Hidden Figures – A Review

Astronaut John Glenn died last month, a man who not only spent decades in the US Senate, but was also the first American to orbit the Earth in a space capsule. President Barack Obama noted that Glenn’s life “reminded us that with courage and a spirit of discovery there’s no limit to the heights we can reach together.” Hidden Figures (2016) is a reminder of the earthly obstacles that needed to be removed before those lofty heights could be attained.

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This overlooked history lesson about three unheralded black women who deserved their due for analytical geometry is a significant one but also entertaining and marvelously acted. These mathematical geniuses were known as ‘human computers’ for their computational abilities.

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Based on the novel by Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures shines a light on the unsung pioneering heroes behind the scenes at NASA in 1961, as the Russians were ahead of the game in the space race.

The efforts of the three main characters would lead to John Glenn’s eventual orbit around Earth, relying upon exact calculations, and thus would mark an important turning point in civil rights and gender equality.

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This film is driven by bright performances. These strong, smart, proud women are far from just sassy; they are fierce and excel at their jobs. In bringing life to Katherine G. Johnson (who’s alive and kicking at age 97), Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and acting newcomer Janelle Monae are spitfires. They’re full of sympathy, likability and strong-willed determination.

Henson plays the lead character, and she’s very good, but the lesser-known Monae is also enormously charismatic and confident on the silver screen. Mahershala Ali plays Colonel Jim Johnson, a Hallmark-grade military suitor who woos Katherine. In this film, getting a man is just a part of the package deal; not the entire package. Kevin Costner solidly underplays it as NASA director Al Harrison, who’s tough but begins to trust Katherine and let her voice be heard.

“Civil rights isn’t always civil,” Mary’s huband Levi (Aldis Hodge) tells her, and that’s the unfortunate truth. This is just one example of historical progress, and we still have a long way to go. Warmly felt and necessary about the female experience,

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Hidden Figures could have easily been a mess of sentimental mush, but the honest performances keep it on track. Robustly satisfying and entertaining, the stars of this film keep the storm brewing beneath the surface, suffering quietly until the audience practically begs for a rational hand to set all the nonsense straight.

Ironically, the release of Hidden Figures takes place just before the ushering in of a presidential regime with a less-than-lovely reputation toward minorities (women included). But as uncertain as things may look right now, this film reminds us of our capacity to overcome obstacles. If for no other reason than that, it’s the triumphant crowd-pleaser we need right now.

Hell or High Water: Hell of a Good Time

Go for the writing. Stay for the acting…and the soundtrack. Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, 2015) nailed the screenplay for Hell or High Water (2016) which happens to be my favourite film of the year so far. Sheridan and director David Mackenzie have made a terrific flick. It not only has solid writing and direction, but noteworthy cast performances. The picture is an unforgiving modern western that has memorable characters, smart and clever dialogue and a highly relevant plot.

Sheridan’s story makes a strong commentary on the banking system and the economic troubles faced by today’s ranchers. The film’s setting is harsh and dusty with incredible cinematography by Giles Nuttgens (Dom Hemmingway, 2013).

The film also features an outstanding score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. It’s epic and expansive with sad violins, but not grandiose so it doesn’t feel manipulative. The soundtrack is a sumptuous but simple mix of Americana and traditional-sounding pieces. It features several works by Cave and Ellis, who have previously scored The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and The Proposition (2005) together. The soundtrack features songs by Waylon Jennings, Townes Van Zandt, Chris Stapleton, and others.

Why Tommy Lee Jones wasn’t cast as the leading man in this film, I’ll never know, but Jeff Bridges smokes up the screen and delivers an impressive performance as Texas Ranger, Marcus Hamilton who is eager to close one last case. He has some of the more memorable lines of dialogue in the film and contributes to the hilariously dry comedy. Gil Birmingham portrays Hamilton’s partner, Alberto Parker who is equally impressive. He is an amusingly stoic foil to the unfiltered Hamilton.

Hell or High Water has a patient pace and may not move fast enough for all general audiences. This film is a far cry from summer’s brain-dead and plotless sequels. Completely engaging, it’s a beautifully textured film that presents a tremendous sense of scale to the lives of the characters and builds a west Texas environment with lots of know-how and attitude. Now playing in select theaters. Go!

Steeling Time

On April 28, 1869, the Central Pacific railroad crews laid 10 miles of track in one day.

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Early in the morning, crews faced a days work, and then some. Before them stretched a smoothly graded path in the Utah desert, the final product of a sizable army of Chinese graders that shoveled, chiseled, blasted, and bored their way nearly 700 miles from Sacramento over the Sierra Nevada mountains, then across the desert toward a mountainous peninsula on the north shore of the Great Salt Lake.

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The graded path stretched beyond their range of vision. If the crews could deliver on the boast of the railroad’s promoters to lay ten miles of rail in a single day, they would claim an unbeatable record.

At 7 a.m., the lead supply train blasted its whistle, and the machine of men swung into action. Chinese laborers unloaded the first train of kegs, spikes and bolts, bundles of fish-plate fasteners, and rails. “In eight minutes, sixteen cars were cleared, with a nose like the bombardment of an army,” wrote one correspondent.

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At the end of the track stood eight men with tongs to grab the rails. A wood-framed device that ensured 4 feet 8 1/2 inches separated each new rail pair, was moved ahead by two additional men. Two men were at the head and tail of each rail. As the forward pair seized each 30-foot rail, the rear pair helped guide it over the rollers and onto the cross tie. As soon as the rail was in place, one gang started the spikes, eight to each rail, and bolted fishplates at each rail joint; another gang finished the spiking and tightened the bolts.

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As end of track moved onward, ten yards at a clip, track levelers followed in its wake, lifting ties and shoveling dirt under them as needed. At the rear of the column, which eventually stretched out some two miles, were 400 tampers, with shovels and iron bars to give the road bed a firm set. Whenever a workman tired or faltered, a fresh replacement took his place. Horses tired easily on the steep grade and were changed every two hours.

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Progress that day was phenomenal. At a pace that one might average on a day’s walk, the Iron Horse was galloping across the desert. “I never saw such organization,” marveled an Army officer. “It was like an army marching over the ground and leaving a track built behind them.”

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After an hour’s lunch break, the crews returned to action. For almost an hour the most important task, conducted with hammer, wood blocks, and eyesight, was bending rails for the upcoming curve. As the shadows lengthened, the last supply car was unloaded. By seven in the evening, the ten miles of new track, plus 56 extra feet, was complete. The effort had consumed 25,800 ties, 28,160 spikes, 14,080 bolts, and 3,524 rails. In 40 minutes, the superintendent ran an engine over the new ten-mile track to prove its soundness.

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Michael Corbin Ray and I spent months on research for our debut novel, The Long Way. Although the story is fantasy, the locations and historical background are very much real. We took pains to be as true to the people and reality of the times as possible. This involved a great deal of research across a wide variety of subjects, often from first-hand accounts, including the timelines and methods of construction of North America’s first transcontinental railroad.

Chock-a-mo-fee-nah-neh.

I can’t make it through Fat Tuesday without listening to this nonsensical song at least a hundred times.

Iko Iko is a much covered tune that tells of a parade collision between two tribes. The song, under the original title “Jock-A-Mo,” was written in 1953 by James “Sugar Boy” Crawford (love that name) in New Orleans.

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James “Sugar Boy” Crawford (1934-2012)

The story tells of a Mardi Gras Indian “spy boy” encountering a “flag boy” for another tribe. He threatens to “set the flag on fire.”

In the early days of the Mardi Gras Indians, “masking” and parading was a time to settle grudges between tribes.

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Tribesmen dress up in suits influenced by Native American ceremonial apparel. There are about 38 tribes.

Sugar Boy’s song immortalized this violent history in Iko Iko. In the late 1960s, Tootie Montana (Chief of Chiefs), fought to end violence between the tribes.

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Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana. The fairest of them all.

He said, “I was going to make them stop fighting with the gun and the knife and start fighting with the needle and thread.” Today the Mardi Gras Indians mainly argue only over the “prettiness” of their suits.

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I feel pretty.

Sugar Boy gave a 2002 interview with Offbeat Magazine discussing the song’s meaning. What do the lyrics actually mean? Sugar Boy says, “I really don’t know.” It appears that linguists and historians are stumped as well and a variety of origins have been proposed, suggesting that the words may come from a blend of cultures. They could be Mobilian Jargon (an extinct Native American trade language), Louisiana Creole French, Haitian, or West African.

Voodoo practitioners also recognize many aspects of the song as being about spirit possession. Setting fire to a flag is a way of cursing someone. The song also mentions a man dressed in green who either has a change in personality (whoa) or is in some way not what he seems to be.

“Jock-a-mo” was the original version of the song “Iko Iko” recorded by the Dixie Cups in 1965. Their version came about quite by accident. They were in a New York City studio for a recording session when they began an impromptu version of Iko Iko, accompanied only by drumsticks on small studio ashtrays. Y’all go stomp your feet, kick up your heels and catch some beads. Laissez les bon temps rouler!

 

 

Dragon Country

We went to Weaverville for our first official book signing last weekend. Although part of our book takes place in Weaverville, we hadn’t actually been there. In order to gain a sense of the area during the mid-1800s for The Long Way, we rummaged through field guides, looked at topographical maps of the vicinity, and read books about the California Gold Rush and Chinese history.

As we ascended from Redding and drove along the base of the Trinity Alps and Highway 299, it became obvious. Our description of the area had been accurate. We were in dragon country.

The rugged terrain provides perfect habitat for a Chinese dragon.

Weaverville is an historic California Gold Rush town. Tucked into the base of the Trinity Alps Wilderness area, it was once home to approximately 2,000 Chinese gold miners and had its own Chinatown. The combined Gold Rush and Chinese history provides a perfect backdrop for our main characters.

We enjoyed our first book signing in Weaverville during the Chinese New Year celebration that ushered in the Year of the Horse.

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The day started with a book signing at Tammie’s Books on Main Street.

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The wet weather attempted to rain on our parade, but Tammie Huff explained that local residents are a hearty bunch who are used to the snow of winter and 100+ degree temperatures in summer. Folks were out in full force.

In the afternoon, we made our way to the Weaverville Joss House State Historic Park.

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Every year the Weaverville Joss House Association holds a Chinese New Year celebration that draws hundreds of visitors. It was raining. Hard. The townspeople gathered outside the Joss House under umbrellas. Lions danced, gongs rang, drums beat, and fireworks exploded.

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Between dances we met new friends and signed copies of The Long Way in the shelter of the interpretive museum. Our signing table was situated between a silk lion dance costume (early 1900s), opium pipe bowls, handmade weapons and equipment used by Chinese miners.

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The intricate bamboo structure and silk fabric is a stunning sight.

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We took turns visiting the Joss House which is a remarkable structure. The sign above the wooden temple door reads, “The Temple of the Forest Beneath the Clouds.”

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In 1853, the Chinese residents of Weaverville erected a small Taoist joss house that they named Won Lim Miao (Won Lim Temple). The first temple building, with most of its furnishings, was consumed by fire in 1861. Local Chinese residents built a new temple, but in 1873 another fire swept through Weaverville completely destroying the second temple. In 1874 the residents began construction of the present building.

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An altar table holds candles, incense sticks, oracle fortune sticks, wine cups, and pictures of immortals painted on glass. A small wooden table holding food offerings sits in front of the altar.

The temple’s historical significance lies in the fact that very few such structures still survive.

The celebration of Weaverville’s Chinese history continued into the evening at the Civil Defense building with the Weaverville Rotary Club Dim Sum Dinner & Auction. The gala benefits the Trinity High School Scholarship Foundation. The venue was decorated with an ornate entryway. Silk lanterns and thousands of red hanging lights greeted us inside. Everyone in town was there!

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Cheerful Rotarians, hardworking waitstaff (Trinity High School teens), city council members, business owners, and the descendants of Moon Lim Lee, who was appointed as the temple’s trustee in 1938. In 1956 Mr. Lee saw his dream fulfilled when the Joss House was preserved and became a part of the California State Park System. This park is supported in part through The Weaverville Joss House Association.

The journey to Weaverville was a memorable one, indeed. Dragon country exists. Dragons are real.

 

The Long Way – Production Notes

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Although the story is fantasy, the locations and historical background are very much real. We took pains to be as true to the people and reality of the times as possible.

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This involved a great deal of research across a wide variety of subjects, often from first-hand accounts, including:

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The history and politics of nineteenth-century trade with China

 

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Opium—how it was produced, imported, sold…

 

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…and used.

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Life in and management of brothels in China

 

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Life in nineteenth century China

 

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Construction, sailing, layout and

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routes of clipper ships involved in trade with China

 

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The evolution, use, and availability of guns and weapons to various militaries and civilians during the time period of the story

 

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The rapid growth of San Francisco during and after the gold rush years. Portsmouth Square, San Francisco (1850-51).

 

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Merchant ships fill San Francisco harbor during the Gold Rush (1850-51).

 

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The life of miners in the gold fields.

 

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Whites, Native Americans and blacks engaged in gold prospecting (c.1850).

 

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The life and treatment of Chinese workers in nineteenth-century America

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The state of settlements and cities in California during the late 1850s. The San Joaquin river.

 

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Immigration routes to California and life on the immigrant trails.

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Lifestyles of various Native American peoples, and their treatment by European immigrants

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Timelines and methods of construction of North America’s first transcontinental railroad

 

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We did our best to filter through the biases of the day to present a balanced view of these subjects, especially in the case of often conflicting reports—and frequent outright racism in the source material.

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In the end, however, this remains a fantasy novel, which allows for some leeway in the case of any factual errors.

More than facts, though, what matters here are the people—people of all races who struggled, mostly anonymously, to make a better life for themselves.

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We can say clearly today that many behaved less than admirably, but many were simply doing the best they could do in the face of great odds.

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We hope in some small way that this book celebrates their achievements.

Birding – A Game for One or More Players

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Birding in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

I began birdwatching as a young child in the urban parks of Los Angeles and Orange County. My earliest bird encounters took place close to home at the El Dorado Park Nature Center in Long Beach, California. Back in those days I barely knew the difference between a duck and a goose. As a pre-teen, another bird caught my eye on a Saturday visit to Tucker Wildlife Sanctuary in Irvine. It was there that I fell in love with the hobby. My parents led my kid brother and I up a wooded trail to a bird blind. There we sat quietly for what seemed like hours. We enjoyed hundreds of active hummingbirds flying with precision as they glittered like gems in the full sun. They zipped and buzzed back and forth to the numerous feeders directly in front of us. Some flashed us with their brilliant iridescent red throats. I was hooked. I wanted more.

I’ve been an avid birder as long as I can remember. In 1989 I was deployed to Prince William Sound, Alaska, where I participated in the Exxon Valdez oil spill response effort. Part of the HAZMAT/HAZWOPPER crew, I helped recover, document, clean, treat, and release thousands of affected seabirds. Although I haven’t participated in oil spill response since 1997, I continue to make my way around the globe in search of birds.

More than just a hobby, birding connects me with the great outdoors in a fun, inexpensive and academic way. I think of birding as a sort of game. It’s a good cross between a treasure hunt and hide-and-seek.

How to play

For ages 4 and older. The game of birding can have one or more players and the objective is to look for hidden treasure (birds). The players (birders) follow a series of clues such as habitat, sound, and environment to help locate the little gems. A bit like hide-and-seek, the feathered friends conceal themselves in the environment and are found by the seekers. The game of birding can be played anywhere in the world and there are few rules.

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A 19th-century painting of three children playing hide and seek in a forest.

It’s cheep

With nearly 10,000 bird species on our planet, it can be intimidating to get started. Unlike many hobbies, birding requires minimal equipment. A good pair of binoculars and a thorough field guide may be the only gear casual birders need to enjoy their local birds. More enthusiastic birders may prefer to have more expensive optics or several field guides.

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On my bookshelf.

My favorite is Sibley’s guide. A notebook for recording observations and a bird check list are also useful tools. A wide-brimmed hat and good walking shoes or hiking boots can make the field birding experience more comfortable.

Who you know

Once you have a field guide, read the introduction and take time to browse all the pages. You may be surprised to learn that you already know a few of the most common cast of characters. Browsing the guide can help you know what other birds to watch for in your area. This is the first step for keeping a life list or an annual list.

Make a list

I keep a life list and an annual list. Friendly competition is encouraged. My regular opponent is Douglas Stinson. We’ve enjoyed the annual challenge of “who can see the most birds” for the past 15 years.

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Time to fuel up after a good day of birding in Morro Bay, California.

We were neck and neck (304 to 300) up until my recent trip to Kaua’i’s Alakai Swamp. Deep mud, rain, and fog made the trail a challenge. I located the birds on my most wanted list (in particular, the I’iwi) and ended the year at 316 bird species.

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An endangered species, the ‘I’wi (Vestiaria coccinea), pronounced ee-EE-vee, is a “hummingbird-niched” species of Hawaiian honeycreeper.

Get outside

Familiarize yourself with the local birds and those that are easily spotted in your backyard, neighborhood or nearby park. Note which types of habitats seem to have the most birds and learn to listen for bird songs and calls that can help you begin birding by ear. If you take the time to observe even the most familiar birds you can learn their habits and be able to easily distinguish them from more uncommon birds.

Backyard birding

Most dedicated birders enjoy not only finding birds in the field, but also attract them for easy backyard birding. A bird-friendly landscape, appropriate bird feeders and a bird bath can quickly attract a diverse collection to your yard. Hummingbird feeders with perch, suet, and goldfinch sacks are established in my backyard. A large berry tree offers seasonal food for a vocal phainopepla. Loose seed scattered carelessly on the lawn attracts doves but make sure there are no free-range felines in the yard, please. Raw unsalted peanuts placed on the rail of my sun deck attract noisy and determined scrub jays (there are no blue jays in California). Develop your backyard into a good feeding station and enjoy the birds while you’re at home. Check for bird feeding specialty stores locally or online. One of my favorite feed stores is Wild Birds Unlimited, whose website offers expertise for attracting backyard feeders.

Share the love

Birding can be an individual hobby, but it can be even more fun to share your love of birding with others.

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Hire a guide if you travel abroad on holiday. Local experts are familiar with the environment. Dave Kuhn (center) documents bird sounds of Hawaii and helped us locate native species.

Join a local bird watching club or group, and consider joining national and international organizations that work not only to promote birding, but also to protect and preserve wild birds. The American Birding Association, National Audubon Society and Royal Society for the Protection of Birds are some of the most familiar and most well regarded birding organizations to join. Hiring a bird guide, traveling to bird festivals or taking a bird tour are other excellent ways to connect with other birders.

Skills required

Patience, tracking, hiding, and observing. In this game of birding, patience is more than a virtue. It’s a key piece. Most birds are unpredictable and often do not appear at the precise moments birders may wish them to.

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A good birder is patient enough to wait quietly for the right opportunity to observe birds without becoming bored, discouraged or frustrated.

It doesn’t take an ornithology degree to become a birder, but it helps. The best birders are educated about the birds they see. Knowing what habitats to visit and when to find the birds can make this hobby more rewarding. One who understands the basics of bird behavior will be successful.

A good birder must be observant in order to spot shy or unusual species. There are many bird species that look similar to one another, and an observant birder will be able to distinguish unique field markings that separate these birds. Being observant also means observing bird habitat, behavior, songs and other details that create a rich portrait of each bird.

Go play

Birding is an amusing and rewarding hobby. Start small and focus on local resident birds and the feathered friends that visit your backyard. Gradually build your birding expertise to feel confident venturing further and further into the field to see even more species and enjoy watching all the birds you can throughout your life. Everyone is a winner when it comes to experiencing life through a set of binocs. Get out and see what you can see.

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Somewhere along the Pihea & Alaka’i Swamp Trail.

 

The Long Way – Trailer #1

Mike and I had such a fun time creating this little trailer to go along with our little book. We took our main character on a DIY journey and developed a quick script and added a few images of the mid-1800s. We gave Leung Chi-Yen a voice and moved her through a few high points of the story. Take a glimpse into The Long Way.

Keep in mind we’re on a major budget. Mike says our trailer has the Ken Burns effect, but I think it screams South Park. Either way we hope you enjoy it as much as we enjoyed making it for you.

Therese would rather deliver her lines in a Cartman voice...

Therese would rather deliver her lines in a Cartman voice…

 

Come sail away.

Come sail away.

 

Mike makes the dragon fly.

Mike makes the dragon fly.

 

Waves of action.

Waves of action.