Count the flags!

FlagWe had an interesting discussion about celebrating America’s Independence Day, and the  ways to celebrate are as diverse as the country itself. Most of the towns around here offer some sort of fireworks, usually preceded by live music, and people bring lawn chairs and visit for a while. When our kids were kids, we usually visited the one in the town where we lived. Currently, we live out in the country, so we don’t usually bother.

Hubby wants to watch a movie, preferably Independence Day Resurgence(Bluray+DVD+Digital HD). We loved the original ID4 movie, but somehow we missed seeing the sequel. Despite its mediocre reviews, I imagine that we’ll be looking for that one in a couple of days.

In my work as an adjunct instructor, I work with students from lots of differing situations, but some of the most interesting are immigrants to our country. Many of them are just so appreciative for the opportunities that Americans have. I remember one gentleman, originally from Romania, who came over a couple of decades back, beginning with nothing but some work ethic. At first he made his living doing odd jobs. He worked his way into owning his own construction business, and he and his wife raised their family through hard work and savvy real estate deals. At our college, he was working on his HVAC (that’s heating and air-conditioning) certification, as he wanted to open an HVAC business so he could scale back doing difficult construction work as he aged. Being a very smart business man, he said that in the south making money on repairing air conditioning was a sure thing! One day at the end of our class, he spend probably half an hour, telling all of us about what a wonderful country we were living in, because he could never do all that he was doing in the economically and socially constricted country of his birth. It was quite refreshing. Sometimes, caught up in the polarized morass of modern media, Americans forget just how wonderful our country is, and how it differs from others.

When I mentioned that it can be difficult teaching young children about our country, one  mother of youngsters mentioned that when they are driving in the car, her kids count flags. Regardless of the destination, they look for the red, white, and blue symbol of our great country. That, too, is a great way to begin celebrating the good ol’ US of A.

Happy American Independence Day, y’all.

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Hollar— and great customer service

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Mostly, I intend to write about writing, but real life does get in the way of that, and this post is about the fabulous customer service I got from an online “dollar store” known as Hollar.com. When I ordered from them for the first time, I got several items to try, and a puzzle to share with my family, who are (just like mom) big fans of Star Wars. Let me be perfectly honest— the price for the 100 piece puzzle was $1. But, when the group effort was finished, one piece was missing. Hubby laughed at me and had some disparaging remarks about my being cheap enough to order a $1 puzzle. He is right about me being cheap, however.

Slightly annoyed, I whipped out my iPad, took a picture of the 99 piece puzzle, posted it as a comment on the Hollar Facebook page. Within a few minutes, I had a couple of responses from concerned folks at Hollar. They asked for the order number, and when I replied via FB messenger with it, they assured me that I would get a new puzzle. I was expecting (maybe) a credit on my next order, but they said the item was in stock and would soon be on its way. Kudos, right?

A few days later, I got the box, which was bigger than expected and heavier, too. Curious, I opened the box and there was another boxed Star Wars puzzle. Below it, heavily cushioned, was a very nicely framed Star Wars puzzle, with a missing piece, along with a personal note explaining that they, too, didn’t like missing pieces. Hubby, who had brought the box from the post office couldn’t stop laughing, and I was so pleased with the item that I immediately hung it.

Nowadays, people love to say that almost all companies have “customer no service” rather than treating people right. Obviously, Hollar.com has a different philosophy, as well as a great sense of humor. Needless to say, I will be visiting the site again, because such great customer service deserves a second chance.

Go check out Hollar.com. Really!

Weight loss apps— my experience

scaleI guess the subtitle is Weight Watchers vs. My Fitness Pal, as those are the only two I have used enough to review in a meaningful manner.

Quite a long time back, I went to Weight Watchers and lost a goodly amount of weight, but I didn’t reach any goal. My thought at the time was that I had learned so much that I would be able to maintain my loss, and for a time I was somewhat successful. Fast forward a decade plus, and I was shopping the big girl’s section, which wasn’t much fun. Also, I became seriously concerned about the health effects of carrying so much extra weight around.

So, I joined Weight Watchers again, and wow, had things changed. Everyone was using the “app” and the meetings were half as long as before, because things were so high-tech. But, the core principles are the same: foods are assigned points, based on both calories and how “healthy” they are, and users are assigned a point target, based on certain individual criteria. Instead of looking up point values in a book, as we did before, the app can assist, even allowing users to scan a bar code on a package. (I don’t use that feature much, because fresh foods like blackberries and tomatoes do not have bar codes.) Anyway, the program works, and I lost even more weight than I did the first time, albeit over a longer period of time. (Maturity sucks.)

As I was losing, hubby lost quite a bit, too. He and his doctor were happy with the change, so hubby decided to go “all in” on weight loss, but he was not about to pay for it. So, he decided to try the “My Fitness Pal” app, as the basic version is free, and it works quite well. Since I do most of the cooking, he was always asking me for assistance in recording his food intake, which weight loss programs call “tracking,” so I ended up doing both WW and MFP for a few months. I’m currently still at my goal weight, which means as a lifetime member, I can use the WW app for free, but instead I am using MFP.

Both apps are very good, but for losing weight and learning how to do that, I would certainly stick with the WW app. By weighting (pun intended) certain foods, the app not only tracks users, but steers them toward healthy eating habits and better portion control. One excellent feature of the WW app is the recipes, which help users come up with a healthy recipe for whatever ingredients are entered. So, if I see pork tenderloin on sale, I can open the app and summon several healthy recipes right on my phone or iPad. However, the nutrition reports offered by the MFP app does a much better job of showing excesses or deficiencies in what I’ve been eating. For instance, I’ve been using MFP to help me keep up with how much protein I am eating, as I am a serious carb lover, and I might eat too many carbs and too little protein without those handy reports.

In our high tech world, it is quite easy to eat too much and move too little, so apps such as Weight Watchers and My Fitness Pal are very helpful.

Girl Power? Wonder Woman review and commentary

I’m not a frequent visitor to first run movies, as hubby and I enjoy our Netflix subscription (and homemade popcorn) more. Sometimes, however, a film comes out that piques my interest so we make the trek to our local multiplex and join a group of folks we’ve never met to see a movie. After reading some reviews and seeing a couple of trailers, I told hubby that I intended to see Wonder Woman, with or without him, so we went to see it.

Gal Gadot is fabulous in this film as the title character, as is Chris Pine’s side kick, Steve Trevor. Others do a good job, and Robin Wright is visually stunning as the Amazon general. Indeed, stunning is a word that comes to mind through the first half of the film. An superhero movie that is not a sequel must begin with some exposition, and that is a tricky phase. Too much detail threatens to bore the non-faithful viewer, but too little will disappoint those faithful fans who will show up regardless of what critics say. This version of Wonder Woman nails the exposition, with lots of action woven into the backstory. The costumes are simply amazing as are the settings and the action sequences. The characters do a great job of holding the viewers’ interest as the setting shifts from the island of the Amazons to WWI London. Again, the settings work well, as do the costumes, and it was easy to feel that we’d been transported back a hundred years.

(I am purposely leaving out details, as I do not want to ruin this movie for those who haven’t seen it, if there is anyone left in that category.)

Once the main mission of our heroine gets underway, the action is almost non-stop, and the villains are properly villainous. If I am totally honest, the final action sequence is a tad too long, but the overall effect is that this is a really good movie. Wonder Woman 2017 earns its fabulous score on Rotten Tomatoes.

I know nothing of director Patty Jenkins other work, nor have I seen Gadot in other films, but I have liked Chris Pine’s version of Captain Kirk in the rebooted Star Trek, and I thought he did a great job in the period action-adventure The Finest Hours (Theatrical). This super hero flick really hits on all cylinders: it is reasonably true to the comic book version, won’t disappoint fans of the old television series, and is so well made that newbies will enjoy it, too.

Please enjoy the links to these previous films available online, and consider going to see Wonder Woman.

Jackie— a brief review and commentary


We recently ordered up the DVD version of Jackie, starring Natalie Portman. Like many baby boomers, I remember the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath. Yes, I was just a child, but I still exactly where I was when I first heard the news, and I do remember that funeral procession as it appeared on our black and white television.

The film version of those events, entitled simply Jackie, is not especially linear, as the story line has a journalist coming to the Kennedy home in Massachusetts, to interview the former first lady about that terrible day and its aftermath. The story is actually a series of flashbacks. Featured in several of those is the famous television film of Jackie leading a tour of the White House, and the filmmakers carefully recreated a number of well documented events, including the arrival at Love Field and the motorcade (which was, of course, interrupted by the assassination.)

Other scenes give viewers a fictionalized but probably accurate glimpse of the horrors of that day. These include Jackie cleaning the blood from her face on Air Force One, and her removing the bloodstained pink wool suit, washing her hair, and Kennedy’s blood flows down her back. Although only seconds long, the shooting is also amazingly accurately depicted, and this is no fuzzy 8mm film— the assassination is high def and horrifying. The film also answers some questions that I’ve had, such as why Jackie tried to get out of the car, and why she didn’t change clothes before disembarking from the plane in Washington. The costumes, the sets, the cars, and the blending of old footage with new footage is really top notch. The cast does a very good job, especially Portman, who may not look all that much like Mrs. Kennedy, but she clearly worked hard on getting the accent and mannerisms down. Before it was over, I began to forget that this wasn’t the real Jackie Kennedy on the screen.

All-in-all, this film does a really good job of adding insight for viewers already familiar with the story. Perhaps more importantly, however, it gives younger generations a chance to see exactly what price is paid when a leader such as JFK dies at the hands of an assassin. Jackie is historically accurate, as well as being emotionally gut wrenching.

Tales of Honor— Volume 1 “On Basilisk Station”

Tales of Honor IAs a fan of David Weber, I have been most interested in the new venture he has with Evergreen Studios to turn the adventures of his flagship character, Honor Harrington, into a series of comic books, a video game, and eventually, a movie series. I seldom play video games, so I won’t comment on that aspect, but re-imagining the characters in a semi-manga set of comics is an interesting approach to creating a wider audience for Weber’s work.

I purchased the actual book (a larger paperback) rather than the eBook, because I wanted to examine the work closely and perhaps share it. I’ve read (and re-read) the books, so I am not the intended audience. Fans of Weber’s prose are probably going to be disappointed, because there are not many words in these books. Comics (graphic novels?) are quite different from prose, and Weber uses lots of words. However to bring Honor off the page and onto film will require story boards, so I am viewing this book, and those that hopefully will come later, as elaborate story boards. Weber has a full page introduction in this book wherein he asks fans to be open-minded about the new approach to his work.

On Basilisk Station has a good bit of exposition, and while interesting, it isn’t as tense as some of the later novels, so I found it interesting that Tales of Honor, Volume I begins “in medias res” with the situation at the end of book seven (In Enemy Hands) as the framework for book one. Certainly this approach ramps up the suspense, as Honor faces torture and execution, and remembers these earlier events, because her previous exploits are what led to her capture by the Havenites.

A few posts back, I included some art by a cover artist who really captures the Honor Harrington of my imagination, and this Top Cow/Evergreen Studios version is quite a bit different. Still, art conveys meaning in a different manner than words, and just having visuals of Honor and her universe may alienate some fans, but will hopefully attract others.

Do I like this book? Well, not really. I very much prefer the original. But is it bad? Nope, it isn’t. Honestly, the comic novel manages to get across quite a bit of the original, in very few pages. The pictures are not cartoons, but have quite a bit of detail. Especially interesting are the panels which explain how propulsion and weapons work in Honorverse. Weber always mentions the devastation of warfare, but the visuals here are more dramatic than words alone. My main problem with Tales of Honor is the problem that fans often have with films—a disconnect between what I previously imagined and what I am seeing. This version of Honor is less beautiful, more menacing, and less subtly nuanced than the one in my imagination. And, the Nimitz in this book is unrecognizable. Really. Are these problems created by the artists, or by my lack of an open mind?

As of this writing there is only a one-star review on Amazon, written by a disgruntled fan who is also experiencing this closed-minded disconnect. Hopefully, that will change, because for Honor to become a film heroine, the comic books will need to find more receptive audience. And, I believe Honor’s exploits would make one heck of a good series of movies, so I am gonna hop over to Amazon and leave a review.

Coolest cover art

I’ve been looking online for information about the new versions of David Weber’s Honor Harrington novels— there’s a video game, comic books, and a forthcoming movie! While the news is interesting, the art files coming from the comic books are seriously cool. I am looking forward to all of it, especially the film version, because Honor is one of my favorite characters of all time.

But, I saw some cover art files from an artist in Europe who is absolutely nailing the image I have of Honor and her universe in my miid. Wonderful, powerful images. Check this out, HH fans!

honor_among_enemies_2_by_genkkis-d5c6lhm honor_harrington___field_of_dishonor_by_genkkis-d72fwyj honor_harrington_war_of_honor2_by_genkkis-d2mtz6ahonor_harrington_flag_in_exile_by_genkkis-d2mty9d

There are more files, as well as some interesting discussion between fans and the author over at Deviant Art.

Honestly, I am simply blown away by the talent and the skillful interpretation of the artist.

Bluegrass, Gospel, Pinto Beans and Cornbread

 

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Moore Brothers band at Merlefest

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My sister invited me to go with her to an event known as “Merlefest” in North Carolina last weekend. We went, along with about 75K other folks, and it was a really amazing festival. She had told me quite a bit about it, and her pitch to get me to go (apart from a four day visit with her) was that I would learn a lot to help my son, the luthier. I did learn, although not so much about luthiery.

First, I learned that God is not out of fashion in the hills of North Carolina. One forgets how “politically correct” our world has become. At Merlefest, I heard all about God, via old-time gospel music (which I love) and many casual references. Here’s an example: In introducing a love song to “Mary” country super-star Alan Jackson said that his wife’s name is Denise, but that didn’t work in the song, so he figured that maybe she wouldn’t be mad if he used the name of Jesus’ mother. It was off-hand and natural. I liked his explanation as well as the song.

Second, I learned that it is possible to feed thousands efficiently with food that was both economical and reasonably healthy. There are several places for food at the festival, but the main one is the “food tent” across from the main stage. There was a booth that sold pinto beans and cornbread for $4. This meal was delicious and filling, and far better than the funnel cakes that I expected. Later, I ate a plate of grilled veggies and rice from another vendor, which was $5. And, my sister’s favorite was the booth run by the Boy Scouts, where they sold a “wing tray” of BBQ chicken for $4. All of these booths were run by local non-profits, so the food had “home made” flavor, too. Sister got a $5 ice cream at one of the commercial spots, but I preferred the more basic fare.

Third, I learned that some acts I would never have chosen to see were among the best. On the first night, I was looking forward to seeing Alan Jackson, but one of the lead in main stage acts was the Carolina Chocolate Drops. This string band was lead by one of the most gifted vocalists I have heard in years, and their performance was filled with energy and precision. Who would have thought that a trained opera singer would be fronting a bluegrass band? Other stand outs included a band (the Moore Brothers) who were 20, 16, and 11. And, my sister and I both loved the old-time sound of The South Carolina Broadcasters.

Lastly, I learned that the many of the festival folks were more tolerant of discomfort than I am. There was rain on day two, so we scuttled into an auditorium and stayed until the showers passed by, but others just found a tree or a tent for a few moments. On the third day, it was hot, and we left the “hillside” during the opening bars of the “album hour” because we didn’t like being fried. Apparently most of those perched on that steep hill stayed. Perhaps the oddest discomfort came from having the more expensive “reserved” seats. As the evening shows progressed, each group was louder than the one before. On the second night, our ear plugs weren’t enough, so we left early, and on the third night we ended up in folding chairs at the back, leaving our reserved seats empty. Some of the performers were asking people to move up to the reserved seats, so I gathered there was a sea of empty seats, which must have been disconcerting (pun intended) for the performers on stage.

The instrument sales tent was filled, with everything from high-end custom guitars to “vintage” instruments, such as a Silvertone guitar in need of a neck reset. I even met the owner of Deering Banjos, a company about to celebrate 40 years as the premier maker of banjos in this country. As for luthiery, two Virginia guitar makers, Wayne Henderson and his daughter Jane, did a presentation that was pretty darned interesting, especially  when he played his first guitar which sounds pretty good, despite the bullet hole in the back.

Two Reviews— Waiting for Superman and Temple Grandin

While I have made most of the money I have ever made (or ever hope to) in public education, I genuinely enjoyed and appreciated the expose of public education called Waiting for Superman. The film is captivating, and somewhat suspenseful for a documentary.

As it opens, viewers meet five young people, of different ages, genders, and ethnicities. Each one has hopes and dreams which can only be fulfilled by a proper education. And each one is in a school which feeds into a “failure factory.” That term is applied to high schools where most students either drop out or fail to have the right background to get into college and succeed there. The facts and figures are playfully represented, and the stories of the five subjects introduced early on unfold gradually, along with commentary from educators.

Viewers will take away different images, I am sure, but I certainly identified with the “hidden camera” video of a classroom where the students were in the back of the room, playing craps, while the teacher sat in front of the room, with a magazine, waiting for his time to be up. My husband found that footage to be shocking, but I did not. Certain classes are like that. Really. I know, because I used to work in a public high school.

My experience tells me what the filmmaker does, and that is the answer to education problems is to hire good teachers and only good teachers. A good teacher is indeed “a work of art.” Of course, making sure that only good teachers are employed in public schools would entail firing bad ones. The filmmaker explains how difficult it can be to fire a bad teacher, and he professes to have an answer for this problem. I enjoyed the film, including the solution part; but as an educator, I am also skeptical that the solution can be so simple. (No, I won’t say what it is, but I hope readers of Pam’s Pages will want to know and will watch Waiting for Superman.) As the film draws to a close, viewers get a glimpse of the future of each of the youngsters, with mixed results, of course.

On a recent evening, our whole family enjoyed the excellent biopic from HBO which explains the life and thought patterns of the most famous autistic person in America, Dr. Temple Grandin. Anyone who has dealt with autism, or merely wants to know more, should see this film. And anyone who likes a good story will probably be just as impressed with it. Clare Danes is simply amazing, as she becomes the namesake of the film, Temple Grandin, in her speech patterns, her mannerisms, and she does a fair job of suppressing her movie star looks to appear more like Grandin would have looked in her earlier years.

Dr. Grandin writes well, and I first learned about her via her articles on how autistic people think. But, before she was famous for speaking out about autism, she was famous for being an expert in animal husbandry, and this biography begins with her summer trip to her aunt’s ranch, which was the beginning of her intense interest in animals and how they think. Grandin believes that there are distinct similarities in the thought processes of animals and autistics, and that is in pictures. Indeed, she has authored several books, as well as becoming a college professor, and one of her books is entitled Thinking in Pictures.

There is quite a bit of humor in this film, as Grandin blunders through social situations, but there is plenty of heart, too, as she is befriended and mentored by various people. As a mother, I do identify with Grandin’s mother, ably portrayed by Julia Armond. There can be no greater task than that of the mother of an autism spectrum child.

Unfortunately, neither of these movies will attract the viewers of the latest sci-fi blockbuster, but they are such worthy films that I hope you’ll go rent them or buy them and then share them so their messages will be spread a bit farther.

Gone

Recently, during a session of blog and website housecleaning, where I was looking for dead links, a trend emerged. Some of my fellow authors, especially the younger ones, have deleted their blogs. Christina Barber’s “The Writer’s Crypt” seems to be history. Susan Grant ended her “Come Fly with Me” blog in favor of a news section on her website. A particularly good one, “Faster Than Kudzu“has also moved. Other blogs are on hiatus. No doubt more blogs will go away, because the online audience is moving toward different web addresses. For a time, My Space was popular, but no more. Right now, Facebook is the most important medium for many who want an online presence, but I suspect that it, too, will be supplanted by another form of communication.

Groups, such as the ones on Yahoo and Google, were big news a decade ago. While I am still connected to some of these “list/serve” sites, I’ve left a number of the groups I where I was once a member, and for most of the others, the “daily digest” is no longer in my inbox. Online forums are also fading away, albeit more slowly. I was once fairly active on the SFReader boards, but if I spend a lot of time doing online promotion and/or writing, I don’t do any real writing, and that is a problem. Other authors have mentioned that online promotion, although cheap, is expensive in terms of time.

My goal, at the beginning of”Pam’s Pages,” was to promote my writing, to connect with people as a “real person” with ideas and opinions beyond what I express in my fiction writing, and to have a place to float concepts before I put a great deal of time into writing more formally about them. In 2005, when I began this blog, publicity experts were touting frequent updates, perhaps daily, to keep a blog at the top of search results on Google. While I didn’t think daily would ever be realistic, I thought could manage once a week, and I have averaged that. But once a week, or even once a day, can’t compete with Twitter.

Lately, due to time constraints and social constraints, “Pam’s Pages” has leaned more toward book reviews, which is fairly easy for me, since would be unusual for my reading to amount to less than a book a week.

How ironic; thus, this blog an out-of-date means of communicating about an out-of-date hobby, reading.