Thursday, December 31, 2009
There were a few negative experiences I think I can dispose of straightaway:
* Our house was robbed in August. The experience taught us some valuable lessons, but I would gladly trade those for the bliss that comes when one does not shoot awake at night at every little noise.
* I survived a bout with pseudomembranous colitis in September. I would be more than happy if I never experienced such a thing again.
* Some friends of mine were forced to endure a terrible ordeal due to the ineptitude, malice, and overreach of Arizona Child Protective Services.
* I finally ran into a time crunch that even good organization was powerless to overcome, and had to bid farewell to some enjoyable hobbies and interests in order to make the most of the rest.
* Finally, my right to free speech was raped, beaten, and buried by the FTC in December.
Still, notwithstanding the setbacks, I choose to focus on the positives of 2009:
1. Book #2 Sees Print
I still can't/shouldn't/won't discuss my non-fiction here on this blog because of author branding, but January 8th saw the release of my second book under my NF pseudonym, and it would end up being the best-reviewed book of my career thus far. That is because it actually garnered one published review, and the review was positive. Gotta love a lifetime batting average of 1.000 based on one plate appearance.
2. Las Vegas Nuptials
MLK Weekend 2009 was a huge hit, with Steph and I joining Jeff and Roxy Mink for a weekend in Sin City for their wedding at the Bellagio. Jeff, Jay, Mark, Fred, and I reveled in a drunken frenzy the night before the wedding, bacheloring the way only Vegas makes possible. Meanwhile, Steph took the Benjamin I gave her, the money I hoped she would make last at least the duration of the evening, and had a huge night at the card tables. The wedding itself was broadcast live via webcam, and the reception set the Bellagio's house record for aggregate alcohol consumption by volume at a wedding event. Steph and I got to enjoy a brisk, bright, scenic drive through northern Arizona while we were at it, and we returned just in time to watch the Cardinals finish beating the Eagles to earn a berth in Super Bowl XLIII.
3. Two Years Strong
January 27th marked our second wedding anniversary, and my parents gave us the cherished gift of watching Allie for a while so we could enjoy a quiet dinner together.
4. Texas and Oklahoma
I think my post on this blog just about sums it up! Come to think of it, 2009 was the most I had traveled in a year since the last season I actively worked as a DCI Level 3 tournament judge, 2001-2002.
5. Workplace Upheaval
As detailed in this post, among others since purged. The upshot was that the governor declared a rulemaking moratorium in January, which was continued by the legislature later in the year and won't expire until well into 2010, if then. Most of the attorneys bailed on my office and sought greener pastures, which ended up working out just fine for me when the grim hand of layoffs never approached my division. Then, in May, my boss retired! She was a good person and helped guide my early career a great deal, but her political ambitions were at cross-purposes to my workaday approach to simple, efficient productivity. Despite my workload actually growing in the wake of all the departures, I am actually less stressed now, because the remaining work is more in line with what I want to do as a writer, and my old boss's empire-building is no longer creating added workload.
6. Summer Nights
Despite a chronic lack of time on my part, this summer was one in which I actually got to see a great many of my friends and friends-of-friends and had fun doing it. Aaron hosted his martial arts crew at his place for a few grillin' dinners. Las Casas de Stenger y de Powers were the sites of fun poker games, UFC fights, and general merriment. My friends Vince, Wade, and John, along with their significant others, joined Steph and me for couples' nights out. Financial advisor Suze Orman wisely said "People first, money second, things third (if at all)." I am happy that 2009 was a year in which I had the capability to put people first and really savor the experiences.
7. Revels with the Crew
In addition to all the fun I reference in the previous entry, Steph and I enjoyed an over-the-top night of drunken fun at Dangerous Dan Voigt's birthday party at the Kobe teppan grill. Jay, Steve, and a few more of the crew were in attendance as we toasted to Dan's ever-encroaching senility. Later in the year, we all joined one another here at home base to celebrate Steph's 27th birthday, and there was football and grilled steak and gameplay for all to enjoy.
The clear #1 event if I had actually attempted qualitative ranking. Evey has so far been the calm before her older sister Allie's unending storm.
9. Christmas with the Girls
I reached this topic here on the blog as well. Christmas was exactly as I had hoped... though Evey didn't participate much except to make lots of people gush over her cuteness, Allie ran around for three straight days like she was trying to avoid incoming fire. I truly can't wait until Christmases with both girls (and perhaps future children) old enough to fully take part. Finally, and definitely not least, Steph and I were overwhelmed by the generosity of our families. Truly unexpected and most welcomed. We are very grateful.
10. Three Days of Indulgence
My friend Jason (RJ) Harris has been doing law school, National Guard, and campaigning for Congress nonstop for most of the year, and he finally got a respite for the holidays with school out, no military shifts, and a campaign hiatus. Wade let me borrow his Humvee truck, and I picked up Jason at the airport with a nice slowroll, suggesting that I had bought the truck after selling a screenplay to Paramount. (I told him the real story after enjoying his reaction.) We went to the Cardinals-Rams game, complete with tailgating, and watched our beloved redbirds crush the hard-luck goats 31-10 in a game with four different players scoring touchdowns and three beautiful interceptions by our defense. Far from sated, we headed out with Steph and Christina to Benihana for "dinner and a show." We went and saw Avatar 3D and Sherlock Holmes, the former of which looked better and the latter of which told a far better story. We tooled around town in the truck, visiting game stores (and playing the same slowroll about my screenplay) and meeting with friends and such. Jason's final night had us joining Jay and Katie for some MNF and pizza, and then it was all over. But what a vacation!
And now, 2009 is dead. Long live 2010!
I am looking forward to seeing my girls grow up just a little more. By the end of next year, Allie will probably be talking in complete sentences, among other things.
I will probably get a minivan at some point. With Steph and I commuting together, we have a rare chance to continue consolidating our assets and turning that into hard savings.
After spending most of 2009 not publishing new material, I expect 2010 to be a veritable outpouring of content. With no more eBay work on the horizon, time is a little kinder to me, and perhaps I will find more opportunities to develop material.
Mostly, I just hope all of you whose lives have intersected with mine are healthy, prosperous, and happy. May your goals be within reach and your strides be firm and straight.
Cheers to 2010, the year we make contact!
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Steph and I picked up the blu-ray of The Hangover, released yesterday, and enjoyed a little mommy-daddy movie night with the bawdy and hilarious film. The story of four men who storm Las Vegas over a weekend to enjoy a bachelor party and wake up with no memory of what happened is truly a worthwhile watch, and is probably the second best movie of 2009 after Pixar's Up. There are a great many f-bombs, sexual dialogue, and brief breast nudity in The Hangover, so it is certainly not a movie you would want to freely show the young'uns, but mature (relatively speaking) teenagers can probably handle it. If you haven't yet seen, I strongly recommend.
The typical Hollywood comedy delivers its laughs by having the characters tell jokes or zing one-liners at each other and/or by employing slapstick or bathroom humor. This is forced and more like the performance of a skit or stand-up routine. The audience can laugh at it the first time around, but the comedic impact diminishes after that. (In some cases, it diminishes a great deal after that.) It is no accident that many actors in that kind of movie are former comedians. They are simply doing what they know. Hollywood has figured out how to execute such films and make them profitable, and there is certainly nothing wrong with enjoying a chuckle or two at American Pie or Deuce Bigalow. But those never become truly timeless movies that can be watched again and again. After a few slices of Pie... you're basically full.
Part of what made The Hangover great, aside from excellent casting and pacing, is that it followed the comedic principle that the context has to create the premises for the humor. This kind of comedy is in evidence also in film such as The Royal Tenenbaums and The Big Lebowski. None of the characters "tell jokes" or "zing one-liners" at one another, and physical comedy is generally developed instead of being slapstick. The comedy is delivered by the characters' actions and reactions to the context of the story developing around them. Usually, this is accomplished by writing a character to have certain attributes and history, and then straining at the edges of that characterization and testing the limits of what the character might do if he were pushed just a bit too far.
For example, it's audacious, cringeworthy, and brilliantly funny to watch Ed Helms' cuckolded dentist Stu in The Hangover desperately trying to convince his friends that his girlfriend's illicit affair with a bartender was nothing to be concerned about. (Not a spoiler; this happens during exposition.) Watching, we laugh at Stu's explicit take on the physical implications of the act, cringe at how pathetic and wussy Stu's rationalization makes him seem, and feel a twinge of pity for Stu as we begin to understand his underlying naivete and good-heartedness. At no time did Helms crack a joke -- all we viewers needed to laugh was to see in context Stu's completely believable dialogue with his buddies Doug and Phil. Royal's audacious hospital set-up in Tenenbaums and the Dude's pining to the policemen for his Creedence tapes in Lebowski are perfect examples of this kind of comedy.
With a sufficiently well-developed context and plotline, a comedy like The Hangover has the freedom to engage in absurdist humor without having it fall flat or look forced. When Our Heroes wake up after the party (again, not a spoiler; this happens during exposition) and see their hotel room in shambles, there are some "unexpected guests" that are completely over-the-top, but since the movie earns it by expositing realistically and confining the comedy to action/reaction and not jokes, the "unexpected guests" are funny to the point of sideache. The punchlines later in the film when their presence is explained gain additional impact and reach almost legendary status -- and that is how a "classic scene" is born. Our Heroes return at one point to their hotel room to hear Phil Collins' In the Air Tonight playing over the room's sound system, and a Crowning Moment of Awesome ensues. Tenenbaums and Lebowski earned and cashed in on absurdist scenes as well, from Walter Sobchak's amazing "This is what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps!" scene (citing the television-edited dialogue), to the scene in which Royal takes his grandsons Ari and Uzi out for a night on the town.
Despite the clear effectiveness of following the contextual, situational comedic method, writing for actual so-called "situation comedies" or "sitcoms" remains generally of the jokes-and-one-liners variety. In some respects, this is an artifact of the necessity of fitting a plot into a 21-minute skit with two intermissions breaking continuity. However, it is telling that some of the most successful sitcoms of the modern day were the ones that took the time and effort to develop context and deliver comedy from action and reaction instead. Great examples of this are Seinfeld, Friends, and That '70s Show, and it is no accident that all three cashed in on contextual development with brilliant absurdist turns. Cue Joey's matter-of-fact explanation that he did, in fact, mean that something was "a moo point," not "a moot point": "You know, it's like a cow's opinion. It doesn't matter. It's moo." Or perhaps Red Forman rescinding half of Eric's punishment when he learns that Eric sneaked out on the town in his Corvette "in order to impress... this... girl." In full absurdist regalia, we have the hilarious "Reefer Madness" spoof that started That '70s Show's third season and the early concession of Seinfeld's Kramer from the wager to see who could be Master of (his or her) Domain. If you know anything about the characters, you can appreciate why those scenes were funny... but neither is ever as funny in the abstract as it is when you see it delivered while watching the entire episode.
Come to think of it, I hypothesize that the reason The Simpsons has never been as good in recent seasons as it was in seasons three through eight is because the writers largely abandoned contextual humor for, yep, jokes and zingers and farts and Homer getting beaten up a different contrived way every other week.
I have my doubts that any of this will change in practice anytime soon -- it takes more time and better writing skills to deliver contextual comedy, and Hollywood already knows how to profit just fine off the other, cheaper, faster kind. Still, if we as consumers understand the difference, we will be in a better position to gauge from the promotional material whether a comedy movie or TV show is worth our time and money, and perhaps will experience more "hits" and fewer "misses" in the future.
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
As blogger Ari Armstrong ably explains in this blog post,
[T]he FTC has no legitimate authority to issue such rules, which defy the First Amendment and constitute censorship and the chilling of free speech. The rules are extremely broad, ranging from free review copies of books to Twitter posts. The rules are arbitrary and ambiguous, such that their precise requirements and penalties cannot be determined in advance. The rules thus open the door to political abuses. The rules are discriminatory in that they subject bloggers to different standards than print journalists.That said, I have neither the time nor the budget to face the onslaught of our government's ability to nakedly assert power under these unjust rules, and thus I make the following disclosures:
Even though it is inherently impossible to confidently comply with the FTC's ambiguous rules, this document represents my best attempt to comply. I wish to stress that I believe the FTC's rules are illegitimate and a violation of rights, and that the FTC should be abolished and its rules rescinded.
1. I am a political appointee for the Arizona state government, working as a legal analyst, which means most of the time I develop and draft laws and regulations. I will not be too specific here because I do not want anything I say or write to be construed as being under color of my official position. My writing is my sole and individual opinion and does not represent the position or opinion of the State of Arizona in any way.
2. My wife Stephanie is an employee of the Arizona state government. Nothing I say represents her opinion or that of her office either. For anything she ever says, the same applies as though I said it. This should all be obvious, but the FTC demands that I spell these things out for you, as though you were a child incapable of figuring it out for yourself.
3. I am honored to count myself a close friend of Richard Jason (RJ) Harris since 1998, and I have been an outspoken supporter, both verbally and financially, of his candidacy for the 2010 U.S. Congressional seat for Oklahoma's 4th district. It is possible that I may serve on RJ's congressional staff if he is elected, given that I will bring to the table four years' experience and professional expertise in the development and drafting of laws and regulations, which are activities Congressmen dabble in from time to time (or so I've heard). Even if RJ is not elected or if he does win but I never serve on his staff, you may expect that I will have good things to say about him and/or his political positions. Accordingly, for future reference, the FTC would like you to know that I am an evil, fraudulent, paid astroturfer seeking a plush cronyist appointment and not just an experienced legal analyst who supports his long-time friend's political aspirations and already agreed with virtually all of his friend's political positions anyway.
4. I was awarded a Bartels Scholarship while a law student at Arizona State University. This public interest law scholarship, for which I am very grateful to Professor Bartels and the scholarship committee, was enough to pay for my books for my final two semesters of law school. This was very welcome assistance as the expense of law school had me pretty far down to the cloth during that time. You can expect that I may have good things to say about Professor Bartels, his projects (such as the Innocence Project), the ASU College of Law, and related entities or endeavors. Of course, there is a strong chance I would have spoken or written positively about those entities regardless, but the FTC doesn't give a lick about things like "respect" or "admiration" or "Sun Devil pride" -- to them, I am merely a paid shill, and must identify myself as such.
5. Amazon (and the Amazon affiliate program, such as Createspace.com) sells copies of my books, including books I have written under a pen name and do not wish to reveal for market reasons. (The necessary proofs are easily established in the event of litigation). I may have in the past, and may in the future, link to Amazon to promote my books or to promote books that I have read and wish to endorse. At the time of this writing, no other author has provided me with any remuneration for reviewing or endorsing any books. I do make money when my own books are sold to consumers, as you might imagine. I may at some point be an Amazon affiliate myself and earn money through links to book sales offers. Accordingly, the FTC would like you to know I am not only a paid shill but a dirty, evil capitalist.
6. I am an outspoken Objectivist and support Objectivist organizations and causes. At the time of this writing, no Objectivist author, organization, or cause has provided me with any remuneration for any reason, including whatever I may have written about them or may write about them in the future. The FTC would rather those organizations not exist at all, so you can imagine how they view my support of same.
7. Finally, my parents adopted me in 1974 with the help of Catholic Adoption Services, and this event basically defined the remainder of my life. (It's difficult to put into words how important that assistance really was without sounding glib.) I have since been a strong supporter of various adoption charities both verbally and financially. While I advocate private voluntary charity as the best means to support such charities, my advocacy can at times take on a political tenor. For future reference, the FTC would like you to know that any time I speak or write on adoption issues, I am a filthy paid astroturfing shill and not just a grateful adoptee who hopes to improve the lives of orphaned and disadvantaged children around the world.
I will conclude by borrowing once again from Ari Armstrong, his words expressing my sentiments exactly:
As should be obvious, the creation of this document, as well as the continuous need to attempt to comply with the FTC's ambiguous rules, is a complete waste of my time. I resent the FTC for forcing me to direct my valuable time away from essential projects to note distant, minor, or already-publicized financial connections to things I may on occasion speak well of.Damned right, brother.
I don't need the FTC to tell me when and how to note financial connections. Moreover, the FTC's presumption that my views are influenced by financial connections is ludicrous and insulting; the fact is that my financial connections are either unrelated to my views or a distant by-product of my views.
I also resent the FTC for forcing me to comply with ambiguous rules that may give my political opponents opportunities to lodge bogus complaints against me over alleged technical violations of the FTC's rules, threatening to waste yet more of my time.
I do not expect that the FTC's rules will be ambitiously enforced in the short-term. Many bad laws (and authorized rules) have no noticeable impact when they are first implemented. Often such laws and rules remain on the books for years before bureaucrats and prosecutors take advantage of them to actively violate people's rights. That does not make their existence more comforting.
Again I wish to stress that the FTC's rules are in blatant violation of the First Amendment, they constitute censorship, and for this the FTC richly deserves to be abolished.
Friday, November 27, 2009
I vaguely remember the entire holiday season in my youth being one gigantic run-up, like a party on the verge of breaking out for an entire month. It was impossible not to get caught up in the anticipation. There were colorful, shiny lights everywhere; every toy and gadget and gizmo a person could want to examine was on display at the stores; and special events were taking place at arcades, roller rinks, bowling alleys, and laser tag arenas. The temperature turned cold, but never freezing, here in the Phoenix area; it made for bright, pleasant days and chilly, wintry nights. There was plenty of candy to be had no matter whose house we visited, and there was plenty of time to play because school was out.
I remember my friend Dalton would have Christmas a few days early, because his father was an airline pilot and would inevitably have to work through the holiday itself. There would be a barbecue, football games, early presents (meaning toys and gizmos, of course), and usually trips to cool places we would never have thought to go. I remember Thanksgivings at my parents' cabin with a few other families in the mix, and going out to play in the snow (or the autumn woods, if it was a warm year) with my sister and/or my friends Jeff and Tom. One year, I was horribly ill -- I think I was 13 or 14 years old -- but I managed to play through and complete several Nintendo games, so even a sick New Year's turned into what was, for a teenaged nerd like I was at the time, a pretty decent experience. (I believe Philip J. Fry said it best: "Well, I spent all of ninth grade playing video games, except for that week when my eyes started to bleed, and in my opinion...")
Once I grew into adulthood, the shine quickly faded from the holiday apple. I had a few good years early on with the family, but then I made the mistake of getting "married" at 22 and having to shuffle between visiting my family and visiting hers -- truly an excruciating experience. Things went south for me financially, and I ended up more concerned with getting work done and the fact that I couldn't do any mailing or other business during the days when everything was closed. After I was divorced in 2001, I spent the next few years having things go generally well, but the fun was definitely "over" -- the bottom line was that I had a household to maintain, even just a household of one. And since it was more economical for me at the time to eat out for virtually every meal, holidays became an adventure of wondering what would be open so I could get some chow. Dalton, Beach, and I filmed one of our "funny videos" on Christmas in 2001 or 2002, showing us visiting restaurant after restaurant with no success, and finally managing to grab a meal at Gameworks. I met Stephanie in 2005 and things improved, but for a few years my main concerns during holiday season were law school finals and eBay work.
This year, I was able to arrange for all those distractions to be set aside, because I was determined to make sure I enjoyed the time I had with the family. Even though it's a challenge keeping up with "Tornado Allie," I knew she would be on cloud nine and I determined not to miss it. Steph's family is an order of magnitude better to spend time with than that of my ex, and instead of having us shuffle between houses, my parents and such were simply invited right into the fold and joined the fun. And for a shining afternoon, I was able to smile and just live in the moment. It's still going on, after a fashion; the rest of the Thanksgiving weekend is going to be full of visits with friends and recreational time with my folks and the girls. So, even though the child-scale enjoyment of the holidays is probably gone beyond my reach, the festivities still have the power to stimulate my sense of wonder... and, being a science fiction writer, my sense of wonder is something I am happy to see nourished and sustained.
Monday, November 16, 2009
Saturday afternoon, I joined Steph and the family to celebrate her youngest brother's 13th birthday party. The party took place at Laser Quest, a laser tag arena in Mesa that has survived economic slowdowns to remain solvent for about 14 years now. This is good by comparison to any entertainment retailer, but fantastic by the metrics of the laser tag industry, where earnest startups are often crushed under the weight of square footage rent and the debt from their own elaborate, expensive buildouts. Back in the mid-1990s, I was a frequent customer of Laser Quest. In 1997, I was banned from the premises when my group of friends was drawn into a huge melee with several other groups. Alas, we were all young hotheads, and nobody had the presence of mind to sort things out with management and explain that we hadn't come looking for trouble. Saturday was the first time I visited Laser Quest since. (Management saw no reason to enforce my ban at this late date, apparently.)
I was happy to see that Laser Quest was mostly just as I remembered it. Players wore a simple shoulder harness and holster with targets on the front, back, and sides. Upon the marshal's signal, we dispersed into a blacklit maze to the techno-pop strains of Genesis' Abacab and the swishes of whirling spotlights. After a 30-second countdown, the game began, and it was shoot-or-be-shot. The arena's lower level is generally just a killing ground -- the open areas are target practice from above, while the labryinth features too many blind corners. The arena sports a faux second story made up of three "upstairs islands" that are not connected. Two of them are death traps full of dead ends and exposed bypasses. The middle island, though, I remembered to have plenty of cover and an actual continuous circle of corridors. One could keep moving throughout the entire game without backtracking, and would have plenty of shot opportunities and little exposure. That is where I stayed.
The game lasts only ten minutes, but I felt like I was gasping in exhaustion for at least thirty -- the combination of constant dashing and ducking was an aerobic punch to my out-of-shape guts. My strategic location saved my hide, because I had plenty of safe spots to stop and recuperate, however briefly. It was all I could do to remind myself to keep moving when opposing players were caught in the exposed walkways around the other two islands, cattle to the slaughter of my shots. A few other players lurked in my habitat, but we each seemed to decide on our own that hunting one another was a waste of time when our position afforded us such a target-rich external environment. In the end, I scored third place out of 25 players. Not bad for an old fogey of 35 against a bunch of mostly speedy, sugar-fueled 12- and 13-year olds. The top scorer was Steph's stepfather, no less, a triathlon runner of 50+ years of age! Youthful exuberance loses out to veteran strategy this time around!
My enjoyment of that Laser Quest game immediately hearkened memories of the granddaddy of them all, the most fun I think I have ever had in a commercial establishment that allows minors on the premises: Photon.
That photo is accurate. Photon opened a franchise location in Tempe just north of the river bottom back when I was in high school, and without experiencing it firsthand it may be hard for a reader to understand just how incredible it really was. In fact, while researching Photon for this blog post, I expected it to have been beautified by nostalgic memory, but every photo I have found looks just as great as I remembered it, and not at all campy or cheesy. Oh, sure, the "look" of science fiction at the time was very Star Trek: the Next Generation, very clean and metallic with lots of open space. But that is no better or worse than the "gritty alley" Cyberpunk future or the bipolar westernized frontier/Alliance Firefly future or any of the other archetypes that have emerged since then. It is simply different. In a way, it defines the age, like the Art Deco science fiction of the Golden Age or the newer examples I just cited.
The critical thing is that it worked. Suspension of disbelief for a teenager walking into Photon was nearly total. The entire experience was immersive, from the helmet-vest bodysuits to the "Space Cafe"-styled food court to the arcade full of the very latest video games. The arena itself featured two full stories (in Tempe, anyway; other locations reportedly had more) and each team had a genuine "base" to defend. Hits against one's own base counted against that player's score, and the base sensors would be lit at intervals and be vulnerable during those windows of time. The buildout must have been staggeringly expensive -- one could probably build five Laser Quests for the same price -- but boy, did it deliver.
Photon (the company) closed without debt and sold off its component parts -- perhaps they thought they had already struck the fad while the iron was hot, and that there would be no lasting demand. The Tempe location went away with it, though other Photon locations remained open for years since, presumably independently. (Apparently one of the last few was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.) There wasn't much in the initial years that followed; one local startup, Tracer, opened in Mesa with a small arena, low square footage, a cheap buildout, and bargain-basement equipment -- can you say "flashlight sensors?" -- but those small-time operators kept the concept alive and the playing public interested long enough for companies like Laser Quest to refine the business model and make it viable.
Tellingly, though the modern laser tag companies have begun to build larger arenas with more stories and increasingly elaborate bases, none of them has ever been able to generate the amazing futuristic aesthetic of Photon. Today's arenas are absolutely now, a dark, intense, "realistic" future that we live in every day. Photon, by contrast, was a window to a more vast and grandiose future, an ambitious look at a brighter and more distant tomorrow brought palpably close. Perhaps Photon's immersive future experience really is just too expensive to fabricate for buildout these days. It was, nevertheless, awesome.
Monday, November 9, 2009
The Toddler Manifesto
by Michael Bahr
For I, Intrepid Toddler Girl,
Exploring all before me,
Shall stomp and flirt and bat my eyes
And make adults adore me.
I eat and drink and run and play
My folks will surely mention;
And all they need to give me is
Upon my entrance to a room
I'll find where danger lurks,
I'll grab the cords and power strips
And learn how current works.
Or else I'll locate sticky things
And smear them on my face;
Or fragile objects I will sling
Across the empty space.
My words I'll choose for best effect
And babble every other;
A useful trick it is, to train
My father and my mother.
I understand the things they say
But still put up a fight;
I'll run full-speed at red-line 'til
It's time to say "Night-night!"
Thursday, November 5, 2009
The second post in this blog's archives, from back in 2005, is a review of Robert Jordan's "Knife of Dreams," the 11th book in the epic fantasy saga The Wheel of Time. After trudging through about four books worth of slow plot grind, the story burst back to life with intrigue, death, and oh-so-beautiful plot resolution... or so it seemed. Knife, however solid, possessed nowhere near the density of Concentrated Awesome that the fourth through sixth books in the series had. But it was such a stark improvement over books seven through (ugh) ten that I was determined to laud it accordingly. I had a brand-new blog at the time, and it made an ideal podium.
Then, in 2007, after a courageous fight with cardiac amylidosis, Robert Jordan (James O. Rigney) passed away, leaving his magnum opus incomplete. TVTropes refers to this as "Author Existence Failure." While condolent toward the storyteller's family, fans were left to genuinely wonder if the final book of the series would ever be completed.
As it turns out, we need not have worried. Jordan's widow, Harriet McDougal, found a young up-and-coming fantasy author named Brandon Sanderson and charged him with finishing the epic story based on Jordan's notes, tapes, charts, and a few hundred pages' worth of completed text. Sanderson's commission was the gig of a lifetime, and I am downright verdant with envy at seeing him tackle this incredible task.
Per Sanderson, Jordan had completed most of the end of the Last Battle and sketched in arc-completion and epilogue frameworks for the major characters. That is, the major major characters -- Wheel features, as of the end of the new book, over 1900 named characters. Pink Floyd was right, of course: a walk-on part in a war is better than a lead role in a cage. But in the case of Wheel, things were and remain all but unmanageable at that scale. Jordan mercifully killed off a fair number of the cast in the previous book, including various Aes Sedai coattail-riders, some Whitecloaks, some Seanchan, et cetera. That still left a huge menagerie for Sanderson to manage and marshal toward plot arc resolution, and in many cases all he had were notes of Jordan's to the effect that "character X turned out to be a Darkfriend all along" or what have you. To be clear: Sanderson's task was monumental. So monumental, in fact, that the original "final book" he was commissioned to write turned into a final trilogy of books. The Gathering Storm is the first of the three, and will be followed in about a year by Towers of Midnight and finally A Memory of Light.
Did Sanderson succeed? This should in no way be taken as speaking ill of the departed, but my answer is: Yes; in fact, possibly to a greater degree than Jordan himself could have done.
I can hear the fanboy public gnashing teeth already. "How can it be better than Jordan would have done? That's impossible! It's Jordan's story!" Indeed it is. Jordan had already conceived the vital details driving the plot and had already created vibrant, exciting characters. (Too damned many of them, in fact). But it was clear that Jordan was too much a product of his serial-romance-novel roots. This series should have ended books ago, and a few entire arcs in the middle books should really never have happened. Brandon Sanderson's handling of The Gathering Storm is tight, efficient, vivid, and exciting all at once. It wastes little and accomplishes much. In short, Sanderson's execution surpassed Jordan's.
Mark Rosewater teaches a bit of screenwriting/playwriting wisdom that goes: "No scene is worth a line; no show is worth a scene." That is to say, no matter how enamored an author may be of a compositional element, if it does not completely serve the story, it needs to be cut. This lesson can be expanded beyond lines and scenes to entire plot threads. If a plot thread does not serve the primary story to a greater degree than the space it takes up in the text, it needs to go. Just playing to a draw isn't good enough, either -- every plot thread more than necessary creates distraction and dilutes focus, so that serves as a rake above which a surplus plot line must deliver.
An example of a plot thread subarc that delivered above and beyond its cost to the main narrative would be in Lord of the Rings when Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli depart the Rohirrim camp to travel the Dimhault Road and confront the Army of the Dead. How well did this thread deliver? Look at what it accomplished. The thread:
- Provided the Good Guys a source of martial strength that they used to rally to win the Battle of Minas Tirith;
- Developed Aragorn's credentials as returning King of Gondor, as the Dead are among the first to recognize Aragorn's authority to command and to enforce oaths;
- Furthered the character-role shifts of Aragorn from Lancer to Hero and Legolas from Pretty One to Lancer;
- Forced Gimli to face his fears, realizing that his cowardice was not of death or defeat but of failing to live up to the deeds of his ancestors; and
- Removed three of the Fellowship from the larger plot thread at a pivotal time so that the plot arcs of several second-tier characters could develop and resolve on the main stage.
That is staggering, beautiful efficiency of narrative there by the master, Tolkien. And, to Jordan's credit, Wheel contains plot subarcs that are well-conceived and add great depth and flavor to the narrative, even if not as tightly as Tolkien's did. Unfortunately, to Jordan's detriment, there were all too many plot threads that subtracted from the narrative just as an ill-conceived line can kill a scene, or an ill-conceived scene can kill a show.
The worst offender Jordan included in Wheel is the Faile/Shaido plot arc. It could be excised from the books and what incremental character development that occurred in it could be dispersed along other events involving those characters, and the series would be both shorter and better off for it. In fact, one of Sanderson's first cleanup tasks in book 12 is to resolve the few remaining bits of that arc. A subarc that straddled that thread was the Morgase/Maighdin story, and the same is true. Maighdin should simply have been killed. It would have added depth to Tallanvor and Basel Gill as they grapple internally with whether to transfer their loyalties to Elayne Trakand, and it would have added greater gravity to Elayne's grieving for her mother without the distraction of the unneeded dramatic irony that the reader knows Maighdin is alive and Elayne does not. Another example was a new subarc Jordan added in book 11: Rodel Ituralde and the guerrilla-style Domani homeland defense. Sanderson resolves it completely in book 12, and it becomes clear that it wasn't really necessary at all. Ituralde, for all his badassitude, gave nothing to the story that Davram Bashere and the Borderland generals were not already capable of providing. Yet a fourth example, especially pernicious because the events of book 12 (as plotted by Jordan, not as written by Sanderson) mooted it entirely, was the subarc involving the Atha'an Miere. Yup, all that Sea Folk scheming and bargaining ends up amounting to bupkus -- and that's what Jordan meant to have happen all along.
Faced with such a tangle of plot events yearning to resolve and breathe free, Sanderson took up the mantle of Storm by breaking out of Jordan's overly-dispersed concurrent narrative structures and returning to the plotting format that writers have used to great effect for centuries. Sanderson concentrates on a few major plot arcs, highlights conflict, forces characters to make value decisions, and resolves those plot arcs to the degree that this stage of the series plot allowed. He takes time on the side to tie up a number of loose ends, and none of them end up reading in a particularly abrupt manner -- it was clear that some parts of the narrative had withered on the vine and were best disposed of. In one particular instance, a mid-major character from earlier books who had been seen less and less lately was consolidated from a subarc into one of the main arcs so excellently that there occurred a trifecta of Crowning Moment of Awesome, Tearjerker Death, and Reckoning That Followed. Two villain subarcs rejoined the major arcs, and two more prominent antagonists are Dead And Not Coming Back, something that happened all too infrequently since around book five.
The primary plotlines in Storm follow Rand al'Thor and Egwene al'Vere. Rand struggles to get the necessary military assets in place for the onset of the Last Battle while clinging to what remains of his fragile sanity and emotional state. Since Rand is the Main Hero, his plot did not resolve entirely, but came to a satisfying stopping point with a healthy chunk of his conflict resolved and the remaining conflict cleanly distinguished for future development. The most chokingly-intense and "OMFG!" chapter in the book involves Rand doing something we never, not in a million years, could have predicted he would do. A very, very intense twist. Egwene's major plot, easily the more consistent backbone of the book, is just about resolved by story's end -- but there are some twists along the way that take her where the fan community probably didn't quite expect her to go.
Matrim Cauthon does appear and stars in a deliciously creepy interlude, one of the best-written scenes in the series, but his Huge Plot Climax seems primed instead to occur in book 13. Perrin Aybara was a major figure in book 11 and doesn't do too much in Storm, but Perrin's chapters do well to marshal some necessary assets to their places for the grand finale. Nynaeve al'Meara gets screen time in two different subarcs and flourishes in both. Aviendha has a single subarc, and a well-executed one -- it appeared to be cleanup work, as it could have occurred books ago, but it was satisfying nonetheless. Tuon still has considerable mileage left ahead of her, despite the deceptive chapter title "The Death of Tuon." I was upset at first at the apparent "Return of the King"-esque title spoiler, but upon reading the chapter, I realized that the meaning of that phrase had already been hinted at by Jordan, and it was not what it seemed at first glance -- a delightful misdirect. Tuon's subarc touches both of the primary plot arcs to great (and very different) effect. And, for the first time since... the series began, Gawyn Trakand gets to be a mid-major instead of a throwaway character. Among the minor characters, there are literally scores of deaths, at least one Tearjerker Wedding Proposal, and no small amount of derring-do.
Lan Mandragoran and Elayne Trakand each play the part of Sir Not Appearing In This Book, reprising Perrin's command performance from book 5 and Mat's brilliant delivery in book 8. Among the bad guys, the biggest no-shows were Mazrim Taim, Padan Fain, and Mesaana. There is vague, ominous foreshadowing at the end of both Knife and Storm that big doin's are a-transpirin' at the Black Tower, but there have still been no chapter-length scenes filmed on location since, what, book 9? One surmises the Black Tower is one of the "Towers of Midnight" that book 13's title promises we'll see. What other Towers could there be? Conceivably all could appear in book 13, as all have unresolved plot hooks that are ripe or close enough: the White Tower, the Tower of Ghenjei, and the Tower of Ravens. We don't, alas, learn anything more about What Happened to Asmodean.
I deliberately waited the better part of the week after finishing The Gathering Storm to write this review, because I wanted the shine to have worn off the apple before I charged in and declared it a triumph or a disaster. Despite the wait, I am still convinced, as I was upon closing the back cover, that this book stands up alongside The Shadow Rising and The Fires of Heaven, and I am absolutely stunned at the professional craftsmanship displayed by Brandon Sanderson. My best fiction work is still deeply in development and well short of publication, but even at this early stage in my career, I can see the seams and joints in Sanderson's prose and clearly perceive the adept work that he put into fastening and polishing them. I will most certainly be looking further into that gentleman's back catalog, and not just because he's the only science-fiction writer I know besides myself who plays Magic: the Gathering. Robert Jordan will be a sentimental favorite of fantasy fans forever, but Sanderson is tomorrow's fantasy flagbearer: the John Petrucci to Jordan's Jimmy Page.
After what will be 21 years and 15 books (including a prequel), the most expansive, epic fantasy saga of my generation will finally end. Two years on the calendar and two more tomes on deck. I'm even more excited about this series than when I made that second blog post all those months and years ago... and that makes The Gathering Storm a success by my reckoning.
Monday, October 26, 2009
Arizona State University and a certain unnamed southern Arizona school departed the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) in 1978 to join the then-Pacific 8 Conference, or Pac-8, making it into the Pac-10 that we know today as one of the NCAA's premier athletic divisions. After 31 years, it is time for the Pacific Conference to expand once again at the WAC's expense -- but also to the WAC's benefit.
When ASU and UA left the WAC for the Pac-10, it was abundantly clear that the move was necessary. During the decade prior to the move, ASU either won the WAC in football or shared the conference title seven times, losing a combined four conference games during that stretch. UA won once and was ASU's only legitimate spoiler. ASU and UA dominated WAC baseball: ASU won the WAC eight times during that stretch and the NCAA national championship twice, while UA won the WAC the other two times and were national champions once. In basketball, UA dominated the WAC, never finishing worse than 4th in the conference, after the hiring of their first "elite" head coach, Fred "the Fox" Snowden, and made multiple deep NCAA March Madness tournament runs.
A similar level of disparity currently plagues the WAC, courtesy of Boise State, Hawaii, and Fresno State. BSU and Hawaii have won every WAC football title since 2002, and FSU has been the only likely spoiler in most of those years. The three schools combine for six WAC basketball championships or runners-up in the past decade. Hawaii is the all-time WAC baseball conference championship leader, while Fresno State has won every WAC baseball championship since the WAC resumed its conference tournament in 2005. It is abundantly clear now, as it was in the late 1970s, that the WAC is top-heavy and noncompetitive.
The other teams in the WAC, though occasionally seeing the stars align for a magical season here or there, simply cannot compete at that level. Louisiana Tech (which really belongs in some other conference geographically) and Nevada have each won or shared the WAC football title once since the Mountain West split from the WAC in 1999. New Mexico State and Utah State have finished well in the WAC basketball tournament a couple of times, but were a far cry from being March Madness contenders. San Diego State won the WAC in baseball three times, most recently 18 years ago. The two remaining schools, Idaho and San Jose State, have not had much success in any of these areas.
The WAC's status as a non-BCS conference has combined with the competitive disparity to cheat the three schools out of opportunities to compete for national titles -- and cheated the viewing public out of what could have been wonderfully entertaining and competitive games. Boise State has the strongest claim, having run the table in 2006, undefeated, en route to a 2007 Fiesta Bowl win over Oklahoma, but no title. (NCAA national champion Louisiana State had two losses that year.) BSU has subsequently "scheduled up" with home-and-homes against perennial powers such as Pac-10 Oregon. BSU swept the Oregon series and is, as of this writing, ranked #4 nationally in the BCS poll. Unfortunately, no strong teams remain on BSU's schedule, because they are playing out their conference opponents. BSU will almost certainly win out, but if they are not ranked at least #2 by then, BSU will not even be given a chance to play for the national title. Hawaii experienced a similar letdown in 2007, going undefeated in the regular season -- but losing the 2008 Sugar Bowl and their season-opening "power game" against Florida, each after coach June Jones had already announced his departure for a Texas-sized paycheck at SMU. Hawaii still struggles to schedule enough quality opponents due to travel distance issues; for years, Pac-10 schools routinely visited (and trounced) Hawaii simply because the distance was manageable, but now those same schools have shied away in order to avoid potentially costly nonconference losses. Meanwhile, FSU has an ongoing policy of playing "any team, anywhere" -- effectively offering road games to football-factory schools without requiring a home-and-home -- but BCS schools fear to play the Bulldogs and leave FSU in the lurch to schedule strong enough opposition to make a serious BCS bowl run. Within the conference, FSU rarely loses to anyone other than BSU or Hawaii. These three schools have done as much as they can where they are. There is nowhere for them to go but outward and upward.
The Mountain West conference, currently the strongest mid-major, is attempting to lure Boise State (depending on whom you believe). As much as BSU could certainly compete in the Pac-10, it makes more sense for BSU to remain in the intermountain region for its conference games. BSU's schedule strength will increase considerably with annual matchups against TCU, BYU, Utah, and Air Force. If the Mountain West is serious about this, BSU needs to cooperate and get it done. If they haven't actually extended an invitation, they need to do so. Everyone wins in that scenario: BSU gets its stronger schedule, the MWC increases in overall power, and the WAC becomes more balanced and competitive.
That leaves Hawaii and Fresno State. Rather than letting them dominate the WAC for another decade the way ASU and UA did in the 1970s, the Pac-10 needs to become the Pac-12. This accomplishes many things for all parties. Hawaii and FSU get stronger schedules and won't have as many holes to fill every year by begging teams to man up and take the field with them. The most distant Pac-12 teams from Hawaii will be Washington State and a certain unnamed southern Arizona school, and in neither case is the travel as far as for Hawaii's current WAC opponents Louisiana Tech, New Mexico State, or Utah State. It would be a simple matter to place those schools in the other Pac-12 division so that they only play away games at Hawaii every fourth year. The existing Pac-10 teams not only get to add variety to what has become a stagnant and insular annual schedule, but (most importantly) could add a conference championship game between the champions of the two divisions on the first weekend in December each year, and that means big-time revenue. The arrangement also opens up one more game slot per year for Pac-12 teams to schedule home-and-homes against strong schools elsewhere. (Schools would play their five division opponents and half the opposite division each year, alternating home and away as applicable.)
A look at the possible alignment of the Pacific 12 Conference:
In Year 1 of this arrangement, Hawaii's schedule might run:
FSU, @ASU, UA, @USC, UCLA, @UW, OSU, @CAL.
Year 2 would run:
@FSU, ASU, @UA, USC, @UCLA, WSU, @UO, STAN.
Year 3 would run:
FSU, @ASU, UA, @USC, UCLA, @WSU, UO, @STAN.
Year 4 would run:
@FSU, ASU, @UA, USC, @UCLA, UW, @OSU, CAL.
Then the sequence resets. Every year, every Pac-12 team has a perfect four-home, four-away conference slate. (Current Pac-10 schedules are unbalanced, an inevitable consequence of playing nine conference games every year.) Hawaii's farthest-flung opponents would only travel to Honolulu three combined times every four years: WSU once and UA twice. Travel distance as an obstacle becomes minimized.
Obviously, I am neither a decision-maker nor a stakeholder in this, aside from my twice-over alumnity with Arizona State. Nevertheless, the recent history and competitive results at play here clearly indicate that this is the way to go. The time for the Pac-12 has come.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
First, it helps to set some parameters. I grew up as a classic nerd, so I spent a lot of teenage time playing Dungeons & Dragons. Pen-and-paper role-playing games are a perfect example of an indulgence for people who have plenty of time to waste and a severely limited money supply. Adult indulgences, like tropical vacations, thrill sports, and Vegas weekends, are the opposite, and are perfect for people who have plenty of money to waste and a severely limited time supply. As you might expect, "the truth" for most of us lies somewhere between those extremes. There are differences, however, in the time and money equations for those of us who are single, those of us who are "spoken for" but childless, and those of us with children. Today, I am sharing a look at our time-money value exercise. As you read, see if you agree with whether I have accurately forecast a sinkhole, or its opposite, a wellspring. In the comments, feel free to share your own time-money value analyses.
1. Video games
I enjoy video games tremendously. I grew up with video games, and video games grew up with me. I saved the Princess in castle 8-4; I recovered the Triforce; I outfought both M. Bison and Mike Tyson; I destroyed the Space Pirates; I built a Megalopolis; I defeated the Dragonlord. But these days, playing a "story" video game just isn't happening. The time simply isn't there. When we were robbed in August, in addition to taking our Xbox 360 and Wii, they took an entire shelf of video games I had never found time to complete: Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess; Super Mario Galaxy; Metroid Prime 3; Halo 3; Lego Star Wars Complete; and on and on. We did seem to get good use out of video games that are either "arcade-ish," party/group-oriented, or both. Accordingly, when it came time to rebuy with the insurance money, we chose only to replace the Xbox 360 (partly because it is a Netflix device) and to replace Rock Band 2 and the Xbox Live Arcade titles. As for the rest? Sinkholes.
Here's the thing: unless we go to the movie on our own (with friends, etc, and not with each other), we have to either "use up" a babysitting favor or take the baby with us. Those favors are as good as gold, so we don't like wasting them on a movie unless it's a really, really highly-anticipated flick. Taking the baby to the movie is pointless because you really won't get to watch the movie. You'll be stuck tending the kid. The only way to really enjoy movies once you're a parent is to bring them home. Spending money going to the movies, then, is a sinkhole.
I love music and enjoy playing in bands, but the time commitment varies heavily, sometimes crossing the line of unfeasible. With the right band project, it's a wellspring, more than overcoming the cost of equipment and time. With the wrong one, "sinkhole" is an understatement. Unfortunately, it's hard to know which kind of project you're in until you've already invested a lot of time and work, so I think I'm going to be mostly avoiding these for a while.
4. Card games
Magic: the Gathering has been very good to me, serving as a source of income from time to time in addition to being the most fun tabletop game I have encountered. As such, I have been able to play at relatively low cost. The time investment has continued to bother me, however, and with the arrival of Evey, cards might be the latest casualty of the value equation. I already got out of the Star Wars CCG because of lack of time, despite enjoying the local player community. I have passed up chances to buy into other games heavily. Even now, I'm clearing out a Lord of the Rings TCG collection for a friend, and I look at the cards and think, "This seems like it might be really fun! I could buy out this collection and play!" But then I realize it's just a non-starter. I have nobody to play against. (Steph isn't into the TCG hobby.) As it is, I'm lucky to play Magic once a month. I miss playing Netrunner, the best "bluffing" CCG ever made, but it plays best as a sealed-deck game and it's too hard to get product anymore for it. Much as I hate to face the reality of it, card games are in fact becoming sinkholes. Once I finish selling off some collections I'm working on, this will become even more pronounced. I think some small investment in the game can be a wellspring, though, so I am seeking that balance. Something where I have decks built and ready to go, without having too much value sunk into them and thus "money clogging the closet."
5. Computer time
Obviously none of us are going to "quit the internet," least of all me. This will be something I keep my eye on, though. It's probably possible to scale back on sites one surfs and just spend less time overall on it. If were one of those who play World of Warcraft, I think it would be very clearly a sinkhole. I can't figure out what it is that keeps people addicted to that game now that they know it's just an item grind. I mean, isn't that kind of like work?
Books are undeniably a wellspring. They don't cost much, and they can sit on a shelf for years and still be perfectly functional when you pull them down to read. I am enjoying a re-read of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series in anticipation of the 12th book, The Gathering Storm, that comes out October 27th. I hadn't read so much as a page of that series in four years, but it's working out fine now. While the reality of having Allie and Evey might reduce the total time and money Steph and I put into books, this is unlikely to be a long-term reduction.
Television was once clearly a sinkhole for me. I had no interest in watching the networks' prime-time skits so they could sell advertising time, and if I really wanted to watch a sporting event, well, there's a reason they call 'em "sports bars." This value equation has been entirely flipped on its head. Television has now gone from sinkhole to wellspring for us, all because of the dynamics of taking care of children. A TV can function unattended, and a TV can entertain anyone in the family. Allie loves to watch The Wiggles and Baby Einstein either on DVDs or through the Xbox 360 Netflix instant queue. Steph and I can finally pick and choose interesting shows to queue up on the DVR, in addition to watching movies via Netflix. When you have children, you spend a lot of weekend time at home -- all the better to have the TV showing football games while you clean house or have company over. Accordingly, I used the insurance payout money from the video games we didn't replace, added in some card sales income, and bought two things: a subscription to DirecTV service with the NFL Sunday Ticket, and a new Samsung LED TV. So far, both are delivering an intense and fun experience at an acceptable cost. Even when the football season is over, both will continue to be useful just about every single day. That is what you hope for in a wellspring -- something that more than pulls its weight in the time-money equation.
Not much else has changed. There is no reason to look at a time-money value equation for household goods or sundries, and it goes without saying that the top priority for money needs to be aggressively attacking debt if you have any. But once you get past those steps, you have some decisions to make. You can get more out of your free time, as Steph and I hope we will, by discarding sinkholes and seeking wellsprings.
Friday, September 18, 2009
Indeed, there appears once to have been a time when a person could walk from north Africa to Italy without getting his feet wet. (Granted, the journey would take a while.) I think there is a deep well of setting material for the writer who is willing to do research on Earth's geologic history and craft a story that makes that setting significant. For example, using the map above, I imagine an epic tale involving a teeming city at the lower shore of one of the two halves you see of Lake Mediterrania. The city could be home to heroes and villains, a seat of power and political intrigue, and a thriving hub of commerce. Centuries could pass full of intense battles, heroic quests, strange visitors, mysterious guilds, and dynastic succession. As the ice age ends and the glaciers melt, the city could be swallowed by the sea. It could take on an historic, even legendary aura -- people might tell tales of this city, and boast of the treasures it holds, resting in ruins deep underneath the waves. It might be called... "Atlantis."
Okay, obviously you saw that coming. But what you might not have seen coming is just what becomes possible once you take that kind of story and make it the backstory instead.
Imagine another story. An empire has fallen and its former glory has faded. Great cities lie in ruin, broad fields grow wild and untended, and vast mines echo with emptiness. Pirates roam the coastlines and rivers, barbarian hordes rule the hills and barrens, and the wisdom of recorded history is preserved only by a few cloistered, sectarian groups. The only tantalizing signs of "the world that once was" exist in the form of eroding statues, abandoned bridges, and fragmentary monuments. The nation of Gondor is but a shadow of its former self, and the underground nation of Moria has long since gone silent. The Seat of Seeing in the hills of the Amon Hen sits empty. Mighty statues at the Falls of Rauros guard only untamed wilds. Majestic Ithilien in the forested eastern heights has all but disappeared, its capital city at Minas Ithil turned to a decaying Minas Morgul by the hordes of Mordor.
Of course, you know by now I am speaking of the fictional land of "Middle Earth," the setting for the epic story Lord of the Rings. Notice that I did not make even one mention above of the titular ring, or the Numenoreans, or the ageless Elves; of Saruman's betrayal and the rise of Isengard and the Uruk-Hai, or of the essential Hobbits and their daring quest. The major plot points of the book are driven by characters and action, as they should be. But look at the sense of wonder that the setting communicates all by itself, before any of the action even begins. Tolkien's intricate linguistics formed the basis for the characters' backgrounds and ancestry, but the setting is gave those characters a place to be; it gave those languages a place to live.
J.R.R. Tolkien built a world, and he did so by first setting the stage for how that world became what it was. It was a mammoth undertaking that consumed literally the whole of his life, as his son Christopher Tolkien has continued cataloguing the late master's notes and histories into new publications even today. It took Tolkien almost two decades after The Hobbit to publish Lord of the Rings, and apocryphal stories from the publisher say that Tolkien stopped dozens of times and began rewriting the entire saga from the beginning every time he realized he had not captured the essence of some facet of his story's world. Clearly, a compelling setting is a critical underpinning to a worthwhile story. In essence, if a writer cannot make a setting interesting, that writer has given the reader no reason to care about the fate of that settings' inhabitants. And now, it becomes clear that a compelling setting doesn't exist in an vacuum; a compelling setting requires a sufficiently-realized backstory.
I have a number of fictional works "in the oven," and have for years, and one thing I notice myself doing is going back for substantial revisions (or rewrites) every time I have a breakthrough about an environment through which I can send the characters and propel the story. And inevitably what I discover is that it's not enough to just send the characters to a place where the environment happens to be whatever is necessary to accomplish a plot point. It's not enough to send them on a trope roller-coaster to Vulcan or Hyrule -- or, worse, to such heterogeneous locales as Hoth, Dagobah, or Tatooine. A good story requires more. Not only do I have to send my characters (or birth and raise them, or see them die) in an interesting setting, but I must give that setting its due development to turn it into a place that lives and breathes on its own -- that imbues in the reader a sense of wonder -- so that my hero's journey and struggle against the vile overlord will paint itself in vivid hues across the broad canvas of my readers' imaginations. And this process will probably start with a map of Lake Mediterranea -- and I'll see where I can go from there.
Welcome, Reader! Turn the page, and the tale begins...
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
The road that starts at the lower left corner of the frame and continues through the middle of the picture is College Avenue. You can see the back of the old Mt. Carmel church right about in the center. Today, it is the "old building" at the ASU Newman Center, and thus is still a Catholic church facility, but that particular building is now only used for weddings and special events. Just after and to the left (southeast) of Mt. Carmel, on the left side of College Avenue, is ASU's Old Main building. (Was it called the "New Main" building at the time of this photo? Inquiring minds want to know.) In 1935, Arizona State University was still called the Arizona State Teachers' College, and its president was Grady Gammage.
The north-south road to the west (right) of College Avenue, traversing the middle of the photo, is Forest Avenue, which is much smaller now and has been converted to a pedestrian mall through most of campus. The east-west road closest to the photographer is Sixth Street, which is not a major arterial today as it does not occur at a square-mile interval with other arterial streets. Seventh Street is barely visible; you can tell there is an intersection with it at Forest, but the angle doesn't allow for much more.
Running between the church and the Old Main is the street now known as University Drive, but at the time it was better known as the Atlantic-Pacific Highway. Yes, it was the "main drag," all two lanes of it -- not that many people had cars then, in the depths of the Depression -- and it ran from Los Angeles to New York City. The highway curved slightly southward and eventually met and followed the SR-87 alignment to Tucson. Pieces of this highway alignment are still visible in Tempe -- that's why Eighth Street is off-kilter and follows the old railroad track line as it slants past the Four Peaks Brewery.
The U.S. Highway 60 had been commissioned but not yet built; by the end of the decade, it would follow Apache Boulevard through Tempe. Apache is visible among the vast, empty lots south of Old Main, after the grassy square on the left side of the photo and where that clump of trees and small buildings meets College Avenue. Straight ahead to the south in the photo, what was then county land consisted of rural properties and empty meadows as far as the eye could see. Tempe ended at Apache Boulevard.
This land is now among the densest in the entire Phoenix metropolitan area. Tempe was the first suburb to be landlocked when every city in the Phoenix area raced to annex developable acreage in the 1980s. Mesa and Scottsdale cut Tempe off to the north and east, Phoenix borders to the west, and Chandler galloped across a two-mile-wide sliver south of Tempe until it closed the square.
My parents moved to Tempe in 1978, and I lived there until 1993, from 1999 to 2001 while I ran the Arizona Gamer's main location, and then again from 2003 to 2007 while I finished my undergraduate and law degrees. The thing that strikes me the most about the area's phenomenal development isn't that my former home, which is smack in the middle of Tempe now, was remote enough in 1935 that its location is not even discernible along the horizon of that photograph. No, the thing I find most striking is that I can imagine a day when my current neighborhood in Chandler, which is twice as far from downtown Phoenix as the area depicted in the photo, will have been so much further eclipsed by growth that it will be considered too dense an area for new development.
Thursday, June 25, 2009
Dream Theater has, to their credit, found the musical equivalent of the late fantasy author David Eddings' path to fan-pleasing stardom: Their songwriting and touring has become the musical equivalent of peddling dope. Dream Theater's latest offering, Black Clouds & Silver Linings, is made up of what has become an excellent par vintage of their particular crop.
Eddings made his literary mark with the Belgariad and Malloreon series, in all a ten-book tale that blended well-established swords-and-sorcery fantasy tropes with humor, folklore, and a lighter tone than most books in the genre. Suitable for all ages, Eddings' books were a hit, and his deeply-developed characters became beloved of his readers to a greater degree than the denizens of his other novels. After fan demand prompted Eddings to write more of the story of Belgarion & Friends, Eddings crafted two prequel books as stories-within-stories. The bookending story continued following the lives of the characters after the BelMal, while the substories were the actual prequel material, ending right at the spot the Belgariad begins. By creating an endless loop of sorts, Eddings enabled his readers to continue to enjoy the full story over and over ad infinitum. He then commented that his readers have been running around in that circle for years since, making his writing "the literary equivalent of peddling dope."
So turned the career of Dream Theater after a near-miss in 1998 during which drummer Mike Portnoy contemplated hanging up his octobans and walking away. Dream Theater, before that turning point, had experienced the sudden and vacuous stardom offered by the MTV-centered pop industry, survived some personnel changes, and struggled for creative control with their label. The suits wanted nothing more than for Dream Theater to shed their progressive leanings and become reliably-profitable arena metal -- after all, they had the arena metal look, and that was all that mattered, right? From 1989 to 1998, the band struggled to maintain a balance between creative productivity, the more mundane facets of music industry work, and interpersonal and family relationship time, all in the face of a merciless calendar that had them on the road for years at a time promoting Images and Words, Awake, and Falling Into Infinity. After the latter tour, the band finally recovered creative control over their work, and on a roughly biannual clip thereafter, have released albums that allow them to publicly and professionally embrace their role as flagbearers of the progressive-metal genre.
Dream Theater's 1999 magnum opus Scenes from a Memory, a CD-length concept album, is as much a reaction to the band's previous musical constrainment as anything else. Most fans consider it their masterpiece, despite the record being close to worthless commercially in mainstream-rock-radio terms. The 2001 interval was covered by Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence (technically streeting in 2002, but only barely), a two-disc progressive feast with even longer, even more exploratory prog-metal, including The Glass Prison, the first part of Portnoy's five-album-spanning epic Twelve-Step Saga about alcohol abuse. Sated that their legacy in progressive circles was no longer in question, Dream Theater flipped MTV a mighty bird in 2003 with Train of Thought, a mostly straightforward metal album that brought them back to radio and welcomed in a newer and younger generation of fans hungry for something more substantial than Maroon 5 and Franz Ferdinand. Train contained This Dying Soul, part two of the Twelve-Step Saga.
Dream Theater settled into a comfortable blend of metal and prog by 2005 with Octavarium, their final album on their original label. The album's title track is the very essence of prog, spanning 24 minutes of scintillating virtuosity, and the album opener, The Root of All Evil, covered part three of the Twelve-Step Saga with a flourish. The heaviest track on the album, Panic Attack, drew notice on the Gigantour concert bill, and introduced yet another new wave of fans to the band by appearing in the video game Rock Band 2. Dream Theater signed with a new label and released Systematic Chaos, seizing the momentum that Octavarium had continued from Train of Thought. With so many new fans accepting Dream Theater "as they were," Chaos saw unexpected mainstream success with new music video clips and a Rock Band downloadable-content appearance, this time for lead single Constant Motion. Chaos' contribution to the Twelve-Step Saga, part four: Repentance, was a bit understated, but the song's more mellow dynamic set the stage for the thrilling conclusion to come... and it worked.
Black Clouds & Silver Linings closes the Twelve-Step Saga with part five, The Shattered Fortress, and Fortress is every bit the dope Dream Theater's fans hoped they would peddle. It quotes and reprises every other song in the suite, it runs 12 minutes but does not seem that long, and it practically blasts its way off the page, aggression and emotion at every measure. Fortress suffers somewhat in that it sounds at times like more of a patchwork of the previous songs in the suite than a truly integrative finale, like Dream Theater did with Finally Free, Losing Time, and The Razor's Edge, Rush did with 2112 Grand Finale, and Queensryche did with Eyes of a Stranger. Even in the absence of an integrative finale, a thematic denouement or "epilogue" could have worked as well, like Rush did with The Sphere, Spock's Beard did with Made Alive Again/Wind at My Back, and Schonberg & Boublil did with The Sacred Bird. Still, the gallery-of-reprises style has been used to great effect: Down Once More/Track Down This Murderer, Andrew Lloyd Webber's finale to Phantom of the Opera, is a masterpiece of patchwork conclusion composition. Time will tell whether Fortress, in hindsight, closes the Twelve-Step Saga as brilliantly as Down closed Phantom.
The second-best track on Black Clouds is definitely The Best of Times, a song Portnoy wrote about his recently-departed father. Even in Dream Theater's more somber, emotional moments, such as Take Away My Pain, Goodnight Kiss, Medicate (Awakening), and Vacant, they have never produced music as moving, authentic, and absolutely heart-rending as The Best of Times. It may be difficult for anyone who has not lost a loved one to understand how completely Portnoy hit the nail on the head with this one, but trust me: he did. I don't see Dream Theater topping this one, as far as songs of this style and content are concerned.
It was a pleasure to see Dream Theater returning to a more experimental, eclectic mode of songwriting for the album's opener, A Nightmare to Remember. In a similar fashion, Awake's 6:00 and Infinity's New Millennium stood out from their respective albums and offered a distinctly different flavor of Dream Theater while remaining essentially progressive and true to the band's style. On the other albums, the opening tracks have served other roles, either introducing epic or concept pieces (Regression, In the Presence of Enemies part 1), presenting a piece of the Twelve-Step Saga, or laying down a straightforward opening anthem (Pull Me Under, As I Am). Nightmare is textured, yet percussive; twisted, yet smooth. John Petrucci's nights poring over literature and channeling Walt-freaking-Whitman paid off with a vivid, flavorful bridge: "Hopelessly drifting / bathing in beautiful agony / I am endlessly falling / Lost in this beautiful misery." Nightmare stretches in multiple directions, even giving Portnoy a chance to do some cookie-monster growling at one point, and in most cases, the stretches hit paydirt. This song is no Scarred, but it certainly belongs at the feast.
Wither is the outlier at this point -- unless this song starts to age amazingly well, I will be consigning it to the "meh" bin with Prophets of War, Never Enough, and Just Let Me Breathe. Songs about writer's block just don't work on a very fundamental level, because the audience is interested in the composer's ability, not the composer's inability. Musically, Wither is sound enough, not covering new ground but not laying an egg either. It's a shame to waste such a great song title -- there are only so many simple but evocative verbs out there that work as song titles -- but I suppose there's that to redeem the song, at least. It has the potential to be a single down the road, due to length and accessibility, so it could succeed on that level also.
A Rite of Passage is Black Clouds' radio and video cut, and it was well chosen as such. The song is absolutely accessible, contains a nice instrumental interlude, and is planted thick thematically with the kind of mysticism that stokes the curious minds of most younger prog fans who are still developing as aficionados of music. Your average rational older adult will dismiss everything about the lyrics and just enjoy the instrumental aspects of Passage, and the song stands up capably on that level. This is mainstream metal with a touch of prog, very much in line with what we've heard lately from Muse, Lacuna Coil, and Metallica, and if it had been subtitled "The Dark Eternal Night, part 2," I don't think anyone would have blinked.
The remaining track on Black Clouds, the sprawling, 19-minute epic The Count of Tuscany, is a Petrucci-penned sweepfest with about the thematic depth of Forsaken and all the musical gymnastics of The Dance of Eternity. I'm sure the hardcorest of the hardcore are having a blast with this one, but I'm not sure it stands up compositionally to some of the other tracks on the album or in Dream Theater's wider stable. Oh, fear not: Count will get raves from concertgoers and will add points to Dream Theater's ever-growing well of Prog Cred -- it's not a failure on any level -- but this is no Octavarium or In the Presence of Enemies; it's not even In the Name of God. Count is absolutely the brand of dope that Dream Theater has learned to peddle to their fans, and their fans find that flavor satisfying, so why shouldn't the band do likewise?
Black Clouds & Silver Linings is a genuine accomplishment for Dream Theater, concluding a decade-long suite, reaching new heights in both new and old directions, and serving as a pleasurable listen even in its weaker moments. The album gives fans exactly what they want, and more of it. The future promises a year-plus of touring, half a year of writing, and a new tome of tales in 2011 that are right up the fans' alley, and hey, why shouldn't Dream Theater proceed exactly that way? Capitalism works, after all. But if, instead, they take a chance and it falls flat, at least we'll know full well what their posture was, and we can appreciate why they rolled the dice instead of commencing the scheduled harvest.
Now, if you don't mind, I think I'll find out what's been happening on Faldor's farm...
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
As many of you know, I am a musician. I got my first guitar 19 years ago. Back in the mid-1990s, I performed as a bassist and backing vocalist in local cover bands such as Scoobacca and Parallax. A few years ago, I played bass and sang lead for Sonogasm (there's a band name that hasn't aged well) and experienced morsels of local success with SG performing a set mostly made up of my own original songs, a blend of grunge and progressive rock. I was in college during the grunge years, so I cut my adult musical teeth on Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, and the Stone Temple Pilots, and that influence integrated with the Pink Floyd, Iron Maiden, Rush, Metallica, and Dream Theater that had dominated my formative years.
Unfortunately, having musical ability and even a stable of written material is not enough to get a person on stage even at the local level. Being on stage is what it's all about. Even performing at a dive pub for a handful of disinterested barflies is great fun, and performing in front of a more substantial crowd is an incredible adrenaline rush. I have been associated with several other bands over the years, but only the ones I cited above made it to the stage and stayed at that level. To stay at that level, a band needs a unifying vision that gets buy-in from all members, discipline and a good work ethic from all members, and compatible personalities. It is not entirely unlike a marriage in that a band is only as happy as its unhappiest member.
A wise, experienced musician will bend over backward to get on stage and stay there, because he knows that's where all his practice, devotion, and discipline are rewarded. The problem is that most musicians are neither wise nor experienced. Mostly this is because they are young, but immaturity shows up even in older musicians, eccentric as the musically-inclined often are. This immaturity leads to band drama, and band drama corrodes band chemistry and destroys otherwise promising projects. Pub stages everywhere are mostly filled with two types of bands: talented bands who have not yet imploded, and untalented bands made up of friends who have great chemistry but little potential. A tiny fraction of a fraction are the third type of band, which manages to stay together and move on to bigger things. Given the choice between the two more likely outcomes, I'll take the band full of good buddies with a low success ceiling. At least they're having fun.
I am going to develop this thesis anecdotally, but first, here are some better-known examples of where drama has impeded music. Black Sabbath never had the same "spark" without Ozzy Osbourne. Pink Floyd: Roger Waters. Faith No More: Jim Martin. Queensryche: Chris deGarmo. Evanescence: Ben Moody. And those are just bands that survived losing a member to drama. Most drama implosions lead to disbandment. Soundgarden. Warrant. Drain STH. Galactic Cowboys. Ratt. Even when a band thrives after a chemistry replacement, their fan base is divided -- a contingent insists that the original line-up can never be topped. By far the benchmark example: Van Halen. They were a better band with Sammy Hagar commercially and creatively, but the specter of David Lee Roth will never leave them alone. Dream Theater has emerged as the absolute flagbearer of progressive metal today, but some fans still carry a torch for Kevin Moore. I'm sure there are even some hardliners sitting in a Cleveland pub who will never forgive Rush for losing John Rutsey and replacing him with Neil Peart.
Band drama starts internally when a band member's expectations, reasonable or unreasonable, are not met. In Sonogasm, Jeff (guitar) and I were often frustrated with Chuck (drums) because Chuck struggled with timing, having been out of the musical scene for many years. Chuck and I were frustrated with Jeff because Jeff, while very talented, tends to be undisciplined in his approach to practice, hindering band development. Jeff and Chuck were frustrated with me because I wouldn't stick to a focused musical direction for the band. We had started alt-prog, very Tool-esque, and all was well. Then, as I developed as a composer, I was writing grunge, southern rock, alt-mainstream a la +Live+, and even hybrids of pop and nu-metal. That wasn't what Jeff and Chuck were interested in playing.
The three of us had the talent and dedication to hold Sonogasm together for a while, but eventually the problems reached critical mass. Chuck would whiff badly a few times in a live show. Jeff would show up to practice not having learned a new song element... again. Our portfolio stagnated because I wasn't bringing in enough viable material, and the band couldn't agree on which covers to add to freshen things up. Our internal frustration from having our expectations unmet by our bandmates eventually became a catalyst for clashes with one another, and we wound up putting the band on "indefinite hiatus." That is a euphemism that means the band will probably never re-form, but since nobody had sex with another band member's girlfriend or wife, the members are still at least on speaking terms with one another. The last of Sonogasm's 20-odd performances was by far our best, and perhaps we were able to relax and enjoy it more knowing that we had already decided to move on afterward, and our band problems were no longer a weight on our shoulders. We remain good friends.
Band drama can start externally as well, when circumstances force a change in a band member's ability to fulfill his mates' expectations of him. After Sonogasm broke up, I briefly joined Aaron's band Ekosphere as lead vocalist. Ekosphere had just lost their second female lead vocalist in a row, and the guys were hoping that eliminating the gender issue would lead to better chemistry. There was still drama brewing in that band that might have killed us eventually, or that we might have overcome, but we never got to find out. After a few months of developing the Ekosphere songs that survived the departure of their lyricist and introducing some of my songs that had worked well in Sonogasm, we were ready to gear up and hit the stage. Then, one of the other guys hit financial trouble, and I ran face-first into my 1L law exams. Neither of us could put our full attention on the band, and the project unraveled from there. A sad ending to a band that had, at one point, earned an opening slot in support of an international act (Tears for Fears).
In 1996, Scoobacca was in amazing shape. I played bass for three one-hour sets as the band entertained parties and keggers, looking for a more relaxed atmosphere than we had encountered at our few pub shows. We were college buddies who all loved music, and we were democratic enough that our cover portfolio had extensive input from all members. We even allowed members a plenary veto on any one song, to avoid dragging down our performances with tunes that, for whatever reason, one member hated to play. (My veto, in case you're curious, was Ugly Kid Joe's "I Hate Everything About You." That song is just plain not good.) We hit all the rock and metal subgenres and had something for everyone to enjoy.
Then, Scoobacca threw it all away. Our drummer, Squirmy, left to go be a photographer for Sports Illustrated (can't blame him) and we brought in a sketchy guy who had drumming skill but didn't work well with us personally. We kicked out our vocalist, Mikey, because we didn't think we could make it to the next level with him. In retrospect, this was an unrealistic expectation; Mikey's vocals were above average for a local party band, and he could have developed if we had been more patient. Our vocalist auditions were an agonizing ordeal of wannabes and washups and junkies, none of whom had as much character in total as Mikey had in his little finger. We languished for an entire summer without being able to perform. Band practice became a job, but we weren't getting paid. I quit, and though I didn't realize it, that would turn out to be the killing stroke because I owned most of the band's gear. We were so busy dreaming of fortune and glory that we traded our most solid assets for shit in a shiny wrapper. I am still friends with Johan, the guitarist, though we rarely get together because our lives went in different directions. I never hear from Mikey or Squirmy anymore.
Finally, earlier this year, two guys put together a band project called Flapperwax and found a guitarist and bassist through a Craigslist ad. The bassist, Aaron, worked out great with them, but the chemistry wasn't there with the guitarist, and the drama began. Long story short, they ended up auditioning me and replacing the guitarist with me on lead vocals and second guitar. (Their lead singer was a lead guitarist at heart, so he favored the transition.) My audition was a little rusty, but they liked the band chemistry with me there, and we had a discussion right away about the band's expectations of one another. We are all in our thirties, all working family men who have to prioritize accordingly, and this put us into a compatible state of mind right away. I feel bad for the guitarist who was booted -- I've been booted too, and it's no fun at all -- but band chemistry is just that important. Even though Aaron and I had other band projects floating around in the planning stages, such as a long-term study with Chuck and a movie-theme covers project with Jeff, we knew that joining Flapperwax gave us a rare realistic opportunity to get back on stage -- and stay there -- sometime in the foreseeable future. So far, things are going well. My material is blending decently with theirs, and practices are productive. Here's hoping.
Even without drama, it's difficult to get a band to go anywhere. Aaron and I comprise the all-acoustic "Bumpus Hounds," whose performance of April 2008 is recounted on this blog. It's great fun and Aaron and I have near-perfect chemistry (as is not hard to accomplish when two friends make up the entire band). The problem is that the Hounds have a very low ceiling. Most of the material out there is beyond our ability to perform with only two acoustic guitars and a singer. Though there are venues for acoustic small-band performances, most of them are dead ends and not much better than just jamming at the occasional party, park, or street corner. The desire is there and the chemistry is there, but the Bumpus Hounds aren't likely to go anywhere, because there's not very much they can actually do.
So there you have one man's "musical journey" teaching the resounding lesson that getting a viable project together is rare, and getting it to go anywhere is rarer still, even when there are talented and willing musicians who are interested and ready to go. It still isn't worth it to stay in a band that is infested with drama and isn't fun anymore, but a musician has to have the wisdom and perspective to know when a problem is worth being patient enough to fix, and the maturity to know how to diminish drama rather than catalyzing it. When a band has a hit, more than enough external drama arrives to test the limits of the members' endurance. There is a time limit on this sort of thing. I am 35. I only get to play at being a "rock and roll star" for so much longer -- after that, I will remain a musician, but the settings change to somewhat more staid and conventional opportunities. I intend for music to be a positive creative outlet, and that means the chemistry has to be there. Hopefully, in whatever creative hobby you pursue, you will enjoy that hobby's analogue of good chemistry and the rewards that follow.