Sunday, January 31, 2016

Genesis: my thoughts and insights

The word Genesis comes from Greek meaning “origin.” It is the first book of the Tanakh of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament. My goals for reading and writing about my thoughts and insights was not to be influenced by someone’s thoughts or interpretations, I am not reading the footnotes in my Bible. For the most part, I will also quote from the New International Version (NIV). For this post, I want to focus on the Creation story told in Genesis. The Creation story is a description of how God created the heavens and the earth. It is where a lot of atheists and nonbelievers will criticize believers for their belief that such a story is true.

To recap for those who may not be familiar with this Creation Story, Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Genesis 1:2 says that the earth was dark, formless and empty and God gave it form. The first day, God created light and created day and night. The second day, He created the sky to separate the waters below and the waters above. The third day He separated the lands from the sea. The fourth day He created two great lights in the sky. The sun would be the greater light for the day and the moon the lesser light for the night. These lights would be used to mark the seasons, days and years. On the fifth day, He created the creatures of the waters and the birds in the skies. On the sixth day, He created the creatures of the land. The livestock, other land animals and the wild animals. The last of the land creatures created was mankind. Man was created in the image or likeness of God to rule over the creatures of the sea, air and land. On the seventh, God rested and saw His good work.

As I read through Genesis, I hear the skeptics and scientists in my ear interjecting about the Big Bang. I know that many disagree with me but I believe that God began with the Big Bang and created the forces which formed the universe that can be seen through telescopes and from the pictures sent back from the space probes. Many would argue that the universe is a lot older than the Bible says it is. If you interpret it literally, sure it sounds that way. However, one day doesn’t necessarily mean 24 hours as we know it. One day to God can be billions of years to us. Yes, there are Christians who teach the literal 24 hour days of creation. However, I believe that the use of each day of creation is more to give an image of the process. He began and ended with created day and night and He stopped. Then He created the sky and stopped. And so and so on. I think the most important aspect of the Creation Story is the process in which God creates the heavens and the earth. Everything has a beginning and the universe has a beginning. The Bible doesn’t tell is how He created everything. It doesn’t say that the gathering rock and gravity, etc, etc. I don’t think it matters. All that matters is that God is the Creator.  

Another argument is that the Bible doesn’t account for dinosaurs. I’ve heard some skeptics says the Bible doesn’t mention dinosaurs but we have proof that dinosaurs existed, so the Bible can’t be true. Really? I think it does, it just doesn’t call them dinosaurs. Genesis 1:24 talks about livestock, wild animals and “those who move along the ground.” Many of the dinosaurs were animals which moved along the ground. The term “dinosaur” was coined in 1841 by Sir Richard Owen, an English biologist, comparative anatomists and paleontologists. Owen used the Modern Latin word dinosaurus which is a combination of the Greek words deinos (meaning terrible) and sauros (meaning lizard). The description of “creatures that move along the earth” sounds like many creatures including dinosaurs. Again, if you can take the premise that God created earth in the time that science has told us that the earth was formed, it’s very possible. And God may have also decided the time of the dinosaurs was over and sent the meteor, spread the diseases and started the evolution which dinosaurs are now the lizards and birds we know today.

Lastly, the creation of Adam and Eve. The creation of man and woman is actually told in two places. First, in Genesis 1:26-31 where God created man and woman in His image and blessed them. His command to them was to be fruitful and multiply. To fill the earth and rule over the animals of the waters, land and sky. The second is told is Genesis 2:4-23. When God made man from the dust of the ground and breathed into him “the breath of life and man became a living being” (verse 7). God gives man the Garden of Eden but realizes that it is not good for man to be alone. God puts man to sleep and from his rib he forms a woman (verses 21-22). Now, I hear the critics saying “what a minute? Men aren’t missing a rib or how can woman be from his rib?” I have two possibilities. Maybe Adam is the only man missing the rib and when he and Eve procreated, he had the DNA for the missing rib so all future men will have the rib. Second, I think the missing rib is a metaphor that men and women were met to be partners, working side by side. 

I know that many will read this and say I’m being too simple. And maybe I am. However, in Genesis, God has given a reason, an explanation for what we see. I see the earth, the universe and marvel at His Creation. I have watched plants grow from a tiny seed to a plant producing food. I believe that God has coded plants, animals and other forces of natures to behave the way they do. I also know that many people, Christians and skeptics alike are saying that faith and science can’t mix; however, I’ve just presented possibilities that says they can and are. There are many, many examples of famous scientists who are revered for their contributions were also believers in God. Sometimes when the explanation is too complex, we tend to tune it out. I’ll end with this question: scientists are consistently going back and forth about their theories of the universe and the laws of nature, so why do we take their word as solid truth and doubt God’s version of the events? 

Friday, January 29, 2016

Gluten free chocolate cake

My daughter’s 4th birthday was this week and she asked for a chocolate cake with My Little Pony decorations. So I pulled out my Hershey’s Gluten Free “Perfectly Chocolate” Chocolate Cake Recipe ( I decided to add a little twists to it. I saved a meme on Facebook about how to make boxed cake mixes taste more like bakery cakes. So, here it is my version of Hershey’s Gluten Free “Perfectly Chocolate” Chocolate Cake.

2 cups sugar
1-3/4 cups gluten free all-purpose baking mix (I used Krusteaz Gluten Free All Purpose Flour)
¾ cup Hershey’s Cocoa
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
3 eggs
1 cup milk
1 cup (2 sticks) melted unsalted butter
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup hot coffee.

Directions: Heat oven to 350° F. Grease two 9-inch round baking pans; dust with cocoa.

Stir together sugar, baking mix, cocoa, salt, baking powder and baking soda in a large bowl. Mix one at time: eggs, milk, melted butter, and vanilla. Beat on medium with mixer for 2 minutes. Stir in hot coffee (batter will be thin). Pour into prepared pans.

Bake 35 to 40 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool for at least 5 minutes; remove from pans to a wire rack. Cool completely before icing.

Since my daughter wanted a My Little Pony Cake, I decided to do a vanilla buttercream. I did two different recipes for buttercream icing. The first recipe is simply to frost the cake and the second recipe for the decoration.

Vanilla Buttercream Icing:
½ cup (1 stick) butter, softened
3-4 cups powdered sugar, sifted
1/3 cup heavy cream, or milk or half and half
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Cream butter in mixing bowl. Alternately add powdered sugar and heavy cream, beating to spreading consistently. Frost cooled cake.

Vanilla Buttercream icing for decorations:
1 cup (2 sticks on unsalted butter, softened
6 cups powdered sugar, sifted
½ cup heavy cream or milk or half and half
2 teaspoons vanilla

For colors: Red, Blue and Yellow food dyes

Combine butter, 4 cups of powdered sugar, heavy cream, vanilla; beat until smooth and creamy about 3-5 minutes. Gradually add remaining sugar, 1 cup at a time beating for 2 minutes after each additions until icing is desired consistency.

Divide icing into 4 1 cup bowls: add dye to 3 bowls to make desired color: Red, Yellow, and Blue. Leave the fourth bowl just white.

Place colored icing into prepared piping bags. With a #5 round tip, create semi-circles along the bottom border to create small rainbows. With leftover white icing, create clouds as a border. On top of the cake, with a #10 round tip, create a rainbow, with white clouds at the ends of the rainbows. Place My Little Pony decorations and write Happy Birthday message.

My daughter was extremely happy with the end result. The cake was moist and very chocolaty. I had so many compliments on this cake that this recipe is a keeper. 

Monday, January 25, 2016

Inside Out: a great movie about the importance of all our emotions

Inside Out, which opened June 19, 2015, was a box-office and critical success for Disney/Pixar. It would gross $856.1 million and would be the 10th highest-grossing animated film of all time. The story is features of the emotions of 11-year old Riley (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) as she moves with her mom and dad (voiced by Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) from her home in Minnesota to San Francisco. The story opens with Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) as Riley’s first and primary emotion on the day she is born. Joy then introduces the other Emotions: Fear (voiced by comedian Bill Hader) who is “really good at keeping Riley safe,” Disgust (voiced by comedienne Mindy Kaling) who keeps “Riley from being poisoned physically and socially,” and Anger (voiced by comedian Lewis Black), who “cares very deeply about things being fair.” Then there is Sadness (voiced by Phyillis Smith), who Joy isn’t sure what she does or what role she could possibly play for a happy girl like Riley. From a console in headquarters in inside Riley’s mind, Joy and the other emotions help Riley interact with the world. From my first viewing, I loved this film. I will discuss my top three reasons for enjoying and recommending this film.

First, Inside Out gives us a story in which we can see the value of all our emotions. With joy, we can enjoy fun and celebrate great times in our lives. In the movie, Joy is very determined to keep Riley happy that she forgets that Riley’s other emotions are important too. Joy tries to get all the Emotions to see the bright side of the situations. They try but it doesn’t work as they all have different perspectives. With Anger, we can see the injustice and unfairness in life. To use anger as a push to fix the injustice we encounter. With Disgust, we can form our opinions and our standards with food, friends and other aspects of our likes and dislikes. With Fear, we can keep ourselves safe and secure debating new adventures, weighing the risks and rewards before trying new things. And with Sadness, we can feel pain and grief. Each emotion is important and deserves to be felt at the moment. While some of the emotions can be felt in extremes, when the emotions are in balance, an individual can be happy, passionate, opinionated, adventurous and sympathetic. Each emotion is a critical part of our personality, who we are as individuals. When we ignore one or more emotions, we deny ourselves a part of who we are.

Second, Inside Out explores the mind, memories and other brain functions in a fun and meaningful manner. In the central story, Joy and Sadness, with the Cord Memories, are whisked away from headquarters and land in Long-Term Memory where all her other memories are stored. Joy and Sadness must get the Core Memories back to headquarters. Core Memories were created at key moments of Riley’s life and help power various parts of Riley’s personality such as friendship, family, and honesty. While they make their way back, they meet up with Bing Bong (voiced by comedian Richard Kind), Riley’s imaginary friend who has wandered Riley’s memories as she no longer plays with him. Bing Bong helps them navigate through Riley’s mind. They pass through Imagination Land, Preschool World, Abstract Thought and Dream Production. Bing Bong points out Critical Thinking, Language Reasoning, Inductive Reasoning and Déjà vu areas of Riley’s mind. I know these are concepts and areas in which the children in the audience will not fully understand but as they watch the movie. I think it’s great to introduce these ideas in a fun way that the audience can understand without getting too technical.

Third, Sadness is a crucial emotion to a valuable life. The film features Sadness in a manner which teaches Joy a valuable lesson. Joy, in her passion to keep Riley happy, she pushes aside what she doesn’t understand, mainly Sadness. Sadness helps Bing Bong through his sadness that Riley no longer needs him by talking with him about their adventures together. Sadness realizes the best way to wake Riley up suddenly is to scare her. At the lowest point of the movie, Joy realizes that many of Riley’s memories are a mixture of emotions. Events which started out sad lead to happiness with the help of her parents and her friends. Events which started with anger turned to happiness and so on. At one point in the movie, Riley gets the idea to run away back to Minnesota and it is Sadness who is able to change Riley’s mind and realize what she is doing. Riley goes home to her parents where she confesses that she cannot be happy like they want her to be. She misses her home, her friends and she is sad. Riley’s parents confess that they miss Minnesota too and the family hugs. Sadness brings Joy to the console and together they create a memory which is filled with both sadness and joy.

The film ends as Riley grows. A new expanded console is in place where each emotion now has an important seat. New aspects of Riley’s personality are formed: Tragic Vampire Romance, Fashion and Boy Band to name a few. After watching the behind the scenes documentaries, I find that the director and writers view the movie as growing up and learning to deal with the changes that are inevitable in life. The movie also features emotions as keys to relationships. Emotions link us to others. Through tears, anger, fear and joy, we experience life with those around us. We bond with people to form families and friendships based on the experiences of these emotions. I understand their view that life isn’t about just being happy. Joy isn’t always the answer. Sometimes Sadness is the answer and we can learn joy from sadness. I love Inside Out for its ability to tackle the complexity of human emotions in a fun adventure. I’ve read reviews where people didn’t like the movie simply because Sadness is the hero and think that the writers want everyone to be depressed. To those reviewers, you missed the whole point of the movie. Without sadness, we cannot know joy. Without tears, we cannot know laughter. I highly recommend Inside Out to young and old. We all can learn from this movie. 

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The History Major: what we see may not be real

The History Major by Michael Phillip Cash is a mystery thriller in which Amanda Greene is sent on a series of events occur which makes her question everything around her.

Amanda wakes from with a heavy hangover. All she can remember is that she had a horrible fight with her boyfriend, Patrick, the night before. As she wakes up, she realizes that something is different about her dorm room. First, her roommate is someone who doesn’t recognize and things have changed around the room. She goes off to class and realizes that she’s enrolled in a history class she never wanted. She tries her hardest to get out of but to no avail. She must take this class. As she sits down, she recognizes one guy but she isn’t sure how she knows him. In walks in the professor wearing a toga. Soon Amanda is taking on a journey of memories into the distant past of Joan of Arc and Lucrezia Borgia. And her own painful past of abuse, abandonment and trauma. Is Amanda dreaming? What is the meaning of her visions of Joan of Arc and Lucrezia Borgia? Can she find the meaning before it is too late?

I have enjoyed Michael Phillip Cash’s books for their unique storytelling. I received an advanced reader’s copy and I must admit when I started reading The History Major I wasn’t sure if I was going to enjoy it. By the end, I did. I enjoyed the lesson in which Amanda must learn and a lesson we need to learn as well. Without giving too much away of the ending, I say the lesson is something that we haven’t learned yet. The book did come with a warning that the story contains sensitive subjects of trauma, grief, child abuse and other emotional topics. I thought it would be an emotional story as I have experience a few of the “emotional topics” warned about. But I didn’t experience any emotional response as I read the story. Other readers may, so take heed of the warning. Otherwise, I recommend The History Major as an interesting take on history and our experiences.

The History Major
is available on Amazon
on the Kindle for $0.99 and free with Kindle Unlimited

and in paperback for $10.99

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Percy Finds a Girlfriend: a magical story told from an unlikely source

Percy Finds a Girlfriend by Sissy Parker is a magical story of a picture frame named Percy and how he is able to speak and interact with the other household items as they witness the lives of the Jones family.

The story opens with the house on Mulberry Street with its occupants. Hanan is the wife of William and mother to Pamela, Bernita, Anita, Sandy and Liz. Pamela is an artist who crafts amazing works of art including stained glass and other works. The Jones family is preparing for a wedding. Hanan’s niece is coming and the house is in a fury trying to get everything ready. Pamela has a special reveal for her family and their guests. It is a small porcelain statute she named Jacqueline. Jacqueline was created as a girlfriend for Percy. The family doesn’t believe that Percy is alive and finds it weird that she would make a girlfriend for the picture frame. But unbeknownst to the family, Pamela is able to breathe life into her creation with a simple kiss. Then suddenly, Jacqueline goes missing. Who is the thief? Will Jacqueline be returned safely?

I enjoyed the precise about a magical picture frame and other household items who are the often silent witnesses to the Jones family. I think this story is a great imaginative adventure as told through the eyes of a beautiful picture frame. I recommend this book for readers who enjoy magical stories.

Percy Finds a Girlfriend
is available on Amazon

on the Kindle for $5.00 and in paperback for $9.95

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

A tribute to a great man who is greatly missed

Today’s post is going to be a little different. On this day, an important man left this world and his presence is missed more and more every day. He wasn’t famous. He wasn’t a president or an actor or even a household name. He was a father, a husband, an uncle and a great man who was taken from this world too soon but whose influence still affects his son, Joe, my husband. This great man is my late father-in-law, the greatest man I never knew. My husband will take over and talk about the man who greatly influenced his life….

Joe Ysabel Lara was born November 5, 1930 in Los Angeles, California. He was the third child of Victoriano and Petra Lara. He would lose his mother at the age of 3 when she died in childbirth giving birth to his twin brothers, Henry and Robert. When he lost his father at the age of 16, Joe was left to take care of his younger sister, Lupe. So he did what he could do. He lied about his age to enlist in the army. He would be stationed in Korea at the start of the Korean War in 1950. From what I remember about his stories, he was a paratrooper during the war. Jennifer has discovered, based on a few pictures I have, that he was a part of the 40th Infantry Division nicknamed the “Sunshine Division.” From her research, the 40th Infantry Division was called into active service on September 1, 1950. Shipping out of Oakland & San Francisco, California in late March 1951, the division was deployed to Japan for training and for the next nine months, participated in amphibious, air transportability, and live fire training. In Korea, the 40th Infantry Division participated in the battles of Sandbag Castle and Heartbreak Ridge. In these campaigns, the division suffered 1,180 casualties, including 311 who were killed in action, and 47 who later died from wounds received in action. Total division casualties in Korea included 376 killed in action, 1,457 wounded in action, and 47 died of wounds. My father once told me that he was wounded in battle during Korea. I wonder if he could have been one wounded at these battles.

He would stay in the army for most of the 1950s, leaving after he served two enlistments. Between the late 1950s to the 1980s, his life is much a mystery as he was a private man who didn’t reveal too much. When I was born on May 2, 1980, my father was 49 years old. He and my mother would go on to have my four younger siblings. His last child, my brother Anthony, was born when he was 57 years old. He was a loving father who worked several jobs to provide for his family. He worked as a security guard at local nightclubs in downtown L.A. He worked as a roofer, as a landscaper and other difficult jobs. He wasn’t afraid of hard work. He was a blue collar man who did his best to provide for our needs and even a few of our wants. My father would soon became ill. He would be partially blind in one eye. I remember being his guide as we traveled around L.A. I was his navigator. He would pass away on January 19, 1997 at 10:15 am at the age of 66. I was 16 years old. His death led me down a path that would change my life forever. I often think about if he had survived and was alive and well today, what would my life be like? I realize that I wouldn’t have moved out at 18 to a cousin’s home I barely knew. I wouldn’t have started working for Albertsons and moved to Ontario. I wouldn’t have moved out on my own for the first time at the age of 24. And I wouldn’t have met the woman who would become my wife and my life with her and our daughter wouldn’t exist.

Knowing all that, I wouldn’t go back and change it. I learned quickly how to survive on my own as he had to survive following his own father’s death. I see a lot of my father in me. I see his hard work ethic, always doing something and being active. I see his determination to not let physical or financial limitations get in the way of going places. He rode his bike everywhere. I, too, would ride a bike for many years. Now I have a rickety old car that I deeply appreciate as it takes me to work and brings me home every night. I see my father’s stubbornness in me. As a father, I see myself bonding with my daughter over movies, cartoons and just being together as he did with me. I find myself following his example as he always explained why he punished me and he was ended his explanation with “I love you.” I wish he could be here to experience his grandchildren. I wish I could see him interact with my daughter. I imagine him being a kid with her. Getting on her level and playing with her toys and making her laugh. I wish he could be here to experience the changes in our town, our country and in the world. I often wonder what his thoughts, opinions and ideas would be about where the world has come to. I wish I could ask him about his life: growing up, his service in Korea, his life after the army. I wish I could have adult conversations with him, ask his advice as a man, as a father. I wonder what he would say about the man I’ve become.

I also look back and I remember how ill he was and how much he was suffering. I am comforted to know that he is with Christ in a new body. He is no longer in pain. I will always wish he could be here to experience my family. To talk with Jennifer about his eyewitness accounts of the historical events he was able to see. I wish he could see my daughter grow and see me in her. I even wish he could tell them my childhood antics and the embarrassing stories only parents can tell. From his example, I’ve learned to appreciate life. I want to remain as healthy as I can and hopefully, by the grace of God, be around to see my daughter get married and have a family of her own. I know that my father would wish to be here today too. People may think I’m cruel that I don’t visit his gravesite. But my father, my dad is not there. His earthly body may be buried there but he lives in me, in my memories. I’d rather remember him as the man and father he was. I will always miss him but I know that I will see him again one day….

My father-in-law was a great man. A man with flaws and limitations but a man who did the best he could and was a hero to his family. From the stories I have heard about Joe Sr, I know that he would be proud of his son and the life he has built. Even though I have never met him, I am comforted to know that my babies, AJ and Ziva, have their grandfather in heaven to take care of them while they wait for us. It may not be true but it’s a nice image to have when the weight of our longing for our loved ones becomes too much.

To Joe Ysabel Lara
a great father who is greatly missed
each and every day.

Friday, January 15, 2016

If you were me and lived...Italy: another great addition to an amazing series!

If you were me and lived in…Italy by Carole P. Roman is another addition to this great series. This book follows the same format as the titles before.

In this book, children will learn about Italy and its residence. They will learn about its history as the home of the Ancient Roman Empire and how at its height covered an area which includes almost 48 modern day countries. The book also covers the uniqueness of the city of Rome, Italy’s capital. Vatican City is the home of the Roman Catholic Church and is its own independent country with the city. Readers will explore the common sites, food and festivals which Italians celebrate.

I’ve reviewed the other titles in this series and this book, exploring Italy, is a great addition to an awesome learning tool for classrooms and families. I highly recommend the book on Italy as well as the other titles in the If you were me and lived in… series.

If you were me and lived in…Italy
Is available on Amazon
on the Kindle for $1.99 and free with Kindle Unlimited

and in paperback for $9.99

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

We are not equal

The other day I was watching an episode of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic with my daughter. This particular episode was about a village where everyone was equal. Everyone had the same talents, the same jobs and wore the same clothes, even their smiles on their faces. The village leader had the premise that “too many differences can lead to disarray,” to bitterness and misery. So instead of learning to embrace their differences and working together with their differences, everyone was made the same. The message of the episode was, in the words of Princess Twilight Sparkle, everyone “has unique talents and gifts and when we share them with each other, that’s how real friendship” is enjoyed. Why are we trying to make everyone equal when it’s obvious we are not? I am not saying that we cannot be treated the same. The U.S. Constitution says that we are all born with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. There is often confusion about equality with rights. We all have the same rights but we are not all equal.

We all have different talents, different skills, and different abilities. I’m smart. I can recall facts which helps me play games like Jeopardy! and Trivial Pursuit well. If I have the time, I can write a 1,000 word blogpost in a couple of hours while I know some people who struggle with writing a single paragraph. However, give me an engine to fix and I wouldn’t know where to start. But give that same engine to a master mechanic and it’s a piece of cake. I am not equal to the skills of that mechanic. My husband has better customer service skills than I do. He can talk and create a rapport with just about anyone and I have a hard time starting a conversation with someone I don’t know or have little in common with. I have family and friends who are better at being assertive and speaking their minds than I am. I have my own talents. I am a better reader. I read fast with better comprehension than some. I’ve read books that made my middle school English teachers shocked that a 13 year old would 1) read it and 2) enjoy it. Do my strengths and weaknesses make me better or worse than others? No, just different. It took me a long time to realize that I may never have the same skills as others. I’ve learned to embrace my strengths and utilize other tools to help me with my weaknesses.

With different talents and skills, we all can do different jobs. We all can’t be CEOs or President of the United States or talented musicians or inventors. We all can’t be rich and powerful. We still need people to fix our cars, fix the plumping, and mow the grass and any other job which help our daily lives function. Every job is worth doing when a demand is needed. You may think people do these jobs due to a lack of skill or even education. Many people don’t realize the education and training people go through in order to fix our cars, especially cars with more electrical and computer components than before. However, some jobs have a component that cannot be taught: creativity. Do you think creativity can be taught? I don’t think so. A creative person with an eye for fashion can see a bolt of cloth and imagine a dress or shirt when someone else just sees a bolt of cloth. I can look at an empty word document and write a short story or a book review. We all have a unique set of strengths, of challenges and views and opinions which we can use to do different jobs and functions in our society.

Different talents and skills doesn’t mean that we do not have equal opportunity to use those talents and skills. Equal opportunity doesn’t mean equal outcome. A group of students should have an equal opportunity to be a success but what differs is their motivation and means to achieve an outcome. Individuals born into upper- and middle-classes have the means to be a success but may not always have the motivation to do so. Some people are born into poverty have a longer ladder to climb and have a fiercer motivation and determination to achieve success than is greater than their means. There are countless examples of rags to riches stories. JK Rowling was a single mother on welfare when she starting writing the Harry Potter series. Now she’s worth an approximate $850 million. David Geffen is a music mogul with a natural talent for recognizing musical genius. With a business sense taught to him by his mother, he was able to become a millionaire by the age of 26. Despite the fact that he did poorly in high school and flunked out of college. What about those who were born into “riches” and ended up in rags? What about those stories? The Vanderbilt family was once the second richest family after the Rockefellers. Six generations later, the empire that Cornelius Vanderbilt built would no longer operated by the family. An example that means does not equal success just as lack of means equals failure.

We all have different talents and skills. We all face different challenges and we all have different means and motivation in order to meet those challenges. We can’t all be the Super Bowl winning quarterback or Employee of the Month. There is nothing wrong with different. If we all are the same, the world would be bland and boring as depicted in the My Little Pony episode. Our differences help make this world vibrant and interesting. Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird once wrote “We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe- some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity because they're born with it, some men make more money than others, some ladies make better cakes than others- some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of men.” We are not equal. Where we are the same is that we have the right to use our strengths and talents, to overcome our weaknesses, to make a difference in our world. The difference we make may not be in the grand scheme of the entire world but our everyday lives. 

Monday, January 11, 2016

Time of Useful Consciousness: a great post-World War II mystery

Time of Useful Consciousness by Jennifer Ott is a post-World War II drama set in Allied-occupied Germany. Louisa Unger is caught in a world of secrets and when she’s arrested for murder, a U.S. colonel urges her to tell her story for her freedom. She must decide if she will give up the names of her countrymen for her freedom. The story is told in a series of flashbacks as Louisa begins her tale.

The story opens as Louisa kills a man and is arrested by the American troops. She is urged by Colonel Dan Taylor to give up the names of the men running an elusive black market in war torn Europe. She, at first, resists insisting she would never rat on her countrymen. She begins to talk without giving up too much information. She explains how her older brother, Freddy, and his friend, Kris Schuler, introduce her to flying as they run errands of secret cargo and shady deals under the nose of the Allied forces. She soon joins them on their runs and becomes deep in this secretive world. Louisa begins to wonder about their elusive employer, Marcus Visser. Is he man or myth? Soon, events begin to unfold as their operations begin to unravel. They must race to find a way out. Will Louisa trust Colonel Taylor and tell him what she knows? Will the identity or existence of Marcus Visser be revealed?

Time of Useful Consciousness is a great book which made writing this review difficult because there is so much that happens. I can’t write about a lot because it would spoil the reveal in the story. Like a great mystery story, so much builds on the clue before. The twists and turns which answers some questions and leads to even bigger questions. The title is a reference to the amount of time an individual is able to perform flying duties efficiently in an environment of inadequate oxygen supply. I found the tittle to be a great allusion to events of the story. I enjoyed Louisa and her survival mode as she must decide who she will trust and who she will not. I highly recommend Time of Useful Consciousness. This book is definitely on my keeper shelf.

Time of Useful Consciousness
is available on Amazon
in paperback for $24
on the Kindle for $4.99 and free with Kindle Unlimited

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Death and grief: my observations

Death is a natural part of life. It is the part of life which everyone knows will happen but no one really wants to think about it. My life has been touched by death in ways it touches everyone with the deaths of my grandparents. I’ve also been touched by death no one expects with the death of a child. There are natural reactions to death: the feeling of numbness, the reduced ability to concentrate/focus, the sudden need to cry or even not being able to cry. People often suffer from disturbed sleep patterns with recurring dreams or nightmares involving their loved ones. Grief is an internal process and, in my experience, an unending process. When grief seems to have subsided, there will be a moment, a reminder which will open the floodgates again. However, there is a time in your life when you are able to live with the grief, to function as you did and remember your loved ones with fondness and nostalgia. When does the show of grief or remembrance become more for attention than just for remembrance?

Grief can be so intense that it leads to mental illness. Most likely manifested as clinical depression which could require therapy and medication. Abnormal grief or complicated grief can manifest itself in persistent and consuming grief which could increase risk of other illnesses such as high blood pressure, cancer and stroke. The preliminary criteria, as set by the 1997 convention led by Holly Prigerson, as the intense daily yearning and preoccupation with the deceased which leads to the inability to adjust to life without that person. Treatments for depression and PTSD have helped people with complicated grief. . One that many people fear and shocks them to the core when it happens. Even when the death is expected, it can shake some off their foundation. Majority of people can “move on” and reestablish their lives in a new reality. Others continue to live, as the song says, “stuck in a moment” unable to adjust to a new reality. It does not matter if the death is expected to due age or a long illness or sudden due to a tragedy or an accident, the death of a loved one is sad. But for some people, death is devastating. In my own grieving process, I have met women who fit this category. Women, especially, who seem to live happy and ordinary lives until the grief becomes too much and it stops their lives in its tracks. Debilitating grief which brings everything crashing down.

In recent years, I have known a few people who cling to their loved ones’ memory as a way to get attention. It seems wrong to express grief for the sole purpose of gaining attention. Attention-seeking behavior can undermine the grieving process and the individual may never fully grieve. The “performance grief” is often for an audience of people willing to feed the cycle of intense grief. People with “performance grief” may use their “grief” because they like the attention. The like the constant visitor or even the cooked meals which often occur as support for the mourner. These people will “remind” others that they lost a loved one. Some may do so because they like the attention when the death first occurred and bring up the lost loved one for continued sympathy and attention. Attention-seeking grief sounds like a form on Munchausen Syndrome, attention-seeking personality disorder. Munchausen Syndrome is a predominately female disorder in which an emotionally immature person with narcissistic tendencies, low self-esteem and a fragile ego has an overwhelming need to draw attention to herself and be the center of attention. A sufferer will most often capitalize on, exploit and exaggerate an illness, injury or personal misfortune. In recent years it has been seen in women who pretend to have terminal cancer in order to gain sympathy and financial benefits as people, out of the goodness of their hearts, will give support. In the instance of grief, it could manifest in someone who will use the death of someone as a crutch and plea for constant assistance.

How can you tell the difference between complicated grief and performance grief? It may seem hard to tell between the two. In my research and my own experience, it seems to be a little clearer. While I would not accuse anyone of performance grief, I have my suspicions of what can be for attention, especially with social media. First, the constant reminders of the death of the loved one. I’m not talking about the occasional “This reminded me of my mom. How I miss her” or “I came across this picture of my dad. I miss him so much” posts. To me, it is the posts written directly to the loved one as if he or she can read it from heaven. It is not the remembrance of the loved one on their birthdays or anniversaries. It is the post after post of Second, performance grief can be seen in comparison of grief manifestations. It’s the “I’m sadder than you because I am doing this” or “I loved the person more because I cry longer and louder than you.” The death of the loved one becomes all about the mourner and not the deceased. Third, it can be the over-the-top grief for someone that an individual barely knew. For instance, when a distant relative dies and an individual wails and carries on which can be seen as excessive. It can also be seen when a beloved celebrity dies. Some fans act as if the celebrity was their closest friend.

By now, you have probably asked how I or we can judge how others grieve. Grief is a very personal process. Some are very vocal and some are very silent. Grief is a lifelong process in which you never “get over” the death, you learn to live life with the loss of this person. However, when someone’s grief turns to gain and attention rather than the loss of the loved one, it becomes excessive. In my experience, when someone uses grief for attention and becomes excessive, people may tune it out and miss the real cries for help. You may also say “Hey, don’t you post about the losses of your babies?” And I do. However, it is usually for the benefit of someone else. Many of you may not know but I am a mentor for women who are fresh in the grieving process. I often post in support of these women who grieve in silence and shame due to the taboo of miscarriage and infant loss. It is not for my need for attention or for further sympathy. It is my hope to use my journey as an example so that they know that they are not alone. I suppose that is the difference that I’m looking for. Performance grief is often for the benefit of the mourner while other manifestation can be used for the benefit of others. I think we can all think of someone who may perform their grief for attention. I may be wrong. This is just my observations. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Winter Garden: a story of a mother, her daughters and a painful secret

Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah is a story about two sisters who try to reconnect with a mother who shut them out many years ago. When a fairy tale from their childhood is retold, they discover that their mother was hiding a deep and painful secret.

Meredith and Nina Witson are daughter of Evan and Anya. The story begins in December 1972 as Meredith writes a play based on a fairy tale her mother tells her. After her mother abruptly stops the play and vows to never tell the fairy tale again, a wedge is placed between Anya and her daughters. Fast forward to 2000, Meredith is now married to her childhood sweetheart with two grown daughters and Nina is a world traveling photographer. When Evan suddenly dies, Nina is determined to hear the fairy tale again. At first Anya is resistant but soon she begins to tell the story again, Meredith and Nina realize that more and more elements of the story are different. They begin to realize that this story is no fairy tale but a story of their mother’s deepest secret. A secret she wanted to die with her. Will Meredith and Nina get the real story? Or will their mother keep her wall of secrecy?

I’ve been a fan of Kristin Hannah for many years and have read nearly all of her books. None of her books have affected me more than Winter Garden. The reader discovers the facts of the story along with Meredith and Nina and there are a great many heart gasping moments. I can’t give too many details about the fairy tale as it will ruin the course of discovery. I can say that this book is among the few in which I cried. My heart broke for Anya as she finally reveals the painful secret of many years ago. Events are described in vivid detail. My favorite line in the book is from Anya who tells her daughters, “You would be amazed at what the human heart can endure.” I highly recommend Winter Garden as it is a story of a mother and her daughters and the painful events in which human often must endure.

Winter Garden and other titles by Kristin Hannah
are available on Amazon, Barnes and Nobles and a bookstore near you. 

Friday, January 1, 2016

Star Wars: Episode VII The Force Awakens, a film review

Star Wars: Episode VII The Force Awakens is the long awaited sequel to the original trilogy. It opened to rave reviews and box office success. As of December 29th, it has made over $1 billion worldwide with one big market left to open in China and it is the second grossing movie of 2015 and the 10th all-time grossing movie. It is anticipated to break James Cameron’s Avatar $2.7 billion record. The movie provides great nostalgia for the fans as seeing the beloved Star Wars characters on the big screen again and for some fans, for the first time. I was three and half when Return of the Jedi opened in 1983 so I vaguely remember the movie when it was new. The Force Awakens also gives great nods and references to the original trilogy which will excite fans. Without giving away any major spoilers, here are a few of my thoughts. 

The Force Awakens gives a new twist on a familiar story. Some reviews have complained that The Force Awakens models A New Hope with the hero coming from obscurity on a desert planet. The Force Awakens, A New Hope and the entire Star Wars saga models a very familiar story called the hero’s journey as described by mythologist Joseph Campbell. In The Force Awakens, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is a scavenger on the planet Jakku. Just like Luke Skywalker was a moisture farmer and Anakin Skywalker was a slave on the planet Tatoonie. While Luke and Anakin dreamed of life off their desolate planet, Rey is patiently waited for the return of her family when she is pulled into the adventure of a lifetime. Yes, she is Force-sensitive and has abilities she didn’t know she had but what hero of a Star Wars movie wouldn’t be Force-sensitive?  

The movie introduces new villains. Kylo Ren and the First Order. Rising from the ashes of the Galactic Empire, the First Order is fighting the Republic and the Resistance for control of the galaxies. A few critics have brought up Kylo Ren’s conflict between the dark side he desperately wants to embrace and the light side which still pulls at him. However, they fail to remember that Darth Vader was also conflicted. He felt there was no coming back from the dark side and there was no resisted the dark side. He eventually redeems himself to the light side by rescuing Luke from the Emperor. I look forward to seeing the continued internal conflict within Kylo Ren and the answer to the question: does he full embrace the dark side and become pure evil or will he be redeemed like Darth Vader? I, personally, would love to see Kylo Ren embrace the dark side.

Lastly, The Force Awakens is great entertainment. Fans now span four generations and will continue to gain fans in future generations. It is a great movie that families can enjoy together. My four year old daughter was introduced to Star Wars from the moment she was born. Her middle name, Hope, was inspired by Episode IV. She has seen the movies and my husband’s collectibles since she was a baby. She loves R2-D2 and now loves BB-8. The Force Awakens had great movements of thrilling chases, dangerous, almost impossible, missions and reluctant heroes who soon realize that something bigger than themselves is calling them. My husband had moments of tearful joy during the movie. I laughed at references to the originals and old familiar lines. My daughter eagerly sat on the edge of her seat and cheered when the characters she knew came on screen.

I’ve read other reviews and it is my opinion that some fans will never be satisfied at any new Star Wars movie. Some fans will always compare any new films to the original trilogy. The Star Wars universe has been a part of our lives for so long that it has become something to be protected and treasured. And God forbid, if someone else comes along and has another idea where the story will go, especially now that Disney is at the helm. As a fan who grew up with the original Star Wars movies, I was excited for the continuation of the story. After I saw the movie twice, I enjoyed the movie more and more. I cannot wait to add the DVDs to the rest of our Star Wars library and I eagerly await Episodes VII and IX in coming years.