Love is love

Even human/alien love.

Image courtesy of Pride Publishing.

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Remembering STAR WARS and 1977

I was 6 years old when Star Wars hit theaters in May 1977 and my dad took me to see it on the big screen.

We lived in Los Angeles at the time, and I can’t remember for certain whether or not we actually attended the footprint ceremony at Mann’s Chinese Theater that August. I do remember that the adults in my life talked about the event and still called the theater “Grauman’s,” which had been the official name until 1973.

And I had a photograph of myself with Darth Vader, standing in front of that same theater, his black gloved hands around my throat à la the Death Star scene (shown at right). I don’t know if it was taken during this event, but when else would Darth Vader have been in front of Mann’s? Maybe they had a costumed character hanging around in the days that followed, for those who came to see his footprints after the cement had set.

The framed photo hung on my bedroom wall when I was growing up. I don’t know where it is, now.

I later dressed up as Princess Leia for Halloween. I do have that picture.

I grew up with Disney princesses, but Leia was my hero. A princess but also a spy, rebel leader, handy with a blaster, strong, sassy, intelligent and kind. She was one of my early sci-fi female role models — along with Ripley, Uhura and Sarah Connor.

I read Splinter of the Mind’s Eye by Alan Dean Foster before seeing The Empire Strikes Back and had hoped Leia would get with Luke. The whole Han/scoundrel and Luke/brother thing really disappointed me. Made my mom happy, though.

~ J.L. Hilton

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Honest Hearts DLC touches my own in Fallout: New Vegas

I recently finished the Honest Hearts DLC (“downloadable content” game expansion) for Fallout: New Vegas. In 44 years, I’ve cried at countless movies and books but never video games. Yes, I teared up at the end of the Knife of Dunwall/Brigmore Witches DLC for Dishonored. But uncontrollable bawling? That’s a first.

Honest Hearts is about what happens in Utah’s Zion Canyon after a nuclear holocaust. Among ruined school buses and ranger stations, the player is caught up in a war between post-apocalyptic tribes and the conflicting goals of a Mormon missionary and the mysterious Burned Man.

But there’s another story in Honest Hearts, too, one that’s told via hidden shelters and old computer terminals — the story of Randall Dean Clark, a soldier and survivalist trapped in Zion when the bombs fell 200 years before the events of the game.

I was north of Spanish Fork. Took the 77 along Provo Bay to steer clear of town. Would’ve been home in an hour. Engine died, truck just stopped. So did a Chryslus in the other lane. Knew right away.

First nuke hit SLC inside a minute. I was looking South – Lucky Man! Flash behind me so bright world looked on fire. Old couple from the Chryslus starts screaming they can’t see.

Didn’t watch you die, Char. Saved my eyes. Counted 12 more flashes next 7 minutes. Ground shook each time, 18 seconds later.

When nothing hit for half an hour, took a look. Globe of fire where you and Alex died. Didn’t kid myself.

Didn’t know what to do. Grabbed my pack and rifle.

Saw to the old couple. Sat them up against car, let them hold and comfort each other. Told them I was going to get help, everything be okay. One bullet through both heads. Instant.

Five day hike back to Zion.

You told me. Stop running off to the wild. Man belongs with his family.

You were right. You were right. You were right. You were right. Wasn’t there to hold you and my boy. Died without me. Never touch you or him again.

Should shoot myself. What I deserve.

Can’t. Maybe soon.

Randall spent the rest of his life in Zion, grappling with survivor guilt while he watched the comings and goings of feral ghouls, mutant animals, refugees, and the cannibal remnants of Vault 22. He had a brief relationship with fellow survivor Sylvie, until she and their unborn son died in childbirth.

Playing the DLC, tribe members spoke often of the “Father,” his love for them, and how they avoided his taboo caves. At first, with the presence of the Mormon missionary, I assumed they spoke of the Christian god, but eventually realized that they meant Randall Clark, the survivalist. Unseen, he’d spent his life assisting their ancestors, leaving them weapons manuals, medical books, supplies and messages preaching the value of kindness and mutual care. And he became a “vengeful spirit” who used his military skills to protect the innocent from evil.

Randall eventually developed lung cancer. Reluctant to shatter the illusions of the children by revealing himself, alive or dead, he climbed to a high place where the children would be unlikely to find his corpse and allowed himself to die of exposure.

“It’s cold enough that I won’t last long on the high mound up next to Red Gate. I think I’ve got enough breath left in me to make it. I’ll just lie down and stare at the sky. Feels right.”

I couldn’t even explain the story to my husband the next day without crying again. And I can’t reread the survivalist’s logs without tearing up now. Lip is quivering.

“I hope they’ll do well. I hope no harm comes to them, from within or without. Did my best to prepare them with the last notes. Said something kind about each one of them, what makes each one special. Told them ‘The Father’ was pleased by their kind natures and that it would be up to them to handle things on their own from now on, that I’d be silent but still watching and still caring.

“Lying, then. Oh yes.

“Lied to you, Char. And Alex. And Sylvie. Told you I’d be with you forever. But I wouldn’t go back and unsay it once if I could.

“What was the point of it all? So many failures.”

The Survivalist was designed by J.E. Sawyer, and his diary entries written by John Gonzalez. Maybe someday they’ll see this blog and know how very much this story touched my heart.

Why? Because I am Randall Dean Clark. Every single day, I am torn between wanting to give up and wanting to go on. I look at the world and it seems like such a bleak, desolate place, like the Mojave Wasteland. So much greed, corruption, fear, anger, ignorance, pain, hopelessness, despair. I often wonder what’s the point of it all, and yet I keep trying. The only meaning in life for me is the good I might do for others and the hope that it makes the world a little bit better for someone else.

Seeing how the effects of Randall’s actions echo down through the years, not because he’s some mystical magical supernatural god, but simply because he’s a human being who suffered immense pain and loss, yet in spite of “so many failures,” still chose to go on, to survive, to educate, to have compassion for those in need and righteous fury for those who would enslave or cannibalize others — that’s the most meaningful story I’ve ever experienced in a video game.

~ J.L. Hilton

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Back in my day, video games had stick figures

When people complain about graphics in video games, and frame rate, and immersion, and lag, and whether PS4 is better than Xbox One, and how Skyrim “sucks” compared to Oblivion or Morrowind, and which Final Fantasy game is better than the others, and how PC is better than console, I’m all like…

“We played this in the 1980s and we loved it.”

It’s a matter of perspective.

~ J.L. Hilton

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Stellarnet Series jigsaw puzzles

Click on the images below to play some online browser-based jigsaw puzzles of the Stellarnet Series book covers.

preview35 pieceStellarnet Rebel

preview35 pieceStellarnet Prince

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A strange magical birthday with a butt cake

The other night at dinner, a friend joked that I should have an Arrow butt cake for my birthday.

Yes, that’s “butt” not “bundt.”

Challenge accepted.

Vanilla cake, fudge filling, green frosting, and four green candles with aluminum foil arrowheads, because I’m 44 today.

I celebrated my birthday — which I share with Emma Watson and Luke Evans, who are BOTH going to be in the upcoming live action BEAUTY AND THE BEAST movie btw — by watching the “Broken Arrow” episode, after playing a little Skyrim and seeing STRANGE MAGIC in the theater again.

I also received one of those Edible Arrangement fruit baskets and a friend made me some homemade baklava.

Best birthday ever.

For more about objectification and dude butts, check out The Hawkeye Initiative.

~ J.L. Hilton

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The Book of Life vs. Strange Magic

I finally saw THE BOOK OF LIFE yesterday, after hearing so many good things about it. And now I’m even more mystified by the poor reception of my new favorite, STRANGE MAGIC.

I’m not saying THE BOOK OF LIFE isn’t deserving of its success. It is. But I don’t see how the two films are so very different that one should make 8x as much money and the other should end up at the bottom of a dog pile of criticism.

THE BOOK OF LIFE, produced by Guillermo del Toro and directed by award-winning animator Jorge Gutierrez, took in $97 million worldwide ($50 million domestic, $47 million foreign), after a Halloween 2014 release.

STRANGE MAGIC, with a story by George Lucas, direction by seven-time Oscar-winner Gary Rydstrom, and distribution by Disney, had a record-breaking bad debut and a box office total of only $12 million with a limited release (US only) in January 2015.

Disney may have been stuck with STRANGE MAGIC in the process of acquiring the Star Wars franchise, and just didn’t give a crap about it. So, are the box office differences due to the ways both movies were marketed and released? Or something else?

THE BOOK OF LIFE has an 82% on the Tomatometer, and STRANGE MAGIC only 19%. So, are critics responsible for getting audiences out to see THE BOOK OF LIFE while steering them away from STRANGE MAGIC? Why? Some of the features praised in the one film are the very same features disparaged in the other.

For instance, Common Sense Media calls THE BOOK OF LIFE a “beautifully animated film” yet calls STRANGE MAGIC an “uneven musical… stranger than it is magical.”

Both movies are strange, in their own ways. Both are set within magical worlds populated by supernatural creatures. Both have unconventional romantic storylines. Both have sassy sword-slinging heroines. Both have their share of fluff and foofaraw.

Both were beautifully computer-animated in lavish detail. STRANGE MAGIC gives us evocative fantasy forest and fairy imagery along the lines of genre stars Brian Froud and Amy BrownTHE BOOK OF LIFE delivers clever marionette-type figures and a Dia de los Muertos theme.

Both were musicals. I’ve seen several reviewers refer to STRANGE MAGIC with phrases like “bad karaoke” and “too much singing.” Yet THE BOOK OF LIFE features a full slate of pop songs, too, and the two movies even share one of the same tunes — “Can’t Help Falling in Love” (originally recorded by Elvis Presley in the 1960s). In THE BOOK OF LIFE, most songs are sung by Diego Luna as Manolo the Mariachi. In STRANGE MAGIC, you have the talents of Evan Rachel Wood, Elijah Kelley, Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming — hardly a list of “karaoke” performers.

And speaking of strange animated films: JACK AND THE CUCKOO CLOCK HEART. This steampunk musical with songs by French rock band Dionysos, produced by Luc Besson, made only $3.4 million in foreign box office (no US release, but you can watch it on Netflix streaming) yet has a 70% on the Tomatometer. Not quite as good as THE BOOK OF LIFE, but still much better than STRANGE MAGIC.

I can’t help wondering if maybe some of the critics who didn’t like STRANGE MAGIC simply found it more comfortable to pick on the animation, music, and vague, subjective qualities like being “boring and uneven,” than admit they’re too shallow to relate to the movie’s deeply emotional and unconventional narrative, “Everyone deserves to be loved.”

So, while I am happy that such movies as THE BOOK OF LIFE and JACK AND THE CUCKOO CLOCK HEART are being made, I’m sad that my STRANGE MAGIC fandom is so small.

No action figures, books and shirts for us.







~ J.L. Hilton

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No, this is not another negative review of STRANGE MAGIC

I love Strange Magic.

I know there’s a load of crappy reviews and it’s only earned about $12 million in theaters. I still love the characters, the animation, and the music. I love the unconventional storyline (says the author who won the 2013 Galaxy Award for Best Non-Traditional Romance). I would watch this 100 more times before I ever watched Guardians of the Galaxy again, and I know that makes me the weird one. I’m OK with that.

There’s a short list of movies I wanted to sit down and watch again immediately after just watching them, and that includes such oddities as Mystery MenKnights of BadassdomV for Vendetta and Repo! The Genetic Opera. And now, Strange Magic.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this film, and that rarely happens to me. I’m going to lose my fucking mind waiting for it to come out on DVD in May. Meanwhile, I’m writing this blog post, and I’ve got the soundtrack going on my mp3 player right now.

Here’s how it all went down.

I’d had a hankering for fish and chips all month. Don’t know why, just one of those things. Usually the monkey on my back demands Hostess cherry pies, but I’m trying to cut back on sugar so maybe the monkey changed his attention-seeking tactics. The monkey is a crafty little turd.

My favorite place for fish and chips is Raleighwood Cinema Grill. Four big, flaky, battered pieces of fish arrive in a plastic basket with thick, perfectly-cooked steak fries and a scoop of cole slaw. If there’s anywhere else in Raleigh, North Carolina, with better fish and chips, I haven’t found it (but I’m open to suggestions, so long as they don’t involve tilapia — contact me).

Raleighwood is a movie theater as well as a restaurant, with tables and comfy padded swivel chairs instead of stadium seats. I didn’t care what movie I watched, I just wanted lunch, so I checked the 12:30 matinee schedule and found Strange Magic.

I knew nothing about the film. The movie poster featured an assortment of computer-animated goblin critters who looked like something out of Spiderwick or Shrek.

I read the synopsis:

From the Magic Kingdom of Walt Disney and Award Winning producer George Lucas comes a fun animated madcap fairy tale musical adventure inspired by “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Popular songs from the past six decades help tell the tale of a colorful cast of goblins, elves, fairies and imps, and their hilarious misadventures sparked by the battle over a powerful potion.

Use of the term “madcap” — as with similar words “zany,” “quirky” or “whimsical” — is usually a red flag.

George Lucas produced another musical fairy tale and favorite movie of mine — Labyrinth — but I’d never forgiven him for cocking up Star Wars. I wanted to beat him with every discounted Darth Maul bed slipper I’d ever seen at K-Mart, so his involvement wasn’t a selling point.

And a Disney production where no one bothered to compose an original song for its soundtrack? Even Galavant got better treatment than that.

“Dad says it’s going to suck,” my 10-year-old told me. “He watched the trailer.”

“I don’t care, I’m just going for the fish and chips.”

One of the fun things about homeschooling is that if you feel like taking your kids out to the movies for lunch on a weekday, you can. So we headed over to Raleighwood, the 10-year-old eager for an ice cream sundae and the 14-year-old happy for any excuse to ignore chemistry and geometry for a little while.

Strange Magic begins the way so many children’s movies begin, with a happy, singing princess in an idyllic forest surrounded by magical things. Winged fairy Marianne is engaged to a handsome squirrel-riding fairy gentleman. Her loving sister Dawn assists with the wedding plans. All is right with the world.

My snarky teen offspring gave me the stink eye.

“I don’t care how much it sucks,” I whispered to her. “I’m just here for the fish and chips.”

Before she can achieve wedded bliss, Marianne’s heart is broken and she becomes a cynical, sassy, sword-wielding goth fairy who don’t need no man to help her run her kingdom.

Her former fiancé, the squirrel jockey, attempts to lure her back into his arms — not for love, but because he wants the power such a relationship would bring. She gives him a big musical “fuck off” with Kelly Clarkson’s 2012 hit “Stronger.”

Much of the story of Strange Magic is told through pop songs spanning the past 50+ years. Marianne opens with Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love” (1961), and her disappointment is expressed via Burt Bacharach’s ”I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” (1968). The Bog King introduces himself with another Elvis song, “Trouble” (1958). He later sings “Mistreated,” a 1974 song by Deep Purple.

I got sucked in and sang along quietly to myself in the theater. My 14-year-old noticed my lips moving and whispered, “How do you know all the words of a movie we’ve never seen?” She’s used to me singing like Miranda around the house, but suddenly I seemed to have music telepathy.

“They’re using old songs for the soundtrack,” I told her, feeling very old.

It reminded me a bit of the way Moulin Rouge! used a contemporary soundtrack to tell its story. Which, turns out, wasn’t far wrong, since Marius De Vries was the music director for both Strange Magic and the 2001 film with Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor.

* * *

* * * SPOILER ALERT * * *


* * * SPOILER ALERT * * *

* * *

When Marianne battled Bog, I loved how they crossed sword and staff while singing Heart’s “Straight On” from 1978. And as their relationship transformed from contentious to romantic, they sang the best version of “Strange Magic” I’ve ever heard — all due respect to the original by ELO, a band I’ve loved since roller skating to their Xanadu soundtrack in my driveway in 1980.

Yes, this is a movie where the heroine and the villain actually FALL. IN. LOVE. You have no idea how many times I’d wished that would happen, but of course it never does. Perhaps because the villain wears a mask and hides out in a sewer (Phantom of the Opera), or because he’s a powerful wizard and she’s a young girl (Labyrinth), or because for some inexplicable reason she prefers the stupid hero over his broody nemesis in black leather and guy liner (BBC’s Robin Hood).

A critic dude at the New York Post called Strange Magic “jaw-droppingly terrible.” He obviously doesn’t have a deep, heart-wrenching affinity for Beauty & the Beast stories.

Related reading: “Redefining sexy with dwarves, demons and aliens” by J.L. Hilton

The Bog King & my favorite Cardassian, Gul Dukat, from Star Trek: DS9.

This is the version I’ve always wished for — where the beast does not transform in the end, but remains his hot, monstrous self and is loved for it, not in spite of it. I cheered when Marianne declared her love for Bog with the song “Wild Thing.”

This is the movie I’d waited for all of my life.

I also loved Strange Magic because the lead characters were equals. Marianne and Bog were both strong, intelligent, flawed, and possessing the same level of power, being royalty of their respective kingdoms. This was not a story about a peasant girl winning a prince with her good looks, or a hero rescuing a helpless princess from a tower.

Both of my girls liked it, too. Even the teenager.

The Bog King & Teldryn Sero, my favorite character from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Dragonborn DLC). Do I have a thing for guys who look like bugs?

Alan Cumming, who voiced the Bog King, said in an interview, “I like the message that weird people will find each other. And I do really like that in both these big films (Frozen and Strange Magic), the handsome princes are total dicks.”

“The story is about the difference between infatuation and real love,” said George Lucas in a recent interview. “Real love is on the inside, with someone you have common ground with. You share the same values, you share the same interests, you share the same humor — things that will last you for the rest of your lives.”

Thank you, George. I might almost forgive you for Jar Jar Binks. Almost.

~ J.L. Hilton

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Rated PG
Story by George Lucas
Directed by Gary Rydstrom

  • Alan Cumming as Bog King
  • Evan Rachel Wood as Marianne
  • Kristin Chenoweth as Sugar Plum Fairy
  • Maya Rudolph as Griselda, The Bog King’s mother
  • Alfred Molina as the Fairy King, Marianne and Dawn’s father
  • Elijah Kelley as Sunny
  • Meredith Anne Bull as Dawn, Marianne’s sister
  • Sam Palladio as Roland

Distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Release date: January 23, 2015
Running time: 99 minutes
DVD release date: May 19, 2015

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MIDAS BOX is a steampunk adventure for the whole boring family

This review originally appeared on the Contact – Infinite Futures SF blog on March 23, 2015.

The Adventurer: The Curse of the Midas Box is a 2014 British fantasy adventure film starring Michael Sheen, Sam Neill, Lena Headey, Ioan Gruffudd, Keeley Hawes, and Aneurin Barnard.

The Adventurer: The Curse of the Midas Box is a Victorian steampunk movie for the entire family… assuming the entire family enjoys watching BBC costume dramas, which are a bit more sedate than the standard Hollywood fare.

The unwieldy title seems a desperate attempt to assert its identity — “Truly, I’m an ADVENTURE movie about an ADVENTURER!” — in the face of reviewers using such words as “lackluster,” “slow and joyless,” “dull,” and “meh.”

This isn’t Goonies nor is it National Treasure. My family enjoyed those movies, but we also appreciate period pieces — Young Sherlock HolmesFrom Time to TimeFairytale: A True StoryLarkrise to CandlefordStonehearst Asylum, and Jane Eyre — and pseudo-Victorian movies like Stardust. So we enjoyed Curse of the Midas Box, but we seem to be in the minority.

The movie ends on a bit of a cliffhanger and we’re hoping for a sequel. The abysmal 15% critic rating and 34% user rating on Rotten Tomatoes bode otherwise. We’ll just have to read the books — which have also been panned as boring.

Some reviewers say it’s “too dark.” but I don’t think Midas Box any darker than Harry Potter or Indiana Jones. Sam Neill twirls his mustache as the villain, but it’s not as if Midas Box is Peaky Blinders or The TudorsForever is one of my favorite TV shows at the moment, so it was nice to see Ioan Gruffudd as Mariah’s father, but he isn’t an immortal coroner in this story. There’s a spark of Cersei’s deviant evil in Lena Headey’s performance, but Midas Box is nothing like Game of Thrones, either.

If you want blood and boobs, look elsewhere. Midas Box is the first in what is intended to be a PG-rated franchise based upon novels by G. P. Taylor. Taylor is a former Anglican vicar according to his biography, and author of several novels for young adults, including New York Times Bestsellers Shadowmancer and Wormwood.

Nor is this Harry Potter or Twilight. Main character Mariah Mundi is a handsome if taciturn 17-year-old with dark curls and haunted eyes but has more important things on his mind than girls — such as whether or not his beloved family is still alive. I like seeing familial love and devotion as a motivator for young heroes. Lilo & StitchFrozen and Brave did that, too.

Mariah, not being a bucket of raging hormones nor an embarrassment to, or embarrassed by, his family, endures a series of unfortunate events to save his parents and younger brother from nefarious men who want the mysterious titular treasure. A dashing British version of Indiana Jones and a young hotel maid assist him in his mission, while children go missing a la Chitty Chitty Bang Bang(another steampunk fantasy adventure for the whole family, loosely based on a book by James Bond author Ian Fleming).

Intelligence, perseverance, devotion, friendship and bravery are needed to save the day. When Mariah does attempt to use magic, he quickly finds out just how dangerous those supernatural forces are. The actual Midas box may not even be magical at all but possibly divine or alien in origin — I don’t think the nature of this particular MacGuffin is ever explained.

Filming took place in sound stages and locations throughout the South West of England including St Michael’s Mount, Bristol, Bath, Charlestown Harbour, Kidderminster Town railway station, and Lacock Abbey.

The Adventurer: The Curse of the Midas Box had a budget of $25 million yet a very limited theatrical release in January 2014 with a scant $6,399 in reported U.S. ticket sales and about $122K elsewhere. It went to DVD just a month later. As of this writing, it’s available on Netflix streaming.

Have you seen this movie? Read the books? What did you think?

~ J.L. Hilton

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Snippets and Smut at IllogiCon 2015

I had a great time at IllogiCon 2015. Saw some old friends, met some new ones. Sold a little bit of jewelry in the artist alley. Met the nice folks at Needles and Nonsense who make geeky pillows.

Being a Smutty Fan-fiction panelist was wonderfully fun and supportive, though I’m pretty sure I was the oldest person in the room. According to con guest of honor Christopher J. Garcia, “Young fans love fanfic.” So, I no longer feel like a creepy old lady writing video game erotica about naughty uses for troll fat — I’m one of the cool kids writing about naughty uses for troll fat!

My daughter enjoyed meeting game designer Duncan Davis in the game room and playing his pirate-themed deception card game Exploit! Lacy ran a kick-ass con suite. I didn’t catch any “con crud,” despite being around a crowd of people during the height of flu season. That’s a win.

But one little, tiny thing happened at IllogiCon that bothered me, and it had nothing to do with the event itself, the organizers or the vendors. It was a snippet of conversation overheard in the parking lot of the hotel, between a young man and woman.

“People really shouldn’t wear costumes like that, unless they’re built for it.”

I have no idea what costume(s) bothered them, or how exactly the cosplayer(s) of unknown age, race or gender offended the couple. I wasn’t wearing a costume, so they weren’t talking about me, and I didn’t see anyone else around. But there I was, privy to a stranger’s unkind private opinions about someone who’d gone to the effort of dressing up for our enjoyment and theirs.

People wear costumes “like that” — whatever “like that” might mean — for the joy of it, don’t they? The same reason children dress up on Halloween. You wouldn’t tell a 5-year-old not to wear a Superman suit until he bulks up, or a child in a wheelchair that they can only be Professor X but not Wolverine. You wouldn’t say, “Maybe that little girl should go as a bag of jellybeans and not as a princess.”

Unless you’re an asshole. And despite the very unsavory examples of bad geeks on the Internet, in my experience geeks are generally not assholes. They’re really the opposite. So, I guess it just took me by surprise to hear “one of us” say such things. Though, I’m not even sure they were “one of us” at all. They may have been hotel guests passing through.

I don’t understand the attitude some people have, that if you don’t look exactly like someone they would personally bang, you shouldn’t be in a public space, enjoying life and doing anything fun. It makes people happy to dress up. Why should there be any restrictions on happiness?

I say go for it, regardless of race, gender, age or body type.

~ J.L. Hilton

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