Magical Economies (Part Three)

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Here is the last of three installments of my musings about magic. In the first episode I dealt with fictional stories portraying magic as an arcane study. Following this, I reviewed the sinister side of magic with ill-made pacts and potent items luring characters to their doom. In this last part, let’s consider the act of self-sacrifice made in hopes of ridding the world of some great evil.

Below are links to the other two posts referenced above. Please check them out if you haven’t already.

In all of these different applications of magic or supernatural power, I argue there is always a price to pay. Nothing is really free.

Dying for Others

The most basic instinct of any species is survival. Humans contain the capacity to conceptualize the future and are uniquely positioned to consider their own death. This burden of awareness of one’s own mortality haunts all of us at some point in life. Yet, it presents humanity with a unique opportunity when confronting death. We, alone of the animal kingdom, are capable of influencing when, how and why our death occurs. Throughout the ages, countless people have made the ultimate sacrifice of dying in order to save others. Soldiers, public safety personnel and everyday, ordinary, good samaritans are honored and celebrated for their willingness to put their lives in danger, so that others may live. 

Self-sacrifice is enshrined within the mythos of many spiritual traditions. These faiths believe eternal life, unobtainable to mortals, is secured with an incomprehensible divine gift. The narrative of a god becoming human, suffering and dying to vanquish death, is the ultimate illustration of the adage, “You can’t get something for nothing.” This prodigious concept has had a perennial effect, rippling through generation after generation of humanity’s collective consciousness. It is a notion consistently revisited and explored in the stories we create. Literature classes, worldwide, discuss and dissect pieces of writing, attempting to make sense of what has become know as a “christ-figure”. This literary term denotes a character, who willingly sets aside their own life to accomplish some greater good. Fans of The Lord of the Rings recognize Tolkien’s works are replete with examples of a willingness to die for the greater good. Gandalf’s sacrifice battling the balrogin the Mines of Moria, Boromir’s attempt to save Pippin and Merry from capture, and Sam and Frodo’s taking of the Ring to Mount Doom are merely the more recognizable instances of putting the life of others first. 

In the Star Wars, we all remember watching Obi Wanallow himself to be struck down by Darth Vader. This is a rich plot element not easily pinned down. His sacrifice allows the others to escape the Death Starwith the battle station’s design plans. On the face of things, this noble act gives the rebels a chance at destroying the super weapon. The jedi’s death saves millions of lives. Yet, Obi Wan has other motives. He is playing the long game, hoping to irrevocably turn the younger, impressionable Skywalker away from his father, Darth Vader. Ensuring Luke became a jedi was central to Obi Wan’s mission of restoring balance to the Force. The original 1977 movie was incapable of conveying the vastness of Lucas’s story concept. But, years later with the making of The Clone Wars series, fans finally learned the larger, cosmic backstory. With the rise of Emperor Palpatine, the very Force itself manifests to Yoda. He is given rare training providing a new understanding of the Force. Not unlike, Isaac Asimov’s, Foundation, a story about the creation of an enduring repository of knowledge for rebuilding civilization after utter destruction, the remaining jedi, armed with new insight, lay plans to safeguard the fading embers of their order. Under Yoda’s guidance, Obi Wan learns individuality can survive physical death, transitioning to a new, powerful state of existence. While remaining true to his oath to honor and protect life, Obi Wan’s new perspective empowers him to sacrifice his life for others. There is no evidence of fear. Viewers are treated to a figure tranquilly confident. He recognizes the loss of his physical body pales in comparison to what he’ll become. We all love Obi Wan’s line before he is slain, “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” An older, weaker man during the time of the creation of the Death Star, Obi Wanhad much to gain by passing into the Force. The price of his physicality seems inconsequential.

The New Jedi Order book series, set years later during the time of the New Republic, tells the story of a novel threat from beyond the confines of the galaxy. An enemy wielding sophisticated, biologically-based weaponry is bent on total domination. Artificial intelligence and technology, the norm in the galaxy, is abhorrent to the invaders. They seek to eliminate all traces of it and reorder every world to align with their organic-based civilization. Similar to the Na’vi of Pandora from the movie Avatar, their way of life is entirely constructed around merging with other lifeforms in symbiotic relationships. However, unlike the inhabitants of Pandora, the Yuuzhan Vong dominate and genetically alter life to suit their needs, rather than working in harmony with it. This extragalactic society is ruled by a theocracy of warrior priests worshipping a cruel pantheon of gods. Their culture celebrates acts of self-mutilation, pain, treachery, egomania and war. Complicating matters, the Jedi can not sense Yuuzhan Vong within the Force, negating advantages Jedi typically have when fighting other species. The original characters of Star Wars remain actively involved in the story, along side a younger generation of Jedi. In the spirit of redemption, Han and Leia have named their youngest son, Anakin. He is a powerful jedi. In a desperate mission behind enemy lines, he desperately draws ever more of the Force within himself to save his friends, siblings and the mission. Readers discover the physical body has limits though in terms of how it can interact with this mystical energy. As Anakin pulls ever more of the Forcein, beyond safe limits, performing impossible feats, he burns the very life out of himself and dies. The episode is an exemplification of the magical economy at work. Possession of great might always takes a devastating toil on the wielder. Anakin saves the day, like Tony Stark does in Marvel’s, Avengers: Endgame, but interacting with such forces kills both. 

Finally, let’s consider the Thomas Covenant series. The main character, a true anti-hero, is hopelessly flawed and overtly resistant to helping anyone, but himself. We are confronted with his heinous crime, early in the series, and most readers are bewildered, as other characters resign themselves to helping Thomas Covenant. Sacrificing their own ethics and sense of morality, his victim and her family lay aside justice to save their world from its ancient enemy, Lord Foul. The Land, the name of the world in which Thomas Covenant finds himself transported, is inhabited by an archaic people, who consider white gold as an element of ultimate power. Thomas Covenant wears a white gold wedding band. To the people of the Land, he is the reborn embodiment of an ancient hero. He spends much of the series refusing to believe he is experiencing anything other than a dream. Continually playing an unsympathetic figure, he is confronted repeatedly with others sacrificing their lives in the belief he is the Land’s savior. Eventually, he comes to accepts his role, but finds himself ineffective and bereft of any sense of how to save the Land. He is in unable to reliably access the power of the white gold. This is a story full of great loss and tragic defeats. But, the ultimate battle isn’t meant to be won in the traditional sense. To defeat Lord Foul,the Despiser, brutish power will avail Thomas Covenant nothing. Salvation arrives only with the surrender of the white gold and sacrifice of himself. Through his own destruction, he enables the white gold power to use his essence to protect the Arch of Time from Lord Foul’s attempts to destroy it. Ultimately, the evil Despiser, Lord Foul is defeated not through any potent strike against him, but by his own use of the power surrendered to him.

Humanity is easily tempted. Many would be willing to pay a high price in order to achieve great wealth, power, fame or love. Even without magic, there are real world examples of men and women sacrificing morality for gain. Greed, pride, jealousy, zealotry and hunger for power are age old human conditions. These elements of humanity perpetually sow conflict throughout our world. Perhaps, storytelling is a form of catharsis for the entire species, allowing us to focus on acts of generosity, love and altruism. Historically, there is ample evidence of the ability of power to corrupt those with it. Yet, even the meekest have been know to display acts of sacrifice, tipping the scales to save many. Science fiction and fantasy offer the opportunity to explore  exaggerated situations, helping even the dullest of us contemplate the struggle between good and evil. Power always comes with a price and great responsibility. 

The Allure of Fantastic Technology

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My youngest turned 18 years old today…which in my mind makes me officially old. Many parents face this milestone with a sense of accomplishment at a job well done. They got their child to adulthood. Their son or daughter can now vote, is legally responsible for themselves and most likely is either in their first year of college or getting ready to start it. My son is 18. But, due to complications from an acute illness he had as an infant, he won’t be going to college, voting or ever to acting like an adult. For us this is just another day; a continuation of the responsibilities and care giving required over the last 18 years. I know most people who don’t know me or my son will instantly utter something like,

“Oh, that’s awful. So tragic. Poor thing. I’m so sorry to hear that.”

I do appreciate the well-meaning, genuine sentiment behind those words. Yet, these days when someone meets us and reacts this way, I feel a sense of embarrassment for them. I respond firmly stating,

“Yes, it was tremendously tragic 18 years ago, but not now.”

You see my son is perfect just the way he is. Do any of us really get to decide how their life plays out? I stop to reflect on what is it that they see as so grievous. They only see the things he can’t do. Of course they haven’t gotten the chance to get to know him and see how happy he is. A stranger doesn’t know what my son is capable of appreciating in this life. But, the people close to us celebrate his life for what it is. He lives in the moment untroubled by past and future. He judges no one. He is wide-eyed, curious, social and loves being in the thick-of-it surrounded by busy, bustling people. He enjoys walks outside and watching the trees speed by during a drive. His wookie-like vocalizations and his huge smile are delightful. (Incidentally, Peter Mayhew, the actor who played Chewbacca is also deaf.) In a word, my son is joy.

Science fiction is rife with examples of extraordinary medical technologies that can cure all of this world’s current health woes. Instantly, I think of the character James Rhodes from Ironman. Rhody who becomes paralyzed is aided by Tony Stark who creates braces allowing him to walk normally when he is out of the War Machine suit. Similarly, LeVar Burton’s role as Jordy, on the television series, Star Trek: Next Generation, gave writers an opportunity to explore topics surrounding life with disabilities. The character was blind, but benefited from a stylish visor implant. The device not only restored his vision, but allowed him to see things the normal human eye couldn’t. Of course, I can’t help mention the suit Darth Vader wears after the loss of his legs and his near death at the lava fields on the planet Mustafar. The idea of using medical devices to help people live a better life is a noble one. Yet, some few point out that just because we can do something doesn’t always mean we should. The deaf community has long fought to counter the push to use the cochlear implant as a means to “cure” deafness. Most people who are deaf resent the idea there is something that needs to be fixed about them. For them the inability to hear is just a part of who they are. They live happy, productive, rich lives.

Taking the idea of using technology to benefit humanity a bit further, there is a growing interest in wearable technologies that people can use to enhance the typical human body. VR googles, iWatches, and eye glasses that allow us to access the internet with eye gaze is perhaps the current limit to this concept of merging human and technological systems. Yet, anyone familiar with the Borg from Star Trek: Next Generation will give a bit of shutter and pause to consider if this is the direction we want to go in as a species. The Borg are an advanced humanoid society that have evolved to meld their biological bodies with robotics. They are very advanced and billions of individuals are connect intimately through a kind of wireless neural network. The end result is a total lose of free will and self-determination in the aim of serving the whole. The idea of a collective consciousness is one well explored in some eastern spiritual traditions and it has a sense of beauty to it. The Borg though are anything but this, they are merely pieces of a vast machine.

Another theme that is explored frequently in science fiction and fantasy is time travel. This is a concept that is immensely appealing to all of us. Wouldn’t it be nice to go back, hit delete a few times and rewrite the story of our live? I liken it to a video game. When the character dies you can restart at the same point, if you save your progress sufficiently. Feels like a cheat to me. Again, I return to my son. Would I wish he never got sick at two months old? Yes! Would I change that? Yes. Should I change it? Pause…now I’m not sure. I have always subscribed to the notion life’s tough knocks and bumps are learning lessons. They refine us, make us stronger; purer. When the storm clouds come it can be fierce and dreadful. But, as they recede we see the rainbow. So, I try to reflect on the unexpected joy, good, and benefits coming my way from the bad situations in life. Yes, we all have things we would change. But, I venture most of us wouldn’t.

Son, I love you just the way you are. I look forward to witnessing all the things in life you will do. I know you will make a huge impact on those around you. Like a pebble thrown in a pool of water your life will make ripples throughout the world. Happy Birthday!

Can’t Help Feeling Bad for the Minions

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You’ve just downloaded a promising new book, found a comfy place to read, have snacks close by and are reasonable sure that no one will bother you for a while. Or perhaps you are old school and have an actual “book”. You hold it, take time to look at the cover, flip through the pages quickly to get a better whiff of the smell of the paper and the ink and then…you crack open the book with that satisfying sound of the spine of the book snapping. Ahh, enjoying the art of reading can be one of life’s simplest pleasures. For us fantasy and science fiction aficionados the thrill of losing ourselves in a brilliant, exciting unknown world with unbelievable technologies, super powers or magic is an addiction. There is always room for a new hero to cheer on as they battle the forces of evil! I’d like to spend some time talking a bit about those bad guys. Let’s put aside for a moment, the main actors. They get the best lines, the coolest powers and more often than not find a way to survive no matter what befalls them. Let’s examine a bit closer the role of the little guy, the minion. They are the poor ones that have to stand in the front row as the powers of good advance. In film and print they are usually dispatched with little effort or regard for who or what they are. Now I enjoy a good battle scene just like most, but let’s consider how these characters are portrayed. Entertainment is influenced by money, hype and flashy effects. Often the bad guys serve only one purpose and that is to give the good people targets. Subsequently, the costume designs, meager backstories and physical characteristics seek to eliminate any hint of individuality or self-worth. Yet, I wonder if one digs deeper into a fantasy world is it possible to garner a better understanding of what motivates the hordes of evil?

It feels right to begin with the Star Wars saga. Stormtroopers. Where to start? When George Lucas began it seems clear he had a larger back story, but had no idea how much of his space opera would actually make it to the screen. Stormtroopers are faceless, featureless, nameless. We get a hint that they might all be the same build when Princess Leia remarks that Luke is a bit short to be a stormtrooper. There is mention of a clone war, but I certainly had no idea what a clone was when I first saw Star Wars. I wonder how many did? The stormtrooper design works great for what Star Wars was in 1977. As the concept was allowed to evolve decades later, we learn what stormtroopers were. Honestly, the idea of clones is not really an improvement since these minor characters are manufactured and can simply be replaced. There is a reality that most fantasy/science fiction tales have a lot of violence in them. Dehumanizing the slaughter of the enemy makes it easier to read. I get it. But, the interesting thing about the Star Wars franchise is, as it became larger than any one story arc, a myriad of writers have set out in many new directions. It isn’t as simple as good and evil anymore. I highly recommend to anyone the animated Clones War series. I like this tv show for many reasons, but I really appreciate how the show addresses war, military conflicts, causalities and most importantly how the clones truly are individuals. In a way that couldn’t happen in a movie, the series shows how the clones name themselves, cut their hair different and have differences in their personalities. It humanizes these characters and changes the whole feel to the battle scenes. Deaths are mourned. The stormtroopers show emotions. The end result is a story that is more authentic and forces us to reflect on our own world’s troops, wars and the value of life.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit first and then The Lord of the Rings. Most people do not realize that his true work wasn’t published until after he died. The works he is famous for are spin offs from the central story he had hoped to create. I will forever be enthralled with his attempt to fashion a whole mythology and history for his world. Again we do find ourselves confronted with enormous battles and loss of life. This is through and through an epic tale of great powers battling over the control of the destiny of creation. Tolkien employs a different technique to make the killing of the enemy more palatable to the reader. The orcs or goblins are grotesque, disfigured, ill-kept, unmannered, uncultured, foul-tempered …you name it…they have all the most horrible qualities. I am a person who tends to abhor violence in the real world. I champion the call to allow people the chance to redeem themselves when they have erred. So, what’s the deal with these orcs, trolls, goblins? Were they always this bad? Where did they come from? Being raised Christian, I realize geez…Jesus would probably be hanging out in the orc’s den trying to get them to shape up. I say that somewhat in jest, but I think you get the point I’m driving at. If a reader takes the time to branch out and explore more of Tolkien’s writing, one is shocked to learn that orcs are actually elves. Say what??? Yes, it’s true. Deep in the earlier ages of time after a cataclysmic war between powerful angelic-like beings, the forces of good didn’t really win. They withdrew into a fortress realm to guard against the armies of evil. It was a truce of sorts. The world where elves and men were to appear was left in darkness and all but abandoned. Melkor, an exceedingly powerful demonic being, was ever watchful, waiting for the appearance of the elves. He lied to them presenting himself as friend. He betrayed them and dominated many. They were enslaved and their very nature was twisted into the hideous form of the orc. The equally noble ents are the source material for the creation of trolls. No wonder the orcs, trolls and goblins are they way they are. They hate what they have become and hate anything reminding them of what they lost. Tolkien tells this tale, but does not explore the concept of salvation or remedying this corruption. One has to wonder if slain orcs go to the Undying Halls to await the end of time with the elf spirits. I get the sense Tolkien felt orcs had been damaged beyond any hope of restoration to their original beauty and dignity. Makes me think of how our own world collectively has groups of people it considers twisted beyond deserving the hope of rehabilitation. I would encourage all to take the time to read Tolkien’s masterpiece The Silmarillion. It gives The Hobbit and The Lord for the Rings more clarity and a greater sense of purpose.

So, I return to my poor minions. The message I am trying to impart is these armies of minor characters serve a purpose providing friction against which the hero strives to overcome. They are essential elements which if absent make for no conflict; no story. But, I am eager to find more authors that bring to bear the complexity of hard ethical questions about the value of a life into their writing. I hope, as I begin to contemplate my own villains and legions of bad guys, I can convey hints at least as to why they act so horribly. What will motivate them to walk the dark path? If you have a favorite book, movie or series that you believe does a good job of humanizing the poor minion please share with me.

Dare I Say…A New Hope?

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Welcome Friend! If you’ve gotten this far I venture to say you too are an avid fan of fantasy and science fiction. This blog is my attempt to explore this reality and what it means to be human. I feel strongly one of the best ways to accomplish this is through reading, writing and discussing fiction. I particularly find genres which allow the writer to bend the rules and create elements impossible in this world work best for my purposes. Who can resist the allure of delving deep into stories like Star Wars or The Silmarillion to ruminate on life? College professors find this material ripe for the picking when developing coursework for philosophy classes. How easily these tales bring to the forefront heavy, tantalizing questions attracts people who find themselves thinking beyond more mundane aspects of life. Fantasy and science fiction literature almost begs its readers to consider the tough issues. What does it mean to be sentient, alive or human? Why is there evil in the world? Why are we here in this unique universe? Who or what created us? How was everything formed? Are there other times, dimensions and worlds? This is just the tip of the existential thought iceberg. I propose humanity weaves tales instinctually as an attempt to try to understand itself and the world around.

I was six years old when Star Wars overtook the world in 1977. I’ll never forget first seeing the trailer for the movie. It was a hot, humid summer day in Ohio. I should have been out playing with the kids in my neighborhood. Instead I found myself in a waiting room at the local hospital. Sitting next to my mother, I was nervously awaiting impending doom. I was cursed with the common childhood blight of short eustachian tubes. This defect in my inner ears caused me countless, painful ear infections. My parents had agreed that I should undergo a minor procedure under anesthesia to alleviate symptoms. I was unhappy to say the least. I stood crying as my mother checked us in. The receptionist gave me a small little Pillsbury Doughboy figure to comfort me. Perhaps you remember him? He was the weird, white humanoid figure with a baker’s hat. On television commercials he giggled when someone poked his belly. He was a mascot for Pillsbury. They were plugging Pillsbury…flour… cake mix… croissants? Geez, I really don’t know what they were trying to sell! Funny how the memory works. Some things stick and others flee. I remember liking the smell of the plastic used in manufacturing the doll. Alas, the toy didn’t distract me. It did not stop my whining. Nothing could shake my fixation on the knowledge the dreaded ear doctor had signed the order for implanting tiny tubes in my ears to allow for better drainage. The ear doctor was a figure looming large in my life. He was more sinister than Darth Vader or Grand Moff Tarkin. To this day, having my ears poked and prodded at the ENT physician’s office is in my mind akin to what Princess Leia had to endure at the hands of the Imperial interrogators. Little floating robot with a huge hypodermic needle….bring it on….just don’t touch my ears! As I fussed and squirmed hoping against hope I would escape this operation my mom tried another way to distract me. She pointed out what was on the television. I looked up at this small, black and white tv with grainy resolution typical of the 1970s. No HDTV in those days! Adding insult to injury, the tv was suspending from the ceiling of the waiting room too! But lo! Lightening struck and the heavens moved! Flashing across the screen, etched forever in my memory was my first glimpse of the interior of the Millennium Falcon! It was just a promo clip being played on a local news program spotlighting the new film. The scene they showed was the iconic escape from the Death Star. I was hooked. The music, the action, the sense of heroism was scintillating. Harrison Ford was simply dashing as he sat in the gunner’s chair blasting away at pursuing tie fighters with radiant streaks of red laser. I like to think the brief encounter with the film gave me courage to face what I had to do. I survived the operation and a popsicle later I was back outside in the heat playing with my friends. I saw Star Wars later that month and every chance afterwards that I got. Back then you had to wait for it to be re-released. I am confident I watched it in the theaters and drive-ins at least 7-8 times that summer.

Now, my father taught at a local community college in those days. He was an engineer. His field was in packaging engineering to be exact. Sounds exciting doesn’t it!? He was an expert on designing boxes and ‘whatnot’ needed to protect items while being shipped and stored. I know it isn’t as exciting as aerospace engineering, but his job was soon to be an unbeknownst boon to me! He came home one day with toys… Star Wars toys! Not just one x-wing, but three! I was also laden with scores of actions figures and a land speeder too. To my little mind this was heaven on earth. Apparently, his department was doing a project with the toy manufacturer Kenner handling all Star Wars toys. Once the packages were used for educational purposes they were up for grabs! Dear ol’ dad was kind enough to bring them home to me. I was the only kid on the block to have three x-wings! I played Star Wars every day for years! Of course I collected more toys, ever expanding my ability to create my own storyline. You see, I didn’t reenact the movies. I wanted the chance to escape into that world and learn more about it. This involved inventing my own plots. Gosh, I must of witnessed the Rebels and the Empire clash thousands of times! This was the start of authoring my own stories, although I wouldn’t start to write them down until I was in middle school.

It still startles me to think how readily I took to Star Wars. Yes, just about every kid had seen the movie and most had the toys. But, I began to realize as I got older, I was different from a lot of my peers. I know now that Star Wars had tapped into something I yearned for at even that age. I dreamed of a more fantastical world populated with heroes, villains and the timeless battles between good and evil. I longed to do something of consequence… to save the day. That feeling has grown and evolved with me throughout my life. I went on to devour book upon book from many of the more well-known (and lesser known) science fiction and fantasy writers. I wrote my own stories in high school and even won a short story contest for a piece I entered for the school magazine. It is important to also tell you growing up I was raised in a comfortably lax Catholic home. I learned about God, Jesus and all the usual biblical stories. I understood what it meant to be good and how to avoid sin and evil. But, all that felt far off and disconnected. I liked the message…just not the story telling. I guess the first time I connected fantasy and science fiction with spirituality was when I was in college. I recall a friend expressing their wish they had more of a religious background. Asking why, I learned they had found it difficult time after time to truly grasp the religious undertones authors often explored in their literary works. I didn’t think much of her observation at the time. However having entered into adulthood with all its complexities, I drifted back to explore my own religious upbringing. This inevitably lead me to investigate other types of spirituality. I began to recognize religious and spiritual concepts within most if not all of the fiction I read. Throughout the make-believe stories were the same values, truths and lessons I learned in the real world.

Now middle-aged, I still proudly claim the title of sci-fi/fantasy geek, but I also consider myself a mystic. Before you accuse me of delusions of grandeur, I am not claiming to be a guru, theologian or shaman. The only wisdom I possess is a few scraps picked up from reading, going to church off and on throughout my life and of course from my own experiences. I would hesitate to guide anyone on any type of spiritual path. I claim to be a mystic in the sense that I am ever seeking to learn more of the spiritual side of life. Amusingly, I have for quite some time found myself having an epiphany right smack in the middle of watching a show like Battlestar Galactica, Sabrina or Supernatural. I am now more cognizant of the evolution of delightfully rich characters that defy the easy label of good or evil. Think of Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant, White Gold Wielder! Experiencing stories like these begs the question… can evil ultimately be made to serve the purpose of good? When we yearn for the villain to change sides, act good and aid the hero against an even greater threat we are likely to reflect on the true nature of judgement, sin and redemption. If we really dig deep… is it ok to mercilessly slaughter orcs or storm troopers? Do they have family and loved ones at home waiting? Did they sign up for their jobs? What informs their choices? Were they feed a line of convincing propaganda? I suspect the ‘masters of storytelling’ provide us plenty of clues to answer these questions. Ultimately as a new author, I dare to walk in their footsteps. My hope is my writing may, as others’ stories have for me, be a clarion call to awake from the material dream. So, with this first post on my blog, I invite you to join me as I explore life and all its messiness. Our guides will be the characters of fiction who allow us to safely experience without harm. In the end I suspect we will learn much about what it means to be human.