Tuesday, November 30, 2010

I Like It My Way

It's definitely clear to me that when it comes to computer games, I like to do things my own way. The more freedom the developers give me, the happier I'll be. This surely speaks to why certain games are my favorites.

Deus Ex, for example, is a fairly free-form game. Sure, each "map" in the game has certain goals that need to be accomplished before you move on, but it's extremely flexible about how you meet those goals. To facilitate this, the developers did several things right. They provided multiple "paths" in most cases - lots of ways to get to where you need to be. There'd be a "sneaky" path where you had to stick to the shadows, a "technie" path that only worked if you were able to bypass security equipment, and a "brute force" path that required you to defeat numerous enemies. They also provided multiple "upgrade" trees for your character - as the game proceeded, you'd find nanite canisters that allowed you to upgrade your systems, but each time you had to make a choice - strength or stealth? Weapons or computer? The better you got at one, the fewer chances you'd ever have to upgrade the other. Lastly, they provided a wealth of weaponry, several for each playing style. Personally, I tended to like a combination of stealth and direct assault, wherein I would sneak into a good position, then use a sniper rifle to pick off enemies from a safe distance, then move up.

Another game that I really, really enjoyed was Assassin's Creed. Assassin's creed places you in various middle-eastern cities around the time of the Crusades and lets you have at it. There are various people you're supposed to help and/or kill, but how you achieve those goals is largely up to you. You had the skills to launch all-out assaults, or to slide in behind a victim and slip a knife in between their ribs. I hated the ending, mostly because it denied you the sort of freedom the rest of the game provided, instead funneling you through a series of near-impossible toe-to-toe battles that ignored most of what you'd learned while playing the game. The other 90% of the first Assassin's Creed was excellent, though, and I look forward to the sequel(s) coming down in price to where I can afford them.

I've never written about it, however System Shock 2 was another masterpiece that combined free-form play, selectable upgrades, and a dark, mysterious storyline to produce an epic playing experience. SS2 is still one of the scariest, most dramatically tense games I ever played. Like Deus Ex, it let you choose whether to be a tech, a brawler or a telepath, and which one you chose affected how you played.

The Elder Scrolls games - Morrowind and Oblivion being the two I've actually played - expanded on the level of freedom dramatically by letting you explore whole continents, choose multiple races and classes, and even join certain factions (which then denied you access to what the other factions offered).

But there was one game that trumped all of those. A game so epic in nature that you literally had entire worlds to explore, whole cultures to play, a wide multitude of races and classes, and thousands of NPCs and players to interact with. That game, of course, is World of Warcraft.

WoW is in the process of experiencing its third expansion, and I admit I have a slight itch to play the game again, in spite of the monetary cost and the huge time investment involved. And that addictiveness that would threaten to pull me in even when I know the game isn't really a good hobby got me thinking about why. Why would I even consider playing a game that sucks up every free minute of my day? And I realized, it's the freedom that really attracts me, and the freedom that makes the game almost too good - too much of a time-sink. There's ALWAYS something you can do, whether it's questing or grinding for experience or exploring someplace you've never really been or hunting for "rare" monsters (who only appear in certain locations at random times) or gathering ingredients to craft items or selling stuff in the auction house or... well, there's always something to do. Most of it, quite honestly, isn't that much fun, but somehow the ease of it, the monotony of it, the limited risk of it and the "hoarding" aspects of it all speak to me in such a way that once I'm in the game, I find it awfully hard to leave. It's always "just one more quick thing."

So I am not going to play WoW again, even just to see the changes. If anything, the fact that they're changing stuff that was really familiar to me, comfortable for me, is a bit of a dis-incentive, so that's good. But if I were in there, I'm sure I'd have just as much trouble leaving. Because if there was ever a game that let me pretty much do what I wanted however I wanted to do it, it would be World of Warcraft.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Busy, Busy, Busy!

The title quote today is actually from the old Frosty the Snowman cartoon, which we watched this weekend while decorating the tree. It's also a line we use quite often around here, and rarely moreso than the last few days. We were incredibly busy over the long weekend.

It all began with Thanksgiving, of course, which was a very intensive afternoon of furiously preparing a wide array of side dishes to go with the turkey entree. It was a magnificent dinner, however, and more than worth all the cooking and cleaning that went into it. My wife topped it all off with these little ramekins of chocolate souffle-cake that were absolutely delicious.

Friday involved further cleaning the house and then watching my wife and kids set up various Christmas decorations. We watched Frosty the Snowman, Frosty Returns, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

But Saturday was THE day. The day started off marvelously when the older kids MADE BREAKFAST! This is unprecedented in our household and pretty darn cool. They managed to make pancakes that were almost as good as my wife's (same recipe) and as far as I could see they did not make a huge mess doing it. Way to go kids!! Then, not only was there a flurry of cleaning (the kids have to do their chores on Saturday, plus my wife was in an absolute frenzy), but in the middle of the day my kids cashed in on the promise that since my allergy shots were fairly far along, we could at last get a cat. Here she is:

That's Dutchess, a domestic long-haired cat, and the newest member of our family. We made a trip over to the ASPCA and within about ten minutes I was holding Dutchess in my arms. We'd already looked at a dozen cats or more and looked at a few more after, but everybody agreed that she was a keeper. She's soft, sweet, and friendly. Unlike our experience at PetSmart, where they took our info without telling us that the cat we wanted had already been requested by six other people, we were able to walk out of the ASPCA within minutes with our box 'o cat under my arm. The kids spent the rest of the afternoon "tailing" her around the house as she investigated her new home. Hopefully she won't expect the place to always bee this clean.

The upcoming week holds great promise, too. The kids are in school all five days for a change, and I have nothing fancy scheduled on the calendar, so I'm hoping to really burn through chapter edits on my novel and try to get caught up to where I'd wanted to be - ready to plow into new chapters by December. I'm behind schedule, but I'd like to hope I won't end up losing the entire month of December (which is already around ten days short thanks to Christmas break) before I get back on track.

Best of all, though, is that on Thursday we get to graduate to our purple belts in karate! Woo! We all continue to make steady progress and I can see the improvement in everyone (well, except my wife, I suppose. She's been down this road before). That's the important thing, of course - that we're making steady growth and improvement in our skills, knowledge, technique and physical fitness, but it's nice to celebrate the milestones. And so, as always, we continue to be Busy, Busy, Busy!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

The turkey is all brined, now it's time to whip up everything else. This year's menu will be:

Turkey brined with Alton Brown's recipe (just like last year). I'm thinking about brushing the skin with bacon grease to see what that does.

My homemade whipped potatoes

My homemade acorn squash, with lots of brown sugar and a little nutmeg

Corn (frozen), stuffing (boxed), dinner rolls (bought), cranberry sauce (canned), olives (off my olive tree. Just kidding, they're canned)

Plus whatever my wife makes for the boys - probably peanut butter or toast or something. And some sort of dessert that as far as I know my wife still hasn't decided on.

I can't WAIT! I love this holiday, because it's all about food (and giving thanks or something. I dunno. Mostly food!). My favorite part is after I've cooked and cleaned all day (I make most of the food) and then gorged myself, I stagger over to my chair and fall into a food coma for half an hour or so. Ahhh, the good life!

And then, to start thinking about Christmas dinner! I'm seriously toying with the idea of having a goose, if for no other reason than because I hate the filthy, disgusting things and would like to take out my vengeance upon one gastrically. Not sure if I'm up to strangling one myself, though - I may have to get it from a professional.

Here's hoping your thanksgiving is terrific, too!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

So What is Aikido, Anyway?

In all my gushing (and moaning) about Saturday's Aikido seminar, I realize that it may not have really been clear to some of my readers just what exactly I was doing there. Fair enough - let me give you my take.

Aikido is a very unique martial art. It bears some superficial similarity to Judo, in that it is practiced with partners and involves various throws and joint manipulations, and no karate-style strikes except as something to defend against and practice techniques.

It's also a relatively new martial art. It was founded by Ōsensei, Morihei Ueshiba, in Japan in the 1920s. Ōsensei was a student of many styles, including Judo as well as Jujitsu (the Japanese kind, which I gather is somewhat different from the Brazilian kind that's so popular now, but I am unclear in what ways they vary) and Aiki-Jujitsu.

By the early 1920s, Ōsensei had begun to develop what would, over the next nearly forty years, become Aikido, and spread around the world. It evolved throughout his adult life as he embraced

Aikido of Central New York is, I believe, similar to most other Aikido dojos in general. At least it looks to be from the photos I've seen. It has a large practice floor covered in padded tatami mats. When I used to train there in 1991 (at a different location just up the road) there was a huge sheet of canvas with some sort of padding underneath, but the idea is the same. The padding is important, because there are a lot of Aikido techniques that result in someone being hurled to - or across - the floor.

Aikido is actually a very gentle martial art in many respects. You can always tell when you're being attacked by an Aikidoist, because they begin by saying "Grab my wrist!" Don't do it - you'll be sorry! The training involves watching each technique demonstrated by the instructor - usually a Sensei (teacher) - then practicing it with a partner called an uke. You and your partner take turns performing the ukemi - the role of the attacker - alternating back and forth to practice the technique.

Many of the techniques involve taking your uke down to the mat in a pin. They may also send the uke into a shoulder roll, or a backfall, or - if they're skilled enough to do it with confidence - a breakfall where they flip completely over and land with a painful-sounding smack. It actually doesn't hurt at all if you do it properly. Perhaps because of his early training, or possibly because his great-great grandfather was a noted Samurai, Ōsensei incorporated weapons training with both the bokken (wooden samurai sword) and the jo (a short staff meant to represent either a walking staff or a spear, depending on how it's used) into his style. On Saturday, I think I heard that they've begun practicing with the bo. or long staff, as well, but we never had in the past so I don't know much about where that comes in.

A big part of what I liked about Aikido was that it's so very graceful. Executing the techniques properly always seemed almost like a dance, rather than combat. And yet you got the sense that if you really understood and mastered them, they'd be very effective at warding off not just an attacker, but multiple attackers if necessary. That was practiced, in fact. We would sometimes perform rondori, in which one nage (the person performing the techniques) would be in the center of a circle of multiple uke. Each uke would, in turn, lunge at the nage with a punch, an overhead strike (shomenuchi), a diagonal strike to the neck (yokamenuchi), a wrist or lapel grab (I don't remember the Japanese terms for those, sorry) or, if the nage was sufficiently advanced - say, around 1st kyu or above - a front snap kick. The nage would not only respond to each attacker, but part of the exercise was to ensure that whenever possible they used their uke as a shield against further attacks, or sent him rolling in the direction of the other attackers to slow them down. Rondori was enormous fun and an awesome workout.

I also liked Aikido because it's very traditional. I trained at seminars with people like Sugano Sensei, Yamada Sensei and, if I remember correctly, Chiba Sensei - all of whom trained directly under Ōsensei. As a result, Aikido uses much more Japanese terminology than you often encounter in other styles taught in America, and there's very little differentiation between dojos. I noted at all the seminars I attended that the etiquette, terminology, techniques and even the warmup exercises tended to be done almost precisely alike from instructor to instructor, because that's how they were done at Ōsensei's home dojo, Hombu.

I'm committed to Kenpo karate right now, and I don't have time (or money) for anything else, so I don't expect that I'll be regularly training in Aikido again anytime soon. Someday, though, I definitely plan to return and take up my studies of this fascinating martial art.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 1

The seventh and final book in the Harry Potter series wasn't as long as, for instance, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but it was significant enough that the producers felt it needed to be broken into two films. Having now seen the first part, I'm not entirely certain I agree.

Deathly Hallows part 1 wasn't a bad movie. It was largely true to the book, which is nice, since most of the movies cut out huge chunks of their respective novels and occasionally add in something completely new (such as with the attack on The Burrow in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince). It was really slow in parts, however. I'm not sure if that could have been helped, but, for instance, there's an extended series of scenes where Harry and his chums are living out in the wilderness. In the books, there's quite a bit going on to build and maintain dramatic tension in those scenes, but they're largely internal in nature - emotional stuff as the trio deals with their feelings and struggles to figure out what to do next. None of that worked well on the screen.

That said, it was a fun film to watch and it isn't as if I didn't enjoy it. It's just that it felt very much like half a movie, despite being two and a half hours long. It didn't help, I'm sure, that the trailer(s) I had seen for the movie were apparently based on both halves, so some of the scenes I expected to see at Hogwarts and elsewhere must be due in the second film (or else were cut entirely, which would be a shame).

I'm sure when all eight films are out, the first half of Deathly Hallows will fit in well as part of the overall story. What I doubt is that anyone will be inclined to say, "Deathly Hallows part 1 is my favorite movie of the series." It's easily eclipsed by most of the other films, with the possible exception of Half-Blood Prince, which I don't particularly love and which I don't feel did a very good job of bringing its eponymous novel to the screen.

I'm hoping that there actually was enough in the whole of Deathly Hallows from which to make two full, quite lengthy movies, and that Part 2 ends up being a smash. My concern is that in order to fit the runtime they were aiming for, that the really exciting stuff got dribbled out over two over-long movies instead of truly catching fire in either of them. I suppose we'll find out in July.

For now, all we have is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 - a key piece of the overall Harry Potter puzzle and a reasonably entertaining film, but not anything that stands well on its own merits. I might feel differently after a second viewing, but my first impression was that it deserves a B- at best.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Aikido Seminar

On Saturday, I attended a seminar at Aikido of Central New York. This was my first time practicing aikido in around eighteen years - I stopped back in late 1991 or very early in 1992. I loved training at Aikido of CNY, but life caught up with me and when I got out of college, I just couldn't devote the time or money to it anymore. I wouldn't say I regret that I stopped - it wasn't a choice I made lightly - but it sure would have been nice if I hadn't, from the perspective of the me living almost twenty years in the future. You can really become an expert in pretty much any style of martial arts in twenty years - I'd presumably be pretty advanced at aikido by now, and probably in much better shape. Ah, well, bygones.

Anyway, Saturday I was back in action. Seminars were one of my favorite activities when I used to train all the time. I remember attending at least four of them for sure - there may have been a couple of others. I especially enjoyed training with Sugano Sensei, and I'm very sad to learn that he died about three months ago. Saturday's seminar was with Sensei Collins Smith from Bermuda Aikikai.

Smith Sensei was very good and offered an excellent seminar. I have to admit, though, that it was quite a struggle for me. I've always found the seminars to be physically demanding, but I'm in much worse condition than I ever was in the past. By the end of the first hour of training, I was extremely tired. By the end of the second hour, I was utterly exhausted, panting, even trembling a bit with fatigue. I remember when we broke for lunch, I just put my forehead down on the mat and kneeled there for a time, trying to catch my breath. At least three people came over to make sure I wasn't having a heart attack or anything, which was very nice of them. I assured them that I'd be fine, and was merely worn out. In fact, in addition to breathing hard, I was fighting a powerful internal battle. Should I really try to come back after lunch, or should I call it a day?

I have to admit, it took more willpower than I thought I had to make myself come back for the afternoon session. It's been a long time... actually, I can't ever remember a time... since I was so tired and was still faced with even more exercise. Usually by the time I'm that worn out, class is over and I get to stop. This time, I had just as much ahead of me as behind me. What to do?

If I was going to eat, my options were to grab something nearby, or else drive home and have something there. This was my first test. I concluded - rightly, I still believe - that if I went home and sat down in my comfy chair, there's no way in hell I'd be able to make myself return for more. It would simply be far to easy to stay where I was. So that wasn't an option. At last, I asked myself what I really, truly wanted to do, and the answer was clear - I wanted very much to return. I wanted to finish out the day, both to get my money's worth and because, when I wasn't overcome with exhaustion, I really was having a wonderful time.

So I began to look for incentives I could use to ensure that I'd return. To begin with, the first afternoon session was going to be weapons. I like training in martial arts weaponry very much. I like it very nearly as much as I enjoy the core hand-to-hand curriculum. Since the first afternoon session was going to be the jo (a short staff meant to represent either a walking-stick or a short spear), that was a big reason for me to come back. Better still, weapons practice tends to be a lot less strenuous than the hand-to-hand stuff, so I decided I could probably handle it even being as tired as I was.

Next incentive: there was at least one member of the dojo with whom I had trained in the past and who had not been there for the morning sessions. Sensei Cong Nguyen had been a beginner just like me when I'd trained back in 1991, and now he's one of the senior instructors at the dojo (a fourth degree black belt at least). I very much wanted to see him again, and to do so I'd need to be there in the afternoon. Lastly, I had invited Sensei Pastore from my karate dojo, Fivestar Martial Arts, to stop by to watch the seminar. I wanted to introduce him to Yousuf Mehter Sensei, and as of the lunch break he hadn't made it over yet. Since I'd personally invited him, I would have felt really bad not being there if he did come. Adding all of those together was finally enough to overwhelm my desire to go lie down and sleep for the next eighteen hours.

I'm very glad I made it back for the afternoon. Not least of which because when it was all done, I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment at having fought through to the end. That was really rewarding. But equally as gratifying was the training itself and the people I got to talk to. For instance, Sensei Sergey Kushnir of Syracuse Jundokan is an instructor at Aikido of CNY as well, and he attended the afternoon session. As I'd hoped, Cong Nguyen was there as well and actually remembered training with me. Catching up with Cong after more than eighteen years was really terrific. I always enjoyed training with him - he was, and still is, a wild man. Plus Sensei Pastore stopped by as well, and got to watch us do some techniques from seiza, the kneeling position. My quadriceps complained, but seiza and hanmi handachi (kneeling against a standing opponent) are fascinating techniques that trace back to the samurai (who were often required to kneel for a wide array of cultural reasons yet had to be ready to defend themselves instantly against attack).

Best of all, though, was the training after lunch. We did a full hour with the jo staff, primarily using it to simulate a short spear. We started with very basic strikes and blocks, and then moved on to more and more advanced techniques, including one block that took a fair amount of thought and practice to get right. For the final session of the day, we all took a vote and, though I had voted for bokken, we ended up doing more empty-hand techniques. I was pretty well-rested by that point, however, and managed to finish out the seminar with only minimal difficultly (though I found it increasingly difficult to get back up off the mat by the time the day was winding down). The techniques focused on projecting energy against your opponent's wrist in such a way that you easily gained control over them. We did it kneeling and standing, and then turned it into a couple of different finishes. It was very cool, and not really something I remembered practicing in the past.

In general, however, it was mostly just as I'd remembered it. The dojo was physically different, and of course I'm older and in much worse shape, but so much of what I learned the first time through still felt really familiar. I got to work with a dozen or so different people and learn a wealth of techniques that were new to me and yet built on the memories I had of training so long ago. I had known that much of what I learned training in Aikido had stuck with me. I can still feel it in the way I move whether I'm performing self-defense techniques in karate or grappling with my boys. I can feel it when I slip and fall while sparring in karate, but roll instantly back to my feet ready for more. I can feel it in my hands and my feet, my wrists and my hips. I've forgotten a great deal, to be sure. I remember many of the terms and names for the techniques, but I can't remember which techniques they go with. I remember many of the techniques as well, but I have the same problem - I don't remember what they're called. And I remember iriminage vividly. I did iriminage incorrectly during my 5th kyu test and wound up with a deviated septum (ie. a broken nose). It certainly sunk in at that point - it literally smacked me in the face - and I'll never do it wrong the same way again, to be sure.

So what did I get out of Saturday's seminar? Well, I got a tremendous workout, that's for certain. Whew! I could hardly walk most of the day on Sunday. I got to renew some old friendships with people like Mehter Sensei and Cong Nguyen Sensei, and I got to introduce Curtis Pastore Sensei to the dojo's senior instructors and to Aikido in general - a brief taste of it, anyway. I made some new acquaintances and learned an array of techniques. And of course I got to train with Collins Smith Sensei of Bermuda, certainly a rare opportunity for a guy living in Syracuse, NY.

Best of all for me, though, was just being there. Just experiencing once again something that had, albeit for a relatively short time, been a really amazing and important part of my life. Something that easily could be a part of it once again, someday when the kids are older and I've got more time to myself. Because if I learned anything on Saturday, it's that I really can always go back. I was warmly welcomed at the dojo, but even more I was able to slide back in almost as if I'd never left. Sure, I'd have a lot to relearn, but it wouldn't take long and it wouldn't be insurmountable by any means. Aikido will always be an important part of my past, and I'm looking forward to the day that it is once more a part of my daily life.

So thank you to Smith Sensei for coming up to what must have felt like a frozen wasteland (compared to Bermuda, anyway) to teach an excellent seminar. Thanks to everyone else who attended the seminar for a tremendous, enjoyable workout. And a big thank you to Mehter Sensei and the instructors and students at Aikido of Central New York for welcoming me back so enthusiastically. It felt very much like being home.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Fair Maid of the West

That's my head!

Well, sort of. That's a prop from the Thomas Heywood play The Fair Maid of the West. The Boot & Buskin theatre company at Le Moyne College produced it as their fall play back in 1991, and I was the star. A star. Okay, I played two minor characters and had a handful of lines. But it was still awesome!

I played a pirate and I played a bandit lord. My pirate role involved sitting around in a tavern and my signature line ended in a loud, "...NOT!" which was all the rage back in 1991 as you may recall. Then we shifted scenes to a wickedly-cool pirate ship, and in the dimmed lights of the Firehouse Theater we lowered a mast down through the ceiling (from the hole that had once housed the fireman's pole when it was an active firehouse) and used ropes and pulleys to raise an elaborate set of ratlines on both sides of the stage. When the lights came up, the stage manager sounded a bosun's whistle and my pirate-mate, Dave, and I swung in from offstage to land in a heroic pirate pose on the deck. It was awesome!

A storm drove the ship to wreckage - the mast was tilted, the ratlines dropped, and I think I may have gone over the side. Never fear, however, for on the desolate shores of... wherever we'd landed (I don't think I ever did read the entire script - just my scenes) lurked a group of hard-bitten bandits, lead by... me, again!

This is where the head in that picture comes into the, um, picture. You see, I captured the titular fair maid (played by the lovely Moira Brown, if I recall correctly) and threatened to, "Radish her! Er, um, ravish her!" Then her buddies showed up and chased me offstage. They returned moments later and threw down the severed head you see above. Oh, I had been slain and didn't even get to act out my death scene!

Probably just as well - it turns out I'm not a terribly gifted actor. But I'm really good at sitting still with straws up my nose for several hours while somebody applies plaster of Paris to my face! That's how the head was made - they made a bust of my face, glued it to a Styrofoam head, then added hair, glued on a beard (apparently with rubber cement that's yellowed with age), eyebrows, eyelashes, and painted on lips and blood. And they let me keep it when the play's run was complete!

Recently, my daughter had an assignment to interview a parent about something interesting or exciting they'd done in their life. I drew a blank, but somehow this old play came to mind. So she wrote up my story and turned it in. Well, yesterday, the teacher selected a few students to read theirs out loud, and my daughter was one of them. Evidently it was a huge hit, and the class was especially fascinated with the head. So I had to dig it out of storage (it took me an hour or so to remember where I'd put it) and snap a picture of it. Evidently her teacher was a bit wary of having the actual head brought into class, but I sent the picture to her so she can display it.

I had a blast being in that play. It was my only performance as an adult, but it was a load of fun. It was, at that time, the largest cast the Firehouse had ever had in a single play, and I got to hang out with an awesome group of actors. The second Highlander movie premiered while we were rehearsing, and naturally we had no way of knowing how terrible it was. But one of my fondest memories was of singing the Highlander theme while standing on a pirate ship blocking a scene with the other cast members. We even went to see the movie together (and had fun, though it was an awful movie).

I did as much as possible on that play, too. I helped to build the set. I helped to rig the lights. Before every performance, I mopped the stage as part of my routine. It was very relaxing. And the whole time, I was attending Aikido classes sometimes three hours a day. It was also the same semester I met my wife, so it's safe to say that the fall of 1991 was one of the best seasons in my entire life.

The Firehouse is gone - there's now a lavish Performing Arts Center at Le Moyne where the school's actors strut and fret their hour upon the stage. I mean, the old building was still there the last time I drove past, but it's no longer a theater. Things were never quite the same after, either. Once we were no longer a cast, we were just a bunch of college kids again, and the ties that bound us together were severed. I doubt more than a handful of people at the school even remember Fair Maid - I'm sure Bill Morris, Karel Blakely, and Kristi McKay do, but that's probably about it. But it was awesome. And I've got the head to prove it.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Where'd Tuesday's Post Go?

Thanks to the dozen or so folks who stopped by on Tuesday. Sorry there was no blog post on Tuesday - I was absolutely swamped. The kids had two fillings first thing in the morning, and getting them there in time was a major task. That was followed by runs to two different drugstores trying to get an old single-use camera developed, then a haircut (which was several months overdue, honestly), then a quick lunch, a trip BACK to the drugstore to pick up the pics (well, the blank negatives - none of the pics came out), then coffee with some good friends, then a meeting at my kids school, then homework and a quick dinner for the kids, then karate, then... huff, huff, huff.

So anyway, yeah. No post on Tuesday. Sorry. And then what do I do? I turn around and give you this crappy post on Wednesday? I agree - totally lame.

Some brief updates, I suppose:

- The electric guitar is still awesome, though I can't really play it any better than I could play my acoustic. Probably worse.

- The writing has been underwhelming so far this week, but I'm looking forward to surging ahead over the next couple of days.

- Karate's going great - my family is "Spotlighting" this week for our purple belts, which is to say we're basically taking our Purple Belt test. The "graduation" ceremony pretty well assumes that you're going to get your new belt, as you've already demonstrated that you know the techniques. We're also attending our first "Elite" class on Friday, which means... I have no idea, actually. Sounds cool, though. Last week they started to learn the Bo staff.

- I'm strongly considering attending an Aikido seminar this weekend, which would be fantastic! I haven't done Aikido in over fifteen years and I miss it very much.

That's about it - I'll try to finish a real post for tomorrow.

Monday, November 15, 2010


Someday my kids will look at my blog and I'll have to be more circumspect, but for now I can report that yesterday I bought electric guitars for my son and myself for Christmas.

It all started with our guitar teacher. He decided a few weeks ago that we were ready to go electric. I was excited but a little nervous. I still feel like I'm a pretty lousy acoustic guitar player - was I really prepared for such a big step? Well, I had to trust Jim's expertise. Even if I'm not ready, it sure looks like fun!

Yesterday was the big day, and sure enough in came my teacher with a guitar and an amp. He hadn't brought one of the many guitars that he's had kicking around his home music studio for years. Instead, he'd actually bought a brand new guitar. It turns out that he'd seen this guitar while grocery shopping. Yeah - at a discount grocery store, the guitar kit was only $69.00. Wow! I guess he was so amazed that he just had to bring it home and see if it was any good. He ended up being fairly impressed with it - it's a real instrument, not a toy or a cheap imitation. It has three single-coil pickups with a 5-position selector, a strap, strings, a cleaning-cloth, an amp cable and a little amp-thingie that actually plugs right into the guitar. All for seventy bucks!

Jim's theory is that you shouldn't have to pay more than $500 for a decent guitar. By "decent," I'm assuming he means "suitable for the average player." Guys who make their living off being guitar gods can probably justify a higher expense, and Jim admitted that he certainly has guitars that cost a lot more than $500, but he says it's really the guitarist that makes the music, not the guitar. Ah, crap - I was counting on the guitar to bail me out! I suppose I'll have to practice harder.

Anyway, this cheap-o guitar is more than adequate for our needs. Hell, it's not like I'd know the difference anyway. If it lets me shred and riff a bit, I'm going to be happy as a clam, even if real guitarists would be howling with laughter. That's why I don't play around real guitarists if I can help it. I think it sounds cool as hell, especially when I mess with the amp to add some distortion and a little echo.

So now we had a problem. I looked around the web, and I didn't see any comparable guitars for anywhere close to that price. Most of them were in the range of $100 to $125, usually with just the guitar and sometimes a strap. Some of them had humbucker pickups, or a mix of humbuckers and single-coils, but since I don't know what the hell a humbucker is anyway (sounds like bah-humbug to me, and that's never good), I wasn't impressed. The problem is that these weren't going to be around at this price forever - by the time we had to give our borrowed guitar back to our teacher, we'd be pretty hard-pressed to find new ones. It seemed like it was probably a good time to take action.

I tried to find out whether my son wanted a guitar as a Christmas present, conveying to him that at $70 (plus an amp at some point), it would be the only significant present he'd be getting from us. "Oh," he says,"I'll just have to ask Santa for a bunch of other presents." Sigh. Look, he's not that little. I'm pretty sure last year he was the one telling his little brother that Santa's a lie. I think at some point he decided to buy back into the myth because he wanted the bigger present bonanza that comes of subscribing to the Santa Claus legend. I had to explain to him that he'd likely have to ask "Santa" for the guitar, because we couldn't afford to buy him one. Either way, it would be the only real Christmas present he'd receive. He hasn't gotten back to me on that, yet.

Whatever. I talked to my wife, and we agreed it would be best to go buy two of the guitars right now, knowing that eventually he'd want one and we sure wouldn't find one any cheaper. So I did - I got two brand-new electric guitars with all the trimmings for $140! Sadly, Craigslist has a dearth of people selling cheap used amps.

But anyway, I'm plugged in! I can't figure out how to make some of those super-cool sounds the real guitar-players make, but it's still really neat to be playing an electric. Our teacher believes that playing electric helps you to correct weaknesses with your acoustic, too, and I certainly have more than my share of weaknesses, so that's a big plus. But hell, even if there were no benefit at all, screw it! I'm playing the electric guitar! Woo!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Happy Veterans Day

Happy Armistice Day to all of our Service Members past and present (and future, I suppose). Also a belated Happy Birthday to the US Marine Corps. Ooh-rah, Devildogs!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Losing Weight (and Finding it Again)

I was a skinny kid up until around age 12. Then my love of lounging around reading comic books and eating Pringles caught up with me, and I put on quite a bit of weight. I was never huge, but I was in poor condition and was carrying around quite a few extra pounds. It affected my confidence, self-esteem, relationships and my health.

When I was around 20, I decided to fix the problem. I became a real fitness addict for a while - push-ups, sit-ups, jogging, and weight training were all parts of my regular regimen, and I did my best to lay off much of the junk food. It worked pretty well, too - I got into seriously good shape there for a couple of years. There was a big problem, though - while I was able to force myself to exercise, I was never able to force myself to like it. I never did, never have and still don't really like it. Given a choice, I'll do pretty much anything else.

As my life got busier, I found less and less time to work out, and more and more excuses not to, and my weight not only went back up, it far surpassed and previous peaks I'd ever hit. I became extremely sedentary to the point where running even short distances totally winded me, and I developed type 2 diabetes. My only saving grace was that I hit a weight plateau and pretty much stayed there for the last ten years. My body's natural equilibrium seemed to be around 225, and I didn't budge from that number too much one way or the other. It's fortunate, really - I'm sure if my body hadn't decided to stop there, I'd have just kept on going up and up and who knows where it would have stopped. But it stopped around 225.

Lately, I've started to feel as if I might like to bring that number down - a notion that I haven't seriously wrestled with in many years. I'd pretty much come to accept that 225 was my body's optimal weight, since it seemed to maintain itself there no matter what I did. Certainly it's been easy to stay there. I did ask my doctor a few years back if there were any medications that could help, and he put me on Meridia. My experience was lackluster. I would immediately drop 5-7 pounds of what I assume was water-weight, and then I'd bottom out. Sort of like now, actually, but we'll get to that in a sec. Anyway, I used it for a couple of months, but I really didn't see any effect. It wasn't covered by my insurance, so it became too expensive to stay on and since it didn't seem to be working anyway, I got off it. Then I pretty much went back to being indifferent about my weight for another couple of years.

My incentive this time really comes from the fact that about ten pounds of my weight seems to have abandoned me. I'm not entirely sure where it went, but it's gone and it seems to be staying gone. I have to figure that it's the result of one or both of two factors: I've been working out vigorously 2-3 times a week at karate since March, and I've been skipping dinner 2-3 times a week since August.

The karate thing is a no-brainer. I work out for 35-40 minutes per session, with probably 10 minutes or so if breaks, stretching and other low-energy activities added on. That's burning several hundred calories that I wouldn't otherwise have burned, and that's GOT to help.

The dinner thing sort of happened by accident. I don't really like to eat too close to karate, as the vigorous exercise can give me an upset stomach and, if it's really strenuous, leave me feeling as if I might be sick. So I would wait to eat dinner until after karate, usually around 7 or 7:30 PM. This is really late for me to eat dinner - I'm a 5:30 dinner-eater, give or take half an hour. But even more than that, I'd often get home from karate and discover that I really just wasn't hungry. I'd worked out hard enough that I had little or no appetite and I was too tired to feel like preparing anything elaborate. I'd often satisfy myself with a yogurt or a fruit cup and be done with it.

Those things, individually or combined, had an effect, as I've lost 7-10 pounds since my last doctor's appointment back in March or so. That's awesome news, and I admit that it's motivated me to try to lose more. In addition to skipping dinner on Tuesday and Thursday, my usual karate evenings, I've also started skipping dinner at Denny's on Mondays when I meet with my writer's group. I didn't like spending $5 a week anyway and usually just got an order of french fries, but that's obviously a pretty crappy dinner and I'm better off not having anything. So now that's what I eat on Monday nights - nothing.

Now, logic and science are pretty clear that if I eat fewer calories and burn more calories, I'll lose weight. I mean, this guy lost 27 pounds just eating twinkies and other junk food for three months.That's just how it works. Except when it doesn't. It's been almost two months since I lost those first ten pounds, and as far as I can tell I haven't lost another ounce since. That's frustrating and the lack of obvious results is a big demotivator for me. I'm going to try to stick with it - I'd sure love to lose about another 20 pounds. Or thirty pounds. Or forty pounds. Honestly, I think my so-called optimum weight has me down around 165 or 170, but I'm pretty sure I'd look like a twig if I were anywhere below 175. But, let's face it, I'm nowhere near having to worry about that, now am I? I'm still in the vicinity of 218, which means I'd need to drop another 48 pounds to get down into that territory. I don't see any indication that that's going to happen soon. Or ever.

So that's where I am now - I've made some inadvertent progress, but once I decided to apply myself more deliberately, the results ground to a halt. I'm no more inclined to vigorous exercise for the sake of exercise than I ever was, but if I were to see an ongoing trend I might be. I'm just not sure how to make that happen.

Yeah, this is a pretty crummy blog today, I know. Sorry. It's the only thing I could think of. The last couple of weeks have been pretty decent, though, right? That ought to count for something.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Broken Bread

I suck at making bread. I can reliably make perfect French bread using my bread machine - you dump in flour, salt, water, butter and yeast and six hours later, you pull out a big rectangular loaf of bread that tastes pretty darn good. Zut alors! (get it? Cuz it's French bread!) But my success rate with other sorts of bread - even from the bread machine - is distressingly low.

I tried once to make dinner rolls using basically the same recipe from the same bread machine cookbook and they came out as dry little hockey pucks. The difference? Me! I had to take the dough out, cut it up into dinner rolls, and then bake them in the oven. Somehow, I broke them.

I also found a great-looking recipe to make Outback Steakhouse-style brown bread. I even went and got special flour to use in it (I forget what kind - wheat? Rye? I still have most of the bag around here somewhere). It was lousy - it didn't rise right and came out dry and crappy-tasting. Strike two - broken again!

Sunday, I tried to make true Italian bread for the first time. I again needed special flour, because it's just not real Italian bread if it doesn't have semolina flour in it. And let me tell you, finding Semolina flour is a pain in the nuggets. I finally tried an Italian imports store over in North Syracuse and they had it, so I was able to proceed. I went into an online forum I frequent and asked for advice on tried-and-true Italian bread recipes. I wanted ones I'd know worked from people who'd actually used them. I got one and decided to give it a try.

I followed the directions to the letter, even getting out a candy thermometer to make sure the warm water for the yeast was the optimum temperature (and it did seem to foam up nicely). It seemed to rise nicely the first time, but when I made it into a dough ball and set it out to rise the second time, it was... unimpressive. It got bigger, but it seemed more air than substance - a great big dough-glob that was puffed full of air but ready to collapse at any time. I dunno - it just didn't seem right. In the end, it baked up merely okay - it wasn't terrible and the flavor wasn't bad, but I still think it should have risen a whole lot more than it did. It was a really easy recipe, but somehow I broke it.

What's most surprising to me, in fact, is that my recent attempt to make Olive Garden-style breadsticks actually worked! It was a very similar recipe to the Italian bread (minus the semolina flour, but otherwise along much the same lines) and I made it one afternoon while I re-watched The Watchmen on DVD (which was pretty good, though I never read the comic so I have no basis for comparison there. Also, I wish the blue guy had worn pants.). And I'll be damned if it didn't come out spot-on perfect! It's the exception to the rule, however. As a baker, I'm 1 win, 2 losses and one that could generously be called a tie. I may need to stick to my bread machine.

Here's the breadsticks recipe, straight from Good Morning America:

Olive Garden Breadsticks
A Top Secret Restaurant Recipe
Olive Garden Breadsticks
From the Kitchen of Todd Wilbur
Servings: Over 8
Difficulty: Easy
Cook Time: Over 120 min
Anyone who loves Olive Garden is probably also a big fan
of the bottomless basket of warm, garlicky breadsticks served
before each meal at the huge Italian casual chain. My guess is
that the breadsticks are proofed, and then sent to each restaurant,
where they are baked until golden brown, brushed with butter and
sprinkled with garlic salt. Getting the bread just right for a
good clone was tricky -- I tried several different amounts of yeast in
all-purpose flour, but then finally settled on bread flour to give these
breadsticks the same chewy bite as the originals. I discovered
that the two-stage rising process is also a crucial step to making the
perfect Top Secret Recipe for these very popular soft breadsticks.

2 tablespoons granulated sugar
3/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon warm
water (105 to 115 degrees F)
16 ounces bread flour (3 cups)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, softened

On top:
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon garlic salt

Dissolve the sugar and yeast in the warm water in a small
bowl or measuring cup and let the mixture sit for 5 minutes,
or until it becomes foamy on top.

Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl. Use the paddle
attachment on a stand mixer to mix the softened butter into
the flour. If you don't have a stand mixer, use a mixing spoon
to combine the butter with the flour. When the yeast mixture
is foamy, pour it into the flour mixture and use a dough hook
on your mixture to combine the ingredients and knead the
dough for approximately 10 minutes. If you don't have a stand
mixer, combine the ingredients and then knead the dough
by hand on a countertop for 10 minutes.

Place the dough in a covered container and let it sit for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, until it
doubles in size. When the dough has doubled, measure out 2-ounce
portions and roll the dough between your hands or on a countertop
to form sticks that are 7 inches long. Place the dough
on parchment paper-lined baking sheets, cover and set aside
for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until the dough doubles in size once

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

Bake the breadsticks for 12 minutes, or until golden brown.
When the breadsticks come out of the oven, immediately
brush each one with melted butter and sprinkle with a little
garlic salt.

Makes 12-13 breadsticks

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Death of Publishing

As a fiction writer - particularly as a science fiction writer, which is definitely one of my preferred genres - predicting the future is often part of the job. We don't always get it right, but we think about it and try to figure out where things are going so we can turn those possible futures into interesting stories.

I'm going to predict, right now, that ultimately the "death of publishing" will be a good thing for writers, just the way that the "death of the label" is looking like a good thing for musicians. Here's my thought:

Musicians didn't get to a happy place right away. It takes time for customers to adjust and it takes time for technology to catch up. Also, the "value-added" services of the labels had to be replaced. But technology made this all possible. Let's compare the "old days" to the new, through my inexpert lens as a music-industry outsider.

Back in "the day," prior to the mid-90s or even the early 2000s, the labels had to make a huge up-front investment in order to get music into the hands of customers. They were the ones who put together high-tech recording studios with the big sound boards, the stereo microphones, and the high-end, high-fidelity recorders. It took expertise to create that studio, then more expertise to use it properly to mix the tracks. They had the machines to press the vinyl, make the cassettes, burn the CDs, and to generate the packaging that went along with them. Then they had the distribution machine to get them into stores, and the marketing machine to publicize the music, generate buzz, set up tours, and get the music sold. They then took the lion's share of the revenue generated, but they were the only game in town so if you didn't like it, tough.

Now fast-forward to today. You still need to be a decent musician to start with, and one of the problems is that without the label's involvement, the initial "quality filter" is gone. Customers have to wade through an increasing amount of crap from "wannabe" musicians to find quality stuff. That's the trade-off, and the mechanisms to address it are growing and will continue to evolve. But everything's in the hands of the musician, now. The professional recording studio is still best, and they can be rented if you've got the money, but you can also create a home-studio for a few grand with a computer and some $150 microphones. They won't necessarily be ultra-high fidelity (there's a reason the studios are sound-proofed the way they are), but they don't necessarily have to be. Remember - MP3s are a compressed file-format. They'll never sound as good as a CD or even vinyl, but nobody seems to care.

The mechanisms are all there - you've got the ability to record music on the cheap, distribute it globally (also on the cheap) and consumers can buy it (for the same price or less than the old ways) and play it on their new-fangled music-players. The result? Well, this (sorta - see below):

Image from Buzzfeed.

So let's look at what that graphic does and doesn't mean. In the big picture, what it means is that the gross profit for each song sold is split in a way that's MUCH more favorable to the musicians when it's sold online through a service like iTunes or Amazon. What it also shows, though it seems to try to ignore it, is that being a successful musician CAN be an expensive proposition. Assuming the musician wants to be of the "[blank] star" variety - that is to say, the Rock Star, Pop Star, Country Music Star, etc. - then they're still going to need managers, producers, business people, and so forth. They're also going to need to do publicity, arrange tours and concerts, and so forth. It's not as if that full 70% goes straight into one guy's pocket. Another way in which this graphic is unclear is that it shows the pies as the same size, and I doubt very much that they are. By which I mean that, sure, each $.99 song may be split as portrayed, but how many $.99 songs do you sell if you're just Joe Do-It-Yourself-Musician as apposed to being, for example, major recording artist backed by a major label. If you're getting 70% of $1,000 a month, you'd probably trade that for .024% of 100,000 a month. The question then becomes, will you sell 40x as much music with a label backing you as you will if you're on your own?

Well, not necessarily, no. The labels like to play little games. They'll cook the books in such a way as to show that they've never actually made any money off the sale of your work. You'll sell a few thousand songs, and they'll tell you they never quite broke even on them, so, sorry, no royalties for you. I've heard lots of complaints about movie and TV studios doing the same sort of thing. And that's where the do-it-yourself approach starts to look really good. You'll have to fight to get your name recognized and generate enough of a sales volume to live off of, but you'll do it honestly without any of the crap from the labels.

And I think it's likely that publishing is heading in a similar direction. Yes, you'll probably be better off for quite a while with a publisher backing you, because they do an awful lot that you don't have to do. They edit your work, they design the cover, they get it proofed and printed and distributed, and they help with marketing, book tours, etc. - just like the labels do for musicians. What's changing is that it's never been easier to produce a book yourself if you're so-inclined, and with the rise of e-book readers, you no longer even have to worry about getting it printed if you don't want to.

What I see happening is a rise in "a-la-carte" publishing services, who will do the stuff you don't want to do or aren't good at doing - the stuff publishers have traditionally done - for you, and they'll take a cut of your proceeds. Or perhaps you'll pay them up front as with a vanity publisher - it's hard to say for sure, my crystal ball must be smudged. Anyway, the result will be LOTS and LOTS of crap distributed electronically for potential customers to wade through. But for the writer, if they're good (good enough to have been published under the old model, for instance), they'll make a name for themselves online because people will rate them and talk about them and suggest them to friends and so forth. Amazon.com and Apple would love to do for book distribution what they've done for music - make a ton of stuff widely-accessible to a broad spectrum of customers from a broad spectrum of artists. Writers will be able to produce their books, get them edited through various channels, and then get them out there for people to buy. People will buy them (or not) and read them on their e-book readers (or not), and if they do, the writer will reap the lion's share of the reward.

Sure, you may not make it onto the Times Bestseller list this way, but then your chances weren't very good the old way, either. You'll likely sell less quantity, but you'll make a lot more of the raw profit from each book you sell. And the great thing for writers is that musicians are paving the way for us. We can let them figure out the details and then take advantage of it, because the technology we need to do it is finally here. This publishing revolution won't completely occur overnight, and honestly I'm not in any hurry to see the traditional, quality publishing houses go away (not least of which because, personally, I like printed books and don't have any plans to buy an e-book reader. Hell, I only bought my first MP3 player a couple of months ago, and I literally only use it when I mow the lawn). I like Del Ray, Tor, Baen and all the other high-quality publishers who've brought me my fiction over the last thirty years. I want them to publish my books. But times change, products change, and the means of production changes. It's going to be an interesting decade for writers, and you can bet that by the end key aspects of the industry are going to look very different.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

[Novel Update] Victory is Mine!

I haven't done one of these in some time because there's basically only so many ways to say, "I'm still working on Chapter 15 and it's pissing me off." It's good to vent, but there's only so much of that that you're going to want to read. Probably none at all, actually, but sometimes I use my blogger's prerogative to go ahead and do it anyway.

So you can imagine that it is with great joy that I finally get to report that I have conquered Chapter 15 at long last! That's right - the THIRD version of this chapter is done.

It has a long and fretful history. I think I finished my first draft of Chapter 15, as far as I can tell from my records, in a single day back in March. It was short (only 8 single-spaced pages long), it was in the main character's POV, and, as I re-read through it, it was actually pretty good.I didn't like it at the time, but looking back on it now I can't remember why and I almost wish I'd just stayed with the original version. It's not inconceivable that I might decide to revert to it at some point, even after all the work since. It's unlikely, though.

Three months later, as I was preparing to take Chapter 15 in to the Writer's Roundtable for critique, I completely changed it. I decided that I needed to shift the POV to a secondary character so that they could talk about the protagonist in glowing, awe-struck ways that he'd never ever think about himself. Honestly, I'm not sure how well that worked, whereas with the main character's POV we at least got to see some of his previously-hidden attributes come out through his actions, dialogue and inner thoughts. Regardless, I re-wrote Chapter 15 over a weekend and brought it in to the group. I wasn't thrilled with it, but I thought it did a passable job, at least. I wanted to get the other writers' feedback to see what needed to be changed.

And boy did I. They really didn't care for it at all as far as I could tell. They took great issue (legitimately so, in my opinion) with the way the POV character's introspection kept interrupting the action of what was supposed to be a battle-scene. I needed that introspection, though - it was the whole point of why I'd written the chapter the way I had. It let me develop the secondary character (who will continue to be a player in the story) and simultaneously add depth to the protagonist. Making that need for information mesh with the desire for a streamlined, dramatic and tense battle-scene wasn't going to be a quick or easy fix. I ultimately decided to tear the chapter apart and rewrite it.

What I ended up doing - and it worked, I think - was to front-load most of the introspection and character development into the start of the chapter. I deliberately downplay the battle for the first several pages, making it almost a game to the POV character and his comrades. They're not taking it seriously, so it has no dramatic tension to be interrupted by all sorts of shenanigans like thoughts of fear, lust for a nearby love-interest, flashback to how the POV character ended up in the battle to begin with, and so on. Then, when the battle turns serious, it's more of a shock and it (I believe) does a better job of drawing the reader in than in the previous iteration where I basically just said, "There's a battle going on. It's a tense situation. Feel the drama!!" and forced the reader to comply (or not).

In fact, when I sat down to do my total re-write, pace and tension-building were a key focus for me. I actually broke the chapter's events up into five chunks (creatively labeled Section A through Section F) and placed each of them on a scale of rising action. A rose to B, which then dropped off a little. C rose again until it peaked and then it dropped off again with D. Finally, section E... Wait, let me get you the little diagram I drew - it ought to help.

So sections A, C and E were all designed to build tension increasingly higher, culminating in the chapter finale/cliffhanger at F. I figured it was going to be one of my longer chapters, though, (and I was right - it weighs in at 31 pages once I double-space it) so just making the whole thing one tense battle-scene with carnage from beginning to end felt like it would get tedious and make it hard to keep my reader on the edge of their seat. I needed to cut away every so often and let the tension settle a little, before going in and yanking it right back up again. It's sort of like in the TV show 24, when things are looking really bad and then they cut back to something else that's going on at Headquarters. It gives the reader/viewer a chance to catch their breath and perhaps let down their guard, so when you come at them again with a haymaker they're not expecting it.

And I have to say I'm very happy with how that worked out. The tension starts off very low for a while as I lead into how things are and how they got that way, all the while setting the expectation with the reader that this "battle" is more of a shooting gallery, with the "good guys" in very little real danger. Then WHAM! things go wrong and there's blood everywhere. I back off a little, letting them drive back that assault and collect themselves and them WHAM! I do it again, but moreso, and things get a bit ugly there for a while.

At point D on the chart, they literally take a break. There's a lull in the battle, and everybody gets to stop and rest for an hour or so. I use this opportunity to do some cool things with the POV character (introducing some secrets that he's previously only hinted at in the chapter), and I bring in yet another character just for a few pages so he can relay some important information about what's going on elsewhere in the novel. Everybody stretched? Rested? Had a little snack? Oh, good, because... WHAM!

We're on the wild E-ticket ride of section E (pun intended there), and you'd damn well better hold on because we're riding it all the way to the top! Section E is a madhouse of combat, death, attack and counter-attack, fear, heroism, cowardice, victory and defeat. All the cards are on the table and what started out as literally a joke of a battle is now very serious business to those involved. Friends die, people are set on fire, and the POV character literally finds himself at the hands of the enemy. And just when it looks like they might squeak by and survive somehow, WHAM! Section F drops a bomb (figuratively - it's not that kind of battle) and leaves us wondering if they aren't completely screwed after all.

I had another writer, whose judgment I feel is pretty good, read the final version for me and it got a thumbs-up, so I'm calling 15 done for now. When I get to the continuation of the battle in Chapter 17, I may need to go back to the original version of 15 and see if there's still stuff there that I want to use, because as I said re-reading that first version leaves me more impressed than I'd expected to be. In the meantime, though, I'm heading back to the beginning. Several months ago I came up with a new start to the story that I think does a better job of setting the stage for the book as a whole than the Chapter 1 I initially wrote. That chapter's all about the main character, but doesn't do much for the overall story. I'd been wanting to stay away from a prologue because I'd read that they're not too favorably received by some editors/publishers, but I don't think I can help it - this book just calls for one. I could get around the "prologue" problem by calling it Chapter 1, but I don't think trying to trick a prospective publisher/editor into getting over whatever anti-prologue hangups they have is the right way to go. I'm going to have to trust that it's not all prologues they hate, just ones that aren't necessary, don't work, or don't add value to the book. I'm pretty sure this one does, so I'm working on it. In fact, as of last night, I've finished an initial draft of it. All I need to do today is clean it up and move on. This makes me really happy, by the way, as I cranked out that whole prologue in two days. It makes me feel like I'm finally back up to speed the way I was in April/May when I was really hauling ass.

Next, my plan is to revisit chapters 1-14 and 16 and input all the edits, changes and ideas I've had since I started taking them to be read at my writer's group in February. By the end of November it will be one year since I started writing this novel, and I've learned a whole lot since then. The constant writing has made me a better writer now than I was a year ago, and I can use that to address issues in those early chapters when I was still feeling my way around. I know the characters better, I know how I want to tell the story better, and I think I can improve them. Also, I've got a lot of inconsistencies in those old chapters due to the iterative way I wrote them - my newer chapters reflected changes I intended to make in the older ones but haven't actually made yet. This would be too confusing for somebody new to my novel to make sense of, so it's been a very long time sine I've been able to share the early part of my book with anybody. When I'm done editing, I'll have a manuscript chunk that's readable that I can share with folks who have meaningful feedback to offer.

For now, I'm just glad to have Chapter 15's rewrite complete. It took way longer than it should have, and far longer than I'd imagined. It's time to get on with other things.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

My Intro to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

As I write this, I am bruised in various strange places, like the sides of my chest, the inside of my upper arm, and the base of my skull. Why? Because I attended a BJJ seminar last night! Not last night as you read this - I attended the seminar on the 25th of October, but I've already got my blog laid out for last week, so this one's getting bumped into early November.

Anyway, this seminar was part of Syracuse Jundokan's ongoing "Guest Instructor" series, which is terrific. The first one I attended welcomed Sifu Sharif Bey from Syracuse Kung Fu. It was an excellent seminar, and my son and I completely enjoyed it. Sifu Bey is a dynamic and powerful individual, as a speaker, as a martial artist, and in general. You can see him co-star in a short film called Fighting, which may or may not be entirely safe for work.

I think I've missed a seminar or two in-between, but I have almost no direct exposure to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu so I was absolutely not going to miss this one.

I first heard about BJJ back in the mid-90s, when the Ultimate Fighting Championships first premiered. These were billed as "anything-goes" gladiatorial cage-matches, almost along the lines of the "Kumite" from the old Van-Damme movie "Bloodsport." There was some of that, to be sure - powerful martial artists (I suppose) throwing punches, kicks, knees and elbows and pummeling each other bloody. But then the Gracie family would roll into the cage and before you knew it... not much. They'd get their opponent wrapped up in a ball on the ground, and then it was over. Que the "wah wah wah" sound. It was utterly boring, but certainly impressive the way they always managed to tie up their opponents and win.

In more recent years, BJJ has exploded in popularity, with many BJJ-focused dojos all around the country and many other schools offering their own BJJ curriculum (with varying degrees of authenticity and validity, I'm certain). Ground fighting is definitely a hot topic in the martial arts, and I was excited to see what it was all about.

Going in, I wasn't conceptually sold on the idea of training in ground fighting as a primary vehicle for self-defense. There's a lot of danger on the ground, even if you really know what you're doing. The ground may be broken or covered in something dangerous like glass or chemicals. Worse, you can really only fight one opponent on the ground at a time. If he has a buddy, you're likely to get stabbed or kicked in the head. Still, if you DO end up on the ground, it would certainly be beneficial to know how to fight your way out of it.

The guest instructor was Scott Schultz from Tai Kai Jiu Jitsu. He was a very skillful, down-to-earth guy who was an enthusiastic teacher and learner. He talked about living life in a way that continually challenges you to learn new things, and he was very up-front with the idea that BJJ wasn't the be-all, end-all solution to every combat or self-defense situation. But he knew his stuff and was very good at helping us to develop a set of basic skills in the short time we had together.

We paired off with a partner, and began with a simple exercise to insert your hand down under your opponents when the two of you are face-to-face with your arms locked. The technique gets a bit tougher when one of you drops into a bear-hug, but we learned that as well. Whoever's on the inside has much more control, so that technique was very important.

From there, we moved into a basic take-down. You'd bear-hug your opponent from the side, in a position where they couldn't reach much except the top of your head, and couldn't effectively attack that. The person performing the technique simply had to extend a leg and sit, and the opponent went down on their back, ready to be straddled or "mounted."

We spent quite a bit of time working that technique, and then we "tested" the mount by having the opponent (the one on their back) struggle vigorously to get the person on top off of them. I think this is where I got that bruise on the base of my skull.

Next we had the person on top apply a one-handed choke, and learned how the person on the bottom could defend against it. This lead to the attacker (still on top) actually rolling over and pulling their opponent on top of them. Normally this would put them at a disadvantage, but on the way over we grabbed the back of the opponent's uniform gripped their collar with the other hand, and applied an X-choke against them using the forearms.

I'm not ready to apply any of what I learned in a combat situation if I can avoid it, but if somebody threw me on the ground and jumped on top of me I think I did learn a little that would be helpful in defending myself. More, I have a basic sense of what BJJ is all about, so when I read about it or hear people speaking of it I'll actually know what it all means. I'm not ready to make BJJ my full-time martial art, but it's a very interesting style, and I'd definitely be open to learning more of it down the road.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

This Stinks

As I write this, my wife is cleaning one of our two auxiliary fish bowls - necessary because our actual fish tank can't handle all the guppies and snails we ended up with once they started to breed. We've since segregated them by gender so the problem's not getting any worse, but these critters make one heck of a stinky mess. Snailerbiggeus (yes, that's the actual name of our largest snail) is quite the pungent little gastropod.

In the next room, we have two guinea pigs who also, as it turns out, fail to smell like roses in bloom. They're filthy little rodents who have no compunctions about lounging in their own waste on those occasions when they're not actually eating it.

Upstairs, we have not one but two gerbil cages, because one of the residents is the embodiment of evil and wouldn't get along with the nice one. And nobody's had the heart to destroy him, much as it would make the world a truly better place. Anyway, these particular rodents are somewhat less pungent than their larger cousins downstairs, but they do manage to kick pine chips and gerbil poop out in a sizable radius around their cages, and they also do not smell like sweet, sweet flowers.

Now, granted, my kids, my wife, and, to a much lesser extent (much, much lesser!) myself make far bigger messes around the house, but at least we all usually smell pretty good. Unless you catch me right after karate, then all bets are off. But the rest of the time, not so bad. Which is why the pee-eww from the critters is so pronounced and unwelcome. They really get your attention when they're ripe. The rest of the time, I mostly don't notice them to be honest. But right now, their foetid miasma happened to coincide with my need to come up with a blog topic, so there you are. If you were hoping for something more profound than how smelly my family's pets are, you'll just have to try again tomorrow. No promises or anything, though.

Monday, November 1, 2010

[TV] The Walking Dead Premier Review

Every studio and network markets their new shows as intensely as they can afford because they want them to do well. We call this "hype," and it can include everything from TV commercials to print ads to viral marketing campaigns and Internet web-content. Frank Darabont's The Walking Dead, which premiered Halloween night on AMC, had all of these. It was hyped to the max. It had commercials, print-ads, preview trailers, a whole slew of content on the website (including a 17-minute-long "behind the scenes" preview), and the marketing gurus even arranged for "zombie invasions" at various cities around the country (around the world?), with actors made up like zombies staggering around to draw attention to the show.

Hype tends to be a good thing - if you do a good job of hyping the show, people are more likely to watch it. There's a danger, however. If the show doesn't live up to the hype, the backlash can be extreme. You can be a hit one week, and an utter bomb forever after. If you're going to get the Internet-savvy geeks to rally their less zombie-educated friends to tune in and watch the premiere, it had damn well better fire on all cylinders, or those same geeks will rip you to shreds all over the Internet, and your show will die a slow and grizzly death.

Let me be very frank and clear about The Walking Dead - there is categorically NO chance of that happening. The Walking Dead stepped up and earned every word of enthusiasm and excitement generated before the premier aired. Mild spoilers follow:

The Walking Dead tells the story of Rick Grimes, a deputy sheriff outside Atlanta, Georgia. He's having a typical day on patrol with his partner, Shane Walsh, when he gets shot during a shootout and lands in the hospital. He wakes up some days later and the place is deserted. He's weak, dehydrated, and the hospital is a shambles. He staggers outside and finds the parking lot lined with dead bodies wrapped in sheets. Hundreds of them. He's baffled.

He staggers home through deserted streets, but his beloved wife Lori and his son Carl are gone. A neighbor's house has become the temporary home of Morgan and his son Duane. They're suspicious of Rick at first, but when he convinces them that his wounds are simple gunshots, they take him in and explain what's going on. There's a disease. It gives you a high fever and you die. Then you get back up and you want to feed on the living. Morgan's own wife had died and risen right there, and they hadn't had the heart to leave as she wanders around outside their little bunker.

Rick, Morgan and Duane head over to the sheriff's office, clean up, grab some guns, and then part ways. Morgan and Duane head back to their bunker for some "target practice." In truth, Morgan goes to an upstairs bedroom and starts shooting zombies from the window, hoping to summon - and put down - his own wife. It's a heart-wrenching scene as he looks at the woman he loves through the scope and struggles to pull the trigger.

Rick, meanwhile, hopes to find his family safe and sound at an Atlanta refugee shelter. The emergency broadcasts had told everyone to go there, where they'd find food, shelter, and military protection. When his squad car runs out of gas, Rick partners with a horse from a nearby farm and rides into the barren wasteland that Atlanta has become. The place is deserted... except for the enormous mob of zombies he encounters around one streetcorner. They lumber after him, drag him off the horse, and attack the poor beast as Frank scrambles to escape. His only hope - a tank that's been abandoned nearby. He's dropped his bag of guns, and all he has is his revolver. The premier episode ends with his frantic battle to make it into the tank and its armored - if temporary - safety.

Everything was done well in this Comic Book-turned-series. The characters are believable and likable. You want them to survive, which is vital. If we wanted the zombies to win, the show wouldn't work at all. The zombies, also, are perfectly frightening in their mindless hunger, their torn, rotten flesh. The settings - of buildings and familiar-seeming places damaged in pitched battle against the undead and then abandoned because there's nobody left alive, and untainted, to occupy them - are spot-on perfect to build atmosphere. And that atmosphere is chilling, desperate, and tense. The scenes involving Morgan's wife were at once touching and frightening - especially the scene where she approaches the front door of their house and peers in the peep-hole.

If you missed the premier of The Walking Dead, it appears to be on umpteen more times on AMC, so tune in to one of them and watch it. If that doesn't work for you, you can buy each episode through Amazon.com's video on demand, though the first one isn't up yet so I can't tell how much it'll cost. Whatever it is, it's likely worth it. This is a terrific opening to what I hope will be an outstanding series. I highly recommend it.