March 30, 2011

Author’s name tells a tale

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Relationships, Women at 5:02 pm by dinaheng

Elizabeth Lowell isn’t really her name, but therein lies the tale of an author who has written more than 60 books in several genres, with 30 million copies of those books in print, along with reprints in 30 foreign languages.

It all began in 1975 when Ann Maxwell wrote her first book, “Change,” a science fiction novel. When she decided to write a non-fiction book with her husband, Evan Lowell, the couple added his initial to her name, becoming A.E. Maxwell. In 1982, Maxwell (Ann, that is), added romance novels to her repertoire, so combined her middle name with her husband’s middle name to become Elizabeth Lowell.

“To me, they’re all stories, and it’s just about shifting the emphasis,” Maxwell says. “In sci-fi, it’s otherworldly or fantasy. Mysteries are about a mystery that’s solved at the end. In romances, character-driven relationships drive the story.”

It’s no surprise that women readers love romance novels because of the relationships in the books, which always have happy endings. Male readers, on the other hand, are more likely to pick up a book written by another man with action in it. The closest men usually get to romance are bro-mance novels, says Maxwell, which have “two men solving a mystery.”

Maxwell, 66, says she started writing as a young mother, choosing the typewriter over photography because it was easier to combine with parenting. Her husband was a newspaper reporter, and supported her desire to write. Since she didn’t have access to a car during the day, the used book store she could get to on foot had a lot of sci-fi books, and with an interest in science, that’s what she would read.

The author has been writing for 40 years now, and says she likes to write popular fiction because it always ends on an upnote, be it through the relationship or the mystery.

“I don’t believe there’s a perfect happy ending for everybody,” she says, “but happiness is possible for everybody. I like writing about the possibilities in life. I’ve never found an intelligent person I need to teach despair to. I’ve found a lot who need to learn hope. I write out of the old traditions of the heroic, where it’s possible for someone to do the extraordinary, or touch the extraordinary.”

I discovered Maxwell’s work under the pen name Elizabeth Lowell, and have enjoyed her contemporary stories that combine romance and suspense the best. My particular favorites include the series about the Donovan family, who own an international gem trading empire, and the St. Kilda series about an elite security consulting firm.

“I’ve always been fascinated by what’s endured as valuable through the ages,” Maxwell explains. “Archaeology fascinates me. I’ve always been interested in lost cities, cave dwellings, the physical world and what cultures value through time, and what’s passed down through time.”

While she’s often asked how she gets ideas for her books, it’s clear that her imagination moves easily between reality and conjecture. This is a woman who can take what’s happening in the world at any given point in time, and create an intriguing tale that draws the reader into a realm not far removed from reality.

In her latest Elizabeth Lowell paperback, “Death Echo,” (Avon, $7.99) former CIA agent Emma Cross works for St. Kilda Consulting to track a yacht believed to be carrying a lethal cargo that could destroy an American city. She joins forces with MacKenzie Durand, a former special ops killer, to unravel the mystery of the deadly yacht while dealing with secret government intrigue.

The novel uses well known changes in the former Soviet Union to create a story of “what if” that’s intelligent and fun reading. The relationship between the two romantic partners is not as fully developed as it could have been, getting lost in “witty banter” between the two that becomes repetitious and annoying. But the book is a fast read for those looking for a pleasurable escape.

“Reading is an escape, and everyone should have a recess,” Maxwell says. “But it’s also more than that. Storytellers get people in touch with a larger sense of reality. It’s easy to get caught up in some of the unhappy details of life, and if you can move away from that while reading a book, you can go back to real life and not feel as weighted down. But you also bring something back from what you’ve read.”

That “something” can range from learning about a new subject to identifying with a character’s plight and becoming inspired to create changes in your own life.

Maxwell writes mostly romance novels now under the name Elizabeth Lowell. It takes her a year to write a book, and she still loves doing research for each one.

“I’ll experience the landscape, but I won’t experience what the character does,” she says. “Usually, the landscape is a character in the book, too. I’ve been to De Beers in England, and to a tourmaline mine. I’ve never robbed a bank.”

Maxwell and her husband reside much of the year in Washington state, and spend their winters in Nevada.

“I’ve been married 44 years now, and really believe the right partner can expand your possibilities,” she says,  “and if they don’t, you have the wrong partner. My next book (tentatively titled ‘Beautiful Sacrifice’) started out to be another St. Kilda book, but my mind is an unruly critter. It turned out to be more of a relationship and less of a suspense novel. Life is always unexpected.”



March 23, 2011

‘I Am’ looks at who we really are

Posted in Between Us column, Business, Entertainment, Movies, Spirituality at 5:41 pm by dinaheng

If owning a house makes you happy, does buying a more expensive house make you happier? Is it Utopian to think of a world where love permeates everything? At the end of the day, when you get into bed and turn out the lights, who are you really?

In a world where people usually define themselves by the jobs they do, the cars they drive, and the clothes they wear, director Tom Shadyac challenges audiences to look at who we really are, and who we want to be, in a new documentary titled “I Am.”

Shadyac, director of such comedic hits as “Liar Liar” and “Bruce Almighty,” struggled  after a bicycle accident in 1987 with post-concussion syndrome, a debilitating condition that pushed the Hollywood player to examine what he was really doing with his wealth and success.

“I’ve always wanted to know what’s true,” Shadyac says. “As I’ve walked that path, sometimes falling off it in the last 10 to 12 years, I became aware of my own hypocrisy and started making changes. It was not a public walk, but after the accident, I made this film because I didn’t want to leave the planet without sharing some of the things I’ve learned.”

So Shadyac gave up his expensive antiques, mansion and private jets, and moved into a mobile home community, determined to live a more responsible life. He hired a small crew to film “I Am,” setting up interviews with people who inspired his spiritual journey — people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, poet Coleman Barks, evolution biologist Elizabet Sahtouris, psychologist Dacher Keltner and others.

An interview with the filmmaker’s father, the late Richard C. Shadyac, Sr., chief executive officer of ALSAC (American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities), the fundraising arm for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, yields some of the most poignant moments in the documentary.

“The interview with my father was the heart and soul of the film for me,” Shadyac says. “He showed us the potential of beauty in the world, and our blindness to it. All the people in the film helped change me through their writing, speaking, and work. I wanted to see what they could offer to a conversation about changing the world. I wanted to include people like Maya Angelou and the Dalai Lama, to have more feminine energy and people of color, but couldn’t get everyone I wanted.”

The question of who we are and how we can help make the world a better place is explored through the intersection of science and spirituality, which is seen as walking hand in hand through everything from the innate tendency toward cooperation (rather than competition) in our DNA to the magnetic fields emanating from our hearts that can have an effect on others around us.

As those advocating a paradigm shift in consciousness share, what everyone wants is love. We may think success is about having material goods, but in our hearts, we know what good feels like. We know that the act of giving is the same as receiving. We know when we’ve done something hurtful to someone, and we know when we’ve done something helpful.

The journey Shadyac shares in “I Am” is an expedition that every human being is on. Watching the film is a joyous reminder that we are not alone on the path, and that on the unseen side of life, we already know that we are One.

For information on where you can see “I Am,” check out



March 21, 2011

Venous disease called silent killer

Posted in Between Us column, Health, Travel, Women at 4:46 pm by dinaheng

If you sit at a desk for work, take long plane rides, or drive long distances, you might want to pay more attention to how your legs feel.

Blood clots are usually not detected until they cause a serious health problem, such as the recent pulmonary embolism experienced by tennis star Serena Williams, whose swollen leg and inability to breathe easily made her go to the emergency room, where doctors ordered a CAT scan of her lungs and found several blood clots.

Problems with blood flow through the veins affects one in five adults over the age of 45, and early detection is critical to preventing serious problems. March is Deep-Vein Thrombosis (DVT) Awareness Month, and experts say the risk of developing DVT is greatest when people sit or stand for long periods of time, which can cause pooling of blood in the lower legs.

“People with venous disease will say as the day goes on that their legs feel achy and throbbing,” says Dr. John Mauriello, president of the American College of Phlebology. “They go home and put their feet up, and they feel okay again because the swelling goes away. Venous thrombosis usually starts in the leg. It’s referred to as the silent killer because people walk around with it and don’t know it.”

Mauriello says any pain or swelling in the legs is a warning sign, along with changes in skin color (redness) in one leg and increased warmth in one leg.

While most DVT sufferers are older, obese, or pregnant, the doctor says DVT can hit anyone. Those at higher risk include people who smoke cigarettes, suffer from heart failure, have had recent surgery, or are on bedrest.

Mauriello says there are a number of things you can do to reduce your risk for DVT while traveling long distances. Getting up periodically to walk in the plane’s aisle, or stopping the car to get out and walk every hour or two is important.

“I always wear a knee-high compression stocking to reduce the risk when I’m traveling for a long period of time in a plane, or when I’m standing in surgery,” says Mauriello, who practices in Bradenton, Fla. “You need to keep yourself hydrated. Alcohol and coffee dries your body out. You need to drink water. Any time I get on a plane, I also take a baby aspirin, which thins the blood, and increases the rate of survival if you have a heart attack.”

Mauriello says compression stockings were invented to overcome swelling in the legs, and are the most conservative way to treat a venous problem.

There are numerous manufacturers of compression stockings, compression socks and support hose. Out of curiosity, I tried on a few samples from Ames Walker.

The first thing you notice is that the socks are harder to put on than “regular” socks, by necessity, because they’re made to squeeze you in those places where blood can pool. Graduated compression hosiery is designed to regulate blood flow velocity by applying maximum pressure at the ankles with gradually reduced pressure up the length of the hosiery. Getting them on your feet entails turning the socks inside out, and gently pulling them up

The hosiery comes in various styles, ranging from sports and dress socks for men and women to fly front leotards for men and pantyhose for women. The compression can range from mild to extra firm, depending on whether you’re trying to prevent tired, achy legs or treating moderate to advanced stages of venous disease.

I tried on a pair of moderate support sports socks, and could instantly feel the difference between them and my usually cotton sports socks. As someone not used to the pressure on my legs, I can’t say I enjoyed the sensation, but I can see how they could be a great remedy for circulation problems.

When I tried on a pair of mild support sports socks, the difference was palpable, and not as restricting. I could see myself wearing these socks on a long haul flight as a preventative measure. Ditto for wearing the mild compression pantyhose, which requires particular care to prevent snagging.

The cost for compression hosiery is not cheap. One pair of compression socks can run $12 or more.  Pantyhose can run about $15 a pair and up. The compression usually lasts for up to 6 months of wear, and everything has to be hand washed and air dried.

The best way to prevent DVT, of course, is to live as healthy a lifestyle as possible. Mauriello says that means eating a balanced diet with more fresh fruits and vegetables, which hydrate the body better than pizza and French fries, and moving the body through exercise and physical activities.

“If you’re running and moving your legs, and pumping the blood around, you’ll have a diminished risk of getting blood clots,” Mauriello says. “Women, especially during pregnancy and post-delivery, should be particularly aware of the problem. But blood clots aren’t gender specific. It can affect anyone.”

March 10, 2011

Fable makes fine fantasy thriller

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Movies, Women at 5:49 am by dinaheng

“All sorrows are less with bread,” or so Grandma used to say in the new fantasy thriller, “Red Riding Hood,” which gives an interesting twist to the tale of the red-caped girl who walks through the woods to her grandmother’s house and encounters the Big Bad Wolf.

The earliest versions of the fable can be traced to various European countries pre-17th Century, but in the Warner Bros. film that opens in theaters March 11, director Catherine Hardwicke has taken the tale’s medieval roots and created a film that explores the consequences of our actions on multiple levels.

In the film, Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) discovers that her parents have arranged for her to marry Henry (Max Irons), the son of the town’s wealthiest family. But Valerie wants Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), the poor woodcutter she’s loved since childhood. When a werewolf begins attacking the villagers, no one is above suspicion, including Valerie.

“The beauty of fairy tales is that they don’t have only one moral,” says Hardwicke, who also directed “Twilight” and “Thirteen.” “You have a mother who didn’t follow her heart, and is urging her daughter to be practical and not marry for love. That decision precipitates others. It’s like looking at the dark side of ourselves, how do we keep it in control, and what happens when we don’t. When we’re not true to ourselves, it’s always a source of bitterness.”

The cinematography richly creates a world where the forest and mountains are shrouded in mystery, and the village is dark with suspicion and paranoia. The most striking visual, of course, is the red signature cloak worn by Valerie, which is the only place the color red appears in the movie.

“The red cloak can have so many meanings,” Hardwicke says. “Red is the color of blood. It’s the coming of age. You can look at all these different artists who have painted the cloak, and have the girl standing there with a bloody axe. When you’re little, you remember the story of the basket and the girl going to a scary place in the woods. When you’re older, there are sexual undertones going on.”

Hardwicke, who grew up in McAllen, Texas, says she remembers dressing up as Red Riding Hood for Halloween two years in a row. After her mother told her and a sister the story, Hardwicke insisted that her mother sew a red cape for her costume.

The little girl who was captivated by stories went on to study art in Mexico and worked as an an architect before moving into filmmaking.

“I loved architecture and building things, but it felt like people just wanted me to build same thing over and over,” Hardwicke says. “I thought the film business would encourage creativity, but more often than not, people want to do the same thing there, as well. ‘Red Riding Hood’ is the first film where I’ve been able to create the world I wanted.”

She notes that women directors are still in the minority in Hollywood, and says that “Red Hiding Hood” is the first studio film that’s both directed by a woman and shot by a female cinematographer (Mandy Walker).

It probably didn’t hurt that Hardwicke’s direction of “Twilight,” which launched the film franchise based on the best-selling novels by Stephenie Meyer, resulted in a $69.6 million box office take on opening weekend, the highest ever for a female director.

The symbol of fear in “Red Riding Hood” is the werewolf, a mythical creature whose beastly nature hides in human form by day. The director notes that people in Germany were put on trial for being werewolves as far back as 1589.

“Wolves just don’t seem like normal animals,” she says. “The way they hunt is terrifying. The Native Americans and cultures everywhere are fascinated by the beauty and terror of wolves.”

As Valerie discovers, bread may or may not ease our sorrow, but sooner or later, we all have to face the Big Bad Wolf.


March 4, 2011

Hooray for Hollywood…

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Television, Travel at 2:22 am by dinaheng

There’s nothing like unexpected visitors to get you out of the house and exploring parts of town you don’t often go to.

When my friends Lesley and Shane and their two children came to town on Oscar weekend, I suggested spending an afternoon in Hollywood. We weren’t invited onto the Red Carpet, but we enjoyed a few hours in the midst of the hubbub.

Being a wintry day, we popped into The Hollywood Museum where “10,000 REAL showbiz treasures” reside. Housed in the historic Max Factor building — once the headquarters of the cosmetics king who made the stars look fabulous — the museum features an extensive collection of show business memorabilia.

Stepping into the lobby, done in the Hollywood Regency Art Deco style of yore, is like taking a walk back in time to 1935, when the building first opened to stars like Joan Crawford, Claudette Colbert and Bette Davis, who came to the beauty salon for hair and makeup treatments.

Celebrity make-up rooms, painted in colors designed to flatter women with specific hair colors are maintained on the first floor (think mint green walls “for redheads” like Lucille Ball). The rooms are filled with photos of Hollywood’s leading ladies, costumes (like The Ruby Slippers that Judy Garland wore in “The Wizard of Oz”) and old fashioned versions of Max Factor powders, lipsticks and perfumes.

Factor, a pioneer in the field of movie makeup, is credited with inventing the first “thin”  greasepaint used in filmmaking, lip gloss, and pancake make up.

Every generation, of course, is drawn to its own icons, so it was no surprise that Mikhaila, 10, and Ben, 6, headed for the Harry Potter display case in the lobby, which features shoes worn by Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson with a photo of the Hogwarts heroes putting their palms in cement across the street at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre forecourt.

With four floors of exhibits, there was plenty to interest all of us — from a look at “Harlow in Hollywood,” a special exhibit commemorating Jean Harlow’s 100th birthday, to displays on  “Glee,” “Transformers” and “Star Trek.” The scary stuff was in the basement, where monster memorabilia and Hannibal Lecter’s jail cell from “The Silence of the Lambs” were the main attractions.

After a couple of hours, we moved from historic memories to an icon of living history — the El Capitan Theatre, a beautifully renovated movie house where Disney special events and film premieres are held. Built in 1926, the grandeur of years past can be experienced by audiences today who still enjoy live organ performances before each show.

My friends and I were escorted to seats on the main floor where we sat and looked at the ornate fixtures and old fashioned balcony section behind us. Done in an art moderne style, the East Indian interior was designed by San Francisco architect G. Albert Lansburgh. Since most movie theaters today are devoid of character, it was a real treat to sit in a true Hollywood landmark.

Before the show began, Mikhaila and I dashed out to the lobby to slather butter atop the popcorn that came in El Capitan plastic buckets (great for stashing everything from crayons to candy in later). We agreed that “movie popcorn is the best.”

Once the organist stopped playing, the lights went down, and a dazzling light show depicting Hollywood as the movie capital of the world came on. People may love the convenience of viewing movies on portable DVD players and TVs at home, but nothing beats watching a film on the silver screen with an audience who’s sharing the moment with you.

The movie of the moment for us was “Gnomeo & Juliet,” a delightful animated retelling of William Shakespeare’s play through the lives of garden gnomes caught up in a feud between the neighboring Red Cap Gnomes and the Blue Cap Gnomes. (I wish all GOP lawnmowers and Democratic flamingos would pay attention to this film.)

Then, despite bingeing on popcorn, we went in search of dinner after the show. Winding through the crowd on Hollywood Boulevard, we passed characters dressed like Spiderman (or was it Batman) and security guards directing foot traffic away from the Oscars Red Carpet set-ups.

A cold wind blew us into the Hard Rock Cafe, where the adults tried to converse over the loud music and the kids drew pictures with crayons and played with the video screen at the table. The food was decent, but I’ll never go there again without earplugs.

All too soon, it was time to end the day with a hooray for Hollywood, and heartfelt hugs with my friends… until the next visit.