Endings and Beginnings

I don’t like when things end. And I especially don’t like when they end before they should.

Last week, on my birthday, one of my favorite authors passed away unexpectedly. From the very first book, A is for Alibi, I was hooked by Sue Grafton’s style and her private detective creation, Kinsey Milhone. Divorced three times and living on her own, Kinsey pokes around the seamy side of central California, solving murder mysteries that involve things not especially glamorous, like insurance fraud. Grafton’s books paint a very different image of California than the dreamy one the rest of the world sucks down like an acai berry smoothie.


Back when I was a single parent, I read Grafton’s books after I put my son to bed. I couldn’t wait to get back to that world, with Kinsey, her octogenarian landlord Henry, and the tacky Hungarian restaurant where Rosie tells you what you’ll eat for dinner.  I related to Kinsey and her bare bones wardrobe:  her one crumple-proof black dress, her struggles to find a pair of panty hose without a run. That was my life, as a mom and tech startup employee. She was a woman, doing her job and triumphing over the bad guys. My existence at that time was pretty scrappy, too. I worked my ass off in start-up land and lived in an apartment about the size of Kinsey’s tiny studio in Santa Teresa. Kinsey was my relatable but way more badass friend.


So when I heard Sue Grafton died, I felt like I’d lost someone close to me. I wouldn’t get to see Kinsey grow and deal with her past (though on the plus side, kindly Henry and his elderly siblings will never die, either).  After Grafton’s Y is for Yesterday, there will be no Z to finish the alphabet. As a writer, I always cringed at the enormity of the task facing Grafton, to finish 26 books and do them well.

Yet I was hoping. I wanted to see where Kinsey and her world ended up.

Maybe ending with Y is just fine, because Grafton finished what she started. She created a strong, unforgettable female character and opened the door wider for women mystery writers. She influenced and inspired me, from back in those days when I stayed up too late on a work night reading her books. I told myself, someday—after all the software releases and child raising—I would do the same.

And now I am.


Variety is the—wait! Can you hold the spice?


When I first met my husband, he was a recent college grad with his first job in software engineering. He told me proudly that he was perfectly happy eating the same meal night after night. He told me he’d been eating spaghetti with taco cheese every night for nearly a month (Big surprise, it tastes kinda good). Before that, he’d had a similar stint with tunafish.

In the early stage of a relationship, there is that blissful haze of love, brought about by his pheromones and your hormones. So that when your beloved says something like, “I only eat tunafish,” it doesn’t fully penetrate your brain as a real thing. And though you have clearly heard him say those words, you’re pretty sure that after marriage this man will be reasonable and fall in line with your personal tastes—equally happy going out for exotic meals of sushi, curry, tapas or Korean food.

Alas, this was not to be for me.  

I didn’t get a dinner partner interested in a big menu of exciting or experimental foods. I learned that my husband and I are wired differently when it comes to food. I think of food as a feast for the senses, an almost artistic event; I need to see and taste something new on a regular basis. My husband sees food as fuel. While he likes or dislikes certain flavors and textures, he eats to keep moving (and to play video games).

I’ve come to see that this is actually a convenience. My husband’s breakfast needs are simple:  protein granola bars and Chobani blueberry or black cherry yogurt. Stock up on those and we’re good for two weeks. Dinner is a finite set of choices, one of which comes in a bag and cooks up quickly. Sometimes I’ll make a special dish that I know he loves, but oftentimes that is more for my own need for variety.

And since the tunafish days, my husband has expanded his repertoire. He loves some dishes from our local Thai restaurant. And then there was the time he invited me to eat at a dim sum place I’d never heard of—Din Tai Fung. Delicious Chinese dumplings that made me so happy! He’d eaten there for a work lunch. I’m impressed that my husband tried the food in the first place—and that he was the one to introduce me to it.

Eating out can be a challenge when you and your spouse have different tastes. As our family has grown, we’ve faced evenings of despair as we debate our choices. But below are some things that have worked for us, in our neck of Silicon Valley.

If you are a variety/variety-challenged couple (or family), here are some ideas for eating out

Thai food – The lover of exotic foods can explore the spices, the less bold eater can order chicken satay skewers (sans peanut sauce, because–ew) or fried rice.

Indian food – My husband goes for mild dishes like chicken tikka kabab or tandoori chicken slathered with raita yogurt dip; I go for the spicy lamb curries.

Chinese food – Ask for lemon chicken with sauce on the side and you’ve got reliable old fried chicken. And who doesn’t like fried won tons?

BJs Brewery – This chain has basic staples like burgers and pizza, along with some interesting choices for salads and more exotic pastas and appetizers. Every family member is happy here. Bonus: the beer choices are very good.

Good luck!

how I became a competitive badass

Or…Why Did I Teach My Wife to Play Games, Because WTF She Can Beat Me Now?

One of my posts here talked about how my husband has been on a quest to find games that I’ll play.

When we got married, I didn’t play games very often. I’d had a dim view of games, board games especially. My family of origin tended to be poor sports, especially my dad. Doors were slammed. Tears of crushed pride and self-pity flowed.


But games are my husband’s true love (well. after me). It became clear that I could spend a lot more meaningful time with my husband if I played a game or two. So we started playing board games. We played Dominion, Ascension, Ticket to Ride, Empire Builder, and Eurorails. Over time, I also began playing Goa with some of my friends. Goa is a board game where you use spices, ships, colonists and money to acquire victory points and win the game. We play every few months, and it always takes us a while to remember how to play. It’s hilarious watching us rifle through the rule sheet, or call my husband, when we can’t remember how the game works.

My friends, I need to give you an update.

After about ten years of playing games, I am now WINNING them. 

When I first started playing games, I didn’t expect to win. Game playing was a social time for me, and I thought of myself as sort of “fodder for the kill” for my husband, and my game-playing friends. I’ll make them happy by letting them beat somebody. Allow them to do some serious defeat and trashing.

I wasn’t going to win, so why not bless the world.

I was there for the camaraderie, and maybe snacks, as we went through the process of playing the game. My husband is a great gamer, and superb at teaching games to people. My friends. though they look sweet, polite and god-fearing on the outside, are as cutthroat as they come. Me, not so much. I was willing to learn the rules and muddle along, as long as I was provided wine and my friend Debbie’s amazing desserts.

Somewhere along the way, something changed. I started to win. I actually remember someone saying at a game night:  She won? Well, that was a fluke. I guess she got lucky.

But slowly, I started to establish a track record of wins. It was an unexpected treat and it was kind of fun. Then something scary happened. Like an innocent out for a walk under a full moon, I began to transform.

I started to grow hair, fangs and a snout. I began to howl. I had become competitive. 

Now, I wasn’t along for the ride. I wanted to win. I wanted to formulate a strategy that would get me the game. I wanted to assess how much money, how many victory points my opponents had. I was even willing to do (gasp) mean things to my opponents to win games. Like playing attack cards or stealing cards.


Competitive much?

And there you have it. That friendly, along-for-the-ride person is gone. I like to win now. So I invest a lot more in the game. I track what my opponents are doing. I even watch people take their turns to make sure they’re doing it right. And I do what I never thought I’d do:  spend a good deal of time after the game analyzing why I did or did not win.

I have a friend who says playing a game with friends is a great way to see how people are wired and how they react under stress. I certainly saw some of that in my family of origin. But in my case, I think game playing gave me a streak of bad ass that I kinda needed.

So…wanna play a game?

In which my husband tries to get me to play video games


Will Wheaton and Ashley Judd find out video games are indeed as addicting as crack.

For years, my husband had a secret wish.

That he would find the one video game that I would like, that would turn me into a gamer. The man loves video games so much, he can’t understand how someone could not love them.

The more my husband tried to get me to like video games–luring me, cajoling me, bringing home games for me to try–the less I wanted to play them. I dug my heels in even more. Dude, you are trying too hard. I’m never going to be into this.

His conclusion:  My wife just hasn’t played the right game.

So he went on a nearly 20-year quest, fighting creepy kobolds, L.A. gangsters and ill-tempered monks to find that One Sacred Game.

The game that would break the evil spell of….me not liking to play video games.

But the good news is, I’ve recently found a game that I like. It’s an old game, one we got a few years ago. Now that it’s been released by the game site, GoodOldGames, my husband has downloaded it on my new computer, so it’s super convenient and I’m playing it regularly.

It’s a quirky game of space conquest called Moonbase Commander. It was released in 2002, to such resounding success that it received an award for Best Game of 2002:  The Game No One Played. When its maker Atari went bankrupt, the game property was valued low and purchased at auction by game company Rebellion.

Moonbase Commander won me over with its high cheese factor. The graphics are colorful and have a minimalist beauty. Ambiance is created by funky, space lounge-style music. It sounds a lot like what you hear when you push the demo button on a 1990 Casio keyboard.


A narrator moderates the game play in different voices, depending on your team. My favorite narrator voice sounds like the digitally modified voice of a young Japanese woman.

It says things like, “You have removed your opponent’s energy shield! He is exposed! Spank his bottom!”

The goal is to destroy your opponent by eradicating his bases, and when you’ve destroyed the last one–in the words of the narrator–you “have achieved total domination”  You can play against another human opponent (I play my youngest son quite a bit). Or you can team up against a host of computer bots, most of whom are ridiculously incompetent.

Playing this game has finally helped me understand a bit of what my husband feels when he plays a video game. It immerses you in a world. Playing it is like a 30-minute escape to a fun, new place. When my son and I play a game of Moonbase, we play cooperatively, working together to defeat the AI (or my husband).

When we win, we’ve got stories to tell: Strategies that worked gloriously and caused spectacular explosions. Huge amounts of energy gleaned from putting collectors on every possible energy pond. Bots who ended up blowing themselves up hilariously and unexpectedly, an easy win for us.


At the end of a game, it feels like we’ve accomplished something. It’s the shared satisfaction of watching a good, but not-deep action movie with friends, the kind where you’re repeating the jokes days later. You’ve laughed, you’ve been through an experience together. You’ve made a memory of some kind, even if it’s short-term.

Now I am beginning to understand why my husband spends so much time and money on these things. They’re fun. Great stress relief. Who doesn’t like blowing things up?

But the biggest surprise to me is, they’re pretty social and kind of a bonding thing.

Recommended Viewing with your Gaming SO:  Watch the Star Trek: Next Generation episode (from season 5), called “The Game.”  A video game with addictive properties is brought onto the ship. Anyone who plays the game falls under its mind control and can’t stop trying to get others addicted to the game. If you have a gaming spouse who has been trying to get you to interested in video games, this will be hilarious to you. And a great opportunity for discussion. Enjoy, my friends.



In all probability, this plane’s going down

120x160 DSDA Crea

Two weeks ago, I did something I rarely do. I flew across the country on a plane.

I didn’t used to be terrified of flying, just a little bit uncomfortable. Good, strong drink beforehand, or a pep talk from a friend could get me through a flight. Super helpful if I ended up sitting next to a friendly chatter, who could keep my eyes off the window.

But a few years ago, I had a nasty experience coming back from Hawaii with my sister. Forty five minutes out of Honolulu, we smelled jet fuel. Then the plane dropped. Smoke filled the cabin, and–I am serious here–the stewardess came into the cabin screaming.

We were able to return to Honolulu, where the airline put us up in a nice hotel and gave us dinner, then free, unlimited drinks on our flight home the next day. But they never told us what had happened.

At that point, I didn’t want to get on a plane ever again. And the next time I flew, I spent the entire flight with my eyes riveted on, alternately, the engines on the wing, and the stewardess’s face: Did I see a hint of fear in her eye when she felt that last bump? Was that sound a bird being sucked into the engine?

And I really don’t like the idea of not being able to see the person who is piloting the large flying coffin. I want to see him on Pilot Cam. I want to know he’s paying attention.

When I make the decision to fly, I am basically saying to myself–I am agreeing to die for this thing I’m traveling to. It better be damn good.

When I start talking about my fear of flying, people start talking about probability. You are more likely to be killed in a car than on a plane. The odds of dying in a car crash–1 in 5,000. The odds of dying in a plane crash–1 in 11 million.

Okay, but what if you are that 1?

Math Man (my husband) laughs and says, “Haha, that Vickey doesn’t believe in probability.” What an endearing knucklehead she is for discarding the notion of calculated risk!

I understand how probability works. My buddy Sal Kahn explained it to me in his lecture on Basic Probability, so I get it. What I don’t believe in is how probability is used. That these numbers will make you feel better–you probably won’t die. Uh, hello. It is called probability, not certainty. Not assurability. The very fact that you have to do math to figure it out makes it suspect in my book.

But two weeks ago, I popped my valium (after having a lager in the airport bar that gave me the courage to pop the valium) and walked down the ramp onto a plane bound for Milwaukee. I prayed (which God must have found entertaining after the beer and valium). And I was able to relax somewhat through the four-hour flight. The best part was the approach, coming down over the lights of Milwaukee just after dusk. It was dreamy and beautiful. I felt a sense of accomplishment. Whew. I can enjoy this trip now.

And the numerous relatives I saw on the trip were definitely worth it. Worth dying for? Uh, well…

But what if my fears had kept me off the plane? Wouldn’t I have been sad to miss my mother-in-law’s special chicken, zip lining, midwest sightseeing, and hanging with my cousins?

You bet.


Proof that I flew! From the window, on our approach to Milwaukee

Things you should avoid watching on your tablet before your flight
(If you are like me and have a sick obsession with watching everything to do with your fears)

1. Castaway

2. Air Force One

3. Coverage of any recent air disaster
(You may be tempted to go all NTSB and try to analyze the crash and why it will not happen to you, but don’t go there)

4. Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors

5. Historic Hindenburg footage

When you can’t not tell the truth

Trying to teach an android how to lie. From the BBC comedy, Red Dwarf


My son is high-functioning autistic.

When he takes up an interest, he becomes an expert. We’ve learned everything we ever wanted to know about the following things:  smoke alarms, cell phones, cars, garage doors, elevators and roller coasters. He had a brief but intense fascination with my espresso machine. I got a few weeks of perfect lattes–made the same way, every time. Until he moved on to another interest.

He’s also good at telling the truth. Bluntly.

This can be annoying and embarrassing. We were at a fast food restaurant recently. The trainee cashier was struggling to ring up our lunch. My son made an observation, very loudly:  “She doesn’t know how to do her job.”  His older sister slunk into the depths of her skinny jeans when she heard this and began lecturing him on his rudeness. My son was actually surprised to hear that what he’d said was inappropriate. He was just doing what he frequently does:  making a true statement.

He calls it like it is. And that’s not always bad.

Silicon Valley, where we live, has the highest incidence of autism in the country. While they may not be autistic, my father, my husband, and many of the people we hang out with, are tech types. They have a habit of communicating bluntly, saying things that can sometimes be considered inappropriate.

Case in point:  Last night on the phone, my diet-obsessed father excitedly rattled off the benefits of a new wheat-free diet from a book he was reading. He encouraged me to read the book and try it, because it looked like I’d “put on a little weight lately.”

At first, I played back what he’d said in my mind. WTF! My dad just called me fat! 

I started to seethe. I told him what he’d said really hurt my feelings. He said, matter-of-factly, that he’d mentioned it because he cared about my health. I grumbled about it for the rest of the evening.

I examined myself in every mirror in the house and assessed the fit of my jeans. I woke up the next morning with a little more perspective. My dad spoke the truth as he saw it. He plunged in, oblivious to my body image insecurities. He softened nothing. What surged through his mind was: This amazing diet could really help Vickey. I must let her know immediately.

The left-brained people in my life who speak bluntly need to know how their words affect me. I will tell them, but gently. I am thankful for our school district speech pathologist, who has spent the past six years teaching my son to be aware of social convention and the feelings of others. My boy has come a long ways, and the coolest thing is, he is completely open to people pointing out how he could be doing it better.

But I hope he never loses his gift for simply telling the truth.


Tips for Dealing with Bluntness

1. Don’t take it personally.

2. Ask why the remark was made. This will help you figure out:

  • If it simply reflects their personal preferences. My husband doesn’t like earrings. I will never hear him say, “Those are beautiful earrings.”
  • If the comment is constructive criticism:  a dose of truth from someone who has no inhibitions about sharing it. Take what’s useful and discard the rest. Eat the chicken, spit out the bones.

3. Calmly–but directly–tell the person that what they’ve said could hurt someone’s feelings or be inappropriate. It will help them to be aware of how their words can affect other people. Like my son and my dad, they may be clueless.

4. Review #1…and try to keep your emotions out of it.  If the person tends to be a blunt communicator, you’re not going to make things better or invest in the future of the relationship by lashing out. Trust me. I’ve done it.

Addendum 07/02/13:

My dad brought over these yellow roses today and apologized profusely for his comments. Ah, the rewards of having a public forum for your whining…



what the fork


fork art by Claire-Ellen Keyes

My husband has this thing with forks.

He will pick up the fork he’s been given and examine it carefully, turning it on its side. He will inspect the alignment of the tines. If one is bent, he will sigh heavily. He will calmly get up from where he is seated and go to the utensil drawer to find a more acceptable one.

It drives me crazy.

I can’t understand how the misalignment of one tine can be such a dinner-disruptling thing.

“It bothers me when it’s bent,” he says. “I can’t eat with it.”

I nicknamed my husband the Princess and the Pea because he reminds me of that fairy tale. The one where a young woman is proved a princess because she call feel the irritating presence of a single pea under a stack of twenty mattresses. My husband is overwhelmed by even a pinch of lemon pepper in the mild sauce on his chicken. He is…special that way.

Last week my irritation peaked at the intersection of irritation and curiosity. I decided to see if this fork thing was real. Or if he was maybe making this up to be stubborn. So I asked if he would do an experiment. I would blindfold him, and he would use five different forks, some of them bent, some of them not. And he would tell me which forks had bent tines and which did not.

“But you understand that the conditions of this experiment are not valid,” my engineer said in his Spock voice. “I already know what I’m looking for, and that will influence the results.”

Yeah, and that’s important because I’m writing this up for Scientific American.

So I blindfolded him. And I slid a homemade piece of his favorite pie, Banana Cream, in front of him.  And I started handing him forks. I had two pretty obviously bent forks, one in which one tine was slightly off, and one fork in which all tines were perfect.


Side observational note:  It is very hard to eat cream pie blindfolded without assistance. 

Here is the score card:

Forks with multiple bent tines:  called it–within seconds
Fork with one slightly bent tine:  (after almost a minute) unsure, maybe bent
Fork with perfect tines:  called it–within seconds

My husband isn’t making this up.  He is fork-sensitive. So maybe it’s his super power.

Of course it does seem just a bit little petty to me, especially in comparison with really big issues–like insisting that the hand towels and tissue container in the bathroom maintain my earthtone color scheme.