Sunday, September 22, 2013

Three Epic Songs

I listen to satellite radio rather than internet radio or terrestrial radio. Well, mostly. I do check out everything. My local NPR station gets my support (and if everyone who listened to their local NPR station just sent $10 in once a year, pledge wouldn't be nearly the chore it becomes twice a year*) but I really can't stand commercials on regular rock radio. Bugs the hell out of me.

Plus, the local stations aren't all that diverse. At least with XM I can get classic rock, NEW classic rock, alt rock from the 90s, jazz, movie scores, classical, opera, Old Time Radio and some really intelligent talk, too. Those are the stations that I have programmed in my two radios, anyway.

So - when I'm driving/commuting I can hear mostly uninterrupted programming. In addition, the stations I listen to play a wide variety of whatever their genre is. 

Not every song is a winner, that's true of every radio station no matter what. But some - SOME - are the ones that get turned up and sung along with. Of those, the ones that ALWAYS get turned up and sung along with are the truly epic songs. It's not necessarily about length (that's what she said) it's a quality to the song that brings something to the heart, something that is soaring in some small way. The rare combination of words, music, voice and state of mind is what qualifies it in my book.

Me, I'm into progressive rock and I grew up on 70s album oriented rock (AOR) radio. I loved it when KY-102 would play entire sides of albums before release day. That just doesn't happen much any more, even on satellite radio.

I wish it did.

Anyway,  here are three epic songs for you to consider in no particular order. Your mileage may vary. 

Rush - Xanadu : This particular track comes from my all-time favorite double-live album, Exit... Stage Left. I was a member of the Columbia House Record Club and when this one came in the mail I was engrossed immediately. I'd heard the track before on KY, the studio version, but this one just blew me away. When I saw the video of it, on VHS, there was nothing else going on around me. This is everything I want in an epic song: soaring vocals, meaningful lyrics and masterful musicianship. E..SL solidified that I would be a lifelong Rush fan.

Bruce Springsteen - Jungleland : I remember the first time I heard this song and it resonated with me. I was in my parents' delicatessen and it came on the radio. The opening strings caught my ear, I was a teenager, 15 or maybe 16 - I can't recall exactly, and the vocals were strong and sure. Then it became a rock song and it was better. But it was the sax solo that hooked me and dug in hard. The chord changes were unlike anything I'd registered before. This was around the time I was learning more about how music worked, more about theory. So everything that's going on here through the middle of the song until it quiets down again was blowing me over. I tried to absorb it all. Then the end, when Bruce does the best he can to throw some gravitas into his vocals, when the piano and the bass are punching the listener in the gut, that's the button on the epic-ness of this song. I was already a fan of the Boss and this was just another reason to be.

Cheap Trick - Dream Police : The odd song out here in the trio shouldn't surprise anyone who knows me. Cheap Trick is The Great American Rock Band and is criminally underrated by the public for their contributions to American Music. This quartet of brilliant musicians went out on a limb with the Dream Police album, making something that defied critics' expectations of the band at that point. All the songs were longer, a little more complex, more layered. This song, in particular, is bombastic and lively from the opening chord and creates a sense of unease in the verses that's relieved by the chorus. The middle breakdown with exhortations for 'them to leave me alone' adds some excellent creepiness to the song. But what makes it really epic is the final musical vignette where the band climbs the scale and puts strings on top of it to add even more urgency. 

There are more epic songs for me, but these are the top three, hands down. In the comments if you wanted to share your epic songs, I'd love to know about them.

*Think about it: 6000 listeners who send in $10 once a year, or even twice?, well that adds up pretty damn quick. Really, just think about it and then send in your sawbuck. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

The New Life

Something changes when you have an extraordinary experience. Your old life seems so far away and the new life ahead is full of stars and promises.

I don't want to belabor what happened to me a few weeks back, but coming that close to checking out should be life-changing, shouldn't it? I mean wouldn't you be happy to be alive and kicking if it happened to you? (I hope it never does.)

Routines are falling back into place as far as exercise and eating go. My doctor has directed me to lose five pounds a month. It doesn't sound so hard, and it isn't in the grand scheme, but I have to do it with diet and exercise. So far a couple pounds have come off and my brain is responding very well to the increased exercise.

I've written two new stories. The first is about a hit man and is an homage to the really fantastic Old Time Radio show Quiet, Please! (really, go listen to The Thing on the Fourble Board and tell me that's not one helluva great piece of writing) and the other is a space opera-type story with pirates. They need to be edited before I send them to a couple of trusted readers and then out to the streets to find a home but I'm really happy with them so far. Both came out while I was recovering from being sick.

What's really changed, though, is my outlook. I'm happy a lot of the time, even when things are a little tense and fast-moving at the day job. Eating less and exercising more definitely help that as my body is getting back to what is normal for it, and my perception of things is way more positive. I could rant about any number of things, but they aren't important any more. They're really what they are and while it would be nice if the general population was more thoughtful about where they parked when buying their movies from that badly placed kiosk it would be a great thing.

But people aren't generally thoughtful of others unless they're thinking about an individual they know.

And that's kind of where a few ideas for stories are going. How does the individual fit into society and what happens when that individual starts to make demands that society change? What greater good can come of it, if any?

This is what I think about on my morning walks now. This is what the immediate future looks like in my fiction, I think. All this goes along with a novel I've had percolating in the back of my head but which I'm not ready to write yet. That might be The One, but the themes and ideas are taking shape in the outline.

Trust me when I say that it isn't fear that's keeping me from writing that book. It's the fact that I don't know enough about my craft yet to tell such a sophisticated story. I have no 'literary' aspirations for it, but I want it to be as good as it can be when I do tackle it. It's not so far off, either. Maybe next year.

But this year now I'm sorting through three or four ideas for NaNoWriMo. One keeps coming to the top and so that may be it but the exercise may trigger something in one of the others that gets me really excited to write it. We'll see.

Stars and promises ahead for me. Such is the new life.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Update from The Glad To Be Alive Dept.

Doctor Whooo?
(You can buy this cool sculpture here.)
It occurred to me that there may be a few of you who may not know the state of my health given this post a couple of weeks back. Bottom line: I'm much, much better and I'm heading back to work today.

To recap: I'd been having trouble breathing, I collapsed on a Wednesday morning after a Tuesday morning stress test for my heart which had been ordered by a cardiologist recommended by my general practitioner. If my wife had gone to work that morning, I might have died. That's not really an understatement or hyperbole. I was that bad and I'm that stubborn a patient that even though I couldn't breathe I might have lain on the carpet in the living room until she came home. Fortunately she hauled my ass into the car and got me the care I needed.

Wives are the best, especially when they love you despite all your stupid, stupid ideas and tendencies.

So once I began to recover, we started asking why this had happened at all. I mean, every doctor I spoke with in the hospital (and each one is getting his piece of the insurance, I assure you) said that I befuddled them all because I didn't fit the profile for someone who had blood clots. And I didn't have just a few, my lungs were filled with the suckers, my left one carrying the much greater burden than the right which is probably how I went so long with trouble just catching my breath.

There may be an explanation, but it's not at all satisfactory because it's not definitive. It's a best guess. Here we go. (I'm sharing this in the hope that it'll help someone else not because I want my medical problems on display for the world but if someone reads it and decides to avoid the issues that could arise for him, then it's worthwhile.)

I have a condition called ulcerative colitis which means that part of my colon (about a foot or so in length and right in the middle of the colon) is angry and irritated and had been bleeding for a while. I put off getting the colonoscopy because I was scared of what it might reveal. I put it off for nearly two years, until I couldn't ignore the things my body was telling me.

And in the summer of 2012 I was depressed for a couple of reasons that I choose not to share. Suffice to say that I was depressed and that depression did two things to me: I stopped exercising every day like I had been for several years AND I put on fifteen pounds. When I took the new job in Fall of 2012 I added another ten pounds and still failed to exercise on a regular basis. I knew my weight was getting away from me but I didn't do anything about it.

So I was heavier than I'd been in a couple of years and approaching the most I'd ever weighed in my life when I noticed that when I did go for a walk on the odd occasion in Spring 2013 I wasn't as fast as I used to be and I had trouble breathing. I chalked it up to being too fat and failed to do anything about it like go to the doctor or stop eating so damn much.

Something happened that convinced me to go to the doctor to see if I had hemorrhoids that were causing the bleeding. It was concerning enough that I walked in on a Saturday to get checked out. They sent me to get the colonoscopy. At the end of July I was told about the ulcerative colitis.

Through summer of 2013 (even before I went for the colonoscopy) I noticed I was having trouble going up a single flight of stairs. Sometimes I'd get winded just walking across campus and I'd have to sit and catch my breath. One day at work just after the colonoscopy I had tightness in my chest and I went home and went to the doc. They couldn't hear anything wrong with my heart or lungs and gave me some albuterol in an inhaler thinking it might be asthma. That's when I was referred to the cardiologist.

I'm still working during all this. School is starting up and things are about to get busier than (choose your cliche). I take the morning off on a Tuesday to do the stress test and I'm so wiped out from that I call in sick and spend the day on the couch. My wife is concerned when she gets home and so is my son. I'm still thinking it's asthma.

So that gets us up to landing in the hospital. I'd had a number of warning signs that I wasn't in the best of health and in fact was a potential statistic. Two weeks after being released from the hospital, I meet again with the pulmonologist who tells me that it's possible that the ulcerative colitis causes a thickening of the blood which in turn could contribute to the clots which brought me down.

If I hadn't put off the colonoscopy, I might not have developed the blood clots. If I hadn't given in to the depression (well - if it hadn't been so overwhelming) I might not have put on all the weight which contributed to my overall unhealth. If I'd kept up walking every day I might have noticed that I wasn't doing so well a lot sooner.


Who knows? There's not enough data. There are a lot of 'ifs' but nothing solid. There's no test that says 'hey your blood is thickening up like gravy and that's going to kill you' and there's no instant way to link ulcerative colitis and blood clots.

Believe me when I tell you that I've smacked myself in the head and called myself 'dummy' a thousand thousand times for not paying attention to what my body was telling me. I try not to be a hypochondriac, and my insurance is excellent, but I don't always go to the doctor when I think I can treat myself with rest and something over the counter. I don't want to clog up the system for people who are really sick.

Like I was a couple of weeks ago.

The lesson to learn from all this is that when I feel bad, mentally and/or physically, I need to get checked out. So do you. I'm 45 years old and while it's not unusual for these things to have happened to me, it's rare. And maybe I could have avoided it.

I urge you to listen to what your body tells you. If there's blood where there shouldn't be any - go tell your doctor and find out what the cause is. If you can't breathe like you're supposed to, if brisk exercise knocks the wind out of you, if you end up in a heap on the floor at 5 o'clock in the morning, you need to go get yourself checked out. Please.

Because there are people that care a great deal about you and who want you in their lives for a long, long time. Do it for them, do it for you, but do it. Don't wait.

Give yourself the chance to be smacked in the head and called 'dummy' for not doing something sooner. And give yourself the chance to say that you're glad to be alive.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Lost Lands

One of the most intriguing ideas in science fiction is that of the Lost Land, an area stuck in time and hinted at but undiscovered until the time of the story.

Over here I noted that it's possible to write stories with tropes that have been 'overdone' as long as the author has a little imagination. Well, actually, a LOT of imagination. The comments on the article I pointed to there had an interesting negative aspect. One poster thought it 'impossible' that there could still be Lost Lands in this day and age because of satellites and technology.

He noted that Atlantis hasn't been found yet.

Well, that's true. It hasn't been found yet. But that doesn't meant that it doesn't exist or never existed. The world is plenty strange the more we get to know it, don't you think? And the more that man affects the environments and natural orders of things by our continually expanding cities the less likely it seems that there are such things as the Savage Land or Skartaris or any of a number of other Lost Lands.

But that's really just arrogance. I know for a fact that we don't know everything about everything. Hell, we don't know everything about anything. If an author can't imagine something new that's a failing of the author. If readers aren't willing to go along with an author's imagination, that's something that should require an author to try harder.

Every story has to be believable in some aspect. When authors can no longer engender the 'wow' factors in their stories, when they can no longer awe the readers, what's next?

A failure of imagination should be as worrisome as any other mental condition. If we cannot see possibilities, we're doomed. If the audience can only believe what's 'obvious' to them, if they are unwilling to explore possibilities, where does that leave storytellers?

Maybe this explains the failure of films like Pacific Rim to catch fire. An original story that wasn't based on any previous property didn't have a built-in audience and didn't do as well as hoped. I'm sure you can list a dozen other original stories that have the same problem. As far as our genre of science fiction goes, what was the last original property to do well? I'm guessing Star Wars in 1977, but I may be wrong - I'm too lazy to do the research today. Every other SF story that's come since that's been successful is based on a previous version, right?

I propose that there needs to be a movement of some kind that will rekindle the collective imagination of the fiction-consuming audience. There needs to be something that says it's okay to believe in the impossible, the incredible, the fantastic and amazing. There needs to be a way to say it's okay to question what's possible.

Let's not place too much faith that technology will eventually reveal everything. A little mystery is good for us. Wondering what's out there in the dark, being curious about that sound or smell, searching for that new insight that will change how we think is the best thing in the world. Humans are built to wonder, but we're letting it be beaten out of us. It's possible that humans are TOO rooted in the 'real world' and cannot see anything beyond the end of our nose.

Crazy ideas are crazy ideas until they're proven to be true. That doesn't mean science and physical evidence should be manipulated to prove a crazy idea, it shouldn't. Evidence is truth and we need to take truth as such. But being able to question that truth is how we'll begin to figure out the things we don't know.

Which is a lot.