Thursday, December 29, 2016

Suspending belief

Sometimes, getting out of your comfort zone can surprise you in pleasant ways.

I don't normally like hokey comedies, ghost stories, or bizarre supernatural tales. I'm not the biggest fan of Melissa McCarthy or Kirsten Wiig (I have come to love both Leslie Jones for her Sounders enthusiasm and Kate McKinnon for her SNL brilliance). And I wasn't allowed to watch a lot of movies "normal" kids did in the '80s, so I have still never seen the original Ghostbusters.  

But I really, really enjoyed the 2016 remake! Maybe it was the all-female vibe, or the deliberate way the gender roles were reversed, or the cheesy un-scary aspect of the ghosts, but I really liked the movie more than I actually thought I would!

In a similar vein, I'm not a big comic book fan, of either the Marvel or DC universe varieties. (However, I do love Marvel's Agents of SHIELD: even without an understanding of the Avengers' back stories, the show stands on its own.) I'm not entirely sure how Dr. Strange fits into all the nerd-dom, but as a movie it was pretty fun to watch.

The only thing I'd heard about it was the controversy regarding Tilda Swindon being cast as a character who is supposed to be Asian and male. Having no personal ties to the comic, though, made it hard for me to feel affronted, even if I sympathize with critiques of Hollywood whitewashing, and even if I generally try to support films that feature people of color.

Benedict Cumberbatch's American accent was a little off-putting, though.

...And then there are the times where you get out of your comfort zone and realize you like it nice and fine there, thank you very much.

A coworker and I were talking about bizarre mystery series we loved; I raved about Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series, and he recommended the Dresden Files. So I checked out the first book from the library. It definitely sounded intriguing: it features a wise-cracking wizard private investigator. But meh, it didn't really draw me in.

Usually I give a series a second chance by reading the second book. I'm still on the fence about this one.

I believe I know what I like.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Harpier cries, "'Tis time, 'tis time"

I felt compelled to to read the next installment in the Jade del Cameron 1920s Africa mystery series, mainly because I've invested so much time in it already (and also probably because I'm feeling nostalgic for my own African adventure.) The tropes are getting old, though, filled with mysterious and often supernatural-possessed natives. This one was no different: the murder-solving multicultural American heroine and her family embark on a trip to Zanzibar. They manage to destroy a cult, solve some murders, and free slaves, all despite local legends of witchcraft and sorcery.

Months ago, I accidentally abandoned my Newbery Medal-reading streak, but recently tried to re-start that by re-reading The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I liked it well enough as a fifth grader when I originally read it: after all, it features a strong teenage heroine who challenges 17th-century Puritan gender norms. Reading it almost 30 years later as an adult was interesting: I distinctly remember 10-year-old me being surprised and disgusted by the love triangle, dismissing it all as mushy crap. Re-reading it as an adult, it's a very obvious subplot. It's still a cute story, with a good message for young readers about doing good, treating all people with respect, and standing up for themselves and others... a somber lesson to take into 2017.

I'm not entirely sure how Blackbird rose to the top of my Newbery reading list, but I suspect it's because I've been listening the hell out of Hamilton. (I suspect that Hamilton's childhood in St. Kitts and Nevis reminded me of Blackbird Kit's childhood in Barbados.)

It took months and months of friends pleading with me to listen to the soundtrack before one finally had a Hamilton listening party that forced me to hear it in all its brilliance.

The play admittedly has its faults, and scores of critics have ranted about them more eloquently than I could -- about the whitewashing of slavery despite having a mostly black cast, the glorification of bootstrap ideology, failing the Bechdel test, etc. But as a history nerd, it's a freaking Tony-winning musical about the country's first Secretary of the Treasury! You can still appreciate that it's a fantastic story, without forgetting or demeaning its historical context. As a carefully crafted tale, its narrative structure is just sheer genius.

Along with Les Miserables and Newsies, it's now one of my favorite musicals. (Yes, I have a strong preference for productions with a fight-for-justice theme.)

Besides, wildly popular cultural phenomena are only relevant because they speak to something about the contemporary condition. Hamilton is actually a story about the here and now and the debate Americans have been having over national identity since electing a black president.

"History has its eyes on you.."

Carrying the banner

I bought Newsies on BluRay for my nieces and nephew for Christmas, after a conversation with Mi Hermana about exposing them to more history.

It's no secret that it's one of my favorite movies. I hope the kids like it as much as my sisters and I did.

Earlier this year, my mother took me to see the stage production. To my surprise, it featured not only new songs but a generally different character

Jack is apparently a great doodler and a talented budding young political cartoonist, rather than merely an orphan who wants to escape New York. I didn't mind that change so much, except that they revised the lyrics to "Santa Fe" so that when I was singing along at the top of my lungs, it was to the movie lyrics instead. Awkward.

The newspaper reporter (played by Bill Pullman in the movie) and David's sister were taken out and condensed into one character: a female reporter who is also the love interest for Jack. I didn't mind this change so much, either.

But the unforgivable change was that said reporter is revealed to secretly be the daughter of Hearst, and she and her rich kid friends (the children of Pulitzer and Astor) are super eager to show their support for the newsboys' strike. Rather than letting the story stand as one where near-destitute orphans empower and organize themselves to form a union and fight for a fair contract, this Broadway version makes the capitalists all friendly and nice after all. I think it detracts from the original story and lessens its power.

I left the theatre wondering why such a big change would have been written in to the stage, and the only reason I can think of is to make it accessible to the more privileged kids who are likely to be able to (afford and) see it performed.

I'm glad I finally saw the stage production; I'm just disappointed that the story took something away from the original tale that merged by tween love of musicals and history.

Sunday, December 11, 2016


The past month has not been good. Having an established professional and volunteer life in the political realm, my anxiety levels have been off the charts since Election Day. It's heartening to see and hear so many political and previously not-so-political people stepping up and taking action, resisting, fighting the good fight, etc. And I'm slowly getting there.

I volunteered at work to be sent to Nevada in the weeks before the election to help the Silver State turn blue and to help elect the first Latina to the U.S. Senate. I've been clinging to those two successes in the past month.

But I still have to change the radio channel when NPR plays interview clips of the soon-to-be Commander-in-Chief. I still haven't entirely cleaned my apartment post-GOTV. I don't have the energy to plan my annual holiday party this year. I had mild anxiety travelling to Michigan to visit my sister, nieces, and nephew for Thanksgiving: they live one suburb away from where a student hung a noose in a middle school bathroom.

A few friends posted this article about surving the next four years on Facebook, and it sparked something in the depression-and-anxiety-riddled recesses of my brain. Numbers 6 (Prioritizing Mental & Physical Health), 7 (Making Lists), and 8 (Finding Positivity Every Day) in particular spoke to me.

I agreed to summit Mt Baker next August, so that's a good fitness goal I can steer toward. As is the Seahawks 12K I think I finally want to run. I'm good at calendaring and making lists; it helps me find order and peace in the chaos around me. And recently, some glad tidings of great joy have surfaced.

Yesterday was one of the most exciting days of my life as a Seattle sports fan: the Seattle Sounders won the MLS Cup in a nail-biting final that took them all the way to PKs. (I always pace during PKs, even if I don't care about the teams involved. PKs are nerve-wracking.) It was such an amazing journey for the team... and though I was quite literally hyperventilating after extra time, for the first time in months it wasn't because of anything political.  It was a fantastic win, and my season ticket seatmate and I got to spend it together in a low-key atmosphere. Then I headed off to my home neighborhood to celebrate the milestone birthday of an old friend, and spent the rest of the night with good people I've known forever, who are basically family.

Today, I went to the small regional airport to welcome the team back home, cheering and chanting as they brought the MLS Cup off a plane. If thousands of fans cheering wildly and celebrating for two days straight isn't something to recognize as positivity, I don't know what is. Everyone was so happy and proud and excited, and in a bittersweet way it was what Election Night should have been.

Over Thanksgiving, while watching the MLS Western Conference final with my nieces and nephew, I noticed that 9-year-old Harmony was silent and not getting excited about the game. I told her, "Isn't it exciting? The Sounders can win this! I believe!" She looked sad and answered, "But Tia, you said the same thing about Hillary Clinton." (I did. I called her, jubilant and hopeful, right before heading out to the E-Day parties.)

I hope I (and frankly, our country) can restore trust and hope to my little niece's eyes. (At some point, my sister and I might need to talk to her about the differences between sports wins and political wins, and which of those scenarios we actually have a chance of influencing.)

So maybe this 12-year-old blog on a very outdated blog site (2017 goal: finally get around to purchasing a domain name) can help me re-center myself.
Ah, Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
    Would not we shatter it to bits -- and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart's Desire!
 (73rd quatrain, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Edward Fitzgerald translation)

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Once more unto the breach

Every now and then, after I pay my overdue fines at the library, I get a slew of new books in my favorite mystery series. It can be a bit overwhelming. But I barricade myself at home until I am all caught up.

The latest two books in the Molly Murphy series have her solving a kidnapping and murder during the holidays, and then traveling across the Wild West to San Francisco just in time to experience the 1906 earthquake (while solving a case there too). All with a small child in tow, helpful well-connected bohemian lesbian friends, and a police captain husband who finally asks for her help in solving a case. All TOTALLY normal for the turn of the last century! But good fun even after stretching the historical imagination.

Even more of a historical stretch: the ongoing spy saga of Maggie Hope, the "secretary" who happens to have a mother who is an uber-Nazi strategist, a father who is a Bletchley genius, and a sister somewhere on the Continent in the Resistance. In the latest installment, PM Churchill lends her to Eleanor Roosevelt during a state visit. Mrs R, in turn, enlists her help in trying to overturn a capital punishment sentence for an African-American teenager framed for murder. The plot of each book in the series is so unbelievable (and the writing so breezy) that I think they'd make better sense in comic form -- a la Prince Valiant. And yet I can't stop reading. It's complete escapism -- modern social attitudes and barely-masked modern issues, wrapped in the quasi-nostalgic era of the "Good War".

In the opposite vein, I can't stop reading the Maisie Dobbs series for its utter melancholy. It takes the main character ten books and twenty years to finally get to a place where she can move beyond her personal trauma from WWI to find some happiness (which get snatched cruelly from her in Book 11); unfortunately, it happens on the brink of WWII so the readers watch as another war and trauma lurk in the future. The latest book has Maisie going on a mission to Munich to free a businessman important to Britain's war preparation effort. She solves a murder in the course of her duties, of course. And even though at the end of the story, she starts the process of setting up her old detective agency, it seems hardly likely that the next book will have her relegated to the sidelines of the coming conflict.

Or maybe I'm just bitter that The Bletchley Circle ended after only two seasons and Land Girls after only three.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Big rock candy mountain

Blarg. I've kept this blog so I can keep up with non-political, non-policy, non-work-related writing (mainly book and movie reviews and travel musings). Every now and then I get overwhelmed and ignore it for a few months. And then every now and then I have a chunk of free time to go back and reflect on half the stuff I'm feeding my brain.

Lately, it's been spy and superhero flicks: everything from Foyle's War and The Bletchley Circle on Netflix to cheesy blockbusters on the big screen. It's great escapism, and for the most part there are no gray areas in the battles against good and evil. Nice and clean, unlike real life.

Captain America: Civil War was about 20 minutes longer than it needed to be, but it was still thoroughly enjoyable. I've only seen a few of the Avengers movies or back stories, but you didn't really need the history to be able to follow the story. It's the age-old debate about whether it's better to work from within or without in order to create change. (Hello, 2016 presidential election! But crap, I was trying not to go there...) But really, it was just an excuse to put all the Marvel superheroes in one film. Every kid does that in their imagination. What, Rainbow Brite and GI Joe never teamed up in anyone's childhood fantasies? Just me? OK...

Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice was also way longer than it needed to be. I've never been a fan of the Batman story, and Ben Affleck did nothing to further endear him to me. My motives for seeing the movie were pure Henry Cavill eye candy. (Plus, I like the Superman story as a better metaphor for America.) The whole movie is just one big misunderstanding between the two superheroes, who distrust each other's underlying cape-flapping philosophies. It gets boring quickly, and their eventual reconciliation is the most unoriginal thing ever.

Johnny English was a complete waste of my time, but I was in the mood for something stupid so it I saw it through to the end. I generally like Rowan Atkinson, and I understand that the whole thing is tongue-in-cheek and deliberately over-the-top like John Malkovich's French accent throughout the whole ordeal. It's just a pretty unremarkable, unmemorable movie unless it's exactly the kind of junk food you need after midnight. Unfortunately, now Netflix keeps suggesting the sequel to me.

I might need to hit the gym hard after this latest binge-fest.

But that's why I do the NYT crossword puzzle every day.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Beginning the beguine in stormy weather

As I'm picking up in Downton Abbey where I left off after I abandoned it (so I can finally get closure when the series ends), I'm reminded that several of my favorite mystery series have similar underlying themes, though they take place 10 years after the Crawleys' stories end.

Queen of Hearts and Malice at the Palace take our 34th-in-line-to-the-throne but living-near-poverty sleuth to Hollywood and a royal wedding, respectively. Whodunits and shenanigans ensue, of course. The regular international and glamorous cast miraculously assembles. She and her love interest finally make moves toward marriage, after getting secretly engaged three books ago and doing the will-we-or-won't-we dance since the series debut.  All good fun, and good mysteries.  I await the next installment eagerly, as always.

On a less hilarious note,  A Dangerous Place has heroine detective Maisie Dobbs solving a murder in Gibraltar. It took me several tries to actually get into this book, because after finally giving Maisie some happiness in the last book, Winspear goes and kills her husband in a flying accident, inducing a miscarriage for our protagonist who has already muddled through decades of suffering and personal misery since the Great War. And now in Book 11,  we're back to the incessant suffering and misery. Maisie decides to give herself some time off in order to cope with her recent tragedies. In Spain, during its civil war. With the possibility of another World War looming. There can be no silver lining in her life story, can there? Can there??? Because of course the murder she decides to solve to get her mind off her emotional state is itself fraught with emotional trauma for nations as well as individuals. It was well written as usual, but still depressing.

Back to Downton and its own set of miseries...

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Goodly states and kingdoms seen

2015 was a pretty awesome year for me. I'm incredibly lucky to have been able to see a lot of the world. I visited three new countries on two new continents (both in the southern hemisphere) and embarked on two huge trekking trips. I pushed myself to do things I enjoyed but that would also challenge me, and I did them whether or not I had the easy security of friends. I've always struggled to have the courage to go my own way alone, but I think I mastered it in 2015. And it's made me stronger and more confident.

Notable "firsts" in 2015:

Had my own Sounders season tickets under my own name, instead of sub-letting from The Planning Committee.

Peru - Aside from being a new country I visited, was my first trip to South America and entailed  many other "firsts":
  • Eating alpaca (repeatedly!)
  • Being in the Southern Hemisphere, where I forgot to see if the water really does swirl down the drain counter-clockwise
  • Seeing the Southern Cross in a star-saturated sky, on a freezing night in the middle of the Andes and standing in utter awe
  • Being the primary Spanish speaker in a group, ever armed with my two travel phrase books
  • Experiencing altitude sickness, after traveling from 0 to 11,000 feet above sea level 
  • Drinking coca tea, even if I'm not entirely convinced it helped with the altitude sickness
  • Tasting local beverages chicha and chicha morada, a homemade corn beer and purple corn juice, respectively 
Tanzania - Climbing Kilimanjaro is still one of the most amazing experiences of my life. "Firsts" specifically involving this beautiful country include:
  • Communicating a little bit in Swahili
  • Being the lightest packer in a group, even if by total accident!
  • Taking Diamox and discovering its effects on me are not pleasant
  • Hiking the highest I've ever been
Kenya - Because I was there for a wedding celebration, I'm glad my experiences in a new, large city were with some of my oldest and dearest friends:
  • Going on safari, which included first-ever sightings (in the wild) of giraffes, hippos, crocodiles, hyenas, lions, elephants, wildebeests, topi, zebras, gazelles, and so many other creatures
  • Seeing a predator take down its prey when a crocodile pounced on a baby zebra and we watched the whole feeding frenzy from our safari jeep
  • Eating crocodile at a touristy carnivore-themed restaurant
  • Feeding a giraffe at a sanctuary and discovering they slobber a lot
  • Haggling in markets and getting taken advantage of miserably because it's not a Western cultural practice
Two 10Ks! - I have only ever run one 10K, and my second and third attempts sadly did not beat that first record. But rather than remain an outlier in my sea of 5K runs, it seems I might be on a longer running trend!

Actually liked The Nutcracker  after years of being dragged to it by my mother. But Pacific Northwest Ballet changed up the choreography and costumes this year, and I found it as absolutely magical as my mother has always thought it is. 

"Flew" a flight simulator at a small museum in naval base town. I don't remember the type of plane (there were over 200 options) I "flew" but the program let me "fly" it around "Puget Sound" and it was one of the coolest things ever. It did remind me that I'm not the best at computer games that involve driving, but still. It was a fun thing to do on a lunch break while canvassing.

Watched a sports game with my mother, IN A BAR - Her missionary friend from New Zealand was staying with her during the Rugby World Cup, and of course we were rooting for the All Blacks. Neither of them had alcoholic beverages, but the situation was so out of the ordinary that I definitely had to imbibe.

Signed up for an online personal stylist service, because I get frustrated sometimes with having to shop for hours before finding anything vaguely fitting, and because I rarely try new colors or styles on my own. I've loved Stitch Fix with every box I've received so far, and it saves me so much time and energy! I think there's something psychologically comforting about trying on new clothes in your own home rather than in an impersonal department store dressing room.

2015 was amazing and wonderful. Here's to 2016 and its adventures!