Tuesday, February 14, 2017

I Love Texas Hearts

To me, Texas Hill Country is a place that is very romantic, in the broadest sense of the word. With its rolling hills, deep wooded ravines, and slow-moving rivers, it seems as mysterious, ancient, and alluring as any rural Mediterranean province in Italy or France.

This romantic sensibility is most profoundly expressed, I think, by the local custom of referring to indigenous clam fossils as “Texas Hearts.” (OK, so fossilized clams might not be the most romantic thing I could have written about in recognition of Valentine’s Day, but the only other thing reminiscent of Texas I could think of would have been something related to beef hearts, to which most people respond to with “Yuck!”)


During the Cretaceous period (c. 145 million to 65 million BCE), the area of south-central Texas that we know today to be profoundly hilly was instead part of a warm, shallow sea, and inhabited, among other things, by a wide variety of now-extinct shellfish. The calcium from the shells of such creatures is what ultimately formed the native limestone that characterizes the area  to a depth of more than 1,000 feet in some places  and over the millennia it was uplifted by geological processes and gradually formed in to the land we know today.


Texas Hearts are, in short, fossilized bivalve clams that date to this extended geological period. And they do, in fact, look very much like actual hearts, and even a little bit like the stylized images that appear on Valentine’s Day cards and are used as used as shorthand for the word “love.”


The term “Texas Hearts” is sometimes also applied to fossilized sand dollars, sea urchins, and other marine organisms, but these do not actually look much like hearts at all, and are more properly referred to in my mind as “Texas Stars.” All such fossilized remains are, in any event, fairly common throughout Texas, from San Antonio to Fort Worth, and are a selling point for visitors.


“If you pay attention to where you walk in these limestone hills, you’re pretty apt to find all sorts of fossils,” the Bandera Convention and Visitors Bureau says on its website. “If you are lucky, you may even find what we call a ‘Texas Heart,’ which is a fossilized clam and looks just like a heart. Usually, they are about the size of a large apple.”


“One of the best places to fossil hunt is along the creek and river beds where the water has washed away the soil,” the Bandera CVB advises. “Another good place is along the road where the earth was cut back to build the road.” Anyone who has driven along appropriate roads on nice weekend days has very likely seen people applying this methodology.


And anyone taking an observant walk through Hill Country can find Texas Hearts and other fascinating evidence of its ancient and very different past; beyond the fossilized clams I have discovered over the last year-and-a-half, the most prized treasure I have found is the fossilized tooth of what must have been a gargantuan shark.


Not everyone’s own heart is, of course, stirred by such things … But, if yours is, then you will likely enjoy Texas Hill Country all the more.


Happy Valentine’s Day! 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

An Exercise in Resolve Redux

One of the things I did throughout 2015 was post an ongoing log, month-by-month, of my daily exercise, particularly the distance I was covering and the weight of the gear I was carrying with me. In general, I was carrying either a "light" or a "medium" load and hoping to build up the a "heavy" one while not reducing the length of my walk. For reasons that seemed good at the time I decided not to continue doing this in 2016 and believe that my exercise routine suffered a bit as a result of my not tracking it (and probably also because me feet were not held to the fire by public posts). January was pretty chaotic for me, as a result of getting ready for and then going to East Asia for a couple of weeks, and I certainly did not have a regular routine — although I did get a lot of walking in when I was overseas. With the start of February, however, I once again started walking regularly (and doing other exercise somewhat less regularly), with an eye toward preparing for a long hike I would like to do this fall, and I decided to once again start tracking my activity here. 

February 1: Walked 2.0 miles with a light load. 
February 2: Walked 3.2 miles with a light load. 
February 3: Walked 2.8 miles with a light load. 
February 4: No walk! On the road for CRRC article, visit with friends, etc. 
February 5: Walked 3.2 miles with a light load. 
February 6: Walked 3.2 miles with a light load. 
February 7: Walked 3.2 miles with a light load. 
February 8: Walked 2.5 miles with a light load. 
February 9: Walked 0.6 miles with a light load (i.e., up to the mailbox and back)
February 10: No walk! Had to take a sick pet to the vet. 
February 11: Walked 3.2 miles with a light load. 
February 12: Walked 2.6 miles with a light load. 
February 13: No walk! Had to pick up a pet at the vet and it rained.
February 14: Cool, damp, and windy 57-degree day here in Texas Hill Country but managed to get in 2.5 miles with a light load! Still trying to boost my exercise ... 
February 15: Increased full walk slightly to 3.5 miles; warmed up to 64 degrees and was less windy than the day before. 
February 16: Walked just 0.6 miles, up to mailbox and back. 
February 17: No walk! Friend was visiting from out of town. 
February 18: Took a c. 3-mile overland hike with my visiting buddy Karl (below), to include a fossil hunt and visit to a 19th-century German cemetery. 
February 19: Walked 2.0 miles with a light load; achy and dragging a little. 
February 20: Walked 2.5 miles with a light load. 
February 21: Walked 3.2 miles with a light load; warm day and was feeling it. 
February 22: Walked 2.5 miles with a light load. Pretty hot, dry, and cloudless — especially for February! 
February 23: 
February 24: 
February 25: 
February 26: 
February 27: 
February 28: 


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Going Beyond 'Year of the Rooster'

On February 5, 2017, the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung newspaper here in south Texas ran "Year of the Rooster, a feature article about the recent voyage on the Celebrity Millennium cruise ship from Hong Kong to Shanghai, China, via Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, and South Korea, for which I served as the destination-oriented special-interest speaker. As usual, I submitted more photos than the publication could reasonably be expected to use (13 versus the four they were actually able to run), and so I am posting the balance of them here, along with the captions I wrote for them, as a supplement to the article. A major theme of this story is preparations for the Chinese New Year, which in 2017 is the Year of the Rooster. 

Main gate into the old imperial citadel of Hue in Vietnam, site of a brutal battle during the Lunar New Year in 1968. 

 
Left: Author Michael O. Varhola with one of the many statues that can be found in the gardens of the maze-like complex surrounding the mausoleum of 19th century Vietnamese Emperor Tu Duc. Right: A rooster, symbol of the incoming Lunar New Year, that the author auspiciously met at the Pagoda of the Celestial Lady, located on a bluff above the Perfume River in Hue, while working on this story. 

Jeepneys, adapted from the old U.S. military Willy's jeeps, are the most characteristic form of transportation in the Philippines.  


Left: A view of the skyline of Taipei, Taiwan, capital of the nationalist Republic of China, with the massive Taipei 101 commercial center at left. Right: A colorful display of paper lanterns, used in Chinese New Year celebrations, at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei. 


Inside the shrine of the 14th-century Haedong Yongkung Temple, in Busan, South Korea, with gold figures representing the past, present, and future Buddhas. 


Left: A small portion of the sprawling waterfront of Shanghai, which, with more than 24 million residents, is the most populous city in the world. Right: A colorful holiday display at Shanghai Pudong International Airport, a place that, while very busy, is almost uncannily quiet and serene by American standards. 

Below is a detail from the first page of the two-page treatment of "Year of the Rooster" that appeared in the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung. Additional photos, videos of the six presentations I gave, and more can be found on my TravelBlogue



Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Dreaming of a Green Christmas

One of the byproducts of the holiday season is lots of waste paper and cardboard in the form of wrapping paper, gift boxes, greeting cards, and the like, most of which ultimately gets bagged up and tossed out with the trash. It is a shame to simply throw away such a great volume of even apparently useless material, however, and there are better ways to dispose of or even make use of such festive detritus — some of which can save you money or keep children occupied, both laudable goals.

* Reuse it. If they are in good shape and you have an upper shelf closet or some other place that you can readily store them, gift bags, tissue paper, clothing boxes from department stores, and even large sheets of carefully-removed gift wrap can all effectively be used again. Not only can this save you some money when the next holiday comes around, it can also be very convenient to have materials like this readily on hand when you need them. Reusing wrapping paper, of course, is predicated on the idea that people, notably children, will not shred it when opening their gifts, but wanton destruction does not necessarily have to be part of the fun of Christmas.

* Recycle it! If you recycling is available where you live, at the very least you should make a point of gathering up all the gift paper, boxes, and cards you are not planning on keeping and getting rid of it this way rather than by putting it in the trash. As an aside, if you think recycling is not available in your community, check the local county or municipal website; a county recycling truck comes once a week to a parking lot near where I live at Canyon Lake, for example, but many of my neighbors are completely unaware of this when I tell them about it.

* Repurpose it. If you are able to, repurposing paper and cards is even more efficient than recycling them and there are numerous ways to do this.
            Giftwrap, tissue paper from gift bags, and other flammable materials can be used in fireplaces to get kindling burning — and this can be a good way to make use of such materials that have been torn up and are no longer useful for anything else.
            There are also many arts-and-crafts projects that children can undertake using greeting cards. They can, for example, remove the fronts of used cards and use them to create new ones with cardstock or paper, and can then use these for their thank-you notes or to send their own greetings the following year — and with even less effort the fronts of greeting cards can be removed and used as postcards. Images on greeting cards can also be cut out and used in conjunction with pieces of ribbon, decorations from wrapped gifts, and twine or yarn to make colorful custom ornaments or turned into dioramas and standup figurines (maybe even an entire manger scene if you were lucky enough to receive the right cards). Cardstock printed with colorful or pleasing images, or even wide pieces of ribbon, can also be used to create personalized bookmarks, particularly for use with any new books children might have just received as gifts.
            Kids can make use of giftwrap in similar ways. The blank backs of large sheets of used wrapping paper, for example, can be used for drawing and coloring pictures (note, however, that a disproportionate number of wives, mothers-in-law, and especially great aunts will consider encouraging children to use scrap paper rather than retail products like coloring books to be tantamount to cruelty, so be warned in advance.) Giftwrap can also be used to create collages and other works of art.

* Regift it. There are a number of organizations that accept donations of greeting cards and an online search can provide details about many of them. One of the most worthwhile of these is St. Jude’s Ranch for Children, which through its Recycled Card Program turns old cards into new ones and then sells them as a means of fundraising.

There is no reason to limit yourself to just one of the above ideas, of course, and a combination can help ensure that little or nothing goes to waste by just getting thrown away (and, of course, they can be implemented anytime of the year, not just around the holidays). And there are probably even more ways to make use of leftover holiday refuse, possibly even some that you have successfully tried yourself! 



Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Expressing a Right to be Shocked

Following is my response to an article by blogger Courtney Parker West (right) titled "On 'Woke' White People Advertising Their Shock That Racism Just Won a Presidency," in which she asserts that the way people express their feelings should be dictated by their race. My sense from an examination of her social media presence overall is that her primary goal was to emotionally bully her white liberal friends rather than make statements that would clearly be outrageously racist if the word "black" was substituted for "white" throughout. In short, and to emulate her tactic of using made-up words as a device for controlling the dialogue, "West performs a macroloathsomeness in order to merely achieve microloathsomeness." One would think this was not the time for liberals to be turning on each other, or to be relinquishing their commitment to speech that promotes racial parity. 

Suffice it to say that I find this article offputting and even a bit pathetic, in that it takes a poke not at people who voted for Trump because they support his racist rhetoric, not at those who voted for him in spite of that, and not even at those who did not vote at all — but rather at those who took a stand against him because the author does not approve of the way they are processing their own grief and fear.

Yes, I was shocked and upset that Trump won this election, because I fought like hell to the extent that I could to keep that from happening, through personal interactions, attendance at political events, posts on social media, and articles on websites and in the local newspaper. As a resident of rural Texas, my political and social views are in the minority where I live, and I have publicly spoken out against Trump in a local city where white supremacist events are now being organized. My supposed “white privilege” is probably not worth as much to me in this environment as Courtney Parker West would like to imagine. And if something happens to one of my biracial daughters or grandchildren, or one or the many people I care about deeply who are members of minority groups, should I still feel “privileged”? And will that then be something I am allowed to express feelings about, or will West still want me to keep quiet simply because of the color of my skin?

So, being both white and surprised that Trump won, even though I did everything in my limited power to keep that from happening, makes me the villain of West's unpleasant little narrative. I can only wonder if West is going to follow up with articles on large groups of minorities who stayed home on election day and did not vote at all, or on the DNC, which undermined the candidate the majority of Democratic voters wanted. It would seem to me that their indifference and malignance, respectively, are far more relevant than my after-the-fact surprise at the results of the election.

On the day of the election — when I thought Hillary Clinton was going to win but before the results were known so that it would not look like I was trying to curry favor with either side — I posted on Facebook that I have never unfriended someone merely because of their political views. I was thus interested to learn that, according to the meme West included with her article, that this makes me a “douche.” I have, in fact, unfriended plenty of people who have used racist epithets or advocated violence, just not ones who have simply stated a specific political preference or candidate, and I have been unfriended by plenty of less-tolerant rightwing friends and relatives. As soon as I unfriend large numbers of people who have opposing viewpoints, however, I lose any kind of platform for influencing them. If West thinks a verbal circle jerk where only talking to people with similar points of view is productive then I will direct her to the results of the most recent election.

Finally, as an aside, I don’t know if I’m “woke” or not, because I’m 50 and therefore not accountable for learning new slang. I will note, however, that one of the organizations I have always admired most in my capacity as a writer is the Black Panthers, because they traditionally made a point of producing materials only in standard written English (i.e., in the 1960s and '70s), so that everyone would be able to quickly and easily understand their message.

Suffice it to say that I have found this article to be divisive, unproductive, and hurtful and that it has made me a little sad and angry. And now, I am going to soldier on, because the world is full of douches and dumb jerks who look like me — and also ones who look like Courtney Parker West, it turns out — and we have got more work to do than ever before. 


This is the picture that appears with West's article.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Contemplating the Worth of Values

Following is an op-ed piece I wrote for the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung that it ran on November 3 as "Finding the 'values' in this election." It is somewhat longer than what the newspaper normally accepts and the editors there had to tighten it up a bit and, in doing so, wisely toned down some of my more inflammatory verbiage. Hope you enjoy it or, at least, are prompted to reflect upon the issues it addresses. 

Never before the current election cycle have I been so grateful to be almost entirely bereft of values and to have had to limp through life guided by almost nothing but ideals. Likewise, never before have I so pitied the many “values voters” who have contorted themselves to cite their fundamental beliefs as the basis for defending candidate Donald Trump and the many loathsome and disturbing things he has personally uttered and admitted to. 

Certainly there are not many good choices in the current presidential election and, as I am wholly unable to defend or promote Hillary Clinton, I cannot in good conscience reproach anyone for even misguidedly choosing Donald Trump as the lesser of two evils. What baffles me, however, are the many convoluted and grotesque attempts to invoke moral values on behalf of Donald Trump that we have seen recently. 

Perhaps my problem getting my mind around this apparent disconnect is my own lack of values and subsequent failure to comprehend them, and so I am attempting to understand the difference between them and ideals. 

To me, ideals are forward-looking and represent hopes and aspirations. One of my ideals, for example, is that “I want to live in a country where women don’t have to fear sexual violence and where those who admit to such crimes are held accountable for them.” 

Values are harder for me to get my mind around but I have identified a number of common characteristics many of them share. One is that they are applied to the conduct of others at least as much, and often more so, than to one’s own behavior. Another is that they can be invoked as the standard of behavior in a fictitious golden age that existed before our current era of moral decline. Yet another is that they tend to claim as their moral authority verses from the Bible. In that the contents of the Bible are meaningless to the more than one-third of Americans who are not members of Christian congregations — and, as far as I can tell, that it is not actually comprehensively read by most Christians anyway — this last trait really does seem like an odd basis for anything one might want everyone to get on board with. 

Having recognized these attributes, however, I decided to watch people purporting to have values on the news, on social media, and in person, and to see if by doing so I could formulate some of my own and come to a better understanding of them. Here are some of my initial results and conclusions about them: 

“Bill Clinton is a rapist.” 

Hmmm, strangely, I hear this get invoked a lot as a direct answer to questions about Donald Trump’s conduct, but that technically makes it what we used to call a non sequitur, rather than a value. 

“Benghazi.” 

Nope, that is not a value, just a city in the Middle East. 

“9/11.” 

No, that’s the date of a historical event, not actually a value. 

“Make America great again.” 

OK, sure, at first this sounds like a value, but is obviously predicated on the idea that America is not in fact a great nation today. This is the kind of assertion that might have gotten hippies, blacks, or other troublemakers pretty badly beaten by conservatives in earlier eras, so it is kind of funny that it has been co-opted by rightwing “patriots” today. I would postulate that, by definition, a statement that demeans the United States cannot be characterized as a legitimate American value. And aren’t the people saying this now the same ones who coined “Love it or leave it” back in the day? 

“My Christian faith does not allow me to judge others.” 

Hahahaha! Oh, good grief. OK, so this really does meet all the tests for being a value. What makes it ridiculously laughable as a defense for Trump, however, is that we have all routinely seen many of the people who are invoking it today — from individuals we know to prominent religious leaders — actively judge and condemn others as a matter of course. Withholding judgement only when it applies to someone a person has already decided to vote for does seem like a bit of a double standard. 

“People who have more money and power than me have the right to demean and use women, including ones I care about, as they see fit.” 

Yes! This one actually hits all the marks and can be regarded as a genuine value. In Genesis 20, for example, we see Abraham willingly give his wife to Abimelek, king of Gerar — and read that she is returned to him only because of direct intervention by God — so it meets the test for being supported by obscure sacred texts. And it echoes the disturbing medieval practice of primae noctis, in which a feudal lord could exert the right to sleep with a new bride ahead of her husband, thereby hearkening back to a golden age when everyone knew their place. And, most critically, adherence to this value allows one to support Donald Trump not just despite the most loathsome things he has openly admitted to but even because of them. It would be a humiliatingly shameful thing for any American to say out loud, of course, but for months now we have seen any number of them implicitly promoting this idea as their reality. 

My initial success at formulating a value notwithstanding, this is probably pretty clearly something that does not come naturally to me, and moving ahead I am likely simply going to have to remain value-free and continue to stick just with ideals. And, if the only use for values is to show that black is white, that evil is good, that ugliness is beautiful, then I really don’t have much use for them anyway. 

Saturday, October 1, 2016

My Book List

As part of getting ready to serve as as Guest of Honor for the ConClave science fiction convention, I was asked by the organizers to provide a list of the various books I had authored! When I started going through the most recent list I had I realized it needed quite a bit of updating and, once I had done that, figured I should post it here. In any event, since 1998 I have authored or co-authored 46 titles covering many subjects and in multiple genres, including five novels or book-length works of fiction; 13 non-fiction books that include writers guides, history, and travel guides; and 28 games or game-related titles. Beyond that, I have also written hundreds of articles for dozens of newspapers, magazines, newsletters, blogs, websites, and other venues. 


NON-FICTION

Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction (Writer's Digest, 2013; w. Orson Scott Card)

Disunion (New York Times, 2013; w. multiple other authors)


Life in Civil War America (Family Tree Books, 2011)



Shipwrecks & Lost Treasures: Great Lakes (Globe Pequot Press, 2007)

Civil War Armchair Reader (co-author, Publications International, 2007; w. multiple other authors)

Fire & Ice: The Korean War, 1950-1953 (Savas, 2000)

D-Day: June 6, 1944 (co-author, Savas, 2001; w. Randy Holderfield)

Everyday Life During the Civil War (Writer’s Digest, 1999)

The Writer’s Complete Fantasy Reference (co-author, Writer’s Digest, 1998; w. Terry Brooks)


FICTION/NOVELS
Swords of Kos Fantasy Campaign Setting (Skirmisher Publishing LLC, 2016; w. Jim Clunie, Brendan Cass, et al)

Opal of Light & Shadow (GP Adventures, 2016) Illustration for the cover by fantasy artist Lloyd Metcalf appears here! 


Swords of Kos: Hekaton (Skirmisher Publishing LLC, 2013; w. multiple other authors)



GAMES/GAMING BOOKS




100 Oddities for a Creepy Old House (Skirmisher Publishing LLC, 2013; w. William T. Thrasher and Clint Staples)


d-Infinity Vol. #6: The Mythos (Skirmisher Publishing LLC, 2014; w. multiple other authors)

Heroes & Monsters of the Necropolis (Cardstock CharactersTM) (Skirmisher Publishing LLC, 2013)








Experts v.3.5 (Skirmisher Publishing LLC, 2007; w. Paul O. Knorr)

Nuisances: Director's Cut (Skirmisher Publishing LLC, 2007; w. Paul O. Knorr, Sharon Daugherty, William T. Thrasher)

Gary Gygax's Nation Builder (Troll Lord Games, 2005; w. Gary Gygax)

Nuisances (Skirmisher Publishing LLC, 2004; w. Paul O. Knorr, Sharon Daugherty)

Tests of Skill (Skirmisher Publishing LLC, 2004; w. Paul O. Knorr)

Warriors (Skirmisher Publishing LLC, 2003; w. Paul O. Knorr, Sharon Daugherty, Luke Gygax)

Experts (Skirmisher Publishing LLC, 2002; w. Paul O. Knorr)