Friday, April 29, 2011

Where's Mike?

So where the heck has this blog been, lately?

Yes, I know, it's been completely and utterly absent. My sincere apologies - I've been swamped. I shouldn't even be writing this now - there's something much more important I ought to be working on. I'll tell you all about it on Monday, but for today just know that I have not forgotten about you, my loyal (if relatively few) readers!

I can tell you that I am currently NOT working on my novel, and yes, it's pissing me off. It's a conscious choice and one that I can live with, but my plan had always been to cut back on my writing for a while, not to stop altogether. I'm expecting that in a few more weeks I'll be able to scale back and then I can get back to work. My re-write of Chapter 9 didn't end up being all that successful, so I suppose I'll need to start there once again and try to get it right. Then on to chapters 10, 11, 12, 13, and 14 for sure. I think Chapter 16 is in pretty good shape, and I think Chapter 15 is pretty close to done already (it's already been extensively re-written). At the moment, it's probably reasonable to hope that by July/August I'll actually be writing new material. My estimates are always too optimistic, however, so we'll see.

I will say that my karate training is proceeding nicely - we're well into our Blue Belt material, on the way to Green Belt. In addition, Sensei Mehter kindly invited me to train with him at Aikido of Central New York the last two Thursdays, which was fantastic! I really love Aikido, and I'm enjoying seeing how much I remember. There's vastly more that I've forgotten, of course, I just don't enjoy that quite as much. There's a seminar on Saturday with Irvin Faust Sensei of Albany which I'm definitely attending as well (I'm skipping my son's dojo birthday party, though, so I'm a good Aikidoka but a bad Dad. There was just no way to be good at both on this particular day).

There's more to come - I'm very much looking forward to sharing some of my work and accomplishments with you here. I very much hope I'll find time to do so next week.

Friday, April 22, 2011

[Garden] Till Friday

I haven't been posting much this week - sorry. The kids are off from school and I've got a fair bit of work going on that I'm trying to keep up with. I'm also delving into my D&D materials whenever possible, just getting things organized, learning what I have, and looking for stuff to adapt for the kids adventure. Creating one magic item and a big spellbook actually took me quite a bit of time.

But I HAD intended to write about last Friday's adventure - the roto-tiller. I ended up renting a "mid-tine" tiller from Home Depot for about $45. Mid-tine tillers have a wheel in front for hauling the thing around and a spike in back to help anchor it, but the whole machine really rests right on the tiller portion. As you can imagine, this means that the person controlling the device has to constantly fight all of the tiller's torque as it tries to propel itself completely out of the garden. And who the hell had the bright idea to put the throttle lever right OVER one of the handles. Ever time I found myself struggling with the thing, I'd end up knocking the throttle all the way up (for a jolt like bessie the mule suddenly deciding to go chase a bunny) or all the way down so the thing would make noises like it wanted to stall. That was fun.

I remember my father tilling my grandfather's garden every year. There was far less grunting and swearing from what I recall. Maybe that's just my dad - he's always been a strapping man, and maybe he just hauled his tiller around with no problem. Or maybe he just complains less than I do - that's almost certainly true. But I also think he probably had a front or rear-tine tiller. I mean, that was 30 years ago, and it's not as if they made them any lighter or easier to use back then. No, I bet Dad had a tiller where most of the weight was on a set of wheels, and all you had to do was push down on the back end to get it to dig down into the soil and do its job.

I actually would have liked a rear-tine, but it wasn't meant to be. Aside from being more expensive, I'm pretty sure the rear-tine wouldn't have fit in my minivan. So mid-tine it would have to be.

Getting it home and out to the garden was surprisingly easy. My wife helped me lower it out of the van, then I just walked it back and started it up. Actually using the thing took some practice and was quite a workout. I'd figured it out pretty well by the time I was done, but to really get it to bite deeply and chew up the earth took some muscle. I had to anchor the hook in the back and then force it down into the soil, then I had to plant my feet and haul back on the tiller to keep it from running away. Three hours of that left me sweaty and tired, but with a well-tilled garden.

I actually made two passes with the tiller to loosen the soil (and to get the full width of the three plots that I have), then I went through a third time after adding the manure I'd bought. A note on the manure - I had 12 cubic feet of manure/humus mix that I'd bought, and I could have used easily 3x - 5x that much. Instead of adding a two-inch thick layer and mixing it into the soil, I basically just sprinkled a thin dusting over my garden. I still mixed it in, but it wasn't nearly as much as Scott's was recommending. It'll have to do, however - I'd spent $50 on the manure, plus almost $50 on the tiller, and on top of what I spent on soil, fencing, and mulch two years ago to build the dumb thing, I'm way beyond any hope of ROI at this point.I have to cut my losses at some point.

Hopefully we'll get some of the more frost-friendly vegetables planted this coming weekend, then watch the little darlings grow. The pay-off isn't in grocery savings, I'm afraid, but getting fresh peas, lettuce, and other veggies straight out of my backyard is pretty great.

Monday, April 18, 2011

[TV] Game of Thrones on HBO

Last night was the premier of HBO's Game of Thrones, a series based on the eponymous novel by George R. R. Martin - the first in his series A Song of Ice and Fire. I've been looking forward to seeing it for some time, to the point that I actually subscribed to HBO just to watch it. I've never done that for any other HBO or pay-cable TV series - not The Sopranos, not Rome, not Spartacus: Blood and Sand, none of them. But I did it for this.

Martin's series is an amazing piece of work, and living up to it required an incredible effort. Exceeding all expectations doesn't come easy, but I'll be damned if Game of Thrones didn't do exactly that. I can't think offhand of any piece of television that I enjoyed more or found to be more visually and technically impressive. A truly amazing piece of work. HBO can quote me on that, if they're so inclined (hey, a man can dream).

There were, of course, concessions to time and the medium. Not every shade and nuance of a novel can ever bed translated perfectly to the screen. Things were cut or added or changed, but never in a way that made you wonder, "was that really necessary?" We see Tyrion, the dwarf brother of the queen, cavorting in a whorehouse. That wasn't in the novel, but establishing his character is critical - he's one of the most important characters in the series, after all. In true "show, don't tell" fashion, we get to see exactly how this little man lives his life, so we can understand him clearly later on. I can live with that.

But the look of the thing! That's the real magic here. TV is a visual medium, and the key to the success of Game of Thrones was that everything looked so incredible. It's so difficult for anything to compete with the vision a reader gets in their imagination when reading a novel, yet somehow Game of Thrones managed to deliver the characters, costumes, locations, and sets in a way that it was easy to believe I was really looking inside the walls of Winterfell.

Game of Thrones has managed to capture the feel of the novel as well. I felt the "starkness" of the North and its ruling family, the Starks. I felt the cold emptiness of the Haunted Forest beyond The Wall. I felt the barbarism, the animal spirit of the Dothraki khalassar and their Khal, Drogo. Most of all, I recognized every minute of the film. It was a faithful, honest, meticulous adaptation that brought the novel to life, artfully sidestepping the pitfalls that are so prevalent in any attempt to translate a brilliant book to the screen.

Bravo to HBO for producing this. It surely couldn't have been done anywhere else. It's too graphic for basic cable, to epic for the big screen. Only HBO had the wherewithal to bring A Song of Ice and Fire to life. I'm thrilled beyond reason that they not only did so, but did so in a grand, majestic, impressive way. Now I just have to suffer through each subsequent week between episodes. The next couple of months are going to be rivers of pain interspersed with hours of gladness and joy. I cannot wait. Winter is coming!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

[TV] Winter is Coming - Game of Thrones on HBO

I went and did it - I subscribed to HBO specifically so I could watch this series. That's not something I've ever done before that I can remember. There have been some great-sounding shows on Pay TV. I remember when The Sopranos was all the rage, for instance. I didn't watch it because I didn't have HBO and I wasn't interested in getting it. I've still never seen that show. Or True Blood. Or the Tudors. Or Rome. I could go on. Oh, I've never seen Sex and the City, but I consider that to be a really good thing.

But Game of Thrones? Hell yeah, I was going to sign up for that. The first novel of George R. R. Martin's consistently brilliant series is a magnificent merger of complex characters, vicious political intrigue, and breathtaking imagery. Seeing all that come alive is too good to miss.

I've actually had the pleasure of enjoying a performance of this series already. Roy Dotrice read the first three novels of the series for the audiobooks and he was absolutely incredible. He deftly changed from one character voice to the next, making each unique and believable, while even weaving together similar accents for characters from nearby regions. It was an impressive display of voice acting. I'm baffled how he managed to remember them all. I used to listen to these audiobooks when I'd drive to work in Ithaca and on my all-too-frequent drives to the home office in Connecticut. I think I've listened to the whole series at least three or four times, and I've read it another three or four times. Wow - have I actually gone through these massive books as many as six or eight times??

Oh yeah, and I'm currently re-reading the series, since the fifth book, A Dance with Dragons, comes out in July. So I guess that will be seven reads. Or eight. Or nine. I can't keep track. But it's THAT good. There's nothing else of this size that I've read that many times, including The Lord of the Rings (which I believe I've read about four times, but even including The Hobbit it's not as big as Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire). It's so good, that I even forgive Martin when it's taken him five years to finish each of the last couple of novels. I'll go back to grumbling about it if the next one takes as long, then I'll forgive him again when it's out.

All I've seen to this point are previews, but I've seen quite a few of them and they look fantastic. The actors are spot-on for how their characters were described, and include the likes of Sean Bean, Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage, and Jason Momoa, to name just a few. Martin has been involved in the development of the series and seems extremely happy with how it's turned out. That's a pretty good endorsement, since most writers are very picky about how their work is adapted.

So I'm sold. I'm in. I'm going to be right there on Sunday night for the premiere, and then each following Sunday until the first season has aired. As to whether I'll keep HBO... we'll see.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

2011 - The Garden Strikes Back

My garden has always been around 60% successful at best. Last year I don't think it was even that high. I can usually eke out a bunch of peas and beans with no problem. Lettuce grows okay. Spinach is hit-or-miss - when I grew it in a pot on the deck it was fine, but in the garden it sprouted and immediately went to seed. I'm hit-or-miss on beets, too. They were terrific one year, then small and stunted the next. Carrots always end up stunted and misshapen, and we end up feeding them to the guinea pigs. Every attempt we've made at cabbage, squash, zucchini, watermelon and pumpkin has been an utter waste of time and effort.

Now, granted, I tend to lose interest in the garden, especially the hard part like weeding regularly. But still, I keep at it, hoping. Hoping.

This year, I'm pinning my hopes on the theory that the soil isn't being properly loosened and fertilized. Part of my rationale is from the beets, which did okay the year that the dirt was brand new, and less well the following year. But who knows, really? My neighbor down the street seems to grow all this stuff just fine in the same soil and weather conditions, so I'm going to follow her example and see what happens. I'm going to invest.

That's right - in an effort to ensure that my garden never, ever produces vegetables unless they cost orders of magnitude more than I'd spend for them in the grocery store, I'm going to pump more money into my garden again this year. I'm going to rent a roto-tiller for $40 and I'm going to buy a bunch of manure for... gah, a lot. When I priced it on Tuesday, it looked like I could easily spend anywhere from $50 to $90 on bagged manure. I'm sure there's a much cheaper way to buy it, I just don't know if I feel like hunting around.

So that's my target for this week - to get the necessary fertilizer and the roto-tiller, till the soil in the garden once to loosen it and then again to mix in the fertilizer, then plant my seeds. As god as my witness, I'll likely have no better luck this year than I've had before. We'll see.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Juggle Faster!

I've got rather a lot of balls in the air at the moment. Luckily they're not axes or flaming torches or anything, but still I'm not getting many articles written. Sorry about that!

Some of the things I'm up to include:
* Continuing to practice the little bit of Iaido I learned last month. I'm REALLY excited to finally be learning this ancient Japanese art (or, at least, an art that can trace its lineage to Ancient Japan, whether or not it looks exactly like what a Samurai would have done in his spare time).
* Trying to get back on the weight-loss wagon after taking a couple of weeks off. This is okay, though - I'm not gaining back any of my lost weight, and I'm not in a hurry. Slow and steady will win this race.
* Working on some work-related projects that are going quite well.
* Completely changing big chunks of the D&D adventure I'm running for my kids. I decided that I needed to add a more impressive bad guy to the end, and set him up to be a recurring villain. I also needed to modify some of the magic items because there were more than I wanted to have in my game. As of right now, it's fairly likely that the bad guy will make off with most of the better ones.
* Trying and failing to get some writing done.

That plus the usual family stuff is accounting for basically all of my time at this point. I'll try to get something written this week, but I can't be sure when.

Friday, April 8, 2011

[Karate] Ipponme Mae

First off, before anybody freaks out, I'm continuing to categorize my Iaido studies under "Karate" for no particular reason other than that I've been classifying all of my martial arts articles under that category. I suppose I could have used a broader category like [Martial Arts], but at the time I started writing about the subject I was really only focused on Kenpo and Goju-Ryu styles, so [Karate] seemed appropriate. I have, however, recently added labels to my blog, so if you're looking for particular subject matter, you can drill down by selecting the link for "Iaido" or "Aikido," or you can see all of my martial arts related articles by clicking "karate." So that's all it is - just a category for the convenience of people trying to sort through my articles (which cover a wide array of topics. Probably too many for most people). It doesn't reflect my opinion or definition of what constitutes "karate" or any other style of martial arts.

Regular readers will recall that I traveled to Ottawa last month for a seminar in Musō Jikiden Eishin-ryū conducted by Sensei Robert Davis. The wonderful thing about seminars, for me, has always been the exposure to new information, things I'd never seen or done before, or just differences in how the knowledge is taught. Sometimes, as with Iaido, the skills are all new. Other times, as with some of the Aikido seminars I attended years ago, it was a chance to practice familiar techniques with different people, or to gain insights into them simply because they were being taught by somebody different.

The one thing I hate about seminars is that afterward I feel the new knowledge I've learned - skills that seemed natural and obvious to me at the time - quickly leaking out of my mind and fading away. Aaaargh, I hate that so much. I want that knowledge. I want to keep it. I want to use it to refine and perfect my technique. I want to have it to use. Losing it really aggravates me.

For that reason, I've begun to think that it might have been for the best that this first Iaido seminar was only three hours long. We learned a lot in that short time, but not so much as to be completely overwhelming. I wish I could tell you the techniques we learned, but my auditory memory is terrible and without seeing them written down, the names flitted away, lost to me. I remember the techniques, though. Or at least I think I do.

We started with some basic stances, the drawing of the sword, the resheathing of the sword, and chiburi, which is the shaking off of blood from the blade. Then we learned two standing waza. In the first, we'd take three steps forward, stopping with the left foot in a half-step before taking a full step forward with the right foot as you draw and make the initial cut with the blade. In the second, the left foot continues on through, and the initial strike is made with the left foot forward. Both follow the first (horizontal) strike with an overhead strike (we used to call the barehanded overhead chop a "shomenuchi" in Aikido. I'm betting it has a different name when performed with a sword, but I don't know what the proper term is, so we'll just stick to English), then a chuburi, and a resheathing of the sword.

I'm not certain I'm doing these techniques 100% perfectly. Well, let me rephrase that - I'm positive that I'm NOT doing them 100% perfectly. Probably more like 10% if I'm lucky, at least in terms of the details that are so important to proper Iaido. What I mean is that I may be making gross mistakes. For instance, I know that in some of the waza we practiced, we dropped a knee as we resheathed the sword. I'm positive we did that in the techniques that started in seiza (kneeling) posture. But I cannot remember whether we also did it when the technique was entirely standing. So for now I'm only bending the knee on seiza-based techniques like Ipponme Mae.

Which brings me to the other set of waza we learned - four different techniques all performed from the seiza position. Each of the four is performed facing a different direction to begin with, but you always end up attacking a target who is to the front. Which is to say, in those positions where you're facing left, right, or to the rear, you must turn yourself because the enemy is always in the same place.

Now I'm not sure if ALL of these variations count as ipponme mae, but I think they might. Regardless, the front-facing waza performed from seiza is definitely ipponme mae. I like ipponme mae quite a bit, and I read somewhere that "all of Iaido is contained in Ipponme Mae." I don't know whether that's true, but it surely seems like a great place to start. I've also read that many Iaido students learn and perform nothing but Ipponme Mae for months when they first begin to learn the art.

I've taken down the cheap piece of crap decorative samurai sword from the rack over my writing computer. It's a poor-quality replica of a real sword, and I noticed after using it for a bit that the whole thing has a bit of a rightward curve from the handle to the tip of the blade. But it's roughly the weight and feel of a proper Iaito blade, and it has a saya (sheath), so I've put it to work. At least three or four times a week, I take that sword to the dojo and I practice what little I know of Iaido. It's my sincere hope that I'm not setting too many bad habits in stone that will need to be chipped away later on, but I'm determined to keep as much of that knowledge as I possibly can. When it's time to learn more Iaido, I hope to be ready to correct some of my errors and absorb more of this precious and all-too-rare knowledge.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

[D&D] The Mystery of the Missing Mage (part 5)

My kids made it to the dungeon's level 3 the other day, which is primarily a huge natural cavern that's become the home to a tribe of goblins. The goblin guards on level 2 were dead, as were the orc guards and orc families on level 2 and 1. Now they'd reached the heart of the community. Within the enormous cavern are many ramshackle huts that serve as homes for the goblin families. There's also a large stone circle surrounded by torches and braziers that gives the appearance of being an altar of some sort. Beyond that is a fine home - many orders of magnitude nicer than the hovels scattered about the cavern - raised high above the rest of the cavern on a tall stone platform. And near the center of the space, the object of their quest - Heather, the missing farmgirl.

Dozens of goblins of all ages and genders came and went through the cavern.

For reasons that aren't entirely clear to me, my daughter the rogue decided to sneak off and backstab some. It actually worked pretty well for a short time, but there were so many goblins, there's simply no way she wasn't going to be seen. And so she was. The alarm was raised, and suddenly 50 goblins are descending upon our intrepid heroes, while a handful race up the wide stairs to the manse. To her credit, my daughter guessed correctly that they were going to alert the chieftain of this enclave, who happens to be a half-goblin, half-orc shaman. I have no idea whether half-orc/half-goblin combinations are even possible, but it's in the module so I left it.

Remarkably (and with a small amount of indulgence from ye olde Dungeon Master), the kids managed to rescue the maiden and escape the clutches of the goblins, discovering and slipping away through a concealed passage that the goblins had long since forgotten about. Now, yeah, I had to arrange the goblins in such a way that they players had a shot at getting across the cavern. But the kids did the heavy lifting. They made the plan to get the girl, they coordinated their efforts, and they recognized that the one unknown feature of the caverns - a wooden structure that turned out to be abandoned stables (why there were stables three levels underground, I haven't a clue. I try to make my dungeons a bit more organic, including things like ease of egress, sources of water, storage for food, chimneys (natural or otherwise) for smoke, and other necessities. This dungeon largely seems to lack those, and puts some odd things in places where I can't explain them. Meh - what can I say? It's a decent dungeon and I didn't have time to make one myself. You'll recall that my kids rolled up characters on a Saturday and demanded we start to play on Sunday. I hadn't even read the whole thing at that point!) - ahem, I digress there parenthetically. Back to the stables - and it so happened that the module called for the entrance to level 4 to be concealed in those very stables.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't note that my youngest son's warrior got in some pretty decent rolls, hacking his way through a swarm of goblins while his siblings rescued the girl and busted through the concealed opening. They made a great team, made some thoughtful decisions, and the dice were reasonably kind to them.

So now they've fled through a dark, deeply-sloped passageway to a whole new level of rooms and corridors, barring a thick door behind them and hopefully buying some badly-needed time to escape the goblins. Next - they explore the lost chambers of an evil sorcerer and perhaps even solve the mystery of the missing mage.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

[Karate] In-House Tournament

Last Saturday, Five Star Martial Arts held its first in-house tournament. By the time all was done, we were there for over eight hours, but everybody seemed to have a great time.

I've never been to a tournament before, in-house or otherwise. They used to be really big back in the day. When my wife and her mom were doing karate in the 1980s, there were several of them a year in this area, and the Tearney's and the LaVallee's camps would square off against each other at all of them. Sometime in the 1990s, tournaments became far less common in Central New York. One theory I've heard is that everybody decided they could make more money hosting their own events than by sending their students to somebody else's tournament. I don't know whether that's the case or not, but our Senseis at Five Star have indicated that they're looking to try to arrange for tournament opportunities for their students and for others in the area. I spoke to Carlos Tearney last month, and he said the same thing. I think that's cool.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not interested in competing myself, and I don't really care much whether my kids do. But if they want to, I'd like them to have the opportunity. But I think the real value is in breaking out of this mindset here in Central New York where each school does their own thing, by themselves, with no integration with others. That's a real shame - I think there's huge value in martial artists getting to see what else is out there. Getting to see that other styles do things differently, and getting a sense of how those differences manifest. I know there have been a handful of seminars here in the last year, too, and I think that's even better - a chance to really learn something new and different than what's taught at your school daily, either because of the content or just because it's being taught by someone new. Local schools like Aikido of CNY, Tai Kai Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and Syracuse Martial Arts Academy are more than willing to hold seminars that are open to any and all. I know Five Star wants to do the same.

So it's begun with the first small steps - an in-house tournament to get Five Star's students familiar with and comfortable with the whole idea of tournaments. I'm looking forward to seeing what's to come.