Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My Favorite Films of 2008

And here we are: the final post of 2008. What better way to end the year with a dazzling review of the glitz, the glamour that are the movies?!

Truth be told, we didn't see many this year. Was it me, or did this year's batch of movies seem a bit bland and lackluster? Most films simply weren't appealing and were quickly tossed into the DVD Rental List. But from what we did see, I managed to cull a list of the bright spots in an otherwise dull celluloid year....

  1. WALL-E
  2. Milk
  3. The Dark Knight
  4. Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In)
  5. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  6. Tropic Thunder
  7. Iron Man
  8. Hamlet 2
  9. Cloverfield
  10. Young@Heart

Honorable Mention: Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Worst Film: Meet the Spartans

Monday, December 29, 2008

My Favorite Reads of 2008

I made a concerted effort to attack my shelves of unread books during 2008, and I think I did a decent job, weaving my way through about 45 books. (Granted, I purchased just as many to replace them on the "must read" pile.) Somehow, I whittled down those finished titles to a short list of my 10 favorite reads of 2008.

  1. A Good and Happy Child by Justin Evans. Read my review of it here
  2. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
  3. Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
  4. The Gay Haunt by Victor J. Banis
  5. The Living Reed by Pearl S. Buck
  6. The Ungodly by Richard Rhodes
  7. The Pastures of Heaven by John Steinbeck
  8. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
  9. The Twelve Chairs by Ilf and Petrov
  10. Peter by Kate Walker


I also thought it would be interesting to offer my picks for my favorite LGBT reads of 2008, as well. After all, I make it a point to read works by LGBT authors, and one-third of the books I read during the past 12 months fall into the LGBT category.

  1. The Gay Haunt by Victor J. Banis. Read my review here
  2. Peter by Kate Walker
  3. The Gilda Stories by Jewelle Gomez
  4. Stars in My Pocket Likes Grains of Sand by Samuel R. Delany
  5. China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh


Well, back to my book pile. Happy reading!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Two Movies to End My Vacation

Saturday night, we finally found the opportunity to check out the recently remodeled Art Theatre just a few blocks from our apartment. The outside had definitely changed with the addition of both coffee and wine bars bookending the entrance. The sidewalk tiles leading past the ticket booth and into the theater had been cleaned and polished. The neon ART sign returned to its proper place in stunning blue color. Inside, what used to be a few unsteady 2x4s that served as a counter had been replaced with bright white counters with windows on the front displaying candies and Art Theatre merchandise. But the biggest improvement was the actual theater. The once dark and cave-like room with too many uncomfortable seats that seemed incredibly far from the screen was now bright, with a clean white ceiling, walls covered in blue with white columns in between, the comfy cushioned seats all angled toward the pristine screen, two ramps curved up and around to create a small stage. It was like stepping into an entirely different place.

All we could do was marvel at the transformation as the lights dimmed, the previews flickered by....
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button begins at the end of WWI. On that day, while everyone celebrates the victory, a child is born. But not just any child. A child so deformed that even though his father promises the mother on her death bed to find a place for her son, he grabs the bundle and runs toward the river with one thought on his mind. However, fate steps in, in the guise of a policeman, and the child is left on the back steps of a random house.

A young black couple finds the child, and the woman Queenie, at first appalled by the child's horribly wrinkled body and fearing the child has only a short time left, takes him in, gives him the name of Benjamin. Benjamin survives that night. And the next. And the next, much to the surprise of Queenie and everyone at the old folks home where she lives and works. Strange thing, though, is that he appears very old, almost 80 years and then some though he couldn't be more than a few days. And as he grows, he begins to age backwards. Through Benjamin's eyes we see the world change from the short peace after WWI to a life at sea fighting the Germans and on to New Orleans just before Hurricane Katrina. During these times, Benjamin meets a young girl named Daisy and through the years a romance blossoms between them as he grows younger and she grows older.

The special effects were amazing. Brad Pitt aged from over 80 to middle age to his twenties and even younger all in the short space of the film. And the makeup used to create the age effects, well, at the beginning of the film, I almost gasped when I finally realized that the old woman in the hospital bed was Cate Blanchett. But effects alone don't make this film the spectacular and moving film that it was. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett gave fantastic performances and did the entire cast, with other standouts being Tilda Swinton as Elizabeth Abbott the wife of a British Diplomat whom Benjamin meets in Russia, Taraji Henson as Queenie who raises Benjamin with a mother's unconditional love and support, and Jared Harris as Captin Mike of the tugboat Chelsea who takes Benjamin to war. (The only problem I had was that at times, the characters mumbled, soft enough that I strained to no avail at those scenes.) Eric Roth's screenplay was intelligent, confronting the problems and differing views on what it means to age. David Fincher's direction made the most of both actors and story to create a warm and moving fairytale.

--

Sunday we made the trek to Pasadena for the Swedish film Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In). Pasadena isn't exactly close to our apartment, but it was one of the three places in Southern California currently showing the film. And lucky for us, it was at a discount theater. ($2 each -- can't beat that!)
Late at night, a young boy named Oskar watches from his apartment window as new tenants arrive -- a girl about his age accompanied by a middle-aged man. He doesn't think much about them, after all he has other problems like the three boys who pick on him at school. But one night while in the snow-covered courtyard, taking out his anger at the boys by jabbing a knife into a tree, he senses someone behind him, and turns to find the young girl, Eli, standing atop a jungle gym, staring at him. When he tries to strike up a conversation, she simply states that they cannot be friends and runs away. Strangley enough, though, she returns to the courtyard the next night, and an odd friendship develops between the two.

As their relationship grows, somethign terrible happens. A man is murdered near the courtyard, witnessed by a sole man from his balcony. He finds the friends of the murdered man at a local restaurant, tells them what he saw: a young girl killed their friend, knocked him to the ground, broke his neck. Together, they return to the scene of the death only to find a large pool of blood buried beneath the snow.

Let the Right One In at its heart is a vampire tale. The audience learns very early on about Eli, but what separates this from other stories is that Oskar doesn't know which creates fantastic tension when the two are together, wondering if and when she will attack him. It's bloody and gruesome without falling into the vampire movie cliché of seeing the fangs grow as she overdramatically bites into a victim's neck. The special effects for the most part are very subtle: a change in the eyes or how Eli floats down from the jungle gym; but a few times, the special effects really surprised us, especially towards the end of the film, while Oskar was being held underwater by one of the bullies. (Gruesome and totally unexpected!)

The film did seem a bit long, even though it lasted less than two hours. I think much of that had to do with the pacing of scenes to draw out the tension.

During the drive home, CM and I discussed the film's title, which I doubt we'd ever done before for any movie. My first take on it drew on the vampire mythos, where a vampire can't come into a room unless invited in. Does Oskar trust Eli enough to allow her into his home, to his room? But CM suggested a different idea. What if the letting someone in had to do with Eli's secret, her being a vampire? Can she entrust Oskar with that knowledge? Which drew me down yet another road that we both found plausible: what if Eli was using Oskar, knowing that her current "caretaker" would need to be replaced so she tested Oskar to see if he was "the right one" to take over? That shed a whole new light on the entire film.

Friday, December 26, 2008

3 Days and Counting

Wednesday

Slept in. Only until 8:30am, but still, that's a luxury for me, coming from a family of early risers. I showered and was out the door, headed for an Armstrong Gardening Center to find the very last Christmas gift: an Iceberg rose bush for my Aunt. Hopefully, the greenish thorny twigs will blossom into beautiful white blooms come spring.

During a brief lull in the rain, CM and I walked to the Park Pantry for a late breakfast, then he was off to visit his folks. I tinkered on the internet, played with my Nintendo DS, then packed up my family's gifts for the short drive to my Aunt's in Huntington Beach.

Originally, we were to have finger foods and hors d'oeuvres before tearing into the presents, but my cousin -- visiting all the way from Spain -- decided he wanted turkey. So he cooked turkey, homemade stuffing, mashed potatoes, and green beans with bacon. We eached piled our plates high and dug right in, laughing, joking and eating.

The gift massacre opening lasted a few hours, with CM able to join us shortly after we started. The Big Hits: a Hillary Clinton Nutcracker given to my Dad from my Sister-in-Law, a "Man Cave" sign for my Brother's backyard shed, and a gift bag from the Taj Hotel in Mumbai where my Cousin and his Husband spent their honeymoon mere months before the recent tragic events.

Thursday

We opened our gifts to each other while waiting for the heater to kick in. (Nothing says good morning like a freezing hand on your back....sorry, honey.) I think CM was pleasantly surprised with the soundtrack I found for him: Paul Williams' The Phantom of the Paradise. We didn't spend too much time enjoying our new toys before I had to clean up and head for my Folks' place in Laguna.

My Grandmother was no longer in any condition to take long drives thanks to her Alzheimer's so she didn't join us Christmas Eve. Instead, my family decided to spend the day with her at her residence. Six of us filed into her bedroom, wishing her a Merry Christmas and showering her with gifts. She said that she didn't realize it was Christmas, but was happy we were all there to see here. We took turns reading the cards to her and helping to unwrap her gifts. Most of the family offered practical gifts such as a fleece blanket or a kaftan or dates from Palm Springs; my Cousin found a heavy, miniature iron stove just so she could tell everyone that she now had a place to cook in her room. Even Grandma laughed at that one.

Later in the evening, after CM and I both made it back to Long Beach, we packed his car one more time for a final Christmas visit to our friend MM and her twins. My goodness, they were bundles of energy! Laughing, running, tearing the paper from their gifts. I think they enjoyed the whole thing, though they seemed to enjoy the wrappings more than the actual gifts. At one point Riley sat down on an empty cardboard box, and either CM or I slid him across the hardwood floors in a tumble of giggles. Or he would dump all the Bristle Blocks from their bucket and place the see-through container over his head -- or mine! -- laughing uncontrollably the whole time.

Friday

My Cousin drove up from Huntington Beach, and I treated him to the Museum of Latin American Art. We approached the Information Desk to pay and were pleasantly told that Friday was a free day at the museum. We wandered through the glass doors and enjoyed ourselves.

Afterwards, we walked to Hamburger Mary's for a bite of lunch before heading to the beach. The cold, windy weather wasn't exactly optimum beach weather, but it did offer my Cousin the chance to take advantage of the crystal clear skies, perfect for pictures. We walked, discussed books and movies, snapped a few pictures, and just enjoyed being outside on the first truly sunny day of the week.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Book Reviews: China Mountain Zhang and The Book Thief

A change in name for these posts was long overdue. I know too many people who are much more bookwhorish than I ever could be so I gladly relinquish the moniker. Besides, my original idea about using those posts for discussing anything about books fell by the wayside, and they've become nothing but reviews. And with that, these are my final two book reviews of 2008....so that I can finally produce my highly-anticipated list of favorite reads on Friday.
At the beginning of the 21st century, a huge financial catastrophe changes the face of the planet. The U.. economy collapsed after a failed attempt at socialism, allowing China to step in as the world power in what was known as the Great Cleansing Winds. Fast forward 100 years to a construction site in New York, where Chinese is the main language, and Rafael Zhang -- an ABC (American Born Chinese) -- makes his nondescript way through the day. Though he doesn't outwardly show it, he wants to go "inside", to China to study engineering and perhaps bring those skills back to the city he knows so well. But through technology, everyone can jack into a system that knows all about you, and he's afraid that someone high up will find out that he's only half Chinese (his mother is Spanish) or that he's a homosexual.

Zhang's world changes after a failed date with his boss' daughter forces him to change jobs, sending him to a remote research outpost in independent Canada. That gives him the push he needs to jumpstart his education and get him back on track to finding someway to China and to an engineering future.

McHugh's novel treats homosexuality very well, but by no means makes it the main focus of the story. The main character Zhang just happens to be gay, and while it does influence his decisions in some part, at the heart of it, all roads lead to engineering and to China. The novel alternates chapters of Rafael with stories of what seem at first to be unrelated characters, but as the story progresses, Zhang's influence with these characters begins to make itself known, which for me was one of those "Oh, I get it know!" moments.

The novel doesn't make the new technology the main thrust of the story. Zhang does interact with such things as "jacking into a system" or having to regenerate a new kidney, but such advances come across as everyday things. Even the colonies on Mars seem very natural and expected. Instead, the story is about how one person can make a difference against odds that seemed stacked against him.

--
In 1939, a young girl witnesses the burial of her brother outside a lonely train depot. He's died on the train ride to Molching, where the young girl -- Leisel Meminger -- and her brother were to be taken in by another family while her Mother continued on elsewhere. Just after the burial in the icy, hard ground, Leisel spies something falling from one of the grave diggers' pockets: a book. When no one is looking, she quietly scoops it up, The Grave Digger's Handbook, beginning her lifelong affection for books.

But someone did spy her take the book. The narrator of the story, in fact: Death himself. Usually uninterested in the living when collecting souls, he makes a mistake that fateful night at the train depot:

"I studied the blinding, white-snow sky who stood at the window of the moving train. I practically inhaled it, but still, I wavered. I buckled -- I became interested. In the girl. Curiosity got the better of me, and I resigned myself to stay as long as my schedule allowed, and I watched."


From then on, he feels compelled to tell her story, about how she earned the title of book thief, about how words helped her to grow and to understand the new world around her in Molching, about how her foster family hid a Jew in their basement during one of the darkest times of the world.

More than just a WWII drama or a coming of age story, The Book Thief is a beautifully crafted tale of what it means to be human, the struggles, the joys, the pain and happiness, that we all must endure. I was in tears by the end of it. Just as my Mother was and said I would be when she handed my her copy.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Naples in Lights

No, not the Naples in Italy. We have our own little Naples here in Long Beach, CA, complete with canals and gondoliers. Each year around this time, the ultra-expensive homes in that area decorate with myriad lights, Santas, snowmen, and anything Christamssy or Chanukkah-like to be found. CM and I decided to check them out on Saturday night.

The fronts of these homes face the canals so we walkers were treated to caroling gondoliers and other boats decked out in Christmas lights, ferrying onlookers through the watery paths. We may have to try that next year. And though we didn't see all the homes, after an hour we'd spent enough time in the cold, enjoying the colorful displays, it was time to head home. I did snap a few pictures which I hope you will enjoy.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

My Best of 2008: Music

Since 2008 is quickly drawing to a close, I thought it a good idea to get my End of the Year Lists ready for posting. And what better way to begin than with myfavorite CDs of 2008.

But with a twist: two lists instead of one! That's right, more bang for your buck.

The first list contains 5 CDs released in 2008 and that I either bought or was given as a gift. The second list of 5 presents music released prior to 2008 but purchased by yours truly during the past 12 months.

Okay? Okay.

Best New CDs of 2008

  1. Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust by Sigur Rós
    I accidentally discovered Sigur Rós one night while flipping through the cable channels. iFC was showing a film called Heima, a concert/documentary film about the band performing 12 unannounced concerts in their home country of Iceland. their ethereal rock/classical music blended with beautiful imagery of Iceland hooked me almost immediately and I watched the entire film. The next day, I bought my first Sigur Rós album. This album, whose title translates to "With a Buzz in Our Ears We Play Endlessly ", has a more pop/rock feel to some of the songs, but is a wonderfully crafted piece.
  2. Safe Trip Home by Dido
  3. Perfect Symmetry by Keane
  4. Waves and the Both of Us by Charlotte Sometimes
  5. Let It Come To You by Taylor Eigsti


The Best CDs, Pre-2008

  1. Bare (2003) by Annie Lennox
    Her third studio album, I consider it her best. She seems to have put so much into the writing of the songs and into the singing that Bare comes across as one of the most personal albums recorded. Simply a stunning album.
  2. Opalescent (2001) by Jon Hopkins
  3. ( ) (2002) by Sigur Rós
  4. Colour by Numbers (1983) by Culture Club
  5. Absolution (2003) by Muse


And there you have it. Now tell me....what are some of your favorites from this year?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Baby, It's Cold Outside

Cold wind, cold rain, cold air. Enough! I hate to say it, but I'm ready for Spring. Being a Southern Californian, I'm somewhat accustomed to a slight chill in the air. But it's been so cold that even after turning the heater on the in apartment, layering umpteen shirts and socks, donning the knitted wool cap from my cousin's trip to Peru, huddling under flannel sheets, two blankets, a comforter and a chunky cat, I shivered myself to sleep. (Snuggling with CM definitely helped, though.)

--

Walking to my car in the pouring rain on Monday, I saw something I never want to see again: a lonely feral cat, frozen solid in a black damp pile on the grass. It's mouth was still open as if trying to meow for help from the other cats in the neighborhood. What was it doing out in the rain? Why wasn't it hiding with the other cats?

--

All the heavy rains inundated what passes for a drainage system in our neighborhood. Sidewalks were mostly impassable for walkers, with the water sloshing over the curb across the sidewalk and into the flowerbeds across the lawns. To bypass one intersection, I had to cross in the opposite direction then wade through the shallower water while car after car splashed waves onto the opposing traffic. Thank goodness I made it by just before the bus sped through.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Milk with Sage
Before CM and I left the apartment to do some holiday shopping, I called my friend RG to ask if he wanted to see Milk with us. Then, I called the lovely Sage, whom I seem to miss by just that much whenever I'm out and about in Long Beach. We'd been e-mailing back and forth about getting together eventually, and the movie seemed like the perfect opportunity to finally put a face to the blog. She liked the idea, as well, so we agreed to meet at 4PM in front of the theater.

CM and I arrived at the theater about 10 minutes to four, followed quickly by RG. We didn't wait long for Sage who showed right on time with her friend. I just had to give her a big hug; it felt like meeting an old friend because we'd been e-mailing and commenting on each other's blogs for quite a time. Introductions were made all around as we headed inside to get out of the cold.

I think we were a bit surprised at how few people were in the theater. Small groups clustered in sections spread out from one another. But as we chatted, more and more moviegoers filed in, taking whatever seats they could find with the best view so by the time the previews finished, more than three-quarters of the seats were filled.
The film opens with Harvey Milk seated at a kitchen table in his apartment, quietly talking into a microphone. He says that the tapes are to be played only in the event of his assassination and, after a brief pause, begins recounting how he made his way from working at a New York insurance agency to becoming the first openly gay elected official in the country. On the verge of turning 40, Harvey convinces a young man he meets in a subway station to help him celebrate his last few hours as a 39-year-old. That meeting with Scott Smith would turn into something more than a one-night stand; together, Harvey and Scott move to San Francisco -- to the Castro -- and open a small shop selling cameras.

As the Castro begins to attract more and more gay men and women, so does it give rise to police raids of the bars. One such raid ends up as a riot, forcing Harvey, who has become a sort of figure head for the Castro area, into the role of peacemaker. This gives him the idea to run for a seat on the council to represent gay interests -- the first of many unsuccessful attempts. But with each successive run, he gains the support and respect of not only the gays and lesbians, but of the seniors, the unions, many of the overlooked and under-represented groups in the neighborhood. And finally, in 1977, Harvey Milk wins the election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Once on the board, he uses his influence in the gay community to help pass very progressive gay rights legisltaion by getting the community to stop being silent and passive.

First and foremost, casting was phenomenal. Sean Penn was Harvey Milk. From mannerisms to speech, he embodied the persona of Milk and showed him not just as a leader of the gay rights movement but as a human being, with his failures at handling relationships. And Josh Brolin took a chance playing such a character as Dan White, but he also made him somewhat pitiable. And all the supporting players, from James Franco as Scott Smith and Diego Luna as Jack Lira -- both Harvey's lovers -- to Emile Hirsch as Cleve Jones and Allison Pill as Anne Kronenberg, impeccable casting not only for their acting abilities but for how much they resembled their real-life counterparts. Second, Gus Van Zant's use of archival footage of the Castro and intersplicing actual news reports from Walter Kronkite and actual clips of Anita Bryant and her anti-gay crusade helped to ground the film in reality.

For a film about the 1970s, it was also very timely. The actions for and against Proposition 6 which would have banned gay men and women from being teachers and persecuted their friends (regardless of their sexual orientation) and the religious "morality" as espoused by Anita Bryant mirrored the fight against Proposition 8 and religious rhetoric against human rights. I commented to CM in the car that the religious banter seemed exactly the same back then as it does now: demonize gay men and women, throw fear at the general public by stating that we're out to "recruit" their children in the schools. (Which is utter rubbish. My parents are both heterosexual, and retired teachers. No one recruited me; I didn't even come out until my late 20s.)

Milk was able to transport the audience back to the 1970s, to see how life was for gay men and women at such a pivotal point in our history. Well made and well acted, this is what a movie should be. And yes, we all teared up at the end during the candlelight march to City Hall.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Planetary Experience

At the last minute, I purchased a ticket to the Pacific Symphony. I hadn't attended a classical music concert since...well, since college when I played clarinet as part of my University's Wind Ensemble. I suggested classical concerts to friends in more recent times, but no one ever seemed as interested as me so I stopped asking. However, as I scanned the paper last Sunday, I noticed that the Symphony was going to perform Gustav Holst's The Planets -- one of my favorite pieces. I had to see it so I asked CM if he were interested, and though he said no, he must have sensed my excitement and urged me to go see the performance anyway.

This was also an opportunity to see the new Segerstrom Concert Hall about which I'd heard many mixed reviews. Some said that while the outside architecture was intriguing, the inside sound quality left much to be desired. I would soon find out for myself as I handed my ticket to a ocent who scanned it then pointed me in the direction of the elevators.

My seat was in the Promenade, or third floor, at the back of the theater with my seat not quite facing the stage, but more toward the center of the building. On either side of the building, a row of single red-upholstered seats hugged the walls and began to circle back behind the stage, stoping just before reaching the gigantic organ pipes at the opposite end of the theater. The balconies above and below were designed in much the same manner. The seats of the Orchestra section covering the entire floor area up to the stage.

As the lights dimmed, the Symphony's brass section filed onto the stage filling the seats immediatley half-circling the conductor's stand. Then the conductor entered and immediately raised his baton, and the soft opening tones of Morten Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium flowed into the air, gently building with each added trumpet or trombone until the sound seemed to come not from the stage but from the center of the theater itself. I closed my eyes and would swear that I felt the music vibrating all around as it continued to build and build, adding more sound and volume until it reached an ethereal peak and slowly, slowly diminished to quiet.

For the next piece, Benjamin Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Op. 31, a small string section replaced the brass onstage. And after the conductor reappeared, he introduced John Tessier, the tenor who would be singing the English poetry, and a horn player. For the most part, I enjoyed this piece, listening as the strings accompanied Mr. Tessier. But I cringed with almost every blat of the horn. The notes seemed disruptive and in contrast to the strings and the Tenor. (Apparently I was the only person who thought so as I overheard many in the men's room during intermission, telling each other how wonderful that piece was.) I was glad when the song finished and immediately moved to the third song of the evening, Arvo Pärt's Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten.

The Cantus began with striking of a chime which occurred throughout almost like a metronome. The strings slowly built from a peaceful hum to a thunderous noise and then slowly returned to the quiet, very similar in feel to Lauridsen's piece. They both reminded me of outer space, floating amongst the stars and planets, and to em, tied in with the theme of the evening. Whereas the Britten piece...it was nice but out of place with the other pieces.
After intermission, the entire Symphony took the stage as movie screens lowered from the ceiling. We were to be treated to a video by Dr. José Francisco Salgado, an astronomer who timed the video sequences of archival film, footage from the Hubble Telescope and NASA, to go along with each of the movements of The Planets. And for the next 50 minutes, I was lost in the video and the music, watching and listening to the warrior agression of Mars and the impish playfulness of Mercury and the grandiose wiseness of Saturn. And once again, the music didn't feel as if it were coming from the stage, but from the entire building. To put it simply, it was amazing.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Wanchai Ferry

CM and I have been trying to eat healthier. At least, that's what we tell ourselves each time we plop into the car to drive to Hof's Hut or walk to The Park Pantry for a meal.

We promised each other that we would start eating more meals at home, cooking more, using what we have in the refrigerator and freezer rather than let it go to waste. That usually lasts for one meal, then we're back at the restaurants. After a long day at work, who wants to deal with the extra hassle of prepping food and then cooking it?! And each time, we remake the promise and vow that this time, we'll follow it.
A few months ago, I was skimming the coupons from the Sunday paper and came across a food item known as the Wanchai Ferry Chinese Dinner Kit. It included all the fixings to make a single dish -- rice, sauce, cashews and other good ingredients; all that was needed on my part was a pound of chicken breast and the time to cook. Sounded good to me so I clipped the coupon and took it with me on the next grocery store run.

And there the box sat in our pantry for almost two months. We finally promised each other (again) that this Wednesday, we would cook it. We didn't want the same experience as last Wednesday when we missed the first 15 minutes of our current favorite show, Pushing Daisies, thanks to the world's slowest McDonald's drive-thru. I told him that I would pick up the chicken on the way home from work.

And I did.

And last night, we spent thirty minutes together in the kitchen, steaming the jasmine rice, slicing the chicken into 1-inch chunks then powdering them with cornstartch, frying them in some Canola oil, and stirring in the sauce and cashews. Much to our surprise, the cashew chicken turned out fantastic! (The apartment also smelled wonderful for a few hours.) Easy to make and even easier to scarf down while we watched TV.

We finished the delicious meal with a few fortune cookies.

How could we not??

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Day Without

I showed up for work this morning.

At my friend RG's birthday dinner last night, we briefly touched on the Day Without a Gay. Two from the party planned on calling in gay today. One already had the day off as a regularly scheduled free day. And the remainder of us opted to show for work.

The whole idea of calling in gay sounds interesting. In fact, I remember a comedian some years ago joking about if homosexuality were a sickness, why not call in gay to work one morning. "Sorry, can't come in today. I'm feeling a bit gay." I can't help but wonder, though, about the timing of this protest. Wouldn't it have made more sense to show how much gays and lesbians contribute to the work force and to the economy prior to the November elections, when it would have made a greater impact? And with the current state of the economy, jobs being cut left and right, is this the best time for a staged walk out?

I tend to agree with Nate over at Buffawhat. Showing up to work with our heterosexual counterparts, discussing the issues with them, being open and ourselves works much better at getting the point across. A much easier way to be reactionary, in my humble opinion.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Bookwhore Chronicles: Son of a Witch
Carrying passengers as quickly and as safely across the the Thousand Year Grasslands and the Disappointments, dreading every turn which might bring them closer to the warring tribes, Oatsie Manglehand and her Grassland Train come across the body of a young man, severely bruised and beaten but barely breathing. Oatsie forces her passengers to take a side trip from their trek to the Emerald City, to stop at the Cloister of Saint Glinda and hopefully offer shelter and aide to the man. Recognizing who he is, the Sisters agree to tend to his wounds, with the Mother Maunt placing the novice Candle -- a soft-spoken musician -- in charge of his needs. Candle's music has a healing effect on the young man, the soft melodies helping his broken mind and body work through the mysteries of his past to possibly help him with his future.

Son of a Witch is Gregory Maguire's second foray into his re-imagining of Frank L. Baum's classic stories, focusing the story on a young man named Liir, who may or may not be the son of the Wicked Witch of the West, but whose actions will ultimately effect the changing political landscape of Oz. Maguire's Oz is much darker than the fantasy almost everyone grew up seeing on the screen, but he manages to throw enough characters and scenes that we recognize to keep the work familiar but at the same time filling in gaps. For example, at the beginning of Liir's "rehabilitation" with Candle, his memory flashes back to the castle where Dorothy melted the Wicked Witch. He leaves the castle with Dorothy and her traveling companions, helping her to return to the Wizard with the trophy of the burned broom. (And it doesn't necessarily paint a rosy portrait of the Dorothy that we all know.)

Much of the book deals with Liir trying to find out about his past -- is he the son of the Witch or not? Will his be able to find his supposed half-sister Nor who may be rotting in a prison city with the Animals beneath the Emerald City? For the most part, this search tries to show a positive light on Liir maturing from the young adolescent to an army veteran to somewhat understanding that he does have magic abilities. But the let down is his constant whining about not knowing who his parents are. In fact, that becomes his mantra, and I wanted to throttle him not quite as much as the Cliff Eagle at the Conference of Birds wanted to peck his eyes out.

Despite that, I enjoyed reading about the politics and the realistic side to Oz. The Animals being forced into labor or winding up in the underground prison. Glinda's cleansing of the riffraff and poor from the city streets to make it seem like a nicer, cleaner place. The now intelligent Scarecrow goes into hiding because he won't become a puppet politician; he's instead replaced with a drunken, easily managed lookalike. Not everything matches the technicolor façade, nothing is really ever as good as it seems.

But hope can still manage to thrive, even in such a terrible environment. Whether it's from a boy flying on a broom, with an enormous flock of birds filling the sky, or a few simple words scribbled on a poster, that little bit can help bring about big change.

So if you haven't figured it out by now, I did enjoy reading the book and am eager to read the third installment, A Lion Among Men.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Random Blogger Sightings

This afternoon at Disneyland as I wandered beneath the gateway to Adventure Land, I spotted bloggers Mark and Steven heading the opposite direction. I actually approached them, introduced myself, and we chatted for a moment and went our merry ways.

I hope my random greeting didn't freak them out too much....

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Lego My Xanadu! (Part II)

Saturday morning, we both woke with sore backs from the tremendously hard bed. I slowly, slowly contorted to a sitting position then made it to the bathroom for a shower. When I emerged form the bathroom, CM was watching a bizarre program on some local access channel about a prophet named Uriel and how she was bringing enlightenment to the many parallel universes through a psychic lens. Or something like that. We both thought it was some kind of joke with all the tacky '70s special effects and marker art until they displayed an address, a building, books, lectures and much more on the person and the belief system. (I'm still not sure if religion is the right word.)

We decided to grab a bit of breakfast while en route to Legoland, but that proved difficult. The stretches between exits along the freeway were enormous, and for the most part, neither of us could see any buildings thanks to the overly thick and tall foliage flanking ether side. When a break from the greenery did come, the freeway sloped down across either a lagoon or an inlet without few buildings -- no restaurants at all -- and then back up into the trees. By the time we reached the Legoland parking lot, both our stomachs were growling loud enough to frighten the birds.

After enjoying our breakfast muffins and orange juice, we took a look at all the Lego holiday decorations in the little plaza. Everything from wreaths, the stockings and other goodies dangling from garlands, a giant 30-ft. tree with ornaments and present, Santa seated in his sleigh -- all made from hundreds of those tiny colored bricks. In fact, the use of Lego's throughout the park flabbergasted me. Turn a corner and run smack into a full-sized Volvo made of nothing but Lego's. A mutli-colored Styracosaurus hidden in the bushes near a kiddie Coastersaurus. Full-sized busts of Marilyn Monroe, Luciano Pavoratti, Beethoven and more. La Giaconda and Warhol's Campbell's Soup Can. Even the pigeons resting on the ledges above storefronts. All Legos. That alone made this such an interesting place to visit.

And they managed to throw in a bit of adult humor, too. Like next to where CM was pinching the Lego Firmean's nose, a Dalmation lifted it leg against a fire hydrant. In Miniland -- Lego recreations of American cities -- little jokes abounded. Like two New Orleans police officers with an assailant spread eagle against a wall while someone with a video camera tapes it all. Or a man sitting on a toilet in an underground restroom at Grand Central Station. And what would the holidays be without Santas in many funny situations scattered about the mini cities. He was sunbathing on a beach with Rudolph in New England, bungee jumping off a pier in Los Angeles, and in one of my favorite scenes, a troupe of fireman stretching a bull's-eyed cloth beneath Santa falling from his sleigh in Chinatown while three reindeer tried to pull him to safety from the roof.

And most of the city scenes had button activated sounds or motions to make the ice skaters circle around Rockefeller Center or the animals moo and oink with pleasure on a mid-Western farm. I could have spent hours just walking around Miniland. They included so much detail!

The Legos aside, the park itself really was designed for kids and their parents. The many roller coasters and rides lasted just the right amount of time so as not to bore the kids, and most were interactive, such as the Kid Power Tower. Very similar to a freefall attraction, riders must pull themselves to the top of the tower by a rope. Let go, and the car slowly falls, just fast enough for the kids to get a thrill while not totally freaking out the parents. We rode the Sky Cruiser around the island at the center of the park, a small car set on a high rail that supplied the riders with pedals to make it move around the track. (It was actually motorized, but the kids never noticed or cared.) For littler kids, most lines had a small play area with the larger Duplo Legos near the front so they could play under adult supervision while the rest of their party waited in line. Very clever.

By 5PM we were worn out from La Jolla and almost a full day immersion into Legos so we slowly dragged ourselves across the parking lot to the car and zipped North on the 5 freeway toward home.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Lego My Xanadu! (Part 1)

Friday afternoon, after having overstuffed ourselves on Thanksgiving Day with our respective families, we loaded the car and headed for La Jolla, CA. We'd been planning the trip for a few months, just to see the musical Xanadu at the La Jolla Playhouse. And it was well worth the trip, but I'll get to that in a bit.

The drive south to La Jolla went smooth, very few slow spots or stops in the traffic, and we reached the exit ramp in just under two hours. The trek to find the hotel, however...well, after so many rights and lefts and make a u-turn here then fifty paces from the crossed palm trees until you see a talking rabbit felt like a wild goose chase. But we made it, checked into our room (on the first floor next door to the Main Office - yea!), enjoyed a decent meal at a local Mexican restaurant called Su Casa, then strolled to the beach. Click HERE for pictures!!

And what a beautiful beach, too. White sand, somewhat hardpacked making it very easy to walk across. Water-smoothed rocks creating the perfect places to sit and watch the surfers and kayakers. Not too many people but we did run into a few families taking group shots and one young man having action shots of himself doing push ups and lifting a barbell. (I wasn't sure if it was for a porn DVD cover or a health magazine.) As the Sun began to set, we climbed the steps back to the bluff and stood along a railing to watch the Sun disappear behind the clouds and the ocean, then quickly dashed back to the hotel to clean up a bit for the show.

The La Jolla Playhouse is located on the UC San Diego campus, less than a mile from our original freeway exit. To reach the playhouse, we backtracked through the maze of rights and lefts, but somehow missed a left turn only to find ourselves on a very long onramp to the 5 South without any place to make a u-turn. After my brief panic attack, we exited the freeway, quickly found a northbound entrance and were on our way.

We found our seats, about 6 rows from the stage, and tried to settle in as other patrons kept trying to get by us to find their seats. A few other guests were escorted onto the stage to take their places in the scattering of rows on the stage, set to resemble a Greek amphitheater. Behind them, a faux brick wall displayed chalk-like portraits of the nine Muses à la the movie version. As the lights dimmed, a Valley Girl explained the rules of the theater, then Sonny Malone dressed in skimpy blue shorts, a red t-shirt and a nifty yellow headband bounded onto the stage talking in his vacant, air-headed manner about how he was going to be a true artist, but he kept hating everything he made. Even the chalk drawing of the women on the back brick wall didn't seem quite right. And he even went to a library to check out a book on them to make sure! As he exited the stage, the chalk drawing begins to move as the first chords of I'm Alive play through the air. In pairs, the pictures of the Muses moved to the sides of the drawing and miraculously turned into live beings. Soon, all 9 "sisters" (Thalia and Terpsicore were questionable) danced and sang across the stage and began the story of how the the Muse Clio helped a young artist create the wondrous roller disco.

The start was a little shaky at first, with much of the time spent explaining the history of the Muses, but when Clio finally decided to disguise herself -- "with an Australian accent" -- we burst into laughter because it was so campy and over-exaggerated. The show did a good job of re-telling the movie, poking fun at both the movie itself and the 80s in general (the references to leg warmers and to Clash of the Titans were priceless!). A few of the jokes didn't go over so well (or the audience just didn't get them), and occasionally, CM and I were the only ones to laugh at a little sight gag or in-joke. The cast seemed to enjoy the music from ELO and seemed to have a lot of fun with the show. Elizabeth Stanely (Clio/Kira) and Max von Essen (Sonny) were fantastic as the roller skating demi-goddess and the dim-witted human falling in love against all odds. Joanna Glushak (Calliope) and Sharon Willkins (Melpomene) were delightfully funny and evil as two of the Muses out to put a stop to Clio's run as the leader of the Muses. But the two who garnered the most applause were Julius Thomas III and Jason Michael Snow as the Muses Terpsicore and Thalia (among other roles such as the Cyclops and a very fey Hermes). What I also enjoyed about the show was the cast's interaction with the guests onstage. They would chat with them, share popcorn and Burger King sodas, and even give them glow sticks to use during the finale song, Xanadu. (We both agreed that our favorite scene came during the singing of Xanadu, when a sparkly short clad stage hand skated on stage with a large fan to allow Clio's hair to blow in the breeze. Then he turned to wink at the audience. Classic!)

As we waited at the gift counter to pay for our nifty Xanadu shirts, the cashier asked if we liked the new opening. New opening? He told that in the original show, all the Muses appeared via trapdoor, but with the larger space at the playhouse, they opted for the characters to appear from the sides as if they literally jumped from the chalk drawing. We told him that we liked the effect; it seemed more like the movie. He thought the same and was very glad that we had a good time.

And with that, we walked back to the car and headed for the hotel to rest up for the next day's adventure: Legoland.