Saturday, February 28, 2015

Movie Review: Focus

Is she about to pickpocket him? FOCUS, Will, focus!

Will Smith reminds us why we liked him in the first place. (We never forgot why we like Margot Robbie.)

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In Focus, Will Smith plays Nicky, a confident, smooth-talking con man who runs an organization of professional pickpockets and scammers. Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street) plays Jess, a woman who leverages her looks to make cash through petty crimes and wants in on Nicky's next big scheme. There's an instant attraction between the two (who meet at a bar where she's relieving a drunk fool of his wallet), but because of the nature of the biz they're in, you can never be sure if they're playing each other, if they're being real with each other, or if there's a really, really long con afoot.

After Jess first pleads with Nicky to take her under his wing, he instead takes her out into the snow and gives her a lesson in focus (ahem), set to a jazzy, new-age instrumental that would've been more appropriate if they were in a W hotel lobby. That mood music was as out of place as a darker scene was near the end of the film. But in the middle of those two moments was a whole lot of fun and a bunch of pretty things to look at.

This is one of those movies where you'll catch yourself rooting for the "bad" guy—fast-paced pickpocketing sequences had me smiling ear to ear, amazed at how Nicky's team could lift countless wallets and watches while weaving through clueless crowds in New Orleans. Then about two seconds later I was like, "Wait, that's awful." And ever since I've been constantly touching my coat pockets and shifting my purse around when I'm walking outside because I'm convinced I'll be ripped off at any minute. So thanks for that, Will. Or I guess really I should be thank-scolding writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who clearly know a little something about charming bad boys (see Crazy, Stupid, Love).

Anyway, Jess proves herself by being able to up the stakes and improvise on the spot during the pickpocketing spree. The team pulls in $1.2 million for their efforts, and that's when we learn Nicky might not be the best person to trust with all of that cash.

To con or not to con?Eventually, Nicky gets an opportunity to make so many millions that he'll be set for life. The only problem is that Jess may or may not be on the other side of the scam, which involves Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), a hotshot race car driver, and his right-hand crony Owens (Gerald McRaney, doing his best "Mike from Breaking Bad" impression).

There was so much glamour, so many expensive suits, so many expensive shades, so many cool cons and so much fun trash talk between Nicky, Jess and their crew throughout most of the film that it felt good to have the old Will Smith back. (Was the "take a knee" line Nicky uttered a jokey reference to the terrible After Earth, by the way? I don't even care, I'm telling myself it was.) But then Ficarra and Requa had to go and screw it up with a lame attempt at one last twist that reached too far and fell totally flat.

I'm still glad that Focus helped remind me why I liked Smith in the first place—I've been a fan since the Fresh Prince days and even saw him in concert. The film's a weird mix of heist flick and romantic dramedy, but it mostly works thanks to Smith and Robbie's looks (let's be honest) and performances. Just be forewarned that you're going to be conned out of a decent ending.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Movie Review: Fifty Shades of Grey

This movie is going to make ten bazillion dollars.
It'll leave fans wanting more—and everyone else wondering what all the fuss is about.
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It was February 2012. I had seven weeks off after my son was born, and everything people had told me about not getting any sleep or not having any extra time when you're at home with a newborn wasn't turning out to be true. I had several hours free each day while he napped. I asked a friend what I should read during that downtime.

"Have you heard about Fifty Shades of Grey?" she asked. I hadn't. "Well, they're calling it 'mommy porn,' but everyone I know is reading it." Hmm.

I finished the entire Fifty Shades trilogy shortly thereafter in just a few sittings. Early on I was unnerved by the similarities to Twilight... until I learned how E.L. James' story was originally some sort of Twilight fanfic... and then it all made sense. James is a horrendous writer, butlike Stephenie Meyer before hershe's at least an intriguing storyteller. I was curious enough to learn what would become of kinky billionaire Christian Grey and his air-head "girlfriend" Anastasia Steele that I saw the trilogy through despite my shame at reading something that was so awfully written. Less than a month later, the book visited me again via the cover of the Entertainment Weekly that arrived on my doorstep. A movie was in the works.

And now, three years later, that movie has arrived. I can't say I liked the novels, but I have friends who could be classified as super-rabid-crazy-obsessed fans. For their sake, I was hoping that director Sam Taylor-Johnson (Nowhere Boy) did Christian and Ana (and their, um, unusual relationship) justice. And I believe that she did.
Make of this what you will.
Actually, it was likely a combination of Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks) that saved the film from becoming a complete laughingstock. While they chose to keep in the majority of fan-favorite quotes and scenes from the book, gone are the absolute worst, most grating, and most disturbing parts. Which means film-only audiences will never know of the ultra-annoying "inner goddess" who dominates Anastasia's thoughts and is constantly, constantly yapping. Only once will they be subjected to a silly exclamation from Ana that starts with "Holy." They will see a very watered-down version of Christian the Mentally Abusive Control Freak; he comes off as a stalker in his pursuit of Ana, sure—but she's much more empowered in the adaptation.

However, the problem with taking out such big parts of the book is that you've got to replace them with something or there's just not much left to fill two hours. That's the biggest issue with Fifty Shades of Grey: it's about a recent college grad falling for a troubled, rich-as-hell businessman five years her senior who wants her to sign a contract to become his "submissive" in a BDSM relationship. The contract becomes the focus of the plot, which makes zero sense because 1) despite Christian (Jamie Dornan) claiming he "doesn't do romance," he makes almost all grand gestures associated with courtship, and 2) they sleep together, both in and out of his "playroom" without Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) ever signing the contract. What?!?

Knowing what happens in the next two novels, I'm surprised Johnson and Marcel didn't decide to tease a bit more of the trilogy's larger mysteries. Because honestly the whole contract thing became totally pointless.

I kinda wish they would've just let him BE Irish
So it came down to whether or not the leads could carry the film despite the weak plot. I just finished a two-season binge of The Fall, the Netflix series in which Dornan plays a serial killer. (It will 100% give you nightmares, but it's fantastic.) Because of that series, there was no doubt in my mind that Dornan is an incredible actor. In fact, some might argue that his character in The Fall has many things in common with Christian Grey. However, in Fifty Shades, his performance took a backseat to Johnson's. Perhaps that was intentional. Perhaps he was just supposed to show up and look good. Perhaps there didn't need to be any more to his character than the fact that he was a brooding billionaire with a kinky side. Lord knows the majority of female characters these days are one-note. If there was anything that made it tough for me to buy him as Christian, it was how he seemed to be struggling to contain his Irish accent.

As for Dakota Johnson, I knew nothing about her going into the film, except that she's Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson's daughter. I didn't see that in her looks, but man was it there when she opened her mouth. She's got her mom's same high, breathless voice. In an early scene where she first meets Christian, she trips and falls into his office and acts all doofus-embarrassed I was like, "Oh sweet jesus this is going to be awful." But she won me over not too long after that during a scene where Ana drunk-dials Christian from a bar. It was genuinely funny, and the fact that she was able to maintain a tricky balance of naivety, lightness and "I may be young but I wasn't born yesterday" tough-headed-nessespecially in a surprisingly humorous "negotiation" sequence where Ana strikes certain sexual acts from the aforementioned ridiculous contractmade the film's darker ending more powerful. And though the chemistry between Johnson and Dornan doesn't equal that of, say, a "Robsten" (who were dating in real life, remember), it is there.
Laters, baby.
Are you being like I was when I read the first book and wondering, "Where's all the sex?" Rest assured that there are sex scenes, and quite a few of them, but something tells me that the series' fans are going to be left disappointed on this front. Tune in to Game of Thrones any given Sunday and you'll find more freakiness that you're going to get between the film versions of Christian and Ana.

I was prepared to be just as embarrassed to admit I enjoyed Fifty Shades of Grey the movie as I was to admit I'd read the Fifty Shades trilogy. But the truth is that it's just not the horrible B-movie we were all expecting it to be. It's heavy on escapism, lighter-than-expected on sex and pretty much non-existent in plot, but I had fun watching it. And that's more than I can say about the majority of plot-challenged, testosterone-fueled, badly acted shoot-'em-up movies I've seen over the years. If this is what's meant by a "girls' night out" movie, I say bring it on.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Another Home Project I Should've Done Years Ago

We have two fairly low front windows that I've always liked because they're the perfect height for both Desmond and our dog to be able to entertain themselves by watching the action on our busy street. 

The problem is that our dog is, um, a little over-anxious when we leave sometimes. He jumps up on our window sill with his two front paws and barks like a madman at both us ("Come back!") and anyone else he sees ("Stay away!"). This destroyed the paint on our sill, and a year or so ago I stupidly thought that if we just sanded down and repainted the area and then always remembered to leave our blinds down when we left, we would be able to keep the sill nice-looking.

Our longtime handyman tried to warn us against this. But we didn't listen. So we got the sill repainted and then within about three days the paint was getting scratched by our dog. Then Des would roll all of his toy cars and trucks over those scratches and they'd break open and the paint would start flaking off. I kicked myself.

Here's a picture I took a few weeks ago. It got significantly worse after that.

Classy!

So finally I determined that I needed to just follow our handyman's advice and have them install a wooden plank over the sill. We finally had it done today.

Bring on the dog nails and monster truck toys

Just like the sprucing up of my home office, this is another project I should've done years ago! Ah, well. Better late than never, I guess.

- e


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Joy of Remembering a Great Song

With so many platforms available to both find and listen to music these days, you can easily make a mix of your past and present favorites for your daily enjoyment. But you have to be able to remember those songs first.

Push it, push it some mo-oreMy issue is that I've simply forgotten about many of my really old favorites. Ones that were a little less popular in the mainstream so they never show up on an '80s channel or a Spotify/Amazon/iTunes/whatever pre-made playlist. Ones that I have to hear randomly on a TV show or in a movie or maybe once in a blue moon on the radio and then immediately email myself about them so I don't lose them again forever.

One such song that I recently rediscovered was a pretty cheesy one from my college years: "Sweat (A La La La La Long)," by Inner Circle. (I thought it was called "Girl, I'm Gonna Make You Sweat" until I just looked it up. I also didn't realize it was by the same group who sings "Bad Boys"—what?!?)

This song was part of the lunchtime mix at the hotel we stayed at this past November in Curaçao. The first time I heard it there I totally spazzed out—it brought back great memories of Spring Breaks gone by. How I ensured I would remember it is that I took a video of Desmond eating lunch while it was playing in the background. If you feel like grooving to a reggae beat today, here's the official video. (I won't subject you to the one of a toddler eating fries.)

He ain't no sweet-talkin' RomeoAnother one I was even more excited about surprised me during the movie Wild (which was one of my top picks of 2014, by the way). As you may know, the film is based on the true story of Cheryl Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon) who walks more than 1,000 miles across Pacific Coast Trail to make peace with her past. Music is incorporated in a very cool way throughout the movie, and at one point she's hiking and a song starts playing quietly in the background. She says something like, "Sing it with me, Bruce," and it grows louder. And then I could tell it was "Tougher than the Rest," which is one of my all-time favorite Springsteen songs. It was never released as a single in the U.S., but was on his Tunnel of Love album, and I went to that concert tour back in the day. It's now also on the Wild soundtrack.

Oh, how I used to looooooooove that song. I was overjoyed to hear it in Wild. It was like being reunited with a long-lost friend. But since I was in the middle of a theater, I couldn't email myself and then of course forgot about it by the time the credits rolled. Thankfully I watched the film again at home about a month later (a perk of the job: awards-screener DVDs) and then I was able to immediately remind myself to get it on my current playlist. Phew. Now I, too, can say, "Sing it with me, Bruce!"

- e

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

I'll Stop Procrastinating... Tomorrow.

Truth
Yesterday I enjoyed several hours of "free time" where I didn't have any client calls, appointments or deadlines. I had work to do, mind you, it's just that none of it was due yesterday.

So what did I do? I wrote a long blog post. I did a bunch of annoying administrative things. I went to the gym for a full hour. I took a shower. I got lunch at a nearby restaurant (a very rare thing indeed, as usually I just snack, per my post last week). It was a nice day.

But today—and likely the rest of the week—I'm screwed. On top of the work I knew I'd have to get to today, five other client-related projects hit this morning. And now I'm cursing myself for not being more productive yesterday.

I always do this. And the reality is that I know I'll never stop. I am very, very good at justifying lighter days even though I know doing so will lead to a stressful and packed remainder of the week.

What I've learned about myself is that I work best under pressure. And since I don't have a boss per se, that pressure needs to come from me. I know that if I actually turned in crappy work or made a ton of mistakes when trying to hit a tight deadline, I wouldn't put myself in this position. But that's not the case—I am more creative, more focused, and more on my A-game when I have a ton of stuff hanging over my head.

I'm in!But recently I figured out that I do enjoy having my nights off. By that I mean that for at least two and a half years after Des was born, I would work for several more hours once he was in bed after I'd already put in a full day. It sucked. I like to wind down each night with a TV show or a book, and I'd made that impossible for myself. So lately I've managed to find this seemingly perfect balance: I'll let things pile up until I really HAVE to get going on them... but never so much that it trickles into my sacred 8 - 11 p.m. Me Time zone.

There are days I wish that I could just find the motivation to do my work as it comes in and keep things even-keeled throughout the week. And who knows, maybe one day I'll prefer a more well-paced schedule. But for now this "intentionally stressing myself out" strategy seems to be working.

And with that, I better get busy...

- e

Monday, February 09, 2015

To Me, From Me

Is it just me who feels like she's in the longest-ever game of checking things off of various lists? I have four things I do that help me remember everything:

Lots of plans help me get through the worst-weather month of the year1) OUTLOOK CALENDAR

If it's something like a client call during the day, a film screening in the evening, a doctor's appointment for Desmond or another event/occasion that would prevent me or my husband from doing anything else during that same time (or requires the use of our one car), I set up an Outlook calendar invite (or Dustin sends me one). Most people I've talked to use their computer or phone's actual calendar to schedule everything... yet for whatever reason I only use it for very specific reasons.

Also, I've never synced my laptop's calendar (where all Outlook events are) to my phone. Ever. I have no idea why, but I'm not about to start now. Most people find this insane. That's me, though!

2) MY EXCEL CALENDAR

Remember my glorious Excel budget spreadsheet that tracks my life's expenses? Well, I also have an Excel-based calendar that I've been logging my daily activities in since 2006. This crazy file deserves its own post one day, but suffice it to say that EVERYTHING goes in my Excel calendar. Every. Single. Thing.

It's pretty much like this.3) STICKY NOTES

What did people do before sticky notes? Surely they are the most ingenious invention of our time. Except that I don't ONLY use sticky notes to jot down things I need to remember. I use notepads, random scraps of paper, the backs of bills—pretty much anything that's nearby so that I can capture a thought before it disappears into the ether. Have I mentioned how awful my memory is?

Anyway, there's got to be hundreds of random sticky notes and other lists of things to do all around our house. Every once in a while I'll find one from months or years ago and there will still be one thing on it that I never got around to doing, so I'll toss the old note and add the forgotten item to a new sticky. And the beat goes on.

4) EMAILS TO MYSELF

The main method I use to remind myself of what I need to do—the method that results in time being blocked on my Outlook calendar or notes in my Excel calendar in the first place—is emailing myself. Any time something pops into my head that I want/need to read or watch or do or buy, I send a message to myself. That's how I remembered this very topic for today's post.

The problem is that I don't always actually DO the things I email myself. I work on a "just in time" basis, so if something isn't urgent, doesn't have a deadline of today or tomorrow or otherwise is just one of those "this would be great to read/watch/do/buy when somebody figures out how to freeze time" activities, it doesn't get deleted from my Inbox. Because I keep holding out hope that that day will come.

I stopped counting after 250 and started scrolling, but I would guess I have at least 2,000 email messages of this To Me, From Me sort still in my Inbox, dating back to May of 2012 (I got this laptop in 2012 so there are probably more on my old computer).

Dork, party of one!

The thing is, this ridiculous "system" works for me. There are very few times when I totally forget to do something that is actually important. And so I'm going to stick with it.

If you're one of those perfectly organized people who has a superior system or can magically keep everything straight in her head, I don't want to hear about it. (But good for you, really.)

- e

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Movie Review: Seventh Son

Save your money
A strange, mostly harmless attempt at medieval fantasy. Come for the mythical beasts, stay for Jeff Bridges' bizarro performance.
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I need to get the weirdest thing about Seventh Son out of the way upfront: Jeff Bridges—who plays John Gregory, a "spook" who helps rid the world of evil creatures—sounds like he's Gandalf with really bad dentures. It's this gruff, gravelly voice belonging to a man who always seems to have his mouth full of mashed potatoes. Did director Sergei Bodrov advise him to talk like that? Or was it Bridges' idea and Bodrov was too intimidated by his star to suggest clearer enunciation? I couldn't get over it.

So that was the first thing that threw me and stopped me from being able to fully suspend disbelief, which is kind of critical with a fantasy film. The next (bigger) issue is that the entire premise of Seventh Son is illogical. Ben Barnes plays Tom Ward, a weak-seeming pig farmer prone to seizures that make him pass out. But since he's "the seventh son of the seventh son," he must become Gregory's apprentice. Huh? Wouldn't Gregory want the best and most skilled right-hand man he could find to fight supernatural beasts alongside him? Apparently not. It's gotta be Tom.
Isn't ANY comparison to Gandalf a compliment?
Gregory mentions that he trained his past apprentices (all of whom died on the job) for months or years, but he only has one week to get Tom in shape to help him defeat Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore), a witch queen who's out for serious revenge after Gregory stranded her in an underground cave a decade ago. She's finally escaped and her evil-doing powers will be fully charged when the Blood Moon arrives in seven days. But for all the urgency this situation would seem to justify, Gregory, Tom and their tusked roadie, er, Tusk (John DeSantis), just dawdle along the countryside waiting for Malkin's various cronies to attack.

And attack they do. Those are the coolest sequences in the film; several members of Team Witch transform seamlessly into various beasts, including a bear, a dragon, a leopard, and more. But while it's fun to watch and impressive to look at, it gets old really quickly when you just don't care about any of the characters. Barnes' just can't match the screen presence of either Bridges or Moore (who's at least having fun), which doesn't make for a very believable hero. And half the time he's distracted by Alice (Alicia Vikander), a half-witch who's also reporting his every move back to home base. Vikander is a jaw-droppingly beautiful actress and is trying her best here, but despite her good looks and Barnes', they just don't share any believable chemistry. She gave me flashes of Robin Wright in The Princess Bride (my all-time favorite movie), so I hope the other six movies she has coming out this year treat her better than Seventh Son did.
Wow, high praise, E!

The biggest crime Bodrov and screenwriters Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond) and Steven Knight (Eastern Promises) committed with this film, which is based on a YA book series (what isn't?), is that the plot and character development took a backseat to the action sequences and effects. So if you're only interested in seeing really cool mythical creatures wreak havoc, Seventh Son is the movie for you. But if you're looking for a new twist on a mighty old formula, you're out of luck here.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Movie Review: Jupiter Ascending

So disappointing.
Visually striking but otherwise forgettable, Jupiter Ascending is a big letdown.
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You can never accuse the Wachowskis (The Matrix trilogy, Cloud Atlas) of not putting it all out there in their films. Jupiter Ascending might actually be the greatest example of how the writing and directing brother-sister duo let nothing hold them back in bringing their creative vision to the big screen. It's just that this time around their vision was pretty silly. Cool in parts, but still depressingly silly.

In a set-up so ridiculous and offensive to me personally that I won't even dignify it with a description, Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis)—a housekeeper from a big Russian family who, as she repeats every morning, "hates her life"—learns she's an heir to the House of Abrasax, an alien empire that controls the planets. Under her rule specifically would be Earth. When the other heirs—Balem (Eddie Redmayne), Titus (Douglas Booth) and Kalique (Tuppence Middleton)—find out about Jupiter, they want to make sure she doesn't get in the way of their own plans to reign over the universe.

That's where Caine (Channing Tatum) comes in. He's an albino human-wolf splice (you heard me) charged with whisking Jupiter away from her daily routine of scrubbing toilets and bringing her up to space to meet whatever fate the Abrasax siblings have in store for her. Hands down, the best thing about Jupiter Ascending is the anti-gravity boots Caine uses to skate around in the sky. I want some. It also didn't hurt that Jupiter lives in Chicago—it's always fun to see your hometown in a sci-fi flick, especially one where it doesn't get totally destroyed (coughTransformers 3cough).

Sure I'll put on this sexy leather dress for an alien I just met!On that note, the effects are top-notch, whether they're in the form of gigantic lizard henchmen, vast space cities or one of many chase/battle sequences. It's just that everything else falls flat. First off, it was hard to believe that Jupiter would just start rolling with things as easily as she does. When Neo finds out about the reality of The Matrix, there are several reasons why he's able to jump into his new role so quickly; when Jupiter learns that she is Jupiter Ascending's version of "The One," its anticlimactic and there's nothing to support her coming to terms with a shocking new reality. She's either holding onto Caine for dear life during a chase or asking questions clearly meant to provide the audience with clues as to what in the hell is going on. There's nothing to make you believe that an unmotivated maid could suddenly go toe-to-toe with scheming aliens who've lived for centuries.

About those aliens... Redmayne's Balem speaks in a hoarse whisper throughout for no reason that ends up mattering. So it just becomes comical. Middleton's Kalique was forgettable, and Booth's Titus was pretty much the space version of Gossip Girl's Chuck Bass. His character was entertaining, but also ultimately pointless. We're supposed to believe that the Abrasax siblings are powerful and merciless, yet for some inexplicable reason they need to follow various administrative rules when it comes to stopping Jupiter from claiming her throne. What?!?

Do you have any idea what is going on?     No. Do you?
Scenes that could've been cool were ruined with exposition. Bees swarm Jupiter while she's still on Earth and appear to follow her command. It would've been nice for the Wachowskis to let the audience figure out the connection, but no. Caine's fellow rebel Stinger (Sean Bean) has to spell out how bees recognize royalty. Get it, kids? She's like the Queen Bee!

The sad thing is that the entire cast is committed. No one's phoning it in, even though you couldn't blame them if they did. But we all know the best acting still can't overcome nonsensical writing.

I really wish I'd enjoyed Jupiter Ascending because I'm always the one bitching about remakes and reboots and adaptations and Hollywood running out of fresh ideas. But the Wachowskis have proven that just because something's creative and original doesn't mean it's compelling or good.

Friday, February 06, 2015

On the Hunt for Guiltless (But Not Gross) Snacks

EVIL.
I'm what you would call a "grazer"—I snack throughout the afternoon after a small breakfast. I think I read that's supposed to be better for you than eating three bigger meals per day ... but not if everything you're snacking on is unhealthy, of course.

That's why I always try to have good options available at home. I've learned the hard way that if, say, Sea Salt Caramel Bites are in my vicinity, I will eat them. All of them. After Desmond's birthday party I was tortured by the leftover cake and cupcakes—my husband and I decided we needed to give everything to our nanny that Monday or else we were going to gain 20 pounds each.

Recently I thought I'd stumbled upon a great find: Trader Joe's Reduced Guilt Air-Popped popcorn. I loooove popcorn. But this stuff was THE GROSSEST.

Take this stuff off the shelves, Joe!

Seriously, it's pretty damn disgusting. It tastes like you're eating those foam packing peanut thingies. I love Trader Joe's overall (semi-related note: their Brown Rice & Quinoa Fusilli Pasta is incredible), but this popcorn was inexcusable.

What I've found to be much better is the Whole Foods version. That, and Skinny Pop, both taste good and have comparable stats when it comes to calories, fat, salt, and whatnot.

Much better.

Another snack staple of mine has become KIND bars—specifically these two types. I did a lot of research on all of the bars out there and these were the ones that were not only recommended by a trainer at my gym, but also seemed to meet all of the other tests I put them through.

They make many other flavors, but I only like these two.

My other go-tos:
  • Honeycrisp apples—the only apples I can just eat as-is (without some chocolate accompaniment). Too bad they're not in season for much of the year
  • Grapes, the biggest kinds I can find. I keep meaning to freeze them because I heard they're great that way, too.
  • Mary's Gone Crackers, um, crackers and hummus or baba ghanoush for dip.
My snack criteria, aside from needing to be healthy, is that the snack must also be effortless. As in, zero prep time.

Anyone have any other old standbys that fit the bill?

- e

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Positive Feedback

I'm dramatic, I know.This world gives us many things to complain about or be disappointed by. When you're pissed off about something, you're likely to let others know about it. I do just that whenever I think it might end up helping somebody else out down the line.

But that means I also have to play my part in encouraging great service. From yesterday's post you may remember that I had People's Gas scheduled to come out and fix our screeching meter this morning. I cannot express how much I was dreading this visit. I mean, yeah, I wanted the noise to stop, but everything about gas lines freaks me out and I had visions of our place exploding into a magnificent fireball. I also had resigned myself to the fact that the serviceman would arrive precisely within the half-hour window when I was alone with both Des and our dog and it would be total chaos. I was positive that he would run into problems disconnecting our stove, furnace, water heater and dryer. I had visions of our inside pipe valves breaking and the visit escalating into an emergency (which has actually happened in the past). Like I said, I was just dreading this whole thing.

But none of it happened. Desmond and his nanny were leaving for "story time" just as the service guy arrived, so if the fireball erupted, at least they would be safe. I scrambled to secure my dog upstairs and built little barricades around the freshly painted areas I was most concerned he'd destroy. (Dogs aren't allowed in the unit where the serviceman is, they made that very clear. But our Wrigley tends to have extreme separation anxiety issues, so I feared he would not do well alone.)
5 stars for People's Gas!
The guy took about 5 minutes to replace the outside meter. Then he came in and ensured all of the connected appliances worked and that the air that got into the pipes during the switch had made its way out. (Proof of this was our stove-top burners flickering down completely and then eventually coming back on.) Everything worked. There was no drama. It didn't take up my entire day. Nothing exploded. We would live! And we wouldn't have to deal with the shrieking meter anymore. The new one was smooth and silent.

I viewed all of this as some sort of miracle because nothing ever ever ever ever goes right with a service visit to our place. Ever. On top of all that, the People's Gas rep was totally nice, efficient and went above and beyond in checking to make sure everything was working properly again and explaining how we might end up getting a credit once the old meter was tested for accuracy.

Corny but I love itWhen he left, I offered him a tip. He said thanks, but he wasn't allowed to accept any money. I was impressed he stuck to that code. We said our goodbyes. I went back inside and then thought of something. I ran back onto the deck.

"Hey, what's your name? I want to call Customer Service and say how smooth everything was!"

His entire face lit up. He gave me his name and employee number and said he would really appreciate any positive comments.

And so right before I started this post I called People's Gas and just waited on the line since there was no phone-tree option for compliments. I eventually reached someone who took down all of the information and said it would be routed by email to our guy's supervisor. Yay!

Now I feel bad about not leaving a positive comment on a service-related web site for some guys who helped us with the most ridiculous issue we've ever had here this past summer. It's too painful to recount in detail, but it has to do with another contractor dropping cement bricks and other materials down our chimneys, which blocked our furnace and hot-water heater vents, which had the effect of slowly poisoning us with carbon monoxide. The guys who figured out what happened and fixed it were the ones I meant to leave positive feedback for.
Buddha knows
But the reality is that it would most likely still be appreciated, and positive feedback can probably never come too late. And so that's what I'll go do now. Because it's really easy--and almost second nature these days--to pitch a fit loudly and publicly on social media when a product or service sucks. My view is that if I want to avoid experiencing nothing but crappy service from disgruntled employees, I need to go the extra step to encourage the people who are making an effort. If your waitress was attentive, leave her a little more. If a dude just slaved away fixing a leak in your house for two hours, tip him well. Say thanks. Send an email or make a call to let someone's boss know that they exceeded your expectations. Good karma will come back to you, I promise.

- e

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

The Life-Affirming Power of Shoveling

The snow just keeps a-comin' here in Chicago. My husband couldn't have picked a better year to finally get a snow-blower.

But there are some areas where the snow-blower can't really be used. It's great for more open areas like our alley and parking spaces, but the path to get to those areas still needs to be dug out the old-fashioned way.

So please take a moment and respect how long it took my husband to clear this walkway. I had my 80-pound black lab sit out there to try and give some perspective to how high the "snow walls" are, but I'm still not sure this picture does the whole scene justice.

The Grand Snow Canyon

The problem was that my husband had not cleared another pathway in our backyard (I use that word loosely) that leads down to our electricity and gas meters. And tomorrow morning we have the gas company coming out to replace our meter because it's been making an awful sound (think a mournful, wailing cat) for months.

They made it clear that the meter must be accessible. As of 9 a.m. this morning, there was a six feet long, four feet wide, and 2 feet high block of snow preventing anyone from getting down to the meters. And so I knew it was my turn to wield the mighty shovel. And wield it I did:

VICTORY!


The path is narrow, but there IS a path. I also shoveled the six steps leading down to the meters. It was not an easy task — as my husband said a few nights ago, "I can see why people have heart attacks while shoveling" — but I found myself getting totally pumped up about the challenge. I WOULD clear the path, dammit!

After it was done, I realized that I like shoveling for some of the same reasons I like cleaning (or certain types of cleaning): there's immediate gratification. Before I started there was no path. Now there's a path. The results of my hard work are crystal clear. It's a rush.

It also just made me feel alive. So much so that a song from one of my favorite '80s movies — the incomparable Xanadu — popped into my head while I was hacking away at the snow.

I will leave you with it so that you, too, can be inspired to get out there and do whatever it is you need to do today.



I'm ready to take on anything now, aren't you?

 - e

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

For Love or Money?

Not EXACTLY true, but a nice quote nonetheless and one of my faves
Today, I'm annoyed with myself.

As a freelancer, there is always a fine balance between doing work you want to do and taking on projects you think you need to/should do because they pay decently. I still struggle with feelings of guilt/pride/bruised ego/etc. when I think about how I now make a fraction of what I used to pull in when I worked for The Man. Are those feelings strong enough to make me consider, even for a second, going back to an office setting? No. But they're pretty much always there.

And that's how I've come to find myself in the predicament I'm in today. In my usual beginning-of-the-year panic that I wouldn't have enough work in 2015 to justify my existence, I agreed to a contract position that I knew in my gut was a bad idea. It's not even a writing gig—it's phone-based. And there are very, very few things in life I hate more than being on the phone. I'm not exaggerating: I never talk on the phone. I go out of my way to avoid making all but the most unavoidable/no-other-way-around-it calls. I don't even have a phone plan. What. Was. I. Thinking taking on this work?!?
Decisions, decisions

Over the past few days I've reviewed the "onboarding" materials for this new job and the pit in my stomach has continued to grow. This is going to be a disaster, I kept telling myself.

And as if the universe was trying to confirm I'd made the wrong decision, I just found out that I've been selected as the copywriter for really cool project that I'm excited about, for a client I'm a huge fan of. It's going to take up a ton of time... and now I don't want to do the phone-based thing at all.

So what do I do?


I've actually never seen this. Maybe it provides all the answers?If you're expecting me to say that I'm going to follow my heart/passion/gut/inner voice and back out of the phone-based engagement... I'm sorry to tell you that I'm not. Because this is the reality of being a freelancer: it's usually feast or famine, and so I don't want to regret dropping the phone-based client three months from now when I could really use the extra cash. I'll be smart enough in the near future to not take on anything else that isn't writing or editing-centric, but for now I've made my bed and I have to lie in it.

Though I haven't started the gig yet, my understanding of the phone-based work is that you can ramp it up as much as you'd like in addition to having periods where you tell them you're not available. So I have to at least give it a shot. It is tangentially related to a part of my old career that I enjoyed, so I have to just get these negative thoughts out of my head and approach it with a better attitude. No project I've dreaded has ever ended up being as bad as I feared it would.

And so, for now, my answer to "For love or money?" is "Both." I take things on for money in order to do the things I love. And I know how lucky I am to love any part of what I do, so I'll shut up now.

- e

Monday, February 02, 2015

Bad Weather, Good Deeds

See? Two feet of snow!As you may have heard, Chicago got hit with about two feet of snow over the course of the past 1.5 days. It was the kind of snowfall where you wake up, look outside, and are truly awed by what transpired overnight.

Awed... and then depressed because you know somebody's gotta shovel all that snow.

My husband and I had already each shoveled our front walkway once yesterday morning (though within 30 minutes after we were done you couldn't even tell) when I saw a beige blur amidst all of the blinding white out of our front window. I stopped and looked again. There was a furry Golden Retriever running around the parking lot across from us. People park there for a nearby church, so it was packed with cars and I couldn't tell if perhaps someone had just let their dog out for a run before heading back home.

So I waited and in the meantime called my husband's attention to the situation. Within about 30 seconds it was clear no one was with the dog.

If you know me, then you also know that I love animals more than I love most humans. I don't even really remember what I was doing when I figured out that the dog was loose, but I'm pretty sure I literally dropped everything and started scrambling to find my boots and coat and gloves.

Chilly bean. Get it?
Chaos erupted in our house. I was running around like a maniac putting on my stuff. Dustin was hollering a play-by-play of the dog's actions: "He's coming toward the road! Now he's running down to the church—YOU BETTER HURRY! OK now he's coming back to the lot! OK now he's sniffing the ground..."

Desmond could sense something was going on and started shouting, "Mommy gonna save the doggy?!? Mommy gonna save the doggy?!?" and then OUR dog Wrigley started barking, as if he knew a fellow lab needed help.

My biggest fear was that the dog would run into the road. We live on an extremely busy street, and with all the snow, anyone trying to stop suddenly would surely start skidding all over the place.

But the weather actually helped in this situation. Hardly anyone had ventured out that morning, and I was able to run across the street quickly. By that time the dog was back in the far end of the lot and I called to him, crouched down and clapped my hands.

Ah, labs. They're so happy and trusting. He came right to me.

But since he didn't have a leash, I had to hold him around his collar... and let me just say this not-so-little guy was ENERGETIC and strong. Once it became clear I wanted to lead him across the street, he bounded into the road and I was slipping all over the place trying to keep a hold of him while hunched down. I still can't believe I didn't fall or get hit by a car or bus, but it was like a ghost town on our street. Phew.

Once I got him into our lobby area (which is closed off from the rest of our house), the mayhem in our house went to 11. Our dog was going nuts because he knew another dog was on the other side of the door. Desmond wanted to see the other dog. I was yelling through the door to Dustin to find my phone. And the rescued doggy—"Oliver," according to his tag—was wiggling around and investigating his new surroundings. Luckily his tag had two phone numbers on it.

May I present, Oliver.

Once Dustin passed my phone through our cracked-open door, I called the first number and a girl answered right away. It was unclear if she even realized Oliver was missing, but she started freaking out and said she'd be right over.

Within 5 minutes, she arrived. She looked to be in her early 20s. She said her parents were shoveling her backyard and had left the gate open and Oliver must have escaped. She lived on the street behind the parking lot. And so Oliver had a happy reunion and was safe. I had done my good deed for the day.

My husband's turn came later that night. We heard a bunch of voices in our alley at around 9:30. My husband looked out and saw a woman shoveling snow behind our car because her car was stuck.

"Hey, don't block me in?!?" he yelled out from our deck.

"Are you kidding?!? Look at it out here!" she screamed, pretty exasperated.

He came back inside.

"You could go help her, you know," I said quietly. It was a lot to ask because, as I mentioned, the snow had never stopped and now had drifted in the alley to just cover everything.

"I am not going back out there," he said.

I waited a minute. "I'm just saying that that could be me out there. I did my good deed today and now you need to have some positive karma coming your way."

He left the room and didn't say anything, but I knew he was going to get all of his hardcore snow gear on. It turns out the woman was his friend's wife, and his friend had been out there, too, just out of sight. They lived two houses down. For the next hour the three of them worked to get the car unstuck and into their garage. It was a much harder job than running across the street and saving a cute doggy, let me put it that way.

And so it seems the awful weather inspired both of us to do something to help our fellow man. Our reward? A snow day today. (And a lot more shoveling and snow-blowing—in fact, Dustin's been outside for over two hours helping all of our neighbors. Seems like this whole Good Samaritan thing kind of grows on a person.)

Update: the neighbor Dustin helped last night brought over a nice bottle of wine!

- e

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Movie Review: Mommy

It's NOT OK, Mommy.
Canada's Best Foreign Language entry (it's in French with English subtitles) for the 2014 Academy Awards is a heartbreaking, dizzying and unforgettable masterpiece from 25-year-old wunderkind Xavier Dolan.
- - - - - - - - - -
All parents have hopes and dreams for their kids. But there comes a point in time when the writing would appear to be on the wall for any particular child—when past behavior is a pretty good indicator of what's to come in the future.

However, Diane "Die" Després (Anne Dorval) refuses to give up on her troubled teenage son Steve (Antoine Olivier Pilon). Steve suffers from a host of behavioral and attachment issues and has just been kicked out of another juvenile home after setting a fire that gravely injured someone. He's exuberant one minute, sulking the next. He can appear to not have a care in the world seconds before flying into a violent rage. He comes close to nearly strangling Die; she must fight back with equal brutality in order to escape. But she loves him unconditionally and will not consider taking advantage of alternate-present-Canada's new law that encourages parents to let the state institutionalize uncontrollable children. Die is her own special brand of fiery badass, and she's going to find a way to make it work.

But she's also a woman who realizes her limitations. She's broke, her husband passed away three years ago, and she can't put Steve in a normal school. She still needs to pay the bills while ensuring that her son stays out of trouble during the day. This is why she turns to Kyla (Suzanne Clément), her quiet, slightly mysterious neighbor across the street. Kyla's a teacher who's currently not working because of a recent breakdown that left her with a fierce stutter and inability to speak at times. There are hints as to what tragedy might have brought on Kyla's condition; I loved how writer/director Xavier Dolan didn't feel the need to spell it out for his audience.
The best of times...
And so, for a while, this unusual threesome gets by and even establishes some semblance of normalcy. Die finds odd jobs around town, Kyla home-schools Steve, Steve stabilizes, they're all the best of friends. Pilon, Dorval and Clément are so incredible in their roles, I have to admit that there were several times I actually forgot they were acting or that I wasn't watching some sort of reality-filmmaking project. Especially Pilon. To be that young and be able to convey such a wide range of tortuous emotions is just beyond anything I've ever witnessed before. I developed a strong love/hate/but-mostly-hate relationship with his character, which is probably exactly what Dolan was hoping to achieve. So when the claustrophobic box-frame that Dolan filmed the majority of the movie in suddenly opens up, seemingly at Steve's command, my heart sang at the triumph. It was one of the coolest moments I've experienced in a theater in over a year.

Those happy times were short-lived, though, because Steve's problems aren't ones that will simply go away because of a caring tutor or an ever-patient mother or a bike or a job or anything else. He's soon wreaking havoc again on everything and everyone. But is there still hope for him? There is, in Die's mind. While the ratio-widening scene sent me soaring, a later dream sequence where Die envisions a happy future for Steve just about destroyed me. I have nothing in common with Die except that I'm also somebody's "mommy," and I want the world for my son. To watch Die come to terms with the fact that her love is simply not enough to be able to protect her only child is just shattering in its truth.

I have never seen anything like Mommy. It's an emotional rollercoaster. It's hard to watch, asks tough questions and provides no easy answers. Please don't miss it.