Monday, December 30, 2013

The Secret Life of You-Know-Who

Patty here

Last Saturday night, I saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a film based on the short story by James Thurber. The movie was nothing like Thurber's short fiction I remember reading many years ago. I wondered if my recall powers might be hazy, so the following morning I searched my bookcase for The Thurber Carnival, First Modern Library Edition 1957, and reread the story. As it turns out, “very loosely based” might be a better description.

Thurber writes an amusing tale, first published in The New Yorker on March 18, 1939, featuring a somewhat befuddled and henpecked husband who daydreams about heroic adventures while his wife complains about his driving and lectures him about the need to wear overshoes. If you don't remember the story, you might remember the churning machines of his fantasies: “ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa.”

The 2013 Ben Stiller version is a romantic comedy that made me laugh loud and often. Several running gags paid off in hilarious and satisfying ways. The cinematography was exquisite and the credits, both before and after the film, were fresh and creative. Kristen Wiig is always wonderfully watchable. Sean Penn’s cameo as the rugged and elusive photographer is perfect. Ben Stiller's priceless scene in the bar in Iceland is a nod to Mitty’s fantasies in the Thurber story.

In Stiller's film, Walter Mitty is a negative asset manager for Life Magazine. i.e., the caretaker of photo negatives from iconic photographs that have graced the covers of the magazine, a job he has held for sixteen years. He isn’t exactly living a life of quiet desperation. He’s a daydreamer but he's good at his job. He has close relationships with his mother, sister and at least one coworker. The inciting incident forces Walter to choose between fantasy and reality.

Because we're nearing the eve of a new year, often a time of reflection, I began to consider Walter’s dilemma and wondered: Am I harboring dreams I’ve never acted on, like climbing Mt. Everest, sailing to Australia on a tramp steamer. joining the circus or dancing the samba dressed as an archangel in the Carnaval parade in Rio de Janeiro?

Okay, so cross that one off the list. I’ve had many interesting experiences in my life but this film had me revisiting my bucket list. What about you? Is there anything you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t done yet? Is 2014 the year?


Friday, December 27, 2013

Boxing Day Tales

from Jacqueline

A longish essay, just to give you fair warning – but look at it this way, reading will help burn off those holiday calories.

At time of writing, it is early on Boxing Day.  If you’re pretty much anywhere in what is known as the “Commonwealth” – former territories of the old British Empire – you will be celebrating Boxing Day, unless of course you're in Australasia, where of course it was yesterday, as opposed to tomorrow, when this post will be published (which for readers is today ...). I tell you, that Old Father Time has the last laugh doesn't he?  Give it another few days and he'll be waving his scythe again while we get to grips with resolutions and goals, and a swaddled 2014 wriggles in the old boy's arms.

Boxing Day is probably one of the most sensible holidays of the year – indeed, I've never quite become used to the fact that, in America, once Christmas Day is over, that’s it, Christmas is done.  What happened to the twelve days of Christmas?  Don’t you know that taking down your tree before January 6th is unlucky?  Mind you, Americans tend to put up their Christmas trees really rather early. 

 I remember, at my first job after coming to live in America, I claimed Boxing Day as a cultural holiday – which of course we were allowed to do at the company where I worked, so I milked that one for what it was worth.  Indeed the best thing about Christmas is Boxing Day, in my estimation.

People here often ask me about Boxing Day – what is it?  What does it mean?  Well, there are several “meanings” attached to it, but I can tell you right now, if someone tells you it’s the day when all the boxes the gifts came in are disposed of – they’re wrong. It goes back to days of yore – indeed, beyond yore!  Here are two explanations, and most people adhere to the second.

Apparently, it’s been pretty much agreed by scientists (with particular evidence offered by astronomers who know when big stars have been along to grab the attention of everyone from shepherds to kings), that Jesus was born in the month we now call September.  There was no Christmas in December.  However, throughout much of northern Europe, there was a great celebration known as Saturnalia.  People came together to light fires which they believed would strengthen the sun – it was the time of year when the sun was winter-low in the sky and only visible for a few hours each day.  They worshipped the evergreen because it remained fresh all year and never lost its leaves, a sign of everlasting life. In Britain the most revered of evergreens was the yew tree, and it was under a yew tree that those people – who were called “pagan” by early Christians – worshipped.  The feast of Saturnalia was a big event – people brought out the dried and stored fruits of summer past to feast upon, along with roasted pig and wild turkey, that sort of thing – and it was the foods stored since summer that reminded them of the abundance of the passing year as they petitioned for a good harvest in the year  ahead.  The second day of the feast of Saturnalia was a day of sports and dancing, including contact sports (such as boxing?).  It was a day of relief after all that serious stuff about the sun coming up again.

 Then along came the Christians, who were pretty savvy marketers.  They had it down long before, say, Pottery Barn, that if you want to be successful, you set up shop in the same location as the other successful shops.  So the Christians saw these people who they wanted to convert and rather than trying to draw them to another location, well, they just built their churches right next to the yew tree where everyone met to worship the natural world.  And they decided to move their celebrations too – so Christmas became late December.  Easter – my most favorite holy day – took the place of festivals to welcome the sun coming back again and the crops beginning to break through, with the egg representing new life.  The "new life" story sat well alongside the story of the Resurrection, so it was again co-opted to bring a few more converts on board.  Think of these things when you dispose of your evergreen tree, or when you go shopping for one of these in a few months time.

And if you go to any ancient church in Britain today, you will see a yew tree right next to it – they live for thousands of years, and worshippers were on the spot long before the first stone was laid to build a church.

Apart from Boxing Day being the day of contact sports and much joyous partying after lighting all those fires, there is also another meaning attached to Boxing Day.  Even when I was a kid, people referred to a seasonal gift as a “Christmas Box” – especially when that gift was a monetary offering given to another who performed a service throughout the year.  You gave a “Christmas Box” to the milkman, the postman, the coalman, to the paper boy, the chimney sweep – they all had their Christmas Box, perhaps a few pennies, or shillings pressed into a hand bearing the lines and wear of hard toil.  And it was on the day after Christmas that the lord of the manor visited his villagers, to give them a little something – a gift of coin, or food, but nothing from Harrods, though any monetary gift was in time for ye old new year sales!  It was also a day when alms boxes in the church were opened and the contents distributed to the poor and needy.  Thus, it became known as Boxing Day, but with a tipping of the hat to that day of old, when people made merry under the old yew tree, after pleading for a bit more sun.

 I remember it as the day when all the family descended upon us.  We might have had a few family members for Christmas Day, but on Boxing Day there was an onslaught of relatives – and games aplenty, descending into contact sports only when one of the cousins tried to commandeer a toy everyone else wanted to play with, then it should have been renamed “Mayhem, Blood and Tears Day.”  Or,  given the number sitting down at the dining table (in the case of the kids, at my father’s wallpapering trestles draped with sheets and spread out in the living room), it could have been, “You won’t get your dinner on a plate because we've run out of china day, but the biscuit tin lid will have to do."

 There were two highlights of the day for me.  The first was early, before the relatives came rattling down our bumpy road, at least two families to a car, with kids waving out the windows and parents tired already after the long drive from London.  I would walk up the lane to stand outside the Duke of Kent pub in our little hamlet, where the Boxing Day hunt gathered for a stirrup cup before taking off across frost-dusted fields in pursuit of the fox.  Generally, foxes are way too canny to be caught.  I don’t like fox-hunting, and I subscribe to the maxim that the hunt represents the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible – but I do love to see the Hunt in full color, strange as that might seem.  

Many of the ladies rode side-saddle, and I loved watching them in their elegant black skirts (known as “aprons”) and their little bowler hats with a veil drawn down.  I wasn’t born in the dark ages by any means, but this was the country, and those old habits – literally – died hard.

The second  highlight of the day, for me, was Boxing Day tea, when my mother set the Tunis Cake on the table, along with rich fruit Christmas Cake.  I defy anyone to actually eat Christmas cake on Christmas Day.

 Especially if you’ve already had Christmas pudding ….

 I don’t know why we had Tunis Cake on Boxing Day, but I loved it.  A Tunis Cake is basically a plain Madeira Cake – a bit like the American pound cake – covered in a thick layer of chocolate and decorated with small oranges, pears and apples made from marzipan. I love marzipan. I love it more than the cake part of Christmas cake (a rich fruit cake – remember the dried fruits brought out for the feast of Saturnalia?  Well, the ritual lingers in Yuletide cakes and puddings.  

Boxing Day was the really fun part of Christmas – there was something lighter about it.  You didn’t get gifts, but it was a whole lot of fun.  Which is why I still celebrate Boxing Day, and needless to say, for me it includes time spent with my horses ...

... and later, in the evening, maybe a glass or two of champagne in front of the fire to settle the season.  Soon enough the days will be long and the sun high in the sky once more.

Wishing you all a peaceful, prosperous and very happy new year.  May 2014 bless you in more ways than you can imagine.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Be Grateful! It's Good for You

From the messy desk of Paul Levine...

Well, it's Christmas Eve...unless you're in Australia where it's already next Friday.

Here's a health tip for the New Year.

Expressing gratitude to others is good for YOU.  In other words, there is a perfectly good, selfish reason to be grateful to others.  This makes me more grateful, just thinking about it.

All this heavy thinking comes from "Gratitude Works! A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity" by Robert Emmons.
Let me be the first to say that I'm not wild about self-help books in general or phrases like "emotional prosperity" in particular.  But this sounds good.  You can buy the book or read an excellent summary in The Miami Herald today.
Here are the high points about gratitude:
1. It's a mood booster.
2. It's a relationship-strengthener.
3. It enables you to bounce back from setbacks.
4. It's good for your grades.
5. It's a depression fighter.
6.  It helps you achieve your goals.
7. It elevates your social standing.
8. It cures the common cold.
Okay, I made the last one up.  But the others sound just about right.  So, in this holiday season, I'm grateful for my family and friends and everybody reading this little post.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas gifts for my fellow Nakeds

Patty here

A couple of weeks ago I posted about my decision to forgo giving Christmas gifts but I’ve made a few exceptions. Since I’m on a knitting jag, I've picked out a few projects to make for my fellow Nakeds.

For Our J, so she never gets homesick.


And a little something for that well-dressed equine Oliver.


A sweater to keep Paulie warm at football games.


Oh, oh! And this


It’s a shame to cover up James O's magnificent hair, but I’m sure he’ll be swayed by this little beauty!


And here's something else he needs


As we all know, Ridley writes anywhere and everywhere. This will filter out distractions and protect his plot twists from the prying eyes of strangers.


For the world-traveling Cornelia so she can always find her way home


And a spare tiara for her next debutant ball


 And to all our loyal readers, hoping you get lots of these


Happy Monday! Have yourself a Merry little Christmas.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Even More Random Thoughts ...

... or, what does drying laundry have to do with the lottery?

from Jacqueline

In sunny California we are in the midst of a worrisome drought.  We have not had enough rain for, well, months now.  The reservoirs are low, the air isn’t very pleasant, and frankly – it’s a bit spooky.  This is serious.  But I think I have the solution, though there are those who might not like what I have to say.  People in California should give up using dryers for their laundry.  Put the wash on a line out in the garden, and I promise – it will rain.  I know this because I was raised in England when no one had a dryer.  We didn’t even know such things existed.  You did your wash, then you pegged it out on the line to dry. And then it would rain.  So, you either left the laundry on the line in the hope that the rain would subside and the sun would come out and save the day, or you ran out into the garden, brought in the damp sheets, pillowcases, shirts, etc., etc, and then had to endure having them sitting around on a laundry rack in front of the fire, or draped across the radiators, or placed on an airer that hung from the ceiling in the kitchen – one of these.

 So there you have it – give up those darn environmentally shameful automatic dryers, put the wash on the line, and I guarantee it will rain.

 And while we’re on the subject of laundry, I wonder about dryers in California, which, for much of the year is bathed in sunshine.  I love the fragrance of bed linens and towels dried in the fresh air – and no little sheet of smelly paper thingy that you put in the dryer can replicate the smell.  My sister-in-law (she and my brother also live here in California) rigged up a washing line in the garden at their previous home, then hung the sheets out to dry on a lovely summer’s day - in CA it takes all of about ten minutes for the laundry to dry outdoors in summer.  She was shocked when she came out of the house to bring in the wash, only to find her neighbor waiting for her, leaning over the garden fence at the ready to admonish her for putting out laundry to dry.  “What do you think we are here – Okies?” said the woman.  I’m glad to say she’d met her match in my sister-in-law – you don’t mess with a redheaded Scottish lass who will brook no such nasty comments!

 While we’re lingering on the “Murphy’s Law” type of occurrence, I was in the car with my mother today – she’s “over here” for the holidays – when we were stuck at a stop light that I know always takes ages to change.  You could cook dinner in your car while waiting for your light to turn green.  But I knew how to get things going.  “This is taking a long time,” said my mum.  “Oh, don’t worry, I’ll get it moving,” I replied.  I reached into the glove compartment and took out a tube of hand cream.  “If I start to put this on, believe me, the lights will change.”  I rubbed some cream onto the tops of my hands – not my palms (that would be dangerous) - and sure enough, the lights changed and we were off.  It always works.

There was a bit of lotto fever going on this week – the Mega Millions lottery went right up there, into the $600k’s.  Before the drawing  -  the winnings were shared by a woman in Georgia and someone who bought a ticket in San Jose, and at the time of writing this post, that unknown winner is either sensibly keeping quiet and laying low, or is idiotic enough not to have checked his/her ticket.  I suspect it’s the former - this feeding frenzy had brought on all sorts of conversations.  It seemed everyone I knew was talking about what they would do with the money if they won.  Well, it would never have been me because of course I forgot to buy a ticket.  But what would I have done with all that money, if I’d won? 

 My husband and I had a chat about this the last time the lottery pot grew to supersized proportions, and we knew exactly what we would do.  We would give it away.  Oh sure, we would make sure our nearest and dearest were well taken care of, and probably I would ask my mother if she wanted to come over here to live, because with all that money the healthcare issue wouldn’t be a problem.  I’d like a decent sized working space – a library of my own would be nice.  My husband would like his own small recording studio, plus a pool table.  But we weren’t too fussed about the other trappings of luxurious wealth.  Instead we decided we’d set up a foundation and have a great time funding the causes that resonated with us.  On the list were literacy programs, food banks, camps for kids suffering challenges ranging from health issues to economic and emotional insecurity, the environment, the local humane society – oh, and I want to do all I can to save the mustang horse.  My big thing would be to give a huge chunk to the hospice where my dad was cared for with such wonderful compassion, love and professionalism before he passed away.  Oh, and no one would know about any of it.  We would never, ever let anyone know if that kind of money came into our hands.  But what great fun it would be, giving money to causes you believed in.

In the absence of the big win, we still give to the causes that tug at our heartstrings – but it’s not in the squillions.

I think I’d buy my mother a dryer too.  I could suggest that to her now, but I bet she’d turn it down – she likes that smell of laundry dried outdoors. 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Meet Malcolm Gladwell: The Smartest Guy in the Room (Really)

From the messy desk of Paul Levine...

Malcolm Gladwell, a/k/a the smartest guy in the room, has a new book out.  "David and Goliath" is subtitled "Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants."  In the words of the publisher:

"Malcolm Gladwell challenges how we think about obstacles and disadvantages, offering a new interpretation of what it means to be discriminated against, or cope with a disability, or lose a parent, or attend a mediocre school, or suffer from any number of other apparent setbacks."

But this blog post isn't about his new book or his bestsellers "Outliers" "The Tipping Point" and "Blink."

It's about sports.

Particularly the hypocritical NCAA and yes, it's treatment of Penn State.

Because Gladwell has opinions about that, too.  Previously he wrote a column in The New Yorker entitled "In Plain View: How Child Molesters Get Away With It."  He discussed the incredible skill of Jerry Sandusky and other child molesters and how they hide their evil.

Now, in a different vein, Gladwell is asked by sportswriter Bill Simmons on the Grantland blog whether he would approve of a national "sports czar" to straighten out American sports.

First, Simmons says:

"That's a real job, Malcolm. Think how important sports is to American culture, think how far it spreads, think how much money's at stake, and think how much time it consumes.  Why wouldn't this be its own job? Do you realize how many special czars (or czar-like positions) have been appointed by American presidents over the years? We've had eight AIDS czars, a foreign aid czar, an auto recovery czar, two bank bailout czars, a bird flu czar, a birth control czar (a birth control czar!!!!), two climate czars, a copyright czar, four cyber security czars, nine drug czars, five energy czars, five faith-based czars (WTF???), a food safety czar, a homelessness czar."

The answered surprised me.  It's all about the NCAA and Penn State and Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno.

"It has to happen! Let me give you another argument for the czar, which is that he could finally put the NCAA in its place. I'm actually still angry about the way the NCAA treated Penn State after the Jerry Sandusky scandal. (And by the way, please call it the Jerry Sandusky scandal, not the Joe Paterno scandal. The person who molested young boys was Jerry Sandusky.)

"Now, I've written, in The New Yorker, about how we falsely assume that catching child molesters is really straightforward, and that anyone who has a child molester in their midst must be guilty of some kind of cover-up. That's nonsense. The skilled ones, and Jerry Sandusky was very skilled, are consummate con men. So I tend to be a good deal more forgiving of Paterno than most.

"There's a reason why clinical psychologists receive extensive training, and that's because spotting predatory behavior requires extensive training. (If you doubt this, just spend an afternoon in the library reading the psychological literature on child molesters. It will chill you to the bone. Many go for years without being caught, because child molesters are really good at concealing their crimes.)

"But let's leave that question aside for a moment and just consider the technical question here.  A former employee of Penn State University is suspected of molesting children. He is arrested and charged by the authorities. The university has a set of internal procedures designed to deal with those kinds of criminal activities, and to apportion responsibility for those school officials who acted negligently. The legal system in the state of Pennsylvania also has a set of laws and procedures, in both the civil and criminal arenas, to deal with crimes of this nature. Both acted. That's the way the system is supposed to work.

"So what does the NCAA do? It jumps in and levies a series of harsh sanctions against the Penn State football program. Can someone tell me where the NCAA found the authority to do that? The NCAA, in its simplest form, is a cartel designed to exploit amateur arbitrage: That is, to profit on the spread between the cost of minimal-wage athletic labor and the value of television sports contracts. Or something like that. Reasonable minds can differ. What they are not is a body with any standing to weigh in on criminal matters concerning university employees that have already been dealt with by the appropriate authorities — merely because the employee in question happens to have once been connected to a sports program.

"This is crazy! If a bank discovers that one of its tellers is molesting children, the FDIC doesn't suspend the bank's charter and punish every other employee and customer of the bank! Now, I'm not the only one to think this. I've spoken to lots of legal experts who said exactly the same thing. So why does the NCAA get away with this kind of aggressive over-reaching? Because for some reason, when it comes to many of the bigger questions raised by sports, we all shut down our brains. Bring on the czar!"

On a personal note, I knew Joe Paterno for 40 years and respected him as a figure of unblemished integrity and towering accomplishment.  I knew Jerry Sandusky for 25 years and never suspected him of anything.  Less than a week ago, I asked a former Penn State player, an All American in the 1980's who went on to have a 10 year NFL career, what he thought of Sandusky, who had been his defensive coordinator.  He told me he'd cried when he heard the news, that he knew the man as a coaching genius fully committed to his work on the one hand and helping underprivileged children on the other.  (See Gladwell's New Yorker piece for just how these criminals fool everyone).

As for a sports czar...well, I'm skeptical.  But as for the NCAA, I wouldn't mind seeing it disbanded.

Paul Levine

Monday, December 16, 2013

I'd rather do it myself!

Patty here

I’m an occasional knitter. I’ve talked about this before. I made a pair of socks some years ago. Sometimes I look at them and wonder how I did it and question if I could ever do it again. Writers often feel that way after finishing a book.

After a long dormant period where I didn’t have the time or inclination to knit, I'm making a scarf. The pattern requires new skills and I’m making all sorts of mistakes—mistakes that are difficult for me to fix because the pattern is complicated. The lovely women at Compatto Yarn Salon in Santa Monica where I bought the yarn are always willing to help me get back on track, but I’m not the type of person who likes to ask for help. In fact, it’s torture to do so.

What does this have to do with writing?

Before I start a new book, I do character bios of everybody who appears in my novel. This includes a personal anecdote, often from childhood, but always one that shapes the character’s behavior. The most effective use of this tool is to write about something that happened to me that informs my behavior today. On the surface, the event may seem trivial but it’s not.

Case in point. When I was young, I had trouble figuring out math “story problems.” You know the ones I’m talking about: a train going sixty miles per hour passes a farmer leading a herd of goats, walking 2 miles an hour. How long will it take for the… I’d often get stumped and would trudge up to the desk of my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Taylor and ask for help. She would explain how to structure the math until the proverbial light bulb went off in my brain and I’d be on my way.

However, when I got my first report card from her, this note was included next to my grade: Patty too often asks for help when she is capable of puzzling out the answer for herself. I remember feeling wounded and betrayed, that asking for help was somehow a defect in my character. I decided to never ask for help again.

Fast forward to today. I have returned to Compatto several times but each time I experience the same tortured thoughts that in their heads these lovely women are thinking that I too often ask for help when I could puzzle it out myself.

I’ve loaned this childhood experience to the main character in my WIP, an LAPD homicide detective. The reader will probably never learn about this incident but they will see that she is determined to go it alone, even when asking for help is the better option.

Last Saturday I returned to the store once again for help. This time, I decided to stay and knit for a while with a group of other knitters. An amazing thing happened while I was there. Several other people came into the store, looking as tortured as I felt, also asking for help with a project. Apparently, correcting a dropped yarn over is a universal conundrum. If this aha! moment sounds like the makings of a character arc, you might just be right.

Happy Monday!

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Literary Fiction, Lassiter, and Hugs for Sixty Bucks

From the messy desk of Paul Levine...

Allow Me To Clutter Your Mind with Another Useless Study

Researchers at the New School in New York have discovered that reading "literary fiction" improves readers' empathy for others.  Yeah?  Well, without doing any research, I have found that reading crime fiction improves your shooting, stabbing, and poisoning abilities.

The Not Entirely True Adventures of Jake Lassiter

As many of you know, Jake Lassiter was a Penn State linebacker who sat so far down the bench that his butt was in Altoona.  Well, I describe Jake's up-and-down career with the Nittany Lions and improbable time with the Miami Dolphins in this interview with Blue-White Illustrated.  So just does Jake Lassiter look like?

(This is NOT Jake Lassiter.  This is Poz.  Paul Posluszny, former Penn State linebacker now with the Jacksonville Jaguars).
(This also is NOT Jake Lassiter.  This is Gerald McRaney, who portrayed Lassiter -- over my objections -- in the NBC TV movie version of "To Speak for the Dead" which was re-titled "Lassiter: Justice on the Bayou."  Broadcast in 1995, it's now on DVD.  Don't buy it).

Are Men Snugglers? 

City officials in Madison, WI are all atwitter over a "hugging" business.  For 60 bucks customers -- presumably men -- at the "Snuggle House" can hug, cuddle and spoon with professional "snugglers."

The Associated Press reports the city is worried that the men will want more, if you catch my drift.  If you don't, here's what Assistant City Attorney Jennifer Zilavy said: "No offense to men, but I don't know any man who wants to just snuggle."

No offense taken, Jen, baby.

Paul Levine

Monday, December 09, 2013

Sometimes the best Christmas gift for Dad is no gift at all

Patty here

All my life I tried without much success to shop the perfect Christmas gift for my father. He was sensitive to the cold so one year I bought him a sweater that even Nanook of the North would have been proud to wear. When my father opened the box, he said all the right things but I could tell the sweater didn’t light his fire. He never wore it except once when I forced his arms into the sleeves during a visit. Going through his things after he died, I found the sweater in its original box with the bow still inside. It looked as if he had put it away after I left and never took it out again.

Hey, it worked for Colin Firth.

As years of gifts piled up, so did the stuff my father never used. He could have opened a general mercantile store and stocked it with gifts I’d bought for him. When I asked why he didn’t use that new wallet or those slippers that were meant to replace the duct-taped relicts he’d worn since dinosaurs roamed the earth, he’d tell me the old ones still had some “good” in them. Once when I pressed the issue, he told me he had a closet full of clothes that would last for the rest of his life. Adding more stuff to the mix seemed to him like an unnecessary waste of my hard-earned cash. 

Jingle Bills

The older I get, the more I understand my father’s point of view. Most people have too much stuff, stuff that fills houses and overflows into garages, then into rented PODS and storage units. Some people visit their stuff and others leave it to languish unattended and mostly forgotten. My closet is also full of clothing that will never wear out in my lifetime. My theory is if you haven’t worn or used something for a few years, you should give it to someone who will wear or use it. More and more when I contemplate bringing new stuff into my world, I ask myself this question: will it really make my life easier, better or happier? 

Several years ago I told family and friends that I was opting out of the Christmas gift exchange. My decision was a hard sell for some people. A few agreed to make donations to charity in lieu of gifts. A few probably thought I was one of these:

A heart "two sizes too small"

I would like to be that person who always finds the perfect gift for people I love, but in reality, I’m not very good at mind-reading. Past holidays often left me feeling as if I had spent buckets of money for stuff nobody wanted. On hindsight, gifts that seemed wonderful to me turned out more like this:

If somebody gives you lemons, make lemonade


Recently, I had a Hallelujah moment. I'm not alone. Here’s an op-ed piece from the November 29, 2013 Los Angeles Times titled "The Season of Excess Begins" by Daniel J. Fink, which aptly expresses how I feel about the "barely restrained annual celebration of blatant commercialism..."
“As Black Friday morphs in one direction to interfere with the celebration of Thanksgiving and in the other toward Cyber Monday, people continue to buy one another things just because they ‘have to get someone a gift,’ even if it may be re-gifted, returned or never used.
...If you feel a need to give, give food to the hungry, clothes and toys to those in need, or donations to victims of storms, violence or conflict. A plate of homemade cookies or some other delicacy delivered personally is a much better way to remember friends and family than a meaningless generic gift, a 'dustable' to sit on the shelf or yet another ill-fitting sweater in the wrong color. And most older people need even fewer things. Unfortunately, what they really want—youth, vigor health—are things we can't give them. But they, and I'm sure many others, would appreciate a call, a card or a visit from family, neighbors and friends. So will you."

So here's the deal: I will make you my killer brownies for Christmas but, instead of that sweater, would you mind instead if I donated money to help little guys like this?

I think I love you

Whatever you're doing today—shopping or not—cheers to a Happy Monday! 

Sweet Nothings

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Trailer trash

One of the chief reasons opening weekends for movies fail is poorly crafted trailers. Time and time again I am faced with trailers that show me the entire movie, thus removing my desire to see it.  You see the only ten jokes, or you see a plot point—and instead of a trailer, it’s a spoiler.

A great example of how to craft a trailer is Disney's Frozen. John Lassiter and Company created A wholly independent animated piece that, as it turns out, never shows up in the film yet captures one sentiment of the film perfectly. It is a piece where a snowman loses his carrot nose. I kept waiting for that segment to arrive, and it never did! As a wink to the audience, there is a carrot/Snowman moment, but it is only that–a wink to the trailer. Genius!

As the rollout of the film drew closer humans started showing up in the trailers–and one realized there was more to the film then snowman and reindeer. But still, the trailer gave nothing away.

Now, Disney has a massive hit on its hands–because it made a terrific animated movie. But add to that it didn't spoil the movie by creating a trailer that gave us a two minute encapsulated version of it. Bravo! Brava!

I wish more studios would take a cue from this!


Tuesday, December 03, 2013


From the messy desk of Paul Levine...

Friends know I hate to fly.  This story doesn't help.  Medical personnel yank a passenger off a US Air flight in Phoenix because he has active tuberculosis.  (The plane had just landed from Austin). 

Dr. Schaffner said passengers on the plane should have a TB skin test done by their local health care provider. People who contract TB must take several medications for six to nine months, according to the CDC.

Hey, I hate it when the guy three rows away is coughing from a head cold.  This would drive me insane in a Detective Monk sort of way.

On the subject of flying...note the clever now you know Amazon is experimenting with delivering packages to your front door by drones.  The video shown on "60 Minutes" is now available on You Tube.

I like to think the drone pictured is carrying several of my books to a waiting customer.  (Thirty minute delivery!) 
Now, I would like to overcome my fear of flying so that I -- not my books -- can be delivered by drone.  That's right.  I'd like to volunteer to be the first author dropped on a reader's front lawn.  Make me part of the 99 cent Daily Deal.  (If the reader wants Stephen King, Lee Child, or John Grisham, they have to shell out $4.99).
When I arrive, I will attempt to entertain the buyer by spinning a tale or two.  Maybe the family will invite me in for a cup of coffee and donuts.
Because Amazon is The-Company-So-Many-Love-to-Hate, the drone proposal has already drawn flak.  My pal, the otherwise sane John Ramsay Miller opined: "Not content with destroying business like book stores, Bezos has more job killing in store for the middle class."
I have to disagree.  Amazon is merely ramping up the delivery business.  Local and chain stores will respond in kind.  If Amazon can truly deliver a $12 roller skate key (that's what's shown in the video) in 30 minutes, so can a local store.  (Does anyone still skate?)
Several Facebook friends have chimed in about the drone delivery proposal. 
Veteran newsman Tim King predicts local TV stations will start using drones instead of helicopters to save money.  Retired journalism professor Tom Berner wants to start using drones for his photography.  Wise-cracker Lynn Gard Price said, "Two words.  Target practice."
Progress is sometimes frightening.  Buggy whip manufacturers surely did not like the advent of the mass-produced automobile.  But we adapt.  Companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google have changed the way we live...and the pace of our lives. 
Nowadays, we take for granted activities that would have been jaw-dropping less than a generation ago.  Yesterday, I received an email from OnStar, telling me that the pressure in my car's right front tire was 31 pounds instead of the recommended 35.  That's right.  Not only does the company provide me with a navigation system and satellite phone -- useful when there is no cell coverage -- but once a month, it runs a diagnostic check on the car and informs me of the results.  I am awed.
Now, if only I could overcome my fear of flying.