Friday, December 22, 2006

Need a Last-minute Tax Deduction?

If you're looking for a way to pay less income tax in 2006 and put money toward a good cause, I've got just the thing for you! Why not join the fight against cancer and give to a great non-profit organization? I know just the organization that is literally running against cancer. It's called Joggin’ for the Noggin and was started by two friends of mine that I met while working at Aventail Corporation in Seattle in the late 90's. Allow me to tell you their story.

In Seattle I became friends with these two lively people from Canada – Kim and Stephen – whose wonderful sense of humor and spirit of adventure made me fall in love with Canadians. (To this day I haven't met a Canadian that didn't become an instant friend.)

Anyway, Kim's young sister Holly is a veterinary technician who lives in New York City. Less than two years ago, when Holly was just 24 years old, she was diagnosed with brain cancer. I didn't learn about it until later, in November of 2005 when I found out that Kim and Stephen were coming to NYC (where I lived at the time) from their Colorado home to run the marathon. Holly's tumor was the size of an egg and had to be removed immediately. She endured not only that major surgery, but months of sickening radiation treatments and chemotherapy, a 30+-pound weight loss, and other side effects. You think, "What a terrible thing to happen to such a young person." A terrible experience, indeed.

But the beauty of this tragedy is how Holly's family literally ran to her aid. The outpouring of love and support that I saw from afar touched my heart.

Not long after they learned of the cancer that had stricken Holly, Kim and Stephen started up Joggin’ for the Noggin, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that raises funds for brain cancer charities through long-distance running events. And that's how they came to run the marathon last year, with Holly watching from bleachers at the 17-mile post.

It's easy to give to this organization online using a credit card or PayPal account. Or you can mail a check to:

Joggin' for the Noggin
8423 Thunderhead Drive
Boulder, CO 80302

The good thing is that the money you send goes to Sloan-Kettering for cancer research, and donations of $26 or more earn you a Joggin' for the Noggin water bottle. :)

Stephen and Kim's 2006 Christmas letter says that Holly is doing great. She is still in physical therapy getting her leg functionality back after the impact of eight rounds of chemo on her leg muscles. See Holly's blog at Kim, Stephen, and Holly thank you for your help.

Here's wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and a Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Fun in Philly

Until now I'd never been to the city of brotherly love. Despite a few discouraging comments from friends, I still wanted to get a closer look—closer than from the Amtrak rail that took me past the Philadelphia skyline many times last winter, leaving me curious about the beautiful buildings that lit up the night sky. Plus, I wanted to explore its historic sites. I'm always open to adding another U.S. city to my ever-growing list of places I've seen, so off I went up I-95 last weekend to visit the birthplace of our nation.

I also took a brief side trip to NYC, where I finally visited Liberty Park in Jersey where the Manhattan skyline views are incredible. I also finally got a chance to see Jersey City, which is where I would probably live if I could move back to that area. It was bitterly cold Friday and Saturday, but much nicer on Sunday when I explored Independence Mall.

In NYC, Canal Street was a madhouse—entire road lanes were taken up by foot traffic. But I wasn't leaving without another designer handbag (a Prada this time). I swear, all my life I bought my purses at Target. Nothing special, and I never cared. But ever since I got the beautiful patchwork Coach bag in a little back room behind a secret door off Canal Street, I've gotten more compliments on my bag than I can count! Even today at Costco a woman behind me commented on my Coach. Come to find out, she goes up to NYC twice a year and does her shopping at the exact same places I do – Canal Street, Century 21, and the Pearl River Mart on Broadway. My kind of woman!

In Philly, I got a kick out of the dozen or so non-English speaking Chinese people snapping photos of each other in front of Independence Hall. How's that for irony? I also enjoyed seeing the original Liberty Bell and learning about the history of the infamous crack. The last time the bell was rung was in 1846, in honor of George Washington's birthday. Damage to the bell was too extensive at that point, and it rendered dumb on that day.

I cannot believe Christmas is a week away. I finished my shopping and wrapping last month, so I'm done with that. But my job suddenly began to require lots of overtime work about three weeks ago. Between that and a free-lance writing gig that landed in my lap last month, I have not been able to find the time to get a Christmas tree. I really wanted one this year, but I couldn't find a single tree lot the weekend after Thanksgiving when I was just dying to get a tree. That surprised me. (Bah humbug, Maryland!) At this point it just isn't worth all the effort so I guess I'll forego tree decorating this year and just enjoy the tree at my brother's place down in Atlanta.

Christmas was supposed to happen at my parents' new home in an "active adult" community [reminder: never say "retirement community!"] in Canton, Georgia, this year. Their closing was scheduled for 12/11. But their builder postponed until 12/22, and now my mom's not sure if the builder will be ready by then. God, all builders are alike. I can't even talk about my horror story of the inside stair repair my builder performed on my new home last month. I'm still too disgusted by the total incompetence displayed by the various subcontractors day after day during a job that should've been completed in three days in early October, not three messy, dusty weeks in November. But we won't go there right now.

Happy Holidays, everyone! Here are some pictures for your enjoyment from Philly.

Club Quarters on Chestnut Street, where I stayed, and City Hall:

The clothespin sculpture and the Christmas tree in front of City Hall:

Market Street and and Independence Hall, where the U.S. Constitution was signed:

Reading Terminal Market:

Father of the Navy, John Barry:

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

microdermabrasion (and other ways to torture yourself)

About three months ago I decided to try something new: laser hair removal. So I paid an arm and a leg to have a couple dozen hairs removed from my chin. (Breaking down the exorbitant price, I realize this is costing me approximately $25-35 per hair. Aaaaagh.)

Prior to that, I researched hair removal techniques and learned that there is no such thing as permanent hair removal. That’s what the experts say. But when I went for my free consultation at American Laser Center in Columbia, the receptionist/sales woman insisted that it is permanent. So “permanent” in fact that ALC offers a two-year guarantee that the hairs they remove will not grow back. So in laser hair removal speak, two years equals an eternity.

Something else I wan't overly keen on was their pricing scheme. You are expected to pay 50% of your one-year package price up front, and then the other 50% at your first treatment. I asked the woman, “So what happens if you go out of business before my first year is up?” She just laughed, indicating that the probability of that happening was zero. (Gee, thanks for your concern.) The alternative to paying up front is to pay per visit, at an amount almost twice as much as paying up front.

It was like haggling at a car dealership. I insisted I wasn’t going to pay the going rate of $1200 for this procedure (chin only). She claimed that this was the “sale” price (the normal price was $1999). I claimed unless she could discount it another 30% I was leaving. So she left to "call the manager," and when she came back she said, "Good news!" . . . plus she threw in a free $125-dollar microdermabrasion treatment to seal the sale. I was just waiting for her to hand me the keys to a new Hummer.

Even though my better judgment told me this isn’t a great deal and there are no real guarantees that my money will be well spent, I was sick of plucking chin hairs (my mother never told me not to!). . . . I didn’t argue with the woman about the permanency of laser hair removal and decided to give it a shot anyway.

I was, of course, concerned about how much this would hurt. She claimed that it feels like “being snapped with a rubber band.” The patient is supposed to get the treatments once every 7-10 weeks, and each session lasts about 15 minutes. I had back pain for 17 years, what's another 15 minutes every couple of months?

Two weeks ago I had my second treatment. I was a bit disappointed about five weeks after the first treatment, when all my coarse chin hairs grew back with a vengeance. So I questioned the nurse as to when I can expect results. After calling me impatient (twice), she told me I could expect to see results after the third treatment. So I still have a couple months to go before I can even hope to feel as though this $840 was well spent.

But let me tell you something – it’s not painless, and it’s not like being snapped with a rubber band. It’s more like being zapped with a strong, hot electrical charge. And when a follicle is lased, it smells. Ever smell burning hair? Ick. The second treatment seemed a lot more painful than the first, despite using a Lidocaine cream on my chin the second time around.

Not surprisingly, every time I go in for a treatment, the nurse tries to sell me more packages. “This week only, you can do both legs [from the knee down] for just $1300,” she cheers as she shoves a price list in front of my face. Aaaagh. Forget it. She also tried to sell me the arm pits. (Oooh - that's gotta hurt.) No thanks. This little tiny chin area is torture enough.

For all the money and the repeated discomfort, this had better work. If by the end of my year of treatments it has not worked, well then all I can say is I knew better. I really did.

On Monday I went in for my free microdermabrasion treatment. ALC recommends that you do this treatment twice a month. (That’s $250/month – almost a car payment!) When the aesthetician told me that, I thought to myself, “And let this be the last one.”

When I asked her if it will hurt, she told me it “feels like a cat licking your skin.” Yeah, I imagine if a cat licks your skin once it doesn’t hurt. But add a lot more pressure and continue to let the cat lick every centimeter of your face, over and over, while a tiny vacuum cleaner sucks up the dead skin cells. Yikes! It occurred to me then why it’s called microdermabrasion. To say it’s abrasive is an understatement, to say the least. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying.

Sure, it feels great the next day – my skin is so-o-o-o soft. But as I was lying there on the table with the relaxation CD playing in the background, the fluorescent lights shining in my eyes, and the lion's tongue carving up and vacuuming the skin off my face I thought, “Never again.”

Why do women insist on torturing themselves this way? After all, your skin sheds itself every 28 days on its own. No need to speed up Mother Nature. Besides, you might just piss her off if you do.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Desperate Housewives Not So Wife-like

If you are a fan of the ABC television show Desperate Housewives, tell me this: why are they called housewives? Most of the “housewives” in the show aren’t even married. Susan is divorced, although she did recently remarry her Ex just long enough to commit insurance fraud. Edie the bimbo is not married, nor are we sure if she ever has been. Bree the Stepford Wife had a husband but he was murdered by the pharmacist who was secretly in love with Bree. Thus, she was unmarried most of last season. She just remarried last week to another potential murderer, so that marriage probably won't last either. Gabrielle the Beauty Queen is in the process of divorcing her husband, while grandstanding her hatred for Carlos by sleeping with other men in front of him. She may not be divorced yet, but shouldn't that kind of behavior disqualify her from being a wife? The only true housewife on the show is Lynette. (And really the only one with any sense.)

So a more apt name for the show might be Desperate Housewife.

I’m not even sure what makes them “desperate.” Is it that they’re so busy hurting one another that they are dying to get out of the suburban graves they’ve dug for themselves? After watching my taped recording of Sunday’s episode earlier this week, it occurred to me that the show’s portrayal of middle class America is flat-out pathetic. More accurately, it’s depressing.

Mind you, it is TV and therefore pure entertainment. But if you think about it (and I don’t encourage that), Wisteria Lane seems to bring out the worst in people.

Consider what these middle class suburbanites are not only capable of but seem to excel at: divorce, alcoholism, fraud, lying, back-stabbing, committing adultery (three out of four characters in the show commit this sin), abandoning their children to street life, murder (several so far), covering up murder, stealing boyfriends, burning down each other’s houses, chaining their children to the basement, motor vehicle hit-and-run accidents, stealing, promiscuity, kidnapping, suicide (too common a theme, if you ask me), home-wrecking, and other bad behaviors designed to basically ruin the lives of their neighbors. There’s even a bit of gay porn and prostitution thrown in for good measure.

I think the show has managed to cover just about all the bad things people can do to one another, with the exception of instigating nuclear war. And it really hasn’t been on the air all that long. It probably took Law & Order ten years to get this many crimes under its belt – and L&O is solely about crime.

With all of this evil going on, do you think this comic sitcom will last? Or do we relish the evil? Just how many more disappearing bodies can we take? True, we do enjoy a good mystery. But with underlying themes like suicide, adultery, and bad parenting prevailing with every new season, I don’t have high hopes for the show.

I suspect that viewers will get sick of being presented with suicide as a topic in their weekly TV viewing. In the very first episode the narrator of the show (a former housewife) blew her brains out with a .38 in her own living room. Later, when the freaky pharmacist George sucked down a bunch of pills, Bree sat by his bedside and watched him die. Just last week, Bree’s daughter feigned a suicide attempt to get attention. (Ironically, I found her brother Andrew’s sarcasm over the act to be pretty hysterical. Maybe throwing humor into attempted suicide will help ratings.) And now Bree’s new husband has intimated that he didn’t murder his ex-wife (as his ex-neighbor announced at the engagement party) – but rather that she’d committed suicide.

So what’s next for these desperate women and their families and neighbors? I don’t know, but I have a feeling that the show’s writers are going to start running out of ideas and continue to repeat the same old ones until we’re finally, ultimately sick of 42-year-old Teri Hatcher’s Size 2 jeans. By the way, has anyone figured out what she does for a living? She’s never once gone to work.

Stay tuned for why Meredith Grey should gain some weight, update her hair style, and start dating women. (That's another show that's gotten really old really fast. Same old, same old.)

Good night!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Old Town Alexandria

October 15, 2006

Happy Birthday to my mom!

Yesterday Rashmi and I took a little late-afternoon jaunt down to Old Town in Northern Virginia. Six miles outside of D.C., Alexandria is an historic town located on the west bank of the Potomac River that played a part in many a war. George Washington used the Market Square there for militia drills in 1754. Robert E. Lee grew up in Alexandria before leaving home to attend West Point. The British held the town hostage during the War of 1812. The famous Torpedo Factory there was built in the early 1900's and used as a U.S. munitions factory in World War II. The list goes on. . . .

Rashmi and I made the most of the daylight we had. It was a crisp fall day with perfect weather - perfect to me, anyway because it's what I call "sweatshirt weather." It sure beats the torturous heat of the past several months. Our little walking tour took us down the charming brick sidewalks of King Street past City Hall to the Torpedo Factory Art Center at the waterfront. There we met Brian Wilson, president of the Wilson Parrot Foundation.

Mr. Wilson is a former firefighter. After spending 2o years saving the lives of people, now he rescues parrots and is a regular attraction on the streets of Old Town, along with his traveling parrot clan. Rashmi and I stepped right up to have our photo taken with the friendly birds (the macaw resting upside-down on our palms was such a ham).

If you go to Brian's Web site you can click on a link near the top of the page to see video him featured on WUSA News JC and Friends in July 2006.

After passing through a couple of shops, we stopped to listen to a man who could play "Over the Rainbow" on water glasses. Pretty impressive! We watched the riverboat Cherry Blossom leave the dock with a well-dressed wedding party aboard and I chatted with a wonderful lady from upstate New York who had fled the 3-foot snows of this past week.

Later, after shopping, we returned to the waterfront to eat seafood at the Chart House restaurant, which has nice river views. With no reservations available, we sat at the bar. As we found out from one of the locals at the bar, it's a chain restaurant that has "terrible, overpriced food." The couple told us they never eat there; they were just there for drinks. The place to eat, apparently, is Landini's. So, we'll have to try that place next time we go.

It's true, my swordfish was pretty awful, but Rashmi's Chilean Sea Bass was wonderful. As our fine waiter was clearing our dishes away, I let him know not to recommend the swordfish to any more customers that evening. He asked me if he could bring me something else to eat, and I declined. But he insisted that I get something on the house to take with me. So, I got an order of the Chilean Sea Bass to take home. When we got the bill, we found out he hadn't charged for my entire meal. That was a pleasant surprise! And I had a lovely dinner at home the next evening.

Anyway, we met some nice people at the restaurant and stayed to watch the Detroit Tigers win a trip to the World Series with a two-out three-run homer by Magglio Ordonez in the bottom of the 9th. Rashmi and I both cheered when Ordonez easily popped the ball right over the fence. It's so nice to finally see a different team (other than the Yankees or Red Sox) headed to the World Series for a change. Remember a few years back when the Diamondbacks won? We need more variety like that.

So, I need to go back to Old Town when I can spend an entire day there and visit some of the muesums and other historic attractions. It's really a neat place, and the shopping is decent. I love the Artcraft store there - lots of gift potential in that place. I ended up getting another chunk of my Christmas shopping done. We noticed there were a number of international visitors in Old Town, including several young girls from Austria, so apparently Old Town is a popular tourist attraction. And it has some of the highest quality street performers I've seen and heard.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Little Italy in north Boston Posted by Picasa

Paul Revere's house in Little Italy (built by Matt Barnard in 1680) Posted by Picasa

George Washington statue Posted by Picasa

Public Gardens at Boston Common Posted by Picasa

Oldest public park in the country Posted by Picasa

Gorgeous Beacon Hill residence (I could live there!!) Posted by Picasa

All of us baby boomers are familiar with this sign Posted by Picasa

New England aquarium at the harbor Posted by Picasa

Little blue penguins under the sprinklers Posted by Picasa

More penguins! They are so cute. Posted by Picasa

Beacon Hill grocery Posted by Picasa

Downtown skyscraper Posted by Picasa

Fun at Dick's Last Resort at Fanueil Hall Posted by Picasa