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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Happy Birthday Connie Willis

Author Connie Willis turns seventy today. With her upbeat, humorous personality, she is always a popular person at science fiction conventions. She has a unique way of looking at her people that helps you identify with and love her characters. Many of them take place in England, and involve time travel. She seems particularly interested in the World War II era, and the trials that the populace of London underwent during that period. 

Sadly, those time travel stories never involve my favorite Time Lord, Doctor Who. Still, I love how she often references other stories in her fiction. This gives me an idea of her influences, and gives me ideas for future reading. 

On second thought, maybe that's not such a great thing. I already have too many stories and authors that I want to read! (A few of those stories are even written by Connie Willis!)

Her collection Miracle and Other Christmas Stories is well worth reading at this time of year. Even if the actual day has passed, the characters, ideas, and themes in her stories will sweep you away with her love for this magical season. Happy Birthday, Connie!

Dragon Dave

Related Dragon Cache entries
On her story "Miracle"
True Humility For Christmas
Opening Our Eyes to the Miraculous
Saving the Environment at Christmas 
Achieving Our Christmas Goals
Our Heart’s Desire

Monday, December 28, 2015

Stan Lee's Inspiration

Type the names Stan Lee Arthur Conan Doyle into an internet search engine, and you'll find any number of interviews and articles stating that Stan Lee grew up reading stories by the creator of Sherlock Holmes. Of course, young boys grow up reading lots of stories, or at least they did, before the invention of TV, video games, and the internet. So is it possible to spot any hallmarks of Doyle's writing in Stan Lee's characters? 

In A Study in Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes novel, Dr. John Watson meets Sherlock Holmes in a university laboratory, where Holmes carries out rigorous experiments. When Holmes and Watson set up their home together on Baker Street, the first thing Holmes does is set up his new home laboratory, so he can continue his experiments. 

One of the first superhero teams Stan Lee created was the Fantastic Four. This group was led by Reed Richards, a scientist who is always carrying out experiments. Like Sherlock Holmes, Reed Richards conducts his experiments in his own laboratory in the Baxter Building. Both characters fuse science with investigation. This is because science proves the cornerstone of each man's life. 

One character Stan Lee introduced early on in The Amazing Spider-Man was Mary Jane Watson. She was the girl next-door, whom Peter Parker's aunt wished him to date. Stan Lee may never have intended Mary Jane Watson to become a steadfast, lifelong partner for Peter Parker, but successive writers, and fans, saw something in her than Lee evidently didn't. For not only would become his longtime girlfriend, but also his wife. That popularity has propelled her into Spider-Man TV and movie adaptations, and made Mary Jane Watson as inextricably linked with Peter Parker, as Dr John Watson is with Sherlock Holmes.

Today is Stan Lee's 93rd birthday. Despite his wealth of years, he still makes public appearances, works on behalf of Marvel Comics, and serves as Executive Producer on Marvel Studios movies. More importantly, he's still more fun than a roomful of Skrulls scrambling for the last remaining bottle of Chin-crease Remover. So what could be more logical, more in keeping with the facts you've just learned, than wishing him a Happy Birthday today?

Why, reading an early Stan Lee issue of the Fantastic Four, or the Amazing Spider-Man, of course. That's elementary, my dear John or Mary Jane Watson.

Dragon Dave

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Letters to a Prison Inmate: Part 2

Since the midweek service I referenced in Part 1, I attended a Sunday worship service. That day, I spoke with several ladies, one of whom I might never have spoken with had I not attended the midweek service. When I mentioned that my wife had recently gotten me into sketching, she related an experience in which she brought cookies and other baked treats to people in prison. On that visit, a member of her group got talking with one prisoner, and he showed them sketches that he had made. I found her recollection especially interesting, as I never mentioned to her that a member of my extended family was currently in prison. 

Anyway, back to my letter.

In the first part of November, our gym closed for refurbishment. As I wasn’t able to follow my normal routine, I did more walking, and did more exercises like pushups and sit-ups at home. Later in the month, when I visited the doctor for my annual physical, I weighed exactly the same as last year. I worked hard to lose a lot of weight several years ago, and since then I’ve gradually put on a few pounds each year. So with the additional food and treats that accompany the holidays, keeping the same weight seemed like a triumph.

Despite the apparent victory during his last hospital stay, [a family member] has since suffered several infections, and returned to the hospital for short visits. Last weekend a visit to the doctor’s office led to another overnight hospital visit. Why do you think sickness so often accompanies the Christmas season? Is it just all the good food, or something else?

Yesterday my wife conscripted me. She prepared a ham, and I cooked it according to her instructions. She arrived home in time to help me carve and lay the meat in a serving dish. Then she took it back to work, where she oversaw a potluck meal for fifty-plus workers. I also enjoyed ham for lunch. Suddenly, I don’t feel so out-of-step with the Christmas season.

I hope this letter finds you well, and that you are also able to celebrate the Christmas season, in whatever manner your current situation allows.

As the woman I met in church described the photorealistic drawings of the prison inmate she met, I couldn't help reflect on my own poor efforts. While most people are complementary about my sketches, I know I have a long way to go in developing my abilities. Still, I know what I really need to do is just set aside a little time each day. Anyone can draw, you just have to practice, as artist Mike Bocianowsky once told me.

And anyone can write a letter, pay a visit, or do something nice for someone who feels isolated and alone. Especially during the Christmas season.

Dragon Dave

Related Dragon Cache entries
Mike Bocianowski's Passion

Monday, December 21, 2015

Letters To A Prison Inmate: Part 1

Earlier this year, I learned that a member of my extended family was in jail. After a few months, another family member asked me to write to him. I've never really been close to him, so it felt strange to write him a letter. Eventually, I decided that, were the situation reversed, I'd appreciate receiving letters from anyone, regardless of our previous level of rapport. So I started writing to him.

As this month's letter deals with the topic of Christmas, the holiday season, and where I seem to be at this year, I thought I would share a portion of it with you.

Last year's Dalek-themed Christmas Tree

Dear ______,

Do you ever feel as if time is speeding past you? Last Friday I attended a midweek worship service, and saw blue cloths draped over the altar and the lecterns. Amid all the hubbub of everyday life, we missed out on several weeks of services. The angel embroidered on those blue cloths shook me. I then noticed the Christmas tree, and the Advent wreath and candles, reminded myself it was mid-December, and wondered: where have I been?

It’s not as if I was oblivious to the Christmas season. My wife and I went shopping on Thanksgiving weekend, and have since procured more presents online. We’ve listened to holiday music, driven around to see all the lights and decorations, and watched a Christmas movie. But my wife has been busy at work, and gone away on travel several times, so we haven’t set up a tree or decorated the house. On one level, I knew it was Christmas time. On another, I was oblivious. Strange, eh?

Speaking of Christmas seasons, one memory I hold dear is the Christmas Eve you and your wife invited us over on Christmas Eve. Your wife made us a multi-ethnic holiday meal, with different meats and traditional side dishes, as well as tamales, rice, and beans. We enjoyed sharing food, conversation, and presents with you and your family that evening. Thanks again for including us.

In case you're wondering, I wasn't overpraising that night we spent with this man and his family. As his invitation came at a time of great personal loss, his efforts really meant a lot. But then, including others in our lives, either over meals, or simply through a letter, can often mean more to them than we could ever imagine.

Dragon Dave

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Arthur Conan Doyle: Equine Fascination

Something brown was rolling and tossing among the green sedges. Then a long, agonized, writhing neck shot upwards and a dreadful cry echoed over the moor. It turned me cold with horror, but my companion's nerves seemed to be stronger than mine.

--Taken from The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Some people are fortunate enough to befriend our equine cousins. They raise horses, groom them, ride them, and really get to know them. The rest of us, the vast majority of humankind, look on from afar, and wonder what such relationships are like. We find it all too easy to ascribe general characteristics to them. 

We may stereotype donkeys and mules as irritable, disobedient, and general bad company. Even when they have our best interests at heart, as the Biblical prophet Balaam discovered when his donkey steered him away from an angel sent to kill him, still, they can't help but irritate their owners. 

Horses radiate tremendous power, but can prove standoffish and skittish. No matter how much we respect them, we learn to give them the expect they deserve. For all that power can backfire on their human friends. In one moment of passion, playfulness, or inattention, a horse can main or kill its owner.

Less powerful than their larger, more regal cousins, ponies possess the disarming ability to always appear cute and cuddly. One's heart readily goes out to ponies. They're so sweet, good-natured, and adorable, aren't they? How terrible that they must wander alone across the moors!

What better way could Arthur Conan Doyle demonstrate the dangers of Dartmoor, than by the land itself claiming the life of one of those cute, adorable ponies?

For proof of this, visit Dartmoor Forest. Search for the wild ponies, and when you find them, you will most likely see people nearby. "Quick honey, grab the camera." "Oh, what a poor creature!"  "I wonder if it needs something to eat?" "Oh, aren't you a beautiful little fellow?"

Just watch your step when you explore Dartmoor in search of ponies. Or, like the poor brown pony Dr John Watson saw, you may find the very ground beneath you desires nourishment. And other walkers may hear a dreadful cry echoing over the moor.

Dragon Dave

Monday, December 14, 2015

Arthur Conan Doyle on the Devil and Hellhounds

Folk tales of the devil riding through the forest on a magnificent black steed, leading a pack of hellish hounds, prompted Arthur Conan Doyle to visit Dartmoor Forest in Devon, England. It was there he would later send Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson in The Hound of the Baskervilles. A hellish hound certainly features in the novel, and seems perfectly at home amid a landscape of such wild and rugged beauty. But it is not the devil, nor a magnificent black horse, that personifies Dartmoor's beautiful but dangerous character in his classic story. Instead, it is the carefree, inoffensive ponies that wander the moor.

One day, Dr Watson steps outside of Baskerville Hall to take a walk across the moors. Hearing the approaching footsteps, Watson turns to see a small, slim man carrying a butterfly net. The naturalist introduces himself as Jack Stapleton, a former schoolmaster. As they talk, Stapleton warns Watson of the dangers of wandering alone through the countryside. 

"Only yesterday I saw one of the moor ponies wander into it. He never came out. I saw his head for quite a long time craning out of a bog-hole, but it sucked him down at last. Even in dry seasons it is a danger to cross it, but after these autumn rains it is an awful place. And yet I can find my way to the very heart of it and return alive. By George, there is another of those miserable ponies!"

There's a reason that Arthur Conan Doyle paints Dartmoor as a dark, forbidding place. It's a windswept stretch of gently rolling hills, or fells. Crowning these rises are wild grasses, spindly shrubs, and trees bent by the winds that howl over the land. Or at least, that's how we found it, when my wife and I visited this year.

Did I mention that we visited there in summer?

Nearly everywhere else we went in Devon and Cornwall, I wore shorts. But long pants, a thick shirt, a windbreaker, and a knitted hat proved essential to battle the winds that screamed in your ears and threatened to freeze you from exposure. (Try wearing a baseball cap, and the winds will tear it off your head!) I imagine residents adore Dartmoor's unique beauty in winter, but I can't imagine living there in the summer, let alone during the colder seasons

No wonder folktales of Dartmoor feature the devil and hellhounds. But what place could be more evil, than a forest that regularly claims the lives of sweet, adorable ponies?

Dragon Dave 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Sacred Retreat: Part 2

My grandparents rarely entertained visitors. If they did, these people were members of the family, or church friends for whom they felt deep affection and trust. Thus, I felt like an honored guest whenever I stayed with them for a week or two, and my mother's old bedroom became my special place. As my grandparents entertained few visitors, it really felt like my home-away-from-home. My special place. My sacred retreat. 

With the light pouring in through the window behind the bed, I could while away the afternoons reading. The bookshelves held some of the classics of western literature. These volumes had been carefully acquired over the decades, or passed down to my grandparents from their ancestors. I knew I couldn't appreciate those old stories then, but I hoped that one day I would be capable of doing so. On the walls hung paintings created by my grandfather and my uncle. On a chest of drawers sat one of my grandmother's chalk drawings I loved so much she made me a copy. The old, glossy stuffed dog on the bed felt like a member of the family. Solid wood furniture, exhibiting timeless styles, surrounded me. Treasures stored beneath the bed included art supplies, such as paint and wax. 

My grandmother and I made candles one summer. During another visit, she helped me paint three pictures. One she hung on the wall beside those of my ancestors. Standing before her easel, with light pouring in from two windows, my grandmother created posters for church using pastel chalks. She often showed me her works in progress when I stayed with her. Sometimes, I just sat back on the bed and read while she drew. Or I opened the windows to the back yard, and watched her care for the flowers in her garden. 

I would have given anything to have preserved that room in its ideal state, to have protected the associations it held, the artifacts that inspired me to read, write, paint, sketch, and work with wood. It offered a tangible link to my grandparents--particularly my grandmother--which was precious to me. But it is an incontestable rule of life that one cannot protect what one does not own. Time, circumstances, and people have torn that room, and all those accompanying feelings of belonging and safety, away from me. Still, I can preserve it, my home-away-from-home, in my memory. I may never be able to recreate what was lost, but I can commemorate my special place, and honor my Grandmother's impact on my life, by recreating my sacred retreat in my sketch book. 

How can you best honor a place that once meant the world to you? And how might doing so prove beneficial for your life?

Dragon Dave

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Sacred Retreat: Part 1

Your own private room.
A sacred retreat, or just another place?

In my childhood, my family moved every few years. Thus home became a transitory thing, ever shifting, ever becoming something new. My mother--never a home-body--always wanted to go out, do things with people, and be involved in the communal process of creating something new. My father, the stay-at-home type, was more interested in protecting what he had, and celebrating what we had as a family, than pursuing the latest in-group activity. As an only child, I often found myself torn between conflicting states of mind and practice, either pulled off to do something scheduled, leaving old friends, churches, and schools to remake the tapestry of my life, or left alone to figure things out for myself.

One of the places that felt like home was my grandparents church. Throughout the years we attended there, I got to know all the regulars, and they felt like members of my family. But then my parents opted to attend a different church, and attending my grandparents' church became impossible. Suddenly, I belonged somewhere else, whether I desired or approved of that new place, or not.

Over time, and especially as I entered my junior high school years, the place I gravitated to, the place which best embodied my ideal of home, was my grandparents house. My grandparents, retiring people who never had much money, celebrated what they had. They immersed themselves in projects around the house, and caring for the church they had attended the majority of their lives. I loved going there whenever I could. In the summer, my parents usually let me stay there for a week or two at a time.

I always looked forward to those extended visits. I always looked forward to spending a quiet week or two in my grandparents' company. I loved attending their church, eating meals with them, and adopting their schedule. All the places I lived had their charms. As my parents never had lots of money, they might not have been the most cultured and refined abodes, but they were all nice. I still have many pleasant memories about all of them.

Still, in comparison with my grandparents' house, they were more like motel rooms, or a sailor's quarters aboard his vessel, or a room in a boarding school. Places to call your own, to inhabit, and decorate, and spend your resting hours in, at least for a little while. Then, it was time to move on.

Did you have your own special place during your childhood? Was it the house you lived in, or somewhere else?

Dragon Dave

Monday, November 30, 2015

Appaloosa And Dinosaurs

The days spent in the hospital, lending moral support to my sick family member, and the rest of my family, allowed me to finish another drawing. Unlike St. Luke the Ox, I had started this one a few weeks previous. 

On that weekend, a family member had given me a copy of Robert B. Parker's novel Appaloosa. Of course, I've seen the movie version several times, but this was my first experience of reading Robert B Parker. I flew through the novel, devouring it in two days. I liked Parker's lean writing style, and enjoyed getting a little more insight into his story. 

One thing that surprised me was how true director and actor Ed Harris stayed to Parker's novel for the film version. The main difference was how he softened the characters, and made them more complex in the process. Take, for example, the role of the heroine Allie French. In Parker's novel, Allie comes across as a much harder character. She's almost like a carnivore of men. She can't accept her man unless he's constantly fighting for her. So she does things that purposely set her man, Marshal Cole, against others. She reminds me of those who sat in the Roman arenas, cheered on the gladiators, and booed if the match didn't end with a spectacular death. In Harris' film, Renee Zellweger's character comes across as more sympathetic. She may have difficulty controlling herself around powerful men, but she seems to truly love Cole, and not purposely instigate events that would cause him harm.

I suppose reading that novel influenced me. For one of the times I took a short break from devouring it, I started a sketch of dinosaurs in a western town.* Sitting in the hospital room gave me plenty of time to contemplate the drawing, and figure out how best to bring it to life. I even put shadows onto the ground, while I'd never attempted before.

Once while I was coloring, I heard a nurse beside me suck in a breath, and she said, "Wow! Are you a professional cartoonist?" I don't know about you, but that made me feel good, pardner. 


Dragon Dave

*Robert B Parker's novel, and Ed Harris' movie, utilize horses instead of dinosaurs. But then, no story is perfect.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Comic Book Holiday Shopping for Dragons

Last December, my wife and I enjoyed a wonderful vacation in Florida. In addition to touring Universal Studios and Gatorland, we visited a number of comic book shops. We had some great conversations with people in those shops, and found a number of bargains. But mostly, we just loved exploring the discount boxes, and finding old comics we might not find in the shops back home.

Those visits even inspired me to immortalize them in my sketch book. 

It's not as if we don't have enough great comics already. But there are always gaps in any collection. If you're more concerned with the pleasure of reading than the condition and resale value, thumbing through the discount boxes is a great way to fill out a series. We've also discovered new series that have become favorites in those boxes. If you don't have to worry about the price per issue, you can experiment a little more, and find writers, artists, and stories that really grow on you.

This year, several comic book stores in my area are offering Black Friday sales. Some special offers will extend throughout the holiday weekend. A couple hundred shops in the United States have also signed up for Local Comic Shop Day, a new event for this year. These comic book retailers will be handing out free comics specially printed for this event. So if you can pull yourself away from the Thanksgiving leftovers, and spare time out of the biggest shopping weekend of the year, you might find it worthwhile to cruise by your local comic book shop and have a look around. 

You might discover an old or new series that you really enjoy. Who knows? You might even find me there!

Dragon Dave

Related Internet Links
Local Comic Shop Day

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Hobbit and the Harp in the ICU

During our stay in the hospital, one day passed rapidly into another. I found reading difficult, as there were always people coming and going. Thankfully, I had brought my sketch pad and colored pencils. Unlike reading, where I would have to shut people out to concentrate, with sketching I could embrace the interruptions, listen in on the discussions around me, and truly be there for the family. 

Above all the nurses and ICU staff, one visit proved particularly memorable. A woman introduced herself as a volunteer, and asked if the patient would like to hear a little music. When my sick family member answered "Yes," she wheeled in a harp.

Yes, you read that right: a harp.

I've played the piano all my life, and heard all the instruments that people typically play in church. I've always listened to music at home, from records to tapes to today's Compact Discs. Yet I've never really grown accustomed to hearing someone play the harp. I believe it says in the Old Testament that David played the harp for King Saul, and that the music eased his ruler's troubled brow. I can imagine that. It's such an elegant instrument, and she played it beautifully. She may have only played for a few minutes, but I could have listened to her for hours. 

You know, in his novel The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien records that Thorin Oakenshield played the harp. I'm not sure where or how he carried it as he traveled, but he played it that night he and the other dwarves visited Bilbo's little home in Hobbiton. In fact, all the dwarves played their own instruments. I'm not sure what happened to all those musical instruments after that. I don't remember the dwarves ever playing them again during their journey. Maybe they had to trade them in to buy their provisions for their adventure. In any case, it's sad they lost those instruments, particularly Thorin's harp. I bet they would have escaped the elves in Mirkwood much more easily, or perhaps even won their friendship, had they played so beautifully for the elves as they did that night in Bilbo's house. Don't you agree?

Dragon Dave

Monday, November 23, 2015

St Luke The Ox

A collection of agricultural equipment
in the Torquay Museum in England

Last month, I attended church to find the congregation celebrating the Feast of St. Luke. As Luke was a physician who attended Paul on his missionary journeys, we recited the litany of healing. Then everyone in the congregation was ushered up to the altar to be anointed. As two members of my family were facing debilitating illness and infirmity, I thought of and prayed for their healing. 

During the sermon, the priest mentioned that Saint Luke was associated with the symbol of the ox, which farmers in previous eras used to plow their fields. I found the way he described the association powerful, and so I picked up my sketch pad and started drawing.

That night, we received a phone call. One of the relatives I had prayed for during the healing service was in the hospital, about to undergo an operation. The prognosis was not good. This situation threw our normal lives out the window. We packed up and got on the road to be there, and help him and other family members in any way we could.

The days spent in the hospital gave me time to finish the drawing I started in church. Interestingly, in addition to serving as the patron saint of physicians, St. Luke is also a patron for artists. 

Now, the only question remains: do my efforts qualify me for his patronage?

Dragon Dave

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Arnold Schwarzenegger's Nazi Stamp Album: Part 2

Arnold might have accepted the situation better, had he understood what had happened. But how can a child understand what has happened to family, his community, and his country, if his father refuses to talk about it? How can he make sense of such an upside-down situation, when all the men in his town who fought on (he thought) the side of right refuse to speak about, or even remember, their involvement in the war? How can he feel any sense of identity, and hope for his future in his home or his homeland, when forces from other countries walk his streets, and dictate how his government should function? Even his cherished stamp album was taken away from him. This album had fired his imagination with the grand new, modern world Hitler had promised to build. Instead, just as Allied forces had destroyed Hitler's dreams, the foreigners occupying Austria stole Arnold's cherished album, along with everything else associated with the Nazi party, and consigned it to the flames.

How could any child deal with that?

Is it any wonder that, as a child, he fixated upon the idea of America, the world's conquering hero-nation of World War II, and the home of all the movies that helped him escape the poverty and emptiness of his childhood, as being the land of opportunity and freedom? Is it so incomprehensible that he looked for a way to escape Austria, and when he found a means that seemed to work for him in bodybuilding, threw himself so fully into it that he became the most successful bodybuilder in history? 

Extraordinary times breed extraordinary people, and, as Total Recall demonstrates, one such person is Arnold Schwarzenegger. He worked hard at Bodybuilding, and when his successes gave him the opportunity to emigrate to the United States, he leapt at the chance. After working one's muscles to failure for four, five, or six hours each day, most bodybuilders lack the energy and focus to do much else. Not so Arnold. In addition to his rigorous gym sessions, he took business classes in community colleges, helped run Joe Weider's Muscle And Fitness empire, promoted bodybuilding contests he didn't compete in, ran his own mail order bodybuilding business, and operated several home repair businesses with fellow bodybuilder Franco Columbu.  

Note: Arnold Schwarzenegger thought most of his fellow bodybuilders were "lazy."

Arnold's hard work paid handsome dividends. He made his first million dollars in the real estate market. When he tired of all his conquests in the Bodybuilding world, he turned his focus and passion toward Hollywood, and helped make the kind of movies that he adored as a child. When he tired of being a movie star, and desired to give back to the country that had given him everything he ever dreamed of achieving, he threw his energies into serving as the governor of California. In addition to serving Californians everyday needs, he helped design and fund infrastructure projects that would improve cities, update highways to relieve congestion, and build high speed rail systems. 

Arnold Schwarzenegger's life might have been far different had his father really reached out to him, talked to him, and helped him understand the Austrian government's reaction to the post-Hitler years. His life might have been more conventional had he been allowed to carry some relic of the past, such as his cherished stamp collection, into the future. Instead, he worked hard, never lost sight of his goals, and eventually transformed all his desires and dreams into reality. And unlike Hitler, he didn't need to start a war, or oppress an entire culture and race, to build a better world for all of us to live in.

Dragon Dave

Monday, November 16, 2015

Arnold Schwarzenegger's Nazi Stamp Album: Part 1

Arnold Schwarzenegger's father was not a hate-filled person who dedicated his life to the extermination of the Jewish people. At least, that's not the way Arnold remembers him in his autobiography Total Recall. He was an Austrian gendarme, or policeman, who served in the German army during WWII. Thus, in his small way, he worked to transform Hitler's dreams into reality.

All conquerors and empire-builders dream of doing good works that will benefit the majority of their subjects. Like my grandfather with his stamps, and me with my Wacky packages, Arnold remembers collecting Nazi stamps, and putting them into an album. Its pages awed young Arnold with the glorious new world Hitler promised to create. 

The book was actually a do-it-yourself album for promoting the mighty accomplishments of the Third Reich. There were sections for different categories, such as public works, tunnels and dams under construction, Hitler’s rallies and speeches, great new ships, new monuments, great battles being fought in Poland. Each category had blank pages that were numbered, and whenever you went to the store and bought something or invested in a war bond, you would get a photo to match up with a number and paste into your book. When the collection was complete, you’d win a prize.

But WWII turned against the Germans, and Hitler's dreams turned to ashes.

Those who worked hardest to bring Hitler's dreams to life--those who survived--were imprisoned, tried in courts of law, and executed. The rest--those who merely served, and carried out the orders of their commanders--were sent home, to rebuild their communities, and resume their ordinary lives. Yet what can be ordinary about returning home to a devastated land, one in which all the glorious visions that the media has inundated its citizens with have failed? What can be ordinary about returning home as a soldier, after having lost the war, and being told by the world community that you must atone for your crimes? Imagine doing your civic duty for years, then returning home, and as the years go on, you work hard in relative poverty, and keep learning more revelations of the cruelties and horrors the regime you served had perpetrated. Definitely not a situation you'd want to relive with your friends every Saturday night, or regale your family with your war stories.

Arnold would have loved to have talked with his father, and understood why his nation, Austria, now had to atone for its participation in WWII. But Arnold's father refused to discuss the war. And then, one day, Arnold's cherished stamp album disappeared. Like all such reminders of the Nazi movement, it too was spirited away by the forces now occupying Austria, never to be seen again. 

This is the societal and familial situation in which Arnold Schwarzenegger grew up. It wasn't a situation of his own making. Yet, it was one he had to live with. Amid poverty, feelings of isolation, and an authoritarian upbringing, Arnold forged his own path to independence. He would become the greatest world championship bodybuilder of his era, a world-famous star on the silver screen, and a two-term governor of one of the largest and most famous states in the United States of America. But he started off poor, lonely, and without any real resources to call his own. Aside from ambition, of course. But then, what else do you really need in life?

Dragon Dave

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Sherlock Holmes' Expenses in The Hound of the Baskervilles

Sherlock Holmes & the dreaded hound
in Princetown, Devon

In The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry Baskerville is staying in a hotel in the Charing Cross region of London when he receives a letter warning him not to travel to Baskerville Hall in Devonshire, England. Only one word in the letter was handwritten. The rest were clipped from a newspaper, apparently with nail scissors, and affixed to the foolscap paper with gum. From their distinctive type (or font), Sherlock Holmes identifies the words as having been clipped from the inside page of yesterday's Times. Holmes wishes to determine where the paper might have been sent from. So he instructs a boy named Cartwright to visit all twenty-three hotels near the one in which Henry Baskerville is staying. At each, he is to give the outside porter one shilling, and tell the man he wishes to see yesterday's waste paper. 

In each case, the outside porter will send for the hall porter, to whom also you will give a shilling. 

Holmes gives the boy an additional ten shillings, in case he encounters any unforeseen expenses.

In all, Holmes is entrusting the boy with two pounds and eighty pence. This may not seem like a lot in today's money, but it's probably equivalent to what the boy earned for a six-day work week, working ten hours a day. Apparently the boy showed some ability during a prior investigation. On this occasion however, young Cartwright could find no copies of yesterday's Times with parts of the second page cut out. 

After Henry Baskerville left 221B Baker Street, Holmes and Watson followed him. As he hoped, Holmes spotted a man with a beard following Baskerville in a hansom cab. Holmes contacts the cab company, and the driver later visits him. Holmes offers the man half a sovereign if he can tell him the name of the man with the beard. 

"His name," said the cabman, "was Mr. Sherlock Holmes."

For a moment Holmes sat in silent amazement. Then he burst into a hearty laugh.

I've no idea how much the cabdriver earned after expenses, but he was so concerned about his reputation that he visited Holmes when he learned of his inquiry. Yet he readily tells Holmes about his charge when Holmes offers him a half-sovereign, which equates to a half-pound. All total, Holmes has now spent three pounds and thirty pence on his investigation on Henry Baskerville's behalf. I wonder what that might equate to in today's money, don't you?

The investigation will prove much more expensive, as Holmes sends out Watson to stick by Henry's side while he stays at Baskerville Hall. And then Holmes will have many more expenses in research, sending wires (telegrams), food, and travel. It makes me wonder how much Holmes earned in comparison to other classes of people in London at the turn of the twentieth century. He certainly dresses well, and lives in an apartment in the heart of the city. And he has enough to send Watson out to purchase a pound of the strongest shag tobacco on the first day of the investigation, all of which he smokes while considering whether or not to take the Baskerville case.

Thankfully, Sherlock Holmes smoked so heavily before tobacco caused lung cancer. Unfortunately, that's no longer the case today. While I may not understand the value of wages and the cost of living in 1901, we all know what the cost of lung cancer is today, don't we?

Dragon Dave

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Lord of the Manor

When searching for a new home, it's important to determine exactly what you want. If you want to get away from the city, and live in a cozy rural environment, then the English county of Somerset is worth a visit. There you'll find lots of stately homes, built from stone and lovingly maintained, such as this gentleman's manor house in Cricket St. Thomas. 

Looking for a property with an interesting history? It was here that writer Peter Spence set his TV series "To The Manor Born." His father-in-law owned Cricket St. Thomas back then, so it became a natural place to film the series.

Looking for a home in a pastoral setting? A stream flows through the grounds, which are filled with colorful trees and gardens.

Need some outbuildings to house your servants, and ample room for guests? As Cricket St. Thomas currently serves as a hotel, it can supply the most demanding owner.

Do you want to a house you can be proud of? Again, Cricket St. Thomas is for you. A walk around the manor house is a feast for the eyes. Every side of the building impresses, and tempts the budding artist to break out his sketch pad.

Is keeping fit an important consideration? Do you enjoy competitive sports? You'll find both needs fulfilled at Cricket St. Thomas. In addition to the ample grounds, you'll find a carefully manicured green, where you can while away the afternoons bowling with family and friends.

The only question is, can you handle owning such an important piece of English history? Can you really see yourself as the lord of the manor? 


Dragon Dave

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro: Moving On & Rebuilding

In Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's historical novel A Flame in Byzantium, Olivia waits in her home in Constantinople. She has delayed her escape from the city to hear from her lover Drosos, who Emperor Justinian has recently recalled from Alexandria. Frantic with worry, she sends her servants out to find him. 

Eventually, Drosos ends up in her house. Instead of rejoicing in their reunion, he repeatedly asks her to send him away. He asserts that she must not be seen with him, or associate with him in any way, lest his disgrace (and accompanying suspicion) also fall upon her. She refuses to send him away, pledges to remain by his side always, and takes him to her bed to comfort him. 

Sadly, something deeper and darker than a concern for her well being lies behind Drosos' protests. In the act of their lovemaking, she attempts to bite him as usual, in order to draw strength and sustenance from his blood. This proves the final straw that breaks Drosos' regard for her, someone who never embraced his idealist view of the emperor. Drosos shoves her away, and proclaims her secret nature as a vampire to her entire household. 

The riches of ancient Egypt are celebrated
in the British Museum.

She realizes then that Drosos is irrevocably broken. The ideals and philosophies he treasured were shattered by the Emperor's orders to destroy the libraries of Alexandria, and so he despises everything around him, including her, the woman who--despite her different, supernatural nature--he once loved. So she allows him to go his own way, still hoping he can find a means of repairing his broken nature. As for herself, she must carry on, and find a means of surviving the threats posed by her enemies in Emperor Justinian's court. She has centuries more of life to look forward to, and she is determined to forge a new future for herself somewhere else.

We can all learn a lot from Olivia's determination to move on and rebuild her life. Even if she is a vampire

Dragon Dave

Monday, November 2, 2015

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro on Adapting Our Beliefs

People once believed in protective house gods,
and Ugallu, the storm-demon,
depicted on this ancient Assyrian stone panel
in the British Museum.

In Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's novel A Flame in Byzantium, Captain Drosos of the Byzantine army puts off carrying out Emperor Justinian's orders to burn the Libraries of Alexandria for as long as long as he can. He sends back letters requesting clarification of his orders, and looking for any excuse not to destroy all this precious, accumulated knowledge. But finally he receives orders both explicit and final. He can delay no longer. He must raze these libraries, or someone else will assume command and do it for him.

With a heavy heart, Drosos follows Justinian's orders. As he watches the great libraries burn, he cannot believe that the Emperor knew the significance of his orders. In earlier discussions with Olivia, he argued that they must give the Emperor the benefit of the doubt, and trust his judgment in all things. He had been selected by God to lead all of Byzantium in the correct path to follow. He was the divine representative to humanity. How could he order such senseless destruction?

After his recall to Constantinople, he tries to suggest that Justinian misunderstood the situation, or had been ill-advised. The Emperor takes his comments for a lack of loyalty, and like General Belisarius, releases him from his command. Drosos wanders Constantinople in despair, having lost his military commission, the respect of society, and the trust of his emperor.

Drosos' life becomes a tragedy, because he steadfastly refuses to adapt his beliefs and principles in view of changing circumstances and others' actions. Like Drosos, we often clutch ideals to our chests long after the world has proven that they no longer apply to present circumstances. Refusing to release outdated beliefs can leave us irrelevant and alienated. Even if we're not vampires.

Dragon Dave

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro on the Power Books Wield

A 12th Century stain glass panel from a Church in France.
Might Satan be tempting Christ to read a novel involving vampires?
Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

In A Flame in Byzantium by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, General Belisarius' enemies in Emperor Justinian's court grow so convinced of his guilt that they contact one of his household servants. After threatening him with torture and a grisly death, he agrees to spy for them. This man, who resents his lowly position in life as a servant, let alone being castrated during childhood, goes through the General's library, and reports back on the books in his collection. A treatise on military tactics used in other lands? A book on all known breeds of horses? Books on World Geography or History? Well, Belisarius has traveled extensively, and met many foreigners. Inevitably, he has read their books, and been influenced by their teaching. If those books weren't written by Byzantine citizens, then they must surely be suspect. Who knows what dangerous philosophies, undetectable to the unwary, might lurk within those pages?

At least that's the position of the Court Censor and his staff, after hearing the report from Belisarius' slave. These advisors slowly exert their influence on the Emperor, who orders Captain Drosos, instead of his general, to command an army contingent in Alexandria. This historic city is one of the foremost of Egypt, and is known the world over for its extensive libraries. Egypt is also home to Coptic Christianity, a proponent of Monophysitism. So one day Drosos receives orders from his Emperor: he must burn the libraries, to prevent the spread of heretical teachings through seemingly innocuous scholarly works on subjects like Mathematics, Science, and History. As he believes his Emperor rules by divine right, he does so. But watching all that accumulated knowledge and art going up in flame infects him like a cancer, slowly eating away at him, until all that remains is the husk of his former self.

But then, all books hold power, nonfiction and fiction alike. Reading and studying them influence people in all sorts of unforeseen ways, hopefully for the better, but sometimes for the worse. Those books might be a textbook on Math or Biology, a graphic novel, an cozy mystery, or a story about vampires.

Dragon Dave

Monday, October 26, 2015

Chelsea Quinn Yarbro on Religion Part 2

Instead of despising their former beliefs,
4th Century Roman Christians celebrated them
in artwork like this Symmachi panel
displayed in London's Victoria & Albert Museum.

In Chelsea Quinn Yarbro's novel A Flame in Byzantium, the high officials in Emperor Justinian's court may seek to protect their faith, but they hardly seem to be living up to its ideals. They see the world through a prism in which only their view of the divine--their beliefs--are true, and all others are heresy. A popular brand of Christianity, Monophysitism, is currently gaining converts in Byzantium, and threatening to infiltrate the Emperor's household. This must be protected against at all costs. So any approach that could aid in the defeat of Monophysitism, or any view of life and the world other than those they embrace, is a valid approach. 

As court officials do not trust Belisarius, they cannot rely on him to support their wise counsel to the Emperor. So they use their influence with Justinian to suggest that Belisarius might use his popularity with the army to mount a bid for Justinian's throne. The fact that he is a friend to Olivia, a woman whom they already deplore, gives them something else to work with. As he is his own man, not theirs to control, these defenders of the faith begin manufacturing evidence to incriminate him in Justinian's eyes. Even if it means besmirching the honor of a loyal servant such as Belisarius. 

But then, this is a society that uses religion to justify slavery, the castration of the children of slaves, and prevents people from rising above the caste into which they were born. No wonder Olivia refuses to adopt their ways, or for that matter, their brand of religion. 

Like Olivia, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro has chosen her own unique path to religion. Instead of accepting a traditional, ready-made religion such as Christianity, hers involves channeling spirits, astral planes, karma, and philosophical concepts like monads. In order to share her spiritual experience with others, she has written a series of nonfiction books. The first, Messages From Michael, also serves as the name of her group's website. There readers of her stories (or anyone else) can gain a greater understanding of her approach to the divine. 

One of her group's central teachings is that all life is a choice. Or, to quote from the group's website:

You cannot not choose. To say "I will not choose; I will do nothing" is a choice to do nothing. Rather than regard choices as terrible burdens and impositions, you would release much of your fear if you would realize that you are making choices all the time, and the process, rather than overwhelming you, is in fact the means to freeing yourself from the bonds of fear. Of course, you may choose to deny or ignore this as well. That is as much a choice as anything else in life. 

That's a teaching that sounds perfectly valid and useful in living out my life today and planning my future. If only it didn't spring from a belief system so radically different from my own! It sounds good on the surface, but it must be suspicious. Hm...maybe it's safer to choose to reject it, and spend the next few minutes reminding myself why it has to be wrong, and her beliefs must be wrong, and...

Ever wonder why those you seek to influence refuse to accept the validity of your views on life? Some of us will probably wonder about that all our lives. But then, it's always easier to see the hypocrisy in others than inequities in our treasured beliefs, or the inconsistencies in the way we put them into practice. Who knows? They seem so different from us: they might well be vampires!

Dragon Dave

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