Thursday, October 28, 2010

[TV] The Walking Dead

Let this serve as your official reminder that Frank Darabont's The Walking Dead premieres on AMC this Sunday night, Halloween, at 10 PM.


I'm very excited to see this show. I wouldn't call myself a huge horror fan, but certain classic concepts really work for me and the Zombie Apocalypse is one of them. Horror hasn't been especially well-represented on television over the years, and zombie-horror even less so.

This particular show is based on the comic books of the same name. I never read it, but I've seen the enthusiasm online and I've watched the previews for myself and I'm sold.

The zombie mythology hits on several common themes and human fears. One is fear of death and the unknown nature of life and death. What makes a person alive? What makes them dead? If we don't truly understand that, then how can we be sure that the dead will stay that way?

And, of course, dead things are scary. We don't want to end up like them, and that's part of it, but there's a certain primal fear of corpses, especially a fear that the corpse will open its eyes and rise up in search of revenge or blood or whatever it is you really, really crave when it's late and you're dead and you haven't had dinner.

Also, we fear the apocalypse - the destruction of our civilization and the massive loss of life that would ensue because of catastrophe, war, or famine. We've got it pretty good, and the notion of having to survive among the ruins without all of our luxuries and our laws - having to scrabble for the remnants of the past while fighting off the strong who would prey on the weak - that's scary stuff.

Finally, the zombie apocalypse speaks to our fear of plague. Our terror of an unknown pathogen spreading from one person to the next - effectively turning our close-knit society against us - invisible, undetectable, and horrifically fatal. And zombie-ism is the worst. As bad as pus-filled blisters, wracking coughs and flesh-eating bacteria may be, they pale in comparison to rising up from the dead to hunger for the flesh and brains of your friends and family.

George Romero is the undisputed father of the modern zombie genre, beginning with his original 1968 film Night of the Living Dead. I have to confess, I watched the original B&W film and I wasn't really taken by it. I thought the story and acting were just okay, but compared to, for example, Planet of the Apes, which came out the same year? I just wasn't impressed. If I were a better scholar of motion pictures, I might recognize something about the story, the camerawork, the acting or the music that somehow catapult it to legendary status, but I'm not so I don't.

In recent years, however, the zombie genre has exploded (some would say it's been saturated) with some fantastic works. On the big screen, movies like 28 Days Later and The Crazies (also based on a Romero classic) put zombies right into modern-day cities and let us scramble in fear alongside the poor survivors who had to somehow, against the odds, escape their predations. In books, we've got Max Brooks' truly excellent World War Z, and the clever faux-classic Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. And in video games, we've got games like Left for Dead, among a slew of others. And in song, of course, there's the absolutely outstanding re: Your Brains by Jonathan Coulton.

That's a whole lot of brain-eating going on! Fast zombies, slow zombies, business zombies - they're all well-represented. But none of them have been on television. Until now. The zombie apocalypse is coming, people. Consider this new AMC series to be part of your survival training, and be sure to tune in Sunday night.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Swirling Chaos of My Mind

I wonder sometimes whether if I truly understood at a very detailed level how my mind worked, it would make me a better writer (or musician or martial artist or whatever). I suppose it probably would, but I also feel like I'm light-years away from that kind of understanding so I don't expect to really attain a meaningful level of it in my lifetime. I do keep trying though, in the hopes that some sort of self-improvement might result even just from a partial self-knowledge.

Today, for instance, I ended up in a place I didn't expect, and the path by which I got there was meandering. I liked where I finished, though, and I rather wish I could replicate it on demand. Let me show you what I mean.

I started out listening to a new original song by the Terrible Musicians. Hang on, I need to digress...

Funny side story - I was first introduced to Scott Burnside and told, "He's a Terrible Musician." I couldn't see that the words were capitalized, so I responded, "Oh really? Man, me too. I really suck." It was sort of embarrassing to learn that that's just the name of his band and that he's actually quite good. Now, back to our tale!

I listened to the band's brand-new song, called Samhain. I was vaguely aware that it was a seasonal festival associated with Celts or Druids or Wiccans or somesuch group, but the song and it's name inspired me to do a little research about it just to satisfy my curiosity and fill a gap in my knowledge. Before long, I'm reading all about it on wikipedia.

And then it hit me... Some of the people in my novel would surely celebrate a harvest festival, and given that I've established that bonfires are a central part of their regular weekly festivities, it stands to reason that their harvest festival would look very much like a traditional Celtic Samhain. But wait, there's more! Because the people in this population aren't Celtic at all, and they would have brought various other cultural precedents with them and surely would have integrated them into their celebration. After all, they're not intentionally celebrating Samhain, it's just that all harvest festivals in agrarian populations are going to have much in common, and this group's penchant for bonfires would have made them look even more similar to Samhain, just not on purpose and not exclusively.

So off I went to investigate other cultural celebrations of Autumn-time. My first attempt was to find a corresponding Puerto Rican celebration, but there doesn't seem to be one. However, I have some Mexican characters available, so I incorporated elements of the Mexican Day of the Dead into the celebration. And of course the story takes place on American soil (though not any America we'd recognize) among people who are, at least in part, ostensibly Christian and/or Catholic, so the secular celebration of Halloween and the religious celebrations of All Saints Day/All Souls Day had to be incorporated as well.

So a song lead me to explore one holiday, which lead me to explore three more holidays (if you count the Catholic holidays as one), which lead me to develop my very own fictional festival for my novel. Before I knew it (well, okay, it took an hour or so all together), I'd taken notes on how the four holidays influenced or mirrored (in the case of Samhain) the celebration in my novel, how it had come to be, any changes it had seen over the years, and how it specifically might be referenced in certain parts of the novel. I then went on to write a 1,700-word description of the festival from dawn to dusk.

None of this will ever be in my novel. It would get, at most, a passing reference. It's remotely possible that a chapter of the novel might take place on this day (much of the action in the first half of the book is occurring in Autumn, after all), but even so a very, very small percentage of what I wrote would find its way into the book.

So why bother, you might wonder? Why not spend that hour (or more, probably. I wasn't keeping track) actually writing or editing the novel, instead? Well, that comes back to how my brain works. I don't just crank out my novel a sentence at a time and then move on. I constantly fine-tune my ideas, often because I've missed something REALLY IMPORTANT that would have been painful had I not caught and fixed it. I come up with various ideas well in advance of when I'd ever use them - everything from simple explanations for how certain characters think or act all the way up to very lengthy prose passages that could, in theory, be dropped right into the novel when I get to the right spot. In other words, I'm all over the place. Usually my thoughts are focused within a few chapters of where I'm currently working, or else they may jump to a major plot point that I know I'm going to need to nail perfectly for the whole book to work.

And sometimes, as today, they delve deeply into stuff that has no obvious purpose. I can't explain it. I think part of it just comes from my desire to really feel like I'm working with an actual place - to know all the crevices and dark corners. Tangential to that is the fact that sometimes, as I explore those dark corners, I come upon something I hadn't planned to find, but which I feel will make the book stronger if I explore it in the narrative. This may or may not be such a case - it may be that knowing about this festival will lead to a really meaningful passage in the book, or it could easily be that it will make absolutely no difference. If I knew my mind better, perhaps I could predict more easily which it would be. Until then, I'll just keep making stabs in the proverbial dark and trusting my gut along with my brain, to lead me in the right direction.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"Get Away From Her, You Bitch!" part 2

The first two movies of the Aliens series, or, as I like to think of them, the ONLY two movies of the Aliens series, are both modern sci-fi masterpieces as they explore themes of corporate greed, humanity, and motherhood. I love these movies, and I'm helpless not to re-watch them anytime they're in front of me. In yesterday's column I summarized the plots of both films. Today, I'd like to explore some key themes.

Both films had a heaping helping of corporate malfeasance. In the first film, some of the crew were constantly concerned about getting screwed out of their shares for the trip. We learned partway through that the Nostromo's regular science officer had been replaced at the last minute with a a human-looking android named Ash (Ian Holm). And a lot of what went wrong with the alien is directly attributable to Ash - he's the one who let the wounded man back onto the ship when Ripley would have kept him out, and he does his best to befuddle their efforts to kill it. We even learn that The Company (which is the euphemism for Weyland Yutani in that film) sent the Nostromo to capture an alien from the outset and had designated the crew as expendable. The Company wanted to be certain that any opportunities for profit weren't lost because the crew was too scared or inept or "human" to capitalize on them. They take advantage of the crew in every way, because they're a soulless force of business.

The second film is even more overt. Weyland Yutani abandons Ripley despite her heroic efforts in the first film, because her actions lost them a very valuable spaceship. Their agent, Burke, manipulates the action of the film specifically to get an alien specimen back to Earth for study, and he does it with complete indifference to the incredible loss of life he precipitates. After both films, we're very much left to conclude that corporations are at worst evil, and at best uncaring about the lives of mere humans. It's profit that drives them, and consequences be damned.

The films also explore the theme of humanity. The alien is, of course, inhuman and it's utterly deadly in a way humans can barely comprehend. Their representative in the second film, Burke, is inhuman in his greed and lust for power, and his refusal to compromise when people are at risk. But we also have a pair of androids in the film - men who look human, but are actually machines. In the first film, Ash is a surprise - we don't actually find out he's an android until near the end, but his secret programming causes no end of trouble for his shipmates. In many ways, he's an anthropomorphic version of the HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. By contrast, Bishop from Aliens is Ash's complete opposite - he takes care of the crew and never hesitates to sacrifice himself to help save them. He rescues Ripley and Newt twice at the end of the film. And then we've got Lt. Ellen Ripley herself. She's super-human.

In fact, she's the epitome of motherhood. That's the final theme of the films. Or, at least, the last of the ones I'll discuss here - I have no doubt that a careful analysis could uncover many more. It's no coincidence that 'Mother' is the name of the computer in Alien. It's supposed to care for the crew and operate the ship for years while they're in suspended animation. Sadly, it's a co-conspirator in their deaths, because it's subject to the will of The Company. In the second movie, we encounter the Alien Queen, truly the mother of a whole race (or, at least, of one generation of the species). But it's Ripley who's the great mother. She's the one who tries to take care of her crew on the Nostromo, though she's badly outmatched by the Alien and deceived by Ash's perfidy. She even goes back for her cat, Jonesy, despite the danger, because she's the Mother. Again, Aliens is more overt in most respects, including this particular theme. She literally becomes the mother-figure for the abandoned Newt, who's seen her family and all of her fellow colonists brutally killed and cocooned by the aliens. In the end, it's mother vs. mother as Ripley faces off, twice, against the Alien Queen. And because of her humanity, because of her nobility, because of her superior motherness, Ripley is able to save her child, herself, and Dwayne Hicks (Beihn), the film's father-figure as much as there is one.

As an aside, it's funny to me that at the apex of both movies, Ripley calls somebody a bitch. It's the computer, Mother, in the first movie (when Ripley doesn't manage to turn off the ship's self-destruct in time and it continues on anyway) and it's the Alien Queen in the second movie. Ripley's a bitch, too, of course, but she's a tougher, smarter, badder bitch than any of her enemies.

These movies shine for a lot of reasons - their production values were good for the times, the acting was very good, and the pacing was terrific. But as stories, part of what makes them so enduring is that they deal with basic elements that are likely to ring true for a very long time. Soulless corporations - whether business, governmental or military - have been running roughshod over peoples' lives for thousands of years, all in the name of "the greater good" or whatever they used to justify themselves. Also common to our experience is the question of what it means to be human. We've explored this through myth and legend, through stories told across hearthfires and across the Internet. And most basic of all to the human condition is motherhood. Every person must have a mother, and she's (hopefully) the nurturing force that helps us to become who we are. The two Alien films build terrific stories around these themes, which is what makes them true classics.

Monday, October 25, 2010

"Get Away From Her, You Bitch!" part 1

The first two movies of the Aliens series, or, as I like to think of them, the ONLY two movies of the Aliens series, are both modern sci-fi masterpieces as they explore themes of corporate greed, humanity, and motherhood. I love these movies, and I'm helpless not to re-watch them anytime they're in front of me.

They're two very different movies, of course. The original 1979 Ridley Scott film follows the crew of the Nostromo mining and salvage ship in their struggle (and eventual failure, for the most part) to survive after picking up an alien life form. They pick up what might be an SOS signal and they land on an unexplored planet, LV-426. They do, indeed, find a crashed spaceship there, but it's not human. One of the men gets close to a large egg-like pod which opens and attaches a parasite to his face. He's taken back to the ship for treatment where we learn that Ripley is a complete bitch when she invokes quarantine and won't allow the stricken man back onto the ship. She's absolutely right, of course, but the rest of the crew is not amused. Attempts to remove the strange alien creature are unsuccessful. It eventually falls off on its own, but unbeknownst to the crew it has implanted an egg down the man's throat. Soon after, the second stage of the alien's odd lifecycle appears, literally bursting from the man's chest to disappear into the bowels of the ship. From there, it soon grows to full-size - a sleek black horror with its elongated skull, taloned claws, spearlike tail and vicious protruding inner-jaws. If all of that's not more than enough to kill a ship of seven miners, it has incredibly corrosive acid for blood. It's an unrelenting hunter that stalks the crew as they attempt to stalk it, picking them off one by one until only Lt. Ellen Ripley (played by one of the first true action heroines, Sigourney Weaver) survives. She ultimately sets the ship to explode, blasts her lifepod into space, and then in a final battle with the alien kicks it out an airlock. The whole film was more horror/sci-fi than anything else, made with a pervasive sense of dread beginning with the opening camera shots walking through the deserted ship and culminating with the alien right inside the lifepod with Ripley.

The 1986 movie Aliens, by James Cameron, is more of an action/sci-fi, with less fear of the unknown and more blowing stuff up. In the sequel, Ripley's lifepod is found floating through space some fifty years after the events of the first film. She's brought before a board of inquiry and found incompetent as an officer for her negligence in destroying the Nostromo. The board assumes she must have invented the story about the alien since there's been a colony on LV-426 for years with no sign of any alien life forms. Her employer, the mega-company Weyland-Yutani, cuts her loose, but its unscrupulous employee Burke (Paul Riser) isn't above sending an expedition to the coordinates where the Nostromo crew found the crashed ship, just in case. After all, a creature like the alien would be worth a fortune to Weyland-Yutani's bio-weapons division. A hapless family drive out from the colony in their land-rover and soon, before the eyes of their screaming daughter Rebecca (nicknamed Newt), the father is hauled back inside with an alien creature stuck to his face. The fate of the colony is sealed - before long, it loses contact with Earth. The Company decides to send an expedition force of Colonial Marines to find out what happened and set things right, and Burke wants Ripley along as an adviser. She reluctantly agrees, and soon she's back flying through space, this time with a team of high-adrenaline testosterone-junkies carrying every sort of weapon you'd want.They explore the colony looking for the missing colonists and all too soon they find them - cocooned into the walls around the base of their base's fusion reactor, waiting to be hosts for generations of new aliens. The hideous alien guards attack, wiping out half the marines in minutes. The remainder retreat back to the operations center, but there's a problem: their gunfire pierced the base's coolant system, and the reactor is going to overload. Complicating matters, the aliens are coming after them in swarms and the drop-ship needed to get them back safely into space has been destroyed. They hatch a plan to remotely call down a second drop-ship, but the aliens overwhelm their defenses and kill most of them before they can reach the landing-zone. Only Ripley, one Marine (Michael Beihn) and their android Bishop (Lance Henrickson) survive to reach the dropship. In the process, Ripley loses Newt, the young girl whose father was the first victim and who was found hiding in the bowels of the base. Ripley is determined to go back down to the base and rescue her in the few minutes remaining before the reactor goes nuclear. The Marine, Hicks, is too injured to help, so she arms herself and goes down alone. As the base collapses around her, Ripley finds Newt only to encounter the alien hive-mother, who pursues her up to the surface and even manages to hitch a ride on the drop ship. The queen tears Bishop in half and nearly kills Newt before Ripley appears in her iconic yellow power-loader, utters her classic line, "Get Away From Her, You Bitch!", and wrestles her out an airlock, ending the Alien threat once and for all. (Yes, I said 'once and for all'! I am pretending the further sequels don't exist, because they suck.)

Okay, so that's what the movies were about. But what were the movies about? Tune in tomorrow for my analysis of three key themes.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

[D&D] My Favorite D&D Campaign

What do you get when you mix a bunch of young college students that included hard-core nerds (me, mostly), burnouts, gear-heads, an athlete and an anti-social Dungeon Master with a volatile temper? You get the greatest campaign ever.

Most of the credit for the game - nearly all of it, in fact - must go to the DM, Paul Baker. Paul was a giant of a man, but also an extremely talented artist with an incredible imagination. His masterpiece campaign featured a Demi-God named Aknaton who was that world's equivalent of Tolkein's Sauron - a malevolent, nearly-omnipotent force of evil. But Aknaton was more than just a super-powerful character. He knew things. I remember once that Paul told me "Aknaton knows things I don't even know." And he always seemed to be one step ahead of us. With good reason, as it turned out.

I remember our party vividly. I remember I was playing a magic-hating barbarian. In the old first-edition D&D rules, barbarians had quite a few special abilities, but one major trade-off was that they hated all magic and would neither use magical items nor tolerate spells being cast upon them. We also had a warrior who had an intelligence of around 3. There were also a cavalier (a knight) and a paladin (a holy warrior) who were fairly powerful, but were balanced by being forced to be brave at all times. At least, that's how it was supposed to work. More on that in a bit. Finally, we had a druid/ranger and a mage. There was also a dwarf for a brief time, but his player was an ass and we mocked him mercilessly until he either quit or Paul kicked him out. I can't recall which.

Anyway, Paul was a pretty hard DM, and he routinely threw stuff at us that we couldn't handle. Our two knights were supposed to face all challenges head-on, regardless of the odds, because they were brave and fearless. Except the two players were craven cowards. They didn't want their characters to get killed, and adopted the motto, "I may be brave, but I'm not stupid" as an excuse to run away like little girls. This literally went on for months while the rest of the party became more and more exasperated with them. Eventually Tim, who played the idiot warrior, boldly retreated from a particular battle, crying, "I may be dumb, but I'm not stupid!" The two knights never did seem to catch on to why everyone else was howling with laughter.

But the party was essentially doomed from the start, as my magic-hating barbarian learned when I found an excuse to attack the group's mage. You see, Aknaton had a very distinctive (and Tolkein-esque) characteristic - he was well-known for having a third eye prominently on his forehead. In our scuffle, my barbarian knocked off the mage's large, floppy hat to reveal... dun dun dun!... a third eye! That's right, the reason our greatest enemy was always a step ahead of us was because he was the future incarnation of our own party mage, come back in time in the fullness of his power to both take over the world and ensure his own survival as a mere fledgling.

Now, I'm often an ass and I was even worse when I was a teenager, and quite frankly Paul was twice the ass that I was. His temper, pouting and general grumpiness were legendary. Most of the other players were adept at laying low and not setting him off, but I suspect (though I don't really remember) that I probably took a perverse joy in pissing him off. I know I definitely did it on purpose at least once, actually taunting him into a frothing, sputtering rage. Over the phone of course - Paul was at least twice as big as I was and could easily have crushed me like a bug. The upshot of all this childishness (from both of us) was that I was frequently dis-invited or not invited to join his games. I missed big chunks of the campaign. I know that my barbarian died fairly early on and I didn't play for quite some time - I don't recall whether that was because I was annoyed at dying or if Paul didn't ask me back. I did return with a priest character, but I managed to annoy my own party sufficiently that they actually killed me. I still maintain that that wasn't entirely my fault, but I've also said for years that I have an uncanny ability to piss people off.

Anyway, I didn't get to enjoy vast swaths of Paul's campaign, but I was there enough to know that it was absolutely epic in scope and scale. There were battles with demon lords, princes of hell and the very gods themselves - many of whom didn't survive. There was travel through the multiverse, the planes of existence and time itself. There were betrayals and daring rescues, and weapons of unthinkable, even inconceivable power. All in an effort to defeat a force of evil who literally knew everything the party would do before they did it, because he remembered it happening to him in his own past.

Topping it all off were Paul's drawings and paintings, which brought the whole game very much to life. It was inspiring to have a portrait of your character, or to see a painting of one of the game's major characters in their full regalia of mystical armor and weapons. But oh how thrilling - how utterly gut-wrenching - it was to see another painting of that same supremely powerful character battered, broken and dead at the hands of the party's enemies. Paul's artwork was truly the equal of his talent as a game-designer. He was a lousy DM, really - he constantly overwhelmed the players and would frequently get furious with them if they weren't smart enough to figure out one of his impossible puzzles or mysteries - but as a creator of adventure he was unsurpassed.

I don't know what's become of Paul in the, oh, almost twenty years since I last saw him. He could certainly be making good money as an artist if he ever applied himself, but I'm not sure whether he has. His name's a little too common to have any real chance of finding him online. I hope he's doing well, though, because for as rocky as the experience was for me, I still hold his Aknaton campaign as the grandest D&D game I ever played in.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Student's Creed - "See It. Believe It. Achieve It!"

That's the motto at FiveStar Martial Arts, and it's one of the best motivational expressions you'll find. We all want to achieve - life is a series of stretches, of challenges, of striving for that which brings you joy, prosperity, and satisfaction. And we've each been given the tools - are you ready to use them?

Visualization is a vital first step. See yourself winning. See yourself in a better place than you're in today. Seeing your dreams as concrete and attainable lets you start on the path to winning them. Start by seeing your goal in front of you, then imagine the path you'll need to take to get there. It doesn't matter if it's a rocky, difficult road. The best things in life come to us because we put our all into them.

Belief is the second step. Faith and confidence in yourself are mighty motivators. You know you're going to try your best because you sincerely believe it. We've all seen the difference in the success rate between when we really, really want something and when we just don't care. Getting pumped-up, getting excited - that's what brings the energy to power your dreams. That's what charges you up to reach beyond what you have and exceed the limits that are holding you back. Believe your dreams are reachable and believe you've got what it takes to be what and who you want to be. That firm belief will carry you miles farther than you'll ever get without it.

Achievement is the final step. When you see your goals and believe in yourself, you're going to achieve. Knowing what you want and trying your best are proven to take you somewhere. You won't always hit the bulls-eye the first time. You may not always end up precisely where you expected, because there are no guarantees and let nobody tell you life is fair. But visualizing your objectives and having confidence in your capacity to reach for them are absolutely the best, most reliable, most repeatable ways of improving your life and getting to where you want to be.

Everybody wants to live their dreams, and it's focus, dedication and work that make dreams take form. You absolutely can focus on making your dreams a reality. You absolutely can commit yourself to achieving those dreams. Add that focus and that commitment together and you're on your way to success in life.

See it. Believe it. Achieve it. In the martial arts; in business; in your relationships with friends and family; and in your personal and professional growth. What do you see yourself achieving?

The Student's Creed is a series of blog articles I'm posting at the ChampionsWay martial arts community. Since most of my Virtual Vellum readers probably don't visit that site, I'm posting them here as well.

I'm Avoiding the Future

The future is here, and I'm not on board yet. We're very close to reaching a point where all communications and media will be hyper-portable. Books, movies, periodicals and TV will all be delivered to the same handheld, tablet-type device as the Internet, email, social media and phonecalls. In fact, I believe you can do nearly all of that right now using an iPad. Books, movies, newspapers and magazines are natively supported on the iPad, as are the Internet-based communications of email and Facebook-type sites. Apple specifically disallows regular phone calls, probably so as not to compete with their own iPhone device, however I think you could probably Skype over an iPad (though I don't know that for a fact). Even if you can't yet, it's only a matter of time.

I was a somewhat early-adopter of the ultra-lightweight notebook and tablet technology. I had a Toshiba 7200 back in 2000 or so that featured a detachable "base," so you could take your monitor and keyboard and leave everything else behind. It was a logical progression to a design that allowed that same monitor to twist around and turn the whole unit into a tablet. I was using one of those by 2005 and absolutely loved it. I loved the portability, I loved being able to look up info on the spot while sitting in a meeting. I loved being able to chomp through my email whenever I was stuck somewhere just standing around. The "tablet" never really, truly caught on, but once Apple's glitz and their rabid, die-hard, slavish fans got involved, it was a whole different story. Computing is heading in a super-portable direction.

And you'd think I'd be fully on board. A few things are different for me, however. For one, I don't currently need portability. I'm home most of the time, and when I'm not home I'm usually not someplace that I want or need to be accessing the global network. But, more importantly, I can see the pace of change rushing along and I'm not ready to dive into those turgid waters.

To digress a moment, my family's first VCR was a Betamax. My dad had done his research and concluded (correctly) that Beta was a superior format to VHS, because the picture quality was better. And isn't that the most important thing for TV viewing? Well, no. To most people, it was more important to be able to record a LOT than to record it well, and that was the benefit of the VHS standard. The inferior product won, because it actually was superior in the one area that people wanted. You could record more on a VHS tape than on a Betamax tape. Buh-bye Betamax.

It wasn't a huge hardship for my family or anything, but it taught me an important lesson about the marketplace and about new technology. I was way behind the curve on my switch from cassette tapes to CDs, too. Likewise, I have stuck with regular DVDs in favor or Blue-Rays, because I don't have confidence that Blue-Ray discs aren't soon going to be replaced by something newer and different. I think the e-readers are going to change a lot in the next few years, and that ultimately there won't be separate devices like an e-reader, an internet tablet and a phone. At some point, you'll just have one device for all three (the phone will mostly be an earpiece, but you'll just use it to answer calls. It'll probably have a clock on it, too, since a lot of people seem to like to use their cell phones as watches.).

I'll likely be a while before I have the money for a new device and also feel the need for one. Hopefully by that time the convergence will be complete and there will be One Device to Rule them All. Until then, I'm avoiding the future - it can proceed without me.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Party Time

Saturday night was pretty cool. I don't go to a whole lot of parties. Usually it's the same ones year after year - all of my family's various standard get-togethers for birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. That's okay - I've never really been a big partier. I don't drink, don't smoke and don't use drugs - and never have - so that tended to kill most of the major party activities for me at 75% of the "real" parties I've attended in my life, from high school on up. I'm also surprisingly shy and quiet when I'm outside my comfort zone, which includes hanging around socializing with people I don't know too well. So that kills off any promise of fun at the remaining 25%.

But, as I said, Saturday night was pretty cool. One of my neighbors threw a cookout and invited my family, another neighbor family (whose daughter is the same age as mine), and a couple other people I never did get to know. One interesting aspect of this cookout is that half of the kids attending it had various severe food restrictions that added up to - artificial colors, flavors and preservatives; gluten; dairy; tree nuts; and peanuts. Which doesn't really leave a whole lot. Our host was a trooper, though. She put together a terrific meal of chicken and pork speidies, lasagne, salad, bread, fruits, and s'mores for dessert (with allergy-safe graham crackers and such). Not everything met everyone's dietary restrictions, but there was something for everybody. My only dietary restriction is trying not to eat everything in sight, and I admit I was challenged. It was all really good.

Instead of bringing a dish to pass, as would be typical at this sort of event, the two guest families were each asked to bring something special. The other family brought a wagonload of beers and wines, which was entirely wasted on my family but which everyone else seemed to really like. My family's gift to the party was song.

I admit, I was nervous and excited going in. I've only ever performed on the guitar in a semi-public setting before, the time I played "Everything I do (I do it for you)" at my 15th wedding anniversary party. That was just family, and I still managed to blow the guitar solo completely to hell. In this case, I'd certainly met everyone before (except the two women I didn't know at all), but I wouldn't say I knew any of them terribly well. So performing all evening for them was an entirely different experience for me.

My son and I started rehearsing almost a month ago. Nothing fancy, we just made sure to rotate through our repertoire of songs more thoroughly during our daily practice, instead of focusing on any specific tune or genre. Then, beginning a week before the party, I started to gather materials. First I attempted to play a selection of tunes without the music in front of me and determined that that was absolutely not an option. There are only a couple of songs that I can play without something to look at and not totally screw them up partway through.

I started to gather together the songs for which I had lyrics with chords, then I created new pages for the songs that I didn't have electronically. This included taking anything that was multiple pages long and condensing it down to a single page, because I just wasn't going to try to mess with that outside at night in the dark. Oh crap - in the dark! Partway through the week it occurred to me that it would be getting dark shortly after the party started at 6 PM. Since I had to visit the music store to pick up a new trumpet book for my kid anyway, I also bought myself a nice battery-powered light for the music stand.

Yes, that's right, I was bringing music, a music stand and a set of lights to a cookout. Hey, it was that or not play at all - I don't have an in-between. At least I was going acoustic - can you imagine if I needed to set up an amp, too?

I started to get a bit more nervous the week leading up to the party. I wanted to play - my son and I have worked pretty hard to learn the guitar over the last eighteen months or so and it would be fun to finally put all that practice to use, but still... In a lot of ways, I know exactly how far short I fall of being a real, capable, versatile musician. I mean, the fact that I need the music to play is just one example. I can't play anything by ear. I make a fair number of mistakes at the best of times, and if I'm not really concentrating I make exponentially more. I still suck at barre chords, even ones I try to use all the time like F, F#m, and Bm, so when I play songs that require those (such as Wylde Mountain Thyme and Country Roads) there are spots that sound especially crummy. Worst of all, those are just the issues I know about. Those are the ones that I can spot with my limited understanding of the guitar. I'm sure a real expert could spot dozens more. All of which really begged the question, "Am I actually up for this? Am I remotely good enough, or am I going to end up like on of those losers on American Idol?" You know the ones - they get up to perform insisting they're the next Michael Jackson, then they open their mouths and the whole world discovers they can't carry a tune with a forklift. And the worst part, of course, is that they're so utterly delusional that they not only don't recognize their lack of ability, they somehow transpose it into the belief that they're better than everyone else. I certainly don't fall into that category because I'm sure I'm not better than... well, than much of anyone else. But let's face it - if I believed I were truly unlistenable, I wouldn't have agreed to play. The question is, how much worse might I be than I think I am? Only time would tell.

By the time Saturday rolled around, I'd put together five packets to bring - one for me and my son to use, the rest for the others to share in case they wanted to sing along. There were eighteen songs in there - a mix of renaissance faire favorites, classic American folk songs, and some late-20th-century pop. In theory, my son and I could play them all with varying degrees of competence, and we'd run through most of them a few extra times to be sure. By early afternoon, the guitars were tuned and packed in our gig bags, the music stand was collapsed and packed, and the lawn chairs were waiting. Luckily, I took a look at the lawn chairs (of which there weren't enough for our family to begin with - we ought to buy more sometime) and thought to myself, "Ah crap, we can't play the guitar in those - the arms will be in the way." I needed something like a stool or a kitchen chair, the kind without arms. Actually, I needed two of them. I needed them to be portable and something I didn't mind taking out into a relatively damp back yard. Hmmm.... I've got it! Milk crates!

My house is chock full of milk crates. They make great, relatively cheap organizers, and we must own two dozen of them. Sadly, nearly all of them are just that... organizers. They're not very sturdy, just cheap plastic. I needed the real thing - the kind they'd actually have used to carry big, heavy glass jugs of milk around. Luckily, an intensive search showed that we did in fact own one of those - a nice heavy-duty one perfectly suited to my fat ass. My son, who weighs about as much as a really heavy pile of laundry, would be fine with one of the cheap-o crates. NOW, at last, we were ready.

We kicked it off with my son's current favorite - The Campfire Song Song from some episode of Spongebob Squarepants. We then worked our way through the packet of songs, taking requests throughout the evening. The party went on for nearly four hours and, somehow, with only about 90 minutes worth of music, I somehow played for about three of them. I filled in the gaps with a basic 12-bar blues, some nonsense I don't have a name for, a scale that I used to think was a Pentatonic but is actually something else (but which sounds kind of cool) and a rendition of Everything I do that actually went pretty well. I even nailed the solo!

Now, of course nobody was likely to complain about the music. Even if I sucked, chances are good that nobody would have complained much - it would have been rude. But they didn't have to applaud, and applaud they did - sometimes vigorously (and sometimes less so - some tunes were better than others, I confess). THAT was pretty awesome. I'm not going to be charging admission anytime soon (or ever, most likely), but the idea that I could actually provide even amateur-quality entertainment at this event was just awesome. It reinvigorated me. As annoyed as I may get with my ability, as frustrated as I often am with my progress at learning to play the guitar, that one evening of music made all the difference. I'm easily years away from being satisfied with my guitar-playing. Hell, I may never be satisfied with it. But I'm more motivated than ever to keep working at it. Someday, maybe - just perhaps - I'll be good. That's worth working for.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Student's Creed - "Knowing Your Motivations"

This article could also be titled "The Carrot and the Stick." Using a reward system can be a great way to improve yourself. Motivation for things that will be a positive influence in your life don't necessarily just happen intuitively. It's easy to be motivated in the wrong direction - toward unhealthy foods, mindless entertainment, or any of the other myriad temptations our modern society has to offer. If you're not prone to be naturally motivated toward your desired goals, you need to take action - you need to think about and focus on that motivation to make sure it's a help rather than a hindrance.

It may seem obvious that you know what motivates you, but do you really? How much thought have you given it? Most of us don't worry about it, we just go with the flow. To ramp up your game, though, you need to focus on how your mind and body work, and what motivators are appropriate to helping you be successful.

Criteria for a good motivator would include:
1. Effectiveness - make sure it's something that really motivates you. If you find yourself deciding that the intended reward isn't worth the effort, pick something different.
2. Impact - the motivator should have a positive impact on your life. If it motivates you to improve in one area, but causes you to suffer in another, it's no good. Anything that's going to lead to a bad habit should be avoided. Rewards that are too expensive won't work in the long run. Also, huge rewards for little effort are self-delusional - you're just fooling yourself into thinking you're making progress.
3. Repeatable - you're probably going to have many goals that you'll want to meet in your life, so the best motivators will be applicable to several of them.
4. Clarity - it's important to know exactly what you're trying to accomplish so you'll know when you've earned the reward, and it's important to know exactly what reward you've earned. A goal such as "Look better for the beach!" is pretty vague. A goal of "lose 10 lbs" might be more appropriate.

It MAY also be helpful to give yourself "partial credit" - a smaller version of the full reward that you allow yourself when you make a solid effort but don't fully achieve the desired results. This will work for some folks better than others, so use your judgment.

Overall, the important thing is to find ways to give yourself that boost in willpower that we all need at times to get things done that we just won't do otherwise. They may take some thought and planning, but the tools are there if you choose to use them. Take charge of your future and make it better!

The Student's Creed is a series of blog articles I'm posting at the ChampionsWay martial arts community. Since most of my Virtual Vellum readers probably don't visit that site, I'm posting them here as well.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Developing a New Regimen

I didn't do it on purpose. I mean, I was thrilled to learn that I'd lost 10 lbs after my first six months of karate, but I hadn't exactly done it intentionally. I was just doing karate - albeit pretty vigorously. But now that it happened, I admit I'm fairly motivated to keep going with it. I don't know that I'm feeling committed, exactly, but I'm going to take a stab at it and see if I can keep losing weight and getting back into shape.

If I were truly committed, I'd step it up - I'd exercise at home as well as at the dojo. I'm not going to do that - I just know I won't stick with it, at least not right now. It's possible that losing another 10 lbs might ramp up my activity level a bit, but I'm not there yet.

I do have a new regimen, though. I've come up with a reliable way to, hopefully, keep on the right track. It all comes down to calories, after all.

My wife broke my heart once. Not on purpose, she just brought me down to Earth. You see, I figured that a really intense workout probably burned hundreds and hundreds of calories - enough to offset a significant amount of intake. Sadly, 15 minutes of vigorous exercise only burns around 150 calories. I was lucky to be working off 450 calories per workout. Nothing to sneeze at, of course, and obviously enough to have a positive impact, but it's not going to get me back to my "fighting weight" anytime soon.

I did track calories at one point around a two years ago. I kept a journal for about a month - long enough to see that my intake was pretty consistently around 2,000 calories per day. I wasn't getting any heavier - and hadn't gained weight in about ten years - but I wouldn't lose weight on my normal diet unless I started to work out. Working out is clearly helping, but I want to up the pace. Luckily, I've found a new attitude that ought to help.

You see, I don't like to eat dinner before karate. I get so exhausted during class that I sometimes feel I might throw up if I have anything in my stomach. But after karate, I find I'm really not all that hungry. I can easily get by with a cup of yogurt. So that's what I do. On Mondays when I have my Writer's Roundtable, then on Tuesday and Thursday when I have karate, I just don't eat dinner. Occasionally I break down and have a not-terribly-healthy snack in addition to my yogurt, but I still come out way ahead calorie-wise.

So I'm going to keep going with this plan - exercise at karate three days a week, plus three skipped meals, ought to equal less Mike to love. If I get under 200 lbs (which would mean I'd already lost 25 lbs), I'll think about becoming truly committed. Right now, I don't want to drive myself too crazy to the point where I rebel. I'm funny like that. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Student's Creed - "Commitment is Key"

How committed are you? I mean really committed. Commitment is hard, unyielding, uncompromising, demanding. But the beauty of it is that it's a choice - you must BE committed, you must accept, even initiate a commitment. Nobody can force you to commit to something. But once you decide that you want to achieve or accomplish something, it should be a solemn vow.

Commitment is good - it's a way to focus your attention, your efforts, and your priorities, and by committing yourself you can achieve great things. You can improve your health and fitness. You can increase your business. You can raise money for a charity, influence legislation, or learn something new. The key is to identify a suitable goal, then commit to passionately, vigorously and relentlessly pursuing it.

The first part, goal-setting, sounds easy but it takes some work on your part. You need to select goals that are well-defined so you'll know if you're on track to meeting them (and so that you'll know when they've been met!). You need to make sure they're possible for you to achieve given whatever limitations affect you.

For example, climbing Mount Everest has been repeatedly proven to be an achievable goal for some people, however it's extremely expensive, the training is time-consuming, and the ascent is very physically demanding. If you're not able to personally devote the time and cash necessary, then it's not an achievable goal for you, even though it may be technically possible. Perhaps a better goal might be to start with a climb that's closer to home and less severe than Everest. Once you've accomplished that, you'll have a better sense of what's involved and could set a new goal that brings you closer to the top of the world.

Which actually covers another technique to using goals wisely - they can overlap, build on each other, and ultimately form what I call an "Achievement Staircase" - steps that lead to higher steps as you continue to stretch yourself, challenge yourself, and reach for higher, more significant accomplishments. Everest is a great example of this. Even if you accept that, yes, ascending Everest is your life's ambition, it's not a matter of just buying a ticket to Nepal and putting some Sherpas on your Amex card. There's a great deal of planning, preparation, and training that needs to be accomplished on the path to that goal, and each of THOSE makes a suitable goal in and of itself. Researching the equipment and training needed would be one goal. Reaching a certain level of defined fitness (measured in terms of hiking a certain distance in a certain amount of time, or climbing a lesser mountain that's got similarly challenging features) would be another. And there are great reasons for treating each of these activities as a separate goal.

First, it allows you to give each of them the attention they deserve. They're important, they need to be done right, and if your "main goal" can't be achieved until each of its supporting goals is met. Second, and this is key, we must accept that not every goal will be met. On the way to a large goal, life sometimes takes us in unexpected directions, for good or ill, and our new path no longer takes us in the right direction to accomplish a major goal we've set for ourselves. But you can still look back on that series of supporting goals that you did meet and take away a great deal of value. You made progress, you made accomplishments and you improved your life (or someone else's, depending on the goal) in various ways, which is what this is all about. You end up with something to show for your work, even if it isn't the whole enchilada, so to speak.

Incidentally, there's a great way to know whether you've set a good goal. Good executives and project managers use this technique all the time to help ensure that they're aiming their business efforts toward productive pursuits. It's called the "SMART" technique, because the goals should be (S)pecific, (M)easurable, (A)chievable, (R)ealistic, and (T)imed. In other words, it should be very clear exactly what the goal is (and isn't), there ought to be a way to know exactly how close you are to finishing, it should be possible for you to accomplish the goal, and there should be a deadline to have it done by. Missing any one of those aspects puts you at risk for a vague, undefined objective that you may never be able to achieve because it's too unclear what exactly it means.

For example, "Grow my business" is too vague. Did you mean you want to add 100 students? Add a second location? Make 30% more income? All of the above? Something different? And by when will you know if you were successful? Too vague! Instead, try this as a goal:

I [your name here] commit to growing my business's gross revenue (after taxes and utilities but before marketing, payroll and promotions) by 5% per quarter for the next four quarters.

I can't speak to whether that's achievable for your particular situation, but it's certainly specific enough, it's measurable (if you keep good accounting records), it's been done by others, and it's got a set time span.

And that's it - Commit to the Achievement Staircase and you're on your way to a bright future. Commitment is key, objectives are the door, and lifelong success is the treasure behind that door. You CAN grow your business. You CAN master that style of martial arts. You CAN retire at a particular age. You CAN raise $X for a specific charity. It takes commitment to climbing the Achievement Staircase. The tools are in your hands - get started!

The Student's Creed is a series of blog articles I'm posting at the ChampionsWay martial arts community. Since most of my Virtual Vellum readers probably don't visit that site, I'm posting them here as well.

The Bowl

This is a story about how something fairly simple and mundane can become imbued with significance. Something like this:



My wife and I knew we were right for each other almost from the very beginning. I mean, I don't know that anybody sees a person or talks to a person for the first time and says, "Hey, yeah, that's the person I'm going to spend the rest of my life with." That would be sort of creepy, actually. But once we started dating, we spent a lot of time together and then a lot more time, until we were practically inseparable, and in that time it became pretty clear that there'd never be anybody else for either of us.

Once we figured that out, though, we couldn't have been happier. You've probably never known anyone who looked forward to getting married and spending their lives together than we did. We were engaged for three years as we finished school and got started on our careers, and during that time we constantly looked forward to the future. By the time we were wed, we had a goodly collection of stuff that we'd need in our new, shared home. I don't specifically remember whether this pasta bowl was one of those items or not, but I think it was. At the latest, we may have picked it up within the first year or so after we were married. I do recall that we liked it enough that we picked up one or two more just like it and made them the base for gift baskets for other friends of ours.

So we've had our pasta bowl for around fifteen years, give or take a year or so. It's a nice bowl - big, solidly heavy, with a wide mouth that's easy to scoop into and does a nice job of presenting the food as if to say, "Look what you get to have for dinner. Doesn't it look wonderful? Dig in!" Oh, the meals we've served in that bowl - ziti, penne, rigatoni, shells, elbows, fettuccine, goulash, marinara, alfredo, ravioli - all of it.

Sadly, its final meal was Sunday night's goulash. My wife noticed a hairline crack in the side that went all the way through and ran from top to bottom. We finished dinner, rinsed it out, and into the trash it went. It's just a piece of broken pottery, and out it went.

But it wasn't, not really. I mean, we didn't cry over it or anything, but it was a bit wistful to see it go. It had become a part of our lives over that time - it had significance not because of how well it held our food, but just by being. Just by being there. It was there, with us, through all those meals that weren't just food, either. They were expressions of our love and caring for each other as we took one of mankind's oldest, most basic tasks - preparing food - and did it in our own way, to our own tastes and, most importantly, for each other. For our family. And that bowl got to be a part of that. It can't feel honored because it's just a bowl, but we can cherish it because it had achieved a certain status in our family just by its presence.

We can get the same sort of bowl off eBay. We may, even. It won't be exactly the same bowl, but it can serve the same function and can stand in for its predecessor. Maybe this will be the one that lasts for generations, or maybe it'll be out in the trash in another fifteen years. It doesn't matter, really. It's just an observer. It's just a bystander. The food, the family, the feelings we have for each other - those are for keeps.

Monday, October 11, 2010

[Novel Review] Tides of War

A novel by Steven Pressfield

After how much I enjoyed Pressfield's The Gates of Fire, I was very much looking forward to Tides of War. It wasn't a sequel in any way, but did take place chronologically after that first novel's events, and in some of the same lands. Sadly, I didn't find it nearly as gripping. Granted, it was a much different book, but I was disappointed that it didn't grab me and pull me through to the end the way Gates of Fire did. In fact, it took me quite a while to read, which is always an indicator that I'm bored.

The subject matter was surely part of the issue. Gates of Fire was the story of the Battle of Thermopylae, one of the most storied tales of heroic combat and patriotic self-sacrifice in the history of mankind. Just a few thousand Greek soldiers, led by the Spartan homoioi, held off the hordes of Persian invaders for days, allowing the rest of the Greek forces to be properly mobilized and coinciding with a battle at sea where the Greek triremes soundly defeated the Persians. Thus ended Persia's final real attempt to invade Greece. The story of so few fighting against so many, plus their rigorous training and rigid society, made for an incredible tale. It was very tight, very focused, and revolved not just around certain central characters, but ultimately one key event - Thermopylae.

Tides of War was much more broad in scope, and suffered for it. It was, at its core, the tale of Athenian warrior, leader, diplomat and statesman Alcebiades. Alcebiades may well have been one of the most interesting men in the history of western civilization, so it stands to reason that a book about his exploits - which include battles, betrayals, and the balance of nations - would make for outstanding historical fiction. Certainly we know that Pressfield is capable of writing great historical fiction, so there was every reason for him, and me, to believe that Tides of War ought to have been every bit as good as The Gates of Fire.

I think the scope of the work was its undoing, however. Instead of drawing the reader along to the ultimate confrontation between the noble Spartan warriors and the vile Persian invaders, Tides of War vacillated back and forth much the way Alcibiades did, himself. To begin with, it had an odd narration - a man telling his grandson a story as told to him by a man who was peripherally involved in the events that unfolded around Alcibiades. Go ahead and read that again if you must, I'll wait. I admit, I often found myself confused about who was telling the story to whom, but that wasn't the crux of my problem with the novel.

I think it was the many, many years involved, and the fact that none of the battles, none of the seemingly-major events, were pivotal to the story. They all added up to the tragic tale of an amazingly charismatic figure who rose and fell from grace and power with dizzying rapidity, only to again rise each time in some new and even more brazen fashion. But it was always seen at a distance. Often, Alcibiades was influencing the action of the story, but from such a distance that you didn't necessarily even see him. It resulted in pockets of strong dramatic tension interspersed between long periods of the narrator's sometimes tedious daily life.

To briefly summarize the basic premise of the novel, it takes place decades after the defeat of the Persians at Thermopylae. Athens and Sparta have risen to preeminence among the Greek city-states, and nearly all of the others have lined up behind one of the two powerhouses. Athens controls the sea with its powerful navy, and has built an empire around the edges of the Aegean Sea. Sparta is a major land power, but with little desire to form its own kingdom. Still, the two butt heads over issues of security and governance, resulting in the Peloponnesian War. Alcebiades initially accounts well for himself in battle, becoming recognized as the de facto leader of Athens' forces whenever he takes the field, even when he doesn't have the official title to go along with it. He spurs the people of Athens to greater and greater feats of conquest even as they're besieged by Sparta. Finally he assembles - through force of personality - a massive fleet to sail to Sicily and conquer its cities on behalf of Athens. That's when the trouble starts.

For various political reasons, Alcebiades is declared traitor to Athens and ordered to return for trial - a trial that is guaranteed to end in his death. So he flees - to Sparta. There he puts his military and diplomatic genius to work against his former people, with devastating results. And so on it goes for decades - back and forth, back and forth. Sometimes Alcebiades is in Sparta, other times back to Athens, sometimes at the court of the Persians and even living among the Scythians and other barbarian tribes along the northern Aegean. Around and around he goes, trading friends and favors for influence and political favors. He's generally a sympathetic character through much of the book, but it's all just a bit much to really hold your attention if you were hoping for the kind of gritty battles and focused action of The Gates of Fire.

It might be going too far to say that I disliked The Tides of War - it gave the feel of living in Greece and the 4th century B.C. well enough, and it expanded my knowledge of that historical period in a more enjoyable fashion than a stodgy textbook. But it didn't give me the kind of do-or-die tension that I was hoping for, and ultimately it just didn't entertain me as much as I'd expected it would. The best I can give Tides of War is a B-, and I can't really recommend it unreservedly.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Student's Creed - "The Unfortunate Power of Myth"

One of my favorite sites is snopes.com - a site dedicated to debunking (or, more rarely, verifying) urban legends and myths. On television, I've enjoyed watching the Mythbusters similarly challenge "common sense" and "common knowledge" to disprove things that many people just took on faith as being true. I believe we all should be mythbusters in our daily lives, especially if we're in a position to inadvertently spread misinformation if we don't take efforts to stay informed.

As an Information Technology executive, I was constantly faced with computer-users who held misconceptions and flawed beliefs about how the technology they were using really worked. I did my best to set them straight, because I was an "expert" in my field. I felt I had a duty to clarify that defragging their hard drive was not going to keep the computer from crashing, nor were they automatically going to "catch" a virus just by connecting to the wi-fi at Panera Bread.

There are myths in the martial arts, as well. Some of them have been taught to me by my teachers, and I believed them because they were the experts. They're not entirely to blame - they learned those same myths from THEIR teachers, who were also supposed to be experts. The difference is that I dig and I question (though not during class) and I probe and I read, because by the time I'm a high-dan practitioner, many years from now, and people are looking to me as an "expert," I want to be sure I'm able to earn the faith and trust they put in me. Let's examine some of the myths I've been told or read about, and what I've since learned about them.

Myth #1 - Kobudo/Weaponry as farming implements

Until recently, pretty much everything I'd been told about Japanese karate weaponry - the nunchuku, the tonfa, the sai, and the kama - was that they were simple farming implements that had been taken up by the poor Okinawan farmers and used to fight off the evil Japanese Samurai warriors. Instead of debunking this myself, I'll refer you to the excellent blog Karate by Jesse, specifically this article where he provides ample physical and logical evidence that this wasn't - couldn't be - true. Jessie writes:

"where does the nunchaku come from then? Did it just pop up somewhere in Okinawa? Or was it, like the popular myth tells us
(repeated in book after book!), that the nunchaku was originally a rice flail which was converted by Japanese peasants into a “deadly battle field weapon” to fight against the feared samurai? Sorry, that’s wrong not only in one way, but four ways."

To paraphrase those four ways: the farmers were too busy farming to train in using weapons; the men who DID train are known by name (the kata are named after them) and they were all aristocrats; plus, actual rice-flails were long-handled tools, not like nunchaku at all; and, lastly, Okinawan is not the same as Japanese, at least if you're from Okinawa, so that part's wrong, too. I think Jesse's argument on this topic is pretty persuasive, and while his article was focused on nunchaku, the logic applies to the other weapons as well. It makes much more sense that the Pechin, or nobility, were the ones training in the martial arts, because they had the free time, the money, and the connections to do so. As a secondary source, the wikipedia article on Okinawan weaponry offers the same conclusion.

Myth #2 - Black belts are just white belts that got dirty

I was taught this myth almost twenty-five years ago, when I started as a Tae Kwon Do student at a local fitness club. I heard it repeated by the senior sensei at the dojo my kids trained at last year. The idea is that in the "old days" (always an unspecified time-period), Japanese karate students always wore the same belt, and over time it would turn black from sweat and blood. By the time they had mastered their style, their belt was always black. And it's a great myth, because it embodies so much that people associate with the martial arts - the dedication, the years of practice, the reverence for the belt and the training, and the attitude of "boy, those ancient Asians sure had some funky customs" that is so common to the martial arts (largely because westerners - and probably some modern Asians - too often don't take the time to dig into those customs to understand them or, as in this case, disprove them).

What it omits, sadly, is the reality that the Japanese have been, by custom, a fastidiously neat and clean people. They would NEVER allow their clothing to become so soiled that it would turn from white to black! If you use Occam's Razor on this myth (the notion that when comparing hypothesis, the simplest answer is most often true), it certainly makes more sense that students are told not to wash their belts because the different layers and types of material would shrink at different rates and cause the belt to fall apart - than that it's traditional in Japan not to wash your clothes when they're dirty. That's just wrong. Similarly, it makes more sense to conclude that when "belts" were introduced as rank designations into Japanese martial arts (beginning with Judo, if I understand correctly), the teacher took a differently-colored, black belt, to set him apart from the students. I'd reference the wiki article for this myth, however it has no citations so it's not really worth much.

Myth #3 - Black belts are automatically experts

Since we're on the subject of black belts, already, let's tackle this one. I think this myth is more common to people outside the martial arts community than inside it, though certainly some disreputable schools foster this misconception as well. The myth is that earning a "black belt" or a shodan, is the epitome of martial-arts training, and signifies mastery of the discipline. I won't belabor this one - we all know here that being a black belt simply means you've mastered the basics and are finally ready to really begin to learn, but it's certainly a myth that's prevalent outside the dojo. Earning a black belt in one or more styles is a significant achievement, and it's one I look forward to accomplishing myself one day, but overstating its grandeur can lead people to misplace their goals, focusing more on the belt rank than on their overall development as a martial artist. Johnathan Maberry talks about this and other myths in his Black Belt Magazine article "Myths and Misconceptions, part 1". It's a great article, by the way, touching on quite a number of other martial-arts myths beyond what I cover here.

Myth #4 - The power of positive thinking

This one's tough and I have to be careful what parts of it I debunk. Positive thinking is terrific, and is a great way for people to motivate themselves or just live happier, more fulfilling lives. I believe in positive thinking and I rely on it heavily to get me through tough times. Don't stop thinking positively!!

The part I want to debunk, however, relates to the running of the four-minute mile, because it's just such a great example of taking this concept to extremes. Conventional wisdom says that prior to 1954 when Englishman Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute mile, doctors and scientists and old grandmothers around the world were absolutely convinced that the human body simply couldn't run that fast. Everybody was so convinced that it was impossible that nobody even tried to break it (except that several other people were actively trying to break it at the time Bannister succeeded, but we'll get to that in a sec). So the whole world was overwhelmed with "negative thinking" where the four-minute mile was concerned, but little ol' Roger Bannister was too ignorant to know that or he was just possessed of a unique mental attitude that let him succeed against all evidence that said his heart and organs would explode, his skin would slough off, and a black hole would open at the finish line and suck him inside. His positive thinking let him overcome all the nay-sayers.

Certainly, Bannister was a pretty positive, goal-oriented, results-driven guy, but he wasn't a superhero. He's said to have debunked this myth himself in his memoir, "The Four Minute Mile," though I haven't read it so I can't confirm that. But just look at all of the other evidence beside what the man himself may have to say. The blog Beyond Growth breaks down all the facts and figures in the article "The 4-Minute Mile and the Myths of Positive Thinking" by Eric Normond.

Positive thinking is an awesome motivator, to be sure. It's vital to happiness and success in everyday life, and allows people to achieve the seemingly impossible. But there's a key differentiation there. Positive thinking won't make you fly, it won't make you breathe underwater, and if it were truly physiologically impossible to break the 4-minute mile, Bannister's happy thoughts would have amounted to zilch. Why is this important, and possibly the most insidious myth of all? Because if people are told they can do anything they believe, and they believe really, really hard, and then they still fail, where's that leave them? Positive thinking is an enabler, not a guarantee, and that's important. What's also important it to use good judgment and good research to decide what's really true, what's really possible.

Because that's the danger of myth, too - that we fall into the trap of just believing what everybody says is true. That can cause us to miss opportunities to learn, to achieve, and to succeed in new ways or at new levels.

Do you think I got it wrong, here? Do you have favorite myths you like to debunk when you encounter them? Share your thoughts in the comments!
The Student's Creed is a series of blog articles I'm posting at the ChampionsWay martial arts community. Since most of my Virtual Vellum readers probably don't visit that site, I'm posting them here as well.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

[Novel] From Hell's Heart I Stab at Thee

That's actually a line from Moby Dick, but you might know it better as Khan's last words on Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I'm currently directing it at Chapter 15 of my novel, however.

I'm not good at making semi-massive revisions to a chapter. If it's at all complex, it overwhelms me. I can change a few things here or there, cut out a paragraph or two, or add in themes or imagery easily enough. But I decided Chapter 15 needed a major overhaul back in July when I presented it to my Writer's Roundtable, and it's been messing me up ever since.

I've done a lot right. Possibly too much. I created a graph that broke the chapter's rising dramatic tension (and the little drops in dramatic tension that allow you to keep rising ultimately higher and higher without overwhelming the reader), and labeled it with the 5 major sections of the chapter (plus the "cliffhanger" ending, which is really just a paragraph or two).

I also went back into OneNote and pored over the notes that I'd used the first time I wrote it, archiving those that no longer applied to the new revision, updating those that needed it, and adding in all of the notes and ideas I'd had about the chapter since mid-July when I decided to make the changes.

Next, I created five OneNote pages, one for each of the chapter's major sections, and transferred those notes that applied to a specific section into its corresponding page. Now, as I work on the chapter, I can theoretically pay attention just to the "general" comments that apply to the whole of the chapter, plus the specific ones just for the section I'm working on. All of the comments for the other sections will be out of sight, so as not to get in my way.

Then I went back to the previous draft - the one I presented to my peers - and edited it based on the critique I'd received and my own notes. If I were planning to keep that version of Chapter 15, it would now be about as good as I could make it. This ensures that when I copy chunks of prose out of the old draft of Chapter 15 and re-use them in the new draft, all necessary corrections for grammar, word-choice and realistic accuracy have already been made.

Lastly, I pored over that previous draft with a virtual highlighter and marked up the passages that I definitely wanted to keep, possibly wanted to keep, and definitely did not want to keep (well, technically I left that third category unhighlighted, but the effect is the same).

Now what I need to do is write the new Chapter 15, by:
a) keeping in mind the general notes I've made for the chapter
b) keeping in mind the specific notes I've made for each section
c) ensuring that the overall purpose and goals of the chapter are kept front-and-center
d) ensuring that I don't repeat the mistakes that caused me to have to do all of this in the first place
e) copying over the best prose from the last revision and integrating it perfectly in the new text, in the right places
f) writing new text that perfectly fits the chapter, based on all of the above.

Doing all of that is, I have to admit, quite daunting. It's driving me to distraction, truth be told. I'm not good at it, I'm easily overwhelmed by the magnitude of it, and I'm constantly concerned that I'm going to get lost in it and make a botch of the whole thing. I very much want this chapter done, done, done.

And it will be, at some point. Hopefully some point quite soon. Really, really soon.

After that, I've decided to go back to the beginning, write the new "chapter 1," and make the revisions I've decided on for the subsequent chapters. The changes won't, by and large, be anywhere close to the magnitude of Chapter 15's total re-write, but taken all together the first third of the book will come away looking much different. Hopefully much better. If nothing else, I'll have a chunk of manuscript that actually makes enough sense that I could hand it to somebody to read for me and expect they could follow it along. That hasn't been true for this novel since I made major changes to Chapter 6 that fractured it into two chapters and then never decided quite where to put them.

So that's been my challenge for the last week or two. I hope yours has been going much better.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Student's Creed - "Attendance Plus Attitude"

One of the most important things I think I've learned in the martial arts has certainly carried over into the rest of my life - just showing up doesn't cut it. The martial arts looks, from the outside, like a mostly physical exercise, but without involving your mind you'll never get anywhere. Focus, perseverance, dedication and willpower are all mental attributes. It's not enough for your body to be there - your mind needs to be trained and conditioned, too. I call this "Attendance plus Attitude."

Attendance is important. If you show up once a week for class, you can learn, but it's probably going to be slow and frustrating for everyone. You can compensate by aggressively working at home on the content covered in class so it's not impossible to achieve success with limited attendance, but it's not a recipe for success for most of us. But the reverse isn't automatically true - coming often to class, by itself, won't get the job done, either. You must involve your mind. You've got to have the right attitude.

It's easy to get caught up in how busy we are at work, at school, at home, and let that distract us. It steals our focus, saps our willpower, and interferes with well-disciplined training. I know I get much more out of class when I'm concentrating on what I'm learning, I'm attentive to the details of my technique, and I'm alert to opportunities to improve. It takes effort to leave our problems at the door, but the rewards are huge! Not only is your training more productive, but you're giving yourself a break from that stress. Let's face it, you're not going to solve any of your day-to-day problems while you're working out at the dojo, no matter how much you think about them. It's a waste of time and energy to even try. So don't. Don't give in to the distraction, don't let your mind wander off to those things. Take a break, put some effort into conditioning your mind and body, THEN go back out to solve your problems feeling refreshed and strong. Let your hour or so in the dojo be your self-focused "me time" and you'll be rewarded with a clearer head that's actually better-equipped to deal with life's worries, and you'll be rewarded with a better workout. That's the right attitude!

Better still, this works outside of the dojo, too. Just physically being present is almost never enough, whether at work, at school or with your friends and loved-ones. You've got to bring a good mental attitude. Developing your focus in the dojo will make you a better thinker at work, and vice-versa. It's not easy to be the master of our own thoughts - to control our stress by focusing on those things we're best able to deal with at the time when we're in the right position to deal with them. Like anything else, it takes practice. But the results can impact every aspect of your life. Don't just show up, be there with your whole being, and come ready to succeed!

The Student's Creed is a series of blog articles I'm posting at the ChampionsWay martial arts community. Since most of my Virtual Vellum readers probably don't visit that site, I'm posting them here as well.

Fashion is Dead

Thirty years in the future, we'll look back at clothing from the 1990s or the 2000s and we'll have no idea what era it came from. Or perhaps we'll be able to identify it only by process of elimination. All distinctiveness has been lost - fashion is dead.

I noticed this the other day when talking to my daughter. She had attended a friend's "80s"-themed birthday party and so was interested in fashion of that era. That was when it occurred to me - every decade of the 20th-century, or very nearly so, had clearly-identifiable clothing and accessories that screamed of that age. Clothing from the 70s was easily identified as such. Likewise with the 60s, the 50s, the 40s/30s, the 20s and so on. But since the end of the 80s, our society has been bereft of distinctive clothing.

I think it was actually a somewhat unique phenomenon, based on my (admittedly limited) studies of historical clothing. Certain "high" fashions may have changed every few years - whether or not to wear a powdered wing and how long the hair on the wig should be might have varied from decade to decade in the 18th century, for instance. But throughout that period, farmer and merchant attire probably didn't vary all that significantly.

Then something really, really important happened at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. The Industrial Revolution! Suddenly clothing, among other things, no longer needed to be made entirely by hand. It got cheaper, and it became easier and (presumably) more commonplace to change designs. My hypothesis is that one outcome of the Industrial Revolution was more ready access to "trendy" clothing by a broader spectrum of people. Regardless of the cause, though, there's no denying that virtually every decade of the 20th century produced recognizable clothing styles in places like America and Britain.

It took about a hundred years, but apparently people finally got tired of outlandish costumes, and now most people just wear fairly tame, ubiquitous, non-descript clothing. Pretty much the same stuff they've been wearing for the last fifteen years or so. Oh a few things have changed - like neckties, for instance. But nobody wears neckties anymore, so they don't count.

Perhaps "natural" or "simple" is the best term for today's fashion, or for lifestyles in general. Recent reports I've seen suggest that there's a backlash going on against things like plastic surgery, with Hollywood stars and regular people alike beginning to eschew the botox injections and and breast implants that have been so popular in the last few years. Wouldn't that be refreshing?

Now, don't get me wrong, I don't mind. In fact, my entire wardrobe consists of a few (identical) pairs of jeans, a drawerful of T-shirts, a couple pairs of casual shorts, and some casual button-down shirts which are about as dressed up as I ever get. I don't need people to be in the 2010-equivalent of the poodle skirt for me to feel that my culture is worthwhile. I just find it fascinating that zoot suits, bell-bottoms and Miami Vice pastel pants have given way to simple, comfortable, largely lackluster fashions. I think I'm okay calling that progress. Farewell, fashion! We don't need you anymore.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Grand Opening

Congratulations to FiveStar Martial Arts! My home dojo - the place where my whole family trains for hours every week - had its official grand-opening celebration on Saturday. It was an awesome and totally enjoyable experience for us. A whole lot of friends and family came to help celebrate, too, which was greatly appreciated.

I've mentioned before that we're very happy with this dojo. It's similar enough to LaValle's to have immediately had that "oh, this is familiar" feeling, but it's different in lots of great ways. Being brand-new and still growing means that the class sizes are quite small. We get lots of one-on-one time with the instructors, Sensei Curtis Pastore and Sensei Paul Napoli, which helps ensure that any flaws in our techniques are noticed and corrected.

It's also a terrific workout, especially because it's not quite as intense as we were doing before. As I've worked out in the past, I've found that week after week, there was ALWAYS something wrong with me. My shoulder hurt. My hip hurt. It wasn't just muscle pain like you'd expect, it was joint and body pain that would sometimes last for weeks. The workouts were extremely high-energy, and I've finally come to realize that it was simply more than my body could handle. I'm not just old, I'm in terrible shape and it's just common sense that I wouldn't be able to handle the same level of exercise as younger folks who were in better physical condition.

Now, however, it's a whole different story. My physical condition has continued to improve, as evidenced by my last check-up, where my doctor was thrilled to report that my cholesterol, triglyceride and blood-glucose numbers were all spectacular, plus I'd lost almost ten pounds since my last exam back when I first started karate. The difference is that I'm no longer in agony all the time. I get a great workout, I leave the dojo sweaty and tired, but I'm not damaging my body to do it.

Another key difference being at a small dojo is that, for better or worse, the student population is pretty small, and not terribly advanced. Heck, my family and I are orange belts and we're currently the school's senior students. So when it came time to put together a demonstration team for the open house, the senseis chose from across all levels of their regular students. They had one of the youngest kids - one of the "Little Dragons" - perform her kata. They had three of the white belts perform the basic "appreciation form" kata. The dojo's  yellow-belt performed Kenpo Short One, while my family and I performed Kenpo Long One. It was awesome and, in my experience, unprecedented. Typically the demo teams are chosen from among the dojo's yudansha, or black belts. But our dojo doesn't have those except as instructors, so we got a unique opportunity to participate. It was awesome.

My family has been working on this kata for the entire time we've been at the dojo, and it builds on Short One which we've known for many months, so it shouldn't have been a challenge. Knowing the kata and being able to give a high-intensity public performance, though, aren't the same thing. We needed to develop a level of precision where we executed the kata perfectly every time, and to amp up the "showmanship" of it, I thought it was important that we not only nail every step of the technique, but that we do it at a speed that showed strength and confidence. Getting a family of five, including three kids, to operate at that level takes effort and I'm tremendously proud of my kids for putting forth the focus and discipline to get it done. We all felt terrific after participating in the demo and it was something I'm very happy and proud that we could be a part of.

But the demo was just one part of the grand opening celebration. The day started with a high-energy cardio kickboxing class that looked... well, probably too intense for me. But it would surely be a great workout for somebody who's in better shape and wants to get a combination of strength, aerobic and flexibility training all in one.

There were also two workshops for the kids. A county deputy sheriff gave an interactive presentation on keeping off of drugs. Later, the senseis gave a workshop on how to deal with bullies that I thought was very well-done.

Other than the demo, the highlight of the day for me was the "Street Self Defense" seminar lead by Sensei Josh Clark. "Now hold on," you might be thinking, "didn't you say that the instructors were named Napoli and Pastore?" Why yes I did, and it's good to see that you're paying attention.

Sensei Clark is not a regular member of the dojo's team of instructors. He and the dojo's owners grew up together and trained together previously, and he stepped in to join them for the grand opening. He's a little busy though, so he probably can't be around full-time. You see, Sensei Clark is a member of the U.S. Army's most elite team of soldiers - the Army Special Forces. He's the product of seven years of the best training the U.S. Army has to offer, and it really shows. The intensity and precision that Sensei Clark exhibits on the training floor is truly impressive, and probably something that only comes with the sort of training he's had combined with his experience executing combat missions in hostile territory. Sensei Clark shared that intensity and some of his training with us on Saturday for this special 30-minute seminar, and I enjoyed it immensely. We spent time dealing with grown-up versions of the situations the kids covered in their bullying workshop. It was realistic, eminently practical, and easy to execute when you're in a tough situation.

Sensei Clark is already planning some more seminars for the future and I definitely plan to participate in them. He's a welcome addition to an already outstanding dojo. Now that FiveStar Martial Arts is officially open, I'm looking forward to more of what we've already enjoyed there - a comfortable place to work hard, to learn, and to develop ourselves mentally and physically. Hopefully with a few more grown-up students to play and learn alongside.

If you happen to be in the Syracuse area and you're looking for a great place to get fit, stay fit, and study modern, American-style martial arts, definitely check out FiveStar Martial Arts. If you enjoy training there half as much as I have, you'll be very glad you signed on.

The Student's Creed - "Training Your Off-Side"

As a student of the martial arts, I'm continually amazed at how much there is to learn. I welcome the learning process - I find the study, the practice, the theory and the history of the martial arts fascinating and enjoyable. I also like hearing the many different perspectives that exist on a wide range of martial arts topics. It shows that people (or their instructors, or their instructors' instructors) are taking time to think about their art and form conclusions about it. One of these topics that I've encountered personally is the question of training your "off" or "weak" side.

The woman who informally taught me how to spar is my wife. When we began, she was an active ni-dan in karate and was happy to help expand on the year or so of training I'd already had elsewhere. In her dojo, it was commonplace to switch your leading side whenever it felt appropriate. Perhaps you'd throw a kick off your rear leg, then land with that leg forward, advancing on your opponent. Perhaps you'd simply throw a combination and shift your foot position. Whatever the reason, it kept me on my toes because I never knew from which direction the next punch or kick would come, and I automatically started to switch sides myself so as to maintain what felt like a good defensive posture.

Jump ahead about fifteen years, and my family is training at a local dojo in a new style. A few months in, it's time to put on the gear and start facing off. Without any instruction to the contrary, my wife and I both find ourselves routinely switching position, sometimes leading with our left, sometimes with our right. The instructors notice, and advise us of the many reasons not to ever lead with our weak sides. They make it pretty clear that they'd like us to stick to a standard left-forward defensive posture, keeping our strong right arms and legs at the back, ready to launch powerful reverse punches and rear-leg kicks. We find it hard to overcome so many years of habit and training, but we do our best to comply.

Finally, we settled at our current home dojo where we plan to be for the long-term. Curious, one of the first things I asked our new instructors was their thoughts on this topic. Again showing their enthusiasm for and experience in the art, they were able to discuss the topic at length and clearly gave it some serious thought that informed my own understanding of the pros and cons. Below, I'll share what I've learned on both sides of the issue, and I'd welcome comments from the community as to your opinions and experiences in sparring, competition, and even real-world combat.

Summary: Is it preferable, when training in the martial arts, to switch your stances and attempt to become equally adept at offense and defense using either side of your body, or are you better-served by concentrating on developing as much power, speed and flexibility as possible in your primary or "strong" side?

Analysis: Presented as the pros and cons of developing both sides equally.

Pros:
  • When you need your training to kick in, whether in an actual self-defense situation or competition, you may not be able to choose which side to put forward. You may be blocked by furniture, doorways, walls, etc., or you might be facing an attacker who is committed to a stance that's opposite the one you're used to.
  • If your strong or preferred side is disabled (because you're injured or being held by a second attacker), you're still able to defend yourself using your "off" side.
  • I've personally witnessed that it seems to disorient people when I line up against them with my right side forward (putting my weaker left side in the strong position). Anecdotally, I've heard from others that they've experienced a similar reaction of opponents being thrown off their game by the "southpaw" stance. Thus, being able to fight from either side might yield a tactical combat advantage.
  • Related to a couple of the items above, your opponent may be a genuine lefty, and you don't want to be the one put at a disadvantage because you're only used to fighting right-handed people. In fact, they're probably used to fighting right-handed people, too, so you may still gain the same advantage over them that you'd get over a righty by switching up your stance.
Cons:
  • Depending on when and how you switch your stance, you may be leaving yourself momentarily "open," off-balance and facing straight-on to your opponent. This is a very vulnerable position to be in, and if your opponent takes advantage of it could more than offset any perceived gains.
  • It's naturally going to take more coordination to execute strikes and blocks from your "off" side. After all, that's why it's your off-side. Likewise, it's called your weak side because it's simply not as strong. So even if you're landing blows on your opponent with your off hand (or foot), you may not be doing it hard enough to make those strikes really count.
  • Every minute spent training your off-side is a minute you could have spent making your primary side more effective, more powerful, faster and generally stronger. In other words, you're neglecting your most advantageous attack to improve a secondary attack that's never going to be as powerful. It's arguably a lose/lose proposition.
  • Related to the above, unless you train intensely on your off-side, it's never going to be as capable as your primary side. You want to face your opponents with your "big guns" at the ready, so you can get in, strike hard, put your opponent down quickly, and move on. This is especially true in real-world self-defense, where every moment spent in combat offers more chances for a freak accident or a misstep that leaves you severely injured. The argument here is one of "Don't bring a knife to a gun fight." Use your strong side and end the confrontation quickly.
I know that my preference is to train both sides. Partly that's because I find the "Pros" above to be more compelling, and partly I have to admit to myself that it's because I'm used to switching sides and it's easier to keep doing that than to suppress the habit. But I'm a student - I don't have the experience to say conclusively which is best. What's your take? Are there major points that I haven't identified (or that nobody's explained to me)? Do you have real-world examples that seem to support one "side" (no pun intended) or the other? How do you teach this topic to your students, or has it ever even been an issue at your dojo? I welcome your feedback in the comments below.

The Student's Creed is a series of blog articles I'm posting at the ChampionsWay martial arts community. Since most of my Virtual Vellum readers probably don't visit that site, I'm posting them here as well.