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.

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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…

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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…

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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.

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Micheal Rivers – Best-Selling Author and Paranormal Investigator

In my last posting about the books I reviewed in 2014, I stated that the first book I gave a 5 star review was Verliege by Micheal Rivers. It was a very thrilling and insightful ghost story that I figured had to be inspired by Micheal’s career of paranormal investigations, a subject that has fascinated me since I read Frank Edward’s Stranger Than Science as a young boy. I am thrilled that Micheal has reached out and agreed to provide me and my blog with a personal look at those years of investigating haunted sites and the books he has written based on his research and investigations. He was also kind enough to allow me to post an introduction of Legacy Discovered and some thoughts on the art of storytelling on his website. So without further ado, I present Micheal Rivers, best-selling author and paranormal investigator.

Micheal RiversKerry Reis, a talented writer and friend, was kind enough to have me present this post on his site. He is the author of Legacy Discovered, a refreshing read with an escape from the norm. His years of work with Disney ABC have given him an insight that is unique. Thank you, Kerry, for letting me have the podium today.

I have been investigating paranormal activity for over thirty years. The subject seems to draw attention anywhere you go. Kerry asked me about the paranormal and the evidence collected over the years. Armed with cameras, recorders for capturing EVPs, (electronic voice phenomena) and the electronics capable of finding evidence beyond our senses, you find yourself in places you would have never dreamed of. The amount of excitement, evidence, and also the disappointments are numerous.

There are many investigations where the residents honestly believe they are living under conditions where they believe their house is haunted. The more that is experienced, the more one will come to believe they have a ghost in their home. I can sympathize with these feelings. I have experienced the same thing until I became educated on what is necessary to look for to validate a haunting. A perfect example was the family who had a television that would turn on seemingly under its own accord. The stereo was under the same conditions. The variation with the stereo was not only would it turn itself on, but also the volume would go completely out of control. The culprit was an unsuspecting neighbor’s remote control with a malfunction. It did not affect his equipment, but it wreaked havoc with the haunted family. This is not the end of the story. The neighbor eventually moved away some time later. During the holidays, a full body apparition was photographed in the kitchen of the home. To their surprise, it was the haunted family’s great aunt who had died ten years earlier. The smell of the apparition’s perfume stayed in the area of the kitchen for most of the evening. This is only one example of how you can be fooled into believing and then the tables are turned where you actually do have spirit activity. This case was in England in the early eighties as reported by a little-known journalist of the time. Non-believers in the paranormal reported the photograph as a hoax and the news just drifted away into obscurity.

During my tenure as an investigator, I have found everything from loose pipes in the basement to faulty electrical wiring to be the culprit. It is amazing the effects electromagnetic fields have on the human body. Physical and mental reaction to this not only is evident but very real to the person living the effects.

An actual haunting brings out some very intriguing evidence and more questions concerning the cause or purpose of the haunting. I usually come out with more questions than when I entered the premises. I have been asked several times if any of my evidence was questionable. I do everything possible to debunk any evidence before I decide whether it is an actual haunting or just an unidentifiable anomaly.

What have I experienced that completely blew me away? I have seen four full body apparitions. One of them was so perfect; the only way to tell it was an apparition was the clothing. The clothing was homemade from another time period. That and the fact it is a fourth person in a three-man group. There were three investigators, yet the photograph shows this apparition in plain view and not picked up by the second camera sitting right in front of it, but instead the photographer standing behind it with the second camera still in full view picks up the apparition. We can go on for years with the pros and cons of investigations, and hopefully, one day, there will be some kind of evidence that will have no trouble convincing others, yes, we are not alone here. A fine example of one of our best EVPs can be heard here on YouTube. The man in the room grew up in the house and returned for the investigation.

I write paranormal thrillers as well as folklore and ghost tales that are considered to be fact. In Ghost of the North Carolina Shores, you will walk through the history of North Carolina via the spirits long dead. Appalachian Mountain Folklore is a book in which I was able to tell whether I could find any evidence of truth to the stories. In some cases in both volumes, I have incorporated actual investigations in which I conducted or was involved in. The stories in both books involved quite a bit of research and interviews with witnesses of the events.

Be the host to your ghost.

Thank you, Micheal, for giving us a look behind your years investigating the paranormal as well as the books that those investigations have inspired. Below are the links to connect with Micheal and check into all of his books:
Micheal’s website
Micheal’s Amazon Author Page
Micheal’s Facebook Author Page

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2014 – A Year of Reviewing Indie Books

When I first self-published Legacy Discovered, I knew I needed to reach out to fellow independent authors to help promote my effort. I quickly realized that the most important promotional tool indie authors need are the reviews of readers on Amazon and book social media sites like Goodreads. For that reason, I knew that we authors as readers needed to step up and read each other’s works and honestly provide reviews that will either help us promote our works to the general reading public or improve our writing for readers down the road. I began to consider the books of authors with whom I had connected and chose promising works that seemed to need reviews. At first, even though I rated each book I read honestly, I held back on some critical observations and provided a short, somewhat encouraging review for the books I read after a friend berated me for even considering bringing up errors that would upset my fellow authors. However, after reading a couple of works that I felt really needed work, I realized how unfair I was to my fellow authors and brought the critical comments back in. My instincts proved to be right as I have received better responses from my fellow authors for my fuller reviews beginning around the holidays a year ago. So what were the highlights and lows of the indie books I read last year?

First, I must put in a small disclaimer that 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 the 40 indie books I read last year, I only rated 4 books with 5 stars.

My first 5 star book of 2014 was Verliege by Micheal Rivers. Micheal has been a paranormal investigator for over 30 years, so I expected a good ghost story and I was not disappointed. His novel of a team of investigators taking residence inside a castle haunted by ghosts in conflict reminded me of the Richard Matheson classic Hell House. It was spooky, thrilling and well-done. Immediately after I finished Micheal’s book, I took up Summer of the Loon by Deanna Lynn Sletten. This was the exact opposite of Verliege, as it was a redemptive story of a newly-orphaned 16-year-old girl having to move from Southern California to upstate Minnesota to reconnect with a grandfather she has never known because he had turned his back on his own daughter who had become pregnant out of wedlock. This was a sweet women’s lit story that depended so much on character to drive the story over a course of a summer. Deanna has become very prolific in the past three years with 9 self-published books.

The other two 5 star books I read were part of a ten book stretch for the Book Review Co-op. By choosing ten books on the site’s list and reviewing them, Legacy Discovered is now added to the site’s list to get ten reviews from other indie authors who participate in the site’s program. Among the ten books I reviewed, I found Eddie & the Gun Girl by Mark Kram Jr. and Aliens in the Gift Shop by D.E. Morris. Eddie & the Gun Girl is actually a non-fiction short relating the incident of the shooting of Philadelphia Phillies’ first baseman Eddie Waitkus by a stalking fan in 1949, adeptly looking at the history of shooter and victim leading to the event and the long-term consequences, especially since Eddie was injured but not killed in the shooting. Aliens in the Gift Shop, on the other hand, was a comic sci-fi novel about a couple of space alien scientists who swoop little gift shop owner Marcy into the adventure of her life. It was very much in the tone of a good Doctor Whovian tale.

For most of the year, the books were mainly 3 or 4 stars in their reviews with the majority of them being 4 stars. With so many self-published offerings in today’s digital world, I find this to be impressive. However, within the last two months, I finally came upon a couple of books that failed and landed in the 2 star zone. In one, the author did her homework in creating her main characters, but failed to consider that the mainly unseen villains were as much a character that needed consistency and not a simple but erratic plot device to push the main characters’ buttons when needed. In the other, the author structured a relationship of deceit and tension between a group of characters, then brought in another character that promised to blow everything up in an exciting climax, only to lamely take the air out of the anticipated blow-up and allow the story to limp into the ending. In both cases, the stories started decently, but broke down when they veered into a path that was not truly there.

So, it was a good year of reading and I hope to find even more worthy tales to enjoy in the new year. I also hope that others find my tale and let me know if they enjoyed it and why. 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.

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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.

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The Careers of Fictional Characters

Since I wrote in my last post about the importance of character in television series, I have been thinking about how critics have viewed characters on television in general. As I thought about it, a particular criticism which has periodically cropped up in broad opinion pieces by TV critics throughout the history of television kept floating up in my mind – why do many main characters seem to have the same types of careers, even though these jobs represent a small portion of the general population? I am sure many will recognize the questioning commentary that most TV series and their main characters seem to be lawyers, doctors, police officers, or private eyes, when the majority of the general population has jobs as construction workers, factory workers, sales clerks, or farm workers. The general critical discussion tends to tilt more to bemoaning the unrealistic impression that lawyers, doctors, police officers and private eyes are more important to society, thereby not giving enough credit to the value of these other clerical or labor intensive jobs to society and civilization. However, in considering this position, especially as it pertains to creating characters when writing, what I realized is despite the admirable concept of seeking a more equal view of all individuals, the art of storytelling and mythology throughout the history of mankind has focused on heroic characters that broadly lead or challenge society in general. From the beginning, the early myths, legends and fairy tales were stories of gods, kings, wizards and warriors.

Classic storytelling is built around conflict or challenge – not the everyday challenge of handling the daily grind of life, but the broad challenge of facing a major conflict or struggle. The sagas and myths explained why nature acted the way it did, gave praise to the triumphs of a tribe or civilization, and sought solutions to battle the monsters around us. It was the gods who created the world and the rules under which nature worked for and against man. It took kings to lead armies against enemies, to mediate among opposing forces, and to protect societies from disorder. It took strong warriors to protect lesser men from evil and destructive forces and to boldly explore new lands beyond the horizon. It took powerful wizards to create and project major spells to ward off evil monsters and deadly diseases. For ancient and medieval civilizations, these leaders guided and defended the common members of society during important challenges of war, growth, exploration, and death. With the advances in scientific knowledge and the rise of more democratic and republican governments within a more interconnected global culture, these characters may have faded from the modern story, but their roles have not. Within modern society, lawyers, doctors, police officers and private eyes take on these roles at the local level.

When a disagreement escalates between two parties, police officers would be necessary to help maintain order and try to resolve the issue peacefully, while lawyers become mediators seeking to define the rules around which the parties must operate peacefully. A lawyer can also represent a strong defender for the common client against corrupt forces, while a private detective can be the solitary hero uncovering the truth against an evil army of lies. Doctors cast modern spells of medical knowledge against disease, injury and death and explore the continuing mysteries and horizons of life. It is very easy to see that these jobs represent the mediators, explorers and defenders of society at times of conflict or challenge, so in a way, it is understandable that the somewhat heroic (or anti-heroic) major characters of television and movies would more likely take on these professions over the more common careers that maintain the steady drumbeat of life.

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A New Television Season – The Importance of Character

The Fall Television Season is upon us, so I once again attended the Television Academy panel of top television critics previewing the new season. This year, the panel of Robert Bianco of USA Today, Tim Goodman of the Hollywood Reporter, Brian Lowry of Variety, Mary McNamara of the Los Angeles Times and Matt Roush of TV Guide with moderator Cynthia Littleton, Editor of Variety, was held at the Paramount Theatre on the Paramount Studio Lot in Hollywood and the conversation was lively. It started off with the opening question of what was good and what was bad among the new shows which led Matt Roush to comment, “I never thought I would ever say it, but the network with the best new shows is the CW with Jane the Virgin and Flash.” However, because the CW has such a light schedule with the fewest number of premiering shows, the comment was really directed at showing just how weak this year’s batch of new shows across the broadcast and cable networks were. The discussion did ramble on a bit about the growth of fresh original shows from new cable (WGN) and digital (Netflix, Amazon) outlets during the summer which has created a more continuous year-round season, but the topic soon focused on an important feature of a good television series that the critics felt networks had lost sight of – characters and their relationship to the audience.

Although character is important in all storytelling, the presentation of character is more important within the format of a continuing series on television. In a movie, the audience is quickly introduced to characters that become involved in a conflict. In the course of a few hours, these characters must address this conflict to a resolution for the audience, so the audience is given character traits in shorthand so they can quickly associate good guy/bad guy personas to the characters and move into the plot flow. Once the audience leaves the theater or turns off the television, there is no consideration about coming back and hanging out with the characters they saw in the movie. However, a television series does need its audience to bond with the main characters, so they will want to come back and visit with them again. The shorthand introductions to the main characters in a series premiere are more like first impressions that hopefully will draw the audience to want to learn more about these characters as they face a series or continuing story of life challenges. An engaged audience realizes that there are nuanced undertones to the characters and feels compelled to return regularly to see what is going on with their friends, to rejoice with their triumphs and sympathize with their setbacks, whether it is with laughter or drama. It is for this very reason that television series has been known more for being a writer’s medium than a director’s medium. It is also why television series work better with ensemble casts as it is easier to enjoy time with a group of friends.

So, why do these critics feel the networks have lost sight of this in the new season? Judging by the issues they noticed and expounded upon in the new season pilots, I sense the increased competition of more original programming over more networks throughout the year has caused network executives and show runners to use more shorthand storytelling, plot twists and visual creativity to gain the audiences’ initial attention, but this is at the expense of developing the characters to the point where the audience will want to come back and share time with their new friends. In a way, network executives have forgotten that television was the original social media site.

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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.

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