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.

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.

Road Trip to Denver – Part 3

In four days, I had headed out from Los Angeles in a southeast path to visit Saguaro National Park outside of Tucson, Arizona and Guadalupe Mountains National Park in the Texas panhandle, then turned north to explore the heart of New Mexico, starting with Carlsbad Caverns National Park, then off to stops at White Sands National Monument and Petroglyph National Monument, before reaching the art community of Taos, New Mexico. Now, it was time to head into Colorado and my main destination of Denver for the wedding of my friends’ daughter. I had one stop before reaching the hotel in Denver.

Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve was only recently designated as a national park within this century, being upgraded from national monument status in 2000. Rising up from the San Luis Valley range to the west and pushed against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east, the Great Sand Dunes are North America’s tallest sand dunes. What was amazing to me about these sand dunes was the almost artistic coloring of the dune field. As I was driving up to the dunes with the mountains towering behind them, I felt I was viewing an impressionistic oil painting, rather than a natural reality. To walk on the dunes, one needs to cross a wide, shallow, but swiftly-flowing stream. Since I did not feel I had the appropriate shoes to make the crossing, I was content to take pictures of those who braved the crossing and were enjoying walking up the dunes. Anyway, it was time to head to Denver.

Sangre de Cristo Mountains behind the Dune Field, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

Sangre de Cristo Mountains behind the Dune Field, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve

I had arranged to spend three days and four nights in the Denver area. The first day was to get situated and prepared, the second day would be dedicated to the wedding, and the third day would be an opportunity to check on a nearby national park, Rocky Mountain National Park. However, as I drove toward Denver watching distant lightning strikes in the plains alongside of me, I knew I would have to adjust my schedule. When I discovered that my spare day was forecast to be rainy all day, I thought that Rocky Mountain National Park would be a no go. However, when I discovered that the wedding was scheduled for the late afternoon on the second day, I decided to slip Rocky Mountain National Park into the morning before the wedding.

Rocky Mountain National Park is a large park with a third of its area above the “treeline” of 11,400 above sea level. However, the park’s main road, Trail Ridge Road, which is the highest major highway in North America, was mostly closed for the winter and spring due to snow. Therefore, I knew my visit would be restricted to just inside the northeast entrance at West Horseshoe Park, just west of Estes Park. It took me just an hour and a half to get to this entrance, which gave me enough time to marvel at just a portion of the Rocky Mountains, the very backbone of North America. Fresh snow was present at the scenic stops along the road, making me update a common spring adage just for the Rockies, “April snows bring May flows.” It was some spectacular views that I captured before I raced back down the mountains to get back to my hotel in time to get ready for the wedding.

West Horseshoe Park View, Rocky Mountain National Park

West Horseshoe Park View, Rocky Mountain National Park

The wedding was wonderful, and it was great reconnecting with some old friends. The bride and groom had arranged a champagne brunch for the guests at the hotel, so the extra day worked out for me. However, it was now time for me to head back to Los Angeles, and I did not plan to make any extra stops along the way. The rainy day in Denver presaged a snowy morning over I-70 through the Rockies, which actually presented some wonderful views as I got past the snowfall. It took me a day and a half to get back home, and several days to get back into the swing of things in LA. I had another great road trip under my belt.

Road Trip to Denver – Part 2

On the first two days of my road trip, I had driven a lot of miles and had the chance to explore two national parks, Saguaro National Park and Guadalupe Mountains National Park. I had also ended the second day zipping into Guadalupe Mountains’ more well-known sister park on the New Mexico side and finding out when the main attraction would be open. Now, at 8AM on the third day of my trip, I was entering the visitor center at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, preparing to enter the caverns. Realizing that temperatures in the cavern were significantly lower than the upper desert region, I bought a zippered hoodie sweater in the gift shop and put it on over my short sleeve t-shirt. Now, I was ready to investigate the cave.

Stalactites in a Grotto, Big Room, Carlsbad Caverns National Park

Stalactites in a Grotto, Big Room, Carlsbad Caverns National Park

The main body of Carlsbad Cavern is the Big Room, 755 feet below the surface, and there are only two ways to reach it. One is by an elevator that was built down directly from the visitor center to one end of the Big Room, where the comfort of visitors superseded nature with the installation of restrooms and a lunch counter. The other avenue to the Big Room was by walking down through the Natural Entrance and following the paved path down. I had time so I went by way of the Natural Entrance. The paved asphalt path with hand rails swaybacked down a nearly vertical shaft to a small open area where bats congregate during the day in the summer months. Since I did not see any bats, it is possible that they had not yet migrated from their winter Mexican home. The path then wound down slowly through a section called the Main Corridor, passing by interesting formations like the Whale’s Mouth or the Witches Finger. It is at the Iceberg Rock that the path entered the Big Room and headed over to the Big Room Trail. All along the way, lighting had been wired into the cavern walls in such a way to allow visitors to see the cave structures without disrupting the subterranean ambiance necessary to understand the natural processes at work. The Big Room Trail circled around in a cross pattern within a somewhat open cavern full of decorative columns, stalagmite giants, stalactited grottos, and small spring pools. One massive stalagmite named the Rock of Ages looked at one part of the trail like a dragon about to spew fire on the defenseless rock creature spread out before it. I was told at the visitor center that it would take me three and a half hours to walk the full trail on my own, but I was able to do the two miles in two and a half hours, more in line with the pamphlet’s estimate. I was also proud that I was able to hold still and take some very good pictures without flash, something I was able to show the park ranger who rode up in the elevator with me from the Big Room. Why didn’t I walk back up the Natural Entrance Trail? That trail was set up as one way only, making the elevator the only way out of the cave.

Soaptree Yucca, White Sands National Monument

Soaptree Yucca, White Sands National Monument

Once I had finished exploring Carlsbad Cavern, it was off to Alamogordo and White Sands National Monument. I headed north, then cut west over a mountain pass to get to the Tularosa Basin. After stopping off at the visitor center for preliminary information, I drove down the ten mile Dunes Drive into the Heart of the Sands. The white starkness of the sand was amazing to view and created some amazing images in my camera. Usually, white gypsum is rarely found as sand because it dissolves quite easily in water and is quickly carried off to oceans or seas, but the Tularosa Basin has no access to external rivers, so the gypsum remains when mountain water runoff quickly evaporates in the arid conditions. The result is white sand dunes. After getting my pictures, I headed back to Alamogordo to check into my motel.

Macaw Petroglyph, Boca Negra Canyon, Petroglyph National Monument

Macaw Petroglyph, Boca Negra Canyon, Petroglyph National Monument

The next day, I headed north to Albuquerque to explore Petroglyph National Monument. This protected rocky section on the westside of Albuquerque features some amazing early Native American communication art. Because the rocky terrain was formed by volcanic outflows over 200,000 years ago, Native Americans discovered that they could scrap the darker exterior of the rock, revealing a lighter rock underneath, thus forming the image and message to others. Many of these images are nearly 2000 years old and are considered sacred to many American Indians. The visitor center directed me to the Boca Negra Canyon trail as one of the best viewing spots. A small rocky trail up to a shaman’s circle gave me a chance to view many petroglyph images, a stark view of the five volcanic cones to the west, and a wonderful overview of Albuquerque to the east.

After enjoying the petroglyphs, I headed north to Taos, the small art community town up in the mountain foothills of north New Mexico. The town is well-known as a haven for local artist as I found out when I checked into my motel and found a small gallery of art in one of the lobby hallways. In front of the motel was a genuine Frederic Remington statue. I walked down the small main street and went into one of the local galleries to enjoy some amazing artwork for sale. Unfortunately, all I could do was admire, not buy. After enjoying the creativity, it was time for sleep, ending the New Mexico portion of my trip. Tomorrow, it would be off to Colorado.

To be continued…

Road Trip to Denver – Part 1

Just last month, I was invited to the wedding of the daughter of some good friends of mine in Denver. Instead of just flying in, I decided to make a road trip out of the journey in order to check off some more national parks and sites from my bucket list. I had been fiddling around with a southwest trip itinerary on my computer for about a year and decided to incorporate these plans into this trip, one that would take me to five national parks, a couple of national monuments, and one notable art community.

I started out early on a Sunday morning and headed east on I-10. Interstate 10 is the southernmost east/west Interstate Highway that reaches coast to coast. It has always had a special significance in my life as I grew up near the eastern terminus of I-10 and am now currently living near the western terminus. I stopped for gas just east of Palm Springs and the southern entrance to Joshua Tree National Park at a small stop called Chiriaco Summit and discovered a hidden treasure next to the gas stations, the General Patton Memorial Museum. I did not have time to actually visit the museum beyond taking pictures of the statue and memorials outside the front, but it added somewhat to the significance of traveling I-10. It was the ease that General Patton had in moving US tanks across Germany on the Autobahn system at the end of World War II that convinced Eisenhower to champion the building of the Interstate Highway System during his presidency. I contemplated this as I headed east towards Arizona.

General Patton Memorial Museum, Chiriaco Summit, CA

General Patton Memorial Museum, Chiriaco Summit, CA

My goal that first day was to reach Tucson and Saguaro National Park by mid-afternoon. Saguaro National Park is somewhat unique in that it preserves two separate sections of the Sonoran Desert on either side of Tucson. During an earlier road trip around Arizona a few years back, I had visited the eastern section next to the Rincon Mountains, but had arrived after the visitor center had closed and had to be content with taking pictures in the late afternoon before the gates closed at sunset. This time I wanted an opportunity to check for playing cards at the visitor center, and it made sense to use this return trip to see the western section next to the Tucson Mountains. I was not disappointed. The saguaro forests seemed more plentiful and photogenic in this western section. There was also a special treat along the loop drive at a spot called Signal Hill. A quick walk to the top of Signal Hill revealed a small section of petroglyphs, symbols marked into the rocks by early Native American cultures, basically an archeological treasure.

Signal Hill, West Tucson Mountain District, Saguaro National Park

Signal Hill, West Tucson Mountain District, Saguaro National Park

After spending the night in Tucson, it was back onto I-10 eastbound to El Paso on the way to the next national park. At El Paso, I left I-10 and headed directly east to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The park protects a section of the Guadalupe Mountains as they extend into Texas from the New Mexico border. These mountains were formed from a horseshoe reef that grew in a tropical sea that covered this section of Texas and New Mexico hundreds of millions of years ago. As the sea disappeared, the land uplifted and exposed the now fossilized reef as the Guadalupe Mountains. The highest point in Texas is Guadalupe Peak at 8750 feet along this Capitan Reef. However, this park did not have any roadways into the mountains, only hiking trails for dedicated campers, so I was limited to taking photos from a small hiking trail around the visitor center.

El Capitan Reef and Guadalupe Peak, Guadalupe Mountains National Park

El Capitan Reef and Guadalupe Peak, Guadalupe Mountains National Park

After I finished exploring the little trail in Guadalupe Mountains National Park, I realized I had time to make a quick stop at the star highlight of this road trip, the much more recognized sister park just north on the New Mexico side of the state border, and find out when the star attraction would be opened in the morning. I got to the visitor center as the park rangers were lowering the flag for the day and got my answers, so I took exterior photos on my way back down to the nearby motel where I had reservations and had a relaxing night’s sleep in preparation of entering Carlsbad Caverns at eight-thirty in the morning.

To be continued…

Collecting Playing Cards

Nearly everybody finds something to collect within their life. For some, it is an investment in worth, consolidating items of value as a security measure. For others, it fulfills the goals of completing sets or items in a list for display or self-satisfaction. Still, others collect and store items that connect or remind them of a history that provides a sense of identity. However, most of us build collections out of a combination of all three of these reasons – value, achievement and history. For me, I find these reasons behind my main collection of playing cards.

Both of my parents grew up in rural upstate New York where the family game of choice was Pinochle. At weekend gatherings on my grandfather’s farm, a small group of his friends and family would gather around the dinner table, partnered in two teams, to prove their worth in serious games of Pinochle. Children were not allowed to join in until they could prove capable of playing at an adult level. My parents brought the game down with them to Florida to play with their friends on occasion. Pinochle combined both the concepts of laying down sets of cards as in Poker and winning tricks as in Bridge, building scores through both methods. What is particularly special about Pinochle is that the game uses a special deck of just the Ten through Ace of each suit doubled. A Pinochle deck will also include Nines for use in a game variation. Because of this, it often was difficult while I was growing up to find a normal deck of fifty-two cards in our closet to play the children games of War and Rummy with visiting friends. This led me to start buying my own deck of cards for these instances. This is how I came to notice that playing cards were often sold as souvenirs at tourist locations and started me on a path of collecting decks.

This collection has not demonstrated much in the way of being an investment. I have a few decks that may have some historical value, but playing card decks have not been known to be that rare lost attic treasure like baseball cards or comic books. Among my decks, I have Bicycle decks from the Los Angeles and Atlanta Olympic Games, a double set of Air Force One Ronald Reagan cards, a tenth anniversary M*A*S*H double deck, and a Kennedy Kards political satire deck from the JFK era. Despite the historical significance behind these decks, I have no illusions that these have any significant monetary value behind them, but I cherish having them in my collection.

In general, I would buy or receive decks during my travels or attendance at events, but as friends and colleagues began to learn of my collection, they would get me decks on their travels. This got me close to completing representative sets, which would lead me to the Internet seeking a missing deck in a set. It was last year that I finally able to complete a representative set of souvenir decks from each of the fifty US states and the District of Columbia. I may not have visited every state yet, but I now have at least one deck of playing cards from each one. It may be a little more difficult to find a deck from each European country.

However, most of my decks have become a symbol of where I have been, what I have accomplished and what I hope to accomplish. The decks I have from the Los Angeles Olympics remind me of being able to be at the LA Coliseum during those games. Souvenir decks from European countries, famous art museums, and US National Parks remind me of the places I have seen and experienced, as well as places I have yet to visit. Magic decks and science decks demonstrate the knowledge I have gained. Decks with special face card characters and non-standard card decks ground me in the history of multiple cultures. Playing cards represent the evolution of gamesmanship in humanity, and I am fascinated by the history behind the games. I have almost one thousand decks in my collection from five continents. There is still plenty of space on my shelves to cross that thousand mark barrier.

Tis the Season for Christmas Movies

A couple of holiday seasons ago, shortly after I created my website, I wrote a blog post about one of my favorite Christmas movies, The Gathering. I started out the post by writing that I set aside time for all of the new holiday movies that run on a few cable channels. Since then, the number of holiday movies have expanded tremendously over a number of channels, as LMN, UP, ION and AMC has joined Lifetime, Hallmark and ABC Family in presenting a new Christmas treat once a week. In fact, Hallmark really gets into the spirit as it has been running holiday movies from previous years 24 hours a day with two new movies every weekend since the beginning of November. It is almost impossible to take them all in. After bingeing a few days over the Thanksgiving weekend, I began to start categorizing the holiday films in order to determine what makes a good Christmas film and which ones were missing the cut.

Holiday movies basically end well with a positive message and a good feeling. The biggest group of Christmas movies find this message through myth and fantasy magic. Many of this group works with the myth of Santa Claus, the jolly old saint who brings gifts to all of the good boys and girls on Christmas Eve. Kids are told the basics – Santa lives at the North Pole with Mrs. Claus and elves making toys leading up to Christmas. However, do not let those true believers watch too many of these Santa movies as it will only confuse them. After all, is Santa really hundreds of years old or is the job passed from father to son – or even daughter? Is the North Pole really at the top of the world in a rustic village or is it in Canada or Alaska with a modern day factory ramping up production? The best idea is to choose one good Santa movie to share with the children and enjoy the various other creative incarnations amongst the positive older fantasy lovers.

The next group of fantasy holiday films are the “angel” films. In this case, an angelic figure appears to help a main character find redemption or two worthy individuals to find true love with each other. Sometimes, this guiding figure could be Santa or one of his elves, but since the focus is on helping another individual during the season, I do not count these movies in the Santa group. Santa is only a supporting role in the story. Often the magic is gentle, giving a comic tone to the movie, but there are a few that are more dramatic and sometimes darker until the redemption comes. Dicken’s A Christmas Carol is probably the first and best of this dramatic type, which is why the original story has been filmed several times for movies and TV, and then re-imagined, modernized, and sometimes twisted with several versions with Scrooges of different cultures, careers and genders. A key component in A Christmas Carol is the element of time travel, which has become a common element in many other current Christmas films. Sometimes the character needing redemption is magically sent back in time and given a chance to correct a regret, and sometimes the character is placed into a possible future to prepare him or her for an upcoming defining decision, but the newest time twist is having the character relive the same day over and over, ala Groundhog Day, until he or she learns the right way to live the day and the rest of his or her life. It is only in these films where we see the appearance of snowfall as a moment of joyous redemption and not a dreaded moment of foul weather.

The next group of Christmas movies are the non-magical set, a more realistic storytelling that still embodies the redemptive and giving ideal of the holiday. As with all movies, these range from the dramatic to the comedic. The dramatic tales usually centers on a character or set of characters who must face a challenge to reconnect and redeem themselves, like my favorite, The Gathering, or on a character or family facing hardship who becomes the object of a community coming together to help them. The comedic movies generally are a nostalgic slapstick view of a family gathering or a light romantic comedy which makes Christmas into the second most romantic holiday after Valentine’s Day. A comedy with the interactive blending of multiple stories, like the modern classic Love Actually, is able to touch the Christmas spirit in many enjoyable ways.

Finally, I have a small set of films where Christmas is merely a backdrop or prop for a basic story. Many are romantic comedies like The Sure Thing, While You Were Sleeping, or even the best picture classic, The Apartment; however, even an action adventure film can find a little Christmas mojo. My prime example is Die Hard, which takes place during a Christmas party in a near empty skyscraper. In the end, a little Christmas tape saves the day.

ELL Summer Camp at 826LA

It has been a very busy July for me this year. I had just released my video book trailer for “Legacy Discovered” into the social media universe two months ago and have been building my Twitter following and joining Google+ communities to help get the word out. I have also helped a few friends out with some projects this month. However, an important part of my July was volunteering for the ELL summer camp for 826LA.

This was the second summer camp for which I have volunteered and it had a more creative mission for the elementary level kids who signed up than the afterschool tutoring and writing sessions done during the school year. For one thing, there was no school or homework assignments so the camp could fully focus on the creative writing projects it encouraged the children to take on. ELL stands for English Language Learning and the four week camp used theme weeks to get the children to improve their grammar skills and inspire their writing creativity. Each theme week was led by a different summer associate who devised the daily lesson plans and the week’s special clap, a special cheer the children would do after one of them has shared something he or she had written. Each day, each student had to come up with a word related to the current theme and write it with their definition on a note card to be handed in. The kids were grouped as teams at different tables with a volunteer or two to assist and encourage them as the program was presented. There were two sessions every weekday, the morning session for the younger children up to third grade and the afternoon session for the fourth through sixth grade kids. There were a couple of days during the camp period when both sessions were combined for a group field trip. I did not volunteer for the field trips, but my plan was to sign up for two days a week as a volunteer for the afternoon session with the older kids.

The first week was Food Week and the daily clap was two claps and a rub of the tummy while saying “Yum, Yum!” Early in the week, the room was turned into a cafe with horrible food like peanut butter and pencil shavings sandwiches, prompting the kids to write critical reviews. On another day, a food truck came to visit and thank you letters were written. These were some innovative ways to get the kids interested in food, but for many of the boys, good food was not all that exciting.

The second week was Nature Week and it started with a nature walk field trip, which I did not volunteer to join. However, Andrea, the summer associate responsible for this week, felt I could present something special to the kids. The Tuesday lesson plan was to introduce the Seven Wonders of the Natural World, which included the Grand Canyon. She asked and I provided her with a few of my photos from my visit a few years ago to the Grand Canyon, then she had me come up during the afternoon session to give a personal description and valuable information about this wonder protected as a national park. The writing project for the day was to create a travel guide for a real or imagined vacation place. I was able to provide picture and national park guides at my table to help our team. As kids read their guides, the others would cheer them with two claps and a chirp with our hands put together, flapping like a bird.

The third week was Space Week, which included the penultimate field trip to the California Science Center where the space shuttle Endeavor was on display. I did not volunteer for the field trip, but I brought in my photos of the space shuttle Columbia landing at Edwards Air Force Base in the 80s the day before the field trip to further enhance the kids’ enjoyment of the trip. The main writing project for the week was to write a story about saving the earth from an asteroid collision. Now this was a subject to get the boys excited about.

The final week of camp was Future Week, but for me, it was about trying to schedule my volunteer time with potential jury service and two Television Academy networking events. My deal with the 826LA team was that I would not sign up on the schedule, but rather just show up if I was not needed for jury service. I was able to show up on Monday and Tuesday to help the kids write letters to their future selves, but I really had my fingers crossed to be available on Friday for the book release party. The best stories were being gathered and published as a book for the 826LA Time Travel Marts and Friday was the day the kids got to read their best works to the group. However, the LA County Courts did need me to show up for jury selection in downtown Los Angeles on Friday. My name was not selected for three potential juries, but time was ticking away. Suddenly, by mid-afternoon, the remainder of us in the jury room was informed that we were no longer needed and I rushed off through early afternoon rush hour to be able to get to the party in time to hear many of the stories being read. I walked into the party with my jury certification raised over my head to the cheers of all of the kids. I was glad I made a difference in their lives.

For more information about the 826 organization, you can go to 826national.org. Los Angeles residents can check on the happenings of the two local centers by going to 826la.org.

Viral Internet Calendar Myths

Last week, two of my Facebook friends shared an image that had originated from an India-based radio station. The image had the calendar page for upcoming August of this year with the following claim: This is the only time you will see this phenomenon in your life. August, 2014, will have 5 Fridays, 5 Saturdays and 5 Sundays. This happens only once every 823 years. The Chinese call it “Silver pockets full.” So: send this message to your friends and in four days the money will surprise you. Based on Chinese Feng Shui. Whoever does not transmit this message … may find themselves clueless … This is not fun at all. To me, the only clueless people were my friends who shared this, along with the one and a half million other individual sharers noted under the image. Except the friends who did share this I do not normally find to be clueless.

To me, it appeared almost immediately how factually incorrect this message was. This message had been appearing somewhat regularly the past few years as forwarded chain e-mail from a few other friends, only it referred to other months like March of last year. The key is that the phenomenon described applies to any month that has 31 days and begins on Friday, making its three extra days land on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Since there are only seven days in a week and a normal year’s 365 days divides into one extra day beyond 52 weeks, each month begins the subsequent day in the new year from the previous year. After taking into account leap years which will force each month to skip a day in its start day in the following year, it does not take a math genius to determine that any particular month will begin on Friday every five to eleven years, and there is a good chance that in any year, at least one of the six months with 31 days will begin on Friday, giving that month five weekends. This is a lot more often than the 823 years claimed in the myth. In addition, stating the origin of this myth derives from the Chinese depends upon the assumption that ancient Chinese calendars miraculously matched the current Gregorian calendar developed in Western European cultures.

So why did my friends and millions of other people immediately accept this omen and immediately forwarded the image to garner good luck? This is different from other coincidences that cannot be automatically discounted. It is a bald-faced lie that is automatically accepted at face value. Does it mean that for some of us, our lives have become so busy that we do not take the time to consider the information and act on what does it hurt faith? Or have some of us reached a level of frustration or despair that we accept any potential good luck charm to counter the rough patch? I’m not sure why, but I hope that these friends ask a few questions before blindly believing the next odd fact virally sent out into the Internet.