Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Eating Sewickley (and elsewhere)

The Lovely Bride and I have just returned from a week in Pittsburgh, a short visit for family and friends. We were camped out west of the city, on the formerly industrial district of Neville Island, near the town (sorry, village) of Sewickley, which has always been a bit upscale but recently has seen a boom in restaurants. And this time we've eaten a bunch in Sewickley. Here's our report:

Vivo Kitchen- On the main drag (Beaver Road) in Sewickley, has a patio that a few years back was probably an adjacent building that has since been removed. Upscale American cuisine. Seasonal menu. Fresh ingredients. Gates to keep most of the street noise out. Human skulls in the firepit (what's the story on THAT?). I had the bison, the LB soft shell crabs (which she rarely gets outside of sushi places) Really good stuff. Recommended.

Cafe Des Amis - Took my parents (who don't do this sort of thing) to this for lunch. The LB chose it off the web site. Turned out to be a bakery on a back alley, with counter service. The food was excellent (my dad liked the BLT, the LB thought the french onion soup was worth it). The bread was baked in-house.We caught the tail end of the lunch rush, so it was noisy at first, but tapered off.

Mambo Italia - Set up in what looked like a renovated car dealership with a great roll-top garage door, which was open, allowing dining on the sidewalk, which is what we did. Food was good (penne with sausage for me and a Cesare salad) but the service was extremely hit and miss (I'm looking at YOU, Chad). Missed my salad and a wedding soup to the table next door on the first bounce. Still has to work some of the bugs out.

Paradise Island Bowl - You're serious? A BOWLING Alley? You're recommending a BOWLING ALLEY? Yep. Located at the far western end of Neville Island in the Ohio River, right next to the Robert Morris College sports center (miniature golf!) it has a great parking lot patio (a strong point in May, when it is not thunderstorming) with a view of the river. Excellent cheese steak on a flatbread, very good po'boy. It is a good summer evening place.

Vocielli's Pizza - This one is a chain, and there was one down the street when my mom-in-law lived in Upper St. Clair. This one is in Sewickley. Good sandwiches, mighty fine pizza, very fast. We use it on the days when we're too tired to experiment.

Bea's Taco Town - OK, not in Sewickly, but rather on Banksville Road in the South Hills, in one of the low buildings along the side of the road. Did lunch with an old friend there - his suggestion, since his favorite Thai place had just been shut down by the health inspectors. However, Taco Town was great - double-wrapped street tacos. Great fish, shrimp, and chorizo. Will go back to try some of the others.

Ichiban Hibachi and Sushi Bar - Decent sushi in Pittsburgh? You betcha. Situated in a strip mall in Robinson Town Center, went there with Kate's sister and her family (usually my brother-in-law makes a mean backyard grill, but that evening there were threats of heavy rain). Really good and affordable. My only complaint is actually the rolls are TOO large, making it hard to take them in one bite.

Eleven - Our sole downtown entry this time, where the Strip District abuts the downtown area at the convention center, near the History Museum (trust me, any 'Burgher will tell you those directions make perfect sense). This is the high-class joint that we've been to before. Took my nephew for lunch, since he wanted to scope it out for his wife. High-end and good, even for a lunch menu. Had the finest lobster roll in many years there - right temperature (many are tooth-deadeningly cold), right texture (too many are too creamy), and stuffed deep within the roll (some are an open-faced sandwich with a lobster topping). Pricey. Bring a tie.

Bellevue Dairy Queen - My grandparents lived in Bellevue, and as a child I may have been taken here for a treat. Still here, still a tiny, tiny building, located just between Sewickley and Pittsburgh to make it a good stopping point for a reward for dealing with Pgh traffic. Good cones. But you know, it's a Dairy Queen.

More later,

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Play: Family Matters

Familiar by Danai Gurira, Directed by Taibi Magar, Seattle Rep through May 27.

Where is your home? Is it where you rest your head? Where your family is? Where your heritage is? Is it what makes you YOU?

Yeah, that's the sort of thing I'm thinking about in the wake of Familiar, by Danai Gurira. Ms. Gurira is a now-well-known actor from things like The Walking Dead (Michonne) and Black Panther (Okoye). But I'm going to concentrate here on her writing, despite the fact that the curtain call included the Wakandan salute. Because her writing is really, really good.

The central thrust of the play is similar to that of The Humans, from the start of this season. A family gets together and argues. In this case the family is from Zimbabwe (shortened to Zim throughout), and living in Minneapolis. Tendi (Sha Cage), the eldest daughter, a successful lawyer, is getting married. Her betrothed is Chris (Quinn Franzen), who is white, but that's a not big thing here. Or rather, there are bigger things going on. Chris and Tendi are both evangelicals, though she was raised Lutheran, though that's not the big thing here. Tendi's mother (Dr. Marvelous Chinyaramwira) is sort of cheesed off by this, since none of the family is in the wedding party. Father Donald Chinyaramwira (Harvy Blanks) bears up under his determined wife. Sister Nyasha (Aishe Keita), a struggling singer/songwriter and Aunt Margaret (Austene Van), who does direct sales and drinks (a lot of drinking in this play), descend on the household. 

And then someone invites Aunt Anne (Wandachristine) from Zimbabwe, Marvelous' defiant oldest sister who convinces the couple to undergo the roora, a Zimbabwe tradition where a bride price is set which the groom pays (sort of a reverse dowry in the western sense). Protip to all young couples considering marriage - when someone says you should engage in a family tradition, check out that tradition fully before saying yes.

So, we have a powderkeg here - Mother Marvelous wants nothing to do with old country tradition. Worse, Aunt Anne threatens Marvelous's own position as domineering matriarch. Nyasha wants to know more about her heritage, Tendi wants to know when Nyasha is going to get a real job. Both Donald and Margaret drink and try to stay out of the way. Chris is clueless but trying, and in performing the roora, is called upon to produce a negotiator, who ends up being his even more hapless brother Brad (a completely comic Michael Wieser).

And it all works, in a way that The Humans fails to. Each of these characters have their own agency, their own arcs, their own identity. Everybody gets a moment, every actor gets the chance to show that their character owns (or deserves to own) their own life. Families squabble and celebrate, schism are between generations and heritages, secrets are revealed, and the action ricochets from slapstick to pathos.The end result it to produce not an easy, simple picture but a collage of different experiences the builds to form a cohesive unit. The family bends but does not ultimately buckle.

The set is one of those mini-mansions common to successful professionals, and the Rep continues its run this season with double-stages, upper and lower, but has it make sense within the universe of the play itself. It looks like one of the upper-middle-class house beautiful abodes. Oddly, some of the sight lines are blocked from characters stacked in front of each other, which is s rarity for a Rep productions. Another challenge: the actors argue and walk on each others lines, and often dive fully into their ancestral Shona language, so sometimes you get a bit lost if you missed something important. 

But these are quibbles. The strength of the actors matches the strength of the text. It is worth seeing.

More later, 




Sunday, May 06, 2018

Car Theft

So, I just had a brief encounter with a car prowler in my front driveway.

This happened maybe an hour ago. I was sitting in the living room, and someone drove into our horseshoe driveway and parked. A guy got out and ran towards the side of the house, where we park the cars. People sometimes use our driveway as a turnaround, and the Lovely Bride sometimes has clients dropping off stuff, so I wasn't panicked. When he didn't come directly to the door, I walked out.

And found him sitting in the driver's seat of the Lovely B's car. When he saw me approach, he got out.

I said "Can I help you?" (sorry, not a tough guy).

He said something like "Don't worry about it," and ran back to his car, got in, and drove off, heading east. I got the license plate number, wrote it down, then went looking for my L Bride, who was in the side yard (away from the vehicles). She had seen nothing, but after a quick consult, we decided to call 911.

And I did and gave them the details. Very polite, asked all the right questions. They asked if I had taken a picture of the other vehicle, WHICH I HAD NOT EVEN CONSIDERED but was a good protip for the future. Took down all the data, and told me an officer would be in contact with me.

Which happened about, say, twenty minutes later. A Kent police officer called, confirmed the information I had given before, and asked for some personal information. Apparently a number of other calls came in on this guy, who was driving around, getting into cars and houses, and taking stuff.

Which makes a bit of sense, because if he was STEALING the car, he would be leaving HIS car behind, which was, frankly, a newer car. Unless he stole THAT car, but the officer didn't say anything about it.

In any event, they caught the guy, and that's where matters lay at the moment. At no time during the encounter did I feel threatened - the guy didn't have a weapon, or even address me other than a quick comment as he ran back to his vehicle. After the fact, realizing what went down and going through the list of what COULD have gone down, well, I'm a little rattled.

Glad they got the guy, though. Good job, Kent Police.

More later,

Friday, May 04, 2018

How I Came To Write Scourge

It has been, what, forever, since I've talking about Scourge, my Star Wars novel, right?

I mean, an entire universe has rebooted since then. But I'm still pretty happy with how things turned out.

So in honor of May the Fourth, here's the secret history of how Scourge came about:

In early 2008, some ten years ago, I was contacted by an editor at Del Rey, who said "I understand you can write quickly. Would you like to write a novel based on a Star-Wars licensed computer game?" I confirmed the first and asked to learn more about the second.

The game involved was Star Wars: Battlefield III, from a company in England. They sent me the overall plot, which involved force-using clonetroopers. It was interesting. But checking around, I couldn't find any reference to the game itself in the gaming press. Not even a "hey, we're working on this." So I was concerned that I would put a lot of effort into something that might not see the light of day.

Talking with my agent (who is brilliant, by the way), we hit upon putting a kill fee into the contract - if the whole project fell apart, I would be paid for the work done. The good people at Del Rey said sure thing, but there was no way this book would be cancelled. So I novelized the plot of the game, keeping all the main points, touching all the locations in the game, and adding a few grace notes here and there while justifying and deepening character behavior. And they liked it. We were good to go.

And then the game was cancelled. Others can go into the whys and wherefores, but Star Wars  Battlefront III game was never going to happen. And the book project was shelved as well.

Which was cool, because I got paid for the work I did. It was a win.

Then Del Rey came back and said, "You know, we've signed a contract with you. Would you be willing to roll that over into another book?" And I asked what book and they said "Something for the new Star Wars Old Republic MMO."

And I had to say no, because my day job was working on an MMO, and while the guys at ArenaNet were cool with me doing a Star Wars novel, even a Star Wars licensed computer game novel, they really drew the line at me doing work for a directly competitive product. That's cool, I had to agree with them, so I had to say no (but I kept the money already earned).

Then Del Rey came back AGAIN as said "You know, we've signed a contract with you. Would you like to roll that into another, original book set in the Star Wars universe? Oh, and we can pay a little more since we don't have to give a piece of the action to a game license." And I said yes, cleared it with my day job, and gave Del Rey about a dozen pitches.

And some were cool and some were interesting/silly - A Dexter Jettster mystery that started in his diner, a story involving that Giant Green Bunny named Jaxxon,  and The Autobiography of Jar Jar Binks (which I REALLY wanted to do, believe it or not, and do it straight.). They settled on a novelization of a game product I has written with Owen Stephens at WotC - the original was called Tempest Feud, and it dealt with Hutts and Corporate Space, which I had loved since the very early Han Solo books.

They sent me background information on Hutts, most of which is stuff that I myself wrote for the game product, making me my own source material. The name we settled on (after much batting about) was Scourge, and the cover was a surprise to me, showing up in my in-basket about the time it was released to the general populace (I would have given the cover Jedi rose-colored glasses as described in the book, but that's me).

Of course, over the entire course of events, with changes of both direction and editors and schedules (this was a done-in-one, so did not have to be part of a larger series), this quickly-written novel took longer to complete, finally being published in 2012. It took so long that I got my final payment on the contract before I turned in the manuscript (contractually, it had to be closed out with X months of signing, or upon delivery, and the contract timed out before I made official turnover.)

All this is not the worse example of how the sausage is made, and the folk at Del Rey were great to work it, and I'd jump at another chance, in this revised and rebooted universe (makes phone hand symbol and mouths "call me!"). But I am quite content to be one of the final entries in what would now be the "Legends" category, and Scourge can still be found some of your better used-bookstores (and some of the not-so-better ones as well).

Oh, and the original plot? I considered posting it, but the original plot the game was based on, after things fell apart for it, was moved over to ANOTHER game under development. So you can find the basics of the main character, X2, HERE. So I could have written that book after all. But it did finally see the light of day.

In the mean time, May the Fourth be with you. More later.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Political Desk: What, Another One?

A new ballot popped up a few weeks ago for the citizens/denizens of Kent, and is due this coming Tuesday. I've been putting it off because I needed to check my facts, and even after doing so, I'm a little confused and a bit tepid on recommendations.

It is a slender thing of a ballot, just two items, but has been getting the full-court press from the local powers. Mailers, robo-calls, yard signs, even recommended posts on the Facebooks. Add to this a relatively tight timeline, and I have to be honest, I'm giving the whole thing a real big side-eye right now.

And it should be easy - its about more funding for police and for fire departments. You value our police, right? And our fire department? Public safety and all that. So what's the prob?

Proposition A is a 2% Utility Tax Increase for Police and Criminal Justice, and the big thrust is to be able to hire and equip more officers and support staff. The reason that its on a ballot in the first place is that, according to state law, if you juice the utility taxes over 6%, you have to put it to a vote. This will put it to 8%, so that's why we're here.

And the mailers and robocalls have been stressing that local police have been over-extended, that we're spending a lot of money on overtime, crime is up, and the locality is losing upcoming funding from King County no longer paying for the Panther Lake annexation (which the local government knew was coming) and a change in how distribution of sales tax was made (which was also apparently in the works since 2008). Now, on the annexation, yep, its more territory to cover, but it is also more housing and development to tax, which should make for more tax income as a result. Plus, as the land itself becomes more valuable, that increases the property tax assessment. But apparently not enough to expand the services to the degree we need.

Part of my skeptical side-eye is that in the midst of this the city gave the developers who bought the old Par 3 golf course a 8-year property tax holiday so we would add MORE population to the city, which seems to put us even deeper in the revenue hole. So should we punish the police department for city hall giveaways to developers? I dunno.

Part of me is also resistant because this is one of the "Cute Puppy" funding issues - we get to vote on things we find to be useful functions on government, but don't get to confer on more mundane matters (like the Showare Center, now in its third year of not losing as much money as we expected). We like our parks, schools, and municipal services, and when asked, yeah, we want to make sure they are funded. Other stuff, like giving businesses or real estate developers breaks, not so much direct democracy.

Hence the full-court press across major media. I'll be honest, I'm going with Approved on this, but I am concerned and cannot firmly recommend anyone follow me. The Kent Reporter has been curiously uninterested in this (A search turned up a couple editorials pro and con), and the statement in opposition in the voter's guide is more hung up on the Regional Fire Authority than in the ultimate needs. Read the online voter's pamphlet - and your mileage may vary.

Speaking of the RFA, we also have Proposition No. 1, which provides more funding for Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority. A few years back, Kent folded its fire department into the RFA as a money-saving measure. The RFA is funded by property tax collection (which can only go up 1% per year) and a fire benefit charge (FBC), which is uncapped but arcane in its explanation (square footage plus estimated resources to deal with a blaze). FBC, not limited, has gone up as a percentage of the total contribution, and this is measure is supposed to bring balance back to the force by resetting ("restoring") the earlier property tax setting.

And I'm a little bollixed by the figures, to be frank, which opens the door to reacting with emotional responses. Like the fire department (and who doesn't?), vote approved. Worried about property taxes going up after earlier ballot measures? Reject it. The folks writing the statement in opposition have a web site, where they throw up a lot of concerns, while a member of the RFD responds in the Kent Reporter. As with previous proposal, I am going approved, but I need to know more about this as it is happening, and feel uncomfortable making any definite recommendations.

Sorry, folks, I'll try to be more resolute in the future.

More later,

[Update: And both measures got shellacked, to the tune of 58-41. Supporters blame the fact that we have to pay our schools. Or ... we could be a little more cautious on giving freebies to developers. Oh, and check out the FBC. That still doesn't sound right.]

[[Update Update: Part of what I'm talking about is this. After complaining about poverty and the need of the voters to kick in, the choice to renovate the Council Chambers is just announced.]]

[[[Update Update Update: And then we have this, followed quickly by THIS. Remember, part of the absolutely necessary tax increase was because we don't have the money to buy new police vehicles. Sigh.]]]




Saturday, April 14, 2018

Meanwhile, in 1923

What I did today:



That's a 1923 Buick four-door 23-35 touring car.

More later,

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Play: Pick and Roll

The Great Leap by Lauren Yee, Directed by Eric Ting, Seattle Rep through 22 April.

True confession time: I've never been a big fan of basketball. I think my father took me to a game of the Pittsburgh Condors, before that team folded, but I never caught the bug for the sport. And my apathy is despite going to college in the middle of Indiana, where the March Madness sets in around February, and living just north of great maelstrom of the Chicago Bulls' championship seasons, AND having a younger sister who played college ball at Grove City. Basketball was very much a take-it-or-leave-it sport for me, and I knew just enough to hold my own in office water-cooler conversations.

That said, I want to say The Great Leap is a great play about basketball. And politics. And relationships.

Here's the summary - the play bounces between 1971 and 1989. In 1971 a boorish Saul (Bob Ari) , an American coach, arrives in Beijing to teach American-style basketball to the communists as part of the sports exchange (see ping-pong diplomacy). Said exchange was supposed to cool some of the heated rhetoric between the US and China. His interpreter/assistant coach is Wen Chang (Joseph Steven Yang) who is by-the-book, introverted, and has spent most of the Cultural Revolution keeping his head down and not attracting attention. In 1989, Saul, now facing the end of his coaching career after several losing seasons, is invited back for a game between University of San Francisco and Wen Chang's national team. And Manford (Linden Tailor), an undersized Chinese-American high school point guard wants to go to China on that team.

And to be honest, early on, things look dire, as the characters feel a little bit like caricatures in your typical sports story. Past Saul is an ugly American, and his relationship with Wen Chang echoes Uncle Duke and Honey from Doonesbury. 1989 Saul is a washed-up jock looking for redemption. Manford is the hot young kid, impatient for the rest of his life, hot-headed and opinionated, who may give Present Saul's team a chance in Beijing. The opening is humorous, but feels fairly traditional - a typical sports story of the plucky underdogs.

And then something happens. The play pivots. Yee unfolds the characters and shows their depth and reasons for being there. She plays fair with the audience - the clues are there as to why Manford really wants to go to China, what redemption Saul is looking for, and what motivates Wen Chang, but she lets them bubble up, so when you realize the hows and whys of the characters, it makes sense. And the action rises through to the final final shot of the game, reported by the ensemble in rapid-fire delivery that brings the viewers into the tension of basketball.

And that's saying something, since there are fewer actors on the stage than on the court. Ari and Yang are pitch-prefect in their roles, and Tailor sells the loudmouth-with-talent perfectly, skirting the edge of his own boorishness. Keiko Green as Connie operates as a support character for Manford as opposed to having her own arc, but holds her own. Yee brings all the pieces together both logically and, more importantly,  emotionally, and literally takes your breath away in the final moments of the game, as outside forces are moving against protesters in Tienanmen Square.
Leaving this photo by Jeff Widener of
Associated Press here. No particular reason.

The set is, of course, a basketball court, both in San Francisco and the arena of the US/China "friendship game". And the Rep continues its romance with action taking place on a higher stage as well, this time depicting Wen Chang's apartment with a view of the square. It works better here than in either The Humans or Ibsen in Chicago as the upper stage does not loom over the audience.

I am incredibly impressed with The Great Leap. It took its characters, and did not subvert them so much as deepened them and brought out their underlying humanity. It showed me a couple tricks I might want to fold into my own writing. This play will surprise you, and I think you'd enjoy it, even if you're not a fan of basketball.

More later,