Friday, July 30, 2010

Dojo Decision!

As discussed here, the De Lucia family has spent the last month or two trying to select a new dojo to train at once their current contract at LaVallee's USA Black Belt Champions expires in August. It's been a tedious and grueling process, eliminating local martial arts schools on a wide array of criteria. But the results are in, and today we're going to interview the family's patriarch Mike De Lucia about the selection of Five Star Martial Arts for his family's fitness training. [Note: yes, I'm interviewing myself. I thought it would liven things up a little. Or maybe it just amuses me. Whatever.]

Virtual Vellum: So you selected a new dojo. How did you come to your decision?

Mike De Lucia: It wasn't easy! In fact, we knew we were going to be disappointed with whatever we chose - the two schools offer very different experiences and approaches to the martial arts, both of which offer a lot that we like. As you saw in Saturday's article, I was able to break down many (though by no means all) of the key decision factors about the selection process. My next step was to weight those factors - to give higher priority to the "must-have" items. What my family and I found when we began that process was that it quickly made the decision for us.

VV: How so?

MD: Well, the first "must-have" we identified was scheduling. When we started talking about it, we immediately realized that there was nothing more to discuss. Whatever other benefits a dojo may offer quickly become meaningless if you're not able to get there regularly to train. This hasn't been a problem for us over the summer months, but it definitely would be in September. The kids' school has moved its start time over half an hour earlier, which will cut into their sleep. And my kids really, really need their sleep. We can see a very clear degradation in their mental focus, their demeanor, their positive attitude and their ability to concentrate when they're sleep-deprived. Their bed-time is 8:00 PM, and keeping them out past that time on a regular basis is doing them a disservice no matter how terrific the training might be. Combine that with my Monday-night commitment and Five Star was the clear choice. They're planning to have a class at around 6:00 PM every night of the week that will have our kids home and ready for bed on time.

VV: So you're sure that Five Star is a serious dojo that can offer quality training?

MD: I believe it is, yes. I spent hours interviewing Sensei Napoli at FiveStar about his background, his philosophy and his program, and their plan looks solid. They don't want to just process students through a business plan that churns out a black belt in a certain number of classes (or weeks or months or whatever). They expressed a sincere dedication to teaching the best martial arts program they can and I thought it came across as very genuine. They also seem to be enthusiastic learners themselves, and they'll be adding to their skills even as they train their own students.

VV: You obviously spent a lot of time actually training at Syracuse Jundokan, so it would seem like you know what to expect there. How sure are you about what you're getting into at Five Star? They're pretty new at this, right?

MD: Certainly this is a big adventure and it will clearly be a learning experience for the proprietors of Five Star Martial Arts. It's true, we've only spent about an hour training with our new Senseis so far, but isn't that typical? How often does somebody join a dojo where they really know exactly what to expect there week after week, belt level after belt level. I'm comfortable with the questions I asked and familiar enough with the general sort of training we'll be getting to be satisfied that we'll get a good workout. I expect that we'll improve our overall fitness, our flexibility, our endurance, our balance and our focus at Five Star.

VV: So what are you most excited about, now that your choice has been made?

MD: We're just looking forward to starting with this new program. We get to start on day one at this dojo, which means we'll get to watch it grow and change as we learn there. I'm looking forward to training as a "full member," which we never were at LaVallee's. I'm excited about long-term growth and improvement with these instructors as my family builds strength, endurance, flexibility and overall good health. I'm glad that we'll be joining our family to the Five Star family and striving together to make ourselves better. Sensei Paul Napoli and Sensei Curtis Pastore seem like great guys and my whole family is anxious to begin training with them.

VV: What about all the great things you liked about training with Sensei Oddy? Is that behind you?

MD: I hope not! Right now, with the kids so young and the whole family trying to train together, the timing just doesn't work. But a few years down the road, when we've mastered the basics at Five Star and the kids are a bit older, I'm hopeful that we'll be in a better position to add Sensei Oddy's knowledge back into our training.

VV: Well, congratulations on your decision and best of luck with all of your martial arts training!

MD: Thanks!

Thursday, July 29, 2010


A technology review

You'd think that after a decade of swapping cassette tapes, followed by a decade of swapping 5.25-inch floppy disks, then a decade of swapping 3.5-inch floppy disks, we wouldn't still be swapping files around on CDs and USB sticks, which are really just further predictable advancements in portable storage. The problems with ALL of these messages are several:

1. They can be lost, damaged, or destroyed. This is the least common problem, but it's the most devastating when it occurs.
2. They're almost never the "gold copy" of a file, mostly because of the item above - you don't want your primary, current version of important files to be stored somewhere that's fragile and easily misplaced. They end up just being temporary places to stick a file while you move it around. This results in having multiple versions of your files on different computers and on your portable storage. Once that happens, you may find yourself not transferring files around (or doing something different, like emailing them) because you've lost track of where the most current version is. Worse, you could end up with multiple copies of a file or document, each containing unique changes. Then it becomes a MAJOR hassle to reconcile them and get back to a single, master file that has everything you want and only what you want in it.

Luckily, the web gives us a solution, through the "Cloud." The Cloud has become the term for Internet-based storage and computing - anytime you're getting your operating power or disk space from a hosted server in some far-away datacenter. When you're using Google Apps for your word-processor or spreadsheet software, instead of a copy of Microsoft Office installed directly on your computer, you're in the Cloud.

The Cloud (yeah, heck, I think I'll just keep capitalizing it. No particular reason why. Just cuz I can.) is extremely useful. For one thing, datacenters are somebody else's problem. You don't have to maintain the computers, back them up, fix them when they crash, upgrade them, or even find a place to put them. Somebody else takes care of all of that - and pays to keep them cool, power them, keep redundant units on standby for uninterrupted availability, and so forth. All you have to do is tap into them with your computer, using either a web browser or sometimes a little "client app" that loads on your device and acts as the go-between to make what's in the Cloud available to you anytime, anywhere. Anywhere, that is, that lets you connect to the Internet.

And that's the major rub - you can only access the Cloud when you're connected to the Internet. For most people, most of the time, that's not a big deal, but it does mean that if you take your laptop for a weekend at the lake or out in the wilderness - anywhere that's lacking Internet connectivity - you may find that you can't get to what you need.

As a writer, managing documents and backups is definitely a problem for me, and the Cloud is a very real solution. For the last few weeks, I've been using the free version of Dropbox.

[Note: that link takes you to my personal Dropbox "share" page. Every time a friend of mine (or even an anonymous internet stranger who happens to read my blog) signs up for a new account using that link, BOTH of us get an extra 250 MB of free storage, up to 8 GB. This won't matter a whole lot when/if I (or you) sign up for the paid service, but if you don't ever plan to (or don't plan to right away), you can quadruple the size of your free storage box from 2 GB to 8 GB just by having your friends sign up. So do us a favor - go sign up for Dropbox using my link. If you didn't think you'd use it, you might be surprised and find out it's actually a nifty, useful thing. And either way, you'll be helping out a simple web blogger, which is always nice. And even if you do sign up for the paid service, 58 GB is almost 10% nicer than 50 GB, so it's still worth the utterly non-existent effort of following my link rather than going and typing manually. In fact, I'm saving you time. You're welcome, now click the link!]

Dropbox solves both the issue of how to transport and keep your files up to date AND the issue of how to get value from the Cloud even when you're offline. You see, Dropbox doesn't JUST keep your files in the Cloud. You might even say that that's the least of what it does. What it really does well is to use the power of the Cloud to synchronize your files across multiple devices and keep them synchronized ANYTIME the device touches the Internet.

So, in the above "weekend at the lake" scenario, as long as I connect to the Internet before I leave for the lake, my laptop is sure to have the most current version of all of my files (well, all the ones that I've put into my Dropbox, anyway). While I'm AT the lake, I can poke away at those files and make whatever changes I want to make. Those changes won't be on any of my other computers (yet), because I'm disconnected from the Internet, but who cares? I'm not using any of those other computers - I'm at the friggin lake! As soon as I get back to civilization, I just connect my laptop to the web and voila', my files are again synched up to the Cloud, and will then sync to my other computers as soon as they're turned on and connected to the net as well.

Dropbox does this through the use of a little client application - which is part of what makes it different from other "Cloud-storage" tools. This app creates a new folder called "My Dropbox" wherever you want to put it. I usually put mine inside my "My Documents" folder, but you can put it anywhere you like. The client app checks to see whether you're connected to the web, and, if you are, it checks to see whether the documents in the "My Dropbox" folder match the documents over in your little storage space on If they don't match, then it checks to see what's more recent and synchronizes in the correct direction. As another nice feature, it actually keeps a detailed log of what you've added, deleted, or modified so you can check and see what's happened when.

One of dropbox's features is something I consider to be a side-benefit. You actually CAN, if you want, access your files by logging into your account on and then browsing through your files in your web browser. As long as the computer you're using has the necessary software to open the files, they'll open right up. The only catch is that you are actually downloading them to the computer you're using at the time, and editing them there, which means
a) a local copy has been saved on that PC. If it's sensitive or confidential and you're on a public-use computer, you may be exposing yourself to risk of unintended access and
b) less cloak-and-dagger and more practical, you have to manually put the file(s) back into your brower-based dropbox by uploading them. Which is a lot less simple than when you've got your little Dropbox client application running, but it's better than not being able to access them at all.

For example, let's say you're traveling on business and you need to give an important presentation to executives or to a client. Your laptop craps out - maybe it stops working, maybe it's lost or stolen, doesn't matter - you don't have the use of it. With Dropbox, you could borrow anyone's laptop, log into your online dropbox, and pull down the necessary files to do your job.

One last feature that means nothing to me but would have a ton of value for many people is that Dropbox has a mobile application suitable for everything from smartphones to the iPad. If I understand how it works (and I admit I'm a little fuzzy on the details), the app gives you access to your files so you can at least view them and, I suppose, potentially even edit them if your device has the capability.Obviously this isn't a feature I've studied in a lot of depth or tried to use at all, since I have no suitable mobile devices.

Regardless, I'm just thrilled with Dropbox. The free version (which, again, starts at 2 GB and can be as big as 8 GB if you get friends to try it, too) offers plenty of space for basic document management and solves both the issues of syncing between machines plus backing up your critical files. If you want more space, it's only $10 a month for 50 GB or $20 a month for 100 GB. Which actually surprised me - usually they give you a deal if you go for the full shot, since doubling the space doesn't usually cost the service provider twice as much to operate. But anyway, it's still not a huge expense for that much space that's available wherever, whenever you want it. A little research shows that people are using it to backup and synchronize everything from their MP3 collections to their saved computer games, in addition to key files.

Once you're up and running on Dropbox, note that Lifehacker has a couple of interesting articles about getting more out of the service:

Use Dropbox for More Than Just File Syncing
The Cleverest Ways to Use Dropbox That You're Not Using

What do you have that you'd like to always have access to and want to be sure is safely backed up?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What Once was Lost, but Now is Found

Stuff collects. Sometimes you collect it on purpose, other times you just don't get around to throwing it away in a timely fashion. When that happens, you may, over time, come to forget why you still have it - is it useful? Or was I just too busy to chuck it?

This happened to me some time ago and I thought the result was the loss of something I'd wanted to keep. Back in the early 2000s, I was really big into computer gaming. I read a couple of gaming magazines religiously, watching for info on games that were just entering development and following their progress up through their release. I was buying and playing sometimes two or three new games a month at one point.

For some reason I'm not sure I could have ever articulated (I definitely cannot do so from this point in the future) I kept these magazines. Perhaps I would sometimes go back and refer to a back-issue to follow the progress of a game through its development, or possibly there would be useful articles about how to play a particular game that were only useful to me months after the issue was published. I don't remember. I just know that I ended up with stacks and stacks of them that were still kicking around years later - piled up on a counter in my basement that had become something of a catch-all for stuff I didn't know what to do with.

During that period of manic PC game enthusiasm, I became enough of an expert on computer games to become a published writer in those very magazines I collected and read. I've mentioned before that I played World of Warcraft back when it was in its "alpha-test" stage, beginning almost a year before it was released as a (mostly) finished product. When the non-disclosure agreement expired, I immediately contacted the editors of PC Gamer magazine and submitted a proposal to write about WoW from an insider's perspective. They leaped at the chance, and suddenly I was published. They then asked me to review several other games for them - all online multiplayer games. Sadly, they had mistaken me for an expert at massively-multiplayer online role-playing games because of my experience with WoW (the game that would go on to become the most successful MMORPG of all-time), when in fact I was an utter novice at them, even given my months of intensive (and sleepless) playtesting of World of Warcraft. Still, I was reviewing games for a nationally-distributed magazine, which was pretty damn cool. They even recommended me to their sister-publication Maximum PC (formerly Boot), and they had me review a game for them as well. This was at the same time that I joined the cast of the Point 'n' Click TV show here in Syracuse, both as a co-host and as the writer and host of The Game Arena segment on (go figure) computer games. Suddenly, without really trying very hard, I was a writer and totally immersed in my gaming hobby. I was having the time of my life!

You may be able to guess where this is going - I had a huge stash of magazines, a very small number of which contained my published articles. And then I threw them away. It never occurred to me that my articles were among them, I just thought, "I have no use for these five-year-old gaming magazines. It's time for them to go." And out they went. When I realized what I'd done, it was weeks later and there was no recovering them. I was crushed. I tried looking for them online, but with no success. I still have the copy I submitted, but that's not the same as opening up the actual print mag and seeing your byline. That experience was lost to me forever.

Or so I thought! It turns out, almost a year later, that the issues containing most (if not all) of my articles had been stashed away in our library. I was looking for a book one night to do some research and stumbled upon an old pile of gaming mags that seemed terribly out of place in a room full of novels, histories, and reference books (plus two guitars, a lap dulcimer and some tin whistles). I flipped through the magazines and was incredibly surprised, and of course relieved, to find my old articles among them.

What's more, I had feared that my original WoW article had suffered from my relative inexperience with MMORPGs and the comparatively short time I'd been playing WoW. I've since spent a year or two in the grip of the fully-released World of Warcraft universe and I learned how much I didn't know when I was playing in the pre-release. It was extremely gratifying to see that my article still held up, even six years later.

So that's my happy ending. This time, anyway. With all the clutter in this house, there's sure to be more "oh crap" moments in the future when precious memories and treasures are inadvertently discarded. Someday my kids will probably find those magazines when they're cleaning out their deceased parents' house and wonder why the heck ol' dad kept those old magazines (they used to call them magazines, right?) for forty years. Hopefully they'll think to search my blog for "magazine" and then they'll know.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

[TV] Eureka!

This series on the SyFy channel (formerly the much less stupid Sci-Fi Channel) is the king of quirky TV shows. It's just started its fourth season this June and by catching up on old episodes I've been reminded how much  really enjoy it.

The show revolves around a hidden, top-secret town in Oregon that's populated almost exclusively by the greatest scientific minds in the country. In the show's mythology, every scientific advance since the late 1940s was actually developed in Eureka and then released to the rest of the world from there. Every week, some new experiment goes awry or mad scientist goes off the deep end. Part of the quirkiness of the show is the over-the-top way that the town's (and world')s existence is nearly wiped out (often in potentially gruesome ways) as a matter of course.

Protecting the scientists from themselves is former U.S. Marshall turned town sheriff Jack Carter. He's far from the smartest guy in town, but he's clever, affable, and completely dedicated. He's also funny as hell. He's played by Colin Ferguson, a trained comic, and his timing and delivery are impeccable. In one scene, he walks into a restricted area and collapses to the ground from the effects of a protective force-field. The way Ferguson folded up and dropped to the ground had me in stitches, and while not over-used it's pretty common for him to mix that sort of physical prat-fall with his deadpan inability to comprehend 90% of what the scientists try to tell him about their crazy experiments. Add in the interpersonal relationships with his daughter and the rest of the regular cast and it's a very funny show that stops short of being a sitcom.

Instead, it's as if every warp-core breach from Star Trek, every funky crisis that had to be resolved by reversing the polarity of some piece of equipment (which somehow DOESN'T explode like you'd expect it to do, but rather fixes some obscure problem that should take a team of scientists six months or more to research, develop and test a solution) were repeated on a weekly basis in this small town. The technical mumbo-jumbo flies fast and heavy, but it never loses you and all sounds very believable (in context, anyway).

Around the time of the writer's strike a few years back (and probably related) the show took a long hiatus and I fell out of the habit of watching it, missing a good-sized chunk of Season 3. Now that Season 4 is up and running, I've been going back and watching those missed episodes and remembering why I enjoy this show so much. It's fresh, it's never dull, and it's got a great sense of humor while still being a reasonably serious take on sci-fi in a unique setting.

Another great thing about Eureka is that while it sometimes references older episodes and events, it always does so in a way that's easy to follow even if you missed (or just don't remember) that show. It's incredibly easy to dive into without feeling lost. As such, it's a great sci-fi show for people who just want to watch some fun and entertaining TV without feeling as if they need to learn a multi-year story arc. Eureka airs at 9 PM Eastern on the SyFy channel in the U.S. (and at other times and stations around the world).

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Tale of Two Dojos

Choosing the place where we'll train long-term

[Note: this would normally be Monday's blog post, but I finished it early so here it is.]

My family and I have been happy at LaVallee's karate for the last 6-8 months. We've trained hard, learned a lot, sweated a LOT (especially me) and we're preparing to take our second belt test. I feel like overall it was a good experience. I suppose that at some point I might go into the details of what I do and don't like about the experience there, but overall we were happy and we would have stayed if we could afford it. Sadly, even with every discount and price break they felt comfortable throwing our way, the change from their six-months "intro" program to their full Black Belt Champions program involved doubling the cost to train there (or more) and also required that we sign a 3-year contract. The cost was simply not affordable for us and there's no way I'd ever sign a 3-year contract for services like this, so we're moving on.

Our kids would miss karate if we stopped, but they'd get over it pretty quickly. None of them are the gung-ho type who feels that karate is their personal calling in life. I'm not worried that they won't feel complete until they've mastered every kata, learned every technique, and earned their black belts and beyond. That's just not their style - they're fairly easy-going. Likewise, as much as my wife and I respect and enjoy the martial arts, we'd both gone for a decade and a half without training, so it's not as if our lives will fall apart without it. At the same time, the martial arts was the only sport I ever really enjoyed participating in, and of course my wife spent a LOT of years earning her 2nd-degree black belt way back when. It's certainly been a part of our lives, and we're planning to stick with it (and, if necessary, drag the kids along with us).

We investigated many other local dojos. My wife and I both made phone calls, used social networking, and did our research in the phonebook and on the web. We ruled out a couple of places because their websites or reputations just didn't speak well for them. We ruled out quite a few more because they were in the same price-range as LaValle's for a family our size. In the end, though, we've found two schools we're very happy and impressed with, and this week we plan to get together as a family and choose the one we feel will suit us best. Luckily, neither of them has anything close to a 3-year contract, so it's not as if we'd be locked in forever. I expect, though, that whichever we choose, we'll likely stick with for a very long time.

The two finalists in our Syracuse Northern Suburbs Dojo Roundup are... (drum roll!)

Syracuse Jundokan and Five Star Martial Arts!

 Sensei David Oddy at Syracuse Jundokan and Senseis Paul Napoli and Curtis Pastore at Five Star are all super-excited about the martial arts and passionate about training. I'm actually hoping they'll all get to meet at some point, as I think they'd get along tremendously. In the meantime, it's going to be very hard to pick just one of these very different schools.

Syracuse Jundokan's Sensei Oddy and Sensei Sergei Kushner both have "day jobs," and are encouraged by their home dojo in Okinawa to not "eat from karate" - keeping it as an avocation, rather than a vocation. As a result, the dojo's classes are very small (and will potentially remain that way for a while) and their facilities consist of a multi-purpose room at Champion's Fitness plus the after-hours use of the dojo at Aikido of Central New York (where Sensei Kushner trains his students for national AAU and NKF competitions). The facilities aren't tailored to their specific needs, but they're more than adequate to get the job done.

[On a personal note, if it were just up to me, I'd probably sign up again at Aikido of CNY as I really loved it there. But none of the rest of my family has any interest in that style. Such is life - fortunately I enjoy other styles of martial arts nearly as much. But I digress.]

At Five Star Martial Arts, Sensei Napoli and Sensei Pastore are making the martial arts their career. They've thrown their familys' livelihoods into opening their own storefront dojo with all the fixins. Their custom-designed logo hangs in a place of honor on the back wall. Their creed and values grace the front plate-windows and adorn the wall above the mirrors. There are video screens hanging on the wall and a whole closet filled with brand-new hand targets, body shields, focus mits, and anything else you can think of (excepting hojo undō, but I'll get to those later). They have brand-new tatami-mats and the whole facility is theirs to do with as they please and to schedule as many classes a day as they feel they can handle.

Syracuse Jundokan teaches traditional, authentic Okinawan Goju-Ryu karate. So authentic, in fact, that Sensei Oddy travels to Okinawa every year to train at the home dojo of his Okinawan masters - who trace their lineage directly to Miyagi Chojun Sensei, the father and founder (the O-Sensei) of Goju-Ryu Karate. The classes are extremely detailed and focused - sometimes spending most of the class breaking down and working on a single technique. Sensei Oddy is amazing - seeing him perform a kata like Seanchin, watching his precision and how he controls his breathing, is awe-inspiring. His depth and breadth of knowledge in his art are evident in every class he teaches. When I'm learning from Sensei Oddy, I can almost believe I'm in Japan.

Five Star Martial Arts practices Kenpo Karate - the Americanized version taught by Kyoshi Steve LaValle. Kyoshi is a student of seemingly every kind of martial art there is, and has folded most of them into his "Black Belt Champions" schools. I don't get the feel that Five Star is quite as diverse, as "blended" as LaValle's, but at their core they're still Kyoshi's students. In addition, they've been training for a few months under their new Sensei, Nick Dougherty, in New Jersey. I believe Sensei Nick is mostly their business mentor up to this point, but in time they'll be able to add his expertise to what they learned at LaVallee's.

My family has already been training part-time at Syracuse Jundokan for the last two months and I'm amazed at the things I've learned there in such a short time. I mean, it's not surprising that we'd have learned a couple of new katas - Gekesai Dai Ichi and two versions of Seanchin. But I also learned completely new theories around techniques like the horse stance, the cat stance, and even basic techniques like the upward block and the downward block, neither of which is, technically, what their name would imply (in fact, the downward block isn't meant to be a block at all, but a strike!). THAT sort of depth just blows me away and, as far as I can see, it's absolutely unique in the Syracuse area. It's not watered-down, but hard-core martial arts straight from the Far East. In addition, Sensei Oddy's Okinawan Goju-Ryu includes a type of exercise called Bunkai.

Bunkai is a wonderful way to train. Typically when you learn a kata, your instructor will tell you to "Imagine you're being attacked from the left with a front kick," and that helps you to visualize why you're doing the technique the way you are. Sensei does that (and in minute detail, explaining why virtually every muscle you move has a very specific purpose in the kata), but then he adds in a partner performing bunkai against your kata. As you block, the partner strikes. As they strike, you block. As Sensei Oddy says, "The kata informs the bunkai, the bunkai tests the kata." I've never seen anything like it and it really helps add a whole new dimension to kata. They're no longer just forms to be mastered, but actual, practicable combat techniques that you can train in a low-contact, non-competitive sort of sparring with your partner.

Five Star Martial Arts doesn't have nearly as much of the traditionalism that I personally enjoy - they bow to the American flag rather than greeting the Kamidana (a Shinto shrine and/or a representation of the Dojo's founder) in Japanese. The majority of the terminology, from counting to student responses to the names of techniques and stances, is in English. Only the terms for the instructors (Sensei) and the seated positions (seiza) reflect the style's Asian origins. What they do have, however, is a vigorous cardiovascular and calisthenic workout built into each training class. Granted, the classes are shorter to begin with than at Syracuse Jundokan and then the workout further cuts into the time spent learning and practicing techniques, however my wife especially likes the workout and I would have to honestly admit that if I don't get my exercise at Karate, I won't get it anywhere. I've spent most of the last 15 years turning my body into a sluggish, flabby sack of meat that gets out of breath if I jog up the stairs too fast. It took me three months of hard training at LaValle's before I could make it all the way through a class there without having to stop and gasp for breath for five minutes. So it's definitely true that traditionalism and vigorous exercise are both key aspects of what my family needs in its martial arts training, and they're available at different schools.

Though I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge Sensei Oddy's impressive (and growing) collection of traditional Okinawan exercise equipment. Called hojo undō in Japanese, these "supplementary exercise" tools are both impressive and (in my opinion as a clutz and a father of clutzes) horrifying (though I mean that in the nicest way possible. They really are very cool, I'm just certain that one or more members of my family will injure themselves trying to use them). His equipment includes concrete disks on wooden sticks called chi shi, which you heave around trying not to bonk yourself in the head in order to develop your hands, wrists and forearms (among other key muscle groups). Nigiri game are weighted pottery jars with a thick ridge around the opening where you grip them with your fingers. You then practice kata and other techniques while carrying them around. The tachi-makiwara (which he hopes to have re-installed soon) is a padded board used for practicing strikes. And his most recent (and, I believe, proudest) acquisition is the giant kongoken. It's a forearm-thick metal rod that's been bent so it has two long, parallel sides and is somewhat rounded at both ends (sort of like a 100-lb paperclip without the extra piece in the middle). This terrifying tool is used in many different ways to practice things like the hip-movement that powers the strikes in Goju-Ryu. Again, I am both awed and frightened by Sensei Oddy's collection of Japanese exercise equipment, and he makes it freely available to his students. Which is to say that if we put our minds to it, my wife and I (at minimum) could certainly get a good workout at Syracuse Jundokan. It's just going to require willpower and discipline on our parts, whereas at Five Star Martial Arts it's built in to the program.

Given how busy our five-member family is, especially during the school year, scheduling is an issue for us. It's also one place where Five Star's operation shines, since the two instructors (and owners) have the freedom to schedule multiple classes every day of the week, Monday through Saturday. Syracuse Jundokan's classes are Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and they run late enough that we don't get home until a good half-hour or more past the kids' bed-time. That's inconvenient in the summer, but during the school year I think it would be a major problem - especially since their school's arrival time has been moved up 35 minutes earlier beginning in September. The schedule at Five Star would have us home in time to read a book and get the kids tucked in by 8 PM so they're getting plenty of rest for school. Besides that, I'm really never available on Mondays as long as I'm meeting with my Writer's Roundtable, and I expect that to continue through at least the end of 2010, and probably well beyond that. As a result, we'd be limited to training at Syracuse Jundokan on Wednesday and Friday only unless the schedule changes (which I believe Sensei Oddy might be inclined to do at some point). If one of the kids ends up with a school activity on one of those nights, there wouldn't be much flexibility to shift our training to a different day. At Five Star, we can pick and choose the days and times that work best, and could easily train three or even as many as five times a week if we want.

Lastly, each dojo offers at least one unique training opportunity that the other does not. At Syracuse Jundokan, both Sensei Oddy and Sensei Kushnir have extensive experience with national competitions through the AAU and the National Karate Federation, which is considered the national governing body for U.S. Karate by the U.S. Olympic Committee. In other words, if you're training and competing under the auspices of the NKF, then you've got the opportunity to join the U.S. National Team and possibly even the U.S. Olympic Team. In fact, right now their student Bryan Randazzo is preparing to represent the U.S. at the Pan-American Games in Montreal in August as part of our National Team. That's pretty amazing and it's unheard of, as far as I can tell, from any other dojo in the greater Syracuse area. Training at Syracuse Jundokan puts you in the position to participate in AAU and NKF tournaments under the expert coaching of two veteran instructors.

I should acknowledge, though, that that isn't something my family's interested in right now. I'd be floored if any of them ever have the tenacity, the temerity, and the sense of self-sacrifice to put in the effort and commitment necessary to compete at that level. I can almost picture my youngest son showing an interest, but he's many years too young at this point. So while Syracuse Jundokan offers this impressive and unprecedented training opportunity, it's not directly relevant to my family's training goals.

At the same time, Five Star Martial Arts offers the same training in kobudo or, as they simply call it in English, weapons, as at LaVallee's. Not the full range of Okinawan weaponry - they don't appear to know the sai or the tonfa, but they train in the kama, the bo staff, the nunchuku, and they add in the katana because it's cool as hell. Now I certainly know that these tools are superficial to the martial arts training - they don't necessarily add to your empty-hand technique (though the katana certainly does if you're studying Aikido, which we are not) nor are you likely to have them with you should you ever need them, but let's be frank: I like traditional Japanese weaponry, I think it's neat, and given a choice I'd prefer to train with them than not. There's no deeper reason than that.

And there you have it - it's not quite a scorecard, because the advantages of each school aren't necessarily comparable or equally weighted enough to fit into gross categories. And if you're reading the above article and you conclude that "clearly he prefers dojo X or dojo Y," you've misread it (unless you're referring to my old Aikido dojo, in which case you're correct, but it's not an option). It's anything but clear, and in fact it's going to be one of the hardest choices my family has made in quite some time. Both dojos offer us tremendous learning opportunities and I'm absolutely certain that we'd be extremely happy at whichever we choose. Likewise, we're going to be disappointed not to be able to train at whichever dojo isn't selected. When we left Five Star on Friday after our second "intro session," the kids insisted we ought to train at both. Sigh. Yeah, guys, I'd like that, too. If only time and money were unlimited, I believe we just might.

Check back later this week. After we've made our decision and spoken to both dojos, I'll post it here. Wish me luck.

Update: the decision is now up! Click here.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Lows and Highs

Writing has been at a standstill the last couple of weeks. It sucks. Granted, I seem to have been unusually busy with... stuff and... things. I don't know what, but I've felt busy. But I've also been slacking off. I suppose I'm frustrated with Chapter 15 not coming together neatly for me. I'm torn between trying to fix the existing version or starting the chapter over blank-slate style and pasting back in some of the better chunks from the earlier draft. Either of those approaches will involve a lot of tedious editing, the sort I especially hate to do. So I've been putting it off and accomplishing very little.

Luckily, "very little" isn't quite the same as "nothing." I've hand-written some passages for Chapter 15 that will fit nicely if I can figure out where to put them and how to re-write the chapter. Also, a couple of nights ago I had a brainstorm about some of the socio-political aspects of what will be my second novel if and when I write it. It was important, thematic stuff that would be central to the book and it helped me figure out key aspects of how and why some major stuff is going on at the beginning of the novel. So that's good.

My kids and I are also progressing nicely toward our upcoming orange-belt tests at LaValle's Karate. The true test is during "Spotlight Week" which is a couple weeks before the "graduation" night when we receive our new belts. I had to put in a lot of extra time with the kids to help them master their kata, as they'd really been struggling with parts of it for a while. And it worked! They nailed it on their spotlights, and my wife and I did ours just fine, too. Tonight we'll be doing our self-defense techniques, so I need to work with the kids on those, also.

So there's a low and a couple of highs, as promised in the title. One other piece of good news, of course, is that I've been updating Virtual Vellum pretty regularly for the last couple of weeks, huh? Go me! It may or may not continue long-term, but I'm feeling pretty good about it anyway.

At some point soon, I want to write an article about Dropbox. It's a neat way of simultaneously backing up your files while you share them among different computers (like your PC and your laptop or iPad, for example) and I'm quite happy with it. You get 2 gig of online space for free, plus another 250 meg just for completing a 6-step tour of the service that includes installing the client application on a second computer and sharing a folder with somebody else. You can also get additional 250-meg blocks of free storage by getting your friends to create their own free Dropbox accounts. The link above takes you to my "share with friends" page, so if you're interested in this functionality (or just want to help me get another 250 mb of free storage space), by all means give it a click and sign up. Like I said, I'll write a more detailed review soon, though not necessarily tomorrow (we'll have another late night at karate tonight, which competes for my blog-writing time). My initial reaction is unreservedly positive, however - I'm sold on Dropbox and very happy with the service so far.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

[Movie Review] The Book of Eli

I should have seen this in the theatre. I wanted to - badly. I'd seen the previews and was convinced I'd enjoy it. But, then the reviews came out, and a lot of the ones I saw weren't very flattering. They took issue with the story, the action, the message, whatever. In fact, if you look at a review-aggregator like Rotten Tomatoes, you'll find the reviews are split pretty evenly between positive and negative. People love it or hate it, I guess.

We finally got to watch it this week - we had it as soon as it was available from Netflix. It's a terrific movie.

The Book of Eli is a post-apocalyptic western samurai movie. It's got the lone wanderer (Denzel Washington) - a blademaster and gunslinger who's traveling west on a vague mission, carrying a book. The wanderer meets the local tyrant, Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who rules a small "wild-west" town, sending out raiding parties in search of a book that he believes will increase his power. The tyrant recognizes the wanderer's skills and tries to recruit him, introducing him to his blind slave-girl Claudia (Jennifer Beals) and ordering her daughter Solara (Mila Kunis) to seduce him as an enticement to stay in the town. Solace discovers the book, innocently informs the tyrant, and then joins the wanderer on the road. Carnegie, desperate for the power he believes the book could give him, sets off in pursuit with a squad of heavily-armed desperadoes in armored cars.

I enjoy post-apocalyptic worlds. The desperation of those living in the shadow of civilization, surviving off of its scraps, is fascinating to me. They're forced to return to the "old ways" of cooking over campfires and hunting with bows, all while surrounded by the shattered remnants of the riches and luxurious excesses that we take for granted today. Which of us, we who have time to read (and write) blogs on our broadband-connected computers rather than toiling in the fields from before sunup till after sundown isn't living like a prince compared to 99.99% of the population of the Earth just a few hundred years ago?

I also like the "lone wanderer" figure, whether it's Clint Eastwood in a Sergio Leone movie or Roland from Stephen King's Dark Tower series or the unnamed protagonist from the Fallout games. This guy is alone against the world, yet he manages to hold his own through skill, discipline, and steely-eyed courage. He refuses to give up - even manages to win - when the rest of us would curl up in weeping, thumb-sucking balls in the corner. The bad guys always have all the advantages - men, weapons, supplies, you name it - yet they just can't... quite... kill... the hero.

And so it is with The Book of Eli. It's a movie about the power of faith in something larger than yourself, but it's not a particularly religious movie and certainly isn't pedantic. It's a movie about the little guy somehow overcoming impossible odds because he's better than the rest and because he keeps the faith even when everything is bleakest. It's a film where you can see yourself as you'd be if you had to live off the ruins of modern society. Would you be the man driven by faith to spend thirty years walking from one side of the blasted continent to the other? Or would you be one of the cannibals, subsisting on the flesh of your fellows?

Speaking of which, there's one other set of notable characters who take a fine turn in the film - that of the old couple George and Martha. Their scene isn't uproarious, but is one of the funnier in the films, made more remarkable by the casting. Old George is played by none other than Harry Potter's Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon), while Martha is portrayed by Frances de la Tour, who played Madame Maxime, the giant-sized headmistress of one of the rival schools of wizardry in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

The Book of Eli has the ideal combination of action, memorable characters, message and gritty setting. It's a terrific story (by long-time computer game journalist Gary Whitta), told through superb acting and beautiful cinematography. I regret missing it on the big screen, but enjoyed it immensely on my medium-sized one. I rate The Book of Eli an A and recommend it highly.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Treehouse

When I was a kid, I always kind of wanted a treehouse. You see them on TV and stuff - always built by professional theatrical carpenters, of course - and they just look like the ultimate in cool. In reality, I doubt I'd have had much practical use for one - they seem like they'd be more fun when you have a bunch of friends hanging around and you can use the treehouse as your HQ for all sorts of hijinks, which wasn't the case for me. I made do with the woods out back, which was just as cool in its own way.

My cousins, on the other hand, had the real deal. My uncle - my mother's brother Larry - was a wood-worker and had built a true masterpiece around a large tree on one side of their house. It wasn't exactly what you think of as a treehouse - usually a box on stilts or somehow wedged up in the branches of a tree, but in some ways it was even cooler. This one was more like a tree-deck. It was a two story-swirl of wooden walkways and ladders twining around and between the large boles of a big tree.

It was perfect for running around and climbing up and down and giving chase or rallying the troops. Whenever there was a birthday party (which was most often when we visited), all the kids (which were 95% boys) would charge the tree-house like pirates boarding a rich merchant galley. Alliances would form and break. Rules of engagement would be proffered, accepted, and then violated when they became inconvenient. Battle would ebb and flow from the ship out to their woods, then back to the treehouse, now no longer a ship but a redoubtable fortress of timber palisade and stone battlements.

That was how we played. Sure, we had video consoles (my cousins' Atari 5200 was much nicer than our own beloved Atari 2600), comic books, television and the like, but as much as we liked them, we didn't need them. Sometimes I'm not sure kids still know how to have a good time without gadgets to feed them entertainment. No gadgets for us, but an elaborate tree-house sure didn't hurt.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Mingulay Boat Song

This appears to be a song, like many popular "Renn Faire" folk songs these days, written as if it were an ancient Celtic tune. In fact, it's a creation of the 20th Century. Another example, the very popular "Wild Mountain Thyme," was written in 1957 and is even still under copyright. According to the (completely un-sourced and therefore suspect) Wikipedia entry for The Mingulay Boat Song, the lyrics were written as recently as 1937, though the usual tune is much older.

These two tunes have an interesting history, nonetheless. - at least around the Sterling Renaissance Festival. The final event of each day's festival program is the Pubsing, where the whole cast and many of the musicians gather to sing songs and end the day. It's a very nice gathering, almost a ceremony. You can look at the book of sheet music available at the faire's Remembrance Shoppe to see how much the Pubsing has changed in the last 15-20 years, but while some of the songs may be different, the spirit remains the same. And then, as now, the final song of the Pubsing is dedicated to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth I of England, whom the festivities are meant to be honoring.

The cast at the faire, by and large, must audition for their parts every year, and some of the actors and roles change from season to season. Certain of the cast members, however, are consistently the same and, for all I know, have the roles "locked in." Either way, the Queen role has tended to be played by the same actress year after year after year. A few years ago, long-running Queen Baj Burinski retired after some 15+ years, which was sort of a big deal. The new Queen Elizabeth, Maria Wechsler, also has other important jobs in the training of the actors for the faire, and I presume that the prior Queen did as well. As such, this actress is much like the actual Queen in the way she leads the players to success year after year. I have no doubt that her retirement was a major event for the cast. Sadly, I've recently learned that Baj passed away shortly thereafter.

The final song of the Pubsing, as I mentioned, is dedicated to the Queen. Previously, this song had been "Wild Mountain Thyme," a lovely and very popular song of love and togetherness that was a great fit both as a tribute to Her Majesty and as an end to the day's festivities. When the former Queen actor stepped down, the festival actually retired that song, as a tribute to her. They no longer perform it at all during the Pubsing (which is a downer if you're a fan of the song, but most likely you can find it performed by one of the other bands somewhere during the day). For the "coronation" of the new Queen, they introduced a completely different song - one that I'd never heard anywhere at the festival before - the Mingulay Boat Song. The idea was that the Queen was like a ship's captain, sailing the "ship" of England through troubled waters and home to loved ones. Presumably, if Ms. Wechsler retires at some point, they'll retire that song as well. But, for now, it's a very nice end to each wonderful day at the Sterling Renaissance Festival.

The version of the song they perform is, as far as I can tell, unique. It mixes lyrics from at least two different versions of the song that I was able to find online, and changes some of the particulars of the wording as well. For those who might like to sing along at the Pubsing or perform it at home, I give you the Mingulay Boat Song:

Mingulay Boat Song

Intro: [G]

[G] Heel yo ho, boys, [D] let 'er [G] go, boys,
Keep her [D] head 'round [G] into the [C] weather;
Heel yo [G] ho, boys, [D] let her [G] go, boys,
Sailing [D] homeward [G] to [C] Mingu- [G] lay.

[G] What care we though, [D] white the [G] Minch is,
What care [D] we for [G] wind or [C] weather?
Let her [G] go, boys, [D] every [G] inch is
Sailing [D] homeward [G] to [C] Mingu- [G] lay.

[G] Heel yo ho, boys, [D] let 'er [G] go, boys,
Keep her [D] head 'round [G] into the [C] weather;
Heel yo [G] ho, boys, [D] let her [G] go, boys,
Sailing [D] homeward [G] to [C] Mingu- [G] lay.

[G] Wives are waiting [D] by the [G] pier heads, or
Looking [D] seaward [G] from the [C] heather;
Pull her [G] 'round, boys, [D] and we'll [G] anchor,
Ere the [D] sun sets [G] on [C] Mingu- [G] lay.

[G] Heel yo ho, boys, [D] let 'er [G] go, boys,
Keep her [D] head 'round [G] into the [C] weather;
Heel yo [G] ho, boys, [D] let her [G] go, boys,
Sailing [D] homeward [G] to [C] Mingu- [G] lay.

[G] Ship’s return now [D] heavy [G] laden
Mothers [D] holdin’ [G] bairns a- [C] cryin’
They’ll re- [G] turn, though [D] ere the [G] sun sets
They’ll [D] return [G] to [C] Mingu- [G] lay.

Chorus (x2):
[G] Heel yo ho, boys, [D] let 'er [G] go, boys,
Keep her [D] head 'round [G] into the [C] weather;
Heel yo [G] ho, boys, [D] let her [G] go, boys,
Sailing [D] homeward [G] to [C] Mingu- [G] lay.

We’re sailing [D] home-ward [G] to [C] Mingu- [G] lay.

Friday, July 16, 2010

[Book Update] Chapter 15 Results So Far

On Tuesday, I lamented my ongoing difficulties with Chapter 15. I wasn't super-happy with it after making major revisions over the weekend, and it wasn't especially well-received on Monday evening at the Writer's Group. Which isn't to say it was panned by any means, just that the group (accurately) noted some significant issues with it that needed to be fixed. The main POV character was too introspective and there was too much imagery and detail, which distracted them, as readers, from the chapter's action. It's a chapter set during a battle that, if not exactly pitched (for the defenders, anyway), still ought to seem tense and dangerous. The chapter I wrote had too much of the POV character looking around and reflecting on his life and otherwise getting off-topic from the battle, which they didn't care for.

I have not written anything since then, this week. That is not a coincidence. My mind is working - at its own speed - on fixing this chapter, but it's a huge task for my wee little brain. It will most likely, once I get my thoughts in the right place, involve starting Chapter 15 with a blank page and reworking it from the beginning, pasting in pieces of the old draft that worked well, interspersing them with new material and cutting out some stuff that didn't work. Doing this hurts my brain, so I find myself having to work up the nerve to start on it. This sort of reconstructive surgery isn't something I feel I'm good at - I often end up with a finished product that's less than I'd hoped it would be, and I find that it took longer to get there than I wanted and, often, that I left out things that I'd badly wanted to include. These may be concepts that are necessary to the story (or just interesting) or, in some cases, well-written selections of text that I failed to carry over from the old draft and no longer fit cleanly into the new draft. These especially tick me off. When I'm lucky enough to write something really well, the last thing I want to do is leave it out not because it didn't belong but because I was negligent and I forgot about it.

So that's where we stand. I've made some progress - I wrote out a page by hand that I think represents how Chapter 15 Mark IV will begin, and I've got some ideas about the order in which to reveal certain information that should (I hope) help to build and sustain dramatic tension. What I really need to do is sit and take notes about the prior/current revision of the chapter so that I can document clearly those things that need to carry into the new draft and, better still, put them into the correct order. But, again, not my favorite thing to do, so I'm procrastinating. Luckily, this sort of procrastination often occurs when my subconscious is diligently chewing on the problem and frequently results in really useful and valuable ideas, so I've learned not to get too upset about it. Still, when the week's over and I've written very little, I'm going to wish I'd gotten more done whether or not my subconscious produced some magic tricks in the interim.


I don't often write poems, yet I am a poet. My poetry is the life-giver, the mother and father joined as one, the plasma-hot sun spark that embraces the people and places in my stories. It enfolds the mere words, exhales over and through them the breath that shocks them off the page and into the living minds of my readers.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

My Junk

Ha! After "My Hair" and "My Arm," you thought this was going to be another up-close-and-personal look at my various body parts, didn't you?! Woo-hoo! That would have been a long one! Er, I mean... never mind.

I have too much stuff. Not as much stuff as my wife and kids, luckily, but still I have stuff I don't really need but cannot bear to part with. Given the egregious lack of storage space in our house, this is arguably a serious problem. Or just a nuisance. Mostly that.

For instance, when I worked at the Turning Stone Casino, I was required to wear "formal business attire" every day - eg. a dress shirt, suit, tie, etc. In order to get maximum life out of my wearing of each suit, I had made for me additional sets of pants for two of them, since you can usually only wear the pants a couple of times between dry-cleanings, but can generally wear the jacket 4-6 times before it needs to be cleaned (this is both because it's got a dress shirt to help keep it clean and also because the first thing you do when you enter a room is remove your jacket and hang it over your chair. The damn things ought to be outlawed. But I digress). I no longer need to dress in formal attire, well, pretty much ever. Funerals every year or so... that's about it. So I don't need my Good Suit, or my two Plain Suits with the Extra Pants, or my Other Good Suit That I Really Liked When I Bought It But Now I Think Makes Me Look Like a Mobster. One or even two might be okay, but I certainly don't need four (plus the extra pants). Moreover, I arguably don't need all of the dress shirts I got at the same time, especially the ones that aren't "wrinkle-free," because hell I'm never ever wearing those. Iron? Me? Bah! Another brief digression:

I used to travel a lot on business, often with my buddy Warren who was the Sales Manager who sold the services that my Service Operation delivered. Warren was ex-military and, unlike a lot of guys, actually did know how to iron. On more than one occasion, I would meet Warren at the door to his hotel room in the morning before a tradeshow or client meeting, he'd take one look at me, and order me to remove my wrinkled shirt (which I had already attempted - and failed - to iron) so he could iron it properly.That should adequately highlight the breadth of my ironing abilities.

So I've got at least three superfluous suits and probably ten shirts that I'll never wear again. And I'm not including things like my Renn Faire garb, my gorilla suit and my Santa suit (shh, don't tell the wee ones) which I wear rarely but do wear at least once a year. It all takes up quite a bit of space, and no doubt contributed to the collapse of my closet rod (and its attached shelf) earlier this year. Attempts to replace said rod with an "easy-to-assemble" closet organizer have been, so far, fruitless.

I also have an entire bookshelf of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons materials from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s. It's in the basement so it's not really in the way, but it's one of those "I'd like to have reason to use this stuff again someday, but it's sort of unlikely I actually will" sort of things. You see, it's all 1st Edition and 2nd Edition material, and the game is now up to 4th Edition. I don't like 4th Edition, but I do own some of the basic rulebooks for it. I'd like to introduce my kids to the game at some point, when they're all old enough, but it's a tough call. If I work from 2nd Edition materials, I'd be limited to what I already own because the different versions are largely incompatible. I do have a LOT of stuff, however, so we could probably get by for a long time. What I don't have, though, are some of the newer "get an adventure up and running really really fast" sorts of materials that would be nice since I just don't have time to build an elaborate campaign around a series of interconnected adventures the way I did when I was a teenager.

The alternative would be to use the 4th Edition stuff. It has some nice, easy-to-use materials, but all of my old 2nd Edition stuff would be functionally unusable (I could mine it for ideas, but all of the game-play details would be wrong). On the one hand I really dislike the new rules, which seem to be trying to turn the Pen-and-Paper Role-Playing Game into the offline equivalent of an Online Role-Playing Game like World of Warcraft. Which I think is stupid, but there you are. On the other hand, if my kids ever decide to play D&D with anyone other than me, they would almost certainly be using the most recent set of rules, rather than the 20-year-old out-of-print rules I have, so it might be better to just start them on those. Sigh. Ayway, add that to the list of stuff of dubious utility cluttering up my house.
Related to the above, I have several boxes of Dragon Magazine that I will not throw away. Why not? Who knows? All of the old issues are available online as PDFs at Wizards of the Coast's website, so it's not as if I'm keeping them for the quality of their information (all of which, again, is largely out of date unless I'm using the old 2nd Edition rulebooks. Which, as I noted above, I technically could). I could argue that I'm keeping them for their beautiful cover art, except that I have them in boxes where I can't actually see it, so that's bogus. I could argue that I'm saving them for their potential long-term resale-value, since I have issues going back to the single-digits and, if I remember right, I have pretty much every issue from about #20 through about #200 or so. My gradeschool friend Art Prest traded me all of the really old issues, which I read thoroughly and decided I adored enough to get a subscription, which I maintained for around ten years give-or-take. However I have no idea whether they're worth anything at all, individually or as a collection, and have no intention of finding out anytime soon, so for the moment they're just taking up space.

Likewise, I have some unknown quantity of Dungeon Magazine, also in boxes, and also useful only if I ever decided to run a 2nd Edition AD&D game again. Which, you know, could theoretically happen, I suppose.

Comics! I have comics! Sadly, I got rid of my childhood comic collection when I was 13 and we moved, so all of my old Rom, Spaceknight and Superman Family and Green Lantern/Green Arrow and Justice League and Legion of Superheroes comics are long gone. I'm pretty sure I sold them for a pittance, too. The guy who bought the entire box seemed pretty happy, which is always a sure sign you've underpriced your stuff at a garage sale. Ah well. Luckily (I suppose), I now have several large and medium-sized boxes of comics that I started collecting back in the mid 1990s. I have quite a few X-Men comics, especially spin-offs like Bishop and Cable. I hated collecting X-Men, though, because you had to subscribe to about 8 different titles to get the complete story through all of the cross-overs. I also have dozens and dozens of What If? comics, as well as pretty much every comic that J. Michael Straczynski ever wrote, right up to the brand-new Superman and Wonder Woman comics released last month (including the all new and arguably improved Wonder Woman outfit that was widely covered by the media. No, I don't have the outfit, just the comic she wears it in. Perv.).

I don't know when or if I will ever read these comics again, or if my kids will ever want them, or what to do with them. But I can't just throw them out, I'm not optimistic that they're worth anything, and they won't stand neatly on a bookshelf, so into the boxes they have gone. Boxes and boxes. Sigh.

If you don't include all of the novels in my library (which I cherish and do actually re-read from time-to-time), that's the bulk of my junk collection, but it's enough to be in the way. It pales by comparison to my wife and kids' junk collections, but it's still substantial. As I think about it, though, I am resolved. I'm getting rid of the wrinkle-prone shirts (except the fancy ones that I like and do wear on occasion - there's only three) and probably a couple of the suits. That will free up closet space and be that much less that I need to cram into it when I finish the organizer and have to put everything back.

See how easy that was?

No, I'm not getting rid of the other stuff. I just need to build an additon on the house so there's room for it.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

My Arm

Yeah, why not. I'm just going to report at length on each aspect of my Greek-god-like physique. If that god is Dionysus. And yes, I realize that there are depictions of Dionysus that look like this:

But I'm more in mind of the version from Disney's Fantasia:

Anyway, it occurred to me in correspondence with a friend over the weekend that while I'd mentioned a couple weeks ago that I'd injured my arm, I never really explained what happened. It's mildly interesting, if only because it's so inexplicable.

Two weeks ago today, I took the kids to Open Swim after lunch and we were there for a couple of hours. Sometime shortly thereafter, I noticed a stiffness in my upper right arm. As I mowed the lawn that afternoon, the stiffness became more pronounced and began to ache. I found I was having difficulty lifting my arm very high, either out in front or to the side. I tried things like grabbing onto the top of my fence and stretching it, but it didn't seem to help and was very painful, so I stopped. I have no idea whether that made it worse or not, but it certainly didn't get any better. Throughout the evening, it stiffened and turned from an ache to pain. And then to intense pain. Agonizing pain. I tried IcyHot - it did nothing. I tried icepacks, which helped a little, but it was like taking a bucketful of water from a full bathtub. Maybe just a cupful. Oh God, it hurt so much.

I know, you're wondering why the heck I didn't go to the emergency room, right? Yeah, me too. All I can say is that it was 8 or 9 PM by the time it started to really, really hurt, and I was averse to dragging my whole family to the ER at that time of the night if it wasn't critically necessary. I was pretty sure I wasn't going to die or suffer irreperable damage to my arm, so it was just a matter of managing the pain. If it had kept getting worse or if it hadn't been any better by morning, I would have gone. I will say that trying to get to sleep that night was incredibly frustrating - there was simply no position I could sit or lie in that was remotely comfortable enough to sleep. Eventually, I got by with Tylenol and a series of ice packs. It wasn't the most restful night ever, but I survived it.

Over the following week - almost exactly to the hour - my arm got incrementally better. In fact, it was remarkable the way it seemed to improve by about 15% per day, both in terms of decreased pain and in how high I could raise my arm. By last Tuesday, it was completely healed, enough that I was even able to go to karate and complete the workout. I still get stiff twinges now and then, but it's close enough.

So what caused it, you might wonder. So do I, because I'm honestly not sure. I've narrowed it down to the following possibilities:

a) Sometime Tuesday morning, my daughter got the mouthpiece stuck in her trumpet. It's happened before, and the official solution is to take it to the music store where we lease it, and they remove it with a special tool. But it really, really looks like you ought to be able to just yank it out, if only you pull hard enough. So I huffed and I puffed and, well, you get the idea. I was using both hands, plus my legs and back and that sucker still wouldn't come out. We ended up having to take it in anyway. So it's possible I pulled or tore something at that time, but I consider it the least likely cause.

b) I mentioned above that the kids and I went to Open Swim for a couple of hours. It was my first time in the pool in a year or so, and while I'm a capable swimmer, it's easy to imagine that going from "zero to full breast stroke" all at once might have ripped something. I wasn't swimming competitively or anything, but I was using muscles that hadn't seen that sort of action in a while. I consider this the second least (or most) likely cause.

c) At one point in the pool, I picked up my youngest son and tossed him. It was an awkward angle and he's getting heavy for a little kid, so I might have pulled something doing that. I suppose I consider this the most likely cause, though I didn't actually feel any discomfort at the time. However, since I felt no snapping, crackling or popping sensations at any point during the day, I have to go with which activity would seem to have had the highest chance of really messing up my arm, and this one seems like the best candidate.

d) Something else - it may be that something I didn't even think about or notice at the time was the true culprit. I'll never know for sure. I include this possibility if only because none of the ones above are sure-things. I truly don't know what caused my arm to inflame with white-hot searing iron pokers of pure agony.

So that's the story of how my arm went from fine to "It hurts, it hurts, somebody please shoot me!!" to fine once again. All I can say is that it sure was lucky all my karate dojos were closed that week, as there's no way I could have exercised rigorously in that condition. I'm glad it's over.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

[Book Update] The Passion of the Chapter 15

I don't really keep track of such things, but I think Chapter 15 has now probably tied or exceeded chapter 6 for the most dedicated, contiguous time invested in a single chapter. And despite what I thought on Friday evening, I'm not done with it yet. This is a problem, by the way, because I'd planned to take it to the writer's group last night. I'm writing this on Monday morning, so I don't yet know whether or not I made it, but it wasn't going to be easy. My plan (as of that time) is to work on it during the afternoon and if I'm clearly not going to finish in time possibly break out one of my older short stories from college and bring that instead - preferably one that's on my list of stuff to use in some fashion.

So yeah, Chapter 15. I kind of liked it in its orginal format. I initiated a re-write because:
a. I knew the writer's group (some of them, anyway) would hassle me (with the purest of intentions, of course - they want to help me make my work better) about not having much/any dialogue and I wanted to pre-empt that. I know from experience that that won't work - some of the readers won't settle for anything less than an entire chapter of people talking to each other. It's also a lousy reason to make a major change, but you get tired of hearing the same feedback week after week after week, and it actually did fit in with some of the other changes so I allowed it in this case. The chapter currently known as Chapter 16, on the other hand, has something like 3 lines of dialogue in the entire 30+ page chapter and I'm not changing that, so it isn't as if I'm willing to sacrifice what's best for this novel to avoid getting beaten up by my writer's group. I'll take a pounding for Chapter 16 and then move on. It's an awesome chapter.

b. I wanted to give the reader a different perspective on both the action of the chapter (it's the first serious battle in the book) and on the main character (who doesn't tell you much about himself, so I'm trying to let the reader see him through other characters' eyes).

c. I didn't feel that the chapter had enough energy or did a good enough job of showing the fear, weariness, and pain of the defenders (who are meant to be sympathetic characters). The bad guys weren't bad enough and the good guys weren't suffering enough for it to feel like a real battle. I would very much like a soldier who's seen combat to read this and go "Yeah, that's how it would feel to be there." This is tough since I haven't ever been in combat myself (which is good news for friendly forces and no doubt a real disappointment to our nation's enemies), but I need to at least make a good effort. I didn't feel as if the first draft even came close.

There were various other concepts I wanted to include in the chapter - a page-long list of changes, in fact - so after taking a couple of months off from Chapter 15, I started re-writing it about two weeks ago. These are summer weeks, however. I only get a few hours a day (if I'm lucky) to write, so progress was slow. Finally, last Friday, major revision #2 was done and read for my wife to critique.

She liked it a lot and had fairly light feedback, but my wife is too soft on my work. I knew I'd failed again to get it right, despite completely rewriting 85 or 90% of the chapter into a different character's POV and addressing much of my page-long list of desired changes. It's still not right, and, again, I wanted it to be done and ready to present to my writer's group on Monday night. By Sunday afternoon, I had reviewed my notes, and the chapter, and had another half-page of changes I wanted to make. And I still didn't feel like I'd hit on the heart of the problems. I just knew I wasn't satisfied.

Sunday night, before bed, I had a series of inspirations. It all sort of clicked and I knew what I had to do. Part of the chapter had to be moved into a later chapter. This was good because it solved three problems.
1. It will result in Chapter 15 being entirely from the new character's POV, rather than split between him and the protagonist in an 80/20 (approximately) split.
2. It resolved a lingering question of where to put some brief but important action involving an antagonist and some key characters. I didn't have a good place to put this, and now I do.
3. It shortens a chapter that I felt was a bit too long. Though I'll probably end up even longer by the time I'm done making other changes.

I mapped out an order for upcoming chapters (currently Chapter 16 remains chapter 16, and will serve as a break between the contiguous action of Chapters 14/15 and the also-contiguous (mostly) action of Chapters 17/18) and figured out some of the key info I still needed to add to Chapter 15 as well as modification's I'll need to the protagonist's POV when he re-appears in Chapter 17.

So that's the good news - I finally feel like I know what needs to happen with Chapter 15. The question remains (as of this writing): can I make the necessary changes AND print copies in time to get everything in place for the Writer's Group. How's that for a cliffhanger? Yeah, it's not much of one, but I've invested all of my creative juices in this confounded chapter, sorry.

Monday, July 12, 2010

My Hair

Recent articles about Iran's official Islamic haircuts got me thinking about my own hair over the years. Leaving aside for the moment the ridiculousness of the Iranian state's need to control the most minute aspects of its peoples' lives simply because it can, I've actually only had about three or four hairstyles that I can recall in my forty-odd year lifespan.

As a kid, I had a pretty simple cut - it was a classic style that would have fit in just fine in the 1950s. It's also the style I went back to around the time I got married and have had ever since.

But every once in a while, I apparently feel the need to jazz things up. Beginning in the mid 1980s, this meant letting my hair grow long in the back, and then having it cut short in the front, parted in the middle and feathered back on the sides. Now, some people will tell you that this style was, at that time, called a mullet. This is patently false and I've got nothing less than the Oxford English Dictionary backing me up. According to the OED, that awful name was "Apparently coined, and certainly popularized, by U.S. hip-hop group the Beastie Boys" in a song that didn't come out until 1994. By which time everybody who wasn't a redneck had already long-since ditched that 80s hairstyle and moved on to something else. When I was wearing my hair like that, a mullet was simply a fish.

Anywho, I had it down to the middle of my back at one point, but that got old after a few years so I went in the other direction - leaving it parted in the middle but going with a brush-cut in the back. When I started to climb the corporate ladder, I bought myself a real watch (a shiny analog one instead of a cheap Timex) and went back to the more conservative side-part. I did this completely forgetting that it was essentially the same haircut I'd worn in gradeschool.

Lately, I'd begun to feel that it made me look like a junior Rod Blagojavich, the way it hung in front of my forehead when it got long. Since I can only handle the time and expense of a haircut about once every three months, it's often quite long, so this started to seem like a problem. I needed something new.

It's also worth noting that in the last year, my short, reasonably fashionable goatee (technically it's a Van Dyke, but nobody actually calls it that so whatever) has been allowed to grow until it's now a squid-like creature attached to my chin. I don't necessarily prefer it this way, but when I tried to cut it after the 2009 Renn Faire season, my family didn't recognize me and I found that I missed having it to stroke, so I'm kind of stuck. I call it my "writer's beard" because writers are creative artsy-fartsy types and should look odd to normal people.

So I suppose I wanted a new hairstyle to go with my rambunctious facial hair and general ennui. I talked to my barbers, but I was hesitant to switch to any style that required "hair product" such as gels, hairspray, mousse, etc. I'm too lazy for that kind of thing. Well, the head barber talked me into trying it anyway, so that's currently my style - very short in back, and cut on top so I can spike it with gel if I remember (which I usually don't) or so it can lay flat and just look normal the rest of the time.

And that's pretty much it - forty years (nearly) and just those few haircuts. It's arguably kind of a lot for a guy, especially a guy who doesn't really give a crap about how his hair looks for the most part, but there you go just the same. I'm hoping that by the time I hit 50, I'll need a special haircut so I look presentable in the era of robots, jetpacks and flying cars.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Sterling Renaissance Festival!

One of my all-time favorite annual summer activities is to attend the Sterling Renaissance Festival. My parents took me for the first time back in 1990 and my wife and I have gone together almost every year since 1992. Hey - that makes this my 20-year anniversary there. Well!

One of the things you notice when you're there is that the people who go in garb (which is what "renn-faire folks" call their period clothing) seem to be having a particularly good time. Plus, it makes the faire come that much more alive in its setting as an English village in the late 1500s to have many people wandering around in Renaissance-style clothes. So, beginning back in 95 or 96, my wife and I borrowed costumes from the Le Moyne College Firehouse Theater at which I'd been a castmember while an undergrad there. They weren't very good costumes (I have pictures somewhere. No, I'm not sharing them here. Well, ok, maybe sometime if I can find them.), at least mine wasn't (Karen looked ravishing as always), but they let us start getting into the spirit in a new way. By the next year we'd bought some cheap costumes online and a couple years later we'd assembled our own. My wife's is particularly lovely - a maroon overdress with detached sleeves over a dark blue underskirt. I wish I could find some decent pics that didn't include the kids (whose pics I don't put online publicly), but there don't seem to be any good ones of either of us anywhere that I can find.

The Faire is such a pastoral place - it's a lush, wooded setting dotted throughout the grounds with stages, food vendors, games and merchants. I love it all and could easily spend several days wandering around. There's literally never enough time to see and do everything you'd like, especially since a lot of the fun is just relaxing and enjoying the people passing by.

There's so much to buy there, and never enough time or money. One of my favorite shops is Potomac Leather, where they sell all manner of leather gear - from pouches to gloves, cloaks and even full outfits all of leather. I can't afford their stuff, but I love to go in and look at it. There are merchants in hats, masks, pewter, elaborate glass and stained glass crafts, and even musical instruments like flutes and drums. I was so busy this year I hardly made it to any of them.

The food, though expensive, is really tasty and fairly portable as well. One of my favorites is "Steak on a Stake" - a good-sized chunk of beef on a wooden skewer. I used to get the Turkey Leg when it was $3, but it's now up to $8 and they don't taste as good as they used to, so I stopped. Potatoes (salted or baked), pizza, fried cheese curds and waffle-cone sundaes usually round out our day. Every year I say we're going to try to get into the Tavern where they sell some different foods you can't get elsewhere, but so far we never have. Naturally, the boys won't eat any of that - they have peanut butter sandwiches, instead.

This year, a fellow named Johnny Fox debuted at the Faire, doing magic slight of hand and swallowing swords. He was quite good. We watched a Don Juan & Miguel show, too, but my kids don't really care for the loud crack of their whips so there was much complaining. Since the kids and I had already seen most of the shows of the Bless the Mark Players (the professional acting troupe who perform many of the acts at the Faire as well as playing the roles of the Queen of England, her court, and the villagers of Warwick) at Mock Faire Day, Fox and the Joust were just about the only non-music performances we watched.

Which was fine by me. I really like the plays, the improv performances and the shows, but for me, the Faire is all about the music. My son and I enjoyed a performance of a trio calling themselves Celtic Spirits - they're new to Sterling this year and we were there on opening day, so we were actually at their debut performance there. We also listened to an impromptu performance by a mish-mash of the festival's wonderful musicians and finished the day with the BTM cast's Pubsing. But the highlight of the day for me was to see the full quartet of Empty Hats finally returning to Sterling for the full season after several years away. They're definitely my favorite musical act at the Faire and I got to sit through three of their sets on Saturday. It was glorious. One of the ways my family gets into the "Renn Faire" spirit every season is to pop in the Empty Hats CDs (plus those of their predecessors, Double Indemnity) and get into their blend of ancient and modern Celtic and Celtic-like music.

It all wraps up at the final Pubsing. The Bless the Mark cast assembles at the main Festival Stage along with a group of the Faire's musicians and they sing us home. The set includes favorites like Auld Lang Syne (a much different version than the one you likely hear on New Year's Eve), So We'll Go No More A-Roving, Three Jolly Coachmen, Drunken Sailor, Tom O'Bedlam, and then finished with the Mingulay Boat Song. My son and I have actually learned quite a few of those tunes on our guitars and practice them almost daily, so it was really nice to hear them live. I don't think I've ever been at the final Pubsing on the last day of Faire for a given season, but I bet it's a terribly emotional experience. The cast is never exactly the same from year to year, and patrons come and go, so Auld Lang Syne surely carries particular meaning on that occasion. It's sad enough at the end of just a typical Faire day.

And then it's a quick stop at the gift shop (usually to buy one of the few Empty Hats CDs that I don't already own. I think I have all the ones I want at this point. I guess they need to record a new one) and we're off for the drive home. We're foot-weary, sweaty, dirty and full, but very contented after a full day of some of the best entertainment anywhere. It's been a terrific twenty years and I'm looking forward to spending many more summer days there this year and in years to come.

Thursday, July 8, 2010


I'm trying to update my blog, I really am. I've managed it a couple of times this week so far. The problem is that I've got Karate every night until really late, then swimming in the morning fairly early. I'm just not finding an appropriate time to do it other than during the rare moments I've been able to snatch in which to write my book. And of the two, it seems as if I ought to put the time into my book first. So there you are - I was working on a blog entry tonight and just ran out of time. I'll try again soon.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

[Movie Review] Zombieland

Zombie-killing goodness and more

First off, Zombieland is not, really, about zombies. And, before I get in too far, I should fess up that I'm biased. No, it's not zombies - I'm okay with them. It's Woody Harrelson I don't care for. He was fine on Cheers, but I don't think I've liked anything he's done since.

But anyway, Zombieland isn't about zombies. There actually aren't all that many of them through most of the movie - a lot fewer than you'd expect after a super-plague has wiped out virtually everyone, infecting them with a disease that drives them into a rage and gives them an insatiable hunger. The movie glosses over the contagion, explaining only that it developed out of Mad Cow Disease.

The film is something of an action comedy. A young nerd is playing World of Warcraft in his apartment as the world falls apart. He ends up alone, surviving through his wits which he catalogs in a series of written rules that include things like wearing your seatbelt and always shooting a zombie twice to make sure it's dead. He's never had any friends or much of a relationship with his family, but decides to travel from Texas to Ohio to see if his parents are all right. Along the way he meets another man who lives only to kill the zombies he hates so much. They, in turn, meet some con artists, and one bona fide celebrity (who I won't give away except to say that he's pretty funny in the film).

The movie does some things really well. Every time one of the rules comes into play, the text of the rule appears somewhat surreptitiously on the screen. Also, none of the characters has a name (well, we learn one of them near the very end). They're called instead by the city they're from or going to - Columbus, Tallahassee, etc.

I wasn't optimistic about this movie, but my sister-in-law recommended it highly so I gave it a spin. And I have to admit, it was pretty good. The violence wasn't actually as over-the-top as I'd expected and, like I said, it wasn't really a movie about zombies. It was a movie about people and relationships, loneliness, trust and friendship. It was just the setting of a post-apocalyptic world that put those issues under the magnifying glass. It wasn't a terribly deep film so there isn't much more analysis I can offer. I liked it and rate it a B.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

[Karate] Karate on the Internet

A little feast, mostly famine

There are a lot of karate enthusiasts around the world, but they pale in numbers to followers of "professional' sports like baseball, football, and soccer. As a result, the presence of the Martial Arts on the web is similarly a fraction of what you'll find about those "major" sports.

Which isn't to say there isn't good, useful information there if you know where to look.

What you'll find: I've had good luck finding descriptions and definitions of different martial arts styles and terms. I've had decent results searching for videos that break down katas step-by-step. This isn't true for all styles, however, and requires that you know about about the kata you're looking for. For instance, I know there was a fairly basic sword kata that I learned at my Aikido dojo, but I don't remember its name or much about what it looked like, so I've had no luck finding videos of it online.

What you won't find: analysis and comparisons of local dojos. There are so many of them, you'd think that somebody would break down information on styles, schedules, costs, contracts and customer reviews. There may be cities where this is true, but I can say that Syracuse isn't one of them. Granted, a side-by-side "X is better than Y" comparison would be impossible - it's too subjective both on the part of the reviewer and the potential customer. But there's ample opportunity to summarize different schools on various factors that can be reviewed without significant bias - how big are their classes? How long are their contracts? What's the facility like? Those kinds of factors certainly could be compared and would help potential students who aren't familiar with the martial arts find a place they can train happily.

Surprisingly, what you also won't find for some dojos is a useful website. And by that, I mean that they may not have a website at all, or they may have one so badly designed as to be unreadable (one that I found in this area had a background image of flames that made it impossible to read 80% of the text on the site. And consider - the guy who created that site HAD to have looked at it at some point and judged it both finished and acceptable. Gah!) or they may be missing key information, such as the days and times when classes are in session.

It's interesting, though, that for the thousands of people in even a mid-sized city like Syracuse who practice the martial arts or have an interest in them, there's no local online presence where they discuss their common interest. Nor does there seem to be such a beast on a regional, national or international level. If there's a really good, well-attended and active message board or discussion group anywhere on the internet where people come together and discuss the martial arts, I've certainly been unable to find it.

Which isn't to say that nobody has tried. There's a local Facebook group called "Syracuse Karate Enthusiasts" that's existed for about three months as of this writing. It has almost 50 members, which isn't bad. However, only about three of them have ever posted anything to it, which isn't great. It's not unusual, though.

I found a really nice site in my web searches - Lyon It's a traditional Okinawan Goju-Ryu dojo in Perth, Australia, that's one of the better website's I've seen anywhere. It tells you a lot about the dojo and the lead instructor's philosophy, it contains information on karate in general and even defines a long list of common karate terms. That dojo has had an online forum since 2003, which is a fairly long time in Internet terms. However, in all those years, only a few hundred total messages have been posted in that forum. Compare that to other sports where, for example, you can find extremely active forums for all aspects of participation and fandom, up to and including things like baseball cards. To be fair, it looks as if the Lyon-Karate forum owner created a sister site - All - with its own forum and made itself arguably obsolete by doing so. The All Karate forums are the most active ones I've seen.

For my purposes, the site Black Belt at 50 was very useful because the author had uploaded videos of every LaValle's Karate kata, along with step-by-step instructions for each. Now that I'm also training at Syracuse Jundokan, the videos posted to Facebook by Paul Enfield were helpful in remembering katas like Gekisai Dai Ichi. There can be quite a bit of information on the web, but you kind of have to know where to look for it - it's not as abundant or prevalent as other sports and activities, and you're not as likely to just stumble across it as you would for football or somesuch.

The problem is that there's likely not an easy way to fix this. Communities can't be manually assembled - they have to grow somewhat organically, I think, deriving from a desire to interact socially online about a shared interest. Some shared interests just don't seem to inspire this interaction and sharing, while some - like the broad category of "parenting," spawn hundreds and hundreds of very active, popular and even lucrative websites.

It may be that at some point somebody will combine skills at web design and marketing with personal magnetism to start an internet community that actually draws large numbers of active participants and provides an outlet for information shared by martial arts enthusiasts from around the world. If it's out there now, it's hiding where I haven't found it.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Schedule Update

I finally managed to get a post up this morning, albeit quite late. But there it is, just the same. I wasn't home all day on Thursday, so I had more catching-up to do than I'd anticipated and it slowed me down.

My shoulder is about 60% healed at this point. It seems to get around 20% better with each passing day - yesterday I could raise my arm about a foot or so, today I can get it almost out straight before I hit the pain threshold. I'm hopeful that by Sunday or Monday it should be almost back to normal if it continues at this rate.

Speaking of Monday, I'm planning to take the holiday weekend off from blogging. Look for a fresh blog post on Tuesday, hopefully dealing with our trip to the Renaissance Faire this weekend. In addition, I've got articles in mind on several novels I'd like to review, plus a very old TV Miniseries my wife and I just finished watching, so keep an eye out for those. Sadly, I've hardly touched my novel this week at all, so nothing new to report there. Chapter 15 is still undergoing major reconstructive surgery and I expect that to continue well into next week.

Have a lovely Independence Day!

A Health to the Company!

When I woke up and came downstairs this morning, my sons were quietly singing this song while they played. That's the power of Mock Faire Day!

The Sterling Renaissance Festival is a magnificent way to spend a summer day. Mock Faire Day is the final dress rehearsal for the Bless the Mark Players - the cast of the festival who perform the roles of Queen Elizabeth, her court, the Town of Warwick notables and the villagers. They present many of the Festival's shows - the Public Execution, the Trial and Dunk, the Mudbegger's Show, and the Washer Wenches, among others. They also perform improvisational street shows throughout the day, usually pulling the faire's patrons into their routines.

They're all professional or aspiring actors and they get several weeks of intensive training from the same folks who have been directing at the Festival for decades. However rehearsing improv isn't easy in the best of cases, and it's worse when you're trying to incorporate audience participants who may be shy or reluctant, or may derail your skit in a direction you hadn't imagined. The partial solution - costumed patrons are invited to join the cast for their final dress rehearsal on the Thursday before opening day, so that the actors have real, live people to rehearse with.

This is my second year attending, and for a fan of the festival it's about the most glorious day ever. There's no musicians (well, very few), none of the "traveling" acts are there, the shops are all closed, and there's no joust. Or food. If you're thinking, "But Mike, those are most of your favorite things!!" you're correct. In spite of all of that, I enjoy it immensely.

One of the main things I like about Mock Faire Day is fairly altruistic - I like the fact that I'm able to support these fine actors by helping them prepare their performances.

The rest of my reasons, though, are purely personal. I enjoy walking freely about the grounds without fighting my way through a throng of other visitors. I like getting an advance preview of the changes that have been made to the grounds and buildings. I enjoy getting to interact one-on-one with the actors. And, best of all, I like the added visit to the Festival (for free!) because there's simply never enough time to see everything when you go. It's painful to have to choose between a "Bless the Mark" show and one of our favorite musical acts, for instance. By attending Mock Faire Day, we get to see eight or nine of the BTM shows all at once. Then, when we go for a "real" faire day, we don't feel as torn up about having to miss one of those performances.

So yesterday the kids and I packed ourselves a lunch and a whole lotta snacks and drove on up to Sterling. My sons are getting older, but they're still very young and I wasn't really sure how well they'd handle Mock Faire Day. Quite well, as it turned out! We were there from the opening ceremony to the final pubsing and they had a great time. Granted, they got a bit cranky during the last hour when they were cold and tired and bored (there was a lengthy break before the final pubsing, since no BTM player performances are scheduled during the timeslot just before it), but otherwise they were excellent and seemed to really enjoy the performances.

My older boy even came away with a piece of Festival history. I was taking pictures of the kids in the fancy wooden lion-carved chair outside the costume shop when the operator came out to see us. She said, "Oh, I have a doublet that would be perfect for this lad!" and began to rummage in a large bin of fabric marked "Free, please help yourself!" It turns out that it was full of older, somewhat worn costume pieces that were being retired after many years of service. She emerged with a lovely green-and-yellow doublet that did indeed fit my boy perfectly, and matched his yellow shirt and general coloring marvelously. She said that it had once been worn by one of the actors and had gradually moved into the rental shop and been sized down over the years. In my mind's eye, I can almost picture the actor wearing it when it was new, as I'm certain I must have seen it then. Anyway, my son and I were both excited to get it and we're grateful to the woman and her expert eye for picking it out for us.

Overall it was a most excellent day. We talked with many of the actors, in character, of course, including the German Landsknecht in red (Doug Keyes, I think), the Sheriff, the Astrologer, the Poet, the Mudbeggers and the Thieves. One of the thieves even serenaded my daughter and one of my boys on his lute before tragically dropping the old instrument. It was a terribly gentle mishap - one you never would have expected to cause damage - but the lute's neck snapped in half just below the nut. It was heartbreaking, but there was considerable optimism that it could be repaired.

We saw the Mudshow three times, the Pirate Show, the Trial and Dunke, and the Washer Wenches twice. We watched one Public Execution (I even danced a jig) and then sat for a verbal-only walkthrough of a second, as the Execution stage was being painted. I think the kids actually enjoyed that one more, as the actors were very relaxed as they sat around a picnic table and recited their lines. At one point, Joseph Regan, the Executioner, placed his hat over his axe and used it to perform his role as a puppet show, which was very funny.

At long last, it was time for the pubsing. The pubsing is a grand finale in so many ways. During the run of the festival, it represents the end of a long day of hard work for the actors and, on Sundays, the end of a hard weekend. On August 15th, the final pubsing will be the very, very last performance of the entire season.

Yesterday, though, the pubsing was the final performance of the months-long audition and rehearsal process for the cast. It was their "graduation" ceremony before the gates open on Saturday morning and they "go live" at last. There was some ad-libbing from the Queen, the Master of Revels, and others that I don't expect we'll hear on Saturday. They commented on the Queen's new gown, on the Merrymaker's experience over the last three summers (which was very heartfelt and emotional), and on the joy and pleasure they take in working with such a terrific cast of actors. You could really feel the depth of feeling they conveyed in songs such as Auld Lang Syne and Health to the Company. It was a privilege for us to be there to share it.

And then it was done. The actors trooped out the front gates and formed "the gauntlet" outside. They got some final instructions from the directors and then streamed back inside. Several of the actors as well as assistant director Doug Kondziolka made a point of thanking us for our help. Which, considering how much we'd enjoyed it, was humbling and a bit backwards indeed. It was our pleasure. A health to the company, indeed!