Tag Archive for the kids

It is Possible to Get Motion Sickness…

Getting Sick

… from watching your kid play Minecraft on a 48” flat-screen TV.

I discovered this baleful fact on Sunday. Asher, my middle son, has fallen in love with that game. Due to the fact that my wife (and I, I must admit) wanted to be able to stream Netflix movies to our big flat-screen TV in our bedroom, we purchased our used Xbox 360 unit from our daughter, Natalie, and installed it next to the TV facing our bed. This is great for watching movies. It is a little less great, however, because it makes our bedroom the only spot in which our kids (and their visiting friends) can play Minecraft.

Until very recently (before Sunday, in fact), this did not pose any great problem for me. The Minecraft background music is soothing, generally. If I want to be in my bedroom, on my bed, taking a nap, I simply had to direct the kids (usually Asher) to turn the volume all the way down.

However… and this is a big “however”… Asher has become steadily more proficient with playing the game. He has speeded up his rate of play dramatically. In fact, as I discovered to my regret (and nausea), he has speeded up his rate of play and movement to the extent that watching him play for more than two or three minutes causes me to suffer motion sickness.

“Oh, just close your eyes, then!” you may find yourself saying about now.

I did. After I got nauseous. It took me a full twenty minutes to start feeling close to normal again. I also discovered that it isn’t easy to keep your eyes continually shut for twenty minutes when you aren’t sleeping. And it is virtually impossible not to watch whatever is showing up on that 48” flat-screen TV if your eyes happen to be open.

“Oh, just send the kids out of your room, then!” you may find yourself saying about now.

Well, I try. But they are addicted. I don’t know if they are literally addicted, but they act like they are. My commanding them to shut down the game and leave the room results in paroxysms of protest and howls of hurt feelings.

Solution? (Is there ever a long-lasting, “one use fits all” solution to problems which arise between parents and children?)

Well, I could retreat from my own bedroom. Later in the day, once the boys had crept back into my room and ensconced themselves on my bed to play Minecraft once again (after I had banished them the first time), I did opt for taking shelter in my son Levi’s room to read my Captain Britain collection in a semblance of peace (and with a non-upset stomach).

I suppose my newfound ability to get motion sickness from watching a video game being played at high speed is just another sign of aging. When I was a lad, I could spend hours riding such carnival thrillers as the Octopus, the Zipper, the Round-Up, and the Himalaya; now, five minutes on the Flying Swings makes me want to ralph. I’m not alone in this – my seven-years-younger brother admitted to me last night that motion simulation machines get him sick, that he can’t ride any of the “scary” rides at Disneyworld anymore, and that seeing Avatar on an Imax screen made him stare down at the floor and clutch his stomach. That makes me feel just a bit better. (And at least I didn’t get sick during my viewing of the 3-D version of The Lego Movie this weekend.)

Rest of the Fall Foliage Dinos

Two of Dinosaur Land's original dinos at the front entrance

Two of Dinosaur Land’s original dinos at the front entrance

Fall is over; winter began a week ago. 2013 is nearly gone, and I must say, “Good riddance” to the bulk of it. I pray 2014 will bring more blessings than curses.

Iguanadon

Iguanadon

A friendly Bronto Jr.

A friendly Bronto Jr.

These are all photos taken on Levi’s tenth birthday in early November, so they are all bittersweet for me to contemplate. Still, with the passing of fall, it is time to clear my palette (and my blog) of these now out-of-date images, colorful though they may be.

Tyranosaurus claims Gigantosaurus as a victim

Tyranosaurus claims Gigantosaurus as a victim

Allosaurus

Allosaurus

One of those nasty venom-spitting dinos from JURASSIC PARK

One of those nasty venom-spitting dinos from JURASSIC PARK

I enjoyed two visits with Levi at his hospital over the weekend. He read to me from his journal, which is his version of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, complete with cartoons. He is almost painfully honest in all he writes, and many of his jokes have real bite for anyone who is familiar at all with his situation. He shared with me his character descriptions for a story or series of stories he wants to write about a group of future Boy and Girl Scouts from eight different planets, his version of the Legion of Superheroes. From hearing him read from his journal and listening to his story ideas, I think he is at least as talented a storyteller as I was at his age. His “Uncle” Barry N. Malzberg asked me to try to dissuade Levi from becoming a science fiction writer, but now that the kid seems to be bound and determined to follow in his dad’s footsteps, I promised Barry I would always enforce the dictate, “Don’t ignore the day job! Writing science fiction financially supports about two percent of the people who make the effort to write and publish it (and two percent may be overstating matters).” Of course, by the time Levi reaches his earning years, the publishing paradigm may have changed half a dozen more times.

Iguanadon and Triceratops

Iguanadon and Triceratops

I’ve found that I enjoy giving Levi “Grandpa Frank’s Magical Back Rubs and Back Scratches” as much as he enjoys receiving them. There is something simply marvelous about that sort of rhythmical body to body contact which is meditative and soothing, both the the giver and the recipient. Plus, it has been a pleasure to introduce my mother’s father into Levi’s life; after all, my Grandpa Frank was my best friend until I reached the age of five, when heart disease stole him from me.

Giant Ground Sloth munching on some autumn leaves

Giant Ground Sloth munching on some autumn leaves

Vicious Allosaurus

Vicious Allosaurus

My brother Ric gave me the gift of clarity and closure today regarding my relationship with my mother and stepdad. Essentially, I learned that there is no relationship anymore, nor any possibility of reconciliation, so I am finally free to grieve. They have chosen to believe their own self-absolving lies, and it sounds as though this transaction has transformed them from the decent and mostly kind people I once knew into hollow shells of their former selves. They are pitiable to me now, as sad as this is for me to admit. But even if they continue to delude themselves — especially since they have chosen to do so — this does not mean that I can allow myself delusions of my own. It is time for me to grieve the relationships I once had.

Another shot of the Tyranosaurus-Gigantosaurus battle

Another shot of the Tyranosaurus-Gigantosaurus battle

All kudos to my wife Dara, who has ensured that not a single visiting period has passed since Levi has been in the hospital during which he has not had either me or her as a visitor, often with Levi’s siblings along. And additional kudos go to my father, Levi’s grandfather, who has called Levi nearly every night he has spent in the hospital. I’ve told Dad that Levi will never forget this kindness, ever.

A fall gathering of thunder lizards, featuring Apatosaurus and Styracosaurus

A fall gathering of thunder lizards, featuring Apatosaurus and Styracosaurus

I’ll be returning to work and to at least a portion of my former writing schedule the day after New Year’s Day, this Thursday. I have been away from work for nearly two months now. I enjoyed my first extended writing session at Panera Bread on Sunday before visiting Levi. This was my first long writing session since two weeks prior to Thanksgiving. It’s hard for me to believe I’ve been away from my laptop for that long (with the exception of keeping this blog updated). Many thanks to all of you who have stuck with me throughout my “recovery blog” series. I’ve enjoyed every comment I’ve received. Your feedback has been extremely gratifying. May all of you enjoy a happy, safe, and prosperous New Year!

Three Jews, Christmas Eve, a Satori

jesus-teaching-scroll

Yesterday, Christmas Eve, I wanted to return at least a small portion of the kindness my family has received from our neighbor Larry, whom I have described (to his embarrassment) as “a perfect Christian gentleman.” He invited us to come hear him sing in his choir at the Potomac Ridge Baptist Church. Since Dara would be in Falls Church, visiting Levi, it would be up to me to take Judah and Asher to the church service.

I took a Buspar pill for what my doctor has described as “anticipatory breakthrough anxiety.” I knew I would be driving to a church I’d never seen in the dark, that Judah would probably act out as least as badly as he does at services at our own synagogue, and that I would have to arrange for Dara, Larry and Nora, and the boys and me to meet at a Chinese buffet (an “old Jewish-American Christmas tradition”) after the service, with us all arriving at different times. So I knew to expect stress. I got all the stress I expected. What I didn’t expect was to experience a fleeting but precious satori, or moment of insight.

I know some readers will read the words “Buspar” and “satori” in the same paragraph and think to themselves, “hrrmmmm… This is a perfectly expected and acceptable reaction. Religious insight achieved under the pressure of mental illness may properly be viewed with mistrust. However, an equally acceptable, logical, and scientific explanation of such an event may be that mental illness opens new neural pathways in the brain which give access to thoughts and insights which were not previously reachable by an individual. In any case, my insight had been building slowly all day, since many hours before I had swallowed my “anticipatory breakthrough anxiety” Buspar pill.

Much of the open discussion in my therapy group yesterday morning ended up revolving around matters of faith. One young man, unmoored in any particular faith tradition, had asked those of us in the group who had strong connections to a faith to explain how we still believe in G-d’s presence when evil is also present. The answer I provided was that I live in a state of constant religious doubt. When I am able to feel optimistic, I can sense G-d’s presence all around me. When I am mired in pessimism or depression, however, it can be almost impossible for me to trust in the sureness of G-d’s presence. I told the story of how my overhearing the news several weeks ago that Secretary of State Kerry had signed a nuclear accord with Iran’s ayatolahs, allowing them to proceed with their uranium enrichment programs after so many years of misdirection and running out the clock, had driven me into a tailspin. Given that Iran’s leaders for years have bragged about their approaching ability to wipe out Israel with a “single bomb,” news of this new diplomatic accord sent me reeling into a fresh panic attack. I found myself unable to trust G-d… I felt that, since G-d had not stepped in personally to prevent the original Holocaust, a second Holocaust would inevitably follow from President Obama’s and Secretary of State Kerry’s fecklessness and over-eagerness for an accord. I despaired. When I related this story to another friend of mine, he had wisely counseled me, “Pray for optimism…” which means, “Pray for the ability to believe in G-d’s presence.”

Not wanting to end my story to my therapy partner on a down note, I related another story, one I had experienced in ninth grade, during perhaps the lowest point of my life, when a plague of bullying from fellow students had set off all sorts of noxious Asperger’s Syndrome defensive reactions in me, and I was seriously considering dropping out of school altogether. One afternoon, when I had taken refuge in the quiet and solitude of the school’s library, a young man whom I had never seen before approached me. He said two short sentences to me: “We aren’t all bad. We don’t all mean to do evil to you.” He was referring to the large population of junior high students who had tormented me over the past three years. Then he walked away, and I never saw him again. After hearing him speak, my Asperger’s Syndrome zone of madness faded quickly. I was able to start fresh at North Miami Senior High School with far fewer visible symptoms of being disturbed and was able to gain many wonderful new friends, a number of whom remain my close friends to this day. I came to the conclusion that the mysterious young man had been an angel sent by G-d to relieve my madness. I realized, of course, that his arrival and cryptic statement to me could have been a “mere coincidence,” that he had been observing me from afar and had made an independent, compassionate decision to intervene in my life. Yet even that suggested G-d’s influence, if not direct involvement.

As a writer and a storyteller, I have come to the firm conclusion that storytelling is a partnership. The writer originates the meaningful signals, but a reader must be present to decode those signals and to add his or her memories, experiences, and sensory images to the story in order for the act of storytelling to be complete. I realized that by choosing to interpret the young man’s intervention the way I had, as one of G-d’s mysterious interventions, I was allowing the act of storytelling to be complete — G-d had told the story, and I had chosen to interpret my experience of that story as being G-d’s story, directed to me specifically. This is what I explained to my therapy partner. Man is always caught between the evil inclination and the good inclination. Giving in to the evil inclination is aided and abetted by a refusal to play the role of a G-d-sent story’s recipient. Accepting the good inclination is assisted by a willingness to be G-d’s storytelling partner. As human beings, we are constantly presented with this choice. This is why my older friend had counseled me to “pray for optimism” — pray for the ability to be G-d’s storytelling partner.

On the drive over to the Potomac Ridge Baptist Church, I explained to my boys, as I had on a few occasions before, what the religious, theological disagreement between Jews and Christians stemmed from. Christians believe Jesus to be the special Son of G-d, part of a Trinitarian Diety, as well as the annointed and Biblically predicted Messiah. Jews, however, can respect Jesus as a gifted teacher and a gifted rabbi of his day, and a man who acted to spread the faith of monotheism to millions of persons who had previously been pagans. I said we would show our love and respect for our Christian friends and neighbors by enjoying Larry’s choir performance at the church, then joining him and his wife for dinner afterward.

We sat next to Nora, Larry’s wife. Judah almost immediately crawled beneath the pew to pretend to sleep, as he is wont to do at our own synagogue. I began listening to the singing and to the pastor’s sermon. I leaned down to take a long sniff of the scent of my middle son Asher’s hair and to kiss him on the cheek. At that moment, I experienced the presence of my personal G-d to everyone who had crowded together within this church. I did not experience a “coming to Jesus” — I experienced the presence of my own Jewish G-d among my sons and me and all the hundreds of devout Christians in the sanctuary. I received a direct confirmation that G-d can choose to make his presence felt anywhere and everywhere… anywhere and anytime we are willing to complete the storytelling process. I had told Levi many times on my visit to him in his psychiatric center in Falls Church that G-d is with him at all times and in all places, even in the hospital. But those had just been hopeful words. Tonight, I was experiencing the truth of those words I had so devoutly wished to believe in. The satori did not last long; Judah began punching my ankles and Asher squirmed, and I was tossed out of the moment. But I determined to remember it.

Before the satori had entirely failed, I managed to extend my realization. I thought back to my dread fear that G-d had not personally intervened to stop the Holocaust, and that this had meant, in the words of Richard Rubenstein, that G-d had not been present in the camps and perhaps had not been present anywhere on Earth, and that life is essentially devoid of meaning. Yet I remembered a story I had recently heard from a victim of the Holocaust. He had related that he had seen an SS guard wrap his beer stein in a section of scroll torn from a copy of the Talmud. The man had begged the guard to give to scrap of scroll to him as a gift. Perhaps recognizing the absurdity of this request and how “small” it made the Jew seem (or perhaps because of G-d’s indirect intervention), the SS guard complied with the request and handed over the damaged, torn section of scroll. The Jewish man and his friends took the scroll, and, despite its obscured, blurred letters, used it for months to conduct study sessions of Talmudic lessons. They had turned their camp into a synagogue, using the most damaged tool imaginable. This story proved to me that G-d’s presence, if one’s will is strong enough, can be experienced anywhere — even in the camps of the Shoah. I realize that for any non-survivor to equate stories from the Holocaust with religious meaning verges on blasphemy. I take this risk, because I interpret it to mean that if I and enough other Jews and Christians of allied faithfulness interpret the story of Kerry’s accord with Iran as a challenge for us to become involved in protecting Israel and the Jews from a second Holocaust, this indirect intercession by G-d can result in such a disaster being averted.

I have met three exemplary Muslim men from Pakistan in the past couple of months. One allowed his children and relatives to play happily with my children at Colonial Beach. Another, Mr. M., engaged in frank, friendly conversations with me in the hospital regarding similarities between hallal and kosher forms of cooking and Jewish and Muslim views on evolution, and we had become close friends. Another man, a physician’s aide, had sat in the emergency room and compassionately assisted my son Levi after his breakdown, despite knowing Levi was Jewish. I know that if I were to be invited to visit any of these men’s mosques, I would also experience the presence of my G-d among the Muslim worshipers. I realize that what Imams who preach hatred of other religions do with their flocks is to deny their congregations the ability to act as G-d’s partners in the storytelling process. Hatred is not part of G-d’s story. Hatred is an unfortunate consequence of our provision of free will; the ability to choose the good inclination would be meaningless without the option to choose the evil inclination. A person’s ability to serve as G-d’s partner and story recipient can be reduced or abolished by many things — illness, natural disaster, pain, or belief in a leader who intends to deny the truth of G-d’s story.

I experienced this insight only very briefly before I found it necessary to carry Judah out of the church and into my car on a very, very cold night. But I clung to it as something precious, something which I wanted with all my heart to share, even if it may be redundant of other’s insights or if it can be explained away by my recent emotional breakdown.

I would like to wish all Christians the full drought of joy which comes from today’s celebration of Jesus’s birth among human beings. I would like to wish all those, like my family and me, who do not believe in Jesus’s identity as the Messiah and in his divinity to take joy and solace from the wonderful feelings of fellowship and G-d’s presence which stem from this very special day.

Visiting Levi

Levi with his pair of Heinlein juveniles

Levi with his pair of Heinlein juveniles

It isn’t easy to visit one’s child in a psychiatric facility. Especially when one has only recently emerged from such a facility oneself. Especially when the child in question is ten years old, and is fully aware of what has happened to him, and what may still happen to him.

I hope most of you will never experience this sort of event. But I also hope that, if you ever do, this brief post will make its immanence seem less ghastly and more hopeful than it would otherwise.

Levi’s facility is located in Falls Church, about an hour’s (confusing) drive from our home. Dara made a commitment to Levi when he was admitted this past Tuesday that she would not allow a single day to pass when either she, me, or another loving friend or relative would visit him during each scheduled visiting session. Thus far, she has kept her promise. Saturday was my first opportunity to join her on a visit to my son.

A friend of ours was kind enough to take in our two younger boys for a sleep-over with her grandchild, allowing Dara and me to have a night to ourselves, a luxury we haven’t enjoyed in many months. Despite our first destination, Dara dressed up for a special date, picking out an outfit much more attractive and sexy than might be expected for a visit to a psychiatric facility. She served as my guide; Fairfax County can be bewilderingly confusing, especially during the heavily trafficked holiday shopping hours.

The facility was neat, uncluttered, and well-organized. We were required to leave all our possessions, save car keys and one form of photo ID, in our automobile. We carried in a bag of short sleeve shirts and short pants for Levi, because due to the unseasonable warmth, the ward had been hot. I also packed him my yellow smiley-face stress ball I’d received during my own recent hospitalization. I wanted Levi to have something personal and tactile of mine, so that he could squeeze it in his fist and remember that I am there with him in spirit, if not in body. My own father did something similar for me when I was about Levi’s age and had been missing him terribly, our only meetings being our scheduled weekly Sundays together and furtive lunch rendezvous at my school. My father gave me a pair of his cuff links, which I stored in a clear pill bottle and hid atop the wooden slots which held up my upper bunk, so that it would always be right above my head. I kept those cuff links for years. They always reminded me of my father’s presence in my life.

Levi introduced us to his two roommates, both of whom he said he liked very much. Unusually, all three boys shared a passion for origami, so Levi had been “loaning out” much of his origami papers. Dara promised to bring him more on her next visit. Levi showed off several origami boats he had made, and he spoke proudly of having started reading a Fritz Leiber short story from a collection I had Dara bring him called The World Turned Upside Down, a collection of stories chosen by Jim Baen and David Drake as the stories which had had the biggest impacts upon their childhoods. During the past couple of months, Levi had developed a voracious appetite for science fiction, and to my delight, the authors he gravitated to were all “old school”– Asimov, Jack Williamson, Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt, and Edmund Hamilton. My oldest son was blossoming into what old-timers would call a TrueFan.

Dara and I accompanied Levi into an empty activities room so we could have some private discussion. Whatever new medication he had been placed on had made him jumpy and hyper, but he was alert, talkative, and very happy to have us both there. He explained that he had been assigned his own nutritionist to help him keep kosher, that all of the staff were friendly, that he had made some new friends, and that he looked forward to art therapy, music therapy, and popcorn movie nights. His one fear was that his psychiatrist had told him he would not be released from the hospital until he had gone five days straight without a crying fit. Levi feared this would mean he would never be discharged. I explained to him that, no matter what his doctor might have told him (in an effort to scare him away from his fits), the insurance company would never allow him to remain hospitalized longer than two weeks.

Levi enjoyed squeezing the stress ball. I asked him if he’d been thinking at all about Grandpa Frank, my mother’s father, who had invented “Grandpa Frank’s Magical Back Rub.” He said he would need to begin thinking about Grandpa Frank. I asked him to sit in a chair so that I could give him one of those magical back rubs and back scratches. He really enjoyed this. I asked him if he remembered that G-d was always with him, whether he was in the hospital or not. He said he had remembered this and thought of it often. He said he was looking forward to additional visits with Dara tomorrow, when she would be accompanied first by Levi’s older sister Natalie and later by his younger brother Asher. Levi thought he had gone two days straight without a crying fit, and he was proud of this. Dara and I were allowed to stay for one hour.

Levi and me at RavenCon in Richmond, VA

Levi and me at RavenCon in Richmond, VA

After leaving the facility, Dara and I indulged in our first date we’d had together in months, a special dinner at the Sunflower Vegetarian Restaurant. Eating delicious vegetarian food together, talking and laughing about the past, even past incidents involving visits to psychiatric hospitals, we were reminded of why we love each other so much and why we have remained such a strong couple, one which pulls together in times of adversity, rather than pulling apart. I made a commitment that we would schedule at least two nights per month as date nights, no matter how much we would end up spending on baby sitters. After dinner, we stopped by Ross and Barnes and Noble to buy a newborn gift for our wonderful neighbor Larry’s new grandson, winter vacation activity gifts for Asher and Judah, and a new box of origami papers for Levi. I felt remarkably calm, placid, and filled with a sense of general well-being.

As often happens with me, I experienced my delayed emotional reaction to the visit the following morning. I awoke already in tears, bitterly missing my Grandpa Frank, my first best friend, who had been taken away from me by heart disease when I’d been five years old. I mourned his absence because I knew that if he could, he would be an enormous help and comfort to Levi. I consoled myself by reminding myself that I had made Grandpa Frank a presence in Levi’s life, even though Levi had never met his great-grandfather. Levi showed much wisdom at his next meeting with Dara when he requested that my father, his Grandpa Dick, call him at the hospital right after visiting hours ended. He wanted to tell Grandpa Dick about his roommates, his new friends, and his sense that he had been making progress in the hospital.

So my oldest son and I, who already share so much (a love of old-time science fiction writers, a strong interest in history and travel, and many symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome, which had gone undiagnosed during my childhood), now shared something new — a stay in an inpatient psychiatric facility. But just as my six-day stay allowed me to make tremendous strides towards a resumption of emotional equilibrium and mental health, so am I confident that the same will prove true for my oldest son. He says his stay thus far has been “like a hotel for kids.” He approaches his challenges with at least as much courage as I was able to muster. And so he makes me proud… not at all ashamed.

Burnt Turkey Review: Free Birds

Free Birds

Free Birds (2013)
Voice performances of Woody Harrelson, George Takei, and Owen Wilson
Directed by Jimmy Hayward
Released by Relativity Media

Rotten Tomatoes Rating: 18% Fresh
My Rating: ONE of Four Stars

My kids had been pestering me to take them to see the Thanksgiving-themed animated comedy Free Birds since its first coming attractions aired back in October. When it came out, I was not impressed by the initial reviews and so did not rush to take them to see it. However, this week it showed up at our nearby discount theater, University Mall Theater, which has just switched over to digital projection. (A couple of notes about digital projection: the picture and sound are galaxies superior to the old, worn-out, third-run 35 millimeter prints this theater used to show; but the conversion required the theater to dump their nostalgic, 1970’s-era featurettes, such as “Let’s All Go to the Lobby, Let’s All Go to the Lobby, Let’s All Go to the Lobby — and Buy Ourselves Some Snacks! Delicious treats to eat… etc.” This was a little disappointing.)

I figured I could handle a PG animated comedy. I didn’t expect it to raise my anxiety levels by much at all; most PG animated films are pleasantly sedating for me right now. Warning: many spoilers ahead, so please stop reading if you plan to see Free Birds and want to be surprised.

I’ll admit that I adored the first fifteen minutes of the film. It was loaded with terrific jokes, and lots of people in the audience (yours truly included) laughed heartily and frequently. I started doubting my critical judgement; I was enjoying this as much as I did the better parts of Turbo, an earlier animated comedy which had also received mixed reviews. I began to wonder whether my doctor-prescribed regimen of psychotropic drugs had sedated my critical sensibility. How could the reviews for Free Birds have been so bad if I was enjoying it so much? What a way to doubt oneself! But within a few minutes, my critical reaction to the movie began lining up with the 18% Fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes.

The film began going downhill when Jake, the character voiced by Woody Harrelson, appeared. The Owen Wilson turkey was animated to look somewhat like a real turkey; Jake, however, looked like an eagle with some turkey characteristics. This continued to be a major distraction throughout the rest of the film; some of the turkeys looked like turkey vultures, others looked like eagles, and one even looked like Foghorn Leghorn from Looney Tunes. Some of the turkeys had red faces, and others had blue faces. This was very distracting.

But the film truly began going to hell once the two main characters went back in time in an experimental time machine to two days before the first Thanksgiving. I began to realize that Free Birds was the worst family-oriented holiday movie since the first Home Alone, which introduced the concept of sadistic behavior by children as a source of humor (in a Christmas movie, yet). If Free Birds were a Christmas movie, rather than a Thanksgiving movie, it would have portrayed Santa Claus as a home invading child molester. This movie was written and produced to make children hate and despise the holiday of Thanksgiving. There is no other way to put it. It is nothing more than ultra-liberal propaganda against meat eaters. Other films have hinted at this in a much more humane fashion, such as the classic Charlotte’s Web, with its heroic pig, Wilber, whose spider friend Charlotte saves him from becoming a pork roast. However, animated films which feature non-human carnivores, such as the lions in The Lion King and my blog namesake Fantastic Mr. Fox, do not give the audience a guilt trip over the heroes’ consumption of meat. In Free Birds, the traditional story of the first Thanksgiving is desecrated and lied about. The Pilgrims are presented as entirely venial and without any redeeming qualities, entirely selfish and savage. Their leader, Miles Standish, is portrayed as an even more psychotic version of Clint Eastwood’s character William Mumy from Unforgiven. Even worse, the film lies about history by making it appear that the pre-first Thanksgiving turkeys were never hunted for food by the American Indians, whom the film falsely portrays as noble vegetarians.

Here’s a critic’s admission: I eat Tofurkey for Thanksgiving, because I keep kosher. My house is most usually entirely vegetarian. So I don’t have any animus against vegetarians. But I DO have an animus against propaganda and false history.

The most disgusting (and this takes some doing!) part of the movie is the shameless product placement of Chucky Cheese’s pizza. Another critic’s admission: I recently fed my son Judah a Chucky Cheese’s pizza and happen to be fond of the joint. But Free Birds utilized hoary old time travel paradox cliches to advocate that consumption of turkey on Thanksgiving be replaced by consumption of Chucky Cheese’s pizza! By the time this part of the film arrived, ten minutes prior to the end, I was ready to jump out of my seat and tear this turkey’s wishbone into five pieces.

Another note: I watched this movie with Asher, Judah, and their friend Matthew. Judah typically sits quietly through PG-13 superhero movies and does not flinch at the violent action. Yet during the final third of this PG-rated supposed “family comedy,” little Judah was jerking about in his seat, obviously agitated and upset. The film’s propaganda was getting to him on a subliminal level, instructing him to absolutely HATE the holiday of Thanksgiving. This is absolutely REPREHENSIBLE. All I can say is, SHAME on the makers of this film, the writers and director most especially. This is liberal, anti-meat consumption propaganda at its most raw (pun intended!). The only saving grace after the first fifteen minutes was the voice of George Takei as the time machine. He was soothing and sane, although surrounded by insane, anti-child, anti-family, and anti-American propaganda.

I hated four-fifths of this film with all my heart. And those are not my psychotropic drugs speaking, either.

Have Been Sick in Hospital; Very Sorry To All Friends

I am very, very sorry to all my friends and readers who look at my website. I have not put up any posts in over three weeks. The reason is that I have experienced a nervous breakdown and spent a week in a hospital during Thanksgiving week. I have never been in an inpatient mental treatment facility before in my life. Had some of the hardest days I’ve ever experienced, but overall it was a positive experience. I committed myself, because I did not want to experience a breakdown at home in front of my children and wife.

The reasons for my nervous breakdown included longstanding extended family conflict and cutoff in communications, and my oldest son’s worsening autism and Asperger’s symptoms. He was having many, frequent loud crying fits in school and other places due to very low frustration threshold. At school, due to bureaucratic regulations, administrators refused to give my son an IEP (Individual Extra-Help Plan) or an adult shadow in class to help him with frustration by answering questions quickly so he would not panic. They refused because he is at grade-level for academic achievement. Their “solution” was to shut him up in a printer closet by himself whenever he suffered a fit, with a monitor standing outside. Other children, including Levi’s younger brother, Asher, could hear him crying and screaming in this room; Asher said Levi was in the dark. Teacher would let Levi out when fit subsided after 20 minutes or so. Never told Dara or me about this printer room isolation; we found out from third parties who are friends. Later I experienced one of Levi’s hour long fits in public when I had little son Judah with me. It was terrible; made me feel like I had been in a car accident but body had not yet experienced extent of physical injuries. Early next week I experienced my first panic attack at work — was afraid blood pressure had spiked and was having a stroke or a heart attack. Nurse took my blood pressure; was normal! But immediately started crying and screaming about Levi. A week later, after bad reaction to one medication, I admitted myself to hospital.

New medication I am on for anxiety makes me very slumberous/comatose and feels a little like I suffered a benign stroke. Talking and writing are difficult; must do both very slowly, with much concentration. Cannot operate car or “heavy machinery.” Even walking Romeo, my big dog, exhausts me with effort of concentration. So many projects are being delayed until medication can be altered; I cannot stay on what I am on now because it is addictive long term, and besides, it does not seem right for me, although it does help control my panic attacks. This is the first time I am typing since leaving the hospital, although I hand wrote a journal there.

Here’s what’s going on with MonstraCity Press. Fire on Iron is out in Kindle and I think is out in Smashwords formats now. We have received proof copy of paperback book from Createspace and are having my sister-in-law proofread it. It should be available for order soon. My next Jules Duchon Fat White Vampire novel, Fat White Vampire Otaku, is completely written but not yet edited and formatted by Dara. We had planned for the paperback to be available for order during December, but now this will be delayed by a few months, maybe two months. I am very sorry to my friend Marita Jaeger at Boutique du Vampyre down in New Orleans, because she had on her website that Jules Duchon fans among her customers could advance order Fat White Vampire Otaku for Christmas. Now it will be February, 2014 at the earliest. I will soon return to working on the second “Midnight’s Inferno: the August Micholson Chronicles” book, Hellfire and Damnation, as soon as I can write fiction again; maybe in a month. It is the direct sequel to Fire on Iron. I still hope to have that one come out in April, 2014, as originally planned. The book which was supposed to come out in February, 2014, The Bad Luck Spirits’ Social Aid and Pleasure Club, will be rescheduled for sometime in the summer; it connects up with Fat White Vampire Otaku.

I am very, very sorry to disappoint my readers and friends. I truly love you all. God Bless each one of you. And please pray for me and my family. Thank you all very, very much. I love you.

Fox Family Fall Fun

Fatman, accompanied by the Legion of Junior Super-Villains

Fatman, accompanied by the Legion of Junior Super-Villains

Ah, fall! My favorite season of the year. After sweating through the summer, arriving at the office with my shirt stuck to my back and perspiration dripping down from behind my ears, I always welcome that first hint of fall coolness, which, in Northern Virginia, generally arrives sometime around the middle of September. (Back in New Orleans, it generally didn’t hit until after Thanksgiving, and in Miami, it might never arrive at all.)

Potty racing with Levi and Asher

Potty racing with Levi and Asher

A fun aspect of the season in this region is all of the fall festivals and pumpkin patches that sprout up between September and Halloween. Every garden center and nursery with a bit of extra land throws up a bunch of seasonal decorations and a bounce house or two for the kids (the better to drag in their parents). Some nurseries really go whole hog. My family’s favorite pumpkin patch/mini amusement park features half a dozen bounce houses and inflatable slides, a Nerf gun combat zone (featuring compressed air-powered Nerf rifles, pretty bad-ass), and, most distinctively, potty racing. Yes, potty racing. Actual toilets have been fitted with go cart motors and steering tillers. You sit on the throne just like you would in the privacy of your own bathroom. Just be careful — they’re tippy around corners!

With visiting writer Maury Feinsilber at a pumpkin patch

With visiting writer Maury Feinsilber at a pumpkin patch

Another fantastic attraction is Shenandoah National Park, famous for its 120 mile-long Skyline Drive, which winds through the Appalachian Mountains. I tried taking the boys and our friend Maury to the park at the height of the fall color, but the line of cars poking out from the park’s entrance looked like the line at Disneyworld during Christmas break, so we took a pass. However, the boys and I headed back a week later, on Levi’s tenth birthday, to have a look at what color still remained. It was an overcast day, so we didn’t get to see the full brilliance.

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However, we spotted tons of wildlife! Three deer posed for us alongside one of the visitor centers.

Even more excitingly, we saw an entire family of bears. We pulled over when we passed a gaggle of cars all parked next to a particular tree. The boys and I got out of the car, looked up, and saw a trio of bear cubs in the highest branches, eating berries. A woman next to us warned that another bear was coming up towards the road from the woods below. This turned out to be the momma bear, so we all scooted back into our cars. Goldilocks was nowhere to be found — or was she? Maybe she was the lady who warned us back into our car?

Three Little Bears

Three Little Bears

Friday Fun Links: the Weird, Wonderful Worlds of Mark Cline

The ruins of the Enchanted Castle attraction (1986-2001)

Who says the mega theme parks, the Disneyworlds and Sea Worlds and Six Flags, have killed off America’s traditional roadside attractions? Those durable, lovable staples of summer road trips may be ailing, but they aren’t quite dead yet. And if “the poor man’s Walt Disney,” Mark Cline, has any say in the matter, the old-fashioned roadside attraction will never die.

Over this past Memorial Day Weekend, my family and I took a road trip to Natural Bridge, Virginia. Our goals were to see the Virginia Safari Park (very much worth seeing, by the way) and the famous Natural Bridge monument and park, one of the natural wonders of North America. While driving on U.S. Highway 11 toward the center of the town of Natural Bridge, we passed several signs advertising a free attraction called Foamhenge. This sounded like something very much up our alley (aside from being free, which sounded good after the $$ we’d dropped at the safari park). So we put Foamhenge on our agenda for the afternoon, following our visit to the Natural Bridge monument and park.

The ticket takers at the Natural Bridge Park told us Foamhenge was definitely worth seeing, and that the man who had created Foamhenge had also operated a family attraction next to the park called the Haunted Monster Museum, which had burned down the year before (this unfortunate news greatly disappointed the boys and me). Foamhenge, a short drive away, turned out to be fabulous, in a tacky sort of way, a full-sized, accurate reproduction in Styrofoam of the world-famous Stonehenge in England. Reading the signs that adorned the little site, I discovered that the creator of Foamhenge, Mark Cline, had a wonderfully wicked sense of humor. He also appeared to be a talented maker of fiberglass figurines, judging from the impressive Druid priest who “guarded” the installation.

Entrance to Mark Cline’s Enchanted Castle Studio

Also along U.S. Highway 11, we spotted a ramshackle compound called the Enchanted Castle Studio. A wooden wall surrounded most of the compound, but we could see the tops of numerous enticing dinosaur figures inside, as well as the tops of various mythological creatures and heroes rendered in fiberglass. Off to the side of the walled part of the compound lay an abandoned castle-type building and several very weird giant figures, including a massive blue and yellow insect that we took pictures next to.

On the drive home, I promised myself to learn more about this Mark Cline fellow. Little did I know then that I had already seen numerous examples of his work, at Dinosaur Land in White Post, Virginia, and in the parking lot of the Pink Cadillac Diner just outside the entrance to Virginia Safari Park. Nor could I suspect how fascinating the story of his career would be… the story of one of America’s great roadside attraction impresarios. Beset by adversities and setbacks which would have stopped most other entrepreneurs’ careers cold, Mark Cline has gone on and on and on, never ceasing his search for that pot of gold at the end of a fiberglass rainbow.

Mark Cline, born in 1961 (three years older me), and I lived almost parallel childhoods. We both spent our youths filming our own monster movies and building miniature monsters and dinosaurs. The major difference is that Cline ended up going a whole lot farther with his artistic pursuits than I ever did (I got sidetracked into acting, first, and later writing). During his teen years in Waynesboro, Virginia in the 1970s, Cline made his own Super-8 horror movies and helped build sets and props for a local monster movie show. His latex monster creations won awards in local art competitions. He learned the art of sculpting in fiberglass during a job at Red Mill Manufacturing in Lyndhurst, outside Waynesboro, a company which manufactured small resin figurines, including Minutemen and turtles, for souvenir and novelties stores. His mentor at the company showed Cline how to make a mold of his own hand, then sent him home one night with a five gallon bucket of resin to experiment with. In 1982, hoping to achieve his childhood ambition, he attempted to start up his own horror-themed roadside attraction in Virginia Beach, but, without any business expertise or experience, he failed miserably.

However, on his drive home, he ran out of gas in Natural Bridge, Virginia, a small town whose major claim to fame is the privately-owned Natural Bridge monument and park, then surrounded by several downscale roadside attractions. He decided to make a second attempt to start his own business. Later that year, he opened his first version of the Haunted Monster Museum in Natural Bridge, but his attraction was shunned by the operators of the nearby Natural Bridge park, and it closed after three years. He reopened it shortly thereafter, retooled as the Enchanted Castle, and began a more collaborative relationship with the owners of the Natural Bridge park, who began selling tickets to his new attraction at their own well-attended facility. The Enchanted Castle featured a bungee-jumping pig, leprechauns, fairies, a giant-sized Jack-in-the-Beanstalk, plus weirder creations, such as a tremendous tick, a “Holy Cow” (cow with wings), and a 15-foot-tall devil’s face guarding the park’s entrance. In retrospect, given what was to happen a few years later at his small park, perhaps he would have been prudent to skip the devil’s face, which apparently did not sit well with the more religiously minded among his neighbors.

On the grounds of the Enchanted Castle, Cline founded his Enchanted Castle Studio, where he created new fantastical fiberglass creations, not only for his own attraction, but for other businesses, as well. A fortuitous chance meeting with either William Hanna or Joseph Barbera (Kline can’t recall which of the men he talked with) at a trade show resulted in Kline winning a contract to supply ten-foot-tall fiberglass Yogi Bear statues to all 75 of the country’s Jellystone Park Campgrounds. In 1987, Joann Leight, the daughter of the original owner of Dinosaur Land (opened in 1963), hired Cline to create a new group of more up-to-date, dynamic dinosaurs for her roadside attraction near Winchester, Virginia. Mark had visited Dinosaur Land as a boy, and that visit had been one of the primary inspirations for the direction his life’s career would later take.

“‘My father and I were traveling, coming back from Baltimore, and Dinosaur Land [in White Post, Virginia] was closed, but I asked my dad to stop there—I’d been there before—and he said, “OK.” I was probably about 12 years old. We stood there together looking through the fence at these huge dinosaur figures, and I said, “I’m going to make these when I grow up, dad.” And he just said these 11 words to me: “If that’s what you want to do, nothing can stop you.”’”

Cline, in addition to being a businessman and artist, has always been a trickster. April Fools’ Day is one of his favorite holidays. However, one of his theatrical holiday pranks, intended to amuse his neighbors and drum up additional business for his Enchanted Castle attraction in 2001, resulted in a major setback, an apparent arson which nearly ended his career as a roadside impresario.

The boys and I posing with the giant, bloated tick on the grounds of the Enchanted Castle

“A couple of weeks before the blaze, Cline played a prank on the neighborhood by scattering a handful of ‘flying saucers’ and ‘aliens’ along Route 11, the main drag through Rockbridge County. In the spirit of the neighborhood, the saucers were crafted from discarded satellite dishes. In the spirit of a true entrepreneur, they were subtle lures to his ill-fated tourist attraction.

“On April 1, 2001, the stunt and its maestro were revealed (as if there were some doubt) in a story with color photos on the front page of the Roanoke Times. The blaze occurred eight days after the story was published. … Since the October before the fire, Cline says, he had been finding religious tracts tucked under the wiper blades of his pickup truck … On the night of the fire … he went out to his mailbox to find a more ominous tract.

“‘We have prayed for you,’ read the hand-written letter, which also accused Cline of ‘darkness’ and ‘beastly madness.’ The writer warned that ‘the wrath of God is very fierce.’ Included was a burnt-around-the-edges copy of Cline’s photo clipped from the Roanoke paper.

“‘Fire represents God’s judgment,’ the letter closed. ‘Behold, the judge is standing at the door.’

“‘I read this as I was watching the castle burn,’ says Cline. … Cline, who received an insurance settlement for his buildings but not for the contents, readily concedes that he was a suspect. He says that before the flames were fully extinguished, he and his wife were separated and interrogated.

“‘I know who left me the messages,’ says Cline. ‘But there’s no proof they actually set the fire. It could have been oily rags or lightning– I believe in coincidences too.’”

Not a man to be deterred by adversity, a year later, in 2002, when the owners of Natural Bridge park offered Cline a lease on a rundown Victorian mansion on their property, Cline decided to begin anew, and he turned the old mansion into his Haunted Monster Museum & Dark Maze.

The following year, seeking to expand his empire of southwestern Virginia roadside attractions, Cline decided to go bigger. He turned the faded boomtown of Glasgow, Virginia, six miles from Natural Bridge, into “The Town that Time Forgot.” Cline made agreements with the owners of a dozen or so Glasgow merchants to allow him to put one of his life-sized fiberglass dinosaurs on their property, either on their lawn, in their parking lot, or even atop their building. Then he convinced the town government to pay for 50,000 copies of a promotional brochure he had created. The town fathers, initially convinced that Cline’s creations would help put them back on the map, gave a green light to the plan. So on April Fools’ Day, 2003, Glasgow became the dinosaur capitol of southwestern Virginia. However, Cline’s dinos didn’t pull in as many visitors as the Glasgow authorities had hoped for, so a year later, they pulled the plug on Cline’s scheme.

Not to be deterred (and suddenly having a dozen or so life-sized fiberglass dinosaurs that he needed to so something with), Cline moved his dinosaurs to a forested tract of land adjacent to his Professor Cline’s Haunted Monster Museum & Dark Maze, giving visitors two attractions for one admission price. But he went much further than just plopping a bunch of recreated dinosaurs under the trees and behind the bushes. He imagined a whole alternate history scenario for his creations to romp in, combining his love of dinosaurs, his fondness for the old Ray Harryhausen movie The Valley of Gwangi (also a childhood favorite of mine; my best friends and I stayed up late to watch it during my eighth birthday party), and the regional fascination with the Civil War. He called his new attraction Dinosaur Kingdom.

“(V)isitors are asked to imagine themselves in 1863. A family of Virginia paleontologists has accidentally dug a mine shaft into a hidden valley of living dinosaurs. Unfortunately, the Union Army has tagged along, hoping to kidnap the big lizards and use them as ‘weapons of mass destruction’ against the South. What you see along the path of Dinosaur Kingdom is a series of tableaus depicting the aftermath of this ill-advised military strategy. As you enter, a lunging, bellowing T-Rex head lets you know that the dinosaurs are mad — and they only get madder. A big snake has eaten one Yankee, and is about to eat another. An Allosaurus grabs a bluecoat off of his rearing horse while a second soldier futilely tries to lasso the big lizard. Another Yankee crawls up a tree with a stolen egg while the mom dinosaur batters it down.”

The boys and I on our “pilgrimage” to Foamhenge

Perhaps Cline’s most famous, or infamous, creation arrived the following year, landing on the Natural Bridge landscape overnight, once more on Cline’s favorite day of the year, April Fools’ Day. “‘About 15 years ago I walked into a place called Insulated Business Systems where they make these huge 16-foot-tall blocks (of Styrofoam),’ Mark tells us. ‘As soon as I saw them I immediately thought of the idea: “Foamhenge.” It took a while for the opportunity to present itself, of course.’ … It is, Mark points out, the only American Stonehenge that really is an exact replica of the time-worn original. ‘I went to great pains to shape each “stone” to its original shape,’ he tells us, fact-checking his designs and measurements with the man who gives tours of Stonehenge in England. Mark has even consulted a local ‘psychic detective’ named Tom who has advised him on how to position Foamhenge so that it is astronomically correct.”

Cline’s creations have spread beyond the immediate vicinity of the Natural Bridge monument and park. A few miles to the north, near the access road to another local attraction, the Virginia Safari Park, Cline installed a 14 foot-tall statue of King Kong in the parking lot of the Pink Cadillac Diner. He explains this was actually a protest against the local government’s having forced him to take down one of his signs: “I placed it there three years ago after the county made me take down one of my signs that they said was illegal… Since it’s too much of a challenge to regulate ‘art,’ they left King Kong alone. Now many of the supervisors wished they had left my sign alone.”

Cline’s unfortunate history with fire nearly repeated itself shortly before September 11, 2011, the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack. A businessman in Waynesboro, Virginia, who had been a high school classmate of Cline’s, arranged for Cline to create a fiberglass memorial to the Twin Towers. However, while the memorial was being installed, a support cable touched a live power line, creating a shower of sparks and a major power outage in Waynesboro. Cline’s creation almost burning down before it was unveiled.

Far worse was yet to come, however. 2012 began auspiciously for Cline; the struggling Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Virginia decided to host an exhibition of Cline’s weirdest figures in February, advertising it as a major retrospective of American folk art. The event was featured in an article in the Wall Street Journal. Investors flew him on a private jet to New Jersey to have him consult on a big job; other art museums contacted him, as well as the producers of a reality TV show. However, just two months later, the centerpieces of his entertainment empire, his Haunted Monster Museum and Dinosaur Kingdom, suffered a devastating fire eerily similar to the fire which had destroyed the Enchanted Castle eleven years earlier.

“A mid-April blaze demolished the Victorian-era mansion that served as the Haunted Monster Museum as well as the centerpiece of a bizzaro place called Dinosaur World where dinos would gobble Union soldiers and where brave visitors could also hunt Bigfoot with a ‘redneck.’ … Although the fiberglass dinos in the woods outside were saved, the Monster Museum was incinerated. The mechanical rats, the ‘Elvis-stein’ monster, and the mighty fiberglass python that seemed to slither in and out of the second-story gable windows all went up in flames late on the afternoon of April 16. … Like the rest of us, Cline says he’s now trying to face the prospect of a summer without his Monster Museum. He’s seen an uptick in contract work, like the 13 men’s room sinks he recently built for the Broadway revival of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. A couple of reality show producers have made inquiries about following him around. Cline veers between ‘pissed off’ anger at an unknown arsonist and the peace of knowing that nobody was killed or injured in the fire.”

Cline’s website, Monstersanddinosaurs.com, has announced plans to reopen the Haunted Monster Museum and/or Dinosaur Kingdom “sometime in 2013.” Until that happy day arrives, fans of Cline’s work can still visit Foamhenge, accompany Mark and his wife Sherry on Lexington, Virginia’s Ghost Tour, or see the artist at work at his Enchanted Castle Studio on the grounds of his former attraction, the Enchanted Castle, the remnants of which can still be viewed from U.S. Highway 11. Cline’s work is also on prominent display along the main commercial drag of Virginia Beach, where his creations are a large part of the appeal of such tourist draws as Nightmare Mansion, the 3-D Fun House and Mirror Maze, and Cap’n Cline’s Pirate Ghost Ride (which replaced a long-running funhouse attraction called Professor Cline’s Time Machine).

And, of course, Mark Cline’s dinosaurs can still be enjoyed at the very place where all of his dreams got their start, White Post, Virginia’s Dinosaur Land (I did a three-part post on my family’s trip to Dinosaur Land, chock full of terrific photos of Cline’s dinos).

Giant Monster B-Movies Round-Up (part 2): More of Toho’s Second String

Continuing my series of mini-reviews of recently viewed giant monster B-movies, this time I’ll serve up another pair of Toho Studios’ lesser-known kaiju and science fiction pictures: Frankenstein vs. Baragon/Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965) and The Mysterians (1957).

Netflix made a boo-boo when they sent me Frankenstein Conquers the World; they shipped the disk containing the Japanese language version with English subtitles. Judah, my youngest, had been very anxious to see this film, what with it containing the first appearance of Baragon, one of his favorite Japanese monsters (he has a Baragon stuffed toy that he loves). I was afraid he would refuse to watch it if it had subtitles, since he had told me, very firmly, that he would NOT watch our VHS copy of Godzilla vs. Hedorah/Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster, due to it being in Japanese with English subtitles. However, the little guy surprised me by acquiescing to Frankenstein Conquers the World with subtitles. My oldest boy, Levi, said he wanted to split the task of reading the subtitles aloud with me. A family activity!

As things turned out, I doubt we would have enjoyed the movie any more had it been dubbed; it’s possible our viewing experience was even enhanced by watching it in its original Japanese. In any case, much of the dialogue was inessential; the pictures told the story. And, oh, what a story!

I’m pretty sure kaiju Frankenstein has the most convoluted origin story of any of the Japanese monsters (with the possible exception of King Ghidorah in the second series of Godzilla movies). The film begins in Germany during the final months of World War Two, inside the laboratory of Dr. Frankenstein (or some other scientist who has taken over Dr. Frankenstein’s work… hard for me to tell with all the confusion surrounding the speed-reading of subtitles to my kids). Nazi soldiers show up to confiscate what is apparently the last remaining piece of the Frankenstein monster — his still-beating heart, floating in a glass jar. They store this in a crate and ship it out to Japan aboard a U-boat, apparently so that Imperial Japan can continue Nazi Germany’s quest for an invincible super-soldier (the thought being that the monster’s indestructible heart might provide a serum or compound which would allow soldiers to regrow body parts lost in battle). The U-boat rendezvouses with a Japanese Navy submarine in the Sea of Japan, and the Germans transfer their strange cargo. But before the two subs can submerge, an American sub-hunting sea plane attacks and sinks the U-boat. The Japanese sub escapes and delivers the monster heart to a research institute located in the center of Hiroshima. Yes, that Hiroshima. The research institute is near ground zero of the atomic bomb explosion. We are then led to believe that the heart survived the explosion and absorbed enough radiation to cause it to grow into an entire person — a new, childlike Frankenstein’s monster, whom postwar residents of Hiroshima assume to be a war orphan.

(I’ve read that an early version of the movie, possibly released to theaters in Japan, actually had a war orphan eat the heart and then mutate into a Frankenstein’s monster-like creature. But in this version, scientists explain that the heart itself grew into the creature.)

Look at that punim!

One of the most amusing aspects of the movie is the multiple instances in which Japanese scientists or reporters insist that one of the curious anomalies about the weird, growing child is that “he is clearly of Caucasian ancestry” (this being necessary because the original Frankenstein’s monster was put together from pieces of dead Central Europeans). However, take a look at that punim — he is clearly NOT of “Caucasian ancestry!” So, the movie scientists seem to be saying, who’re you going to believe – me or your lying eyes?

Also rather amusing was watching and listening to American actor Nick Adams (who also stars in Monster Zero) dubbed into Japanese. The Japanese voice actor’s bass pitch is much lower than Adams’ natural, rather high-pitched voice, so he almost seems to be talking in slow-motion.

But the really fun parts of the movie are the monster fights between Frankenstein and Baragon. Since the actor portraying Frankenstein is unencumbered by a massive rubber suit, he is able to move and fight much more fluidly than your typical kaiju. Just to ensure that Baragon would not seem overmatched, the producers gave the subterranean dinosaur the ability to leap great distances. So the extended fight scenes are very involving, more like the fights in Hong Kong kung-fu flicks than the typical lumbering shoving matches featured in kaiju movies. Also, the Frankenstein creature is portrayed in a sympathetic light and has more of a relatable personality than a typical kaiju. A semi-sequel was made the following year in 1966 — The War of the Gargantuas. I say “semi-sequel” because, although elements of the earlier movie’s story are clearly referenced in Gargantuas, and the Brown Gargantua’s personality and motivations carry over from those of the Frankenstein creature, the two monster’s designs are very different; Brown Gargantua looks much more like a Bigfoot monster than a Frankenstein’s monster.

Apparently this DVD edition of Frankenstein Conquers the World was released in conjunction with fresh home editions of The Mysterians, Mantango/Attack of the Mushroom People, Dagora, the Space Monster and Atragon (the Frankenstein disk includes promos/theatrical trailers for each of these Toho films). Judah told me he wanted to see all of them. Unfortunately, the copy of The Mysterians I had available to show him was an old VHS copy I had picked up used at a science fiction convention. Picture quality was pretty sub-standard, even for VHS; and given that the colorful, extravagant production design of The Mysterians is its major calling card, that was a bit of a shame. (I may have to hunt up a DVD of this film and see if improved picture quality makes me think more highly of it.)

The film’s story (to be echoed in many later Toho films that featured aliens and kaiju) cannot be accused of being overly ambitious or creative – an alien race from a dying world wants to take over Earth; they initially pretend to be Earth people’s benefactors, or at least not overtly hostile; when their falsehoods need to be abandoned, they then use what seems to be superior technology to overcome Earth’s defenses. However, the plot and screenplay are full of holes big enough to pilot a spacecraft through. We are led to believe that the alien incursion is of fairly recent vintage; they have been secretly building an underground fortress in Japan, but they haven’t quite finished it when the film begins, and the film’s climax features a race between the aliens completing their fortress and making it impregnable and the United Nations of Earth developing and fielding their own super-weapons. However… the aliens’ initial attack on Japan comes courtesy of a gigantic robot (called Mogera) which emerges from inside a mountain. Japan is one of the most densely populated nations on Earth – how did the aliens manage to dig out the inside of a mountain and place a fricking hundred-foot-tall robot inside it without anyone noticing? For that matter, where have they been getting all their building supplies to create their giant underground fortress? From a Japanese branch of Home Depot? If they brought the supplies in from their home planet, the landings of that many tremendous cargo rockets would’ve attracted a bit of attention, too, no? The United Nations manages to field two huge rocket battlecraft to engage the Mysterians’ fortress. The Mysterians blow up one of the battlecraft with a ray blast, but fifteen minutes later in the film, the same ray blast strikes the second, seemingly identical U.N. battlecraft with no effect whatsoever.

The Mysterians (1957) can be thought of as a Japanese reply to This Island Earth (1955), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, and Forbidden Planet (1956), three hit American science fiction films from the two prior years. What it lacks in script sophistication (a highlight of Forbidden Planet, which, after all, was loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest), it makes up for with the sheer exuberance of its production design – costumes, miniatures, and sets. The aliens’ costumes are delightful, a cross between the couture of Pop Art bikers and gay vampires (right after the film, Judah immediately assembled his own version of a Mysterian uniform, which he wore continuously for the next three days). The giant robot Mogera is very memorable — sort of the Michelin Tire Man with the head of a tin anteater. Best of all are the ships and weaponry, all pieces from a ten-year-old’s fantasy space war play set. Toho’s artisans fashioned miniatures which would serve them well in many kaiju epics to come, particularly the mobile electro-ray projectors mounted on military flatbed trucks. And those hovering U.N. battle rockets look mighty cool, too.

The American film that The Mysterians most closely models is Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion alien extravaganza, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. It’s a little dumber, perhaps, than Harryhausen’s picture (which, for once, did not have the American military acting like a bunch of bellicose idiots), but it has the advantage of being far more colorful — Toho’s first movie to be filmed in beautiful Tohovision! That, and those funky alien uniforms (so much more fabulous than the aliens’ suits of armor in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers), certainly counts for something, I think…

Giant Monster B-Movies Round-Up (part 1): Toho’s Second String

As I’ve mentioned many times on this blog before, one of the great pleasures of raising children is getting to enjoy many of one’s childhood enthusiasms all over again, this time experiencing the “doubled vision” of seeing them through one’s own, matured eyes and the less jaded eyes of one’s kids.

With this in mind, I’ve been having a grand ol’ time renting vintage monster and kaiju movies from Netflix and watching them with my boys. Judah, my youngest, is my most enthusiastic co-conspirator, but both Asher and Levi will usually plop down on the bed with the two of us to watch whatever “monstrous” piece of celluloid Dad has selected for the evening. A bonus of this is that I’m actually getting to see lots of films that I only read about as a kid – a number of Japanese horror films, for example, had only limited exposure in the U.S. and weren’t part of the popular TV movie packages, shown by independent TV stations, that I relied upon during my childhood viewings. I don’t recall ever seeing Atragon, The Mysterians, Frankenstein Conquers the World/Frankenstein vs. Baragon, Dagora, the Space Monster, Gappa, the Triphibian Monster, Yongary, Monster from the Deep, or Varan the Unbelievable as a kid. However, now, thanks to the ubiquity of DVD players and the hunger of services such as Netflix for product, all of these movies are currently available, and I’ve either recently watched them with my boys or have stuck them in my order queue.

(Special bonus for you Toho Studios fans – here’s a marvelously informative year-by-year listing of all the films Toho has made, from their founding in 1935 to 2012.)

Over the next few days, I’ll be writing a bit about giant monster movies I’ve recently shared with my kids, listing them in descending order of quality and entertainment value (mind you, these two aspects do NOT necessarily track in parallel, as any fan of 1950s monster movies and Japanese kaiju films will attest).

At the top of my list are several of what must be considered Toho’s B-list of horror and science fiction films (their A-list, or most popular and best-remembered horror and SF movies, are the Godzilla series and their most closely-related offshoots, Mothra and Rodan). Toho was a very prolific company in the middle decades of the twentieth century, producing films in a wide variety of genres – gangster pictures; war films; romance movies; and classics of world cinema such as Seven Samurai (1954) and The Throne of Blood (1957).

Beginning with Godzilla, King of the Monsters in 1954, the studio delved into the realms of science fiction and horror, producing at least one movie per year in these genres over the following decade and a half:
Godzilla Raids Again and Half Human in 1955;
Rodan (in color!) in 1956;
The Mysterians (also in color) in 1957;
Varan the Unbelievable and The H-Man in 1958;
Battle in Outer Space in 1959;
The Human Vapor in 1960;
Mothra in 1961;
King Kong vs. Godzilla and Gorath in 1962;
Atragon and Matango/Attack of the Mushroom People in 1963;
Mothra vs. Godzilla/Godzilla vs. The Thing, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, and Dagora, the Space Monster in 1964;
Invasion of the Astro-Monster/Godzilla vs. Monster Zero and Frankenstein vs. Baragon/Frankenstein Conquers the World in 1965;
Ebirah, Horror of the Deep/Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster and The War of the Gargantuas in 1966;
Son of Godzilla and King Kong Escapes in 1967;
Destroy All Monsters in 1968, arguably the pinnacle of the original Toho kaiju cycle, starring, as it did, virtually all the monsters they had fielded in the prior decade;
and All Monsters Attack/Godzilla’s Revenge in 1969, to many fans, the nadir of the original kaiju cycle, making heavy use of footage already seen in Son of Godzilla and Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster and centering the story on a young boy’s wish fulfillment daydreams (which works better for young viewers than it does for kaiju fans in their twenties or thirties or, Lord help me, forties).

The studio continued pumping out at least one monster picture each year, until they took a break following 1975’s Terror of Mechagodzilla. With the exception of 1977’s The War in Space, which was released direct-to-VHS in the U.S., Toho did not return to the horror or science fiction genres until 1984’s The Return of Godzilla (released the following year in the U.S. as Godzilla 1985, which I recall dragging my then-girlfriend Leslie to a cheapie theater in New Orleans to see).

The best (or the most entertaining) of Toho’s B-list that I recently watched was – surprise, surprise! — King Kong Escapes. I say “surprising” because I was more than a little amazed by just how much I enjoyed this film. I’ve gone through three stages, it seems, regarding Toho’s two King Kong films. King Kong vs. Godzilla was one of the very first kaiju pictures I ever saw; my parents let me stay up “late” as a five-year-old to watch it on TV. For years thereafter, I claimed it as my favorite movie of all time. However, when I entered junior high school, I began doing some serious study of stop-motion animation, with the hope of learning to become an animator myself; I studied the work of Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen, and Jim Danforth and even wrote a thesis paper in eighth grade on the history of stop-motion animation, following up the next year with an attempt to make my own stop-motion fantasy film. You might say I became a “stop-motion snob,” staring down my nose at all inferior forms of special effects, particularly the use of lizards with glued-on horns and fins to portray dinosaurs, and men in suits to portray various giant monsters – including King Kong. Thus, I had to disavow my earlier, “childish” enthusiasm for King Kong vs. Godzilla (and admittedly, the King Kong outfit used in that film was not one of Toho’s better designs). Until just recently, I never had the opportunity to see Toho’s follow-up, their second and last King Kong effort, King Kong Escapes, but I tarred it with the same brush, assuming it was another attempt to profit off Willis O’Brien’s legacy while dishonoring his technical and artistic accomplishments.

Hey, one’s perspective changes as one gets older (particularly after one has kids). Now I’m able to look at these Toho second stringers with the eyes of a little boy again, and in that light, King Kong Escapes is fantastically entertaining. It helps that Toho did a much better job with the Kong suit the second time around; it looks much more gorilla-like than the suit used in King Kong vs. Godzilla (the arms are longer and the legs are proportionately shorter), and it even bears a passable resemblance to the original, 1933 King Kong in design. Also, just as there is splendid stop-motion animation (Mighty Joe Young) and barely passable stop-motion animation (Flesh Gordon), so are there gradations in quality of monster suit acting, from very effective (Godzilla vs. the Thing) to absolutely abysmal (Konga — see my review here). I thought the monster suit acting in King Kong Escapes was quite good (Haruo Nakajima plays Kong, and Yu Sekida plays dual roles as Mechani-Kong and Gorosaurus, who later reappears in Destroy All Monsters). All three kaiju have distinctive personalities, entirely portrayed through the actors’ movements.

But what really makes the movie so much fun are the villains. Eisei Amomoto as Dr. Hu (sometimes spelled Dr. Who) and Mie Hama as Madame Piranha enthusiastically chew the scenery, and they manage to make it look like it tastes delicious. The plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (oftentimes, the plots of Toho’s monster and science fiction movies are either slender as sheets of paper or lose much in the translation to English). Dr. Hu wants to excavate a large quantity of a radioactive miracle metal from deep beneath the Arctic ice so he can sell it to the leadership of a rogue nation, represented by Madame Piranha. To get at the metal, he builds a gigantic robot gorilla(?), but unfortunately for his plans, its mechanical innards are set out of whack by radioactivity. Not allowing this little setback to stop him, he then arranges for the kidnapping and brainwashing of King Kong from Kong’s island, intending to use a real giant gorilla to dig out the precious metal where the robot giant gorilla had failed. However, King Kong escapes, the villain’s plans go awry, real Kong fights robot Kong, yada, yada, yada… Along the way, Dr. Hu twirls his mustache and Madame Piranha seduces the hero and we all have a great time. The Dr. Hu/Madame Piranha pair rate up there with my favorite of the Toho horror/SF villains – the Controller of Planet X (Yoshio Tsuchiya) from Invasion of the Astro-Monster, who combines a really cool alien uniform with some of the niftiest pinky choreography ever seen on film (only rivaled, perhaps, by Marlee Matlin’s sign language in Children of a Lesser God).

Next up on our list of very enjoyable Toho B-movies is Atragon from 1963. Atragon barely qualifies as a kaiju film; the only giant monster present is Manda, the dragon/serpent god of the subterranean Mu people. Manda plays a fairly minor role in the movie, but he does come back to appear again in Destroy All Monsters and puts in a cameo appearance in Godzilla’s Revenge. His main purpose in Atragon is to provide opposition for the movie’s titular super-submarine (which manages to subdue the giant dragon/serpent without much fuss, via a “freezing ray” which, in strange contradiction of the laws of thermodynamics, can be used underwater without freezing any seawater but which nonetheless manages to freeze Manda in ice!).

Manda is not the main attraction of Atragon, by any means. The film’s star turns are provided by veteran Toho actor Jun Tazaki, who portrays Captain Hachiro Jinguji, last active officer of the Imperial Japanese Navy, and by Eiji Tsuburaya and Takeo Kita, respectively the film’s Visual Effects Director and Production Designer. Jun Tazaki brings massive screen presence to any role and will be familiar to any fan of kaiju movies from his turns in such films as Gorath, King Kong vs. Godzilla, Mothra vs. Godzilla, Dagora, the Space Monster, Frankenstein vs. Baragon, Invasion of the Astro-Monster, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, The War of the Gargantuas, and Destroy All Monsters. (His final film role prior to his death in 1985 was in Akira Kurosawa’s epic retelling of the story of King Lear, Ran, set in feudal Japan.) Tazaki was given an unusually meaty character to play in Atragon (unusually meaty for a kaiju picture, that is, which typically features underdeveloped human characters) – Captain Hachiro Jinguji of the Imperial Japanese Navy, who escaped capture at the end of the Second World War and never accepted Japan’s defeat. He stole away with his advanced submarine and crew and, after losing his sub to raiders from the Mu people, settled on an isolated atoll, created an underground factory, and spent the next eighteen years building a new, super-advanced submarine with which to win back Japan’s martial honor. After the Mu people attack Japan and threaten to conquer the entire surface world, Captain Jinguji’s daughter, whom he had not seen since the last days of the war, when she’d been a little girl, finds him and begs him to use his super-sub against the Mu, as it is the only weapon the Mu have reason to fear. The fiercely patriotic Jinguji balks at first, refusing to use the Atragon for any purpose other than revenging Japan upon America. But he is eventually won over and proceeds to deliver a spectacular ass-whupping to the Mu, destroying their best submarines, demolishing their power source, defeating their giant serpent god, and even capturing their queen, who opts, at the very end, to share the fiery demise of her people.

Just as good as Jun Tazaki’s performance is the design of the super-sub, Atragon. What’s not to love about a giant flying submarine? My youngest, Judah, was entranced. As well he should be – the Atragon is every young boy’s dream come true, with its sleek design, its gun turrets, its eye-catching color scheme, and its freeze-ray in the nose. Judah spent the week following seeing this movie drawing picture after picture of flying submarines. Of course, he has been begging me for a toy Atragon. And, yes, such a thing is available!

Next: More of Toho’s Second String!
Frankenstein Conquers the World/Frankenstein vs. Baragon
The Mysterians
Dagora, the Space Monster

So Long, Marty Mermaid Man

I can’t honestly say that there are that many performers out there whose passing makes me feel a pang of loneliness and regret. Ernest Borgnine, who died yesterday at the age of 95, was one of them.

I liked the man. It’s as simple as that. He was someone I was always happy to invite into my home via my TV set and spend a couple of hours or a brief thirty minutes with. I especially liked the fact that, late in his career, he decided to insinuate himself into my children’s lives through one of their favorite cartoon programs. He was never less than watchable, whether in his earliest, pre-Marty roles or in his very last projects.

My earliest memory of Borgnine was most likely seeing him in Willard, a 1971 a horror movie. He played Al Martin, the cruel boss of a shy young man, Willard Stiles; Willard achieves his revenge by setting his pack of trained rats on Martin. This role was a throwback to some of Borgnine’s earliest film roles, in which he’d played memorable heavies in such films as From Here to Eternity (1953) (in which he beat Frank Sinatra to death) and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) (in which he bedeviled heroic, one-armed Spencer Tracey).

But my most memorable impression of Borgnine came, as it did for so many of his fans, from his Academy Award-winning portrayal of lovable Bronx loser Marty in the 1955 film version of Paddy Chayefsky’s 1953 teleplay, which had starred Rod Steiger. I’ve watched both versions, and to my mind, Borgnine is the definitive Marty. You felt sorry for Steiger as Marty, but you fell in love with Borgnine’s Marty.

In later years, I was always pleasantly surprised whenever I’d see Borgnine show up in movies such as The Wild Bunch, The Dirty Dozen, The Poseidon Adventure, The Black Hole, and Escape From New York. But he remained on the periphery of my consciousness until 2009, when my family and I moved to Northern Virginia, to an area where reception of broadcast TV was sketchy, and we signed up for satellite TV. From that point on, my three young sons became enormous fans of SpongeBob SquarePants.

I’d heard some pretty negative things about SpongeBob from some fellow parents, who considered it way too irreverent for the kiddies. But, out of curiosity, I sat down with my boys and watched a few episodes. And really, really liked them. Not too long thereafter, I watched an episode from the show’s 1999 first season, “Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy,” which portrayed SpongeBob’s and Patrick’s first visit to the Shady Shoals Rest Home, refuge for two elderly, retired costumed crimefighters, Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy, obvious stand-ins for DC’s Silver Age Aquaman and Aqualad. As soon as the semi-senile Mermaid Man uttered a word, I shouted to my wife, “Hey, that’s Ernest Borgnine! That’s brilliant! They got Ernest Borgnine to play a senile superhero!”

I soon learned that Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy (voiced by veteran movie and TV comedian Tim Conway, who’d been one of Borgnine’s costars in the TV series McHale’s Navy [1962-66]) had become two of the most popular “guest characters” on the show and that they had reappeared in many subsequent episodes. I bought my kids a DVD compilation of the best of the SpongeBob episodes guest-starring Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy. Having been a superhero comics fan ever since I’d been my boys’ ages, I “got” all the jokes, even more so because my favorite DC stories had been the Silver Age Justice Society “return from retirement” stories (whose narrator, usually Gardner Fox, regularly referred to the Earth-Two Superman as “the gray-haired guardian” and had Hour-Man and the Atom kvetching to each other about how rusty their fighting skills had become during their rescinded retirements, and artist Mike Sekowsky generally drew the Golden Age Wonder Woman as a grandmotherly matron who looked a good bit older than her Justice Society teammates, which even as a kid I thought was horribly unfair). Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy could also be thought to be paying a “tip of the hat” to Frank Miller’s reconceptualization of Batman as an embittered senior citizen in The Dark Knight Returns; but their whimsical portrayals of superheroic decrepitude owe a lot more in tone to the fond, semi-humorous portrayals of DC’s Golden Age heroes in their frequent team-ups with their younger Earth-One counterparts, the Justice League, in the 1960s and early 1970s. I could certainly picture Gardner Fox’s and Mike Sekowski’s Hour-Man doing Earth-Two TV commercials touting an arthritis relief pill that provides full relief from pain in “much less than an hour!”

The high quality of the show’s writing aside, Ernest Borgnine’s vocal characterization was simply spot-on. I can’t imagine any other actor doing the voice of Mermaid Man. I’m afraid the creators of SpongeBob SquarePants will have to retire the old superhero for good. Either that, or they can take a leaf from DC’s book and have younger protégé Barnacle Boy step into the saggy old uniform of Mermaid Man and take up the role. Were he still alive, Tim Conway’s old costar from The Carol Burnett Show, Harvey Corman, could become the new Barnacle Boy. But how about Carol Burnett as a new Barnacle Girl? She’s done some fun animation voice-over work recently (notably in The Secret World of Arrietty [2012]).

Here’s a parting quote from Borgnine, concerning his several-weeks marriage to singer Ethel Merman (and note the eerie similarity of her surname to the title of one of his greatest characters):

“Biggest mistake of my life. I thought I was marrying Rosemary Clooney.”

That’s the spirit!

Sick-ation! (With Bonus Zombie Plague)

How I felt my entire vacation

It had been two summers since my boys had last seen their cousins Josh and Ben, my brother Ric’s kids. Too much time; the kids change so much in just six months. If we let too much time go by, all five childhoods would slip by us, and we would lose the chance to have them form childhood cousin friendships.

I worry about such things. Call me sentimental.

The last time, Ric and Leslie, their sons, and my sister Robyn had driven from Tampa up to Manassas to stay with us. I knew I couldn’t manage a reciprocal drive down to Tampa. Talk about a bridge too far… last year, the boys barely survived our six-hour car drive up to New York (they still have the imprints of my choking hands imbedded in their necks). So Ric and Leslie, recognizing my conundrum, were kind enough to suggest meeting half-way. Ric took a look at the map. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina looked like it would fit the bill nicely.

Of course, as fate would have it, three days before we left, I came down with a bad sinus infection. Two days before we left, my right ear felt like it might, just might, be getting infected; I applied some topical antibiotic cream before going to sleep. Unfortunately, the cream encouraged the accumulation of wax, which, by the time I left for work on Wednesday, completely clogged up my ear and left me half-deaf. My work neighborhood in downtown DC includes a CVS Drug Store, so I went and purchased a small medicine chest’s worth of ear declogging remedies. None of them worked, or at least they didn’t work quickly enough. That night, though, I was able to flush out several big, gooey chunks of wax with a bulb syringe. Able to hear again, I hoped this was the end of my ear-related tsuris.

Unfortunately, such was not to be the case. I woke up knowing I’d developed an ear infection. I also knew I’d simply have to tough it out. We’d pre-paid our hotel bill, cancellation wasn’t an option, and, besides, my family and Ric’s family had been planning this trip for months. I consoled myself by saying at least I wasn’t getting on an airplane. Or going deep-sea diving.

The drive down to Myrtle Beach was less agonizing than I’d feared it might be. Having my twenty-year-old stepdaughter Natalie in the car with us as a third adult helped, as it evened the odds up. On the drive down, Natalie, who has started a small business with a girlfriend making beaded bikinis and other articles of clothing made of beads, worked on a bikini top for my wife Dara (which, she boasted, was the largest article of women’s wear she’d yet attempted). The worst incident on the drive south was Natalie getting car sick and having to jump out of our van in front of a small town Ford dealership, where a young salesman assumed she’d come to look at a Mustang or Focus. He rushed over to begin his sales pitch, and got to her side just in time for her to barf, her expulsion barely missing his shoes and the tires of a used Crown Victoria.

By the time we hit Myrtle Beach (which my boys thought looked absolutely AWESOME!), my ear was throbbing like one of Peter Lorre’s eyeballs in The Raven. I deposited my family at our hotel and headed straight for an urgent care clinic. The doctor poo-pooed my concerns about my ear. She said the redness was due to my having irrigated the ear the night before, and she insisted the pain I was experiencing was due to inflammation of my jaw joints (even though I told her I don’t grind my teeth or eat anything like hard candy). She prescribed me some ear drops and told me to take large doses of ibuprofin. I knew it wasn’t going to work. But you can’t argue with a doctor, especially not with one who is a stranger.

That night, I let my brother get in the pool with my kids and his, as I didn’t feel up to it. The next morning, Friday, I felt even worse — the drops hadn’t done a bit of good — but I decided to tough it out and take the boys to the beach and the pool. The beach was a trial; I was losing my voice, and as any parent of young children will tell you, losing your voice is equivalent to having every last drop of parental authority leeched out of you. Without your voice to project righteous fear into your offspring, your only fallback is to physically lay hands upon your wayward children. Easier said than done in the pounding surf, while you are feeling as energetic as a sack of congealing cement. I didn’t let me kids stay in the waves for very long. The combination of their lack of common sense with my lack of energy and voice made disaster a near certainty, so I let discretion take precedence over valor and hustled them into an indoor pool, where my lack of a voice wasn’t so much a disability.

The next morning the throbbing in my right ear had become a pounding. I dragged myself back to the urgent care clinic. A different lady doctor saw me. I couldn’t place her accent; she was from some Eastern European country. She didn’t have to look at my affected ear for very long to make her determination.

“Oh,” she said, “this is BAD. Very BAD. Must prescribe for you big antibiotic. Stronger than what we have here. MUCH stronger. I phone in to CVS for you.”

She was true to her word. Those pills could’ve choked a mastodon. Still, given how my ear was feeling, I was more than happy to force the first pill down my throat.

The families had agreed that we would take a break from the hot sun and find some indoor activity for the day. We settled on Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum. This was a pretty pure specimen of the genus “tourist trap;” but we were tourists, and we were willing to be trapped, so long as we were trapped somewhere with air-conditioning. The museum’s biggest attraction was a life-sized wax figure of the Lizardman, a gentleman who has subjected himself to a series of body modifying surgeries and massive tattooings in order to transform himself into a Cockney version of one of The Alligator People. I preferred a tiny display of intricate paintings done on butterfly wings. However, by the time we reached a display of medieval torture devices, including a mechanism for pouring boiling wax into a prisoner’s ear, I was feeling rather tortured myself, and I had the family drop me back at the hotel room so I could hide beneath the blankets.

I convalesced by watching a pair of Netflix movies on my laptop. I’d long wanted to see Woody’s Allen’s first film, What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, which had been quite groundbreaking back in the mid-sixties. Unfortunately for my enjoyment of the film, popular culture (particularly children’s cartoon shows, with which I am intimately familiar) has so thoroughly absorbed the ethos of What’s Up, Tiger Lily? that the film’s zany gags just aren’t funny anymore. However, I did enjoy the grade B Japanese gangster movie aesthetics a good deal, especially the cars, the sports coats, and the strippers. I tried watching Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange next, but I didn’t have the energy to keep up with Alex and his Droogs and turned it off just before Alex was scheduled to be reconditioned.

The next day, Sunday, was our last full day of vacation, so I forced myself out of bed and down to the pool and beach with the boys and my extended family. The antibiotics had corralled the infection a bit, so I was feeling a tiny bit stronger. Fortunately, the boys were more interested in digging tunnels in the sand than in conquering the surf, so I wasn’t forced to act as lifeguard and was able to enjoy the steady breeze while sitting in a folding chair at the water’s edge.

That evening, after dinner, Ric and Leslie very kindly offered to take my boys off Dara’s and my hands and treat them to a round of mini-golf at the Atlantica Golf Palace next door to the restaurant. Ric emailed Dara and me the photo below of our boys and his. Apparently, my infection has spread to all five young men, transforming them into flesh-craving zombies. As you can see from the photo, they are advancing hungrily upon my brother, brandishing their golf clubs in menacing fashion, preparing to beat in his skull and feast upon his brains. If I don’t make it back from Myrtle Beach, you will know that the infection has spread beyond my family to the thousands of other families crowding the beach for the July Fourth holiday week. Thousands of families who will soon return to hundreds of communities around the country, bringing this zombie plague with them… perhaps to a community near YOU…

My sons and nephews, zombified, ready to bash in some heads with golf clubs and feast on brains

The Runaways of Mount MonstraCity is Finished… For Now

This past Friday, I finished my initial polished draft of The Runaways of Mount MonstraCity, which is: (a) my shortest novel ever; (b) my first middle grades novel; (c) my first book to be critiqued by one of my sons (Levi, my eight-year-old). It came in at just under 68,000 words, or about half the length of my other novels (yet the length of a typical 1960s science fiction paperback original). I’m aiming this at readers a little more sophisticated than those who enjoy the Goosebumps books, which run (I think) 30,000-40,000 words, so I’m hoping the length won’t prove a detriment when my agent starts sending it out to editors. My ideal readership, I’m pretty certain, would start out with eight-year-olds who are strong readers (like Levi, who didn’t have any trouble with the book) and would extend to twelve- or thirteen-year-olds. (But I’m also putting in plenty of “Easter eggs” for any adult readers to enjoy, adults who loved monster movies as a kid.)

The book (number one in a series, I hope, hope, hope) is an action-adventure-horror story set on an island city called Mount MonstraCity, located a little more than seventy miles west-northwest of Seattle, Washington. Monstra Island (named for Mount Monstra, an active volcano located at its northwestern corner) was settled early in the nineteenth century by members of the Frankenstein clan, who were driven out of Europe for the crime of creating monsters. They selected Monstra Island on which to settle because of its remoteness from civilization (but not so remote from North America that trade would be impossible) and because of its proximity to unique subsea radiations – radiations which are very interesting to the scientifically curious Frankensteins, and which are later discovered to have their origin in a 30,000 year-old spacecraft partially buried in a crater on the ocean floor. The Frankensteins established Mount MonstraCity as a haven for monsters of all types from every corner of the world. Vampires came to settle a neighborhood called The Castles; Ghouls inhabit Ghoul Gulch; Werewolves settled throughout the Wolfen Woods; Kabbalists and their Golems created a walled village called the Golem Ghetto; etc. “Normie,” or normal human beings, may earn citizenship in Mount MonstraCity, as well, so long as they can become successful Mad Doctors or Mad Scientists and patent inventions or medical advancements which bring revenue to the city. Aside from high-tech and medical innovation, Mount MonstraCity’s other major industries are its film industry (no CGI required) and tourism sector (which invites visitors to experience safe, guided hauntings within one of the mansions of Ghost Town, just one of many horror-themed attractions).

My two protagonists are Zacherly and Cosmo Juke, two orphans who suffer bullying and frequent indignities at the Putterknuckle Benevolent Home for Orphaned Children in Seattle, Washington. Zacherly, aged eleven, aspires to become a successful Mad Scientist in Mount MonstraCity; Cosmo, aged fifteen, dreams of costarring in action-adventure-horror films with famed Werewolf actress, Donna Demonna. At a triple feature at the Phantasmo Drive-In Theater, sponsored by the Mount MonstraCity-Seattle Friendship Committee, Zacherly and Cosmo are approached by the mysterious Mr. Bleck, who offers to obtain positions for them with laboratories in Mount MonstraCity which are looking for young research interns. However, to take advantage of Mr. Bleck’s offer, they must stow away on the ferry that runs between Seattle and Monstra Island. Soon thereafter, Mr. Putterknuckle, the tyrannical owner of the orphanage, forces Zacherly and Cosmo to steal clothes for the other children from a massive thrift store. After the boys are nearly caught by security guards, they flee to the ferry and embark upon their journey to Mount MonstraCity. Yet the fate that Mr. Bleck has waiting for them there is far, far different from that with which he tempted them… and the boys soon learn that real-life monsters are way more dangerous than the movie monsters they’ve come to love.

Possibly the most fun aspect of writing this book has been being able to utilize my son Levi as my first reader. Levi, quite unlike my other two boys, is congenitally unable to tell a lie (or at least to lie at all convincingly). So I can trust his feedback implicitly, knowing that he won’t feed me praise he doesn’t truly feel my book deserves in order to make ol’ Dad feel good. His verdict? The first chapter was “a little boring” (did my best to fix that in the second draft), but the rest of the book was “Super! Lots and lots of terrific action!” He reinforced this feedback by grabbing fresh chapters out of my hands as soon as I walked through the door with them, then immediately settling down on the couch or carpet to begin reading. What was his favorite part of the book? “The mystery about Zacherly’s and Cosmo’s mother… can’t you tell me more?” No, Levi; that would spoil future books for you!

Now, if I could only get Son #2, Asher, to be half as interested in reading as his older brother is. I’m working on it. Asher adores monster trucks and race cars. So, rather than start with a story idea for the second book in the series, I started with a title and built from that. My title?

The Monster Trucks of Mount MonstraCity

Can’t you see the toy line already?

UPDATE: Last night, when I explained the basic story idea behind The Monster Trucks of Mount MonstraCity to my three sons, they were enthralled. They loved the idea of monsters who become monster trucks – in this case, Ghouls who volunteer to have their brains transplanted into experimental monster trucks powered by fuel cells, which are in turn powered by hydrogen that is provided by the Ghoul virus contained within the Ghoul brains (the virus proves capable of splitting hydrogen atoms from oxygen atoms in water, allowing the trucks to be fueled with plain, filtered water). Asher and Judah insisted that I make them toys based on characters in the book. I promised I would buy toy monster trucks and modify them (with pieces from model kits and toy tanks and what have you) so that they look like the book’s characters (which I still need to design; still working on the plot outline, although that’s almost done).

It’s great to have a potential property under development that is so “toyetic” (that’s a real word, by the way, coined by Bernard Loomis of Kenner Toys in the late 1970s, when he was in discussions with Stephen Spielberg regarding possibly making toys based on Close Encounters of the Third Kind; his neologism means “the suitability of a media property, such as a movie, for merchandising spin-off lines of licensed toys, games and novelties”).

I’ll share more news on these projects as it develops!

Happy Fathers’ Day to All My Dad Readers!

A look of love between Dr. Frankenstein and son

I’d like to wish all my readers a very wonderful Fathers’ Day. All of us have had the pleasure of being a son or a daughter, and the luckiest of us all (at least to my way of thinking) have also gotten to experience being a father or a mother. Being a father is a role one gradually grows into; I don’t think it is possible to fully anticipate what that role will entail until one has already found oneself fully wrapped in fatherly robes. By the time my first son Levi came along in 2003, I had known for quite some time that I wanted children very badly. But it wasn’t until Levi had progressed through crawling and walking and feeding himself, and then been joined by his younger brother Asher, giving me two little men to keep track of, that I felt like fatherhood wasn’t just a Halloween costume that I had awkwardly dressed myself in — it was ME.

Godzilla and Minya

Daddy and son bonding

Luckiest of all fathers are those dads who are able to take advantage of opportunities to teach whatever they know best to their sons or daughters. Godzilla was a pretty fortunate dad, at least in his first series of movies (in his second series, he is more a a tragic dad, not unlike his colleague, King Kong, who never gets to enjoy his offspring). Imprisoned on Monster Island, he was able to take ample time off from his day job of mashing Tokyo into dust and spend long, lingering afternoons teaching Minya how to fight bully monsters and how to turn his radioactive smoke rings into blasts of fire. Watching him in Son of Godzilla and Godzilla’s Revenge, we see that he is patient and loving, but stern when he needs to be — when Minya simply does not get the whole “shoot radioactive fire” thing, Godzilla does not hesitate to stomp on his tail to push him onto the right track.

Kong and son, together only in manga

Not all fathers and sons or daughters are so fortunate. Some are like King Kong and Son of Kong, who never got to know each other. The elder Kong was kidnapped, stolen from his family home of Skull Island, and then cut down in an alien city half a world away from the only home he’d ever known. His little white-furred son was left to fend on his own (we never learned what had happened to Mom). But their genetic link proved to be strong, as little Kong ended up showing all the nobility and bravery that his bigger and stronger Pop had displayed in his struggles with Tyrannosaurus, Pterodon, and the U.S. Army Air Force. As Carl Denhem said of little Kong with a mixture of guilt-laced regret and pride, “Wow! What a scrapper! Just like his old man!”

A different type of father-son relationship; Ray Harryhausen and Mighty Joe Young

And then there is a different sort of father-son relationship: the mentoring relationship, which may be shared by two individuals who do not have any formal family ties at all. Such was the relationship between stop-motion animation pioneer Willis O’Brien and his great protege, Ray Harryhausen. And looking at the photograph above of Ray and his favorite model of Mighty Joe Young, one of his first professional animation assignments, who can deny that a father-son relationship does not develop between a man and his artistic creation? Ray devoted almost two years of his early career to granting life and a very robust personality to Mighty Joe Young, the wonderful evidence of which can been seen by anyone who possesses a television set and a DVD player (or Netflix account). Isn’t this this essence of fatherhood?

Me and my three little monster offspring

Just this past week, I finished my first middle grades novel, The Runaways of Mount MonstraCity, the first novel I wrote with the interests and preferences of my three sons in mind. I’ll blog more about this book this coming week. It has been a special pleasure to combine two types of fatherhood in this way, shaping one type of offspring (my word-based offspring) based on feedback from my flesh-and-blood offspring.

I hope all you other fathers out there in Internet Land are able to take as much pleasure in your offspring as I am blessed to take in mine.

Balticon Great for Kids

Ladies of DC Comics unite! Catwoman and Death welcome you to Balticon

I’ve been wanting to post these photos from Balticon for the past couple of weeks but just haven’t gotten around to it (until today). One aspect of Balticon that I truly appreciated (and enjoyed) was the welcoming face the convention put on for children. Not only did they have children’s activities, but they had well-planned, fun children’s activities (rather than tossing the kids and their parents into a room with a carton of Legos, a box of Oreos, and a jug of red punch and hoping they will somehow entertain themselves).

Levi, Judah, Asher, and a friend pose with Booster Gold and Supergirl

There are a few entertainers my kids especially enjoyed. Leigh “Supergirl” Alexander (and her faithful sidekick, Booster Gold) did a marvelous job of showing a whole roomful of kids all about “Moving in Outer Space.” This was a combination of fantasy role playing and gentle exercise that kept my boys enthralled for a full fifty minutes. I was especially grateful for how Leigh gracefully coped with my youngest son’s continual commentary about what type of outer-space monster he had turned into. She didn’t shut him down, but she didn’t let him distract her from the other ten kids, either. Now that’s talent!

Levi and Asher show off their visions of outer space

Heather Dale, the con’s Filking Guest of Honor, and her partner Ben Deschamps put on a marvelous musical concert for the kids. Mark MacDicken looked every inch the medieval magical wizard during his “Flabbergast the Wizard Magic Show” and managed to make my boys laugh a good bit (I was very bummed about having to miss his show myself, but I had a panel I needed to participate in). Mark also led a “Make-and-Take Steampunk Goggles” activity and helped kids and parents make steampunk goggles out of recycled toilet paper cardboard rolls and other household leftovers. Very cool! A special thanks to Mark for heading up two activities that my kids loved.

Judah preens with picture of galaxy

I wish I could’ve been present to see artist Charlene Taylor D’Alessio lead my boys through her “Astronomical Drawing” activity (Dara was there with them). She showed my three kids how to use oil pastels on black paper to create their own nebulae and solar systems. They were so proud! After my last Saturday panel, I met up with my family in the hotel lobby, and Asher was showing off his “universe drawing” to every adult who walked by. I felt great for him, especially since he has only recently begun to develop some confidence when making artwork.

To sum up, my family and I owe a tremendous thanks to the organizers of Balticon and to all the wonderful volunteers who helped entertain and educate my kids. All your efforts really mean a whole lot to us. You made us feel welcome as an entire family. That is so important for the future of fandom. I can guarantee that, thanks to conventions such as Balticon, my sons will look back on their childhood journeys to science fiction conventions with very warm memories. I hope they will choose to stay involved and that, someday, they will take their own children to conventions not yet born!

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