Follow or Face My Wrath

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Fabled McQueeny-Lock Building

During my childhood and adolescence in Kansas City, the following exchange must have happened fifty times:

Person: "Hey, I saw your last name on that building downtown, next to I-35.  McQueeny-Lock.  Is that your dad's building?"
Me: "Yes it is."
Person: "Does your dad make locks?"
Me: "No, he sells plumbing, heating and air-conditioning.  His partner's last name is Lock."
Person: "Oh, I though maybe he owned a lock company."
Me: "Nope.  Toilets and air-conditioners."

Every day in Kansas City, thousands of commuters drive by the West Pennway exit on I-35 and 99% of them probably look at that building and assume it's a lock manufacturer.  The name of that company has forced me into dozens of conversations explaining what a "manufacturer's representative" is and what "HVAC" means.  If the eponymous Dave Lock knew this, he'd no doubt be greatly amused.  I often wonder if my dad had to similarly explain that his father didn't own a cane factory when the company was called McQueeny-Cain (they're spelled different, I know, but to a child...).
Despite the periodic labored explanations, that building has always had a special place in my heart.  I have as many formative childhood memories concerning that building as I do of the house where I grew up.  And now, after what must be (correct me if I'm wrong, dad) sixty plus years of that building bearing my surname, it has been sold.
My dad was out of that business a long time ago.  Hell, the company hasn't been called McQueeny-Lock for (again, dad, correct me of I'm wrong) more than ten years.  He sold the manufacturing rep business to his employees and partners over a decade ago.  He still owned the building, but his business is now elsewhere, manufacturing state-of-the-art HVAC equipment and selling it internationally.  Magnificent architectural achievements all over the world get their high-tech, energy-efficient heating and cooling from my dad, including buildings in Dubai, South Korea, and Brazil.
But I will never forget the times I had when the McQueeny-Lock building was still "dad's office" and a part of my daily life.

When my brothers and I were growing up, we must have spent half of our summers wandering around that building, getting into mischief.  At one point, we even had our own "office" there; a vacant office along the edge of the building that we filled with cardboard box forts, pretend desks and documents, and a TV for the all-important SNES system.  We had free rein over the entire expanse of the building.  We wandered unhindered into the offices of many of my dad's employees (no doubt making it impossible to get any work done), dug for treasures in the unoccupied storage spaces, stole candy from the honor-system vending box, made copies of our squished faces on the Xerox machine, and generally ran amok.
My littlest brother Chris used to make the most elaborate cardboard forts you can imagine.  I'm talking fifteen to twenty boxes of various sizes that he cut and taped together into huge buildings with tunnels, multiple stories, Murphy-bed-like folding desks, advanced pulley systems made from string and paper clips designed to carry objects from one end of the fort to the other... we are talking complicated here, people.  He would sit in them day after day, holding imaginary business meetings for his made-up corporation Chris Co., giving orders to me and our brother Pat, creating documents for us to fill out and errands for us to run in the building.
Eventually, my dad saw fit to put us to work.  Our initial salary was a miserly $2/hour, for which we swept, weeded and cleaned every nook and cranny of that building.  The rate increased over the years, though it never reached beyond $10/hour, and every summer until I was twenty, there was at least one or two odd jobs that I tackled in that building.

One particularly incriminating memory (sorry, dad) concerns the time my brothers and I were tasked with stripping the paint off of a newly-purchased cargo truck for one of the handful of businesses renting space in the building.  It was about the size of your garden-variety U-Haul, and our job was to scrub every brushstroke of paint off the box trailer... using Easy-Off oven cleaner.  Now I don't know If you've ever used this stuff on your oven, but I can hardly fathom how its use in the home isn't prohibited by law.  It is lethally caustic; enough to burn your eyebrows off and make all your teeth fall out.  It is probably the most dangerous chemical I have ever handled.  We sprayed wide swaths of the stuff on the side of this truck, and scrubbed in futility with ripped up t-shirts and oily rags.  We used sweat-moistened bandanas as our only protection from the fumes.  The temperature that day was in the triple digits, and the parking lot had been re-paved in a stygian black only weeks before, so every ounce of the sun's punishing radiation was reflected upon us a thousand fold.  Needless to say, it was unpleasant.  And yet I consider the experience a gift, because after that day, I have never considered any physical task too difficult or unseemly.

Most of my memories of that building are much more pleasant.  For what must have been seven or eight years, my brother and I (who share the same birthday, two years apart) were each allowed to invite three friends for a slumber party in the building.  The selection process was always grueling, but we always ended up with a great group.  We would cook out in the courtyard, usually to the soothing sounds of Steppenwolf or Jimi Hendrix, and then my dad would turn us loose in the building.
The first year we played a game of my dad's devising, which he called "Running the Gauntlet": one team would take up position in the windows of the third floor overlooking the courtyard, armed to the teeth with water balloons.  The other team would then attempt to run the length of the courtyard (a good forty yards, filed with landscaping, obstacles, and fountains) while dodging the merciless salvos from above.
In following years, the water balloons found a new purpose.  We acquired a large rubber slingshot made for firing water balloons long distance, and affixed the ends to the railing of the stairway at the back of the courtyard.  The gunner would place a balloon in the sling, drag it down the fifteen or twenty steps to the landing (stretching the rubber of the slingshot to the upper limits of its endurance) and let a balloon fly.  With good enough aim, you could hit a large billboard that stood alongside I-35.  Naturally, being mischievous little devils, we eventually got the bright idea to fill the water balloons with ketchup, mustard and all manner of other things.  One year, someone flung a soup can at the billboard, knocking out all its lights, and my dad promptly put a stop to the escalating vandalism.
Another favorite pastime on these sleepovers was the noble game of German Spotlight.  For those of you who don't know, German Spotlight is essentially a cross between flashlight tag and hide-and-seek.  One person (sometimes two) would be appointed the "spotlight" and would carry a flashlight around the playing field, looking for the remaining players.  The remaining players could run or hide in any way they wanted.  To capture a player, the spotlight must hit them with the beam of the flashlight, count to three and call their name ("One, two, three, Pete!").  If the name was called wrong, or the player managed to break away before their name was called, the player could run away.  If captured, the player must accompany the spotlight back to "jail".  Any remaining free players could perform a "jailbreak" by touching the jail, counting to ten at the top of their lungs and screaming jailbreak, thereby setting all of the prisoners free.  The object of the game is either to have all the players in jail, giving the spotlight the victory, or forcing the spotlight to give up and call the "olly-olly-oxen-free".
THIS GAME IS SERIOUSLY FUN.  I would not be the least bit ashamed to play a round now, as a portly, avuncular thirty-year-old.  Seriously, give me a time and place.
Being the geniuses that my friends and I are, we had the stupendous idea to make the freight elevator our jail, and after each capture, the spotlight would then move the jail up or down one floor.  This had two effects: it added another layer of difficulty for the hiding players, and the loud noise of the elevator announced every capture to the entire building.
The McQueeny-Lock building consists of four main floors: a basement, which was used for storage and cluttered like a hoarder's home; a large warehouse where contractor's orders were fulfilled, lined with shelves up to the twenty-five-foot ceiling (one could climb on many of them, and we did); the second floor, occupied by the McQueeny-Lock sales office (lots of rooms and cubicles); and a third floor that was split between offices and a large unfinished space (it was variously occupied and unoccupied over the years).  Additionally, there was the courtyard, and the north warehouse, connected to the main building by a narrow office belonging to a computer repair company.  In our latter-day games, all unlocked areas were in play (hence the need for two spotlights).  It was a big space, and the games we played there were epic indeed.
One year, I broke the curve by sneaking my way onto the top of the freight elevator.  It was made of a thick wooden floor and a wire-cage on top, so I was easily visible to any who looked up.  I concealed myself with silence and hoped that neither of the spotters would think to look for me there.  Whenever they would leave long enough for me to feel safe, I would immediately jailbreak all of my teammates, much to the frustration of the spotters.  When they finally gave up and everyone had gathered around the elevator, I casually dropped in from the hole in the roof.  After that, it was forbidden as a hiding place.
In later years, as we advanced into our teens, German Spotlight gave way to vodka and hookah, smuggled in by itinerant friends.  Offices were disturbed, things went missing, and eventually the jig was up.  We just made it a little too hard for my dad to forgive our activities, and we had to take our birthday celebrations elsewhere.

I must have known nearly every employee who worked in that building for more than a year.  If I didn't bother them at their desk, I worked alongside them during my teens.
I remember one young guy named Mike who I helped around the warehouse, filling orders, packing trucks and doing odd jobs.  I had just been caught smoking pot at school that year, and the dedicated young man spent the entire summer trying to convince me to stay away from drugs.
There was Jeff Fisher, a jovial, kind-hearted gentleman who oversaw my activities, and eventually issued me a paycheck or two.
There was the receptionist Roxanne, our often-times de-facto babysitter who doubtless complained passionately of the extracurricular duties our presence thrust upon her.
There was my uncle Jerry, a forceful, yet brotherly man, with a stentorian voice and a knuckle-crushing handshake.  His office moved over the years, but was always easily found by the cornucopia of KU paraphernalia spilling from the door.
There was Jerry Kimmel, a pallid, impassive man that had been a friend of my mother in college, and with whom my dad, brothers and I shared a pair of adventure-filled trips to Colorado (a tale for another time).
There was Mark (whose surname I forget) who ran the computer repair company in the office linking to the north warehouse.  He never seemed to shave, yet never seemed to have a beard and he always reeked of a cocktail of sweat and cheap beer.
There were even a few mythical characters that inhabited the building before my time.  Whitey and the Mole-People were a group of IT workers who rented an extremely stoic office space in the basement.  For many years, descriptions of Whitey led me to believe that he was Santa Claus, and the IT company was the kindly old elf's off-season job.
Another character, whose name escapes me, was well-known for buying a new suit and wearing it until it fell apart; never showering, and apparently never sleeping either.  Years later, I assume this man had a drug and/or alcohol problem, but at the time I heard his story, I just thought he was a freak.  All the offices on the second floor had windows that looked into the main area of the office, and this shabby gentleman would stalk down the rows casting a menacing glare into each.
The people I witnessed coming and going were as multifaceted and colorful as any one might find in a storybook.

For a period of years, my mother operated an art gallery on the third floor of the building.  Knowing as I now do that it was a joint venture by my parents with the aim of breathing new life into their then-dysfunctional marriage, the memories of that place all have a bluish tint, but there is one that bursts forth with a lively rainbow of emotions.
The very first opening of Zografia (it means "fine art" in Greek) concentrated on the work of a young visual artist and designer by the name of John Dawbarn.  This man's work is burned into my mind with the tenacity that only comes from images whose true depth is not immediately apparent. The man had a fixation on rabbits and the number 2, and his work is littered with references, both oblique and unmistakable.  All of it has a sort of Lewis Carrol-esque manic tone to it.  His opening at Zografia was a fashion show centered on his girlfriend, lead model and muse.  The design book from the show is a possession I would treasure if it was ever returned to me.  The elaborate costumes donned by the models contained all sorts of sanitarium/carnival contrivances, including one large, striped maternity dress, complete with a window into the belly, where a cutout of a rabbit in a fetal ball spun slowly to strobe lights.  Dresses and skirts made of Necco wafers; unwearable rabbit costumes that would look garish even at a London rave; brightly colored, revealing outfits adorned by mechanical jewelry and candy accessories... it was like the Mad Hatter dropped acid and puked on Andy Warhol and then they went strutting down a runway together dressed in drag.  It was beautifully insane, and I will not deny that the event influences my taste in art to this day.

I tried my first sip of beer sitting on dad's knee as a little boy, and I don't think a single molecule made it past my tongue.  But I had my first beer at the rehearsal dinner for my dad's remarriage (interestingly, he met my step mom when she worked in the McQueeny-Lock building, and no it wasn't the tawdry office romance you think it was.  She hadn't worked there for nearly a decade by the time they got together).  I recall I was driving a shoddy little Mazda quarter-ton pickup at the time, and my dad loaded all the leftover beer into the bed and told me and my friend Brian to get rid of it.  So we did.
For years I printed my somewhat successful zine Fightscene at my dad's office.  I'm sure the employees were always wondering why the Xerox machine ran out of toner so damn fast, because by the end of the zine's run I was distributing 2000+ copies nationwide.  Not bad for a free punker zine, I say.
I filmed a project for my sophomore English class there, where we were supposed to do a video or a skit that made use of a handful of vocabulary words.  My friends and I overdid the hell out of it, recruiting the help of half a dozen kids who weren't even in the class, some of whom didn't even go to the same school as me.  Through a connection my friend had, we even edited the damn thing at the local news station, using their collection of stock music as a soundtrack.  The graffiti on my dad's roof, along with the view of the somewhat dilapidated Kansas City skyline made the perfect backdrop for our apocalyptic tale concerning the adventures of Yellow Man, and his righteous struggle against the barbarian hordes of post-civilized America.
I'm pretty sure I even had sex at the McQueeny-Lock building once.  On the table in the conference room.  The memory is fuzzy, and possibly apocryphal, but I did have a girlfriend that lived nearby at one point, and I did have a key to the building for several years.  Sorry, dad. (I think we're way past the statute of limitations on that one)

In short, pretty much everything that can happen to a pre- and post-adolescent boy happened to me in that building.  Knowing that it is gone is as emotional for me as if my mother were to sell the house I grew up in.  I still have dreams that take place in the McQueeny-Lock building, even though I haven't set foot in it for the better part of a decade.  The stories and memories I've recounted here barely crack the surface of all the things that happened to me in that building, and mine is but one story of hundreds who walked its halls over the time it belonged to my family.
Someone else owns it now.  The sign will no doubt be torn down, and maybe the building too, eventually.  Nothing in this world lasts, this I have learned.  This day was always destined, and now it has come. I'm not sad, and I know that the sale of the building is a great boon to my dad, step mom and little half brother and sister.  But if I ever find myself on I-35 northbound heading into downtown Kansas City, my heart will skip a beat when I pass by the West Pennway offramp.  I will always remember the McQueeny-Lock building, and somewhere in the back of my mind, I will always think of it as mine.

Friday, December 13, 2013

"Chopped" Writing Exercise 12-13-13

So as you may have read on Facebook, Stephanie and I have decided to start doing little writing exercises based on a suggestion from Writer's Digest.  The rules are as follows:

1. I have 30 minutes to complete the exercise.
2. I must use all four of the story ingredients she provides, and I cannot see the four ingredients until the 30 minutes begins.
3. I can use the ingredients a little or a lot, though the more prominent they are, the better.
4. The resulting story must have a beginning, middle and end, or I will be chopped.
5. I may use my phone to look things up on Google and to use the dictionary/thesaurus.

So yesterday I tried for the first time, and the resulting story wasn't really a story, it was a scene.  And not a particularly strong one either.  So I'm not going to publish it.
BUT, today's story turned out quite a bit better, so here it is!  The only editing I've done is correcting 2 spelling typos and 2 minor grammar errors.

- One-eyed purple people eater
- Tokyo
- French bread
- Tornado

 Dyeus, God of Storms had suffered the insolence of the people of Tokyo long enough. For generations, the heathens had failed utterly to pay tribute to him, or even to one of his many derivative personalities.
Feeble humans, he thought. Could they not witness his power, awake and alive in their land? Did he not send the Monsoon each year, and the blistering winds of the hurricane when a particular group had sunk to a truly base iniquity? And yet the Japanese continued to burn false money at the tombs of their ancestors. He had waited long enough for his vengeance.
This storm was like none he had ever concocted. It shook the very earth of the island with its winds. He sent mile-wide tornadoes on the face of the wicked country, and issued great bolts of lightning upon them.
But this was not enough, Dyeus mused. This country had many times weathered as much destruction as he alone could visit upon them. To make the punishment truly fitting of the crime, he would have to call upon the skills of his brother.
“You most humble servant welcomes you, great Yama, God of Death, keeper of hell,” Dyeus addressed him as he entered the royal chamber.
“I hear you have finally decided to punish the people of Tokyo for their insolence,” Yama said. “What is it you wish of me?”
“A great beast, your excellency. Like the beasts of old that you sent upon the Greeks when they befouled your mighty name.”
“Ah yes, I do love a good beast. But alas, the Greeks and Romans have taken most of my stock. I have but one beast left great enough for the task. The ravenous violet cyclops of Shagroth. A mediocre incarnation at best, but he is the largest I have to offer.”
“Your excellency is too humble. The violet cyclops will do nicely.”

The streets of Tokyo were in chaos. Cars and people flew threw the air, smashing into buildings. Hiro was trying to find cover in a small bakery when the wind literally tore the contents of the store out into the street. He heard a sickening liquid sound next to him, and turned to see the horror of his wife, impaled by a large loaf of day-old French bread.
How was this possible? How could such disaster strike with no warning?
Nothing could have prepared him for what he saw next. Outside the shattered remains of the store front, a titanic, scaly purple foot crashed down into a pile of cars. Hiro almost laughed at how ridiculously hopeless it was. All was lost.
In resignation, he crawled out into the street, needing to see for himself the architect of their destruction. When he gazed into the sky, what he saw made him burst out in mad, hopeless laughter.
It had one eye, one arm, one horn, and it was eating people. It's body was a deep violet. It looked like something a child would draw, and yet it was their doom.
All was lost.

“What foolishness is this?” cried Yaweh as he burst into Dyeus' chamber. Dyeus and Yama were gloating over their wicked machinations.
“My lord!” Both of them fell to their knees. “We knew not that you watched us.”
“Petulant children, you are! Do you not know that I watch this entire world? That is it under my protection, now and ever more? I invoked the right of Filial Sacrifice to save these humans, effectively banishing you and all your lot from this sphere.” Yaweh grimaced at Dyeus. “Have you not enough chaos to manage on Venus? And you, Yama, is there not suffering enough to satiate you in Hell?”
The two gods fell silent.
“Very well. Off this sphere, both of you, and remain gone for eternity! I shall have to turn back time now, because of you. Something I have not been forced to do in centuries.”

Hiro couldn't have understood it, even if he had been able to perceive it. The destruction around him lurched to a stop, then slowly began to reverse itself, getting faster and faster until there was nothing but a blur around him. All Hiro knew was that he woke with a splitting headache. His wife lay sleeping next to him. For some reason, he felt like he had just dodged a bullet.
The TV was on at the foot of the bed, showing the movie Twister. He got up, padded to the kitchen, and cut himself a few slices from a loaf of French bread that was growing stale on the counter.

Why it made him feel sick, he didn't know. But After that day, Hiro never bought French bread again.

#writing #writingexercises #creativewriting #gods #monster #tornado #bread #chopped #challenge

Sunday, November 10, 2013

And then I met Steph.

Today marks the first anniversary of my marriage to Stephanie Silvers.  Though our journey is yet at its beginning, I think it appropriate that I stop to reflect on where we've been so far.
Stephanie and I have actually been an item for nearly five years now (on the 28th of December, if memory serves) and we've had some time to go through a few ups and downs together.  We moved in together about nine or ten months after meeting, got engaged about eight months after that and immediately moved across the country.
My whole life I expected to live in Kansas City until the day I die.  I really did like that city, and I never imagined I would have a compelling reason to go anywhere else.  In high school and even college, there was always a popular sentiment of "I gotta get out of this boring state" that I never subscribed to.  A contrarian from a tender age, I decided that KC was the place for me, and I stuck to it for 28 years.  And then I met Steph.
I had been in the market for a serious girlfriend for some time.  I've never been very smooth with the ladies (still not, ask Steph) but I had managed to wrangle one date in the months before I met Steph.  My impressions of the girl were that she was merely an unmolded lump of clay.  An uncarved stone which I could shape into anything if I wanted to.  I found this completely boring  and unattractive.  And then I met Steph.  
If ever there was a fully-forged person, Steph is it.  Opinionated, intelligent, down-to-earth and downright beautiful, she was everything I was looking for.  I didn't know I was looking for those things until I had them in front of me, but there they were.  And that's been the name of the game ever since.
For me, our relationship has been a process of discovering things about myself that I was previously unaware of, and finding that it's who I've always been underneath.  We had a conversation just the other day about a walk I went on through an affluent neighborhood just south of our apartment, and how I gazed in slack-jawed envy at the gorgeous houses hidden in those quiet hills.  I have full-on house fever now.  I never gave a shit about houses.  And then I met Steph.
I used to pile dishes in the sink for days before grudgingly washing them.  I used to run errands in the same pajamas I slept in.  I used to think putting a few fresh vegetables in a packet of ramen made me a good cook.  I used to only do laundry when I ran out of clothes.  And then I met Steph.
I used to be content.  I was never depressed, rarely overjoyed, just content.  A somewhat-less-than-happy medium at all times.  I considered myslef very composed.  I almost never had strong emotions about anything.  And then I met Steph.
I want a beautiful home to share with her.  I clean the dishes every day.  I put on pants before I leave the house (almost every time).  I can bake apple pie from scratch.  I do laundry every week.I laugh harder than I should at things that aren't that funny.  I get angry.  Really angry, sometimes.  I cry at movies.  I tell people I love them more often.  I make an effort to be polite to strangers.  I've even *gulp!* hugged some of my dude friends (only a few times).
I'm alive because of Stephanie.
I left home for her, because she is my home.
Before I met her, I didn't feel much of anything.  I might have been interested in things, I might have wanted things, but those aren't emotions.  Now I feel everything.
And it's a pain in the ass sometimes.  Me and Steph?  We fight a lot.  We don't scream and yell at each other, but we're always disagreeing about something.  I used to think that fighting was what makes a relationship weak.  But Steph has shown me that fighting is what makes a relationship strong.  I know I love her because I can hate her and, dammit, I still love her.  We can hurt each other's feelings, and believe me we have the power.  And that to me is the surest sign that we care.  If we couldn't affect each other, if one of us was growing indifferent, I would be worried.
If you can't go to hell and back with somebody, how well do you really know them?  I'm confident that me and Steph can come back from anything.  We're always on the same team, even when we're fighting, and dammit, I have to say that feels fucking rad.  Sorry for the F-bomb, but it just makes me feel really cool to have a woman like that for my wife.  
I realize this whole post has kind of been about me, but that's just the clearest way I can get this point across.  Because Steph's best trait isn't the obvious things you think of.  Yes, she's beautiful.  Yes, she's smart.  Smarter and more beautiful than she gives herself credit for, which also means she's humble.  Yes, all of that.  But what I love best about her is the way she effects other people.  Nobody likes Steph.  They love her.  Nobody has fun with her.  They have a blast with her.  Nobody quietly disagrees with her.  They fight with her.  Nobody is insulted by her.  They're destroyed by her.  She's a human being turned up to eleven.
For whatever reason, she has chosen to see only the best in me.  When we met, I was a shabbily-dressed pothead with a crappy job and no plans for the future.  Now... well I'm still shabbily dressed, but less so. And I haven't done anything illegal since I met her.  I don't even speed anymore.  Some people might still call my job crappy because it doesn't bring in a ton of money, but I've literally never been happier.  I used to be embarrassed to tell people what I did for a living.  Now... I'm a writer.  I may not be Hemingway, but I'm a writer.  And the future's so bright I gotta wear shades.  She brings out the best in me, as she does with everyone who knows her.
And as soon as we get the chance, I want to make more humans with her, because I'm hoping they'll turn out like her.  The only contribution I plan to make is to ensure they like heavy metal, Star Wars and beards.  If they get those few things from me, and the rest from Steph, they'll be the best people I know.
I used to be half a person.  And then I met Steph.  I'm hoping that rate of multiplication continues exponentially, because this world will be a better place.  I know my world is a better place now that she's in it.
Love you, babe.  Happy anniversary.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Let me clarify something...

I just realized that the article I wrote yesterday might come off a touch different than I intended it.
The point of yesterday's article was to say that people should quit hating on cell phones.  I wanted to point out that, like all things, you can use them for benefit or detriment.
What I did not intend to say was that playing mind-numbing games is uniformly bad.  If you are a person who exerts their brain to exhaustion in their career, you deserve a little mind-numbing every now and then.  If you are a student who actually takes your studies seriously, you deserve to relax your brain from time to time.  When used in proper context, these games can be healthy.  I don't advocate playing them to the exclusion of more important things, but I acknowledge that they have a place in a balanced lifestyle.
So if you work your brains on a daily basis and play a little Farmville to relax, I don't blame you.  But if you're in a dead end job you hate and you spend all your free time "relaxing", you have the power to break the cycle.
That's all I'm trying to say.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

It's the Future, People.

In the past few years, as smartphones have become more & more ubiquitous, I've become aware of a growing sentiment that these devices are somehow robbing us of our basic humanity.  If any of you have ever criticized a friend or acquaintance for always being on their phone, you may consciously or subconsciously subscribe to this view.
I'm here to refute this, insofar as a humble blogger with a laughably low share of web traffic can.
First, I'd like to point out the obvious fact that people who criticize others for overusing their phones are among the biggest hypocrites in existence.  Everyone is on their phone virtually every spare second of the day.  Admit it.  You do it too.
Now that that's out of the way...
I think the idea that these devices are somehow bad for us must come from one of two things (or probably both): the fact that people simply look disengaged from the world when they're hunched over a small rectangular piece of plastic; or the fact that some of us concentrate so single-mindedly on these devices as to forget things like our basic safety, i.e. texting and driving.  (an amusing note: I typed the word "texting" and blogger noted it as a spelling error with the traditional red squiggly underlining.  Amusing that that word and all its derivatives aren't yet regarded as a proper word by all programs)
As to the disregard of one's basic safety, I have no refutation.  It is obviously a problem that we must overcome, and there is no excuse for endangering yourself and others.  But that's why wearable technology is so cool (more on that in a moment).
As to the simple distaste for seeing a person focused on a handheld object rather than the world around them, I feel that it might be a fundamental misapprehension of what these devices are.
A phone looks like a mere object.  To eschew perception of the world at large for a mere object would indeed be foolhardy, but the fact is that these devices are not mere self-contained objects, but portals into a world that is much larger than one's current environs.  Chances are your immediate environment is familiar to you.  Why waste precious seconds of your mental life observing the familiar?  Why not interact with things beyond yourself instead?
Now, if those things are escapist distractions like Imgur or Angry Birds, I actually quite agree that spending too much time on your phone robs you of something.  However, if you're reading the New York Times or perhaps an ebook version of Dracula, the criticism loses some of its efficacy.  The smartphone, like all human contrivance, can be used for good or ill - it has no inherent morality.  It's simply a matter of what one chooses to do with it.
A matter of weeks ago, I downloaded a game called Tiny Tower.  In this game, you earn money by selling items from stores in a virtual building.  With the money, you build more floors and populate them with more stores and more tenants.  Gameplay consists almost entirely of waiting for people to board the elevator, directing the elevator to their desired floor and clicking on a store to restock it's wares.  In other words, it's mind-numbing crap.
I was under the spell of this game for quite some time before I realized how wasteful it was.  It's one of those games that sends you notifications asking you to play it; informing you that one of your stores needs restocking, or that your most recent addition has completed construction.  I wasted countless minutes of my mental life being numbed by this game.
I finally realized that all that game (and all games like it) really do is provide a healing salve for ordinary boredom.  But to paraphrase a very astute observation from a very unlikely source, being bored is the signal that it's time to do something creative, or to learn something.  It's your brain's way of telling you there is room for improvement.  If you spend all of your "bored time" being soothed into catatonic ineptitude, you will find one day that you aren't very good at anything.  These types of games are electronic weed.  They make you stupider.
I've replaced my electronic weed with two new things: FitBrains and DuoLingo.  FitBrains is like, except it works on Android phones.  DuoLingo is like Rosetta Stone, but it's free.  I'm learning Spanish a few minutes a day.  I am also filling many spare minutes reading random Wikipedia articles.
Everybody has these minutes.  And many of us spend them playing games like Tiny Tower.  But I have enough faith in humans to say that one day, soon enough, another trend will emerge.  It might not overtake the electronic weed (after all the one thing almost all people agree upon is that there are more stupid people than smart people in this world), but I think it will be a significant trend nonetheless.  I think some people will wise up and say, "Hey, why don't I use these spare seconds to improve myself in some way?"
And that is one very big reason why smartphones are good.  Because in the past, if you wanted to improve yourself, you had to seek out an expert, often pay them for their time, and devote significant portions of your life to the endeavor.  Even in the digital age, you used to have to go sit at a computer and not do other things like do laundry or ride the bus.  Now in the smartphone age, there are a million ways to learn and experience more, and you can do it a few seconds at a time, while still going about your daily life.  You just have to make the smart decision to use your time wisely.
Another aspect of the smartphone experience that often falls under criticism is the constant attention paid to Social Networks.  I, for one, am a huge advocate of the social network.  In the age of Facebook, I now know more about what's going on in my friend's lives that I ever have.  I feel more in touch with the people I like and love than before I joined Facebook.  What harm can come from being more in touch with people?  And while every thought may not need recording for posterity, what possible harm can it do?
I think the criticism comes from the narcissism inherent in the social media experience.  One must tacitly say "Hey, look at me!  This is what I'm thinking!"  Again, I invoke the hypocrisy retort here.  Everyone wants to be known.  Facebook and social networks like it allow us to feed this instinct in a passive manner.  The average person can subdue the basic human need to draw attention to themselves with a few posts a week.  I view it as a healthy way of diverting a natural instinct into a harmless activity, rather than allow it to build into bad social behavior.  And social networks like Pinterest serve an additional purpose; they extend the reach of your memory.  I don't know how to build a vertical garden, but I pinned it, and I can know it any time I wish.
Either the above is the case, or social media critics must view interactions on Facebook as somehow "less real" than conversations using our vocal chords.  I would respond that people have been communicating via the written word almost as long as we've been using our voice boxes.  The fact that the words no longer have to be of any great import, and the audience no longer has to go to any great effort to receive them seems like a good thing to me.  I feel like if Facebook conversations are "less real" than physical interactions, then writing a letter by email is "less real" than if you had used the post office and written the letter by hand.   We have always interacted in different degrees of reality.  Seeing a sign someone put up isn't as "real" as having them tell you to STOP or that the 7-11 is CLOSED.  Why would you want it to be?   Not all interactions require the full level of reality to be meaningful, and I think this is especially true of the passing observations we post to Facebook.  But by virtue of our having access to them, by virtue of their being expressed at all, do we know know one another better?  I have an old work acquaintance that posts recipes and culinary accomplishments regularly, yet we never talked about these things when we worked together.  Do I not know her better for seeing these posts and pins?
If anything, I think the speed and ease with which we access each other's words makes these interactions more real.  Rather than wait for your letter to arrive, or for a convenient time to come when we can meet and talk, I get a beep in my pocket and I have received the information you wished to convey in a matter of seconds.  Where is the harm in easy flow of information?  True, not all of it is of much worth, but what of that?  It's not as if any precious resources were expended in the creation of it.  Again, where is the harm?
If all you do with your phone is play Candy Crush and take selfies, then it's easy to think that these devices are bad for us.  But if you choose to do something worthy with the brilliant technology you hold in your hand, then you must realize, as I do, that this is the future we've always dreamed of.  We have the privilege of having the wealth of all human knowledge in our pockets at all times, and we may transfer it into our brains at any time we wish, with a minimum of fuss.  We have everyone we care about in our hands, and while it may not measure up to the experience of actually being in their presence, we can still reach out and touch them any time we want, and with smaller concerns the lighter touch of social media is, in a way, more appropriate.
Now that these capabilities are being built into wearable technology like Google Glass, Galaxy Gear and Airo, it's only getting easier.  And less dangerous!  If we all had Google Glass, we could text and drive to our heart's content without ever taking our eyes off the road.  I, for one, look forward to a day when we can weave these technologies into our very flesh, and we needn't ever be separated from them.
To have all this power is a privilege, not a burden.  It's the future, people.  It's coming, whether you like it or not.  Yes, there will be some speedbumps on the way.  And some casualties (like perhaps my entire trade).  But you might as well ride the wave, or you'll get pulled down by the undertow.

...Oh and hey, if you wanted to spend some of those minutes reading my short stories it definitely won't hurt you.  Fiction is good for the brain too.

#technology #science #brain #brainsmanship #GoogleGlass #GalaxyGear #Airo #DuoLingo #FitBrains #smartphones #phones #future #socialmedia #free #ebooks #writing #reading

Monday, November 4, 2013

A Hater Gotta Hate

I'm sure many of you have experienced this (and some of the more popular ones among you may experience it constantly), but every now and then I make a post on Facebook that for one reason or another is just "hot".  Sometimes I'll get 20 likes and comments for the most mundane observations of daily life.  Who knows why this happens, but it does.
The weekend before last I made a post that had to do with the general agreement among serious music listeners that Nickelback sucks. This was one of those "hot" posts, and I've decided that it's rant-worthy.
For me personally, an appreciation of any music begins first with an impression that the artist is doing what they do because they have some genuine artistic statement they would like to make.  Some artistic statements are bolder and more ambitious than others.  Some bands have so much to say they can't squeeze it into a single artistic medium, and even after diversifying across multiple media are left with a body of work so titanic and esoteric it drives a great deal of fans away.  Other bands wish only to put across the simplest of messages, like "Dancing is fun!" or "Ain't love grand?".  I hold both these modus operandi to be equally valid, although it is debatable whether they are of equal value.  The value one ascribes to either approach is dependent wholly on one's musical tastes and one's attention span.  Add to this the fact that some timbres of sound are more pleasant to some people than others, and you have enough variables to remove objectivity from the study of music altogether.
However, this does not mean that all opinions on music are of equal argumentative worth.  Some are easier to defend than others.  We are therefore free to argue about who sucks and who rocks with moral impunity.  I have often expressed the sentiment that a particular band "sucks ass" and been met with the retort that that's "Only my opinion, and you can't argue about matters of opinion."  To which I reply that one can only argue about matters of opinion.  Facts are facts, fixed and eternal, to which there is no argument, only correct and incorrect perception.  Arguing about opinions may not be terribly effective, but well, a hater's gotta hate.
And I hate Nickelback.  I find their music to be the most flaccid, watered-down excuse for rock that exists in today's music landscape.  Full disclosure: I actually bought their first CD, and listened to the whole thing more than once.  Yep.  So when I say they blow, I'm not just blowing smoke, I know what I'm talking about.
Look at this douchebag.  Look at him!

Nickelback is just the most prominent, highest-grossing symptom of a disease that runs rampant in rock music.  While derived from the popular music tradition (I mean that in the academic sense), Rock is nonetheless stylistically distinct from Pop Music.  Pop music is a form of entertainment, while at it's core Rock music is a means of artistic expression (this was not always true; we owe this state of affairs to visionaries like the Beatles and the recently deceased Lou Reed).  The lines between rock and pop have always been blurry, and the best artists get to have it both ways.  But as the music and recording industry has grown stronger and obtained more control over the artists they "represent", more and more we see artists who wear the clothing and attitude of rock and roll but are truly pop artists at heart.  This is Nickelback I'm talking about.
Like I said, the line is blurry, but it's one of those things where you know it when you hear it.  Nickelback writes catchy tunes, but have you ever thought about one after you stopped listening to it?  I don't mean did it get stuck in your head, I mean have you ever thought about the song?  It's guitar riff, or the meaning of it's lyrics?  Probably not, and if you have, I would bet your mind is not generally occupied with anything exciting.  Pop music does not encourage too much reflection.  It exists for one reason and one reason only: so that you will pay for it (this does not necessarily mean all of it is bad; see all pop of the 1980s). Whatever it has to be to get your money, it will be exactly that.  And the people that make it often don't care what it has to be.  If one style is selling particularly well, that's the style they play.
You see this lack of engagement in all artistic media.  In Hollywood, for example, there are scores upon scores of cast & crew members for whom making movies is just a means to collect a paycheck, and to whom a paycheck is just a means to temporarily escape from the mindless minutia of daily existence.  These people don't care about making movies.  They don't know anything more about making movies than they have to.  Some of them don't watch many movies, or even particularly like movies.  The film business holds about as much passion for them as waiting tables or accounting.  These are the people that bring you films like the 2002 Rollerball or Hellraiser: Revelations.  Obviously the world could not function without these types of people, but that doesn't mean I have to afford them equal respect as I would to say David Bowie.
To this dispassionate, "I'm only here for the money" attitude, Nickelback is the soundtrack.  They're not the first, but they're this hater's flavor of the decade.
Some people can do this and get away with it by accident.  Bon Jovi is the best example I can think of; they participated in the commercialization of an otherwise 100% honest style of music (Heavy Metal), but lo and behold, they came out with incredibly kick ass songs like "Dead or Alive" and "Livin' on a Prayer".  Did anyone know or care about anything they did before, or after those songs, though?  Not many people did.  And now Jon Bon Jovi plays limp-wristed pop-country music.  Know why?  Because it's the hottest selling musical style right now, just like metal was the hottest thing in the mid 80's.
Nickelback jumped on the grunge bandwagon pretty late in the game (you can always tell the posers because they usually show up late), and they had a few hits, the first two of which are totally indistinguishable to me.  As the years have gone by, the sound of their singles has thinned out until it reached that same stylistic area of almost-country-but-not-quite.  I'm sure they still try to rock a little on their albums, but I certainly don't care enough to find out.
According to Wikipedia, Nickelback is the second best-selling band in the US, behind the Beatles.  So if we measure artistic success purely by sales figures, Nickelback is almost as good as the Beatles.  But I don't judge by album sales.  Its a quantitative measurement, not a qualitative one.  It makes about as much sense as measuring a suit by how many fish you can stuff into it.
In the end, I am occasionally happy to be entertained by pop music, but when you ask me if it's as good as say "A Day in the Life" from Sgt. Pepper's or even as good as "Girls, Girls, Girls" by Mötley Crüe, I'll be forced to tell you that no, it isn't.  I don't need every band to be The Beatles.  I don't even need every band to be The Animals or any of the countless also-rans of a particular music movement.  I just need the bands I listen to to mean it.  I need sincerity.  And that, my friends, is what Nickelback most sorely lacks.

#music #nickelbacksucks #rock #popmusic #art #hate

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Things that I have seen and experienced lately

I don't have anything in particular to write about, so I just want to briefly share with you a few things I've discovered lately:

A band:
Bloodrock are a proto-metal band that sound kind of like a cross between Deep Purple and Pentagram (who is Pentagram?  Check them out here)  They produced 6 albums between 1971 and 1973, which is lightning fast, even by 70's standards.  The latter 5 albums are of debatable quality, containing only a few gems apiece, but the first album totally destroys.  Anyone who likes rock music that actually rocks should check it out.

A movie:
My gorgeous wife and I got pre-screening tickets to go see About Time; the latest film from the people who brought you Notting Hill and Love, Actually.  I really did like Love, Actually so I walked in assuming the movie would be at least alright.  I know this probably necessitates the immediate burning of my man card, but I actually like a good romantic comedy.  Personally, my manhood isn't threatened by laughing at the trials and tribulations one endures in the complicated dance that is human coupling.  I've been there, to some extent, so I can laugh at it.
ANYWAY, About Time was freaking brilliant.  One of the funniest movies I've seen in a while that wasn't a zany comedy in the vein of Anchorman or Zoolander.  It was also supremely heartbreaking towards the end.  I won't give you any spoilers, but suffice it to say that when I left the theater I wanted to immediately call my dad and tell him I loved him.  I didn't because that would be a bit random.
So you should go see this movie.  It's hilarious and if you don't get a little misty at parts your soul may have withered beyond repair.

A place:
Lately I've been taking long walks around my neighborhood to get some light exercise.  I've been having a lot of fun exploring the areas nearby, and I've even snuck into a few areas where I definitely wasn't supposed to be.  Which is fun, if you've never tried it.
Anyway, lo and behold, I've been living next to an enormous wildlife reserve for 2 1/2 years and I never even knew it.  It looks like an abandoned construction site from the road, but the Sepulveda Wildlife Area is actually surprisingly nice.  There's a great collection of trails, some built by the Parks department, others forged by bums making their way to and from their bum camps.  There is cool graffiti and a lot of little gray lizards and a lake and a HUGE dam you can climb around and some really nice little groves of trees around the several creeks that run through the area.  If you live in LA, you should come hike around and explore this place.

A tool:
Everyone these days knows what a QR code is, even if they don't know it by name.  It's one of those square codes with the dots in random patterns that you can scan with your phone.  It never even occurred to me to check this, but you can generate those for free online.  What would you use them for, you ask?  What wouldn't you use them for?  I reply.  It's a great tool to make your business' website easier to access, as well as any content you have that you want to draw people into.  You can make them bring up text, contact info, phone numbers, whatever.  I'm seriously considering getting a tattoo of one that includes my emergency info or maybe some kind of esoteric message.  So if you have a website or anything that you want people to know about, go to this site to generate one for free in like 2 seconds.

And those are the big items in my life lately.
What's going on in your life?

#life #discovery #rock #music #abouttime #movies #love #hiking #exploring #nature #wildlife #socialmarketing #fun

Thursday, October 31, 2013

A Rational Defense of Death Metal

Seeing as how it's Halloween, the most evil holiday of the year, I thought I'd briefly give you my opinions on one of my favorite styles of music, Death Metal.

Here is some death metal:

Now, to any who are predisposed to enjoy heavy music, you might notice that this song shreds face.  But to those of you who are not predisposed to like heavy music, this song probably sounds like an abrasive sonic nightmare.

Well, that's what death metal is.  It hurts on purpose.

The other thing about death metal is that it often espouses unsettling themes like allegiance to Satan or committing brutal murders.  One might well ask how a person who listens to this type of music can possibly reconcile this with their normal, law abiding ways.  It could easily be suggested that this type of music might drive people to acts of violence and/or hatred.

The reply is insultingly simple.  Has death metal driven people to commit violent crimes?  Yes.*  So have the Beatles.  So has Christianity.  So has Communism and Capitalism.  So have dogs.  People who are prone to or capable of violence and hatred will be driven to it by whatever vehicle they find.

The simple fact is that humans are violent.  Humans are probably the most violent and cruel thing we know to exist.  And I submit that it is by acknowledging that fact that we make it subservient to our higher reasoning.  I believe that fear and censorship merely promote those things which are feared and censored.

Humans are obsessed with conflict, death and violence.  It is in our nature as much as love, compassion and creativity are.  And for me, death metal is my way of "owning my own shadow" as Jung might say.  To not acknowledge the darker side of one's self is to allow it to fester and plot beneath your conscious awareness.  We all have darkness in us, and I for one, choose to be fascinated by it as one would by a lion in a cage; dangerous if let loose, but worthy of study when properly contained.

And the other thing is, most of you do it to.  Who out there has never watched Friday the 13th and found themselves secretly rooting for Jason the whole time?  Who watched Saw, but fast-forwarded through all of Jigsaw's traps?  The violence is what you come for.  Does being impressed by a particularly gory kill on the part of Freddy Kruger mean you advocate murder?

Of course it doesn't.  And neither does listening to Cannibal Corpse songs with titles like "Butchered at Birth".  It merely means you, like all humans, whether they admit it or not, are fascinated by the macabre.

When it comes to the issue of religion, the same is true.  I am a devout Christian.  Devoted enough to carry the monogram of Christ permanently inscribed into my flesh by a needle.  Yet I have no qualms with listening to bands like Deicide (whose name literally means "God-killing") or banging my head as the Satanic Pope lead-singer of the band Ghost wails out psalms to the Adversary.

What we experience only changes our attitudes and actions as far as we allow.  My faith is more than strong enough to endure lyrics like "Come over to seduce your angels/Been born to rape your mother's holy womb"  and much, much worse.  I don't have to become the things I experience, and neither does anybody else.

So on I rock, totally aware of and totally enticed by the darkness within all mankind.  I rock out to Dying Fetus in my car.  I watch the Pinhead rip regretful curiosity-seekers to shreds with hooks and chains.  I'm not afraid.

If you want to be afraid of something this Halloween, be afraid of the things you might not know about yourself.

*To all you metalhead fanboys: Yes, I know Burzum and Mayhem were Black Metal bands, which is quite distinct from Death metal, stylistically and culturally.  But for the purposes of this article, the distinction needn't be made.

#metal #deathmetal #Halloween #fear #death #violence #music #horror #movies

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

So obviously I come and go.

With the recent government shutdown and the threat of furloughs earlier in the year, things have been a little unfocused for me lately.  Not that I haven't gotten much done, I have.  But I've been making the prudent choice and spending more time on freelance work, just to bring in a little money with the looming threat of my beloved wife (and de facto artist's patron) losing her job.

But for the time being, it would seem that things are back as they should be.  And there is a light at the end of the tunnel: we are moving to Little Rock, Arkansas this March.  I realize that some of you might think that I wouldn't be happy at this; LA is, after all, an artist's town.  The fact is though, that the missus and I are simply not of an urban constitution.  We tend to have more ruralized tastes; and I for one will be taking full advantage of the peace and quiet available in a small-ish town.

Over the next few months, I'm going to try to get my social media/blogging/ebook market situation nailed down so that everything I do is available online and SUPER EASY to access.  Hopefully my books will be available for free on iTunes and Google Play soon.  I'm trying to make everything free and simple to download to that I can incentivise a growing audience.  I really appreciate any support I could get with this.  

In the spirit of getting back on the horse, I'm going to try to do a few more rants and ramblings for you, as well as update the other sites.  I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.

And for any that haven't checked out the Seraphim Universe site, you can download all my short stories for free.  They're formatted for smartphone and/or tablet.  Check out the FAQ for any questions, and POST ME A MUTHAF*CKIN COMMENT if anything isn't working for you.

As always, I am boiling over with curiosity about what creative projects my friends and associates are working on these days.  Surely some of you must be engaged in something that could use my support, and if so, I'd love to hear about it in great detail.

#blog #writing #free #shortstories #FreeEbooks #fiction #scifi

Monday, June 10, 2013

I Advance Confused: A Look at a Not-So-Guilty Pleasure

First, an explanation of my protracted sabbatical:
After our beloved dog Sandy passed away last month, I spent two weeks dealing with a bout of what I can only call depression, though my particular appellation seems more focused on the "lack of energy" side of the equation than the "sadness" side.  I wasn't sad per se, at least not in a fully conscious way, but I definitely wasn't happy either.  I'm happiest when I am either working with gusto at some writing project, or enjoying an evening with my lovely wife and a lack of energy doesn't bode well for either activity.
With no small amount of encouragement from my wife (read: nagging and ass-kicking), my generally positive nature won out and I returned to work.  At that time, however, I was on the home stretch of my current writing project, and didn't wish to expend a single ounce of my still-fragile energy reserves on anything inconsequential.  Like this blog.  So I didn't blog for like a month.
Big whoop, wanna fight about it?
Today, after an invigorating bout of housework, I found myself listening to Coheed and Cambria's most recent record and it sent me on an inner tirade.  And sharing such tirades, those of you who have been with me since the beginning will know, is the whole reason this blog exists.  For good or ill.  So here we go.

Some time in the early 2000's I picked up a free, cardboard-sleeved copy of the latest Equal Vision Records sampler.  Indie labels will periodically do this; they put out samplers of all their artists and give them away cheap or free to encourage further sales.  I used to have a truckload of these types of CDs.
On this particular compilation was a band whom I had heard of once or twice from my good friend Ben, a band called Coheed & Cambria.  He described them, saying they sounded like "Michael Jackson singing for a hardcore band."  The song featured on the sampler was "Everything Evil".  I dug it. 
Years went by and I maintained a passing familiarity with the band's work, though I never really gave them a hard listen.  They were primarily a curiosity, most notable for their lead singer's unusually high vocal range.
Let's take a moment to talk about that.  This is what Claudio Sanchez looks like:

And this, for whatever reason is what his voice sounds like.
Not what you were expecting?  Me either.
During the years of passing familiarity, I became aware that Claudio's voice was the sole dividing factor on whether or not you liked the band.  That impossibly high register makes my manhood shrivel every time I hear it, and yet...  can't stop listening to them these days.
Around the time of their third album, I went ahead and acquired all three then-existing records.  I listened to a track or two on each, images of shrinky-dinks floating through my head.  The band rocks pretty hard - at least to those of us with musical tastes rooted in punk and metal. 
I couldn't decide whether or not I was a fan of the band at that time.  So I filed those three records away, saying to myself "I'll listen to the next record when it comes out, and if it's good then I'll go ahead and let my self like this band.  If it sucks, these records are going in the trash."
And then they came out with Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV Volume 2: No World for Tomorrow.  (By the way, that's quite a mouthful of an album title but it's nothing compared to its predecessor, Good Apollo, I'm Burning Star IV Volume 1: From Fear Through the Eyes of Madness.)
Good Apollo Vol. 2 rocks damn hard.  DAMN hard.  The vocals at that point in the band's career were becoming more tempered, using more of his lower range in addition to the familiar high-pitched wail.  They broadened their sound, becoming markedly less Emo, and much more Prog-Metal.  It was at that time that I accepted my fan status and fully familiarized myself with the band.
I, a rabid fan of concept-heavy progressive music, was delighted to find out that all of their albums were chapters in a single concept-album-rock-opera-sci-fi-mega-saga.  Each of the first four albums relates a chapter in the saga.  The fifth is the prequel to the first four.  Their sixth and seventh together form a tale set in the same story universe, though not directly part of the same narrative.  Claudio even has a side project, The Prize Fighter Inferno, that tells another story that is indirectly linked to the primary story universe.
And all of the albums are linked with comic books and/or novels that detail the story (not exactly, we'll go into that in a moment).
It's incredibly ambitious.  To tell a huge story like that through the difficult medium of rock music.  It's hard enough writing good rock songs.  It's really hard writing good stories (I know).  Doing the two together, while also crafting the lyrics and songs to stand on their own, so that an understanding of the story is not essential to enjoyment of the music... that's genius.
I won't go into the story here for three reasons. 1. It's really huge.  2. You can learn about it on wikipedia.  3. I haven't read it.
The comics have been through a good deal of difficulty in the publishing process.  The art department has been a revolving-door cast since the beginning, and the money/enthusiasm on the part of publishers has not always been present, so the actual output of the story has been VERY inconsistent.  There isn't even a single issue to accompany Good Apollo Vol. 2 yet.  Now that the band is pretty huge, they're going back through, re-releasing it, crafting some new stuff, making it better, continuous and consistent.  I've decided to wait for the 20th anniversary Complete Amory Wars boxed-set before I bother to turn a single page.  I'm not a sap, I don't want to spend a million dollars picking up this copy or that issue or the new edition.  I just want the story, so I'm gonna wait until they put it into one big, hulking thing and then I'm gonna buy it once. 
But I know most fans won't feel that way.  And that is why Claudio Sanchez is really freakin' smart. Not only did he diversify into multiple mediums, he parted it out so that he could build a rabid fan base, foaming at the mouth with anticipation for that next installment.  Granted, the guy's not getting super-rich on comics, but it's still a good idea.  And there's always that stack of cash from album sales to fall back on.
Now, apparently, Mark Wahlberg's company has optioned the thing for a movie.  How they're gonna squeeze it into one, I don't know, and if they're smart (which I believe they are) they won't try.  They have the groundwork laid to do a minimum of 5 movies out of this thing, and the band's following, plus sci-fi movie fans, plus comic book movie fans, plus general hollywood fans (presuming the casting is done well)...  that makes a pretty huge audience.  If Mark Wahlberg et. al. are halfway intelligent, they'll keep the fans on the hook and milk this thing for every drop.  That's what I'd do.  Plus a big story benefits from not being rushed, so it's the artistically sound thing to do as well.
As totally stoked as I am about all of the above, I still have a tiny part of me that hates the rest of me for loving this band.  And Claudio's voice isn't the reason.
The fact that has come to light over my research on the band and the story is this: Claudio Sanchez is one self-obsessed egotistical motherfucker.  And I can't really blame him: after all he would have to be stupid to not know how smart he is.  But sitting there and watching it go on... after a while I'm like "Okay, you're interesting!  I GET IT."
The thing is, the main character in The Amory Wars shares a name and physical appearance with Claudio.  And if that wasn't enough, in the comic of Good Apollo Vol. 1, the story takes a detour into the world of a character called "The Writer" who is writing the story of the main characters, who ALSO shares important physical attributes with Claudio.  IF THAT STILL WASN'T ENOUGH, Claudio's comic company also produces a corny, violent, jokey comic series called "Kill Audio".  If the connection there isn't obvious to you, I hereby forbid you from ever reading another word I write.  I've never read "Kill Audio", but from what I can see it's a cartoony version of him going around getting in fights.
As annoyed as I am by all of that, I still like this band a lot.  I can't help myself.  And it's not even a guilty pleasure, like my occasional listen to Korn.  I actually, genuinely like Coheed and Cambria.  I'll defend it in conversation, even though I'm aware of their faults.  Somehow, despite the improbability of everything, they pull it off.  They're WAY too big for their britches, but somehow it still fits.
I'm a nerd.  And Coheed is a band that beckons you to nerd out on them.  It's brilliant strategy on Claudio's part, that he can hook a skeptic like me, come off looking like a total bastard and still keep my approval.  It's like a fucking magic trick or something.
It's no mystery why I, an avid metal head, would like a song like this.
What doesn't make sense to me is why I like this song too.
And yet I HATE this song. It sounds totally lame to me.
But this one doesn't.
I'm frustrated.  But what the hell, you only live once.  AFI blows, but Coheed and Cambria kick ass.  I'll stand proud and say that to my most bearded-up, whiskey-guzzling, metal head friends.  Fuck you.

#coheedandcambria #amorywars #amorywarsmovie #sorryimnotsorry #claudiosanchez #metal #punk #emo #music

Oh, and that's another thing.  You're gonna start seeing hashtags in these posts.  I was an idiot to never include them before, they drive up your web traffic like crazy.  Even though the point of this blog is just to be my journal essentially, it doesn't hurt to create a little buzz around yourself if you can.  I eventually would like to charge people money to read my stories, you know.

#commercialism #capitalism #getpaid #shamelessselfpromotion #imawesome #yousuck

Thursday, May 16, 2013

An Expression of Grief

Two days ago, on May 14th, 2013, my wife and I laid to rest our beloved dog Sandy.  Sandy was my wife's dog for all her 11 years, and was a constant part of my life for the last 5.  A mass was growing on her heart, and with or without treatment, it would ultimately kill her, so my wife and I were forced to make the intensely difficult decision to put her down.
In the early hours of the 12th, I took Sandy and our other dog, Tini out for the usual morning constitutional.  Everything was proceeding as we have become accustomed to; Sandy was lagging behind, excitedly smelling every blade of grass individually, Tini was yanking in futility at her leash in an attempt to walk further up the block, and I was standing there between them, arms pulled out on either side like Stretch Armstrong.  As we made our way up the block, Sandy suddenly stopped.  It wasn't the ordinary, stubbornly planted stop that she made when she wanted to smell something, she just... stopped.  I can't explain it, but in that moment, I knew something was terribly wrong.  The life had just gone out of her, and I could see it.
She couldn't walk, so I carried all 62 pounds of her home, a good 2 blocks if you count the long courtyard in our building, which we are at the back of.  Once inside, she slumped onto the floor and didn't move a muscle.  I called my wife to tell her something was wrong, and proceeded to take the fastest shower of my life before driving her to the vet. (I would have skipped the shower, but I figured I was going to be spending the whole day at the vet, so I'd better do it then or I'd never get to).
At the vet, Sandy was completely herself again.  Sniffing, running around, trying to get in other dog's business.  In the small room where we waited for the vet, she was as jittery as all dogs are when they're at the doctor.
A cursory examination revealed nothing wrong.  When my wife arrived, I was full of apologies for the false alarm.  We concluded that it was something akin to a heat stroke, and prepared to be discharged.
Suddenly, Sandy rolled onto her side and vomited her breakfast onto the floor.  She went rigid and nearly rolled over into the puddle of half digested dog food, but my wife was on the ground with her and held her up.  I ran to get the vet, and once I showed her what had happened she initiated a more thorough round of tests.
It turned out that Sandy's heart was grotesquely enlarged by fluid in the pericardium.  The initial plan of action was to hospitalize her so that a specialist could come and get an even more thorough look at her heart, and then drain the fluid.  Unfortunately, this plan came at a cost of nearly $2500.  After some back and forth, the vet decided to take a quick look with the in-house ultrasound, just to see if the fluid hypothesis was correct.  The ultrasound, though not as accurate as the one the specialist would have used, revealed the top of what could only have been a mass growing just outside one of her ventricles. 
A thousand times since that moment I've asked myself if we should have gone ahead and paid for the specialist to come in, to be sure that what we were looking at was what it appeared to be.  If it was, then even with the best of treatment, our beloved dog wouldn't have lasted much more than 3 months.  The vet was 90% sure that it was a tumor, but I can't help but wonder if the right thing to do would have been to pay for that extra 10% certainty.
C.S. Lewis' character Aslan, from the Narnia books, perhaps said it best; "To know what would have happened?  ...Nobody is ever told that."
Finding out what we had up to this point had already cost us well more than we could handle.  It will be a debt we carry for the foreseeable future.  And given that, we made what we believed to be the right choice, based on the information we had.
I asked the vet what she would do.  She said she would take her pet home and spend some time together, to say goodbye.  We took that advice, and it was possibly the most bittersweet time in my life.
I love that dog like I love my wife.  I was only too happy to carry her the few steps she could no longer walk to the grass in the courtyard so she could relieve herself.  If I thought it was the humane thing to do, I would have carried her every day for the next 10 years.  But she wouldn't eat.  Not even a juicy chunk of hamburger.  Sandy has always had a finicky palate for a dog, but when a dog turns down meat, you know something is wrong.
For those two days, the most movement we got out of her was a shambling 50 feet or so on an afternoon walk.  And it was clear afterward that it had taken the very last inch of her to do that.  All day and night, she fought for every breath, and each time she did move it took her longer and longer to recuperate.
If she were human, that might have been our life for years to come.  And human or not, I would have gladly accepted the burden on behalf of a loved one.  I cannot express enough how I loved that dog.  I would have done anything to keep her around, and it might have been worth it to keep getting those big sloppy kisses.
But dogs lack something that we humans take for granted.  As much as I know that they are as sentient and self-reflective as you or I, as much as I can see the souls living within them, a dog cannot speak, and therefore certain large-scale choices are forever left to others.  In the wilderness, before dog & man first met, it was left to fate.  Now, in our society, it is left to their owners.  A dog cannot make the ethical choice to fight in the face of overwhelming odds.  It is left to us to soberly consider the many factors involved, and as vulgar as it seems to even say this, the financial side of the equation is one of those factors. 
I feel immense guilt.  Shame, even.  But what could I do?  We made our choice together.  To this moment, I truly believe it was the best choice we could have made.  It was the least of the available evils, and I now have to go about the process of living with that.
The experience is not something I wish on anyone, but in the end I have to say it was worth it.  Worth feeling as I feel now to get to know such a unique and special soul.  In a thousand years, we will never meet another dog like Sandy.  She was the most intelligent animal I've ever met.  I didn't need commands with Sandy, I could simply speak to her in English and she always understood perfectly.  She may not have been able to talk advanced metaphysics, but then I don't know too many humans that can do that either.  She had a way of communicating with her eyes, and the message was almost always empathy and unconditional love.  She was happy, sassy, expressive, playful and beautiful.  People literally would stop on the street to tell me what a beautiful dog she was.  Joggers would halt their morning run to pay her a compliment.  It must have happened a dozen times. 
I remember the first time I met her.  Stephanie was hardly even my girlfriend at that time, we couldn't have known each other more than a month.  I came to her apartment and sat down on the couch.  Sandy immediately climbed up beside me and settled her chest down in my lap and stared at me with the wide-eyed panting smile I've come to know.  The connection was instantaneous, and I loved her form that moment on.  Sandy loved everyone she came across, she was everyone's best friend.  When people asked me if she would bite, I would tell them that she would never bite anyone, even if they stabbed her.  I've never known anyone or anything as purely good.  And my wife will tell you, it rubbed off on people.  Being around Sandy made my wife into the woman I love.  Her words, not mine.
Now, Sandy sits on our bookshelf, safely ensconced in an antique box that we picked up on the way home from her last visit to the vet.  She is surrounded by pictures from her life, and little mementos from our time together.
If heaven is paradise (and I for one believe it is), then I know Sandy and all beloved pets are waiting there for us.  To me, any sane conception of paradise would be incomplete without them.  I wouldn't be happy in a heaven that didn't include Sandy, or my old dog Bud, dead more than 10 years now.  I know that Tini will pass one day too, as will all the dogs and cats we will own some day.  By the time I get to heaven, I'm gonna have a zoo waiting for me.
And I can't imagine anything better.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

I've Got Jesus on the Brain

I just got the first of what I hope will blossom into a collection of Christian tattoos, and as a result I've been thinking a lot about religion today.
I, unlike many, prefer to wear my faith quietly.  I don't hide it, I'm not ashamed of it, but I don't scream it either.  People who vigorously pronounce their faith to unwilling audiences generally work against their own purposes, in my experience.  In fact, the same could be said for any viewpoint, religious or otherwise.  Crying out your opinions to strangers just makes them uncomfortable.
That said, it is the job of every good Christian to attempt to spread their faith to others.  I, for my part, choose to be quietly welcoming when it comes to matters of faith, rather than condemning and confrontational, or even awkwardly vocal in a positive manner.  I believe we really lucked out with this whole Jesus thing, and it's something that should be celebrated.
For me, coming closer to God was like quitting smoking.  People told me all the horrible things that would happen if I didn't quit, and they bounced right off.  No impact at all.  But when I started thinking about the good things that would happen if I did quit, suddenly I had all the motivation I needed.  The same was true with Jesus.  When someone told me I'd go to hell if I didn't accept him, it didn't make a mark, because if you don't beleive in him in the first place, how could a threat hold any sway?  It's like saying "you'll turn into a unicorn if you don't eat this invisible hamburger."  Who the hell would be convinced by that?  But if you see someone who is at peace with themselves and the world they live in, who is unconditionally kind to others and always willing to forgive wrongdoing, it might make you wonder how they got that way.
One thing that I think turns a lot of people off to Christanity is that they think it's really just a big list of Dont's.  But what a lot of agnostics and de-facto atheists (the militant kind are somewhat different) may not realize is that Christianity comes in more than one flavor, and that the common ground between them is pretty basic.  The one thing that is universally agreed upon is that all you really need is Jesus.  That's what he's there for.  The rest of it is just ways to be better, closer to God's example.  But if you're down with Jesus, you're basically okay.  And from there, you can go in any direction that suits you.
In my opinion, Jesus is a pretty hard guy not to like.  He was nice to everybody, even the people who killed himAll he ever talked about is how we should be nicer to each other, and to love God as much as we could.  He healed people, helped people and gave people hope.  Nobody hates the Dalai Lama, or Ghandi.  Kind, generous spiritual folk are pretty much universally respected, even by atheists.
And the very existence of Jesus is proof that God is basically a good guy too.  He was tough on us in the beginning, but he saw that it totally wasn't working.  GOD changed his tune from confrontational to welcoming.  In the old testament it's all about "do it and I'll punish you", but in the new testament, he creates a neat little loophole for us flawed humans because the old ways weren't working.  So that's the example I choose to follow.
And if you don't want to hear what I have to say, I won't tell you.  It's okay with me.  It's not an easy thing to talk about most of the time.  I understand.  I can't prove anything to anybody anyway.
But If you really want to know, I can tell you how it happened for me.  And I can tell you what I think about the whole thing.  And if you've come as far as wanting to know in the first place, being convinced isn't that big of a jump.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Hierarchy of Nerds

Let me start by saying that I myself, am a horrible, tubby, introverted nerd.  I am allowed to make fun of nerds, because I am one of their kind.  Actually, like most nerds, I could fit into several of the below categories.  So don't get pissy at me for writing this, it's just for fun.  
Here, I propose a descending hierarchy of the coolness of each category of nerd.  There are as many kinds of nerds as there are people, so for the purposes of this article, I have lumped some of them together, where I feel the respective groups are of approximately equal coolness.  To my fellow nerds, I apologize for what you will doubtless view as a slander of your particular genre.  But let's face it... we just aren't cool.

1. Technology/Science/Math Nerds:  It seems to me that there is no logical case for any other class of nerd being the coolest.  Whereas most of the pursuits on this list have grim consequences like pimples, obesity, and borderline autism, being a tech/science/math nerd has awesome consequences like gainful employment, a hand in creating the future, and the respect of society.  Not to mention an opportunity to take sweet, ice-cold revenge on the jocks and cheerleaders that bullied you in high school by becoming their asshole boss.

2. Star Wars Nerds:  Though I do have a separate category coming for other science fiction fans, I believe Star Wars nerds deserve their own category, as they are possibly the most socially-accepted kind of non-productive nerd.  Basically, everybody likes Star Wars.  Those who nerd out on it may not be cool, but they're given a pass by society because their nerdly obsession is something universally accepted as cool.

3. Lord of the Rings/Harry Potter Nerds:  Basically the same deal as #2, but since both are rooted in books, and both classes of nerd are likely to spend a lot of their lives telling people that the books are so much  better than the movies, they lose some coolness points for constantly defending their obsession.

4. Social Media Whores:  This category's nerd status is definitely debatable.  For one thing, everybody these days uses social media semi-obsessively, and we're all shameless narcissists in the end.  But since this is an activity which can consume enough time to divert a person from real life, I argue it as a nerdly occupation.  If you post on Facebook more than 15 times a day, this is you.  If you post on more than 5 social networks a day, this is you.  If you have posted pictures of yourself in the mirror or holding the phone above your head to anywhere but your profile pic, this is you.  The reason that they are so high on the list, however, is that most of the time, these people do actually have friends IRL, and much of their activity does relate to occurrences in reality.

5. Video Gamers:  This category applies to fans of the first person shooter, action, and sports genres of video games, and stuff like Guitar Hero.  There are a great deal of these people, and they spend a great deal of time and money on these games.  But they are slightly cooler than my other category concerning video games, becasue the games these nerds play require dexterity and skill, as well as patience.

6. Comic Book/Baseball Card Nerds: Comic books are a somewhat antiquated, but still interesting and monetarily valuable trade.  Plus they have a strong foothold in popular culture these days with the success of the Marvel and Batman films.  At their best, Comics are a unique artistic medium, but at their worst, they are the source of some of the weakest writing and flimsiest ideas of all imaginative fiction.  And baseball Cards, while boring in themselves, are again, rooted in reality, therefore not that uncool.  But anyone who nerds out on that kind of stuff to a truly nerdy degree, is definitely not cool.

7. RPG Nerds:  As opposed to other genres of video games, RPG's really just require patience.  I will no doubt incur some nerd-rage on this point, but I let it stand.  If you're willing to fight enough pigs in the forest for 12 exp/pig, you will eventually get strong enough to master that next dungeon.  This category includes World of Warcraft and other MMORPG nerds.  Plus this category could arguably include D&D nerds, as it's a non-computer version of the same activity, but I place them in a different category, which will follow.

8. Star Trek Nerds:  Star Trek is just not generally regarded as cool.  Though I happen to think STNG is rad, I will admit that it is the general tendency of the Star Trek franchise to favor below average actors and cheesy production values.  This was true until J.J. Abrams hit the scene, but overall, I think it still holds.  Any class of nerds willing to wear those mauve spandex Starfleet uniforms deserves a place at #8.

9. General Sci-Fi/Fantasy Nerds:  Any nerd whose primary sci-fi/fantasy obsession does not fall into one of the aforementioned categories is generally of a lower class of nerd.  Anyone who thinks Star Wars was cool, but Babylon 5 or Dr. Who was really where it was at is a very uncool nerd indeed.  Anyone who reads those 3 inch thick paperbacks with pretty, realistic-looking paintings on the front (Game of Thrones is the only exception), where maidens talk to their cats, is a low class of nerd.  Anyone who wants to read through 155 pages of exposition about the genealogy of dragons or the structure of society in Beelegeuse is super-not-cool.

10.  Internet Nerds:  These are the people that spend all their lives on message boards, trolling and panning other people's innocent queries.  If you have ever gone off on someone in an online message board or chatroom or blog, telling them what a stupid n00b they are, this is you.  There is some crossover with social media whores here, but I think these trolls deserve their own low, low echelon of nerdliness.

11. Anime Nerds:  These people are even less cool, however.  Anyone that genuinely believes that there is more than a small, small handful of good anime movies (my votes all go to the works of Haiyo Miazaki), and that any of the long-running anime series are really worth watching (Cowboy Bebop is enough for me) is a very uncool nerd.  The sad truth is, 99% of anime is just softcore hentai (look it up if you don't know what it is), and anyone that proclaims to watch it because it's good is a liar and a nerdly, nerdish, nerd.

12.  Card Game/Hobby/Action Figure Nerds:  Now we're really getting to the bottom of the barrel.  Anyone who plays Magic: The Gathering, D&D or any non-computer RPG/TBS game is a whiny, pimply, nose-picking nerd.  If you have spent more than a single hour in a hobby/game store in your life, this could be you.  If you are on a first name basis with the AM shift cashier, this is definitely you.  If you play more than one card-based strategy game, this is so you.  And if you build model ANYTHINGS and you are not also an architect/designer or a child, you are one of the lowest forms of nerd.  Chances are you don't shower much, and your favorite food comes in a pressurized spray can. 

13. LARPers:  LARP stands for Live Action Role Playing.  It's RPG nerds cross bred with hobby nerds.  Unimaginably awful.  If you have ever worn a medeival-style tunic and a scabbard on a day that wasn't Haloween or a LOTR premier, this is you.  If part of you, deep down inside, believes you really might have the power to cast magic spells, you are a dirty, friendless nerd.  I also put all Wiccans/Witches/Pagans in this category.  It's fantasy roleplay, not a religion, and mainly an excuse to dress up like RenFest is every day.

14.  Train Nerds:  And now, we reach the very lowest form of nerd.  If you have more than one gauge of train set in your basement, and you have turned it on since the age of 7, you are the lowest form of nerd there is.  LARPers get to point and laugh at you for being such a simpering dweeb.  Tech nerds are so much cooler than you, they literally don't know you exist.  Put on your blue and white striped engineer hat and go die in silent obscurity.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Pollo Asada and Chipotle Cinnamon Sweet Potato Hash

Had this for lunch yesterday, and it totally blew my mind.  This dish combines all the best flavors: sweet, spicy, salty, fatty & savory.  We make Pollo Asada and Sweet Potato Hash pretty regularly, but this is the first time we've ever put them together.  When we eat Pollo Asada, the only veggie side that ever comes to mind is either a basic salad or sauteed peppers & onions.  Its funny, because sweet potato is a totally Mexican ingredient.  I'm shocked I never thought of marrying the two until now.  Make the marinade tonight and have it for dinner tomorrow!

Asada Marinade (for Chicken)
1/3 cup olive oil
2 tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup white vinegar
1/4 cup lime juice
1 jalapeno, ribs & stems included
1/2 small onion
2-3 cloves garlic
1 cup fresh cilantro (lightly packed)
2 tbsp roasted cumin
salt & pepper to taste

Sautee the jalapeno, onion & garlic (the unholy trinity) in a pan with the 2 tbsp olive oil.  When everything is nice & charred, dump it into the food processor.  Add remaining olive oil, vinegar, lime juice, cilantro cumin, salt & pepper.  Puree until it reaches a soupy consistency.
Put 2-3 boneless skinless chicken breasts in this marinade for up to 2 days, but NO LESS than 4 hours.  For better results, assault the chicken mercilessly with a fork, or score with a knife, or beat thin with a food mallet.
Put the chicken in a pan and sear the top side until it's beginning to char.  Flip it over, move the pan into the oven and bake at 350 until chicken reaches an internal temperature of 165 in the thickest part of the breast.  If you pounded your chicken, this will happen fast, you might want to skip the oven and just stick to stove top.  Personally, I'm in love with the pan-to-oven method, it's gentler and easier.

Sweet Potato Hash
2 medium sweet potatoes
1 jalapeno, ribs & seeds removed
1/2 small onion
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp chipotle chili powder
salt & pepper to taste

While the chicken is baking, cut 2 sweet potatoes into 1/2 inch cubes.  Dice the onion and jalapeno pretty fine, maybe 1/4 inch.  Add the oil to the pan, and once it's hot, add the onion and jalapeno.  Sautee until they're just starting to get some color, then add your sweet potato.  Give it a good stir, making sure everything gets a good coat of oil.  Cover pan with a lid for about 5 minutes, to let sweet potato soften.  When that's done, remove the lid and add the cinnamon, chipotle powder, salt & pepper.  Stir often for about 5-10 more minutes, or until the potatoes have some char on them.  Remove from heat.

Optional Toppers
Lime Juice

By now, your chicken is probably done.  Pull it out of the oven, and while it rests, chop up some cilantro and slice an avocado into cubes or strips, whichever you prefer.  Plate the sweet potato hash, cut the chicken into thin slices, place on top of the hash and top with cilantro, avocado and a squeeze of lime.