‘Twas the day after Oscar…

February 28, 2011 – The 83rd Annual Academy Awards are now history, and like always, the festivities flew by quickly. (If it seemed like an eternity to you, keep in mind that the ceremony only ran 11 minutes over its allotted time. It’s those darn technical awards in the middle that tend to drag on.)

Sadly, there were no dark horses this year; the winners were exactly who the experts predicted. The only surprise of the night came from Melissa Leo, who dropped the “F” bomb during her acceptance speech.

Also, first-time hosts James Franco and Anne Hathaway completely underwhelmed. Although I’ve enjoyed performances from both of them on the silver screen, they seemed out of their element last night. He stumbled on his words, and she appeared too star struck. Worse yet, they weren’t funny. It became clear when they mentioned they were trying to appeal to a younger generation that their youth is the only reason they were selected.

The Academy should stick to comedians as hosts, if only to bring a little fun into the mix. The only time I laughed was during the two “movie-themed” commercials that featured the cast of Modern Family.

So, what is the perfect activity for the day after Oscar? Going to see the Best Picture winner, The King’s Speech, at a late afternoon matinée.

I hope it lives up to the b-b-b-buzz.

Oscar night done right

February 27, 2011 – Roll out the red carpet, dust off the tiara and feather boa, and pop open a bottle of champagne. It’s time to loose yourself in all of the glitz and glamour of the 83rd Annual Academy Awards.

This year’s celebration will be low key since I’ll be watching from the comfort of my living room. In a few hours, I’ll be planted in front of the television reveling in Oscar magic and sharing the moment with movie lovers worldwide.

If you’re planning to watch … enjoy! I hope we’re in for a few surprises this year!

P.S. – Here’s an interesting take from USA Today on how to win an Oscar.

It runs in the family, but not through me

February 26, 2011 – For someone who appreciates music as much as I do, I don’t have a smidgen of talent in that area. Thankfully, several family members do, and make up for what I lack.

It started with my grandfather, who sang “a cappella” at every family party, won a few talent contests here and there, and was a frequent contributor to the musical scene in a lot of taprooms in his day.

All of his children (including my dad) carry on the tradition of entertaining at parties, and my aunt has a deep collection of songs she’s written, including one recorded by Al Martino in the 1960s. Another aunt also spent some time in a recording studio and came out with lovely versions of On a Clear Day and You Made Me Love You.

Now it’s time for the next generation to shine. My sister’s two older sons are musically gifted with bands making a local statement, and my cousin, who moved to Austin, Texas last year to pursue his musical dream, just finished touring Germany with his band. Thanks to new technology, I can share their work with you today:

This clip is from my nephew Rick and his band, YMD. (He’s wearing the blue hoodie). I was at the release party for his last CD, and although the music was a little loud for me, I can appreciate his clever lyrics (conveniently printed on the inside of the CD so I could read them). If you like rap, or the Beastie Boys in particular, you’ll probably enjoy YMD. Here’s a national review of their last release that appeared in USA Today’s Pop Culture blog as “the best CD I listened to this week”.

His brother Ryan is following in his footsteps and getting good reviews with his band. Here’s a clip and review from The Deli Magazine where the journalist refers to them as one of the best up and coming bands in the Philly area, and refers to their infectiously fun live performances. To hear the song, scroll down and click on the link to Everyone’s Dead. My son compares their sound to the 80s band Joy Division, especially due to the lead singer’s baritone vocals.

Finally, here’s a clip from my cousin Tim who plays with The Tom Gillam Band. This was filmed on their German tour. Tim’s the one on Tom’s right (next to the drummer). I try to see them live whenever they are in the area because they are terrific, and I’m happy to report they are a hit on the Austin music scene, as well.

Rock on, boys. As Bob Marley says, “I hope this jam is gonna last…”

Fiction Friday: Splinters

February 25, 2011 – Several years ago, I began writing a collection of short stories about one character at various stages of her life. I call her Samantha. I know her well because we’ve had a lot of the same experiences.

The idea made me think of Carol King’s song Tapestry, so that became the working title in my mind. The stories were sorted by year and season, and this one introduces Samantha as a three-year-old child.

Splinters – Winter, 1963

“Hold still, Samantha,” Mom says as my little sister tries to squirm from her grasp.

“Ouch!” Samantha cries. “That hurts!”

I’m in the living room watching Captain Kangaroo, while Samantha is sitting on the dining room table so Mom can get a splinter out of her foot. She’s using tweezers now but sometimes she uses a sewing needle with a burnt tip.

I’d rather be watching The Rifleman but I’m not allowed to when Samantha is awake because she’s afraid. She was watching cartoons when the Walter Cronkite interrupted to say that a rifleman shot President Kennedy. After that, she screamed whenever The Rifleman came on because she thought the TV rifleman shot the president again.

I was at school when the president was shot, but they sent us home early because the teachers were crying. My teacher didn’t cry, but she asked us to say extra prayers for the president’s family.

When I got home, Mom and Samantha were crying, too. And Mom got mad because Dad went out to play cards that same night. It was his monthly poker game with the boys at the American Legion. He calls them boys even though they are men. I think Mom was afraid that the Russians were going take over our country because we didn’t have a president. Seems everybody is afraid of the Russians.

“Here it is,” Mom says as she pulls out the splinter. “That’s a big one.”

We moved into the house about six months ago, and ripped out the rugs because the family who lived here had cats. Samantha and Dad are allergic, so they would have been miserable if the rugs stayed. Now, Samantha is always getting splinters because the wood floors are pretty old.

“Go watch TV with Brian, but keep your slippers on,” Mom says as she helps Samantha down from the table. “They will protect you.”

“Are they magic?” she asks.

Mom smiles and nods her head. “I guess you can say that.”

Samantha runs into the living room, and kicks off her slippers as soon as she sits down. I just shake my head knowing she’ll be sorry that she didn’t listen.

A few minutes later, I hear Dad’s car pull into the driveway up. It’s a brand new blue Falcon and we bought it right after we moved into the house. I’m glad he’s home because I’m hungry and tonight is spaghetti and meatballs night. We never have dinner before Dad gets home. I think it’s a cardinal sin or something.

“Can you read to me, Daddy?” Samantha squeals as soon as he walks in.

Dad laughs. “I just got home, Sam,” he replies. “We’ll do that after dinner.”

Samantha loves books and always begs Mom and Dad to read to her. I’m four years older, so I can read by myself. Right now, I’m reading about Davy Crockett and the Alamo.

Once we finish dinner, it’s time for homework. Dad is in the living room watching the evening news, Mom is busy cleaning up, and Samantha is still begging Dad to read to her. But instead of paying attention to her or to Walter Cronkite, he’s looking for coins under the sofa cushions. It’s Thursday night, which means tomorrow is payday, but if he finds enough change tonight, he can buy a quart of beer at the grocery store.

“Can you read to me, Daddy?” she asks.

“Only if you wear your slippers,” he says after he finds two quarters. “Mom told me you got another splinter today.”

Samantha slips them on and hands Dad a book. “I want to read this first,” she says, but before he starts to read, Samantha begins to tell the story. Dad listens for a moment and then laughs.

“When did you learn to read, Samantha?” he asks. “You’re a three-year old genius.”

A few minutes later, Dad strolls into the kitchen where Mom is up to her elbows in soapsuds. “Samantha is reading a book all by herself,” I hear him say.

Mom laughs. “She’s memorized it,” she says. “We’ve read it to her a thousand times.”

Dad walks out of the kitchen while Mom is still laughing. When he passes by the dining room table, he rubs the top of my head and smiles.

“How’s the homework going, Champ?” he asks.

“Fine,” I say, and I watch as Dad walks back into the living room.

“How’s the little reader doing?” I hear him ask as Samantha giggles. Dad asks a lot of questions. “You can read me another one after I get back from the store.”

Samantha watches him walk out of the door, and then scuffles out to the dining room, still wearing her slippers.

“Did you hear me, Brian?” she asks. “I can read just like you.”

I want to tell her that she’s just memorized it like Mom said, but she’s just a kid.

“The slippers are magic,” she whispers. “They made me know how to read.”

I hear Mom snicker in the kitchen, and I start to snicker, too. When she comes out to the dining room and we look at each other and snicker more. It’s like we have our own secret joke. We smile as we watch Samantha run back into the living room to wait for Dad by the door.

“Looks like there won’t be anymore splinters,” Mom says with a grin. “I think she’ll wear her magic slippers from now on.”

Even with declining values, there are big benefits to owning a home

February 24, 2011 – Here’s a little secret homeowners share…

This is the time of year when they get pretty excited because they’re adding up the extra tax savings they were never entitled to before they owned a home.

Owning a home is one sure way to lower your taxable income because the interest on the payments you make is fully tax-deductible on mortgages up to $1,000,000. To claim this deduction, you must itemize the amount of interest paid on Schedule A of your 1040 instead of taking the standard deduction.

As we enter the spring home buying season, typically the busiest time of year for home sales, Realtors say it remains a buyers market. This is especially helpful if you are a first-time buyer and don’t have a house to sell before you move.

Economic reports released yesterday show that the median sales price of a home fell to $158,800, down 3.7% from one year ago, to the lowest level since April 2002. But even with lower home values, buying a home remains a good investment.

If you don’t think you can afford a home, what you may not realize is that long-term, you can’t afford not to buy a home. In most cases, even if home values depreciate, you’ve still made the better investment with your money than if you had rented.

Perhaps cold, hard numbers say it best. For instance, let’s look at a renter with a monthly rent payment of $800. Over five years, they will have spent $48,000 on rent. In 10 years, that number rises to $96,000. That’s a large amount paid without any equity to show.

So, if you’re worried that a home may not be the investment it once was – think again.

Better yet, if you’re a first time buyer, use this year’s tax refund as a down payment on a new home. Next year your income tax return will thank you.

Lick ’em, don’t bite ’em

February 23, 2011 – How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?

If you’re a kid of a certain age, you probably remember the classic commercial from 1970 that dared to ask this important question. Most likely, you also tried to figure out the answer yourself. I know I did, and I still think about it whenever I pop one of those suckers into my mouth. Unfortunately, I fail every time because the temptation to bite is too strong.

So, why I am reveling in my Tootsie Pop past?

It just so happens that the Tootsie Roll is celebrating its 115th birthday today. America’s iconic chocolate treat was first introduced in New York on February 23, 1896.

Since then, Tootsie Roll Industries has built an entire of a family of products around the Tootsie philosophy, including Andes mints, Charleston Chews, Double Bubble, Junior Mints,  Razzles, Sugar Babies, and those luscious wax lips many of us remember from childhood. Just reviewing the content on their Website is like a trip down memory lane.

And if you want to know how many licks it actually takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop, check out this well-researched statistical data…

Same old song

February 22, 2011

I watched an old VH1 documentary recently focusing on Tipper Gore’s fight to put warning labels on music CD’s, and how she founded the Parents’ Music Resource Center to inform parents about what their kids are listening to.

After it ended, a little Internet research revealed what I had expected all along; controversy has always hovered over the music industry.

In the 1700’s, for example, Beethoven had locals whispering about his drug addiction and troubled personal life. In the 1800’s, fans found German composer Richard Wagner unethical because of his politics, beliefs and unorthodox lifestyle. Flash forward to 20th century, and consider the scandal that ensued when Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13-year-old cousin in the 1950s.

Through the years, little has changed. Musical tastes are as varied as the people who embrace them. Some fans can look past the faults of artists and simply enjoy the music, while others ban artists completely if they disagree with their morals or politics.

Artists should feel free to express themselves creatively. While that creativity may seem distasteful to some, those who find it offensive can tune it out.

On the other hand, artists should understand that expression comes with a price. They may run the risk of limiting audiences and the money they make if they do something that offends even a small group of people. And record stores, iTunes, radio stations, etc. have the right to place a label on the music if they find the lyrics too racy.

Although many recording artists view labeling to be a form of censorship and are against it, I don’t have a problem with it because as a parent I want to know what my kids are listening to. Perhaps adopting a rating system like the film industry would help, making sales to minors illegal without a parent or guardian. This goes a step further than simply adding a warning, but it does not jeopardize first amendment rights because the music is still available for adults who wish to purchase it for themselves or their kids.

As much as I love music, I would never relish the role of music czar that Gore took on in the 1980s. But now that I’m a little older and a little wiser, I do applaud her efforts. At least it is a good way to open the dialogue between parents and kids about what is appropriate and what is not.

Fighting the good fight

February 21, 2011 – “May you live in interesting times.”

That quotation is an old Chinese proverb sometimes known as the Chinese curse. It certainly doesn’t sound offensive, but it is mainly used when one wishes that another person’s life is surrounded by worries and obstacles.

The Chinese government may very well be muttering those words to the protesters who took to the streets in Beijing, Shanghai and 11 other Chinese cities over the weekend. Fueled by political instability and anti-government sentiment, the Chinese people are voicing their opinions loudly, perhaps motivated by the people demanding those same changes in the Middle East.

What began in Tunisia in December, brought on by poor living conditions and the lack of political freedom, has been dubbed the Jasmine Revolution by the media. It moved onto Egypt, successfully ousting President Mubarak, then spread to Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, and several other Arab nations before making an impact in China.

Sadly, too many protesters have been injured or killed, paying the ultimate price for their cause. But those brave activists, who knew the risks, are speaking against their oppressive governments, and are making a huge difference for the future of their nations.

Here in the United States, the people are taking to the streets in safer, more peaceful protests against Wisconsin’s proposed legislation to reduce union bargaining power. Their cause is now gaining support from unions in other states, such as Minnesota and Michigan.

Whether you agree or disagree with the protestors, this is democracy in action, something many people in the United States may take for granted. It is what our forefathers fought for in the Revolutionary War when they envisioned a free America. These union battles seem small compared to those fighting overseas for basic human needs, such freedom, food and shelter, but they are important to those voicing their opinions.

Unions were once the backbone of this country. They were necessary to keep things fair and they helped build the middle class by assuring workers decent wages. Today, because of these unions, we have employment laws and regulations in place to protect employees in all industries, whether they are union or non-union, not to mention lawyers keeping a watchful eye on the system.

So, while I may not see the great need for unions in our current society, I am inspired by anyone who fights for what they believe in.

That’s what democracy is all about.

My first milestone

February 20, 2011 – It’s official. This is my 100th blog post.

It may not seem like much, but it’s an key landmark considering I started this blog a mere 102 days ago.

Way back then, on that chilly November morning, I clicked the publish button to go live, and entered the blogosphere with a personal goal to post five times a week. I upped the ante in January when I accepted the “Post a Day” challenge, helping me reach my first major milestone quicker than expected.

I appreciate you sticking with me over these past few months. I’ve learned a great deal from your comments and emails, so keep them coming.

My goal for the next 100 posts? Keeping you entertained and informed is number one, and wouldn’t hurt to increase readership. With millions of blogs out there, I am amazed that people find me, but I’d love to see those numbers rise. According to the site stats, some readers find me through search engines, which is very cool. That means the “tags” or keywords are working, and that people who don’t know me may actually be reading this blog!

Thanks again for your support. Your visits make it all worthwhile.

Phillies ticket sales on steriods

February 19, 2011 — How cool is this? It’s only February and the Phillies have sold 3.3 million tickets for the upcoming 2011 season. That’s about a million more over last years sales at this point.

And that doesn’t even include the number of ticket sales for other parks, as Phillies fans are known for their undeniable presence at away games. I wish there were statistics available on those numbers.

Today is the first full squad workout, so the season is inching closer, and I’m ready!