Saturday, May 29, 2010

On the road again: Balticon, day 4

It's late, and I'm exhausted, so I'll keep this shorter than it probably should be.

After going to bed very late, I was up late and out to a quick lunch at a local Panera. I was nervous about the stand-up show, which I still hadn't finished.

I returned to lead the Liars Panel, which packed the room and entertained everyone. We all had a very good time, and we raised a decent amount to buy books for local kids. The only bad news was that we failed to complete even half the questions, because a lot of the panelist stories ran way long, and so we raised less money than last year. Should I do this panel again, I'll restrict people to a max of 90 seconds, with a goal of one minute. Still, everyone laughed a lot, and some kids who can't afford books will now get them.

After a little time checking out the dealers' room and the art show, I retired to my room to finish the stand-up show. Printing in the hotel proved to be more challenging than it should have been, but in the end I found a way, so I had the show's notes ready in plenty of time.

I attended the masquerade, which started late and ran late but was otherwise a nice show. A surprising number of entrants were genuinely humorous, which was nice to see.

The ripple effect of the masquerade running late, however, was that my midnight show didn't start until almost 12:30 a.m., which led to a far smaller crowd than I had last year. (Best guess from friends watching was about 75 folks.)

I have to call the show a mixed performance. I started slower than necessary, and as happens with new material, some of the bits fell flat. On the other hand, my physical comedy worked better than before, the highs were higher than last year's, and everyone stayed to the end--and laughed a lot. So, on balance I have to call it a success--but I can definitely improve on the weak bits.

With almost two hours of material I've now written and tried, I think I have 80 to 90 strong minutes, which isn't a bad result.

Of course, all that stays with me is what I did wrong, the failure moments, and all I can do is beat myself for not doing better, but I'll get over that and continue to work to improve my stand-up.

I was gratified to have everyone laugh so much. Making people laugh is a wonderful thing.

UFC 114: Our picks

Though as the main event commences, Kyle will be in the air on the way to Morocco, and I will be taking the stage for my new Wake Up Horny, Wake Up Angry spoken-word/comedy show, we cannot desert our loyal MMA fan readers. Thus, here are our picks for this evening's fights. We start, as usual, with the preliminary fights, where we disagree on only one outcome.

Jesse Forbes vs. Ryan Jensen

Mark: This one could go either way, because executing the right game plan could let either fighter win. Given that belief, I have to go with Jensen, because I think he's more likely to be able to stick to an intelligent plan.

Kyle: Both fighters are coming off losses, so the loser of this fight could end up getting sent back to the minors. Forbes is 0-2 in the UFC. Jensen is 1-3, but has faced tougher opponents. I give this one to Jensen.

Joe Brammer vs. Aaron Riley

Mark: Ten years ago, Aaron Riley might have been a contender. Today, he's the guy contenders beat on their way up. Brammer, though, won't make it past him, because Riley is just better in almost every area. Riely by decision in a long night for Brammer.

Kyle: Again, both fighters are coming off losses. Riley's an old warhorse with forty fights on his resume, though, and Brammer's not likely to show him anything that he hasn't seen before. Look for Riley to sprawl and brawl his way to a stoppage.

Luis Cane vs. Cyril Diabate

Mark: After Little Nog demolished Cane, I think the UFC felt bad for the guy, because they've given him an opponent who's almost tailor-made for him. Diabate is easily bullied and likes to stand outside and throw careful strikes. Cane's in-your-face style will let him beat up Diabete and ultimately win, probably via TKO.

Kyle: Ignoring one DQ for an illegal knee, Luiz Cane has lost exactly once in his 13-fight career: a TKO two minutes into his last fight against Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. He's finished eight of his other fights with strikes. Cane is a legit striking badass, and he's going to give Diabate a hard welcome to the UFC. Cane by in-your-face bullying.

Melvin Guillard vs. Waylon Lowe

Mark: I've never been a fan of Guillard, but I have to give him credit: his last fight proved that moving to Greg Jackson's camp was a very smart move. He's now a more patient fighter, and his skills are growing all the time--and he's still freakishly fast and strong. Against him comes poor Lowe, who had a scant three weeks to prepare. Guillard by TKO long before the third round ends.

Kyle: Melvin Guillard has great genetics and a lousy attitude. He's a ball of explosive fast-twitch muscle attached to an insecure brain struggling with a cocaine habit. He'll never be a top fighter because he lacks the discipline to get better at the things he's weak at. Unfortunately for Waylon Lowe though, Guillard is mostly weak at submission defense, and Lowe has never shown much flair for submissions. Lowe's a boxer-wrestler just like Guillard is, but not as good in either area. Guillard should win this one, though Lowe will probably get another UFC shot as a thank-you for taking this fight on only three weeks notice.

Efrain Escudero vs. Dan Lauzon

Mark: The MMA blogs are awash with news about Dan Lauzon's training camp blowing up and even his brother declaring his behavior unprofessional. He was already facing a tough match-up in Escudero, but with a bad camp as preparation, Lauzon is in deep water. I'll be surprised if he lasts all three rounds, but even if he does, Lauzon will yield the win to Escudero.

Kyle: Escudero fought Cole Miller in September, and won. Lauzon fought Cole Miller in January, and lost. MMA isn't necessarily transitive, but these three have pretty similar skill sets; Escudero is just better. Add to that the fact that Lauzon was just ejected from his training camp for slacking when he should have been preparing, and the outcome of this fight doesn't seem very much in doubt. Escudero for the win.

Dong Hyun Kim vs. Amir Sadollah

Mark: I'm glad Amir Sadollah earns some of his income hosting small spots for the UFC between segments of The Ultimate Fighter, because this match-up looks like it's designed to add a loss to his record. Kim is stronger and more skilled and too smart to stand and trade with Sadollah. I expect Kim to move in fast, clinch, throw, pound, and repeat. I think Sadollah may well last all fifteen minutes, but even if he does, Kim will emerge the victor.

Kyle: Sadollah fought like a kickboxer in his last couple of fights, so it's easy to forget the fluid submission skills he showed in his victories on The Ultimate Fighter. Judoka Dong Hyun Kim is going to have little trouble putting Sadollah on his back--the Ultimate Fighter winner has never shown much inclination to resist a takedown--so the question is whether Sadollah can pull off a sub from the bottom. I'm betting that he can.

Now, the main card.

Diego Sanchez vs. John Hathaway

Mark: Sanchez has decided to move back up to welterweight, and though I don't believe he has any real shot at the title here, either, this fight should be good to him. Hathaway is young and talented and may be great one day, but he's not ready for Sanchez. Sanchez FTW, probably by decision.

Kyle: Sanchez's last fight was for the lightweight title. He's a top-ten fighter at 170 or 155. Hathaway's not. Hathaway will probably try to take the fight to the ground, but Sanchez has the wrestling chops to keep that from happening and the striking skills to make a stand-up fight very unpleasant for Hathaway. Sanchez by sprawl-and-brawl.

Todd Duffee vs. Mike Russow

Mark: Duffee is still maturing as a fighter, and he has a great deal to learn, but he's already better than Russow will ever be. Expect him to win by KO or TKO, probably no later than the second round.

Kyle: After setting a new record with his 7-second knockout of Tim Hague in his first UFC fight, undefeated heavyweight Todd Duffee has become the new It Boy of the UFC. His second fight, against wrestler Mike Russow, will answer a lot of questions about Duffee's ability to cope with a fighter who has the wrestling background that Duffee lacks. Duffee has incredible explosive power, but when a guy's longest fight is six minutes his conditioning is a complete unknown. All of these uncertainties make this a tough fight to call, but I'm going to guess that Russow has the wrestling to put Duffee on his back and grind on him for the win.

Michael Bisping vs. Dan Miller

Mark: I'd like to see Miller win this fight, because I've tired of Bisping, but I don't think he can do it. Expect Bisping to do well enough against Miller's takedowns to hold his own, and then to rack up the points with strikes that won't knock out Miller but that will annoy and slow him. Bisping by decision--probably with the crowd booing from time to time.

Kyle: Bisping has superior technical striking skills, but Miller has the wrestling to take Bisping down again and again. It's hard to see anyone finishing this fight, but Miller should be able to control position and out-point Bisping for the win.

Antonio Rogerio Nogueira vs. Jason Brilz

Mark: Little Nog is a top-five light-heavyweight, and Brilz is facing him with only a month's notice. Nogueira is so much better in so many ways that I'm not sure how he'll win, but if this one makes it two full rounds before Nogueira emerges the victor, I'll be surprised.

Kyle: In another substantial mismatch, veteran Antonio Rogerio Nogueira should make short work of Jason Brilz. Brilz is a talented up-and-comer, but his best wins have come over guys leagues below Nogueira. Nogueira by domination.

Rashad Evans vs. Quinton "Rampage" Jackson

Mark: If you swapped their training camps and somehow persuaded Jackson to listen to his coaches and do what they say, he could be the champ in no time and walk right through Evans on his way there. Evans, though, is the one training with Greg Jackson, and though he's the smaller man, he'll execute the more intelligent game plan and ultimately win by decision.

Kyle: Quinton Jackson is a much better boxer than Rashad Evans, but this isn't a boxing match. Evans has a recipe for how to beat Jackson in the fight between Jackson and Forrest Griffin. Evans should do well if, like Griffin, he stays outside and punishes Jackson with leg kicks. Evans is also likely to win any exchanges in the clinch; Jackson has never demonstrated especially good dirty-boxing skills. There's always the chance that Evans will stand in the pocket and Jackson will land a highlight-reel knockout. But as long as he fights smart, I expect Rashad Evans to out-score Jackson and earn the victory.

Tomorrow, I hope to report on how we did.

As always, remember these important words: Don't use us for betting advice!

Friday, May 28, 2010

On the road again: Balticon, day 3

Morning came way before I was ready for it, but I got out of bed anyway and spent a half hour on the hotel's treadmill. I discovered that with the right distraction--in this case the Daniel Craig version of Casino Royale playing on a TV channel I could get--the time on the treadmill just vanishes.

I'm way past ready for the next Bond film.

Work, shower, work, and then off for lunch to a place I try to visit yearly in Baltimore: Cafe Hon. The food is good but not great, but I still love the joint because it's just such a great little diner.

We then walked through a few shops in the area. Two are worthy of mention.

The first is Squidfire, which in addition to having one of the best shop names ever also offers some amazingly cool t-shirts and hoodies.

The other was perennial favorite, Atomic Books, where once again I bought nothing despite wanting to own more than half the stuff in the place. I think I'm afraid to buy one thing lest I unleash a flood of expensive purchases.

After a little more work, I headed to my first offical con function: a reading. I expected no one to show up, but to my pleasant surprise I ended the session with ten people in the audience--and only two came with me. I read from Children No More and talked about upcoming books, etc.

Dinner was at the same place I go every Friday night of Balticon: Cindy Wolf's Charleston. The food was, as always, perfectly executed--until the desserts. Once again, those, while decent, fell short of the rest of the meal. The service quality has also slipped considerably there, something I hope they address in the future.

I'm working on the show now--and, yes, it's only about 22 hours away as I write this. Plenty of time. I hope.

Actually, I'm quite terrified that I'll blow it, because I should have cast it in concrete weeks ago, but so it goes; shoulda, woulda, coulda, etc. I will do my best, and I'll hope I can make folks laugh until they hurt.

Back to it I go.

Want a shirt from either spoken-word show?

And would you like to help buy books for kids?

If so, you've come to the right place.

We're selling the limited-edition shirts for the Saturday night premiere of Wake Up Horny, Wake Up Angry, and I'm donating all the profits to Balticon's charity, buying books for kids in the Buck Lodge Middle School.

As you can see from this picture of the shirt's back, you can be the proud owner of a mostly black fashion item that is sure to offend almost everyone who sees it. (Those it doesn't offend are likely to want to own one; send them to me.) Isn't the design even better in close-up?

The front boasts a smaller and somewhat different logo, but it is still bitchin', as you can see here in both the full-shirt and close-up photos.

Now, you may be thinking, "Wait, didn't he do a show and a shirt last year?" Why, yes I did. It was the Science Magic Sex show, and we still have a small quantity of those shirts available. These four photos show you the back and front of the shirt, and as you can clearly see, it is made of awesome.

Either of these beauties can be yours for the tiny sum of $15. I keep only what the shirt cost me, and I donate the rest to the charity.

If you'd like to order, email me via the form on the Contact page, and I'll get back to you in email to work it out.

Odds are you'll be the only one on your block to own one!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

On the road again: Balticon, day 2

Much of today went to work, but I also got to participate in three fun activities.

The first was lunch at Mr. Rain's Fun House, which is the cafe on the third (top) floor of the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM). The cafe's food was interesting and delicious. We started by sharing the Crab & Mango tartare appetizer, then had Kobe beef hot dogs with Mexican toppings--easily one of the best hot dogs I've tasted.

Fortified for our adventure, we toured AVAM itself. When I was last here, eight or nine years ago, I think, the place was a single building; now it encompasses three and an outdoor sculpture garden. I once again found a great deal of the work to be quite compelling. Many of the artists create compulsively, and I wonder often how far from them I am. If you're in the Baltimore area, go see AVAM.

The third fun activity of the day was a long dinner at the wonderful Woodberry Kitchen. A group of us ate here last Balticon after my show, but with Kyle not available this weekend, we hit it early. Once again, we ordered a rather substantial portion of the menu, and once again, every single dish we tasted was excellent. I recommend this place highly.

Now, though, I will return to working on the show, doing a second blog entry for you--shirts!--and other work that requires my attention. Onward!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

On the road again: Balticon, day 1

Balticon doesn't start in earnest until Friday, but my trip this time will run Wednesday to late Tuesday. After work today, we headed north by car, both to avoid the heavier traffic of Thursday and to minimize my offline time. In general, I have to call this travel strategy a success, but it's probably good only for night-owls.

When I arrived, I was already mostly caught up on work email thanks to my 3G iPad's ability to let me do email while in the car. (No, I didn't do email when I was driving, tempting as that prospect was.)

We stopped at the Silver Diner at Potomac Mills for a late-ish breakfast-for-dinner meal. I quite enjoyed myself, particularly because someone cranked up Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons twice on the jukebox. I have no excuse for that weakness, but I do enjoy some Frankie now and again. I suspect the sight of me lip-synching "Sherry" and "Big Girls Don't Cry" is, however, enough to put most people off their feed.

Over the next few days, I plan to give you a look at the new show shirt, tell you the big news, report on some strange art, and tell you about the con.

Did I mention I'll make the big announcement?

For now, though, it's back to work!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Herons and Chef Scott Crawford hit a home run

(Sorry for two restaurant reviews in a row, but I'm a bit behind on them.)

A couple of weekends ago, we decided it was time to return to Herons to see what Chef Scott Crawford and his team were doing with the best of the local spring foods. This time, though, when I called for the reservation I showed off a few foodie credentials and then asked them to convey my simple message to the Chef: Please make the food you would most like to make, the menu you wish you could serve, really go crazy, and charge me whatever you need to do to make it work.

He did. You can see the menu here; click on it to view a larger, easier-to-read image.

I'm happy to report that the result was a top-drawer meal. With the exception of the desserts, which are frequently a problem at high-end restaurants, every dish was a winner.

Let's get those desserts out of the way. The strawberry shortcake was so-so, but the bubble gum ice cream was one of those noble efforts that simply should vanish into the don't-do-this-again bin. The chocolate mousse was good, but it wasn't great.

The other seven courses, though, were great, and because of them I'm already eager to see what Chef Crawford and his team will be doing when they switch to a summer menu.

I have to single out the poached lobster in pearl pasta with English peas and pistachios as a truly perfect taste of the season. All the textures and flavors blended perfectly. Crawford expertly uses nuts in many dishes, and they always work well. I won't say that I licked the bowl clean, but I might have swept the inside once or twice with my fingers.

If you live here and you're willing to spend a bit for an amazing dinner, call Herons, ask them to make you something special, and you will have a wonderful evening.

Don't forget to invite me.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Crook's Corner and honeysuckle sorbet

A few nights ago, we drove to Chapel Hill for dinner at Crook's Corner. Bill Neal and Gene Hamer made this place famous among foodies, particularly southern foodies. Its signature dish was shrimp and grits, a combination that Neal made popular and that you can now find in many fine restaurants. Hamer and Chef Bill Smith have kept the place rolling since Neal's death. I hadn't been there in a long time, so a trip was overdue, but what pushed us into going was the availability of another of their unusual dishes, this time a dessert: honeysuckle sorbet.

The quality of the food we tasted was highly variable. The shrimp and grits was wonderful and everything I remembered it to be. Many restaurants present shrimp and grits as if it's a small sculpture: four or five shrimp carefully placed atop some grits laced with cheese. Not here. Here, they saute shrimp with bacon and mushrooms, then pour the resulting concoction over some very fine but plain grits. It was a hunter's stew of a meal, rich and full of local flavors. The salads and vegetarian pasta, by contrast, were simple and uninspiring.

I would have made the trip for the shrimp and grits, but the real star of the evening was the honeysuckle sorbet. With a consistency barely creamier than an Italian ice, the dish was deliciously and amazingly evocative of the season; it was May in every spoon. Each of us savored every single taste of it. We all loved it.

The honeysuckle sorbet is available only for a short time, so if you live around here, head to Crook's Corner at your first opportunity and try this amazing treat. I'm already planning to return next year.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Makin' biscuits

Last week, a group of us went to Gina's belated birthday party, which was a cooking class in which the fine folks at A Southern Season taught us to make two types of biscuits. Under their tutelage, we split into groups and worked our dough and put our biscuits into their ovens.

This was an entirely new experience for me.

I don't bake. Never have. I love fresh-baked breads and pies and cakes and biscuits and so on, but if I'm going to cook it, I want a flame involved. Put me in front of a grill or a burner, and I'm happy. The oven, though, has always seemed so distant and the baking process so scientific and so devoid of art that I've chosen to stick with my flames.

Boy, was I wrong about baking.

Though each of us got to enjoy pre-measured ingredients and to share the work, I quite enjoyed the process. I also learned something interesting: no two sets of biscuits tasted the same. We all started with the same ingredients. We were all following the same two recipes. We had teachers who were suggesting the same techniques. Despite all those similarities, the biscuits had very distinct flavors.

I guess there's a lot more art involved than I had realized. I'm now having to reconsider baking.


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