Came to Live Here: Stories of the Fifth World.

As the somewhat alliterative title of the blog post suggests, this tabletop role-playing game has you playing tribes from the American Southwest in the era before white colonial forces came mucking about with pox-infested blankets, massacres and exploitative casino contracts.  It is a game set in a time of legend, when the myth-tellers walk with myths, and where mythemes can achieve expression with a minimal level of modern cultural baggage.  Yet it is also a game that tells the story of a village, and by no means a simple one.  By the time you are done creating your characters and the relationships between them, these Native Americans might as well join the cast of Dallas, with all their interrelated bits of familial business.

One Game, Two Gamemasters

How We Came to Live Here’s certifiable “schtick” is the fact that it’s a small group game (for 3-5 players maximum) with two “gamemasters” whose main role is to provide conflict and adversity to the remaining 1-3 Hero Players.  The Outside Player pulls the strings of the external threats to the village, whilst the Inside Player controls the festering internal conflicts that may rot it from the center. Now most seasoned role-players would be skeptical about the entertainment value in having two different scheming folks plotting adversity against their poor, defenseless heroes.  Believe me: it’s entertaining.  The village itself comes alive through two souls tasked with playing a lot of NPCs, the scenes more readily push toward conflict – which is itself stripped down to its essence on account of the setting (i.e., the People’s crops are on fire, one of the People committed incest and is becoming Corrupted whilst covering it up, etc.) – and the Heroes seem, well, frankly more heroic by the virtue of there being fewer of them and driven to address conflict with alarming frequency.

To Build a Village

The creation of the characters and village is, however, the most charming aspect of this game by far.  In our playtest, we came up with the village Water Horse Crossing, which was set in a previously inhabited, crumbling cliff overlooking a raging river and tucked below a broad plateau where the horses grazed.  Our two protagonists, She-Who-Conquers-the-Horse (the horse-tamer) and He-Who-Ties-Us-Together (the rope-maker) were our Hero characters and good childhood friends whose mothers had conspired for an arranged marriage against their will.  She-Who-Conquers-the-Horse was also the object of affection for at least two other men in the village (He-Dives-Off-Cliffs and He-Laughs-at-Danger), whilst the rope master struggled with obligations owed to the maligned village outsider He-Who-Hides-in-Shadows.  To top it off, the Shadow Dwellers within the abandoned, unused part of the village have begun to stir up trouble and the witch She-Sings-Horses-Away began to pick off the tribe’s precious herd.  After two hours of coming up with family lineage, communities, ambitions and threats as a group, it is a pleasure to finally breathe life into it all.  It also offers you little opportunity to rely on crass stereotypes and ideal images to provide convenient shorthand for your characters: they are so well-developed, there is no reason to rely on such easy shortcuts.

Conflicts Abound

Taylor’s conflict resolution mechanism uses FUDGE dice and presents a hybrid between the pacing mechanisms of Primetime Adventures, where an actual character arc is established before the game is established, and the “hand” system of Dogs in the Vineyard, in which you deploy individual dice as part of a way to map out the “beats” of a scene.  The Heroes can more or less sell their soul to get what they want out of a conflict, but then bad things begin to happen to them.  The system encourages the Hero Players to push their characters’ capabilities and test their limits without abandoning conventional RPG stand-bys like dice pools and deployable traits.

Though the character sheet design was a little cramped, the added fiction a bit too plentiful, and a few typos were found (“villiage”), the game by all means should walk away with its Best Writing award. Clear instructions make a complex narrative generator into a breezy, pleasurable affair.  How We Came to Live Here relishes in the pleasures of sandbox creation without abandoning the sweet delights of the creative destruction wrought by plots afoot and disasters aplenty.  Like Mortal Coil, we are asked to play in a dream world where the nightmares are encroaching in on us from the periphery.

If Neil Gaiman wrote fiction about the ancient Native Americans, you’d likely get a session of this game. Try it – your brain will like you for it.


Annalise: The Vampire RPG You’ve Been Dying to Meet

July 28, 2010

Now that the public thirst for vampires has been gorged in the popular media with works like True Blood, Twilight, and Let the Right One In (all book-to-visual adaptations, I might add), it’s time for tabletop role-playing games to join the proverbial party.

Oh sure, there’s Mark Rein-Hagen’s ol’ workhorse Vampire: The Masquerade (and its not-quite-ambitious-enough sequel).  But playing White Wolf’s mediocre munchkinizer system for decades has left me yearning for a role-playing game that – rather than enabling the play of angst-ridden, pseudo-mysterious, bloodthirsty super-beings – addresses the core issues of vampire fiction, namely the poetically rendered psychology of the vampire’s victims:  what makes one attractive to the vampire? how does the vampire manifest and seduce someone? what does the vampire represent?

The system that addresses these issues and more exists and has a name: Annalise.

The Hard Facts

Before I get analytical and philosophical here, let me summarize the game for your benefit.  Annalise is an independently published role-playing game designed for 2-4 players, in which all involved grapple with the turmoil and discovery of a threatening vampire in the manner of Gothic horror fiction.  It’s a little like a board game (with cards and dice), a little like improv theater (acting out characters in scenes) and a lot like a writer’s workshop on melodramatic overdrive.  As the author himself describes it, Annalise is:

… a noprep, short- to medium-form, setting-less, GM-less
game. It could be considered a “story game” in the
sense that the product of play is intended to resemble
the kind of Gothic horror fiction described above.

“Noprep” means none of the players need to come prepared with any pre-developed story materials (i.e., character sheets, plotlines, etc.) and “short- to medium-form” means it’ll run between one and six sessions of play, each four hours in length.  “Setting-less” means it can take place in any location at any time, and the threat need not even be a vampire.  “GM-less” means all involved are players, and no one possesses any arbitrary authority over any other.  As a “story game,” it suggests Narrativist leanings, or at least the inclusion of conscious, articulated metaplot rules (i.e., how to reiterate a story’s themes) along with ordinary task-resolution rules (i.e., whether or not my character succeeds at something).

It’s a parlor role-playing game you play in a candlelit room with your three closest friends, or (more likely) in a brightly lit convention center with three near-total strangers, as seen below:

Jonathon Walton and Shreyas Sampat play an early version of Annalise in 2008.

As you can see, a lot of tokens and paper are needed to pull introspectively into your character’s relationship with the vampire.  All bargains have a price…

How to Role-play a Novel

It is curious that Nathan D. Paoletta chose to name his game Annalise, an Anglo-European girl’s name with connotations of grace and/or favor.  Yet the odd name of the game is somehow tantamount to the game itself.  Viewed as an analogy to the game’s content, the name conjures up the image of a vulnerable white female (see cover above) who not so much acts as reacts, whose power lies in the granting of permissions, and who is beset with internal conflict.  It works, however, as an analogy to the game system as well: players assume the roles of protagonists somehow affected by the vampire rather than the vampire itself, with key mechanics determining how much sway the vampire has over your character’s emotions and/or how far you permit the vampire to take things.  In effect, Annalise is a game about finding a response to the external demons who threaten you by coming to terms with the internal demons who haunt you.  It is (in this respect) the closest gaming equivalent to the experience of reading proper literature I have ever experienced.

How does a role-playing game accomplish all this?  Well, since the game is built on the premise that system does matter, Annalise deploys solid design with an eye for the necessary functions of literary narrative.  Now it would take me all day to unpack what a “literary narrative” is for all to see, so I’ll limit the definition to: a narrative that gives equal weight to poetic imagery, character interiority and conflict-motivated, chapter-like scenes.

A long digression: most gamers still actually think their role-playing games generate all of the above, such that a game with the right chemistry among the players suddenly produces all the trappings of satisfying fiction. The game “feels” like a book (Amber), movie (Feng Shui), play (most jeepform games), video game (Street Fighter), TV show (Primetime Adventures), comic book (With Great Power), etc.  Yet I associate certain role-playing titles with certain media (like those above) because, in my mind, they somehow capture the distinct internal rhythms of that particular medium better than others.  Feng Shui gets that movie feel from the introduction of metacinematic game mechanisms like “One Bullet Left” (i.e., no matter how many shots you have fired in an action sequence, you always seem to have one bullet still left in your gun… when you really need it… like in a movie). Primetime Adventures does it through metatelevisual mechanisms, like the producers’ limited budget determining actual game length.  Street Fighter even steps it up with its video-game-like combat system, in which you deploy special moves during combat scenes as if you were pounding buttons in an arcade.  To these ends, Feng Shui mechanically organizes itself around the opening fight / plot complications / midway showdown / total disaster / final showdown dramaturgy, Primetime Adventures around the inevitable character twists that drive TV viewer interest, and Street Fighter around a mixture of structured and unstructured martial arts dueling.  That means no extra dangly bits to get in the way.  Most games, however, run into trouble striking a suitable balance with the media of their inspiration: pre-4th Edition Dungeons and Dragons was a hybrid with two leaden feet in war simulation and mid-20th Century fantasy literature whose patent absurdity to outsiders and insiders alike led it to becoming easily parodied medium of its own; Rein-Hagen’s Vampire was busy forming a vampire mythology to parallel Ann Rice without bothering to fix its own debilitating fascination with war simulation (i.e., the game rules still care whether you’re shooting a vampire with a revolver or an Uzi); Steve Jackson’s GURPS deems itself suitable for telling any story in any setting, so long as your story is an adventure story that tests competence.  Not that games not intending to simulate certain specific media are always incoherent, but they tend to consistently whisper to the player: “You are trying to tell a simple story by playing a silly little game.” A whisper that undermines all kinds of creativity and interest.

Back to Annalise, a game which drowns out that silly whisper inside you with the seductive whispers of Faustian bargains carelessly struck and the anguished whimpers of tormented dreamers clinging desperately to their last shreds of humanity.  The game mechanically articulates the finer points of literature without losing sight of the cheap tropes (i.e., blood-red roses, curtains blowing against a closed window, etc.) that continue to raise goosebumps.  Let’s see how it does this:

* Dramaturgical Structure – The structure of a good literary story is practically written into the four phases of the game: Discovering Characters, Laying the Foundations, The Confrontation, and The Aftermath.  Players create and introduce their vulnerable characters in the first, build their relationship to the vampire in the second, confront it in the third and determine the fallout in the fourth.

* Scene Guides – Instead of having a game-master, players take turns as “scene guides,” setting up compromising scenarios for their fellow players’ characters as the vampire’s grip on them tightens.  Authorship is passed around easily and sans power struggle.

* Claims Players can “claim” non-player characters, props, locations, visual motifs, relationships and events introduced by other players as bits of fiction they control.  Shadowy dogs, bodiless limbs, Frank’s uncle, the oncoming storm, tapping fingernails; the cheap tropes list is nigh inexhaustible. This is the players’ way of telling the others: “That thing you came up with was so awesome, it’s got to come up again!”  These Claims then help you out later in the game, ensuring their recurrence in the story as well as a useful game boost.

* Core/Satellite Traits – Characters are built from the very traits that make them interesting as literature would make them: their Vulnerabilities and Secrets.  The former come from the character’s player, the latter from a group-generated pool of Secrets, guaranteeing that someone likely suspects a character of having “their” Secret and adding a metaplot element of dramatic irony to the game.  My Core Traits could be “I am vulnerable because my parents never denied me my wishes” and “I can never reveal that I only care about myself,” from which my Satellite Traits “Wealthy,” “Ambitious,” “Manipulative,” and “Irresistibly Cute” may develop over the course of play.  Signifiers already point to Signified, with the players knowing what to expect from a character while still in suspense (via the Secreet) about their true motives.

* Moments – To drive each conflicted scene to resolution, Moments determine what Achievement a character gets from a conflict, if any, and what the Consequences are for their actions.  This is, again, an elegant means of depicting the basic flow of literary conflict: how characters get what they want, and how much they need to pay.  In Annalise, winning every fight with your parents and refusing the vampire’s every advance may make you more than ripe for the vampire to take possession of your body later on…

* Confrontation – Do you Give In, or do you Resist?  The game makes your choice about the vampire absolutely explicit.

The New Edition

Though Annalise has been available online as a PDF and in varying print forms since 2008, the Final edition will be made available at GenCon 2010 in Indianapolis next week.  What else can I say, other than this edition reads easily, references itself quickly and looks beautiful?  Annalise exemplifies how RPGs should present themselves and how they should organize the information contained within their highly sculpted pages.  The twenty-four pages of angsty teenage fiction (complete with 30 Days of Night-worthy artwork by Jennifer Rodgers) and six Guided Play scenarios (for fast convention action) feel like added value rather than game publisher’s fluff.  Play examples, summaries and a step-by-step guide to each game phase make the game immediately understandable to the lay and experienced reader alike, as well as recognize the game’s inherent complexity without insulting the intelligence of the reader.

A unified vision of coherent game rules, integrated visual design and clear technical writing may make this vampire game the bridge we’ve all been waiting for between the smallish coterie of story gamers and the vast, geeky gaming world that surrounds them.

Now if only the “Twihards” knew about this…


Drama Doll

September 30, 2009

If you’re a female under the age of about thirty-five, you probably know about American Girl dolls; they each come with their own historical setting, a six-book series, multiple outfits and accessories, and the sound of about fifty million small and not-so-small girls pleading with their parents to buy them one. I was one of them, once; my mother, who was extremely pleased to see a doll with brown hair and eyes, had planned to surprise me with Samantha for Christmas, but I found the catalogue and, steeped to the brim with Laura Ingalls Wilder stories, begged for Kirsten because she was a pioneer and wore a sunbonnet. I got her that Christmas, twenty-one years ago, and still have her, along with quite a few accessory sets – bought one at a time, twice a year (birthday and Christmas). She was by far the longest-lasting and best toy I can remember having.

Mattel bought out the company about ten years ago and in addition to expanding their stable of dolls they now have modern dolls and “best friend” dolls, some of them being pushed harder than others (poor Kirsten – since her best friend Marta dies of cholera in Book 1, I don’t think she’ll be getting a shroud-wrapped companion doll any time soon). I hadn’t thought much about them for a while, but that all changed last February when, two months to the day after my daughter was born, one of their catalogues arrived in the mail. Coincidence? I like to think so. Anyway, a quick review brought me up to date – the “Girl of the Year” was named Chrissa (um … OK) and had two friend dolls named Gwen and Sonali. All of them, of course, retailing for $95 apiece. I got another catalogue a few weeks ago, which introduced their new WWI-era Jewish doll. So imagine my surprise, when noodling around on the Huffington Post instead of doing something more productive (like, say, bouncing a rubber ball off my living room for three hours) there was a piece describing the “controversial new homeless doll.” Another doll? What the hell?

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Saying goodbye to Reading Rainbow

August 28, 2009

The news on the radio this morning told me that today is the final day for Reading Rainbow. This makes me incredibly sad. It is the 3rd longest running show on PBS, after only Sesame Street and Mister Rogers. I am only 3 years older than this show, so it has effectively been around for my entire life. I found myself spontaneously singing the theme song just this past weekend when I spotted a butterfly in the yard. In elementary school, when we were waiting for our parents to come pick us up, tapes of Reading Rainbow episodes were among the few approved things we could watch once outside time was over. (Episodes of Square One were also approved. Man, now I miss Mathnet.)

I loved Reading Rainbow. I loved the illustrations from the books. I loved hearing the new stories and seeing them present ones I’d already read. I loved Levar Burton and the strangeness of seeing him in both that show and Star Trek, which was, of course, another childhood television mainstay. But the show has been on for 26 years now, so I think I could more happily let it go, if it weren’t for this explanation of why the show is ending:

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