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Grey Morning in the Rockies

As I quickly discovered on my Hawaii trip, jetlag from traveling west disrupts my circadian rhythm more than traveling east. Still stuck on East Coast time, I woke up earlier than expected (I really wanted to sleep in). While the clock said 6:30 AM, my body was sure it was 8:30 AM, and wasn’t about to let me fall back asleep.(1) Resigned to being awake and somewhat functioning, I spent far more time than I intended surfing TV channels for anything halfway decent as background noise. Settling for back-to-back repeats of Law and Order on TNT, I read the news, answered emails and scrolled through social media on my tablet, trying to power up with the hotel-provided coffee that was everything you expect of something labeled as complimentary. First World White Boy Problem rant - I’m still mystified about living in a day and age where cable TV is so easily available and with a seemingly endless range of channels, yet hotel TV choices remain so limited that I feel almost relieved when resorting to shows that I never watch under normal circumstances.(2)

The plan was for everyone to meet at Keith’s apartment around 9:00 AM, so I jumped in the shower and drove over, parking across the street from Keith’s complex and next to one of Boulder’s Farmers Markets and the Dushanbe Tea House. Being a little early, I wandered around the market, checking out all kinds of organic foods and assorted arts and crafts, but the light, chilly rain and fog wasn’t adding to the fun. Back at Keith’s – he, Jon and I caught up on things and checked out Keith’s apartment – a nice, two bedroom suite with 10 foot high ceilings adorned in a decorative mix of “just moved in” and “bachelor chic.”(3) Living in Boulder the past few months clearly agreed with Keith, who looked relaxed and content in his new surroundings, and Jon was still the great family man, somehow managing to raise five kids while working full-time and coach soccer.

Alex, Erik and Steve finally arrived and we continued catching up on the life and times of our random lives. They grabbed a bite to eat just before arriving, so Keith, Jon and I ran over to the farmers market and picked up some amazing breakfast sandwiches (perhaps seeming that good because their warm, savory satisfaction contrasted sharply with the gloomy weather). The woman running the sandwich counter demonstrated an odd sense of humor when asking for my name on the order, referring to me only as “Good Scott”…leaving us and her coworker wondering why I wasn’t “Great Scott.” Her response was simply “let’s wait and see.”

Though I never got confirmation, I like to think I eventually graduated up to “Great.”

(1) I’m discovering that as a I – AHEM – get older, my version of “sleeping in” has evolved from my high school days of waking up just in time for lunch to now between 7:30 to 8:30 AM. And to think, I have the sleep-deprived experience of having a newborn to look forward to in a few months, too!
(2) I’m referring to banal, stock shows that are fairly mindless to watch, and not the low-grade adult fare that could’ve been filmed in the very room I’m staying in (for those who spend a lot of time in hotel rooms, you’re welcome for that lovely image).
(3) Sparsely-furnished with functional-rather-than-stylish furniture and plenty of boxes. Sadly, no wood-plank-and-concrete-block bookshelves.


Pearl Street and a Test of Wits

In the past few years, a growing and trendy thing to do is “puzzle rooms” or “escape rooms.” The premise is diabolically simple – you’re locked in a room with nothing but your wits and cunning to find the clues needed in order to escape. A number of such places have popped up over the years providing this form of entertainment, and one of our band suggested our doing this while we were in town. As it just so happens, there’s an Enigma location in Boulder, so we resoundingly were all in for the excursion.

Keith’s flat is in the downtown area, just north of the University of Colorado and south of the trendy Pearl Street Mall – the main drag of shops, restaurants and everything in between. Walking along the brick walkway, we passed the old courthouse, a seemingly endless selection of clothing, new age and book stores, as well as all kinds of locally-owned craft brew houses, coffee shops and eateries. Amongst everything else, it was incredibly difficult fucking impossible hard to miss the occasional and distinct skunk of pot wafting about from other pedestrians and shops – a malodorous reminder that the locals fully embraced Colorado’s legalizing marijuana. Boulder proved to be more than just a beautiful corner of the Southwest – it’s also an artsy, liberal mecca in an otherwise “red state”…or as Keith described it, “Boulder is to Colorado as Austin is to Texas.” ‘Nuff said.

        

        

Back to the escape room…

Enigma is tucked away next door to Zuni, a Native American jewelry and fetish carving shop (the link is safe – “fetish” doesn’t quite mean what you thing it means here). We wove our way down what seemed like increasingly smaller staircases and hallways until we walking into the Enigma place and prepared for the fun and excitement.

As I mentioned, the rules are deceptively simple – once locked in, you’re given 60 minutes to figure out how to escape. Cellphones and cameras are strictly verboten (for obvious reasons), so you’re only allowed a pencil and paper, and the only advice they offer is “if it looks like it can’t or shouldn’t be moved, then don’t” (though they can slip hints under the door if you’re really stumped – we received one that I know we could’ve gotten by fine without). For this challenge, we took on the “Mad Scientist: Part I” scenario, which put us in what appeared to be a seemingly ordinary living room.

Obviously not taken by me - Deceptively innocent looking, isn't it?

Our coats and personal items secured, the door locked behind us, and like a famous fictional detective loves to exclaim – the game was afoot.

Given that I love surprises and morally feel it would be unfair to any reader who may try an escape room, I won’t give away any secrets. Needless to say, our wily team went to work, overturning furniture, moving around books, lifting couch cushions, inspecting fake house plants and searching through every drawer – leaving nothing for granted. The truly amazing part of the experience is it calls upon just about every bit of one’s imagination, logic, cunning and memory skills to find and figure out the clues. Between our collective skills and talents, ranging from math, to word games, to spatial and abstract relations, each of us were making discoveries, leaps of logic and deductive reasoning through this elaborate puzzle. As we tore through the room, I could only imagine how entertaining it must’ve been for the clerk outside watching via closed circuit TV. We were told that the record time for solving/escaping this particular room scenario was around 28 minutes. While we didn’t break any records (just a shade under 39 minutes), we did beat the odds since there’s only a 30% success rate.

Walking out onto Pearl Street, we were relishing our success and “Moment of Zen.” The whole experience was a definite rush – the kind you get from overcoming a challenge without any forewarning or expectation. While life and limb weren’t on the line, the air of immediacy and motivation to escape made the entire experience its own little adventure. We were laughing and practically vibrating thanks to the mild swell of adrenaline. We faced the most anxiety-inducing of tests – knowing nothing about a scenario, relying solely on our wits to successfully overcome it. We could’ve been back in high school again, sharing a connection that those who were never in our crowd wouldn’t understand or appreciate. We shared this experience as a dear group of friends – and I was reminded again as to why I value these people, keeping in touch with them over the years, and always enjoying their company. We walked the streets of Boulder with a CHECK US OUT BITCHES swagger that probably only we truly appreciated, were aware of, or cared about.

Naturally, we great conquerors were hungry and in need of celebratory sustenance and drinks. Trusting Keith’s judgment and better knowledge of downtown Boulder, we opted for lunch at Old Chicago for pizza and beer to celebrate another reunion and a job well done.

Left (From Front to Back): Erik, Steve and myself. Right (From Front to Back): Keith, Jon and Alex.

Once More Into the Breach, Dear Friends

Comfortably satiated with food, beer and high spirits (pun fully intended), we returned to Keith’s apartment to take up a small adventure/campaign that we’ve played bits of at each of these reunions.

        
Two examples of memorabilia going back a long time – Keith’s old coffee mug and Alex’s dice box.
Proof that we geeks not just live but revel in our sentimentality.

Looking upon the table, covered in character sheets, dice of all colors and shapes, rulebooks and manuals and tiny lead figures, high school could’ve been yesterday. But in all honesty, it also reminded me that I really don’t miss RPGs.

Back in high school, the game charged our imaginations (in some ways, still does for our various creative pursuits and interests), and enabled/empowered an otherwise socially-awkward, enormously intelligent, highly creative and fun/funny group of non-conformists to bond together. We attended a high school where the pressure to “fit in” came from classmate, teacher and school administrator alike. Whereas all of these wondered why anyone would pass on the traditional Friday Night Lights experience of a high school football game, we understood as only we could. At the end of every week, we raced from school to sit around a table – imagining the grandest of adventures and mildly distracting of side quests; carefully arranging those tiny lead figures on a grid map as we battled all manifestations of evil wizards, ruthless mercenaries, orcs, goblins, gelatinous cubes and dragons; or trying to figure out one of Alex’s brain teasers (all while feeding on near-stale Domino’s Pizza).(1) Granted, there were moments of shouting at each other over contested rules, baseless accusations of the Great Conqueror Wyrm Dungeon Master Alex exercising favoritism for certain players, or just silly juvenile bickering.(2) However, considering everything else we could’ve been into during that time, our parents probably still thank God, fate or blind luck that playing RPGs was the very worst of our teenage vices.

Somewhere along the way, probably lost between focusing on college, finding new hobbies, discovering those fundamentally mysterious, frustratingly-distracting things called “girls” and/or needing to earn a living, D&D became a fading memory. It was a fondly remembered staple of my childhood, the mortar binding the bricks as part of the foundation that our motely band was built upon. Just as well, it was a suspicious-but-humorous bit of cannon fodder for dates and girlfriends, who would ask the inevitable "But you don’t play it anymore, RIGHT? The funny thing is, after 20 plus years of not even looking at a Dungeon Master’s Guide, Unearthed Arcana, Fiend Folio or Monster Manual, I’m both astounded and strangely comforted by how easily playing the game comes back to me. I don’t recall every rule that we practically memorized or debated over back then, but things like making savings throws and racking up experience points for our characters…it never really goes away.

In addition to all of the memories these reunions bring back, they remind of my one major regret from that time – I didn’t save more of my sketches and drawings from back then.

One thing that’s always been clear is my family has a creative streak – my Dad and his father are/were skilled carpenters, my Mom made cooking, painting with acrylics, cross stitch, sewing or any other number of arts and crafts look easy (her mother and aunts could do anything with a sewing machine and a few yards of cloth). Even my autistic sister has her own brand of creative flair for arts and crafts (she especially loves decorating Easter Eggs and Christmas cookies).

I discovered at a very early age that I enjoyed art, which eventually evolved into drawing, especially after I began collecting and reading comic books (much to my parents’ chagrin).(3) Throughout high school, I was never without a drawing pad and a few sharpened pencils ready to sketch whatever came to mind. I spent countless hours in class, afternoons and evenings working behind a sleepy movie theater concession stand,(4) Friday night D&D sessions, or in my room drawing superheroes, arch villains and my friends’ RPG characters. My drawing habit was so prevalent that my parents bought me a drawing table as a birthday present (it’s currently sitting disassembled in a closet due to lack of space in my condo), and I even received a Minor in Studio Art in college. During my college years, Steve and I began work on a graphic novel based on our D&D adventures. I penciled and inked some truly fun and promising pages (Steve wrote the story, I was his artist). That creative collaboration was very satisfying, and I still wonder what might’ve happened if we pursued the project more. To this day, I’ll still pull out pencil and paper and draw if the mood strikes me, but it was clear in college that I’m a much better writer than artist (if I do say so myself).

Nevertheless, whole pads of sketches and drawings fell victim to countless moves, shifting priorities and just plain old crappy short-sightedness – preserved only by memory. I managed to hang on to a few pieces from my art classes and personal work in college, but anything prior to that is pretty much gone. Steve has no clue where the pages I generated for him evaporated away to, and my sketchpads are probably in a landfill or were sacrificed in a fireplace long ago. I still kick myself about not saving at least some of that work – if anything, just for old times’ sake or to remind myself of how (hopefully) far my skills had evolved since that time.(5) It’s a tough thing for any artist to lose a something they created – that work is from them, it’s a part of them. For an artist, losing a piece of their work is like of a veteran who’s missing an arm or a leg – with just the nebulous “phantom pain” as a reminder.

On the other hand, words cannot even begin to describe the titanic immense near-orgasmic satisfaction when an artist recovers or is reunited with even a small piece of work believed lost for good. As we sat around Keith’s table laughing and enjoying each other’s company again, Erik passed around a sketch I made of his character from back in high school. I was so shocked – I almost couldn’t believe that one of my drawings from so far back had survived. I could see from this one sketch how much my style and ability changed, but the tiniest bud of modest talent and evident artistic influences mixed into the drawing brought on a rush of memories.(6) I was more than a little stunned that anyone kept a drawing like this for so long – and it may very well be the last and only existing piece of my artwork from high school. If anything else, it made me ask myself why I let drawing slip away and that maybe I need to take it up again.

(1) I could be wrong, but I believe Alex once admitted that he sometimes drew up puzzles for us to stew over as a diversion or stalling tactic until he figured out what to do with us and/or the adventure we were on. In retrospect, he was so extremely adept at hiding those moments of frustration and creative logjams that he should give up his professorship tenure and become a professional poker player.
(2) “Great Conqueror Wyrm” is a title Alex bestowed upon himself back in the day. Also, the yelling and bickering was occasionally usually a result of my immaturity and some egging me on because I was very entertaining when angry…boys will be boys, even the nerdy ones.
(3) Yes…D&D…comic books…and to complete the trifecta – we played Laser Tag, as well (especially when Toys R Us held a clearance sale on the gear). I have absolutely no idea how any of us successfully managed to date, marry and/or sire children.
(4) This was at the now long-gone Springfield 1&2 movie theater. It was the town’s original movie theater before the also now gone Springfield Mall was built with its own movie theater complex. The mall stole away the older theater’s business, leaving it as little more than a rundown, falling apart relic. It scrounged by as a discount second run theater and rented out its large parking lot as a commuter lot on weekdays. Some locals championed a mild push to preserve the old theater as a historic landmark. Sadly, the developers won out, demolishing it and building a Circuit City, which ironically was eventually demolished after the store chain closed and restored the location back to a commuter lot. The theater’s sleepy venue made for long periods filled up by goofing off with coworkers since we rarely had large crowds to occupy our time. We discovered an unlocked hatch to the roof, and would sometimes climb up there for longer-than-permitted breaks. Just before it closed for good, several of us stole our names in marquee letters – mine are framed and hanging on the wall of my office.
(5) In a similar vein, I lost all of my grad school papers and projects because I didn’t think ahead to transferring those files from floppy disks to a CD.
(6) Influences on my drawing included Frank Miller, Arthur Adams, John Romita, Jr., Whilce Portacio, Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Marc Silvestri and Rick Leonardi. I was also fond of and tried emulating Patrick Nagel’s minimalist style, and studied Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo’s human form sketches.


Hunger Always Wins

We spent the rest of the grey afternoon laughing, reminiscing and catching up with each other’s lives and/or current events. The one downside of this reunion is not everyone could take the same time off, and Alex needed to catch a red eye flight home that evening. Erik gave him a lift to the airport and came back to join the rest of us for a late night bite to eat. While waiting for Erik to return, Keith, Steve and I wandered out to run an errand, only to discover that 1) we couldn’t find the store we were looking for, and 2) apparently there’s a restaurant named after me in Boulder. As we discovered the previous evening, Boulder shuts down early – most places politely asking diners and drinkers to hit the road around 10:00 or 10:30. It being about that time, we walked around Pearl Street in dire hopes of finding any place that wasn’t a bar with a band playing. Sadly, our last resort for food was the local Cheesecake Factory. As a general rule while traveling, I make it a point to avoid chain places like the plague. Not that I dislike chain restaurants (some are worthwhile), but despite their inherent comfort value in an unfamiliar place, my thinking is why would you want to eat at a restaurant you can find anywhere else or at home? What’s the adventure of traversing the planet if you’re choice of food is the mundane, familiar and/or reliable? However, hunger and group consensus ultimately trumped travel ethics, so we dove into the Factory of Cheesecake for our late night consumption.

Afterward we made our goodbyes – Steve was taking an early morning flight back to Hawaii, and Erik and Jon needed to hit the road equally early for their long drives home. The long, fun day came to a satisfactory and bittersweet end.