So, I just went to a funeral...

autumn trio

I just got back from a funeral. At my age funerals are to be expected, but he was four years younger than me and a lot fitter, so I was not expecting to attend this one.

I went to a funeral and had some beers, because he was the kind of person who would appreciate you sticking around, meeting the other survivors and having a few beers. Thoughts occur.

There is a process of loss that you have to grow up enough to handle and which is so very much a part of growing up that it almost defines it. As you get older, the world that you considered fixed and entirely yours either ceases to exist (where the hell did the technology of my childhood disappear to?) or becomes the property of interlopers. That last part is crucial. There is a scene at the end of the Brat-pack film "Saint Elmo's Fire" where the teenage protagonists go back to the student bar where they used to hang out and find younger versions of themselves sitting at their table. They understand that this is no longer their space and move on. That happens to me all the time and it will happen to all of you

and that is fine.

The first reaction is negative, because those toys were mine, that space was mine. My children were born there and I grew up on that street. I pretty much invented being here and doing that. We come to believe that we own things by simply having made use of them, having celebrated crucial moments of our lives there. We expect that bond to last forever, but of course it does not. The young, foreign and different will inherit everything that you currently think uniquely yours, change it in ways you cannot envisage and become, as you once were, trapped in believing it theirs alone.

The world will roll on and you will not persist,

and that is fine.

At the funeral were hordes of people that cared about the person I knew as a colleague. He was gone and all that remained were his children and photographs

and that is still fine.

So we should, as always, seize the day for we will not persist and very little that we know or believe to be ours will remain. That is our nature and understanding that is what makes you a grown-up.


Mental health and games

OK, help me think about this.

I have spent a year recovering from burn-out. During the first period, I frankly do not know how long it was, I could not play in any way whatsoever. Given that game-playing has always been important to me, this was a sign of poor mental health. As I started to recover I regained interest in games. I started running a Savage Worlds (tabletop rpg) game for a group of teens and I started playing computer games. Let us look for a moment about the effect of those games on my health.

I experienced the tabletop game as an important creative outlet. I made a story-world for my players that was an adaptation to the modern day of  the book "Day of the Triffids" by John Wyndham. I was inspired by rereading the book and created characters for them to interact with, going so far as to paint small portraits of them. I also crafted miniature Triffids out of papier-mache and drew an elaborate map of the caves and the cave entrance that the characters emerged from at the start of the story, teaching myself the GIMP image processing program to do so.  These were little steps on the way to being myself again. I was proud and encouraged that I had created something, surmounted all the little obstacles to trying something new and succeeded. Running an RPG game is also a small, well-structured social arena to rediscover the skills of connecting with others in. I believe the reason that some less socially adapted people are attracted to role-playing games is because they are a wonderfully safe and encouraging environment. They are non-competitive, create rapport and team-work and supply cool successes.

In the same period I gradually started playing computer games again. I started playing Team Fortress 2, a game in which you, as part of a team, attempt to defeat another team. Though TF2 is a shooter and you spend a lot of time being blown up, often after a mere few minutes of life, it somehow manages to have a cheerful, humorous tone. The characters you play are cartoonish, bombastic parodies, so it does not hurt your pride when you are repeatedly massacred by more skilled players.

That last part is important. I am rather competitive and a bad loser. It is not a trait I am proud of, so I do my best, at some cost, to be graceful. I had previously abandoned "shooter" games largely because my initial lack of skill and subsequent rapid defeat caused me to become frustrated and upset. Strangely enough, something about the goofy tone and rapid pace of TF2 did not press my competitive buttons and I was able to play it with pleasure and therefore become quite expert.

Which brings us to the here and now. I still play and enjoy the tabletop games, but I am finding it harder, as I get mentally healthier, to enjoy Team Fortress. I now get impatient if I am not among the top scorers and I get very unhappy if my team performs (in my view) badly. Apparently as I pull out of the burnout, my competitiveness and aggression are gradually increasing, to the point that it is becoming harder to participate and progress in the game I used to enjoy. It is something of a paradox, that becoming more of "my old self" brings with it traits that I was happy to miss. It also points up that some competitiveness is useful and a spur to excellence, but that too much can prevent you from sticking with a learning task long enough to become excellent. Video games are a powerful metric. They show you in many ways how skilled you are at playing them and the change in your skill level is visible from day to day. My learning task now is to find a way to relax and enjoy the times when I fail, in the certain knowledge that this will enable me to become more skilled and capable in the long run. I think the most crucial aspect of my early play was a concious setting of low expectations and the goal of having fun, rather than being very capable. Fun leads to skill, to expertise, not the other way round. If I want to get good at Team Fortress, or anything else, I had better be able to enjoy it.


What it is all about

Yesterday I hung up a flat-screen television and afterwards lay on the sofa with youngest son on my chest, my head in middle son's lap and my legs on oldest son's lap. We watched Ben-10 together.

And that is what it is all about.

Yesterday I walked the dog and took a moment to look at the local windmill reflected in the lake. I was wearing my brother's shoes and my father's coat. I remembered that when I got married I wore the bow-tie given to me by a friend who's young husband died suddenly in a car accident.  The world is throwing symbols at me thick and fast.

And that is what it is all about.

Yesterday we sat down and ate Mexican takeaway at the big, slightly scratched and dented wooden table that Marjolein and I bought because we wanted people to sit round it and talk to each other.

And that is what it is all about.

Yesterday I drove away to pick up my middle son's repaired Nintendo DS. Marjolein found a repairman. Middle son was bitterly sad when his DS broke and he will get it back from Saint Nicholas tonight.

And  that is also what it is all about.

Yesterday my oldest boy sat by youngest and said that youngest could squeeze his hand as hard as he wanted when youngest had to have stinging disinfectant on his poorly toe.

And today will be just as amazing.

And  that is indeed what it is all about.


Ave atque vale


This is hard to write.

A week ago my brother died. He had been ill for a number of weeks with a rapid form of Leukemia and went quietly in his sleep.

There are no words for how I feel, that is something that bulks too large for my skills to encompass, but I can draw some wisdom from this.

The thing I am proudest of doing in all the world right now is that I made a small  aeroplane, red biro on notepad paper, borrowed scissors from the nurse, cut it out and hung over his bed. He had to lie back because of a lumbar puncture he had had and it cheered him up a little. It was a tiny, hopeless little gesture in the face of the towering, dark wave of his illness, but that and sitting quietly with him was all I had.

Sometimes there is not a lot you can do, so just do that.

Somewhere out there you may have the privilege of  hanging up a small, red aeroplane for someone, maybe making a difference, no matter what the odds. Be brave. Seize the day, you may not get a second chance.


Seven (1d6+1) reasons to play D&D with Smart Children

There is a sad misconception that D&D is a refuge for the socially inept. I would say that is probably born of the fact that, as an intensely socially educative game, it enables people who would otherwise fall out of contact to find a framework. You notice them when they are playing D&D when they would normally have scuttled out of sight. That has to be a good thing, liberating and enabling.

I have written before about D&D for kids but since then a few things have occurred to me that have convinced me that everyone who has smart children should play D&D with them...

Some quick generalisations about smart kids. Full of ideas. Easily bored. Challenged by working with others. Tendency to grandstand and demand attention. Outliers from the herd who are challenged to fit in and have a hard time finding peers.

Take a few typical attributes of D&D and see how they can engage and develop your smart child.

  1. It is a team game. When you venture into the catacombs you have an elven wizard (Maria, from your class) at your shoulder, a shaggy barbarian fighter (Joe, who shares your passion for dinosaurs) watching the rear and the stout Dwarven cleric (Luke, Joe's older brother who is very good at math) struggling along behind. Fellow players immediately have common ground and temporarily many shared goals. People who game together develop friendships.
  2. It is a game of the imagination. D&D stimulates and rewards imagination. It presents a living story, a realm of fantasy. Just for once having vivid ideas that do not fit into the day-to-day of school has a payoff. Just for once you can share a world of imagination with others.
  3. It is all about problem-solving.  The goblins are attacking and the mysterious rune-encrusted door will not open. Which of the three gems you have found will fit? How can I swing across the chasm without being shredded by the dire bats? Ideas zip across the table and advice and cunning plans are everywhere. I have never yet run a session where someone did not solve the problems I set them in a way I did not expect.
  4. It demands cooperation. Anyone that has ever played D&D knows that you need each other just as much as the players in any other team game, but with an added twist: each character is different. So each player has a unique contribution, a specific set of skills an capabilities that will not always be fully in play, but which will certainly at some point be utterly crucial. My son plays a rogue, a slight but light-fingered fellow, skilled at opening locks, defusing deadly traps and avoiding danger. The heavily armoured fighter stands between him and the fangs and claws, but waits (far) behind him while he disables the explosive runes on the the door of the treasure room.
  5. It structures communication. D&D has a lot of crucial moments, traps, combat and test of skill in which the whole table of players participates. That means that people have to take turns speaking, listen carefully to what others have said and thing on their feet. It is like being in a meeting with committee rules but without the stifling boredom and frustration. It is highly structured (though chaotic shouting does break out on occasion) and teaches communications skills, brevity and listening. Anyone that does not listen when the dungeon master is speaking may well miss a vital clue, not hear the troll creeping up from behind or the secret door creaking open.
  6. It rewards creativity. It is a game in which almost anything is possible. Though there are rules and limits, (jumping off a high place remains a bad idea... unless you can fly of course..), there is always another way to approach a problem, a wierd, out-of-the-box way of solving it. Creativity is rewarded. The problem-solving part demands creativity, but story-making and world-building do too. You need to flesh out an imaginary character. Imagine how she would talk to the local king, or to the butcher who's wife is a witch. I recently challenged a highly numeric and analytical boy who plays in a game I run to describe what the spell he was casting actually looked like: arrows of fire, luminous serpents? He had to step out of his analytical comfort zone to do it... Similarly, the story-teller at the table often has to concentrate to work out if his character's glittering shurikens actually hit the target.
  7. It is fun. Fun with people who think like you and revel in ideas and cleverness. It is a space in which football, physical coordination and the social pecking order do not count for much, so for the geeky kids it is a heady taste of freedom from conformity.



Sometimes what I need to say seems to obvious. One of the things I am still learning is to say it anyway.

I am a deeply fortunate person. I have a family I love,  a cheerful disposition and there are moments in my day which are eternal, where I am breathless with the glory of the world. I do not feel grateful because there is an obligation or that it is expected. I feel grateful because it is a natural state and so profoundly mixed with what I understand of happiness that I cannot seperate it out.

So I say to my sons "What goes around..." and they answer "comes around" and they know that I mean that the large and small generosity and acts of kindness that others show cannot be repaid, but only transmitted.

My oldest boy biked off to see his good friend home and  got lost on the way back. It was getting dark and everything seemed strange and threatening to him. He did not dare talk to the big, tough-looking teenagers he saw in the park. Fear and embarassment gripped him and held him back from finding help until tears came, until Rosanna came. I have never met Rosanna and I probably will never find her, but she put him back on the right road and guided him home.

Thankyou Rosanna, for sending him home. I was very scared too. May you be helped in all your journeys.

I have laid upon oldest boy a debt of honour. "Someday", I said "you will find someone lost and afraid when you are a big, perhaps tough-looking, teenager. Then you will remember Rosanna and a scared ten-year old." So much of what we say to children fades, but I hope that that will remain.

I do not know you and perhaps I never will. I am writing this out into the strange, busy echo-chamber of the Internet. Wherever you are, I hope that you will always be guided home. If some day a lanky great guy helps you out, it may be that my son remembers Rosanna.


Gentleness is a super-power


There is something that I want to say, somewhat out of the ordinary for this blog, please be patient while I find a way to say it.

I am a scarily cheerful person almost all of the time, particularly on diamond-bright blue-skied winter days like today. Things are actually pretty grim in the Netherlands, where I live, right now. The economy has taken a hit under the waterline and people are losing jobs, businesses and houses. Such times are of course sent to try us and they have one gift to give: perspective, they force you to focus on what is truly important.

I may lose my job.

But, I have a close and loving relationship with my wife and children. I am healthy (though a little overweight right now) and live in comfort and safety. I consider myself fortunate beyond all reckoning.  If was going to have a problem with something I would definately have chosen the economy and work. I am therefore filthy rich in any coin worth counting.

In these times it is tempting to "turtle", pull the covers over your head and wait for it all to blow over, but that is not what we are for. If you do have perspective and strength this is the time to reach out to others. I spent various moments this week with people who are overstretched by their work, put at financial risk, or worse dunked in confusion and sadness by turmoil and tough decisions in their personal lives. There is little you can do but listen attentively and perhaps offer a little practical help and perspective. You can be gentle. So that is what the title is about. Even now, even when money markets lurch around like drunken giants there is no force, no dictum greater than love and the ability to care for your fellow-person.

Gentleness is your super-power. Use it for good.

Use it.


Dungeons and Dragons with kids


I have been running a Dungeon and Dragons 3.5 game for my 10-year old son and four of his friends for the last few months. Though they are all geek-kids with video-game experience and lively imaginations, it is, on occasion, very challenging.


It's all really Peter Drukker

Having read that Peter Drukker was a major influence for aspects of GTD and having come across more Drukker-isms in the work of Steven Covey I decided a while ago to read "The Effective Executive" for myself. It is now forty years old and not in the least bit out of date. His examples refer to, now historical, figures but the situations he describes and the advice he provides is still cutting edge. I regularly see yet another "new insight" pop up in management and effectiveness forums that sends me off to my battered paperback copy to find the half-page he devoted to make precisely that point, forty year ago.

That is not to degrade the thinking of now. Mr Drucker is just a very, very hard act to follow and there is much valuable work to be done in getting those insights actually implemented in current behaviours and with recent technology. The latest case of this phenomenon is working from your strengths. The premise is simple and, for me, convincing: people spend much too much time trying to eliminate weaknesses when they should be leveraging their strengths. The "fully rounded" person who can handle every aspect of the job with ease is a myth. If someone looks like that they are almost certainly under-challenged. I have some strong and some weak suits. I use some behaviours, including GTD, to compensate for the weaknesses and put my coaching, facilitating and analytical skills into play at every opportunity. I cannot do everything well, but I can certainly arrange my situation so that everything is well done.


Confession time...


I have a confession to make.... Recently I let my home inbox pile up for more than three weeks. It got bigger and scruffier all the time and started lowering at me while I tried to do other things. Of course something like that has a double whammy for me. I have all the guilt about stuff piling up that anyone has, plus the fact that I am a GTD coach, I teach this stuff, and should of course never have that kind of problem. Ahem.