Monday, August 30, 2010

"The Tool Chest" with Nick Nichols

Year after year, one of my favorite attractions at the Great New York State Fair is an old woodworker named Nick Nichols who performs outside the Agricultural Museum. Nick's act is a mix of jokes, funny stories, clever magic-like tricks (which he always explains), and a wealth of historical information about tools, woodworking and building. My knowledge of antique tools is nascent, but I certainly know quite a bit more than I did before I began listening to his lectures some fifteen or more years ago. I know enough, in fact, that when I visit local museums with the kids, I can explain the purpose and function of a wide array of tools. As a writer who often focuses on historical time periods (and fantasy worlds that resemble historical time-periods), I can even say that this information is genuinely useful to me in my craft.

Nick has a wonderful way about him - he's able to make fun of himself, his audience, city folk, country folk, and anyone else, all in a fun and non-threatening way that his audience universally enjoys. But as much as I enjoy his jokes and stories, his knowledge of history is what engrosses me the most. Among the things I've learned from Nick (though, note, I haven't validated these):

  • The superstition to "knock on wood" (which I wrote about previously) derives from the ancient Celtic druids, who believed that each tree had a spirit. Before undertaking a long journey, one would rap on the tree to invoke the protection of the spirit within.
  • The origin of the expression "dead as a doornail." An old-fashioned knocker would originally be slammed against the wood of the door, which over time would wear away an impression. To prevent such erosion, people began adding a metal spike that they would drive through the door behind the knocker, and the knocker would bang against that, instead. After being rapped on the head day in and day out, the door nail was, of course, well and truly dead. Charles Dickens then included in the opening of his classic "A Christmas Carol" the phrase "Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail." and the expression saw its place in modernity assured.
  • The "ten-foot pole" from the phrase "I wouldn't touch that with a ..." was an actual tool. It was ten feet long (marked in five two-foot intervals) because that was evidently the longest pole that could be carried on a donkey or mule without breaking (that part sounds a bit dubious to me, but there you are). It was used to measure timbers, which were then (as today) sold in eight-, ten-, and twelve-foot lengths.
  • In the old days, land was measured with a surveyor's chain. Interestingly, I had seen one of these for the very first time last Thursday at the Erie Canal Boat Museum in Chittenango, and then had Nick discuss the tool for the first time at the fair on Saturday. Anyway, if you ever wonder why a mile is 5280 feet, there actually is a reason. That is the distance of 66 surveyor's chains, each of which was 80 feet in length. The chain was the measurement used to determine one acre - an acre being in dimensions one chain wide by ten chains long. This was evidently the amount of soil that a man could plow in a day using a team of two oxen. He would plow 33 furrows, each furrow being 10 chains (1/8 of a mile) - called a "fur-long" or a furlong. You hear the term still in horse-racing, and it is, indeed, one-eighth of a mile. Fascinating! Who knew that it all made sense?? Incidentally, I also learned that a "rod" is two chains long (I think - my memory may be a bit fuzzy on that one - it was a lot of info to take in all at once).
  • Thomas Jefferson attempted to introduce the metric system to the U.S. back in the mid-1880s. He was asked by congress to devise a system of currency, which he did based on a decimal system. It was reviewed and adopted by congress. He attempted to do likewise with linear measure, adopting a French metric system that based the length of the meter on the circumference of the Earth. Unfortunately, his system had too many numbers after the decimal and died in committee in Congress.
  • A fro was a very valuable tool for pre-industrial craftsman. The tool was a handle with a dull metal blade, the "edge" of which would be driven with a mallet into a stick of wood parallel to the grain. By moving the handle "to and fro" (see what I did there?), the would could be easily split along the grain, resulting in a very strong base to be formed into a handle (as for a hammer, axe or other tool), into wheel spokes, or into furniture legs. Because it followed the grain of the wood, it was extremely strong. The fro blade didn't need (or want) to be sharp, and gave rise to the old expression "dull as a fro."
  • A shave horse was a four-legged device (much like a real horse) with a clamp on the front (either a screw-type metal clamp or a foot-operated wooden one, depending on the time period). It would clamp down on a piece of wood so the craftsman could work his knives and blades on it.
  • A draw knife was a long, slightly curved blade between two handles. The blade faced back toward the user, and the craftsman would draw it against the piece of wood that was clamped into the shave horse to shave off the rough edges.
  • Lastly, a spoke shave was a finer blade used to finish off the wooden handle, spoke or leg. It operated like a modern vegetable peeler, except that it was held sideways, again between two handles. 
  • If the desired end-product needed to be inserted into a hole, such as with a wheel spoke or a table leg, the craftsman needed to finish with two other tools. A spoke pointer was used to take the oblong spokes (which were not round, but were broader than they were wide) and round off the end. It was a metal funnel-like device that fit on the end of a drill. Another tool (the name of which I didn't catch) was then used to shave the tip of the spoke into a round, smooth "tongue" that would fit into a mortise and tenon joint - a "tongue and groove."
  • A triangular drill-bit in a floating chuck will produce a square hole.
  • One display of a master woodworker's expertise was his ability to use a plane to shave a long, continuous strip of wood off the top of a board. This strip was commonly hung in his workshop as a testament to his skill.
And on and on and on. The man's knowledge is truly remarkable, as is the amiable way he shares it with his small audiences. I told him this week that he ought to write a book, and he replied with his usual self-deprecating humor, "I read a book once!" Sadly, I fear that much of the knowledge he's accumulated won't survive him, at least not all in one neat package as it is now (I'm sure much of it has been documented elsewhere). I'll just have to do my best to learn as much of it as I can for as long as he keeps performing.

    Thursday, August 26, 2010

    [Novel Review] Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae

    A novel by Steven Pressfield

    And, wow, what a great novel. I first heard the name Thermopylae back in my high school Military History class, but it's become quite popular in recent years with the 300 comic book, the derivative movie, and plenty of documentaries on the History Channel. And rightfully so - it's certainly one of the greatest heroic dramas in human history.

    For those who aren't familiar with the Battle of Thermpylae, it's actually pretty straightforward. The time was 480 BC, which for reference is about fifty years before the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta, and a hundred and fifty years before Alexander the Great conquered most of the (at that time) known world. It's ten years after the battle of Marathon (490 BC), in which the Persians were defeated in their first attempt to invade Greece. It's an era of city-states. It's the bronze age, when warfare is becoming a serious business and tactics are becoming increasingly refined. It's an era when Persia is the great Empire, ruling lands from India in the East to Asia Minor and even Libya in the West. By the time of this, the second Persian invasion, Emperor Xerxes has decided to conquer all of Europe, beginning with Greece and proceeding on to Italy, Gaul and all the way to the Atlantic. To bring this home to you, dear reader, consider that the defeat of the Persians at Marathon and Thermopylae directly contributed to the rise of Hellenic and Helenistic culture, the very foundation of Western Civilization from the roots of the Roman Republic all the way to the U.S. Constitution. Whoever you are, your life today was surely impacted by these events.

    Anyway, Xerxes had assembled an absolutely enormous force to invade Europe. His army was said to have been a staggering two million strong (though modern historians suggest that 200,000 is more probable - still a mind-boggling force for the bronze age). They crossed the Hellespont from Asia Minor into Eastern Europe and marched through Macedon all but unopposed. Without challenge, they drove down through northern Greece, and right into the entrance to Hades. All right, well, it wasn't the entrance to Hades, but that was part of the myth surrounding the narrow area of rivers, high cliffs and and hot springs near the Gulf of Malia: Thermopylae, the Gates of Fire. There, they ran hard into a solid wall of bronze shields, cuirasses, and the blank-faced helms of the Greek forces, anchored by Lacedaemonian king Leonidas and his 300 Spartan homoioi.

    Pressfield's novel spans a decade or more, telling the story of a youth whose Greek community is overrun by its neighbor, Argos, leaving him homeless and embittered. He travels to Sparta knowing that his foreign birth will leave him forever as an outsider. But he wants to join the ancient world's greatest military in whatever capacity they'll have him, so he enters Spartan servitude and trains with the other youths to become what essentially amounts to a squire. He's very good, and indeed rises to become the right-hand man for one of the Spartan officers. More, he is one of the auxilliaries who accompanies the 300 Spartans to Thermopylae, where he is the sole survivor of the pitched battle. The whole tale, in fact, is told by this obscure figure who's being interviewed and interrogated by the advisors of Persian emperor.

    The novel is incredibly entertaining. Pressfield has an amazing knack for recreating the ancient world in such a way that you feel like you could walk outside your door and find yourself standing in a Spartan orchard or an Athenian courtyard. And, every bit as critical for a novel about one of the world's most significant, compelling battles, his combat narrative is masterful. You feel every swing, every strike, the beads of sweat and the spurts of blood as the largest military Europe had ever seen faced the world's most perfect warriors. It's not the stylized, cartoonish story of the comic/movie 300 - it's hard-as-nails reality. The Spartans are legendary, and Pressfield maintains that larger-than-life status while at the same time revealing the human hearts that beat beneath the Spartans' bronze breastplates.

    The combination of an engaging backstory, personable characters, tense pace, and nail-biting action - despite the fact that everyone's know how the story ends for almost 2500 years - made Gates of Fire a real page-turner. I've read very little historical fiction, but if it's half as good as this novel, I'm sold. If you want to feel like you're holding the line in a Greek phalanx that's keeping the invading Persians from burning, pillaging and conquering your home, all without leaving your comfy chair, then pick up Steven Pressfield's Gates of Fire. I rated this novel an A.

    Wednesday, August 25, 2010

    [Movies] Robert Rodriguez is Insane

    Robert Rodriguez is insane. He's got some sort of split-personality disorder.That's the only conclusion I can draw. How else to explain that the same man who creates ultra-violent, bloody action films from Desperado and From Dusk till Dawn to Machete is the same guy who creates kid-friendly romps like (the risible) Sharkboy and Lavagirl, the Spy Kids series and the recent Shorts. It's true! I never made the connection before, likely because it's almost too outlandish to believe - but it's the same guy.

    You have to kind of respect that kind of craziness, though. Rodriguez is a unique guy, probably due in no small part to whatever mental aberration allows him to make such diverse films.I can't comment on his recent film Predators (a sort-of sequel to the classic Schwartzenegger film) because I didn't see it, but I did see the one before that - a family-friendly movie called "Shorts." It was one of the free summer movies at Regal Cinemas and it wasn't half bad. Hell, compared to Sharkboy & Lava Girl (which I truly hate) it was practically Citizen Kane.

    It's the story of a magic, rainbow-colored rock that appears in a small town centered around a corporation that manufactures the "Black Box," a product that literally does it all. The storytelling is unique, broken down into five or six chapters, some of which are told out of order, by the end of which you've seen the rock change hands, cause havoc, and bring various people closer together as they struggle to deal with the messes they've gotten themselves into. It was fun, cute, and featured an array of stars including James Spader, Willim H. Macy, and Jon Cryer. One of Rodriguez's talents, incidentally, is to stuff his films full of big-name stars.

    Speaking of which, his upcoming film Machete pretty much takes the cake in that department. It's a film that's meant to evoke the "blacksploitation" movies of the 70s, but with Latinos in the key roles. And the list of stars is amazing. The supporting cast includes Robert De Niro, Jessica Alba, Steven Seagal, Michelle Rodriguez, Cheech Marin (as a dual-shotgun-wielding priest), Don Johnson and noted jailbird Lindsay Lohan. But the star is a name that may not be familiar to you, even if the face probably is: Danny Trejo. If you've seen a movie with a huge gun- or knife-wielding mexican guy in the last 20 years, it was probably Trejo. In fact, Rodriguez is said to have made this movie and character specifically for Trejo, as he thought the man deserved to be a Mexican action-hero.

    As with most of Rodriguez's mature-themed films, Machete is sure to be a bloody mess of brutal combat and strutting characters facing off good vs. evil. But his films are also a joy to experience if you can force your mind to categorize the blood as simply "cartoonish violence" and then appreciate the characters (often deliberate caricatures) he creates to tell his tale. As far back as El Mariachi and Desperado, he did a masterful job of mixing hyper-exciting violence with entertaining characters to create an engaging story. Check out the trailer. I don't know if I'll catch it in the theatre, but I'm definitely looking forward to seeing it. Even if the guy who made it is insane.

    Tuesday, August 24, 2010

    Tacos For People Who Don't Like Tacos

    My family and I don't eat Mexican food. None of us like the taste of chili powder (or anything else chili-flavored), and I detest the taste of peppers (sweet, bell, jalapeño, makes no difference). Also, none of us are huge fans of beans (I can stand them, nobody else will touch them). I'm no devotee of Mexican food, of course - I only know what I see on TV and on commercials for Taco Bell and Old El Paso. But as far as common Mexican foods go, it seems that beans, chili powder, and peppers tend to be key ingredients.
    Still, my wife and I hypothesized that we might be able to make tacos even with these limitations. Getting creative in the kitchen can be a big part of the fun of cooking, and this seemed like it was worth a try. Why should we be left out of this whole type of cuisine just because we, you know, don't like most of the major ingredients? Now, mind you, I'm not necessarily suggesting that anyone else should try or would be happy with this recipe. It's just an example of what you can do when you free your mind and are willing to experiment with food.

    Mike's Italian "Tacos"
    Serves 4

    1 Package hard taco shells
    1 lb ground beef
    1-1.5 cup tomato sauce (marinara, or whatever store-bought stuff you've got lying around)
    2-3 tbsp diced onions
    ~1 cup shredded cheese (chedder or a blend of cheeses)

    Seasonings (all to taste)
    Black Pepper
    Garlic Powder
    Onion Powder

    Warm the sauce in a small pan or microwave and bake the taco shells according to the package directions. In a medium fry-pan, combine the onions and ground beef and season to taste with the seasonings suggested. Feel free to improvise. Sauté over medium heat until the beef is brown and the onions are soft. Drain the grease. Add the tomato sauce and mix together thoroughly. Spoon the mixture into the taco shells and top with the shredded cheese. Molto Bene! Tacos al Miguel!

    Monday, August 23, 2010

    History Tied Together

    My kids have had a very educational summer. For our family vacation, we visited Howe Caverns. For fun, I've taken the kids to St. Marie Among the Iroquois and the Salt Museum. And last week, we took a ride along the old Erie Canal (sort of), by visiting the Erie Canal Park in Camillus, driving down the old Genesee Turnpike (now called West Genesee Street), onto Erie Boulevard West to the Erie Canal Museum, and then onto Erie Boulevard East and along Route 5 to Chittenango's Canal Boat Museum. We even stopped in the middle to have lunch with my wife at my favorite pizza joint - Pavone's Pizza in downtown Syracuse.

    Now, I'll grant, it wasn't a perfect trip. The Camillus site features a unique recreation of the actual Sims Store that served the canallers who had to wait at the old Gere Lock in Amboy. Sadly, the store didn't open until Noon last Thursday, and we were there at 10:30 AM, so we didn't get to go inside. I'd have liked to see and experience an authentic mid-1800s mercantile. We'll have to try again, maybe this week. Even as we were early to fully experience the Camillus site, we were late getting to Chittenango's museum - it closed at 4 PM and we arrived at 3:20. We knew we'd need more time, so we decided to postpone our exploration of the museum there. My daughter had been there with a school field trip and definitely made it sound like someplace we'd want to spend a bit of time.

    Still, making the trip was a big part of the experience for us. I don't think you can really understand what the Erie Canal did to and for the city of Syracuse back in 1825, or what it might have been like to travel on it, without spending some time walking (or driving) in the footsteps of the mule drivers who powered the canal's 19th century traffic.

    There were a handful of lessons that came out of that tour which my kids really seemed to embrace. The first, and possibly more important, was how things change, and how their history had an influence on them even if you can't see it. For instance, Water street is a fairly major thoroughfare in downtown Syracuse, but with the exception of little Onondaga Creek and an occasional fountain, there's no water anywhere near Water street. Seems like an odd name, then, doesn't it? And Water Street runs into Clinton Square, the very heart of the City. But the only Clintons my kids have ever heard of are Bill and Hillary. Was the square, with its fountains and its Soldiers and Sailors monument and its fancy stone bank buildings perhaps named for them? Well, of course not, but if not then for whom?

    We talked about that. I pointed out Erie Boulevard from Water Street, and they correctly concluded that it had once been the site of the Erie Canal. I challenged them to imagine that they were standing on that spot a hundred years ago, and picture the canal operating there, and then asked them to imagine why Water street might have been so named. "Because it ran alongside the canal!" they answered. Right! We went inside and saw displays about Dewitt Clinton, New York State's governor in the early 1800s. We learned how Syracuse was a marshy little village when the Erie Canal was completed in 1825, but by 1848 had grown to the sixth largest city in the state (it's now fifth, for those keeping score). We discussed how that would have been a big deal for the people who lived here and who later moved here, and that they were probably grateful to Governor Clinton for what his efforts did for the community. Sure enough, they'd named their central square, right next to City Hall and two banks that were instrumental in funding the canal, a square that at one time was bisected by the canal, after that governor.

    I don't think they necessarily studied the Erie canal in school in the same level of detail as they studied the Iroquois, for example, but I think they probably should have. Aside from being a true engineering marvel (water doesn't flow up-hill, however Buffalo is nearly 600 feet higher in elevation than Albany. Let's see you dig a canal between those two cities and not have it turn into the world's biggest water-slide, emptying Lake Erie into the state capital), the Erie Canal was the single most important state public works project of the 19th century and was directly responsible for putting Syracuse on the map (literally and figuratively).

    But there was another great lesson they learned from our tour, and that was interrelationships. I was so proud to see the gears turning as my kids thought about what they'd seen at the different places we'd visited. My older son was particularly studious about it. He recognized how the same glacial processes and stone formations that had been involved in the creation of Howe Caverns related to the formation of the layers of earth above the Salina salt deposits, and the limestone from Split Rock Quarry that was used, along with that salt, in the old Solvay Process soda-ash factory. Between the Salt Museum and the Canal Museum, we could easily see how the Erie Canal contributed to Syracuse's salt industry, allowing those salt mines to ship their products more quickly, easily and cheaply around the state and around the country. Indeed, the employees of the salt operation were among the only ones exempted from the Civil War draft. The kids even figured out the origins of Salina Street's name.

    Even though we didn't see everything we'd planned to see, everybody had a terrific time and I think we all learned a lot. On our way home, I engaged my enthusiastic kids in a game of trivia about the Erie Canal. Let's see how you do!

    1. Before the building of the Erie Canal, the average cost per ton to ship goods between Buffalo and Albany was what? (Answer: $125)

    2. After the building of the Erie Canal, the average cost per ton to ship goods between Buffalo and Albany was what? (Answer: $6)

    3. The time to travel between Albany and Buffalo upon the Erie Canal decreased from ___________ using an overland route to ____________ by canal boat. (Answer: 6 weeks / 6-11 days)

    4. The old nickname for the Erie Canal was Clinton's _____________ (Answer: ditch. Also correct but later abandoned: folly.)

    5. A packet boat was a canal boat used to transport _____________ (Answer: passengers or people)

    6. Name as many of the items typically transported on the canal as you can. (Answer: just about anything - timber, animal hides/skins, wool, corn, linen, cotton, cloth, meat, flour, wheat, live animals, people, coal, salt, iron, oils, beer, whiskey, and all sorts of finished goods)

    7. The original depth of the canal was...? (Answer: 7 feet)

    8. The mechanism used to raise and lower boats at points along the canal was called a _________ (Answer: lock)

    9. The driver and his mules pulled the canal boats by walking along a what? (Answer: towpath)

    10. A special bridge used to allow water, such as that of the canal, to flow over another waterway, such as a stream or a creek, was called a what? (Answer: aqueduct)

    11. The Erie Canal was first completed in what year? (Answer: 1825)

    12. Many of the workers who built the canal and worked on the boats and businesses that used it were immigrants from Europe. Two countries in particular saw significant emigration to the U.S. during this time. Name them. (Answer: Germany and Ireland)

    13. The original function of the building that now houses the Erie Canal Museum was what?  (Answer: it was a Weigh Lock building - allowing four canal boats per hour to be weighed so a tariff could be assessed on their cargo).

    14. This square and street are named for a car company that invented an air-cooled automobile engine in the early 1900s. (Answer: Franklin (named in turn for Ben Franklin). Note: this trivia was based on the "Syracuse Heritage" portion of the Canal Museum)

    15.Salina Street is named for what major 19th-century Syracuse industry? (Answer: salt)

    Thursday, August 19, 2010

    Things I've Noticed Since Leaving My "Real Job"

    I was an excellent businessman in many ways. I made my share of mistakes and had plenty of shortcomings, but by and large I was really, really good at what I did. I established relationships both inside my company and with key vendors - productive relationships that got work accomplished and benefited everyone. I wrote reams of training materials (even when it wasn't really supposed to be my job to do so) and even delivered training on IT-related topics. I juggled insane numbers of vital projects while managing personnel all around the country, plus the specific needs of other executives, plus issues that hadn't been designated as projects that still needed to be resolved right away, plus whatever my boss thought was important. Ten years of marching up the managerial and executive ladder, however, took its toll on me, and it's a toll I can clearly see now that I've been out of the "office" for a year and a half or so. Some of these things I've noticed myself, others were pointed out to me by my wife and others, but they're all marked improvements in my life.

    I don't mind "doing stuff" with my family. My wife noticed this one - it used to be that I worked like crazy all week long, and when it got to be the weekend I was so wiped out that I just spent the two days decompressing. I didn't want to go to the park, or skating, or out to blah, blah, blah. Whatever it was they were doing, I preferred to send them on their way and have the house to myself for a few hours of zoning out in front of my TV and computer. It was a necessary recuperation for me, but it was a lousy way to be a dad and husband. These days, I'm with my family constantly. Once in a great while my wife and kids head off to her mom's for the afternoon, but otherwise we're together, and it's indescribably better.

    I don't yell. Well, no, I do yell - when the kids are going to war upstairs and I'm downstairs, sure I yell. But I don't do it when the kids are right in front of me unless their behaviour has been unconscionably egregious (which is pretty rare). I'm a hothead and I naturally zip into and out of angry-mode, but my angry-mode is about five levels less severe these days than it used to be. Don't get me wrong, I was never "that guy" - the monster who made everyone in the house hide in fear when he went on a rampage. I just yelled when the kids were naughty or broke things or made big messes. It got everyone's attention, but it was loud and annoying, even to me. Now that my stress levels are down in the green zone, I don't sweat that stuff as much, and my reactions are less intense.

    I don't get headaches the way I used to. When I get one, it's an unusual event, it's most often not too severe, and then it goes away. When I was an IT exec, I was going through extra-strength Excedrin like they were potato chips. It was ridiculous how often I'd get tension headaches that just pounded away all day long like I had a vice clamped around my skull. If I'd gone to my doctor about it, he'd probably have put me on Valium or something. I'm frankly surprised I never got an ulcer.

    I occasionally need a nap. It may be that I don't sleep well, or it may just be my body's natural rhythms, but I often require a siesta in the afternoon to be at my best for the remainder of the day. Sadly, the U.S. business world in no way accommodates a 20-minute power-nap at 2 PM, at least not at any of the places I've ever worked. I have occasionally had an office where I could prop myself in such a way as to get away with it, but that certainly wasn't the norm. Now, when I'm tired, I sleep. I awake rested and able to do my work for the rest of the day. It's a huge improvement.

    I can be happy! Lord knows I spent more time miserable as a business exec than I ever did enjoying myself, but it's not me. I'm actually capable of happiness, just not while I'm trying to do five mutually-exclusive projects (total weekly work-effort, 80+ hours for me, alone. Oh yeah, and nobody else on my staff knows or can easily be taught to do what needs to be done.) plus three or four more mission-critical priorities that are patently impossible.

    There was a lot I liked about my jobs as an exec. I liked being challenged to make a difference on behalf of the business. I liked being the guy who got to identify problems and then get them solved (or even to solve them after somebody else identified them). I liked being my boss's "go-to" guy - the one he knew he could hand something off to and it was as good as done (I liked it even better when they treated it as done and didn't feel the need to endlessly follow-up on my progress). I got to do a lot of great work with some really good people, and some of it was actually very satisfying. Some day I might even decide to go back to it, but right now I'm happier, healthier, and nicer than I ever was when I was making big money working my ass off.

    Wednesday, August 18, 2010

    [Karate] Where Are All the Adults?

    When did the study of the martial arts become child's play? When I first started training in the 80s in Tae Kwon Do, I was 15 and the youngest in a class of about ten. These days, at least in Syracuse, minors studying the martial arts seem to outnumber adults by a significant margin at many of the dojos I've visited. More, in looking at the websites for schools around the country, the training of children seems to be the most heavily-marketed program.

    Don't get me wrong - I'm not averse to children being trained in the martial arts. If a five-year-old can muster the attention span and tenacity to pay attention in class and begin to master the basic stances, strikes and blocks, they might as well start their training. Kids have too much free time anyway - put some of that excess time and energy to work. Of course, to go along with that, you need to have instructors of sufficient quantity and training to ensure that the little 'uns learn to execute the techniques correctly, or they're just building bad habits.

    I'm also not averse to martial arts schools marketing their services to meet the demand - and if the demand is coming from kids (and their parents) who want kid-friendly classes, pizza-parties, special fun events and so forth, I'm fine with that. Because it takes money to operate a school, and generally speaking, the better the school is at operating as a business, the better the facility, the more flexible the schedule, and the more likely that the school will be around for the long-term to continue offering its services. None of that guarantees that the training will be high-quality, but neither does it preclude it. A bad sensei can teach poorly at a successful, well-outfitted dojo or at a simple, austere dojo. A good one can, too.

    And whether or not kids train, or whether the dojos are fancy or simple, is all beside the point of my initial question - where are the adults? Why don't more adults want to get the health benefits, the mental focus, the flexibility and the fun of the martial arts?

    One reason actually might be the kids, through no fault of theirs. If people start to think of the martial arts as something that only kids do, it may turn them off from signing up as adults. Then, of course, it's still somewhat foreign to many Americans, despite being firmly entrenched in the U.S. since the 60s. Certainly there's only a small percentage of Americans who understand the martial arts (and many different perspectives within the martial arts community besides). For those who think of the martial arts as "running around in white pajamas yelling 'Hi-yah!' it probably never enters their consideration to train, themselves. Moreover, most Americans' exposure to the martial arts is from Hollywood, which likely makes it seem fantastical and implausible, such that, again, it wouldn't occur to them to participate themselves.

    All of which explains, at least in part, the roughly 98% of Americans who don't train in the martial arts (to quote a figure from a recent article in the Syracuse Newspapers that was itself undocumented and probably came directly out of some journalist's rectum, but it sounds plausible to me). There's another factor, however, and that's attrition.

    For various reasons of misunderstanding, business, and cultural attitudes, the black belt has been held up in American martial arts as the holy grail of training. It's as if the martial arts has a point at which the student would be told, "You've learned everything there is to learn - congratulations, you're done!" and sent on their way with their nice new black belt. Many schools these days emphasize the black belt as exactly that - a goal to be achieved. An endgame. A completion point.

    I had always been taught that the black belt marked a beginning, rather than an end. Advancing through the kyu ranks (the colored belts, in dojos that use them) is the martial arts equivalent of grade school - you're mastering the basics that you need to learn before you can really begin to learn. It's similar to how children need to learn reading, writing, and critical thinking skills, along with general knowledge of history, literature, mathematics, language, and science. Only then can that student really begin to learn. Only when we reach black belt do we as martial artists have the foundation that's needed to really begin to achieve deep understanding and technical excellence.

    In the "black belt schools," however, so much emphasis is put on achieving the black belt over so many years that by the time the student gets to that point, it's fully ingrained in them that achieving that goal is the completion of their journey. And what do many of them do? They wander off, instead of continuing to pursue that elusive level of excellence. One local school I'm familiar with has produced some 700 black belts in the twenty years that it's been open, but only a couple dozen seem to be actively training. That's an incredibly high attrition rate and speaks, I think, to the challenge of the "black belt school" mindset and its overall impact on the number of active adults in the martial arts community.

    So that's where the adults are - they're watching football and baseball and other "American" sports, they're taking their kids to karate, or they're reflecting on their glory days of training, back when they got their black belts and then quit. I'm not sure what to do about it, or whether TO do anything about it, but it does seem to me that a lot of adults are missing out on some great experiences.

    Monday, August 16, 2010

    Money Management

    Here's what I'd like to teach my kids about managing their money:

    1. Don't spend what you don't have. It's a pretty simple rule that keeps you out of trouble. How badly do you really need to make that purchase that you can't possibly wait until you've earned enough to pay for it? There are exceptions of course, but I limit those to a home and car(s).

    2. Buying on credit is a convenience, not a money-management strategy or a substitute for following rule #1. I prefer to carry one plastic card than to carry around a wallet-full of cash, but somewhere, in some account, I always HAVE the cash. I pay off my credit cards in full every single month, which means that whether my interest rate is 5% or 25%, it doesn't matter - I never ever pay that extra money just so I can make my regular purchases. If I ever had to do so (say, because of changing credit card rules), I'd switch back to cash or some other payment vehicle in a second.

    3. Save. Save as much as you possibly can. Having money in an account, or invested somewhere, is what allows you to follow rules 1 and 2. It also means that when things don't work out like you planned - when that bright light at the end of your tunnel is, as Metallica says, a freight train heading your way - you don't find yourself living out of a cardboard box.

    4. In support of rule #3, buy what you need, and a little of what you want, and then stop. You don't have to own every pretty thing you see. You don't have to have the latest and greatest. You don't have to keep up with the Joneses. Screw the Joneses - they're probably up to their eyeballs in debt.

    5. In support of rules 3 and 4, get your money out of sight. Use direct deposit, use online banking, use whatever tools are available to turn your cold, hard cash into numbers on a computer screen or a monthly statement. TRACK THOSE NUMBERS CAREFULLY - out of sight and out of mind is a good technique for controlling spending, but it's not an excuse to be unaware of where your money is.

    6. In support of rule 5, have a BUDGET. Know how much you earn, how much you MUST spend (on a mortgage, taxes, insurance, and other fixed costs), how much you WILL spend (on food, gas, clothes, repairs and other variable necessities) how much you'd LIKE to spend (on entertainment, dining out, gifts, travel, household goods, services, and such) and how much you SHOULD save. Make sure that last category covers everything from an emergency fund (for major repairs, unexpected job loss, and serious injury) to retirement, future expenses (your NEXT car, your NEXT computer, replacing major appliances, etc.), the kids' college, and so forth. This is vital - you can't (usually) change how much you earn on demand, but you can almost always change how much you spend. But you won't unless you know when you're running a deficit.

    7. Pay off the debt you do have as soon as you can. Unless it's interest-free, you can guarantee yourself a healthy, no-risk return on your "investment" by paying down that debt early. Remember, anytime you incur interest-bearing debt, you're adding additional hard-earned money on top of what you borrowed in the form of that interest. And it works pretty simply - if you pay off the debt early, the lender gets less of your money.

    8. Invest wisely. The stock market is a long-term vehicle for building wealth. The only people who try to "time the market" are experts and chumps. Experts get rich off the chumps and the chumps take a bath. I'm a poor excuse for an investor - I'm too risk-averse. So I've never gotten rich during the market's "up-cycles," but neither have I gone bust during the all-too-frequent downturns. Don't bet what you can't afford to lose. You've worked hard, following rules 1-7, and you've ended up with some money that you want to put to work. That's great - do it. But educate yourself of find a reputable adviser to help you (note: he or she will get a cut of your money, that's how it works, but it's better than losing a bigger chunk on a bad deal). Don't invest in the stock that's been "on fire" for years - it's probably about to fizzle. Likewise, don't yank your money out of an investment every time it drops a few points. You're in for the long haul - leave it alone.

    That pretty well sums it up. My wife and I have lived by these principles our whole adult lives and so far, so good. We'll probably never be wealthy, but barring disaster we ought never be poor, either.

    Friday, August 13, 2010

    [Novel Update] Slow-Mo

    Note: I have no idea why blogspot takes my finished, published articles and sets them back to "draft," but it's been happening lately with annoying regularity. Anyway, here's the article that was SUPPOSED to be up at 6 AM Friday morning:

    I've been in quite a slump, lately. I'm not really stuck, I'm just not writing much. Chapter 16 is quite long and by splitting it into multiple parts, I've had material to bring to the writer's group each week, but that's all material that I wrote months ago. I've written nothing new in weeks. Sigh.

    It's a combination of factors, really. Primarily, it's just really hard to focus on something that requires that much concentration when the kids are home. As such, I gradually slacked off further and further, from three hours a day down to two and one and eventually not at all. I'm still taking notes as I come up with new thoughts for future chapters or refinements for existing ones, but that's about all.

    Today, however, my parents are taking the kids to the MOST. My hope and intention is to get in several hours of... something. I'm still fairly down that I've gotten so little done and that I will continue to have very little time for the next three weeks to so, and being down like that makes it hard for me to sit and focus. Yes, I could do it if I forced myself to, I just don't.

    So what to work on? When last I was working consistently, I was in the process of revising chapter 15. It's one of those chapters that I was never really satisfied with and which also got quite a bit of criticism at the writer's roundtable. The result is that I feel compelled to revise it, especially since it's an important, action-packed chapter that leads directly into chapter 17. I really don't feel good about starting 17 without being confident that I know how chapter 15 turns out. I'd hate to use a character, for instance, who may have lived in one draft and died in a later one (or vice-versa, show characters mourning for one who ends up living).

    The other thing that I'm finding increasingly frustrating is that the early chapters are something of a mess. I haven't gone back and revised them, but I have written later chapters knowing what revisions I plan to make to the early part. Thus, I currently have no manuscript that I can hand to a fresh set of eyes. It wouldn't make sense, because the early chapters become disjointed at the point where I decided to make some significant changes. So that's another thing I want to do. Plus, I've decided to create a new Chapter 1, which I've got detailed notes for but have not actually written. And, as if that weren't more than sufficient to keep me busy in the time that I don't seem to feel that I have, I've got a growing stack of handwritten pages of notes sitting on my desk where they're practically useless. Unless I get them into OneNote, then all of those good ideas amount to bupkis.

    So there's my list of stuff to do, not necessarily in this order:
    • Revise chapter 15
    • Write chapter 1
    • Revise the current chapters 1-5ish, also possibly 7-9 or so (though they should need fewer major changes).
      • Related item: Chapter 6 has been split into chapters 6b and 6c, but I need to determine where to slide each chapter into the sequence.
      • Related to several of the above - re-number all of the chapters to account for the new Chapter 1 as well as the merging of 6b and 6c into the novel.
    • Type my notes into OneNote, organize them, and review which need to be integrated immediately into chapters that are under revision.
    • Write the rest of the damn book!
      • Note: even though I'm closing in quickly (well, slowly, to be honest) on Chapter 20, I still only feel like I'm about 1/3 of the way through the book. And I've been saying that since about chapter 13 or 14. This book just keeps getting longer and longer, apparently.
    This project was originally planned to be complete in March or April, in part because I knew that exactly this would happen - whatever I didn't finish by the end of the school year would end up languishing for two and a half months while the kids were on vacation. I ought to be one of Apollo's Oracles. Or maybe I'll start playing the lottery.

    Thursday, August 12, 2010

    History from the Shores of Onondaga Lake

    Yesterday my kids and I visited two of the Liverpool areas's more noteworthy historical locations. One goes back in time about a hundred and fifty years, the other more than three hundred! I'm referring of course to the Salt Museum and the 17th Century Jesuit mission St. Marie Among the Iroquois. Both are "donation-only" facilities, with no set price of admission, and provided us with a full afternoon of fun and education for very little money.

    We started with Saint Marie, a beautiful facility perched high on the hills overlooking Onondaga Lake - once a primary source of food and transportation for the Onondaga nation of American Indians. In the mid-1600s, a group of Frenchmen traveled down the St. Lawrence from Montreal, into Lake Ontario, and then south to the shores of Onondaga Lake.

    Saint Marie is a little hit-or-miss in some ways. Figuring out when it's open can be a challenge. I had a brochure that seemed reliable and gave me the impression that it was open daily at 9 AM. Turns out it was open at 10 AM Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Whew - good thing we decided to go when we did! Likewise, sometimes there are volunteers acting as guides and serving to re-enact the living-history French Fort on the upper hill. I have absolutely no clue when those folks are on-site, but they weren't there today. Which was fine - the museum is very accessible unguided and I had a pretty good grasp of what we were seeing up in the Mission.

    Plus, one of the staff-members graciously spent about a half-hour with us in the first gallery, explaining some of the Haudenosaunee mythology and history, and quizzing the kids on their knowledge of Iroquois traditions. To my great delight, they were all over it, especially my older son who was a font of local Native American lore and local history, reciting back confidently all he'd learned about the five Haudenosaunee tribes, the Peace-maker, the Great Tree of Peace with the weapons of the five nations buried beneath its roots, the long-houses with their usual thirteen families, and on and on. My daughter occasionally slipped in a factoid of her own and even my youngest has evidently been well-taught by his older brother. If he can remember it all for a while, he'll be in great shape when he hits third grade.

    We wandered through the various galleries, looking at the artifacts, feeling the furs and examining the reproductions of objects like French sabots (wooden shoes) and Iroquois hunting huts. We spent about an hour in there, and then it was out to the authentic, period French Mission. The mission is totally cool. It has a tall wooden palisade all around the outside. Inside are three buildings, all of rough-hewn wood: the chapel, the refectory, and a long facility that housed the smithy, the woodshop, and the sleeping quarters. These would have been very cool to explore when populated by experienced re-enactors, but all the kids had was old dad, so I was on-stage.

    We started with the smithy. It had a functional forge, and I showed the kids everything from the working of the huge bellows to where the charcoal was burned to make the hot fire. I showed them the hammers, the tongs, and, of course, the anvil. We talked about the forging process, of heating the metal in the forge, then hammering it on the anvil to draw out the metal or to shape it as desired. My daughter was tall enough to reach the bellows handle, and everyone could see the big tub of water for quenching the hot metal. Though, now that I think on it, it could also have been linseed oil - I didn't think to check.

    Where did I learn about the smithy, you might wonder? Well, as much as I know about it came from the History Channel and from watching the demonstrations in the Carriage Museum at the New York State Fair. My expertise is by no means complete - I'd surely be a terrible blacksmith if I had to fire up the forge on my own, but I don't think I mislead my kids too grievously.

    Next stop - the wood-working shop! I felt if anything more confident about my knowledge in this room, thanks in no small part to listening to Nick Nichols "Tool Chest" lecture outside the State Fair's Agricultural Museum. Yeah, I'm a geek for that stuff - I just think it's cool. Like the working forge in the smithy, the wood shop had a very unique piece of equipment that I hadn't encountered before. The treadle - a foot-operated lathe - was attached by a leather thong to a long sapling laid across the beams overhead. This provided the spring-like force to counter against the force of your foot on the pedal. You'd push down, the sapling would pull back up. In the middle, the leather strip wrapped around the wood would rotate it around so you could take your chisel to the piece. It was an ingenious implementation of physics meeting nature.

    Again, I was able to show the kids the shave horse, the draw knife, the saws, and even a fro (used to split logs along their grain, especially for making roof shingles). There were chisels, mallets and planes galore. I showed them the wrought-iron hooks driven into the walls, clearly forged in the next room. We talked about how the different tools worked and why you'd use one rather than another. Then it was off to the living quarters.

    In the living quarters we saw beds and blankets, a large fireplace, lanterns, benches and stools. There was a set of wooden rosary beads hanging over one bed, and I described how the Jesuit missionaries - tbe Black Robes - would wear those long strings of beads as a belt, with the cross dangling before them. But hands-down the coolest thing in the room was a small metal clamp with a box on one end. I asked the kids to guess what it was, and they were pretty creative. One of them thought it was a can-opener, so we talked about wooden barrels and whether cans had been invented yet. I don't remember the other guesses, but they weren't quite in the ball-park, no pun intended. Because making balls was what it was all about.

    Minié balls, to be exact - the ammunition for the primitive rifles of the day. The clamp had a small piece on the top that rotated to both hold the clamp closed as well as to provide a funnel at the open end. Next to the clamp on the table was an iron ladle with a pour-spout on each side, beside some ingots of (presumably) lead (which I wouldn't let them touch on the off-chance that it really was lead. No sense taking chances). I demonstrated how the lead would be melted in the ladle over a fire, then poured in through the funnel. Inside the clamp was the impression of a minié ball. Swinging aside the rotating piece both allowed the clamp to open and, in the process, cut off any flash that would otherwise make the bottom of the round uneven. Now, granted, the minié ball is a mid-19th-century invention and the French Mission was supposed to have been from the late 1600s, but it was cool enough to see the device that I didn't quibble. Besides, right next to it on the table was another similar device for making round musket balls, which was certainly right for the period.

    We finished our tour with the chapel, where I showed the kids the function and usage of a censer in the Catholic mass (well, I described it anyway - none of us felt up to sitting through a whole mass just for an object lesson and I don't really think I could do one from memory, anyway) and the refectory, where the most fascinating part was finding the trap door that led down to the root cellar. The whole experience was highly entertaining and, I think, plenty educational for the kids.

    There's a lot less to say about the Salt Museum, as it's really just one medium-sized room beside the long row of antique salt-boiling bowls. Still, it's remarkable that people took the time to assemble the array of artifacts stored there, as it represents a relatively brief and yet undoubtedly critical period in the history of Central New York. Syracuse's role as the "salt city" played an important part in local commerce, growth patterns, industry, and even the Civil War, where the jobs of the salt-producers were considered so critical to the war effort that the men were exempted from the draft. At one time, wooden pump-houses, a warren of wooden pipes, and numerous buildings for boiling the brine down to salt would have crowded along the shore of Onondaga Lake - now only the museum remains. Particularly fascinating to me was that I finally made some connections regarding Solvay Process.

    I rode past that old Soda Ash factory practically every day of my young life, as we lived just up the street from it when my parents' home was in Solvay. I remember asking my father repeatedly to explain what they did there, and I remember him telling me that soda ash was used to make glass and other stuff, but I never really got it. I knew that the Jamesville Quarry played an important role, and that there had once been a series of bins suspended from cables running overhead between Jamesville and Solvay - I'd even hiked, twice, through the tunnel cut in the side of one of Solvay's many hills where those cable-borne bins once passed. But I'd never really gotten it. Well, it turns out that to use the "Solvay Process" to make soda ash, you needed large amounts of limestone (from Jamesville) and salt (from the shores of Onondaga Lake, where ancient seas in the days of Pangea had evaporated, leaving behind only their salt as reminders that they had once been). It took almost forty years to finally understand what was going on in that great factory alongside Milton Ave., but It finally makes sense to me.

    And that's what these museums do so very well - they help us make sense of the past. Because no matter how often my dad tried to tell me about that factory, it took standing in the remains of a salt-production plant, seeing charts and pictures on the walls, for me to really understand it. Hopefully, my kids will understand a few new concepts on their very first try, thanks to the first-hand exposure they received from these slices of local history.

    Wednesday, August 11, 2010

    [Movie Review] The Invention of Lying

    I have to admit up front that I've never been a huge fan of Ricky Gervais. He usually seems to play obnoxious characters and while he's undoubtedly good at it, I tend to associate him exclusively with that sort of attitude and it doesn't endear him to me. In The Invention of Lying, he plays a somewhat more sympathetic fellow - a fellow who happens to live in a parallel universe wherein the concepts of lies, exaggerations, and untruths have never been born. Everyone speaks the plain, unvarnished truth - often divulging painfully blunt opinions in the process. There's no fiction - the idea of telling a "story" has never been conceived. Instead, entertainment consists of the retelling of historical information. Advertisements for Pepsi read, "For when they don't have Coke." There's no religion, no clever marketing, no sparing of the other person's feelings. Just the vicious truth.

    Gervais's character, Mark, is a loser in this world. He's short, fat, generally unattractive, and not smart enough to have found enough of a niche to compensate for his other shortcomings. He begins the film trying to woo Anna, played by Jennifer Garner. But she's uninterested in him and tells him so right up front. Even if she were to find his personality enjoyable, he's not a good enough genetic match for somebody as beautiful as she is, so she'd never consent to have his children. It's a dead-end, and so off they go.

    Mark then has to deal with the prospect of losing his crummy job (and the gloating of co-workers Rob Lowe and Tina Fey, who really rub his nose in his failure), possibly missing his rent payment, and the failing health of his mother. But, suddenly, his brain makes a connection that nobody has ever made before in the history of mankind - he realizes that he can say something which is not true. And because it's such an unknown concept, everyone reacts to his outlandish statements of fact with utter and complete gullibility. He can not only lie, but belief is guaranteed.

    Suddenly, Mark has access to nearly unlimited wealth, a much better job, and a mansion to live in. At that point, the moral(s) of the film starts to become clear - "success can't make you happy" and/or "nothing can MAKE you happy - people will find a way to be miserable if they want to." Both apply equally to Mark as well as the characters around him. No matter what he tells people that ought to make them happy and cause their problems to go away, they always end up right back where they started again - if they were unhappy, they stay unhappy. There's no magic bullet, no secret. No amount of lying can fix deeper issues.

    It wasn't an uproarious comedy, despite the veritable parade of well-known actors and comedians. It had quite a few clever moments and a few that made me chuckle, but mostly it was just funny to watch Gervais try to navigate the uncharted waters of his new discovery. It was also funny to hear both the blunt, cold truths that people would tell, as well as the outlandish lies that Mark came up with. Garner was adorable as always, and Gervais was quite a bit less off-putting than I'm used to seeing him. My wife and I both enjoyed The Invention of Lying and I'd rate it a B+.

    Tuesday, August 10, 2010

    Why Karate?

    Today marks my family's start at our new dojo, Five Star Martial Arts. For me, it will be the fifth different dojo I've trained at, beginning with Tae Kwon Do under Albert Fortunato, then Aikido under Sensei Yousuf Mehter, then at LaVallee's Clay dojo, over the summer at the remarkable Syracuse Jundokan under Sensei David Oddy, and finally at Five Star under Senseis Paul Napoli and Curtis Pastore.

    Last Friday, we earned our orange belts at LaVallee's, the culmination of four months of training and vigorous exercise. We enjoy our training in the martial arts, but the change in dojos got me to thinking about why. Why do we train? What's the point? Why spend so much time and effort in this pursuit?

    For starters, it's something that my wife and I have some experience with, which isn't true of most other sports or athletic activities. Which doesn't really answer the question, it just pushes the timeframe back by twenty-five years or so. So why did we get involved in the martial arts back in the 80s? I won't try to answer for my wife, but for me it was something that always looked "cool." I'd grown up watching Chinese Kung-fu movies on Saturday afternoons, I'd loved movies like Enter the Dragon and Revenge of the Ninja, and the idea that I could train my overweight, out-of-shape body to be like those martial arts champions was very exciting.

    Yet, the reality didn't exactly live up to the vision. I picked up on the basics quickly and easily, but even vigorous exercise several times a week doesn't seem to affect my weight, and my flexibility has always been terrible. I'm just not built like a movie-star martial artist and it's not likely that I ever will be. So, again, why bother? Why stick with it?

    The short answer is that I haven't really stuck with it. I trained for around a year when I was 15, then I quit. I trained for another year when I was 21, then I quit. I trained for six months at LaVallee's, two months at Syracuse Jundokan, and now I'm starting at Five Star and I'll be training there for at least a year. I've never stuck with any one style long enough to master more than the most rudimentary basics (and even then, master is surely an exaggeration), yet for some reason I keep coming back.

    Of course, I still think it's cool. And, somewhere in the back of my mind, I surely still picture myself as Bruce Lee or Chuck Norris - an image that will be very hard to maintain at the new dojo, since we face toward a wall of mirrors and visible evidence is pretty clear that I am NOT those heroic figures. I'm their frumpy sidekick.

    I've always been fascinated by the orient, and especially their development of a unique set of combat techniques and weapons that are so unlike what you find in the West. You'd think that there are only so many ways to throw a punch or a kick, and yet in thousands of years of civilization the Western civilization developed nothing that looks like Eastern martial arts. And while it's fair to say that Damascus Steel bears similarity to the folded steel that went into making the famed swords of the Samurai knights of Japan, the way those swords were used, like most other Asian weapons, was unique to the orient. The history and tradition inherent in the study of the martial arts fascinates me, and brings with it a connection to people who, over the last thousand years, devoted their lives to perfecting these techniques - these strikes, blocks, and movements - in such a way that they combine the beauty and gracefulness of dance with the athletics of gymnastics and the effectiveness of the deadliest combat arts. This connection with the mists of time is a big part of my interest.

    Also, I'm reasonably good at the martial arts, at least given the amount of training that I've had. Again, I'm not amazing - nobody's ever going to look at me and be impressed by my athleticism, but I'm not a complete klutz, either. That makes karate different for me than pretty much every other sport, because when it comes to basketball and football, I'm utterly hopeless, even dangerous.

    Plus, when I practice the martial arts, I feel like I'm getting exercise and improved overall fitness - something that's totally lacking elsewhere in my life. I don't like to exercise. I don't like the feeling of being worn out, nor do I enjoy the soreness the next day (or several days) as my muscles rebuild. I'm imperfectly happy sitting in my easy chair - imperfectly, that is, because I'd like to be in good shape, I just don't enjoy anything about the process that's required to achieve that. I don't like to stretch, to lift weights, or to hit the heavy bag. You could even say that I hate it. But when I practice the martial arts, all of that exercise is blended into the process of learning the techniques and executing them. My enthusiasm for all of the other aspects of the workout help me to overlook the parts that I truly don't like, and I end up getting some exercise. In turn, this should, in theory, lead to improved overall fitness - better flexibility, more endurance, enhanced vigor, strength and speed. As I get older, the more I can get of those things, the better off I'll be.

    The martial arts also bring with them mental and spiritual aspects that many people, myself included, find worthwhile. Mentally, they help improve focus and concentration, as well as traits like self-discipline and tenacity. Spiritually, many practitioners of the martial arts find that intensive training and study improve their control of their body's energy and there are whole disciplines within the martial arts that focus on promoting the healthful flow of energy and the connection of mind with spirit. Granted, many American dojos don't emphasize these aspects, but it's there to be explored by those who are interested.

    So that's my take on the martial arts - you get to vent your stress and frustrations through fun, vigorous exercise, you get to build a healthy body, it improves your mind and your connection with your spirit, and it connects you with the traditions and history of the East. My plan at this point is to finally stick with the martial arts for the long haul, bringing my kids along with me and encouraging them to explore all the things that I find so enjoyable. What are your thoughts on the martial arts? Feel free to comment!

    Monday, August 9, 2010

    Vacation 2010

    We went with more of a "staycation" this year. They kids had a lot of fun last year at Seabreeze, but when we thought about it in retrospect it didn't seem like the optimal use of time and money. My sons aren't big on "thrill" rides, even those that aren't too thrilling. As a result, they were totally disinterested in any of the water-park rides besides the Lazy River and the wave pool. And even with the wave pool they just stood in the shallow end. Likewise with the mechanical rides, they passed on pretty much all of them. I think they perhaps rode the carousel.

    This year, my daughter very much wanted to go back to Seabreeze or to someplace similar. We looked very seriously at Darien Lake, particularly since my kids had each earned a free 1-day admission ticket from their school's no-TV-week reading program. That would have saved some money. We also considered the generally less-expensive Enchanted Forest Water Safari in Old Forge, NY, and even briefly toyed with the idea of Hershey Park in Pennsylvania. Each option was more expensive than the one before it and, ultimately, each had the same exact problems. They all had pretty much the same rides that Seabreeze has, with minor variations from park-to-park. And there's the rub - we'd again be paying full park admission prices for access to rides that my sons weren't interested in trying. The boys managed to mostly have fun, anyway, but it seemed like a huge expense with insufficient payoff.

    So we switched gears completely. Instead of tickets to an all-day water-park with a nearby hotel, we chose Howe Caverns outside Cobleskill, NY. It's a remarkable natural phenomenon - a deep, horizontal series of caverns and galleries 152 feet below the rolling hills of Scoharie County, New York. Over the last ten million years, water carved away limestone deposits and left behind more than a quarter-mile of underground passageways, around half of which are open to the public for tours.

    Saturday morning we packed up our van with a weeks'-worth of supplies to tide us over during our two-day excursion. We trucked across Central New York and down through some lovely little rural towns including Ames, NY and the fascinating little Sharon Springs. If it had been just my wife and me, we would surely have stopped in Sharon Springs, a small community (pop ~550) that changes elevation dramatically as Route 10 winds through its heart. The kids aren't too big on quaint little towns, however, so we kept going.

    Cobleskill was a little light on restaurants that we could identify as suitable for the kids (the Rubbin Butts BBQ sounded awesome to me, but the family would have no part of it), so we make a quick stop at Pizza Hut for lunch before finally pulling in to the Howe's Caverns parking lot.

    The above-ground facility is lovely - a Tudor-style (I think) building houses the ticket office, a cafe, a gift shop, and, of course, the elevator shaft down to the cave complex. We paid our $70 for five tickets and then waited about 40 minutes until it was time for our tour to descend. What we saw below was just amazing.

    The tour guide, Mike, didn't seem to know much beyond what was in his scripted spiel, but the guide narration offered a lot of useful info. We actually entered at the rear end of the cavern complex, through an artificially-blasted shaft and into a man-made entryway called the "Vestibule." It turns out that Lester Howe, the man who "discovered" the caves and opened them to the public (though there was a story of at least one previous white man to use the caves as a hiding place in the 1700s, and the caves were known to the local Indians, as well, but none of them sold tickets so they don't get credit) and his family operated the cave tour business until the end of the 19th century, when they sold the land to a mining company. This company began a limestone quarrying operation at the "natural entrance" to the caverns and destroyed much of the caves original majesty at that end. It would be another thirty years before the caves returned to non-industrial ownership and were once again opened for tours, this time beginning at the undamaged end and continuing up to the point where the mining had stopped.

    During the 80-minute tour (ours was closer to 90 minutes, mostly due to having to stop often to wait for other tour groups to pass by us on their way back out), we saw the thin remnant of one of the waterways that had carved the caverns over the last 10 million years. It turns out that ice ages, the most recent one in particular, caused great changes for Howe Caverns. For starters, the glaciers drove a mixture of rocks, dirt, sand, and other debris, called "till" into some of the openings that had once allowed water to flow from the surface down into the caverns. These tributaries were thus cut off, leaving behind galleries, openings and natural shafts, but no longer helping to carve away the sedimentary stone of the caverns.

    In addition, we saw in one large cave enormous blocks of stone that had tumbled from the ceiling ten thousand years ago. They were also the result of glaciation, as the pressure from the glacier's incredible weight pressed down on the roof of the cavern and caused the chunks of rock to dislodge along their relatively flat sedimentary layers. This resulted in the cavern's roof being very flat above the pile of squared-off stones that resembled a giant child's toy blocks.

    We saw stalactites and stalagmites, which were frankly gorgeous. The stalagmites in particular tend to resemble the Leaning Tower of Pisa, being cylindrical, off-white, and having furrows in their sides from the running water that formed them which resemble the Italian structure's window openings. Each section of the cavern was different from the last - some high and wide, others narrow and winding. In some there were neat rock formations above and to the sides, while in others the beauty was in the water that still flowed through or even in the sound. One structure, called the "keyboard" for its resemblance to the business-end of a pipe-organ (and also because of its nearness to a similar structure that did, indeed, resemble such an instrument) was curved in such a way that if you nestled your face into its interior surface, your voice would carry and be amplified considerably.

    We traversed the Lake of Venus on pole-boats, looking like nothing so much as the depression-era visitors sitting in identical boats on that same lake some eighty years ago. I saw a picture of exactly that. And that was another remarkable thing about the caverns - save for where man has damaged them or added to them, they are as they have been for thousands, even millions of years.

    That also means that there's no huge hurry to return, of course - they're not going to look any different in another hundred years than they do today - but my back-of-the-napkin calculations came up with a conservative figure of $25,000 in tour tickets alone on the day we were there, so assuming that that's a typical Saturday and adding in revenue from all other sources, I suspect that the Caverns are doing all right in spite of any lack of return visitors.

    The ride home was uneventful, excepting that we didn't actually GO home. Instead, we stayed at an Embassy Suites across town. Why? Well, the kids like to stay at hotels - it's like a big sleepover for them, plus there's a pool and it's just someplace new. Moreover, I have a boatload of Hilton points getting ready to expire in a month, and I needed to stay at a Hilton hotel to keep them, so we did. The stay was unimpressive, but the kids had a good time anyway. On Sunday, we played some miniature golf at a favorite course, got some ice cream at Pete's Polar Parlor, and then came home where I promptly took a nap. Farewell, summer family vacation 2010! I'll remember you (mostly) fondly!

    Thursday, August 5, 2010

    The Child Who Almost Wasn't

    Two kids - that had always been the plan. We even had one of each gender, so we were all set. Families of four fit into the booths at restaurants, or around a square table. Board games are usually for 2-4 players. When you win a trip, it's always for a family of four. Sedans fit four people comfortably. It's a lot easier to save for two kids to go to college than it is to save for three, leaving aside the added expense of another person in the family.

    We have three kids. On purpose!

    So what happened? Well, the first two were very cute! That's most of it - we loved our kids and felt like we had enough love to share with one more. We loved the "baby" experience - the joy of a new infant in the family. We felt like having a little brother or sister would make at least one of the existing kids really happy. Plus, we already had all the baby stuff, we'd learned how to be parents to a baby - we were good at it, we were prepared for it, it almost felt like it would be a waste to stop.

    It wasn't easy, though. We had already made our decision when I suddenly lost a pretty good job. It had been a slap in the face, too. Instead of just acknowledging some changing business priorities that made my skills (and those of my boss and key co-workers, who were also fired just a few days after I was) seemingly over-powered to their new business model, the executive who had recently taken charge of the IT department invented (not very convincingly) a cause for termination. It was nonsense and eventually I negotiated a more rational parting of the ways through HR, but it hurt to be told that I'd done something wrong when I knew I hadn't. And the timing was critical - I was suddenly out of work, and who knew how long it would take to find something comparable? (The answer to that question turned out to be about 14 months, but we certainly didn't know that at the time.) My wife and I had to have a tough discussion - should we abandon the idea of having a third child? Should we wait? What was the right thing to do for us and our family?

    I was adamant. We'd made our decision, and I would be damned if I'd let that same miserable excuse for a businessman preemptively take away one of my children the way he'd so disingenuously taken away my job. Bring it on! We're having this baby!

    And so we did. And I couldn't be happier. That little boy has brought tremendous joy into our lives - and into our family. Yes, sometimes one of us sits out during a board game. We have to pull up another chair at restaurants (or wait for a bigger table to become available). The kids are going to be strongly encouraged to win scholarships for academics or music or (as unlikely as it may be) sports. But that's all okay, and we wouldn't trade a moment of it for convenience or money.

    Wednesday, August 4, 2010

    [Novel Review] Repo Men

    Formerly The Reposession Mambo by Eric Garcia

    This was recently a big-deal movie starring Jude Law, Forest Whitaker and Liev Schreiber that... actually didn't do all that great in the theaters. Which is a shame, because the marketing campaign for it was really awesome and had me super-psyched to see it. I still haven't seen it, but as I was kicking around the Internet I saw time and again that the novel the movie was based on - originally titled "The Repossession Mambo" was really good, so I picked it up and read it.

    And boy was it! It's a really unique and very interesting book, particularly because of the non-linear way Garcia writes it. The basic premise is that in the not-terribly-distant future artificial organs (called "artiforgs" in the novel) have been raised to a high art form. They're sleek, powerful, incredibly easy to install (there was never any mention of rejection, infection or complications from even the most extreme organ replacements), and not only do they work better than the originals, they can have added features. For instance, your artificial liver could also be a music-player, and your eye could give you night-vision or just display your calendar.

    Where the setting gets sinister is that the artiforgs are incredibly expensive and the loans necessary to procure one are offered at prohibitively high rates of interest - upwards of 30-40%. As a result, defaults are not only common, they're expected as people drive themselves to financial ruin in order to afford their life-giving organs. Once they fail to make their payments, the contract states that the organs can be reclaimed - brutally, with death as the certain result. Hence the name of the movie - Repo Men.

    The novel (and the movie, of course) tells the story of one of these Repo men. He's one of the best, too - a cold-hearted professional who goes through his targets with literally surgical precision, reclaiming the valuable organs so they can be refurbished and re-sold. He also goes through wives at an alarming rate - he's really alone in his life, except for his job and his best friend. A friend who is, of course, his partner in reclaiming artiforgs.

    Garcia's storytelling technique in Repo Men is fascinating and not one I'd want to see very often. Instead of telling the tale of Remy growing from a youth to a soldier and then to a repo man, he jumps around, back and forth and all over Remy's fragmented life. The guy's really a mess - he loves nothing, he's got no life outside his job, and he can't connect with anyone outside that job. All of that becomes a major problem for him when his own heart is damaged during a repossession and, naturally, he defaults on the outrageous payments and has to go on the run from his own people.

    As a sci-fi nut, the technology is often the most interesting part of a story like this, but it's really not what Garcia was writing about. The whole focus of his novel began with the notion of repossession and the question of what happens when the item being repossessed isn't just a car or some furniture, but it's an integral, life-sustaining part of you. He then wraps around that premise the life of a man that's as empty and meaningless and ultimately destructive as those very artiforgs he works with. In the novel, there are people who need their artiforgs because of loss to accident or disease, but Garcia doesn't focus on them. Instead, most of Remy's victims bought their high-end organs because they were upgrades to their natural flesh or because they were unable to control their drinking or their weight and so destroyed their original organs through self-abuse. His point, I think, was that these people were as artificial as their new organs, and didn't really deserve to have them. I mean, how crazy would you have to be to have surgery to replace a perfectly functional, natural organ with an upgrade when the risk is that it will drain your finances and result with your organ being ripped from your body on your livingroom floor?

    For me, the premise was in several ways as artificial as the organs. For starters, it seems to me much more plausible that cloned or otherwise "grown" organs will become commonplace well before high-tech metal monstrosities like those in the book. In addition, the legions of sheep going to the slaughter seems preposterous to me - I can buy the notion that the government could be "bought" by the powerful and wealthy artiforg manufacturer's lobby into passing laws allowing for usurious interest rates and contracts resulting in guaranteed death upon default. And I can also buy the notion of a society where the quest for artificially-enhanced and extended life would inure people to the consequences. But I couldn't buy them both together for whatever reason, and it just struck me as implausible that western society would blithely accept both financial ruin and rampant executions in the name of artificially-enhanced organs and longevity.

    Still, watching Remy grow into a heartless professional and then seeing him finally try to grow into a person once that hard heart of his was replaced with an artificial one was an entertaining, even gripping read. As I said above, I wouldn't want to read very many novels that jump around the way this one did, but it fit the nature of the protagonist's existence even as it fit with the "mambo" style of dance in the original title - shifting back and forth, back and forth, ba-dump, ba-dump, ba-dump. Like a heartbeat.

    Repo Men was a good, solid and entertaining read that touched on issues of human emotion, the need for a meaningful life beyond your job, the fragility of the human form, and the struggle to maintain one's humanity in an increasingly harsh and brutal world. I enjoyed reading it and rate it a B.

    Tuesday, August 3, 2010


    Nope, I'm not a fan of Oregon State University (or Oklahoma, or whatever), though it's very tough to do Google-searches on this Japanese term because of that school. No, osu is a Japanese phrase that has gained a lot of traction in the US Martial Arts community in recent years, and I've come to learn that not everyone agrees on how, when, and with whom it should be used.

    My first introduction to the word was at LaValle's Karate, where Dojo Master Instructor Theron Feidt would greet all students with "Osu!" and we were expected to greet him that way in return. I'd never heard the term prior to that (about six months ago), so I just went ahead and did it. It was a nonsense word as far as I knew - nobody ever stopped to explain what it meant or anything. I couldn't even have guessed how it was spelled at that time.

    Next, I received an email from one of the senior instructors - Sensei Kris Munger - and he used the word IN the email. Now I knew how to spell it! I decided I might as well find out what it was supposed to signify, so I Googled it. Which was when I discovered Oregon State, thank you very much. I think I finally ended up with a complex search parameter that excluded any pages with "Oregon" or "Oklahoma" in them, and finally came up with a definition along the lines of the one on the Kyokushin Karate "Spirit of Osu" page:
    Osu is the one word that you'll hear the most in a Kyokushin dojo or at a Kyokushin tournament.  When you enter or leave the dojo, you bow and say "Osu".  When you greet a fellow Kyokushin karateka, you say "Osu" instead of "hello".  When you respond to an instruction or question in class, you say "Osu" instead of "yes" or "I understand".  When performing kihon waza (basic techniques) in class, each technique is often accompanied with a loud "Osu".  When practicing jiyu kumite (free fighting) in class and your opponent lands a good, hard technique, you say "Osu" to acknowledge your opponent's skill.  As a measure of respect, knockdown fighters at a tournament bow and say "Osu" to the front, to the referee and to each other, before and after the fight.  Osu is used in many situations and seems to mean a lot of things. It means patience, determination and perseverance.  Every time we say "Osu", we remind ourselves of this.
     And that does seem to reflect how the word is used in many American dojos. Lord knows there are plenty of Japanese words used in karate dojos that I understand imperfectly or which I understand only through my instructors (who usually are not themselves fluent speakers of the language). I accepted the word at face value and moved on, never considering that there was controversy about its use. My first indication was actually a Facebook post from a different Sensei who was attending an AAU karate tournament (and who I didn't ask to quote for this article, so I won't). He commented, somewhat facetiously, to the effect that he wished everyone would stop Osu'ing him, and that they seemed to think it was more polite than it really was.

    That made me wonder - was it possible the word was being improperly used or just "Americanized" at LaVallee's? They're not beyond taking liberties - the term "seiza" comes to mind. In Japan, it refers to a formalized kneeling position that, like most traditional Japanese concepts as I understand them, is very precise and almost ritualized. But "seiza" is always kneeling on both knees, ankles flat, one big toe crossed over the others, and posterior resting on one's heels (or at least that's how I was taught it at my Aikido dojo). At LaVallee's, they append the number one, two or three to the end of it and use it to denote being up on one knee, sitting cross-legged, and kneeling on both knees, respectively. Given their limited use of Japanese and their Americanization of some of what they do use, I suspected that perhaps there was another side - a Japanese side - to the usage of Osu.

    It turns out that a Google search, perhaps not surprisingly, reveals similarly mixed results. I wouldn't have found (m)any Japanese-based sites since my PC is set for English, so the sites I did find were primarily set in the U.S. and Australia. I found several that seemed to reflect the perspective that "Osu is the appropriate response for anything" which you see in the quote above. A few, such as this one, addressed the philosophy of the word without touching on everyday usage, but again the philosophy (and the degree to which the word was given deep meaning) seemed to be more in keeping with American than Japanese usage.

    However at Shotokan Karate site 24 Fighting Chickens, I found a very comprehensive article that addressed both the Americanization of the word as well as practical experience with its modern usage in Japan and even research into the linguistic origins of the word. Article author Rob Redmond writes,

    “Osu!” is a rough expression. That means it is typically used the way some mild profanity, such as the word -damn-, or slangy pronunciation such as -What up, G-? might be used in English. It is very informal, used between friends, and very close in meaning to when people say -dude- to one another.

     Redmond talks extensively about the circumstances of polite usage in Japan - usually between male peers and especially in athletics, but rarely if ever by females and never between individuals in a superior/subordinate relationship (such as teacher/student) or with individuals who are not part of your "in-group." He even writes about pronunciation - it turns out, if you've heard it used in an English-speaking dojo, it was probably pronounced wrong. But then, according to Redmond, the word Karate probably was, too.

    Now, Redmond is careful to point out - and I agree that it's an important distinction - that just because a word has been Americanized doesn't mean it's wrong. He acknowledges that many American words, such as some relating to baseball, are casually and even gleefully mispronounced in Japan. As long as the users know what they mean and nobody is offended, then all's fair, right?

    What's important, I think, is two-fold. First, if the word has meaning to the people using it, then it should be consistently used to reflect that meaning and embraced in its usage, regardless of its origins. I mean, the Army pretty much invented the phrase "hoo-ah" to use in their own training (and beyond, I think), and they in turn seem likely to have borrowed it from the US Marine Corps term "Ooh-rah!" They're made-up words, but they have meaning (sometimes a great deal of meaning) to those who use them, so they serve their purpose well. Part of this, however, is to take some time to be sure you know what you want the word to mean and then explain it to your students. At LaVallee's, I've never actually heard anybody say what Osu means to them, yet it's used constantly.

    At the same time, the people propagating it should be clear about both its current meaning as well as its origins, so as to properly teach it to their students. It would be easy to assume, for instance, that because the word "osu" is commonly used in American dojos to mean "Hello!" "Yes, sir!" "I understand!" and so on, that it means the same in Japan as well. Unfortunately, in a Japanese dojo (and especially outside the dojo or other athletic environment) the word is actually rude and inappropriate and would be likely to embarrass the American student if they were to use it there.

    Luckily, Redmond's article suggests alternate words for anyone who wishes to use more authentically and appropriately Japanese terminology in their training. For instance, as a greeting, "Ohayo gozaimasu" or just "Ohayo" may be suitable. And in Japan, saying "Hai" or "Haa" for "yes" is proper for most student responses during martial arts training, in those situations where any response is required at all. A student could say "domo" or "arigato" to thank their teacher for praise, again if any response were required (as it often is not, if I'm understanding correctly. There seem to be nearly limitless ways to be rude or offensive in Japanese). Redmond writes,
    Usually they first ask what we said in Japan instead of “Osu!” We said nothing, usually. When my instructor walked up and down the aisles of trainees, and he corrected us, we looked straight ahead and did not acknowledge his corrections. Sometimes we nodded our heads. Japanese feel it is rude to respond to a lecturing instructor. They feel it is generally rude to speak during class. Far from interactive, the Japanese student stares blankly at you as you go through your lesson teaching things. I found this a little disturbing when I taught classes in Japan. If your instructor insists on an answer, then answer with “Hai!” or the more formal “Haa.”
    In addition, the term "Onegaishimasu"is a very polite phrase that I've actually heard used here in the U.S. When I used to train in Aikido and would attend seminars with people from other dojos, this term was commonly used by members of at least one other upstate New York dojo at the time as an invitation or request to partner up to practice a technique. I was told then (and Redmond seems to confirm) that it is a polite word with a meaning akin to "please."

    I think what may fascinate me the most, however, is the way in which a Japanese slang word has not only found its way into American karate schools, but has been saddled with so much deep, spiritual meaning besides. It's easy to see the way in which language changes both over time and due to foreign influences - today's modern English is rife with words that were introduced back in the mid-11th century when Frankish Normans invaded Saxon England and added words like "porc" for "pig" and "boef" for "cow". This process clearly continues to this day, sometimes in unexpected places. Luckily, tools like the web, blogs, and online articles give us better tools than ever to sort through information and find meaning.

    Monday, August 2, 2010

    [Review] Five Guys Burgers & Fries

    I don't do a lot of restaurant reviews, but this place is really "hot" so I thought it was worthwhile to share my experience. In fact, the only reason I ate there at all was because of all the buzz I'd heard both before the local restaurant opened as well as after.

    I stopped and ate at the new Fairmount Fair Five Guys on Friday. I'd been hearing for months about what a terrific place Five Guys was, and when it opened in Fairmount the restaurant had lines out the door for the first several weeks.

    The restaurant is small and simple - they have two cash registers where you order and pay, a space to wait while your order is prepared, and then a simple dining room that appeared to seat about sixty people (with another fifteen or twenty at the patio tables outside). The menu is equally simple - they have four types of burgers - regular, cheese, bacon and bacon cheeseburger. Then there are fifteen toppings that you can add on for free if you're so inclined. They range from the traditional ketchup or lettuce to hot sauce. The burgers come in single or double-patty varieties, and they also serve hot dogs (in the same four styles as the burgers), veggie sandwiches, and grilled cheese. Their "famous" fries come in a regular or large-size cup, and can be ordered plain or Cajun-spiced. That's the whole menu, so if you're looking for anything more than you could get at a New York City pushcart, you'll need to go somewhere else.

    I ordered the baconburger and a regular fries. Now, let's be honest, a burger is a burger. They're hard to screw up completely (unless you burn it or under-cook it) and they're hard to make really exceptional. I thought Five Guys served an acceptable burger. It was kind of small, but it tasted like ground beef, was served hot, and the bacon tasted like bacon. And there's not really much more I can say about it. It wasn't "heavenly" as their signs proudly quoted. It was just a burger that had been properly cooked and served on a fresh bun with ketchup and bacon. I didn't dislike it, but I don't see what all the fuss was about. Is it really that hard to get a good burger?

    The fries were disappointing. I'm familiar with this style of medium-cut fries - neither shoestring nor steak fries, but right in-between - and they've never really impressed me. The flavor tends to be bland and the consistency tends to be limp, as these were. They weren't mushy-limp, but only a few were good and crisp. Perhaps the cajun-fries are more impressive, but I don't care for cajun-style spices so that wasn't an option. I just like plain, well-made, lightly-salted fries and these didn't impress me.

    The size was impressive - the "regular" fries was in what appeared to be a 12-ounce cup which was full to overflowing - my bag had probably 30% again as many fries in it as were in the cup, but a lot of mediocre fries is not necessarily a good thing. According to their website, it's meant to be two servings, which was about right - by the time I'd eaten half of mine, I'd found all of the "best" ones and didn't really want any more. If they'd been good fries, though, I could easily see me eating the entire thing - all 620 calories worth. Yow! My single-patty "Little" baconburger was 560 calories. Note that the double-patty "Regular" baconburger would have been 780 calories. Opt for the "Regular"-size Bacon-Cheeseburger and you're in for nearly 1000 calories, or up to around 1300 if you add in a serving of fries. This isn't particularly outrageous for fast food or for restaurant food in general, just as long as you're aware that you may be getting a significant percentage of your full-day's recommended caloric intake in a single meal.

    So the bottom-line? You can get a decent burger and crappy fries at Five Guys Burgers and Fries. It's definitely nothing to get excited about and the amount of love this place gets baffles me based on my experience today. Yes, given the choice I'd rather eat a Five Guys burger than one from McDonald's, but then I don't go to McDonald's when I want a great burger, I go there when I'm in a hurry, and Five Guys isn't quick enough to meet that need.

    Blending together the perfectly adequate burger with the fries that I didn't really like, adding in the lack of a drive-through option (which is really pretty mandatory these days for fast-food places. If you want to be a sit-down-only joint, you should really serve better food), and the sparse menu, I can't give Five Guys more than a C. I don't expect to ever go back unless I'm with somebody else who wants to.