ALIENS AND DRAGONS AND SITH, OH MY!

Last weekend I was with Indiana Jones, Klingons, and jedi. We and other sci-fi/fantasy fans were at Marscon, a Twin Cities sci-fi/fantasy convention determined to break up winter blahs, even on Hoth. As a first-year attendee, I thought I’d share my rookie experience.

With limited time, my main focus was attending 1-2 panel talks each day (a fraction of the 60+ that occur over three days). Highest on my radar was the Artificial Intelligence (AI) panel. AI discussions can quickly digress, so this open panel was chaotic. One notable example came from MaryJanice Davidson, who shared that her novels had been swiped to train Meta AI (and others). To learn more about AI’s torturous promise and risks, you might read a comprehensive New Yorker article published this week (link here).

My favorite panel was moderated by David Lenander, which delved into dozens of childrens’ fantasy and sci-fi stories and authors (Philip Pullman vs. C.S. Lewis was a lively discourse). Afterward, I added these four kidlit books to my to-read list:

Film panelists (click to enlarge)

A reoccurring panel gave its annual report about a hypothetical, uncrewed probe speeding toward the Proxima Centauri star system (reviewing the tech involved). Here, I learned that my understanding of quantum entanglement (“spooky physics”) was cursory at best, misinformed at worst.

Lastly, the popular filmmaking panel had a packed room. The panelists’ passion and collaboration message was infectious. But I suspect none of the engaged audience will quit their day job soon after hearing how Hollywood accounting hides streaming income. So many panels, so little time. I wished I had clones, drones, or a time-turner to attend everything I wanted to!

For fun, I watched several performances, but regret I didn’t have time for any of the celebrated comedic/filk concerts. My personal favorite was the taiko drumming concert, which included horns and flutes with its choreographed thunder. The improv comedy act was applauded for skillfully handling the audience’s prompts (sometimes risque). For a touch of danger, I watched a portion of the Korean swords demonstration (where the sounds of slicing air were a constant reminder that swordplay is serious business). In the gaming area, I enjoyed my chats with players and staff from Dreamers Vault Games (where they demonstrated newly released card and board games). Quieter attractions I strolled through included the art show and intriguing “Q Branch” Prop-A-Torium (displaying private collections of TV/movie props and fan art, pics below).

For any convention, the #1 draw of course is meeting people with the same interests. Many sci-fi/fantasy guests are novice, emerging, or established artists/writers, and Marscon was no different. In addition to me chatting with other writers, who doesn’t appreciate fandom’s impressive cosplayers? I especially admired the props and costumes of a plague doctor, and the squad of Nomad Ghostbusters of Minnesota safeguarding the hotel before this month’s release of Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire.

Pic courtesy of Nomad Ghostbusters of Minnesota’s Facebook page

My lone disappointment was the Red Cross blood bus was sabotaged by gremlins. Oh well, I rescheduled my donation to next week. This blood drive was organized by the local Star Trek fan club chapter, USS Nokomis. I plan to bleed for them again at July’s Convergence convention blood drive. Interesting blood drive trivia: “The Minnesota and Dakotas Region is ‘particularly generous’ and contributes 40 percent of the nation’s blood supply.” That equates to 2% of Americans donating 40% of the nation’s blood. Wow, “Minnesota Nice” is real! Just don’t tell the vampires.

In closing, thanks to Marscon’s Shhh…That’s Classified volunteers, panelists, and performers! Well done. I’ve pre-registered for 2025’s Gone Rogue convention, and look forward to another fun, informative weekend (and making time for filk concerts)! Until then, as Stan Lee would say, “Nuff said.”

WONDERFUL WATER

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.

LAVA FIREWORKS

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.)

LIBRARY FUN

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)

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.