Ten Damn Years

Happy anniversary to lastgreypoet.com, which was founded on Oct. 1, 2010.

I didn’t start writing then, of course, but it was at that point that I started to really want to write for myself, after years of writing only for pay for others.

Sometimes, like when I had a newspaper column, that meant I got to write more or less what I wanted. Most days, though, I wrote what I was paid to.

Thus, this place. My place.

It started on Blogspot — remember Blogspot? — but I soon sprang for my own domain, using my longtime online moniker.

Of all things, my first post here was about baseball.

Since then I have been consistently inconsistent in my posting. Good days, bad days. Bad years …

Anyway, thanks for being here, even if it’s your first day.

What Stage of Grief is This?

I have a song stuck in my head.

Round and round on a loop, I hear it.

Getting a song stuck in your head is a common enough occurrence, but I am one of only a handful of people capable of having this particular song in there.

Once, on a cold night in Maine, I sat playing cards with The Empress of Whisky, her father, and her uncle. It may have been snowing; I can’t recall. It was definitely cold, though, and when I say that, I mean the Mainers were saying it was cold. So, you know, death to anyone born south of the 43rd Parallel.

Anyway as we sat playing cards and drinking*, my father-in-law began to sing.

*(I should make a note about the drinking. I don’t recall everything exactly — not because we drank that much, but just because it’s been some time — but I suspect The Empress of Whisky was living up to her name, while I may have had a strong beer or whisky, and her uncle was drinking something vodka-based, likely a gimlet. My father-in-law, however, almost certainly had a glass of Grand Marnier. He occasionally indulged in a Heineken, and he would gamely try anything — oh, the fun we had taking him on brewery tours! — but, for preference, it was always either that beer or his favorite orange liqueur. On this cold night, I’m certain it was the latter.)

There’s a phrase about people who play card games: “Winners tell funny stories; losers yell, ‘Shut up and deal!'”

My father-in-law always told funny stories, win, lose, or draw.

He also told stories during dinner, on car rides, while watching sports … the man was full of stories.

He was also full of life. Big, bold, life. Gregarious is the word that keeps coming to mind — so apt for him.

He would sometimes sing.

The whole family is musical, mind. They all play instruments, and they all sing on pitch, in time, and with harmony. It is not uncommon for one to break into song, with the others then joining in. It’s rather beautiful.

On this particular night, my father-in-law began to sing, his big, booming voice bringing forth an unfamiliar tune.

Despite the unfamiliarity, The Empress and her uncle were quickly harmonizing to the lines, and eventually I even found myself humming along in tune. (I do not, generally, sing.)

It’s a happy song, and it’s a perfect song for a cold Maine night, and we’re all smiling along as my father-in-law deals the cards, making up lines as he goes, everyone following along … when the song turns unexpectedly bawdy.

At which point we all cracked up and both song and game had to be put on hold while we composed ourselves.

For the rest of the night, usually upon some significant play in the game, one of us would sing or hum the melody, and that’s all it took to crack us all up again.

So that’s what’s in my head. A song that originated with four people and is now known to a handful more (all family) through a bit of judicious sharing, generally during another night of drinks and games.

It’s in my head, and it won’t go away; it just temporarily fades only to pop back up, much like it did the night he composed it.

And every time it does, I smile a little.

But then, he was always making me smile; why would that stop from beyond the grave?

Isolation Diary: May 3, 2020

Well, that was a month, wasn’t it?

I didn’t mean to let so long go from one post to the next — stop me, if you’ve heard this before — but, well, the world.

Life in the time of COVID-19 is all sorts of things, but stressful is foremost among them.

It’s a weird kind of stress, too: ebbing and flowing as the days go by, sometimes — as in a grocery store run — surging up to a pulse-pounding near-madness, while at other times — at home, on the couch, content with Best Cat and The Empress of Whisky — lying quietly as just a mild tingling at the back of the mind that something is … not … quite … right.

And there goes a month.

Like Buffalo Bill shooting — “onetwothreefourfive, pigeonsjustlikethat.”

And, also, like the slow, steady cadence of the 21-gun salute.

Like the turn of Earth, gradually, day into night, while simultaneously orbiting the sun at 67,000 miles per hour.

These are the days of COVID-19.

Days of anger and rage, at incompetent leaders who first dawdled while we died, then rushed to put us back to work to save their portfolios while we keep dying.

And those same days, embracing all the love we have in life, finding new ways to live, to laugh, to stay close to family and friends, video conferencing becoming part of everyone’s digital toolkits, yes, even your parents’.

A month ago we learned to slow down, to hear the previously unknown midday birds, to dig deep in our libraries to find the forgotten books, to dig deep in our pantries to make the purple cookies, to dig deep in our hearts to make the best connections.

A month ago I started writing this, then let it lie fallow, the words needing time to soak nitrogen from the loam.

A month ago I started crying again, in the quiet corners of my mind, tears of sadness, pain, rage, regret, all the tears, all the days.

A month ago, the world.

Isolation Diary: March 18, 2020

Well …

If you’re reading this in the now, I suppose I can skip any preamble explaining COVID-19.

If you’re reading this later, I hope it’s a brighter time for humanity.

I’m writing, as usual, from the desk in my home office, a comfy space full of books, dimly lit thanks to blackout curtains that keep out the otherwise fierce daylight from the south-facing windows. (Don’t cry for my lack of a view — it would just be of a parking lot and another row of condos, anyway.)

I am alone, sparing the occasional visits by Best Cat.

None of this is out of the ordinary. It might as easily be early on a typical weekend day, with The Empress of Whisky out hiking.

It isn’t.

For starters, The Empress is away in Maine, visiting her parents, a trip she had planned ahead of the realization of the seriousness of COVID-19 in the States, a trip that may now very well end up being extended longer than either of us anticipated.

We’ve been apart a few times in our nearly 15 years together, usually not longer than a weekend, though. Once, in the early days, she took a two-week trip to Mozambique, during which we spoke by phone maybe three times. That was hard. This is much easier by comparison. We communicate — via text, call, or video — a few times a day.


I lose myself in thought on the word still, as I ponder that this is exactly what home is like without her — a still, quiet place.

Normally, I might occupy myself outside a bit — I’m introverted by nature, but I might still meet friends for drinks, or take in a movie or a meal out.

None of that is an option now, as society bears down under social distancing.

The bars and theaters and restaurants are mostly closed, sparing only a few who are late to comply with CDC and government recommendations. (Georgia has yet to mandate closings for businesses, though it did shut down schools.)

The grocery stores remain open, but honestly that’s an anxiety-inducing thought, and I am at least stocked with essentials to last a bit.

The numbers show how important it is to keep social distancing and take it seriously. They also show this needs to be our way of life for an extended period of time, if we want a realistic shot at keeping the number of cases manageable.

Games We Play: New Year’s Day Edition

The Empress of Whisky rose at a decent hour on New Year’s Day to go hiking with a friend.

Afterward there were two things on her mind: brunch and vengeance.

The brunch part I probably don’t have to explain. She picked me up, and I joined her and her friend for a lovely brunch at a nice vegan restaurant nearby.  (No, I had not expected my first meal of the year to be vegan. The place has surprisingly good pancakes, though.)

As for vengeance, it was due to my having won all three games we played the night before.

A sweep like that is a rare feat for either of us,  as we’re pretty evenly matched.

At any rate, with a holiday at hand and nothing better to do while we waited for the traditional New Year’s Day meal to cook, we pulled a few games and set about continuing The Project.


Travel Blokus

Details: Designed by Bernard Tavitian for Educational Insights, 2005.* 2 players. Quick.

*(The game is now titled Blokus Duo and sold by Mattel.)

Source: I bought it for The Empress nearly 12 years ago, because we’re  big fans of the original Blokus, a four-player game. A two-player version was too good to pass up.

Overview: The game is played on a 14 x 14 grid. Each player has a set of shapes, ranging from one to five squares, that they will take turns placing upon this grid. When placing a new piece, it may not be orthogonally adjacent to any of your already placed pieces, but it must be diagonally adjacent to at least one corner of a previously placed piece. A piece may be (and will sometimes need to be) orthogonally adjacent to any of your opponent’s pieces.

If that sounds complex, well, it isn’t. It takes a couple of minutes to get the hang of, but the concept is pretty easy to play. The execution, though — there’s the game.

Thoughts: Make sure you like the person you’re playing against because this game inevitably gets a little in-your-face. As the name implies, much of the game play involves blocking your opponent. Many times you will need to be mean to succeed. (However, sometimes leaving your opponent with an opening can lead to you having a greater opening … it’s a balancing act.)

Result: On New Year’s Day, The Empress beat me, 11-15. (Lower scores are better.)

Verdict: Keep. No question.


Castles of Mad King Ludwig

Details: Designed by Ted Alspach for Bézier Games, 2014. 2-4 players. Medium.

Source: I played it with My Friend the Pharmacist and immediately thought The Empress would enjoy it, so I bought her a copy.

Overview: You have a foyer. That’s not enough. It needs hallways, stairs, living rooms, bedrooms, kitchens, and more! But not necessarily all of those. Maybe you just really like outdoor spaces, and so you go nuts with the gardens. It’s okay. No one minds when you’re a mad castle architect.

Castles is a resource management game, in this case the resources being money, opportunity, and time. The games plays quickly enough, once you’re familiar with the rules, and the key to victory depends on how each player manages the varying options that come up in any particular game. A deck of cards deals a steady flow of room options each turn, and players use their money carefully to choose which ones to buy and how the ones they buy will fit — physically and thematically — into what they have already built.

Thoughts: I thought The Empress would enjoy this one, and boy was I right. Something about this type of game —  a game of careful resource management, with a high degree of importance on selecting from a variety of options with varying values based on how they interact with other already chosen options — just sits right in her headspace.

I also thoroughly enjoy this one. I like games where you build the board, especially when the board is actually the thing you are building — in this case, each game piece is a room, and you physically have to fit the rooms together to make a castle. Fun!

Result: On New Year’s Day, The Empress beat me in a squeaker, 74-73.

Verdict: Keep. Honestly, we could probably get rid of almost every other game we own, and a certain Castles addict would still be happy.


Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries

Details: Designed by Alan R. Moon for Days of Wonder, 2007. 2-3 players. Medium.

Source: A family member gave it to The Empress for Christmas several years back, shortly after it was published, I think.

Overview: I can’t write about this without writing about the parent game. Ticket to Ride, in its original (and still available to purchase) incarnation, is a train game with a map of the United States. It came out in 2004, won the Spiel des Jahres, and launched an empire. There are currently more than a dozen variants of the game, most consisting simply of applying the base rules to other maps.

Those base rules? You collect cards representing different colors of train cars. You use those to place your trains on the map and connect cities. While doing so, you are attempting to complete greater routes between certain cities (as determined by card draw). You are also trying to avoid your opponent, who will often be placing cars exactly where you need to place your own, forcing you to instead use costly and time-consuming alternate routes.

However … Moon has a quirk about not duplicating the rules exactly between versions. At least, I assume it’s a quirk because if not, then he gives two otherwise identical games tiny rules variations just to confuse me.

The Nordic Countries version diverges more than most, though, because it’s a 2-3 player game with a somewhat small map, whereas most Ticket to Ride games are for 2-5 players on a robust map.

Otherwise, Nordic Countries plays like the base game, with a few additions. If you’re familiar with Ticket to Ride, it’s that plus tunnels and ferries. Also, you can pick up a locomotive and another train car in the same action.

Thoughts: We love the Ticket to Ride family of games. We own several versions, and I imagine we’ll be getting to all of them before this project is over. We do not, however, own the original version. Several friends and family do, though, so we end up playing it a fair amount, anyway.

They’re fun games, easy to learn, with lots of replayability.

Grab Nordic Countries if you regularly expect to play with just two or three. (The bigger games work fine for just two or three, but you can tell Nordic Countries, with its smaller map, is designed to put more pressure on a pair or trio.)

Result: No sweep on New Year’s Day. I beat The Empress in impressive fashion, 87-37.

Verdict: Keep.


(The following is a new section, which I am including for the inevitable replays that will occur throughout the year. While these results are not, strictly speaking, part of Games We Play, which is about playing everything once, it may be enlightening to see which games we go back to throughout the year.)

Games on Repeat

Repeated Game: Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries

Result: The Empress won, 97-65. Ouch.