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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