Sunday, February 28, 2010

Weekend Mishmash: Lost Crazies on Shutter Island

Despite my impending deadline for Moon Florida Keys, Dan and I have had a pretty darn good weekend. As promised in my last post, we ventured to a nearby movie theater on Friday night and enjoyed a double feature of The Crazies and Shutter Island. While such thrillers might not be for everyone, we liked both of them immensely.

As other reviewers have noted, The Crazies is a surprisingly intelligent horror film. Spanning just a few days in the life (and unfortunate demise) of a small town in Iowa – due to an inadvertent contamination of the communal water supply – the movie offers an effective balance between terror and tragedy. Part of the film's success can be attributed to the solid cast, adeptly led by Timothy Olyphant – a skilled actor who manages to insert moments of humor in an otherwise serious film about a fatal government mistake and the callous cover-up that ensues. But, as I told my mom on the phone tonight, it's also surprisingly less gory than I expected, a testament to the filmmakers' desire to keep story and character development paramount.

Shutter Island, which we saw afterward, is an equally entertaining film, based on a novel by Dennis Lehane. Despite the fact that the story's climactic twist is apparent from the beginning, the experience is still well worth the price of admission (which is, by the way, a heck of a lot higher in Los Angeles than in northern Michigan). Given that it's filmed almost entirely on an isolated island during inclement weather, the movie is certainly rich with atmosphere. In fact, director Martin Scorsese has effectively used the environment to heighten the story's tension, leading the main character, a troubled U.S. marshal, through dangerous settings, such as a blustery cemetery and a perilous cliff face. Beyond the atmosphere, the film is full of excellent performances, from the likes of Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, Michelle Williams, Jackie Earle Haley, and Ted Levine, not to mention engaging cameos by Patricia Clarkson and Elias Koteas. Of course, the star of the film is Leonardo DiCaprio, who gives a heart-wrenching performance in what is ultimately a poignant psychological drama.

But movies weren't the only diversion we experienced this weekend. Last night, we attended a Lost panel discussion at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills. Part of this year's Paley Fest, an annual event hosted by the Paley Center for Media in celebration of modern television, the panel featured several members of the cast and creative team, including actors Terry O'Quinn (John Locke), Michael Emerson (Ben Linus), and Nestor Carbonell (Richard Alpert), plus executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse – all of whom offered amusing answers to the questions posed by the moderator and audience. Of course, no definitive secrets were revealed about the final season of this simultaneously compelling and annoying show, but we did get a chance to see a clip of next week's episode, which was cool. More than anything, I was delighted by the rapport between O'Quinn and Emerson, who play fierce rivals on the series, and frankly, I welcomed another night away from my laptop.

But, naturally, I'm hard at work today. Sigh.

Well, I hope your weekend was equally fun, wherever you went and whatever you did.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Friday Fantasies: A Double Feature

Although I've enjoyed working on my latest travel guide, Moon Florida Keys, I have to admit that I'm missing my regular blogging schedule – which, rest assured, will be back in full force once I've finished this latest project. Of course, while the guide has taken over my life as of late, I've certainly made time for fun – realizing, of course, that, without some necessary down time, my brain would pretty much explode.

So, guess what?! After expressing my desire for a movie break last Friday, I'm finally headed to the theater with my hubby. In just a few moments, we'll be on our way to the Krikorian in Monrovia (a small, picturesque town in southern California) to see a double feature of Shutter Island and The Crazies – two spooky films that just might make me forget about my impending deadline... at least for a little while.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Friday Fantasies: My Kingdom for a Movie Break

What a week this has been. Between slaving away on my Florida Keys travel guide and battling a stomach virus, I've had little time to relax – and right about now, I'm itching to see a good flick. Has anyone seen Shutter Island yet?

If so, what did you think of it? Dan and I are eager to know – we've been anxious to see this Martin Scorsese thriller for months now.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Monday Munchies: Summer Stew

Given how chilly it is in New Orleans tonight, it might seem strange to be featuring summer stew for “Monday Munchies,” but since I'm currently immersed in my Moon Florida Keys guide, Dan has kindly offered to take care of today's post – and apparently, he's got summer stew on the brain. So, without further ado, here's Dan's guest post. Oh, and thanks, honey!


As many of you know, Laura is in the middle of writing a big travel guide to the Florida Keys, so I volunteered to provide the “Monday Munchies” post, and it's a good one... makes me hungry just typing it.
This may be called Summer Stew, but it is hearty enough for a cold winter night.

Serves: 4 heaping bowls or 6 regular servings
Total Time: 30 min.

2 tablespoon(s) extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, halved and chopped
2 clove(s) garlic, minced
1 medium/large zucchini, halved lengthwise and sliced
1 medium/large yellow summer squash, halved lengthwise and sliced
1 tablespoon(s) chopped fresh oregano, or 1 teaspoon dried
1/4 teaspoon(s) salt
1/4 teaspoon(s) freshly ground pepper
1 can(s) cannellini or great northern beans, rinsed (see Note)
2 cans diced tomato (drained)
1 tablespoon(s) red-wine vinegar
3/4 cup finely shredded Parmesan cheese
1/2 lb Ham (diced)
1/2 lb Smoked Sausage (sliced)


1.Brown Ham and Sausage. Set aside.

2.Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and cook, stirring, until beginning to soften, about 3 minutes. Add zucchini, summer squash, oregano, salt, and pepper and stir to combine. Reduce heat to low, cover and cook, stirring once, until the vegetables are tender-crisp, 2 to 4 minutes.

3.Stir in beans, tomatoes, and vinegar; increase heat to medium and cook, stirring, until heated throughout, about 5-7 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in Parmesan.

4.Note: While we love the convenience of canned beans, they tend to be high in sodium. Give them a good rinse before adding to a recipe to rid them of some of their sodium (up to 35 percent) or opt for low-sodium or no-salt-added varieties. Or, if you have the time, cook your own beans from scratch.

This tastes great on its own, but can be added to rice or pasta.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Friday Fantasies: Key West in the Movies

In late October, I wrote a post about literary trips – that is, traveling to places that have featured prominently in classic and modern literature. As I wrote then, it's hard to walk through the historic streets of New Orleans and not think about a slew of famous stories, from A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) to Interview with the Vampire (1976).

Equally fun, though, is traveling to places that have featured prominently in the movies, and though New Orleans is a popular backdrop, it's certainly not the only American city to have made an appearance on the silver screen. While traveling through the Florida Keys with Dan, I discovered that Key West has witnessed its share of film crews, too. For instance, the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum – a lovely, two-story house where the famous writer penned some of his greatest novels – was used in the film License to Kill (1989). Hint: It's where M revokes James Bond's “license to kill,” and Bond (played by Timothy Dalton) subsequently defies M by leaping over the second-floor balcony and fleeing away on his own mission.

Of course, even cooler than that was the fact that, while staying in Key West, we heard that our hotel – The Eden House – had served as the main location for a film called CrissCross (1992), starring Goldie Hawn. In fact, Michael Eden, the longtime owner of the Eden House – which is essentially a collection of breezy buildings centered around a stunning pool area – even had the chance to dine with Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell during the making of the movie, but he turned it down. (When I told Dan that story, he just about fainted – Kurt Russell, after all, has been one of his favorite actors for decades.)

Because movie-making is a big business in this country, it's probably true that most American cities have played host to a film crew at one time or another. So, what are your favorite film-related spots – in this country or otherwise?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Whimsical Wednesday: Alligators and Valentines

As you might already know, Dan and I spent the month of January in southern Florida, exploring the Everglades and the Florida Keys – in preparation for an upcoming travel guide of mine. Although we're in New Orleans at the moment, my head is still very much focused on the Sunshine State. In fact, I was just thinking about one of the last experiences we had on our trip: a Coopertown airboat ride through the East Everglades Expansion Area, a proposed addition to Everglades National Park.

Exploring the Everglades via airboat is a popular activity, especially among families – so popular, in fact, that I recently blogged about it on American Nomad. About a dozen different airboat operators offer narrated scenic tours in the Everglades; many of them are located in Everglades City or along Tamiami Trail, and all of them promise a glimpse at the native flora and fauna.

On our own 40-minute journey through the slow-moving “river of grass,” we saw yellow-bellied slider turtles, greenback herons, and various other birds amid the omnipresent water lilies, sawgrass, cattails, and hammocks (small, tree-filled islands). Naturally, Dan and I were hoping to see an alligator, and we weren't disappointed. We spotted at least four on the trip – one of which lay in all his eight-foot-long glory just inches from the shore. Remarkably calm, he even let us get close enough for a photo opportunity.

Of course, as much fun as we had on that gorgeous day, it's hard to escape the fact that airboats have been controversial for years – as evidenced by some of the comments left on my American Nomad post. Still, travel writing can't always be a smooth road – preserving the environment (and the inhabitants therein) is often at odds with enjoying it, even on an educational airboat ride. Although I believe that conservation and recreation don't have to be mutually exclusive goals, it's certainly not an easy balance – and having written my share of ecotourism articles, I well know it... which is why it's sometimes nice to focus on something a little more frivolous – like the top ten most romantic cities in America, a two-part travel post that I prepared just in time for Valentine's Day. Naturally, four of my old and current haunts – Chicago (where Dan and I met), Las Vegas (where we got married), Los Angeles (where we lived for several years), and New Orleans (where we currently spend a lot of time) – made the list, but it wasn't easy to choose only ten. In fact, I'm curious: Which U.S. city do you think is the most romantic, and what are your plans for the big day?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Monday Munchies: Food Isn't the Only Nourishment

For those of you who know that I'm from the Big Easy, it might come as no surprise that I was celebrating in the French Quarter on Sunday night, following the New Orleans Saints' historic Super Bowl win against the Indianapolis Colts. Normally, Dan and I would be in Los Angeles by now, preparing for our Beverly Hills Shorts Festival, but as soon as we knew that the Saints were going to be in the Super Bowl for the first time ever, our plans inevitably changed. After all, we were determined to be a part of this once-in-a-lifetime event – and we knew that celebrating with our fellow New Orleanians in the Quarter would be far more memorable than seeing the game in Miami.

And, man, oh, man, was it ever a memorable experience. Although we were invited to two different Super Bowl parties – one at my godfather's house in Metairie, the other at my stepbrother's place in Mid City – we opted instead to see the big game from the comfort of The Kerry Irish Pub, our favorite watering hole in the French Quarter. Of course, we were a little late to the party – traffic, as you might have guessed, was a nightmare in downtown New Orleans. But, luckily, after being in the car for over an hour and a half, and beginning to believe we were going to miss the kick-off, we finally found a parking spot at the Harrah's Casino garage on Poydras Street.

Soon afterward, we were making a beeline for the Kerry, where the owner, Doris, had laid out a spread of hot dogs, chili, salsa, chips, brownies, and the like for her regular customers as well as the out-of-towners (many of whom were dressed in team jerseys). Happily, we were just in time for the pre-game show, so we grabbed some vittles, bought a couple of beers, took our place beside the covered pool table, and waited – with a whole mess of other die-hard Saints fans – for the game to begin.

Although it didn't look so promising for the Saints during the first quarter, Dan and I remained hopeful. After all, despite widespread predictions that the Colts were going to wipe the floor with the Saints, the score wasn't all that high, and by the start of the second half, it was clear that the Saints were going to fight hard for this one. As Coach Sean Payton, Quarterback Drew Brees, and the other Saints have been saying for a while now, this Super Bowl wasn't just significant for the team – a win would mean something to the entire city of New Orleans, perhaps signifying that, despite the death and destruction that Hurricane Katrina left behind in 2005, the spirit of this unique place couldn't be broken.

As the fourth quarter progressed, the tension and excitement continued to grow inside the Kerry – and, no doubt, in bars, hotels, and homes throughout the city. Everyone – including me and Dan – were alternately jumping up and down and shaking our heads in disbelief. Moments before the Saints scored their final touchdown, Dan sent a text to his brother (who, by the way, was rooting for the Colts) that read, “watch out... pic six coming!” Even today, he's still tickled that he called the game-winning play before it happened.

Of course, when it happened, there were still a few minutes left in the game, and everyone in the Kerry knew that, with Peyton Manning on the other side, anything was possible. Our adrenaline was pumping, our eyes were glued to the television, and a few of us looked as though fainting was a high probability. But our boys did it – they managed to rattle the mighty Colts, the team that had been favored by many analysts, broadcasters, and former coaches. And you should have heard the collective cheer when the Colts missed their chance for a comeback, and the Saints were declared the winners of the 44th Super Bowl.

Naturally, the cheers didn't stop there. Once the game had ended, people poured out of bars and hotels throughout the Quarter, like streams of black-and-gold cockroaches, and all night long, car horns were honking, Mardi Gras beads were flying, and people were singing “When the Saints Go Marching In,” shouting “Who Dat!” and dancing in the streets. Dan and I have never seen the Quarter so crowded before – not even for Mardi Gras. By midnight, Royal Street was so packed that it resembled Bourbon Street on a normal weekend, and Bourbon Street itself was teeming with so many revelers that Dan and I decided to watch all the action from the relative safety of a Lucky Dog cart at the corner of Bourbon and Conti. For a long time, we stood there, watching strangers (some of whom were dressed in crazy outfits, like black tutus and a black-and-gold Boba Fett costume) hug and high-five one another. It was the only night that people actually wanted to touch a cop – I saw many people (drunk or simply elated) embrace them, too.

As on any other night, we saw a few unhappy folks – girls with tear-stained cheeks, men yelling at their girlfriends. Alcohol, unfortunately, can bring out the worst in some people. But, most of the folks we saw were delighted – stunned but thrilled that the Saints had managed to achieve the ultimate win – not just for themselves, but for a city still on the mend. The win offered a spiritual boost that will resonate for a long time. Even today, while Dan was at the grocery store, people were still shouting “Who Dat!” at one another.

I could go on and on, psychoanalyzing this incredible event, speculating on its lasting significance, and questioning Peyton Manning's choice not to shake Drew Brees's hand at the game's end (which, incidentally, seemed pretty classless to me, especially considering Peyton's personal connection to the Saints and the city of New Orleans), but better writers than I have already tackled all of the above over the past two days. So, I'll just leave you with this: Seeing that it's a “Monday Munchies” post, I could have focused on the food of Super Bowl Sunday, but sometimes, we need more than food to nourish us – sometimes, we require spiritual fulfillment, too. And that's what this win represented for me, Dan, my family, and everyone else who celebrated on Sunday night – the fulfillment of a decades-old wish and a citywide dream – something that many New Orleanians (whether former or current residents) believed would never happen in their lifetime, something that many of us craved in the wake of the storm that nearly destroyed the Crescent City.

While the Saints' Super Bowl win might not turn everything around in New Orleans, bring back every lost soul, and rebuild every devastated neighborhood, it certainly gives us hope in the face of adversity and makes us realize that anything – and I mean, anything – is possible, and that sort of nourishment lasts a lot longer than the food we ate on Sunday – no matter how much we enjoyed our post-game seafood gumbo at the Oceana Grill. Of course, if the record-breaking television viewership is any indication, New Orleanians weren't the only ones curious about this historic game – which means, no matter who you were rooting for on Sunday night, you probably sensed that this game was part of a larger story – a story that will continue to play out tomorrow at the special Saints parade downtown... and long after that.


P.S. Forgive my terribly grainy photos – my camera broke just before kick-off, so I had to rely on my cell phone, which is, well, less than reliable. Nevertheless, I persevered.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Friday Fantasies: Think Cameron Needs More Money?

It hasn't taken long for James Cameron to break his own box office record. Avatar has now beaten Titanic for the top-grossing film of all time, and I couldn't be happier. Oh, wait, I could be happier – after missing our chance to see Avatar on New Year's Day – due to unforeseen circumstances like, well, hangovers – Dan and I are finally going to see it again tonight! Yahoo!

So, I guess we'll be adding our wee share to Cameron's ever-growing mountain of money. Who said perfectionism doesn't pay? (A fact I should remember the next time I rue my obsessive-compulsive tendencies.)

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Whimsical Wednesday: Admitting Bane Could Be Right

In thanking Valerie Geary yesterday for her recent interview, I admitted to being a fellow spurner of romance. As I should have expected, my good friend Bane of Anubis called me on that statement, by leaving this succinct comment:

Anybody that read Twilight+3 in such a short span cannot call herself a spurner of romance :p

He might be a smart ass, but he's completely accurate. Although I stand by my disgust of the kind of romances that might feature Fabio on the cover – or could be easily adapted for the Hallmark television network – I have a considerable romantic side. Why else would I cry while watching Avatar or eagerly seek out romantic comedies like Catch and Release? Even my novel, Hollow Souls, centers around a lifelong love affair.

That said, it probably comes as no surprise that love features prominently on one of the other blogs that I maintain – Come In Character – where today we're even attempting a group romance. Okay, so participation has seemed low as of late – in fact, this is probably the shortest group story that CIC has ever experienced – but that won't stop me from focusing on love and all its various forms during the month of February.

So, as difficult as it might be for me to say this, I guess Bane was right. I am a sucker for romance – and hopefully, my hubby knows it.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Tuesday Travels: Thanks for the Interview!

Last week, Valerie Geary posted an interview about my background and experiences as part of her month-long focus on travel writing, and I just wanted to take a moment to thank her for inviting me to participate. I feel very honored – and I only wish that I had been more timely in expressing my gratitude.

If you haven't yet visited Valerie's blog, please do so. Every month, she focuses on a specific genre. During February, she's setting her sights on romance – a genre that she's never embraced before. But, as she wrote in her first post of the month, “I'm on the path to recovery. The whole point of this year is for me to read outside my comfort zone. Not only that, but to read with an open mind. So as I explore the genre I've been dreading most, I will try to keep the eye rolling to a minimum.”

As a fellow spurner of romance, I respect her open-mindedness and look forward to her thoughts, interviews, and reviews – just as I did during her exploration of the travel genre (one that, as you might imagine, I count among my favorites).

Monday, February 1, 2010

Monday Munchies: Highway Nostalgia for the Last Time?

Some of you might remember my Cracker Barrel rant from way back in August. To avoid a long rehashing, I'll just say that, for as long as I can recall, Cracker Barrel billboards have comforted me. Whether traveling with my mother (as a child) or with my husband (as an adult), the sight of their brown-and-yellow logo has filled me with nostalgia – for the simple board games and puzzles of my youth, for the home-cooked meals at Mom's house, for wholesome books and television shows of long ago...

But sadly, Cracker Barrel – that ever-present, old-fashioned restaurant and country store – has lost some of its luster over the years. Every time, in fact, that Dan and I have ventured into one, we've left disappointed – whether because the service was slow, the food was lukewarm, or all of the above. It had reached the point where Dan simply refused to stop there ever again – no matter how much I, with my misguided sense of nostalgia and loyalty, tried to convince him otherwise.

So, we were at a standstill – Dan, unwilling to fork over another dime to this disillusioning establishment, and I, unable to let go of the illusion – that is, until I took the sagacious advice of one Stephanie Faris and shared my displeasure with CB's corporate headquarters. Of course, I never thought I would receive a response – after all, how many times have we complained about the practices of a corporation, only to be ignored? But, as reported in my September follow-up to the initial rant, I did indeed get a response – in the form of a heartfelt apology and a “gold card,” entitling me to a complimentary meal for two, at the Cracker Barrel of my choosing.

On that day in late September, I asked my online pals if I should swallow my pride and take Cracker Barrel up on its generous offer (and/or marketing ploy) – or if I should simply toss the card at my earliest opportunity. Well, several of you answered – Bridget, Martha, Roni, Becky, and Deb encouraged me to take advantage of the free food and excellent service that the card promised; Steph suggested that I just keep the card as a reminder of the lesson learned; and Susan thought it would be best to use the card, then never return. Well, today, while en route from the Florida Keys to New Orleans, Dan and I decided to give CB one more try. Yes, without my even pointing it out, Dan pulled into the parking lot of a rain-drenched Cracker Barrel in Brooksville, Florida, and smiled that naughty little smile of his. At that moment, the hunger pangs were so fierce that I was actually excited about our potentially ill-fated return to the CB fold, so after fumbling for the little “gold card,” which I had long ago stowed in my travel bag, we left the kitty in the van and headed inside for a short respite.

After strolling between the rocking chairs on the porch and passing through the ubiquitous inner country store – filled with an impressive selection of candy, candles, cookbooks, chimes, apparel, toys, dolls, games, and music, not to mention the paraphernalia of yesteryear (from washboards to rolling pins to watering cans) hanging from the ceiling – we were quickly seated beside a front window. Soon, a pleasant, middle-aged waitress named Carol arrived to take our drink order – hot Darjeeling tea for me, Diet Coke for Dan. Once she'd returned with the beverages, we were ready (if nervous) to order.

While waiting for our food, I took in our surroundings – from the bluegrass band playing on the speakers to the vintage d├ęcor on the latticed walls (including tennis rackets, fishing poles, old games such as pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, and signs like “Headquarters for Keen Kutter quality pocket knives,” which reminded me of my stepbrother, Kit Keen, who, oddly enough, used to work in a Cracker Barrel). Dan, meanwhile, played with the peg game that was sitting on the tabletop. Of course, it didn't take him long to get frustrated with his inability to get rid of all the pegs but one (the object of the game) – although, to be fair, he's still suffering from the cold that I gave him three weeks ago.

By the time our food arrived, we had almost forgotten about the little “gold card,” which I had yet to show to our waitress. Dan immediately started delving into his sampler plate – containing chicken and dumplins, meatloaf, country-style ham, and his three chosen sides, corn, mashed potatoes, and fried apples – while I dug into my roast beef. It didn't take long, however, for us to remember why we had come – to give Cracker Barrel another honest-to-goodness chance – but while the service was surprisingly speedy and the food was still tasty, I admit that the meal was still less than satisfactory. Although my roast beef was warm and tender, the fried okra was delicious, and we both enjoyed the shared biscuits and corn muffins, Dan's food wasn't quite as hot as he's come to expect elsewhere. The fried apples were so cold, in fact, that he opted not to touch them at all.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the meal more than Dan did, but still, he admitted that it wasn't as bad as he'd expected it would be. Not a ringing endorsement, but better than it could have been. Perhaps I should've shown our waitress the “gold card” from the start, but I'm not typically a fan of special treatment – and frankly, I wanted to give our visit an honest try. I'm not sure what this says about the future of our Cracker Barrel encounters – it's likely that we'll never go again – but that won't stop me from feeling a little surge of nostalgia every time we pass by one of the ubiquitous billboards. In fact, we just passed another one in Alabama, and despite my mediocre meal earlier today, I still felt a moment of happiness. Is something wrong with me, or am I just a sucker for the joys of childhood?