My Friend …

Toward the end of “Tombstone” (the awesomely trope-y and irresistibly quotable 1993 movie starring Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp and Val Kilmer as Doc Holiday), Wyatt Earp visits Doc on his deathbed and tells him that he wrote a book about him. The book was called “My Friend, Doc Holiday.” Doc didn’t seem all that interested, but the intent was clear: Wyatt loved his friend and wanted to commemorate his life.

I want to commemorate my friend’s life. I’m a writer; I should be able to do that. But every time I give it a start, I find myself writing down the usuals: great guy, passionate hiker, was good to children and pets; loved his friends and family. That’s an obituary, not a commemoration.

And yet in something this side of book-length, I’m not sure how to do that. And when I think, Fine, I’ll just do book length–writer, duh!–I once again have to accept that my memory is a sieve. I depend on my friends and my photography to be my memory for me. And so what will happen is that I will drive by a trailhead and suddenly think of that time Chris and I went hiking in the Mark Twain National forest in southern Missouri, completely unprepared for the humid, 99-degree day (ie: no food, no water, no compass, no nothing but our clothes and a desire to do a bit of a walkabout). We managed to wander off the trail and get a bit lost. Tired, hot, losing our tempers and our hope, we bushwhacked for a while and then came across the most wondrous find: a spring trickling over a small, stony cliff, filtered by moss. We put our hands under the dripping water and drank, our parched bodies not caring about bacteria or microbes or deer pee. It was the best water I have ever tasted.

I think of that and cry.

Or I pull out a gaming book to prepare for a session and remember how Chris and I first met, way back in 1990 (good lord, that long ago?) when he was looking for a game and we were looking for a player and spotted just the right index card in the rolodex at our Friendly Neighborhood Gaming Store: it was this guy wanting a group that was, “mature adults without a lot of drama.”

I think of that and cry.

Or I wander by my DVD collection (yeah, I still have one of those; leave me alone) and spot “Tombstone” there on the shelf and remember those multitude of times he and my then-wife and I watched and rewatched it, until you could hardly hear the actors’ lines because we were drawling out the quotes.

And I cry.

I want to tell you about the hikes we went on. So many hikes and camping trips. I want to tell you about the life he wanted to live: one that involved a VW Van and bumming around Mexico. I want to tell you about the experiences he had on his several treks on the Appalachian Trail, even though I wasn’t able to join him on those. I want to tell you about our always-shunted-into-the-future plans of hiking the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. I want to tell you about the various times we were roommates and the adventures we had.

That time Chris and I went kayaking and were warned about the terrible, terrible ponies and their bite-y ways. No, really. That happened.

But I’m afraid I’d tell it wrong. Because I also want to call him up while I’m writing that book and say, “Hey, do you remember that time we came across that weird water mill north of Springfield? Why were we up in that area? Was that the time we also found that little fenced-off and abandoned cemetery, went in, and came out covered in deer ticks?” And he’d say, “No, we were looking for that bridge where you were supposed to be able to park on it, put your car in neutral, and then it would move forward on its own and you were supposed to be able to find dusty handprints on the trunk. And that water mill wasn’t north of town.”

or…

“Man, do you remember that first house we were roomies in?” We called it the Incredible Sinking House because every time it rained it seemed the house sank another 1/8th of an inch below the surrounding terrain. We’d go into the kitchen in the mornings and there would be slug trails across the floor. My cat would catch rabbits and snakes and bring them–still alive!–into the house. “Of course,” he’d say. “Remember that oil drum out back we were afraid to open because we assumed there was a body in there?”

I do now.

When I was living in Mexico with my then-wife, Lora, Chris came down and visited. I showed him the usual destinations: the Zona Silencio (a radio dead-zone, ’cause, y’know, aliens); the ghost town of Mapami and its old mine accessed via a 900-foot long suspension bridge; downtown Torreón with its colorful shops and tasty foods, watched over by the world’s third-largest Christ statue, the Cristo de las Noas. But the most memorable bit of that trip was the trek we took heading back up to the States, and not just the armed checkpoints where guys in military fatigues would ask us, “You have any drugs in there?” pointing at the car, and when I said no, responded, “You want some?” but also when we got to the border, having loaded the trunk with alcohol requested by various friends back home, only to learn that we were only supposed to have, like, a liter and a half of liquor OR a case of beer, and NOT an entire trunkful of booze. Yet the pre-9-11 border guard was nice to us and let us pay the tariffs on all of it, rather than confiscating any. And talking about this, Chris would say, “Nah, man, that was after you and Lora broke up. We were just down there for a visit. Which means it wasn’t a pre-9-11 border guard, either.”

Oh, right!

Thirty years of memories. I’d screw the book up, is what I’m saying.

Thirty years of being friends. We weren’t always living in the same city, but we’d call up and chat quite often. Bemoan the state of the world. BS about whatever. Recently, after Chris’ esophageal cancer went into remission against all the odds, we decided to do a podcast together. We couldn’t quite get a handle on what we wanted it to be like, so I snagged the domain name SomeKindofPodcast.com and we started recording us chatting. Just talking, but recording it rather than letting it fade into the aether of memory. We only got enough material for about three episodes. I’ll post a link here when those are ready for you to listen to. When I can finish editing them without, y’know, crying.

I wish we’d had the time for a hundred more.

F*&@k cancer.

I miss my friend.

Anytime, anywhere, man. Ah’m your huckleberry.

. . .

You may or may not have known him, but if the spirit moves you, the family has asked for donations to go toward Esophageal Cancer Awareness in the name of Chris Cook. I would also add that Chris would have been pleased if we also threw some money toward our local Trail Associations. Thank you in advance, everyone. And, hey, savor every memory and moment you have.

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Imposter Syndrome and You

“Why would anyone pay you money for that?”

“You’re just starting out; you’re going to screw it up.”

“Who do you think you are, claiming to know enough to do this thing?”

Words from your detractors and internet trolls? No, these are the voices in your own head, questioning your ability to achieve whatever it is you are currently striving to achieve, whether that’s writing, art, teaching, gamemastering, woodworking, electrical systems maintenance, audio editing, dog walking, or whatever your goal is as you shift something from the state of passion or hobby to the world of economically-driven marketability.

I know, because those voices frequently pipe up in my own head. Recently, I started out on the path of becoming a professional, paid, Game Master (GM) in the Tabletop Role Playing Game (TTRPG) community thanks to a new online service that matches up players in need of a GM with GMs hiring themselves out to do just that. When I joined the GM chat area a couple of months back, one of the first things I heard is how people are astonished that anyone would actually consider paying them for their GMing skills. Check out my previous article, “Paid-vs-Free Game Master Services” for more on that subject. But the second thing I heard, and continue to hear, is the doubt that my fellow GMs, both the ones who are just starting out as well as the ones who have been running and playing TTRPGs for years (or decades), have about their ability to do the job.

These doubts have a name: Imposter Syndrome.

I’ve suffered from this affliction on numerous occasions. The most telling of these was back when I was teaching. For over twenty-five years, I taught English Composition and Literature classes at the university level. Early on, I was hardly older than my students. On my first day of classes, I had to put the sheaf of papers containing my syllabus and my notes down so that my students wouldn’t see my hands shaking. Over the years, I became much more confident, but every time I would hear another teacher’s lecture (in my field or out of it), I would think, “What am I doing here? These people are so much better at this than me.” Or I would do some reading to catch up on the newest philosophical thought vis-a-vis Composition and think, “Gah! I’ll never have the range of knowledge I need to do this.” Or a student would ask something about Faulkner and I’d have no idea about the answer and I’d think, “Crap, well, I’ve finally been found out. I wonder if the local supermarket is hiring?”

Me, teaching in the way-back-when. Notice the excellent use of finger pointing

That idea of ‘being found out’–the ‘finding out’ part being when the people who are paying you for what you do discover (you feel) that you hardly know more than they do, a realization accompanied by a look of disdain that you are certain they are sure to give you–is at the heart of Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome assails you when you decide, because you just don’t have any more room on your mantle, to put those hand-carved wooden figurines you’ve been creating all winter up for sale on Etsy. “Oh, I’d better mark them at $5,” you think. After all, who would want to pay more than that for something you made?

Or when you doodle some art for a friend who is in need of an online avatar, but even though they offered you $20 for it, you say, “Nah, it’s good; only took me five minutes to make it.”

Or when your cousin wants you to take a set of family photos and pays you market rate and you’re like, “Holy carp! They’re going to be so disappointed in those shots.”

Or when … yeah, well, you know when, because I bet you’ve been there.

So what do we do about it?

Well, one thing is that if someone is willing to pay you for something, let them. Another thing is that you should let them pay you a fair price. This will help you eventually move on to charging a fair price and not feeling bad about it.

I, unfortunately or not, live in a society (the USA) where we are constantly pressured to make money–your individual worth as a human being is, in fact, often judged on how much you make and what kind of job you have–and so, until and unless that changes, we who try to turn our passions into ‘jobs’ must be adamant toward our patrons and toward ourselves about the fact that we are worthy and that this is what we’re worth.

You may have heard the phrase “dress for success,” as in, if you look professional, then people will think you are professional, even if you feel inside like you’re wearing a t-shirt, ratty cargo shorts, and Crocs. Well, that applies to an extent here: look like professionals in your field look (and if that’s t-shirts, ratty cargo shorts, and Crocs, then so be it), but, more importantly, act like you’re a professional and pretty soon you’ll come to believe it along with everyone else. Don’t say things like, “Hey, I just started out at this drawing-caricatures-on-the-beach thing, so don’t be too hard on me,” or “Hey, you’re my first real sale,” or “Wow, I really messed that up; if you want a refund, I wouldn’t blame you.” There’s no need for being fake or lying, but keep telling yourself, “I know this. I’ve got this.” One day, you’ll come to believe it.

My first art show, and my first art sale

Next, or maybe first: Find out what the high end and low end pricing is for whatever service or product it is that you’re offering. Decide where you feel you fall in that range. Then up that number by 25%, because you are almost certainly undervaluing yourself. When you see people paying you that price, believe me, you’re going to start feeling like you’re worth it.

Speaking of which, believe people when they tell you that you’re good at something, or that they got something out of the whatever-session they just had with you, or that everyone in the fam just loved the photos you took. They’re saying that not just to be nice (especially if they’re paying you), but rather because it’s true.

The other day I ran a nicely-paid game for a corporate client (essentially an after-work bonding experience in the Year of Pandemica since they couldn’t head down to the local pub). It was a 2 1/2 hour game (which is not nearly enough time) with complex characters run by people who had mostly never gamed before, but despite my doubts, that’s what the client wanted. Early on, a couple members of the team had to drop out, which I’d been warned about beforehand, but still I was thinking in my head, “If I had just made this more accessible, or not tried to cram so much into so little time, then they would have stayed.” At the 2 1/2 hour mark, though, we weren’t quite done with the adventure, but the remaining players wanted to finish. So we went for another forty-five minutes. At the end of it all, my main thought was, “Welp, screwed that up on so many levels.” But the feedback as they were logging off?

They had a blast.

We will often feel like imposters. I still felt it at the end of 25 years of teaching. I feel it when I’m running games even though I have GM’d TTRPGs for decades, have a podcast wherin we play them, and spend much of my waking time thinking about gaming. In more than a small part, this is because we don’t realize our own knowledge and skill. That avatar doodle I mentioned earlier? That was a real experience with a friend of mine. They made me a thing. It is a thing I could not have made. It is an awesome thing. They made it in, like, ten minutes and so to them it seemed to have less worth for that. For me, the fact that this was something they made in only ten minutes? Awe inspiring.

You are not an imposter.

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Paid-vs-Free Game Master Services

Ah, Paid-vs-Free GMing. The age-old question, pondered by Conan himself in the Hyborian Age.

When I started playing D&D (to use the most famous representative as the example), I was 11 and none of us knew what we were doing. I got the box set for Christmas, with its pale blue books and its chits-instead-of-dice (yup, that long ago). When my cousin, who had played before, said, “Yeah, this game has players, and then there’s the Dungeon Master,” I said, “Oh, that sounds cool; I’ll be the DM.” Hours of reading later, I gave it a go.

Living in a very rural town in very rural Missouri, there weren’t a lot of options for players at first, so it was me and my mom (thanks, mom!). But a year or so later, we had a small group of four – people who would become my best friends, and who are still among my best friends. That’s been a theme: many of the best friends I’ve had in my life, I met through gaming. But, anyway, when we finally had a ‘group’, I splurged and got the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide, ‘cause I thought, “Well, that’s probably the important one to have.” Thus it came to be that we had a list of how spells acted differently in other environments, say, underwater, but not what the spells actually DID. So we figured, “Sure, an Erase spell can ‘erase’ the bad guy. Roll for it!”

Later we got the other books and played the game ‘right’ … whatever that means. But I would never deny a group of players, or a budding GM, the chance to have those experiences if they wanted them. To dip into analogy, that aspect of gaming is like a kid with a video camera (let’s go 80s and call it a Super 8) filming a monster movie in his backyard with his friends, using cardboard props and a cape made from a bedsheet. Holy crap! The most awesome thing ever! And let me be clear: there is not a single ounce of sarcasm in that. The joy of doing that makes me tear up a little bit, because it really is the most awesome thing ever … for what it is.

Professional GMing, to keep the analogy, is when that kid keeps making those movies, time-after-time, working on technique, working on getting better equipment, learning how to tell a better story (because even GMing a pre-made module requires bringing that module to life, using it as a script, the same way a director does. No two GM’s will run Curse of Strahd the same way, for instance, just as no two directors would make the same Batman movie), filling every project with love, even if the props ARE still cardboard, until they are able to make a movie that shows at Sundance, and/or gets picked up by a major studio. then they can charge for their services … because they want to be able to do the thing that they love, but they aren’t kids anymore and (especially if they live in the US), society demands that they have a job. Society (especially in the US) also tells them, “If you want to have a good life, figure out what you love doing, and then figure out how to turn that into a job.” But, when we do, that same society tells us, “Oh, no, I didn’t mean THAT … I meant, love accounting or stock brokering or something and go sit in a cubicle.”

I would love to do the things that I love and not have to charge for them. In fact, I have a podcast that costs me money (The Gothic Podcast — go listen to Season One RIGHT NOW … after you read this). I and the rest of the cast do it because we love it. I have a group of friends I GM for free, because I love THEM. But … because GMs who GM out of pure love don’t get paid, we have to have other jobs. Because we have other jobs, doing the things we love (GMing) takes time away from family, from other friends, from self-care time (soooo important these days, especially) and, as is apparent to anyone who GMs (and hopefully to players), more time than what it takes to sit down and play the game – time, again, focused on THAT rather than on anything else. To GM also takes money (game books, equipment and hosting fees for online gaming, miniatures, maps, and other paraphernalia for in-person gaming). And, you know what? I don’t begrudge any of that to my ‘friends’ group. If I did, I wouldn’t do it. Even so, my gamers, when they can, throw a few bucks my way because they know the effort that goes into giving them the experience they crave. Equate this to, if you like – and I can’t keep the director analogy going — playing a guitar on the street corner with the guitar case opened at your feet.

But … but … I’m also a ‘Pro’ GM. I charge for my services. Why? Because someone needs the skills I have, and since gaming has given me great friends, taught me social skills and problem solving and what to do if I meet a zombie in an alley, I want to help others have those experiences, too. But I also don’t want to just give away time I could be spending with my loved ones, or, hell, watching TV. And another why: because I want my paying job … the one that covers rent/utilities/food/what-the-hell-ever to be something I enjoy doing. Something I love. And ALSO because being a pro-GM means I can pay other artists what they deserve to be paid, too (frontispiece art for my listings, music for background ambiance, maps/tokens/art for use in the games; logos).

If I could offer up my services to everyone who wanted them without charging, while still being able to live my life in the world in which we live, I’d do it. But I can’t, and we don’t. So…if you have the luxury of not needing to hire a professional GM, then by all means, don’t. No one is going to force you. But if you live in a place or circumstances where you don’t have that luxury, or if you want to give yourself or your own GM a break, or if you want to try out a different style, or a different game system, or want a team-building exercise for your company, or want your kids to learn to play well with others, or want to play WITH your kids, or just want to be entertained, or, really for whatever reason you have… well, maybe spend what you’d otherwise spend going out for dinner and a movie, break out a bag of chips, and pay for the storytelling art of a GM.

And if you want to pay ME to be your GM, hey, I’m doing that sort of thing now and you can find me on StartPlaying.Games as GM Mr Patrick.

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