How to switch from satellite to over-the-air TV

A couple of months ago, my wife and I got rid of our family’s satellite dish. I hesitate to call this “cord-cutting” because our entire family entertainment system still depends on a rather significant cord — the one that feeds data into and out of our high-speed cable modem-based Internet connection. Nevertheless, like other cord-cutters, our desire was cost savings. We knew there was a vast discrepancy between how much we were using our Dish Network subscription versus how much we were paying for it. We took an inventory of what we were actually watching via our dish and came up with a reasonably short list:

  • The whole family, but especially the children, watched a lot of the Disney Channel. They especially loved watching it with the Disney Now app on their tablets, which required our Dish Network login to unlock most content
  • The children also enjoyed a few Nickelodeon shows
  • Rose enjoyed several Food Network programs
  • We definitely wanted to keep watching network shows such as The Flash, Supergirl, America’s Funniest Home Videos, and Jeopardy!
  • And an electronic program guide and DVR were must-haves

That just didn’t feel like $72.12 per month worth of content to us. But what was our alternative? We knew our kids could live without the few shows they watched on Nickelodeon because the Disney Channel gave them so many appealing choices to choose from. And we could take some of the money we were paying Dish Network each month and instead purchase via Amazon Video full seasons of the Food Network shows Rose enjoyed the most — and still save a lot of money.

So that meant all we really wanted were the major broadcast networks and the Disney Channel. And we thought the desire to keep the Disney Channel would be the tether that kept us tied to a disproportionate monthly satellite TV bill. But then Disney CEO Bob Iger announced a little something called Disney+.

Best Disney CEO (besides Walt) ever?

I’ve long dreamed of à la carte cable service — pick and choose your own channels. I’d also long given up on that ever being a possibility because offering such a thing just isn’t in cable or satellite companies’ financial interests. But that option is kind of here now! With the plethora of streaming services now (and soon-to-be) available, there’s really no longer any reason for you to pay for programming you’re not going to watch.

With the impending launch of Disney+, Rose and I realized that if we could get our local channels via over-the-air TV, we could drop Dish Network. We didn’t know anything about HDTV antennas, but over the following few months, we learned a lot. In this article, I’ll share the details of how we went about making the switch in the hopes of informing others who might be thinking about taking the same plunge.

We made our cutover via a three-phase process.

Phase 1: Proof-of-Concept
POC-antennaWe started by purchasing a relatively inexpensive tabletop HDTV antenna just to try it out and see what kind of reception we could get. This antenna was connected directly to our television, so to watch it, we had to switch our TV to the antenna input. It also had no DVR and no on-screen channel guide, but it did let us start to explore what it was like to pick up our local channels over-the-air. We quickly learned a few things:

  • The basic setup for over-the-air TV is: plug your antenna into the TV, let the TV do a scan to inventory all the channels it can receive, and enjoy.
  • We live in a northeastern suburb of San Antonio, and all of the major networks have their antennas south of the city. That means we’re about twenty to twenty-five miles from most broadcast antennas, which isn’t bad but isn’t particularly desirable either.
  • Obtaining good reception meant frequently repositioning the tabletop antenna for optimal reception of whatever channel we happened to be watching at the moment.
  • We couldn’t receive our area’s VHF channels at all, which meant no PBS and no ABC, which was a big problem because America’s Funniest Home Videos is our favorite family show.
  • Multiplexed networks meant we now received some fun sub-channels Dish Network didn’t carry, like Antenna and Comet and MeTV.

Overall, we considered the cheap tabletop antenna a considerable success, though it was clear we’d need a far more powerful antenna before all was said and done. But we were ready to move to the next level.

Phase 2: Adding DVR
Who watches TV without time-shifting or skipping commercials today? DVR and an on-screen channel guide were musts for us. Luckily, there are a lot of products out there that do this. There’s Tivo, Roku, and a whole ton of others.

We decided on the Amazon Fire TV Recast. The way it works is pretty simple.

  • The Recast is just a box that contains a hard drive and a CPU. You plug your over-the-air antenna cable into it, and you hook it up to wifi or a wired Ethernet connection.
  • It uses its data connection to download program guide data from Amazon, and it uses its hard-drive and CPU to record programs for you when they’re on.
  • Notice I said nothing about any kind of output to your TV. That’s because it has none. You watch TV — either live or recorded — via an Amazon Fire TV Stick. The Fire TV Stick sees the Recast on your home network and treats it as just another source of programming.

Because of its dependence upon Fire TV Stick, the Recast works only in conjunction with Fire TV devices, but since we were already Amazon Prime subscribers, a further step into the Amazon eco-system didn’t concern us. The Fire TV Stick and Recast were both straightforward to set up and use.

As a proof-of-concept, we set up a timer to record Jeopardy! This was a great test program because it airs every weekday, so we were often testing. It airs on one of the channels we were receiving the strongest. And since we still had Dish Network, and since our Dish Network receiver was also recording Jeopardy! for us daily, we had nothing to lose. We planned to watch the Recast recordings of Jeopardy! when we could, and fall back to watching the Dish Network recordings when it failed.

But it didn’t fail that often! The biggest problem was our tabletop antenna would get bumped and moved and positioned in a way that kept us from receiving the appropriate channel well or at all, and so the Recast would fail to record that day’s episode. But when it worked, it worked wonderfully.

Satisfied that the Recast’s channel guide and DVR would work well for us, we moved on to the final step: a more powerful antenna.

Phase 3: Putting an antenna up on our roof
We have a two-story house, so I planned from the start to hire someone else to climb up there and mount our new antenna. Also, while I’d learned a lot by this point about VHF vs. UHF and unidirectional vs. multi-directional antennas, I was still far from being an expert, and I wanted someone who would know

  • What kind of antenna we needed
  • How to safely install it on the roof
  • And how to connect it to our existing home TV wiring

Antop400We found a reputable local contractor who knew what he was doing. (If you’re in the San Antonio area, I highly recommend Interlyte). He knew how to mount the antenna on the roof, and he knew what kind of antenna we needed — which turned out to be an Antop 400. He knew how to make sure it would be powerful enough to pick up all available channels, including those VHF channels our tabletop antenna couldn’t.

In just a couple of hours, he had our Dish Network dish down and a new HDTV antenna up in its place, fully calibrated and wired into our existing home TV coaxial cabling. This antenna didn’t get bumped and repositioned incorrectly, like our tabletop antenna did. At last, we could receive the VHF channels, and they were crystal clear. We now received double the channels our first proof-of-concept antenna gave us.

We canceled our Dish Network account an hour later.

The final analysis
Switching to an over-the-air antenna brought us these one-time expenses:

  • Original “proof-of-concept” tabletop HDTV antenna ($25)
  • Fire TV Stick 4K ($35)
  • Fire TV Recast ($180)
  • Fire TV USB power cable ($20)
    • Optional. We have an electrician-installed channel hidden in the wall to invisibly run cables from the floorboard up to our wall-mounted TV, but for $20, this allowed me power the Fire TV Stick off the TV itself rather than running the power cable through the wall
  • Fire TV Ethernet Adapter ($15)
    • Optional. When we built our house, I had it wired with Cat 5e Ethernet cable for just this reason. Why stream HD video over wifi when you can do it via fast, shielded wired connection?
  • Roof-mounted HDTV antenna and professional installation ($449)

We had our Netflix and Amazon Prime subscriptions before we made this change, so the costs of those items remained consistent. We dropped our $72.12/month Dish Network bill and added a Disney+ subscription, which we got at the special D23 member introductory price of $4.24/month for three years.

For $724 worth of one-time expenses, we’re now saving $67.88/month on TV programming.

We’re incredibly happy we made this change. We still get to watch all the TV shows we really care about but at a fraction of the price, and it was far easier to switch than I thought it would be.

2019 in Review: Reading

HenryBemisWell, 2019 happened, but you wouldn’t know it from reading my articles on this blog because there weren’t any. I’ll get to why that was in a future article, but for now, it’s time for my annual Henry Bemis article. Here are my reflections on the books I read in 2019.

The Apple-Icon icon indicates a book I read because one of my children read it for a school book report, and since I’m their homeschool reading teacher, I had to read it, too. All books on the list are fiction unless they bear the NF non-fiction icon.

  1. The Work of Mercy by Mark Shea NF
  2. Artemis by Andy Weir
  3. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
  4. Still Amidst the Storm by Conor Gallagher NF
  5. West is San Francisco by Lauren Sapala
  6. Will Wilder and the Amulet of Power by Raymond Arroyo
  7. The Glass Gargoyle by Marie Andreas
  8. The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe
  9. Synthetic Men of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs
  10. The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe
  11. Men of Iron by Howard Pyle Apple-Icon
  12. Madeleine Takes Command by Ethel C. Brill  Apple-Icon
  13. The House with a Clock In Its Walls by John Bellairs
  14. Thrawn by Timothy Zahn
  15. Little Robot by Ben Hatke
  16. Fluency by Jennifer Foehner Wells
  17. Countdown by Deborah Wiles
  18. Mother Knows Best by Serena Valentino
  19. Sinner by Lino Rulli NF
  20. Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes Apple-Icon
  21. If All the Swords in England by Barbara Willard Apple-Icon
  22. Misty of Chincoteague by Marguerite Henry Apple-Icon
  23. Conquerors’ Pride by Timothy Zahn
  24. The End and Other Beginnings by Veronica Roth
  25. Conquerors’ Heritage by Timothy Zahn
  26. Conquerors’ Legacy by Timothy Zahn
  27. Saint Rose of Lima by Mary Fabyan Windeatt Apple-Icon
  28. Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

Lowlights

meh The Shadow of the Torturer and The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe

2019 shall be remembered as the year I gave Gene Wolfe the old college try. He’s hailed as a titan of science fiction, and he’s a Catholic whose faith is apparent from his work. That should have made his The Book of the New Sun series a slam-dunk with me, but it wasn’t. I’m glad I read the first two books in the series, but I’ve had enough. Everyone says Wolfe is a genius, but challenging to read. I’ll agree with that. Too difficult for me, I guess. When I have to read while switching between my Kindle app and Wikipedia just to get explanations for what the heck is going on, it’s not a good sign.

meh Mother Knows Best by Serena Valentino

I bought this on a BookBub deal, and I was expecting an interesting backstory for the villain of Tangled. Instead, I felt like I stumbled into the middle of a series. Which I did! It turns out the books in Valentino’s Disney Villains series aren’t just stand-alone origin stories for classic characters like Ursula and the Evil Queen, they’re also an ongoing tale about the Odd Sisters, a trio of evil witches exclusive to this series. That didn’t make this book terrible by any means, it just didn’t make it completely satisfying, either.

There were also two books I just wasn’t getting into this year, so I didn’t finish them.

I tried1200px-ProhibitionSign2.svg Red Rising by Pierce Brown (DNF at 31%)

I have friends who absolutely adore Red Rising, and I trust their judgment a lot, so I really wanted to like it. But I just kept feeling like I’d read it before when it was called The Hunger Games and Divergent. I couldn’t get into it. Sorry, Will. I may try it again someday.

1200px-ProhibitionSign2.svg Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge: A Crash of Fate by Zoraida Córdova (DNF at 35%)

I did love seeing all of the places from Disneyland’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in A Crash of Fate, but when you strip away the Star Wars veneer, A Crash of Fate is a YA romance novel, and that’s just not my thing.

Highlights
91SxgwHMc0LTimothy Zahn! He’s always been one of my favorite authors thanks to a book you might have heard of called Star Wars: Heir to the Empire, and Grand Admiral Thrawn is one of my all-time favorite villains. So I was eager to finally dig into Thrawn, his take on Thrawn’s origin in the new official Star Wars continuity. What amazed me was seeing just how much his classic Heir to the Empire trilogy influenced me when I read it as a teenager. I heard a lot of my own writing voice in Thrawn, which I guess means I owe a lot of my writing voice to Timothy Zahn. I can think of much worse inspirations.

Thrawn wasn’t my favorite read of the year, but Timothy Zahn was my favorite read’s author. And so without further ado…

download1stPlace-SmallThe Conquerors’ Trilogy by Timothy Zahn

The Conquerors’ Trilogy is about future humans in a devastating war with an alien race, sparked by a first contact that went horribly wrong. Yes, you’ve read that a hundred times before. But what makes this different is the failed first contact was a huge misunderstanding. One that was deliberately instigated by unknown third parties for their own gain. And this trilogy isn’t the story of how a war was won. It’s the story of how determined individuals — both human and alien — come together to fight for the truth and for peace. I adored this trilogy.

2ndPlace-Smallartemis_1[1]Artemis by Andy Weir

I enjoyed the heck out of Artemis, Andy Weir’s sophomore novel. I felt like it had all the hard science and all the dramatic tension that made The Martian so spectacular. But on the moon. And told as a heist story! What’s not to love?

Also, I’m convinced Rudy, the former Canadian Mountie who now runs security on the moon, was inspired by Odo from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Rest in peace, René Auberjonois.

3rdPlace-SmallstarsightStarsight by Brandon Sanderson

And the guy who is quickly becoming my favorite author just because he keeps cranking out book after book after book that I love had a new YA novel this year. It should surprise no one that Starsight by Brandon Sanderson was one of my most favorite things I read this year. It took the series in directions I didn’t expect, kept me rapidly turning pages in pursuit of answers I needed, and was just a delightful read.

Honorable Mentions (in order in which I read them)

  • The Work of Mercy by Mark Shea NF
  • West is San Francisco by Lauren Sapala
  • Madeleine Takes Command by Ethel C. Brill  Apple-Icon
  • The House with a Clock In Its Walls by John Bellairs
  • Thrawn by Timothy Zahn
  • Sinner by Lino Rulli NF

Final Thoughts
2019 also turned out to be the year I stopped caring enough about having a “Currently Reading” widget on my blog to put up with the crummy UI of Goodreads. In the words of Alkaline Trio, “That’s it, we’ve had enough.” I removed the widget from this site, and I’m not updating my Goodreads account any longer. If you want to know what I’m reading, just ask me.

And if you want to know what I read in years past, here are links to my previous reading lists: 2018 | 2017 | 2016.

I promise to write more on this blog in 2020 than just this article.

2018 in Review: Reading

Most people write their “Year in Review” stories in December, but I’m not most people. I always wait to write mine until the new year has officially begun, especially my look back at the books I read in the past year. Because what if I finish a book on December 31? That book needs to be cataloged in the correct year! And guess what? This year, that policy paid off.

HenryBemisWelcome to the 2018 edition of my annual Henry Bemis article, named after the main character of The Twilight Zone episode “Time Enough at Last.” All he wanted to do was have the time to read as many books as he wanted. After he became the sole survivor of nuclear war, his wish came true — until he broke his glasses. In honor (and pity) of Henry, here are my reflections on the books I consumed over the last 365 days.

I finished 37 books this year, up from the 23 I read in 2017. The Apple-Icon icon indicates a book I read because one of my children read it for a school book report. And because my children are homeschooled, and because I’m their reading teacher, I kind of felt I had to read them, too.

  1. Oathbringer (The Stormlight Archive #3)
    Brandon Sanderson
  2. Patron Saint of First Communicants: The Story of Blessed Imelda Lambertini Apple-Icon
    Mary Fabyan Windeatt
  3. St. Gianna Beretta Molla: The Gift of Life Apple-Icon
    Susan Helen Wallace
  4. Mighty Jack
    Ben Hatke
  5. Mighty Jack and the Goblin King
    Ben Hatke
  6. Peterrific
    Victoria Kann
  7. Princess Academy
    Shannon Hale
  8. The Swords of Mars (Barsoom #8)
    Edgar Rice Burroughs
  9. Active Memory (Mirador #3)
    Dan Wells
  10. St. Thomas Aquinas Apple-Icon
    Mary Fabyan Windeatt
  11. Lexicon
    Max Barry
  12. (Beta read for a member of my writing group)
  13. The Small War of Sergeant Donkey Apple-Icon
    Maureen Daly
  14. (Beta read for a member of my writing group)
  15. The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower #1)
    Stephen King
  16. Sleep Writer
    Keith Robinson
  17. (Beta read for a member of my writing group)
  18. One Beautiful Dream
    Jennifer Fulwiler
  19. The Door in the Wall
    Marguerite de Angeli
  20. The Girl with the Red Balloon
    Katherine Locke
  21. The Winged Watchman
    Hilda van Stockum
  22. The Princess Bride
    William Goldman
  23. Artemis Fowl
    Eoin Colfer
  24. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
    Ransom Riggs
  25. Hollow City (Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children #2)
    Ransom Riggs
  26. Library of Souls (Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children #3)
    Ransom Riggs
  27. The Wise Man’s Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicle #2)
    Patrick Rothfuss
  28. Firefly Magic
    Lauren Sapala
  29. Esme’s Wish
    Elizabeth Foster
  30. Swiss Family Robinson (DNF) Apple-Icon
    Johann David Wyss
  31. The Fallen Star (Billy Smith and the Goblins #2)
    Robert Hewitt Wolfe
  32. Carve the Mark
    Veronica Roth
  33. This Tremendous Lover
    Dom Eugene Boylan
  34. The Fates Divide (Carve the Mark #2)
    Veronica Roth
  35. Ogre Enchanted
    Gail Caron Levine
  36. We Are Okay
    Nina LaCour
  37. Pippi Longstocking Apple-Icon
    Astrid Lindgren
  38. Skyward
    Brandon Sanderson

There are two complete series in there. I’d wanted to read Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children for some time, and when I finally did this year, I didn’t stop until I’d read the entire trilogy. (Book 4 wasn’t out yet when I finished.) I also finally got to Carve the Mark by Veronica Roth and immediately went into the final book of the duology, The Fates Divide.

I’d wanted to read both The Princess Bride and The Wise Man’s Fear for some time, and I finally got to both this year. I enjoyed The Wise Man’s Fear very much, but I’m beginning to fear The Kingkiller Chronicle will never be completed. And many consider the film The Princess Bride to be just as good, if not better, than the book, which is rare. But while both are fantastic, I enjoyed the book more, mostly for the details about young Inigo Montoya.

I had no idea Gail Carson Levine, one of my favorite authors, was releasing a new book this year, but I bought Ogre Enchanted as soon as I saw it, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I also enjoyed the conclusion of Dan Wells’s Mirador series, Active Memory.

Yep, I have a great big “Did Not Finish” in there. My son read Swiss Family Robinson for a book report, but I could not bring myself to finish it. Too many long passages that just described the ingenious ways the family survived on the island and not enough plot for me. The movie was better! (I don’t think I’ve ever said that before…)

I completed a couple of non-fiction books this year. Firefly Magic by Lauren Sapala taught me everything I know about marketing, which isn’t as bad as I thought it was! I strongly related to One Beautiful Dream by Jennifer Fulwiler, which chronicled her efforts to have both an artistic career (as writer and Sirius XM talk show host) and raise a large family. And This Tremendous Lover was one of the best spiritual books I’ve ever read. It is deep, but if you have the patience to slowly walk through it and soak it in, I highly recommend it.

I began the year with Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbringer, and I ended it with his Skyward. And yes, I finished Skyward on December 31, so if I’d written this article early, it would have been incomplete.

And the winner is…
So which were my favorites? Which books I read in 2018 did I enjoy the most? There were three.

The Princess Bride is an absolute classic. It’s required reading for anyone who enjoys stories.

And while I enjoyed the heck out of the Miss Peregrine series, I think I liked Carve the Mark and The Fates Divide just a little bit more. The plot and world of Carve the Mark were just as awesome as Miss Peregrine, but I kind of have a word crush on Veronica Roth’s prose. I could read her books solely to study how she puts words together into sentences.

If you want to jump into the DeLorean and go back in time, here are my past reading lists: 2017 | 2016.

How I learned Representation Matters

“Representation matters.” Google it, and you’ll find it’s a hashtag. It’s a movement. It’s a message. It’s the idea that all people have a place at the table. These two simple words have numerous applications. People of all races, nationalities, and income levels should be represented in democratic government. There shouldn’t be a gender gap in (to use my day job as an example) software development. And our stories should reflect the diverse world we live in, too. No, that doesn’t mean the characters of every story must check off as many demographic boxes as possible. But nor does every hero in every story need to be Caucasian.

I’m a white, privileged male, so admittedly, this was a problem not immediately apparent to me. But who can forget this Tumblr user’s post about seeing Star Wars: Rogue One with her Mexican father?

cassian-andor-main_216e7233
Diego Luna as Cassian Andor
Photo credit: StarWars.com

When the film was over and we were walking to the car, he turns to me and says, “did you notice that [Cassian Andor, portrayed by Diego Luna] had an accent?” And I said, “Yeah dad, just like yours.” Then my dad asked me if the film had made a lot of money. I told him it was the second highest grossing film of 2016 despite it only being out for 18 days in 2016 (since new year just came around). He then asked me if people liked the film, I told him that it had a huge following online and great reviews. He then asked me why Diego Luna hadn’t changed his accent and I told him that Diego has openly talked about keeping his accent and how proud he is of it. And my dad was silent for a while and then he said, “And he was a main character.” And I said, “He was.” And my dad was so happy. As we drove home he started telling me about other Mexican actors that he thinks should be in movies in America. Representation matters.

The issue became much more personal for me when I had a conversation with a co-worker, Sarah, in which we got on the subject of Ghostbusters (2016). We talked about how we felt the film was underrated and about how many of its critics didn’t seem to critique the film itself but rather the fact that it starred women. And of course, we talked about how Kate McKinnon’s completely bonkers Jillian Holtzmann is one of the greatest Ghostbusters of all time. Of all time!

And then Sarah told me something that this father of three little girls will never forget.

holtzman She told me how, when she was young, she had all the Ghostbusters toys — the figures, the car, the fire station playset. “But,” she said, “it never even occurred to me that I could be a Ghostbuster since the Ghostbusters were all boys.”

Now I get it that no one, male or female, can wield an unlicensed nuclear accelerator and capture a ghost in ecto-containment. But that’s not the point. The point is: Sarah never even pretended to be a Ghostbuster because she’d never seen a female being one.

Now imagine if a young girl never sees a woman perform a particular real-life profession. Do you think that girl will say to herself, “Well, I’ve only ever seen men do that job, but I suppose I could do it, too”? Some do, for sure, but not all. Not even most. After all, there’s a reason women like Amelia Earhart and Elizabeth Blackwell are heroes.

And then it got personal
But even after all of that, I’d only learned how much representation mattered to others. I still hadn’t personalized how affirming representation feels.

Then I came upon a particular paragraph buried deep in Brandon Sanderson’s Oathbriger. It’s a 1000+ page book, the third in an epic fantasy series that so far tips the scales at 3000+ pages, but this passage is the only one in the entire saga I’ve so far highlighted. This passage is written from the perspective of a relatively minor character, Renarin Kholin.

gallery_8508_6_72188
Renarin Kholin fan art by ExMachina from 17thShard.com

Renarin wears glasses. He’s soft-spoken and doesn’t like conflict. He’s curious. He takes his time before speaking. And this is how he sees himself:

Indeed, he still saw the world differently from everyone else. He was still nervous talking to people, and didn’t like being touched. Everyone else saw in each other things he never could understand. So much noise and destruction and people talking and cries for help and sniffles and muttering and whispering all like buzzing, buzzings.

And I felt it: the warm glow of representation. Because the person that was just described? That’s me. That’s totally me. Renarin Kholin represents me.

Cath
Cather Avery art from the Rainbow Rowell Wiki

Another example: I read Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell because I was intrigued by the idea of a story about a fan fiction writer. I don’t read many “chick lit” books — and by not many, I mean zero — but nevertheless, I adored Fangirl. It’s been a year-and-a-half since I read it, and I still think about it all the time. And the main reason why is the book’s main character, Cather Avery. She’s obsessed with the Simon Snow books (a thinly-veiled Harry Potter-like series). She loves to write. She’s shy. She stays home every Friday night. And she nearly starves at the start of her freshman year of college because she doesn’t know where the cafeteria is, and she’s too self-conscious to wander around looking for it, or worse, to — gasp — ask someone for help.

I feel so represented by Cather Avery. And it feels magnificent.

And that’s how I learned representation matters. Renarin Kholin is an introvert like me, but he’s also a Knight Radiant. If Renarin can do great, heroic things, maybe I can, too.

Cather is as withdrawn and as hard to get out of her shell as I am, yet she wins a prestigious award for her writing. So maybe my writing can find an appreciative audience, too.

eBook Cover
On sale December 11, 2018

The main character in my new book, Tomorrow’s Shepherd, also represents me in many ways. Fritz Reinhardt is quiet, a reluctant leader, and a lover of all things breakfast-related. His introspection and intuition make him something of an odd stick to most folks, but they also help him both change and save the world. My sincere hope is that real-life people like Fritz — people like me — can find in him a character they can relate to. A character they feel represents them.

Because for the love of St. Pete, this is important. Everyone deserves to have some stories in which they see themselves. Stories should show our beautifully diverse world as it is — and, where our world is lacking, they should show what it could be.

Stories can teach little girls that only boys can be Ghostbusters, or they can show those young women that they can be anything.

2017 in Review: Reading, Movies, and TV

HenryBemis
Time enough at last!

Welcome to the 2017 edition of my annual Henry Bemis article, in which I reflect on the media I consumed over the last 365 days.

Books
I read 23 books last year.

  1. The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks
  2. Arena Mode by Blake Northcott
  3. The Goblin Crown by Robert Hewitt Wolfe
  4. Saturdays at Sea by Jessica Day George
  5. Kingdom Keepers: The Return, Book 3: Disney At Last by Ridley Pearson
  6. Ones and Zeroes by Dan Wells
  7. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  8. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
  9. Will Wilder: The Relic of Perilous Falls by Raymond Arroyo
  10. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’engle
  11. Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
  12. Railsea by China Mieville
  13. A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro
  14. The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre by Gail Carson Levine
  15. Prototype D by Jason D. Morrow
  16. The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
  17. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
  18. Between the Shadow and Lo by Lauren Sapala
  19. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
  20. Will Wilder: The Lost Staff of Wonders by Raymond Arroyo
  21. Uncertain Summer by Jessica Lee Anderson
  22. Fairy Keeper (World of Aluvia Book 1) by Amy Bearce
  23. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson

The list would be longer, except near the end of November, I began reading Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson. And it is a Very Long Book.

Going into the year, I was especially excited for Kingdom Keepers: The Return, Book 3: Disney At Last by Ridley Pearson and Saturdays at Sea by Jessica Day George, as each is the conclusion of a series I’ve much enjoyed. And I liked both of those books, too, but neither one was my favorite in its series.

My two favorites were The Night Circus and When You Reach Me. Both are really unique takes on common fantasy elements — magic and time travel, respectively — and I thoroughly enjoyed both.

Ones and Zeroes and The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre were reminders of why Dan Wells and Gail Carson Levine are two of my favorite authors. I’m at the point where I’ll buy any new book from either of them based solely on the byline.

Perhaps the most unlikely-for-me book on the list is Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, but it is one of the books that has stuck with me the longest. It might be the only one on the list this year that caused me to stay up way past my bedtime reading. Months later, I still remember specific scenes, and I’ve adopted some of Cather Avery’s phrases into my personal vocabulary. I adored that book.

Movies
I made it to a movie theater four times this year! That might be the most in-theater movies I’ve seen in a year since I was a teenager. Of the four, my favorites were Justice League and Wonder Woman. I really couldn’t pick one favorite between the two of them. Wonder Woman is undoubtedly the tighter, better-focused story, but the sheer fun factor of Justice League makes it equal. Plus, Justice League featured Superman giving The Flash a super-speed side-eye:

SupermanSeesTheFlash

The other two movies I saw were Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Beauty and the Beast. I didn’t leave the theater dissatisfied a single time.

TV
I wasn’t crazy about The Flash season 3, which I watched on Netflix. Savitar, Killer Frost, Doctor Alchemy… all of those aspects of the show were just OK or boring to me. But HR Wells was a gift to humanity. By far, he was the best Wells the show has featured yet. And the first half of season 4, which I’ve been watching every week on The CW? Amazing. The Thinker is the best villain the show has had since Reverse-Flash, and maybe better. This could be the best season yet.

Supergirl season 2 was good, but nothing like season 1. We finally got to see Superman, but we lost Cat Grant, at least for much of the season. And while Guardian is pretty cool, I think the writers have no idea what to do with Jimmy Olson anymore. I like Lena Luthor, though, and I’m glad she’s gotten a bigger role in season 3. But that’s about all the good I can say about the first half of season 3. It’s been OK. But Reign just doesn’t do much for me as a Big Bad. And why does Kara have to spend the season all mopey? Living Ray of Sunshine Kara is always the best part of Supergirl, along with the Danvers sisterhood.

Hey, here’s a game I play when watching Supergirl. See if you can spot all the times some kind of lame excuse is used to explain why Martian Manhunter can’t use one of his powers when that power would solve the current problem in seconds. “Darn, I can’t read their minds — they must have some kind of psychic shield!” “Would you look at that, I can’t phase through that wall for some reason. We’ll have to find another way in.”

The Crown season 1 was really great. Every episode left me eager to discuss it and to read Wikipedia articles about the real-life subjects. What I’ve seen so far of season 2 is equally good. Voltron seasons 3 and 4 were both excellent, but I wish they’d just kept them a single season. I especially loved the flashbacks to the creation of the lions and the original Alfor-led Voltron Force.

Stranger Things 2 is not on this list because I haven’t had a chance to sit down and watch it yet.

Looking Ahead
In 2018, the novel I’m most looking forward to is book 3 in Dan Wells’s Mirador series, Active Memory. In TV, I can’t get enough of The Flash season 4. I can’t wait to see how Barry’s fight against The Thinker ends… and at this point, The Thinker’s ultimate goal hasn’t even been revealed yet!

There is no movie I am more looking forward to than Wreck-It Ralph 2: Ralph Breaks the Internet.

It’s going to be a great year for people who like stories. Lord, please don’t let me break my glasses.

The season of hope

 

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Photo by Garrett Anderson on Unsplash

It’s the Christmas season, the season of hope. Around this time last year, when I finished the first draft of Tomorrow’s Shepherd, the sequel to Yesterday’s Demons, I mentioned how grateful I was to finish it at this time of year because hope is the book’s theme. It’s now one year and one draft later. I’ve spent a lot of that time thinking about hope, and I have some observations.

 

The three theological virtues, famously mentioned by St. Paul in the beautiful 1 Corinthians 13, are faith, hope, and love. “Everybody, everybody wants to love, and everybody, everybody wants to be loved,” as Ingrid Michaelson sings. I think faith is equally well understood. But I consider hope to be the most often confused theological virtue.

The Christian definition of faith is the belief in the truths God has revealed based solely on a personal decision to believe them. In a wider, more casual sense, it’s the belief in something despite a lack of physical evidence. The theological meaning of hope, on the other hand, is confidence in eternal life; its “pop culture” definition is, “I have no proof XYZ will happen, but I believe it will.”

Hope is sometimes incorrectly labeled as faith. “I have faith my team will win the championship!” No, you don’t. You hope your team will win the championship. This is a common confusion. Faith is a belief in past things you can’t see. Hope is the belief a certain future event will occur.

The most romantic of the three theological virtues is… well, it’s love, of course. But hope is a close second! Hope is at the very core of a lot of epic stories. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins is a living embodiment of Middle-earth’s hope for peace. Luke Skywalker is the embodiment of hope in Star Wars, and Rogue One teaches us rebellions are built on hope.

One of my favorite hopeful moments from any story is the ending of Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “The Wish.” Cordelia’s wish for a Buffy-free world takes her to an alternate Sunnydale overrun with vampires. When Giles discovers Anya’s necklace is the talisman responsible for that dark world, he prepares to smash it.

Anya: “You trusting fool! How do you know the other world is any better than this?”
Giles: “Because it has to be.”

The opposite of hope is despair. And that brings me to my final observation. This world needs a lot more hope. We seem far more inclined to despair than to hope, and that’s sad.

I see this all the time in politics. I remember a co-worker in the early 2000s declared George W. Bush to be the worst President ever – “the worst!” I haven’t talked to that guy in some time, but I reckon since November 2016, he has a new candidate in mind for the “worst President ever” award, if you know what I mean. And Democrats aren’t the only ones who despair. Look at how many Republicans didn’t simply consider Barack Obama a President they disagreed with, but a President who was actively trying to destroy America.

Living in despair is no way to live. I’m not saying the injustices and challenges of the world should be ignored, but we should never see them as permanent or insurmountable. We should not despair, especially in this final week of the year.

This is the season of Christmas. This is the season of hope.

I’ve written for Batman and X-Men (sort of)

Yesterday’s Demons was not my first published work. That honor goes to Batman #455, cover dated October 1990. Did I write the main story in this issue? No. Did I write the backup story? No… it didn’t even have one. What I wrote and what was published in this issue was… a letter!

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Image: DC Comics

batmanletterDear KC and Denny,

I have just finished BATMAN #450 and I can only describe it in one word. WOW! The art was superb, as we have all come to expect from Jim Aparo, but the storyline was most excellent and intriguing. I could never imagine a Joker who couldn’t laugh at things, or refused to tell jokes. It will be very fascinating to see a three-way duel between the Joker, Batman, and Mr. Base. My only complaint is that Bruce shipped Tim off to Japan. Oh, well. I guess I would do the same after what the Clown Prince of Crime did to the old Boy Wonder.

Keep up the tremendous work — this is the best comic on sale today.

Mike Ripplinger

That right there is thirteen-year-old me trying to sound studious, professional, and about double my age at the time. If you want to know what I was really like at that age, check out the contribution I made to Uncanny X-Men #282 about one year later. Uncanny X-Men #282 features the first appearance of Bishop and the first appearance of my name in a Marvel comic. Here I am not making any effort at all to appear calm and rational. This is just me being the fourteen-year-old fanboy I was.

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Image: Marvel Comics

xmenletterDear X-Crew:

Concerning UNCANNY X-MEN #277, I can’t do a single thing until I write you on this issue. Incredible! First-rate! Phenomenal! Superlative! Gambit!

I know you’re sayng “Huh?” to this last remark, so let me explain. Gambit is my favorite X-Man and this issue featured him the most since #273, where the Wolvie fight was great. To see him say to the fake Wolverine, “Bang, you dead” nearly brought tears to my eyes. That’s how much I like Gambit. Keep him around for a long time, but keep him mysterious.

More reasons UNCANNY #277 was great. The script (“Bang, you dead”), the art (namely page 6, frame 7; page 19, frame 3, and, of course, page 24, frame 1), the return of Colossus in metal form (even if he is controlled by Shadow King. But could Piotr rejoin the X-Men? Please!), Gambit, Professor X’s return to Earth (do I see the leader the mutant teams need so badly?), Gambit, and Gambit.

You don’t know this, but I like Gambit.

So, make Colossus and Rogue X-Men again, and keep Gambit in the team. Or I’ll meet you in a dark alley and say, “Bang, you dead.”

Mike Ripplinger

Hoo boy, I should have won the Pulitzer for that one, shouldn’t I?

What I remember most about these letters is that I just knew both of them would be accepted for publication. I remember arriving at the comic book store’s parking lot the day Batman #455 was available and thinking to myself, “The letters on this issue’s editorial page will be about #450, and mine will be there.” And after I bought it, I remember returning to the car and just casually mentioning to my dad, “Yeah, so they published my letter in Batman.” And I just knew they were going to publish my Ode to Gambit in Uncanny X-Men, too. It was an early example of the intuition I would learn to listen to more often later in life.

Another memory of having these letters published was that they got me a pen pal! A man from Nigeria wrote me a letter after seeing my name and address published in Batman #455. I exchanged a couple of letters with him until the letters started to request that I ask “Mommy and Daddy” to send him money and American clothes. To make this easy for me, he even included his clothing sizes. It was like an early 90s, pre-Internet version of a Nigerian prince email scam.

I’m not sure whether or not they’re even still publishing letters to the editor in comic books these days. Maybe such discussion now takes place entirely on message boards and on Twitter. But having these letters printed in two of my favorite comic books sure was a thrill to me back when I was a teenager. And you know what? It still is.

Excelsior!