Thom on September 22nd, 2016

*Trigger warning: Those of you uncomfortable with discussions of spirituality may wish to come back some other time*

Religion is central to my life and defines many of my priorities. I’ve decided, for example, that I’d rather be a good father and husband than a worldly success. If success can still be found within those parameters, cool, but it’s not important. Sundays are reserved for church and family. Entertainment is to be carefully chosen based on what I find uplifting and inspiring, not what everyone else tells me is the hottest new “thing”.

But truth be told, I’ve felt personally stuck for a while now. It’s hard to describe what we in my church call “feeling the spirit”. It’s like trying to describe the color blue using only words to someone who has never seen it. It’s peace, joy and calm all intermingled. It’s ennobling, yet quiet, and reassures me that all things are possible–and reminds me what is truly worth pursuing. Under its influence I find it easier to picture myself as the person I want to be. I find it easier to be patient and understanding. I find my love for my wife and family is deeper, and my anxiety around strangers less. I feel less alone inside my own head. Like I said, it’s hard to describe, but I know it when I feel it.

And for the past year or more it’s been hard to feel. I’ve made considerable spiritual progress in my life from who I used to be, but lately it’s been like hitting the wall. I’ve felt the spirit from time to time, but I’ve been unable to hold onto it. I’d look around me at others (I know I shouldn’t, but I do) and see signs of their spiritual growth and realize that I’m being left behind. I’ve seen what the world is throwing at my kids and known I should be able to help them, and yet known I’m not strong enough myself.

It’s been frustrating, lonely at times, and sometimes agonizing. But that was insufficient to help me push past my fear; fear of changing, fear of facing who I’ve been, fear of what I might have to give up to gain any more spiritual ground.

Recently I decided I’d had enough. I can’t sit still any more. I need to either go forward or go backward. And if I really believe what I claim I believe, backward is just not an option. That would be like deciding that since growing food is too hard, I’ll just settle for eating compost. That might be okay if I’d never eaten food, but I have. And knowing what my wife’s snowball cookies or pot pie taste like, how could I settle for compost, organic or otherwise?

It’s time I got myself unstuck and moving forward again. It’s required some changes, and doing some difficult things.

I could kick myself for waiting so long. God didn’t make me step very far into the dark. His hand was there before I even had time to worry whether there would be solid ground beneath my feet. Oh, my feet are still pretty unsteady, but I’m feeling the spirit more–and more deeply–than I’ve felt in I don’t know how long. Life hasn’t become any less challenging, but it’s become more…sweet, more vibrant. My fear has lessened, my inclination to push back against critics and naysayers has diminished. My ability to identify and appreciate the little bits of beauty around me has increased.

And I must keep going. I can’t relax. The trials and opposition haven’t ceased. Just as there is a God who loves me and wants me to progress, there are forces working against that, as well. One came in the form of a likely well-intentioned person at church who decided I needed correction in the form of a stern, condescending lecture. Not that his initial criticism wasn’t on point–I recognized immediately he was right–but his delivery did far more harm than good. Anyone who knows me likely knows that if you’re going to correct me, get to the point quickly, and then back off and let me process it and decide what to do about it. Belaboring the point triggers my conflict anxiety and puts me into a mental tailspin for hours to days at a time, focusing on the conflict, not the message. He belabored and triggered in spades.

And yet even in that experience I could see the Lord’s hand. It was a flashing neon sign indicating “Your next growth project is right here!” I simply have to overcome–or at least weaken–my fear of conflict, or I will keep handing Satan the keys to drive my personal car in a ditch. I’ve got to learn to step back and see things calmly and rationally, removing the emotional weight enough to stop stalling out. Certainly I shouldn’t aim to feel no emotion at all in these situations, but right now I experience debilitating emotion, and that’s a serious gap in my spiritual armor.

But I know that can be overcome. I don’t know how, how soon, or how easily, but I have my Savior on my side, and I’ve experienced His help before in overcoming serious weaknesses that I couldn’t conquer on my own. I’ll get there–or rather, we’ll get there, but it’s going to take work. And quite likely it’s going to take going through more such experiences in the future, against which I can measure my progress. That…doesn’t sound fun. But to achieve that end…wow, and well worth it.

Anyway, I’m enjoying being unstuck finally. I’m enjoying life. I’m enjoying my marriage and my family more than ever. I’m feeling the spirit more and more. This last Sunday was delightful, and weekdays in general are better than they’ve been, even on the rougher days. I’m grateful I finally made the effort to get unstuck.

Thom on September 21st, 2016

Kim Holderness is an introvert. Penn is not. Here are their tips for introverts dealing with the rest of the world:

Thom on September 19th, 2016

Dan Golding takes a look at why you just don’t remember many movie soundtracks these days–and places the blame at the feet of one of the current masters of film music, Hans Zimmer:

Thom on September 16th, 2016

I ran across this story about some local teens, who stepped up to help a single mom who had been in an accident. There’s more to the story, but the story itself is heart-warming.

Thom on September 13th, 2016

I’ve posted Joerg Sprave’s bizarre engines of death and mayhem before, but this one is especially genius: A rowing machine that fires 30 mm steel ball bearings. I think I love his voice and his laugh as much as his ingenious contraptions, though in case of zombie apocalypse I’m thinking I’d want to be his next door neighbor. In any case, his videos are just plain fun, even if I’d never attempt them at home.

Thom on September 9th, 2016

Over the weekend I was up in the high country for some camping and hiking. Not far from Park City and for much of the trip I could see bursts of color as the leaves have already begun turning. On Labor Day it was nearly jacket weather all day. The weather is cooling off and fall is peeking around the corner. It will soon be my favorite season.

I’m eager. Here’s a preview:

Of course with autumn comes The Autumn People, and one of my favorite works by Bradbury. The movie doesn’t hold up as well these days as when I was a kid. But it’s always lurking out there on the edge of my psyche, the antithesis of the golden glow and crisp tingle of autumn. There will always be Mr. Dark and his ilk, but there will also be Mr. Holloways, of which I hope I have become. This scene always struck a chord with me, and only more so now. And if you ever needed a sign that Jonathan Pryce’s character is evil it’s this: he rips out the pages of books!

Pryce’s Mr. Nightshade holds a place in my mental Hall of Hallmark Villains. His acting in the rest of the movie would have been sufficient to cement his place, but this scene would have done it all by itself.

But to get back to the light side of autumn, there is a song by Mannheim Steamroller that, even though it’s on their supposed “summer” album, is to me the essence of autumn. (Oddly enough, their autumn album, however much I love it, has never felt like autumn to me.)

Dang, now I need to go dig out my Fresh Aire collection. It’s been too long. One through Five were always my favorites. Six onward, after the rest of the band left, always felt a little too digitized, a little too canned for my tastes, though his Christmas Albums remain favorites. But I digress.

It’s autumn! Time to fall in love again…  Kapow! Fwoosh! Zingg!

Autumn fireworks

 

Thom on September 8th, 2016

My first exposure to Star Trek (having been born after it had already ended) was in 1977 when the space shuttle Enterprise was undergoing testing and the media felt it necessary to inform us of the name’s history. It was a few years after that before Star Trek truly entered my life as syndicated after-school television. I would watch it every day while folding newspapers to deliver. Considering it was on for years, and that I delivered newspapers for over ten years, I got to the point where I could tell you within half a minute of any episode which episode it was. I went as Spock for Halloween one year, though thanks to our black and white television I had no idea my outfit was supposed to be blue, not yellow. I read a lot of the Star Trek novels.

And then the movies hit. The first movie was cool, mainly because it was Star Trek. I didn’t realize until I got older just how dull it was. But Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan cemented it for me–Star Trek was awesomeness incarnate. That movie remains as on of my all-time favorite movies. I eagerly consumed The Next Generation during my high school and early college years. I didn’t pay much attention to Deep Space Nine, though I should have, and Voyager lost me early. I never saw even a single episode of Enterprise, and I’ll admit the reboots leave me cold. So am I a true Trekkie? Probably not by popular standards.

But in some ways my interaction with Star Trek has been broader than most. Early in my childhood my brother discovered Starfleet Battles, a tabletop war game of starship combat based in the Star Trek universe. I got deeper into it than he did, focusing far more than I should have throughout my teenage years. My friends and I arranged sleepovers in order to play massive battles (that invariably ended far more quickly than we expected, either from boredom or from things degenerating quickly).

I discovered the Star Trek RPG in high school and, while my friends at the time didn’t get into it, I found my sister did. Though nine years older than me, she and I bonded over building our own little sub-section of the Star Trek world and populating it with a cast of characters that would make Game of Thrones envious. We expanded the lore much farther than was ever intended, I suspect, and we modified the game to suit our needs.

We made elaborate maps, and made cardboard game pieces to mark the location of every single character, and which we kept in an old pill bottle between games. I still remember my mother, making an audio tape to send to my brother in Japan, wandering into one of our games and asking us to describe what we were doing. At one point she asked us just how we could see all these characters we were playing and we told her we just got out the pill bottle. It’s been a family joke ever since.

We played the RPG well into my college years, and it only really ended when my sister moved away. I still miss that little corner of the Star Trek world we built and the deep, complex stories we told through the years. Many of those characters are nearly as real to me as any of my “real” friends during that time. Every so often I run across the boxes of materials from those sessions stored in my shed and the wave of nostalgia that hits is still quite strong. I’ve never found another RPG quite as satisfying.

So yeah, Star Trek has had a pretty strong impact on my life, probably more than any other Sci-Fi or Fantasy franchise out there, though Star Wars runs a pretty close second. I’ve never felt the slightest need to participate in the Star Trek vs. Star Wars debate; my love of both has never been mutually exclusive, nor have I felt it necessary to compare them. They’re different and amazing in their own ways, and such competitions seems as senseless to me as trying to decide whether chocolate or cinnamon rolls are better. Why would I limit myself to either one? I’ll happily consume both!

So today Star Trek is fifty years old. I’m not sure what I should think about that, other than the realization that soon I will be, too. That simply means I’ve been enjoying it for a long time. I’m glad it’s been around so long, and yet even if it had died off before The Next Generation resurrected it I’d still love it, and it still would have had nearly as large an impact on my life. I find the fact that it’s still around in some form or another largely irrelevant. My tastes have changed (I’d like to think matured), and it doesn’t offend me that Star Trek, repackaged for modern tastes, has gone in another direction. I feel no need to approve or disapprove of the reboot series or the upcoming series. If someone else enjoys them, great! I’ll sample them, and if I like them, great. If not, that’s okay, too. I won’t rail about how they’ve ruined Star Trek or any such nonsense. If I don’t stick with it, it’s my own fault as much as anyone else’s.

I’m quite grateful for the part Star Trek has played in my life–and it’s been a disproportionally large part. It’s not necessarily a part I need it to play any more, and that’s okay. Whatever may happen, Star Trek and I will always be friends, and I’ll always have fond memories of those years when it was one of the main bright spots in my life. We’ll always have Paris, so to speak, and I’ll be thinking warm thoughts as it gets on the plane and flies off with Victor Laszlo. I have been and always shall be your friend.

Thom on September 6th, 2016

I didn’t expect much from my reading this year. After setting a record of 35 books in one year last year, I figured dropping my Audible.com account would mean I’d read at least twelve fewer books this year. I never set a specific goal in this blog, but after joining Goodreads I set a goal of twenty for the year. I hit that this weekend, and I’ve still four months to go. Frankly I’m surprised.

I owe part of that success to reading shorter books, many of them non-fiction. But then I suppose I didn’t read many overly long books last year, either. I think perhaps I’ve just been more cognizant of my reading–and perhaps less enthusiastic about my writing, which means I’m not usually in the mood to write in the evenings. Reading has been an easy out.

Perhaps the most fun in reading this year has been the spontaneity. I don’t have much of a reading list any more. I keep it mainly to remind myself that I do have some options should I run out of reading. But for the most part I’ve allowed myself to choose in the moment what to read. This looks good? Okay, why not? My wife is hinting I should read that book? Okay, I’m on it! I want to read something I’ve already read before? Sure, let’s go. Perhaps that’s why I’ve been able to read more–it’s more reading for fun than it’s been, and not so much “this book is important.” It’s more fun to read when reading is for fun.

So who knows what I’ll do with the last four months of the year. I’m listening to Brandon Sanderson’s “Words of Radiance” again, as I wanted something fun to help keep me awake on a recent long-drive vacation, and once I started I don’t want to stop, so I guess I’m cheating a little bit in relapsing into audio books. I’ve got a few books on my shelf waiting for my attention, but I’m in no hurry. The authors already got their cut, so no harm done if I don’t get to them for a while. I have a son who regularly reminds me I haven’t finished reading his favorite series. That’s the thing. I doubt I’ll ever lack for something to read. The only real question is how much time to I have to devote to it.

If I had to summarize “Pretty Little Dead Girls” it would be one of the best books to ever survive torpedoing itself. But let me back up.

“Pretty Little Dead Girls” is a novel that transcends genre. It’s horror told in a whimsical, romantic style, as if the narrator is a slightly eccentric middle-aged woman telling you dark stories while serving you tea and lemon cake in the sunshine of her veranda–and you feel no reason to distrust either the tea or the lemon cake. The subject is truly horrible, but bathed in a delightful golden light.

The story centers around Bryony Adams, a woman who, from her earliest years, has been marked for death. Everyone can see it in her eyes. She will die, die soon, and die horribly. And yet she hasn’t–so far. Her ill-fated fragility draws those who want to protect her. And Death itself seems to have bad aim, continually missing her and killing people around her. Sooner or later, however, Death will not miss…

Let me say straight out that Yardley’s use of language and tone in this novel is magical. I nearly felt guilty for taking such delight in such darkness. I loved this book, or I wouldn’t be reviewing it at all. It’s a compelling story that draws you in and pulls you along.

And yet there were enough typos and editing mistakes–at least in the POD format–that I got thrown out of the story several times and am still a little irritated about that. I can endure a few typos–I find those even in big publisher releases–but the errors were too many and too large to ignore. It could have been so much better a book if only I could have just read onward without being interrupted by the novel itself.

If you’re one who is not bothered by such things you’ll likely love this book. Perhaps it’s cleaner in other formats, such as the ebook. There are ample 4- and 5-star reviews on Amazon, and none of the ones I read mentioned the editing. So it’s entirely possible other formats are just fine, or I’m just too picky.

In any case, if you’re interested in a different sort of novel; a quirky, magical experience that somehow bestows an airy quality to the darkest of subjects; this is one worth trying out. I understand why it’s reviewed so favorably. It’s worth reading around the editing problems. Also, aside from the dark subject matter, there is nothing else to disqualify this book. There is no bad language, there is no sex. The violence is only moderately, poetically graphic–and I have to admit it’s probably better with it, as otherwise it would be easy to accuse this book of sugar-coating. Horrible things happen in this book, and we should be shocked by it, however briefly. Whatever genre it may be, it is at least horror.

I might never have picked this novel up if not for my recent forays into horror. This is probably the best non-horror-horror novel I’ve ever read. I just wish I could make a few quick clean-up edits.

Wayne Chilcott liked this post
Thom on August 24th, 2016

This last week I went to San Francisco with my two boys for the Pokémon 2016 World Championships. The two have been working toward this for nearly a year since they watched the 2015 World Championships streaming video from Boston (and learned there was a World Championships). My older boy especially made it a goal.

It’s been a long year. The process for qualifying for Worlds is a multi-level progression in which a player must accumulate a specific number of “Champion Points”. There are League Challenges, City Championships, State Championships, Regional Championships, and National Championships. A player can only count their six best finishes from league challenges, four best from cities, four best from state and regionals, and one national. There is a maximum number of points available at each level, from 15 points for a league challenge to 500 points for a national championship–for first place. Lower rankings may earn a lower number of points depending on how many participants were involved. For example (as which happened frequently) at a City Championship if there were four players the top two would get points (50 for first, 40 for second), but for third or fourth to get points there would need to be eight participants.

Anyway, with that background out of the way, my two boys were in different divisions this year; my older boy was in Seniors, and the younger in Juniors. Juniors had to accumulate 200 points, and Seniors had to get 250. They got off to a bit of a slow start. The younger didn’t really take it seriously at first, and didn’t participate in many of the League Challenges. The older tried every one he could and soon maxed out the points he could earn from them.

Then came cities season, which played out over November, December, and part of January. The younger won the first he tried and then got busy with tennis and didn’t try any more for a while. The older went to every cities he could, but kept running into the same three other players who he had a hard time beating, and since they seldom had eight or more players, he’d usually get shut out of points. He was getting pretty frustrated. The younger then came back for a few and picked up a few more wins–and points. By the end of the cities season the youngest had enough points he could reach his qualification total simply by maxing out his league challenge points. But the older was just ten points shy.

Next came our State Championship this spring. There would be more players, so it would be easier to get points–and all he needed was ten! But the older one did poorly, not picking up any points at all, while the younger got second–and many more points than he needed. We then tried the championship for the next state over. The younger got first, and the older still came up short. Much consternation abounded. Not that there were hard feelings between them–the younger would gladly have given points to his brother if he could.

The older’s last shot came at Regionals a few months later. Finally the roles reversed; the older got seventh, and more than enough points, while the younger finished below point level. But at least they were both in.

Of course just to make things more suspenseful we had troubles with the Pokémon Company itself. At one point one of the older’s city wins got lost and left him even shorter on points. That was eventually worked out. And then this summer, just before the final list for Worlds was posted, the younger’s entire point total went missing. We still don’t know what happened there, but a week before Worlds (and a couple weeks after his brother) he got his invitation anyway. A bit of a nail-biter there. His points still don’t show anywhere.

And then came the Big Event last week. We tried to manage our expectations–this would be the Main Stage of Pokémon, the best of the best, not an easy win to be found. They would have to do their best to even get very far. But hope springs eternal.

The World Championships is made up of two days. The first day is for all the general qualifiers to battle it out for the top spots that get to move on to the second day, where they compete against those who secured their second-day berths with wins at national championships. Since we didn’t even go to Nationals, both boys had to battle it out on Day One. The older son was up against around 204 seniors vying for 30 spots. The younger was up against 178 juniors for the same number of spots.

The younger came in 58th overall for the day. He was a little frustrated along the way–certain decks opponents can play can be horribly annoying, so I don’t blame him. But he went 3-3-0 for the day and finished in the upper third. It just wasn’t good enough. After the initial frustration he seemed to take it pretty well. He did the best of any of the competitors from Utah in his group, after all. But he would be a spectator on Day Two.

The older son got off to a flying start, going up 3-0-0 in his first three rounds. If he got four wins he’d move on to Day Two automatically. But then things got tougher and he lost the next two rounds. He started getting frustrated, but fought it off before his final round, where he pulled off the Pokémon equivalent of a last-second touchdown pass to win the game. He ranked 10th overall for the day and won a berth in Day Two.

Day Two didn’t go as well. He started off with a tie, then won two games, then lost the next four. His final ranking was 85th.

But with the pressure off and the competition finally over (for them), both boys perked up immediately and were quite satisfied with what they accomplished. And they should be. They did better in their first year of competition than many kids ever do, and made it farther at worlds than many of their peers. I’m quite proud of them–both with how they did and how they handled themselves. They’ve matured a lot over the past year, and now they have a better idea of what it takes to play at the top levels. With the exception of one other player (in my older son’s division–and one of his Day Two  losses was to him, which he felt just fine about) our boys did better than anyone else from our state for the card game. The one other player made it to 17th place on Day Two–just missing the finals.

From not even being on the radar last year, my boys have established themselves as respected players. Masters level players take them seriously and treat them as comrades-in-arms. Just about everyone who plays competitively in our area knows their names. It’s pretty cool to watch, and gives me no small amount of satisfaction as a parent–especially that they have a reputation of being good kids and good sports, not just good players.

What does next year hold? Beats me. Pokémon is changing up the tournament structure, so it may be more difficult for them to qualify. We’re still waiting to find out what the changes will mean. There’s also the added problem the younger “graduating” into the same division as the older. Two of the top players in the senior division just moved up to the Masters level, but it’s by no means certain they’re both going to dominate. And frankly the younger’s commitment level isn’t as high as his brother’s. He’s still got tennis, where he’s just as lethal, if not more so (I know this from hard experience).

All I know is that it’s going to be an interesting year. It’s harder to read the younger son, but it’s quite clear the bug has bitten my older son. He wants another shot at Worlds, and he’s already gearing up for it. He was sick to death of the deck he took to Worlds last week, but within a few hours of our getting home he had already taken that deck apart and started putting together a new one for the next tournament.

And so it begins.