Archive for the ‘Aimless Riffing’ category

SwanShadow Gives Thanks, Volume 16: End of the Decade Edition

November 28, 2019

As they say in the biz, better late than never.

It was never going to be “never,” but a variety of circumstances complicated my posting the annual Thanksgiving list in time for the holiday this year. But, for those of you who’ve been waiting with bated breath — or baited breath, if you had sushi for lunch — here we are, a few days past due but none the worse for wear.

For the benefit of any new readers: Every Thanksgiving since the inception of this little slice of the Internet way back in 20[mumble], I’ve devoted a post to expressing my gratitude for the many things and people who make my life worth living. Since my blessings far outstrip the stamina of my typing fingers, I developed the idea of an A to Z list, choosing one item for each letter of the alphabet. It’s a form of metonymy: the part stands for the whole. Or, in this instance, the 26 listed items stand for everything else for which I’m thankful this year.

As I now do separately from the list, I give thanks first and foremost for the people closest to me: for my wife, referred to herein as the Pirate Queen for reasons I’ll not bore you with here; for The Daughter, referred to herein as The Daughter for reasons that I would hope would be obvious; for The Son-In-Law and the four-legged Studio Assistant and The Daughter’s Grandma; and for the memory of KJ, my late first wife, taken from the planet far before her time. (Breast cancer screening: Do it.) I love you, each and every.

All that having been offered, here’s the 16th edition of my Thanksgiving list — the last such list of the 2010s.

This year, I pause to give gratitude for:

Audient iD14. After years of faithful service from my venerable USB audio interface, I decided to upgrade to this sturdy, compact little box. I love its clean sound and simple functionality. Most of all, I love its capacity for a second microphone input, which I’ve never been able to implement previously, and which doubles my studio recording capacity without muss or fuss.

Brazilian steakhouses. Who doesn’t love sitting at a table while one server after another slices off hunks of delicious grilled meat for one’s dining pleasure? (Well, I suppose you vegetarians, but you know that we carnivores are going to eat you anyway when the zombie apocalypse happens.) The Pirate Queen has promised to fete me at a nearby example on my upcoming birthday. And yes, I know that it’s called a churrascaria. But I have something else at “C,” which is…

The Casbah, my affectionate name for our old and now new-again home. We first moved into The Casbah back in the summer of 2014, only to leave it behind a year and a half later when we relocated to shorten the Pirate Queen’s commute. As happens in life, circumstances changed, and the Pirate Queen’s current employment made a return to The Casbah (which had become a rental property during the three years prior) more advantageous. With our tenants having moved on, we undertook an extensive renovation of the old homestead, and returned at the beginning of the summer, almost exactly five years after we moved in the first time. It’s nice to be home.

Duck buns. A local izakaya called Sasa serves them — duck confit with hoisin sauce on steamed bao. Think of those mediocre pork buns you get from your favorite Chinese takeout joint, amped up to the nth degree. The Pirate Queen describes them as “little pillows of heaven.” She’s not wrong.

Endgame — that’s Avengers: Endgame if you want to get all formal about it — the final chapter in the first decade of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (Okay, technically Spider-Man: Far From Home was the final chapter, but that felt much more like a throwaway epilogue after Endgame.) This one had everything you’d want in the conclusion of a saga: shocking surprises, heroic quests, love lost and found again, tragic sacrifices. And, best of all, every hero in the MCU to date teaming up for the battle to end(game) all battles. The superhero-loving kid in me squeed. Martin Scorsese may not think it’s cinema, but it’s plenty cinematic enough for me.

FM (No Static At All) by Steely Dan. Back when I rode the airwaves, I frequently started my morning DJ shift with this number. Even now, when it comes on the radio, I can improvise an opening over the instrumental intro and hit the station ID a split-second before Donald Fagen’s vocal kicks in at 26 seconds. Incidentally, I’m working on a project in which I’m ranking all 64 of the songs on Steely Dan’s classic-period albums (Can’t Buy a Thrill through Gaucho, plus the two non-album tracks released during that time frame). I predict this one will land in my top 10.

Greta Thunberg. Powerful proof that one small voice can change the world.

Hope. In dark times like these, we need to find and cling to it more tightly than ever. If we give up hope, we give up, period.

Idris Elba. He could make a dramatic reading of the LL Bean catalog sound compelling. He makes some peculiar choices in projects at times — he appears to be one of those actors who just can’t say “No” to anything (I mean, Hobbs & Shaw? really?) — but whatever he’s in, it’s going to be worth watching when he (or even just his voice) is on screen. James Bond? Sure. Why not? I’d pay money to see that.

Jimmy G. I’m still not fully on the Garoppolo train, but results don’t lie. A 49ers team I thought would be sub-.500 this season is 10-2 at this writing. The guy’s doing something right.

The King Kam, because I’m not typing “the Courtyard by Marriott King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel” more than once. (Even there, I copied and pasted.) We spent a lovely few days at this fine downtown Kailua-Kona establishment on the Big Island of Hawaii in the spring. It’s centrally located, with a small, relatively secluded sandy beach (a rarity on the Big Island). The dining options are meh — except for the onsite location of Ululani’s Shave Ice, which is killer — but there’s plenty of excellent food within walking distance. Worth checking out if you’re staying in Kona.

Library science. The Daughter is currently studying for her master’s degree in this field, and she is thoroughly enjoying the process, hard work though it is. She has a passion for both learning and helping others, so I believe it’s a perfect fit for her.

Museum putty. When we created the new gallery space for comic art in our back hallway, I finally found the solution for keeping pieces from slipping within their frames. How did I ever collect art without this stuff?

Nissan Altima. The Pirate Queen finally replaced her aging Toyota coupe this fall, with a shiny new red metal machine. I’m glad that she has a trustworthy car that she enjoys driving.

Ocean Avenue Veterinary Hospital, taking good care of Studio Assistant Tazz since he joined our merry band. The doctors and technicians at OAVH have always been accommodating with our little guy, who suffers from stranger anxiety and is a challenging patient to handle. No matter how much fuss he makes, he’s always greeted with smiles on his next visit.

Paschall, Eric. The brightest light in a dull and dismal Golden State Warriors season. The Paschanimal, as TV commentator Kelenna Azubuike dubbed him, plays with a high-revving motor and surprising skill for a second-round draft pick. It’s early days yet, but he looks like a keeper.

Quarter-scale statues. When I acquired my Taarna from Sideshow Collectibles, I never thought I’d ever want another. But… even a Taarakian avenger needs friends. And thus over the past year, Diana, Kara, and Elektra showed up. I have to admit, they add presence to my studio. But I suspect they talk about me when I leave the room.

Repeat clients. A couple of years ago, I was privileged to voice the audio tour when world-renowned watchmakers Patek Philippe held their Grand Exhibition in New York. I was equally privileged that they hired me again to voice this year’s Grand Exhibition in Singapore — at least, the English-language version. It’s always life-affirming when people regard your work highly enough to ask you back.

Scene study. I made the conscious choice this year to focus more of my ongoing training on pure acting, as opposed to voiceover-specific workshops. I’ve had some encouraging feedback in my recent scene study classes, and I feel as though I’ve taken some major steps forward as an actor. Hopefully, that will translate into booking more work in the coming year. But even if it doesn’t, the growth is good for me. Old dog, new tricks.

Trivia Nationals. For each of the previous seven years, I’ve journeyed to Las Vegas in the blistering heat of summer for a weekend of trivia mayhem. This year, the previous event gave way to the new Trivia Nationals, which brought together quizzers from all over North America for a fun-filled, action-packed gala. I’ve already booked my ticket for next year’s gathering. Maybe I’ll see you there (hint hint, nudge nudge).

University Challenge. Speaking of quizzing, one of the highlights of my week is watching the latest installment of University Challenge, the venerable British quiz show that pits foursomes from various UK colleges against one another in a grand tournament of knowledge. This season, a young friend of mine is playing on one of the competing squads, and another is hoping to land on a team for next year’s run. And, as brilliant as the contestants are, it makes this old Jeopardy! champ feel just a bit perkier when he pulls out a fact that the kids don’t know.

Vistaprint. My favorite resource for everything from business cards to the custom-designed “No Soliciting” sign on The Casbah’s front gate. The Vistaprint folks never disappoint with the quality of their printing or materials, or with their budget-friendly pricing.

Windows. Part of the renovation at The Casbah involved replacing all of the original windows with new double-paned models that do an outstanding job of keeping out both the elements and outside noise (within limits, of course — there’s no cure for the landscaper’s leaf blower) and letting in the view. I get to sit at my desk daily and watch the birds and squirrels go about the business of foraging in the trees in our front courtyard. It’s good to be reminded there’s a world beyond the walls.

X-23. She’s the clone daughter of Wolverine, who inherited her dad’s retractable claws and healing factor. Not a bad gig if you can get it.

Yellow Productions is actually a YouTuber named Chris Raney, who presents travel videos he describes as “fun, informative, and entertaining.” Most of the time, his videos are just that. Part of what makes Chris’s videos enjoyable viewing is that they are clearly not the work of a “professional travel writer,” but just a nerdy guy who loves to travel the world and share helpful tips about the places he goes. Chris can be infuriating if you know the subject better than he does — his Hawaii videos drive me insane, because he consistently mispronounces Hawaiian place names, and gets details about local culture wrong — but he always maintains a cheerful approach and gives worthwhile information more often than not. His videos about Southern California (he’s a San Diego resident), Las Vegas, and East Asia (his wife, referred to as “OC Girl,” is of Asian heritage, and they travel to Asia more frequently than to other overseas locales) are particularly useful.

Zatarain’s. I cook from scratch most of the time, but I’m not above using prepackaged help in the kitchen now and again. Zatarain’s rice mixes, especially their red beans and rice and jambalaya varieties, produce tasty side dishes in far less time than it would take me to create them from ground zero. Throw in some sliced sausage, leftover turkey, or shrimp, and you’ve got a decent meal.

And finally — I say this every year, but it’s still and always true — I’m thankful for you, friend reader. May you and those you care for enjoy health and happiness in the 2020s.

SwanShadow Gives Thanks, Volume 15: Crystal Turkey Edition

November 22, 2018

As unlikely as it seems, this post marks the 15th anniversary of my yearly Thanksgiving Day blog entry. Given that crystal is the traditional gift for a 15th anniversary, I will attempt herein to be as transparent, sparkling, and multifaceted as possible.

Those of you (and you know who you are) who’ve kept up with these posts over the years know that I have many, many people and things in my life for which I am thankful. I don’t take that responsibility of gratitude lightly. I earnestly, honestly appreciate how blessed my life is.

When I roll over the side of the bed every morning, even when that effort comes accompanied by the creaks and crackles of advancing age, I am grateful that I have two feet to stand on, and legs that support the standing. I know there are millions of people in the world who can’t get out of bed and would give anything to do so. And, as I go about my day, I am thankful that I have a comfortable home, clean clothes, abundant food and water, work I enjoy, the entertainment of a companion animal, and the love of a life partner. I know there are millions of people who have few, or none, of these, and would sacrifice anything they do have to possess that which they do not. I am not better, or more deserving, than they. I am merely more fortunate. Again, I don’t take that for granted.

And especially when I find myself living in a state where entire communities have been consumed by disastrous wildfires over the past year-plus, robbing people of every material possession and a lifetime of treasured memories…

I take none of this for granted.

Because I have far more things to be thankful for than I can enumerate, on Thanksgiving Day it’s been my custom these past 15 years to focus my gratitude on a list of just 26 items, one for each letter of the alphabet. Some items on the list are trivial (indeed, some are literally that). Others are profound. All stand in the place of many, many others that I simply haven’t time in one day to name. It’s just my way of acknowledging how deeply moved in soul and spirit I am when I pause to consider how rich my life is, even in those countless moments when I feel poorly within.

With all that said, on Thanksgiving Day 2018, here are the things for which I’m giving thanks.

Air. In our part of the world, it’s easy to forget about air — we have it fresh and without limit… until an event like the fire that destroyed Paradise, California clouds the atmosphere with toxic fumes and ash for days on end, even for those of us living a couple hundred miles from the event. After breathing soot for two weeks, today’s clean air (courtesy of our first rains in months) gives us NorCal residents something extra special to celebrate.

Bob Almond. My comic art collection began in earnest almost simultaneously with these annual posts, 15 years ago. During that time, one artist’s work has come to be represented in my galleries far more frequently than any other — more than 50 times, at last count. It might be easy to miss that, however, because Bob Almond toils as an inker, an embellisher of other artists’ pencil drawings. Bob’s unique ability to meld his ink lines with a broad variety of styles — always enhancing, never imposing or interfering — gives me the confidence to keep putting projects in his capable hands, knowing that the art will always return to me better than when it left. And, as founder of the Inkwell Awards, Bob labors tirelessly to gain recognition and appreciation for other practitioners of his craft — artists whose work often goes unnoticed, but is indispensable to the art form we call comics.

Confetti. I play quite a few online trivia games (although fewer all the time, it seems, as some of the upstarts have gone or are going out of the picture). I have the most fun playing the Facebook-based Confetti every weeknight. Confetti’s distinction is that it allows one to play in concert with one’s Facebook friends, seeing their responses to each question in real time and benefiting from their collective wisdom. Assuming, of course, that one has smart friends. I just happen to be lucky that way.

Doctor Who. Until this season, I haven’t been a regular viewer of Doctor Who, the venerable BBC science fiction series, since the days of the Fourth Doctor, played by Tom Baker in the 1970s. When the show was revived several years back, I sampled an episode or two of each new incarnation of the Doctor, but was never drawn back into steady attendance. Then came the Thirteenth Doctor, played with charm and spunk (and a goofy-to-American-ears Yorkshire accent) by Jodie Whittaker, the first female actor to be cast as the Time Lord. In the Doctor’s own phrase, “Brilliant!”

Egg foo young. Yes, I know, it’s not real Chinese cuisine. But sometimes, I just gotta have it. It’s probably the gravy.

Freddie Mercury. I have yet to see Bohemian Rhapsody, the recent biopic starring Rami Malek as the legendary front man of Queen. Part of my reluctance is the reviews. The greater part, though, is my fear that nothing could compare with the reality of Freddie, perhaps the most uniquely talented performer in rock history, and one whose music and memory means so much to me.

Garlic. Can’t cook without it. Okay, maybe breakfast. But not after that.

Hawaiian Airlines. Truly the friendliest airline in the skies. You’d be friendly too if every one of your round trips ended in Hawaii. At the Pirate Queen’s insistence, I got a new credit card this year that earns Hawaiian Airlines flying miles. Maybe one of these years I’ll earn enough miles to just stay.

Infinity War. Every time I think the Marvel Cinematic Universe has gone about as far as it can go, Kevin Feige and company find a whole new way to turn things up past 11. Coming in hot on the heels of Black Panther — quite possibly, the greatest superhero film ever made, and one that could have dominated this Thanksgiving list had I not decided not to be quite so obvious — Avengers: Infinity War raised the stakes and broke our hearts by taking our Panther (and several other Marvel headliners, including Spider-Man and Doctor Strange) away. The sequel can’t get here fast enough. (Also, Black Panther 2.)

Journalists. I’ve never practiced the trade — the closest I came was my years as an online film reviewer — but I trained at university as a journalist. I value the talent and commitment of those who tell the true stories within our world, and deliver the news even when those in power would undermine and even physically thwart them. Now more than ever, we need legitimate journalism, and we all need to support those outlets and individuals determined to publish the truth.

Kansas. This summer, the Pirate Queen and I spent a weekend in Central California centered around a concert by the classic rock band Kansas. This was the fourth time I’ve seen Kansas live — the first was on my 19th birthday, at the Cow Palace — but the first time in more than 20 years. I still love the music. Kansas is the only significant American band to focus largely on progressive rock for the majority of its career (yeah, I know, Styx — but they were only prog-ish, and at that, only sometimes). Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Maybe not… but who cares? All we are is dust in the wind.

Lutron. One of the many things I love about our little abode here at Pirates Cove is the auto-dimming LED light fixtures, manufactured by a company named Lutron about whom I know nothing. Great lights, though.

Marriage. In the words of a certain Impressive Clergyman, “Mawwiage is what bwings us togevvah today.” In May, The Daughter entered into vows with The Son-In-Law. It was a beautiful day, and they still seem totally happy together six months later. I’m glad she found someone special to share her heart and her life with (and he does indeed seem like a great guy). I’m glad that the Pirate Queen and I found each other, too. Ain’t love grand?

Notability. An essential tool in my everyday working life — I import all of my scripts into it, where I can annotate and mark them up as I will. I also use it for note-taking in workshops and sessions, and for general brainstorming. If you can use a high-quality document markup / notation tool with a wealth of functionality, I highly recommend Notability. (Not a paid endorsement. Just a satisfied customer.)

Outrigger Reef Waikiki. We stayed here on this year’s trip to Oahu, and it immediately became our new favorite hotel on the island. Centrally located on Waikiki Beach, the Outrigger Reef offered a ton of features that we liked: unmatched location, warm hospitality that personifies aloha, first-rate beach access, a reliable breakfast venue, super-convenient layout that minimizes walking (something that can’t be said of many large resort hotels), great pool, live music nightly, and a Starbucks. I almost hate to mention it here, because now you people will fill it up the next time we want to stay there.

Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco has presented a couple of exhibitions in recent years featuring the works of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an association of 19th-century British artists and writers. This year’s show afforded the opportunity to see a number of stunning paintings by the Brotherhood’s leading lights: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millais. I’m always impressed by art that keeps me thinking about it for days after I’ve seen it. The Pre-Raphaelites and their acolytes accomplish that.

Quizmasters. Having written a few quizzes for LearnedLeague and elsewhere, and played thousands more, I’m acutely aware of how difficult it is to compose top-shelf trivia questions and answers. I’m in awe of people — including LearnedLeague Commissioner Thorsten A. Integrity and newly inducted Trivia Hall of Fame member Paul Paquet — who manage to do it consistently over long periods of time.

Radio. As some of you know, I was a radio disc jockey in a previous life. Thanks in part to the SiriusXM subscription that came with our new Subaru Forester, I’ve been listening to more radio of late. It’s a format that I hope never goes away.

Stan Lee. Some idolized Marvel Comics writer/editor/publisher “Stan the Man” and gave him perhaps more credit than he deserved. Others in their zeal to counteract Stan’s penchant for self-aggrandizement were perhaps too quick to denigrate his contributions. All I know is this: Stan Lee co-created (we can disagree as to what percentage) several of the most iconic characters and stories of my lifetime, including some that had a tremendous impact on my youth and beyond. I can’t say this about many people whom I never met, but I would be a dramatically different person today were it not for Stan Lee. Rest in peace, and excelsior.

Taarna. I don’t like to talk myself up, but for some years, I was among the primary resources online for information about the 1981 animated science fiction anthology film Heavy Metal. I compiled and maintained the Squidoo lens spotlighting the movie, contributed significantly to its Wikipedia entry, and wrote material about the film for several (mostly now defunct) websites. My art collection reflects my obsession, with its gallery of commissioned artworks featuring Taarna, the lead character in Heavy Metal’s concluding segment and star of its iconic poster. When Sideshow Collectibles announced early this year that they were releasing a statue of Taarna, I knew I had to own one, even though I’m not a statue collector. The Taarakian defender now upholds The Pact from a shelf in my office/studio.

Ukulele. I decided a while back that I wanted to learn to play the ukulele. This decision did not come without trepidation — I took years of guitar lessons as a youngster and never got very good at playing the guitar. (Which is a charitable way of saying that I totally sucked at playing the guitar.) I’ll probably never be very good at playing the ukulele either. But even my clumsy fretting and strumming brings me joy. That’s something, yes?

Victoria Coren Mitchell. One of the world’s best female poker players, and the presenter of one of my favorite quiz shows, Only Connect. Is there anything she can’t do?

Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room. I fell in love with the Tiki Room on my first visit to Disneyland, way back in 19[mumble][mumble]. When I visited with the Pirate Queen in February of this year, I found my love unabated. It’s cheesy yet classic, dated yet timeless, silly yet charming. The performances by the lead voice actors (Wally Boag, Thurl Ravenscroft, Fulton Burley, and Ernie Newton) remain engaging, despite their broad (some might say stereotypical, and some might not be wrong) accents. There’s always at least one Audio-Animatronic character that doesn’t function quite perfectly. And yet, the moment the Tiki Room show concludes, I want to queue up again for another round. It’s one of my favorite childhood memories. Also, Dole Whip.

Xenon. It’s the noble gas used most frequently in film projection lamps. When you go to the movie theater and look at the brightly lit screen, you’re seeing xenon at work.

Yacht Rock. It’s not just a musical genre — it’s a way of life. The smooth, studio-crafted, jazz-inflected sounds of such late-’70s/early-’80s acts as Steely Dan, Toto, Kenny Loggins, Christopher Cross, Al Jarreau, and the Michael McDonald-era Doobie Brothers are my jam. (One of my jams, anyway.) Please don’t confuse true Yacht Rock with that stuff that gets played on the SiriusXM channel of the same name — most of it’s Nyacht Rock. (Hint: Jimmy Buffett is Nyacht Yacht Rock.) For the real deal, check out the pioneering 2005 web video series Yacht Rock, and Beyond Yacht Rock, the subsequent podcast hosted by connoisseurs JD Ryznar, Dave Lyons, Hunter Stair, and “Hollywood” Steve Huey.

Ziploc bags. I don’t know who invented them, or how that individual came up with the technology. But how did we ever live without them? The ones with the slider sealing mechanism? Pure engineering genius.

And as always, friend reader, I’m grateful for you. Thanks for stopping by on yet another Thanksgiving. I hope you’ve found much to be thankful for today. If you have, share some with someone who has a little less.

Peace.

SwanShadow Gives Thanks 14: As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly

November 23, 2017

Each year, since this humble (in the classic sense of “low to the ground”) blog began in 2004, I’ve paused on Thanksgiving Day to take stock of the many things in my life and in the world about me for which I’m grateful. If I took the honest measure of my blessings, I’d be typing nonstop between Thanksgivings, and I’d never get much life lived. (Plus, these posts would get even more unbearably lengthy than they already are.)

So I hit upon the idea of choosing just 26 items, sorted alphabetically, to represent by means of metonymy the countless people and things for which I am grateful.

It’s been an interesting year. The Pirate Queen began a new job, which she enjoys, and where she is appreciated and fulfilled. I landed one of my most daunting voiceover projects this summer, survived a hectic busy season with my largest client, and checked a box off my career bucket list by booking a gig for one of the most recognizable companies on the planet. We traveled a bit, as we are wont to do.

The Daughter hit a pair of milestones: she, like the Pirate Queen, began a new job — one that she’s been chasing hard for a few years — and she and her beloved (formerly The Boyfriend, now The Fiance) got engaged. They’ll be married next May, prompting yet another nomenclatural change. The Daughter is  thrilled to begin these new chapters in her life, and I am thrilled — with a father’s wistful trepidation — for her. She wishes her mother was here to share her joy. I wish that too. But as the old saying goes, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. So walk on, we shall.

2017 will be forever remembered in the North Bay as the Year of the Firestorm. If you live hereabouts, you know — and perhaps lived through — the devastating wildfires that destroyed thousands of structures across Sonoma and Napa counties. The Daughter and her Grandma were evacuated from their home for a week. Many longtime friends and acquaintances don’t have homes to which to return. The city of Santa Rosa and the other hard-hit communities will rebuild, but the lives that were lost will never be restored, and the precious possessions of thousands of people will never truly be replaced. I can’t put into words the sadness I feel for those I know — and so many others I don’t know — whose lives were irrevocably altered, even as I also can’t express my relief that my precious Daughter’s life was spared.

Walk on, we shall, indeed.

But enough preamble. Here’s the fourteenth installment of my annual Thanksgiving list. Next year, should we all live to see it, I’ll have to add a whole new table in the Word document where I keep track of each year’s offerings. (The chart is seven columns wide, and this will fill out the second chart.) For now, here’s what I’m grateful for… among so much else.

Almond butter. The Pirate Queen brought a jar home the other day from Trader Joe’s. In a world awhirl with chaos, the simple pleasure of an almond butter and blackberry jelly sandwich is an amazing comfort.

Blue Öyster Cult. This year on LearnedLeague (the world’s toughest online trivia league, and why haven’t you asked me for a referral yet?), I was privileged to write a quiz about a band whose music I’ve grokked since my high school days. (Yes, we had music then, you young punk. With electric guitars and everything.) I’ve still got a fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell.

Cabo San Lucas. Neither the Pirate Queen nor I had ever been to Cabo before our weeklong vacation there in February. We enjoyed our stay immensely. It’s not Hawaii — this was the first year in the last five that we didn’t visit my childhood home — but it’s lovely nonetheless. We’ll return, no doubt.

Draymond Green. He may be the third or fourth best player on the Warriors. He might also be the most irreplaceable. No one plays defense at a more intense level than Money 23. The Daughter has a picture of herself with him from a photo op before he rose to NBA All-Stardom.

Electricity. Thank you, Ben Franklin. (I’m still annoyed about that $100 bill question from Millionaire, though. Just so you know.)

Firefighters and First Responders. They couldn’t save every home and storefront in the North Bay, but they worked tirelessly and valiantly to save as many as they could, and to rescue and help as many people as possible. The community will never forget their efforts and dedication.

Gal Gadot. As a lifelong fan of Diana of Themyscira, I wasn’t fully convinced when the little-known Israeli actress landed the role. I’m convinced now. I’m glad Gal is our Wonder Woman. Change our minds, and change the world.

Hamilton. We had the opportunity to see the smash hit musical in San Francisco this summer. We did not throw away our shot. Few popular entertainments live up to their hype, but Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece gets as close as you’d imagine.

Ice hockey. I know, I know. I’m the guy who refers to hockey as “soccer on ice with sticks.” But thanks to the largesse of a good friend who’s a San Jose Sharks season ticketholder, we saw our first in-person game last season. It really is a heck of a sport to watch in person, in ways that don’t translate well on television. I’m a believer.

Jetways. I’m old enough to remember… okay, slow down; not the Wright brothers — but the days when you actually had to walk out onto the tarmac and climb a mobile staircase in order to board a plane at many airports. Give me the stretchable hallway any day.

Kilimanjaro. She rises like Olympus above the Serengeti.

Linseed oil. Also called flaxseed oil, it’s the stuff that keeps the insides of my cast iron skillets silky smooth and nonstick. Liquid gold, it is.

Monet and Munch. We toured a pair of spectacular art exhibitions this year: Claude Monet: The Early Years at the Legion of Honor, and Edvard Munch: Between the Clock and the Bed at SFMOMA. In general, I’m not especially partial to Expressionist art, but seeing the work of these two great masters up close was powerfully impactful. I’m already looking forward to the next Monet exhibition here in two years.

NextDraft. Every day, I check in with several news sites and aggregators to keeptrack of what’s going on in this crazy world. Dave Pell’s NextDraft stands as one of the best curated aggregators I’ve come across. Dave skillfully mixes links to the day’s hard news with items that are merely fascinating. Always topical, always informative.

‘Oumuamua. “Strange visitor from another world” used to just mean Superman. Now, it’s the first object officially identified by astronomers as having traveled into our solar system from interstellar space. A cigar-shaped asteroid estimated at around 500 feet in length, its Hawaiian name means “scout” or “messenger.”

Patek Philippe. I narrated the first-ever full-scale North American exhibition by the world-renowned Swiss watchmaker this summer. In the process, I learned a ton about the craftspeople who design and build these incredible (and incredibly expensive) timepieces that can not only tell time, but in some instances play symphonies, display lunar cycles, and calculate dates hundreds of years into the future — all using mechanical, analog functionality. No microchip, no battery, just precision clockworks.

Quesadillas. Because hot, melty, delicious cheese.

Red Special, the one-of a kind guitar built by Brian May in his garage when he was a teenager, and which has lent its unique tone to Queen albums and concerts for more than four decades. I recently saw Brian wield his legendary axe in person for the first time in 35 years, and both guitar and guitarist amaze me still as much today as they did back then. If Brian and the Red Special had never given the world anything besides “Fat Bottomed Girls,” it would have been gift enough.

My Steel Will 1505, a.k.a. the Gekko, has featured as my everyday carry pocket knife for most of the past year. Solid, sturdy, and wicked sharp, with its maroon Micarta handle scales and black D2 steel blade, it’s both a workhorse and a creature of quiet beauty.

Thumbtack. The online service offers access to all kinds of local professionals, from electricians to mobile disc jockeys to personal trainers. Plus, they keep the Pirate Queen gainfully employed, for which we are enormously thankful.

“Unwritten”
Feel the rain on your skin.
No one else can feel it for you —
Only you can let it in.
No one else, no one else
Can speak the words on your lips.
Drench yourself in words unspoken;
Live your life with arms wide open;
Today is where your book begins —
The rest is still unwritten.

Vision. Last night, I stood on a BART train next to a blind man accompanied by his golden retriever guide dog. Even with my acute myopia and astigmatism — easily remedied by contact lenses — I am blessed that, unlike that unfortunate gentleman, I can open my eyes and see the world. Today, I’m not taking that for granted.

Women — and I have some wonderful ones in my life: the Pirate Queen, The Daughter, her Grandma, and more treasured friends and colleagues than I can list, along with the memory of KJ and the three decades we shared together. Our culture is currently awash with a tsunami of women finally feeling emboldened to speak out against the abuse, harassment, and disrespect they’ve experienced, and I applaud and support them. Be heard, sisters. Your voices matter.

XTC. Quirky, edgy, and impossible to categorize, Andy Partridge, Colin Moulding, and company formed one of the most underrated bands in the history of pop music. “Generals and Majors,” “Senses Working Overtime,” “The Mayor of Simpleton,” and the controversial “Dear God” — even if you didn’t understand all of the ideas (or didn’t agree with them), you had to admire the style.

Yeast — fueling bakeries and breweries for thousands of years. Except during Passover.

Zapper — that’s what I call my racket-shaped electric wand that strikes fear into the hearts of flying pests that dare disturb the sanctity of my abode. I’m perfectly content to let buzzing bugs buzz outdoors in their own environment, as long as they don’t attack me. But if you come into my airspace, critter, I’ve got some voltage waiting for you.

And as always, friend reader, I’m grateful for you, and the time you take to peruse my rambling prose. May you and yours find much for which to be appreciative on this Thanksgiving Day.

 

 

SwanShadow Gives Thanks: Triskaidekaphobia Edition

November 24, 2016

Welcome to the thirteenth installment in my annual outpouring of gratitude. Each Thanksgiving since 2004, I’ve devoted this space to a reflection on some of the many people, places, and things that have graced my life. Because counting my blessings can become an infinite task once I get started, I’ve developed the device of choosing 26 representative items — one for each letter of the English alphabet — to stand as testament to the overwhelming abundance that I can only begin to address.

Without further ceremony, here are the things I’m thankful for on Thanksgiving 2016.

Antenna International. If you’ve ever toured a museum or other public attraction and used the audio guide, you’ve heard the work of this fine company, which specializes in the production of said audio guides. I recently had the privilege of narrating Antenna’s audio guide to Vikings: Beyond the Legend, an exhibition currently on display at the Cincinnati Museum Center. If you’re in southwest Ohio or the vicinity, go check it out.

Beef Jerky Store. A highlight of my annual trip to Las Vegas is a pilgrimage to this downtown establishment adjacent to the Fremont Street Experience, where I load up my suitcase with tasty snacks. When I was a keiki (that’s “child” to your mainlanders) in Hawaii, we called a place like this a crack seed store — “crack seed” being the Hawaiian term for various kinds of dried fruits, nuts, and other dehydrated edibles. Visiting the Beef Jerky Store takes me back to those long-ago childhood days.

Comixology. This year, I officially transitioned my comic book reading from paper to digital. Comixology is the app for that. (It’s been an adjustment, but I’m resolute.)

DubNation. What a year we’ve had as Golden State Warriors fans! Our team set an NBA record for success with an unprecedented 73-9 record; missed repeating as world champions by an eyelash; then in the offseason added Kevin Durant, one of the greatest players in the game, to a roster that already featured three superstars in two-time MVP Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. After decades of wallowing in mediocrity and worse, it’s a grand time to be a citizen of DubNation.

Evernote. I don’t know where I’d be without this app. Certainly dinners at our house would be far less interesting, because Evernote is where all of my recipes reside.

Family. As always, I’m grateful more than anything for those who love me most — the Pirate Queen, The Daughter, Grandma, Studio Assistant Tazz, and KJ, whose memory lives forever in heart and spirit. My extended ohana also includes numerous friends and connections, both nearby and far away.

Graboids. That’s our household nickname for reach tools. They come in handy for picking up dog toys and other items that middle-aged backs and knees hate bending for.

Hillary Clinton. The election didn’t go her way, but I’m still proud that she earned my vote.

Inkwell Awards. Founded by longtime comic book inker Bob Almond, the Inkwells annually acknowledge some of the most important — but least heralded — artists in the field.

Juice. Because who doesn’t love juice? Make mine cranberry.

Kamala Harris. California’s attorney general will make an outstanding impact as our new junior Senator. I was honored to voice several of Ms. Harris’s campaign ads this season. I don’t think she got elected because of my work, but I’m not saying I didn’t help a little. Maybe.

Luke Cage. Just when you think that Marvel Studios and Netflix couldn’t possibly outdo themselves after the stellar Jessica Jones, they follow up with a series that takes street-level superheroics up yet another notch. Terrific performances by Mahershala Ali, Simone Missick, Alfre Woodard, Rosario Dawson, and Mike Colter as the titular Power Man made this a must-binge.

Mcusta. Two of the most attractive specimens in my folding knife collection come from this Seki City, Japan bladeworks. I could admire my Mcusta Katana and Tactility all day long. Some days, I do.

NewPark 12. The glorious IMAX theater in our new local multiplex even enthused the Pirate Queen — generally not a fan of the cinema experience — about going out to the movies. It’s the first time I ever sat in a theater seat that I wanted to take home to my living room after the film ended.

OtterBox. I dropped and shattered my iPhone this summer. (Thanks, AT&T, for the speedy and relatively hassle-free replacement.) The sturdy case on my new device will, one hopes, prevent future mishaps of a similar nature.

President Barack Obama. Thank you, Mr. President, for eight years of honorable service. I truly believe that history will be far more kind to your legacy than the obstructionist Congress of your second term has been.

Quatermass and the Pit. One of my all-time favorite weird sci-fi classics. You’ve probably seen it here in the U.S. under the title Five Million Years to Earth. Basically, we’re all the descendants of giant grasshoppers from Mars.

Ray’s Crab Shack. A local spot serving up mass quantities of delicious seafood. Don your plastic bib, glove up, and get your crustacean on.

Steely Dan. Any major dude with half a heart surely will tell you, my friend, that Walter Becker and Donald Fagen got me through college, and many melancholy hours since. There are 66 songs on the Dan’s seven classic-period albums (beginning with Can’t Buy a Thrill and concluding with Gaucho), and not a single one of them sucks. I don’t know any other musical act about whom I can make that statement. 1977’s Aja ranks as one of the finest albums in the history of recorded music.

Treebeard. In my studio-office stands a gnarled walking stick that I acquired at a Renaissance Faire many, many years ago. It’s outfitted with a wrapped leather hand grip and bears the carved face of a bewhiskered wizard at its head. I call it Treebeard. I believe there may be magic in it.

Universal Studios Hollywood. I spent a week there early this year, as an alternate contestant for a TV quiz show that ended up not requiring my services. But I got to stay in a nice hotel, tour a theme park, preview the then-unopened-to-the-public Harry Potter attraction, see a couple of movies, hang out for two days in the soundstage where The Voice is taped, and make several cool new friends — all at a TV production company’s expense. You could have a worse vacation.

Van Jones. The CNN commentator kept it real in the midst of insanity on Election Night 2016. Thanks for eloquently saying what many of us were thinking, Mr. Jones.

Waimea Canyon. As has been frequently noted in this space, I spent a goodly chunk of my childhood in Hawaii. Until this spring, however, I’d never visited the island of Kauai. If you’ve never stood on the edge of “the Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” you owe it to yourself to get there at least once before you die. (Going after you die probably won’t have the same effect.)

Xenozoic. Mark Schultz’s sumptuous adventure comic — best known to non-aficionados as the source material for the fondly remembered animated series Cadillacs and Dinosaurs — remains a classic of the medium. The collected omnibus volume is the closest book to my desk on my office-studio bookshelf.

Yoda. “Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.” Live by these words, should you.

Zuckerberg. Thanks for keeping the Pirate Queen gainfully employed for the past year, Mark.

I am eternally grateful to you, friend reader, for your ongoing support of these random ramblings. May your life overflow with reasons to give thanks.

SwanShadow Gives Thanks: Now 100% Punkin Chunkin Free!

November 26, 2015

Here’s something I’m not thankful for this Thanksgiving: Punkin Chunkin, a staple of my Turkey Day TV viewing, was canceled for the second consecutive year. Some silly folderol about liability or some such foolishness cost the annual event, which involves people hurling pumpkins incredible distances using homemade machines straight out of the Rube Goldberg instruction manual, its venue, and organizers haven’t been able to locate another suitable site.

The bottom line is that some lawyers are making a pot of money arguing, and I’m denied my Punkin Chunkin.

Anyway… I still have plenty else to be grateful for on this Thanksgiving Day 2015. Therefore, as has been my tradition in this space since 2004, I’ve made an alphabetical list sampling 26 of the thousands of people, places, and things that make my life worth living.

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for:

Adele. The British songstress released her first new album in four years this past week, and it’s as lovely and haunting and emotionally riveting as anything she’s done before.

Bruce Lee. My boyhood hero would be celebrating his 75th birthday tomorrow, had he not been taken from us far too soon way back in 1973. Lee was the only movie star whose poster hung on my bedroom wall amid the Star Trek glossies, comic book cutouts, and Runaways album covers throughout my teenage years. Enter the Dragon remains the one film to which I can turn off the sound and voice every line of dialogue. (At least, I used to be able to do that. I haven’t tested myself in a few years.) Rest in peace, Little Dragon.

Clients. Here’s a shout-out to the folks who buy the skills and pay the bills. I’ve worked with and for some really cool people this past year. I hope they — and many others — will continue to hire me. Please.

Dumbarton Bridge. The least famous, and by far the least sexy, of the San Francisco Bay’s crossings, it’s about to become critically important to us because we’re moving within a stone’s throw of its eastern anchorage. The Pirate Queen starts a new job on December 1, and her daily commute will span the Dumbarton. Although, when she’s on it, it will immediately transform into the Smartbarton.

Education. I’m a firm believer that when you stop learning, your brain dies. And you start voting for Donald Trump.

Ferrett Steinmetz. The Ferrett, as he likes to be known, was one of the first bloggers I followed on a regular basis. This year, I got to meet him in person, as he toured the country promoting his first science fiction novel, Flex. Its sequel, The Flux, came out last month.

Grilled lobster tails. If I were writing the menu for my last meal on Earth, I’d start with a few of these, served with Cajun spiced garlic butter. You know you want some.

Houses. For the second year in a row, the Pirate Queen and I find ourselves (for the moment, at least) with two — one we’re moving out of, and another we’re moving into. The new one closed escrow on the Pirate Queen’s birthday. I’m grateful every day to have a roof over my head when so many people have none.

Idina Menzel. Because someone who knows how to say her name correctly should be thankful for the former Mrs. Taye Diggs. We’re seeing her in person Saturday evening in the road company of If/Then. It would probably be too much to ask for her to just throw in a random chorus of “Defying Gravity,” just because I love that song, and her voice on it.

Jessica Jones. I just finished the final episode of Marvel’s latest Netflix series yesterday. As good as I’d hoped the show would be, it exceeded my expectations by a Hell’s Kitchen block. Krysten Ritter, who’d never really impressed me in anything before, absolutely crushes the role of the downbeat ex-superheroine-turned-private-eye. And her chemistry with Mike Colter as the unbreakable Luke Cage flat-out sizzles. I’m already salivating in anticipation of the Cage series.

KM, for being the greatest Daughter any dad could wish for, and to the memory of her mom, KJ, for all of the shared history.

Lucille, the legendary axe of pioneering blues guitarist B.B. King, lost her master this past May. The thrill indeed is gone.

Masterpiece, the PBS vehicle by which Downton Abbey comes to us Yanks. Downton‘s final season premieres here in the States in January. I’m sure going to miss the Crawley clan.

NBA Championship, won this year for the first time in 40 seasons by my beloved Golden State Warriors. Given that they’ve begun the sequel season on a 16-0 run thus far, I have high hopes that the Dubs might bring a second Larry O’Brien Trophy home to the Bay. To Steph, Klay, Draymond, Bogues, Barnes, Iggy, Mo Buckets, Shawn, Festus, and the rest of the dudes in blue (slate on Saturdays): Thanks for all the thrills. You make DubNation proud.

Oysters. Because delicious.

Panama hats. I have a nice one from Goorin Brothers for sunny East Bay days.

Quizzing. Whether it’s my nightly session of LearnedLeague, or my annual trip to Las Vegas for the Trivia Championships of North America (that’s TCONA to you), or teaming up with a couple of buds at the Project READ Trivia Bee (a hard-fought second place this fall, behind the team we narrowly bested to win last year), quizzing is my jam.

Rush. As Geddy Lee once wailed in his inimitable helium-on-steroids voice: If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.

Slippers. Or sleepahs, as we say in Hawaii. Without something on my feet, I might fall down. Nobody wants to see that.

Tsunami Brainz. Did I mention that my improv troupe had a name, at long last? We do, and Tsunami Brainz is it. We’re gearing up for our first show, possibly in January.

Us — the Pirate Queen, the Studio Assistant, and me. I am thankful every day for our little family. I feel the love in the room.

VocalBooth. My gorgeous new-to-me workspace is a Diamond Series Platinum Edition. I’m still getting used to its finer points and tweaking the acoustics, but it’s an amazing place to play.

Waikiki. The Pirate Queen and I spent a week in March in my childhood home, and enjoyed a fantastic time touring, beaching, dining, shopping, and just relaxing. I often forget how much I miss Hawaii until I’m there.

Xi, the Greek letter for which there is no direct equivalent in our Latin alphabet. Not to be confused with the letter chi, which corresponds to our X.

Yukon Outfitters. I own several of their Tactical series carry bags. They make excellent stuff to put your stuff in.

Zillow. When you need to find a new house quickly — as we just experienced such a need — it’s the place to look. I found our new place in a single search session.

As always, friend reader, I am also thankful for you. May you and those you love enjoy a thoughtful and festive Thanksgiving. And stay home tomorrow, for pity’s sake.

Comic Art Friday: The ineffable WHY

May 9, 2014

Saturn Girl, pencils by comics artist Paul Abrams

It’s always the most difficult question to answer…

WHY?

And yet, it’s the question that shapes so many of our thoughts, impulses, and actions. Even when we don’t know the answer.

On my iPad, I use a news aggregator called Zite. (I probably won’t be using it for much longer, because a couple of months ago, Zite was purchased by its competitor Flipboard, which will probably extinguish its new acquisition sometime in the near future.)

Here’s how Zite works: It serves up a smorgasbord of links to articles from around the Internet – articles it believes you will want to read, based on your stated interests. For each article that appears, you have the option of giving a “thumbs up,” meaning “show me more articles like this,” or “thumbs down,” which of course means the opposite. The aggregator internalizes that information, and adjusts its future selections according to what you’ve indicated that you liked or didn’t like.

On the whole, Zite performs this function relatively well – which is, of course, why a competitor bought it. But there’s an inherent weakness in its processing…

Zite never knows WHY.

Let’s take a random article from my current Zite feed: “Apple Reportedly Acquiring Beats for $3.2 Billion.” Now suppose I gave this article a “thumbs up.” Zite, in its uniquely algorithmic way, would think, “Aha! He likes this! Let’s send him more stuff just like it!”

But how does it know what to send? It has no idea why I “liked” this particular article.

Here’s a list of some of the hypothetical reasons I might have given this a “thumbs up,” just off the top of my head:

  •  I’m an Apple stockholder, so I’m materially interested in news about the company.
  • I use Beats headphones, so I want to know whether the events described in this article will impact my ability to keep buying and using this product.
  • I’m a fan of Dr. Dre, the co-founder of Beats, so I like knowing what the good Doctor is up to.
  • I’m a gadgetoholic, and I devour anything tech related.
  • I’m a professional musician, so the future of streaming media directly impacts my livelihood. (One of the reasons it’s thought that Apple wanted to buy Beats is because Apple covets Beats’s new streaming music service.)
  • I like the site The Next Web, where this article is published.
  • Josh Ong, the author of the article, was a college buddy of mine, so I want to read everything he writes.

These are but a few of the possible reasons I might flag this article positively. I could probably come up with a dozen more if I kept pondering the matter. But the point is that Zite has no way of knowing which of these – or which several of them, or perhaps even none of them – is my real reason. (None of the above is true for me, incidentally. Okay, I might be a bit of a gadgetoholic. But not enough to care about Beats.)

Now, based on its interpretation of my feedback, Zite might show me more articles about Apple, about Beats headphones, about technology, about Dr. Dre, about streaming media, published by The Next Web, or written by the author of this article.

Or it might send me articles that meet any or all of these criteria, since it doesn’t really know which answer is correct, and it wants to cover all possible bases.

Which could mean that, instead of me getting more content that I want to read, I could conceivably be overwhelmed by a tsunami of content that doesn’t address my real interests.

All because Zite doesn’t know WHY.

This is the same issue that continually befouls Facebook’s ridiculous attempts to manage what posts – and what advertising – I as a Facebook user see. If I “like” something, Facebook’s algorithms will decide to show me more of what I “like.” But since Facebook hasn’t a clue WHY I “liked” that item, it could be making horrendously incorrect assumptions about my preferences, and therefore choosing to present content that I don’t care to see, while at the same time hiding from me content that would genuinely interest me, had I the opportunity to view it.

Which is, by the way, what almost always happens.

All because Facebook doesn’t know WHY.

This problem isn’t limited to our online apps and tools. We encounter this same roadblock in all manner of human interaction. Every moment we’re around other people – in the real world or in cyberspace – we take note of the words they speak or write, and the actions they manifest, and make judgments based thereon. But because we have such a hard time evaluating WHY people say what they say and do what they do, we often misjudge each other.

Complicating the problem is this…

We don’t always know WHY, even when the subject is ourselves.

I’m reminded of a story a friend once told. When he and his younger brother were preteens, their father severely chastised the younger brother for jumping up and down on his bed – risking his own safety and the structural integrity of the bed. The father made it clear that harsh punishment would ensue if the younger brother got caught jumping on the bed again.

Moments after the father left the room, the younger brother resumed his trampoline act. “Didn’t you hear what Dad just said? He’s gonna tan your hide!” whispered my panicked friend. “Why are you doing what he just told you not to do?”

The brother continued pogoing for a minute. Then, without stopping, he replied in mid-bounce, “I don’t know.”

We’ve all been that younger brother.

Inquiring minds want to know: What does any of this have to do with comic art?

Perhaps not much.

But then, there’s this.

When I post a piece of art from my collection here, or when you peruse my online galleries if you’re so inclined, you might make any number of assumptions based on that piece or group of pieces. You might theorize several reasons why I commissioned or purchased that artwork – could be the subject; could be the artist; could be that the scenario depicted holds some personal meaning for me; could be all of the above; could be any number of things.

Unless I tell you, you’ll never know for sure WHY.

Sometimes, I might not know WHY myself.

As for today’s featured artwork: That’s Saturn Girl, from the Legion of Super-Heroes, as drawn by the talented Paul Abrams.

No big WHY here… I just kind of like it.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

TCONA 3: Most of my pursuits are trivial

August 16, 2013

I just flew in from Las Vegas, and boy, is my brain tired.

Actually, the Pirate Queen and I flew back from Bright Light City two days ago, and I’m mostly not tired any more. I’d headed to Vegas last weekend for the third annual Trivia Championships of North America — henceforth, TCONA, or I’ll be typing all day. The Pirate Queen joined me on Sunday following the festivities, and we spent a blissful three days checking out the sights and sounds of one of my favorite vacation destinations.

But let’s talk TCONA.

What began two summers ago as a largely informal gathering of game show champions, Quiz Bowl veterans, and pub quiz mavens has ballooned in this third installment into a real live media event. Not only were crews from two nationally televised game shows — NBC’s Million Second Quiz, and The Chase, GSN’s new Stateside version of the UK hit — on site to conduct in-person auditions, but the stars of both the US and UK editions of The Chase also participated in several of the weekend’s competitions. The Experts, easily the best weekly quiz program on YouTube, taped four episodes before a live audience. And of course, there was in attendance the usual assortment of trivia geeks from all over the continent, and beyond. (I met at least one fellow who’d come all the way from Sweden. Or maybe Norway. Somewhere in Scandinavia, anyway.)

A summary of one attendee’s highlights follows.

The weekend commenced on Friday morning with a multi-part written quiz. This opening salvo serves not only to start the neurons firing, but also to provide an initial gauge of one’s level among the competitors. My first thought after completing the test was that I should have ingested more coffee before we began. I was relatively pleased, once the scores were published later that day, to discover that I hadn’t fared as poorly as I feared, and in fact, I’d outpointed several folks whose names are far better known in the trivia world than my own. With another triple latte in my system, I might have performed even better.

One of TCONA’s primary individual events is 5×5, a buzzer battle whose gameplay bears distant similarity to a certain television quiz program with which I am intimately acquainted. Despite the aforementioned acquaintance, I never seem to do very well at 5×5, and this year’s contest was no exception. I lost my first match thanks to a foolishly aggressive final wager — I was leading up to that point — on a question about Celebrity Apprentice, a program with which I am clearly not as intimately acquainted as I thought. I was never a factor in my second game, and thus lost any hope of advancing to further rounds.

I had high expectations for myself in another individual event, LearnedLeague Live. At TCONA 1, I won my first round against seven other competitors, despite never having played the game before. Last year, I held my own at an eight-player table that included several seasoned LearnedLeague veterans; I didn’t win the table, but I felt that I acquitted myself decently. This year, I made the critical error of playing at a table featuring two of the greatest (and two of my favorite) players in Jeopardy! history, Jerome Vered and Dan Melia. Note to self: Next year, instead of sitting with people you like, sit with people you might stand a chance of beating. Assuming there are any.

For the main team event, Quiz Bowl, I reconnected with two other members of last TCONA’s silver-medal-winning squad for a run at fresh hardware. Our team captain, Dave Legler, who once bagged $1.7 million on the game show Twenty-One, recruited as our fourth player a trivia host from Chicago, Jeremy Cahnmann. Combine that with our not-so-secret weapon, Jonathan Hess, a soft-spoken grad student from South Carolina who knows more arcane information than I’ve forgotten — and I’ve forgotten a lot over the years — and little old me (you remember that I’ve won eight games on that TV quiz show with the Canadian ex-pat, right?), and we liked our chances going in. We galloped off to a tremendous start, going undefeated in our first three games and winning our four-team bracket. Then, in our first elimination match, we ran into a tough crew led by Anne Hegerty, one of the “chasers” on the original British version of The Chase. As coincidence would have it, the game commenced with a battery of Anglocentric material that Anne leaped all over like a wolf attacking a Porterhouse. Our side rallied, though, making up ground furiously as the game progressed, only to lose in the end by the value of a single question. It was a hard loss to stomach… but there’s always next year.

Luckily for me, redemption came in the other team event, the Pub Quiz Mashup. Another Jeopardy! Ultimate Tournament of Champions veteran, Dr. Shane Whitlock, invited me to team up with him and his charming bride. We added three other players to fill our roster, which Shane dubbed (in the time-honored pub quiz tradition of quirky team names) “Natalie Portmanteau.” After seven often-hilarious rounds of play, we walked away with the silver medal. Except… well… we didn’t exactly. An apparent scoring error, uncovered between the end of the event and the medal presentation the following day, resulted in our being bumped from second place to third. So we got the bronze medal instead of the silver. I don’t care — it started out silver, and I’m sticking to that. It’ll always be silver to me.

Having the two hottest new game shows in television making their first TCONA appearances generated considerable buzz. Both Mark “The Beast” Labbett, the “chaser” on the US version of The Chase, and the show’s producer came in for Q&A sessions. (Not only is Mark a smart fellow, he’s also ginormous. They don’t call him The Beast for nothing.) Quite a few folks auditioned for Million Second Quiz; it’ll be interesting to watch the show and see how many people I know who made the final cut.

Speaking of game shows, if you aren’t already watching The Experts every Monday (or whenever you choose — it’s on YouTube, so tune in when it suits you, but the new eps post on Mondays), you should be, doggone it. Produced by my Jeopardy! colleague Alan Bailey, it’s consistently as entertaining a 20 minutes as you’ll spend. Alan and his crew shot four new games on Saturday night, including an all-star slugfest between The Chase‘s Anne Hegerty (whose subject specialty was Terry Pratchett’s Discworld) and Jeopardy! superstars Brad Rutter and Roger Craig (experts on Mad Men and Prince, respectively). All four games offered action, suspense, brain-shredding trivia superiority by the contestants, and abundant joviality for all. I won’t spoil the outcomes for you — you’ll just have to hie yourself over to YouTube when the new shows post, and check them out for yourself.

There were, as usual, plenty of ancillary events in and around all of the above. Quiz hosts and trivia producers from all over North America bring their favorite material and stage impromptu games throughout the weekend, which anyone can drop into and play. TCONA is also the home of the World Championship of Kno’dgeball, an amusing yet bizarre hybrid of trivia and dodgeball. (Your Uncle Swan declines participation in the latter, preferring not to combine mental challenge with risk of bodily injury. But the Kno’dgeballers do seem to enjoy themselves.)

Of course, TCONA’s most memorable highlights are always the connections and reconnections with my fellow trivia mavens. TCONA is the one place each year where I run into some of the many amazing people I’ve met via Jeopardy! — Bob Harris, Roger Craig, Brad Rutter, Steve Chernicoff, Dan Melia, Shane Whitlock, Alan Bailey, Jerome Vered, and I’m probably forgetting others, for which I’ll apologize in advance. (Yes, all of those people are as intelligent as they appear on TV. More, even.) It’s also a chance to meet up again with my Quiz Bowl teammates Dave and Jonathan, as well as many other new acquaintances I’ve made over these past three events, including such quiz show stars as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire winners Ed Toutant and Joe Trela, whose exploits I’ve admired from the other side of the tube. It was fun to put faces to many of the names with whom I compete in LearnedLeague — I think at least half of Rundle A West, my current LL bracket, was in attendance this year, several of whom I met for the first time.

Kudos to the TCONA team for lining up an infinitely superior venue this time out. The Tropicana met the event’s needs as well as anyone could have hoped after the horrors of Circus Circus last year. The Trop’s not perfect — in particular, its dining options are limited, especially in the budget-friendly/quick-service areas (there’s neither a buffet nor a true food court). Still, it’s an easy stroll across the street to the MGM Grand, New York New York, or the tram-connected Excalibur/Luxor/Mandalay Bay trio, so ample eating choices are right nearby. On the positive side, the conference center is easily accessible, and eminently convenient if you’re staying in the Trop’s Club Tower — basically, step off the elevator and you’re there. I couldn’t have been more satisfied with my room, which was large, well-appointed, clean, and comfortable. The in-room high-speed wifi worked splendidly. (Don’t get me started about the execrable Internet access situation I encountered when I moved over to Excalibur after the convention ended.) And, if you like to while away your free time and dollars in the casino, I found the Trop’s blackjack dealers as friendly and helpful as any I’ve encountered anywhere in Vegas.

Speaking of the Trop, TCONA shared the hotel’s weekend hospitality with another niche convention: the National Pole Dancing Championships. (Yes, that’s a thing. I kid you not.) I can assure you that, for the most part, you’d have had scant difficulty determining which guests were there for the trivia, and which for the pole dancing. Let’s just say that, were you to draw a Venn diagram depicting quiz nerds and pole dancers, there would be precious little overlap between the two sets. Maybe none.

Before I departed, I registered in advance for TCONA 4. You could join me in Vegas (probably at the Trop, but that’s yet to be negotiated) next August 8-10. But I’ll warn you: You’d better bring your A game.