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Monday, February 12, 2018

American Indians, Jewish Leaders, and Giant Sloths

Some places you visit, you wonder at the history of the land, and how it came to be that way. This is especially true at Joshua Tree National Park in California, USA. 

The rocks seem to be jumbled all together, with larger ones atop smaller ones. It's as if God played Jenga with boulders. Maybe he did. Or maybe these strange formations came about through the process of erosion. Imagine the wind and the rain eating away at the land over millions of years. 

Wait! That can't be true. The Earth is only four thousand years old, right? So it's got to be God making artistic creations with rocks. Yep. That's the explanation.

We know all good things come from God. But how many of us knew Jenga was 4,000 years old?

The scientists will tell you that giant sloths roamed this land ten thousand years ago or more. They ate the needles, fronds, and seeds of the Joshua trees. When they roamed around, they dropped their little droppings all over, which helped the propagation of the trees. 

Personally, I think the idea of the giant sloths are cool, even if animals are extinct. But obviously, the so-called giant sloth skeletons we see in museums are little more than fanciful creations. The animals are no more than a myth created by scientists. Remember, the Bible says our world is only 4,000 years old. 

Most likely the Joshua trees were always there since the creation of the world. Either that, or the American Indians who lived here hundreds of years ago planted the trees. After all, they had a practical use for them. They used the fronds and needles to weave baskets and other household items. 

American Indians versus giant sloths. I mean, really: what are you going to believe in?

I'm not a Mormon, so I may be wrong about this, but my understanding is they see themselves as one of the lost Jewish tribes. Or the inheritors of the promises God made to Abraham, all those years ago. Either way, when Mormon pioneers rolled across this land in their covered wagons hundreds of years ago, they saw these strange trees raising their arms to heaven. The sight made them think of Joshua, the ancient Jewish leader, who unlike Moses, actually led his people into the Promised Land. 

Personally, I'm not sure I'd want to settle here, and try to make a go at life in the desert. It hardly seems to be flowing with milk and honey. But everyone is different, and gets inspired by different things. For example, some people get inspired by these jumbled-up piles of boulders and want to climb them. Some people see these weird trees and imagine Biblical figures, or mythical giant sloths. 

I'm not completely sure what I believe in these days. Nor am I always certain what inspires me. But I know one thing. There's no way I'm sitting down at a picnic bench and eating my lunch with a whacking great boulder hanging over my head. That, my friends, is the absolute, unquestionable truth.

Dragon Dave

Monday, January 29, 2018

Severus Snape and the Power of Kroll

In a remote section of the English country of Suffolk, there's a tiny village called Snape. It sits by the river, surrounded by fields of grass and thatch largely undisturbed for centuries. On a weekday, it is possible to trek through these wetlands and not see another soul. Yet the village holds a key to worldwide fame. For Snape is the hometown of dark wizard Severus Snape, Professor of Potions and Defense against the Dark Arts, at the Hogwarts School of Magic.

The chill breeze that blows over the rivers and fields bites into your skin. The wildness of the landscape seeps into your soul. Walking between the reeds, bundled up in your hat and coat, you can understand how Severus Snape would grow up to be a hard, disapproving wizard. How he would follow Lord Voldemort, who showed him how to channel his talents into a bid that would win him to the position of Headmaster of Hogwarts School. 

Sadly, that path lay through murder. But then, the places we live form our characters, just as much as the people with whom we live.

In the future, this area is destined to be renamed Delta Magna. It has been prophesied that workers from a nearby Methane factor will belittle and enslave the locals. The locals, known as swampies, will revert to a primitive, tribal existence. They will worship a foul monster, and sacrifice their own people to it. Then visitors will arrive in a magical blue box. Sensing the great evil that has festered and grown here since Severus Snape's time, these time travelers (identified as Time Lords and a metal dog) will liberate the indigenous people from the factory workers, and from an immense, ravenous monster called Kroll.

But all that is to come. And the future is never certain. Perhaps the Methane factory, and Kroll, will never mar these swampy fields. Perhaps the village can atone for the terrible actions of their best known son, and erase this blot upon their souls. Certainly the villagers are doing their best to make Snape a place of joy and beauty. There's a center here, called Snape Maltings, where people can travel to study music and celebrate art. Sadly, Severus Snape will always be remembered for hurting Harry Potter and killing Professor Dumbledore. Still, this one fallen wizard does not form the entirety of the village's collective soul. That's easy to see, when you visit Snape.

Dragon Dave

Monday, January 22, 2018

Mark Twain's Fabulous Riverboat in England

In author Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld series, everyone who has ever lived on Earth (up to a certain date) is reborn on a vast planet constructed by a mysterious alien race. In every portion of this manufactured world, people from different ages, cultures, races, and beliefs mix freely. So aborigine cultures would mix with the most advanced peoples, and everyone in between. This allows people of great flexibility and willpower, such as Sir Richard Burton, the world famous explorer from Torquay, England, to shine in book one of the series. 

In The Fabulous Riverboat, the second Riverworld novel, Samuel Clemens opts not to spend this second life writing as a novelist under the pseudonym Mark Twain. Instead, he uses his humor and smarts to convince others to help him build a steamboat. This allows him to return to the love of his youth, that of piloting a steamboat on the Mississippi River. This early career had been taken from him, when river travel routes were cut short by the American Civil War. 

In Horning, England, you can step aboard a ship similar to the one Samuel Clemens built in Farmer's novel, and cruise the byways of the Norfolk broads. Like Riverworld, the area exhibits natural splendor. It's a scenic wonderland protected against development by the English government. 

Sitting in comfort aboard the Southern Comfort, you'll cruise along natural and manmade rivers. The ship's modern engine are far quieter than the primitive steam engines of Samuel Clemens' day. So you don't have to worry about the engine exploding, and setting the vessel on fire, such as in the accident that claimed his brother's life. Nor will you see workers digging new river channels for peat to keep their families warm in winter. But, depending upon when you visit, you might spy them harvesting the thatch lining these natural and manmade rivers, which they use to roof their houses.

A cruise aboard the Southern Comfort allows you to see how many people love to get out in the water, explore these tree-lined byways, and watch the swans, ducks, coots, and grebes swim past. As you cruise past the wide variety of nearby houses and villages, you can chat with those seated next to you. Most will hail from other regions of England, and happily tell you about the places they live.

The Mississippi River Boat Company calls their ship the Southern Comfort, but the way they service their customers is thoroughly English. So you can sit back, and watch the world go by, while sipping tea, and crunching a biscuit (that's English for cookie, mind you) with a proper cup and saucer. If you travel with a group, the leader may even purchase your tea for you, and bring it to your seat, as he did on our river cruise.

Who would have guessed that one could tour the famous Broads of England aboard a fabulous Mississippi riverboat? 

Samuel Clemens, take a bow.

Dragon Dave

Monday, December 11, 2017

Doctor Who on English Bathing Huts

Beach Huts in Torquay, Agatha Christie's hometown

I first noticed these colorful beach huts while exploring the counties of Somerset, Devon, and Cornwall on our 2015 trip to England. People rent these wood or brick buildings by the week, or even by the year. It gives them a place to store their beach items, and a little home-away-from-home while relaxing by the water each day. This allows parents to watch their kids play from the comfort of a chair on the wooden deck in front of the hut, or sit inside, share a meal or a game of cards, and even take a nap out of the sun. Nearby shops sell food and drink, rent other seaside amenities, and public toilets are also usually nearby.

On our visit to Cromer this year, a seaside town in Norfolk county, we saw more of these huts lining the beach. Cromer was a picturesque rocky beach, but the sea could get rough, and the wind can be strong. Some of these huts had windows with curtains, small refrigerators and sinks. Such conveniences allow one to enjoy the view, sheltered from the wind or rain, and enjoy more of the comforts of home.

Beach Huts in Cromer

In the Doctor Who novel The English Way of Death by Gareth Roberts, British biscuit (cookie) magnate Hepworth Stackhouse notices a small, lonely building while vacationing on the coast of England circa 1930.

It was a small brick building, five feet square, without external signs or markings. On the side facing the cove's wall was a wooden door, fitted with a brass knob. It was every inch a representative of its kind, with nothing of note in its appearance. Its singular oddness lay in its location. Why, wondered Stackhouse, would anybody choose to build a bathing-hut here, three quarters of a mile from the beach, on an area strewn with large rocks and pebbles?

Unfortunately, Stackhouse decides to investigate this mystery. When he tries to open the door, a gaseous intelligence overtakes him. Possessed by this malevolent alien, he kidnaps a prominent scientist, kills homeless people for sustenance, and raises a zombie army. It's up to the fourth Doctor, his time-lord companion Romana, his robot dog K-9, and a merry group of time travelers from the future, to prevent the intelligence controlling Stackhouse from destroying the Earth.

After learning the dangers a lonely English bathing hut might pose to humanity, I figured I had better learn more. An online search for "bathing hut" yielded two options: a bathing machine, and a beach hut. During England's Victorian era, bathing machines resembled today's colorful wooden beach huts. Only they were set on wheels. 

A woman entered a Victorian bathing hut fully clothed on dry land. The machine was then pulled by horses or people over the sand and rocks beach. When the woman finished changing into her bathing suit, she walked out of the hut, and stepped down the water. 

By 1930, when the events in The English Way of Death occurred, these wheeled huts seem to have been replaced by stationary changing rooms. Perhaps some, those built out of nick or stone, even sported modern conveniences like toilets and sinks. Or perhaps what Stackhouse saw was not a changing facility, but a beach hut for rent.

So did British biscuit (cookie) magnate Hepworth Stackhouse see a changing station, or a beach hut for rent? Sadly, Gareth Roberts' record of events is unclear. But given my uncertainty, I'll be more wary of these colorful additions to English beaches on future trips. And the question remains: what should I do if I see one of these brightly painted little buildings set off by itself, and located farther away from the beach than seems practical? Should I call the police? Or should I just go to the nearest shop, and buy myself a delicious English biscuit (cookie)?

Dragon Dave

Monday, December 4, 2017

E. F. Benson on the Value of a Cambridge Education: Part 2

During our boat trip on the River Cam, our tour guide praised the architecture of King's College, and spoke glowingly about the beauty of its famed chapel. Strangely, he then asserted that the interiors, and particularly the dormitories, had not kept up with the times, and were little better than prison cells. 

If this is the case now, I can only assume they were nicer a hundred years ago, when author E. F. Benson studied there. 

In his novel The Babe, B.A., E. F. Benson introduces us to a group of fun-loving young students at Cambridge. Most are studying at King's College, and the foremost of them is the Babe. He may be the son of an aristocrat serving in the House of Lords, but he's the silliest, and yet most learned of them all. 

The Babe, as everyone calls him, is the picture of fun, and his hijinks, and lack of scholastic excellence, constantly land him in trouble with the authorities. Everyone loves him for his athletic feats on the Rugby grounds, and the parties he holds or attends. Yet in the midst of revelry, or lighthearted talk, he will suddenly astound everyone by throwing out a completely unexpected reference to a famous poet like Wordsworth, an erudite writer like Charles Kingsley, or controversial literary magazine like The Yellow Book. 

Toward the end of his second year at King's College, his extracurricular activities land him in real trouble. Instead of studying for exams, the Babe goes out with his friends on the Cam for a picnic and a swim at Byron's Pool near Grantchester. When he returns after hours to his dormitory, he tries to sneak into his room. But he is caught, and the college authorities dismiss him for the rest of the term. So he goes to live with his father in London. 

During the summer break, his friends from Cambridge visit him in London. They join with his father's aristocratic friends in suggesting that the Babe isn't cut out for scholarly pursuits, and he should devote his life to something else. The realization that he's virtually wasted the tremendous opportunity of higher education galvanizes him. When the Babe returns to King's College for his final year, he allows himself the occasional game of Rugby. But for the most part, he throws himself into his studies, gives up parties and frivolity, and surprises everyone when he graduates with distinction

The British people have recently demanded that their government do more to rein in the costs of a university education. Strangely, the government in the United States seems to be moving in the opposite direction. A move to reform and "simplify" taxes would include provisions to tax certain private universities, end tax credits for university workers and their families, restrict higher education tax credits, and eliminate deductions for graduates repaying their student loans. 

No one likes being taxed on the money they earn. Still, life isn't about money: it's about doing what you find meaningful and fulfilling. If government reforms make it harder for people to afford an already-expensive college education, and prepare the young for their desired career, then perhaps the elected officials should reexamine their plans, and question whether they are in the country's best interests.

That's what British citizens want their government to do. Certainly our tour guide would agree with that sentiment. After all, he studied at a university in Brighton, and graduated with a Pre-Med degree. But instead of continuing his studies, he had to spend a few years guiding a boat along the River Cam, regaling tourists from around the world with anecdotes from Cambridge's past, while he repaid his student loans. While being a tour guide a worthy profession, I think we'd all agree that the world needs the qualified doctors and nurses more. 

But then, he was a great tour guide, and gave us a fun, relaxing boat trip on the River Cam. Perhaps that's what the Babe or his friends might have done, if they needed money too.

Dragon Dave

Monday, November 27, 2017

E. F. Benson on the Value of a Cambridge Education: Part 1

A highlight of our Cambridge experience was drifting along the River Cam past King's College. Not only do we see the Doctor and Romana punting past the college in "Shada" and "The Five Doctors," but one of my favorite English authors, E. F. Benson, attended King's College. He set Limitations, one of his early novels, at his old alma mater. 

In Limitations, two students at King's College ponder their future. Ted Markham is the son of a priest, only there because of a rich man's generosity. His friend Tom Carlingford is the son of the rich man, the lord of the manor, who has sent both his son and the son of his family priest to such a costly and prestigious school. But while Ted values the tremendous gift he's been given, and spends all his time studying, Tom whiles away his time at college, and dreams of becoming a sculptor. 

Like Tom and Ted, people today still argue over the value of a university education. Those who identify with Tom Carlingford, the idle rich man's son, argue that all that matters is that you leave with a degree, which will provide you with the qualifications for higher paying jobs. And if you're young, and not interested in your studies, then the time and money spent there seems like a waste. 

Tom saves his harshest criticism for students like his friend Ted, who plan on becoming university teachers and scholars. He warns Ted that many educators actually turn themselves into vegetables. Instead of using their greater knowledge to become dynamic, creative people, they become authorities on subjects that no one else cares about, such as gerunds, obscure Greek writers, binomial theorems, or acid radicals. 

Despite his friend's arguments, Ted, the poor man's son, stays at King's College, graduates with distinction, and goes on to become an educator there. He enjoys his life filled with books and learning, and sharing all he discovers with colleagues and students. His life, for him, is idyllic, and one he could not have achieved without the generosity of his patron, Tom's father.

Tom Carlingford, the rich man's son, leaves King's College before graduation. He uses his father's generous allowance to travel, and study the creations of great artists. In Greece, he is inspired by the Greek's classical style. He works hard to develop his talents, and hone his craft, in order to create statues as beautiful as those that fire his imagination. In this way, he educates himself, and singlehandedly forges his own future.

All is well until his father dies. Then Tom learns that his father's investments had been failing for years, and he is now penniless. So while Ted enjoys his new life as an educator in Cambridge, surrounded by people who respect him and appreciate his talents, Tom struggles to make ends meet in London, and picks up any scraps of work he can to put food on the table. Eventually he achieves success in his chosen vocation, but not before he undergoes a great deal of suffering.

While we toured this historic center of higher education, England was contemplating a change in leadership. Shortly after we left Cambridge, the country held an election. Prime Minister Theresa May had hoped to gain more Conservative Party seats in the House of Commons. Instead, people in the UK voted for the Labour Party. While I'm sure there were many reasons the Conservative Party lost, most of the young people interviewed on TV News programs said that they voted Labour because they wanted a university education, but under the current leadership they couldn't afford it. 

Hopefully, the British government will listen to this mandate, and do something to make university educations more affordable for its citizens. Whether you identify more with Ted Markham or Tom Carlingford, not all of us have rich parents or benefactors, and it's always nice to have a choice as to which path you follow in life.

Dragon Dave

Monday, November 20, 2017

Braving the Evils of Cambridge with Doctor Who: Part 2

Outside Emmanuel college, some students ambushed us with their soppy hard luck stories about how taking a ride in the River Cam could help them pay for their education. I couldn't help if but wonder at the veracity of their claims. I mean, tuition at one of England's top two university towns can't be all that expensive, right? 

There's a debate going on regarding education these days. Some authorities maintain that all students are evil. The rest maintain that most, while not villains, are nonetheless capable of blending facts and lies to their advantage. However one may categorize the students at Cambridge, they convinced us to take their tour with their "cheap" prices. Then they led us astray, or at least down to Garret Hostel Bridge. There we joined a group of other gullible tourists from exotic locales like Spain and India. 

While we waited to board our vessel, a gentleman from a nearby pub hawked his "authorized" (and more expensive) tours. He also informed us that, by consorting with "unregistered" students, we were technically breaking the law. Leave it to a pub owner to dispense the truth about the evil students'  activities with such kindness. Still, aside from assaulting us with his honesty, he left us to our wicked ways. Soon we boarded our simple wooden vessel, and the students launched us out onto the Cam.

Bridges spanning the River Cam range from functional to stunning. Many boast a fascinating history. One of our tour guide's anecdotes, regarding Clare Bridge, proved especially memorable.

The student, who supposedly finished his undergraduate degree at Brighton University, told us that builders had left one of the ornamental stone balls along the rails chipped. This subterfuge left the bridge unfinished in the eyes of the law, which helped the then bridge owners pay less than their fair share of taxes to the crown. That's the problem with consorting with students. Pretty soon, you're falling prey to their evil, cheating ways.

Doctor Who fans will find another anecdote about Clare Bridge equally interesting. As the Doctor and his companion Romana punted along the Cam in the story "Shada", they were unexpectedly whisked off to Gallifrey (and the story interrupted by another story, "The Five Doctors") by the evil Lord President. Once the Doctor (in all five incarnations) defeated the Lord President of Gallifrey, the Timelords returned him and Romana to their wooden boat on the Cam. They did this so expertly that we see no visual sign of their re-emergence in time in "Shada." Having said all that, we do see the Doctor, a centuries old Timelord who has amassed unimaginable knowledge on every conceivable subject, and mastered countless skills, suddenly lose his grip on his pole, and nearly fall into the water as he passes beneath Clare Bridge. So even the Doctor can get unsettled by unexpected trips through time, especially when directed by evil Timelords.

Of course, I've heard the rumor that actor Tom Baker refused to take punting lessons the day before filming his boating scenes for "Shada", figuring he could operate a punt without training. Personally, I have no time for rumors these days, especially ones that defame any actor who played in Doctor Who. Rumormongering is evil, and the virtuous man has nothing to do with them.

Dragon Dave

Monday, November 13, 2017

Braving the Evils of Cambridge with Doctor Who: Part 1

From Grantchester, the home town of investigative vicar Sidney Chambers, we wandered through Grantchester Meadows. There people swam and boated in the river, walked their dogs, or just relaxed in the fields. Amid such pastoral splendor, we wondered where the villain Skagra parked his spaceship in the Doctor Who story "Shada." We even wondered if the spaceship was still there, as it was invisible in the story.

It's been forty years since the events in "Shada" recorded by fearless British author Douglas Adams, took place. Still, had K-9 been with us, I'm sure he could have identified the landing site. After all, what good is a robot dog, if it can't even remember where the villain parked his invisible spaceship?

Near the Old Vicarage, the home of politician and bestselling English author Jeffrey Archer, we stopped to observe a pair of swans and their newly hatched children. There we chatted with a gentleman who had studied their nesting spot for the past few weeks. It would seem that, if Skagra was still lurking nearby, or hiding in his invisible spaceship, the villain didn't seem to be bothering the swans.  

A (not so) short walk took us to Emmanuel College. There the Doctor and his companion Romana visited Professor Chronotis in his office. The good professor was a retired Timelord who had summoned the Doctor to return a powerful book to Gallifrey, the Doctor's home planet. Unfortunately, the villain Skagra stole the book, and used it to try and take over the universe. But then, that's what villains do, isn't it? They recognize essential facts, like the fact that books hold a certain power, and wield that power to their evil ends. 

But then, all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to play with their smartphones all day.

Dragon Dave

Monday, November 6, 2017

Walking To Cambridge With Sidney Chambers

As any viewer of the TV show "Grantchester" will realize, investigative priest Sidney Chambers spends little of his time in the Grantchester vicarage. In the first series (or season, as they say in the United States), he looks forward to strolling along the River Cam, and picnicking with his friend Amanda on Grantchester Common.

He and his Detective friend Geordie Keating have spent their fair share of time walking along the river, and even pursued the occasional criminal through the Grantchester Commons. 

Whether he walks or rides his bike, Sidney Chambers will probably use a bridge when he visits his friend Geordie at the Cambridge police station. In one episode, I believe the two even investigated a murder on Clare Bridge.

In this 800 year old university town, the streets are lined with tall buildings. Sidney and Geordie spend their fair share trekking through these narrow byways, whether they are pursuing suspects or traveling to a murder scene. In series two, Amanda even skulks through these, when she grows bored with marriage to her rich husband, and pilfers items from shops.

But most of all in Cambridge, it's King's Parade that we associate Sidney with. In the first episode, we see him cycling among this popular street, past shops, restaurants, and the city's architectural gem, King's College.

Have Sidney and Geordie investigated a murder in King's College yet? If not, I suspect it's only a matter of time. After all, they've questioned suspects in dorms and offices in other colleges. So if you decide to visit Cambridge, keep a watchful eye out. You might spot Geordie or Sidney hurrying past to investigate a crime, or ponder a fascinating mystery.

Dragon Dave

Monday, October 30, 2017

Visiting Sidney Chambers' Church in Grantchester

Even from the outskirts of Grantchester, the Anglican Church of St. Anthony and Mary appeals. It resides within this sleepy English village, and keeps watch over it, just as its famous vicar Sidney Chambers shepherds its inhabitants. 

Upon arriving, it's easy to imagine Mrs. Maguire hanging out the laundry, or cleaning the vicarage. While the black labrador Dickens plays by her feet, curate Leonard Finch studies his books of religious scholarship. As the one in charge of Grantchester Church, vicar Sidney Chambers should be composing Sunday's sermon, with a glass of whisky at hand, while jazz plays on the gramophone. But most likely, he's out with his friend Detective Inspector Geordie Keating, solving a murder in Grantchester or nearby Cambridge.

In the churchyard, a curious memorial rises above nearby headstones. It's a testament to one family's longing to reside in that glorious mansion that awaits us when this life is over. 

Inside, an alcove beside the choir entrances with its architecture and history. It reminds us of this church's centuries of serving the community, and how it still comforts and guides its congregants today.

But most of all, it's special to just sit in a pew, and gaze up at the podium, beside which Sidney Chambers so often addresses his congregation. His messages of God's unfailing love, acceptance, and forgiveness remind me of Christianity's best aspects. Just as in the TV series based on James Runcie's stories, I feel welcome, included, and inspired. 

Dragon Dave