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Smoke Blog: Xikar HC Connecticut

It’s Summer at last! It’s been a long year at the day gig, but though I’ll continue to work through the Summer, things will get a lot easier and I have vacation days to burn before our year rolls over on July 1st. Summer also means I can sit outside and have a cigar more

The Evolution of Writing Tools

There's a certain satisfaction in closing the lid on the laptop, walking inside, and seamlessly picking up where I left off on the desktop. — Mike Oliveri (@MikeOliveri) May 26, 2016 The first thing I teach my computer tech students is technology has one goal: to make our lives easier. Whether we’re talking simple machines

The Real Connections Come from Writing

Sure, outlining is important. When telling a story, it helps to know where it ends. It helps to understand the setup and plot twists along the way. Or, when writing time is scarce, it gives the writer a clear sense of direction rather than wasting time winging it and having to backtrack or rewrite after a pre-reader

Recovery Mode: ON

It’s been a little over five weeks since I last hit the weights. I was going to start back again tonight, but pain in my right forearm and wrist is still nagging at me, so I opted to wait a little longer. I beat myself up at first, but then I realized this is the

Smoke Blog: Foundry

Warmer weather is finally landing today, which means I’ll be able to sit down for a cigar outside at last. This summer, I expect a fair number of those cigars will come from the Foundry Tobacco Company brand from General Cigar. A local liquor store has been rotating a few different sticks from the Foundry lines

Smoke Blog: Xikar HC Connecticut

It’s Summer at last! It’s been a long year at the day gig, but though I’ll continue to work through the Summer, things will get a lot easier and I have vacation days to burn before our year rolls over on July 1st.

Summer also means I can sit outside and have a cigar more often, and I’ll have more time to get back to the Smoke Blog entries. I’ve been scouting Cigars International for some great deals to get the humidor stocked, and I started with a killer deal on five different five-packs of cigars. They arrived just in time for the weekend.

I chose to start with the Xikar HC Series Connecticut, a mild-medium blend presumably put together by the same company behind my favorite lighters and humidor gear. They replaced my lighter under their lifetime warranty, so the least I could do is check out their smokes. There are several blends available under the Havana Club label, but the light Connecticut got the nod because I wanted a good range of flavors and strengths in the humidor.

I’ve had two already (it’s been a busy weekend), and I’d call them good but unremarkable. On the plus side, they were both smooth and consistent. They lit easy with no sign of tunneling or canoeing, even in a gentle breeze one night. I loved the clean draw all the way through, and their ash held firm. Definitely a solid, well-constructed cigar.

CI’s info page says these are made with a variety of tobaccos including Costa Rican, Mexican and Nicaraguan fillers with a Sumatran binder. Their name comes from the Ecuadorian Connecticut wrapper. The combination results in a pleasant enough taste, but there’s nothing that really stood out for me. Just fine for hanging out with friends and talking or watching the fights at our local haunts.

Definitely worth the bundled price I paid, but perhaps not something I would seek out on its own. They’re a cigar I could easily hand off to a friend to enjoy, especially one who prefers lighter flavors and isn’t all that picky. Got a friend into White Owls and gas station smokes? This will make a nice transition to the good stuff for them.

That all said, the HC Connecticut certainly doesn’t turn me off of their line. This is no throwaway smoke, so I’m curious about their other labels, especially the White Shade Grown. Xikar’s/CI’s price point makes them a very attractive deal, especially in mixed bundles. It’s a brand to keep an eye out for when I look for one-off smokes at local shops.

The Evolution of Writing Tools

The first thing I teach my computer tech students is technology has one goal: to make our lives easier. Whether we’re talking simple machines like levers and pulleys or supercomputers to handle complex data sets like weather and climate change, the entire purpose is to make work easy and efficient. Some of those tools may get more complex over time, but they can also handle a lot more of the work.

The same has gone for writing tools. When I wrote the tweet above, I was using Google Docs. Everything is instantly saved, no worrying about losing a few hundred words to a power outage, and I have the added bonus of being able to pick up any machine anywhere and getting back to work right where I left off. Even if my home or work Internet connection goes down, I can keep working offline or open a new connection through my cell phone’s shared data. I’ve even accessed online files on a laptop from the car thanks to my phone.

This was almost unthinkable when my friends and I first started getting serious about our writing some 15-20 years ago. I was hammering away on Professional Write on an old computer at first, then transitioned through WordPerfect, OpenOffice.org, and Pages before settling on Google Docs.

We even have better tools within those apps. Google Docs, for example, has a rich revision history built in for tracking changes to manuscripts rather than having several copies of the same novel or story on several different disks or folders.

I know a few writers who lament how the tools have gotten too complex, and all the menus and clicks just get in their way. However, there are plenty of stripped-down or minimalist writing tools out there, and even they have the ability to share across computers or in different formats.

Speaking of, the end of the format war is probably my favorite outcome of the progress of technology. Results were very spotty going from WordPerfect to Word back in the day, and even going between the same program on PC or Mac could be sketchy. I used OpenOffice.org and Pages to work with editors using Microsoft Word and they never noticed, but it did take a little work and management on my part.

Today? Just about everything opens every format seamlessly. Some editors request .rtf files for safety’s sake, but for the most part, you can send them anything and they should be able to open it. If they’re demanding .doc files, it’s more or less out of habit or because it’s what everyone else does. With Google Docs, one click will send a manuscript to an editor as a .doc anyway.

It’s nice to be able to concentrate on the writing itself and not the fiddly bits that allow it to happen. Which, by the way, is why it’s also nice to write on a Chromebook rather than on a laptop where a hard drive might crash, a virus might derail a few hours of progess, or one has to monkey with drivers and updates causing crashes. With a Chromebook, the writer just opens the lid and gets to work.

Now we’ve almost come full circle. A pencil and paper were crash proof, write-anywhere tools. Now, with Chromebooks and smartphones and Google Docs, we’re just about back to that same level of reliability.

I look forward to seeing what’s next.

The Real Connections Come from Writing

Sure, outlining is important.

When telling a story, it helps to know where it ends. It helps to understand the setup and plot twists along the way. Or, when writing time is scarce, it gives the writer a clear sense of direction rather than wasting time winging it and having to backtrack or rewrite after a pre-reader or editor points out why a key element doesn’t work.

The problem is it’s easy to overdo outlining.

Some people labor over their outlines for months, sometimes years, tweaking every little detail until the whole thing sings. Or they’ll develop complex backgrounds for even minor characters, things they may not ever use in the story.

At some point you’ve just gotta write. Fish or cut bait. Shit or get off the pot.

I’m not saying character sheets and fat outlines and story bibles aren’t good tools. I’m saying readers don’t buy character sheets and fat outlines and story bibles, they buy finished works.

It’s easy to fall into the “outlining is creating” trap. Hell, I’ve done it a time or two myself. And oftentimes, no matter how meticulous an outline has become, a new opportunity appears halfway through and takes the story in a whole new directly.

We writers like to tell ourselves precious things like “my characters tell me what to do” or “my characters just won’t listen to me,” but the reality is the act of creation is a very organic, fluid process. When we start writing, we start making new connections.

Outlining is creative, but also logical. You might have a killer character and a dynamite scenario, but when you have to put the building blocks together to get the character to the scenario, you have to involve a different part of your brain. It’s effectively math vs art, left brain vs right brain. Is your time better spent solving problems or crafting sentences and making new connections?

As an example, I started work on a new project last night. I feel like I know the protagonist fairly well, as I’ve been thinking about her and her story for a long time now. Until last night, her story has been jammed up behind a few other projects in the pipeline.

Within the first 500 words of the first page, I’d both found and filled a major hole in her back story that I didn’t even know existed, and it made her introduction more effective.

Would I have found that hole by just brainstorming over and over? Maybe, but I doubt it. The brainstorming time was focused on the plot problem, and this was a free-form connection that arose from the act of writing and telling the reader about the character. It sprang directly from the creative effort.

A gift from the muse, if you’ll allow another writers’ cliché.

If you’re all about outlines and character sheets, by all means, keep it up. As with most creative efforts, your style is your own and your mileage may vary.

I’m just saying at some point it’s more important to start creating. Take that skeleton outline and throw some prose meat on its bones. Find out what it really looks like.

The left side of the brain makes important contributions to a story, but the real magic happens on the right side.

Recovery Mode: ON

It’s been a little over five weeks since I last hit the weights. I was going to start back again tonight, but pain in my right forearm and wrist is still nagging at me, so I opted to wait a little longer.

I beat myself up at first, but then I realized this is the longest break I’ve taken in about four years, so maybe I’m due. Guess I’ll have another cocktail and cigar.

Oh, the pain.

Someone suggested maybe I’m getting too old for this shit. Meanwhile, despite my arm injury, I’m still able to finish karate workouts and run, while they bitch about the pain in their back and knees yet do nothing. I pointed out the difference and they don’t seem to get it. I guess I should do nothing and still be in pain? I’m kind of afraid to see how they’re going to feel in another 20-30 years.

If recovery periods like this are what it takes to free up a little time to work on some writing projects, though, then so be it. This is the first time in those five recovery weeks that I haven’t been tied up at the second job, away with family, or running other household errands I’ve been slacking on.

I’m drowning in a backlog of ideas and stories, and as I sit here looking at my various notes, I don’t even know where to start. In a minute I’ll just pick something and roll.

Let’s see what comes of it.

Smoke Blog: Foundry

Warmer weather is finally landing today, which means I’ll be able to sit down for a cigar outside at last. This summer, I expect a fair number of those cigars will come from the Foundry Tobacco Company brand from General Cigar.

Americium Box

Foundry Elements: Americium

A local liquor store has been rotating a few different sticks from the Foundry lines through their humidor, and I have yet to find one I didn’t like. I’ve also purchased a box online and picked up several more from another liquor store’s humidor, and again, I have always been pleased.

Last weekend I had one from their War of the Currents series, and it was a definite win. Smooth draw, clean burn, and a strong flavor without any harsh edges or heat. In short, everything I’ve come to expect from their line.

I enjoy their design, too. There’s a certain hipster quality to it all for sure, but it’s a nice departure from the same old traditional cigar bands and boxes that we’ve seen for decades. I kept the Americium box to carry cigars and supplies in, and it attracts a lot of curiosity from wait staff and other customers in the bar where I usually smoke.

Foundry & Four Roses

Foundry always pairs well with bourbon, too!

The War of the Currents bands are loaded with detail, and the Elements & Musings all have distinct, beautiful bands as well. I really like the metal accents that come with many of their cigars, including a toothed gear ring and a mock electrical fuse. I have a small handful of each floating around my office now.

Unfortunately a lot of these cigars are not available on the online outlets I frequent, and we don’t have a real cigar store around here. When my humidor starts running low, I’ll have to make a few phone calls and take a road trip to a proper smoke shop and see what I can find.

Until then, I’ll be content to keep experimenting with their lines as I find them.

How to Screw Up a Bourbon Tasting

A liquor tasting should be a no-brainer, right? Have bourbon available, pour some for a customer, hope they buy it. Done.

Someone needs to tell that to our local Friar Tuck liquor store.

I stopped in yesterday with my sons to get some craft root beers, and I saw they had a tasting today including two bourbons: Broken Bell Small Batch and Lexington Bourbon Whiskey.

I show up today, wait behind some people tasting the wines, only to be told, “I don’t know why that’s up here, that was last month’s tasting.”

Three and a half hours into the tasting and nobody fixes it? She still had an open bottle of Broken Bell, but I was told they wouldn’t be opening another bottle of Lexington so I couldn’t try that one. Fail.

I accepted my little sip of Broken Bell. Barely enough to cover the bottom of the plastic shot glass. Look, I don’t expect full shots because they’re not going to send people away hammered, but at least JK Williams gave us enough to really taste when they had an event at a friend’s club.

The Broken Bell wasn’t half bad. It’s price point put it around Knob Creek or Maker’s Mark, but not quite as high as some of the other small batches like Four Roses Small Batch or the premium brands like Woodford Reserve.

Taste-wise, I’d say that works out about right. It’s definitely smoother than Maker’s and Knob, but it didn’t have much character. It’s no well bourbon, just a decent, general bourbon which could be used in a cocktail or taken neat or on the rocks as the mood strikes. It wasn’t special enough to warrant picking up a bottle to explore further, but I’d try it again if a local bar stocked it.

Too bad the Lexington wasn’t available, as it seems to have better tasting notes and reviews on the web.

Ah, well. That’s the general experience at this place: they have a lot of good stuff in stock, both liquor and cigars, but few seem to know or care much about what they have. Their humidor isn’t huge, but it has a wide range from cheap, flavored crap to high-end sticks. Only one guy seems to know much about them. Ask about a liquor they don’t carry, though, and they all just shrug. I’ve struck out at least twice asking for Writer’s Tears Irish Whiskey.

I might have been more disappointed if I’d made the trip just for the bourbon, but I also picked up a couple of cigars and hit a Starbucks for some quiet writing time.

I tried a new bourbon and I made some writing progress, so I’ll just call it a win.

Garage Repair: I Am All That Is Man

I’m a big believer of do-it-yourself home repair. Whether we’re talking plumbing, electrical, flooring, or HVAC, most of the costs are tied up in labor: paying someone to come out and do the work. With the right tools and a good YouTube search, however, you should be able to handle most household repairs and many automotive repairs.

After that it’s just a matter of weighing the cost of your own time against the cost of paying someone else to do it.

A little over a week ago, this happened:

Gonna need a new one of those (Garage spring repair)

A photo posted by Mike Oliveri (@mikeoliveri) on

That’s an extension spring for a garage door. It snapped in half, which meant the garage door opener couldn’t open the garage. Fortunately whomever installed it had the foresight to run a safety cable through the spring, so I found it hanging in place rather than punched through a wall or window.

Most garages have a single torsion spring above the center of the door; the rest have a pair of extension springs. Torsion springs are not easy to replace, and they can hurt you if you don’t know what you’re doing or don’t have the right parts.

Extension springs, on the other hand, are easy to replace with nothing more than a socket wrench. Disconnect one pulley wheel, thread the cables, reconnect the pulley wheel, and you’re back in business.

Assuming you can locate the damned things. I hit three of the big box hardware stores and a Farm & Fleet looking for the right size springs, but they only stock springs for up to 160-pound doors. My door, apparently, is closer to 200 pounds. I ended up calling an overhead door company instead, and they were able to find me a new pair. The bigger springs cost almost three times as much as the 160s due to their size, but at least I still wouldn’t have to pay for installation.

I finally had enough time today to get to work. Half an hour later, this happened:

Garage door: FIXED! I am all that is man.

A video posted by Mike Oliveri (@mikeoliveri) on

Score. Saved me a couple hundred bucks in labor, I’m sure. It works better than before, too; the newer springs pull the door open a few inches higher, even with the top of the doorway.

And because I was able to get the garage door open, I was able to make this happen at last:

SHE'S ALIVE! (And needs a bath.)

A video posted by Mike Oliveri (@mikeoliveri) on

It’s good to be the king.

The Value of Ideas

When I express frustration at my lack of writing productivity, people will assume I’m dealing with a lack of ideas. Next thing I know they’re sharing their ideas with me, and then they’re offended when I politely decline.

The thing they don’t understand is ideas aren’t worth dick.

Nada. Nothing. Nought. Zero.

Ideas are important, but people don’t get paid unless there’s execution. Maybe you can point to some famous author who gets paid for ideas, and then someone else gets paid to ghost write something for them, but the difference is they’ve already proven their ideas are worth executing. Their name and their celebrity is the real attraction, not the idea. The idea itself still isn’t worth anything until it’s on the page, on the screen, or otherwise consumable and money is changing hands.

If it were as simple as selling ideas, I’d hand over my notebooks and my Evernote password and cash in.

This can all be yours for just $5,000.00. Call me.

This can all be yours for just $5,000.00. Call me.

For the most part, these people have their hearts in the right place and they’re just trying to help. Other times they’re just too goddamn lazy to do their own work and they think I can help them cash in. In either case, I generally steer them toward doing their own work. The former group will generally drop it, but the latter will then be doubly offended when I’m not blinded by their brilliance.

Ideas, regardless of their medium, require sweat equity. I don’t care if your idea is in the arts, business, education, or technology, you’re going to have to execute. Create your idea, build your idea, demonstrate your idea works. Make the effort and get the work done.

Or don’t. It doesn’t matter, because ideas are easy. They die as quickly as they appear. If you don’t put any effort into it, then you won’t feel any real value in the idea either. Some random dollar amount you’ve attributed to an idea is just a fantasy until you’ve put the effort into it and proven its value.

So you’ve got an idea? Great!

Now get to work.

B&N: Remember Who You Are

Barnes & Noble has long been accused of squeezing out local indie bookstores, and today’s announcement that they’re slashing their Nook business suggests they’re feeling the same squeeze from Amazon and Google’s Play Store.

Giving their customers a week to save their content is, to my eye, an indication of just how bad the situation is. If they were just shifting focus, Barnes & Noble would make an announcement and give customers plenty of time to save their content. Less tech-savvy users are going to need as much time as they can get. To give users just a week suggest they’re bleeding cash—badly—and they’re shutting everything down immediately to stop the damage. I’m predicting a lot of panicked calls to family tech support over the next few days.

Then we read Amazon is opening a second brick-and-mortar store, and of course there’s speculation they’ll open up a whole chain of them and compete with Barnes & Noble directly. It seems unlikely, but of course that’s what the media seems to be looking forward to. The thing is, Amazon is a megastore that happens to sell books. Barnes & Noble is, despite their recent integration of games and toys, a bookstore.

Maybe all they need to do is start acting like one.

Barnes & Noble stores hold several events like readings, author signings, Q&As, and so forth, just like indie shops. Barnes & Noble has employees who genuinely care about books and who can cater to readers’ tastes, just like indie shops. Barnes & Noble is a place folks can hang out, just like indie shops.

Why, then, does their online storefront look like any other online store’s?

I get it, they have their algorithms and bestseller lists and blah blah blah. But why not leverage the in-store events as well? Use location-based recommendations to see what’s popular in the area is a quick start, but why not also steer location services to local employee lists or blogs that browsers can connect with and follow?

They should also be streaming events. Team up with Google Hangouts or Twitter/Periscope to tackle the tech side, so fans and readers can see or participate in Q&As, author talks, and so forth. Guys like Brian Keene would probably have a good online following. Greg Kishbaugh had over 50 people in-store when he launched The Bone Welder; how many more might have tuned in to his presentation and then clicked to make a purchase afterward?

That’s just a few quick thoughts. I’m sure there are other things they could do, but the point is, they should be differentiating themselves from Amazon in every way they can. Just like they forced indie bookshops to be more creative to hang on to customers, Barnes & Noble should be getting more creative to hang on to their own customers.

Otherwise they’re going to die, just like some of the indie bookshops who couldn’t compete with them.

The Tempus Fugitive

I feel like we rang in the New Year yesterday. Every time I even think about catching up on something, I find another week’s gone by. I guess that’s the way it goes when you’re constantly on the move, and why I put such high value on my time.

Am I getting things done? Yes. Am I getting the things you guys care about done? The writing and the short stories and the books?

Sadly, no.

But I’m working on it. I miss it. Dearly. What little time I have left between two jobs and family is shrinking all the time, but I’ve been talking to a few friends about overhauling my schedule to make things happen again.

So let’s talk about what’s still out there:

The Pack books 1 and 2, Winter Kill and Lie with the Dead, will continue to be available for a while. My publisher, Evileye Books, has been forced to shift focus and goals, leaving The Pack and a few other series without a home.

People ask, then, “What about Book 3?” Good question. The book will be called All They Fear, but it’s going to sit in limbo for a while. I need to try to get a few other things off the ground before I can worry about keeping the series alive.

The same goes for the first The Pack short, “Bravo Four.” Grab it while you can! Another short, “Silver Bullets,” has been written but is also in limbo.

Meanwhile, Evileye has released The Burning Maiden Volume 2, the second book in their anthology series. This one includes my short story, “One Night on the Road to Charleston,” as well as a number of your favorite horror writers like Ramsey Campbell, Cullen Bunn, Laird Barron, Paul Tremblay, and John Urbancik. Editor Greg Kishbaugh has put together another great lineup.

You can still grab the first volume on Amazon, which includes my short piece “A Family Tree, Uprooted.” As of today, this one’s only five bucks on Kindle.

Meanwhile, I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback for my comic short “All Things Through Me” in the horror anthology In the Dark. Some readers connected with Tristan Yates, so there’s a good chance I’ll be telling more of his stories soon, though probably in prose form. If that’s something you’d like to read, please let me know.

Later.

2015 in the Rearview

You know, 2015 wasn’t half bad. I didn’t get any new writing projects out there, which is kind of a bummer, but I’ve been tied up with so many other things that I’m not going to sweat it right now.

Cheers, 2015!

A photo posted by Mike Oliveri (@mikeoliveri) on

Most of my time went into my karate training and my students. I took over as instructor of my old dojo (one of three dojo with my karate school) a year ago this weekend, and I’ve grown my enrollment quite a bit.

I enjoy teaching a lot more than I thought I would. Watching students grow in their karate and make connections is amazing, and I get a lot of good feedback from their families. If I’ve had a rough day at the day gig, or I’m just in a bad mood, that fades as soon as the first students walk in the door.

I put a lot into training for my own test in August, which consumed my otherwise free time through the first half of the year and into late Summer. The test itself was a long day, but I passed and earned my second degree black belt and my instructors were happy with my performance.

Fitness-wise, I sorted a few things and lost some weight, which is always a good thing. Progression on the weight lifting is slower than I’d like, but I’m also not quite eating the best way to build muscle because I’m trying to control the weight gain. This Summer, I ran non-stop for 5K (three miles) for the first time.

Ever.

This New Year, I’m not even going to look back at the goals I set last year. I had a lot going on, and a lot of good things went down. The direction probably changed, but I’m calling the year a win and I’m looking forward to 2016.

Let’s do this.

Smoke Blog: Drew Estate Copper Label

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a cigar review. It’s not because I haven’t been enjoying them, just that I’ve been too distracted to sit down and write about them. A local bar has an enclosed porch with a heaters and a nice fire pit, so it’s a great spot to relax and hang out with a cigar and a drink.

It's time. #bourbon #cigar #knobcreek

Of course, rumor has it the laws are changing and anything with a floor and a roof will be considered “indoors” and thus a non-smoking area. I haven’t seen it in the various lists of new Illinois laws coming January 1st, and the wait staff at the bar hadn’t heard anything about it yet, so with luck it’s a ways off for the existing bars—some of whom built enclosed patios to accommodate smokers—or they will be grandfathered in and not subject to the expanded smoking ban.

If the law does change, though, it’ll make for some long Winters with cigars few and far between. Ack. It’s hard to beat noodling on a plot point or a bit of dialog over a cigar.

I’ve certainly survived worse, though. And I’ve certainly had worse cigars than CI’s Drew Estate Copper Label.

CI offered up several Black Friday deals, and the Copper Label looked like a great deal. I got started with their ACID line way back when, and I’ve enjoyed their Natural, Sauza Tequila, and other labels. I felt having something on the mild end of the flavor spectrum would round out my humidor, too, and give me a few sticks to hand to friends who don’t always like darker cigars.

CI describes the Copper Label as a blend of Drew Estate’s Natural and ACID brands, and I’d say that’s exactly right. They smelled both sweet and savory right out of the cellophane, and before I lit up I could taste creamy vanilla similar to the ACID Blondie.

The cream turned bitter on light, but it quickly mellowed again. The strong vanilla quit and gave way to a subtler, creamy flavor that accented the earthy smoke rather than overpowering it. The smoke itself was not unpleasant, and the construction held up well. I think my only concern is going to be burning through them fast enough so the vanilla doesn’t linger in my humidor.

I see now that CI is selling five sticks for $35, so I got them for a little under half price on Black Friday. A steal for a good smoke like this, assuming you’re okay with the sweetness. The Copper Label is not something I’d normally fill my humidor with, but it offers a nice break from the stronger cigars I’ve been favoring lately.