Friday, October 30, 2009

I Did the Mash

I did the Monster Mash

Just a quick mid-morning note here - hands-down the coolest thing about being able to (barely) play the guitar is when I can look up a familiar tune on the web, print out the chords and lyrics, and sit down and play it. I did that this morning with the Monster Mash. It was, as you can probably imagine, a graveyard smash. Luckily the walking dead have limited auditory capacity.

The D&D Years

As I wrote yesterday, after years of reading rulebooks in a vacuum, my freshmen year was rife with opportunities to finally play Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D). This was also approximately the time when TSR began to release a slew of new rulebooks for the game – from the general (but awesome) rules supplement Unearthed Arcana (which introduced quite a few new playable races, new professions, new magic spells, and the concept of being “specialized” at various weapons), to books of new monsters, and even supplements adding extensive rule variants to adventuring in forests or underground. I bought them all and meticulously read each of them.

As a Sophomore, I hooked up with a new set of players who had already been playing together for some time. Gaming sessions began to become frequent, and we started to try emphasizing the concept of role-playing rather than just rolling dice and accruing treasure. You see, there’s one other aspect of the game I haven’t really mentioned, and that’s the idea that you should try to make your character behave as he or she would in light of their personality, values, loyalties, religious and cultural convictions, and goals. You can play a stereotype if you’re so inclined – the big, dumb warrior would be one; the sly, greedy, amoral thief would be another; the bookish, intellectual, self-important mage would be still another; and so on. Or you could attempt to manufacture a character who seemed to be a living, breathing person and play them in a way that was fun and interesting. Regardless, it was a new concept for all of us and took some getting used to. Since much of the fun of the game had always been to accrue wealth (in the form of gold coins or items of magical power) and gain the experience points necessary to increase your character’s level – and therefore any professional skills and abilities they might have access to – any attempt to behave like a real person who might ever value anything over wealth or power was a challenge. Sure, it might be appropriate for your character, who was deathly afraid of spiders, to run screaming from an arachnid-filled room, but that meant he couldn’t very well cast his spell of fireball and collect the experience points all those dead creepy-crawlers would otherwise have netted him. Giving up gold or experience was anathema to us as players, which put it in conflict with our fledgling attempts to play our characters with actual, well, character.

Another challenge was that, like many social assemblages, our D&D groups had their share of drama. It wasn’t uncommon for one or more people to find themselves on the outs with other players or the whole group either because they had behaved badly in some fashion or because they disagreed with some aspect of the rules or how the game was being played. Or sometimes people just got upset with each other for no good reason. Regardless, the result was a somewhat fluid dynamic among the players. Sometimes this combined with little power trips on the part of the DM, who got to decide who did or didn’t play in their game. That was always fun.

It was probably also one of the primary reasons I found myself as a DM after a year or so of gaming and sometimes being included and other times not. Of sometimes joining games that were already in progress, to find that I didn’t get all of the inside jokes, didn’t know the attitudes of the characters, and sometimes didn’t even know the rules (not that anybody bothered to explain them to me). I can think of a couple of examples in particular:

One of the guys we played with was several years older than us, but had the maturity level of someone a few years younger. His name was Eric. I remember he ran a sci-fi-based game titled Star Frontiers, which was not too unlike D&D in outer space. Anyway, during our first session we were accosted at gunpoint by somebody or other. Now, in D&D, if somebody was pointing a weapon like a bow or crossbow at you, you had a pretty good shot at successfully attacking or evading them even if it wasn’t terribly realistic. Assuming you had your armor on (if any) and some room to move (ie. you weren’t chained to a wall), they were going to need to make a successful attack roll just to hit you with their weapon, and then they had to roll high enough damage (if it was even possible from one hit) to knock you unconscious or kill you. You certainly could get killed in such a situation, but the odds weren’t terrible. Nobody bothered to tell me that such wasn’t so in Star Frontiers – I was shot, nearly killed and, as I recall, openly mocked in front of (and by) the other players for being, in essence, a noob. That was fun. I figured out most of the house rules eventually and the game was reasonably enjoyable, but that ignoble and inauspicious beginning certainly didn’t start things off on the best foot.

An even more enjoyable situation arose when I joined a game run by an enormous guy named Paul in mid-story. I’d played with Paul before, but Paul was a temperamental, moody, easily enraged individual and he and I had a knack for getting on each other’s nerves. When that happened, I usually found myself on the outs. In Paul’s favor, he was both a gifted storyteller and a very talented artist. A series of D&D sessions run by a given DM and all revolving around the same characters and general storyline was called a “campaign,” and I remember joining Paul’s second major campaign with some enthusiasm. My other friends and fellow players had been playing together for some time already and I’d finally been invited to join. I elected to play a warrior-priest known as a cleric and eagerly dove into the action. Within a couple sessions, Paul noticed that I had cast a particular healing spell several times. Evidently, this violated the laws of magic in his current game, and somehow my character had managed to get through years of training in whatever “cleric-school” had prepared him to cast those very spells without anyone ever informing him of this fact. Within moments I found my character groveling at the feet of his very goddess who, in turn, was pleading for his life to the high deity of whatever pagan pantheon she belonged to. My character knew vital information that made her not want to see him blasted into oblivion for mis-use of magic, however he certainly hadn’t won any brownie points for forcing his revered deity into such an undignified position. That pretty well set the tone for the rest of the campaign, and I was eventually murdered by my fellow players, largely for being an ass in various (mostly unintentional) ways.

So from Junior year through the summer of my second year of college, I was only occasionally a player but was routinely a Dungeon Master. I ran two major campaigns in that time, the second much better than the first but both of them involving a tremendous amount of work. Aside from the gaming sessions – which routinely ran anywhere from five or six hours up through twelve hours or more – I’d spend every available moment during the week creating all manner of characters, monsters, magical items, complex dungeons, and sometimes even whole towns or cities. I drew maps, wrote pages of background information (that might or might never be seen by the players but gave me material around which to craft an entertaining narrative), and did my best to craft a believable world and run a challenging yet enjoyable game. I was mostly successful based on the feedback from the players. And I enjoyed myself immensely in those years.

I recently bought the D&D “4th Edition” rulebooks with the notion that when they’re ready, I may introduce my kids to the game that gave me so much pleasure. I don’t know though – these rules are so dramatically different from the 1st Edition and the 2nd Edition rules I’m familiar with, it’s almost a completely different game. On the one hand, if the kids enjoy the game enough to want to carry it with them into young adulthood, they’ll be better off having played the version that’s currently available. On the other, all my old gaming materials will be next to useless with the new ruleset. At the end of the day, though, the game is one of imagination and adventure, and rules aside I suspect the kids are going to find much of the same joy I found in stepping into a world where all of my day-to-day problems disappear in lieu of situations that I can face with a sword or a mace or a barrage of mystical energy. If I end up being even mildly successful as a storyteller, it will be due in no small part to the time I spent honing my skills in front of a live audience week after week.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Why My Teachers Feared I Might Be a Witch

I sure didn’t weigh the same as a duck!

I was introduced to Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) via the basic boxed set back in 1979 or 1980. I’d looked at it at Kay-Bee Toy Store in Fairmount Fair Mall for months before asking my mother to buy it for me. My friend Tim Kinney and I read the rules, rolled up some characters, and tried in vain to entice others to play with us. We never actually did play a game of that original D&D set, but it was my first exposure to the fantasy Role-Playing Game genre that I’d go on to enjoy in various ways for many, many years.

For the uninitiated, “pen & paper role-playing games” are unlike just about any other kind of game that a group of people can sit down and play. The players are generally all on the same side and there’s functionally no winner or loser. Instead, the goal is for the players to experience what amounts to an interactive story that takes place largely in their imagination. The story is “told” by the Dungeon Master (DM), whose job is to referee the rules of the game, to establish the basic plot of the story, and to operate all of the creatures and characters (friendly, hostile and indifferent) that aren’t controlled by the players. Each player generally controls only one character in the story, and is responsible for everything from what the character says and does to how he looks and – ultimately – rolls the fancy multi-sided dice that determine their degree of success or failure at a variety of different combat moves and special abilities. The game is augmented by everything from carefully-painted miniature figurines to maps drawn on graph-paper to various props crafted by the clever DM to add spice to the game – drawings, cryptic notes, or even models of wizard towers or haunted castles.

I ended up buying three or four different D&D boxed sets and read each of them cover-to-cover, inside-and-out, repeatedly, until I knew the rules by heart. But I never did (and never have) played Dungeons and Dragons. Instead, I ended up discovering the hard-cover rulebooks of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game. It’s similar to D&D, and was created by the same people - originally E. Gary Gygax and his cohorts, who went on to form Tactical Studies Rules or TSR. Sadly, both Gygax and TSR have since passed away, though D&D is alive and well as a product of Wizards of the Coast (whom you may know as the creators of the Magic, the Gathering card game. Or you may not – how do I know what you know? You know?). Instead of being released in boxed sets of paperback rulebooks covering different levels of achievement within the game, AD&D’s hardbound books are segmented by topic – there’s a handbook for the Dungeon Master, another for the players, and a third describing all of the monsters you could encounter in the game. My friend Art Prest sold or traded his copies of those books to me when I was about thirteen and, at the time, those three books were the extent of the AD&D game. Once again, I devoured them, reading every page over and over. I was dying to play, but I still didn’t have anybody to play with.

Then my family moved, and suddenly I was in a new school with new friends – and before long I’d found some gamers! There were around six of us, give or take, and to my recollection none of my fellow players had much experience with the game. But for a couple of months, we took our books and papers and pencils and dice to lunch with us every day, laid out our crudely-drawn maps, and launched ourselves into wild adventures fighting Harryhausen-esque skeletons and goblins and all manner of evildoers. But this was the early 1980s, and the movie Mazes and Monsters had helped to fan the flames of paranoia that D&D was evil, a gateway into witchcraft and satanism and other variously bad behavior.

One day, my gaming group and I were called into an office with several teachers. They expressed their deep concern about what we were doing every day at lunch. They strongly implied that they believed we might be doing something deviant. They thought we might be witches, and I don’t mean they thought we were dancing round the bonfire at Beltane. Or maybe they did – they probably didn’t know any more about Wicca than they did about Dungeons & Dragons. But they were clearly as concerned as they were ignorant. But I was a kid – a fairly smart, fairly mature for my age, smug, smartass teenager – so I did what any kid would do… I laughed in their faces. I told them flat out that they were ignorant and paranoid, and I probably didn’t put it much more nicely than that. And even better, these weren’t MY teachers. My school had two “teams,” and all of my friends were on the other team – these were THEIR teachers, which meant that technically they had no authority over me. Which made me laugh all the louder.

I didn’t just mock them, of course. I did articulate that there was absolutely nothing demonic, satanic, or otherwise sinful about the game we were playing, and I believe I even invited them to play with us and see for themselves. They shut us down. We could no longer play at lunch, and had to move our game to the library after school, after registering as a “club” with the school (which I couldn’t swear to, but I think was my idea). I probably should be grateful they didn’t subject us to a trial by dunk for witchcraft. But we went on to play for most of the rest of that school year, and while I don’t remember a thing about the gaming sessions themselves, I remember being thrilled with finally getting the opportunity to play. I never played with any of those guys again after that year, but it was just the tip of the Dungeons & Dragons iceberg for me.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

I Hated Being a Kid

Don’t get me wrong, I generally had a pretty decent childhood – playing outside, watching TV, a swimming pool, a good friend or two, comic books, novels, a movie theater. What I hated was BEING a kid. I’m not sure if this is common to the human condition or not, but I was very much aware whenever things would go wrong that I had failed to anticipate what might occur because of my lack of experience (and/or lack of common sense, which some would probably argue with some justification has not measurably improved). I’d get very frustrated and wonder to myself “When will I be able to predict these things and avoid them?” I can clearly picture myself in the woods behind my parents’ first house. There was a clearing with a large rock that a bunch of neighborhood kids used as a meeting place. I don’t remember exactly what I had done, but I recall feeling the above sentiment very strongly as I stood, alone, on that rock. Possibly it had been something along the lines of smacking a large stick on the rock and having it shatter and smack me in the face with a broken chunk. As I said, I don’t recall, but that’s certainly the sort of thing I’d probably have done and the reaction would fit – “gah! Why didn’t I know that was going to happen? I wish I weren’t a stupid kid!” Of course, my monkeying around over the weekend amply demonstrates that just growing older hasn’t necessarily addressed this issue.

I spent most of my time alone when I was a kid. I didn’t mind – I didn’t know any better. It just was how it was. My brother was much younger than me, so we didn’t play together all that much, and there were no kids my age for miles. But we had a big yard and a really nice, if thin, track of woods behind my house where I’d play for hours. I’d spend time visiting the old widows who lived on either side of us, who were both really nice. I remember one of them, Mrs. Skrupa, even watched me one time while my parents went out of town. She had a lovely old 18th-century home that she told me had once been the carriage house for the estate there on the south end of Solvay.

Mrs. Scrupa had a great old red maple in her back yard right near the edge of our property line and I loved climbing that tree. I never went very high, but it had some nice crooks in the great, thick lower branches – a veritable highway for a little boy. The tree was on a slope and it had one sturdy branch that grew out straight and true and parallel to the ground. It wasn’t long before I mastered the skill of leaping out from the main trunk, catching the thinner branch that grew out like the top stave of an uneven parallel bars, and swinging out and up, arching my back and gliding to the ground. It’s one of the few times in my life that I’ve felt graceful, and I remember that the flight seemed to last for minutes as I marveled at the feeling of strength and control and agility that that scrawny, weak, often timid little boy rarely felt. These days, I’d consider it likely that the branch, which had no offspring of its own and was quite probably dead, might be too weak to support even a smallish child and I’d use my power of reasoning and prediction to hypothesize that the branch might well break at an inopportune time, potentially resulting in serious injury. I probably wouldn’t let my kids do what I had done. Sometimes, though, being a kid is a magical thing, and not knowing why you might not ought to do something leads to rewards that speak to your spirit. If I’d realized that at the time, I’d probably have better appreciated how much I loved being a kid.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

V…for Victory!

The Visitors are coming

I really loved the original V miniseries. The notion of giant spaceships appearing over Earth’s major cities, ostensibly bearing alien visitors come to peacefully join hands with mankind in a show of interstellar friendship, was compelling. The further development wherein they were revealed to be lizard-like invaders come to steal Earth’s precious water was enthralling. It didn’t hurt that it starred Marc Singer, who just a year before had starred in The Beastmaster, one of the great movies of my youth.

I videotaped both V and V: The Final Battle on my dad’s betamax VCR so I was one of the lucky ones who got to watch the show repeatedly (though I seem to recall some technical difficulties trying to record the sequel that resulted both in missing a few minutes of the beginning as well as a fairly uncharacteristic outburst on my part wherein I punched a small hole in the living room wall. Sorry, Dad!). I don’t remember the movie too vividly anymore – I haven’t seen it in around 20 years – but a handful of scenes really stuck with me. Of course I remember one of the “reveal” scenes where we first learn that the Visitors aren’t exactly what they seem, because the reasonably-attractive leader-lady swallows a guinea pig whole, complete with a python-like bulge in her throat. But for some reason I also remember the latino landscaper who, despite having been condescended to by his anglo employers, braved a Visitor checkpoint to smuggle them out of harm’s way. To make the scene particularly memorable, he ate a gigantic, raw onion as he talked to the guards which helped encourage them to speed him on his way. Not exactly a Jedi mind-trick, but it worked.

Then I remember the scene where some kids are vandalizing one of the many propaganda posters hung about their neighborhood proclaiming that “the Visitors are your friends.” They’ve got a can of red spray-paint and they’re just randomly tagging the posters. But an old Jewish couple approaches them and, to my recollection, I believe we’d been previously made aware that they were holocaust survivors. The old man takes the junior vandal’s hand, the one holding the spray-paint, and instead of lecturing him about graffiti as the kid seemed to expect, he says, “No. You do it like this…” and he helps the boy paint a large V over the entire face of the poster. The same blood-like, dripping V used as the show’s logo. The man continues, holding up two fingers, “V. For Victory! Go, tell your friends.” It was a bit heavy-handed, but as a young teen I was touched by the clear (arguably obvious, but hey, I was a kid) parallels between the police state being created by the Visitors and their human collaborators and the fascist police state of Nazi Germany (who certainly had their collaborators as well). It was a strong, moving scene back then, and definitely one that I remember.

Sadly, I didn’t enjoy V: The Final Battle as much as the original. They took the story in a different direction than the first had suggested they would, and it didn’t work for me. The series was even less successful and was canceled in its first and only season, despite a cast that included Marc Singer, Michael Ironside, Robert Englund (of Freddy Kreuger fame), Lane Smith, Aki Aleong and other recognizable faces of film and TV.

So why would I bother to write about two 25-year-old TV movies and a failed series? Why the hell not? It’s my blog! Ahem. Anyway, it also so happens that the new remake of V is set to debut on ABC next Tuesday, November 3rd. Furthermore, the ridiculously-named SyFy channel will be showing both of the 1980s mini-series as well as the full season of the tv series beginning Sunday, November 1st. So if you missed it the first time around, you’ve got a chance to see the originals before the debut of the remake hits the airwaves. And if you can’t wait that long, the first 8 minutes of the new series are available online. I’ve watched it and I think it looks spectacular, though arguably it seems convenient how quickly the soldiers mobilize, it seems a bit random how they set up their blockades (keeping some people in and some people out, with no real rationale as to who or why), and it seems pretty lucky how fast the FBI Mom finds her son in the crowd, but if nothing else the special effects looked spectacular and the actors looked comfortable in their roles and very dapper. The bad news is that after airing a few initial episodes, ABC is apparently not showing any more until sometime in the winter or spring. Allegedly the delay is due to quality issues, the more persistent rumor being that the show wasn’t very good and needed work. We won’t know whether or not that’s the case until we get to watch it. I’m certainly going to cross my fingers in the hopes that it’s a good, high-quality show. Or perhaps instead of crossing them I’ll hold them up in a V… for victory.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Clubber Lang's Best Line: "Pain"

This and That

I’ve got various things on my mind, but none of them suggest that they’d be meaty enough to make a full blog post from. So this morning’s post is shaping up to be more eclectic than usual.

First up, I think I’ve tracked down the source of the very unusual spike in blog traffic around October 15th. Thanks to the smart fellas over at Popehat, I discovered the web-traffic analyzer Woopra. Woopra’s not perfect (or I haven’t completely figured out how to work it, which is certainly possible as I’ve chosen not to actually read the directions), but it is free and very easy to install on any website where you have access to the HTML sourcecode. I had been using some basic Google analytics to get a count of daily traffic, but Woomba let me actually look at my web traffic BY USER, seeing in particular where they were coming from. My discovery? The vast majority were coming from CNN. In particular, they were coming from a couple of the articles I had referenced in my blog article Evolution in Action. I visited those CNN Science articles a second time and noted that at the bottom they have a “From the Blogs” section where, as of last week, old Virtual Vellum was prominently featured, with a direct link to that blog article. Apparently there’s a time-limit, as the links are now gone, but they were enough to drive almost a thousand people here over the span of about a week. Oddly, I’ve referenced CNN articles plenty of times before and never had this happen, but it appears that not every CNN article has a “From the Blogs” section at the bottom. I’m not sure how they choose which do and which don’t, but it’s certainly interesting and a bit random. It was like an itch I couldn’t scratch to watch what were, for me, outrageously high numbers of visitors and not be able to explain why they were here. Now I know, so there we are.

Which brings me to my second thought: ow ow ow ow ow ow ow! Saturday was particularly rough for me. About two weeks ago my kids started taking Karate through school. The dojo, Steve LaVallee’s, occasionally has what they call “Buddy Week.” Each kid in the school who brings a “buddy” to class with them gets a gold star to wear on their collar (and the buddy gets a pass for some free intro lessons and a uniform). Both of my older kids found a friend to come with them, so they each got stars on Thursday. My younger son didn’t have any friends who were interested and was at risk of not getting a star to match his siblings. Well I certainly couldn’t have that, so on Saturday morning I joined my kids on the mat for a half-hour workout. We stretched a bit before class started, and I re-discovered that I’m about as flexible at a one-foot piece of rebar. Oh, yeah, that’s right – I’m phenomenally out of shape.

Class started with about fifteen minutes of calisthenics – from jumping jacks to squat-leap-pushup-leap things that quite nearly killed me. It was brutal – I don’t know how these little kids do it. I think they may secretly be Marines. By the time one of the other Senseis took pity on me and dragged me off to the back of the workout area to do some self-defense moves, I was panting, sweating profusely, dizzy, queasy, and my heart was racing. I ended up sitting down for about five minutes while the Sensei and my wife hovered nervously around me, probably wondering if they should call 911. I was wondering where I ought to vomit if the need arose. Turns out I was fine and actually got a pretty good, if more sedate, workout.

I was fairly wiped out after that session and spent much of the rest of the day sitting around and occasionally napping, but my youngster got his gold star and actually thanked me for it sincerely. Which is very unusual for him – he’s just not very demonstrative. That made the whole morning worthwhile for me. But the best (or worst) was yet to come. Saturday night was the dojo’s Halloween party!

Last year, my wife came home from shopping with the kids and had an extra-special surprise for me. For some reason I still can’t explain, they felt it appropriate to buy me a gorilla costume. Yeah, you’d better go ahead and read that again. Gorilla costume. A big hairy body-suit with a rubber chest, plus a set of gloves with rubber fingers and a full-head mask that’s rubber on the front and fabric/hair on the top, sides and back. Fur and rubber and more fur – that’s my gorilla costume.

But I’m a champ (chump?) so I wear the thing. I wore it last year to my daughter’s Halloween party and to the Halloween parade at their school. And I wore it Saturday to the party at the dojo. Now, when I put on my monkey suit, I really go ape. I get into character, as it were – I hunch down, squatting a bit, and I lumber along the way an actual gorilla does, except that my arms aren’t technically long enough to use my fists when I walk. I make gorilla-like sounds, I occasionally beat my chest when I’m excited, and I do a mean Y-M-C-A. And for over two hours Saturday night, I danced, pranced, and capered about to the amusement (or derision, it’s hard to tell) of all. And since the suit is all rubber and fur, I came away drenched in sweat – the shorts and t-shirt I’d worn under the suit were literally soaked through. But wait, there's more!

I woke up this morning, rolled out of bed, and waves of pain rolled up from my legs like thunderstorms. I had spent all that time squatted and hunched over, and I paid for it on Sunday. Whoa boy did I. Every time I tried to sit, or stand, or walk, or bend over, or pretty much anything other than sit still elicited more bursts of sweet, sweet agony. It was so bad that I almost never noticed how much my shoulders and arms hurt (that was from the workout, not the party). The kids all got a good laugh out of the strangled cries of torment I made all day, but the worst came from my wife.

She’s now become alarmed at the terrible shape I’m in and has threatened to make me work out. I reminded her that a year or more ago I’d suggested what I thought was a very reasonable system of incentives and rewards (the details of which I won’t go into for modesty’s sake) that almost surely would have kept me vigorously exercising even though I really don’t want to, and she’d demurred. But now she’s making it her personal mission so maybe that’s back on the table, too. We’ll see. If only I didn’t hate moving so much.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Garden Wrap-up 2009

Today's "official" blog post turned out to be a lot less meaty than I'd expected when I started it. Usually I just ramble on and on, but occasionally I run out of things to say on a topic sooner rather than later. Eh, it happens. Anyway, a bit later I got to reflecting on my garden and this seems like as good a time as any to give some thought to what worked and what didn't this year.

Peas - I was really happy with the peas. They were abundant and juicy and we were able to harvest repeatedly so they spread out over a month or more. Main change for next year: plant low plants around them, since they're vine-like and they leave a lot of free space down on the ground. Not too much (we don't want to bind the roots of either plant), but something to put the extra space to work. Also, we might to plant a second (or third) crop to spread out the harvest even more, but peas aren't supposed to like warm weather so I'm not sure that would work too well.

Beets - I was really, really happy with my crop of beets. I'd like to spread them out a bit more, and I might need to plant them earlier as the crop wasn't really ready until September. If I'm planting from seeds and they take that long to grow, I may be able to put them in well before the last frost to get a jump on the growing season. I also need to make sure they stay underground - either by planting them deeper than we did this year or by heaping more dirt on them as they grow. They tended to pop up. Again, staggering planting might help here, too.

Lettuce - other than staggering the crops, I don't know that I'd change much with the lettuce. It came up thick and lush and delicious.

Cabbage - our cabbage was a flop. We got three lowly little heads, and they never closed up tightly like the cabbages you see in the store. I'm not sure what went wrong, but they didn't work.

Yellow squash and zucchini - also a flop. We got one stunted little mutant yellow squash out of all the seeds and live plants we planted. Not sure what went wrong - this was supposed to be really easy. Every single plant floundered and died, and they never looked healthy from the time we put them in the ground. Same dirt as everywhere else, but dead plants.

Pumpkins - also a flop. We got a bunch of big fat yellow flowers, but no pumpkins at all. We had plenty of bees and other bugs flying around so it's hard to imagine they didn't get pollinated. Not sure what went wrong here.

Scallions/Green Onions - grew like crazy in a pot on the deck. We have many many many plastic containers filled with chopped green onions. I don't think I'd change a thing here.

Spinach - we only grew one pot of it, harvested it, ate it, then planted another crop in the same pot. That second crop also grew great, but I'd sort of forgotten about it by then and didn't really eat it. Probably wouldn't change anything with the spinach, it was wonderful.

Tomatoes - we planted two young plants, both from the same pack of plants from the same farm. One grew huge and produced fruit that was blighted with rot 2/3 of the time. The other grew moderately but produced healthy fruit. We then skinned and crushed the fruit because we don't eat tomatoes except in sauce. Not sure we should bother with tomatoes next year - we just don't really need them.

Carrots - took forever to grow and many were stunted because we'd planted them in little cups that were supposed to biodegrade but didn't really. Like the beets, they also tended to pop up out of the ground - we probably either need to plant them deeper or cover them with dirt from time to time. Not sure how to get them to come up sooner - may need to plant earlier?

Onions - also took forever to grow, in fact we haven't picked them yet (and it's starting to get really, really cold and frosty out). These also seem to need an extra dose of dirt during the growing season to keep them from poking out. The ones we've picked so far seemed to have really really fat stalks, but the onion itself wasn't a big fat bulb like you'd expect. Not sure what we'd do differently with them, but I suspect we need to change something to get more substantial onions.

Peppers - my wife didn't really like the tri-color pepper plants I got her, so next year we'll probably go with a straight green bell. Still, the peppers, which we planted in a pot on the deck, shouldn't have been so small and stunted regardless of their color. Something went wrong, not sure what.

Strawberries - we only had basically one plant and it was in a pot. The fruit was tasty but there wasn't much of it. If we're going to do strawberries, we should probably clear a place and do them for real.

Herbs - were a bust. They grew fine, but we failed epically at drying them and had to throw them all out. If we bother with them next year, we need to bring them inside to dry or use a hair dryer on them or something.

All in all, I felt all season that the tremendous effort that went into carving out a garden, planting weeding, watering and harvesting was worthwhile. We enjoyed both the fruits of our labor and, to an extent, the labor itself. It was very satisfying to eat what we'd grown ourselves. With a few changes, I think next year could be even more successful, without the nuisance of having to start from raw turf grass. I have no illusions that we're saving any money by planting a garden, or that we're eating all that much healthier than we otherwise would have (as my boys and even my wife mostly avoided the veggies we grew), but I expect we'll stick with it anyway.


Final battle themes and movie music

I love movies. Not in a snooty, “hey look at this film, it’s really artistic” sort of way. I like real movies – popular movies and a few not so much, but not because they’re artsy. I just love the experience of film as an entertainment medium. It takes a lot to make a great movie – so much that often I’m amazed anybody can pull them off at all. Writing, direction, lighting, cinematography, staging, costumes and acting all need to come together perfectly to create the illusion, then it’s all got to be edited, have any foley sounds or visual special effects added, and be scored. Each part can make a huge difference in the film’s quality, but usually only one of those parts can also provide entertainment separately from the film – the music.

There aren’t really a lot of film soundtracks that I’m inclined to listen to, but there are a few. The Conan music by Basil Poledouris, for instance, is extremely listenable (as is Conan the Destroyer – in fact the soundtrack is about ten times better than the movie). John Williams, of course, is the master of movie themes, having created many of the greatest, most memorable pieces of movie music of the last thirty years – themes that speak to our hearts and our souls, that excite us (Indiana Jones) or frighten us (Jaws) or sweep us to the stars (Star Wars or, if you prefer, Close Encounters of the Third Kind).

There’s a little-known theme that’s always been one of my favorites. The Rocky movies are best known for the “training anthem” Gonna Fly Now, or for the theme to Rocky III, Eye of the Tiger. But several of the Rocky films share in common a true piece of magical music that lets the audience know that it’s game time for Rocky Balboa. That symphonic masterpiece is Bill Conti’s Conquest. True, Gonna Fly Now and Eye of the Tiger get all the air time, but when you need to psyche the audience up for the final, final battle of final battles, this tune gets the job done. I got the Rocky III soundtrack, as an LP, for my 12th birthday and this tune always really worked for me. Whether you hear it by itself or you see Rocky getting up off the ropes and pounding Clubber Lang to the ground, it’s just a great piece. If I ever worked out, I would totally work out to this tune.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Stargate: Universe

There’s a new Stargate series on the SyFy Channel (formerly the much less stupid Sci-Fi Channel), titled Stargate: Universe. The premise of this spin-off of a spin-off (of a spin-off?) is that there's a large group of soldiers and scientists at an outpost of those interstellar settlers and leavers-behind of all manner of space junk, the Ancients. The job of the outpost team was to decode a special 9th Chevron on the outpost’s unique Stargate, which, of course, they do (with the help of a nerd from Earth who solved the cryptogram after it was secretly released inside an Online Role-Playing Game. He is literally “beamed up” and transported across the galaxy to the outpost, despite knowing nothing about anything except computer games.).

Naturally, the scientists succeed at opening the special Stargate just in time to be attacked by bad guys. They evacuate the base THROUGH the Stargate and end up on an Ancient’s space ship – an enormous vessel that’s been flying around abandoned for thousands (or hundreds of thousands?) of years and isn’t really working all that well. They’re cut off from Earth and have no choice but to make the ship work for them so they can survive long enough to escape.

If any of this sounds interesting to you at all, but you’re concerned that you’ve already missed the first three episodes, fear not: they’re still available online on Hulu (if you’re in the US, anyway. I’m not sure how it works for international visitors).

I’ve watched all of the episodes so far, and I do think the show has potential. But I worry that the writers are being too clever for their own good. They’re doling out information a little bit at a time, and they’ve clearly gone to lengths to write a story wherein “something” is going on in secret that we don’t know about. For instance, in the opening scene of the first episode, somebody is already on the Ancient’s ship, walking around, turning on the lights, and it appears to be BEFORE any of the Earth-folks come through the Stargate. But since then, we’ve had not the slightest obvious hint about who or what that being was. We’ve also had some odd things happen to the crew when they went to a desert planet in search of baking soda for the ship’s air-scrubbers. But whatever it was was just sort of shrugged off as a hallucination.

I’m a big fan of story arcs. I like shows that engage me right from the beginning and then pull me along, episode to episode, revealing more and more of the story instead of each episode being a self-contained adventure where no permanent growth or change happens to any of the characters. The Stargate series(es) (ha!) have always been what I’d call arc-lite, in that there were recurring characters, devices, places, etc., but it wasn’t as if each season seemed to have an overriding storyline with each episode making up a chapter to each season’s novel. That would be arc-heavy, and something more along the lines of Straczynski’s Babylon 5. I think Stargate: Universe is aiming to be on the heavier side of the story arc concept, but they’re playing too coy about it. The early episodes have had too much hint, not enough payoff, such that they risk losing viewers. Of the first three weeks, the show saw great ratings for the premier, an increase for the second week (that included a bump of 22% in the core demographic of 18-22), and then a 14% dip in week 3, the which suggests that other folks may be turned off a bit by the show’s lack of dramatic oomph so far.

There may also be some concerns about the character of the characters, if you will. The sci-fi/fantasy website io9 posted a roundup of articles and viewer comments complaining that all of the females on the show are either whiny waifs in need of a strong man or else the subject of gratuitous boob-shots (or in one case, both). Likewise, the male characters include a fairly stereotypical wisecracking nerd and an angry black man.

So why a blog post about Stargate: Universe, you might wonder. I dunno. I had to write about something. Also, the show’s got a pretty good pedigree and a ton of existing work to draw upon, as the ancients and their technologies were a huge part of two other shows that ran a combined 15 seasons. It also has some of the same creators and showrunners behind the scenes as worked on the prior two series, and I even noticed that SG-1 regular director (as well as writer, executive producer and creative consultant ) Peter DeLuise directed the third episode – it always struck me that the SG-1 stuff he was involved with was pretty good. So I think there are lots of reasons why Stargate: Universe SHOULD be good. None of those things guarantee that it WILL be good, but I’m willing to give it a shot for a while. Hell, I watched Lost for the whole first season until it pissed me off to the point where I had to drop it, and it was far more obnoxious about teasing me with secret stuff but never explaining anything. With SG:U, I think the writers are just stringing us along a little too far before acknowledging to the audience that something more actually is going on that what we see on the surface. Once they dive into that, assuming it’s not dumb (like the whole Ori arc of SG-1’s final couple of seasons), the level of excitement on the show will hopefully pick up. If it does, you may be glad you tuned in now. Note that the Hulu backlog of episodes is only supposed to be available for about four weeks, so starting tomorrow, the premiere episode will drop off, followed a week later by the second episode, and so forth. Or maybe there’s an extra week before that starts happening, but it’s sometime soon. Anyway, there you have it – Stargate: Universe in all its glory, controversy and occasional lack of sufficient dramatic tension.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Thanksgiving all year round

Call it a dress-rehearsal. Or a dressing rehearsal, if you like.

Last Sunday, my family and I had Thanksgiving dinner. And I’m looking forward to having it again in a month. I love Thanksgiving. I don’t know if it’s my favorite holiday – I’m pretty fond of Christmas and Halloween, too, and Easter’s not bad. But I love them all for different reasons, and with Thanksgiving, that love is perhaps the most pure – it’s a holiday predicated on feast and family and, really, not much else. I guess there are some sports programs on TV that a lot of folks get excited about, but I loathe professional sports. So when you strip away the sports and the pilgrims and any ancillary mythology that most folks don’t give a thought to on the holiday anyway, you’re left with a harvest feast. A really, really big meal. A bounteous bevy of entrees and side dishes that you’re expected, nay encouraged, to devour until all that’s left are a few crumbs. Whatever is left goes into the fridge as leftovers and you get to enjoy it again and again for the rest of the week. I may have to pause here for a moment and go make myself a turkey sandwich.

My kids don’t appreciate Thanksgiving, which is sad. I clearly remember that I did when I was their age – we used to go to my father’s parent’s house where my uncle and his family would gather and we’d all sit down to a lavish meal. After my grandfather died the two families held their own celebrations, but up until I was about nine, it was always Thanksgiving at Grandma and Grandpa’s. My grandfather would put black olives – the pitted ones with the round hole on one end – on the ends of my fingers and I’d walk around waving at everybody before I ate them. My uncle taught me how to mix my corn with my mashed potatoes because it made it easier to scoop up. And after dinner, there were always thin mints on the sideboard, in addition to the pies and whatever else. By and large, my kids eat none of that stuff.

My boys, for dinner this time, had no turkey, no potatoes, no squash (which I make with so much cinnamon and brown sugar that it’s practically candy), no bread and no peas. My older son ate some stuffing and corn. My younger son ate only corn, and that under duress. My daughter’s come along as a good, varied eater and she had an ample meal, but I can’t help wonder what’s different today where kids think it’s ok to not eat what I put in front of them? Where did they learn that? I certainly didn’t teach it to them. I grew up eating what was made, as did my wife. If you didn’t like it… tough. That’s dinner. Mangia.

But not my sons, no. They’re still young, though, and I imagine that by the time they’re teenager’s I’ll have changed my tune, howling “Stop eating! Please – there’s no food left in the house! You’re eating my magazine and I haven’t read that issue yet!! Stop putting Tabasco on the gerbils and set them down carefully!”

I’m not really a great cook, but I like preparing Thanksgiving. My kids prefer boxed potatoes to my home-made, but for Thanksgiving they’re out of luck. I skin, cut and boil about four large potatoes, then whip them with electric beaters, adding a quarter-cup or so of 2% milk and a tablespoon of butter or margarine. I also prepare an acorn squash, which my daughter and I eat. Yeah, mostly me, but she pretends to like it. I take the whole squash, wash it, pierce the skin a few times, and microwave it on high for about 4 minutes. Then I cut it in half and put both halves face-down on a microwave-safe plate. I cover the whole thing tightly with plastic wrap and microwave for another 4 minutes. Careful when you take it out, it’ll all be pretty hot and you’ll get a face-full of steam if you’re not careful removing the plastic. Holding each half with a towel or potholder, I scoop out the seeds and the stringy part with a spoon and throw it away. Then I scoop out the squash from the skin into a bowl, where I mash it with a fork or spoon, adding cinnamon and brown sugar to taste. No, go ahead and add some more. That’s it! I’d say I use around a teaspoon of cinnamon and a third of a cup of sugar, but that’s a very rough estimate – I just keep adding and tasting them as I mash until I’m happy with the flavor. A single average-sized squash makes enough for about 2 people, so add more as needed to serve everybody (who’s willing to eat this delicious ambrosia).

Both of those recipes are exactly the way my mother always made them. Preparing and eating them, and serving them to my ungrateful kids, gives me a warm feeling of generational longevity.

This time, I also tried making’s recipe for Outback Steakhouse Bushman Bread. It was tasty, but it didn’t seem to rise much at all so I probably did something wrong. It came out very dense and heavy, though the molasses gave it a really nice flavor. I had let it rise for about an hour – next time I may have to let it sit longer.

For the entrée we usually get a fresh turkey breast, as there aren’t enough of us actually eating it to warrant getting the dark meat, too. I brush it with olive oil or sometimes margarine and dust it with poultry seasoning, and sometimes with some paprika, garlic powder and onion powder. I like to toss that in a Reynolds oven bag to roast as it always comes out nice and juicy. My wife, meanwhile, takes care of the frozen corn, the stuffing (usually StoveTop, our one acquiescence to the kids’ preference for processed, pre-packaged food), the gravy, and especially the dessert. My wife is an outstanding pastry chef and her desserts are always amazing. This time it was a slow-cooker volcano chocolate cake, served with ice cream, and it was delicious. For actual Thanksgiving, she’ll probably make pumpkin pie, which I don’t care for, but maybe I can talk her into an apple crisp or something, too.

So you take all that food, and you stuff it inside yourself until you pretty much have to roll yourself away from the table, and that’s Thanksgiving. Or at my house, that may just be a pre-Thanksgiving meal if I couldn’t way any longer for the real thing. By the time the real one rolls around, I’ll be starting to get excited about Christmas and we’ll usually set up our tree the weekend after Thanksgiving. And as with all great events, it’s nice to have a dress rehearsal. Or two or three.
I went to bed early last night, feeling lousy, and slept in late. I'm feeling much better now and I'll have a new post up sometime this morning.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Footprints in the Digital Sand

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One of my in-laws recently lost her father after a long illness. He’d lived a rich life and left ample artifacts behind as evidence. Among the multitudes of documents they found after his passing were love letters written between him and his wife during their many years together. It was a treasure trove of emotional substance that helped tie the generations together and add depth and dimension to his children’s understanding of their parent’s lives. It was not unlike how archeological finds bring us closer to our ancient ancestors, except that of course this was more direct and personal and meaningful to the daily lives of the people involved.

And it made me wonder whether that sort of physical documentation of peoples’ lives and relationships is soon to become a thing of the past – a relic of the age of paper, an anachronism in the age of technology. I’m pretty far out of the loop on the modern world of dating. I’ve been happily married for years and years (and years) and I’m just not plugged in to the dating scene. But from what I see and read about it, it seems that it increasingly involves emails, text messages, and social networking posts. All of which are often frustratingly transitory or permanent for a lot of people.

Yes, I realize that transitory and permanent are opposites here. But that’s what frustrates a lot of people about electronic information storage – so much of it tends to be beyond their easy control. Things that people would like to keep forever – documents and emails, for instance – are easily lost. How many people reading this have a solid backup regimen, and how many are just one failed hard drive away from losing all the data stored on your computer? Or there are the folks who switch from Earthlink to Comcast (for example) and discover that they’ve lost access to their webmail and all of the emails stored therein. Whoops – lost those letters!

Then there’s the undesired permanence – forum posts and entries on social networking sites or emails to other people that you wish would go away, but are still kicking around the “dark places in-between” of the Internet, periodically showing up to remind you that anything electronic that you put where others can get to it might as well be posted on a billboard near your nearest freeway. It only takes a second to shove your cell phone down your pants and snap a picture for your significant other, and it seems really funny at the time. Until he/she isn’t your boyfriend/girlfriend anymore and that picture’s circulating among your friends, enemies, and people who don’t really know you but are now intimately familiar with your deepest, um, secrets.

So is that what’s going to replace the precious little box of cherished love-notes? A trail of ill-advised electronic communiqués and a gaping hole where your emails and text messages to your latest lover have been lost to an email or cell phone account you no longer have? I suspect so.

There’s a trade-off, however. This blog, for instance, isn’t written to my kids, and usually isn’t even written about them. But unless I intentionally delete it for some reason, it will likely still be here for them to discover and read, if they’re so inclined, years or even decades from now [Hi kids! I miss you – come visit your old dad in the home. It’s lonely and the other old people smell funny. You scoff now, but this is going to be hilarious in 50 years.].

So if nothing else, it’s very likely that electronic media will change the game in a way that hasn’t happened since literacy and cheap access to writing supplies introduced the concept of the love letter to the masses. The simple box of papers will almost surely be lost for many, many couples. And even electronic repositories that might have served the same purpose will be unavailable if the couple’s descendants don’t have access to them. In their place, however, may be an equally rich tapestry of online photos, social networking interactions, blogs, homepages, tweets, videos and presumably other virtual publications that haven’t necessarily even been invented yet. And they’ll be available to the whole family, not just those holding a box of notes in their hands. While the digital seas may wash away some footprints in the sand, they’ll often leave behind a swirl of fragments of a person’s life that are equally rich.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Bound by Strings of Steel

The Struggles and Triumphs of Two Fledgling Guitarists

I’ve written before that my son chose as his first instrument the guitar. He made this choice several years ago after seriously rocking out on a toy electric guitar he’d received for his birthday. And it just seemed like a good fit. My older boy has always had an air of “cool” about him. He’s laid-back, easygoing, and cute as a lolcat with a clever caption. He was born to be a balladeer, a trail of swooning teen girls lying in his wake or throwing rose petals at his feet as he strides along, innocently unaware of the tidal sea of estrogen lapping at his ankles.

I’ve always had a great relationship with my daughter, and being home last Spring improved my relationship with my younger boy, but I’ve made a conscious effort to ensure that my older son, the middle child, never felt slighted by his dad in even the vaguest way. Prior to 2009, I’d spent a couple years playing World of Warcraft online, and my older son had really gotten into it. So much so that I set him up with his own account and we spent a fair amount of time playing together, complete with headsets and Skype for real-time voice interaction while our characters adventured together in the game. He needed quite a bit of hand-holding and guidance, but he did okay for the “under 10” age bracket. Eventually, though, I decided that it was time to put the game (and the ongoing monthly cost of operating two accounts) aside. My boy wasn’t heartbroken over it, but he wasn’t thrilled as he’d really enjoyed the game and, I can hope, the time we spent playing it together. I was determined not to lose a smidgen of the rapport we’d built adventuring together online just because the game was, for us, over.

Then I had a pretty good idea – he was nearly old enough to start the guitar lessons that he’d been asking for for nearly three years. At the same time, I was looking for an activity that he and I could do together on a regular basis. The result: I signed us both up for lessons.

Learning to make music, in and of itself, can be a daunting prospect these days. We are inundated with professional-quality performances in a way unlike any previous age in human history. Masterpieces of classical, traditional folk, and modern music are all available at the click of a mouse, on the radio, on TV, in the mall and the elevator and the office and the restaurant. Most of us are surrounded by music for hours every day in a way that our ancestors near and distant couldn’t have imagined and probably wouldn’t have wanted. And even if you don’t care for a given genre, the music itself is professionally performed and highly polished to a degree that any novice performer would find impossible to replicate. We all know what it’s supposed to sound like because we hear it all the time, but it’s beyond the means of mere mortals to replicate.

So with mediocrity a foregone conclusion, I headed over to Carousel Mall’s Guitar Outlet (which I was going to hyperlink, but they don’t seem to have a website. Hrumph.), to pick up some student guitars. I’d gotten some guidance from various coworkers in the past, but merely enough to appreciate the dark depths of my guitar ignorance.

Walking into the store was, I confess, intimidating. This was a store for professional musicians. It’s not that they were in the least bit unwelcoming or elitist or did anything that should have in the smallest way made me feel uncomfortable. But people can be odd when they feel like they’re outside their familiar and comfortable realm of experience. And there’s nothing familiar or comfortable for me about being in a store full of equipment I haven’t the vaguest notion how to properly use (and am afraid I might break).

I sidled into the store with a casual air of “I’m not really here,” hoping and fearing that the staff would ask if I needed help. In my head, I raced to compose a description of what I wanted to purchase that didn’t make me sound as timid and fearful as I was. It’s funny how that works – an otherwise confident person, which I usually am, when bereft of enough information to really understand what he’s trying to accomplish in detail, is so easily reduced to a hesitant, skittish little child, afraid of sounding a fool, afraid of spending precious money and finding himself left with nothing but a handful of “magic beans,” afraid of… afraid of that very feeling of helplessness. It’s not a comfortable sensation, and it’s self-perpetuating. The more helpless you feel, the more you tend to dwell on the feeling, which tends to make it worse. The only escape most of us have from spiraling into a quantum singularity of despair in these situations is that usually it ends by being not as bad as we’d anticipated, by confronting it through force of will, or by running away.

So there I was, trying to buy a guitar. Oh, an acoustic guitar. I knew that much. One that looks nice and is not too expensive (much like a shrubbery). One normal-sized acoustic guitar for me and one “smaller” one for my son. How much smaller I did not know. Are there sizes? Or does it go straight from ukulele to student-sized to grown-up sized? And what makes a good guitar good, anyway? Why are some of them $60 and some $600 (and up and up) and what’s the difference?

Fortunately, the guy who came over to help was friendly, knowledgeable, and very patient with all my questions. Evidently (and this is what the sales guy told me – I still don’t profess any deep knowledge about the quality of different guitars), the difference between inexpensive and expensive guitars boils down to how carefully they’re put together (handcrafting vs. assembly-line) and the quality of the wood. Which seems fairly common-sense, so I inquired further what impact the wood actually has on the guitar. I wondered whether it would wear out or break sooner or sound different and if so, how? He explained that better-quality woods actually improve in tonal quality with age, whereas the cheap woods used in inexpensive instruments don’t. They sound as good as they’re ever going to sound on the day they’re made. “Well, I’ll be darned,” said I.

They had a nice deal on a couple of no-name acoustic guitars for around $100 each. I think the ¾-size student one was a bit less than that. The whole process took at least an hour, but I came away with the instruments, straps, bags, and a handful of picks so we could get started on our musical journey. I’ve been back to the store several times since, each time feeling a bit less like an outsider, and the staff there has been unfailingly helpful. It’s a great store and I recommend it highly. A few weeks later, I embarked on my first serious interaction with a musical instrument, well, ever.

Our first lesson was May 31st, which means we’ve been “playing” for all of four and a half months. We are, thankfully, well past the initial stage where the strings bite into your uncalloused fingertips and you need to go running to mommy to get them kissed. My son hated waiting for me while I did that. The first few weeks were an agony that went beyond physical pain. We were learning a handful of progressive chords – A, D, and E – and it was deadly boring. Necessary, to be sure, but awfully dull. My son, to his credit, didn’t rebel or refuse or even seriously consider giving up, but he did complain often and then again often. We went on to study Am, Em, Dm, and around the end of the first month, C and G. We spent a solid month or more just strumming between those basic chords. And the worst part? More than four months later, I still routinely suck at them. It’s worth noting how frustratingly long it takes to teach your fingers to do as they’re told.

Our reward after that first month, though, was that we knew enough chords to attempt our first song. As with many other budding axe-slingers, I suspect, we began with the Eagles. And you’ve never heard Take it Easy sound so awful in your life. Everything was hard, from figuring out how and when to strum to making our fingers remember a G from a C from a D from an Am. Luckily, the arrangement we were playing was just those four chords, but boy did we struggle with it. Everything’s hard when it’s new (and isn’t much easier for a while afterwards). I still have a hard time not strumming the unplayed strings for chords like D. Actually, with D I’ve gotten to where I can comfortably use my thumb to mute strings 5 and 6 and just strum like crazy, but there are others where I inadvertently play the 6th string. Plus, my fat fingers seem to be incapable of only touching a single string at a time, so I’m always muting other strings when I shouldn’t be. I don’t know what I’ll ever do about that – these fingers aren’t getting any skinnier. Though I suspect at some point I may get better at coming straight down on them rather than hitting them at an angle (which I do now because I’m a weak, weak man), which could help.

The weeks went on and we played Take it Easy to death. We didn’t necessarily get much better at it, but we could play it badly by heart. Soon we added Peaceful Easy Feeling, also by the Eagles, and that gave us a second song to strangle. I picked up a booklet of Pubsongs from the Sterling Renaissance Faire and my son enjoyed adding Drunken Sailor and Wild Rover to our mangled repertoire. We’ve since learned the B7 chord and a bunch of power chords so we could play the blues. The which consists of playing the 12-Bar Blues in the key of E a bazillion times while we try to impress upon our mutinous and unruly fingers the dire importance of learning a basic solo pattern. I recently calculated that we’ve each practiced that solo pattern some 450 times over the last few weeks, and we’re only just barely starting to get the hang of it.

I remember folks at work telling me about how their kids loved to practice their instruments and would go up in their rooms all by themselves, without being told, and just play and play and play. This is not my experience. I think my son genuinely likes playing the guitar, but he is not a fan of practicing any more than my daughter practices her instruments without coercion or, at times, “enhanced interrogation techniques.” No, not waterboarding, usually just a lot of yelling. From both of us. My son also takes any offhand remark by our guitar teacher as an indictment against whatever new technique he doesn’t feel like practicing. For instance, our instructor characterized power chords as “cheating” at one point. So my son has taken the position that power chords are bad and he shouldn’t need to practice them. He considers double-muting to be optional and therefore not worthy of practicing. Planting your pinky on the pick guard is “helpful” in trying to hit the correct strings. But “helpful” isn’t the same as mandatory, so he doesn’t need to do that, either. There are, I admit, times when I think it might be a relief to bash myself in the face with my guitar.

On the other hand, my son recently brought out his guitar to perform for our extended family at a birthday party. When his mom asks him to play for her, he’ll gladly sit and strum out tune after tune, even singing (which he normally regards as optional and therefore unnecessary). Beyond that, his sharp mind retains an amazing level of detail about our lessons, and he explains the techniques he’s learned to my wife.

For my part, I’m enjoying both our time together and my instrument, even if they both threaten at times to turn me into a gibbering mental patient. I especially love it when I find the music for a tune that I enjoy and I am able to sit down and create a reasonable approximation of how it’s supposed to sound. I enjoy challenging myself with pieces that are clearly beyond my skill, but use chords I know. For example, the Rolling Stones’ “Paint it Black” has you changing chords in half-measures, much more quickly than my rebellious, slovenly fingers are normally willing to move, yet I find that when I play it the tune is recognizable if far from perfect. My son will even sit with me and attempt to play these new tunes (excepting Paint it Black, which he hasn’t been around to hear me try).

And that’s the point, right? I get to combine spending true quality time with my boy, plus the learning of a new skill that we can both use for years and years to come, plus the resultant ability to actually make music. Our instructor keeps telling us that we’re doing great for four months of practice and I’m sure he’s right, but the learning process is slow and tedious and just plain hard at times. The insidious way that music has infiltrated every aspect of modern life means that we all have this picture in our heads of Eddie Van Halen on stage cranking out mad riffs at blazing speed, with each note ringing out true and perfect, except that it’s not Eddie up there, it’s each of us. We can picture it, we know what it would sound like, and we can even take a pass at imagining what it would feel like (see the endless Air Guitar videos on Youtube as evidence), but a gaping chasm lies between imagining it and actually doing it. My son and I are only just starting to work our way across that chasm. On the plus side, we don’t have to actually worry about falling to our deaths, but it will be a while before we produce anything that’s not cringe-worthy. We’ll just have to keep pushing forward while my guitar gently weeps.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Blog Highlights

The higher-than-usual traffic has continued, actually hitting 300 on Friday. Apparently THIS is Sparta. For the benefit of those just joining us, there are a few blog entries buried around here that might be of interest. I thought I'd highlight them for your reading amusement (especially since I only write regular blog entries Monday through Friday).

First up: There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area we call New York City (apologies to Rod Serling, naturally). I recently won an essay contest for Good Morning America Weekend wherein I nominated a local rib joint to be named the best BBQ restaurant in the country. And it won! So I got to be on TV and won a trip to NYC. The whole saga is recounted in fifteen parts beginning with Mike’s Bar-B-Que Adventure: Syracuse and then continuing on to New York City and beyond. Just start there, and navigate forward in time using either the "Newer Post" link at the bottom of each article (after the comments section) or the navigator along the lefthand side of the blog which lists all of the blog posts at Virtual Vellum. The whole NYC thing was posted back in June.

The other big hit here was a draft of a short story that I posted back in August. There's a short blurb about the story here, including my guidelines for handling redistribution and such. The story itself was titled "If the One Doesn't Get You."

Beyond those two, you'll find all manner of ramblings from movie reviews to product reviews (all uncompensated, despite my best efforts to sell my soul to corporate America. Soul's aren't worth what they used to be, I guess) to ruminations on life and society and politics. I hope most of it entertains you, I hope some if it makes you think, and certain specific items might even make you mad, which is okay too. Again, welcome to Virtual Vellum.


Friday, October 16, 2009

Top This!

Proving that sometimes Man deserves to have thumbs

Courtesy of I Heart Chaos (careful, a fair amount of NSFW stuff there), comes this awesome Youtube find: the commercial for Bottle Tops! They're little plastic domes that snap onto your soda cans and turn them into screw-top bottles. I have no idea whether they work or not, but the concept is freaking brilliant.

7th Time’s the Charm

Looking forward to Windows 7

There was a time, years ago, when I was much geekier than I am now. Yeah, that’s hard to picture, I agree. But I was. I used to get high marks on the Boot Magazine/Maximum PC annual geek test. I knew the codenames for all the different Intel and AMD processors. I knew facts and figures about the most specific details of computer technology. I built my own PCs. And I beta-tested every version of Windows from 98SE up through Windows XP Media Center Edition (which was GREAT – Microsoft sent the testers an entire HP PC, because it needed to have a TV Tuner card and a remote control. No, we didn’t get to keep it. More’s the pity – it was a nice computer). That was then.

Now, I’m a nub. One of my students asked me this week what size files on a PC are broken up into when they’re written to sectors on a hard-disk. I couldn’t remember. I still don’t. I recall that it varied based on the size of the drive volume and whether you were using FAT or FAT32, but the actual size eludes me. I still haven’t bothered to look it up, whereas once upon a time it would have eaten me alive until I knew the answer. And I haven’t beta-tested a new Microsoft O/S in many years. I practically missed Windows Vista completely. My wife’s PC here at home has Vista, but I almost never use her machine, not least of all because the damn thing’s got Vista on it. What a dog.

I mean, Vista’s got some decent features, but none of them seem to be quite fleshed out. For example, where there used to be a nice logical file path and a drop-box that listed all available drives plus the folders on your desktop, there’s now some convoluted thing I can’t even figure out. And I’ve been called pretty smart by some.

Here’s another brilliant Vista feature that didn’t impress me – the parental controls to block access to various unapproved websites. When the kid tries to browse there from their account, they get a pop-up message that it’s blocked. It does give the option to have a parent log in with a password to allow it, but if you use it, it doesn’t just allow it for that time – it permanently unblocks the entire website! So instead of letting me temporarily unblock YouTube so my kid can watch a particular video while I stand there looking over her shoulder, then have it default back to being blocked for times when I’m not in the room, I get one shot to either crush her hopes of watching the movie or I get to yield all future control. Nice one, Microsoft!

As such, it’s not really all that surprising that I’m not terribly in tune to the new Windows 7 Operating System, which hits the shelves next week. But what I’ve heard of it sounds pretty decent so far. I know that Microsoft’s INTENTION is to make Windows 7 their redemption for the general failure of Vista, so it ought to be an improvement. On the other hand, you know what they say about the road to hell.

But I need a new PC for my writing office – I have the desk all ready to go and I’ve been holding off buying a PC until Windows 7 was finally available. And I’ve been down the “build-it-myself” road and decided it was enough of a hassle that I don’t do it anymore. The last few times I’ve wandered over to and put together a system and they dropped it off on my doorstep a week or so later. This time, they actually called me! Dell agent Addie Wilson of India somehow sensed that I’m ready to buy and called me up. Supposedly he can treat me right on a new system, so it’s time to get busy configuring this bad boy. I want the beefiest system I can get for the least amount of money. And I’m getting a fatass external hard disk with a nice built-in backup utility I can use to ensure that the stuff I write is always safely tucked away in the event of catastrophic failure. But I won’t buy that from Dell, most likely. Their peripherals are always overpriced. Now I just hope that Windows 7 doesn’t follow Vista’s example. The first batch of reviews for Vista were pretty darn good, too. It was only after the initial wave that things went sour. I don’t want sour – I’m hoping for sweet. We’ll see.

Virtual Vellum: Standing Room Only

I don't usually mention site statistics here. In fact, I'm pretty sure I never have before. It's nice to know that somebody's out there reading this stuff, but on the days when I've literally had 3 visitors (and there have been several) it's not as if I walk around in a funk contemplating personal harm. For that matter, I don't even modify what I'm writing (assuming I could even guess from the statistics which of my blog entries were more popular than others, which I cannot) out of any sense that it might or might not suit the audience. It is what it is - I hope you like it, but I mean that in terms of the general "you," not any particular individual "you" who might rather I discuss some topic than others.

Still, I do check my site's stats at least every couple of days just to get a sense of overall traffic. In general, it seems that I have a few dozen regular or semi-regular visitors, a notion that's corroborated by face-to-face and email conversations I have with most of those folks. My highest number of visits up to and including October 14th, 2009, was back on August 10th when I published the first draft of my short story here. On that day, I had about 150 hits, followed by around 50 the next day and then it was basically back to business-as-usual. That spike in traffic can be attributed to the fact that I specifically told people there was something here they might want to read. As opposed to my usual method of advertising, which consists of the occasional link in a forum or email signature that basically reads "I've got a blog. It's here -->".

So imagine my surprise when I checked the stats for yesterday, October 15th, 2009, and discovered that the site had well over 200 hits! To quote Neo from the Matrix, "Whoa." I have no idea what drove all that traffic, but assuming it wasn't an anemic attempt at a denial-of-service attack, all I can say is, "Welcome!"

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Time After Time

Just a quick update to my blog about Heroes - I read online somewhere (can't find it just now, Google is toying with me) Tim Kring (creator of Heroes) lamenting over the challenges that ensue when you introduce time travel into your show. In this case, he was referring to "master of space and time" Hiro Nakamura. I think Kring and the current stable of writers might be missing a big opportunity, however. Since they have Hiro anyway, and since they've been plagued with a show that never quite seems to live up to the potential it had in the first season, I suggest that they just hit the old reset button. Throw out everything that's happened since some point near the end of season 1 or early in season 2, and start over. It might seem like a cop out to some, but, hell, given the steadily dwindling ratings over the last few seasons, it might be worth a shot.

There, that's my contribution to sci-fi TV for the day. You're welcome!

Evolution in Action

I remember I used to go to “Church School” once a week back when I was a little kid at Solvay Elementary. On one occasion, the nun teaching the class went off on a creationist rant, asking “If evolution were true, why isn’t it happening today? Why don’t we see monkeys turning into people today? Hmm??” She asked this question not to trained scientists, educated and experienced in the particulars of Darwinist theory and schooled in articulate debate, but rather to a handful of terrified third-graders who had no intention of arguing with her about this or any other subject. I recall a separate occasion where I was late or had missed a class or had otherwise been “bad” and she remarked how surprising it was that somebody named after the Archangel Michael (was I? Or was it just a popular name at the time?) would be so naughty. I had no response for that, so I was again uncharacteristically silent.

I think Creationism is bunk, plain and simple. If you want to believe that a supreme being had some impact on the creation of the universe back at the point of the Big Bang, fine. And if you’d prefer to think that it was a divine nudge that caused the Earth to coalesce from a ball of molten rock and various chemicals into a planet capable of supporting life, I’ll agree to disagree but I’m not inclined to get all up in your face about it (mostly because that’s not my style). I mean, religion in general is great if your faith gives you comfort and helps you to be a better person (and assuming it doesn't turn you into a Christian Crusader/Al Quaeda terrorist/IRA bomber/etc.) and I don't pretend to know it all - maybe there's even some truth buried in there. But the whole Young Earth Creationist theory is outright wacky to me. I can’t even pretend to go along with the theory that the Earth is only 10,000 or so years old, when there’s so much evidence that it’s impossible. When you have to go through all manner of nutty contortions to disprove what’s right in front of your eyes, you’re probably trying too hard.

But what really got me thinking about this today was a visit to my daughter’s orthodontist. She has some missing adult teeth, and he remarked that this was becoming much more common. “Back when I started my practice in the 70s, I might have seen one kid a year with a missing adult tooth. Now? She’s my fifth case today.” He went on to say that the current theory was that human brains were getting bigger, and the jaws were getting smaller, resulting in hypodontia. Which, incidentally, has been found in a study published in the Journal of the American Dental Association to be an indicator that a woman is 8.1 times more likely to develop ovarian cancer. Yay. I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, but it’s not directly pertinent to this blog article.

So if I were to respond to that nun today, I think I’d be inclined to argue that, in fact, evolution IS still happening today. It’s hard to see because it generally takes place over thousands or millions of years, but sometimes there’s an evolutionary leap or a mutation that skips that lengthy period and happens right in front of you, and it’s conceivable that we’re seeing that now. Aside, of course, from the geological strata and paleontological fossil records, that show the multi-million-year evolution of past and current species.

I don’t think my daughter is a member of a new species just yet – a homo superior who will need to either join with Dr. Xavier’s X-Men or Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants in a struggle for the future of mankind. But there’s plenty of fiction out there that deals with the supposition this may someday occur on some level or other. I’ve written before about minority groups of humans, including one “superhuman” group, the telepaths of Babylon 5. But there are lots of others. For instance, much of the book Dune, by Frank Herbert, revolves around the work of the Bene Gesserit order to create through selective breeding the ultimate man – the Kwisatz Haderach – who can see into the future and go through space and time where they cannot. I really did want to read that whole series, but I could never get past the first couple of books before being bored and confused. Maybe I’m not sufficiently evolved to appreciate them?

Then, of course, we have Marvel’s X-Men and, in fact, a big part of the Marvel universe is populated by superhumans with powers borne of genetic mutation either at birth (in the case of the X-Men and the other “true mutants”) or because of some radiological exposure (in the case of The Fantastic Four’s cosmic radiation, Spider-Man’s radioactive spider-bite, and the Incredible Hulk’s dose of gamma rays). There was also a great episode I remember seeing of either a newer incarnation of the Twilight Zone or the Outer Limits, where a poor schlub in an office was struggling to keep up with his co-workers, who had all been genetically altered in utero to be smarter, faster, better-looking, etc. The story added a fictional “side-effect” wherein some attempts at genetic alteration resulted in horrific troll-like monsters, but even if you set that aside it still raises some interesting questions about living in a world where some people have been given access to a greater number of natural talents than they’d otherwise be entitled to. Even if it’s illegal in places like the U.S., there will always be countries where the brave or foolhardy or obscenely wealthy can pay their money and take their chances on backroom medical technologies like this. Hopefully my daughter’s bigger brain will give her an edge. Looking at her math homework, I think she’d be better off with the extra teeth.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Save the Cheerleader, Doom the Show

Why NBC’s Heroes is struggling

The first season of NBC’s Heroes was unreservedly outstanding. It was the subject of both critical and popular acclaim and several of its members – Hayden Panettiere, Zachary Quinto, and Ali Larter among them – have since progressed to increasingly bigger movie roles outside the show. It was a great time to be a TV viewer.

Sadly, the seasons since have suffered badly. The show still has its entertaining moments, but nothing like the grandeur of the first season and ratings have plummeted. There are lots of theories on the web about what’s wrong with the show and what needs to be done about it. I like the show and I got to thinking about it myself. I have some ideas about what’s gone wrong that aren’t necessarily in synch with other members of the Internet community. Let’s start with why Season 1 was so great.

Season 1 had a lot of characters, some of them likeable and some of them (Greg Grundberg’s telepathic cop in particular) less so. It was a delicate balance to keep them all relevant and interesting and fresh each episode, but the writers did a good job of shuffling them around. A lot of them have since been killed off, but the show has added new ones and there aren’t really too many fewer than there once were. No, the problem today isn’t that there are too many heroes, it’s that they’ve got nothing much to do.

In Season 1, there was natural character development because the heroes were all discovering and learning to deal with their powers and their situation. These days, the heroes all seem downtrodden in various ways, just trying to eke out normal lives. Sure, it’s nice that Claire’s not jamming her hand into a garbage disposal every five minutes so nobody forgets that she heals really fast, but it at least had a lot more dramatic tension to it than watching her do the Beverly Hills 90210 routine at college. Ando and Hiro are scrabbling around without purpose, lamenting Hiro’s impending death. Larter’s character (I can’t keep track of her name anymore, it seems to keep changing) is taking a stand against sexual harassment in the workplace. Ho-hum. Oh, and there’s the new power to see sound, which is great except that the hippies were doing the same thing with LSD thirty years ago. There’s just no serious character development going on, at least nothing that’s interesting. Our only reason to care about these characters is predicated on our past relationships with them – we like them because they used to be cool. And they used to be cool, because they were subjected to intense pressure that turned them into diamonds. But without the pressure, that carbon doesn’t become diamond, just burbling pools of icky black oil.

The dramatic tension in the first season was intense. There was nuclear devastation on the horizon. There was a killer on the loose, hunting and killing specials. There was a dire warning from the future (via the uber-cool, soul-patched Hiro that Hiro never became, sadly) that led to a quest to SAVE THE WORLD. There was prophecy to guide them, there were villains to thwart them, and there was a mystery about the whole thing – nobody knew what was really going on, except the writers. They knew and they expertly choreographed the dance. By way of comparison, they were the exact opposite of Battlestar Galactica’s re-creators, who boldly proclaimed at the start of each episode that there was definitely a “plan,” then worked diligently to prove that in fact they hadn’t the slightest clue where the story was going. It’s a big part of the reason that I grew to hate BSG but am still hoping that Heroes will stage a triumphant return to greatness.

Lastly, Season 1 had a very well-written story. There was something going on, and it made sense in little pieces week by week, but also when you stepped back and looked at everything you’d seen so far, right up through the end of the season. Information was carefully revealed little by little, while mystery abounded. But it never felt contrived – there were secrets and they were told to us bit-by-bit. There were good guys, bad guys, and some who were hard to classify. There were people who knew what was going on, some who wanted to know, and some who didn’t care. There were decisions made in the past that affected the present, and decisions being made in the present that affected the future, and we got to take it all in and absorb and consider it. THAT’s good writing, and Season 1 was filled with it from soup to nuts.

So let’s recap. In Season 1, there was character development driven by dramatic tension driven by dire events and horrible villains, all brought together by a cogent and entertaining plot. Season 2 fell apart trying to take those elements and rework them, essentially re-telling the story of Season 1, but in a twisted, confusing fashion. It had some high points, such as the lead-up to the battle between uber-heroes Sylar and Peter, but it wasn’t as rich as season 1 in part because it was missing the character growth we’d gotten used to but primarily because the writing just wasn’t nearly as smooth. There was a lot going on, but I’ll be damned if I could explain what it was.

Season 3 suffered from the Writer’s Strike, and I sure hope those writers got whatever it was they were after, because they kicked a whole slew of TV shows and movies right in the crotch to get it.

So here we are, now, in Season 4 (I think – the weird half-seasons and the strike threw me off a bit, but I think that’s what we’re calling this one), and we’re missing the character development, we’re missing the dramatic tension, we’re missing the sense of impending doom, and we’re missing any inkling of a story arc tying everything together. Ok, so there are some circus freaks and they don’t seem too nice. Big deal – they hardly appear to be mass-murderers or harbingers of nuclear devastation at this point, though “Flash with knives” caused a little mayhem. And yeah, Sylar could GROW to be a true villain again, but at this point we almost know him too well for him to be a truly effective bogeyman. The shadow governments and secret societies seem to be lying low, there are no prognostications of global catastrophe going on, nothing to really stir the passions of the viewers.

Granted, we’re only three episodes into the season. It may be that the writers have something brilliant up their sleeves to redeem the last three seasons and make these early lead-in episodes out to be something far more vital and critical and interesting than they’ve seemed so far. I just hope they don’t wait too long – NBC is getting creamed in the ratings at every turn and I’d hate for them to do something drastic before Heroes hits its hypothetical stride. I’ll also be the first to publicly recant this whole post if they do manage to get their act together and pull off a season that’s worth of the show’s inaugural storyline. I’m not optimistic that I’ll need to do that. I expect to continue watching until the bitter end, but I’d sure like to see Heroes resurrect its former glory rather than just limping along unsure of what to do with itself. Saving the cheerleader seems to have doomed the show, because it’s never been as good since. Good luck to the show’s writer’s and producers to find that spark again.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Batman vs. Blade

Here's a special mid-day entry especially for Diane:

Via Slashfilm and various other blogs comes the link to this fan-made Youtube video. Sorry, folks, it's not real, but if DC Comics and Marvel Comics ever were to team-up on a superhero movie, this might be the one to make. Batman, Gotham's Dark Knight prowls the darkness in search of evildoers. Blade, the Daywalker, prowls the darkness in search of vampires. In this video, the two sides of that same coin are brought together through flawless editing in a matchup of martial prowess and black outfits. Is Wesley Snipes out of debtor's prison yet?

My shoes are too tight,

but it doesn’t matter. I have forgotten how to dance.

Babylon 5’s Londo Mollari was reminded of his father’s words, above, when struggling with regret. In Londo’s case, he personally regretted many of the choices that had brought him in seeming disgrace to an alien space station so far from his homeworld. Moreover, he regretted his civilization’s changing values – particularly valuing power and wealth over love and kindness. It was a foreshadowing of even darker decisions that would be made by Londo and darker changes that would come to his home planet, Centauri Prime. But regret, itself, is common to the human (and presumably, alien) condition. A bit of reflection is even healthy.

There are various types of regret. It’s common to regret things that you’ve said or done to other people. Making direct amends for hurts done to others is even step 9 of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-Step Program. Then there’s the regret you have about poor decisions or missed opportunities – things that seemed harmless or even like a good idea at the time, but in hindsight were clearly mistakes. This might include that fateful car ride that ended in a terrible accident, or that investment that went from a “buy” stock to a penny-stock right after you got involved. For me, there’s a particular type of regret that’s especially irksome – the failure to “stick with” something that you wish years later was still a part of your life.

For example, I trained in two different styles of martial arts when I was younger (or arguably even three types), and I enjoyed them quite a bit. Had I stuck with them, I’d be an expert by now, and I’d certainly be in better shape. Assuming, of course, that I wasn’t crippled in some freak training mishap or something. I mean, when you talk about alternate history, even on a very personal scale, you never really know what all of the variable and repercussions of a particular change will be. But in both cases, I decided, for whatever reason, to quit. I regret not heeding the advice of Babylon 5’s Marcus Cole, who at one point asks Commander Ivanova, “And how old will you be in a year if you don’t learn to speak Minbari?”

I started training in Tae Kwon Do when I was about fifteen, and stayed with it for around a year – long enough to test a couple of times. I remember I was working on my Green Belt when I quit. And I remember that I “got it.” I really grasped the fundamentals and saw how balance and strength and speed and focus worked together to produce exceptional results. I recall picking up on the techniques faster than others in my class. I wasn’t Bruce Lee by a long shot, but I knew my Sensei, Albert Fortunato, was pleased with my progress. I was, also. I don’t remember specifically why I quit – I suspect it was so I could slack off with my friends or something. I do remember that I really enjoyed the training while I was doing it.

Next, I remember in the late 1980s going with my friend Bill Mehlem to check out a different dojo. Bill was a very serious karate student who had trained in Kenpo for a number of years and was, at the time, working toward his black-belt at a fairly hardcore dojo. He had seen a demonstration of Aikido and wanted to learn more about it, so we headed over to Eastwood to check out the Aikido of Central New York school. Neither of us signed up right then, but it must have stuck with me. Within a year or so, Sensei Mehter had opened up a new dojo on Erie Boulevard and I joined in 1990. It’s an understatement to say that I loved Aikido. I really loved it. I loved the training and the style and the dojo and I liked my fellow students. I trained there for around eighteen months, give or take, and while I was training I went full-bore. I often attended two or occasionally even three classes in a day. I went on Fridays for the weapons training (the jo staff and bokken/katana were the preferred weapons of Morihei Ueshiba, Aikido’s Ōsensei, and are often taught as part of the art). I attended every seminar offered at the school, wherein experienced masters of the art were brought in from as far away as the main Hombu dojo in Japan to lead a day or two of intensive training. I had the great good fortune to train under, among others, Shihans Yamada and Sugano, both of whom were students under Ōsensei and now teach in New York City.

My Aikido training also represents the only time I’ve ever broken anything. I never played sports and while I’m by no means graceful, I’m either dexterous enough or lucky enough to have never broken a bone. I did, however, smash my nose to pieces during my 5th Kyu Aikido test. And it was quite clearly my own damn fault. I can’t remember how many times Sensei had told me to keep my back straight when performing techniques, particularly iriminage. Regardless, I would often find myself bent over rather than squatting as I whirled my opponent, or Uke, around. When testing, it wasn’t uncommon for an Uke to be very enthusiastic in trying to help you look good, and mine was no exception. His name was Tom, I think, and he and I had joined around the same time. He was thrilled to be able to help me gain my next rank. There’s a point in the iriminage technique where you have spun your Uke around and, off balance, they have fallen to the ground. You then are supposed to place the crook of your elbow under their chin, forcing them to rise so you can twist your hips and send them flying over backwards. Mark my words carefully here – if you bend over them when they’re on the ground and they decide to stand up, helpfully, on their own, the top of their head, which is very hard, will connect firmly with your nose, which is fairly soft. It will then get even softer and a fair amount of blood may gush out. After that, you’ll need to have your nose stuffed with gauze and wear ridiculous-looking tape over it for several weeks, possibly including the trip to visit your new fiancée’s family for Thanksgiving dinner. Yeah, that was me.

I also don’t remember why I quit Aikido. I did pass my test – either because I’d demonstrated a basic mastery of 5th-kyu techniques before my ignominious failure to properly apply an iriminage, or because I had the guts to get back up after my nose stopped bleeding and finish my test. Or because Sensei took pity on me for smashing my nose all to pieces – I can’t be sure which. But I was a 5th Kyu, so I’m sure that’s not why I quit. But I also had a new fiancée and I wanted to spend every possible second with her, which may have been part of it. And it was godawful expensive to a student with only a part-time job, and that, I think, may have been most of the problem.

But to bring this full circle, it’s now been about 23 years since I quit Tae Kwon Do and 17 years since I quit Aikido. More than enough time to be a black belt several times over in either style or both. My wife also trained me in Okinowan Goju-Ryu for a bit – a bo kata, a sai kata, a few other basics – but I didn’t have much determination to stick with it outside the formal atmosphere of the dojo. But I suppose it could still count as a third style in which I’d dabbled, if only briefly.

Now my kids have gotten into the martial arts, and if they really hate it, I certainly won’t make them stick with it. But if they seem to genuinely enjoy it, I’ll do my best to help them think real hard before giving it up. As much as regrets are part of the human condition, so is the desire to spare your children such pain as you’re able, and regret certainly counts. It’s too late for me. My gi is too tight, but it doesn’t matter. I have forgotten how to spar.