Hocus Pocus Revisited

Disney Plus is giving my family the opportunity to watch some of the lesser luminaries of the Mouse House’s back catalog. For some reason, I have a fascination with catching up on some of the live action Disney movies that I missed as a kid. It probably stems from the opening sequence of ads that ran before the tapes of old cartoons that my sisters and I watched as kids. Right before Donald, Mickey, and Goofy, each tape would run a long ad for movies like Condorman, Escape from Witch Mountain, and Herbie the Love Bug. The completist in me, the part of my personality that still wants to get card number 483 from the 1984 Topps set for no good reason, wanted to watch all the movies in that panoply. Come to think of it, I’ve still never seen Witch Mountain. So, I guess that makes it the Fergie Jenkins of Disney movies.

                We also had trouble coming up with good Halloween movies to watch with the kids. I have a fairly libertine philosophy with my kids, but I stop short of watching true slasher movies with them. There are only a few family friendly movies about Halloween, and we’ve seen Nightmare Before Christmas approximately twelve thousand times. So, the idea of watching Hocus Pocus came to me. I remember going to see the movie back in 1993 at Springfield Mall, right under the giant die number 1. Picture the mall from season three of Stranger Things if you’re under the age of forty. My impressions of the movie were vague, but I would say positive. Then I started to see references to it all over the place. Merchandise at Target, posts on Facebook, etc. Why were people talking about this movie? For me, it was on the same cluster of brain cells that records my similarly happy but unclear memories of My Boyfriend’s Back, a zombie teen comedy that came out that same summer, and that I watched at the same theater. I would never revisit that movie.

                But the consensus out there seems to be that this one deserves a cult-type status, so we watched. Before I clicked on it, my wife and I had to weather a mutiny about watching Adventures in Babysitting instead. I don’t know why, but the kids fixated on it and needed to watch it. For some reason, Disney posts movies on Plus that aren’t available, somehow not understanding child psychology at all despite that being their bread and butter. I probably would have watched it. It holds a similar place in my memory to Hocus Pocus: a positive and vague impression, nearly certain to be debunked upon re-watching. Finally, we got over the revolt, and the movie was on.

                I tried to remember why I liked the movie. I was fifteen or so when I saw the movie. Suddenly I remembered having had a distinct crush on Sarah Jessica Parker in her early career. It’s hard to remember now, with the memories of her on Sex and the City much more prominent, but in Hocus Pocus, despite the crazy makeup and the spider-eating, I could see it. The girl who plays the love interest for Max was also striking. I had to squint to realize she wasn’t Hillary Swank (which I know is a whole debate in itself). That was probably a large part of my positive impression if I’m being honest.

The movie isn’t all that funny, though the kids enjoyed the physical comedy. One good thing; however, is that the parents are multi-dimensional. I think all the best teen movies have that element. Ferris Bueller’s dad gets some of the best lines in the movie. These parents are obtuse, but they seem like real people, which is better than many movies manage. Really though, the best part, the only thing that stands out, is the performances of all three Sanderson sisters. Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathy Najimi, and Bette Midler seem to be having the time of their lives hamming it up. They chew up the scenery with odd facial tics, hyperactivity, overwrought accents, and ADD throughout the movie. That alone is worth watching. It’s over the top in a good way.

Historically speaking, the movie was a flop. Probably in large part due to a weird decision to release a Halloween movie in the summer. This movie makes about 1 million dollars a year, every Halloween, because of how limited the holiday’s movie options are. I’m sure it would have done better if it had come out at the right time. The critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes is 34%, which seems about right to me. Roger Ebert said the only good thing about it was the musical number by Bette Midler in the high school dance sequence. Personally, I thought that was cringe-inducing, but whatever. The audience score is 71%. Again, that seems about right. Hocus Pocus is to Halloween cinema as Full House is to nineties sitcoms. Not good by any objective standard, deeply cheesy, yet oddly compelling in a way that is reminiscent to me of the siren song of the Hallmark movies my mother insists on watching.

As we finished the movie, we got a reminder of how much this film is lodged in the public hive mind. My wife leaned over and showed me where one of her Facebook friends had just posted, on January third mind you, nowhere near Halloween, a link talking about her love for Thackery Binx. That’s the name of the cat in Hocus Pocus. What in the double hell?

An Open Question to My Friends

I’m having trouble understanding you all. Back in December, as I cautiously lurked, considering a return to Facebook, I found a flurry of posts about the UK general election. These posts closely mirrored the ones that I remember after both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump; lamentations about the country losing its mind, apologies to the wider world, etc. All these sentiments made perfect sense in 2016, both in June when the United Kingdom made its dreadful decision, and in November when “we” made ours. But I had to do a gut check this time? What were people talking about?

                My first impulse was to ask people directly what they mean. That may seem rational, or even like the more direct, morally correct thing to do. But I have learned through bitter experience that talking to people over the internet is useless when it comes to complex subjects. Face to face, I have found that I can talk respectfully and constructively to people who I deeply disagree with. In contrast, I have found that any online political discussion, even over tiny details with people I otherwise agree with, turns into a fire storm. My hypothesis is that it’s because people feel like others can see them and this destroys any possibility of even the most minor concessions, both to civility and logic. It’s the same phenomenon you see on reality TV, where people get their backs up and fight about issues they would let drop in normal life. So, all I could do was doubt my own sanity and mull things over alone.

                This must have been December 13, the day after the election. The UK had just overwhelmingly rejected Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister, voting with conservative majorities all over the country, even in districts that had historically voted Labour (no, spellcheck, I didn’t screw that up, the Brits did.) The outcome seemed obvious to me. Boris Johnson is deeply unpalatable. Brexit is a disaster. The chaos that has come in the wake of the referendum is a lesson in why major changes of policy should never be left to a simple majority decision. But the fact is that these are the least evil when the other option is a government led by Jeremy Corbyn. Somehow this wasn’t obvious to my Facebook friends.

                So, I had to scratch my head and try to understand where people were coming from. As I saw it, there were three possibilities:

  1. More of my friends than I thought are dedicated, Stalinist Communists or anarchists.
  2. My friends were placing their hopes in the Liberal Democrats despite the fact that they had no legitimate chance of winning the election.
  3. Americans don’t know anything about the United Kingdom.

Let’s consider the first possibility. I do know a few people who have radical views. They may not be troubled by the thought of a leader who gave a glowing eulogy to Hugo Chavez. I know people who still haven’t figured the Venezuela situation out in 2020. Fine. Some may not have a problem with Corbyn meeting with Sinn Fein after the attempt on Margaret Thatcher’s life. Okay, some people preferred Callaghan’s UK. Murder seems like a step too far, and I don’t get it, but I’m aware there are people like that. But are my friends really okay with a “useful idiot” who has appeared on Iran’s Anti-Semitic, Homophobic state news channel? With one who referred to the killing of Osama Bin Laden as a tragedy? With a prime minister who considers North Korea to be the aggrieved party, heroically preventing a reunification that bring about “the real horror” of the spread of a free market to the whole peninsula? Do they support the idea that 9/11 was brought about by Israel? Are they comfortable with calling Hamas and Hezbollah “friends”? Corbyn is. Brexit is bad, but not so bad as to countenance a person who has espoused these ideas as prime minister. I hope most of my friends would agree.

Which leaves me hoping the second option is the case. The Lib-Dems would have been the sanest choice for the UK in 2019. I’d really like to think this is what my friends meant.

But let’s be honest, most of my friends are American. They had no idea what they were talking about. They mapped the American political situation onto the UK, assuming that Boris Johnson was Trump, and that Corbyn was like the American left. The reality is that the United States has no radical left on the national stage. In fact, I’d say you have to shift the entire spectrum leftward to understand the United Kingdom. The farthest right politician in Britain (Johnson I guess?) is nowhere near Trump, while the farthest left on our side of the pond (Sanders) is a pale shadow of Corbyn.

In general, I have to confess to a bit of ignorance about politics, at least as far as the battle between the American parties is concerned. There isn’t a party that reflects my beliefs, and there isn’t going to be. So, I tune out a bit, not really caring about what I see as a contest between two teams who keep score in ways that baffle me. But I do know a bit more about the UK than the average American. I’m a bit of an Anglophile, but the main reason is that I get my news from Britain. The American sources are so biased as to be unusable for a rational person. The combination of social liberalism and fiscal responsibility that I get from sources like the BBC and The Economist is unparalleled in domestic news.

As much as I am disconnected from American politics, and as much interest as I have in the UK, I don’t just bring this up as an academic discussion about an important yet still foreign country. I believe there is a lesson in this for 2020. The latest poll numbers for both Iowa and New Hampshire show Bernie Sanders running neck and neck with Biden. Maybe this reflects some defections from the waning Elizabeth Warren camp, but I think it’s more insidious. I believe it reflects a danger of our party system. The selection process for our two parties is deeply biased in favor of the true believers. The average voter, the person who is going to decide 2020 in the battleground states, does not participate at the grass roots. This is due to both apathy and ignorance. Dangerously, it leaves open the possibility of selecting a candidate who reflects the hardest core of the party, but who is deeply distasteful to the majority of the country. That is how Trump came to run in 2016. I confess, I still can’t understand how it worked for the Republicans. I don’t think it’s going to work for the Democrats this year. I don’t know if Bernie Sanders could defeat Trump. But I do know that only Bernie Sanders could lose to Trump. We need to learn our lesson from what just happened in the UK. If you give the country two terrible options, they will choose the least of the two. Clearly, they didn’t do this in reality in 2016, but reality didn’t matter to these voters. They thought Hillary was eating babies and using pizza parlors to arrange pedophilia. What do you think they believe about Sanders?

Sanders is not Corbyn. To paraphrase Foreign Policy magazine, he is just dumb, not dangerous like Corbyn. I honestly don’t know who is more of a long-term problem as president, Trump or Sanders. One seems likely to kill us quickly, and the other slowly. At the end of the day, I will most likely abstain if that is my choice. Ask yourself though, if someone like me is turned off enough by Sanders to not care whether Trump remains president, what will the average voter in middle America decide? Let’s learn from Britain and make the right choice.

Thoughts on Episode 9: Part Two

My favorite moment from the sequel trilogy is still from VII, when Rey faces off against Kylo Ren in the icy woods on Ilum. When Ren tries to get Luke’s saber from the snow, then watches it fly past into his face to be ignited in Rey’s hands as Luke’s theme comes up; now that’s a perfect moment. Ben’s comeback is good but doesn’t quite hit those notes. Of course, the first time I watched it; I totally missed the great lines he has with Han. When he says, “Dad…” and Han just says, “I know.” Man, that’s good. And it makes you wonder, was that just Ben’s memories of his father? He wasn’t there on Bespin. How did he know what Han said to Leia? Maybe it really was a force ghost of some kind.

That was a good fight, with the waves crashing behind them, but the best moment is when Rey uses the force to project a lightsaber to Ben on Exegol. That little shrug that Adam Driver does before taking on the Knights of Ren was terrific. That brings up a question I had though. Who were all those guys watching them fight from the gallery seats? Are they more Sith? There must have been thousands of them. I think those guys are going to be a problem going forward.

I know the kiss between Ben and Rey got a lot of people heated up, and not in a good way, but I thought it worked. I mean, it’s certainly not what I think made sense for Rey, but there was always a bit of tension there. It felt like something she might do in that moment, and even if it was out of character, the goofy smile on Ben’s face was perfect. Like maybe they didn’t tell Driver she was going to do it. I don’t know what I think about that writing decision, but it didn’t harm my suspension of disbelief.

Overall, I didn’t understand the backlash that this movie caught. I have some quibbles, but they’re minor. The sequences with Leia are a bit off, especially her dialogue, which does seem a bit non sequitur when you’re looking for it. Luke and Leia look very strange in the flashback to post-Endor. And what was going on with Lando and Jannah? I know there aren’t a whole lot of black people in Star Wars, but does he just ask everyone if they might be his daughter. That felt forced, as did the switch-up when Chewie was supposed to have died. I didn’t believe it for a second, but I still told my kids, “If Chewie dies, we riot.” Then there was the way that people kept asking Rey what her last name was. It came from nowhere in a way that led you to know it was going to come up again. It wasn’t as awkwardly shoe-horned into the script as Marty McFly’s sudden preoccupation with being called chicken, but it did stand out.

Still, are people serious in thinking that The Last Jedi was better, or are they just trying to get attention? You never know these days, but I’d say preferring VIII is as close to being objectively wrong as you can get with an opinion on movies. I think any hit at the box office that IX takes clearly has more to do with audience fatigue than it is a reflection on the quality of the movie. What I have noticed is that watching IX has made me able to enjoy VIII a lot more. My kids liked this one, and we’ve got Disney Plus, so there has been some binging and repeat watching the last week. Now that I know that the direction of The Last Jedi is just a temporary diversion, I can hang on to the parts I like in that film and let go of my anxiety that the next movie would be more side trips to Canto Bight and watching BB-8 take down an AT-ST. Of course, I can also walk out of the room during the ten-minute melodramatic death scene of a nobody character in the first part of the film, and that helps. It’s like if my kids want to watch Phantom Menace. I can just come back into the room when Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan fight Darth Maul. Those five minutes are pretty good if you don’t have to watch the whole turkey.

One of the biggest weaknesses of Episode IX is the obvious. I used to play a game when I was a kid where we would take turns telling a few lines of a story. Often you would find yourself explaining away or even ignoring something stupid that a friend had come up with. Abrams spends a lot of time doing that in Rise. Kylo Ren gathers up the shards of his broken helmet and has them forged back into a new version with obvious red seams. It’s cool looking. Like one of his admirals says, “I like it.” But the helmet also serves as a visible metaphor for the seams that Abrams had to leave visible in repairing the damage that Johnson did to his good work in VII.

Now that I think of it, the seams are kind of a Rose color, aren’t they?

Thoughts on Episode 9: Part One

Massive Spoilers Ahead…

                So, it took me more than a week, but I finally went to see Star Wars: Rise of Skywalker a second time. I considered writing a piece on what I thought of the movie right away, but I thought it would be smarter to wait a bit; to let the movie marinate in my mind and then when the juices were ready go see it again. Star Wars movies have a tendency to morph in my brain after the initial viewing. It’s embarrassing how important these films are to me, and I suppose that’s why my impressions change so much. I saw The Force Awakens and came out with a really mediocre feeling. Then when I saw it a second time, I was able to let go and enjoy the ride. If I recall correctly, it was the moment where Rey and Finn get on board the Millennium Falcon where I remembered how much fun the movie was despite its faults.

                Which brings me to this one. Yeah, J.J. Abrams has a lot of weaknesses as a Star Wars and Star Trek writer/director. The main one is a total ability to think through the world-building ramifications of his decisions. He solves minor problems in a plot by creating gigantic ones in the mythos. I mean, did he not think through what would happen to a Federation where characters could beam around the galaxy without a ship. Why have a Starfleet the way we know it? In Episode Seven, when Starkiller base fires at the Republic home world, characters all over the galaxy look up to the sky and watch it happen, some of them in broad daylight. I don’t even know what that is supposed to represent or in what world that makes any sense. It’s completely ridiculous to the point of being distracting. I’m not a stickler for scientific realism; I don’t want a space battle to be silent. But we do need things to be consistent enough to understand, and this gaffe took me out of the story. That’s a no-no.

                Abrams is bad at that sort of thing. But the man knows plot, characterization, and emotion. If we’re being honest that’s what you want out of a Star Wars movie. They aren’t science fiction, they’re space opera. Star Wars is the Iliad or the Mahabharata set in space. Family relationships, courage, and sacrifice are the important themes. On some level you have to let go of the expectation of realism. On that level, I was completely relieved to have Abrams back on board. I was only barely sub vocally thanking him throughout the film as I realized how much more satisfying his version of Star Wars is than Rian Johnson’s.

                There were a few good moments in Last Jedi; ones with emotional resonance. I thoroughly enjoyed the sequence where Rey and Kylo Ren turn on Snoke and fight the praetorian guards. It focused on what I cared about, which is the two main characters. They are the meat of the sequel trilogy story and the rest is frankly just window dressing. I know that Johnson is capable. The guy wrote for Breaking Bad for goodness sake. But I think something else was at play. It seems that he didn’t like Star Wars, which made him a bizarre choice to direct it. Of course, that was an apt criticism of J.J. when he helmed Star Trek. It seemed like he would have rather been directing a Star Wars movie and it showed.

                But Rian Johnson seemed determined to destroy much of what is fun about Star Wars and it was hard to watch. It also seemed that there were directives from his corporate masters to include elements in the story that were hard to justify. I know there is pressure to sell tickets in China, and that Star Wars has been getting hammered there, but the opening melodramatic sequence of Rose’s sister’s death seemed to be pandering to the point where it damaged the film. I was supposed to care about a character who was not only unknown to me, but whose sister was still unknown to me. That’s bad writing anywhere, and it’s inscrutably bad in a sequel that already has a stable of characters to draw on.

                I have to admit, it was a cringe-inducing to see Rose reduced so sharply in Episode Nine, especially in the face of the horrible backlash Kelly Marie Tran received after The Last Jedi. That was abominable and unforgiveable, and my heart really goes out to her. People truly suck sometimes. It was awkward to have her romance with Finn completely nixed in this movie, and the claims Abrams made that the reason to tone her down were the low quality of her scenes with Leia are bogus. The simple fact was that her character had no business in that movie, and it was a relief to see her take a backseat to the four central characters introduced in Episode Seven.

Those are the people I care about, and a writer has plenty to do in dealing with four characters. In the triumphant finale sequence (which owes major credit to Independence Day by the way) Poe, Finn, and Rey embrace. Friendship is one of the enduring themes of Star Wars (though it’s entirely missing in the prequels for some reason) and this is one of the best moments in the saga for that reasons. The characters look genuinely relieved and happy to see that they have all survived. John Boyega grates on me with a lot of high-pitched yelling in these movies, but he kills it in that scene for some reason. I’m not sure the original trilogy contained a single scene with the powerful emotion he shows there. Overall that’s true of the sequel trilogy. God help me for saying this, but the acting is superior. There is no one, other than the veteran British guys in Episode IV, who can hold a candle to Adam Driver in these movies. I love Harrison Ford, but he relies on charisma, not sheer acting chops.

Poe was hugely improved in this movie. Oscar Isaac had Ewan McGregor disease in the first two films; a great, charismatic actor who just isn’t being given the opportunity to shine. For one thing, he was taken out of the script of VII for most of the movie. I almost felt like Abrams didn’t know what to do with him. This time, he fills the Han Solo shoes better throughout the plot, acting as a sort of rogue with a checkered past. It’s an old trope, but it’s a fun one, and it worked here. Which brings me to Zorii Bliss (Felicity) and Jannah (Naomi Ackie). These are new characters, introduced only for this film, and my first thought was that we would be dealing with the same problems as with Admiral Holdo and Rose in VIII. But J.J. Abrams is better at this game. Both new characters have reasons to appear, they fit in seamlessly to the narrative, and they serve the purpose of fleshing out personalities we already care about. And not coincidentally, they are both powerful and female, which is a strength in a movie, not the weakness that Rian Johnson turned it into.

Last warning here, I’m going to talk about what happens in this movie, but then if you care what happens, why haven’t you seen it already? This is not one to catch at home or on a plane. As I said before, the best thing about Rise of Skywalker is the emotional notes. One silly moment, when Chewbacca finally gets a medal for his participation, caught me off guard. My kids didn’t notice, and when I turned to tell them what happened, I caught a major lump in my throat and had to shut up. On a similar note, how great was it when Wedge showed up? I thought Dennis Lawson had said he was bored with Star Wars and would never appear again, but there he was in the big fight against Thanos.

Yeah, I noticed it. That last fight was cribbed almost directly from Endgame. The moment where Poe realizes no one is coming to help him could be tracked right onto Captain America standing to face Thanos, knowing he is going to die. Then his commlink lights up and Lando says, “On your left.” Okay, not quite those words, but come on. Lando announces there are more of them than the empire, and you get a massive battle. There are ships from all over the Star Wars universe, like the Ghost from Rebels, and it’s fairly satisfying. There’s another turn in the battle, and a second comeback after Palpatine becomes flesh when Captain Marvel… I mean Rey, starts kicking Sith butt all over the map. It’s fairly satisfying, but it’s nothing like Endgame. I’m not sure anything is going to impact me ever again like the moment when Cap picks up Thor’s hammer. Or the moment when Black Panther and Spider-Man emerge through the wizard holes. That was Luke getting saved by Han over the first Death Star good.

To be Continued…

Pub Quiz Review: City Works, McLean, VA

                In the shadow of the mighty cathedral of cut rate credit known as the Capital One building, there is a new venue for trivia night on Wednesdays: City Works. This Wednesday, a bitterly cold December evening, I went with three friends to check out the competition in Tysons Corner. Walking past the windows of the 31-story building and seeing the lobby decked out in Christmas decorations, I couldn’t help but picture a Huey Lewis lookalike holding a submachine gun at the front desk, or Genghis Khan stealing candy bars from the gift shop. “It’s Nakatomi Towers!” I told my friends. “Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring… except, the four assholes coming in the rear in standard two by two cover formation.”

The fact that all four of us understood this reference is not uncorrelated with our love of quiz nights.

We got there half an hour early, usually plenty of time to get a table, and found the place packed shoulder to shoulder. Upon closer inspection though, I saw several tables open. When I asked the wait staff if we could just sit down, they referred us to a host who informed us that those tables had been reserved by parties who had paid. Okay, slightly obnoxious, but if that’s the rules, that’s the rules. The genuinely annoying part was when we realized that the tables remained open all night. In fact, as people left some of the other places, even more tables would get added to the paid/reserved list until there were more than two dozen empty chair yawning at us while we stood at the bar the whole night.

So that’s a strike I’d have to say. On the bright side, the beer list is well curated, and I found a few sour brews that fit my taste. I know that’s a niche thing, but it’s my favorite. My friends were similarly happy with their IPA and Bourbon Barrel Ale selections.

The food was perfect brewhouse fare. We started out with filet mignon sliders on pretzel buns, which combined two of my favorite things: low fat cuts of steak and pretzels. We moved on to a plate of nachos with cheese and duck meat. Not something I would have chosen, but I was glad my friends did. I recommend those. Even the pretzel bits we ordered seemed exceptionally tasty, a hair better than your usual Auntie Anne’s fare anyway.

So, the food and beer were great. Let’s call that ball one and two. 2-1. Trivia at City Works is in a nice hitter’s count.

Confession time. I am terrible at coming up with team names. I was floundering, trying to come up with a pun about impeachment, the talk of the town today as the House deliberated. One of my friends saved me from that by suggesting we make a reference to the fact that we only had one bar stool between the four of us. So, we became Four Guys, One Chair, and No Music. Solid.

The real problem of the night became apparent as soon as the emcee began the announcements. We couldn’t understand a word he was saying. At times we couldn’t even hear that he was speaking at all. The din of the crowd was mostly to blame. Perhaps the table reserving magnates couldn’t be bothered with trivia and had no interest in being quiet. Or maybe it was just the low quality of the portable speaker system the emcee had brought. I brought the situation to his attention, asking if he could perhaps turn it up, and I wasn’t the only one. A woman who got there before me was told that the management would get angry at him if he turned up the volume. So, I suggested that I could turn it up for him and he could blame me: plausible deniability. I reached over and adjusted the main knob to get a few more clutch decibels out of the system. It was a big improvement, but I didn’t win a friend in the emcee. For the rest of the night, he introduced me to people as “the douche”. Fine, I’m willing to fall on my sword there.

I guess City Works was looking for the heat on 2-1, because they got off-speed and whiffed on the volume situation; count even.

City Works can’t really be blamed for the quality of the trivia game itself, but the fact is that they chose District Trivia to run their quiz. District Trivia is not my favorite trivia format. I have the same relationship with Go-Go music and Ben’s Chili. I want to like our local quiz hosting company, but I just don’t. You get five main rounds with several bonus rounds in between. Each round has a bonus question that you have to bet on with your points. None of that is a problem, except that the questions they choose for these bonuses are the kind of thing you have to guess on. What year was the Brooklyn Bridge built? How many moons does Uranus have? (grow up, I hear you snickering). You get a margin of error, which helps, but I’d rather be asked a straight up question that I either know or don’t know. And worse, these questions are incredibly easy to cheat on. I’ve never actually seen someone cheating at trivia. I don’t know if people really stoop that low, but I hate having the feeling they might be. It takes some of the fun out of the quiz.

The music round was fun and included a question where you try to figure out the theme between all the songs. I enjoy that. Tonight’s was fruit, with songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever”, and “No Rain” by Blind Melon as hints. Not exactly difficult, but fun, nonetheless. One bonus round was a picture round, a classic in pub quiz, and one that doesn’t get old. The other bonus; however, was a listing of soft drinks. You had to guess which ones were owned by Coke and which by Pepsi. Again, essentially a fifty/fifty guess, which isn’t fun in my book.

At this point, the District Trivia format was tolerable. They lost me for good on the podcast tie-in questions. Yeah. You have to listen to their podcast to get answers for several of the questions, and this made the difference for us between placing and not. Am I bitter we didn’t win? I can’t deny the possibility, but mostly I just think it’s profoundly obnoxious to ask me to listen to a podcast in order to get answers that are otherwise impossible. So, I think this self-inflicted wound doomed the trivia to a strikeout, perhaps even looking.

That said, I had a great time. I would rather have had a chance to win, but I caught up with old friends, laughed and drank beer. I can’t really complain about that. Trivia night is like sex and pizza. Even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.

Triple Crowns vs. Perfect Games

                I find the best way to protect my sanity in the era of the hot take is just to tune things out, especially the things said on podcasts, in Facebook posts, or anywhere that thoughts are restricted to short, unaccountable bursts. But sometimes it’s just impossible. Sometimes someone blurts a line that lets them live rent free in my brain no matter what I do. And the tenacity of a dumb comment is in no way related to how important the subject matter is.

                Case in point, I’ve been gnawing on a particularly irksome nugget from Buster Olney on Baseball Tonight for a while now. Discussing the possibility of a Triple Crown winner (meaning that one player leads his league in average, home runs, and RBI), Olney said that the milestone was a fluky, meaningless thing. Okay I thought, there’s a bit of truth to that. He lost me when he continued, saying that it was as meaningful to the quality of a player’s performance as the equally fluky emergence of a perfect game.

                I get where he was coming from to a limited extent. Leading the league in home runs is still meaningful, but the other two categories, batting average and RBI are deeply flawed statistics. Batting average is subject to massive fluctuation, and of course ignores the contributions of players who get on base in other ways. RBI are like wins for pitchers. They’re fun to keep track of, and the numbers have been around so long that they’re easy to compare with famous seasons from the past. But they’re both so dependent on situation that they say very little about the player’s individual accomplishment. (Except for the 1972 season where Steve Carlton won 27 games for a Phillies team that only managed 59 total wins. That’s nuts. I think those 27 wins said a lot.)

                That said, a player doesn’t dominate an entire league in those three categories without… well, dominating the league. Perfect games are phenomenal. They happen to great pitchers more often than mediocre ones. They represent one player putting his stamp on a game in a way that an offensive player just can’t manage. But they are random. I wondered though; how fluky they are. How do Triple Crown seasons compare to seasons in which a pitcher throws a perfect game? How do the careers of Triple Crown winners compare to the careers of pitchers who spin nine unblemished innings at least once?

                So, I thought it might be fun to compare. There have been only 12 hitting Triple Crown winners since 1920 (the Live Ball Era) and only 19 perfect games. This makes the data both manageable and fairly similar in sample size. I’m going to use WAR (Wins Above Replacement) as an admittedly flawed, but hopefully somewhat useful measure of a player’s overall value, his “overall contributions to his team”.

Table of Triple Crown winners in hitting:

PlayerYearSeason WARCareer WARHall of Fame?
Rogers Hornsby192210.0127.0Yes
Rogers Hornsby192510.2127.0Yes
Chuck Klein19337.543.6Yes
Jimmie Foxx19339.296.6Yes
Lou Gehrig193410.4112.4Yes
Joe Medwick19378.555.6Yes
Ted Williams194210.6123.1Yes
Ted Williams19479.9123.1Yes
Mickey Mantle195611.3110.3Yes
Frank Robinson19667.7107.3Yes
Carl Yastrzemski196712.596.4Yes
Miguel Cabrera20127.169.6Not Yet!

                My quick takeaways from this list?

  1. Only two players have won the Triple Crown more than once. Rogers Hornsby and Ted Williams are also the number 9 and 11 leaders in career WAR for all time.
  2. A quick glance at these hitters’ career stats will show that for many of them, this wasn’t their most valuable season to their teams. That bit at least is pretty random.
  3. Two guys managed to win the Triple Crown in the same year. Totally meaningless, but cool huh?
  4. Every single one of these players is in the Hall of Fame except Miguel Cabrera, and he’s not eligible because he’s still playing. Sort of.
  5. What the hell am I supposed to do with that ‘Z’ in Yastrzemski pronunciation-wise?

Table of Perfect Game pitchers:

PlayerYearSeason WARCareer WARHall of Fame
Charlie Robertson19224.26.4No
Don Larsen19562.618.4No
Jim Bunning19645.559.4Yes
Sandy Koufax19658.148.9Yes
Catfish Hunter19680.440.9Yes
Len Barker19812.412.6No
Mike Witt19844.621.6No
Tom Browning19882.819.8No
Dennis Martinez19915.848.7No
Kenny Rogers19942.850.4No
David Wells19984.853.5No
David Cone19995.162.3No
Randy Johnson20048.4101.1Yes
Mark Buehrle20095.359.2No
Dallas Braden20102.55.0No
Roy Halladay20108.664.3Yes
Philip Humber2012-1.10.9No
Matt Cain20123.829.1Not eligible
Felix Hernandez20125.350.1Not eligible

                Quick Takeaways:

  1. No one is on this list twice
  2. Only two of these seasons were truly dominant campaigns: Johnson in 2004 and Koufax in 1965.
  3. Who knew that Jim Bunning, Kenny Rogers, David Wells, and Mark Buehrle all had higher career WAR than Sandy Koufax?
  4. Why is Catfish Hunter in the Hall of Fame?
  5. David Cone really should have gotten more consideration for the Hall than to be bumped in his first year of eligibility.
  6. The 1956 Yankees are the only team to have both a Triple Crown winner and a perfect game in the same season.
  7. Philip Humber had a negative WAR in 2012, meaning that despite his perfect game, the White Sox would have been better off with a AAA pitcher than they were with him.

Even a cursory glance at these tables gives the impression that perfect games are far less representative of a great season than a triple crown. They are even less linked to great careers. Randy Johnson is on the list with the ninth highest career WAR for a pitcher, but so isPhilip Humber (0.9!), along with five other pitchers whose career value is less than 20 games over replacement.

Overall, the average season WAR for a Triple Crown season was 9.6, compared to 4.3 for a season with a perfect game. Not quite the runaway I would have predicted when looking at Philip Humber’s season (sorry, man, but -1.1?) but still better than double. The career averages are similarly skewed. Triple Crown winners have an average of 99 wins above replacement in their careers, while perfect game pitchers logged an average of 39.6 WAR. This is about half the number required to get into the hall of fame.

So, I think my intuition of how ridiculous this statement was finds solid support in the numbers.

My gut: 1, Hot take: 0.

Episode 9: Here we go again

                I’ve got plans to see Episode Nine. Of course, I do. There is a ticket in my name, and I’m going. I know people who have turned away, but I’m not there yet. I mean, I’m the guy who copied the opening crawl from Empire Strikes Back into big yellow block lettering and slid it onto the front cover of a prominently displayed three ring binder. In tenth grade. In 1992. When no one was talking about Star Wars.

                I know that makes me sound like some hipster who says he liked the first album better when a band blows up. (Does anyone really prefer Bleached to Nevermind?) But it’s the truth. I read the Timothy Zahn books as they came out, bought the original D6 roleplaying game and made people play it with me. None of this was cool or nerd chic (like Joe Manganiello or Vin Diesel talking about Dungeons and Dragons). It was sincere and lonely dorkery at a time when the prequels were dead letter.

It’s easy to forget now that there was a dark age of Star Wars. The last toys from Return of the Jedi were in overstock bins. (I loaded up on blasters at a nickel each at a creepy toy liquidation store at Potomac Mills). The last few episodes of Droids and Ewoks winked out unsung and unheralded. From about 1984 to 1999 there was nothing but a guttering flame, kept alive with a pilot light of pulpy novels.

My disappointment in the first few minutes of The Phantom Menace is both a story for another time and ground that has been well tread in the last twenty years. I heard the first awful accent say, “They’ve gone into the ventilator shaft,” and read the crawl announcing that the movie would be about a dispute as to the taxation of outlying systems and said, “check please.”

Three times I got my hopes up then had them dashed as each of the prequels came out. Alternately silly, or worse boring, they dampened my interest in all things Star Wars. I mean, how can you make a world full of lightsabers, spaceships and Wookies, with an entire galaxy full of story possibilities boring? Well, it helps if you spend a large portion of the films exploring parliamentary dynamics. It was like watching galactic politics on C-SPAN.

To compare it to sports, I was shocked at my infinite capacity to have my hopes revived like a pre-2016 Cubs fan. The third prequel, which at least told a story that seemed interesting and necessary to the overall saga, left a little ember of faith glowing. The jedi purge was almost as I had imagined it. I had pictured that montage sequence ever since I’d dreamed of movies covering this time period. It was like the 2011 Orioles season (stay with me here). Yeah, the final record was 69-93, but they brought in Buck Showalter, looked competitive in the last two months, and had that great comeback win that knocked the Red Sox out of the playoffs. It wasn’t much. In fact, it was the fourteenth consecutive losing season, but there was a glimmer there.

The glimmer turned into 2012: a winning season (finally), a wild card game win, and a loss in five to the Yankees in the ALDS. That’s about what Episode Seven turned out to be. It wasn’t The Empire Strikes Back. It wasn’t like a World Series win but considering how much I love the thing in question, and how bad the past had been, it was amazing. I can hear this metaphor chugging and sputtering as it tries to get over this paragraph, but The Force Awakens was an exciting loss early in the playoffs. Not what you really want, but deeply satisfying given the context. I’m considering a reference here to what Donald Glover said about Kix, but I’ll let you look that up. He’s a national treasure, and no I’m not talking about his forgettable turn as Lando.

I’ll get to Solo in a minute.

Episode Seven and Rogue One restored, if not my faith, then at least my belief in the possibility that these movies could be good. If Seven was a loss in the ALDS, Rogue One was… I don’t know, losing game seven of the league championship? (Okay, I’m done with the baseball thing. I promise.) I was excited enough about the prospects for Last Jedi that I bought tickets a month in advance and drove all the way to LA to watch it at the Chinese Theater. It was an event again in a way that Star Wars hadn’t been for me since Episode 2. I met up with a friend who drove down from Sacramento (shout out to my boy Bill Hodges!), took photos in front of a full-scale Gorilla AT-AT, and went out for drinks at a mock-up of the Mos Eisley cantina afterwards.

The event was a blast. Unfortunately, the movie stunk. I distinctly remember looking to my left and seeing ten people between me and the aisle and thinking that if there weren’t quite so many, I would get up and leave. This was about halfway through the movie. My entertainment factor was restored a few minutes later when Rey and Kylo Ren fight the Praetorian Guard. That part was cool. I also liked the resolution with Luke in the final sequence. So, I got through the movie, and my initial impression was mildly positive.

But, as I thought about things, my feelings began to turn. And we’re supposed to trust our feelings, aren’t we? Our insight serves us well. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take Obi-Wan’s advice and bury it deep down. The more I thought about the movie, the more I talked about it, the more I realized my first impression was the most powerful.

I think the main problem, if I had to distill it, was a tendency to include too many characters. It was as if someone from above had handed down an edict that this and that character needed to be in the script and the writer was just saddled with that decision. Seven didn’t do much with its characters because there were already too many. Try to imagine that plot without Poe Dameron. Does it change in any way? Maybe a bit, but I believe in Occam’s Razor when it comes to movie characters. You’ve only got two hours, so cut out anybody who isn’t carrying a lot of weight.

Eight took this to an extreme. Why was Rose in this movie? She existed solely to set up a side quest for Finn that led to absolutely nothing. Why was Laura Dern’s character in this movie? She did nothing that couldn’t have been more satisfactorily accomplished by Leia. Why was Benicio Del Toro necessary? I think it was just because he’s a good actor and they wanted to find a place for him. That’s okay, but only if I can’t see the seams from where you sewed him into the script.

The humor of the film was another problem. Now, you don’t want to pull a DC and make things too serious. Marvel nailed that. They realized these were movies about people in tights who can fly and time travel. That is inherently ridiculous, and they hit the sweet spot between getting humor out of the fact and taking something seriously that means a great deal to many people.

Star Wars stumbled over the line and pitched headlong onto its face. The sequence where Poe attacks a Star Destroyer single-handedly while making quips at the expense of General Hux was a perfect example. Why completely defang your villain in the first few minutes of the movie? I like quips as much as the next guy, but these characters need to be in danger or the whole thing becomes a farce pretty quickly.

Again, a negative review of Episode 8 is a story for another day, but I needed to get it out of my system. I wasn’t writing a blog back then and didn’t get my chance. The point is that it left me with a bad taste in my mouth. So bad that Solo was the first Star Wars film I didn’t see on opening night. That is, since the first one, and I wasn’t born yet, so that doesn’t count. When I finally saw Solo, on a matinee, with ten other people in the theater, I was underwhelmed.

But that was an anthology movie. Rise of Skywalker is a main saga film, so I’ll be there. My first impression of the first trailer was positive. JJ Abrams is back at the helm, and the first trailer, centered on Rey and Kylo Ren, with practical effects seemed like a return to glory. We’ve got an appropriate focus on the only story that counts. We’ve got the whine of a TIE Fighter; everything is as it should be.

Then over the next months, a steady trickle of previews began to come out. Shots of literally dozens of people standing around like furniture, Rose back in the middle of the screen like a human Jar Jar Binks, and more than one image with so many starships crammed together it looked like you could get from Tatooine to Dagobah by jumping between them. We’ve got the same bloated mass of characters. Apparently even more have been introduced according to the posters. In addition to R2-D2 and C-3PO, who have been relegated to about four lines of dialogue so far in the sequel trilogy, it seems  BB-8 wasn’t enough. Apparently, yet another droid was necessary. To paraphrase Arthur Schopenhauer, most of this film looks like senseless, meaningless webs of CGI.

I’m going. Don’t get me wrong. But I’m not expecting to be happy. It’s like when I had tickets to World Series game 5 and I found out Joe Ross was pitching.

Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.

Organ Peaks Trail: first attempt

                Morning efficiency is not what I would call a strong suit for me. I had set an alarm, but as usual it was at best a precatory and easily ignored suggestion. My son had the whole week off for Thanksgiving, so we had plans to adventure in the mountains. Holding us back was the fact that my daughter attends a different school, with an entirely different schedule (get together on this, guys!).

                Finally, though, we had her happily dropped off and could make the winding road up to Dripping Springs. As I parked, I realized it was the last day of my annual national parks pass. That’s always somber, another year gone by. My first impulse is to renew immediately, but I’ve learned to milk it, to wait until we visit a park and sometimes gain another month or two. Which brings up a question. What do I do with the pass when we visit and there isn’t anyone to check in with? This time of year, it’s easy. I leave the pass on my dashboard. But in the summer? Unattended plastic objects have a strong tendency to immolation in the desert, so I always wonder if I’m going to get a ticket of some kind if I leave the pass in a less visible, somewhat less Venusian location.

                Not a problem today, and really neither was water or heat for once. In fact, as we got out of the car, I could tell my son was considering how best to ask me whether we could just go back to civilization, get some hot chocolate, and haunt Barnes and Nobles. The wind was coming down off the rocks with a purpose and the sun seemed to be fighting a losing battle to escape the cloud bank that had collected over the Organs. I watched, counting seconds until it would break free from the fast-moving, eastward bound fog. But the sun could never quite win. My hypothesis is that the Organs keep collecting all the water vapor in the valley, creating a permanent cloud blanket despite what looks like a pell-mell flow toward Alamogordo.

                I had to assume command though and get the boy moving. A dip down into a dry creek bed, a short uphill burst on the other side, and we were moving around the stegosaurus-backed granite ridge of La Cueva. The rocks themselves make a good hike; shady, filled with crannies to explore, and just barely climbable all the way up. Of course, taking a three-year-old to the top nearly gave me a heart attack, but scrambling up with my son has been fun. One day we found a hummingbird nest in the small trees on the north side of the ridge. Another, as we crossed over a natural slide between the tall spires, we watched sadly as a baby thrasher tried desperately to get back up to its nest. There was nothing we could do to help, and my son learned a grim lesson in the natural world that day.

                Today we hiked around the rocks to the north, following a loop trail that could lead back to the visitor center if we so chose. We didn’t so choose. Instead, we picked up a small feeder trail that forks off at the sign for the Modoc mine. A short walk further on, just below the old mine’s tailing pile, three trails diverge in the brown desert. On the left is the infamous Needles Trail, beautiful and brutal, but not to be attempted on a casual day that begins at noon. The middle path leads into Fillmore Canyon. It is a short hike, and with the icy wind and my son’s constant grumbling, I considered it. But I had promised myself we would begin the Organ Peak trail, so we took the righthand path. To be honest, the trail was a bit hard to find, so we ended up scrambling up from Fillmore Canyon and only then finding the correct path.

                The wind was really letting us have it as we paused for granola and jerky, but our hopeful watching paid off as the sun briefly triumphed and warmed us for the first portion of the hike. We entered a sheltered, scrubby forest of juniper and oak and the wind was mercifully diverted into the canyon. We paused and listened from the top of a large boulder. I almost couldn’t believe the jet engine roar of the wind in the trees below us.

                Above us, Fillmore Canyon widened into a valley of sort, a gulf between the northern granite peaks and the rhyolite of the south. We had come to a high portion of the trail where the first pine trees were poking out, forming true stands of ponderosa (I think) on the slopes above us. Online, there are rumors of wondrous things above; adventure hooks that tantalized. The trail supposedly enters a narrows perhaps half a mile from where we stopped, passes a plane wreck, and even leads to an abandoned observatory. This last reminded me of a D and D adventure I wrote once where goblins had occupied just such an ancient astronomical site. They used a rusty orrery to drop metal planets full of acid on the party. I must have had the Dark Crystal in mind when I wrote it, because now I realized I was hoping to meet Aughra up here.

                But there were flu shots and a doctor’s appointment to make, so we turned around. My ears were aching from the cold wind, and I can’t say a part of me wasn’t relieved to turn around. But we’ll be back, either better prepared for the chill, or when things warm up and turn to summer again.

You know… like in early February.

The Last Shrine: first chapter.

            The sun bore down; bright and hot, glaring as it had every day of Skander’s life. He shielded his eyes and squinted as a red-tailed hawk traced a lazy circle through the desert sky. It dove, and Skander imagined himself as its prey, heart beating fast in terror, or possibly, unaware, calmly nibbling a morsel of foliage in its last moments on this beautiful spring day. The young cleric lost the bird among the sharp rocks that towered above his home; the small shrine known as Sundial Spring. Here in the lee of the bare mountains, Skander had lived out the last ten years of his life, tending to the needs of the trickle of worshippers who bothered to make the laborious climb from the cool river valley below.

He exhaled slowly as he turned from the mountains, his eyes settling thirstily on the shimmering blue waters of the spring. Their impassive surface sent a dancing reflection playing against the bright limestone columns that surrounded the pool. Six pillars remained of the colonnade that had once bounded the spring. Skander searched his memory. Had he ever read when the columns were erected? Perhaps they had once seemed impressive, but today they seemed pitifully dwarfed by the massive blades of amber-hued sandstone that towered behind. The highest spire cast its long shadow into the town below, tracing the curve of the Sossin River as it meandered through the valley. Sundial Spring was dedicated to the mountain god Anak, whose heavy-browed, black-bearded visage scowled out from carvings on every stone surface, but Skander saw the god’s true monument in the rocks themselves.

The cleric tugged uncomfortably at the woolen vestments that clung doggedly to his body in several chafing, sweaty places. There were many places in the vast realm of Batarrna where clergy of the mountain gods snuggled cozily in their icy eyries, grateful for such warm vestments. Sundial Springs of the boiling Near South was not one of them. Perhaps Anak, omnisciently aware of the impractical choice of garments, would understand if Skander only dipped his toes in the waters. He leaned over for the thousandth time to see if he could see the submerged cavern that led into the underworld. If he dove in, he could finally glimpse the water’s source. Skander frowned at his own blasphemy, blanching at the dread, statue scowl of the Bone Breaker. The god brandished his fearsome halberd in a threatening pose. “Forbidden!” the cleric shouted; voice gravelly in his best impression of Bishop Gustav. “For the gods have fixed their canon ‘gainst it!” Skander smiled, fondly missing the old man, and a bit in the hopes that he would not look mad if someone saw him talking to himself.


The cleric’s heart jolted. It was the first voice he had heard in three days. Making a conscious effort to calm himself, he turned and saw Bodrick, a shepherd who tended a small flock in the nearby hills. Bodrick was running, panting. Skander had run with the shepherd many times over the years, if he was breathless, he must truly have come here at a dead sprint. The cleric watched him approaching. Bodrick was flushed with the run, and as Skander saw his friend’s fit, athletic form, he felt the usual flare of jealousy, his mind drifting to his own failings in that regard. He ran a self-conscious hand over his bulging middle.

“Hey, Skander,” Bodrick breathed, holding a hand out as if to ask for a moment. Even Bodrick’s clothing gave Skander a pang of envy. The shepherd wore a loose practical tunic with short sleeves, perfect for a life in the desert hills. He took off his dingy short-brimmed cap and wiped his brow.

“Who’s minding your sheep, boy?” Skander hoped his face looked impassive. On the one hand, he knew it took very little to break up the monotony of a shepherd’s days, but on the other, he had to admit to a mild nibble of curiosity. Nonetheless, calling Bodrick ‘boy’ was ridiculous. Skander was slightly the taller of the two young men, and the gods knew he was much heavier, but as far as the cleric had ever been able to learn, they were only weeks apart in age. He couldn’t resist the awkward jab though. The last time they had seen each other, perhaps several months ago, they had wrestled. Despite Skander’s size, Bodrick had thrown him and pinned him quickly. Not such a big deal really, but of course Seleriya had been there watching. Skander felt a whirl in his stomach and a rush of blood to his face just remembering the way her beautiful green eyes had flashed with laughter to see him floundering on the ground.

“Macey’s got them,” answered Bodrick. There wasn’t a trace of wind in his speech. Skander marveled that he could have recovered so quickly from the run. “Ever since she scared that big Merino, the rest just fall in line. She’ll be fine. Look at this.” The shepherd fumbled for something in his belt pouch.

From what he could see, the small object Bodrick found was a stone. “A stone, Bodrick? Your pastures are practically desert. I’m sure that’s not the first stone you’ve found.” He couldn’t help teasing a bit more but immediately felt he had gone too far. Since the shepherd’s father had died, he and his mother lived in poverty, eking out a living from a small plot of the least productive land in the valley. He was ashamed of using it against his friend and promised himself he wouldn’t do it again.

Bodrick came closer and seemed to brush aside the barb, or at least not to let it diminish the proud grin on his wide-featured face. He held out a thick, callused palm. In the middle of his hand was a hunk of rock that even Skander’s untrained eye could see was more than a mundane pebble. It was green; the subdued glassy green of jade, and its smooth surface was pitted with craters like the surface of the Great Moon seen through a scope. “It’s not natural rock,” said Bodrick. “I think its manmade. You know? Like something left over from mining…” He accented his final word, raising his eyebrows suggestively.

Skander began to see where his friend was going with this. “Mining? You mean like…”

Bodrick cut him off excitedly. “It has to be from the mines! When I asked him about the legend, my father told me that if there were mines in these mountains, there would be slag left. And he’d never seen any sign of it.” The shepherd shook the stone between two fingers, smiling. “Well, I think I found it. This has got to be it. Right?”

Skander was genuinely surprised to hear anyone over the age of eleven saying such things. He knew the myth of Enderion’s Delving. Of course, he did, just as every person in North Bend Valley knew it. He remembered asking Bishop Gustav years ago and receiving a similarly dismissive answer. The legend claimed that centuries ago the last of the Lonely Kings had drawn valknite from the ground here, refined it, and turned it into the enchanted weapons that had unified an empire. As an adult and a scholar, Skander knew the stories for a fantasy. He had read many of the histories of the early imperial conquests. Enderion hadn’t needed magical rocks to unify the Batarrnan realm. The great king had updated his army’s weaponry, crafted new echelon formations, and adopted innovative methods of conscription, all to brilliant tactical effect. Skander agreed with the historians, that was how you won wars, not with mystical stones. He felt the same thrill he always did when dredging up facts and figures from his learning. Skander’s pride left him feeling of magnanimous. He knew valknite was a figment of the folk imagination, but he decided to humor Bodrick.

Skander held out his hand and was surprised to see a flicker of hesitation before his friend placed the stone in his outstretched hand. Whatever the truth of the stone, the cleric saw that Bodrick believed it held power. Skander turned it over, feeling the smooth and rough surfaces alternately slide pleasurably against his skin, then lightly abrade his soft fingers. The color was unique and called to mind the volcanic stones that were common in the Near South; but those were red, brown, even glassy black, never green. He tried to affect a scholarly frown of concentration for his friend’s benefit. “It is strange, Bodrick. Like nothing I’ve ever seen.” Skander meant it. “But that mine is just a silly legend.”

Now Bodrick smiled, a strange, confident smile that Skander hadn’t seen before. Without speaking, he held out his hand. Bodrick’s lips were an inscrutable grimace, but his eyes danced mischievously. Now Skander felt a slight reluctance as he handed back the nugget. He watched as Bodrick drew out a worn piece of leather attached to a cord. The cleric watched as the shepherd nocked the stone into what he realized was a sling. “See that little hollow near the top of the spire?” Bodrick asked.

He was gesturing back in the direction of the sun and Skander had to squint as he followed the pointing finger. The sun made his eyes water as he strained to force himself to look. At the highest point of the formation known as Twelvespike, the gnomon of the sundial that cast its shadow over North Bend, he could just make out an indentation. It was hard to gauge from here how big it was. “I see it,” he said, careful not to say anything stupid. “But that must be 300 feet up,” he added. He knew next to nothing about slings, but he could guess what Bodrick had in mind and it seemed like an impossible shot. Many times, he had watched Bodrick sling with deadly accuracy, training on improvised targets and even hitting the occasional predator that troubled his flock; but at this distance, with such an oddly shaped bullet? He sensed an opportunity. “Why don’t you let me put a few flinders on it?” Skander said and winced, realizing that once again he had forgotten his friend’s situation. He wondered if Bodrick had a single coin to his name, much less anything to bet.

Bodrick answered with a wicked smile and a violent, lightning-like underhand spin of the sling. The smooth, practiced motion was a blur that Skander tried and failed to follow, but the puff of rock dust a second later was clear enough. The cleric felt a thrill seeing that the impact was right in the center of the target and felt a cheer burst from him despite how wrong Bodrick had just proven him. Instead of griping, he slapped Bodrick’s outstretched hand hard. Without thinking, Skander followed through and caught the shepherd’s hand again on the reverse, the way they had done as children. “Astral,” he heard himself congratulate, a strange feeling of pride for his friend swelling inside him. “So, we’ve established that I know nothing about slings, which we already knew. What of it?”

Bodrick shook his head. “No, you were right ‘mano. I could never make that shot. Straight up? With a stone shaped like that?” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. Skander noticed for the first time that a few dark hairs were poking through and felt another wave of nonsensical jealousy. “Maybe with the smoothest rock from the river. Maybe on my best day. But maybe not even then,” Bodrick continued.

“I’d like to see you do it again.” Skander meant it. He pictured himself accompanying Bodrick to the games this coming harvest season. The shepherd was unlettered and naïve, perhaps he could use a friend if he went to compete, a more educated, sophisticated person to help him avoid the pitfalls of the city. A realization cut Skander’s reverie short. “Voids,” he cursed. “Too bad you wasted it on target practice. We’ll never find it in all those rocks.”

Bodrick’s expression was another Skander had never seen. For a few awkward seconds, he watched his friend’s face, looking for some hint. Then Bodrick seemed to make a decision. “Skander,” the shepherd said. “That’s where it gets really weird.” Without explaining further, he strode uphill leaving the cleric to follow. He hadn’t gone far when he bent to the ground and picked up what appeared to be the same stone from the broken jumble of sandstone talus that littered the slope.

Skander felt his eyes widen. “What the?”

“I know,” answered Bodrick. “I’ve been shooting it all day. The first few times I kind of accidentally found it again, but then I realized I seemed to know just where to look. I never find the normal stones I shoot. You’re right, my pastures are filled with stones, but every week I walk down to the river and find more of the smooth, round ones that are best for bullets. This is…” Bodrick paused as if unsure whether to say more. “It’s a little scary,” he finally admitted. “And you haven’t even seen what the stones do to the things I hit. You think it’s easy to make a cloud of rock dust we can see from three hundred feet away?”

Skander felt an odd, boyish thrill. He couldn’t contain his excitement anymore. “Could it be valknite?” he asked aloud, letting the words linger.

He had meant the question rhetorically, but Bodrick surprised him by answering. “I don’t think so,” he said. “You would know better than me but wasn’t valknite a shiny metal. Like silver or something?”

The cleric was flattered as he always was when his friends came to him with such questions. He focused. Pages turned in his mind like a book in his hands. Yes, there it was in an illustration he had seen; a metallic sheen like silver twig coins. He had seen precious few silver coins in this backward region, but those he had were imprinted in his mind as well. Skander’s mental eye rarely failed him. He smiled as he realized they needed more information. “There’s only one way to be sure. Let’s go to the library.” As usual, the thought of heading into the book collection brought a broad smile to his face. Without waiting for Bodrick’s reply, he whirled and walked toward the three-story building attached to the shrine.

Bishop Gustav’s small library was a calming place for Skander; his favorite part of a small world. He had no other words for it. Since he had come to live with the bishop, and he had very few memories of the time before, the cleric had whiled away many happy hours among its shelves. He knew the tomes and scrolls lining its walls like friends- perhaps better than he knew he friends- but somehow there were always new possibilities for exploration.

Skander stood at the entrance to the library, an intricate series of columns, doors, and hanging panels that formed a maze of sorts. It had been a long time since Skander had thought about the path he needed to tread to get through, but now he looked at Bodrick. Something about the shepherd’s appearance troubled him. “You’re filthy. Scrape your boots here.”

“Really?” Bodrick said with a raised eyebrow.

Skander felt annoyance. “Yes, really. I know you’re not much for reading, but this place is as holy as the waters outside.” Canonically speaking that was not true, but it felt right.

“Fine,” grumbled Bodrick. “But quit brushing at me like my mother. Next thing you’ll be licking your hand and smoothing my cowlick in place.” He stamped his boots and brushed his tunic, knocking a cloud of grime and dust.

Skander watched in fascination as the warm air leaving the library lifted the dust, gently dragging it and wafting it away. The cleric remembered Gustav’s explanation that the elaborate labyrinth served to bring cooling air into the main chamber of the library. The room was lit by an ancient six-foot-high stained-glass window. Its ornate panes told a visual story of the legend of Bimmuk the shepherd. During the day, the images cascaded onto the worktables from the window. As an acolyte, Skander had often traced the projections into his copybook, laboring over Bimmuk’s battle with the mole dragon. He winced remembering the raps on the knuckles when Gustav had seen him wasting paper. The brilliant windows should have filled the library with air heated by the desert sun, but in some way, the builders had created the maze at the doors so that warm air would filter out and cool mountain air could get in. Gustav had called it an ingenious feat of ancient engineering, but as Skander watched the dust gather up and leave as if on its own, he suspected there was some glamer of minor magic on the building.

“There, your fussiness. Am I presentable?” Bodrick performed a mocking bow.

“It will do.” Skander moved over the worn flagstones toward the shelves. His instincts guided him to the southeastern wall, to a stack just below the great window. He passed over the reflected image of Bimmuk loosing a sling bullet and for the first time felt a glimmer of recognition. He said nothing about it to Bodrick, staying focused on the task at hand. “I thought I saw something here once.” He ran his hand gently over the books, calmed by their familiar feel, passing the thick leather spines of Tridorio’s Great Trees of the Northwest, The Uses of Ever Blessed Cinnabar, and Fifty Beasts of the Dryptic Deeps. It was exactly where he expected. The book was a broad tome of light tan hide: The Tales of the Lonely Kings. Wrinkling his nose at a musty smell both acrid and faintly pleasant, Skander pulled the volume down. He couldn’t make out what animal the hide cover had come from, but it bore large, black spots and was worn through to the leather in several places. The fine hairs edging the title were green with age. A sensation of deep time made the cleric woozy as he wondered just how old this book was; a hundred years, two hundred? He gingerly opened the cover and thumbed through the pages with a sense of purpose, sensing rather than actively remembering what page he was looking for.

“Here.” He held the heavy book out to Bodrick, hoping his friend wouldn’t see the slight quiver he felt in his arm muscles. The page was an illustration; a drawing of a bulbous blue nugget of brilliant blue with a caption that read: valknite in victorious sunlight, middle latitudes. What in the dark, black void did victorious mean? “It’s blue not silver, but it still doesn’t look like our stone.” He felt a surge of disappointment, but a lingering doubt nagged at him. Skander never forgot a picture. So, where had he gotten the idea that it was silver?

“So, it’s not valknite,” said Bodrick. Skander heard annoyance. “What is it? Ore? Something else?”

The cleric knew Bodrick had little time for books and the things written in them, but he found himself frustrated with the shepherd’s impatience. “Give me a second.” He ran his finger over the lines below the drawing. Skander had a sudden flashback to a long-ago session with Bishop Gustav, making his way through Zalanday’s painfully translated version of the epic of Dressik. There was a poem covering the bottom half of the page. He felt a revulsion. What was wrong with prose? “I can’t get anything from this,” he complained.

“Yeah, me either,” said Bodrick flatly. Skander noticed he hadn’t even looked at the page.

It was hard to strike a thoughtful pose with three wispy, nearly translucent blond hairs on his chin, but Skander made the gesture anyway. He turned a broad page, gently, attempting not to crack the dry leaf. “Maybe there’s more, something about slag, or mining,” he murmured. He found another illustration, a black and white copy of an engraving depicting a trapezoidal building with a cavernous opening. Men in heavy leather aprons busied themselves around the building. There was a caption: Of the extraction of the Godsmetal from the sully earth. Skander sighed in frustration. Beneath the drawing were more lines of verse. He read the first line four times without getting any sense of the meaning. “Who wrote this damn thing?” he grumbled. The cleric felt Bodrick pacing behind him. It wasn’t doing anything to help his concentration. “Can you sit down or something?”

“Did you find it? Is it slag? Is it ore?”

Skander fought the impulse to shove Bodrick into a chair. “I don’t know. Give me a few hours and I might be able to puzzle out this page.”

“Hours? Forget it. If it’s slag, there was a furnace.”

“I didn’t exactly say it was…”

“If there was a furnace, there was a mine. Let’s go find it,” he said beaming. Bodrick’s voice had gotten much louder, his eyes were wide with excitement. He looked ten years younger.

The shepherd was heading out the door by the time Skander had carefully closed the book. He left it on the table with a sharp regret not to have placed it back on the shelf. The cleric promised to finish reading later. “Wait for me!” he called out, tracing his usual quick path through the maze. He emerged into the morning sun, blinking. Bodrick was nowhere to be seen. Skander toward the hills. Was the shepherd that much faster than he was?

An echoing voice gave him his answer. “Voids, Skander! How do you get out of this damned thing?”

Skander laughed to himself as he retraced his steps. In the gloomy labyrinth, dazzled as his eyes were, he strained to find Bodrick facing the wrong direction, his face six inches from an enameled wooden panel. Skander reached out to help him.

“I know you’re not trying to hold my hand,” said the shepherd suddenly, startling Skander with a rapid about face.

“Of course not,” lied Skander. Bodrick had just looked so childlike for a second. “Follow me.” He led the way through a quick series of turns.”

“I swear I followed your path exactly,” complained Bodrick.

Skander ignored him. “Where should we go?” he asked. He hoped to salve Bodrick’s pride with the admission of his own ignorance.

The shepherd studied the hills and Skander admired the way his cool gaze projected authority and knowledge. “I found the stone… there. At the north end of my fields.” He pointed to his hardscrabble plot. “It must have washed down from the mountains somewhere above. What do you think?”

Skander tried not to smile. There was nothing he could offer Bodrick by way of advice about this landscape. The shepherd knew every inch for ten miles in every direction, while Skander spent most of the sunny days in his library. Of course, that had taught him a bit about water and gravity. “I think the stone probably came down, yeah.”

“I’d say Twelvespike Arroyo is the most likely place.”

Skander followed his gaze to a small canyon that opened high above them in the mountains. Above it stood the massive plinth of Twelvespike. The formation got its name from the shadow it cast down on the town, but Skander had always seen in it the finger of Anak, pointing ominously toward the town of North Bend. He frowned, realizing what Bodrick had in mind.

“What do you say? You up for a bit of a hike?”

Skander wasn’t, not even remotely. It wasn’t quite noon, and he was boiling already, standing here on flat ground. The thought of trudging into the mountains made him queasy. Skander looked at Bodrick; hale and healthy, rocking on the balls of his feet like a player about to run onto a ballcourt. He would be damned if he would let his friend know how little he wanted to climb into the mountains. Skander breathed deeply and summoned a smile from the depths. “Lead the way!” he commanded. His hoped his false enthusiasm was convincing.

Be Honest, did you think there was poison ivy in New Mexico?

                Three years living in the land of enchantment and there has been one constant for me, an abiding fascination with the mountain wilderness that surrounds Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. The mountains in this part of the state were designated as the first national wilderness area and we have the Chiricahua Apache to thank for their existence. If Geronimo’s tribe hadn’t fought so hard for their homeland, white people would have destroyed this wilderness long before learning to appreciate it. On our first brief visit to New Mexico, my eastern sensibilities were so poorly attuned to western distances that I had to disappoint my family by canceling a visit to the monument. I just couldn’t fathom how long it takes to drive these mountains. How could it possibly take more than an hour to reach the dwellings once you’ve gotten to Silver City? Well, it does. Insane driving might shave ten minutes off the trip (and the driver of the 2006 Honda Accord in front of me this last trip tried it) but no more.

                So, when my son and I concocted an adventure plan into the Gila Mountains, we set aside an entire day for the expedition. There is a small bookshop in Mesilla called Bowlin’s Mesilla Book Center. The owners are quirky, and frankly a bit off-putting, but the shop has a wonderfully curated collection that especially covers the local culture, wildlife, and history with intriguing titles that constantly whisper “buy me and get out there” in my ear.  On a recent visit, I found a book called Hiking Ruins Seldom Seen and I was in love. The New Mexico listings are skimpy, but there was one hike that whetted my appetite. I bought the book with its friendly yellow Falcon Guide binding, thus keeping the lights on in my favorite local bookshop for fifteen more minutes. We’re limited to day hikes so far, and the short four-mile round trip was right in our wheelhouse. I have to emphasize that our limitation is entirely due to my son being only eight years old. It has nothing to do with the fact that I have no experience with overnight hiking and camping; none whatsoever.

                The hike that appealed to me took us up the Middle Fork of the Gila River where the book claimed we would find a cliff dwelling much like the main site of the monument. The main site is spectacular and don’t get me wrong, I highly recommend it, but we’ve seen it ten times. I was intrigued by the Indiana Jones feel of finding something that not everyone gets to see.

                Summer was coming to an end as we set off. Fall is my favorite season, and something we don’t see in Las Cruces. So, my Virginia soul was soothed by the sight of changing oak leaves and the breath of cool breeze working down from the higher elevations. I was somewhat less pleased with the fact that we had to ford the river six or seven times. Normally that would have been fun, but my son had new shoes, so we had to take them off and put them back on at each crossing. Waiting for him, I had time to take in my surroundings more than I would have if we’d just been pounding along to a destination. So, there was an upside.

                The rocky ridges that surround the Gila River canyons in this area have a distinctive look, a sort of undulating pattern of rounded layers. I had always taken it for sandstone, mistaking the weathering pattern for sedimentary boundaries, but no, it’s a volcanic rock called tuff. One hundred million years ago, a strange chunk of crust called the Farallon Plate dove under North America pushing up mountains and generating volcanism all over North America. I always imagine it as a mysterious land of bizarre paleontological monsters whose fossils are lost to us, melting right now into the mantle somewhere below New York. I have no idea if this has any basis in reality, and I’m not going to ruin it by looking it up, but the important thing is that Western New Mexico basically exploded during the Tertiary. These tuff outcrops are the result.

                For the Mogollon people, the tuff was important because it was relatively easy to chip into. Water does some work too, and there are caves all through the cliffs, both natural and manmade. It is the perfect setting for a fantasy roleplaying adventure. Who knows what kind of creatures might have found homes here? Well, my son and I found one. It turns out the instructions on how to find the dwellings were vague. Bushwhacking was required, and I complicated matters with the false economy of choosing not to bring the book with us on the hike. Why I did this was obscure to me as soon as we hit the trail, but I think the idea was that the extra six ounces would weigh us down.

                So, we were blind as we headed into the undergrowth that covered the cliffs on the west side of the river. Thorns and a general armory of nasty, stabbing defenses slashed at us, and as I came to learn later, the protective chemicals of other plants splattered my skin. But we found a promising cave. The dimensions were just right, there was a protective overhang of tuff, and it struck the perfect balance between minimum accessibility without allowing easy approach by hostiles. The only problem was that there was no sign of any human habitation. It was the wrong cave that we had climbed into. What there was a sign of was a bear, and a good-sized one at that. There was enough scat dotting the cave to make it obvious that a bear was here, frequently, and worse the smaller scat dotting the floor gave evidence that there were cubs as well.

                We never did find the cliff dwelling pictured in the book. Of course, the photo looked suspiciously like the main site for the park, with ancient masonry walls and a ladder leaning in a jaunty pose. What we found was two hollows carved into the tuff. One was certainly large enough to have been inhabited at some point. Was that what we were looking for? The mouth of the small cave was guarded by a dazzling orb weaver spider with bright yellow markings. If we had wanted to explore the hollow, we would have needed to destroy its handiwork, so we left it alone.

                On the way back to the trailhead we stopped at the hot springs to confirm that indeed, it was still hot. Both of us couldn’t help sticking our hand in the not quite boiling water and yelping in mock surprise. Floating there in the little stream was a teacup. I was dumbfounded for a half second before we spotted a pair of trail horses and one rider relaxing in a warm pool nearby. We awkwardly said hello and I considered a warning about the brain-eating parasites that supposedly live in the water, but it seemed like strange small talk. Instead we waved goodbye.

                On the way back, we had another thrill when a brightly colored, striped snake slithered across the trail and into the brush. I followed it with my camera, getting a short video. We chattered excitedly about our first coral snake viewing all the way back to the visitors’ center. That was how long our misapprehension lasted. The ranger set us straight immediately. There are no coral snakes in the mountains. It was a kingsnake. Still the most beautiful snake I’ve ever seen in the wild, but I was a bit disappointed to have lost the frisson of danger in facing down a neurotoxic critter.

I was shocked two days later when I looked at the normally fish-bellied skin of my forearm and saw a familiar, angry red rash glaring at me. Immediately I remembered innumerably outbreaks from my youth. One in Acadia National Park circa 1987; a small, but ferociously swollen and weeping mess that put me in a Down East pediatrician’s office. Another a terrible attack that covered my entire lower body after I brazenly ran into a patch of wild that bordered a baseball field. I was wearing shorts and I saw three shiny leaves, but was I going to let a double stretch into a triple? I hate to admit how old I was for that mistake, but I ended up in an emergency room, my legs swollen into red drumsticks. According to the doctors, only a course of prednisone saved me from kidney failure. I smartened up after that. The last little patch of poison ivy rash I had wasn’t technically my fault. I took my nephew hiking, saw him run into dense foliage, but then couldn’t resist his pleas to be carried on my shoulders. The week-long itching on my neck was a small price to pay. I learned to watch out in my native biome of Virginia, and it has been well over a decade since my last incident. My little baby nephew is graduating high school next year. I thought I was safe.

                No such luck.

                But be honest. Did you know there was poison ivy in New Mexico? Only I could have managed to find it.