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.