Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Fall 2010 TV Season

What's back, what's new and what I'm liking

The Fall TV season this year has some good-looking shows that I'm enjoying, excited about, or glad to see return. Here's the breakdown of shows I'm watching and/or TiVo'ing:

Frank Darabont's Walking Dead (AMC) - one of my most hotly-anticipated new shows of the season, Walking Dead, based on the comic book of that name, follows survivors of the zombie apocalypse as they make their way through the wasteland left behind in mankind's wake. Premieres Halloween night.

Chuck (NBC) - I really love this show, and wish it got better ratings. Year after year it's a crap-shoot whether or not it's going to be renewed. Chuck is a quirky, funny spy show that never takes itself too seriously. Instead, it dazzles you with 80s nerd-pop references, tons and tons of guest stars (most recently Rocky IV's Dolph Lundgren and Lou Ferrigno, the 70s-era Incredible Hulk, among many others), cool spy action and clever, funny dialogue. This season features The Terminator's Linda Hamilton playing Chuck's mystery mom.

The Event (NBC) - I'm currently TiVo'ing this, so all I can really say about it is that I've continued to hear positive feedback. I just haven't had a chance to watch it.

The Chase (NBC) - I'm also TiVo'ing this, but I don't think I've heard anything about it one way or the other.

No Ordinary Family (ABC) - Michael Chiklis (The Shield, The Commish) stars as the father of a family that develops super powers. It's pretty clearly based on the Incredibles, but with real people. The pilot was this Tuesday and seemed to be pretty well-received. I've got it on TiVo.

Stargate: Universe (SyFy) - the second season premiered this week, picking up the story of the band of soldiers and scientists marooned aboard the Ancient starship Destiny as it careens through deep space. The first season was a bit uneven, but decent enough to keep watching. Good sci-fi is rare enough that I'm willing to forgive a lot.

Ugly Americans (Comedy Central) - in this animated adult comedy, regular dude Mark lives his life in New York City, which is full of fantastical creatures. His roommate is a zombie, his girlfriend a succubus, and his partner down at the social services office is a feeble wizard. This show is hilarious and I can't wait for it to begin again next week. It'll follow new episodes of South Park if you're into that.

Undercovers (NBC) - sort of a take on Mr & Mrs Smith, this show follows the exploits of a couple who were once agents for the CIA and have been pulled back into the spy life. I enjoyed the premiere quite a bit and hope the show stays solid.

Nikita (CW) - a sort-of sequel to La Femme Nikita (or the movie Point of No Return), Nikita is about a secret government agency called The Division. It recruits young men and women who are believed to have been executed for their crimes, and trains them to be spies and assassins. Their motives aren't always pure or patriotic, however, and their greatest agent - Nikita (played by Maggie Q) has sworn to take them down. It's in its third week and I've been pretty happy with it so far.

Smallville (CW) - the adventures of Superman when he was a boy. This is the tenth and final season of Smallville, which I only began to watch last year. It's occasionally a little goofy, but it's pretty much been the only superhero show on TV (excepting the very uneven Heroes and, now, No Ordinary Family). This season is hinting that Clark Kent may finally, by the show's finale, don the iconic red and blue suit and become Superman at last. Either way, the ride to that point should be pretty cool.

And that's pretty much my 2010 playlist. There are some midseason replacements that look promising if they go ahead, such as The Cape, about a cop who turns vigilante hero. And no, I didn't skip Saturday, there's just nothing on.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

[Novel] Making Progress

I haven't written about where I stand with my novel in quite some time. There's a pretty good reason for that - I gave up trying to work on it with the kids home from school for the summer, and haven't really written anything new for it since sometime in late July. "But Mike, they've been back to school for over two weeks," you might say. Go ahead, I know, you want to say it. You're right, they have. And in those two weeks I have not completed my re-write of Chapter 15, nor have I written the new Chapter 1, nor the new Chapter 17, nor rewritten the existing chapters 1-?? (I could arguably re-write all the chapters that I've written so far, since each of them has since received extensive feedback and needs considerable editing. Though the word "re-write" probably gives the impression that more needs to be done than is actually the case for most of them). Nope, I've done none of that!

Fear not, though! I have indeed made progress, and while it was slow and laborious and I'd have loved for it to have been done faster, I'm pleased with where I ended up last Friday. You see, when I started working full-time on my novel back in mid-November of 2009, the very first thing I did was to take all of the hand-written and electronic notes I'd taken about the book and compile them electronically in Microsoft OneNote. OneNote is, as I've written before, an invaluable tool for anyone who wants to store, organize, and manage anything "note-like," from student lecture notes to recipes to work-related documentation. My first serious use of OneNote was to fully document every detail of my last full-time job that I thought my successor, my boss or my team might ever want to know. I'm not clear how valuable it was to them, but I know it would have made my life 100x easier if I'd started my job with something comparable, that's for certain.

One thing I didn't account for, however, and I must admit that I still have not, really, was that more notes would accumulate. Once I started writing writing writing writing, the last thing I wanted to do was to stop and enter all of the new notes that I'd jotted down into OneNote. So they collected. They collected in notepads and in individual sheets of paper torn from notepads. They accumulated on my desk, and periodically I'd riffle through them saying to myself, "Hmm, I think I remember writing down an idea on this topic." But the more notes accumulated and the further I got in time from the point where I wrote the note down, the less likely I was to either remember to look for it or to find it if I did. I had come up with some very useful, cogent thoughts, but they were wasted sitting there in freehand.

So beginning on my kids' first day back to school, I went to the very bottom of that stack of notes and started typing them into my OneNote notebook. They stretched back to January of 2010, and during the two-week period I added perhaps another three-to-five pages of notes to the pile. But when I finished last Friday afternoon, I had transcribed all 87 pages of notes. They included dozens and dozens of character notes (add this, change that, remember to do such or so, etc.), plot snippets (The heavy old door swung open soundlessly, admitting the white-robed monk into the archbishop's large office. "Your pardon, Eminence," he said in the tone of one speaking only in formality, a trusted aid who knew that his decision to interrupt with news or information was simply understood. "You had asked to be told when news arrived of the commander's departure." The young woman with whom the archbishop had been speaking turned her face from the functionary at the door back to the elderly man sitting beside her and arched one curious eyebrow, but said nothing. She would keep her place, though if the high official elected to share details with her, she certainly wouldn't decline to hear.), reminders, themes, problems, solutions, counter-solutions, and revisions to the novel. Some of them contradicted each other as I came up with ideas, then came up with newer, better ideas, or in some cases just forgot that I'd already come up with a variation on the idea at some point.

So now I have it all in there. I need to re-read big chunks of the notebook to make sure I remember not only the stuff I just typed in, but stuff I typed in a year ago, but at least it's all in one place. Sure, I'll hand-write some more notes and the cycle will start all over again, but for now I'm completely caught up. I have to make choices about what to work on next (my options include everything from the first paragraph of this article at the very least), but there's no bad choice to be made. All of it will need to be done eventually, so even if I were to "chicken out" and do whatever I thought was easiest or put off whatever I thought was hardest, it wouldn't matter. I'll still be making progress.

Monday, September 27, 2010

[Movie Review] Shōgun

I recently wrote about the novel Shōgun by James Clavell. I enjoyed it immensely, and so I couldn't wait to re-watch the miniseries based on it. A miniseries that, to the best of my recollection, I hadn't seen since it originally aired in September, 1980.

Shōgun is a terrific story - of faraway lands, of cunning political strategy, of mighty warriors, cruel warlords, of duty and of love. A story of an Englishman - John Blackthorne, played by Richard Chamberlain - whose storm-blown ship arrives at the shores of feudal Japan with a handful of sick crewmen all that remain of the fleet that set out from Holland. From there it swirls into a tale of intrigue, audacity, love and learning. Blackthorn must learn the strange ways of the new land he's found, must navigate the machinations both of his people's enemies the Spanish and Portuguese (primarily in the form of their priests, the Catholic Jesuits) as well as the feudal lords who vie for power. He does so skillfully, not merely learning the language and winning the heart of a beautiful and intelligent noblewoman, but winning the trust of Toranaga, one of the most senior Daimyo, the man who wishes to outwit all other lords and rise to the ultimate power - Shōgun, the supreme military dictator of 1600's-era Japan.

And the miniseries did not disappoint. It holds up remarkably well even after 30 years. Not surprising, I suppose, considering it's meant to reflect such a historic time-period. Seeing John Rhys-Davies as the young, relatively slender Portugese captain was a treat, and the acting, costumes and sets were all outstanding.

The only disappointments for me were the parts that were cut from the novel. I don't necessarily disagree with them - it was, after all, a novel of more than 1,000 pages, and even a ten-hour miniseries can only contain so much story. Still, some of my favorite scenes from the novel - particularly some very cool battle and fight scenes - had to be cut for time. One very moving scene was especially missed  - in the novel, the Lady Toda/Mariko is determined to leave Osaka castle. Her lord's enemies are just as determined to stop her. The result is a gauntlet in which her troop of Samurai sacrifice themselves one-by-one in an impossible attempt to ritually fight their way to freedom. It was an amazing scene in the book, and I missed it intensely in the mini-series.

Still, there was plenty to like. With the exception of Buntaro, the characters in the mini-series appeared just the way my wife and I had pictured them in the novel. I mention my wife because she'd never actually seen the mini-series before, whereas it's possible that I could have been subconsciously picturing the characters from my childhood memories as I read the book.

Even without having read the novel - or perhaps before reading the novel - the mini-series of Shōgun is highly-entertaining and enjoyable fare. It takes you back both to the days of feudal Japan as well as to the days when the mini-series was king of network television, and events like Shōgun and The Thorn Birds were big-ticket programs designed to carry their networks to "sweeps" victory. Shōgun is currently available in the U.S. on Netflix Instant Watch, as well as on DVD. I liked it nearly as much as the novel, and would confidently rate it an A-.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Evolution of Karate

Certainly many others have been far more personally involved in the martial arts over the last few decades than I have. They could write about the changes they've seen with more accuracy and authority. But this is my blog, so I'm going to have to do it.

When I think of the martial arts, I tend to think of various systems of combat techniques that have deep, historical roots and have changed very slowly, for the most part, over many generations. Each teacher might put his own spin on certain aspects of his style, but generally he would teach much as his own teacher had done, and his students would do the same. And that's just how it was, for hundreds of years.

In the 20th century, a wide array of changes occurred as westerners influenced the people of Asia and Asians shared their knowledge with westerners. The results included things like colored belts and not practicing in your underwear. It also included governing boards to oversee standards as well as "sport" competitions.

My experience, of course, begins only at the very end of that dynamic century. Karate, kung-fu, tae kwon do and other styles had already found their way to America and were reasonably well-entrenched. Even in a modest-sized city like Syracuse, there were a handful of well-known schools and an array of smaller ones. There were tournaments, seminars, demonstrations, contracts, kumite, and kobudo. At the time it was fairly traditional, or at least consistent with "modern" traditional martial arts as it was being done across the country and around the world. You selected a style, you trained in that style, and if you were really dedicated you might, at some point after many years of training, train in one or more additional styles and seek to really understand the heart and soul of martial arts.

In the late 1970s, aerobic exercise started to become popular. I remember when it was introduced at the Fairmount Tennis Club where I spent a lot of time hanging around while my mom played tennis. It really caught on in the 1980s. Karate, likewise, saw a surge in the 1970s and 80s, as it made its way into popular culture through legends like Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, followed by movies like The Karate Kid. In the 1980s we had Flashdance at one end, and the films by Van Damme and Seagal at the other end.

By the early 1990s, the two started to come together. People wanted to exercise and get a good cardiovascular workout, and karate schools had time slots available and knew how to exercise. Somebody got smart and figured out, "Hey, I could take what I know about karate, add in the new Thai Kickboxing that's getting a lot of attention, and swirl them both together with aerobics! Why should the dance instructors be making all the cash?" And so was born 'cardio kickboxing.' The world of martial arts and modern fitness collided and merged, just like that.

In tandem, some schools saw Thai Kickboxing (or Muay-Thai) and decided that it could make a good addition to their own training. By the dawn of the 21st century, it became somewhat common to see kickboxing folded into the training of a non-Thai martial arts style.

Also throughout the mid-1990s and early 2000s we saw the rise of Mixed-Martial Arts. This "catch-all" term meant lots of things to lots of people, but it generally seemed to arise out of the Ultimate Fighting Championship cage-matches that began in 1993. The original idea - to find the best martial-artist and the best style of combat - was at first little more than a brutal gladiatorial event, reminiscent of the Kumite of Van Damme's movie, "Bloodsport." It was interesting to watch, at least until the Gracie family got involved. Then it got boring in a hurry. Why? Because the Gracie's ALWAYS won, and in spectacularly ho-hum fashion. It's just not that entertaining to watch them tie a guy up into a ball and hold him there for a minute or two until he gives up. But it was good enough to get MMA into the American martial arts milieu. The combination of boxing, Muay Thai, ground-fighting and whatever else you wanted to throw in has become increasingly popular throughout the last decade or so, finding its way into more traditional karate dojos or in some cases supplanting them completely. There are several martial arts schools around without any of the traditional Asian trappings - the white japanese gi or the black kung-fu uniform, the hakama, the bowing, the belts; they're all missing. The schools would look more at home in Rocky than The Karate Kid.

And so has karate evolved in the U.S. in the last thirty years in some respects faster than it evolved in Asia over multiple generations. Certainly there are still traditional dojos practicing only the pure forms of Goju-Ryu Karate or Chinese Kung-fu, but many, many others don't even mention what style of martial arts their school is based on. They haven't necessarily lost their way, but they've definitely chosen a different way, a different path.

I sometimes wonder why, though. Are these new styles more effective than the more "common" or "traditional" styles they've supplanted? I don't think so, no - at least not if they're practiced correctly. Are they easier to learn? Well, they might be - they typically don't have katas or the like to learn, so once you've learned the main strikes and blocks you're most of the way there. Still, they're going to take just as much effort to truly master, assuming the student and the school both care about that sort of thing. Certainly you don't see too many American kickboxers smashing their shins against trees or concrete bricks like the real Thai ones do. Mostly, it seems to me as if the styles have been chosen because they're "hot" or "cool."

Which also isn't inherently wrong - at least in my opinion. I choose to study the martial arts at least in part because I think it's cool. I just hope that the evolution of the martial arts is based on conviction and dedication, and does its best to avoid fads and buzz. Anybody who thinks they've figured out in a few decades what took the Chinese and Japanese, the Koreans and the Thai centuries had better really be onto something, or they might want to think again.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

We Live in the Future

That's right - spray-on clothing is real.

This is so amazing to me, not because I'm in any big hurry to see fat people blobbing around town in literally skin-tight outfits, but because this is symbolically futuristic in the manner of flying cars and jetpacks. We don't have civilian space tourism yet (though it looks to be getting kind of close), we don't have a base on the Moon or Mars (and I'm not too optimistic that we will anytime soon), we haven't solved world hunger or achieved world peace, and I still can't fly to work. Plainly, the future is a huge let-down, at least if you compare it to the expectations set for us through Flash Gordon, The Jetsons, and similar entertainment of the mid-20th century.

But at last redemption is at hand. Sure, we're still driving around on old-fashioned wheels, sure our global economy swings on the whims of the privileged few and the winds of fear, and sure we have no robot servants doing our bidding, but at least we finally have spray-on clothes. Simply shake up your can of silly-string mixed with cotton and pssst - you've got a short to cover your nakedness.

Even better are the alternative applications, which seem to be nearly limitless. The scientist inventor in the video suggests spray-on bandages laced with antibiotics, analgesics, or other drugs could be applied quickly, and be assured of being completely sterile. But why stop there? Perhaps spray-on kevlar armor for police and soldiers, spray-on wall treatments for the adventurous decorator, or spray-on upholstery when you want to give your furniture a make-over. Want to go hang-gliding - you'll need to carry a metal framework and a canister of spray-polyester up to the top of that mountain.Need to give a presentation - carry your projection screen in a can, spray it out on the floor if necessary, and then hang it wherever.

The advantages of the spray over woven fabric seem to me considerable - it's hard to imagine them all. It's never the wrong size, for instance. It always fits perfectly (arguably a little too perfectly, granted). And it doesn't HAVE to be skin-tight. I have to presume that one of the common accessories will be some sort of bodysuit that people will wear when they want to spray-on their clothes, so that once removed the spray-clothes will fit more loosely. Which isn't to say that lots of people who shouldn't won't spray it right onto their flabby flesh.

But having to look at that sort of eye-watering display is a necessary evil - a small price to pay for living in the future.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

`Intermediate' Means to Suck at a Whole New Level

My son and I are at the transition-point from beginner to intermediate guitar. It isn't that we've really mastered all the basics of the beginner content. Far from it, in fact. It's just that there's nothing more to learn there - we just have to practice it until we get it right (or give up. Or die. Whichever comes first.).

Beginner guitar involved all the major and minor "natural" chords. We learned basic strum patterns. We learned a wide array of "other" chords, too - quite a few sevenths, some bass chords, (with which to do ascending and descending baselines), some power chords and a number of barre chords. We learned quite a bit of music theory, including how major chords are formed from the 1st, 3rd, and 5th notes of the root's octave.

We finished off our "basic-level" content by learning to read music (at least at a basic level), and tying it in to learning all the notes on the fretboard at first- and second-position. Eventually, we'll learn all the notes on the neck, but right now the first five frets is more than sufficiently challenging. That ought to be okay, though - I'm not sure who said it, but I recently heard the quote "You make all your money in the first four frets." My interpretation of that quote is that unless you're planning to be a guitar legend (which I'm surely not), you'll spend the overwhelming majority of your time playing chords at that end of the guitar. I'm not entirely certain I agree - I've spent the last year looking closely at the hands of any guitarist I saw, live or on TV, and there was definitely a wide disparity amongst them in terms of where they played, whether or not they used a capo, and whether they played mostly standard "natural" chords or a lot of barre chords. But I have no doubt that I could probably be very happy if I just mastered those first 4-5 frets.

So now we're playing lots of individual notes, rather than chords, and, as usual, I'm terrible at it. I'm terrible at remembering the musical notation on the sheet music, I'm terrible at hitting the notes I'm aiming for (instead of the string on one side of it or the other), I'm terrible at using good form as I position my fingers over the strings, and I'm STILL terrible at hitting the string I'm aiming for without also touching (and muting) the string to either side of it. Aaargh! I always figured that by the time I'd been playing for a year I'd have fixed some of these problems, but I haven't really.

In fact, I've recently noticed just how bad I am at some of those things I learned months and months ago. My son, for instance, always "walks" his fingers onto a chord, by which I means that he positions first one finger, then the next, then the last, rather than just snapping them all right into place. It slows him down and it's going to be a hard habit for him to break. I'd thought that I wasn't too big a culprit of this behaviour, but it turns out I am - just not with the most common notes. I don't do it with C, D, A, Em or G, for instance. But I definitely do it with Dm, for example. And anything that I didn't learn back in the first couple of months of playing I'm apt to do it with as well. Worse, I've discovered EXACTLY how horrible some of my more complicated chords sound.

I've mentioned before (here and in prior articles) how bad I am at barre chords. There are certain key chords that I use a lot that I really want and need to be good at, and it's just not happening. These include a full F chord, a Bm chord, and an F#m chord (yes, believe it or not, I need F-sharp-minor chord in several songs). I knew I wasn't happy with how they sounded, but I was curious whether perhaps they were supposed to sound... well... crummy. So I did a little test. My teacher had lent me a capo, so I used it instead of doing the barre with my index finger. This ensured a good, solid barre, and it also made it easier to hit the other string positions that I needed to hit. The result? The most beautiful, resonant, clear chords I'd ever heard. And a crushing lesson in just how awful those chords sound when I play them.

So yeah - I'm now intermediate at sucking. There's progress for ya. I guess I'll keep working on it.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Small Blog Blues

I'm the epitome of the "small blog." After a year, I admit I expected to see some growth in my visitor rates. I mean, I didn't figure to be pulling down CNN numbers or anything, but I thought I might consistently get a few dozen hits a day. Typically, though, it's more like 15-20. July, 2010, for example, was an especially good month. Looking at my Google Analytics line chart, I can see that it has a generally thicker profile than previous months - I consistently had more visitors, with few if any days when almost nobody stopped by. Yet for one of my best months, the numbers aren't too impressive. Breaking it down to the best two weeks of the month, from the 19th through the 31st (in order to give the "best case" picture for this "best" month), I averaged 24 visitors per day. During that time, I never dropped below 18 visitors per day, and on one day I hit a high of 35. For a "typical" day, that's pretty darn good for me.

Sure, I can pad my numbers if I put some effort into it. I've been a member of a particular message board/forum for ten years or so, and if I post something there that interests them and direct them back to my blog, it'll bump my numbers up significantly. Note that I never do that just to get more hits (I don't actually derive any tangible benefit from getting more hits, so there's not much point), but it can be done. Likewise, I can plug a blog article on Facebook and that will often generate more traffic. But if I had any illusions that my blog would "go viral," they'd have long since been shattered. I have a handful of family and friends who read my blog, which is cool - that's mostly who it's aimed toward. I do get some drive-by traffic, however.

For instance, my review of Nerf's N-Force swords, continues to be popular - I've had some 50+ visitors find my site by searching on terms related to that product. I think those swords are awesome, so hopefully my review was helpful (note to Nerf - you're welcome. Please send free stuff for my boys.).

Apparently lots of guitar players have fat fingers, as I seem to have gotten a couple of dozen searches on that, also. I feel your pain, my fat-fingered brothers and sisters of the axe. And I have no answers for you. I've considered gluing pencil erasers to my fingertips, but have yet to actually try it.

Another very popular search is on the term "My shoes are too tight, and I have forgotten how to dance," which is a paraphrase of a line written for Babylon 5 by J. Michael Straczynski and delivered by Centauri Ambassador Londo Mollari (played by Peter Jurasik). If I add up all of those searches, it's another couple dozen.

I've gotten twenty or so hits on stuff related to the Sterling Renaissance Festival, Renn-faire music, actors, actresses and performers. Yay for the rennies and their fans!

I've gotten a handful of hits on Stephen King's "Dark Tower" graphic novels. That's cool - I loved them.

Considering how much I've written about karate and the martial arts, I've gotten surprisingly few hits on related searches. Just goes to show how little attention they get in the U.S., I suppose. I knew that already.

Surprisingly, a few people search for vellum-related stuff. I thought vellum had pretty much fallen out of use with the invention of paper, but evidently people still have an interest in it. Sorry, folks, my blog's got nothing related to actual vellum. Just virtual vellum, and really not too much of that, either.

A few folks found my blog while searching for "Dropbox," but so far only my dad has actually gone ahead and clicked my Dropbox link to sign up for the service and give both of us some extra free space. That's disappointing, actually. I'm tempted to plug that one a little more aggressively. It's free storage, space, people! For both of us! Click the link! (oh, and thanks, Dad!)

And that's about it for searches. Everybody else has found the site because they know me and find my writing erudite and compelling (or they just know me and feel obligated to read it), or because they followed a link I posted somewhere. So look around - those are your fellow readers. Chances are good you know each other already.

Not that I'm complaining. I write this because I want to write it, because I hope my kids get a kick out of it when they're older, and because it gives me a place to explore various topics of interest and occasionally get some interactive response from people (some of whom have been from as far away as Ireland and Hong Kong, which is extremely cool). Sure, I'd like more of that, which would likely occur if I were to find a larger following, but it's not a very high priority for me. Certainly, I have some data that I could use to modify my blog if that's what I was all about. A Rennfaire-themed blog would get a fair number of hits, it would seem. Or I could probably write about sci-fi themed TV shows or King's "Dark Tower" or whatever and potentially see a boost in traffic.In fact, just sticking to one subject would probably help in that regard - as it stands, my eclectic selection of topics surely makes it hard to attract regular followers who don't know me and are purely interested in my blog's content.

The thing is, I don't think I'm passionate enough about any single subject to be able to write about it five days a week for months on end. So it's not likely that much will change here - I'll continue to write about whatever pops into my head and my readership will continue to consist primarily of friends and loved-ones. I probably should buy the boys some more Nerf swords, though. They'd enjoy beating each other with them and apparently the internet community would like to read more reviews.

So to my few dozen regular readers, thank you! I'm glad you stop by and I hope I can continue to write stuff you find interesting.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Troubles by the Bowlful

When you're a homeowner, you quickly (or eventually) realize how naive it is to expect your stuff just to work. I currently have a fence that's starting to lean on one side and starting to rot on the other, I have a front door that has suddenly started to stick severely, and, up until recently, I had three toilets - not one of which reliably worked as designed.

I still have three toilets, of course. But I've had to put quite a bit of time, money, and effort into them recently. One of them would consistently clear the bowl like it was supposed to. That was important, as we needed it pretty badly. The problem with it was three-fold. First, the surface of the seat wore away within six months after I'd installed it. That made me fairly annoyed because it looked like hell, it was beyond any reasonable timeframe in which I could return it, but I wasn't about to replace it a second time that quickly. So I ignored it. Next, the flush mechanism stopped working right - you had to hold the handle down until the bowl cleared or it would stop mid-flush and you'd THEN have to hold the handle down. That was also annoying, but I figured I could squeeze a few more months out of it since it technically functioned. The final straw on this unit was when the handle actually broke (from all the holding-down, I suppose). It snapped clean off inside the tank.

The second toilet was actually the least problematic of the three. It would occasionally clog when flushed, certainly more than the first one ever did, but otherwise it worked pretty well. I tried and tried to clear whatever caused the clogs, but nothing worked. I called a plumber and they used a long augur on it, with no long-term improvement. So I bought my own augur and tried that. Up and down, up and down, again and again. It never seemed to make a difference - the toilet never overflowed or anything, but it was far more prone to clogging than I liked.

The third fixture was ultimately the real problem-child. It was always the most prone to clogging. It got to the point where you couldn't put much of anything in it, or it was guaranteed to clog. I tried the same stuff with this one - called a plumber, used my own augur, and it really didn't fix anything. I don't know what was blocking things up, but it wasn't something that could be cleared. So we got into a routine - it would clog, I'd go after it with the plunger, it would unclog enough to work for a while (if you were really careful what you tried to flush) and then it would eventually clog again and the cycle would repeat. Worse, it took FOREVER for the tank to refill after you flushed it. I was never clear why, it just did. The final straw for this one was the ugliest of them all.

One morning I flushed the toilet and went downstairs for breakfast. My wife was at the kitchen sink, and a short time later she remarked that there was water leaking from the window frame in front of her. It was raining outside, so I figured there must be a leak there somewhere. I needed a ladder to get up over the window-frame outside and check. The ladder was upstairs in my bedroom closet (beside a half-finished closet organizer I've been "working" on all Summer). From my bedroom, I could hear that the toilet in the master bath - toilet number three - was still running. It also did that sometimes, so I went in to jiggle the handle. SPLASH! There was an inch of water in my bathroom. Oh crap! At least now I knew where the leak in the kitchen window was from.

I dashed down to the basement for the wet/dry vac and then hauled the enormous thing up to the bathroom. Within seconds, the water from the floor was safely removed. I could no longer afford to treat that toilet as a simple nuisance, however. This was war!

Back downstairs, I discovered some water stains on the kitchen ceiling and the glass globe of one of the light fixtures was doing its best impression of a fishbowl. Lovely! I killed the power at the electrical panel and took the light apart so it could dry. Then I got on the horn to the plumber.

This fellow tried the augur route (or root, ha-ha!) again, but to no avail. I'd already told him beforehand that unless he saw or felt something that gave him reason to believe he'd actually fixed something, we were going to need assume a more aggressive posture. As far as he could tell, the augur hadn't done anything new for me. The only sure remedy was a swift, lethal response. The fixture needed to be terminated with extreme prejudice.

And so it was. In fact, I decided to go ahead and do both of the units upstairs, because they were both prone to clog to various degrees. I figured whatever was wrong with fixture three was probably also wrong, to a lesser extent, with fixture two. I didn't want to take a chance that it might eventually overflow as well.

Now, note that I don't remember my parents ever having anything like this sort of problem in either of the houses I'd grown up in. The notion of having to replace a toilet was entirely foreign to me. I don't know if the ones I had were particularly crappy (ha-ha) or what, but I found this whole situation extremely annoying. Why my stuff has to break I don't know, but I'm not a fan.

Luckily, the new fixtures weren't hideously expensive (just very expensive when you do two at once, though I did negotiate a deal on them with the plumber. I probably still got screwed, that's just my way) and the installation was a breeze (by which I mean that the professional plumber had no difficulty installing them. I sure as hell didn't try to do it. Can you imagine?). Better yet, they work wonderfully! They flushed quickly and quietly, seeming to use much less water than the older ones. They seem to have a strong pressure, too, so I'm not worried about clogs at all. Also, it turns out that the problem with the third fixture refilling slowly was corrected as well, so I no longer have to listen to it run for 3-5 minutes every time we use it. Mission accomplished - the two target units were back on duty.

That just left fixture number one, with its broken handle, prematurely-worn seat, and incomplete flushes. I hired out the job on the upstairs targets - they needed a pro. But the main-floor problem was all mine. I suited up, grabbed my weapons, and we did battle. A few hours of contortions, swearing, and frustration later, it was like a completely new toilet. My bowlsful of troubles were behind me...

...for now.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Thunder of the Drums

I'm the first to admit that it's easy to get me to want to do something new. It's much harder to get me (or for me to get myself) to follow through on these flights of fancy. One of my more recent larks is the desire to play the Japanese Taiko drums (click for a video). Why? Hell-if-i-know. It just seemed cool.

Can I afford even the most basic Taiko drum starting at $800? Nope. No problem - I found a guy with a video series on how to craft a practice drum out of an old tire and a roll of packing tape.

Can I afford the $100 DVD video lessons? Well, that's a little trickier. I might be able to find free lessons online, but I'm not sure. But no, I'm not paying a hundred bucks for a video tutorial.

Do I know anything about playing the drums? Nope! I'd be a raw novice at it.

Do I have time for this? Heck no!

So why do I do this stuff? Part of it, I think, is laziness. Which makes no sense at all - you don't do MORE stuff because you're lazy. UNLESS you're lazy and don't want to do the stuff you're currently doing, which is hard. What you really want is to find something you're naturally talented at - something you can just pick up and be GREAT at. Something you don't even need to try to do - it practically just happens all by itself. That would be awesome. But if you don't try new things, you may never discover that thing you're super-good at, so you keep trying new stuff.

Another part of the laziness is that the start-up of a new hobby is pretty easy - you go out and buy a bunch of stuff and you're good to go. It's the later stages that get tough - the practice, the failure, the frustration, the sore muscles or finding out that you're actually really terrible at whatever it is you've started to do. All of that comes later.

So, yeah, I'll probably get bored and wander off toward something else before ever even getting started on Taiko drumming. Part of being lazy is having a short attention span. But for one brief time, the drums of ancient Japan sang inside my head.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A League all their Own

I visited the Guitar League meeting on Monday night, and if anything I enjoyed it even more than the first time. The League is a gathering of Syracuse-area guitar enthusiasts. It has a membership of around 130, plus non-members like me who occasionally attend the meetings. I'd say there were at least 100 people there on Monday to see talented local performer Miss E play some Beatles, some blues and some classic rock for us, while taking audience questions and talking about her love of the instrument. She's an outstanding guitarist, and while I'm not sure how much I actually learned from her (given how far she is above my ability level), it was at least a terrific concert.

Backing up a minute, though, the meeting actually began with one of the group's co-founders, Dick Ward, performing for the audience as they arrived prior to the start of the main presentation. Dick did something cool Monday night - he brought copies of sheet music (lyrics and chords) for some popular folk songs like "Tom Dooley" and "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing," then had everyone in the audience take out their guitar and play along. The songs used simple chords and were well within my comfort zone, so I enjoyed the exercise immensely.

Sadly, Dick announced that Monday's meeting was the last one at the Vineyard (which, despite the misleading name, is actually a church), and that's a real shame. Whatever sort of worship goes on there involves lots of amplifiers and the place had a terrific sound system and a nice stage to play on, as well as spacious rooms for the different ability levels to use for the breakout sessions. No word yet on where the new locale will be, but Dick seemed optimistic that they had some quality alternatives that just needed to be nailed down.

After Dick's set, Miss E played for a good hour or more. She started with the Beatles and ended with an awesome performance of Janis Joplin's "Bobby McGee." It was just her and her bass player Paulie, but together they filled the large hall with sound. Her fingers flew on the neck of the guitar and across the strings and it was really impressive to watch her play.

To round out the night, we broke into our sessions and I got to spend 45 minutes with the other beginners (the "rookies") learning to play some more folk tunes like "She'll be Comin Round the Mountain when she Comes" from Bill Delaney of The Flyin' Column, a local and well-regarded Irish trio who were the presenters the last time I attended a Guitar League meeting. It was very educational.

It was also great to see other people struggling with stuff I actually picked up fairly quickly. Not that I enjoyed seeing them struggle, rather it demonstrated that I may not actually be the worst guitar player in the world, even if it feels like it most of the time.

After a year and a half, you see, I don't feel that I've made much progress on getting my fat fingers to hit only one string at a time. They still tend to touch adjacent strings, muting their sound. I still struggle to do anything more complicated than the standard chords - barre chords in particular are a trial for me. And I don't always get my fingers into position on a chord as fast as I feel I ought to. I don't quite "walk" my fingers from string to string, but I come close with some of the chords that I'm not as comfortable with (say, D-minor, for example). It's frustrating, but evidently it's not just me. Perhaps there's hope that some day my fingers will actually start doing what I want them to. I can't be sure of that - it may be that the others in the room who were struggling had just picked up the guitar for the very first time, and in a few months will be laughing at my lack of progress. But I don't know that, so I can at least pretend that it's natural to be as bad as I am.

Most of all, just being around so many talented guitar players felt like it ought to have some sort of osmosis effect on me - like their ability and skill might rub off on me just a little. It helped to renew my enthusiasm and dedication to learning to play, too, and that's always good. I don't get terribly discouraged, but sometimes I don't really feel like going in to practice and a little bit of enthusiasm can really help motivate me.

I'm glad I went and I hope to make the meetings somewhat more regularly, even though it conflicts with my Monday-night Writer's Roundtable. Maybe I'll get lucky and the move to a new venue will force them to change to a different meeting night, but I'm not counting on it. I'll just have to make the choice from time to time and go, because it's totally worth it. And to any Syracuse-area guitar players who might stumble across this, you owe it to yourself to check out the Guitar League. In fact, you'd be crazy not to.

Monday, September 13, 2010

[Novel Review] Shōgun

A novel by James Clavell

This novel deserves much better. If nothing else, it deserves to have had its review written back when I first read the book, rather than seven or eight months later. I mean, Clavell doesn't care - he's deceased. But such an outstanding novel deserves a review that can adequately and enthusiastically convey everything about it that made me attack this 1,000-page-plus novel and let it pull me to its conclusion as if I were on a high-speed rail.

Shōgun is loosely based on real people and events. The height of the Japanese feudal period involved such characters as Oda Nobunaga and Ieyasu Tokugawa - men who united Japan under their iron fists and dared claim the title of Shōgun - the supreme military commander second in rank only to the Emperor, himself. In reality, they were second to none in terms of the power and authority they held over the daily lives of everyone living in Japan during their rule. In the year 1600, when Tokugawa was still a daimyo - a high-ranking feudal lord vying for power against his peers - Englishman William Adams piloted a Dutch warship around the southern tip of South America and into the pacific. This was a historic moment for Europe, as previously only the allied Spanish and Portuguese fleets had ever made the trip (following the path of noted Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan). England and Holland, both protestant nations, were hostile to and in competition with Catholic Spain and Portugal, and their lack of access to India, China and Japan was a major impediment for them. Adams's arrival in Japanese waters - albeit with only a fifth of his hundred-man crew, all sick and storm-tossed - could potentially be a major coup for the protestant nations. Or, it might be a death sentence for the Pilot and his men.

In time, Adams came to be an adviser to the crafty, arguably brilliant Tokugawa. Together they befuddled the Jesuit priests, the Spanish merchants, and the other Japanese lords all contending for control of Japan in a deadly and lucrative game of politics. Adams came to be known by the honorific Anjin-sama (essentially "Lord Pilot") and opened up relations between England/Holland and Japan, at least temporarily, and expanded the reach of the Dutch East India company.

The novel takes these historical figures and makes them real people, with their own heroics and foibles, their own strengths and flaws. He renames them, probably to signify the extensive dramatic license he took with the people and events on which he based his novel. Tokugawa becomes Toranaga, and Anjin-Sama Adams becomes Englishman John Blackthorne. Blackthorne sails the Dutch ship into Japanese waters after taking heavy losses in a storm. There he immediately runs afoul of the local Jesuit priest and the Samurai (Japanese knight) who ruled the local village. Unable to speak Japanese, Blackthorne is at a significant disadvantage. The customs are strange to him, and the people do not value what he values. He's lost, both physically and culturally.

Blackthorne begins at the bottom - broken, adrift, and confused. Throughout the novel, we see him build himself back up. He's a brilliant navigator, engineer and mathematician, but none of that is important to the Japanese, at least at first. He's a curiosity - a smelly, uncouth swine with bad manners, a nonsense language and no position anywhere in the hierarchical system of the rigid Japanese society. They detest him, just as he finds their ways incomprehensible and ridiculous.

What's remarkable, then is to watch the transformation of John Blackthorne into Anjin-sama. Throughout the book, he literally becomes Japanese. He takes on their clothing, their manners, their customs (such as regular bathing!), and, perhaps most importantly, their language. Once he's able to speak Japanese, his ability to relate to the powerful men and (to an extent) women around him increases dramatically. He becomes an ally and advisor to Toranaga, who we learn is an eccentric yet ultimately brilliant strategist and politician.

Eventually, Blackthorne's "man-out-of-place" persona becomes an asset rather than a liability for him. As he wraps himself in the skin of a Japanese, he keeps the heart of the bold explorer that brought him to Japan in the first place. He dares where others would cringe. He speaks where others would remain silent. He impresses and offends those around him with his courage and audacity. The result is that certain of those in power come to respect him above and beyond all of the thousands of Japanese around him. Or, they hate him and wish him dead.

And it's those dichotomies that are the backbone of Shōgun. Those who hate Blackthorne and those who revere and even love him. The Englishman he was and the Japanese he becomes. The man who gets pissed on (literally!) and tossed into a foetid pit and the feudal lord who helps his liege claim the ultimate title - and the ultimate power - that of Shōgun!

Clavell's book is remarkable in not only how it portrays its characters, but in how it introduces its (presumably) Western audience to feudal Japan. You can almost learn to speak rudimentary Japanese by reading this book - but never does it feel like you're slogging through language lessons. As Anjin-sama learns the ways of Japanese society, the reader learns along with him - how and when to bow, to kneel, to speak or not, the role of the peasant, the woman, the courtesan - all are explained in detail, yet always through action and dramatic tension. I enjoyed Shogun immensely - from the death-defying naval escapades to the climactic ninja attack, and everything in-between. I even made my wife read it, and she enjoyed it just as much as I did (and although our tastes in books diverge about 80% of the time). I highly recommend this novel to enthusiasts of adventure tales, foreign lands, the "golden age of sail", Japan or anyone who just wants a darn good read. I whole-heartedly rate Shōgun an A+!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The New McCarthyism

The original McCarthyism was a poorly-executed reaction to a legitimate problem. There absolutely were communist agents attempting to overthrow the American way of life in the 1940s and 50s. But we became our own worst enemies by giving in to fear and allowing a pogrom against people based only on suspicion and innuendo, rather than actual evidence. We were scared, so we ruined people's lives based on the mere suspicion that they might be Soviet sympathizers.

The new McCarthyism is an equally ill-advised reaction to a different legitimate problem. I've named the movement for Playboy Playmate turned sort-of actress Jenny McCarthy, one of its more vocal leaders. The problem is autism, which has seen a dramatic rise in the last twenty years. The reaction of McCarthy and others, sadly, has been to fly off the deep end, pointing the finger of blame at immunizations (or some of the ingredients in the vaccines) despite a chorus of voices in the medical and scientific community who insisted for years that there simply was not and could not be a causal relationship there. Now, Jenny McCarthy is a little nuts anyway, as evidenced by her claims to be an "Indigo Mom" with a "Crystal Child" several years back. The nuttyness of this claim is, in my mind, clarified by the fact that all of the "indigo mom" websites I could find on a Google search are defunct and inactive. I'm not entirely clear on what crazy crap she'd bought into with that, but I'm thinking it didn't pan out any better than the "vaccines cause autism" business.

Which, incidentally, has now been thoroughly debunked. Even, well, more thoroughly than it had been before, I suppose. I mean, everybody seemed to know it was bunk except McCarthy and the poor parents who bought into the crap she was ignorantly spewing. The original scientists who fueled the madness have recanted - one's even had his medical credentials removed. But not before McCarthy climbed up on her bully pulpit and swore to the world that she had the answer to autism.The results of her efforts? A marked decrease in nationwide immunizations and the deaths of numerous small children to entirely preventable diseases. As bad as the old McCarthyism was, and it was indeed terrible, "Tail-Gunner Joe" never got any little kids killed. The new McCarthyism was just as misguided, just as sinister, just as well-meaning and just as wrong as the old one. And in our media-heavy age, it's all too easy.

In fact, McCarthy (the Playmate, not the Senator) was given an award by noted skeptic James Randi - the Pigasus award. It's presented to the 'Performer Who Has Fooled The Greatest Number of People with The Least Amount of Effort'. And it's that effortlessness that makes modern McCarthyism (of any stripe) so dangerous. It no longer takes rumor, supposition, innuendo and misinformation more than a fraction of a minute to travel around the world. Every time you receive some urban legend in your email box, you can see modern McCarthyism at work. Every time some talking head on TV, like Jenny McCarthy, is allowed to spout nonsense without credible voices to offer opposing viewpoints, McCarthyism is at work. In the 50s, people's lives were ruined by accusations without adequate evidence. Today, children's lives have been ruined, even ended, by similar accusations that not only didn't help prevent autism, they surely distracted people from efforts that might have been more fruitful. I feel for McCarthy and her autistic son. I feel for anyone who has to deal with the challenges of autism or any other severe mental or physical condition in their child. But wanting an answer and actually having an answer simply are not the same thing, no matter how badly you want them to be. Spewing fantasy as medical or political reality has consequences, and listening to those who do so may bring those consequences right home to you.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

How I Lost My Confirmation Party

In Catholicism, confirmation is one of the seven holy sacraments (along with baptism, reconciliation, communion, marriage, holy orders and last rites). It's the ceremony by which a communicant of the church becomes a full adult member of the congregation. I made my confirmation, but it was a fairly miserable experience for everybody. Perhaps if I'd known there was supposed to be a party at the end - one that traditionally involved gifts of money and perhaps a new watch - I'd have been more compliant about the whole thing.

But I was undergoing a crisis of faith at the time. The more I'd learned about Catholicism, the more I'd come to question its sordid history. It was supposed to be based on the perfection of Jesus Christ and his representative on Earth, the Pope. But the church, and its popes, had been far from perfect.I'd started to lose my belief in the teachings of the church, and if you don't believe, it gets to be really hard to sit through confirmation classes every week reading passages from the bible and discussing the beliefs of the church and its followers. My head, much less my heart, just wasn't in it.

Not long before the confirmation ceremony was to take place, I was in the car with my parents and must have made some mention about how much I hated the classes or didn't want to go to the ceremony or something. I'm sure it was far from the first time I'd complained like that, but apparently it was the last straw for my dad. He let me know then that there was usually a party to celebrate a confirmation, but not for me. No party, no watch, no money - if I was going to be a pain in the ass about the whole thing, then I could just forget it. No second chances, no negotiation, it was done. Parties were for good, faithful Catholics. My parents had a duty to see me confirmed, but after that I was free to go my own way if I wanted to.

And so I did. I think I continued going to church for a while after I made my confirmation, but I didn't feel it. I went through the motions, but it had no meaning for me. But dad was right - it wouldn't have had any more meaning for me if I'd been wearing a new wristwatch or carrying a few hundred extra bucks in my pocket. Better for my relatives to have kept their money than to bestow it on somebody in celebration of a ceremony that meant more to them than it did to me.

In the twenty years since, I've learned a great deal about faith, religion in general and Catholicism in particular. I studied the history of the church for a semester at college. I've read sizable chunks of the Bible, but I've never read anything to make me feel that my lack of faith was misplaced. Belief in the church's teachings gives comfort and peace to millions of people around the world, and that alone makes it worthwhile. Far be it from me to proselytize against the church. But it doesn't work for me, and my dad figured that out before I'd really figured it out for myself. I lost my party, but the ceremony was valid - it really did mark the beginning of my passage into adulthood.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

To Live in Interesting Times

I remember many years ago one of my colleagues from the marketing department at MONY sent out an ancient Chinese blessing in an email: "May you live in interesting times." He was a friend of mine, so I didn't feel too awkward in letting him know that that saying is generally interpreted not as a blessing, but as a curse.Why would that be, you might wonder?

Well, for most of man's existence, "interesting" times involved plague, privation, rape, pillage and/or murder. In "civilized" times, you might find yourself invaded by a neighboring state or simply abused by your own nobility. Nobility being those individuals who had, by hook or by crook, amassed enough wealth and power to control their own lives (to an extent) and the lives of others around them. You are probably not descended from nobles, just as I'm reasonably certain I wasn't. Only a tiny fraction of the population ever lived a life of privilege. Everyone else served at their whim, digging in the dirt to eke out a meager living and, mostly, just hoping to be left the hell alone.

Which brings us back to our subject - if you were a peasant, a laborer, a slave, a conscript or anyone who wasn't a "wheeler and dealer" at the upper crust of society, you wanted your life to be as boring as possible. You'd celebrate a few festivals and holidays each year, you'd get married, and you'd make your obeisance to your cultural deities, and the rest of your life was hard, backbreaking, brutal work interspersed with moments of blind terror when the elements raged or disease spread through the community or word came that some band of marauders was going to come take what little you had - your food, your girls, or your life.

You have to really think about that sort of life - the sort of life that a thousand generations of your ancestors and mine had to endure. Did endure, in fact - at least long enough to procreate, or we wouldn't be here today. You have to really think about it to appreciate how different our lives are today. I have a garden, but it's terrible and I'm terrible at it. It's certainly a far cry from my great-great grandparents hoeing in the dirt of central Italy, hoping that their crops produce well enough to feed everybody. Because if they didn't, they might die. No food pantries, no welfare, just, "Sorry, papa, it looks like one of your children has starved to death. Hopefully the crops will be better next year." I'm so indifferent to my vegetables that I often forget to water them, and when the weeds get out of control I give up and wander off. I mean, what the hell, right? It's not as if most of my family will eat a vegetable anyway.

But our lives are different. So different, in fact, that we don't recognize a serious curse when we see one anymore. We crave excitement now. We appreciate a distraction from our dull, mundane lives. Because we know it's probably not going to affect us in any meaningful way. We have legions of reporters, journalists, pundits, talking-heads, hosts and personalities who can fill up the entire day with "interesting" stories about things that are going on in the world. We love it. We eat it up. Because we know that the bodies they found in Mexico or the victim in the auto accident or the soldiers killed in Afghanistan are not us, and aren't likely to be anybody we know. Even when something major - something really big - happens, it's still not the Huns riding in and burning our homes and carrying off our women.

Take September 11th, for example (the 9th anniversary of which is this coming Saturday). It's one of the biggest things to happen to our country this generation, but how much did it really change YOUR life? If you lost somebody in the towers or on one of the flights, you have my condolences. If you went to Iraq or Afghanistan, or lost someone there, you have my gratitude for the service. But for most of us, the principle impact has been annoyance in the security line at the airport. Likewise with diseases, insects, lawlessness, and most other calamities that could - but no longer do - plague the first world nations. We live in an era of almost unprecedented peace and prosperity. Compared to most of our predecessors, we live like lords, at least in terms of our access to food, comfort, healthcare and luxury. It's truly impossible for us to imagine what it was like to be alive in the past, unless, perhaps, we've visited a country ravaged by war or suffering from a lack of basic services.

The good news is that it gives me something to write about. It's easy to make a world that's familiar and at the same time horrific - just take modern society and then remove those aspects that make it peaceful and pleasant. Collapse the infrastructure and then show the people living among the ruins. In the truest, most awful sense of the word, those would be interesting times

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Here's Your Manual, Doctor

Yesterday at the State Fair I had the chance to visit with one of the Revolutionary War re-enactors, who was portraying a regimental physician. In 30-40 minutes, I learned an awful lot about medicine of that era, some of which will no doubt find its way into my novels.

I learned that there were really only two medical colleges in the colonies - one in New York (which was captured by the British when New York fell) that would one day become Columbia, and one in Philadelphia that had only managed to graduate about fifty students before the war began. And none of those physicians had any training in treating combat wounds. Gunshot wounds were evidently a great rarity in the peacetime colonies (as you can imagine - a criminal is hardly going to take a five-foot-long musket with him when he robs somebody, and a single-shot pistol wasn't a great deal more useful), so the only ones who knew how to treat them would have been members of the British Army.

Thus, the Continental Congress authorized a Dr. Jones (presumably no relation to the guy who found the Lost Ark) to write a manual on treating combat injuries. That manual was then distributed to Colonial Army physicians, who were given two weeks to learn its contents before being expected to operate according to its guidance. Worse, in units where there was no physician, any man who could read was likely to be handed the same manual and ordered to act as the doctor.

Not that having a doctor was a great salvation. For wounds to the torso, knowledge of the internal physiology was so limited that there was simply nothing that could be done. Scholars of the era still thought that the role of the heart was to warm the blood, while circulation was simply the result of bodily movement. If you took a wound to one of your extremities (arms and legs, obviously - if you got shot in the head there likely wasn't much to do except bury you), they either extracted the bullet (if it didn't shatter a large bone), left it inside you (if it was in too deeply to get to), or amputated the limb (if the bullet's ricochets and shattered bone caused too much damage to repair). Without the amputation, by the way, you were all but certainly going to die of infection within just a few days. Even with the amputation, you had only a 55% chance of survival, but most reckoned that better than no chance at all.

A Bullet Extractor
The tools of the physician were remarkable. Laudanum could serve as a strong sedative, but it was rare in the colonies, particularly after the British blockade prevented imports from the poppy fields of Asia. In place of anesthesia, you got to bite on a stick while the doctor probed your wound with his finger. If he found it easily, he might remove it with a special set of forceps that had a rounded impression in the end that was meant to fit the round musket-ball (assuming the soft lead hadn't deformed into an odd shape on impact with the soldier's body or some hard, nearby object). Failing that, the doctor might probe with a long metal rod. The vibration he'd feel upon striking metal was different enough from flesh or bone to be a good indicator of where the bullet could be found. Perhaps he'd find the dime-sized lead ball stuck snugly in the soldier's flesh. In that case, he might apply a special bullet extractor - a long, thin, hollow tube with a handle on one end. Twisting the handle would deploy a screw from the bottom of the tube that could be driven into the lead ball. Once fastened tightly, the ball could be pulled out at last. One final technique was to insert a bit of cloth or some other irritant into the wound and hold the wound open with a retractor or some other tool for a few days. The swelling, puss and other healing processes within the wound would sometimes force the foreign object out (or far enough out that it could be removed manually). As long as all of this activity was accompanied by bright white pus, all was well. If the wound was too severe or the pus turned sickly, or if the flesh began to mortify and couldn't be cut away, then amputation was in order.

An Amputation Knife
Amputation was a quick, brutal, last-ditch effort to save a wounded man's life. After tightening a tourniquet made of quilted cloth straps and a large metal screw, the doctor would begin with a large, heavy knife with an edge on one side and an inward-curve in the same direction as the edge. The curve made it quick and easy to slice through the skin and muscle of the limb. Two cuts were made, until the doctor had a slice completely around the circumference of the appendage. Next, a smaller, very sharp knife would be used to cut any remaining tendons. Then an assistant would apply a leather or cloth harness to pull the flesh above the wound away from the cut. This would cause it to bunch up and come away from the site of the amputation, and allowed for extra flesh to be pulled back down afterward and be sewed over the end of the wound. The doctor would quickly saw through the bone and discard the amputated limb. A piece of waxed string - called shoemaker's cord because, well, because that's what it was - would be looped around a long metal probe with a pointed hook on the end. That point would be used to pierce the artery, pull it forward, and then the cord would be tightened around it to close off the blood vessel.

The wound was then padded with bread flour, wool lint, or a compress made of both together. It might also be treated with alum to help the blood clot. It would be loosely stitched, to allow for massive swelling, and then the soldier was sent off to recuperate. They had a little better than even odds to live.

Now consider battlefield medicine as one more massive challenge that faced the Colonies. They were fighting the most proficient military the world had ever seen to date, victors of campaigns across Europe and around the globe. They had very few well-trained officers, very little money for men and supplies, and they were completely blockaded at sea (lacking even a rudimentary navy). Yet through clever strategy, raw perseverance, and a little help from their friends (various Indian tribes, German General Von Steuben and the French navy, among others), the colonies, against all odds, managed to win their independence.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Musical Mental Block

Trouble learning to read music

It shouldn't be that hard. I've known my alphabet for many, many years, and the staff is only ten notes high (though you can have notes below or above the staff, of course, but on the regular guitar you're not going to go much lower than low E (in fact, I'm not sure it's possible to go lower than low E except on a bass guitar. Wouldn't all the notes be higher than that as you made the strings shorter by pressing them? I think so.) and that's only another six notes below the staff, for a total of sixteen notes. I ought to be able to learn sixteen notes, right?


Oh, I can play them just fine. I just can't see them on the staff without having to stop and think about them every single time. Is that a B or a C? Is that an E or an F? A or G? Ugh!

These are our final "beginner" lessons. We've been playing for fifteen months now, and we're preparing to move on to "intermediate" level material. I really need to get this down. Repetition ought to do it, but it's just not.

So I made flash cards! You can even see them here. They're sort of working - I'm a bit quicker than I was, but I still feel myself thinking too hard when I should be just blowing through the music. I can definitely play a lot faster than I can read.

It's neat, though, to be able to play the actual music, rather than just chords. My son, for instance, got a birthday card from our guitar teacher that folded out to a guitar and played "happy birthday." If you play chords for "happy birthday" it's a nice enough accompaniment to your singing, but it doesn't really sound all that much like "happy birthday." If you play it note-by-note, however, it's instantly recognizable.We're currently working on The Star-Spangled Banner, having already played (though by no means mastered) Greensleeves, Farewell Spanish Ladies and a handful of others. We've learned the C (natural) scale and the G scale (with its F# notes) and it's all really cool. I was in chorus for six or seven years, and I never really got the hang of reading music, except to be able to tell that I should "sing higher" or "sing lower." To actually understand musical notation seems like learning a foreign language - one that, for once - I might actually be able to master.

It's going to take some more time, I'm afraid, before I'm reading music like a native speaker. Meanwhile, I'm still really liking the instrument. As much as it drives me crazy with my fat fingers that can't hit only a single string when I need to and my frequent screw-ups even when I'm playing something I ought to have down perfectly, I still really enjoy what I'm learning.

My daughter, on the other hand, not only plays the piano and trumpet quite well, but she recently picked up my Irish tin whistle and within about twenty minutes was playing Amazing Grace from the booklet and various Renaissance Faire tunes by ear. Clearly, musical talent skipped a generation in my family.