Author Archives: Josh

SPOOKY and… Seminary?


Rachel and I are in a very busy season of life right now– anyone with young children can attest to how they absorb one’s free time (in the best way)– but I also have several side projects now sponging up my spare minutes early in the morning before the kids get up and late at night after they go to bed.

For one thing, along with a friend of mine, the estimable Mr. Jose Cruz, I’ve started a literary magazine (as one does). For another, I’ve started back with my old habit of taking graduate level classes. Will I never learn?

A word about Jose: I met him in the strangest way, by taking his job. Wait. That doesn’t sound quite right. Hang on. Jose used to be the children’s librarian at the library where I work. He transitioned out of that position to work in public schools as a media specialist, kind of mirroring the way I transitioned out of schools to work in public libraries. So when he left, I was the guy they found to replace him. Thanks to my new colleagues, who were convinced Jose and I would hit it off, we met and hung out and found we had loads in common.

We’re both dudes who love to work with young kids (anomalies in a woman-dominated work environment). We’re both married with small children of our own (and their ages roughly coincide). And we’re both fans of a very specific, rather niche brand of horror fiction: the vintage stuff that’s high on drama and surprise but low on gore, campy black and white movies and crackling radio plays and weird tales from penny dreadfuls and yellowed pulp magazines. Most people who say they love horror generally mean the slasher-y stuff or the torture-y stuff (neither of which does much for me), so I was shocked and delighted to find that he knew and loved some of the same old short stories I do– and that his knowledge of genre classics even exceeds my own.

Since we like this stuff so much, and since no one else currently seemed to be doing it, we thought it would be fun to create a publication dedicated to telling new stories in that style. Thus, SPOOKY Magazine was born. SPOOKY is a twenty-first century revival of the classic, gentler style of horror fiction so near and dear to Jose and me, focused on PG-rated thrills and chills, packed with entertainingly eerie goodness. We’re different from pretty much every other horror magazine currently out there, and proud to be so. We just released our first issue last week, and we are pleased as punch with how it came out. If that sounds like your jam, you can order your own copy here.

As if coediting a magazine wasn’t enough to keep me busy, I’ve also begun taking online seminary classes from SBTS in Louisville, KY. (And if you think it’s weird that the same guy who works as a children’s librarian is the same guy who likes and writes horror fiction and is the same guy now enrolled in seminary… hi, I’m Josh. Glad to meet you.)

If you’ve been following this blog for any amount of time, or know me well, it’s probably not a surprise that I love Jesus. I usually don’t make a big deal about my faith with my writing or work friends, but I am always happy to talk with anyone who has questions. I’ve always wanted my life to be primarily about serving and helping others, and I’m convinced that the best, most lasting way to help people is to bring them to Jesus, so that they can know His goodness and grace the way I do. I’m convinced that Jesus is the only hope for our dying world, (and if that sounds really churchy to you–  so be it, I guess. *shrugs.*  Again, I’m Josh. It’s good to meet you.)

Thus, as I stumble closer and closer to the dreaded 4-0, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want the second half of my life to be about: creativity, sure, but also service. I began to consider seminary as a means to better equip myself with knowledge to help other people know Jesus, to be better prepared to serve in the church, and simply for my own personal growth in faith. I mentioned the idea to my pastor, and he thought it was a great plan. So… I thought about it some more.

A couple months went by and my pastor brought it up to me again. “So, you doing this thing? Go apply now!” so, with that kind of encouragement (and with financial sponsorship from my church!) I’m back in school. Again.

Somebody, slap me.

This time around, though, it’s different. Without the pressure of needing a degree for any specific career goals, (I’m very happy in my current job and not currently planning on becoming a full-time pastor or anything like that), I can simply enjoy the learning process. Should I complete the whole course of study, I’ll wind up with an MDiv, but I’m only taking one class at a time (which is all I can handle with my current load of responsibilities), so it’s gonna take me a while. I’d like to focus my electives to earn a certificate in Counseling, but we’ll see how it goes. For now, I feel like a kid who’s gotten his Hogwarts letter and, although it’s a lot of work and a major time commitment, I’m just happy to be included.

So yeah. Busy.

Did I mention that Rachel and I also want to build a house? More on that as things unfold.

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Posted by on May 10, 2024 in Blog


Creating An Imaginary Amusement Park

And now for, in the immortal words of Monty Python, something completely different.

First, a prologue. My brain is dumb sometimes. My time for my own creative work is limited these days, and there is all kinds of writing I feel I ought to be doing in that time– I have a backlog of stories I want to write: stories that A. have something worthwhile to say, B. could be sold and published to make me and my family a little extra money, or (what is best) C. stories which include a little of column A and a little of column B. This entirely-too-long essay will be none of those things, unfortunately, but I know myself well enough to know I will not be free to pursue what I consider my more serious work until I give in to this urge and get this nonsense out of my system. I literally was lying awake thinking about this one night. An active imagination can be both a gift and a curse. If you, reader, are expecting anything touching or profound or funny or scary in the post that follows, prepare for disappointment. This is an exercise in pure creative self-indulgence, nothing more.

Ok. Here we go.

I really enjoy theme parks– simple things for simple minds, I suppose, but put me in the vicinity of shows, junk food, and rides, especially when these things are surrounded by creative and immersive theming, and I can grow positively giddy. Rachel and I had the opportunity to visit Universal Studios this past weekend (neither of us had ever been) and we had a grand time. It also got me thinking again about theme parks, the way they are structured, and the creative ways they use space to tell stories. Although a cynic would be quick to point out the artificiality of the theme park experience, I prefer the word intentionality. It’s all art of the most corporate kind, designed for maximum appeal to make money, of course, but in a park, one is in fact surrounded on all sides by art, and when it is done well, every aspect from the music, to the landscaping, to the rides, and shows, and food serves to draw park-goers into little stories. When it works, there’s nothing else quite like it.

There’s an online course available for free that I worked through for my own amusement *heh* a while back called “Imagineering in a Box,” in which Disney park designers talk through the thought process they go through when planning things to build (it’s interesting, and it’s free. If stuff like that is your jam, you can access it here). As a mental exercise/thought experiment, participants are encouraged to plan all aspects of their own “lands.” Because this is a particular geekdom for me, I went ahead and planned out an entire park, or at least the rough concept of one. That’s what this post is: An entirely too-detailed description of Josh’s yet-to-be-named classic video-game themed funland. Keep in mind, unless I suddenly become really good friends with a billionaire investor with nothing better to throw money at, none of this will ever exist in the real world. This is also representative of an early brainstorm, and I’m sure that in the real design process of a theme park, most if not all of this would be scrapped. So even if this park was going to be real (it’s not), none of this design would be. If this bores you, feel free to tap out now. If this interests you, buckle in, keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times, and hang on tight, because things are gonna get really nerdy really fast.

For theming, I wanted to go with something a little different, since the major movie studios seem to already all have been tapped for amusement parks. To my knowledge, though, there’s no park (at least in the US) themed around video games, and there is a wealth of iconic and fun IP in that arena that I think would translate well to park rides and experiences. Since Universal Studios already has Super Mario World at their California park (and is presumably adding it to Orlando as well), I’m going into this assuming Nintendo properties would be a no-go for me, but even without Pokemon, Metroid, Mario, or Zelda, there is still a lot of IP that would be fun to use for a park. My personal taste in games is odd; I personally love a lot of semi-obscure cult classics and modern indie titles, while I know most others like current big-budget AAA games, but I’ve tried to stay away from most of those sorts of things. In selecting theming for attractions, I’ve tried to stick to games with a long legacy and enduring fanbase– things that would be recognizable to the widest possible range of people but that wouldn’t feel as instantly dated as a Fortnite dance. Timelessness (if such an adjective can be applied to anything in such a rapidly changing medium as video games) is a quality I would strive for. I also want games that have strong atmospheric elements of their own, with a distinctive look and feel. If a particular attraction doesn’t represent a known commodity to a particular guest, I would expect the theming and storytelling of the experience itself to be strong, self-contained, and universally understandable enough to make sense to anyone encountering it for the first time.

Here I’ll go about describing the different lands in the park. I’ve drawn up a really crude map (not even remotely to scale, and missing pretty much all the shops and carny games and food stalls that pepper the average theme park landscape, but it’s enough to give an idea of how one may progress through the park). For each land, the Kahn Academy course encourages participants to break down its core elements to talk about how each would serve the story the land is telling. These steps are Theme, Food, Attractions, and Characters. My imaginary park contains five lands, so for each of them, I’ll expound briefly on each of these four elements. I don’t, unfortunately, have clever names for most of these, so bear with me. 


OVERALL EMOTIONS/IDEAS: Wonder, Possibility, Optimism

  1. THEME

Visitors enter the park into the bustling heart of a heightened/fantasy version of downtown Tokyo. Skyscrapers tower above people (using the forced perspective illusion so popular at Disney World and Universal to make buildings look taller than they really are). A friendly kaiju also stands among the buildings, a car accidently crushed under his foot. The streets are lined with vehicles– cars, bicycles, and rickshaws. Neon lights are everywhere, and all signs are in both Japanese (predominantly) and English (as a sort of subtitle). The street and buildings themselves feel a bit old and grimy, with that odd blend of flashy consumerism and scrappy (though in this case not depressing) poverty one encounters in big cities. There are lots of vending machines, distinctly Japanese in their design. Shop windows are full of fashionable clothes, open-air market style food stalls, and Kawaii cartoon trinkets. One can easily imagine put-together businessmen and women carrying briefcases and talking on cell phones striding quickly down these streets on their way to work. Signs, building names, posters, and even little things like car license plates would all be good places to hide little easter egg references to popular games. The soundscape is made up of peppy J-pop and techno music (the kind of stuff that forms the Katamari or Dance Dance Revolution soundtracks) pumped in through speakers, the clatter of vehicles, the cry of venders, and, of course, the rattle and rumble from nearby roller coasters and the chatter of excited guests as they gather maps and begin to plan where to go first.

  1. FOOD

As mentioned above, food would be served from open-air style market stalls and food trucks. Here, guests can find noodle bowls, poke bowls, and bowls of fried rice. There should be one of those restaurants with sushi going by on a trolley, as well. This world also has snacky Asian fare like gyoza, egg rolls, crab rangoons, and barbecue-on-a-skewer. One stall would have boba tea, another would have fruit smoothies with unique options (rambutan, melon, jackfruit, etc).

A larger sit-down restaurant in this world, blending into the big-city feel, is the EA Sports bar. It serves the typical pub food one would expect– big deli-style sandwiches, wings, loaded baked potatoes, cobb salads, etc, and is decorated with posters and memorabilia from popular titles like the Madden, PGA Tour, NBA Live and MVP Baseball franchises. Of course, big screens are also tuned to sports inside the restaurant, as they would be in any regular sports bar.


Something I noticed and appreciated during my trip to Universal is the way kid-friendly attractions are scattered throughout the park alongside rides for the older set, rather than being completely relegated to a kiddie zone. This helps the whole park have a “something for everybody” feel, which I want to replicate in this design/plan.

Although this is probably the smallest section of the park (again, map is not to scale), it does house several attractions. One would be a classic Disney-style dark ride based on Mega Man, in which riders take a slow-moving cable-car ride through Dr. Wiley’s robot factory, a bustling, busy world of cartoonish mechanical mayhem. The queue (which I think is an important element of the storytelling of any ride) would be decorated with anime-style artwork depicting the game’s characters in the style of the box art from games, laying out the (rather thin) backstory of Good Dr. Light’s creation of the robots, the robot reprogramming and takeover by the evil Dr. Wiley, and Mega Man’s volunteering to be converted into a battle robot in order to defend the world against Wiley’s schemes. Music in the queue (as in most of the queues for most of the rides in the park) would be drawn directly from the iconic soundtracks of the Mega Man games, although likely remixed to be richer than the tinny 8-bit originals. Throughout the ride’s showrooms and scenes, full of a Seussian spiderweb of conveyer belts, robotic arms, spinning gears, etc, Guests watch animatronics of Mega Man jumping and shooting his way past mechanical baddies in order to reach and defeat Dr. Wiley himself.

This land also has the entrance for the Cruis’n World racing coaster, based on the classic 1996 arcade game. This would be a coaster with some slight hills but no inversions, powered primarily by multiple launches at different points on the track. Cars designed to look like street-racing sports cars would run simultaneously on two parallel tracks to give riders the feel of racing riders in other cars. The ride would be fast, but heavily themed with famous landmarks for the cars to zip around– the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, the Pyramids, etc. This is inspired a bit by the now defunct (but formerly awesome) Big Bad Wolf coaster at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, in which riders zipped around a diorama of a cute German village. The queue would be lined with cool cars and would play the music from the game’s main menu and car select screen (which even features a lady soulfully singing about players having the beat (?) and the power to… cruise the world. It’s cheesetastic.)

A third attraction would be the “Tech Expo” (for lack of a better name) exhibit hall. Themed after a gaming convention like E3 or PAX, this exhibit hall would feature hands-on STEM activities such as one would find in a kids’ science museum, but with a distinctive gaming-focused bent. Kids could experiment with circuits, create and animate simple pixel art, control robots by coding chains of simple commands, etc. The focus here would be edutainment– learning, yes, but more play than work. This hall could also feature opportunities for hands-on experiences with cutting-edge gaming tech: innovations with VR, etc.

Not really an attraction as one generally thinks of them, but worth noting here as well, is the MLG arena. This would be set up ideally to host Major League Gaming events (major tournaments with professional players and sponsors and such), with seating for fans. When not in use for such competitions, this arena could also host concert series’ and other things of that nature.


Characters and performers can help a park feel lively and exciting. Stumbling across a character meet-and-greet or a show on the street gives guests a feeling of “being in the right place at the right time,” as they only show up at seemingly random intervals throughout the day. Since these are much lower-budget experiences than rides and such, Characters can include some deeper cut game references, as it’s not a big loss if a guest doesn’t “get” a specific reference. Costumed characters in Tokyo City could be Mega Man, King and Queen of the Cosmos from the Katamari series, and Dante from Devil May Cry. A street show that could be cool would be something themed after Dance Dance Revolution, with a troupe of hip-hop dancers performing complicated, precisely choreographed dance numbers.


OVERALL EMOTIONS/IDEAS: Nostalgia, Fun, Childlike Imagination

  1. THEME

Taking a left out of Tokyo City, park guests find themselves on Arcade Main Street. The overall look of this land is small-town Americana, but cartoonified. Buildings are bulged and tilted, and nothing is built at right-angles. A burst fire hydrant squirts water onto the road, and there’s a splash pad for kids. There are lots of well-manicured flower beds, perhaps some topiaries, and a bronze statue of Pac Man (cartoon version with arms and legs, etc) stands as a centerpiece. Colorful sculptures of classic characters are everywhere– as if they have burst from the screens of arcade cabinets to populate the town. Obvious visual references would be Frogger, Contra, Dragon’s Lair, Galaga (the blocky UFO monster hovering over a building, supported by the flashing tractor beam it is shooting down), Donkey Kong (oldschool version– not sure if rights could be acquired from Nintendo, but iconic enough to try), Ghosts ‘N Goblins, Bubble Bobble, Dig-Dug, Joust, Q-Bert, and Paperboy. Think suburbia by way of Wreck It Ralph. The soundtrack of the land is a mix of upbeat pop rock hits from the 80’s, 90’s, and early 2000s.

  1. FOOD

Classic American Junk Food done right. Two obvious small restaurants/stalls are themed after the games Burger Time and Tapper. It would be fun if Tapper had a special house root beer only available at the park, but it would be perhaps just as well to partner with a company like A&W. Arcade Main Street would also house a revamped Chuck-E-Cheese pizza, which would offer sit-down dining. It would also have, as a tribute to classic Chuck-E-Cheese, an animatronic show (which could actually include audience participation in which the characters, rather than following a pre-scripted set, are controlled by puppeteers in another room and interact directly with the with the diners, kind of the way the Monsters Inc show at Disney World works). Of course, the restaurant would also be attached to a standard arcade, in which players could win tickets to exchange for prizes, and all that.


A low-key attraction here is a pinball museum/arcade with 50-100 working pinball tables. Visitors can stop in at their leisure and play a round or two, leaving their own mark on the park in the form of high scores and interacting with an interesting but often overlooked piece of amusement/gaming history. There’s also a more standard museum here, designed to tell the story of early game design pioneers and their creative innovations. It would feature an intro film with interview clips, then open into the museum with various artifacts, advertisements, toys, etc related to early games and the culture surrounding them.

A dark ride here shrinks guests down and takes them through a 2.5D pixelated world. What I mean by this is that the characters and objects that populate it would be flat like cardboard cutouts, and would be animated via a combination of shadow puppetry style movements, projections onto their flat surfaces, and internal LED lights. All atmosphere would be blocky, like something out of Minecraft. I don’t imagine a lot of plot to this one– like a classic Magic Kingdom ride, it is more about enjoying the atmosphere and the artistry as one passes through it. The idea behind this one is simply the way good games, like good books or movies, can transport one to a different world. A good dark ride, to me, is full of scenes that are too big and too busy for one to take in everything in a single ride-through. Riders could go through an outdoor woodland scene, a castle (complete with fire-breathing dragon), an underwater scene, up to outer space, etc. The music for this ride would be chiptune, to fit the feel that riders are themselves part of an oldschool video game inspired world.

Besides the dark ride, Arcade Main Street has a few more attractions for families with smaller children. There’s a kiddie coaster themed after Centipede (one can imagine how the train would look going around turns and over mild hills, a Pac Man themed Hedge Maze, and a carousel with, instead of horses, creatures to ride on based on classic arcade titles (the ostrich from Joust, the Centipede, Frogger, etc.

There are a couple more thrilling attractions here for the older set as well. The first is an indoor black-light roller coaster called the Pinball Wizard, in which riders zip around bumpers and flashing lights as if they are the ball in a pinball machine. The theming of the queue would be an odd juxtaposition of a medieval sorcerer’s lair/workshop with groovy 1970s disco color schemes/ sensibilities. Think dusty magic books lit by giant lava lamps, or a bubbling cauldron on a shag carpet under a spinning disco ball. The music in line would be similarly 70’s– instrumental rock in the style of Peter Frampton.

The final attraction in this land is actually the scariest/most mature in the park: a gamified motion sim based on none other than the granddaddy of FPS games, Doom. Combining the immersive combination of 3D movie, motion simulator, and physical effects of Universal’s Spider Man ride with the shooting gallery mechanics of Disney’s Toy Story Mania (and similar shooting gallery rides). Although there have been several remakes and iterations, this ride (and the monster designs, etc) would be based on the original 1993 version of the game. With that in mind, the tone of this ride is more focused on pumping people up and making them feel like brave, tough, demon-obliterating bosses rather than feeling scared, and the horror elements on the ride represent evil to be defeated rather than a genuine threat to terrify the riders– it’s a subtle but important tonal difference. The front of the ride would feature (along with a sign warning parents that this one may be too intense for young children) a statue of “Doom Guy” (yes, to the uninitiated, that’s the character’s actual name) in his iconic demon-slaying pose from the front of the game box. The queue would lead guests through a breaking-down space station on Mars (with stuttering lights, screens full of scrolling error messages, steam bursting from pipes and valves, etc), with the story elements letting guests know that a portal has accidentally opened unleashing unspeakable horrors into the universe, and instructing riders that they are humanity’s only hope. Later in the queue and in the boarding area, the space station continues to be taken over by evil, and the mechanical bits are merged with gross, pulsating, fleshy masses like something from the mind of H.R. Geiger and exposed lava pits. Music would be heavy metal renditions of Doom’s soundtrack. On the ride, each player is given a gun and instructed, in essence, to shoot everything that moves, which, of course, they do. The monsters go “roar.” The guns go “boom.” The monsters go “splat.” A good time is had by all. At the end of the ride, each player is given a score, which would also be printed on their ride photo, should they choose to purchase it from the gift shop.


Obvious characters here are Pac Man and Ms. Pac Man, Dirk the Daring and Princess Daphne from Dragon’s Lair, Doom Guy, and perhaps the Pinball Wizard himself (a character original to the park). A fun arcade-themed show would be based on Street Fighter, in which gymnast-actors dressed like Ken, Ryu, Chun Li and/or other iconic characters from the series spar and perform backflips, high kicks and other highly stylized/choreographed martial arts techniques for onlookers. Maybe a kid is called up from the crowd to break a board or something. At the end of the show, the actors would stick around briefly to shake hands/ high five guests and pose for photographs.


OVERALL EMOTIONS/IDEAS: Fun/cartoonish, Zany, Unpredictable, Kinetic

  1. THEME

If, instead of taking a left out of Tokyo City, you take a right instead, you will find yourself in Sonic the Hedgehog country. Tall palm trees and big bright flowers sway in the breeze, alongside mechanical/industrial towers and robotic structures with spinning exposed gears, massive cartoon springs, lifts going up and down, etc. Everything is bright and colorful, maybe even to an overwhelming, eye-searing degree. Essentially, this land represents the aesthetic of oldschool Sonic games pulled straight off the screen and into the real world. The soundscape of the land is comprised of bouncy chiptunes drawn from the Sonic games soundtracks combined with the (happy) screams of riders whizzing around on rides.

  1. FOOD

This is the land I’m least clear in my head as to what food would be appropriate. I know there should be a shop that sells onion rings (get it?), but I’m not entirely sure what else.

 There’s no specific in-universe Sonic food I can think of. Maybe there’s a couple food trucks here with all-around good but unthemed things one can’t find elsewhere in the park– hot dogs with all the fixin’s, tacos, stuff like that.


It seems every park needs to include them somewhere, so here we find classic, old-school carnival rides, all themed after Dr. Eggman’s devilish cartoon contraptions. I mean, if you’ve played an oldschool Sonic game, a tilt-a-whirl absolutely looks like the kind of thing that would show up as a boss battle. Teacups, bumper cars, a drop tower, and any of the kinds of things where cars suspended on robotic arms go round-and-round a central hub would all be appropriate. On the map I just labeled these as “spinny rides.”

This land also houses the Sonic “Gotta Go Fast” coaster– probably the biggest roller coaster in the park. In keeping with the side-scrolling theming, I imagine a long, straight coaster that doesn’t double over itself– like Apollo’s Chariot at Busch Gardens Williamsburg or The Intimidator at Carowinds, with some really tall hills that deliver negative G-forces. Unlike those rides, though, this one should incorporate some a couple of looping inversions, again mimicking Sonic’s movement as he races through those side-scrolling games. One simple. But nice innovation for this coaster is a speaker system included on the cars, as is included on Universal’s Incredible Hulk Coaster. That way, the coaster could blast some classic Sonic music (I’m thinking the fast-paced tune that comes on whenever one picks up an invincibility power-up), and, at key points, the familiar dingdingdingding sound of picking up rings (Maybe while one is going around loops). This aspect isn’t a dealbreaker if not included, but is a small detail that can make the ride feel that much more epic. The track for this ride would be bright green, the trains would be Sonic blue.


Characters here are obvious: Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, and all the other anthropomorphized animal characters fans love from the games. Dr Eggman, too, although I’d mascot suit him to be the rotund cartoon version rather than try to imitate Jim Carrey’s appearance/depiction from the recent movies.

A stage in this area is a perfect place for kiddie shows with the mascot characters dancing around to high energy music, encouraging little kids to get up and do hand motions, run in place, etc. This is the kind of stuff preschoolers go nuts for… bonus points if it includes anything witty enough to not give parents a headache.

LAND 4: JUNGLE/ ADVENTURE LAND (No witty name yet)

OVERALL EMOTIONS/IDEAS: Danger, Mystery, Excitement

  1. THEME

Continuing past Sonic World, park guests enter a deep jungle. It’s green and lush and misty, with giant, prehistoric-feeling plants growing tall and vines hanging overhead. The path is cracked and worn, imprinted with the shapes of fern leaves and animal tracks. To one side is a beach with a pirate ship and some ramshackle wooden shacks. To the other is a tall, intimidating, crumbling temple which may hold untold treasure but also almost certainly holds grave danger to the unwary. There ought to be some kind of reference to Pitfall here. The soundtrack or “song of the land,” as the imagineering class calls it, is subdued, but includes eerie flutes and tribal drums, along with sounds of birds, insects, frogs, and the like.

  1. FOOD

The primary restaurant here is the Scumm Bar, the pirate hangout/watering hole from the Monkey Island games.This may be a bit of a deeper cut than most of the games featured here, but Monkey Island has several things working in its favor for park inclusion– first, the games are cult classics and even if one hasn’t played them there’s a good chance, if one plays computer games at all, that one had at least heard of them. Second, the key parts of the world can make sense easily to anyone who hasn’t played the games. “Pirates. Got it.” Would be pretty much what I would expect to be the reaction of anyone new to this stuff. Thirdly, and my primary reason for wanting to include it here, there’s a real charm to the writing of the original Monkey Island games and to their sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek, but not-quite-Looney-Tunes tone that would just translate really well to a park setting.

Anyway, back to the food. The Scumm Bar would be a sit-down restaurant, frequented by the roughest, meanest pirates. There could be a guy who plays accordion as a kind of dinner show. Food here would be things like roast chicken and veggies, shepherd’s pie, beef stew, fish and chips, and clam chowder. Of course, the big draw here would be grog, which the pirates would chant and sing the virtues of, banging their tankards on the table. “GROG! GROG! GROG!” Grog would be a nonalcoholic drink with an undisclosed, proprietary recipe (like Butterbeer and Pumpkin Juice in Universal’s Harry Potter lands), but it would be essentially lime-infused ginger beer– sweet and tangy but with a burn in the throat.

Other food here should feel fresh and slightly exotic, especially to American guests largely unfamiliar with foods from around the world– we Strnads eat a lot of Indian food, for example, but I’m not sure how common that is among non-Indian families in the United States. One booth could maybe have lettuce wraps filled with rice and curried meats, or bowls of dal (which, as a side-note, if you’ve not had dal, you are really missing out. Here’s a recipe for one my family particularly likes. Go make yourself some. You can thank me later).


Next to the Scumm Bar are two Monkey Island themed attractions: The first is a big pirate ship playground, in which kids can climb up into the rigging to traverse rope bridges. The second attraction is a flume-style ride with animatronic show scenes, comparable in structure to Splash Mountain at Disney World. The ride would tell a comedic story about Guybrush Threepwood, Mighty Pirate (translation: wimpy dork), escaping the clutches of the dastardly Ghost Pirate Lechuck. As a direct nod to the games, Guybrush would need to use a rubber chicken as a zipline in one scene.

The next attraction here is a Tomb Raider themed indoor coaster/ Dark ride. The setting would be a crumbling temple in which Lara Croft is doing her female Indiana Jones thing, acrobatting around danger, seeking treasure, and leading riders to safety. Although I expect some fast-moving portions of the ride, including sudden drops and such, the focus would be more on theming and practical effects than on speed; inspiration for theming could be some of the elements (falling statues and breaking beams, etc) from Escape From Pompeii at Busch Gardens Williamsburg.

The third attraction in this ride would be a wacky 3D movie/motion sim based on Crash Bandicoot. Using the type of tech where the theater seats move, riders would whiz through Crash’s world, probably including sequences comparable to the iconic parts of the game in which Coco rides on the back of a baby tiger or Crash runs toward the camera, pursued by a giant rolling boulder. The queue for this ride would be really fun to design, as I imagine it resembling the warp room from Crash Bandicoot 2. Cleverly placed Pepper’s Ghost illusions in the queue could allow projected Holograms of Dr. Cortex or the Aku Aku mask can be used to exposit story information and ride safety rules to guests as they wait in line.

The final attraction in this land is a show based on the Portal games, in which guests enter the overgrown ruins of the Aperture Science facility to take part in some sort of dangerous/unethical experiment and things go predictably wrong. There are so many things that could be fun and interesting about this, including the queue, overgrown with vines but with some of the tech still apparently working, in which prerecorded speeches from Cave Johnson welcome guests and assure them they have nothing to worry about. The queue should also feature some graffiti obviously written by the Rat Man. The show itself would combine comedy with spectacle feature a host of practical effects and high-tech illusions. It would star impressive animatronics of GLaDOS, and Wheatly, with Atlas and Peabody also present. I don’t have a script written, or anything, but the writing would need to be strong, with GLaDOS doing her passive aggressive insult comedy stuff and Wheatly generally being an amiable doofus. I have some ideas for how to make what would appear to be working portals for the show, but won’t go into details here. What would be really great is if all the characters are reprised by their original voice actors. Perhaps Jonathan Coulton could be convinced to write another original song for the attraction.


Crash and Coco Bandicoot of course, Guybrush, Elaine, and Lechuck from Monkey Island, and Lara Croft from Tomb Raider. A possible show is some sort of drumline with bongos. Another one would be pirate-themed. This would be a comedic audience participation show in which one guest is pulled into the show for “fencing lessons,” and taught a variety of silly insults, mimicking a famous and memorable puzzle from Monkey Island.


OVERALL EMOTIONS/IDEAS: Celebration, Otherworldly/Fantasy

  1. THEME

This is the final (ahem) land I have planned for the park, located between Arcade Main Street and Jungle Land. If you’ve ever played a Final Fantasy game, you probably already have some ideas of what this land could look like, and if you’ve not played any of them, all the description in the world probably won’t fully convey that visual style. This land should feel like an odd blend of medievil high fantasy sword-and-sorcery blended with far-futuristic technology blended with steampunk. Magic and tech are so intertwined that one can’t always tell where one begins and the other ends. It’s the kind of world in which a character in a fire-engine-red robe will pilot an airship to a place where she will use a giant sword that can fold into a gun to fight a robot that summons a giant bird monster to fight alongside him.

The specific theme for our park’s land is that guests have just arrived in the central of some town or village on the day of a grand festival. There are games and feasting and music. Colorful tents and flags flutter in the breeze. Everything is bright and joyous. This would be a great place in the park to have a fair amount of carney games, of the ring-toss or throw-a-ball variety. The soundtrack of the land is joyous, celebratory music lifted from the FF series.

  1. FOOD

Giant turkey legs. Brightly colored drinks in potion bottles. Grilled kabob skewers and fancy fruit salads. Ices and parfaits.

This land also houses the park’s nicest restaurant, where one can get some genuinely fancy/gourmet food. This would be comparable to the kind of thing one could find at Epcot, or the Mythos restaurant at Universal. I’m not sure what the menu would be (it could be cool to draw from foods included in the games), but it would be gooood. Also pretty pricey. It’s that kind of thing.


There are several kids/family rides in this area. The town’s centerpiece is a giant steampunk ferris wheel, in fitting with the festival concept. There’s an airship ride in which guests ride in cars that resemble little blimps. The tracks for this ride extend all around the land, over the tops of patrons’ heads. There’s also a kiddie coaster here called Chokobo Run, themed after the chicken-like creatures characters ride in the FF games.

After being extremely impressed by the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride at Universal, I’d love to include something along those lines here– a big “heroes save the day” extravaganza that seamlessly combines practical effects and dark ride elements with screens and computer animation to bring impossible monsters to life. A possible plot could be monsters suddenly attacking the festival and the heroes needing to fight them off. The real challenge would be making it “feel” like Final Fantasy while of course not implementing the game’s turn based combat.

The attraction in this land I think is the coolest, though, is the game symphony. This is the big stage show for the park, and it employs a live orchestra and a conductor. Offering brief explanations between songs, including info on the composer, what game each piece was composed for, etc, they would play epic, fully orchestrated arrangements of great music from across gaming history. As they play, they are accompanied by a laser light show, projected on an imax-style domed screen behind them.


Take your pick of beloved heroes from across all the FF games. There are too many to name here.

This land should also feel lively with jugglers, sword swallowers, fire eaters, acrobats, and any other entertainers that would feel like they would belong at a celebration in this kind of fantasy world.


So there you have it: An overlong description of an amusement park that recently existed only in my brain, but now has a sort of quasi life as a blog post. If you stuck with reading this far, I hope you at least found it somewhat entertaining. For my part, I’m mostly glad to just have it out of my system. Now perhaps I can move on to better writing projects.

Catch you on the flipside.

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Posted by on June 8, 2023 in Blog


MONSTORM Now Available

This is old news at this point, but last time I posted here I was in the process of helping fellow writer Matt Masucci read and curate submissions for our Hurricane Ian relief charity anthology, Monstorm. Well, the book is finished and out now (has been for a couple months), Sorry about the slow blogging (although I expect anyone likely to see the announcement here already knows me in person or is connected with me on other social media).

Monstorm contains 20 weather-themed scary stories, representing a wide range of tale types from across the horror genre. In this book are wind and rain, snow and hail, blood and guts, things that go bump in the night and unsettling glimpses at the darkness that lives inside each of us. Matt and I are both happy to have been a part of the book, and like to think it contains a little something for anyone with a taste for the dark and strange. If that sounds like your jam, you can check it out HERE.

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Posted by on May 30, 2023 in Blog



Well, that escalated quickly.

Quick update for those not intimately involved with my life: Yes, my region was hit by hurricane Ian. Yes, it’s kind of a mess down here. No, my own home was not severely damaged. Yes, my family is ok.

Yes, it will take time and work for everything to return to normal. Storms are like that.

So. Anyway.

I’ve recently been blessed to join up with a local chapter of the Horror Writers Association (we meet only a few minutes away from the library where I work), and it’s been very fun and encouraging to find myself in a room of smart, friendly, welcoming folks who, like me, have fun writing strange, dark, thrilling stuff. It’s a safe place for freaky nerds to be freaky and nerdy, and I’ve really enjoyed talking shop with other professional spooks and geeking out over stuff we enjoy. It’s a common ground I don’t get to share with others very often; most of my friends aren’t really into horror, which is totally fine– it’s certainly not a genre for everybody. I’m just delighted to have found some people who I can share that side of myself with, without either sounding pretentious or like a total weirdo.

The timing of my joining the HWA is very close to Hurricane Ian hitting. These two topics are linked thusly:

One of my new writing friends is Matt Masucci. Together, he and I are working to throw together an anthology of weather-themed horror fiction in order to raise some money for local hurricaine relief. All profits earned will go to a local food bank that directly serves our community. It’s a good cause, it’s an excuse to collaborate creatively with others, and it’s going to be a pretty-dang-cool book. It’s kind of amazing how quickly others wanted to get involved– a handful of fairly big-name authors in the horror community, a cover artist, and a publisher all immediately jumped on board, and the end result is going to come from a true group effort.

Since we’re trying to put this together quickly in order to get aid to folks who need it while they still need it, the submission window is very short- ending November 1st. Here are the details, in case you would like to try your hand at sending something in. Tell your friends.

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Posted by on October 17, 2022 in Blog



Let me tell you a story about my daughter. Mind, this is not THE story about my daughter; there will be (Lord willing) many more (and more interesting) to come. But it is the first one, and since she is not able to tell it, that job falls to me.

This particular story starts a while ago– back in December. No… actually let’s start further back. I don’t want to make this all about me, but you need to understand from the start that I really, really wanted a little girl. Years ago, when Rachel and I were pregnent with our first, before we knew the sex of my son David, if you had asked me what I hoped for, my answer would have been a girl. I grew up with two sisters who were quite a bit younger than me, see, and I’ve always thought (and continue to think) they are the bee’s knees. Little girls were a known quantity; although I had of course been a little boy myself I wasn’t totally sure I knew how to raise one.

(For the record, once I found out I would have a son I was delighted with that prospect, and David is a constant source of pride and joy for me).

But anyway, when we found out we were pregnant again, I still wanted a girl. If you had asked me why, I couldn’t tell you. Not all desires are strictly rational.

Ok, so with that in mind, let’s return to early December. Rachel was 26 weeks pregnant with our daughter (joy of joys!) when we got some troubling news. Because of complications during her pregnancy with David (and his early birth), Rachel had been seeing a special doctor for high risk cases. On one visit, during a routine ultrasound, the doctor discovered that her cervix had shortened to one centimeter, when it had been four centimeters just four weeks before. She’d also begun having contractions. In short, without being too technical, she was very near to giving birth.

This would, of course, have been dangerously early. David had been tiny and had needed a brief NICU stay at one month early (delivered via emergency c-section)– The beginning of December was a solid four months before our due date. The doctor sent Rachel to the hospital immediately, where she was hooked up to IVs and machines that measured her contractions and the baby’s heart rate for signs of distress. She remained in the hospital for a week, then was sent home on strict bedrest.

She could sit on the couch or lie in bed, but for the foreseeable future her primary job was to cook that baby inside her. She wasn’t to be on her feet doing much of anything, as any activity could potentially trigger her body into delivery mode. This would of course prove very difficult with me at work and an active little boy to care for.

Here’s where one of the coolest parts of this story comes in– the love and support we received from family and friends. The bulk of the load was carried by ladies from our church who came into our home pretty much every day on a rotating schedule– to cook and clean and care for David, to provide comfort and company to Rachel, to drive her back and forth to doctors and midwives and chiropractors. Honestly, without their care, I’m not sure how we would have gotten through those months. This is one of the clearest times in my life that I’ve witnessed the local church acting as the hands and feet of Christ; the way the body came together for us, to pray but also to offer practical help, was fantastic.

Christmas came and went, as did New Years. January passed, then February. The baby continued to grow, as did Rachel’s belly. Our daughter stayed inside much longer and thrived in ways that exceeded all our expectations. She grew to double the size David had been when he was born. She remained in the womb so long and so well that the medical professionals, contrary to worrying about keeping her inside, began to talk about inducing labor.

Last Monday, at 5:55 AM, after a total of about four hours of labor and only about 25 minutes of hard pushing from Rachel, our daughter entered the world: No c-section (which would have been statistically more likely after the first one), no NICU stay, no severe complications. Only a healthy (tired, sore) woman and a healthy, 9 lb 12 oz 21 inch little girl.

Next month, just a couple days before Easter, the Jewish Passover begins. We are not Jewish by ethnicity, but without getting super-theological here, the Christian faith owes a huge debt to the Jewish tradition (cue Father Abraham song). I grew up celebrating the Passover Seder meal, and plan to continue the tradition with my own family when my kids are big enough to understand what’s going on. For those unfamiliar, the ceremonial Seder dinner uses special foods and a script (called a haggadah) to recall the story of how God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. It also ties to the Christian celebration of Easter, as many of the elements of the meal can be seen as prophetic parallels to the death and resurrection of Jesus Himself (including His famous last supper assertion that the bread and wine were His own body and blood, and His command to “do this in remembrance of me.”)

There are four different important toasts (or cups) included in the meal, in which participants drink wine to remember and/or comment on different parts of the story. One of these is a song called Dayenu (pronounced die-ay-new), a Hebrew word that can be roughly translated to mean “It would have been enough.” The Dayenu toast is a means to reflect on God’s continual blessing upon His people, the simple fact that, being God, He doesn’t owe us anything but that He gives anyway– graciously, generously, abundantly. The way this appears in the Passover meal is basically a recitation of the things God did for His chosen people– after each step, the word Dayenu is repeated. It looks something like this:

If He had brought us out of Egypt, Dayenu
If He had executed justice upon the Egyptians, Dayenu
If He had executed justice upon their gods, Dayenu
If He had slain their first-born, Dayenu
If He had given to us their health and wealth, Dayenu
If He had split the sea for us, Dayenu
If He had led us through on dry land, Dayenu
If He had drowned our oppressors, Dayenu
If He had provided for our needs in the wilderness for 40 years, Dayenu
If He had fed us manna, Dayenu
If He had given us Shabbat, Dayenu
If He had led us to Mount Sinai, Dayenu
If He had given us the Torah, Dayenu
If He had brought us into the Land of Israel, Dayenu
If He built the Temple for us, Dayenu.

Applying this thinking to my own life leads me to a state of amazement about how good the Lord has been to me and my family. I can add more and more to my list, which includes, but is not limited to, the following:

If He had created this good world full of joy and mystery and wonder and fun, Dayenu
If He had provided my daily, physical needs, Dayenu
If He had given Himself in order to simultaneously satisfy justice and provide forgiveness for my sins, Dayenu
If He had given me Rachel, Dayenu
If He had surrounded me with good friends and a loving family, Dayenu
If He had led me to an fulfilling and interesting job that matches my interests and skills, Dayenu
If He had given me a son, Dayenu
If He had given me a daughter, Dayenu.

God is good, and when I look at my strong, healthy, beautiful little girl with a head of dark hair like her mother’s, I am struck to my very soul with once-again-fresh knowledge of His goodness. Her name is Dayenu, because even if God stopped blessing me and my family, here and now, it would be enough.

But of course, He won’t stop. He doesn’t. Not ever. In Romans 8:38-39, the apostle Paul writes, ““For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This is, of course, the greatest gift of all, and even if all else were stripped away, it would be enough. Dayenu.

Blessed are you, oh Lord our God, King of the universe, who gives, and gives, and gives, even (and especially) when we don’t deserve it.

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Posted by on March 19, 2022 in Blog


Let’s Pretend

*Blows dust off this thing and taps microphone* Hello, hello. Testing, 1-2-3.

First, the obvious. It’s been a while. Things have been crazy. 2020 and 2021, amiright?

I’m not going to try to summarize my “years in books” here as I have in the past– suffice to say I read a lot of ‘em, some of which I liked very much indeed. I won’t attempt to give a play-by play of the past several years, but here’s a quick highlight reel for those I don’t have regular contact with: The past couple years included a major career change from teaching to youth library work (with a one-and-a-half-year stint as a professional painter squashed between them), overlapping a long haul in graduate school and a (second) Masters degree completed, (this one in Library and Information Science). My wife and I started a podcast together, then abandoned it for six months. We’re talking about starting it up again soon. We are expecting our second child (a little girl). I’ve written reams of essays and discussion board posts, but precious little fiction. I’ve not been to any conventions. My authorial career (glorified hobby?) has been pretty much on hold. I’ve had a couple short fiction publications of stories that were resting on my hard drive, but haven’t written anything new that’s worth doodley-doo. I’ve not even blogged.

Till now.

Metablogging is boring, though, so although I’m tempted to say something about hopping back in the saddle blah blah blah, I’d rather just dive right into discussing something that’s on my mind.


My son is three now, and I read to him a lot. I put very little stock into the trendy educational concept of children’s “reading level” (a rant for another day), and I’m far more interested in a book’s quality or its ideas than I am in its difficulty. I firmly believe that stories are the food that our minds and hearts grow on, and I try hard to present him with a balanced diet of fiction and nonfiction, simple picture books and more complex narratives. He is fond of Elephant and Piggy, but equally fond of Robin Hood. He knows the Cat in the Hat and King Arthur, Alice, Aslan, and Winnie the Pooh. If you ask him, he could probably tell you all about Charlotte the spider, Anansi the spider, and the itsy-bitsy spider that climbed up the fabled water spout. He devours stories more-or-less indiscriminately, the simple along with the complex. Listening to him play is one of my greatest joys, as he crafts narratives for his action figures, his cars, even his silverware at mealtime. Cut him, and he bleeds imagination. (Can you tell I’m proud of my boy?)

Naturally, our discussions while reading have involved the veracity of the claims of any given story: George Washington was a real person, for example, while Frosty the Snowman was not, etc. Parents often don’t give kids enough credit about separating make-believe from the real world; very rarely have I known kids to be actively deceived by fiction. “Only in books” has become a kind of catchphrase for him– “Do hippos go to the store?” I’ll ask him while looking at a silly picture. “Only in books,” he’ll respond.

Only in books or movies, only in the games we play or the thoughts we think. Pretend. 

And yet, as I listen to my little man making up little stories about little people enacting little dramas in their little Duplo house, I can’t help but think there’s something more significant going on. I caught myself the other day using a common phrase with him, explaining a piece of fantasy. “It’s just pretend.” Then I stopped myself. What do we mean when we say something is “just” pretend?

Obviously we mean, first and foremost, that it is not part of the real world: that it is born of the mind, something that exists only in thought. But that is no small thing, and certainly not to be trivialized too rapidly. As adults we regularly play through possible scenarios in our minds, crafting plans for who we would like to be and what we would like to do as well as horror-shows of potential failures. We act, based upon what we first imagine. The things we play at become reality as we make our choices. Millions of possibilities and impossibilities constantly parade before us. Pretend contains multitudes.

Of course, I am a fantasist so I am unashamedly biased on this subject, but how much more do we enter into this world of pretend through the stories we encounter? Fiction can be as trivial as a Bazooka Joe comic or as weighty as a novel by Dickens or Tolstoy. When we are able to invest ourselves in stories, they can make us laugh or move us to tears, they can anger us, inspire us, comfort us, and, yes, teach us. Starship famously built this city on rock and roll, but our collective culture, as well as our lives as individuals, are built on imagination. Make believe is a powerful thing, my friends. A mighty powerful thing. So why are we so quick to trivialize it, to shove it aside, to *ahem* pretend it’s just for kids? I suggest we stop.

If things are pretend, they are not reality. But pretending shapes how we understand reality and presents us with resources to meet it. The internal life is no less vital than the real world, simply because it doesn’t exist in physical space.

Macbeth, Paul Bunyon, Jo March, Frankenstein, Batman, Huck Finn, Winnie the Pooh, Scrooge, Hercules, Norman Bates, Elisabeth Bennett, King Midas, Princess Lea, and Bilbo Baggins– These characters and myriad others– heroic, cowardly, kind, and monstrous– are gloriously, wonderfully, majestically fictional. They live only in our brains, “only in books,” but that doesn’t make the impact they have on us any less real. They are Pretend with a capital P. Dragons are pretend, but because I want my son to learn to be brave in the real world, I encourage him to slay them, which he does, vigorously, swinging his toy sword around our empty living room. Fairies and vampires and space aliens and talking animals and ghosts and unicorns are pretend, sure, but they are not *just* pretend. In some hard-to-define way, as they take up residence in our imaginations, they become something more.

Nothing is *just* pretend. Let’s lose the ”just.” These things I have been describing are pretend. Full stop.

And that is a good and noble thing to be.

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Posted by on January 8, 2022 in Blog


2019—My Year In Books

Without going into a ton of detail here, 2019 was an unusually hard one for the Strnads. We’ve been very blessed by friends and family who have come alongside us through our struggles (God has indeed been very good to us, and sometimes hard times are a means to highlight His blessings), but as the year comes to a close I can’t help but utter a hearty “good riddance.” In the midst of it all, Goodreads tells me I read 58 books over the past year (counting all 20 original Goosebumps children’s novels as one big book), so, as usual, here is my commentary on some of the highlights.

BEST CLASSIC: Paradise Lost by John Milton

I am convinced that everything just sounds cooler when it’s uttered in iambic pentameter. Paradise Lost puts the “epic” in epic poem, and it is easy to see why this work became one of the lynchpins of Western literature, influencing generations of authors from every genre. Retelling the Biblical story of the creation and the fall of man, Milton presents readers with one amazing sequence after another (including a massive war in Heaven itself), making me wish for a full-scale, big-budget action movie that preserved the original language. Satan, under Milton’s pen, is perhaps the most memorable character as a silver tongued and utterly convincing villain, but others are given their due as well– Christ himself is portrayed as an epic warrior who, by his resurrection, “ruin[s] all my foes, Death last, and with his carcass glut the graves.” From a modern perspective, the book suffers from some mysogony (Eve is a hopeless ditz), and at times Milton seems more interested in telling a cool story than in communicating theological truth, but these are fairly minor quibbles to have with such a great book. Upon reading it, I can’t help but feel that he really did intend his masterpiece to be God honoring, as well as exciting. The result is nothing short of breathtaking.

BEST GENERAL NONFICTION: Toss-up Between Every Tool’s A Hammer by Adam Savage, Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams, and The Guide to Classic Graphic Adventures

Celebrity memoirs are a bit of a guilty pleasure for me– I read them without expecting any real literary merit, but if I like the work of a movie star or musician, sometimes reading their own words can give further insight or trivia into a piece of media I already like. When I picked up Every Tool’s A Hammer, I expected some goofy stories from the set of Mythbusters, and probably not a lot else– what I got was very different, and a very pleasant surprise. Although he does touch upon some of the things he did while working on the Discovery Channel show that made him a star, Adam Savage spends most of this book simply talking about the joy of making things, analyzing his own creative process and work style, and offering practical advice to other creatives. C.S. Lewis observed that “we read to know we are not alone,” and I found that wonderfully true in this case: where I expected to find a showbiz memoir, I instead found a kindred soul and a wealth of experience.

Best known for his goofy sci-fi comedy series, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams is one of my poster boys for droll British wit. In Last Chance to See, he turns his attention to a somewhat more serious topic, taking a trip to record encounters with endangered animals around the globe. The result is as heartfelt and funny as anything else he ever wrote, well worth digging into (although I did find his atheistic bias and his cynicism toward people of faith at times a bit overwhelming and annoying).

I also really enjoyed The Guide to Classic Graphic Adventures, a massive, 774 page tome from the good folks at I’m know I’m in a minority here, but I have a huge soft spot for the oft-maligned point-and-click adventure computer game genre that dominated PC gaming in the 1990s. To this day, I actively seek out games like this– enjoying both the rich storytelling and the complex logic puzzles they offer. This book offered history and amusing commentary on a number of games I’ve played, while directing my attention toward many more fascinating-sounding titles I’d never even heard of. I now have a running “to-play” list of old adventure games to get my hands on.

BEST SCI-FI: Toss-up Between Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein and Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

Much ink has been spilled about the alleged fascist political undertones of Heinlein’s classic of military science fiction, Starship Troopers. I’m not really equipped to comment one way or another on the subject. What I found, while reading it, for good or ill, was a unique and detailed insight into the mentality of a soldier– an apologetic for why one fights and for what one hopes to accomplish, a detail of fears and loves that may be universal to anyone who goes to war, regardless of the book’s futuristic set dressing. The best science fiction always provides insight into the human condition and, whether one ultimately agrees or disagrees with the views of the novel’s first-person protagonist, this one accomplishes that handily.

Like most kids of the 1990s, I have fond memories of Stephen Spielberg’s supremely entertaining film adaptation of Jurassic Park, but had never read the book till this year. It holds up, and actually probably surpasses the film in some ways, with the cautionary “don’t play god” theme coming through stronger than it does in the movie. I’ve read a handful of Crichton novels over the years, but this is the best I’ve encountered from him.

BEST CHRISTIAN LIVING: The Gospel Comes With a House Key by Rosaria Butterfield

In end-of-year lists like this, I often feature a category I call “Philosophy and Theology,” but such a label doesn’t really feel like it applies to this book. This isn’t an exploration of doctrine or thought which I would encourage my non-Christian friends to read and wrestle with; this is a book specifically written for the Church. In it, Butterfield (who has a pretty amazing life story) presents a case for what she calls “Christian Hospitality:” a messy, self-sacrificial, radical, open way of doing life together as a practical means of sharing Christ’s love among believers and unbelievers alike. The result is beautifully written, as well as deeply challenging. Much of the book, though, is descriptive, rather than prescriptive– she is a special lady and her life is very unique; I think the best way to read the book is not as instruction that every Christian conduct his or her life in a way that mirrors hers, but as a challenge to find ways to apply the principles and attitudes she discusses within the context of one’s own home.

BEST COMIC: Batman Inferno by Alexander C. Irvine

I’m kind of cheating with this one, because it’s not really a comic– it’s a straight-up prose novel. Also, I didn’t read it, but listened to the full-cast audio adaptation from Graphic Audio (slogan: “A movie… in your mind”). Regardless, it’s the best superhero story I encountered this year. I used to look down my nose a bit at guys who read nothing but serialized adventure novels, but I’ve reached a point where, when I am down or stressed, I want to read things that are comfortable and easy. Give me my Batman story, and leave me in peace, please. Recently, I picked up a little extra work with a house painting friend, and I listened to this one as I sanded and wiped baseboards. Plot-wise, although the story is fun, there’s nothing particularly special about Batman Inferno, but Irvine’s understanding of the characters is very solid. The real reason it makes it onto this list, though, is the production of the audio version. In particular, the acting for the Joker (channeling Mark Hamill’s iconic intonation) is spot-on, and became even more impressive when I realized (listening to the credits afterward) that the actor who provided the voice for the Clown Prince of Crime also voiced the Dark Knight himself!

Anyway, that wraps up this year’s list. Happy New Year, everyone. I wish you all the best as we swing into the roaring 2020’s.

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Posted by on December 30, 2019 in Blog


Here’s To The Strugglers

I don’t know who needs to hear this, but listen. This one is for you. Pull your chair closer. Sit up straight and pay attention.

You with me? Good.

It’s ok to struggle. It’s ok to feel weak, to be overwhelmed. It’s ok to look at the people around you, at stable adults with good jobs and clean homes and well-behaved children, and wonder just how they maintain such perfect lives. It’s ok to work your tail off and still have moments of self-doubt. It’s ok to be tired. It’s ok to try and fail and try again.

It’s ok to be honest– better than ok. It’s ok to let your mask slip, to let the cracks show on your carefully constructed outward persona.It’s a great thing to be humble, to be able to laugh at your own quirks, to give grace to others for theirs.It’s ok to be wrong sometimes, to learn to lose arguments with dignity or at least to recognize that you can’t always win. Sometimes the best you can hope for is a peaceful stalemate.

It’s ok to take honest pride in the things you are good at; false, sniveling self-depreciation is neither healthy nor wise. It’s ok to accept praise from others as well as criticism, and to maintain a healthy distance from both. It’s ok to ask for help from others when it comes to things you’re less good at. As U2 wisely pointed out, “sometimes you can’t make it on your own.”

It’s ok to feel incompetent and to press on anyway. It’s ok to ask hard questions, so long as you’re willing to wrestle with the equally hard answers when you come to them. It’s ok to be sad. It’s ok to be tired. It’s ok to be confused.

It’s ok.

I’m not the first to observe that our culture is one that’s very driven by external appearances. This is true for the high school kids I teach. It’s true for the adults I work with. “Fake it till you make it,” as the saying goes– and there’s certainly a degree of truth to that. We become what we aspire to be, and our choices ultimately define us. We put one foot in front of the other, and we keep going, confidently, boldly, into the future.

And yet, sometimes you can’t fake it. Sometimes you shouldn’t. That’s ok, too.

Fantasist Neil Gaiman summed this idea up nicely in his novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane: “I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”

Sometimes (as I am attempting in this blog post), honesty really is the best policy. Let your show of confidence drop, at least for a moment. Letting others see your struggle may give them the comfort and courage they need to get through theirs. Real recognize real, dontchaknow.

I’m teaching at a new school this year and, although it’s been a positive change in literally every possible aspect, I’m struggling with feeling overwhelmed. I have a new set of policies to learn, a new set of curricula to draw from, and new lesson plans to write. I have a new culture to find my place in, new kids whose trust I need to gain, new colleagues whose esteem I crave. I know, deep down, that I’m knowledgeable and well trained and experienced. I’m a professional, dash it all! I’m good at what I do– but today I’ve been struck so hard with crippling self-doubt (paradoxically worrying that I’m both too easy and too hard on my students) that it’s almost like a physical weight. Even knowing that the fact of my being hired wasn’t a fluke or an accident– I was selected because my employers believe I am a good fit for the job– I still worry from time to time that I’ve bit off more than I can chew.

That’s ok. It really is. Tomorrow I’ll be back on top of the world. We all go through difficult seasons. The struggle is not what defines us, ultimately– What we do with it is.

I know I’m not the only one. There are many people who feel like me. You might be one. You might need to hear this. Real recognize real. Take my hand. I’ll help you keep standing if you help me out. Together, we can do this. Put one foot in front of the other. One step at a time.

Fake it till you make it, baby. But don’t lose heart, because the rest of us are faking it too.


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Posted by on September 3, 2019 in Blog


My Fitness Journey: A Humble Beginning

A few months ago, my friend Cameron came up to me at church with a proposal.

“I want to train you. I’ll prepare a workout schedule, and you can come a few times a week to my dojo to use the weights. We’ll keep track of your progress from month to month– this will be a way for me to hone my skills and build my resume as a personal trainer, and a chance for you to get in shape. What do you say?”

A quick word on Cameron: He’s a bear of a man, broad and burly, with a thick, black beard. He looks like he could fit in quite comfortably swinging a scimitar as a bad guy in an Indiana Jones movie. He is an MMA expert, the owner and sensei of Tribe-K Martial Arts in North Fort Myers, and knows dozens of ways to cause pain and injury, if not death, in an opponent. He teaches self-defense and NRA handgun certification courses and, in short, would appear at first glance to be everything that I’m not– my complete opposite. On the flipside, though, he is soft-spoken and easy-going, earning a large portion of his living by running after-school clubs and summer camps for kids. He is a die-hard fan of both Star Wars and Pokemon. He and I share an affinity for puns and lame pop culture jokes as well as a love of theology and a desire to lead others to Jesus. He’s a good dude.

Now, I’ve never thought of myself as an athlete. I’m a (seemingly perpetual) student, an English teacher, and an indie science fiction author. Guys like me aren’t generally known for our impressive physicality. My brother, Kenny and I lifted weights some when we were in high school, but team sports never interested me; when he went out for football and became a star player, I was more interested in hanging out in my room, listening to music and drawing cartoons. I was fairly strong when I was working blue-collar jobs, hauling boxes of weed killer and loading trucks with lumber and concrete at Lowe’s, but I’ve never really loved working out. Over the past handful of years since becoming a teacher, I’ve been pretty sedentary. I also love good food. I have grown squishy.

So I said yes. For the past few months, I’ve been hitting the gym three times a week, lifting weights and running on the treadmill and drinking sludgy protein shakes. It’s painful and time-consuming and sometimes boring. Each time I go I wind up drenched in sweat. I’ve been sore and exhausted. It’s difficult– but somewhere I read that most worthwhile things are.

And somewhere along the way, exercise became fun. I don’t mean that I go skipping to the weight room, giggling with glee over the work before me, but there is real satisfaction in seeing progress. It’s cool to be able to lift more (significantly more) than I could when I first started just a few months ago. Rachel tells me I’m not snoring as bad as I used to. It’s nice to take my shirt off and look in the mirror; although I still rock a pretty serious dad-bod, I can see some slimming in the belly and definition in the muscles. My body fat percentage has dropped by 30% in the past few months. That’s huge. For the first time in years, I feel good about my body– not just indifferent, but actually good. Within a couple weeks, I should be able to run a twelve minute mile, which I know isn’t a big deal for a lot of you maniacs who go out for marathons and “fun runs” (an oxymoron if I ever heard one), but trust me– it’s a big deal for me. Having some accountability and motivation, not to mention advice from someone who knows what he’s talking about, has made all the difference for me.

It’s also been fun to learn some of the science behind exercise– a whole world of knowledge I had never encountered. I’ve pitched the idea of co-writing a book to Cameron– something along the lines of “The Geek’s Guide to Personal Fitness”– peppered with sarcasm and humor and practical tips in order to help demystify some of this stuff for guys like me who don’t generally think of themselves as being interested in athletic activity. I don’t know how big an audience such a book would have, but I think it would be fun to put together. I am living proof that being healthy is for everyone; if I can begin this journey, anyone can.

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Posted by on May 28, 2019 in Blog


2018—My Year In Books

As Yakko Warner stated before spinning the satirical Wheel of Morality at the end of many an Animaniacs episode, “It’s that time again.” The earth has concluded yet another trip around the sun, and I’m back to run through a few of my favorite books of the year. 2018 has been a whirlwind for me with several mountaintop highs (including the arrival of my first son, who has already doubled in weight since my most recent blog post) and a few deep, dark valleys—some of which I am still in the process of recovering from even as the year draws to a close. It has been a long year, my friends, and a busy one. Nevertheless, Goodreads tells me I completed 58 books (my goal was 50, which will be my goal for 2019). As always, here are a few of my favorites, listed by genre.

BEST HUMOR: The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones

An accomplished fantasist herself (most famous for Howl’s Moving Castle), Jones knew her way around the fantasy genre. In The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, written in the form of a travel guide, she provides readers with a tongue-in-cheek rundown of the genre’s most hoary tropes—equipment and armor, character archetypes, types of quests, sources of food, weather patterns, locations, magic systems, etc. Her loving parody—sharp but never cynical—highlights clichés without denigrating the stories that made them so popular. Whether one is a fan of Lord of the Rings or Skyrim, readers will find plenty of witty insight on the all-too-familiar elements of these types of stories.

BEST LITERARY FICTION: One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

As an artifact and product of the early-sixties counterculture that birthed it, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest serves as the ultimate power-to-the-people underdog story. Rallied by the gumption and charisma of a self-proclaimed con man, the oppressed inmates of a mental asylum break free, not from their insanity, but from the bindings of a system designed to hold them as prisoners. The book is a bit crass, plagued by the sexism and profanity one expects to find in literary novels of its era, but the interactions between the mental patients are always a hoot, and the novel itself is loaded with interesting imagery, a fascinatingly flawed hero, an ironically mute narrator, and, in Nurse Ratched, a villain whose cultural significance has taken her far beyond the pages of this book.

BEST CHILDREN’S BOOK: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Sweet. Innocent. As profound as it is simple. This fantasy fable of the prince from a tiny planet and of the rose he loves serves as a great reminder to live in the moment, to learn from those around us, and to invest our time and energy into the things that matter most—relationships with those we love. I would have liked this book as a kid, but I think it meant more to me reading it as an adult.

BEST FANTASY: Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon

This is actually a contender for my favorite book of the year—which I’ll come to at the end of this list. It’s certainly the best novel I read in 2018. Perhaps it’s because of my own background, but I’m a sucker for novels set in the rural South, for luscious prose, and for tales that speak to a longing for what is often perceived as a simpler time. This is just such a novel—a coming of age story interspersed with jolts of magical realism including a sentient bicycle, a hot-rod driving ghost, a sea monster in the local river, a kid who can throw a baseball out of the earth’s gravitational pull, a retired old-west gunfighter, and a dinosaur in a traveling circus act, to name a few things. At the novel’s core is a murder mystery, but the focus is the story of a boy’s relationships with his father and his friends and the community around him. The fantastical elements peppered throughout serve to highlight the wonder of childhood, an age where magic and mystery seem to lurk around every corner before the mundanity of adult responsibilities dulls our sensibilities. McCammon was obviously influenced by Ray Bradbury (one of my all time favorite authors) while writing this, and it’s a fitting tribute, not only to Bradbury’s writing style but to childhood itself.

BEST HORROR: Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

I saw the movie based on this story as a kid (although I knew my parents wouldn’t have approved), and it was pretty freaky. As an adult and as a writer of macabre sensibilities myself, I see the layers of irony and humor in the story; there’s something delightfully bizarre and blackly comic about the cute elderly couple next door who are the agents of ultimate evil. This novel that works on multiple levels: as a rollicking horror tale that digs beyond satanic panic, trapping its heroine in a mass conspiracy, as a feminist satire (to be held alongside Levin’s other famous work, The Stepford Wives), and as an exploration of the anxiety that accompanies pregnancy and becoming a new parent. Most interesting, though, from a literary standpoint, (and a great lesson for any author) is to look at this book as a masterwork of foreshadowing. Every significant plot point that occurs is broadcast earlier in the novel, and Levin displays nothing short of genius in his ability to set-em-up and knock-em-down, providing readers with one satisfying payoff after another.

BEST UNCATAGORIZABLE: The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon

My favorite book of 2018 is also the hardest to define. Subtitled “A Culinary Reflection,” The Supper of the Lamb is part memoir, part cook book (complete with recipes), and part theological treatise. Written by an Episcopal priest who clearly loves food, the book uses the topic of eating as a jumping-off point to explore topics as diverse as God’s extravagant goodness and grace, the joy of creativity, the meaning and value of hospitality, and the beauty that can be found in the ordinary stuff of life. It’s also loaded with practical cooking tips (I am a better chef simply by employing bits of Capon’s advice), and seasoned throughout with gentle humor reminiscent of the best of C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. Absolutely delightful.

And with that, another year’s book rundown draws to a close. As always, feel free to let me know what books you enjoyed in the past year. Happy New Year, friends.

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Posted by on December 31, 2018 in Blog