Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 Virtual Vellum Wrap-up

The ten “best” blog articles of the year

In this case, the “year” only goes back to July, since that’s when I launched Virtual Vellum. Since then, I’ve written 150 articles, not including this one, weighing in at some 120,000 words. For those of you who have read each and every one of them, no, you may not submit your therapist’s bills to me. Stop sending them.

For those of you who joined later in the game, here’s a recap of some of the articles I thought turned out best:

The Secret of Man’s Failures is in the Bathroom (August 26th) – I think this was my favorite article of the year. It’s certainly more skillfully written than most of them. If you don’t read it, you’ll never know the secret, or what I’m hoping for the bathrooms of Mars.

[Fiction] If the One Doesn’t Get You (August 10th) – this was the first (and to date only) short story I’ve published on my blog. I got a very good response to it and am still happy to read new feedback about it. Look for a second draft sometime in 2010, either after I’ve finished my novel or at some point when I need to take a break from it. It’s far from my favorite short story of those I’ve written, but it’s not terrible, either.

Mike’s Bar-B-Que Adventure (July 18th – 28th) – it sounds like the story of some guy cooking chicken on his gas grill, but it was actually so much more than that. The super-short version is that I submitted a local restaurant’s name for a contest on Good Morning America and my entry won. This meant I got to be on TV and then got a trip to visit the GMA studios and spend a weekend in Manhattan. The multi-part series covers the whole expedition in excruciating detail. I was pretty happy with how it turned out – both the contest and the blog articles.

This Ain’t Eden - Reflections on a Vegetable Garden Part 1 (July 31st) – I thought this story of how I planted my garden, and how I very nearly bought nearly twenty times as much topsoil as I actually needed, was pretty good. Part 2, where I get philosophical about how much trouble I’d be in if I relied on my farming skill wasn’t bad, either.

Building my Media Empire one Social Networking Site at a Time (August 4th) – I was pleased with my review of how social networking has grown and changed over the last ten years, to the point where I finally decided it was worth the bother of signing on myself.

A Seemingly Typical Morning (September 11th) – it’s not terribly original to write a reminiscence of the events of 9/11 on 9/11 of a later year, but I think this one’s half-decent. It’s not merely a recollection, but also an exercise (for me) in descriptive writing.

The Movie Theatre I Grew Up In (September 17th) – I spent way too much time watching movies in the local theatre when I was young. The theater is gone, now, but my memories of it remain.

Microsoft Courier - It’s not just a lousy font anymore (September 24th) – I don’t write a ton of product reviews, especially for products I’ve never actually seen, but I was pretty happy with how this one turned out, especially the subtitle.  I hope this product becomes a reality, because I think it’s very nearly the future of personal computing.

Footprints in the Digital Sand (October 20th) – I was rather taken with my analysis of how the Internet will surely change, for better or worse, the future access to our documents, great and small, by our descendants.

Bound by Strings of Steel - The Struggles and Triumphs of Two Fledgling Guitarists (October 19th) – when you start playing your first musical instrument at the age of 38, it’s easy to get philosophical about it. And so I did.

And that’s it for 2009! See you on Monday for my look at the movies, books and TV shows that I’m currently most excited about for the coming year! Happy New Year, Vellumites!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Tops Part II

Some favorite TV shows of the last ten years

I don’t know whether I should be surprised or not, but there haven’t been anywhere near as many TV shows in the last 10 years that I’ve really liked as there have been movies. It’s hard to sort through all of the TV shows that have been on in the last decade and pick out just the ones I really liked, as so many fade easily into obscurity. But here are a few of the best:

Band of Brothers (2001) - Hands-down, my favorite TV series in the last 10 years has to be Band of Brothers. It was just plain excellent in every conceivable way. This true story of the exploits of the 405th Parachute Infantry Regimen’s Easy Company during and after the D-Day invasion of World War II portrayed these heroic men in all of their humanity as well as depicting their bravery and strength of spirit.

Battlestar Galactica Pilot (2003) – the initial 3-hour miniseries that rebooted this old 70’s classic, once dubbed the “son of star Wars” on the cover of Newsweek, was absolutely fantastic. You could see all of the playing pieces that Ron Moore had established for the series to build on – the lack of networked computer technology (because the android enemy Cylons could easily hack them), the gritty feel, the documentary-style camerawork, and the amazing-looking CGI Cylon soldiers. The characters, too, were much deeper than the heroic Colonial Warriors of the older series. They were still betrayed by the amoral Gaius Baltar, however in this case he joined the refugee fleet instead of the Cylon base ships. They turned hotshot fighter pilots “Starbuck” and “Boomer” into girls, and executive officer Colonel Tigh into an old alcoholic. Even lead alpha-males Commander Adama and his son, Apollo, were rewritten to have a newer, more contentious relationship (ie. They hated each other to start with). The battles were up close and personal, the politics were brutal, and the Cylons were more ruthless and cunning than ever – with certain models even inexplicably mimicking people down to the last detail. The opening pilot was so amazing that I must have easily watched it 15 or 20 times. It had incredible potential, which made the failure of the later seasons all the more devastating to me. Still, I enjoyed the pilot as much as any TV I’ve ever watched.

The Shield season 1 (2002) – the Shield went on to seven excellent seasons, but in my opinion none of them were ever quite as good as the first. In the first season, lead character Vic Mackey was on top of his game – a dirty cop leading a team of dirty cops who used blackmail, intimidation, evidence tampering and even murder to manage gang violence and drug activity in their own little chunk of Los Angeles. Sure, they skimmed enough off the top to live comfortably, but in their minds they were doing a public service by putting their own “chosen” men in charge of the gangs and drug dealers, ensuring that the “innocent” civilians were protected. The second through seventh seasons showed Vic constantly struggling to keep his little fiefdom from crumbling around him and he was never in control the way he was in the first season. This was certainly part of the show’s appeal, but for me watching Vic win more often than he lost was a guilty pleasure that was never really repeated.

Farscape seasons 1-3 (1999-2001) – the first three seasons of this show were some truly original, epic science fiction that featured amazing aliens, clever stories, action and humor. I wasn’t as taken with the show’s last few years, but the first three were incredible.

Heroes season 1 (2006) – this show did an especially good job of mixing the stories of a dozen or so super-powered characters and villains with a conspiracy, time-travel, prophetic visions and a planet-ending doom lurking just around the corner. While it’s a shame that none of the seasons that followed could replicate the magic of the first, the inaugural season of Heroes hit a high note that very few other shows on TV could hope to achieve.

24 seasons 1-3 (2001-2004) – while I didn’t find that the implausibility of this series held my attention for the long haul, in that I haven’t watched the last several seasons, the first few years of this series were literally “edge-of-your-seat” good. The real-time aspect of the show – depicting a day in the life of an elite counter-terrorism agent as he battled against bad guys with various detailed and inventive plans for advancing their heinous agendas. We came to respect the indomitable Jack Bauer even as we reviled the pseudo-technology of the headquarters team “opening a socket” whenever he needed something done. We openly mocked the fact that in every season, there was a new and different terrorist mole somehow ensconced within this super-secret, high-security government agency. Apparently the first villain they needed to shoot was their director of Human Resources. Regardless, the plots were appropriately convoluted, the bad-guys were really bad, and the good guys always got the job done, preferably at the last possible second. At least in its early years, 24 hit the bull’s-eye time and again.

Dr. Who (various) – this BBC classic was re-invented yet again in 2005 and continues to air into 2010 and (presumably) beyond. While I was a big fan of the show back in the Tom Baker era (1974-1981), I didn’t even attempt to keep up with the handful of new incarnations that appeared in the 80s and 90s. Dr. Who is a quintessential British show, not least because it’s produced by the BBC. This means that finding it on your local television in North America is a gamble at best. In the last few years, though, it’s been airing on the Sci-Fi (or Sy Fy) channel, and it’s been excellent. Bearing in mind that Dr. Who was never about production values (the quality of the aliens, props, and special effects have ranged from lackluster to truly appalling over the years), the excellent sci-fi stories have more than made up the difference over the years, and the show’s current incarnation is no exception. The central character “regenerates” each time he’s killed, reappearing as a new actor with a completely different personality, and the two latest actors to command the TARDIS time-machine have been better than any of the other Doctors I’ve seen. The “ninth” Doctor was played by Christopher Eccleston, who played the army officer in 28 Days Later. Since then, it’s been the “tenth” Doctor, played by David Tennant, who you may have seen playing Barty Crouch, Jr. in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Both actors brought a new energy and joie de vivre to the character that was refreshing and enjoyable. Tennant, in particular, lent a charm and child-like wonder to the character that fit incredibly well with his “last of the time-lords” persona, and made those times when he had to stand in firm opposition to an enemy all the more impressive. The modern Dr. Who definitely stands in good stead with the Tom Baker years, and easily qualifies as some of the best TV of the last ten years.

Lost season 1 (2004) – I have to admit that I really enjoyed the first season of Lost. I watched it religiously, I followed all of the theories on the Internet, I dug and I read and I thought about the show. So I put that first season right up there as an example of great TV. Here’s the problem – there was no payoff. The producers went the entire season revealing a deeper and deeper mystery without every revealing any but the barest answers behind that mystery. By the time season two rolled around, I was tired of having my chain jerked. Then they introduced Michelle Rodriguez as some sort of uber-obnoxious ex-cop and I just couldn’t stand another minute. I haven’t watched the show since, but none of that diminishes the fact that the carefully-crafted, intricate storyline of season 1 was revolutionary television and definitely some of the best of the last ten years.

Chuck (2007 – present) – Chuck has to be on my list because it was the only show last spring where I checked the ratings each week and waited and watched and waited some more to see whether it would be renewed for another season. Yeah, Sarah Connor Chronicles was good, too, and I was sorry it didn’t get renewed, but the show I really cared about was Chuck. This show is about an electronics store clerk who’s old roommate-turned-super-spy secretly uploads a gigantic database of top-secret info into the guy’s head when it’s in danger of being lost. Now there are bad guys hunting for this database and the US Government trying to use it, which means that the guy who has it in is head is forced into becoming a spy – a job for which he is supremely unqualified as a shy, unsophisticated geek. Its ensemble cast of Zachary Levi, Yvonne Strahovski, Adam Baldwin and a host of co-stars put together a show that’s part James Bond and part Abbot and Costello. I enjoy the spy stuff every bit as much as I enjoy the scenes that are played for laughs, and it helps that the humorous parts are genuinely funny while the secret agent stuff is every bit as good as anything in Alias was (another great show that very nearly made my list). The show has had a ton of special guests ranging from John Lauroquette to Chevy Chase to supplement the regular cast and they combine with a dizzying array of pop-culture references to make the show stand out. It’s about to enter its third season in a couple of weeks and I’m frankly stunned that such a great show has had ratings issues in the past. I hope the show maintains its quality this year and brings in more viewers, as such a smart, clever, funny and fun-to-watch series ought to be on for the long haul.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Tops

A selection of favorite movies from 2000 to the present

The last decade’s had a lot of great entertainment – almost too much to name. So I’m not going to try to name it all, nor do I have the patience to sift through everything, put it in order, then pick out the “top 20” or whatever. Instead, I’m just going to select a few favorites and describe why they stuck in my memory.

The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) – you can’t talk about favorite movies from the 2000 era without mentioning Peter Jackson’s epic masterpiece. In my mind, this series represents some of the greatest filmmaking in the history of the genre, and that’s not just the raging fanboy talking. Well, ok, it kind of is, but still, what more could you want from a movie? The writing was obviously superb (having been lifted whole-cloth from the classic novels), the acting was well above par, the music and special effects and cinematography were all outstanding. When you end up with a 9-hour-long story that doesn’t feel like half that, you’ve reached true brilliance. I sincerely hope that Jackson’s The Hobbit manages to deliver in the same way, but regardless LOTR will stand on its own as the pinnacle of movie-making for our age.

I, Robot (2004) – this isn’t a lot of people’s favorite movie. It’s got some plot-holes, to be certain, and apparently Will Smith is so popular that some people instinctively dislike him. But when I’m in the mood to pop in a DVD to kill some time, I keep coming back to I, Robot. It’s a cleverly-written sci-fi story with good action that even manages to wrestle with the question of what makes one human without getting too lost in its own morality over it. I love this movie and I don’t plan to stop watching it anytime soon.

Harry Potter and the X of Y (2001 – present) – I admit that when I first heard about these “kids books” I was skeptical. I didn’t really read much Young Adult fiction when I was a young adult, much less as an old man. But we were picking up the books as they came out to put away for when our kids were old enough and as they took the world by storm I figured “what the hell.” And I was hooked – I really loved the books and have read them all several times. When they started making movies out of them, I sincerely hoped that they’d pull it off. And, by and large they did. Some are weaker than others, and all of them are forced to leave out huge chunks of the story to keep to a manageable length. Heck, even Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies left out plenty of stuff (Thom Bombadil, for one, the which I miss not in the least) and they’re technically not of a manageable length. Now when I read the books, it’s hard NOT to picture the actors from the movies, as they did such a good job of becoming their characters. The movies are very watchable even for those who haven’t read the books – as evidenced by my kids and their clear enjoyment of them – and yet true fans can enjoy them as well. They will certainly stand out in my memory of this era as time rolls along.

Wanted (2008) – when I saw the previews for this movie, referencing the “secret order of assassins” I was intrigued. When we got it from Netflix and fired it up, the intro scenes, so reminiscent of Office Space, hooked us. But then the film did a switcheroo worthy of Tarentino’s From Dusk Until Dawn and suddenly it was a whole different story and we were enthralled. This is the only movie we’ve ever gotten from Netflix that we didn’t immediately return, but instead tossed back in the DVD player and watched a second time.

Eagle Eye (2008) – another Netflix hit, this movie was a gripping techno-thriller that pulled us in and then took us for a ride. This and Wanted (above) are both in a very short list of DVDs that I’d consider buying to own after already having seen them off Netflix. Incidentally, I, Robot is the only movie to date that I’ve ever done that with.

Kill Bill, Volume 1 & 2 (2003/2004) – I don’t know why I held off so long in seeing these two films. Part of it, certainly, was that they’re not usually my wife’s sort of movie and we generally see most movies together – particularly when they’re on DVD. Part of it was just a reflex that they couldn’t possibly be as good as everybody seemed to think they were. I had a similar reaction to Fight Club which proved to be dead on (though my wife loved it, I thought it was lousy). I have to admit, though, that Tarentino really did an outstanding job on these movies. Their story is carefully-crafted, pulling from a wide array of sources that included such unlikely influences as spaghetti westerns and Japanese manga comics. These movies are also on my very short list of DVDs I’d like to own.

Phone Booth (2003) – a movie about a guy in a phone booth. Literally, 98% of this movie takes place inside a phone booth. Crazy, right? Crazy like a fox. It’s a story about a guy who’s not a total scumbag, but he’s definitely an asshole. He uses a particular phone booth from which to call both prospective business associates (he’s a wheeler and dealer) as well as a woman he’s set his sights on making his mistress. On one particular day, though, the phone rings while he’s there, and the guy on the other end of the line has a sniper rifle aimed at his head. He then puts him through a series of demands by which he peels away the asshole’s tough outer crust, revealing his most personal secrets to the world – especially to his wife, his near-mistress, and the business associates he’s been trying to convince that he’s a real player. All while a legion of cops looks on, clueless to the fact that he’s the victim of a crime, not the criminal himself. It was a really riveting and amazingly original movie and we enjoyed it very much.

Cellular (2004) – it’s no coincidence that Cellular is similar to Phone Booth – the screenplay for both was written or co-written by Mackye Gruber. In this film, an abducted woman locked away in a building manages to partially repair the phone that was smashed by her kidnappers. She reaches a young man on his cell, but if the connection is lost she may be screwed. So only he can help her, yet neither she nor he knows where she is being held or even why she’s been abducted. Another thriller, Cellular was a riveting adventure from beginning to end.

Pirates of the Caribbean, the Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) – considering that this movie was based on my all-time favorite Disney ride, I had high hopes going into it. And boy were they rewarded. The character of Captain Jack Sparrow was a fine and necessary addition, as the ride itself had no real “protagonist” per se with whom you could tell a story, and Depp played him marvelously as slightly bumbling but in a way that always suggested it was all just an act and he really was as brilliant as he said he was. On top of old Jack, the cursed pirates were also magnificent and really helped embody the spirit of the timeless ride. The rest of the trilogy wasn’t quite as good, as often happens, but the original was excellent.

Star Trek (2009) – kudos to J.J. Abrams for having the guts to reboot this tired series. I’m one of the few who has watched (and largely enjoyed) all the Star Trek TV shows up to and including the much-maligned (and admittedly disappointing) Enterprise, but the movie franchise has been pretty hit-or-miss, with all but one of the “Next Generation” films being especially bad. My only regret with the success of the Star Trek Movie is that it’s not plausible within the scope of “show business” for the cast of the film to embark on a new TV series (despite the fact that several of the key actors had either no significant acting resume or were actually television stars before striking it big with Trek).

Avatar (2009) – previously reviewed, but real damn good.

The Comic Book Movies – the 2000s produced a slew of really fantastic comic book movies after decades of miserable failure. I mean, in the 70s, 80s and 90s, all we really got were Superman 1 & 2 and Batman. Everything else was crap. The 2000s finally proved that you could use classic comic book superstars to make fun, interesting and engaging movies.

Iron Man (2008) – possibly my favorite so far, and very unexpectedly. Iron Man was clever, action-packed, irreverent, and, at times, really funny!

Spider-Man 1& 2 (2002/2004) – leave it to Sam Raimi to really get it right. Well, on two-thirds of this (so far) trilogy, anyway. The third movie was crap, but the first two really captured the essence of Peter Parker’s dual existence, his relationship with his friends and family, and his growth into a true hero. I hope they don’t screw up the fourth one.

The Dark Knight (2009) – Batman Begins was actually pretty darn awesome, too, and worthy of note, but Ras Al’Ghul just wasn’t equal to the task of being Batman’s nemesis the way the Joker was. Batman Begins suffered some of the “origin myth” trauma that’s common to superhero movies – having to spend so much time developing the character into the hero that there’s not much left for the rest of the story. The Dark Knight, rather, started with a bang and kept going, most of it courtesy of the Joker. Granted, it had some plot holes you could drive a batmobile through, but the action and the performances made up for them and made Dark Knight into a kickass superhero movie.

X-Men and X-Men 2: X-Men United (2000/2003) – the fact that these two movies, helmed by Bryan Singer, were so great is a big part of what makes me hate the third of the series so much. You can see the potential for what it could have been just by looking back at the first two, as they were terrific. The first, in particular, does an amazing job of pitting Wolverine against Cyclops with some excellent banter and one-liners, but we also see Magneto at his most menacing and Xavier as the champion of reason and discussion over violence. If the forthcoming Avengers movie manages to be anywhere close to as good an ensemble film as the first two X-Men movies, it’s going to kick some serious superhero ass.

Tune in tomorrow for highlights of the best Television from the 2000s!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas Wrap-up

Ho ho ho!

Christmas of 2009 was a splendid thing. We kicked it off with my wife’s family joining us for Christmas Eve. My wife made not one but TWO delicious lasagnes – one with ricotta cheese and the other with ground beef and sausage for those among her family who are not on good terms with lactose. I mixed mine together for a whopping big monster lasagna with both cheese and meat. She then topped everything off with a selection of her fine Christmas cookies and a very tasty cheesecake. And as always, the company was warm and fun.

My daughter graced us with a selection of Christmas songs on the piano and the trumpet, while I played the one and only song I know on the guitar (No Place Like Home for the Holidays). I’d have liked to have my son join me on that, but he just wasn’t up for a public performance. We’ll be even more ready for next year, as I used a coupon from the Music & Arts Center to get myself a really nice little book of Christmas music – Hal Leonard’s 17 Super Christmas Hits Easy Guitar Book. It was a heck of a deal – a $10 coupon used on a $9.95 book, plus free shipping. I ordered it last Monday and had it by Saturday. I even discovered that I could play more than half the songs right out of the gate, which is pretty cool.

After our guests had left, my wife took the kids outside to spread the little packets of “reindeer food” that my parents send them every year. They’re little bags of oatmeal and glitter, but the kids get a big kick out of feeding Santa’s reindeer and it’s become an annual tradition. At last we got the kids tucked into bed and set out all of the presents. I was profoundly full, but I did my part to put a dent in the cookies left out for Santa.

It’s funny, I just can’t sleep late on Christmas. I was the first one up, by a solid hour or more. I came downstairs and messed around on my computer, basking in the glow of the Christmas tree and trying hard not to trip over the mountain of presents spread around the living room. And this was deliberately a light year – the bounty was actually much smaller than it has been in the past. Every year we find we drown our kids in toys, many of which they never really play with. This time we tried to focus more on stuff they both really wanted and were likely to actually use. Likewise, my wife and I had a strict “no presents” policy, which we cheerfully violated, but only a little.

One of the stocking-stuffers my wife bought for the kids was a set of little wooden instruments called “ocarinas.” These ancient wind instruments, which according to Wikipedia date back some 12,000 years, make a nice little sound, but to my sons they were little more than large whistles or kazoos – something to toot on, but not something which with they could make actual music. My daughter, on the other hand, is some kind of musical genius. Ok, that’s surely an exaggeration, but there’s no question that she’s got more musical talent in her little finger than I’ve got in my whole body. She picked up this strange instrument and immediately began to play it. My wife would suggest that she “might be able to learn” to play some of the songs she plays on her trumpet in the school’s band, to which my daughter would respond by immediately playing several of those songs. There’s very little similarity in form or appearance between her little wooden ocarina with its six finger holes and two thumb holes as compared to her trumpet with its large mouthpiece and three piston valves. Yet she instantly understood the instrument and how to give it voice. I find this amazing and inspiring. It makes me really happy to know that whatever she does with her life, she’ll have the ability to make music and share it with family or friends or she can just use it to entertain and soothe herself.

My favorite present was actually a gold Star Trek “Captain Kirk” shirt that my wife ordered for me off a cereal box back in June. It’s not technically as practical as the Snuggie my wife got me, which should allow me to work in my chilly basement without losing feeling in my fingertips, but I’m a big Trek fan and I like the shirt a lot.

Christmas dinner was embarrassingly simple – a ham, some of my whipped potatoes, frozen corn, dinner rolls and broccoflower drizzled with a delicious cheese sauce my wife cooked up. Compared to Thanksgiving dinner, it just didn’t seem very complicated, but it was certainly delicious.

On Saturday, we took the kids to see Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. I probably won’t write a full review for it, but the short version is that it was neither very good nor very bad – just mediocre. It was nice to see Zachary Levi doing something other than Chuck, but while he’s shown himself to be a decent actor on that excellent show, there was nothing special about his performance in this movie, nor anything special about the movie in general. It was cute in parts and occasionally elicited a chuckle, but it there were no belly-laughs to be found.

To finish off the holiday, we visited my wife’s brother Bob and his wife Diane, who are hosting my sister-in-law’s family who have come up from their home in the South to spend the holiday with those of us here in Syracuse. The birthdays in that household are clustered largely around Christmas and the New Year, so technically Sunday’s festivities were a big birthday party, but it was festive enough to feel like part of Christmas. Diane stuffed us full of a delicious baked ravioli. To top everything off, my wife had prepared one of her artistic cakes – a two-layer winter sculpture lavished with giant snowflakes, white-chocolate Christmas trees, and even a ski-slope populated by mini-marshmallow snowmen. Beyond the food, it was really nice to spend time again with the whole family (or nearly all of it – there’s one more brother-in-law who live even further off) and it was great to see my kids and their cousins pick up their relationship right where they’d left off a year ago. It’s sad that they get to spend so little time together, but it makes the time they do have that much more precious and wonderful.

Precious and wonderful – that’s a fitting description for this Christmas.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

My Favorite Books of the “Decade”

In no particular order

I don’t know if I can say I read a lot. I’m a pretty slow reader and it usually takes me a week or more to finish a book (depending on how much it holds my interest, possibly a bit more or a bit less). I typically only read novels, and almost exclusively novels in the genres of Sci-fi, Fantasy and Alternate History.

For me, the 80s and 90s were the greatest decades in reading, because there were some really tremendous works that I got my hands on in those timeframes, as well as a lot of crap that was still pretty entertaining. In the last ten years, I read some wildly enjoyable books, though not too many that truly blew me away. Most of those that did were actually parts of ongoing series that started in the 1990s, like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire or David Weber’s Honor Harrington books. In such a case, I’ll pull in the whole series and write about it as long as at least some of the books were published in the last ten years.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks (2006) – this novel was so great that I read it several times and even forced my wife to read it. It tells the stories of people who survived a global plague of zombies – fictional characters interviewed by an equally-fictional journalist narrator, but all conducted in complete seriousness. Brooks clearly gave a lot of thought to how different governments and individuals would react to an outbreak of disease like the one in the book that caused zombie reanimation, as well as to how the disease would spread and what the zombies would do. Despite being the son of renowned filmmaker Mel Brooks, Max shows nothing of his father’s slapstick in World War Z – it’s played absolutely straight and the impact it makes it impressive. Despite the fantastic premise, the book reads entirely as if actually assembled by a journalist after a global catastrophe.

S.M. Stirling wrote two great series that were different sides of the same conceptual “coin.” Imagine that the island of Nantucket suddenly disappears in the late 1990s, to reappear two thousand years in the past. In the modern world, an island of primitive savages appears to replace it, but at the same time all sources of power – from electricity to atomic energy to simple gunpowder – cease to function. These were two separate series – one covering the exploits of the denizens of Nantucket as they struggle to exist in the distant past, the other covering the struggle of 20th-century people to cope with the collapse of their civilization and the change in certain natural laws. Both were excellent, though I preferred the earlier series consisting of:
•    Island in the Sea of Time (1998)
•    Against the Tide of Years (1999)
•    On the Oceans of Eternity (2000)

The second series, called the “Novels of the Change,” were also good. Stirling excels at creating very realistic characters and challenging them in extraordinary circumstances. He also creates political factions and then pits them against each other, often in epic battles. I was occasionally disappointed when he would skip over the narrative of a key battle that he’d been building toward – something that occurred in both series – but the ones he did describe were very enjoyable. Sadly, his most recent series of novels, following the adventures of a group of children who are the descendants of those who survived the big change, are not nearly as good as his prior works.

American Empire and Settling Accounts Trilogies, by Harry Turtledove (2002 to 2006) – These six books concluded an alternate history of the United States that began with Custer surviving Little Big Horn and continued through a successful Confederate succession and all the way up through both (alternate) world wars. Sadly, this series isn’t actually on my favorites list. I found that these books got less and less interesting as they went on, with the books published in the 2000s failing to really grip me as some of the earlier works had done. Some of the characters got downright bland by the time the series finally ended and I wasn’t disappointed to see it conclude.

Instead, I’d have to say that I was pretty happy with Turtledove’s Opening Atlantis (2007). This alternate reality offers a world where the uninhabited, sylvan continent of Atlantis is discovered in the 1400s by Europeans and settled ahead of the Americas. The global balance of power is shifted by the additional landmass so close to Europe, while its settlers struggle with many of the same issues of self-determination and sovereign boundaries as the British, French and Spanish colonies of the Americas. There are two additional novels in the series, but I accidently purchased them out of order and haven’t read them yet. I hope they’re as good as the first one.

While I’m on a Turtledove roll, I have to put a plug in for Ruled Brittania (2002). Set in an alternate history where Spain's Armada completed their 1588 voyage to England and succeeded in taking over the country. The protagonist is none other than William Shakespeare, who must navigate intrigues as he works alongside an English resistance against their Catholic Spanish oppressors. A really remarkable read. In fact, Turtledove writes Shakespeare as a character very, very well. For instance, check out his short story We Haven't Got There Yet at the website. It's not related to Ruled Brittania, but it's quite good.

Two of David Weber’s Honor Harrington novels were published in the last ten years, so I’m dragging the whole batch of them in here. Also, I didn’t discover them until the last year, even though my friend John has been suggesting I read them for years. In particular, Ashes of Victory (2000) was quite good, though as the ninth in the series I wouldn’t recommend skipping straight to this novel. Weber’s skills are in creating characters that feel like real people, political factions that behave as frustratingly as actual politicians, and, best of all, setting up characters and situations in early novels that pay off in deliciously unexpected ways sometimes four or five or more novels later. His military sci-fi technology is also extremely well-written and logical, providing the tools for some truly epic space battles.

George R.R. Martin’s ongoing series A Song of Ice and Fire is truly outstanding, though frustratingly incomplete after a brisk beginning. Two of the books were published in the last ten years, but this is another case where you’d really need to start at the beginning. The series thus far includes:
•    A Game of Thrones (1996)
•    A Clash of Kings (1998)
•    A Storm of Swords (2000)
•    A Feast for Crows (2005)

This saga tells the story of several very ancient families in the lands of Westeros, whose histories intertwined as their ancestors struggled for power and prominence though wars, intrigue, and royal successions. From the noble Starks of the North to the wealthy but treacherous Lannisters of the West, the quest for power and glory sets in motion events that touch every corner of this fantastic world. Martin is a true master of juggling literally thousands of characters through every sort of political machination, some of which have their roots centuries ago. It’s amazing to watch the complexity of the families Martin creates, and the ways in which he seeds secrets and plots that pay off far in the future. There’s a touch of magic in A Song of Ice and Fire, but not a lot. Likewise, fantastical creatures are kept fairly to a minimum – there are no elves or orcs, all but a handful of the ancient dragons are extinct, and the walking dead are confined to one very specific part of the world. This reads as far more of a historical fiction than a fantasy, which is appropriate since Martin based it largely on England’s War of the Roses. The fourth book was the weakest of the set and the fifth book, originally predicted by the author to be finished quite soon after the fourth, is now coming up on five years in production. The author needs to kick these final few books out the door and finish off this series, hopefully in the same brilliant manner as it was begun. Regardless, the first three books are exceptional reads in their own right. Plus, if you enjoy audiobooks, the reading of the first three books, unabridged, by Roy Dotrice is the finest set of audiobook recordings I’ve ever heard. Dotrice has a singular ability to not only create (and somehow remember) authentic voices for Martin’s cast of thousands, but he even matches accents to members of the same family for an added level of realism.

Finally, I have to say that I really enjoyed the DUNE prequel books the Legends of Dune trilogy by Brian Herbert (son of the late Frank Herbert, DUNE’s author) and Kevin J. Anderson. I love the original DUNE, but I have been unsuccessful at multiple attempts to read the entire original series, always giving up somewhere around the third book. This trilogy succeeds at leveraging the DUNE universe as created by the elder Herbert, but adding both an accessibility and an engaging story that much of the original series seems to lack. Herbert and Anderson have written quite a few books in the worlds of DUNE, many of which I’ve read and enjoyed, but to date I liked these best. If you’re a fan of the original DUNE, I suggest giving these a look.

And that’s it for favorite books. There were certainly others that I enjoyed quite a bit, among them Stephen King’s Under the Dome and John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War that deserve a spot on this list, but I’ve reviewed them pretty recently and wanted to be sure to highlight some of the other fine novels of the last decade. These are just the best of the ones I’ve read, of course – a quick google search will turn up plenty more “best of lists” from critics with a far broader range.

That’s it for this week – have a very Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The “Decade” in Review

If you count funny

First off, this isn’t the end of the decade. It’s the end of A decade, technically, in terms of a consecutive grouping of ten years. But it’s the end of the first decade of the 21st century only if you count 0-1-2-3-4-5-9-7-8-9, rather than 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10 like normal people. But, I need something to blog about and “end of the decade reviews” seem to be all the rage at the other blogs I like to read, so what the hell. If I remember to recycle these, it should really reduce the work-effort at this time next year.

My plan over the next week or so is to have fun and slack off a lot. Oh yeah, and my plan, as far as this blog is concerned, is to write the following articles and put them up between now and the end of the year, skipping Christmas and New Year’s, and possibly some of the “eve” holidays that get thrown in alongside them. The articles to expect include:

•    Favorite Films and TV of the “Decade”
•    Favorite Books of the “Decade”
•    Most Disappointing Films of the “Decade”
•    Upcoming Stuff I’m Excited About

And to be clear, these will be the best and worst of stuff I’ve actually seen. It’s not a grand round-up of everything, just the highlights and lowlights of what I actually experienced. And with no further ado, let’s get started:

My Approximately 20 Most Disappointing Films of the “Decade”

In no particular order

I’m usually pretty good at sussing out which movies suck out loud before I go to see them, so this isn’t an awfully long list. I managed to avoid Star Trek: Nemesis entirely, for example, just based on the universally awful reviews. Sometimes, though, I’m just overwhelmed by quality marketing or loyalty to a particular director or action. The converse is not true, however – I can’t always predict the really good movies in advance, so sometimes it takes me a while to discover movies that I should have seen when they were brand new. The Kill Bill movies are probably the best example of this, though I was fairly underwhelmed by Pulp Fiction so it’s kind of a wash there. Here are some movies I did see, ranging in quality from lackluster to real stink bombs.

The Chronicles of Riddick (2004) – after Pitch Black, this should have been an awesome movie. Vin Diesel’s character with the metal eyes that let him see in the dark was a fascinating, futuristic anti-hero who you rooted for even knowing he was a cold-hearted criminal. The problem with the Chronicles of Riddick is that I’ve seen it twice and still don’t know what the hell it was about.

Star Wars Episodes 2 & 3 (2002 and 2005) – these weren’t unqualified stinkers by any means, and at least they made very little use of the vile Jar Jar Binks, they just weren’t that good. The prequels were so full of potential, but honestly the only really, truly outstanding films of the entire 6-movie series were Star Wars and Empire. I find myself looking forward to the inevitable mini-series remake in 15-20 years when somebody who actually knows how to write can plug the various plot holes, put acting ahead of special effects, and produce the “saga for the ages” that Star Wars should have been.

The Matrix 2 & 3 (2003) – to the same extent that the Wachowski Brothers hit one out of the park with the original Matrix film, these crummy sequels are pop flies right into the catcher’s mitt. Like with Star Wars, the creators succeeded in making an initial film that blew everybody away with its combination of a retelling of stories founded in various myths and archetypes with impressive, even revolutionary special effects. Then they took a dirt nap on the sequels, just plowing nose-first into the soil. The latter two Matrix movies were all flash, no substance, and lacked the character and soul of the original.

Battlefield Earth (2000) – no “worst of” list would be complete without mentioning this total piece of crap. If you’ve seen it, you know why I hated it. If you haven’t, don’t. And be glad.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) – it wasn’t a truly awful movie, but it sure failed to live up both to the hype and to the quality of its predecessors. I still liked it better than Temple of Doom, but please let this series die.

X-Men 3: The Last Stand (2006) – this movie just plain sucked, particularly the pointless and ridiculously bad end-battle where Magneto (champion of mutants) sends his mutant legions to be uselessly slaughtered in small batches while he grandiosely watches from the Golden Gate Bridge – which he has picked up and moved just because he can. Bryan Singer, why have you abandoned us? The first two movies were terrific, whereas the third squandered the promise of the Phoenix character and everything else about this dumb plot.

Spider-Man 3 – not as bad as the third X-Men movies, but still a big question-mark to the quandary of why people who are brilliant at making movie #1 and even movie #2 fail so miserably at movie #3 in a series. It wasn’t unwatchable, but it wasn’t as good as it should have been. And with Raimi at the helm, it doesn’t even have the excuse that X-Men had when they lost Byran Singer on their third film.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) – yeah, I know everybody else has it on their “Best of” list. Too artsy for me or something – I’ve seen it twice and didn’t care for it at all.

Terminator: Salvation (2009) – What the hell was this movie about, again? Damned if I know. There were so many plot holes and dumb scenes in this movie, it was hard to suspend disbelief even as a simple popcorn flick. Seeing Arnold as a terminator again was cool as hell, even if it was only for about three seconds, but the rest of the movie didn’t do much for me. I’m glad Dark Knight and Avatar will ensure that Christian Bale and Sam Worthington still have careers.

Body of Lies (2008) – This political thriller, or whatever it was, was one big yawn-fest. Didn’t like it.

The Assassination of Jessie James (by the Coward Robert Ford) (2007) – Egads this movie was terrible. I can’t remember if we watched the entire thing or not, but for as much of it as we could stand it seemed to have no redeeming qualities.

Cloverfield (2000) – again, I know this shakey-cam, “Monster? Where??” movie was a big hit with a lot of people and made their “best of” lists. I found that I didn’t really care about the characters, didn’t really understand what the hell was going on most of the time, and was glad when the whole thing was over. I’ll take John Carpenter’s “The Thing” or Ridley Scott’s “Alien” if I want a good monster movie where the monster’s not really a main character. Cloverfield was dull.

Children of Men (2006) – I think this is the third movie on my list that made a lot of critics “best of” compilations. Yeah, big deal. I call ‘em like I see ‘em, and this movie was crap. I never did find a good explanation for why the last fertile woman on Earth was being shot at by the government, but, let’s face it, their society was screwed regardless. You can’t repopulate a species with one fertile female, regardless of what the Book of Genesis claims.

The Bridge to Terebithia (2007) – I suspect this movie was just terribly mis-marketed, but we went in expecting a story about children in a fairytale world and what we got was something much more down-to-earth and a lot less fun. The ending, in particular, was a big bring-down and if there was some sort of redemption in there someplace, I failed to see it.

Underworld and Underworld: Evolution (2003 and 2007) – how do you screw up a movie with Kate Beckinsale, a decent budget and an epic battle between Vampires and Werewolves? I’m not sure how you do it, but to see the results just check out these two movies. They were action-heavy but light on story and not big on making sense. I really wanted to love them, but came away disappointed.

Kingdom of Heaven (2005) – It’s Ridley Scott, for crying out loud! It had huge castles built in the deserts of Morocco! It should have rocked. It didn’t – the story was dull and didn’t hold my interest, despite the epic battle scenes.

National Treasure (2004) – I don’t know what to say about this film. Like so many Nicholas Cage movies, this one was just dumb.

Men in Black II (2002) – after the wonder and majesty of the original Men in Black, MIB II failed to deliver. It missed the snappy humor of the original, the enemy wasn’t as interesting as Vincent D’Onofrio, and Agent J was a lot less fun as a pro than he was as a rookie. If they could flash me with the neutralizer, I think I’d prefer to forget this movie and just remember the first one.

So that's my wrap-up. Next year I'll add a few more stinkers and make it my "25 worst" list.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

[Book Update] Storyline is DONE!

I've been struggling for weeks (well, for most of the year, really, but it got real important around a month ago when I sat down to write in earnest) to figure out the specifics of this story I had to tell. I had a lot of the pieces, but there were huge gaps and they weren't all necessarily in order. And some of them potentially contradicted each other. I needed to have a cohesive, logical story progression at some point. And it was increasingly clear that just sitting down and writing, letting the story grow organically, wasn't going to work for me. This is a complex enough tale that I needed to know what the hell was going on before I got too deeply into the narrative.

Well, now I know. And I'm thrilled with it! This is a story I really want to read and I'm more enthusiastic than ever to get it written.

But right now, just having everything finally fall into place has me flying high. As the Marines say, "OohRah!"

Damn, this feels good!

[Movie Review] Avatar

Big, blue and out of this world

Ok, I made that tag-line up, but it fits and if James Cameron wants to use it for the DVD release, I’m sure we can work something out. I had planned to put Avatar on my upcoming list of “Future movies I’m excited about,” when I realized “holy crap, it’s already out!” I didn’t think it started until Christmas. So I had no choice but to go see it.

First, the venue – I decided to see it at the Regal Cinemas at Carousel Center. A blockbuster like this seemed to demand the top-notch experience and, honestly, since I’ve started going there and have gotten used to the reclining seats, cupholders and stadium configuration, it’s just hard to go anywhere else. Now, I believe it’s possible to see this film in three formats – in regular 2D (like a standard movie), in 3D, and it IMAX 3D. I’ve never seen a movie in IMAX 3D, but if you can afford it, this might be the one to see there. I mention affordability, though, because it’s a real issue. I went to a matinee, as I always do, because the crowds are smaller and because it’s (usually) cheaper. In this case, however, the premium for the 3D showing brought the usual $7.50 matinee price up to a whopping $11! Whoa! Looking at the ticket prices online, it appears that the adult ticket for an evening showing at that theatre is $13 instead of the usual $9.50, so it’s basically a $3.50 surcharge on every ticket for the 3D experience. The 3D is amazing and I’d say it’s worth the added cost, but if I’d taken my whole family, the extra $17.50 (on top of the base price of $37.50 for five tickets) would have been a major-league shock so it’s best to be aware and prepared for it. IMAX tickets are usually much pricier still, and I’d imagine there’s a surcharge there as well. Check your local listings, I suppose.

With regards to taking the kids, I’d say that Avatar is right on track as a PG-13 movie. There’s a brief, very mild love scene that cuts away before being more than just suggestive, and, oh yeah, all the female aliens run around topless. But they’re blue and don’t jiggle much, so it’s actually not all that noticeable and is never played for effect. It’s just there. There’s a fair amount of violence, but none of it is graphic at all – certainly not gratuitous. In fact, the only thing that really bumps it from a PG to a solid PG-13 is the main character (quite understandably) yelling “shit!” a lot, especially when he’s going through his “learn to be a man of the tribe” exercises.

Avatar is, bottom line, a movie about big, blue computer-generated characters who you totally forget are computer-generated, because they’re done so masterfully. It is definitely not a new or original story. In fact, it’s almost certain you’ve run into this story several times before. I’ve seen Avatar called “Dances with Wolves in Space.” I never managed to stay awake through all of Dances with Wolves, but I’m familiar with the basic story and this is awfully similar.

There are also no surprises in the Avatar story. Every character is a stereotype. The hero is heroic. The native girl is tough yet tender. The businessman is greedy and stupid – emphasized by the fact that he has a $20M rock decorating his desk and at one point he needs help working a map. The military leader is unrepentantly evil and vicious. In fact, it’s somewhat ironic that in a movie emphasizing its 3D capability, so many of the characters are two-dimensional.

It doesn’t matter. The story may be old, but it’s a good story and it’s been masterfully retold, with some of the most amazing cinematic effects ever. Avatar is a movie about James Cameron’s new toys – a 3D camera and a CGI technique that allowed him to suit up his actors, film them, and then transpose their movements and facial expressions onto the CGI characters. In effect, the movie really was about Avatars.

In the film, an avatar is a special creature grown in a lab from the DNA of a human mixed with that of an alien called a Na’vi. The Na'vi are 10-foot tall blue humanoids with tails. The human “driver” is then plugged into a special bed and, while he sleeps, he mentally takes complete control of the avatar – it walks, talks, eats, drinks, and everything else just as if the driver actually were the avatar creature. Their purpose is to allow the humans who are essentially invading the lush but hostile world of Pandora to interact with, and hopefully gain the trust of, the Na’Vi. The humans, you see, have plundered all of Earth’s natural resources and have come to Pandora because it contains an element that will help the barren Earth to keep supporting life. This backstory about Earth is almost an aside – you have to listen pretty closely to even be aware of it and it’s not central to the story.

The central story involves ex-Marine Jake Scully, the newest member of the Avatar project. He’s part of the combined military/scientific mission on Pandora trying to secure the human’s ability to mine while somehow making peace with the natives. Natives who, by the way, are highly nature-oriented and treat the land and all living creatures (native ones, anyway) with great reverence and respect. Predictably, there can be no peace between the humans and the Na’vi, but we watch Jake go through his trials anyway because they’re fascinating.

Because we’ve seen this story before, the word “predictably” comes into play again and again. There wasn’t a single true surprise anywhere in the story line, and every major plot point is telegraphed from a mile away. From the hero’s trials of manhood to the love story, from the hero’s emulating the tribe’s legendary ancestors to the climactic battle and even the hero’s ultimate fate, every significant story element is obvious and unsurprising. Still, we watch movies all the time that don’t contain plot twists on the order of M. Night Shamalyn, so it’s not required that the film tell a wholly new story – just that it tell the story in an interesting way. And Avatar does that.

Cameron did some things in the film very, very well. The human’s technology is entirely believable for 150 years in the future – advanced, but very practical and with a “real” feeling to it as if it were just a prototype technology you were seeing at a Comdex-style event. There was no pointless neon or devices that looked pretty just so the set designer could earn his paycheck – in fact the only really space-age looking devices were the computer displays (which reminded me of the very cool one from Minority Report, but on a more believable scale) and the interplanetary spaceship. These, along with the military gunships and robotic exoskeletons, looked and functioned exactly like you’d expect them to – gritty, real, and, ultimately, very believable. Just as importantly, he generally avoided the urge that most 3D directors succumb to – that of creating situations where various “stuff” comes flying out of the screen at you because this “3D camera’s expensive and we’d better use it or we’re not getting our money’s worth.” Or perhaps it’s, “they paid to see 3D dammit – be sure there’s lots of it.” Cameron’s 3D technology wasn’t a trick or a gimmick –for perhaps the first time it was simply a way to more fully immerse the viewer in the film.

The other thing Cameron did very well was in creating the world of Pandora. Everything about it looked and felt real and yet alien. The key was in the computer animation – it’s simply top-notch, which allowed him to seamlessly transition from a hard set with physical actors, tables, props, lights, etc. to an outside world of glowing plants and bugs that whiz into the air on lighted disk-like wings. He also manages to create a spirituality for the people of Pandora that is directly linked to all living creatures and, again, make it seamless and very believable.

Lastly, and every bit as importantly as the cinematic effects that went into the film, Cameron makes good use of his stock characters. Sure, they’re stereotypes and they’re not very well fleshed out as people, but they’re very well-acted whether they’re humans or Na’Vi. Both Sam Worthington and Zoё Saldana had big roles in summer blockbusters – Worthington in Terminator: Salvation and Saldana as Uhura in the Star Trek reboot – but I suspect that both of them will find Avatar as their true rocket to the stars. Sigourney Weaver also gives a great performance, though her character’s hardly the action-hero of Aliens. Rounding out the fine performances were rogue pilot Michelle Rodriguez (who totally redeemed herself after playing the character who finally made me quit watching Lost. Granted, that character was supposed to be annoying so she actually did a fine job, but I held it against her anyway) and Stephen Lang as the ultimately risible Colonel Miles Quaritch, who would have twirled his moustache if he’d had one. These actors’ performances took the believable and made it seem truly real.

Avatar is one of those movies that made me really glad to have seen it in the theatre in its true 3D glory. I’m not sure how far out the technology is for the 3D Cameron used to be available on DVD or blue-ray, but I suspect it won’t have the same impact on the small-screen. It’s not the perfect movie, and for lack of a storyline that was as revolutionary as the cinematics Avatar falls short of its true potential, but only by a little bit. I’m rating Avatar an A-.

Monday, December 21, 2009

My Other Car’s a Sleigh

My annual transformation into a right jolly old elf

Remember that classic movie where the Romans had captured an army of escaped slaves and demanded that they reveal their leader? To which the men each stood in turn and declared, “I’m Santa Claus!” That’s how I feel as I don my jolly red, fur-lined battle armor.

Some years ago, one of my bosses told me about his family’s tradition, wherein each Christmas they’d have a big family gathering, and they’d all tell the little children to listen carefully for the sound of reindeer on the roof. Soon, there’d be jingling sleigh bells outside and Santa would burst onto the scene, passing out gifts and candy, singing songs and reading Christmas stories. To me, this sounded like the ultimate kids fantasy, and I resolved to replicate it myself.

Back in 2002, I did just that – assembling a great Santa suit from various online stores. I got the coat, pants and (I think) the hat from one place. The giant red bag came from somewhere else. The wig and beard are really high-quality stuff. The heavy leather boots are actually Rockwood biker boots, but they get covered up with these leatherette covers that have white fur around the top edge. I even contacted my theater masters at Le Moyne College, where Kristy McKay was very helpful in telling me how to buy spirit gum to stick the bushy false eyebrows onto my face. A wide black belt, white gloves, gold-rimmed glasses and a big cushioned pad to put a little extra jelly in my bowl completed the outfit. The whole thing ran around $1,000 by the time I was done, but it’s in its eighth year of use and still counting.

The first couple of years were probably the best. At the time, my wife’s sister and her family still lived in town, and their kids were young, too. They’d have a Christmas Eve gathering at their place, including their kids, my kids, and her husband Mark’s family’s kids. It was a full house, which was perfect! We weren’t quite as organized or theatrical as my old boss’s family, but we got the job done just the same. It ended up being a complex project.

To properly emulate Santa, it was vital that I know all of the kids by name, so I had to memorize them. We also solicited input from all of the parents about what the kids wanted for Christmas, whether they’d been naughty or nice, and any extra-special messages the parents wanted Santa to deliver to the kids (stop giving your brother wedgies – that sort of thing). Lastly, we had to arrange to collect presents from the various parents for Santa to pass out to the kids. We didn’t want to go with little trinkets – we wanted Santa to hand out something special to each boy and girl that had been selected just for them.

On top of all of that logistics and memorization, I also arranged to visit our friends Mike and Sue DeCarlo and their kids. And by request of Sue’s mother, I stopped at her neighbor’s house and said hello to their young son as well. All told, I think I brought Christmas cheer to around 15 kids that night. I really did feel like Santa as I zoomed all around town. Although, since Santa’s sleigh can fly, he probably doesn’t get nearly as many funny looks from other drivers as I tend to.

Also, I’d imagine his suit is specially tailored to be a little more comfortable than mine. In particular, my suit is godawful HOT. Holy cow, there’s nothing like driving around Syracuse, New York in December with the air conditioner literally blasting on maximum! Worse, as soon as I step into a house, my glasses completely fog up to the point where I’m quite literally blind, and I begin to sweat profusely. My limit indoors is about 15-20 minutes before I overheat completely. That’s usually plenty of time, but wow – it really drags you down when you’re trying to be cheerful and you feel like you’re locked in a metal box at the Hanoi Hilton.

The next year, as I recall, was similar. They all run together after a while. I remember there was one year where I had a really bad cold or flu and had to miss it. In fact I stayed home that year with my youngest son who had it, too. Of course, the kids thought I got sick EVERY Christmas Eve, since I was always too ill to join them at the party. Putting on the Santa costume takes a half-hour minimum, and taking it off and packing it away takes almost as long. Trying to suit up on the road or at somebody else’s house was impractical.

As the years have gone on, the event has scaled back quite a bit. When my wife’s sister moved away, we no longer had a single big gathering with all of the kids in one place. Now, my wife just takes the kids to her mom’s on a Saturday afternoon and I head over there. The kids still really look forward to it, though. Even though my daughter figured out something was up and then conned my wife into fessing up a few years back. Then, this year, my beard was pulled down a little and my older son noticed me fixing it. Of all people – he never notices anything! Naturally, he made sure to tell everybody about it later, where my youngest could hear. My daughter tried hard to cover for me, saying that “Santa was probably just scratching his moustache.” But my son was undeterred, so the concept of “Santa’s helpers” had to be trotted out. There wasn’t the slightest inkling among either of them that it might be me under all that hair, but it’s clear that I won’t be able to maintain this charade for too many more years. My youngest is growing up the fastest of any of them.

And thus is a Christmas tradition made. So if you’re in Syracuse on the Saturday before Christmas and you see Santa Claus zooming around with the A/C and Christmas tunes blasting, give a wave and take home a dose of Christmas Spirit for yourself.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

D’oh! Twenty!

This is my Friday post, a little ahead of schedule in order to coincide with a special occasion. Today, the Simpsons turned 20! Woo hoo!

And, really, what’s more annoying than a 20-year-old? It takes 17 seconds to watch this video. Go ahead and watch it. We’ll wait. That used to be the brilliance of the Simpsons. Sadly, I stopped watching the Simpsons two or three years ago. I had a TiVo season pass for it, and it recorded every new episode whenever they got around to showing new episodes (I could never keep track – I think the damn World Series messed them up every fall or something). But sometime in mid-winter, I realized that I hadn’t really watched any of the episodes TiVo had recorded for me. I made an effort, but they just weren’t all that funny.

This year, I even tried to watch the most recent Treehouse of Horror, because those were often pretty good. No dice – it was distinctly unfunny. Yawn-inducing, even. Still, the fact that the show should have gone out on a high note (assuming somebody could define when that was) doesn’t change the fact that it hit high note after high note for many many years.

Heaven forefend anybody should mention a cube (or anything that rhymes with cube) in my house – my wife and I are sure to bust out the punchline of the scene I linked above. Goggles? They do nothing! (In a faux Schwartzenegger voice like that of Ahnold look-alike Ranier Wolfcastle). Better still, I’ll occasionally bust out Wolfcastle’s pronunciation lesson – Up and Atom! The Simpsons has enhanced our vocabulary with words like craptacular and cromulent. Thanks to Bart, occasionally we’ll remark how something both sucks and blows.

We actually know that Apu the Quik-e-Mart’s last name is Nahasapeemapetilon. And we miss Troy McClure and his voice actor Phil Hartman.

But all of this trivia is beside the point that the Simpsons in its day was insightful, irreverent, and in many ways “funny because it’s true.” Homer often said what many of us think (when he wasn’t saying things that were utterly off the wall but also hilarious). The Simpsons rose from a series of shorts on the Tracy Ullman show (and really, who watched that?) to become an American icon. It’s been nearly 20 wonderful years (and a few that weren’t so hot) – a claim few other shows can make, and none can make with the Simpsons’s former combination of sharp wit and outrageous humor. So here’s a cheer for the Simpsons – hip, hip, d’oh!

Homer: See Marge? And you said they couldn’t deep-fry my shirt.
Marge: I didn’t say they couldn’t, I said you shouldn’t.

Stay tuned - if my plan for the rest of the year works out, I hope to do a series of "best of" and "looking forward to" articles to finish out the year (in between holidays). With luck, that'll start on Monday.

Public Beta Doesn’t Mean “Finished”

I've still got the touch

I’m currently running the public beta of office 2010 and I found what appears to be a significant bug. In my experience, it’s pretty unusual to find a bug in a Microsoft product by the time it’s made it to the Public Beta stage. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t any, more that generally they’re the sorts of issues that only a hardcore tester or a dedicated hacker is likely to find. I’m fairly proud of myself for finding one in Microsoft Word 2010. And it’s using a feature that I certainly don’t use all that often, and I suspect a lot of other people don’t either, but it’s a really useful one in certain circumstances.

First, a little background on the feature. Word (of all versions going back at least as far as Office 95) allows you to set up a blank document just the way you want it – with font style, font size, line spacing options, headers, footers, margins, and such all customized to your needs – then to save it as what’s called a “document template.” In the future, you would launch this template just like opening any other document, but you wouldn’t actually open the template by doing so. Instead, you’d get a new blank document all formatted to exactly match the template’s settings, but ready to be saved under its own, new file name. Taking it a step farther, you can even type as much text as you want into the template and it’ll all be there when you use it. For example, if you frequently sent out a form letter that was 85% identical each time, it might make sense to save one as a template, with marks for where to insert the 15% that changes every time.

I attempted to use this feature in Word 2010 and it didn’t really operate as designed. My intent was to create a pre-formatted document to use for the chapters of my book. Each page would have the chapter number, the page number, and the title of the book in the header and footer (so that eventually when I have printouts of multiple manuscripts I’ll be able to tell their chapters apart). There’s also room to put in some sort of version designator, which will help me keep track when I hand out draft chapters to readers and then go back and make changes before those copies come back to me with comments. Most importantly, I turned off the “add a blank line after each paragraph” feature to which Word defaults, as it drives me crazy. This all should have been a fairly simple procedure, but it wasn’t.

A Google search didn’t turn up anywhere to submit bug reports like the forums I used to use when I’d participate in closed Microsoft Beta tests. The app came with a “submit a smiley face/frowny face” utility, but I’m not sure that that’s given sufficient attention to trust that this issue gets to the right people. So I sent an email off to a friend at Microsoft in the hopes that it will find its way to the Office development team.

What I observed was that after creating and saving the template and closing Word, subsequent attempts to open it in a variety of different ways didn’t work. I should have gotten a new, blank, pre-formatted document, but while Word looked like it was trying to do something, no document ever appeared. I repeated my attempt multiple times to no avail.

I was eventually able to get the same result by opening Word manually and creating a new document based on the template file, but this was definitely a bug. Then came the real surprise, as I attempted to shut down my PC for the night.

At shutdown, I was presented with an array of “do you wish to save file xxxyyy?” dialogue boxes. None of these word documents I was being prompted to save appeared to be open anywhere, even after some fairly intensive poking around in the Task Manager. I could see that Word was running in the background, but these files were officially “not there,” even though clearly they were buried someplace in the back alleys of Windows 7.

I responded by clicking the “don’t save” buttons in the dozen or so dialogue boxes that were popping up, but it didn’t help. When I again attempted to shut down, I was again prompted to save those same files. Fortunately, Windows 7 has a very nice “Force shutdown” feature that simply terminates all open applications and turns the computer off. I’d never experienced it before, but it was perfect for this situation.

This morning, I got mixed results when I tried to open the template again – it worked once, but mostly didn’t work. Stranger still, all of those invisible documents I’d been prompted to save were now listed in the Word autosave task pane. And now, by trying to open the template multiple times, I’d created a bunch of new invisible documents. This is not just a bug, it’s a fairly major one. It’s also one I’d like to be sure that the Office 2010 team is aware of, because I definitely plan to buy a copy when it’s released. I’m still due to review it here at some point, but the short version is that I’m very happy with the improvements Microsoft has made and while they’re less revolutionary than the jump from Office 2003 to Office 2007, they’re useful and demonstrate that the Office team is finally taking their work seriously after so many versions that incorporated only minor improvements over the prior release.

Incidentally, if you'd like to try Office 2010 Beta yourself, you can find it here. It's fully-functional and doesn't expire until October 31st, 2010. Just don't try to make a template. :D

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Has Anyone Seen my Invisible Plane?

I read recently online that Joe Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5 (one of the best sci-fi shows on TV ever) and a regular writer for TV, movies and comic books, has been tapped by DC comics to write the graphic novel(s) for Superman: Year One. This comic, to be released in 2010, is part of a series by DC that currently includes Batman but one can easily imagine it being expanded to other heroes of the DC universe. The concept is to re-tell the origin stories of these characters, evidently (if I’m reading correctly) on some alternate Earth where any changes made in the series wouldn’t affect existing titles or canon for those characters. Straczynski had mentioned more than ten years ago that he very much wanted to write Superman, so I’d imagine he’s very excited about this news. I’m certainly looking forward to reading it.

Personally, I’m not longing to write Supes. I mean, if DC called me up and said, “Mike, we desperately need you to write Superman for us” hell yeah I’d do it. But it’s not something I long for the way JMS did. I mean, he’s Superman. He’s frickin Superman. He’s so incredible that he has to put on a “Clark Kent” costume and turn himself into a loser because he’s just too marvelous to be himself all the time. What do you do with that? I’m sure JMS has plenty of good ideas, but it’s not a prospect that I get all tingly about.

In fact, when I started thinking about comics and comic book characters, nobody was more surprised than I was that I ended up at Wonder Woman. First, the disclaimer: I’m pretty sure I’ve never read a Wonder Woman comic in my entire 30+ year history of reading comic books. All of my knowledge of Wonder Woman comes from reading Justice League comics, as well as from TV shows such as the Linda Carter Wonder Woman from the 1970s, or the animated Justice League shows of the last ten years. I know nothing of how the comic has been written recently, and as such I’m not claiming I could do a better job than the writers have already done over the last fifty-plus years that the comic has been around. But I really think I’d like to write Wonder Woman.

Let’s first summarize this character, or at least what I know of her. She’s from a secret island of “Amazon” women – all super-powered and hidden from the eyes of the world by some sort of magic or technology. They have a reverence of some sort for the gods of ancient Greece and they have no males among them. Don’t ask where the little baby Amazons come from, or what they do with them if they’re boys. I don’t know, but I’m sure it’s awful.

Anyway, Amazon daughter Diana Prince leaves this island paradise to fight evil in the outside world. She takes with her a golden lasso that can force prisoners to tell the truth, a set of silver bracelets that can deflect bullets, and a golden tiara that if I remember right acts as a boomerang. Or maybe I’m thinking of something else. She also has super strength, super speed, and (depending on the version she’s appearing in) she can fly. Which is a little odd, because she also has an invisible jet. I suppose just because she can fly doesn’t mean she wants to fly everywhere, just like people who could walk still prefer to ride around in cars. Also, she probably loses that damn thing all the time. I mean, think about how hard it is to remember where you parked your VISIBLE car. Can you imagine finding an INvisible plane?

But none of this is what I think is especially cool about Wonder Woman. You see, Wonder Woman’s job, at least in some versions of the story, is as a secret agent. She’s a female James Bond for freak’s sake. AND she’s a super hero. That’s a two-fer, and I think it’s awesome. You can take your Superman with his whole reporter side-job, and you can take Batman with his whole “rich guy” thing, but Diana Prince’s day job is every bit as cool as being a super hero.

Ezra at Popehat yesterday railed against the weakness of the women of Twilight, whose very existence is purposeless except in the context of their men. Wonder Woman, on the other hand, is a tough chick from a whole island of tough chicks, and she’s a damn secret agent to boot! Woo! As a father of a daughter, I love the idea of this character – a super-powered, tough-minded, take-no-crap-from-nobody woman who holds down an important job in international intelligence and also occasionally saves the entire planet from destruction at the hands of various super-villains is the ultimate symbol of female empowerment. I believe DC Comics already uses her as a female role-model, so it isn’t as if my writing for her (which I don’t actually expect would happen anytime soon, mind you) would dramatically change that. It’s just that if I were going to write a new origin story for a classic DC character, I think Wonder Woman would be an awesome story to tell. Either way, I agree with Ezra that female role models need to be about empowerment, strength and self-assurance. And if Twilight's not providing that, then it's not doing today's young women any service.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Chapter 4 Ho!

Writing Update

I missed my normal post today. Fear not, I'll make tomorrow's extra-good. Ok, not really - it'll be about what you usually get. Which, if you're reading this, you must like or you wouldn't still be here. So there.

Anyway, today I revisited chapters 1-3, making some (mostly minor) adjustments based on the transcription of my notes, then proceeded on to begin chapter 4. It's barely begun, but tomorrow my whole focus will be on that chapter, as well as figuring out what to do with the little "partial chapter" I wrote a while back that currently doesn't have a home, but really needs to go somewhere in the vicinity of chapter 2.

If all goes really well tomorrow, I could conceivably complete chapter 4 and even touch on chapter 5, but let's not get crazy. Besides, the school district already sent out an email that they'll be watching the weather in the morning for possible delays. So much for a precious entire, uninterrupted day to focus on writing. Ugh!

Monday, December 14, 2009

No Notes is Good Notes

Writing update

Transcribing my notes, handwritten and electronic both, is at last complete. Whew! Not that having them transcribed and organized (somewhat) by categories is the be-all, end-all of actually being able to use these notes to write my first novel, but it's awfully damn close. I put a LOT of thought into various concepts for this novel between October of 2008 when I first had this idea (I could probably figure out the exact date with a little effort - I remember I had thought up the idea in the morning and then had gone straight to a seminar at the Visory Group offices about new telephony products. Some of the notes I just finished transcribing were written in my notepad during that meeting) and the present. Some of those ideas evolved quite a bit over time, and in some cases I simply forgot what I'd originally intended and the concepts didn't so much "evolve" as they were forgotten and replaced with something similar but slightly different. Now that I have them all in once place, I can at last figure out what to use and what to discard.

The same applies to the several, several (several) variations that I seem to have on the book's overall sequence of events. Again, I'd have a good idea, then I'd forget part or all of it and several months later I'd write down a fresh, also good idea that used some of the same elements, but replaced others with different (not necessarily better) ones. I need to reconcile all of those "plots" into something more workable and useful. I'll stop short of an actual outline (as I've had experience with detailed outlines that then crushed my enthusiasm for writing the book. Not this book, a different one which I still do plan to write someday), but I would like to figure out what story elements are worth using and be sure that I position the story in such a way that they fit in neatly.

And so, without further ado, the final tally of my notes, as exported from OneNote to Word (which it turns out isn't exactly hard, but it's more labor-intensive than I expected and certainly not a one-click process as it probably should be. You can very easily convert whole notebooks to a .pdf with a single click), and without counting research and other text that I didn't actually write myself:

Total Pages: 111
Total Words: 43,143

Given that some mainstream fiction novels can be as little as 55,000 words, I've darn near written a book already. Albeit one without a discernible plot, theme, dialogue, setting, or story of any kind. But it's encouraging to know that, at minimum, I CAN write that much. Not that I really doubted it. I can (and have) blather on, in person or in print, for hours and hours about pretty much any subject or no subject at all. Turning word-count into quality storytelling, well, that remains to be proven. It's something, though, and something's surely better than nothing.

Now, back to my dungeon.


That's right - the concept of "grated onion" is complete and utter nonsense. That is all.

101 Sci-Fi Movies You Must See Before You Die

I can’t die yet!!

I recently received this book as a Christmas gift from my friend John and I’m enjoying it very much. Each of the 101 movies gets a four-page spread including the original one-sheet (that’s theatre-talk for “poster”), a still from the film (that’s movie-talk for “single frame”) and a combination of a brief summary and critical analysis (that's high-brow talk for "nitpicking to death." Ha! No, actually most of the critical deconstruction is really quite insightful and shows a much deeper knowledge of film history than I have, to say the least).

This book served to remind me that I don’t watch movies critically. I watch them to be entertained. Case in point – I loved TRON as a kid, and still pretty much do. I think it tells a great story (the rebellion of the oppressed against a totalitarian state, where the belief in higher ideals (the users) gives them a power that the soulless (literally!) and brutal dictator (the Master Control Program) can’t overcome or obliterate. It’s got a guy with magic powers (Flynn), a heroic champion (Tron), and it does it all in a completely unique and original (at the time, anyway) environment – the virtual world (before it was even called the virtual world). The review of TRON in the book, however, is pretty much one big put-down, which I suppose is because a) it lost a ton of money and b) it didn’t actually have all that much computer-generated graphics, even though it touted them as a key feature. About the only thing the editors and I agreed on is that TRON belongs in the 101 best sci-fi movies, which I suppose is enough. I’m going to continue to re-watch it because I think it’s a great film in its own right.

But despite the book’s editors’ views on TRON, I think it’s a great read. There are little trivia facts about many of the movies, and it’s fun to look back to the beginning (the early 1900s) and follow the history of Sci-fi films right up to the modern day (or thereabouts – the book has a publication date of 2009, but there aren’t any movies in it beyond 2006. I suspect this is because the editors originally assembled a book titled “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die,” then chunked that book up into “Sci-Fi,” “Gangster,” “War,” and a couple of other categories. I, too, would like to write one book and then live off variations of it for several years thereafter. Bravo!).

What’s also really neat, or at least coincidental, is that the night before I was given this book, I sat down, flipped through my “TiVo Suggestions” and discovered that it had recorded the original 1951 version of “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” which I had never seen. I know, right? There aren’t too many mainstream sci-fi movies in the book that I haven’t seen, but I’d missed that one and had always wondered what it was about. Well I watched it, enjoyed it (Klaatu barada nikto! Which phrase, incidentally, is hanging on the wall of Alan’s (Bruce Boxleitner) cubicle in the movie Tron. Ha! Maybe I should write one of these books. Actually that’s not a terrible idea – I’ll need to add it to my list of possibilities) and couldn’t wait to read all about it in my new book the next day.

And, as it happens, I’ve seen 53 of the 101 movies listed. Of the remaining 48, around 15 of them are foreign films that I’m sure are quite lovely, but that I really have no interest in seeing (and my wife, with whom I watch all my movies, would have even less). So I’ve got just over 30 movies left to see, them I’m home free. Well, except for all the films I’m missing from all the other “Movies You Must See Before You Die” books in the series. I suppose I’ll just have to hang on a bit longer.

I’m 2/3 of the way through the book and plan to read it cover-to-cover. If you’re a genre film buff or just a movie fan in general (like me), you could do a lot worse than picking up one of these books and diving in. Thanks, John!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Best. Concert. Ever.

When I was around 16, my friends introduced me to heavy metal music. This was the mid 1980s, and metal was gaining popularity in a big way. Knowing my fascination with military history, my buddy Bill played Iron Maiden’s “Alexander the Great” for me. I was instantly hooked, and ran out to buy their brand new album, “Somewhere in Time.” I devoured it – listening to each track over and over and over again, then going out and getting all their older albums, from “Powerslave to their debut “Iron Maiden” (which I never really liked all that much).

Within a few months, I was a devoted metalhead, thrilling to bands like Metallica, Dio, Black Sabbath, Ozzy, Queensrÿche, Judas Priest, Mötley Crüe, Anthrax, and Megadeth. It was a great time to be a metalhead – there was a ton of music to listen to, and it all varied widely from the intensive guitars and drums of Metallica to the blues riffs of Great White.

One album I especially enjoyed was Queensrÿche’s unique and cerebral concept album Operation: Mindcrime. I was fascinated by the music, the thought-provoking lyrics and the album’s ability to tell an engaging story through both the words and the tonal qualities of the music. My friends and I memorized every word, every riff, and every line of dialogue.

Throughout the late 1980s, I listened to heavy metal in my car, in my walkman, at home, at school, while cutting the grass, and pretty much anywhere else except when I was at work. And when I was at work, I sang heavy metal, much to the consternation of my (usually much older and way less hip) co-workers at the Wegmans Deli. I watched the Headbanger’s Ball on MTV (back when the M in MTV actually stood for Music) and even bought a very stylish Headbanger’s Ball T-Shirt, all black with the show’s logo in gold gothic lettering. It was to become one of my many, many, many black heavy-metal T-shirts, which constituted my entire wardrobe by the time I was 19.

The culmination of my infatuation with heavy metal occurred when Metallica’s “Damaged Justice” tour hit the United States in support of their album “And Justice for All.” Their opening act was none other than Queensrÿche. My friend and I were in heaven. I had joined the crew of guys I hung out with just slightly too late to attend an Ozzy Osbourne concert a few years earlier where they’d seen Metallica opening for Ozzy during their “Master of Puppets” tour – this was to be my first and last time seeing Metallica in concert.

My buddies and I were determined that we absolutely had to be in the front row for this concert. The tickets were to go on sale early on a Saturday morning at the War Memorial box office, so somebody was going to have to get in line early. Very early. Very, very early. Like, eleven o’clock at night early. In January.

So one Friday night, Jake Sensenich and I threw a bunch of snacks and sodas and blankets into my parents’ Dodge Aries and drove downtown. We dressed warmly – I even had a black and red ski mask. And we took a large box of heavy metal cassettes to help keep us fired up in the cold dark night. And cold and dark it was. We damn near froze our asses off down there.

It was a long, strange night in downtown Syracuse. A Dodge Aries isn’t very big, so we spent a fair amount of time out wandering around, with frequent trips back to the car to fire up the heater. There were a dozen or so other Metallica die-hards hanging out down there in the wee hours like us, but it wasn’t until the next morning that the line started to swell. And Jake and I were right near the front. Between the two of us we bought around fifteen tickets as I remember – all for the front-row, center-stage (or darn close to center, anyway). At the tender age of 18, it had been my most important, most rewarding mission to date, and I’d accomplished it masterfully. I’d even been the mission commander – it was my first foray into management.

Then all that was left was the waiting and the anticipation. On March 18th, 1989, my buddies and I all headed down to the War Memorial once again – Jake and me, of course, plus Bill, Brian, and Pat. Oh, and Mick Spillane, the guy we knew from Tape World who was supposed to come with us, but sent some barely-dressed bimbo instead. Whatever – his loss. There must have been some other guys there, but I’ll be darned if I can remember who they were. I probably didn’t care – all I wanted was to see Queensrÿche and Metallica live in concert.

The funny thing about Metallica fans is that they’re loyal to the band to the point of being really obnoxious and condescending about it. At some point in the band’s history, the fans had decided that opening acts were crap, and were somehow actively getting in the way of their pure Metallica enjoyment. So it was common practice at Metallica concerts for their more rabid fans – all wearing denim jackets with a Metallica patch emblazoned on the back – to face away from the stage and raise their middle fingers to the opening act. This was fine with me.

You see, my friends and I were just as excited to see Queensrÿche as we were to see Metallica. And we were in the front row. And we knew every lyric to every song by heart. And, as it turns out, we were pretty much the only ones there who gave a damn. When the concert started, we raced the ten feet to the stage and literally threw ourselves into the music, fists pumping, screaming, and absolutely ecstatic with the wonder of the experience.

Our enthusiasm was not lost on the band. Since nobody else there really seemed to want to watch them perform, and whereas we clearly adored them, Queensrÿche shifted their focus from the overall auditorium to the bunch of guys going nuts in the front row. It might as well have been a private concert just for us. It was glorious! And it was literally only the beginning!

Queensrÿche gave an outstanding performance of Operation: Mindcrime, complete with various sound effects and recorded voiceovers to match the grandeur of the album. They did some older stuff, too – the best tunes off their previous couple of albums. I don’t think I’d ever been as happy as I was just then.

It ended, as all things must, and during the intermission my friends and I returned to our front-row seats and raved about how utterly fantastic the show had been thus far. Somebody nearby reported that Queensrÿche was hanging out in some sort of break-room off in the bowels of the War Memorial, but we were all to chicken to go looking for them, as cool as that would have been. We just waited in rapt anticipation for the next show to begin.

Again, we were hardly disappointed. The lights dimmed, and up came the music – the haunting sound of Ennio Morricone’s “Ecstasy of Gold,” the song with which Metallica opened all their concerts. I don’t know why, as they weren’t actually playing it or anything, I guess it was just their thing. Whatever, it was damn cool and we were screaming too loud to hear it, our fists pumping again as we hung over the metal fencing, the crush of thousands more fans pressing at our backs. We could very nearly reach the stage.

The stage onto which Metallica was suddenly revealed with bright lights and flashpots and a gigantic statue of liberty unveiled behind them. Or maybe the statue of liberty came later – I really can’t recall. But what followed was some ninety minutes of ecstasy, not of gold but of two raging guitars, a thrumming bass and a giant drumset banging away in the back. They played virtually all of …And Justice for All, plus a wide array of prior hits including For Whom the Bell Tolls, Sanitarium, Master of Puppets, Am I Evil? and Creeping Death. We knew every chord, every beat, every word backwards and frontwards, and throughout each song we’d unleash a fury of excitement, burning ever last ounce of energy until we were spent. Then, with the opening bars of the next tune, we’d be reinvigorated and start in all over again, cheering and singing and feeling the music reverberate through our skin and bones and to the tip of every last nerve. It was a thrill unlike anything I’d ever felt up to that point in my young life. I came away with a T-shirt that I bought at the merchandise stand, plus a neon-green logo’d guitar pick that I’d caught out of mid-air when James Hetfield tossed it out at me. I also had my hands on one of his sweaty wristbands at one point, but I didn’t want it as badly as the guy who was trying to wrench it away from me and, though it’s not the most manly sentiment I’ve ever expressed… ewww. It was really, really sweaty. I’m a fan, but I’ve got to draw the line somewhere. I was more than satisfied with my pick. I still have it, to this day. Or, rather, my wife has it tucked away, but I’m sure she’d let me see it if I asked. But it’s just a pick, after all. A memento. But mementos are reminders – they serve to help us remember. I don’t need a memento for this – I remember. It was the best concert ever.