Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Hobby selection...?

Well, I've done it again -- I've gotten to a spot in my life where I feel like I should take on another hobby. The question is: what should the new hobby be?

Current Activities

For reference, the following is a list of my my current hobbies/regular activities. In order to make it onto this list, I have to spend time engaging in the activity at least once a week.

So, what kinds of things do I spend most of my time doing?

  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Exercising
  • Tabletop RPGing
  • Video gaming
  • Spending time/chatting with family and friends

Other nominal activities include:

  • Household stuff (dishes, laundry, cooking, groceries, etc.)
  • Working
  • Physical Therapy (yeah, my shoulder is still wonky)
I also program simple games from time to time, but I don't do that often enough to call it a hobby or even a nominal activity. When it happens, it happens. It's kind of like NaNoWriMo in that I'm probably going to do it once a year or so, but it's definitely not something I do regularly throughout the year.

Potential Activities

There are two main potential activities that have appealed to me lately: learning guitar, and learning to draw.

Guitar

Oooo, look how fancy!
I've been enamored with the guitar for as long as I can remember actually liking music. Classical guitar especially, with artists like Andres Segovia and Karin Schaupp inspire me to be better at whatever I happen to be doing when I listen to them.

Beyond pure classical guitar, however, I find percussive guitar REALLY interesting. I always stop down when I stumble across someone playing it or find myself hearing it on a streaming music service. Rodrigo y Gabriela combine classical with some percussive techniques and are beyond fantastic. Recently, I've come across Petteri Sariola, who hammers, taps, and strums like a maniacal genius.

I've often thought of picking up the guitar semi-seriously over the years, so much so that I own both a classical acoustic and an electric guitar. The sad fact is that I don't know how to play either of them beyond tuning them. That is a travesty, a tragedy, a tryptophanic tradition that I should change.

Getting to where I could play at least a little something on the guitar seems like a great growth opportunity, even if I weren't looking to be able to play Eruption like Eddie Van Halen. 

Drawing

Now, draw the rest of the f***ing penguin!
Then there's drawing. I currently own no less than three books on learning to draw. Seriously, I own at least electronic versions of:
I also have a fantastically cool book of Hokusai art that Tanya and I were exposed to while in London. On seeing it, I distinctly remember saying to myself "I'd like to be able to draw like that." Something about his style (and the way it changed over time) really appealed to me. I've got other art books as well, including a fantastic collection of M.C. Escher.

And anyone that knows me is already aware of my adoration of Bob Ross. At some point, I'll talk about the fact that I created a Bob Ross Lorem Ipsum site when the one I commonly went to was down for a week. It's been a source of joy for me, since I had to watch a bunch of Bob Ross episodes on youtube to get quotes for the site. 

Sorry, back to the point. One of the very few pieces of art I've had commissioned in my life is a mashup of Bob Ross and M.C. Escher, drawn by the immensely talented Denise Najera (local artist), and presented here because I didn't realize I hadn't posted about it earlier. 
Bob Ross With Reflecting Sphere

Beyond those, I'm a big fan of Critical Role, for lots of reasons. One of the newer shows on the network is PubDraw, which teaches you to draw (character basics, at least through the episodes I've watched). If I were looking for signs from the universe, this (along with my persistent inspiration in that direction) might be counted as one.

Decision

I've got a decision to make. Should I start spending time learning to play guitar, with an eye on percussive guitar at some point in the future? Or should I dedicate some time to drawing so that I can have a creative outlet with something as simple as a piece of paper and a pen/pencil?

Or both? There's no reason I couldn't try out both and see if one is more appealing to me. The only thing I would sacrifice is a little practice in each, but the truth is that I don't expect to "master" either of them, ever. I think it would be fun to be able to sketch silly little things and have people know what I was trying to draw, or play some chords and sound out some melodies on the guitar when the opportunity arises.

OR... other options? If you've got hobbies that you enjoy that I should investigate, definitely leave a comment (in whichever social medium is convenient for you). I look forward to hearing your feedback, and will let you know once I've chosen a direction!

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

A Mindset Reset

Mel Robbins -- Mindset Reset!
This might come as a surprise to some of you, but I'm not always a positive thinking, happy-go-lucky person. Sometimes, in fact more often than I'd like to admit, I get down on myself, beating myself up for not being more clever, or quicker/better at work, or fitter, or myriad other commonplace things. It doesn't particularly matter my level of achievement in each/any of those areas, I still feel like I should be better.

Worse still, I have a tendency to, once I've started with a negative attitude, find reasons to perpetuate that attitude. Suddenly, EVERYTHING is terrible, NOTHING works right, and the entire universe is against me. This attitude makes me pretty unpleasant to be around -- and to be honest, I don't like being around others when that bit of darkness has seized me.

Why do I bring this up? Two reasons. Let's start with Tanya, which is always a good place to start. :-)

Mindset Reset

At the end of last year, she caught wind of a new program Mel Robbins was offering. It was going to be entirely short, web-based, live trainings, and opting in was free. The series was titled "Mindset Reset." Given the challenges she'd been facing with her back, she was really interested in seeing if going through a program like this would be beneficial, and asked me if I'd be interested in doing it too. I didn't really think I'd get much out of it, but it certainly wouldn't hurt to give it a try, so I said "yes."

At first, I felt justified in my skepticism. Mel went over some pretty common sense things that I already do. But it didn't take long for her to start offering some insights and things to try that were novel for me and immediately beneficial.

Visualization

She spent time early on talking about visualization, which is something I was already familiar with. The insightful part was when she explained how combining the imagery with the projection of the emotional content formed extra connections that help the visualization become impactful.

Journaling

She demonstrated a specific ritual around journaling.

  • First thing in the morning
  • In the same, calming spot
  • Use a prescribed form
  • Do it for at least 10 minutes
She made a pretty compelling case for why this is the way to do things. I won't get into it, since it's covered really well here. Suffice to say that I had been journaling pretty steadily since last April, so this wasn't a huge challenge for me. I was really surprised to find that, after making the changes she suggested, I was doing it EVERY DAY, including weekends.

Sample journal entry


Mindfulness of negativity

As I mentioned earlier, I have a tendency to descend into dark moods sometimes. One of the things Mel suggests is to actually identify the negative patterns in your thinking so that you can think something else when they arise. Just paying attention to the ways I beat myself up sometimes and switching those thoughts to something more positive has been an interesting experience. The first day I tried it, I realized I hadn't thought a single negative thing all day, and assumed it was going to be a piece of cake from then on. Then, the next day happened.

Luckily, I don't have a deep pattern of negative thinking, but I have my moments. Recognizing when they're happening, and using the 5 Second Rule (for which Mel is most well known) to switch the thought to a positive anchor, has really helped. I can only think of one time in the past couple of months where I just mindlessly raged, and given everything that's going on, that feels like quite a lot of forward progress.

Other learnings

I did find out one other interesting thing that I've suspected since high school -- I don't do well getting up before 6 a.m. for extended periods of time. In high school, in order to attend Driver's Ed, I had to get up at 05:50. Those days were always rough. I've observed it off and on over the years, but it fully quantified during January and early February. Six weeks of getting up between 05:00 and 05:30 in order to get journaling done before exercising was wearing me out to the point where I felt run down all the time. Tanya finally suggested that we shift our schedule to where I sleep until 06:00 or 06:30, and then get up together to do morning routines. I've felt dramatically better since then, despite my shoulder still being wonky.

The other thing

I never mentioned the second reason I brought this up. It's because I suspect I'm not the only person that tortures themselves and their coworkers/friends/loved ones similarly. If you've struggled with similar issues, or are dealing with anxiety or stress and aren't sure what tangible, practical steps you can take to progress, I strongly encourage you to work through the Mindest Reset series on YouTube.

I think you have to play it from the bottom up, though. Kind of like the 5 Second Rule, it's a little backward from what you might expect... ;-)

Monday, January 28, 2019

A(?) Post Per Month

Here we are thoroughly into the final week of January, and I have yet to produce an actual entry in this blog relevant to this year. That's not necessarily uncommon, but it would be the beginning of a disappointing trend.

Last year, I began to wonder if I actually had anything to say that merited having a full-fledged blog. On further reflection, I'm forced to admit that the answer *might be* "no."

The proof is in the pudding. Last year, I had blog entries that covered the following categories:

  • Reading (1 entry)
  • Work (1 entry)
  • Exercise (1 entry)
  • Vacation! (3 entries)
  • Miscellany (1 entry)
  • Short Story (1 entry)
  • Thanks/Charity (1 entry)
  • Writing (1 entry)

So, several topics were covered, just not a ton of content generated. The blogging was truncated because I didn't take a Fall trip as originally planned, and I didn't write a Christmas short story. As an aside, I *did* generate about 1000 words of outline for a Christmas short story, but I don't know if I'll write it next (or any) year.

But it still begs the question: does the content that's being produced actually matter? The obvious answer to that is: yes, duh. It matters to me at least. Even if all that's actually happening here is I'm typing words into a WYSIWYG editor just to hear the gently pleasant clacking of an Apple keyboard (yes, no mechanical beast for me), as long as it pleases me and doesn't hurt anyone else, it seems like an OK past time. And every now and then something amusing or insightful gets produced, I think.

With that said, expect to see more entries this year than last year. I might even fire up the book review posts again, although I'm not sure I'll use the Magrs Method as I've done in the past. The method tends heavily towards spoilers. For example, one of the questions you're supposed to answer is "What surprises did it (the book) hold, if any?" I think I'd like to be able to give a fair review without having to adhere to a prescribed form or give too much about the book away.

I do have some stuff coming up. This year's guest lecture at UT will be at the beginning of March, and then my company's semi-annual on-site will be a couple of weeks after that. There's also Valentine's Day, and St. Patrick's Day, and then Spring Break (the last one with a high schooler), and... apparently the list of potentially interesting writing things goes on and on when actually enumerated...

Heh, maybe all that's required to get me writing is a little excitement about it... :-)

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

My Year In Books (2018 edition)


As ashamed as I am to have to admit this, I... I failed...

I failed to complete the 2018 Goodreads Reading challenge.

I set out to read 60 books after reading 55 last year and 65 the year prior. As of last night, here are my numbers, in convenient picture form, snipped from the official Goodreads page. If you want to see the rest of the official tabulation in all its glory, have a look at the Goodreads summary.

Was glad to finish that many!
As is my common practice, I exported my Goodreads library to do some custom analytics. I tend to verify the numbers that Goodreads calculates to make sure I haven't done something silly. This year, Goodreads put my page count ahead and my book count behind those produced by culling through the exported data. My calculated tally was 19,898 pages across 52 books. Close enough, I suppose.

The longest and shortest books were accurate this year, although, since my page count was slightly lower than theirs, and with an extra book besides, my average length was lower: 383 pages.


Oathbringer... was a lengthy book.
Let's have a look at longest three and shortest three, beginning with the longest!


The largest three books I read last year totalled 2792 pages. This year's total is a whopping 3091 pages.

Now for the shortest three.


The smallest three books from last year totalled 295 pages. This year's total is considerably smaller at 176 pages. Notably, none of the small books this year are either poetry or philosophy. I did read Paradise Lost, by John Milton, which is a ridiculous 453 pages long. I think that makes up for it, although a year without Robert Frost is probably a year with some time less well spent.

This year's median book is Authority (second book in the Southern Reach Trilogy), by Jeff VanderMeer, and at 341 is slightly shorter than last year's median book length (352 pages).

As an aside, I strongly recommend READING the Southern Reach trilogy (the first of which is Annihilation, on which was based a recent movie starring Natalie Portman). I haven't seen the movie, but understand that it's not as representative of the book as it could be. And the book is great. Period.

Alright, on with the metrics! Now begins the data that Goodreads cares nothing about, but which are really interesting to me. We begin with a look at how many books I completed in each month.

This was my December...
This graph looks considerably different from last year's. First of all, this one is 3-D. Secondly, there were no months with a zero, which is good (although that August completion is pretty weak). Third, December looks LOADED. TEN BOOKS?! REALLY, DECEMBER?!

The truth is that there were several short Christmas-related books I read during December (A Christmas Carol, Jacob T. Marley, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, and A Kidnapped Santa Claus). I was trying to get into the proper frame of mind for my Christmas short story, but eventually admitted to myself that it just wasn't going to get written this year. The good news is that I have about a thousand words of thoughts about one for next year, should I choose to pursue it.

On to the next metric! Which author was most consumed by me?
Baum wrote short books
There were no outliers this year again. I read no more than three of any author's books, and had 42 distinct authors on my list. Given that there was no clear "winner" here, I thought it might be interesting to see how many pages were included in each author's sum. As you can see, I read more Sanderson than anyone else, as he writes nothing but long books (which isn't true, but I only read his long ones).

N.K, Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy, starting with The Fifth Season, is what put her in first place for me this year. Those three books won her three Hugo awards in a row, a feat which has never been done before. You should DEFINITELY go read them. They are pretty fantastic, and I don't want to spoil any of it for you.

Finally, the question of how I consumed the books needs to be answered.

I read mostly through my ears

I dispensed with the difference between Paperback and Hardcover this year, since I read so few physical books at all. The preponderance of my reading happens during workouts, via the Audible app. If you have a commute or other mindless task time and don't have Audible, you might consider it.

And that was my year in books! As with last year, if you're a Goodreads type person and we're not hooked up, you can get in touch with me on that site via this link.

I've entered next year's challenge as well, but I've set the goal REALLY low: 25 books. I'm curious about my December this year. I've rationalized it away as reading a bunch of short books as a function of Christmas spirit/research, but I wonder if at some level I crammed more shorter books in there because of the silly goal? I hope that's not the case, but I wouldn't put it past my subconscious. It's pretty competitive, after all. In any case, with a limit as low as 25, I'm sure to make it, and might change the metrics altogether next year. Maybe group by genre, and list most and least impactful books. WHO KNOWS WHAT WILL HAPPEN?!

I guess you'll have to stay tuned. Or make a reminder to check in again next year.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

NaNoWriMo 2018

That makes three in a row...

Pretty similar to last year's graphic...
First, context. If you don't know what NaNoWriMo is, mark the following for later reading: National Novel Writing Month.

As I've already mentioned, this was my third year of completing the challenge (results for prior years can be found here: 2016, 2017).

This year was... different... from the past two years. More on that later. Let's get straight to the numbers (since everyone likes graphics and/or tables).

Only 25 days!
That's right, everyone! I crossed the "finished" line on 11/25, with a full five days to spare. This result was three days faster than last year, but still two days slower than 2016. Still, the pace seemed really consistent. Metrics include:

  • Highest day's output: 3,491 words on 11/04
  • Lowest day's output: 630 words on 11/13
  • Mean daily output: 2,024 words
  • Median daily output: 2,050 words
So, what did I learn this year? Or maybe, what did I think about this year's challenge?

Writing every day, even just a little, helps a ridiculous amount. Looking at the day-by-day, you can tell that my flow, such as it was, never suffered from the interruptions that life brings like last year. I had other things going on (more on that in a minute), but still managed to find at least 30 minutes throughout the day to write a few sentences.


Finishing prior to Thanksgiving is a good goal, but extremely difficult. This year, especially, since Thanksgiving was early-ish (11/22), getting everything done before having to leave town or otherwise deal with the festivities was a lot to ask for. I realized this relatively early on and managed my expectations accordingly. The goal shifted to steady progress, at least a little, every day, INCLUDING on travel days and while I was out of town.

(High) Fantasy is pretty fun to write. This probably goes without saying for other writers in the genre, but I found high fantasy to be really fun to play with. Most of my writing is urban fantasy, with a little sci fi and high fantasy thrown in, but this was my first long high fantasy work since high school. Worldbuilding, even in pantser style, was incredibly enjoyable. Some days where my output was lower were actually my most creative, as I was thinking about the world itself, its peoples, its histories, naming things, drawing maps, etc. Some of that work made it back into the story, but most of it was just there, flavoring my thoughts as they went along.

I don't take my advice very well. Last year, I mentioned two important things:

  1. Reduce commitments to free up writing time.
  2. Write regularly throughout the year so the habit won't be so forced.
Yeah, neither of those happened. I'll speak about the second one first. This turned out not to be that big a deal for me. I wrote a couple of short stories this year, including a silly one involving my summer glamping trip and a funnier one for Halloween, but not much else (aside from journaling). Even so, getting into the writing, finding the times for it, wasn't all that challenging. I looked forward to it on most days, and don't remember feeling like it was a slog at all this year. That's not to say I didn't get frustrated at the way the story went, but I didn't feel like I was fighting it like I did last year.

The first one was much worse this year. We're not running anymore for lots of reasons, but I still try to get some regular exercise in on a daily basis. I'm still running D&D, and participating in the Transformers role-playing game at Matt's. I'm more or less RUNNING Be A Santa this year, as Pat has essentially been out of the country since October. I'm still gainfully employed, even had a work trip over the last few days of the month. Then there's the stuff I do around the house normally, and by the end of doing all that, I'm beginning to feel stretched a little thin...

Worth it? ABSOLUTELY! Despite what I just said about being stretched, I enjoyed this year's challenge more than last year's. I don't think there was any single thing, but the combination of writing something completely new without the expectation of it being good or even making sense was pretty liberating. I felt like I was more in the spirit of NaNoWriMo this year than last.

And the book I wound up with is... broken. Fundamentally broken. HOWEVER, it's got enough interesting stuff to make me realize that I could pick it up for editing and not feel like I was scraping my face off with a rusty spoon. About halfway through, I switched viewpoint characters, and that felt great. I also realized afterward that one character that started silly then turned serious could actually remain silly if I just shifted some of their attributes to the third character (yes, there are three companions in this story). I'm also very pleased with the various races that populate the world, even if they're not all that original, because there are ways to shake them up. It's kind of fun to have a dragonborn that acts like a dwarf a lot of the time.

So... editing in January/February. But, there's still something to be done this year. My last bit of writing for the year will be a Christmastime short story. I really want to make it a ghost story, since that's the old tradition, but I'm struggling with a theme. Any suggestions? :-)

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Quite a year...

It’s been quite a year, hasn’t it?

From Mother Nature’s gut-punches in the forms of wildfires, hurricanes, floods, and volcanic eruptions, there is no shortage of folks in want of basic needs -- lacking food and water, or clothing, or shelter, or some combination of all three. Beyond that, this has been a year that has seen an unprecedented level of scorn from one person to another, a seeming lack of compassion or empathy that I can’t remember seeing before.

And yet… and yet...

As we approach the holiday season, we are reminded of just how fortunate we are. We notice an innumerable set of things that we take for granted every day.

Our mere existence is miraculous. The sun rose this morning, and we all woke up at some point today. Every one of us that are reading this note possess a piece of modern wizardry in the form of a computer or mobile device that couldn’t really be imagined a hundred years ago, not to mention the ability to actually read. We still retain the desire to laugh at silliness, or enjoy a sunset.

And did I mention art? Music? Oceans? Weekends?

I have worked with Pat Tallman for five years now, helping with the Be A Santa campaign for Penny Lane. When I think of all of the suffering endured by so many people this year, I’m also reminded that these are the burdens the kids of Penny Lane carry every year. They will not be at home or with loved ones during the holidays this year. They will not have a stocking or tree, much less gifts waiting for them in either.

Unless… unless…

The desperation this year has brought about has also brought about great heroism. People giving of their time and other resources in order to benefit those around them and beyond their immediate sphere. That’s actually what Be A Santa is all about as well. Most of the donations come from folks that will never meet any of the kids, but that understand what it’s like to be in need of a joyful holiday season. These Santas sacrifice of themselves, taking a little of what might’ve gone to their own families and friends so that others can have a chance at the same joy they are sure to share. To every one of you that has donated this year or in year’s past, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart on behalf of all of us at Be A Santa and the kids of Penny Lane. And know that you are making a difference in this world, in the world of these children. You are a source of happiness for them, and I commend you for that.

If you’ve never considered volunteering during the holidays, I encourage you to do so. It’s one of the most rewarding things you can do -- it truly is the gift that keeps on giving. And it is my sincere hope that this note finds all of you happy and well during this special and wonderful time of year. Happy Holidays, everyone!

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

A Motley Crew (Halloween 2018 short)

Photo courtesy of https://www.redbubble.com/people/scavengereye/
I'd been wandering around the main drag and square of the active little town for a while tonight, trying to avoid the rambunctious young adult crowds meandering through the streets. Who would have thought that Halloween would be such a big player in Papillion, Nebraska, of all places? Famous for flat, boring landscapes, and definitely "not for everyone," Nebraska had lived up to its recently adopted tourism slogans as I'd driven through the state. I'd had a bit of car trouble earlier in the day, and as I'd entered Papillion, driving northeast on Interstate 80, it had completely stalled out. I called the local towing company and had my car taken to the local repair shop (one and the same organization, unsurprisingly), realizing I would be forced to deal with this issue instead of making it to Iowa tonight. It was just as well. There was already a wintery chill in the air, and the clouds, though still sparse, were flying across the waning moon, alternately obscuring and revealing its half hidden half smile every few seconds.

The local mechanic said that the repair wouldn't take long, but that he didn't have the part in stock and wouldn't be able to get one until tomorrow. He seemed really eager to close early as well, and when I asked if he had plans for the evening, he gave me a strange look, then declared "it's Halloween," as if that answered the question entirely. I asked him if there was a motel nearby that would have a room for the evening. He replied in the affirmative and offered to give me a ride, as it was near where the street party was happening.

"Street party? You mean, a Halloween party?"

He nodded. "Yup. It's the best shin dig of the year!"

"And, uh, they close off the streets? The whole town attends, I take it?"

"Pretty much. There will be games, and costume contests, and a concert! I'm going as the Cowardly Lion this year. All I need is a little... cah-ourage!" the mechanic replied, giving me his best Bert Lahr impression. Honestly, it wasn't half bad. I smiled at him and wished him luck.

As we pulled into a parking lot on what must've been the main drag of Papillion, I realized he was going to need luck to stand any chance in the costume contest. The street was blocked off and already filling with a mystifying menagerie of creatures from science fiction, fantasy, and pop culture. Stepping out of the pickup, I was assaulted by the scents and sounds of a carnival as well. Popcorn, caramel and candied apples were clearly in view, steam lightly billowing off of the vat where the apples were being dipped as well as puffing out of the popcorn machine every time a snack bag was snatched. Music was in the air as well, with the theme from The Munsters fading out as The Monster Mash was fading in.

"The Fairfield Inn is over there," the mechanic said, pointing to the opposite end of the drag. "Hey, drop by the balloon pop booth later. I'll give you a couple of darts for free!" He gave me a friendly wave before making his way into the crowd, carrying a medium sized duffle bag over his shoulder, presumably containing the aforementioned lion outfit. I made my way down the drag, dodging kids and adults alike as they frolicked with zeal.

Entering the motel, it only took a moment for the clerk to get me the keys to a room on the third floor. I was about to dump my stuff when I realized that I was operating on an empty stomach. Candy and carnival fares were not what I was in the mood for, so I slung my backpack over my shoulder and went back downstairs to see if there were other options. The clerk was amazingly unhelpful, not understanding why I would want anything other than what was bound to be offered at the street party. I thanked the lad for absolutely nothing in this case, and made my way back outside.

Which brings us back to the wandering around, looking for a place to eat while trying to stay out of the way of random ghoul encounters. After what seemed like hours, I turned down a lane that ended in a tavern called Pomona’s. It looked cozy, almost quaint with smoke curing out of not one, not two, but three different chimneys. The facing was a mixture of wood and stone, and the windows were somewhat shadowed, their crosshatches giving off a dull gleam in the pale moonlight. The door itself was a dark, heavy wood. It smelled like… well, I was never very good at distinguishing woody smells. I’ll just say it smelled old, but not in a rotten way. And it was, indeed, heavy as I pulled the old fashioned handle to release the latch.

Stepping inside, I was greeted by a pleasant warmth. I hadn’t realized that it had dropped into the 30’s since the sun had set. I closed the door (with effort) and glanced around the interior. It was dimly lit, with the brightest spots being fireplaces at either end of the large room as well as a larger hearth directly across from the entrance. The room itself was large and mostly square, with lots of four-sided tables scattered randomly around the area. The bar extended from the far left corner, with seats leading to the edge of the fireplaces on both the left and center walls. I noticed that the place was mostly empty, unsurprisingly, since practically the entire town was out on the main drag currently.

A group of costumed characters was seated around a low table next to the fireplace on the center wall. My entrance had apparently interrupted a conversation as it drew their collective attention. The one dressed as Frankenstein gave me a friendly wave, as if inviting me to join their group. I looked around hesitantly, feeling awkward and self-conscious for some reason, when the guy stood up.

“Bro, don’t just stand there! C’mon over here and have a drink with us!”

That… was unexpected. The guy was over seven feet tall if he was an inch, with a build that would leave Arnold Schwarzenegger with severe feelings of inadequacy. Still, he seemed friendly enough, with a goofy grin and emphatic gesticulations of affability. I made my way between the empty tables and took a seat next to the big guy.

“Bro! Whatcha drinkin’?”

“Oh, uh… I’m not sure. What’s… good… here…” My voice trailed off as I glanced at the rest of the group around the table. If the first guy’s Frankenstein costume was good, the others there were equally impressive. There was a vampire, a werewolf, and a mummy as well, and all of them looked like they’d put a lot of effort into their outfits and makeup.

“Dude, EVERYTHING’s good here! We’ve got the place to ourselves tonight!”

“T.M., ye’ve GOT to calm doun,” the werewolf said. I was surprised by two things: first, underneath that impressive mask was someone that was distinctly female based on the pitch and tone of her voice, and second, she was SEVERELY Scottish. “Nae more BROs or DUDEs tonight, if ya please.”

“Gah, don’t be a buzzkill, Morrie. You should hit the gym with me next week! Improves your entire outlook on life, dudette!” The werewolf rolled her eyes as she took a drink of whatever was in her tankard.

“We all go zrough phases, Morrie,” said the vampire, at least I assumed he was supposed to be a vampire. He had the classic pale skin, luminescent eyes, and fangs, but also had what appeared to be a really poorly done fake beard. “I’m sure T.M will werk zrough zis in ze next few years or so.” Well, his Transylvanian accent was laid on a little thick, but I let it pass in honor of the night.

“That’s, like, easy for you to say, Vasile. You’ve, like, gone all hipster this year,” said a distinctly valley girl voice from the other end of the wide hearth. I hadn’t noticed anyone standing there, as there was a shadow cast by the edges of the fireplace, but a girl that couldn’t be more than sixteen emerged from the darkness to take a seat at the other end of the semi-circular array of chairs. She was wearing a full-blown black cowl with the hood drawn back, bunching at the base of her neck, allowing her strawberry blonde curls to cascade evenly over the front and back of her narrow shoulders. Bright, blue eyes with the lightest dusting of freckles on high cheek bones completed her profile. I wondered what she was supposed to be…

“Well, Amanda, one must try to keep wiz ze times. Speaking of zat, where did I put my vape stick?” The vampire named Vasile started moving glasses and plates around on the low table in an effort to locate it.

“Yeah, keep with the times… gag me with a spoon!” replied Amanda. “You should totally have someone do your beard for you next time. It’s, like, grody to the max!” She appeared to be about to offer to fix it, but thought better of it at the last minute, and picked up a snifter full of a light amber liquid. It looked like either brandy or cognac, but certainly the proprietor here wouldn’t serve that type of thing to someone that was CLEARLY a minor.

“Damn, I can’t find it anywhere!” Vasile said, straightening up. He gave a speculative glance at my backpack, as if I’d somehow swiped and stashed the thing without even knowing it existed, then turned to look at the mummy. “Have you seen it, Merkha?”

“WHAT? WHAT DID YOU SAY?” the mummy almost screamed at the vampire.

“TURN UP YOUR HEARING AID, MERKHA!” the vampire yelled back at the mummy.

“BURN UP THE PRETTY MAID? WHAT DID SHE DO?” the mummy yelled back at the vampire. Amanda took the mummy’s moment of confusion to gesture toward him. I couldn’t tell what happened, but I heard a slight crackling coming from the mummy’s direction. A moment later, the mummy looked around, in a slightly different state of confusion, and said, at a normal volume, “I didn’t even know the maid was here today…”

I realized then that Amanda must be the witch of the group, using her “magical powers” (a.k.a. sleight of hand) to mess with the mummy’s hearing aid. I had to hand it to her — it was a pretty slick trick, but I was pretty sure I’d seen better.

“He geits worse every year,” Morrie the werewolf said.

“It’s cuz the dude never works out,” Tim stated, flexing his bicep. I finally noticed the fine stitching scar marks he’d put at various places on his exposed limbs. I couldn’t decide if his makeup or the werewolf’s was better. I’d put money on either of them to win the costume contest.

At the same time, the mummy would give them a run for that money. He (I assumed it was a he), looked ancient. The bandages in which he was wrapped looked to be authentic linen, although they appeared to be so well aged that they were dusty and brittle. They were more patchwork than I would have expected, although all the colors were extremely faded, ranging from pale gray that might’ve been white at some point, to ruddy brown, to sea foam green, to a tired royal blue. The parts of his skin that were exposed were dry and wrinkled, resembling the wavy sand dunes from whence his namesake certainly originated.

The only thing that ruined the illusion for me was the fact that the poor old guy obviously couldn’t hear. No, if there was anything other than simple presentation in the costume contest, he wouldn’t be winning it.

“Who gets worse every year, sweetie?” the mummy named Merkha said to Amanda. “And aren’t you just the spitting image of my good friend Mandy the Witch?”

“YOU get worse every year, duh. And I AM your good friend Mandy the Witch.” Amanda the witch said to him, with a gentler tone in her voice that I’d expected. I think she genuinely cared about the old guy, although I couldn’t imagine them actually being good friends given the difference in their ages. She took his hand, all the same, and patted it affectionately.

“Aha! Zere it is!” Vasile exclaimed, picking something up off the ground. He’d apparently located the missing vape stick, and, putting it to his lips, inhaled deeply and exhaled slowly. He blew the vapor back over his shoulder, and I was shocked to see it coalesce into a vaguely human form.

“Hi everyone, sorry I’m late!”

“Bonnie!” everyone except me cried in unison. It reminded me of the “Norm!” greeting the bar crowd from “Cheers” used to give to that beloved character. But… was I imagining things? Had the lack of food, drink, and high amounts of stress during the day finally gotten to me? The thing that was taking a seat next to me was definitely NOT corporeal.

“Hit me again, would you Vas?” Bonnie said, which prompted the vampire to take another long drag but this time exhale in a slower, steadier pace. The vapor seemed to fill in the form of an ethereal lady with long, flowing hair and a slightly tired-looking face. She gave me a smile and introduced herself.

“Hello there, I’m Bonnie. Excuse me if I don’t shake your hand, but… it’s a skill I never quite mastered.”

Her appearance here must’ve been an elaborate trick, some kind of laser light show setup. If so, Bonnie was a shoo-in for the costume contest, despite the competition around this table.

“Well, Bonnie,” I said, “I’ve got to admit: As impressed as I am with everyone’s costumes, yours is the clear winner. No offense to anyone else,” I said, my gaze drifting around the table, “but however you’re doing this clearly deserves to win the prize.”

Bonnie smiled at me, and the smile seemed full of a sadness that I couldn’t understand. “Thank you. That’s one of the reasons we came here this year.”

“Oh? You guys aren’t locals?”

“Bro, does this town look like a place where we could party on a regular basis?” T.M. asked, giving me a friendly slap on the back that almost sent me sprawling across the low table. Vasile caught me as I flew forward, moving at an inhuman speed, and helped me back to my chair. As he did, I noticed that his eyes were actually glowing, faintly radiating reds, oranges, and yellows, as if fire was kindling in his irises.

“So, where are you guys from?” I asked, straightening myself up as I tried to recollect my calm. The sense that something wasn’t right was growing in me moment by moment.

“Aw over,” Morrie the werewolf replied. “We shuid nae get aheid o’ oorselves. Let’s do proper introductions. I’m Morag, or Morrie, an I’m originally from Scotland.”

The giant beside me went next. “I’m The Monster, but bros call me T.M.. I’m from England. At least, Doc Frankenstein said so. I’m not really where were all of me is from originally, but all of me is bro at this point, dude!”

“And I,” the vampire next to me said, “am Vasile, originally from ze Transylvanian region of Romania.”

Bonnie was next. “I’m from Ireland, although I think I’ve finally lost my accent.”

There was a pause in the introductions as the focus went to the mummy. Finally, he said, “What?”

“We’re doing introductions,” said Amanda.

“Oh! Sorry about that. Let’s see. I’m…” he looked to Amanda for help.

“Murkha,” she whispered to him.

“Yes! That’s it. Murkha. I’m from Egypt! And I’m old! Frighteningly old!” He raised his wrapped arms and hands towards me, wriggling his fingers, as a whispery “oooOOOooo” slipped out of his mouth. I couldn’t help but smile.

“Did that scare you at all?” he asked.

“A little. The ‘oooOOOooo’ was pretty creepy.”

Murkha smiled in a self-satisfied way, leaning back in his chair as he crossed his arms over his chest. “See? Still got it, you whipper-snappers! Take notes! This was a free lesson from the master!” He closed his eyes and seemed to doze off immediately.

Amanda shook her head, a smile playing across her lips as well. “And I’m Amanda, originally from the Valley, but, like, WAY before it was the Valley.”

As they finished their introductions, I realized there were only three serious options.

1. They were some kind of acting troupe and were pulling my leg in a big way.

2. They were some band of escaped lunatics that thought they were classic Halloween monsters.

3. They WERE classic Halloween monsters.

I was about to challenge them with these thoughts and demand to know what was going on when I heard the intro to “Thriller” blaring over the loudspeaker from the main drag. Apparently I wasn’t too far away from it despite my stumbling about.

“WHAT? WHAT’S THAT?” yelled Murkha the Mummy, who had apparently turned down his hearing aid again.

“It’s time to go to the contest,” Amanda replied as she waved her hand to adjust his hearing aid again, helping Murkha to his feet at the same time. The rest of the group rose and headed toward the door.

“Zat’s definitely our cue,” Vasile said. “We really do enjoy ze costume contests. It’s one of ze main criteria we use to select where to gazzer each year.” Vasile took my hand and shook it in what would have been considered a warm manner if his touch weren’t ice cold at this point.

“Nice to meet you, lad,” Morrie the werewolf said, giving me a toothy, wolfish smile.

“Later, bro!” T.M., The Monster called to me, offering me another friendly wave.

“Like, good chatting with you,” Amanda the Witch said.

“Yes! Take care, lad!” Murkha said. I also heard him ask “Who was that, again?” of Amanda as they headed out.

“Thank you for spending a moment with us. It’s so rare in these times to get to do that,” Bonnie the Banshee said to me. I noticed that she was evaporating as she exited, but Vasile gave her another puff to refresh her countenance.

I watched them walk back toward the main drag as a group, and felt a kinship with them unlike I’d felt with anyone in a very, VERY long time. I only hesitated a moment before making a decision, grabbing my backpack, and jogging out of the tavern to catch up with them.

“Hey everybody! Wait up! Would you mind if I tagged along with you?”

They stopped in their tracks, and as one, turned back to me, mouths agape. Their collective surprise warmed my heart so much that a huge grin forced its way onto my face. As it did, a rustling came from my backpack.

“I… I’m not sure you understand—” began Bonnie.

“Oh, I understand,” I replied as I dug the undying carved turnip from my backpack and moved to the front of the group. The turnip’s faint glow illuminated the path ahead as I started walking slowly toward the main drag. “I never got a chance to introduce myself. I’m Jack. Jack o’ the Lantern. Very pleased to meet all of you!”