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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Friday, February 24, 2012

In Search of a Signature

Happy Birthday Venus

          Last weekend, I was smitten with the urge to investigate the fish taco.  Several publications I am aware of have described the fish taco as San Diego's signature dish, so bundling Lady Bonnie into the pickup, I set out on a safari to bag the best one in town.  What I discovered included a couple of rather nasty surprises.  The first was cost.  Fish tacos evoke a sense of the southern California beach culture, surfers chowing down as they lounge on the tailgates of their woodies, and vagabond beachcombers stopping for a snack at the bait shop on the pier.  Alas, like so many other things, I discovered that big money has moved into this field, and is ruining it for everybody.  The local beach bum is going to have to pick up cans and bottles for a month of Sundays to indulge in some of these particular treats.

           Our first stop was El Pollo Loco (sp: The Crazy Chicken).  This chain has been running a series of ads for a fish taco over the last couple of weeks, and as I am a big aficionado of both fish and tacos, I found no problem with dropping in to sample the wares. 
          We pulled up in front of our local franchise, and the fish tacos were advertised in the window, $1.99 each.  Without having seen them, my first thought was that Jack in the Box sells two ground beef tacos for $1.00.  First impression:  Seems a little steep.  As we stepped up to the counter, we were confronted with a sign offering a combo meal, two fish tacos, a medium drink, and a "classic side," meaning a small bowl of Spanish rice, pinto beans, or mashed potatoes with gravy, all for $5.00.  Purchased as part of this package, the price suddenly becomes more of a bargain.  So we placed our order for two combos. The taco comes in two flavors, the Classic Baja, and the Spicy Chipotle, and given that my intention was to do a review, I ordered one of each.

          The two tacos are visually identical, being a fried fish patty with traditional Mexican chopped veggies, a white sauce, and a wedge of lime.  It is served on two soft taco shells, which is really quite a good idea.  Fast food tacos can be pretty messy propositions, as anyone who has ever had one come apart on him or her, especially while they're driving, will attest.  Two layers of taco shell don't create an inordinate amount of dough, but still keep the innards in.  The Classic Baja has a decent Mexican food flavor, yet is almost devoid of the peppery bite one associates with south-of-the-border cuisine.  The Spicy Chipotle is virtually the same taco, but with the peppery bite, and I use the word "bite" loosely, because it isn't challenging to the palate, nor does it have the least bit of kick.  Now, El Pollo Loco has an extensive salsa bar with a range of various flavors that can be used to power these dishes up, but, being very familiar with the taste of salsa, I ate mine plain for the purposes of this report.

          Well, I've described the presentation, and I've eaten the food, and now I suppose it's time to deliver the report.  The flavors of both these tacos were quite good, though I found it surprisingly bland for anyone born and raised in the land of Mexican border food.  I should mention that I am way past the age where I enjoy having my mouth set on fire by pepper sauce, and neither of these tacos threatened to assault my taste buds in any way.  As I mentioned, there is a salsa bar to deal with this, and to play devil's advocate, there are fast food shops and taco stands alike around here that serve food items that are flatly inedible due to overspicing, so given the choice of extremes, I'd rather have this one.  The texture, well, it's fish.  They are fried in a batter that has a smoky flavor, adding to the total appeal, and the edges and corners are nicely crisped and add a crunch that the veggies can't pull off alone.  They are the same size as the aforementioned Jack in the Box tacos, so they pretty much have to be purchased in the combo meal to be considered a good value.  I found these to be a very decent food item, and as I've stopped eating so heavily in my old age, the quantity was quite adequate; if you're in the habit of eating two or three Big Macs with large fries, a shake, and a couple of fruit pies, this isn't going to be enough for you.  As a footnote, the rice was very tasty, though a little drier than I prefer it.  That isn't a big problem; I'm sure there are many customers who will find it done to perfection.

          Next stop (not on the same day) was Rubio's Fresh Mexican Grill.  There was no ambiguity here; if the fish taco isn't San Diego's signature dish, it certainly is Rubio's.  Opening his first restaurant in 1983, Ralph Rubio brought the fish taco, a Baja finger food, to a delighted southern California audience, and apparently somebody likes it, because he has gone on to open over 150 more in places as distant as Hawaii.

          Appearance-wise, Rubio's offering is almost identical to El Pollo Loco's, right down to the lime wedge.  In taste, I found Rubio's Original fish taco to be almost indistinguishable from El Pollo Loco's Spicy Chipotle.  Almost, because Rubio's breads their fish in a house beer batter that is not as well-done (in cooking terms) as EPL's.  Also, the fish from EPL was a fillet of uniform thickness, sized to fit a taco shell.  Rubio's offered a more natural-feeling cut, being of irregular shape and thickness of approximately the proper size.  In terms of price, Rubio's offered a very similar combo plate, two tacos with two sides but no drink, for $6.49.  Given that the drink had to be purchased separately, El Pollo Loco arrives at the bottom line with a much better value.  Ultimately, at Rubio's, you're going to finish up with an extra side dish and a price tag of at least $8.00, compared with $5.00 at El Pollo Loco.  These were served on a single soft taco that had some thickness to it, and the problem of them coming apart never arose.


          The side dishes were Spanish rice, and a small bowl of pinto beans.  The rice was, again, traditionally flavored, and quite good, though even drier than EPL's.  That, again, is a matter of personal taste, and some folks are going to love it that way.  The beans had a rich, smokey flavor, with a dash of grated cheese on top, and worked well on their own, though they were improved (after my initial taste test) with a shot of green salsa from the salsa bar.  The flavor here was richer than EPL's, though still not possessing any Mexican "kick" at all, and was greatly improved by adding the diner's choice of the several excellent salsas offered at no extra cost, an action I recommend.

          The third and final stop I made (I'll explain why shortly) was at Del Taco.  Del Taco is one of the original Mexican fast food joints, being founded in 1964 (Taco Bell edges them out with a date of 1962), and the only one offering a fish taco.  They call it the Crispy Fish Taco, which means that the batter is crispy; like EPL, Del Taco serves their product on a double soft taco.  There is a combo on the menu of two fish tacos, an order of fries, and a medium drink for $6.29.  One taco by itself sells for $1.89, so that makes this a decent value.

          I expected this to be the cheapest offering, but it's actually the medium-priced meal.  The French Fries were a surprise.  Tasty, mind you, and I'm a big fan, but they sort of put a damper on the, you know, Mexican ambiance of the whole experience.  The drinks with all these meals came out of a soda machine, and are what they are.  The point of it is the tacos, and the immediately obvious difference is that Del Taco's fish tacos come wrapped with a tangy red salsa already on the fish.  The fish is fried to a crispy golden state in a batter that is tasty, though not particularly distinctive.  There is also a lime wedge in the wrapper, which you can apply or not as you wish.  Extra sauces and condiments are of the plastic packet variety in bins by the register.  Despite the unavoidable feel that this is an "Oh, by the way" dish from a burger joint, it was still quite good, and a decent value.


          These were the only three items that I sampled, though I researched a good many more.  I found that Carl's Jr., Jack in the Box, McDonalds, Wendy's, and their ilk don't offer a fish taco, though most of them do offer a beef taco of some sort.  Not a huge surprise, since these places all made their names as burger shacks, and haven't chosen to diversify in this particular direction.  More surprisingly, neither Chili's nor Taco Bell offers one either.  I mean, come on, if the word "Taco" is in your name, doesn't that obligate you to at least cover the whole range of tacos, if nothing else?  Apparently not.  Alberto's Mexican Restaurant offers a single fish taco for $2.20, but the only two locations around here are down at the beach, and I'm not making a fifty mile round trip for a couple of tacos.  Once we get clear of these four chains, we arrive at some upscale Mexican eateries, such as El Torito, On The Border, and a few others which offer a full size meal, of which fish tacos are a part, for $12.00 to $15.00 a person, and you can go up quite a bit from there; I chose not to.

          So, the moment has come for the comparisons.  These fish tacos have a range of quality and presentation that tends to make one or the other superior, depending on how you plan to eat.  If you are going to go into the restaurant, sit at a table, and eat off a plate, the choice lies between Rubio's and El Pollo Loco.  EPL, at $5.00 for a combo, is by far the best value for your dollar.  The dining area, at least where we went, was clean, spacious, well lit with lots of windows, and had plenty of booths and tables.  Rubio's two sides with the lack of a drink drives the price up into the $8.00 range, but means that you're going to get a more rounded, and more filling meal.  It may have the edge in taste as well, as their fish is breaded in a proprietary beer batter that browns up to a perfect crunch and mellow flavor.  Their dining room was even larger, with high, tile-inlaid tables with bar stools to sit on, with the booths in the middle and these high tables around the windows.  Both are clearly designed to support the eat-in experience.  Del Taco's dining area is nothing to write home about, being a rung below McDonald's on the plastic furniture evolutionary scale, BUT, if your situation places you in a position where you need to get your food in a sack (maybe handed to you out the window) and take it home, or eat in the car, then Del Taco starts looking much more favorable.  With their pre-applied salsa, and easy to handle French Fries, they are obviously catering to the food-on-the-go set, and are head-and-shoulders in the lead when it comes to that area.


          In summary, these three tacos are similar enough in taste and texture that the final decision will be made based on individual preference, and influenced by the choice of sides.  Personally, I kind of lean toward the Rubio's, not surprising given that they are the most expensive, and give you the most food, but that's just me; there's hardly anything to choose between the actual tacos.  What was most heartening to me was to verify for myself that the scrumptious fish taco, San Diego's signature dish, is still alive and well in its home city (at least domestically) at an affordable price in its original form; the discouraging part is that there are only four I could find, and who knows for how long?  Anyway, Philly got its cheese steak, N'awlins got jambalaya, San Diego got fish tacos.  If you come for a visit, you can get fish tacos prepared by a master chef for $35.00 a plate if you want to.  A word of advice:  Don't.  If you want the genuine San Diego experience that the locals have enjoyed for years, buy from one of these guys.  I'm comfortable recommending Alberto's, even though I didn't make it down there; the price tells me that you're going to get the real deal.  Then you can go home and tell them that you had the west coast's version of Jambalaya, and it's like nothing else out there.


          As a footnote, I mentioned a second reason I cut this short.  I got my lab results back shortly after we visited the first restaurant.  I have elevated blood sugar levels, and my sawbones is sending me to a pre-diabetic class to learn what it is that I can never eat again, so this was sort of a grand farewell to Junk Food Nation.  I enjoyed it immensely.  It is possible I may do another one of these "crawls" at some point, but if I do, it will be conducted at salad bars and yogurt shops.  The old gray dude, he ain't what he used to be...

Hideout Happenings

          I'll begin this issue of the newscast with a story about books. As many of you know, I have read R. A. Salvatore almost exclusively for the past five years. I have run through, I think, twenty two novels of Drizzt Do'Urden, the renegade dark elf who left his diabolically evil underground society to take his chances in the world of men. These are tales of the acceptance of an outcast, told from the viewpoint of the outcast, and that is a story with appeal for almost everyone; don't we all at least secretly believe that we're the outcast? Well, I've tracked them all down and read them, the early ones twice. I located a spinoff series (5 books) about a priest with a mission, and that was a good read. I thought I was done until next October, when the last book of the current trilogy comes out, but I located The Sellswords, another spinoff that is very interesting concerning what two ambiguous characters, sometimes reluctant allies, sometimes deadly foes, have been doing since they disappeared from the narrative early on. I'm wrapping up Book II, and have one to go, but I'm pretty sure that's it. What will fill the void? Well, thanks to some of my fellow travelers, I believe I have located some nice material to fill the empty space.
          Peter of http://www.kyusireader.blogspot.com/ suggests the Mistborn fantasy trilogy.
          Arabella of http://www.genteelarsenal.blogspot.com/ has raised the spectre of visiting the ancient Roman occupiers of Britannia in the Ruso series.
          Jennifer of http://www.jennysday.com/ thinks the classic Siddhartha by Hermann Hess would be right up my alley.
          Finally, Richard of http://www.richardnicholsartandpoetry.blogspot.com/ believes that Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana will stoke my furnace.

          I intend to try them all, and whether any of them finally rise to defeat the ghost of Drizzt that lives in my psyche, I thank you all for taking the time to reach out to offer these fine works. All will be tackled, and I'll let everyone know how they fared on my rather juvenile palate.

          I told everyone a while back about all my game machines taking a dump within two weeks of each other. Well, check this out: My oldest grandchild, Brian Jr., arrived at the door with his own PlayStation 2 and a stack of games under his arm, and gave them to me. That is an impressive young man, and is going to be a great catch for some young lady one day. Ultimately, I'm not sure whether he's done me a favor or not, but if I can hold the gaming to the end of the day, and make it a pre-bedtime activity, I should be able to continue to have that enjoyment without giving up the rest of my life for it. Thanks, Brian, you da bomb!

          I solved a mystery while I was gone. I tracked down Wil Branca, my newest follower, and he sure didn't make it easy! In fact, it never would have happened if I hadn't had Feedjit. I backtracked a random hit to its originating site, and found http://www.newwilorder.blogspot.com/. There is still no information about him, but he is obviously a cartoonist and an animator who does brilliant work; maybe there's more information there than I think. Anyway, his stuff is a lot edgier than anything you'll find here, being sort of up the same alley as Heavy Metal, but it is also technically brilliant, and I recommend a visit. Fair warning: If you don't like what you find there, don't start with me. We're all thinking adults here, and my best suggestion is if you find any of his material offensive, don't look at it.

          Here's some excitement for your entertainment. There are apparently a group of raccoons living in the space under my house, and they are under siege by another group who wants the real estate. The fights are great, but if one of 'em dies under there, our complex manager is going to have to learn a new trade...

          From the Keystone Kops department (or maybe the John Cleese Police), last Valentine's day, our local gendarmes closed down THE major east-west artery out of San Diego, Interstate 8, serving El Cajon and points east, at the height of the rush hour to have a standoff with an empty car! Bonnie and I saw this on the way to the concert. We were going the other way (thank God!), and I have to tell you, if the west end of that freeway was a bridge to Hawaii, there would have been traffic backed up to Honolulu! San Diego's finest surrounded this car parked on the shoulder, closed off traffic, and took turns barking orders for it to disgorge its passengers. They tired of the game after three hours of the car stubbornly refusing to respond. Approaching behind a wall of riot shields, one intrepid ossifer rose from behind the wall to break the window with his baton, and they chucked a big police dog in. A couple of seconds later, said dog stuck his head out the window, gave an exasperated sigh, and dog-warbled, "Mmmmmmonkees!" thus bringing to a victorious close the Battle of Grossmont. I know about all this because it was the lead story on the news that night and most of the next day, which seems entirely proper to me. The stymied assault force did manage to break loose one of its members to pull us over ten miles down the freeway because it "looked like" I didn't have my seatbelt on. He came up to the window, apologized, and sent us on our way; just one more useless experience... And a footnote: Three days after the incident, the whole thing became a joke on the national news.  Kismet: Bonnie and Nine are watching Downton Abbey as I write this, and one of the characters has just pointed out that, "Life is a game in which the player is required to look ridiculous..."  Perfect!


          Finally, note the poll I have added to the sidebar.  If you are a regular denizen of the Hideout (or thinking about becoming one!), I'm offering you a bit of say in what direction the discussion takes.  Take a moment to click on the one you find the most interesting, and the leading subject will soon appear as the latest feature article.  Just another way I try to maximize the fun...

          Now get out there and live life like you mean it!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Love as a Journey

Happy Birthday, Kris!

          Now on to business:  You are listening to Allison Adams Tucker.  Lady Bonnie and I had the great good fortune to attend her Valentine's Day concert at the Saville Theater, part of our local jazz station's Jazz Live Series.  This is something to catch, and even if you don't live around San Diego, the concerts stream live around the world on the website.  That's for you to enjoy later; this is for you to learn about now:

          This beautiful young lady put on a show for Love's Holiday that totally belied her obviously tender years.  She presented love as a journey, from the searing incandescence of its opening days, moving on to the "game" phase, when you don't want to expose yourself too much (Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps, probably best known as the theme song of the British sitcom, Couplings), and describing phase after phase in beautiful musical selections, right through to the point where the beloved is no longer there, and all there is left are the cherished memories, set off by familiar places and remembered songs.  She included in her fabulous show her own composition entitled You Got Me, the song she wrote to sing to her husband at their wedding.  The girl truly left it all out on the stage!

          And what a lot there was to leave!  I have long been a fan of "torchy" women, meaning those who sing about all the facets of love, good and bad.  Women who focus on love songs are known for their sad, smoky voices, like honey with a shot of bourbon.  They run the range of names from Diana Krall to Julie London.  The Uppity Blues Women took the course of blaming the men and making them the butt of their jokes, but they remain gravelly, earthy vocalists, denizens of the road house, even if you see them at Wolftrap.

          I for one never would have associated a middle-to-high pitched woman's voice with love songs, but brother, was I wrong.  Allison has a voice that straddles the mezzo- to alto-soprano range, and it is crystal clear, each note being presented like a finely cut stone, free of distracting harmonics and overtones.  She has power in abundance.  When the music calls for her to soar, she soars.  Sitting in the audience, I couldn't shake the feeling that if she really cut loose, she would damage the building.  I have no doubt that, with a few different choices, she could have been a great opera singer.  Man, am I glad she didn't!

          Her band members have been with her for at least three years, and ranging up to I think she said five.  Her pianist, Danny Green, is a lyrical player, adept at showing his virtuosity and simultaneously putting that fabulous voice on display without ever challenging her for leadership.  Mike Holguin, the drummer, carried the backbeat with quiet cymbals and deft brush strokes, never obtrusive, never overriding the music, but when he was given his chances to shine, boy did he ever!  The man could play with Aerosmith.  Bassist Evona Wascinski played standup and bass guitar with equal aplomb, a true technician, always reaching for the right tool to do the perfect job.  I must admit to a lack of the sort of training that would make me a professional critic of any level of credibility, and we have seen quite a few of these bands supporting a standout leader during these shows.  Each of them has their own points to recommend them, and I wouldn't begin to try to say that this one is better than that one.  I'll just say this one was pretty darned good at what they were here to do!

          One of the station's DJ's said yesterday that she would sing about love in five languages.  She did.  They were English, French, Italian, Spanish, and a lot of Portugese, which probably constituted half the program, as she has an especial love for Brazilian jazz.  I do too.  My focus has long been on the Big Two, Jobim and Gilberto, but she introduced songs by people I had never known of before.  I love finding out that something I have always enjoyed is actually deeper and richer than I ever thought it was.  Bravo, Allison, bravo!

          Am I gushing?  Let me explain something right here.  First of all, I only review artists that I enjoy.  It does neither me nor them any good for me to use my tiny little soapbox to trash someone's hard work; mostly, it makes me look like a small-minded dork.  Second, when a performer is good, I let it all out, because I want you, my readers, to experience their art, and if I can bring them an album sale or two, I'm happy to do it.  Third, this girl is the real deal.  Am I gushing?  In her case, I cannot possibly gush enough.

          She has at this point only the one album out, Come With Me.  I highly recommend accepting her invitation.  I honestly don't know how to put the right words together to describe her powerful, subtle voice.  I am hard-put to come up with an allegory.  Maybe a forty-horse chainsaw in the hands of a master sculptor.  She has all the power and volume that any vocalist could hope to be blessed with, and yet with the fine control needed to nuance a gasp, to express a gamut of emotions in a sigh.  Her debut album contains a range of selections, from such old standards as I've Got the World on a String, My Funny Valentine, and You Belong to Me, through her foreign language covers, like La Vie En Rose, Volver, and O Barquinho, to her own beautiful You Got Me.  If you have a love of talented women singing songs about the loves they've won and lost, you owe yourself a ride with this incredibly talented young lady.  Don't take my word for it.  You're hearing her right now.  You can sample more of her work on YouTube and Amazon.com.  Do it.  Chances are that you'll become her latest fan.

          Thanks, Allison, for giving up time out of your life to enrich ours; we had a blast!


          A footnote to the concert:  Chuao Chocolatier of University Town Center, Del Mar, and Encinitas gave away samples of The Love Child at the door.  This is a specialty confection consisting of dried strawberries soaked in port wine, and sealed in dark chocolate.  Quite the treat, I must say, and if that piques your interest, you'll find them at www.ChuaoChocolatiers.com.  Buy some bigger pants, and call in your order.  They'll go great with your new Allison Adams Tucker CD!

Hideout Happenings

          Not much to report "off the grid" this time.  It turns out I hadn't heard from Chops because he has experienced some personal misfortune that he has had to deal with.  I'm not going to air his business here.  If he chooses to comment here, or at his Irish Navy site, that's up to him.  I'll just say he's okay, and it was heartening to hear from him again.  Our steampunk project is no closer to fruition than it was when events took over.  I'm still wrangling with this, and should I get the upper hand, readers of the Hideout will be the first to know!

          Okay, that's thirty for tonight.  I'll see you when I see you.  Keep safe, look out for one another, and above all, Get out there and live life like you mean it!

          Luvya!
          - Jack          

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Thrive in the Chaos

          I have promised that I would eschew religious dissertations on this site, and I will to the greatest extent possible hold to that promise.  It may, however, be instructive to impart the briefest of overviews of my belief system, so the reader can understand the views that are coloring my interpretation of recent events.
          I am a Taoist.  I had been raised by fire and brimstone, Old Testament fundamentalists who taught me from the age of awareness that I was a direct descendant of Satan who was irredeemable in the eyes of God, and the punishment awaiting me in the afterlife would surely warrant another book of the Bible to be properly documented.  Rather unsurprisingly, Christianity never figured high on my list of things to get into.  My first brush with The Way was thanks to the old Kung Fu series from the early 70s, with David Carradine.  Most of the people my age or younger who were influenced by it tried to emulate Carradine's serenity with a studied undertone of implied violence; they desperately tried to be seen as dangerous.
          I had been studying martial arts for several years by then, and flatter myself that I was dangerous.  I was bullied at school, beaten at home, and assured daily that God had far worse in store for me.  I had a huge chip on my shoulder, and all my martial arts studies were based on a desire to not be bothered; in other words, if you looked at me funny, I'd rip your lungs out.
          Then I met Kwai Chang Caine.  Here was a martial artist whose skills were on a superhuman plane, everything I was aspiring to be, and more.  Yet, with all this training, he harmed no living thing, he neither challenged nor offended anyone, he was humble.  He swallowed every insult with only a quiet apology for his own shortcomings.  He only fought as a last resort, and when he did, he only did enough harm to end the fight, and not one thing more.
          I understood that this guy was a fictional character, the construction of screenwriters, but without conscious awareness, I realized that I needed what he had.  Did such a thing really exist?  I watched every show, listened to the dialogue like it was a college course, read up on Eastern religions.  To my delight, I discovered that there was indeed such a thing, and its name was Taoism.  I embraced it more firmly than any drowning man ever clutched at a straw.
          Now, there is a dearth of Taoist temples here in the States.  My knowledge comes from books, DVDs, documentaries, and any other source that wanders into my grasp.  "Real" Taoists who have had the benefit of years in the temple with wise teachers to guide them might not claim me as one of their own.  Nonetheless, there is plenty of material available.  Much of it is imparted by parables, stories of the sort you would be told by a wise master, and I have read it thousands of times, and meditated for many long hours.
          The result?  For the past forty years, I have "been" Kwai Chang Caine.  Oh, I can't fight like him, but as he would be the first to tell you, that isn't what's important.  I improve what I can, accept what is beyond me, take care of my own affairs and leave you to yours, and as the Christians would say, peace has followed me all the days of my life.  One of the teachings is, "The wise man does not quarrel, so no one quarrels with him."  Or, as the Klingons like to say, "Never fight a battle that you don't have to win."  I extend this philosophy to not quarreling with the things that life throws at you.
          Case in point:  Two weeks ago, I reported that my XBox 360 had taken its flight to that electronic scrapyard in the sky.  Well, within the last three days, my old XBox and my PS2 have given up the ghost.  I'm a man without a game system.  I have played for hours almost every day since my children were small, and right now I feel like I went outside the Shuttle to repair a satellite, and when I looked back, the Shuttle was gone.  I have that deer-in-the-headlights feeling right now, but, have I not, on these very pages, complained about not having time to do everything I want to do?  Well, I've just gained three to ten hours every day that I used to piss away in front of the TV with a controller in my hand.  Once I shake off this shock, the question will become one of what to do with this gift.  Yes, I said gift, for gift it is in every way.
          I have spoken of not having anything interesting to talk about.  Now I'll have time to find that something.  I can take whole days out (with Lady Bonnie!) to explore this beautiful county I live in, from ocean, to mountain, to desert.  There are museums of everything here, from prehistoric man with his rock paintings to the fine art of modern impressionists; from scientists, to pioneers, to sports stars.  There are eateries of every price range and ethnicity.  There are panoramic views and intricate patterns on tiny leaves.  Photo essays all.  There are movies to view, TV to watch, books to read, and concerts to attend.  So many new things to take on, and I wonder whether losing my gaming habit will free up a quarter of the time I need to pursue it all.
          And then there's writing.  I told you I had developed an interest in the steampunk genre. I told you I had a lot to learn about it. I told you I wanted to write some stories in that broad, sweeping style. Every time the research began to demand too much of me, I would say I was going to take a break for an hour, and go to play a game. Eight hours later, I would turn off the game and turn in. No more of that. I mentioned that Chops and I were going to collaborate on a steampunk saga to span two generations.  I collected some material and passed it along, and never received a response.  I then threatened to write my own stories.  Well, that may never happen, but the point is, there will be time for all this stuff now, and all this stuff will naturally lead to a wide range of interesting things to post for your enjoyment, and ultimately mine, as my payoff from all this is the conversation that comes afterward; I love talking with you guys, and have been worried about not having anything to talk about.
          And all this comes about because the Laughing Gods of Fortune got together and decided to screw me.  Well, was it good for you, hunny?  As I always tried to instill in my children, the most important ability is that of being able to thrive in the chaos, turn on a dime, and make the surprises work for you.  I can't change the fact that these game machines all decided to stop working, so the next question is whether there is a way I can benefit from the fact that they did.  Well, it turns out that, not only can I benefit, but my wife can, and so can everyone who enjoys reading my work here, and hopes that I'm not going away.  Good news: I'm not.
          All these benefits may not be apparent by tomorrow, or maybe even next week, but they're all coming, and they should amount to a long and happy run for the Hideout and its fans.  My suggestion now is that everyone get ready to do some reading, and while you're waiting, look for ways to take advantage of things in your own lives that look bad on the surface, but may have opened other doors for you.  And be sure to do what I do from now on:
          Get out there and live life like you mean it!
          Maybe I'll see you out there...

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Picture This

          The first bit of business is to welcome Arabella, a book reviewer from Australia.  First Peter, then Kristine, now Arabella, I have attracted (and hopefully still am!) a flock of book-oriented people from the Southwest Pacific region.  Coincidence?  That would be a hard sell.  No matter what brought them here, I am thrilled to have them as Hideout denizens, and hope they continue to find my wide-ranging format entertaining.  Time will tell.  In any case, Arabella's reviews are deep and knowledgeable.  I encourage all with any literary interests at all to visit her at her at The Genteel Arsenal.
          Also signing on for the ride is Wil Branca.  I know very little about him, not even whether he's really a "he."  I woke up Friday morning, brought up the site, and there he was.  He left no comment, and his profile links to no site.  The sites he follows are predominantly those of artists and animators, so there's the only clue we get.  Oh, here's an idea:  I work for the U. S. Government, right, and a couple of weeks ago, a young lady who resides in a foreign country and whose last name is Muslim joined the site, so, could this be a cover profile for a covert government agency whose mission is to find out what sort of subversive activity I'm up to over here?  Hardly.  The government I work for defines "subtle" as driving a tank through your front door, but with practically no inspiration, I've laid out an opening premise for a conspiracy novel.  Maybe that's why I used to think I was a writer...


          So, with the introductions concluded, let's get on with the new material.  Fans of fantasy will need no introduction to the Brothers Hildebrandt.  Twin brothers Greg and Tim burst onto the world of fantasy art in 1975 when they collaborated on the first of three Lord of the Rings calendars.  Since then, they made significant contributions to the art of fantasy and science fiction, both together and seperately, until Tim died in 2006 at the age of 67.  Best known for their paintings, such as this work for a limited edition of the Sword of Shannara series, Greg also designed a series of fantasy daggers which were produced in a limited edition in the late 1990s, and I was fortunate enough to procure a complete set.  They make a great display in my man cave, and also form the centerpiece of this photo essay.  Without further ado, then, your attention is invited to the center ring for a shameless exhibition of fantasy cutlery.

THE CHALLENGE OF THE BEAST DAGGER

          All powerful in legend and myth, the dragon has spread its repute through all cultures and all lands.  Its enormous size and its fiery breath have shaped its renown and have instilled much fear in those who have attempted to subdue it.  Yet in addition to this physical prowess, the dragon is also well known for its keen vision and shrewdness of intellect.  Indeed, its strength, defenses, and cleverness have made the dragons ideal guardians throughout much of legend and myth.  While their renown is for fierceness (except in Eastern cultures where the dragon is considered a creature of beneficence), dragons actually rarely take the offensive.  The fiery breath is mostly used to defend itself or the treasure it guards, and it normally does not pester humans.  Yet such have been the battles when dragon and brave knight have confronted each other, that these singular contests have become the very stuff of legend - and have cemented the dragon's reputation as a creature of awe-inspiring and magnificent powers.  The power of the dragon is celebrated in Hildebrandt's magnificent work of art.  The knife guard bears three intricately sculpted dragons, two at the handguard and one at the endpiece.  The dragon scale grip features a warrior's crest emblazoned with dragon's fire, and a fire-bright stone is centered in the crossguard.  The pommel and guard are richly coated in 24 karat gold, and the blade is crafted of polished stainless steel decorated with dramatic graphics.

THE TREASURE OF THE GRIFFIN DAGGER

          The griffin is said to be eight times larger than a lion and a hundred times stronger than an eagle.  The offspring of lions and eagles, griffins (sometimes spelled griffon or gryphon) have the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle.  Its hind legs are those of a lion, while its forelegs are those of an eagle, complete with powerful talons.  And while some have claimed that the griffin's tail is a serpent, it is usually depicted as the normal tufted tail of a lion.  The griffin also has pointed ears like those of a dog.  Griffins perform two essential functions.  First, the griffin was harnessed to pull the chariot of the Sun God.  At times, it has also pulled the chariots of other gods.  The griffins that pull the chariot of Nemesis - the Goddess of Retribution - differ from other griffins in their having black bodies and feathers.  The other role for griffins was to punish humans for their greed.  In an early time, when jewels were strewn across the desert regions of what is now Turkey, Iraq, Armenia, and Syria, griffins protected the area from the foolhardy poachers who came to harvest the jewels.  In tribute to the extraordinary power, grandeur, and protected treasure of the griffin, Hildebrandt offered the Treasure of the Griffin dagger, crafted with two sculpted griffins, set with two blue cabochons, a black onyx, and a blue lapis.  The handle - accented with sterling silver - depicts the Greek God Zeus with a crystal forming Zeus' crown.  The blade is crafted of polished stainless steel decorated with acanthus design.

THE GUARDIAN OF THE FORTRESS DAGGER

          The gargoyle.  They have long fascinated the people who walk under their grotesque shapes and piercing stares.  Orginally crafted in terra-cotta, wood, and ultimately stone, they were designed to serve as rain spouts, although by the sixteenth century (and the introduction of lead drain spouts) they soon became mere adornments.  In fact, the word "gargoyle" itself comes from the French term for "throat" as well as an echo of the "gurgling" sound that the gargoyle/spout made.  Usually, gargoyles had grotesque features, although some have included monks, animals, and humorous combinations of humans and animals.  They appeared on all sorts of Gothic architecture, although they are most associated with the great European churches and cathedrals.  Perhaps the most notable gargoyles are those that appear on the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, France.  Gargoyles have been the subject of much superstition and legend.  It was said that these misshapen creatures typify evil forced to serve God, and consequently, in constant struggle to release themselves from that power.  Once released, they are free to choose the powers of virtue... or darkness.  Another legend is that the menacing countenance and ferocious spirit of the gargoyle overwhelms the forces of evil and ensures the protection of all under its eternal vigil.  In tribute to the supernatural power and fascinating appeal of gargoyles, Hildebrandt offered the Guardian of the Fortress dagger, crafted with a sculpted gargoyle set with two red cabachons and holding a crystal orb atop the handle, accented with 24 karat gold.  The guard features two gargoyles accented with sterling silver and crystal spheres, and fully faceted cabachons.  The blade is crafted of polished stainless steel decorated with acanthus and fleur-de-lis designs.

THE DRAGON'S FIRE DAGGER

          Its fiery breath is its most formidable weapon, instilling fear in the most humble peasant and the bravest knight.  With a single blast, entire villages can be reduced to cinders, a great lord's castle gates melted into a molten mass, and the clearest running stream transformed into an infernal cauldron.  The fiery breath of a dragon is what the noblest and strongest warriors and knights must reckon with, attempting somehow to approach their quarry without instigating the dragon's flaming anger.  Yet fire is also the warrior's boon, for the stone that the dragon guards, its great treasure, has been formed in the dragon's flames, and thus possesses great powers.  Indeed, it has been said that whoever possesses the great firestone will enjoy immortality and a life of pleasure beyond all realms of dreams.  The flames of the dragon and the prized possession of the firestone came together to inspire Hildebrandt's extraordinary work, the Dragon's Fire dagger.  The knife guard is intricately sculpted as a dragon's head and set with two red cabochons.  The grip, resembling the lattice pattern of a rope, is richly coated in silver and 24 karat gold, and the pommel is sculpted in the shape of the dragon's tail.  In the center is a sparkling red crystal fire stone - the dragon's ultimate treasure.  The blade is crafted of polished stainless steel decorated with a pattern replicating the dragon's fiery breath.

THE MYSTERY OF THE GARGOYLE DAGGER

          It is a monstrous creature of stone that peers over the edge and gazes downward on the world of man.  Depicted as human grotesques, beasts, and demonic spirits, the Gargoyle is an imaginary being with an interesting mythology whose image was first put to practical use more than eight centuries ago in France during the age of Gothic architecture.  According to some legends, a race of Gargoyles lived hundreds of thousands of years ago during the age of Wizards, Giants, and Dragons.  The Gargoyles were the successors of Gorgons and Hydras, and lived a quiet and isolated existence in their mountainous retreats.  Shortly after the onset of the Age of Man, the Gargoyles were betrayed by one of their own.  This traitor gave an evil Wizard access to their forbidden city.  Desperate for the Gargoyles' treasure of magic and jewels, the evil Wizard cast a spell that turned all Gargoyles to stone and relegated them to the edge of the world for all eternity.  Gothic architects adapted stone figures of Gargoyles as decorative drainspouts to protect the walls from rainwater.  Projecting from the roof edges of cathedrals, these fierce creatures with their faces frozen in a grimace seem like vigilant sentinels guarding the world against an ancient evil.  The fierce and protective nature of the Gargoyle is celebrated in Hildebrandt's magnificent Mystery of the Gargoyle dagger.  The knife guard bears an intricately sculpted Gargoyle peering over a precipice with wings accented in sterling silver and 24 karat gold, protecting a hand-set crystal sparkling with the color of a blue sapphire.  The handle, inspired by Gothic architecture, is also accented with sterling silver.  The pommel, accented in 24 karat gold, supports two Gargoyles and a faceted blue crystal.  The blade is crafted of polished stainless steel and decorated with dramatic graphics.

THE SENTINEL OF WISDOM DAGGER

          It is an amalgamation of creatures of the sky and the earth.  With an eagle's head and wings, and a lion's body, the Gryphon is a creature that has a long history in the mythology of mankind - and usually as a symbol of virtue.  The Gryphon's antecedents lie in ancient Assyria, where the k'rub was a quite similar creature.  Another like creature was considered the symbol of Persia and is found on many works of Persian art.  By the time the Gryphon had evolved in ancient Greece, it had become a symbol of vigilant strength and was often associated with Apollo, and the Goddess of Retribution.  Alexander the Great supposedly mounted a Gryphon and rode it to the edge of the sky.  In the Christian age, the Gryphon's dual nature led to its being associated with Christ, and since then, the Gryphon has been seen as an enemy of serpents and basilisks, both satanic symbols to which the Gryphon is a fierce adversary.  Hildebrandt celebrated the dual nature of the Gryphon with the Sentinel of Wisdom dagger.  The knife guard bears an intricately sculpted Gryphon's head, accented with black nickel and 24 karat gold, and is set with amber crystal eyes.  The guard is also accented with sterling silver and 24 karat gold, and set with two mother-of-pearl stones.  The vine-patterned grip is richly coated in 24 karat gold, and the pommel, accented in sterling silver and 24 karat gold, is sculpted in the shape of a Gryphon holding a mother-of-pearl stone, "the pearl of wisdom."  The blade is crafted of polished stainless steel decorated with dramatic graphics.
          I began collecting these when I thought I was going to be the Next Great Writer.  I was working in the fantasy genre at the time, and felt that these would inspire me at the same time that they classied up my work space.  I never became that writer, and class... well, your opinion is as good as the next guy's, but they do look great.  I would be remiss if I didn't show off how they fit into my decor.  I have a long, narrow room for my personal space, with my desk and work-oriented gear at one end, and my TV, DVD player, and video game consoles at the other, and they do indeed help tie it together into one unified whole.
          Other pieces help pick it up.  The paintings of sailing ships, which I've long held in awe, combine with the ship's wheel clock to interpose a nautical feel to the room.  There are other weapons that, inspired by the daggers, I collected as they caught my eye.  The battle axe on the wall has a sinister black blade, and a leather-wrapped handle secured by two gold bands and a stainless steel skull-punch at the base.  The knife on the stand on top of the grandfather clock is the Dark Demon Dagger.  It has a 14-inch blade and a 9-inch handle.  With your grip down by the crosspiece, its address is as delicate as pointing your finger.  Let your hand slide to the end, and you have a decent length chopping blade.  Take a two-hand grip, and you have the power to take the legs off a charging horse.  It has no historical counterpart that I have ever seen, so it must not really work that way, but hey, I did say fantasy.  The crow's name is Lucien; fans of Hunter: The Reckoning and its sequels will understand.  I also have swords, but this has gone on long enough.
          The painting depicts Columbus' ships sailing over the edge of the world.  The little brass plate at the bottom reads, "I Told You So!"
          I hope you've enjoyed this little tour of my humble digs.  I had fun with it, and was honored to welcome you.  I'm going to wrap this up and bag it.  It's coming up on 2:00 AM, and the old gray dude, he ain't what he used to be!

Hideout Happenings

          In the continuing saga of my Steampunk adventures, I have tried two very different stories on for size, and my instinctive feeling is that I don't have the grounding in the genre to make it work.  This science/fantasy animal is already being very well covered by a lot of talented writers and illustrators.   There are enough wannabe hacks out there making fools of themselves in the delusional belief that they have talent; they don't need my help.
          In other news, I'm taking Lady Bonnie to a jazz concert for Valentine's day, and if that show goes well, you can look for a review on the 15th.  Beyond that, I've been remarkably uninspired in the field of post material lately; we'll just have to see what suggests itself.  Maybe something will come up, or maybe I'll become a ghost in the blogoshpere, a man without a site, wandering the ether to comment on others.  Watch this space.  I'll keep you posted.
          Meanwhile, get out there and live life like you mean it!