Category Archives: strange and wonderful ideas about life

The Cottonwood on the Corner

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The old cottonwood tree on the Aldrich farm corner has been there for as long as I can remember.  It was there when I was a small boy visiting Grandpa Aldrich’s farm.  It is still there 55 years later as I visit Mom and Dad who are still living on the farm.  A lot has changed.  Time has passed.  It is a different decade, a different century, a different millennium.

The old tree is like an anchor in time.  I can come home and look at it and be taken back in time.  I know that tree.  And he knows me.

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That isn’t true of all of the trees on the farm.

 

 

 

 

This pine by the house is tree who is younger than me.  I can remember when it was planted.  It was not so very many years ago.

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This gnarled old tree in the grove may be about the same age as I am.  I remember it when both it and I were small and we played together in the grove.  I was Tarzan, Jungle Jim, and the Lone Ranger.  It was the post I leaned on in my secret lookout post.  Back then my hand went most of the way around the trunk.

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It is good to come home to a place where you know the trees personally.  You can revisit old haunts, see old friends and acquaintances, and walk along gravel roads in a place where there is little traffic and no smog.

So I came back to Iowa to visit a tree.  Well, the farm place and aging parents too.

 

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Silly Sunday Stuff

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I made a choice, long about 1980 or so.  And I have not regretted that choice.  I became a teacher instead of the writer/artist I thought I wanted to be.  And the more I look back on it now, if I had gone the writer route back then, I could’ve eventually become an author like Terry Brooks who wrote the Shannara books.  I might’ve even been as good as R.A. Salvatore whose fantasy adventure stories have reached the best seller list.  Back then, in the 1980’s I could’ve eventually broke into the business and been successful.  Even as late as when Frank McCourt broke onto the literary scene with his memoir, Angela’s Ashes in 1996, I might’ve been able to transition from teacher to writer the way he did.  But I chose to keep going with a teaching career that enthralled me.

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Publishing and the literary scene is changing now.  And it is no longer possible for someone like me to break into the big time.  I am an author who has come aboard a sinking ship.

But I have stories to tell.  They have lived inside me for more than thirty years.  And I am scrambling now to get them told before my crappy old body completely betrays me and makes the chance go away.  I will get them told… even if no one ever listens.

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And there are some advantages to doing it the way I have done it.  It is, and always has been, about the people in my life.  My wife, my children, my students, my co-workers, my cousins by the dozens, my little town in Iowa…  they are the people in my stories.  My stories are true to life, even if they have werewolves and fairies and living gingerbread men and nudists in them.  I live in a cartoon world of metaphor and surrealism, after all.  I would not have had the depth of character-understanding in my stories without my experiences as a teacher.  And I really don’t have to worry about the whole marketing thing any more.  I am not on that treadmill.  I do not have to be aware of what the market is looking for.  If my writing ever turns a profit, I won’t live long enough to see it anyway.  And that has never been what it is all about.

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I can do anything I please with my stories.  They belong to me.  I do not owe the world anything.  What I give you now in this blog and in my books, is given for love, not profit.  I can even write a pointless blog post about Sunday blather and illustrate it with Tintin drawings by Herge. And you can’t stop me.  And, hopefully… you don’t even want to.

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Eberron

When you play Dungeons and Dragons the way we constantly do, it helps to have an over-all campaign, a world created by gifted imaginers to play in and use as the setting for all our adventures.

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There are good published campaign worlds to choose from.  We chose the Eberron world because it was so thoroughly magical and and steam-punk in nature and artwork.

This is a world where magic and alchemy have taken the place of science in the world’s technology.  Instead of airplanes, the magic-technicians known as magewrights in Eberron bind the living air and fire elementals to their ships and use elemental magic to fly.

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Even robot-like constructs called warforged are built by magewrights to become, not only warriors to fill out armies, but sentient individuals with personalities and complex problems and emotions.  Book in the illustration above is a warforged wizard.  Book is his name.  Warforged are very simple artificial people… but also complicated.  They name themselves after weapons, armor parts, and random things.

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A campaign world provides places and non-player characters to interact with.  As well as monsters to kill and exotic locations to kill them in.  Eberron has its unique peoples, like Shifters.  Shifters are a race of people who are the result of humans loving lycanthropes… you know, werewolves and weretigers and weresharks and other were-things.

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Our family game got involved from adventure number one with the secret service of the Kingdom of Breland, the Dark Lanterns, so Breland and it’s cities became something of a home base.

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The city known as Sharn, City of Towers, became a particularly fascinating home base.  The Broken Anvil Inn in the mid-reaches of Dura became a sometimes place to live and alwaystimes place to drink liquor and recruit weird friends.  And this is a vast city with a cluster of mile-high towers and a population of various peoples and monsters from throughout the continent of Khorvaire.

So if you have been reading any of my Saturday D & D posts, and found the place names confusing and hard to remember, now you have this post to read and confuse you even more thoroughly.  How do I, as dungeon master, keep it all straight?  I don’t.  I bought the books and I am constantly looking stuff up.  In fact, I often assign number one son the Player’s Handbook for Eberron to look up that stuff, number two son gets the Campaign Guide to look stuff up in, and the Princess handles the Monster Manuals.  (Really, I have spent a ton of pennies on the books and have too many to juggle them all myself.)

So we play the game in a world called Eberron and share the fantasies and stories of world where magic is science and science is magic.

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Why Do You Think That? Part 4

I had to think long and hard about this.  I don’t know how to go about it because I myself am really the opposite of a nudist or a naturist.  I cover up parts of me in public that most people don’t because of psoriasis and unsightly sores on my arms, hands, neck, and jawline.  But I used to know naturists.  I have walked among them, even though I was never brave enough to actually walk naked among them.  But I have this goofy thought that has been nagging me from a back corner of the upstairs filing rooms of my stupid old head.  All people are actually nudists under their clothes.

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Now, if a doofus is trying to argue something as crazily goofy as this, he better have some good main points backed up by real research.  I, of course, am probably not as sensible as that, so let me go with these three main points;

  1. Public nudity is not an invasion of privacy since the person pretty much has to be intentionally nude, and they are not revealing anything that isn’t true of all of us.
  2. Artists really need to draw and paint nudes because one can’t create realistic figures without discovering how to do it by practice.
  3. Naked people are generally happier and more sane than the rest of us.

 

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When I was visiting my girlfriend in the 1980’s at the clothing-optional apartment complex in Austin, Texas, I did not option for naked.  And I really couldn’t protest naked hairy guys strutting in front of me by the pool because I knew what was inside the gate when I knocked the first time.  Nudists are not really suffering from invasion of privacy.  They choose to be naked and choose to be in these places like nude beaches where other people are naked too.

You don’t accidentally become a nudist.  (Even though I wrote a novel about a boy accidentally becoming a nudist in Iowa in the 70’s.)  Even the nudists I have posted in these pictures are not having their privacy violated.  These images originate with old naturist publications purchased in the 80’s.   That means they intended them to be seen.  In fact, I am able to find ample nudism seeking an audience on Facebook and Twitter.

Twitter link to NeoNudist

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BBC Why All Artists Should Have Naked Ambition

And either drawing nude models is an essential part of art training, or all people who learn to draw are perverts and just make art so they can ogle nude models.  I wrote in this crazy blog before about my experience with college-level nude drawing class.  I got a “C+”, not because I wasn’t any good at drawing the naked female art students and naked exhibitionist hairy guys that posed for us, but because the teacher was hyper critical and probably anal-retentive just the way all really exceptional art teachers probably are.

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I am quite capable of drawing the delicate and exquisite nude figure without becoming a gynecological illustrator or even a crude, rude dude.  And there is art to it.  It is not meaningless.

But in the final analysis, we all have a bit of the nudist instinct in us.  We all secretly enjoy those times when we were able to naked, however briefly, in the warm enfolding light of the sun.  If you have not experienced that and don’t know what I’m talking about, then why have you read this far through the post?  Why have my posts about drawing nudes and being around naturists been my most popular posts?

We have that urge to go naked because that is how God made us.  Being naked in the company of other naked people is actually good for you.  At least, Scientific American thinks so.

Benefits of Nudity from Scientific American

Daily Mail Being naked makes us happier with our bodies

In truth, my time among the naturists helped me recover from the trauma of being sexually assaulted by another boy when I was ten.  That was a long, painful journey that deprived me for a while of being able to be naked.  For a while I was too damaged to be a happy naturist.  But I have come so far now; I can even make this admission in writing.  I would like to be a nudist, even if only for a very brief while.  In fact, I think we are all at least a bit like that.  Now, if only my skin would stop flaking and peeling off.

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Books are Life, and Life is Books

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I just finished reading David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, his novel from 2014.  Just, WOW!  I guess this post is technically a book review… but not really.  I have to talk about so much more than just the book.

You can see in my initial illustration that I read this book to pieces.  Literally.  (And I was an English Major in college, so I LITERALLY know what literally means!)

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Look at this face.  Can you stop looking at the beautiful eyes?  I can’t.

I discovered Mitchell as a writer when I happened onto the book and movie pair of Cloud Atlas.  It enthralled me.  I read the book, a complex fantasy about time and connections, about as deeply and intricately as any book that I have ever read.  I fell in love.  It was a love as deep and wide as my love of Dickens or my love of Twain… even my love of Terry Pratchett.

It is like the picture on the left.  I can’t stop looking into it and seeing more and more.  It is plotted and put together like a finely crafted jeweled timepiece.

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And this new book is almost exactly like that.  It is a first- person narrative in six parts with five different narrators.  Holly Sykes, the central character, is the narrator of the first and last parts, in the past in the 1980’s, and in the future in 2043.  The titular metaphor of the bone clocks is about the human body and how it measures time from youth to old age.  And it is pictured as a clock ticking in practically all it’s forms, from a child who is snuffed out at eight years of age to horologists who have lived for a thousand years by being reincarnated with past lives intact.

Fantasy and photographic realism intertwine and filigree this book like a vast kaleidoscope of many colors, peoples, societies, and places.  At one point David Mitchell even inserts himself into the narrative cleverly as the narrator of part four, Crispin Hershey, the popular English novelist struggling to stay on top of the literary world.  He even indulges every writer’s fantasy and murders himself in the course of the story.

David Mitchell is the reason I have to read voraciously and write endlessly.  His works seem to contain an entire universe of ideas and portraits and events and predictions and wisdoms. And he clearly shows me that his universe is not the only one that needs to be written before the world ends.  Books are life, and life is in books.  And when the world as we know it is indeed gone, then they will be the most important thing we ever did.  Even if no one is left to read them.

And so, I read this book until it fell into pieces, its spine broken and its back cover lost.  To be fair, I bought it at a used book store, and the paperback copy was obviously read by previous owners cover to cover.  The pages were already dog eared with some pages having their corners turned down to show where someone left off and picked up reading before me.  But that, too, is significant.  I am not the only one who devoured this book and its life-sustaining stories.  Know that, if you do decide to read and love this book, you are definitely not the only one.  I’d lend you my copy.  But… well, it’s already in pieces.

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Comedy Relief in D & D

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Dungeon Masters all tend to run their own style of game.  Some like complex puzzle-solving dungeons with complex traps and mysteries involving hidden rooms and old secrets.  I admit to having done that.  Some like hack-and-slash adventures where the slaying of hordes of mindless monsters can last for hours.  I admit to having done less of that.  And some, like me, are all about the people… even if the people happen to be monsters.  Monsters can be people too, right?  Just ask Herman Munster.

And my favorite kind of character is the random buffoon or fool who is essential to the plot.

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Eli Tragedy is such a fool.  He began as a computer character whom I used as me in a long ago 80’s computer D & D game called The Bard’s Tale.  It was mostly about collecting doodads and dimbledy-dumb in dungeons, and finding the right keyholes, eyeless idols, or shop keeper to use them with.  But later incarnations were also me, but as a very wise but outwardly idiotic wizard who always knew the answers to the sphinx’s riddles, but would never tell until it was funny to do so.  He also had a number of apprentices.  Bob was rather dim.  But he could do light spells pretty good… so Eli sent him down dark tunnels to see what might be down there that would want to eat him.  Usually over the objections of the player-characters who really wanted to know what was down there, but had grown fond of Bob and his blunderings.    And even burly fighters with a lust for treasure can actually have a heart.

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Mickey the wererat, was another apprentice who caused more than his fair share of chaos.  (A wererat, as I’m sure you know, is a lycanthrope that is human by day, but turns into a rat-man by night.)  Mickey had a penchant for stealing the wizard’s magic hat and using it to do horrendously stupid things that created really big messes for the player characters to clean up.  How do you stop an army of sentient gummibears bent on painting your castle with pink frosting?  It had to be dealt with.  (And why did Eli keep that old hat around, anyway?  He never used it for anything beyond letting Mickey steal it.)

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And, of course, there was the incident with the mermaid whom the players rescued from the Black Reef.  She was a bard with a harp and quite capable of making the magical music that helps dungeon divers  do their dirty-work deep in the dungeon dwellings of dangerous denizens.

They rescued her, and thanks to a fins to feet spell, were able to take her back to Sharn, the City of Towers, to be the bard for their adventuring group.  Unfortunately the fins to feet magic does not include a summon pants spell in it.  And how do you convince a mermaid to wear an article of clothing that no other mermaid ever needs to wear?

Walking around town with no pants, however, proved to be a boon in disguise.  (Boon as in a good thing, not short for baboon.  That would be another tangent entirely, a baboon in disguise.)

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The owner of the Broken Anvil Inn, where the adventuring team was living, asked the mermaid to go on stage for a song.  She started to sing a seriously sorcery-sort of song… while not wearing pants, and became an overnight sensation in Sharn.  She helped his business so much that he offered the adventuring party a place to park their carcass permanently.  So now, if you go to the Broken Anvil Inn in Sharn, it is pretty likely the entertainment will be the Princess Anduriel, mermaid bard, singing and playing the harp.  And she still won’t be wearing any pants.  The crowd loves her for it.

So it should be obvious to you now the kind of Dungeon Master I truly am.  And it will also help to explain why my kids are totally mortified by the idea of me dungeon-mastering for their friends.  “But, Dad!  We have to be able to show our faces in school Monday morning you know!”

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Lessons From Tchaikovsky

I used to be a classroom storyteller.  As an English teacher for middle school kids, I often would give brief biographical insights into famous people we were talking about at the time.  I told them about Crazy Horse of the Sioux tribe, Roger Bacon the alchemist and inventor of chemistry as a science, Mark Twain in Gold Rush California, and many other people I have found fascinating through my life as a reader and writer of English.

One bright boy in my gifted class remarked, “Mr. B, you always tell us these stories about people who did something amazing, and then you end it with they eventually died a horrible death.”

Yep.  That’s about right.  In its simplest form life consists of, “You are born, stuff happens, and then you die.”  And it does often seem to me that true genius and great heroism are punished terribly in the end.  Achilles destroys Hector, but his heel is his undoing.  Socrates taught Plato, and was forced to drink poison for being too good at teaching.  Custer was a vain imbecile and got what he deserved at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but Crazy Horse, who made it happen, was pursued for the rest of his short life for it until he was finally captured and murdered.  Roger Bacon contributed immensely to science by experimenting with chemicals, but because he blew up his lab too often, and because one of his students blew himself up in a duel with another student, he ended his days in prison for practicing sorcery.

But if you have listened to any of the music I have added to this post, the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, then you recognized it, unless you have lived your whole life under a rock in Nomusikvetchistan.  And why is that?  Because even though it is all classical music written in the 1800’s, it’s basic genius and appeal is immortal.  It will outlive all of us.  Some of it, having been placed on a record on the Voyager space craft may get played and appreciated a million years from now in the vicinity of Betelgeuse.  It will still be a work of pure genius.

And, of course, the horrible life and terrible death thing is a part of it too.  Tchaikovsky’s work took an incredibly difficult path to success.  He was criticized by Russians for being too Western and not Russian enough.  He was criticized in the West for being too exotic and basically “too Russian”.  He railed against critics and suffered horribly at their hands.  Then, too, his private life was far less private than it had any right to be.  He was a bachelor most of his life, except for a two year marriage of pure misery that ended in divorce.  And everybody, with the possibility of Pyotr himself, knew it was because he was a homosexual.  He probably did have that orientation, but in a time and a career where it was deemed an illegal abomination.  So whether he ever practiced the lifestyle at great risk to himself, or he repressed it his entire life, we will never know for sure.

But the music is immortal.  And by being immortal, the music makes Tchaikovsky immortal too.  Despite the fact that he died tragically at the age of 53, possibly by suicide.

So, this is the great lesson of Tchaikovsky.  The higher you fly, the farther you fall, and you will fall… guaranteed, but that will never make the actual flight not worth taking.  Some things in life are more important than life itself.  As I near the end myself, I cling to that truth daily.

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