A Decade of Ambition

Next weekend, just after Thanksgiving, TeachTheSky.com will celebrate its 10th anniversary.  It was in 2003 that I first launched this website, in its original form, telling the story of Everett Kendall, Marilyn Johnston, Jericho Kingston, Roland and Ledger, and all the others.  TtS would spin-off with Deadman, APT Responders, and so on, coming to a debilitating hiatus in 2009.

It’s been interesting to look back on my career during the last ten years (twelve, if you want to go back to Crossworld’s original run in November of 2001).  It’s been full of hiccups, deadends, false starts, and every imaginable mistake.  But at the same time, it’s been full of some really sterling successes and some events of which I am very proud.

Over a decade, writing has been a very curious adventure, with no real road-map or guide.  I set out to become a ‘professional author’ and when the money from Crossworld started coming in and I started seeing reviews of my book and writing, I realized I had ‘made it’.  The question at that point became a matter of increasing sales, upping visibility and distribution, etc.  In other words, it became about marketing and salesmanship.

An author – or artist period – who tells you that salesmanship isn’t a big element of success is misguided.  To both audiences and production companies alike, the onus is upon the creator to drive the work forward.  In time, teamwork may take over and managers and promotional teams may take on some or even much of that burden, but that will only occur after you have already excelled at it.

And that feels like where I am now.  From a professional standpoint, as we wait for these last few but terrifyingly critical details to get taken care of involving Rhest for the Wicked, that transition to teamwork is underway.  Even as we wait for Rhest to clear, books #2 through #11 are already in development.  That’s now my job as part of this team.  It’s yet another part of this adventure as a writer.

It’s a subdued excitement that fills me these days, a decade later.  Amateurish exuberance has evolved into (what I hope is) a professional temperament.  I hope my stories and storytelling reflect this decade of work and effort.  I strive to be a writer worthy of the stories I’m trying to tell.

It’s been a wild ten years.  In that time, nothing has gone according to plan.  In more ways than not, I think that’s a good thing.  The adventure isn’t made up of what goes right; it’s made up of what goes wrong and is then overcome.

And this has been, and continues to be, a hell of an adventure.

Tools of the Imagination — Ken Masters

Ken Masters
Street Fighter toyline, by Jazwares, released 2004

Player 2 Goes Nowhere

It’s not clear to me why the action figures of fighting game tend to have such a terrible track record, but boy do they.  Going back to the Street Fighter II line of GI Joe action figures to the most current figures on the market, the entire genre of video game-based action figures seems cursed to look terrible, handle terrible, and just generally be full of Teh Suck.  It doesn’t really make sense, because it seems like tangible incarnations of action video games – and especially fighting games – would be absolutely rife with opportunities to make some kick-ass toys.  Sadly, the theory rarely pans out to reality.

Ken Masters began as the palette-swapped second character in the original Street Fighter video game.  He hailed from the US, so naturally he was white and had blonde hair.  Dressed in red, he was identical to the 1st player option from Japan, Ryu.  Aside from the colors of the character, the decision to be Ken changed the starting opponents slightly, fighting the pair of US opponents first and the two Japanese opponents second.  Otherwise, the decision was essentially irrelevant.

With the arrival of the now-legendary Street Fighter II, however, Ken began his gradual evolution to becoming his own distinctive character, separating himself from Ryu in the annals of gaming history.  Ken would develop a more flamboyant style, reflecting the character’s personality but necessitating a more all-or-nothing playing style.

In the Street Fighter narrative, Ken is the wild ‘brother’ to Ryu, both having trained under the same karate master.  Ken is generally seen as an exceptionally well-rounded character, with solid offense and defense options as well as a wide repertoire of maneuver options.  He’s usually a little more flashy and high-risk/high-impact than his more conservative counterpart, reflecting the ideal in-game use of the character.
Appearance – 3 out of 5
This is a nicely colored toy with good texture and a solid representation of the character that inspired it.  Ken’s almost comically stereotypical ‘American’ appearance is held strong with the blonde hair and dark eyebrows, the solid jaw, and rippling muscles.  The detailed folds and creases of the red karate gi he wears are also quite well done.

Construction – 3 out of 5
This is a very sturdy toy, made out of solid plastic.  Nothing about it feels haphazard or unable to stand the rigors of play.  Even the black belt that Ken wears feels sturdy (at least for a comparatively thin strip of plastic).  The obvious joints and seams, along with the blind-person-can-tell color discrepancy between the face’s coloring and the rest of the skin, is what keeps this toy from ranking higher in the construction department.

Movement – 2 out of 5
What the toy gains in construction, it loses sorely in mobility: the figure can barely move.  The shoulder joints move on one, slightly angled axis, with only the rotation of the upper arms and the extension of the elbows giving any real mobility.  The hands are both clinched into fists and do not rotate at all.  The neck rotates, but only within a very narrow range.  There is no waist and while there are clearly hip joints, the sturdy plastic so praised in the construction portion of the review hampers all but the smallest amount of movement.  The knees bend slightly and the feet rotate (for some reason) but do not extend.  The character is largely impossible to pose and is saved from a ranking of One in this category solely because of the arms’ rotation.

Extras – 1 out of 5
None.  Zip.  Zero.  Zilch.  Nada.  This toy comes with nothing, not a stand (even though there are openings in the heels to place the figure on pegs), not a cap to go onto the fist to simulate Ken’s flaming dragon punch (for which he’s so well known), not a fireball attachment, nothing.  This is nothing to say about other colors of karate gis (this is intentional as at least one repaint of the character exists as a ‘Player 2 figure’) or even other costumes.

Packaging – 2 out of 5
The packaging is nice, but completely uninspired.  There’s very little to distinguish from one figure to another aside from the name on the front plate.  The back is identical between all characters and offers no explanation as to the story, the character bio, or anything useful.

Overall – 2 out of 5
In a lot of ways, this isn’t a toy but a statue that can be posed ever so slightly (and ineffectively).  Seriously, the legs might as well not even move and the arms’ movement is incredibly awkward.  The figure looks good, yeah, but not impressively so.  And when you take into account that this character is from a fighting game, the lack of any accessories hurts but it’s really the utter lack of any meaningful mobility that really is just unforgivable.

I just don’t have the strength

The start of the Christmas season is Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.  That is a belief I cling to.  And yet, there have been Christmas decorations in my local stores since mid-October.  I can only assume this sort of advertising works, since stores never spend money on things that don’t directly and immediately generate more money.

Already, the buying of decorations and Christmas trees fills the air waves.  I haven’t noticed a single commercial break on television that hasn’t included at least one Christmas-related advertisement.  How did this march from the end of November to mid-October happen?  How did Christmas slowly erode at the adjacent holidays until Thanksgiving was barely a thought during the Christmas season and the Christmas Carols stations were already cropping up before Halloween?  How long until Christmas decorations go up before school starts back?

The march of the Christmas season is bad enough, but the disappearance of Thanksgiving Day is truly the most problematic.  Many stores in my region (the Triangle, North Carolina USA) will be open part of, or even all of, Thanksgiving Day.  Even if the stores themselves may not be ‘open’, employees will be required to arrive during Thanksgiving in order to man the midnight battlestations of Black Friday (a horrid holiday in its own right, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion).

I’m pro-commercialism as the next man.  Hell, as an author, I almost by definition have a vested interest in the buying of things, namely my books.  But this is seriously getting out of hand.

Honesty as a Policy

I had an interesting experience getting my hair cut last Friday.  Being a 40% bald man in his thirties, getting my hair cut is often a little weird, as I juggle questions about whether or not I use product or what kind of style I want, as though I’m going to ask for a Mohawk that I am physically incapable of growing.  No, this time, I was told honestly that not only was I not the desired customer for said barber shop, but why I wasn’t the desired customer.

To paint the picture, understand that I am a cheap bastard in suburban North Carolina.  My options for barber shops are pretty much limited to high-end boutiques or strip-mall haircutteries like Fantastic Sam’s or Sport Clips.  I’m not sure if I’m legally allowed to say where I got my hair cut, but suffice to say they offered to give me GREAT CLIPS every time I came in.

Midday Friday is a slow time for barbershops, but I imagine this is especially the case for the day after Halloween.  As such, I wasn’t too-too surprised to learn that the woman who ended up cutting my hair was the manager of this particular establishment.

I can’t speak for what everyone experiences when they go to the barber, but for me, it involves walking in the door and having every stylist stop what they’re doing, turn to me, and call ‘Welcome to [Barber Shop Name Redacted By Legal Department]’ in a tone that can only be achieved by equal parts apathy and fear of losing an underpaying job, and then promptly go back to what they’re doing.

I hate this.  I don’t like an entire place of business coming to a complete stop to singularly draw attention to me.  I feel bad for the people who were having their hair cut until I walked in, and I feel bad for the employees who would only do this for corporately-mandated reasons.  So right off the bat, I’m compelled to turn around and leave.  Sadly, there are only three barbershops near where I live and they all do this (despite being different chains).  So, I swallow it and go on.

A woman meets me at the register and asks if I registered online before coming in (because every barbershop these days has pre-registration on a conveniently-downloadable app).  When I decline, she immediately asks for my information.  Not even a feigned friendly ‘hello’ like the ‘welcome’ I got upon walking in.  Just “Name?” like she’s a cop that pulled me over and is asking for my driver’s license.  I give her whatever pseudonym I make up on the spot because, like being yelled at the instant I walk in, I hate this.

Please understand, I’m not hyper-paranoid about my personal information.  I pay for almost everything via debit or credit card; I buy stuff online; I run a blog for Pete’s sake.  What I mind is that giving out my name/phone number/mailing address/email/place of work/shoe size/movie preferences/political affiliation/Coke-or-Pepsi/etc is required to have a simple service performed on-site.

And also understand, this irrational preference isn’t limited to barber shops.  I hate having to create log-in accounts for websites where I’m buying one thing, or having to carry around barcodes that are dangling advertisements from my key chain just so I can have access to reasonable prices at a grocery store.  Hate.  Loathe.  Despise.  I don’t mind the organizations getting said information; again, I’m paying with a credit card.  If they want to steal it from my card, fine.  I don’t want it to be a requirement to get a service I’m already paying for.

So anyway.  The pseudonym du jour was Tommy Oliver because I’m a nerd.  I then had to create an profile for them before I could get my haircut.  I hate having to lie, and I suppose technically I don’t have to, but it sure as hell feels like it.  When my zip code doesn’t match my obviously made-up address, I gripe that I don’t care if they match.  This prompts another woman to quickly take over.  She does something – fabricates an address, overrides with managerial codes, waves a magic wand, whatever – and we’re off to the chairs.

She asks what kind of haircut I want and I tell her and she gets to it with the clippers.  I apologize to her for being ‘so hard to deal with’, citing my great disdain for having to give so much personal information just to get a haircut.  She explains very directly (but not rudely or unprofessionaly, I must emphasize) that such matters are to monitor customer retention and return business.

We spend the rest of the haircut discussing various corporate policies the barbershop has put into place that I actively dislike (the information-gathering, the heavily forced greeting upon arrival, the product-pushing, etc).  All of this, she listens to all of this and retorts very thoughtfully with why said policies are in place and how most customers prefer them and they help to drum up repeat business.

I remarked that I felt that was unfortunate because it made me feel very uncomfortable, to which she said “Well, you’re not our target customer”.  And it was then that it hit me that I wasn’t a customer to these people; I was an intruder.  I was a distracting invasion from somebody well outside their key demographic.  My business wasn’t wanted; only tolerated.

On the one hand, I can sympathize with her (and her corporate bosses).  She’s got a business to run and businesses need to focus on the customers and demographics that give the best return for the money.  If nine out of ten customers prefer to be greeted loudly and summarily upon arrival and give out every last bit of personal information like they’re interviewing for a gig on a reality TV show, that remaining one out of ten cannot expect the store to adjust their practices just to accommodate them.  My preferences are (at best) a minority or (more likely) statistically insignificant.

And yet, it sucks for me because it means that, so far as I know, there is no barbershop within a reasonable distance that I can go to that in any way wants my business.

My thoroughly subpar and very rushed haircut complete, I paid and left.  The woman made sure to thank me and encourage me to come again.  I smiled at her, all but saying that I wasn’t coming back.  And she smiled back at me, all but saying how grateful she was that I wasn’t coming back.