Missississippi River in Little Falls, MN

The “Mighty Mississippi” was my childhood backyard. The river provided endless wonder with its ever-changing scenery and activity. Amid fall colors, large flocks of geese and ducks migrated south. During winter, snowmobiles and cross country skiers traveled over the river’s frozen surface. Deer and fox tracks crept across thin ice. Come spring, sheets of ice crashed and clawed against the riverbank’s budding trees. Summers featured water-skiers, fishing boats, canoes, and kayaks. Jumping fish. Ducklings paddling by. Plus, our Tarzan rope swing promised a cool plunge on a hot day.

In contrast, water’s wonders were rare when I wintered in arid New Mexico. While there in 2021, I volunteered as a dogwalker at the High Desert Humane Society. To help a special dog find a new home, I started walking him around the Silver City’s downtown area with an “Adopt me” sign. One stop was city hall’s lawn. Few lawns exist because water’s expensive. This dog pranced for joy on the grass—much different then the dry region’s sharp stones and prickly cactus. Another stop was a tiny creek hidden in a ravine. On his first visit there, it was clear he had never seen standing water before. He was suspicious of the water trickling between small pools. He inched forward. He sniffed. He eased a paw into the water. Instant glee. He waded in and didn’t want to leave. His adoption before I departed was memorable for all. Deserts have their own unique beauty, but my furry friend’s lasting impression on me was how precious water is. It creates happiness.

Me at Caribou Falls, Minnesota

Nowadays, I’m a waterfall junkie. Tumbling water creates iconic sounds. Sounds that change through the seasons, and after rainfalls. Sunlight, clouds, and shadows also alter waterfall scenes. Especially in gorges, where mid-day sun highlights the mist, moss, leaves, glistening rocks, and hidden trout or salmon. These subtle variables make a waterfall different on every visit, or even while you watch. This past year, I viewed dozens of waterfalls, many in Hawaii. Some were new, others were perpetual favorites along Minnesota’s North Shore. To celebrate their wonder, I compiled video clips of several below (which will be my webpage header video for awhile).

Unfortunately, clean water, droughts, and aquifer depletion are hot topics. Yet ignoring water problems doesn’t make them someone else’s problem. Growing up, our family drank well water with high nitrate levels (caused by nearby farm fertilizer pollution, which is now gone). I also watched frequent chemical slicks float by our house (Hennepin Paper Company pollution, now gone due to the factory’s closure). Back then, nobody knew, or cared enough, to stop unsafe water practices.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay pollution-8252584_1920 by Pete Linforth

Today, clean water is a priority. Yet water faces new threats from microplastics, mining, “forever chemicals,” and sewage treatment ponds. Threats that create hard questions. Who pays for water pollution that can last centuries? Can we restore vast oceans that billions of people rely on for food? Will irrigation needs exhaust ground water sources? And most importantly, should you feel guilty about flushing toilets? (Probably not, but water conservation and composting toilets are worth learning about!)

Photo courtesy Pixabay global-warming-2958988_1920 by Chris LeBoutillier

Earth’s surface may be 71% water, but less than 1% of all water is fresh water, easily used (i.e. not salt water, or frozen). Fresh water obviously is used for drinking and household needs, but also fuels industry and farming. Competing water needs mean fierce debates will continue over pollution and water access. In Minnesota, some ideas include diverting water out west via freight trains, or filtering mining wastewater “indefinitely” (i.e. for at least a thousand years). Projects like these seem ludicrous, but are real. Climate change, greed, and desperation mean such ideas will persist and evolve. Especially in Minnesota given we’re the literal “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” headwaters of the Mississippi, and have access to Lake Superior (the world’s largest freshwater lake).

Vigilance, conservation, and facts are essential for a future with safe, accessible water. That’s why it’s wise to learn more about the “H-two-O” molecule! To start with, I’ve listed kidlit books throughout this post that have water as their subject, plot, or setting (click on any book cover to enlarge it). Although I enjoyed these books, my usual disclaimer is no book is for everyone, or for all-ages. With endless books to read, skip books that don’t appeal to you—unless there’s a test involved! But read more about water. You won’t regret it.

Take care in 2024, including the wonderful water around you.


Photo courtesy of Hawaii Invasive Species Council website

Since I was a kid, I love watching fireworks. That’s why last month, while island-hopping in Hawaii, I couldn’t miss seeing Mount Kilauea’s latest eruption. To avoid parking problems and crowds, I went after midnight. For three hours I was mesmerized by lava fireworks, often watching through binoculars or my camera’s zoom lens. All the while, tiny-but-loud coqui frogs’ chirped (one of countless invasive species disrupting Hawaii’s unique ecosystem.)

The lava lake’s subtle flares and shifting crust are hard to notice in real time, so I made a 90 second time-lapse video below. (The video highlights are at eight times normal speed, with the coqui frogs’ Ko-KEEE peeps in real time.)

Over millions of years, eruptions have made sprawling lava tube complexes on every Hawaiian island. On the Big Island, Kazumura Cave’s 40+ miles of lava tubes are currently the longest and deepest complex in the world. Inside tunnels, superheated winds can shape and dry receding lava into unusual formations.

After lava cools, its porous rock allows abundant Hawaiian rain to seep down into old lava tunnels. This moisture creates mineral formations, as well as supports “unique ecosystems of troglobites, animals specifically adapted to live in this dark isolated world. Distinct species of crickets and spiders develop alongside special microbial colonies found nowhere else.” (NPS excerpt)

Hawaii is honeycombed with lava tubes, but most aren’t accessible or suitable for tourists. Family-friendly cave tours I recommend are at the Big Island’s Kazamura Cave and Kula Kai Cave, plus Maui’s Hana Lava Tube (Ka’Eleku Cavern) and Kauai’s Makauwahi Cave. If you have limited time, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park’s Thurston Lava Tube is self-guided and its lit passage only takes a few minutes to safely explore. For more adventuresome cavers, try Kazamura Cave’s extended tour, or contact the National Speleological Society’s (NSS) Hawaii grotto to tag along with one of their regular educational caving trips (they loan you caving gear for free).

Without further delay, enjoy Mother Nature’s lava fireworks.

(For those interested, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park live-streams Mount Kilauea’s caldera. Just click here.)


The murder victim…

I was a murder suspect last month. So were 25+ others that attended Ely Public Library’s murder mystery party. The event was set in the 1970s Harry Potter universe, during a Hogwarts Midwinter Ball.

Before dancing occurred though, a scream echoed through the library. News spread fast—there was a murderer among us. Attendees quickly began sleuthing for clues and conspiracies. Who and why had someone murdered a wizard diva that had performed live as people arrived?

During the party, I played Gregard Avery, a moody prankster with ties to the infamous Lord Voldemort (as a keepsake, attendees each got a personalized character glass for sipping unpoisoned punch). My costume was inspired by the setting’s disco era. For a prank, I passed around Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans (which have a random mix of horrid jelly bean flavors like booger, earwax, vomit, etc.).

At the end, I got two votes as the likely murderer. With the large cast and numerous schemes afoot though, many suspects got votes. Yet only one person smartly deduced who the real murderer was.

Each murder suspect gave a big speech at the end.

Impressive, fun library events like this are surprisingly common nowadays. Libraries are now community centers with activities, classes, and social events—many inspired by popular books. Such as the following week, when library fun continued with a Harry Potter “prep school.” There, children learned about potions (making colorful, bubbling lava lamps), herbology (planting chives in seed starter pots), and cracking secret codes. The week after, an event encouraged people to bring in their favorite games, as well as play test their invented games (Minnesota winters cultivate board games, story here). Ely and other public libraries also regularly host book clubs, hobby clubs, craft sessions, jigsaw puzzle swap meets, storytime, STEAM classes, escape room events, and oodles of other activities! Clearly public libraries aren’t just for housing books anymore.

Ely’s Friends of the Library logo

After my winter stay in Minnesota’s northland, I salute Ely’s library staff and its Friends of the Library organization. They demonstrate that public libraries make reading and lifelong learning fun for all ages. Even if fun means being a murder suspect now and then.

(All event photos are courtesy of Ely Public Library’s Facebook post, link here)


Nature’s transformations make fun time-lapse videos. This fall, I began two such video projects that I’m now sharing. The first turned autumn’s colors into a hyperlapse video that moves along Itasca State Park’s scenic Wilderness Drive. My 33 minute trip below is condensed to 2 minutes of painted forest rushing by.

The second project may not appeal to everyone—a 3 minute time-lapse video about “the circle of life.” Here, scavengers’ beaks and teeth transform a deer carcass into bare bones. The backstory is, sadly, a car hit a young buck near where I was staying (thankfully, the driver wasn’t injured).

Nobody wanted to salvage the deer’s meat. So, I decided to have a new experience. I asked the state patrol trooper managing the accident to issue me a permit to take the deer (without a permit, it’s illegal to harvest a deer outside of hunting season). With an ATV, I then dragged the buck to a quiet glade in our family’s woods. There, scavengers could peacefully eat, safe from the highway’s dangers.

I’d never butchered a deer, so I watched several online videos. Then, with a sharp knife, I removed salvageable venison. To spoil my friend’s dog, Mia, I also saved the buck’s antlers as chew toys (plus, I cooked venison scraps to make dog treats).

When finished, I set up a trail camera to spy on the remaining carcass. The video’s 6,600+ photos show how a deer’s death gives life to many, many animals. Magpies. Blue Jays. Crows. Ravens. Seven Bald Eagles (four adults, three juveniles). Larger visitors included a coyote, gray fox, and family of four bears.

Unseen benefactors were countless smaller birds and insects, Mia (gnawing on antlers and gobbling her treats), as well as people (myself and four families I shared the venison with). After 72 hours, only a partial skeleton remained (dragged fifty yards away). A week later, I couldn’t even find a hair. A saying sums up the following video well, “Nothing goes to waste in nature.”

Truly, nothing is wasted in nature—things just transform. Falling leaves transform into soil. A dead animal transforms by feeding other animals. Far stranger, supernovas long ago created elements that transformed into essential parts of our bodies. Wow. For me, nature’s transformations are a never-ending source of wonder. I hope these videos inspire that same wonder with you!


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!



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.”


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.


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.


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.