The fear of sirens and the blessing of surnames

November 30, 2012 – A childhood memory popped into my head yesterday while thinking about my Uncle Harry, who passed away recently.

The actual event has more to do with his two older sons (my cousins) than him, but because he was a police detective, he played a special role.

I don’t remember exactly how old we were at the time; my two cousins and I are the same age so I’ll say roughly seven or eight. While playing outside on their street, they began to chase me and in an effort to get away from them, I ran up the steps and into what I thought was their house. Stopped dead in my tracks, the people inside this strange house stared at me in stunned silence for a moment before I panicked and ran back out the door.

When I reached my cousins on the sidewalk below, the two of them were laughing hysterically and falling all over each other. Afraid and embarrassed, I made them swear they wouldn’t tell their father what I had done because I didn’t want to be hauled off to jail. Why my childhood brain thought I committed a crime, I don’t know, although these days some states have laws that allow you to shoot someone you don’t know who walks into your home. Thankfully, this was a simpler time.

This incident triggered my irrational childhood fear of sirens. Whenever I heard a siren, I ran home to my safe place. A major panic attack set in if I was in school and heard a siren in the distance. I remember sitting at my desk and almost losing it because I couldn’t run home. Why the fear? I guess I thought my cousins ratted on me, and I was finally going to have to pay for my crime.

I’m not sure I shared this story with my friends, but I know a few of them would find it pretty amusing. Years later, it was Uncle Harry – or at least his name – that did save me from the police one night and my friends haven’t let me forget it.

Huddled in a car listening to music one winter’s night, we sat at our favorite corner spot. It was too cold to be outside, and we were too young to go to clubs and bars, so it was the next best thing. We weren’t doing anything too awful, but when the cops knocked on the window and asked us to roll it down, it was obvious we were partaking in something that some states are beginning to legalize. The officers asked us to get out of the car, which was punishment enough because we were so frightened, and started to question us about what we were doing even though it was obvious. One of the officers asked for my name, which I nervously gave him, and after my response, he smiled and told me I could get back into the car if I was too cold standing outside. Unfortunately, my friends didn’t receive the same invitation.

The cops let us all off the hook that night, but you’d think by the ribbing I received I was the only one. We all learned a lesson we haven’t forgotten, just as my friends haven’t forgotten the special treatment I received because the officer knew my uncle and recognized my surname!

I’m not sure I ever told Uncle Harry about that incident, but I assume he’s in a place now where he knows everything. And knowing him, it probably gave him a little chuckle.

10 common grammar errors

November 28, 2012 – English may be one of the most widely used languages in the world, but it is also among the most confusing.

I don’t consider myself a grammar snob – I’m prone to making mistakes with the best of them – but I am astounded by the laid back attitude of those who write on message boards and other social media venues as if they don’t care.

Since I enjoy good grammar about as much as I enjoy a good list, here’s a list of common grammar errors that are easy to fix.

10. Who/Whom –It can be difficult to decide which word to use, but here’s a simple guide: “Who” does the action and “Whom” has the action done to them.

Who is going to eat with Bill? I am going to eat with Bill.
Bill is going to eat with whom? Bill is going to eat with me.

9. All together/Altogether – All together means “together in a single group.” Altogether means “completely” or “in all.”

We completed the task all together.
We eliminated the task altogether.

8. Affect/Effect – “Affect” is usually a verb that means to influence or cause change. “Effect” is usually a noun that refers to the end result or the impact of something.

The protest affected great change in the community.
His smile has an effect on me.

7. Lie/Lay – “Lie” is to rest in a horizontal position or to be located somewhere. “Lay” means to put something or someone down.

Hawaii lies in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Lay your head on the pillow and rest.

6. Your/You’re – “Your” indicates ownership of something. “You’re” is a contraction and a combination of you and are.

Where is your coat?
Did she say that you’re really smart?

5. Are/Our– The verb “are” is a present tense form of the verb to be. The adjective “our” is the possessive form of “we”.

Are you attending John’s wedding?
Did you see our new dog?

4. Less/Fewer – “Less” is used in reference to an amount and “fewer” is used to reference a number.

We need less sand in the hole. (Sand is something you cannot count; it is an amount).
We need fewer eggs for this recipe. (Eggs can be counted; fewer in this case represents a number).

3. Different than/Different from –  The correct form is “different from”. “Different than” is never an option.

Pink is different than blue. Wrong!
Pink is different from blue. Right!

2. Anyway/Any way – “Anyway” and “Any Way” both have different uses. Anyway is a compound word meaning “regardless”. “Any Way” is simply the word way modified by the word any.

I didn’t like him anyway.
Is there any way to stop this wedding?

1. They’re/Their/There – “They’re” is a contraction for they are. “Their” is a word that denotes possession. And “there” is a category in its own.

They are happy. They’re happy.
It is their dog.
There aren’t many people working here.

Television review: Girls

November 26, 2012 – Am I cheating if I review a series that hasn’t been on television (except through Comcast’s On Demand) since June?

“Girls” premiered on HBO in April, and I tuned into the first episode with high hopes back then because the cable channel rarely lets me down. After 10 minutes, I knew the show wasn’t for me and I never gave it another try.

The premise seemed interesting enough; four twenty-something girls trying to make it in the big city. Most critics liked the realism quality it offered, calling it a younger version of another HBO hit, “Sex and the City,” a show that I found entertaining, though far from reality.

Granted, I’m not the demographic HBO hopes to win over with “Girls”. But if this show is the reality of a young twenty-something, as the doctor says when treating the main character for an STD in episode one, “You couldn’t pay me enough to be 24 again.”

Then it happened. In lieu of shopping on Friday – which I always avoid – I planned to settle down with a television marathon and relax. My remote control wandered to HBO, where I discovered I was up-to-date on everything else, and I quickly decided to give “Girls” another try. Worse case scenario, it was only nine more episodes, or 4.5 hours of my time on a day I planned for nothing anyway.

Surprisingly, I liked the remaining episodes more than the first, but I still can’t call myself a fan. Just as I observed in the first episode, these girls seemed spoiled, relatively stupid and unlikable. The characters are self-absorbed and narcissistic, and even if they are written that way purposely, it’s difficult for me to like a movie or television show unless I care about something.

Still, I forged on and watched to the end, so that must say something. I’ve read reviews where critics have lauded the show for its raw nature, humor, and refreshing tone, and I began to wonder what I was missing. Reading the actresses bios on IMDB entertained me more than watching them play their characters. These “girls” can act well enough, but by the end of the first few episodes, I remained in a fog.

Be patient, I told myself. Overlook their bad qualities and try to find something redeeming about them. After all, we’re all pretty stupid in our youth. We make mistakes with jobs, relationships, friendships and all life’s decisions, which are exactly what this show tries to portray – in a humorous way. In reality, however, I don’t think my friends were ever that stupid or self-absorbed, or made as many mistakes with relationships, jobs and friendships as these girls do. OK, maybe I’ll take that last part back.

The positive quality about this show is that the episodes are fairly well written. The dialogue can be clever and the storylines amusing, but then something happens out of the blue that looks like it’s there just to shock whoever is watching. The episodes are written and directed by series creator Lena Duhman, who possesses talent, but too often relied on the shock factor, a cheap shot in my option, perhaps thrown in just because you can get away with it on HBO.

Here’s an example; how many parties have you been to where a young girl walks around for most of the night topless? I’ve been to some over-the-top parties in my day where crazy things have happened, but that’s a new one on me. It’s not a new one on HBO, though. “Sex and the City” had a show dealing with the same shirtless topic, and every other week, women sit around the house topless on “Boardwalk Empire”, but at least they are in a brothel. Perhaps it’s an HBO requirement.

After nine more episodes, I never empathized with any of these characters. I wanted to scream at them for their stupidity, scold them for never learning, and lecture them for making the poor choices they continued to make, which I can’t find entertaining in the least.

Does this mean I won’t invest my time in season two when it begins next spring?

It depends. Sometimes, like a twenty something girl, I still have to torture myself.

Movie review: Lincoln

November 22, 2012 – This week in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the most famous American speech ever to a crowd that gathered near a train stop in Gettysburg, Pa., known as the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln had just won re-election and in the speech, he passionately restated the principles of equality first proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence.

It’s only fitting that almost exactly to the day, although 149 years later, Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” opened in theaters giving us the unique opportunity to witness this amazing part of American history.

“Lincoln”, which stars Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field, as the president and Mrs. Lincoln, along a huge supporting cast, many of whom you will recognize, led by the incomparable Tommy Lee Jones, begins just after the Gettysburg Address. The Civil War is entering its fourth year, the nation is weary, and Lincoln is trying to pass the 13th Amendment that will abolish slavery.

The acting in this ensemble drama is top-notch all around, and provides for a thoroughly entertaining 180 minutes. Even though we all know what happens, it was fascinating to watch it play out on the silver screen. Day-Lewis is one of the finest actors of our time, and plays Lincoln to perfection, capturing his voice characteristics and his passion for telling stories that often turned into philosophical life lessons.

What struck me most about the film was observing the actions of the politicians. As the Republicans, who wanted to abolish slavery, and the Democrats who were opposed abolishing it, battle it out in Congress, it felt very modern, as if it could be happening today. These parties didn’t like each other in the 1800s either, giving the audience a glimpse into the world of bribery, lobbying and trying to secure the votes on both sides any way possible. There were also a few entertaining lines that alluded to the corruption of the government, and how you can never trust politicians. It’s not that I believed today’s politicians invented this way of doing business, but I realized that maybe it’s not really much worse today than it was 150 years ago.

Another surprising part of the story came from how it portrayed Mary Todd Lincoln. Field did well enough in the role, despite some critics panning her acting, but she didn’t stand out in a cast of greats. Her Mary was a paranoid woman, who often fought with Lincoln, nagging him endlessly about being the one that everyone liked, and blaming him for the death of one of their sons. It’s a part of history I certainly didn’t know before I saw the movie.

“Lincoln” is an entertaining lesson in history, and from everything I’ve read, it tells the story factually. It’s always fun when you discover something new about the history you thought you knew by heart.

No Twinkies? Say it ain’t so…

November 20, 2012 – It’s difficult to imagine a world without Twinkies.

State fairs wouldn’t be the same without deep-fried versions of the yellow sponge cake with the delectable white creamy center. And children’s lunchboxes (if they still carry them) would seem empty without the fun treat.

The news that the Hostess Company, which originally filed for bankruptcy protection back in January, is closing shop for good due to a dispute with its striking union employees, has fans of the snack cake doing everything they can to make sure the famous brand survives. Twinkies’ recipes have appeared online, and boxes of Twinkies are selling on Ebay for more than their retail value, causing a run on many grocery stores so people can make a tasty profit, or at least stock up on the goods for themselves before it is too late.

Apparently, this critical news really strikes a chord with some folks. If you’re one of them, you’ll be happy to know that the Twinkie will likely survive. The bankruptcy judge ordered the Hostess management and union to go into mediation and try to resolve their differences. And if that doesn’t work, there are several baking companies interested in buying the rights to the brand to keep them in production, including Philadelphia’s own Tasty Baking Company, the makers of a local favorite, Tastykake.

While I’m glad to see the brand may live on just for the shear nostalgic factor, I can’t say I’m a fan. Twinkies have always been too sweet for my taste, and I can’t imagine the new owner – whoever that may be – will want to mess with success and change the recipe to appease me.

But that’s OK. I’ve always been a Drake’s Devil Dog kind of girl, anyway.

Movie review: Silver Linings Playbook

November 19, 2012 – David O’Russell knows a little something about making family dysfunction entertaining.

The writer/director has actively worked in Hollywood since 1987, and although he doesn’t have a huge number of films to his credit – only seven in 25 years – the small list is impressive, and includes 2010s award-winning “The Fighter”, staring Christian Bale and Amy Adams, and the rollicking 1996 Ben Stiller and Patricia Arquette film, “Flirting with Disaster”.

Like “Flirting with Disaster”, his latest release “Silver Linings Playbook”, which is earning great reviews from critics and audiences alike, deals with quirky family dysfunction in a comedic way. I loved Flirting and the unique story about Stiller’s character looking for his birth parents, but it was the type of movie that appealed only to certain moviegoers. “Silver Linings Playbook” is bound to be a major hit because it has wider appeal.

The screenplay is wrought with serious undertones, such as dealing with family dysfunction, mental illness and the harsh reality of life changing traumatic events, yet “Silver Linings Playbook” is thoroughly charming, funny and honest, and it has you rooting for its troubled and wounded characters from start to finish.

Former teacher Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) moves back home with his parents (Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver) after his release from a mental institution, a place the local authorities sent him in lieu of prison time after he severely beats a fellow co-worker having an affair with his wife. At the facility, he’s diagnosed with bipolar disorder, yet refuses to take his medicine, and is more than obsessed with reconciling with his wife, who has a restraining order against him. Things gets even more complicated when he meets the mysterious Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) who suffers from severe depression, and is dealing with a traumatic loss of her own.

Additionally, the story perfectly captures the passion of being a crazed Philadelphia sports fan, and all of the quirkiness, tradition and superstition that comes along with it. It will have Eagles’ fans cheering loudly, especially when DeNiro utters lines about “DeSean Jackson dropping the ball on the one-yard line and failing to get touchdown against the Cowboys” or how coach Andy Reid mismanaged the time clock by “wasting a time out call on that play.” Cooper, who was born and raised in Jenkintown, a Philadelphia suburb, must understand this mentality well, although in an interview to promote the movie, he mentioned throwing snowballs at Santa, a lazy “go to” critisism when taking about Eagles fans, and one still mentioned by today’s media despite it occurring nearly 45 years ago — before Bradley was born.

With wonderfully believable performances by Cooper, Lawrence, DeNiro, Weaver, and the supporting players, this fine cast had me totally mesmerized. Cooper and Lawrence, who had the most difficult, yet meaty roles, especially nailed their troubled characters. It’s easy to understand why the Oscar talk has begun.

The screenplay, based on Matthew Quick’s best selling debut novel of the same name, has disappointed some fans who say the movie diverted too far from the original story, especially in terms of casting, and claim the screenplay has several flaws. I didn’t read the book, and I was far too busy laughing and being completely drawn in to the story to notice anything wrong with it at all.

If you want to enjoy a thoroughly entertaining film this holiday season, this may be the one that best delivers. Easily, it’s the best movie I’ve seen in a long time, and my favorite of the year, so far. I can’t think of anyone – be it man or woman, the hardest to please movie critics, those who see the glass as half empty or full, or anyone who believes that every cloud has a silver lining—who wouldn’t enjoy it.

I’m probably not really that nice

November 17, 2012 — Sometimes I wonder if I’m overly considerate of others because I’m really that nice or because I can be insecure and I want people to like me.

Case in point: the woman behind me at the deli who walked right through the door I held open for her, didn’t even look at me or say thank you, or take the door to hold for the people coming out after her, leaving me to do that too.

I don’t think I would feel so angry at her if I was really that nice.

A fine way to kick off the holiday season

November 16, 2012 – Looking for something festive to do this weekend?

If you live in the Philadelphia / Bucks County area, head up to the Grand Illumination Celebration at Peddler’s Village. The annual lighting event takes place the Friday before Thanksgiving (tonight), but is open through the holidays, and features more illumination than you can imagine, along with free hot cider and marshmallow toasting by an open fire.

The Grand Illumination Celebration offers free admission and free parking, and it’s a splendid tradition that kicks off the holiday season in style. This year, the lights switch on at 6:15 p.m. and stay lit until 10 p.m. If you plan to have dinner, make a reservation at the Cock and Bull, where the chicken pot pie is among the tastiest of dishes.

If you don’t live in the area, make a turkey sandwich and kick-start the season with a great holiday movie. One of my favorites for November is “Home for the Holidays”, the ensemble feature about going home and getting together with family and friends for the most traveled day of the year, Thanksgiving.

Directed by Jodie Foster, the 1995 movie features Charles Durning, Ann Bancroft, Holly Hunter, Robert Downey Jr., Steve Guttenberg, Geraldine Chapman, Cynthia Stevenson, Dylan McDermott and Claire Danes, as a riotous group of dinner companions just trying to make it through another holiday meal. It honest family dysfunction at its most hilarious and finest, and it will surely put you in the right mood to interact your family next week.

You might also appreciate the movie’s tagline: Every year you get together with your family on the fourth Thursday in November … and wonder why.

Ladder to the Moon

November 15, 2012 — Happy birthday to eminent American abstractionist Georgia O’Keeffe, born this day in 1887.

Thank you for giving us so many beautiful pieces of art, Georgia, especially the one below, 1958s “Ladder to the Moon”. Looking at it makes me believe anything is possible.

Pulitzer Prize winning dreams

November 14, 2012 – Why do we dream? And what makes us choose what to dream about?

These are questions I’ve been asking myself for most of my life, and I’ve never come up with answers that satisfy me.

If I am to believe Freud’s theory that dreams are simply “disguised fulfillments of repressed wishes,” I’m even more perplexed. Just the other night, for example, I was tried for murder in a British court, with a former neighbor acting as my counsel. She lost the case and I was sentenced to hang, which is not a repressed wish, or something I can dissect to figure out the meaning.

Several years ago, I read “Creative Dreaming” by Patricia L. Garfield to further educate myself on the state of dreaming. The book told the story of a man who had a recurring dream where night after night was chased by something horrible, and when he tried to escape by bicycle he’d always get a flat tire. He told his psychiatrist about the dream, who suggested that he simply fix the tire the next time it happens and ride away. The man replied that he didn’t know how to fix a flat tire, so the psychiatrist suggested he learn. He did, and was able to fix the tire in the dream, ride away from what was chasing him, and end the nightmare for good.

The story proves that we all have the power to control our dreams. I personally don’t remember any instances where I’ve actually controlled the outcome of a dream, but I am often aware I am dreaming, so I can tell myself not to panic if it’s particularly bad.

I’ve also had dreams that I refer to as miniseries, where I’m dreaming, I wake up for a moment, fall back asleep, and continue the same dream. I suppose a certain amount of control on my part is needed to make that happen.

Another theory referred to as activation-synthesis came from researchers J. Allan Hobson and Robert McClarley. Their theory suggests that circuits in the brain become activated during REM sleep, which the brain synthesizes and attempts to find meaning behind, resulting in a dream. Hobson says that “dreams are our most creative conscious state, one in which the chaotic, spontaneous recombination of cognitive elements produces new ideas. While many of these ideas may be nonsensical, if even a few of its fanciful products are truly useful, our dream time will have not been wasted.”

I can relate to that. Most of the time, my dreams are bizarre and make little sense. But on occasion, I have been lucky enough to dream story ideas that feed my passion for writing fiction, indicating that we are all writers in our dreams. Surely the topics of our dreams come from the same part of our imagination that spark ideas for all works of fiction. Some of us — like the prize-winning Norman Mailers or Alice Walkers of the world — just do it better than others.