History of Hugs

My parents never hugged me; they weren’t that kind of people. I didn’t think much of it; that was the normal for me.
When I was about 12 I went to visit relatives, and my slightly older female cousins hugged me. Since at that point I thought of hugs as something people do for romance—how much did I know about sex at that time?—I was quite shocked. But soon that became the new normal, at least for relatives other than my parents.
When I was in college I went on a field archaeology thing where we spent 3 months in Mexico. I made friends with a girl who was working at the local tourism office, and we hit it off so well we were instant BFFs. Most people thought we got romantic, but no, it wasn’t like that at all. At the end of the three months she came to visit me at the hotel as I was packing to leave, and that got real emotional, leading to—you guessed it—a hug. But then things really got strange. Here was Patty, who was curvy, and here I was, a horny just-past-teen boy, yet I never felt her body against me. Instead there was this warmth spreading through me, and when I closed my eyes I saw a yellow aura surrounding where she was standing.
Since then I’ve seen that aura and felt the warmth less than a dozen times in my life; every other time I felt the body.
Over the years I’ve become friends with many independent musicians, most of them who love to hug, even the first time they meet you. I’m thinking in particular about Marina V and Christiane Kinney, but there’s plenty others. One time Libbie Schrader hugged me from behind and I almost tossed her over my shoulder because my instincts thought I was being attacked; she never hugged me again.
Another hugging epiphany happened with Christiane’s husband Sean, since I’d never been hugged by a dude before. I must have looked surprised because Christiane went into heavy laughter, but after that it became normal too.
As I just mentioned, some people like Chris and Marina love to hug everyone. One of my favorite actresses, Daniela Ruah, hugged me when we first met, as did one of my favorite musicians, Lindsey Stirling. Another actress, Missy Peregrym, gave me a side half-hug, but that was because we were posing for a photo together. I suppose it depends on how you grew up, how your parents did it.
Which leads me full circle, as for some reason my mom hugged me today. And of course it felt weird more than anything else. . .

Poetry Tuesday: The Artist

Toltec, circa 1450AD

The artist: disciple, abundant, multiple, restless.
The true artist: capable, practicing, skillful;
maintains dialogue with his heart, meets things with his mind.

The true artist: draws out all from his heart,
works with delight, makes things with calm, with sagacity,
works like a true Toltec, composes his objects, works dexterously, invents;
arranges materials, adorns them, makes them adjust.

The carrion artist: works at random, sneers at the people,
makes things opaque, brushes across the surface of the face of things,
works without care, defrauds people, is a thief.


Book Reviews: Peanut Butter Kiddie Time

My latest one-week obsession: evolutionary psychology.

Barbie Puppies #1: Puppy Party
The girls find a lost dog and decide the best way to find the owner—as well as helping to get shelter dogs adopted—is to hold a party. The puppies they already have get a bit jealous, because today was supposed to be about them and their birthdays.
When I first saw this title I couldn’t imagine more than a few pages of such a story, but it turned out to be a great plot device. The best part is the dogs talk, albeit only to each other and not to dumb humans. If I had to choose a favorite it would be the one who wants bacon all the time. Or tennis balls.
Took a while to figure out which girl was which: Skipper has purple/brown hair and is internet-obsessed, Chelsea’s the youngest, Stacie’s the other one by default, with Barbie of course being the oldest. This Barbie is a lot different than the usual stereotype. Then it turns out they’re a singing group, which explains a lot.
“How am I going to save up enough money when there’s so much ice cream in the world?” An existential question if ever there was one.
Simple yet elegant and effective, as opposed to a lot of graphic novels that take advantage of not having to pay a huge special effects budget by throwing everything into a frame. There’s a guy with red curly hair, black eyebrows, and the tiniest goatee ever; hope he’s based on someone the illustrator knows.
Five pages of “Barbie: Fashion Superstar” preview at the end.

Clearful and the Queen
A couple of sisters—Lali the Littlest and Abba the Adventurous—want to make “clearful” a real word and go to some pretty amazing lengths to do so.
Lali excels at jumping in muddy puddles; if you’re paying attention, you’ll see the page has muddy paw marks. You don’t get to learn much more about the girls, as there’s really small text on each page with an occasional watercolor-type drawing.
I was enjoying it, as it took place in reality even if it was fiction and farfetched. Then the cat turned into something a lot more than a cat. By the end of the story I felt it hadn’t been necessary and it dropped my enjoyment a bit.

Boo, The World’s Cutest Dog V.1
A series of short stories featuring. . . yep, you guessed it from the title, although I have to say the real Boo is actually cuter than the drawn one!
In the first story Boo’s human is jealous of all the attention doggie gets at her birthday party. In the second Boo is the dumbest of three dogs, but I guess that’s the stereotype for pretty blondes. Most of the stories are easy to read and understand, although “Obedience School” will probably be too hard for the kids who will be interested in this book.
Some gems among mostly groanworthy attempts:
Dogs do high-fours.
“Just sit back, relax, and lick yourself.” Advice for all of us.
Secret agent 008. . . oh wait, the card’s upside down.
“It’s my top secret communicator!. . . please forget I mentioned that.”
This version of Shaggy is just. . . wrong.
Whelp, I now know for sure that Boo is male; it was so hard to tell.
12 pages of alternate covers, in which Boo looks more like that daggit from the original Battlestar Galactica than his real-life self.
Even from a kid point of view, I don’t feel these are as well written as they could be. The pub says it’s “whimsical,” but that’s usually a code word. So, not bad by any means, but I think it could have been better.

Grumpy Cat: Grumpus
Second collection of stories about the cat who’s “allergic to fun” that I’ve read.
Don’t take a Grumpy Cat to the circus. . . unless you want her to join it.
Best Christmas story ever!
You’ll find what happens when cats discover the internet.
“Actual magic lamp. Seriously.”
15 pages of bonus alternate covers, of which “My Little Grumpy” was the best.
I liked the previous one better, the stories were more entertaining.

I Like, I Don’t Like
A simple primer on children’s rights, showing how one kid in some part of the world likes bricks—Lego style—or shoes, while somewhere else children the same age have to work with those same objects. At the end it really hits home when one of the kids asks, “What is play?”
The drawings are done well enough, though with real faces photoshopped in; some of these did not work. Done in a simple style so little kids can understand it.

Mrs. White Rabbit
A part of the world of Alice in Wonderland as told by an insider.
The artwork is intense right off the bat; seemingly every millimeter of space is used to depict all the myriad ways rabbits entertain themselves, including reading Glamour. There’s one page of the eldest daughter wearing different hats—literally—all with openings for the bunny ears; some of these are hilarious. Another diorama—100 Ways To Cook Carrots—shows exactly that, though I think the cupcakes were going too far. I don’t like carrots, but I would try the cool-looking chessboard or dolphin.
The little bunny girl going to school looks quite scary, maybe because she’s forced to wear a tie with her dress. A transparent cat and a blonde girl of alternating sizes and some repute show up as well, though you only get to see her shoe.
Baby Emily “is the spitting image of her father; she bawls the whole blessed day.” There’s plenty of hidden humor if you look hard enough, like the name of the photographer as you take in the street scene.
This is a book to read over and over, as you’ll find something new each time. There’s more stuff going on in each painting than Where’s Waldo?
Other than rabbits having midlife crises, there’s no plot here, but that hardly matters. If there’s one complaint it’s the use of italics, which are difficult to read in the electronic edition until you make the font big enough.

The Blue Hour
Blue Hour has taken over from its older brother, Golden Hour, as the most beautiful time of day, particularly for photographs.
Starts with a palette of many blue hues, leading into paintings that feature all kinds of animals with blue in the name. Some of the minimal prose sneaks up on you, like “Float like a blue butterfly, glide like a blue whale.”
The artwork is almost impressionistic, though in a way kids will enjoy. If there’s a complaint it’s that this book is too short, as even if there were no more animals with blue names there could have been much more to this.

The Queen of the Frogs
In a world where frogs are dressed, some rather nattily, and talk, one individual finds a crown and is instantly proclaimed Queen. Hilarious and not-so-hilarious chaos ensues.
The frog playing the trombone has gotta be the strangest thing I’ve seen all week. The fish in this pond are steampunk, according to their lamps. But it’s really hard to believe that human gliding by wouldn’t notice all the cafés with their tables and chairs, or the musical frogs, for that matter.
The way these frogs choose their queen is just as silly as Monty Python’s take on Excalibur. If there’s a lesson here, it’s don’t trust royalty. . . er, don’t be controlled by your ego. Yeah, let’s go with that.
With it taking place in a pond, the dominant color is green, leading to a sepia look that’s only enhanced by the old-fashioned clothes the frogs favor.

Sherlock Sam and the Sinister Letters in Bras Basah
Third of this series that I’ve read, this time with Sam and his friends going to an international school for a week, undercover to find who’s sending threatening letters to a classmate’s dad. Yes, chain letters—the old fashioned kind—are featured.
Watson gets an R2-D2 upgrade, a holographic projector. (One of the kids actually calls him “our only hope,” so there.) This comes in handy when he tries to find out who’s been having midnight snacks. New PE activities for the Singaporean kids include Four Square, which is one of the few things I remember from elementary school, and Flag Football, which they call an “excruciating gladiatorial game.” It helps to remember that despite the action taking place in Asia, one of the writers is American, although he’s of Latin descent, which makes all the Mexican stuff no surprise. Of course Sherlock is only interested in the food. . .
The occasional drawing, rudimentary but functional, will bring the laughs, like the one with the two girls watching Sherlock go, “Blah blah science blah blah math. . .” There’s some continuity, as I remember him previously striking the pose when he said, “Science!” (I think he was blinded. . .)
“I would have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for you kaypoh kids!” Somewhere Scooby is snickering.
Glossary of terms endemic to Singapore, as well as a character sheet, at the end. Eliza explains Four Square, while Sherlock gives an horchata recipe. Sounds right, but then Jimmy’s the one with the word search, so we might be here forever. . .

Kids Go To Work Day
You don’t have to put much thought into what this book is about, as the title spells it out concisely. A bit of a sequel to the previous STEM Club offering, this time they look at jobs that aren’t as scientific while visiting a candy factory—I wouldn’t have been able to concentrate on jobs while visiting there!—a nonprofit, a culinary school, and a magazine.
A little cutesy, but good, though not as good as the first one. The illustrations do the job, especially with people; the nonprofit hipster guy will stay with me for a while. . .

Roaming with Rudy, Paris!
“EmBARK”—yes, they went there—on a dog’s-eye view of the European capital.
This could have been fun—this SHOULD have been fun—but it’s told in such a boring style that even adults would have trouble wanting to read on (it’s called a KIDS ONLY guidebook, which makes the style even worse). There’s hardly anything with the dog either. This just comes off as a lecture for someone who might be visiting, telling them where they might go, but not really inspiring them. If this were read aloud to kids, it wouldn’t SOUND like fun.
If it wasn’t for the photos I would have given up quickly. They’re great, but it just doesn’t read as well as others in the same vein. Ends with quizzes disguised as games.

Roaming with Rudy, Washington DC!
Quick sequel to the Paris book, with the same inherent problems.
“The Capitol dome is 288 feet high and made of cast iron painted to look like marble.” How many kids would know—or care—what cast iron is? Reminds me of the teacher in Africa who used the iceberg metaphor with kids who’d never heard of such a thing.
I have the same objections here that I did for the first one, basically that it’s told in a matter of fact textbook style that would likely be boring to kids.
Some games at the end, but they’re basically homework. Not much fun to be had here.


Poetry Tuesday: Song on the Water

Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803-1849)

As mad sexton’s bell, tolling
For earth’s loveliest daughter
Night’s dumbness breaks rolling
So our boat breaks the water

As her look the dream troubles
Of her tearful-eyed lover,
So our sails in the bubbles
Are mirrored, and hover


Book Reviews: Lies, Angels, Traps, and Emily

“You win! Your prize is you get to have sex with me!”
“I’ll take the equivalent in cash!”
Someone handed her a dollar.

The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett
A teenage loner in small-town Pennsylvania tries to solve the mystery of the death of the local prom queen type in what luckily only bears superficial resemblance, mostly in the intro, to Twin Peaks.
There’s actually very little about the mystery; it’s mostly about the protagonist, who has a unique way of seeing the world. A lot of meandering, especially in her mind, but I suppose that’s a teen’s life. There’s a good meditation on being out of control and the unfairness of life, “do everything right and still get killed by a drunk driver” kinda thing. The only time the character really annoyed me was when she thought, “Even if the monster killed me, at least I would die having the best day of my life.” The fact that being scared was the one thing that made her feel so alive. . . I’d liked her up to then, but that just made me feel sorry for her.
Likeable despite her quirks, and the same can be said for this book.

A Shadowing of Angels
The story of a hostage rescue in Iraq, showing how complicated such missions can be. After a prelude in Afghanistan, to show the protagonists’ cred, the plot quickly goes to the long preparations necessary to carry out such an assignment, with only the last few chapters the actual mission.
Oh oh. Despite the excellent craft, the writing is stilted from the start. Descriptions are overly long and at times too technical, especially with things like munitions. In contrast, the scene where the two main characters blurt out their feelings for each other is short and perfunctory, though happening only after numerous similarly-sounding moments of “she hoped that she would one day be able to tell him.” Stop beating me over the head with this, please.
So it’s not exactly polished prose. There are small touches that tell me this author has not been writing long; even the moments when they’re simply thinking of each other read inexperienced writer. The other problem I had was grasping the battlefield, which felt too big, too much to take in, confusing at times.
But what saves this is the tradecraft. I particularly enjoyed the main character in pregnant disguise. Gritty as needed but not overdone, and the writing will only get better in the next book.

The Trapped Girl
A body pulled up in a fishing trap turns out to be a much deeper—no pun—mystery than anyone thought, especially the detectives.
The main character—not counting the investigators—goes from supposed victim to possible serial killer and back, and everywhere in between. From being conned into marriage—though I never understood her husband’s motive for that—to becoming a new woman in more than a changing-identities-kinda way, her story was well done and the best part of the novel.
I love reading mysteries set in places I’m familiar with, and Seattle has always been a favorite, squeeing about spots I’ve been. In this book there’s a prominent scene up in the Alki Point lighthouse, which I’ve been to but never for an occasion like this. Now I feel like an intruder.
So this turned out to be one of the best mystery novels I read this year, keeping me guessing throughout. The killer was well thought out, and I loved detective Tracy, which is the most important thing.

The Slanted Life of Emily Dickinson: America’s Favorite Recluse Just Got a Life!
Life lesson: You can never go wrong by starting with a James Bond parody.
If the famous poetess were alive today, how different would her life be? She’d probably still be a recluse, but having much more fun with it due to social media. The author takes snippets from Emily’s life and poems to show what could have been.
Some highlights:
Angie Dickenson made the family tree.
“(Dogs) are better than human beings, because they know but don’t tell.” Her dog can speak, but only says “Ruh-ro.” (Okay, he says “Woof!” once.)
Emily as advice columnist? Fashionista? Top chef?
There’s Facebook, Instagram, dating websites, emojis, apps like Spinterest, and of course Twitter, because she liked birds. There are pages that only contain silhouettes, as well as exhortations for book donations for the museum library.
The drawings are simple sketches, but really that’s all that’s needed.
Some good stuff, but not quite as funny as it thinks.


Poetry Tuesday: What Her Friend Said

By Kollan Arici, somewhere between 50 and 300AD, part of a much longer gathering of works basically known as the Classical Tamil Anthologies.

The great city fell asleep
but we did not sleep.
Clearly we heard, all night,
from the hillock next to our house
the tender branches of the flower-clustered tree
with leaves like peacock feet
let fall
their blue-sapphire flowers.


Film Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

In honor of the one-year anniversary of first seeing it on the giant screen, here’s my review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Seeing it multiple times on Blu-Ray did not change the opinions I had when I first saw it—only once—in theaters. I agree in general with people who say it has too much in common with the first movie, though I won’t go as far as to say it’s a reboot.
But there’s one very big difference: Rey. As much as she’s been likened to a young Luke Skywalker, her story is much more compelling. Had the robots not dropped into his lap—and that was quite an amazing coincidence, considering who his sister turned out to be—he would have led a drab but okay lifestyle on Tatooine, though more likely he would have gone off to be a pilot somewhere. More importantly, he was raised in a family by his aunt and uncle. Compare that to Rey, and it’s amazing she survived all those years alone.

In screenplays there’s plot and there’s dialogue. With such a big budget record breaker in the works, the important thing is not to screw it up. There’s some validity to the plot being similar to the first one, but in the moment it’s not nearly as noticeable. (And then I think that Poe’s in the Leia role at the beginning and all such thought goes away.) Oddly enough when it comes to the dialogue, it’s the opposite of what I am going to say about directing below: here the moments are more important. Who can forget Maz screaming, “Where’s my boyfriend?” or Rey’s eyes bugging out when she sees all the meal packages places in front of her?

It’s been said that JJ Abrams goes for “moments” in his directing style, and oddly enough there’s evidence both pro and against here. It’s true enough, as the pace is choppy and uneven. But then there’s a reason Lucas didn’t get nominated for Star Wars, and today no one cares. Let’s just say he didn’t screw it up.

For years Harrison Ford was thought of as simply an action guy who didn’t need to worry about finding depth in his performances. Then he did Regarding Henry and all that changed. In his fourth Star Wars movie he gets to do more than in the previous three combined, though that’s mostly because he has a wife, son, and surrogate daughter to play off of rather than just a Wookie. (Sorry, Chewie, didn’t mean it like that.)
Daisy Ridley has some nice subtle touches that are simply adorable; the way she alternately smiles at praise and then looks dismayed when Han blows her off shows that Rey should never play poker.
John Bodega didn’t get anything all that juicy to do here, though I expect that’ll change in the next one. As for Adam Driver, when you’re asked to go crazy with a lightsaber how can you not go all out? That must’ve been fun, smashing all that equipment.
(RIP Carrie Fisher)

When you’re driving across the desert the landscape is boring, but on film it’s always gorgeous. And of course you need a verdant oasis to counter it. Loved Rey’s reaction to seeing the green rain forest, though I would have thought she would be more impressed by all that water.
And even if this goes in the special effects category, the insides of the destroyer, as well as Starkiller Base, during the dogfights have a stark beauty to them as well.

It’s John freakin’ Williams. Next question.

Here’s where the big difference is for me from the first movie. Maybe it’s because I saw Star Wars as a kid; in fact, it’s the first movie I remember seeing. I don’t like to think of myself as old and jaded—well, jaded, anyway—but I simply didn’t get that same feeling of adventure and wonder from this one.