A Brit in America #2 – The Driving Test

I took my driving test in Mid-Wales, back in 2010. Since moving to the States, I’ve been able to use my UK license for driving. However, this year I finally found that I was going to need to get a US license. I had, at one point, hoped that I might be able to just show that I have a UK license, and they’d give me US one. The UK and the US are fairly close, and there’s really not that much difference in the practice of driving (I’ve only driven on the wrong side of the road a couple of times in many years). The idea is not a totally foreign concept to the Department of Driver Services: there is, indeed, a “reciprocity” program with a list of countries that it applies to. Well. They say a list. It’s a list of one country. Can you guess which one? Yes! That’s right! South Korea! Naturally…

So, it turned out I was going to have to take a theory test and a practical test (and pay for them, of course -_-). When I learned to drive, I took a semi-intensive course over a summer, it was hard work, and the test was intimidating, so the whole thing had me a little tense.

In the UK, the theory test consists of (if I remember correctly) 50 questions about all sorts of eventualities that you’ll never actually come across (I’m particularly glad that I still have the legal speed limit for towing a trailer burned into my memory). It then has a hazard perception section where you watch a series of videos, and have to click when you see the hazard. Too soon, and it’ll think you’re clicking randomly, too late and you’ve missed it and get docked points. It was a challenge, but I did pretty well. But that was seven years ago. I assumed the US would have something similar.

Spoiler alert: they don’t. What they have are two sets of 20 questions. The first set are “what does this sign mean” questions, which are hardly difficult as most of them say what they mean. The second set are more what I was used to, but felt toned down somewhat. The kicker here being that you only have to score 75% on each section. That means you can get five questions wrong, and they’ll shrug and say “eh, seems like he’s got the gist of it” and send you away with a permit. In the second set, there was actually a tricky question, but as it was question sixteen and I’d got the first fifteen correct, I could have just clicked randomly for the rest and still passed. As far as hazard perception goes? Completely absent. But, never mind. This is only the theory section, the practical test will make sure that people know what they’re doing on the road.

*Ahem*

When I took my test in the UK, we started in the middle of town, drove through it, dealing with traffic, signals, and signs. We left the town and went around the back roads and smaller villages of the area, often getting up to 60 miles an hour. I had to do several maneuvers, including three-point turns, parking, etc, and then get back. A single “major fault” (anything that means another driver has to slow down for you, or worse), or three “minor faults” in the same area (such as forgetting to signal or failing to shift gear properly) and you fail. At the end of it, you have to have shown that you can deal with a wide range of driving scenarios.

The US test on the other hand… In an empty car park: drive forward, stop, reverse, stop, park in between these cones. Great. Then we go out on the road. I’m prepared for anything. We stop at a stop sign. All good. I’m ready to get out on the busy road to our left. Then the examiner has me turn right. We go onto a small deserted back road. Speed limit: 25mph. Okay, now the test in the UK had slower back road areas, I’m sure we’ll get to more challenging stuff later. We drive along a little way, bit of a curve, couple of turns. Speed limit the same. Then we come to a busy road. Perfect! Turn onto it, actually around some other cars for the first time, and we’re on there in just the right lane for maybe 500 yards and we’re turning back into the original car park. Park. Done. Well done, you’ve passed. I’m told you can score under 75% on this test and fail as well, but how, I’ll never know.

This wouldn’t bother me if that driving was even a little representative of the area. But we were half a mile from an interstate with a 70mph speed limit. Apparently, the US DDS is happy to go “can you drive forward and backwards at low speeds? Great, off you go then, have fun on the six-lane highways!”

An additional gripe: I’ve been in cars with people in the US who drive a manual (stick-shift) and grind away at their gears as if they’ve never been taught properly. This seemed odd: in the UK, if you take your test in an automatic, you can only drive an automatic. Apparently, in the US, you can take your test in an automatic, and then legally drive down the freeway in a manual transmission, stuck in first gear, if the fancy strikes you.

So, Americans, if you find that there are terrible drivers on the road, I may have some explanations for you…

Delain

Delain

When I’m talking about Jack White or The Lumineers, I feel pretty safe assuming that people will already be passingly familiar with the artists, or at least know what I’m talking about when I say “blues” or “folk rock.” However, when it comes to discussing the Dutch symphonic power metal band Delain, I’m inclined to think that a brief primer might be in order.

I’m assuming that of the words I’ve used above, most people are going to be comfortable with what I mean by “metal” and “Dutch” (at least, I really hope so…). Power metal is a subgenre of metal that sprung up in Europe in the mid-80s with bands such as Blind Guardian, Stratovarius, and Helloween. They use more complex guitar work at higher speeds, creating a less heavy tone that sounds more driven and energized, and often features a call-to-arms/we’re-in-this-together sort of a feel. A lot of power metal deals with fantasy themes; most notably, Blind Guardian have penned songs focused around the fantasy writings of authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert Jordan.

Symphonic metal is another sub-genre, one which is often paired with power metal. It started in the 90s with bands like Nightwish and Within Temptation. As a general rule, the music uses orchestral backing, heavy on the strings, to provide a thicker, more deeply-layered tone that delivers an epic feel. The vocals will often be clean (though death growls crop up from time to time…unfortunately), and sometimes they’ll tend towards the operatic. The genre also lends itself well to tales of fantasy, mythology, etc. On the whole, symphonic power metal will be much more melodically focused than other metal sub-genres and tends towards longer tracks with more room to develop.

Delain’s history is (to me, at least) fascinating. The genre is somewhat incestuous, and artists from one band will often crop up in another for a guest appearance or in a form of super group (most notably, the group Northern Kings, made up of some backing musicians and four of the foremost male vocalists in the genre, who have released two albums of covers of 80s pop songs, such as Take On Me and We Don’t Need Another Hero [it’s as gloriously ridiculous as it sounds]). In that vein, Delain was originally formed by Martijn Westerholt, who is the brother of the lead guitarist for Within Temptation and their one-time keyboardist (he was forced to leave the band owing to illness), along with then-teenage vocalist Charlotte Wessels. They began as a project band (one that doesn’t tour), and their first album, Lucidity, is a beautiful experiment. Presumably through contacts from his Within Temptation days, Westerholt was able to pull in some of the best musicians and vocalists in the business to record the album with him, most note-worthy being: Ad Sluijter of Epica, Marco Hietala of Nightwish and founding member of Tarot, and Sharon den Adel of Within Temptation (who is also Westerholt’s sister-in-law).

That first album in 2007 explores a lot of the traditional possibilities of the genre, heavy on the epic fantasy influences. Since then, they’ve released four more albums and found their voice. They settled on a more permanent line up, but still occasionally have Hietala appear on albums or at live shows for some guest vocals. Their 2012 album, We Are the Others contains the notable title track that functions as an anthem for many of their fans and deals with the death of Sophie Lancaster, the reasons for it, and the importance of solidarity and being true to yourself. The sound has departed from some of the more traditional elements of the genre without losing the flavor, while embracing some more elements of rock, and their style does well at showcasing Wessels’ dual training in both classical and jazz vocals.

Moonbathers, their latest album, opens with Hands of Gold, which leans on the epic feel to the point where it feels like its opening bars could have been composed by Hans Zimmer. The album is strong as a whole, with particular strength in the songs Danse Macabre, which does some interesting things with the vocal line, and Chrysalis – The Last Breath, which is a beautiful slow song that manages to maintain an air of tension throughout its full five and a half minutes. True to the genre, I’m told the song Turn The Lights Out draws its influence from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, which reminds me I really need to get down my reading list to that one… I enjoyed the song Scandal, but at first listening I couldn’t work out why this very 80s sounding song was in the middle of the album. Then I realized it was a cover of a Queen song, and it made a little more sense. It’s fun, but it does feel a little jarring placed in the middle of the album as it is.

Delain definitely remains one of my favorite bands, I’ve seen them live twice (once opening Download in 2012, and once supporting Kamelot), and I’m sure I’ll see them again. I’d thoroughly recommend checking them out. If you listen to metal in some form, I’d start with Lucidity; if you’re less familiar with the genre, then We Are the Others is a good introduction to their newer tone.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

I’m back! I’ve known enough online projects that have gone on hiatus and never returned that I was a little uncomfortable about putting up a hiatus notice at all, however; as promised, it’s March and I’m back. In my last post I hinted at some upcoming changes, so here’s a little info on what those were.

There are two changes, really. The smaller of these is that at Christmas a bunch of my close friends and family got together to give me a sizable chunk of money to put towards my writing career. This went towards a tablet and the various accessories to go along with it. This means that I can use my sometimes-limited time more efficiently: it’s easy to carry with me at all times and pull out to work on whenever I have a few minutes (right now I’m writing on the tablet in the café at work using the time before my shift starts).

This obviously makes one of my Patreon goals redundant, so I’ll be changing the one that said I would be using the money to save up for such a piece of technology. Instead, I’ll be using the Patreon money at that level to save up to be able to go to conferences and conventions around the country. Here’s the text for the new goal:

“A huge part of getting your work out there is networking. At this level, I’ll be putting money aside to save for trips to writers’ conferences and conventions around the country. These are places where I’ll be able to get advice from people in the industry and also have a chance to meet prospective agents, publishers, and industry contacts. In general, it will help to get my name out in the publishing world.”

 

The larger change pertains to my employment. Working two part-time jobs (often totaling around 60 hours a week and working 10+ days without a day off), working on a novel, and completing a monthly short story all at the same time became untenable. It resulted in both my writing and my personal life suffering: the burnout from working so much so consistently was the primary reason for the aforementioned hiatus. Consequently, I have left one of my part time jobs. The remaining job is enough for me to scrape by on for the time being and the extra time will allow me to focus that much more on my writing.

This leads to another goal change. The ambitious top goal will now read thusly:

“Full-time writer! If I reach this lofty goal, I will be able to quit my job. That will mean that my one and only professional focus will be my writing, and should speed up the whole novel-producing process!”

 

With all the changes to my Patreon goals, I’ll also be making an edit to the $5 reward tier, and adding in a $50 tier:

$5 Tier: As well as the rewards for the $1 tier, when I have a question you’ll get access to my polls to help answer it. Sometimes this will be about my writing, but I also post a monthly poll for you to have input on what album I get with the monthly music money, which I then talk about on my blog that month. Finally, you’ll be listed as a supporter in the acknowledgements on my monthly short stories!

$50 Tier: All of the previous rewards, and when I get my next novel published, I’ll thank you in the acknowledgement section! See your name in print!

 

I’m setting myself an ambitious goal (as usual) of getting to 10 patrons on my Patreon by April 1st. To help me in this endeavor, please share my PatreonFacebook, and blog with as many people as possible. Even a $1 pledge is thoroughly appreciated!

My usual posting schedule should now resume, and I look forward to providing more updates on my writing soon!