Monday, October 29, 2012

Book Review, Graphic Novel: THE SECRET OF THE STONE FROG

In this artistic old-school, black-and-white graphic novel from the Toon Books imprint of Candlewick Press, siblings Leah and Alan awaken in an enchanted forest and have to depend upon each other and the occasional sayings of a talking stone frog to guide them home. Along the way they encounter a woman who keeps giant bees as pets, lions dressed up as eighteenth century gentry who ride around on giant rabbits, buildings that literally talk, and several other strange and bizarre sights. Will Leah and Alan ever return home again?

THE SECRET OF THE STONE FROG is written in a whimsical style that is strongly reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND and THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS. For instance, the female beekeeper bares and uncanny resemblance to the Queen of Hearts (just look at that giant head). The story is interesting enough and the beautifully rendered illustrations are sure to keep children entertained.

However, there are two major flaws with THE SECRET OF THE STONE FROG. The first is that it is so derivative of other children’s stories, there is very little originality in the story itself. The situations and characters are different, yet they evoke memories of other stories you read as a child once upon a time. Derivation isn’t a bad thing, but the excess amount of it in the story spoils what originality is found here.

The second major flaw is that neither Leah or Alan learn anything on their journey. For instance, in ALICE IN WONDERLAND, Alice came into her own and was able to stand against the Queen of Hearts and her soldiers. Nothing of the sort happens to Leah and Alan. In fact, just before the end of the siblings journey they find themselves running away from chaos they are partially responsible by not having listened to the instructions given them at the beginning of their journey. By the time the siblings come to the end of their journey, other than the apparent experiences they have shared, they are no different than when they began.

Overall, THE SECRET OF THE STONE FROG is a gorgeously illustrated children’s graphic novel. The book will entertain young readers, but the extreme derivation smothers the original elements of the tale and the lack of any moral or character development prevents the book from being highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Pains of Autumn

Autumn is a difficult time for me. I used to like Autumn. It used to be a season full of fresh hope and promises, filled with bonfires, hayrides, and pumpkin pie. It was always the precursor to Winter, but back in the day, Winter wasn't the discontent of my soul. Now, Winter is the discontent of my soul and Autumn reminds me how much closer those cold days are. Instead of focusing on the joy and color that the season brings, I often find myself contemplating the lost opportunities, the chances never given, and the possibilities forgotten.

The thing is, I don't like this about myself. I've tried to do things to overcome these feelings that arise in me and avoid the visits from my old friend melancholy. I want to enjoy Autumn the way I used to.

It's not easy, but so far this fall, for the most part, those dark clouds have been kept at bay. I've been focused on tasks at hand from new duties at my job, acting in a murder mystery, helping some friends, and et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. There have been a few days (such as today) when I wrestle with those things, but the Autumn season is a month gone and for the first time in years there have been far more joyous, colorful, and fun days than the gloomy and dark ones that often hound me.

I am glad of that. I hope the rest of this season is like the first third has been. Yet, there is an eeriness that lurks at the back of my mind like the Creature that haunted Victor Frankenstein. Three years ago my Dad passed away unexpectedly and that began a downward spiral that I just now feel I am beginning to crawl out of. Losing my Dad was the most difficult and painful thing I have ever experienced and though the grief passes and the damage heals, there will always be scars and the grief never completely leaves and sometimes it hits at the most inopportune times. Less than six months after I lost my Dad, I lost my job. It wasn't the greatest job, but it was work and I was thankful for it. I was thrown to the winds of economic turmoil and for over fourteen month sailed around trying to find something to grasp onto and ground myself. I would never ever wish what I went through upon anyone. You struggle and you struggle and you search and you search, only to find that you've dug yourself deeper into the pit that you've been thrown.

So, these are the pains of Autumn that I deal with. I am hopeful that this season will be better than the ones of the past few years. I look forward to the day that I can enjoy the season the way I once did. Perhaps, this is the beginning of that. I'd like that; stories of redemption are my favorite.

Twilight Meets Buffy

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Ode to Coulson

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Fat Man Conquereth

This past weekend (Saturday, October 13, 2012), I participated in a Tough Mudder Event in Popular Bluff, Missouri. A few years ago my youngest brother mentioned that one of the items on his Bucket List was to compete in a Tough Mudder. I didn't exactly know what a Tough Mudder was, but I told him if one ever came nearby, I would participate in it with him.

My brother moved to Oklahoma last year and this January he called me and said, "Guess what? There's going to be a Tough Mudder in Popular Bluff, Missouri this fall. That's about halfway for both of us." So, in April we signed up.

Tough Mudder is difficult to describe. It's a race with obstacles, but you aren't being timed. It's an event that's meant to challenge yourself physically and mentally. It's also something that you really can't finish alone; you have to rely upon others.

I'm just below average height (5'8") with a hefty build. I'm a scholar and not an athlete. I knew that this was something that I wouldn't be able to do without some sort of training. As much as I hate it, I started running about 2 times a week in June. There was a three week period where I wasn't able to do anything because of rehearsals for a show I was in, but after that, I started training hard. I joined a gym and started working out 3-5 times a week for the next 8 weeks. I almost made it through an entire "Couch to 5K" running program and I increased my capacity to lift weights by almost 25 lbs between the time I started and the day before our Tough Mudder. I also lost over 5 lbs. Tough Mudder recommends that you are able to do 5 pull-ups. I do, too, even though I still wasn't able to do a single full pull-up before our Event.

The morning of our Tough Mudder, I wanted to make sure I was plenty hydrated. So I drank half a container of orange juice and 2 water bottles. I used the restroom before leaving and felt ready. What I didn't expect was the almost hour wait in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the road leading to the parking lot. I've never had to pee so bad before my entire life. I thought about just going to the bathroom outside of the car, but there were lots of other people around (including children). I asked a volunteer if there were port-a-potties around and he said yeah, but I wasn't allowed to go to one because I wasn't registered, yet. So, I had to register and then wait in line again to use the bathroom. I was in a cold sweat and intense pain for a good 20 minutes. What I learned is that even though you should be hydrated, don't overhydrate yourself before hand. Also, take note that there was no toilet paper in any of the port-a-potties, so do a number two before you leave home and bring lots of baby wipes in case you need to go before the race.

My brother and I joined a college friend and his team. Before hand, we all decided to wear these bright yellowshirts from Wal-Mart. They said, "WARNING: YOU COULD GO BLIND FROM MY PURE AWESOMENESS." The saying was kind of lame, but they were cheap and bright and allowed for us to recognize each other when we got separated during certain portions of the race. If you ever do a Tough Mudder and are on a Team, I recommend your team wearing some sort of matching clothing. It really helps later in the day.

Our event time came and we jumped over the start wall. The speakers weren't working right so our heat sang the national anthem together. Then we dropped to a knee as the mc went over all the necessary info.

A few minutes later, we were off. We were maybe a couple of hundred yards into the race when we hit first mud. It was a blast.

The first obstacle was the Berlin Walls #1. These were 8 foot high walls. This is where being able to do a pull up and having good upper body strength comes in handy. If you can do a few pull-ups and have some upper body strength and are taller than average, you can almost climb over these alone. However, if you're not, you're going to need help.  Towards the end of the race (obstacle #19) we came to Berlin Walls #2. These were 12 foot walls and you can't climb over them alone. You also either need to be a lighter person or have some good upper body strength to make it over them. I ended up skipping Berlin Walls #2 because at that point I had hardly any upper body strength left and being a heavier person, I didn't want to burden anyone else with trying to push me over something most everyone else was climbing over.

Obstacle #2: Cliffhanger - a long hike up the side of small mountain (we were in the Ozarks) at an unnatural angle. All of the stairmastering really came in handy here.

Obstacle #3: Jesus Walk - a long stretch of trail that consisted of clear ground-level patches of mud broken up by what looked to be pools of water that concealed holes of varying sizes. I think there was a way to get through most of the pools without falling down neck-deep in water and mud, but I didn't see anyone who didn't fall at least once.

Obstacle #4: Arctic Enema - this was both one of my favorite and most challenging obstacles. It was one of my favorites because it's so unusual and is a real challenge, both mentally and physically (but a bit more so mentally). It was a challenge for me because after I came out on the other side, my muscles were so numb that I could barely move: my brain had a difficult time getting my muscles to move the way they were supposed to. Afterwards, I was completely revived and recharged and was actually able to keep pace with the rest of my team for the next mile and a half or so.

Obstacle #5: Mud Mile - a mile of traversing through mud; sometimes walking through a muddy creek, sometimes through mud placed there just for the race, sometimes walking through muddy cow dung.

Obstacle #6: Hydrophobia (also called Cage Match or something like that) - this was another one of my favorite obstacles. There isn't much to it. You crawled in on your back and then floated down a small, muddy stream to the end, pulling yourself along with your hands along the cage bars above you. I enjoyed this because even though you had to push yourself with your hands, the rest of your body floated in the water and it was kind of relaxing, especially after the long trek through the mud and woods we just finished.

Obstacle #7: Walk the Plank - one of the events that Tough Mudder is recognized. It consisted of climbing up a ramp (without any stairs) over twenty feet into the air and then jumping off into a muddy pool of water below. This is another one of those events that you really can't do by yourself. Unless your climb up from the sides, there are hardly any grips to pull yourself up by so you have to depend up others to push, prod, and pull you. Water always goes up my nose and we all jumped together so the swim to shore was a bit more difficult than usual. I also lost my buff in the dive in.

Obstacle #8: Underwater Tunnels - you have to swim under some barrels. I actually skipped this event because I still coughing up water that went up my nose from Walk the Plank. I'm not a very strong swimmer, but when I do another Tough Mudder if they have this event, I'm going to attempt it.

Obstacle #9: Funky Monkey - use greased monkey bars to climb across some more mud and water. I had practiced for this without gloves, but when I got here, I couldn't get my gloves off, so I tried it with my gloves on and fell after about the fourth rung.

Obstacle #10: Trench Warfare - there isn't much to this obstacle, but this was one I had a lot of fun with. You crawl through a tunnel that's been dug out of the ground. It was like being a kid again and playing night war.

Obstacle #11: King of the Mountain - this was another fun obstacle. You just climb up a bunch of giant hay bales stacked to look like a hill.

Obstacle #12: Boa Constrictor - this wasn't quite as challenging as I thought it would be, but it was as easy as Trench Warfare. You climb through giant black tubes. The tubes were just big enough that I could crawl on my hands and knees. Someone larger than myself probably wouldn't be able to do that.

Obstacle #13: Hold Your Wood - you pick up a piece of giant lumber and carry it around through the woods and through the mud for about quarter of a mile.

Obstacle #14: Firewalker - this was the most disappointing obstacle. It wasn't a bad obstacle, just disappointing. There's a small path that you run through with some burning hay bales on the sides. It was kind of fun, but it was way, too short. It should be at least in double in length.

Obstacle #15: Kiss of Mud - I found this to be one of the longer and one of the more difficult challenges. You crawl along the mud on your belly under a bunch of barb wire. There are some safety wires above, but if you rise up too far you can get caught on the barb wire. There was a man in the group before us who caught his leg on the barb wire. He was being helped out, but he was bleeding some. He got out without medical coming, but it was a nice reminder to always keep your eye on being safe.

Obstacle #16: WWP Carry - this was the worst obstacle in the entire event. It can be described in one word: lame. You were supposed to carry a partner fifty yards down the field and then switch and have them carry you or vice versa. All of the other events at Tough Mudder are things you really can't do on your own; you can stimulate them, but they aren't something you can go do at the local gym or even at a camp somewhere. The WWP Carry was lame because it's something than anyone who has been a part of Boy Scouts or attended church camp or some sort of team building retreat has done. It isn't a Tough Mudder worthy event.

Obstacle #17: Logjammin - you have to climb over and under a series of stacked logs. This was around mile #9 and I was really starting to feel the fatigue at this obstacle.

Obstacle #18: Just the Tip - climb across a watery hole using just the tips of your fingers and toes. I didn't get very far on this before I fell in the water. The research I looked into before hand said that the key was having good calves. Not true. You really need some good upper body strength, calve strength, and good balance in order to complete this one. This seems to be an obstacle specifically geared towards those who do a lot of rock climbing.

Obstacle #19: Berlin Walls #2 - just like the first set, except these are 12 feet instead of 8 feet. Much harder. Work on those push ups, pull-ups, and planks to prepare for this one.

Obstacle #20: Electric Eel - a combination of the Kiss of Mud and Electroshock Therapy. You crawl under a series of electric wires on your belly in the mud. I was fine until the end. Just as I was passing the final wires, I got shocked in the head. Boy did that hurt. The key here is to just keep on moving. There were some people who got shocked and then started rolling around and got shocked again. Don't do that. Just keep crawling, even if you get shocked in the head.

Obstacle #21: Everest - the muddy half-pike and another signature Tough Mudder obstacle. I tried to make it up three times before giving up. I think I could have made it, but once my teammates started to pull me up, I stopped running and using my legs. The key really is to just start running and not to stop. If you can make it to the top board by yourself, you can fairly easily pull yourself up and if not, it's much easier for others to help pull you up the rest of the way.

Obstacle #22: Electroshock Therapy - a short run through a bunch of electric wires. It's really not that difficult, just remember to keep on running even if you get shocked. Once you finish this, the course is over.

Once you get through Electroshock Therapy, you get an orange Tough Mudder headband, a Tough Mudder Under Armour shirt, and a free beer.

The estimated average time to complete the course in Popular Bluff, MO was four hours. Our team, "I Can't Believe It's Not Mudder" finished it in four and a half hours. It was a challenge and exhausting, but also a lot of fun. When I originally agreed to do this with my brother, I thought this would be a one-time thing. After all, the fat man conquereth even after being told by some that he couldn't. However, there's one coming to St. Louis in April and I'm itching to give it another try. Perhaps the fat man can conquereth some of the obstacles he wasn't able or chose not to finish.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Remembering Mary Kay

On Thursday, September 27, 2012, Mary Kay Meeker passed away. I worked with Mary Kay for nine summers. Below is something I wrote the day after her passing, but didn't get around posting it until now.

The first time I came to Camp Timber-lee was in the summer of 1999. That was also the first time I met Mary Kay Meeker. I had arrived at staff training late and most of the rest of the summer staff was out and about on a scavenger hunt. My village leader took me to the village that I would be staying in for the week and I got settled in. Later that night, Mary Kay picked me up in her golf cart and took me to where the rest of the summer staff was playing some night game. I don’t remember too much about the conversation except that when I mentioned my college friend who had told me about Timber-lee, Mary Kay said, “Ah, yes, I know him. He’s one of the good ones.”

That first summer, I didn’t have a whole lot of interaction with Mary Kay. Back in those days, if you were a first time summer staffer, Mary Kay seemed intimidating, sitting atop a hill in her golf cart surveying the comings and goings. Occasionally she would stop me and ask me how my week was going, but beyond that, I didn’t have much personal interaction with her. I do remember an incident during the last week of camp that summer. I had a camper who had to leave early or something and it ended up with me getting a personal ride with Mary Kay in her golf cart. I don’t remember the whole conversation, but it was more personal than the one I had not long after my arrival at the beginning of summer. She asked about my future plans, she asked me what was my most memorable part of the summer, she asked me what was the biggest challenge I faced that summer, she asked what I thought about my experience, etc. Then she said, “I hope you come back, Tom. You’re one of the good ones.”

I did come back to Timber-lee the next summer (and the next and the next until I worked there for nine summers). It was that second summer that I really got to know Mary Kay. That summer, the summer of 2000, was the most difficult and challenging summer of my life. I had a lot of difficult cabins that summer, including one that ended up being my most difficult (and memorable) ever. It was halfway through the summer, during the week of Independence Day. I had a cabin that consisted of four inner city kids from Milwaukee, three kids from the wealthy suburbs of northern Illinois, and one kid from the suburbs and middle class of western Chicagoland. There was major culture class from the get go, but there was also some major spiritual warfare, particularly with one camper. While waiting in line for supper that night he told me point blank, “I hate you.” Things worsened from there. By the middle of the week, the almost unthinkable happened to this camper, (who I’ll call Johnny): he was going to be sent home.

We went to his room to pick up his belongings. Then we went to the main office to speak with Mary Kay. She hadn’t yet called to have him picked up and was going to have him do that, but first she wanted to have a chat. It was during this meeting that Mary Kay came to be one of the women I have most respected and admired in the world. She started talking with Johnny and after asking about four or five questions, he was crying. She knew exactly the right questions to ask to get him to open up and all the barriers came tumbling down. She knew children so well. She gave offered Johnny the opportunity to stay at camp, but only if I was willing to continue to be his counselor. I agreed. I wish I could say that Johnny stayed at camp for the rest of the week and things improved dramatically. Things improved, but only temporarily and on Friday afternoon, less than 18 hours before the end of the camp week, Johnny was sent home.

Even though I had known Mary Kay before then, it really wasn’t until that week that I got to know her. During that week I was made fully aware of all the things that went on behind the scenes that many summer staff people have no idea about. More importantly, I got to know Mary Kay much better and from that point on she no longer seemed to be the intimidating figure sitting in the golf cart atop the hill and was instead not only my supervisor, but my friend.

I know that Mary Kay touched the lives of countless others. More importantly, the light for Jesus that glowed forth from her spirit was brighter than any Olympic torch or city upon a hill. Physically she is no longer with us and she has gone to claim her reward from the Master. Those of us who knew her, will carry the memories of her with us throughout our lives. Well done, good and faithful servant. I look forward to the time we meet again.