Monday, December 29, 2008

Tense Times Make for a Testy Traveler

I love to travel….Let me rephrase that. I love exploring new and different destinations, but I do not enjoy the time and hassle it takes to get there. This past holiday vacation was like a case study in bad travel luck. Though I was excited to spending the holidays with family in the warm sun of Florida, I was somewhat hesitant when all the weather stations began predicting a huge snowstorm/blizzard about to hit New Jersey on the very day I was leaving---December 19th—which, if you recall, is also the anniversary of my father’s death.

So when I woke up that morning, I was already a little bummed. Trying to stay optimistic, I thought the light sprinkle of snow that began falling mid-morning was all we might get. Then the snow began falling much harder, with no end in sight. Roads were covered within an hour or so, and traffic was starting to slow down to a snail’s crawl. By noon, my flight had already been rescheduled from 3:15 to 6:30, so I didn’t leave for the airport until around four. (Technically, I’m only about fifteen miles east of Newark, so it usually only takes about a half hour to get there.) Unfortunately, with the heavy falling snow and dangerous road conditions, traffic halted to a standstill on numerous occasions. There were also road closings, detours and overly cautious drivers that prevented me from getting to the carpark until 5:45. Naturally, I was in a panic that I might miss my flight.

The driver from the parking lot dropped me off at the airport at 6, only to discover long lines of people trying to reschedule their bookings, as there were a hundred or so flights that had already been cancelled throughout the day. Luckily, mine was not one of them, though the departure time had now changed from 6:30 to 7. Which would have been fine if the “express line” for checking baggage was actually moving. Instead, all the counters were packed with people trying to have something else taken care of, and the line literally did not move for fifteen or twenty minutes.

Finally, some bright soul decided it might be good to check in everyone who was taking the 7:00 flight to Tampa, and I was finally moving forward. Once my bags were checked, I went through the security checkpoint, which was practically empty due to all the cancelled flights. However, this also gave the rather bored employees ample opportunity to search the bags of the few passengers that did have flights. Which brings me to my biggest pet peeve about airline travel these days---the ridiculousness of what is allowed and what isn’t.

For instance, did you know that Snow Globes are no longer allowed to be carried onto a plane? I didn’t. Otherwise, I never would have considered bringing aboard a beautiful set of wine stoppers with tiny snow globes on the top. It was to be a Christmas present for a Wine Enthusiast I know, as each snow globe had a beautiful sculpture of a silver animal inside it. When I was told by the security personnel that I was not allowed to bring the wine stoppers, I assumed it was because they might look like a weapon---as the stopper portion was shaped like a point. But when I discovered it was because of the snow globes on top, I became irate.

The security guard (a woman) apologized for the “inconvenience,” and suggested maybe I’d want to check another bag and put the wine stoppers inside it. (Apparently snow globes are okay to pack in your suitcase, but not to carry on the plane. Lord only knows what might happen if one of them should crack open, scattering all the artificial snow and miniature dioramas throughout the flight deck. It was certainly cause for worry, don’t you think?)

When I told the security guard I didn’t have another bag (except my backpack), she informed me of several gift shops in the mall area where I could purchase one. (Not to mention the cost for checking an additional bag.) When I began protesting the silliness of the policy, she then suggested maybe I’d like to try the UPS service at one of the local hotels. Honestly. What was I supposed to do? Get out of line, grab a cab to the nearest Hyatt, and try to get a package out, when my plane was supposed to leave at any minute?

Without a feasible option, I had to give the present up, which presumably went to one of the security guard’s families, as I’m sure they take in quite a load of stuff over the holiday season. I noticed other people were also prevented from bringing various items on board, mostly due to the liquid level of their seemingly innocent gifts. And while I appreciate all the concern over our safety in these times of terrorism and unrest, I think that somebody needs to rethink what might be considered treacherous. Remember when you weren’t even given a plastic knife on a plane for fear you might stab someone with the serrated edge? Better yet, remember when you were actually given food on a plane?

My flight didn’t get out until after nine that night, but not before we sat on the runway for an hour as they de-iced the exterior and wings for travel. I didn’t get to my final destination until one in the morning. Not exactly a great way to start my vacation, but at least I was finally where I was supposed to be.

Given the current state of the economy, I think my leisure travel will be cut down in the next year to places I can actually drive to. At least if I am the one behind the wheel, I’ll feel like I have a say in where I’m going and how long it will take. And better still, I will allow snow globes to be carried into the car, regardless of how dangerous or amusing they might be to my fellow passengers.

But that’s just me. Did you have any hassle with travel over your holiday vacation?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Cat Clips--Christmas Present

Please click on the photo above to watch the third episode in the special three-part Cat Clips Holiday mini-series called "Christmas Present." In this episode, the female cat finally gets to see her Christmas present.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Christmas Memories Both Sweet and Sour

When I was younger, the Christmas season was my favorite time of year. Our household was in a constant state of activity as we prepared for the upcoming holidays. My mom always began our yearly ritual in mid November, when she painstakingly prepared the fruitcake batter for the numerous mini-cakes she would bake to give away to friends and neighbors. She made them early, so she could soak them in Brandy for a few weeks to “sweeten” the taste. And although I loved my mom’s fruitcake, I knew that many people I came in contact with had no stomach for the traditional Christmas fare, and would even turn their noses up at this sweet combination of candied fruit and nuts.

Then there was the decorating of the tree, which eventually fell into my hands when no one else had the time or patience to do it. And the making of the Christmas cookies, which filled the house with pleasing aromas of cinnamon, gingerbread and chocolate. The holiday season was also a time for parties and get-togethers with friends, and for a few short weeks, our social calendar tripled in size.

On Christmas morning, my father would always be up early, the smell of fresh percolating coffee wafting through the house. Then mom would get up and trudge down to the kitchen to make the “Bubble Ring,” a traditional sweet-roll type concoction filled with candied fruit and dripping in sweet, gooey caramel. It was made in a bundt pan by rolling mini balls of dough in butter and sugar, and placing them in the bottom of the pan, which was already covered in fruit and the caramel topping. When the “Bubble Ring” was cooked, and then flipped over on a plate, all the fruit and topping dripped down the sides of the golden browned “cake,” and we would all sit around the dining room table and gorge ourselves on the confection as we went around the table, opening our stocking presents one at a time.

But that was only after my Grandmother and Aunt had finished their morning rituals in the bathroom. For there was a sacred rule in my family that no children were allowed downstairs (where the presents were) until all the older members of the family were properly prepared for the morning’s events. And since my Grandmother and Aunt were traditionally slow when it came to completing this task, it meant I had to sit at the top of the stairs and wait patiently, my head swimming with images of what might be waiting for me under the tree.

My dad did not help matters much, as he would walk from room to room and let out little sighs and gasps at everything he found that was presumably from Santa. “Oh My!” he would exclaim as we heard him walk into the living room. “So many presents. They can’t all be for us.” This would be followed several minutes later by an equally loud and boisterous gasp as he entered the dining room to view the stockings. Pretty soon my mom was joining in, and they would keep the “pre-show” going until the rest of the family finally came down. The constant running dialogue, of course, got my adrenaline pumping so hard I would practically pull my Grandmother and Aunt from their temporary residence in the bathroom so that we could finally get the festivities started. And although I hated the waiting process, it was a necessary contribution to the magical atmosphere that Christmas created. As if anything was possible.

As I got older, the Christmas season seemed to fly by at a much more frantic pace. In fact, the entire Fall, from September to December 31st, was so filled with activities and parties, that Christmas became more of a blur. It was still my favorite time of year, but for much different reasons than when I was younger. Now I appreciated the opportunities it presented to reunite with friends and family I hadn’t seen all year, and the warm greetings I would receive from strangers in the street. For whatever reason, the holidays always seemed to bring out the best in people.

But the Christmas season is now also marred by a very sad occasion, as December 19th marks the anniversary of the day my father passed away. I had gone down to visit my mom and dad in Florida, and he had just come home from a long stay in the hospital, supposedly in better condition than he went in. Unfortunately, his condition worsened over the weekend, and by the following Tuesday he was gone. It put quite a different spin on the holiday that year, as we all struggled to process my father’s death, and still create some semblance of the holiday for the younger folks. To say it was a surreal experience is an understatement.

So though I still enjoy this time of year, it does not hold the same kind of magic it once did. The smells of baking cookies and fermenting fruitcake, the “oohs” and “ahhs” from my father on Christmas morning, and the manic excitement of opening presents---all just memories now. I am still surrounded by family and friends on the holidays, but now my role has changed. Now I’m the one who “oohs” and “ahhs,” helping to keep the magic and anticipation going for another generation of dreamers. And somewhere, I know my father is smiling down on me, happy that I am here to carry on his happy tradition.

But that’s just me. How do you view the upcoming holidays? (Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza or New Years)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Cat Clips--Christmas Bling

Please click on the photo above to watch the second part in a special three part "Cat Clips" holiday mini-series. (To view the first part, scroll down a little to view "Christmas Spirit.") In this episode, "Christmas Bling," the cats discuss Christmas decor and what they might get as a Christmas present.

Monday, December 15, 2008

We Can't Let This Bank Fail!

When I was ten years old, my father gave me a hardbound blank book for Christmas. He knew that I liked to read and write stories, and so he thought maybe I might someday write something in this one. To his surprise, I spent the rest of the day and the following two days filling those blank pages with a story of my own invention called “Hands of a Rhino.” It was about a boy who bumps into a deaf homeless man one day while walking through his neighborhood. The two strike up a friendship, and the boy eventually helps the homeless man integrate himself back into society again. As I was writing it, I imagined the whole thing as a sort of happy Hallmark Hall of Fame special.

When I presented the completed book (which included a forward, a chapter breakdown, illustrations, and an epilogue) to my Father three days later, he was shocked and amazed. And after he read the story, he got all choked up and praised me for my ideas and imagination. He was also amazed that a ten year old boy from rural Ohio would have any knowledge of homeless people at all. After all, we didn’t see the streets of our town lined with any, and we rarely ever heard of any vagrants in our area, so how I came up with such a heartfelt idea was beyond his comprehension. But somewhere deep down inside, I always knew there were people who were less fortunate than me, and that I should always try to help them whenever I could. Especially in this time of recession, it seems like there are a plethora of people in need, and not enough help to go around.

Which brings me to the real subject of today’s post: The Community Food Bank of New Jersey. For more than 25 years, the Community FoodBank of New Jersey (CFBNJ) has been a beacon of hope for the hungry families in the state. But with food donations down significantly and demand up 30 percent, their shelves are nearly bare and the FoodBank is struggling to meet the need. More than 500,000 people in New Jersey turn to emergency food pantries and soup kitchens dependent on supplies from the Community FoodBank. More than half of those assisted are children and the elderly. Those numbers are growing. It’s up to us to make sure there is enough food to distribute so that our hungry neighbors are not turned away.

They need your help now. Please make a Deposit of Hope by filling out the coupon below. You can also visit or call 908-355-FOOD to donate. The payoff will feed your soul…take that to the bank.

Legendary music icon Bruce Springsteen will be lending his voice to the fight against hunger in New Jersey by appearing in a major advertising campaign for the Community FoodBank of New Jersey – the largest food bank in the state. A supporter of the FoodBank for 23 years, this ad marks the first time Springsteen has publicly lent his image to the campaign, due to the urgency of the situation. The Grammy award-winning musician often donates proceeds from his concerts to the organization.
In this season of giving, let's all try to dig a little deeper into our pockets to help out this worthy cause. And don't just do it for Bruce. Do it for your heart.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Cat Clips--Christmas Spirit

Please click on the photo above to watch a short video from the "Cat Clips" series called "Christmas Spirit." In this episode, the male cat tries to get the female cat into the spirit of Christmas. This is Part One of a special three-part holiday Cat Clips mini-series.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Mystifying World of the Magical Miniature

I have always had a fascination for miniature things. When I was a child, I met a woman named Ruth Ademite, who supposedly had the world’s largest collection of miniature books. One day when I was visiting, she gave me a miniature book of my own. But not to keep, mind you. She wanted me to write a special story just for her that she could add to her collection. Naturally, I was flattered by the request. But there was also a part of me that didn’t want to give the little book back. If I was going to write a story, I wanted to keep it for myself. This ignited a long “sermon” by my father on the true value of sharing, and how it was just as important for me to give away my stories, as it was to keep them. Eventually I filled the little book with a story and pictures, none of which I really remember now. And since Ms. Ademite passed away many years ago, I probably will never know. Could it have been a masterpiece? Doubtful. But it was my first sojourn into the giant world of miniature momentos.

When I was a little older, I became fascinated with the work of Robert Olszewski, who does astounding miniature people and scenes for Disney and other companies. It is the Disney variety that I really enjoy, as he incorporates so much detail and character into his pieces. And unlike the much larger WDCC pieces (Walt Disney Classic Collection), the Olszewski miniatures are perfect for people with a very limited space to display anything.

Recently, I came across another artist, William Wigan, whose work simply defies comprehension. His art is hand-carved with special tools and placed on the tiny head of a needle (as in the picture above of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves) or on the tip of an eyelash. Don’t believe me? Then click on the link below and watch a fascinating video on how this guy creates these one of a kind works of art, and how he gets $18k to $30k a pop.

I would love one of these amazing items, but I’m afraid one of the cats would cough it up in a hairball. (And of course, the price doesn't help either.)

But that’s just me. What do you think of miniatures?

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Cat Clips--Our First DVD

The very first "Cat Clips" DVD is finally available, so all the episodes from #1-10 are no longer available online. The only way to see them again is on this great new DVD, complete with hilarious outakes that can only be viewed from the DVD. To find out more about the new DVD, watch the latest episode of "Cat Clips" by clicking on the picture above. In this episode, the cats learn of their newfound celebrity on the "tube."

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Bird Bits--Skate Birds

Please click on the photo above to watch a short two minute video from the "Bird Bits" series. In this episode, Two birds find miniature skateboards, and try to outdo each other with their stunts.