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.”

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.

MINICON’S ROLLICKING RUMPUS ROOM

Everyone needs a Rumpus Room.

Even adults.

That’s the motto of the always-smiling Bonnie Somdahl. This past weekend she supervised the Rumpus Room area of Minicon 53’s science fiction and fantasy convention. Bonnie’s Rumpus Room is of course inspired by Maurice Sendek’s Where the Wild Things Are. Yet one might also compare it to J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

There, Gryffindor students melted marshmallow monsters, and Ravenclaws built clothespin fairies that flitted about with a helping hand.

Hufflepuffs made microscopes and cultures to study Earth’s invisible realms. Realms ruled by paramecium, volvox, and teeny-tiny tardigrades. Although the latter eluded detection due to the frozen landscape.

Lock picking class at Minicon 53

Even Slytherins had a grand time since discrimination isn’t allowed under Minicon’s Code of Conduct. Their Defense Against the Dark Arts training included lock-picking and Nerf gun marksmanship.

Other activities included puppet theater, puzzles, a scientific scavenger hunt, making fancy Czech Easter eggs, an Easter egg hunt, and creating stuffed sock animals. In addition, there was a dog theme this year. Kids made Frankenstein-like pooches using beanie babies in the “Create your own dog breed” session, as well as twisted balloon dogs. There was actual canine training too to help tame any Fluffy. The final class was “Tool Time for Kids,” where kids dissected muggle electronics.

Hermione with Crookshanks at Minicon 53 Costume Contest

But the Rumpus Room’s energy level peaked when professors made sure anyone who wanted a costume had one. For over three hours, scissors, sewing machines, glitter tattoos, and elaborate braids transformed children for Saturday evening’s costume contest. There, a Klingon emcee introduced Luna Lovegood, Hermione Granger, Spock, Catbus, Kylo Ren, Victor Nikiforov, a duo of Undertale video game characters, as well as Bluebell the water fairy, Jade the tree elf, Mother Nature, and the goddess Queen Rainboom. Adult cosplay grandstanded too of course, but the tykes and teens took home the majority of the showcase’s awards.

Cotton candy at Minicon 53

To fuel this enterprise, similar to Hogwarts’ Great Hall, Minicon’s ConSuite offered endless snacks, beverages, and meals. While supplies lasted, sugar addicts also swarmed a cotton candy machine (all food and beverages are free for Minicon members).

How did Bonnie manage this chaos? With a clever system that epitomizes James Garfield’s saying, “He who controls the money supply of a nation controls the nation.” Acting much like Gringotts bank, Bonnie dispensed gold coins to those doing activities, puppet shows, or anything deemed worthy. The coins then purchased items from tables heaped with donated toys, activity books, novelties, and art supplies.

Bonnie Somdahl with professors John Wardale and Josh More at Minicon 51 (photo by David Dyer-Bennet)

Bonnie’s always quick to credit the Rumpus Room’s success to her cadre of equally devoted professors. Indeed, of her score of help, some have entertained and educated Minicon’s children longer than she has. Collectively, these faculty embrace “insanity” to create a fun space where all-ages learn and play. This inclusive philosophy has created a bustling area whose population exceeded thirty bodies at one point. By my estimate, ten percent of the convention’s 545 attendees were kids and adults who attended and/or helped the Rumpus Room.

This contrasts when Bonnie took charge at Minicon 47. Then, she feared no children would even show up (she could remember only two kids who took part in Minicon 46’s kids’ programming). So, to ensure success, she brought her own grandkids to establish a fun vibe. It worked.

Chas Somdahl, Bonnie’s husband and a mainstay professor, described the Rumpus Room as “A con within a con.” In fact, word of mouth brought at least one family to Minicon 53 strictly for the Rumpus Room’s activities. I can echo this sentiment, as next year I already preregistered two children I know I’ll have to drag back home to their parents.

Dragon drawing at Minicon 53

Of the kids attending, Luna said, “I like everything. There’s always something to do.” Altin felt the same and said, “I really liked everything.” Some favored the gel decorative frosting though, which went more into their mouths than on their marshmallow sculptures. Free play also thrives—art covered the walls, and Madeline enjoyed building a fort with toy bricks. New friends are made too—one child was heartbroken when a prior Minicon playmate couldn’t attend this year.

What’s the Rumpus Room’s origin story?

Cartoon by Teddy Harvia (from Minicon 25 guidebook)

Early Minicons offered a paid babysitter. Sharon Kahn and Carol Kennedy explained the early conventions also had babysitting cooperatives, where parents took turns watching younger children in a hotel room (which inspired a cartoon in Minicon 25’s guidebook). Older children were “emancipated” and allowed to play “stairway tag” on their own. The mention of stairway tag brought a smile to Thorin Tatge. Decades later, he is now a games professor in the Rumpus Room (a welcome break when he’s not cranking out issues of the convention’s Bozo Bus Tribune).

Starting at Minicon 31, childcare evolved into “childrens’ programming.” With ups and downs the next decade, Marian Turner became headmistress at Minicon 41. She remained in charge through Minicon 46, bringing stability to childrens’ activities until Bonnie became her successor at Minicon 47.

Art by Bonnie Somdahl (from Minicon 40 guidebook)

Bonnie and Chas first attended Minicon 32. In the two decades since, Chas has been an occasional panel member and a frequent musician (he’s part of the duo Riverfolk). Bonnie has contributed guidebook art, and was in charge of helping with costumes starting at Minicon 43. Four conventions later, she became headmistress. Her first act was to introduce more structured activities. The following year she rebranded “Kids’ Programming” into the all-ages “Rumpus Room.” This past weekend, her seventh consecutive year in charge, she became Minicon’s longest serving headmistress.

Toy volcano at Minicon 53

Her legendary dedication includes showing up last year for Minicon’s opening ceremony the day after an emergency appendectomy. Yet, she isn’t superhuman. She isn’t always nice either. Her daughter Guinevere, another anchor professor, cautioned, “She’s the sweetest person until she’s playing a board game. Then, she’s absolutely ruthless.” This dark side might explain Bonnie’s tolerance of toy figures being stuffed into the Rumpus Room’s volcano. If one overlooks her tolerance of toy and marshmallow sacrifices though, Bonnie’s charm, patience, and dedication clearly make her a wonderful headmistress.

After 48 hours of imagination and insanity, the Rumpus Room closes. Professors gather their paraphernalia, and the rest is inventoried and packed into totes. All that fun, all that magic, is then stashed in a secret storage locker until its power is needed again.

How long will Bonnie run the Rumpus Room? She isn’t sure. However, she plans to groom a successor. An unnamed heir that will ensure the Rumpus Room’s legacy continues. For now, Minicon’s community is lucky to have Bonnie, and a cadre of dedicated professors. They’ve made a special place, even for adults.

Box castle at Minicon 53

Although I do have advice for adults who swing by future Rumpus Rooms. Don’t be alarmed if you hear “Wing-GAR-dium Levi-O-sa.” As you float upward, just realize young Hogwarts students often prank unwary visitors with levitate charms. Enjoy the ride, as I did, or improvise a wand and utter a Finite counterspell. But if you dare to venture toward the box castle, carry a shield. This province has ranged weapons, fierce teddy bears, and a “No grown-ups!” policy.

You’ve been warned.

 

Credits:

Minicon 53 program cover, art by Jon Arfstrom

For information on past and future Minicons, click here. A shout out to Matt Strait, whose archiving efforts were invaluable in researching Minicon’s five-decade history. My gratitude also goes out to Bonnie and Emily Stewart, who helped make this profile story possible.