Monday, May 24, 2010


I might as well join the party and blog about ABC's Lost.

There was a lot of pressure to land this big ship, and I think they did a reasonable job. There were expectations of having several questions answered. Like, what is the island? What is the strange light in the middle? What's this alternate universe thing that's happening?

I don't think any of those questions were given definitive answers, which might drive some people nuts. But Lost has always liked to throw things at us to make our brains explode, and this final episode managed to still do that.

At the same time, there was closure. All those tragic love affairs were resolved and people were able to get back together again. We find out who ends up with whom (that whole Jack-Sawyer-Kate-Juliett quadrangle was a little annoying). And the self-improvement that people went through was also satisfying. Sawyer/Ford ends up a decent person. Jack fulfills his mission in life. Locke is redeemed.

Then there is the element of faith and afterlife that comes up. I'm still trying to wrap my brain around that, but it made for some food for thought. Of course, I tweeted that the next LOST series will be called "Lost: the Afterlife". Where the gang gets stranded on a mysterious cloud.

The ending of the show did create for an emotional ending. By this point, though, I had already said goodbye to all my favorite characters. Locke had been dead for a while, Sayid was gone. Jin and Sun's demise was the saddest to me. And I still miss Mr. Eko. Whatever happened to him?

There were a lot of other dangling threads, like what happened to the plane the others escaped on? What happened to the island after Hurley took over? etc. I think they provided enough other closure that those things can remain mysteries. I, for one, don't have to have every question answered to enjoy the show.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Iron Man 2

I know, everyone and their dog is reviewing this movie. I'm just one of the dogs, or maybe one of the fleas on the dog.

Iron Man 2 gets the official Berin Stephens Big Toe Up (everyone else does thumbs). Very seldom, after a movie ends, do I want to turn back around and see it again. With this one I did, and I was almost willing skip a bathroom break. Of course, I had to get back out to the car and let the kids get some air. Actually, they went to see How to Train Your Dragon since I wasn't sure how safe IM2 would be for kidlings.

As far as content for kids, I was surprised at how little offensive stuff was there. It could have almost passed as a PG; almost. There was some language, Lord's name stuff and mild swear words. I heard an 's' word and there were a couple of bleeped f-bombs (which were actually pretty funny). There was some skin exposure, but most of what we saw was also in the trailer. And, of course, there was some innuendo weaved in throughout. There were no bed room scenes, thank goodness. It's just frustrating that with a few minor changes, this could have been a PG. For crying out loud, super hero movies are supposed to be for kids (and big kids like me).

Okay, to the movie itself. My biggest fear was that they would do a character reboot and we would totally lose the character arch that we saw Tony go through in IM1. Granted, Tony is back to his irreverent, fun-loving stuff, but he's still the man IM1 ends with. We get to experience a new character arch for him that expands and improves him even more. Many sequels have failed because they didn't do this right, but this time they nailed it.

And conflicts? Plenty, and not just the ones we were expecting. We start off being introduced to "Whiplash" and we find out why he has his grudge. To keep things interesting, though, they bring in more sources, like: the US government, Pepper, Colonel Rhodes, Hammer, and, most interestingly, Tony's body.

This movie had plenty of action, too. The car race was great. Also, in the trailer, we caught a glimpse of a great battle with Tony and War Machine fighting off a hoard of robot drones. The full scene didn't disappoint and has to be one of the greatest movie super hero fight scenes of all time.

So, that's my take. For parents who are wondering if they should take jr, check out for more details. I look forward to being able to see this on DVD with Clearplay filters in place.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Cannonball Clarinets

I've mostly been blogging about writing and book things, so I guess it's time to talk a little about music again. A few weeks ago, I got a chance to try out three new Cannonball Clarinets, 2 Piacere and 1 Zeloso, along with 11 barrels and 11 bells. You can visit their website here: To summarize my experience: I was impressed.

I started off with the gold-keyed Piacere with my Combs LC3 mouthpiece and enjoyed the dark tone. It was also nice to have a built in neck strap hook, since my hand cannot play clarinet for long without using a strap. I also enjoyed the thumb key, which is flattened out more like a sax octave key and is more ergonomic. The main feature that stands out with these clarinets, though, is the interchangeable barrels and bells. When a clarinet is purchased, you get two barrels and two bells with it. You have an opportunity to choose between three designs of each, which gives you a lot of tonality options. The bold designs of the barrels and bells do stand out visually, but that just contributes to the uniqueness of these instruments.

Another feature that is usually found on more expensive clarinets, like the Buffet R13, is the auxiliary Ab/Eb key. Since I'm not used to having one, I didn't use it much, but it was nice to have. It was a little bit of a reach for my small hand, though.

The gold-key Piacere was nice, but I didn't like it better than my Yamaha 72CS. I think, though, that it was an individual thing, because when I tried out the silver-keyed Piacere, I liked it better than my Yamaha. As far as I can tell, though, the two Cannonballs were the same except for the key color. The gold-key had a few issues that bothered me, like a stuffy throat tone Bb (my Yamaha has same problem, though) and the low Eb, forked low B and low E had raspy tones. The silver-keyed didn't have these issues, so I think it was just that particular clarinet.

Do these models compare to the R13? It's hard for me to say, other than I usually like my Yamaha better than R13s. These Cannonballs are a heck of a lot cheaper than R13s, though.

The Zeloso was also impressive for a student level instrument. It was a lot clearer than most student instruments, though, obviously, wasn't as good as the Piaceres. I also tried out the hard rubber Cannonball mouthpieces, which seemed stuffy to me, but compared to most stock mouthpieces, they played okay.

If you are in the market for a clarinet, definitely give the Cannonball a try. I can't give any recommendations about barrel and bell combinations, other than they do give you a good tonal palette to choose from. Hopefully, I'll get another chance to study the barrels and bells more at a later date to get a better idea of what they do.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Storymakers Conference Part II: Dave Wolverton

The highlight for me at the Storymaker's conference was the two-hour workshop I attended with Dave Wolverton/Farland called "Writing for the Masses". I was going to put up a summary of my notes, but someone else beat me to it and did it better than I would have. You can find it here:

I came out of that workshop thinking, "Crap, now I need to go back and re-write my latest book." I'm going to have to at least go back through it and see if I can improve its "mass appeal". Now, my initial thought was that I really didn't care if I wrote for the masses, I just wanted to tell my stories my way. Wolverton pointed out that that was fine, I just won't sell a lot that way. Things that sell follow the formulas that have been successful. People who strike out on their own paths rarely hit, if ever, the NY Times bestseller list.

It reminds me of the conflict between musicians: the artists versus the pop musicians. Many of us who are jazz saxophonists have a strong dislike for the music of Kenny G. Why? Well, its formulaic, repetitive, and sappy. It also makes lots of money. Those of us working in the trenches, practicing our butts off, can't even get paid for a lot of our gigs, so naturally, there's a little jealousy there. Does that make Kenny G wrong for making money doing what he enjoys? No. But it sure would be nice if more people appreciated some good ol' hard swingin' jazz.

Anyway, that's a decision we need to also face as writers. Do we want to adopt the predictable formulas? Many literary types consider popular styles of writing to be "trash". Do we want to write trash? Wolverton brought this up and said we can write "trash", but let's make it "beautiful trash".

He talked about the "try-fail" pattern that is important for safely increasing the stress the reader feels. I've always felt the try-fail pattern made things too predictable, so I've sought to disguise it. I wonder now if I've disguised it too much.

He didn't explain the try-fail pattern, but in a nutshell, it is where the protagonist makes at least three attempts to solve their problem. Each time, they fail and get thrown into a worse situation. Then, the last time, it looks inevitable that the villain will win and take over the universe, but our hero somehow pulls off the miraculous victory.

Throughout this process, Wolverton pointed out, the reader's stress levels keep increasing. To compensate for this, our body releases endorphins which are related to morphine. The higher the stress for the character, the higher the stress for the reader. Finally, when the hero conquers all, the reader gets this great rush that can drop them below their normal stress levels, thus causing a greater relaxation. It's cheaper than a plane ticket to the Bahamas.

The bottom line, no matter what form of art we pursue, it needs to create an emotional response in the audience. If it doesn't, it will be boring. I remember reading a negative review for the movie Charlie, where the reviewer said the movie "manipulated the audience's emotions". I wanted to say to them, "Excuse me, but all movies seek to do that. The ones that don't are major flops." I've also taught my music students this principle. A musical piece that doesn't grab the listener's attention will quickly put them to sleep.

Reminds me of a joke: What do you get when you play New Age music backwards?

A: New Age music.