Sunday, May 17, 2015

Every Day I Have The Blues

The Blues (and, yes, I capitalize the Blues, out of respect) is something I’ve always loved, even before I understood what it was. When I was growing up, the house was always filled with music, courtesy of my dad’s beloved stereo turntable. In the songs of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Cream, Led Zeppelin, and all of those other rock acts that emerged from the 1960s, there was a sound that I eventually came to recognize as the Blues. Janis Joplin, though hailed as a rock icon, is nothing but the Blues to me. One of my favorite Beatles songs is an obscure one from the White Album called “Yer Blues.” (“My mother was of the SKY; my father was of the EARTH; well I am of the UNIVERSE, and you know what it’s worth…!”) I never really understood what the Blues was during that time because, well, I was rather young. Plus my parents were never very good at explaining the finer details of things like music to me, much as they loved it. Perhaps they themselves didn’t know. They were young, too.

In my teen years, I finally got a firm handle on the Blues thanks to, weird as it seems, the Blues Brothers. I was struck by the fact that, silly though they were, there was a certain dignity about the Blues Brothers and about the Blues in general that other forms of popular music lacked. Also, unlike Rock, Pop, Rap, or even certain types of Jazz performers, Blues performers only seem to get better with age, as they gain wisdom and experience.

The Blues is also the parent of modern popular music. Sure, a case could be made for Gospel music, but like early Classical music, Gospel's origins are firmly rooted in the ancient influence of religion. The Blues is about humanity, without a specific religion attached to it. Even when it does include religion, the Blues sometimes cheerfully embraces the darker side of religion, with songs about people indulging their sins or making pacts with demons and devils. The Blues does not discriminate. It celebrates humanity and all of its aspects, good and bad, chaste and naughty. It’s this trait that has carried over to all of the children of the Blues -- Jazz, Rock, Pop, Rap, etc. The Blues has even permeated Classical, Country, Bhangra… almost any other type of music imagined. I think that’s another reason I’ve always loved it. For me, it’s always been there, no matter what I’ve been listening to.

So, after years of listening to a music that I loved, the Blues Brothers, Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, finally supplied me with a definition and with the history of the Blues. I not only came to understand where the Blues came from, I finally understood what it is, at least for me. The Blues isn’t really about sadness and depression. It’s about persevering in spite of those things. I’ll always be grateful to Aykroyd and Belushi for not only helping me understand the Blues but also to introducing me to its long history of artists, including Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Booker T. & the MG’s, -- and, of course, B.B.King.

I don’t pretend to know a lot about B.B.King the man. I never even had the privilege of seeing him perform, though I do own CDs and MP3s of many, perhaps most, perhaps ALL of his recordings. That I’ve long loved his music is an understatement. B.B.King’s guitar playing always sounded deceptively simple, with many single notes and trills. It always deeply reflected the emotion of the song, whether B.B. was playing a song filled with anger or with humor.

I can add only one modest story to the many tales told of B.B.King over this past weekend. Approximately ten years ago an author that I worked with emailed me from Las Vegas with the message, “Guess who I got to meet last night, in person! The King of the Blues himself!”

Naturally I wrote back, “You met B.B.King? Where? I’m JEALOUS!”

The author had won a contest allowing him to meet B.B.King after a concert. Upon finding himself in the presence of B.B., the author, himself a well-known man, fell upon his knees in respect for the great monarch of Blues music. B.B. apparently chuckled, told his subject, “You may rise,” and then smiled warmly as the author gushed his undying admiration for B.B. and his music.

I’m not sure how I would have reacted to meeting B.B. Whenever I meet celebrities, I tend to nod politely at them and leave them be, unless I have to conduct business with them -- and then I’m pretty much nothing but business. However, B.B.King was the much deserving KING of the Blues, my favorite form of music -- so I may have completely lost it in his presence for all I know. All I can state is that I am grateful for B.B.King’s music, for his artistic generosity, and for his long, active, and ever-musical life. ‘Bye, B.B., and thanks for being such a grand, glorious, and worthy monarch.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Herald by N.F. Houck is Finally a Proper eBook

Yes, it’s finally happened. Herald by N.F. Houck (that’s my pen name -- well, one of them), my fictional “autobiography” of the Greek god Hermes, is at long last in eReader-friendly form, meaning it is now downloadable from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc., for Kindles, Nooks, etc. To find it in a bookseller’s website, just do a search for “Herald Houck” and it should pop up. Sorry this whole process took so long. Modern ebook conversion methods are a bit more involved than I anticipated.

When ebooks were in their infancy, the process of converting print to ebook form was very easy. All one had to do to create an ebook was use the same electronic files used to create the print book, usually via a PDF. Almost nothing had to be stripped out, converted, reformatted, etc. That’s not true anymore -- the EPUB/MOBI process has additional requirements. Because Herald had some tricky formatting and graphics, some changes had to be made to get it properly converted to EPUB form. Most of the changes had to do with the general appearance of the print book and a few of its “perks.” For example, in the new ebook, there are no Greek alphabet characters. The map has been removed, as well as some little graphics that were embedded in the text. The result is lean, mean, efficient text that was very easy to convert. The hardest part was having all of the original formatting stripped out. The final ebook STILL has a few formatting errors -- Nothing that affects overall readability, so… It’s just time to let it go.

I couldn’t resist having a few text corrections made. Nothing major. I couldn’t help it. The opportunity was there, and the editor in me decided to take advantage of it (even though, admittedly, it is almost impossible for the average editor to edit his/her own stuff). As many have said, in this digital age, is a book ever truly finished?

Anyway, now that Herald is finally converted over, I can devote 100% of my attention to the sequel.

Okay, it’s not really a sequel -- more of a continuation. Part 2 of a series, if you will. Hermes is NOT the narrator of the second book. The narrator is a different deity, one that’s providing me with a completely different writing experience from Herald.

I have been asked several times how to write a book. Every author writes differently -- or in my case, writes differently every time. Because of this, in my opinion, the best way to write a book is to just sit down and start writing. Get your words -- what you want to write about -- down, and worry about all the technical stuff later. By doing that, you’ll discover how YOU write a book. Despite what many seem to believe, just sitting down to write a book is NOT easy for most people. It requires a great deal of self-discipline and work to make yourself write an entire book from beginning to end. It’s very time-consuming, and oftentimes it’s just plain BORING. With computers, there’s a huge advantage to just getting all of the preliminary writing down in a word processing file (I use OpenOffice) and then going back over it later to reorganize and make changes. So, just sit down and start writing. If you find you don’t have the patience or self-discipline to write an entire book, or you can’t think of something to write about, maybe it wasn’t meant to be.

Also, let me clear up one thing right now -- Bestselling authors are EXTREMELY rare. Less than 97% of all book writers make enough money from their publications to allow them to quit their day jobs. The reason bestselling authors become famous is because they ARE so rare. You can’t write a book expecting to get rich or famous. Getting rich would be nice, but the primary reason to write should be because you have a need to express yourself through the written word.

I have found that my writing style has a lot in common with method acting -- that is, getting inside the heads of characters and then just turning them loose. It’s a little dangerous, actually. Writing as Hermes was an almost completely joyful experience, as if he was eager to get the story out. Writing as this other deity -- okay, GODDESS -- for the second book is entirely different. It’s like, she wants to get her story out as well, but she’s worried about it. Also, there’s so much in her history that’s downright horrific, I start feeling depressed when I write for long stretches. That’s probably why it’s been taking me so long to get the book done. It WILL get done, though.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Avengers, Daredevil, and More


Well, okay, the first thing isn't a spoiler:

Mr. Sea has kidney stones AGAIN.

Yeah. Figures. I start blogging again, and he gets kidney stones. THREE of them this time. TRIPLETS. They're not serious or anything (yet), but Mr. Sea is not having a good time.

Next item: I finished Daredevil on Netflix. I made sure I didn't fly through the episodes, because I wanted to savor them. It was difficult, because some of the episodes ended with really good cliffhangers. Final verdict? I want to REWATCH the entire series, because that's how much I enjoyed it. The plot is engrossing. The fight scenes are FABULOUS. The character development was very good, especially for Daredevil and Kingpin, and all of their various contradictions (yes, Matt is a lawyer AND a vigilante, and he does struggle with the ethical incompatibility of those two disciplines -- just as he always has in the comics).

Weird as this may seem, there was only one thing in the series that disappointed me, and that was when Daredevil finally switched from the "Dread Pirate Roberts" look to his final, iconic costume. As often happens when attempts are made to make real-life versions of what are essentially drawn costumes, the final Daredevil costume looked a bit -- well -- cheesy to me. But, really, what else can you do with an acrobat costume with devil horns on the cowl? Even Batman's costumers still have trouble with the bat threads, after close to 70 years of attempts. At least Daredevil's costume doesn't look cumbersome. To the designer's credit, Daredevil actually looks like he wouldn't have any trouble doing real acrobatics.

I'm also glad they didn't start off with the Electra saga, though she is mentioned, rather coyly, in one episode (when Foggy asks Matt about a "Greek" woman he dated). Maybe Electra will appear in Season 2 -- along with Bullseye...?

It's funny, because I have tried watching Arrow, Gotham, and the Flash. NONE of them held my attention past the second episode. Daredevil, I made it all the way through without any trouble.

Finally -- I did see Avengers: Age of Ultron on Saturday. I LOVED it. No, I don't think it's the greatest movie of all time, or even the greatest super-hero movie (it's more chaotic than the first Avengers film, and some stuff may be lost on people who don't know Avengers history), but it is FUN, FUN, FUN. I also made a startling discovery about myself. I was really looking forward to seeing Ultron -- easily my favorite Avengers villain -- but what really had me totally geeking out (and, in fact, had even my just-as-geeky brother rolling his eyes at me) was the appearance of THE VISION. Holy cow, was I ever so happy to see the Vision! I can't BELIEVE how happy I was to see the Vision -- and, yes, I was pleased with how they presented him. I finally had to acknowledge that I love the Vision as a character. I just never realized it before. After all, most of my Avengers knowledge dates back to the late 70s and early 80s. But, oh, I was ever so happy to see the Vision, and to see him and the Scarlet Witch be ever so delicately interested in one another. Oooooooooh, I loved it! So --Wow. I'm a Vision fan. Who knew?

Other personal news -- I start a new job on Monday! Well, sorta. It's actually a temp job with my old company (different location). It's not glamorous, and the pay is less than my last job, but it's income, and it keeps my resume from having a huge dead zone in it. So, it looks like my days as a stay-at-home mom are coming to an end.



Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Sad Tail of Bubbles the Goldfish

Presenting Bubbles. Bubbles is a goldfish. To be more precise, Bubbles is a Comet/common goldfish, the type usually found in large “feeder fish” tanks in pet stores. Feeder fish, for those who don’t know, are inexpensive fish sold to pet owners with large pets (usually other, larger fish) requiring live food to stay healthy. As intended bait for larger critters, feeder goldfish aren’t dealt a great hand in the poker game of life -- but bigger critters gotta eat, right? Bubbles is one of those rare goldfish to escape the feeder fish fate, but I’m not sure Bubbles was all that lucky in that regard.

A while back, I established a tank of Lake Malawi African Cichlids, fully aware that they weren’t the most, er, mellow of pet fish. However, I wanted fish that were colorful, tough, and didn’t require a lot of babying. Yes, African Cichlids will start killing each other if their environment isn’t ideal, so I took all the precautions that well-meaning Cichlid lovers recommend. Before getting the fish, I made sure the water quality was just right. I aquascaped the tank with lots of little terra cotta flowerpots (at least two per fish) to give the fish plenty of hiding places, so they could stake out territories and avoid each other. (The tank looked like the dumping ground of an unscrupulous flower shop, but I was determined to do right by my fishies.) I acquired baby Cichlids, all of the same species -- nine little fish total, in a 50-gallon tank. I made sure to feed them three small meals three times a day.

Because there were nine of them, the Cichlids were all named after Santa’s reindeer (including Rudolph), and at first all seemed well. I thought I’d succeeded in creating a good environment for the cute, spunky, colorful little fish.

Alas, my efforts were in vain. As they grew, the little buggers started eating each other. Eventually there was just one big fat triumphant fish left -- a big blue bully that my daughter renamed Carson for some reason. We don’t even know anyone named Carson.

Pecking orders and natural selection be darned -- I couldn’t even look at Carson without feeling bad for all those other murdered fish (never mind that they rather gleefully attacked each other before Carson did them in). So, Carson was returned to the pet store, which was more than happy to take in a big pretty blue Cichlid that could be resold to another (hopefully more experienced) Cichlid lover.

Still, I had to have something in that big ol’ fishtank of mine, but I didn’t want any more grumpy fish or any delicate fish. My options seemed limited. I finally decided to get something simple: GOLDFISH. Nice, simple, domesticated, benign, drama-free goldfish.

I started off with four small Comet goldfish, rescued from the feeder tank at the pet store. I figured, if any fish deserved a nice home, it was a feeder fish -- and besides, feeder fish are nice and colorful, and they cost next to nothing. Once the goldfish were established in their new home, I thought my aquarium fish issues were finally over.

There were four goldfish, three red/orange fish and one mostly-white fish. They all seemed to get along nicely. I also liked the way they crowded together at the front of the tank and watched me, the hubby, the kid, and the dog as we all walked around the living room. The mostly-white one even earned a name -- Bubbles. Such cheery, personable fish! It was a nice change from the grumpy Cichlids. No issues for a month. This was back in September.

In October, we went on a week-long trip and left the house in the care of our favorite house sitter -- someone who’s always been good at taking care of the dog and the fish. We arrived back home late on Saturday night, and …

Y’know, when I return home from vacation, one of the last things I want to hear from the house sitter is, “I don’t know how this happened, but--!”

Turned out the three orange goldfish -- my nice, benign, domesticated, stress-free goldfish -- ATE BUBBLES. Well, okay, they tried to eat Bubbles. More specifically, they ate all of Bubbles’ fins off, including most of Bubbles’ tail. There were nothing but little stumps where Bubbles’ fins used to be, and the tail was chewed down to a sad little nub. The house sitter still swears that the fish were regularly fed and seemed fine. The attack on Bubbles seemed to have happened one afternoon while the sitter was out.

None of the other smug little bastard goldfish had a mark on them.

How does a fish swim without fins and a tail, you might ask? Well, it tends to wiggle a lot. REALLY wiggle. That’s what Bubbles was reduced to doing, just to keep functioning as a proper fish. Lots and lots of wiggling. It had to be very tiresome work, but survival is a very impressive instinct, particularly in a goldfish.

Again, I couldn’t bring myself to look at the bully fish, but I didn’t want to return them to their previous pet-store-feeder-fish-tank fate. Thankfully, in my mom’s back yard is a very large, very established goldfish pond, and she agreed to add the three bullies to the fleet of Comets and Kois. So, off they went. Given the size of some of those Koi, though, maybe the little buggers ended up being feeder fish after all. I’ll probably never know.

Bubbles has been alone in that big 50-gallon tank since last October and doesn’t seem to mind the solitude one bit. I did tape some little round craft store mirrors to the outside of one end of the tank, just so Bubbles can at least see another fish when the need arises. Really, though, Bubbles seems fine. Bubbles still wiggles to get around the tank, still comes to the front of the tank to watch us, and still has a healthy appetite. Best of all, Bubbles’ fins are starting to grow back! Well, at least some of them are. They seem to be growing from back-to-front, starting with the tail. Bubbles’ tail -- that sad stub of a tail -- is almost completely grown back. Also, the anal fin is almost back to normal and the dorsal fin is about halfway grown. It remains to be seen if Bubbles’ pectoral and pelvic fins will return, but there’s hope.

So, I guess Bubbles is lucky in that he didn’t end up being fed to a larger critter, but talk about being unlucky amongst one’s peers!

I think maybe I’ll stick with just one fish from now on.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Dumb things one regularly says during the course of a day

It’s a rainy, gloomy day here in Indianapolis. The first thing I did this morning when I noticed the rain was to imitate the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan and start belting out that blues classic, “The SKY is CRYIN’….!” Then, later in the morning a light bulb blew out in the living room ceiling and I had to get out a ladder to change the darned thing. Immediately upon switching the light back on to make sure the new bulb was working, the first thing I said was, “What light thru yonder window breaks! ‘Tis the east and Juliet is the sun!”

It’s finally occurred to me -- I say these things every frickin’ time it rains or I have to change a light bulb. Every time! Why do I say these things every time? The light bulb thing doesn’t even make sense. The bulb is not shining at me through a window, and I’m not even a huge Shakespeare fan. I mean, I like Shakespeare just fine, but Romeo and Juliet isn’t exactly at the top of my all-time-favorite-stories list.

So, I’ve been scared into paying attention to every little thing I say, and I’ve noticed other things. For example, I seem to say “Y’know” an awful lot. I think that’s a Midwestern USA thing: “Y’know, y’know, y’know…” No one’s ever corrected me on it, but that’s hardly surprising. I’m usually surrounded by fellow Midwesterners after all, plus there aren’t many people willing to admit that, hey, they DON’T know.

I also seem to use the word “actually” a lot, usually at the beginning of sentences: “Actually, we did run out of yogurt this weekend…”

WEIRD that one’s subconscious can latch onto making one repeat certain words and/or phrases during the course of a day. Is it an “autopilot” function? Laziness of expression? A reflection of a comfort zone of the brain? Merely a normal function/side effect of speech development? I wonder if someone’s done a study on this?

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Totally digging Daredevil on Netflix

No real spoilers.

No offense to Mr. Sea’s godparents, who have had very long and impressive careers in the television industry, but I have not been a huge watcher of broadcast television for many, many years -- DECADES, in fact. I think the last regular prime time TV show I was addicted to was the original broadcast of Star Trek: The Next Generation(!). Most of the regular viewing I’ve had in the last few years have involved either old reruns (MeTV is wonderful), or various DC animated series, or the stuff Mighty Mite watches on PBS Kids (most of which is actually pretty entertaining for adults, too). I even ditched cable/satellite TV a few years ago when it finally dawned on me that I was paying an awful lot of money for something I hardly watched. I much prefer viewing movies and BBC stuff, new and old, on my own terms -- so for the last couple of years, I’ve been subscribing to Netflix’s streaming service and watching everything mostly through Amazon/Kindle and the PlayStation Network.

Netflix has been streaming its own series programming for a while, which I’ve basically dismissed with a shrug -- until now. As an ancient and certified comic book fangeek, how could I resist giving the new Daredevil series a shot?

My brother watched the entire series in a relentless Saturday night marathon. I’ve made it to episode 8 so far, and that’s saying something. I generally dump TV series pretty quickly if they don’t catch my interest in the first episode or two -- part of the reason why I’m not much of a series viewer. THIS series, though … Wow.

When we were kids, my brother collected mostly Marvel and I collected DC, and then we read each others’ collections. Worked out pretty well for us. So, most of my Daredevil knowledge dates from the 1970s and early ‘80s -- yes, including the Frank Miller era. Netflix’s Daredevil draws so heavily from that era that watching it, I almost feel like a teenager again, sitting on that awful orange shag carpeting in my brother’s bedroom and reading through his box of Daredevil comics.

Netflix’s Daredevil is gritty, gruesome, and glorious (plus no commercials -- yay!). It definitely earns its TV-MA rating -- NOT kid friendly AT ALL. However, given the circumstances in this series’ version of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen and the crime organizations involved, the violence and blood do not feel gratuitous. For the most part, the actors’ portrayals are spot-on. Charlie Cox is intense and deceptively low-key as Matt Murdock. The villains are deplorable characters, but fascinatingly complex and nuanced, especially Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin. And Elden Henson, bless his heart, not only nails Foggy Nelson’s behavior without making him too much of a jerk, he even looks like Foggy Nelson.

A huge, huge, HUGE thanks to the series creators for telling Daredevil’s origins mostly via backstory snippets throughout the episodes. I despise series that start off with one big fat origin story -- I just wanna get to the action! Okay, so Daredevil hasn’t appeared in costume yet, but … Seriously, most people watching the series already know Daredevil’s origins, so kudos to everyone involved for just skipping ahead to the good stuff.

Will this series attract any new Daredevil fans? Not sure. My guess is that many new viewers will be strongly reminded of Batman. Indeed, watching this series so far, I’ve been reminded of Nolan’s Dark Knight movies more than once. This is not a criticism -- quite the contrary. After all, the modern interpretations of both Batman and Daredevil have been heavily influenced by Frank Miller, so how can there not be similarities? Still, this TV Daredevil’s universe has been so well-fleshed-out in only a few episodes, I can’t imagine there won’t be any new fans.

Warner Bros., take note: When Disney first acquired Marvel, I was a bit worried. The gritty Marvel universe didn’t seem like a logical fit, and it appeared Disney merely wanted Marvel because they wanted to compete with Warner Bros.’s ownership of DC. Well, that may have been the case, but I don’t think Disney could have done a better job with Marvel right out of the starting gate. Indeed, they have surpassed Warner’s accomplishments with DC in live action, and I think it’s now obvious that Warner’s is scrambling to catch up, what with the Superman/Batman film, and the upcoming Wonder Woman film, et al. One very important thing that has given Disney an edge here is that Disney has not forgotten that all of these characters exist in the same universe. In fact, they capitalize on this fact, which is also a bit of a Marvel tradition -- These characters do not and never have existed in individual vacuums. Warner’s has a history of isolating the DC characters in their live-action films -- “Oh, no, you can’t have XYZ appearing in THIS film, because we’re thinking about putting him in ANOTHER film. So don’t even mention XYZ in THIS film.” In the modern Marvel films, by contrast, TV and movie, there’s a lot of cross-pollination, and characters freely refer to each other. (I like how in Daredevil, the characters tend to comment on the Avengers’ “incident.”) This not only keeps the Marvel film universe rich and well fleshed-out, it generates more interest among viewers so they’re more likely to watch all of these films. It’s fun, and it’s good business. I think Warner’s has finally figured this out, but we’ll see.

Which reminds me -- I would LOVE to see Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow appear in the Daredevil series, given the comic book history between the two characters. Here’s hoping!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Well, at least I'm writing again

It’s strange, frightening, and weirdly liberating to be unemployed. Being unemployed this time was not of my choosing. I did enjoy my job very much. I was incredibly lucky in that my job involved working at home, on a computer supplied by the publishing company, and I could more or less make my own hours. If Mighty Mite had to miss school for any reason, it wasn’t a big deal at all – I was already home, and most of the time I didn’t have to excuse myself from my job. It was IDEAL for a working mom.

However, publishing has always been a volatile and fickle business. As has happened many times throughout my career, the company was purchased (by a corporation named after a Greek god, ironically enough) and the new owners decided to “trim the fat.” Whenever something like this happens, departments responsible for things like quality control are usually to first the go -- because they’re responsible for things that are generally impossible to track in budget and balance sheets. That’s what happened to me.

It hasn’t been all bad. After all, I did try to escape the publishing industry once before -- though I'd be lying if I claimed I didn't miss it. We’re lucky in that Mr. Sea loves his job and makes enough money to cover bills and living expenses, though I’d be lying if I said we didn’t miss the cash I’d been bringing in. At least now there’s always someone home to take care of emergencies, which is a VERY good thing. Best of all, I finally have time to do little things like painting the house and, at long last, WRITING.

It’s been nearly a decade since Herald was first published. I do have many more books in the works (so far consisting of notes and notes and more notes ...), and I’ve been sitting on the half-finished followup to Herald for quite some time. Since the beginning of the year, though, I’ve been writing like crazy, and I’m confident that the followup (it’s not really a sequel) to Herald will be published before the end of this year. I don’t want to make promises, though. Don’t want to jinx myself.

The best thing about writing is that it’s still work and it’s still at home. So, I guess I really am employed, at least in a way.