Finding Balance Through Context and Perspective

Nearly two years ago, I posted about how the current political polarized environment seemed to derive from the comfort many feel from a sense of absolutism, where a set framework of rules and beliefs gives a solid sense of direction, and how these absolute frameworks actually tend to upset the delicate balance of nature and society. I commented on how these expressions of absolutism failed to understand the balance by not seeing the context within the interactions of others or exploring the range of perspective in which one was creating the absolute framework. However, I do realize that understanding context and perspective is not a simple concept, especially when regarding each of our positions within this universe, knowing full context and total perspective is an absolute impossibility. Yet, the better one can understand the basic sense of how context and perception plays in understanding nature and social interaction, then accepting the variations of life in finding balance might come easier.

Context is a very important part of our ability to judge the actions of others around us, the conditions that many of us face on a daily basis, and the quality of our own actions within nature and society. Regardless of how selfishly or selflessly our own personal views characterizes right and wrong, worthiness, or responsibility, judgement is the way we relate our views to the actions surrounding us. However, our ability to judge any incident or decision is dependent upon the amount of information we can see about the factors surrounding the incident or judgement, including the aspects of intent and consequences. The better we are at seeing more of these factors of context surrounding an incident, the better we can become at judging the actions and consequences of the incident. For instance, imagine a person walking down a sidewalk along a busy street, when suddenly another person comes out of nowhere and tackles the first person onto the concrete, causing bruising and a couple broken bones. Just based on this information, one may judge the second person as being guilty of a vicious assault, perhaps even demonstrating a power-hungry sense of bullying. However, if mere seconds later, an out-of-control speeding vehicle suddenly jumps the curb and crashes into a wall at a point where the first person would have been if this person had not been pushed out of the way by the second person, then judgement of the second person’s actions may be seen as a selfless attempt of protection from danger and the injuries the first person incurred may be considered more acceptable to the real possibility of death if the first person had not been shoved out of the way of the wayward vehicle. Unfortunately, for many events, these factors of context tend to be much more complex and trying to understand actions or events often require sorting out opposing contextual factors, as well as trying to uncover the more hidden factors of intent. Yet, so much context is lost when we try to reduce our judgement down to a simple right or wrong single sentence meme.

Understanding the context of the information around us depends totally on the information we receive from our senses, our ability to integrate information over a period of time, and our acceptance in the reliability of this collected information, which forms our perspective of the universe around us. The evolution of humanity led us to develop a way to exchange parts of the information each of us gathers amongst other individuals through a common spoken language, then we developed a way to spread this information to a broader society of humanity through the organized symbols of a common written language. This sharing of information broadened our perspective and understanding to eventually create through scientific technology a way to share and gather information over distances beyond our immediate sensual views. However, no matter how much language and technology expands each one of our perspectives within our life and the universe, we are all limited in the amount and breadth of information each of us can gather and maintain in our memories in order to fully see the world and universe we are in and to accurately judge absolutely what our next actions should be within this world. Therefore, we base our decisions of future actions based on a core of information we feel we understand and use faith to fill in the blanks. However, due to variations in how information comes to us, we are often confronted with contradictions in what is happening around us. In some circumstances, these contradictions are caused by inaccurate or false information presented to us, from something as simple as a mirage or a damaged sense to something more complicated like incorrect or false information shared to us by others. How should we handle these flaws in our own perspective? For some, it becomes better to firmly accept one clear framework of information and begin to reject or judge negatively any information that begins to go against this framework. This may provide clarity or comfort, but very often this will begin to clash with other absolutely created frameworks. What I have realized within my own perspective is that there is no one perfect framework of perspective. To handle the flow of contradictory information, I need to constantly compare new information with old information and see where information seems contradictory. Sometimes, I notice that a changing environment only created the sense of contradiction when there really was no conflict in information. Many times, the comparison and balancing of information helps me to determine which information is illusionary or incorrect. However, oftentimes, I can only be open to gathering information, constantly compare and contrast what is provided to me, then use a little faith to fill in the gaps and move forward. My perspective is only one of an infinite number of perspectives in this universe, and seeking a balance among what I see, hear, read, and comprehend is the closest to being a calming part of this universe.

2016 – A Year of Reviewing Indie Books

Here it is 2017 and I am going over the books from fellow indie authors that I read in 2016. It was my first full year in Colorado to which I am still adjusting. Perhaps this is why I read about the same number of indie books that I read in 2015, 31 books total. I do notice that 2 of these books are actually short novellas, each tied to another book on the list, so maybe I should just count them as one book, making my reading list total as 30. One positive is this year proved to be an especially good year in the quality on the list with 8 books I rated at 5 stars. 2 of these 5 star books were the novellas to which I just referred, and the 2 books with which these novellas were associated also received 5 stars. I wonder if I should just count each book with its associated novella as one book, but I think I will just keep the total as is.

Now to reiterate my review standards as I posted over the past two years, I had to be open to all genres and not let a genre type affect the rating and review of a work. My focus was on whether the story was told well, the characters were relatable, the plot functional and understandable, and the pieces fit together. If I could follow an enjoyable tale while pushing aside the typos, grammatical errors, and historical or cultural anomalies, the book landed within the 3 star zone. If I could feel more emotional attachments to the characters and find myself drawn into the plot action with less distractions from errors, then the book was landing into the 4 star zone. When character and plot all came together nearly perfectly within the genre I was reading, and editing was well-done, it was a 5 star effort.

Of the 8 books which I rated 5 stars, 4 of them were additional works from fellow authors I had read earlier in previous years. Of these 4, two of them are one of the novel and novella combos to which I had referred at the start of this post. This combo, Crystal Conquest and Crystal Horizon, were written by Doug J. Cooper, the only author to receive a 5 star rating from me last year. Crystal Conquest was the second in his Crystal series, which has the artificial intelligence crystal and his handlers fighting off a new attack from the villainous alien race. Crystal Horizon was just an introductory novella that deftly introduced how our hero handlers initially met before the alien battles. The novella is offered free on the author’s website to introduce readers to his characters and sci-fi adventure flair in his writing. As to the other two additional works, one was another women-lit romance from Deanna Lynn Sletten, Walking Sam, about a widower and a divorcee that meet and connect through the widower’s dog. Two years earlier, I had rated one of her other novels as a 5 star work, and it says a lot that the work I read this year matched that level. The other work was Hangtown Creek by John Rose Putnam, a historical adventure fiction tale set during the California Gold Rush era. Last year, I had given his novel about Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto’s conflicts with native American tribes a 4 star rating. His rough adventure of the Gold Rush Era drew me in more.

The other four 5 star novels were written by new authors to me. Steve LeBel’s The Universe Builders: Bernie and the Putty was a very imaginative concept that equated universe creation as products of a high-pressure god engineering firm, where one nerdy god is harassed by a bully god while trying to build the ultimate universe. It is no wonder that this book has received a couple of indiebook awards. The next 5 star novel was an exciting spy thriller set in the mid-70s by Paul Hollis entitled The Hollow Man, in which an unnamed NSA hero uncovers a plot against the European economy while on a personal mission against a terrorist assassin. Finally, the last two books I read in 2016 was the other novel and novella combination referred to at the start of this post, Theo and the Forbidden Language and The Queen and the Dagger by Melanie Ansley. The main story is the opening tale of an epic fantasy series about a rabbit with the knowledge of language who is enlisted to be part of a group of apprentices to lead the animal communities against a villainous human empire intent on enslaving them with a pacification potion. The associated novella is an introductory back story of one of the other apprentices, a princess warrior rabbit, in this very well written fantasy saga.

Just like the previous year, I had three 2 star rated books. In the first one, the author was too focused on creating and intricately describing an erotic romantic relationship between the two main characters in the thriller, causing the villain characters to be barely formed and hyped up actions to seem like weak plot devices. The next disappointment was actually a second novel in a romance series, and its plot was mainly unbalanced between the lovers’ well-described physical love moments and the somewhat bland interactive moments with family and friends. The author attempts to create conflict with a minor villain, but this character’s actions just appear to be a forced plot device. However, the final 2 star turned out to be an extreme adult erotica tale based on sadomasochistic games, which challenged my commitment to being open to all genres. Yet, even though I admit I do avoid novels whose themes are basically based on adult erotica pleasure, my main issues with this tale was that none of the characters, including the main narrator, had any true empathetic features to draw the reader in and that the promotional blurbs for the novel really understated the true nature of the level of adult erotica, which is not cool to readers who would be sensitive to this type of genre.

The remainder of the books I read in 2016 were split down the middle between 4 and 3 star ratings. Even though the 4 star books spread over a broad range of genres and themes, half of them did land in the paranormal range from a psychic involved in murder mysteries, a secret religious society hunter seeking and battling monsters, and a secret intelligence unit fighting a dark mythological order to a mystical Celtic location and a saga of a vampire feud. The other 4 star reads dealt with a mafia tale of romance and power competition, a spy thriller uncovering a devious plot, a family and crime drama stemming from the 9/11 events, a complex character drama about friends whose lives are affected over the years by underlying acts of abuse and manipulation, and a coming-of-age drama about a decade of summers with two best friends during the 70s. It was an impressive range of creativity.

So it was another good year of reading, and I hope that next year I will be able to match or better my reading time from my previous years. At the same time, I hope that more readers will find my novel, Legacy Discovered, and let me know if they liked it and why through Amazon, Goodreads, and other book sharing sites. Good honest reviews are the writer’s best friend.

My reviews can be found on my Goodreads Author page at https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6491046.Kerry_Reis.

Volunteer Tutoring for CABPES

When I moved to Colorado a year and a half ago, the one activity I knew I would miss was being a volunteer tutor for 826LA. Helping the young students with their homework and promoting their creativity was as much an inspiration to me as it was to them. Unfortunately, even though the 826 organization is a national nonprofit with centers in several cities across the US, the Denver metropolitan area currently does not have an 826 center. I felt a bit of a loss with some empty free time. However, shortly after moving into my current townhome, I casually mentioned to a new neighbor about my time as a volunteer tutor, and she passed this on to another neighbor who was currently a volunteer tutor for a program supported by a local organization, CAPBES. This other neighbor recruited me to volunteer my time for the program at the beginning of 2016, which has been a bright spot for me this year.

CABPES, which stands for Colorado Association of Black Professional Engineers and Scientists, is not associated with or supported by a national organization. As one can infer by the association name, the tutoring support focus is more directed toward math and science, than reading and writing creativity, but the main goal is similar in supporting and encouraging underprivileged students to learn and move into more fulfilling careers that benefit society as a whole. As a local organization, its tutoring program has had to connect with local partners in order to find space to host the tutors and students. During the winter and spring of the last school year, we were meeting the students at a local high school that opened a few classrooms for the program. When the tutoring program started back up in the fall, a local community center opened its doors for the program.

The organization’s main program, MEP or “Math Enrichment Program,” is limited to two hours on only Monday and Wednesday during the school year and is focused on assisting math homework and improving math skills. There is no time for history or writing homework. Officially, MEP is for fourth to twelfth grades, but parental demand has brought first, second, and third graders into the program. Even though I was a math genius when I went to school, I realize that my career was mainly focused on entertainment, arts, and creativity, not engineering, so I offered and have been working more with the elementary grade students in the program. The other program that the organization offers is for high students planning on science and engineering majors in college and is called JETS for “Junior Engineers Tomorrow’s Scientists.” Presented in the winter and spring half of the school year for one night a week, the program challenges students to tackle scientific and engineering problems tied to a basic theme. Last year’s theme was planning a space colony on Mars, but the theme for 2017 will be to tackle climate change. The potential solutions that the students design are presented during a May banquet at the end of the school year. Finally, there is a program to help students with SAT/ACT testing for college applications.

As a smaller local organization, it has less resources to handle its mission, but it is still strongly dedicated to its mission. On some nights, I have had up to seven kids at my table, each of them wanting my full attention, but from what we have heard from the parents, each volunteer tutor has made a difference in the students’ work at school. CABPES may not have a national organization to help support its mission, but its local perspective is still evident in trying to attain its goal to improve and uplift every deserving student in its program. For Denver area residents who would like to learn about CABPES programs or other local communities who would like to see how they can set up a program like CABPES, the website CABPES.org is a good resource to check on. At least, I can foresee a good 2017 in supporting a worthy mission in encouraging young students onward in improving the future.

2016 Emmy Voting

In one of my earliest posts, I wrote about the honor of being a member of the Public Relations Peer Group in the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, which allowed me to vote to nominate programs for the Annual Emmy Awards. At the time of my posting, the final actual vote for an Emmy category was held by volunteer judging panels who had time to view all of the representative series episodes or movies of the nominated entrants at the Academy campus, which would demonstrate that their vote was fairly given. Since that post a couple of years ago, a few things have changed. First, the Academy simplified its name to just the Television Academy, and then, thanks to streaming technology, the final voting on the nominated programs was opened up to all eligible Academy members. To vote for a category open to a member’s peer group, the member could sign in to the Academy website, view all of the provided representative episodes within a category, and then vote for the program in that category that the member felt deserved the Emmy. Of course, it is impossible for any member to view and vote in all of the representative programming in all categories eligible in his/her peer group during the two week voting period, so each member must decide which categories to commit to judging fairly. Last year, which was the first year for this voting procedure, the final voting period occurred during my relocation to Colorado, so I was only able to view and vote for one of the reality categories. This year, having more time available, I decided to commit to four categories: Outstanding Reality Competition Series, Outstanding Variety Sketch Series, Outstanding Television Movie, and Outstanding Comedy Series.

The six nominees for Outstanding Reality Competition Series represents broadcast network and basic cable programming. Four of the nominees deal with creative competition where the ultimate winner is determined by judges and/or the program audience. For Dancing with the Stars, the competitors are celebrities, but the other three creative competitions, Project Runway, Top Chef, and The Voice, give talented hopefuls a chance to prove they belong with the best. Top Chef has a slight disadvantage with its viewing audience, as the viewer is unable to second guess the judges since cooking depends upon smell and taste, while dancing, singing, and fashion mainly requires sight and sound, the basic framework of television. The fifth nominee, American Ninja, is a straightforward competition of physical strength, agility, and speed, as the competitors must navigate a mainly elevated obstacle course. However, these five nominees still cannot match the global cultural lessons and perspective that the viewer receives while watching competing teams face physical and mental challenges within different countries in a race around the world during a season of The Amazing Race. It has been a favorite of mine for over a decade, and it did not disappoint this season. The Amazing Race received my vote.

Network television was only represented once in the Outstanding Variety Sketch Series, but that nominee, Saturday Night Live, definitely has history and longevity over its fellow nominees. Yet, this season’s cast is not as known as earlier casts which have introduced several comedic celebrities over SNL’s long past. Still, a few of this season’s cast members have begun to gain a reputation beyond the show. The other nominees come from two basic cable channels, Comedy Central and IFC. The Comedy Central nominees are Drunk History, Inside Amy Schumer, and Key & Peele. The comedy from these nominees is very brash in its humor. For me, while I respect and enjoy this wild style of humor, I do prefer more subtlety to my comedy, which is why I was a little more impressed by IFC’s Documentary Now! and Portlandia, both of which are or were executive produced by Lorne Michaels, SNL’s longtime executive producer. Documentary Now! is a touch too arcane, but I have come to appreciate the subtle humor of Portlandia, which got my vote this year.

There were only five nominees for Outstanding Television Movie, and they demonstrated the evolutionary changes that seem to be occurring with audiences. For me, a television movie was often a stand-alone fictional or historical long form film that would air during a single time period. However, PBS’s Sherlock: The Abominable Bride and BBC America’s Luther were more like a long form episode in a series, requiring the movie to provide a short recap at the start of the movie. Premium cable was represented by HBO’s two historical drama nominees, All The Way, the story of Lyndon B Johnson’s first year of presidency following the assassination of JFK as he pushed the Civil Rights Bill through Congress prior to the next election, and Confirmation, the story of the Anita Hill testimony during the Clarence Thomas nomination hearings for the Supreme Court. However, what truly surprised me in a strange way was the fifth nominee, A Very Murray Christmas from NetFlix. Even though it represented how original streaming video available to the viewer whenever it was requested was gaining recognition in the creative industry, this “movie” was less than an hour long and was mainly Bill Murray and other celebrities singing Christmas songs within only a slight pretext of a story. To me, this was a holiday special which had no similarity to the concept of what a movie should be defined as. It seemed to indicate that original television movies was fading from the creative focus of the industry. I focused on the two historical, non-serialized movies from HBO and selected Confirmation as my choice for this category.

As a major category, Outstanding Comedy Series had the most nominees of the categories to which I had committed, seven in all. In addition, each nominee had six representative episodes on the viewing platform, meaning I would need to commit two to three hours of viewing per nominee before voting. The Comedy Series category truly demonstrated the growth of original streaming video to the television environment as NetFlix and Amazon had produced three of the seven nominees: Master of None, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Transparent. Considering that HBO had produced two of the other nominees with Silicon Valley and Veep, broadcast network was only represented by two ABC shows, blackish and Modern Family. It was halfway through viewing the episodes that I found out I only needed to view one episode per nominee to vote, but I was glad I committed to viewing all of the available episodes as one episode does not always provide a true understanding of the series as a whole. For instance, in NetFlix’s Master of None, the first episode provided seemed to suggest the series would focus on two first generation American friends navigating the culture clash between the expectations of their immigrant Indian and Chinese parents and the American culture these friends grew up in. However, the other episodes only focused on the one friend, played by Aziz Ansari, trying to make it as an actor while dealing with racial stereotypes and multi-cultural romantic relationships. One episode was not enough to represent the broad range of themes and issues the series dealt with. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt also dealt with many themes crossing class, race, and sexual identity issues over its many episodes. This gave great respectability to these series; however, the brashness of the main characters clashed with the themes at times. Amazon’s Transparent, a series about a man who surprises his wife and three adult children by turning transgender, has also gained recognition by dealing with a modern subject of equality and sexuality, especially with good production values and excellent acting, even as the streaming series is not bound by language and nudity oversight. However, Transparent has one major flaw in this category. It is not really a comedy, but rather an empathetic family drama filled with true angst and reflection. For HBO, Veep is well produced in satirizing the hypocrisy and manipulation of Washington politics, but the political plots are too unrealistically stretched out. Silicon Valley also played the fun and futility of nerdy characters fighting the twisted machinations of the cyber-tech industry well enough, but the concepts seemed to be a little too difficult for a basic viewing audience to understand. This brought me back to the basic network series, blackish and Modern Family. In blackish, ABC is trying to demonstrate true diversity by focusing on a modern middle-class black family; however, with episodes focusing on gun ownership, the use of the “N” word, and sharp discussion of the Black Lives Matter protests, I felt the same brashness clash I observed in the NetFlix series. Modern Family is the veteran of the nominees and it is showing its age. However, it is still able to touch on matters of diversity and present its clash of ideas with a bit more subtlety for the viewer. This is why I voted for Modern Family in this category.

Well, will my fellow Academy members who committed to these categories share my opinion? We will see in a couple of weeks when the Emmy Awards are televised. I am honored to have provided my voice and commitment to the process.

Update: As announced during the Emmy Awards that aired on ABC on Sunday, September 18, my choices in all four categories were not in the majority. The Voice received the Emmy for Outstanding Reality Competition Series, Key & Peele received the Emmy for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series, Sherlock: The Abominable Bride received the Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie, and Veep received the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series. I applaud the recipients of this year’s Emmys.

Dakota National Park Tour – Part 2

Halfway through my Dakota trip, I had the opportunity to explore the tight confines of Wind Cave National, checked up on the status of the Crazy Horse Memorial, and had explored what had inspired Theodore Roosevelt to highly promote the national park system during his time as president in the national park named after him. Now, I was heading east away from South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park on I-94 in a loop that would take me down to Badlands National Park. As I drove, the clouds darkened above me and the afternoon sun behind me created a marvelous arched rainbow against these clouds. Perhaps I saw it as a good luck charm. I-94 took me through the capital of North Dakota, Bismarck, but there wasn’t much to see from the highway. A few miles east of the capital, I exited I-94 and headed south towards South Dakota and its capital, Pierre (which I am told is pronounced like pier by the locals). Pierre is one of the few state capitals not connected or serviced by an interstate highway, so my US route took me straight into the center of the city. I wound up stopping for a Chinese buffet dinner just a few miles from the capitol building. As I left Pierre and headed south to connect with I-90, just a few miles east of the motel I had made reservations near Badlands National Park, the clouds began to darken again. I was able to reach the motel in time before the thunderstorm opened up. I was beginning to experience and understand the severe weather that builds around the Great Plains at this time of year.

The next morning, skies were clear, and I headed towards Badlands National Park. At the interstate exit to the northeast entrance to the park, I noticed the visitor center to an interesting and important historic park, the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. Even though I decided not to stop because of the tight scheduling of my tour, it reminded me how this country was able to use the open spaces of the plains to hide a major part of our country’s defense in the modern era. I headed south into Badlands National Park.

Southwest panoramic view from Bigfoot Pass.

Southwest panoramic view from Bigfoot Pass.

Badlands geology is interesting to view, sedimentary strata of mainly white and red rock that is exposed on hills and canyon walls, with a section of yellow rock mounds in one part of the park. It was created by the huge sea that used to exist down the middle of North America until the land rose up, draining the sea and creating the Great Plains. I had viewed this badlands geology in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. However, within Badlands National Park, the geology was sharper with craggy spires and a higher contrast between the red and white strata colors. In one section, a hiking trail explored a section where fossil remnants from prehistoric creatures are still being uncovered. Badlands does support the same types of bison and groundhogs that I saw in Theodore Roosevelt National Park; however, during my visit, I only came upon one deer hiding behind some shrubs on a trail. The canyons and mounds of Badlands appears to be closer to the expansive great plains to the east than the Black Hills to the west, as I was able to view long open stretches of vibrant green grass fields heading away from the canyon bottoms and out from the tops of the canyon rims along the loop road. The road that traveled along the badlands walls was called a loop road because it somewhat paralleled I-90 to the north with two park entrances on either side of this road section that connected back up to I-90. This allowed me to exit the park at this west entrance, then loop back east on I-90 to the exit that led to the eastern entrance. Only I passed this exit and took the next exit south, heading down towards Scottsbluff, Nebraska.

As I traveled down the state routes towards Nebraska, the severe weather patterns of late spring that I had begun to experience in previous afternoons along this trip suddenly demonstrated their greatest fury when I found myself driving through a thundering hail storm. It didn’t help that I was stuck behind a semi-trailer at the time the storm struck. However, my faithful car persevered, and I passed through the storm before arriving in Scottsbluff. This was the last stop on my road tour, and I checked into my hotel in preparation of my final day of the tour.

Pioneer wagons at Scotts Bluff National Monument.

Pioneer wagons at Scotts Bluff National Monument.

The small city of Scottsbluff grew up in the Platte River valley next to a major landmark the early pioneers used as they made their way along the Oregon Trail, a large rocky bluff named for an early fur company employee that mysteriously met his death near this bluff in 1838. The bluff and the pass between it and the neighboring Wildcat Hills are protected within Scotts Bluff National Monument. In the morning of my final day of my tour, I stopped at the visitor center within this pass next to the bluff and walked a short trail up to a point where the Oregon Trail officially snacked its way westward. Some representative covered wagons presented the history that brought pioneers here on their way west. I walked back to my car and drove up a road that snaked up through a few tunnels to the top of the bluff. From the top of the bluff, I was able to see a broad landscape both east and west, showing why this rocky bluff was such a major landmark in the expansion of America. After enjoying this perspective of history, I headed back down the bluff road, got on the interstate, and headed back to Denver. I was home in time for lunch. This tour was a short trip, but it was also an impressive tour of history and geology.

Dakota National Park Tour – Part 1

Ever since I moved to the Denver area, I had started plans for a quick road trip to explore the three national parks within the Dakota states. I had already had the opportunity to visit the most famous Dakota site on a major road trip I had done with my mother in 2003 – the Mount Rushmore Memorial, but this was my chance to visit Wind Cave National Park, Badlands National Park, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park. As the ten day weather report finally showed a period of seventy degree temperatures in the week leading up to the Memorial Day weekend, it seemed like a perfect time for me to make the trip.

I started out at midday and headed north to Hot Springs, South Dakota, a town just south of Wind Cave National Park. I spent the night at a local motel, then headed up to the park in the morning. Just inside the south park entrance, I and a few other visitors came upon a small bison herd enjoying the hilly grasslands around the visitor center. One male bison decided to take a stand on the road, delaying the small line of cars heading both ways on the road. It was a perfect opportunity to take pictures. Once past the bison herd, I headed up to the visitor center in time to take the first tour of the morning.

A bison enjoys the grasslands within Wind Cave National Park.

A bison enjoys the grasslands within Wind Cave National Park.

Wind Cave is one of the longest cave systems in the world. However, its passageways were one of the thinnest and tightest I had ever been through. In fact, the natural entrance that our tour was shown would barely allow a baby to pass through and looked more like a rocky rabbit hole. It was because of this feature that Wind Cave got its name. Inside the cave system, the lack of large openings to the outer world was instrumental in the cave being able to maintain a steady air pressure within its passages, but at the small openings where the cave connected with the external atmosphere, the normal changes in air pressure from high and low weather systems outside would cause the cave to “breathe” in or out. In order to maintain this standard pressure within the cave, the manmade entrances that were built to allow tour access have a double door system, an outer door to allow access into a gathering room, then once this outer door was sealed, the inner door was opened to give the tour group access to downward steps into the lower lit passage. The unique geology of the cave provided interesting wall features like popcorn and boxwork, but large stalagmites and stalactites were not evident in these tight cave passages. At one point, the ranger guide turned off the lights to give our small tour a chance to truly witness absolute darkness. Wind Cave is definitely not for the claustrophobic, even mildly.

Boxwork formation on a cave wall in Wind Cave National Park.

Boxwork formation on a cave wall in Wind Cave National Park.

After exploring Wind Cave, I headed north towards North Dakota. Just a few miles from Wind Cave, I stopped at a rest stop and took a photo of the Crazy Horse Memorial, still being sculpted in the Black Hills. During the 2003 road trip with my mother, we had stopped to examine the memorial and visit the adjoining visitor center and museum after viewing the Mount Rushmore Memorial nearby. The sculpting of the Crazy Horse Memorial had begun in 1949, but as it is being funded through a nonprofit system, the main progress was just the face and general shape of the mountain sculpture in 2003. Now, looking at it in 2016, I could only see minor progress in the memorial project.

Crazy Horse Memorial still in progress in 2016.

Crazy Horse Memorial still in progress in 2016.

Continuing on into North Dakota, I was able to reach I-94 by around five in the afternoon. I thought I might try to slip into Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit for a quick run-through, but discovered that the visitor center was closed by four-thirty. I was able to stop at the Painted Canyon Overlook just off the Interstate and get some afternoon shots of the striated rock and grassland landscape. My reasoning behind trying to get into the park at this time was due to the somewhat unique outlay of this national park. Theodore Roosevelt National Park is actually divided into two major units with a third small unit between them. What is especially unique about this is the distance between the two units of over sixty miles, basically a two hour round trip between the two units. The North Unit could only be reached from one US route, so I could not just check out this unit along the way to the next national park. I checked into the local hotel in preparation of exploring the South Unit in the morning.

Theodore Roosevelt's preserved Maltese Cross cabin in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Theodore Roosevelt’s preserved Maltese Cross cabin in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

I entered the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park the next morning and stopped in at the visitor center. Behind the visitor center was the Maltese cross cabin that Theodore Roosevelt lived in shortly after his wife and mother both died on the same day in 1884, an amazing historical structure. At the visitor center, I asked about what I would see at the North Unit and was told by a ranger that the environment, although basically the same, was more rugged and had a wonderful view of the Little Missouri River along the viewing road. Roosevelt also had another home in the North Unit, but it was no longer there. I spent the rest of the morning exploring the South Unit on its loop road, checking out bison herds, prairie dog towns, some feral horses, hiking trails along badland hills and grasslands, and panoramic overlooks, including one next to a section of the Little Missouri River. As I finished the loop, I debated whether the two hour round trip to the North Unit as well as the potential hour or so traveling the overlook road would add much more to what I had seen. I decided I had explored and come to understand the landscape that Theodore Roosevelt had come to love within the South Unit and decided to move on to the next location where I had motel reservations near Badlands National Park.

The Little Missouri River from Wind Canyon Overlook in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The Little Missouri River from Wind Canyon Overlook in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

To be continued…

Villains Are Characters Too

When I go back over the indie books I have read over the past few years, I find myself interested in where a few of them were flawed or, in some cases, totally failed. To me, the core of good storytelling rests with a good balance between plot and character. Keeping the reader engrossed in the story requires presenting the characters in ways the reader can connect and understand their actions, while presenting a series of events that affects and directs these characters in a way that the reader can follow and accept the revelations the story presents. If the reader is truly embracing and understanding the story, the reader will begin to expect where the story is leading, but will still find satisfaction whether the actions and reactions follows expectations or takes a turn toward a totally unexpected resolution. The keys to whether the reader is accepting the story are whether the actions and events are explainable within the parameters of the story and whether the motivations of the characters are sensible in their reactions. For this reason, many authors work to empathize with their main characters, seeking to express the inner debate and growth these characters experience as they somewhat heroically face the challenges they are tasked to overcome physically or emotionally. However, when the author focuses too heavily on the main characters without taking into account the antagonists who have created and continue to push the challenges and dangers upon the main protagonists, holes will appear in the story that causes the reader to become confused and lose interest. In other words, the author needs to understand that villains are characters too, ones that are just as important for the proper balance of plot and character to keep the reader engrossed.

Nearly all stories deal with a major challenge or series of related challenges that are faced by a major character or set of characters. The reader is introduced to the major character or characters, gaining a quick understanding of who they are and where they are at a certain moment in a real or imagined time, then the elements of the challenge or challenges they must overcome are revealed. In some stories, the reader may be introduced to the main character or characters at the height or depths of the challenge, instantly enhancing the reader’s empathy with the character or characters. These challenges faced by the characters are the framework of the plot, and it is important that the segments fit together so the reader can experience the challenges with the protagonists. Often, these challenges are generated by other characters, whose actions run contrary to the general benefit of the main characters and the humanity they represent. These are the villains, responsible for the grief, danger, and obstacles faced by our heroes. It is when the author treats these villains like plot segments to generate story direction that the author risks losing the reader. This happens when the author depends upon a simple stereotype description – bully, terrorist, evil wizard – to present the villain, then just uses the villain to push the plot along at critical times. Sometimes this may work in a one-time fateful crossing of lives, like a bank robber who locks a man and a woman previously unknown to each other inside a safe, initiating a very unique environment to create a romantic connection before the two are rescued, or a terrorist bomber whose recent attack collaterally kills a woman, forcing her husband to spend the rest of the story trying to get beyond the loss of his soul mate. In these types of stories, the villainous party is not directly related to the main characters, so the reader does not have to ask why the villain created the situation, since the reader has become so engrossed in the aftermath of the villain’s actions on the main characters. However, if the story presents any connection between the antagonist and the main characters before a major evil action, or interaction occurs between the parties after the initial critical action, then the reader will become just as interested in both the motivation and ability of the villain to create the chaos and challenges to the main heroes. The villain is no longer a plot device, but rather a character of interest to the reader.

Of course, the reader does not need to delve too deeply into the back story and mental state of the antagonists of the story. The reader only needs to know enough to answer the “why’s” and “how’s” of the antagonists actions towards the main characters. The level of interest in the villain and any other secondary character who abets the villain’s actions will be dependent upon the level of interaction the villain and abettors have toward the main characters. If the interaction is somewhat random throughout the story, the reader will expect to discover an obsessive characteristic and a rash capability for action from the antagonist. However, if the antagonist and protagonist have a deeper history, then the reader will be expecting the author to provide a deeper understanding of the motivation behind the antagonist and a better sense of how the antagonist will be able to manipulate the actions toward the protagonist. Again, this includes abettors of the main villain.

As an example, I recently read a work about an erotic romance between a daughter of a well-to-do politico and a hunky owner of a small security protection agency. Some casual incidental meets at a night club and a coffee shop generate initial sparks, but her kidnapping and initial rescue by him and his team amps up the relationship to a new level. The kidnapper is revealed to an abusive and possessive mental case who had developed an obsession with our heroine, but before we can find out more, the hero security guy is informed by the police that the perp has escaped. How did he escape? To the author, this was not considered important. The escape meant that the heroine had to move into a safe house with the hero to be protected, creating the situation where the couple had to bond and submit to their carnal feelings for each other. However, as a reader, I had no real idea just how much danger our couple was in. How committed and skillful was this villain? If authorities were looking for him, why would he stick around? Was the escape skillfully planned or did it occur because of police error? After a period of time of this relationship, an ex-girlfriend villainess of the hero appears at the door and tells our half-dressed heroine that she is the hero’s fiancée, sending the heroine rushing home to her parents’ mansion. Of course, this ex doesn’t have to show off a ring on the finger to prove her lie, as the reader is supposed to accept this spur-of-the-moment attempt to reclaim an old beau. However, this little unrelated deception allows the kidnapper to come back and re-kidnap the heroine from her parents’ home that very night. However, the kidnapper brings the heroine back to the original location he held her before, allowing the hero to re-rescue her and re-capture the villain. But this does not tell the reader how the villain was able to escape in the first place. Oh, and how was the villain able to know when the heroine was back at her parents’ home? He had a cousin on the parents’ household staff who sent him a message when the daughter returned. No other information than the distant familial relationship is provided for why a loyal staff member would put the heroine in instant jeopardy. In the end, no matter how vested a good reader could get with the relationship of the two main characters, which wasn’t badly written when it was just about the interactions between them and their inner romantic insecurities, the reader begins to feel all of the antagonistic drama brought by the villains around them is just a bunch of straw plot devices to create action, slowly turning the main characters into straw figures of their own.

In the end, a well-defined villain or enemy actually enhances the empathy we have for our heroes and main characters. Whether the heroes are able to overcome or find reconciliation with their antagonists becomes a major part of a plot’s theme, which is why authors need to remember that villains are characters too.

2015 – A Year of Reviewing Indie Books

At the start of 2015, I posted about the independent and self-published books that I had read and reviewed on Amazon and book social media sites in 2014. At the time, 2014 was a very good year in reading with 40 books read and reviewed. However, I was not as productive in my reading in 2015. Unfortunately, my relocation to Colorado took up more of my time. Yet I did wind up finishing 30 books from my fellow indie authors, which I feel is still a decent number in the midst of my moving activities. When I started the year, the books I had read in 2014 gave me a lot of hope for the books I would read in 2015. I wish I could say that my expectations were met.

First, I would like to re-iterate my review standards that I posted last year. I had to be open to all genres and not let a genre type affect the rating and review of a work. My focus was on whether the story was told well, the characters were relatable, the plot functional and understandable, and the pieces fit together. If I could follow an enjoyable tale while pushing aside the typos, grammatical errors, and historical or cultural anomalies, the book landed within the 3 star zone. If I could feel more emotional attachments to the characters and find myself drawn into the plot action with less distractions from errors, then the book was landing into the 4 star zone. When character and plot all came together nearly perfectly within the genre I was reading, and editing was well-done, it was a 5 star effort. In 2015, I only rated one book with 5 stars.

The one 5 star book for 2015 was Crystal Deception by Doug J. Cooper, a science fiction romp with the future of the human race at stake as a highly developed artificial intelligence crystal and its handlers work to protect earth from a devious alien race. The book is actually the first in a trilogy series and evokes the same science fiction adventure flair that can be found in classic series like Star Trek with a touch of James Bond action thrown in. The adventures in this book do come to resolution with the reader being informed in the final chapter that our protagonists will be expecting further adventures in the future, encouraging the reader to obtain the next book in the series.

For 2015, even with fewer books read, I still came up with more 2 star disappointments than in 2014, three out of the thirty read. In one, the author attempted to power through a forty year uplifting tale that barely gave the reader any real chance to connect with the characters, who seemed to face more challenges with their own insecure mental strawmen than actual interactive conflicts. The rushed time frame of the tale actually led to some openly anachronistic moments. The second disappointment was a fantasy suspense tale that sought to explore the roles of gender conflict in determining sexual superiority and retribution. However, the reader is never given enough feeling or understanding of the main characters to develop empathy to care about the conflicts and challenges these characters face. In both of these books, despite the vastly different thematic storylines, the inability of the reader to bond positively or negatively with the characters causes the reader to lose interest and not care about the direction of the story. However, the third 2 star effort was more a breakdown in plot, as the story’s very interesting main character faces a very not-so-mysterious mystery and survives a dangerous situation by overcoming a survival challenge after the lackadaisical carelessness of the antagonists. These plot weaknesses opens the reader to see the author behind the curtain, making the story an unrealistic puppet show. All three tales, by their flaws, reveal the importance of properly balancing plot and character for the reader.

As for the other books I read in 2015, they pretty closely split evenly between the 3 star and 4 star rating range. The 4 star tales spread widely over multiple genres from intense introspective and paranormal sci-fi, a hyper action spy thriller, a viral horror thriller, an intense romance family drama that evolves into a suspense thriller mystery, a fantasy adventure, a steampunk adventure, a redemptive family drama novella to a group of American historical fictions that range from Spanish explorer conflict to a good old fashion western tale, with one of the historical fictions taking on a tinge of the paranormal. It was quite a range of tales to take in, and the imagination of my fellow authors were quite impressive.

So it still was a good year of reading, and I hope that next year I will be able to match or better my reading time with my previous numbers in 2014. I also hope that more readers will find my novel, Legacy Discovered, and let me know if they liked it and why through Amazon, Goodreads, and other book sharing sites. Good honest reviews are the writer’s best friend.

My reviews can be found on my Goodreads Author page at http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6491046.Kerry_Reis.

Absolutism: The Loss of Balance

The political polarization that has arisen in America and around the world seems to run counter to the evolution of human society toward democratic ideals of equality, basic independent rights, and a broader global management of nature and life on earth; however, it seems to me that the technological advances of mass social communication has only revealed a base natural characteristic into which most individuals fall back to find comfort and power in an uncertain world – absolutism. In essence, in order to find order in one’s life, one seeks to find a framework of absolutes to live by, bonds with others who agree with this set of absolutes, and quickly dismisses and rejects those who refuse to fit within this strict set of rules and beliefs. The uncertainty of decision-making is resolved by the internal acceptance that, in all circumstances, there is only one absolute right way with all else being the absolute wrong way. This determination can be conceived through religious doctrine or social theory, but one’s acceptance of an absolute interpretation relieves one of the guilt and angst of making a wrong decision, laying the blame for an unacceptable result on the actions of others who follow a different interpretation. However, this sense of absolutism can only undercut the delicate balance within the context of life itself.

Many of Aesop’s fables have simple morals that have guided me in life and influenced society through the centuries. However, I remember reading one fable that did not truly fit the concept of the moral presented and caused me to reflect on the flaw behind the absolute in the moral. I have seen a couple of ways the story is told, but one simple version is a king providing comfort to a traveler on a cold night. Basically, the tale has the traveler blowing on his hands and, upon questioning, states he is warming them up from the cold. The traveler is then provided with a bowl of stew, fresh from the fire, and he begins to blow on it. When questioned, he states that he is cooling the hot stew so he can eat it. At this point, the traveler is sent back out into the cold with a statement from the king that “no man could be trusted who blows both hot and cold.” The moral on its own is a caution against trusting or dealing with hypocritical individuals, yet the traveler was not a source of hypocrisy. His life and the lives of all creatures depends upon a range of temperature far from the extremes of absolute zero and the solar furnace. When a person blows out of his mouth, the air that comes out is in this normal balanced range, which means that it can transfer warmth to items that are colder, like skin subjected to a freezing night, as well as absorb energy from hotter items, like a bowl of stew fresh from a fire. In essence, the traveler was balancing the levels of hot and cold around him. However, the traveler was accused of expounding both extremes, because the king could only see life in the absolutes of hot and cold. Aesop had fallen under the trap of absolutism.

As I see it, this has become the course of political and moral discussion in today’s broadcast and social media. Although I do see true incidents of hypocritical actions at times, often I witness the accusation of sin, incompetence, or hypocrisy directed toward others because it is outside the accuser’s absolute narrow set of ethics. An individual who attempts to resolve an issue by finding common ground between two sides or seeking a suitable balance of needs is accused by absolutists of “trying to have it both ways,” as well as “totally violating a sacred rule or law.” Any view, balanced or otherwise, that exists outside an absolutist’s view is labeled extremist, and any action, that goes against the absolutist’s narrow laws, regardless of context or intent, is grouped and branded under the same accusation of failure or sin. In other words, it is easy for an absolutist to compare “apples and oranges,” because it is all just “bad fruit.” By following and judging others from an absolutist set of ethics, an individual is able to avoid having to analyze the actual context under which actions and events occur, which is probably why so many seek to accept a straight set of rules.

The truth is, to accurately and constantly analyze and fully understand the evolution of context in trying to make the right decision requires the omniscience of God, yet we are constantly strapped by the limitations postulated in Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which forces us to make some decisions on faith, setting some of these decisions on a course to failure. However, I feel that if we do not try to hide behind a blind set of absolutism when events do not follow as we have planned, but rather use a broader set of principles to guide us while continuing to monitor the changing context of events around us, we can find a better balance in successfully connecting with a broader range of humanity and making more successful decisions. Yet, I am sure that there will be many who will claim that I am only “trying to have it both ways,” that my thought and actions are “violating their rights and freedom to bring the truth to others,” or that I will “suffer in hell for turning my back on God’s word.”

A New Life Adventure – Moving to Denver

In my last three posts, I shared about my road trip from Los Angeles to Denver in order to attend the wedding of my friends’ daughter. Even though my posts focused on the national parks and sights I visited on the way to Denver, my trip had another purpose behind it. Although I had grown up in Jacksonville, Florida, I had spent the majority of my life and my career in Los Angeles, but I had come to realize that circumstances were directing me to choose a new direction and adventure in my life. It was time to move to a new location and lay down a new foundation for the next stage of my life. As I mulled the options over, I realized that my friends had spent the last twenty years in the Denver area and saw this as a good balanced option. My hidden goal in this trip was to ask their opinion regarding my idea to move near them. If their answer had been anything close to “Are you crazy?”, my plan would have shut down immediately. However, their response was exactly the opposite as they were excited at the thought of me moving to Denver. For the last few months, I became very busy in putting my plans into high gear.

Having a solid base in life, a home, is a common goal for most people. However, no place remains constant over the course of time. I had found a nice townhome close to the beach. I kept it well maintained and remodeled it to my tastes several years back. I had good neighbors and a solid base of good friends within a very vibrant world-renowned city. Yet, after I had lost my job nearly four years ago, the ability to maintain a base lifestyle while covering promotional expenses for my self-published novel had begun to eat into my standard savings, and I am still too young to tap into my retirement funds without penalty. Except for a mortgage, I had no debt, but should I tap into the various avenues of debt available to me to support me and keep me in my “home” until I find a new source of income or reach retirement age? For many, keeping that center of their life, their home, would be worth the debt, but for me, the center of my life is me and my friends, not a inanimate structure, so my decision had to be based on what was best for me. Because of the location of my townhome, its value had skyrocketed over the years and there were many places in this country where housing and the cost-of-living were a lot cheaper.

Still, financial considerations are only a small part of a major life-changing decision. The sense of exploration that I have developed in my love of traveling became the major part of my decision. Traveling to new locations for a quick vacation helps to balance one’s perspective, but setting down stakes in an entirely new neighborhood and environment really stokes the explorative spirit and provides an in-depth lesson in the operation and evolution of my true home, Earth. I grew up in a location on Earth where warm tropical waters extended a humid atmosphere most of the year over a landscape that stayed within a thousand feet of sea level and a laid-back Southern culture struggled against a wave of Northern transplants. Upon graduation from high school, I announced to my parents a college selection that would take me to an opposite coast in this country where cooler ocean currents and a series of small and large mountain ranges had created a drier and sunnier set of basins and valleys which had attracted a diverse population dependent on the automobile and proud of the entertainment culture that attracted worldwide attention and acclaim. Now, I was seeking a new environment, far from ocean breezes and a sea level altitude, and what appeared to be a very politically balanced culture. The Denver area, somewhat centrally located in this country and continent, situated a mile high from sea level at the base of the Rocky Mountains, and experiencing growth from a diverse influx from across this country, seemed to fit the bill in my selection to start a new life adventure in a new home with a new set of neighbors to discover as friends, while exploring the wonders of this Earth from a broad new perspective.

So here I am, writing this in my new home in the Denver area, waiting for the moving company to deliver my furniture and past history of accomplishments sometime in the next week, anxious to begin the next major exploration of my life. It will be exciting to start living the next great adventure.