Passover in Prattville, Alabama

Visiting Prattville, Alabama, sounded interesting; after doing some research, I was all for it and ready to go. The secret draw, of course, was that my son was going to be in town to shoot an NFL/Hyundai commercial, and nothing was going to stop me from visiting with him on location!

I discovered that my home away from home was only a 15-minute ride away from Spectre, a town built to shoot Tim Burton’s film Big Fish. If you ever get a chance to visit, do so because it is simply indescribable and well worth a look. Check out this fascinating article “Ghost Town of Spectre, Alabama: Then and Now” by Kelly Kazek for al.com. Downtown Prattville is a lovely little town with a dam and a former cotton factory providing a scenic photo op for the passing tourist.

Passover

When it comes to food, the best place in town is Mick’s Cajun Market. Reasonably priced, the restaurant features authentic Cajun fare. The food is fabulous and so is the service. Never have I been in a restaurant that encourages patrons to try as many samples of dishes before ordering!

The rest of my stay along Interstate 14 was exactly what I meant it to be: uneventful. There was no Seder, no matzah, and no four questions were asked. I spent the days working on my revisions for The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids 2018, and I had the evenings with my son. It was nice to take the office outdoors overlooking the pool, enjoying the light and the fresh air.

The film crew had very little time to spare between shoots, production meetings, set scouting, and equipment prep. It was amazing and my first time to witness it all.

Passover has always been about tradition and family. All over the world, Jewish families, big and small, gather to celebrate. Would I have liked a matzah ball soup, gefilte fish, and a good glass of wine? Even a Haggadah reading and a cup for Elijah? I sure would have, but the gathering was so last-minute, so unexpected, that I just resigned myself to the fact that there wasn’t going be a traditional meal, nor would there be wine on Erev Passover, as Prattville is a dry county. Did it matter? It did not.

What we ate and drank that night is of no importance. It was anything but kosher, I can tell you that much. Together we remembered a holiday rooted in history, and we celebrated what really matters: family. Scripture does not teach us what will happen when Elijah announces the Messiah. The prophet Malachi proclaims, in the portion of Scripture we read on Passover, “God will turn the hearts of parents to children, and children to their parents” (Malachi 4:6). In other words, Messianic days are a time of family. Therefore, whenever you have the joy to be gathered around the table with those you love, you have a foretaste of redemption. I certainly had this foretaste of redemption being able to spend this precious time with my son.

Family, however, isn’t only about blood. It is just as much about friends, those who care enough to offer their friendship and to help you when you need it. In addition to being reunited with my son, I experienced a special gift of friendship and care this Passover. A big thank you to my colleague Amber for generously driving me to Prattville. I deeply appreciate it!

Happy Passover! Happy Easter! May we all experience the gift of family and friendship during the holidays and always.

Saying “I Do” at the Kaufman Astoria Studios

Tying the Knot where Frank Sinatra, Ginger Rogers, and Maurice Chevalier Worked

The Kaufman Astoria Studios is a historic movie studio in Astoria, Queens, and home to New York City’s only backlot. On January 29th the studios became the center stage for the wedding of my son and his bride.

Kaufman Astoria Studios

A Bit of History
Jesse Lasky and Adolph Zukor founded the studio in 1920, the first two Marx Brothers films were shot here, and silent-movie idol Rudolph Valentino filmed Monsieur Beaucaire at the studio in 1924.

After Paramount Pictures moved all studio operations to California in 1932, the Astoria location became home to independent producers until the United States Army, in 1942, took over the studio to produce training and propaganda films, including the series The Big Picture.

In 1971 the United States Army left the movie business and the studios were given to The City University of New York to turn into a campus or a film school. These plans did not materialize, and the future of the studios didn’t look promising. In 1976 a group of New York film people recognized the historic significance and the potential of the studios. They created a foundation to manage the studios, and eventually, The studios were declared a National Historic Landmark. The facility was restored and is the center of a bustling creative environment where shooting, pre-, and post-production take place around the clock.

In recent years films and television shows, such as Sesame Street, Law & Order, Orange is the New Black, Men in Black 3, and The Bourne Legacy, just to name a few, have been filmed at the Kaufman Astoria Studios.

Saying I Do Inside the Atrium of the Kaufman Astoria Studios

The wedding ceremony took place inside the atrium of the Kaufman Astoria Studios. It was the first wedding ever held in the atrium. It was, however, not the first wedding held at the studios. On August 9, 2008, Annie Evans, a writer for Sesame Street, and Martin Robinson, a puppeteer for the show, got hitched in Studio J. The couple exchanged vows on a staircase of the Sesame Street set. Interestingly enough, they got engaged on a New Year’s Eve, just like my son and his beloved.

The original studio’s commissary, now The Astor Room, is where the wedding reception and dining took place. Guests were seated where Douglas Fairbanks, Gloria Swanson, Charlie Chaplin, and Mary Pickford once took their meals.

The party continued downstairs at the Bamboo Lounge, where my son surprised his new wife with “As Time Goes By” from the movie Casablanca before dancing the night away.

Back home in Birmingham, my thoughts often return to the young couple, the many special moments, and the studios. I know that every New York visit will bring us all back to the Astor Room for a meal and a cocktail. After all, who can possibly resist the classic Mary Pickford cocktail? Made of Cruzan aged light rum, maraschino liquor with house-made grenadine, and fresh pineapple juice, this is the stuff dreams are made of!

Shimon Peres: A Life Devoted to Country and Peace

Shimon PeresShimon Peres never spoke about peace without evoking the security for Israel, and he was fully aware about the importance of the survival of Israel as a nation, but he also knew that there was no alternative to peace.

He persuaded Yitzhak Rabin to accept the Oslo Accords. Peres shook hands with Yasir Arafat, the chairman of the P.LO. It earned them a Noble Peace Prize. We all know what happened next. But even after Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli religious extremist, Peres continued tirelessly to work for peace.

Shimon Peres wasn’t perfect, but he was the first Israeli president to withdraw Israeli forces from Lebanon and deal with the economic crisis the country was facing.

Here is what Shimon Peres believed in: “An ancient Greek philosopher was asked what is the difference between war and peace. ‘In war,’ he replied, ‘the old bury the young. In peace, the young bury the old.’ ”

Who will reassure us in the future that Israel will achieve peace? Shimon Peres was Israel’s moderate, in a nation led by hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Peres was an optimist who once said, “What happened until now is over, unchangeable. I’m not going to spend time on it. So I am really living in the future. I really think that one should devote his energies to make the world better and not to make the past remembered better.” This is a good lesson I still have to work on. I belong to the generation who is still hurting from the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, and I often catch myself thinking what could have been.

On his 90th birthday, Peres said that he still believed that he would see peace in his lifetime. I, too, want to see peace in my lifetime and firmly believe that peace is the only way forward. Let’s celebrate a visionary and Israel’s rebirth while, at the same time, we work relentlessly at bringing about a just peace for all. I was disappointed that Arab leaders were notably absent at the funeral, but, following Peres’ example, I want to emphasize the positive, the courageous attendance of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Shimon Peres was one of the last surviving pillars of Israel’s founding generation. May he rest in eternal peace, a peace that eluded him in his lifetime.

I Know Words, and I Love the Oxford English Dictionary

I know words; I just wish I knew the best of words.

Lately, pundits and so-called experts analyze every word that is uttered. Politicians, on both sides of the aisle, use and abuse words so frequently that it becomes important to recall John Locke’s argument to never trust words to stand for things in themselves.

How many words can one make out of glib?

I find solace in reminding myself that there is beauty in words, those we say and those we don’t say. Words we are afraid to say out loud and words we hope to hear one day. Words, when we choose the right ones, can evolve into the most amazing sentences.

The Oxford English Dictionary

Oxford English DictionaryAnother fascinating look at words is available from the New Words List of the Oxford English Dictionary. What is stracciatella? Is it ice cream or soup? How in the world did trout pout and binky make it into the dictionary? Are you wondering if they are working chop-chop at the chop-shop? Is the female version of a cool dude a dudette or a smurfette? Well, smurf and smurfette did not make into the dictionary, but dudette did. But, I am confident that smurfing will soon make it from the urban language dictionary into the OED.

The Oxford English Dictionary was first published in 10 volumes in 1928. Revisions and expansion led to the publishing of 20 volumes in 1989. I wonder how many volumes a 2016 edition would be. Would I have enough bookshelves to proudly display them? Considering that revised and new entries are added four times a year, the books would be quickly outdated. Guess I better continue to adapt to the electronic age.

It would be sacrilegious not to mention the comma, the one I struggle with, the pretentious little mark that can save a person’s life.

At the end of the day, however, I believe in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:

“Occasionally in life there are those moments of unutterable fulfillment which cannot be completely explained by those symbols called words. Their meanings can only be articulated by the inaudible language of the heart.”

TTYL

Cell Phone Addiction—Time to Let It Go!

Cell phone on bikeIt never ceases to amaze me how we seem compelled to check our cell phones constantly. We rarely are truly unplugged and have become addicted to a constant buzz of information that often distracts us to a point that we are oblivious to our surroundings.

I love to bike to work and always worry about the traffic, drunk or texting drivers, and, lately, Pokémon Go players. I wonder if drivers realize that when they are checking their phones while driving they are playing some sort of Russian Roulette. It is no secret that texting and talking while driving, or checking social media while behind the wheel, has started to cost lives. The only biker I caught checking in with his mobile device at least did it while stationary—but in the middle of the pedestrian walkway!

Hot phoneWhen did constant access to mobile communication become necessary or even desirable? The stress of multitasking, working on weekends, evenings, and on lunch breaks, is, of course, furthering all this.

I am by no means perfect. I rarely leave my home without my cell phone and am guilty of taking pictures, checking my mail, scrolling Facebook and other social media far more often than I would like. I have even managed to overheat the device! Yet, it would never occur to me to do so while driving. I am bewildered at how many people put their phones on a restaurant table. Even couples, obviously on a date, are on their phones instead of talking to each other. Why would I ignore someone’s company so that I can check in with other people who may not even be real-life friends? It just seems wrong.

Guests on cell phones at MKThe usage of mobile devices is a real nuisance at concerts and movie theaters. Can we no longer watch a movie without checking our mail? Why are you watching a concert through the screen of a tablet—and at the same time obstructing my view? The theme parks are no exception. Guests are spending a disproportionate amount of time on their mobile devices.

To be present and in the moment is so important. I recently discussed cell phone wedding etiquette with my son and future daughter-in-law. They decided that during the ceremony only an official photographer will be allowed to take pictures, and that we will, like at the movies, ask guests to turn off their mobile devices. Here is to hoping that nobody will try to catch a Pokémon at the wedding.

It’s that Time of Year Again—Revisions

Walt Disney World with Kids 2017After some intense weeks of work, and multiple revisions, my 2017 edition of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids is finally off to the printer. The annual ritual starts in March with a research trip to Orlando and is followed by a first deadline for updates and new material by May 15th.

This year, however, there were so many changes that by the time June came, I went on a second research mission to the Kingdom of the Mouse. It was fascinating to be at Epcot the day the Frozen Forever ride opened. The ride opened at 9 a.m. on June 21st. I had made breakfast reservations at Akershus Royal Banquet Hall for 8:30 a.m. and was allowed into the park shortly after 8 a.m. that morning. It was great to enter the park early and enjoy taking pictures on my way to the Norway pavilion. And yes, it was my ticket to the front of the line once the ride was about to open.

RevisionsNeedless to say, this made all the difference in the world. I exited the ride at 9:10 a.m.; 20 minutes later, the ride broke down. The park was officially open since half an hour and the line for the ride went back all the way over the bridge to the China pavilion. Cast members held up signs indicating that the wait currently was 180 minutes. Unfortunately, the ride broke down quite often that day, and when you add to this the low loading capacity of the former Maelstrom ride, it is no surprise that the wait, at times, was 300 minutes—five hours!

I did experience the new Soarin’ Around the World flight, enjoyed all the new nighttime entertainment at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and saw Mickey’s Royal Friendship Faire, the new show in front of Cinderella’s Castle at the Magic Kingdom.

IMG_5666Over at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, I paid a visit to Skull Island and rode the new King Kong attraction. Skull Island: The Reign of Kong really did impress me. This multi-sensory, multi-dimensional ride is absolutely amazing.

Back in Birmingham, it was crunch time. I had to revise the revisions and submit last-minute changes to my wonderful editor Amber Henderson. Amber brings it all together, and while it looks like magic when she takes over, believe me, it is not. It is hard work. A huge research team, editors, fact checkers, indexers, and a layout and art department support the authors. These behind-the-scenes professionals make me look good and are the guarantee that a great product reaches the reader.

This Year’s Revisions Are Over—Let’s Play!

So what is next? Well, it is never too early to start collating data again, is it? In a few weeks, I will once more board a plane and visit my happy place. I am excited to stay at three different hotels, including the newly opened Loews Sapphire Falls. I want to take tons of pictures and videos. But, most of all, I look forward to having more time for friends than during my past two visits. And yes, there will be pool time!

Farmers Markets: Not All Peaches are Created Equal

farmers marketsEvery week, from April through early December, I visit the farmers market at Pepper Place. This is like a pilgrimage to a place where strawberries, peaches, cauliflower, lettuces, and flowers are competing for my attention.

Not everything is peachy, though, and it is sad to note that prices throughout farmers markets in America are anything but economical. Why is it that we have to pay more for healthy food?

Farmers Markets Connect Consumers to Local Food Growers

We all agree that nothing is better than getting fresh produce from vendors at local farmers markets. I want to be able to get the fresh produce, preferably organically grown vegetables and fruits, but, like so many other enthusiasts, I cannot afford the price tag.

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 8.16.32 PMFarmers are able sell their produce directly to the public, bypassing a lot of middlemen, and customers are willing to pay a little more. How much more are customers willing to pay, though? Affordability is an important aspect for every shopper. We should be able to get a better deal on fresh, high-quality produce as farmers are selling directly to customers, allowing them to retain every dollar.

So why is it that prices at farmers markets are more expensive than those we see at grocery stores? While I have no conclusive answer to the question, I believe that it is all about the quality. It is important to keep in mind that the produce you find at farmers markets is very fresh and lasts longer than what you can buy in a grocery store. Last but not least, freshness and quality contribute to better tasting fruits and vegetables.

Ideally, I will have my own garden one day. In the meantime, it’s all about the home-grown, and I can’t get that in the stores.

Forty-Nine Less Rainbows in the Sky—Love Is All We Need

“If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me.” ~W.H. Auden

LoveIt is with a heavy heart that I am writing this post today. This weekend has brought tragic news to my home away from home. First came the sad news of the killing of the Voice singer Christina Grimmie, and next I wake up to hear about the horrific shooting at the Pulse nightclub.

Words cannot describe how I feel. My feelings however, are nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to what the families and friends of the victims are going through. The people of Orlando have my deepest sympathy as their city is hurting. I have family and friends in the LGBT community. An attack on them is an attack on those I love. It has to stop!

And, give me a break, a call for more arms is as irresponsible as what some of our elected officials are putting out today. How is it possible that Dan Patrick, Lt. Gov. of Texas, tweets Galatians 6.7? (“Don’t be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.”) The tweet was deleted later, but that does not mean anything. Words hurt. Words kill.

I really prefer to focus on the good, on the helpers. A big thank you to all who answered the call for blood donations, to those who brought water, food, and sunscreen to the donors in line. To the law enforcement teams who have seen such unspeakable horror. To everybody who goes out of their way to give back to the community. May love, light, and hope shine upon all of us.

Love and peace for all of humanity should be a major concern to us. A concern as important as our daily bread and water. A concern that is not based on nationality or religion. It is doable, but we need to want it. I want it. I am not an idealist, and I know it is not easy, but I also know that I do not want to live in a world where we kill each other.

I started the post with a quote, and I want to end with one. “Life is best when you build bridges between people, not walls.” ~Muhammad Ali

Spring Has Sprung in Birmingham

Spring in BirminghamGranted, we did not have a bad winter, but that doesn’t prevent Alabamians, and transplants like me, from welcoming spring. It is prime season for hiking, and Birmingham has great trails at Ruffner Mountain and Red Mountain Park.

It is also a great time to visit Birmingham’s Zoo and the Botanical Gardens.

Screen Shot 2016-06-12 at 10.31.28 PMDid you know that the Botanical Gardens are Alabama’s largest living museum with more than 12,000 different plants, 25 unique gardens, and over 30 works of original outdoor sculpture spread over 67.5 acres? My favorite is the Japanese Gardens, and I love sitting on a bench looking at the reflection of the bridge over the pond.

Another great spot to enjoy quiet time with a good book is the sculpture garden of the Museum of Fine Arts, and it is always great to celebrate the rebirth of nature in one of the many parks along Highland Avenue. If you like a little more action, be sure to be on Highland Avenue for the Do Dah Day parade. It is a riot only outdone by the October Dachshund parade.

Another Lovely Place to Celebrate Spring is Juniper Springs

Screen Shot 2016-06-12 at 10.27.19 PMI also got to spend a few days of absolute bliss at my favorite place: Juniper Springs, Florida. Located in the Ocala National Forest, it is one of the oldest recreation areas on the East Coast. It is a place that Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the author of The Yearling, cherished. If you have not read her books, check them out. The Yearling won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1939. My favorite, however, is Cross Creek, published in 1942.

March is also the month when I get to go to Walt Disney World to do research for the next edition of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids. This year it will be a challenge, as many new attractions are announced but not open yet. But that is for another post.

 

 

Wedding Bells Are Ringing

weddingIt’s really happening! My son is getting married and I couldn’t be happier.  The New Year sure started with a bang.  At the stroke of midnight, Idan went on his knee and proposed to his high school sweetheart, Laura Cristina Ortiz.

Idan and Laura are soul mates who bring out the best in each other. I feel blessed that he chose to have me and Laura’s family present at this very special moment. And I feel even more blessed to soon have a talented and loving daughter-in-law.

And so the year is off to a good start. Soon we all will be in wedding planning mode. So much to do, so much to dream about. Wedding invitations, wedding dresses, wedding venues, and wedding cakes come to mind. For now, however, I want to freeze this happy moment, enjoy seeing the happiness on their faces, and savor this special day.

Touched by an Angel a poem by Maya Angelou

We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.
Love arrives
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.
We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.

And while their home is Los Angeles, the wedding will take place on January 29, 2017, in New York. Thirteen months seems like a long time, and yet I have the feeling that time will fly. I can’t wait.