Goodbye Middle-earth

hobbit_the_battle_of_the_five_armies_ver21_xlg_largeCome December 17th, it’ll be over. With the release of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, it’s a pretty good bet our cinematic visits to Middle-earth will be done. I mean, in a way, it’s okay. You can still go back and watch roughly eighteen hours of it if you have the extended versions of all Peter Jackson’s wonderful movies, but new ventures are probably on hold. Last I read, the Tolkien family has hated what Jackson did to The Hobbit so much that they won’t grant him rights to anything else. So discussion of a trilogy based on The Silmarillion has been dampened. It’ll have to be someone else, from what I’ve seen online (though claims the idea the Tolkien estate won’t grant Jackson the rights is a rumor only and has never been confirmed officially).

I have mixed feelings about this. I’ve (partially) lived in Middle-earth since I was in sixth grade. That’s close to forty years. And while I can’t claim to have read the books countless times, I have a collection of several different editions (in paperback), and I’ve dipped into it multiple times, at least.

I loved the cinematic The Lord of the Rings. I’m not a purist, and I understand that books and movies are two different mediums: what works well in one won’t necessarily go over in the other. And I really love the way Jackson added in things from other sources to bolster and flesh out some things. He pulled in things from The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales for some background stuff, and I think that made it a richer experience.

As for his version of The Hobbit…well, I’m not as happy. I like them, but he’s thrown in plot details that aren’t in any of Tolkien’s other works, and even created characters that weren’t there—chief among them being Tauriel and the subplot of a possible love interest with one of the dwarves. I could have done without that, because The Hobbit isn’t a love story. I don’t mind the extra stuff with Legolas and the wood elves because he’s showing us things Tolkien told us about or just mentioned in passing.

And at least Jackson makes the elves look as Tolkien described them, unlike that farce of an animated version that came out in the seventies and had elves looking more likeanimated elven king goblins than the tall, slender beings the Professor tells us about.

So what about other ventures into Middle-earth? The Silmarillion is a history of the realm that reads like the Bible and, for me, is hard to get through. Professor Tolkien was a linguist who invented sixteen complete languages for Middle-earth, and The Silmarillion makes for some very dry reading. On the other hand, I have managed to make it about halfway through, and learning about the silmarils and that Sauron was actually just a minor lieutenant to the really bad guy was a pleasant surprise.

But would it translate into a movie? Maybe. There’s a lot of material there, and we could see the creation of the orcs that Saruman tells his first Uruk-Hai about. The Silmarillion is the creation myth of Middle-earth, so the movie maker would have a lot to choose from. It’s not a long book, but it could easily make a trilogy. After all, it describes everything that happened in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in just a few paragraphs. Less than a page, if I remember right.

The_Children_of_Hurin_coverBut, even if we never go back to Middle-earth in new movies, there are still some nine hours to watch, and countless hours rereading the books. I’ve never even dipped into Unfinished Tales, and I own a copy of The Children of Hurin but haven’t even attempted to read it yet. So while I may never again get to see a new rendition of my favorite fantasy realm, I can go again and again if I want to. After all, I went for years with the only real cinematic versions being the vastly inferior animations, one of which was never finished.

I’ll take what I’ve got and be glad of it.


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Chasing Dreams

dream distanceChasing dreams is hard. If it wasn’t, there’d be more people living their dream. No matter what your dream might be, chances are you have a support system of some kind, whether it be family or friends or a combination of the two. Or something else entirely (though I’m not sure what that would be).

Whatever our dream, we work our day jobs and try to fit in time to pursue our dreams. We have families that need our attention, with maybe games to go to, holidays to go visit on, things like that. All of these interfere with our dreams, and yet, if we didn’t do them, our support system would give up on us. We’d have to go it alone.

But as hard as it is, the thing that’s puzzled me the most in life is coming across someone who claims they don’t have a dream. I don’t know, maybe it’s an arrogance on my part, or just plain ignorance. I assumed that everyone has a dream of some kind, something they want to do or be. I know there are failed dreams (how many folks go to Hollywood and fail for every Brad Pitt that makes it?), and I’ve even heard of folks who finally give up on their dream and never try to achieve it.

But to not have a dream at all?

Does that mean those of us who have dreams and are working to achieve them are unusual? And does it strike me as unusual for someone not to have dreams because I naturally gravitate to people who do?

When I was younger, my dream was to be a musician. As cliché as it sounds, I wanted to be a drummer in a rock and roll band. This was the eighties, and I was into metal. motley crueIron Maiden, Metallica, Black Sabbath, Mötley Crüe, Ratt, as well as more obscure bands like Krokus and Kix, I loved em all. I watched videos, bought albums and CDs, went to concerts, wore the t-shirts, and blasted the stuff in my stereo, whether it be my car or barracks room. It wasn’t just metal, of course. I loved Rush, Pink Floyd, Yes, bands like that. Progressive rock was cool.

The upshot was, I wanted to be up there on the stage, under the lights. The draw for me was being in a room with that many people who all loved this stuff as much as I did. Sure, the idea of fame was good, and so was the thought of all that money. I’d really be lying if I didn’t admit to that last one. But the drive behind it was to live a dream.

Reality set in after I got married. Drum sets—especially the big double bass kits like I wanted—took up a lot of room. There’s all the toms, stands, cymbals, bags with drumsticks, keeping track of your tuning tool, all that. Add in the cost—at the time, the Pearl kit I wanted was $2500, and they’re probably twice that by now—and achieving that dream got farther and farther away. And that didn’t even count finding a group of like-minded people you could tolerate on that level.

Also, somewhere along the way, the music, as much as I still liked it, didn’t mean as much anymore. Me and my friends used to joke that we knew musicians like most guys know football players—we knew their names, what bands they’d been in, what brand of instrument they played, their strengths and weaknesses, all of that. If there’d been card decks for them like there are for sports figures, we probably woulda collected them.

anvil11But that all eventually tapered off. Part of it, I think, was the changing face of music. The groups I grew up loving fell by the wayside as so many are wont to do, some of them disappearing altogether (if you want to see somebody who never gave up on the dream, watch the documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil. Even if you don’t like heavy metal, the tenacity of these guys—especially the lead singer—is to be admired, and I think you’ll find yourself rooting for them whatever you think of their music).

After it tapered off, I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I think I fooled myself for a while, thinking I still wanted to be a musician, but I was only giving it lip service. Slowly, the idea of being a writer—an idea I’d entertained briefly when I was a teenager—came on.

I fought against it. Writing didn’t seem as glorious as music. Where were the lights? The crowds? None of that was there. On the other hand, the idea that I could practice my craft without ever leaving home appealed to me big time. I still love to see new places, but I long ago lost the gypsy soul you need to stay on tour all or most of the time. I like being home, man.

To make a long story short, I’m finally here. I have one book published, and you can even buy it on Amazon. It hasn’t sold very well, but I’m rooted in reality: an instant bestseller woulda been great, but I didn’t expect it. On top of that, I’m working for a publishing company, which means I’m surrounded by good writers and others who love this field as much as I do. Maybe it’s not a crowd of 150,000, or a show at Madison Square Garden, but I can still hope that, if I keep plugging away at it, that huge crowd will be out there—they’ll just be sitting at home quietly reading my books instead of yelling their heads off at my concert.

I’ll take that.


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A Programmer’s Life

living with a programmerIt’s been my experience that people look at web programmers—and programmers in general—with, well, suspicion might be a good word. Programmers have special knowledge that most folks don’t. We build web pages and write programs to make those pages do nifty things. It’s like we’re some priesthood who guards arcane knowledge most mere mortals are better off not knowing.

Well, to an extent I’ll agree with that. For instance, I’m convinced Satan is responsible for PHP and JavaScript, but that’s just my personal opinion.

The truth of the matter is, most folks could do this if they wanted. Granted, you have to learn a whole new way of thinking—something I’m still working on—in order to make it work right, but isn’t that true of most things we try to learn?

The old saying that patience is a virtue is never more true than with programming. I can’t tell you the number of times I had trouble in school getting my HTML to work and the instructor walked up, scanned the page for a few moments, and pointed out where I’d forgotten to put in a semicolon. You think it’s frustrating when a writer misuses a semicolon? Try it when you’re writing code. In prose, a misplaced/misused punctuation mark just means it looks sloppy. In programming, it means your program doesn’t work. One omitted semicolon or bracket (HTML uses greater than/less than to enclose code), and the entire page refuses to display. Or, if it does, it’s all skewed and you’re looking at the screen in horror, thinking, What have I created?semicolon hide and seek

You feel a bit like Victor Frankenstein.

And then there’s logic.

No, please, don’t run away screaming. It’s not that bad.

One of the things you have to learn as a programmer is to keep the destination in mind, but you also have to keep in mind every step you take to get there. It’s like following MapQuest directions step by step, and if you miss one step, you’ll end up in the middle of nowhere instead of making it to Schenectady. Literally.

Again, miss one thing—and that includes punctuation (if the language uses it; Visual Basic doesn’t much)—and your program says, “Nope, ain’t doin it.”

The first time it’s not so bad. You learn to expect it. Nothing is perfect first time around, unless your name happens to be God, and even He seems to have built imperfections in. No, the first time, you grimace, maybe sigh deeply, then plunge back into the code and find the problem.

I am programmerAlong about the tenth or twelfth time, though, you start screaming at your monitor as if it’s to blame. You yell profanities, insulting the code to the best of your ability. It’s especially frustrating if you’re reusing code you’ve used successfully before. It’s old hat to say the programmer’s best friend is cut and paste, because so much of code writing is boring repetition. Add in complicated things you have to remember like variables in PHP are case sensitive, but functions and methods aren’t, then learn multiple languages (I’m familiar with HTML, CSS, Visual Basic, C#, Java, JavaScript (those two are separate languages, by the way), PHP, JQuery…and I know some cuss words in German, which is a wonderfully harsh language for curses), and the opportunities to get things mixed up are exponential.

Don’t know much about biology
but I can recognize PHP.

Being a programmer can teach you a lot about life—like, for instance, when you get everything right, a computer will do exactly what you tell it. This is, of course, a double-edged sword, but if you cross your ts and dot your is, you’ll get exactly what you were after.

The other thing it can teach you is, because they’ll do exactly what you tell them, computers are often better company than humans—but they don’t make very understanding friends.

Still, I think programming has made me a bit more patient with life, though I’ll be the first to admit I have a long way to go. Something for you to think about the next time you pick on a programmer for being a nerd.


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stressSometimes we get caught up in the things that are going on in our lives and forget how good we’ve got it. I’ve recently taken on new responsibilities at Oghma Creative Media, branching out into editorial duties, and it’s felt a little overwhelming in some ways. Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited by the possibilities. But, at the same time, I’m a bit apprehensive as to whether or not I can carry out the duties.

Then I read a post by my niece, and it put things in perspective for me.

I’m in reasonably good health for someone who doesn’t take care of himself like he should. I could stand to lose a lot of weight, I’ve got a bum knee, and as I write this, I’ve been fighting an ear infection for almost three weeks. I could really stand to go to a chiropractor but can’t afford it as yet, so I’m having a problem with my right hip (comes from a pinched nerve, I’m sure) as well as a stiff neck and numbness in my fingers when I lay in certain positions at night. And no, it’s not restrictive blood flow because it’ll just be two fingers on the hand, not the entire hand.

I list all these maladies not to get pity or empathy, but as a means of comparison because, in addition to all the normal problems of life, my niece has multiple sclerosis. And yet, she carries on a very active life, doing things I’m not sure I could find the motivation to do. She has three boys, several animals, a partner (though from what I hear he’s very helpful), an active online life that includes multiple blogs, as well as other activities. And yet, you hardly ever hear a peep out of her about her MS. Sometimes she’ll say something about her legs bothering her. Occasionally she’ll complain about headaches, or lack of energy. But she does it in a way that makes it sound like it’s no big deal.

What you don’t hear about are the fears she talks about in the post I linked you to above. She doesn’t talk about how, when her MS is in remission, there’s the unreasonablewhat-people-think-ms (from a logical standpoint, anyway) hope that all the doctors were wrong, that all those years of trying to pin down just what was wrong with her were a bad dream and the diagnosis was in error.

And then the pains start. Or the weakness comes on. And she knows that, no, the diagnosis was not in error, the years of trying to find out why she has those problems were, in fact, real. That the fears the disease is progressing this time are, indeed, something she will have to live with the rest of her life.

Most people (me included, I’m sure) would be inclined to stand outside and shout to the heavens, “Why?!” I’m sure she wants to as well sometimes. But she has a belief system that, I’m also sure, brings her comfort at times like that (I know mine does), and she has a lot of support from caring family and friends. That means a lot.

Reading her post put things in perspective for me. Will I retain it? No. I’m human. I’ll need something sent my way eventually to remind me again. But I pass her post on to you in the hope it will help you as it helped me.

gratitudeBe grateful for what you have. You never know when circumstances will change and there’ll be no turning back.


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Rediscovering Harry

Harry_Potter_Logo_by_SprntrlFAN_LivviI’m on a trip rediscovering Harry Potter. Both the movies and the books.

I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone way back before the first movie came out. Not very long before, mind you, because until a co-worker convinced me otherwise, I figured the whole Harry Potter thing was another fad. You know, kinda like the president of IBM considered personal computers as something that would never take off. I don’t know if he ever admitted he was wrong, but I did after reading the first book. And I had it fresh on my mind when I saw the movie, so it made that an enjoyable experience.

If I remember right, I only ever read the first book. I saw the second and third movies, then kind of fell off from there on keeping up. Part of it was pure finances: books and movies were luxuries I had to be picky about, and I guess I got a little burned on things Harry Potter, especially when I had to pick between it and The Lord of the Rings. Sorry Potter fans, but I’m a bigger Middle-earth fan than Hogwarts fan.

But I’ve always sort of been down on myself for not reading the books. After all, as my daughter said when I brought up my plan to read the entire series, if you gotta choose, choose the books.

Thanks to the library, though, I can do both. I just finished Sorcerer’s Stone and, by the time you read this, I should be through with Chamber of Secrets and working on sorcerers stonePrisoner of Azkaban. And, as much as I can, I’m reading a book, then watching the movie. Looks like it might not work out as well as I’d like. Turns out the movie version of Chamber of Secrets is checked out, unless I want the Blu-Ray version, and I can’t watch those. Or, I should say, all the copies the library has are checked out. I guess Harry Potter is still a hot property.

It was such a joy to read Sorcerer’s Stone again, and then see it on the screen. Seeing the wonder on Harry’s face as he discovered every new aspect of Hogwarts and his life as a wizard is great fun. It’s like rediscovering something from you past you’d forgotten about, so it’s almost as good as the first time around.

There’s icing on the cake, too. Reading Rowling’s excellent writing seems to be what’s gonna finally inspire me to get busy writing again. You never know what will do it for you.

But writer or not, why not go back and rediscover something you haven’t visited in a long time? Doesn’t have to be Harry Potter. Maybe it’s Narnia. Or Louis L’Amour’s West. Or any of a million and one other things that we treasured at one time but have let fall by the wayside just because life is like that sometimes.

Have yourself some pure fun for a change without an agenda attached to it. You might discover it has more waiting for you than you know.



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Ride On!

A-Sedentary-Lifestyle-Ups-Cancer-Risk-Study-Finds-447163-2Like a lot of people these days, I lead a sedentary lifestyle. I’m a security guard in my day job. I work weekends, two 12-hour shifts. There’s some walking involved, but it’s at a slow pace as I write down information, so it’s not like I get my heart rate up to a three-digit number. On the other hand, I guess it’s (barely) better than nothing. Between this lifestyle, middle-age spread, and an addiction to sweets (peanut M&Ms in particular; they should just call them legal crack), I have dunlaps disease—a condition in which your belly dunlaps over your belt.

Also like a lot of people these days, I have trouble finding motivation to exercise. I have one of those Bowflex sets of dumbbells (the kind where you turn the dial to change the weights) with the matching weight bench. I also have a hand-me-down recumbent bike for that all-important cardio exercise (or so some sources say; others aren’t so sure).

I actually don’t mind the weights. I can feel the results pretty quick when I bother to work with them—sore muscles are both a pain and a sense of pride (“I’ve done it right!”). But that recumbent bike….

When I was a kid—a loooong time ago, mind you—as cliché as it sounds, I didn’t have a lot of money, and neither did any of my friends. So we ended up walking just about anywhere we needed or wanted to go. Or riding bikes.

We were fiends on bicycles. I’m not talking about being menaces (except to ourselves, of course) or any of that extreme stuff you see these days. Hell, we never thoughtRaleigh-70s-BananaSeat about doing some of the things I see these days. If we had, I doubt I’d be here writing about it. But we still did some neat, sometimes crazy stuff, and we lived to tell about it.

But the point is, between the walking and riding, we covered miles a day, and some days we could go lots of miles on our bikes. They were a quicker method of transportation and, what was more, we liked riding them. Top that off with growing up in the Ozarks—where level ground is a place you build something like a house to live in—and we unwittingly got a ton of exercise.

Then I grew up, went in the Army, and was unwillingly introduced to the idea of organized exercise. It ruined me on anything that’s good for me, I’m pretty sure. Having to get up every morning and do calisthenics (this was the eighties, mind you, when calisthenics were the ultimate form of exercise), and then go on a run that lasted anywhere from two to eight miles wasn’t my idea of a good time. I was a metal head, so my idea of a good time was an Iron Maiden concert (lots of exercise there if you’re into the whole headbanging thing, and especially if you hit the mosh pit).

Thing is, I grew up and—get ready for it—got a car. This was a death knell for exercise. Walk somewhere? That’s kids’ stuff, man. I’m driving cuz I’m an adult now.

Another thing I’ve realized in the last few years is this: I may have grown up poor in the financial sense, but I was raised on a farm. Mom grew a huge garden every year, and we always had a calf to butcher. Home grown food, man. Maybe not good enough to get into the current “organic” craze, but it wasn’t processed, either. I drank raw milk, ate homegrown beef and vegetables, and got lots of exercise and clean air. No wonder I was skinny compared to what I am now.

recumbent bikeI’m closing in on fifty, though, and I gotta do something. Problem is, that recumbent bike? It’s boring as hell. I’m sitting there, pedaling like an idiot…and staring out the window. I’m not going anywhere, man. The view never changes. And the results are so slow it’s hard to feel like I’m getting anywhere in any sense of the term.

I need a real bike.

But even the things you can get at Walmart aren’t cheap, and I’m still not exactly rolling in the money, so affording a truly good bike is a reach at this point. And yet, I can’t motivate myself to ride that stupid go-nowhere bike. Ride for miles and never leave the room. Yay team. It’s a conundrum (when’s the last time you saw that word used in a sentence?) and no mistake (I like pretending to sound British occasionally).

Sigh. Oh well. Gotta cure that dunlaps I got, so I guess I’ll have to climb on that stationary recumbent thing anyway, whether I like it or not. And scrape together my pennies to get a real bike like this.

Then I’ll be putting in the miles, you can bet.



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Achieving Goals

751-1120-FootballGoalpostI’m not exactly a rabid football fan. In fact, I think it’s safe to say I’m just the opposite. Most sports bore me. I don’t mind participating in a few of them—or didn’t before I got too old and fat to run more than a few yards without feeling like I’m gonna have a heart attack—but watching them and getting all stoked up over one team or another isn’t in my make-up.

But this past weekend at work, I went through the break room to do my business in the, um, room you do that kind of business in, and when I came out, I happened to glance at the TV bolted to the wall to see a football game going on. I almost looked away and headed back to the guard shack, but then got caught up because it was a kickoff, so I thought I’d see how it turned out.

Really well.

I really didn’t know who was playing at the time, but the receiving team wore red and white. After the play was over, I noticed the guys in red had a big arrowhead on their helmets, and even I know that’s the symbol of the Kansas City Chiefs.

If you’re a football fan, you probably know where I’m going with this.

Later research showed this was a game between the Chiefs and the St. Louis Rams. I don’t know if there’s a rivalry there or not, but the one article I read about the game said the Rams had had a pretty good game the week before, and the Chiefs’ special team had been on a six-game slump from pulling off…whatever it is special teams are supposed to pull off.

They broke that streak with this game.

Right after the half-time, the Rams kicked off to the Chiefs, and a guy named Knile Davis caught the ball. For some reason, part of me started cheering him on right off, and kniledavisfor once, that cheering was rewarded while I watched this guy bob, weave, and finally sprint for the opposite side of the field. Rams tackles threw up their hands in disgust as Davis ran a 99-yard return for a touchdown.

What impressed me was the way he ran the field, though, and it got me thinking. He ran around the right side of the pack (from his perspective), and at one point there was a Ram player who literally dove for Davis and just missed him. Hollywood couldn’t have done it better, man. Davis read that pack like he was psychic, dodged every attempt to tackle him, and outpaced the ones who got past the blockers to make it to the end zone. And he made it look easy.

If only life—and football, I imagine—were that simple, huh?

But here’s the thing: Knile Davis is obviously good at his job. His coach said he’s fast and dangerous, a winning combination in football, I’m sure. But even on TV, I got a sense of intense concentration as I watched him run. He didn’t play to the crowd, didn’t glance around, didn’t get distracted. He ran, he read the opposition, he dodged them, avoided the obstacles, and got the TD. He only allowed himself to relax after he set the ball on the field, and did a little celebration dance.

And, of course, in true football fashion, his teammates beat the crap out of him in way of congratulations.

iStock_mountaintopI don’t think you have to be a genius to see the parallel I’m aiming for. This guy had a goal and he didn’t let anything get in his way to achieving it. That’s the obvious takeaway here. But there’s a more subtle point, if you think about it: he didn’t run over anybody getting there. He just went around them.

There’s more than one way to achieve your goals, but the bottom line is that you have to have that intense concentration I believe I sensed from Davis, but you also have to have the wisdom to dodge the obstacles rather than run over them, because some of those obstacles might be people you know, and they’re not gonna appreciate you running over them.

I’m sure the St. Louis defense was disappointed that they let Knile Davis get past them. But I’ll bet you deep down they admired the grace he exhibited when he did it. At least, they did if they were professionals.

I think if a lot more of us acted that way, this would be a better world.



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