Thursday, March 31, 2011

One-Trick Towns

Last night I had the great pleasure of finally meeting one of my most loyal blog readers who I've been chatting with online for years -- Glen from the UK. He's in Chicago this week for work and surprised me with two boxes of Cadbury chocolates (yum!) and a bunch of cool Beatles memorabilia from Liverpool (his hometown) that I'm going to fight my husband over.

As I was excitedly going through all the goodies like a kid on Christmas morning, I was a bit caught off guard when Glen casually mentioned that he pretty much can't stand The Beatles. First I was like, "Huh? Whaa....?" and then I was like, "Boy, shut yo' MOUTH!" Blasphemy! How could he and I remain friends?

But then when he went on to tell me what it's like living in Liverpool, dealing with the constant stream of Beatles tourists, cover bands, festivals, museums, and statues, as well as not being able to remember the last time a day went by when he wasn't asked to take a picture of a Fab Four fan posing in front of some Beatles-related landmark, I began to understand. Seeing as how he lives extremely close to John Lennon's old home and just around the corner from Penny Lane (yes, it does exist), he's learned to adopt a good attitude about it all -- but draws the line when it comes to the band's music. Here's one of the funniest things I learned about his hometown: On Penny Lane there actually is "a barber selling photographs" (well, postcards now)... but the guy doesn't even cut hair anymore -- he's able to make a living off of all the tourists coming in and buying stuff just so they can say they visited the barber in the song. I love it.

These Liverpool stories got me thinking about a daylong drive my husband and I once took up the east coast. After spending a few hours in Salem, Massachusetts, all we could think about was how weird it must be to grow up in a place that was famous for witches and witch trials and hangings and burnings and whatnot. I mean, you cannot escape that stuff in Salem.

When I got home last night I was still a bit sad about Glen's Beatles Hate, but got over it by trying to think of "one-trick towns" (for lack of a better/catchier phrase) in the U.S. I can only imagine that because of the Twilight phenomenon, Forks, Washington, residents must be up to their ears in vampires and werewolf t-shirts and tchotchkes. And then there's Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, known only for its weather-predicting groundhog (and, subsequently, the film Groundhog Day). Glen said that when he visited Bangor, Maine, it was all about Stephen King (it's the horror-writer's hometown) -- his hangouts, his homes, and "where he did this, where he did that."

I know there are a lot of really, really small towns across America that boast "the world's biggest ball of yarn" or other random oddities like that in order to attract tourists (and more importantly, their money). But to me that's not the same as a Liverpool or a Salem or a Punxsutawney that has garnered worldwide recognition or association with ONE SPECIFIC historical or pop culture figure. Can you think of any others?

(And thanks again to Glen for all the Beatles loot -- I know it must have been tough for him to have to act like he was a fan/tourist when buying it!)

- e

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

e's Favorite Things: My L.L.Bean Backpack

When I was in Michigan last week I had a book signing in my home town of Rochester Hills. As luck would have it, a nasty sleet storm whipped up about 1.5 hours before my event was scheduled to begin, and a lot of people I'd been looking forward to seeing again or meeting for the first time couldn't make it. Heck, I didn't even want to go out in that weather! But duty called.

One of the brave souls who toughed it out was my former classmate Leon -- we went to Michigan Business School together and I hadn't seen him since 1996! While many of you know me as "e" (which I took on as a shortened nickname after being called "egrrl" by my co-workers during my years in the Internet industry), Leon always used to call me "ESO" (pronounced e-so). Why? Because of a backpack with those initials (which are, of course, MY initials) that NEVER LEFT MY SIDE during college. When I found out that Leon was planning to come to my signing, I made sure to bring my backpack with me for the big reunion.

And here we are!

Yay! The backpack was totally feelin' the love, I'm sure of it.

What I wanted to focus on today was the fact that even though I finally "retired" this beloved L.L.Bean backpack last year (I got it in 1992 -- so it had been on duty for nearly two decades!), I can't bring myself to throw it out. Nor could I bring myself to mail it into L.L.Bean to have two of the broken zippers fixed. They have a lifetime guarantee on their products and I knew they'd be able to breathe some new life into my backpack, but I just couldn't bear the thought of it getting lost in the mail.

I did check to see if they still make this same item, though... and they do! Here's what it looks like brand-spankin' new:

I'm assuming I'm not the only person in the world who has a somewhat irrational attachment to an inanimate object. In fact, I know I'm not. For me, my backpack represents the best times of my life: college, grad school, all of my vacations, and all of my travels for work. In fact, even though it was totally busted at the time, killed my shoulders and back and had lost absolutely all of its structure and shape, there was no doubt in my mind that I would bring my ESO backpack with me when I finally checked the seventh continent off of my To Visit list. How couldn't I? It had gone with me to all of the other six!

You can see its strap here as I get ready to board the Endeavour to Antarctica.

Last year I finally had to break down and buy a new backpack (while keeping ESO on standby in a nice comfy spot in my closet), and I absolutely love it. It's functional, sturdy, provides silky padding for my laptop, and is comfortable to wear while trekking through airports or around cities. But it has no soul... it has no character.

It will never be ESO.

- e

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Throwing the Knapsack

Now that I'm slowly but surely trying to work my way back into a routine that includes at least a couple of hours of reading for pleasure every week, I'm a little overwhelmed by the number of books vying for my attention. I have a habit of buying tons of books in random spurts, knowing full well I probably won't be able to get to all of them for years.

In the last few months I finished two books that came out shortly after mine and are complementary to the story I covered: The Futures by Emily Lambert, and The Asylum by Leah McGrath Goodman. I've had the great honor of meeting and/or talking to both of these authors and loved reading what they had to say about other aspects of the world I used to work in. Now, however, I'm ready for a little break from business reading.

So last night I scanned my enormous bookshelf (that's it, to the right... it's two rows deep on all levels -- and if you want to know what in the hell that crazy bird statue is, you'll have to wait for my next book!) and my eyes came to rest upon Brisingr. I bought this novel when it came out in September 2008 and still haven't touched it -- how sad is that? It's the third book in a fantasy series that revolves around a boy and his dragon, and so I figured that's about as far away from Corporate America as you can get. Ding ding ding... we have a winner. But then a bright yellow book on the top shelf seemed to call to me, and I decided to pull it down. It was Happier -- a gift from my Aunt Sue a few years ago. It was written by one of my cousin's professors at Harvard, Tal Ben-Shahar, who teaches an extraordinarily popular class about happiness, of all things.

While I apologize to poor Brisingr for giving it the brush-off once again, I am really glad I picked Happier as my next read. I am LOVING it so far -- it's exactly what I needed to motivate myself for my next big project (the aforementioned book). It also inspired a great conversation with my husband last night, as well as all sorts of blog post ideas -- including today's about "throwing the knapsack."

What that phrase refers to (in Happier) is a fictional hiker whose path is suddenly blocked by a high barrier. The hiker only has a knapsack with him, and he decides to throw it over the barrier. Now he has no choice but to devise a plan to get himself over to the other side, too.

Professor Ben-Shahar gives a few examples of famous people who "threw the knapsack" -- people like Thomas Edison and John F. Kennedy who publicly made huge promises (the lightbulb! a man on the moon!) and declared aggressive deadlines by which they'd complete their tasks... even though their chances of success at the time seemed very slim.

These stories resonated with me, because I have learned that I am definitely the kind of person who needs to throw her knapsack in order to really commit to a goal. I've always had a huge fear of failure, but an even bigger fear of not doing something I say I'm going to do. So in August 2007 when I left the financial services industry to try and make a 180-degree career switch and work on getting an agent and publisher for my book, I told all of my closest friends and family members what my intentions were. I asked people I respected if they'd review a draft of my book proposal over Thanksgiving, so I would have to be done with it by then. I promised my husband that if nothing had come from my efforts on the book within a year, I'd return to The Man. (Nothing did come of the book within a year, by the way... but my redbox gig fell into my lap just in the nick of time!)

More recently I started realizing that I was stuck in a creative rut. I felt so overwhelmed by all of the things I could be doing that I wasn't being truly productive on any front. I knew I needed another big goal to kick my behind into gear. That's why I made the promise publicly on this site -- both to myself and to awesome readers such as yourself -- that I would start posting here again every day. I've also thrown down the gauntlet on my second book -- I will write it, dammit! I must.

With that, I must ask you to prepare for a lot of soul-baring on this site in the coming months. While I definitely have plenty of silly and/or lighthearted posts in the works, I'm understanding more and more that I'm meant to be writing about topics that are not always so easy to tackle... and then subsequently share with others. But the reward (for me) is greatest when I'm brutally honest and in turn hear from others who relate to how I'm feeling or what I'm going through. So move over Jack Handy, e's Deep Thoughts are a-comin'!

'Cause this here is real!

I'll end with one of my favorite quotes that sums up the whole "throwing the knapsack" idea:

Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it!
Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it.
- Goethe

- e

Monday, March 28, 2011

Michy's Miami: Best Short Ribs Ever

At the end of January I spent a long weekend in the Sunshine State with my friend Miss M -- she traveled south from NYC to run the Miami Half Marathon, and I tagged along in order to get a break from Chicago's winter weather and, of course, cheer her on. (Some of you may recall that I've been lucky enough to go on several exotic-destination vacations with Miss M because she's got mad Starwood Points. When you have a friend like her it really pays to be a freelancer, be able to work from anywhere, and not have to ask The Man for time off!)

Miss M had thoroughly researched the Miami restaurant scene and made reservations for us every day and night at fabulous spots. The place we visited our first evening in town, Michy's, ended up being my favorite, which thoroughly surprised me. It surprised me because I thought its owner/head chef, Michelle Bernstein, was a bit of a you-know-what when she appeared as a guest judge on Season Seven of Top Chef. It was actually her recent return to the series during the current All-Star season that reminded me to write about my experience at her restaurant! (And yes, I realize that someone's personality doesn't have any bearing whatsoever on whether or not they're a good chef. I guess I was just mentally prepared to not like her food because she rubbed me the wrong way on the show.)

Now, usually I'm the kind of person who's all about appetizers and desserts. I'm not really a main course kind of gal -- meaning that's not what I usually look forward to when I go out to eat, if that makes any sort of sense. But while I generally recall everything being wonderful at Michy's, I seriously can't even remember what else I had there besides THE FREAKING BEST SHORT RIBS IN THE WORLD. Their superiority crowded out the memory of anything else I consumed that night.

Am I allowed to deem them the Best Short Ribs Ever when they were actually the first short ribs I've tasted in my life? Yes, I am, because: 1) It's my site and I can do whatever I want, and 2) I ended up having short ribs for dinner every night for the duration of our trip just to compare and contrast... and have also had them at a few other high-end places here in Chicago over the last two months. Michy's short ribs blew the competition away. It was no contest. Not only was the meat excellent (and this is coming from someone who rarely eats red meat), but the accents (is that the right word?) just did me in. The diced squash with cinnamon KILLED ME. And guess what? I found a picture of it all:


Guess what else? I actually found the recipe, straight from the chef herself! But since I don't cook that means someone out there is going to have to offer to recreate the meal for me -- preferably on a day when I need cheering up. Because this dish is guaranteed to do it. Who's up for the challenge?

- e

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Not a Fan of the Millennium Trilogy

Last summer, around the same time I picked up The Ten Best Days of My Life, I also started reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. (Talk about your opposites...) I wanted to see what in the heck all the fuss was about with these Stieg Larsson books -- also known as "the Millennium series" -- that seemed to be EV-ER-Y-where. (What pushed me over the edge was when the first novel of the trilogy made Entertainment Weekly's cover in June 2010. I can't stand it when I'm clueless about a mainstream pop culture phenomenon.)

I mentioned to my friend Nerdy P that I was about to start reading TGWTDT, and she was shocked.

"You know it's really dark, right?"

I'm usually not one to seek out anything that's even the slightest bit scary, whereas P grew up on horror movies and most likely realized that I was treading into questionable territory -- and that I'd probably regret it. But at the time I thought, Hey, if everyone else in the world is reading these books, how hardcore could they be? Turns out my logic was seriously flawed. For what I can only assume is the same reason people are drawn to sad or violent stories on TV, the masses were/are attracted to all of the extremely effed-up stuff in Larsson's works. But since I'm the type of person who avoids watching the news at all costs so as to not be haunted by images of war, murder, or anything else horrific, the Millennium trilogy was so, so, SO not for me.

I'm not intending to write a review here or anything -- you can easily find out what the books are about elsewhere, and there are literally countless sites debating every last little detail about the series. Today I just wanted to bring up the fact that I abandoned the second novel (The Girl Who Played with Fire) about a quarter of the way through, and that is something I've never done. I've never STOPPED reading a book.

I loved the main characters Larsson's universe revolves around -- Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist. And I always appreciate a complex mystery. I was impressed by Larsson's attention to detail and his incredible knowledge of the criminal underworld both in Sweden and elsewhere. But Nerdy P was right. The Millennium books are just too damn dark for me. I wasn't enjoying the second one in the slightest, because I always had a pit in my stomach about what awful, graphically violent scene was lurking around the corner (let's not forget the translation of the first book's title is Men Who Hate Women -- I should've known the series wasn't going to get any less explicit as it went on). I don't need to read about that kind of thing -- there are enough lurid stories we're all exposed to in other ways every single day. So I put the book down and felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I now understand why there's so much hoopla about the world Larsson created, but I'm also OK with being on the outside of it.

The question still remaining is whether or not I'll watch the Swedish film adaptations of books two and three. (I watched The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and simply left the room during the worst scenes... but forgot to hit the mute button. Big mistake.) Since I haven't read the other books, however, I won't know when to cover my eyes and/or hit mute in order to avoid seeing something that I'll never be able to erase from my memory. One way or the other, if I watch those films I'll be opening myself up to the same darkness I'd decided to avoid by shelving the novels. And so TGWPWF and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest remain in a box in my closet (I have them because of my redbox gig), taunting me.

I'd love to hear from anyone else who's not been able to get into Larsson's books. I'd also like to hear from brave souls who have read all three and/or seen the films. Let me know if you think I should risk a week of nightmares and watch the other two adaptations. (Because of my job I don't think I'll be able to avoid the American version of TGWTDT coming out later this year -- but I'm OK with that because 1) I already know what happens, and 2) David Fincher (The Social Network, Fight Club) is at the helm, and he's my favorite director.)

Now I'm off to spend the rest of my Sunday looking at pictures of kitties and puppies.

- e

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Twisted Thrill of the Urgent

Back in high school, my guidance counselor noted on my profile that I seemed to work best under pressure -- that I was in fact happier when I was stressed out. She was correct. There's always been something about an impending deadline that's shifted me into high gear and motivated me to kick butt, be it for an assignment at school, a PowerPoint presentation at work, or a marathon cleaning frenzy right before visitors arrive at my condo. Name any task, chore or errand, and I've always preferred to handle it when it reaches Critical Mode, and not one moment sooner.

But while there's something to be said for the adrenaline rush that comes from tackling an urgent task, I'm now at the point where I feel like EVERYTHING has become urgent, and it's my own damn fault. I do everything just in time. What's worse, I seem to have lost the ability to ease back into a more leisurely routine. I'm consciously putting things off because they're not "due" yet and I've got too many other pressing matters to take care of... but those pressing matters are only pressing because I neglected to deal with them at an earlier point in time. I'm caught in a vicious cycle.

Take today's looming chore, for example: gathering all of the documents for my tax return. As a freelancer I get to expense certain things related to my writing business. If I had kept a running list of all of those charges as 2010 rolled on, I wouldn't be sitting here on this sunny Saturday with mountains of cash receipts and credit card statements to rifle through for hours, just weeks before the return is due (I used to get all of this done in early February, at the latest).

The question now becomes, "How do I get out of this habit?" How can I get back to the point where I'm tackling errands and To Dos as they saunter in, rather than waiting until the situation's become desperate?

I have a plan that I'm hoping will work, and it's pretty simple. I just need to make a schedule for myself, every day. I literally have to write down what I will do every single hour between 9 AM and, say, 8 PM... and then stick to it. It's worked for keeping up with this blog for the past few weeks -- I basically just told myself that I was going to dedicate some time to writing every morning while I'm drinking my tea. So I have hope this trick can work for all of the other things I need to do as well. Basically I'm trying to fool myself into thinking things are urgent because I'm "assigning" them to myself, if you will. Silly, perhaps, but at this point I don't care. Because the thrill is gone, my friends. I'm sick of always being under the gun and am no longer at my best when I'm pressured. Now I just feel stressed (in a bad way) and OVER IT. I am desperate to get to a point where I can read a book or go shopping or just do nothing and not feel guilty about it because there are 2,000 urgent things I've put off that should be getting my attention instead.

I'll provide a progress report in a few weeks and will be brutally honest about how my new schedule and rules are working out. (And yes, I'm very conscious of the fact that publicly promising to write about my success or failure should hopefully further motivate me to embrace the move out of Overwhelmed Land.)

Wish me luck! And if any of you have any tips that might help, I'm all ears...

- e

Friday, March 25, 2011

You Better Belize It!

First off, stop yer smirking! I know the title of this post is goofy, but guess what? That phrase is on ALL of the souvenir t-shirts and knickknacks in Belize, so I couldn't resist. It's kind of weird because I didn't think the country was touristy or cheesy in the slightest, but some marketing genius must have thought up that slogan and it stuck. Which is really unfortunate.

Anywhoooo... if it's not already obvious, today I'm going to write a little bit about my trip to Belize this past November. It'll take many entries to cover everything my husband and I did there -- and I still actually have a few other vacations from years past (when I was neglecting this site) that I want to post about as well, but today I'm going to focus on an introduction to where we stayed in what I felt was an absolutely gorgeous Central American country.

I should begin by explaining our reasoning for going to Belize instead of any of the other places on our To Visit list. Basically it came down to the fact that we were going to be at a wedding in Atlanta and wanted somewhere that we could get to quickly from there so as to maximize our time (as in, we didn't want two full days taken up by flights). We wanted our destination to be warm, and we wanted to just relax. We got our wish on the first part... not so much on the second. But that's for another post.

It just so happened that one of my friends from the Chicago Board of Trade (Franco, who's briefly in my book for those of you (which better be all of you!) who've read it) had been planning a trip to Belize and had done a ton of research. He and his wife and some friends were going to be spending part of their vacation (which was about a month before ours) at Francis Ford Coppola's Blancaneaux Lodge, which is way, way up in the Mayan mountains. Coppola owns another property in Belize that is by the beach, and a lot of people choose to split their time between the two places. But I really wanted to just stay put for a week. And to me, chillin' in the mountains -- totally cut off from civilization -- sounded like heaven. So Blancaneaux it was. (And yes, since my career now revolves around movies... and since we've always liked Coppola's wines in addition to his films, those factors played a role in our decision, too.)

There are only twenty cabanas on the grounds. Since we went over Thanksgiving I was aware that they were fully booked, but it never felt crowded by any means. We really only saw other guests during meal times, which was fine by me. I meant it when I said I wanted to be cut off from civilization!

Here's the main room of our cabana:

And this is the lovely path leading up to the main lodge (you can see the overlook of the restaurant on the right).

This is a path down to a little outlook over the creek where we'd spend hours reading (or, in my case, writing in my journal).

Here's a view of the outlook hut thingy from across the creek.

And here's me maxin' and relaxin' in the hut -- I'm a total sucker for the sound of rushing water, so this was just a great, great, great spot. There was a mini-waterfall to the left which you can't really see in this picture.

But the best part was back up in our cabana: THE HAMMOCK. For whatever reason, Dustin and I have an obsession with hammocks that started back on our big trip to Southeast Asia in 2001 (which will hopefully be the topic of my next book). Our favorite place we stayed in Thailand had one and we just loved it. So even though it was a little awkward to write while simultaneously trying not to lose my balance and flip over, I did my best.

OK, that's enough for today! I'll eventually cover all of the crazy excursions we took in Belize, but I'll space those posts out a bit. Especially since now I'm all depressed because it's thirty degrees in Chicago and supposed to snow for the next five days. Grr.

Have a great weekend,
- e

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Quail of a Tale

I'm back from my five-day trip to Michigan and happy to report that my travels provided lots of ideas for blog topics. I actually intend to do a few different posts about the pros and cons of driving, since I don't drive at all in Chicago but spent a lot of time behind the wheel of a rental car this past week. Today I'll start with one of the cons: RANDOM ANIMALS THAT RUN OUT IN FRONT OF YOU ON THE HIGHWAY.

There I was, driving in the far-left lane of a three-lane highway at 70 mph this past Sunday afternoon. It was the day after I'd stayed over at Nerdy P's for the Fab Faux concert I wrote about on Monday. I was on my way from Ann Arbor to Flushing, Michigan (about an hour-long drive) to visit my grandma, aunt and uncle. It had been an uneventful journey on a relatively nice day and I was having a grand ol' time jamming to some tunes... when all of a sudden the car in front of me slammed on its brakes. I could see absolutely no reason for the driver to be grinding to a halt -- there weren't any cars ahead of us, there was no accident, and I didn't see a police car lurking anywhere. But I knew that at the speeds we were going, I would need to not only pound my brakes as well, but also swerve into another lane. Thankfully, no one else was close to me, so I actually drove diagonally from the far-left lane to the far-right shoulder before coming to a COMPLETE STOP. Why? Because there were four huge bird-like creatures running slowly from the median to the wooded area off the side of the highway. ?!?!

By the time I went from 70 mph to zero, three of these things had sauntered in front of my hood and continued on to their destination like it was no big thang. The fourth at least picked up the pace a bit to avoid getting run over by a car behind me that had caught up to us. Once the birds had cleared out, there were eight cars at a dead stop across all three lanes. I truly couldn't believe that everyone had managed to avoid hitting the birds... and, of course, each other.

When I got to my grandma's house I was still shaken from the incident, and told her that "quails" had come thisclose to causing a multi-car pile-up on the highway. But later I realized that the birds definitely weren't quails. I think they were guinea hens. They were REALLY big (and apparently not too bright).

That night I drove another hour back to my parents' house -- this time in a torrential rainstorm. It was one of the most harrowing experiences I've ever had. I could barely see because of the downpour, the car constantly felt like it was hydroplaning, and then in the back of my mind I kept worrying about what animals might be planning to dart onto the highway. I knew there were lots of deer in the area, and figured that in pitch-black conditions on slippery roads, it wouldn't be as easy to avoid a disaster as it was with the not-quails on dry pavement in the daytime. But thankfully I made it back in one piece. Needless to say, now that I've returned to Chicago, I'm glad to leave the driving to cabs for the foreseeable future.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Fab Faux at Michigan Theater

As longtime readers of this site will remember, I'm a huge Beatles fan. So I was really looking forward to seeing The Fab Faux in concert this past Saturday night at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor.

I had been back on the University of Michigan Ross School of Business's campus that day to help determine the winner of a stock pitch competition (which served to confirm my suspicions that I could never be part of the panel on American Idol because I have a hard time "judging" others -- so please Fox, don't approach me). My friend Nerdy P lives just a few blocks away, so I made plans to stay at her place that night. She'd heard about this Beatles cover band that was going to play the Abbey Road album in its entirety and figured I'd be interested in going... and, of course, I was.

Now, I've seen A LOT of Beatles tributes bands over the years. From The Fab Four in Vegas, to The Cavern Beat at Dick's Last Resort's Beatle brunch, to American English at a private event, to BritBeat at the Ravinia musical festival... the list goes on and on. Then of course there's Cirque du Soleil's LOVE show in Vegas as well as movies like Across the Universe that also pay homage to The Beatles. I can't get enough of this stuff. Unfortunately, however, The Fab Faux's concert wasn't quite as enjoyable as I'd hoped. I like to be able to close my eyes and feel like I am hearing The Beatles. The Fab Faux focused more on recreating the music rather than the band members' voices. I'm OK with a group of professional musicians not donning floppy haired wigs and putting on Beatles costumes and whatnot, but when they're not even trying to match the vocals, that's when it kind of falls apart for me.

Don't get me wrong -- I had a great time and the band is outstanding (although the lead singer reminded me SO MUCH of a cross between actors Bill Nighy and Andy Dick that I really couldn't get past it), it's just that I didn't find myself swept up in the experience. I'm curious as to what my husband would have thought, as all of the guys in The Fab Faux have quite the impressive resumes, and he would've been a better judge of whether or not they nailed the guitar, drums, and special effects parts.

I also think the fellow Beatles fans surrounding me and Nerdy P had a bit of a negative effect on us -- a trio directly in front of our seats danced SO STRANGELY that I literally cried three different times because I was laughing so hard at them. And then the woman next to me was one of those No-Rhythm Clappers that was really into it and there were several times when she looked over at me, nodding to encourage me to join in. No thanks, lady!

But all in all it was a fun night, and I would certainly think that if you're a hardcore Beatles fan you would want to check out The Fab Faux if they came to your area. The first half of the show is a mix of songs across all albums, with the second half being Abbey Road performed in its entirety (which might be a bit challenging for those who like and/or know only the most popular Beatles' tunes). From their web site it appears that the band will be on the east coast next, followed by a tour of the south this summer.

I'll leave you with their Letterman performance of "I Am the Walrus" from a few years ago. They played this one Saturday night, too, and it was one of my favorites.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Faux Stores

Yesterday I walked down a very popular street in my neighborhood for the first time in a long time ('cause I haven't gotten out much lately). I was shocked and saddened by how many stores had closed or were otherwise in the processing of going out of business, including the humongous Borders bookstore I'd shopped at frequently since moving to Chicago in 1996.

A few blocks down on this very same street was another bookstore. One that I don't think I've ever seen anyone enter or leave. It's clear that someone's checking in on a regular basis, because there are recent notices of local events and other dated information about store hours hanging from the inside of its front glass door.

But this space simply CANNOT really function as a bookstore. It is in utter disarray. These pictures don't do the mess justice, because I couldn't get my camera to zoom in any further than the window displays. You'll probably still get the general idea of how ridiculous the situation is, though.

I mean, come on.

What I saw inside was more of the same -- just old, ratty books piled EVERYWHERE. There were no aisles, nothing, just mountains of books that looked to have been dumped on the floor. Some of the shelving was even tipped over. Talk about a fire hazard.

On the other side of the window display -- which I couldn't capture in a photo because the sun was glinting off the glass too much-- there sits a person-sized bag of Styrofoam packing peanuts (??) and all sorts of other random stuff.

Is this place a front, or what? Surely the neighborhood cops must have noticed it. There's a "video store" on another street near me which has nothing but old, old, OLD VHS tapes (I kid you not) on its shelves, and I wonder the same thing. Something's not right with these stores. Do you have any suspicious stores like that where you live? My friend Nerdy P used to work at a sandwich shop in a tiny strip mall next to a weird-looking dry cleaners. She always thought something was up with the place, and then sure enough one day the cops busted it for being a front for a prostitution ring. !!!

I'll let you know if the same fate ever befalls my local *cough* used bookstore *cough.*

I'm going to be traveling tomorrow through Wednesday and already know that I probably won't be able to post Friday or over the weekend. But I've been really proud of myself for getting back into the "A to e routine" these last few weeks, and therefore you can rest assured I will check in again as soon as I'm able.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Book Review: The Ten Best Days of My Life, by Adena Halpern

The Ten Best Days of My Life is not the kind of book I would normally buy. I typically stay far away from fluffy "chick lit" titles -- they're just not my thing. But last summer, two different forces led me to Adena Halpern's lighthearted look at the afterlife: 1) For my redbox gig, I wrote about the upcoming adaptation of the novel (starring Amy Adams) and thought it sounded interesting, and 2) I had just wrapped up my manuscript for Zero-Sum Game and was desperate for something -- anything -- to read that would require absolutely zero brain power. I needed to decompress.

So I got the book and finished it during a short stay in NYC followed by a weekend jaunt to the Hamptons with my friend Miss M. It was the perfect companion for lazy mornings at the beach. The story revolves around Alex, a fairly shallow and materialistic 29-year-old who finds herself in heaven after she and her dog Peaches die in an unfortunate accident. Alex must reflect back on her life and write an essay about her "ten best days" in order to make it to a higher level of the Great Beyond -- a level where there are more perks, like cute guys, fab clothes and shoes, and a reunion with her doggy (all pets automatically go to "Seventh Heaven," you see).

To my surprise, despite the fact that about 80% of the story was totally silly, I was so moved by Alex's few introspective moments and "lessons learned" that I cried (very hard) at the end. It was a case where although Halpern's writing left much to be desired -- she repeated certain words and phrases constantly (a big pet peeve of mine), and Alex was annoying and selfish and completely unrelatable -- I agreed so strongly with the book's overall message that I forgave its many faults. The story made me think about what the most pivotal days of my life have been -- and more importantly, why I consider those days to be so special.

So would I recommend The Ten Best Days of My Life? Sure. I've already forewarned you that it's no literary masterpiece and that you'll probably want to strangle Alex (though she's already dead) throughout, but thankfully there is a sweet and important moral hidden within its pages. Plus, with Amy Adams attached to the movie (which is supposedly coming out this year... but there's no release date yet), it's probably worth reading the book now just to be able to compare and contrast its silver-screen translation with the original material. If you read it, don't forget to come back and let me know if you agree or disagree with my take!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Dare to Dream

Nearly four years ago -- in May 2007 -- my husband, my dog, and I drove three hours to the Sheboygan, Wisconsin area for a weekend getaway. (It's REALLY hard to believe I was still working for The Man at that point...)

We'd found a rental home on Lake Michigan (specifically Hika Bay Bluff) and were excited for three days of reading, watching movies, and relaxing. (Actually, I remember being stressed out about having to write something... most likely a Long Live Locke post!)

The (enormous) cabin we settled on was called "Saxon Sunrise," and it was perched near the edge of a bluff overlooking the water. It was gorgeous.

There were three bedrooms, one and a half bathrooms, a wide open kitchen and living room area -- it was just awesome. If you want to see a few more pictures, here's its web site. But my favorite area was this nook in the kitchen that faced the lake. I had always suspected I'd want a future "dream home" to have an area where I could write while looking out at some big body of water, and our stay in Wisconsin confirmed it.

The only thing that would have made this place absolutely perfect is if it were in, say, Hawaii or Australia (or basically anywhere that's consistently warm).

Here's my husband and our dog chillin' on the edge of the bluff. Below is a secluded, sandy beach.

We haven't been back since 2007, though every once in a while I'd find myself thinking about that weekend and making a mental note to try and figure out a time we could return. Then, lo and behold, a letter from a real estate agent arrived in the mail a few days ago. Normally I would throw something like that in the trash before even opening it, since we're not planning to move any time soon. But for whatever reason, the universe moved me to open this particular envelope.

It was from an agent representing the owners of Saxon Sunrise. They are looking to sell! For one brief, glorious moment, I pictured myself waking up every morning, padding to the kitchen in my slippers and robe, drinking my tea, and gazing at the waves before getting started on my day. This is my dream home we're talking about -- and it's available! My heart raced.

Then I looked at the asking price -- over half a million dollars.


Since Saxon Sunrise costs more than our condo, I don't think we'll be ponying up the cash. And the truth is that even if we had the money, my husband and I would never want to commit ourselves to one location for a second home -- we prefer to continue seeing new parts of the country and the world rather than be tied to a certain area when it's time for a break.

That doesn't mean I'm not jealous of anyone who's able to afford such an incredible place, though. And it also doesn't mean that one day I wouldn't want a home (as in, our one and only home) on the water -- that is, in fact, my ultimate goal. After our stay at Hika Bay Bluff, I'm convinced an ocean/lake/bay view (again, somewhere warm) will be the key to a happy retirement.

I'm also pretty sure that my dog would agree.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Mystery Callers

Before I get to the main topic of today's post, a few updates:

1) I deem my Weekend of Straightening Up to be about 80% successful. To my surprise, it was really hard for me to stop myself from fully cleaning each area I tackled -- I chalk that up to being the daughter of the engineer and always hearing, "There's a Right Way to do everything!" in the back of my mind. The beast that is the mess on my kitchen table is still not totally tamed, but it's getting there. The good news is that the rest of my main floor is the tidiest it's been in years, and I'm thrilled that when I look around, I no longer have pure chaos staring back at me. I feel like I'm kind of on a roll with all this cleaning over the past few days, so perhaps I'll be able to finish off the kitchen table clutter little by little throughout the week.

2) My husband was not a fan of my I'm Going to Stay Up an Hour Later sleep plan. He countered by suggesting I go to bed when he does, and then he'll force me to get up earlier. His theory is that within a few days to a week, I'll be so tired from getting up when he does that I will fall asleep easily at his normal time every night. I don't think it's going to work. Especially if -- like this morning -- he chooses to sleep in himself and then doesn't wake me up as promised! So the insomnia battle rages on. (I should also note that about 15 minutes after I published yesterday's post, I came across this crazy article about people with a genetic mutation that enables them to thrive on only four hours of sleep. Talk about salt in the wound.)

OK -- on to the real topic of this post. It's a short and sweet one: Who in the hell are cab drivers always talking to? I seriously can't remember the last time I took a taxi and the driver wasn't on his cell phone. Half the time I think he's mumbling something to me and I'm like, "What?" until I realize he's got a headset on.

Now, I'm not going to go off about how dangerous I think it is to drive in a city like Chicago or New York while also attempting to hold a phone conversation, even with the help of a hands-free device. That's a rant for another time. Today I just want to see if anyone out there has any idea who's on the other end of EVERY SINGLE CAB DRIVER'S CALL. Are they talking to each other? Are they talking to family members? What could there possibly be to talk about for that long? And what kind of phone plan do these guys have, anyway?

I tend to think that cab drivers are talking to each other. Who else would have that much time to chat? On several instances I've noticed long, long, multi-minute gaps in the conversations, and so I can only figure that the drivers have each other on the line and just pipe up when there's something interesting to report on traffic patterns or whatever. But I really wish I knew FOR SURE. I guess this will have to remain one of those Great Mysteries of Life for now, though.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

ZZZs Please

I've had trouble falling asleep for as long as I can remember. Once I'm in the land of Nod I usually stay there, it's just the winding down and actually drifting off to slumber that's the tough part. I hoped that on top of helping out with my winter grouchiness the SAD lamp I bought might help my insomnia situation as well, but it didn't. And the fact is that I've always had just as tough a time going to sleep in the summer, so the issue isn't season-related.

I know my problem is that I'm a Type A Freakazoid Stressball whose made a habit of equating bedtime with worry time. I lie awake every night, fretting about everything under the sun, rehearsing conversations I'm dreading (that there's a 99% likelihood I'll never even have), making mental lists of what I must tick off my ever-growing To Do List in the coming days and weeks, and generally getting myself so worked up that there's no way I could rest.

Many nights I continue to be caught in this "worry cycle" 90 minutes after the lights go out. How do I know? Because my husband has his iPod hooked to our alarm clock, and it plays a track of ocean waves (to help drown out noise from our neighbors and the back alley, etc) for that long. My husband is usually asleep by Minute #2. (Grrr.) If I'm still conscious when the waves switch off, I know I'm in for an especially long night.

And yes, I've tried Ambien, Lunesta, and all of those types of "sleep-enablers." But I hate the way they make me feel the next day... and I also don't really want to rely on drugs for anything. So I continue to suffer. My husband shared a trick he uses on the rare occasions he doesn't drift off within minutes: he holds his breath for as long as he can. HUH?!?! How exactly is that relaxing? He swears that once he exhales he's in a blissful state of peace. I figure he's just about cut off his oxygen or something. Needless to say, that trick is not for me.

But the past few days I've been doing something that seems to have worked. It is, in fact, so simple that it's totally stupid. Here it is: I do not lie down until I'm at the point where I can barely keep my eyes open. Then I fall asleep almost immediately -- and it's a good, deep sleep. I wake up about 7 hours or so later (on my own), refreshed.

I was able to try this because my husband's been on a ski trip with his friends for the past four nights, so I don't have to work around his schedule. The problem is I've been staying up much later than we normally do when he's home (since he has to go to an office in the morning and I don't). But the time I've been waking up is the same time I normally get up every day. Which leads me to believe that I really shouldn't even attempt to go to sleep until one to one-and-a-half hours after I normally do. This little experiment reminded me that I actually learned this about myself a full decade ago. My husband (then boyfriend) and I backpacked around Southeast Asia for two months and never used an alarm clock. I would always glance at the clock when I went to sleep and then got up every morning, and I swear to you the time elapsed was ALWAYS EXACTLY SEVEN AND A HALF HOURS. To the minute. It was amazing.

My husband's back tonight, so I'm going to see how I can possibly make my preferred schedule work without disturbing him too much -- he seems to need about an hour more than I do. But if I succeed in getting a good night's sleep every night, then we both win because I won't constantly be complaining about how tired I am. I'll keep you posted on how it goes.

(On an unrelated note, if you're wondering how my Day of Straightening Up went yesterday... there's good news and bad news. I didn't get much done because I was sucked into actually cleaning the areas I started with -- my front closet, the front room, etc. So the biggest issue -- the kitchen table -- still suffers. But I'm hoping to get to it today... and so with that, I'm signing off!)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Now or Never

Yesterday the latest issue of Real Simple (one of my favorite magazines) arrived in the mail and I took its cover (to the left) as a sign: I must clean my condo this weekend.

How bad is the situation? On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the worst, I'd say it's about a 9. Since the fall of 2009 when I learned that my book was going to be published (but I'd have to write it first), I have pretty much only tended to urgent or otherwise in-your-face household duties. The trash gets taken out once it's starting to overflow. I keep up with the laundry because I have no choice. The bills get paid. When I'm on the phone I'll multitask by Swiffering up the dog hair that seems to constantly cover our hardwood floors. Everything else has been neglected for over 1.5 years. But today is the day. TODAY IS THE DAY. I'm going to clean this freakin' place if it kills me.

OK, perhaps "clean" is the wrong word. A more appropriate description of what I intend to do this weekend is "straighten up all visible areas on the main floor." In fact, I actually got kind of depressed after reading Real Simple cover-to-cover last night, because even their "quick cleaning guidelines" were waaaaaayyyy more intense than anything I plan to do. There will be no rug beating or curtain vacuuming or under-the-fridge coil-sweeping. There will be no disinfecting or scrubbing down of anything. I basically just need to toss out/organize/file/find another place for about 5,000 random papers/Post-Its/knickknacks that have piled up on my long kitchen table/writing desk, as well as on my kitchen counter and bedroom chest of drawers, over the course of about nineteen months.

I figure once the main areas I spend 99% of my time in look tidy, then I can actually clean surfaces and whatnot in the near future (and I'll be motivated not to let things accumulate again). But first things first. Wish me luck -- I'm not sure a task 1.5 years in the making can be accomplished in a weekend!

Friday, March 11, 2011


Although I know this probably isn't a very healthy ritual, every morning when I wake up -- before I'm even out of bed -- I grab my iPhone and scroll through new email and Facebook messages, as well as scan my Twitter feed. I just want to know if anything urgent is awaiting me... and if it isn't, maybe I can justify stealing a few more minutes of rest!

This morning I got a sinking feeling as I started looking through messages -- I could immediately tell that something bad had happened in the world overnight. My Twitter stream was filled with thoughts and prayers for those in Japan, talk of earthquakes and tsunamis, and worry about what might lie ahead for Hawaii and much of the western coast of the U.S. I got my behind out of bed, reviewed a few news sites, and watched a couple of the incredible videos that were taken from helicopters flying over Japan.

This sort of tragedy always smacks me upside the head and forces me to put my "problems" in perspective. All of the little worries that run through my mind on a daily basis are forgotten in a heartbeat whenever something awful happens. I just wish it was easier for me to keep that perspective as time goes on. It seems to be human nature (or is it just me?) to try and shut out memories of sad events and return as quickly as possible to our daily routines and silly anxieties. I guess that's a better option than walking around constantly wondering whether your time could be up at any second -- but I'm hoping there's some sort of happy medium I can arrive at with a little effort. As in, not living in fear that a catastrophe is lurking around the corner, but still being mindful that in the whole scheme of things, I -- and probably anyone who has an internet connection and a device through which they can read a blog (that would be you) -- have it pretty good.

So the earthquake in Japan reminded me to stop and smell the roses a bit more, but it also helped me realize that Twitter is NOT always a reliable source of information. (Duh, right?) Since, thanks to LOST, I've become friends with a bunch of people in Hawaii, I knew that nothing much was going on there this morning. Yet I still read tweets from some of the biggest global news organizations reporting that "waves were sweeping through the islands" and all sorts of other ominous tales that WERE NOT TRUE. ?!?! I mean, it's one thing when ridiculous celebrity rumors run rampant across the Internet -- most intelligent people can smell those hoaxes coming from a mile away. But when the Associated Press (among others) is tweeting false information that seems like it could've been verified or denied in, oh, I don't know -- two minutes by a call to anyone in Hawaii -- that's pretty shameful.

It's a nice sunny day here in Chicago, so I'm going to do my best to start appreciating the little things by finishing up my writing duties and then getting outside to enjoy some fresh air. But before I do that, I will definitely be donating to the American Red Cross to help those in Asia and the Pacific region affected by Mother Nature's wrath. If you'd like to do the same, here's how.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Movie Theater Is Not Your Living Room, People

As you all know, since 2008 I've been a film critic and movie blogger for DVD retailer redbox over at redblog. With this gig comes the opportunity to attend advanced screenings of pretty much every film that will ever hit theaters. Some of these screenings are held during the day, and only critics or other members of the press can attend. But when it comes to movies backed by the major Hollywood studios, most of those screenings are held in the evening at large cineplexes, where the majority of theater seats go to "normal people" who've won passes through the radio, or a web site, or what have you. In those screenings, there are a few rows reserved for critics.

I've come to dread attending movies where I have to sit near anyone from the general public. Yes, this sounds snobby, but I have a good reason for feeling this way. Over the course of the past three years, I've grown increasingly astonished and enraged by how rude so many people are when they're in a theater. It's like they forget they don't own the place and that they're no longer in the privacy of their own home.

Take last night, for example. I was at a screening for the upcoming film Limitless, and a security guard made a five-minute speech before things got going about how anyone caught with a cell/smart phone on during the show would be kicked out. They make this speech because of piracy concerns, of course, but there's a more practical reason for keeping one's phone off during a film: IT EMITS A GLOWING NEON LIGHT THAT IS VERY DISTRACTING IN A PITCH-BLACK THEATER! So wouldn't you know it, a woman sitting two seats down from me (in the press row, even though she was definitely not a fellow critic) turned on her phone and started scrolling through messages when there were still about fifteen minutes left in the film.

Now, if the security guard had been anywhere near us, I would've waved him over. But he was nowhere to be found. The guy next to me held up his hand to block the glow of the phone... but the clueless chick just kept on doing her thing. Finally I reached over and swatted at her, and the guy next to me upped his game a bit as well, and then she got the hint. What's depressing is that I find myself having to do something like this on a weekly basis. Once I leaned over the row behind me and nearly smacked two teenagers who were PLAYING A VIDEO GAME WITH THE SOUND ON during a film. Another time there were two young women who talked to each other at normal volume throughout an entire movie -- they were just having a conversation together in their own little world. And don't even get me started on parents who bring their toddlers to R-rated films -- like I witnessed earlier this week in a screening for Paul -- and then walk up and down the aisle with their sobbing kids (or worse, let them run around on their own, unattended) while the rest of us are trying to hear.

I have less and less patience for this sort of thing, but since I don't foresee the masses magically growing into polite and respectful lovers of cinema any time soon, it's probably only a matter of months before I completely lose it one night, attack a rude moviegoer and then get hauled off to jail. So if one day I just totally drop off the face of the earth, you'll know what happened.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Here Comes the (Artificial) Sun

In mid-December I went to the doctor because for weeks prior I had just been feeling off. I was falling asleep during daytime movie screenings (and not because the movies were boring!), my hair was falling out, my nails were cracking down the middle, and I was having a hard time getting motivated to do much of anything (even though I was more swamped than ever before between my film-blogging gig and book promotion duties). I've always been a high-strung stressball, but this was different -- I worried I was nearing my breaking point. If I had to sum up how I felt in one word, that word would be overwhelmed. Another good choice would be exhausted.

Around that time I had read an interview with Tina Fey (30 Rock) in which she said that whenever she got extremely stressed out, her body's defense mechanism seemed to be to bring on such a profound tiredness that she had no other choice but to go to sleep rather than be productive. Which of course just leads to more stress as the To Do list continues to pile up while you're napping. Since there had been a few days where I found myself heading to bed in the middle of the afternoon because I could no longer keep my eyes awake, I started wondering if I was the same way.

So I went to my doctor, who is this awesome German woman known for telling it like it is. I vented to her about everything I had on my plate and how I couldn't afford to continue being so out of it. She took blood to run some tests, but immediately recommended that I seek out a SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) lamp.

She confirmed what I had already suspected for years: I am pretty much just a monster during the winter months. I've always felt like I literally become a different person when the temperatures start dropping and the skies go gray -- a person who's more cynical, pessimistic, unmotivated, and easily depressed. My doctor said to make sure I got a lamp with at least "10,000 lux," and made a comment about how "there's a reason most of these lamps come from companies in places like Canada." I decided I would order a SAD lamp that very day because I really had nothing to lose and was totally desperate for help. As it turns out, both the city where I grew up and the city in which I now live are on the "Lowest Average Sunlight" list. Way to go, Midwest!

I went on Amazon and decided to get this lamp, pictured to the right. I wanted one that could sit next to my laptop on my writing desk/kitchen table. It's not like you're supposed to stare into this thing directly -- its light just needs to be shining on your face in order to replicate the effect of sunlight. And no, it's not using the same kind of rays that can cause skin cancer.

There's a lot more I want to write about what I now believe to be a Miracle Lamp, as well as the other things I learned about what a lack of sunshine can do to you, the power of vitamin B12, etc., etc., but all that will have to be tabled for future posts as this one's already getting too long. For now let me say that I do think the SAD lamp has helped my overall mood. The first few times I used it I got a teeny headache, but haven't had one since and I've used it daily once it arrived right before the holidays. You only need to use it 20 minutes a day for it to be effective, but I have it on for an hour because I'm already sitting here for hours anyway.

I've had at least five friends order this lamp (or similar ones) since I started singing its praises, so I figured I should share my experience since I'm probably not the only one living in an area that doesn't see Mr. Sun for months on end. I think the SAD lamp is the next best thing -- so Let the (Man-made) Sunshine In!