What Is a Poem?

Before the crash I wrote poetry fairly often, and even got an award for one I wrote in middle school, but after the crash I suddenly stopped. The soul exception was the free verse I wrote after Columbine. That poem is notable for two reasons: I wrote it while staying awake for more than 24 hours while watching news coverage of the event (and skipping all of my classes), and it’s the only free verse I have have ever written, and likely ever will.

Ask five people what a poem is, and you’ll get at least six different answers. My favorite poetry always has defined meter (but sometimes break from it for effect), as do all but one of the poems I’ve written, but free verse strays far from that. I won’t do more than mention “prose poetry” here because I don’t want to sidetrack myself, but that’s another case where one person’s poem is another’s paragraph with randomly-inserted line breaks.

Then Twitter and texting came onto the scene, and the English language will never be the same. Merriam-Webster has probably been busier adding new words than they have ever been since Noah Webster wrote the original nearly two centuries ago.

Over the past year I have become more active on Twitter despite my deep Depression, so it was only relatively recently that I discovered Twitter poetry, and with it came a renewed interest in poetry. In the two decades since the crash I have often written poetically (mostly to my wife Lura), but no actual poems aside from a brief one for her every once in a while (usually shared publicly via Twitter or facebook, if you’d like to read them). Last year I even signed up for an online course called “How Writer’s Write Poetry“, but only managed to stick with it through three lessons before Depression and busyness distracted me from it.

I have tried repeatedly to write poetry over the past several years, including making a roleplaying character that only spoke in haiku, but can never seem to stick with it. That’s why I was so intrigued when I learned about Twitter poems. Reading many of them over the days following my discovery is what got me thinking about what constitutes a poem.

The essence of haiku is to show just enough to let the reader’s imagination take over, making the reader an integral component of the art. As Matsuo Bashō famously said: “The haiku that reveals seventy to eighty percent of its subject is good. Those that reveal fifty to sixty percent, we never tire of.” As a result I’ve seen some wonderful three-word haiku, and even wrote one I may share someday, but that got me thinking about how short a poem could be and still be a poem, leading to this:

scream
catharsis

Only two words, but to me it is quite evocative because it is something I have experienced so often. Others who have felt the blessed relief that can result from a good cry or scream may feel something in reading that, but does simply being evocative make it a poem?

I have been writing Twitter poems for Lura more and more often over the past year, even one a month for a while. The forced brevity of the format means I can’t be my usual flowery self (a bad habit English teachers spent more than a decade trying to curb), and that has helped my writing in general. The character limit also means that the resulting poems are so short that I can’t agonize over them for months or years until I think they’re perfect, as I have done with several short stories for years now. In fact, I must instead treat every tweet as if it was a haiku, making sure I get my whole message through without any extra words.

As an example of what I mean, and because it’s Valentine’s day, here is the Twitter haiku I wrote for her last year to celebrate the 17th anniversary of our first date:

Seventeen years gone
Love lies sleeping beside me
Still watching her breathe

How did you read that poem? Was it sweet, or mildly erotic? Did you imagine me lying there watching her sleep and just being happy that she was in bed beside me? Or did you think I was just ogling her boobs as they went up and down? Could I have meant both? Was I saying that I was happy that she was still in my life after 17 years and that I still find her to be the most desirable woman who ever lived? The only thing you can be certain of is that I am still very much in love with her after 17 years together – the rest is up to your imagination and how you see the world.

That simultaneous clarity and ambiguity of meaning is why before the crash I wrote poetry almost exclusively (aside from the occasional essay, which is why blogging appeals to me so much). But since the crash, and especially since our wedding, I’ve written more prose than anything else, much of it inspired by things we have done together (even today we both tend to use tabletop roleplaying games to flesh out characters and settings).

Now that I realize how much I was telling the world when I sent that Tweet back in November, I have decided that I will end this by sharing with you my three-word haiku I referenced earlier. It is the most personal thing I have ever written, but I am sharing it despite my innate extreme shyness because it succinctly tells the source of the Depression that keeps me from blogging or doing anything else for months at a time. And even though I cry every time I re-read it or revise this post, maybe making it public will prove even more cathartic, and hopefully provide some comfort to others in my situation by letting them know that they are not alone.

longing
fatherhood
despair

Happiness Jar #3 for 2017-02-13

This is actually last week’s jar, but I’ve only now had the time to write it up because the good news itself has kept me busy – which is further good news since that busyness means I’ve only had one major Depressive funk in the past week or so, and that was Saturday night). After a several-month unintentional hiatus, we are finally going to be roleplaying again, in the Fairy Tail campaign I mentioned in “Happiness Jar #2“. The GM’s books should be arriving tomorrow, so we hope to be doing character creation before Pokémon League this Saturday, so that will probably be this week’s HJ.

Last week’s jar is that I finally settled on how I would do the Requip ability if I were the GM, meaning that as of Saturday I was able to make Natsu, Gray (mostly), Erza (and by extension the gun requippers, but their attacks are my current project since that’s the kind of character I’m leaning towards), and had a rough idea of how to do Lucy (Allies (Summonable, +20%, Magic, +10%; Must have the spirit’s key, -25%; Pact (??), -?%)), but don’t know enough about celestial mages’ contracts with their spirits to create their Pacts, so that’s probably as far as I’ll go on that.

Since I’m not the GM I’m not going to actually post any of that anywhere until he gets a shot at making his own versions, especially since he’s getting Thaumatology, which is near the top of our trpg wishlist, but I used Powers, which he isn’t getting, so our results will be quite different. In fact, everything I have made for the game is an Advantage – even Erza’s armors are Advantages like Limited DR, IAs, and Flight added onto armor purchased with money – and about half of them are Innate Attacks.

Once the campaign actually gets going (next week, with any luck) I’ll post everything, and with the GM’s permission I’ll also post his versions so it will all be available to anyone who wants to use or adapt it. If you do so then please leave a comment on that post, and leave a link if you posted your version somewhere. I always love to see how others build upon my work, which is exactly why our Constitution tasks the government with giving people patent and copyright protections “for limited times” to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts”, but I’ll go into that in a future post.

Happiness Jar #2 for 2017-02-03

After struggling to come up with happiness jar #1, this week we’ve got two candidates. I’ll start with the second one first.

A few minutes ago I was picking up a stack of books that had fallen over and were keeping our elderly Australian Shepherd from getting to their water dish. Near the bottom of the stack was our second copy of GURPS Basic Set: Characters, which has been missing for months. The timing could not better since we’re getting ready to start a new Saturday afternoon campaign and the GM only has one copy of his own.

Earlier this week something amazing happened: my wife finally got health insurance. She’s had to do without because we couldn’t afford the premiums (even with subsidies) and NC’s Republican Congress decided not to expand Medicaid. Given how many pre-existing conditions the two of us have, we’re happy beyond words that she’s finally getting insurance before the US Senate makes it impossible again.

If you live in Buncombe County and have a low income or still don’t have health insurance, visit the WNC Community Health Service (WNCCHS, or “Winches”), a Federally Qualified Health Center in Asheville. They have been our primary care provider since 2010 when they partnered with Buncombe County government to provide primary health care to low-income residents like us. Because I have Medicaid most of their services have been free – even dental – and the rest are very inexpensive because they charge on a sliding scale.

Thursday is #GURPSDay – Our Houserules

  • Bang Skills Cost Double Instead of Triple
  • Costs FP/ER is -10% Per Level, Capped at -40%
  • DR With Absorption (B46) Costs Less
  • Age-related Traits Cost Half, and Unaging is 5 CP

GURPS is pretty much the perfect roleplaying game for our needs. Its only major flaw is that once you get enough skills tied to one attribute it becomes far more cost effective to simply increase that attribute, gaining everything else that goes with it, instead of increasing the individual skills. Other than that and a few minor annoyances, it has served us very well since 4e released back in 2004, and remains our go-to game to this day. We’re actually about to start up a Fairy Tail game in which I’m looking forward to being on the player side of the screen for once.

I solved the skills-attributes problem in two ways:

  • finding reasons to use characters’ skills with other attributes (which is why GURPS has you record the Relative Level), and
  • encouraging players to take “Bang Skills”.

Here’s how we deal with that one big problem and those few minor annoyances:

Bang Skills Cost Double Instead of Triple

Learning to play GURPS is dead simple if someone else makes your character: Roll 3d6 under the target number on your character sheet. That’s oversimplified a bit, but you really can learn everything you need to play the game on one sheet of paper, like on my own GURPS Extra-Lite.

But making a character is another story and best done with the help of someone experienced (the sheer number of options can be overwhelming, so I encourage GMs to come up a list of what they will or won’t allow in that campaign) – especially when it’s time to buy skills. That remains the most difficult thing to explain to new players, but is easy once it finally clicks.

One way to make it even easier is with “Bang Skills” (“Wildcard Skills” sidebar on B175). Bang Skills cover vast numbers of skills with one super skill, and are very expensive as a result: Very Hard x 3.

As an example, the Professor on Gilligan’s Island would have Science! as his main skill. It would cost him 24 CP to get it equal to his IQ, and then 12 more per level after that. As a 150-point character, that’s asking a lot. Since I want to encourage my players to take Bang Skills, I only charge them double the VH cost instead of triple even though our games usually start at 200-250 points.

Costs FP/ER is -10% Per Level, Capped at -40%

For advantages that have to be maintained, you may take:

  • Costs 1 FP per 10 seconds, -20%
  • Costs 1 FP per second, -40%

Take note of the -40% limit. The same also applies to abilities that use Energy Reserves (Powers 119).

In digging through my old notes it appears that at some point in the past I was convinced that even -10% per level was too little, and that this was even better:

  • Costs FP’s value decreases with level: CFP 1 is -25%, CFP 2 is an additional -10%, and each additional level adds -5%. So it goes -25% / -30% / -40% / -45%.

It makes good sense because CFP 1 means you immediately go from infinite uses to at most 7-8 per battle – a pretty significant difference. But CFP 2 only drops you to 3-4 uses, and CFP 3 to 2-3. Since I forgot about it I haven’t actually tried it yet, but will in my next campaign.

DR With Absorption (B46) Costs Less

  • Absorption: Heals HP or FP, +40%
  • Absorption: Heals HP and FP, +60%
  • Absorption: (One Trait) xY, +5%
  • Y is the level of Absorption for that particular entry.
  • Absorption: Every Trait, +50%

In Rev. Pee Kitty’s article “Absorption Revised“, he details why absorption is too expensive, so I won’t duplicate that, but here’s Natsu from Fairy Tail as an example:

[6.5 * X] DR X (Magic, -10%; Limited (fire), -40%; Absorption: Heals ER, +40%; Absorption: ST x5, +25%; Absorption: Burning Attack x3, +15%)

In short, that means Natsu takes X less damage from fire-based attacks, and when he does he can use that energy to restore his ER, increase his ST (and therefore damage), or add dice of damage to his fire spells. It costs his player 6.5 CP per point of DR.

Age-related Traits Cost Half, and Unaging is 5 CP

From Rev. Pee Kitty’s House Rules “2. Reducing the value of ‘flavor’ traits”:

The values of all age-related traits (Extended Lifespan, Longevity, Self-Destruct, Short Lifespan) are halved, except for Unaging, which costs 5 points. Terminally Ill no longer exists, except when granted via an Affliction.

From the day GURPS 4e released I thought that Unaging was overpriced simply because it is mostly flavor and almost never has any mechanical effect, so I was happy when I found out that I wasn’t the only one only charging 5 CP for it. Halving the cost of other age traits hadn’t occurred to me, but is a good idea.

Happiness Jar #1 for 2017-01-27

I wanted so much to do a “happiness jar” post every weekend this year, but aside from some of our Magic and Pokémon booster pulls at Saturday’s Pokémon Sun and Moon prerelease we haven’t been able to come up with of anything – until Thursday this week.

Like the rest of my family, I’ve needed glasses for most of my life, but have been unable to wear them because of the way my nose is shaped (we suspect it was broken in school bus crash in middle school), and for various reasons I can’t wear contacts either, so I’ve just been dealing with the eyestrain for many years. But the other day while waiting on a prescription at CVS I was trying on random reading glasses to kill time and made two interesting discoveries:

  1. Even the weakest reading glasses are stronger than I need (which is why many people may not have even known that I needed glasses).
  2. Plain plastic frames like on cheap sunglasses don’t give me the nose pain and headaches caused by the nosepads on my wireframes.

Yesterday afternoon I went to Biltmore Vision again to see about getting my lenses put into new glasses. Turns out my lenses are too small to fit any of their plastic frames, but new ones are only $99. While the frames I chose are a bit pricey, there are again two great things about them:

  1. They are super light, so I barely even notice the pressure on my nose.
  2. Biltmore Vision is having a buy one get one free sale so we can also get my wife new glasses for free! Since her lenses are quite scratched and her frames not terribly happy either, it was a very happy surprise indeed.

Went by again today to pick up my glasses, and after Lura picked out her frames, we only had to wait about 10 minutes for her new glasses to be ready too – another pleasant surprise. We’ll take a selfie during Pokémon League to show them off, and I’ll add it here.

Truth

A Few More Inconvenient Truths

Race

  • FACT: For humans “race” is a social construct and is meaningless biologically because we are all of the same subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens.
  • FACT: We white people only make up about 1/5 of the world’s population. In global terms we are actually a minority – the Chinese outnumber us by a lot.

Religion

  • FACT: We Christians only make up about 1/3 of the world’s population, although we are the largest religion.
  • FACT: Our Christian forebears decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ during the winter even though he was born in warmer weather for one reason: To take over all of the “pagan” Yule and Solstice rituals that had been celebrated for centuries, if not millennia.
    • FACT: There is no war on Christmas. If anything, Pagans could claim that there is an ongoing war on Yule.

Government

  • FACT: Russia, Syria, China, and North Korea all have state-run television that warps the news in order to keep their people ignorant and themselves in power.
    • FACT: Misinformation is one of the favored methods of keeping power by dictators throughout history.
    • FACT: Kim Jong-il and Bashar al-Assad do it because they are dictators who oppress their people.
      • FACT: Bashar al-Assad has been “President” for 16 years, and took over the office from his father who had been “President” since 1971. In 2014 Assad was “elected” to another 7-year term in what should have been the first real Presidential election in Syria since the 1963 and 1966 coups that instituted the current monarchy.
      • FACT: Vladimir Putin has likewise alternated between President and Prime Minister for the past 16 years.
    • THEORY: Putin does it because he wants to be a czar rather than a president, which is why he fights to prop up dictators like Assad.
  • FACT: Russia did invade Crimea.
    • THEORY: I think Putin did it so that he will have a larger empire once he finally declares himself Czar.
  • FACT: The Russians did try to interfere with the US Presidential election by discrediting Hillary Clinton.
    • FACT: It could not have been done without Putin knowing about it; he may have even ordered it, but we don’t know for sure.
    • THEORY: Putin thinks Trump is like-minded and will help him cement power.

Climate Change

  • FACT: Climate change is real, and if we don’t curb our fossil fuel dependency the planet will become unlivable, leading to the extinction of the human race.
  • FACT: Since corporations generally only care about profits, the only way to save the planet is by enforcing strict environmental regulations.
  • FACT: The supply of fossil fuels is limited, so there will come a day when we will be forced to give them up anyway. Current estimates suggest that day could come as soon as 2050 at current usage. If we step up production like Trump wants to then our supplies won’t even last that long.

The True Meaning of Christmas

To get it out of the way: there is no “war on Christmas.” Our Christian forebears decided to adapt the existing “pagan” Yule and Winter Solstice festivities to the celebration of the birth of Christ even though He was born in warmer weather. While Jesus is certainly my reason for the season, that is not true for everyone.

So if Jesus isn’t what Christmas is all about, then what is? Ask a dozen people and you may get two dozen answers, but there are two things at the root of the winter holiday season all over the world.

The first is simply spending time with the people you love. We have huge meals, parties, and widespread families like mine traveling sometimes long distances in order to spend a few days together. Even if it’s just a newlywed couple or a few single friends taking a day off just to hang out, the crucial thing is time – time with the people we love most, or with those who need our love the most, which leads in to the other common element that binds us.

The second universal theme is the spirit of giving, as personified by Santa Claus. “Old City Bar” (yt) from Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s first album Christmas Eve and Other Stories demonstrates it really well, and as a result remains one of my favorite Christmas songs even two decades later. The album is about an angel who is sent to Earth to find something to give God to show what Jesus’ birth means to people two millennia later.

(Bit of trivia: One place he visits is war-torn Sarajevo during the events of Savatage’s Dead Winter Dead, which tells of the civil war of the early ’90s, and is the origin of TSO’s most famous song, “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)”. Even if you don’t like metal, DWD is worth a listen just for its message.)

The angel finally makes his way to NYC on Christmas Eve, where a girl stands in the snow next to a payphone across the street from the titular bar. The bartender, encouraged by the angel disguised as a child, empties the register then crosses the street. After talking to the girl for a minute, he gives her the money and puts her in a cab to JFK airport. Back inside he is so changed a man that drinks are on the house for the rest of the night.

The part that makes it so special is this:

If you want to arrange it
This world you can change it
If we could somehow make this
Christmas thing last

By helping a neighbor
Or even a stranger
And to know who needs help
You need only just ask

Imagine what the world would be like if we really could “make this Christmas thing last”.