Saturday, August 20, 2011

Going the Distance (but not for speed)

It usually happens some time during mile four.  By then, I've pushed through the first mile, where my body is yelling that this is dumb.  I've kept going through the pain in my side.  My lungs have gotten used to the rhythm of "inhale two steps, exhale two steps", pushing air in and out like a rapid fire bellows.  My legs have settled into a comfortable cadence after going too fast at first, and getting reined in with the knowledge that I've got another seven and a half miles to go.

I've completed my first lap around my route, and I'm on my second trip through the southern cemetery, on the long, straight strip of asphalt at the very back.  On my left are the rows of grave stones, separated by the odd tree, on my right is nothing but the overgrown woods of the park.  It's quiet back here.  Visitors don't usually make it back this far, so it's usually just me and the road.  This is where it happens.

I don't remember when I first noticed it happening.  Instead of watching the ground just in front of my feet, my eyes drift up and focus on the far end of the road.  The blacktop stretches out in front like a charcoal line through the grass, and suddenly I'm not moving any more.  I've become still, and I'm watching the world flow past.  I lose awareness of my legs pumping in rhythm.  Part of me knows they must still be there, pulling me along, but for now, for this moment, all I can see is the world moving past me like I'm caught up in a river that's pushing toward...something.

Then I reach the next turn, lean into it, and I'm suddenly aware of my body again, feeling it respond instinctively, leaning, planting, lifting, pulling; muscles expanding and contracting in a rhythm that I influence, but don't really control.  

The theory goes that the first three miles are physical, the next five are mental, and everything after that is heart.  This is definitely true.  In the three months I've been running, I've somehow managed to work myself up to being able to run eight miles at a clip.  One constant, whether I'm running eight miles straight, or when I was just starting and mixing running with a lot of walking, the first mile is always the worst.  Everything is protesting that this is dumb, and there's nothing to do except push through it.  Your body keeps on complaining for the next few miles, and more if it's really humid. 

After that, you settle into a rhythm where your body is still grumbling, and your legs can feel like mush, but it will keep going as long as you tell it to.  Realizing that, and getting your brain convinced that your legs really can do this, is the next big hurdle, and once you clear it, you're good.  

I was fortunate that the first time I decided to see just how far I could go, it was a rainy morning.  I love being outside in the rain.  Before that morning, I'd gone four miles and felt pretty good at the end, so I was hoping that I'd be able to make five that day.  After about two miles, the skies opened up, and I was running through a downpour.  I spent the next mile and a half with a huge grin on my face, enjoying the feeling of the rain hitting me as I ran.  When I hit the five mile mark, I was feeling pretty good, so I decided I'd make six.  At the six mile mark, still feeling good, so decided to go for seven.  At seven, I was starting to get pretty tired, but felt like I had at least another half mile in me, so kept going.  At seven and a half, since I was still moving, I decided it would be dumb not to go for eight. 

When eight miles hit, I was home.  And utterly shocked.  I was tired, but not collapsing inward like a dying star.  Mostly, I was shocked at myself and what I found out I was capable of.  That's kind of been my story the last eight months: figuring out that what I'm actually capable of.  I'm still not crazy about competing against other people, but I love competing against myself.  I love it when my brain tries to convince itself that it can't do something, and then finds out that it was really wrong.  Then, next time, it has a harder time making the case, and eventually, I just have to do something completely bonkers to find out if I can.  Then I have another argument, and I wind up losing that one too, and doing the bonkers thing.  

So I keep on running, whether it's too hot, or I don't want to, or there are wolves out there.  I run anyway.  I need to prove to myself that I can.  I need to find that rhythm.  I need to lose myself in that river of the world as it flows past, even if it's just for a few minutes.  In those minutes, I fly.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Forgotten Art

I know something about you. It's actually something we've had in common for most of our lives, believe it or not.

It's that the first story you ever knew isn't one that you read in a story book. It was one that you were told, and very likely, one that you were read. Maybe it was your mother, maybe your father, maybe your grandparent, but someone held you on their lap long before you knew what words meant, maybe before you realized you had hands, and told you a story.

If you were very lucky, as I was, someone kept on reading you stories after you learned what the words meant. I remember lying in bed as a child with my mother reading the book du jour in her light reading voice, of course doing all the voices, with nothing to do with my eyes except stare off through the ceiling and absorb the words as completely as a young child can.

Then something sad happened to me, and probably to you too: one of those stories was the last that someone read to you. It never really happens intentionally. One night, you declare yourself too old to have someone read stories to you, you're perfectly able to read them yourself. Maybe you even stamped your small foot, and you had no idea what a great and terrible thing you'd just done.

Books and stories are amazing. There's nothing like sitting quietly with a good book on a lazy afternoon, only getting up to turn on a lamp because the daylight's gone too dim to see.

But there's something equally wonderful about reading and hearing stories read aloud. As a reader, it makes you experience text in a completely physical way. You can feel a character's building excitement, feel yourself run out of breath as their lines tumble more and more quickly from your lips, feel the aching slowness of the words during sad passages. It makes you live the text. For the listener, you get the rare chance to experience a story through someone else, to hear the characters the way the reader hears them, hear the emotion that they feel as they read. It's a surprisingly deep connection.

Many years ago, in college, my the girl I was seeing went to Germany for a year. We knew we wouldn't be able to talk to each other daily in the stone age before Skype, so I was trying to figure out something I could do for her. I hit upon an idea. We both liked the Harry Potter books. I told her to make sure to bring a cassette player (how quaint).

I bought myself a tape recorder and boxes of blank tapes. Then I settled in on my dorm room bed, opened the first Harry Potter book, pressed record, and started reading. I read and read, chapter after chapter, tape after tape. When I finished the first box of blank tapes, I packaged it up with some other things, and sent it off to Germany with a note explaining that she should listen to a chapter a night, no more.

I don't even remember how many books or how many countless tapes I went through doing this before life intervened and I stopped, but it was a lot, and I remember my voice being pretty horse many times. But I'll be damned if it didn't work. As I read, I felt closer to her, even though there were several thousand miles and multiple time zones between us. Of course, I'll never really know how it was listening to those tapes, but I knew that in some way, we were still talking every single evening.

The great tragedy of growing up is giving up those small things in the name of being a big kid before you really know what they are, and then forgetting about them once you're old enough to know. I think reading and being read to is one of those things that people should do more of. I know, looking back, I certainly regret not having done it more.

To try and remedy that, I'm trying out recording myself reading. I'm not great at it (frankly, I think I sound like I have a cold), but I enjoy it, so what do I care? I started with a short story by Neil Gaiman called "Troll Bridge". I'll probably do a bunch of short stories at first while I'm working on doing a full recording of World War Z. Of course, anything worth doing is worth sharing, so if you'd like a copy of what I've done, email me, comment, smoke signals, whatever. I'm not putting them up for public download since they're all copyrighted and stuff, but I should be able to get away with email or something more sneaky.

But really, just read or be read to. Stories are meant to be told.

Friday, May 27, 2011

How to Buy A Car According to Me

I just bought a new car. This was a new experience for me. My previous car endeavors were:

1) At 17, I had saved up about $1000 to put toward a car. Just after I got my license, I very quickly bought the first cheap, decent car I could find: a 1989 Ford Escort Pony. This was a two door hatch that was one level below the Economy model. It had no power windows, no power steering, no AC, and was a four speed manual. I couldn't drive manual at the time, so I couldn't test drive it. My mom lent me another $1000, and I bought it for $2000. She did the actual buying as a surprise. I drove that car until the wheels fell off. No, really, the suspension went at one point, and I was just kind of clunking around back there.
2) After the Escort died, I got a hand-me-down 1996 Dodge Caravan. Yup, I was the hip 20something cruising around in a sweet white minivan. It was handy for moving and for road trips, but didn't give me any actual buying experience.

So the time came a few weeks ago to buy a car on my own. Throughout this process, I was constantly amazed that They let me do adult things like buy a new car all on my own. I kept waiting for them to realize that there was no way I should be allowed to do stuff like this and send me home, but they didn't.

I had no idea of how the whole process worked. Having skillfully negotiated a 40% discount on the mattress I bought, I figured I was able to negotiate, but didn't really want to. I also had no clue about the mechanics of comparing actual prices, or even how you deal with getting plates and insurance on a car you don't own yet.

So I did what any enterprising geek would do: I consulted The Interweb. I learned a lot, and wound up feeling pretty confident that I got a good deal. I'm feeling magnanimous, so I want to pass my learning on to you. I'm a good guy like that. Here's what I now know, in a handy numbered list.

1) The Interweb Knows All, and is Your Best Friend
Seriously, plan on spending several days reading everything you can find about car buying. The two main sites I used were Edmunds and carbuyingtips. Edmunds is kind of a one-stop-shop for car buying. They have reviews on just about everything, and a million articles on every aspect of buying, financing, insuring, driving, and selling a car. They'll pretty much walk you though the process from beginning to end. Car Buying Tips is way less professional, but it's got a sort of beatnik charm, and even more good info on buying a car.

2) You Buy A Car on Your Terms, Not Theirs
When I first started this, I was extremely intimidated about dealing with salesmen and dealerships. As I read more, I realized that I was only intimidated about going into a situation where I didn't know enough to resist being taken. This is why you do #1. Once you've done #1, you'll have the confidence to know what questions to ask, what options are available, and what you can expect to pay.

Once you know those things, going to the dealership becomes a whole different experience. They're no longer going to get you to buy a car, you're going to allow them to sell you a car. Moreover, you're only going to allow them to sell you the car that you want, with the features you want, at a price that you find acceptable. If they can't or won't do these things, there is another dealership who will be happy to. The sales guys work for you, not the other way around, and they're way more interested in selling you a car than you are in buying one from them. If they do anything that makes you uncomfortable or feel like you need a shower, you can and should tell them to stop, or just walk away. You don't even have to feel bad about it.

3) Figure Out What You Need, What You Want, and What You Don't Care About
Do this step before you start looking at cars. Don't form the list based on what's on a specific car. Figure out what you want, and that will tell you what cars to look at. For example, my needs were good fuel economy, under $20,000, new, and able to handle an MP3 player with little fuss. My wants were something decent to drive, capable of carrying a moderate amount of crap occasionally, and something that looked good. I didn't care about being able to do a j-turn at 80, it being big, or being able to transport a full apartment's worth of stuff. Based on that list, I went back to Step 1 and started comparing vehicles on the interweb.

4) Narrow It Down to a List of ~5
There are a ton of cars out there. By using your list from #4, you should be able to immediately dismiss most of them. You can then look at the available cars in your price range, their reviews, and their available feature sets. Remember that the "starting price" that manufacturers advertise is usually for the super base model with a manual transmission. If you can't/won't drive stick, pretty much add $1000 to that right off to get an automatic. Then remember that if you, for example, want the hatchback version, that's usually more expensive too. The sweet sound system is probably extra, and sometimes there's even an extra charge for different paint colors.

Also be aware of which cars have "upgraded" versions that really have nothing of value. For example, I was looking at the Honda Fit. It came in base and sport models. The sport model added some body kit stuff like a spoiler (highly useful in stop and go traffic), alloy wheels, and fog lamps. This cost an extra $1000. Being able to write that kind of stuff off is very handy. When you're looking at options, make sure that the options you want don't push the price above your range.

The final result of this step should be a list of five or fewer cars, a rough idea of what options you'd want on each, and what options you don't want. Note that going price isn't really something you need to worry about quite yet. Since you're only looking at cars in your price range, you should be able to afford any of the ones you're interested in with the options you want.

5) Time to Drive Some Cars!
Here it is, the moment where you have to interact with a sales person. This should not intimidate you at this point. Why? Because you already know at least as much about the cars you're looking at as they do. If they're bullshitting you about something, you'll know. Using The Interweb, pull up a list of dealers for each of the cars on your list, use the contact info on the dealer website, and schedule a test drive. Try and schedule them all for the same day so that you can compare each of the cars while it's fresh in your head. Dealers should be happy to accommodate your schedule. If they're not, call a different dealer. Tell them exactly what type of car you're looking at, and if you have a manual/automatic preference, ask if your preferred type is available. Sometimes manuals are hard to find.

On the day of, remember one thing: You ARE NOT BUYING A CAR TODAY. You know this, and you should tell them as well. Even better, tell them you are looking at multiple cars today, but making a decision within X timeframe. You want them to know you're a For Real Buyer, let them know they're in active competition, and give them a chance to tell you why theirs is better than the others. Of course, you already know these differences, but this gives them a chance to offer to throw in extra stuff to make up the differences. However, remember: YOU ARE NOT BUYING A CAR TODAY. If one of them offers you a killer price, ask for it in writing, and tell them you'll think about it because YOU ARE NOT BUYING A CAR TODAY.

On the test drive, they're going to have a preferred route. This route may be a good mix of street and highway driving, allow you to get the car up to speed, and see how it handles. This route may be four right turns to go around the block. If the route sucks, ask to stay out and try it in Condition X. If they won't let you, finish your drive and car inspection, and then don't go back. On the test drive, play the radio, see how everything feels, stop short a time or two, accelerate fast, and take a corner too sharp. You want to get a good sense for how the car handles. After the drive, play with the electronics. If the car has fancy phone hookups, ask the salesdude to let you pair your phone to make sure it works. Sit in the back and make sure you're okay with subjecting passengers to it. Fold down seats, open trunks, etc. Basically, find anything that will bug you later. Ask about the availability of the combination of options you want. It's possible that the moon roof you want is really hard to find in the color you want. Find out what it would take to get the options you want. File all this info away.

6) Compare Notes
Okay, you're now home from the test drives. You've got a mental (or paper, if you're super organized) list of notes about each car. If you're lucky one or more had dealbreaker elements that will just remove them from your list. Hopefully one or two will kind of rise to the top. After my test drives, I realized that while the Fit did have enormous cargo capacity, I just didn't like the way it looked, and the electronics paled in comparison to the other cars I drove, so that got nixed.

Once you've got it down to one or two, review all your research. If necessary, schedule a second test drive. Make sure that you know what you're looking for. It may also be worth calling your insurance agent at this point to get rate quotes on the finalists. One might be much more expensive to insure than the other. Also compare some online rate quotes as a reality check.

7) Talkin' 'bout Benjamins
Now that you've got it down to one or two options (one is better, but two is okay too), it's time to figure out how much you should be expecting to actually spend. The two best resources I found were Edmunds again, and Drive Your Dream.

First, I'm going to give a quick lesson in car pricing, gleaned from Edmunds and other sources. Cars have multiple prices. First is sticker, or MSRP. This is what Ford, Toyota, etc want you to pay, and put the price in the window. You should not pay this in most cases. Next is invoice price. This is what the dealer pays to get the car on the lot. In broad terms, this is more like what you should pay (but not really). It's not advertised, but easy to find online, and the salesmen will frequently volunteer it. Third is holdback. This is (roughly) a percentage of invoice that the manufacturer gives to the dealer to cover interest on the car for the first 90 days it's on the lot. This is why dealers are willing to sell at or below invoice: the faster they can sell a car after getting it in inventory, the bigger chunk of that holdback they can pocket. It also means that after 90 days, it's costing them money for that car to sit there, so they may get more eager to clear it out and get another car (with a new holdback payment) in instead.

On to actual pricing research. Edmunds provides what they call True Market Value. You pull up the make and model of a car, add your desired options, and it checks against recent completed sales in your area to give you a range of what that car is actually selling for right now. It will also tell you the Invoice price, and will show you any active incentives that apply to the car. The end result is a nice round number that represents a good, achievable deal. This is a good target number to keep in mind when talking price, but it isn't a hard and fast rule. You can do better than this number.

Drive Your Dream is run by Zag basically lets you avoid negotiation. You pick your car and options, and then zag will give you a list of dealers with pre-negotiated prices for each. The deal is that you can pick a price and dealer, print out a form from the website, walk in, and get that car for that price. The prices are generally pretty competitive, but the nice part is that they're guaranteed. You can definitely get that price from that dealer, which is a good card to have in your back pocket when talking to dealers.

8) Giving Them Your Money
Before you start talking money with dealers, figuring out how you're going to pay is a good idea. You can pay cash (if you're rich), you can get independent financing, or you can finance at the dealer. Leasing is another option, but I'm ignoring it because I'm only worrying about buying.

First is to figure out how much of a down payment you can afford. I think the general rule is to plan on 20% down at least. More is better. That combined with the target price from your research, plus tax/title/and fees will give you how much you're going to need to borrow.

Next, you need to know your credit score. If you don't have it already, go to Annual Credit Report, and run your free annual report from all three bureaus. This will give you your reports. You'll also have the option to pay cashy money to get your actual numerical score. This is probably a good idea to do. It doesn't cost much, and it's a pretty vital bit of info. Check over your reports and make sure nothing looks wonky. If it does, get it fixed, because your financing rate will be based on these reports.

Credit score in hand, check with your bank, credit union, online lenders, etc to get an idea of what kind of financing rates you can expect, and on what term loan. Do the math of dividing the amount you're borrowing by the number of months in the loan times the % rate to figure out what your monthly payment will be. Knowing both what you can afford and what payment you're expecting is important info. If one of the lenders has an attractive rate, go for a pre-approval as long as you have the option to not take the loan. You want to leave your options open.

Dealer financing can be better, worse, or on par with outside financing. It's possible they can give you an awesomely low rate, in which case go for it. It's possible they'll match the outside rates, but offer you additional cash incentives. It's possible their financing will be worse, at which point you can just use your preapproved loan to pay. Having options and knowledge can only help in price talk.

The trade in. I didn't trade in, so I don't have first-hand knowledge. However, prevailing wisdom is to deal with the trade in completely separately from the new vehicle price. The dealers you talk to will ask about your old car like vultures circling a fresh corpse. Stay non-committal. When you get to talking price, talk about the price for the new car, and once that's settled, talk about trade in price. Find out the blue book value for your trade in so you have an idea of what to expect when you start talking price, and factor that into your mental money wrangling.

9) An Offer You Can Certainly Refuse
Here comes the part I was initially dreading, but eventually found to be fine: negotiating a price. The most important thing to remember is that you are going to be negotiating price, NOT NOT NOT monthly payment. Negotiating monthly payment opens up all kinds of funny ways for them to adjust things in their favor. Talk price FIRST, and then deal with method of payment (ie financing) second.

Here's where we turn back to our friend The Interweb. Find a handful of dealers nearby, and look for the contact info for the Internet/Fleet Sales guy. If you can't find it, call and ask for it. This is the guy you want to talk to. He knows that people coming to him are both informed (from all your Interweb Reasearchin') and likely shopping for the best price. Email the various Internet guys, tell them that you're very close to purchasing Vehicle X with Options A, B, C, in Colors X, Y, Z, and you're looking for their best bottom line price. Make sure to include the dealer/salesman that gave you the test drive, because it's the nice thing to do (unless he was a slimy git, in which case ignore him).

This will hopefully result in several offers coming back to you. Assuming the best ones are at or below your mental Target Price, and include the features you want, email the guys with the #2 and 3 offers and tell them that Dealer Q gave you Price J, and can they beat that? Basically, play them off against each other. This is an awesome game to play because there is absolutely no downside for you. Continue this until you get to a price that nobody else is willing to beat. This is your price. Email the winner back and make sure that this is the actual out-the-door price with all fees included, and ask that the fees be itemized. Check the list for anything that looks funny and ask him about it. Sometimes there are junk fees on there that can be removed. Hopefully there aren't.

10) So Close and Yet...
You're almost done. Once you've got a sale price set, you may need to talk trade in. This is also when you can find out what the dealer can do for you on financing. Again, if you've done your research, there should be no surprises here: you know the approximate going % rate, you know your credit score, you know how long you're planning to borrow for, and you know the sale amount. If you get a better deal than you were expecting from dealer financing, take it, but don't be afraid to turn it down and take outside financing. How you're paying should not affect the sale price, and if it does, you leave and go to the #2 offer on your list.

At some point, you're going to have to sit down with the finance guy, who will try and sell you on extended warranties, undercoating, etc. There are a few ways to handle this. First, you can ask the sales guy ahead of time for a list of the things the finance guy is going to offer. If he hesitates, threaten to walk, and he'll probably give it up. Then do some research on each item and figure out if it's something you actually want. Second, you can go in, hear the pitch, and find out how long you have to add any interesting items on after the fact, since there is likely a window. Third, go with your gut.

Now, some stuff like undercoating is an obvious sucker bet. Extended warranties are much more subjective. If you expect to only drive the car for a few years, or if you have a reliable mechanic, the warranty may be a bad idea. If you lack those things, and would rather just have everything "taken care of", then it's a good idea. Like any insurance policy, buying one is you betting that the car will break down in the warranty period and cost more to fix than the cost of the warranty, and they're betting that it won't. Whether you make that bet is entirely up to you, but I don't think that the warranties are necessarily the snake oil some folk make them out to be.

The big thing is to not allow yourself to be pressured into making a decision on the spot. It's very unlikely that anything the finance guy offers you is a "now or never" proposition. If he really does say "now or never," pick "never", and see what happens. Either it suddenly won't be "now or never", or you probably didn't need it anyway.

If you go with dealer financing, make sure you take a careful look at all the numbers. Make sure the sale price is what you agreed to, make sure that your down payment is properly applied, that there are no surprise fees, the % rate is correct and for the right number of months, etc. Also verify that there's no early payment penalty. If you win the lottery or something, being able to pay off the loan early just saves you interest. If all the numbers look as you expected, congrats, you just bought a car.

11) The Details
Now it's down to paperwork. In MA, you need to give the dealer your insurance agent's name and number so that they can coordinate getting the car added to your policy. You'll want to contact the agent yourself to let them know that you're about to buy Car X so they'll be expecting the call from the dealer. The dealer will also likely take care of the DMV stuff for you. There's a fee to do this, or you can do it yourself, but I say the small amount of money is totally worth it to avoid DMV lines.

On the day you take delivery, plan on spending 30-60 minutes at least. You'll have about a billion pieces of paper to sign first off (including possibly one of the biggest checks you've written). The sales dude will also want to give you a final tour of the car, though it's very possible you already did this on the test drive. Take a walk around the car and make sure there's no dings or anything else, and if there are, get them to take care of it. This is now your very expensive thing, and why shouldn't it be perfect when you get it, Bob dammit. Then drive away. Try very hard not to crash it immediately as you pull it off the lot. Or at any point afterward, for that matter.

In Conclusion
The biggest surprise I had during this experience was how painless it was. I directly attribute that to going into every interaction with Sales Dudes armed to the teeth with info, and not being shy about letting them know that. Not all sales guys are slimy (and I actually found one who was very not slimy), but they are out to make money, and they can do that best when dealing with an uninformed customer. Once you make it clear that you are NOT one of those (by not being one of those), they're forced to deal with you differently.

The other major benefit of being well informed is that you know what a good deal looks like, due to your Magical Mental Price Number, and that you can always walk away from a bad deal and find a better deal. That said, if a really GOOD deal pops up, since you know it's a good deal, you'll be able to jump on it and make out like a bandit. The trick is to go in with a plan and a goal, but be flexible enough to take what's offered if it benefits you.

The end of my story was that I actually didn't need to do a bunch of internet price wars. After my round of test drives, I found the car I was looking for with the options I wanted on a dealer's website five miles from me and advertised with an already-attractive price around my Mental Number. Went in, drove it, liked it, and told the guy I was willing to talk price, but that my plan was to shop the deal around. Without any screwing around, he offered me a price that was $1100 below invoice, and $900 below what I was expecting to pay based on my researched price. I got the number in writing, and then next day gave the previous dealer I'd visited a chance to beat it. When he couldn't, I bought me a car.

Could I have gotten a better deal? Possibly, though I doubt a much better deal, since the price I got handily beat all the other numbers I'd seen. Basically, I got a price I was very happy with on the car I wanted. Ultimately, being able to brag to your buddies about how you totally took the dealer for a ride is a bad game. All you really need is to be able to say that you did your research, and got a deal that you're happy with. Here's the end result of all this for me:

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Dr. Thinchuck or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Band

This is a hard thing for me to admit, especially in a public forum like this, but here goes:

I can no longer think of myself as a fat, out of shape tub of crap.

I'm probably more surprised than anyone. I've always been a non-active nerd. I never played sports in school, I never really paid much attention to what I ate, and I certainly never exercised regularly. Sure, I tried a few times over the years, but I always found some excuse to stop after a few weeks of working out. So how the hell did this happen?

It started last fall. Due to a bunch of different factors, I started a period of "accidental, bad weight loss." The exact reasons aren't worth getting into at this point, but I found that over a two month period or so, I dropped from about 210 lbs down to around 185.

Don't light into me about that. I'm totally aware that it's unhealthy, and I stopped dropping weight like that in January. What was important was that for the first time in forever, I saw an actual, visible difference in how I looked. This convinced me that if I could do that accidentally, I could probably get similar results if I actually put in some effort. I was also in a self improvement kick at the time. The result was that I bought a copy of one of those fitness video game programs (EA Sports Active 2, to be precise).

A few things I've learned about myself and exercising. I've never done well when I have to go somewhere to exercise. I also don't do well if I feel like exercise is replacing part of my regular routine. And I don't like having to research workouts and figure out what to do on my own.

What the game did was make it so I could work out in my living room, and had a built in set of exercise programs, so it functions like a workout video, but with variety. The last, vital bit was that I decided to start waking up earlier to do my workout so that my regular morning routine would remain mostly unchanged. I'd just be sweatier.

In mid January, I started using the game. The first thing it asks is whether you want to do a 3 week cardio program, or a 9 week full body program. I hesitated, and almost picked the 3 week one, figuring I was more likely to finish 3 weeks instead of 9. But I found myself saying "screw it, let's DO THIS!", and I picked the 9 week program. It then told me to pick four days for scheduled workouts, and then told me to get off my ass and start moving.

Move I did. I was pretty well beat after the first workout. But I showed up for the second, getting up at 6:15am to do it. And the third, and the fourth. I quickly learned that the fourth workout of the week was always the Workout from Hell. It was a brutal combination of exercises that focused almost entirely on my legs that was frankly pretty frustrating by the end. Still, I showed up, cursing at my TV, but there and sweating.

Then, in mid-February, I got laid off. Now I had tons of time on my hands. I shocked myself by thinking "Well, now there's no reason I shouldn't do a workout every day." So I did. At the advice of a personal trainer friend, I saved a custom built workout that was designed to demolish my triceps and shoulders, and did that on my "off days" from the program.

You know what happened? I got into a habit. I actually managed to get past that wall of "oh God, this sucks and I just want to die, what if I just slashed my resistance band into itty bitty pieces that'd sure show it uppity resistance band" and into "oh God, this sucks, but there's only 20 minutes left, and I'll feel fine afterward" and finally into "man, I wish my arms felt more tired right now". I also started to notice that I was able to see results. I lost another few inches off my waist, and started to see a bit of definition. Holy crap. The most surprising thing about that though, was that my immediate reaction was to try and figure out how I could step things up to see more results.

So yesterday marked the last workout in my 9 week program. I actually managed to work out at least 4 times a week for 9 weeks straight. You know what I did to celebrate? Went out and bought some 10lb weights, and at the recommendation of a Trusted Advisor, ordered some protein shake mix. I'm not ready to call myself "in shape", but I'm not far off, and I fully plan on getting there.

Since numbers are fun, here's some stats according to the game (I can't vouch for their accuracy, but they seem reasonable):

Workouts completed: 54
Time spent exercising: 28 hours, 19 minutes
Calories burned: 10362
Distance run (in my living room, so boring): 35.92 miles
Average heart rate: 139
Current weight: 173

So there it is. I'm lighter than I've been in years, and definitely in better shape than I've ever been. I'm being conscious of what I'm eating. I'm stepping up my existing workout program, and am going to start running when the weather warms up. I may actually not be embarrassed to be seen in my bathing suit this summer. I feel pretty okay too.

Basically, this is fucking weird.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Please remain seated

This is going to be odd. I'm about to complain about something that I probably shouldn't. It's entirely possible that I come off like Andy Rooney sitting on his front porch yelling at the kids with their cell phones to get off his damn lawn. I apologize in advance.

There are way too many standing ovations given these days. Can you think of the last time you went to a concert where at least half the audience didn't stand at the end? I sure can't. It's just plain gotten out of hand.

It used to be that standing ovations were given for either extremely important people (the emperor enters), or for performances or feats that were so amazing that the audience was moved to rise from their seats and cheer. It took some kind of special performance to get that kind of reaction. I can't even remember the last time I was so impressed with something that I had to get out of my seat. Maybe I'm just lazy, but in my head, standing ovations are meant to be uncommon or even rare events.

These days though, you can't escape the standing ovation. It's almost expected. They're never the Hollywood "audience leaps to its feet as one" thing either. What usually happens is that one person eventually stands, then another, and another until most people are standing. I think the later people stand out of obligation, or maybe because they can't see now that the jerk in front of them stood up.

That kind of ovation just isn't the same. It seems like a combination of obligation, herd mentality, and wanting to be seen to appreciate art.

As a performer, I want to get a standing ovation. I want my performance to be so moving that the audience is compelled to stand when it's done. I don't want the audience to clap for a while, think about it, look around to see if anyone else is standing, then eventually stand because someone else is.

So next time you're at a performance, think before you stand. Maybe even close your eyes. If the performance moved you to, stand right away, no matter if anyone else is. But if you don't feel moved to stand, don't. Applaud as long and as loud as you want, but don't stand just because someone else is. Standing after a performance should say to the performer "you moved me". The performer won't mind not getting a standing ovation, I promise. Really, we're just glad that you came and liked it enough to clap in the first place.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

I've become that which I hate

If you don't live in Boston or one of the other old-growth cities with narrow streets, few driveways, and lots of snow, you might be unfamiliar with the tradition of claiming your on street parking spot using a placed object. The traditional things are road cones or folding chairs, but weirder stuff like hockey sticks, kitchen garbage cans, or busts of Jesus are common too.

Actually, the Jesus bust is kind of brilliant. Who's gonna steal a spot from Jesus?

I generally dislike the whole thing. It's a street spot, right? Why do you get to keep it?

Well, now I know why. This is my first winter where I have to use street parking. Previously, I've always had a driveway, but no more. I've quickly learned that it's a different world, and today, I did what I swore I'd never do. I carried a porch chair to the street, pulled out, and gravely, solemnly, placed it in my vacated spot. A single tear rolled down my cheek as I drove away.

What could have driven me to such lengths? Such horror? Such depravity?

Two things. First, I've cleared that spot out many times now. Boston has gotten a metric ass ton of snow this year, and none of it has melted. Every time, I go out and clear the car out whether I plan on driving or not. This is because my fair city ticketed me once for not clearing my car off. It's frankly a pain to clear a street parking spot. You have to remove snow on the car, in front and behind, and then clear out all that compacted snow that the plows left all down the side. That's a special brand of crappy.

Aside from the physical labor, there's another problem that you don't have to deal with when you have a driveway: parking spaces vanish in the winter. If there's an empty spot when the snow hits, that spot is gone forever. Best case scenario, it doesn't get plowed. Either someone will drive into it, turning it into a mess of compacted, icy snow, or the snow will just pile up until someone wants it bad enough to shovel it. Worst case, it gets plowed under. Once a snow plow decides to push a pile of road snow into a space, it's gone forever until the snow all melts.

My street has currently lost about 70% of its available parking spots to mammoth snow drifts. That means that when I drive somewhere, there's a pretty good chance that when I come back, I simply won't have somewhere to park on my street. And since all the streets around are having the same problem, I can't guarantee that I'll be able to park anywhere.

So I save my spot with a chair while I run to the grocery store. It's not for convenience, or some sense of territoriality or ownership. I just want to be able to park somewhere when I get back. If you drive by and see my chair, don't be mad at me. I hate what I've had to resort to. We're both victims of a capricious god and a city that isn't able to handle comprehensive snow removal.

Maybe I should look for a Buddy Christ statue to hold my spot. Then at least my spot will be saved with a smile.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

I'd like a re-torial, please

Sometime in the spring of last year, I finally started playing the excellent real time strategy game Dawn of War II. Then I stopped. I didn't stop because the game was bad, or got me angry, or any other reason. I just stopped. I probably got distracted by something else for a few weeks.

This happens a lot with me. I've got the attention span of a small rodent most times. "Yeah, this game is awesome! I just found a new chainsword, new armor, now I'm gonna...OOH SHINY!" Then I put the game down for a while, and the death spiral begins. After a few weeks, I think "Oh, I should get back to that one." Then I think "Huh, I was about halfway through, and the missions were starting to get tough, and now I can't remember any of the controls." So I put off playing. A few weeks later, I have the same thought, except now I remember even less of the controls, so I wait again. Then it's a year later, and I barely remember what the game was about in the first place.

Most games these days start out with a tutorial. This is because most gamers are too lazy to read the manuals now. I'm not one of those, but publishers have realized that manuals are a waste, so most of them barely even include a manual. Hell, most gamers are too lazy to read two sentences on the screen, so designers have to figure out how to teach them using flashing lights and pictures. Yup, most gamers have to learn games the same way that you teach first graders to read.

After the tutorial, most games gradually ramp up the difficulty over the course of the levels, and usually add in new stuff. First you learn to jump, then how to swing a sword, then how to do a jumping slash, etc. By the middle of the game, the levels are designed with the expectation that you know how to do Things X, Y, and Z.

So what happens if you stop playing for a while, forget Y and Z and only have a hazy memory that X involved the A button? Well, most times you flail around for a while, probably get killed a few times, and hopefully most of it comes back to you. If not, you maybe consult the interwebz to figure out what you forgot. In extreme cases, it may be more worth it to just start over.

Here's where the re-torial comes in. In most serial TV dramas, there's a "previously on" to remind you what happened before since they know not everyone (who's not insane like me) will remember that tiny detail from three weeks ago that's about to be important. I want that for games too.

All the current consoles keep track of what day it is, and keeping track of the last time you played a game is pretty easy. What if the game checked how long it's been since you played last, and if it's been more than, say, two weeks, would offer you a recap? This could be both for the storyline and for controls. You set it up as a training room kind of thing, a menu of different moves you could re-learn, or a really basic mission to mess around in without interrupting your conquest of the universe.

Now, some games already offer something like this. At least a few RPGs have a "recap" section in their quest journals, and that's great. Other games offer a help section in their menus that lets you replay the tutorial sections, and that's also great. The game Alan Wake, already set up like a TV series, does a recap at the beginning of each chapter but, bizarrely, doesn't play it at the beginning of each play session.

So if you're making a game, remember us ADD gamers who might put your game down for several months, and give us a way to ease back in after we've forgotten how to play. I hate mixing up the button for "duck" with the one for "stab dude in the face so he doesn't kill me".