Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Saying Goodbye to My Friend Clint Staples

Recently attended the funeral of my good friend Clint Staples, who died of a sudden massive heart attack on February 11 and whose loss means more to me than I can easily or adequately express or probably even yet realize. Spoke a few words at the ceremony not far from his home in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada — along with his friends Rick Neal and Thomas Horn and wife Penny — in an attempt to convey how important he was to me and how I felt about our relationship. 

“I was blessed to have been able to work with Clint, and increasingly so, over the past several years. I am both honored and very sad to be here today and am also present on behalf of his friends Brenda Cass, Amanda Kahl, William T. Thrasher, and Ford Fitch, all of whom would have been here themselves if they could have.

Suffice it to say that Clint was one of my closest friends, and one of the most profound indicators of that is not so much that in 2017 we decided to drive more than 1,500 miles together from San Antonio to Winnipeg, but that the following year we were eager to make that long journey together again. We had other trips planned, including a drive along the length of the Mississippi and a mission to a Medieval church in Spain, and would have never run out of places to go or things to do.

It is a tribute to how important Clint was to me and my associates, how much we valued his good counsel, that anytime we started a new project we automatically considered what his role in it would be. He was integral to everything we were doing with our Skirmisher Publishing LLC on literally a daily basis and as of just last week we had shifted most of our efforts over to supporting his "Ragnarok: The Great Winter" roleplaying game, probably the biggest and most ambitious game development project I have ever been involved with.

Clint was also served as a board member of the Gnosis Project, a charitable organization dedicated to helping spread knowledge that we recently founded and for which his love of history was invaluable.

My friends and I called Clint our Paladin, because in so many ways he was the best and most dependable of all of us. We will fight on without him in body knowing that he is still with us in spirit and that even from beyond this world he has played his part in our victories.” 

Friday, February 14, 2020

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! 

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Favorite Quotes

Once in awhile I hear someone say something I think is particularly cool, witty, funny, or absurd, or formulate something that I think is a good maxim, but almost as often I neglect to write it down and then only remember that something notable was said but not what it was. With that in mind I have started a post for material of that sort and attempt to update it periodically.

"Living with someone who suffers from depression is one thing. Living with someone who lives with depression but tells themselves they are just unhappy and that you are the cause is something else altogether — Anonymous (The person who uttered these sad and ominous words did not want his name associated with them, presumably from the fear that, however unlikely, his violently depressive spouse would see them and retaliate against him.)

"You know what I hate? I hate these 40-year-old jackholes wearing ponytails. A ponytail doesn't make you look hip, young, or cool." — Clive Owen, Shoot 'Em Up

"When I found inversion it changed my life forever, and I believe it can change yours!" — Dr. Roger Teeter (I actually own a Teeter Hang Ups inversion board and think it is great. What makes this quote amusing to me, however, is that "inversion" was historically used as a synonym for homosexuality, which can make its modern-day use hilarious when considered in that context.)

"I always feel like I' neglecting someone I love when I'm not writing. Maybe that someone is me." — Michelle Renee Lane

"Things are always going well, except for the bad shit ... " (Comment made by me in a recent online chat with my friend David Fitzgerald that I thought was worth preserving). 

"Worst ... episode ... ever!" (This periodic judgement by Comic Book Guy in The Simpsons is, like some of my favorite quotes, one that I have the opportunity to often use myself with regard to the things I end up watching.)

"If I owned Texas and all Hell, I would rent out Texas and live in Hell." — General Philip Sheridan, during a March 24, 1880, speech in Galveston at the Tremont Hotel

"There are no IT limitations, just personal limitations." — IT expert Brendan Cass (This comment was in response to a remark by me about his ability to accomplish information technology tasks that were beyond the ability of other people I had worked with.) 

"Advice is just ego and ignorance disguised as helpfulness." — Dilbert/Scott Adams, in a July 15, 2015 comic strip

"Do you understand how much I hate you?" (Uttered by the woman cited in the quote below. The person who told me this assured me that he probably does not understand how much his wife hates him, or even entirely why, but that he is dedicated to making every attempt to.) 

"I hate you so much that I can't even describe it!" (This was uttered unprovoked to a friend by his maladjusted and apparently inarticulate spouse and he, knowing she would later deny saying something so hideously inexcusable, asked me to commemorate it here. I advised him to repurpose it as a daily affirmation.)

Her: "Are you still drinking"? (Upon my wife getting up and discovering me enjoying a pre-dawn glass of wine.)
Me: "No. I'm drinking again." 

"Do not prepare, serve, or eat a meal that does not include a vegetable!" (This is one of my own recently coined guiding maxims tying in with my efforts to eat more healthily and limit my consumption of meat to just once a day. It is amazing how often people I know do not come even close to meeting this sensible standard.)

"Sometimes the only reason I don't kill myself now is because I know I can always just kill myself later." — Anonymous (Undeniably grim and clearly born from deep unhappiness but also fairly philosophical and amusing in its way.) 

"What we say about what we do is as important as what we do." — Michael O. Varhola (This is my own debatably cynical observation on the importance of promoting our own work and efforts if we want others/the public to notice them.)

"I didn't know we were going to be walking." — Diane K. Varhola (My wife has made this assertion multiple times every year for the past 25 years. We always end up walking, often in stupid and inappropriate shoes, so the basis for this statement has been questionable for a couple of decades now.) 

"We are most inclined to be creative when we are least able to be." (This is my own personal observation.)

"I should be able to visit my parents without having to die!" — Hayley Waters (Who says so? This was, in any event, my daughter's unhappy reaction to visiting a house full of cats that she is allergic to.)

"Watch out for the poop!" — Carter Valentine (This sound advice was given to me by my grandson during a walk we took together in 2013 and can certainly be viewed as a profound allegory for the human condition overall.)

The following interchange occurred between my grandson and wife on Sunday, August 18, 2012:
Diane: "What kind of chicken do you want?" (While carving up a roast chicken we picked up at Costco for dinner.)
Carter: "The chicken nugget kind." (A statement met with laughter and us letting him know this chicken did not have any such parts.)

"Ah, the plot thinnens!" (This clever twist on a common phrase is one that I use whenever appropriate. I heard it for the first time in a movie based on an H.P. Lovecraft story, although the phrase certainly does not actually appear in any of the author's stories.)

"Hideous ... ugly ... freaks!" — Denis Leary/Gil Mars, Small Soldiers (It is amazing how often one is in public that this phrase seems apropos.)

"I'll tell you what!" (This common Texas phrase is used to express agreement with something someone has said, such as an observation about the weather. I noted during a recent trip to the East Coast that, after hearing it, people unfamiliar with this expression will pause and wait for you to "tell them what.")

"Not anti-Christian, nor un-Christian, but most decidedly non-Christian." — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

"What I do now I do alone. I could not do it well with thee." — Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls (I often irreverently use this quote, either just the first part or in its entirety, to announce my departure for the bathroom.)

"There is a fine line between being a romantic and being delusional, and I often tend toward the latter." — Michael O. Varhola (my own observation of my tendency to view life as I want it to be, rather than how it really is.)

"Oh, so you want to play the truth game?" — Anonymous (In response to my asking someone why they sometimes deliberately lie to their friends as a device for manipulating them.)

"We are all so lucky to live in this God-forsaken place." — Anonymous (A resident's comment upon observing the natural beauty of Canyon Lake, Texas.) 

"Crazy is as crazy does" — Michael O. Varhola (my observation upon already-crazy people who deliberately do things geared toward making them even crazier and more unhappy.)

"You may all go to Hell, and I will go to Texas." — David Crockett

"No one ever died from a gut wound." — Michael O. Varhola (I picked this up from an Army buddy of mine c. 1986-87 and use it a lot. I don't think it's true.)

"Teeheehee! I told you about it!" — Chick in an Activia yogurt commercial

"Och, Hungary! Our dogs are from Hungary!" — Richard Allan (in response to a barmaid at the pub in Paddington Station, London, reveal her country of origin; "Och" is a Scottish word that means "yes," unless you use it in conjunction with "no," in which case it means "really no!")

"I do not presume that other people's problems are harder on me than they are on them." — Michael O. Varhola

"You need to scare kids, not scar them." — Lindsey Valentine

Overheard around 8:15 p.m. near the Hoffman Center 22 cinema in Alexandria, Virginia:
Him: "Damn hippies! I'll hacky their sacks ... " (in response to some kids in shorts and tie-dye shirts crossing the street in front of him)
Her: "Uh, do I need to remind you that you just smoked dope, that you're still in your sleeping shirt, and that it shows people partying on it?"

"That was pretty metal!" — Rico Nardini, Gen Con 2011 (in response to me downing a dirty vodka martini in one sip when he said it was time for us to get going)

"Put the boots to him — medium style." (coopted from Metalocalypse and used by me and friend Jon Reichman as a catchphrase during Gen Con 2011)

"Get the butter." — Marlon Brando/Paul, Last Tango in Paris (this line can be interjected for hilarious effect in any number of circumstances, as my friends Jon Reichman, Chip Cassano, and I have all aptly demonstrated over the years)

"In a respectable household, it's useful to have a weapon." — Gitt Magrini/Jeanne's Mother, Last Tango in Paris

"Fun was had by all." (common phrase brought to my attention when it was applied to a school play in The Simpsons, and used by me since then in writeups of events I have hosted or run)

"This one goes to 11." (coopted from Spinal Tap and applicable more often than you might think; used as one of our group's catchphrases at Comicpalooza 2012)

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Looking Forward to the Work of the New Year

Happy New Year to all of my friends, family, and followers! Sincerely hope all of you had as wonderful a holiday season as possible and that 2019 has started off well and promisingly for you. Am very much looking forward to working and spending time with the many personal and professional associates I have done things with over the past year and to accomplishing even more over the coming one. 

This year promises to be a busy and productive one for me and I have a few things related to my activities that I would like to share on this start of 2019. First is that I have resigned my position as a correspondent with the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung newspaper. While the work I have done for it over the past four years has been meaningful to me — particularly my coverage of the area around Canyon Lake, Texas — for some months I have felt that I was no longer having the impact on the publication that I would have liked and that my efforts would be better devoted to other endeavors. One of my shortfalls over the past few decades has also been my inclination to try to do too many different things and I have decided at this point to devote my time and energies to fewer things but to accomplish more with them. 

My main two activities for the foreseeable future will my Skirmisher Publishing, which develops and publishes games and fiction, and the Gnosis Project, a non-profit association I founded in 2018 that was recently approved as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. You may have previously seen references to both of these ventures on my page and you will certainly see much more over the coming months. I would encourage you to follow the Facebook pages for both of those entities and sincerely invite you to let me know if there is anything you want to know about either of them. Suffice it to say that I am always generous when it comes to giving away copies of things I publish or write to people who would like to see them, and that I will be prevailing upon the generosity of others as I move forward with the work of the charitable association. 

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Crossing From History to Recreation (Spring Branch, Texas)

A particularly attractive crossing of the Guadalupe above Canyon Lake can be found on FM 311, a couple of miles east of its intersection with Highway 281, and it is often devoid enough of traffic that drivers can slow down to enjoy the view. Cars parked along the road near the bridge are tribute to this spot’s use as a recreational area, and many people have fond memories of days spent boating or fishing from it.

“I used to fish here quite a bit [and] caught my biggest bass of my life under the bridge,” said Canyon Lake native Ronald Lowe. “A tree had washed down, got stuck on a pylon, I threw a spinner bait just past it and caught a seven-pound, seven-ounce bass way back in the late ’90s.” 

“I kayaked 311 to Rebecca Creek last winter,” said Jason Gillett of Canyon Lake, noting that it took nine-and-a-half hours because his group was fishing and it “is a twisty stretch of river” that included “six sets of rapids, four of which we had to portage over.” (Right: Drainage areas on either side of the FM 311 bridge over the Guadalupe provide easy access to the river and a regularly used by people to move boats or tubes down to it.)

That this spot is publicly known to have any historic significance, however, is largely tribute to a Texas Historical Commission marker that was erected nearby in 2013 (top right). Local historian Brenda Anderson Lindemann, author of Spring Branch and Western Comal County, Texas, 1858-1998, was instrumental in getting that marker placed and compiled the information for the article titled “Esser’s Crossing at Wesson” on the Comal County Historical Commission section of the Comal County website. Wesson was a community founded on the banks of the Guadalupe in the mid-19th century by settler Charles Esser but which, according to the Texas State Historical Association, has been a “ghost community” since World War II. 

“Esser's Crossing is one of the four key bridges in the Spring Branch area that helped bridge traffic and commerce in our area,” said Paula Rieker, who assisted Lindemann with her book and whose current personal focus is on the history of the 711 Ranch, now site of the Mystic Shores development. “It is the oldest bridge in our area and only the second high-water bridge in the county.” (Right: A high-water wood and wrought-iron bridge was built at Esser’s crossing and served the area for half a century before being condemned and replaced. Photo courtesy Comal County Historical Commission.)

“The original crossing was an area of flat rocks in the river, where it was safe to enter the river … and pass over [it] in a wagon,” Rieker said. “You can look down at the river and still visualize the original crossing. Esser hosted travelers at his home and on his grounds as a ‘way station’ from New Braunfels to points north.” (Right: In 1858 German immigrant Charles Esser homesteaded and purchased property near the crossing and then provided a public way-station. Photo courtesy Comal County Historical Commission.)

Today, this spot is apparently and somewhat inexplicably held to be a “secret” by any number of Canyon Lake residents. A post on the “Everything Canyon Lake TX” Facebook group asking for information about it was, in fact, responded to with crying-face and angry-face emojis, veiled threats, and complaints that if “town” people learned about it they would spoil it and throw trash everywhere. 

Significant amounts of trash in the parking area that never made it into conveniently-placed barrels, however, indicate that some locals already have littering covered, and the 1:10:100 rule for social media interaction suggests, based on the number of responses to posts about the spot, that some thousands of people know about it already. (This article appeared for the first time in the Canyon Lake section of the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung newspaper.)

And, whatever proprietary feelings anyone might have toward the spot, general manager Mike Dussere of the Water-Oriented Recreation District of Comal County — the agency that placed the trash barrels at the site — said the space leading down to the river on either side of the bridge is a public right-of-way. So, anyone so inclined can pause to enjoy Esser’s Crossing, either for what it has to offer today or the role it has played in the history of our area. 

Large areas of flat bedrock along the banks of the Guadalupe River are part of what made Esser’s Crossing an ideal spot for wagons and stagecoaches.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Tis the Season to Support Local Businesses

Black Friday kicks off the start of the holiday shopping season with deals at big chain stores and, three days from now, Cyber Monday will encourage shoppers to spend their gift-buying dollars at online shopping sites. In the midst of all that, smaller businesses — including those in our area — will be striving to get people in their communities to support them by doing as much gift buying as possible locally.

“We absolutely support Small Business Saturday and promote it via social media. That’s part of our mission,” said Kim Collora, Executive Director of the CanyonLake Area Chamber of Commerce, who also personally backs the ideas behind this program designed to promote smaller stores. “I live out here and I work out here, so when I have to go Christmas shopping I check out the little boutiques that we have out here. We are a small community supporting each other and I think that’s important to do.”

First observed in 2010, Small Business Saturday is held two days after Thanksgiving and is a counterpart to Black Friday and Cyber Monday that encourages holiday shoppers to patronize small and local brick-and-mortar businesses. It was initially organized by entities that included the National Trust for Historic Preservation and American Express, and continues to be supported by the latter organization and many local politicians and small business groups throughout the country.

One Canyon Lake store that participates in Small Business Saturday is Bad Girlz of Texas, “a funky and eclectic boutique with something for everyone” that opened up in Sattler about eight years ago.

“Our local community really does support us,” said owner Andie Morgan (shown above right). “We wouldn’t have been here this long if not, and the locals have been fabulous. We’ve had people come in here on Small Business Saturday and say, ‘It’s important to support local business, so I’m shopping here.’”

Because the weekend after Thanksgiving tends to be a good one for her store anyway, Morgan said, she has never before held sale then but decided to this year.

“When you come to the counter with your purchases Friday through Sunday you can pick a card from our discount tree and it will have a discount of 10% to 50% off,” Morgan said. “There are three or four 40% cards, two or three 50% ones, and a lot for 15%, 20%, 30%, and 25%.”

“Canyon Lake has been wonderful and I’m trying to support those who have supported me,” Morgan said of her motivation. There are a number of ways she already does that, to include throwing a customer appreciation party with free food, drinks, and music the first Sunday of every month.

“We also usually give away something. For November we gave away free 2018 calendars, sometimes we’ll do a 75% off clearance, one time we gave away pairs of sunglasses,” Morgan said. “It’s to give back, and to support local music.” Twice a year, she said, the store also has a big clearance sale and then donates everything that is left to causes that have included the battered women’s shelter in New Braunfels and Wimberley flood relief.

CanyonLake Ace Hardware in Sattler is another local business that will have special deals this weekend, to include coupons people can use to get discounts on their purchases.

“We feel very close to our community and have a lot of interaction with it, and I feel like they’re very supportive of us,” said Store Manager Lyndy Sherman. “We’re having something on Black Friday, and then on Saturday and Sunday there’s a save $10 coupon.”

Many other businesses around Canyon Lake will also be doing special things for the weekend, so consider saving some gas, sticking close to home, and checking out what they have got going on — and, in the process, supporting our local community! 

This story originally appeared in the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung newspaper on Friday, November 24, 2017, and I am re-posting it here in support of Small Business Saturday. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

A Wet and Wonderful Halloween in Sattler, Texas

A very real certainty of getting soaked, rather than any irrational fear of ghosts or ghouls, is what kept many people around Canyon Lake from turning out for Halloween in Sattler, which ran from about 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday. Hundreds of people braved the damp and gloom to come out for the popular annual “Trunk or Treat” event, however, and dozens of local businesses, organizations, and individuals pitched in to make it fun and successful.

“It's a wonderful alternative to a more traditional setting in neighborhoods, since the majority of the homes in our area are so spread out,” said Comal County Commissioner Jen Crownover (Precinct 4) in a statement. “It's a great place where everyone comes together. It really is a cool evening of fellowship in our community.”

Comal County Sheriff’s Office deputies and constables were deployed along FM 2673 in Sattler to keep traffic slow and safe as trick-or-treaters made their way along the road in the driving rain, stopping to collect candy and other treats at local businesses and from people giving them out from their cars in parking lots. Umbrellas served as accessories for many costumes or were held over smaller children by parents, and clusters of people could be seen sheltering in doorways and under overhangs hoping for a break in the downpour.

“It’s hard for the kids to trick-or-treat in the neighborhoods or to go door-to-door,” said Andie Morgan, proprietor of the Bad Girlz of Texas boutique (at far right in the image here, along with Bonny Lyons, costumed as a “Harry Potter steampunker”). She had a full 80 pounds of candy on hand — including popular chocolate footballs — to pass out to children (along with parents, reporters, and anyone else who needed a treat). 

Morgan noted, however, that the weather was having an impact on turnout, and that she was seeing maybe a quarter as many trick-or-treaters as she does when the conditions are better.

“Normally that much candy does not get me to 8 o’clock, but this year it will because it’s raining,” she said.

And there were plenty of other opportunities for kids willing to deal with the trick of the weather to collect their well-deserved treats.

“Every year it’s been a tradition for us to hand out candy to the local kids,” said Perry Connel of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8573 in Sattler (at left in the image at the top right of this page). “Even when it rains the kids still come, so we stay out here!”

Edible items were not the only things being given away, and another local group used the event as an opportunity to get coats and jackets into the hands of people who needed them (right).

“Most of them are children’s jackets that we give to anyone who needs them. Whether they need one, five, it doesn’t really matter,” said James Dudley of the Saved by Grace congregation of Canyon Lake. “Halloween is kind of a dark holiday for a lot people, so it’s a good time for us to bring some light into the community.”

Dudley said that many of the jackets are provided by local schools, which provide his group with unclaimed items from their lost-and-founds, and that his group then cleans and repairs them as necessary. He said this is the sixth year that his group has given away coats at Halloween in Sattler and that they expected to distribute between 250 and 300 of them during the event.

People were also able to enjoy the Mountain Valley Middle School Hawk Band Haunted House (below), for which students and staff clearly spared no effort to transform the band hall into a creepy and scream-filled Halloween attraction — and which was all the more fun in that it was out of the rain!