Sunday, February 22, 2015

Aaron's Got Talent

(This blog is a little longer than normal. If I had an editor (or readers) I'd trim it down a tad. I figured I'd record as much as I remembered. In this case, it was quite a bit)

A few months ago, a friend of mine decided to sign up for the America’s Got Talent 2015 (AGT) auditions in Santa Clara (near San Francisco). Instead of just heading out to support her, a couple other singing friends and I decided to sign up too. We figured even though we didn’t stand much of a chance, the experience would be worth it. After doing it, I’d say it was.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, America’s Got Talent is basically American Idol, but with less signing and more animal acts. I’ve been watching since season 5 after my son showed me a few clips on-line and wanted to watch the actual show. It was family friendly,  had a lot of variety, and very likable judges (Howie Mandel, Sharon Osborne, and Piers Morgan at the time). We were hooked.

I’d always enjoyed singing. I have a good voice, though I’m no Freddie Mercury. I discovered I like singing in front of an audience when I started doing karaoke while stationed in Guam and Hawaii. I experimented with new songs and discovered I had more range than I thought. After seeing America’s Got Talent, I had occasionally flirted with the idea of auditioning, but living in Hawaii made it difficult to tryout. Now that I live in California, I really had no excuse.

One thing to mention is the AGT auditions are not the ones you see on TV. We weren’t going to sing in front of the judges, fearing the audience would boo enough to make the red “X” buzz in. But we knew that going in.

After letting everyone know the four of us signed up, I found out the first wrinkle in our plan. We had to pick a song, it had to be 90 seconds or less, and it had to be a cappella. My singing experience is about 49% karaoke, 50% the Rock Band video game. Only 1% has been singing a cappella in public, and that consisted entirely of me belting out the National Anthem in the gym during 6th grade (there was no event I was supposed to be opening, and my reward was detention that afternoon). One of the biggest reasons is I can never remember lyrics unless I’m singing along with the song. During Karaoke, my eyes are glued to the screen, even though I’ve sung “Living La Vida Loca” a hundred times.

As anyone would do in this situation, I Googled “how to pick an a cappella song for an audition”. The consensus of advice was to pick something that shows off your range, pick a song that isn’t done to death, pick a song that isn’t original or obscure, and find a way to make it your own. I went to my go-to karaoke list and recorded myself singing a bunch of songs in my car (Privacy is a very rare thing in the Eischens household…). Hearing the recordings made me realize how repetitive most songs are, and how much they depend on the accompanying music and backup singers.
Every showbiz story involves Denny's

 I decided to go with “Drive” by Incubus, with a couple backups just in case (the AGT FAQ suggests you have an extra prepared). It had good range, and it wasn’t too famous or obscure. I even added some twists to make it “mine”. Our audition group decided to try out our songs in front of each other outside of a local sushi bar. We sang our primary and backup and voted on which one was a better fit. The group liked my backup, “Keep Me in Mind” by the Zac Brown Band better. They said it had more passion in it. I avoided it because I felt it didn’t show off as much range, but I was happy with it all the same.

We carpooled from Sacramento, setting sail at 4 AM. When you register, you pick an audition time. Mine was 8 AM, and the rest of my group were 12 and 3PM. The 3PM drove separately, so the two 12 o’clocks drove down with me. None of us got much sleep the night before, so we were chasing our dreams, riding on a caffeine high. We made excellent time, and chose to waste an hour at the local Denny’s because all super-star journeys begin at Denny’s.
The Pre-line line
We arrived at the Santa Clara Convention center, right across the street from Levis Stadium, home of the Santa Clara, er, San Francisco 49ers. The parking garage was bare and we wondered if we were in the right place. We were reassured when several costumed dancers exited a nearby vehicle. Nearing the entrance, we saw the line of the other AGT hopefuls. It wasn’t too bad of a line, considering they hadn’t let anyone in yet. Chatting with some of the other line-dwellers confirmed what we already suspected; the appointment times are merely suggestions. My two 12 o’clock companions were happy that we could all go in together, then wait for our 3PM friend to show up.
Too late to turn back now!

We received wristbands, and a sticker with numbers on it. We quickly made our way through the registration desk and started thinking ahead to what we were going to do with the rest of the day since things were going so smoothly. Good thing we didn’t make any reservations, because we had a long day ahead of us.

The registration line
Immediately after signing in, we went to the large “holding room” where hundreds of other hopefuls sat in randomly placed chairs. The holding room was a giant room, about the size of a basketball gym. In the center was a dance floor which was intended for dancing acts to practice on, but it was used for that and quite a bit of filming as we’d later learn.We located 3 free chairs that were strangely arranged in a circle. I later learned that they were intentionally placed like that. My companions headed off to one of the randomly located makeup mirrors to erase the 4 AM road trip, so I turned my attention to the info sheet every entrant was supposed to fill out.
My life story, as far as AGT is concerned.

Since I am a “good” singer but not a “great” one, my strategy was to play up my military status and how I haven’t been able to pursue a singing career because of it and my kids. Laziness has a lot to do with it too, but AGT is first and foremost a television show. Yes, the people who make it to the televised version are talented to varying degrees, they also have compelling stories to go with it. A couple of mediocre young singers made it to the semi-finals in 2010 primarily because they played up their cysticfibrosis. I’m a slightly better singer in good health, but the show seems to have a soft-spot for singing vets.

With my co-audtioners all prettied up, we ventured forth to see what kind of people were milling about in the holding room. I kept myself amused by trying to pick out some of the people I’d expect to see on the show when it aired. There was “Bruce Leroy” who took his karate very seriously. 

There was a quirky opera(ish) singer wearing a purple shirt and a conquistador helmet. Another guy wore a Next Generation Starfleet uniform and had an Enterprise hat (I can only imagine his “talent”). A KISS era gene Simmons look-a-like, a belly dancer with a chandelier on her head, and a robot that
didn’t appear to do much other than blankly stare off into space were some of the other highlights.

We came across a teenage country singer hopeful and a trio of musicians who played jazzy acoustic versions of Frank Sinatra songs. They asked the country singer what song she wanted to sing. She requested “Ring of Fire”. We got kind of excited because we all knew the song and were going to sing along. I especially wanted to show off my baritone, Johnny Cash voice. They asked what key she wanted and she kind of stammered. Before she could answer, she was whisked away by a producer who wanted to film her and her grandfather. I’m not really sure why she stood out enough for them to want to film her, but I could never quite figure out why they picked most of the people they did.

The stray country singer we picked up.
Once she left, the musicians asked what we were singing. My co-talent nudged me and I told them my song, “Keep me In Mind”. Then they asked what key.  This was when I realized how much of an amateur I really was. I never knew I had to know what key my songs were in. I always just let the music guide me. I told him I didn’t know, so he told me just to sing it and he’d figure it out. I was suddenly nervous. I hadn’t sung to anyone other than my group and the unfortunate passersby outside the sushi place. I had a false start, but got it right the second time. He told me it was an A flat, then asked if I could find it on a piano. Despite my limited instrumental career, I actually did know how to find it. He said that there will be a keyboard in the audition room and to hit that key before I start so I can be in key. I thanked him and before we started a song, they were called away to audition.

Actual talent.
In the two hours we had been there, they had only called about 50 acts to audition. We were numbered 261-263, so it was going to be a while. The initial excitement was wearing off and the reality of waking up at 3 AM was beginning to hit us. The cell service was almost non-existent, so our batteries drained quickly due to the phones trying to get a signal. I had the foresight to bring an external battery, but smacked my head when I realized I forgot the cable. Fortunately, the producers rounded us all up (well, anyone who wanted to go) and we headed outside to recreate our registrations.

One cannot have enough AGT selfies.
One poorly kept secret about “reality shows” is that many parts are staged or recreated. AGT is no different. I had already figured out a while ago that the interviews and shot of people waiting practicing before they went before the judges was filmed from an earlier audition. With the thousands that try-out for AGT (and other talent shows like American Idol and the Voice), it would be impossible for everyone to do it in front of the judges and an audience. They would be there for days. What I never realized is how many takes they did of those “candid” shots.

I had been a rainy morning, and the sun was finally peeking out. The producers wanted us to wait in a large line/gaggle and pretend to register when we got to the front. We were told to be happy and smile  (we all gave him a wide berth while he demonstrated). I chatted with my companions, one of whom was trying to get us all to sing a song together, but we were all drawing lyrical blanks. I “registered” again, which involved chatting with a guy at the table and receiving another number (no paperwork this time!). Once we were done, we were ushered to the end of the line to start over again. Fortunately, they finished before I had to register for the third time.
a lot, oh, and don’t look at the cameras. Many hopefuls saw this as an opportunity to stand out and we heard many singers, and saw several breakdance fights. Plus, Bruce Leroy made a cameo with his nun-chucks

Fell asleep mid-chip
We went back to our seats, hungry and tired. Our 3 PM friend was on her way and took orders for Subway. One of my co-auditoners took a nap, and I went on a quest for caffeine. I decided I wasn’t tired enough to pay $3 for a bottle of soda, and kept myself entertained by watching the film crew make the performers they filmed do their acts over and over again. I think it’s assumed all the large group acts (dancers, etc) will automatically move on, so they concentrated extensively on them. When they filmed some wide shots, I found out why our chairs were in random locations; they didn’t want it to look like we were all facing the dance floor as if it were a show and we were just the audience.

Our Subway Saviors!
They were about 25 numbers away from our group (They called people in by groups of 25 to 50). We didn’t dare venture too far in case we missed our numbers being called. Our 3 PM friend and her boyfriend let us know they were here. I rushed out greet our sandwiches, er, them. Even better, she had an iPhone cable! I rushed the cable and sandwiches back to our spot in the holding room. We ate and shared the charging cable like it was a joint. Not long after, they finally called our group of numbers.

Our group of 25 was led up to the audition area and we were broken up into smaller groups. There were about 10 different audition rooms. Most were for small ones solo acts, and a few were larger to accommodate groups. We waited outside of our room for about 10 minutes, then headed in.

The sign made no sense to
this guy either.
A smiling producer, hiding behind a Macbook sat at a table near the front of the room. Our group of 8 was told to line up on one side of the room, while any guardians of those under 18 sat on the other side. The producer cracked a few jokes to set us at ease. One of my co-auditioner volunteered to go first. She was directed to stand on an “X” made of tape and do her 90 second performance facing the producer. She let us know that the 90 second rule wasn’t absolute, but she’d cut us soon after if we exceeded the 90 seconds. My co-auditioner did a great job, then the rest of us were called up in random order. With the exception of a young saxophone player, we were all singers. Fortunately I was the only adult male (a 10 year old boy belted out a beautiful “Ave Maria”) so I didn’t have to worry about comparisons.

5 hour wait to get in
another line!
While watching the others, I noticed a lack of a camera. I had heard they filmed all of the auditions, which made perfect sense. They supposedly do not make decisions on the spot, so how else would they remember each performance? I also noticed there was no keyboard. Oh well. I would have to use my newly learned key trick some other time.

Everyone was pretty impressive. My heart sank for one 14 year old whose nerves got the best of her, and she couldn’t perform. I wound up being the last performer. I went to my X, answered a few questions, and then started my song. About the only thing I was nervous about up to this point was forgetting the lyrics (especially in my shortened version). Once I started, the words just flowed out effortlessly and my nerves were pretty much gone. The producer maintained eye contact with me the whole song, which made me wonder how much eye contact I was supposed to return. She was either a really good producer or she genuinely enjoyed my song because I felt like she was into my performance. Either way, I finished my song with a rush of relief.

We'll see these guys again
The producer gave the 14 year old a second opportunity to sing, but she refused. The producer let us know that we’d find out if we’d made it to the next round in 3-4 weeks. She thanked us and told us to wait outside until we were dismissed, in case she needed to call any of us back. None of us were and we were finally done with the day! Well, kind of…

We had initially planned to stay the whole day and support each other all the way through each audition. I knew it would be a lot of “hurry up and wait”, but didn’t expect it to take 5 ½ hours from registration to audition. Our 3 PM friend was facing another 5 hours herself. I boldly announced we’d stay a couple hours then head home. About 20 minutes later, my co-auditioners asked 3 PM if she wouldn’t mind if we left. She said no problem and understood. Besides, she and her boyfriend had a lot of freshly charged electronic companions to keep them entertained. We wished her luck, then headed back to the car.

We stopped at a Mexican restaurant and the Coffee Bean to fuel up for the trip home. 3 PM excitedly texted us while we ate. She had been filmed by the AGT crew right after we left. They did some shots of her getting ready. I joked that we were the reasons the cameras were shying away, so she was good to go now. We wished her luck, then headed back to Sacramento.

As of the two-week post-audition mark, we haven’t heard anything back. I’m not really expecting to. A generous estimate would figure about 95% of everyone that auditioned that day won’t make it. It’s not that they aren’t talented enough. Like I said, America’s Got Talent is a TV show. They need the best (or worst in some cases) combination of variety, talent, and backstory. A lot of it is being in the right place at the right time. The thing is, you’ll never be in the right place if you don’t get out in the first place. I know I don’t have much of a shot, but I got out there anyway.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Adventures in Weight Cutting

DISCLAIMER: Weight cutting is not recommended by Physicians. It does have risks, especially if you overdo it. This blog is just a documentation of my experience. It is in no way a guide or instructions on weight cutting.

NOT me
  When a boxer or Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter wants to lose weight quickly prior to a fight, they cut weight. Weight cutting is basically dehydrating yourself in a 24-48 hour period to lose as much weight as possible so you can qualify for a lower weight class. Once they make weigh-in, they rapidly gain back all the weight in another 24 hours so they can fight at their actual weight. It can be
dangerous and you can suffer from health problems if you take it to the extreme.

  Last September I had knee surgery. Nothing dramatic, just an orthoscopic procedure to repair a torn meniscus that had been bugging me for years. It would occasionally flare up, causing discomfort, but it didn’t prevent me from doing long distance running. I enjoy long distance running, and even ran a marathon with my bum knee. Post surgery, I was supposed to be able to resume running about 4-6 weeks and be back to normal shortly afterward. I couldn’t wait to test out my new knee and at exactly the 4 week mark, I hit the pavement. I didn’t get very far because my knee shot out in pain. I decided to wait the full 6 weeks, testing it on an elliptical first. It was still painful, but the pain went away after 20 minutes of exercise. I figured I just had to work out the kinks and press through the pain. I had another painful
attempt at jogging, but I decided to try again. The second time wasn’t as bad. After a week, it was getting easier to run, but I was nowhere near the level I was pre-surgery (I ran 15 miles the week before, and 3 the day prior). What’s worse, my knee began hurting on the opposite side of surgery. Suspecting there was more damage, I made an appointment with the surgeon at the 3 month mark. He assured me it was normal, and my knee was just getting back in shape after years of neglect. I don’t think he remembered I was running on it up to the day prior to surgery.
Also not me. I would never wear that shade of red.

  What does this have to do with cutting weight? Well, one of the primary reasons I run is for weight control. I love food. I can either cut down what I eat, or continue to eat and burn it off via running. Without my constant running, my weight crept back up. I’m not blaming it on lack of exercise. I didn’t eat well, and there were other things I could have done. Regardless, I had an Air Force Fitness test coming up, and it wasn’t looking good.

  The Air Force has a semi-annual fitness test that everyone is required to pass. It’s not super difficult to get a minimum passing score, but it’s a little challenging to get a 90+ score. If you get 90+, you only have to PT test once a year, so that’s a pretty good incentive. Unfortunately, I’ve only achieved a 90+ score once, and that was while I was deployed (not many places to eat, plus nothing to do but exercise = skinny me). The thing that usually gets me is the waist measurement. The PT test consists of 4 graded components: 1.5 mile run (max 50pts), Waist (max 20), Pushups (max 10), and sit-ups
(max 10) = 100 possible points I usually do great on the running, push-ups, and sit-ups, but struggle on the waist. 35 inches and bellow is the best, and anything over 39 is an automatic failure. I’m a hefty guy despite all my running, and there are no adjustments for height.

  When the new Air Force Fitness test came out, you had 3 days to do everything. Most would weight in one day, do sit-ups and pushups the next, and then run the third. Airmen would frequently dehydrate themselves to make the waist, then rehydrate for the next two days. Not quite weight cutting like the pros, but similar. The Air Force got wise, and quickly changed it to everything in one day. This means that weight cutting is near useless with the PT test. When you dehydrate yourself, you have little energy and cannot possibly pass the running portion. I know, I’ve tried.

  Each portion of the test is waiverable (the Military loves waivers…). Because of my knee, I was testing on just the waist portion. I only asked for a running waiver, but somehow it would up covering the pushup and sit-up portion too. I had an opportunity to try weight cutting since I didn’t have to worry about recovering. Plus I didn’t have much of a choice, because (PT) failure is not an option. (Seriously. They kick people out for PT failures…)

  A quick Google search for weight cutting brought up several how-tos. I already knew the basics, but I wanted to make sure I didn’t do anything stupid. Here are the basics of weight cutting:

Eliminate salt/sodium: Salt causes your body to retain water. I discovered this the hard way when I gained 7 lbs. and 2 inches following a carb loading meal at Olive Garden prior to a PT test. Fortunately the test was rescheduled. Since then, I routinely abstain from salt two days prior to any PT test. 

Eliminate Water: Water=weight. 

Eliminate carbs: I usually do this anyway, but everything I read said carbs helped hold water. I don’t know how true that is, but I wasn’t taking any chances.

Lots and lots of sweating: it’s the easiest way to get rid of water from your body. Some people try
diuretics, but I wouldn’t recommend them. They really mess with your body and they are tough to control. If you sweat, you can stop and start at anytime.

My tape-in was at 1000 Friday morning, so I started 24 hours prior.

Crab comes from the sea? Who knew?
48 Hours to tape-in, 245lbs, 42-inch waist: “Wait. Didn’t you say 24 hours”? I had intended to do it in 48 hours. I eliminated as much salt in my diet as I could, but drank normally. My low salt foods for the day consisted of eggs (excellent low-salt food because of protein), unsalted tuna, mayo, and more eggs. Normally, fresh meat, including fish, without seasoning is great for low sodium (though very bland). Because of this, I had this great idea of having fresh crab with salt-free butter for dinner. Following the delicious crab feast, I decided to check to nutritional value online, and then had a face-palm moment. Since crab is, you know, from the ocean, and the ocean is, you know, FILLED WITH
SALT, it has a fair amount of sodium. Not bad, but kind of defeated what I was trying to accomplish.

26 hours to tape-in, 243 lbs., 42 inch waist: I normally lose a few lbs. overnight between sleeping and the morning pee, and today was no different, despite the crab foux pas. I took the day off to concentrate on the task at hand. I ate 3 eggs for breakfast and had my final glass of water.

20 hours to tape-in, 242 lbs., 42 inch waist: I didn’t really do much that morning, other than not drink anything. Due to the low-salt, I was urinating regularly, so I lost a lb. I had another 3 eggs for lunch.
Me after 3 steps.
  Now it was time to start sweating. The recommended best way to sweat was a sauna. I’m assuming this is because the MMA fighters don’t want to expend too much energy prior to their fight. I had no cage match upcoming, so I decided to run instead. I waited till the afternoon when it was a little warmer outside. I donned a sauna suit and threw a hoodie over it. I couldn’t find my sweatpants, so I wore jeans because the sauna suit was just too damn attractive to wear by itself.

19.5 hours to tape in, 237 lbs., 41-inch waist: The 2.5-mile jog went fine. I could tell I was getting a little overheated at the end, so I took it slow the second half. I usually sweat when I run, but I was drenched in the sauna suit. Since the sauna suit is relatively airtight, a lot of sweat pooled inside of it. I took it off in the bathtub and it just poured out of the suit. I toweled off, then stepped on the scale and saw I lost 5 lbs. This wasn’t too unusual. I’ve sweat off more before, but that was when it was much warmer than 65 degrees outside. Still, I knew I was on to something.

19 hours to tape in, 236 lbs., 41-inch waist: I continued to sweat following my run. I wasn’t super thirsty, but I sucked on a couple ice cubes to help my rapidly drying mouth.
16 hours to tape-in, 236 Lbs., 41 inch waist: I attended a parenting class with my wife. I felt a little woozy and tired, but I think that had more to do with my egg-diet than anything else. I looked longingly at the other parent’s drinking water and questioned if it was really worth it. Little did I know, the real suffering was about to begin.

12 hours to tape-in, 233 lbs., 41 inch waist: Besides saunas, the next most recommended way to sweat was taking a very hot bath. In addition, I read that using Epson salt enhances the water extraction. I filled the tub with as-hot-as-I-could-stand-it water and 2 cups of Epson salt. It took me a while to get used to the temperature, but eventually I submerged most of my body. The Internet recommends you submerge as much as you can underwater, but I just sat there and read a magazine for 30 minutes. I’m glad I decided to get out, because I was feeling a bit woozy and light headed. I think it was from the heat more than the dehydration. I escaped to the toilet and turned the fan on to cool off. I was nauseated and fighting the urge to pass out. I wondered if I was going too far. I recovered long enough to weigh and tape myself. I lost 3 lbs., but no inches. Exhausted, I went to bed.

4 hours to tape in, 231 lbs., 39.5 inch waist: I had a miserable night’s sleep. I was very hot, and very thirsty. I woke up in the middle of the night, opened a window and sucked on a few ice cubes. I finally cooled off and slept the remainder of the morning. Upon waking (and peeing) I weighed myself 2 lbs. lighter, but an impressive 1.5 inches thinner.
  The inch loss didn’t surprise me too much. I’ve learned in the past that being hot expands your waist. I learned this when an Air Force squadron of mine insisted on taping us after our run. Everyone always taped in higher than expected. I experimented and concluded that yes, your waist does expand after exercise. I assume it’s because when you are hot, your blood vessels expand and make their way as close to the skin as possible so it can cool off.

2 hours to tape-in, 227 lbs., 39 inch waist: I knew I was cutting it close on the waist. I downed 3 more eggs for breakfast, and put the sauna suit back on for another run. It was in the low 50’s, and little sun outside, so my run didn’t produce as much noticeable sweat. I also had a significant lack of energy and the run was more of a walk with occasional running spurts. I still managed to cover 2.2 miles, and lost 3 lbs.
  I tried another Epson salt bath, but kept it down to 12 minutes. After how awful I felt the last time, I didn’t want to push it too far. I left the tub a little woozy again, but quickly cooled off and weighed myself a final time. I hit 227, which was 16 lbs. lighter than when I started (18 if you count the day before).

Tape-in: I was eager to get the taping done and over with. I was so hungry and so thirsty; I would have done just about anything for a drink of water. I showed up 15 minutes early, and the Air Force being the Air Force, told me I had to wait into 1000 to tape in. I went outside in the chilly air to ensure there was no thermal expansion. Finally, the moment of truth arrived! They taped me in at 37 inches, which I felt was fairly generous, but I wasn’t complaining. I passed, and that’s all that mattered.
  I immediately ran to my car and chugged a bottle of water in 2 seconds.  Even though my stomach was a little queasy, it was the best damn tasting bottle of water I had ever consumed.

Post tape-in: I ran to the Burger King on Base (BK is my traditional post PT test food establishment), and chugged 3 medium Sprites. I ordered a Big King and a Yumbo (ham and cheese) plus fries. I felt like I could eat it all, but only ate the Yumbo and most of the fries. I had another 64 oz. of drinks on the way home, plus Pizza for dinner. I wound up gaining 8 lbs. back that day, and all 15 back the next 48 hours. I felt lethargic the day of the tape-in, but I was basically fine, albeit very thirsty, the next day.

Losing 17 lbs. in 2 days is possible. Granted, I’m a bit larger than the average person, so results may vary. I think I teetered on the edge of going too far. I probably could have achieved the same results, but continued to drink some water prior to my first sweat activity. I was curious to see if it would work, and it did, but I feel like I cheated.

  One thing I want to emphasize is that I felt miserable while doing it, and immediately gained it all back. I would much rather go through several months of dieting and legitimately lose the weight than go through that again. If you want to lose a few pounds and maybe an inch off you waist for a special occasion, I would recommend just cutting salt from your diet 24-48 hours before. It’s easy, relatively painless, and far less risky.