Archive for the Entertainment Category

Major Tom (A Thanksgiving Tale of Heroes)

Posted in Entertainment on November 21, 2012 by Mike

One mid-November day, on Farmer Magrill’s farm, Tom Turkey stood by himself behind the barn, nervous.  Thanksgiving Day was close, Tom knew, and he also knew that around Thanksgiving Day, everyone likes a turkey (though not in a way that was particularly pleasing to Tom Turkey). Tom was, if you’ll excuse the expression, hatching a plan to make sure he was around for Christmas (when the Magrills seemed to like goose, but that was Gully Goose’s problem).

“I’ve got to figure out a way to avoid being recognized!” said Tom to no one in particular, as all the other animals figured Tom needed his space around this time of year. But what could he do?  He was, after all, a turkey, and a dashing one at that (if he did think so himself), and it was a bit too late to go on a diet.

“Confound Farmer Magrill’s extra portions he gave me this past month!” Tom thought ruefully.  “I have no willpower!”

Just at that moment, inspiration struck like an axe to the neck (if you’ll excuse the expression).

“Power! That’s it!”, and Tom Turkey ran, as well as turkeys can run, to Mrs. Magrill’s clothesline across the yard. There, he pulled down with his beak a pair of little Johnny’s overalls and a red bonnet that Mrs. Magrill kept there for particularly sunny afternoons.  Tom Turkey dragged the items back to his spot behind the barn and began pecking and biting and scratching furiously at them.

“Tom Turkey, what are you doing?” called Henny Hen from across the yard. Not much escaped Henny Hen’s notice.

“Never you mind,” replied Tom Turkey, as he turned his attention, and his beak, to the bonnet. “Merely exercising!”

“Should have thought about that three weeks ago,” muttered Rory Rooster, as he ambled by, barely taking notice of Tom Turkey.  Rory Rooster knew no one liked rooster as much as they did turkey, or goose.

Tom Turkey ignored Rory, and, soon stepped back to admire his work.

There before him, albeit in rather rough condition, lay his plan to avoid recognition. Little Johnny’s overalls had been scratched into a body suit suitable for a broad-bodied turkey (as Tom preferred to refer to himself) with a large “H” scratched into the chest.  The bonnet, or at least what was left of it, now took the shape of a mask that would cover Tom’s head with small holes for his very small eyes.

“There!” thought Tom. “No one will recognize me in this costume, as my identity will be hidden by the mask, and the “H” will serve to announce me as a HERO, and everyone loves a hero!”

Tom Turkey crawled under the barn with his outfit in his beak, away from prying eyes. There he dressed himself in his hero outfit, tying the mask around his skinny neck (never you mind how!) and emerging to the world a new turkey: Major Tom!

Major Tom did indeed cut a dashing, if slightly portly, figure in his new getup. Of course, all the other animals recognized him immediately (he was the only turkey on the farm), and stared as he strutted across the yard.

“Good farm-folk!” Major Tom called out. “I am Major Tom, here to protect and serve you! I am your new hero!”

“I think you’ll be the one being served, shortly,” replied Rory Rooster.  Some of the meaner animals laughed.

Major Tom tried to ignore them, but sweat started running down the red wattle underneath his mask. His voice cracked a bit as he said, “Never fear, fellow-fowl! I—“

Major Tom was interrupted by a cackling commotion among the hens. Tom looked to where they had been – I say ‘had been’ because now the hens were rushing back to their coop in a flurry of feathers and dust—only to see a lean red fox attempting to chase down Henny Hen (who was rather plump and, resultantly, slower) along the fence.  Rory Rooster was atop the coop, cowering in roosterly fear.

Tom’s first instinct was to run. Foxes have sharp teeth and claws and don’t have to wait until Thanksgiving to eat a turkey, you see.  He turned and looked at his own coop, but something stopped him. Maybe it was the outfit, or maybe it was the Henny’s panicked cries, but from somewhere deep inside his gullet, courage came.

Tom turned back and ran with the speed of a very fast turkey toward the vile fox, puffing his chest out and spreading his wings to make himself appear very large, indeed. The fox, about to sink those very sharp teeth into the back of the unfortunate hen, turned at the sound of Major Tom’s “GOBBLE-GOBBLE-GOBBLE!” and yelped. Major Tom jumped at the vicious vulpine, the sharp spurs of his leathery feet aimed right at the fox’s snout.  The fox jumped away and, confused by a bird wearing human clothing, sprinted away over the fence and back into the nearby woods, never to be seen again.

“Hurrah! Hurrah!” The barnyard exploded in cheers (in all their various forms) for Major Tom. The horses stamped their hooves in approval, and the pigs oinked noisily.  The goats in the pen bleated and jumped, while the sheep ran around their paddock baa-baaing until they winded themselves (sheep have no stamina). The hens gathered around him, clucking in admiration. Henny placed her head upon Tom’s full chest and sighed, making Tom a bit uncomfortable.

He gazed around the yard, taking in the scene. He WAS a hero. Everyone loved him. “Let Thanksgiving come,” Tom thought. ”A well-loved hero has nothing to fear.”

 ***

Three days after Thanksgiving, Farmer Magrill came in from the field and sat down for lunch. Mrs. Magrill had prepared sandwiches with all the fixings.

As Farmer Magrill took a slice of the tender white meat from the plate in front of him, placing it on the roll and piling on lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and cheese, he smiled as he thought to himself, “I surely do love a hero.”

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

The New Adolescent Threat…

Posted in Entertainment, teaching on February 12, 2012 by Mike

As a teacher I’ve been trained to be on the look-out for risky student behavior; as school administration and staff are legally considered in loco parentis (“crazy parents”) by the state, it is incumbent upon us to be aware of dangerous trends our students might be engaging in and, as Marv Albert might say, nip it in the butt. Or at least adopt them as our own hobbies to appear youthful and hip, “with it”cool, krunk,  relevant.

It is this training (a five minute talk given to us by one of our new young counselors right before we left for lunch) that allowed us as a staff to recognize several new fads among our student population and ensure we had proper policies in place to maintain safety and proper decorum.  Last year we recognized the Twilight series was inspiring a number of teens to decorate their skin with glitter, and, after an unfortunate incident in the cafeteria involving a wooden stake, we adopted new policies forbidding both glitter AND stakes. 2010 saw a spike in certain subsets of our male population joining local gangs, so each of our male teachers (90 out of 210 total teachers) was asked to volunteer as “sponsors” to our at-risk youth. I’m currently sponsoring Ramón, a clean-cut young man who actually has taken the time to introduce me to his “posse”.  Nice guys.  Hey, Ramón, if you’re reading this – LATIN KINGS SIEMPRE! ; D.

Unfortunately, we acted too late on guys wearing skinny jeans, but now there’s the latest fashion trend of low-cut, v-neck t-shirts being worn by the girls, and, in a 120 to 90 vote, the staff decided to include the shirts on the list of prohibited attire for next year.

But now I’ve noticed an even more disturbing trend among my students in my classroom, and in conversations with other teachers I’ve discovered it’s quite widespread. I call it “crotch-watching”: during class, often times during lecture, I will notice students at their desks,  staring down at their laps, utterly absorbed by what they’re looking at. One or both of their hands are also in their laps, but nothing untoward is occurring based on the fact that the students sitting around them do not react at all to this behavior. The students afflicted by this behavior just sit, chin at their chest, and stare. The posture can last anywhere from 30 seconds to several minutes, and when I ask them what they’re doing, all they say is “nothing”, their hands immediately coming up from their laps.  Usually they won’t go back to their crotch-watching for the rest of the class after I’ve shown some concern, which is good, because I want my students to know I care (and Ramón is always telling me to keep an eye out for new blood prospectives).

I thought at first that these students might be having some self-esteem issues, as they are avoiding eye contact and personal interaction with their peers while they navel-gaze, but typically these crotch-watchers are the more extroverted students – they always seem to have a lot of friends and constantly know what each other is up to.  Just the other day, for instance, I had a student ask to go to the restroom and, as he left my room, I noticed that his girlfriend from the class right down the hall had been let out of class, too.  One of the assistant principals was patrolling the hallway so he made sure they didn’t waste any time getting back to their classrooms. Fortunate, because we were discussing carpe diem poetry that day, including Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and Robert Herrick’s “To The Virgins, To Make Much of Time”. Fantastic poems – both present such strong messages to young people.

Anyway, I’m trying to figure out the next step to take to try and curb this alarming trend among our students.  Some teachers might argue it’s a lost cause; there are reports that this kind of behavior is now being seen in the middle schools, though of course not as commonly as it is here at the high school.  I also hear that “crotch-watching” is widespread on our local college campuses, though interestingly enough students who bring laptops to class are seemingly immune to this scourge – they’re obviously too busy taking notes on their machines of modern convenience.  But perhaps that’s the solution – maybe the district needs to assign laptops to students  so that they will have something to keep them preoccupied during class and not fall victim to the empty pursuit of crotch-watching.  We all know how teens love technology.

I’ll be sure to suggest this at the next faculty meeting.  Tonight, though, Ramón tells me we’re going to be playing tag, although he called it “tagging”.  He asked me to buy some spray paint, since he’s not 18 yet, to help mark “boundaries.”  Funny, though, I would’ve expected him to have outgrown that game at his age. Maybe it’s a cultural thing – but it’s another way I’m staying relevant to today’s teens.

Captain America: The First Avenger – Thoughts (yeah, I loved it)

Posted in Comics, Entertainment, Review with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 22, 2011 by Mike

[note: no real spoilers here at all]

When I came out of the theater after seeing Thor I immediately posted to a couple sites that Marvel nailed the hero and had made a fantastic movie – it was fun, spirited, and really established a hero that I didn’t know how well would translate into the universe that the Iron Man and Hulk movies had been creating for the past few years.

Now Captain America: The First Avenger has been released, and in interest of full disclosure I have to admit that Cap’s my favorite superhero – always has been and always will.  But after walking out of the midnight showing, I didn’t post anything to facebook or other sites as I had done with Thor, nor could I really respond very well to what seemed to be a legion of  my former students when they asked what I thought of the movie.  Walking back to my car and driving home (at 2:30 A.M),  and even as I was trying to fall asleep, I was trying to evaluate what I had seen fairly, and not allow my fanboy attitude about Cap to unduly influence my reaction. I mean, anyone who knows me would expect me to declare it the best superhero movie of all time, but it’s not.

It is, however, a near-perfect Captain America film. And I loved it.

The thing about Captain America that needs to be understood above all is that the character’s origin is utterly dependent on the setting, and this makes Cap unique among superheroes.  Without the backdrop of WWII, there is no Captain America.  Without the evils of Nazism and Hitler, and the patriotic fervor of America and our desire to end Germany’s quest for world domination, Joe Simon does not sketch out the star-spangled hero punching Hitler in the mouth.

No better first issue cover picture exists in comics.

With every other superhero, the setting doesn’t matter.  Gotham is not inherent to Batman’s origin – the murder of his parents is the key. Krypton is obviously fictional – the importance of Superman’s origin is that his home planet has been destroyed, and any Midwest small town (“Smallville”) could serve Siegel and Shuster’s purposes in creating their uber-man. Spider-Man was bitten by a radioactive spider in a lab. Bruce Banner was bombarded by gamma rays – it doesn’t matter where it happened, or when. And so on.

But where and when, particularly when, is essential to Captain America – he could only have his origins in 1940s America. And that’s what director Joe Johnston clearly understands about the character and it’s the 1940s setting that makes The First Avenger so unique among superhero movies. Sure, you could raise the point about X-Men: First Class being set during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, but that was an artificial backdrop used merely to fit it in to the timeline established by the first two X-Men films. The 1960s were not necessary to the origin of the animosity between Xavier and Magneto (sure, the Civil Rights comparison is there, but the mutant conceit works for any minority that faces prejudice).

And as a result of the setting, there’s a different tone to Captain America than in other superhero movies.  Steve Rogers ends up being a superhero because he loves America and what it stands for, and that’s a far different reason than any other hero – hell, he wears the American flag as a uniform.  It could have easily descended into camp or hokey patriotism, but there’s an earnestness to Evans’ portrayal of Cap (and the film) that keeps it from doing so.  Cap is  a tough character to portray, I imagine, but I bought into it easily.  Chris Evans is now Captain America.

***

I think it’s unfair of reviewers to call this merely a set-up for The Avengers movie next year. There’s a lot of story in this film, and Johnston and crew spent a lot of time developing the characters.  It’s a shame, though, that this film couldn’t get into the Rogers as a “man out of time” story line which would add for more emotional impact – this film only provides the briefest of glimpses of that idea.  As far as the origin story, it nails it. Perfect, really. There are no questions about who Steve Rogers is or what his motivations are, and I’d argue that The First Avenger excels Thor and the Hulk (equal to Iron Man, though) in explaining its main character.

***

Hydra ends up taking the place of Nazis in the movie, by and large, and I wish that we got to see more Nazi-killing. It doesn’t mean that Nazis aren’t present, but it’s made clear that Hydra’s goals go far beyond Nazism and that’s actually in line with the comics. Still, Hydra soldiers in this film are Nazis, so I suppose that will have to suffice. The advanced weaponry seen in the film remind viewers that this is a comic book movie, not history, and I couldn’t help but want to see a little more “realistic” warfare (as seen in the concept art for the movie):

***

Cap in action on the screen might as well have been ripped from the pages of the comics. He punches Hydra goons, they go flying. Remember, the Super Soldier serum transformed him into a physically perfect human specimen, capable of some pretty outstanding feats (the wiki says he can bench press 1200 pounds, i.e., if  he hits/throws a regular person, that person will go flying). I wonder if The Avengers and future Cap movies will allow him to keep his pistol.  I don’t think he needs it, though in wartime it would be expected.  And his use of his iconic shield was perfect – never to the point of eye-rolling, for me.

***

Bottom line, though, is that I enjoyed the hell out of this movie. As a friend and I were saying as we were waiting in line, this was one we were waiting all our lives for. Now that it’s here, it’s everything a Captain America film needed to be. I’ll be seeing it again soon.

It’s the Revolutionary War all over again – Whose Side Are You On?

Posted in Comics, Entertainment with tags , , , , on July 14, 2011 by Mike

Tonight marks the opening night of the last chapter (part II) of Harry Potter.  You know, the movie based on the British author J.K Rowling’s books about British kids who find out they’re British wizards and go to Hogwarts, a British school of magic Rowling  modeled after the British school system.

Did I mention that they’re all British? (Okay, Rowling throws in some Scots and some French, too.  Same difference).

This movie is expected to shatter all records for opening weekends; tonight’s midnight showings – where attendees will dress in black robes, sacrifice black cats and summon Satan to enjoy some popcorn and Dots (so I’ve heard) – are sold out all across the nation in order that viewers can brag about being the first to see the finale of a film series they already know the  end to. It is also expected to be the top-grossing film of the year, and perhaps of all time.

This cannot stand.

Now, far be it from me to take away from the public’s apparent enjoyment of Anglophilic witchcraft, and I admit I will enjoy seeing Transformers 3′s opening weekend record be wiped from the books, but, dammit, we live in America, and this summer’s records should be held by an American film. No, not Michael Bay’s “movie” – America’s not about giant space robots who allow thousands of Americans to die to prove a point.  And America’s not about a Viking space alien, either, nor is it about a guy who gets his power from a green ring (do you see green on our flag?) or talking animals.

No, America’s about freedom. It’s  about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, individual achievement and responsibility to your fellow man.  It’s about sacrifice and it’s about loyalty to something greater than yourself. And it’s definitely not about witches. And there’s one movie out this summer that epitomizes America:

It's about America.

Captain America: The First Avenger is set during a time when the world faced the threat of an ego-maniacal genocidal madman bent on ruling the world.  If that sounds familiar, Potter fans, you’re right – Rowling plagiarized American history with her invention of Voldemort. Rowling, however, employs a bit of revisionism in her last novel by allowing the Brits to defeat their “Hitler” with no American support at all.  In fact, in Rowling’s fantasy world, America might as well not even exist (Rowling probably was worried American wizards would crowd out Harry). But Captain America might have actually happened: he’s fighting Nazis and Hitler, along with the forces of Hydra and the Red Skull. The movie’s practically a history lesson – I can envision high school coaches showing it to their American History classes in future years.

In fact, I think it could be proven that Rowling wanted Harry Potter to be the British Captain America. Think about it: both stories involve young men who come from humble beginnings and, because of who they are, are blessed with certain abilities and become heroes to all who meet them, all the while taking on the great evil of their time.  It’s a timeless story – I’m surprised Rowling was the first to crib it from Cap.

Look, I know that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is going to have a most impressive showing at the box office this weekend. Hell, I’m going to be seeing it too – after all the losers who are going to dress up as Harry or Hermione or Snape have seen it their five times. But I think we would be remiss as a nation not to show the same…no, MORE support for a movie that celebrates the American spirit through such an iconic superhero.  So go see Harry Potter this weekend, but make plans to see The First Avenger next weekend (twice, even!), too, and help keep the box-office records attached to an American movie. It’s your patriotic duty.

I’ll be first in line in the Cap costume.

I don't think I'll take the shield to the theater.

So I’ve been reading George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series…

Posted in Entertainment with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 13, 2011 by Mike

and have just finished the fourth book, A Feast For Crows.

Damn.

I hadn’t heard of this series until HBO’s Game of Thrones started getting some publicity during its production. After the first episode aired I went out and bought the first book and haven’t read anything not dealing with Westeros since.  And now the fifth book in the series is out (A Dance With Dragons), so if I break down and buy this one in hardcover (all the others are paperbacks) it’ll practically guarantee I won’t be getting to anything else on my bookshelf this summer.  Not that Martin’s books are hard to read, but every one of them is a TOME.  It takes time to get through them, even though I feel like I’ve flown through them this past month.

I’ve read my share of fantasy epics.  I cut my teeth on Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain series back in fifth or six grade – I remember completing a book report on The High King for Mrs. England’s class. I made a posterboard cut-out of Taran and was particularly pleased with his sword which was covered in aluminum foil.  I would later move on to the Dragonlance novels (authored by Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis) – I remember being in a bookstore and seeing War of the Twins on the counter, and, being a twin myself, picked it up and ended up devouring that entire series over the next few years. Damn, there were a lot of books.

And of course there was Tolkien.  The Hobbit was required reading for seniors, as I remember, but that might have been either for “0n-level” seniors or discontinued by the time I got into senior AP English as I never read it for class.  When Peter Jackson’s movies came out I reread the trilogy and was surprised just how much Jackson was able to include (and though I understand why Tom Bombadil might not have worked for some audiences, I was really hoping the extended versions of the films would include him). I tried to read The Silmarillion but, forgive me, that thing’s nigh-unreadable.  A number of years later I started reading Salvatore’s Drizzt Do’Urden novels but grew disenchanted with them as Salvatore never seemed to want to kill off any of his heroes. I hear that’s changed recently.

However, Martin’s series is so drastically different from these other epics that I hesitate to compare them. Martin is writing something other than fantasy – there’s no black and white/good vs. evil conflict here.  Sure, there are characters you hate (Cersei is a capital-B Bitch), but all of his characters are complex creations that have a variety of motivations (and not just sex, though that’s a popular one).  There’s no Aragorn in this series,  and there’s no Sauron. Being a rotten-to-the-core bastard in Westeros can lead to death, but it can also lead to being crowned king. On the other side of the coin, being utterly noble more often than not leads to a bad end. Martin turns tried-and-true conventions of fantasy on their head, and the result, for me, at least, is something more affecting than any of the other fantasy series I’ve read, including Tolkien’s.  In The Lord of the Rings, I knew Sauron would be defeated, that the ring would be destroyed. In “A Song of Ice and Fire”,  I want to see Cersei receive her comeuppance, but I’m not sure that’ll happen.  And that uncertainty is  really one of the chief pleasures in reading this series.

Tyrion Lannister is another. But you need to read the series to see that.

My writing contest submission…

Posted in Entertainment on July 13, 2011 by Mike

A while back I posted about a writing contest I entered through Wizards of the Coast (read that here, if you haven’t already). I ended that post playing around with the idea of putting the sample here.   So, a year later, here it is…

 

Daenos Karanok led the bound and gagged elf toward the execution dais centered in the large, stone-walled chamber.   The white robes Daenos wore marked the solemnity of the event about to transpire, and the congregation gathered in the great hall beneath the Karanok mansion maintained an almost unnatural silence as the procession made its way through the chamber.  He stopped at the steps leading up to the pyre, the doomed elf behind him.  Daenos noted that Jaerios Karanok, ruler of Luthcheq and Daenos’ great uncle, smiled slightly at their approach, but Daenos knew the grin was one of anticipation rather than familial pride.  Jaerios never missed an execution.

From the base of the steps, Daenos glanced up at his distant cousin Kaestra, a dark-haired woman, pale and unattractive, who stood and surveyed the assembly and the prisoner below.  Her green eyes shone with what the Karanok family deemed the fervor of her faith, though others outside the family secretly believed it to be proof of her utter madness.  For a brief moment, the only sound within the chamber came from the sputtering torches which illuminated the chamber’s sole embellishment: a broad white tapestry decorated with a lone black circle, representing the sable orb located in the chamber above to which this ceremony was dedicated.  Kaestra’s voice broke the silence.

“The Great Nothing, look down upon your faithful and accept this sacrifice as a sign of our adoration and fealty.”

“Entropy hear us,” came the rejoinder.

“For in His wisdom, The Great Nothing has revealed to us the path by which we will achieve all.”

“Entropy hear us.”

“And in His name, we destroy those who disgrace Faerûn with the deceit of the arcane and those who would protect them.”

“Entropy hear us.”

“Bring forth the wizard.”

Daenos pushed his prisoner up the steps and toward the pyre.  He could see the elf’s arms straining against the bindings that kept them behind his back, despite the pain it must have caused – it was now common practice to break the fingers of wizards before their execution.  This practice had been suggested by Naeros, Jaerios’ son, whose treatment of wizards was legendary, even as far away as the city ofSaerloonfrom which Daenos had come.  “Take away their hands, and we limit what the filthy animals can do,” Naeros had explained. “I have often argued that we should cut out their tongues as well, but my father rather enjoys listening to their screams when they burn.”  Daenos had grinned at this and nodded.

Daenos fought off another smile now.  He had been sent by his father, Povros, to the port of Luthcheq to be trained to more thoroughly attune himself to Entropy, and thus to the five daughters the god had spawned, one of which could be found beneath his father’s mansion.  The decision to train Daenos had been made out of necessity.  Samil, the family’s former entropist, as the specialized priests had taken to call themselves, had been executed by Povros for drunkenly boasting of his position to a whore in a Saerloon tavern.  Fortunately, the now long-dead cleric had not revealed his employer, as the Karanok family name would most assuredly invite the wrath of the large enclave of Red Wizards located in Saerloon.  To this day, or so Daenos heard, children were still finding pieces of him throughout the city.  Because Samil had not been family, but a member of a lesser house of the city ofLuthcheq, Povros decreed all further entropists in his house were strictly to be Karanoks.

Daenos had been the obvious heir to the position.  His early clerical training identified him as one particularly favored by Entropy; his prayers and meditation awoke such insight within him as to the desires of their god that Povros’s most trusted advisors often consulted Daenos before meeting with his father.  All inhabiting the house considered Daenos’s gifts a blessing from the Great Nothing for Povros’s piety, which went so far as to preclude Povros from using any item he believed to be created by wizards.  Daenos’s predecessor, after observing him telepathically control the daughter of Entropy with no formal training, suggested to Povros that Daenos be sent to Luthcheq to be more thoroughly educated by Jaerios and Kaestra.  Initially loath to send away his first-born son and heir, Povros interpreted Samil’s death as a sign from his deity to reconsider.

Thus, for the past year, Daenos resided in Luthcheq, observing those who had already harnessed the god’s power, learning what wondrous abilities their god could grant.  His exceptional abilities quickly drew the attention of Kaestra, the most powerful cleric in the Karanok family, who took it upon herself to challenge Daenos in his training, at times cruelly.  This ceremony marked the culmination of those months of intense study, and signaled Daenos’ entrance into what he knew to be a level of prestige more suitable to one of his talents.  Soon, he knew, he would return to Saerloon, and continue the family’s efforts to rid Faerûn of wizardry, perhaps now a little less subtly.  The Great Nothing, Daenos thought, had illuminated within him a myriad of possibilities.

He was thinking of these possibilities now, as the elf’s hands were freed from their bonds and quickly moved toward the chains hanging above the kindling.  The elf had been captured two weeks earlier a short distance outside the city gates.  The apprehension had not been easy.  Not only was this elf a particularly powerful mage, one of the strongest Daenos had encountered, but he had been accompanied by three others, a trio of talented warriors.  Sheer numbers, as well as a bit of luck, Daenos admitted to himself, finally overwhelmed the group, who were subdued and arrested as hired mercenaries from the city ofCimbar.  Cimbar was a known ally of the city ofAkanax, which Daenos was aware had been at war with Luthcheq for close to eight years. The others’ heads had been sent back to Cimbar in baskets, with a letter of warning for those who would attempt to undermine the Karanoks and the city ofLuthcheq.  Captured wizards were always burned alive.

The sudden movement of the elf surprised Daenos and the clerics who were attempting to chain the mage’s hands.  As the assembly watched, the elf ripped himself away from the two clerics and, pulling off his gag with one broken hand, lunged toward Kaestra, possibly viewing her as a weaker target because of her sex and priestly garments.  Daenos made no immediate attempt to come to her aid, knowing the elf would pay dearly for this misjudgment.

Kay er scotus.” A black haze immediately surrounded Kaestra’s right hand as she brought it forward as if to motion the elf to stop.  The elf’s momentum, however, carried him into her so that his chest landed squarely on her outstretched hand.  He screamed and fell to his knees, clutching his chest with one hand.  Kaestra stood over the kneeling elf, as he looked up into the eyes of his tormentor.

The elf grinned.

Kaestra leveled her right hand across the elf’s chin, knocking him onto his side.  He attempted to push himself up, but after the blow his strength failed him, and he lay on his side as a small puddle of blood formed beneath his jaw.  Kaestra motioned for the assisting clerics to continue the ceremony.  As they pulled the semi-conscious elf to his feet and resumed the process of chaining him to the pyre, a hushed murmur moved through the assembly at the unexpected display of their god’s strength.   Kaestra, her hand still enveloped in the shimmering mist, addressed Daenos.

“Your last step is complete, initiate,” Kaestra declared. “With the death of the mage, you will be designated as a god-touched, and serve as a link between our priests and the Great Nothing.  Serve him, and us, well.”

Daenos moved toward the pyre as his deity’s power began to manifest itself within.  Ten feet away from the pile of brush and wood, he stopped and stared at the doomed elf, whose head was now bent toward his chest in apparent resignation.  Daenos smiled, his focus now moving to the base of the pyre.  While it was a minor spell, Daenos always delighted in the familiar warmth that came with the power at his control.  This warmth transferred itself to the pyre, and the brush soon began to smolder, then burn.

As Daenos’s spell ignited the pyre, the worshippers discarded their solemnity and broke into raucous shouting and laughter, mocking the wizard as the flames grew more intense.  The elf’s robes smoldered and blackened, and a sickening scent of burning flesh began to waft through the hall, overwhelming the smell of the witchweed that had been placed among the wood.  The witchweed, always placed in the pyre as a precaution against mages with extraordinary willpower, burned with a light smoke that could break even the strongest mage’s concentration.

Because of this, the elf’s chant came as a surprise to those who expected only cries for mercy.  It began slowly, spoken through clenched teeth and streams of tears; but as the flames began to destroy the nerve functions, it became almost song-like in its intensity and pitch.

Daenos, hearing the elvish language, strode toward the elf, pulling from beneath his robes an ebony mace, a gift from his father.  The head was a solid black sphere, in honor of their god, though it had been created by a high-ranking cleric of another deity in Saerloon.  It could, once a day, simultaneously summon a cloud of darkness and grant its wielder the ability to see through the blackness.  The weapon’s victims learned quickly why its creator had named the mace Dark Herald, for its plain appearance masked a weapon that struck with unexpected force.  Quickly calling on Entropy for a minor protection spell from the flames, he swung the weapon at the elf’s head, breaking the skull with a sickening crunch that echoed throughout the hall.  The elf’s body went limp, and the worshippers who had not immediately run for the nearest door cheered their approval.

“What was the elf saying?” came a voice from the back.
“Was it a spell?  Is it possible?  Did not the witchweed disrupt him?”
“It was a prayer.” All attention turned to the new entropist, who stared at the now partially blackened figure. “He was praying,” Daenos said.

“To whom?” asked a small man, whom Daenos recognized as a member of another noble house.

“A goddess — Loviatar.”

“What did he say?”

“Something inconsequential,” responded Kaestra.  “She holds no sway here in the presence of the Great Nothing.  Let the mage’s body burn until the morning; such is the power of his bitch goddess.”

The worshippers lingered in the hall until Jaerios left, knowing the awaiting feast celebrating the death of another mage would only begin after he reported the news of the successful execution to Maelos, his father.  Too old and senile now to attend the burnings, he remained in the northern wing of the Karanok mansion, locked away in his bedroom, and rarely spoken of by the rest of the family.  Jaerios made these reports out of duty and tradition, though Daenos had quickly learned that Jaerios’s sense of duty did not prohibit him from openly desiring the natural end to Maelos’s life.

Daenos remained behind as the others retired from the worship hall, considering what he had witnessed.  Before the elf succumbed to the flames, Daenos had noted the trance-like expression on the mage’s face, and, even more puzzling, the prayer’s words:

The Maiden of Pain grants me peace.  Peace through pain, pain without fear. I have received this promise from her: life follows the death of the devout.  A vision attends my death:  the deception will end.  I see pain without end.   I see death reflected here a thousand times, but with no life to follow.

* * *

            The woman awoke, a burning elf the final image of the dream that had accompanied her night’s sleep.  It had been a chaotic jumble of such images, and she struggled to remind herself of all that she had seen.  Two cityscapes entered her mind: one whose gothic architecture she immediately recognized as Saerloon, and another whose only distinctive trait had been accompanying images of a swamp.  A number of colorful, lizard-like creatures were also seen, as were six black circles, one larger than the other five.  Connecting each of these images, she remembered, and emphasizing this as more than a mere dream, was something with which Fyrra Klen was intimately familiar: a nine-tailed whip, symbol of Loviatar.

Fyrra rose from the bed, and walked nude to the small window of the room she had purchased for the night.  She did not fear being seen, as outside the streets of Pyarados were still dark with night.  And even if seen, Fyrra thought, the painful lust she knew her body could awaken in most men’s hearts (and some women’s, for that matter) only served her goddess more.  The Thayan city was quiet, almost peaceful, though Fyrra knew the rising sun would soon awaken it to another day of inevitable pain and suffering.  “Such is the reason,” Fyrra reflected, “that we pray to Loviatar in the morning: to give thanks for the opportunity to take a part in it.”

She knelt down in front of the window, awaiting the morning.  As the sun began to appear over the mountains to the east, Fyrra took up the small ceremonial lash that lay beside her and began to strike herself across her back.  Red lines, then welts, and then bleeding slashes appeared on her shoulders, joining the small, thin scars already present from previous rituals.  She stopped when the sun cleared the mountain range, and commenced to pray for her regular complement of spells, as well as further guidance in the interpretation of the night’s dream.  She smiled, feeling the chill of her deity’s caress as the incantations returned to her.  She opened her eyes and looked upon the streets, now illuminated with the dawn.  Loviatar had spoken to her.

“We must go to Saerloon,” she said to herself. “But first we must prepare.”

Fyrra Klen, priestess of Loviatar, the Maiden of Pain, smiled at the new day’s possibilities.

 

To the Senior Class of 2011…

Posted in Entertainment, teaching with tags , , , , on May 19, 2011 by Mike

This year I wasn’t a candidate for graduation speaker (thank God), but I still have some words of wisdom I’d like to impart to this year’s A&M Consolidated graduates, and in fact to all high school graduates this year.  So for right now  go ahead and imagine me in a mortarboard cap and a long black gown stepping up to the podium to deliver your commencement address…For those of you who aren’t graduating this year, you’re invited to pretend that you’re a friend or loved one of one of the graduates…keep the babies quiet, please.

***

Mark Twain once said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”  He also said a lot of other things, most of which he actually didn’t say, but which are now attributed to him because the internet has no editors.

But I digress.

Responsibility is the word tonight.  It’s a word that’s thrown around in the presence of 17 and 18 year olds quite a bit, mainly after you’ve disappointed your parents in some way.  And, really, up until this point, your responsibilities have been rather minimal, unless you’re raising a kid or helping your family pay the bills by working two part-time jobs.  But for you others – the slackers who didn’t have kids while in high school – responsibility is now creeping up behind you with a sock full of nickels about to brain you.  And he won’t be charged with assault, either.

See, now that you’re legal adults, the world expects you to be accountable for your actions and decisions – unless you’re entering politics, when responsibility is at first a nice surprise, and then grounds for suspicion.  In high school, turning work in late would only lead to a point-deduction on your final grade. In the real world, late work results in pink slips and unemployment lines – unless you’re in politics, when deadlines just get extended because everyone’s scared you’d actually do something, anyway. In high school, planting a dead skunk in the school’s ventilation system is a “prank” and results in admiration from underclassmen.  In the real world, you’ve just committed an act of domestic terrorism and go to jail for 30 years. In high school, sending risqué pics to someone else’s smart phone is seen as juvenile and disgusting. In the real world, it’s still considered juvenile and disgusting, but standard behavior for Hall-of-Fame-bound quarterbacks.

But I digress.

As high school graduates, you now enter a world which will place expectations upon you to perform and achieve – unless you enter politics.  In other words, you have responsibility.  A responsibility to yourself to meet your potential, a responsibility to the parents and teachers who brought you to where you are today (figuratively, not literally – I know y’all can drive), a responsibility to society.  It’s that last responsibility I want to discuss here tonight, and by “discuss” I mean lecture at you since you’re supposed to be quiet and listen right now.  Which would be a first, judging by your behavior in my classes, but try anyway.

Sitting before me I see a wide variety of people with a diverse array of talents and interests.  It is these interests and talents that your parents, your teachers and I hope and pray you take out to the world to make it a better place, to show ingenuity and originality and integrity in the realms you choose to take on.  God knows we older generations have run out of ideas. Look at the state the world’s in – you’re seeing the best we can do, and isn’t that frightening? So it’s you we’re shifting our attention to, knowing that at some point we’re going to have to blame someone for all of this, and it’s damn sure not going to be us.  You’re younger and have less money, so you’re an easy target.  That’s how the world works.

But we’re giving you a shot to fix things, because that’s what America is all about – reworking things when they don’t work out the first time.  Look at Thomas Edison – he created the light bulb only after a long series of failures, whereas any reasonable person would have given up after, say, three failed attempts.  Don’t be that reasonable person. Your responsibility, while you’re young and full of energy and optimism, is to keep failing until you succeed, or at least until you have a family to support.

Beyond this admittedly broad responsibility to not give up, you also have more individual responsibilities I’m going to set down, organized by the fields you may eventually enter. These responsibilities have been identified only after much consideration, and fulfilling them will lead to a prosperous, happy life (this is by no means a guarantee, however, as I cannot be held liable for the state of your life.  I’m part of the older generation – it’s not my fault).

We’ll start with those who want to go into the medical field.  You have a responsibility to not screw up.  Forget what I said about failing until you succeed – get it right the first time. No one wants a doctor for whom “Let’s see what happens when I do this…” is a mantra.

For those of you who want to be engineers, you have a responsibility to keep the trains from running into one another (I’m actually surprised at the number of students who tell me they want to be engineers – I would think that jobs would be scarce.  Maybe it’s those caps that are the draw.)

If you’re a writer, you have a responsibility never to use vampires in your fiction.  Also, forget about reworking a classic work from the point of view of a minor character in said work.  Find an original idea or go sell insurance.

Future psychology/art history/sociology majors, your responsibility is simple: keep working on that screenplay so you’ll be able to move out of your parents’ house before they die.

If you’re into computer animation, you have  a responsibility to get a job at Pixar and then, once there, crank out a turkey, b/c that damned company is making us all look bad with their success rate.

Keeping with the tech careers, if your plan is to go into IT, you have a responsibility to get Adobe to finally stop updating.

Future journalists: you’re responsible for the dissemination of information regarding the most important issues facing this country today, but Americans don’t want to read that crap. It’s probably the root cause of our political divisions – y’all keep dredging up political corruption and all that other “bad” stuff – no wonder our government can’t get anything done .  Instead, concentrate on celebrities and cute animal stories, throwing in the occasional cannibalism story to underscore just how horrible the world is.  The reunification of America is sure to follow.

If you’re a musician, you have a responsibility to stay the hell away from American Idol.  As AC/DC put it, “it’s a long way to the top if you wanna rock and roll”, and no one respects people who take short cuts, except damsels in distress who are tied to railroad tracks waiting for a hero to come rescue them (think about it, I swear it’s funny). Pay your dues in the clubs, get some groupies, get signed, and then write ironic songs about how the record company doesn’t care about your music while college students steal it from BitTorrent. Live the dream.

If business school is in your future…well, actually, responsibility (fiscal, societal) is something the attorneys can worry about.  Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

Speaking of  those future lawyers, you have the responsibility to demonstrate integrity in selecting which cases you choose to take on, to consider the possible societal implications of the judgments you are arguing for, to view your clients as people and not as billable hours, to make arguments that are fair and rooted in objective truth, and, finally, to pursue truth zealously and honestly…in other words, you have a responsibility not to go into law.

If you plan on joining the noblest profession, my profession, teaching, you take on the vast responsibility of preparing our youth to become the leaders of tomorrow.  Molding young minds to think for themselves; putting in the extra time to provide genuine and helpful feedback on the assignments they turn in; counseling them in their times of need; preparing coherent and engaging lesson plans each day that reach a wide range of learning styles; modifying assignments and tests for students with various learning disabilities, leading them to be successful on state and national exams; being observant for any indications of alcohol or drug abuse; writing college recommendation letters for students whose names you’ve forgotten since the previous year; attending staff meetings; filling out discipline referrals as necessary to remind them there are consequences for setting fire to the sink in the bathroom down the hall; attending the extra-curricular activities your students participate in to show them that you care about them as people, not just as students…and if you’re still listening there’s still time to change your mind. Maybe business school has some openings.

And, finally, if your goal is to enter politics, to get elected to office and work for change that reflects the will of the people and betters society, you have a responsibility to do just that. We won’t hold our breath.

Congratulations to the class of 2011 – may we hear of your future accomplishments in all the proper publications.

/if you enjoyed this, I spent four or five days writing it when I could take breaks from my grading

//if you didn’t enjoy this, it was slapped together in 20 minutes by someone other than me and proofread by monkeys.

Thinking out loud here about the upcoming Spider-Man reboot…

Posted in Comics, Entertainment with tags , , , on May 5, 2011 by Mike

…if we ever want to see Spider-Man meet up with the Avengers or anyone else in the Marvel Universe, Sony would have to give the rights to the character back to Marvel Studios. That would only happen if Sony thought the web-slinger wasn’t a viable property anymore. I think this means that the new Spider-Man movie needs to be boycotted.

Unless it’s awesome.

I kind of doubt it, though, based on the pics of Peter Parker with skateboard (what the hell?):

Teaser Poster for Captain America: The First Avenger

Posted in Comics, Entertainment with tags , , , , , on February 4, 2011 by Mike

Go ahead and bask in its awesomeness first:

The Movie I've Been Waiting My Entire Life For

Marvel Studios nailed it.  I can’t imagine another image that would get me so anxious for this film, to be honest.  The word “AVENGE” across Evans’ chest is a subtle reminder of not only the title of the film but also Cap’s status as an Avenger and, hell, America’ desire for vengeance upon entry into WWII.  Just perfect.

Not only that, but it’s obvious (to me and probably to most Cap fans) that the designers of the teaser poster have been looking at images of Cap from the comics, and chose to model their poster on a cover from issue #4 of the current volume:

Cover art for Captain America #4

July 22nd can’t get here soon enough – I’ll be the one in the front of the line at Cinemark on July 20th.

Now I need to find a site that’s selling the poster…

He who hesitates…

Posted in Comics, Entertainment, Figures with tags , , on January 31, 2011 by Mike

…doesn’t get the figures, apparently.

I went to Toys R Us a week or so ago after going to Blinn to pick up a copy of the textbook I’m teaching out of this semester. It had been a while since I had been in to check for new Marvel Universe figures, and even though Toys R Us tends to disappoint me, I went in anyway. Walking in a guy caught my eye – he had multi-colored hair which was plastered on his head, unkempt, and yes, I made some judgments internally about how silly he looked.

So I walked back to the aisles where they keep the Marvel figures, only it’s the aisle that holds the two-packs and only occasionally single figures.  Still, I look around a couple minutes at the DC figures (I’d probably buy a Green Arrow figure if I saw one) and then look to see if the Arkham Asylum figures are there.  No dice, so I move to the next aisle.

Turning the corner, there’s that same goofy-looking kid standing at the “main” display of Marvel Universe figures with a few in his hand: Thanos, Constrictor, and Yellow Jacket.  Yeah, the ones I wanted – all with close ties to the Avengers.  He walks off down the aisle and I could only futilely look through the peg racks, knowing (of course) there would be no others.

There weren’t.