Works of fiction appearing here are © 2011-2017 by Jack H. Tyler, and are not to be assumed to lie in the public domain.
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Monday, October 23, 2017

A Time to Rest

          What a great thing is this retirement business!  Having invested one's entire adult life in labors great and small, one then reaches a point where, unable to carry the burdens he or she has been asked to bear any longer, one is put out to pasture to enjoy a few good years free of alarm clocks, time clocks, rush hours, meetings, bosses, impossible projects, and unmeetable deadlines.  I never expected to retire, but I can truly say that if changing circumstances hadn't forced me into it, I would have gone to my grave not knowing what life was!  Presented here for your consideration, a few snapshots of my weekend.
          Last Fathers Day my son got me what is billed as a "steampunk blade," a short sword or long knife, as your preference decides.  The graceful blade is set off by rosewood grips and decor, there are two catch-slots in the blade to snag an enemy's knife and twist it out of his hand or snap the blade, and the hand guard makes a credible knuckle-duster if you're crowded.  If you look closely, you can see where he had "Blimprider," my sobriquet in the world of steampunk, engraved at the base of the blade.  The non-functional pistol, which is a Very-type launcher, is one of four I have received over a couple of years, and the only one without a stand, so I've been casting about for some sort of display.  The two items came together with a nice plank salvaged from an old TV stand we were showing the door, and this is the result.

           Looking at this has inspired a possible story about a meek bookish type with a secret life as some sort of goblin hunter.  Nice set of tools, I must say.
*          *          *
          My other great acquisition this weekend was XCom: UFO Defense, the greatest game ever made.  For those unfortunates who haven't had the pleasure, XCom is an old DOS game first released in 1994 for the PC.  It's available on emulator sites such as steampowered.com, and sells for a song.  The premise is that UFO abductions are real, and becoming more aggressive as a coalition of aliens prepares to invade.  You are the commander of a world-wide organization formed and funded to oppose their activities.  You decide where to put your bases for optimal coverage.  You decide what goes in them.  You hire staff, conduct research, and build new equipment, the fruit of that research.
          Once your base is up and running, and you can have up to eight, assuming you can produce the cash flow to support them, you manage every aspect from this screen while watching the radar for uninvited guests.  Here you can monitor your research, manufacturing, buy and sell equipment, and manage your all-important assault squads who will meet the invaders wherever they can be engaged.  Each soldier is rated in a number of categories, from the typical strength and stamina to accuracy with guns and grenades, morale, personal bravery, and reaction time.  You then have to compare all these factors to decide who carries the heavy gear, who scouts, who snipes, who kicks doors, and who handles the demolitions.
          With all these decisions made and your base construction underway, you will sooner rather than later sight an invader on the radar screen, and dispatch an interceptor to bring it down.  This usually succeeds (wouldn't be much of a game if it didn't), leaving you with a crashed UFO to deal with.  So you saddle up the troops, and send them off to war.  Arriving at the crash site, you'll have to find the UFO, and beat the bushes for an unknown number of little ragamuffins who are eagerly waiting to ambush you as you come off the transport.
          Sometimes you haven't shot down the UFO.  Sometimes it has landed to pursue some nefarious project, your satellite spots it on the ground, and the squad has to go break up the party with all of them healthy and fully equipped.  You'll find them on farms, in the suburbs, in cities, and out in forests, jungles, and deserts.  Oh, and on the frozen tundra at both poles.  They'll hide anywhere, in caves, storage sheds, stables, and on rooftops, and you have to ferret them all out, because the battle doesn't end until you get them all.
          One thing you can generally rely on is that at some point, you'll have to have to enter the alien craft to get the last few guys, and that never fails to be an exercise in tension.  Notice the black areas on these battle screens.  When you first arrive, the whole screen is black, except a narrow cone that you can see from the door of the transport.  Everything is hidden until you scout it.  Want to know what's behind that hedge?  Send somebody to have a look!  Their ships can range from simple scouts like this to four-level battleships that look like wedding cakes.  The aliens know every inch, and will use that knowledge to great advantage.  You can expect to have your fun meter pegged frequently, as is the case with that fellow with the yellow arrow over his head, who's just rounded a corner to come up nose to nose with a hostile Gray.  Later in the game they'll build bases that have to be found and eradicated.  Sometimes they'll send an assault team to try to eradicate your bases.  Eventually, if you're successful, you'll learn to interrogate captives and learn the location of their off-world base in the Solar System, which you have to destroy in order to win.
          But that comes much later.  As your squads battle the invaders and bring back more and more alien equipment, it needs to be researched, and the useful discoveries implemented in new and more effective gear.  Bases need to be expanded, newly developed facilities added, and all the while, the cockroaches just keep showing up to wreak more and more havoc.  Small wonder that one of the PC game magazines back in the day said, "If you don't play XCom, you aren't really a gamer, you're just some guy with a computer!"  I couldn't agree more.
*          *          *
          And that's what went on this weekend.  Two days.  And virtually every day has been a version of this for the last year and a half.  Retirement suits me.  I may be going to hell, but at least I'll have had this time in heaven!  So, how was your weekend?

Semper audax esse,
~ Jack

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Sixty-nine!

"You're as young as you feel."
                                   ~ SOME IDIOT WHO DIED YOUNG

          Today was, and still is, as it turns out, my birthday.  Having survived 69 trips around the host fireball with only a few really close calls, I feel like I've almost accomplished something.  It's next year that will be the test!
          I had a wonderful day, even considering the nap I took.  Two of my local grandkids made it over for a day of celebration, and to partake of the fabulous dinner the girls are preparing.  The granddaughters are at homecoming tonight, Venus's last and Angel's second.  Angel has to go, of course; she's one of the cheerleaders!  But my son, their dad, will be over as soon as he gets off work.  Family can't be beat!
          Breaking from the steampunk tradition of past years, there was a strong Viking theme to the presents this year.  They gave me a leather wristband with a copper battleaxe inlaid into it, a beautiful lacquered box with a Viking dragon tile set into the lid, and a shirt with a big Viking warrior holding up someone's head, and the legend, "THAT WHICH DOESN'T KILL ME...  SHOULD RUN!"  There were other things as well, but mostly what I got was love, just like always.
          Looking back over the journey, I see a life well-lived.  Some of the people I grew up with might say wasted, because I never reached the pinnacle of success.  I built plastic models for thirty-odd years.  I learned some good techniques, and presented in a few shows and competitions.  I had a set placed in the old San Diego Aerospace Museum.  I never became "America's Top Modeller," and had a photo spread in Fine Scale Modeller magazine, but you know what?  I had a good time.
          I was a wargamer for thirty years, cutting my teeth on Avalon-Hill's Gettysburg, and progressing through the hobby right up through the same company's Squad Leader.  I lost more games than I won, but some of those wins were spectacular, and made it all worthwhile.  I''ve led the Army of Northern Virginia up Cemetery Hill, the Afrika Korps across the Sahara, and ships of both sides into the dangerous waters around Midway, and I have to say that, win or lose, I wouldn't trade those experiences for anything.
          I've been an author of various forms and at various levels for 59 of those years.  I never achieved the success of a Stephen King or a J.K. Rowling, but I have books for sale on Amazon, and strangers have bought them and reviewed them favorably.  To me, that's success, and just the right amount.  I've proven I can do this thing that I love, and do it well, yet haven't had to give up any substantial portion of my personal life or private time.  Perfect!
          For fifty years I worked, nearly all of it in service to America, first in the Navy, then as a civilian employee of the Navy.  I am proud to say that I was loyal to my country when it was cool to burn draft cards.  Again, not the huge career that would cause you to find my name in the history books, but I always gave my best, and my only regret is that I couldn't do better.
          Most importantly, for over forty years I have been a husband and father.  I had to fight a street gang for my children, and a horrible, debilitating disease for my wife.  Together, we succeeded.  My children are successful members of society, and my wife is the respected matriarch of an extended family that spans half a continent.  You can do a lot worse than that.
          So here I am, not famous, not rich, not noteworthy for any particular accomplishment, yet I stand here proud and say I have had a very good life.  There have been heartbreaks, there have been setbacks, there have been tragedies, as there are in all lives, but we have met them all with courage and a sense of humor and perspective, and we have persevered and triumphed.  One thing I've learned through it all is that tomorrow's going to be another day, and all you have to do is be there to enjoy it.
          I could go on like this for hours, but a nice monologue slides into a boring sermon with startling suddenness, and I've made my point.  Be honorable, courageous, and seek the joy in all things, and though your life may not be perfect, you'll find plenty to appreciate.  Now that you all know the Great Cosmic Secret, go forth and conquer!  I'll see you next week.

All the best in all things always,
~ Jack

Friday, September 29, 2017

Games and Dames

          "I find myself enmeshed in conflicts I do not understand, where both sides seem equally wrong."
                              ~ DRIZZT DO'URDEN

          Good morning, friends, and I hope this finds you well.  It's been a week since I posted anything here, and I feel like I should keep things current, even if I don't have much to say.  This is my oldest presence on the world-wide cobweb, having been in my possession since the spring of 2011, sometimes active, sometimes dormant, always reflecting who I was at the time.  Right now, I'm in another transitional phase.  I don't do much besides write and play games in my retirement.  Having worked for a solid fifty years, I'm tired of being "out," and my idea of a long trip is a walk to the mailbox.
          I blog extensively on my writing.com page, and those who have come here for my views on writing and writers should go there for that sort of insight.  It's linked here.  If you're more interested in my fiction, click on the Portfolio tab at the top of the page, and you'll find everything I share laid out for you to read.
          As to this page, what can I do to make it interesting to friends and inviting to strangers, strangers who might accept that invitation and become acquaintances, and dare I suggest it, friends?  As I said, I'm enjoying my retirement by being a hermit, but I do some things, just mostly at home.  You might say my retirement is taking the form of a long staycation.  What I can offer here is a view of myself, and an invitation to converse, to join me in a judgment-free atmosphere and learn something I know, or teach me something I don't.  So, let's get started!

The Legend of Drizzt


          Drizzt Do'Urden came into being in 1988 when R.A. Salvatore was pressured on the spur-of-the-moment to create a sidekick for the giant barbarian Wulfgar, hero of his proposed series of novels based in The Forgotten Realms universe of novels based on Dungeons & Dragons.  The outcast dark elf Drizzt struck a chord with the primarily teenage audience, and Drizzt took over the series that has spanned 29 years, and is still being written today.
          The Legend of Drizzt is a boardgame, part of a series of Dungeons & Dragons boardgames, that seeks to capitalize on the popularity of Salvatore's creation.  It is a cooperative experience for up to five players.  Each player assumes the role of one of the characters of the core group from the books, a band of heroes known as the Companions of the Hall.  They are Drizzt, a magnificent dark elf swordsman, Wulfgar, the aforementioned barbarian, Bruenor, an axe-wielding dwarf, titular king of a lost kingdom, his adopted daughter Cattie-brie, an accomplished human archer, and Regis, a sneaky little halfling, which is a non-trademarked way to say Hobbit.
          All the action in the game takes place in the Underdark, a system of caves far deeper than ordinary caves, where the main dark elf society dwells, as well as a number of others, plus a wide assortment of monsters; most things found there, intelligent or not, are pure evil, and must be dealt with as the game system throws them at you.  Therein lies the game.
          There is a very cool mechanic in which the players build the board as they go.  The board consists of a stack of three-inch tiles which are shuffled and placed to the side.  The party begins the game on one double-size tile, and each time a player moves off the edge of a tile, the next one is drawn from the stack and attached to the edge, causing the map to grow as it is discovered.  Each time a new tile is placed, a Monster card is drawn, and the corresponding goblin, troll, drow, or whatever is placed on the new tile, and attacks using the tactics specified on its card.  The card is added to the hand of the player who drew it, and each time it is that player's turn, he first plays his own character, then the monster as if it were his own character.  There are a number of scenarios that correspond to the stories in the early novels that are triggered by including Special Encounter tiles in the board deck, and when they are drawn, the real fun begins.  As well as fighting monsters, the players can find treasure, heal a limited number of wounds, and have other, non-monster based encounters.  And thereby hangs a tale.
          We played this game two or three months ago, and got our asses handed to us.  We literally had a dead character, which is the condition for losing, by the end of the third turn.  Everyone was content to put this abomination away, and write it off as a ripoff trading on a famous name.  Everyone but me.  I am a huge fan of Drizzt; his books are my favorite stories of all time, so naturally, I was determined to make this game playable, and if no one else would play it with me, I would solo it.  Not much different than reading a book, really.
          So I got it out and began to tweak the rules.  I tried various things to balance it, but nothing heavy-handed.  Sure, I could have weakened the monsters to the point that they might as well not have been there, but there's no satisfaction in a game like that.  I wanted a razors-edge balance where the players would usually win, but come away feeling like they had really done something.  I experimented with each character making a dice roll at the beginning of each turn with certain numbers recovering a point of health for the character.  I considered making the healing potions restore all of a character's life instead of half of it.  I tweaked the monsters' attack dice.  But at the end of the day, the game fixed itself.
          In each scenario, the party starts with a number of healing surges, usually two.  When a character's hit points, usually between eight and ten, reach zero, you spend a healing surge and that character regains half of his starting total.  Once the party is out of healing surges, the next character who reaches zero hit points dies, and ends the game in a party loss.  This was happening with alarming regularity in our first games, and I suspect, though I don't remember, that we were doing something wrong, probably allowing every monster to attack on every turn instead of only on the turn of the player who drew its card.
          Whatever it was, I found a suggestion in the back of the rulebook that if the game is too difficult, give the party an extra healing surge.  I decided that before I tried some tweaked system of my own creation, I would try that, so I set up a scenario with three characters and played it solitaire, following the printed rules meticulously.  What do you know, it worked beautifully!
          So last Sunday we played two scenarios, the first where Bruenor rediscovers his lost kingdom, and the second in which he and his formidable friends drive out the dragon that has taken it over.  We allowed three healing surges, and found that you can easily estimate the quality of your victory by the number of surges you haven't used by the end of the game.  We used two in the first, which I would call a minor victory, and all three in the brawl against the dragon, which I have to say is marginal.  Still, in the immortal words of Bill Cowher, "So what if we won ugly?"
          My conclusion is that if you have obtained what by all accounts looks to be a quality boardgame, and it doesn't play well, don't give up right away.  Examine the rules; you may have made a tiny mistake that ruins the balance.  If that doesn't fix it, consider your tactics; you may have adopted a losing strategy.  Think about what you can do differently, and try that out.  You may find a shining jewel beneath what you thought was garbage.  I know I've learned a valuable lesson that I'm trying to pass along here, and given what people charge for boardgames these days, it is literally a valuable one.
          I would finally like to point out for those who play their games solitaire, by choice or through lack of local players, that this game lends itself very well to solitaire play.  The first scenario is a one-player depiction of Drizzt's escape from the great Drow city of the underdark, and is an excellent learning vehicle.  Be cautioned that when using one character, every monster is going to play in every turn, but that is not the norm, and it's easily possible to learn a very bad habit there.  Once learned, though, the game plays very well solitaire by simply setting up the scenario and playing each character to the best of your ability.  You won't have to fudge the monsters, either, as the tactics of each are dictated by their card.  You can have a wonderful time reliving the Legend of Drizzt either with friends or without!

Downton Abbey

          If you have been living under a rock for the past six years, Downton Abbey was a period piece set at the beginning of the 20th Century that concerned itself with the lives of an extended family of British landed aristocrats, and their interactions with each other and their servants.  I did not watch Downton Abbey in its first run.  I was present in the room for the trailers, and what I saw was a deep, rich period piece whose characters had such earth-shaking problems to contend with as which cuff-links to wear for dinner, and who might be the most profitable aristocrats to marry their daughters.  If I were designing a film to show in prison to torture the inmates, I'm pretty sure it would be close to this.
          Oh, how wrong we can be!  It is our custom to watch various television series in order, one episode per night, over dinner.  My lovely daughter got this as a gift last month, and it went into our rotation.  It came up last week, and we will be watching the final episode of Season One tonight.  Now, don't get me wrong; I still prefer Steve McGarrett racing to dump a hydrogen bomb out of a helicopter off the coast of Waikiki, but Downton Abbey is a different kind of animal.
          First of all, it is filled with intrigue both above stairs and below, as the British say.  The servants jostle one another constantly for position and prestige, sabotaging each other's work, and going so far as to try to get rivals fired or arrested.  Above stairs, the series begins in 1912 when this lifestyle is going into its final phases.  The Titanic has just sunk, taking with it the presumptive heir to the Crowley Estate, and setting in motion a desperate scramble to put new safeguards in place.  Scandals, blackmail, jealousy, and sabotage abound, all those things that make life in the aristocracy worth living, and the result is a show that keeps you hanging on every word and nuance.
          The Lord of the Manor, Robert Crawley or Lord Grantham to use his title, is a decent man who tries to be fair with everyone below him, but with this seething hotbed of intrigue playing out at every level, he is often caught behind the curve.  There is the Lord, his wife, their three daughters and the various suitors, and close to a dozen servants, all with their own agendas.  Add to the mix Lord Grantham's mother, the Dowager Countess, who has no real power but does have a real compulsion to meddle in everything she's aware of, and the recipe is complete.  What I really appreciated was that with all these characters getting substantial time on center stage, they made no effort to tell you who to root for.  Nearly at the end of the first season, I have gravitated toward Mary, the eldest daughter.
          Mary is headstrong and self-willed, things a woman is not supposed to be in that day and age.  She is in many ways a symbol of the coming changes.  She is the future of Downton, as with no male heirs, whoever she marries is likely to become the next Lord of the Manor.  I'm not a Brit, and I don't know if I have that part right, but a lot is riding on her.  To her parents chagrin, she has rejected every suitor they have pushed at her, and done it in such a way as to preclude any chance of changing her mind later.  Mary is a flawed character, sarcastic, and unappreciative of the way society treats her, and yet it seems the only way for her to rebel is to choose to live and die an old maid.  She began the series being really nasty, but we have gotten into her motives, and I now have great sympathy for her, and am fascinated to see whether she can lay claim to her own life without giving up too much.
          The actress playing Mary has also caught my attention.  Michelle Dockery brings a visual elegance to the role that makes you instantly believe that she is a titled heiress.  You would never believe her as one of the servants, but as the eldest daughter, she absolutely shines.  Her voice is deep and rich with vibrato undertones that rivet your ear and make you listen; I've not heard an actress with a voice like this since Lauren Bacall.  I don't know who trained her, but I wish he or she could train every actor on the screen.  Her facial expressions and body language are absolutely appropriate to every nuance of every scene, and she can change the tone of any scene she's in with a simple shift of her eyes, or a curl at one corner of her mouth, making you wonder what unspoken underplot you've missed.  She is magnificent.
          This is not to detract from the other actors.  All have been carefully selected for their appearance and skills, and the production values are spot-on in every regard.  You'll believe you are living in an English country house in every way possible.  Here is my final testimonial:  We are wrapping up Season One tonight, and will this weekend be moving on to another season of New Tricks, a British police dramedy.  I like that show very much, but I will be looking forward to our next visit to the spectacular Downton Abbey.
          So, until next week, Play nice, watch out for one another, and take the time to watch some great TV!

~ Jack

Friday, September 22, 2017

The Friday Funnies, Sep. 22nd

          "Excuses, excuses!"
                                   ~ EVERY BOSS I'VE EVER WORKED FOR

          This week my plan was to add the long-awaited Chapter 13 to Stingaree, my novel of a Victorian San Diego in a steampunk universe.  As with most chapters, four scenes go to make up this one, and thanks to the pinched nerve in my neck, I only got two sessions in.  On the idea that that is a convenient excuse to duck a project I'm a little tired of, I'm going to shift gears next week, and work on my other work-in-progress, The Secret Society.  That is a novella, and not arranged in chapters, but I'm looking to add four scenes to it, and it's set up so that you can view the progress and comment in real time.  This is very much the first draft, and your comments could affect the story, so don't be shy!
          On the pinched nerve front, everyone knows that I'm getting older, and these things crop up.  In about an hour, I'm leaving for an appointment with my physical therapist who I hope is going authorize a home neck-traction device for me.  I have gotten considerable relief during the treatments I've received in his office, but it only lasts for a couple of days.  With my own device, I could use it at-will, meaning every time this thing flares up, and while it will never be gone, my hope is that it will become something I can live with, like my dentures and my pre-diabetes.  I'll add a footnote should there be anything worthy of reporting.
          And that about does it for me as of this week.  Basically, I did a lot of video gaming, as the Big Comfy Couch allows me to assume any position I need, and the in-game story keeps me from lying in the fetal position and concentrating on how badly this hurts during a flareup.  With any luck at all, I'll be relieved of all that soon!  Meanwhile, I am first and foremost a writer.  To explore my view of The Craft, join me at my "technical" blog, https://www.writing.com/main/profile/blog/blimprider
          Talk to you soon; have a great weekend!

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sorting through the Chaos

          "One hates an author that's all author."
     ~ LORD BYRON

          And yet...   And yet, in the face of such wisdom, this is what I strive to be.
          I've been having some indecisiveness lately over whether I want to be a writer any more.  So I took yesterday off.  Just, off.  There are a number of things I do regularly on Saturday.  I most generally write at least one review on writing.com, as well as promoting my group, the Punk Fiction Library.  I also post links to the most recently active of my friends' blogs and pages on a daily basis, and I also routinely share a few items on Facebook, and comment on at least a half-dozen posts, and often many more.  Yesterday I did none of those things, and as nearly as I can tell, nobody even noticed!  For a certainty, no one commented.
          But the reality of it came home to me in the wee hours of this morning.  I couldn't get to sleep last night.  I tried.  I laid in bed for an hour and studied the ceiling, the night light, and listened to the little owl that lives outside my window, and I finally gave it up.  Taking my own advice that I give when this happens to my wife, I got up to make use of the time.  Sitting down with no clear plan of what to do, I found myself working on Stingaree.  It flowed so naturally that I actually invented (well, for myself, at least) a new way of outlining that gives me much more flexibility than my old notebook method.  But that's neither here nor there; the point is that I want to write.
          I've been thinking about this turn of affairs, and what I've come to believe is that what I don't want to do is all those things I've obligated myself to over months and years, one little thing here, another little thing there, until all those little drops have added up to a sea.  A sea of groups, forums, and social media that consume my writing time.  I wake up early now that I'm retired.  Don't know why.  Maybe it's because there's nothing to dread after I wake, I don't know, but I have the house to myself for two-to-three hours when I first get up, and that is time that I want to write.
          But I have these other demands.  I established a Facebook group, the Punk Fiction Authors Guild.  It exists to help all its members, 25 right now, down from 31, and this means reposting their promotional material everywhere I frequent.  Time off of my three hours.  My daily scouring of friends' pages, then copying and pasting the links on writing.com.  More time.  Reviewing.  Promoting and maintaining The Punk Fiction Library and Twenty-Five Words or Less.  All time deducted from that immutable three hours.  This blog.  Riding the Blimp, my writing.com blog.  Who knows what I'm forgetting in my sleep-deprived state?
          The point is that I have dug a crater with a teaspoon, and now I can barely see over the edge.  The next thing I have to do in my writing life is to decide whether I'm going to be a writer, or a social media gadfly, posting, commenting, and pontificating on what it's like to be the writer that I'm not any more.  I guess you can tell from the tone which way I'm going to go, so let me stipulate what you will and will not be seeing going forward.
          First of all, I will maintain everything I've started to benefit others.  This specifically means the two groups and the forum that were mentioned above.  I will maintain them.  Don't look for me to be hanging out there every day, and commenting on everything that passes the gate.  That isn't likely to continue.  Reviewing and critiquing the work of others helps me keep my own style in focus, so I will continue to perform all my writing.com reviews on the weekends.  There is one friend for whom I have agreed to critique her entries for a contest that is testing her skills over the next twelve weeks: I'm in.  When I give my word, I keep it.  Riding the Blimp will continue to appear each Monday, as preparing that helps me examine my Craft and I believe makes me a better writer.  This blog I will continue to service when I think I have something to say, as I have done here.
          And that's it!  Don't expect to see me all over Facebook or any of the other social media sites on a daily basis.  I'll check out the things I started, and if they're running smoothly, I'll be moving on.  What you will get in return is better, and more writing from me on such projects as Stingaree, The Darklighters, and The Nexus Chronicles.  They will be offered up on writing.com for everyone's entertainment and opinions, and I hope you offer up those comments, because feedback makes you better at everything, and that includes writing.
          And on that note, I'm going to start my day, probably with a several-hour nap.  Some of the grandkids will be over today, and I'll be engaging with them when I get up, so probably the next thing you see from me will be my Riding the Blimp blog on writing.com.  I'll put up a link when that's done, and Tuesday I'll be launching back into Stingaree; that's been under construction for far too long!
          Until we meet again, play nice, watch out for one another, and above all else, get out there and live life like you mean it!

~   Jack