All posts by tvdster

Stairway to Heaven

How come nobody knows firsthand what happens when you die while at the same time there are so many stories and images floating around? The answer to the first question is of course that no one has ever come back to tell the tale. Probably couldn’t be bothered once they got to the other side. And the answer to the second question … I’ll get to that. Let’s go with those that went before us, first.

I can’t say I blame them. I always thought that, when I finally kicked the bucket, I wouldn’t turn back, not even for a last glance. What would be the point? When your train leaves the station (or in the case of Elvis, you leave the building), you don’t go back for your keys or a clean hanky. What’s done is done.

When you die young, you have every right to be pissed off and ask for a second chance. I suppose that may have happened in a few cases. They were given a few more days, weeks or months (probably not months) to bring their affairs in order and to show what good people they were. Some of them may be responsible for those soppy movies about second chancers falling in love on their second time round, only to find some smartass angel blocking the way to everlasting happiness with a one-way ticket to heaven. Not my favorite movies, I confess.

Heaven is of course what we all hope for, even if we know the chances of us getting in are slim with all the shit we pulled during our lifetime. It’s strange. So many people are curious as to what heaven will be like, even if they know damn well they themselves are headed in the other direction. Well, hope springs eternal, as they say.

Me, I never harbored any illusions. Barring a clerical mistake of epic proportions, I knew very well where I’d end up. ‘Never be afraid to face the music,’ my grandmother used to say. This was way before New Age tropes like, ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway,’ but it boils down to the same thing: You do something bad, you come clean and accept your punishment. It’s not hard to see who the beneficiaries of such a strategy are. Not the kids, that’s for damn sure.

Still, lessons learned in childhood are not easily erased from the blackboard of our earliest classes, and are more like the hundred eleven indelible commandments on stone tablets you get to lug around for the rest of your life. Free choice is highly overrated.

None of this matters when your time has come. Coming clean and fessing up is what you’ll do, whether you like it or not. Supposedly, it’s not even necessary. They already know, and when the scales tip even one gram in the wrong direction, your goose (and you) is cooked. Literally.

I don’t know what I was expecting. One moment I was in hospital, looking at nurse Harriet’s shapely backside (one of my few remaining pleasures), and the next I’m standing at the bottom of this giant staircase. It didn’t take a genius to put two and two together. This was the big moment, and the coolness of the air around me was at least an indication that barbecue was not on the menu. Not yet, at least.

Also, as any optimist will tell you, there was no way to go but up. Moreover, there was nothing else to do. That staircase was all there was. There were no fluffy clouds, no heavenly stars, not a single angel telling me what was next. When there’s only one thing to do, that’s what you do. So, up I went.

One thing that bothered me as I took the first steps: Why was I the only one there? I mean, every day, 150,000 people die. That staircase should have been crawling with people pushing ahead, unless jumping the queue was a mortal sin and no one wanted to be the one to arrive first.

But it was just me. Me and a staircase that reached up as far as the eye could see. As staircases go, I’d seen better ones. A bit of marble wouldn’t have gone amiss, but those wooden steps under my bare feet weren’t even painted. And let’s be honest, I wasn’t dressed for the occasion, either. Bare feet, a hospital gown, open at the back, must be the most unflattering of outfits imaginable. The least they could have done was put a decent change of clothes on the first step.

Silly thoughts, maybe, but when you’re climbing a seemingly endless set of stairs, you’ve got plenty of time to think. They say that when you die, your whole life flashes before your eyes. They don’t tell you that this flash lasts a lifetime. That’s a movie I really didn’t need to see again. But it wasn’t as if I had a choice. It just happened, and it took a long time. How long, I don’t know. I suppose we don’t need clocks in the afterlife, what with time being an illusion, anyway, but once my life flash ended, I did begin to wonder if I would ever get to the top.

I also wondered what would happen once I got there. Would there be gates made of pearls? Would there be a bearded geezer in a smock with a big book, or maybe an iPad? Or maybe St. Pete would look like Charlton Heston in *The Ten Commandments*? For all I knew, Heston himself could meet me there. I could tell him I’d always been a fan. A little kissing ass never hurt anybody, and I had nothing to lose.

Or maybe Christianity was a hoax. I wouldn’t be surprised. It is, after all, a pretty unbelievable story. And that brings me to the second question. Some people will believe anything. Santa Claus married the Easter Bunny and they lived happily ever after on Venus. I’m sure I could get someone to go along with it.

The more I thought about it, and that interminable climb gave me plenty of time to think, the more I came to the conclusion that whatever I was going to find up there would be a total surprise. Maybe I’d meet the archetypal Death (I suppose a capital D is in order), complete with a black robe and a scythe to cut your last lifeline, which in my case would be the drip that still seemed attached to my arm.

I imagined him (or her; this wasn’t the time for sexism) to be a bit impersonal. Surely, a mythical skeleton wouldn’t wot of human trials and tribulations. He (or her, or it) would have never had to worry about bringing home the bacon, would never have considered going on a diet or contemplated another hairstyle. Reasoning with such a being would be futile.

It was with some trepidation that I finished the last steps.

All I saw, was a door. A sliding door. No pearls in sight. And no St. Pete or Death either. After such a long climb, I felt entitled to a little more than a door. Given the life I led, I didn’t exactly expect a choir of cheering angels, but come on, surely some form of welcome was not too much to ask for.

Next to the door was a single button. An elevator, I thought. Seriously? After all that climbing? Couldn’t they have put an elevator at the bottom? I pressed the button, the door opened and I stepped inside. No buttons there. Of course. Nowhere to go but up, as the optimist said. But up was not where we went. We went down. Down, down and further down still.

This was beginning to feel like those substitute birth dreams I used to have, flying down a chute that got ever narrower. All I knew, I was heading somewhere. The temperature was rising, but that could mean anything. Soon, I would know.

Copyright © 27-02-2021 Theo van der Ster

The comments on this blog are closed, but feel free to interact with me through email.

Magical Balloons

I created this photorealistic montage in April 2016 and I honestly don’t remember how the idea originated. I had an idea of how I wanted the end result to look and started searching for pictures of a wall I could use.

I found this photo of a graveyard wall in Dunmore, County Galway, Ireland on Wikimedia (link).

The image as downloaded from Wikimedia.

I removed the trees and the grey sky and pasted in a blue sky with fluffy clouds. I then created the balloon girl drawing in Clip Studio (aka Manga Studio).

I used Affinity Photo to blend the various elements together. The font for THE WALL OF DREAMS is Chalkduster, and I used a displacement filter to make it look as if the letters and the girl were actually painted on the wall. I also painted some half transparent and blurred structure on top of it to make it look more grungy and realistic.

The real balloons aren’t actually real. I downloaded a fairly large png of a blue balloon and changed the color on a few duplicates. I also painted a shadow on the wall for the first balloon.

The placard was created in Affinity Designer. Looking back, the text is a little corny but I can’t really think of anything better and the thing needs to be there to balance the composition.

And here is the end result. The idea is that dreams become reality, in this case in the form of balloons.

The finished photo montage.

Copyright © 1-11-2017 Theo van der Ster

The comments on this blog are closed, but feel free to interact with me through email.

How to Become an Artist or Die Trying

We all have dreams when we’re young. Mostly, they’re not very realistic. After all, society’s need for cowboys, Indians and knights isn’t what it used to be, and we can’t all be astronauts either.

Me, I wanted to be an artist. I could draw quite well and even though I’d never been inside a museum, I knew about famous painters like Rembrandt and Picasso.

My parents were less than thrilled when I told them. This is how it went, more or less.

“You want to be a what?”
“An artist. You know, paintings and shit.”
‘Don’t you use that kind of language with me, young man.”
‘What? Like artist?”
“You know very well which words, smartass! Dad, come over here and listen what your son wants to be when he grows up.”
“He knows what he wants to be? Great! And he hasn’t even started school yet. What is it son? You want to be an electrician like your dad?”
“No, dad, I want to be an artist. You know, paintings and… well, paintings.”
“Hmm, an artist, huh. Well, you draw a mean horse, I’ll give you that. But, you know, son, we’re not always gonna be around to feed you, you know.”
“What do you mean, dad?”
‘I mean there’s no money in it. Can’t make a living as an artist. Well known fact. Look at whatsisname, Van Gogh. Cut off his own ear because no one wanted to buy his stuff. Damn right, too, if you ask me. Any child could do a better job. Square heads and all them limbs in the wrong places…”
“I think that’s Picasso, dad.”
“Whatever. These artsy types all sound the same to me. Bums and tramps, the lot of them. Dirt-poor, they all are.”
“I actually think Picasso is very rich, dad.”
“Yes, well, some of them get lucky, that’s all. But most of them don’t have two pennies to rub together. No, you’re much better off learning a decent trade. You can’t go wrong with that, believe me, I know.”
“Yes, I … I suppose you know best, dad.”
“Of course he does. Learned his trade the hard way, your father did. Always provided for us, even when times were bad. Didn’t have a penny to his name when I married him — that was in the War, mind you — but he studied evenings and learned on the job, and look where he is now.”
“Where is he now, mom?”
“He’s in a decent job, that’s where he is, making a good living, too. Even got his own moped to drive to work. He’s done well, and it didn’t come easy, I can tell you.”
“So … I can’t be an artist, then?”
“Of course you can. Drawing is a great hobby. Look at that nice portrait you did of aunt Lena the other day…”
“That was actually a horse, mom.”
“A horse?”
“Yes, I like horses.”
“Hmm. Yes, of course. But you might try drawing the odd portrait every once in a while. People like it if you draw their portrait, you know.”
“I suppose. But what’s the use if I can’t sell them?”
“Well, far be it from us to stand in your way. You want to be an artist, go right ahead. Don’t mind us. We’re only your parents. What do we know? But don’t say we didn’t warn you.
“Now, why don’t you take your sketchbook and do a nice portrait of your mom?”
“Perhaps some other time, mom. I’m not really in the mood for drawing right now.”

So I gave up. I shouldn’t have but I did. Hey, I was still a kid, and I did as I was told. It left a void, though, which I never filled with anything else. I didn’t do too well at school and joined the workforce at age fifteen as an apprentice printer.

I’m not sorry. What’s done is done. But it’s never too late to start anew. Every day’s a new beginning. Below are a few drawings I did when I was ten. They’re not bad for a ten year old, but I must admit I haven’t progressed all that much. In the coming months, I’m going to see how far I can take this.

For a wonderful account of a young boy who doesn’t let himself be distracted from his vocation, read My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. This link will take you to Amazon’s $4.22 Kindle edition. I read the book when I was a teenager and it made a deep impression. You may also want to read the sequel: The Gift of Asher Lev.

Copyright © 28-10-2017 Theo van der Ster

The comments on this blog are closed, but feel free to interact with me through email.

How I Started Writing Fiction

I’m not one of those people who started writing their own stories at a very young age. I did make a half-hearted attempt after a trip to Spain and Morocco when I was 22 and thought I had something to say. But I soon concluded I had no talent at all, and that was the end of it.

Fast forward eighteen years and I found myself alone and bored while my wife was out traveling in Thailand for two months. One lonely night in bed I was reminded of the cheap erotica I used to read as a teenager, recalling some of the steamier scenes with fondness and, dare I say it, excitement.

Wouldn’t it be fun to reread some of them, I wondered. I did some looking around but these were hardly vintage items. They were printed on letter-sized pulp with magazine-style covers, and I used to buy them second-hand at markets for as little as twenty cents. The publisher had gone bust a long time ago and in 1998 the internet wasn’t what it is now. eBay was around but not the giant we know today, and in the end I was lucky to find a few copies at a second-hand bookshop.

You know how when you revisit the places of your childhood, they all seem a lot smaller all of a sudden? These books were still the same size, but as it turned out, the writing was appalling, something I never noticed as a teenager. Worse, most of them were about as exciting as three days old dishwater.

There were a few scenes that showed a little promise, though, and somehow I got it into my head I could improve upon them. I took a scene I remembered from almost twenty-five years ago and rewrote it.

That was fun and exciting in more than one way.

I kept embellishing and soon cooked up a whole new story around it, and by the time my wife returned home from Thailand, I had written an 80,000 words book.

Seeing a whole new world and characters coming into existence from my imagination was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life, and I often kept writing until the sun came up.

My wife thought the book was publishable, and my friends encouraged me to go find a publisher. But I was hesitant. Firstly, I didn’t think it was good enough, and secondly, I was wary of putting my name on the cover of a book with highly erotic content.

So use a pen name, they said. But that didn’t feel good. It felt like lying. So I shelved it and wrote a sequel, and then another one.

Some six months ago, I revised my viewpoint. My now ex-wife said, why don’t you publish all those stories you’ve written? There must be some money in that, and it may also be rewarding to see your work in print.

And I thought, why not? Let’s publish it and put my name on it. Because in this time of long overdue openness about sexual harassment, I think I have a few valuable thoughts to share about the difference between sexual fantasy and reality. Read more about it in this (not written yet) post.

As of this writing, I’m working on three short stories. I’ll be publishing them on Amazon soon, and then I’ll have something more to say about this subject.

I’m also writing in other genres now: fables, fantasy, short stories. It’s a lot of fun, and in future posts I’ll be sharing my experiences with writing, self-publishing, and writing resources and software.

Copyright © 28-10-2017 Theo van der Ster

The comments on this blog are closed, but feel free to interact with me through email.

Stranger in a Strange Land

Something is wrong here. Something is definitely not right. It isn’t just that everybody is carrying a musical instrument like it’s part of their anatomy, it isn’t that all the houses have round windows and domed roofs. It’s that every face looks decidedly foreign and that all the street signs are unreadable.
The air is unquestionably warmer than ten minutes ago. It even smells different, and that vague outline of mountains on the horizon has undoubtedly not been there before.
This isn’t Kansas. Or even Costa Rica. It certainly isn’t home.
Imagine walking down a familiar street, not noticing much, lost in thought. Then the sudden urge to pee and the welcome sight of an Asian looking fast food joint. You duck inside, and for a few brief seconds you’re really in the moment as you close your eyes and let go, feeling the pressures of the day drain away.
The quickest way out is through another door, and once out of the alley behind the restaurant you’re soon lost in thought again, trusting your feet to find their way.
It takes a while for it to register. First there is that balmy breeze, carrying the scent of unfamiliar spices and fleeting melodies. Then the growing suspicion that things aren’t what they should be. Did you take a wrong turn and ended up in a parallel universe or is this the hookie cookie district?
Your brain struggles as it’s confronted with the inevitable choice. Has the rest of the world gone mad or have you? There must have been a mistake somewhere, and you retrace your steps.
Soon, you’re lost between the domed buildings. You could ask for directions but whereto? Back to normal? Those strange faces couldn’t tell you anything. You wouldn’t understand the language, and also, you can’t shake the feeling that talking will somehow finalize your predicament.
You start to run and then stop yourself. Best not to attract too much attention. You walk a few blocks, fearing that every step is taking you even further in the wrong direction.
This isn’t going to end well. People are starting to look at you. Soon, they will close in and you’ll be trampled or pushed into an abyss.
Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe then you’ll wake up. But this doesn’t feel like a dream. More likely, your whole life up till now has been a dream and this is reality.
That pee you took was you wetting the metaphorical bed, and now you’re very much awake. Every fiber of your being is alive and pushing you forward.
You enter a store that looks like a pawn shop, filled with trinkets and all kinds of junk piled into every nook and cranny. It’s dark in there, and blindly you find your way to the back, down a long corridor and then through a door you hope will lead to another street, away from the mob.
The cold air hits you in the face as you leave the building. Not looking up, you make your way out of another alley, only to be stopped in your tracks by a honking car.
There weren’t any cars before, were there? The music is gone, and everything around you looks familiar again. No more domes, the street signs are in English and the faces around you are the usual familiar looking strangers.
Did this really happen? It already feels like a dream, fast fading from memory.

Copyright © 25-10-2017 Theo van der Ster

The comments on this blog are closed, but feel free to interact with me through email.