Sunday, December 28, 2008

Cutlery Lust / Early New Year's Resolution

Just stopping in for a quickie post. The holiday season has been the usual busy blur, and has mostly been wonderful. A bit too hectic, as usual, but fun all in all. I'm in the midst of a truly heinous attack of Cedar Fever, however, which is making the tail end of 2008 about as miserable as could be. And when I'm miserable, my thoughts turn to those of...

... well, food, really. Or, more precisely, cooking. I love cooking when I'm down. The process, the preparation and planning and procedures. It's all a wonderful distraction from whatever's bothering me. Plus, I really get a lift out of making other people happy with food. Most people really enjoy eating, after all, and I've found that the best way to defuse tension is to give people something to stuff in their mouths. It's very hard to argue when you're chewing on a tasty morsel of something yummy.

And maybe that's why I'm so utterly and completely, head-over-heels in love with these:

Shun Elite chef's knives.

My god they're beautiful.

Here's the description of this line, from the KAI website: "Shun Elite is an innovative combination of aesthetics and performance in kitchen cutlery. Handcrafted in Seki City, Japan, the center of the ancient samurai tradition, Elite’s stunning design is directly inspired by the artful aesthetics of samurai swords, down to the smallest detail. The blade is made of a unique core of SG2, an exotic powdered steel that’s hardened to 64 Rockwell (compared to the 56-58 Rockwell of European kitchen knives), resulting in an exceedingly sharp and smooth edge. This amazing metal means that Elite knives stay sharp several times longer than comparable stainless cutlery. The knife is then clad with two layers of SUS410—a softer stainless steel that provides strength, flexibility and corrosion protection. The only thing more beautiful than the knife in your kitchen is the way it performs in your hand. Hand wash. Lifetime warranty."

These things are gorgeous. I was literally salivating over a set in the Sur la Table yesterday. Besides being astonishingly sharp and strong knives, they are utterly and completely beautiful. The gleaming edge, the wobbly line where the powdered steel coating meets the core, the deep black pakkawood handles, the exquisite traditional Japanese styling, every detail made me Want Them. And while the Ken Onion series may be more voluptuous (that beautiful Damascus-look steel, the lovely curved handles -- I'm sure they feel fantastic in your hand) and the Alton Brown series more ergonomically designed for extensive kitchen use (that nice little angle on the blade must take a lot of stress off the wrist when doing extensive knife work), I have to just accept that my aesthetic sense is hopelessly Oriental/Asian Influenced, and these things look like something a True Samurai Chef would use to whip up something spectacular.

So, I'm making my first New Year's Resolution. Not of the self-improvement sort, although I will make some of those as well, but of the life-improvement sort. I haven't bought myself new knives in over 12 years. I'm still working with the Henckels set I assembled over the course of a year back in 1995-1996, and while they're hanging in there, they need to be professionally sharpened and even then their edge is getting woefully worn. It's time to rebuild, and over the next year I am going to assemble a complete set of these beautiful pieces of sharpened steel.

Yes. Yes I will.

And if anyone has an extra $1000 lying around and wants to help get this process going quicker I'll be most obliged ....

Mood: Wry, tired, allergic.
Now Playing: Nothing

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Proctoring / Learning to Fly?

Spent pretty much the entire day today proctoring gup tests at our dojang. First gups are reponsible for proctoring the gup tests (calling the various techniques that those who are testing must perform throughout hte test) while the yudanjanim and kodanjanim present (cho dans through 3rd dans and 4th dan on up, respectively) sit at the testing board and grade the participants. Prior to the last dan test there was only one other gup in our dojang who was my senior, a teenager named Kent who is about 3 months ahead of me, but he just tested for dan and therefore no longer has to proctor (n fact he assisted in grading on two of thes tests, event though he hasn't officially been promoted yet -- that occurs next month). So, as the now-ranking senior 1st gup in the dojang it fell to me to ensure that the tests were adequately -- and correctly -- proctored by the red belts who showed up to help out.

Obviously, I take this stuff pretty seriosuly, so I committed myself to being present for the entirety of all three tests today. Testing started at 9:30 this morning. I only participated in the actual protoring of the orange and green belt tests, while on the white belt test I simply assigned various sections to the young red belts who were there to help out and tried to make sure any questions they had were answered. Happily, all three tests went smoothly, proctoring errors -- by myself and others -- were minimal, and we wrapped up by 5:00.

It was a terrific day of testing. Two very large testing groups -- 19 students for the white belt test, and 22 for the orange belts test -- followed by a very small green belt group (only 6). The students in each and every test were uniformly well prepared and solid. The orange belts really could have used a bit more energy for their test -- by halfway through they were losing focus and concentration, and when the kids started sparring it was literally silent in the room. Not a kiyap to be heard during SPARRING! So while they did well, the testing board made sure to warn them that failing to keep the energy up throughout the test would really start messing them up as they advance, as when the tests start getting really challenging (especially the red belt test) they're gonna need that juice. Regardless, everyone performed skillfully and well.

The green belt test was a true pleasure. As I said, it was a small group. Only 6 people, 5 kids and 1 adult. 1 6th gup, 3 5th, and 2 4th going for their red belts. The green belt test is where things start getting really tough, particularly in the case of those 4th gups testing for red belt. Lots of material to cover, lots of opportunity to get lost or come off the rails, particularly for kids. But these guys were all exemplary -- well prepared, solid grasp of all of the fundamentals, and level headed. Their energy was fairly solid throughout, although it flagged a bit toward the end. I think that's as much a statement about the much larger dojang space we now inhabit -- almost 1900 square feet of mat space -- as it is about the candidates. It's tiring trying to fill that much space with energy, especially for such a small group. Regardless, they got through it all without any serious issues at all and the test finished in record time -- under 2 hours and we were out of there.

But by far my favorite part of the day was the white belt test. I had several adult friends testing for their orange belts -- Vickie and Aaron, who are my testing buddy Kayleigh's parents (Kayleigh, 9, is the only other student in the school who I have tested with every single time I have tested since orange belt), and Pieter (my exceptionally talented physical therapist friend who is also Miranda's judo instructor and the dad of another 1st gup I've tested with, Ben, who like Kayleigh is also 9). So, it was fun to watch for those reasons alone.

But while watching the test, something occurred to me: Today, December 13th, marked exactly 3 years to the day since my first Tang Soo Do lesson. Three years ago I first stepped onto the mat and struggled with fear and lack of confidence and a body that just wouldn't do the things I was telling it to do. And here I am, a 1st gup deeply engaged in as much of the art and the dojang life as my life and time permit, proctoring exams and looking forward to my own dan test, less than 6 months from now. I looked at the white belts, some of them struggling with movements I now find almost second nature, and I felt this swell of pride. Not in myself but in them. It reminded me of watching my kids taking their first wobbly steps. I remember seeing my kids' awkwardness, their stiffness and tension and wobbly gaits, and all I could think was "well, there it is. They've learned to walk. It'll only be a matter of time before they can run."

And this felt like that -- I felt this odd excitement, like I was witnessing the beginning of something fantastic, and felt so fortunate that I could be there to see it, and that I'm going to get to watch them (at least the ones who stick with training) learn to skip, then jog, and then run. Who knows, some of them might even be almost able to fly one day. I just know that I'm so incredibly lucky to be able to experience it along with them.

Mood: Tired, a little misty
Now Playing: Nothing

Monday, December 01, 2008

Felling Great Trees

The other day I found myself thinking about my Tang Soo Do training, and my impending dan testing (May, if all goes according to plan). I was thinking about how I've seen, time and again, people who seem so dedicated and committed to their training attain their dan status, receive their blue belt in recognition of their efforts and accomplishments, and then ... well, vanish. After 3-4 years of commitment, 10 tests of gradually growing difficulty and intensity, hundreds -- even thousands! -- of hours of training they receive a new belt and decide that they're no longer interested in continuing.

This happens a LOT with children and teens, obviously -- very often they and their parents, who typically do not train, see the blue belt as the primary goal of training. Their reward, if you will, or their graduation. We live in such a reward-driven society that this is certainly not unexpected: I know from my own experience that motivating kids to keep focused on training during the 6-month periods between tests at the higher gup ranks can be a chore. Once we hit dan, the wait stretches to years, which from a kid's perspective clearly seems almost infinite. When you've only been on the planet for 11 or 12 years, the idea of doing something without what is perceived as a reward until 2+ years later must seem incomprehensible. So, that I understand. I hope to keep my kids focused on training -- I think with my daughter it will be doable, but unless something changes in my son's attitude I have a feeling that training past dan will be iffy at best, at least for the foreseeable future.

So, kids dropping out I get. But what of the adults? Adults start training for such different reasons than kids -- very often, as in my case, it was an opportunity to jump outside of my comfort zone and challenge myself, to do something completely new. Others see it as a chance to feel safer and more secure. Or as a chance to do something with their kids that is beneficial for the entire family. Or it's just exercise. As often as not it's a combination of many or all of these things, to varying degrees. And from my fairly limited perspective, adults that make it past 4th gup and get their red belt seem likely to see things through to dan, and seem less likely to just stop training altogether as soon as they get the blue belt around their waist.

But yet I've also seen adults who were among the most talented and devoted martial artists I've trained with just ... stop altogether. They have valid reasons -- family demands, work demands, money pressures, and so forth. But frankly I think these are often the excuses folks make in order to excuse themselves from making yet another long-term commitment. So, if these folks, folks I looked up to when I began training as examples who I want to be and how I want to be in my approach to Tang Soo Do, can just walk away, what happened? What changed? More importantly, I wonder what my attitude will be after receiving my promotion.

As I've trained for the past 3 years, my attitudes have changed, deepened, grown in unexpected directions, but have largely remained undiluted by time and effort. I still love training, I still think of the dojang as a sort of a home for my spirit, a place where I am finding a peace and focus that I've never felt in my life. But is this any different than what these other folks felt? And yet ... they moved on.

So, I've been soul searching. And as often seems to happen, I find that when I soul search and look for answers they present themselves in unexpected ways. This time it was in running across an old blog entry by a woman named Rachel, whose blog is wonderful and far too rarely updated. Here's a link to the original blog entry -- I'm paraphrasing Rachel's story in a manner that better relates to how it spoke to me.
A Zen teacher from China moved to Tennessee and once he arrived he bought a little old house with a big old oak tree on the front lawn. On the day he moved in several of his neighbors told him "That tree's overgrown and old. You've got to chop it down or it might fall on your house."

He nodded, in his inscrutable Chinese way, and said, "Good. I chop."

The next morning he went to the local hardware store and bought a hatchet. One of his neighbors came by and saw him chopping away at the enormous trunk of the tree with the tiny little hatchet and laughed, saying "You can't do it that way. It'll take forever! I'll go get my chainsaw and we can have the tree down in half an hour."

But the old man shook his head and said, "I chop."

His neighbor rolled his eyes, but left him alone, figuring that after a few hours of this futile chopping the old man would have had enough and would come asking to borrow his chainsaw.

But the old man didn't ask for help. Instead the next day, and every morning after, at 9 am for exactly one hour, everyone in the neighborhood could hear a steady chop chop chop from the old man's front yard. It got so that if he missed a morning they'd come over to see if he was okay. He went from being "that crazy Chinaman" to being part of the community.

Eventually he explained to some of his new friends that this is how he taught meditation: every day you chop away just a little more, and sooner or later a great tree falls.

Well, after months of this it became clear that the great tree was finally due to fall. On what was clearly going to be the day the tree would finally come down the excited neighbors all gathered around to witness the last few hatchet chops. And after a few minutes of chopping with the hatchet, with a mighty creak and splintering noise, the tree crashed to the ground.

The entire town erupted into applause, everyone thrilled and excited to witness the culmination of the teacher's slow and steady efforts. Finally, after the cheering died down, one of the neighbors came up to the teacher and asked him, "Well, the tree is down. What will you do now?"

"Make firewood" was his reply.
Reading this simple story moved me remarkably. Now, that in itself is not a big accomplishment, really -- I'm easily moved. Ask anyone who's ever sat through a Disney movie with me and they'll tell you that I cry at the drop of a hat. But the story spoke directly to the concerns I've had about my approaching dan test, and my training going forward. I found myself grinning, and yet with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes. I felt reassured.

I saw how my training can be so like what the teacher was doing -- slow, methodical, time consuming, and hard for those around who do not train to understand. I thought about how silly the neighbors must have thought the old man was, at first, and how silly I often have felt over the past few years, this big dude hopping and stomping and sweating on the mat with all these little kids around. I thought about the sense of community that the teacher's efforts brought to himself, and to those around him even though they didn't really understand why he was doing the things he did, and of how I've felt my own community grow and flourish in the past few years.

But most of all I saw that in achieving what can in some ways be perceived as the ultimate goal of undertaking a task in the first place, you can actually provide the basis for an entirely new goal, one that never would have been possible without the initial efforts. The symbolism of the goals -- although this is supposedly a true story, so the symbolism is in the interpretation, not in the tale itself -- really spoke to me: how much like adults who begin training in martial arts the initial efforts are more or less self-defense oriented (protecting himself and his house from the potential destruction that the tree posed), but in felling the tree he created a new journey, one that would enable him to live a better life (using the fruits of his earlier efforts to, through additional effort, warm his home).

And I saw that this next stage in the teacher's plan -- like training after dan advancement -- would be far longer, and require far more commitment in terms of hours. If it took the teacher months to chop through the trunk of the tree, it will obviously take years and years to break it down into firewood. But regardless of the time it will take, while it may take a larger total amount of time to achieve the actual commitment is essentially the same: one hour each day, until the task is completed. The goal is attained simply by returning to the task at hand again and again.

So now I'm left wondering: What would the teacher's next task be, after making the firewood? I like to think he uses the wood to cook supper for the town. Opinions are welcome....

Mood: Thoughtful
Now Playing: "Baraka," Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Departures, and Selfishness

"Just being alive
It can really hurt
And these moments given
Are a gift from time
Just let us try
To give these moments back
To those we love
To those who will survive." -- Kate Bush
The past few weeks have seen something of a cold wind blow through some of the more distant regions of my personal life. In all, 4 friends -- some of whom I've met only a few times, and one whom I've actually never met in person but who I've known for well over a decade -- have lost family members to disease.

None of these folks are what most people would consider "close" friends of mine -- one is a fellow Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan member with whom I've a had a few beers, the others are "e-friends" who due to lack of proximity I've only managed to meet a couple of times in The Real World if at all. But in just the past few weeks these folks have lost, collectively, 1 wife and 2 mothers, with another expecting to lose his under-hospice-care mother in the very near future. Other friends have family members whose health is in dire shape, with prospects for recovery looking more and more scant. Additional deaths are clearly imminent, if not exactly scheduled.

It leaves me wondering what, if anything, this means. Or, more precisely, what this means, if anything, in regard to myself, my life. I feel tremendous sympathy for these folks, and I imagine that my budget will be a bit strained in the coming weeks with all the sympathy cards and flowers I need to send. But a big part of me wants to integrate these events into my own life, somehow. Like this all indicates ... something. To me. For me.

It's human nature to try to draw patterns out of chaos, to try to assign meaning and importance to disconnected events. Ultimately, I think this an impulse that actually betrays a need to make other people's stories more about ourselves -- not ill-intentioned, exactly, but perhaps a bit egocentric. The more people we know, the more people we know by proxy and the more likely we are to be touched, remotely, by loss. So I know, intellectually, that what matters most is that I send thoughts of comfort to these folks.

But deep down there's a voice that wants to take their sorrows and make them my own, somehow. To make this about me. We all know people who, no matter what is going on in your own life, when you tell them about it they instantly turn it around and make it about them (You, perhaps seeking a bit of sympathy: "I barely got any sleep last night because I was coughing so much." Them: "Oh, I know what you mean. Two months ago I had a cough, and I didn't get any sleep for nearly a week. It was awful. My friend at work noticed I was exhausted all the time and she said..." etc.). I think this is a similar thing, perhaps a little more subtle and inwardly directed, but I feel like it may come from a common source.

It's a strange sort of selfishness, an impulse to try to insert myself into the center of things. I'm straining to find the right word or it, I guess because I recognize it as a kind of weakness of character, this need to be What It's Actually All About. Name it, and put it aside and grow through it.

Mood: Reflective
Now Playing: My son's piano playing....

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

U-Verse Experience - Update

While checking through my site meter logs I noticed that I'm currently getting a lot of hits from people searching for U-Verse information, obviously due to my lengthy post regarding my personal U-Verse installation saga. A lot of this may be due to an ongoing dispute between Time Warner Cable and the local NBC affiliate here in the Austin area that has resulted in our NBC programming being unavailable on cable for several weeks now, and lots of folks looking into alternatives to cable. Due to both my utter loathing of Time Warner Cable and in the interest of providing a complete portrait of my experience I wanted to post a follow-up review, so that folks can make a more informed decision.


First, a follow-up on the installation issues. Briefly, after a whole lot of back and forth and hours upon hours of time on the phone with U-Verse/AT&T customer service, we were completely unable to resolve the issue regarding my loss of my phone number. This was entirely due to an error on AT&T fault (they messed up the order intake and never issued the phone number port request, so when my I ended my cable service my phone was disconnected by Time Warner and my old number dropped into their available number pool, from which they -- TW, that is -- are apparently unable to specifically request it again.

So, corporate backend idiocy on both parts, with the end result being my loss of my phone number. AT&T was fairly accommodating with reimbursement for my trouble, although ther was an end-stage compensation agreement that they sort of just stopped pursuing (I wanted them to credit me something for all the time and effort I spent trying to help them straighten out their errors, and they were working on something but never got back to me. Rather than waste anymore time and energy pursuing it I just threw in the towel and dropped it).

Now, several months later, I continue to be a U-Verse customer, and overall am pleased with the service. However, although I tend to recommend the service, I also STRONGLY suggest that if you are porting your number from another provider you do not cancel service with that provider until AFTER you are certain the number port has been completed. This was an enormous source of frustration for a solid 2 months, and if you can avoid it by any means (including just sticking with your current provider for telephone service) you should do so.

Now, that said, some far-from-authoritative reviews of the U-Verse service itself.

U-Verse Television: Channel selection is quite good, especially for the price. Video quality in standard definition is excellent (easily equal to or better of TW, equal to DirecTV, Dish, etc.) while the HD is good/very good (equal, sometimes superior to TW, not quite as good as DirecTV. Compression can become quite obvious in some programming, especially in darker scenes where there are lots of muted colors/blacks). the whole house DVR, now that it is finally available, is terrific, and the DVR interface and performance is the best I've experiences outside of TiVo (still the gold standard, IMHO). Some other features are unimpressive (most of the other interactive features, such as the U-Bar, are pretty much useless in my opinion, since it's easier for me to get the local info using a computer or other device than it is to wait for the U-Bar to start, etc.). Haven't used the pay-per-view type services so I can't really talk to them. Overall grade: B+.

U-Verse High-Speed Internet: I've got the Elite level of service (up to 6.0 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream). Mostly rock-solid connection with good>great throughput. Occasional oddness (seems to forget where the DNS server is sometimes, resulting in a fairly lengthy -- 10-15 sec. -- delay when looking up a web site), but nothing worth contacting support over. The residential gateway they installed does a pretty solid job overall, but it does not support UPnP, so if this is something you rely on be prepared. No serious concerns or problems, but nothing overly stellar either. Overall grade: B.

U-Verse Voice: After a very rocky start, issues have settled down nicely. We were getting intermittent service outages for the first month or so, but these seem to have been initital "growing pains" in our area and they have since stopped. All in all it's a solid VOIP package, with some really nice features available via their web interface (makes setting up call forwarding, voice mail, and lots of other features fairly easy). It could stand some improvements -- I'd like to be able to just receive voice mails as an MP3 via email, whereas now I just get a notification that there is a voice mail waiting and I can then log into the web interface, download the VM, and then listen to it -- lots of steps for a fairly simple problem task. Personalized greetings for specific caller IDs would be a fantastic feature that, again, should be simple for them to implement. But overall, it's as good as any other VOIP solution out there. Overall I'd say if you're satisfied with your current phone service there's no compelling reason to switch, although AT&T's package deals might make it more attractive. Overall grade: B.

So, all in all I'd say I'm satisfied. There's plenty of room for improvement, but the great thing is that AT&T really seems to be willing to make improvements to make thier service more attractive, whereas TW has just sat back on their install base and let the money flow in. Also, AT&T's customer service has been in every sense superior to ANY experience I've had with Time Warner. While I initially had a buttload of problems, AT&T's staff worked very hard to solve the issues and were courteous and accommodating every step of the way.

So, should you sign up for U-Verse? I'd say yes. It has some downsides, but the upsides (features, cost, etc.) do a nice job of outweighing them. In short, if you're looking for a change you could do way worse.

Mood: Tired, achey (hard workouts the last two nights)
Now Playing: Nothing

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Surfacing, For a Moment / Beach Moment

I know I've been scarce in these here parts since last month, and to my steadfast regulars (both of you) I apologize. As I've mentioned in previous posts, September/October has been a real grind for me work-wise, as it is the peak of the Fall trade show season. I've completed 3 of the 4 trade shows I was responsible for planning and attending, and they've all gone splendidly. But the amount of logistics, planning, time, and effort that goes into these things is truly mind-boggling.

Following a full week in Las Vegas last month I've spent more time in Florida (first Orlando, then Marco Island) in the past month than I have in Texas, which has not been much fun. Vacation-oriented destinations just aren't nearly as enjoyable when you're there working 14+ hour days. Not to say fun hasn't been had, just that it is always accompanied by the constant thoughts of "this would be so much more fun if Christine and/or the kids were here with me." Luckily I have at least been joined at these destinations by good friends with whom I work well. We're a good team, and they are all great traveling companions.

So, just one more trade show to go -- this one is just up the road Dallas so no flying is involved, which will be something of a treat. In the best of circumstances I find air travel to be something of a chore, so getting the chance to just hop in the car and turn up the stereo for a few hours will be a welcome relief.

One moment to share, though, in regard to training. While in Marco Island (again, not the worst place in the world to work one's ass off -- here's a link to the hotel I stayed in) I, as usual, could not sleep. When I travel I tend to have no trouble falling asleep (usually with the help of a nightcap or two after work with friends) but staying asleep is a challenge. When I'm in Vegas I'm usually up by 4:00 thanks to the time zone differences, while in Marco I was typically awake no later than 5:00 simply because I wasn't at home in my own bed.

So, given that I was awake, as the beach was just a minute's walk away, I got dressed in some workout wear and headed down to do some forms. Aside from the occasional flock of sea birds the beach was completely deserted, the sun still well below the horizon behind me and the moon low in the sky over the water, silver lights glittering on the gentle gulf surf. So, facing the moon and water I first stretched for about 10 minutes, then did some meditative breathing exercises we've learned in class, and finally went through every one of my forms, beginning with the Kicho forms and stopping for a brief breather after every third form -- just as we'd done when I tested for Il Gup a few months back.

Working out on sand is very difficult -- particularly, I find, when doing forms. The uneven, unsteady surface plays havoc with your balance, forcing you to maintain far more rigidity in order to maintain stances, making relaxation far more difficult and, as a result, really wearing you out. I was drenched with sweat by the time I'd gotten halfway through the Pyong Ahn forms, gasping for air when I reached Bassai, and could barely stand after I completed the never-ending horsestances of Naihanchi Cho Dan. And as I worked my way through my forms the sun rose behind me, bathing the sky in a soft blue glow as the moon slowly sank toward the water. By now there were a few early-risers strolling along the water, often giving me a curious glance and a wide berth.

When my workout was finished my friend Dean and I went took casual stroll along the beach, just to get the day started (for him) and to cool down after the workout (for me). As we walked, we saw dolphins cresting periodically along the shore, less than 25 feet away, having an early-morning snack of fish. We never did see them again the rest of the trip, much as I'd have liked to.

But I wondered why they happened along that particular morning. I like to think they were swimming along, gliding effortlessly through the waves, minding their own dolphin-y business, when they chose to be entertained/amused by some big somewhat less-than-graceful human up there on the beach that day, stomping around in the sand and yelling every now and then. Lord knows there were a few beachcombers who found me a curious sight: perhaps the dolphins did as well.

Mood: Amused
Now Playing: Nothing

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Deeeep ... Breaths ...

Man, this is a challenging day. Long week, long month -- I'm at the beginning of a fairly busy trade show season and have already mounted one large show, with at least 3 more of varying sizes barreling toward me at intimidating speed.

School is back is session, which has brought a welcome order back to our days but has added to usual laundry list of additional concerns, issues, and education-related tasks along with it. And Christine has lept with both feet back into the pre-work force, registering for primary school teacher certification and an additional collegiate math class that will expand her future employment opportunities. All good stuff, things that will lead to better days ahead.

But for now? It means the all-too-familiar not enough hours in the day feeling. That feeling that no matter what I accomplish in a day I've managed to leave something undone.

Very frustrating.

To top it off, my spectacular daughter Miranda has just had a birthday, crossing the threshold into double-digits. Ten years old.

Here she is at about 5:
Whoa. But let's get to that later.

For now, let's talk birthday parties. Almost TWO DOZEN kids at the pool party today, and now we've four 9-10 year old girls over for a sleepover party.

I've been through this before so I know the "sleep" portion of the description is entirely rhetorical. I'm not realistically expecting anything resembling a good night's sleep tonight, and that's fine. I'm used to being tired most days. The weirdest moment for me was when my daughter and one of her friends wanted to shower after the pool party and I realized -- very suddenly -- that I needed to stay on an entirely different floor until they -- particularly her friend -- finished and were dressed.

It was an odd, but crystal clear and startlingly self-evident realization. These kids are gently bumping up against the early stages of young womanhood, whether I'm ready or not, and I need to start setting down some fairly rigid boundaries, even if they aren't quite aware of why they're necessary.

So, odd fatherly moment. Not shocked, exactly, but a bit saddened. It feels a bit too soon. A sensation I am sure I share with thousands upon thousands of fathers before me. Hopefully with the good ones.

Here she is when she did her Locks of Love donation about a month ago:

Hard to believe what 5 years can do.

Anyway, we're two hours of Rock Band and about 1/3 of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix through the sleepover. I'm jotting this on my iPhone, trying to finish up before I need to make popcorn for the pre-pubescents. It's about 9:30, and I'm hoping to be asleep somewhere around 1:00-ish.

And what occurs to me is just how few of these evenings I might have left. How pretty soon a storm of hormones is going to change my relationship with my daughter irrevocably. It won't necessarily be better, or worse, but it will certainly make things entirely, completely, and irreversibly different.

And I'll just need to adjust.

Anyway, happiest of birthdays to my darling daughter Miranda. A remarkable child who will undoubtedly grow into an amazing young woman.

Soon. So soon.

Mood: A Tad Melancholy
Now Playing: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Training, and Results in the Real World

So, I had an interesting experience this weekend. For the first time since I began training in Tang Soo Do, I found myself unexpectedly engaged in an altercation, and I was able to call upon my training in order to defend myself.

Now, this is not quite as dramatic and action-film-esque as it might sound, but hear me out. It's pretty cool all the same.

Among my many duties at my small startup company is responsibility for designing and maintaining our corporate website. I've done a fairly substantial amount of work on it, using my content management system or choice, Joomla, and some fairly nice templates and extensions. However, I am in marketing and not in IT -- this is significant, in that while my work lives and functions on our corporate servers I am not responsible for maintaining the servers -- or the data stored on them. That's the IT guy's job.


Late Friday/early Saturday, some joker hacked into the website. Messed with the templates, locked out portions of the administrative console. Big pain in the ass, really. And of course, this occurs on a holiday weekend, when the very last place I want to be is the office. Alas, you do what you gotta do. So, I talk with some folks, we quickly realize the best thing to do is restore the website from a backup ASAP, and then upgrade Joomla to close the security hole that allowed this jerk in in the first place.

However once we got ahold of our IT guy, it quickly became clear that despite the most basic assumptions we all were making -- that the web site, which is the single most accessible server in any corporation, simply because it is DESIGNED to be accessed by the public -- was in fact not being backed up. At all. And the most recent clean image of the website we appeard to have available was from nearly 5 months ago.

So, I was a bit upset. And when I questioned him about the lack of updates he game me a nonsense answer, claiming that due to the way the server was placed on our network it was impossible to back it up. Which, is, well, absurd. Easy to backup? Perhaps not. But impossible? That's ridiculous.

And I called him on it. Didn't get nasty, just said "There's NO WAY to do it? I find that hard to believe." And then I headed to work to try to recreate 5 months of work without any notes whatsoever.

Half an hour later, our IT guy shows up, and he is smokin' at the ears. Slams his bag on the floor by his desk, shouts over the wall to me that he can get me a version of the website from the end of last month, and "Would that be better?" (emphasis for the sneering tone). I say, "Well, yeah. A lot better."

And then he starts shouting at me. Literally shouting at the top of his lungs "I don't like being called a f-in' liar. Are you calling me a liar?"

I was a bit surprised, and said -- loudly, as I had to shout over him -- "No, I didn't call you a liar. I think you made an excuse and we have to fix this problem so it can't happen again and I really can't believe there's no way to do it. Other companies seem to have a way -- so should we." Well, then he gets really nasty -- "OK, OK, let me explain the basics of networking 101 to you so you can understand OK? I'll take it slow"

And when I tell you this guy is literally screaming this at me, I am not exaggerating. At this point, I'm just sort of looking at him. I haven't left my chair. He's literally screaming at me from about 10 feet away. And he's shouting and fuming and fulminating and bloviating.

And I sat and waited for him to finish.

Then, a co-worker who was in the building interceded, basically sent IT man back to his desk to cool the hell down. And I just turned my chair around and went back to work. A few minutes later IT dude came over, calmer, and apologized. "I really crossed the line there." "Yes, yes you did." "I should never have yelled at you like that." "No, no you shouldn't have." "I was just really upset about the site being hacked." "I am, too. I don't want to be here on a weekend any more than you do. Please get the more recent version of the website restored so we can both try to salvage what's left of the day."

He came back and apologized about 5 more times. Got the webiste online, and left.

So, where was the training in this story? Well, 3 years ago, the story would have involved me screaming back, standing up, slamming my fists into tables, and then literally shaking and almost crying for several minutes when things settled down because I had lsot control of myself. I might have punched a wall, or thrown something. I probably wouldn't have punched the IT guy -- I've always been good at directing my anger at inanimate objects instead of people, no matter how much they may seem to deserve it at the time -- but if I'd gotten physical it might have prompted him to throw a punch, and then things would have gotten really ugly. I'm twice his size, and I'm strong as an ox when I'm mad.

Instead, I sat and thought about him as he yelled at me. I realized he was backed into a corner, angry and embarrassed at being exposed for failing to keep the servers adequately backed up and he was blowing smoke, trying to push the blame away from himself. And he felt that I had put him in the position -- when obviously, he did it himself. I was just paying part of the price for his error. And when he was done yelling, and walked away, I sat and thought about how upset he was, and how he's probably worried about his job, and how silly he's going to feel when he settles down, and how I hope it's soon, because I want to get this work done already and go home.

And after he apologized, we shook hands, and I got to work. 3 hours later I went home. I don't think my heart rate ever went above 80 during the entire confrontation.

So, I think I've seen my first true glimpse of pyang ahn. Of peaceful confidence. I never felt threatened, simply because I knew that for all his anger and rage he was simply not a real threat to me. I was prepared for him to attack, relaxed and certain that if he did try to come at me I was in control of the situation and could bring it to a swift conclusion without getting all that hurt in the process. Instead, I took a more placid and passive approach, allowed him to vent the rage he felt, and when he was done he could see clearly, could see his error, and we could progress forward.

Sa Bom Nim often says that the best self defense is no self defense, the best Tang Soo Do is the Tang Soo Do you don't have to use. And I saw the wisdom of this firsthand for the first time that afternoon.

And man, it was a good day.

Mood: Very tired
Now Playing: The Mavericks, "The Mavericks"

Friday, August 22, 2008

Worketty Work/Sum Beh Nim/41 Approaches

I've spent the better part of the past 2 weeks completely buried at work. The Director of Marketing I've worked under at my current job was let go a couple of Mondays ago, and as a result I've been scrambling to take control of the things he was in the middle of, or had been responsible for, etc.

So, yeah, it's been a busy 12-14 days. We've got a trade show coming up in about 3 weeks that he'd been taking point on (I was responsible for the next two, but he said he had a lot done and it would be easier to just finish running this one. I think the real reason had more to do with his history with the primary organizer of the event, but whatever), and unfortunately, when he was let go it became apparent that whatever planning he'd done had been done in his head, as no actual planning, design, reservations, or projects seem to have been undertaken. And with deadlines for early reservations expiring this week I had to move quickly to get things squared away in order to save our lil' company some much needed cash.

I think I'm on the other side of THAT particular nightmare now -- all advance orders have been placed, and I can now get on with the task of planning that actual booth layout, courting and coddling partners, playing kiss ass with vendors to try to get some special treatment, and so forth. With any luck I'll get this thing in shape and slam-dunk it, thereby HOPEFULLY setting myself up for something of a promotion sometime in the near-future, when we get a little more funding.

It's all very complicated. And not a little bit exhausting.


Got my second stripe in class a couple of Tuesdays ago. By all accounts my test was terrific and I knocked it out of the park. Which is nice. I have to admit it's a bit odd having other students bow to me as a senior student -- Sum Beh Nim -- now (in our dojang, the students bow to the senior 1st gup on the mat after bowing to the instructor and the senior dan). I thoguht I'd get a thrill out of it, but instead I feel a bit awkward. But still, it's fun. If anything it's helping to push me to put out extra effort during class, to work harder on my own performance and to take the role of senior student more seriously. It tends to put me in the mind of watching my juniors a bit more closely, and of trying to lend guidance when I can without being cocky about it.

It's a tricky role -- we've all known the guy who thinks he knows everything and wants to just keep pointing out your flaws so that he looks terrific in contrast. I really don't want to be that guy. I think the trick is to continually remember my kyum son, my humility. When I spot something in a junior that needs change or improvement, I try to make sure I explain how I used to do this same technique completely differently, and how and when I realized thaere was a different or better way to approach it. That more often than not I made the exact same mistakes they may be making for weeks and months before I gained insight into how or why it should be different.

I've never felt I'm anything special in Tang Soo Do -- quite the opposite, actually. I feel like I have very little natural ability, and whatever gains I've made have been due to working twice as hard (at least ...) as the people that seem to just "get it" naturally. As a result of these efforts I think I have developed some solid skills as a technician, if not any particular affinity or grace. I tend to know when thigns are technically right or wrong, and I tend to be able to articulate these things pretty well, but I firmly believe thatany student who commits to the art and puts the time I've put in would be just as apt, just as capable, just as accomplished. I'm nothing special. I just bust my ass more than some others.

I try to make sure I communicate this and keep this in mind when I work with my juniors, in the hopes that it will be apparent to the people I work with that I'm just trying to help, and I don't expect anyone to think that I'm anything all that special at all. That the things I try to show people are the results of hard work, distilled to a few things I can get right more often than not. I like to think I don't dispense pearls of wisdom so much as drops of sweat. And if you've worked out with me, you'll know that I sweat a lot -- if only all of that sweat was true knowledge.


So, Sunday will mark 41 years. No big observations this year. My job is great, my family is beyond fantastic, we are all healthy and doing well. We have a fantastic new house, one that I still occasionally wake up in and think "How the HELL did I wind up here?" I'm not walking around in a personal Nirvana or anything -- I spend a lot of time feeling spread far thinner than I'd prefer, money is tight thanks to our fabulous Bush-engineered economic meltdown, and I've seen more than a couple of friends fall by the wayside this past year: that last one continues to sting more than I expected it would, but there's literally nothing to be done about it. Are there things I change if I could? Sure. But all in all, this has been a terrific 41st year on the planet.

So, Happy 41st Birthday to me.

Mood: Full (big birthday lunch)
Now Playing: Assorted Artists, "Big Blue Ball"

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Made of Pain

Yeah, the title pretty much sums up how I feel today. Getting out of bed was a challenge, getting down the stairs even more so.

Everything hurts.

My Il Gup test was, in a word, grueling. A marathon of an exam, clocking in at over 5 hours start to finish, with only brief periods of rest throughout. To top it off, Master Riley's dojang was quite warm for much of the test, due to his accidentally forgetting to reset the A/C when it went off automatically at 1:00. Luckily we had ceiling fans moving plenty of air around, so it wasn't unbearable.

Line drills went on for a solid 30-40 minutes, followed immediately by jump and jump spin kicking drills, then right into forms. Forms clocked in around 45 minutes or so for the 5 of us testing for il gup, largely due to a number of candidates who were blanking or simply unprepared. Thankfully I was pretty solid throughout, making only a couple of minor errors.

Made one dumb error on Gicho Hyung Sam Bu (I didn't even realize I'd made it -- stepping out into a reinforced block instead of a low block when I turned to head up the center the first time). Master Riley called me out on it, and I know what the correct movement should be but was honestly unaware I'd done a different move. I asked permission to re-do it but they let me off the hook. Then, on my last form (Chil Sung Sahm Rho) I simply lost focus at the tail end of the middle of the form and was unsure of whether I'd done a move correctly, so I bowed out and re-did it. The judges aid they were pretty sure I hadn't screwed up, but I figure I'd already lost focus, so it would have only been a matter of time until I messed up anyhow. Better to just re-do it.

Then came my least favorite part of testing, horse stance punching. Endurance punching, for 45 seconds (usually actually a minute -- not sure how long they ran the clock on us yesterday). I was pretty solid on it this time, and didn't get too winded, so that was nice. Still, this part of testing always leaves me my most spent and deflated during the testing day. One step sparring and wrist grabs follow, so I always hope to be paried with a really good partner, someone who will help me to get my energy and spirit back up so I can finish strong.

And, well, that just wasn't the case yesterday. My partner had an almost complete lack of energy, particularly for a kid his age. Barely kicking above his knee, punching slowly and no where near my head or face, and generally demonstrating all the energy and discipline of a scarecrow. I take pride in my ability to kind of blow through my one steps, knocking them out hard and fast, with barely any pauses, back and forth between me and my partner until they're all done and we're both winded but proud. That was just not gonna happen with this kid, though. He was unsure of his technique, and this lac of confidence and focus just drained the life out both of us.

We got through one steps fine (at least I did), but after they were done all I wanted to do was just kind of punch the clock for the rest of the test. Get it done. Demonstrate and acceptable if uninspired improvised one step, blow through the wrist grabs (again, no energy, no focus, no confidence on his part), do an improvised self defense movement (got to do that one with someone a little more together, and had a bit of fun -- it was a double lapel grab, and I broke it with a doble high block, followed by a double knife hand to the throat, a knee strike to the face, dropped him to the matt, finished with a solid punch tot he head. No contact of course, but man, if there had been ...). Just get it done.

When it came time tos par, I was a bit apprehensive. I tore a ligament in my foot last week, one deep inside behind the ball of the foot that keeps the long bones of the foot together. It was hurting pretty constantly all through testing, but after about 4 hours of working out on it I really began to feel as though I had a 10 Penny nail stuck in my foot, especially when I bounced up on the ball of my foot. When I spar, I tend to do a lot of bouncing and rocking on the balls of my feet, so I knew it was going to be agony. As luck would have it, though, Master Riley excused anyone who'd attended Nationals last month from sparring. So yay!

Then we moved on to 2-on-1 sparring, and I realized I needed to think about whether I should take part. It's not really considered a necessary part of testing -- I've never seen anyone fail for not managing to perform well, and apparently it's only considered mandatory at the dan level. I'd been prepared to push through the pain for ordinary sparring, since at least it's more controlled and I could use techniques that would keep the weight off my right foot. But 2-on-1 is a completely different beast, with lots of quick lateral movement and direction changes: all of it would be hitting on pain spots. So I decided to just admit that I needed to wimp out on this: I asked to approach the judging table, explained that I would like to be excused from this portion of the test as I had an injury that was really giving me trouble, and was excused without a problem.

I kind of hated doing that, but at the same time I need to accept that sometimes my body is not going to cooperate, and I can't risk making things worse just to feed my ego.


Anyway, the test ended about an hour later, following some fairly harsh criticism by the judges regarding the lack of preparation and energy on the part of many of the testing candidates. Needless to say, no stripes were awarded yesterday, as many (most) of the candidates require some re-testing. This part of the test is always hard for me. It's not that I want a parade or anything like that, but when it comes down to it, I know I performed very well yesterday. I also know (as I was informed by 5 of the judges afterward) that I passed outright, and will not need to retest on anything for attain my rank.

The critiques by the judges were largely directed at those students who arrived unprepared, who were unmotivated. But of course, the result of that is that I get little or no feedback pertaining the my performance on test day. I get no real feedback on where I need to improve, what I did well, what I could have done better, because in contrast to some of the testing candidates, I was exemplary.

This is part of why I'm so relieved that this was the last test I'll be taking where I'm one of the only, if not the only adult testing in a group of children. My next test will be for cho dan, and I will be testing with at least 5 or 6 other adults from my dojang, as well as several other adults from our brother/sister dojangs in the area. And after 2.5 years of testing almost exclusively with kids, I can't wait.

Testing with kids is exhausting, not because they are so small and fast, but because they just don't bring energy, share energy, give energy back to the other people in the room. They don't understand what it feels like to honestly be at the end of your rope, really ready to drop, to really need the energy from a partner to get you going again. These last two testing experiences were grueling, and while they are obviously designed to be such, they don't need to be so frustrating.

So, yay me. I should have my stripe following my next class, and then I can begin counting the days for my long wait until I test for cho dan. I'm scheduled for May 2009. 9 solid months until then.

Doesn't seem so long at all.

Mood: Owie
Now Playing: Nothing

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Testing for Il Gup

Big day today. Having completed my latest 6 month waiting period, I've been invited to test for Il Gup (1st gup -- Red Belt with 2 blue stripes). This is the last rank before I am permitted to test for cho dan/blue belt, the Tang Soo Do equivalent of what people typically consider a "black belt." The common misconception is that being a "black belt" means you are finished, but infact it's more akin to being a High School graduate. Achieving the rank of cho dan simply demonstrates an understanding and ability to demonstrate consistently the fundamentals of our art. Post-dan training builds on these fundamentals to push us forward and upward.

Given that example, then, today is sort of like taking my SATs. A huge test, where I'm called upon to demonstrate each and every technique that makes up the Tang Soo Do Mi Guk Kwan curriculum on to my current rank. To whit:
  • Several dozen hand and foot techniques, in line drill formation. Single techniques and combinations
  • 10 Basic One Step Sparring Techniques (Il Soo Sik Dae Ryun)
  • 18 Intermediate One Step Sparring Techniques
  • About 20 or so self-defense techniques (Ho Sin Sool)
  • Improvised Il Soo Sik Dae Ryun and Ho Sin Sool
  • 12 forms (Hyungs -- 3 gicho, 5 pyang ahn, 3 chil sung, and bassai)
  • Several rounds of no-contact sparring (harder than it sounds)
  • Endurance horsestance punching drills (exactly as hard as they sound)
  • Terminology/philosophy/history questions
  • Breaking (two foot techniques, one hand technique, most with mulitple boards)
So, yeah. Big day. Test will probably run over 4-5 hours. I thk I'll be sleeping pretty deeply tonight.


Gotta say, watchng the opening ceremonies of the 29th Olympics in Beijing last night really put me in the right mindset for this test. The focus on precision, and beauty, and the seemingly endless series of contrasts of large and small, light and dark, many and one, fast and slow, and so on really exemplifies so much of what we strive for in our art. If I start to have a hard time today, I am going to try to bring to mind the image of those thousands of performers, wokring together with such precision and power and grace on the traditional Chinese drums, or while performing Tai Chi, or while dancing or moving together. I think that's an excellent source of inspiration, and of strength.


As far as preparation goes, I'm certain I'm ready for this test, at least in the broad skills and knowledge required. I've been spread so think over the past 6 weeks that I haven't been able to focus on the finer points of test prep as much as I'd prefer. My Korean terminology is shaky, and while I know my forms inside out, I still feel and rusty on some of the middle Pyang Ahns (Ee Dan and Sa Dan, specifically). I may very well freeze up or blank out on a couple of them, requiring me to bow out and try a second time. I may also screw up a line drill command or two.

I'm not going to sweat it too much, though -- I know this stuff, and I'm good at it. MY resources have been spread so think lately, tohugh, that I haven't been able to eat, drink, sleep, and breathe Tang Soo Do at the level I usually do. And that's OK -- my training has gotten every bit of attention I could dedicate to it, so I don't for one second feel I have not worked to prepare adequately. If I fumble a couple of times today, it's OK.


Anyway, as always test day comes with some papers. This time around I really feel like I punted on the papers -- I only received the invitation with the topics 12 days ago and again, just not enough time to devote to them. Still they cover the topics adequately, and as is my custom on this blog I have included them below.

How Do You Use Neh Khang Weh Yu Inside and Outside the Dojang?

A very large Oak was uprooted by the wind and thrown across a stream. It fell among some Reeds, which it thus addressed: "I wonder how you, who are so light and weak, are not entirely crushed by these strong winds." They replied, "You fight and contend with the wind, and consequently you are destroyed; while we on the contrary bend before the least breath of air, and therefore remain unbroken, and escape." -- Aesop, ~600BC

The principal Neh Khang Weh Yu, meaning "inside hard, outside soft," represents for me the concept of knowing when to stand firm in the face of challenges, but also knowing when to bend and adjust to forces you cannot resist. This concept is in many ways a synthesis of elements of both the 8 Key Concepts, as well as the 12 Tenets of Faith. By internalizing and focusing on adhering to these noble traits we can encourage Neh Khang Weh Yu in ourselves. In a sense, it is an example of the result that we can achieve by through training, discipline, and trying to adhere to the key concepts and tenets.

As for how I try to use Neh Khang Weh Yu, I feel this principal has very different meanings and uses for me inside the dojang, as a function of my training, as opposed to outside the dojang, in how I live my life. In the dojang, I see Neh Khang Weh Yu as most beneficial in helping me to not accept too much of myself too quickly. Between my steadily growing age and the steadily increasing demands of training as I've progressed, I've found that I need to simply accept that my progress will be slower, will take more time to sink in. In the Aesop fable, this can be seen in the way the reed accepts the power of the wind and bends to it. In the dojang I try to keep an attitude toward training, an attitude of Neh Kheng Weh Yu, that is similar. I try to accept that there are things I cannot just force to be right, that I must be patient and just move through, and that thinking of myself as flawless or more powerful than I am, or perhaps than I am ready to be just yet, can lead directly to failure. So, in this sense, I feel that in the dojang I use Neh Khang Weh Yu primarily as a way of encouraging my own attempts to focus on kyum son, in neh, and (as always, it seems) shin chook.

Outside the dojang, however, I feel that I try to use Neh Khang Weh Yu in a far more outwardly oriented manner, largely in the way in which I deal with others and in how I try to conduct myself. In this sense, Ithnk it is more akin to having a kind and generous spirit with others, but also having a solid and firm set of core beliefs on which to fall back when times get tough. I feel that our training helps to instill core values that can carry us through life, but also encourages us to be flexible, to not be so rigid in our dealings with others.
Again, if you look at Aesop's fable, we see how the oak tree can't help but judge the reeds by his own standards -- they are weak, and he sees himself as strong even though he's been destroyed by his own inflexible and unyielding manner. He's still blind to his own weaknesses, simply because he is too arrogant to see otherwise. Conversely, the reeds are confident in themselves and in their stature, their limitations, and their strengths. In many ways Neh Khang Weh Yu then represents our pyang ahn, the sense of confidence and peacefulness that comes from knowing our strengths and not feeling constantly compelled to prove them to others.


Discuss Chil Sung, Their Meaning, History and Relevance

The Chil Sung Hyung, meaning "Seventh Star Path" were created by Kwan Jhang Nim Hwang Kee. Created and first taught by Grandmaster in 1952, the Chil Sung forms are said to have been named for the Little Dipper, which has seven stars, and which terminates with the star Polaris, or the North Star. It is also said that the name Chil Sung refers in some ways to Hwang Kee himself, as his childhood name could be translated as "Star Child." According to the story one night, after having spent some "private time" with her husband, Grandmaster's mother went out and looked up in the sky, saw the North Star, and immediately knew that she was pregnant. When her son was born later, she named him "Star Child" in recognition of this moment. While I can't really find anything to support this anecdote, it makes for a pretty cool story nonetheless.

The seven Chil Sung hyung are designed to act as a guide and path for students of Tang Soo Do as they move through their training. This is why the Little Dipper, and specifically Polaris, are so relevant and meaningful a symbol of the Chil Sung forms. Much as the North Star guided sailors and other travelers on their long journies, the Chil Sung forms are designed to help us to move forward in our training. I feel that the lessons that we are taught through the Chil Sung forms are most evident in the manner in which these hyung combine slow and fast movements, soft and hard energy. These techniques encourage us to develop and integrate Weh Gung (external energy - fiery, with hard, explosive movement) and Neh Gung (internal energy - softer, slower, more relaxed and peaceful. Characterized by water), with the ultimate goal of developing our spiritual selves, spiritual energy, Shim Gung.


Anyway, wish me luck. Hopefully I'll have some nice pictures to show later.

Mood: A little tense

Now Playing: Nada

Monday, July 28, 2008

AT&T U-verse Install Saga

Important Note: After reading this, be sure to check out this entry with current updates and reviews of the U-Verse service.

7/16: Place order to have AT&T U-verse TV, Internet, and Voice installed and activated in our new home. Instruct them to transfer our old telephone number to the new home. Appointment is made for the 25th.

7/17: Inform Time Warner Cable that we will no longer be in their merciless evil thrall. After several minutes of wheedling and making offer after offer to get us to stay put, they surrender. When we wrap up the call, though, they mention that they have not yet received a number transfer request from AT&T. We thank them and bid them good day.

7/18: Call AT&T to let them know that Time Warner has not yet gotten the number transfer request. They assure us everything will work its way through the system by the 25th.

7/25, 8:30AM: AT&T technician arrives to complete the 4-6 hour installation process, which we all agree will probably take substantially less, since we have a full structured wiring package and he won't need to run a bunch of CAT-5 cable as a result.

7/25, 11:30AM: We realize this will not matter, since AT&T apparently has forgotten to connect our house to the fiber network, and the technician has to stand around and wait for several hours until another AT&T tech. can come out and run fiber to the house. Regardless, the installation is completed Friday, although it takes nearly 10 hours to get it done. Everything appears to be working fine.

7/26, 9:00AM: Realize that although we have a dial tone, the phone line is not working correctly -- we are unable to receive call, or to make long distance calls. Spend 2+ hours playing phone tag and sitting on hold, to discover that the number transfer request was never submitted. It will take approximately 7-10 days to transfer tour old number to U-verse voice. However, the support person suggests we have a service technician come over and switch us to an analog line, which will enable us to get our old number again immediately, and then we would switch it over to a digital line in 7-10 days, once the transfer went into effect. We groan, as this will require yet another technican to visit, and at 8:00AM on a Sunday no less, and agree.

7/26, 11:15AM: Head upstairs to check email, and find that in addition to turning off our VoIP service, AT&T has somehow broken our connection to the internet as well. Spend 2+ hours playing phone tag and sitting on hold, escalating this problem to a level 2 technician who knows what he's talking about before getting him to acknowledge that yes, AT&T screwed up yet again. He sets up an appointment for another AT&T tech to come to my house on Sunday morning at 8:00AM, this one to be responsible for making sure the internet access problem is resolved. Meanwhile, I have no phone or internet service. I am told I will be credited for my first month of service on both of these, so that's nice. But still.

7/27, 8:30AM: Two AT&T service techs arrive within minutes of each other and get to work. Within an hour they have the wiring straightened out, and assure me that once AT&T Voice releases the number to them everything should begin working again.

7/27, 11:00AM: Turns out AT&T Voice doesn't operate on Sunday. Both techs spend hours trying to escalate this issue to get SOEMONE to release the number to them, to no avail. Much apologizing ensues, they depart and keep me informed of any status changes throughout the day. Regardless, I have no phone or internet access for yet another day. I also ge the number of a level 2 customer support center that will be able to more adequately compensate me for my time and trouble.

7/28, 10:00AM: AT&T service tech from yesterday arrives to hopefully resolve the situation.

7/28, 10:30AM: Following a lengthy chat with customer support, we are promised rather sizable discounts on our TV service costs for the next 6 months, as well as an ongoing discount on our internet service for as long as we maintain service with AT&T. And a $50 coupon for our next month's service. If nothing else, this ongoing inconvenience will save me a bit of cash.

7/28, 11:30AM: AT&T is able to restore internet access, but is unable to fix things with the phone. Apparently we will not be getting an analog line, but will instead have to wait until 8/1 to get a TEMPORARY digital number, after which we will get our old telephone number on 8/4. Needless to say, both of these events will apparently require the presence of an AT&T technician in our home. So, two more days where my wife will need to sit around waiting for a service visit. But AT&T also agrees to kick us $150 toward all the cell phone bills we will be racking up in the meantime. So that's nice.

Sigh. Updates as they occur.

Mood: Vaguely exasperated
Now Playing: The Hold Steady, "Stay Positive"

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

New House, Complete and Utter Exhaustion

The closing on the house went fine, although it took a little longer than I'd have preferred. For some ridiculous reason the buyers didn't seem to think that taking an hour or two off of work to close on their home purchase was a good idea, so even though we spent the entire morning signing forms, writing checks, submitting paperwork, etc. the entire loan funding process didn't complete until almost 5:00 in the afternoon.

Regardless, the funding completed Monday evening, we received keys and a garage door opener for the new place, and we've spent the last couple of days pack-muling lots of random stuff over. We figure that we can hopeuflly save a few hundred bucks on moving expenses by getting as many boxes out of the place as possible and only using the movers to get the great big heavy stuff over (fridge, washer/dryers, piano, assorted furniture). Given how much extra cash we wound up out-of-pocket on Monday we could really use the extra cash now!

Anyway, lots to do, little time to do it in. With all the vacations I've been taking I can't really afford to be away from work anymore, so I've been coming into the office early, then leaving at about 3:00 to go and take care of house stuff. Basically it feels like I've got two full time jobs right now. Plus I'm trying to cram Tang Soo Do classes in when I can, as I'm supposed to test for 1st gup in a couple of weeks and I need to keep my edge. Gah.

We should actually be in the new house tomorrow night -- very exciting, of course. Got our new fridge delivered today, and we'll be getting AT&T U-Verse installed on Friday. Then on Tuesday our new family room furniture arrives.

Hopefully the next day I'll hit the Lotto so I can actually pay for all this crap.

Mood: Harried
Now Playing: Coldplay, "Viva la Vida, or Death and All His Friends"

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Home Stretch / TSD Nationals in Fast Forward

Well, we're down to about 30 hours and counting on the sale of our house, followed immediately by the purchase of the new place. The process continues to be anything but soothing, of course. Thanks to some oversights by our wonderful real estate agent and plenty of small individual fees that have added up to a far from inconsiderable total sum, we'll be out several thousand more dollars than we expected once the dust settles tomorrow. Personally, I think that if she had any class at all she'd trim a percentage point off her fee, but I just don't have the energy to push her on it right now.

This entire process will leave us almost completely broke for a few days, until some escrowed taxes and insurance fees that we are owed are refunded, which is a little crazy-making. But, hey, we're buying a house, and if there's anything I've learned after buying and selling each of my two previous homes it's that it's always gonna cost a lot more than you expected.

So, anyway, good vibes tomorrow morning are requested and appreciated. And if anyone has a money tree I could shake for a day or two, I'd be very grateful.


Yesterday my family and I attended the 13th Annual All Tang Soo Do Internationals in Arlington, TX. Our original plan had been to head there Thursday morning, attend training sessions, help ring coordinate and whatnot during the dan competitions on Friday, compete on Saturday, attend the banquet Saturday night, and then hit Six Flags with a bunch of friends on Sunday. Which really would have been great -- there are just so many terrific folks in our organization, people I look forward to getting together with whenever we have an event, people who present really excellent role models for my children to emulate. Good times are pretty much guaranteed.

Unfortunately, given the amount of stuff we need to do in preparation for closing tomorrow and the fairly significant lack of funds we're currently having to cope with we had to rethink that plan. A leisurely 4 day Tang Soo Do-oriented weekend was whittled down to a 36-hour flurry of activity overnight trip, with us driving up early Friday and returning immediately following the close of the gup tournament on Saturday.

Frankly, even doing this was a struggle -- we are very tight on time right now, and spent half of Friday running back and forth to our hotel room, juggling emails and phone calls to real estate agents and mortgage brokers for much of the afternoon. Plus we really can't afford to blow through a lot of cash right now. However, seeing as this Nationals was being held in our region, and good friends of mine are among the regional leadership, I felt that I would be letting them down if we didn't at least come up and show our support for the organization, both local and national. So we sucked it up and did what we could afford to do.

And I'm glad we did. While this event wasn't the experience I'd have preferred, it was still a terrific time and I'm proud to have done what I could to take part in it.

The dan competition was pretty fantastic, although in my opinion the judges may have been allowing the levels of contact to get a little too out of hand, resulting in a couple of fairly serious injuries to some folks from our dojang. My friend Daniel wound up with a knee injury (to a knee that was previously injured) that will likely require surgery and may result in a fairly lengthy recovery period. Another student, one of our kid ee dans, got a solid punch to the throat that pretty much laid her out and having a lot of difficulty breathing and left us all very concerned for the better part of an hour. Luckily, in that case at least, she recovered once she was able to rest and calm herself down back at the hotel, and she was playing in the pool and fine later that night. Still, no doubt a very frightening event for her and her parents.

I wound up missing almost all of the Masters competition Saturday morning, as if was fairly brief (not a lot of kodanjas competing this year) and I had to get us checked out of the hotel and packed up in the car before the gup competitions began. Frustrating -- I found out afterward that one of the masters had performed form that features two fans, and I've heard that this form when done correctly is simply astonishing to watch. So, big disappointment there.

At least I managed to watch Master Redfield do his form with the kwan dao -- a very large Chinese battle axe/pole arm. It's a big, heavy weapon -- even the tournament version, with one of those thin metal blades instead of a heavy steel blade, weighs in excess of 6 or 7 pounds, and "real" ones start at around 14 or 15 pounds. This may not sound like much, but try sringing a 5 pound sledge for a couple of minutes and you'll quickly realize just how heavy 5 pounds is. Then, add huge sweeping movements, spins, kick, somersaults, and so forth to the mix, all while keeping this big heavy stick positioned correctly, and I think you'll get the idea.

As for the gup portion of the tournament, given how busy we've been, none of us have had much time to really train in the past three weeks, so we all tried to enter the tournament with our expectations lowered. Ordinarily, I train a minimum of 5 times a week leading up to a tournament, trying to work on my form, tweaking and polishing it to the point I feel it represents my absolute best effort. Or just running through sparring drills, working on combinations, trying to come up with some new stuff I haven't used in sparring before and see how well it works on its feet. But this time around that was just not possible.

Add to this the fact that both Christine and Trevor just received their red belts last month, and have only been able to attend a few classes since then, and they had every reason to be nervous. Both of them accepted the challenge with some really solid grace though -- both Christine and Trevor competed with bassai, a form they only learned 3 weeks ago. Trevor managed to grab a medal for his efforts -- I know he made some fairly significant mistakes, so happily he was in a small grid and got a medal (bronze) anyhow. He also sucked it up and sparred, and got a nice silver medal for that as well.

Christine did a great job with hers -- only one small error that I spotted. She actually tied for third, in a group of 6 or 7 red belt "senior" women (35 or older), but once the low and the high scores were added back in she lost to a 2nd gup woman by .1 point. Frustrating, since she got a seriously low-ball score from one judge (.4 lower that her next lowest score) and when it was added back in to break the tie that's what really screwed her out of 3rd. But, well, what can you do? Master Riley once told us that if you haven't been "robbed" at a Tang Soo Do tournament, you just haven't been to enough tournaments yet. It happens. It's frustrating. But you learn and you move on. I hope this doesn't completely put her off competing moving forward. I doubt she'll even want to spar competitively, but I think she has tremendous capability in forms and could do well if she keeps trying.

Miranda, unfortunately, came away from this one empty-handed, which shook her up a bit. For some reason, they combined all of the boys and girls in her age/rank group into one grid, which pushed the number of competitors for those three medals up to 9-10. I didn't see her form, but judging by the scores she mush have made a couple of mistakes -- she wasn't upset by that, though. In fact, right after she went, they need a volunteer to perform along with the final competitor (Kayleigh, an other student from our dojang and the only other student that tests with me) and Miranda immediately got up and did her form again. In fact, she even said she did a better job the second time around. Oh well.

Sparring, though, really annoyed/upset her. She only got to spar once, had to spar Kayleigh, lost by a close score, and Kayleigh even told her right after the match that the judges weren't calling half of her points. That happens -- again, if you compete, you're gonna get robbed from time to time -- but it's a bit tough for a 9 year old to process. Honestly, I don't understand why they made such a large sparring group for the kids when they had enough boy sand girls to keep them in sex-based grids and still have 4 or 5 competitors in each. I have a hard time believing they were running short of medals or something. Just seemed like a random decision that caused a bunch of kids some heartache.

We actually had a similar issue in the senior men's division sparring. We had a group of 7 guys, 35 or older. Of those we had 4 guys who would fit comfortably in the "heavyweight" grid (myself included) and 3 who would be solid middleweights. Then, in the men's division (18-34) there were a total of 3 guys, 2 middleweights and 1 heavyweight. Now, given those numbers, I would have expected the tournament coordinators to do one or more of the following: a) group the 18-34s into a single group (leaving the 1 heavyweight -- my friend Rich -- at something of a disadvantage, but that happens sometimes. At least he's young!) b) divide the senior men into a middleweight group and a heavyweight group c) combine the men and senior men and divide us all into 1 middleweight and 1 heavyweight group (again harsh on the older guys, but at least we'd be fairly well matched size wise).

However, none of these things occurred. Instead, they divided the 3 18-34 guys into a middleweight and a heavyweight group (a two person grid and a one person grid) and kept all 7 of the seniors in a single grid. It was, to my thinking and that of the other seniors, very weird. So, basically, the two middleweight men would fight for a gold and a silver, the heavyweigh man would fight and get a gold regardless of outcome, and the seven seniors would fight over a gold, silver, and bronze with 4 guys going home empty handed. Very odd choices. Regardless, I did well, grabbing a silver in the sparring. Good fights with two guys (I got the buy on the first round, so advanced to the second round automatically -- nice to be on the good end of the buy for a change). The match for gold was great, too -- solid fighting, with a final score of 2-1. In fact, I'm fairly certain it would have been a tie had a side kick I threw been visible to more of the judges -- the ring coordinator even said he was certain it landed, but he just couldn't get evnough confirmation to allow the point. I'm fine with it -- it was a great match, my opponent (Robert, from New Braunfels) sparred very well, with good speed and technique, and did the same. We were gentlemen all, and I'm proud to have taken second in this group.

But best of all, for me, was the forms tournament. Competing against 7 other men, with Chil Sung Sahm Rho -- a form that presents me with a lot of challenges. Again, my expectations were low -- I'd barely worked on it for 3 weeks due to all the scheduling issues I've had lately, and as a result some problems I used to have but had resolved were resurfacing. Suddenly, I was stepping with the wrong foot at times, preparing incorrectly at other times. It was mess last week.

But yesterday, when I stepped in the ring, something just ... clicked. there are a couple of moves that are key to making Sahm Rho look good -- the biggest one being this pair of really tricky double-inside/outside blocks, followed by a side kick with then finished with a retreating double knife hand block. Very odd transitions, requiring a lot of practice and balance to pull off. And they're done about 2 feet away from the judges, so if you mess them up, it's gonna be obvious. Conversely, if you do them well,they're going to be seen clearly.

And, well, I managed to do them very well yesterday. Grabbed the gold, and with some great scores as well. The first time I've ever competed where I received all scores in the 8's -- lowest was 8.2, if I recall (it's a bit fuzzy -- I was kind of freaking out and trying not to show it). Got a hardy round of applause from the other competitors, and lot of compliments as well. Best of all for me, though, was that I'd managed to do this with a Chil Sung form, the forms which consistently vex me. In a fairly large group of competitors. And at Nationals, no less! Definitely a proud moment, and something I'll savor for a while to come.

So, now it's on to the closing, and the packing, and the moving, and the unpacking. And then two weeks later it's my 1st gup test.


Mood: Frazzled
Now Playing: Nothing

Saturday, July 05, 2008

And ... Exhale

An agreement has been reached. An amendment has been mutually agreed to and signed. We're out a little more cash at closing, but not so much as to make it worth fighting over and honestly their items are valid and they're being entirely reasonable. Some leaks that need fixing. Some cracks that need filling. Some windows that need reglazing. Some screens that need replacing. But all in all, minor stuff.

I could probably fix a lot of this stuff myself and save a few hundred bucks overall, but with such a small amount of time available before closing and so much else that needs to be done, it's simply not worth it.

Anyway, the agreement is complete. We're selling and buying houses in 16 days. Holy crap! Anyway, time to drink some champagne.

Mood: Elated, exhausted
Now Playing: Nothing

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Moving Forward, Standing Still

Deep breaths.

Remain calm.

This will all be over soon.

The prospective home owner came by with his boss (who is a civil engineer) and the buyer's agent to look over the foundation today and things went well. Thankfully, we seem to have been able to settle their concerns about the state of our house's foundation by burying them in copious amounts of paperwork, inspection reports, and warranty certificates. It appears that we are moving forward, and that they will finally be hitting us with a list of items they'd like to be addressed and/or corrected prior to closing.

Given that said closing is supposed to occur in exactly 18 days, and that there is a Federal holiday this weekend, after which we'll be on vacation for 8 days, this list cannot come soon enough. We want to have the chance to work with them to either fix issues or come up with a dollar amount we can kick to them at closing to make this all just go away, but we're awfully tight on time.

I think we'll be fine -- they seem reasonable, if typically skittish as first-time buyers tend to be. I get the impression that their agent is helping to keep their expectations for a "gently used 16 year old house" reasonable, so that's good. We've taken good care of this place, but of course there are repairs and improvements that should be made -- that's home ownership for you, especially when you're buying an older home at a good price. It's crazy to think that you're going to get a new-construction quality, move in ready place for the price per square foot they're paying. Regardless, while I want their first home buying experience to be a good and rewarding one, I'm not going to go broke ensuring they're happy. We'll hammer out something that meets at least half of each sides desires and then, hopefully, things will come to a nice conclusion.

This week has been one of those times when I truly thank God for finding Tang Soo Do. I've trained every night this week, and that 90 or so minutes each night has been the only part of my days (and nights for that matter, considering how little sleep I've been getting) where I managed to stop worrying and fretting over this damn process and just escape. While the stress levels have been extraordinary that time training has been a perfect break where I could get out of my head and just do something self-contained. So even though the worries tended to return within a few minutes of walking off the mat, that time spent not thinking about them made it so much easier to keep them under control when they returned.

Now, I wouldn't consider my performance this week all that great -- I've been unfocused, and a bit dense at times. But still -- the benefits were immense.

Mood: Pretty freakin' exhausted
Now Playing: Coldplay, "Viva la Vida"

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Making Diamonds

It's been a real pressure-cooker of a week, let me tell you. Two weeks back Christine and I headed out to Napa and San Francisco for a long-overdue vacation, just the two of us. Work has been crazy, and we've had lots of generalized stress what with our house being on the market for over three months, but generating little to no interest. The kids are out of school, which of course upends every last bit of structure and scheduling we strive so hard to put in place during the school year. Plus. we haven't gone away for a vacation just the two of us in, ages -- not for more than a day or two tops in at least 5 years, not for a week since before the kids were born.

So, while we were in San Francisco (following three nights in Napa -- nice, but it is in my opinion very overrated -- next time around we'd just stay in SF and do a day trip to the wineries or Calistoga) we were discussing our house, and how it's really looking like we'll be staying put. Not really a big deal, to us -- we really like our house. We were just hoping we could flip it for a decent price, and get into a newer community where we would have access to a pool and/or clubhouse for the kids. But since it looked like that wouldn't be happening, we started planning a re-finance, followed by a nice low-interest home improvement loan to redo the kitchen, maybe put down some nice hardwood floors in the bedrooms, replace the carpet on the stairs and in the game room, and maybe put in a deck and spa in the yard. Then, just stay put for a few more years.

Honestly, we were totally fine with this. After showing the house for three months, we were pretty fed up with not having any of our pictures on the walls, of having to have the place ready to be shown at the drop of a hat every single day, of just not feeling like we were in our house anymore. We started counting down the days until the contract expired.

And then, of course, people started viewing the place. In droves. In 5 days, 11 different people came in. That all happened while we were in San Francisco. We arrived home last Monday, and then on Tuesday found out that we had an offer pending. A perfectly reasonable offer, within a few thousand of our low-end target price. A good deal for the buyer, but one that would make us a healthy chunk of change to move over into a new house.

The problem, of course, being that we didn't have a new house in mind. And the buyers wanted to close by the end of July. So, panic. We tell our agent that we don't kno what to do, that none of the houses she's been showing us are within our price range, and that we don't know what we can really expect as far as bargaining power to drive down prices to what we can afford int his market. The market here is in a certain amount of turmoil, and a lot of people can't really afford to drop prices significantly because they are trapped in an adjustable rate mortgage and they don't have enough equity.

So, we kind of flip out, but then realize that some of our requirements for the specific location of the new house have changed (we're keeping our kids in their current elementary school, regardless of where we move, rather than trying to get them into the new elementary school that is opening nearby) and that enables us to cast a slightly larger net. Our agent, who has, I must say, been mostly useless in this process, finally comes through. It just so happens she has a couple of new listings we might be interested in. We hop in the car, still trying to decide what to do about the offer on our place, and go see ...

... pretty much the perfect house. Priced to sell, and right in the near-top end of our budget. Less than a year old. Fully warranted. Gorgeous. Walking distance to a pool. Plenty of trees. It's even partially painted inside in colors we love. We realize that this might be it, and -- after fretting and hemming and hawing and just generally freaking out for about 45 minutes -- decide to accept the offer on our place (with a slight counter offer, but nothing drastic) and make a good offer on the new place (slightly below asking, but not much).

Keep in mind, this all happened, beginning to end, in about 3 hours. We've been home from San Francisco for all of 22 hours total, and everything is turned completely upside-down. In good ways, mind you, but still. Clearly, whatever relaxation and serenity was gained on our fabulous trip has flown.

Since then, offers have been accepted all around, inspections on both properties have been done, contracts signed, paper exchanged, and money spent. The inspection on the place we're buying was nearly flawless -- the place is a gem, well built, in great shape, with solid quality throughout. In fact, he seemed almost worried we'd think we wasn't doing a good job -- that we'd figure if he didn't give us a laundry list of problems we'd feel like he hadn't been thorough enough. After walking me through the list of things he'd checked and showing me what he found, though, I felt fine. Looks like our house was built by a solid and professional general contractor who actually wanted to build a quality home. And we're getting it for a freakin' STEAL -- built less than a year ago, but selling for a solid 20% or so lower than the price of exactly the same house, currently under construction on spec 2 blocks away. I'm becoming convinced that it is built on an Indian Burial Ground or Pet Sematary. But on the up side I like spooky stuff and this way I'll never have to pay for a new puppy ....

We've hit a snag on selling our place, though -- probably a non-issue, but still a worry point. The previous owners of our house has some foundation repairs done -- which are warranted for the lifetime of the house and the warranty would of course pass to the new owners at sale. However, a corner of our patio (poured concrete -- nothing fancy) cracked near the foundation and has dropped a bit (3-4 inches or so, maybe a bit more). This happened during last winter, and we were worried that the foundation might have settled so we had a foundation inspector from the repair company come out and check it before putting the house on the market.

The inspector said that actually the foundation was solid as a rock -- no sign of any settling at all. instead, it looked like some of the heavy rains we'd had in the past year got under the patio corner and caused some subsidence, allowing that corner of the patio concrete to settle a bit. Not terribly attractive, but in no way an indication of problems with the home. So, whew. Well, anyway, the guy who inspected our house for the buyers saw the patio problem and told them "look, I'm not a foundation inspector -- you need to have the foundation repair folks come out and check that and get a report from them." And of course they want that -- perfectly reasonable. they'd be crazy not to get assurances on the state of the foundation before proceeding. Their agent, of course, is talking tough and being a bit reactionary, but, well, that's his job.

I'm not worried, really -- after all, we just had the inspector out 3 months ago, things are fine, and we're not seeing ANY problems inside the house that would indicate settling (splits in the walls, for example). But still, it adds a bit of new stress to the pot. And we don't really know what else their inspector found -- this is obviously their Number 1 issue and they won't bother discussing any minor stuff until after they clear this hurdle. When the inspector comes out, I'm sure he'll tell them what he told us -- no sign of any settling of the foundation whatsoever, the warranty is in place for the life of the house should any settling ever occur in the future, and the support system they put in place to fix the problem in the first place is in fact stronger than the rest of the unaffected foundation and could probably survive and hurricane, tornado, plague of locusts, thermonuclear device, and so forth. Hopefully we'll be able to get an inspector out today -- if not, it might have to wait until Thursday, which would suck. We're targeting a closing on both the sale and the new house buy for less than 3 weeks from now, so any time lost is a big deal.

So, yeah, these days I'm feeling quite a bit like Cameron in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Quoting Ferris, "Pardon my French, but Cameron is so tight that if you stuck a lump of coal up his ass, in two weeks you'd have a diamond." In our case, I'm hoping the diamond will come in about 3 weeks or so, but you get the idea.

Anyhow, good thoughts please -- I could use the soothing energies, folks.

Mood: Anxious
Now Playing: Thomas, Newman, "Wall-E: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack"