Thursday, December 31, 2009

So long, 2009...Hello MMX

Wishing you a happy, healthy, and safe New Year.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas 2009

After hosting another great Feast of the Seven Fishes last night, I awoke to the whispers of my three daughters, waiting patiently for their parents to get out of bed already so they could open their gifts from Santa.

After presents, we all sat down together in the kitchen and had pancakes (made from scratch because we had no mix left), orange juice served in champagne flutes, and fresh strawberries. It was a great way to start the day, and made me appreciate yet again that the true gifts in my life were right there, sitting around that table.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 19, 2009


Winter storm headed this way...the perfect day to get some presents wrapped. I'm also going to put on a big pot of chicken soup. Let it snow!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A new direction for NJ

Today, residents of NJ elected a new governor. I don't agree with all of his positions on the issues, but I do think that Chris Christie is the right choice to put New Jersey back on track. We're so deeply in debt and overtaxed to the hilt. Time for a change!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Happy 1st Anniversary to my furry baby

One year ago today, I signed on the dotted line and adopted our precious pup, Scooter. He has been a joy to our family ever since, so it's truly a day worth celebrating.

Happy Gotcha Day, Scooter-boy!

Friday, October 9, 2009

President Obama wins big

My husband made those. Nice job, Rich!

Seriously, though...the Nobel Peace Prize? For what??

I agree that President Obama has a lot of potential, but he only just took office a few months ago. He hasn't actually done anything yet.

The Nobel is supposed to recognize extraordinary achievement. Ousting George W. Bush & company was admirable...but prize-worthy? I don't think so.

Extending an olive branch to other nations around the world, trying to mend fractured relationships? That comes with the territory of the Office of President.

The entire award seems like a stunt by the Nobel Committee. Truly a head-scratcher.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Quickie Weddings

This past weekend, reality star Khloe Kardashian married NBA star Lamar Odom after a "whirlwind" one month courtship. They've known each other for one month, but felt 100% ready to spend the rest of their lives together. Forever and ever.

Really? Well, okay then. Lots of luck to the happy couple. I'm sure the fact that she's got a new reality show that's struggling in the ratings and he's debuting a new clothing line have NOTHING to do with their desire to get married so quickly.

Of course, this type of quickie wedding is nothing new for celebrities. And, when the inevitable divorce happens, it will be a surprise to no one. It seems to me that marriage in Hollywood is seen as just another disposable item that one can grow tired of and discard, like a old car or a worn-out pair of shoes.

What makes me truly sad is that there are consenting adults in this country who have been together and devoted to each other for years, are deeply in love, and believe strongly in the sanctity of marriage. And yet, they cannot get married because they are in love with a person of the same sex. I don't understand the logic behind that.

Anyone who says that gay marriage undermines and detracts from the institution of marriage needs to get their priorities straight: why don't they speak up when heterosexuals make a mockery of matrimony by marrying and divorcing in record time?

I agree that there has been a breakdown in the strength of the "family unit" in the U.S. over the past few decades, but it's not because homosexuals are trying to alter the way people view marriage--heterosexuals have done a pretty good job screwing that up all on their own.

Invisible Canine Fence

It has been almost a year since we got our dog. We have a large yard, but it's not enclosed, and we'd hoped to be able to train the dog to be off-leash without having to install fence. After 12 months of using a 40-foot tie-out line, not to mention a few harrowing off-leash training sessions gone awry, we finally decided to get the Invisible Canine Fence system.

My neighbors have this system for their yellow lab, and they swear by it. Now that we've installed one ourselves, I have to agree: it's the best money we've ever spent on our dog.

First, the company sends out representatives to mark off all of your utility wires (sprinklers, cable, telephone) so that they can steer clear of those. Then, they bury a wire within 2 feet of wherever you want the border to be. You can run it around the perimeter of your property, and also around places within that perimeter that you want off limits, like a koi pond or a flower bed or rabbit hutch area, etc. They put white flags up to mark where the buried wire is. (Eventually you remove those.)

This company (Canine Fence) primarily uses audible technology/training/praise to teach the dog the perimeter, which is why they are endorsed by so many veterinarian associations. Their competitor uses "graduated correction technology" which means electric zaps that increase in intensity as the dog gets closer to the perimeter. All that does is tests the dog's pain threshold.

With this system, whenever the dog gets within 18" to 24" of the buried wire, he starts to hear a series of beeps. After the 5th beep, if the rubber stoppers are off the metal prongs on the collar, he'll get a shock (they call it a "correction", I call it a "zap"). So, the dog gets a fair warning to back it up--zapping only happens if he ignores the beeping.

For the first 4 days, you're supposed to keep the stoppers on and walk the dog out in the yard on the leash. As soon as he gets close enough to hear the beeps, you give a slight tug on the leash, run like hell in the other direction, and praise the heck out of the dog when he runs away from the sound. Lots of kisses and pats and "Good boy!" praise. Do that over and over and over, all around the perimeter, for 10 minute sessions several times a day.

By Day 5, you take the stoppers off, and walk him on the leash again, but this time, don't tug him at all. Have a family member walk casually through the perimeter. The dog will try to follow. If he ignores the beeps...zap. Then, you spend 3 days teaching him to ignore a variety of other distractions: throw a ball through the fence, a favorite toy, etc. The dog has to learn to resist temptation and stop at the edge.

You're not supposed to encourage the dog to go through the fence in any calling to him or teasing, etc. It was surprisingly effective right from the start with Scooter, but then, he is so eager to please.

After a few days of "distraction" tests, you can let the dog off the leash and supervise him outside. That lasts for two weeks. Then, you can have the dog out there on his own, and watch from inside the house to see how he does. After the 4 weeks is over, you start gradually removing the visual reminder flags, and that's it.

I did the training as stipulated, for the most part. After only 3 days of praise, my dog was ready for the "correction", and it only took one little zap for him to fully understand that beeps = stay away. After a couple of days' worth of distractions, he was perfect.

He's now able to run and jump and scramble all over the place, without being tethered to anything. He loves it!

Our fence cost us about $1000 for a 1/2 acre of coverage. It was well worth it, and my neighbor had a coupon for $200 off, so we saved quite a bit off the standard price. If you have less property, the fence costs even less.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Bach is Back!

Amazon finally got around to shipping my copy of Richard Bach's latest book, "Hypnotizing Maria". I cannot wait to read it. Bach's "Illusions" is one of my favorite books of all time, and his Ferret Chronicles were a wonderful surprise.

He's so dang media-shy, though, so I was quite happy to find this new interview online:Interview with Richard Bach

Monday, September 14, 2009

Patrick Swayze

Rest in Peace.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Back from vacation!

Just got back from a great 5-day cruise to Canada aboard the Carnival Triumph. This was my second time doing this itinerary on Carnival (I went last year on the Victory) and we had a wonderful time.

I have tons of laundry to do and lots of work to catch up on, but I'm going to crank out a review of the trip tonight while it's all still fresh in my mind. At some point I'll get photos up, too, but for now, I'll stick with the highlights.

Overall, the trip was great, and I'm looking forward to writing up some helpful info for anyone else who is planning this trip in the near future. Time to put another load of clothes into the dryer and get cracking on that review!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Book review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Just finished reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. This is now one of my favorite books of all time. It was so good, I couldn't put it down, but I hated for it to end, too.

The novel is told in a series of letters, a clever story-telling device that works beautifully. The plot centers around Juliet, a 32-year-old author who is successful in her career, but less so in her love life. Living in post-World-War II London, Juliet starts up a pen pal relationship with residents of St. Peter's Port in the Channel Islands. The character development in this novel is simply brilliant, and the authors weave in historical information about the war seamlessly. The book is funny, educational, heart-wrenching, joyful and a wonderful read. Add this one to your reading list, post haste!

Next up on my summer reading list: The Jane Austen Book Club.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Book review: Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

This is the first book of David Sedaris' that I've ever read, but it certainly won't be the last. His writing style is witty, engaging, clever, self-deprecating, and hilariously funny.

An excerpt:

For as long as I can remember, my father has saved. He saves money, he saves disfigured sticks that resemble disfigured celebrities, and, most of all, he saves food. Cherry tomatoes, sausage biscuits, the olives plucked from other people's martinis--he hides these things in strange places until they are rotten. And then he eats them.

I used to think of this as standard Greek behavior until I realized that ours was the only car in the church parking lot consistently swarmed by bees.

Sedaris relays stories from his childhood, his drug-addled young adulthood and his years spent living in Paris, skewering his own behavior with a dry humor and stark self-awareness that is rare and oddly endearing.

Another thing that made this book a great summer read is that it's a compilation of essays, so it was something I could pick up and put down without losing my way in the story. It's a fun read.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Tofu Shirataki: Pasta alternative for the carb conscious?

I've been lowering my carb intake for the past few weeks, and have been having some great results. Low-carb diets work wonders for me, because I'm such a pasta addict. After just 3 weeks, my clothes are looser and the scale is showing a friendlier number...but lord, do I miss pasta!

So, imagine my happiness on discovering a "noodle substitute" this morning at the supermarket: Tofu Shirataki from House Foods. It's "Hungry Girl approved", only 20 calories for an 8oz package, 3g of carbs and 2g of fiber. They look just like fettucine (packed in water), have no cholesterol, no sugar, and are gluten-free. There was a Hungry Girl recipe on the back for Fettucine Alfredo--which I love--so I picked up a package ($1.99 at my grocery store) and decided to give it a shot.

My first red flag was when I read the recipe directions, and came across this: Drain and rinse Tofu Shirataki thoroughly. Parboil for 2-3 minutes (or microwave for 1 min.) to reduce the authentic aroma, then dry very well.

Um...oooookay. Now I'm scared.

Turns out, the "authentic aroma" wasn't that bad: it was a mildly fishy smell, similar to miso soup or the ice at the fish store. Once I rinsed the noodles, the aroma was gone.

I followed the directions and made the sauce (2 Tbsp. cream cheese, 2 tsp. Parmesan cheese, 1 tsp. sour cream, salt & pepper to taste--I used the full-fat versions because Atkins allows for that). From an appearance standpoint, the fettucine looked amazing--just like the real thing.

Then I tasted it.

The sauce was fine, but the texture...ugh. Rubbery, like thin strips of stubborn Jell-O that refuse to yield willingly on the first bite. By the second or third chew, the noodles broke down enough to get them down, but I'd be lying if I said they were even remotely tasty. They didn't taste like anything, really...I had hoped they'd at least pick up the flavor of the sauce, but no...the sauce just sort of sat on top, but never actually penetrated the gelatinous strings. To be fair, the package calls it a "Fettucine shaped noodle substitute" and, if you check out the House Foods website, they do not promise anywhere that the faux noodles are delicious. Because they're not.


Try as I might, I couldn't get through the whole bowl. Yes, Tofu Shirataki is low-cal, low carb, and a healthier alternative than pasta.

But I'd rather be fat than eat that again.

Sunday, August 2, 2009


I have an email address I never use anymore, but periodically, I log in to clear out all of spam and such. Once in a while, one of the more creative emails catches my eye.

Here's one that had me laughing...I love how you can clearly see that English is not their first language:

Re: Your Compensation
Good day to you.

How are you today? Hope all is well with you and your family? I hope this mail
meets you in a perfect condition. I am using this opportunity to thank you for
your great effort to our unfinished transfer of fund into your account due to
one reason or the other best known to you. But I want to inform you that I have
successfully transferred the Cheque out of the company to someone else who was
capable of assisting me in this great venture .

Due to your effort, sincerity, courage and trust worthiness you showed at the
course of the transaction I want to compensate you and show my gratitude to you
with the sum of $800,000.00 (Eight Hundred Thousand United States Dollars) in
respect to your lottery winnings. I have authorized the finance house where i
deposited my money to issue you international certified bank draft cashable at
your bank.

My dear friend i will like you to contact the finance house for the collection
of this international certified bank draft. One of our representative has been
given your cheque to be delivered to you and as faith may have it he his an
AMERICAN who will help you monitor the delivery of your cheque to you simply
because of the ongoing scam all over the world. For clearity, you can ask him to
show to you his identity. Below is his contact details


At the moment, I am very busy here because of the investment projects which
myself and my new partner are having at hand. To avoid any delay, please provide
the below informations to him.

Your Name...............
Your Address................
Phone Number.................
Present Country................

Finally, remember that I have forwarded instruction to the finance house on your
behalf to send the bank draft to you as soon as you contact them without delay.

Please i will like you to accept this token with good faith as this is from the
bottom of my heart.

Best Regards,
Mr Brian Smith

And here's another one...this one is more insidious, though. It makes it sound like someone has done a wire transfer to my bank account.

NOTE: If you get this Wells Fargo phishing email, DON'T click the link. Instead, forward it to:

Dear Customer,

VALORIE SCHMALTZ made an online funds transfer to your Wells Fargo account and asked us to notify you that it was completed successfully. The details of this transaction are shown below.

Transfer Date and Time: 07/21/09 at 01:45 AM
Transfer Amount: $980.00
Transfer Description:

To view this transaction and your current balance, please sign on at

If you have any questions related to this message or the funds transfer, please contact VALORIE SCHMALTZ. Please do not reply to this message.

Wells Fargo Online Customer Service

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Book review: Stern Men by Elizabeth Gilbert

FINALLY...I just finished the first book in my stack of Summer Reading. It feels like this book took me forever to get through. I had high hopes for Stern Men, because I loved Gilbert's best-selling Eat,Pray,Love. I should have realized--that was a memoir, and this was a novel. Totally different genres, and even though they're by the same author, they were written in completely different styles.

I thought the book was only so-so. The pacing was agonizingly slow, and several of the plot points seemed haphazardly thrown in, almost as an afterthought. The worst of it, though, was how rapidly the book winds down. After 274 pages of angst and drawn-out story, Gilbert rushes through the ending of the book like she's got a plane to catch. The best part of the story--the part where Ruth Thomas finally learns how to assert herself and reach her full potential--is glossed over in an Epilogue. The last 12 pages of the book brought the story to a very happy conclusion, but it wasn't satisfying because it was done too abruptly. I would have rather read an entire novel based on what happens in the Epilogue. It made the experience of reading the rest of the novel seem all the more cumbersome--Stern Men was a big disappointment. Ah well. Can't win 'em all.

On to the next book in the stack: Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris. It's a book of humorous essays, and I'm looking forward to reading something that I can pick up and put down without having to stay too focused on one story arc.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Movie review: Living Proof

Just a coincidence, but this is going to be my second post in a row related to Breast Cancer.

I just finished watching a wonderful movie, Living Proof. It originally aired on the Lifetime network in October, 2008 (coinciding with Breast Cancer Awareness month).

The movie, starring Harry Connick Jr., is the true story of Dr. Dennis Slamon and his extraordinary efforts to develop and win approval for Herceptin, a revolutionary drug to treat breast cancer. Keep a box of tissues handy for this one...the movie was moving, inspiring, heart-wrenching, and ultimately, filled with hope for the future of breast cancer research. The filmmakers did a great job showing the frustrating bureaucracy that can impede medical research, and the poignant stories that abound as these brave women fight to become part of the clinical studies.

It also gave me a deeper appreciation for the contributions of Lilly Tartikoff, the wife of Brandon Tartikoff who convinced Ron Pearlman (CEO of Revlon) to donate millions of dollars to advance Slamon's research. Revlon's contribution was crucial in getting Herceptin developed, something I hadn't realized before. Makes me want to run out and buy some lipstick right now!

Rent this movie. If you've ever been touched by the scourge that is cancer, particularly breast cancer, parts of it may be difficult to watch, but it was absolutely worth viewing. I also have to applaud Bernadette Peters, Regina King, Swoosie Kurtz, Trudie Styler and Angie Harmon for stealing some key scenes in this movie. They all turned in raw, wonderful performances.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Dance Tribute for Breast Cancer

I don't normally watch the show "So You Think You Can Dance," but I couldn't escape the buzz surrounding last night's episode. A friend told me about this dance that was choreographed as a tribute to women with breast cancer. The female dancer represents a woman suffering from the disease, and the male dancer represents the strength that helps her get through it. It's incredibly powerful stuff, and yes, I cried when I watched it.

Monday, July 20, 2009

40th Anniversary of Apollo 11

Today marks 40 years since the day a man first walked on the Moon. My father was one of the Grumman engineers who helped design the Lunar Module. It's too bad my dad isn't here to celebrate this anniversary. I miss hearing his stories about the work he did. One of things I always thought was really cool when I was a kid was that my Dad's name is up there, on the Moon. He and all of the others who worked on the Space Program (he worked on both the Gemini and Apollo projects) signed their names to a scroll that was placed on the Moon when the astronauts landed.

I'm not sure whose idea that was, but I owe them a debt of gratitude. Now, whenever I look up at the Moon in the sky, I smile and think of my Dad.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island

Today, we decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather and take the kids to see the Statue of Liberty. We purchased the tickets last night online (, and set out to Liberty State Park in New Jersey to pick up the ferry. [Note: the NJ ferries do a loop from Liberty State Park to Ellis Island, then to Liberty Island, then back to NJ. The NY ferries start in Battery Park, stop at Liberty Island first, then Ellis Island, and back to NY. You can "island hop" and take any of the ferries back and forth, but once you disembark at one of the origination points, you can't get back on.]

Weather-wise, it was a perfect day. Our ticket reservations were for 11am, but we got there early at around 10am, so we made our way to the security checkpoint to wait for the ferry. For some reason, they found the contents of my handbag fascinating, and the extra time it took to get through security caused us to just miss the 10:30 ferry. Oh well. We were early anyway, so we enjoyed the view of the waterfront while we waited.

The next ferry arrived within 15 minutes, and departed at 11am. We got a seat on the open top deck and had great views. The right side is a bit better than the left, but it really doesn't matter where you sit because once the ferry starts moving, you can simply get up out of your seat and walk over to the rail for a photo-op. On one of the ferry rides, we stayed on the middle level of the ferry, and that worked out great. The kids and I sat on the benches until departure, and then we joined Rich out on the front of the ferry, which afforded us perfect views--it wasn't nearly as crowded as the top deck.

When you leave from the NJ side (Central Railroad of New Jersey terminal, near Liberty State Park) the first stop is Ellis Island. (There's a $7 charge for parking in the main lot at the CRR terminal. There's also 2-hour parking available there for free, but that's not a viable option if you're visiting attractions, because of the timing of the ferries.) Then, the ferry goes on to Liberty Island (where the Statue of Liberty is) and then returns to Port Liberty. We got off the ferry and were told there would another one leaving Ellis Island at Noon, then another at 12:40, and another every 40 minutes after that.

We got there in time to see the 25-minute film about Bela Lugosi's arrival through Ellis Island, but we decided to skip it because the last thing we wanted to do was sit and watch a movie. There were some ranger-guided tours available, but we much prefer to do a self-guided tour and go at our own pace. We took some pictures outside the main building, then went in and checked out the exhibits. There are free maps available at the information desk--no need to wait in line, just go up and grab one.

Some Ellis Island highlights: the Baggage Room display on the main level, with all of the old steamer trunks that people used to transport their possessions when they came through Ellis Island; the Peak Immigration Years exhibit with its information on exactly what kinds of conditions caused so many immigrants to leave their homeland seeking a better life (particularly jarring were the photos of the Russians who survived the pogroms); the Registry room (where my grandparents all came through and were processed when they arrived from Italy); the grandeur of the Dormitory room (stand in the center at either end and you'll hear an echo when you talk), and my favorite, the Treasures from Home exhibit, which featured precious possessions that the immigrants carried with them to their new country. We saw baby shoes, linens, handcrafted plates, musical instruments, and lots of prayer books from all different countries, including Italy, Yugoslavia, Poland, Russia, Germany and Ireland. It begs the question: if you were leaving home, perhaps never to return, what items would you absolutely have to take with you?

Helpful tip: use the restrooms located on the 3rd floor, next to the Bob Hope Library. They don't get as much use as the ones on the first floor, so they were clean and more private. There's also a water fountain right there where you can refill your water bottles.

It was getting close to Noon, but we decided to have lunch on Ellis Island instead of catching the next ferry, and that turned out to be a very wise move. The Cafe on Ellis Island had surprisingly good food--a wide variety of choices, and a kids' menu that had something for everyone. Rich had a Fisherman's platter (fried fish, shrimp & crab cakes with french fries and coleslaw) and I had a Lobster Roll (lobster salad with avocado on a brioche roll, with pickle and kettle chips). My older two girls had chicken fingers and fries, and the youngest had pizza, both choices off the kids' menu. Theirs came with drinks (Goodness Grapeness organic grape juice packs) and I shared a Diet Snapple iced tea with Rich. They also had sodas and water--a big selection of drinks. There was indoor seating adjacent to the cafe, outdoor seating on the upper level (lots of sun up there) and additional seating just down the steps along the waterfront that offered plenty of shade under the trees. That's where we ate, and it was perfect. The cafe on Liberty Island was more crowded, and all of the outdoor seating was full, so we made the right decision eating at Ellis Island.

We treated ourselves to some homemade fudge for dessert (available at the Cafe: buy 4 pieces, get 2 free. Cost: $15.80. Yes, pricey, but the pieces were large, lasted us a long time, and they were worth it. Lots of flavors available, too. We purchased: one plain chocolate, two peanut butter & chocolate, one caramel peanut fudge, one mint chocolate swirl, and one cookies & cream. All delicious!)

The gift shop at Ellis Island is the place to purchase your souvenirs. There's also a gift shop on Liberty Island, but it was awful: it was in a tent with no air conditioning, unbearably hot, and way too crowded. The Ellis Island gift shop was far more pleasant: air-conditioned, had all of the same stuff the Liberty Island shop had, AND it had some unique items relating to the immigrants who came through Ellis Island.

There were the usual gift shop offerings (magnets, ornaments, key chains, mini-Liberty statues, books, t-shirts) but there were also hand-crafted items that were imported from various countries, including Italy, Russia, Ireland and Poland.They also had keepsake pins from these and many other countries, including China, Denmark, Japan, etc. We bought some Christmas ornaments, a t-shirt, and some hand-painted Nesting Dolls made in Russia.

After some shopping, we took the 12:40pm ferry over to Liberty Island. Seeing the Statue of Liberty up close is really a thrill. We didn't purchase tickets to go inside this time, and I was glad, because it was really hot at this point, and the lines to go inside were very long. Instead, we ate some of the fudge while sitting in the shade at the base of the monument, then we walked along the waterfront taking pictures. You have great views of the Manhattan skyline across the water, and the sky was so clear, we were able to see the George Washington bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan bridge, and the Verrazano-Narrows bridge out in the distance. There were lots of sailboats on the water, and other ferries such as the Circle Line and the Staten Island ferry.

We popped into the gift shop and it was like an oven in there, and once I saw that it had the same stuff we'd already seen at Ellis Island, we walked out and headed straight for the ferry back to NJ. The line for the NY ferry was much longer, but once the ferries pull in and the passengers get off, the lines move pretty quickly.[Note: there's a limited selection of Statue of Liberty souvenirs available for purchase on the 2nd level of each ferry, and refreshments for sale such as hot pretzels, chips, and drinks.]

Back at the CRR terminal, we went inside and took a few photos of the old train station. There are also a bunch of brochures there for sights and attractions all across New Jersey, so I grabbed some for future reference. There was also a white teddy bear dressed as the Statue of Liberty that my 9-year-old was eyeing up throughout the day (it was for sale on the ferry, too, but the line for refreshments was long on the trip back) so before we left the CRR, I bought her one. We had a great time, and will definitely do more of these NJ day trips this summer.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Another side of Miley

One of the most visited pages on my blog is the one where I vent about my unfortunate experience with Miley Cyrus' fan website, MileyWorld. Long story--one that I've since learned is all too common with fans around the world--but I had to duke it out with customer service to get a refund for some unauthorized charges after my daughter signed up. It was incredibly frustrating, but ultimately, I was successful.

Even so, the experience soured me on all things Miley. I'd written her off as yet another spoiled, over-exposed, self-centered child star who is destined to burn out at some point.

But now, I feel it's only fair to share a story with you that has made me see her in a better light.

A few months ago, one of the charitable organizations I work with held a fundraiser for a 6-year-old girl with a very aggressive form of cancer. Although she endured nearly a year of chemo and radiation, it became clear a few weeks ago that her battle could not be won. Her parents brought her home, and did everything they could to make her last days comfortable.

It so happens, this girl adores all things Hannah Montana, and is a huge Miley Cyrus fan. This past Monday, Miley Cyrus called the little girl as a surprise and spoke with her for several minutes. She was filming a movie and took some time out in between scenes to let the little girl know that she was thinking of her. They had a great conversation, and the girl was thrilled.

I got word early this morning that the little girl died today. I'm sure Miley knew the girl was gravely ill, but she had no idea when she called that in less than 48 hours, the girl would be gone. Miley managed to make one of this little girl's last days on Earth something really special. For that, I must give her credit. Well done, Miley.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything

Fans of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams are familiar with "the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe & Everything".

It's 42.

My sister Maria happened to remind me of this today, my 42nd birthday.

I wasn't much phased by this year's milestone, until she mentioned that. Now, suddenly, I'm really looking forward to seeing what the next 12 months will bring.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Michael Jackson: Icon or Pervert?

There's quite a brouhaha in the news about the YouTube video posted by New York Congressman Peter King, in which he rails against the media for over-hyping the death of Michael Jackson. King says that with all of the men and women dying in Afghanistan and other conflicts, the media should not be spending quite so much time covering the death of a celebrity who--in King's opinion--is a "pervert" and a "pedophile." He downplays Michael Jackson's contribution to the musical industry ("He did some dancing") and implores people to focus on honoring those who, in his estimation, deserve to be honored: soldiers, teachers, doctors, etc.

I do agree that the media coverage has been excessive, and I fully support King's First Amendment right to freedom of speech on this issue. However, given King's anti-gay rights voting record and overall conservatism, I can't help but wonder about his definition of "pervert," and just how far that extends. Yes, there were plenty of accusations of child molestation against Michael Jackson, and a lawsuit that was settled out of court, but he was never convicted of the crime. To refer to him as a "pedophile" so publicly and so soon after his death, without any consideration for his grieving children or his family, is really bad form.

My own opinion? I loved Michael Jackson's music, but he gave me the creeps in his later years. His face was scary and mutiliated from plastic surgery, and his "eternally-young" baby-voice whisper was difficult to reconcile with his incessant crotch-grabbing when he performed. And King is right about one thing: I would absolutely not trust Michael Jackson along in a room with my own children.

Even so....the man is dead, and there are people who want to mourn his loss. It's not up to Pete King to tell people how they should grieve, or for whom. I know there are lots of people who agree with King 100% on this, and are glad that he spoke up. I do agree that the media coverage is over-the-top, but so is King's enthusiastic tear-down of Michael Jackson.

Transferring songs from iPod to iTunes

It has been almost a week since the hard drive crashed on my Mac, and now I'm in the process of rebuilding my files and getting things adjusted on the new laptop. One of the things that is presenting a challenge is the fact that my iTunes library got wiped out on the old laptop, and Apple doesn't allow you to transfer all of your data from the iPod to the iTunes library. If you're not careful, the empty iTunes library on the new computer will overwrite your iPod and wipe everything out. Not good.

Fortunately, I have a newer iPod (an iTouch) so it didn't automatically sync when I plugged it into the new laptop. I was able to change the option in "Summary" to "Manually manage songs" so that, for the time being, I don't have to worry about losing the stuff on my iPod.

Apple makes it easy to transfer over your iTunes purchases, but because of the restricted format that iTunes used to use for songs, I purchased most of them through Amazon. It also doesn't allow you to transfer over any songs you've burned off of discs that you own. I understand that they're blocking this transfer from iPod to computer because they want to prevent piracy...otherwise, you could take a friend's iPod, hook it up to your computer, and download all of their stuff for free.

Of course, this doesn't help someone like me, who is just trying to do a data recovery due to a hard drive mishap.

Fortunately, there are several third-party programs available for purchase that can solve the problem. There's a list of them here on the Apple support website: Transferring Music from iPod to Computer. I'm going to scroll through them and see which one does what I need it to do, and then give it a try.

They certainly don't make things easy, do they?

UPDATE: I purchased the iPodRip software for $19.95, and it was money well spent. It didn't transfer over my photos and apps, but I had those backed up anyway. It transferred over all of my music, playlists, and movies. Best twenty bucks I ever spent!

Saturday, July 4, 2009


When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

So said our nation's forefathers in the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776.

A couple of days ago, my laptop's hard drive suddenly decided to declare its own independence, and crashed while I was in the middle of writing a blog post. Although I had done a partial backup of files back in mid-May, everything else I've done since then--including all of the freelance work I've done for a client I picked up at the end of May, recent photos, Flip videos, not to mention the latest revisions for my novel--gone.

I can try to have a professional data recovery company retrieve the files, but it would be costly--upwards of $500. I don't think it's worth it. I've always believed that "everything happens for a reason", and so when it comes to all of those files that are gone, I suppose it was meant to be so.

Things happen for a reason. We can't control these situations, but we can control how we react to them.

I choose to let go, and to move forward without looking back.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Berry Scones and Homemade Butter

Last Saturday, we watched Tyler's Ultimate on the Food Network, and once again, chef Tyler Florence made our mouths water with his recipes. One of the things he made in this episode was Berry Scones with Orange Honey Butter, and they looked so good, I knew we had to try them.

The one thing he did during the episode that really intrigued me was when he made butter from scratch in the food processor. Wow--I didn't realize you could do that! All it takes is a quart of heavy cream, whipped until the cream separates into solids (butter) and liquid (buttermilk).

In the recipe, he also adds a pinch of salt, some orange zest and some honey to flavor the butter. We did make the recipe as written, and the scones and orange-honey butter turned out FANTASTIC.

However, the kids also wanted to see if they could make good ole salted butter, so we tried that afterwards. All it took was a quart of heavy cream and about 2 teaspoons of salt. At first, the cream turns into whipped cream, but you have to be patient and wait until it completely breaks down and separates. Tyler said it would take about 4 minutes, but my processor must be a lot less powerful than his, because it took closer to 9 minutes. Once everything separated, we took the butter solids out and drained it on some cheesecloth (the buttermilk in the salted version is icky so we dumped it).

Tomorrow morning, we'll have the scones with the orange-honey butter, and my picky 9-year-old will have a bagel with homemade salted butter. If you're looking for a fun, quick project in the kitchen with kids, making butter is a good one to try.

NOTE: More photos to I was uploading additional photos for this blog post, my laptop's hard drive crashed and died. R.I.P. little MacBook.

Secondhand Lions: A Brief Movie Review

Ever seen this one?

It's from 2003, and stars Haley Joel Osmet (only slightly more grown up than his "I see dead people" days), Kyra Sedgwick, Michael Caine, and Robert Duvall.

What a gem of a movie this is. It's rated PG and is one of those films that will definitely appeal to a wide audience.

The story is set in the 1960s, and is about a boy with a flighty single mom who just shows up at the Texas homestead of her eccentric old uncles and drops the kid off for the summer. The uncles have led a mysterious life, having disappeared from their community for over 40 years, before returning a few years prior to the start of the story. Rumors swirl that the grumpy men have millions of dollars--obtained through nefarious means, no doubt--stashed away somewhere, and before she leaves, the mother instructs the boy to figure out where the money is so that they can steal some.

Haley Joel Osmet does a great job as Walter, but it is the uncles that steal the movie. Right away, the boy discovers clues that Uncle Hub (Robert Duvall) has led an adventurous life, and as the uncles warm up to the idea of having a young boy in their midst, Uncle Garth (Michael Caine--yes, a Brit playing a Texan) secretly starts to tell young Walter the incredible story of where they were for those 40 years.

The stories are so fantastical, it's unclear whether or not they're even true, but in the course of the movie, the boy learns that there are some things a person needs to believe in, whether they're true or not.

I loved this movie.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

CNN anchor drops the big scoop on Michael Jackson

I cannot believe what I saw on CNN tonight. During their early coverage of Michael Jackson's sudden and untimely death, the CNN anchor had Brian Oxman, Jackson Family Attorney/Spokesman, on the phone, live from LA Medical Center.

During the interview, Oxman dropped a huge bombshell, claiming that Michael Jackson's death was a result of being overmedicated by the people surrounding him. He drew direct comparisons with Anna Nicole Smith's wrongful death, and said that the family would be looking for answers because they believed that the folks medicating Michael needed to be held responsible.

Incredibly, the anchor didn't ask him any probing follow-up questions, preferring to go instead to entertainment reporter AJ Hammer for his take on things.


She missed an incredible journalistic opportunity, and if I were in charge at CNN, she'd be fired right now.

RIP Farrah Fawcett

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Happy Father's Day to Dads of every variety

For all of you who are Dads to babies of the human and canine* variety, I wish you a very Happy Father's Day today.

I wish my Dad was still here, but since he's not, I'll be spending the day appreciating what a good father my girls have. It's difficult enough choosing a good husband, but the fact that I ended up finding a great Dad for my girls at the same time makes me feel truly blessed.

I also have a great appreciation for my friends who are single moms, and find themselves filling the role of Dad more often than they had ever planned to. This is their day, too.

Happy Father's Day, one and all!

*Yes, Dog Dads do deserve their due. There's really no such thing as a "Cat Dad" because cats rule their humans, not the other way around.

Protesters in Iran

I'm waiting up into the wee hours because I have to pick up my daughter at 1:15am, and watching the coverage of the protests in Iran. My heart goes out to the people there, bravely speaking out against the tyranny of their rigged elections.

There is blood being spilled on the streets of Iran at this very moment, and the images being broadcast are chilling. Police officers--authority figures who should represent safety and well-being--are shooting innocent bystanders, beating people, knocking down doors and arresting the injured right in their hospital beds.

The violence is upsetting and difficult to watch, yet I am so proud of those who are engaging in this uprising, taking a stand and fighting for what is right. It's an incredible time in Iran's history, and I pray that this does not spill over into a global crisis.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Summer Reading

My nightstand overfloweth!

Yes, I admit it, I'm a book hound. I can't help myself. Even when I have a pile of books waiting to be read, I still can't resist browsing every bookstore I pass.

The pile on the nightstand next to my bed has now reached the bottom of the lampshade that also resides there, which is the benchmark that tells me it's time to get cracking and start plowing through some of these.

Unless I get totally engrossed in a story--in which case, I finish the book in a day or two--I usually wind up toggling between two different books, depending on my mood. Here are the books I have piled up, in the order that I intend to read them:

Stern Men by Elizabeth Gilbert
This was the novel she wrote before Eat, Pray, Love (which I absolutely adored). The story takes place off the coast of Maine and centers around the long-standing feud between two groups of local lobstermen. The book's heroine, Ruth Thomas, sounds like the type of strong-willed female character that I enjoy reading about, so I have high hopes for this one.

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
I've heard so much buzz about this book of humorous essays, but I confess, I've never read any of Sedaris' stuff. I like essay compilations because they're the type of books you can put down for a few days and then pick up again and not be totally lost.

A Year On Ladybug Farm by Donna Ball
This is a novel about three middle-aged women who are best friends, each looking to make a big change in their lives. They decide to buy a fixer-upper mansion in Georgia, and spend a year renovating the place together. I read a review of this book in People magazine and it made me want to go out and buy it. I started reading it a few weeks ago but had trouble getting into it, so I set it aside and plan to give it another chance.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
There's a blurb from Elizabeth Gilbert on the front recommending this novel, but that wasn't quite enough to get me to purchase it when I first saw it in the store. Then, my sister-in-law asked me if I'd read it and said that she enjoyed it very much, so she loaned me her copy. It takes place in 1946 on the island of Guernsey during the German Occupation, so I'm not sure how this one will be, but I'm willing to give it a whirl.

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler
I'm a huge Jane Austen fan, and so is my eldest daughter, so we couldn't resist picking this one up. She's going to read it first and then it'll be my turn!

Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation by Cokie Roberts
The only non-fiction book in the bunch, which is unusual for me, because I love reading non-fiction. This one offers insight into the lives of exceptional women from our country's history, including Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, Sacagawea, Elizabeth Seton and Martha Washington. It reminds me of another book I read, First Mothers by Bonnie Angelo, which was a fascinating look at the lives and personalities of the mothers whose sons went on to become the President of the United States.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Joels Split

I read this morning that Billy Joel and his wife Katie Lee Joel are separating after 5 years of marriage.

Normally, when I hear about the break-up of a marriage, I always feel a sense of sadness--but not this time.

Billy Joel was 54 when he married a 23-year-old Katie...she was just five years older than Alexa Ray Joel, Billy's daughter.

A few years ago, I saw the Joels appear on Oprah (Katie was showing off her home and promoting her new cookbook), and seeing them together gave me the creeps. Katie is so young and so pretty, and the sight of her with someone 32 years her senior was, in a word, nauseating. To his credit, Billy did appear to be slightly embarrassed as he sat there with this gorgeous fetus by his side. He has been through quite a bit in his 60 years of life, and every bit of it shows on his face.

The end of a marriage is not something to be celebrated, but I can't help but be relieved in this case.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Another teenager in the house!

Happy 13th Birthday to my beautiful Amy. You are such a joy to me and Daddy!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

New novel from Richard Bach!


Richard Bach, one of my favorite authors (Illusions, The Ferret Chronicles, The Bridge Across Forever, One) has a new novel coming in September: Hypnotizing Maria. Here's the summary from the publisher, Hampton Road Publishing:

Flight instructor Jamie Forbes guides a woman to landing her plane safely after her husband loses consciousness, then flies on to his own destination unimpressed by his act...flight instructors guide students every day.

Only after she tells reporters that a stranger appeared in an airplane alongside hers and hypnotized her into landing, and after he meets his own guiding stranger does he solve the bigger mystery: how each of us creates, step by step, what seems to be the solid world around us.

The best mysteries are the ones whose answers lie in front of us, in plain sight.

The best solutions are those moments when all of a sudden we realize what we've known all along.

The book is short--only 160 pages--so it's inevitable that I'll read it in one sitting and then have another long wait until Bach gets around to publishing something else. I wish the author was a bit less reclusive and wrote more, but then, that's part of the enigma that is Richard Bach.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Support BAMSS Theatre Works!

One of my professors from my old college days is conducting a Theatre Workshop for adults and children in Brooklyn, NY this summer. Ben Harney is a Tony-award winning actor (he won Best Actor with the original cast of Dreamgirls) and he is FANTASTIC.  His acting class was one of the most memorable experiences from my school years.   Please check out his website:  

To make a donation to the program: BAMSS Theatre Works, PO Box 30063, Brooklyn, NY 11203. 


Sunday, May 31, 2009

Losing it

Weight, that is.

The eternal struggle for most folks, it seems: losing those stubborn 10 or 20 pounds. Now that swimsuit and shorts weather is upon is (hello...did Spring ever bother showing up?) all of my magazines are splashed with photos of celebs who lost weight and look enviable in their little bikinis.

Of course, all their cellulite and wrinkles have been airbrushed, so they look all the more perfect.

If you read the articles on how they managed to drop the weight, the answer is the same: lots of exercise, hardly any carbs, lots of water, and small portions. It's no mystery, just takes will power and the ability to shun pasta--something which completely goes against my Italian DNA.

I know what I need to do, but I hate exercise and I love risotto. Stalemate.

I finally decided to give in, accept the new, squishier me, and buy some nice "fat" clothes. I have tons of beautiful stuff for summer, but none of it fits. I'd been trying to make due with sweatpants and such, but you can't wear things like that when it's 82 degrees outside.

So, I packed up all of my teeny summer things that used to fit me, and replaced them with a few well-chosen pieces in a slightly larger, far more comfortable size. It's so much easier to get dressed now, and looking into my closet does not send me into a shame spiral.

The interesting part? Now that I've given in and adjusted my outlook, I'm losing weight without even trying. It's amazing how much a positive attitude can help. Funny how that works.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

No Touch Monkey!

That's the title for the book I'm reading at the moment: "No Touch Monkey! And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late" by Ayun Halliday. It's a funny, irreverent travel memoir that details the good, the bad, and the ugly (not to mention stinky) reality of the "travel the world on a shoestring" fantasy.

If you've ever glamorized the idea of traveling the globe with nothing more than a backpack of belongings and a phrasebook in your pocket, you ought to read this book first.

I've always wondered what it would have been like to take a year off after college and do some solo traveling--looking back with some measure of regret at the adventures I could have had if only I'd been more daring. Every time I read through a travel guide to some far off place I've never been, I can't help thinking, "Gee, you know, I could have gone there in my youth, if only I had planned things better."

Ayun Halliday's unflinching look at the reality of this kind of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants travel has given me closure on that whole "what if" scenario. This is the first travel book I've ever read that had me thinking, "Yikes, better her than me" rather than "I wish that had been me." Her stories are told with humor, wit, and despite some harrowing moments--no regrets.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Giving in to Technology

In just a few days, I will be doing something I thought I would never do: I'm getting a Blackberry.

I've resisted the pressure to get one for a long time now. My husband has one for work, and while it certainly came in handy two years ago when we were overseas and my father fell seriously ill, I had always vowed that I never wanted to possess a device that made me quite that accessible.

As it is, I hardly ever use my cell phone. After years of car rides set to a Barney soundtrack or the tinny strains of Laurie Berkner singing about bumblebees, I relish the opportunity to have complete silence when I'm in the car. If my phone rings while I'm driving, I ignore it unless it's the school nurse calling about one of my kids. Anyone else can wait until I get to my destination for me to call them back. And yes, I do have bluetooth capability, but I don't care--I don't want to have a conversation while I'm negotiating the roads of NJ--driving is dangerous enough here without unnecessary distractions.

So, why the Blackberry now? Because work has gotten busy to the point where it never fails: the minute I step away from my desk, something urgent needs my immediate attention. I used to think the Blackberry would hinder my freedom, but in reality, it will allow me to unchain myself from my desk and respond to emails regardless of where I am. So, I can run out to the grocery store, and not worry about what crisis may be waiting for me back home.

And did I mention....I'm getting a pink one!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Carpe Diem

That means "Seize the Day", and it's what I've been doing for the past few weeks, which is why the blog posts have been few and far between.

I took on a freelance job with a new client, and it has been keeping me a lot busier than I'd anticipated. However, the work is also much more interesting and gratifying than I thought it would be. I've been writing every single day--thousands of words, typically--and I've wondered more than once why it is I can't seem to put forth this kind of effort on polishing up my own novel.

The thing is, I'm enjoying this work, and ultimately, that's what counts. Yes, I want to get the novel finished so that I can sub it, but I've decided to enjoy the present and not stress myself out over the future; to embrace the new path that my writing life has taken. I'm going to seize the day and let the rest unfold in the time frame that it's meant to.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Mathematics of War

The Mathematics of War

I found this video on, and it's definitely worth viewing when you have a moment. A physicist and his team compiled data on various wars, and have come up with an algorithm that can track the ebbs and flows of a conflict. Interesting stuff.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

A new low

Actress Brooke Shields is understandably livid at the National Enquirer, which sent two reporters to the assisted living facility where her mother is staying. The reporters allegedly signed out Teri Shields, who is said to be suffering from dementia, and took her to a nearby restaurant to interview her.

This is a new low in tabloid journalism. How could those reporters have possibly thought it would be okay to do that? They crossed the line, and should be fired immediately. But no, somehow I suspect that they'll be praised for their ingenuity and told to be more careful not to get caught next time.

I'm not sure what recourse Brooke Shields has in this instance--perhaps she can charge them with attempted kidnapping?--but I hope she pursues this to the fullest extent of the law.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Grey's Anatomy Season Finale: Disturbing and Sad

I was really looking forward to tonight's season finale of Grey's Anatomy. It is one of my "guilty pleasures" and I enjoy watching it after a long day's work. I had heard that this episode was going to be a "tear-jerker", but I didn't end up shedding a single, salty droplet.

I've already grown accustomed to the gory aspects of the show, so the spurting blood and mincemeat face on the "John Doe" patient wasn't as jarring as one might expect. I knew almost immediately that it was George, which I suppose took most of the suspense away from the episode. By the time the revealed the big "twist" I had already resigned myself to the fact that George was not long for the world. T.R. Knights much-publicized fight to be released from his contract this year didn't help matters, either.

The Lexi/Sloane storyline is getting trite and boring already. Part of Mark Sloane's appeal was his confidence and his swagger, and now he's reduced to a whiny, lovestruck puppy. Now that Meredith has finally started showing some relationship maturity, I suppose they're having her pass the "dark and twisty and not ready to commit" torch to her little sister. Ugh...been there, done that....the viewers deserve better. As for Derek and Meredith's "post it note" wedding, I thought it was cute but anti-climactic and a bit of a gyp after all these years. Can't anyone just be happy on this show?

Alex Karev did a great job in this episode: the character's range of emotions from sadness to fear to frustration to elation to despair were subtle and deftly executed. In contrast, Bailey's overwrought scene with the Chief was too over-the-top and self-indulgent. Didn't like it.

Overall, I found this episode to be disturbing. There were some brief moments with Christina and Owen that were fun to watch, but the rest of it was heart-wrenching and sad. The bad outweighed the good in this finale; when the credits rolled, instead of being excited for the start of next season, I was just glad the episode was over.

I don't think that was the reaction Shonda Rimes was looking for. I hope they get their act together over the summer and deliver a more emotionally-satisfying season opener.

Monday, May 4, 2009


My youngest daughter--"my baby"--turned 9 today.

These pictures are from a few years ago, but no matter how big she gets, THIS is how I'll always see her.

Happy Birthday, Cathy!

Saturday, April 25, 2009

A perfect summer April?

After several weeks of chilly temperatures and soaking rains, we finally had a glorious day filled with sunshine. It hit 92F here in the middle of the afternoon--a tantalizing taste of summer, smack dab in the middle of spring.

Just before dinner, as the sun waned and temperatures cooled a bit, I sat outside on the deck to drink it all in. My new windchimes--a gift from one of my students--filled the air with music every time a soft breeze blew through. There were birds singing (and probably celebrating that I finally got around to re-filling the feeders), and bees buzzing over my head en route to the fragrant pink blooms of our flowering cherry tree.

It was one of those perfect, serene moments--one that I tried to capture as a snapshot in my mind, so that I can hark back to it when life gets crazy and stressful.

Life is good.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Dreamgirls x 2


Jennifer Hudson, in concert in Atlanta, with special guest Jennifer Holliday, tearing up the stage with "And I'm Telling You, I'm Not Going."

Jennifer Holliday was in the original cast of Dreamgirls on Broadway in 1982. She's still got it!

Friday, April 17, 2009

A laundry mishap with a happy ending

Yesterday, I discovered that my 2GB Attache' flash drive--the one that contains important backups for my laptop--accidentally took a little trip through the washing machine AND the dryer (yes, the highest heat/Cotton setting).

I left it out on my desk overnight and hoped for the best. This morning, I plugged it in, and all of the data is still there, perfectly accessible. Whew!

Thank you, Laundry Gods, for sparing my flash drive.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy Easter from Me & Bubba

I recently received this massive chocolate bunny (3-feet-tall, 19.4 pounds) from a friend, right in time for Easter. One of my daughters immediately dubbed him "Bubba the Bunny." We'll be bringing Bubba to Easter dinner with us, where he will be the star attraction come dessert time.

Wishing you all a Happy and Blessed Easter today. I hope your day is filled with love, celebrating and LOTS of chocolate, just like mine!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Book review: Say the Word by Jeannine Garsee

Every once in a very long while, a book will come along that captures my attention, to the point where I cannot put it down until I finish it. No matter how long a day it has been, no matter how tired I am, I just can't go to bed until I read the final chapter and see how it all wraps up. This happened with Stephen King's The Stand, a couple of the Harry Potter books, The DaVinci Code, Twilight, and now, with Say the Word.

This is a YA novel about Shawna Gallagher, a privileged 17-year-old whose world is rocked by a sudden phone call: her estranged mother, who destroyed their family when she left to be with another woman, has had a serious stroke. Shawna reluctantly goes to her mother's deathbed and witnesses her final moments. Afterwards, as Shawna struggles to cope with the loss, its impact on her own life, and the devastating effect it has on the lives of her mother's new family, she begins hearing her mother's voice. This was an intriguing plot device that worked well, and helped the mother to remain a vital and pivotal character throughout the book, even though she dies within the first few chapters. Throughout the rest of the book, Shawna slowly pieces together the complex and surprising motivations that led her mother to give up everything for a chance at happiness.

In the process, Shawna comes into her own, learning more about herself, her dreams, and her own motivations. The thing I liked most about the book was the way Shawna's character develops throughout the story. She is far from perfect, and there are times when you want to reach through the pages and throttle her, but her actions are always realistic and understandable. She is certainly flawed, but you can't help rooting for her.

This book rises above the usual teen-fluff that is so rampant in YA these days, because it tackles the very real and current controversy surrounding the battle for equal rights for homosexuals. Garsee does not shy away from presenting an unflinching portrait of this issue, including the ugliness of prejudice and the stigma that is still so prevalent for those in homosexual relationships.

You'll find underage drinking, sexual situations, and adult themes in this book, so I wouldn't recommend it for tweens or very young teens, but high school-aged girls--and their mothers--will enjoy reading about Shawna and her coming-of-age story. It starts as a quest for Shawna to finally understand and forgive her mother, and evolves into a fascinating and poignant journey of self-discovery.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

No foolin'

Today is April Fool's Day, my least favorite day of the entire year.

What is it about today that makes otherwise sane human beings think they are justified in acting like thoughtless idiots?

Silliness is one thing: Google released its CADIE "Artificial Intelligence" program at 11:59:59 last night. It's a program that, among other things, promises to read and respond to emails on your behalf. The first example of how Google AutoPilot works is that when you receive one of those Nigerian pyramid scam emails, it replies by helpfully providing your bank account information, social security number, and your mother's maiden name. Cute.

It's the "practical joker" that ruins this day...the "friend" who has a co-worker call you, pretending to be someone from your credit card company, informing you of thousands of dollars in unauthorized charges that have hit your account. Yeah, that's real funny.

Ugh...a perfect day to unplug the phone and stay in bed, if you ask me.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Help the Bonobos Fight the Flu!

Terrible news: there's been a flu outbreak at the Lola Ya Bonobo sanctuary. It is located in the Congo in Africa, and is a safe haven for the intelligent and beautiful Bonobo ape.

They've been hit hard by the flu, and nearly a dozen apes have died already. They are short on funds and need support in order to treat these sweet and gentle creatures. If you can help in any way with a monetary donation--$5, $10, whatever you can spare--please do.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Cruise Day 4: Defying Death in Labadee!

We'd been to Labadee before, during our cruise on Celebrity last February, so we knew what to expect in terms of the horrendous tendering process. When you take the elevators down to the tendering gangway on Deck 1, the doors open and you are faced with an angry mob of people barking at you to get to the back of the line...IF you can squeeze your sorry ass back there past said angry mob.

On the plus side: Celebrity & Royal Caribbean are in the process of building a dock on this private section of Haiti, so that tendering will soon be a thing of the past.

It was more of a pain to get beach towels this time around. When we took RCCL in August, all we had to do was tell our stateroom attendant how many towels we needed for the following day, and they were waiting for us in our stateroom when we turned in for the night. This time, Rich had to go up to the pool deck and sign out pool towels. I'm not sure why they changed this policy, but it was just another little annoyance (like the lack of chocolates on your pillow at bedtime and the overworked room attendants).

We left for early Labadee, so tendering wasn't too bad this time around. We had a couple of hours to kill before our excursion, so we spent some time relaxing on the beach. Since we got there early, we were able to snag some prime beach chairs.

Here's a video panorama...about midway through, you can see the construction cranes working at the site where the new dock will be:

Christina and I booked the Dragon's Breath Zipline excursion, and I was already having second thoughts. It's touted as the longest zip line over water: 500 feet high--that's the height of two average ferris wheels stacked one on top of another--and 2,600 feet long, the equivalent of 65 Greyhound buses lined up end to end.

In the end, it was a thrilling experience, and one that I would absolutely do again in a heartbeat!

It really helped that we met up with a great guy named Larry, one of our fellow passengers on the Explorer. He was outgoing, funny, and really helped me to chill out and relax about the zipline. He'd done it before, and said it was no biggie, and for some reason, his reassurances helped to calm my nerves. (He also took the pics you see here from our excursion, since we didn't bring our camera along with us to the zipline.)

They start by asking you to step on a scale--not exactly my favorite activity during a cruise vacation--to see what weight category you fall into. The tension on the zip lines are adjusted based on your weight, so that you don't go too fast or too slow.

There was quite a strong headwind that day, so the minimum weight requirement was raised from 75lbs to 100lbs. I had no trouble with that. ;)

The instructors fitted us with harnesses and took us to a mini-course to get us used to the feel of zipline. This was a really smart move. The elevated platform was a bit scary, but if you freaked out here, there's no way you could do the main zipline. They taught us the three positions to use (starfish--for when you have a tailwind and want to slow down, torpedo--for when you have a headwind and want to speed up, and chair--a standard sitting up position). Because it was windy and some folks were getting stuck before the finish line and had to be towed to the end, they encouraged us to use the torpedo position. This entails laying back, almost completely horizontal, with your arms across your chest like a mummy and your toes pointing forward. Good lord--it felt like being a corpse. You also had the option of holding onto the straps of the harness, which I did, and that felt much more secure.

Of course, Larry did the "mummy" position and flew down that practice zipline like he was shot out of a cannon. Crazy man! He loved it.

Christina and I managed to survive the mini-course, so we loaded into the jeep and headed for the big one. The ride up the mountain was scarier than the actual zipline. We saw overturned jeeps, men with rifles, and bounced around on the potholed roads like kernels of popcorn the entire way up.

Once we got to the top and waited our turn on the 500-foot-high platform, I felt strangely calm about the whole thing. The finish was so far away, we couldn't even see it. Christina and I were right on the cusp of the lowest weight category and the next one up, so we were able to ride the zipline side by side, which was great.

The view from the top of the platform--it's a LONG way down!

Larry went first, naturally, did his torpedo thing, and flew down the line like a pro. One scary moment: they warned us that the winds were so strong, they could turn you sideways, making it necessary to pull on the straps to adjust yourself. Larry did go almost completely sideways at one point, because he was in the "mummy" position. I kept my hands on the straps, and when I started twisting sideways about halfway down, I was able to adjust much faster.

The ride itself was over within about a minute. They had guys waiting at the bottom to help catch you and get you out of the harness safely.

Christina and I loved it. Here's a photo of Chris at the can see me peeking over on the left:

Afterwards, we were all smiles:
Thumbs up after surviving the zipline with our buddy, Larry

We met up with Rich and the girls to have lunch (a nice buffet BBQ spread) and spent the rest of the day bumming around on the beach. The hammocks were so relaxing!

It was a great day. Back at the ship, we enjoyed some Name That Tune before dinner (It was supervised by Darryl, one of the cruise entertainment staff who was absolutely hilarious. No matter the activity, if he's hosting it--go! You won't be sorry!!)

Next up: Samana in the Dominican Republic. We also had to turn our clocks ahead one hour before going to bed that night.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Cruise Day 3: Family Time

After getting lots of relaxing in yesterday, we decided to try participating in more activities on our second at sea day. The weather outside was gradually warming up, and more folks were out on the pool deck so the ship was less crowded.

Rich and I had already booked dinner at Portofino's--just the two of us--so we tried to make this day about "family time" since we wouldn't be with the kids later in the evenign. We went to an Arts & Crafts class and made a cute seashell and mother-of-pearl key chain. The two ladies leading the class were very nice, and provided all of the materials and instructions. It was a great way to pass the time, and we each came away with a nice keychain as a souvenir.

We had lunch at Johnny Rockets for the first time. We had to wait awhile for a table, because it was still a bit too windy to sit at one of the outside tables. While the jukeboxes on the table and the festive atmosphere were fun, the food was really nothing special. The kids loved the milkshakes, but the burgers were just so-so. Still, I was glad we went so that we could finally see what the fuss was all about. On future cruises, Johnny Rockets won't be considered a "must do" activity.

Rich and I checked the casino at one point, but the chain smokers that flock there make it unbearable. The place reeks, and the payouts were few and far between.

In the evening, we checked out the pre-dinner show, but found the "dynamic entertainer" to be a bit cheesy and boring. (Think David Copperfield-type fog machine/strobe light production values and some guy with three shirt buttons unbuttoned sitting at a piano). After making sure the kids were settled in for dinner at the Windjammer, we headed to Portofino's.

One of the things you pay extra for at Portofino's is the ambience. Yes, it is certainly quieter and more intimate than the Main Diningroom, and the presentation of the food is definitely kicked up a notch. Still, I found the service to be lacking, and the pace excruciatingly slow. I enjoy a relaxing meal, and not being rushed between courses, but this was ridiculous. Our meal took two and a half hours, with long gaps of time when we didn't see our server or his assistant. Definitely a disappointment, and not as fine a dining experience as I've had at other specialty restaurants on other cruise lines.

We skipped the late comedy show because we didn't find the comedian that funny at the welcome aboard show. Instead, we headed to the champagne bar and had a nightcap, which was a nice way to end the evening.

I was already getting nervous, thinking about tomorrow's adventure in Labadee, Haiti, where I'd agreed to do the zipline excursion with my daughter. It's the highest and longest zipline over a body of water...what the heck was I thinking??