I realized pretty quickly last week that the aspiring novelist of my teenage years was probably, in some ways, a bit more capable than the thirtysomething version sitting behind the desk today. Eight years of strategy guide writing prefaced by a year of technical writing and six years in college and graduate school doing research in the sciences has left me with a bit more of an analytical mind than I used to have. I've expelled most of the adjectives and adverbs that I once knew and I learned to write in shorter, some might say, choppier sentences. In fact, you could even say that nearly all of the writing I've done over the past fifteen years has purposely run counter to the old writer's axiom of show don't tell. The purpose of a strategy guide is to tell; showing equates to spoilers. It's time to stretch this writer's creative legs and crack open that thesaurus that's been sitting on the shelf, barely touched for the past ten years.
All is not hopeless though. I have a topic, I've mapped out the plot -- it's an adventure-thriller and that's all I'll say -- and I've already come up with names for the characters and begun work on character profiles. The King County Library System is currently gathering up a half-dozen books for my research and I spent an hour last night on O-Net, the government's occupational information network, doing some extra research on job tasks/requirements for my protagonist and one other character. The goal is to have a detailed outline and all character profiles completed, along with quite a bit of research, before I head to my isolation-cabin in Winthrop on the tenth. It helps that I've been mulling this plot over in my head for three years and have been to the location where the story is set.
Of course, every author has to do this sort of groundwork before beginning their tale. The fact that the last time I've written fiction was back around the same time I was making my first early attempts at unhooking a girlfriend's bra doesn't bode well. And though I can't say I gave up the former for the latter, I'd bet on my talents at removing undergarments before I would lay coin on my ability to referee troublesome characters with interesting dialogue. And I know this. That's why I've spent the past few days studying the craft. And man do I hate using pretentious words like that.
My first step was to quickly re-read Bob Mayer's "The Novel Writer's Toolkit", then set to scavenging all of the writing articles on Suite 101. This raised more questions than yielded answers, but at least it left me somewhat aware of where my weaknesses would be: beginnings, characters, and dialogue. Oh, that's all?
This brought me to Barnes and Noble where I quickly read the "Characters & Points of View" book by the Writer's Digest over coffee and decided it didn't warrant a purchase -- it wasn't different enough from Mayer's book that I already owned. Instead, I picked up the outstanding book "Hooked" by Les Edgerton and proceeded to read, highlight, flag, and take notes from all 240 pages over the next 18 hours -- with some time thrown in for playing Rock Band and the honing of my aforementioned skills at taking off woman's underwear.
"Hooked" is an entire book devoted to perfecting the beginnings of short stories and novels through the use of dozens of examples of successful stories. Not only does Edgerton really do a great job of conveying what should and shouldn't appear in the opening sentences from a technical and stylistic point of view, but the lengthy Q&A he conducts with a number of literary agents and editors in the back of the book really adds some heft to what he's saying. And the drumbeat throughout the entire book is that you essentially have one or two paragraphs to grab the agent's attention, or you're thrown into the rejection pile. This really hit home: one agent said her relatively small agency receives up to 1500 manuscripts to read every month and according to Edgerton, 90% of manuscripts being written are fiction but publishers only devote 20% of their printing schedule to fiction. The competition is extremely fierce. If the first sentence or two don't immediately grab the reader's attention, you haven't got a chance.
So "Hooked" was great, but I also picked up "Plot & Structure" and "Dialogue", both published by the Writer's Digest. These are more technique books, both of which include some short exercises and plenty of examples. It does feel a bit like I'm back in college taking a creative writing course (which I never did, so I don't really know what that would feel like, but I can guess) but I can already feel the benefits in the way I think about my story as I lay in bed at night.
One last thing: I've decided to give myself some daily homework. I've created a form in Excel that I'll be using to deconstruct the opening chapter from some comparable books in the library or on my bookshelf so that I can better see how each of the techniques Edgerton spoke about in "Hooked", if any, are being put to use. I'm trying to go back and re-read some of my favorites with a more analytical eye to see what the pacing was, how the story began, when the inciting incident was, how long each scene was, and so on and so forth.
I think I'll start with "Water for Elephants" and "Life of Pi", two of my favorite books that I've read in recent years.
But first I need to play a little more Rock Band.
Oh, and for those keeping score at home, the answers are: 1) 4:10, 2) three years to pass two and don't remember anything, and 3) 2 of 7. In other words, a strike-out so far.
We updated the guidebook I wrote last year for Bioshock to include the new PS3 content (namely, the plasmids and tonics that were previously available as DLC for Xbox 360). I received a bundle of the books the other day -- they're otherwise identical to the version we published last year -- and decided to go ahead and make the book available to the first three people to request a copy.
So, if you live in the USA or Canada and are just getting into the whole Bioshock swing of things, then go ahead and email me your name and address and I'll get a copy out to you right away. This is one of my best works (not to mention the folks at BradyGames did a fantastic job with the design) and, well, the game is one of the best I've ever played.
We couldn't have picked a better day. Bright blue skies, bone-dry trails, an empty trailhead, and perfect, low light illuminating the fall colors on the trail. We parked at FR 73 (Sun Top Road) and rode up the Skookum Flats Trail, across Highway 410 to the White River Trail and did and out-and-back up to Corral Pass Road before returning all the way back down the White River Trail.
I slammed the brakes as we were descending back to Highway 410 from the Palisades Trail to take advantage of the light hitting this grove of vine maples. I snapped a couple photos of Doug riding this section then went down the trail so he could get a shot of me coming back up.
- If you had purchased $1000.00 of shares in Delta Airlines one year ago, you would have $49.00 today.
- If you had purchased $1000.00 of shares in AIG one year ago, you will have $33.00 today.
- If you had purchased $1000.00 of shares in Lehman Brothers one year ago, you will have $00.00 today.
- But, if you had purchased $1000.00 worth of beer one year ago, drunk all the beer, then turned in the aluminum cans for a recycling fund, you will have received $214.00. Based on the above, the best current investment plan is to drink heavily and recycle.
This plan is what is known as the 401(Keg).
So what I decided to do was to spend the next two weeks at home, taking care of some chores around the house, playing Rock Band 2 and Fallout 3, and getting out on the bike. I've also begun work on the synopsis and character profiles for the novel I've been dreaming up for the past three years. I even put a few hours in this morning on the project and have begun the research I need to flesh it out. This helps keep me busy and productive while I stick close to home in case a project shows up that needs my immediate attention.
It's also important that I do accomplish as much of the preliminary work on the novel as I can these next couple weeks because on November 10th, I'll be heading to a tiny cabin outside of Winthrop, WA (no phones, no television) to spend four nights alone, working on the novel without distraction. The Methow Valley is one of my favorite places to be, and the cabin is right near a small lake and some dirt roads and bike trails, so I expect I'll be able to get a nice brain-clearing ride or hike in each morning then settle in for a productive day of writing. The cabin is only a couple miles outside of town and has a fridge and stove so I'll be able to make my own meals and will likely only need to go to town each day to call Kristin, assuming I don't get any cell service near the lake. I booked the cabin today, there are only two and since it's between the summer and winter peak seasons, the owner expects I'll have the property to myself and he agreed to put a table in the room for me.
So that's it. I'll end up missing the release of Gears of War 2 and will have to catch up with my friends on Xbox Live when I get back, but I think it will be worth it. Thanks for helping me come up with something to do.
I fully expect home-stages to begin replacing home-theatres as the next must-have accoutrement for lifestyle living. Imagine: a small raised stage with some colored floodlights, and four flat-panel monitors set up down low so as to not block the band's view of the crowd. Throw in a bar in the back corner, a small dance area near the stage, some surround sound speakers, and voila! The ultimate set-up for hosting Rock Band Parties.
The thing about Rock Band 2 isn't just the ability to "play" so many great songs (with new ones released weekly) but that there are so many different ways to go about playing the game. You can form a band and do an offline Tour individually, you can have local friends join you, you can hop online and invite complete strangers to join you. Or you can join others bands. There are daily Battles of the Bands in different disciplines (drums, guitar, bass, vocals) keeping things fresh at all times, not to mention a slew of challenges that allow you to progress through an increasingly difficult array of songs. Best of all, as you buy new songs they automatically get added to the mix for each of the modes. And there are the various practice and trainer modes that help to actually teach you how to play the drums.
Having skipped the release of the original Rock Band, I must say that it's great to be back with a Harmonix-made music game. I was trying to play a lot of Guitar Hero 3 and Guitar Hero: Aerosmith to get ready for RB2's release and the note charts and chaotic fluctuations in difficulty really got me down. I never felt like I was getting better at the game, but rather some songs I could play really well and others I couldn't play at all. Not so with RB2. I've yet to encounter a single note chart that I would consider "obnoxious" and the gradual increase in difficulty from song to song and difficulty mode to difficulty mode is not only perfectly balanced, but it's actually helping me become a better player. In just three short days, I've increased my skill to the point of being able to 5-star a good number of easier songs on the Hard setting on guitar, and even some of the intermediate songs if I'm playing bass.
Another thing they got right with RB2 is the price for the downloadable content. There are complete albums for sale, there are various sizes of song packs, and best of all, every song can be purchased individually for the equivalent of $2 each. Considering the level of care that goes into creating the four separate tracks for each song for each of four difficulty settings, I have no problem shelling out the 160 MS points per song.
My sister and her fiance picked up RB2 on Tuesday night and after they got it all set up, we jumped online together. I was on bass, my sister on guitar, and her fiance on drums. What a great time. My sister and I each had a headset on and could talk while we were playing and had Kristin not have had such a crazy day at work, she would have picked up the mic to take over for vocals. But even with just the three of us mucking around on Quick Play mode, it was a blast. Sure, online gaming has been around for a decade or so now, but not like this. To be able to hold a jam session with family members three thousand miles away is just too great for words. Naysayers continue to call gaming an isolationist pursuit and some continue to point and laugh at the fake musicians playing Rock Band and Guitar Hero, but I can think of no other form of entertainment that brings people together quite like these games do. Going to the movies? Watching television? No thanks. I'm in the band now.
Regardless, even though I don't skate (I used to) and was starting to tire a bit from the annual updates, I do feel like a part of me is missing this year. It's not an exaggeration to say that I actually owe the foundation of my career as a guidebook writer to that franchise. The Pro Skater games -- and their various spin-offs featuring Mat Hoffman, Kelly Slater, and Shaun Palmer -- were my bread and butter when I started out. The writing sample I submitted to BradyGames way back in the summer of 2000 was for the "The Mall" level in the original Tony Hawk's Pro Skater. My good fortune came calling shortly after when the author writing the guidebook for Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 summoned all of his games-journalism professionalism and included such helpful tips as "If you can't do this, then you must suck" in the manuscript. Ummm, yeah. That was the last book he ever wrote for BradyGames and the next summer I was not only assigned THPS3, but also THPS2X and the aforementioned Palmer and Hoffman games. And then more of the same every year thereafter.
Right time. Right place.
So anyway, you can understand why I naturally begin to think about skateboarding this time of year. Every year. I came across this video tonight while browsing the web and I have to say that is one of the most graceful and brilliant pieces of action sports filmography I've ever seen. It's the intro for the video Fully Flared and it is absolutely mesmerizing.
That said, the winner of the LE version of the guidebook is Shon Browley. Congratulations.
Signed copies of the standalone Signature Series edition of the guide will also be going out to Debbie, Elmer, and Aubrey. So please email me your mailing addresses so I can get these in the mail to you right away. Thanks again for reading.
I'll have additional giveaways over the next couple of weeks for the Gears of War 2 guidebooks and also for the PS3 version of my Bioshock book.
There were a few sites that were of incredible assistance in accomplishing this task, but none more than www.seat61.com. The creator of this website started out by detailing how to get from London to all-points in the world accessible by train. The site then branched out to include very helpful, detailed information for train, bus, and ferry travel the world over. The site includes photos of the trains, maps of train lines for each country, simple schedules, and even some estimates on fares and how to go about booking your tickets. If you have any interest in overland travel, then bookmark that site right now. It's a treasure trove of user-friendly information.
Having spent two full days poring over maps, triple-checking numerous airfare rates, and comparing all sorts of connections and routes, I did finally nail down (at least for now) all of the major transportation expenses that we'll have. This process did ultimately cause me to rule out one or two places I had planned for us to go, but also allowed us to add some others. It will also be a bit more focused and allow for longer stays in particular regions.
So, if you're curious in the specifics, please do keep reading. This will very likely be the last post I make on the topic for several months as, quite honestly, I was exhausted from all the research I did on Thursday and Friday and, well, the trip isn't for 4 to 5 years.
*Prices are current-day per-person rates. Airfare rates were best available via www.kayak.com. I imagine lower-cost fares via consolidators are possible when the time comes, but I'd rather over-budget than short-change ourselves.
1) Alaska Ferry: 15-day pass ($929)
2) Trans-Canada Train: 12 days of travel in 30 pass ($879)
3) Flight: Newark, NJ to Dublin, Ireland airfare ($350)
4) Eurail Pass: 4 country 8 days in 2 months ($559)
5) Flight: Casablanca, Morocco to Nairobi, Kenya airfare ($626)
6) Flight: Nairobi, Kenya to Cairo, Egypt ($408)
7) Flight: Tel-Aviv, Israel to Istanbul, Turkey ($230)
8) Eurail Pass: 5 country 10 days in 2 months ($688)
9) Flight: Vienna, Austria to Delhia, India ($520)
10) Flight: Round-trip Delhi, India to Kathmandu, Nepal ($140)
11) Flight: Delhi, India to Bangkok, Thailand ($175)
12) Flight: Jakarta, Indonesia to Sydney, Australia ($501)
13) Flight: Sydney, Australia to Christchurch, New Zealand ($107)
14) Flight: Auckland, New Zealand to Santiago, Chile ($1194)
15) Flight: Lima, Peru to Miami, FL ($268)
There are indeed a few changes to the plan from the post I made recently about the 12 legs of the journey.
For starters, we'll not be taking a trans-atlantic cruise or freighter. The lone trans-atlantic cruiseship is currently the Queen Mary 2 and it is, how shall I put this, not exactly designed with backpack-travelers in mind. There simply won't be enough room in my backpack for a tuxedo. It also seems that the freighter travel ships stick to slightly warmer waters by the end of October and the few direct routes between NYC and England were no longer being followed. As for adding Ireland to the list, it's much cheaper to fly into Dublin than London or Edinburgh.
In Africa, I learned that overland travel between Kenya and Ethiopia is not at all very fun. The lone road that leads through northern Kenya to the border town of Moyale is considered the "worst road in Africa" and, quite frankly, the sites in Ethiopia don't interest me enough to make flight there. But with each unfortunate discovery, a hidden gem is discovered. For example, there is a train that runs from Nairobi to Mombassa, that goes straight through the heart of Tsavo National Park. Yes, that Tsavo. Not only is that one of my all-time favorite movies, but I'm also a big fan of this book that, among other things, chronicles doing that journey on foot (no thanks).
Thanks in no small part to Seat61.com, I discovered that my wish to travel from Egypt to Jordan and onward to Israel is indeed possible. There is a ferry that takes travelers across the Red Sea to Aqaba, Jordan and, at least based on message board posts at www.bootsnall.com and at Lonely Planet's site, Jordan is a fantastic place to travel through. So while I'm not a religious person, I have to say that I am definitely excited about seeing the ancient sites of the Holy Land in Jordan and Israel.
A couple other points of note. We didn't have any plans to head towards west-central modern Europe, but flying to Delhi is vastly cheaper out of Vienna, Austria than it is out of Budapest, Hungary so the plan will be to train travel from Istanbul through Greece and Bulgaria and Croatia up to Hungary and then over to Austria. Also, along those lines, it's far cheaper to do a round-trip flight between India and Nepal and to then fly one-way to Thailand, than it is to fly directly from Kathmandu to Bangkok. Like, nearly a thousand dollars cheaper.
Our trip took a major turn off the expected plan from a few weeks ago after studying the maps of southeast Asia train service and comparing flights from different cities to New Zealand. In short, although I was very excited to find direct train service between Hanoi, Vietnam and Beijing, China (not to mention the ferry between Shanghai and Osaka), flying from Tokyo down to either Sydney, Australia or Auckland, New Zealand was just way too expensive. So, instead, we decided to leave China and Japan for our eventual Trans-Siberian railway trip and follow the trains south to Kuala-Lumpur, Malaysia, and work our way down through Java to Bali. We had no plans to visit Australia, but it's much more affordable to fly to Sydney and then jump over to NZ than it is to fly direct, so we'll be spending at least a few days in Australia.
Lastly, flights leaving Lima, Peru to just about anywhere are very expensive, even just to Mexico City or even nearby Panama City so we believe we're going to conclude the main portion of the trip in Peru after spending an extended amount of time in Chile and Argentina. We expect we'll need to decompress and ease back into mainstream American life, not to mention figure out what our next move will be. It just so happens flights from Lima to Miami are very cheap. What better way to soak it all in and cap off the trip than by sipping fancy drinks on a beach in Florida. And at that point, we'll just be a long train ride from what I'm sure will be a long-anticipated reunion with family in New Jersey.
Sidenote: One of the places I really wanted to visit at the end of the trip was Cuba. Canada's number one travel destination can't be all that bad, and I've heard nothing but great stuff about Havana. Unfortunately, "big brother" doesn't even allow an American to search for the price of flights to Havana online. I tried to check the fares from Lima to Havana on kayak.com and instead I got a message about the State Department forbidding travel there for Americans. Ridiculous.
I spent a considerable amount of time and energy into putting this guidebook together and am very proud of the end result. This Signature Series guidebook is 260 pages long and trust me when I say that it covers everything there is to know about Fable II and is definitely one of the top 3 books I've written -- and I've authored over 70 of these things now. Also, the Limited Edition version which I'm giving away comes bundled in a soft-bound folio with the 112 page Fable II Art Book. BradyGames only prints a limited number of these and they retail for $30 each. I'm keeping one of them (obviously) but I'm putting the other up for grabs.
Since this is a bit of a special giveaway, I want to make sure that it goes to someone who is definitely a fan of the game. So I'm giving you a quiz. Answer each of the questions below between now and 12:00pm PST on Tuesday and email them to me. The person with the most correct answers will win the LE version of the guidebook which I will ship out on Tuesday (USA & Canada only, please). Three runner's up will receive the standalone version of the guidebook without the art book once I receive them. The questions cover Fable, Fable II, and Fable II: Pub Games.
Answer as many of the following questions as you can and send your responses here.
1) What was the name of the Hero's hometown in the original Fable?
2) What is the name of the continent on which the story takes place?
3) Name the talking stone doors hidden across the land.
4) Name the three games in Fable II: Pub Games.
5) Fable wasn't the original name for this game. What was it?
6) Who is your companion in Fable II?
7) Peter Molyneux is the big name behind the game, but there are a pair of brothers heavily involved in the development of the game. Who are they and what company do they work for?
8) Which of the following is not possible in Fable 2: Marriage, murdering innocents, adultery, homosexual sex, having children, getting drunk, doing drugs, sex with multiple partners, or same-sex marriages.
9) Bonus weaponry and clothing modeled after a famous character in another videogame franchise is available in the Fable 2 collector's edition. What game are these from?
10) Name a major villain in either Fable or Fable 2.
Okay, this was a launch game that I picked up used last year when I was writing a chapter on how to score 10,000 Gamerscore in 2 weeks. I finally got around to finishing the game on Monday and, frankly, it wasn't as bad as a lot of people would have you believe. Simple? Yes. Ugly? Yes. Repetetive? You betcha. But there was something oddly compelling about it. All you need to know about the game is experienced in the first 60-90 minutes, but for some reason I continued to play. Okay, I admit it, it's a very easy source of 1000 Gamerscore and I just finally wanted to get it over with. I can't say I was all that entertained.
Penny Arcade: Episode 1
If you know the full run-on-sentence long title of this game, then I doubt I need to tell you anything you haven't already figured out by playing it. Upon finishing up King Kong on Monday, I booted back up the Penny Arcade game in hopes of finally finishing it. I did. It took me a little bit of time to get back into the swing of the game -- hadn't played since May -- but I wanted to get up to speed before Episode 2 comes out. I'm on the fence about this one. My initial enjoyment from it came from it being something completely different, very funny, and because I loved the narrator. Not unlike King Kong, however, you soon realize that you see this game's entire bag of tricks before the halfway point as well and the only thing pulling you forward is your own desire to complete the game. The story is transparent and the gameplay rather limiting. That said, when Penny Arcade is funny (a rarity these days), they're really funny. I'm going to give Episode 2 a try when it releases in the coming weeks because it's going to be $5 cheaper than the first (1200 MS points instead of 1600) and because the Achievements list for Episode 2 lead me to believe that there are several new gameplay elements being worked in. Following the entire series to the conclusion is certainly not a given at this point. Episode 2 had better be good.
For some reason, rather than throw in one of my unopened games, I decided to try and finish up Assassin's Creed. Why, I have no idea. I so badly want to like this game, but the constant repetition of gameplay and the fact that the three major cities (Acre, Jerusalem, and Damascus) all look nearly identical in the game makes it really hard to want to go on. I was at least hoping that moving between cities and their districts would feel like unlocking a new level, but it's not. Everything looks the same. And everything I do is the same. I climb steeples, I dive into hay, and I fight. I hold the R Trigger to wait for an attacker to make his move, then I tap the X Button to counterattack. Mix in the occasional pickpocket and repeat ad nauseum. In hindsight, the only part of the game that really stuck out beyond the first 45 minutes was the criss-crossing of the Kingdom on horseback but that became old too and now I just fast-travel wherever I need to go. As a completionist, it's very hard for me to purposely avoid searching for the hidden gems stuck deep inside the seat cushions of a game, but the extra collect-a-thoning involved in this game is so boring and tedius that I have no interest in it. I never thought I'd say it, but I've even grown bored with even the sweeping panoramas viewed from atop the tallest towers in the Holy Land. How that is possible, I don't know.
Age of Booty
Finally something to celebrate. This just released this morning on XBLA for 800 MS points ($10) and I am really, really enjoying it. It's a team-based real-time strategy game in the most simple and addictive of forms. Teams of 2 or 4 sail around a hexagonal-based ocean and compete to capture towns and resources. Use resources to either upgrade your ship (speed, armor, cannons) or to upgrade the town so it can better defend itself. Merchant ships drop curses that you can use to pilfer extra resources from your opponents or to even blow up their ships or trap them in a whirlpool. There are 21 single player challenges (some are very hard), a full-featured Map Editor mode so you can load up your own personal maps, and of course online multiplayer. Two players can play on the same television sitting side by side, provided you're on the same team. The game is very easy to understand by skimming the in-game controls and manual and by playing the first two or three single player challenges (scroll down for the easy ones). The single-player challenges suffer a bit on account of the heavy reliance on the A.I.-controlled ships being impossible to communicate and organize a strategy with, but fortunately you can play online with real humans and coordinate tactics with. That is, assuming they are using the microphones. Of the matches I've played online so far, only one of them featured other people communicating well. The difference is huge, so please have your microphone ready and talk it up with your fellow booty-grabbers (Ha!) as it will really make the game much easier to enjoy.
Here's the official trailer for Age of Booty. Send me an invite if you ever want to play.
Kristin and I attended Rick Steves' presentation about Iran last night. The idea behind his trip to Iran came from the members of the United Nations Association, Seattle Chapter who wanted to try and do something that would stick out amongst all the saber rattling that was going on this past spring. So Steves set about getting his film crew together to head to Iran for a 12-day trip with the goal being to peel back the layers of politics and stereotypes and reveal the human side of the Iranians. Or as he put it, "to at least try to get to know the people we might end up bombing."
Those who think Ahmadinejad's words and feelings about the US are echoed by the minds of the 70 million Iranians would be surprised to hear that Rick was received warmly by Iranians of all ages, and that the citizens of Iran don't spend their time hating the US and Israel; they spend their time worrying about work, going to school, buying groceries, paying the rent, and everything else we all consume our days with. Yes, the theocratic government of Iran does have numerous anti-American/Israel murals on the sides of the buildings and does pay for much anti-western signage throughout the city of Tehran (home to 14 million). But the people of the country were not so different than you and I. They just want to fall in love, raise a family, and get a good job just like us. It would be impossible to talk about Iran without talking a bit of politics, but not to condemn or agree with opinions held by our leaders in Washington (certainly not to agree), but to offer what may be an explanation for some of the beliefs.
The crew didn't spend the entire trip in Tehran (oddly enough, a city that Rick compared to Vancouver, BC in appearance and cosmopolitan traits). They traveled south to Esfahan, to Shiraz, and Persepolis as well. The photos were very impressive. The architecture, the mosques, and especially the faces in the crowd were all very beautiful. Persepolis was one of the main sites during the Persian Empire and was on the level of Athens, Cairo, or Rome in terms of ancient sites.
The presentation ended with a rousing standing ovation not only for the slideshow, but to also commend Rick Steves for the hour-long PBS special that will be aired in January in over 100 cities around the country. Activism through eductation. I had the fortune of sitting next to an Iranian-American couple who were overjoyed at seeing someone from this country finally set out to humanize the Iranian people and make an effort to show the people of the USA, basically, that there is no reason for these citizens to die. That bomb-bomb-bombing Iran does have consequences. Some of the Iranian-American couples stood up to comment on several things that Rick didn't get to see, such as the people of Iran gathering to light candles and say prayers for the victims of 9/11. That he didn't get to truly feel the hospitality and cooking skills of the people because of his whirlwind tour. And one also expanded on some of Rick's comments about Iranian-American relations with regard to the Shaw and Khomeini.
Rick put together a 45-page journal designed to be a companion to his upcoming show on PBS. I'll post a reminder about the show in January, when it's set to air. In the meantime, Rick will be giving another presentation near Everett, Washington on November 8th.
You can watch a preview for the PBS show on Iran right here. There is also a lot of F.A.Q. style blurbs at that link that can offer up some answers to your Iranian curiosity.
Originally published in 1956, "The Long Walk" is the autobiographical telling of Slavomir Rawicz's unfortunate time in Russia. He was a Polish soldier in World War II, fighting the Germans as a member of a cavalry division. When he returned home to his village on the border near Russia, he was apprehended at once. The Russians were convinced he was a spy. He spent 18 months in Russian prisons, suffering brutal interrogations and forced to live in conditions fit for neither rats nor roaches. He is eventually sentenced to 25 years of hard labor in Siberia.
His journey to Siberia took place in winter and not only included several weeks on an uninsulated train car packed with dozens of other prisoners, but also an 1100 mile trek northward, as a member of a chain-gang, through three Siberian blizzards. For forty days, through the dead of winter, they marched from the southern tip of Lake Baikal to Yakutsk, just south of the Arctic Circle. No gloves. No hat. Canvas shoes without socks.
He and six others eventually fled the prison camp and journey southward -- on FOOT! -- out of Siberia, through Mongolia, across the Gobi Desert, through the Himalaya, and all the way to the Indian Ocean and freedom.
To help you envision the route they took, I traced out a rough approximation on Google Maps. The line is over 3000 miles long.
View Larger Map
The first third of this book will leave you shaking your head in disbelief at the savage cruelty humans can inflict on one another. The rest of the book is an incomparable testament to the human will to be free and its ability to endure the harshest of conditions. It's also about the limitless generosity that exists within compassionate strangers. In the span of a hundred pages you will hear a first-hand account of the very worst and best we humans have to offer.
It is impossible to read this book and not think it fabricated, but it's not. It's real. It is also impossible to read this book and ever again feel justified in thinking you have it tough or that quitting a difficult task would ever be truly necessary. What these men went through is so far beyond what rational people would consider possible, it just boggles the mind.
This is sure to be a tale that's details occupy a space in my memory for decades to come.
Get your copy here.
The project is heavily reliant on cooperation with the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust and the National Forest Service, but securing the grant money and the volunteer committment from mountain bikers was essential for turning this road decommissioning project to a road-to-trail conversion project.
Glad to see the funding will be there. The finished project is still quite some time off (this is just phase 1) but I'm happy to say that the Resource Conservation Office obviously agreed with the case we presented. I spent a considerable bit of time getting the grant proposal together this summer. Nice to see it not go for naught.
I was back in New Jersey this past weekend and one of the many highlights of my trip was seeing my mother's new HDTV. She and my step-father had wrung every last static-filled, distorted image they could out of a 25-year old tube television and had finally figured an upgrade was needed. My mother's house is quite small and she likes big furniture so this doesn't leave a whole lot of room for things like televisions. Or people, for that matter, but that's another story for another time. Also, this is probably a good time to point out that my step-father is a bit of a redneck and my mother, well, she's not exactly a fan of contemporary design. Probably the main reason they kept using that old tube television of theirs was because of the wooden cabinet it came in. She hates these newfangled silver and black plastic television frames.
Nevertheless, the time had come to upgrade and they picked out a rather nice Sharp LCD that is, I'm guessing about a 32-inch widescreen. It's a nice tv with a good picture, but it's really hard to hear it. Even with the volume turned up to maximum, it can be very hard to hear.
I think it's because of where they put it...
Like I said, she really likes dem old-timey wooden tv cabinets.
It didn't help that the book started off with Malusa's journey across the heartland of Australia. Aside from a few colorful locals and an approaching tropical storm, there didn't seem to be much that interested him. I'm sure the landscape didn't offer much for him to wax poetic about, but considering how many miles he rode and the remoteness of his trip, it was quite dull. His frequent complaining about trying to get set up with a modem to provide online updates to the Discovery Channel didn't help matters. The story lacked the adventure I, and perhaps the author, expected and as a result if wasn't rather enjoyable.
The book certainly picks up a bit after that initial foray across Australia. His second jaunt took him Egypt and into Jordan to pedal to the Dead Sea. This was an interesting tale, mostly for the people he met along the way and the polical hurdles he had to jump in being allowed into Egypt with a satellite phone. Still, it's odd that so much time would be spent discussing his techno-gear required by the Discovery Channel, but next to no discussion of cycling gear. Not that I care what brand of bicycle he was riding, or what gearing he was using, but would-be bicycle tourers are always interested in hearing an experienced cyclist's tips for bike transport and security. In fairness, Weir's book "Spokesongs" offered precious little info about this either so maybe I'm in the minority for wanting it.
Malusa does seem to grow both as a traveler and a writer during his journeys and the quality of the storytelling was much improved by the time his trips through Russia and the Patagonia region of South America came about. I especially appreciated his ability to work so much local history into the text. And his ability to describe the Patagonian beauty -- and semi-miserable weather -- definitely made me that much more excited about our own upcoming trip to that same area of the world.
In fairness, the book actually spans nearly a decade in Malusa's life, the birth of two children, and thousands of miles of pedaling. Is it not permissable to allow him to grow from chapter to chapter? In hindsight, my initial reaction to the book was certainly different than my final opinion. It took far longer than I expected, but I was eventually looking forward to crawling into bed just so I can read some more about his travels in Djiboutti and then finally, to Death Valley -- along a stretch of road that I remember vividly from my own trip to that fabulous hole in 2002.
It takes a while to hit its stride, but if you're interested in world travel , particularly by bicycle, then I suggest you pick it up. If for no other reason than to get another piece of evidence in support of the kindness of strangers and the erroneous nature of so many of the perceived dangers in travel off the beaten path.
Buy the book here.
The Rick Steves Program will provide an introduction to an American audience about Iran (Persia) and its current people. Rick led a film crew to that country in the month of June 2008 for 10 days. He believes travel is a necessary tool to break down cultural barriers and potentially reduce violent conflict in our world -- more than ever. UNA Seattle and National office of UNA-USA were instrumental in Rick securing the required visa in order to initiate and complete his trip to Iran. A Rick Steves PBS special on Iran is slated to premiere nationally in January 2009. Presented by the United Nations Association of Seattle.
Rick is giving a slideshow and lecture about this recent trip to Iran next Tuesday, October 14th, in Seattle from 7:30 to 9:30pm. Tickets are available here.
When we first shook on it last September and, after years of talking about it, decided to start saving and planning to spend a year (or longer) travelling the world, we had just $1600 in our travel savings account. We devised a savings plan, stuck to it, and after the first year are up to a bit over $5000. I'm happy to report we're even a whopping $90 ahead of schedule. You laugh, but that's a few extra nights in a hostel or a week's worth of food in Egypt. Granted, the schedule is 5 years long and we're only about one-tenth to where we'll ultimately need to be, but our monthly deposits go up another $50 every 6 months and the amount should grow substantially from year to year. Not to mention Kristin's recent decision to take the bus to/from work each day is going to save us over $1200 a year between gas, maintenance, and a drop in car insurance. And both cars will be paid off next spring. Yes, I think we're well on our way to being able to follow the savings plan.
But what about those 12 chapters. Well, I'll tell you. For starters, we're very adamant about starting the trip with an early September ferry trip to Alaska. Preferably, right after Labor Day so we won't have to compete with the cattle coming off the cruiseships in Ketchikan and Sitka. Another reason for starting in September is that we want to hit Europe in the off-season. Less crowds, higher native:tourist ratio, and lower costs. Continuing around the world, we end up hitting many of the places we really want to visit, mostly, at the better time of year. Kilimananjaro during the migrations, Nepal during prime trekking season, southeast asia before monsoon season, etc., etc.
Anyway, here's what we came up with for a very rough, very preliminary, high-level itinerary. We'll be spending the next few years making notes of the places we want to make our "home base" in each country and what, if any, specific adventure-style trips we'd want to embark on, aside from the aforementioned climbing Kilimanjaro and Annapurna trekking in Nepal (another one just might be bike-touring in New Zealand).
1) Alaska, Canada, Family Farewell in NJ
Sept: 4-5 weeks
2) UK, France, Spain, and Portugal
Oct-Nov: 5-6 weeks
Nov: 2 weeks
4) Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia
Dec-Jan: 4-6 weeks
5) Egypt, Jordan, and Israel
Jan: 2-3 weeks
6) Greece, Turkey, Croatia, and Slovenia
Feb: 4-5 weeks
7) Northern India and Nepal
Mar-Apr: 4-6 weeks
8)Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia
Apr-May: 5-6 weeks
9) China and Japan
June: 4-5 weeks
10) New Zealand and Micronesia
July: 4-5 weeks
11) Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Bolivia
Aug-Sept: 6-8 weeks
12) Central America, Mexico, Caribbean
Oct-Nov: 4-6 weeks
So that's the basic aerial view of the plan. I'm sure it's bound to change as time goes by, but we needed to narrow things down a bit so we can be more productive in our research. I'm sure the more outdoorsy of you will no doubt pick up on the favoring of places with an abundance of natural sights and attractions and less so those with little more than old buildings (although I'm very excited about Scotland). We're still considering an extended volunteer stint in either Kenya or Nepal, but we've taken the scalpel to the map and eliminated the Trans-Siberian railway adventure for this trip on account of cost and the difficulty in getting a Visa for Russia and Mongolia while away from your home country. It can very well change in the next few years, but right now visas for Russia are very difficult to get if already on the road for half a year. We also decided to skip Italy, Germany and much of central Europe on account of cost. Likewise for Australia.
We expect that this itinerary will also allow us to make do with english and a smattering of local phrases and key words (e.g. please, thank you, excuse me, where is the bathroom?) at least until we hit South America. We know enough about Central and South America though to know to expect few english speakers in the lower western hemisphere (at least outside of Western-owned hotels and restaurants, which we'll be trying mightily to avoid) so we're planning on spending at least 1-2 weeks in an immersive language school once we get there. Even just two weeks of intense language training should help make independent travel through Latin America much easier and far more enjoyable.
It's all a long, long time from now, but I can't wait and neither can Kristin. It's hard to believe a year has already passed since we first talked about it, but it's been a good year. A productive year. A year that brings us that much closer to a journey of a lifetime.
In the meantime, a couple in a similar situation as us living in Oregon is hitting the road this week. I never met them, but I'm certainly going to be following along with their blog postings as they spend the next 12-15 months traveling the world. Follow along with me right here.
In other news, I believe I finally figured out why I always put on 10 pounds in the fall. Hmmm...
But what is most certainly not fan.., err, excellent is my experience with the new action-RPG Hinterland. After hearing many positive things about Tilted Mill's new city-building action-RPG hybrid, I decided to give in and download it. So I installed Valve's online delivery service Steam, resurrected my account from when Half-Life 2 was the sparkling NKOTB, and promptly downloaded the aforementioned Hinterland for $20. I love me some action-rpg, Diablo-clones and the PC is certainly the tool best suited for playing them.
When you can play them, that is.
Steam installed effortlessly, but despite several hours -- yes hours -- of troubleshooting with Hinterland, I have yet to even manage to see a title screen. I've read message boards, I've installed the new patch (the game only released on Tuesday, but there's already a patch), I updated Nvidia drivers, and I even rolled-back my DirectX drivers. Nothing. The only solace I can take in my predicament is that the game is currently unavailable through Steam -- perhaps the developers finally put it back in the oven to finish cooking? As one person in my shoes had posted on their message board yesterday, "I didn't pay $20 to be part of your beta test."
Ladies and gentlemen, this is why PC gaming has yielded so much ground to videogame consoles. I'm not the most computer-literate person out there, I know this, but I do know the basic tricks to get a game to run and I'm not necessarily new to this -- I have played PC games on and off for over 12 years. Some of my favorites of all time are PC-exclusives. But I don't want to have to close every background application to play a game. I don't want to have to download and update and roll-back drivers to play a game. And I sure as hell don't want to have to dive into my router's configuration and mess with port-forwarding settings just to play a game. This shouldn't be necessary.
But this is where the format is headed. Hinterland doesn't exist on a disc. You can't even just download the executable file from the developer's site. No, you have to use Steam, the front-end online delivery service. This is all fine and good when everything works the way it should, but what about when it doesn't? Is the problem with the game? Is it with Steam? How am I to know? I can tell you what I do know, I won't be trying this again, that's what. It's just not worth it.
I just want to buy the game, install it, and play it.
The Xbox 360 allows me to do this. The Nintendo DS allows me to do this. And I trust that even the PS3, Wii, and PSP would work this way as well if I had them in my possession.
The PC as a games machine is something for people with far more tinkering-time on their hands than I have. Fortunately, PC-exclusives are few and far between these days. Fortunately, indeed.
So yesterday was a fine day spent doing a little bit of work, some research for our RTW trip, and playing plenty of Pure. Kristin had gotten me a 16-year old bottle of Scotch and the book, "The Long Walk" by Slavomir Rawicz for gifts. I had never heard of the book, originally published in 1956, but it's a first-person account of Slavomir's flight across thousands of miles on foot from a Siberian labor camp in 1940. It sounds incredible and came highly recommended, she tells me.
But that wasn't all she had planned. Unbeknownst to me, she had also arranged for us to go to Teatro Zinzanni with friends of ours. The best way to describe Teatro Zinzanni is that it's a dinner-theatre with a heavy dose of audience participation (or, in my case molestation, but more about that later) and some impressive Cirque du Soleil-styled acrobatics. I had always wanted to check it out, but for one reason (the cost) or another (didn't want to go alone) we never did. In a word, it was fantastic and I'm really glad we went.
For starters, the food was fantastic. I'm told famed Seattle chef Tom Douglas designed the menu and every piece of the five-course meal was fantastic. Perfect serving size, excellent choice of paired wines and beers, and great service. You can see last night's menu right here -- I had the tuna. So the food was great, but I really need to back up and describe the setting. We're in a circular dining room with a luxurious high-brow "circus" feel to it. I know that makes no sense, but if you imagine velvet instead of vinyl and feather boas and masks instead of bulbous noses and suspenders, you should get the gist. The performance took place right in the center of the dining room floor, within feet of the tables and everyone is seated in a circle around the room so that they're facing the center.
Our table was on one of the aisles, right near one of the ramps leading "backstage". I was seated on the end which meant that I was continuously receiving attention from the performers and service staff (performers in their own right, to an extent) as they walked by.
We were there for the show "Quest for a Queendom" which featured a number of comedic performers and acrobatists from around the world and, also quite the Queen from the Seattle area as well. There was a fair bit of audience participation involved as the Queen's flamboyant tranny of a man-servant set out to find a new consort for the Queen. Later in the night, the cross-dressing Manchester decided he would become Queen -- and he chose me to be his new conquest. Earlier in the night he had stopped alongside our table, unbuttoned my shirt and proceed to rub my chest hair. I was a good sport so I guess he figured he'd be able to use me later in the show.
And used me he did.
I was center-stage for at least fifteen minutes, being slowly, deliberately, prodded, poked, and treated like the slab of man-meat Manchester was looking for. And little by little, he transferred his costume to me. First the frilly lace fan. Then the enormous 15-pound wig/hat. Then the enormous ballroom dress. Lastly some makeup. The audience was howling. Kristin was doubled-over laughing as hard as she ever did in her life. Manchester had unbuttoned my shirt, pulled the shoulders down over my arms and paraded me in a circle while rubbing my chest and grabbing my ass. What could I do but play along and have fun? So I gave him seductive glances, I held his hand, and when beckoned near, I ran as daintly as I could without spilling the hat, and leapt into his arms. It went on for a while and I even got to make some jokes that he'd repeat in the microphone. Each one got a huge laugh and I'm pretty sure they were laughing both at me and with me. Hell, I was laughing at me too.
Finally, Manchester and I were given the Queen's blessing and permitted to elope. We drank celebratory glasses of wine, arm in arm with the Queen, then paraded off stage to where a photo was taken of me, the Queen and Manchester. I then got to go back on stage again and take a couple of bows. Upon being instructed to bow towards my wife, Manchester took the opportunity to get in one more solid two-handed squeeze of my ass.
Come for the food, stay for the sodomy.
I'm going to regret this for years, but here's a look at what these heathens did to me.
In spite of the abuse I had taken, we had a fantastic time and I highly recommend Teatro Zinzanni to anyone who doesn't mind a bit of risque humor. It's definitely not a place that's very kid-friendly and you should dress up a bit for it. But if you have a special occasion coming up, and have plenty of room on your Visa, then get reservations and enjoy. The show was well-choreographed with dinner service and we were in the theatre for 4 full hours of entertainment (absolutely fantastic singing and music by the way) and food. When you factor in the five-course meal and entertainment and the length of time you're there, the $100/pp charge is actually quite a good deal. On the other hand, the photos, wine, beer, and mixed drinks hit our foursome for an additional $240 so consider yourself warned.