personal anecdotes


I spent a few hours at the Penny Arcade Expo yesterday afternoon. This is the first full-blown gaming convention I’ve been to since the 1980 Origins. They’re a lot louder than they used to be. Even 27 years ago, there probably were some computer games to compete with the board games, but TRS-80s didn’t have speakers, much less surround sound.

Despite the technological changes, I immediately felt at home. As I waited in line to buy my day pass, the guys behind me started up a classic geek discussion. One guy had a friend who was trying to get a World of Warcraft character to level 70 without using weapons or armor. The other guy was initially puzzled by this idea—”Why the hell would you do that?”—but then got caught up in the challenge: “That would be pretty cool to brag about if you could pull it off… What character class is he?” Meanwhile the two guys in front of me were using some sort of wireless sketch pads to email drawings of penises back and forth to each other—I know this because when a news crew came by to film us standing in line, they held up the penis drawings to the camera.

Speaking of World of Warcraft, I saw nearly a dozen MMORPG demos in the exhibition hall, and almost all of them looked like WoW clones (the two exceptions were Richard Garriott’s Tabula Rasa, which has an SF rather than a fantasy setting—whether the addition of blasters to the standard MMORPG model constitutes true innovation remains to be seen—and Pirates of the Burning Sea, in which you control a whole ship and its crew). I was reminded of the explosion of collectible card games that followed the success of Magic: the Gathering. Most of those Magic wannabees failed, for the simple reason that most CCGs are very expensive to get into, so that a typical player can only afford to play one or two seriously. I see a similar problem with the WoW clones, although the “expense” here is more time than money.

The most interesting demo I saw was for a game called The Eye of Judgment, which has you playing (real) cards representing combat units onto a playing mat. A special camera peripheral attached to a Sony PlayStation 3 then reads the bar codes on the cards and brings the units to life on your TV screen. This was clever and cool, although without trying the game myself (the lines were very long) I couldn’t say whether it’s actually worth the bother of buying the special camera add-on for your PS3.

Among the many virtual offerings there were a few booths offering actual physical board and card games. My friend Chris Bodan’s company, Privateer Press, had a booth. Their latest release is called Infernal Contraption, and I almost bought it, but it wasn’t discounted and I figured if I was going to pay full price, I might as well get it from Blue Highway Games, the new Queen Anne game store that I’d like to see avoid bankruptcy for a few months at least.

The most head-scratching moment of the con came when I went into ArenaNet’s Guild Wars booth. This was a fairly large space with at least thirty computer stations running the game. When I sat down at an empty station to give it a try, though, the machine asked for my username and password. I asked an ArenaNet rep what was up, and he said: “Oh, you’re looking for a demo? Sorry, these machines are for people who already have accounts.” Um, right, because that’s why you come to an exposition, so you can show off your game to folks who already own it… (To be fair, the guy claimed that there was a demo area, as well, but damned if I could find it.)

Finally, to cause a little head-scratching of my own, I brought along some stacks of Bad Monkeys drop cards and left them on the various giveaway tables. Later I saw a couple different people picking the cards up and turning them over, trying to work out what they were for (MMORPG? Web comic? Fast-food discount?). I’ll be curious to see if I get any web traffic from it.

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So that’s where they all went

During the signing following last night’s reading at Third Place Books, I noticed a number of people had copies of Bad Monkeys with gold “LOCAL AUTHOR” stickers on them. Since I’d seen Third Place Books’ stock and knew they didn’t use stickers like that, I asked what was up, and learned that these copies were from Costco, which reportedly has a stack of Bad Monkeys next to the Harry Potter books. It wasn’t the discount that had led these people to buy from Costco, though — it was the fact that Costco’s copies were first editions. Unfortunately, because Costco is not a rare bookstore, they don’t understand about condition, and I have a feeling those stickers are going to be the kind you can’t remove without a chisel.

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While I was out of the country…

…Bad Monkeys reached the #15 spot on the Book Sense national bestseller list.

…the Seattle Times and the Post-Intelligencer simul-published their reviews of the novel. Though neither is an unqualified rave, both say enough nice things about me that, by the time HarperCollins’ P.R. machine gets done excerpting them, they will be remembered as unqualified raves. Be warned that the P-I review contains plot spoilers.

…the San Francisco Chronicle, having already run the Associated Press’s love letter to Bad Monkeys, decided to give me another three paragraphs in a round-up of summertime sci-fi adventures.

…the corn I had planted in the front yard, mostly on a lark, set its first cobs.

… weighed in here.

…HarperCollins decided to order a fourth printing of Bad Monkeys—five thousand more copies, due from the printers on September 7th, which happens to be the day before my birthday.

While I was out of the country… Read More »

In which Jeff Bezos foils me again

A sample copy of the finished Bad Monkeys arrived in the mail over the weekend. It looks great, and it also looks different. All that yellow in the cover, plus the tall and narrow dimensions—it’s 9 1/2″ by 5″—really make it stand out on a shelf.

The book’s arrival during my in-laws’ visit tempted us to an act of market manipulation. We pre-ordered ten copies of the book online in my mother-in-law’s name, hoping that this would bump my rating enough to start a chain-reaction that would rocket Bad Monkeys to the number two spot on the list (the #1 spot, as you may have heard, is taken).

Amazon ranking before we placed the order: ~41,000.
Amazon ranking an hour after we placed the order: ~59,000.

Oh well.

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This frightens me

The in-laws were visiting over the weekend, and yesterday we made our usual pilgrimage to the Muckleshoot Casino in Auburn. Along the way we stopped at Denny’s, where I spotted the following item on the menu:

Mini burgers — “Six mini cheeseburgers with mustard and grilled onions surrounding a mound of crisp golden-fried onion rings”

This is not a to-share platter—it’s intended as a meal for a single person. I know that “mini” probably means White Castle-sized, and that it’s not unusual for people (including my younger self) to inhale half a dozen of those at a sitting, but still… six cheeseburgers. With deep-fried onion rings. Dude.

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This, Dr. Pepper, is SPARTA!!!

So what do authors do to pass the time while waiting for their publication date?

One answer, if you know the right people, is: fill plastic soda bottles with water and then hack them apart with swords…

BTW, this is two separate cuts with two different blades (and two bottles; Dr. Pepper didn’t survive his encounter with the longsword in photo #1).

Here, fellow Pepper matador Cooper Moo scores a clean decapitation:

Pics courtesy of Neal S.; deadly weapons courtesy of Angus Trim and Tinker Pearce.

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Thanks to a German fan named Kolja Böther, I now have a copy of my missionary grandfather’s memoir, Roughing it for Christ in the Wilds of Brazil. It’s short—more a pamphlet than a book—but does a good job of conveying what his life in South America was like.

The “roughing it” part is no joke. Traveling between his various mission posts, Grandpa sometimes spent as much as twenty hours at a stretch in the saddle (he rode mules, the terrain having proved too rugged for horses). And his home life, when he had time to enjoy it, sounds like something you might read about in a Matt Ruff novel:

The parsonage was well meant by Synod’s representatives. A large, two-story building of sixteen rooms, intended to house two missionaries, with the greatest number of large French windows that I ever saw in a house of that size. With the exception of my study, the windows were without glass during the war, and for some time after. There were no shutters. In Brazil it rains at times. We sometimes have the feeling as if it were always raining there. And with every rain the water would pour down through the ceiling on the windward side of the house. In some rains all four sides seemed windward, as the storm drove the sheets of rain through from end to end. But we were trained, like a ship’s crew, to stow all movable goods away on the driest side of the house. And when the wind changed, we would re-stow them on the other side. And sometimes we would be sitting on the leeward side and wouldn’t notice the rain coming in the windward, and would then find some books ruined or a bed wet through and through, or even covered with a layer of clay mortar from the unfinished wall. That, too, was hard on the nerves. But I can say that I always tried to find a funny side. One of the funny sides was this, that the floor was absolutely waterproof. We had to bore holes through it to get the water out. But after I had a wife, and before I got the idea of the holes in the floor, and whenever we would have stowed the goods away on a dry side, before the wind would have a chance to turn, we would join hands and dance around barefoot in the sea on the floors of study and dining room…

About the wife: in the stories my mother used to tell me, Grandpa and Grandma’s marriage was far from idyllic. Among other issues, Grandma eventually converted to Mormonism, which I imagine made for interesting dinner conversation. But at time Grandpa wrote Roughing it, the big theological debates were still in the future, and his description of her and their relationship is actually quite touching:

[S]he is a German Russian by birth, a Brazilian by adoption since her eleventh year, an American by sympathies and by marriage. Having had no school, she is a wonderful reader. In her confirmation days and after she memorized all of the synodical catechism, including most of Luther’s introduction. In her girlhood days, she made 14 miles afoot and back on the same day, in the rain and barefoot, of course, to hear one of our chorus concerts…
We have been asked other questions, one or two of which I shall answer here. “Don’t you wear wedding rings in Brazil?” Yes, we do. At least those people do that have the money. We didn’t have it at the time. Later on we made up our minds that we would have a sweet revenge for this condition of affairs, by buying our rings at no other place than Tiffany’s in New York. Which we did. They are the usual gold bands, and contain the legend: “Urwahnfried — 1918.” Nothing else, but that is a volume. Urwahnfried is a word composed of old German word roots, and means in modern English, “Fulfillment.” Or, more explicitly: “The Place where my Fight for the Highest and Broadest Ideals of Life Came to an End in the Peace of Victory.”

And that’s today’s word.

(Update: My grandfather’s book is now available in a Kindle edition.)

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The color code of the day is #FAEE04

As part of the master plan to sell copies of Bad Monkeys to every cool person in America, HarperCollins has set up a Myspace page. I got the password a couple days ago and am starting to familiarize myself with the interface. Most of it’s pretty straightforward, but if I want to spiff up the look of the profile page—and I do—I’m going to have to learn to hand-code CSS, which should make for an interesting project.

And speaking of books with large amounts of yellow on their covers, I just got word that the German paperback of Sewer, Gas & Electric is entering its 7th printing. If any of you should run into David Hasselhoff today, please tell him I said hi.

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More Ruff and Lehenbauer family trivia

Since blogging about my cousin Ernest, I’ve been on a family history jag. I’m not sure how interesting any of this is to non-relatives, but with Bad Monkeys‘ pub. date just four months away, I’m starting to get requests from publicists for biographical tidbits to feed to reviewers and interviewers, so maybe there’s something here that’ll qualify as “local color.” And, hey, I think it’s cool.

First, a couple corrections: in my previous post, I had originally written that both the Ruffs and the Lehenbauers came from Bavaria. Actually, the Ruffs were Prussian; my great-great-grandfather Johann Frederick Ruff was born in 1830 in the village of Badeleben, near Magdeburg. I think the reason for my confusion on this point is that my German publisher is located in Munich, so I regard Bavaria as my home base when I’m over there. But if there’s a Bad Monkeys book tour, I’ll have to see if I can arrange a stop in Badeleben, and maybe at the University of Berlin to look for J.F.’s old school records.

As for Mom’s side of the family, I wrote that the Lehenbauers worked as linen weavers in the town of Oettingen “during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.” Those dates come from The Family Lehenbauer, a privately published genealogy. What I’d forgotten until I started digging into my files is that I also have a set of addenda to the genealogy that pushes the timeline back even further. Turns out the Lehenbauers were in Oettingen from at least the 17th century. The ur-ancestor is a man named Johann Caspar Leonhard Lehenbauer, born in 1674.

Geez, 1674. I’m simultaneously awestruck and amused. I mean, the guy is my great-great-great-great-grandfather (one of them—I’ve got, what, 31 others?). At a remove of six generations, the genetic link must be getting pretty weak, and culturally we’d be aliens to each other. So to feel a special connection to him is, on one level, absurd. And yet…

Closer to home (temporally speaking), I also did some checking on my grandfather, the Lutheran missionary who went to South America. It seems he wrote a short memoir, Roughing it for Christ in the wilds of Brazil, that is listed on, though of course it’s long out of print. My wife Lisa is going to use her rare-book skills to try and locate a copy, but this is the sort of ephemera that is notoriously difficult to track down.

One thing I did find, though, is a street in Santa Rosa, Brazil that’s named after Grandpa—the Rua Pastor Albert Lehenbauer (Google Maps has the last name misspelled as “Lemenbawer”, but it’s definitely him). While I’m not sure how he came to rate a street sign, it’s probably got something to do with his role in Brazilian agricultural history. Grandpa was the guy who first brought soybeans into the country and convinced the local gauchos to start growing them; today, soy is Brazil’s second-biggest legal export crop.

And one more neat little discovery: if you fire up Google Earth and look at Santa Rosa from orbit, the town is disappointingly blurry. But if you track south-southwest, the satellite resolution suddenly gets a whole lot sharper (CIA must have had biz in the neighborhood), and if you look closely, about fifteen miles out you’ll find a dot marked Ipiranga next to a spot where two dirt roads meet at right angles. I believe this is Ypiranga Crossroads, where my grandfather and grandmother were married and where my mother spent her early childhood. The level of detail is high enough that I could easily pick out the house, if I knew what it looked like.

So again, a mixture of awe and amusement. Hi, Grandpa. Hi, Mom. Greetings from the future.

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In which your author finds a relative sitting in Saddam Hussein’s chair

My family doesn’t have a strong military tradition. Although a number of the men, particularly in my father’s generation, have worn uniforms, there aren’t any career soldiers, and reference to “the service” has always meant religious service.

The Ruffs are typically pastors; the Lehenbauers, my mother’s people, incline more to missionary work. If you sense a fundamental difference in temperament here, you’re right. Lehenbauers tend to have—how shall I put this?—a healthy love of debate, and they are also more prone to wanderlust. Both sides of the family immigrated from Germany to the American Midwest in the 19th century, but while the Ruffs stayed put once they got here, Grandpa Lehenbauer got restless and decided to continue on to South America—first Brazil, then Argentina. Then in the 1950s my mother backtracked to the U.S., drawn in part, one suspects, by the nomadic promise of the new Interstate Highway System.

The reason I mention all this: as I say, we’re not a military family, so until recently I assumed that none of my relatives were over in Iraq. But if you’d told me that one of my kin had been spotted across the street from Abu Ghraib prison, or goofing around in the throne room of one of Saddam’s palaces, and asked me to guess whether it was a Ruff or a Lehenbauer… well, it’s not even a question, really.

A few months ago I was doing research on the town of Oettingen, where earlier, less itinerant generations of Lehenbauers worked as linen weavers. A Google search turned up the following photo:

This was the home of my great-great-grandfather, Johann Matthias Lehenbauer (the siding is a more recent addition, and of course in the 1700s only the wealthiest Germans could afford electricity).

The photo was posted in the blog of one Ernest Lehenbauer, a civilian engineer under contract to the Department of Defense to help bolt supplemental armor onto Humvees. He’d visited Oettingen while on leave from “Camp Warrior” in Kirkuk.

“Well that’s interesting,” I thought. “I have a long-lost cousin named Ernest, whose dad was an engineer for Ford, and not only is he a Lehenbauer, he’s one of the Mormon Lehenbauers, which means he’s way crazy enough to volunteer for work in a combat zone…” Sure enough, this was indeed my cousin Ernie, whom I last saw back when we were teenagers (as I recall, we spent much of the visit trying to convince Ernie’s younger brother Eric that the house was being buzzed by UFOs).

Ernie’s trip to Oettingen took place in 2005, and by the time I stumbled across his blog, his tour in Iraq was already over—he’d finished up his contract and headed home in March of 2006. His final blog entry was entitled “Moving on, I guess,” which I understood to be Lehenbauer code for “I’ll stay Stateside just long enough for my mother’s blood pressure to return to normal, then see if anyone in Afghanistan needs a mechanic.”

Big surprise, a couple days ago I discovered a new Ernest Lehenbauer blog called “Back to Iraq.” Seems that he reupped to help out with the surge, and now they’ve got him unclogging the Internet tubes at one of Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad palaces. (Though it’s been many years since our UFO-spotting days, looks like Ernie and I still have the same sense of humor. I would totally do the “Saddam’s throne photo op with bad pun” thing, if you could get me within a thousand miles of the place. But I’m only half Lehenbauer, and somebody needs to stay here on the West Coast and watch for North Korean submarines.)

I’ve added Ernie’s blog to my journal links so I can keep track of his doings, and because, in case it’s not obvious, I’m proud of him. I’m worried for him, too, but another factoid about Lehenbauers is that they’re historically quite difficult to kill. Grandma Helena, for example—the original Mormon Lehenbauer—was hit by a truck at age 77 and survived to argue theology for another nine years. I’m optimistic that the same mojo will work against exploding trucks… and hopeful that this theory will not be put to the test.

In which your author finds a relative sitting in Saddam Hussein’s chair Read More »