Archive for the ‘Good Times’ Category

CreativEndeavorSequel

Now that you all know what has been filling my Saturday mornings this year, I’d like to cover two other projects I’ve been working on. Both of these were on my list of resolutions for this year, and I have to admit that I’ve only been focusing on one of them at the moment. Still, the year is still young and I will have plenty of time to fulfill what I have set out to do this year. So, let’s start with where I’m lacking: YouTube videos.

YouTube

As many of you may already be aware, in 2007 I started a YouTube channel underneath my internet moniker of RonfarZ3. This was a very successful channel that had garnered over one million combined views, with the crowning achievement of the profile being my lip-sync to Tom Lehrer’s song “New Math”. This video alone garnered my channel over 500,000 views, at least half of the combined views of my 50+ videos.

While many of the videos on the original channel were Anime Music Videos (or AMVs for short), which are still available at AnimeMusicVideos.org, the remainder were lip-syncs to a variety of songs that I enjoy and want to share with the world. Finally, this channel exhibited some of my original works, including a short film entitled “drip”, a terrible assault on the English language entitled “Psychological PUNishment”, and the final project for my Film Studies course, “Action-OVERreaction”.

After two re-boots of the channel, first as TheRonfarZ3 and finally as lipsynchORswim, I was sad to have lost the legacy of views, but glad that I could still keep some of the videos around. While the current channel has been reduced to my lip-syncs and original videos (one of which was essentially a clip show of my first 50 AMVs), I had not made a new video since 2008. Part of the reason for this hiatus was that life kind of got in the way of making videos. Another reason was that as YouTube began to grow, I felt that I needed an equipment upgrade.

One perk of staying in Maryland for 7 months on a rotation for work was that I was able to use my hotel points to purchase a HD camcorder at no cost to myself. This key equipment upgrade was the main reason for my self-induced hiatus, and now that I finally had it, I could start making videos again. Since I did not add any new videos underneath the TheRonfarZ3 reboot, I felt like I needed an introduction. My first video of the year was just that: an announcement that I had come out of my hiatus and would be making videos again.

By February I had added another video to my channel, this time as my first lip-sync to a non-musical audio clip. Then the new videos kind of just stopped. Once again, life intervened and I no longer had the free time that I once had in college to create these videos. Another reason that I stopped was that I was trying to figure out what videos to do next. A 3-year hiatus had built up a bunch of things I wanted to do, but couldn’t figure out the gimmick to present them with. One thing that I wanted to do with my lip-syncs was to have some sort of visual gimmick on the screen so that it wasn’t just me on video singing along. These gimmicks have ranged from lyrics appearing on screen, to lighting, to kind of a “dueling banjos” arrangement.

Now that I have some gimmicks worked out for the next few videos, I just need the motivation to record and edit them. Right now that will have to wait because of a very exciting opportunity that has presented itself: being a published author.

First Name Basis [BUY HERE!]

Front Cover

Regular readers of this blog will remember that last November I participated in National Novel Writing Month and was able to crank out 54,000 words of a first draft for a novel. Once I took a few extra weeks to wrap up the plot, I arrived at a complete first draft of about 66,000 words, covering 113 pages. I then sent this completed draft to some of my friends to read through and critique. My plan was to edit the novel based on the comments I received from some unbiased sources (I thought it was great, but would others?)

Now, my plan was to edit the novel in March, but due to some delays on multiple fronts (the least of which was my procrastination), I didn’t really get started on editing until mid-April. I already knew that since I had hastily written the novel in November that there would be plenty that I needed to change. Granted, after 9 months of preparation, I knew that the plot didn’t need much restructuring, which made editing an easier endeavor. And yet, there was much to be done. Plenty of details to add to the skeleton of characters and settings. Plenty of continuity errors that I needed to fix. Plenty of adjustments to the awkward beginning and rushed ending.

One would wonder why I’d go through all the trouble to fix something that most people would probably never see. Well, one of the perks of being a NaNoWriMo winner is that you can receive a free proof copy of your novel from CreateSpace. I thought that this was a great way to get my literary debut in print, if for nothing more than a conversation piece on my bookshelf. Now, having written the first draft, and not being quite pleased with it, I wanted the finished product that I sent to the printers to be something I could truly be proud of.

Taking most of the comments I received into account, along with my perspective after having not read the draft in four months, I crafted the novel through at least three revisions before I got on CreateSpace to set up my proof copy. Little did I know that I now had a few more hurdles to jump over before I could get my free copy. Luckily, the whole editing process had a deadline of the end of June, which was when my free proof deal would expire, so I was motivated to work on the final minutiae. Fortunately, these final steps proved to be the most fun.

When you read a novel, all you ever really think about is the words on the page, but there’s more that goes into it than that. Formatting was a huge part of my task ahead, and I was fortunate that CreateSpace had some handy templates that I could use. After all, you rarely see a book printed that’s 8.5” X 11”, so some adjustments obviously need to be made. Secondly, I had to create a cover for my work. Again, I was fortunate that CreateSpace has a cover creator section on their website. I used this application to make a cover that I felt conveyed the feel and ideas of the novel as a whole. However, these tasks weren’t the most exciting part that I was discovering.

Since CreateSpace is used to somewhat independently produce and distribute original material, once I received the proof copy of my novel, I could make it available for purchase. This means I’d get royalties for my work. I’d be a professional novelist. Granted, the rates that I’d get for each copy sold are not driving me to quit my day job, but a little bit extra spending cash never hurt anyone either. When I got my proof copy, I read through it and made some much needed final edits, mainly in formatting and some tragic grammatical errors that slipped through in the previous edits.

So what does this mean to you, dear reader? This means that after 17 months from the inception of the idea for First Name Basis, you can finally buy my very first novel. I won’t say much more on this, since this advertisement video explains why you should buy this book a lot better than I can in this blog.

But this isn’t even the best part. Since I spent 9 months planning out the first novel, I have plenty of material left over, not to mention a huge back-story that I can explore. With the world and its set of rules already in place, I’m well on my way toward planning the sequel, Second to None, which I will write this November for National Novel Writing Month. I know that I was initially leery of writing a novel this year, but the ideas and the structure are flowing so quickly that I need to write it this year, lest I forget all of this inspiration. As a result, I should hope to have my second novel published by this time next year.

I feel that self-publishing is definitely the way to go for me right now, since I know that I really like my story, but I’m unsure if major publishers would like it as much as I do. Besides, if the book is truly one of universal appeal, it will spread virally: friends telling their friends and so on. Right now the book is only available through this site, but when I’ve made enough in royalties to cover some of the costs, I will make the book available as an eBook as well.

So yeah, with directing Human Videos, making YouTube videos, publishing a novel, continuing to teach myself how to play the piano and continuing my culinary exploits, my creative life is certainly diverse and exciting. After all, all work and no play . . .

CreativEndeavors

I’d like to expound briefly on a few creative projects that I’ve been working on this year that some of you may be unaware of. Since we’re about half-way through the year, a few words on these projects might not be amiss. After all, a few of these projects were on my list of resolutions for this year, and an update wouldn’t hurt. So without further ado, let’s start with the one project that wasn’t on the resolution list: X-PRODUCT.

Pronounced “Cross Product”, this is the Junior Human Video team that I have been directing since February. For those who are unfamiliar with Human Video, it is essentially an interpretive dance that conveys the lyrics and message of a song to the audience. Don’t worry; I didn’t know what it was either until December of last year. In fact, let’s start at the beginning of this story.

Once word had gotten around my church that I had been in various theatre productions in college, I suddenly became the expert on these matters. Now, granted, I only ever performed on the stage for these productions, and had little to do with the behind-the-scenes work. And yet, I realize that most people don’t really distinguish between the two. At any rate, the music director at my church approached me about starting a human video group for some of the kids of the church to get them exposed to the world of human video. Having done various acting roles since I was in 4th grade, I thought this was an excellent idea and agreed to help. Of course, I thought I would be helping someone who actually knew what they were doing. Who actually knew what human video was. Who had actually done human video. Ha ha ha, silly ol’ me.

It quickly became apparent that I would be running the entirety of the group. This was a little daunting to me on a few levels. First of all, my one weakness in the theatre is choreography. Every time I did a musical in college, it would take me forever to finally get the choreography for a song down, and even then I was never quite perfect. Now I was to coach a group of 9 to 12 year olds on choreography? God has got a sick sense of humor. Secondly, since I was under the impression that I would be assisting someone else, I wasn’t really comfortable running things. Like I said, I hadn’t even heard of human video until the music director approached me. Finally, I’ve had a little bit of experience in dealing with children through my work as an adult leader in the Boy Scouts, but I was more of a resource and chaperone instead of someone who actually ran anything. So, as you can see, things quickly got out of hand.

Still, I decided that since I had said that I would do it, I would stick through and finish. Our first production needed to be done on Easter Sunday, so I gave myself plenty of time to get the crew into shape, considering that I was new to human video and they were new to human video as well. Of course, you can’t start a group without a good name, so I began to think of what we would call ourselves. Most of the names I had seen for groups were clever and reminded me of the naming convention of Homer’s Barbershop Quartet from The Simpsons: It should be witty initially, but should become less funny each time you hear it. That’s when the name “Cross Product” came to me. I thought it was clever on a few levels (we’re all a product of the cross, we’re doing this production for the cross, etc. etc. etc.) and it gave me an opportunity to be an absolute nerd. With name in hand, we started rehearsals.

To be honest, by the first rehearsal, I had no idea what I was going to do. I knew that they would be performing the song “End of the Beginning”; but past that, I really had no idea what I was doing (as previously hinted to). I managed to work my way through the first rehearsal, getting a gauge of the talent of the ten children I’d be working with and introducing them to the idea of human videos. I ran this first rehearsal absolutely alone, which I wasn’t really comfortable with on a variety of levels, the least of which was trying to control ten 9 to 12 year olds who are not my direct offspring. Needless to say, I was frazzled and readily welcomed the assistance of one of the parents for the remainder of the rehearsals. As a director, I can’t keep the kids in check and teach them choreography at the same time, so the addition of a disciplinarian definitely helped.

With the introductions out of the way, I had to think of a plan if I wanted this to be a success. I had seen a few different versions on YouTube of the song we were doing, but none of them really possessed all that I wanted to show. It was at this point that I decided to make an entirely original arrangement. Now, trying to teach one kid choreography is one thing, but ten kids simultaneously and in concert with each other is something completely different. So, as I usually do, I fell back on my engineering background. Taking the lyrics a line at a time, I created a spreadsheet that detailed the entirety of the motions of each participant. All said and done, this spreadsheet took up six 8.5” X 11” sheets of paper. Intimidating when you look at it, but it definitely helped me to visualize where everyone was at every part of the song, like little chess pieces that I could move around and control at my will. Part of the reason I made what was dubbed “The Epic Spreadsheet” was so that I could coordinate all the moving pieces, but the more important reason was so that the children would have a script of what they would be doing.

If I learned anything from doing theatre in college, it’s that rehearsals are only productive when everyone is present and everyone knows what to say and do. Juggling the schedules of ten different kids is challenge enough without also having to make sure that my rehearsals didn’t conflict with something else at the church. As such, I figured that if some of the kids missed a rehearsal or two, then they could use the spreadsheet to practice at home. Ideally, this is how it should work even when they do come to rehearsals. As we neared the end of the eight weeks that I had given myself to teach these kids this particular human video, I was nervous because some of the kids had been missing for the majority of the rehearsals. A clock can only work if all its pieces are present and know what to do, if you know what I mean.

The Saturday before Easter Sunday was our dress rehearsal and at that point each of the ten kids had been to at least two rehearsals. I was justifiably nervous. Now, another aspect that I haven’t made clear here was that I would not be out in the audience directing the kids with hand motions. I would be in the choir singing the song that they would be performing. As such, I needed to make sure that the kids could do the choreography without me coaching from the shadows. My perfectionist nature definitely pushed them to execute flawlessly, which I had not seen up to that point. I kept telling myself that it was “passable, but not perfect.”

The next day it was out of my hands. I had done all that I could to teach these kids this human video. From tips about stage presence, the fourth wall of the audience, keeping in character and the “quarter rule” to the actual motions themselves, I had spent the equivalent of two full working days with these kids preparing them for this one-time performance. And, of course, as is the case with every performance, they pulled it off flawlessly. I really wish I had been able to see it like that before they got up there and did it for the whole congregation, but that is the nature of the beast that we call theatre.

Now, during the eight weeks, I learned that there were some in the congregation who had actually had training in human video. Reasonably, I am still questioning why they were not used to direct this group, instead of the choice of a complete neophyte. And yet, after bonding with these kids for eight weeks, I wasn’t going to let this group fade away. We put in too much work to just end it. Now the initial learning curve was out of the way and we could quickly pull together another human video. After a few weeks of a well deserved break, we got back to work on our next production. This time I have an assistant director, a choice that should become apparent to a lot of people in the near future.

Even though the project wasn’t quite what I had anticipated, I stuck to it and have definitely reaped some immediate rewards, along with those that will be waiting in heaven. Sure, there are some things that I would like to change (more parental involvement/commitment would be nice as a start), but I’ll just keep plugging along doing what I can.

Well, this post got kind of long, so I’ll save the next two creative endeavors for next time. See you then!

PlaylisTinkering

When I bought my first car about two years ago, I was excited to finally have a car to myself. I really have no complaints about it, with the exception of one thing: the CD player. If I had gotten a car that was older or newer, I would have gotten a tape deck or an additional auxiliary input, respectively. As it is, I cannot just plug my mp3 player into the car stereo and listen to my music. I’m too cheap and lazy to upgrade the CD player, and I’ve found the local radio stations to be banal at best. As a result, I’ve burned a bunch of CDs to play in my car. In doing so, I’ve come across something interesting.

Of course, when burning CD-Rs, I am one of those people who will get as close to that 80 minute cut-off mark as they can. I feel that anything short of that is just wasted space. When I started burning discs for my car, I would find artists that either had an album and an EP, or two shorter albums and I would put one right after the other on one disc. I was surprised at how many discs ended up being the entire discography of a band on one 80 minute CD-R. This worked for quite a few of my favorite bands and I was able to quickly fill my car with music from a variety of musicians.

As I continued, there were a few artists that didn’t quite fit into the 80 minute limit. This is where some judgment came into play. I’d try and keep as much of the albums as I could on the CD, only omitting one or two songs that pushed the total time over the edge. These were usually songs that I didn’t particularly care for anyways, so there was no real loss.

Then came the challenge of artists that I enjoy, but have far too much material to easily filter down to a set that would fit within the boundaries. At first, I would do the same filtering process as before, but this time I would be looking for the songs that I really enjoyed, instead of merely removing the songs that I didn’t care for. I burned a few of these, but I was not very creative in the ordering of the songs. I chose an alphabetical order, mainly for convenience, but also because I figured I would listen to these discs on a shuffling, or random, mode.

As I’m sure my brother already knows, with the two compilations of music from Colorado musicians he’s already made, creating the perfect mix-tape is more of an art than merely choosing what music you want to listen to. I now have an appreciation for this art as well. For example’s sake, let’s take a hypothetical CD I would burn for a CD player alarm clock (of which I do not actually own):

1. “Morgenstimmung (Morning Mood)” by Edvard Grieg from Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op. 46
2.  “Here Comes the Sun” by The Beatles from Abbey Road
3. “Good Morning Good Morning” by The Beatles from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
4.  “Good Day Sunshine” by The Beatles from Revolver
5.  “Good Morning Starshine” by Strawberry Alarm Clock from Incense and Peppermints
6.  “Blue Morning, Blue Day” by Foreigner from Complete Greatest Hits
7.  “Alarm Clock” by The W’s from Fourth From the Last
8.  “Woke Up This Morning” by A3 from The Sopranos
9.  “Pachuca Sunrise” by Minus the Bear from Menos el Oso
10. “Sunday Sun” by The Cinematics from A Strange Education
11. “A Day in the Life” by The Beatles from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely hearts Club Band

For this example, I followed the concept of free association. That is, expanding a subject by including the first words and phrases that pop into your head. In doing so, I have expanded my initial idea of “alarm clock” to include “morning/good morning”, “sun/sunshine/sunrise”, and “day”. Strangely enough, a lot of these tracks are songs by The Beatles, of which I have absolutely no qualms. Still, this is only one aspect of creating a mix. This isn’t really any different than what I was doing with the musicians that I had too much material from. This next example goes into the flow of a mix:

1.    Theme from New York, New York
2.    My Kind of Town
3.    South of the Border
4.    Fly Me to the Moon
5.    All or Nothing at All
6.    Nice ‘N’ Easy
7.    The Best is Yet to Come
8.    I’ve Got the World on a String
9.    You Make Me Feel so Young
10.  I Get a Kick Out of You
11.  I’ve Got You Under My Skin
12.  Luck Be a Lady
13.  The Lady is a Tramp
14.  Love and Marriage
15.  (Love Is) The Tender Trap
16.  Witchcraft
17.  Learnin’ the Blues
18.  Night and Day
19.  The Way You Look Tonight
20.  Strangers in the Night
21.  In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning
22.  It Was a Very Good Year
23.  The Last Dance
24.  My Way

This example was created by selecting the songs by Frank Sinatra that I liked. Once I had the total time underneath the 80 minute threshold, I started moving tracks around. Most songs on this list fall into pretty clear-cut categories, so I tried to group the songs together based on their subject matter. Once that was accomplished, I would move whole chunks of songs around to get the desired flow. Right off the bat, I wanted the songs revolving around the night to finish off the mix, so I set those at the end. From there, I wanted to start the mix with the songs about various locales, thus cementing the start of the mix. In between there were the “women songs”, which were further split up to sub-categories. The main point with this mix was to get a good flow from one song to another based not only on lyrical content, but on tempo as well. Of course, with a lot of the songs having the “big band” sound, it was fairly easy to have a natural progression between them. Finally, this last example uses the ideas from the Sinatra mix and applies them to a variety of artists like the Morning mix did:

1.   “White Lines and Lipstick” by A Change of Pace from Prepare the Masses
2.   “Squeaking Wheels and White Lights” by This Providence from Who Are You Now?
3.   “Armistice” by MUTEMATH from Armistice
4.   “Is This Tomorrow?” by As Tall as Lions from You Can’t Take it With You
5.   “Little Kids” by Kings of Convenience from Quiet is the New Loud
6.   “Eleanor Put Your Boots On” by Franz Ferdinand from You Could Have it So Much Better
7.   “Words & Music” by Sondre Lerche from Heartbeat Radio
8.   “Boring Fountain” by Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin from Pershing
9.   “Saturday Night” by Blitzen Trapper from Furr
10. “Junkie Weight” by Gooding from Tiny Heart Attacks
11. “Devil” by Cat-a-Tac from Cat-a-Tac
12. “Calling on You” by Paulson from All at Once
13. “Pachuca Sunrise” by Minus the Bear from Menos el Oso
14. “Keep Forgetting” by The Cinematics from A Strange Education
15. “This is Not the End” by The Bravery from The Sun and the Moon
16. “The Name of the Train is the Hurricane” by Men, Women & Children from Men, Women & Children
17. “Too Too Too Fast” by Ra Ra Riot from The Rhumb Line
18. “M79” by Vampire Weekend from Vampire Weekend
19. “Itch U Can’t Skratch” by Junior Senior from Hey Hey My My Yo Yo
20. “Sublime” by Supreme Beings of Leisure from Supreme Beings of Leisure
21. “The Rot” by Ian Cooke from The Fall I Fell
22. “Wake” by Annuals from Such Fun

The idea behind this last mix was to introduce someone to the variety of bands that I like. Even though I might be labeled a hipster for the lack of mainstream music on this mix, I do feel that it is a gateway for people to discover some pretty great musicians that they might not have known about otherwise. As such, I spent a very large amount of time picking out the tracks for this mix. There was a lot of back and forth to try and get it just right, and now I believe I have arrived at something that I will enjoy listening to.

One aspect that I found helps with mixes like this is the way that songs begin and end. Getting a good flow of tempos is good, and even progressing through different musical styles lends itself well to a good mix, but what really gets songs stuck together is if one starts in the same way that the previous one ended. For instance, if there is a fade out on the last song, then if the next song started with a fade in, it just naturally fits together.

What I’ve found through making these mixes, is that the truly good mixes make it so that when you listen to the songs away from the compilation, the next song from the mix automatically will come to mind when the song is done playing. I am by no means an expert on this subject, but these have been my thoughts on creating a good mix. Consider this post to be tips from a music enthusiast, and nothing more than that.

AstronauTraining

Reading up before the big mission

Many children have ambitious dreams for the careers that they would eventually like to have. Some examples of said professions are doctor, fireman, and athlete. Of course, there is inevitably one other profession that most kids want to be when they grow up. Astronaut. Unfortunately, not only do the astronauts of this world come in short supply, but their job is a difficult test of endurance, both physically and mentally.

And yet, many still persist in these lofty dreams. That’s where space camp comes in. Space camp is a good way to give kids a chance to experience a small part of what being an astronaut is like. I never got the chance to go when I was a child, and I’m completely fine with that. However, when opportunity knocks, I’m certainly going to answer the door.

In the final days of January, I participated in (what essentially boiled down to) space camp for adults. As part of a teambuilding and leadership training, I was able to use my position at the Missile Defense Agency as a part of its Career Development Program to go to space camp. This broke down into two days. Day 1 was a ropes course and day 2 was the astronaut training.

Over the years, I’ve had the chance to participate in many ropes courses. As such, I’ve been able to figure out some of the “tricks” of the teambuilding that takes place. Let’s just say experience breeds confidence. Of course, the first task was to break the large group into smaller groups. Standard icebreaker involving pictures taped to backs. All said and done, I ended up in team Charlie. Even though the other teams were Alpha and Bravo, I couldn’t help talking about going to Candy Mountain, the Leopluradon, and the fact that we were on a bridge.

The first activity of the day was the climbing wall. Again: standard stuff. And yet, there was a twist that I hadn’t encountered before. While you were climbing the wall, two others were climbing with you. Not only that, but all three climbers were loosely tethered to each other. The goal was to get to the top of the wall while keeping the tethers intact. Of the sets of three that attempted the wall, mine was the only one of our small group to make it to the top as a complete team. High fives and other congratulatory actions were well due indeed. Oh, did I mention that it was 40° outside? Yeah, it was cold. Yet another factor that made the day an adventure.

Next up was what I would call “Lumberjack Ninja”. The goal was to use metal pegs to climb to the top of a 40 foot pole and jump off. Easy enough, except heights can sometimes be an issue for me. Fortunately, the prior experience with ropes courses had ingrained in my brain the safety of the rope system, which definitely helped on the last few steps to the top of the pole. Once on top, I made a ninja pose, which really felt appropriate, considering where I was standing. Turning around (which is a difficult task when the pole sways with your movement), I leapt off the pole and fist-bumped the rope I was supposed to hit. I think the “rope hitting” part of the challenge was to make sure that you were far enough away from the pole so that you could be lowered safely. Of course, I took advantage of the situation to practice my best “Peter Pan” poses while I was lowered back down to the safety of the ground.

The last event of the day was the low ropes course. Nothing particularly special here, but it did enforce communication skills. With day 1 in the bag, I was looking forward to day 2. The end of day 1 consisted of a guided tour of the rest of the Space and Rocket Center, which was nice considering the last time I had been there, the guiding was left to the individual. Part of the reason I really liked this training, apart from the astronaut simulations, was the fact that we had many different teams that we had to work with. There’s no better way to become acquainted with your coworkers, than with a harmless assignment like a shuttle mission.

To start the second day off, our teams had to design our mission patches. I was a part of the space shuttle Atlantis, so of course I had the perfect slogan up my sleeve. “Let’s Get Kraken!” was proudly emblazoned at the top of our patch, which is only appropriate, considering the name of our shuttle. Once again, I found that my improvisational skills came in handy when we had to present our patch design in a clever manner. We decided upon the “evening news” method, and I was the head anchor to provide the explanation.

After an initial run-through of the mission on both flight control and shuttle sides, we made our way to what I would call the “simulation room”. This was a hangar-like building that housed a lot of equipment to simulate different conditions that astronauts might encounter. The first simulation I did was the “moon walk”, where springs reduced your “weight” to give the sensation of walking on the moon. A lot more difficult than it looks, mainly because a lot of the force that goes into walking isn’t put into going forward, but (apparently) into going up. The next simulation was meant to simulate microgravity, and it was pretty neat, considering I was essentially sitting in a mini-hovercraft. Newton’s laws definitely become apparent when there’s no friction to hold you back. Lastly, I went on the gyroscopic tumble simulator. This is the one that spins you around in every direction. Afterwards, I was reminded that I do actually get seasick, and that I probably wouldn’t make a good astronaut if this was part of the standard training. Well, that and the fact that I’m 6’1”.

By far the best part of the last day was the actual mission. Not only did we have blue flight suits (which I ended up buying), but we had tasks that were performed in a simulated shuttle environment. I was fortunate enough to be one of the Mission Specialists for the mission, which meant that I would be doing a spacewalk to assemble a structure for a satellite. This mission was replete with all the gear that would give the full experience. This included headsets, the bubble helmet, and various other accoutrement needed for a simulated spacewalk.

My only issue with the spacewalk has to do with the microgravity simulator. In order to give the feeling that you’re not being pulled down by gravity, you have to counter that force with a counterweight. Unfortunately, the compensation is perhaps a little more than the gravity pulling me to earth. Sitting in the chair for the spacewalk felt like being continually kicked in the crotch, because it kept pulling me up, when I wanted to just stay put. Of course, I can understand that there are certain limitations of trying to simulate a minimal gravity environment, but I kept fighting it instead of the alternative, which was to lose control. Add on top of everything trying to build a structure out of nodes and rods that were a little bit too big to really fit together properly, I definitely had my workout for the day.

Another observation I made about the mission in general was the critical thinking experience that many of us had. We were all college graduates, and many of us had engineering backgrounds, so the mission certainly did seem to go smoothly. There are a lot of checklists to work through, anomalies to solve, and switches to flip, and it was interesting to see how we were so well adept to these tasks already. Plus, I think most of us were old enough to really enjoy it.

The training concluded with a speech by retired astronaut Robert C. Springer. All said and done, it was an excellent 2 days and I wouldn’t trade them for anything else. Heck, I’d do it again. So in conclusion: yes. I have been to space camp. I just had to wait until I was 25.

CooKing

Week 39 - Monkey Brains

For those of you who have been keeping up with the Cooking Goal I set for myself this year, last week marked the end of the journey. I set out at the beginning of this year to wean myself off of the convenience of frozen, pre-packaged and “just add boiling water” foods. College was behind me, and it was time to grow into a mature culinary expert. I figured that with 52 weeks in a year, I could find time each week to make a new recipe and add to my repertoire. After adjusting the goal to make 52 recipes this year, I pushed onward to the finish line.

When I started cooking, I quickly realized that I was under-equipped for the task. And yet, it was a little bit fun trying to “MacGuyver” together solutions in the middle of preparing a recipe. Needless to say, the bi-weekly “20% off one item” coupon from Bed, Bath & Beyond that arrived in the mail was used almost immediately each time it arrived. But as I progressed, I found that I reached a point where I was anticipating what I would need. Or, in the case of the KitchenAid standing mixer, something that I thought would be really cool to have.

An unintended benefit of cooking ended up being the dinner parties. When I found that most recipes made 8 servings, and I really didn’t want to eat something for 8 straight days, the solution became obvious. I’ve always felt that food is the great uniting medium. There’s nothing better than gathering around the kitchen table with some home cooked meal and just talking. Talking without our mouths full of food, that is. Through inviting people over to my apartment for dinner, I really got a chance to know them better than I already did. I’m OK at large social functions, but I find that the intimate, small group get-togethers are far more meaningful when everyone isn’t trying to socialize with everyone else.

New York Cheesecake

Week 13 - New York Cheesecake

Then it happened. I started getting really ambitious. About 13 weeks in, I found a spring-form pan at a local thrift store. I thought to myself, “Hey, a spring-form pan! I know what I can make with that!” And that’s when the New York Cheesecake appeared. By that time, I had figured out that cooking wasn’t anything more difficult than civil engineering. I mean, you start with your raw building materials; process them through cutting, heating and mixing; form the materials together; and bake for 30 minutes at 350°. Voila! Instant building . . . I mean dinner. I figured that with some of the recipes, I wouldn’t know how difficult they were until I tried making them for myself. Surprisingly enough, I think every complicated recipe I made ended up turning out. The irony is that some of the simplest recipes (like cookies and Jell-O) were complete failures. Now that I have found myself capable of these complex culinary creations, they’ve lost some of their mysticism. I always thought, “Oh, that’s such a difficult recipe, I could never make something like that.” And then I did. Of course, one wonders if the difficult recipes are worth it, but when you take the first bite and your only reaction is to sigh in ecstasy, you know it was all worth it.

Of the 52 things that I made this year (well . . . 53, but those chocolate chip cookies were after I made the final recipe), I found that they fell into two distinct categories: main dishes and desserts. There were a few that didn’t fit in those categories, but they were in the minority. I think the reason for this dichotomy of recipes was due to the fact that I usually had small groups of people eating the finished product. If I was cooking for a bigger crowd, or making more elaborate, multi-course meals, I probably would have delved into the side dishes and vegetables, but as it was, I stuck to the important stuff. I also found that I ended up making more recipes from the family cookbook, than from the America’s Test Kitchen cookbook. I figured that if I had eaten it before, I knew how it should turn out, and thus would be able to tell if I succeeded or failed with a recipe. And yet, the America’s Test Kitchen cookbook was useful to learn some of the tricks and techniques to make recipes better.

Week 33 - Baked Italian

Probably my proudest moments of the year, with the exceptions of successfully pulling off recipes like New York Cheesecake, Harvest Pie, and Chicken Cordon Bleu, was the fact that I started making my own recipes. Well, more accurately, my own variations on recipes. About 2/3 of my way through the goal, I realized something. Some of the recipes I made ended up being very similar to each other. These ended up contributing to the two “fusion recipes” which were recipes that I had combined from two similar recipes. The greatest success of the fusion recipes was my Baked Italian. It took the greatest attributes of both recipes and fused them together in one ultimate dish. Now, Pork Chops and Texas Potatoes still needs a little work, but I think that I have a good baseline to develop from.

OK, now it’s time for the mushy, gooey part. No, not the undercooked chocolate cake. With as much time as I spent in the kitchen this year, and the chances I had to create social gatherings, as well as participate in them with my food, I began to do some thinking. What makes a meal “home cooked”? Is it merely a meal that isn’t store-bought? Is it a meal that could be classified as “comfort food”? Is it a warm meal? I felt that none of those questions gave a good sense of what “home cooked” really meant. I think this is one of those transitions that silently take place as we grow older.

When you’re growing up, you’ve always got mom’s cooking, and it’s that cooking that you would classify as “home cooking”. And yet, when does your own cooking become “home cooking”? Does it reach that stage when you’re married? When you have kids of your own? When they deem your cooking as “home cooking?” After much thought on the subject, I think I may have arrived at an answer: “home cooking” is food that is lovingly prepared that you share with those whom you love. With the rushed society that we live in today, wouldn’t an occasional home cooked meal help relieve the stress of our lives? How often do we go about the process of living, without letting those who we really care about know how we feel about them? The dinner may be burnt, or the dessert a sloppy mess, but with love, the true meaning of the meal gets across.

Week 52 - Chicken Cordon Bleu

All right, that’s enough philosophizing for now. Below is a list of the recipes that I made this year. After the name of each recipe, there are two markings. Within the brackets [], is which cookbook I made the recipe from: W = The Weilert Family Cookbook, 2nd Edition / A = The America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook / F= Fusion recipe / X = No cookbook was used. In parentheses () is the type of the recipe that I cooked: M = Main Dish / D = Dessert / B= Breakfast / O = Other (these are the side dishes, and other recipes I couldn’t easily categorize).

1.       Quick Tomato Sauce [A] (M)
2.       Bavarian Potato Chowder [W] (M)
3.       Zucchini Garden Chowder [W] (M)
4.       Creamy Stovetop Mac ‘n’ Cheese [A] (M)
5.       Cheese Omelet [A] (B)
6.       Italian Sausage Soup [W] (M)
7.       Chicken Pizzaiola [A] (M)
8.       Banana Bread [A] (O)
9.       Scrambled Eggs [A] (B)
10.   Chocolate Dream Dessert [W] (D)
11.   Sugar Cookies [A] (D)
12.   Casserole Italian [W] (M)
13.   New York Cheesecake [A] (D)
14.   Crispy Chicken Parmesan [A] (M)
15.   Bavarian Apple Torte [W] (D)
16.   Pork Chops & Potatoes [W] (M)
17.   Kuchen [W] (B)
18.   Chicken Enchiladas [W] (M)
19.   Potluck Pan Rolls [W] (O)
20.   Lasagna Casserole [W] (M)
21.   Texas Potatoes [W] (O)
22.   Hungarian Goulash [W] (M)
23.   Emergency Chocolate Cake [A] (D)
24.   Lemonade Drop Cookies [W] (D)
25.   Fiesta Casserole [A] (M)
26.   Fried Eggs [A] (B)
27.   Baked Ziti with Tomatoes and Mozzarella [A] (M)
28.   Cherry Cheese Packet [W] (B)
29.   Deviled Steak Cubes [X] (M)
30.   Country Apple Cranberry Dessert [W] (D)
31.   Chocolate Sheet Cake [W] (D)
32.   Strawberry and Cream Squares [W] (D)
33.   Baked Italian [F] (M)
34.   Baked Macaroni and Cheese [A] (M)
35.   French Toast Casserole [W] (B)
36.   Lemon Bars [W] (D)
37.   Beef Tortilla Casserole [A] (M)
38.   Chicken and Rice Casserole [X] (M)
39.   Monkey Brains [W] (D)
40.   All American Meatloaf [A] (M)
41.   One Dish Breakfast [W] (B)
42.   Pork Chops & Texas Potatoes [F] (M)
43.   Rhubarb Cobbler [W] (D)
44.   Chili [X] (M)
45.   Tenderloin Parmigana [W] (M)
46.   Easy Day Casserole [X] (M)
47.   Taco Soup [X] (M)
48.   Cranberry Cake [W] (D)
49.   Harvest Pie [W] (D)
50.   “Great Pumpkin” Cookies [W] (D)
51.   Cinnamon Apple Salad [W] (O)
52.   Chicken Cordon Bleu [A] (M)

So, after a year’s worth of cooking, I’ve met my goal. A reasonable goal with a reasonable challenge. I’ve learned a lot, not only about cooking and baking, but about myself as well. I’ve found a few recipes that I’ve already come to love and have made multiple times (Fiesta Casserole, Taco Soup, Easy Day Casserole, etc.). There’s nothing more to say at this point but, Bon Apetit!

WashingtoNationals

As my time in Maryland was drawing to a close, there remained one activity that I had not yet accomplished. Having made excursions to Washington DC for a variety of reasons, I had yet to go and see a baseball game at Nationals Park. Many of you can recall my misfortune when visiting Camden Yards to see the Orioles play, so I definitely put my lessons learned into practice this time around.

First of all, I would be parking for free on this trip. I feel that DC has the right idea when it comes to their Metrorail stations: free parking on weekends and holidays. With the reduced fare, spending some time in DC on the weekend is certainly a good deal. Of course, this time around, I remembered my previously paid for Metro tickets, so the cost was already compensated (for the most part). However, I tricked the system a little bit by using one card to get into the station, which meant that I did not have enough money on the other card to get out of the station. Luckily, the attendant at the Navy Yard station was more than helpful. So in reality, I did pay for parking, but the payment was more for extended transit than for parking my car at the Metrorail station.

Front-row ladybug

Of course, that’s if you can ever get to the Metrorail station. I’m not certain if it was because of the baseball game, or if the traffic on the beltway is always terrible that time of day (I tend to think the latter). At any rate, a drive that (according to Google maps) should have taken 30 minutes, ended up taking almost an hour and a half. I had given myself 2 hours to leisurely get to the stadium, but the traffic really cut into my buffer.

Another detriment to my punctual arrival at Nationals Park was the fact that I had to transfer between lines on the Metro. Having usually taken a direct route into DC, I hardly ever encountered this delay. It was definitely a little frustrating having to wait when you’re on a tight schedule. And yet, luck was on my side once again, as the only

thing I really missed in the first half hour of the game was what appeared to be a boring first inning. Still, I do enjoy the ramp up to the start of the game, so I guess I did miss something.

The game itself was fairly average, if not borderline boring. However, this was probably due to my late arrival. If I had shown up with time to spare, I would have gotten my scorekeeping card and been able to keep track from the very beginning. At any rate, Nationals Park was probably the most beautiful stadium I’ve been to. I think this may be due to the fact that it’s certainly the newest stadium where I have attended a game. The scoreboard was pretty slick, if not HD, but that’s probably because I wasn’t right up next to it.

Everything felt cleaner and less run-down when compared to the other stadia I have been to. High, shallow layers of bleachers also seemed to get rid of the “supporting beam” problem I had at Camden Yards, as the levels were well cantilevered. The layout felt a little tight, if not “coliseum-like”, since space is somewhat of a premium in DC. In fact, there seemed to be some major development around the stadium in terms of apartment high rises, so I think that area will produce some high-cost living within the next year or so.

Presidential faceplant

Of course, I can only assume that the stadium layout removed any visual barriers, as I had a front-row seat. When I bought my ticket for this particular game, I made sure that it was inexpensive while also ensuring that I wouldn’t be stuck in a terrible spot like I was last time. In fact, I’m pretty sure I didn’t even sit in the correct section, since it was easier to get to my seat number going right from the stairs, as compared to the left. Luckily, since the crowds were light, my seat changing didn’t lead to any issues with other ticketholders. Overall, it was an enjoyable evening once I got past the stress of the commute to DC. I could finally check the last thing off my Maryland “to do” list as well.

SoftbalLabor

One of the issues I have with being in Maryland so often is that I am unable to develop my interpersonal skills in casual, team building extracurricular activities. One such activity just happens to be recreational league softball. Around the start of my constant travels to Maryland, some of my fellow co-workers banded together and started playing in such a league. I was despondent because I had been looking for an activity to get back into that could call upon my previous athletic experience, and now that one had presented itself, I could not participate.

However, I did manage to make it to at least one game when I happened to be in town to cheer them on, but also to evaluate the skill of the team as a whole. Overall, they were about what I would have expected: a large range of talent bounded by the skilled and the inexperienced alike. If there was anything I learned from my years of baseball in High School, it would have to be the fundamentals and techniques critical to success. Some of the players exhibited these qualities, but others needed work. Of course, this was mainly from an observer’s standpoint. The goal that I felt should be held in utmost importance in such a league would be to have fun.

As the months passed, I would occasionally converse with some of the players while at work to see how the team was doing. Generally, they were getting in better shape, physically; they had won a few games; and they seemed to still be having fun with it. I had expressed my interest to join the team from the start, so as my rotation in Maryland started drawing to a close, I started looking more seriously into when I could join the team. Initially, I thought that I could join if the team took on a fall season, when I would actually be present to participate and contribute my past experience. However, fate gave me a chance to get a taste of what I would be getting into.

On this recent stay in Huntsville for a few weeks worth of training, I was contacted by the captain of the team in regards to an opportunity to prevent their team losing by forfeit. It seems that they would be short a few players for one of the games, and I was asked if I could step in and help out. I was thrilled at the opportunity and immediately responded in kind. Now in my mind, I felt that I had the proper background to provide adequate assistance to the team, as well as the added benefit of weight training over the past few years, a luxury that I did not have while I played in High School. However, there were two issues that I had not accounted for.

First off, the last time I had done any extraneous physical activity would have to have been over a year ago when I climbed my last 14er. Even then, I was merely walking up to the top of a mountain, so no running was involved. I learned quickly that in the 5 or 6 years since I had played baseball that my endurance was severely lacking. Perhaps it was that I haven’t been working out to improve my endurance, but instead to prevent it from atrophy. Perhaps it was the fact that we only had the 9 players, so I was either in the field or batting/running, with minimal breaks in between. Perhaps it was the second issue I was having: the environment.

I know that Alabama is more humid and feels much hotter than Colorado does because of it, but that point is highly accentuated when physical exertion is introduced. There has been only one other instance in which I felt I couldn’t breathe, despite there being plenty of air around me, and that was at a particularly intense rock concert. I would have to conclude that my issue would mainly be the humidity. The humidity and the heat combined together with the physical exertion of athleticism caused me to sweat more than I ever have since arriving in Alabama. Even so, I feel that I managed to hold my own against this group of colleagues who have been playing since the early months of this year and are accustomed to these issues.

In terms of my defensive contribution in left field, I didn’t directly influence any outs. However, I did manage to put forth my best effort backing up center field and bringing in balls that had passed the infield. My only faux pas came when there was a pop fly hit past me and I ended up taking a step forward instead of the correct first step backward. Also, the extra inning we played did give me many chances to field the ball, not that I necessarily had the energy to do so.

Of course, I felt my strength was usually in offense. I struck out once, but managed to contact the ball the rest of my at bats for the game. In fact, my first at bat was somewhat humorous because I had yet to get the slower timing of softball into my swing. I ended up swinging to early, but tipped the ball to make it go one or two feet past home plate. The real humor came when the opposing team missed the throw to first base and I was able to get a double out of a pathetic hit.

It was interesting to hear that I was making a lot of the mistakes and having a lot of the troubles that the rest of the team had early on in the season. However, being the “ringer”, as I jokingly called myself, did not end up in a win for our team. We were doing well up until the last inning, when we managed to tie the score. The extra inning was just depressing as our opponents managed to score over 20 runs. At any rate, I had fun getting back into athletics, which was my goal from the beginning. I shared in the camaraderie that had been established, became stained with blood, sweat, grass and dirt, and realized that I need to work out more seriously.

The next day I was sore as all get out. I was reminded that I hadn’t used some of these muscles in a very long time and my joints told me that I no longer have the body of a teenager. Still, would I do it again? In a heartbeat. After all, there’s always next spring.