Featured Posts

<< >>

Hell of a Year

Working sai in my yard

Yes, I’m alive. Despite the craziness, though, a new opportunity arose for me, and I jumped on it. I am now officially an independent businessman, and I own my own karate dojo, the Heartland Dojo. I still have my day gig, but now I have a little more freedom and control of my destiny. I

A Little Shelf Porn

I’ve been working to turn my office back into a creative space. Ever since my iMac croaked, it’s become a catch-all for books, paperwork, and other junk we don’t know what to do with around the house. I’d get in there to do my weight lifting, but that’s about it. That needed to change. One

Old School Punching

I’ve come to enjoy playing with some old school training tools at our karate dojo. One of my favorites is the makiwara, or “wrapped board,” a tool made to train one’s punches. Most makiwara are a rigid board with a pad at the top. With the right application, they flex and push back. Ask enough

New Edition: Restore from Backup

Thanks to the fine folks at Crossroad Press, Restore from Backup has been re-released with a new cover and new content! You can order now in both trade paperback and Kindle. This edition includes the short story “Algorithms of the Heart,” which takes place in the same world and was previously published in the J.F. Gonzalez

Galena Whiskey Weekend

When I tallied up the whiskies I tried at the tasting last weekend, I expected 20, maybe 25. I hit 39. The Galena Whiskey Weekend was a blast. As soon as I’d heard the guys behind Blaum Bros Distilling were putting it together, I grabbed two tickets for access to the 15-year-old Pappy Van Winkle

Hell of a Year

Working sai in my yard

Yes, I’m alive.

Despite the craziness, though, a new opportunity arose for me, and I jumped on it. I am now officially an independent businessman, and I own my own karate dojo, the Heartland Dojo. I still have my day gig, but now I have a little more freedom and control of my destiny.

I don’t talk about my martial arts training much because, frankly, I assume most people don’t care. It’s been a big part of my life for over twelve years, though, and it’s provided me with a lot of benefits and personal growth. Unfortunately it also got to the point where some of my friends in the writing community worry I’ve given up writing to become a Power Ranger.

I can see where they’re coming from. For the last four years, martial arts was a part-time job, and it became a major commitment between between running a school for my old dojo and continuing my own training. I love teaching, but things got to the point even my younger children were questioning whether I’m still a writer. When I realized how much I’d been giving up, it became time to make a change.

I’ve learned so much since making the decision over the Fall and Winter. I now have an LLC. I have wholesale agreements and insurance. I learned some accounting and I have a tax pro. I have contracts and waivers and payment processors, oh my. I had a lot of trepidation going in, but I can tell you, if you’re at all considering starting a business, start with your local Small Business Development Center. Thanks to a couple seminars through my local SBDC, I had a to-do checklist and a lot of my questions were answered.

“But Mike,” my friends asked, “isn’t opening your own school an even bigger commitment?”

That’s what I feared for a long time, but thankfully, that’s not been the case. I’m doing a lot of the same work on my own terms and my own time, and my schedule has opened up. My sons and I taught our first classes on April 4th, and on those nights no longer committed elsewhere, I have this weird anxiety like I’m supposed to be rushing somewhere or doing something for someone else. I’m only just getting over that, and will be able to develop some kind of habit to work on All They Fear and other projects.

Hell, I’m even making time to read fiction again, and I just started enjoying Coyote Songs by Gabino Iglesias. I also did some light editing/advice work for my man Russ Dickerson that let me flex some creative muscles.

Russ also brought my dojo patch and logo to life

Even better, I was able to maintain a good relationship with the dojo I trained in and worked for. These breaks often go sour, but I’m not one to burn bridges and fortunately we were able to make things work. I’m still a student of my previous instructors, and I still train with them and my fellow karateka from time to time.

I also received a nice gift from one of my students at Christmas: a book of writing prompts called Just Write One Thing Today. I’ve never been one to get excited about writing prompts, but it was a very thoughtful gift and it’s actually been very helpful. It has a year of daily prompts, and I started it January 1st. I’ve fallen a bit behind, but it makes a great warm-up and I’m committed to finishing it by December 31st.

The book was especially thoughtful given I talk about my writing in the dojo about as much as I talk about my karate here. It’s one of those moments as a teacher where I realized just how much my students (and their parents) are paying attention. Career teachers at my day job have told me I missed my calling as an educator, but no, I just do it in a different way.

Onward and upward. My publisher is still committed to putting out All They Fear, and I’m as committed to getting it into your hands (or onto your Kindles) as I am to growing my dojo and my martial arts skills. Maybe now I’ll be more comfortable talking about both.

Stay tuned.

A Little Shelf Porn

I’ve been working to turn my office back into a creative space. Ever since my iMac croaked, it’s become a catch-all for books, paperwork, and other junk we don’t know what to do with around the house. I’d get in there to do my weight lifting, but that’s about it.

That needed to change.

One of the first things I did was clear up some shelf space and put up a bunch of books that had piled up here and there. Here’s what that new section looks like:

I’ve got work in several of those books. It’s not all of them by any stretch, but it’s nice to see a lot of them in one place. It’s been a nice kick in the ass.

The original Restore from Backup were contributor copies from the first printing. I haven’t been to a con in ages, so they’ve been sitting around, waiting for homes. (I need to get a copy of the new edition from Crossroad Press up there with them.)

The two The Burning Maiden anthologies include “A Family Tree, Uprooted” and “One Night on the Road to Charleston.” I’m not sure there will be a third, but I’m on board if those stars realign.

Jump ahead to Athena Voltaire Pulp Tales, an anthology featuring Steve Bryant’s comics heroine. It was fun being able to play in her world a bit.

Next up, Needle includes one of my crime shorts, “With This Bullet.” It’s more like a small anthology than a magazine, and I was in some great company with this one.

Then there’s the original edition of The Pack: Winter Kill. The later edition and a few copies of the sequel, The Pack: Lie with the Dead, will be joining it shortly.

It all makes me wonder why I hadn’t put it all together earlier, as shelves like this are important to writers. Sure, part of it is ego, but it’s easy for some of us to forget what we’ve done. I’ve been kicking around the idea of assembling a collection, and I wonder whether I’ve got enough material to pull it off. This is a good reminder that yeah, I probably do.

I’ll never forget the time Brian, Mikey, Coop, and I saw Richard Laymon’s shelves way back in 2001. We were still dumbass rookies at the time, and we thought, goddamn, wouldn’t it be nice to have a setup like that? His output and work ethic was incredible, and really something to aspire to.

Many years later, John joined us and we did it again at Pic’s place. We saw his office and the old PC I’d sent him (I couldn’t believe it was still running), and we had this weird mix of writer’s envy and fanboy enthusiasm as we ran our fingers across the spines of his work, traversing the genres of horror and crime and weird Western. We quoted Self, one of his coolest characters, and marveled at his output.

(Credit where due: by then my man Brian was pretty close to having shelves like that, if he wasn’t already there. Goodonya, brother.)

There’s both fondness and a little pain in the memories of those days in LA and Colorado, but it’s good this simple shelfie brought them to the surface. It reminds me it’s not too late to keep building out that shelf. Life’s done its thing, as it often does, but I’ve gotten a few things squared away and the creative muscles are stretching and reawakening.

Onward I go, one piece at a time.

Old School Punching

I’ve come to enjoy playing with some old school training tools at our karate dojo. One of my favorites is the makiwara, or “wrapped board,” a tool made to train one’s punches. Most makiwara are a rigid board with a pad at the top. With the right application, they flex and push back.

Ask enough karateka and they’ll give you a number of reasons why a makiwara is one of the best tools to train punches:

  • It strengthens the knuckles, wrists, etc. for striking
  • It strengthens the hips and stabilizing/delivery muscles
  • It reinforces good punching technique by offering resistance
  • It replicates the resistance of an opponent’s body
  • It helps reinforce proper bone alignment
  • It helps reinforce stability in stance and delivery
  • It helps deal with the reactive force to the punch (Newton’s third law)
  • It trains proper control and targeting of technique

I’ve seen a few martial artists claim a makiwara is only for one specific purpose, but I think that’s limiting the utility of the makiwara. Slight changes to the way you strike can change what you get out of it. I’ve also seen karateka tout it as the best striking tool out there, but I’m sure a boxer or MMA fighter could get all of the same with proper use of a heavy bag. Also, a speed bag has a totally different purpose, so it also depends upon your goals.

This is one of the problems of traditions: they exist for a reason, but when they’re not questioned, their original purpose can get lost.

When it comes down to it, my feeling is some martial artist built a makiwara a long time ago, maybe because it was easiest to build with available materials, maybe because it’s just an idea he came up with. There’s a good chance it evolved over time, too. In any case, it got the job done, students started using it, and a tradition was born.

I like it, it gets the job done, so I’m going to keep punching it.

What gets a little fuzzier is what to do after punching the makiwara.

After a good session, the knuckles will be a bit sore or swollen (blood means it’s time to take a short break). Most of the time, I’ll just let them recover naturally. However, I’ve been reading a lot of about martial artists using dit da jow, or “drop hit wine,” an herbal remedy that’s supposed to sooth the swelling and even strengthen the striking area, depending upon who you ask.

This particular bottle says it’s for use after striking a wooden Wing Chun dummy, which can produce some swelling and bruising on the hands and forearms, and at a very basic level isn’t all that different from punching a makiwara. There are a number of dit da jow recipes out there, most involving some combination of herbs, an alcohol (sometimes just vodka), and a bit of aging. You can buy the herbs on their own, or you can buy the final product.

I look at these, and my first reaction is they’re just old versions of Icy Hot, Bengay, and similar analgesics. However, because they’ve been around forever, there’s a lot of mysticism attached to them, too. Maybe modern analgesics simply hit upon the chemicals and compounds that worked best, and maybe there’s some aspect the modern stuff is missing from the old remedies (like toughening the flesh).

Because it’s traditional, there are a lot of martial artists who swear by it, but even they don’t always agree on its application. This particular bottle says to put a little on a cotton ball and rub it on the affected area after training. Conversely, I watched a video by a guy who covered his arms and hands with the stuff like sunscreen before and after punching a makiwara and doing forearm strikes against similar tools.

So does it really work? Beats me. Everything I’ve read is anecdotal at best. My instructor has been curious as well, so he picked up a couple bottles. Recently, he gave me the one pictured above. He doesn’t have a strong opinion on its effectiveness, so I’m going to try to be a little more scientific: I’m just going to put the stuff on one hand and see if there’s a difference over time.

Like Bengay, this stuff’s pretty pungent. It’s not as strong from afar as the modern medicines, but it has a sharp odor like a bad wine. If it works, great. If not, I guess my knuckles will stink for a bit.

Time will tell.

New Edition: Restore from Backup

New edition, new cover

Thanks to the fine folks at Crossroad PressRestore from Backup has been re-released with a new cover and new content! You can order now in both trade paperback and Kindle. This edition includes the short story “Algorithms of the Heart,” which takes place in the same world and was previously published in the J.F. Gonzalez tribute anthology Clickers Forever.

I’m glad to see this one in print again, partly because I feel it’s important to keep Jesus’s work available, but also because it was so much fun to write with him. Collaborations can be tough, even between friends, but from the time we first started kicking this idea around to its first publication with Delirium, things went smooth as silk.

As I proofread Restore for this edition, it was tough for me to pick out which portions Jesus wrote and which were mine. A turn of phrase might jump out at me here and there, but we both took turns massaging this one and I think it helped provide a unified front, of sorts.

We had discussed doing another, but we were both juggling other projects and life in general, and unfortunately we never got around to working out an idea. As such, when Brian invited me to contribute to Clickers Forever, I knew my piece had to be related to Restore from Backup.

This one’s for you, Jesus. We miss you, brother.

Galena Whiskey Weekend

When I tallied up the whiskies I tried at the tasting last weekend, I expected 20, maybe 25.

I hit 39.

The Galena Whiskey Weekend was a blast. As soon as I’d heard the guys behind Blaum Bros Distilling were putting it together, I grabbed two tickets for access to the 15-year-old Pappy Van Winkle for a friend and I. It made a good excuse to revisit Galena and see a little more of the historic town, as well as a good time to get away for a weekend with the wife and some friends. The ladies were able to attend the tasting with designated driver tickets.

The doors opened early for the Pappy tasting, so we knocked that out pretty quick and got the lay of the land. There were almost 30 tables laden with some variety of whiskey, but I spotted a tequila and a couple rums hidden here and there. We were able to chat with vendors about their offerings for a bit before the bottles were opened up for tasting.

The Blaum Bros had a table set up, of course, but I was happy to see one of my go-to labels, Four Roses, had one as well.

I generally have one of the Four Roses selections on hand at any given time, but I circled back to their table near the end of the event to try the hot apple cider they’d mixed with one of their bourbons. That’s when I bumped into an older douch—er, gentleman—in a blue blazer and bowtie who chatted me up and called their yellow label “piss.”

I’ll admit it’s better for cocktails and mixing than drinking straight, but piss? Come on. I pointed him to the Four Roses Small Batch, told him it runs a little sweeter and is much better. He tried it, talked about notes of fruit and vanilla, called it “pretty good” and generally made nice. So hey, I didn’t have to punch him.

Another fun part of the show was spotting the spendy bottles. The program book listed the retail and event prices of everything in the room. While the Pappy bourbons were the stars of the show, we enjoyed hunting down expensive bottles we’d probably never taste otherwise.

The Woodford Reserve hid at the Jack Daniel’s table, and they had both the Double Oaked (a favorite of mine) and the Cherry Wood Smoked Barley for tasting. The Cherry Wood runs about $100 a bottle, so yeah, not something I’ll be owning anytime soon. It was quite good.

In contrast, we also tried a sample from a $150 bottle of Midleton Irish whiskey. Meh. The bottle sitting right next to it, The Green Spot, clocked in at less than half the price and had a lot more flavor and character.

Lesson learned: try before you buy.

Another lesson learned: Scotch just isn’t for me. I kinda liked the Monkey Shoulder I’d had in the past, and I remember liking an aged Glenlivet. The peat smoke that permeates most Scotches just isn’t for me, though. I even tried High West’s Campfire, a blend of bourbon, rye, and Scotch, but the peat overpowered it all.

One of the highlights of the show, however, was High West’s A Midwinter Night’s Dram, a rye finished in port barrels. Oh my. Right up there with it? Basil Hayden’s Dark Rye, which is straight-up mixed with port. Fantastic.

I stopped by the Window Jane table, too. The woman behind the table assured me the applewood aging for one of their whiskeys really did make a difference, and she wasn’t wrong. Gave it a nice flavor profile.

The same vendor was hawking Brenne, a single malt out of France. I don’t usually think of France when I think of whiskey, so I gave it a shot. It has enough of a fruit taste that I wonder if it might be a whiskey even my wife could enjoy.

All in all, a great event I would definitely do again. There were a few bourbons I’m glad I hadn’t purchased in the past, and a few more that I wouldn’t turn down but probably wouldn’t go out of the way to pick up. The ryes really impressed, though, and my friend left with a bottle of A Midwinter Night’s Dram and confidence that he’s a rye guy.

I brought home a bottle of rye, too.

The Blaum Bros home-grown bourbon isn’t ready yet, but I like their Knotter Bourbon and Knotter Rye so I was looking forward to trying their new Fever River Rye release. I had a sample at the table and liked it well enough that we hit the distillery afterward for a bottle.

My next step will be to dump all my notes into Evernote so I remember what else I liked and didn’t like. After all, things tended to get a bit fuzzy after that 39th sip.

Smoke Blog: The Relativity

The good thing about these cigars is they burn for a long time.

The bad thing about these cigar is they burn for a long time.

If you have the time to commit, Foundry has another winner in The Relativity. I have the Churchill size (7″x58), and every stick has burned for a good two hours or more. Very enjoyable, but try to rush them and they bite back.

This cigar claims a Sumatran wrapper with a blended Nicaraguan/Dominican/Honduran filler, giving them a bold, leathery flavor without the oily taste or feel that comes with some darker blends. They are rolled tight, sometimes resulting in a tough draw at first, but a little extra poking and fiddling cleans it up nice, especially toward the end. What surprises me most is the gentle finish: there’s very little aftertaste given the strength of the smoke.

I’ve paired them with several different bourbons, a couple of ryes, and Irish whiskeys, some spicy and some sweet, and it’s worked out well every time. The Relativity is strong enough to hold its own against the whiskeys, yet doesn’t overpower them, either.

All told, The Relativity is a bold but relaxing smoke for cigar fans. If you’ve got a couple hours to kill in your favorite spot, or you’re catching a game or hanging out at a cigar lounge, you could do a lot worse. It’s not one I’d give to casual smokers, or those who tend to get impatient with their cigars.

New Kitten, New Lessons

Meet Tenacious C.

I’d never been a cat person, but if we don’t have a cat around we get a lot of mice from the corn field behind our house. Since then, cats have grown on me.

Even though they tend to be assholes.

Our first two cats, Ninja and Ghost, were pretty cool, but they had that feline aloofness many of you are familiar with. Ninja showed an “I own you” rather than “I need you” attitude. Unfortunately she wasn’t ninja enough to dodge a car in the street. Ghost, meanwhile, fought everything that moved, and he killed a whole lot of birds. He disappeared, and I assume he picked a fight out of his weight class.

Then we adopted an older cat from my in-laws, and she was a crabby old lady. She made a decent lap cat, but she couldn’t be bothered to chase things anymore. We figure she was about 21 when she died in June, so she had a good run.

A local shelter offered free cat adoptions (including neutering) in July, so we got the little guy pictured above. So far, he’s a little different. He loves being around us, being handled, and sleeping on or near us. He played a lot when he came home, but once he got over a cold he’d picked up at the shelter, he turned into a coked-up toddler.

I’m sure I could regale you with standard tales of kitten cuteness, but here’s what’s been different for me with this guy:

  • We’ll hear something scurry behind us, then turn around and there’s nothing there. Then we’ll hear it behind us on the other side. Again, nothing. It’s like living in a horror movie.
  • If something moves, he’ll attack it. If something is stationary, like a chair leg, he’ll attack that, too.
  • Eating is now take a bite, drop the cat on the floor. Take another bite, drop the cat on the floor.
  • Cooking is now stir what’s in the pan, block the cat from jumping on the stove. Stir what’s in the pan again, block the cat from jumping on the stove again.
  • We’re dicks for not sharing whatever’s in the cup we’re drinking from.
  • Nothing tests your power of concentration like a kitten attacking your toes on the third rep of a heavy bench press set.
  • “He won’t be able to climb that.” Yes he will. Except my barbell tree. That’s his Kryptonite.
  • Onions are toys. (I’m waiting to see if this changes after he bites one.)
  • Cats learn from their mistakes after all. After one disastrous leap, he knows to make sure the toilet lid is down before he jumps up on it.

We’re going to try to keep this guy indoors, see if he outlasts his predecessors. Our vet agrees. He says, “Letting a cat outside is like letting a teenager out after midnight: nothing good comes of it.”

Fair enough. Here’s hoping he’ll be teaching me new things about cats for a long time to come.

Distillery Tour: Blaum Bros

I dig distillery tours.

I’ve been on two now, and while they were very similar, I enjoyed seeing their processes and comparing their business plans, as well as sampling their products. If you pay close attention, it’s an educational opportunity, too. There’s a science lesson in the chemistry and physics of the fermentation, distillation, and aging, yet there’s also a strong sense of craftsmanship in the final product. You learn about their marketing and advertising, from the business plan through the branding and the design of the labels. There’s even a bit of career education as you’re touring an actual workplace and seeing the labor involved.

And of course there are souvenirs

A local friend has visited Galena, Illinois several times, and when he heard I was planning a short trip to the area, he told me about the Blaum Bros distillery. My family had no problem indulging my curiosity, so I hit the Blaum Bros website and snapped up some tickets. (Some distillery tours are free, some charge a modest fee. Blaum Bros will set you back $10 per ticket. It’s worth it.)

The distillery’s on the main drag on the way into town from the south, a small building with a white spire reminiscent of an old, rural city hall. You enter into the gift shop, but they have a nice lounge and bar area with some huge leather chairs and a gorgeous bar.

We were a good twenty minutes early, and I’m not exactly known for my patience, so I ordered an Old Fashioned and chatted up the bartender. I watched him closely as he put it together, as I’m still getting a feel for mixing up my own Old Fashioned cocktails. He served it up with fresh-peeled orange zest, something I may have to add to my Old Fashioned game.

Also, he nailed it. I’d only had a few Old Fashioneds at average bars, but his was easily the best I’d tasted so far. That sold me on a bottle right there.

The tour started in the lounge with a brief history of the company, and the guide confirmed some of the things the bartender already told me: the distillery had been there about three-and-a-half years, so their own bourbon was not quite mature enough for release. However, they blended their initial offerings with spirits distilled in Indiana and they dubbed them Knotter Bourbon and Knotter Rye. Say it quick and you’ll hear it as “not our bourbon.” Once their home-grown product is ready to go, it’ll be released as Galena Bourbon. I look forward to trying it.

The still

We moved into main distillery, where we learned they’d imported the still from Germany. This one was much bigger than the other I’d seen, with extra columns for distilling vodka, and they had juniper and coriander on hand for making gin. As with my last distillery tour, they discussed their mash bills and manufacturing process, and we got to see all of their equipment.

I’m not a vodka or gin guy, but I enjoyed learning how they’re made. Those tall columns in the photo above are used for the vodka distilling, where it’s refined down to a much lower proof and then mixed up to its bottle proof. I half expected there to be sacks of potatoes around for the vodka, but it turns out vodka is mostly distilled from wheat and other grains these days.

Next we moved on to their barrel house, which has more of a simple warehouse feel. Barrel houses are not climate controlled, as the seasonal fluctuation in temperature helps with the aging process. Fortunately we were there on a relatively cool day.

Here we also got to see the distillery is working on some experimental barrels and blends in addition to their planned releases.

A Bloody Butcher barrel

They dubbed one of those blends “Bloody Butcher” and stamped the barrels with a small haunted house logo. Bourbon must have at least 50% corn in its mash bill, and for this one the brothers decided to try red Indian corn. I have to admit, I’m curious if it will turn out to taste any different from regular bourbon.

The tour ended back in the bar with samples. They served up three of their products: the Knotter Bourbon, their gin, and their Hellfyre vodka. As I said, I’m not a gin fan, but I could taste and smell the hint of orange in it. The Hellfyre is made with peppers for easy mixing in a Bloody Mary (or, as the tour guide suggested, in hot chocolate), and I picked up a strong taste of jalapeño. This stuff is hot enough that it has its own dedicated machine for bottling to prevent the peppers from contaminating other products.

I would have chosen to try the rye if given an option, but I decided to take my chances and buy a small bottle of rye. I brought home both the Knotter Bourbon and the Knotter Rye, and my first impressions of both are good. I’ll try to write up some separate reviews in the near future. The Knotter Rye neat is excellent.

I found it interesting to compare the Blaum Bros business plan with that of our local East Peoria distiller, JK Williams. Because bourbon must, by law, be aged for at least two years, it takes some time before a new operation has something to sell. If a business is going to pay the bills and keep the lights on, they need product.

JK Williams solved this problem by releasing some unaged product for mixing, as well as some fruited whiskeys. They also released their “Young Buck Bourbon” which is made the same but simply isn’t aged as long and thus isn’t officially bourbon.

Blaum Bros, on the other hand, expanded into vodka and gin in addition to the Knotter Bourbon and Rye made with someone else’s spirits. I thought that was a good approach, as it gives a sense of the taste the brothers might be looking for in their own product.

Overall, it was well worth the hour or so we spent there. Whether you’re a whiskey enthusiast or are just looking for something to do in the area, drop in and check it out.

Booze and a Book: Bourbon and Bikers

The Booze: Michter’s US*1 Kentucky Straight Bourbon

I’d heard a lot of good things about Michter’s, so I snagged a bottle while I was at a local shop picking up a cigar for a friend. I cracked it open shortly before writing this, and I quite enjoyed the sweet smell. First little taste, neat, carried a similar creamy vanilla sweetness.

On ice it changed a bit, as if the cold dulled much of the sweetness. It’s still pretty great, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not getting the same unique flavor. I’m going to come back to this one neat sometime before passing judgement.

The Book: Freedom: Credos from the Road by Sonny Barger

This is another one I read a few chapters at a time between other books. I bought it partly out of curiosity, partly for inspiration while noodling on some characters in Lucifer’s Swords from The Pack and possible spin-offs.

On the plus side, it’s an enjoyable book. Barger shares a lot of insight and life lessons, and the biographical side is interesting reading. His perspective of The System and The Man may be skewed, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems that need to be addressed. He even shares a bit of advice and philosophy, usually conveyed through riding metaphors.

On the down side, Barger—like way too many people today—has a very selfish idea of freedom. There’s a lot of my freedom is more important than your freedom, and if yours doesn’t jive, then to hell with you. He demonstrates patriotism for an American ideal, but also some entitlement. Essentially, “I served my country, I should be able to do what I want”. It tends to fall somewhere between Libertarianism and anarchy, with a healthy dash of might makes right. Brotherhood over law, freedom over justice.

It all sounds good until one realizes the mightiest won’t remain so forever. When the top dog ignores others’ freedoms for his own, and someone within a brotherhood divides its loyalties, it’s only a matter of time before that top dog hits rock bottom.

The Amateur Mechanic

I find working on my motorcycle both satisfying and humbling.

Some of my friends, including those who also ride, are often surprised I do some of my own maintenance. It’s simple stuff, mostly, like changing the oil and filter, changing the brake fluid, or swapping the brake pads. This week I changed the battery, and I hope to put new spark plugs and cables on her soon.

My mechanic friends, on the other hand, stop just short of patting me on the head and saying, “That’s cute, kid.” I don’t have the tools or the right combination of skill and desire to get much fancier than that. I don’t need the front wheel falling off the fork at 60mph, or the whole thing going wobbly because I didn’t align the rear axle.

Also, I find it’s the little things that kick my ass. Consider this negative battery terminal:

Designed by Satan

The access hole to get to it is just a hair bigger than the terminal block itself, and the cable connection blocks the view of the nut. To make matters worse, the cables and the chassis make it impossible to go at the nut straight on with a screwdriver. What should take seconds becomes several clumsy minutes of cussing and dropped screws.

I also have a superpower: I can banish screws into the fifth dimension, never to be seen again. When I first removed the positive screw port, it tumbled into the chassis somewhere. I heard it *clink* against metal, but it never made it to the ground. I searched all around the gap it fell into, rocked the bike to shake it loose, all to no avail.

Knowing my luck, I worried it was sitting neatly in a gap in the drive chain, waiting to get pulled into the sprockets and tear them apart. This led to a new experiment: opening the sprocket guard to double check. No screw, just more lost time and an opportunity to remove some chain lube build-up.

Another screw disappeared from the battery cover some time ago (probably when I installed the battery minder cables). This one was 25mm (about 1″) long. You’d think it’d have been easy to find. Nope. Fifth dimension, man.

I’d also been searching for the radiator fill cap for some time. As in, since last season. Yes, you can laugh. The coolant reservoir is easy to spot. Even after consulting my trusty Haynes manual, I just could not find the damned fill cap. Someone even tried to tell me my bike doesn’t have coolant, just a radiator fan, because it’s “only” a 600.

I looked it up again this week while I had the manual in hand, noted again that it said “behind the passenger foot peg” and consulted the photos. No, still not making sense. But then I shifted perspective a little, saw a knob, leaned down farther. . .

“AHA!” So loud my daughter came outside wondering if I’d broken something, or if I’d tipped the bike over on my head. (She has such confidence in her dad.)

The cap was tiny, it was camouflaged, and it’s probably also a fifth-dimensional object only visible when the stars align in proper configuration.

Okay, maybe not. But the tube itself is no fatter than a #2 pencil, so it probably just didn’t register as a the reservoir fill in my mechanically-challenged brain.

(Side note: I felt a lot less stupid when purchasing the coolant today. I hit an auto parts store and told the clerk I just needed coolant for my motorcycle. He looked at me like I was speaking Greek, and no shit, I had to repeat it twice and say, “You know, the stuff that goes in a radiator?” before he pointed me to the right aisle.)

There’s a lot of satisfaction in saying, “I did this!” Even for simple tasks. It reminds me I’ve got a lot to learn, too. It’s kaizen: continual improvement. Just like my wife, Lenore’s pretty good at keeping me in my place.

Now on the Summer agenda is flushing the whole coolant system. This requires removing the gas tank, which the Haynes manual rates as two wrenches (of five) in difficulty. We’ll see.

Hard to believe I’ve had Lenore for eight years now. I’d like to upgrade before long, but in the meantime, she’s been a great practice bike. If I can keep her running, I should be able to do the same for the Harleys and Indians I’ve been eyeballing.

Right?

Smoke Blog: Rocky Patel Strada

It’s National Bourbon Day. Cheers! #bourbon #whiskey #straightedge #cigar #rockypatel #strada #nationalbourbonday

A post shared by Mike Oliveri (@mikeoliveri) on

It’s National Bourbon Day, so I’m sitting here enjoying a tasty glass of Straight Edge bourbon, enjoying a mild thunderstorm and a break in the heat, and hoping this cigar will match its quality.

I usually like the Rocky Patel labels, but never have I had a more uneven box of cigars than the Strada. I’ll come back to flavor in a moment, as the quality is where they suffer the most. One cigar will burn fine, but the next will have burn issues and either fizzle out or burn unevenly. Two of them spat and sputtered, as if burning into pockets of moisture, and one popped a few times and sprayed small bits of burning ash onto my table. I thought it might be a problem with my humidor, but none of my other cigars have had these problems.

The Strada is billed as a medium-body smoke, but I would rate it closer to full. The draw gives up pleasant hints of pepper, but the finish is leathery. Those that burned well, I mostly enjoyed. Those that did not left a very dry, ashy finish on the palate that required a strong drink for balance. Avoid sweet cocktails; that’ll just be a mess.

Construction varied as well. None unraveled during smoking, nor did any break or crack during cutting. The ash was often brittle, however, making them a messy cigar and a bit of a gamble to smoke while getting some work done at a laptop. Even a short ash might break off while puffing, which has happened to me twice while typing this post.

Like most of my sticks, they were on sale. Where I lucked out with the Gurkha Legend, the Rocky Patel Strada is a good reminder that in most cases I get what I pay for and I should probably stash away some extra pennies and stick to my favorites.

But hey, at least the Straight Edge is still killer, as I’ve previously written.

On to the next batch.

Booze and a Book: Scotch and Zen

The Booze: Monkey Shoulder Scotch Whisky

Scotch has been very hit and miss for me, with mostly misses. Some of them are overwhelmed by that smokey, peaty flavor Scotch is known for, and it generally turns me off. Fortunately that note is mellowed in Monkey Shoulder, allowing the malt and a bourbon-y sweetness to come through. It makes this whisky a mellower, more soothing drink.

Monkey Shoulder goes down smooth and easy, too, and I enjoy it both straight or on the rocks. I’m going to recommend larger cubes or whiskey stones for this one, though, as the melting ice waters it down quick.

At the moment I’m enjoying Monkey Shoulder with the last of my Gurkha Legends, and neither is overwhelming the other. Good times.

The Book: The Dude and the Zen Master by Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman

“The Dude abides.” The classic The Big Lebowski character is a starting point in the conversations of life and Zen philosophy between actor Jeff Bridges and Zen master Bernie Glassman. In fact, the book is simply a transcript rather than a standard narrative.

I first ran into this book sitting at a friend’s basement bar. I was waiting for him to finish something upstairs, so I picked it up and read the first chapter, and I enjoyed it. A few days later, I saw several copies sitting on a remainder pile for around five bucks at our local Barnes & Noble, so I snapped up a copy for myself.

That was over a year go. It’s been sitting on my nightstand ever since, buried under my Kindle and a handful of martial arts-related books. I felt a bit angry and down the other night, so I pulled The Dude and the Zen Master out of the stack, dusted it off, and started reading.

In true Zen fashion, it was just what I needed, exactly when I needed it. It made me reexamine a few things and look at them in a new light, and it made me feel a hell of a lot better. A hundred pages later, I forced myself to put it down so I could get at least a little bit of sleep before my alarm went off later that morning.

I’ve harbored a minor interest in Zen philosophy while I’ve been involved in the martial arts these past ten years or so, but not so much its religious trappings. What I like about this book is it’s not preachy at all, and while Bridges & Glassman discuss meditation on occasion, they’re not telling the reader he must do this or that to reach enlightenment. It’s simply two guys discussing how they’ve found their paths and the things they’ve encountered in their lives, with a little sprinkling of The Dude for flavor.

Good stuff, and I’m looking forward to finishing it.

Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman on cigars in “The Dude and the Zen Master.” Word. #quote #cigars #books #zen

A post shared by Mike Oliveri (@mikeoliveri) on