Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Potty dream

A few nights ago – actually, during a Saturday morning lie-in – I had a couple of memorable but goofy dreams. The kind of dreams I have to call my mother about so she can laugh at them. And she did laugh when I called her.

In the first dream, I had a new baby brother and I was tasked with changing its diaper. Of course, being a dream task, this turned out to be frustrating and fraught with chaotic impediments, like the baby's clothing changing from moment to moment all by itself. While this was going on, I recall telling the baby not to mess his life up like his older brothers. (If Ryan and Jake are reading this, I'm sure I was including myself in that comment, so give me a break.) Also, at some point, I dropped baby on the floor, but he didn't seem to take any serious harm from it. Oh, and by the way, the baby could talk like a grown-up, which didn't totally freak me out in the moment. I suppose that's the weirdest bit of all.

I must have gotten up to pee, or turned over in bed, or something because some time passed and I found myself having a completely separate dream and it went like this: I was walking around a small town, possibly a bit like the last town I lived in before where I live now, and it was late evening so nothing was open. The trouble was, I really had to pee. So I was looking for any place with a public bathroom that was open, and I was running out of options. Then I noticed that the vestibule door to city hall was unlocked, so I went in. Behind a plexiglas barrier was the city clerk's desk, with only a small opening to pass utility payments through. So, as one does, I unzipped and started peeing through the opening ... then looked up and noticed that my performance was being recorded by a video camera.

Obviously, when I woke up from that dream, I immediately had to go to the bathroom again.

They say that nightmares are supposed to teach you how to deal with a crisis, and good dreams have something to do with writing your previous day's experiences into long-term memory. But I don't know what these kinds of dreams are trying to teach me, unless it's "always have a ride home after having too many at the downtown bar" and "be careful how you handle newborns who can talk like a grown-up."

Monday, September 27, 2021

Cry Macho

Short of repeating a movie I've already seen (which I hate to do at full cinema prices), my only other local choice last weekend was Dear Evan Hansen, which I could tell from the trailer I would have hated – and a detailed review I read today confirms that this is quite likely. But the title didn't thrill me. It was the trailer for Clint Eastwood's latest film that sold me on it. While I'm pretty sure I saw the more satisfying movie of my two choices, it pains me to say that the trailer was better, for reasons I should have anticipated.

Clint E. is notorious for making tonally flat movies centering on his own tonally flat acting style, and the only exception in this case is the greater emphasis than ever before on his advancing age. By necessity, he of the thousand yard squint is unclenching his jaw muscles a little more with each performance, whispering a little more softly, relaxing a little more into a shuffling, hunch-shouldered cool. There is less visual sparkle than ever to distract the viewer from the screenplay's (usual) lack of verbal sparkle. The supporting cast does powerful work but, except for a few brief moments, they keep it understated, too, the better to keep the tone consistent. Mexico looks dry, dusty and mostly a little dull, the better to make a quiet, one-cop town look like a nice place for a 90-year-old cowboy to rest his boots. The cast member with the most convincing dialogue, and the best line readings, is the chicken.

It's about a lonesome cowboy type (actually, a washed-up rodeo star) whose ex-boss, played by Dwight Yoakam with his patented knack for making you want to punch him on the nose, cashes in on Clint's sense of obligation to him and sends him to Mexico City to fetch his supposedly abused, estranged son. The boy's mother seemingly doesn't care if Clint takes the boy away, but after Clint insults her, she sort of starts to care. So his escape with the boy – a wild child with a pet fighting cock named Macho – is a little perilous. There's a steady, low-level tension in the background, as the pair eludes one of the boy's mama's goons, as well as inquisitive Federales.

They find themselves stuck in a small town south of the border, where they're welcomed by a horse dealer, the widow who runs the cantina, and her orphaned granddaughters. It's the kind of interlude that is meant to come across as idyllic, but you'd probably have to be a 90-something washed-up rodeo star with a marked preference for tonal flatness to take it that way. Well, Clint does, and the tension of the story is resolved with only a little conflict, perhaps undercut by the fact that being stopped by a couple of Federales looking for a bribe is almost more interesting than the final dust-up with mama's goon. And the boy's final decision about whether to believe that his father wants him doesn't really leave the viewer feeling a satisfying sense of resolution.

So, basically, it has one of those ambiguous endings that make great westerns. Only, unlike The Searchers, the lonesome cowboy ends up (probably) happier than the lost child he was sent to find and bring home. His fate leaves a feeling less like a punch in the gut than an unarticulated "tsk" at the fact that there isn't another act where he goes back to Texas and steals the kid back from his good-for-nothing dad. Maybe a younger, peppier Clint would have gone in for such an ending. But older, wiser, run-over-by-the-bucking-bronco-of-life-and-left-for-dead Clint knows when he has a happy enough ending, and if that just happens to fit the thematic tonal flatness of the entire picture, all the better.

Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Whenever the cantina señorita smiles at Clint and you know he's gonna get lucky, if he sticks around long enough. (2) Goon convinces a parking lot full of Mexican rednecks that Clint is kidnapping his kid, but kid turns the tables by convincing them that goon, well, you know. Biff! Pow! Vroom! (3) The town cop, who has been suspicious of Clint and the kid since they hove into sight, brings them his wife's dog for healing. (And also, by the way, doesn't rat them out when goon and Federales have him by the scruff.)

So, it's not a terrible movie like I'm informed Dear Evan Hansen is, but a little on the dry, tough, mildly flavored side, like those Mexican doughnuts that we Americans always expect to taste better than they actually do. I've seen worse movies by Clint Eastwood, even. It doesn't actually suck. Let that recommendation stand for what it's worth.


by Sarah Prineas
Recommended Ages: 10+

"Once a thief, always a thief" may be true, but since he picked a wizard's pocket in the mean streets of Wellmet, Connwaer has become so much more than that: not just a wizard, but maybe the wizard who can talk to the magic that keeps the city alive. And the city needs him more than ever, with a predatory magic headed its way, spreading dread and darkness. If only Conn had a locus magicalicus – a stone that connects a wizard to the magic – but he still hasn't found one to replace the one he sacrificed to save the city two books ago. With a sentence of death hanging over his head and ditto headed toward Wellmet, Conn sets out on a quest for a new locus stone. Along the way, he makes discoveries that will shake up the beliefs of the wizarding establishment back home, even more than his already disputed claim that the city's magic is a living being.

As perilous as his journey to collect that stone may be, he faces danger even more dire on his return. Like, for starters, a hanging scaffold. The magisters, the duchess and her guard won't give him any credit for already saving the city twice, and for personally saving the guard captain's life at great risk to his own. They're firm in their belief that he's just a liar, a thief, and a rascal whose pyrotechnic stunts have endangered the city. If only they knew that the city's survival now depends on setting off the biggest blast yet – and that he must live but only, perhaps, to sacrifice himself.

Is that spoiling too much? I don't know. Just try to wrap your head around the fact that, in the middle of this book, the hero finds himself standing on a wooden box with a noose around his neck, only moments away from having the box jerked out from under him, while no one will listen to his claim that the city is about to be attacked. And then, with inspired timing, the attack arrives and the danger becomes so, so much worse. You don't expect cutely illustrated children's books to hit you with the force this one does, with still ongoing and ever expanding feats of world building, growing suspense, creeping horror, bureaucratic frustration, high-flying excitement and moving acts of love. And since the cover art gives it away, I don't feel it counts as a spoiler if I add that it has dragons. What are you doing, sitting there? Go out and get this book!

This is the third book in the "Magic Thief" series of which, after I read the first book, I immediately rushed back to the bookstore and bought books 2 and 3. Prineas works in juvenile fiction spanning the science fiction and fantasy genres, including other titles I'd be interested in reading. Book 4 of this series is titled Home.


by Sarah Prineas
Recommended Ages: 10+

In The Magic Thief, we met Connwaer: a sometime pickpocket and wizard's apprentice from the Twilight side of the river in Wellmet, where the magic that keeps the city alive was almost stolen by a pair of villains for reasons unknown. Those reasons become known in his second adventure, when the fact Conn just saved the city hasn't brought him any credit with the ruling duchess, her guard or the magisterium, or wizard council. No one trusts him or wants to believe that the city's magic is a living being and that he can kind of communicate with it – especially since he lost his locus magicalus, the stone that made that communication possible. Now the only way he can talk to the magic is by setting off explosions, and each of his feats of pyrotechnics goes more out of control until he finds himself banished from the city.

Banished is all right for now, because the magic seems to want Conn to join an expedition to the desert city of Desh, whose sorcerer-king is suspected of sending shadow creatures to Wellmet whose touch turns people to stone. While his best friend, the duchess's daughter Rowan, tries to negotiate with King Jaggus, Conn puts his thief skills to good use, sneaking into the sorcerer-king's quarters in search of evidence. The danger proves to be even greater than Conn imagined, however. There is something hinky going on, but the magic of Desh is also a victim here, and the real power behind the shadows, and the predator cats that surround Jaggus, and the power drain that threatens the survival of Wellmet, is something Conn is only beginning to understand – and something the other wizards back home will hardly believe at all.

Conn's journey to Desh and beyond, and (gulp) maybe back again, bring a chilling new dimension to a magical world that was fascinating to start with. It broadens the landscape from the streets of one city, divided between the privileged Sunrise side of the river and the ghettoish Twilight, to include a vast country dotted with duchies, each with its own source of magic. In addition to a deadly conflict, it also features a terrible temptation that appeals to Conn's sense of being alone in the world with everybody against him. And it charts the further growth of a character who quickly rose from the gutter to become perhaps the most important wizard in his world. Other characters, lovable and otherwise, grow as well in this book, from the elder wizard Nevery who (with a little reluctance) is willing to change his way of thinking to the gruff Benet, a stereotyped thug of few words who becomes one of the people Conn cares most deeply about, and that care is reciprocated. It introduces new characters who will become still more important in books to come. And it leaves Conn on the cusp of another adventure even more urgent and epic than this.

This is the second book in the "Magic Thief" series by an author whose young adult novels include fairy tale adaptations, a fantasy in which books come to life and a science fiction series featuring a shape shifter from outer space.

The Magic Thief

The Magic Thief
by Sarah Prineas
Recommended Ages: 10+

Conn – his full name, Connwaer, means blackbird – is a scruffy gutterboy, pickpocket and lock picker in the city of Wellmet, a place where a river divides the haves (the Sunrise) from the have-nots (the Twilight). Effectively, it's two cities, and Connwaer belongs firmly in the latter. The Underlord of the Twilight has a word out for him, which means that if the crime boss of the poor side of the city catches up with him, he'll be beaten or, probably, worse. With no surviving parents to look out for him, Conn lives by his wits, stealing enough to eat every two or three days and looking for abandoned buildings to sleep in. It's a cold, hungry, anxious kind of life, but somehow he's made it to the age of – well, somewhere between 12 and 14, he supposes – when he makes the mistake that changes his life.

The pocket he picks happens to belong to Nevery Flinglas, a wizard who is back in town after 20 years of exile. The item he steals happens to be Nevery's locus magicalicus – a phrase you'll get used to as this story unfolds, meaning a stone that connects a wizard to the source of a city's magic. When Nevery catches up with Conn, he's amazed to find the boy still alive; touching a wizard's locus stone is that dangerous. Putting two and two together, Nevery realizes that Conn is a wizard, and reluctantly takes him on – at first as a servant, later as an apprentice – along with a mountain of hired muscle named Benet. The three set up housekeeping in a ruined house called Heartsease, on an island in the river, and while Conn starts to learn magic even without his own locus stone, Nevery asserts his control over the local magisterium – basically, the council of wizards – and begins investigating why the magic seems to be draining out of Wellmet.

Learning magic is hard when you don't know how to read, but Conn is a quick study. More seriously, he still hasn't found his locus stone, and the magisters have given him a month to do so. As the deadline ticks down, the sometime thief – once and always, rather – resorts to desperate measures that get him into big trouble. Now he has powerful enemies and needs to watch his every move. Unfortunately, he also has trouble convincing Nevery to listen to his theory about what the city's magic is – not a resource to be exploited, but a living being to be negotiated with – and why it is in danger. With powerful forces working against him and even Nevery too stubborn to listen, it's up to Conn to save the city's magic the way he's done everything in his life: alone.

Packaged and illustrated like a children's story, this book and its two immediate sequels appeared before me at a local bookstore, and I decided to try it and decide later whether to buy books 2 and 3. Well, I tried it, couldn't put it down, and went back the next day to buy the other two. I was flabbergasted that a book presented as something so trifling and commercial, with a title reminiscent of several other books, could actually turn out to have so much heart, to say nothing of building a unique fantasy world worthy of an epic adventure. It joins an economy of words with a distinctive style; you won't be able to mistake Conn's way of expressing himself for anyone else's. And so it manages, in its brief length, to accomplish an impressive job of world building, tell a complete story, elicit laughter and other strong emotions, and leave you panting for more.

This is the first of four "Magic Thief" books (plus a short story) by the Iowa-based author of the "Winterling" trilogy, two "Ash & Bramble" books, two "Trouble in the Stars" books, the novels The Scroll of Kings and Dragonfell, and an installment in the multi-author series "Spirit Animals: Fall of the Beasts." Sequels to this book are titled Lost, Found and Home.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Observations during a 2-day trip to St. Louis

Last week, I flew to St. Louis on Tuesday and flew back to Minnesota on Wednesday, by way of Chicago in both directions. It was such a crazy, exhausting couple of days that I'm still recovering from them – a process not helped by the ultimate outcome of the meeting that was the reason for it all. Please accept that as my partial excuse for not blogging much lately. (Photo: A scene from O'Hare Airport, shot on my phone.)

I was applying to be reinstated to the clergy roster of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod for the second time (previous attempt, 2017) after a somewhat histrionic resignation under protest in, I believe, 2012. I won't go into the details other than to say that I went to bat for another pastor, got fed up with my district's ecclesiastical leadership and spent a while in another church body before realizing (after moving into the hinterlands) that I needed to be served by a faithful Lutheran pastor more than I needed to stand on my dignity. So I joined an LCMS congregation in 2014 and by 2017, I was thinking that the pastors in my congregation's circuit needed a hand or two to help them out, so I offered myself as a well qualified candidate. At that time, in 2017, I got a "no thanks" from the Synod, and as it I learned at the end of last week, I got the same answer on this occasion. So let's leave that topic lie for now, eh?

During my trip, I collected some travel-related impressions that I thought would make an entertaining installment on this blog. So, here goes.

1. My GPS-guided navigation app's performance, during the part of my trip closest to home, left me in serious doubt about its algorithm for finding me the quickest route. I know, from continual (like, weekly) trips between where I live and where my parents live 45 minutes or so to the south, the fastest and most direct route from here to U.S. Hwy. 10, which forms the main artery for the first part of my trip to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. But Waze kept trying to talk me into taking a completely unnecessary detour and insisted, and I mean insisted, that I turn at every single highway that I passed on the straight shot to U.S. 10 – many of its suggested turns taking me in the opposite direction from where I was trying to go. It also kept updating my ETA in real time. But only when I passed the point of no return, as far as all alternate routes to U.S. 10 being exhausted, did it finally calculate the route I was on ... and instantly knocked 10 minutes off my ETA. With guidance like that at the start of my trip, I wasn't left feeling very confident in the route Waze would set for me at the other end.

2. It's tough to find a place to grab breakfast in Greater Minnesota when you're on the highway at 4 a.m. It wasn't until around 5 when I finally saw a Holiday station that was open so I could buy an egg sandwich and a cup of coffee.

3. It's tough to find an open parking space in the multi-story parking structure at the airport at 7:40 a.m. when your bladder hasn't been emptied since 4.

4. It's discouraging to learn, upon landing in your destination city, that the meeting that was supposed to be at the Marriott (back when you reserved a room there so you'd be able to stay in the same hotel), is now happening at the Hilton. However, mentioning this issue to the staff at the Marriott's check-in desk might get you a gift certificate for a free app and soft drink at the hotel bar. In my case, I ordered a plate of toasted raviolis (which the guy next to me saw and said, "I think that's what I want now") and, to wash it down, the best bacon cheeseburger I've had in years. It also led me to install the Uber app on my phone and experience my first two Uber rides, to and from the Hilton. It was almost close enough that I would have walked it had the neighborhood been more hospitable to foot traffic. But I got the Uber and only worried a tiny bit because the driver on the way to the meeting got stuck in traffic and ended up cutting my arrival pretty close.

5. Uber drivers navigate with a cell phone app that looks like Waze but isn't. My driver on the way back to the Marriott said it's a proprietary app for Uber drivers and isn't as good as Waze. They have my deepest sympathy. (For what it's worth, I also remember both of my drivers' names – Wayne and Siddig – so say hi to them for me if you meet them.)

6. Marriott hotel rooms' TVs now display a QRC code on their screens which, if you scan them with your cell phone, turns your phone into a remote control. I found this cool but useless, since I didn't actually want to watch TV.

7. Marriott hotel rooms can be fffffreezing. Between that, thinking about the meeting I'd just had, thinking about an issue that had come up at work (I knew about it via email) and just generally being keyed up in anticipation of the next day's travel, I pretty much didn't get any sleep.

8. Also, it's possible for your flight to be delayed the night before it takes place. This happened to me in St. Louis. I got a text informing me that my flight crew for the St. Louis-to-Chicago leg of the next day's travel had gotten in late and, per federal regulations, wouldn't be allowed to depart again before they'd had so many hours of rest. So, my flight's new time of depature was set for an hour later than previously scheduled ... making its arrival in Chicago several minutes later than my connecting flight's departure. I had to plan a new itinerary right there in my freezing hotel room. And get up at 4-something a.m. the next morning for an even earlier flight out.

9. Drivers of hotel shuttles to the airport might be a bit overworked. The guy who drove my group of departing guests to the airport on Wednesday morning actually fell down while helping someone get off the shuttle. He was an older guy who, I believe, had some problems with his sense of balance, which is concerning. But he also mentioned that he'd been on duty six days in a row and after working the morning shift, his "day off" meant he had to be at work again for the next day's night shift.

10. During any given round trip with stops at Chicago O'Hare, you will have to run-walk from one end of the airport to the other in under 20 minutes. Perhaps fortunately, that happened during my return trip. The plane from St. Louis, via United, arrived at Gate F something. The plane to Minneapolis, also via United, departed from Gate C something. I pretty much had to run the full length of the E and F concourse, then over a skyway to the B concourse, then from some way up the B concourse down into a tunnel to the C concourse, and then all the way to the end of the C concourse. I definitely got my cardio in. By comparison, the flights themselves were comparatively sedate and relaxing.

11. I hardly talked to any of the other passengers, except a couple (in an airport concourse) who were traveling to Vienna and a family (on the hotel shuttle) heading to Florida. People around me on the plane were all plugged into their own private worlds via screens and earbuds, so there was none of that chit-chat you used to have with complete strangers whom you would never, ever see again. Actually, I didn't mind that much. I read a book on the plane. In fact, I finished one book on the outgoing leg of my trip and had to buy another at the airport gift shop on Wednesday morning. I did, however, eavesdrop on a conversation between a group of bright-eyed young people who seemed to be flying together from Chicago to St. Louis, and who all (from what I could gather) worked as office cleaners. It struck me as really interesting, perhaps a symptom of what's going on in the nation's economy these days, that a company could actually afford to fly a whole crew of office cleaners between Chicago and St. Louis.

12. These days at airports and on airplanes, you spend a lot of time listening to threatening messages about the federal mask mandate and all the penalties for non-compliance. It was actually a pleasant break to hear the O'Hare public address system haranguing travelers about watching their children on and around elevators and escalators.

13. Airport parking at MSP costs about $38 for an approximately 27-hour stay. Also, getting out of the parking area and funneled back into city traffic is a perilous proceeding, with other drivers not particularly obliging to those of us who had to cross all the lanes in a short interval to get to where we wanted to go.

14. Just when you think you're going to go insane if you have to drive one more mile through road work, the construction zone ends ... and while you're still enjoying that sigh of relief, another construction zone begins.

15. Given multiple routes it could steer you back to U.S. 10 from Interstate 94, Waze will choose the one that has more road construction going on.

16. The definition of Motley, Minnesota is "the town along your route across Greater Minnesota that you always think of as being 'almost there,' but that always turns out to be a surprisingly long drive from there." I actually recorded that definition on my phone's voice recorder as it came to me, although I was really experiencing it the other way around – sure that the next town ahead was going to be Motley, I realized that it wasn't – several times. It was much, much farther along than I had thought, remembered or hoped, as it always is; and by the time I actually reached it, I was physically and mentally demolished and very ready for the obligatory stop at Dairy Queen. Oy, what a trip.

17. Luckily, my parents were only a handful of towns farther along from Motley. And though that was only 45 minutes short of all-the-way-home, it was a nice place to stop, decompress and have dinner at someone else's expense. God bless my parents!

I know, a list of 17 things doesn't seem right. But the reality of a two-day trip from northwestern Minnesota to St. Louis and back is going to be full of Top 10 lists that go on way longer than they should and/or Top 20 lists that peter out at 17. Or both. And now that I know the ultimate result, I can honestly say that I got exactly one unambiguously good thing out of the trip: that bacon cheeseburger at the Marriott hotel bar.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Yup, I saw this movie. And despite the fact that it was further evidence that the American audience continues to lag behind the Chinese audience in importance to the global entertainment industry – and the closely related fact that watching it is as much a reading exercise as a visual spectacle – I was thoroughly entertained.

The visual spectacle is, after all, there. The exotic scenery, creatures, fight scenes, and special affects are all on point. The characters are attractive. The story is entertaining. The cast is good, their personalities and relationships fun to see. It all comes together into what I reckon to be a better comic-based movie than any of the ones I've seen in quite while. And that's despite the only actors in it whom I can name off the top of my head being Michelle Yeoh and Ben Kingsley.

What else can I say about the story? It starts in the West, moves to the East, has something to do with a preposterous legend about a set of magical bracelets that give their wearer all kinds of powers, and comes to a head in a fantasy universe where a danger beckons that could destroy all the worlds, including ours. And everything ultimately depends on a kid who trained as an assassin from age 7 to age 14, and then ran away to become a carhop.

Since I'm having trouble with my computer at the moment and I don't want to lose my mind before I'm done writing this, I'll cut straight to the Three Scenes That Made It For Me: (1) Hero guy Shawn, a slacker in San Francisco, suddenly emerges as a martial arts whiz in a fight on a city bus and his bestie Katie (maybe girlfriend?) is like, "Who the hell are you?" (2) A crazy fight scene on a scaffolding high up on the side of a skyscraper in Macao. (3) The moment during the climactic melee when the surviving bad guys decide to join forces with the surviving good guys to fight a common enemy.

Bonus scene: Framing scenes in which Shawn and Katie get together with their friends at a club. The first time, the friends are like, "You guys have so much potential and it's all going to waste. When are you going to do something serious with your lives?" At the end, they're like, "What is this crap about saving the multiverse with archery skills you learned in one day and a previously undiscussed talent for riding dragons?"

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Ban This Book

Ban This Book
by Alan Gratz
Recommended Ages: 10+

Amy Anne is frustrated at home because no one listens to her or respects her space. Her safe haven is her middle school library, but then a classmate's power-mom starts challenging books in that library and persuades the school board to yank them off the shelves – including Amy Anne's favorite book, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. From her starting state as a quiet wallflower who is afraid to speak up at a school board meeting, Amy Anne grows into an activist hero who leads a schoolwide rebellion – mainly by starting a banned books lending library in her locker.

That's all you need to know to get a handle on what happens in this book. But even more important to know, it's a book that provokes serious thought, name-drops a lot of important books for kids that have all been banned somewhere at some time, stirs a rich range of emotions and, a couple of times in my own case, scored a big out-loud laugh. It's a joy to read and conjures a sympathetic example of the type of "good trouble" our society needs some people to make, sometimes. (It also finds a reason to quote that now famous saying about well-behaved girls never making history.) So, I'll cut this review short by saying, quite simply: Read this, and know it means you whether you represent the overprotective helicopter parent Amy Anne has to fight against or today's out-of-control cancel culture. Also try to read as many of the books named in it as you can.

Alan Gratz is an author from Tennessee whose other works include two Horatio Wilkes mysteries (Something Rotten, Something Wicked), three League of Seven books, Samurai Shortstop and several other baseball- and World War II-related novels that all may be interesting to young readers, and an installment in the "Star Trek: Starfleet Academy" book series.