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Monday, December 23, 2013

The Favorite... Cover Reveal and Sneak Peek

Okay, I don't have a hard release date yet, but this is the cover to my upcoming novel, The Favorite, which will be available online wherever books are sold.



This is the cropped version of the front.  Classy, huh?

And this is the full-on hardcover dust jacket.

And... here's a sneak peek of the prologue.  Enjoy!!


Prologue

Last night…


The tapping of the smooth silver ballpoint pen against the notepad sounded like a metronome gone out of control.Crumpled balls of paper littered the handsome wooden desk, a graveyard of bad ideas growing larger as the pad of paper in front of him grew thinner. The paper’s watermark – a green-tinged lion’s head
logo – stared at him, mocking him, daring him to try again to write something poignant. Or even just intelligent. In fact, at this point, the lion would even have settled for something merely coherent.

He reached for the tiny bottle of vodka from the mini-bar and emptied the last of the clear, caustic liquid down his throat. He felt his face flush as the liquor burned a path into his stomach. He closed his eyes and enjoyed drifting off to drunkenness. When his mouth and throat cooled he reopened his eyes. The
lion still looked at him expectantly, waiting for him to begin this manifesto, this great work that would make her understand why. He tentatively put the pen to paper and scribbled out the letter’s opening line.

To whom it may concern…

He had barely formed the final “n” when he tore the page from its pad. To whom it may concern, he thought. Brilliant. Just brilliant.

He tossed the balled up sheet of paper to the side and started again, dating the top of the page. He went over in his mind how letters were supposed to start, with Dear Someone, or Dearest Whomever. He wrote: I don’t even know your name.

He smiled as he finished writing that one line. He cracked open another tiny bottle and sucked it down. He was drunker than he had been in a long time, but at least the words were flowing.

My name is Michael Dane. I’m your father. A little Darth Vader-esque, he thought, but it worked. If you’re reading this then I’m dead. 

He paused a moment after he wrote that; the finality of those words made his stomach gurgle. Doubt, nervousness and fear crept into his mind for the first time since this crazy thing started. He wondered if this whole deal was such a good idea after all.

Drunkenness helped him rediscover his resolve. He had no choice after all. He wrote: And of course you’re reading this, because I know I’m going to die.

Metamorphosis

It snowed the other day in Bellingham and I turned myself into a shut-in.  This was the view from my patio.



So weird, isn't it?  I lived in New York for the first 30 winters of my life, and we'll say that New York's winters aren't known so much for their mercy. The Blizzard of '96 is still legendary for it's inch per hour accumulation over 2 days. Yet the first -- and likely last --two-inch snowfall in Bellingham this winter has me freaking out.  It's the biggest fear of my life: I've acclimated.

NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!

Oh the agony, I've gotten used to quiet nights and nature, to occasionally seeing deer grazing out my bedroom window.  I've gotten used to friendly people and cheap rents and getting a cab when I need one.  I've learned to live without the subway. So, so sad.

There was a point, exactly half my life ago, when the thought of living outside the five boroughs was like forced exile, and gave me hives and cold sweats.  I thought I would die on the block where I grew up.  (No, not in the negative way, either.  I thought I would grow old and die there once. ) I thought it was my inalienable right to be an a**hole if I so chose.  Not that I ever did choose, but still.  Now, I've grown accustomed to space, to mild winters, to kind hellos and cordial goodbyes.  I've gotten used to spoken conversations instead of grunted greetings and handshakes.

Now, I'm conscious of other people's presence.  I wave hello and smile to strangers, despite a lifetime of instincts to the contrary.  I've forgotten how to scowl.  I go back to New York at least once a year to get my re-up of my New York-ness.  I've been back two or three times this year already, and it didn't take.  My god, what's next, tourist neck?

What's happening to me?!



Tuesday, September 17, 2013

"Urban Legend" Research Blog, Part 2:

In my last post about my progress for my "Urban Legend" project, I delved into what it took to look like a hero, the protective gear a real-world hero would need to tame the streets of a mid-major American city.  Now we leave defense and go straight to the offense.  How do we beat the snot out of evildoers?  The way my masked hero deals out violent retribution says a lot about his personality, his state of mind.

I spoke at length with Renshi Desmond L. Diaz about the subject for two reasons -- one, he's my go-to martial arts expert (5th dan Goju-Ryu), and two, he's my nephew.  To fight crime on the streets of my unnamed city, he suggested Krav Maga.



Krav Maga is unique in that it's designed to be taught and learned quickly.  It's blunt strikes and counter-heavy nature was intended to make ordinary citizens into effective fighters for the conscripted war effort.  The Israelis train their soldiers in Krav Maga, and when you consider that 2 years military service is required of every citizen, you don't want to meet too many Israelis in dark alleys.




In the recent "Batman" movies, Krav Maga is the style Bruce Wayne uses to dole out brutal justice on the streets of Gotham.  These days, Krav Maga is more widely used, taught to military and law enforcement alike, which is perfect for my "could-be-anybody" vigilante.

I also asked my nephew what weapons my hero would need to carry and he broke it down in three words: blades, staves, and guns.  Personally, I don't want to have my hero carrying guns as it doesn't fit the personality I want for this guy, but as for blades, I like the karambit.


The karambit is a Filipino weapon that was originally used for raking roots and threshing plants.  In proper hands it is possibly the deadliest knife available.  The curved blade was inspired by the claws of big cats (tigers, panthers, lions and such).  It's lightweight, easy to conceal, and as shown by the video possesses a certain degree of up close and personal bad-assery.  Batman would be proud.

As staves go, I like escrima sticks.  A friend of mine trains with them and his giddy approval is contagious.  Again, they go with the easy to conceal, easy to carry, and in the proper hands, can be a gleeful tool of attitude adjustment.

So the personality I'm seeking to craft for my hero is one of an up-close killer of killers, one who deals with these people in a manner suggests that they have done something to him personally.  And who knows, maybe they have...

Friday, September 13, 2013

Changing of the Guard

I've been in deep thought since the recent death of my father.

One of the things I keep thinking about is how my childhood is really, officially over.  I know, I'm almost 35, my childhood should have been over almost two decades ago.  I'm not talking about being grown up, I'm talking about not having the previous generation available for guidance.

And such is the circle of life, I guess.  Every generation tries to teach the next through guidance and absence, through lessons and examples both good and bad.  They try to teach how to be.  How to be a provider, or how not to be one.  How to be responsible for a life, or how not to be.  How to gain or lose respect.  And while they're around and able, they're a valuable resource to have in your back pocket.  They are a valuable sounding board, they are your biggest cheerleaders, they believe in you without reason, or at the barest minimum give you a continuing example of what you either want or don't want.  Once they're gone or infirm, or to a lesser extent relocated, the time for theory is over.  The responsibility is not of the teacher anymore to teach us, but of the student to apply what we have learned and to infer what the proper course of action.  Training is over.  The keys to the world are bequeathed to us.

My father was a flawed man, as we all are, but at his core he was a good man.  While he was never as much a presence in my life as either one of us would have liked, I do feel the absence.  I have learned all the lessons I can from him in regards to how to be a man, and how to balance pride and humility, joy and pain, success and failure.  My brothers and I can only hope to apply the lessons learned from this man's life to our children when the time comes.

And in doing so, prepare the world for its next keyholders.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

So, I spent much of the summer radio silent on this blog, poking my head out only once or twice to call for men to better to the women in our lives and so on.  It's not like I stopped writing, or stopped caring, I just got busy.  This has been a very interesting summer on a lot of levels, and while I usually don't talk too much about personal life details all that often, I'll get nice and personal right about now.

My summer began with the grand adventure of dating.  Those of you who know me best know how much I hate the dance of getting to know someone, and pretending to be the sexy version of myself so that I can have the privilege of buying dinner and paying for a movie so that maybe, sometime down the road, we can possibly have sex at some point (Yes, that IS sarcasm, but it's bleak out there).  I was reminded that things tend to work out better when I don't try to be the sexy version of me, or the smart version of me, or whatever version I think someone will like.  I tried being myself, a move I haven't done in a few years.  The result? I get to hang out with an amazing girl on a regular basis.  We're sappy and cute and disgusting -- in public, no less -- and it's kind of cool.  Don't get me wrong, if I were to watch a couple like that from a distance I would probably projectile vomit all over the place (I'm a hypocrite.  I'm also probably bigger than you.) but it IS nice to be so comfortable with someone you don't really worry about what the rest of the world thinks about it.

Midway through the summer, my brother and his wife announced that they are expecting a baby (everyone after me... awwwww).  And then then world got like, hormonally crazy.  People I knew are dropping babies like crazy.  I haven't seen an epidemic like this since my days in the Diamond District! (Seriously, don't drink the water.)  In a few days, a wonderful couple I met through my brother are expecting their own bundle of joy, and after the story I heard about the kid's sonogram pose, I acquired the nickname rights and hereby dub the soon-to-arrive person "L'il Baby Cool Breeze."  I also expect to not hear from those parents until the kid is 6 with that nickname.

Of course, no story worth living is completely happy, and toward the end of the summer I said goodbye to my father.  Without airing business, I will say that while we weren't as close as I would have liked to be (and I take a portion of the responsibility for that), I loved him, respected him, and will miss him dearly.  I hope he was proud of his children, because we all turned out pretty damn good.

The positive to that story is in several parts; number one, it reunited my family under one roof for the first time in a while.  Six boys, two girls, with spouses and children and baby bumps all over the place.  It was chaos.  I was in heaven.  Secondly, my brother took my dad's SUV in order to have a vehicle to drive their kid around in (sidebar: newborns live the life.  They get valet service, chauffeur service, room service, free rent, AND they get adored for it.  It's their world, we're just living in it.).  He's living in Louisville, Kentucky now, one of those places that no one ever thought any of us would move to on purpose, and he's happy there.  Go figure.  Anyway, getting the car there meant one thing: Road Trip!  I logged my first ever road trip, getting to see Pittsburgh and pass through some very pretty country on the East Coast.  Definitely one of my better memories.  Lastly, my father's death made it necessary to do something I was looking at doing anyway.  Last minute flights are expensive, so in order to do the flight back to New York, I had to take a loan.  But since I was going to take a loan out to publish anyway, I did that.  My next novel, The Favorite, should be out by the end of the year!

This summer has been a big one for me.  I can't think of one that's had this many stories in it worth telling, and summer don't end until the Yankees are done playing, so who knows what more can happen?  If the Yankees make the playoffs though, I'm going to be hard to deal with.


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Better.

I'd like to begin this with a little story.

I don't have any children of my own (and there are those that would argue that being a very good thing).  My oldest niece, however, I'm very protective of.  I have been since the day she was brought home from the hospital.  She's kind of like the hybrid of the child I don't want right now and the little sister I never had.  So, in the hybrid role of what I perceived to be one of the (many) major male role models in her life, I issued the half-joking decree that any unfortunate lad that tried to date her would have to get past me.  You know, as screening, to make sure their intentions were pure.  And if they weren't... well, somebody gonna get-a hurt real bad.  "I'm trying to protect you from guys like me," I said.  "And I'm one of the good ones."

I told her this because I distrusted the intentions of anyone she would meet, largely because I'm a guy, and even at my best my intentions with dates are always slightly dishonorable. (Even my current girlfriend, who will no doubt at some point read this, and with whom I was on my best behavior, my ulterior motives could be construed as slightly dishonorable).  Some guys are hardwired to be douchebags, and even the best of us can have somewhat asshole tendencies.

I joke all the time that I would likely be the father polishing the shotgun, or challenging my daughter's unsuspecting date to Russian Roulette, or some other violent, crazy act that would dissuade said unlucky boy from trying anything stupid, lest he suffer my Biblical-type wrath.  I was only half joking.

Until, that is, I read this article, where the author, a father, tells his daughter to go, experience, make the mistakes, get laid, and oh yeah, trust guys, because he's a good man and raised his daughter right.  The quote in particular that got me was this one:

It doesn’t lessen you to give someone else pleasure. It doesn’t degrade you to have some of your own. And anyone who implies otherwise is a man who probably thinks very poorly of women underneath the surface.

I don't think poorly of women; quite the contrary, I think women, in all their mystery and splendor and varying states of sanity are generally amazing creatures, capable of being incredibly strong and vulnerable in ways men simply cannot (I'm referring, of course, to the child bearing thing.  Ouch.).  So I thought about it, and realized something.  Men make statements like mine all the time.  We remember the kind of boys we were and cringe at the thought of our daughters, our sisters, our nieces bringing someone like us home.  But the fault isn't entirely the potential suitors, who want to get laid, or the teenaged girls, whose minds are a swirl of hormones and approval ratings.  It's on us.  The male role models.  The ones who these young girls are looking at and looking up to from the moment they get home from the hospital.  The fathers, the brothers, the uncles, we are their first taste of love from a man, and everyone who follows is eerily similar to that.

So we need to be better.

We need to be the example of what to bring home for dinner.  You don't want your daughter to bring home a thug?  Don't be a thug.  You want your daughter to bring home a smarter dude?  Read to her when she's a kid.  Want your daughter to seek someone loving and attentive?  Spend time with her before she's sent off to school.  Make her feel safe if you want her to seek someone protective.

Now for those men out there who have sons, this pertains to you as well.  You don't want your boy to be like you.  You always want him to be a better man, to do what you do well as a man (provide, protect, team member or what have you) and you want him to do it better.  So I implore you, please teach your sons too.

Don't let him be the kid that my future daughter makes me have to shoot.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Debate Worth Having

Earlier this week, George Zimmerman was acquitted for murdering Trayvon Martin in Florida.  In the time between then and now I've run the gamut of emotional responses, starting with anger and outrage, and coming to a point of depression and disappointment.  I realized that I could not be a reporter in this case, as the very personal nature of it would color my writing.  So a week's gone by and now I'm in a clearer head space.  While it may not be as newsworthy as it was a week ago, it's time to weigh in on this subject.

The question, however, is which take is the right way to go?

I could rant on (and on and on) about the fact every argument in the American judicial system is based on precedent, and the fact that Mr. Zimmerman decided to profile an unarmed Black kid, initiate a confrontation, pick a fight, lose the fight and shoot the kid makes that sequence of events okay legally.  When this happens again (and make no mistake, as Americans we are nothing if not repetitive of our mistakes), defense can now point to this as legal precedent.  There has been somewhat paranoid talk of it being open season on young Black males, but with this legal precedent the argument seems a bit less irrational.  This is concerning to me because, well, I'm told I'm huge and there seems to be an overabundance of dark alleyways in this country.

But that's not the tack I'm taking.

I can comment on how unevenly the "Stand Your Ground" law has been applied in Florida as a Black woman fending off her abusive husband and didn't hurt or kill anyone in the act has been sentenced to 20 years in prison while Mr. Zimmerman goes free.  The best case scenario in any personal defense legislation is that the conflict is defused with minimal injury and no loss of life, and yet Marissa Thompson is going to spend the next 20 years in prison.  George Zimmerman will not see another day behind bars.

But I'm not going there either.

In the week since the Trayvon Martin verdict, protests and rallies have sparked bot pro and anti George Zimmerman.  The thing I'm going to say is that George Zimmerman is not a cause.  Neither is Trayvon Martin.  They are people.  One a terribly misguided individual who felt empowered by a stupid law, another a terribly unfortunate young man who died for what amounted to a questionable wardrobe choice in a strange neighborhood.  They are not causes.  They are not to be supported or decried.  They are the obvious representation of a very broken system in which we categorize and classify based solely on preconceived notions on what a criminal looks like.  The real debate worth having is about the concept of a fair and impartial jury, especially when jury for a big case has been inundated with media information by the time they are called that they have opinions already formed.  The debate worth having is  in how we grant the 15 minutes of fame on someone who has to remain anonymous for talking about why she made a decision on the value of one man's life over another.

But like you, I'm tired.  This whole thing has been exhausting.  And all I want to do is turn the page, change the channel and get some rest.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Better Things To Do.

We've all been there before, when we're faced with that daunting difficult, sometimes unpleasant task that has to be done.  It's staring you in the face and waiting to be tackled.  The sheer enormity of the thing is enough to keep you busy for an entire weekend, or leave you sore for a couple of days.

And then you just remembered that load of laundry that needed to be done, because there's no way you can do this without your favorite green boxers.

So you do six loads of laundry, your green boxers are among the last to be cleaned and dried.  You take a shower so that you can be clean when you change into your boxers and when you're done your bathroom routine, your task is still there, waiting for you, demanding its due.

Oh crud, is that the time?  I gotta get to the Post Office before it closes!

You hop in your car, take the freeway the one exit to the Post Office, wait in line for twenty minutes to get to the counter and ask for a book of stamps.  Because, you know, the stamp dispenser won't take your debit card.  You get your stamps, drive back the way you came, park your car and get ready to do your task.  You roll up your sleeves and as you're about to jump in, you realize that you forgot to stop at Walmart to get Peanut Butter M &M's.  It's essential; not having Peanut Butter M & M's damns this task to failure, and the notion that you were about to get started without them is sheer lunacy in and of itself.

So you get in your car, drive to Walmart and grab a bag of Peanut Butter M &M's, and while you're at it, some tortilla chips and salsa.  You stop at the electronics section and stare mindlessly at the Hi-def TV's that are infinitely better than the brand new one you got last Friday.  You drag yourself away from the continually running loop of Finding Nemo and head toward the register, picking up a box of Raisin Bran on the way.

You pull into your driveway, get inside and put your stuff away, leaving out the delectable sweets you went out specifically to purchase.  As you nosh on the smooth peanut butter and chocolate candy and prepare to finally begin that arduous task, your cell phone rings.  It's your buddy, dying to recount the details of the date he went on with that buxom, triple-jointed hot-dog vendor girl he met while drunk three Saturdays ago.  You listen intently, absorbing every sordid detail and making the appropriate insensitive commentary about his new object of affection, and congratulating him on meeting the future mother of his children.

You hang up and no sooner do you head toward the vicinity of this daunting task, your phone rings again.  It's your girlfriend, offering an evening of... well you don't know what because you're in the car again before she has a chance to finish.  And as you drive to your uncertain fate, you debate whether or not you tell this story to the people this task would have mattered to.

Or.

Do you say "I'm sorry I haven't written in my blog lately. I've been busy.   I promise, I'll make time to write in it more. "

Monday, June 10, 2013

'Tis the Season

I'm a die-hard fan.

I love baseball, football and basketball, and more than I love the sports I love my
hometown teams -- the Yankees, the Knicks, the Giants, and the Jets.  Hell, the Nets
even snuck in this year with the novelty of being from Brooklyn.  But as the NBA season
winds to a close and my New York Knicks yet again robbed unjustly of a chance to hoist
a championship banner to the rafters at Madison Square Garden, I turn my attention to
my equally beloved Yankees.  The Knicks did better this year than they have in almost
15, so I've only been peripherally paying attention to baseball.  I heard the Yanks
were dealing with some injuries, and there was this while A-Rod steroid thing
happening, but it was April and May.  I mean baseball in April and May might as well be
Spring Training.  Nothing interesting happens in baseball in April and May, right?

Holy crap.

The Yankees started out the season missing Mark Teixiera, Curtis Granderson, Derek
Jeter and Alex Rodriguez?  What the... that's the two through six hitters in our
lineup!  Kevin Youkilis got hurt?  Wait... you mean the Red Sox guy?!  When did we get
the Red Sox guy?  Who the hell is Reid Brignac?  Why is Jayson Nix playing?  And didn't
Vernon Wells retire?  You step away from the game for one minute and all hell breaks
loose!

More bizarre?  With everything I just said, the Yankees are only a game and a half out
in the East.

It's going to be one hell of a summer.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Review: Coyote Blue

Over the last seven years, Christopher Moore has become one of my favorite authors.  To
date, he has published 13 novels and counting.  I own every one, and it's his second,
Coyote Blue, that ranks among my favorites.  Equal parts love story and supernatural
comedy, Moore shows off his unique talent for putting the ordinary guy through an
extraordinary paranormal wringer.

Coyote Blue follows Sam Hunter, a California insurance salesman who has all the
trappings of the good life as well as a closely guarded secret: he's really Samson
Hunts Alone, a member of the Crow tribe who ran away from home after accidentally
killing a cop.  his life is turned completely inside out when he meets the stunning
flower-child, Calliope Kincaid and -- immediately after -- the Native-American
trickster god Coyote.  The chance encounter with Calliope leads Sam on an unlikely road
trip across the American West with the trickster at his side as he chases his newfound
love back toward his childhood home and the past he ran away from.

Right away, you see that Moore has a much tighter grasp on his characters than he did
in his debut.  Whereas Practical Demonkeeping's Augustus Brine (who is mentioned in a
cameo) acted as a lens through which we observed the inhabitants of Pine Cove, Sam
Hunter is undoubtedly the star of the show.  This is his journey and it makes for a
much more intimate story as we watch him grow as a person over the course of his
adventure.  We watch his priorities shift and we watch him accept a part of himself
long thought buried.  The secondary characters, Coyote -- an immature immortal god --
and Calliope -- who starts out as the free-loving counterpart to Sam's very grounded
life -- both go through journeys of their own, but neither one is as compelling as that
of the lead character.  His growth is fantastic and quite relateable.

Coyote Blue is Christopher Moore refining the very distinct voice we saw flashes of in
Practical Demonkeeping.  It's alternatively funny and heartwarming and always fun.
Highly recommended.

Rating: 9 of 10.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

"Urban Legend" Research Blog, Part I: So You Want To Be A Hero...

So I've decided to write about a vigilante hero.

An idea popped into my head borne of my lifelong love of comic books.  You see, when I was sixteen, me and a group of like-minded friends formed Fallout Studios and Magic Pencil Comics.  If you've never heard of either of those, you're excused.  It was a year-long creative project that frequently devolved into marathon video game sessions (Damn you, Virtua Fighter!).  But there were good ideas in that collaboration, several good ideas in fact, and if our sixteen year-old selves lived in the digital age of now, I firmly believe our ideas and digital distribution would make us wealthy teenagers.  Oh well.

Back to the point.  I decided to research how you could practically be a superhero.  This is part one of those results, which is looking the part and being protected.  Seattle has Phoenix Jones, and if you look at his getup, well, Bruce Wayne he's not.  Shockingly, you can play dress-up as a hero for cheaper than you would expect, and the protective gear you would need is pretty common.  Several sports -- major ones at that -- have protective equipment that has evolved from the need to protect the wearer from the impact of abnormally large men moving nearly at freeway speeds, while still being able to maintain mobility and range of motion.  The drawback?  Play hero in the winter or you'll likely die of heat stroke.
First thing's first... the underlayer.

This Nike Padded shirt is obviously football gear.  Dense foam around the rib area helps cushion the compound impact of a 260+ pound man wearing pads and a steel helmet launching himself into your own pads.  The padding makes it less likely to break your ribs in that event.  It's probably a little less useful for stabbing and small arms fire, but there's a solution for that I'll be getting to.  Anyway, this shirt goes for about $80

The Combat Hyper String Girdle, also by Nike ($80), seamlessly adds padding to the all-important kidney area, and when combined with the shirt, extends protective padding through most of your important soft bits.  It also protects the thighs, home of wonderful things like your femoral artery.  While it may not be so good against knives and small arms fire, (a) it's better than nothing and (b) most people trying to kill you will be aiming for your exposed and unprotected chest.


Which brings us to the next logical thing: how to stop bullets.  The Executive Travel Vest ($899) is a Kevlar suit vest, designed for bodyguards and VIPs, designed to stop small arms fire.  Lightweight, breathable, flexible, it allows the wearer to walk around as if he's not wearing a bullet-resistant vest.  It doesn't offer much against knives or assault weapons, but how many criminals have access to AR-15's anyway.  Yes, that was sarcasm.
Football also provides us with Stainless Steel Shoulder Pads ($300), which in this combination, theoretically should take care of the stabbing, shooting problem.  On top of that, it adds an imposing, bad ass figure to said vigilante hero. They don't need to be spiked -- this isn't a Raiders game after all -- but if they can stop prevent a linebacker who runs a 4.6-40 from crushing you with an impact equivalent to being hit by an SUV, they can stop a bullet or a knife.  They naturally have a chest protection element, and allow athletes to move around, so this is of course a natural fit.


You're going to want to protect your joints and Reebok makes elbow and knee pads for hockey that fit the bill.  Lightweight and sturdy plastic protect your elbows and knees from bone jarring impact with the ground... or some punk's face.





Now the one element in a crime fighter's protective gear that is absolutely indispensable is that it has to look cool and menacing at the same time.  To round out the gear and add the cool, menacing factor, we turn to motorcycle equipment.  The Icon Chapter 1000 jacket ($699) is heavy duty leather designed to protect the upper body from road rash in the event of a crash.  Motorcycle jackets also have protective padding in the elbows for the same reason.   And that brings us to the final element in this experiment...






Now what better way to conceal your identity and protect your head than a motorcycle helmet?


There are drawbacks to this get up, of course.  I'll get into that next time, as well as how I'd modify the gear to help mitigate the drawbacks.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Review: Rage Is Back

Take one part teen angst, one part drugged-out mysticism, and one part ode to old-school B-Boy culture, mix well, and you have "Rage Is Back," the latest from Adam Mansbach.  If the name sounds familiar, it's because he created a surge of controversy with a children's book for adults called "Go The Fuck To Sleep."

"Rage Is Back" follows 18 year-old Kilroy Dondi Vance, son of 80's graffiti icon Billy Rage.  Dondi is a relbellious, disillusioned smart-ass from the outset as he whines about the events that led him to couch-surf with several friends, and change is set in motion when a member of Billy Rage's old crew informs Dondi that his father has returned to New York.  It seems that on the night that Dondi was born, Billy witnessed a delusional police officer, which sends a grief-stricken Rage on a one-man graffiti campaign against the officer.  And when the city responds by threatening jail time and a $2 million fine, Billy skips town, heading to Mexico without his wife or his infant son.  Rage's return coincides  with the mayoral campaign of the same cop that murdered his friend, so Dondi, Rage, and every graffiti artist they can find devise a plan to bring this cop down.

I found the narrative a bit stunted, filtered mainly through Dondi's eyes, leaving a healthy dose of annoying teen smugness to much of the first act.  This is cleaned up by the middle of the book as Dondi deals with his daddy issues and starts to grow up, aided by a vision quest brought about by a mystical, South American hallucinogen.  This does make the early parts of the story drag as Dondi is the self-righteous snot we all want to slap across the face.  He's initially not a very likable narrator, and is self aware enough to mention as  much.

Thematically, Mansbach touches on quite a few things that we can all relate to, such as the realization that once upon a time, our parents were "cool," or that once we focus our -- well, rage -- we can accomplish great things.  He did his homework here as he frequently references mid-to-late 80's hip-hop culture as well as the graffiti phenomenon from the time.  I personally found the mystic, hippie-ish, drugged out portions to be a bit unnecessary, but overall the story works.

By no means is Rage Is Back perfect.  The lack of a likable narrator nearly torpedoes the story in the first 50 pages.  The story, if you stick with it, is thoroughly enjoyable, and easily recommended as a way to pass a summer day.

Rating: 6 of 10.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Sound and Fury

The news that NBA center Jason Collins is gay is about six hours old at this point.

This is of course a major deal in professional sports, as he is the first active male professional athlete in a major sport to come out.  There has been talk of NFL players coming out in the near future, and now that Collins has done so the way has been paved for other athletes in pro sports to do so.  The resounding outpouring of support he's gotten from the NBA community at-large is impressive and shows that the league has come a long way since the insensitive commentary of Tim Hardaway some years ago.  Collins is a widely respected player in the league, and is viewed as a locker room leader and all-around great teammate.  And you know what?  Good for him.  I can't imagine what it was like for him living a lie, having to behave like he thought professional athletes should to maintain some image.  From a human standpoint, I'm happy for the brother to have finally publicly acknowledged who he is.

And yet...

Before the Jason Collins news broke, odds are if you were asked who Jason Collins was, unless you were a hardcore hoop-head, the answer would have been "Who?"  I'm a hardcore hoop-head, and my response was, "He's still playing?"  He's been described by his own GM, right after the announcement, as a "utility big," someone who is somewhere between 11th and 15th on the depth chart.  His career averages of 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds doesn't scream "upper-echelon player."  He's played 12 years for six teams and is a free agent this year.  He's 34 years old, which in NBA terms is like 65.  To be blunt, his recent career has seen him be a bench player for a bad team.  As much of an important step as this announcement is for that community, Jason Collins has unfortunately branded himself as a "gay ballplayer" as opposed to a "ballplayer who's gay."

When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier decades ago, the concern was whether he was the "right guy--" talented enough, humble enough, respectable enough -- to legitimize the black athlete.  Jason Collins is not Jackie Robinson, at least not in the respect that he's an elite player.  He's on the downswing of a long but unremarkable career.  Collins is a Stamford educated man.  That is to say, he's not an idiot.  I'm sure as an athlete and as a businessman, he has to have come to grips with what this could mean for his career going into his free agent year.  And while I agree with Charles Barkley in that it's nobody's business who he sleeps with, putting this into the public eye makes it a public conversation, and unfortunately part of the talks in terms of continuing his career.  Big picture: it's a blip, and not because it should be a blip, but because Jason Collins isn't Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, or Dwyane Wade.

Now, I sincerely hope that this is the first step to this FINALLY not being a big deal anymore, the way being a black athlete, entertainer or executive is not a big deal anymore.  I hope that this announcement inspires an athlete of more clout to step up and embrace who he is, which in turn inspires more people to embrace who they are, and finally encourages the rest of us -- forces the rest of us -- to accept who they are.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Interview with TripMadam


At the suggestion of a co-worker, I went to a local bar to check out a show featuring bands from around Bellingham.  It was a Thursday, and I didn't have anything else to do, so I went.  Three bands played: two metal bands, one of whom I didn't stay for (metal isn't my thing, I'm sorry) and one band that was a little different: TripMadam.  The 45 minute set they played was quite good in my opinion, and by looking at the crowd I wasn't alone in my opinion.  They were easily the stars of the show.  When I found out that a band this good was unsigned, I had to get them for a Declarations of Independence profile.

TripMadam is Jared Fox (J-Fox) as lead vocalist and rhythm guiatrist, Taylor (T-Slammer) Galley on guitar and backing vocals, Mike Honeycutt on bass and Ryan Holland on drums.  The band's been around for four years and they've developed quite a local following.  Known for they're solid songwriting and crowd interaction, they tend to leave a trail of cheering, impressed fans in their wake.  The band is a sort of rock/metal/grunge hybrid calling themselves a sort of "Alice in Chains with a twist of lemon."  They compare their style to bands like 3 Days Grace, Staind and SlipKnot.

TripMadam was founded in 2009 by J-Fox and Ryan, along with Aaron Kirby (currently of Amish warfare) and Bryce Irwin (Black Beast Revival).  "Aaron and I had been friends for a long time," Jared explains, "and we said, screw it, let's try to find a couple other guys.  We've been in several bands so we knew tons of musicians.  We were fortunate to meet Ryan, and we started jamming and everying just clicked."

While Ryan and Jared had based their participation in TripMadam on an old friendship, Mike Honeycutt found his way into the band through sheer luck.  "Before (TripMadam) I was on kind of a musical hiatus, and then it was like, 'hey we need a bass player.'"  He bought new equipment and joined the band on a Thursday in August of 2012.  And the new bass player was immediately put to work.  "I learned enough music to played a show that Monday," he said.  "It's been like a rocket from there."

TripMadam's newest addition joined in November of 2012, as Taylor Galley was added after co-founder Aaron Kirby departed to focus on other projects.  "I had been in two bands with Jared before and Jared did a lot of the songwriting for those projects.  when I auditioned, I was familiar with a lot of the songs."  That familiarity has worked well to his advantage, and he's eager to make his mark on the band's sound.  "I'm more into heavier metal and stuff, but I;m trying to think outside the box with TripMadam."  ("Not trying to," Jared deadpans, "I'm making you.")




TripMadam defines itself by it's high goals and the hard work that goes into attaining them.  "We don't want to just be a garage band," Jared says.  "We want to be that next level, so we treat everything with professionalism.  We show up early, we stay late, we make sure that wherever we're playing, anyone who's throwing it on gets the proper thanks and appreciation for having us there.  we put on a show and when we leave, we leave a great taste in their mouth."  The shows that TripMadam puts on tend to be fan-focused affairs.  While they have primarily played small, local venues, they have used the limited space to get up close and personal with their fans.  A show that stands out in Taylor's mind was at a bar called Tubbs.  "This bar could only hold maybe 60 or so people.  We had it pretty packed, but the thing is there's no real stage.  since we like to participate with our audience so much, what was fun about that show was that we got to walk into the crowd while people were having their drinks and play to them personally."

Manager Paul Sullivan also likes their up-close-and-personal style.  "The first show where I was excited to see them was at the GLOW," he says.  "To actually watch Mikey and Taylor and Jared rock out on their guitars, they were playing on the dance floor and people were all around them.  The crowd was feeding off them and they were feeding off the crowd.  It was beautiful to watch." To Mike and Jared, their show at the Underground last December, where I saw them, was their finest to date.  "It was 400, 500 people," Jared says.  "They had us between two metal bands, and we had the crowd interacting with our songs, even people who never heard us.  I had earplugs in and I could still hear them.  Merchandizing coordinator Ashley Lee thinks this is the band's big appeal.  "(TripMadam) is so much fun to watch.  They give off this energy that draws the crowd in.  It drew me in, and it's so much fun to watch."

In my time interviewing the band, the one thing that became apparent to me was the way they interacted, very much like a family.  This bond was forged on a recent road trip to San Diego: where the average group of friends might have been at each other's throats on the 20 hour drive each way, TripMadam was on a mission.  "We went down the coast to sell the band," Jared recounts, "let people know who we are and let them know the Northwest is gonna come down there and kick your ass, let them know that we're still doing great music."  The family approach even comes through in songwriting.  "It starts with an idea, you know.  It could be a riff that I'm writing, or a song Taylor's writing, or something Mike says 'come here and check this out,' and we start playing and put the pieces together, then we hand it off to Ryan, and he makes it jell together."



The family approach extends to the team surrounding the band, from managers Kimm Davis and Paul Sullivan (Paul jokes "She always says she got the band in the divorce.") to the minds behind the merchandizing, Ashley Lee and Ruby Huizenga, and even to the former bandmates and their new projects.  "Anyone who's been in TripMadam was a part of the family -- they still are part of the family.  We jusst don't see each other as much because we're off to bigger and better things with our own projects."  One of those projects is Amish Warfare, headed by former backing guitarist Aaron Kirby.  "They're a lot of fun to watch, kind of like a punky version of KISS," Jared says.  Taylor adds with a laugh "They're the kind of band that can do a punk version of Britney spears and have everyone dancing to it."

The band's best days are ahead of them, as the future includes a West Coast Tour and even a contribution of two songs and score pieces to a film soundtrack, "The Last Fall of Ashes."  The band contributes the title track, "Ashes," and another song, "And I Know."  And like everything else for a do-it-yourself artist, this came about through being in the right place at the right time with the right people.  Jared met the director of the film through a chance encounter with a mutual friend.  After auditioning, he gave Jared the script also he could write a song and a score piece.  "At that point in time, I was going through chaotic stuff in my life, with my wife.  when i read the script it was like, verbatim, everything I had gone through with her and our situation.  It's a tragic love story, it really is and it really connected with me."  after viewing some clips to the film, Jared wrote "Ashes" for the film.  "It kind of came to me, lyrics were just pouring out."

The other song the band contributed to the film is "And I Know," for which they filmed a video.  "We did three days of shooting in eight hours," Jared says.  "And it was freezing fucking cold."  And in keeping with the DIY nature of the band, they called in a few favors to shoot the video.  "It was done by a couple of really good friends.  They took exactly what I was talking about, and put it in the video."

TripMadam has ambitious plans to tour this fall, somewhere between October and December, with plans to expand their fanbase beyond the Northwest.  Planned stops include San Diego, Phoenix, Albuquerque and Colorado Springs.

You can find TripMadam's music at their website, or on SoundCloud.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Actual Happy (short post)

"Everything is so fragile. There's so much conflict, so much pain. You keep waiting for the dust to settle and then you realize this is it: the dust is your life, going on. If happy comes along -- that weird, unbearable delight that's actual happy -- I think you have to grab it while you can. You take what you can get because it's here, and then, gone."

I found that quote from a comic book, of all places, and it got me thinking about how much time we spend NOT pulling the trigger.  We keep waiting for that right moment, for our lives to be perfect, for the situation to be perfect, for the stars to align properly before we make our move.  And by the time we're prepared to seize the moment, it's passed us by.  We convince ourselves we weren't meant to have what we want when that happens.  I'm accusing the human race of doubt-driven complacency.

I know I'm guilty of it.

I've done it a million times.  I've allowed myself to not pursue some things, some people, some goals out of doubt and fear.  Fear of rejection.  Fear of failure. Fear of humiliation.  Even fear of success.  And I know not all of us are afraid of the same things, but the fear is still there.  So now that this has been acknowledged, what is there to do with it?

My brother always tells me that the key is play recognition: realizing what you're dealing with at the point of impact, and then you strike at the first opportunity.  The flaw in that logic is finding the right moment.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Declarations of Independence


It's the American Dream, really.

It's the story we all are told as kids, how in this country, we have the opportunity to take our talents and make something of ourselves, create a better life, and get wealthy doing exactly what we want to do.  We hear about it from the top a lot, from the people who have already made it.  What about the rest of us?

As an independent author, I know that between the starting from nothing and the becoming something, there's a lot of grinding in the middle.  A lot of paid dues.  A lot of separation from the pack.  A lot of figuring out which way is your way.  To be honest, the stories of the people trying to make it is a lot more interesting than the ones of those that already did.  You never hear the stories from the middle, but maybe we should.

I will be taking it upon myself to find these stories and tell them, partly as shameless self-promotion and partly as a way to get the word out on people who are doing it themselves and meeting varying levels of success.  That's the inspiration for us all, isn't it?

So, look for "Declarations of Independence," profiles of independent artist, authors, designers, businessmen and women.  People who started with a passion and a good idea and turning a dream into reality.  And if any of you are out there and wanting to have your story told, contact me on Facebook or at frankcthomas@hotmail.com.

Cheers!

Monday, March 4, 2013

You Got What You Wanted. Are You Happy Now? (short post)

Welcome to the era of sequestration.

The political grandstanding between the Tea Party and the Sane People have come to the point where, due to the fact that they couldn't agree on a budget, on tax cuts, on anything, taxes have been arbitrarily increased and spending has been arbitrarily slashed.  Some of the more egregious cuts?

Education: Goodbye Head Start and other programs that were federally funded.  Hope you parents can find a way to deal with your kids after school.

Healthcare:  In my home town, 3 major hospitals are closing in high need areas: SUNY Downstate, Brooklyn Hospital, LICH.

Immigration: several thousand illegal immigrants that were being detained in advance of obtaining paperwork have been released.  Take that Arizona!

Defense:  The military took huge and deep cuts, slashing it's size by at least 10%

Unemployment and Social Security:  Both saw cuts of 6%, meaning the amount and duration of these benefits have been cut.

Oh, yeah, something like a million jobs have been lost in the process.

Now, the same people who were clamoring for smaller government are hamstrung and are wondering where the government support is.  And the legislators who let this happen seem convinced that government is supposed to be run like a business, and turn a profit.  They're wrong.  Whenever government has extra money, it's not called profit, it's called surplus.  There's a reason for that.

Well, now that TP has gotten what they want,  I wonder if they'll be happy now?

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Review: Practical Demonkeeping


Christopher Moore is far and away my favorite author.  I own every novel he's written,
read most of them multiple times, and no longer require any information other than the
fact a new one is coming out to pre-order.  Admittedly, I read his often hilarious
works out of order, and it's a good thing.  Had I started with his first published
novel, Practical Demonkeeping, I'd either be incredibly impressed by his evolution over
the last 20 years or I would have been shocked his career lasted this long.  That's not
to say it's a bad book, just not one to hinge the two decades of success he's had.

Set in the fictional small town of Pine Cove, California, Practical Demonkeeping
introduces us to an entire town of slightly-off, small-town characters, all of whom
have slightly-off, small town issues.  From the owner of the local bait shop/general
store, to the workers in the local diner, to the local bar where everyone knows your
name, Pine Cove is an "everyone-knows-everyone" setting.  So when Travis O'Hearn shows
up with his sometimes-invisible demon, Catch, all hell breaks loose.  You see, Catch
eats people, and has been eating people for a very long time, and the sudden
disappearance and death of people in tiny Pine Cove sets the town on its ear.  A djinn
tasked with defeating Catch has also traveled to Pine Cove and aligns itself with the
local bait shop owner, Augustus Brine, and they search for a way to stem Catch's
appetite for destruction.

Moore does a really good job of taking stock characters and making them into a
believable small town. These are characters he re-uses in several of his later works,
which extends the payoff in investing in these characters.  Having read his entire
bibliography, it is difficult to separate this from the larger universe he's created in
Pine Cove, but when you do you find that this story is the weakest of them all.  Again,
not to say it's bad, just to say I'm spoiled by his later work.  I wouldn't recommend
someone new to this author read this novel first.  It is however, worth reading.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Review: No Flesh Shall Be Spared


I wasn't sure about writing this review for two reasons: I don't usually dig zombie books, and the author, Thom Carnell, is a friend of mine.  I read this book a little more than a year ago, however, and loved it despite those very same reasons.  There's no reason, then, to not defy convention.

Carnell's debut novel, "No Flesh Shall Be Spared," places the reader in an interesting situation.  The Zombie Apocalypse happened. It's over and done with.  What happens next?  In this world, there's only one answer: Zombie Pit Fighting!  Contestants are placed in an arena with hordes of the dead, using the weapons at hand, their fighting skills, and their wits to survive.  Winning grants you money and fame.  Losing makes you hungry for flesh.

The story follows the rise of Cleese, the new face of zombie pit fighting, as he is recruited into this lucrative sport and trained in the fine arts of Zombie-killin' for sport.  Cleese is trained by Monk, who essentially plays Mickey to Cleese's Rocky, and sticks to his side as he kills his way to the top.  Along the way Cleese runs afoul of the league's corporate sponsorship and falls in love with a sexy she-slayer.  As the story progresses, we find out background on almost every character with a speaking part through the liberal use of well-placed and well-paced "Before..." chapters, which serve as a look into what it was like at the beginning of the Zombie uprising, a profile on certain characters, and a peek at the origins of America's newest pastime.

No Flesh Shall Be Spared is brash and ballsy, and a fresh take on the Walking Dead scenario we've seen time and time again since the remake of Dawn of the Dead in the last decade.  Take one part Gladiator, one part Night of the Living Dead, and one part Escape from New York, and you have this fun zombie action tale. The only complaints I have are a very slow start and an overuse of f-bombs, but these do nothing to detract from the overall enjoyment of the story.  I started out reading it because the author is a friend.  By the third chapter I was reading because my friend wrote a damn good book.

Noteworthy: Two words:  Zombie Mass.  That is all.

Rating: 9 of 10

Keep The Iron Hot


There's a certain satisfaction we get from doing something difficult.

I don't know if I can accurately explain it, so forgive me if I stumble over some of the words, but I think that as humans, we have a somewhat masochistc streak about us.  How else do we explain our drive to persevere, to push against long odds, to accomplish what some people find at the very least improbable?  And why else would we, after doing the improbable, convince ourselves there's more to do, higher to go?  Do we enjoy the pain?  Are we as a species in love with the physical soreness, the headache, or the emotional fatigue that accompanies perseverance in sport, academia, or any other human endeavor?

The song stuck in my head lately opens with "There's nothing you can do that can't be done."  When you look at the sentence by itself, it's a little hard to decipher what John Lennon is saying; either keep pushing because it's doable, or don't waste your energy because its not.  There's is a pain involved either way, from the intense pain of pushing past an obstacle to eventual success to the crushing heartache in giving up and relegating the effort already put in to waste.  I firmly believe that most of us, the best of us, believe the former and strive for excellence, even if sometimes we lack the strength of conviction to actually do it.

We've all had the moment, where we stood atop our world, at the summit of our own self-made mountains.  And as people, we do one of two things: either we climb back down so we can start over, or we seek the next, higher peak on the right.  There's nothing wrong with either act; as a matter of fact, those two paths are really not htat different from one another.  It's merely a matter of perception.  Do we want to climb to 3,000 feet to climb back down and ascend another day? Or do we stop at 3,000 feet for a while, survey the cloudscape, and ascend another 3,000 feet?

Maybe I've misread it, and I'm the only masochist out there who likes the climb.  If that were the case though, I would be the only one on the mountain.  The quote says "It's lonely at the top."  I find that to be incomplete.  The rest should say "But there's a lot of traffic in the middle."

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Mission statement.

"It is what it is."

I've heard those words a lot, especially lately, in regards to a situation that isn't to our favor, to something that's glaringly wrong, but we feel we can't do anything about.  A relationship going sour?  It is what it is.  A job we don't love, or barely like, or can barely will ourselves to show up for?  It is what it is.  Home situation sucky?  It is what it is.  I've used those words for each of those things, and more.  Until tonight.

I had something of an epiphany tonight.  While dealing with a situation I legitimately can't do very much about, a friend of mine told me about a situation that she has the power to fix, if she so chose.  The fix would be difficult, and benefit would not be shown in the near term, but it could be done.  Instead?  Shrug of the shoulder.  It is what it is.  I can't do that anymore.

There's a prayer from the days I used to be able to cross the threshold of a church that popped into my head:  God, grant me the strength to change what I can change, the serenity to accept what I can't change, and the wisdom to know the difference.  I think that too often we are too stuck on the second part.  No more.  Not for me.

There is too much that I legitimately can't change, too much beyond my control, for me to not actively and frequently affect the things I can change. Too many times, I have been denied what I really want simply because I lacked the stones to go for it, instead chalking it up to one of those things I couldn't change.   I'm tired of painting myself the victim of circumstance.  No more excuses.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Public Service Announcement

This is a message in two parts.  Part one is positive.  Part two is a call to arms.

We are all possessed of something special.  We all have something that sets us apart.  It's not necessarily physical, although some of us are athletic, or tall, or beautiful.  It is not necessarily mental, even though some of us are intelligent or creative.  It is not necessarily social, although some of us are funny, charming or charismatic.  It may be all of these things or none.  But we all have the ability to change the world.

At the lowest common denominator, life is made of impact ripples.  One thing impacts another, which impacts another and more until we inexorably feel the impact, big or small in return.  It's a greasy frictionless pool table with no pockets.  And everyone -- EVERYONE -- is capable of setting something in motion.  Everyone is special.  Whether you impact one person or a thousand, you make an impact.  And because of your existence, your direct or indirect impact, someone's life has been altered.  We would all do well to keep this in mind when we question our place in the world.

Part two.

I am not alone in thinking that I am not meant to be simply a cog in the great machine.  I am not just a little part who keeps spinning until worn to nothing, then replaced and discarded.  I am not alone in this.

We have the power, you, me, all of us, to remove ourselves from the machine, to become more than just parts.  We have the ability to do it ourselves and/or with others.  We have passions that will elevate us from the machine, even if we are not entirely sure what they are or how to properly use them.

I encourage you, writers, thinkers, creators, artists, athletes... step outside the machine.  Let us create our own machine.  Let us fulfill our destinies.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Rest In Peace, Mr. Mayor (short post)

My hometown has lost an icon today.

Former mayor Ed Koch died of congestive heart failure late last night at the age of 88.  Mayor Koch was the mayor when I was really young, and I don't remember much about his time as mayor.  I do, however, remember the man's persona.  He was a New Yorker, for all that it implies.  Unabashed, unashamed love of the city.  An air of kindness with a little edge of... well, New York.  It's an undefinable quantity, and one that I always admired.  The man was worldly, likely from his time serving in World War II, as well as local, due to being a Bronx product.

The city at the time Mayor Koch presided was much different than it is now.  It was a grittier city in the 80s, defined by the excess on Wall Street on one end, and the crack-cocaine epidemic in the inner-city on the other.  It was a dirtier, more abrasive city, but it was also more real.  That city, that time, is what earned New York it's enduring reputation as being a take-no-shit city, as opposed to this barely recognizable, extremely overpriced tourist destination.  The old New York is a city that people could afford and live in, and that city is one i would never have left.

Mr. Mayor, rest in Peace.


Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Front Line

A good friend asked for my thoughts about the new policy in The US Armed Forces that now allows women to serve on the front line in battle.  I must apologize to her for being so late, but I had to form an opinion first.

Here it is:  I feel this policy would be significant if it weren't just a formality.  The military is allowing female soldiers the privilege of doing something that, in practical terms, they've been doing for years.  This seems kind of redundant.  For me, the bigger issue is the fact that, in this day and age, it's an issue.  The fact that there needed to be an official decree to the fact is a little troubling.

In the Israeli military, everyone --  no exceptions -- is expected to serve two years in the military after age 17.  It's a condition of citizenship.  It's mandatory.  And in times of war, all soldiers fight.  Also mandatory.  I'm not exactly the most gung-ho military guy, but for us to think we're somehow a more progressive nation because we've finally allowed women to officially choose to die alongside the "band of brothers..." well, it's a little late.  The upside is that more female officers will emerge through battle.  Currently there are 57 top-level female officers in the Armed Forces -- generals, admirals, etc -- and now these military minds may finally be put to the test in the theater of war.  And who knows, this announcement may lead to a Chairwoman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the future.

However, the notion of women on the front lines is far from revolutionary.  Whatever meager arguments against putting a woman in the heat of battle -- physically weaker, no killer instinct or whatever -- are as antiquated as the idea of announcing something like this formally.

Welcome to the 21st Century.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Band-Aid

There has been new legislation put to the House floor regarding violence in video games.

*sigh*

Weeks ago, after the Sandy Hook tragedy, there was a call to at least have a conversation about some of the things involved that led to Adam Lanza taking a gun to an elementary school.  The NRA said they would add something meaningful to the debate.

They didn't.

Instead of blaming the proliferation of assault weapons in this country, the NRA heaped blame on our violent tastes in entertainment, video games and movies to be specific.  In the same breath, he suggested arming our teachers, but let's stick with one thing at a time.

Fact: Violence is pervasive in our entertainment culture.  We see too many movies -- and, yes, video games -- that make gunplay cool.  The neighborhood movie theater in Flatbush, where I grew up, closed in 1999, a week after the premiere of The Matrix prompted some knuckleheads to shoot up the movie theater.  No one to my knowledge was hurt, but it wasn't exactly common knowledge either.  There could be reasons behind that, but I'll save that for another rant.  The makers of Call Of Duty pump out a new version of the game every year, and that is met with fanfare, and long lines of people camping out to be first to buy.  There are very few statements I agree with from the NRA regarding the debate; the nod to our culture of violence is it.

The issue at hand, though, is whether restricting violence in video games is the answer.  As of 1994, in the wake of the Mortal Kombat hullabaloo, game developers were submitting games to the ESRB, a self-regulating board who would determine the level of maturity or objectiveness in the content of the game, and assign a corresponding rating.  Games with violent or other adult content are emblazoned with a giant "M" for mature.  It is then the responsibility of the consumer to either buy the game or not buy the game.  If the consumer is a parent, then they make the decision to buy or not buy the game based on the appropriate rating for their child.  The new legislation mentioned at the top of the blog makes submission to the ESRB mandatory, and game ratings enforced by monetary penalty:  sell a game to someone of inappropriate age, get a $5,000 fine.  I agree with this as well.

What I don't agree with is the notion that real-world violence stems from video game violence.  Since the majority of gamers are under 18, and most likely have games bought for them as gifts by their loving parents, shouldn't it be the responsibility of the parent to (a) screen the game for content inappropriate (by reading the label) and/or (b) educate their children to the difference between fantasy (on screen) and reality (off screen). If we fear our children are being brainwashed into being killers by these damn video games, then undo the brainwashing by stating that the game is just that... a game.  It's not real.  It's not how people should act in a civilized society.  Failing that, the prudent thing to do is DON'T BUY THESE GAMES FOR KIDS!!!  Make them wait until they can buy it for themselves, by either getting a job and learning about the real world, or saving up for it and learning about the real world.

Restricting violence in a video game is a band-aid.  It is at best a stopgap measure to address a byproduct of the problem.  The bigger problem is that it's still easier to get a gun than it is to get a drivers license.  The issue is still that you can get an automatic weapon at Walmart.  The biggest issue in my mind stems from the changing dynamic of the American family.  But that's the subject of another rant.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Patient Conversation (short post)

Had an interesting conversation with a patient at work.

I was setting her up while "The Bachelor" was on, and she was fascinated by it.  She never really got into the show until the end of last season, at the insistence of a friend.  I shook my head and said that it was kind of disappointing.  She asked why.  "Because I believe in love," I answered.

I made the point to her that "The Bachelor" turns the whole dating thing into a competition where the prize is getting an engagement ring, and our natural thing as animals is to overcome and eliminate competition.  There's no love on that show.  No real lasting connection.  Just a bunch of people competing for fame and notoriety.  It's so utterly cynical, and we have all bought in.  Don't get me wrong.  I'm single, and dating is very much like a competition, but it isn't -- and shouldn't ever be -- such an openly direct one.

The patient smiled and agreed with me.

I believe in love, in a connection to another person that makes you want to succeed with them, fail for them, shield them from hurt.  In something that enriches both people's lives to the point where it's like cable TV, and you wonder what you did before that person.  That makes me sappy, or overly romantic, or whatever, but I don't want to meet my future wife on what amounts to a game show.

I like to think I'm more of an optimist than that.


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Future Past

I've been asked a few very interesting time-travel questions lately.

The first one I was asked was, given the choice, would I rather (a) go back to 1999 and be 21 again, with full possession of the knowledge and experience I've acquired in the intervening years or (b) be 21 now in this day and age.

Tough question.

When I was 21, I thought I was mature for my age.  In reality, not so much.  I worked full-time and I lived at home, but my education had stalled and I partied way, way too much.  I had a ton of tools to make adulthood so much easier and I squandered most of them.  I had a great, great time and I don't regret any of it, but I could have made my life so much easier. That knowledge is irreplaceable, the experience is completely invaluable.

But being 21 now would be fun.

Being 21 now would mean that I would be more proficient in the technology of today, that many adults sometimes struggle with.  I would be able to enjoy the music of today the way young people do, instead of being this old and crotchety guy who rails on and on about how the music today is silly.  I would be able to have access to an amazing group of people, a generation or two behind me, who have grown up in the world that I have inherited and such.

I think I'd rather go back.

Way back in 1999, I did and saw some amazing things.  They may not have been extraordinary, but they were definitely life defining.   It would be amazing to see all the people I had in my life back then, meet some of them again for the first time.  And going back would allow me to correct the mistakes I made, like being smarter about money and school, or inventing Facebook.  It would be great to go back armed with the knowledge of who and what would be a waste of my time.  I wonder if I'm alone in this thought.

The second question was What would your 17 year-old self think of you now?

I'd like to think that me from half a lifetime ago would be amazed at what he would become.  But I'm probably wrong; my 17 year-old self had lots of ideas that were simply different from the way the world works.  I expected to be successful at 17, not quite realizing the hard work that goes with it.  I thought I'd be working for the New York Daily News, not even close to realizing that the print newspaper industry was going to be circling the drain at this point.  At 17, I expected to be married by 34.  All I can say to that is "oops, sorry dude."

Anyway, I ask these questions of all of you.  Please, sound off in the comments section. Would you choose to be (legal drinking age) now for the first time or back when you originally were knowing what you know now?  And what would the self that's half your age think of you now?

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Review: Django Unchained

I saw Django Unchained last week, and my impression was... meh.

Don't get me wrong, it wasn't a bad movie.  It was entertaining to a degree, and visually it was quite well done.  I was kind of n-weary by the end though.  This is a Tarantino flick, he uses the n-word.  Liberally.  By the end of the movie I came to two realizations.  One:  Quentin Tarantino wishes he was raised in Compton and two: he had a vision of what slavery would have been like if Shaft or Dolomite were around.  And a blaxploitation slavery movie seems a touch redundant, don't you think?

I'm not railing against the use of the word.  I grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn in the 80s and 90s.  For those of you that means something to, yeah.  For the rest of you, it means that I've heard and used the n-word a lot in my youth.  A whole lot.  I'm not as sensitive to the word itself as maybe I should be.  As I got older and realized it wasn't for polite company, I used it less.  And when I finally got the history of it, its intended use, it's actual meaning, I've taken pains to remove it from my vocabulary.  So while, in my humble opinion, Quentin Tarantino using the word as a punctuation mark is a bit on the excessive side and most definitely a turn-off, it wasn't my biggest issue with the movie.

Neither was the gore.  This flick was bloody and violent.  At a time when this country is still reeling from violent acts with firearms, its astounding how casually and frequently people are shot to death.  I mean, this is a Tarantino flick, once again, so we expect to be treated to little bits of brain and skull and pools of blood but... damn.  That said, however, that wasn't my problem with the movie.

My big problem was with the overall concept.  It didn't seem like it in the trailers, but this was essentially Roots set as a Spaghetti Western.  I'm not saying that we need to treat the history of the slave trade with church-like reverence, but the film asks you to make leaps of faith that are a little extreme, such as this one adult slave would be able to instinctively fire a gun, learn to read in three months, track down his wife three states away, and kill a whole house of slave owners.  Come on.

Props to Jamie Foxx, who did a great job portraying the hero in the context of the film.  Big props to Sam Jackson who plays Stephen, "the most hated Negro in cinematic history," as he put it.  Not so much to Kerry Washington, who a friend of mine called Hollywood's highest paid extra.  She didn't talk much but, to quote Django, "she pretty."

Like I said, not a bad flick.  But soft stomachs need not apply.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10.

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Caller (short story)

Hey all...

This is the first short story I've written in a number of years.  I had considered selling it on Kindle or something, but the process is simply too complicated right this second.  There are so many hoops to jump through.  Sigh.  So instead, I will share this story with you, free of charge, right here.  I present to you, "The Caller."




The Caller
Franklyn C. Thomas


    “This is Midnight Hour on WVYR radio, New York, and I’m your host John Benson.”  The deejay’s voice was smooth and laid back, like a weed or cognac buzz, and blended well with the rainy summer night.  “Guess what, y’all?  It’s Friday night, and time for another ‘Fess Up Friday’ on the Midnight Hour, and you know what that means.  For all of you out there who decided to stay in on this nasty Friday night, I’m your conscience.  I’m your priest, I’m your pusher, and I’m your reflection.  So anyone who has something to get off their chest, give us a call at 718-917-WVYR.”  John took a sip of his black coffee, no sugar, and saw a couple of lines light up on the telephone.  “And who do we have tonight, Rosie?”
     Rosie, the pretty, light-skinned woman in the booth with John looked at the computer display that had the name of all the pre-screened callers – or for the cowards, the name they wanted to be called on air – and what they had to say.  “We have Juliette,” she said in a smooth, jazz singer’s voice, registering a perfect C with every word, “and she’s confessing about Spring Break to her parents.”
John flipped on the speakerphone.  “Go ahead, Juliette,” he said in his best soothing voice, calmly sipping his coffee, “What have you got to confess?”
     “Well,” the caller began with a slight Southern twang to her high pitched voice, “this year for Spring Break, I told my parents and my boyfriend I was going to Miami with the girls.”
      “Did you?”
      “No,” she sighed.  “I went to Jamaica, with a couple of dudes I know from school.”  She took another sigh and hesitated for a second.  “We partied a lot, and you know, one thing led to another, and…”
     “Juliette?” John asked.  “Did you cheat on your boyfriend?”
     Juliette was silent on the other line for a moment.  “I’m sorry,” she said.  “I want him to know that.  I didn’t want to hurt anyone.”
     “Is he listening?”
     “I don’t know.  I hope so.”  She took a deep breath.  “I made a mistake,” she said, sounding more relieved.  “I just wanted him to know and hopefully forgive me. Thanks a lot.”  And with that, she hung up the phone.
     “Well, there we go.  Juliette wants to apologize to her Romeo for her indiscretions, and hopes he will forgive her.”  John paused to take another sip of coffee.  “For those of you tuning in, this is John Benson on WVYR radio, 940 on your AM dial in New York, 12:08 AM on the Midnight Hour.  Who’s up next, Rosie?”
     John looked up to Rosie in the production booth.  Her normally cool demeanor was gone as she seemed agitated and distraught.  That’s odd, John thought.  Rosie doesn’t usually clam up like that.
     “We… we have Paul,” she finally said, after a too-long-for-radio silence.  “And he’s confessing to…”  Rosie looked like she was about to break down.
     Without missing a beat, John pressed the button for line 2.  “Go ahead, Paul,” John said.  “We’re listening.”
     “Uh, hello, John.”  Paul’s voice came across shaky and nervous, and was unusually high for a man’s voice.  He can’t be any more than 25, judging from the voice, John thought. 
     Paul took a deep sigh.  “First time caller, long-time listener.”  There was a slight slur in his voice, barely noticeable but definitely there.  “I’m gonna confess something to you, John.”  He sighed again, exhaled deeply.  Wind swirled in the background, and the sound of rain came over the radio like static.
     “Paul,” John said, “where are you?  There’s a lot of static there.”
     “I’m on the roof of my apartment building.  I’m going to jump, but first, I want to confess.  I’ve killed.”
John’s heart jumped into his throat, and threatened to crawl out of his mouth, before he managed to swallow it as well as the urge to say “oh shit.”  He glanced up at Rosie, who still had the terrified and dumbfounded look on her face.  He covered the mic and mouthed call the cops to her.
     “What happened, Paul?” John said after two or three seconds.  “Who did you kill?”
     “I’ve killed, John,” Paul repeated.  “I’ve killed a lot.  I’ve killed dozens of men, women, and children.  Especially children.”
     A chill crept up John’s spine as he heard this.  “By killed, do you mean…”  He hesitated, trying to find a better word than murder.  “Did you commit a crime, Paul?”
     Paul was silent for a moment.
     “Paul?  Are you there?”
     “They shouldn’t have been there,” Paul whimpered, “and I killed them.  I had a good reason, but every time I think about, it don’t seem like that good a reason.”  Paul sniffled a bit.  “I don’t know what to do.”
     “Paul, calm down.  Take me through it slowly.  When did all this happen?”
     “Two years ago,” he said, and choked up.  His breathing was heavy on the line.  
     “It’s okay, Paul,” John said.  “No judgments here.”
     “Two years ago, I was on deployment in Afghanistan.”
     John exhaled low and deep.  “You’re a soldier,” he said.
     “Yes.  A Marine.  Well, I used to be.”  He took another deep breath.  “It was my last day, John, my last day.  I had done three tours, and after they got bin Laden, they started sending us home.  My unit had been embedded for eighteen months, scouring caves for that son of a bitch. Oh!”  Paul cleared his throat.  “Can I-can I say that on the air?”
     John laughed slightly.  “That’s our problem, not yours.  We’re on a four-second delay.”  Paul breathed another deep breath and John leaned back in his seat.  “Please keep going.”
     “After they killed him, God bless those guys, we were called back.  There was no more need for our unit, so we were directed back to Kandahar, and waiting to be sent back home.”  Paul choked up a bit, cleared his throat.  “It’s a beautiful night out, John,” he said.  The slur in his voice was more noticeable now, and John realized his caller was still drinking.
     “Yes it is,” he said.  “What are we having tonight?”
     There was a pause on the other line, and the noises of the street came through loud and clear.  “Single malt, aged 25 years.  My dad gave it to me when I got back.  Tastes like shit, but it’s better than the stuff we had on the base.”  Another pause on the line, and John imagined Paul taking another gulp.  “I was never a scotch drinker, though.”
     “I hear it’s an acquired taste.”  The noise in the background intensified and sirens came through the speakers, mingled in with the raindrops and the rest of the summertime road noise.
     “Are those sirens?”
     “It’s New York at 12:25 in the morning, Paul,” John said.  “Of course those are sirens.”  Paul laughed.  “so what happened?”
     “I was in Afghanistan for eighteen months, John.  Didn’t see any combat, never fired my gun.  There was a war going on, and I was like a bystander.”  Another pause, another swig.  “My unit and I, we were the lucky ones.  One day this kid comes by, a little girl, maybe nine years old.”  Paul stopped again and could be heard sobbing on the air.  He took a breath to compose himself.  “This happened all the time, you know.  Local kids from the city and the villages visiting the base.  It’s not all like what you see on the news, they don’t all hate us.  So this little girl wanders onto the base, and no one pays her any mind until we here a man’s voice yell out ‘Allah Akhbar!’  I was standing maybe, twenty feet from her, and she exploded.”  The sobs were rolling now and Paul didn’t even attempt to hide them.  John felt a tear roll down his cheek as well.
     “Suicide bombing,” John said.
     “It was a little girl,” Paul said.  “Next thing I know, there’s gunfire and before the dust settled four of the ten guys in my unit were dead.  I took one to the arm, one to the calf.  Me and my CO Joe Ryker take cover in the base, we look out and…”  Paul sobbed and hissed through his teeth.  Sirens in the background grew louder.  “Why are there so many sirens going off?” Paul asked.
     “Don’t worry about them,” John said.  “I need you with me, Paul.”
     “Oh, jeez, are they here for me?”  Paul’s breathing grew ragged and heavy.  “They’re coming for me, aren’t they?”
     “Calm down, Paul.”  Some of the smooth went out of John’s voice.  “We don’t want you to do anything rash.  No one’s coming to get you.  Talk to me, man, just keep talking.”  John felt his heart race as he heard nothing but street noise and sirens from the other end.  “Paul,’ he said, more urgently, “are you still there?”
     Ragged breath could be heard through the speakers.  “Yes,” Paul said, panting.  “Yes, I’m here.”  He took a couple more short breaths.  “What’s happening?  Why are there cops here?  Why are there paramedics here?”
     “Sir, stand back from the edge!”  The voice was amplified by a bullhorn and was scrambled by the cell phone’s tiny mic.  It came over the speakers in the booth tinny and distorted.
     “Paul?” John’s voice caught in his throat.  “Paul, what’s going on? Talk to me.”
     “Th-there’s cops,” the young man said.  “Ambulances.” Two short breaths.  “Shit. Did you call the cops?”
     “Paul, you’re on a live radio broadcast, using a cell phone, and you opened with the fact that you killed people and wanted to kill yourself.”  John let that sink in for a moment while he tried to find the right words to avoid telling a lie.  “The police coming to you was inevitable.”
     Over the speaker was a loud bang that sounded like the door to the roof being kicked open.  Yelling came through the speakers and an authoritative voice was clearly heard saying “Sir, step away from the ledge and put your hands on your head.”
     “Paul, are you there?” John said.  None of the cognac buzz remained in his voice and he gripped the microphone in the booth.  “Paul!  Paul, listen to me, no one thinks you’re a killer.  You’re a soldier.  You’re a hero.  Finish your story and the police will understand!”
     “No!” Paul shouted.  “They were kids!  The ones shooting at us were kids from the village, young kids, eleven, twelve, thirteen years old!  Children!”  Paul was openly sobbing into his phone, and by now the sirens had been turned off.  “They sent children in after us.  And we killed them!  Me.  Joe Ryker.  A couple of other guys who were lucky and weren't really hurt.  We shot them all.
     “There was this one kid who saw his friends die.  He looked sick, like he was about to vomit.”  Paul’s voice dimmed to barely above a sobbing whisper.  “He dropped his rifle and got to his knees.  Put his hands up, said ‘surrender’ in English.  I heard it.  I understood it.  I put a bullet in his head anyway.”
     Silence came over the speaker.  The sound of sobbing, of breathing, of sirens and city noise was on mute for a long moment.  “Paul?  Paul, are you there?”
     “They sent me home the next day.”  His voice was unsteady and he sniffled after he spoke.  “There was no investigation.  No inquiry.  They gave us medals.  Freaking Purple Heart.  Every night for the last two years I’ve seen that kid.  Every damn night.  I see him look at me with those big, brown, scared eyes.  I hear him surrender in that shaky voice.  And I… I…”  The line was quiet except for a sniffle every few seconds. 
     “Paul?” John said.  “Listen to me.  You did what you had to do.  It was do or die.  You or them.  Heat of combat.”
     “No!  That’s bull, John!  That boy didn’t have to die!  I shouldn’t have to live with that!  It’s too much!”
     “No one gets out of something like that clean,” John said.  He tried to not shout over his caller, tried to control his voice.  “Not you as a soldier, not us as a country.  That sort of thing changes you.  We don’t blame you, Paul.  You are a hero.”  John took a deep breath to compose himself.  “And don’t let anyone tell you different.  Everything you had to do over there for us, for you, we forgive you.”
     “You can’t forgive me.  You’re in no position to forgive me.”
     “You have a family, Paul?”
     Three more quick breaths came over the line, followed by a long one.  “I was married.  We have a little boy.  She left me.  I couldn’t talk to them, they would never understand, and there’s no way I want my boy to be like me.”
     “Think they forgive you?”
     “They say they do.  But how can they?  How can I ask them to live with this?”
     “How can you ask them not to?”
     A few sobs made their way over the line and died down slowly.  “Did you ever serve, John?”
     “No, sir,” John said.
     A few more sobs came over the line.  “Then-then you can never understand.”  Silence came over the line, then distant shouting.  John heard a cop in that roof yell out “Sir!  Sir! Step away from the ledge!  Sir!”
     “Paul!” John shouted.  “No, don’t do it!”
     The yelling faded and a whooshing sound came over the line.  With a final static smash, the line went dead.
     John shot up from his seat and leaned in close to the microphone.  “Paul!  Paul!  Are you there?  Can you hear me?  Paul!”
     “The call… failed,” Rosie said from the booth.  Tears filled her red-rimmed eyes.  “We can’t seem to get a connection.”
     “Call him back!” John said, pointing at Rosie in the production room.  “Get him back on the line!”
Rosie’s shaky hands dialed the number that just called, and immediately the call went to voice mail.  “Hey this is Paul, leave a message.”
     “No!” John shouted.  He slumped back into his seat.  “No.”  He looked over his shoulder at the red “ON AIR” light and shook his head.  He took a deep breath, pulled up to the microphone and cleared his throat.  “We, uh-“ he wiped a couple of tears from his eyes and cleared his throat again.  “On behalf of WVYR, we would like to apologize to our listeners for that exchange, and we would like to extend our deepest condolences to, uh, the family of Paul.  I’m sorry, we don’t have his last name.”  He took a couple more deep breaths.  “So this is John Benson on ‘Fess Up Friday, and I’m here to say that if you need to confess, to talk tonight, I’m listening.  I’m here.”  The smooth had returned to his voice just in time for the sign-off, and he switched his microphone off.


Copyright 2013 Franklyn C. Thomas