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Liminal Space

My eyes open to the sound of my alarm. It wakes me up at the usual time, but not in the usual place. I roll out of the bed that is too big for the size and number of its pillows and wander across the narrow room to the one working outlet I could find for my phone charger. I silence my phone’s alarm and head to the bathroom to get ready. In the light of morning, I am struck by the seemingly willful mediocrity of the place, as if the room is daring me to complain about the peeling wallpaper, or the holes and empty screws in the walls where presumably pictures once hung, or the toilet that flushes too slowly and must be flushed again to accomplish its job. I contemplate what it must be like to spend more than a single night here, what I would think and feel if I had to come back to this room. It’s almost like whoever built this place only ever intended it for one night stays from travelers like us. They cut the corners they didn’t think we’d miss for a single night. After all, the room has a bed, and that’s the main thing for a hotel room, right?

I shower, almost breaking the shower head trying to adjust the flow before giving it up as a lost cause. My thoughts return to last night. We rolled in fairly late, but still before midnight. Even at night, this place exuded an air of “not great, but it’ll do.” I’m fairly certain the woman checking in ahead of us was a prostitute, with her too-tight, too-short dress, her stack of cash, and her lack of luggage. Not judging, just noticing. As we waited to check in, a grandma, her grandkids, and her adult daughter emerged from the doorway to the outdoor pool. They were chatting in a tired but amiable fashion. I recall thinking that, for some people, this place may be a destination, not a stopping point on the way to somewhere else. They had chosen to come here–for vacation? for the nearby casino? for another reason entirely? We had chosen it because the last-minute deal fit our budget for lodging and we needed a place to sleep.

The elevator door creaked and almost didn’t close all the way as the small elevator moved us up a floor with jerky, uncertain motions. It sighed with relief when it deposited us in the hall and was allowed to resume its slow decay of inactivity. The hall was long and dingy. There were water stains on the carpet, but we didn’t care. We just wanted sleep. The room matched the rest of the hotel: aggressively mediocre, barely acceptable. There was only one working outlet, and half the lights didn’t work. I tried to connect to the free Wi-Fi, but the signal wasn’t strong enough to load the terms and conditions page, so I gave up. We collapsed into the serviceable bed and tried to sleep. The weak fan from the window HVAC unit tried and failed to drown out the background noises and make us forget that there were sounds all around us–that we were not alone in this liminal space.

I finish my shower and dry off with a too-thin, too-small towel. As I’m getting dressed,  I see the room rates listed on the back of the door–nearly triple what we payed for our night’s repose. There’s no way anyone would pay that much. I wonder if there was a time when this place was considered “nice.” Perhaps when it was new, when the walls were clear of scratches and stains, people thought of this place as a destination worth paying that much for the joy  of staying here. Maybe the grandma from last night remembers that time. I wonder if the young Indian man who checked us in does. My wife stirs and wakes. She goes through the same morning routine I have just completed. We are getting ready–ready to go, to leave this place and continue our journey. Will we remember this place tomorrow? Next week? Next year? Or will it blend with all the other in-between, liminal spaces, the spaces outside the margins of our lives?

We head down to the lobby for our complementary continental breakfast. I skip over the waxy, mealy Washington apples, grabbing a light strawberry yogurt as the closest approximation of fruit. The eggs are the lumpy, uniform pastel yellow that only comes from powder, and there are three tiers of different types of bread products. A trashy white guy with a sparse beard and baseball cap is chewing out a young girl for taking too much “bacon.” The bacon gets scare quotes because it more closely resembles bacon-flavored rice paper than anything that was once part of a pig. The other breakfast patrons give us blank, tired looks as they eat their light tan food and sip their brown, coffee-flavored water. The only tea selection is Lipton original that has been here for who knows how long. I try to drink it and surreptitiously dump half of it down the drinking fountain. I hotel employee wanders through the lobby, spraying cleaning solution in the air like it’s potpourri. I guess this is what he considers “cleaning”?

Another trip in the ancient, grumbling elevator and we are checking out, heading to the car to continue our trip. The hotel is behind us, and already the memory is fading. Did it really happen? Does it really exist as a physical space? Or does it join all the other liminal spaces as an amalgam of anomie, normlessness, and in-betweenness? What is it like to live and work in a place on the margins of space? Does it ever become more real? Or does it stay dream-like and elusive? Someday I may find out, but today we keep driving.

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A Tale of Two Mowers

Today God taught me a lesson using two lawn mowers.

It’s been a kind of crazy year for me. It’s had ups and downs and a whole lot of in-betweens. This past fall, I applied to as many doctoral programs as I could afford (which was only 7, by the way–those application fees add up fast!), in the hopes of jumping straight from my undergrad to the big leagues in the most time and money efficient way possible. I knew I was shooting for the moon, but I knew I would regret not going for it if I didn’t at least try. The months between submitting my applications and waiting for the decisions were filled with fear, excitement, and anticipation. The world was about to open up before me.

Except it didn’t. I heard back from school after school thanking me for my application and reassuring me that they received so many highly qualified applicants that they just couldn’t take them all–you know, the stuff they tell you to make you feel better. But it doesn’t work. It sucked. Suddenly the world that was opening up in front of me had slammed closed again. There was no time to apply for master’s programs, since all of the deadlines were back when I was spending all my money applying to the doctoral programs that had just rejected me. I did get considered for the University of Chicago’s one year intensive MA program, as a consolation prize for not making the Ph.D program. This would have been better news if the MA program was funded like the Ph.D program. It wasn’t. I got in, but the scholarship they offered me was small potatoes compared to the enormous price tag of not only tuition, but also moving to and living in Chicago. I was back to square one, and I was graduating in a little over a month. Read More…

Game Master Diaries #6: Making Maps

This week is all about maps! From large-scale global maps, to city maps and dungeon maps, you should never leave home without some amount of cartographic preparation. Different GMs use maps differently, and the style of your adventure may require more or fewer maps than you typically would use, but unless your story is completely abstract when it comes to physical space, there will come a time when you need a map. If you were to peek behind my game master screen during a typical RPG session, you would see somewhere between two and five maps on average. Some of these maps are there simply for reference and may not come into play at all, but others are essential to maintaining the flow and cohesion of the game. In this post we’re going to talk about the different types of maps and how I like to use them in play; if that sounds like fun, buckle up! (If that doesn’t sound like fun, nobody is forcing you to read about it, but we will probably look down on you a little bit.) Read More…

Game Master Diaries #5: My Characters Concluded

Today is the final installment of the character close-ups that focus on the character creation and backstory process for each of the five player characters in my one-shot. Next week we will move on to a new aspect of Game Mastering, either making maps or dungeon design, I’m not sure yet which will be first. In the mean time, sit back, relax, and let me introduce you to Dmitri Hillseeker, the half-giant ranger, and Stanley Upton, the young human monk. Read More…

Game Master Diaries #4.5: My Characters Continued

After a couple weeks of negligence due to preparing my other campaign for a long-awaited session (and also general laziness), Game Master Diaries are back! I am doing the rest of my characters this week, so I’ll be sticking them together into two posts with two per post, that way we can get on with something new next week. In this post we get to meet Jebediah Crushbone, the half-orc rogue, and Craig Craghammer, the dwarf wizard. Read More…

Game Master Diaries #4: My Characters

The time has now come to share the characters I have brewed up with you. For each of them I will share the character concept, some notes about the process that went into designing the character, and a brief background sketch of that character. All good parties have a leader, and that is who we’re starting with today. Allow me to introduce you to Bartholomew Goodbarrow, the halfling paladin. Read More…

Game Master Diaries #3: Developing Backstories

Last week I mentioned the idea of backstories briefly in an example, and as I was thinking about what to do for the next post I realized that this is a concept that needs to be talked about in more detail before we leave character creation behind. Unless your character is literally a newborn, they have a past, a history, a backstory, and that backstory can inform their choices and actions in the game just as much as the things written on the character sheet, perhaps even more. Everyone in your game needs some amount of backstory, from the players to the background NPCs to the monsters they fight in a dungeon. Even if you don’t end up using the elements of the backstory, it is still important to make them more real characters with motivations and a history. Nobody just comes out of nowhere, fully formed with no history, that’s not how things work, and it makes for flat, uninteresting storytelling. So let’s talk about the different kinds of backstories that you can use for your characters and NPCs to make your world a more well-rounded place. Read More…