Wednesday, August 19, 2015

All over the place

About two and a half weeks ago my family and I moved to Cross Plains.  Now, that sound you just heard was the collective gasp of all of the Robert E. Howard fans.  Sadly, not THAT Cross Plains.  I’m talking Cross Plains, Wisconsin.  A little suburb located a few miles outside of Madison proper.  The rent is cheaper, the schools are closer, and the place has much more space.  Not to mention that it’s not the ghetto, like where we used to live.  So, that’s big news.

Then, the Monday after that move (on Saturday), I went down to the used car dealership where my wife had gotten her car a couple of years ago, just to look around.  They had a particular car I was interested in, so I decided to just take a gander and see what options I had for getting something new in the near future.  Well, it turned out that my credit score was a LOT higher than I expected, and I was able to get that car I had my eye on for lower payments (not much lower, but every bit counts), and $0 out of my pocket.  So, now I am jetting around in a 2009 Scion Tc, and loving it.

I was joking soon after that I seemed to be on a roll, and that maybe I should go ask my boss for a raise.  And, if I worked in the private sector, I probably would have done just that.  But, as a State employee, where my pay is based on my grade, and the whim of my legislators (including that massive douchecake, Scott Walker), it isn’t that simple.  However, my 5-year anniversary comes up at the end of next month, so when I do my review I plan to bring it up to my boss.

In the meantime, I have been looking and applying for other jobs.  The prospects are actually kind of slim if you want to make a decent living.  And since I’m not dumb enough to take a pay cut in this economy without a REALLY good reason, my choices are just that much slimmer.  Still, there is always hope.

I started my final class a couple of weeks ago.  It’s not actually a “class” so much as a preparation course.  After eight weeks of preparation, I will have to sit down with a proctor, and take no more than six hours to answer four essay questions.  Each one will be about one of seven classes that I took, but I won’t know which four I have to answer until the day of the exam.  I get to use no notes and no resources; just what I can pull from my scattered brain and horrible memory.  I’m not exactly very confident about this right now, but I’m going to give it my best.

I also have a backup plan.  Should I fail the comprehensive exam, I have the option to take it one more time, or take a capstone course.  I’m leaning towards the capstone.  Basically, I will have 16 weeks of guidance and help to write a 40-50 page thesis paper.  Honestly, that’s only about 16,000 words or so by my calculations (based on 325 words per page).  I wish I had taken that route to begin with.  Because I KNOW I can pull that off easily.

Anyways, it was nice to have a few months off from school.  I actually did some reading for pleasure.  I recently read the first two books in the Dragonlance Chronicles again, and loved them still.  I'm reading them as eBooks checked out from my library system, and volume three is not available for loan yet.  In the meantime, I finally read another Dragonlance book that actually takes place during that third volume, and it was pretty good too.

I’ve also started in on my goal to spend an entire year reading nothing but historical nonfiction.  I’m starting with a book about the Greeks, and will probably spend the majority of that year continuing to read different books about them.  Though I do have a book on Vikings that I want to read as well.  I figure, if I'm going to display the fact that I will have a Master’s degree in History, I might want to know a bit about the subject.

As for writing, I recently wrote a short story; my first foray into horror.  Had one of my friends read it, and he gave me some advice.  So, I’m going to do some revisions, and then see if I can find a home for it.  Still have a bunch of other stuff I would like to write.  And once this whole degree thing has blown over, I imagine I will be able to focus my energies a bit more.

All-in-all, life could be better in some ways, but it could be a lot worse.

Friday, July 3, 2015

The results are not in...

…because there are no results.  A couple of weeks ago, I offered one of my best stories, Blackskull’s Captive, for free on Amazon for three days.  I put out the word, and got some good feedback.  The idea was inspired by Charles Gramlich who had done the same with one of his stories, with some decent results.

Well, the sale lasted from Saturday through Monday.  We were out of town that weekend anyways, so I decided I wasn’t going to even look at any results until the whole thing was done.  I was hoping for a bunch a free downloads, which would lead to a few new sales afterwards, maybe a few sales of other stories, and a review or three.

Well, I did get a bunch of free downloads.

Other than that, not a tremor.  It was disappointing, but not unexpected.  I have no name recognition, and my stories are all just shorts, mostly in the fantasy genre.  So, basically, the experiment was a failure.

And I’ve kind of decided to give up on the whole idea of self-publishing fiction.  I really should focus on writing longer works if I ever want to be an accomplished writer.  And submitting them to paying markets is probably a better idea.

I do have another orc story complete, and a trusted reader looking at it.  Since it’s a continuation of two previous stories, I might go ahead and self-pub it.  Though I am actually thinking of just letting is simmer for a while, writing a few more stories about the cast of characters I have established, and putting them all together in a single volume.  I’m looking at the same idea for the Blackskull story.  I have a sequel started, with ideas for at least two more.

I think my problem, actually, is much larger than writing.  I have a lot on my mind lately, and a lot of worries.  So, writing is an effort to say the least.  But, since finishing school (more or less), I have been reading more, which always seems to help with my creativity.  So, who knows?

In the meantime, I’ll probably just chip away at my various works in progress, and not worry about my future as a writer.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Read: A Kung Fu Western

Immediately following my reading of Enter the Dragon, I picked up Sloane #1 "The Man with the Iron Fists" and dug in.  And I have to say, I enjoyed it a lot.

The Good:  The writing was pretty top-notch.  Especially when you consider this book falls into the general "Men's Adventure" category of modern Pulp Fiction.  It's a western, and while the narrative often lacked L'Amour's poetry, it did a good job of placing the reader smack dab in the old west.  The action was pretty exciting, the characters believable (more or less) and interesting, and the sex-scenes were tastefully presented.  The plot is a standard Revenge plot, with the boy growing up to avenge the wrongful deaths of his Ma and Pa.  But, the writer (or writers, as it turns out) delivers this tried and true archetypal story with originality and flair.  Interestingly, the entire time I was reading it, I could picture watching every detail play out on the big screen.  I'd love to see a movie adaptation.

The Bad:  As with Enter the Dragon, the martial arts scenes sometimes got a bit campy and wuxia.  Although in Sloane they were somewhat restrained by comparison.  Some of the details were a bit much, such as our hero wearing a white suit (that, thankfully, showed its wear and tear throughout the novel), and the fact that, despite his pretty sheltered upbringing, Tod Sloane showed a lot of worldliness.  But really, my only "complaint" was the final deaths of two of the biggest (one physically) villains.  They were both way over-the-top, and I would have preferred to see them dispatched in less hokey ways.

The Verdict:  I would give this book a solid 7/10.  Well worth the read, and I am looking forward to the second book. 

Interestingly, in doing some research, it appears that the two books I have were the only ones published by Pinnacle in 1974/75 (sadly, the series didn't catch on).  There is rumored to be a third, unpublished book, and all three are supposed be getting re-released as Kindles soon.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Recent Reads

After a pretty long dry spell of not finishing a book, I decided to go back to square one, and focus on shorter works (less than 200 pages or so), and familiar favorites.  In the last month, I've already had two and a half successes.

The Executioner #71: Blood Dues.
I hadn't read a Mack Bolan book in a long time, so I decided to go old school and read from the era when I actually met him first: the mid-80's.  In this book, we find Mack back in Miami, looking into some stolen weapons, and he already has some suspected players.  Namely the mafia, and Cuban national terrorists (remember, this is the Bolanverse in the 80's).  Over all, it was a solid effort.  A few little literary speed bumps here and there, but a good, well-paced story.  There are some characters and references to a previous book in the series as well, which is always cool.  As a bonus these references pointed to one of Don Pendleton's original stories, Miami Massacre (Executioner #4).  I've never read that one, but I kind of want to now.  By the end, we get plenty of dead bad guys, a couple of tragically dead allies, and a major slaughter of innocents is averted.  It was nice to revisit this universe.  It felt like spending time with an old friend I hadn't talked to in a long time.  I should read these more often, I think.

Enter the Dragon - Novelization
This past weekend I hit up HPB for a specific book (see below).  They didn't have what I was looking for, and I almost walked out empty-handed.  But, on a whim I decided to go back and look at the sadly dwindling Men's Adventure section (down to a slim, 2 shelves).  There were the standard selection of Bolanverse books, and a few random entries from other series.  But, on the bottom, wedged in between some other stuff were three books that I had to have.  First were the first two entries in a "Kung Fu Western" series called Sloane.  And next to those was the novelization of Enter the Dragon.  I grabbed all three for about $1.50.

I started reading Enter the Dragon the other day, and just finished it tonight.  It was a slim 158 pages long, and while it wasn't high literature, it was a fun and quick read.  But, I think most of the fun came from the fact that I know the story so well.  That was actually both a boon and a curse.  All of the main story elements were there.  The scenes were present as they were in the film, including a couple of cut scenes that are edited back into my 25th Anniversary DVD.  And much of the dialogue was intact.  But, a lot of the details were changed.  Some of the characters were switched around (Bolo was now a giant Turk, and a character that looked like Yang Ze, who played Bolo in the film, was a minor character on the boat, replacing the racist Australian).  However, the biggest let-down was the descriptions of the fight scenes.  Some of the maneuvers were really weird to read, and didn't match with the movie, or even seem possible.  Basically, it read like the author's only reference for martial arts was the wire-fu of Wuxia theater.  And finally, the mirror room scene was completely cut out.  Over all, it was underwhelming.  Honestly, I think I could have written a better novelization myself.  Chances are, the author was asked to write it, based on an early draft of the script, and with only a month or so to finish it.

Dragonlance Chronicles - Dragons of Autumn Twilight
This was the book HPB didn't have in stock.  I've read this trilogy four times, actually.  But, it's literally been over a decade since the last time.  So, I figured what the heck, right?  Unfortunately, I don't know where my copies are (and they're kind of old and tattered anyways), so I turned to the library.  There I found that I could "check out" the Kindle edition.  Neat!  So, I reserved it, and after a few days of waiting (the system works just like a real library book, and only a certain number of copies can be downloaded per library system at a time) I got it and started reading.  Unfortunately, in my settings for the service that provides the eBooks (OverDrive), I left my check-out length to the default of 7 days.  I'm a slow reader, so that was not nearly enough time.  Still, I did manage to make it through 51% of the book before the time ran out.  I was too late to renew my check-out, so it went to someone else.  I have reserved it again, and hopefully will get it back soon.  The cool thing is that it will remember where I was, and start me right where I left off.

My next reading adventure in the meantime will be the first of the Sloane books, "The Man with the Iron Fists."

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Learning about and from Bruce Lee

I have all of these, though they are
now available in a single volume.
I have been into the martial arts since I was about 13 or 14 years old.  And from very early on, I was drawn to Bruce Lee, as many people were (and are).  At the time, he had only been passed on for about 10 years, so his martial art of Jeet Kune Do was just starting to spread, and his popularity was gaining even more ground as the 80's embraced the martial arts in all things.

I determined right away that I wanted to be like him.  So, I studied his books, and took some classes.  But, I also came to the conclusion that I didn't really care for traditional martial arts study.  Maybe I had been influenced by reading his views on them, but regardless, I found that structured classes, with colored belts, forms, and rigid methods of learning made me feel stifled.  So, I took what I could from them, and moved on to study and practice on my own, often dragging my friends into the process.

After high school, that all kind of fell away.  I mean, I still loved martial arts.  I even carried my Bruce Lee's Fighting Method books through several moves, relationships, and into my second marriage (I still own them, and they are sitting right next to my desk).  But, I have fallen out of practice over the years, and my love of Bruce and his art have kind of been relegated to just another item in a long list of interests.  Until recently.

For some reason, about a month ago, I suddenly became very interested in the subject again.  This time, I apparently decided, I was going to delve a little deeper.  So, in the last few weeks, I have been reading a lot about the philosophy behind Jeet Kune Do, as well as everything I could about the man himself.  Incidentally, although I loved the movie Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, I am learning now how much that film got completely wrong.

As I learn more and more about what kind of man Bruce was, it occurred to me that he could serve as a model in aspects of my life.  I have been really unfocused, depressed, and generally unhappy with the course of my life (some aspects of it, anyways).  So, I decided that I would see if there were habits and outlooks that Bruce had that maybe I could adapt to my own life, in order to make things a little better personally.  And, I think I may be onto something.  Only time will tell.

One thing that found interesting was that he was always writing.  And back in the late 60's and early 70's, this meant pen and paper.  So, I figured, what the heck?  I have been carrying around this spiral notebook in my backpack for months, and doing very little with it.  So, today I tore out the sheets that already had stuff on them, and grabbed a pen.

One of the other things I have been doing is researching ways to study and practice Jeet Kune Do.  There is only one place here in Madison that offers any sort of classes, and when I had tried them a few years ago, I wasn't all that impressed (too much Muay Thai, and not enough Bruce Lee).  So, I determined that the only course I could afford was to do it on my own.  This ties into the afore-mentioned notebook.

Today I decided to map out how I would train myself to be a JKD practitioner again, and I would do it in a manner that Bruce might have appreciated.  So, with a slow day at work, I started writing.  And writing.  Ideas and stored knowledge just started pouring out, and before I knew it I had eight pages of hand-written text on the subject of fitness and body conditioning.

Now, I'm no expert on the subject, but I do know enough to speak intelligently about it.  And it was very cathartic to see the pen flow across the paper, and the words and ideas and theories to form and materialize from my own hand.  I had to smile because in my mind, I imagined Bruce Lee, sitting at his own desk in his home, doing much the same thing.

Anyways, I plan to continue this process, as well as try to work my way into being proficient at martial arts again.  But, that aspect will probably see life on my other blog, Fighting Man's Fitness.  That page is due for an upgrade, and some house-cleaning as it is.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Anger Management through HALO

I have a pretty bad temper.  I get red-in-the-face angry at some of the dumbest shit.  It really doesn’t take much to set me off.  Fortunately, my reaction to that anger is usually just brooding and simmering until I can get a handle on it.  But, sometimes it bursts out, and I raise my voice when I probably shouldn’t.  This happens mostly with my kids.  I find I have to apologize for yelling a lot (that being said, I get accused of “yelling” when I’m actually not, so I think they have a hand in this).

Anyways, my son gets me mad a lot.  He’s 6, and at the stage in childhood where he has no filter, and no “survival instinct” as my wife puts it.  So, he’ll respond to something I tell him with something infuriating, and I usually end up yelling at him for it.  It’s annoying because, first of all, I hate losing control.  But more importantly, I know what kind of damage that can do in the long run, and I am always worried that I’m not a good parent anyways.  So, yeah, stress levels rise.  It’s really a vicious cycle.

My son loves video games.  And he loves to play them HIS way, regardless of who he is playing with.  In Minecraft, he’ll get all bossy, and indignant of you do something against what he wants you to do, for example.

Lately we’ve been playing HALO Reach (got it for free through Xbox-Live a while back).  But he likes to play it on Firefight, where player 2 is defaulted as a lone Spartan, and player 1 can either join the Spartan side, so there’s two, or he can join the Covenant.  The scenario is basically a Last Stand, where the Spartan side has to fend off wave after wave of increasingly difficult enemies.  He likes to be the Covenant.

Last night, I felt the anger boiling, since he kept camping me.  And since his temper is equal to mine, he kept getting angry when I would kill him (usually with a shotgun to the face).  But, instead of yelling, I decided to just make jokes about it, and compliment him on his kills.  And suddenly, it was fun.  And when I shot him, he would initially have the “gamer rage” reaction of insisting that he got me first (when clearly he hadn’t, since he was the dead one).  But then we would laugh, and he’d come back and come after me again.

It was a very succinct reminder that my kids learn from the behavior I model.  It’s common sense, and every parent knows this already.  But, sometimes I need a little refresher.  So, I’m trying to wrangle my temper with humor and compassion.  Just like every “expert” says to do.  It seems to work with my son.

Now, if I could get the 12-year old girl to drop her attitude…I think I’ll leave that one to mom.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Opening soon?

I was perusing my bookshelves yesterday, and I think I came to the conclusion that I just need to pare down my collection.  Anyone who knows me knows that this is a major deal.  I am somewhat of a collector, and borderline hoarder.  I kind of always have been. 

When we came back from Desert Storm, I had stuffed my duffel bag with paperbacks that people had tossed in a barrel to be burned in preparation for the beginning of the ground war.  Nowadays, I hit up the local Half-Priced Books about twice a month, and the first place I go is the "Bargain" section.  These are books that, if not sold, will just be tossed into the dumpster in the middle of the night.  The thought just horrifies me, so I often "rescue" books that interest me from this fate.

Hey, it's cheaper and cleaner than saving animals from the shelter.

Be that as it may, I find that I have a lot of paperbacks that I have read, and that I know I will never read again.  I also have several paperbacks of Robert E. Howard's works that are duplicates of what I have in the Del Rey collection (only missing like two volumes from those).  And then there's a whole plethora of books that, chances are, I probably will never read, and have no idea why I bought them in the first place.

So, my idea is to create a new page here (see the tabs at the top), and list all of the ones I want to sell, with a reasonable price.  Anyone who wants any of them can let me know, and we can work out a direct sale deal.  Payment would probably be through PayPal, and I would mail everything Media Mail, since that's the cheapest.  Unlike Amazon, I wouldn't add a standard mail rate to each book.  Rates would be based on the weight of the package and nothing more.

I figure this has a good chance of getting books into the hands of people who will appreciate them, and we can bypass the middle man.  I did this in the past with RPG books and materials, and it worked out pretty nicely.

I'm going to start sorting and creating a list this weekend, probably.  So, keep an eye out.  I'll most likely just do a quick post when I have new items listed.

On a side note, I would probably also entertain the idea of book trades.