Of the people in the school picture from Rowan Rural School #4 (a one-room schoolhouse from Midwestern history and lore) all the ones who survive are octogenarians. Three of the survivors were at our family reunion for Great Grandma Hinckley’s descendants. My mother and uncle were there. Their cousin was also there. The school house stood on the Aldrich corner, near the house where my Grandpa and Grandma Aldrich lived, the farm house of a farm that’s been in the family for over a hundred years. My mother and Uncle Don and Uncle Larry could easily walk there. The rest came from country miles around by horse-drawn wagon.
Uncle Larry is now gone, but they have survived from the time of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the time of Criminal President Doofenschmertz Jehosephat Trumpennoodle. Things have changed. The house I now sit in was, back then, a place with a windmill and hand-pump for water, an outhouse for bathroom chores, and a radio for entertainment.
If they hadn’t endured through World War Two, and Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare, and the assassination of JFK, we wouldn’t even be here. We are the children of hardship, endurance, and conviction of the rightness of life on Earth.
We saw progress through the creation of Disneyland, landing the first man on the surface of the moon, Bugs Bunny cartoons, Scooby Doo, and the Pink Panther… Nixon and his Watergate break-in, Hee Haw and Lawrence Welk, Laugh-in… President Ford falling down stairs, Saturday Night Live, the Peanut-farmer President, Reaganomics… the Iranian hostage crisis… Saved by the Bell, Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones… The invasion of Panama… Operation Desert Storm… the second war in Iraq… the downfall of Saddam Hussein… Thundercats, Jerry Seinfeld, Friends, the Wonder Years…
I am especially impressed that they lived through all those Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethons. And Leisure Suits… Aagh!
And their time is not completely up. Mother and Dad and Uncle Don still move on and go to reunions and bury loved ones… and tend to the needs of grandkids and great-grandkids… And pass on the good things to the next generation… and the next. So it goes, towards times not yet dreamed of.
Twitter is a place where trolls live. It is a bull-puckie paradise where trolls can poop on things to their hearts’ content. It is toxic. Not a safe place to go naked. But many trolls do. They tell you exactly how ugly they are, not just in their skin, but all the way down to their bones.
I am not a troll myself. I am a nudist at heart, like the girl in the picture. I think it would be nice to walk in nature nude. But like the girl whose parents are hippies, but law-abiding hippies who would never send their daughter to school without clothing as long as that is an illegal act, I myself don’t put naked pictures of myself on Twitter. Some nudists do that. But trolls throw poo and links to porn if you do that. And being publicly naked physically is not my goal. Only naked ideas publicly.
But I put a lot of opinions on Twitter that are totally naked. They have no clothes on to cover up how I really feel underneath, the way a lot of so-called conservatives do to get their racist points across without being accused of having racist opinions. They dress them up nice.
I have a naked opinion about the impending repeal of Roe Vs Wade beginning the roll-back of safe abortion-services and the right for women to control what happens to their own bodies. I am not pro-abortion. I am pro-choice. And that is how I will vote. But I also believe it is the wrong approach to have this issue before considering some other very important things.
You need to be providing a better life for the majority of children brought into this world than you do now. Not just the Republican answer to abortion being adoption. You need to do something about all the unloved and disadvantaged children that already exist. Too many die of starvation. Too many die of abuse. And far too many are abused by the adults in their lives to the point that they grow up into monsters, abusing their own children, the children of others, and sometimes becoming sexual predators.
Why don’t we make a law where all parents must undergo intensive training and get a license to be a parent? You need to earn a license to drive a car. Why don’t we pass a law that corporations have to make certain that all children in their assigned districts are well-fed before they can do stock buy-backs to increase their value? If they want a healthier, more-capable work-force, they should invest in one. Why are we not passing laws to ensure that the planet’s environment is protected and children’s future is guaranteed? And all of these things should come before we worry about all people who are conceived actually getting born.
And why are we putting up with places like Florida punishing teachers for teaching tolerance to people who are different, not only by color of skin and culture, but by the sexual preferences and gender identity God made them with? If you truly want to do away with the need for abortion services, then you need more and better sex education rather than gag-orders against teachers to be punished by parents suing to get them fired and pilloried.
There will be less abortions needed if you teach kids what they need to know about how babies are made, how to use contraceptives safely, and how to talk to others about the facts of life so that everyone can know more about it and proceed with procreation properly, according to whatever version of God’s plan (including science-based secular beliefs) that you choose to believe in.
These are naked opinions. Saying flat out what I believe. Open to the poo-flinging of trolls and those conservatives who are easily offended if an opinion contradicts their self-proclaimed truths wearing the clothing of rather twisted and misrepresented Christian beliefs.
In Dungeons and Dragons games you are trying to bring characters to imaginary life by getting into their deformed, powerful, or magic-filled heads and walking around in a very dangerous imaginary world. You have to be them. You have to think like them and talk like them. You have to love what they love, decide what they do, and live and die for them. They become real people to you. Well… as real as imaginary people can ever become.
But there are actually two distinct types of characters.
These, remember, are the Player Characters. My two sons and my daughter provide them with their persona, personality, and personhood. They are the primary actors in the stage play in the theater of the mind which is D & D.
But there are other characters too. In fact, a whole complex magical world full of other characters. And as the Dungeon Master, I am the one who steps into their weird and wacky imaginary skins to walk around and be them at least until the Player Characters decide to fireball them, abandon them to hungry trolls, or bonk them on the top of their little horned heads. I get to inhabit an entire zoo of strange and wonderful creatures and people.
Besides the fact that these Non-Player Characters can easily lead you to develop multiple personality disorder, they are useful in telling the story in many different ways. Some are friendly characters that may even become trusted travel companions for the Player Characters.
D & D has a battle system based on controlling the outcomes of the roll of the dice with complex math and gained experience. In simpler terms, there is a lot of bloody whacking with swords and axes that has to take place. You need characters like that both to help you whack your enemies and to be the enemies you get to whack. There is a certain joy to solving your problems with mindless whacking with a sword. And yet, the story is helped when the sword-whackers begin to develop personalities.
Crazy Mervin, for example, began life as a whackable monster that could easily have been murdered by the Player Characters in passing while they were battling the evil shape-changing Emerald Claw leader, Brother Garrow.
But Gandy befriended him and turned him from the evil side by feeding him and sparing him when it really counted. He became a massively powerful ax-whacker for good because Gandy got on his good side. And stupid creatures like Mervin possess simple loyalties. He helped the players escape the Dark Continent of Xendrick with their lives and is now relied upon heavily to help with combat. He was one of the leaders of the charge on the gate when the Players conquered the enthralled Castle Evernight.
Not every NPC is a whackable monster, however. In the early stages of the campaign the Players needed a magic-user who could read magic writing, use detection spells and shielding spells and magic missiles, and eventually lob fireballs on the bigger problems… like dragons.
Druaelia was the wizard I chose to give the group of heroes to fulfill these magical tasks. Every D & D campaign requires wizarding somewhere along the way. And Dru was a complex character from the start. Her fire spells often went awry. When Fate used a magic flaming crossbow bolt to sink a ship he was defending, killing the good guys right along with the bad guys, it was with a magic crossbow bolt crafted by Druaelia. Her fire spells went nuclear-bad more than once. She had to learn along the way that her magical abilities tended more towards ice and snow than fire. She learned to become a powerful wielder of cold powers. And while she was comfortable in a bikini-like dress that drove the boys wild because she grew to love the cold, she didn’t particularly like the attentions of men and male creatures that went along with that. More than one random bandit or bad guy learned the hard way not leer at Dru. There are just certain parts of the anatomy you really don’t want frozen.
The Player Characters will need all sorts of help along the way, through travels and adventures and dangerous situations. They will meet and need to make use of many different people and creatures. And as Dungeon Master I try hard to make the stories lean more towards solving the problems of the story with means other than mere whacking with swords. Sometimes that need for help from others can even lead you into more trouble.
But as I am now nearing the 800 word mark on a 500 word essay, I will have to draw it all to a close. There is a lot more to say about NPC’s from our game. They are all me and probably are proof of impending insanity. But maybe I will tell you about that the next time we sit down together at the D & D table.
Not everyone pictured in this post is actually a family member by marriage, but my wife has a big family and everyone who is even remotely related to a Filipino family… or even imagines that they are… is family.
I am about as much of a white-guy WASP-type as you can find in Middle America, having grown up in Iowa and teaching for my entire career in Texas. But I know a thing or two… or three about other cultures. I taught in South Texas for 23 years with students who were over 85% Spanish-speaking. And then, in 1995, I married into the Pinoy culture of the Philippine Islands.
Me and my Filipino-American familia… circa 2003.
There are some things I have learned about this other culture that you should probably be aware of.
#1. The United States is being invaded and colonized by the Philippines. They are coming here in waves, getting jobs in education and medicine that not enough of home-grown America are willing to take up. My wife came here with a placement company as a teacher. Three of her group of Filipino teachers landed in our little Cotulla school district. When she got here, she was met by her cousin and her cousin’s family. There was a Filipina woman and her young son in the Valley that also took an interest in helping her get settled in Texas. All of these people… and all of their friends and relatives are still a part of our lives. My wife’s sister and her family lived in California where dozens of cousins also lived. They and my wife’s parents have since moved to Texas, along with two other sisters and their families. You get the idea. They are taking over.
Pictures of photogenic nieces aid my blogging popularity in a rather noticeable way.
#2. As you can see, Filipinos love to take pictures. Above is a picture from class where my niece goes to school back in Floridablanca in the Philippines. People complain about pictures of food on Facebook. My Filipino family puts the Food Network to shame. Sometimes I can’t tell if they are eating another exotic Filipino dish with rice and meat or they’ve been putting firecrackers into fish and exploding them. And the fish eyes are a delicacy. Eeuw! My sisters in Iowa won’t even let me talk about the food at Filipino gatherings. I have to be extremely careful of what I share on Facebook.
#3. To know about Filipino culture, you have to understand what Jollibee is all about. Jollibee is the Filipino MacDonald’s. Of course, it is cheaper… and better tasting. There are a few of them around the country here. California has more than Texas. They are like a giant Filipino magnet. You go there to find the Filipino community in any American city. But other people love the food too. You have to sort the Filipinos from the Hispanics and white folks that are not too proud to eat cheap and delicious.
Well, those are only about three things that you should probably know about Filipinos and Pinoy culture. I haven’t even gotten into the thing about Matrilineal social orders or the evils of Karaoke addiction… but enough is enough for one day. I have no idea how much trouble I am now in for revealing cultural secrets. It could be a long cold night in the dog house.
Yeah, I know… The title seems like a typo. But this pointlessly obtuse Mickian essay is actually about metacognition of the concept of having the “Christmas spirit.” In other words, I am writing about and analyzing how I think about Christmas. A nerdy thing to do done by a nerd who wants you to think he is smarter than he really is.
The Reason for the Season
Yes, I live in Texas, so I am constantly seeing the “Reason for the Season” signs in every Southern Baptist churchyard. So, what do I think is the reason? Yeah, you probably don’t want to know. I was a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses for 20 years. Not that I believed in the evils of celebrating Christmas. I only stopped following Witness commands when they abandoned me in times of spiritual need, but I do retain the belief that if Jesus was a real human being, he was not born on December 25th. If the shepherds were watching their flocks by night, then the latest it could have been was in October. Shepherds don’t graze their flocks in winter. The celebration is what the Christian bigwigs decided they would use to co-opt the pagan Saturnalia. The date represents the rebirth of the Sun after the Winter Solstice on December 21st. The Sun, not the Son.
But unlike Jehovah’s Witnesses, I don’t see the Christmas holiday as a bad thing. People, Christian or not, are nicer to each other this time of year. They are much quicker to think of others and take pity on those who are suffering or are in serious need of help. And they think about giving gifts to others. particularly family. Growing up a Methodist Christian, I never noticed any parents at all giving their kids lumps of coal. Even the really bad kids got cool stuff as gifts from Mom and Dad, or Grandma or Grandpa, or whoever else was lucky enough to have to put up with them daily throughout the year.
People actually willingly spend time with their family this time of year. They hear the minister occasionally when he reads aloud the Bible verses about what Jesus commanded concerning widows and orphans, the homeless, and the poor. And Jesus never said that their reduced condition was their own fault for not working hard enough or not being a good-church-goer enough. And people who choose to reach out and spend time with each other during the season of good feelings generally find they actually like those fellow human beings they chose to spend some of their time with. All people are generally good when they are not being swayed by a way to make lots of money or enraged and vengeful for the real and imagined hurts that others have inflicted on them. I think it is absolutely vital that people have a celebration when they have survived another year of life in which not all of their family and friends are dead and they may even have a little money on hand to celebrate with. If Christmas didn’t already exist, we would desperately need to create something just like it.
Vincent Price’s Christmas Tree Explained
The picture above, a surrealist picture-poem of how I feel about Christmas now that I am retired and no longer a Jehovah’s Witness, has never really been explained by me. Now that I am baring my soul as a Christian Existentialist Nudist Atheist who believes in God, I should elaborate on what it means.
The picture is named after the photo-shopped Christmas Tree in the back corner. I photo-shopped it from a photo of Vincent Price, the horror-movie actor, in a TV Christmas special in the 1960’s. I photo-shopped Vincent out of the picture, of course, just clipping and pasting the tree itself. I spent a good share of my youth, including all of my teen years, nursing a terrible secret. I was sexually assaulted at the age of ten. I believed I was a monster. But the Christmas I created the picture and photo-shopped Vincent out, I had successfully made peace with the monster in my past. My story is not a horror story. So, horror-movie-star Vincent had to leave this party.
And part of that is represented by the Cotulla Cowgirl basketball player. Vivi here represents all my 31 years as a public school teacher. By serving the children of South Texas, and later the ESL kids of North Texas, I managed to prove to myself that I was a good and worthy person. I know because of the many things they told me over the years, that my students would mostly agree with my self-assessment that I am not a bad man.
I put myself in the picture as a happy, confident nude boy. This is a thing that I wasn’t able to be after the age of ten. Doubt, fear, and depression clouded my world from 1966 to 1976. When I spent time trying to explain to the high school counselor what was wrong with me, he had to admit that he knew something was wrong, but he did not know what it was nor how to help. And I could not at that time admit what had happened, as I could not even allow myself to remember the actual trauma. So, becoming a nudist in 2017 and coming to terms with the scars and trauma, was a gift to myself. The mental chains are gone.
Anneliese, the gingerbread girl, represents my mental linking with the German-American world of Aunt Selma’s Christmas parties in the 1960’s. The gingerbread cookies, the candy, and the Christmas stories she told with a charming German accent led to the writing of my book Recipes for Gingerbread Children. Christmas is a day full of gingerbread men… and now, making gingerbread houses.
And Annette Funicello is in the picture because Christmas always used to have a Disney-movie, happy-endings sort of theme. I needed that happy ending to every year to keep me going. It was an emotionally essential thing I counted on every year to be able to face a brand new year.
I am an atheist. And an Existentialist. Oh, and a nudist. But I need Christmas. It matters to me. And I know I am not the only one.
This holiday season has not been all blues and depression as I have probably been sounding like in this blog this week.
It is true that the still-progressing pandemic has been rather hard and grueling on me and mine. Since it began I have lost both parents, though neither caught the disease itself, and the impacts on funerals and family support of each other has been difficult. I also lost a cousin, two friends from high school, and possibly an uncle on the Beyer side that we haven’t heard from since before it all started (his surviving children and their families don’t have our contact information, and we don’t have theirs.)
But it never pays to only put the dark things on the scale, and ignore the side where happiness goes.
I have had a lot of good gingerbread to eat, and , ooh, boy! Pumpkin pie!
I got to see Spiderman, No Way Home with my kids in the theater. And I got to see the whole Hawkeye series on Disney +.
Both of those stories were epic and made my comic-book-loving heart warm and happy.
I have become a third-part owner of the family farm in Iowa, the farm where my Grandma and Grandpa Aldrich lived when I was a child and spent a considerable part of every Thanksgiving week and every Christmas week there I and my two sisters successfully bought our brother’s share, and the farm will continue to be a part of our family into the future. The older of my two sisters is now living on the place and managing the farm, though a renter actually grows things on the farm.
My mother’s final Christmas gift turned out to be an inheritance large enough to pay off property taxes and finish off my Chapter 13 bankruptcy. I was also able to replace my failing computer and old cell phone.
So, of the three Christmas ghosts, the Ghost of Christmas Future might be the most welcoming ghost of them all.
I went to the Spiderman movie yesterday whose title provides the title for today’s post. But this is not a movie review… other than to say that it is, in my opinion, the best Spiderman movie ever made. It is the best Spiderman movie because is brings together so many story threads from so many other movies that, like the previous Marvel movie Endgame, it creates an ultimate completeness that satisfies the needs of someone like me who needs stories about life that have a beginning, middle, and end. That’s what this story is about.
This little girl in this old picture is my distant cousin Patty Berilla. She was older than me by about three years. She was the first non-sister girl I ever saw naked. I was five, and I was talking to her, and I followed her into the bathroom. She had to pee and had no younger brothers and mostly older sisters. So, she was not shy, and kept right on talking to me. Until one of her older sisters got mad and pulled me out of there and made Patty close the door. I remember being good friends with her during that week’s vacation at the Opal and Louis Berilla home in Cleveland, Ohio. We saw seals and polar bears and a baby giraffe at the Cleveland zoo. And when we went to the Museum of Science and Technology, there were two statues on either side of the main door, a man and a woman, both of them nude. Patty thought that was very wrong to be naked in public. She was even more shocked at the invisible woman medical presentation inside. The nude woman was made of glass. And they lit up the parts inside with colored lights, showing first the muscles under the skin. Then the organs, respiratory system, nervous system, and finally the skeleton. Patty told me that that awful woman got naked down to the bones. For some reason the adults laughed at that more than Patty and I did.
She became a nurse. My mother was also a Registered Nurse. There are a number of nurses in our family. I never saw Patty more than twice in the intervening years of our lives. But in 2020 she caught Covid 19 while working in the ER. She died on a ventilator in that same ER. I actually cried when my mother told me about this last summer. It surprised my family. I was crying for someone I was distantly related to that I probably wouldn’t have recognized if I saw her again as an adult. All I really knew about her life was what she looked like naked when she was seven-and-a-half years old. But I loved her not just for who she was and what she taught me about life when I was little, but for what she sacrificed and how she died.
I lost both of my parents in the Covid pandemic. Neither of them died of the pandemic virus. Dad was lost to late-stage Parkinson’s disease. Mom died of complications with both her heart and her kidneys. Covid interfered with both of their hospice stays, but they never got the viral infection.
When the pandemic began, I anticipated that I would catch it and die. When my number two son came down with it that first summer, before the vaccine, I figured my last week of life had come. But when the quarantine was over and I got tested, the test was negative. But I began to see then that it would be impossible to ever really go home again. It was not just a matter of travel restrictions and quarantines. The home I knew was no longer really there. It’s like John Steinbeck said, “You can’t go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory.”
The Spiderman movie, No Way Home, is about Spiderman’s identity as Peter Parker and everybody who knows his secret identity as a superhero. Peter Parker does not get the chance to go home again even more severely than my own sad case.
So, what I have to do is salvage my own secret identity. I am a story-teller and a cartoonist. But very few people know that. Mine is an identity easily erased by my looming demise.
There is no longer a hope of going home again. It’s the mothballs of memory situation. Now, the thing that remains to be done is to finish weaving together the threads of the story of my life and times, and make of it a masterpiece of a tapestry… so that it can go into the mothballs with flair.
I had been promising my daughter for a while that we would build the gingerbread train. I was looking forward to it as an art project. She was impatient to eat it. So, on December 27th, I was finally feeling well enough to do the deed.
So, we prepared the work space on the kitchen table. We laid out the items that we could use for assembly. I made my daughter promise to stop eating elements of the train before we could actually put it together.
I started decorating the Christmas trees that go into the baggage car. My daughter ate several of the sugar-ball decorations.
The baggage car was assembled first. I call it the baggage car because even though it is in the tender position for a steam train if we called it that, that would mean that the engine burned Christmas trees instead of coal. My daughter snuck a few more decorations as we argued about that.
It was encouraging that the first part came together without looking too incredibly terrible.
My daughter decorated a majority of the engine and only ate a few more of the decorations while doing it. This was no small thing given how much she loves to eat gumdrops.
It ended up looking vaguely like the picture on the box. We had a great deal of fun making it. And the last time I checked, portions of it still were uneaten… something I am confident won’t be the case for much longer.