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On Weighty Matters

Serious
Yesterday was an anniversary -- my gym membership expired and thus needed renewing. At the same time, it was also the day I met with my trainer so I stepped on the bathroom scale. 207 -- a great number to see.

This time last year I was fat. Heavy. Chunky. Big in the middle. No kind way to put it. Granted there are people with weight issues that are worse off than me. My stepfather is one such individual. Still, at 235 pounds, and the memory of my Father's heart attack three years ago still in my mind, I finally decided I was sick and tired of being sick and tired of being fat, and went back to the gym across the road from my house.

I had been to Fitness Factory 2 before. It had been about six or seven years ago to my recollection, although I can't remember why I let my membership lapse. I think it was because I couldn't justify the cost and decided to get my own equipment and work out at home. To say that did not pan out is putting it mildly.

The weight bench has gone unused for years and I'm practically giving it to a friend once we get off our collective asses and agree to move it all. The recumbent bike broke down after six months of semi-regular use and would most likely cost more to repair than it did to buy the damn thing. The exercise books, the mat and large exercise ball are also neglected, and it's all for one simple reason: working out at home doesn't... well... work out for me.

Like many things in life, no one true path exists when it comes to fitness. Two commonalities exist and methods of approach will differ between people. Despite what you see on TV for supplements, special equipment and snake-oil, it all comes down to diet and activity.

At 190 pounds, my father was considered dangerously overweight, as made evident by the mild heart attack (as it was described). He lost thirty pounds in two months by doing two things. The first was that -- as soon as he was cleared by the doctor -- he started walking about 2-4 miles a day. The other change? He stopped having thirds at dinner and cut red meat out of his diet. That's it.

Bear in mind that my Dad was a skinny dude when he was young. I mean skinny as in he could turn sideways and disappear. He also has one hell of a metabolism and is highly active. The only time he actually stopped doing stuff was when he had to go to the hospital, and I expect Death will have a hard time getting him to take a break. That's not me.

I was never skinny. My build comes more from my Mom's side of the family, which tends to shapes that favor a bit of muscle...or bulk if you're not healthy. With 190 as my goal weight, it's easy to tell I don't burn fuel as fast as my old man. Walking was not going to cut it.

My diet did change. I rarely indulge in junk food, and fast food places like Wendy's have become a very occasional pleasure, along with fried stuff. It boils down to portion control and calories, and being mindful of both. As a bachelor, I find those single serving packages of vegetables and side dishes perfect, as it saves from cooking a lot of food and overeating.

For exercise... well as I said before I can't do it at home. Going to the gym is far more effective for me, and I work out there six days a week. My routine alternates between weights and cardio. For weights I shift between three different workouts, changing the line-up from week to week to keep from falling into a rut. Cardio consists of an hour on the elliptical, and I prefer that over bikes or treadmills by a factor of a hojillion. My knees thank me for that decision.

It's been working. I plateaued at 210 for a long while before my trainer suggested I get to the gym earlier in the morning, working out before breakfast. Two weeks later and three pounds lighter, I found it to be sound advice.

Even though progress is slow by some standards, it's still progress and that goal of 190 looks attainable. Dropping six inches from my waist doesn't hurt matters either, and more importantly, it's a change I can maintain. I know the weight I lost is staying off, and I've been a lot happier (and healthier) since I started. In the end, that's all that matters.

Ever Forward

Beaker
2010 is dead. Long live 2011.

And good riddance.

The past year wasn't bad for me, but it wasn't spectacular either. The greatest highlight was my trip to Dublin in February and I'll treasure those memories for the rest of my life. Of course, I intend to go back, but that's beside the point. Losing 25 pounds was another plus, and it's encouraged me to repeat the feat in the coming year.

Nothing disastrous happened. No, really, I can't think of anything that happened that I could describe as being bad. That just serves to remind me of two things.

1) Life could be worse.
2) It's up to me to make it better.

So here I sit in my comfy recliner, sipping some chai. Yeah, it could be a glass of wine or a beer, but I did enough drinking New Year's Eve, and my newest "tradition" is to abstain from the first week of the year. Best to face the change of the calendar with a clear head and all that.

For the most part, the year has been plain -- unfulfilled. I can look back on things with hindsight, saying "I could have done this," or "should have done that," but why drive myself crazy with things I can't change? The only thing I can do is learn and look forward, and dedicate myself to getting more out of 2011.

This won't be an easy year, but I can deal with that. One thing is certain: I will have a new job before summer. The only question is where. The most promising opportunity has yet to be confirmed and probably won't be for another week or so. It's not the only egg in that basket, of course, but it's the best of the bunch. Only thing to do is wait and see.

The year will see me writing and submitting more. Haven't been doing much of either in 2010, so with that I'll be getting my butt in the chair. I also have two game design projects in progress, one for tabletop, one for iPad/Android markets. I've got some base-line work done so far on each. The tabletop game needs some fleshing out before I can begin playtesting. As for the iPad game, I need to do some research before I can get too far with it -- the research will determine my approach to core game mechanics. Of course, I'll need to learn how to code an AI for that, but hey, that'll be a learning experience.

It won't be an idle year. Challenging? Yes, in more ways than one. Will I be worried? Oh hell, yes. Nothing in life is certain, and the universe at large doesn't care about little old me. Getting the most out of this year is going to take a considerable amount of sweat equity, and it'll force me to face some insecurities I haven't had to think about for a while.

But I'd be an idiot to not stand up to whatever 2011 throws at me. All I can do is say, "Bring it."
Serious
I picked up Red Dead Redemption a few days ago upon the recommendation of a few friends. Although our tastes vary in different ways, both pointed out nuances that they knew would be essential for me, so I figured I'd give it a shot.

And they're right -- this is a good game. I just don't think it's my kind of game.

Lemme 'splain.

From a straight mechanical point, the game is excellent. The graphics and animation are stunning. Game play is well handled, save for a few nitpicks. I could complain about how the game uses a red line for path navigation in the minimap, and that these red-green colorblind eyes get me lost on occasion, but it's not a game killer. Movement controls are ipswitched depending on whether you're on foot or mounted. On foot, you just point the stick in the direction you want to move, but on horseback, forward is move and left and right are strictly turning. Also, the weapon selection screen needs a pause given how unintuitive it works.

But those are all quibbles. I can get used to those things, which means that the control/mechanics aren't really an issue. If you want to see a game with shitty controls, look no further than Robotech: Battlecry, an early X-Box title that featured three different and counter-intuitive control sets for each of the three modes your mecha could take. Add to that crappy documentation, sluggish response, and a tutorial that couldn't tell you which button to press to do whatever, and you've got a terrible game.

Let me repeat: That's not the case with Red Dead Redemption. Any issues I have with the controls are merely me hitting the learning curve after four playthroughs of Mass Effect 2. For the record, that's the only reference I'll make to that game in this entry.

The writing is also strong -- mostly. The dialogue is excellent, probably ranking among the best I've seen in a game. James Marston is a smart, sharply spoken outlaw with a gentleman rogue touch. It reminds me of James Garner as "Maverick" but more gritty than smooth. That alone endears me to the game.

Then there's the plot. For some reason, Marston has to go back to the wild frontier to kill the head honchos of his former gang. Apparently federal agents need the job done and hold Marston'sfamily hostage so he can do the deed. Here's the problem -- I got the second part of that from the back of the box, not the game itself.

It's a simple violation of POV. If I'm supposed to be playing the role of Marston, I need to be in his head. As a writer, if I want the reader to be deep into that POV, I can't hide the character's thoughts from the reader. That means the reader needs to know what's at stake, as Marston already knows it. The only way to get around this is to go with an unreliable narrator and Marston is NOT that. Thus, like with Isaac Clarke in Dead Space the game is hiding something or lying to the player.

But unless the game tries to reveal the hostage family as a shocking twist, that doesn't make it a bad game.

I don't find fault in the plot, either. It suits the genre of westerns, as does the setting elements. I rather like the fact that it's set in 1911, well past the Civil War and only a few years before the First World War. It's an interesting era, marking the end of the cowboy and the Wild West.

So why has my motivation for playing this game has fallen to "Well, I paid $60 for it"?

I think the problem is I don't hear a clock ticking. Marston isn't given a time limit to get the job done, and that sucks some of the urgency and tension out of the game. Not having a deadline is a modern element to sandbox games -- this I realize -- but it doesn't work for me. When I have a definite set of plot points to visit, I tend to prioritize those to further the story, which makes exploration a low priority

This might have worked if I didn't have a little dot on the map that said, "there's plot here," which would encourage me to explore and meander about the countryside. At the same time, I noticed that the passage of time is marked -- I had to spend two days in jail for accidentally shooting an officer of the law. If there's no deadline, then why does the passage of time matter?

Sandbox style gaming is not new -- what is new is the current level of sophistication provided by more powerful technology. A number of computer RPGs back in the day had sandbox elements to them -- Wasteland is one that comes to mind, along with various iterations of The Bard's Tale and Ultima series. Ultima VII was among one of the more memorable and groundbreaking titles in this vein. You had a large world to explore, no specific "go here" mandate and the ability to approach things as you saw fit -- within the limits of game mechanics.

But the big difference between these games and Red Dead Redemption is that the former always had some sense of purpose presented in-game. The first cut-scene that opens Red Dead is with Marston getting on a train out west and listening in on a bunch of filler conversation. We aren't given the reason why he's out there and we don't know what's at stake. As a result, I have a hard time connecting with Marston or the game at large.

Without that connection or motivation, I have a hard time wanting to keep playing.

That's why I say Red Dead Redemption is a good game, but I don't think it's my kind of game.

Spooky Gab or Why I Don't Scare Easily

Me and my big mouth
On the night before Halloween, I went with some friends to The Scarehouse. It was a fun evening, topped off with some really tasty frozen yogurt at a shop in Squirrel Hill, and then we watched The Grudge (good film, by the way). A good time was had by all, myself included, even though the haunted house didn't exactly scare me.

This is not to say that the Scarehouse wasn't doing a good job. Far from it, the set up was magnificent and the visual spectacle was enjoyable. I'm just one of those oddballs that doesn't get freaked out in a haunted house.

Part of it is that in the back of my head I know what to expect. At certain points throughout the program, people will jump out of hidden locales and do their "Abloogy Woogy Woo" (to quote Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw as he describes horror). Once the people are done with their Abloogy Woogy Woo, they go back to their posts and wait for their next victim. The thing about being a Creepy Crawly in a haunted house is that you're not allowed to touch the audience. You can get close but all you can do is act freaky and hope that you surprise them.

Now, to be fair, I did jump once or twice at a sudden noise outside my field of vision, but nothing actually scared me as the whole affair was one big "Abloogy Woogy Woo."

The best way to scare is to play with my imagination -- oddly enough that's the best way for a lady to... well... arouse me, which is probably one reason I'm still single, but I digress. It's what I don't see that can scare me.

Allow me to give you a couple of examples.

Clive Barker's Undying was a horror themed FPS from 2001. During one moment in the game, I'm walking through a brightly-lit area when everything starts to fade to black. Just before the darkness is complete, I see monsters rounding the bend and coming at me.

Guess how all of the worst nightmares I can remember started? Yep, a slow fade from light to dark.

Another case comes from a LARP event -- yes, I know, I risk losing 'Net cred as a sooper serious critic and personality by mentioning my LARPing activities, but it's silly fun and I regret nothing.

Anyhow, we're at our cabin, fending off wolves. Unbeknownst to us, they're been shot our way by Dark Elves, and the crew for this event went all out with makeup, costuming and tactics. Lots of quick strikes out of the shadows, hit and run moments all coming from different directions so we have no idea what's where. From inside the cabin comes a rustle and crash, and one companion says, "Ah, crap, a wolf must have gotten in. I'll take care of it." He walks in alone, a fight breaks out, and then there's silence.

I lean towards the door. "Hawk, did you get him?"

Nothing.

"Hawk! Did you get that thing?"

Silence.

"... Hawk? Shit... someone cover me."

Now I'm nervous because I don't know what's happened in there. My mind is running through possibilities because it could be anything. When the sound of combat consists of yelling numbers, it's hard to tell a wolf from a swordsman if all you're doing is listening to the fight.

So I walk into the candle-lit cabin. The first thing I see is Hawk prone on the ground and some ... shadow ... thing crouched over him. Then it looks up and all I can see are eyes.

I have no idea who was playing that Drow, but I was terrified to the point of inaction.

That's what it takes to scare me. Immerse me in the right atmosphere and then mess with my head with little subtle things to get my train of thought to go off the rails. It's one thing to have a guy in a monster suit jump out at you, it's another thing to know that something's out there, but you don't know if it's aware of you or when and how it's going to strike. That's dread right there, folks, and it's one of the most effective modes in horror writing, period.

That or brie, take your pick.

Movie Gab: Saw 3D

Beaker
Goodness it's been a while. The past two weeks have been a little nuts on the social scale. I've been working on a special project (not writing, but writing related) and celebrating my aging multiple times with family and friends. My Stepfather also celebrated his aging Thursday night, where we went out for Ethiopian food (very tasty). It's a birthday tradition -- the celebrant chooses a restaurant and the three of us (me, my Mom and my Stepfather) feast. The only limitation is that Mom's a vegetarian, but a lot of places have plenty of options on the green side of things. We all know we'll regret over-eating, but it's a guilty pleasure we observe once a year...

Is that a segue? Why yes I believe it is! (And yes, spoilers may be involved).Collapse )

Next time... we'll either talk more on horror, the quantum nature of cats, or whatever else tickles my fancy. Stay tuned!
Serious
A while back I gave my take on Dragon Age and how it compared to Mass Effect. After playing Lair of the Shadow Broker, I was given the opportunity to rekindle Shepard's relationship with Liara T'Soni. It left me thinking about the nature of relationships and sexuality as presented in both Mass Effect and Dragon Age.

When it came out, Mass Effect caught some controversy when it was announced that the game could include a sex scene between Shepard and a crew member. Actually it could be described better as a "romance" scene, given that the moments of partial nudity were as racy as it got. But apparently according to some of the more puritanistic members of our society (namely most Republicans), this was a far greater offense than the "Hot Coffee" easter egg in Grand Theft Auto 4 plus all the violence in video games combined.

I guess these people never heard of Leather Goddesses of Phobos which could get far more lewd than Mass Effect.

Regardless, I can see why BioWare would avoid delving into same-sex relationships in the game. Just broaching the subject of sex by itself is enough to induce foaming at the mouth in some people. Likewise the questions that can be raised concerning Shpeard's resurrection and the state of his consciousness or the existence of his soul is enough to get people going. One controversy at a time seems to be BioWare's motto.

While I can understand that approach, it still strikes me as odd, given an SF setting has the potential to be friendlier to such pairings (note, I said potential -- that ain't always the case). Works like Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness show us that sexuality can take many different forms, and I think that's something that Mass Effect could hav handled tastefully.

I realize that some would say that a female Shepard pairing with Liara would be a same-sex relationship, but I don't think that really counts. The Asari have only one gender, and they can't impregnate non-Asari, even though they can impregnate members of their own species. In fact given how the Asari reproduce, it's safe to say that gender and their roles don't really fit into the equation.

By way of comparison, I wouldn't call Fantasy hostile to same-sex relationships, but based on history few societies were very welcome to the concept. Your duty was to wed and bed and raise children. Royalty got a bit of a pass as long as they did their part to ensure their lineage would continue, but otherwise that's as good as it got.

So, when I heard that you could explore such an option in Dragon Age I didn't really bat an eye at first. So Zevran's bi, so what? I didn't have any interest in that regard as my axe doesn't swing that way, and I didn't trust the little bastard any farther than I could chuck an Archdemon. Suffice to say, romancing Zevran was not an option for me.

There was some controversy over it that flared up a bit, but again, I think tameness of the romance scene took some of the edge off (and rightfully so). In addition, the game had other "mature" issues -- for example, deciding whether or not to kill a demon-possessed child -- and the game was appropriately labeled as such.

But no-one seemed to notice that a female character could have a romance with the bard Leliana.

One thing I noted was that, regardless of gender, engaging in a romance with Zevran was a lot easier than with Leliana. To be fair, Zevran is a hedonistic assassin while Leliana is a devout member of the Chantry. That one should be more difficult to seduce than the other goes without saying, but I don't see why the game should be designed that way. Relationships and romances trees as part of the plot should have equitable paths to follow.

Still, I can't help wondering if the differences in romance paths implies a difference between gay males and lesbians in their approach to relationships. I don't think that's what BioWare intended -- far from it -- but it does raise the question.

Maybe it's due to the fact that I wasn't as enamored with Dragon Age as I was with Mass Effect -- and God knows I've gone on enough about the subject -- but I failed to find the romance plot lines compelling. Maybe it was the graphics and the animation. Maybe it was the mute, stone faced protagonist who just picked a numbered cue card and held it up whenever he had something to say. Or maybe it was just the mechanics of conversation in the game, where I couldn't tell which responses were positive for the conversation and which weren't.

Whatever it was, the emotional disconnect led me to thinking that the romance options (and subsequent "controversial scenes") were more tacked on due to Mass Effect's success than actually being major plot points. I didn't care about the protagonist, so why should I care about his love life?

Still, BioWare has begun making a mark in the latest generation of console RPGs by including romance as a part of the plot. As long as they don't tack it on/phone it in, it should work for Dragon Age 2 (given the changes they've made over all). As long as they can give me a protagonist I can care about, and not staple on any darkity darkness for sake of looking edgy or controversial.

Game Gab: Mass Insanity

Serious
God knows I've talked enough about Mass Effect 2 and my love for the series. Recently I picked up the latest DLC for the game Lair of the Shadow Broker and I just finished playing through it.

And at the end it left me with some uncertainties.

It's not in the game play, that's for sure. The whole module is a roller coaster ride, starting with an investigation at Liara's apartment, a Die Hard style assault in and out of an office complex, a car chase (which had some great banter between Liara and Shepard, but was a little too short), and a ridiculous fight with a teleporting agent of the Shadow Broker.

Now when I say ridiculous I mean just that -- although I'm playing the game on the Insanity level and the description is justified. Still this mini-boss is anything but mini given how much it takes to whittle down her barrier, her armor AND her health.

But that's not the end of it. Turns out Liara wants to rescue an old friend who's been the Shadow Broker's prisoner for two years. This leads to an assault on the Broker's ship which is hiding in a massive planetary thunderstorm. Of course you can't dock your shuttle with the ship, so you have walk on the outer hull until you can find an access hatch.

I'll just say this, out of the entire module, this phase is the most visually exciting multi-stage battlefield I've ever seen. Bits and pieces of the ship are constantly moving and the storm is blazing all around. There are these massive capacitors/lightning rods that you can shoot to zap anyone standing too close. The music just adds to the rush. Then while you're fighting at the hatch facing waves of the Shadow Broker's agent (waiting for Liara's virtual lockpick to do its job), Shepard and Liara trade even more quips.

The fight within the ship itself is much shorter and less intense, which is a shame because I figured there'd be more resistance. And the final fight scene with the Shadow Broker is… well… easy.

It's what happens after, and for that I'm going to delve into a cut.

Now you can't cry over a 'spoiler.'Collapse )

Of course, I'm left to wonder how that bit plays out if Shepard romanced the human alternative to Liara -- which leads me to wondering why there are no same-sex relationships, in Mass Effect, but that's a post for Friday.
Serious
Okay, I know, it's a day late, but hey, you're not paying for this.  Anyway, I wanted to talk about music for a bit...

It wasn't until college that I got into Metallica, and metal in general.  I was an odd duck in grade school, dodging the rock trends -- or trying to be adamant fan of more "classical" music.  Of course, I have to admit, one music teacher tried to analyze some "pop" music (much to her distaste) -- two songs in particular being "Touch and Go" by Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and "And She Was," by the Talking heads.  She didn't just stop with playing said songs ad nauseum, trying to gleam meaning from the lyrics and critique the quality of the music, oh no.  She also played the songs on the piano and had us sing along.  Yeah, it pretty much soured my taste in popular music for about five years -- although that doesn't explain my early love for Journey.

So any way, I missed out on the "Big Four" in high school.  I didn't even like heavy metal because I thought it was all just F-bombs and noise from wrecked guitars.  Mind you, I thought the opening riff to Metallica's "Frayed Ends of Sanity" was pretty cool, as the high school level gamer geek in me had a vision of an undead army on the march.  However, I didn't get into Metallica until 1991, when I first heard the "Black Album" and later the rest of the catalogue from "Kill 'Em All" to "... And Justice For All."  When the documentary, A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica came out, I watched it, and found myself a fan of the band.  This was, of course, well before the days of Wikipedia, Facebook and Twitter, so getting a glimpse at what the people behind the band were like held some sway over my opinion.

I stuck with the band as my tastes in metal expanded, enduring "Load" (even though today I don't care for it) and the subsequent albums, and bought into the "St. Anger" hype as the beginning of a return to old form.  And now, well after "Death Magnetic," I've come to wonder if I'll still stick with the band.

Over the course of nearly 20 years (God, it feels weird saying that), I've come to enjoy other metal bands as well: As I Lay Dying, Killswitch Engage, Fear Factory, Communic, Slipknot, Disturbed, Iron Maiden and two of the "Big Four" of Metal -- Anthrax and Megadeth.  (As a side note, I tried getting into Slayer but they just didn't do anything for me.  Not hating, just saying)  Recently I came to the conclusion that Metallica is going the way of the Rolling Stones, while Anthrax is going the way of Rush.

Lemme 'splain.

Anytime I hear or see about a live Stones performance in this decade, I wince and grimace -- and I doubt I'm alone in this. Keith Richards and Mick Jagger are pushing 70, and yet they're still doing the same sort of dancing and goofing around the stage. Only thing is nowadays, Jagger is one misstep from a broken hip, and Richards is one heartbeat away from passing into undeath and eating Charlie Watts' brains. They've recorded three albums since 1990 (no, I'm not counting any videography, I'm just going with music) and to be quite honest, I have to wonder if they did them just for a stab at more money and another 15 minutes of fame. They look like they're taking themselves too seriously when they're on the stage and at this point it's just groantastic.

Rush, on the hand is not that sort of band. Okay, Geddy Lee's only 57 and the band all wears sensible shoes these days, but when you see these guys on stage it's a different story. They have a sense of humor about themselves, as can be seen on the video screen before the show and during the intermission, but also in their stage set up. To contrast Alex Lifeson's wall of amps, Lee stands in front of industrial size driers or a massive chicken rotisserie. During the instrumental moments you catch glimpses of Lee talking to Lifeson and every now and then you see either of them break out in a smile or a laugh -- though never Neil Peart, the man is a machine (although his demeanor did break once when Lifeson started rambling on the mic during the Pittsburgh show in their "Vapor Trails" tour). But the point is these guys are still having fun on the stage, secure in their popularity and knowing they have a loyal audience for their music (and merchandise).

Any more these days, that's a big thing for me -- it shows in the music. If you're not having fun with something, you should consider moving on.

While Metallica's latest album "Death Magnetic" has been claimed to be a return to the band's roots, I'm just not hearing it. Ever since they went the pop metal route with "Load," I think the band has been struggling to find their sound since. Some good works have come out of the process, no doubt about that, but at this point I'm wondering exactly when the band truly lost their edge. Like the Stones, I get the impression that future albums will be forthcoming in an attempt to be "relevant" to metal and music in general. In addition, it'll be another Metallica album because … well, that's all these guys seem to have. Again, this feels like a case of a band that takes itself too seriously.

Hetfield is an excellent rhythm guitarist and Trujillo's a good bass player, but I keep scratching my head over Hammet and Ulrich. Hammet always came across as an "artiste," going through the nods, motions, and grimaces that come with a guitar solo even if it's as weak as the one in "Until It Sleeps." Ulrich was a good drummer up to "...And Justice for All" and has been declining since.

Anthrax, on the other hand, still holds a lot of charm for me, despite the band going through some serious business and music troubles after "The Sound of White Noise" and lead guitarist Danny Spitz's departure. However the core of the band remains true -- Scott Ian does some top notch rhythm, Frank Bello is amazing on bass and Benante shows tremendous skill that's grown over the years. And through it all they're still having fun making music and performing.

I have no doubts that I'm showing a bias here -- this is a matter of opinion, after all. But the favoritism has to come from somewhere and for me it's a matter of passion behind the music and a damned good rhythm section. Metallica lacks the former and scores two out of three on the latter. Anthrax still has it on all counts.

Further proof that if you love what you, you'll always know some degree of success.

Game Gab: One in Ten

Bork bork bork!
Erin Palette made a very interesting comment on her blog, which you can read here. She's been talking about the D&D setting she's been developing/running and it's been an interesting read (along with the rest of her blog), but this bit got a bug in my ear:

"Sensible people do not take unnecessary risks. They stay at home and live boring lives where everything is normal and predicable and safe. These people are not heroes, they are normal schmucks like you or me. Then there are the people who, for virtue or greed or glory, put their safety on the line and live extraordinary lives. We as a culture lionize these people, because it takes an extraordinary person to put himself in danger willingly."
And it's true.  Being an adventurer in any sort of fantastic setting marks one as an odd duck.  It strikes me as odd that a society that PCs have to interact with don't regard them with suspicion, distate, distrust, awe, wonder, worship or any other sort of emotion other than "oh hey guys, what what menacing evil you dealing with today?"

You expect that sort of attitude among the veteran adventuring community, the ones that have survived massive battles against either tremendous odds or powerful foes (or both).  Look at the Scooby Gang in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" in season one and then in, say, season six.  They've got that swagger, that know how that comes with fighting evil and taking it down. In their own right, their a party of adventurers, starting out struggling and barely keeping it together, and eventually taking on escalating forms of evil.  And yet, they still have to deal with the day-to-day, and a community of people that increasingly regards them as strange.

One question that comes up: can they go back to that normal life, or will they distance themselves from that world further, knowing what's out there and what's at stake?

It's a truism of gaming I stick to: adventurers are rare people.  As Palette points out, it takes a certain kind of mentality to study arms or magic or religion and then want to go into some desolate locale looking for treasure.  I don't know if it was Gygax who said it first -- and if I ever find the source I'll gladly cite it -- but in any milieu, one out of ten people become a first level hero.  I tend to take it a bit further (and I'll stick with the D&D terminology since it fits) :

1) Only one out ten people have the potential to become a first level anything.
2) Of those ten people, only one will actually take the leap and become that first level adventurer.
3) Of ten of those, only one will make it to second level.

So, that first level fighter is unique out of a hundred people, and he manages to get together with three to five like minded people of different vocations.  Proportionately speaking, that's five out of a group of five hundred on average.

Attrition is a bitch, make no mistake.  Numerous reasons exist why an adventurer never made it past that novice phase.  Death is common, so is maiming.  Fear is another factor, where the would be hero saw just how dangerous it could be and decided a life more ordinary was a better deal.  Maybe a spell backfired and burned out his ability to use magic.  Maybe it was a loss of faith, be it personal or spiritual.  Or maybe he got a nice haul or treasure to live comfortably for the rest of his days and just decided to call it quits.

So should a party of five heroes make it past that first "moment", i.e. that second level, they're now five out of a group of five thousand in terms of uniqueness.  That ratio only gets greater and greater as the heroes continue to ply their strange trade.  This leads me to another truism.

4) As heroes rise in power, their community of peers grows smaller.

Because really, how many arch-magi, high-priests, master-thieves and swordmasters do you think there should be in the world?  It's a problem if there's an overabundance of super heroes in a setting (*koffkoff*ForgettenRealms*koff*).  Few people truly rise to the pinnacle of power, and with the sort of experiences a hero in D&D can have, there's fewer people with whom he can relate.  Not even kings can truly understand what it means to face down a dragon if they haven't done it themselves.

This brings me to my next truism:

5) The more powerful the hero, the more distant he is from the life he once knew.

This falls in line with the saying "you can't go home again."  The things we do shape us and alter our perceptions.  Learning a craft or a trade makes you see things differently, appreciate what goes into a finished product.  My grandfather was a carpenter, and the first time he visited my mother's newly purchased home, he went over the place from top to bottom... looking for something to fix.  Travel broadens the mind -- take a trip outside North America and experience the world at large.  Some things back home will not seem the same afterwards.

The best example of this is one of the closing scenes in the film "The Return of the King," when the four Hobbits return to the Shire and visit their old pub.  While the rest of the place carries on it is usual celebratory manner, Frodo, Merry, Sam and Pippin, sit quietly and observe the scene before clinking their mugs together in a silent toast.  They know that the Shire is not the place it once was for them, now that they've seen so much of the world.

Once a paladin has seen the evidence of the legions of Hell with his own eyes and bloodied his sword in the ichor that flows in demons' veins, how can he go back to that simple life in the rectory?  He's seen what lies beyond the pale, and knows first hand what can be at stake when otherworldly forces move.  This is why in Feist's novel "Shards of a Broken Crown" the sorcerer Pug tells King Patrick to piss off, severs all ties with the kingdom where he was born and raised, packs up shop and moves to Sorcerer's Isle and hangs a sign that says "Keep Off, Violators Will Be Detonated".  Even if you do "go home" again, that knowledge and experience you have stays with you.  Can life be normal once you've looked into the Abyss?  If you know what's out there and that you're one of the few who can do something about it... probably not.

Well, I've gone one with this thread of gabbing long enough.  We'll shift gears and talk about music on Friday...