We do not stop playing because we get old…

pillowfight…we get old because we stop playing.

Or so the old saying goes. I think there’s some truth to it. I remember my grandfather at age 90, running down the hall of his apartment building, arms extended, making airplane noises as he flew beside us, a marvelous man-child in all the right ways, and I hoped to be like him someday. Of course, I do fall into the grown-up trap of being cranky and curmudgeonly all too often, but the goal is still there. John Cougar Mellencamp put it best, “growing up leads to growing old and then to dying, and dying to me don’t sound like all that much fun.”

Years (decades) ago, my favorite acting teacher told me “it’s vital to know the difference between childlike and childish; childishness is selfish, impatient, petty and demanding, but being childlike means being open to magic and wonder and delight.” Being an actor, artist, writer or Internet jester depends in large part on being able access that childlike state.

One of the wonderful things that the internet affords us is the opportunity to indulge that penchant for the silly, absurd, nonsensical and frivolous, to find kindred spirits and co-conspirators in the grand plot to make the world a little more surreal and bizarre for the sake of amusement. Now, granted, I did once write a surly rant about “why I hate the internet” (short answer: because it allows the nutjobs to find each other), but that was really more about obsession and monomania; the Internet is a tool, and you can use a tool to build things or clobber people, the tool doesn’t care which.Anything can be unhealthy if it’s taken too far. Relax, have fun, but don’t be a nutjob.

From National Gorilla Suit Day to the No Pants Subway Ride, there are all sorts of ways to be a big kid in public for the hell of it. Groups like Improv Everywhere, flashmobs, my own beloved GuerilLA, meetup groups like Drink & Draw or Eat, Meet, Geek, all serve to connect the people who are prone to such antics.

This weekend, one such event is occurring: International Pillow Fight Day. Organizers around the world have chosen venues and arranged to stage massive pillow fights, to which you are invited. Check out the Pillow Fight Day website and see where they’re gathering in your area. Grab a pillow and let the feathers fly.

It’s fun, and as Dudley Moore’s “Arthur” once said, “isn’t fun the best thing to have?”

Going to a Comic Convention on the cheap

SDCC-DisneySpring is here, and with it, the beginning of comic book convention season. This past weekend, the annual Emerald City Comic-Con was held in Seattle, a convention I have long wanted to attend (I have several friends in the area and several more who travel in for it, and from all reports it’s a pretty great event.) Coming up in April is WonderCon in Anaheim and then in May there’s the Big Wow Comic Fest in San Jose, which I intend to be at again. All of which leads up to the big one, Nerd Mecca, Comic-Con International in San Diego.

SDCC-robotI’ve been attending the San Diego Comic-Con sporadically since 1981 (when it had 5000 attendees), and have been there every year since 1997. Now that comics have gone mainstream (or at least comic book characters have; comics themselves have not matched the popularity of the same characters in other media), Comic-Con has seen a dramatic increase in attendance and interest. It’s also expanded far beyond the boundaries of comics and related material; it’s now the destination for any and all entertainment and pop culture, from Angry Birds to 2 Broke Girls. As the San Diego Con has gone mainstream, other conventions have popped up across the country, some of them becoming quite large and popular. Over time, we’ve learned a few things about how to do it without going broke. Whether you’re attending KatsuCon, WonderCon, HeroesCon, Emerald City, C2E2, Big Wow, or another convention, there are ways to save money at it, which you can then spend on comics, toys and t-shirts. Here are a few tips for the upcoming convention season.

Some of these tips are specific to San Diego Comic-Con; some of them may not apply to the convention in your area, due to differences in geography, amenities or weather, among other factors. Even so, there may be something helpful here for you.

1. Set a budget.
When you enter the exhibit hall, you will find yourself facing a huge room full of people who want to sell you things. Movies, limited-edition prints, t-shirts, toys, collectibles, original art, signed photos, comic books, and lord-knows-what else. If you have poor impulse control as far as spending goes, it’s a really good idea to not bring in more money than you want to spend. Keep your souvenir money separate from your food, lodging and transport money.

2. Convention food is absurd.
It’s really easy to forget about lunch until you’re standing in line somewhere and realize that (a) you’re starving and (b) your only option is that pretzel cart over there. It’s much better to just pull a PBJ, an apple, some string cheese and a bottle of water out of your backpack and save $10. As soon as you check in at the hotel, go find the nearest grocery store, assuming your room has a mini-fridge. (If not, a large ice chest will do for any perishables, but you can also just get stuff that doesn’t need refrigeration.) Stock up on breakfast and lunch foods and snacks and brown bag it at the Con. You could make friends with an exhibitor and maybe they will let you stash your lunch in their booth, but a more reasonable option is to take advantage of the bag check service that most larger Cons offer. Let’s face it, $5 for a hot dog and $4 for a Coke is just dumb, especially when you can have a tastier and more nutritious option for a lot less.

And of course you’re going to follow the “5-3-1 Rule” while you’re there, right? (5-3-1: make sure you get 5 hours of sleep, 3 meals and 1 shower every day at the Con. Please keep the shower as priority one; the food and sleep is for your health and well-being, but the shower is for everyone else’s.)

A lot of exhibitors will put out a bowl of candy as an incentive to lure you into their booth. Do not try to make a meal out of these offerings; you’re not at Costco, and there just aren’t enough candy dishes to make it practical.

San Diego tip: Most of the old hands at SDCC know that the Ralphs grocery store up on Market Street is where to go for food, and the store does land-office business this week. In recent years, they’ve begun setting up shop under canopies outside so people can buy the necessities (soda, sandwiches, chips, etc) without even going inside the store. They also sell decent sushi if that’s your thing.

3. If there’s public transit, use it.
Most conventions are in decent-sized cities, and two things are true of most of them: there’s some form of public transport, and parking near the convention is expensive. In San Diego, parking lots are at least $10-20 per day; parking at any of the adjacent hotels will run you at least $25 a day, and in some cases as much as $40. No big deal if you can expense it, but that adds up to a big bite out of your Con budget if you’re not going for business purposes. Many hotels offer free shuttle service from the airport, but if yours doesn’t, you can still blow past the car rental desk if you plan ahead. Before going to the con, check your favorite geeky message boards and Facebook pages to see if any of your friends are coming into town or already live there, and make arrangements to share a ride from the airport to wherever you’re staying. (if you don’t know any geeky message boards, why exactly are you going to a comic convention?)

San Diego tip: Practically everything you’re going to want to do during the Con will be in the Gaslamp District; all the parties, meetups, screenings, and other events are right there. There is a trolley stop right in front of the convention center; buying a daily trolley pass is a lot cheaper than paying to park your car anywhere near downtown. A daily pass runs about $6.

If you’re coming in from Los Angeles, take the Amtrak down and leave your car at home. Traffic is paralyzed in the area anyway. If you’re flying in from far away, don’t bother to rent a car. You can take a bus or cab to a trolley station, or simply look around the airport; there are no doubt dozens of other Con attendees in the vicinity, and one of them may be happy to split the cost of a cab. Just look for a superhero t-shirt and you’ll probably strike gold.

4. You don’t need to stay downtown.
Most conventions that I’ve been to, even some pretty big ones, are pretty localized; they don’t take over the whole area the way SDCC does, and the hotels don’t jack up their rates the way they do in San Diego. Even so, you may find that staying even a few blocks away from the convention center will give you a lower rate. Look for one on the transit line. If you or someone you know has a time-share with a location in the convention city, put in a reservation for convention week. Check sites like AirBnB or Couchsurfing or the Craigslist for the city you’re going; you might find a cheap alternative to a downtown hotel.

San Diego tip: The hotels within walking distance to the Convention (and most of the more outlying ones) are going to charge insane rates for this week, anywhere from 4 to 10 times their regular rates. Crappy little motels are going to ask for (and get) over $200 per night. The rates are more reasonable the further out you go, and since the trolleys run from almost the Mexico border to Santee, you have a lot of options. We’ve stayed at motels near SDSU, in Chula Vista, in Mission Valley, National City and in Little Italy, and the trolley got us there and back.

5. Camping is an option.
If you have an RV, you can usually arrange to park somewhere close to the convention center. If it’s summer, there may be  campground somewhere outside the city (in which case you may need a car after all). Many KOA campgrounds have nice cabins that make for a nice alternative to a hotel room.

San Diego tip: You can stay in your RV or a tent at Campland by the Bay, the Sweetwater Reservoir or the Chula Vista KOA, but all of them are now filling up several months in advance. All of them are some distance from a trolley line, so you’ll need a car to get from there to the nearest trolley stop, but most of the outlying stops have free parking.

6. Eat dinner away from the Con.
A couple of trolley stops away, you can find wonderful and reasonably priced restaurants that aren’t completely overrun by guys in Spider-Man t-shirts. Check Yelp, Urban Spoon, or your favorite dining site.

San Diego tip: Little Italy in particular has some great dining. For dinner close to the con, the restaurants at nearby Seaport Village are pretty good.

7. Eat on somebody else’s dime
There are often parties and social events in the evenings at comic conventions, usually divided between fans, retailers, exhibitors and industry people. Try to get invited to them instead of going out of pocket. They always have some sort of food, or at least appetizers or snacks. Networking is the name of the game.

8. Donate blood.
Many conventions have a blood drive now. Sign up and donate a pint, and then you get cookies and juice; stuff ‘em down and ask for more. Free lunch! You also often get a bag of swag. Too bad you can only do it once per Con.

San Diego tip: The annual Robert A.Heinlein Memorial Blood Drive is a longstanding tradition at the Con. The signup booth is usually upstairs in the Sails area, with the actual donation facility being a couple of blocks away.

9. Get in for free.
You can usually sign up as a volunteer at the con; if you agree to put in a certain number of hours working as a gofer-lackey-underling-henchman-minion, you get a free pass. Check the convention website, as those slots sometimes fill up fast. And make sure you fulfill your obligations or you won’t get to do it next time.The cool thing is you may find yourself schlepping for somebody famous.

Another option: if you happen to have any basic writing skills and can do a little networking, it’s not too difficult to get signed on as a “stringer” (freelance reporter) for one or more comic fan websites. Even if they don’t pay you, they can score you a press pass. If you’re planning to try this, your best bet is to have a blog of your own to establish your credentials, and contact the sites in advance, so that when they start handing out the press badges, you’re in line to get one.

If you keep an ear to the ground you may also find retailers who will need a “helper monkey” to work their booth, and they are happy to swap a badge (and sometimes even some money) for your strong back and eager attitude. Back when the conventions were a nerdy boy’s club, there were a lot of opportunities for “booth babes” – pretty girls in short skirts to attract men and sell merchandise. As the conventions get bigger and attract more women, the prevalence of booth bunnies seems to be declining, but if you’re female, good looking, and don’t mind exploiting it, keep an eye on Craigslist for vendors who want you and your snug tank-top to decorate their space.

This last tip is applicable only to San Diego, though it may apply to other conventions in the not-too-distant future…

10. Don’t go to the Con

You might find yourself hanging out with Ed Brubaker (he wrote the comic that the new Captain America movie is based on) and Doug Jones (he played Abe Sapien in Hellboy and the Silver Surfer in the Fantastic Four 2).

You might find yourself hanging out with Ed Brubaker (he wrote the comic that the new Captain America movie is based on) and Doug Jones (he played Abe Sapien in Hellboy and the Silver Surfer in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer).

No, I’m not telling you to stay home; I’m suggesting you go to Nerdi Gras, the plethora of geeky events and venues that fill several blocks around the convention. As I explained over at GeekDad, the events surrounding the Comic-Con are rapidly threatening to eclipse it; there is so much to do around Comic-Con now (much of which does not require a Convention pass) that it’s possible to have a completely enjoyable convention experience, complete with celebrity sightings, collectibles and comic books, without ever actually entering the convention center or ponying up the astronomical cost of a pass.

Now that I’ve possibly saved you some money, here’s a request: if you’re not a comics fan and you’re going to the convention to see the celebrities and the previews of movie and TV stuff, would you do me a favor and pick up a few comics while you’re there? Talk to somebody at one of the booths; tell them the kind of movies, TV, books and other media you like, and they can probably tell you about a comic book you might also like. All those multi-million-dollar blockbuster movies we’re watching started out as comic books, but so did The Walking Dead, Road to Perdition, Men in Black, A History of Violence, Ghost World, The Rocketeer, American Splendor and a lot of other movies you liked. Give ‘em a chance.

How Good is Two Buck Chuck?

Two_buck_chuck_displayWe’re no wine experts; we like wine, but don’t know a lot about it or how to tell good from bad other than by deciding whether or not we like it. The sniffing part doesn’t work for me, because I have almost no sense of smell. We used to buy Trader Joe’s famous “two buck Chuck” (AKA Charles Shaw), just because it was cheap, but lately we’ve switched to Yellow Tail, a brand from Australia that costs a couple dollars more but is of better quality. We’re also experimenting with a few other vineyards as they catch our eye, finding that balance between a decent wine and a decent price. Most often, I choose on the basis of the label art. One of these days, we’ll get around to trying Stephen Amell’s Nocking Point Wines (Amell stars on TV’s Arrow, hence the name of the vineyard; the nocking point is where one places the arrow on the bowstring. All the proceeds from Nocking Point go to fight cancer.)

Today I ran across an interesting and fun article; some guy convinced a sommelier to taste-test eight varieties of TJ’s wine and rate them. Enjoy.

We Made a Sommelier Taste All the Two-Buck Chuck

Now we know. And as GI Joe said, knowing is half the battle.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier provides all the action, heroics and CGI eye candy one expects from the Marvel universe, but with an unexpected level of depth, both in character development and political subtext.

captainamerica_posterShortly before seeing the film, I had a conversation with my eldest daughter, in which she commented “I’m pretty sick of superhero movies. Special effects and explosions galore, no character development or depth, nine hours long… You’d think in all that time they could give a character believable motives for the things they do or tell us why we should care about these people, but nope.” I am happy to report that Captain America defies this convention. While there are plenty of special effects and explosions, there’s also character development in abundance, everything is motivated by actual human emotion, and we do care about these people, even the ones we’ve never seen before. Coming in at something over two hours, it feels tightly-plotted and fast-moving, a refreshing change from the plodding pace of some recent films. They even make you care about the bad guys.

Cap takes on a squadron of terrorists lead by Batroc the Leaper; in the comics, a laughable buffoon, but here a force to be reckoned with.

Cap gives us what we came for, a superhero busting heads, but we get a lot more than that.

The story is a hi-tech spy thriller involving S.HI.E.L.D., the international intelligence and police agency for which Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) has become an agent in the aftermath of the events of Avengers. When the film opens, Rogers is settling into life in the 21st century and making peace with the fact that virtually everyone he knew before is now dead except old flame Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), whom he visits in her nursing home. He befriends Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a counselor at the Veterans’ Hospital nearby, while both are running in the park.

Soon, he’s called into action to rescue hostages aboard a hijacked boat, working alongside Natasha Romanoff, AKA the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). The interplay between the two is great, she punctuating the fight scene with suggestions about women she could fix him up with, he making excuses as he dispatches one terrorist after another.

The Winter Soldier intends to kill Nick Fury.

The Winter Soldier intends to kill Nick Fury.

The upshot of the mission is the discovery that S.H.I.E.L.D. has a rogue element attempting a coup, and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is being targeted. This comes at a very bad time, as S.HI.E.L.D. is about to launch a new global anti-terrorist program called “Insight,” and the World Security Council, headed by Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), does not want to delay it. The situation escalates with the emergence of an unstoppable assassin called the Winter Soldier; Captain America and the Black Widow find themselves “out in the cold,” unable to trust anyone within the agency. They turn to Wilson for help, and the three attempt to root out and defeat the infiltrators.

Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), head of the World Security Council, feels that the world has changed since the events of Avengers.

Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), head of the World Security Council, feels that the world has changed since the events of Avengers.

Redford’s presence here is appropriate, given that the plot is somewhat evocative of Three Days of the Condor. He brings a commanding performance, his scenes with Jackson throwing off sparks. Jackson, for his part, gets some action this time, no longer relegated to standing behind a desk and glowering at the lead actors. He reminds us that he is one of our great actors in addition to being a movie star.

Some recent Marvel movies have essentially been place-holders, telling a story that fills two hours while leaving almost everything pretty much where it started; Iron Man 3, for example, primarily explored Tony Stark’s PTSD following the alien invasion of Avengers and built on his relationship to Pepper Potts, but nothing in the larger world was affected by the events, and the same is true of Thor: The Dark World. By contrast, Captain America: The Winter Soldier shakes things up; the events of the film will have major repercussions for every subsequent Marvel movie, as well as for the Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show. To say any more than that would be spoiling.

Aside from the impact within the Marvel universe, the film is quite timely and more than a little political. The premise of the story, and the events that unfold, raise and address real-world questions that become more important every day. Early on in the story, when Fury explains the Insight program to Rogers, Rogers responds “that’s not freedom, that’s fear,” expressing a concern many have felt regarding actions taken by government agencies such as Homeland Security and the NSA. The film is somewhat of an allegory about the balance between security and freedom and the price we’re willing to pay for either. It certainly reflects the zeitgeist in a way that most superhero movies don’t.

The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) earns his place among Marvel's movie heroes.

The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) earns his place among Marvel’s movie heroes.

Aside from all that, I believe most people are going to leave the theater wondering where they can get one of those Falcon suits. Once Sam Wilson goes into action, he provides the most exciting flying scenes since The Rocketeer.

Review: Muppets Most Wanted

Following up on 2011′s The Muppets, Director/co-screenwriter (with Nicholas Stoller) James Bobin guides Jim Henson’s cast of characters through a cleverly-plotted adventure full of songs and guest stars. The tone is more manic than the prior outing, capturing more of the flavor of the classic Muppet Show from the 1970s.

The Muppets Most Wanted is preceded by a Pixar short; this one is a Monsters University story, Party Central, in which Mike and Sully turn a dull party at their frat house into the party of the year through clever use of a pair of dimension-spanning doors. Like all Pixar products, it’s very funny and serves as a nice appetizer for the main attraction.

"We're doing a sequel!"

“We’re doing a sequel!”

Picking up where The Muppets left off (literally; the first thing to appear on screen is the words “The End,” followed by the assistant director, Rob Corddry, calling “cut!”), The Muppets Most Wanted launches immediately into the sequel with a song, “We’re Doing a Sequel,” in which they acknowledge that the studio once again considers them a viable franchise, at least “while we wait for Tom Hanks to do Toy Story 4.”

Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) convinces Kermit to take the Muppets on a world tour.

Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) convinces Kermit to take the Muppets on a world tour.

Ricky Gervais plays unctuous manager Dominic, who convinces the Muppets to launch a world tour to capitalize on their return to the public eye; meanwhile, sinister master criminal Constantine, “the world’s most dangerous frog,” who happens to look just like Kermit except for a distinguishing mole, has escaped from a Siberian gulag and begins his campaign to return to his position as #1 criminal. His plan involves kidnapping and replacing Kermit, who ends up in the gulag under the oppressive thumb of Nadia, the camps’ commandant, played by Tina Fey. Much scenery is chewed.

The Muppets Most Wanted avoids the error of The Great Muppet Caper, where the Muppets were supporting players in their own movie, and the most recent film, in which a large portion of the story was devoted to Jason Segal and Amy Adams. As appealing as those performers are, if it says Muppets in the title, we’re here to see Muppets, and The Muppets Most Wanted delivers. The Muppets are front and center throughout, and all the human characters are there in support of the Muppet storyline rather than their own.

Interpol officer Jean Phillipe Napoleon (Ty Burrell) teams up with CIA agent Sam the American Eagle to stop Constantine's crime spree.

Interpol officer Jean Phillipe Napoleon (Ty Burrell) teams up with CIA agent Sam the American Eagle to stop Constantine’s crime spree.

That’s not to say that the human cast is wasted; on the contrary, all of the guest stars are given great moments and funny bits that play to their comedic strengths; Ty Burrell (Modern Family) is hilarious as a French police inspector who bears more than a little resemblance to Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau (and he does a far better job of it than Steve Martin did in the remake of The Pink Panther), while Gervais and Fey do a lot of the heavy lifting in keeping the plot moving.

As usual, The Muppets Most Wanted is a musical, and again the songs are provided by Bret MacKenzie of Flight of the Conchords. MacKenzie outdoes himself, coming up with clever lyrics that advance the story and reveal the characters, though there isn’t one stand-out number like “Am I a Man or a Muppet” from the last film. Miss Piggy and Celine Dion share a duet, and while this may be heresy to old-school Muppet Fans, Eric Jacobson’s Piggy is a better singer than Frank Oz’s (not that either of them is a great vocalist). Burrell and Sam the Eagle (playing a CIA agent working with Burrell’s character to investigate Constantine’s crimes) sing “the Interrogation Duet,” a funny patter-song.

Nadya (Tina Fey) convinces Kermit to direct the gulag's annual revue.

Nadya (Tina Fey) convinces Kermit to direct the gulag’s annual revue.

The cameo appearances by celebrities are always a favorite part of any Muppet movie, and this one is no exception; ranging from Tony Bennett to Chloe Grace Moretz, bit parts are filled by actors, singers and other showbiz types, including Ray Liotta, Danny Trejo, Tom Hiddleston, Josh Groban and Jemaine Clement as prisoners, Stanley Tucci as a guard, Frank Langella as the Vicar, James McAvoy as a UPS man, Zach Gallifinakis as Hobo Joe, and Salma Hayek, Usher, Lady Gaga, P. Diddy, Celine Dion and Christoph Waltz as themselves.There’s a lot going on, and some of these appearances are of the “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” variety.

It’s been 24 years since Jim Henson passed away, and Steve Whitmire has solidly established himself as Kermit since then, while Eric Jacobson has taken over for Frank Oz. His performance has greatly improved over the years, especially with Piggy and Fozzie; his Animal was always good, but his version of Sam the Eagle sounds more gravelly than the original, but this is only noticeable to old guys like me who remember the way Frank Oz did it 15 years ago. With the passing this year of Jerry Nelson, several character voices have had to be replaced, and almost all of them fell to Matt Vogel, a Sesame Street performer who transitioned to the Muppets in 2008. Similarly, most of Jim Henson’s characters are now played by Bill Baretta, and he does a fine job.

The Muppets Most Wanted is a solid entry in the Muppet catalog, on equal footing with The Muppet Movie, The Muppets Take Manhattan and The Muppets. The filmmakers and studio have demonstrated that they understand the characters and their world, and the Muppets are in good hands. I look forward to the next film.


It seems like lifestyle bloggers come in three flavors:  1) Cute, hip DIY crafts featuring cute, sometimes quirky young women and their magazine-ready homes and  beautiful lush photography 2) Coupons, flash sales, giveaways, and mostly corporate-sponsored posts; 3) Christian homeschoolers who primarily feature recipes and frugal living advice. Blue Collar, Black Tie doesn’t really fall into any of those categories, and definitely this post does not.

We live near a busy intersection on “the wrong side of town”, and the alley behind our home is frequented by homeless people, drug dealers, prostitutes, and folks who patronize one of the two problem liquor stores within 30 yards. When we moved in 14 years ago, somebody told us we were “urban pioneers,” the first wave of new residents in a depressed area who prepare the way for the inevitable gentrification. We’ve seen tremendous improvement in the neighborhood, but there’s still a long way to go.

Before you ask, yes, it is dangerous to answer the door every time someone knocks looking for a handout. And yet, we do.

Jimmy_2014Jimmy first knocked on our door about a year after we moved in, asking if he could cut our grass in exchange for bus money. Over the last 13 years, he has done yard work and helped with some repair and maintenance projects. He has come in various states of sobriety and stages of homelessness. When things were good, he slept on the sofa of a relative and picked up odd jobs. Sometimes he dropped by, asked for nothing, but treated us to a private cornet concert.

When things were not so good, he staggered to the door late at night smelling of urine and alcohol. In addition to money, I make him a couple of sandwiches and give him fresh fruit which he stuffs in the pocket of his coat. I have never been afraid of him or believed he would ever harm me or my children, nevertheless we have kept our relationship confined primarily to the front porch, and I have never offered him a place to sleep in my home.

When he returns from longer absences, sometimes it’s because he was in rehab, or jail, or in Mississippi visiting family. Noticeably absent for almost nine months, he dropped by this week. A veteran of the Army, he goes to the VA hospital for medical services.

Last fall, someone at the VA enrolled him in the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program (VRAP) and drove him to a local community college and helped him enroll. At the age of 59, Jimmy just completed his first semester at Riverside Community College. He doesn’t think he did well in his English class, but he enjoyed his Music Theory class. A street musician who plays by ear, he’s learning to read music.

For the first time in all the years we’ve known him, Jimmy has an apartment of his own. With tears in his eyes and a voice quavering with emotion, he described his beautiful apartment located in a building for seniors. The joy of simple things. Clean bathrooms. When you have known homelessness, even if you have spent time traveling to the sofas and floors of family members, simple things, like washing, drying, and putting away YOUR dish in YOUR cabinet is deeply moving.

I don’t know whether or not this is a permanent change for Jimmy, but I hope so and I’m going to look at it this experience as a reminder that you are never old to make a fresh start.

Christmas Tree Skirt

For several years I have wanted a new tree skirt for the Christmas tree. The previous one was sewn from fabrics that no longer suited my style or my home.

Tree skirt_1Marked down for clearance a week before Christmas, I found a 60″ round tablecloth at Target that had the right shades of red and green (not too bright). Here’s how I turned it into a tree skirt quickly and easily. My biggest challenge was keeping the dog out of my face and off the fabric!

I folded the table cloth in half and placed a pyrex bowl (about 9″ in diameter) centered over the fold of the fabric – not the whole bowl – just half the bowl.

Tree skirt_3I traced the shape of the bowl lightly with pencil, and cut it out.

Next, I cut a straight line from the edge of the table cloth to the hole. Just cut along the fold.
I clipped the opening (a series of small snips); folded down the cut edge, pressed with an iron, then folded the fabric under again and stitched.

Tree skirt_4My grand total for a tree skirt that was already hemmed: $5.00.

Total time to complete: less than half an hour, and much of that was taken up with moving the dog.

Delicious and budget-friendly meals from Thanksgiving Leftovers

We hope everyone enjoyed a great Thanksgiving with friends and family. We’re so happy to have lots of leftovers. We’ll have turkey sandwiches (hot or cold) today for lunch, then I’ll start on the soup, pot pies, and shepherd’s pie. Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman, has some great recipes on her blog.

Individual pot pies are easy and tasty!

Individual pot pies are easy and tasty!

It’s a busy time of year, but you don’t have to resort to fast food or pizza if you use small containers like ramekins. Maybe you even know someone who is ill, or caring for someone who is ill who would appreciate receiving your homemade pot pie.

Since I only use fresh vegetables and cook them so they still have a little crunch, I never have to worry about the vegetables becoming mushy and overcooked. Use pie crust or puff pastry or biscuits. If you don’t have enough gravy left over from Thanksgiving, you can easily make delicious gravy from chicken broth in just a few minutes. (Trader Joe’s has turkey broth.) A confession: I did not know how to make mashed potatoes (instant mashed potatoes are disgusting — Jim) or gravy until Jim taught me during our first Thanksgiving 28 years ago. Here’s the gravy recipe From The Joy of Cooking. If you keep cornstarch and broth on hand, you never have to use terrible canned soup in place of delicious gravy again, and you’ll notice there’s no heavy cream and no added fat. Since one of our family members is a vegetarian I’ve been using vegetable broth.

Quick Turkey Gravy
Bring the broth to a simmer. In a small bowl or measuring cup, add 3 tablespoons cornstarch to 1/4 cup cup cold water. Mix to a smooth paste. Whisking constantly, gradually pour the cornstarch/water mixture into the warm broth/stock, then cook for one minute. Season to taste with Sherry, port, rose, madeira or whatever light wine you have on hand (optional). Salt and ground black pepper.

Add the turkey and vegetables to the gravy and then pour the entire mixture into individual ramekins. If you’re using vegetable gravy, then it’s easy to accommodate the vegetarian in your family.

Maybe because I grew up eating hamburger helper and other terrible instant foods, the only dish I make that resembles a casserole is shepherd’s pie. Another great way to use veggies – and if you use ramekins, you can include a meatless one for your vegetarian.

Shepherd’s Pie
Brown ground beef or turkey. Season to taste and drain any fat. Spoon the browned meat into the dishes, layer with whatever vegetable you have on hand. Top with a layer of mashed potatoes. Freeze for later or sprinkle with shredded cheese and heat in the oven.

Holiday Gift Guide – part 1

Don't do this. This is stupid. Go home. Be with your family. Photo by Mahat Tattva Used under a Creative Commons license.

Don’t do this. This is stupid. Go home. Be with your family.
Photo by Mahat Tattva
Used under a Creative Commons license.

We’ve made no secret of our distaste for the annual descent into madness known as Black Friday, and this year it’s even worse, with many of the big box retailers starting the money-grubbing on Thanksgiving morning. Now, we could write a long and cranky screed about how many kinds of wrong this is, but instead, we’re going to be positive here.

We suggest that you ignore Black Friday and Bleak Thursday and the corporate-driven quest for profits that drives them, and instead do the following:

1. Shop at local independent stores where your money will stay in your community.

2. Shop independent sellers online for unique and interesting gifts you can’t get from the chain stores (at least not until they rip off the artists and crank out knock-offs).

3. Spend your holiday at home with your family instead of in the Cage of Death grudge-match at the mall (which should be spelled maul).

To help you with the first two, here are links to some small businesses operated by our friends and family (or their friends and family, or just places we like).

The Tinker’s Cart
claddagh_mugWhether you’re of Irish descent or you’re shopping for something for your Irish-American friend (we all have one), the Tinker’s Cart is the place to find every Irish thing you could hope for, from t-shirts to music. The shop was started by my uncle Johnny, who is now letting my cousin Cheryl, a very talented artist, run the place. You can pop into the shop in Clinton, Massachusetts or order from the online catalog. Either way, tell her we sent you.

Flower Faeries
An Etsy shop presided over by Frederique, one of our fellow archers at the PRA, Flower Faeries has interesting hand-crafted jewelry, scarves and other nice things.

Nikki’s Treats
milleniumfalconOf course you have a geeky friend who loves chocolate. Of course you want them to have delectable goodies in a Doctor Who or Star Wars theme; who wouldn’t want a white chocolate Dalek or Han Solo frozen in a block of chocolate truffle carbonite? Friend-of-a-friend Nikki wants to indulge your sweet tooth while luring you to the Dork Side. Embrace it. You know you want to.

Parachute Cord Supply
If you’re a Maker (you know, somebody who makes stuff), Parachute Cord Supply might be the kind of place you want to know about. They stock a wide variety of supplies for various crafts and hobbies. Check them out, they may have just the thing you need for your home-made Christmahannakwaanza gifts.

Kay’s Crochet Patterns
Certainly you need a gift for your friend who crochets or knits. Maybe you want to curry favor with a friend or relative so they will make you that cunning Jayne hat you really want (there’s a pattern for this type of hat here, too, though it’s shown in different colors). Or maybe you’re a crocheter/knitter and planning to make a cunning Jayne hat for your favorite brother-in-law; you can find everything you need right here at Kay’s Crochet Patterns.

Handworks from the Blue
capesWow, look at all the nifty hand-sewn stuff Terri’s friend Meg makes! And if you don’t see what you want, she does custom work too!

Zzyzx and Sue
Sue has been a friend since high school (back before the earth’s crust had cooled) but even if she weren’t, I’d still point you toward her, because she makes cool stuff. One of the most creative people I know, and now you know where to find her.

Concrete Minerals
Naughty-and-Nice-Collection-FINAL-SITE_largeLocated in Southern California, and founded by the creative and hard-working Emily, Concrete Minerals produces gorgeous mineral eyeshadows, pro matte eyeshadows and lip tints that are healthy and free of parabens and fragrances. Emily’s parents have been our friends since high school. You will love the beautiful make-up and find it hard to resist collections like Zombie Girl.

Fictional Ephemera and Designing Springfield
These two Printfection shops actually belong to me; I made all of the designs being peddled here. Fictional Ephemera (“Ordinary things from extraordinary  places”) features items referencing places found in fiction and film; some are recreations of signs and logos found in the originals, others are my own versions of things from those worlds. Designing Springfield is a collection of logos and graphics based on places and products in the world of the Simpsons; I created them as a way of keeping myself busy while unemployed a few years ago. All of the proceeds from these two sites goes directly to me, and I promise to spend it frivolously.

We’ll continue to add new posts over the next few weeks to help you find great gifts that don’t involve sleeping on the sidewalk or wrestling in the aisles.

Disney’s Frozen is a Winter Wonderland

Disney’s new feature, Frozen, stands as evidence that the studio has apparently embraced computer animation as the only way to make films; the moderate success of The Princess and the Frog convinced them to turn to the new technology because in today’s economy, “moderate success” is considered failure. Now that they are primarily a CGI animation studio, they’ve applied the old Disney standards to the new work, and fortunately the result is gorgeous. From the rugged mountaintop where the Snow Queen’s castle gleams to the little seaport village trapped in eternal winter by her power, Frozen glistens and sparkles like a crisp winter morning. Beyond the settings, the character design and animation are evocative of the classic Disney films; the characters move like animated cartoon characters; gone are the days when CGI characters moved like marionettes.

There is an old saying, “once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, three times is deliberate action.” With that in mind, it’s safe to say that the Walt Disney Company has deliberately rejuvenated their feature animation department. Following on the heels of Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph, this film effectively closes the door on a recent history that includes such misfires as Meet the Robinsons, Chicken Little and Home on the Range.

Ana arives at the Snow Queen's ice palace. © Disney

Ana arrives at the Snow Queen’s ice palace.
© Disney

As for the story…. the opening credits say that Frozen is “inspired by The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen.” That’s fair, because the story told here bears almost no resemblance to Andersen’s fairy tale. There’s snow and there’s a queen, and that’s about all they have in common. This actually works in Frozen‘s favor, since “The Snow Queen” is kind of a weird, surreal story with a lot of preaching and moralizing going on. Frozen takes a more traditionally “Disney” approach. One could view it as a sort of prequel to the fairy tale, since Andersen’s story starts with the Snow Queen already a recluse in her icy tower, while Frozen tells us how she got there.

A brief synopsis:
Elsa and Ana are sisters; Elsa is heir to the throne of Arendelle, a typical fairytale village in the Nordic lands; little sister Ana is her best friend who loves the fact that Elsa was born with the magical ability to create ice and snow with a wave of her hand. After her power accidentally injures Ana, their parents decide to close off the village to the outside world and Elsa retreats into her room, shutting herself away from everyone, especially Ana, for fear of injuring her again.

frozen-elsa1Years later, when the time has come for Elsa to assume the throne, the village gates are opened and life returns to normal, until Elsa’s abilities are revealed and she flees the frightened mob, ascending to the mountaintop, there to construct her palace and embrace her new life. Ana, believing Elsa to be in trouble, follows after with the reluctant assistance of a young mountain man named Kristoff and his pet reindeer, Sven. Along the way they meet a living snowman named Olaf, one of Elsa’s creations.

Idina Menzel voices Elsa, with Kristen Bell playing Ana, and the relationship between the two, combined with their soaring vocals, is more than a little evocative of the Broadway smash Wicked; if nothing else, Frozen stands as proof-of-concept that Wicked really needs to be done as an animated film rather than live action.

All of the voice actors in Frozen give top-notch performances; I fully expected Olaf to be incredibly annoying, but Josh Gad makes him likeable from the outset and keeps him that way throughout; Glee‘s Jonathan Groff brings a laid-back naturalism to his turn as Kristoff, and the rest of the cast, from Alan Tudyk’s Duke of Weselton to Santino Fontana’s charming Prince Hans, all perfectly invest their roles with life.

If the film has a weakness, it would be the music. The songs by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez are pleasant enough and serve the needs of the story, but most of them are completely forgettable, with only “First Time in Forever” and Elsa’s dramatic “Let it Go” making any kind of lasting impression. Too many of the production numbers follow the current fad for over-processed vocals, with renders many of the lyrics virtually unintelligible. Fortunately the visuals more than carry those scenes.

The recent trend of “Disney Princesses” who aren’t sitting around waiting for their prince, a trail blazed by Mulan and followed memorably by Brave‘s Merida, continues in Frozen. Neither Elsa nor Ana is particularly obsessed with romance or princes, though Ana’s immediate infatuation with Prince Hans serves as a striking subplot to the main story. It’s pretty clear that her reaction to the prince is primarily a longing for human contact of any kind after having spent several years in virtual isolation and shut out of her sister’s companionship. She’s more lonely than romantic, and her courtship takes a backseat to rescuing her sister.

Frozen also continues the Disney tradition (pioneered by Pixar) of including an animated short film before the feature. This time it’s “Get a Horse!” starring Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow, with Pegleg Pete in the villain’s role. It looks for all the world like a classic Mickey short from the 1930s until it pulls out some surprises. More than Frozen, “Get a Horse!” demands to be seen in 3D.