Sunday, November 25, 2018

Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History by Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, John Peterson and Sam Witwer

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Why I Read It: 
The old Dungeon Master inside me was powerless to resist when I saw it on the shelf.

Summary: The history of the Dungeons & Dragons brand told mostly through imagery.

My Thoughts: I have no idea of whether or not I can relate to the modern, 5th edition, of Dungeons & Dragons. All I know is that it took me no time at all to flip through the pages of this massive, beautiful book and find my zone.

I started around 10 or 11 years old, with the first edition. Yes, as stated above, I was the Dungeon Master, the King of the Geeks. I had to study up before each adventure. I had to know every nook and cranny of the dungeon module. I had to know the tendencies and capabilities of each and every monster the party would come across. I read the Monster Manual, Monster Manual II and the Fiend Folio from end to end.

I generally played with my friends Dan and Mike, but also with my brother and sister and at least two other groups of kids around town I can think of today. At that time, in the early 1980s, D & D was everywhere.

This book, from the cover inward, brought back waves of memories. It created cravings for a return to not only those days, but those worlds. And, as I dove into the material, I realized how much I've retained. I can rattle off the names of the modules - that was the classic era of the dungeon module - and tell you their backstories, where the traps were, what the final bosses were. We - Mike, Dan and I - had all of the hardcovers, stacks of dungeons, and reams of generated characters through which we lived and died.

We had a general idea of the game's history, of Gary Gygax and his group of friends. I wasn't old enough to really pay attention to the corporate side of things, to understand power struggles and declining revenues and corporate buyouts. Quite frankly, I didn't know there would be future editions of the game; it was perfect as it was. Besides, life went on. My parents divorced. I moved out of town, lost touch with Danny and Mikey, was forced to mature faster than I should have. D & D faded out of my life. In later years I read a few novels, but basically stopped reading fiction when I became a historian, later a naturalist, now both.

This book brought it all back, in those waves I mentioned. My heart has been confused for several days now. Isn't this where I belong? Can I somehow get back?

The power of the artwork is incredible. The book is huge, with vivid imagery on every page, with explanations behind their origins, and a running history of the brand. If you've ever had a D & D zone, like I did, you'll find it in this book, and you may start to understand how this game has affected your outlook on life in general. We learned a lot of skills through D & D, from basic teamwork  to critical thinking on up. I've written fifty books. Fifty books, by 47 years old! Can I really say that the way Dungeons & Dragons inspired my imagination, it had no impact on my chosen path?

No way.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Not For Long by Robert W. Turner II

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Why I Read It: Reviewed for Amazon Vine. Like many, I've become very concerned in recent years with the lack of player safety and security in the NFL, and whether or not I should commit time and any money to the sport.

Summary: The life of an NFL athlete from first dreams to shattered dreams, as seen through the eyes of a sociologist who also happens to be a former player.

My Thoughts: Ugh. It's hard to say more than that.

The system is so messed up. The people making money at the top are looking for more and are doing so at the expense of the athletes who play the game. Those athletes sacrifice their bodies for the sport, with the average career expectancy being just over three years. Most of the players who play in the NFL don't last long enough to qualify for benefits, and many have no clue what to do when they involuntarily exit from the game.

In reality, by the time that they make a team, these athletes should be thinking about what is going to happen to them after their time is done, but they can't. They become part of a totalizing institution - like a prison or a branch of the military - that controls their every move. Their focus is supposed to be on the next workout, the next practice, the next game, not on the next phase of life. Their livelihood, week to week, depends on it. Contracts are not guaranteed, and only the best of the best qualify for signing bonuses and other such guaranteed perks.

The owners want as much of the pie as they can get, and the players want their share. Prof football is a $9 billion industry heading for $25 billion within a few years. But there is the third player: college football. Itself a multi-million dollar industry, college ball is a sham at best; many of the athletes are steered through paths of least academic resistance to bring money into the schools. Many of them end up without real educations and without career options beyond football. The best possible alternative would be the development of a minor league system, but would USC or Alabama ever want to watch the best athletes going straight from high school into a professional football developmental system that bypasses their Saturday afternoon experience?

And then there's race, and economic disparity that helps determine who even gets the chance to live a portion of the dream. It's all a nasty puzzle.

With each Sunday that passes in the fall, another career comes to an end, and another one starts. A young boy watches the game and gets inspired and takes the first steps toward an NFL "career." He joins the millions that winnow down to the thousands to the hundreds. An injury occurs on an NFL field that ends the dream for a young man who has no idea what to do next. He loses his job, his livelihood and in many cases his identity.

It feels like this book is just the beginning of a very needed, very hard look at the game.

Monday, November 12, 2018

White Pine by Andrew Vietze

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Why I Read It: The perfect blend of history and nature. I stand at that intersection, constantly looking around for new information.

Summary: The story of the "King's Pines" and the impact they had on American history, mostly in New England.

My Thoughts: I know that our elementary and secondary school history books simplify the stories for us, and as we march forward in time, more will be left out; the history I learned in school will not be the same as even my own sons learn. And that's just a page count synopsis, having nothing to do with political influences as to what "should" be learned, and what shouldn't.

I've long known about the "King's Pines," that prior to the Revolution the King of England claimed the tallest, straightest white pine trees in New England for his own, for "mastidge" for Royal Navy ships. Yet, I did not know how deeply the story ran.

As with anything else in colonial times, there was a price to be paid for making such claims. The King believed the trees belonged to him. The colonists believed that they had their right to lands granted to them and that no trees should be exempted from that. There was too much to be lost. A mast for a Royal Navy ship might be more valuable (in sale price) as a mast on a merchant vessel. The colonials rebelled, as early as the 1600s and right on through the Revolution.

Vietze brings us through a multi-century journey with the White Pine as the focal point. He explains how and when violence erupted in the conflict between crown and colony over the trees, why logging communities came and went, and how the industry shaped - literally, on maps - our oldest towns in New Hampshire and Maine. And he explains how the White Pine became the symbol of New England, even flying on a flag that was supposedly flown at the Battle of Bunker Hill.

He brings the story up to the modern day, tracing how one company is even fishing old logged trees out of river bottoms for reuse today.

I wonder if any of the old signs exist today, if a tree struck with the King's marker, a three-ax-chop arrow, still stands today? I'm willing to walk the woods of New England to find out.