It’s not your father’s Disney World

UntitledAugust 30, 2013 – Think you’re the ultimate theme park connoisseur?

If you’ve been to Disney more than 10 times you probably are. You may also want to seek help for your addiction and admit it’s time to broaden your horizons before you plan your next theme park excursion.

In honor of the unofficial close of summer this Labor Day weekend, here are “10 Bizarre Theme Parks from Around the World” courtesy of listverse.com, the people who love compiling lists as much as I do.

It may be too late to plan your summer vacation to one of these oddly fascinating theme parks this year, but look at the bright side. You’ll have plenty of time to plan next year’s trip.  Between the 10 stages of hell, Vlad the Impaler, a crucifixion, and war mongering, there is something for the entire family.

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The joy of serial fiction: Unraveling, Part 4

Unraveling RopePart 1, Part 2, Part 3

Unraveling, Part 4

Once Jess left to check on the elderly neighbor, Kevin moseyed over to the bookshelf near the window. He smiled at all of the photos she placed throughout her book collection. It surprised him that she wanted to keep them displayed since most were photos taken on their vacations over the last ten years. From their honeymoon in Aruba, to the last trip they had taken together at the Grand Canyon right before the incident that forever changed them, she had the photos surrounding her treasured books. That had to be a good sign.

He picked up the photo of them that he fondly referred to as the “after” shot, taken shortly after she had gotten sick on a twin passenger plane flying over the Misty Fjords in Alaska. Beside it sat the photo of them taken on Martha’s Vineyard a few hours after a jellyfish had stung her foot. Their trips together always ended with some crazy thing happening to her, and it became expected. She twisted her ankle hiking at the Grand Canyon, and cut knee while climbing rocks in Zion National Park, and the list went on.

The shot of them taken on the windjammer cruise they’d taken to Nova Scotia sat on the top shelf. She surprised him with that trip for their fifth anniversary. He talked up the idea of taking a windjammer cruise as a honeymoon, but she argued it would be more work than vacation. Ironically, Jess turned out to be the sailor of the couple. She also cut her finger pretty badly on that trip trying to tie a sail, and of all her minor accidents, that one scared him the most. It took over twenty stitches to close the cut, and it had to be sewn on deck since they weren’t close to a  hospital.

“Doesn’t look like there are any photos of lover boy,” he mumbled. Another good sign. He wanted Jess to agree to try again, but with Gary in the picture, chances were less than spectacular.

A few years younger than Jess, Kevin couldn’t understand Gary’s appeal. In Jess’s eyes, Kevin gave up on his dream to become an artist. Gary pursued his dream and became a published author, his short stories featured in literary magazines and periodicals. It didn’t matter to her that she hadn’t achieved the same success. She didn’t hold herself up to the same standards she did with the two men in her life. Perhaps she needed to be with someone who was creatively successful because she was not. Perhaps he simply provided relief because she didn’t see the pain every time she looked into his eyes the way she did with him after their heartbreak last year.

He heard her coming back up the stairs and quickly sat again on the sofa. He didn’t want to be accused of being a snoop. Kevin firmly believed he gained solid reconciliation ground today, and he didn’t want to make her suspicious.

“Mrs. Phillips is fine,” she said as she entered. “Her son is on the way over to get her. She’s going to spend the next few days with him in case the electricity is out for a while.”

“I’m glad she won’t have to be alone,” he replied. “I guess you’re glad you’re not alone, too. I mean, with the storm and all.”

After she placed the candle down, she sat next to him again and grinned. “How do you expect me to answer that question, Kevin? I’ve been alone through storms before. And I’m not afraid of the dark.”

He shrugged it off, knowing that she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of telling him she was happy he was there. “I’m sorry,” he said softly. “I forgot that I was the one who always needed to be saved. If I remember correctly, you saved me in Jamaica.”

# # #

Eleven years before…

“Thanks for sparing me the single’s cruise,” Kevin said, picking up a Corona with a fresh lime, taking a thirst-quenching gulp. “You’ve truly saved my life.”

Jess smiled. “It’s the least I could do with the storm coming and all. I wouldn’t want you out on the ocean during a hurricane.” Jess dressed comfortably chic in white cotton sundress. She wore a simple pair of gold hoop earrings as an accent, and tied her reddish-brown hair into a neat twist with a few loose strands framing her face.

“I wouldn’t worry about that too much,” he said. He also dressed casually in a pair of khaki shorts and a crisp white cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up. She liked that look much better than his poolside attire. He looked clean and shiny, like the typical all American beach boy. She was glad she agreed to have dinner with him.

“Tell me something about you,” he continued.

Jess smiled. “What do you want to know?” she asked sipping a glass of white wine.

“What brings you to paradise?”

She leaned back in the comfortable wicker chair and smiled. “Probably same as you,” she said. “I needed a vacation. I was supposed to come with a few friends, but they all had to back out at the last minute.”

He was impressed. “So, you came alone,” he replied. “That’s pretty brave. I admire that.”

She smiled. “If that makes me brave, then I’ve always been brave. I enjoy spending time by myself. I suppose writers always do. It comes with the trade.”

He seemed even more impressed. “You’re a writer? What’s your passion?” he asked.

“Mostly short stories. My goal is to publish a novel, but I haven’t decided what I want to write about yet.” She watched him and noticed he listened to every word she said. “In the meantime,” she continued, “I’m freelancing for local magazines and newspapers.”

“Any luck?”

“I’ve had some published in college, and I wrote for the school newspaper, but I’ve run into a recent dry spell. I only hope it doesn’t mean my best writing days have passed.”

“I’m sure that’s not the case,” he said. “So, what pays the bills?”

“I manage a bookstore in Chestnut Hill.” She wondered what he did for a living. His hands were smooth, so it wasn’t too physical.

“Chestnut Hill?”

“It’s a neighborhood in Philadelphia. Sort of a harbor for artists, writers, and photographers.”

He nodded. “Oh, yes, I had dinner there a few years ago. A friend from college had a small exhibit at an art gallery there. It’s the perfect atmosphere for an aspiring writer.”

“It is,” she agreed. “And the store is a wonderful little shop. They put a coffee bar inside recently to lure more shoppers, although I still don’t understand who would need incentive to visit a bookstore. I guess they just want to compete with the bigger chains.”

He smiled. “Have you been there long?”

“I worked there through college, so I guess I know the trade pretty well. It’s great experience because it caters to local writers and they come through for book signings. I get to pick their brain and meet all sorts of talent.”

He seemed to be intrigued and she liked that.

“What do you like to write about?”

“I try to touch the important things in life, such as family, passion, and love when writing fiction. And as far as nonfiction, I’ve had several articles published on environmental issues.” She ran her fingers around the rim of her wine glass and smiled. “So, what do you do from nine to five?”

“I’m a painter,” he said leaning into her. She felt the excitement build. They were nothing short of electrifying already.

He was another creative type and a definite kindred spirit. That was even more thrilling. “What do you paint?”

“Houses, buildings, rooms. You name it we paint it.”

She blushed. “Oh, I thought you meant the artistic type of painter.”

He shrugged. “That’s actually what I studied. I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship to the Tyler School of Art in Philly and I got my degree in fine arts. But it’s tough to make a living at it, at least while you’re alive,” he said grinning. “And since I wasn’t about to cut off my ear to achieve fame, I tried graphic arts. I worked in an ad agency for a few years, but I hated being cooped up all day in that environment. I found it creatively stifling.”

“Do you still paint? Artistically, I mean?”

“Oh, sure. I considered bringing my paints with me, but it was too much to carry. I’ll just have to go home and create Jamaica from memory.” He smiled.

“I’ve always wondered how an artist could part with his work,” she said. “Once it is sold, it is gone forever. A writer is able to hold onto his creation. Has that happened to you?”

“Sometimes it’s difficult to part with paintings, he said. “I’ve sold some here and there. I almost had a gallery in Allentown interested in doing a show of my work last year, but unfortunately it fell through.”

“What happened?”

“The place had to close down because the owner had been fencing stolen art.”

She laughed. “Oh, my. Sounds like I could incorporate that into an interesting novel. At least it had nothing to do with your painting.”

He shrugged. “I suppose I can look at it that way,” he said. “The point is it fell through.”

She sighed. “I hate when that happens.”

“But I will never give up,” he replied with a sheepish grin. “Especially not when I just found something worth living for.”

To be continued on Wednesday, September 4, 2013…

Seeing the world in black and white

imagesCAM5MGDHAugust 26, 2013 The United States voted for its first black president not once but twice in history-making elections in 2008 and 2012. After the first election in 2008, although I didn’t vote for President Obama, I did feel a certain pride that the country was changing for the better in terms of race relations. What other proof do we need that this country has come a long way since the days before the civil rights movement?

Last week, Lee Daniels, the director of “The Butler” said that he believes that since President Obama has taken office, racial tensions have gotten worse. I saw him interviewed recently on “Charlie Rose” and he talked a lot about racism. He made the comment about racial tensions getting worse on “The Piers Morgan Show,” and I came away from both interviews assuming that he believes that the people who criticize the president, and have since the first day he’s taken office are the problem. No doubt there are some people who cannot accept a black president, but if most people who criticize him are racist, President Obama wouldn’t have gotten elected in the first place.

A recent Gallup poll sort of backs up Daniels’ claim by reporting that one in four Americans believe racial tensions are worse now than they were four years ago. I live on the east coast, where races are relatively tolerant of each other, so this is hard to swallow. Interracial relationships and marriages are common, for example, and intolerance may disappear naturally due to the younger generation who often believe race is a nonissue.

This is not true in every area of the country, however. Where tension has escalated, it often appears that the media plays a big role by focusing on our differences, and trying to create racism where there is none. Last week alone, some of the articles that I came across included “Why White People Don’t Have Black Friends,” and “The Politics of Being Friends with White People.”

Still, we can’t blame the media for everything. We have to point the finger at ourselves because we ultimately make the decision about how we feel about people. Here’s a startling glimpse at how we feel right now, according to a recent Rasmussen Reports National Telephone Survey from April:

  • Thirty-seven percent of American adults think most black Americans are racist, while 15 percent believe most white Americans are racist, and 18 percent say the same about Hispanic Americans. Overall, 30 percent of Americans believe race relations in the U.S. are good or excellent, while 14 percent describe them as poor, and 29 percent believe they are getting better.

What can we do to improve racial relations? Do we continue to educate our children to believe that we are equal? Do we teach them by example how to get along with those of different races? Do we create more diversity programs?

Perhaps the most important questions of all: What is wrong with us? Why can’t we get along?

Graduates question whether a degree is worth it

graduationAugust 23, 2013 – If you are a student or the parent of a student heading back to college, here is something to consider.

A recent online poll indicates a whopping 65% of college graduates believe their education has had no impact on their job situation. In other words, what they learned in college is not helping them in their current jobs.

The poll also says that while 25% of respondents believe a college education is an appropriate training program for their career, only 10% believe it is “very effective” at preparing graduates for the working world. Chances are those 10% work in industries where higher education is necessary, such as engineering or medicine. Still, considering that most people go into serious debt to earn a college diploma, these are eye-opening statistics.

The poll sponsored by the University of Phoenix and conducted by Harris International, surveyed 1,600 employed adults in April. I am not sure that the survey indicates college is not important, but it strongly suggests higher education practices should adapt to the current needs of the workplace.

Count me in as one of the 65%. As an adult student, who went back to school after more than 20 years in the workforce, I often wonder if it was worth it. On a social level, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and the friendships I created with my fellow classmates. I also took classes that led to great discussion and opened my mind to possibilities. Yet, if you pressed me to name something specific that helps me in my day-to-day duties as an internal communications manager, I would not be able to answer easily.

Granted, the degree may have helped when I began my job search after a layoff from a company that employed me for 23 years. I may not have the job I have now without it, or I may not have had much response for interviews during my job pursuit without having mentioned the degree on my resume.

It seems that ultimately, I paid to say I have a degree. That is not very comforting when I pay that student loan every month.

The joy of serial fiction: Unraveling, Part 3

Unraveling RopePart 1, Part 2

Unraveling, Part 3

Eleven years earlier…

The sweet sound of reggae music enticed her, but the tantalizing aroma of grilled stuffed lobster lured her to the poolside bar.

Those back home considered Jess Williams brave for making this trip alone. Fresh from college with a mere 23 years behind her, she believed in all possibilities, and she came to Jamaica ready to start a new chapter in her life.

The vacation had been planned long before college graduation. Her girlfriends backed out at the last minute for their own reasons, yet Jess followed through on the plan remembering her creative writing teacher’s advice to her during her freshman year. She asked him where a writer’s ideas came from. He looked at her and with a tone that would have made the head of the drama department proud said, “Go out, and live your life. Then you’ll find something to write about.”

As she sat at the pool bar, she scoped the crowd looking for other solo vacationers. She noticed plenty of couples, probably on their honeymoon, a few packs of young men and women vying for each other’s attention, some older folks, and several families with young children. She seemed to be the only lone eagle in the crowd.

“And what you be wantin’, miss?” a Rasta bartender asked her with a thick Jamaican accent. By the name tag he wore on his bright flowered shirt, she could see his name was Watson and he was from Montego Bay. “You be lookin’ like the Pina Colada type to me.”

She smiled, and the band began playing a funky rendition of “Red, Red Wine”. “That sounds perfect,” she replied.

He winked, flashed his toothy white grin, and went on his way to mix her drink. Dressed in a comfortable floral sun dress, she felt feminine and even a bit exotic, and she crossed her long tanned legs proud to show off the color she already acquired after a trip to the tanning salon back home.

Watson placed the luscious cocktail before her, and walked away to fill other drink requests. She bit into the luscious piece of fresh pineapple that accompanied every Pina Colada, and her mouth came alive.

“There’s nothing like the taste of fresh pineapple,” she heard a man’s voice say. It startled her, and she felt embarrassed as the juice ran down her chin. She quickly tried to wipe it away, and turned to see a handsome stranger standing next to her. His sandy hair and sky blue eyes were striking. She guessed he was about her age, and that he’d probably been here for a few days already since he his skin shone like warm copper. Dressed down in a pair of cut off faded jeans and a yellow tee-shirt, he stood out from the rest of the crowd clad in Speedo’s and Bermuda shorts. She hated to think of herself as shallow and disliked his attire, yet she felt immediately drawn to him.

“It’s wonderful,” she said as she wiped the remaining juice from her mouth and chin. “There’s nothing like wearing it, either.”

He smiled and her heart began to race. “I need your help,” he said mysteriously.

She crumbled up the napkin after wiping her face, feeling intrigued. “You do?”

He nodded. “My friends over there want me to go on the singles sunset cruise with them tonight.” He pointed to a group of young men who could have been mistaken for a college fraternity on spring break by the way they were carrying on. They were loud and boisterous, and having a good time.

“What’s wrong with that?” she asked, curious about where this conversation would lead. The combination of a mystery and a handsome man thrilled her.

He grinned and shrugged. “You’ve obviously never been on a singles cruise before.”

Jess shook her head. “No, but what’s so horrible about it?” Then she whispered, “Are you married? Is that why it would be a problem?”

He laughed as she felt a bonfire light up her spine. “No, I’m single. They’ll probably ask me to wear a silly name tag with Sonny Bono on it, and then make me go find the woman wearing Cher. Then we’ll be forced to spend the rest of the evening together. It’s positively awful to force that on someone.”

She grinned. “That actually sounds kind of interesting,” she replied. “So, what do you need me to do? Or should I speak in secret code,” she added trying to add to the mystery. “What is my mission if I choose to accept it?”

“That’s simple,” he said offering another one of his amazing smiles. “Have dinner with me tonight and I won’t have to go.”

She realized she liked playing this game with him. “You’re a big boy now. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.”

He laughed. “You don’t know my friends. They’re quite persuasive when they want to be.”

Glancing at his crowd again, she noticed all five of them were watching his every move carefully. She smiled. “I know the type,” she said. “Your big city boys are cheering you on, aren’t they?”

“I’m not sure what that means, but I’m as small town as you can get. Allentown, Pennsylvania born and raised.”

She smiled. “I’m from Philadelphia. We’re neighbors.”

“It’s nice to meet you, neighbor.” He smiled again and touched her hand.

“My name is Jess Williams, by the way,” she offered, extending her hand like a businessperson. “I bet your frat boys want a full report when you go back.”

He frowned. “Frat boys. Nah, nothing like that. I’d just prefer your company tonight instead.”

Maybe he didn’t fit into the mold she tried to squeeze into. She decided to go with a softer approach. “I’m sorry if I offended you. I’m usually not so arrogant. I was just playing along.”

He took her hand and gently kissed it in a way that wasn’t very businesslike at all, and she felt herself blush.

“Kevin Montgomery at your service,” he said. “And you didn’t offend me. I’m afraid I was the arrogant one, but you handled me brilliantly. Since you know me so well, and we’re from the same part of the planet, you must have dinner with me. That, Jess Williams, is your mission,” he said with a smile. “And fortunately for me the messenger won’t self-destruct in 60 seconds.”

Jess grinned again. “I must?” She realized that she’d better tone it down a bit. She didn’t want to scare him away.

He shrugged. “OK, I’d like you to. Is that better?”

She nodded. “I always did believe in helping my neighbors.”

# # #

The storm outside still raged, but emotions inside were beginning to calm. Kevin wanted to believe sharing memories of Jamaica improved their mood, but it could have been the ambiance in the room and the soft glow of burning candles. They always had a mellowing effect on Jess.

“We were so corny then,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I can’t believe I said that to you. I’ve always believed helping my neighbors. And that stuff about what’s the mission if I choose to accept it. It’s a wonder you even wanted to have dinner with me that stupid conversation.”

He let out a hearty laugh and it felt good. “We weren’t being corny or stupid. We were just doing the dance. You know, the mating ritual. It’s usually the part people look back on and remember fondly.”

She smiled. “I remember it fondly, Kevin,” she said giving him a playful kick. “It’s just embarrassing now. I sounded like a dork.”

Dork or not, she looked beautiful and relaxed sitting on the sofa with her knees pulled up to her chin, and her arms draped around them. The candlelight from the kitchen caught the fire in her eyes, and he felt a sudden urge to kiss her. He swallowed hard hoping to make that feeling go away. They had too much work to do to be caught up in something that would disappear once the lights came back on.

“But I still believe in helping my neighbors, so I better call downstairs and see about Mrs. Phillips. She just got out of the hospital last week, and she’s probably a little scared by the storm.” The elderly woman seemed fine to him when he saw her on the way up the stairs. She opened the door and gave him a queer look when he passed, just as she usually did.

Kevin watched her pick up her cell phone. She had a good heart, despite their differences. He knew he’d gotten to her by reminiscing about the past. She was running away from it now with her sudden desire to check on a neighbor, but the memory got to her. Deep down the same free spirit he met in Jamaica existed. He just had to find a way to bring it out in her.

“I keep getting a message that all circuits are busy,” she said. “Do you mind if I run down and check on her? I’ll only be a few minutes.”

He shook his head. “Of course not. Just be careful.” The hallway is probably dark, so why don’t you take a candle with you?”

To be continued on Wednesday, August 28, 2013.

Movie review: Blue Jasmine

bluejasmine_homeAugust 19, 2013 – It has been said that Woody Allen channels Italian director and scriptwriter Federico Fellini when he makes a film. Allen admits to his inspiration, and says that Fellini is among his favorites, if not his favorite director. Both filmmakers are also known for a well-defined blend of fantasy and reality in their work.

Perhaps Allen is a great admirer of playwright Tennessee Williams, as well. “Blue Jasmine” bears a striking similarity to “A Streetcar Named Desire”, and could be considered a modernized version of the story. At minimum, the Allen film pays homage to the playwright’s characterization.

Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine, a fading Park Avenue wife who loses her wealth and everything else when her husband is arrested for fraud and a multitude of other charges, is forced to move in with her working class sister. She shares similar personality traits to Southern belle Blanche DuBois, and Blanchett gives a stunning performance in the role.

There are subtle hints of DuBois throughout the film. I noticed it most when watching the scene with Jasmine speaking to her two nephews while dining at a restaurant. Blanchett plays the troubled drama queen to the hilt, while the two young boys look at her strangely and have no clue what she is talking about.

Jasmine’s younger sister Ginger, played by Sally Hawkins, is Stella-like in the sense that she is mild-mannered, is involved with a man whom Jasmine considers “low class”, and she eventually becomes torn between her sister and her boyfriend. Unlike Stella, Ginger is stronger than Jasmine, and has a firm grip on reality.

Jasmine is blue indeed throughout the film, and has difficulty adapting to her new circumstances. Hardly what you would call likeable, Jasmine’s elitist attitude is difficult to swallow as she talks down to many of the supporting characters in this story, played dead on by Alec Baldwin, Louis C.K., Andrew Dice Clay, Peter Skarsgaard, and Bobby Cannavale. Despite her arrogance, I still found myself rooting for her to succeed because she is damaged, frail, and is unable to make it on her own. That is her saving grace.

Allen’s last dark drama, “Match Point” may be considered a cleverer story than “Blue Jasmine”. However, Jasmine is strangely entertaining  because of the performances of the cast. It is difficult to be entertained by such sadness, yet it is always enjoyable watching strong performances. The film is also relevant, since we are all familiar with the crimes of Bernie Madoff and its effect on New York society.

While I prefer the comedic Allen to the darker Allen, “Blue Jasmine” is a fine film. I won’t be surprised if there are a few Oscar nominations come January.

Rating: 3.5 – Cate Blanchett’s superb performance, albeit sad, is worth the price of admission alone. No need to see it on the big screen unless like me, you prefer the atmosphere of a dark theater. It will be out on DVD soon enough.

Rating system:

5. Great Movie, see it now
4. Good movie and worth the price of admission
3. It’s OK, but I’d wait for the DVD
2. Proceed with caution
1. Don’t bother

The best pizza in America?

thAugust 16, 2013 – Visitors heading to the Jersey Shore this weekend will likely dine at one of the many pizza restaurants located in the resort towns or on the boardwalks. Along with soft serve ice cream, French fries cooked in peanut oil, and funnel cake, pizza is classic seashore cuisine.

If you visit Wildwood, N.J., for example, you may have debated whether Mack’s or Sam’s serves the best slice on the boardwalk. In Ocean City, N.J., the place to visit is Manco and Manco (formerly Mack and Manco before a feud caused the Mack family to exit Ocean city and concentrate on their business in Wildwood, and the Mancos to change the name), although a few might argue Prep’s Pizza rules there.

No matter what pizza or shore point you choose, some of the best in the country is available at the Jersey Shore. Yet, no cities or towns in North or South New Jersey made it onto “TripAdvisor’s 2013 Top 10 Cities for Pizza”. Chicago, home of the famous deep-dish pizza, doesn’t make the list, either.

Boston, New York, and Philly do appear and deservedly so; there’s something about the water and the altitude on the east coast that makes for the best pizza dough, rolls and bagels, and it can’t be duplicated anywhere else in the country.

So, what’s the #1 best city for pizza? Oddly, San Diego claims the top spot. When I think of San Diego, Mexican cuisine comes to mind, or seafood, but pizza, not so much. I’ve never had pizza in San Diego, yet I’m fairly certain no pizzeria in Southern California can top those on the east coast.

Here’s the full top 10 list for the best pizza cities in America:

  1. San Diego
  2. Las Vegas
  3. Boston
  4. New York City
  5. Seattle
  6. Austin, Texas
  7. San Francisco
  8. Indianapolis
  9. Philadelphia
  10. Phoenix

Philadelphia and New York belong higher up on the list, and just to make sense of this, I’ll believe the creators included North Jersey pizza restaurants in with New York City’s stats, and South Jersey restaurants with Philadelphia’s. It’s the only way this list can be somewhat credible.