Saturday, December 13, 2014

Fate Core AAR: "The Saxony Jewels" One-Shot

So, wow, it's been over a year since I ran my last Fate one-shot, a scenario I found online titled "Spirit of the Tentacle." That experience had been less than satisfying for pretty much everyone involved, I think.

What has happened in the intervening year was that I wanted to put together a campaign to run, but have not had the spare time to coordinate with a group. We had also tried building characters at one time, but some of the phases I had defined were too nebulous. I finally decided to break the stalemate by writing up a one-shot adventure that takes place in the same alternate-history campaign world I had been developing, but which didn't involve any of the major players or major conflicts of the campaign.

I settled on a treasure hunt/race. The Crown Jewels of Saxony had been stolen from a museum during the California-Pacific Exposition in San Diego in 1935. The players would compete in teams to try to track down the jewels first. I built each of the characters to be a unique archetype, tightened up my approach to aspects, and wrote for each character not only a background and a unique reason to search for the jewels, but also explained the aspects and possible ways to invoke/compel them so the players could understand them better.

I had four people scheduled to show up, in two teams of two. When the scheduled night arrived, one player canceled, so we ended up playing with three, and I played the fourth PC as an NPC (well, I intended to, but tended to forget, so Kendall ended up tagging along silently, mostly doing nothing until the big final confrontation).

I did my best to switch back and forth between the teams frequently to keep everyone engaged, although sometimes I think I concentrated more on the two-player team. I tried to give everyone some interesting interactions and choices. I think it was somewhat frustrating for the players, because the sandboxy nature of the scenario made it hard to figure out where to start, and the clues to the mystery developed slowly. But the clues did develop, and I think that helped keep the players engaged.

One weird thing that happened was that the players often got really awful die rolls, while I (whose bad die rolling as a player is somewhat legendary) made consistently better ones. But smart use of skills and Aspects gave the characters some moments to shine. And as it happens, I was able to draw all the PC's to the treasure at about the same time for a final confrontation.

I'm not sure if the ending was entirely satisfactory to everyone. I had designed the characters' motivations such that, if they decided to cooperate and split the treasure, they could do that, and I think I might have railroaded them into that outcome a little bit. But they seemed to have a good time, and I had a much better time than my previous Fate running experience, so I'm happy with the outcome.

Now I'm wondering about Google+ Hangouts or maybe running a campaign on Saturday or Sunday afternoons, since my nights are taken. We'll see what happens.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Update on the Big Idea

So last post, I mentioned that the Big Idea I had a couple of months ago was progressing more slowly than I'd expected. So, a little clarification:

When I wrote that first post about the idea back in mid-September, I leaped headfirst into working on it with the idea that by this time--the week I was scheduled to take a vacation in December--I would have passed a couple of milestones and would be ready to take it to the next level by having something ready to present to potential collaborators/partners.

That didn't happen.

I realized after that first rush of creativity that what I was putting together was okay, but not particularly exciting or original. I needed to let the idea cool down a little and come back at it from a different angle, try to find a more interesting approach. After a couple of recalibrations, I think I've got something stronger and more interesting. Now I'm starting over on the writing, slowly, but I think it's more solid than those shallow initial ideas.

I won't have anything in any shape to share during my vacation this week, but I'll be burning off some excess vacation days early next year, and I may actually have something to show then.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Gaming Update: From Orion Dusk to Eddie Mendoza

I haven't posted any game-related content here for over a year, so here's the rundown.

I mentioned in a post way back in January 2013 that we were starting up a new role-playing campaign involving superheroes. I had just finished playing for over a year as Sunder, a paranoid, sometimes-insane scavenger on a post-apocalyptic alien world, and I wanted to play someone radically different. Someone happy and fun.

And so I came up with Orion Dusk, who turned out not to be happy and fun. In creating his backstory, I gave him some tragedy and trauma, which was (of course) certain to come up in the game. But what happened was that, not only did the entire game revolve around the conspiracy behind his tragedy and trauma (as well as the other members of the group), but one of the other characters in the group was the daughter of the man Orion blamed for the tragedy in his life. In addition, I somehow decided that making Orion a fugitive living under an assumed name would be a good idea. That decision added tension to several of his moments in the game, but it didn't contribute to making his character "happy and fun."

So Orion ended up being dark (and I don't just mean his skin) as well as being a bit of an asshole. And then there was the other problem.

He was kind of superfluous in the game. I had originally decided to make him a classic tank--super-strong and physically very tough--with the twist that he absorbed heat to power up. So when he powers up, there's this wave of cold that explodes out from him, and then he's super-strong and glowing and also able to release heat as a blast of energy. Sounds really cool.

Only there was another hero in the group who could change her density. When she got really dense, she was stronger and WAY tougher than Orion, so his tankness wasn't so very tanky. On the other hand, his energy blast abilities, being kind of secondary powers, weren't nearly the match of the other blasters in the group. So I decided to concentrate on some other aspects of his backstory--he had been an accountant who followed a money trail to the big conspiracy--and let him be more of an investigator.

Only there was another character in the group who was a super-miraculous hacker who did most of the actual investigating. And hell, even the other tank had for some reason bought a higher accounting skill than my character WHO WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A PROFESSIONAL ACCOUNTANT!

Every character needs a niche, and Orion's niche was being worse than somebody else in the group at absolutely everything. He got some moments to shine, based on some spectacular die rolls, but he was never a go-to guy for anything. He was just there, being an asshole.

The game lasted for over a year, and as it seemed as if it was approaching the climax, some personal shit happened and the game broke up. And I wasn't particularly heartbroken about it, as I had been getting kind of burned out on Orion. So much so that I wasn't sure I really wanted to get in on the new game that Sargon was starting, a closer-to-our-time-period game of monster hunters set in the West Coast city of Wraithport. I had kind of been enjoying the break and having my Tuesday evenings free.

But it sounded intriguing, so I made up a provisional character, a Kolchak-type reporter specializing in news of the weird--Eddie Mendoza, Freelance Seeker of the Strange. I sat in on the first session, kind of halfway thinking that Eddie could be a guest star in the pilot episode, get his one story and be on his way.

That was six months ago, and now I'm having a blast. The game is fun, the group character dynamic is way different, and Eddie has his niche. He is the only character in the group without magical powers, but he is a crack shot with a magic pistol he picked up off the dead body of a demon hunter and he uses his journalistic know-how to investigate leads on new monsters to battle while trying to track down an even larger menace lurking in the background.

Inspired by Naamah (who did it first), I've even been writing a journal in Eddie's voice, keeping track of our adventures. It's almost up to 50 pages now. I'm kind of embarrassed to say it's the only real creative writing I've been doing for over a year now (the big project I hinted at last time is building more slowly than I'd like, though I still work on it; the long percolation time will be good for it, though, I think).

And I'm gearing up to run another one-shot Fate adventure next week, over a year after my last attempt. We'll see how that goes.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Dreaming Big - A Story of Failure

You'll excuse me while I indulge in some middle-of-the-night fear-and-regret wallowing and motivation-pumping.

I was not one of those kids who figured out what he wanted to do early in life. I attended an event in ninth grade in which I and a couple of classmates had to introduce ourselves and tell our future goals. The other kids had answers like "I'm going to study medicine and be a doctor" or "I'm going to study engineering to work in the petroleum industry."

My answer? "When I grow up, I want to be... tall." (SPOILER ALERT--didn't happen).

The problem, mainly, was that I was one of those kids--obsessed with television and science fiction and fantasy and, most especially, superhero comics--who was not in any way interested in reality. Reality was mundane. Reality was beneath me.

Plus, I was really smart, which made it easy for me to coast through most of high school without having to work too hard. I could sing and act well enough to have a reputation as a big talent among our small high school, but I was so shy and insecure that I never really considered trying to make a living at something like that.

I developed the habit of faking it through high school, doing just as much as I needed to get by while retreating into fantasy in my spare time. I didn't get a part-time job and develop any real-world skills. I didn't have a girlfriend. I didn't have any really close friends.

And then Star Wars happened. And as I was in my junior year of high school, having to think seriously about what I wanted to do in life so I could pick a major in college, I realized that George Lucas had gone to film school. Seriously, there was a school where you could go to learn how to make movies. I applied to the same school he had attended--the University of Southern California--and somehow got in.

But having been literally handed the keys to my dream--enrollment in a prestigious university right in the middle of the movie capital of the world--I did nothing with it. I didn't take it seriously. I didn't actually know how to take it seriously. I didn't hang out at the film school building with the other film students. I didn't network with the several connections I had within the industry (and I made a few). I didn't work hard to learn the skills I needed. I mostly stayed in my apartment, watching shitty movies and writing sporadically on some really shitty scripts that I was afraid to show to anyone because I knew they weren't up to snuff. On weekends, I played D&D.

And I still didn't get a part-time job or a girlfriend, because mundane work was beneath me and girls terrified me. And when I finally started the film production track in earnest, I had no money to make my student films with and no social skills or self-confidence to get people to act in my films for me. I ended up dropping out and moving back to Oklahoma, ashamed at my failure.

I decided to recalibrate my dreams and try again. I worked at the Daily Oklahoman, where I lucked into a position as a freelance movie critic, then as a general entertainment reporter, despite not having a journalism degree. I bought an early-model Macintosh computer and wrote several screenplays, even travelled back to Los Angeles to try to get representation for one of them (SPOILER ALERT: I didn't succeed).

After a couple of years and a reorganization at the paper, I lost the film reviewing gig and ended up having to get my first real job, waiting tables at Bennigans. By this time, I had made friends with Mike McQuay, an award-winning science fiction novelist who read a couple of my screenplays and had some encouraging words for me. He suggested that I should blow off writing unproduceable giant monster movie scripts and really get into writing novels and stories. I also tried to put together a proposal to finance my own low-budget independent film, but I felt as if I didn't dare start until I had raised a production budget of at least a million dollars, and there was no way I was confident enough to ask anyone to give me a million dollars, so that went nowhere.

I had also gotten into a serious relationship with the woman who soon became Mrs. Frazier, which caused me to put off any more thoughts about a film career. I did think about going off to Vancouver Film School for a year (SPOILER ALERT-didn't) and try writing and selling one more script (SPOILER ALERT--nope) before recalibrating my dreams yet again and buying an Amiga with the idea of making an ultra-cheap direct-to-video science fiction thriller. But by that time, my heart wasn't really in it any more. After more than ten years of failure, filmmaking was pretty much over for me, even as a dream.

It took me several years, some false starts, and an enlistment in the Army before I ended up finally recalibrating my dreams again and making a serious run at being a novelist. I wrote Blue Falcon, a novel about a modern-day Korean war, which failed to find representation. I finally ended up self-publishing it through iUniverse just to get it out of my system. I joined a writers group here in Tulsa and wrote a handful of short stories (some of which I even sold).

But by this time, my marriage was falling apart, along with my day-to-day career, and I made the Biggest Mistake of my Life(TM), a bad business decision that left me not only broke but unemployed and deeply in debt. I wrote a couple more novels, but didn't even try to sell them through regular publishing channels. I recalibrated my dreams downwards again, self-pubbed through Smashwords and CreateSpace, sold virtually nothing. I tried different schemes at building an audience on-line through daily serialization and movie reviews and what have you, but nothing really gained any traction.

And this was where I found myself last year: broke, exhausted, alone, with a long record of failure and my dreams recalibrated downwards so many times that I no longer really had any dreams left.

And then, this year, things slowly started getting better. I got a full-time job once again, and with my father's help, I got my debts paid off. I started working out and adjusted my diet and started feeling better. And in the course of working out, I encountered this guy at who talked about the importance of not putting off your dreams, but going out to achieve them. More importantly, he suggested to dream really big, not to recalibrate your expectations so low that you could never be disappointed.

Which I would normally have dismissed as pie-in-the-sky motivational poster sloganeering, except that he suggested thinking of it as a role-playing game. Think of the big ultimate goal as Level 50 and break it down into smaller steps that become your intermediate levels. And then, don't worry about 50. Work on making Level Two. Once you've got Two, go for Three, and so forth. Eventually, 50 will come.

It was nothing I hadn't heard before, but that perspective really got me rethinking my life and my expectations. It had literally been so long since I had let myself dream that I honestly couldn't remember how. But for the last few months, I've been rolling that idea around in my head, and I think I've got something.

A big dream.

Something that I've wanted to do for literally my entire life, but always put off because I didn't have the knowledge or skills or resources or confidence or even, honestly, the ambition.

I'm not quite ready to share it publicly yet. But I've been playing with the idea for a couple of weeks, breaking down the steps, level by level, and the more I do, the more feasible it seems. I may not ever get to level 50 (that will depend on things that are really out of my control), but I'm well on the way to Level Two. For the first time in over a year, I'm working on something I'm really excited about,  and if I keep concentrating on the levels at hand, the higher levels will come.

Wish me luck.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Week 20 - Dangerous Waters Ahead

So here I am after 20 weeks, and things are looking pretty good, overall.

I'm down 25 lbs and 6 % bodyfat, I'm still doing strength work and running. I went from barely being able to sustain 2 continuous minutes of running to running a 10k. My pace has improved from 14-16 minutes per mile to 11-13 minutes per mile on good days. I look much better in the mirror. I'm fitting into clothes I haven't been able to wear for years, and I'm still maintaining a healthier diet. I've even started to take control of other parts of my life that I had similarly let slide.

But now I'm thinking about making a change. Strength training has been the weakest link in my newest evolution, and I'm thinking about starting a new program to hit it really hard. While I am actually seeing some results on my current, bodyweight-only regimen, part of me is dying to hit the heavy weights again. The program I'm contemplating would be a big shock to my body and schedule--jumping up from 20-30 minute workouts to probably over an hour--and would simultaneously make a big change to my diet as well. If it works as promised, I could break through to the best shape of my life.

But I'm nervous. The last time I tried a program as intense as this was P90X, a 90-day hardcore workout program which I really enjoyed, but was so stressful to my body, and so demanding of my time, that when I missed a couple of days for a business trip (at something like 86 days into the program), I literally quit right then and never finished the last 3-4 days.

And see, one of the reasons that I'm still going right now, I think, is that I've kept things pretty simple and flexible. The diet has been much more basic than previous attempts; I have eaten the exact same breakfast every day for probably over 15 weeks now. I haven't given up and quit when injury or schedule difficulties caused me to miss workouts because my workouts have been much more simple and easy-going, so it's no problem to make them up or let them slide. My progress has been slow, but I haven't quit.

This new program could be wonderful. My conditioning has improved to the point that I could probably use a really hard kick in the intensity right now. But I worry that it could cause me to repeat my previous pattern of three-month burnout and quitting for who-knows-how-many years. And there is some expense to the program, extra equipment to buy and such, in order to get full use out of it. I'm wondering if the expense and risk is worth it.

Which is kind of a moot question, because I've already spent a substantial amount of money gearing up for it, so in that sense, I think I've mentally committed to doing it. I just hope I can make it work.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Week 19: Bridging a Break

I've mentioned before that one way to stick to a new fitness regime is to establish a routine. The flip side to that is that if the new routine breaks, it can be hard to reestablish. In the past, when my fitness cycles ended, it was often because I had a forced break in the routine--a vacation or extended holiday weekend which necessitated a break in the workout sequence or a break in the diet, after which it just became easier to quit rather than go back.

So this week was a particularly dangerous time for me. This year, I finally went back to full-time employment, which means I am eligible for paid vacation. I took my first such vacation this past week, and it seems as if I didn't do too badly in terms of breaking my routines.

Which isn't to say I didn't break the routines. I completely skipped all my strength workouts for the week, and my diet has also fallen off. But it hasn't fallen off completely, and I did compensate for the lack of strength workouts somewhat by running extra mileage and getting in a heavy bag workout, which I had abandoned almost completely for the past few weeks.

I may still lack motivation for strength workouts, but approaching the mid-point of Zombies Run! Season 2, I am ridiculously motivated to get out and run. Both speed and distance are developing nicely, I'm really enjoying the story, and I'm making nice progress with the game elements such as achievement badges and my base, which is filling out. I ran a 10K about two weeks ago, and I'm contemplating entering some actual races in a couple of months.

Speaking of Zombies Run!, when I first started using the app (not being an especial fan of zombie stories), I contemplated ideas for a more well-rounded app that would be more of a superhero adventure, combining the running elements of Zombies Run! with strength/conditioning elements. In a way, the overall program I started out to pursue--running, strength, boxing, diet--was a sort of all-purpose hero training regime.

Well, as it turns out, Six to Start (the company that makes Zombies Run!) was way ahead of me. They've been developing a new fitness app, due to release later this month, called Superhero Workout. The goal seems to be to do for calisthenics what Zombies Run! does for running. I cannot wait for them to release this for Android, but given the problems I'm having with storage space on my phone, I may end up having to buy a new smartphone just to run this app.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

So, Robin Williams...

I try not to jump on these bandwagons when a celebrity dies unless it's someone who really affected me personally like Ray Harryhausen. Or, in this case, Robin Williams.

Cause here's the thing that people who know me understand about me. I'm an introvert, really shy and quiet around people I don't know. But I wasn't always that way. When I was a kid, I was supposedly really extroverted. According to my dad, I started to withdraw after my parents' divorce, and I stayed that way, except for a couple of years in high school when I seemed to come out of my shell in a big way.

What happened? Mork happened.

I was a huge TV fan as a teen, and when Mork and Mindy debuted at the start of my junior year in high school, it was like a revelation. I thought Robin Williams was the most amazing entertainer I had ever seen. It wasn't that any single bit was that funny, but there just seemed to be an endless well of them, shooting out at machine-gun speed. Spew out a dozen punch lines in a minute, and one of them has to hit, right?

So for the last couple of years in high school, I channeled Robin Williams (as much as I could without cocaine, anyway), talking fast, spewing out silly observations and funny voices as fast as I could make them. And strangely enough, I went from being a marginal outcast to becoming marginally popular.

Then I ended up going to college and got lost in the crowd at USC. It didn't matter so much, because Williams's schtick was starting to get a little old, anyway. Mork and Mindy was cancelled, and I went back to being an introvert.

But something else happened at the same time. Williams became a bona-fide movie star, which is when the next bit of the story happened. Williams starred in a movie called "Good Morning, Vietnam," directed by Barry Levinson. I just happened to be reviewing movies for the Daily Oklahoman at the time, so I ended up going to San Francisco for the press junket, which is how I met Robin Williams for the first and last time.

As a print journalist, I didn't get to meet him one-on-one. We had what were called round-table interviews, where one of the people from the movie (Williams or Levinson or Bruno Kirby or Forest Whitaker or Adrian Cronauer, the real-life inspiration for the story) would sit at a table with 5 or 6 of us newspaper writers for 25 minutes or so, and then shift over to the next table.

So there I was, sitting next to Robin Williams as different writers asked him their questions. And every time I would try to get my question in, someone else would talk over me. Before I knew it, the studio rep was there, telling Robin it was time to move to the next table.

And he turned to me and said something to the effect of, "No, let this guy ask his question first. He's been waiting all this time."

So I got to ask my question, which was something about an interview with Pam Dawber where she said toward the end of Mork and Mindy's run, the writers gave up trying to write gags and would just insert a line to the effect of "Robin does his thing for a minute." And I asked if they had done anything similar on the movie.

His answer was something to the effect of "don't believe everything you read in interviews" crossed with "I didn't have as much freedom to improvise because this was a big-budget feature." But yeah, there were times, especially in the DJ booth scenes, where he would start riffing and Levinson would have to just let him go for a while.

So here's the thing: although I was not a big fan of Williams as his star continued to rise--"Dead Poets Society" and "Patch Adams" and the like left me cold--the one time I met him, he was nicer to me than he needed to be, which I will always appreciate. And for a couple of years there in high school, he literally changed my life. So I am really sorry to hear that he ended the way he did. He deserved better, for whatever that's worth.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Week 16 - Routine and Renewal

One big problem with maintaining the gains and motivation I had earlier is that, after I had settled into an acceptable routine, my schedule at work changed, which threw my routine into chaos. It was sometimes hard to find an acceptable window of daylight to fit a workout into between sleep and work. Also, as I mentioned before, the slow cadence workouts I was trying were killing my focus and motivation.

So I took a full week off of strength workouts while I tried to decide what to do. I've had a general bias against doing workouts overnight, but it looks like I'll have to rethink that. I'm also going to increase the speed on my reps, or maybe alternate fast and slow sets to help my motivation.

Another problem is that myfitnesspal (the app I use to track my food) recalibrates your calorie targets every ten pounds lost. I had established an eating routine that put me just under that target number, but having hit the 20 lbs off mark, my new target is getting harder to hit. I could pad that number by running more frequently, but I run into that time crunch problem again, unless I'm willing to run after dark, which is not the best idea in my neighborhood, I'm thinking.

Part of me wants to make more radical changes in my workout schedule, or even throw it away and start fresh. Based on past experience, I'm worried about trying it. The reason I've been able to sustain for almost four months is that I've developed a routine, which is how you get past that early rush of enthusiasm and borderline obsession.

Starting fresh means having to renew that enthusiasm and obsession again, until I've settled into the new routine. I've never been able to accomplish that successfully before. With luck, coming back to a tweaked strength workout after a week off will help the stale routine feel a little fresh again without completely throwing me off track.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

15 Weeks - Hitting Milestones and Losing Steam

I love round numbers, so having finally hit the 20 lb. lost mark was a big thing, in a way, although after so many weeks of hovering just above that mark then bouncing back up, it was also sort of anti-climactic. I did go out Friday night after work and have a cigar to celebrate, though, so hte effort wasn't wasted.

However, now I have to face the fact that I'm only halfway to my goals, and everything is starting to wear on me.  I've said before that three months tends to be the limit of my patience with workout/diet obsession cycles. I'm just past that and starting to debate whether all this frustration is worth it.

For instance, the way my "morning" routine takes up so much of my day. See, that fancy digital scale that measures body fat? You need to maintain a pretty consistent level of hyrdration to get consistent results. So the first thing I do upon waking is drink 750ml of water before I weigh myself, because I also need to weigh myself before eating. But because I supposedly need to eat within an hour of getting up for best results, I have to slam that water down, wait a few minutes, weigh and then eat. This takes the entire first hour of my day, and sometimes due to my odd sleep schedule, time gets a little tight, especially with a new schedule at work.

Also, the timing of my breakfast then makes it so that I can't work out very early, because I don't want to work out too hard immediately after eating. And my current approach to strength workouts is not giving me very good results. Even Zombies, Run! (whici I finally broke down and purchased all the available content for) is starting to wear a little thin.

And this doesn't even take into account the inconvenience of cooking so much of my food, not to mention the fact that I haven't had some of my favorite foods, like gyros and pizza, in months.

Part of me wants to take a break, treat myself to some forbidden foods for a couple of weeks while I figure out how to retool my workouts to be more interesting and also relax my morning rituals a bit. Another part of me is worried (from past experience) that breaking the routine now will let me spring back into my old habits and lose all the progress I've made way too soon.


Monday, June 30, 2014

12 Weeks - Backsliding

So after last time, I finally had everything working right in week 11. I was running faster, getting stronger and dropping weight again. And I bought a much nicer car. Everything was good.

And then, week 12 hit. It started badly, with me not being able to do nearly as many push-ups as the week before. It was probably just fatigue, because I had been sleeping badly all week. But I panicked and figured the short workouts and long rests between were causing my muscles to atrophy. So I ended up having a huge binge day, eating around 900 calories over my maintenance level, to see if that might spur muscle growth.

Well, it spurred something, because I jumped up 3 pounds in 3 days and have been stuck there ever since. And the rest of my workouts for the week weren't much better. It was really hard to try to maintain my numbers on anything. So it seems as if my strength and endurance are slipping away. But on the other hand, the muscles look like they're getting bigger, so maybe next week I'll get back on track.

On the running side, Monday was my best pace so far, by a lot. But my other runs, coming after my leg workout days, I felt weak and slow. My calves, which had been feeling much stronger, seem to have lost their spring, especially my left. I'm wondering if it's partly because I bought a car wtih a stick shift and a tight clutch. I'm having to work that calf a lot more when I drive.

And of course, the big thing that's sticking in the back of my mind is that this is where I have traditionally run out of steam in the past. Three months usually ends up being my limit on workout/diet cycles like this. But less than halfway to my goals, I can't afford that this time. So I'm really hoping to maintain my motivation and discipline for at least another three months. We'll see.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

10 Weeks In

10 weeks in, and though my weight and body comp numbers remain pretty well stalled, my performance--run pace and numbers of reps in strength training--continues to improve.

I'm one mission away from the end of Season One of Zombies Run! and trying to decide if I want to buy Season Two right away or dawdle awhile with the side content I haven't tried yet, like Supply and Airdrop Missions. I did run a 5K Race Mission this week, which was both my longest and fastest run yet since starting this fitness cycle. I'm contemplating whether to attempt a 10K. I don't know if my legs will take it, but I kind of want to push myself and see.

Plus, the game itself really motivates me. I have pushed myself longer and harder since starting the game than I would have without it. And the proof of that is that three times since starting, I have done missions while away from home. When I was at my mother's house at the tail end of the injury, stranded at my ex-wife's house with car problems, and this past week, visiting my father in Eufaula. Normally, I would take such an event as an easy excuse to miss a run, but wanting to push on and hear more of the story, I made myself run there. So Zombies Run! has been a big win so far, well worth the money.

The other half of my plan is not working out so well. The new routine is difficult, because it consists of progressively harder exercises done at slow cadence with strict form, much different than my Army experience of "bust out as many reps as you can in two minutes" and "the only bad rep is the one they don't count." For some exercises, I feel frustratingly weak.

However, the routine itself is very short; it calls for only a couple of sets of mostly low reps. By the time I'm done, it almost feels as if I haven't worked out at all, although during the sets, I definitely feel the strain. But there's this weird tension between the program's two principles of "do low volume work at high intensity" and "don't work to failure and leave strength in the bank." I'm never sure if I'm working hard enough, or if pushing harder will be counter-productive.

Plus, the program advocates working each bodypart only one day a week, with a week's rest between, which goes against the conventional wisdom I've been taught for 25 years. So the workouts feel scanty and unfinished, and it seems as if I'm resting between training bouts way too much, which is not helping my motivation. And yet, I've been making progress on my reps. However, since I've just switched to a new style of training, that improvement may be due more to neuromuscular adaptation than actual strength increase. We'll have to see what happens in the next couple of weeks, once I've got this new slow style down.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

After 9 Weeks - Plateaus and Plummets

Something seriously weird is going on with this digital scale I splurged on. But first, an historical note: back in the day, when I would be on a diet & exercise cycle, I would sometimes hit plateaus where my weight wouldn't change for several days in a row. But I didn't sweat this, because A) weight by itself is not very meaningful, so even if my weight wasn't changing, that didn't mean my body wasn't and B) I was using an analog scale that wasn't very exact at the best of times.

But now I'm using this digital scale which measures down to the tenth of a pound and which also gives a fat/muscle measurement. I've mentioned before that the fat/muscle measurements aren't very precise. But here's the thing that's really giving me fits.

The scale keeps measuring me at exactly the same weight for several days in a row. In week 5/6, three days in a row. In week 7, 5 days in a row, followed by 2 days in a row at a different weight. In week 8, 2 days in a row, one small dip down, then back up to almost the previous weight for 5 days. A two-day dip, and now three days in a row. No matter how much or how little I eat or drink, what exercise I do or don't do, what time of day I weigh, I spend up to 5 days weighing exactly the same to within a tenth of a pound. It's almost as if the scale gets stuck on that number for a while.

And then there's the real anomaly. On Wednesday, after 5 days locked in at the same weight, I dropped three pounds overnight. I bounced back up almost immediately, but I can't think of any mechanism to explain it other than a bad reading. I ate normally the day before and didn't spend any extra time in the bathroom. I wasn't dehydrated. It's a mystery.

I'm thinking that I may need to do something radical if this plateau doesn't bust soon. I'm thinking at the end of Week 12, if I'm still not showing much progress, I'm going to up my calories and shift more emphasis to strength workouts. Try to pack on some muscle mass to up my metabolism. I have never in my life been especially muscular, partly because at the times I was working out the hardest, like now, I was also restricting calories to try to drop fat. It might be time to try another approach.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

7 Weeks Down

So a couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that I didn't trust the results from my digital scale's bio-electric impedance body fat percentage. This week I decided to do something about it, so I got myself a tape measure and tried the U.S. Navy method of determining the body fat percentage.

And damned if it wasn't right there with the bio-electric impedance. The scale had been very slowly descending from 29-30 to 27-28, but it could fluctuate quite a bit depending on my hydration, and I hadn't been following a strict hydration routine for the first three weeks, so those early higher results were in doubt. Now they're less so.

The second big change is to alter my strength workouts. One thing that has been giving me a problem with motivation was that I put together my strength workouts based on what I had done in the past, but since I've done four or five dramatically different workouts during various phases over the past 17 years, my current workout was a set of random bits from here and there with no real focus. It has made me firmer and stronger, but any kind of workout would have done that, given how far out of shape I was. But I had no tangible goals and no firm results, and so my motivation to do each day's workout was approaching nil.

So I did what I usually do. I bought a workout book. I have a dozen of them, but unlike those, this one builds on what I've been doing and gives it a systematic approach with goals to work toward. So I'm looking forward to seeing if a more systematic approach will give me better focus and accelerate my progress.

Because I'm approaching a really tricky time. Usually these fitness phases last about three months, at which point, I've gotten into pretty good shape. My motivation and focus drops, and I quit for several months (or years, this last time). I have tried a couple of times to fool myself into continuing to focus (and reach a new level of fitness and strength) by changing up my workout, but that hasn't worked well. Usually, by that time, I was hitting a plateau, and without continued results, my interest waned.

And right now, including the baby steps I took before starting up the spreadsheet, I'm either just at or just over the two-month mark, and nowhere near my weight, muscle, or speed goals. Admittedly, I've never let myself go quite this far out of shape before since leaving the Army, but I'm not going to get where I want in another month.

So I've got to hope that starting this new workout approach (coming a month before my usual quitting time), plus the continued motivation of Zombies, Run!, will keep my interest locked in.  I've also kept my diet nicely dialed in this time, and I think I'll be able to continue it as well.

I started out planning to do a sort of low-carb approach (which has worked well for me before), but I was kind of half-assing it, so after a week or so, I switched to the Slow Carb approach from Tim Ferriss's book, The Four Hour Body. But it just doesn't work for me. This is the third time I've tried it (though the first time I think I've given a real careful go), and I've never gotten the kind of incredible results he promises. So a couple of weeks ago, I went back to a more serious low-carb approach, only this time I'm having way more fun with it.

The times I've tried it before were when I was still married and living with my wife and her mother and grandmother. So I kind of had to separate myself from them at mealtimes, had to buy my own separate groceries, and often felt like I had to sneak my low-carb eating under the radar.

This time, I'm living alone, so I do all my own grocery shopping. I can buy exactly what I want, I do all my own cooking, and I don't have to worry about any comments from anyone about what I'm eating. I'm not losing weight super quickly--only about a pound and a half per week--but it's coming off steadily, and I'm not getting the kind of energy crashes and food cravings on overnight shifts that I used to. I used to hit the vending machines at work three or four times a night, eating chips and M&M's and cupcakes. I'm not doing any of that now.

The only problem I have now is deciding whether to start pushing my calories up to try to build muscle faster on this new strength regime. It may take me a couple of weeks to decide that for sure.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

6 Weeks Down - Positive Reinforcement and Losing Motivation

I mentioned last week that it was hard to stay motivated when I didn't seem to be seeing results. This week was full of positive reinforcement, and yet I've ended up losing a bit of motivation.

First, I seem to have my diet mostly locked down with a good variety of stand-by foods that are easy to fix and that I like, mixed in with new recipes that I'm trying. The money I save off the food I'm cooking (instead of going out) seems to go right back out for kitchen gadgets (I finally bought a blender) or fitness crap or what have you, but I'm eating and feeling much better in general than I was last year.

Second, although the numbers barely seem to be moving, I did hit the 10 lbs lost mark this week (I've bumped back to 9, but fluctuations happen). Funny thing is, because most of the fat I've gained is visceral fat, packed in around the internal organs, I'm starting to see the first hints of definition in my abs, even though I'm still paunchy.

Third, I went out this week and ran into a woman I haven't seen in a long time. And while we talked, her hand touched my arm, and then she did that little fingertip dance along my arm, over my shoulder and across my chest and asked, "Have you been working out?" And then she let her fingers linger a couple of extra moments before taking them away.

That's what it's really all for, isn't it?

Unfortunately, as good as that all was, it seems to have done precisely the wrong things to my motivation. Instead of spurring me on to build on success, it seems to have given me a feeling of "Mission Accomplished." I've been working less hard this week and making excuses for skipping workouts. I mean, I did have some legitimate scheduling problems that forced me to skip a couple of workouts, and there were some emotional distractions this week, but I still blew too much off. I have to remind myself that I'm nowhere near my strength or speed or weight goals, so I need to keep pushing.

Friday, May 09, 2014

Five Weeks In - Lies

My body, it lies. I've known this for years, yet sometimes I still fall for it.

I went for a run on Wednesday, and even though I had previously run continuously for over a mile and a half without stopping, this time my legs were burning like crazy and I slowed to a walk after a quarter-mile. After maybe 30 seconds of walking, I started running again and continued on for well over a mile before walking again.

Wonky physiological explanation follows: your muscle cells use several different stages of chemical reaction to store energy for muscular effort. I could throw around chemical names or acronyms like ATP and ADP and phosphocreatine, but the simple version is this:

You have a tiny amount of primary fuel available in your muscle cells for immediate action at maximum output, like a hard punch or jerk.

You have a slightly larger amount of stored fuel in your cells that requires a little breaking down first. This is available for hard sustained action, like a set of heavy bench presses. Without oxygen, though, you run out quickly, like within 30 seconds or so.

You have an even larger (but still small) amount of stored fuel in your cells that can be broken down with the help of oxygen. This fuel is called glycogen and is broken down when needed via a process called fast glycolosis. But there's only enough glycogen stored in your muscles for about 2 minutes of sustained activity, at which point the muscles start having to draw on blood glucose for energy and send chemical signals to your liver to convert stored glycogen to glucose for more energy.

And during this crucial switch-over, which for me usually happens right around the quarter-mile mark, your muscles scream that they are dying. They tell you that there's nothing left, and that you need to stop so they can rest a second and get their breath back, so to speak. One of the first things you learn when running for more than a couple of minutes is to recognize that signal for what it is--a desperate lie--and push through it until your muscles get the blood glucose working.

I've known about this effect for over twenty years, and yet I still fell for it on Wednesday. Why?

Because I wasn't thinking straight is the best answer I can give. I was distracted by the fact I had overslept, so I had only eaten about an hour before running, which made me wary of pushing myself too hard. My legs felt tight and tired from the workout I'd done the night before, and I had only a limited window of time before I needed to get to work. So my mind was everywhere except on my actual running, which means that when my muscles gave their fake danger signal, I listened and walked. And immediately regretted it.

I think my fancy new digital scale lies, too. Not about my weight, even though I'm not losing much. I expect that, because when you start working out the way I have been, you build more muscle as you burn off fat. Because muscle is denser than fat, you may get heavier briefly while actually getting trimmer. I've known this for years as well.

Which is why, to keep up my motivation, I splurged a little on a more expensive digital scale that uses bio-electric impedance to determine the relative percentages of fat and muscle tissue in your body. It is not an especially accurate method, but I figured that as long as the numbers were moving in the right direction, complete accuracy wasn't as important. It would just be an extra motivational factor to know that, even if my weight wasn't going down, positive changes were still happening.

The problem is, those percentages have barely budged in four weeks. I'm getting results in my workouts (reps going up, run times getting marginally faster), and I feel as if I'm getting smaller and firmer, but the percentages on the scale are just fluctuating up and down within a very narrow range. So what was supposed to encourage me is actually discouraging me a bit.

One problem I'm having, though, is that the scale has trouble giving a reading unless I wipe the sensors first with a wet cloth to improve the connection. So I'm wondering if the (very thin) layer of water between the soles of my feet and the scale is throwing off the results at all. It shouldn't--I just barely dampen the cloth--but I'm grasping at straws wondering why the numbers aren't moving.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

Four Weeks In

So after running five times in Week 1, I came down with a minor leg injury. Acute pain just below the knee that I first thought was pretty minor and could be run through. I laid off the running for several days but continued with boxing (okay, really just hitting a heavy bag) and strength workouts. Then I tried walking a zombie mission to strengthen the knee.

Turns out, it wasn't the knee. It was the shin muscle where it attaches just below the knee. After my power walk, I worked camera on the evening newscasts, three more hours on my feet, and the next day, I could barely walk. My calves and Achilles were tight and on fire, and the shin pain was worse than ever; basically, everything between my knees and feet hate me. I tried to keep up the boxing and strength work, but torquing my body on the cross punches also stressed the legs, and I was even getting acute pain when I planked for push-ups.

I ended up laying off training completely for another week, except for some stretching to get strength and flexibility back in my lower legs. I bought a set of Dr. Scholl's Custom Fit Orthotics to help with my overpronation problem. But the pain continued to persist for several days.

So going into this past week, the fourth week since I officially decided to shift things into gear, I was getting pretty discouraged, partly because of another new thing I was trying. When I get into a cycle like this, I tend to get a little obsessive, and being a little nerdy, I like looking at numbers. But in the past, I've found it was better not to track my progress too closely. I had to learn to ignore daily fluctuations in weight or off-days where I couldn't improve my speed or lifting reps or poundages. The body does not work in smooth predictable lines.

But now there is a wider array of ways to track everything, so I decided to take the advice of Timothy Ferriss and just load up on data. I signed up with myfitnesspal to track my diet, which keeps much closer track of what I'm doing than a simple written food log. Zombies, Run! gives me fairly detailed data on my runs. I splurged on one of those digital scales that tracks bodyfat and muscle percentages. That plus records of my workouts has all been going into spreadsheets.

So the problem, at the beginning of Week 4, having spent about 2 of those weeks getting minimal exercise because of the injury, was that my numbers weren't improving much. I was losing tiny bits of weight due to the diet, and my fat/muscle ratio had improved ever so slightly from the few strength workouts I had logged, but we were approaching a month in with very little progress to show. I had a moment where I wondered if I would really be able to push on with this, or just accept that I was getting older and couldn't get back to where I'd been ever again.

But this week has been really encouraging. The leg pain was gone almost entirely, and when I gave it another easy test run on Sunday, it felt good. More importantly, it still felt good the next day. My strength workout felt like I was starting over from scratch, but I'm hoping that it'll come back quickly. I made some tweaks to the diet based partly on the data I was seeing from myfitnesspal, and the numbers are starting to move in the right direction. My subsequent runs have been much better, and I'm now running almost two miles before dropping to a walk. It feels really good to actually be able to keep running when the voice in your ear says, "Keep running to get there before the zombies," instead of walking and just imagining a day when you might be able to run. I haven't turned the zombie chases back on yet, though. I still get twinges when I try to sprint, so I'm going to condition my legs for a least another week first.

The new plan going forward, at least for a few weeks: three days running/boxing (I don't always hit the bag before I run--I'm having trouble now with skin scraping off my knuckles, which may call for new gloves or wraps), two days of strength and conditioning work, one day of yoga for flexibility and stability, and one day of stretching. I have a long way to go still, but I'm running faster, getting stronger and most importantly, feeling better. And I'm even starting to cook again, so I'm eating better while saving some money on food.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

One Week Later

I might as well track my progress here. On the one hand, it has been a successful week. I actually worked out and ran more than my original plan called for. However, I might have actually shot myself in the foot by deviating from the plan.

The original plan: 2 workout days, 3 run days, 2 rest days. The actual week: 2 workout days, 5 run days (I ran after my workout on Tuesday), 1 rest day.

The results: my weight, body fat percentage and muscle percentage all held pretty steady from the beginning of the week to the end. No improvement whatsoever. My running pace actually got worse over the week from muscle fatigue and joint pain. I did have slight improvements in number of reps on my workout, but that's more a function of my getting used to working out again rather than an actual increase in strength. The only really tangible positive: I don't get as out of breath climbing the steep driveway at my ex-wife's house as I did a couple of weeks ago.

The tentative plan for next week--an even split: 3 workout days, 3 run days, 1 rest day. The workout days will build muscular endurance without the strain on my joints that comes from running until I've gotten conditioned to running again (I hope). And as gradually as I'm building intensity in the workouts, I don't think I need 2 rest days yet.

I'm also looking at tracking my diet with myfitnesspal, but that's tough, because I tend to throw things in at random without measuring when I cook. So we'll see what happens there.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Running Toward and Away

When I was a kid, I played a few sports, but I was never particularly athletic. Which is to say, I had the intelligence to pick up the rules and the physical coordination to pick up the basic skills quickly, but that ability to dig deep and push through pain, to thrive on the exertion and struggle, I never had that.

I always wanted, in an intellectual sense, to be fit, but I didn't want to pay the physical price of actually, you know, doing it. In fact, as Don Rumsfeld said, I didn't know what I didn't know. I didn't realize that there was a whole level of really hard work you had to push through to get there. I just assumed that people who were really fit were just naturally that way, the way I was a naturally good speller for some reason. And since I wasn't naturally fit, I was just never going to be that way.

And then the Army happened, and I discovered whole new potentials within myself. I learned how to push through pain, and learned that I had it in me to carry heavy shit and run for miles and operate on very little sleep if I had to. The most important thing I learned in the Army was how to endure.

When I got out, I didn't want to give up being fit, but I also didn't miss the 5 a.m. PT calls. So I went in cycles, working out hard for three or four months to get in really good shape, then laying off for months or even a couple of years before buckling down and doing the hard work again.

And then the divorce happened, followed quickly by the Biggest Mistake of My Life (TM), which sent me into a downward spiral of depression and ennui. I was underemployed, which you would think would leave me plenty of time to work out, but I was suffering under such a weight of stress and guilt and self-imposed crazy deadlines on Hero Go Home that I could rarely bring myself to do it.

I tried a few times. I even wrote about it here (like when I bought the punching bag, or this time the year before that which ran into problems). But something--lack of progress or just lack of someone to notice whether I was following through or not--caused my efforts to peter out.

And then, when I got hired on at the station, I went from a part-time job where I was on my feet the whole time to a part-time job where I was sitting down all the time, and what little exercise I was getting disappeared. The last few months have seen me atrophy far beyond what I ever thought would happen.

All of which is a long way round to saying I'm trying again. I've had the rough outline of a plan for a while now and have been taking baby steps to make it happen. The thing that pushed everything into high gear this week? A game for my phone.

Well, not really a game in the traditional sense. Someone in my gaming group mentioned Zombies Run! so I decided to give it a look. And I think this was the piece I was missing.

Zombies Run! is a smartphone app that's half-game, half-fitness plan. You assume the role of Runner 5, survivor of a zombie outbreak, living in a small settlement surrounded by ghouls. You load a mission and as you run or walk or bike or whatever, it plays sound clips telling you the story, interspersed with music from your playlist.

Today, I ran the second mission, and my first using the full experience. With GPS tracking activated on your smart phone, it tracks your progress and average speed. And every now and then, it tells you there's a zombie horde on your tail. You have to run faster until they're evaded. Here's a pic of my run today.

The track of my speed is the blue area across the bottom. You see those two peaks? Zombie chases. I got away both times, although the second one was a close thing (it tells you how close the zombies are behind you, and they were really close right there at the end).

The right side recaps your run, describing the events of the mission alternating with graphs showing how quickly you ran during different songs. After the first zombie chase, I deliberately held my speed down so I'd have something in the tank for the next one. In fact, you can't really tell just from looking when I stopped running and started walking, because the speeds were almost the same.

So initial reports are, it's a success. I really think I'm going to stick with this, at least for a while, because I want to keep running missions. And because the way the missions are structured pushes me to work harder than I would without them, I don't see myself quitting for lack of progress. Especially since my distance, time and speed are being tracked, so I can actually see the progress happening with every run.

And I think the discipline of running three missions a week (my current goal) will help me stick to the strength training I currently have scheduled for two more days per week. So I'm hoping that in a couple of months, I'll be in much better condition. We'll see.

Friday, January 03, 2014

Revisiting Ethrus

So with a lot of changes going on at work and in life in general, I let pretty much everything get away from me at the end of last year. And one of the things I let get away was Christmas shopping. So it was pretty embarrassing when I ended up getting some really awesome gifts for Christmas and had nothing to give in return.

One of those gifts was a book put together by efamar, a member of our gaming group. She had taken a bunch of materials from our Atlantis game--notes to and from the game master, synopses of gaming sessions, our song parody lyrics and other ephemera related to the campaign--and assembled them into one companion volume. We all spent quite a bit of time at the Christmas party looking through the book and enjoying the memories.

So I decided to put together something similar for our follow-up campaign, a sword-and-planet fantasy set on the world of Ethrus Prime.  However, as far as I knew, no one had made synopsis notes for that campaign the way naamah did for Atlantis. So I've been listening to the recordings of the campaign and was surprised to remember that the game almost ended prematurely.

The game ran for 61 weekly sessions, but along about weeks 14-16, frustration was setting in. We got caught up in a mystery with way too many elements and red herrings, so we had a lot of trouble deciding what to do and then how to do it. And layered on top of that frustration was the fact that we were in a unique world created just for this campaign, so it seemed that every time we would lay out a tentative course of action, the GM would shoot it down, saying something like, "That's not the way this culture works."

It came to a head in week 16, in which we were asked to kill a certain very powerful person, who lived in a citadel. We needed to come up with a plan to get into his palace to do the deed, but every idea we floated to get inside was met with, "No that won't work. He's a very powerful man in a very cut-throat society, so they have set things up to avoid precisely this kind of thing."

Which I can appreciate in a "Rules for Evil Overlords" sense, but it doesn't help the story any. We finally come up with a plan to get one of the group inside, but of course, it goes wrong, and so we're faced with no choice but a frontal assault to rescue him, which looks doomed to fail. At which point, the GM says something about an "ill-considered attack" on the fortress, and on the recording, you can hear all the energy go out of the group.

Because while the attack may be ill-considered, in the sense that it's almost certain to fail, it's not because we're rushing in without thinking. We've just spent around two hours at the table, trying to get some kind of clue to how to accomplish this mission, only to be cock-blocked at every turn. Frontal assault may be a supremely bad plan, but at this point, it feels like the only plan left.

And in a larger sense,  I think we were frustrated because we were lost. We came up with a group of uniquely broken characters, which created a really interesting group dynamic, but left us without the kind of long-term goals that can be easily broken down into concrete steps. So we're flailing in the dark at this point, looking for the story path.

On the recording, people are talking about rolling up new characters, and doing a kind of post-mortem even before we've started the assault. The GM says he never expected us to take on this mission, but the players feel as if they had no other real choices. Everyone sounds resigned to the disaster ahead, and more importantly, no one sounds as if they're having any fun.

And then the GM mentions a sandstorm approaching. It a pretty obvious deus ex machina, but it gives us a fingerhold against which we can plan the assault and maybe get out of it alive. Suddenly, there's hope, and with hope comes energy and player involvement again. And somehow, the entire thing turns around so that we're able to run for 45 more weeks instead of giving up right there. It was a great save by the GM.

So looking back at both Atlantis and Ethrus and still planning on launching a new campaign of my own in the near future, I started thinking about why Atlantis seemed like such a unique experience, and I have a few thoughts that I'll go into next time.