Monday, February 28, 2011


I'm not a car guy. I never was. I mean, yes, there are some cars that I'll drool over - Ferrari's and Lambourghanis, in particular, are just gorgeous. DeLoreans are pretty spiffy-looking, too, for that matter. Corvettes and Vipers are nice. But that's not the same as being a real car enthusiast, or even a knowledgeable owner.

I had a Camaro once - a gold, 1980 Chevy 350 Camaro with the rear spoiler (because they looked terrible without it). I made a few minor improvements to it - nice tires, racing plugs, I might have changed out the carb - I forget. It was an awesome car that I really did love and I enjoyed driving. But I was incapable of doing any significant work on it myself. I just don't have the aptitude.

So unlike computers - which I can usually make dance to my tune for the most part - cars run roughshod over me. I'm at their mercy. I have a peripheral understanding of how they work that's less and less relevant with each passing year farther away from carburetors and other pre-computerized technology.

I suppose I've been fortunate these last ten years or so. My wife and I bought two new vehicles back when we were just starting our family. We needed to replace a Chevy Cavalier and a Chevy S-10 Pickup with more kid-friendly vehicles. Neither was really suited to carseats. Within a couple of years, we had migrated to a Pontiac Grand-Am as our car (which was slightly bigger than the Cavalier or the S-10) and an almost fully-loaded Chevy Venture Minivan as our primary workhorse vehicle. We bought them both new, benefiting from my uncle's GM employee discount and saving a nice hunk of change as a result. Back in the 90s, I also had a GM Mastercard as my primary credit card, and it had a very generous 5% rewards program where that money could only be applied to a new General Motors vehicle. Holy cow did that add up across the four GM vehicles I bought between 1992 and 2001.

Those cars - the Venture and the Grand Am - were the last vehicles I'd bought. We've put around 90,000 miles on the minivan and about 115,000 on the car. The van took us to Rochester, Howe's Caverns, and Toronto. The car took me back and forth to my old company's Connecticut headquarters a couple dozen times. Roughly ten years and around a hundred thousand miles each isn't exactly a bad run.

But I was hoping for more, dammit! The Venture's starting to show some significant body rust in a couple spots, and it's been in and out of the repair shop almost a dozen times in the last couple of years. It's teetering on the razor edge of being no longer worth fixing. It needed a new head gasket recently that almost but didn't quite push it over the edge. The Grand Am, meanwhile, is absolutely spotless. Its body is in gorgeous shape, the interior is spotless, and the engine has been relatively problem-free.

So imagine my surprise last Wednesday when, after our stint on Bridge Street, my wife went to pull out of her parking space at the TV studio and discovered that the steering wheel would absolutely not turn to the left. It simply wouldn't. We had to have AAA tow it and the next day we got the news: this car, which has a blue-book value of around $3,500, needed $2,500 in repairs, because the cradle and other suspension parts have pretty well rotted away. Dammit!! That wasn't supposed to happen. That car looked to be in great shape - it was supposed to last another couple of years at least. I was hoping to get between 125,000 and 150,000 miles out of the darn thing. And now, all of a sudden, it's undriveable and practically worthless.

So on Saturday, we got to head on over to Burdick's Driver's Village to buy ourselves the first used vehicle since my Camaro. I like buying new. I like that new car smell (though I've read it's rife with chemicals that probably give you cancer or something. I don't care - I like the smell anyway). I like how tight and clean and new everything is. I like being the original owner - the first one to drive it since it left the factory. I like that it's only ever been mine and mine alone. But, my wife made it clear that our finances didn't support the $8,000-10,000+ premium to enjoy those particular benefits. With both of our cars on or over the edge of utter ruin, we had to be frugal. We had to buy used.

And do you know that General Motors currently doesn't manufacture any minivans at all? What the hell? So after poking around on sites like and, I came away pretty impressed with the Kia Sedona of all things. Prior to that I'd been leaning heavily toward the Chyrsler Town and Country, but the reviews of both vehicles really made the Sedona sound like the better buy. So that's what we ended up with - a 2010 Sedona that had previously been a Hertz rental vehicle in New Hampshire or someplace. It's a bare-bones minivan - it doesn't even have power sliding doors and I'm beginning to doubt that the cruise control buttons on the steering wheel actually do anything. But it was cheap, it only had $15,000 miles on it, and we got it for a decent price including a 10-year, 100,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty, which ought to make it relatively easy to own for the long haul. By the time the warranty's up, two of my three kids will be out of high school.

It was a grueling process. We spent less than an hour meeting our salesman and test-driving the minivan we'd end up buying. Then we spent the next six hours screwing around with negotiations (which were the usual bullshit - "I've got to run that past my manager. Oh my manager can't do that, how about this?" and so on) and an endless stream of paperwork that seemed to take all day because it literally did. We got there at 10:30 in the morning and didn't finish until 6 PM. Egads, that was an awful experience.

So at the moment we have two minivans. That was my wife's clever idea - since we really, really need to have a minivan and since we know the Venture is limping along for some indeterminate amount of time, she suggested that we replace the car with a minivan, and then we would have the option to get a sedan or an SUV or something else when the Venture finally dies. I thought that was pretty smart.

I'm not unhappy with where we ended up - the price was okay and we've got what we need to move our family around. It was an annoying process to be sure, but mostly I'm just ticked that the Grand Am died so unexpectedly and so much sooner than I'd hoped. Now to see how much life we can squeeze out of the Venture. And then we get to start the process all over again. Ugh. Stupid cars.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

[Karate] My Family Performs Live!

We did it! Yesterday we appeared live on 9WSYR's Bridge Street morning show as part of their segment with Five Star Martial Arts. Check it out here:

Pretty sweet, huh? What a blast! It's been a couple of years since I've been on live TV or on a TV set, so it was super cool to be back at it again, even just for a few minutes. Even better, this was of course a marketing opportunity for Five Star, and I thought it really hit the mark.

Five Star's prime emphasis is on training families, and it's been an amazing success. Something like 60% of their students are families - parents and kids, brothers and sisters, all spending quality time together working out, getting fit, and building confidence (when they could just as easily be munching on a bag of chips in front of the boob tube!). I think that's terrific, and it comes across in that segment loud and clear.

The funny thing - and this is a manifestation of live TV that's unscripted and generally unplanned - is that we only did about half of what we'd intended. We had a whole kata ready to go that there just wasn't time to get to. But instead, they really drilled in on the qualities that make Five Star great, which was even better.

Best of all, we went for pizza at Pavone's Pizza afterward, pretty much my favorite pizza joint on the planet. Yeah, I ate way too much pizza, but I don't care. I only get to Pavone's a couple times a year, so I make the best of it when I do.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Bridge Street!

Today's article is going to be particularly short. My family's going to be on live TV today, hopefully looking awesome as we demonstrate some karate! I'll try to post some video here as soon as possible!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

2010 Year in Review

Yeah, I know, it's mid-February. This is one of those articles I started working on and then got distracted, but 2010 was ultimately a pretty decent year, and one that I still felt deserved to be summarized.

The year 2010 wasn't just a sort of crummy follow-up to the classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Oh no, it was an actual collection of months (twelve of them by my count) in which various and sundry stuff happened. Some of that stuff happened to me. That's mostly what I care about, so I won't belabor the natural disasters, celebrity goings-on, political turmoil and other junk. John Steward and Stephen Colbert already covered those much more humorously than I ever could. I'm just going to focus on myself.

2010 was the year I started to get back into shape. I used to be in shape. And yeah, I know "round is a shape," but that's not what I mean. I mean I was in great shape back when I met my wife. I was hitting the Aikido dojo sometimes three hours a night, and usually four or five days a week. I was lifting weights, jogging, doing calisthenics, and there's no doubt that I was absolutely in the best shape of my life. Of course, I didn't have a girlfriend or much of anything to do, so I had lots of time for working out. Once that changed - I got engaged, finished college and got a job - I found I didn't have nearly as much time for fitness anymore. Plus, let's be honest, I never liked exercise all that much (Aikido was the exception - I loved that), and I was only doing it because I really, really wanted a girl to call my own. Once I had one, some of that motivation dissipated.

Regardless of the rhyme or reason, I definitely fell off the wagon there. I ate and drank a lot of calories and didn't do much to burn them off, to the point where by around 2000 I had swollen to 225 pounds. I stayed at that weight for around 10 years. I tried to get fit every so often. I bought a treadmill. That didn't help. Then I tried using the treadmill, but surprisingly that didn't really help, either. Which was discouraging. I counted calories, but that didn't help. Counting them wasn't my problem - eating them was the problem. 2010 changed all of that at last. I started karate in the spring, and started controlling my calories during the summer. By fall, I had lost 10 pounds, and by the end of the year I was up to 15! By mid-February, I'm actually brushing the edges of 25, which is awesome, but that'll have to wait for some other article, because it wasn't cool enough to have happened in 2010.

While I'm on the subject, 2010 was also the year I started my third or, arguably, fourth style of martial art. I did Tae Kwon Do for about a year as a kid under Albert Fortunato. I quit because I was a teenager who couldn't decide what he really wanted, and because being lazy is easier than doing Tae Kwon Do. Then as a college student I trained in Aikido for about a year at Aikido of Central New York. Which was awesome, but
I quit that, too, because I was poor and really needed to focus on starting my career. Which are also excuses, sort of, but they're true as well.

My wife, being a second-degree black belt in Goju-Ryu karate, was able to train me for a bit in her style, and then I also trained in it for two months under David Oddy in 2010, but there's no denying I'm a raw novice at that style. But 2010 was the year that I started training in Kenpo at Five Star Martial Arts, and it's my intention to stick with it for the long haul. If nothing else, it's been a huge help to me in getting back into shape and dropping all this weight.

But my past training also factored in to the year 2010. As I mentioned above, I got in those two months of Goju Ryu, where believe it or not I actually learned a lot in a very short time. But in addition, I actually attended my first Aikido training in over eighteen years, when Aikido of CNY hosted a seminar with a Sensei from Bermuda. It was great, and really reminded me how much I'd loved Aikido. I got to see some old, familiar faces and meet some new people.

2010 was also the year that I really got working on my novel - to the tune of a prologue and sixteen whole chapters written. That's less than half the total novel, which sucks because my original timeline over-optimistically called for me to finish the book by May of 2010. But it's a significant chunk of work, anyway, and I'm really proud of it. I'll be prouder when the damn thing's done, of course.

I wrote a short story, too. About a wizard. It was okay - I didn't really love it, but it was tailored to a particular anthology I was trying to get into. I actually came up with a huge list of "wizard-oriented" short stories that I may have to write up some day. I was quite taken with a few of them.

In the year 2009, I started learning to play the guitar. But in the year 2010, I gave my first semi-public guitar performance. Which is crazy, I know. And it wasn't very good, but it wasn't all that bad, either. I'm pretty proud of that. It would have been easy enough to utterly suck, but I didn't. I played for about three hours, through around eighteen different tunes plus some aimless strumming while people ate and chatted. That was pretty cool, but I'm not in any rush to play my next gig.

On a related note, no pun intended, 2010 was also the year I started playing the electric guitar. Which is really great, because it opens up a whole different sound and a wealth of different tunes I can play. My kids were busy, too - they started three new instruments: flute, piano and tin whistle. Aren't they cute?

As with most years, in 2010 I read a couple dozen books (at least). Some of them were really good.

In 2010, my family went to the Renaissance Faire twice in one season. For me, it was the first time in over fifteen years that I'd done that, and I don't think any of the rest of us ever had. I love the Renaissance Faire, and being able to play a dozen or so different faire tunes on my guitar gave me profound joy.

Lastly, but by no means least, 2010 was the year we adopted our cat. That's related to the fact that 2010 was the year I began my allergy shots. They're both expected to last for many years. I enjoy the cat quite a bit more.

All of that - and more - packed into twelve measly months.

Monday, February 21, 2011

28 Pokes in the Eye, a Retrospective

Oddly enough, it turns out that cats aren't real happy about being poked in the eye.

You see, a few weeks ago we noticed that my cat's eye was swollen, so we took her in to see the vet. She determined that Dutchess, our cat, had a respiratory infection. The way to fight it off was to give her some brown goop to stimulate her immune system and to put some different brown goop in her eyes to kill the infection there.

Now, nobody likes having medicine jammed onto their eyeball, cats included. But cats are essentially walking food processors, capable at a moment's notice of slicing, dicing and julienning whatever comes into range. So HER discomfort becomes MY discomfort.

Over the course of the two-week treatment regimen, I had to apply medication to her eyes twice a day. The cat and I both learned a lot as those days went by. I got better at putting the medicine in her eyes quickly and gently. She learned new ways to make it harder. It was an ongoing game of one-upsmanship, a game of cat and mouse, but with a 200-pound human in place of the mouse.

At first, I would find her and carry her into the kitchen, where my wife would be waiting with a blanket to wrap her tightly and keep her from moving. She taught me not to simply grasp her with both hands, because that left her back feet free to swipe at me. I still have a two-inch scab on my wrist where she sliced me open.

I taught her how to tell time. She would get to know approximately what time in the evening we tended to dose her, so she'd go hide under one of the kids' beds, as far back in the corner as possible, where we almost couldn't quite reach her. She taught me to grab her firmly by the scruff of the neck and carry her that way, as it rendered her completely immobile, unable to bite or claw me while I carried her to the waiting blanket.

Finally, she taught me that it was possible to swaddle her myself and apply the ointment all alone. This was common on days when my wife left for work before we'd had a chance to administer the medication. It became more routine after the few times I showed up with the angry cat dangling from her neck-skin to find that my wife had found something more interesting to do than wait with the blanket while I fetched the cat.

Twenty-eight times, I found that cat and treated her. Fifty-six separate doses, one in each eye. She growled and hissed. I occasionally bled. We were both deeply relieved when it was over, though she still tends to hide under the bed at night. Some lessons, hard learned, are hard to let go.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Book Analysis: Ed Parker's Kenpo Karate Part II

Yesterday I introduced the first work of American Kenpo Grandmaster Ed Parker: Kenpo Karate, the Law of the Fist and the Empty Hand. The book is divided into two courses. Course 1 covers basics from the wearing of the uniform to exercises and conditioning to basic strikes with hands and feet. Course 2 is an in-depth examination of specific responses to a wide range of attack scenarios.

Grandmaster Parker begins with a look at the theory about speed, power, accuracy, and distance. Parker writes about how all work together to make an effective strike, and that lacking certain ones - particularly distance, can make even the best attack fail.

Beyond that, the remainder of the book is a series of self-defense techniques. I found these very interesting both for what was and was not there. Let me digress for a moment.

As best as I can ascertain, the style of Kenpo I'm currently learning follows a lineage as so:

1. Grandmaster Parker trained Al Tracy and his brothers throughout the 1960s.
2. Al Tracy trained Lee Thompson, who opened a "Tracy Kenpo" school in Liverpool, NY.
3. That school was eventually transferred to Steve LaVallee, who would change the name to Steve LaVallee's Sport Karate and later to LaVallee's East Coast Karate and LaVallee's USA Black Belt Champions.
4. LaVallee operated the school along with Rick Iannuzzo, who I've been told was primarily responsible for curriculum content and direct instruction. Eventually (in the early 1990s, I think) Iannuzzo would open his own school, and LaVallee went on to open more than a dozen facilities in Upstate NY and Florida.
5. In 2010, FiveStar Martial Arts opens in North Syracuse, NY, under the instruction of Paul Napoli and Curtis Pastore. Both studied in the 1990s under Steve LaVallee and Rick Iannuzzo, then trained independently while pursuing their education.

You'll note that I'm not citing sources for this information. That's a topic for another article - it hasn't been easy to track down and the sources I've found haven't been easy to authenticate and verify with what I'd consider to be a high degree of journalistic or academic accuracy. My gut tells me that this is in the ballpark, however, which will have to be good enough for now.

Sometime after the departure of Napoli and Pastore from LaVallees around 2000, LaVallee's moved, at least in spirit, completely away from their Kenpo roots and adopted a Mixed (or blended, depending on who you ask) Martial Arts curriculum that also included some heavily-modified Kenpo kata and self-defense techniques. But what Napoli and Pastore teach is, at least ostensibly, Kenpo.

It's just not the same Kenpo you'd see at a modern Tracy-style or Parker-style karate dojo, however. At least, not from the evidence I've found online. And it's the changes, the metamorphosis of the style and the techniques over the years, that fascinate me. Who decided to do a certain technique this way rather than that other way? Who decided to change a particular kata to eliminate certain moves and modify others to the point where it's only superficially similar to its original form? And, most importantly, why were those changes made? Were they deliberate efforts to water down a challenging curriculum to make it more accessible to younger students? Or were they carefully-considered decisions about body mechanics, force, and the need to develop certain skills? Or some combination of both? Or something else completely?

This information is particularly difficult to pin down, because even the originators of the style - Parker and the Tracy brothers - made their own modifications over the years, both before and after they trained together as well as before and after they taught people like Lee Thompson. So the differences I'm seeing between modern-day Parker Kenpo and modern-day FiveStar Kenpo could have been introduced by any of at least six different people (Parker, Tracy, Thompson, LaVallee, Iannuzzo and/or Napoli/Pastore (who for the purposes of this exercise count as one entity)) at any point in the last thirty to forty years.

For instance, who decided that the makiwara (or the striking board) and the buckets of flour used to condition the fingertips were no longer necessary? You won't find either at the FiveStar dojo, nor did I ever see them at LaVallee's. Did Parker himself move away from them? Did the Tracys decide they preferred more modern equipment? Thompson? LaVallee? Iannuzzo? I have no idea, but they're definitely there in Parker's first book and they're entirely missing from the dojos I've trained at in 2010 and 2011. The Okinawan "Hojo Undo" training equipment and techniques didn't just disappear from Kenpo, either - they tend to be largely absent from nearly all western martial arts dojos.

At some point, both the Parker and Tracy styles of Kenpo developed a complex series of named techniques, using fanciful terms for everything from a left-handed attack to a ridgehand (or sword-hand) strike to a grab of the hair. You'd end up with technique names including (and these are actual Parker Kenpo techniques) delayed sword, mace of aggression, and captured twigs. These technique names, at least, are entirely missing from LaVallee and FiveStar kenpo. Why? Were they invented after Thompson finished his training under Tracy (I'm almost certain they were not), or did LaVallee or Iannuzzo decide to change them? I suspect the techniques - most of them, anyway - are still around in some form or another, but the colorful names have been simplified to "two-handed wrist grab" instead of "captured twigs." Again, who decided that and why?

So to bring that lengthy digression back around, one of the things I looked for in Parker's first book were similarities and differences between the defense techniques he presented and the ones I'm learning now. What's interesting is that I saw both.

For example, the two-handed wrist grab (which in this early book is called simply that - nothing colorful or fanciful) is actually very similar to how I've been taught it at FiveStar (and quite different from the same technique as it was taught to me at LaVallee's). Likewise, the cross-hand wrist grab is extremely similar to how I've been taught it at FiveStar, though a bit more detailed. It's also very much in line with a technique used in the Short 3 kata as I've been taught it at FiveStar.

There's a defense technique against a side-shoulder grab that's entirely different than the one I've learned at FiveStar. Nothing too surprising about that, as the bulk of the techniques from Parker's book are more different than similar. But what's fascinating to me is that the technique shown in the book is completely in line with yet another movement in the Short 3 kata. So while it's different in one portion of the curriculum, it's the same somewhere else. Furthermore, Sensei Napoli explained that the more advanced version of that side-shoulder-grab defense is actually very much like what's shown in the book, I'm just not far enough along in my training to have seen it yet.

Other than those techniques, the other dozen or so are all completely different than what I'd seen at either of the two dojos I've trained at. Could it be that there will be more similarities at more senior ranks? Or could it be that, like the colorful names, but techniques themselves have changed over the years as different instructors each put their own spin on them? Heck, it isn't as if there's only one way to defend against these attacks. I have to constantly resist the habits I developed studying Aikido, which also had very effective defenses against these sorts of assaults.

Overall, I found Parker's book a fascinating window into the origins of this most American (or Americanized, if you will) of martial arts styles. I found that much of what Parker espoused, from breathing to conditioning to specific strikes, was covered in much greater depth and detail than I've seen in my training. Again, that could be because I still have much to learn, or it may simply be that some of Parker's original message and philosophy wasn't carried on through the entire forty year journey to today's practice of the style he practiced. As I continue my own training, I'll be looking for more hints of Parker's influence (or lack thereof) and seeking a greater understanding of the skills I'm being taught, as well as the changes introduced over the years that affected how those specific skills are practiced today. But I certainly would recommend Parker's book to anyone who wants a first-hand look at the origins of Kenpo Karate in America.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Book Analysis: Ed Parker's Kenpo Karate

The Law of the Fist and the Empty Hand

This was the first of many books that Kenpo Grandmaster Ed Parker wrote on the subject of karate. It's written as an introduction to the history and specific techniques of the style he popularized, and forms the foundation for the style he would create and refine throughout his life.The book itself is split into two main sections - a beginner's course and an intermediate course. They were very different and each warrant their own analysis.

Course 1:

After the introduction, where Parker shares some of the history of the style and some basic precepts, he covers in extraordinary detail one item that is surprising both in the amount of space he dedicates to it and the extent to which it seems to have been largely lost by modern western martial artists (and, as far as I can tell, Asian ones as well). That item: the proper folding of the dogi karate uniform. Given that the uniform was not generally familiar to a western readership back in the 1960s, it's not surprising that he would cover how to wear and tie both the dogi and the obi, or belt. But he spends a surprising amount of time in both words and pictures detailing how to fold the dogi trousers and jacket, ultimately folding them inside each other and wrapping the entire package in the obi (belt). It's a fascinating insight into what Parker was taught and considered important at that time, and how much things have changed in the U.S. martial arts since.

Another interesting section focuses on breathing. Parker goes into considerable depth about inhalation, exhalation, and the effect of breathing on the power of your attack and defense. It was information I had learned back when I was first training in Tae Kwon Do, and again while training in Aikido, but interestingly it wasn't really something I heard in nearly as much depth while training in Kenpo. Which may have been coincidence that I just missed those particular lectures or perhaps I wasn't paying good enough attention, but Parker certainly was. I thought it was an excellent section that did a really good job of underscoring the effect that breathing has on physical activity, especially hand-to-hand combat.

The section after went into quite a bit of depth about training and conditioning equipment. Without using the Japanese terminology, Parker writes at length about the Makiwara striking board, including very specific directions about how to build one. He also discusses a wide array of other calisthenics, stretches, and methods for conditioning the hands, limbs and feet. These tools and techniques - called Hojo Undo by the Okinawans - have never seemed to be popular or well-known in the western practice of karate, so I found it fascinating that Parker was not only intimately familiar with them, but actually included them in his book.

Another topic that Parker investigated in detail in his book was human anatomy. He includes detailed anatomy charts that actually highlight those areas most likely to cause death. He discusses the anatomy of the martial artist's body weapons - punches, kicks, and other strikes - as well as opponent targets.

Out of all of that, however, the most fascinating thing about Course 1, for me, was that all of the movements that I've always seen taught as blocks (with one exception, below) are in this book clearly taught as strikes. This includes all four of the primary "blocks" typically taught in the west - the inward and outward block, the upward block and the downward block. In Parker's novel, these are all strikes. I learned them as blocks in Tae Kwon Do. I learned them as blocks in both forms of Kenpo and Kenpo-derived MMA I've been studying for the last year. My wife learned them as blocks in the style of Goju-Ryu karate she trained in for many years. In fact, the only time I'd ever considered that they could be strikes was when I was training at Syracuse Jundokan under David Oddy. Clearly the karate that Parker learned in the 1950s and wrote about in his book is closer to traditional Okinawan karate than what's been taught in my neck of the woods over the last twenty years or more. Amazing!

Now, to be fair, the book goes on to explain how those same strikes can be used as blocks, but it's clearly not their primary function. They're actually closer to the atemi I learned in Aikido - painful, distracting blows to the nerve centers that punish an immobilize an attacker - than simple blocks meant to ward off an opponent's attack.

So to summarize course 1 - wow, how things have changed over the last fifty years. The karate Parker learned and wrote about in his book barely resembles what I've seen and been taught over the years. Tomorrow - course 2!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine's Day!

I admit, I'm of two minds about Valentine's Day. On the one hand, it started as a marketing ploy by the greeting card industry that's exploded into a cash bonanza for restaurants, florists, candy shops, and, naturally, Hallmark. So on the one hand, playing into that bugs me a little.

On the other hand, why shouldn't we have a special day to recognize love and romance and those we share them with? Even if the motivations that created the holiday were purely capitalist, I admit that I enjoy celebrating it. This year went especially well.

My wife and I have for most of our relationship tried to avoid spending a fortune on this holiday. Many years ago we initiated a ritual of having Chicken Parmigiana for dinner on Valentine's Day. It's mostly for me, really. I don't much want flowers and candy's not good for me, so we settled on a really nice meal. I'd still generally get something for my wife - a card and some chocolate wouldn't be uncommon. This year, I bumped up the intensity a little. So did the kids, as it turned out.

For my part, I made some cards for my wife and kids. Yeah, okay, they were zombie-themed valentine's cards. It turns out, there's a LOT of Valentines zombie art on the Internet, with expressions like "I brain you" with the brain shaped like a heart. I thought it was cute - the kids were pleasantly grossed out.

Next, I took a box of Brach's candy hearts and unboxed them. Then I licked the sayings off about half of them, and wrote my own with a red pen. Then I put them back in the box and glued it closed.

Lastly, I wanted to get my wife some candy, but I wanted to stick with candies that were nut-safe. This pretty much ruled out any of the Valentine's Heart-boxes you can get anywhere. There's always "Vermont Nut-safe Chocolates," but like a lot of chocolatiers, their boxes ended up costing more than a dollar-per-candy. That's an outrage and I won't pay it. Instead, I decided to go the hand-crafted route and see how inexpensively I could put together something really nice.

I went to the craft store and picked up an inexpensive heart-shaped tin box, some Valentine's ribbon, and some Valentine's napkins. I also bought some heart-shaped Post-it notes at Staples and a couple boxes of nut-free Junior Mints at the grocery store. I glued the ribbon onto the box, lined it with the napkin (after cleaning it thoroughly with spray-cleaner and soapy water to make sure it was food-safe), and poured in two big movie-size boxes of candy.

Next, I waited until my wife was asleep, and hid the box behind the Wii console on our TV. Then I took the Post-It notes and created a scavenger hunt all over the house, with each note giving a clue to where the next note could be found. I hid them all over - under kettlebells, on the gerbil cage, in the spice rack and in the china cabinet. There was one hidden among the potatoes and another under the can of cat food in the fridge. I even hid one inside my son's library book, "The Devil's Arithmetic." The clue for that one was, "to find your next step, you must do Lucifer's Math." I was pretty pleased with that.

The two older kids were actually the first ones up on Valentine's Day. They'd spent much of the day Saturday making a plethora of undersea creatures out of paper and hot glue. They'd made them kissing each other or decorated with hearts, colored them, and attached string. First thing in the morning, they raced downstairs to decorate the kitchen, turning it into an "Enchantment Under the Sea" Valentine's fest of a sort not seen since Back to the Future. There were balloons and aquatic life everywhere. My wife added some little baskets of treats for everyone, and then it was off to the scavenger hunt!

For some reason my wife got me Flash underwear (you know, the DC Comics hero who runs really fast?). They're basically underoos, which I haven't had since I was a little kid. Too bad she's the only one who'll ever see them.

My whole family took the chance to show our love for each other and to make each other happy, which is really what the day is all about for us. We didn't spend a lot of money to do it, either. Add in some absolutely delicious Chicken Parmigiana for dinner (with enough leftovers to last me two days!) and I'm calling Valentine's Day 2011 a huge success!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Working Harder. Smarter is Optional

There are some white-collar jobs where you put in your work-day and then you go home. You get done as much as possible, do your job as well as you can, but when it's 5:00 PM your day is done. There are other jobs where you're expected to put in "as much time as necessary" to get your work done, and that amount of time is often well in excess of the standard 40 hours. In the U.S. for the last 15 years (at least), jobs in Information Technology have tended to fall in the latter category. It sucked, I didn't like it, and I don't see me ever doing it again unless I'm simply desperate for money or so incredibly thrilled with my job that I don't mind throwing my fatherly responsibilities right out the window.

When I worked at MONY, the official "work week" was something like 36 hours, with the expectation that you'd take around 30 minutes a day for lunch. You could work longer, but it wasn't really expected on a regular basis. However, the guys who ran the company really wanted to cash in. These wealthy fellows needed more $20s to light their cigars (which were made of $100s) with, so they decided to beef up the company's financial position so they could sell her off. Which they ultimately did, but only after an awful lot of people put a ton of time and effort into making the company purr along like a kitten. We put in huge hours with absolutely no extra pay or compensation. And the worst part? We totally knew that the end result would be to sell the company, that we'd get zilch out of it, and that most or all of us would likely lose our jobs as a result. All of which is exactly what happened. If you wonder when the idea of company loyalty died for me, it was right then and there (I put the date around 2000 or 2001).

I've mentioned before that I've worked for the same boss at a couple of different places. Both times, I put in incredible hours under physically painful amounts of stress, mostly because the guy simply couldn't differentiate between how much work he wanted things to be and how much effort actually went into them. He contributed great things to my overall career, but I'm indescribably glad to be out of that rat-race for a while.

One of the funniest things at my last job was our time-tracking system. We were supposed to enter all of our hours with scrupulous honesty, and we weren't supposed to enter any more than 40 hours per week (because that's all we were supposed to be working). And the VP of HR made it very clear that if you were routinely or continuously working more than 40 hours, there was something wrong with your job, your work, or your boss's expectations and it needed to be fixed. That's an admirable policy, by the way. Yet there was no way I could come close to getting everything my boss wanted done in 40 hours, and it typically took me more like 50 hours, and occasionally as much as 55 hours, and I still wasn't getting anywhere close to all of it done. The pile of stuff I just couldn't possibly get to simply grew and grew. And there I was - required to enter all my hours, unable to enter more than 40 hours on a regular basis, and yet expected to work 50+ hours to even get the major "must-do" work finished. My boss had no clever solution for that, so I just ended up lying about my hours and only entering the first 8 hours I worked every day.

Sadly, this has become standard practice all over America in lots of different industries. As companies look to save money, one of the ways they do it is to reduce headcount and just make those who remain - who are usually delighted to have jobs -  pick up the slack. There's only so much you can do to gain efficiency, to be "smart" about how you do your work. If you're doing the work of two or three people, you're just going to have to work longer hours or decide not to get everything done. And that's not good for anybody, including the company.

Employees who work incredible overtime, skip vacations, don't have a second to catch their breath and yet still don't get everything done? They're under incredible stress. They're going to crash and burn at some point. And the company's going to reap the whirlwind. I don't know if I'll ever make another dime on my writing - lord knows I made little enough on the stuff I published in the past - but I'd like to think that I'm smart enough to avoid ever working another crazy-hard job again. And American executives would be wise to make better use of their people so they can get the long-term benefits of their skills and knowledge without burning them out. But that calls for real leadership, not just wishful thinking.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

2011 Big-Ticket Movies

I know, I never did my 2nd Annual movie round-up for the coming year. But 2011 is shaping up to have some really fantastic-looking movies that are worth getting excited (and writing) about. Here are the ones I'm most looking forward to:

Battle: Los Angeles - Aliens invade and wipe out city after city around the globe. Humanity makes a last stand in LA, where a platoon of marines led by Aaron Eckhardt are mankind's only hope. It's pitched as a low-budget modern-day war movie and it sounds like it'll be terrific if they can pull it off. There's a trailer here. Due out March 11th.

Thor - part of Marvel Comics' massive movie crossover, this film introduces us to the Norse god of thunder. He gets up to some hijinks in the home of the gods, Asguard, and is cast out by his father, Odin, king of the gods. Separated from his powerful hammer, Mjolner, Thor must make his way in the world, regain his godly powers, and thwart the plans of his evil half-brother Loki. Thor will team up next year with Iron Man, Captain America, the Incredible Hulk and other heroes in the Marvel spectacular, The Avengers. Stars Star Trek's Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Check out a trailer here. Due to hit theaters on May 6th.

Priest - May's going to be a busy month, and I'm REALLY looking forward to Priest. The premise is that in the far future, the Earth has been decimated in a war between humans and vampires. Finally, the vampires were beaten, thanks mostly to an order of priests who wielded magical powers. The problem is that everyone thinks the vampires are destroyed except for one lone ex-priest. He wants his powers back to stop the vampires from making a comeback, and the ruling members of his old order just want to keep the status quo. So he must defy his own people and take on a horde of vampires with just a couple of friends to help him out. Stars Paul Bettany, Nikita's Maggie Q., and Karl Urban. Due May 13th. The trailer's here.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides - Okay, okay, I know - the last couple Pirates of the Caribbean movies were kind of crummy. I agree. But hey, Johnny Depp is always a blast in his Captain Jack Sparrow persona, so even if the rest of the movie sucks, just watching him prance around and say, "savvy?" for two hours is usually a decent way to spend an afternoon. Plus, this one has Penelope Cruz and premiers on May 20th, my anniversary! This movie lacks Kiera Knightly and Orlando Bloom, but they couldn't save the last two. The goal of the fourth film is to find the Fountain of Youth. Or something. Who cares? You're going to go see it, regardless. You can watch the trailer here.

X-Men: First Class - Probably the best news about this film is that it does not continue the truly awful storyline from the third and last X-Men movie. Man, that third film stunk up the place. Instead, this X-Men movie returns to the origins of the X-Men from their 1960s comic books. It has a wide array of different super-mutants all coming together to fight the bad guys and look cool in their yellow costumes. I have high hopes for this movie and am really looking forward to seeing it. It's out June 3rd and mostly stars a lot of people I've never heard of. And Kevin Bacon.

Super 8 - I actually don't know much about this movie, except that it's about a kid with a Super 8 camera (the film kind, I presume) and an alien invasion. But it's created by Stephen Spielberg and J.J. Abrams (the guy behind Alias, Lost and the Star Trek reboot) so that tends to make me believe it'll be pretty good. It's out on June 10th and the trailer is here.

Green Lantern - Yes, it's a tremendous summer for super-hero movies. Most of them are from Marvel comics - Thor, X-Men and Captain America - but DC Comics gets in on the action, too, with the hotly-anticipated Green Lantern. It's the story of Air Force test pilot Hal Jordan, played by Ryan Reynolds, who is selected by the alien Guardians of Oa to join their cadre of intergalactic peacekeepers, the Green Lantern Corps. Each of them is issued a ring of incredible power, one that lets them overwhelm the forces of evil and maintain peace throughout the universe. They each take an oath, and renew it each night as they recharge their power rings: "In Brightest Day, In Blackest Night, No Evil Shall Escape My Sight. Let those who Worship Evil's Might, Beware my Power, Green Lantern's Light!" Meet Hal Jordan as Green Lantern on June 17th. The trailer's at the movie's website.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 2 - the eighth and final installment of the Harry Potter series is coming at the height of the summer movie series. See Harry finally face his nemesis Voldemort as the forces of evil descend on the worlds of wizards and muggles alike. See it in theaters July 15th. If there's a trailer out yet, I can't find it.

Captain America: The First Avenger - it's World War II, the "Great Crusade," and 100-pound weakling Steve Rogers just wants to do his part against the evil Axis forces. Sadly, he's 4-F, unfit to serve. Until he's injected with a revolutionary "super-serum," that turns him into a man among men. Outfitted with a bulletproof shield and his partner Bucky Barnes, Cap learns there are worse things loose in Europe than the Nazis. The third part of Marvel Comics' massive movie crossover, Cap will end up taking a 60-year siesta so he can join the Avengers (see Thor, above). Stars Chris Evans (from Star Trek) and Hugo Weaving (from the Matrix and Lord of the Rings series). See a trailer here. Opens July 22nd.

Cowboys and Aliens - Daniel Craig walks into an old west town wearing a mysterious gauntlet on his hand. The local toughs start to give him a hard time, but suddenly alien ships speed down out of the sky, blasting everything in sight. Craig calmly raises his gauntleted arm, and laser-blasts one of the mysterious craft out of the sky.  Also stars Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde and Sam Rockwell. It's out on July 29th. The trailer is here.

Rise of the Apes - a sort-of prequel to the Planet of the Apes movies, this film explores the way the apes were modified to speak and the war that erupts between men and their creations. Stars James James Franco and John Lithgow. Opens November 23rd.

So is there anything I missed that you're looking for? I just don't get very excited about dramas, comedies or chick-flicks, and I've never gotten too worked up about the Transformers movies (but if that's your thing, look for Transformers: Dark of the Moon on July 1st). There's also a new Three Musketeers coming out, but like a handful of others that might eventually grab my attention, I haven't heard anything about it. Besides, just the films on the list above already far exceed the actual amount of money I have to spend at the movies this year.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Five-Year Mission

Americans are huge fans of instant gratification. They don't like being told that it takes years of intensive practice to finally be good enough to qualify as a beginner. I'm as guilty of this as anyone. I've been playing the guitar for less than two years and I'm continually frustrated that I don't sound anything like Eddie Van Halen, Richie Sambora, or Eric Clapton. And you see it all the time in the martial arts.

You very rarely hear in the U.S. that achieving one's black belt is a sign of finally being ready to truly learn. Quite the opposite - many modern karate schools often bombard their students with the black belt as a goal. A finish-line. The end. And for many students, that's exactly what it is. They get their black belts and they're done - game over.

Karate can be (and many would argue should be) a lifelong pursuit of excellence, of knowledge, of technical perfection. But in the U.S., it's often seen as a quick way to make a buck - pull in a bunch of little kids, get them hooked into the program for 5-7 years till they get their black belts, and then turn them over and bring in a new batch.

I recently looked into training in Tai Chi, and had a somewhat surprising conversation with the Sifu running the program. I'd done some amount of research, and found it was somewhat common for Tai Chi programs to advertise that new students could learn the basics of their form in as little as four months. The Sifu I talked to was having none of that. He told me that authentic, traditional Tai Chi - like the form he teaches - is the hardest, most challenging martial art he's ever studied. And students should expect to be beginners for at least five years, assuming they practiced diligently. It wasn't a very good sales pitch (and I'm sure he knew that), but it was extremely refreshing to hear from an American instructor.

I actually think this process is one of the things that attracts me about the martial arts. As much as I'm anxious to learn more and I look forward to one day earning my black belt, I can see a progression of improvement over many, many years ahead of me. I don't want it to be something I hop into and finish a short time later. I want to challenge myself to be better. I want to reshape myself physically and mentally. Even more, I want my kids to see the long-term benefits of the martial arts. I can't know whether they'll stick with it for life, but I can influence them while they're here with me and as long as I can afford it (which is always a challenge when you have five people training) I'm going to strongly encourage them to continue to learn, to improve. I want the martial arts to infuse them with strength of arm and strength of spirit. I'd like them to feel the connection to hundreds of years of history - of meditation, contemplation, sweat and blood and exertion to the point where it feels like you must break, but then you somehow push just a little further. You don't get there on the five-year plan.

I know the dojo we're training at now embraces these sentiments, which is obviously important since we plan to be with them for the long haul. I also think that American martial arts is poised for an overhaul. I think the churn of little kids into and back out of the program - that's been going on for a good 20 years - may be susceptible to competition from dojos that embrace both traditional martial arts values (and knowledge and training) as well as the modern business practices that have helped make "Americanized" schools successful. I think that would be a huge benefit to all concerned. Well, except for those "Americanized" schools that refuse to adapt and embrace their roots, I suppose. But that's the nature of business, isn't it? Those same schools re-wrote the rules when they adapted adult-focused karate training into programs aimed at children. Now they'll just need to do it again.

Monday, February 7, 2011

What was Frank Herbert Thinking?

I'm going to just say it - Dune Messiah is a terrible, boring, awful book. Taken on its own, it might have been merely okay, but as the direct sequel to the brilliant, epic, endlessly-fascinating DUNE, it's plain awful. Primarily because DUNE was filled with political intrigue, action, interesting and unique characters, and tons (and tons) of dramatic tension. Whereas in Dune Messiah, pretty much nothing happens. There's lots of thinking, and some talking, and more thinking, and a bit of maneuvering, but practically no payoff at all. (A guy gets stabbed. Big whoop.) I've read this book now at least three times, possibly as many as four, and I've hated it every time. Only after reading the excellent series of Dune novels by Herbert's son Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson was I finally motivated to give the novel one more try. And, sure enough, having so much background on the characters, so much backstory, so much added life breathed into them and their actions, I was finally able to get through it. But for some forty years, all of that was missing, and the world was stuck with a truly craptacular sequel. Yes, yes, I know, lots of people love it. Bully for them - they're seeing something I'm missing, I guess. It's not for lack of trying on my part, and I've always felt you shouldn't really have to work that hard to enjoy a book.

After finishing Dune Messiah, I always moved on to Children of Dune. Again, it's a novel I've attempted as many as three previous times. In the past, I'd always put it down after a few chapters, just utterly worn out by how awful Dune Messiah was and finding Children of Dune to be more of the same. Well at last I can report: it's not! I really, really enjoyed it this time. There's action, there are interesting characters again, we get to see some old favorites, and Herbert's storytelling returns to a least a shadow of the brilliance we saw in DUNE. Which makes me wonder, "What was Herbert thinking when he wrote Dune Messiah?"

I went and read the plot summary on Wikipedia and, really, the book doesn't sound like it ought to be that bad. It just is. It's missing all the flare of DUNE, all the feeling of impending danger, all the spice, no pun intended, of the first novel. Bored me to tears time and again.

Anyway, I have to say that if you've ever felt this way about Dune Messiah, go and read the novels Paul of Dune and especially The Winds of Dune (originally titled Jessica of Dune, which I think was a better name for the second in the "Heroes of Dune" series). Then try the original sequels one more time. You may be surprised to find that Herbert and Anderson resuscitated this tired, old, broken novel and made it far more readable than it ever was before.

Friday, February 4, 2011



Let Colbert explain. Funny stuff, and hilarious to see Bing get busted by Google for cheating. Would have been just as funny the other way around, too - I'll take it any old which-way.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Crock Pot Chicken Stew!

This is becoming one of my new favorite meals. Partly, that's because I like how it tastes, but I wouldn't say I love it, exactly. Given the choice, I would totally prefer pizza or alfredo primavera or chicken parmigiana. In a heartbeat. But the chicken stew is pretty good, it's fairly easy to make and, best of all, it's ridiculously low in calories!

It's pretty simple - some chicken thighs, 3 potatoes, a carrot, some gravy, water, a little wine, spices and you're done. The recipe actually calls for tomato paste, but we've always skipped that. We toss it all in the Crock Pot for the day and come dinner-time, we're chowing down. Best of all, one serving is a stupidly-low 200-250 calories (I usually end up with some extra chicken, so I call it 300 calories). Wait, 300 calories for a full, hearty, tasty, filling meal? Hell yeah!

We've decided to try mixing it up in the future, using beef, maybe meatballs, perhaps some kielbasa. We've even toyed with mixing chicken and beef, because we're freaking crazy and there's just no stopping us. But damn, that's a heck of a meal. We got it all ready to go last night, and this morning it's a quick pop into the Crock Pot and we're off and running. Can't wait to eat tonight!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Sounds of Believin'

Since this seems to be the week for short updates on stuff I'm doing, I thought I'd cover the guitar.

It's been a year and eight months since we started learning the guitar, and I'm still annoyed with my level of ability (or lack thereof). But I can see improvement, so that gives me hope and keeps me going.

I'm currently working on three very cool pieces of music.

The first is Bon Jovi's "Wanted, Dead or Alive." It's an awesome song originally played on a 12-string and musically it's just a great piece. It has taken a while to get the very recognizable intro down and we still have to play it somewhat slowly, but it's definitely there. Now we're adding in the body of the song and it's actually going pretty well. The toughest part is that the strum pattern is a little funky and there are some more complex fingerings in between the chords. It's taken me three weeks to get to where I can properly strum and finger the first set of D and D Suspended 4th chords, but today I totally nailed it (once) and it sounded great. I'm trying not to think about the guitar solo.

The next piece we're playing is Simon & Garfunkle's "The Sounds of Silence." It's not a tune I'd have ever thought about on my own, but our teacher wants us to learn to switch between two of the hardest barre chords - the F and the B-flat, and Sounds of Silence is filled with them. We're making progress, but ugh, those chords are tough. After more than a week of practice, we're not quite where we need to be either on forming the chords correctly or on switching between them, but it's getting better. And man, "Sounds of Silence" sounds awesome on the electric guitar. I'm really surprised that there's never been a popular cover of it with some heavy guitars, though Jack Blades and Tommy Shaw did a nice acoustic cover on one of their Blades/Shaw albums.

Lastly, we're taking on Journey. Specifically, the song "Don't Stop Believin'." It's an old favorite, and it just happens that a friend of my daughter's recently played it at a piano recital. After hearing her friend play it, my daughter just had to play it herself, so I got her the music. And look at that - it's got the guitar chords, too. What's even more serendipitous is that it uses exactly the chords my son and I have been learning for the last month - the Am7, Dm7, plus the Barre-F and Barre-B Flat. Five weeks ago, we wouldn't have known those chords (well, we knew a cheater-F chord and technically we'd learned B Flat back when we learned Paul McCartney's "Yesterday," but we definitely didn't know those minor-sevenths). Granted, we don't have the tablature so the guitar accompaniment we play doesn't sound anything like the guitars in the recorded version of the song, but I figure "Wanted, Dead or Alive" is enough of that sort of thing to work on for now anyway.

In another month or two, we'll start thinking about spring and wishing for summer which is, of course, Renaissance Faire season. I imagine we'll pick a lot of our folk, celtic and renn-faire songs back up again and give them some more play time to help get us in the mood.

But for now, we're Believin' in the Silence, Dead or Alive. And, as always, trying not to suck too badly.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


I thought I'd share the testimonial we wrote for FiveStar Martial Arts:

Training at FiveStar Martial Arts has been terrific for our family. We’ve gotten to watch our kids increase their coordination and flexibility while learning discipline and respect. Their focus and concentration have really improved, and they love learning and practicing the techniques. We’ve seen huge gains in our own cardiovascular health, endurance, strength, and fitness. Best of all, Mike’s lost over 20 pounds since he started training in karate! The dojo offers a warm, inviting atmosphere for our family to learn and train together. Sensei Napoli and Sensei Pastore offer an outstanding learning environment for us that’s fun and keeps us fit. We’re so glad to be a part of the FiveStar Family!
Mike and Karen De Lucia
We mean every word of it, too. They're off to a fantastic start and we're really getting a lot out of our training. Great job, FiveStar!