“The Christmas Closet” is released via AMAZON.com

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In the middle of a hot Texas sandlot, Christmas is the last thing on Trampas Elliot’s mind. The troubled young teen is more concerned with finding his missing mother.

 That is, until he stumbles into an old house with a mysterious closet where Christmas lives year-round.

 When the old house is threatened with destruction, Trampas and his best friend Jenny, find both mysteries are linked more closely than they ever imagined.

My coming of age Christmas story is now available for purchase on Amazon Kindle.  Print copies ARE NOW AVAILABLE as well.   This novel is an adaptation of my award-winning screenplay of the same name.

Story ideas come to me in different ways. Sometimes like a bolt of lightening out of the blue. The idea for my sci-fi script  “The Man in the Linen Sheet” – was formed almost completely when I read a particular verse in the bible that suggested the possibility of time travel. The plot for “Walking Wounded” sprang into my head upon waking from a dark nightmare.

Some of them take root as tiny seeds, and germinate for years. Or in this case, decades.

The story idea for THE CHRISTMAS CLOSET was formed a long time ago – in my own youth. I was poking around in the backyard of a house in our neighborhood that was supposed to be vacant. When I peered into the garage – I saw old Christmas decorations  sitting on a shelf. For some reason – the notion that ‘this is where Christmas goes the rest of the year’ – popped into my mind. I don’t think I was older than 12 when that moment happened, but it always stuck in my head.

That tiny seed of an idea sprouted into a vague concept for a kind of ‘time travel’ Christmas story – not unlike A Christmas Carol, or It’s a Wonderful Life. I toyed with starting the screenplay back in the early 90’s. If I recall, my son was only nine or ten when I started it. I worked on it for a few days, and then abandoned it. Or rather, put it away for a later date.

In 2001, I was taking a screenwriting class – and pulled out the first fifteen pages to see if it was still a good idea. I pushed through until I had the first act – roughly 30 pages – written and polished up. That’s all that was required of the class, and as I recall, I got an “A” on it.

Back into a drawer it went.

It wasn’t until the holiday season of 2007/ 2008 that I took up the first act and started working again. Suddenly, I knew what the story was about. I knew where it was going. I knew what I had to say. I pressed on and finished up the first draft, very pleased with how it came out. I handed it off to my good friend and film producer Erin – and asked her for her opinion. She read it and said she really liked it. We were on our way to the gym together, when she nonchalantly added a coda;  words to the effect that she thought it was going to have a much different ending.

Suddenly I realized she was right. It WAS supposed to have a different ending. And that ending was buried in the story all along. It was the ending that my subconscious wanted on the page. With fevered fingers – I returned to the keyboard and hammered out the ‘second’ draft.

That draft won a PLATIMUM REMI AWARD at Worldfest Houston International Film Festival. It also went on to place in the top 10% at the prestigious Austin Film Festival. Readers were all very complimentary. “The best screen kiss I’ve ever read” – one judge wrote. “A teenaged cross between ‘Christmas Carol’ and ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ – truly unique!” wrote another judge.

But Christmas films are a hard sell. Especially ones that don’t have Santa Claus saving the world from aliens. The Christmas Closet is a coming-of-age story that deals with a serious topic.  So in 2012, I pulled out the script and adapted it into a novel. Not having a literary agent, I sent it to two small publishing houses – both were open to unsolicited manuscripts. I included the first three chapters for each.  My hope was to hear something in six to eight weeks.

The next day, I got an email from one house, asking for the full manuscript. Well, that’s nice, I thought. I sent it on. Hours later – a note from the second, asking for the same. Well, this IS encouraging.

The following day, I got an email from the publisher at the first house. “Can we call and talk? What’s a good time?” It happened to be six am on the west coast when I opened the email – so I emailed back to the New York publisher, “Any time after nine.”  Two minutes later the phone rang.

“Listen, ” she said, “This is a fantastic story. It’s really really good. And… well, normally, I don’t call people personally… to MAKE A REJECTION.”

“Oh…kay… thanks?” I mumbled.

“No, I just wanted you to know WHY we’re rejecting it. It’s a really good story, but we’re a small house. We only publish six to ten novels a year – and they have to sell ALL YEAR round. A Christmas story – even one this good – really only sells for a limited window around the Holidays. So… as much as I like it… we’re going to have to pass.”

“Oh… kay. Thanks?” I mumbled.

“It’s really a fantastic story. Your storytelling is superb. ”

“Oh… kay. Thanks.”

“With some editing and guidance, it could be really good. You NEED to take this to a larger house. Someone with a big marketing budget. Seriously.”

“Oh… kay. Thanks.”

“Did… I wake you?”

“No, I usually get up around six.”

“OH You’re on the west coast. I’m so sorry!”

The second house also sent a rejection – with much the same explanation. “You need a BIG house to market this, in order to get the most benefit in the limited holiday window. Great story though! What else you got?”

I did manage to get the manuscript into the hands of a major agent, and he really liked it – but also said, “Christmas manuscripts are a niche item. Really hard to sell… unless you’re established.”

Sometimes a story just wants to get out there and breathe.

FULL-COVER-CHRISTMAS-CLOSET

I don’t have a big marketing budget, but the publishing world is changing fast. Sometimes, what a book needs is for someone to believe in it.

Sometimes, it’s enough to put it out there.

Hop onto Amazon, and read the first three chapters.  I’m hoping you’ll download the story and enjoy the ride. If you do – be kind enough to leave a glowing review. If you don’t like it – well, send me a lump of coal for my stocking.

Happy Holidays.   – All of ’em.

http://www.amazon.com/Christmas-Closet-Richard-P-Alvarez-ebook/dp/B00N8F60GC/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1409696781&sr=8-1&keywords=the+christmas+closet

The Christmas Closet Ebook Cover ALVAREZ

 

 

 

 

“Literary Psychic Trauma”

I finally watched the first two episodes of Game of Thrones last night, to see what all the fuss was about.

I found it to be a rather curious experience.

Having read all of the books to date, there is of course, absolutely no ‘dramatic tension’ in the story line for me. I know who is walking dead, and where the dramatic plot turns are coming up. So I’m feeling a bit displaced while watching it. I find my thoughts running to – “Huh, nice casting choice there… Oh, not what I would have chosen… That’s different than the book… Nice costumes… Ridiculous sword… Peter Dinklage rocks…”

Now, this isn’t necessarily the way I feel about seeing an adapted version of any literary story I’m familiar with. I loved watching “The Lord of the Rings” for instance – and of course, I knew the story intimately. I loved watching “Apollo 13” – and hell, I LIVED that story at the time it was unfolding, glued to the television for newscasts at the time. And yet I found the film to STILL have all of the dramatic tension of fiction, despite knowing the historic outcome. (Always a tough thing to pull off when dealing with historical material.) And there are pieces of fiction I would like to see adapted into cinematic expressions. I would pay really good money, to see “Glory Road” adapted faithfully, and I’ve read it at least a dozen times.

I’m just not getting it from GoT. I’m not being drawn into the story. Why is that? Is it because the story is ‘unfinished’ in my head? Still waiting for the novels to wrap it up? But shouldn’t that make it MORE engaging, rather than less? Sure, the graphic sex and violence is visually shocking – I guess. Though my imagination was certainly as graphic or more so.

I’ve given this conundrum some requisite thought while shampooing my hair. The usual slot I allow in my daily routine to ‘deep thinking’.

I reflected back on my exposure to the novels. I must say, I found them VERY engaging.

At first.

The first, three (?) books – I devoured. The world was interesting, compelling, unique. Always a good sign. The characters seemed fully drawn, tragically flawed. I love that. When Brandt was injured, I was emotionally devastated. Wow, what a daring thing to do to this character. And then Eddard’s storyline twist shocked me completely. How DARE he kill someone I so completely identified with. Another daring choice!

All too soon, I began to realize, NO ONE WAS SAFE.

Sure, it’s engaging. It’s riveting. It keeps you on the edge of your seat – ANYTHING could happen to ANYBODY!

And then, a strange mindset began to set it. I’m almost compelled to call it a kind of ‘literary psychic trauma’.

There’s a cinematic trope in War Movies. First you get the audience to love the extended family that is the platoon, or squad. Then you kill a few of them, to show just how painful war is. You want the audience to experience a taste of the shock and horror (however removed) that real combat holds. And finally, you introduce ‘The New Guy’. By now, the core group of regulars are bound up so tight, they don’t bother to learn ‘The New Guy’s’ name. Because he won’t last. He’s not one of them. He’s expendable. It’s even a line that inevitably comes up, “What was his name? I can’t remember…”

Hell, you may as well put them in a Red Shirt – and send them down with the away team.

So, if this Trope is a reflection on something that happens in REAL combat, then might this kind of psychic displacement happen – in ‘literary’ combat?

Kill off enough key characters, and your reader doesn’t dare engage anymore. “Huh, an Onion Knight… that’s interesting, but I don’t give a shit about him.”

I mentioned the first THREE books were engaging. By the time I had read the fourth – I was already on thin ice with the author regarding my emotional investment in the characters. Martin had done his job a little too well. FIRST he drew me in, and hooked me. THEN he shocked and compelled me. THEN he betrayed my emotional investment. Not once, not twice – but REPEATEDLY.

Use any literary trick too often and it becomes a Trope – a parody of itself. With each new character introduced – I held back a little bit of emotional investment. ADD to that, I was waiting for what seemed to be an eternity for each new book release… And my emotional investment was growing colder and colder.

By the time “A Dance With Dragons” was released – I had lost mental track of all the plot twists, and what little emotional investment I had in the story – was stretched perilously thin. I went online and printed out the WIKKI article of the series so that I could get back up to speed on all the various house alliances, world differences, and character arcs.

Having read all of the books to date – my interest in the NEXT book – is perilously close to nonexistent. I’ve waited on series before. The Amber Series, the Riverworld Series – so I’m not inexperienced with that dynamic. I EAGERLY awaited the next installments in each of those worlds.. I’m almost, ALMOST coming close to reaching the threshold of ennui that compelled me to stop reading the “Wheel of Time” series after the fourth book. “The same old same old, rehashed and stretched out…”

By the time I was toweling off from my shower, I was convinced that two factors had combined to make the television series less engaging for me, an avid reader of the books – than it might be for a new fan being introduced to the story for the first time in cinematic form.

The first, of course, was knowledge aforethought. No surprises left for me. But the second thing – was far more important. That ‘literary psychic trauma’ – that divorced me from investing in the character’s storylines had followed me from the books – to the television show. Great job Mr. Martin.

I can understand how someone completely unfamiliar with the storyline, watching it UNFOLD in front of their eyes, trapped in cinema space-time narrative (Uninterrupted by life, like novel reading is) – would find the stories compelling. So, I suppose I might just envy the newcomers their roller coaster experience.

But I smirk a little each time they’re emotionally betrayed.

My original plan was to wait till the entire book series was complete, and then watch the adaptations. Perhaps I’ll watch another episode or two.

Perhaps not.

 

Fat Tuesday for Starving Artists

With Mardi Gras and the season of Lent upon us, my thoughts turned to a time we spent wandering the streets of Basel Switzerland while celebrating “Fasnacht” as truly starving artists.

It was 1980, and Linda and I had been married for almost four months. Linda was a student Bazilejat Marcel Marceau’s school of Mime in Paris. A group of the students planned a trip to Basel, also Bazel and Bale – depending on whether you spoke Swiss French, Swiss Italian or Swiss German. From Wikkipedia – Located in northwest Switzerland on the river Rhine, Basel functions as a major industrial centre for the chemical and pharmaceutical industry. The Basel region, culturally extending into German Baden-Württemberg and French Alsace, reflects the heritage of its three states in the modern Latin name: “Regio TriRhena”. It has the oldest university of the Swiss Confederation (1460). Basel is German-speaking. The local variant of the Swiss German dialects is called Basel German.

Two of Marceau’s students, Alan and Mark – were particularly interested in the ‘masque’ technique of mime . A style made popular in the US at the time by the Swiss troupe known as “Mummenschanz”. Apparently there was a famous mask factory in Basle. The plan was to visit the factory, buy some masks, and celebrate Fastnacht – Mardi Gras – at the same time.

Ric-Linda-Bazel-FountainWe were living in Paris as starving artists. I had quit my full time job in radio to get married and move to Paris with Linda, so we were on a very tight budget.  The round trip ticket to Basle and back to Paris – 190 French Francs – approximately $47.50 in US at the time – was a big deal to us. But what was the point of living in France, if we couldn’t leave it and see a bit more of Europe if the opportunity arose? Alan and Mark had been there before, so they would act as tour guides.  A three day trip was planned, more friends joined in, and we purchased Swiss Army backpacks in the flea market to make our travel easier. We also loaded up on home made GORP, since we weren’t going to be spending money in fancy restaraunts. Luckily, the Youth Hostel served a ‘continental breakfast’ in the mornings.

Journal

While digging through old negative files to illustrate this blog, I came upon our shared Parisian journal from back in the day. What a delight it is to relive those days through the handwritten word on faded page. An emotional experience lacking in this day of emails and digital text files. I’ll let Linda narrate our trip to Basle, and our first night there, in her own words.

What an adventure. We tramped toward the metro in that blue gray time of morning on Sunday with our fat, full packs strapped to our backs. I like leaving in the morning – it adds a sort of chill to the anticipation – and one never knows if it is the temperature of the air or the excitement that makes one shiver.

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We met the rest of the crew at Gare-de l’Est and got onto the train. Six hours across the countryside of France. I crocheted a little. Alan, Marc, Tina and Jeanie played cribbage. Steve read and Ric watched for castles until the sun gave him a headache. 

The gang in the square

Sreet-gangLate afternoon found us in Basel – wandering around waiting for the youth hostel to open so we could ‘check in”. It is an old European town, that is so well kept that one almost feels it is new – perhaps built last year by the Disney people.

Wandering-the-streets

 

Bazel-Picolo-and-unmasked-gAs night fell over the city, we became aware of an airy , almost haunting sound floating on the cold clear air of the Rhine. We turned down a twisting side road and were met by a group of citizens of the town, all marching at a slow, meandering sort of pace – in army like ranks. All were playing a lilting tune in unison and occasionally in harmony on their piccolos.

Drummer-Boy-and-Mummer

                                                                          All night long processions of men and women, young men and girls, sailed smoothly through the streets and canals of the ancient village at a pace that matched the swans swimming gently down the river.  The stars and moon shone brightly – freshly polished by the tiny shining notes sent to them from the thousands of Swiss piccolos, flying on the cold night air.

We went to bed early and fell asleep – lulled by the magical wine like atmosphere of music and age.

basel

Over-the-Rhine

Walking-to-PlatzWe woke at 3:00 am and dressed in the strangely silent darkness. Ric and I met on the stairs of the youth hostel. We kissed a good morning and with my left hand grasped in his right we went out onto the street.

Small groups of people speaking in hushed voices were joined by more and more people as they we walked quickly toward the center Big-Nose-Kissof town.  Silently following the crowds, we made our way – feeling vaguely like lemmings – to the front of an old tavern near the market place. There we stopped and waited.

All around us bizarre creatures with huge pale and shadowed faces wandered among the Big-Nose-W-baloooncrowd – their wild colored hair lit by lanterns somehow balanced on the tangled mass. Not a piccolo to be seen or hear – just a shuffling of humanity broken only by the sight of some costumed, masked and painted monster. The shuffling began to settle, more and more people were standing still. It was a waiting. Then the thousands of people shuffling and silent, were plunged into total darkness. A shout that reminded me of the final ritual of a high school football team went up to catch the setting moon. Before it had died in its valiant effort – the piccolos had appeared from no-where and were playing for all they were worth – Each trying to sing louder than the others. Disco-Drummers Now the processions in their gaudy dress began the slow dance that was to continue for days. Lit only by the giant lanterns they followed and their precarious lantern headpieces – the piccolo players and the group of drummers who seemed to chase them – moved slowly through the town together. Later, as the sun rose, they separated and they began the systematic squeezing of winter out of every nook and cranny of the town. With slow determined steps they found his secretes hiding places and sent him flying to the Alps to pack along the mountain tops and plan his next year’s campaign.

Marching-Death

And that’s why she’s a better writer than I am, to this day.

To back up and fill in some details – When we arrived in Basle, we were immediately Badge-Ladyaccosted by a kindly old lady at the train station who was trying to sell us something. I tried to decline, but Mark and Alan explained that we HAD to buy one of the years ‘official’ badges to wear on our hats or coats.

“Why? What happens if I don’t?”

Mark smiled and said, “You won’t make it out alive. Trust me. The kids will pelt you with apples and oranges. Seriously – buy one. It’s health insurance.”  So we each bought a bronze Fasnacht badge and wore them on our coat lapels or stocking caps.

Drummers drummingI wish I had been able to fully capture the images of that amazing first night. We did get to spend some time wandering the streets before sunset. As we wound our way through the fairy tale village, we would encounter the odd masked Mode Head MasksPiccolo player or Drummer, marching along and playing a tune. Mark and Alan informed us that just as there were ‘crewes’ in the Mardi Gras parade in the US – here there were ‘Guilds’ or ‘Clicks’ – that worked together to create their unified theme for the festival. This included deciding on their parade float theme. (Sometimes comical, often political), designing their costumes, and most importantly, writing their own secret Piccolo tune, that would not be played until the festival started officially at four in the morning.

I’d like to add that the reason we had to meet on the landing, was that the Youth Hostel did not allow cohabitation – even for married couples. So we bunked in dorm rooms for the two days we were there

At four in the morning, the square was absolutely packed. I imagine it feels like being in Time Square at New Years. And all of the costumed characters had little lanterns – honest to God lanterns with candles – built into or perched Making-our-way-to-MarketPlaupon the top of their masks or hats. When the appointed hour came – ALL THE LIGHTS IN THE SQUARE went out –  the shout went up – and all you could see where the troupes of players with lanterns on their heads, following large parade floats that resembled fantastic Dr. Zeuss creations.Marshmallow-Head

Feather-head-piccolo

Imagine dozens of different Guilds, each with a Piccolo and Drum corps, all playing their own special tune – AS LOUD AS THEY POSSIBLY COULD. It was beautiful chaos. As one troupe would pass, you could hear their tune clearly and distinctly, but before it would lodge in your head, they would be replaced by another troupe with an equally catchy tune with a compelling drum beat.Admiral-Picollo-and-Tone

Towards dawn, we took a break, retired to the hostel  got a short rest, and ate our ‘free’ continental breakfast at the hostel. Croissants, coffee, hot chocolate and baguettes – we stuffed our pockets with pieces of bread to hold us through the day. Did I mention we really were ‘starving’ artists?

In the ‘Small World’ department – it was while passing through a large crowd on the stairs to get to my bunk in the Inside-Restaraunthostel, that I heard a familiar voice shout out “Ric! HEY RIC!” I turned to the voice, and was greeted by an old friend from my days at the American Fencing Academy. I hadn’t seen Andy in a couple of years. It turns out – he was hitch-hiking through Europe, and happened to be in the same hostel at exactly the same time. He joined us for the next two days – and even came to Paris to visit during his extended sabbatical. As broke as the two of us, we all managed to split the cost of a small Pizza while we were there – our only ‘restaurant’ meal. We ate to the sounds of a masked band, just outside our window. It just goes to show, you don’t know WHO you’ll run into in the oddest time or place.

There were numerous parades scheduled throughout the weekend. Each with a different theme and hosted by a Yellow-Hats-street-parade-ddifferent Click. The Clicks were sometimes actual ‘Guilds’ as in work union related, sometimes political parties, mostly social groups and fraternities. Much like the ones in New Orleans.

We took our place in the square at noon, to watch the major parade of the day kick off. There was some kind of festival clown, or character or ‘mascot’ that kept popping up in the weirdest places. A particular type of clown or trouble maker, he was apparently the ‘imp’ of the festival. This character could be spotted on the various floats, tossing candies and treats – and apples and oranges – to the children in the audience. The oranges were injected with a red dye to make them more likely to ‘explode’ when they hit something. (Harmless and edible, it made them juicy)

Clown-in-Window

I climbed up on top of a newspaper stand to get a better view. It was then that I noticed quite a few of the shops had their plate glass windows covered in plywood. People on the upper balcanoies shouted for treats, and the Bazle Imp tossed them high.  I waved my hand, and shouted, and one clown turned toward me – and through an orange at me.

“WHACK” – I fielded it bare handed. It stung my hand, but I now had an orange to add to our Straw-Hat-Day-paradefood stash. Did I mention we were starving artists? I was looking at the orange, when the next one beaned me on the head. I looked up just in time to see a crew of half a dozen ‘imps’ winging oranges at me for all they were worth. “The nail that stand up, gets pounded down…” as the old saying goes. I made too inviting a target. I jumped back down into the anonymity of the crowd, but not without snagging one more  orange.

Tina-on-Steps-in-BazelGiant-Pretzel-in-WindowAfter the parade, we wandered the streets enjoying the scenery. Alan explained that the guild members MUST play their tune whenever they are out on the street. They cannot stop in the middle of the tune. IF they want to go into a restaurant, they must finish the tune before they entered. Most of the restaurants had window displays of marvelous food – featuring special ‘fasnacht’ pastries and treats. Did I mention we were starving artists?

Sailor MasksIt was an oddly magical, somewhat surreal experience to be wandering the streets of the medieval town, and come upon a group or even a single piccolo player, marching along playing their tune. Sometimes groups of drummers would face off in a ‘drum duel’. Not to be outdone, the piccolos tried to one up each other in volume.

 

Mask-Factory-2We did manage a trip to the mask factory, where Alan and Mark purchased a number of mask forms, with the intention of customizing them when we returned to Paris. It was amazing to see the thousands of masque forms stacked on tables and hanging from wires – all waiting to have papier-mâché applied to build up the final shape. Of course, they also had masks already made and ready for wear.Mask-Factory-1

Blue-Piccolo-LONG-SHOTWe worked in some time visiting the museums, and medieval church – but too soon our trip was over. I will never forget, watching swans swim on the Rhine in the moonlight. Or the crazy masked faces in the darkness. But without a doubt, my Blue-Picollo-Medium REVERSEDfavorite memories will be those of wandering the streets of old town Basle, hearing the faint sound of a lone piccolo floating through the air. Spotting a single masked and costumed figure approaching. He takes no notice, intent on marching on, playing, playing, playing. Until his final destination reached, his tune complete, he may lay down his pipe and rest for next year.

Blue Piccolo Close Up CROPPED

“Ars Longa, Vita Brevis”

“Ars longa , Vita brevis”

I love the art of illustration. I’m a sucker for good ‘pulp’ art. Science fiction illustrations filled my childhood dreams. My homework pages were covered in rocket ship doodles. But when it comes to drawing the human figure, I’m a complete failure. For all my appreciation for the art of storytelling that is ‘illustration’ – my ability to handle a pen or paint brush is nonexistent. That’s probably why I turned to capturing images with the camera , and more lately, with the printed word.

My direct association with the art, goes back to the mid eighties, while working at the Renaissance Festival in Chicago. (King Richard’s – now Bristol). In 1987 I was approached by a group of artists from nearby Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. They worked for a company called “TSR” – and they did the artwork for books and ‘game modules’ for something called “Dungeons and Dragons”. Had I heard of it? No, never. Apparently, they were very excited to see people in armor, on horseback in real life. While it’s possible to dress up and pose for action sequences in the studio – getting a real live horse to perform an action to use as reference in a painting –  isn’t something your everyday artist has access to.

“Could we hire you guys, to dress up and pose for us during the week?”

“Sure – it’s going to cost you though.”

“How much?”

I picked a number I assumed they would turn down, and we’d bargain from there.

“Great! Can we shoot this week?”

I got to meet the gang from TSR . Pictured below as they line up to shoot us in the tiltyard, L-R Dave “Diesel” LaForce, Keith Parkinson,  Jeff Easley, Larry Elmore, Clyde Caldwell, and Jeff Butler. They collectively referred to themselves as “Art Dogs”.

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They arrived on our day off , packing camcorders, cameras and sketch pads. We opened the costume tent – and spent the entire day fulfilling their every imagined composition.  “I’m working on a painting, where a guy in armor is laying down, and a horse is about to jump him… can we do that?”

“Sure.”

“How about all of you riding toward us, in a line?”

“Yup.”

“Can you guys mix it up, like a melee’ using swords, axes, flails?”

“No problem.”

Later, we went to Lake Geneva and visited their studio where I got to see first hand, the incredible art these guys were capable of.

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Stephen Ommerle, poses on Gayrak.

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Charlemagne’s Champion – © Keith Parkinson

Over the years, I have seen numerous book covers and game module covers that featured us – Both on and off horseback. The character’s faces are often different from our own, or we might be transposed into orcs, trolls, demons or skeletons –  but it’s always possible to recognize a specific pose, a fovorite horse,  a costume or armor piece that I know belonged to us. It was only later, when my son Travis grew old enough to play the games, and collect the books and puzzles, that I saw just how often our images appeared in them. Keith insists this painting below is based on a photo of me. I recognize my horse Deerborne, but I think I’m better looking than this guy.keith_parkinson_forgotten_realms

Scheduling took me away from performing at the Chicago faire, and I lost touch with ‘the guys’ who had opened their own booth selling original art and prints. It was some years later, while performing at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Festival in Mt. Hope, that I heard a familiar voice call out. “Ric! Hey, it’s Keith!” Much to my surprise, there was Keith Parkinson in the audience. After the show, he came backstage and I found out that he and his family had relocated to Lititz, less than ten miles from the faire. Over the run of the show we got to hang out together. My young son Travis met his boys, and they played together with the props from his art studio. I spent much needed time relaxing in his studio above his garage, on “Knightsbridge” – where he would play drums, and we would drink beer. Lots of beer.

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“The Return of Lancelot” – Members of the PARF posed for the painting © Keith Parkinson

During the third year of our Mt.Hope show, he asked me to pose for a book cover he was working on for David Eddings. It was part of something called “The Tamuli”. Later he came out to the fair where he gathered up a whole cast of characters to pose for a painting called “The Return of Lancelot”.  This was a piece commissioned specifically for a patron.  We had more fun mixing and matching costumes with different characters, and working with other actors at the festival to portray the figures in the painting. Keith later said he had the most fun painting the chickens.

It was during that year in PA that Keith PJ Sketchread my first manuscript – a swashbuckling novel – and told me that THIS was what I should be doing with my life,  not jousting.  He even offered to hand the manuscript directly to his publishing contacts. Something virtually impossible to do without an agent. When one of them said, “Sure, I’ll read it – but you have to do a mock-up cover for it first” – he didn’t hesitate to do just that. He sketched out a terrific moment from my novel (later screenplay) “Pryour Justice: A case of Rapiers”  When I asked if I could keep the drawing, he seemed surprised. “You want it? Sure!” he inscribed it “Ric, be bold not old, until the book is sold – Keith”  That drawing hangs next to my two original Hildenbrandt sketches now.

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With Keith’s encouragement, I dedicated myself to writing during my first ‘retirement’  from the festival world. By that time, I had found my strength in screenwriting. One day Keith called me to say he was planning a ‘castle tour’ of the UK, would I like to go with him? It just so happened, that I was in discussion with a production company about scouting film locations for a new Ivanhoe Film. The timing worked out – and Keith and I spent three glorious weeks climbing castle ramparts and chasing imaginary orcs through dark dungeons. We called it our “Castles and Dragon’s tour”.

We also drank beer. A lot of beer.

One of my fondest memories of that trip, was strolling through the British Museum and getting lectures and art tips from Keith as he examined the great master works. It was during this time, that I turned to him and asked, “So… what is ‘art’? And what is ‘illustration’?”

He thought for a moment, then replied. “If it tells a story, and you put it on a cover, or in a book –it’s illustration. If you hang it on a wall, it’s ‘art’.” Then he smiled and added, “If you have to EXPLAIN it… it’s FINE ART.” This of course, does not rule out the fact that a piece can be all three at once.

Sometime after that trip, I discovered the delights of  “EBAY”. I spent quite a bit of time looking for swords. But I also stumbled upon a section called ‘art and illustration’. Lo and behold, there was a small painting by Keith Parkinson offered for sale. It was ‘unsigned’ – but the seller assured everyone that he had gotten it directly from TSR, and it was the real deal. There were only a few minutes left to the auction. I knew that if I bought it, I could send it to Keith, and he would sign it for me. This would of course, increase the value of the small piece of work.  I placed my bid, and watched breathlessly as it went through. After a few minutes my high bid won out – and I was the proud owner of my first Keith Parkinson original painting.   Thrilled, I sent a link and email to Keith, asking him two questions. Did I pay too much for this small acrylic, and would he sign it for me if I sent it to him?   Keith was quick to respond.

KP Dragon 2

“Well Ric, art is worth what you pay for it. If you feel like it’s worth what you spent, then you got what you paid for. I’ll be happy to sign it. – But I didn’t paint it.”

WHAT!!!!! OH MY GOD, WHAT HAVE I DONE!  I had just spent a nice piece of change, on a picture that was painted by someone I didn’t know. I was too clever by half, thinking I was going one up on the seller. Damn my foolish fevered fingers. I wallowed  in my guilt and buyer’s remorse for a solid ten minutes. Then I got a second email from Keith.

“Yoink.  –  I painted it. It’s a preliminary rough for a much larger piece. Send it along, and I’ll sign it and return it.”  That’s the kind of guy he was. And it wasn’t the first practical joke we pulled on each other.

The 8×8 acrylic painting arrived at my house, I quickly repackaged it, and sent it off to Lititz for Keith to sign.  I included a note advising that he should take extra special care of it, since I was planning on using this instead of buying stock – as a way of investing for my future retirement. I also told him that I was sparing no expense, and reserving a prominent spot on my refrigerator for its display.  Since he didn’t ask for any kind of compensation, I  included a check for one of his signed and numbered prints – “The King’s Gold”  This was a piece I knew we had posed for back in the day. I had seen the original in his studio in Lititz.  It was the least I could do – what with him being so generous with his time.

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Several weeks went by, and I hadn’t heard from Keith. I was beginning to worry that perhaps the original art had been lost in shipment. A quick email to check – had he received it?

“Yup, got it alright. Been really jammed up on some deadlines for some book covers. Sorry. I noticed there were some chips in it, and I wanted to touch it up for you. I’ll get it out in a week.”

Damn, what a heck of a nice guy.  After another week, I got a notice that there was a package at the post office, too large to be placed in my box. Well great, this must be it then. I went to the post office, and handed them the slip. They handed over a VERY LARGE BOX – more than 28 by 28 inches in size. How could this be? Oh, I know. He probably matted and framed that signed print I asked for, and placed it in the box as well. Gosh, that was really nice of him. He didn’t have to do that. He could have shipped it rolled in a tube or something.

I took the package home, and prepared to cut the packing tape. It was then that I noticed that the package had been insured.

For several thousand dollars.

There must be some mistake.

I carefully cut the top flap loose, and looked inside. I could see the edge of a very large piece of art, carefully suspended within foam packing corners. Slowly, I pulled the artwork out of the box, and was rewarded with the following image.

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The original cover art for David Edding’s book “The Hidden City”. The memories came rushing back –

In 1993 – he had invited me out to his house in Lititz, to pose for this cover. I brought along a selection of costume pieces, armor and weapons for him to choose from.

“I want you to wear your blue jeans,” he said.

“Why?”

“Because I like the way they fold and drape. I’ll paint them as leather but they really work better in the sunlight.”

I donned my hauberk, a short black and yellow  surcoat, pulled on my riding boots and buckled on a bastard sword. We left his studio above his garage, and went down into his backyard. He had me climb on top of a picnic table, and handed me a glass paperweight.

“What’s this?”

“It’s an enchanted jewel. You’re standing on a castle parapet about to throw it into the mouth of this monster looming above you. Now, pose …. like this. No… more weight here, pull your hand back, crouch down…. Hold this arm out, turn your head, a little more. Now hold still while I shoot the reference pics.”

Hidden City Pose Photo

It was a fairly awkward pose. Not very natural. At least, not one to be holding for an extended period. I could see striking this pose in action – in the process of heaving the jewel. But holding still was getting tiresome.

And the jewel in my hand was getting hot.

“Hey Keith, this jewel is getting hot…”  Hidden City

“Yeah, yeah… it’s charged with magic. The monster wants it…”

“No, I mean – it’s GETTING HOT!”

“Yeah, yeah – you’re about to throw it….”

“IT’S BURNING MY HAND!” – I tossed the crystal onto the grass in front of me.

“What are you doing?”

I held up my palm to show him the blister.  “It was focusing the sun onto my palm and BURNING MY HAND!”

“Wow, that’s fantastic!” He retrieved it, held it for a moment, then dropped it. “Sure enough! That’s magic!”  We finished the shoot, went upstairs and drank some beer.

Okay, a lot of beer.

And now, years later – I was looking at the original artwork for this book cover. Keith normally retained ownership in his original art. Occasionally, he would sell them to the writers. But here he had gifted me with the original oil painting. When I turned the painting around, I saw a note taped to the back.

“Hey Ric, I felt your investment portfolio was a little anemic and just couldn’t stand it. RicPass047Actually, I planned on sending this one to you since you asked about it last year,  just never got around to it. Typical artist – A word of caution, refrigerator magnets won’t work on masonite.  Take care, Keith.”

Of course, the small 8×8 painting was also in the box, now sporting his bright blue signature.  The signed and numbered print of “Kings Gold” arrived a few days later, rolled in a shipping tube. It too was inscribed with the trademark Parkinson humor – “Ric – when it absolutely positively has to be there overnite” – All of them now have pride of place in my collection of fantasy art.

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A couple of years later, when Keith published his first book of art “Knightsbridge: The Art of Keith Parkinson” he sent me a copy. Inscribed on the inside fly – “Ric, I have never counted how many of these you helped with… Math is not a friend. Anyway, thanks – Take care, Keith”.

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I kept in touch with Keith over the years, through tumultuous times for both of us. I moved out to California, while he moved out to Tuscon. I was thrilled to hear him talk about his writing projects, and happy to read bits and pieces of them. We discussed story structure and mythology at length. When I was passing through Tuscon on business – he was kind enough to offer me a place to stay in his new home. He also helped me copy and beat a deadline for a script request, loaning me the use of his fax machine, and offering special shipping arrangements. He was always, ALWAYS – generous with his time and praise.

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Everquest cover art by Keith Parkinson. Game by Sony Online

I watched him move from the world of table top gaming, to online gaming with the artwork and game design for Everquest. I was devastated to hear he had been diagnosed with Acute Myelogenous Leukemia. (AML) He kept all of his friends updated with his struggle, always upbeat, always with a sense of humor.  RicPass046

Keith passed away on October 26, 2005. He was 47 years old. Far too young. The fantasy world lost an incredibly talented and creative artist – and I lost a good friend. I think of him often when I see his work, or walk in the fairy tale forest  of Muir Woods.

“Art is long, Life is short”

http://www.keithparkinson.com/main.php

 

My most recent flash fiction piece “The Master’s Fee” was beautifully illustrated by the talented MairinTaj Caya. And just as the piece before, “Canon Horse and Pike” was illustrated by artist Douglas Brown , my next short piece will also be illustrated by an independent artist. If you’re an artist – especially interested in the ‘rockets and raygun’ aspect of hard sci fi artwork – drop me a line and we’ll discuss my next project. Yes, I pay – no it’s not much. But I don’t think anyone should work for free.

INTO THE WOODS

INTO THE WOODS – A Cold Night In June

Sunset was approaching, and I didn’t like to hitchhike at night. The trucker who had picked me up an hour earlier, was about to switch roads at a rural interchange. I checked the location, and decided it would be a great place to spend the night.

 “Just let me out here.”

 “You sure? There’s nothing around here.”

 “Yeah, I’m good with that.”

He pulled over  and I hopped out, dragging my heavy orange back pack behind me. I thanked him for the ride and waved goodbye as the diesel belched black smoke against the fading sky.

Not a lot of traffic, but I wasn’t looking for a ride. I was looking for a place to pitch my tent.  Depending on my location, I sometimes camped beneath a bridge, or culvert.  Very occasionally I got to camp in an actual camp ground. Once in Colorado, and again in Montana –  I splurged on a cheap motel room.  But I far preferred isolated fields with a bit of cover where I could pitch my pup-tent and sleep undisturbed, huddled in my military issue mummy-bag.

My ability to sleep through the night depended a lot on how I perceived the safety of my surroundings. If I was under a bridge – I didn’t bother with the tent or crawling INTO my bag. I wanted to be able to move and react quickly.  I just rested against my pack and slept with one eye open.  If I was at a campground or park, I usually slept very well -secure in the knowledge that the park was patrolled, or at least access to the campground was restricted.  I slept my deepest most restful slumber in Yellowstone. Rural fields or woods, located on private land  however- were somewhere in between those two states of mind. Out of sight,  I usually slept fairly well, unless I thought someone could somehow find me.

On my side of the highway was a stretch of shoulder, some filthy gravel and grass, a barbed wire fence, and an open field. What caught my attention was a stand of trees across the fence and about fifty yards into the field. A pretty big stand. In Texas, we would have called it ‘thicket’.

A quick look around to see if anyone would spot me and possibly hassle or report me.  No one in sight. I tossed the back pack over, crawled through the wire, and hustled into the woods.

I realized after I entered, that it was far larger and deeper than it looked from my vantage point on the highway. That suited me just fine. I walked deeply enough into the woods that my bright international orange tent and pack wouldn’t be spotted from the road. Far enough in that I could no longer hear traffic, if there was any. All the better to rest easy.

It only took a few moments to set up. I had it down pretty well by now. It was a good thing, as my batteries for the flash light had died a few days before, and the sun was fading fast. Once I set up, I decided to take a picture of myself by resting my trusty Minolta  on a nearby stump. I had been hitching alone for the last three weeks, my best friend having taken ill and returned home after our first week on the road together.

Nowadays, they call it a ‘selfie’.  I set the timer, and assumed what I hoped would be a suitably rakish, ‘seasoned traveler’ pose.  The kind of attitude and macho posture that only a nineteen year old would assume. Looking at the picture now – I don’t think I weighed 140 pounds wet. And I was still six feet three inches tall.

When I collected the camera, I noticed  that the sunset streaming through the trees gave a nice sunburst pattern. Kind of ‘artsy’. I had a few more shots left on my last roll of Ektachrome (That’s slide film, for you young folks) so I fired off a shot.  And because I was essentially shooting into the sun, I bracketed the exposure, and fired a second shot, stopping down the exposure a bit.

The sun was down in a few minutes, and the woods hid any starlight or moonlight from me as well. Too risky to start a fire on private lands, and with no flashlight – there was nothing to do but eat my apple for dinner, and turn in to sleep.  

I was pretty tired. I slipped out of my sweaty clothes, and into the bag. Despite my mental assurances that I was safe and secure in this obscure location – I definitely felt a sense of unease. I passed it off to my desire to wrap up my big adventure, and get home. My plan was to get up and get moving as soon as I awoke. With  any luck, in a day – or perhaps two – I would be back in Houston, where I would see my girlfriend. I fell asleep with happy thoughts of a frisky homecoming.

 

-SNAP-

 

There is NOTHING that will pull you out of a sound sleep, faster than the snap of a twig under a footfall – when you’re supposed to be all alone in the middle of nowhere.

I was instantly awake, alert and listening.

And cold.

Cold on a warm June night?  I was sweating, but still FELT cold. I listened carefully. Was I imagining it?

THERE – Again. The sound of pressure on the dry ground cover. A light… VERY light crunching. A deer?  A wild hog or dog perhaps?

AGAIN – Closer.  But above my head now.

AGAIN – A single foot fall. The way a person might creep. Stealthily placing one foot slowly, before placing another. This was not wild life.

Time to summon that teen-aged machismo. As deep as my voice normally is, I tried to pitch it even lower.

 “I’ve got a gun in here.  I don’t want any trouble.”   I was going for a calm, confident menace. Someone you didn’t want to tangle with, but a situation you could reasonably avoid by simply walking away.

IF you were reasonable.

And no, I didn’t have a gun.

“I’m just trying to get some rest. I don’t want any trouble. I’ll be gone in the morning.” Should I roll out, and reveal myself? I listened for a response.

Listening.

Listening.

THERE. – Was that another faint footfall, farther away?

Or was I imagining it all? Perhaps it was pine cones, dropping from the trees.

There was no way I was going to go back to sleep now.  I fished my dive watch out of my pants pocket. I had broken the strap a few days before, hooking it on a door handle as I got out of a big rig. I checked the glowing hands –  Sometime after two in the morning. I could still get several hours of sleep, all I had to do was relax. Yeah. Not going to happen. I lay awake for another hour and a half, listening intently for the return of the footfalls. I had a pocket knife open in my right hand, and the watch in my other. No more sounds in the night. No more falling pine cones, or dripping water, or rustling animals. The last thing I remember was checking the watch – nearly four. Should be light before too soon.

When I blinked, I could see the walls of the tent. It was morning. Relieved to have avoided some sort of midnight confrontation, I hustled out of my tent, struck camp, packed my gear and checked my surroundings to make sure I hadn’t left anything – turning slowly in circles. Nope, all together, now –  which way did I come in?

It was an overcast day, and a little after six. The woods were heavy with a morning mist, but I’m pretty sure I packed in from  – This direction. I took off walking.

I had walked just long enough to begin to wonder if I was going in the right direction. I didn’t recall being THIS far into the woods. Then I spotted the edge, and the clearing ahead. I pushed through some brush.

And came out in the middle of a grave yard.

You’ve seen them before. Small, rural graveyards. Family plots from the 1800’s. There were perhaps a half dozen old broken stones. Tilted and covered with moss. No farm house in sight, but it could have rotted away long ago. I stood there a moment, surprised and a little creeped out. I hadn’t actually slept IN a grave yard,  had I? No, just next to one.

As far as I knew, right?

Okay then. Not the way I came in. I checked the sky again, and figured I had misjudged by exactly 180 degrees. I turned around and headed back into the woods. Came out the other side, and spotted the highway ahead.

I was home a day later, in the arms of loving family and girlfriend.

The girlfriend plays a part in this story because her father was an amateur photographer as well. He had a really nifty set up for slide shows in their house. He had installed a big pull down screen mounted in the ceiling of their den.  With the newest carousel projector, and a remote control. – it was a first rate set up for screening travelogue and adventure slides.

With all my film processed  –  we planned a night of reviewing The Big Adventure. I sat next  to the projector, eager to see them enlarged on a HUGE screen.  As he clicked through them, I narrated the locations and told any stories that went with them.

 -CLICK-

 Ric-and-Tent

“Here I am, my last night camping out in the woods. Somewhere in Illinois I think.”

 -CLICK –

 Sunset-Woods-1

“Here is the sunset, going down through the trees.”

 “You should have stopped down,” he said.

 “I did, it  should be the next slide – ”

 -CLICK-

 Sunset-woods-2

 “Ah yes, much better,” he pronounced.  Well hell, I was glad he approved. Then he spoke again. “Who is that?”

 “Who?”

 “That person – there in the frame, center right. Who is that? Was someone with you?”

 “No. It’s just the sunset,” I said. 

“Oh, I see him!” my girlfriend said.

“What are you talking about?”

 My girlfriend got up and pointed to the screen. “Right there,” she insisted. “Who is that –  right  – THERE?”

 Ghost-Full-Arrow

I still get chills, remembering the moment I saw my visitor from the graveyard, his head and shoulders back-lit in the setting sun.

 Because he definitely was not there when I shot that picture.

 

Days of Summer Past in Present Tense

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“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in…” ~ Al Pacino in The Godfather III

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Sir Richard issues the challenge to Sir William for the final joust. Bryan Beard and Richard Alvarez

I have ‘retired’ no less than four times from the professional jousting world.  I don’t know why I was surprised to say ‘yes’ when my one time squire, and sometime boss, Bryan Beard, called to ask me to ride once again.  Bryan heads up his own professional theatrical jousting troupe, Noble Cause Productions. He was in the enviable position of Ric Hits Bryhaving expanded shows rapidly, with touring companies performing in three fairs simultaneously. He needed an experienced knight with some ‘gravitas’ to play opposite him as the villain at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Festival in Mt. Hope –  A small town midway between Lancaster and Lebanon.

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International Action Theatre in performance 1993

This would not be the first time I had jousted at Mt. Hope. Not even the fourth. When I ran a jousting company, International Action Theatre – doing business as The Hanlon-Lees Action Theatre –  I produced and directed the shows at Mt. Hope during the long seasons of ’91,’92 and ’93. At that time, the show ran from June through October, and every weekend was a three day weekend. I’m pretty sure if you checked a dictionary printed during that time, our show schedule was listed next to the word ‘Brutal’.

Hamstringing my son, Travis Alvarez in his first 'final joust' to the death. Mt.Hope PA 2010

Hamstringing my son, Travis Alvarez in his first ‘final joust’ to the death. Mt.Hope PA 2010

I came out of retirement for the third time to ride and direct at the Mt.Hope show back in 2010. It was there that I gave my son Travis his first full ‘final’ joust, and knighted him backstage, awarding him his spurs and armor. I was certain that was my last joust, and was happy to have gone out on such an emotional high. “Never again,” I thought to myself. “Never again” I said out loud, numerous times to any who would ask.

Why then, agree to return some three years later? Like most decisions in life, the reasons were ‘over determined’.  While I often complain of life on the road and its trials and tribulations, I always miss working with the horses.

Riding Deerborne at Mt. Hope 1993

Riding Deerborne at Mt. Hope 1993

I sometimes dream of riding my favorite mount, Deerborne across wide open fields. I usually awake laughing, with tears in my eyes. I miss that horse.

So yes, a chance to work with the horses, and flex the old muscles was certainly a part of it.  A kind of morbid curiosity must have come into play as well. COULD I still do it? Would I be able to put on the harness, and slug it out on horseback, two or three times in a festival day? Not to mention two rides a day, three to four days a week in rehearsal?

I’m no spring chicken, and simply riding and jousting is wear and tear on the joints enough, let alone in armor.  So perhaps there was a bit of vanity involved. Money? Not enough to make a dent in our finances – but enough to justify going. Call it a ‘working vacation’ then – being paid to exercise my riding and acting skills – and perhaps even lose a little weight. Because I had packed on the pounds while sitting at the keyboard. Yes, that was part of the incentive too. A change of scenery, and a more active lifestyle.

And finally, add to the excuses , that of ‘research’. I have an idea for a series of books set at Renaissance Festivals – so this  would be a good chance to catch up on the culture and see what has changed in the intervening years since I began my career some forty years ago.

601727_10151595744928842_1368585969_nI started my summer adventure on July 18th, by taking three days to drive across country. Essentially a marathon slog from San Francisco to Philadelphia – across the US on Highway 80.  I pushed hard the first day – making over 1200 miles in sixteen hours. Of course, I was losing an hour travelling east. The second day found me starting off in Wyoming aiming for Chicago or Joliet, Illinois by night fall. The final push was a mere 850 miles, arriving at Mt. Hope in a driving rainstorm. I spent the night in a leaky office trailer, parked next to the barn. I slept the contented sleep of the road-weary.

Danny Foss as "Sir Malcom"

Danny Foss as “Sir Malcom”

I met with Bryan and Danny Foss, his partner in Noble Cause Productions. Danny would be directing the show for the first two weeks, until Bryan could join us from the show in Colorado where he was currently riding and directing. I had never worked with Danny before, but we got along famously. A fine horseman, our biggest problem was lapsing into ‘remember when’ stories – that no doubt bored the young pups who were riding with us. Just a couple of old farts, telling one more war story.

Noble Cause productions – like most joust companies – usually writes and directs its own joust shows, with a minimal amount of interaction with the attending court or cast. In Mt. Hope however, Noble Cause works hand in hand with the directors and fight choreographers of the Pennsylvania Renaissance Festival to craft a seamless integration of our joust show, our fights and our horse stunts, with the festival’s stage scenario, stage fights and stage stunts.

Final Canon Blast

The Pennsylvania Festival is unique among renaissance fairs. First of all, it has one of the finest joust facilities of any in the country. Even though the arena is more than twenty five years old, the underlying drainage system and infrastructure has kept the sand and field in excellent shape over the years. Add to that a large seven stall barn behind the arena, with cinder block toilet and shower facilities for cast and crew – and you’re way ahead of many of the festivals in terms of performance, housing and stabling accommodations.

The Tiltyard and Dais viewed from the North end of the field

The Tiltyard and Dais viewed from the North end of the field

Unlike most festivals, the arena space is set up as a proscenium. The seating for the audience is on the west side of the field, while the east side is fronted by a huge four story dais. This structure provides a beautiful backdrop for the joust with a multi-level playing stage for the stunt show, and a fantastic setup for the full scale pyrotechnics that 969673_268843693240705_1026331840_naccompany the final joust. In that sense, the PA show is very much like a ‘theme park’. The final joust is a stage show, with lighting and music cues,  incorporating the cast as members of a final showdown essential to the resolution of the scenario that has been playing out all day long at the faire.  The combined effect is a huge spectacle that rivals any stunt show at Universal or Disney.

In the past, whenever I directed a joust show, I tried to rotate the final joust duties between all of the knights. That way, each knight got to carry the day, win or lose,  and be the focus of the scenario at least once a weekend. But to my surprise, when I arrived, I found that I would be playing “The Villain” each and every day – with the duties of the final joust and all that entails.  To be fair, I had given up doing running saddle falls some time ago, so I didn’t have that particular wear and tear to worry about for the next three months. A saddle fall would be performed by my evil henchman, or  Bryan’s young second, thus fulfilling the contractual obligation for one each joust.

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Unhorsing “Sir Tristan”, Nate McCormack in the second act joust. I’m riding Silverado

My role in this year’s scenario, was to play ‘evil’ Sir Richard. Yeah… big stretch. The usual tension between the noble Sir William, Lord of Whitehall and Sir Richard, Earl of Greyhame – was ratcheted up a notch when I decide to ride on behalf of Grace O’Malley, the Pirate Queen of Ireland, played by the beautiful and talented Sydney Schwindt.

Grace O'Malley - Irish "Pirate Queen"

Grace O’Malley – Irish “Pirate Queen”

(Grace O’Malley was a real historical character, whose bio is worth looking up). I agree to ride in the final joust on behalf of Grace, in order to free her companion/lover Red Hugh O’Donnell. If I lose, she loses all her ships to Queen Elizabeth.  And if I win… well was that ever a real possibility for the bad guy?

Of course, it doesn’t stop there. In the final joust, I ‘cheat to win’ –  when Sir William gets the upper hand, I call on my evil henchman Sir Rolland, (played by Dan McClelland) to pull a crossbow on William’s second, Sir Tristan (played by Nate McCormack) . “Yield, William, or the boy dies!”

Sir William takes a crossbow bolt from Sir Roland, as Sir Tristan watches horrified.

Sir William takes a crossbow bolt from Sir Roland, as Sir Tristan watches horrified.

Ever chivalrous,  William surrenders, whereupon I tell Roland to “Spare the boy – kill the KNIGHT!” – Roland shoots William in the shoulder, and I claim victory. Queen Elizabeth (Jessica Eppler)  will have none of this, and strips me of my land and titles, banishing me from England forever.

Not content with William’s demise, and being banished – I launch into a tirade against the Queen.  “I’m going to do something I should have 1391732_595176570545796_182592985_ndone a long time ago. You are not fit to sit upon the throne of this country. You are not the ruler your father was…” and here, knowing I was the oldest person on the field, and likely the oldest performer at the faire – I improvised a line that we kept in the joust for the run of the show.  “I KNEW your father! WE BROKE LANCES TOGETHER! ” So yeah, I was old enough ( just barely ) to have jousted with her father, King Henry VIII. And finally – I finish with the worst I could possibly think of… 1380660_10151909801647375_234099061_n                     ” You… are a weak… and pitiful… WOMAN!”

Okay, so Sir Richard is a misogynist, and at this point, on the delivery of  that line,  I lose half the members of my own audience. But if you’re breaking bad, go REALLY bad.

Ric prepares to kick Danny. Flaming high fall

I give the cry “To ARMS!” and an army of evil minions climbs over the fence to attack the court. Chaos ensues – fights on the field and on the stage. I call for canon fire, and the canons behind me give fire, setting of explosions, fireballs and flying barrels and debris from the stage. All while marching steadily toward Elizabeth. After the smoke clears, the field is empty save for Elizabeth and me.

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“I HAVE WON! And you have lost Elizabeth. Have you anything further to say, before I carry out sentence?”

Delivering those lines, while mounting the stairs was the second hardest thing I did all day. I was pretty much exhausted – especially on day three of Labor Day Weekend in heat of 90 degrees.  But the final confrontation with Queen Elizabeth, portrayed by Jessica Eppler was the high point of my day, if not hers.

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“Yes Sir Richard, you are correct. I do have the weak and feeble body of a woman. But I have the heart and soul of a lion. And the Lion of England as well….”

I often wished the audience could see her face as I did. For even though we were playing it for the cheap seats some seventy five yards away, her expression was pure cinema – and the moment never failed to inspire me to  deliver my best performance.

In point of fact, about two thirds of the way through the run, Jess said to me one day, “You are such and evil man.”  I replied by saying it was great fun playing the character, and that I almost felt she should slap me when I deliver the line “Prepare to meet the same fate your mother met.”

She agreed saying, “That would be GREAT! I feel that too! Would it be okay if I did that?”

I responded “Sure, no problem with me. If you feel it’s right in the 1209341_10151879592881407_1070309630_nmoment, go for it. I’ll be ready.”

That day, when I delivered the line, she let loose with a slap that was heard ‘round the shire’.  Gasps came in stereo. From my left, the audience HOWLED in delight. From my right, the cast on stage GASPED in astonishment.

Turns out, I might should have checked with the festival fight  choreographer, and notified the cast it was coming.  The moment was pure gold however, and we left it in for the closing weekends.

The Queen Dies J.ColfleshAfter the slap, I demand she kneel to receive my death blow. “I kneel for no man!” she responds, and turns her back.

“Have it your way,” I go to cut off her head, when the previously unconscious Grace O’Malley – springs up from the stage, to block my blow and disarm me. She will not stand to achieve victory in this manner.1185918_10151865097401407_90474765_n

Down, but not out, Sir William then rises on the field, demanding that he and I finish the fight to the death. He pulls the arrow from his shoulder, just as I rush in to finish him off.Ric and Bry Battle

As ALWAYS , good triumphs over evil, William defeats me fairly in single combat, and announces that once again and forever “Chivalry Lives”.  A fairy-tale ending for a long day.

Dead again

I don’t mind dying, I get carried off the field.

Once the show was running smoothly, we had time to fine tune bits, and add things to keep it lively. We also had time during the week to meet and mingle with the cast of the faire.  What a delight it was to meet all these fine young actors from across the country. Most of them were multi-talented – being singers, jugglers, fighters, stunt players or musicians on top of their acting roles.

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The central cast of paid actors, called “The Bacchanalians” were housed in dorms with a communal room and kitchen located on the festival grounds. Of course, the commons was used for sedate gatherings like basket weaving, and bible study on a weekly schedule.  What fun it was to meet with these fine upstanding kids, and discuss their opinion on politics and the craft of acting in lively and ‘spirited’ conversations.

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Members of the Bacchanalians discuss obscure American bonding rituals

 

KNIGHTS

As much fun as I had attending cultural events in the commons,  most of my time was spent with the knights and crew of Noble Cause. With more than 25 years of friendship, I knew I could work well with Bryan, but having three new companions in arms – some of  whom were only riding for their first year – was a real delight. People who had never heard my boring stories were now at my mercy.

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969431_669045746458963_536493703_nAs I mentioned, I had the great pleasure of riding the first two weeks with Danny Foss (Sir Malcom) and Mark Fossey, (Sir Arthur) himself a talented musician. It seems everyone on the crew was multi talented. Danny is a professional carpenter – and Mark a musician who played gigs at the pub down the road.  When they left for Kansas City, they were replaced by Bryan Beard and Dan McClelland as my evil companion in arms.

Dan McClelland - Sir Roland

Dan McClelland – Sir Roland

This was Dan’s first full year of jousting, and he was eager to take on any task assigned to him. He had a way of developing a natural rapport with the audience, and was clearly one of their favorites. Not only did he ride as my evil second, but during the last three weeks, he rode as Felix’ evil henchman. This entailed getting his head cut off, and riding in a special ‘headless horseman’ rig. Not an easy task, especially as it got dark by showtime in late October.  I enjoyed getting to know Dan, and I am certain he will grow to be a valuable asset to the company.

1376503_602716783125108_290271775_nThe role of ‘good guy second’  Sir Tristan, was  played by Nate McCormack. Or as the crew liked to tease him, “Nearly Naked Nate” – for his tendency to go bare chested – causing the ladies to swoon.  Nate was my opponent in the second act, and we had great fun taunting each other about him being a ‘boy’ and me being an ‘old man’. He took his ribbing with good grace, and always made me look good by performing a brilliant running dismount in our joust. (And his mom made some awesome cookies…) Nate is engaged to another cast member, the beautiful and talented Chailee Friant – who fought in the chess match, and performed high falls from the upper level of the dais. Their kids are going to be AWESOME!

Opening the show, and then coming in to close the show for the Halloween stretch was the971971_10151729869151406_1642332270_n ‘dark knight’ Sir Sancho , played by Felix Franjul. A skilled rider with dressage training, Felix is also a talented artist, and would assist the other knights in heraldic designs for their shields. Felix had a gymnast’s ability to bounce and roll like top when he performed a dismount.  Felix played  the evil lead in the final three Halloween weekends where he got to invoke the ‘powers of darkness’ – which raised Dan from the dead as a headless horseman. He will be returning for the bulk of the season with Noble Cause next year.

The crew was rounded out with the addition of Matthew Gnojek  (Sir Mereck) who came from the Colorado show to work as ‘Master of the List’ and learn to ride and joust. This was

Merekstandard operating procedure for the company. To place a knight in training as Master of the List, while he learned the skills and the ins and outs of the show. Mathew played the foppish Prince on court in Colorado. It was a bit of a change-up to play a ‘heavy’ Master of the List, and he had a hard time with the role of Knight at first.  His rendition of musical numbers and Disney dance routines however,  kept the cast and crew of the faire  in stitches. I finally took him aside to advise him, “Less Danny Kay – more Clint Eastwood” on the delivery of his character, Sir Mereck, on the field.  By the end of the run, he was riding, jousting and delivering a wicked smirk with the best of us. He’s unleashed the inner ‘bad guy’. Welcome to the dark side Matt. We have cookies.

 SQUIRES

The show couldn’t run without ground support of course. It’s the squires who make us look good. As usual here in America – if you’re looking for someone with horse experience, or even an interest in horses – you’re more than likely going to come up with a female. It’s just a fact of our culture.  And the females on our crew were exceptional.

The Squires of Noble Cause. Kneeling L-R Erin A Bark, Kris Marie, Rosalie  Terry,  Center L-R Sam Rudd, Natalie Lawton, Bonnie Croft, Back L-R, Miachael XXX, Joe Fleischman and Emy RothsXXXx

The Squires of Noble Cause. Kneeling L-R Erin A Bark, Kris Marie, Rosalie Terry, Center L-R Sam Rudd, Natalie Lawton, Bonnie Croft,  Back L-R, Michael Howe, Joe Fleischman and Emy Rothenberger

Head squire duties fell upon Emy Rothenberger, who was an able Squire Emybodied task master for her charges – and a diehard fantasy fan and gamer. SO of course, she fit right in.  While any squire might be dressed in any knight’s livery if the need is urgent – we tended to be assigned squires for each of us for the duration of the run.  That way, they could learn the peculiarities of a particular horse, and the unique way each knight wanted his horse tacked or groomed. Emy served as Bryan’s squire. She was always on top of the needs of the horses, as well as the setup of the field props. Emy took her responsibilities seriously, and it showed in a smooth running performance.

 

 

946034_598429470220506_71273659_nRolland drew Kris Marie for his squire. Kris had actually worked ‘for the mouse’ in Disney Theme parks as a costumed character before working at renaissance festivals. She also played Milady D’Winter at the Jersey faire. After tech rehearsal one day, when they had discharged a full round of pyrotechnics – she announced with breathless astonishment “Hey guys! That barrel that flies through the air when the canon explodes… IT’S NOT A REAL BARREL!”  I looked directly at her, and bent low to whisper … “Yeah Kris, we’re not real ‘knights’ either… it’s a show. Like everyone else on the crew, Kris was multi talented. An accomplished singer, she was also a motivational speaker.  She was always a bright light, even on the darkest winter mornings.

My squire and evil minion was played by the charming and capable Natalie Lawton. I actually met Natalie three years ago, when I was directing the show. But she wasn’t assigned ‘full time’ squire duty, and 1381762_10151909794982375_1732592608_nwas  only able to show up in between other assignments in the fair. Now she was dedicated to full time squiring. As it turned out, Natalie was also an able and accomplished seamstress – having made squire tabards, shirts, rein covers, trappings and saddle pads for the knights on demand.  She had the ability to appear shy and retiring, until she let loose with a loud challenge of  “SLOW DOWN” to any who dared  drive too fast past the barn.  You know you’ve found a keeper when you don’t need to check your cinch before mounting. Thanks for taking such great care of me on the field Natalie.

 

Joe Fleichman was slated to be Nate’s squire. A true ‘renaissance man’  – he was quick to offer help with your vehicle, discuss quantum physics, or give you a look through his telescope set up for stargazing in the 602088_10151909794812375_1659579469_ntiltyard.  Joe was new to festivals and horses in general,  but he was quietly determined to make his mark. Curious about all aspects of medieval life, combat, and equestrian management – his attention to detail and dogged determination to make an impression paid off. He was punished… er,… rewarded… by getting the opportunity to travel with the company to Florida after Mt. Hope closed, and he will be on the road next year, squiring and training for knighthood.  Don’t say I didn’t try to warn you off Joe. You’ll have no one to blame but yourself. Oh… and keep practicing your ring throws.

 

1184882_269736326484775_730927429_nThis was Erin Bark’s second year of touring as a squire with Noble Cause. I thought about calling her “Radar” because of her tendency to anticipate everyone’s needs and stay one step ahead of the game.  A truly hard worker – her knowledge and experience of working the show on the road made her perfect as a ‘swing squire’ – able to fill in at any position on the field or  in the barn. Her dedication to the horses, allowed most of us to relax on our days off, Monday and Tuesdays. Erin was always ready to lend a hand whenever and wherever it was needed. That’s the spirit that makes a show run.

 

Michael Howe was another performer who came to us from Colorado as well. Michael was also in a ‘swing position’ filling 1374337_10151828571770819_575689372_nin as Master of the List when Matthew got a chance to ride, and working as an extra squire , horse handler and ring holder. Michael was another talented artist on the crew, and spent a lot of his free time pursuing his skills as an illustrator, utilizing photos and live models of us in action to round out his portfolio. He presented me with an awesome portrait of ‘Sir Richard’ – for my birthday. I expect to see great accomplishments in his artistic future.

 

 

EQUINE PARTNERS

Bry DK Brower

There is no stronger bond than between horse and rider – or so the saying goes. That bond goes double when you’re in a working relationship with the horse. Whether working cattle, competing in equestrian games or in competitive or theatrical mounted combat., the horse and rider must form a synergistic bond to ensure mutual safety and accomplishments. Sure, we’re only PRETENDING to kill each other. But the horse doesn’t know that. They are training for ‘open field’ jousting – just as they would be employed  in real combat. We don’t use the safety of a tiltrail – so horse and rider must work carefully together to avoid injuring one another – or the other team.

Danny breaks a lance on me in the final joust.

Danny breaks a lance on me in the final joust. I’m on Siverado for the first three weeks of the faire.

I started the festival on a tried and true mount that has been in the string for half a dozen years. “Silverado” was rock solid, and a good mount to have under me when I returned to the skills.  He went with Danny to Kansas City after the first three weeks, and I got to ride on a wonderful horse called “Storm”. My son Travis, had the chance to usher Storm into the 1256522_681873211842229_2040962731_njousting world some two years ago. Although it takes a ‘barn’ to train a horse, each rider who follows can have a good or bad cumulative effect on a given mount. Storm was a delight to ride. Just the right amount of eagerness at the ends – so that one only had to ‘unleash’ his power, and he would ride straight at anything.1385984_595169990546454_1253254114_n

Bryan picked up a number of horses while we were in Pennsylvania – and we tried to introduce them all to at least some elements of the show. I got to take a horse completely new to jousting, and work him into the game show. “Theo” was a great ride, but had an issue with being ‘herd bound’. He simply would not enter the arena first, and went bug nutty if I held him there when the other horses had left. He tried on a number of occasions to throw me in the midst of a gaming show – but we always managed to settle down and get our tasks done. We teach best, that which we most need to learn, and Theo and I learned a lot of patience together.

And sadly, it was during the faire that we learned of the passing of one of our favorite warhorses, ‘Bonnie’. Bonnie had been retired for the last year, having reached that ‘aged’ status where she had earned gentle days of soft green pastures and sunlight. Bonnie carried many of us through numerous jousts over the years. She always gave one hundred percent. This photo of the two of us was taken at Scarborough Faire, during a freak snow storm in 2007.  Rest easy Bonnie – your name is on the honor role.
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 The Audience

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New to me this year, was the practice of selling favors. When I started jousting, getting a favor from a lady in the audience was either pre-determined (your own lady, or someone on court gave you one) OR it was the luck of the draw. The seconds announced before the show that ANY lady wishing to favor a knight could come forward with a token – a scarf, a ribbon something to tie upon the lance – and do so during the show. It would NOT be returned.  Of course, some knights would be more heavily favored than others. Such was the luck of the 1078767_262734760518265_2145488246_odraw. Later, we began to ‘plant’ a few favors in the audience, to ensure at least one or two would be tied on a knight’s lance.  Our seconds would take pre-made favors out into the audience, find a likely volunteer or two, and give them the favors.   We still got spontaneous favors as well, with more than one joke pair of bra and panties tied prominently to a lance.

Sam Selling Favores

Sam working the crowd.

But this year, Noble Cause began selling favors as a way to involve more than a few ‘select’ ladies.  “Favor Maidens” prepared small favors in the knights colors in advance, and pre-sold the favors to the audience. These favors then could be purchased by anyone – male or female, young or old – and they would come forward to ‘favor’ their knight at the proper moment in the ceremony.

Rose and Bonnie

Rose and Bonnie

We were fortunate to have the lovely Sam Rupp, Rosalie Terry,  and impish Bonnie Croft as our Favor Maidens. The Favor Maidens at the Mt. Hope fair also served as horse handlers and extra squires when needed.  Not only were they kept busy making and selling favors, their hands were filled before and after the show with grooming brushes and horse shampoo.  Always ready to walk out a hot horse, and bring a cold drink to a thirsty knight or squire – their presence was a great asset to the show. Bravo ladies, and thanks for all your hard work.

Once a joust was finished, it was incumbent upon the knights, to take the favors they had received, and stand at the crossroads above the tournament field, where we would return the favors to our fans. This meant they got a keepsake that had been ‘in’ the show. It was also a chance to mix and mingle with our fans, to receive their accolades, and pose for photo ops. Our hard working squires meanwhile – would be tending our horses. This is one change from ‘back in the day’ that I really appreciated.

Ric and Fans

All too quickly, my twelve weeks on the circuit was up – and I had to leave for the Austin Film Festival. But not before I got a chance to see the opening performance of the special Halloween Extravaganza. Once again, Noble Cause worked hand in hand with the cast, choreographers and set designers of Mt. Hope to create a spectacle to take your breath away. Nothing short of fantastic pyrotechnics, a live beheading, a headless horseman, and the flaming sword of righteousness would do as a finale for Noble Cause.

Halloween Images – Noble Cause at Mt. Hope.

Rolan Headles by Colflesh

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I’ve learned to ‘never say never’ – so I can’t say that my last joust… was my last joust. I made new friends, trained new horses, dropped twenty pounds and had a great time.  Time will tell if I strap on the harness again to ride with Noble Cause. But if I never do, it was a hell of a run. Thanks for the memories.

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Special thanks here, to the wonderful photographers, professional and amateur alike – who took such fantastic photos of us in performance, and made them available through the magic that is social media.  Thanks to: Wallace Bidelspach, D.K. Brower ,  Jason S Colflesh, Julia Patton,  Emanuel G. Paige,  Michael Ulrich, and Amanda Ries

Honest Sweat

There is something satisfying about working hard at a difficult physical endeavor. “Honest Sweat” is the term that comes to mind.

I am currently on location at the Pennsylvania Renaissance Festival, in Mt. Hope PA. Once again, I’m back in the saddle, and riding in medieval harness.

Today, we had a long rehearsal in the hot tiltyard. The white sand bounced the bright sun back into our eyes, as we practiced making passes with lance and shield.

I have never ridden with these three fine Knights of Noble Cause – and I’ve only been on this particular horse for three days. But already we are trading hits on the ‘suns anvil’ working ourselves and the horses in a curious ballet of faux combat. All the skills necessary to deliver a killing blow with a lance, and none of the intent to do so.

Of course, the horses don’t know that.

Walking the horses afterward, cooling them down, Scraping off their honest sweat, is a kind of communion with them. Horses welfare first – last and always.

Time enough for me to shower later.

I’ll let my honest sweat dry.

Work is its own cure

Some days, you have to find inspiration where ever you can. Motivation to keep going. I found this lovely poem on the blog of a beautiful and talented friend. She’s an actress. Thank’s Big Al, for the reminder.

For the young who want to

BY MARGE PIERCY

Talent is what they say

you have after the novel

is published and favorably

reviewed. Beforehand what

you have is a tedious

delusion, a hobby like knitting.

___________________________________

Work is what you have done

after the play is produced

and the audience claps.

Before that friends keep asking

when you are planning to go

out and get a job.

________________________________

Genius is what they know you

had after the third volume

of remarkable poems. Earlier

they accuse you of withdrawing,

ask why you don’t have a baby,

call you a bum.

___________________________________

The reason people want M.F.A.’s,

take workshops with fancy names

when all you can really

learn is a few techniques,

typing instructions and some-

body else’s mannerisms

is that every artist lacks

a license to hang on the wall

like your optician, your vet

proving you may be a clumsy sadist

whose fillings fall into the stew

but you’re certified a dentist.

_____________________________________

The real writer is one

who really writes. Talent

is an invention like phlogiston

after the fact of fire.

Work is its own cure. You have to

like it better than being loved.

Marge Piercy, “For the young who want to” from Circles on the Water: Selected Poems of Marge Piercy (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982). First appeared in Mother Jones V, no. 4 (May 1980). Copyright © 1980, 1982 by Marge Piercy and Middlemarsh, Inc. Used by permission of the Wallace Literary Agency, Inc.

Source: Circles on the Water (Alfred A. Knopf, 1982)

“Specialization is for insects…”

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”                                                                                          ~ Robert A. Heinlein

I’ve tried in my own way, to live my life by that philosophy. After all, it is the basic premise behind the very notion of what defines a “Renaissance Man”. People like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo or Thomas Jefferson – did not spend their whole lives focused on only one pursuit. Leonardo da Vinci wasn’t ‘just’ a painter. Michelangelo, not ‘only’ a sculptor. Thomas Jefferson, not simply a ‘slave holder’. We are not defined solely by our greatest accomplishments nor by our deepest faults. At least, we shouldn’t be.

No, I don’t consider myself to be on par with those examples. But they do serve as inspirational targets. And so I have spent my personal and professional life pursuing various avenues of the arts, arms and commerce that intrigue, inspire and enrich me. An itinerant scholar of life’s many paths. I choose to follow my heart and head wherever it might lead; Including but not limited to Fencing, Jousting, Flying, Writing, Film Making, Scuba Diving, Acting, Photography, Travel, Politics, Teaching and Studying… always studying.

“Jack of all trades, master of none…” the old adage chides. The implication is that I have squandered my life by not dedicating it to one single pursuit. But I’ve decided to wear that appellation proudly. “Specialization is for insects” – my banner reads. In point of fact, most of the Masters I have had the pleasure to study with, were well rounded Renaissance Men (And yes of course, women). They were fencing masters, who were great musicians or mimes. Film makers who were avid car buffs. Artists who were chefs. Illustrators who were rock drummers. Soldiers who marched for peace… I could go on. And without exception, the truly great ones, when asked how their pursuit was going –  always said something like “I think I’m getting the hang of this…”  And they never, ever stop learning. Especially from their students.  Because if you really feel like you’ve ‘mastered’ something – you’re probably only kidding yourself.

I like to think I’m still young, that I’ve got a lot of vibrant years of living, learning and creativity ahead of me. But the truth is… I’ve put in some miles. But that physical odometer comes with a lot of colorful living.

“You have lived a storied life,” someone said to me after I related a colorful incident from my checkered past. I realized of course, that that was true. I’ve got stories to tell, and I enjoy telling them. Sometimes they are true stories. Sometimes, they are stories I wish were true. Occasionally, they are truths I tell in advance.

So I’ve brought a few of them together, to this virtual way-station for raconteurs. I’ll use it to highlight my newest pursuits in film, screenwriting and publishing. I’ll take the time to put down some of those colorful moments, and the lessons I hope I’ve learned from them. I’ll proudly promote my newest creative efforts, whether on the page, the stage or screen, and gently cajole you into downloading, reading or watching them.

I hope you’ll pull up one of those tree stumps and make yourself a regular visitor to my camp.

Let’s sit around the fire and tell tales.