Monday, March 29, 2010

Billy's Got a Way

As I've revealed in an earlier post, my favorite song of all time is Billy Joel's "She's Got a Way."  I think that it's simple, lovely purity is tremendous. From the very moment I first heard Billy perform it on Saturday Night Live, when I was sitting in my freshman dorm room at Syracuse University, it's been my absolute favorite.

Although I am an enormous fan of  Frank Sinatra and the big bands of the 40's, I confess I am a sucker for all "man behind the piano" tunes from any era.  A guy can be a geeky, nerdy mess, but the moment he sits at a baby grand and plays a sentimental ballad, I am immediately "swooned." When Billy Joel performs, my knees become weak.  I completely understand why gorgeous models have pursued him.

Truth be told, I think Billy's greatest talent lies not in his amazing piano playing or musical abilities, but rather in his lyric writing.  He can describe a situation or a person in just a few words, and make you understand exactly the emotion he is feeling in one simple verse.  Consider this lyric from Piano Man: "Paul is a real estate novelist, who never had time for a wife."  In just thirteen words, you now know EVERYTHING about Paul, don't you?  I think it's just brilliant.

So, it is with great admiration that I present to you my favorite song of all time.  I can't imagine being the girl for which he wrote this, nor what she must have felt the first time he played it for her.  I love it because he never wrote a huge instrumental accompaniment for it, just him and the piano.  It clearly doesn't need anything more.

I hope you enjoy it.  Happy Monday!!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Love, Honor, and Cherish

I love the fact that Alan and I are both "early arrivers" when it comes to airports and flying.  We're incredibly diligent about leaving extra time for long lines at check-in and security, "just in case." It's come in handy more than once, and I can honestly say we've never had to run to our gate to catch a flight, because we've always alloted for the extra time.

But, when things are running smoothly at the airport, we have a lot of extra waiting time.  Such was the case early last Saturday morning when we sat in the Las Vegas Airport, an hour ahead of schedule, waiting for our flight home.  We both tried to busy ourselves with our ipods and reading material.  But soon, the best entertainment walked up and sat down in the two seats across from us.  The hour flew by.

They were an older couple, probably in their mid sixties.  He sported a full head of white hair with matching goatee and carried a metal cane with jingling charms hanging from the handle (I couldn't see exactly what shape they resembled,  but I assumed they were for luck on his Vegas trip!).  He wore a black, untucked Harley Davidson t-shirt over a pair of wrinkled black pants.

Her strawberry-blonde dyed hair was clipped in a short pixie style.  Behind her thick, large glasses her make-up was expertly applied.  Her crisp, white, button-down blouse was neatly tucked into her elastic-waist jeans, and over it she wore a light denim jacket spotted with cute, multi-colored embroidered flowers.  Her jewelry included dangly, sparkly earrings and two gold chain necklaces.

But the couple's appearance was not what drew my attention.  There was something else that I noticed that made it impossible for me to look away:  She never stopped MOVING!!  EVER!! As soon as she sat down, she immediately popped back up, kneeling in front of her suitcase, opening zippers, rummaging around for her compact, then zipping back up again.

Then it was her large purse.  She zipped open a compartment, pulled out a roll of mints, popped one in her mouth, offered one to her husband (he declined), then replaced them back into her purse.  Then, back to the suitcase and "ZIP," another compartment produced two boarding passes.  She handed one to her husband and tucked the other in the outside pocket of her purse.

She left to get a drink after asking her companion if he wanted anything (he did not), returned, then proceeded to pour the contents of her paper cup into that of her own plastic sip container (obtained from her suitcase) that read "Grandma" in big letters on it's side.  She "ZIPPED" again and produced her cell phone, called her daughter and informed her of their estimated arrival time, then "ZIPPED" once more to return the phone and retrieve another mint.  Just watching her, I became completely exhausted!!

As all of this drink-transferring, mint-popping, and boarding-pass-producing was executed, there sat her husband, completely still.  In fact, he had only one gear -- PARK. While his wife zipped and fussed, this man sat with his cane in his lap, his arm lazily draped over the back of her chair, eyes closed.  When his wife would pause for a few brief seconds, he'd reach over and pat her back or squeeze her shoulder, all with his eyes still closed.  She'd lean in for a second, then pop back up again to attend to more zippering business.

Neither one was annoying the other, mind you.  In fact, they seemed perfectly content in each other's company.  They had clearly just spent an enjoyable vacation together and were now about to begin their journey home.  Together.  Despite their obvious differences, they appeared to be a perfect couple.  I couldn't stop looking at them.

I'm always so fascinated when I see an older pair like these two, because I so look forward to growing old with Alan.  He's a wonderful companion and I enjoy his company over anyone else's.  I've always said that I can't wait until we're both retired someday, rocking on the front porch, traveling together, and taking care of one another.  When I got my cancer diagnosis, one of the first things that popped into my head was that I might not get to enjoy those "golden years" with Alan. I was so relieved and thrilled when I learned that, in fact, I probably CAN.

But as I sat staring at my new friends at that airport gate, it occurred to me that those years are really already here.  Like that flighty woman with her crazy zippers, Alan takes care of me, too.

When I fall asleep on the plane and the flight attendant comes by with her drink cart, he gently puts down my tray table, picks out the exact crackers he knows I like from her basket and orders me a Diet Coke. He does this because he knows how much I need the sleep, but really hate to miss flight snack time! He never, ever complains when I (always!) over-pack, and instead insists on helping me remove my GINORMOUS suitcase off the baggage claim belt and onto the parking garage bus.

He makes coffee for me every morning, and on especially cold days he warms the cup beforehand with hot water, so the coffee won't cool too quickly once it hits the mug.  He takes our cockatiel, Vegas, out of her cage when she is squawking for him.  Then he gently places her on his shoulder while he works in his office.  He doesn't particularly love Vegas, but he knows that I do.   And he loves me, so onto his shoulder she goes.

He rearranges his busy work schedule so that he can attend every CT scan, PET scan, and oncologist appointment with me.  He brings a notepad with him to record everything the doctors say and asks important questions of which I never would've thought.

I've decided that the "growing old together" commences right on your wedding day. All of your life experiences together; your vacations, illnesses, and proxy Diet Coke-ordering begin the second after you say, "I do."   It's up to us to decide how we're going to rise to the occasion.  I love how completely Alan takes care of me, and I'm so honored to get to be the one to do the same for him.

As I sat pondering all of this in the Las Vegas airport that morning, I leaned over and rested my head on Alan's shoulder while he read his book.  Without looking up, his hand instinctively reached-up and began stroking my hair as he planted a kiss on the top of my head.  I glanced over at that sweet couple in front of me.   If that old, sloppy, white-goateed man had opened his eyes just once, I would've caught his attention and whispered to him, "Aren't we lucky?"

How about you?  How do you take care of your spouse/companion?  What sweet thing do they do for you?  I'd really love to know...

Thanks for Reading!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Sometimes I Feel Like a Sad Song

Hey Everybody,

Just wanted to pop in and let you know we made it back from our Vegas vacation safe and sound. Our wallets are a little lighter and we're suffering from an intense case of jet lag, but we had a fun time.

To those of you who left such lovely, thoughtful comments on my posts while I was gone,  thank you from the bottom of my heart.  I checked in several times a day from my IPhone, and I can't tell you how much your kind words mean to me!  Thanks!

I'm fighting a little bit of the "Post Vacation Blues" at the moment.  Alan had to rush right back out of town on business very shortly after we arrived home, so I'm sitting here with an intense case of The Blahs.  I don't seem to be feeling especially inspired to write anything very worthwhile, so I've decided to stop fighting it and just put down my writing quill for a few days.   I promise not to be gone long.

I found this old John Denver song that I like to pull out every once in a while when I'm stuck in a particular funk like this.  I decided to share it, in case you may be feeling the same way!  Hope you like it...

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Forgiveness Divine

Originally written on September 30, 2009:
So far, I've done a lot of writing about my former home state of Florida and of my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. So, I thought today I'd address my newly adopted state of Pennsylvania. The Keystone State sits in a truly beautiful part of the country and has a lot to brag about. Besides being the birthplace of my beloved Grandma Simmons, it's rich history spans from the American Revolution in Valley Forge, through the Civil War battles of Gettysburg, to the current Super Bowl Champs of Pittsburgh and World Series Champs of Philadelphia.

Perhaps one of Pennsylvania's most popular tourist attractions, however, lies just thirty minutes from our home here in York. People come from all over the country to converge on the little county of Lancaster, to see the Amish. Lancaster was one of the first places Alan and I visited when we were thinking of moving up here. It's just beautiful country, with rolling hills and winding roads. Everywhere you look, you'll see horse-drawn carriages pulling straw-hatted, suspender-wearing men with long beards. As you drive along Route 30, you pass farm after farm of these men sitting behind huge plows being pulled by a team of horses. Just outside their wrap-around porched homes stand clotheslines displaying black pants, blue shirts, simple hand-sewn dresses and white bonnets.

There are painted signs in their yards reading "Fresh Asparagus," "Home made Root Beer," or "Corn for Sale." The tiny shops along the road display handcrafted quilts and plaques with bible verses etched into them, reading, "Be still and know that I am God," and "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." I've been to Lancaster several times since we've moved here, and the more I go there, the more amazed I am that this little town is so popular. Although most cities across America are having a tough time trying to survive in today's economy, this is not the case in Lancaster. Even the non-Amish sector is thriving. The Best Westerns and Holiday Inns that boast "Just minutes from Amish Country!" are booked solid. The Amish museum and the local venders on the outskirts of the farmland are all showing profits.

Why the huge attraction, do you think? When it comes down to it, we're spending our tourist dollars to visit a tiny town and watch people in simple clothing, with simple means of transportation and farm equipment, do without. Why are we so fascinated by this? When Alan's parents visited recently, they brought along Alan's Aunt Sherry and Uncle Paul. Uncle Paul runs his own (modern) farm in Boaz, Alabama, so naturally, the first place he wanted to go was Amish Country. We all piled into the car and drove the thirty minutes to the "Simple Life." Uncle Paul watched the straw-hatted man behind the horse-drawn plow for a few seconds, then said, "You have to respect a people who shed off all the distractions of modern day and just simplify everything. But I gotta tell you, I LOVE my tractor!!"

I think that's pretty much the gist of Amish Country. It puts on display for us a whole community of people that are "doing without," "stripping away distractions," and focusing on God and family. We say, "Wow, that's awesome!" then happily climb into our gas-guzzling SUV's and hurry home to our dishwashers and Ipods and declare, "I could never live like that!" Then something happened that brought to the forefront not only the Amish way of life, but also the Amish heart, soul and immense faith.

This Friday, October 2nd, will mark the three year anniversary of the day that a thirty-two year old gunman, Charles Carl Roberts IV, burst through the doors of West Nickel Mines School in Lancaster County. Roberts took female hostages ranging in age from six to thirteen, bound their hands and feet, and eventually shot and killed five of them execution-style before turning the gun on himself. Five other shooting victims survived, although one does not have full vision in her left eye. The youngest victim, six at the time of the shooting , suffered severe brain damage and is confined to a wheelchair. Family members say she frequently smiles.

Like any school shooting, Nickel Mines School attracted intense media attention and the Amish community was immediately swarming with news vans and dramatic journalists wanting to scoop each other. None of them were prepared for what happened next.

That was when the Amish community shocked the entire world with three simple words: "We forgive him." They didn't just say the words, either, they put them into action. A Roberts family spokesperson said an Amish neighbor visited the stunned relatives just hours after the shooting and offered forgiveness. One Amish man held Roberts' sobbing father in his arms, reportedly for an hour, comforting him. They also set up a charitable fund for the shooter's family.

I'll never forget watching the coverage of that tragedy, sitting in my living room in Orlando. I remember particularly watching Matt Lauer on the Today Show doing an extended piece about the amazing "forgiveness" that occurred. Since the Amish don't do interviews, Matt had as his guests several different religious scholars. One was a rabbi, another a religion professor, the third a Christian pastor. Matt began with an exasperated shrug, and with palms up, arms out, beseeched his panel, "How are they able to forgive?" Matt told them he had children of his own, and that if that man had done this to any of THEM, he'd be wanting severe vengeance.

I'll always remember the pastor's response: "Jesus commands us to forgive, no matter what. In this case, it's very, very hard. It takes PRACTICE. This level of forgiveness requires practice. The Amish PRACTICE forgiveness very diligently." That struck such a chord with me. The Amish, despite their long beards, straw hats and while bonnets, are human, just like me. They get angry over injustice and grieve the loss of their loved ones, just like me. But they PRACTICE being what they know God wants them to be. How many times have I lost my temper and just shrugged it off, saying, "Hey, I'm Irish! We have short fuses!" It's just so easy to justify our bad behavior with excuses we claim are beyond our control. The Amish show us what frauds we all are.

And don't tell me they didn't feel intense anger and grief over the way their sweet girls were brutally taken from them. Google the press releases from that day and take a look at the grieving faces of that community. They had that entire school house completely demolished a week after the incident, they couldn't stand to have the slightest reminder of what occurred there.

There were also many "experts" who criticized the Amish for their forgiveness. They cited that to forgive when no remorse has been expressed denies the existence of evil. My response to them would be this: Apparently, at the scene of the crime that day, police reported there wasn't a chair, desk, or floorboard that wasn't splattered with the blood of those children. I don't believe anyone who saw that room that day has any doubt about the reality of evil.

So, today, in honor of the anniversary of that horrible day in my newly-adopted state, I'm re-affirming the pledge I made after watching that Matt Lauer interview in 2006. I'm going to practice being better. I'm going to practice being less selfish and more caring. I'm going to loosen my grip a little on the "hating of my enemies" I've been enjoying so much. It's going to take work, I know. But, the truth is, the Amish have called my bluff. They look at me with five little child-sized white bonnets in their hands and say, "It can be done."

Thanks for reading!!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Katerina and Me...

Russians Sergei Grinkov, 28, and Katerina Gordeeva, 24, were an unbeatable Olympic pairs skating team in the 80’s and 90’s. They eventually fell in love, married, and had a baby girl, Daria. Daria was only 3 years old when Sergei, in the middle of a routine skating practice, suffered a severe heart attack and died instantly. In an interview shortly after this horrible tragedy, Katerina said she should have known that something bad was going to happen. She said life had been too perfect and happy for it to have ever lasted.

I don’t pretend that my story is in any way comparable to what Katerina endured, but the image of that tearful interview over a decade ago came racing back to me at the end of the day on March 19th, The Worst Day Ever.

Like Katerina, my life is really perfect. I’m married to a man whom I love more intensely with every passing day. We own pets that induce nothing but joyous contentment. Although my job won’t win me any Tony Awards, it’s perfectly suited for my “repetition-is-comfort” and “set-schedule” personality, allowing me to work with talented, funny people I truly enjoy. Long before March 19th, Alan and I would frequently gaze at each other over a couple of beers being enjoyed on our pool deck and agree, “We’re so blessed.”

The day started a bit off my regular schedule. I was training two new girls in my role that evening, so I didn’t have to be at work until after noon. I still woke up early and got my run out of the way so I could enjoy a few hours reading my book and relaxing before I had to leave.

Alan’s boss called while I was on the couch with Trixie and my book. They spoke only a few minutes before his boss got called away and told Alan he’d call right back. Alan hung up and joked, “Well, I guess I’m not getting fired today!” However, when the phone rang again, Alan took the phone in his office and closed the door. I wasn’t paying attention until I distinctly heard Alan saying something about “turning in his laptop.” My blood went cold. No way. There’s no way. I got up and poked my head in, and when Alan saw me he tipped the receiver away from his mouth and casually said, “I’m being let go – it’s OK though. Really. Don’t worry – it’s OK.” It must be exhausting to have to be that brave all the time. I knew he was being cheery for my sake, I knew this had to hurt deeply. My reaction was anger. What IDIOTS! Alan is brilliant. Inconceivable.

I drove to work in silence. The radio seemed too invasive, too loud. I spent the fifty-minute drive trying to prepare myself for change. I wasn’t worried about Alan getting another job, I knew he was a stud and would be snatched-up immediately. But we both knew that at his level, area manager, it would probably require relocating. I prayed out-loud as I drove, reminding God how much I feared change and how much Alan and I loved our life in Florida. I asked for His guidance and help in dealing with where He was leading us.

I told a few people at work about our situation, but soon I was doing shows and focusing on training, pushing it all to the back of my mind. After several shows, I checked my phone and listened to two frantic messages from Alan. Call Dr. Dobradin. The surgeon? I was going to see him in a few days – why call? But I called. He’s with a patient, can he call me right back? Why couldn’t the nurse just tell me what’s going on? It didn’t sound very encouraging. But, I had the next show to do, I’d have to call back after that.

I tried to focus during the show, but I felt like a zombie. When I got offstage, I sprinted back upstairs to the Kimberley “booth” to call the doc again. He was on the other line. Crap! Would I like to hold? Yes. Sigh. The booth that Kimberley (my stage character) sits in backstage is literally the size of a small closet. There’s one bare bulb that weakly illuminates the black walls and one chair. At best, it would be described as “bleak.” I’ve never really minded it before, but as I sat there, on hold, staring ant those depressing black walls, they appeared to be closing in on me.

Just then my friend, our head tech Richie walked by. Boy, was I glad to see him. His happy expression dropped when he looked at me. I blurted out something incoherent like, “Surgeon…called...I’m on hold.” Somehow he understood and quickly stepped into that tiny booth and grabbed my hand. Dr. Dobradin’s words, spoken in his thick Polish accent, were, “Well, the third time’s a charm. We finally figured out what’s wrong with you. The lab work came back positive for lymphoma.” Did I mention Doc Dobradin has the worst bedside manner of anyone in the entire medical profession? He said more, something about how I’d be seeing him again to get something called a “port” surgically inserted for my chemotherapy (!!!), but I had stopped listening by then.

Richie hugged me then went searching for Kleenex as I dialed Alan. I think his response to my news was, “You’re kidding.” It seemed too unbelievable. Then he told me to come home. But I had training! It never occurred to me that my boss would probably excuse me. Once again, in the T2 office, I explained the situation in fragmented sentences and told them I had to go. They couldn’t have been nicer. Ironically, my fellow cast members later told me that when they saw me abruptly and tearfully leaving, they thought it was because I was still upset about Alan’s bad news.

Alan met me at the door when I arrived home. He was so strong and calm. As we held onto each other, he gently said, “When this is all over, we’re going to write a book together about today. We’re going to call it, “Worst Day Ever.”

Katerina Gordeeva went on to perform solo in the “Stars on Ice” tours and eventually married and had a baby girl with another fellow skater. She landed several endorsement deals, launched her own fragrance line, and published two books, one of them in memory of her late husband. She says her greatest joy is the time she spends in her kitchen cooking with her two daughters. I don’t know her personally, but I bet if you were to ask her, she’d tell you that her life is pretty perfect, despite all that happened.

The single thought on my mind as I drove home to Alan that day was that my blessings had officially run out. I had somehow drained my lifetime’s allotment of happiness in a mere 43 years – now it would be all about hardship and disease. But in truth, Worst Day Ever has only served as a giant magnifier for the abundance of blessings still being bestowed. In the days that followed, Alan got an offer for an awesome job right here in Orlando in which he continues to thrive. After more tests and scans, we learned my lymphoma is low-grade, I’m not going to die and I am probably not even going to lose my hair when and if chemo is required. Sure, I still have some “poor me” days, but they always seem to get upstaged by the unavoidable positives; my creative and hilarious husband who diligently keeps up this amazing blog, my friends and family who’s collective prayer power could crumble walls, and a loving Almighty Father who is in complete control. Now if I could just win big on the penny slots…

So, sorry Worst Day Ever, you have no power here…..

Thursday, March 18, 2010


I've worked with some really awesome people over the years, in a lot of different places. I've worked in convenience stores, gift shops, architectural firms, doctors' offices, and, of course, theme parks. My former co-workers have shown incredible patience with me, even though I have subjected all of them to an exercise I call "Bonding Questions." You've probably all worked with somebody like me who will demand the room's undivided attention and then ask, "If you could have dinner with only ONE person from all of time, whom would it be?" Or, "What was your best day EVER?" What usually follows is a bunch of eye-rolling and exasperated groans. But then, slowly as we go around the room, these wonderfully intricate, heartfelt stories begin to emerge. I LOVE it!!

We had a lot of down-time during my last gig at Terminator 2/3D at Universal Studios. Imagine a tiny, dark, backstage space filled with actors, stunt people, and technicians. Our ages ranged from eighteen to fifty. Enter Joan and her dreaded "Questions of Bonding!!!" One of my favorite inquiries is, "What is your favorite Christmas gift EVER that you received?" My boss told the hilarious story about his single mom, who was very weary of buying non-appreciated gifts for her many children. So, one year she wrapped up a giant box of CASH (all singles!), much to the delight of him and his siblings!! One girl talked about the Christmas she turned thirteen and received her first make-up kit, then proceeded to spend the rest of day applying blue eyeshadow to herself, her brothers, and the cat. 

Another guy mentioned the year both his parents were unemployed. They sat him and his two sisters down in early December and told them that Santa was going to have to make some cut-backs, so they'd be receiving only one present each that year. We all watched as this big, grown man fondly described in detail the one present he and sisters received, and how each gift was so perfect and so lovingly thought-out by his parents, they didn't want another.

My favorite gift was Tubsy. Tubsy was a happy plastic doll made by Ideal Toys. She came with a tub, towel, and plastic magnetized bear that, when held near her belly, would make her arms move and splash the water. Tubsy splashed. That was about it. It was in early August when I first learned of Tubsy's existence. Her ad appeared during a Bugs Bunny cartoon commercial break. I was completely entranced with her (the doll SPLASHED, for cripes sake!!) and talked about her in great length right up until December 24th. I know this, because there is a story my Dad tells every Christmas season. 

Apparently, as he was tucking me into bed Christmas Eve night, I sat up, grabbed his arm and gasped, "Dad, I REALLY hope Santa brings me Tubsy!!" Now, you must understand that my Dad's role in the Christmas shopping duties was to work three extra jobs to help pay for toys for five children. My mom did the actual shopping. So, legend has it that Dad left my room, descended the stairs two at a time and said to his exhausted, beautiful wife, "Tell me we got that child Tubsy!" Mom laughed and assured my father that she had, indeed, acquired the doll sometime in early September when my daily Tubsy rantings became more than she could bear. Of course, Christmas morning was glorious as I opened my precious treasure. I played with Tubsy for many years, long after her battery-powered splasher subsided and, after an unfortunate "dropping incident," her right leg no longer remained attached.

But the reason Tubsy was my favorite gift isn't because she was such an awesome doll (did I mention she actually SPLASHED?). It's because every single year my Dad tells that Christmas Eve story. I mentioned earlier that I am one of five, closely-aged children. Dad missed out on a lot of our childhood because he was working his ass off to help pay for ballet lessons and softball uniforms. His memories of us as kids, understandably, blend and blur quite a bit. But for some reason, he remembers every detail of that night at my bedside. All these years later, usually Christmas Eve night after our traditional peel-and-eat shrimp feast (his favorite), Dad will begin, "I remember that ONE year..." I lean back and smile broadly as his words cover me like a warm, soft blanket. My favorite part is how he always ends it: "When Mom told me that she already had Tubsy, I breathed a HUGE sigh of relief! I could just picture myself going out in the snow on Christmas Eve night to every toy store in Cleveland, trying to find that damn doll for Joan!"

I still have Tubsy. She sits in a prominent place on a shelf in my guest room, her broken leg semi-attached in the appropriate hole. When I pass by, I always stop and plant a kiss on her happy little face and say, "Thanks, Tubs." She knows why...

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Three Wise Men and Monty

My husband is quite a seasoned traveler. He's been everywhere! For a few years, he held the title of International Franchise Consultant for Bennigan's Restaurants. In that position, he opened several franchises in Great Britain, Korea, Panama, Dubai and the Philippines. He's also been all over Europe, Prague, Russia and the Czech Republic. When visiting a foreign country, Alan's favorite thing to do is to skip the typical tourist attractions and find the local hang outs. He feels this is the best way to get to know the true flavor of the country and it's people. In Korea, for example, this required eating in a tiny, no frills restaurant where a small woman walked by holding a half-dead octopus and a pair of scissors. She'd snip you off a wiggly, suction-cuppy tentacle on your plate, then proceed to the next table. He swears he loves this!!

So it was five years ago, in preparation for my upcoming fortieth birthday, that Alan suggested we take a celebratory trip. He told me to pick anywhere I'd like, he'd make it happen (did I mention I really love this man?). I quickly formed a short list in my head: An Alaskan cruise, a beach resort in the Caribbean, a trip to Ireland, the possibilities were endless! I began to recite my mental list to Alan, "Well, we could go to Ireland, or..." That's as far as I got. Alan jumped-up from the couch excitedly, shouted, "Ireland!" then ran into his office and called Air Lingus. "Or, a cruise..." I shouted after him. It was too late, Alan had Ireland on the brain. I confess, I wasn't complaining.

With all his travel experience, Alan is fantastic at planning trips. I told him I trusted his judgement completely and to just surprise me with the itinerary. He knows I'm not much of a city girl, so Alan decided to skip the Dublin/urban scene and focus instead on the southern countryside towns of Killarney, Dingle, Doolin, Adare, and Tralee, among others. The highlight was to be on the eve of my birthday when he had booked us a room at Ballyseede Castle near Tralee. He told me he wanted me to wake up on my fortieth birthday feeling like royalty. (Seriously, ladies, how in the WORLD did I get so lucky?)

So, we arrived without incident at the Shannon Airport and picked-up our rental car. The drive to our first hotel was a short one, but brilliantly scenic. How can I put this into words? You know how, when you see a postcard or a calendar of "The Beaches of Florida" and they have these beautiful, sandy paradises with setting suns reflecting off calm, glassy waters? You know it's just beautiful and breathtaking, but you also know that just two miles away sits a horrific strip mall with nineteen tacky souvenir shops, all selling the same "Who Farted?" t-shirts and coffee mugs. That beautiful ocean scenery is surrounded by a whole bunch of ugly.

Not so in Ireland. We were just a few feet from the rental car place when we turned the corner and audibly gasped at the scene that greeted us: Rolling green hills, greener than anything I'd ever seen, divided by miles and miles of gray stone walls. We spotted white, long-haired sheep grazing next to cozy, thatched-roof homes. The remains of gorgeous stone castles were everywhere. I took out my camera and started snapping pictures like the paparazzi competing to catch the latest Britney Spears meltdown. "How lucky we are to have captured this beautiful scene," I thought. Then we rounded another bend, and the view was even more awe-inspiring than the previous one. Same went for the next bend, and the next and the next. I put my camera down. I wasn't "capturing" anything. This was actually what Ireland looked like EVERYWHERE! You know that calendar that has twelve months of Irish countryside, castles, cathedrals, and sheep? That's the REAL Ireland! Even Alan, the seasoned traveler, looked around and admitted, "This is the most beautiful place I have ever been!"

We had a fantastic time! Alan planned everything perfectly. We hiked the green hills and gazed at tiny little lambs that were only minutes old, drank Guinness and Harp and listened to hours and hours of jigs and reels played expertly on fiddles, accordions, harps, and flute whistles. It was truly magical.

Then came the eve of my highly-anticipated birthday. We arrived at Ballyseede Castle in the late afternoon and discovered that it was filled with suits of armor and giant crests on the wall. It was everything we had hoped it would be! When we checked-in, a friendly woman handed us our room key and informed us that dinner was served in the dining hall between six and eight o'clock every evening. We made our way up to our room "fit for a king," noticing that there didn't appear to be a whole lot of other guests in the hallways or lobby. In fact, there weren't any at all. No matter, we found our room and, after a brief rest, got ready for my Birthday Castle Celebratory Dinner. We even got dressed-up for the occasion!

We descended the stairs at about seven-ish and found the door marked "Dining Hall" locked. Hmm. There must be another entrance. The door next to it was marked, "Pub." We opened it to a scene that was warm and cozy. We later learned that this room had once been the library/study, but now was serving as a small, intimate bar. We approached the bartender, a middle aged woman with short hair and a kind face. We asked her, "Where's the Dining Hall?" Her warm face dropped as she said, "Oh, dear!"

Apparently, we WERE the only tenants staying at the castle that night, and when the clock hit seven the cook got tired of waiting and just closed-up shop! The bartender, her name was Bernadette, was mortified and apologized profusely. But, this was to be my birthday dinner! We talked about driving into town and eating there, but it was a long ways, and besides, we really wanted to enjoy our one night of royalty! Bernadette graciously offered to heat-up some of their famous mushroom barley soup served with classic Irish brown bread, we reluctantly accepted. I tried to hide my disappointment.

We took our seats at the bar and got our first good look around. The walls sported a bright, wooden paneling that was polished to a brilliant shine. The warm, glowing fireplace was framed with a beautiful hand-carved wooden design, rivaled only by the same handiwork displayed on the large, wooden bar.

At that moment, we also realized we were not alone. At the far end of the L-shaped counter sat three older men, the youngest appearing to be in his late sixties. One sported a navy-blue blazer with a crest on the pocket, the other two wore classic brown wool cable sweaters. All three adorned tweed caps covering tufts of white, curly hair. Two seats down sat a middle-aged man with a hard, pock-marked face and a thick mustache. They stared blankly at us. Clearly, these were local folk and clearly, we had just crashed their weekly private gathering at this peaceful spot. They nodded politely and smiled, we did the same.

Bernadette returned with our soup and bread. Perhaps it was the warm, Celtic atmosphere, but Alan and I took one spoonful of that ambrosia and moaned with pleasure -- it was FANTASTIC! I wonder what dinner would've been like! Sweet Bernadette tried to involve us in the conversation and introduced us to our fellow bar mates. Monty was the name of the mustached chap, she said, and then pointed to the older customers and added, "I just call these gents The Three Wise Men!"

One of The Three Wise Men's brogue was very thick, so Bernadette had to do a lot of interpreting, but apparently the castle was once owned by his very own ancestors. They owned it, that is, until the British took over and kicked his family out! He seemed resigned to it, though, and said he just liked to come back and visit once a week!

As the Guiness flowed, the tension in the room began to melt away. They asked where we were from, we told them we were visiting from Orlando, Florida to celebrate my fortieth birthday. "Your birthday? When's your birthday?" they asked. "In about three hours!" I replied. They raised their pints and drank a toast to my forty years. Then they began asking about our country's politics. This was 2004, and they wanted to know how we planned to vote in the upcoming presidential election. I was floored by how much they knew about our American candidates and their platforms. They proceeded to tell us where JFK's ancestors originated in Ireland, along with several other past U.S. presidents. "You really ARE the Three Wise Men!" I exclaimed! The trio collectively blushed, then beamed with pride!

The hours melted away. At some point, Monty's wife called the bar and wanted to know where he was. He told her we were all having a "grand" time at the pub and she needed to come and join us. She did! We told them all we thought their country was the most beautiful place we had ever been. They waived-away our compliment and told us with sad faces that Ireland was changing. They grieved that it was slowly becoming too commercial and too civilized over the last few years. "The worst thing to happen to Ireland ," Monty proclaimed, "is the Breathalyzer! Used to be a man and his mates could finish off twelve pints and drive thirty miles to Dingle and drink some more. The only worry was remembering where in the hell you parked your car come morning!"

Alan and I eventually grew very tired and reluctantly announced we needed to call it a night and head up to our room. We thanked our bar mates for a lovely, unforgettable evening and headed for the door. Just then, Monty looked at his watch and shouted, "Wait! It's after midnight!" With that, Monty, his wife, Bernadette, and all Three Wise men threw their arms over each other's shoulders and sang "Happy Birthday" in the prettiest, sweetest Irish brogue I've ever heard!

Since returning home, Alan and I have become Irish pub junkies. We can't get enough of cozy, Celtic-themed bars with Guinness on tap and live Irish music. It's not the same as actually being in Ireland, but it helps stir up our memories of that tremendous trip. It's been five years now, and Alan intermittently brings up the idea of returning to that magical Emerald Isle. I must confess, I hesitate to go. I'm worried we've been spoiled. It couldn't possibly be that amazing the second time around. No return trip would ever provide an evening as exceptional as that night I spent in a castle, being serenaded by The Three Wise Men and Monty!

Thanks for reading!!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Grandma Simmons

There is a story that I need to tell. It involves a topic that is so sacred to me, I don't want to write about it until my skill improves. I want to do it justice because to tell it improperly would be unforgivable. I placed it on a "Future Topics" list on my notepad and hoped to get around to it when I became more polished. 

Here's the problem: It won't leave me alone. I sit and try to focus on "My Garden," "My Love of the Cleveland Browns," and "Ghost Tours," but The Topic keeps butting in. It jumps up and down in my brain while I'm trying to sleep and shouts, "WRITE ME!" So I'm going to write that story today, even though I'm not ready. I'm also sleep deprived, haven't brushed my teeth yet, and am in great need of a shower. But The Topic is persistent and will not rest until this is done. So here goes...

I think just about everyone can name an endearing family member who had a profound effect on their childhood. My husband talks at great length about his Paw Paw who bought him his first tricycle and "popped" his toes. My friend has a great aunt who took her to her first live theater productions, inspiring her to pursue a life on the stage.

My siblings and I had Grandma Simmons. Grandma was our 4'10" maternal grandmother who lived with my grandfather in a tiny, post-war bungalow in Bedford, OH. Her daily uniform consisted of a cotton shift "housedress" and slippers. She wore her hair in a cute, short, straight bob. She always smelled of Sweetheart soap and Balm Barr hand lotion, except on special occasions when she'd spray on a little Emeraude cologne. She had this great, deep, silent laugh. Her shoulders would just bob up and down, you'd hear a quiet wheeze, and then her eyes would water. We LOVED setting off that laugh! My mother was an only child, so the five of us kids were her only grandchildren. This made us the luckiest children on the face of the earth.

As I've mentioned, ad nauseum, the Donnelly children were frequently referred to as a "group." My dad was one of five children, his mom one of thirteen (catholics!!), so there was never a shortage of aunts, uncles, cousins, and confusion over who was who. I've talked about my great desire to break out from the pack and be considered individual and special. Enter Grandma Simmons. To this day, I don't know if Grandma actually SAW this need and set-out to fill it, or if she was just doing her thing. I do know that so much of what I am now is a direct result of what she did for me back then, and I am forever grateful.

Here's a great example: Grandma color-coded. For instance, my favorite color has always been yellow. So Grandma had a yellow cup, yellow bowl, yellow towel, yellow floor cushion, all that were just for MY use. Laura's color was purple. Kathy's was green. I can assure you, while at Grandma's, I never ONCE took a sip from a purple cup. When colors weren't available, she'd pull out her bottle of bright red nail polish. We all had identical trick-or-treat pumpkins, except that mine had a tiny red "J" painted on the back. It probably seems silly, but I assure you it meant the world to me. Even our monkey swings were personalized. Monkey swings are large, round wooden discs that have a hole in the center through which a rope is threaded. We spent hours swinging on them from her enormous backyard tree. The wood was hard, so she designed cushions for each of them with brightly-colored chenille toilet lid covers. You guessed it, mine was yellow.

She cared for us individually in the way she played with each of us. I wanted to play with the many, many dolls she had in her walk-up attic, Laura wanted to throw a tea party with REAL liquid in her miniature tea set, Jack wanted to play in the "fort" she made out of sheets draped over a clothesline in her backyard. Grandma made it all happen.

Holidays were more than special at her house. She had a round dining room table that she would decorate with bunnies and ducks, turkeys and cornucopias, patriotic pinwheels, or pine cones and holly, depending on the time of year. December was her time to shine. I'm sure I will write countless more posts detailing the window stenciling, ornament making, and cookie baking that we did with her every Christmas season. She had one of those giant, silver aluminum trees that had a color wheel light illuminating it. We thought it was breathtaking. She and Grandpa would come to our house for Christmas dinner and we'd show her all the wonderful things from Santa that we had opened that morning. She'd inform us that she saw Santa the night before as well. Apparently he came to her place with presents for us. She told him she'd make sure we got them the next time we visited her. We had absolutely no problem believing that our magical grandmother had a direct conversation with the otherwise elusive Santa.

I think Grandma's greatest achievement was what she did for us on our birthdays. The weekend closest to our big day, we got to stay, by OURSELVES, at her house. No siblings allowed. We'd spend the night and catch the morning bus (Grandma didn't drive) to Southgate Shopping Center. We'd have lunch together at the dinette located in Sears, then shop for birthday presents. We usually ended up at Woolworth's dime store, where we'd purchase wonderful plastic treasures of toys and games. My frequent choice was doll clothes for Tubsy (Grandma LOVED Tubsy!). The rule was, though, that you also had to pick out one small gift for each of our sisters and brother. Even on our special day together, Grandma couldn't bear to leave the others out completely.

Thanks to a herculean effort by my mother, we were all involved in many, many school activities. There were lots and lots of band concerts, choir concerts, play productions, and dance recitals spanning over several years. Grandma missed very few of them. In fact, she was the one that showed up hours early, saving the best seats with her coat, her scarf, a purse, and my grandfather.

We loved her intensely. She was the recipient of the first Christmas present I ever purchased. It was a rhinestone Partridge in a Pear Tree. I think I got it at Woolworth's. I thought it was beautiful, like her. She wore it every year. Above one of her kitchen cabinets, she kept this pitiful paper mache "thing" (I think it was supposed to be a giraffe) that I made for her in first grade. When I reached high school I begged her to take that silly thing down. She told me it was a great work of art and she liked it just where it was, thank you very much. The same went for the construction paper/cotton ball santa on the wall and the decoupage wooden spoon hanging on the cabinet door.

When I was away at school, she became the Care Package Queen. Just about every week or so a large box would arrive from Bedford, OH filled with homemade cookies and trinkets along with cut-out comic strips from the paper. She'd write underneath the strip, "Thought this would make you laugh." Opening those boxes was like receiving a giant, Sweetheart- soap- scented bear hug. Priceless.

Shortly after I moved to NYC, I read about an upcoming audition for a role I was perfect for: Brunette, brown eyes, medium height, age range 20-25. "That's ME!!" I thought, "They are going to be SO happy when I walk through that door!" The day of the audition I entered the lobby to a veritable SEA of brown-eyed, twenty-something brunettes. They handed me my audition number. I promise you I am not making this up, it was #825. I found a quiet corner, shut my eyes and reminded myself that just a few hundred miles away stood a small bungalow where my first grade art projects hung on the wall. I thought about the lady who placed them there and how completely I was loved by her. Special, indeed. I didn't get the part, but when I got home there was a card waiting for me. When I opened it, a Family Circus comic fell out. I must admit, it made me laugh.

Catherine Alberta Simmons died from colon cancer on a Thursday, March 16, 1989. She didn't really fight that hard, she said it was time to go and was ready to return "home." She donated her body to science because she didn't want her family to spend one cent on funeral expenses. I asked her pastor if I could say a few words at her memorial service. It was going to be an intensely hard thing to do, but I felt I owed it to this woman who had given everything to ensure my happiness. I needed to speak that day because, as I explained to the congregation, everybody knew her as something different. To one, she was a wife, to another she was "Mom." She was to some a fellow church member, a co-worker, or a friend. I told them all they had been enormously cheated. Because Kathy, Laura, Jennifer, Jack and I were the only ones who knew her as "Grandma." And this, I know from the bottom of my heart, is what she did the very, very best.

It's been years since her death, but I can assure you I still think of my precious Grandma every single day. And every birthday, I put on a yellow outfit and think about how I'd give everything I own to take just one more bus ride with her to Woolworth's.

To Kathy, Laura, Jen, and Jack: I know, it's not good enough. I'll work to make it better. I promise you.

To everyone else: I hope this has made you think of the Grandma Simmons in your life. If that person is still around, put down this post immediately and go hug their neck. They deserve it!!

Thanks for reading!

Monday, March 15, 2010


Every time I complete a new blog entry, I immediately e-mail my new post to each of my four siblings. They've known me longer than anyone and they've supported me dutifully through all my career, husband, and hairstyle changes. I greatly value their opinions. So a few entries ago, when I sent off my latest piece, I attached a quick note, confessing that my ideas for topics were running a little dry, and if anyone had a suggestion, I'd gratefully accept it. My sister Kathy responded almost immediately with a long, really creative list (rest assured, you will be seeing her ideas implemented in several upcoming posts).

But there was one of Kathy's suggestions that I didn't quite understand at first glance. It simply read, "Your GPS." Now, Kathy knows that we have a GPS system in our car. Don't get me wrong, it's been a wonderful, handy tool to own, I love it! But why, I wondered, does Kathy believe that an electronic device mounted in my dashboard makes an interesting writing topic? Then it hit me. Kathy wasn't referring to my car's digital mapping system. She was talking about MY "internal" GPS. It's a fantastic idea, actually, because my internal GPS is seriously BROKEN. Always has been. My sweet sister, trying her very hardest not to sound insulting, wrote, "Your GPS," instead of, "Write about how you have absolutely no sense of direction whatsoever and couldn't possibly find your way out of a paper bag!" That's probably how I would've put it, had the roles been reversed!

I don't even know how to begin to describe my direction ineptness. I absolutely despise the "traffic reporter" that broadcasts over my radio in the middle of rush hour, who spends about seven seconds telling me about the 900 accidents that have occurred that morning. Mr. Speedy-Talker then informs me about all the "huge back-ups," and the better, quicker routes to take. By the time I'm able to mentally locate the first intersection mentioned and figure out it's relation to where I am, I've completely missed what has happened there and all the information about ways to avoid it. I scream at my radio "SLOW DOWN!" or, "SAY IT AGAIN!!" That bastard never listens.

The city of Orlando, where I lived for sixteen years, is a fairly modern place with navigable highways and tourist-friendly, easy-to-understand signage. I got lost daily! I'd do great going from our house to work, but it was when I had to make stops in between those two places where I'd get all turned-around. Poor Alan just learned to live with the inevitable calls he'd receive from me saying, "OK, I'm at Whole Foods, I need to get to the pet store, do I get on I-4 for that?" Or, "Well, I was trying to get to the courthouse downtown and somehow I ended up in Fort Lauderdale. How do I get home?" To his credit, my sweet, kind husband has never, EVER said what most would remark at these moments. Things like, "Wow, you really are a big, dumb idiot, aren't you?" or "You're exhausting me! Can't I just put you in a Home somewhere?" No, my Sweetheart simply asks me to identify the nearest landmark, then verbally points me in the right direction. I really love that man!!

You can imagine Alan's response when we purchased our new car a few years back, and the dealer inquired if we would like to include the new GPS system in our package. I hesitated, thinking it seemed like an awfully extravagant electronic toy. If I remember correctly, Alan said something along the lines of, "YES, YES, OH DEAR GOD, YES!!! Install the GPS! I don't care how much it costs!!"

The really comforting part of my handicap is that my sister, Laura, is just as directionally challenged as I am. When we were teens, we'd leave together on a shopping trip, get involved in a deep conversation as we drove along, then suddenly snap back into reality. We'd inevitably look around at our unfamiliar surroundings and then exclaim, "Hey, who moved the mall?"

The best example of our busted internal GPS came when Laura and I were in high school and were asked to perform our "Honey Bun" dance routine on the local TV talent showcase, "The Gene Carroll Show." Gene was Cleveland's very own version of Ed Sullivan, and he hosted a weekly Sunday morning program showcasing all the local "talent" in the Cleveland area. The shows were taped in downtown Cleveland during the week, then broadcast that Sunday. Our dance teacher got Laura and I the gig, but told us she wouldn't be able to take us to the taping, could we get there on our own? NO PROBLEM!! We were sixteen and seventeen, practically grown adults, for crying out loud! Of COURSE we could drive the twenty miles to downtown Cleveland, piece of cake!!

I need to pause this story here to explain something about my father. Dad was/is the biggest Nervous Nellie on the planet. We lived on a cul-de-sac in a quiet, suburban neighborhood in a place called Sagamore Hills. The crime rate was literally non-existent on my street, yet he was convinced that all five of his children would be stabbed, raped, kidnapped, and/or impregnated by the time we each reached the age of twelve. The summer before my sophmore year of college, a few of my female classmates asked if I wanted to skip living in a dorm the following year and get an apartment with them near the theater building. When I approached Dad with the idea, his response was short and sweet: "You'll get raped." Apparently, the "rapage" factor was way higher when you lived in an apartment with four girlfriends instead of a co-ed dorm on campus. Guess where I stayed all four years of college? (Hint: It wasn't in the apartment with my girlfriends!)

So, it goes without saying that even though the exciting, vibrant city of Cleveland was only a mere twenty-five minutes away, the Donnelly children rarely saw it, because my father forbade it. When we became interested in theater and the touring companies of "A Chorus Line" and "Annie" came through town, my mother gave-in to our pleading and agreed to take us, but not to the evening performances. Mom wrote a note to our teachers saying we had dental appointments, got us excused early from school, and we attended the Wednesday afternoon matinees. This, it was apparently determined, was the time of day when downtown Cleveland was much less "rapey."

So, having never really been to the area, Laura and I basically had no idea what route to take to get to our Gene Carroll Show taping. However, mom gave us a map (actually, it was more like a world atlas. Picture a globe, only in book form. In Mom's defense, it did have a "Northeast Ohio" page). We also decided to take a male with us to, you know, fight off all the rapists and such. I had just started dating Alan, so we asked him to come with us. That's right, Alan. Alan, the Alabama boy who had been living in the state of Ohio for all of three months. That Alan. (Seriously, what could go wrong?)

So we actually made it to the taping (Praise God!) with no problems. We arrived at the studio, executed our routine with flawless , sailor-suited perfection and were an immediate, enormous hit. The evening was a complete success! Until...

When we left the TV studio, we immediately noticed that it had gotten really dark. No problem, we thought, we had our trusty atlas. We began our journey home, talking excitedly about the obvious "nailing" of our performance and of our impatience to actually see ourselves on TV. Suddenly, though, things began to look unfamiliar. Alan, who was driving, asked us to consult the globe. Laura and I studied the map and determined that yes, we were definitely headed in the right direction. It was a full thirty or so miles later, when we started seeing signs for Ashtabula, that Alan stopped the car and grabbed the map from us. Apparently, Laura and I had mixed-up the whole east/west thing, and when we told Alan we were definitely headed west, we were, in fact, headed east. We were also out of gas. We rolled into a gas station and called Alan's dad, who told us to just stay put, drove out to meet us, filled our tank and had us follow him home.

Laura and I were sure our father would be fit to be tied when we finally arrived home. I can honestly tell you that I don't have the slightest recollection of what played-out when we walked through our front door late that night. They say that people who undergo traumatic events are often unable to recall that experience after they recover. They say the mind acts as a kind of buffer to allow peaceful healing. Perhaps this is what happened to my memory of that night. I guess we'll never know. I DO remember, however, very vividly, the next morning when Laura and I came drowsily down to the breakfast table, prepared for an intense fatherly tongue-lashing. Dad looked up from his newspaper, turned to my mother and said, "Hey, look who's here. It's Louis and Clark!"

Thanks for reading!! (And thanks, Kathy!!)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Viva, US!!

On March 19, 2007, Alan and I had a very bad day.  Actually, it was SO terrible, we gave it a name:  Worst Day Ever.  This was the day that Alan's boss called in the morning, on behalf of the company for which Alan had worked for fifteen years, and told him that he was being laid off.

"But Joan," you may say, "that's pretty horrible, but 'Worst Day EVER?'  Really?"

Wait, there's MORE!!  Later on that day I received a call from the surgeon who had removed a lump from my neck.  This was actually the last of three he had extracted, all with inconclusive lab results.  The surgeon informed me that the biopsy findings of my latest mass were in.  "You have lymphoma," he said.  Worst.  Day.  Ever.

The really, really good news, though, is that we survived, and now absolutely refuse to dwell on the horror that this day provoked.  In fact, every March since 2008, Alan and I board a plane and head to Las Vegas.  We spend a fantastic week playing penny slots (me!) and betting on the sports book (Alan!).  Then, on the morning of March 19th, we head over to the Roulette table and we place all of our chips on number NINETEEN.  Guess what else?  We WIN, EVERY year!! Take THAT, stupid Worst Day Ever!  You have no power over us!!

So, I'm telling you this because tomorrow we jump on a plane once again to begin our yearly pilgrimage, so I wanted you to know I won't be around for a few days. This year, we've even purchased tickets for Donny and Marie Osmond's show at the Flamingo Resort!   I'm guessing there will a little bit country, and a little bit rock and roll involved!!

I hope you'll indulge me, though, as I want very much to pre-set some of my earliest posts for you to read while I'm out.  I promise you haven't seen them yet, unless you're one of my siblings or dear, supportive friends from back then!!  These are the stories that were knocking around in my brain when I initially started my blog, the ones that were persistently bugging me to be told! I'd very much like to share them with you and get your honest feedback. You'll see how dear they are to me once you read them!

I've got one about our trip to Ireland scheduled for posting on St. Patrick's Day, and another called "Lost" that reveals my complete lack of direction and some interesting qualities about my Dad, the man who inspired my blog title!  Lastly, on March 19th, I'll post the entry I wrote for Alan's blog in 2008 on the occasion of the first anniversary of Worst Day Ever.  Hope it will adequately describe the tone of that surreal, now irrelevant day!!

I'm going to check in (in between slot pulls!) to read your comments, so feel free to be honest and open!  I'll miss you all!  Wish me luck!!

Thanks for Reading!!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Ready to Swoon?

I had so much fun bringing you my Gene Kelly clip the other day, that I decided to share another of my favorites to jump start your weekend!!

This is one of Frank Sinatra's first films, called Anchors Aweigh.  He'd just signed with MGM studios after many years of performing with the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey Orchestras.  The "Bobby-Soxers" (the "Clay-Mates" of the forties!!) were going crazy for Frank at this time, and  he was enormously popular.

The big wigs at MGM were anxious to see if Frank's popularity would extend to the movie viewing public, and made the ridiculously smart move of pairing him with Gene Kelly.  The combination of Gene's dancing and Frank's singing made the pair untouchable, and the film was an instant, huge success.

This movie was made in 1945,  long before Frank's swinging, cocky "Rat Pack" years.  In fact, in this role he portrays a young (SKINNY!), innocent kid from Brooklyn, trying to learn "the ropes" of picking up girls from the much more suave, experienced Kelly.

Frank masterfully croons many songs in this picture, but this one is my favorite.  At this point in the movie, Frank is sitting on a bare stage at the Hollywood Bowl, there is no one in the audience.  It's simple, quiet and, in my opinion, perfect!  I hope you agree!  It's a really short clip, so my wish is that you'll press "play," roll down your bobby socks, rest your chin in your hand, and sigh deeply!!

Have a great weekend, everybody!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Cap'n Courageous

"Cap'n Rick!" chirped the voice that answered the phone.  "How can I help you?"

Alan and I had been vacationing in Key Largo, Florida for exactly one day.  It was our first trip to the Keys, and both of us were looking forward to a full week of doing absolutely NOTHING!  We'd been feeling a little over-worked and greatly fatigued, so the plan was to sip margaritas poolside and immerse ourselves in a couple of good books. That's it.

But the islands in the Keys are tiny ones, and everywhere you turn you can see pristine, windex-blue ocean. It was calling to us.  We decided we really wanted to get out on that gorgeous water!

We found a brochure in the hotel lobby for a charter boat that had day snorkeling trips.  The name of the company was Morning Star Charters, and the boat pictured was that of a beautiful, fifty foot sailing yacht. We decided it was too good to be true but dialed the number anyway, when we heard Cap'n (NOT captain, "cap'n!") Rick's cheerful greeting.  He told us he had an opening the next day, and to pack a cooler and meet him at his slip in the morning.

We arrived at the dock early and got our first look at this beautiful ship. It was even more glorious than the brochure picture had portrayed, white with dark wood trim and fat blue cushions displayed inside.  A 50-something man with a medium build and a tanned, happy face appeared and warmly offered his hand.  "Beautiful day, isn't it?  I'm Cap'n Rick," he said with a smile.  I liked him immediately!

He helped us onboard and showed us around, clearly proud of his rig which he kept in pristine condition (That's us onboard in the picture on the left.  Check out how I'm sucking it in!!). Soon, two other couples arrived and after exchanging a few pleasantries, Cap'n Rick cast off and slowly maneuvered his gorgeous ship out onto the open water.

He explained he was taking us to a place called "Pickles Reef," named after the pickle barrels that were the unfortunate victims of a shipwreck that had occurred there hundreds of years before.  You can still see the busted wooden barrel remains on the shallow ocean floor.  We arrived in no time and Cap'n Rick quickly got everyone set up in flippers and scuba masks.  After a brief tutorial on proper snorkeling techniques, we all jumped in and pressed our masked faces below the warm salt water.

The only way I can adequately describe what we saw on the other side of that water is to reference the classic Disney film, "The Little Mermaid."  You know that song, "Under the Sea," where all the colorful cartoon sea creatures dance around and have a party?  Well, I SWEAR I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that is EXACTLY how it appeared!!  These are actual pictures of it on the left and below!  There's no QUESTION in my mind that EVERY one of Disney's artists must have visited Pickles Reef before animating that number!!

It was amazing!  So many colors, from the school of electric blue and yellow fish that darted around us, to the bright green sea vegetation wedged between florescent coral formations, reflecting the sun above us.  We saw sea turtles, sting rays, eels, even tiger sharks.  Cap'n Rick would not leave until he'd shown us all of it.  I couldn't help thinking, "He does this EVERY day, why is he still as excited as ME?"

Much too quickly, it was announced that it was time to go, and we reluctantly climbed back onboard.  Cap'n Rick hosed the salt water off us and simultaneously handed us each a beer.  I've got to tell you, on the deck of that boat, with the saltwater still clinging to my lips, and the Florida sunshine warming my face, that Coors Light tasted better than ANY other I've had before or since!

As we began the trip back to shore, we asked Cap'n Rick how he came to own a boat chartering business in the Florida Keys.  He told us he was an ironworker for several years, assembling skyscrapers in Philadelphia, PA.  He had done some fishing and scuba diving in his youth, and had always dreamed of one day making a living on a boat somewhere warm and tropical.

His friends and coworkers told him he was a crazy dreamer, that he had a good, solid union job with decent pay, health benefits and a pension.  Better stay put, they advised.  Still, Rick couldn't shake the longing for his own business in paradise.  He saved his money over the years, did some research, and was finally able to put a down-payment on his beautiful boat.  On his last day with his fellow ironworkers, they all wished him luck, but told him they bet he'd be back before long.

Cap'n Rick paused his story just then and quickly went below to retrieve something off the wall.  He came back up carrying a large framed photo.  It was of the steel skeleton of a large city building, and men in hard hats were pictured working on it's beams.  "That was my last job as an ironworker," he told us.  "I keep this on the wall downstairs to remind me how lucky I am to be HERE!!"

Following his dream wasn't always easy for Cap'n Rick.  For the first several years he lived in the cramped quarters of his boat.  There were some lean times in the beginning, until word got out and paying customers slowly began to arrive.  But hard work, determination, and a deep love of the ocean on which he daily sailed soon paid-off, and I'm happy to report business is booming!

Cap'n Rick now lives in a lovely home overlooking the ocean with his new wife, Joann and sweet miniature yorkie, Moonshine.  His boat is paid for, and customers call constantly, wanting to reserve a turn to explore paradise with him.  He is a rich man in many, many ways.

I think about Cap'n Rick all the time.  Along with the amazing surroundings in which he lives and works, I so envy his GUTS.  He had no idea how things were going to turn out when he initially packed-up his entire Philadelphia life and relocated to a place where he knew exactly NO ONE.  But he knew he loved the ocean, he loved to sail, and he was determined to work hard and give it his best shot.  Anyone who's spent two minutes onboard his boat can tell you, without hesitation, that he made the right choice.

So, what's YOUR passion?  What are you DYING to do, but are afraid to try?  I think Cap'n Rick would tell you to trust your instincts, take a risk and follow your dreams. Who knows, maybe you'll wind up in paradise...

Thanks for Reading!!