Today was a good day.  I just found out that my story “Necrotopia”, which originally appeared in the anthology CHILDREN OF THE MOON, is going to be reprinted by Alban Lake in their November issue of Bloodbond.  From their website:

“Bloodbond publishes short stories, poems, art, and articles, reviews, and interviews, all related to vampires, werewolves, and shapeshifters. We are especially interested in stories that combine science fiction with these topics, and that take place on or in relation to other worlds.”

Talk about getting lucky with a market:  Necrotopia is in fact a sci-fi/horror mashup about werewolves… on Mars.

I mean, c’mon.

Anyway, this is enormously satisfying for a whole bunch of reasons, because Necrotopia is one of my own personal favorites.  It’s a very sad story in its own way, and a rare case where I can point to something specific as its inspiration (two somethings, in fact:  the lyrics of a Nelly Furtado song* and the anime series Wolf’s Rain).  Maybe because of that, I think its the first time I really succeeded in transferring what I was feeling at the time onto the page.

It also sketches out a world I plan to return to as the setting for a novel someday, so this is motivational, to say the least.

And finally, the story is a wonderful example of trusting your own instincts as a writer.  I wrote the first draft way back in 2008, and even though the writing wasn’t up to par yet, I was convinced the story itself worked somehow, though back then I couldn’t have said why.  I submitted that early version to a couple of markets, and got some encouraging personal rejections back.  The personal rejection is currency for beginning writers; all we are looking for is some glimmer of hope, so to be told by an editor – hey, this isn’t quite right for us, but try us again – that was a Big Damned Deal at the time (still is).

And then something happened:  with the best of intentions, I posted the story on a website where I could get more detailed feedback from People That Know What They Are Talking About.  And even though I wasn’t sure I agreed with what I heard, I did my best to follow what I was told, since these were folks with so much more experience than me.  The thing is, on one level I am sure they were right, in the sense that all feedback honestly given is right, as long as it accurately captures the reader’s authentic reaction.  The challenge is figuring out what to do with it, and back then, I felt compelled to follow the advice I was given more or less to the letter.

The result was disaster.  Necrotopia is, as mentioned above, about werewolves on Mars, which is maybe an odd choice, and certainly not a popular one among those early reviewers.  Fortunately I was wise enough to ignore some of the more, um, invasive suggestions (e.g., “lose the werewolves”, and “set it on Earth”).

But it’s also written first person present tense, which, I was told, is a Hard Point of View to Sell.  So I re-wrote it third person past tense, which was fatal, since the whole point was to be in the mind of the werewolf telling the story, and he is living in the moment the entire time.

Even worse was the re-working of the ending, which I won’t belabor – but believe me when I tell you, I made things worse.

So:  all that done, I took the new, “improved” version, submitted it to a couple of more markets, and was right back in the land of the dreaded Form Rejection.   Here’s an example (call me a masochist, but I keep ’em all):

"Dear Fellow Writer:

Thank you for allowing us to read your manuscript; 
unfortunately, we find that it does not meet our 
needs at the present time. We wish you the best of 
luck in placing it and apologize for having to respond
with a form letter but the large number of submissions 
received makes a personal response impractical.

Sincerely,
The Editors at XXXX MARKET"

At which point I went on one of my many writing hiatuses (hiatusi?), and didn’t touch it again for a couple of years.   When I finally got back in the saddle and dusted it off again?

I hated it.

And even though at that point I still hadn’t sold a single story, I was smart enough to say – hell, if I’m going to fail at this, I may as well fail with the story the way *I* want it.  So I put it back.  I threw away almost all the changes, went back to a first person, present-tense POV, edited the heck out of it (I had grown a bit as a writer along the way)… and promptly got rejected again.

And again.

But I stayed with it.  I kept editing, re-writing, tightening, and polishing,

And then, one day, it sold.  It wasn’t the first; in fact it was the fourth story of mine that ever saw the light of day.  But it will be the first to appear as a reprint, and I couldn’t be happier.

Not a bad way to end a three-day weekend, that’s for darn sure.

Now about that novel…

*For the curious, here are the relevant lyrics from All Good Things (Come to an End):

“Well the dogs were whistling a new tune
Barking at the new moon
Hoping it would come soon
So that they could die”

 

 

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By popular demand, a quick note on the rejection math statistic from last time.  Said slightly differently, tell me again why it is that it’s going to take Tor.com 132 years to buy my story?

Here’s the way the math works.  We start with the average response time for a rejection, which varies widely in the industry.  Some markets (Lightspeed) are very fast, and will happily reject your story in just a couple of days.  Others, less so.  Tor.com is an outlier, with an average response time of (according to Duotrope) 154 days for those stories they reject.

We then divide that number by the acceptance rate, which in the case of Tor.com is 0.32%.  This is the same as multiplying by one over the acceptance rate- that is, the reciprocal.  The reciprocal tells you have many times on average you will have to submit for each acceptance, which, in the case of Tor.com, is 1 / .0032 = 312.5.

So if it’s 154 days per rejection, and it requires 312 attempts per success, then 154 * 312 = just over 48000 days, or 132 years.

You can repeat this same math on any market for which you have the data (and I did, in the previous post, though you probably have to click on the image to read the numbers).  In some ways it’s a uselessly grim exercise, but it does serve to temper expectations if nothing else.  In practice, about the only thing I actually do with these kind of data are stay away from markets with absurdly long cycle times.  My  goal is to tighten the feedback loop, because first and foremost I am trying to get better as a writer, and it doesn’t do me much good when a story drops into a black hole for six months when I’d rather be working actively on it.

End of math lesson.  We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog…

I have been writing with varying degrees of seriousness of intent for the last ten years.  Much like grief (perhaps too much), writing for me comes in waves, and when one of those waves hits, I feel as though I have always been and will always be immersed in it.  And then, inevitably, it passes; life distracts, circumstances change, the muse falls silent for a time.

Still, I always seem to come back to it.  Over the course of the last decade, I’ve written about three hundred thousand words of fiction:  two 80,000 word novels that I still maintain are worthy ideas, but in which the writing is, um, not quite up to par, a novella (which I’m currently shopping), and fifteen or so short stories, six of which have seen the light of day (and some of which I still believe will).   And of course I’ve  taken writing courses, joined critique groups, gone to workshops and conventions, read books on writing, and so on and so forth.

Maybe none of that is much to show for ten years, but I’m proud that I haven’t given up.  And this time around – I don’t know.  Maybe it’s because I have less free time than ever, but somehow am writing more.  Perhaps it’s the arrival of my daughter that has crystallized my focus, or maybe it’s just that I’m getting older and am no longer so content to wait for somedays that won’t ever come if I don’t wrestle them into existence by sheer force of will.  Whatever the reason, I’m writing a lot these days (by my standards), and it feels different somehow.  Like I’m surfing the wave for once, instead of drowning in it.

But enough of all that.  The goal here is to, if not educate, then at least entertain, and to that end I shall take it upon myself to share what I’ve learned about writing thus far, in the fashion God intended.

With PowerPoint.

Enjoy.

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Talking points:
We begin with a standard 2×2 dimensionalization, with Writerly Skill on the X-axis and Writerly Fame on the Y-axis.  This yields four quadrants:  I) The Beginner, where we all start, since no one pens Hugo-award winning novels at the age of eight, II) The Marginally Competent, which is where your humble author believes he currently resides, III) The Wrongfully Successful, which is no one so stop worrying about it; successful writers get that way for a reason, and IV) Famous Authors.

The path by which one traverses the problem space is shown by the tan arrows.  There are two key thresholds along the way:  1) The Threshold of Competence, at which point it is reasonable to hope you might get something published, and 2) The Threshold of Making a Living At It, which I’ve heard exists but know nothing about.  I should like to point out, however, that it is possible to be spectacularly successful by all objective standards, to publish multiple novels, win awards, gain fame and recognition, and all of those things, without in fact ever quitting one’s day job.  I find this simultaneously depressing and incredibly hopeful.

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Talking points:
Here are ten pro Science Fiction short story markets, chosen from a search on www.duotrope.com (a fantastic resource I whole-heartedly recommend signing up for.  They do charge now, but that seems eminently fair to me for the value delivered).  Duotrope lists the acceptance rates and response times; what I have done is to derive from that basic information an expected rate at which stories can be sold to those markets on average, and what that translates to in dollar terms to the author.

The numbers speak for themselves:  if your story is of average quality (more on that in a minute), and you start submitting right now, and keep submitting ever time you get a rejection back, Tor.com can be expected to buy something from you right around the year 2145.

Along the way, you will have made approximately enough money to pay for your coffee habit.

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Talking points:
Same analysis as above, repeated on five semi-pro markets chosen at random.  The point is this:  moving from, say, eight cents a word down to two cents a word is no panacea.  Every publisher wants the awesome, as well they should.  Which brings us to:

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Talking points:
The one saving grace in all of this is that there really is no such thing as the average story.  Having read a fair bit of slush in my day, I can tell you that really good stories do in fact stand out.  Call me a pollyanna, but I believe the marketplace is reasonably efficient when it comes to identifying truly awesome stories.  If you write them, they will find the light of day eventually.

On the subject of fame:  think of it like a tie-breaking vote, and then stop thinking about it altogether.  I do believe the presence of a recognized name can make a story seem better than it is (to an editor or a reader), but I also think those recognized names on balance spend their days writing stories way to the right of the all important Threshold of Publishability.

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Talking points:
This is my process.  Yours may vary.  The main thing:  don’t labor in a vacuum, whatever you do.  It takes honest, professional feedback to get better – and the ability to hear it.  The best advice I can give is this:  the critiquer, as long as they are being honest (and not, say, being mean or making personal attacks out of pettiness or jealousy or something equally awful, which can happen) is always right.  Meaning, it is their job to give you their impressions, and your job to figure out what to do about them.  You don’t have to agree with their root cause analysis or suggestions, but if they react negatively to some part of your story, ignore that fact at your own peril.

That’s it:  my eight slides are up.  Honestly, I have no sweeping conclusions beyond what I’ve already said.  Writing is hard.  The process is hard.  Getting better is hard.

But it’s also just about my favorite thing in the world.

 

 

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The Story that Started it All

In the process of posting links to my stories last week, I realized that one was missing:  the very first story I ever sold, a flash piece for which I received a payment of $5.42 from an online magazine that no longer exists.  The venue was called Everyday Weirdness, and the piece was titled “Grand Opening”.  

So look:  I think its best if I exercise some combination of discretion and compassion here, and spare everyone from a detailed analysis of the long, tortuous journey that has been my ten-year effort to become more consistent as a writer.  Mostly because I doubt I have anything useful to add to the canon.  Writing is like every other form of kung fu (literal translation:  skilled person, and hard work) – if you want to write, write.  If you want to learn to play the piano, play the piano (including doing your scales, alas).  If you want to learn martial arts, train.  The trick is consistency – and with something as hard as writing, it can be quite a trick indeed.

Anyway, I found the story lurking in the depths of my hard-drive.  Near as I can tell, since I only sold the nonexclusive web publication rights for my cost-of-a-latte several years ago, there’s nothing preventing me from posting it here.  

Full confession:  I always kinda liked this one.  It came out of a homework assignment from an online science fiction writing course I took through Gotham Writers Workshop (quick shout-out to my teacher, Michaela Roessner, who is all kinds of awesome.)  The task was to write weird, giving yourself permission to just kind of let go, which was just super fun for me.

Even better, the story is about a squid.  And that’s *always* fun.

Enjoy.

 

Grand Opening

by Paul A. Dixon

 

The Rorschach squid!  We saw the Rorschach squid!  Oh, we saw it we saw it unquestionably we saw it and it was everything we thought it would be.

It’s what you’ll say tomorrow, my pretties.  When the show closes and you’re admiring your new paintings and my toxins are licking your minds.

The Rorschach squid!  Come and see the Rorschach squid!  Come tap on the glass and watch it swim circles and paint what you think you believe.

Those patterns, so complexly abstract!  So alien and what can they mean?  Black swirls on canvas in ink. Is it your childhood?  Just what are you seeing? 

It’s just art, my pretties.  Just a few harmless secretions, a pixel here, a pixel there, a little free-tentacle work for your viewing and purchasing pleasure.

Well of course you can buy the original to take home.  How could I deprive you of your very own portrait of poor little Rocko?  Such a cute Corgii pup.  If only the allergies hadn’t forced your folks to give him away.

And you – yes, you. By all means, keep my humble still-life of the daffodil and tulip bouquet you picked for your mother twenty years ago on the first of May.  If you like, you can also buy my little sketch of that Pashtun tribesman’s skull, after you put that M-60 round into the back of it.

And your ex-girlfriend – you can have her too.  I know you see her in there.  Yes, you know the time I mean.

Buy them!  Buy them all; take them home!  Did I not paint these things for you?

Oh.  Right.  There is one thing I should tell you.  It turns out I’m not just some new species of cuttlefish.  Not some blood-crimson Sepiid the size of a pizza pan your scientists found hanging about a couple kilometers under the surface of the North Pacific, one rainy Tuesday afternoon. 

Because actually?  They didn’t find me at all – I found them.  I had to; I’m not exactly from around here, you know?  Even if my ocean does resemble your own, except as seen from a couple thousand of light years away.

Well so what if I wanted to come?  So what if I swam into your clever oceanographers’ sneaky little pressure trap and waited patiently until I was acclimated to one of your Earth atmospheres?  Maybe I wanted to turn laps in a public aquarium, to secrete your thoughts while you eat waffle cones and listen to the seagulls and stare uncomprehending at this bizarre cephalopod on display.

If I didn’t, do you really think I’d be here? 

And there’s something else you should know.  The secret’s not in my patterns.  Not the swirls and whorls and blotches.  Oh no – it’s not those at all.

Lean in close tomorrow when you buy your very own Rorschach original.  And take a good long whiff. 

Then shuffle on home till I have need for you.  I’ll let you know when it’s time.

The secret’s not in my patterns, my pretties.

It’s in my ink.

Nostalgia
My two least favorite words in the English language are “used to”.  As in:  I used to study Kajukenbo.  I used to live in San Diego.  I used to be an oceanographer.
And someday when I’m older?  I used to run.  I live in particular denial about that one, plantar fasciitis and Achilles tendonitis and all my other rhyming ailments notwithstanding (is bursitis next?  Psoriasis?  Bad trend!)  None of those are enough to make me ready to admit to any piece of that particular reality.

40th bday

The author at 40. Denial – it’s not just a river in Africa!

And what is this thing we call nostalgia, anyway?  If Chi is the energy of our lives, why are we predisposed to notice its absence more than its presence?  Why is it so difficult to simply be where and when we are?

There are scientific arguments to be made, of course; evolutionary biologists and neuroscientists have a great deal to say on the subject.  Selective memory is a powerful tool.  I mean, full apologies for speaking outside my own direct experience, but how would anyone get pregnant a second time if they had full memory of what it was like to give birth the first time around?  Damn, but that looked hard.  Just sayin’.

And speaking of useful abilities – so is the trick of envisioning a future and working towards it.  The one thing, the argument goes, that separates us from all other (best David Attenborough voice) Life on Earth.

Me?  Yeah, I believe that stuff.  I believe we are all of us on some level simple persistence hunters.  That we are all still chasing after the giraffe – which requires us to remember that there was in fact a giraffe once, even though it has long since disappeared from our view.

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There is the slight issue of what to do once we catch it…

But I have no use for used to.  And why should I?  If nothing else, am I not still the person that used to do those things?

Chi and ghosts.  The absence of energy and intention; the missing voices of departed friends.

Well.  My blog; my exorcism.  Come along, and I’ll tell you a story about two haunted places, where the Chi of my own life used to flow.

They’re far apart geographically, and separated by vastly different amounts of time.

But psychically, they feel equally distant from where I am now.

The Kwoon
I last set foot in my Kung Fu school in January.   A pair of visiting instructors from a sister school in California were in town for the weekend, teaching workshops on sparring and falling.  My own teacher’s teacher was also there, someone I always had a great deal of respect for.  And not just because of her skill, but because I related to how much of a priority she placed on making the training as real as it could be.  This is an aside, but thing is, in martial arts, there is a substantial gap between what you can do in training, and what you are actually training for.  It is awfully important to stay vigilant about those differences, because it is all too easy to slip across the line between doing real work, and fooling yourself into thinking you are learning something useful when what you’re actually doing is practicing to get killed (this gets particularly true as soon as someone picks up a rubber knife, by the way.)  But when this woman led workshops, you came out the other side thoroughly workshopped.  I would describe her as inventively old-school in her approach – the highest praise I possess.

Anyway:  I went, had a blast, and at the end, my Sifu promoted me to second degree black belt.  No test, just ceremony; this is sort of how it goes as you age in the art.  Everyone knows you know how to suffer, and nobody particularly wants to watch you hash your joints for another four or five hours, so the promotion process becomes more of an acknowledgement of the work put in than anything else.

As it turned out, that Saturday was the last day I ever trained.

The last time, in fact, I set foot in the school.

Understand – the break was at least in part planned; Isa was on her way, and I don’t like doing things by halves.

But time is going by so fast.

I can still close my eyes, though, and visualize everything about that space.  How could I not?  I practically lived there for ten years.  I know the smell of it.  The feel of it.  The creaking of the springs under the floor, the whirring of the fans. The thick heat of the place in the dead of summer; the cold of the floor in winter before the body warms.  I’ve been dropped on those floors more times than I can count.  I’ve worn blindfolds, and tried to block punches from unseen attackers; I’ve done forms with my eyes squeezed tight, to see if I could hold my balance with no visual anchors.  I know everything about how the light comes through the windows, how to tell direction when I could not see.

I fell in love there, with the woman who would become the mother of my child.

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Seven months. It feels like yesterday; it feels a very, very long time ago.

The school is a mile from my house.  I drive by it all the time – it’s literally on my way home from the grocery store.

But I don’t go in.

Oh, I will someday soon – my Sifu is there, and I have friends there still, and I’d like them to meet my daughter if nothing else.

It’s not easy to think about, though.  That place, where I poured so much of my own energy for so long – no.

Not easy at all.

San Diego
September, 1994:  my dad and I pack a few random items of  furniture, my clothes, scuba gear, and computer into the smallest trailer U-Haul has on offer, hitch it to my pickup truck, and begin the twelve hundred mile drive to San Diego, by way of Eugene where we stop for a run, and Anaheim – where we stop to visit Disneyland (a nostalgia trip all its own, but a story for a different time).

I am single, 21 years old, leaving my hometown for the first time.  I have a few thousand dollars in the bank, my truck, and a three year fellowship which pays me sixteen thousand dollars a year.  My first few months I will rent an apartment in Pacific Beach for $500 a month.  It’s one block off the main strip with all the bars; my bedroom window opens onto the alley that kids throw up in at three o’clock in the morning.

I am rich beyond compare.

All doors are open.  The chance to study, to really learn.  To make new friends and find romance.  Hell, I can learn to surf if I want to (Spoiler alert:  that didn’t work out.  Long story.  Actually a short one.  Surfing is hard.  Start young.)

Seven years later, I would make the same drive north, hammering up I-5, stopping only in the Bay Area to crash with some friends for the night.  The truck was the same, but everything else had changed.  I had my PhD, a contract job at Microsoft waiting, and a room in my sister’s basement to stay in.

I was also married (for the first time, as it turned out), though my wife stayed behind on that first trek north, to spend the next three weeks winding down her job, and preparing to move with me to the town we’d both at separate times called home.

That was twelve years ago.

I’ve been back to San Diego a handful of times since, mostly to attend ComicCon.  The last of those trips was about ten years ago – roughly the same time I started to learn Kung Fu.

San Diego is full of the absence of chi.

The last couple of years I visited, I developed a new ritual.  This was during my brief but glorious triathlon career (yet another thing I used to do).  One day of the trip, I would make my way to a bike rental shop downtown, near the convention center.  The so-called road bikes they had on offer were for crap, though the woman that worked the shop had interesting stories to tell about having once ridden with George Hincapie – part of Lance Armstrong’s crew, back before “bag of blood” wasn’t just a term that showed up in HBO originals starring Sookie Stackhouse.  Anyway, my ritual was this:  I’d ride the bike the ten or so miles to La Jolla, make my way down to the cove, swim maybe a mile and a half in the open ocean, get out, drink as much water as I could hold, run up Mt. Soledad and back (five miles of what by then was the heat of mid-morning, and a grueling climb to boot), and then slowly bike back to the shop.

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Triathlon glory days! Alas, more bad hair (yes, that’s a mohawk. Moving right along…)

The whole thing would take three, maybe four hours, and leave me sun-drenched, soaked in sweat, dehydrated to the point of dessication, and deliriously happy.  Why?

It wasn’t just the endorphins talking.  It was a way of making the time in San Diego, San Diego itself, relevant to my current life.

It was a way to restore, even briefly, the flow of chi.

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La Jolla Cove – not a bad place to start an open-water swim.

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The view from Mt. Soledad. See that pier way off in the distance? When I was in graduate school, my office was in a building at its base, complete with 180 degree view of the ocean. Beat the cubicle farm all to hell, that’s for darned sure.

Sundogs and Shadowcats
A last thought.

Molly, Isa and I went to a birthday party on Vashon Island last weekend.  A pig roast, in fact, which brought back memories of its own.  I’ve been to three different pig roasts in my life, always on islands:  Catalina, Hawaii, and now Vashon.  (Which is weird, come to think of it; the invisible hand of James Cook, perhaps?)

It was an absolutely fantastic event, as measured by my newly found barometer of party greatness:  how much fun the kids were obviously having.  I’m not sure how many there were, to be honest – just this sort of steady stream of 7 to 12 year olds, like I’d blundered into a William Golding novel, occasionally charging through the crowds of adults – while carrying spears (not making this up).  Or retreating to their tents to plan orders of battle (not making that up, either), or appearing in twos and threes, dripping wet, soaked to the bone but refusing all adult comforts, from having won or lost this or that water fight staged on the highly prized turf surrounding the above-ground swimming pool.

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The Endeavor – Cook’s ship. He introduced the domesticated European pig to the Hawaiians (though the Polynesians had imported pigs all over the place hundreds of years before). Cook also died there – though I’m pretty sure that didn’t have anything to do with the pigs…

Many of the kids were locals, though not all – but those that were, one of the adults said in me, were thick as thieves.  There were two groups, the Sundogs and the Shadowcats (or perhaps the adults were the Sundogs?  I was unclear on this point).  One girl in particular was known as the keeper of the Shadowcat lore, responsible for meticulously tracking each member of the group’s superpowers.  Apparently, every Fourth of July, the Sundogs and Shadowcats meet on the field of battle.  I shudder to imagine what those events are like; the last thing our pig roast needed was class-C fireworks tossed into the mix.  (I kid, of course.  Every pig roast is better with fireworks).

I can’t stop thinking about those kids.  I imagine them two or three decades from now.  I see them returning to that place, where the absence of Chi will hit them so hard they’ll barely be able to stand.

But honestly?  Who the hell cares.  Watching them play, I was ready to sell the house and move to the country tomorrow, just so Isa has room to run.  I want nothing more than for her to find her own Sundogs and Shadowcats someday.

Lord knows I still miss mine.

Training
I spent ten uninterrupted years studying Kajukenbo.  When I started at the age of thirty, I was so achingly bad at it I would routinely lose myself in giggling fits whenever my Sifu tried to teach me a new technique.  She would demonstrate the proper way to, say, chamber a side thrust kick, which felt so absurdly impossible in my own body that all I could do was shake my head in disbelief, and try not to laugh.  The thought that anyone could balance on one foot while holding their leg at such an angle just seemed silly (knee drawn across chest, shin parallel to floor, standing foot pointed away from the target, kicking foot cocked to present the outside edge, then drive the leg out like a piston, with the power coming from the hip and core, not the knee – hey, you try it!)

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I never did get it quite right, but a side thrust kick looks sort of like this (I’m the guy on the left).

I was a decent enough athlete – tall, still young, fast and strong; I’d played basketball and lifted weights and run for years.  I was also inflexible as hell (still am), and was very much a big person learning a small person’s art.  The story of Kajukenbo begins in post World War II Honolulu, where a group of black belts in traditional styles (Kung Fu, Karate, Judo, Ju Jitsu, etc.) began training together, in an effort to create the ultimate street fighting system.  It was a tough town, a tough time.  The black belt society, as they called themselves, had what was then a novel idea in the highly rigid world of martial arts:  keep only those techniques from each of their disciplines that actually worked, and throw away the rest.  Their testing ground was, in fact, the street – with occasionally tragic results, as when the founder’s brother was killed by a man with a knife (the result of which was, among other things, the inclusion of more soft blocks into the art).

History lesson aside, my point is while the founders of the art were decidedly serious about their business, what they weren’t, was tall.  I hadn’t really lived until I tried landing a roundhouse kick to the groin in mid-air, while at the same time throwing myself onto the ground.

At my height, the ground is, like, far.

Maybe I wasn’t built for it, but I always loved the art.  From the first day I knew I’d stick with it – forever, I thought, or at least as long as my body held out.  I never could do anything all that visually impressive, but the beauty of Kajukenbo is it is a highly adaptable system, with a certain brutal efficiency in its core.  There’s something there for everyone, even six foot two inch former basketball players with tight hamstrings and permanently busted toes.  The diving roundhouse kick I mentioned above is a distant memory; I gave up on it years ago.  There are, for my body, better ways to achieve the same objective.

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Can’t kick the head? No problem. Start with the knee, and bring the head to you. (My left foot is in a really bad spot here, though – I’m up on my toe, and just begging to be tripped by the guy on the ground)

In fact I did stick with it.  Eventually I earned a second degree black belt, and in an effort to keep our community together after my Sifu semi-retired, teamed up with three other advanced students to form our own school.  We called it Ten Thousand Hours Kung Fu, a name that reflected my belief in the importance of simply putting in the time, which to this day is the only real training advice I have to offer:  just show up, and then keep showing up.  I took on the role of head instructor, and the four of us ran the program for a year, before various life events (jobs, children, etc.) conspired to make it impossible to continue.  Adult martial arts programs are exercises in devotion, not money-making enterprises; above all else they require time, and by the end of last year I was running out of time to give.

So we closed the program, I quit training, and I’m now seven months removed from the art.  To tell the truth, my mind and spirit miss it more than my body does.  Ten years spent jumping around (often barefoot) on hardwood floors took its toll, and I still have dreams of running another marathon, and climbing Mt. Rainier with my daughter someday, when she’s old enough.  I can only beat the hell out of my body in good conscience for so much longer.

But I do miss it.  I miss feeling the art in my body, right beneath the surface when I walk around, like a living thing inside me, an animating force innervating my limbs.  When I was at the peak of my training it was as if there was a bubble around me, a critical distance line of awareness, and if someone crossed into it, I knew everything about their body and their intention – where their knees were, their third point, if they were moving toward me in a manner inconsistent with passing a stranger on the street, all of it.

The art is still there, but buried a little, now.  It lies dormant, sleeping, waiting for its time to be awakened again.

But whether or not that time will ever come, I truly do not know.

Self Defense
I have for all intents and purposes never gotten into a fight in my life.  A kid shoved me down in elementary school once, and another kid punched me in the eighth grade, but both times I was too stunned to react, so it never escalated.  I don’t think either incident counts.

In fact I’d like to consider myself a bit of a pacifist.  I’d like to believe that there is essentially nothing beyond the imminent threat of physical harm to myself or a loved one that could provoke me into a physical confrontation.  What could anyone possibly say to me in a bar, that would make me risk legal trouble and injury?  And if a man with a knife demanded my wallet, hey – I’d give it to him.  And so should you.  Despite what you see in the movies, I am not at all optimistic about my or anyone else’s chances of disarming a determined assailant without getting seriously hurt, and maybe killed.

Does that mean all that training was wasted effort?  Anything but.  I use my self defense skills all the time.  Situational awareness, projecting confidence, not walking like a victim, making eye contact, verbal strategies – these are the everyday tools that martial arts training provides, the things that comprise 99% of taking care of yourself “out there”.  Knowing when to cross the street is self defense.  So is learning never to apologize when someone asks you for money or anything else you don’t want to give.  (Pro tip:  the “broken record” defense is a world-beater.  Next time you are asked for spare change, or a light, or if you want to hear a joke, or what the heck ever, simply say “I can’t help you.”  And keep on saying it, no matter how your assailant changes their tactics.  If you don’t alter your response, and you don’t apologize, there’s nothing for them to grab onto – no conversational hook to build on, and no weakness to seize upon.  Seriously – give it a try.  I.  Can’t.  Help.  You.  Practice on your friends.  You might be surprised how often you catch yourself saying “I’m sorry”.  We are all – men and women – much more heavily socialized than we care to admit.)

But there is a deeper truth here as well.  At the core, compassion.  I wanted to learn how to fight so I could make a powerful choice not to.  I wanted to be able to walk away from a position of strength, not weakness.  I wanted to know how to take care of myself, because in all of life, you have to do that first, before you can help anyone else.  And if I got even a little bit of that for the time I put in, it was more than fair.

Belt Tests
In our school, the belt progression went as follows:  white (given when you walk through the door the first time), orange, purple, blue, green, brown, black, and then degrees of black.  There are ten of those in theory, but it’s sort of one of those deals where only one person at a time has a tenth degree, and he (it’s always a he, thus far and for the forseeable future near as I can tell) becomes the sort of grand poobah of the whole system.  My teacher, incidentally, has a fifth degree black belt, and believe you me, that’s plenty.  She is the real deal, as martial artists go.

Anyway, all told, if you trained consistently it took seven or eight years to reach first degree black belt – slow by the standards of many systems, where belt tests are paid events, a way for the school to make money, and given at an accelerated pace in keeping with the inflationary style of the times.  As you can probably guess, I always liked that it took that long in our school.  And I appreciated the tests themselves, which were grueling affairs, particularly from green belt on.  A typical black belt test in our school lasted at least four hours.  Exhaustion, the thinking went, was a useful proxy for fear.  Get the body sufficiently tired and the conscious mind fades away, and when you can’t think anymore, whatever technique remains is what you truly know – and what will be there, should push come to shove and the adrenalin dump hit.

I was sick for my own black belt test.  It wasn’t uncommon – we all tended to over-train, and I was no exception.  For some reason I never managed to port the runner’s discipline of pre-race tapering into belt test preparation, and I woke up the day before what would be my last test with a sore throat and a bit of a cough.  I knew I was in trouble; I was also nursing a groin pull, and my plan (I actually discussed with my Sifu) was just to go all-out for the first hour of the test, and see whether it either loosened up and I could perform the way I wanted to, or I completely destroyed it, in which case I was looking at months of rehab, but at least no ambiguity about whether I could train or not.

It’s actively embarrassing typing those last couple of sentences; it seems such a ridiculous way to approach things now.  And this was only four years ago!  With age, wisdom, or perhaps repetitive injury is the mother of intervention.  In any case, when the day came I got up, pounded four Advil, ate a couple of caffeinated Gu chomps, headed off to school, spent about fifteen minutes trying to warm up on a heavy bag, broke out in a cold sweat, and realized I was screwed.

Oh, I got through the test, but it wasn’t pretty.  My hips seized up so badly (dehydration, I think) that my Sifu took pity on me somewhere in hour three, and let me show just the hand techniques for some of my forms, because I could no longer hold any kind of stance at all.  But I never stopped fighting, and I’m proud of that.

All of our tests ended the same way:  with questions (well, occasionally with injury, but truly only very rarely and it was almost always a fluke.  I did break an eardrum during my green belt test, but that’s a story for another post).

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My green belt test, an hour before I broke my eardrum (again). I still have all my energy, and am apparently trying to flat murder that focus pad.

Some of the questions were personal:  Why do you train?  What are your goals and plans from here?  Then there were the things we were rightly expected to know about the history of our art – who founded it, where and when and why; what the component styles were, where in the discipline representative techniques of each could be found, and so on.

There was also, beginning at orange belt, the recitation of the significance of the elements of the Kajukenbo banner.  I won’t go over it all here – though I did, many times, dripping with sweat, legs shaking in a horse stance at the end of three plus hours of suffering.

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The Kajukenbo seal. Each element has a specific meaning; for example, the yin/yang symbol represents the soft and hard elements of the style.

And then there were the interesting questions.  The ones that made you really think.  I would always pay special attention to what other people were asked during their tests, and imagine how I would respond if it were me.  At some point early in my training, Sifu asked another student – what is chi?  (It was in the context of the banner, as the red circle inside the yellow octagon symbolizes the continuous flow of chi.)

So I came up with this really snappy answer, and in all my subsequent tests hoped she would ask me the same question.  Now maybe you can sympathize with this.  Maybe you too have visualized that moment where you will utter something profound, and eyebrows will furrow, and a collective hush will settle over the audience while everyone thinks about what you just said, as a new idea occurs to them.  (Come to think of it, maybe you can’t.  This might be symptomatic of some deep egomania or narcissism, something endemic to writers perhaps, all of whom are cursed with this deep-seated belief that we have something to say that is worth listening to.  This is getting awkward – let’s just move on.)

Anyway.  “Chi,” I was going to say, “is a metaphor for intention.”

I’ve kind of forgotten what I meant by that.  I am vastly more physicist than meta-physicist, and I think I was trying to thread the needle between the fact that no, there aren’t actually mystical energy fields that advanced martial artists control but that science can’t explain (though after watching the Shaolin monks perform, one does start to wonder), while at the same time, the concept exists for a reason – there is some phenomenon there, that many cultures have been trying to describe for a very long time.

In any event, I never did get asked that question.  But I also never stopped thinking about it, and now I have a new answer.

Chi is the energy of your life.  And one of the great tragedies of life is that all too often, we are more aware of its absence than its presence.

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Black belt at last. Old times; simpler times; vastly more complicated times in their own way. Also, less hair.

More on that next time.

Netflix is conducting an experiment on us.  In fact they are conducting many experiments, all the time – and so is Amazon, and Google, and Walmart, and everyone else trying to optimize the presentation of information, market to you, or sell you something.  In the language of the business these are called “A/B”, or “split” tests.  The concept is simple:  create multiple treatments (different ad copy, search results listed in a different order, etc.), show different treatments to different users, and see which treatments get clicked on the most.  The practice is now sufficiently pervasive that if you have a rudimentary understanding of, say, algebra, and are sort of vaguely aware that there is this thing called the internet, you too can call yourself a data scientist and do it for a living.

Hey, it’s a growth industry.

But I think Netflix, with their live streaming service, is unwittingly conducting a more subtle experiment as well.  Between the stunning lack of A-list titles in their inventory, and a search engine so primitive that its results oscillate between the nonsensical and the downright bizarre, Netflix challenges us to dig deeper.  To watch movies we would not otherwise consider.  To revisit old classics, long forgotten.

To dig into our own pasts, and see whether our memories stand the test of time.

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Gaze at the modern-day Rorschach test. Look upon the pastiche of also-rans, big-budget flops, straight-to-DVD action thrillers, 60s TV comedies, and docudramas. What patterns do you see, when the images flicker before your eyes? A pretty butterfly? Or something a little more… sinister?

Regular readers (little joke there) will know that I have a young daughter, and also work at a marketing technology job of my own, which is why I know stuff like this.  Both of these experiences are such that my down times, on those rare occasions they occur, tend to be all the way down.  When I surf over to Netflix, I do so in a sleep-deprived, borderline vegetative state, a time of maximum impressionability.

I am thus a perfect candidate for Netflix’s subtle psychological manipulation.  So won’t you come with me now, on a little journey of the imagination?  And let us see together the results of this strange experiment, and what we have learned.

Relationship Sabotage
Full disclosure:  I don’t actually have a Netflix account – but Molly does.  My wife, however, watches even less television than I do; perhaps less than anyone I have ever known.  In fact, between us we don’t even own a TV.  A laptop is more than adequate for our purposes.

It should also be noted that Molly is not, shall we say, an enormous fan of science fiction and fantasy TV shows.

I bring this up because I am now responsible for fully 99% of the titles that have been watched with what has become our de facto joint Netflix account.  At some point, the bill is going to come due:  she is going to log in, have a gander at the “Top 10 for Molly” results, and be left with some serious questions about the man she so recently not only married, but chose to start a family with.

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Ironically, I have zero interest in any of those four shows (though I appreciate the chronological ordering).

Someone very wise once said the key to a successful marriage is separate bathrooms.  It may be that “Separate Netflix Accounts” should be added to the list.

Stay tuned.

Search Engine Madness
If you are even a casual follower of technology, you are probably aware that Microsoft loses a staggering amount of money each quarter with its online services group, which includes its Bing search engine.  So much so that Steve Ballmer has recently announced a re-org that, among other things, will hide the actual number from Wall Street in the future, by combining the group with other parts of the company that still function as a monopoly make money.

All those billions have, however, achieved a couple of things.  First, Microsoft has managed to hold Google to a 70% market share.  If Bing didn’t exist, it would probably be more like 95%.  And second, they’ve actually built a legitimate search technology, the kind of thing I, we, all of us tend to take for granted – right up until it isn’t there.

Here’s a fun thing to try:  type “Terminator” into the Netflix search bar.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.

It turns out (no surprise) that Netflix doesn’t have the original 1984 Schwarzenegger classic – though they do have the sequel, a fine movie in its own right.  It’s even at the top of the result set.

But after that, things start to get interesting.  Here is the full list of Netflix’s search results, in all its glory:

  • Terminator 2:  Judgment Day.   No argument there.
  • The Terminators.  Seemingly a straight-to-DVD cyborg movie from 2009, perhaps filmed to trick the gullible into thinking it was also a part of the franchise (right down to the title font).  Alas.
  • Terminal Force.  1995; Brigitte Nielsen.  I don’t know what else to say here.
  • Quarantine 2:  Terminal.  Or here, honestly.

Now the fun really starts:

  • Breaking Bad
  • A Little Bit of Heaven
  • The Rainmaker
  • Last Holiday

What do these four movies have in common?  A main character who is – wait for it – terminally ill.

Up next?

  • Death Race 2.  Included, presumably, because the action takes place on “Terminal Island”.

And my favorite result:

  • Wings.  Yes, that Wings, the early 90s sit-com set in a small-town airport… terminal.

The lesson, of course, is that in the world of search, literal string-matching will only get you so far.  Actually it will take you quite a ways indeed – just not necessarily where you wanted to go.

On the other hand, I haven’t thought about the show “Wings” in years, and though I didn’t watch it, I still can’t help but feel like maybe Netflix won this round.  I mean, it was kinda good… maybe I should check it out sometime…

Dammit!

Science Fiction in TV and Movies, in Five Paragraphs or Less
In fairness, Netflix does have the three greatest science fiction television shows ever made available for streaming:  Star Trek (the original), Battlestar Galactica (the remake), and Firefly.  Less good, Netflix only bats one for three on the best science fiction movies.  Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan is available, but the original Terminator is missing, along with that other James Cameron classic, Aliens.

Your top-three lists may of course be different, but the point is that my time combing the Netflix archives for something worth watching did get me thinking. There is a trend here, which is that while science fiction and fantasy movies have basically gone to hell in a breadbasket,  the television shows keep getting better (the Star Trek franchise itself sadly excepted).  I believe these trends owe almost entirely to the advances in CGI over the last twenty years (well, that and the proliferation of cable channels).

See, in the case of the big screen, special effects have essentially killed the storytelling, and the resulting movies have devolved into a never-ending series of interminable explosion-filled snooze-fests that keep Michael Bay and Will Smith gainfully employed, and me out of the theaters entirely.  The exact transition, the moment where CGI stopped helping and started hurting, happened sometime between 1993, the year Jurassic Park took our breaths away with Actual Real-Looking Dinosaurs (but still with real story attached), and 1998, when the Godzilla remake failed to accomplish anything more than putting a giant-ass lizard on the screen and having it stomp on stuff.  Also in that window of time?  Independence Day (1996), and Starship Troopers (1997).  By 1999, we were into Phantom Menace territory, and the rest is, tragically, history.

The thing is, science fiction has never translated particularly well to film (see the Kyle MacLachlan 1984 Dune – or rather, listen to it, and the raw amount of voiceover it took to explain what the hell was going on to a dumbfounded audience).  Science fiction is about ideas and hypotheticals, the social consequences of extrapolated technological trends, heady stuff like that.  You very often need more than a couple of hours to get it right, which is why I think it isn’t a coincidence that just as CGI began rendering the summer blockbuster unwatchable for anyone over the age of 13, we  began to see genre TV shows that respect their audience’s intelligence and deign to tell an actual story.  In other words, the Star Trek: TNG debacle (a series that existed only to teach us the bitterness of sequel disappointment early, such that the Phantom Menace would hurt a little less) – is recoverable.  Even better, this is true of speculative fiction broadly:  from True Blood to Game of Thrones, there is, dare I say, A New Hope.  In this, at least, I choose to remain optimistic.

The Greatest Writing Challenge of All Time
Writers are sometimes challenged to work from a prompt.  A prompt can be anything – an opening line that must be followed, a picture that will serve as the inspiration of the story, whatever you like.  For example, my writer’s group once ran a challenge where the opening line of the story had to be “He had the dragon’s eyes.”  (I may post my offering here someday.)  Genre magazines do this all the time, as do writing contests.  You get the idea.

The Dukes of Hazzard is not, in fact, the greatest television show ever – we’re still coming to that.   But it has to go down as one of the greatest script-writing achievements in television history, because seemingly every episode is built from the Same.  Exact.  Prompt.  Namely: jump a 1969 Dodge Charger over something.  Seriously.  Inevitably, the climax of the story – or at the very least, a key turning point – involves the Duke boys jumping the General Lee over a ravine, a ditch, a police car, an onrushing train, Daisy Duke, whatever.  Something.

Can you imagine what that assignment must have felt like, for the folks that wrote the show?  Whatever you do, guys, just get that car up into the air.

And then do it again.  And again.  A hundred and thirty two times in all, over seven years.

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As you can probably guess from the roll, pitch, yaw, the General didn’t always exactly stick the landing!  By the way, Lee 1, the first of many General Lees, and the first to take flight in the pilot episode (no pun intended), sold for $121,000 at the world-famous Barret-Jackson automotive auction in 2012.  Apparently the sellers were disappointed not to fetch a higher price.

Now listen – am I guilty of hyperbole here?  Probably.  Maybe you can find an episode where the General Lee stayed on the road the whole time.  I can’t, though.  How could I?  Netflix doesn’t even have the show!  And they still got me thinking about it with their selection of titles.

I’m telling you.  These guys are subtle.

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Tragedy! Watch Knight Rider or the A-Team instead of the Dukes of Hazzard? Puh-lease.

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Thank God for Amazon Prime! $1.99 per episode? IN.

The Greatest Television Show of All Time
I don’t know when I became aware of The Rockford Files.  It debuted when I was a year old, and was off the air by the time I was seven.  My family watched almost no television, outside of the original Star Trek and, oddly, The Love Boat (see below).

And yet, by the time I was a sophomore in college, I was more or less planning my fall quarter classes around the 10-11 AM time slot where the show was being re-run.  I wasn’t the only one – my roommates and I held viewing parties.

Still, years had passed since I’d seen it last.  And then, just the other day, there it was on Netflix, awaiting me in all its glory.

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Truth?  I was nervous when I clicked the link the first time.  The show is going to turn forty next year, which is making me feel old, to say the least.  And sometimes these things really are best left in the past.  Sometimes we should just stay out of the dusty attic of memory, Netflix’s subtle psychological manipulations be damned.

But not this time.

The guitar riff began – deee nuu, nu-na-nu, nu-na-nu-nu-nu-nu-nuuu – and I relaxed immediately.  Forty-two minutes of pure awesomeness was heading my way.

What makes the show so great?  Besides everything, I mean?  For me, it’s just the perfect union of a fun character portrayed but a charismatic actor who looks like he is having a blast, with just complex enough storytelling to keep the reader viewer guessing a little.

Look, if you know, you know, and you don’t need me to tell you.  And if you don’t, the best I can say is go watch.  But here are eighteen quick reasons to get you started:

  1. James Rockford:  wrongly imprisoned for five years, then pardoned by the governor of California.  And yet, he doesn’t keep the pardon on his wall anymore.  Why?  After a while, he tells us, it just stopped being important to him.  Seriously, who works this hard on backstory?  This is deep stuff.
  2. Rockford is perpetually broke.  The same riff that will go on to power Firefly years later – they never quite get the cash, with the exception of the hospital job – is played to the hilt here, and it works.  You watch the show, and you cringe every time your man has to drop ten bucks to buy information from the recalcitrant bartender.
  3. Dude is a fisherman!  It’s a critical part of his psychological makeup – all things being equal, Rockford would much rather be fishing.  And talk about sliding baselines – in one scene we see him having netted what looks like about a 12 pound yellowtail, presumably off the Santa Monica pier.  Good luck doing that anymore.
  4. And then there’s the car.  Inexplicably, Rockford drives a brand-new Pontiac Firebird.  A gold one.  To my knowledge, we are never told where he got the money to buy it.  That car, along with the suits, dates the show perfectly.  (An aside:  twenty years later all those mid-seventies Firebirds and their Camaro cousins would be broken down along the hot California highways Jim blazes up and done with such panache, to the point that when I lived in San Diego, they became a sort of unit of distance.  As in:  how far is it to San Bernadino?  About four Camaros.)
  5. Rockford pioneered social engineering before social engineering was called social engineering.  Give that man some nickels and a pay phone, step back, and watch the magic happen.
  6. He is also a technology hacker.  His biggest innovation:  the portable printing press, and the made-up business card.  Imagine what Jim Rockford could’ve done in the age of LinkedIn.  The mind reels.
  7. He keeps his gun in a sugar jar, calls it a cannon, and refuses to carry it.
  8. He is also a Korean army veteran, which is fascinating for historical context if nothing else.  By 1982 we would have Stallone’s First Blood capturing the national zeitgeist with respect to Vietnam, and we were already two years into M*A*S*H at that point – none of whose characters were about to return home in any kind of shape to have their Korean War experience turn them into smart-aleck PIs.  In this sense, the show is sort of a throwback, like they  chose Korea for the title character’s past because it had been a little too long since World War 2 for the ages to add up.
  9. Jim Rockford cannot be tailed by the police.  He can, however, be run down by the bad guys, but only on occasion – just enough to keep you nervous.
  10. He values self-preservation.  Highly.  This is a thinking person’s hero.
  11. He has a former cell-mate named Angel, a two-bit con-man, whom he hires for help when the occasion demands, and unapologetically nearly gets killed.  Repeatedly.
  12. He describes the bad guy’s enforcers (number appearing:  two and always two; they’re like Sith lords) as “gorillas”.
  13. He absolutely does not get along with the police – it’s actually a running theme of the show, that the cops are also often the bad guys.  Well, except for his buddy Dennis, who he leans on for favors.  Again, repeatedly.
  14. Rockford is an absolute, complete and utter smart-aleck.  Women love him.  Bad guys and cops immediately detest him.
  15. He’s tough enough to be a tough guy, but is constantly getting jumped, beaten up, and generally abused.  The result, again, is that you are always rooting for him, and always a bit nervous for him.
  16. Whatever you do, don’t call the man “Rockfish”.  ’nuff said.
  17. His favorite meal is hot dogs or tacos, and coffee
  18. He lives in a trailer.  By the ocean.

I could go on.  But to stay fair and balanced, there is  a single good reason not to watch.  Ladies and gentleman, I give you:

  1. Jim’s father – aka Rocky.  They actually used a different actor for the pilot, and all I can say was he was no better.  The one and only part of the show that is consistently unwatchable.

He does raise an interesting question, though:  who are the worst sidekicks (television or movie) of all time?  This is probably best left for a separate post, so I shall present my opening offer without further comment:

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Rocky, where he belongs: the Sidekick Hall of Shame

But not even Noah Beery Jr. can hold down the greatness of the show.  It’s just too good.  And I’m only halfway through the first season.  Talk about having a lot to look forward to.

Epilogue:  Star Trek vs The Love Boat
Star Trek and the Love Boat:  these were the two shows I grew up with.  Why, I have no idea.  My parents ruled Charlie’s Angels and Fantasy Island too racy for my sister and my young minds, so instead I have Captains Kirk and Steubing etched into my subconscious.  Now I suppose the thought experiment is inescapable, but I’ve often wondered:  what if we just sort of… switch them up?  Change the crews, the missions, the ships, and make two entirely new shows instead?

The Love Boat basically ports (heh) directly:  drop Captain Steubing and the gang onto the Enterprise, dress up the accommodations a bit, and the rest writes itself.  Romulan ale and green Orion girls and paradise planets every other episode – fair to say these guys would’ve gathered the laurel leaves, no tribble at all.

But transporting the crew of the Enterprise onto a cruise ship takes a little more work.  Here’s my thinking:  the world as we know it is no more.  Sea level has risen a hundred meters; a century has passed since the ensuing collapse.  What remains of civilization has coalesced around the survivors in Scandanavia (since they invested heavily in alternate fuels).

They call their new society the Federation, and set forth to seek out other life, other civilizations that have survived the fall.  Available to them?  That once ubiquitous form of transportation:  all those Norwegian cruise lines ships that plied the seas in ages past.

They re-christen the mightiest of these (America’s Pride, in a moment of bitter irony) the Enterprise, and off they go.

Which means, I suppose, that Khan is marooned in the Seychelles somewhere.  Lurking, seething, sitting with nothing to do but ponder world domination for want of a decent vessel.  That, and kill time watching re-runs of the Rockford Files, which flicker maddeningly on his half-burned-out monitor, barely supported by a single, surviving Netflix server, hidden deep in a data center where it conducts its unending experiments, lost and forgotten by all…

Consider yourself warned.

As for me, I think it’s time I either got some sleep, or went outside for a while.

Victory in Europe
I never met my Great Uncle Al.  He died on May 8th, 1945, 27 years before I was born.

It was VE Day, an event that, in my family, carries a certain bitter irony:  Uncle Al was shot down piloting a B-29 over Japan.  Filling in, no less, for the pilot scheduled to fly the mission, who had fallen ill.

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The war was all but over by then, or so the history books tell us.  The United States controlled the skies, and was dropping so many bombs on Tokyo that different targets would have to be chosen for those most infamous of all B-29 missions a few months later.

Uncle Al was twenty-six years old.

He and his crew’s remains were found by a Japanese priest and buried with proper ceremony – and then exhumed years later, sent home to the United States, where they were interred together again, the ashes of those brave men who, like so many others on all sides, died so young.

He left behind his twin sister:  my grandmother, Lorraine.  She’s 94 now, my last living grandparent.  We were talking about her twin brother the other day.  “Al”, it turns out, was short for “Alsace”.  They were born in December of 1918, my great-grandparents choosing the names in celebration of the armistice that concluded what was at the time thought to be the war that would end all wars.

It’s been almost seventy years.  My grandmother still cries when she talks about him.

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September 5th, 1977
Cape Canaveral, Florida:  NASA mounts a 1590 pound, plutonium-powered spacecraft atop a Titan III Centaur rocket, performs various feats of technical wizardry, and sends the combined assemblage hurtling into the sky.

The Titan’s heritage is a proud one:  it is a direct descendant of our nation’s first intercontinental ballistic missile, based in large part on work done by a certain former SS lieutenant who, among other things, in 1959 will go on to star in a Disney special viewed by forty million people.

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Walt Disney, and Werner Von Braun

The spacecraft’s name is Voyager 1.  Its mission:  to explore the outer reaches of the solar system, and beyond.  Voyager will fly forever – there isn’t much in the way of friction in deep space to slow it down.

More interestingly, Plutonium 238 has a half-life of 78 years.  Perhaps this nation can’t even put anything into orbit just now, but Voyager’s heart is still beating.

September 10th, 1977
Five days after Voyager I begins its journey, back on Earth the University of Washington men’s football team kicks off its season, defeating sixteenth-ranked Mississippi State by a score of 27-18.  Forty-five thousand people show up to watch – orders of magnitude more, I imagine, than showed up to send noble Voyager on its way.  It will be the first of 27 seasons the team will win at least half its games, and culminates in a dramatic New Year’s Day upset of fourth-ranked Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

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I am five years old.  And though I have no clear memory of the day, I imagine I listened to the game with my father on his AM radio, which he always had with him when he worked in the garden on the weekends.  I wasn’t good for much in the way of yard work, especially at that age, but I loved to listen to football games with my dad.

What I am certain of, however, is that we watched that year’s Rose Bowl with my grandparents.  It was a family tradition, the January 1st drive to their home in Lake City an annual pilgrimage.

Grandma and grandpa had a color TV.

I sure did like me some football, back then.

I still do.

August 15, 1990
High school has wound its interminable way to a merciful close, giving way to summertime and all else yet to come.  I have a job working for the Museum of Flight, where I spend my days selling tickets and gift shop merchandise, narrating the start of the museum’s two films, and, when I’m lucky, hiding downstairs in the stockroom, sorting through the merchandise, which includes model airplanes of all shapes and sizes.

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The Russian F-15

It’s the best job I’ve ever had.  Partly because my girlfriend works there too, but also because – well – airplanes.

This particular weekend is the air show, which means twelve hours Saturday and eight more on Sunday baking on a blistering asphalt tarmac, a thin canvas awning all that protects us from the August heat.  It is my job to help manage the crowds – and of course, to sell tickets.   For my troubles, I get $6.50 an hour and a front-row seat to the most extraordinary assemblage of airplanes I have ever seen.

The star of the show is the Sukhoi Su-27, Russia’s version of the F-15, itself the Air Force’s version of the plane Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer made famous when they weren’t playing beach volleyball.

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Val!

It is the hardest I’ve ever worked, and I have an absolute blast.

I sure did like me some airplanes, back then.

There also, I still do.

July 10, 2013
Today was my grandfather’s birthday.  I really should be writing about him, and I suppose in part I am; my memories of my grandparents are intertwined, just as their lives were for the fifty years they spent together.  And truly, football games were the least of the things we shared.

We are also, as it happens, in a dead zone of the American retail calendar just now, one of those times when the relentless cadence of consumption flags, just a little.  The fourth of July is receding in the rear-view mirror, our annual dose of patriotism burned out along with the bottle rockets my neighbors soft-landed in the snap-peas in my backyard.  Barbecue season has already peaked (you might not think so, but the ketchup sales figures don’t lie), and the back-to-school specials are still to come.

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It should be illegal to remind ten-year-olds that summer vacation isn’t infinite – at least before the third week of August.

Fortunately for the marketing industry, football season is almost upon us again.  Here is work the lowliest intern can do:  contact sports and cheerleaders; hot dogs and beer.  It pretty much sells itself, as they say in the business.

Me?  I might go to a game or two.  The Huskies are supposed to be good this year.

But then there’s this.  I can’t help but feel that I’m being sold something a little more distasteful than nitrate-laden processed meat with my football these days.

Now maybe this was always so.  Certainly the military and football have always hugged each other close, all the way back to the days when the Army-Notre Dame game was a going concern.

Maybe the stadium flyover is nothing new, and I’ve  just started over-thinking it.

Maybe like with so many things, the world is ever and always the same; it’s just that we change, and see things with adult eyes, if we are lucky to live so long.

I make no pleas for a return to an innocence that never was.  But still, as fingers start to point, as that collective shiver passes through the crowd, as breaths are held in anticipation, the last notes of the Star Spangled Banner hanging in the air while those distant dark shapes in the sky grow larger, and Larger, and LARGER, engines roaring as they pass directly overhead…

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The Air Force, projecting power… over the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.

No rush of patriotism fills me.

I don’t think about the heroics of my great uncle’s generation, like I am certain I am meant to.    I don’t think of our nation’s glorious space exploring past.  The never-quite-grew-up 12-year-old boy in me refuses to put in an appearance, even though I still love airplanes.

I think about marketing, and the projection of power.  (Also, I hope whatever happens to be flying over head isn’t armed).

I mean, that’s what they’re for, right?  Those billion dollar B-2s, and their kin?  Aren’t they basically a form of advertising?

Trouble on the Korean peninsula?  Paraphrasing Portlandia – fly a bird over it.

Hunting militants in Afghanistan?  Fly a bird over it (preferably unmanned).

Trouble brewing in Syria?  Who here thinks that ends in anything other than a no-fly zone?

Seventy thousand people gathered at Husky Stadium in Seattle, Washington?

There’s no need to give me the bird.  No need to deliver that particular marketing message.  I get that this is what we are good at as a nation, I promise.

Hell, I don’t know.  Perhaps these things I was so fond of as a child – airplanes and space exploration and football (and even fishing) – perhaps these are just vices, now.  Something no self-respecting liberal should expect to enjoy.  Maybe football is just a metaphor for combat, nothing less and nothing more, and that’s why we as a people love it so.

But sometimes I just want to watch a damned game in peace, all the same.

Scrub Jays
I’m not much of a birdwatcher.  I love the activity; I’ve even got myself a nice new pair of binoculars.  But my knowledge base is thin – pretty much everything I know about birds I’d learned by the sixth grade, the result of a childhood spent tromping around Washington state with my parents, rubber boots on feet, gortex jacket on back, bird book in one hand and daily species list in the other.

(An aside:  I did have the opportunity to brush up on my skills in college. Vertebrate Zoology 201 featured two full weeks of lab devoted to good ol’ Class Aves, but unfortunately the TA made the mistake of telling us we were going to be tested on the exact same specimens we were using in class.  In my usual fashion, I figured out that while telling sandpipers from sanderlings was hard, remembering that the sandpiper was the one mounted on a stick, while the sanderling had been prepared posed on a rock, was easy.  I got a 4.0 in the class, but I still don’t know the difference.  My loss.)

My mom, on the other hand, is a mighty birdwatcher, an Audobon-certified master, fully capable of picking out peregrine falcons while she is driving sixty miles an hour down a country highway.  An enduring scene from my childhood:  the squealing of tires that would ensue when my mother would shout – “Charlie!  Stop the car!” at my dad while we were hurtling down I-5, our little pop-can of a 1980 Mazda surrounded on three sides by angry semi drivers wondering what the hell was wrong with us.

How we never caused an accident, I’m still not sure.  Maybe fortune favors the drunk, the foolish, and the amateur ornithologist.

Anyway, I’m not much of a birdwatcher.  But I’m good enough that when I recently saw a scrub jay hopping around Capitol Hill near my Seattle home, I thought to myself – whoa.  Didn’t we used to have to drive to Eastern Washington to see those?

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(The photo isn’t mine.  I’m not much of a photographer either.)

The answer – a rare ornithological win for me! – is yes.  Eastern Washington or, say, Central California.  Now the birds are here.  The scrub jays, like so many other Californians, are moving in.

Now whyever would they be doing that?

Hint:  it’s warmer in central California and eastern Washington than it is here in Seattle.

A lot warmer.

Sockeye
I went to the locks yesterday.  The sockeye are running, and I wanted my daughter to see them.  I realize I swore up and down I wouldn’t post pictures of her online, so let’s just say the photo could be of be any ten-week-old (!) seeing a salmon run for the first time.

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Now maybe your impression from the picture is – hey, that’s a lot of fish.  I’d agree!  It was even more impressive in person.  They were jumping all over the place, the viewing windows were packed, the harbor seals were living large – it was straight out of Wild Kingdom.

But the thing is, it isn’t a lot of fish.  There won’t be a sockeye season in Lake Washington this year.  I looked it up – the state doesn’t open the lake for fishing until “significantly more” than 350,000 sockeye pass through the locks.  This year’s forecast is for maybe half of that.

In fact there hasn’t been a season since 2006.  I myself last fished the lake for sockeye in 1988, when I was in high school.  Friend of mine had an aluminum boat; we went trolling.  We even caught a couple.

Does that ever seem a long time ago.

Chinook
I found this postcard a little while back, when I was wandering through a gift shop somewhere in the San Juan Islands:

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Swiftsure Bank is smack in the middle of the mouth of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  Go to the upper left corner of the state of Washington, and then swim another 10 miles northwest (bring a drysuit – that water is cold), and you’re there.

I won’t belabor the collapse of the commercial salmon fishing industry here, other than to say that particular area of the state has historically been one of the hardest hit.  But if you Google “largest Chinook salmon ever caught”, the top hit is a story about a sport fisherman landing an 83 pounder up in Alaska last year.  Now I’m not saying Edward Moff, whoever he might have been, didn’t land a monster fish, even for his time.  He thought enough of it to have his picture taken – and this was 100 years ago.  He wasn’t exactly using his iPhone.

Then again, they didn’t have hatcheries back then, either.  Nor did they grow genetically altered fish in ponds.

Time to Remember
This list could go on forever.

Sea turtles, which used to live in such abundance that, while you couldn’t quite walk on their backs from Spain to the “New” World, they certainly could keep your men fed along the way.  Las Tortugas got its name for a reason, before it became a set in a Disney movie (here’s lookin’ at you, Captain Jack!)

Or the black sea bass I once had the fortune to see, while scuba diving off Catalina Island.  Majestic fish.  Grouper family; peaceful to a fault.  Once incredibly abundant, but tragically unafraid of scuba divers – even those with spear guns.  Now they are so rare that if you see one you don’t dare tell anyone, for fear word will get out, and someone will try to catch it (which is as illegal as it is immoral, but even so).

The recent extinction of the black rhino – and that really is forever.

I hope I have this quote correct; speaking as a Caucasian whose family immigrated to these lands about a hundred years ago, the specter of cultural appropriation always makes me nervous.  But, turning to the League of the Iroquois (by way of http://www.greens.org):  “…have always in view not only the present, but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground – the unborn of the future Nation.”

Now the Iroquois had a planning horizon of seven generations to go along with this system of thinking.  Tragically, near as I can tell, the world today is being managed to the remaining life expectancy of the old men that run it.  Well, maybe that plus a year or two, a little margin of error to hedge against potential advances in medical technology.

I mean, to be fair, according to Wikipedia, James Watt (Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, for those of you who weren’t born yet, which is kind of the point) didn’t actually say, “After the last tree is felled, Christ will come back.”  But he did have the worst record for protecting endangered species in the history of ever, and we can be pretty sure he wasn’t interested in managing to time horizons that are effectively infinite, which is bloody well what we should all be doing at this point.

Well.  If the Iroquois had wisdom, and Edward Moff had himself a 94 pound Chinook, we at least *do* have our iPhones.  So I submit to you that it is all of our responsibility to fight against sliding baselines, those subtle shifts of expectations that arises when you yourself have never seen a thing, but only heard about it, or read about it.

See, we now have the ability to generate institutional memory with a bandwidth and fidelity unprecedented in human history.

Think about what power that is.  And then go use it.

Teach your children well.  And somewhere in between the preschool admissions and the SATS, the LSATS an the GREs, find time for the birds and the turtles and the fish.