YOUR REALITY MAY VARY

A few weeks ago, I attended my first CONvergence convention. There, I joined thousands of science-fiction and fantasy fans to ponder this year’s theme, “Your reality may vary.” Indeed, nowadays it seems perception and reality can vary widely. Perhaps John Lennon summed up this dilemma best, “The more I see, the less I know for sure.”

My shared reality was the countless things to do at CONvergence. I was drawn to a dozen+ panel discussions and events (out of hundreds). Panels I was impressed with included the future of artificial intelligence, outer space physics, a NASA employee’s presentation on Mars missions, and multiverse theory/physics.

Numerous panels on fiction writing were my top priority though. One discussed a variety of storytelling techniques that “break the fourth wall.” Another analyzed classic “other worlds” such as The Land of Oz, time travel, portal stories, and myths.

Two writing panels with Professor Jack Zipes were a highlight for me. One of his panels discussed the original 1923 Bambi story—not the Disney adaptation. The 1923 version is filled with fascism metaphors that foreshadowed WWII’s Holocaust. His second panel, “Excavating Fairy Tales,” discussed his efforts to republish hundreds of out-of-print books—in particular children’s books with authoritarian themes (he feels we can learn from authors who confronted fascism a century ago). For those more interested in his efforts to generate hope and action among children, you can read an interview by clicking here. Or, click here to learn more about his publishing house (a few of these republished books are below).

Of course the convention had endless fun activities too. A few popular reality events I attended were stand-up comedy acts by a Guest of Honor, Reverend Matt, and local comedian/writer Joseph Scrimshaw. Closing the convention was the exciting Cirque du Multivers, where circus acts performed in cosplay costumes.

Gaming realities take place all-hours, from cards to board games to role-playing games. Endless pickup games exist for anyone wanting to play a favorite game, or try something new. Amid the abundance of games, I enjoyed trying Everyone is John and Exploding Kittens.

The Cinema Rex theater offers free popcorn, candy, and drinks. Guests relax in dozens of couches as they suspend their disbelief in movie realities. Two movies I particularly liked were the time-travel madcap comedy Everything, Everywhere, All At Once, and the time-loop comedy Palm Springs.

Various party room realities are open throughout the day and night, many for all ages. This was a fun way to meet others with similar interests (such as cats). The Star Wars cantina was impressive, as were extensive 1980’s details in the Ready Player One-themed room (with an adjacent party room filled with retro video games).

The Space Lounge was a surreal reality, with a sensory bar that did NOT offer drinks. Instead, it offered experiences that perplexed your senses (reinforcing “Your reality may vary”).

Two teens I brought with praised the popular Connie’s Sandbox, with its all-ages arts and crafts activities. Personally, I was captivated by this room’s creation and subsequent gleeful smashing of a cardboard fairy-tale village.

For those who like riddles, quests, or achievements, an addictive endeavor is collecting and trading ribbons. Rookie attendees like myself may get random quests via a special invite by staff. My quest led to several ribbons, and was a neat way to discover areas of the sprawling convention. A few of my ribbons were given by cosplay characters—I must say, the spectrum of cosplay costumes was fascinating, as were all the fan T-shirts.

Overall, WOW. Lots of fun, creativity, and learning crammed into four days. The friendly community also took excellent Covid-19 precautions as we transition to a new normal for large gatherings. Thanks to the hundreds of dedicated CONvergence volunteers that made this amazing convention possible. I look forward to next year, as are two teens I’ll bring again!

 

THE REAL LAND DOWN UNDER

Stefanshellir lava tube by Dave Bunnell, Creative Commons photo courtesy of Wikimedia

Sorry Australia, caves are the real “Land Down Under.” The past few years, I’ve been researching caves for a kidlit book project. I’ve went to national caves like Carlsbad Caverns National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, Oregon Caves National Monument, and Wind Cave National Park. The visitor centers at each, as well as the park rangers, have excellent information. But I’ve also enjoyed many lesser known caves. In each cave, I’m always amazed at the efforts to construct safe entrances, passages, and staircases that let the public experience these natural wonders. A century ago, ropes, ladders, and candles were the norm, limiting who could tour caves. Here’s a few pics of developed “show caves” I’ve visited.

In recent months, I’ve gone to two notable places that long-time cavers know well (even if they’ve never been to either). The first was The National Cave and Karst Research Institute (NCKRI) in Carlsbad, New Mexico. If you’ve never heard of the word ‘karst” before, it’s basically soluble rock areas where underground water and aquifers flow. This subterranean water often creates caves, hidden rivers, and sinkholes. Or, surface water can also transform karst areas into scenic landscapes. In fact, NCKRI states, “Over 90 World Heritage sites and 70 UNESCO Global Geoparks were designated entirely or in part for their karst and caves.” If you’re curious to learn more about NCKRI and karst, their website has extensive information.

The second fascinating place was this year’s National Speleological Society (NSS) annual convention in Rapid City, South Dakota. I attended just a fraction of many simultaneous presentations–you simply can’t see everything! Microbiology and extremophiles. Cave cartography and mapping software. Cave photography. Fossil excavation. Cave conservation. Expedition logistics. And much more. You appreciate why entire teams are mobilized to explore difficult caves. One popular program has cavers detail their expeditions in rapid-fire, 20 minute presentations. These fascinating stories are scheduled for two entire days! Each story details new cave discoveries and/or unique challenges.

A convention highlight for me was the photography and video contest. I even got to chat with Dave Bunnel, a famous cave photographer. Overall, the audience was wowed by dozens of photographers and filmmakers who make dark caverns come alive. In their captured images, caves become magical. Their explorers, heroic.

In addition, seeing authors and books I’ve read, such as Hazel Barton’s awesome Exploring Caves, was inspiring. An entire auditorium, including me, was excited to learn she’s working on a new book about Lechuguilla Cave (it’s supposedly the world’s most beautiful cave, but only scientists can explore the complex to protect its unique formations and microorganisms).

Craters of the Moon lava tube cave entrance

Is caving for everyone? No! You must tolerate tight spaces, inky darkness, and the fact you have umpteen tons of rock above you. At Jewel Cave, I saw a man’s claustrophobia overcome him, forcing him to leave. During Wind Cave’s “wild cave” tour, the advice given to us all was “Caving isn’t pretty.” Soon, our group was low crawling through muddy passages. Passages you often contort in ways that are undignified. Small adults and children are well suited for caving though. Why?

Have you ever tried squeezing through an 8.5” gap that’s two feet long? Jewel Cave’s “wild cave” tour requires guests to prove they can fit through such a gap before they can go on this special tour. I tried several times to push and squirm through their concrete test gap. On my last attempt, going for broke, I got hopelessly stuck (the park ranger then releases the “ceiling,” so you’re easily freed—no panic required). I was disappointed, and my sternum area was sore for days.

Afterwards, the park ranger guide suggested I check out CaveSim, a fun “cave simulator” exhibit (kids LOVE this mobile education exhibit). CaveSim has a station where you can adjust gap space to measure what you can easily crawl through. There I learned I can worm through a 9.5” gap. Less than that, I won’t try again! Knowing one’s limits is essential in caves. Why?

Tight spaces aren’t the only challenge for would-be cavers. At NSS’s convention, Carol Vesely detailed her team’s carbon monoxide alarms going bonkers in Belize. The bad air halted their exploration of parts of Panti Pit (of note, this cave team is all over 55 years-old, so caving isn’t just for the young and small). Wind Cave’s story of Rachel Cox is a cautionary caving tale about the dangers of pride and bad decision-making (read here how she got lost in Wind Cave for 36 hours, nearly dying). If risking hypoxia, hypothermia, or dehydration aren’t enough, cave ins, falling, and drowning are additional cave hazards. In fact, cave diving is one of the most treacherous activities on Earth. But with proper preparation, equipment, and experience, as long as you’re not alone, caving is a safe, exciting activity.

Carlsbad Caverns chandelier formation

Thanks to the countless cavers I’ve chatted with the past few years. But a special shout out to Devra Heyer at NCKRI and NSS’s outgoing president, Geary Schindel–both graciously offered to fact check my book project when it’s ready. I hope my book helps kids appreciate why cavers are so passionate about the magic that exists in the real “land down under.”

AMERICA’S BEST IDEA: PART I

Fat Man’s Misery by David Kem-NPS Photo

As a kid, my family visited Mammoth Cave’s “Fat Man’s Misery.” It’s the first time I recall when being a kid had advantages—the cramped passage was only a problem for adults! Our family also went to the Grand Canyon one year. At the time, I didn’t comprehend the significance of national parks.

Years later, I worked at Mammoth Hot Springs, in Yellowstone National Park. I was a room attendant. This wasn’t a glamorous job. What mattered was the scenery. Although, as the summer progressed, the spectacular views became hazy from that summer’s historic forest fires.

Military firefighters in Yellowstone 1988 by Jim Peaco–NPS in Wikimedia Commons

Frequent fire updates showed the estimated burned acres. Each total resembled a lottery jackpot that kept growing. Stories of harrowing escapes spread, especially from Old Faithful. Thousands of firefighters arrived, yet couldn’t stop a single fire.

On my last day of work, ash fluttered down like snowflakes. I watched literal pillars of flame erupt along the surrounding mountain ridges. The fiery pillars dwarfed the helicopters dumping red fire retardant. The futility was apparent. Our location, the last still open, closed hours later. Employees were evacuated. Days later, an early snowfall snuffed out the widespread fires. The final jackpot total was a million acres burned.

Lechuguilla Cave’s Pearlsian Gulf by Dave Bunnell-Under Earth Images

Despite the forest fires, that summer was when I began to fully appreciate national parks. Parks preserve wilderness, history, and unique ecosystems. It’s humbling that past generations protected these areas for us to enjoy. But these public lands also help future generations. As we enter the age of genetic engineering, saving valuable habitat and biodiversity is allowing scientists to make breakthrough discoveries. Isolated ecosystems, such as Yellowstone’s hot springs and Carlsbad Cavern’s Lechuguilla Cave, have extremophile microbes. These rare organisms are helping develop future antibiotics, and understand what life might be like on other planets. Who knows what future scientists will learn in our national parks?

Southest Idaho highway

This fall, my admiration of national parks led me on another road trip out west. In seven weeks I visited five national parks, as well as other state parks and a national monument. With limited time and countless national and state parks, it’s overwhelming deciding which to visit. Each park is unique. Each, incredible in its own way.

To date, I’ve been to fourteen national parks, visiting several of these multiple times. What I’ve learned is in 1872 Yellowstone became the world’s first national park. Although America has inspired many ideas, I find myself agreeing with Ken Burns. He made an award-winning documentary series, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. There’s a book adaptation too. His belief is that America’s “invention” of national parks is its biggest legacy. Yellowstone inspired humanity to begin preserving wild lands for future generations.

However, we shouldn’t take America’s best idea for granted. New threats and ongoing challenges face all parks. I’ll touch on this topic with a “Part II” blog post. Safe travels to all amid our ongoing pandemic.

 

(For those interested, what follows are comments and photos of the parks I visited this fall.)

Fall 2021 Camping Trip Parks

Badlands National Park. Rapid erosion of sedimentary rock has created a maze of hills, canyons, and colorful rock layers.

Craters of the Moon National Monument. Sixty lava flows have created a surreal, barren landscape that gives the park its name. Bonus points for those venturing into the rugged lava tunnels.

Cultus Lake State Park in Oregon. A remote, scenic lake with wild huckleberries around the campground!

Ecola State Park in Oregon. This park’s epic coastline has beaches and sea stacks featured in movies like The Goonies, Twilight, Kindergarten Cop, and Point Break.

Fort Stevens State Park near Astoria, Oregon. This is a great base camp to visit two museums dedicated to Lewis and Clark’s historic journey (Fort Clatsop and Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center). Goonies fans can geek-out in scenic Astoria, the movie’s setting, and explore the Oregon Film Museum (where the Goonie’s opening scene took place). Astoria also has a cool observation tower overlooking the Columbia River’s mouth. This river mouth is nicknamed “The Graveyard of the Pacific” after sinking over 2,000 ships with its treacherous sandbars, tides, and currents.

Glacier National Park. This “hiker’s paradise” is filled with stunning views. Its Going-To-The-Sun Road is an engineering and scenic wonder, but not for faint-hearted drivers or bicyclists.

Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park in Montana. Abundant cave formations are this park’s highlight. Incredible staircases and a literal slide descend to a blasted out tunnel that leads you back to daylight. Its visitor center also has an outstanding park ranger talk about bats. I highly recommend this cave for children.

Mount Rainier National Park. This photogenic park is far more than its namesake mountain.

Olympic National Park. Park rangers describe this famous park as three amazing parks/ecosystems in one (coastline, temperate rainforest, and mountains). They’re right. Of note, if you rely on solar panels while camping, they’re useless in most of this park’s campgrounds because of the towering trees.

My favorite experience here was portaging my bike around a washed away bridge. This Elwha River washout has isolated a part of the park for three years, making it like a ghost town. I biked two hours, rising 1,500 feet to Appleton Pass. There, I turned around and coasted downhill for thirty minutes. For fun, I shot a rough video during my descent to make a hyperlapse video. This experimental video condenses my descent to less than three minutes. That’s like going 150 miles per hour. If you’re curious about hyperlapse video, click on the Youtube link below.

Wind Cave National Park. The boxwork cave formations here are extremely rare. Even more fascinating is whether Wind Cave and Jewel Cave are actually connected? Air-flow studies suggest they are. As cave mapping technology advances, time will tell if this becomes the longest cave complex on Earth.

FINDING YOUR PEOPLE

This past Fourth of July I met a teenager who collects aluminum can pull tabs. Not for recycling though. Each tab is an achievement. The teen removes tabs from a can’s tiny center rivet without damaging the tabs. It’s not impossible, but takes practice. Maybe people with this skill grow up to be a surgeons, or jewelers? Or, some job where patience and precision are essential? Fingers crossed this teen finds other people who share their pull tab passion.

Last week I was with people who share my passion for kidlit writing. Esteemed writers Jill Esbaum and Pat Zietlow Miller hosted nine eager students attending this year’s Whispering Woods Picture Book Workshop. Many know Jill and Pat from the Picture Book Builders blog.

Besides critiques and writing wisdom, Jill and Pat brought 200+ books they admire. Readings from this small library were always entertaining, or pulled heartstrings. My “to read list” has swelled, and my “read list” now includes these funny tales:

Besides reading and writing, another free time activity was wandering the serene paths of the prairie preserve.

Amid the preserve’s flora and fauna, an Eagle Scout placed stone markers along the trails. Each invites contemplation on epic events of the universe, Earth, and humans. A few of the stones are:

Contemplating the workshop, I remembered what a boy told me two years ago. When I brought him to Minicon 54‘s Rumpus Room for the first time, he later smiled and said, “These are my people.” (Click here for an earlier post about the Rumpus Room.) Finding people who share your interests brings joy. So, many thanks to Jill and Pat, as well as my other eight kidlit peers attending the workshop. It was a pleasure spending time in person with my people, kidlit writers.

ART EXHIBIT: “Mass Museum of Made-Up Mythology”

“What is a monster?” According to Kevin, they’re something new, but not necessarily sinister. He offered an example of a half-fly, half-frog animal. Mixed creations like this fill his sketchbooks. As displayed here, many of his mutated monsters could appear in horror movies like THE THING or LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS.

Kevin’s correct though. Sinister monsters are a matter of perspective. Consider the beloved Pixar movie MONSTERS, INC., where the “monsters” see themselves as normal, while children are feared. Or, Roald Dahl’s classic THE BFG, where a vegan giant helps a girl thwart other giants that devour children. However, we must acknowledge our “fight or flight” instincts mean we don’t react to strange things with immediate hugs.

Legendary horror writer H.P. Lovecraft sums up our instincts well: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

Seeing the unknown for the first time is both scary and fascinating. But fear isn’t Kevin’s intent. His goal is to imagine and draw something original. This background helps you better understand his art and the title for this new Fridge Art Museum exhibit: “Mass Museum of Made-Up Mythology.” Here’s a tiny sampling of his exhibit (click on any image to enlarge it):

Steampunk mechanical crow

Since Kevin’s first Fridge Art Museum exhibit, “The Best Guide to Magic Stuff,” his new handiwork dwells not just in fantasy worlds, but also steampunk and science-fiction. Most impressive is how his sketchbooks show dedication to improving his art skills. He has embraced the saying, “Practice makes perfect.”

How long does it take to master an art or skill? In Malcom Gladwell’s bestseller, OUTLIERS: THE STORY OF SUCCESS, he states an expert needs 10,000 hours of learning and practice. Dedicating this much time is daunting. Yet, we all know no one just starts out as a brain surgeon, Olympic athlete, or juggler tossing flaming axes and chainsaws. A fun documentary, THE SPEED CUBERS, details the years of practice it takes to solve Rubik’s Cube puzzles in mind-boggling times—mere seconds. Kevin’s practice sketches, drawings, role-playing-game art, and comic strips show he’s well along his way to mastering monsters and storytelling.

Lastly, a big shout out to Dave DeVries. His cool book, THE MONSTER ENGINE, celebrates children’s imagination, and transformed kid drawings. At Minicon 54, Dave was a Guest of Honor. One of his events was an art workshop in the Rumpus Room. There, he presented Kevin with the workshop’s collaborative monster drawing. Kevin was inspired.

Now Kevin can inspire us with his latest sketches and art. Be forewarned, you may experience creepy shivers while viewing his “Mass Museum of Made-Up Mythology.” Obviously, you can pause the video below at any time to admire specific drawings.

To submit fridge art for consideration, or subscribe to my e-mail list, click here.

MY “WHAT IF?” MICHIGAN CAMPING TRIP

Pixabay photo pandemic-5026719_1280 courtesy of Queven

COVID-19 has us all imagining unpleasant “What if…?” scenarios. However, these mental distractions can cause us to overlook the pandemic’s silver linings. Simpler lifestyles. Introspection on society and government. Longer library checkout times!

Imagining possible futures has reminded me of Marvel Comics’ “What if?” series. When I was an avid comic book collector, I purchased several issues.

Yes, “What if?” games can cause toilet paper hoarding. But contemplating causality can also help us appreciate serendipity.

Pandemic serendipity happened to me last month. For five nights I camped in Michigan’s Van Riper State Park. Yet, according to Melanie Brand, a decade-long park employee, I was lucky to get a spot. She said normally my stay dates are completely booked six months in advance. Why?

Numerous Michigan state parks have Harvest Festivals each fall. These events celebrate farmers’ hard work, but Halloween activities are a big attraction too. Van Riper State Park devotes three September weekends to their festival.  Entering the park, the staff set the mood with funny gravestones (inside joke–Sherri B. is the park’s longest serving staff member).

So, what if there was no pandemic? I’d never have discovered Van Riper State Park. Never gotten a camping spot, reserved just days before. Never witnessed the park’s Harvest Festival. Never had to Google “how to remove pine sap”—more on that later.

Tandem bike with skeleton

Although the festival’s regular activities were scaled back because of the virus, many regulars still came. Thus, all week I just thought it was normal for RV people to have holiday displays (albeit a bit extravagant). Then, Friday night came. When I returned from a day excursion, WOW! Halloween had overwhelmed the campground. Eerie chalk art decorated the pavement. Skeletons bicycled around. Lights and animated decorations were everywhere. It was a Halloween wonderland. Here’s just a sampling of the community’s creativity and spooky, fun vibe.

Campers I chatted with raved about past scavenger hunts, “Monster Mash” dances in the pavilion, hay rides, kid activities, and the haunted hike (with scares from lurking DNR staff and volunteers). If that’s not enough amusement in a normal year, trick-or-treating apparently requires a garbage bag for the candy haul.

Renee and Dale Rogers

Historically, Renee and Dale Rogers estimated they hand out 500-600 pieces of candy on Saturdays. They said even grown-ups get “adult treats” in some spots. They know the festival well. They won the festival’s 2017 “Scariest Campsite” contest.

For the Rogers, each year the festival is a family gathering. To avoid terrified toddlers though, Renee and Dale don’t invite their grandkids until they’re at least three years old. Then, the family’s kids have a costume contest—judged by non-family members. (Melanie said the festival once did costume contests, but judging became controversial. Now the park only has a scary campsite contest.) The Rogers’ spooky spectacle is mostly hand-crafted. This DIY aspect contrasts the carnival of purchased decorations, holograms, light shows, and videos (son-in-law Jason projects the below video on his family’s camper).

2019 schedule (click to enlarge)

To me, the festival is a paradise for kids and Halloween lovers. Even if the campground is full, anyone can still park nearby to enjoy the festivities. If you’re curious about festival activities in a regular year, Melanie shared the 2019 schedule handout shown here (click to enlarge). She also shared this link to all of Michigan’s Harvest Festivals.

As I left Saturday morning, my only “What if?” gripe was my campsite. Its only dry, level area was littered with green, gooey pinecones. Before I’d even finished setting up my tent, gunk coated my shoes’ soles. Then, day and night, pinecones bombarded my tent fly. At night, the thuds often startled me awake.

Pine sap has many helpful uses, from healing wounds to patching canoes. But each day, I battled sap on my hands and shoes. I began to ponder retribution. On my fourth day of tip-toing around my pine cone minefield, I wondered, “What if I burned them?”

Pixaby photo fire 605585_640 courtesy of malubeng

My night of pinecone pyromania was more like smoke-mania. Not surprisingly, newly dropped cones are really, really hard to burn. The wet sap insulates conifer seeds from forest fires. Only a few cones from past years—finally dry—burned well. Eventually, my smokefest earned pity and a firewood gift from my RV neighbors. The dry fuel helped me achieve modest justice and warmth before I retreated into my sleeping bag.

Luckily, the festival’s friendly community and park staff more than compensated for the sticky campsite and frosty nights. Melanie even shared a great tip for removing pine sap: hand sanitizer (anything with alcohol apparently works too). Best of all, the festival reminded me to appreciate “What if?” serendipity.

I’ll end with another serendipitous surprise during this camping trip:  a visit to Palms Book Big Spring State Park. What if my friend had never suggested stopping here? What if my route home didn’t just happen to pass by it? Without these and other precursors, I’d never have seen this park’s mesmerizing mineral spring. You view the spring from a silent, floating platform. Down 45 feet, the sandy bottom roils from the spring’s inflow. Lunker trout and salmon also circle beneath. It’s all surreal, similar to deep sea hydrothermal vents (pics and video below).

Until normal returns, don’t miss seeing silver linings, and take care.

ART EXHIBIT: “The Best Comics” and Dungeons & Dragons

BREAKING NEWS!

The Masked Comic Maker has revealed his secret identity! His name is…Hudson.

His art exhibit, “The Best Comics,” is the latest addition to the Fridge Art Museum.

Hudson’s comics and art are inspired by comic books, books, graphic novels, movies, and TV shows (Alan Moore is one of his favorite writers). For his original comics, he often uses irony or satire (like his “Ugly Ugene” comic). He writes short stories too, like “Rise of the Scarecrow,” which he reads during his exhibit.

His latest passion is creating interactive adventures for the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D, or “D and D”). Decades before Harry Potter, D&D was demonized for glorifying magic and monsters. Yet the fantasy genre exercises our “mind’s eye” (imagination) more than other stories. D&D also requires applied math, reading, and social interaction—all aspects parents should appreciate.

Sorry to digress on preaching the merits of D&D, but the game has surged in popularity. Estimates are 12-15 million people play in North America alone, and 40 million worldwide (60% older than 25). Two award-winning TV shows frequently feature the game, Netflix’s Stranger Things and CBS’s The Big Bang Theory. For those wanting to learn more about D&D’s history (good and bad), below are several articles:

How Dungeons & Dragons somehow became more popular than ever

No more nerds: how Dungeons & Dragons finally became cool

What It’s Like to Be a Woman Playing Dungeons & Dragons on the Internet

How Women Are Driving the Dungeons & Dragons Renaissance

As a retired D&D player, I was intrigued by a play Hudson’s grandmother suggested, She Kills Monsters: Young Adventurers Edition. So, this fall I asked Hudson’s family to go with me. They accepted, in part because the play was produced by the renowned Redmond Proficiency Academy.

The play showcased how role-playing D&D’s imaginary characters is collaborative fun. But the story’s humor, 90’s music, and high-energy cast also tackled somber teen issues like bullying, negative stereotypes, and death. Female and handicapped empowerment were powerful themes too (in D&D, anyone can save the day, or die a noble death). Hudson enjoyed the play, as did his family and I. The boisterous standing ovation for the director, performers, and crew was well deserved.

After this rambling endorsement of D&D, my point is, I salute parents and adults who encourage youth creativity (however it’s expressed). Arguably, our brain’s most powerful ability is imagination. Not only for making art and stories, but human civilization is based on inventions and new ideas.

Without further delay, I present Hudson’s imagination below. Consider pausing the video to read the dialogue bubbles or better study little details—you won’t be disappointed!

EATEN ALIVE

Recently, monsters ate me alive. Insects and aliens too. My digital deaths took place at the Minnesota Science Museum’s GAME CHANGERS video game exhibit. There, I relived the 1980s, similar to one of my favorite books, READY PLAYER ONE.

The exhibit profiled key video game designers and companies who introduced “game changing” concepts. Ideas like scrolling screens, dual joysticks, power-ups, initials next to high scores, multiplayer online games, and god games. The exhibit also displayed amazing concept art used to develop several modern computer role-playing games.

Video game history is fascinating, but 100+ free-play games are the exhibit’s main lure. The arcade sound effects and flashing lights awoke my dormant video game skills.

Soon, I made it past “Pac-Man’s” second intermission, but was devoured just shy of the high score. Playing “Centipede,” two of my insect battles made the top six scores. Inevitable explosive demises got me the high scores on “Space Invaders” and “Missile Command.” However, “Donkey Kong’s” angry ape humbled me (I never made it past the first screen). If Kurt Vonnegut contemplated video game deaths, be they heroic or humiliating, he might simply say, “So it goes.”

Watching kids, adults, and elderly play side-by-side seemed to affirm the retro appeal of simple games. For example, “Gunfight” was very popular. Set in the Wild West, two players face off with just six bullets. Most showdowns lasted mere seconds. The winner has the most hits in sixty seconds.

As a kid, I never played “Gunfight.” I stuck to games I was good at, and could enjoy longer than sixty seconds. My limited quarters lasted longer then. But, with the exhibit’s free-play games, I had no such financial hesitation. Besides “Gunfight,” I tried “Reactor,” “Robotron,” and “Scramble.”

I also played games I rarely played as a kid. Games that were popular, but had learning curves that gobbled stacks of quarters. Visual chaos games like “Tempest,” “Defender,” and “Asteroids.”

The exhibit wasn’t just classic arcade games though. There were modern games like “Angry Birds,” “Rock Band,” “Dance Central,” “Warcraft,” and “Minecraft.” Some games were bizarre, but looked cool.

One station had the latest trend in video games: virtual reality goggles. There, using a simple smartphone app, kids drew art that was converted into an immersive 3-D world. Whether 3-D entertainment leads to READY PLAYER ONE’s dystopian, dehumanized future wasn’t touched on though.

Overall, the exhibit showed how video games are evolving. The free-play video games made history fun for all, but older players racked up nostalgia bonus points. Regardless of your age, I urge you to treat yourself to nostalgic fun now and then. Even if that happiness means your digital avatar ends up being eaten alive.

(If you’re curious, play the nostalgic pop tune below, “Pac-Man Fever” by Buckner & Garcia. The song peaked at #9 on the Billboard charts.)

 

AN ANCIENT ALLIANCE

Photo by Widerstroem, Pixabay

I grew up with a Siberian Husky. Bandit loved diving into and plowing through deep snow. I often wondered how he’d do pulling a sled.

Over the years, I’ve also enjoyed stories with people and dogs, together battling harsh conditions. Books and movies that illustrate an ancient alliance (Note: I will add to this list over time).

This dogsled fascination compelled me to volunteer at this year’s Gunflint Mail Run. The race is restricted to 300 dogs on 30 dog teams. Hungry teams that are fed by deep pockets, sponsors, and/or creative food sources, like road kills or butcher waste.

Animal-rights groups often criticize dogsled races as cruel. However, dog abuse isn’t limited to mushers. It’s unfair to condemn all sled dog races, dog shows, or breeders based on a few owners obsessed with glory or money. Using that extreme logic, one could argue no animal abuse would ever occur if we forbid humans from owning any pet. Yet that logic ignores studies that prove human interaction with dogs (or any pet) develops social skills and empathy toward people, let alone animals.

I do appreciate that critics have helped sled races get better at protecting dogs’ health and catching cheaters. Susan Butcher, a legendary Iditarod racer, helped show that well-cared-for dogs actually perform better. No one would deny though that long races test human and canine endurance. Injuries happen to paws, or from frostbite. Deaths happen from pneumonia (as one dog died from this year), vehicle collisions, or animal attacks (Susan Butcher lost two dogs and had thirteen injured in 1985’s Iditarod race when her sled team was attacked by a moose). Tragic accidents can happen when doing something you love to do. That doesn’t mean you should never leave home. So, perhaps critics should consider, “Do sled dogs enjoy racing?”

Anyone attending the Gunflint Mail Run would see dog teams eager to start, or wagging tails as they crossed the finish line. Those dogs loved running. Pulling. Feeling the wind and trees and snow rush past. Musher affection and respect for their pack was easy to see. The only tension was in the crowd, whose curiosity intruded on each team’s privacy. A family bond author Gary Paulsen ached for when he gave up dog racing, writing “How can it be to live without the dogs?”

As I and other volunteers waited at one of the crossroads, we didn’t debate the morality of pets and animal breeding. Instead, we joked and shared stories around a fire. We were dog lovers. Nature lovers. Lovers of older, simpler ways. When something approached, we scrambled into place. We formed a line that kept the dogs on the main path, or stopped cars or snowmobiles as sleds passed by. To honor each team’s effort, our claps and cheers echoed through the vast public forest around us.

Photo by tatyanalevitskaya, Pixabay

When dusk became darkness, we spotted teams by their musher’s headlamp. A light that twinkled through the trees. Dogs also wore blinking LEDs or glow stick necklaces. These required safety lights made some dogsled teams seem like moving Christmas trees.

A few times dogsleds bunched up as one team passed or gained on another. Other teams were content to race for personal best times, not trophies. All raced to celebrate a unique winter alliance. Two species, united in purpose, hauling a load none could move alone.

Photo by skeeze, Pixabay

As teams whooshed by, mushers shouted thanks (for volunteering), or “Haw” and “Gee” (steering the dogs). Once the team’s status was radioed in, cold, quiet darkness returned. In the silence, winds whistled through pine needles, sounding like waves on a beach. Amid these waves, faint northern lights even appeared. Their glow shimmered along the hazy Canadian horizon.

After three days along the Gunflint Trail, the dog city, population 300, melted away like a snowman. Gone, until next winter.

For fun, I made a video of 2019’s race. I hope all, even critics, can appreciate the bond between a musher and their dogs. Appreciate how teams train and test themselves. Appreciate how an old alliance enjoys a cold, starry night.

 

Other articles on Minnesota mushers:

Young musher to compete in Junior Beargrease

The Beargrease sled dog race has stellar dogs; some are extraordinary

 

Dog Sledding in the Northland

Breaking the Cardinal Rules

 

 

All book covers and movie posters are from Imdb.com or Goodreads.com. Unless indicated, all photos are taken by Randy Haaland, ©2019, all rights reserved.

THANK YOU STINKY ALGAE

Winter can have bad smells too! Photo by Randy Haaland

Should summer smell like rotting fish and algae farts? That’s what I wondered while I was in Fort Myers Beach for ten weeks last summer. During that time, Southwest Florida’s beaches were besieged by red tide. Casualties that washed ashore included threatened sea turtles and manatees, adored dolphins, and uncountable crustaceans and fish.

The costliest casualties though, were tourists. Their cash, wake boards, and sandcastles fled to more enjoyable beaches. Jilted residents and businesses went from frustrated to furious. They’re demanding changes. Otherwise, they fear property values will decline. Hotel empires will suffer. Ice cream stands will close.

All are legit fears. All because of an invasion of microscopic algae.

However, I’m glad my summer stunk. Really, truly, we should thank the algae.

We shouldn’t just be grateful that algae’s photosynthesis makes 70-80% of the oxygen we breath. We should appreciate that reeking algae helps identify careless human actions. In Florida’s case, fertilizer runoff in overdeveloped, flood-prone areas (where drainage ditches send fertilizer into waterways, feeding algae blooms). Other human-caused pollution doesn’t cause a stench, so outcry is less. For example, ocean microplastics and rising mercury levels in seafood get little publicity.

Plastic pollution, photo courtesy of geraldsimon00 on Pixabay
Photo courtesy of 3dman_eu on Pixabay

Thus, red tide’s funky farts and fishkills should be considered a welcome red flag.

Not convinced? Consider two examples of odorless water pollution.

Photo courtesy of USFWS

When I returned to Minnesota last fall, gracious friends let me stay at their island cabin. There, majestic bald eagles circled and perched in the tallest Norway pines. They watched for prey, preened, and rested. And screeched—a less dramatic sound than often portrayed in movies (my video below recorded three eagles screaming at each other). I’d never witnessed such a scene, despite eagles being common throughout Minnesota nowadays.

Rainy Lake eagle nest, photo by Randy Haaland

When I was growing up though, bald eagles were an endangered species. The reason for their decline was their eggs were brittle (breaking in the nest before a chick was mature). Research linked the thin eggs to the pesticide DDT in contaminated fish, a key food source for eagles.

Newborn chicks. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

Like canaries in a coal mine, dead eagle chicks helped symbolize that DDT harmed humans too (from autism to many cancers). Yet despite early warnings, the nearly odorless DDT was used for decades before it was banned in 1972. Residual DDT still persists in water today, over 45 years later, but eagle populations have recovered.

The second sad pollution example is a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency study I learned about last year when I attended Minicon 53. Scientists found widespread trace pharmaceuticals and chemicals in sampled rivers and lakes, including a remote Boundary Waters Canoe Area lake. The data led scientists to several surprising culprits, one of which was sewage pond evaporation that spread contaminants via rainfall (click to read an MPR article, or the actual report).

Minnesotans would riot if our abundant lakes, streams, and rivers suddenly were putrid. But trace water pollution rarely has a distinctive smell.  Rainfall pollution also has stunning implications, just as acidic rainfall does. Yet, no smell, no fuss.

Photo courtesy of Minnesota PCA

Sadly, politicians and citizens seem to only act when lawsuits and/or health problems pile up (including fish health, which affects fishing tourism). Without sick or dying people, speedy political action on pollution only seems to happen when one of three conditions exist:

These three conditions all apply to Florida’s red tides! Therefore, I’m optimistic Florida will defeat the algae blooms attacking its summer beaches.

Ft. Myers Beach, photo by Randy Haaland

Fresh salty breezes won’t return overnight. But Floridians can’t ignore fertilizer pollution has consequences. They can’t ignore rerouting the “River of Grass” has consequences. They can’t ignore declining tourism.

Stench spurs action.

For this kick to our nostrils, thank you stinky algae! If only all pollution had foul odors.