They Always Come Back

I resigned from the Magic judge program in November 2018, but I didn’t throw away my shirt. For the last few months, it’s hung in my closet, still clean, along with the two pairs of black Propper tactical pants that were the bottom half of my judge uniform. I still have my name badge.

Prior to my resignation, I was the Regional Coordinator for the Mid-Atlantic US region. I held that role for six years, until I allowed my contract to pass along to one of my dearest friends, Eric Dustin Brown. I’d made no secret that I wanted Eric as my successor – he’s charismatic, hard-working, and we share a lot of the same values when it comes to community leadership and development. In a call back to the “let’s pretend” days of my childhood, I’ve often joked with him that we are the Judge Program version of superlative hip-hop group Run the Jewels: Eric as a Caucasian Killer Mike, loud and out in front, and me as a shorter, fatter El-P, charmingly misanthropic.

At the time of my resignation, I was thoroughly burned-out on Magic in general, and on judging in specific. I became a judge in 2004 and threw myself into it head-first. By 2007, I was essentially a full-time professional judge: I worked for Star City Games, the world’s largest secondary-market retailer of Magic cards, as an event coordinator and judge manager. My work weeks would consist of pulling orders for our customers, answering emails for our judges, and providing input on how we could run bigger, better, Magic events.

My work weekends – two to four each month – consisted of running Magic tournaments for anywhere from 30 people to 3,000 people. I spent a lot of time in cargo vans, and easily ate my body weight in overpriced concession stand food. At the time, I’d yet to turn 30, so the prospect of living out of a suitcase didn’t seem untenable. I was making more money than I’d ever made before, and in certain circles, I was well-known and well-regarded. I’ve often joked with friends that, in imitation of Ron Burgundy in the movie Anchorman, I was “kind of a Big Deal.”

What I didn’t realize at the time, and what it took me more than a decade to figure out, is that I was both unhappy and unhealthy. I’ve never been a fitness nut, and while I was working myself ragged every week, I wasn’t taking care of myself at all. I figured that my anxiety and my depression were personal shortcomings, rather than chemical imbalances in my brain. It wasn’t until I began seeing a psychiatrist in 2018 that I realized that there wasn’t anything wrong with me as a person, but that my brain was doing a crappy job of giving me the chemicals I needed to feel okay. But I digress.

I left the judge program in November 2018, with no intention of coming back. I’d been a judge for fourteen years, and I didn’t want to be a judge anymore. I had gotten to the point that I often criticized other judges for reaching: clearly disinterested in engaging with the game, or the program, showing up at events to collect a check while underwhelming everyone around them. In my case, it had been this way for several years: There was a period where judging comprised a significant portion of my annual income. While people will often speak enthusiastically about the idea of getting paid to do what they love, my experience was the opposite: attempting to make a living from Magic killed my love of Magic.

When I finally gave myself permission to resign from the judge program, a funny thing happened: I fell back in love with the game. The introduction of Magic: the Gathering Arena gave me a way to play the game without all the things I don’t like about Magic: the crowds, the wait times between rounds, the rude players with vaguely misogynistic (or worse) attire and an attitude to match. Playing Magic no longer took the commitment of an entire day. I could (and often do) play Arena during my lunch break from work. Since I didn’t have to care about tournament policy, or the secondary-market value of a booster box, I could relax. I wasn’t obligated to be a guru. I would hear about massive tournaments and the inevitable logistical issues that would result, and a part of me would chuckle and think “thank God that’s not my problem anymore.”

Many people get into judging because they love the game, and they want to help their communities. The Magic community contains some of the best friends I’ve ever made in my life. I’ve had experiences as a Magic judge that otherwise would have been completely unavailable to me: I was stranded in Barcelona for a few days, once, due to repeated plane malfunction, and spent my evenings getting inebriated on Spanish sangria while listening to a septuagenarian British cat burglar tell us stories about his life. I tried feuerzangenboule in Germany with my girlfriend at the time, a doctor of nuclear chemistry and an even stronger judge than I was. I even got to tour the corporate headquarters of Wizards of the Coast, the company responsible for creating Magic, on two separate occasions. I love Magic, and I love the Magic community. I don’t think there will ever be a time I won’t know how to play the game.

So, in February, I re-tested for Level 1. I studied, but I didn’t study too much. I worried, but I didn’t worry too much. (How embarrassing would it be to fail?, I thought to myself on more than one occasion.) When my proctor, Clay, told me I scored a 92%, I felt very pleased. I’ve judged one event since, and while I don’t have the same fire for judging I once had, I enjoyed myself and I think I did a fine job.

This weekend, I’m driving to Wilmington, North Carolina, to present at a judge conference. I want to be a part of my regional community and, hopefully, contribute positively to that community in the ways I wasn’t contributing as an RC. I want to spend time laughing with my friends, and I feel very confident that’ll happen. And I can’t wait.

Disconnected

It’s been a month since I deleted my Facebook account. I don’t miss it. I’m still active on Twitter, still lurk on Reddit, still talk to people on Signal and on Slack. It would take a significant effort to go fully dark, and it’s not a change I’m willing to make.

When I heard that this morning was the first day of F8, Facebook’s annual developer conference, I paid attention. I wanted to hear that Facebook was committed to providing a service that took its users’ privacy seriously. That didn’t happen. Apart from the announcement of a function that will allow users to clear their stored app and website history from Facebook, nothing suggested a commitment to user privacy and data security. Oh, but Facebook is going to add a dating service to compete with Tinder. I am skeptical that it will go well.

The most jarring thing about leaving Facebook has been the absence of people. It doesn’t take long to realize just how much of one’s social circle relies on one service, and how it enables passive awareness of what’s going on with your friends. (I’m sorry, but I really only know a few birthdays.) I spoke with a friend recently, who suggested that a mutual acquaintance was going through some rough times and was struggling. I was surprised by this; I had no idea anything was wrong. Of course I didn’t know, I thought.

Maintaining relationships takes effort. Facebook can reduce a lot of that effort and, in its absence, I have to do a better job of reaching out to people. It’s a lot easier to mash that “Like” button than it is to really listen to someone talk about something that brought them joy, or a struggle they’ve recently conquered. It’s not something I could do consistently, day-in and day-out, for everyone. Still, I think it’s worth trying. Relationships are important. Connection is important. We are important.

 

Gifts to Future Me

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As is sometimes the case, I feel depressed. I do not suffer from depression in the clinical sense, but incidentally, as I suspect most humans do. I had thought to tell you about Michelle Wolf’s speech from the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, but if you’re on social media, you’ve probably already seen it, along with a half-dozen hot takes. I don’t need to pile on.

When I feel like this, I really don’t want to do anything. I just finished my final exams for the Spring 2018 semester at the local Community College, and I bought myself a new video game as a reward for finishing my exams, but I haven’t been moved to sit down and get into it. Instead, I’m’ sitting in front of my laptop, in my pajamas. Writing. Building habits.

When I feel like this, I find it useful to leave gifts for future me. I do things that I don’t want to do right now, but things that will benefit me tomorrow. These are generally mundane chores that will add to my quality of life: I fold my laundry and put it away (the only difficult parts of doing laundry — I am a pro at putting my laundry into the washing machine, and I even set timers to remind me to put it into the dryer), I make sure I have a lunch for work tomorrow. I try to get a reasonable amount of sleep so that I don’t feel like a zombie in the morning.

There’s something about depersonalization that can make self-care more appealing when one is disinclined toward it. A dear friend of mine, when they hear me getting down about myself, will sometimes say to me, “I need you to be nicer to my friend Nicholas, please.” I’ll chuckle and roll my eyes, but sometimes it actually works. If you have a problem that seems insurmountable, imagine yourself providing advice on that same problem to a dear friend. And then do that.

If depression is something you struggle with, you might find this self-care guide useful. It’s helped me every so often.

That’s all I have for today. By the time you read this, it’ll be Monday. May you have an easy, compassionate start to your work week. If you don’t start your work week on Monday, may you have an easy, compassionate start to your day. Be well.

Two of My Favorite F Words

Two of my favorite F words are feminism and forgiveness. Recent events have made them extremely topical.

I love the word “feminism” because I believe it is the future. I genuinely believe that patriarchal societies are actively harmful to the people in them. I don’t think the toxic, traditional definitions of masculinity are doing any favors for anybody. There are lots of boys and young men who suffer because they cannot bear the pressure of living up to what they’re told a Real Man should be. There is no Real Man. There are advertisements that will tell you what a Real Man looks like, but it’s all so you’ll buy whatever product they’re selling to relieve whatever flaw they’re looking to exploit.

A society that identifies archetypal standards of behavior based on gender hurts everybody. I’ve found that living an authentic life, consistent with one’s values and goals, provides more opportunities for joy and connection than a life spent constrained by the definitions of a society that wants to sell me diet pills and light beer. Patriarchal society inhibits authenticity. Feminism does not.

I love the word “forgiveness” because I think it’s a path forward. One of my favorite poets, Buddy Wakefield, has a fantastic poem titled “Hurling Crowbirds At Mockingbars,” which contains the line “forgiveness is the release of all hope for a better past.” (I believe he credits this quote to the Rev. Kathianne Lewis.) It’s a tremendous poem overall, one with which I personally identify:

I … suck at forgiveness, toward myself or toward others. I’m working on it. But I love the word forgiveness because, for me, it represents personal growth in a way that really appeals with and resonates with me. (There’s another line in “Hurling Crowbirds …” that talks about “telling the truth in order to get honest responses.” I also like that line quite a bit.)

“Friday” is also a word I like quite a bit. I hope this Friday presents you with many opportunities to relax, connect with the people you love, and take care of yourself. I’ll be back on Monday. See you then.

Failure, Etc.

Over the past two years, I’ve been studying to become a professional database developer. I’m learning JavaScript, PHP, Python, and SQL, and I’m sure there will be more to come before I finish my degree.

Reader, I am not a very good developer. Learning new things is extremely difficult, even moreso when they are outside your normal intellectual fields of study. (In college, I majored in Literature, and then in Journalism, and finally in Philosophy. I was pre-law before my first college career ended abruptly, but that’s another story for another time.)

After my short-lived stint as an Internet retailer came to an end, I decided that the best way for me to make a living while not having to run Magic tournaments or make Frappucinos was to learn how to code. So here I am. I take online classes and night classes, two per semester, and it’s enough to keep me busy.

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This resonates with me on a very deep level. And I don’t even watch Adventure Time.

I was a precocious child. I started reading at an early age, my childhood IQ scores were enough to draw attention, and I received a lot of positive attention from adults for my precociousness. In retrospect, I think I developed some unhealthy habits regarding approval and self-esteem as a result. I still try to shake them today. (The first part to fixing a problem is admitting that you have a problem, right?)

I bring this up because struggling with programming has led me to confront some challenging feelings (yay, feelings!) about no longer being precocious. I’m pretty solidly average at most things, but I’m definitely below-average when it comes to programming. I know that, eventually, I may become sufficiently competent that somebody would pay me to program for them, but there’s a lot of hard work between now and then.

On the other hand, what an opportunity, right? I’m closer to 40 than I am to 30, and I’m learning new things. It’s pretty incredible, even as it’s humbling and frustrating. I’m grateful for the opportunity to better myself and develop my brain. I’m learning that it’s okay to not be brilliant at something on the first try (or the second try, or the third try …), so long as you are willing to fail, and learn from your failures, and improve as a result.

Now, if only I could keep that in mind when I struggle my way through finals.

Mise.

So, I played in a Magic: the Gathering tournament on Saturday.

This is not a thing I normally do. The last time I played in a tournament was almost two years ago. While a younger version of me had aspirations to become a professional Magic: the Gathering player, those aspirations have long been dead. (True story: when I graduated high school, my parents paid for me to go to the US National Championships that summer, as a spectator. When I came back, I promptly told my parents that I was quitting Magic.)

I think Magic is one of the greatest games created in my lifetime. It’s a game that rewards creativity, logic, reasoning, and psychology. The friends I’ve made as a player, tournament organizer, and judge have been among the finest people I’ve ever known. My involvement with Magic has provided me with unique experiences that I’ll cherish forever. How many of you have been stranded in Barcelona overnight, getting lectured by a septuagenarian British cat burglar over a pitcher (or three) of too-strong sangria?

It’s no surprise to anybody who knows me well that my enthusiasm for Magic has waned over the last few years. Ever since I became a judge in 2004, Magic has been a major part of my life. I worked as a professional tournament organizer for the better part of seven years. I ran my own business selling Magic cards on the Internet for nearly three years. I’ve been a contractor for Wizards of the Coast, the company that produces Magic, since 2015. I honestly don’t think there will be a time in my life where I won’t know how to play Magic.

Yet I’m getting older. There was definitely a time in my life where I would wake up at 4 AM to drive three hours to judge a Magic tournament for ten to twelve hours, get paid less than $100, and then drive home that night. That time has passed. I value my free time differently. The community has also changed. There are only so many times I can correct a young, white, college-aged boy on his use of “gay” or “retarded” at a Magic event. I’ve had to reprimand players for wearing shirts with slogans like “Cool story, babe, now go make me a sandwich.”

While the community has changed, it is still a community with which I identify. It still possesses many lovable characteristics, and some of my favorite people. I like to think that I can help make it better for others. Hence, getting in my car and driving to my favorite game store in the world: Atomic Empire, in Durham. (To quote my good friend Aaron “Cluze” Lacluyze: It’s a great shop. You should check it out.)

To my slight surprise, I had a really good time! The details of my play are irrelevant, other than that I dropped out of the tournament after two unsuccessful rounds, and decided I’d rather treat myself to lunch at Cook-Out than play another round or two in hopes of maybe winning a pack. There was a time where I would have focused on playing the tournament out, in hopes of getting that pack, but that time has passed.

I consider myself to be more competitive than the average person. I definitely cared about winning, but as soon as it was clear that I wasn’t going to win, I thought about what the loss was going to teach me. Playing Magic, and losing at Magic, provides me with many useful opportunities for introspection, and that appeals to the parts of me that would like me to be a better version of myself. (This is an area with many, many opportunities.)

So, yeah – I went to a Magic tournament, I lost a bunch, and then I had a cheeseburger and a milkshake. I got to be enthusiastic about Magic with other people who are enthusiastic about Magic, and that counts for something. I don’t imagine I’ll ever pick up Magic as a competitive hobby again. Still, I’m glad that I was able to engage with the game and the community in a way that felt positive and helpful to me. Maybe I’ll do that again sometime.

 

Mediocre White Dude. (It me.)

Hi. My name is Mister Nicholas, and I am a mediocre white dude.

It feels good to admit it. One of the reasons I left Facebook was that I’d developed a persistent insecurity over what I’d call “lifestyle porn.” It is easy to cultivate and manicure one’s social media presence to present only the best, most-polished version of oneself. Flattering camera angles. Slacktivism that gestures at a deeper concern with Social Justice and World Peace. Pictures of yourself hanging out in Cool Places, doing Fun Things. I would see my friends having the times of their lives, and I’d look down at all the ways I felt disappointed in myself and dissatisfied with my life, and I’d feel lesser.

(This is not to say that I didn’t also engage in lifestyle porn. I definitely did. I liked to draw attention to the good things in my life. I rarely spoke of the things that weren’t working out for me. It provided easy doses of validation and peer support, neither of which can be overrated.)

Rarely did I see people talking openly and honestly about their insecurities. The things they didn’t like about themselves. Things at which they’d failed. It makes sense, it’s natural – nobody likes failure, or to appear fallible, or to be vulnerable. (I especially hate feeling vulnerable. Can’t stand it.)

Paradoxically, I think people are at their most relatable when they’re failing. When we stop trying to hold up the image of ourselves that we want everybody else to see, maybe that’s when we get to be who we really are. I don’t know.

What I do know is that I am a mediocre white man. One could definitely argue that this blog is a form of lifestyle porn. I’m presenting an image of myself to you, the audience, that reflects how I want to be seen. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting to be seen and, as much as I dislike large groups and grumble about idiots, I want to feel connected to the world around me. I think it’s natural and understandable.

But I digress. There’s freedom in mediocrity. If you accept that you will fuck up, several times every day, maybe it makes it easier to be compassionate to yourself. Maybe that makes it easier to be compassionate towards other people.

When people talk about mediocre white men, I suspect they’re probably talking about this excellent tweet by Sarah Hagi. We’re overconfident because we’re too oblivious to our own privilege. It’s true. I agree with it. I remember talking about this on Facebook and being asked why I would ever accept being labeled mediocre. When I think about it now, I’d say this:

Accepting mediocrity is difficult, but it’s honest. It’s compassionate. You’re not always going to be the most intelligent, the most attractive, the most most whatever. There’s always someone a little better at something than you are. It opens up space in how you relate to yourself, and how you relate to other people. It’s good.

Happy Friday, Dear Reader. I hope this weekend brings you something good. I’ll be back on Monday.