16 July, 2019

Memories of my Grandmother

Greenville Advocate, January 2, 1941
Mattie & Margaret w/ perfect grades.
"Manual for Baptist Young People
on Organization, Programs, and Methods"
Ercil's wife, Bertha Belle, is Mattie's half-cousin.
(Ercil is misspelled in the newspaper.)
When I was three years old, I returned from a trip to Miami, Florida. I have no memory of what happened there, no memory of the drive to or from there, no memory of how I felt about any of it, and no memory of anything even slightly related to it. But I nevertheless know that I went there, because, afterward, my grandmother, Mattie Jo, asked me about it. She told me that she would write down whatever I said and it could be turned into a book. So I recited a story about the trip, which she wrote onto loose leaf pages, and she gave them to me to illustrate. Afterward, the pages were stapled together, bound into a book. It was my first journal entry.

The prose is terrible. By the time I get to the second sentence, I've lost the narrative about Miami, and I seem to just babble. Of course, I was three years old at the time, so I suppose that's understandable.

Evergreen Courant, March 27, 1947
Mattie was 19 years old.
More importantly, this event really shows how my grandmother interacted with me when I was a child. I was at her house all of the time. I don't recall any memories prior to age seven, but my understanding is that I must have come by often. Once I turned seven, we built a house on the same street as her home, and I ended up staying over constantly.

She made the best sweet tea, although her sandwiches were not as good as my great aunt Margaret's (her sister). I loved sitting in the big recliner next to her, which was almost always available, since my grandfather stayed in bed most of the time. I used to roll her cylinder shaped ottoman to the other side of the living room to help build structures out of pillows. She would sing songs to me that I can no longer recall. As a small child, I used to run and play in her house while just wearing underwear. I would set up army men on her glass living room table, and play teenage mutant ninja turtles in the alcove of the foyer, all while she would watch television just behind me.

Advertiser-Gleam, April 2, 1952
"List of people who can vote in elections."
She made a manicotti dish that I apparently loved as a child, though in my actual memory I can't recall ever tasting it. She hosted all the family events like Christmas, where presents and wrapping paper were always quickly separated. I played my NES there, hooked up to her television: super mario bros. + duck hunt, and later all kinds of games rented from the local blockbuster. She loved to cheer me on whenever I played games -- until ten minutes passed and she realized it was just the same thing over and over, at which point she'd start crocheting.

When I crashed my bicycle outside her front door, she was the one who bandaged me. My knuckles have been scarred ever since. That day, my grandfather went to the toolshed in the back and came out an hour later to give me an award for bravery. It was a wooden plaque shaped like a shield, commemorating that bicycle crash. If it was supposed to make me feel proud, it failed; I never touched a bicycle again to this day, partly out of fear, and now out of habit.

Greenville Advocate, December 26, 1963
The three children are Patty, Billy, and my mother, Joanne.
One day, she spent what felt like hours teaching me how to crochet. I proceeded to fail to make anything at all. I loved hearing stories from her about all kinds of things. How, for example, she was not allowed to marry her husband until her soon-to-be mother-in-law successfully taught her how to make several Italian recipes. There was apparently a test, which she passed, and which gave her permission to marry their son. And stories of my uncle Billy. And what my uncle Michael was like at my age.

I can remember going through the phone book with my grandmother, learning how to use it. And browsing the Sears catalog, filled with mostly boring items, but a smattering of toys interspersed within. My grandmother played few games with me, but would always bring out the building blocks when I was young. The blocks were made of wood and painted bright red. My grandfather made them for me, and I loved building towers with them.

There are so many memories I have with my grandmother. She was very important to me. I don't like that she died. Death is the true enemy. I must always remember this.

Greenville Advocate, December 19, 1940
Forest Home Elementary Perfect Attendance
At the same time, I feel numb. I don't know if this is a defect. I don't know what I should be feeling, or even if the word "should" applies here. I do know that I've enjoyed finding an old newspaper that lists her as having perfect attendance at school one year. It reminds me that there is so much of her beyond what memories I have of her. Mattie Jo was a person, filled with hopes and dreams, having lived a full life of travel and family. She experienced the loss of a teenage son, and the terror of her husband being permanently disabled in a car crash the same month that I was born. She grew up in the tiniest of towns, and near the end stayed consecutively with two of her daughters. She became especially close to my sister, living with her multiple times over the past decade or so. I'd love to hear stories of our grandmother from her, to learn what Mattie was like during the years I wasn't there.

I regret not learning more of these stories directly from my grandmother. I miss her voice.

13 July, 2019

Mattie Jo Tomaso

My grandmother, Mattie Jo Tomaso.
My grandmother, Mattie Jo Tomaso, died a few moments ago. It was sudden. I was told yesterday afternoon that she might be put on hospice today; apparently she didn't last even that long.

Mattie Jo Thompson was born on July 19, 1928, in my home state of Alabama, to Manning and Frances Gray Thompson. She had only one living grandparent during her childhood, Lewis Gray.

My grandmother grew up in Forest Home, Alabama, in Butler county. The family had been in this area for quite some time, as Warren Thompson, Mattie's paternal great great grandfather, was an original settler of the area. Warren settled in what is now the unincorporated area of Pine Flat, the first part of Butler county to be settled by white people.

I can remember several stories from my grandmother's childhood. She never strayed far from Forest Home as a child, and so honestly believed that rainbows ended in nearby Greenville. "How lucky kids there must be," she recounted, "for when rainbows come they could play in the part that touched the ground." Except this is not how she said it. It's been too long since I heard these stories for me to have true quotes, and I never bothered to record her stories on audio. So many such stories are lost.

Not everything was idyllic back then. She had a black childhood friend who could only enter the house from the back kitchen door. Later, when Facebook came out, she wanted to search for her to try and reconnect. But when I asked her childhood friend's name, all she could remember was what they called her way back when: "nigger".

Once, she recounted being with a group of her fellow classmates in grade school. They had a friendly custodian there who would always smile and wave as the kids strolled by. One day, he hid in the bushes and jumped out, crying "Boo!" just as the girls walked past. Like little girls do, they all screamed happily in fright and ran down the road. As they ran, they passed by Mattie's father, Manning Thompson. He asked why they were running, and, as soon as he received a short answer, he left quickly for the school in anger. Manning beat that black custodian that day, and Mattie said that he walked with a limp forever after and never again smiled or played with the kids.

Thankfully, my grandmother escaped the worst of these racist memories by falling in love with an Air Force man, Salvatore "Ralph" Tomaso. They left the United States to live in AF bases across the globe, from Pakistan to Okinawa to Panama. The bases were integrated, and my grandmother happily raised her children side by side with the black children of the base. When riots broke out in Selma, she and her kids watched from a television in South America, and her kids did not understand why the black people were being treated so poorly. I give my grandmother a lot of credit for successfully raising children who did not have the same prejudices that were so prevalent in just the single prior generation.

In Pakistan, Mattie was invited to a wedding off-base. She and Ralph went to a town with large sand walls, all uncovered by roofs. The men split from the women, and she went into an area where the females could finally remove their facial coverings. There they helped put way too much make-up on the bride, while the males in another area helped to bring out the bed for the new couple. Mattie felt the entire situation was surreal.

Eventually, Mattie and her husband returned home to Mobile, Alabama, to finish raising their kids. When she was younger, she had been an operator for the phone company, but I'm unsure what she did once she returned to Alabama. I think she may have just been a housewife. Her husband was in a car accident the year I was born, in 1981, and he was mostly relegated to the bed from then on. I think they survived on his pension and disability ever after.

When I was seven, my family moved onto the same street that my grandmother lived on, some dozen houses away. I would often walk to her house as a kid, and I have many memories of spending time with her. I was an active child, so I spent more time in the living room with my grandmother than in the bedroom with my grandfather. She would watch boring soap operas and exciting game shows. I can remember building not forts with pillows but a stage for The Price is Right, where I had imaginary contestants attempt to guess the price of yet another pillow.

My first word was said to my grandmother. Every time we came to visit, my mother would hold me up to my grandmother, who would meet us in her doorway. She would loudly exclaim: "My pumpkin!",  and then take me from my mother's arms to hold me and take me inside the house. I have no memory of this, but apparently one day, as I was taken to the front door where my grandmother stood, I spoke for the first time: "pumpkin", before my grandmother could say anything at all.

I loved my grandmother's sweet tea. It was my favorite drink then, and I still drink tea daily today in remembrance of what I once had in that house. Mattie and Ralph's pets also fascinated me. They had a lhasa apso named Mae-Ling (I don't know the origin of this name, but I imagine it had to be named after someone that my grandfather met while in the service.), which I adored, and a parakeet named Pretty Bird, who would sing the intro to those damned soap operas way too often for my tastes. I loved playing with Mae-Ling while my grandmother sat in her chair, watching me. She was a friendly dog, and she never harmed me, although she did once bite a friend of mine (who probably had it coming, to be perfectly honest).

The backyard held a screened-in porch, a pool(?), and a shed that my grandfather used for carpentry when he had enough energy to actually walk outside. I don't have actual memories of the pool, because at some point they covered it up with a deck in the middle of the backyard where the pool once was. Plants were everywhere there, as were birdhouses. My grandmother did much of the gardening, while my grandfather did much of the birdwatching. The backyard was fully fenced so that Mae-Ling could run free, but there was plenty of unowned land behind the house -- maybe one or two acres worth before you got to the next house on the street. In this unowned area, fruit trees lined the other side of the back fence. I loved climbing in those trees, and picking fruits to show my grandmother. It was a fun place to play, and I spent much of my time at my grandmother's house rather than at my own.

When I got older, I didn't spend any time keeping up with family in Alabama. The last time I saw my mother, things did not go well, and since my grandmother soon moved in with my mother, the fact that I didn't really spend time talking with my mother turned into me not spending any time talking with my grandmother either. The last time I spoke with my grandmother was in 2006 or so.

Earlier this year, my sister, Anh, requested that I send my grandmother a note. I planned to record an audio message for her, to be played by my sister, who lives in Alabama and still regularly sees her. But I didn't quite get around to finishing it. I still have unfinished drafts sitting in a text file on my desktop. It was hard to know what to say, after thirteen years of silence. Of course, now it is too late; she is dead. I'll still write that letter, but I suppose it will be more for me than for her at this point.

Thank you, Grandma, for being there for me when I was younger. You influenced my life in so very many ways. Although most of my mannerisms have turned out to resemble Papa (my unconscious verbalisms in the car, the way I breathe when out of breath, and how I sigh when tired all remind me of how he sounded), I've always attributed so many happy thoughts from my childhood to experiences I've had with you. Thank you for giving me these experiences. I hope your life had happiness and enjoyment all the way until the end.

I promise to write that note to you soon.

[Edit 15 July: An obituary has been posted online.]

11 July, 2019

Dice Tower Con

The end of an era.
Three years ago, I decided that it might be fun to attend a board game convention. I wasn't sure at first; in my limited experience, most conventions are about socializing, cos-play, attending panels, seeing new things in the industry, and (most disturbingly) not bathing. But the Dice Tower Convention seemed different. There were explicit rules about being nice, bathing every day, etc. It was described as a gaming convention; rather than a bunch of talks by designers and publishers, there was a focus on the open gaming area and a huge library of games. I took a chance, booked a villa, invited several friends and family, and we all had a great time. It had become a tradition since.

The entire trip always had such great parts to it. We'd drive 4-5 hours each day from our home just north of DC, stopping at parks and museums and interesting food places all along the way. Each city we visited had something to offer, and I always looked forward to the hotel at the end of each day, which Katherine painstakingly picked out in order to be perfect for rest and relaxation. (Katherine is very picky with her hotel choices.)

Imagine dozens of moving sculptures like these.
In 2017, we visited the Vollis Simpson  Whirligig Park and Museum in Wilson, North Carolina, where there were still in the process of building this outside park. Junk filled the air in pleasing positions, and the air (which was not moving very fast on its own) was somehow easily causing the parts to twirl and sway in interesting patterns. Katherine was especially excited by it because she loved the installation by this artist in Baltimore, and she found the full representation of his art to be especially impressive. We also visited the following year, after they officially opened; they'd included an indoor museum at that point, but it was too nice to just look outside for us to bother going in.

I was especially impressed by their accessibility,
though parking was a hellscape of anguish.
This year, we visited the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina. Katherine is a member of a local art museum and this gives her free access for her and a friend (that's me!) to several dozen museums throughout the eastern United States. Nevertheless, the Gibbes made plenty of money from us as their gift shop called out successfully. I really enjoyed their exhibition, but, more importantly, I enjoyed the meta story behind their exhibit choices. The Gibbes has been around for well over a hundred years, and they have an extensive collection of very well done art from local white artists that is, to put it mildly, quite racist. To counter that narrative, the entire top floor is dedicated to black artists; most of the information written on the plaques hanging on the walls have reminders that whites had access to patronage, art training, and free time that blacks did not.

We also always stopped in Myrtle Beach to visit two of Katherine's close friends. And we'd stop in various Mellow Mushroom restaurants along the way to compare decor. And we'd visit Sweet Tomatoes, an all-you-can-eat salad buffet that doesn't exist anywhere near Maryland, and we'd go to nice restaurants to try out the impossible burger during times when it was difficult to find one. And when we'd finally get to Orlando proper, we'd stay in a villa in the Caribe Royale, with its jacuzzi tub in the master bedroom, a private pool that would let us literally be the only swimmers from 8-9:30 every morning, a full couch and chairs that allowed us to game in comfort on the TV with the Nintendo Switches that everyone brought, and its spacious floor space able to accommodate whatever handicap accessibility requirements we might throw at it.

The Dice Tower Con proper was so good. I could get games with strangers easily, there were table-toppers announcing whenever we needed a teacher for a game, I could be alone whenever it was required due to my introverted nature, everything (including bathrooms) was fully accessible, the game library and hot games sections were extensive and covered whatever we wanted, the exhibitor hall had lots of great games on display, and the parts of the con I had no interest in were in separate rooms so I never had to go there at all.

It wasn't all good, of course. CoolStuffInc had an awesome ding and dent sale in 2017 that brought prices so low that I couldn't help to make several purchases despite my best intentions. But the sale was gone in 2018/19, because (as the head of CSI said in a facebook comment) they were hurting the other exhibitors by discounting so heavily.

In 2018, we signed up for an "escape room" that turned out to be a box attached to a high table that people in wheelchairs could not even see over the side of, making it completely inaccessible. Even with a person unable to participate entirely, there was not enough room around the table (which was pushed into a corner of the room) for everyone present to stand beside it. And the device itself had been broken by an earlier group, so instead of a light going off when we succeeded at a task, the person running the event just announced: "you succeeded!" and would proceed to open a new door that was supposed to have opened automatically once we solved the previous puzzle. To say it was bad is an understatement, but what hurt much more was that it cost us $15/person to do this event. To this day, it stands as the worst paid experience I've ever had, unless you count getting food poisoning once from a restaurant. And yet: the main convention was so good that it didn't ruin anything more than the two hours or so that we spent in that dreadful room.

This year, everything seemed to be falling apart. I wanted a cup to use for drinking tea in my room; but cups did not arrive until Friday, three days into the con. The bag we received when we registered was empty; no map, no guidebook, no free games, no promo cards. The books came the next day and had to be given out while we were playing games. There was an advertiser whose ad wasn't printed in the book. Something bad was going on. The most conspicuous part was that the guidebook for the con had no information whatsoever about next year's convention.

Rumors abounded. While we were swimming, a long time attendee came up to us and conspiratorially whispered all he knew about the situation. Patrick Havert had let his niece run the con this year, and she can't handle it; the hotel is refusing to let us know whether the convention will be held again next year; the alternate hotel that it might be moving to also isn't saying anything; they're going to expand the con to even more attendees and it's going to become like gencon.

On the penultimate day, Tom Vasel, the person behind the eponymous con, gave announcements that did not mention next year at all. The next evening on the final day of the con, as everyone was seemingly leaving, a new rumor started going around: Tom would be doing a live Q&A about next year at 11 am the next morning.

We were packing while the live Q&A started. Years ago, the Haverts had started this con, and had asked Tom for the use of the Dice Tower name to give it more prestige. They signed a contract, and the Haverts ran the entire con while Tom only had to attend, do a few events there, and run the hot games section. It was great for eight years. But in the intervening time, Vasel had started running smaller cons of his own. They weren't nearly as big as the 3000 people at the main Dice Tower Convention, but he still had 1000 or so people at these other cons, and he enjoyed running them and being able to have full input on what would happen there. So, this year, he decided to break with the Haverts as their contract ran out. He was taking back his name and announced a new con: Dice Tower East, to be held on the same July 4 weekend next year, but at a new location: the Florida Hotel. Meanwhile, the Haverts would be starting a new con called Escape Winter, held in November.

This devastated me. The new hotel was atrocious. A big part of the experience for me was the villas, and the new hotel didn't even have a microwave. Only small fridges, and the beds are in the same room as the tv. It's not a resort -- it's a hotel. How can we play video games there? I don't want to invite people into the same room that I sleep in. What if my introverted nature takes over and I need to retreat? To where could I retreat if everything is all in the same room?

And then I noticed several posts by the locals on reddit and boardgamegeek. (You can't find such posts on facebook, because the Haverts are deleting any posts that aren't directly favorable to them in the old dice tower con fb group.) The Florida Hotel is connected to the mall, which apparently is a high crime area. Local people are unwilling to attend solely because of the location's safety issues.

Suffice it to say: I don't think I'll be attending Dice Tower East next year. And since both Katherine and Jon are teachers, going to a con in November is out of the question. A summer convention is required.

And so I sit, confused. What should we do next year? I'm seriously considering not going to a con at all. DTC was special; I don't think we'd get that kind of experience at Origins or any other board game convention. But I could just run one myself. Just for me and my closest friends. I own at least 200 board games. It's not like we'd be lacking games to play. And this way we could rent out a villa that we could really enjoy, with the amenities we truly want. I don't know yet what we're going to do, but I honestly think this might be the best solution for us. Next year, I want to have the experience of traveling, of stopping at fun places, of meeting up with friends in a nice resort, and of playing video games and board games for a week straight. And maybe we can accomplish all of that without having to go a convention at all.

Thank you Dice Tower Con, for giving me three great years. But now I'm now looking forward to what kind of experience I can create for myself.

01 July, 2019

Competing Points of View

Gently, I awake to the sound of my phone alarm. I'm still not used to it; it always feels like someone else's alarm, never mine, and yet I drift into consciousness slowly, integrating the artificial sound into my dream.

It's my birthday today. I'm not exactly happy about it. Thirty-seven was such a great number. It had allusions to the fine structure constant, it's prime, it's hexagonal, and it's used all the time in media as a pseudo-random number. But now I'm 38. There's nothing interesting about 38.

It sounds silly. I know that. Properties of numbers shouldn't affect my life. Yet emotions matter, and what we place importance on can have an over-sized effect on how we feel about things. Thirty-eight just isn't my jam. I think that this year I will not have any focus on my actual age, unlike the previous year.



Gently, the rest of me catches up. I awake to the physical motion of my fingers typing this entry. Disgusted, I swat aside the portion of my brain apparently addicted to numerology. Who was that person? How did he gain control so easily? Is it just a function of the hour? I did drive all day yesterday. Maybe it's exhaustion.

I am in Florence, South Carolina. The hotel is supposedly nice, even though I'll be here only for a few short hours. We arrived after midnight, and we will be leaving as soon as I sober up enough to get out of bed. I feel drunk on exhaustion alone. Those last couple of hours of driving were the worst.

Not my photo as I haven't been there yet.
In a few hours, I will be at Congaree Park, walking a trail through a swamp. I'm looking forward to a few hours of quiet contemplation there. I'm rather hoping for the area to be relatively deserted. My favorite park memories are of walking alone on a trail at my own pace.

By the end of my birthday, I should be in Jacksonville, Florida. Another day of driving, followed by another night of short rest. The hotel there is nice; the last time I stayed, I found the room to be quite restful. But it is the day after that I am really focused on: Dice Tower Con in Orlando, Florida. A week of board gaming with friends and family, with mornings spent lounging in the private pool, and nights spent playing co-op games on the Nintendo Switch. I brought a single book: Quantum Computing Since Democritusby Scott Aaronson. I'm looking forward to diving into it.

I also reduced the number of board games I brought with me. Unlike last year's oversized collection, I've brought only seven titles to the con this year. Some are bigger than others, but all should be especially enjoyable for me to get to the table.



The anthropic argument for the fine structure constant is compelling. So, too, is the present-day-Eric-specific argument for me. I am the product of my past. My life today stems from what came before.

Thirty-eight is twice nineteen. That was a terrible year. Starting with a fork in the road in Texarkana, where I summarily abandoned one route in favor of another, and then that fateful moment when I pulled up in Colorado, forcing myself to commit by unloading my computer first, before allowing anything else. I made such stupid decisions at nineteen. It's not numerology. It's memory.

16 June, 2019

Happy Father's Day

All people are unique in their own way, but I've always had special admiration for my father.

My father: Fernando Herboso.
Like many latino migrants of his generation, he had machismo issues when I was young. He showed his love through providing a strong financial base, rather than by speaking directly from his heart. But what I find most impressive is that, over time, he changed. How he treats Natalia and Alejandro, my two teen/preteen siblings, is proof of this. My father learns to become a better person over time, and I honestly think that's his best quality.

So many people languish in a groundhog day style rut, never really becoming different from who they are at heart. But my father focused strongly on entrepreneurship early on, creating several businesses, learning from each, and these lessons somehow permeated into the other aspects of his life, resulting in a father who, from my perspective, has genuinely improved in nearly every way over the many years that I've known him.

Showing off his impressive muscles.
Though constant improvement is what I think is his best quality, there are still several others that I find immensely impressive, mostly because I find myself completely unable to match him at those qualities. First and foremost, of course, is his dedication to hard work. His ability to find a good business idea, identify what needs to happen in order for him to be successful at it, and then (this is key) actually following through on doing the necessary work, is, without a doubt, flabbergasting to me. How many people do you actually know who go above and beyond in this kind of work context? Sure, you'll occasionally find a workaholic who spends a lot of time on work, but this is almost always in the context of working for someone else. My father has a knack for identifying the maximal combination of neglected yet effective work that will accomplish the most for a business, and then actually does the required work, regardless of what it is.

Much of this comes from his voracious reading, nearly all of which is business-related. I am in awe of how many books I've seen him consume from the self-help section of the bookstore. His focus on self-improvement is beyond impressive. At every holiday family gathering, it has become a tradition for him to give a 15–30 minute seminar on how to become a better person. He uses youtube videos, includes props, invites audience participation, and regularly quizzes everyone at the end, complete with prizes for whoever performs the best. He not only focuses on success for himself, but for all those close to him in life, especially his children. He genuinely wants all in his life to become the best at whatever they do — sometimes, I think, to their detriment.

Coloring in a restaurant with his kids.
My father's philosophy of success is an interesting one. On the one hand, he defines true success as having a happy, well taken care of family. But he also relates success to becoming the top tier in whatever field you participate in. Second place is but a reminder that one can be even better. But it's not important to forge first in a field; it's acceptable to find other winners and copy their proven strategies. For a long time, I felt confused by his statements on his philosophy of success. I never really spoke with him directly about it, but just learned by hearing his point of view on various things. But I think I have a handle on it now: for him, success lies not in being the very best, but in being the local best. Success is about joining the group at the top, where defining the boundaries of that group is hazy at best. If you're going to play soccer, then work until you are the best on your team. At this point, the goalposts of success change, and now you must focus on winning tournaments. Once accomplished, it's time to join a professional team. Then to work hard enough to be a starting player on the team. And so on. At no point does he seem to ask too much, but there is always more to go. I find his position fascinating.

Fernando with his daughters.
I said earlier that my father believes true success is having a happy, well taken care of family, and I mean it. To my father, this is the ultimate goodness in life. While tribal, this is a goal to which I feel an intense attraction. He believes strongly in family, and he shows it in all the things that he does. I appreciate him very much for this aspect of his personality, and I kinda wish that I could be more like him in this respect. He not only shows love and pride for his family, but also mudita. I am constantly impressed and somewhat jealous of how he feels in this area. He really and truly is an amazing father, even if only for this one single aspect of his being.

iPad painting by my father.
Yet this is not all that my father is. He is an artist, and a tiger-lover, and a musician who adores playing guitar and singing karaoke during family celebrations. Most recently, he is a futurist, listening widely to the idea of Peter Diamandis, a co-founder of Singularity University. He is a lover of well-cooked meat, for which he constantly watches youtube videos on even better ways to grill. He is messy at heart (just see his closet!) yet organized in business, because he needs to be. He does what needs to be done, and he sacrifices much to ensure that his family thrives.

For these and all the other things I've failed to mention in this blog post, I'd like to wish my father, Fernando Herboso, a genuinely happy Father's Day. I love you.