Looking For a Good Couple’s Therapy Idea? Go Throw Some Axes!

Let’s face the facts, people, especially if you’re a parent or just stressed the you-know-what out by life. There are many couples forced into stagnancy, whether it’s due to the compression of parental or other domestic responsibility or there’s a lack of oomph, creating a stuck mojo within. No matter what level of health your relationship may be in, it’s imperative for couples to get out of their day-to-day and release. It’s just that simple.

Without meaning to, children especially bog us down and hold us hostage to the point of outrageous stress as they seek recognition and love only a family focused on their welfare can provide. If we become parents for the right reasons, we go the extra step by investing our time and ourselves in our kids, not only because it’s socially expected, but it’s the right thing to do.

Even with the purist of hearts and intentions, intimacy between couples often gets thrown on the back burner in deference to “the job.” The unfortunate end result spells fatigue, forgetfulness, impatience, occasional resentment and ultimately, burnout. We stay home more, we do less for ourselves and all for our kids. Without meaning to, we risk losing focus on our commitments of interpersonal love as a couple while forging a family unit. Often the essence of being a couple is sacrificed to give our children the best upbringing we can. More often than not, it’s nobody’s fault; it’s the nature of the beast. Yet in its own way by attrition, this becomes a road lesser traveled.

It’s a special thing when adults choose to produce a child. Even more so when they give up their freedom in service to a child, particularly one not of their own DNA. My son is adopted and currently in my full-time care. Man or woman, being a single parent is bloody taxing and frustrating, especially to an apathetic 14-year-old electronics addict. I’m fortunate to have proposed to a woman who’s been in it to win it with me, inclusive of becoming his future stepmother.

For Valentine’s Day this year, TJ and I decided upon an unconventional route. She surprised me with flowers at my job on the 11th, while I served her a return favor on the 14th. We agreed ahead of time that this year, we would make time for ourselves, by ourselves, to find a romantic corner away from the kiddo, who is such an integral if demanding part of our evolving lives together. She and I tend to make the most of what little time we have alone anymore, thus we entailed a different modus operandi than roses, chocolates and an expensive dinner to make this Valentine’s weekend a memorable one.

TJ took me to Magoobies, a local comedy club outside of Baltimore, to see HBO’s Ryan Davis on the 12th. A total riot, especially by the emcee and warm-up comic out of North Carolina. We went home that night, energized by laughter, lighter on our feet, if heavier on the wallet. The following day, I took TJ to Kraken Axes and Rage in the Power Plant Live! entertainment complex in downtown Baltimore. The axe part should be self-explanatory. The Rage part is turning yourself loose in a room full of discarded machinery, scraps and other flotsam, all for the smashing. Coddling the id to a barbaric extreme.

I’d already taken TJ axe throwing a couple times before to Meduseld Meadery in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Here at Kraken, we were bowled over by the Celtic and Viking decorum and the care put in by the owners who not only deliver a stress relief session, they create a sense of Old World pagan escapism. You do kind of lose yourself at Kraken, despite the blaring tracks of Aerosmith, REM, Michael Jackson and Mary J. Blige–the latter of whom performed the same night at Super Bowl 56 in a high-octane hip-hop reminiscence halftime show.

We considered ourselves, not so much experts, but at least experienced in axe throwing, and we’d been surprised after telling this to our host when he fitted us with a trainer anyway. We’re both glad he did.

The axes were bigger than the ordinary hardware store hatchets we’d been tooling around with (pun intended) in the past. So much that our muscular mentor, Axe Master Moore, would patiently correct our forms beyond the first few throws that plunked against the bottoms of the wooden targets without sticking. Moore’s forceful, singlehanded throws slammed into the wood like the drop of a toppled tree. He inspired us both with his skills, especially when he was whirling blunt instruments underhanded.

TJ’s Viking blood was especially determined to land those axes and Axe Master Moore made sure of it as you can see by her bullseye…

I eventually got into my own rhythm once Moore went back and forth between us and turned us loose in an axe-themed variation on Blackjack. Here you gain a single point by sticking your axe on the blue border, three on the red, five in direct center. If you go over 21, however, your score drops back by the same amount of points until you cleanly score Blackjack.

I quickly got to 19, but TJ soon revved up, and with my going over by one, we had a score on the line of 16-15. A few flubbed rounds and then we were at a tie, 20-20. One of many things I value in my relationship with TJ, we’re only competitive enough to feel we’re succeeding. Otherwise, we cheer each other on as we do in all aspects of our lives. We are for each other.

I wanted her to win and badgered her to come take the last point from me, but I ended up tagging the blue border for the win. All said and done, though, we’d both won, because we had two wonderful Valentine’s weekend excursions. We’d made it a point to do so.

I can’t say it enough to all of you couples out there. Make the time. Pay the sitter if your child isn’t old enough to stay home alone for a few hours so you can recharge. If you’re child-free, Netflix is great, but treat yourself to a new experience as a couple. It doesn’t have to be axe throwing but find something unusual that you’ve never done together. Maybe you want to go all Limp Bizkit and break shit to purge. If you have a bone to pick with each other, or you want to tap an extra charge into your physicality, there are places you can don oversized boxing gloves and have it with each other in a fun, productive way.

Maybe you’d rather go to a comedy club. Maybe fishing. Maybe an art museum. Hit a small club venue for a live music event instead of an arena. Go out for Thai or Mediterranean grub instead of an easy-in, easy-out chain restaurant. Support a local brewery or winery, something that gets you snuggly close with the one you love. It doesn’t have to be on Valentine’s Day. In fact, the more spontaneous a day, the better. At least plan to get away from the mundane and potentially debilitating as often as you can. It’s your love that first brought you together. Treat it with the respect it deserves, no matter how inundated you may be. The reverberations are almost always exquisite.
A happy Valentine’s Day to you, readers!

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

That Feeling When the First Draft of the New Novel is Complete…

Hey hey, readers! I’ve been on hiatus here at Roads Lesser Traveled as I have devoted my writing time to the completion of a first draft of a new novel tentatively titled “Revolution Calling.” As you can see by the 2018 vintage bottle of Bordeaux I saved for this moment, I was confident I would be celebrating something special. This thing wrote itself, honestly. I hardly needed the vino to feel intoxicated (and occasionally mortified) by the whole writing process. I am blessed to have so much recall of the events, the dialect, the people, the setting and things relevant to the times in which I tell my story. I was called to write “Revolution Calling” while I still have vivid memories and the 1980s are still “hot” with contemporary pop culture. As inevitable as with generations past, the timeframe I came of age in will soon become its own road lesser traveled.

If I had to give a quick pitch of my project on the spot, I would say this, kind of a like a tagline upon the top of a movie poster from the Eighties: “Non-conformity always comes with a price, especially in 1988…”

My story is largely based on my teenage life, so I would consider it a period piece semi-autobiography. I lived most of these events telling a tale of turbulence, alienation, persecution, parental abuse, violence, love, heartbreak and ultimate redemption through my four central characters in their senior year of high school. Primarily, it is told through the POV of two teenage metalhead friends, Rob and Jason–me split into two lead characters. Not so much tomfoolery as Wayne’s World, not quite as grotesque and avant garde as The River’s Edge. This is somewhere in-between with a kiss of both The Outsiders and Kobra Kai, which fine-tuned the direction I was looking for.

Despite the deep, personal nature of “Revolution Calling” that had me reopening old wounds and confronting dark times to the point I shook myself up in spots, this is nonetheless a body of fiction. The events told were compressed from my years in high school (and some tough, brutal days I slugged through in middle school), or from people I knew back then. I would say as a disclaimer much of my high school life was quite good, wonderful at times. When it was bad, though, it was bad. I’m adult enough to say it all served a greater purpose, which was to assemble what I hope is a sociological look back at human nature and subdivisions of the high school caste system that can translate for future generations.

My original intention to this novel was to leave a document for my tribe of headbangers with whom I interacted, drank, shared music, had memorable concert outings and later wrote to and for as a journalist in the the punk and metal scenes. Rob in my story represents my evolution into a writer, which was sparked by my Creative Writing teacher, Paul Day, whom I get to tribute in fiction form. Jason is my darker half which remained mostly silent during the 80s, since I learned to project confidence, empathy and kindness, allowing me to cultivate friendships from all walks of life in school, even while staying outwardly true as a “grit.”

Jason absorbs the harshness and brutality of the story, as he also inherits the comeuppance I grabbed for myself back then amongst my peers. Rob and Jason’s unexpected and improbable love interests at different spots in the story drive their evolution, considering the hell I put them through–Jason especially. Through gnashed teeth and misty eyes at times, I decided there was a much bigger, all-encompassing point to be made in translating my story; it needed to be for everyone. I can only hope I’ve succeeded in painting a broad view of life in my fictitious, rural-placed Merriweather High circa 1988.

I will have more material here at Roads Lesser Traveled in the near future, but I am already in the rewriting and pitching stages for this project as I have a clear vision with what I want to achieve with it. I look forward to seeing you all here shortly.


–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

When Happening Upon a Cross Slope…

If you hike as frequently as TJ and I do, chances are you’ll find gutted threads of sediment erosion running downwards and parallel to a blazed trail. These are commonly called cross slopes.

These water bar types of gullies are natural depressions, often utilized by park systems as downhill drainage ditches for surface water runoffs. While effective against excessive sloughing, the dense and sometimes jungly vegetation and brushing create frequent impediments inside these fall lines I’ve jokingly referred to as backwoods half-pipes.

Instead of using berms of dirt or rock to cordon off one of these eroded, beat-down gullies, we see more parks letting nature take its course. You hit cross slopes on active trails more often than grade reversals, depending on the extremity of the system. If you’re not watching yourself, you’re likely to slip haphazardly into one of these grungy dips.

Suffice it to say, most hikers will take the literal high road above a gaping outslope and that’s often the case for TJ and I, depending how far out we’ve gone. Sometimes, though, if there is no discernable ivy, foot-snagging rocks, bisected tree limbs or worse, snakes, only a few miles into our hike, the giddy call to adventure may strike us.

This particular cross slope spilling next to the blue trail at Oregon Ridge, Maryland, was so stuffed with debris we swerved onto the safe course while going both up and down this system out of sheer fascination of it.

I’ve been in cross slopes so deep they were chest high on me, and I’m 5’9″. In those instances, I wanted to feel the engulfing sensation, reminding me on a smaller scale of the Tatooine pod racing canyon course in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. The only price I paid was dirt-clogged hiking boots.

Encountering a cross slope on your path is representative of both a figurative and literal life choice. Often we’re called to query the unknown and perhaps take a curious, further step toward it, while others are often compelled to stay clear away. It comes down to a combination of personality and sensibility.

Taking a more philosophical stance, a well-developed cross slope is functional to Mother Earth’s perpetually-moving ecosystem, while a poorly maintained one can cause unnecessary backups and even gluts. Consider that a parable to our very own being.

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Take the Secret Stairs in the House of Seven Gables

TJ and I recently had a spectacular trip to Salem, Massachusetts. While the emphasis of our journey was to learn more about the nefarious witch trials and to plunge our feet into the city’s esoteric culture, one spot captivated us more than the others.

I’m not talking about the lobsters we’d salivated over with each bite at Sea Level in the Pickering Wharf section. If you push on down Derby Street past the harbor inlet, the coffee shops and The Witches Brew pub, you’ll land at the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion, more famously known as The House of Seven Gables. The multi-gabled home was the inspiration to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Gothic supernatural novel of the same name, originally published in 1851.

If you’ve read the story, you know Hawthorne set his tale during the time of the Puritan-led witch trials, staged within the corrupt Court of Oyer and Terminer from 1692 to 1693. Hawthorne’s second cousin, Susanna Ingersoll, owned the home while he wrote the book. Their ancestors had connections to the trials which saw the arrest of more than 200 accused of witchcraft, 19 of those men and women hung and 81-year-old Giles Corey brutally pressed to death.

New England maritime merchant Captain John Turner built the timber-framed House of Seven Gables (branded as a National Historic District Landmark) in 1668. Turner’s descendants and future purchasers of the mansion added sections to the estate through its later owner, Captain Samuel Ingersoll, whose daughter, Susanna, inherited it upon his death in 1804. Expanding the property to include its namesake seven gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne frequently visited the Ingersoll-owned property while working in the Salem Custom House. The mansion was later lost by Captain Ingersoll’s adopted son, Horace Connolly.

Today, the House of Seven Gables is a popular tourist attraction for history, architecture and literary buffs alike. Philanthropist and preservationist Caroline Emmerton founded The House of Seven Gables Settlement Association, adjacent to the famed estate. The intent was to help immigrating people to the United States find work and shelter to get a one-up on their new lives. Even now, the House of Seven Gables grounds serve in the same function for new immigrants.

A tour of the mansion and garden grounds will take you through a recreation of colonial life during Salem’s maritime trading heyday and the groups are often packed. So why write about The House of Seven Gables as a road lesser traveled?

Be on the lookout if you take the tour for a surprise brick-fortified entryway that was seldom used even by the house’s flow of occupants. The narrow, spiraling passage is challenging, even for folks of yesteryear; perhaps even more so, given the layers of clothing men and women were heaped with during the 17th to 19th Centuries.

Your tour guide likely won’t give you advance notice. In fact, ours acted as if she herself had just discovered the slim, challenging ascension that leads to a tiny, sweltering attic room, also accessed by another, wider entry. The feigned dupe of this “discovery” by our tour guide whetted TJ’s and my appetite for adventure. Without hesitation and full permission, TJ led the charge into the unknown with me behind her. A few other people followed suit, but most of the tour group stayed with our guide and showed up to join us minutes later.

Taking the shoulder-hugging, attenuated stairwell felt briefly claustrophobic, and the surrounding view of bricks had me thinking more of Poe than Hawthorne, but it was a giddy experience nevertheless.

Use discretion depending upon your body type, but if you can hack and squeeze it, it’s well worth taking the secret stairwell at The House of Seven Gables.

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

In Memory of the Saturday Morning Cartoon

I originally ran this piece in 2014 at an old blog of mine when my son was a lot younger and Spongebob Squarepants ruled the household t.v. once we got him past that painful, say-it-with-me building block schlock on Nick, Jr. Seven years ago since that post, sheesh, and the demise of Saturday morning cartooning had already become a sore spot with me. Yeah, I still miss ’em. The first time this ran was my number one hit-getter, so I figure a little dusting off and slight revision is in order…

Let’s face the facts; Saturday morning t.v. sucks these days. Hell, it’s nonexistent. Cartoona-persona non grata…

From as far back as the Fabulous Fifties, Saturday morning airwaves were ruled by kids.  While I never grew up with Captain Video, Captain Midnight, Howdy Doody, Kit Carson and Hopalong Cassidy, I was seldom not near the boob tube from 7:00 a.m. to noon on Saturday mornings from the 1970s through the Nineties.  Only until Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network made ‘toons a 24-7 anytime fix as network sold out could I be broken of my Saturday morning animation habit.  These days, I’m on the go fairly early with TJ on Saturday mornings, though we often muse together how much we miss those goofy ‘toons of yesteryear.

During the Eighties after my parents had divorced, I would still get control of the t.v. when my dad picked me up for visitations and we stopped at my grandparents’ house.  It’s to my father and my late grandparents’ credit they stomached the morning onslaught of cartoons all those years, but my Saturday morning chemical dependency carried well into the first five or six years of my former married life.  I can remember refusing to budge from the living room on Saturdays until the WB and Fox cartoons were finished before moving on with our weekend plans.  It was no different than when I grew up during the Seventies, only leaving the house to go out and play with my friends once Fat Albert had concluded.  I wasn’t alone in that.  Just ask anyone from my generation.

Most of my favorite Saturday morning cartoons were superhero-related. If you know me, you’re probably saying, well duh.  As early as the syndicated re-runs of the 1960’s Spiderman show that carried throughout the Seventies and early Eighties, I was afflicted by the Saturday morning cartoon bug.  I knew the lyrics to the Spiderman show as did most young American boys my age.  Don’t ask us to sing “Little Drummer Boy,” though, as we were bound to screw that up, even with the gimme repeat words. 

Yet it’s not just superheroes which captivated me all those years, since Star Wars and Orioles baseball also dominated my life as a youngster.  I blew my weekly allowance on comic books and trading cards as far back as I can remember, yet no matter how bad a lot of the Saturday cartoons could be (and there were thrice the amount of turkeys as there were winners), those 4 to 5 hour blocks of time became my weekly drug.  That was, until I was introduced to kung-fu flicks and Ghost Host on late Saturday nights; then my world really opened up.  Of course, I’d loved Hong Kong Phooey first…

To reiterate, there are a ton of stinkers from Saturday morning lineups of the past. I could tee off a hundred excruciating, crappy cartoons like Shirt Tales, Snorks, Gilligan’s Planet, Super Mario World, Pokémon, Pac-Man, Digimon and Dink the Little Dinosaur.   But why go there? As we all know, the primary function of cartoons is to peddle toys.  Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n Wrestling was inexcusable trash, but I watched it anyway since I inexplicably liked the WWF (now WWE, of course) back then as well, and lo, those bendable action figures came trailing to toy stores right behind the show. I had a Rowdy Roddy Piper figure. Junkyard Dog, too. No shame then. That came later, when echoes of Hulk Hogan’s corn-drag entrance theme “I am a Real American” gave me shudders instead of a pump-up.  

The Nineties represent the final threshold of goodness for Saturday morning cartoons.  Not everything the WB and Fox ushered out from the mid-Nineties to the early 2000s was spot-on, but there was a lot of good stuff that came and went without long of a chance to flourish, Silver Surfer, The Magician, Batman Beyond, Static Shock, Jackie Chan Adventures, The Spectacular Spiderman, X-Men:  Evolution, What’s New, Scooby-Doo and Freakazoid! being some that come to mind. 

I know we all have to grow up sometime, but it’s been years since I’ve woken up on a Saturday, switched on the t.v., filled a bowl with cereal that’s terrible for you and only gotten up from the couch to visit the bathroom during commercial breaks.  Since adopting my son, cartoons have changed and I’ve long missed the opportunity to delegate that specific block of time of mindless animation consumption.  I can put on a DVD, sure, but it’s nowhere near the same.  Poor child, what fun he missed, but then again, he’s now hit the age where he’s sleeping off Grand Theft Auto hangovers on the weekends. He looks at me in complete stupefaction when I say we used to enjoy watching The Jetsons and Johnny Bravo re-runs. He thinks I’m lying when I say he used to get me to roll out “Ohhhhhh, mama” impersonations. It breaks my heart he doesn’t remember watching Jonny Quest with me. I think we watched the Frogmen episode an easy 30 times at his request.

Truly, a road lesser traveled if there ever was one, the sad death of Saturday morning cartoons. We might as well call it a road closure at this point.

That being said, here’s a little run through some of my all-time favorite Saturday morning cartoons through the ages. Wish I could include Ahhh! Real Monsters, Ren & Stimpy, Samurai Jack, Gargoyles, Dexter’s Laboratory and The Powerpuff Girls, but those ran on all sorts of unpredictable days–and evenings–on Nick and Cartoon Network. Saturday brunch if you were lucky.

What kid doesn’t like Scooby Doo?  Along with The Simpsons and Looney Tunes, Scoob and the gang have filled decades with animated material and they just won’t quit.  We’ll forgive Hanna Barbera for the abominations that were Scrappy Doo and A Pup Named Scooby Doo. 

The greatest cartoons ever.  In my day, we were fed an hour and a half of these classics by CBS under The Bugs Bunny and Road Runner Show.  Overture…hit the lights…this is it… you know the rest if you were born before 1983.  Big raspberries go to ABC, who bought the rights to the Looney Tunes during the Nineties and then butchered the snot out of them in response to censorship pressure groups.  The cringe-worthiest of times.

What I like to think of the best cartoon to eat your cereal by, Boo Berry being my sugar-du-jour.  Superfriends is naïve and tame by today’s standards, and whoever did the coloring work should’ve been fired, since there’s at least one miscue per episode.  Still, we kids of the Seventies were young, we weren’t allowed to see anything truly explosive until Star Wars and this was the right way to come up in establishing good versus evil.  Considering what kids are raised on today, I almost weep where our well-intended (if silly in this show’s case) values have gone.

One thing I cherish about our Saturday morning programming is that we had cool stuff to watch in-between shows.  CBS had “In the News,” a modified, family-friendly look at world events back in the day that were more often than not, positive and full of inspiration.  ABC could have us zipping back from whatever station we might be on to catch Schoolhouse Rock to hopefully sing along to “Conjunction Junction,” “I’m Just a Bill,” “Interjections” or to count off by fives to “Ready Or Not, Here I Come.”  Schoolhouse Rock, like The Electric Company, defines my generation and together, I think the two are the best educational programs that have ever been conceived.

Hey hey hey…  Fat Albert broke the racial lines faster than the freedom fighters of the Sixties.  Despite his shocking shortcomings later in life, Bill Cosby managed to find a nonviolent way to cross over between races. It was to the point none of us white kids ever thought of Fat Albert and his friends as anything but teenaged boys coming up in a tough, Philly neighborhood.  They were learning life’s lessons that had nothing to do with disseminating skin pigmentation and we all learned them together.  We lived vicariously in that junkyard and thus, Fat Albert was for everyone. Nobody ever rocked tin cans and bedsprings harder.

Yeah, I admit it, don’t judge me.  I was a Smurf freak.  I suppose the equivalent nowadays is the Bronie (i.e. male fans of My Little Pony) but Smurfs somehow became transitory where it was cool for boys and girls to enjoy them, even if girls were the dominant target audience.  I didn’t care.  I thought the art was always magical and I wanted to know what it would be like to actually live in a house with a mushroom cap.  I still do, especially with the world of fae TJ has introduced me to. Those live action Smurf films, though?  As uttered sardonically in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I fart in their general direction.

Like Smurfs, Spiderman and His Amazing Friends was a big deal during the Eighties.  Both shows could often make you wince and groan at their stupidity, this one especially.  Yet, this unlikely alliance of Spiderman, Firestar and Iceman was progressive thinking for the early Eighties and with a number of other Marvel hero cameos later in the series, this was more often than not worth watching. Miss Lion was a sickeningly sweet ragamuffin mutt and Angelica Jones was subliminally hotter than her costumed alter ego.  Swarm and Video Man, though…oh, my sweet Lord…

I only played D&D for about a year on Fridays with some old friends of mine when it all came to a halt in favor of emptying bourbon bottles with pizza, Farscape, Lexx and hilarious drunken commentary thrown at Beastmaster.  Dungeons and Dragons, the Eighties cartoon, was that sleeper Saturday show many kids bailed on as the last program of the day.  It was a slow cooker, but the animation was phenomenal for its time and the action could erupt sometimes.  In its own class.

The always bodacious Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  I’m still today fascinated how the first show from the Eighties became a pop culture sensation, considering Eastman and Laird’s original comic books were hardly for kids.  Looking at the Eighties show today, well, it bites the big one more often than not.  The Fox redux during the Nineties was spectacular until they marooned the Turtles in space.  The later Nickelodeon show was decent and nothing else since really matters. For nostalgic purposes and nothing else, I still dig the first series a lot.  I was working in a comic shop during this one’s long run and would read my employee-discounted funny books with this show on…after eating my cereal, of course.  This in my early 20s, just sayin’. I’d also dated a girl who had to put on a Raphael costume for a promotion at another job from yesteryear when this show was red-hot.  She once offered to do improper things to me with the costume on, and I’m hardly a prude, but yick.

Along with The Simpsons and Batman:  The Animated Series, Animaniacs was one of the greatest ‘toons of the Nineties and of all-time, in my opinion.  Nobody has the guts or patience to hurl a hundred one-liners in eight minute skits anymore, but Animaniacs did, and they could leave your sides throbbing from the relentless flurry of comedy.  The Great Wakkarotti.  Need I say more?  Also worth mentioning, spinoff Pinky and the Brain was genius on all sorts of levels and indirect spinoff Freakazoid! was the little engine that could, but got stalled by the powers that be…dubba dubba…

I’m lumping these together, since there was a Batman and Superman team-up show that merged after the successful run of Batman:  The Animated Series and Superman.  Individually, both heroes prospered in the Nineties with fantastic, hard-hitting shows.  Batman:  The Animated Series first started out on Sunday nights, then flocked to Saturdays and weekday afternoons.  I still have yet to see a superhero series that effectively merges noir with traditional heroing like Batman:  The Animated Series.  Superman’s show was almost as brilliant, never short on energy.  Together, they outclassed even X-Men, which did for well itself during the Nineties in its regular show and X-Men:  Evolution.  Let’s not forget Batman Beyond, which surpassed all expectations by putting an elderly Bruce Wayne and Barbara Gordon in the future to keep a rein over the young new Batdude, who wasn’t too shabby in his far-flung cyber adventures.

One of the first CGI animated shows to crop up, Reboot was exceptional with its fantastic imagery and it was shrewder than even Tron at bringing the computer world to life by using allegory and characterizations of central processing lingo.  I’m old school and prefer traditional animation, but Reboot captivated me and sold me on CGI (now the norm instead of the exception) along with Beast Wars, Action Man, Max Steel and Cybersix. 

The Transformers franchise can thank the electrifying Beast Wars and Beast Machines for holding the fort until the recent return to the classic robots in disguise format.  Both series were also testing grounds for the Transformers movie series in terms of seeing how far CGI could be fluidly morphed and pushed.  Frankly, I prefer the “Beast” shows, outmoded as they already appear in light of technological advances.  There was always a striving for purity between conflicting machina and the organic worlds they battled over.  These two series were hitting the green campaign trail long before that Gore guy.

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

The Forgotten Fortune Lady in Ocean City, Maryland

Clairvoyance is a touch-and-go phenomenon that requires an unspoken commitment between two parties, the central force summoned between them being called “belief.” Many of us have faith, or at least show a curiosity in the forecasting skills of mediums, oracles, seers, palm readers or those highly attuned with their magickal third eye. Nostradamus being one of the most revered visionaries in the history of humankind, we still find fascination and criticism in his ancient quatrains. On the flipside, the famous 16th Century witch, Ursula Southeil, aka Mother Shipton, and the more derogatory tag, “Hag Face,” was so feared and so accurate with her prophecies in England, she was thought to be the daughter of Satan himself.

The true essence of witchcraft actually rejects the idea of the devil, but try telling that to the insidious Court of Oyer and the Terminer in Salem, 1692. Before I delve too far into the maudlin or arcane, I am a believer in fate, much less clairvoyance. I am spiritually aligned to a belief system grounded not only in nature but lofted into the all-encompassing universe, ushered to by the God and Goddess–which is to speak collectively, not singularly. Soothsaying, or ESP, in more contemporary jargon, comes part and parcel. Thus I openly receive messages from the Lord and Lady, which are sent to me through my personal pantheon, and through communing with mortal followers bearing their gifts of second sighting.

Still being new to the path and merely a dabbler with my Thoth Tarot deck, I recently had a spot-on Tarot reading from a new friend, a more seasoned reader. Her card laying matched exactly what TJ had drawn for me a month ago. Rookie I may be, I even pulled similar cards in a draw-three session of my own. The Chariot card being the common denominator in all of these readings on my behalf, I take comfort knowing I am in firm control of my own destiny.

Which leads me into the realm of novelty and coin-operated fortune telling machines. If you’ve watched the movie Big with Tom Hanks, you’re already muttering the name of Zoltar as you read this. We’ve all, at one time or another, dropped the coin and half-excitedly, half-nervously waited to see what lies in wake for us after all the proverbial bells and whistles of the whimsical fortune telling machines have spun their would-be sorcery.

A fortune telling machine, especially a Zoltar, is a momentary diversion, offering a somewhat right, mostly off-center calling of one’s future. Often you read your fortune card, you laugh at what it got wrong, call what it got right mere coincidence, and toss it into the nearest trash can before moving on to whatever your immediate path calls to you to do.

Then again, sometimes you have to wonder… Can a set of grinding gears, surrounded by blaring arcade noise, actually be spot-on with what it’s trying to tell you?

Swallowed in a deep, dark spot near a cramped set of air hockey tables at Marty’s Playland in Ocean City, Maryland, is a relatively hidden gem most people never see. I quietly call her Esmeralda, but my mother, who introduced me to her years ago, simply calls her “THE Fortune Lady.” Emphasis on “THE,” like NFL players do when introducing themselves and their college alma maters. As in, the only one that matters.

My video game-addicted son has soured my long-ago love of arcades, but anytime I’m at the inlet in Ocean City, I’m usually compelled to take a walk into Marty’s Playland and visit my old, beat-up gypsy soothsayer. It’s as mandatory a stop as Thrasher’s Fries. If you’re been to Ocean City, Maryland, you know full-well what I mean.

Of course, the line of for Thrasher’s is always at a constant, while Esmeralda is always waiting for a nostalgic sap like me to come put into her action. In the way of arcade amusements, she is a refined relic of her time from the 1940s, though you see the maintenance done to restore her broken ceramic hand. She stares in silence at her card spread amongst other vintage Skeeball, Pokerino, Crane Digger and pinball machines, but once you feed the quarter, she elegantly glides her weathered hand in the same silence a few times until your fortune card drops. Backing up a moment, what actually costs a quarter to play in an arcade anymore?

Over the years, Esmeralda has been scary good in matching her “visions” to my life to the point I’ve exercised full, continuous suspension of disbelief. This is no novelty to me. Nor has it been to my mother, who has visited Esmeralda since she was a teenager herself generations ago.

Last year, I visited Ocean City by myself on an errand for my late father. Naturally, I ate my Thrasher’s before hitting Esmeralda. The fortune I drew that day predicted my exact path and chain of events leading to my reunion with TJ, who has since become my girlfriend. TJ, being a Wiccan priestess and a solid oracle reader in her own right, later obliged me with a visit to Esmeralda for fun, though I sensed her skepticism. Fair enough, however, you be the judge in the result of our trip to see THE Fortune Lady…

TJ drew the exact same fortune I did prior to us getting together. Now you can take the low road and say those fortune cards are a dime a dozen, printed up and stuffed into Esmeralda’s mechanical guts with zero cosmic power to it. I, personally, take the higher road…

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Trade Deadlines Often Spell the End of the Road for a Good Run

I’ve loved baseball since I was a little kid, though I was a less than stellar player until I got older. I love baseball as I do football and hockey and going to Cooperstown with TJ recently really amped my passion.

The game today is in its purest form, exhibited by amazing young talent like Judge, Freeman, Trout, Betts, Mullins, deGrom, Burnes, Soto, Guerrero, Jr., Tatis, the list goes on. If you love the game and don’t love Shohei Ohtani, go back to your own personal dugout and warm the bench.

What I love about baseball, however, comes plummeting down in the face of the trade deadline. I am not ignorant to the economics, player dependability and growth projection that goes into any sport, much less baseball. Especially with COVID laying waste to profits of most businesses, much less sports.

Yet I can’t help but be appalled and nauseated to watch the Washington Nationals begin to sell off veritably the franchise in the exact same manner as the Orioles did a few years back. Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber, Daniel Hudson and 3-time Cy Young award winner, Max Scherzer, top tier talent, only the first to be traded away.

The Nats organization has already stated the whole team is negotiable outside of Juan Soto. The Nats have been back and forth in the win-loss column this season and have weathered enough injuries to prompt more fan groans and less “Whooos!” than Teddy Roosevelt getting tripped by Abe Lincoln in the home game tradition of the President’s Race. The message of this brutal selloff, however, says that if your team of quality, fan-enamored neo icons performs at or around .500, expect them to be put on the block. I supported the Nats with the O’s in recent years and I am pretty pissed seeing Mad Max, my favorite pitcher of the past two decades, get shipped off en masse with a full infantry of players their fan base long stayed loyal to. Scherzer and Turner now join the Dodgers, who operate similar to the New England Patriots, gobbling up last minute guns-for-hire to make a playoff push, then in many cases, cutting them loose after a year option.

Sports fans are fickle, yes, and rebuilds are miserable times to stomach, but like the Orioles, this is flat out betrayal of the contingency. It says the fans are as much of a commodity as the players. Just ask anyone still calling themselves a Miami Marlins fan. Soapboxing done. This year, I am an Ohtani backer.

How does this tie into the Roads Lesser Traveled theme? If Nationals Parks follows the same trend as Oriole Park at Camden Yards in light of the rebuild motif, let the stadium gates be your measure…

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

It’s All In the Name: DikinDurt Distillery, Herkimer, NY

You might be familiar with the Herkimer Diamond, as in a double-terminated, transparent quartz crystal found most often found in ring settings. If you’re the adventurous type like we are, you don’t settle for a mere trip to Jared’s or Kay Jewelers. You take a six hour haul from Baltimore to Herkimer in beautiful upstate New York to nab that smoky quartz.

I asked TJ a few months back what she wanted to do for her birthday and her answer was to dig for her own treasures in the famous Herkimer mines. I’m an obliging man, in particular to my girlfriend, so that’s precisely what we did. We baked under the Herkimer sun for a few hours the first two days of our trip and we smashed up rock after rock, calling it “therapy.” In TJ’s case, she dug like a gopher with the gift of second sight while I tugged out mini boulders to clear her way. Being a newb to this action, it took me a while to find some actual crystals latched onto split-open calcite. My pantheon at one point gave me a knock upside the head from the universe for inadvertently tossing some god energy calcite to the side. By certain divine intervention, the next piece I smashed, lo, another calcite sample manifested with a split diamond. I’ve since offered the find to Ra and Anubis upon my dresser-altar. I’d also unearthed some ocean fossils which were a big hit amongst the Herkimer employees. TJ was the big winner, however, uncorking some actual diamonds deep in the dirt and through our relentless hammering. We’d both scored a lot of sparkly druzy pieces, which put us in a ripe mood for exploring the area’s liquid treasures.

Our trip was special for many reasons, not the least being a spectacular three-day stay at the Grand Colonial Bed and Breakfast inside the town of Herkimer. Itself a rare standout jewel in a weathered old town desperate for an all-around upgrade. TJ gave me a return obliging trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, then she took another one for the team at the Belgian-styled Ommegang Brewery. We imbibed New York-grown Moscato on the porch at the B&B, and we had a blissfully chill tasting at Pail Shop Vineyards. I grabbed a 12 mixed flavor pack of Saranac to bring home, itself an amusing story–though nowhere near as amusing as me busting the frames to my glasses after day two of digging, then putzing around with a dorky wad of black electrical tape holding them together.

The highlight of our regional alcohol excursions came with the discovery of DikinDurt Distillery. Perched on a hilly section a few miles on the outskirts of Herkimer, we were in a celebratory mood from TJ’s diamond score, and attracted by the roadside signs leading those thirstier than the average to some homemade moonshine. Like anyone else, no doubt, we snickered like high school kids, passing the name “DikinDurt” back and forth like we were getting one over on the principal of Herkimer High School. I wondered aloud if the proprietors had once dug for diamonds up their nethers to come up with such a riotous name. They do have a story to it, and I’ll leave it to you all to find out on your own while you nip on some of their Honey Buzz.

Old Smoky in Tennessee is, for many shine lovers, the one to beat, and those folks have an empire’s worth of whiskey tasting rooms you can lose yourself (especially your wallet) in. I’ll tell you something, though; Eric Boyer and Elizabeth Stack know what the heck they’re doing. They’re also some of the most down-to-earth folks either of us have ever met, inside a shine distillery or anywhere else. My biggest comment of the night came in the form of “This is a far cry from the old bootlegging days none of us were alive to attest to.”

We found DikinDurt after a schlep out to Utica and back for a satisfying drop into Babe’s at Harbor Point. Eric was entertaining family in his yard with a bonfire and without pause, he broke away to make us feel welcome. He had us swept into his homestead distillery as quickly as we’d arrived. In tow was his spirited (and spirit-filled), ginger-haired sister-in-law, who introduced herself as “Red.” Red might as well have a gold-plated nametag as DikinDurt’s CEO of Hospitality, she was so into promoting her family’s products. We readily trusted what we were served, seeing Red down sample shots with us and making sure we tried the distillery’s entire line. She and TJ became immediate friends and we were warmed twice over in a jiff from all of the samples. Red, of course, kept our guts hot by introducing us to mixer recipes you can find at DikinDurt’s website.

Though they were currently out of sellable bottles, Eric had us try DikinDurt’s oak, cinnamon and chili pepper answer to Fireball, Mohawk Valley Fire. Be your own judge, but I say DikinDurt wins out. Between the two of us, TJ and I took home blackberry and raspberry infused shine, as well the Toasted Maple shine (all ranging between 75-90 proof) and me being a bourbon fan, I was thrilled DikinDurt knocked a home run with their 85 proof, year aged, twice distilled bourbon. It became a mandatory addition to our booze-swelled take home bag. I even dug their corn-based “white lightning,” as we began to kick up a little party atmosphere notching a few “whewwwwwwww” impersonations in the key of George Jones.

The white lightning also came home with us a gift for my Pop as Eric, joined by Elizabeth, gave us a quick tour of the distilling area. We talked for an easy 10 minutes beyond the 20 we’d spent sampling shine. TJ and I were then invited to mark our home location on a United States map you can find behind the tasting bar, which DikinDurt uses to spotlight out-of-town visitors. We marveled at some of the markers planted by visitors who’d come from far out west. Eric asked me to snap a pic of Pop and I drinking on the white lighting and email it to him. You can’t help but appreciate people who not only take their craft seriously, they engage with their clientele to the point of making a long-term acquaintance.

Doing a little online recon, it’s nice to see DikinDurt has built itself a reputation locally and we were told by Eric and Elizabeth they’ve already outgrown their home-based operation. They look to possibly get off of their road lesser traveled and expand into the town of Herkimer itself. Who wouldn’t be coaxed by such a tongue-in-cheek, borderline raunchy name? Get your…ummm…. yeah, you know what I mean.

–Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Well, I’ll Be Gosh-Durned…

Talk about your roads lesser traveled…

TJ and I went on an outing through Lancaster, Pennsylvania last weekend and not only did we choose a pub for lunch well off the beaten path within the city, we tripped across this old school, unintentionally whimsical sign on the restaurant side, where we were seated.

These you don’t see much of anymore in this day and age where vulgar lexicon is praised–nearly expected–more than shunned in this topsy-turvy society. It’s almost Twilight Zone-ish. Riotous when you consider we’d just come out of a meadery where we’d happily imbibed and thrown axes.

Nonetheless, we’d observed proper decorum in both environments. Our patronage at this pub was well-received and they even gave us the t.v. remote as we had the restaurant side all to ourselves. Compliments to the food, and props to both of our servers, especially our well-intended, blue-haired girl who bought me an extra beer because they didn’t stock the brew I’d requested.

Talk about old school, they allow smoking on the bar side of this establishment, but don’t you dare drop the f-bomb into your shepherd’s pie, just sayin’. For me, the anti-profanity sign was extra hilarious coming down from a Rick and Morty marathon hangover with my son…