June 30, 2011

The Wiggles celebrate 20th anniversary

Posted in Between Us column, Business, Entertainment at 1:57 am by dinaheng

The world may have changed in the last 20 years, but when it comes to the delight that children feel for the music and antics of The Wiggles, it’s good to know that some things never change.

My nephew Mark, who’s now six, has loved The Wiggles since he could stand up and well… wiggle. He’s learned the words to their songs, the moves to their dances, and the stories behind their characters on stage. He knows that Anthony (Field) likes to eat, Jeff (Fatt) is always falling asleep, Sam (Moran) is the one who sings, and Murray (Cook) loves to play his guitar. 

On July 3, The Wiggles will begin performing on stages across the United States on a “Big Birthday” Summer Tour that celebrates their 20th anniversary as the pop rock band favorite of children around the world.

“When you’re dealing with young children, it’s dealing with the world around them,” says Murray Cook — who, along with Anthony Field — was a pre-school teacher before The Wiggles became famous. “Children fundamentally haven’t changed. They’re just learning about the world with new technology that they accept more easily than older people because they know it’s not something to fear.”

When the group first started, Cook notes, performances were recorded on cassette tapes and videotapes. Today, it’s CDs and DVDs, along with an Internet presence that continues to use early childhood education principles in products that draw fans and their parents.

“We’ve tried to keep up with social media,” Cook says. “The parents have access to Facebook, YouTube and sites on the Internet, which is a good way for us to keep in touch with our audiences. Our live shows are bigger, and we cover the globe.”

This summer, parents have been invited to submit auditions online, performing their best rendition of “Fruit Salad,” for a shot at being the Fifth Wiggle on stage when the tour comes to their town. Cook says the competition recognizes that the group performs for families, not just the youngsters who scream and dance at their concerts.

Over the last few years, our family has joined Mark in seeing The Wiggles in concert in Houston (where he lives) or Los Angeles (where I live). It’s always a joyful event as we walk to the concert halls among families who know that celebrating the simple things in life is the best part of growing up.

No doubt that’s why the most popular Wiggles songs include “Fruit Salad,” “Hot Potato” and “Rock a Bye Your Bear” — after all, what could be more important than healthy eating, and sleeping safely in the arms of someone who loves you?

“We sing songs about a safe, innocent world,” Cook says. “We try to be as multicultural as we can, and that hasn’t changed. Because of technology, children are bombarded by images they weren’t exposed to in the past. We celebrate the innocence of childhood, and we love playing live on stage.”

For information on The Wiggles “Big Birthday” Summer Tour, check out http://www.thewiggles.com.



June 23, 2011

Mailman missing in action

Posted in Between Us column, Business, Employment, Politics at 4:08 am by dinaheng

I love the U.S. Postal Service.

Six days a week, rain or shine, mail carriers deliver the letters, magazines, bills, checks, advertising, and packages that, in a small way, define where we live. It’s like having your own personal Santa Claus who brings you a surprise every day — paychecks for being nice… and, well, we won’t talk about what you get for being naughty.

Since I live in a condominium, and the mailbox holds a limited amount of mail, I always file a vacation hold request with the post office when I travel. Recently, I was out of town for a couple of weeks, and asked that delivery resume on the day I returned.

I was surprised that there was no mail in the box or on my doorstep when I got back, so went into the post office to see what had happened. A clerk checked and told me there was no record of my vacation hold request and no mail was being held for me, so the carrier must have it. If nothing came today, the mail would resume tomorrow.

I went home, removed the vacation hold post-it that the carrier had placed inside my box, and left a note taped to the outside of the box that I was back. Next day, there was about a week’s worth of mail in the box. I called the branch to ask where was the rest of my mail. The person who answered looked around, found six pieces of mail on the vacation hold shelf, and said it would be delivered the next day. Unfortunately, everything else I was expecting was nowhere to be found.

She promised to give notes to the carrier and the supervisor, explaining that I was missing all my usual utility bills, bank statement, two credit card statements, and two paychecks.

My regular carrier, Cease, is always great about delivering my vacation hold mail intact, which is why I always give him a small token of appreciation at the holidays. Since he plays Santa year-round for me, the least I can do is say thanks at Christmastime. Besides, I have an uncle and a friend who are retired USPS folks, so I have great affection for the carriers who keep the nation’s mail running.

When nothing came in the mail the next day, I went back to the post office and spoke with one of the front desk clerks. They all know me there — by sight, if not by name — because I prefer buying stamps from human beings than vending machines. The clerk looked in the back, and found nothing. He told me that the route had changed, and Cease was no longer my carrier. The best thing to do, he said, was to talk to the new carrier about my missing mail.

So I started listening for the sound of the mailboxes opening each day. One day, I heard the metal rattle, and raced down to catch the new mailman. He told me he wasn’t the new carrier, just a substitute from another station who was helping out on the expanded route.

Over the next week, I became obsessed with meeting my new carrier. Driving home one day, I spotted a mail truck parked a few blocks west of our building. I got out, walked down the street and talked to the carrier a few doors down.

He said no, he wasn’t the new guy, either. He explained that due to budget cuts, the route I was on had expanded. “They cobbled together territories, and now the route’s too big,” he said. “There have been a ton of complaints about mail being late. I’m surprised your bills haven’t come by now. Usually, if it’s delivered to the wrong address, someone will send it back to the post office for re-delivery.”

At that point, I called all the folks I owe money to every month and asked them to resend the bills. The woman at American Express said, “Yup. Been there. Same thing happened to me last month.” The woman at Bank of America said, “You’d be surprised how often bank statements are lost in the mail. I wouldn’t worry about it.”

I asked those who owed me money to stop payment on the previous checks, and reissue new payments. After talking to neighbors, who also complained about delivery issues since our route change, I decided to ask Santa’s elves for the scoop.

“First class mail’s been the backbone of what pays for our service,” said Greg Frey, public relations representative for USPS, national headquarters. “We’ve had several years of problems from a severe recession, and consumer behavior has changed with the increased use of online bill paying and e-mail. We’ve had to reduce our operations in every way.”

Frey said that by law, USPS must visit every house or business six days a week. While the workforce has decreased, each carrier must stop at more addresses, even if there’s less mail to deliver, which I’m sure does not make Santa happy.

“We’re between $12 billion to $15 billion in the hole currently, and have cut more than 100,000 employees in the last three years,” Frey said. “We’re trying to continue our services and maintain standards. We may be a government organization, but we receive no taxpayer money. While McDonald’s can close a store if there are no customers, we can’t. We’re not asking for a bailout, just help from Congress to fix the financial issues.”

So if you’re missing any of your mail, call the Postal Service (800-275-8777) or e-mail them online at usps.com/customerservice.

A bit of trivia — the longest route in the nation is in Gridley, Kansas, with 182 miles and 258 deliveries. The shortest is in Henderson, Nevada, at 2.9 miles with 952 deliveries. In my Los Angeles neighborhood, there are 16,089 deliveries and 26 carrier routes, averaging about 618 deliveries per route. It’s a wonder more mail doesn’t get lost.

“Our delivery employees are professionals and adjust quickly to the new routes and environments, but there are sometimes delays associated with adjusting routes,” said Richard Maher, Los Angeles spokesperson for USPS. “If you receive someone else’s mail or do not get your mail, it’s important to let us know so that we can address the issue with your letter carrier.”

I still haven’t met my new carrier. I spotted a mail truck across the street yesterday, and walked down the street in search of its driver. When I caught up with him, he said no, he wasn’t the new carrier. “I’m helping out from another station until they figure out what to do with this route,” he said. “If it keeps going like this, you may not get a regular carrier again.”

Please don’t say that. Lobby Congress to cut mail delivery to five days a week. Add a penny to the Forever stamp. Just don’t take away my Santa Claus.

June 17, 2011

Palace Hotel stay fit for royalty

Posted in Between Us column, Travel, Women at 4:52 am by dinaheng

When it comes to history and elegance, The Palace Hotel in San Francisco is not to be missed.

Stepping into its grand lobby, meticulously maintained in a Beaux Arts style, transports you back in time to 1875 when guests arrived in horse-drawn carriages, and hundreds of gas jet lamps illuminated the seven-story hotel and courtyard.

When my sister Linda and I flew into town recently for a quick family reunion, we decided to treat ourselves to an overnight stay at the historic landmark hotel. Relatives on the West Coast had come together to celebrate the wedding of a cousin and her husband, who had gotten married on the East Coast a week before.

Before joining the family, Linda and I had time to take a San Francisco City Guides tour of The Palace Hotel, offered on Tuesdays and Saturdays at 10 a.m. and Thursdays at 2 p.m. Walking tours are free, with donations welcome to support the nonprofit group dedicated to preserving the history and folklore of San Francisco.

A tour and lunch in the hotel‘s Garden Court restaurant is also available for $25 per person.

Most of the time, I’d wager that guests who stay at older hotels — unless they’re true history buffs — don’t think much about the actual past of the building they’re sleeping in.

Rob Spoor, our volunteer tour guide, shared a colorful tale about The Palace Hotel that made Linda and me more appreciative of our surroundings. Behind the front desk are portraits of the hotel’s two original owners — William Chapman Ralston and Nevada Sen. William Sharon.

As the story goes, Ralston was a wealthy California investor and one of the founders of the Bank of California. He dreamed of creating the biggest hotel in the world, and in 1875, The Palace Hotel was built with 800 rooms for $5 million, the equivalent of $100 million today.

“It was the most expensive, luxurious hotel of its time, and was technologically advanced with safety features for fire and earthquake,” Spoor explained.

Unfortunately, just before its opening, the Bank of California collapsed, and the next day, Ralston’s body was found in the San Francisco Bay, presumed to be a suicide. Sharon, known for being a disreputable senator who rarely appeared in Nevada, living instead in San Francisco, took sole ownership of the hotel and opened it in 1875. Hmm… guess history hasn’t changed much in some respects.

The luxurious lodging, fit for royalty, attracted society’s finest. Over the years, it hosted Don Pedro III, Emperor of Brazil, who was the first reigning monarch to visit the United States in 1876; King Albert and Queen Elizabeth of Belgium, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Presidents Warren G. Harding, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt,  notables like Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie, Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt and more.

But when the famed 1906 San Francisco earthquake — somewhere between a 7.9 to 8.3 on the Richter scale — struck, all that was left of the hotel was its exterior walls. The Palace was razed and rebuilt in 1907, then was sold to Sheraton Hotels in 1954, which sold it in 1973 to the Japanese group Kyo-Ya. The hotel continues to be owned by Kyo-Ya, and in the 1990s became part of the Starwood Luxury Collection.

We walked through The Pied Piper Bar & Grill, which features an amazing 1909 Maxfield Parrish painting of “The Pied Piper” and two murals by San Francisco artist Antonio Sotomayer, admiring the marble mosaic tiled floors, oak carved walls and colored glass ceiling as they would have looked in 1909.

We learned that half of the Grand Ballroom, once called The Rose Room, was once a private dining room for women. Apparently, women traveling alone in 1909 who didn’t want to be hassled by men in public had to sequester themselves in separate hotel dining rooms. Thankfully, that’s not the case today — at least not in this country.

The tour doesn’t take you to the guest room floors, but the hotel’s long corridors are brightly lit with historic-looking sconces. Rooms are spacious, and Linda and I were lucky enough to get upgraded to a corner parlor suite for the night. Room rates, depending on date of arrival,  start at $179 a night. Parking is $48 a night.

The elegance of the past is reflected in furnishings and bed linens that invite you to sit back (or lie down) and just relax. While we loved the Gilchrist & Soames amenities in the bathroom, Linda declared, “I refuse to get on the scale.”

With a location in the financial district, guests can expect to hear the sounds of the city and an occasional ambulance siren in the background. But you’re also within walking distance of Union Square and Chinatown.

The next morning, Linda and I sampled the breakfast buffet in The Garden Court downstairs. This, perhaps, is the most beautiful room in the hotel, with a domed ceiling made of iridescent glass that allows filtered sunlight into one of the largest public rooms in the world (about 8,000 square feet). Austrian crystal chandeliers add to the opulence.

On Sundays, breakfast from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. is the buffet ($29 per person) that we sampled. From 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., the restaurant offers a more extensive Sunday Jazz Brunch for $68 per person, with entertainment.

Unfortunately, the earlier breakfast buffet was a disappointment. While the offerings were varied, the dishes were standard fare that was lukewarm in their chafing dishes. The only truly hot items we had were the oatmeal (which was creamy and delicious with numerous available toppings) and the bread, which you can toast yourself. The house baked pastries were hard to the touch.

All in all, our stay was lovely, though. We may not have been royalty or luminaries, but it sure was fun to walk in their footsteps and imagine life in the Gilded Age. Clearly, The Palace Hotel was the place to stay, and for loyal fans today, it still is.



June 10, 2011

Taking a sick day…

Posted in Between Us column, Health, Women at 2:43 am by dinaheng

It’s no fun being sick, but if you have to suffer through an illness, sometimes it’s nice to have company.

I’m dealing with post-concussion symptoms from a head injury. My nephew Mark, who’s out of school because of a cough, came over to Grandma’s house to play with me.

After waking me up, the ever-energetic six-year-old followed me to the bathroom, where I brushed my teeth and washed my face. When I jumped in the shower, he tapped on the shower curtain, to remind me that he was still there, so I had to play the knock-knock game.

As I showered, he’d tap on the curtain, and I’d ask, “Who’s there? Is it Superman?… Is it Batman?… Is it Green Lantern?” He, of course, would giggle and say no. I went through every superhero my brain could remember, then moved on to the characters in The Wiggles, his favorite rock band. By the time I finished showering, he was ready to play with his Matchbox cars.

It never ceases to amaze me how children — unless they’re seriously ill — can be sick and continue playing until day’s end. Having fun is the focus of their lives, and nothing interferes with that, except uncooperative adults.

Sitting on the floor with Mark, I started pushing race cars toward him. He’d catch them, send them back to me, and giggle each time one car would crash into another. Our game was interrupted when a neighbor came over with a cake and asked to take Grandma and Mark down the street to visit another friend for a while.

Mark agreed to go — field trip! — as long as I promised to stay at Grandma’s house and not go anywhere without him. As they left, I headed for the computer to check e-mail and take a swig of Pepto Bismol.

Before long, Mark was back. He had ditched Grandma and her friends in favor of playing with Auntie Dinah. Now I know what the popular girls felt like in high school. Wherever I went in the house, Mark would dutifully follow.

After watching me type on the computer for a few minutes, he lay down on the bed, patiently waiting for me to finish so that we could play again. E-mails done, I led him back to the family room and set up a game of toss the soft balls into an empty box. I’m proud to say I tied him for tournament honors.

After giving him some cough medicine, I felt the need to lie down on the couch. Mark snuggled up against me, staying quiet for five minutes. When I declined to get up immediately, he moved over to the next couch and watched TV with Grandma while I dozed.

So the day went… a little bit of play, a little bit of rest. As sick days go, it wasn’t bad. Work may be the focus of our days as adults, but getting sick is a good reminder to schedule more of what’s important in life.

More play dates!


June 2, 2011

Hooray for ‘Other Mothers’!

Posted in Between Us column, Relationships, Women at 3:48 pm by dinaheng

There is no substitute for the love and support of parents, but when a biological mother or father isn’t around, who fills in the gap?

For some, the parental figure may be a grandparent, uncle or aunt. Others may turn to foster parents, teachers, or caring neighbors. To recognize these “Other Mothers,” SOS Children’s Villages is holding its first annual “Other Mothers Contest” between the traditional Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.

Teresa Scanlan, Miss America 2011, and other celebrity judges will select 10 finalists shortly, and the public will vote online to select the Other Mother of the Year and runners-up. The results will be announced on June 16, before Father’s Day.

“There are many people in our lives who don’t fit on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day cards,” says Heather Paul, CEO of the U.S. headquarters of SOS Children’s Villages. “In this economy, many people are returning home, and there are more than six million grandparents who have their grandchildren living with them now.

“Twenty percent of those arrangements don’t have the parents in the home, so that speaks to the challenges and difficulties parents are facing today. With so many of our troops overseas, you see a lot of grandparents filling in there, too. Grandparents who serve as surrogate parents is a growing trend.”

SOS Children’s Villages is a large NGO in Europe that’s starting to make its name known in the United States. The organization, dedicated to raising children who are without parental care, operates 518 villages in 132 countries.

There may be 15 to 20 houses in any given village, with trained surrogate mothers who provide a family environment for children who have been abused, neglected or abandoned. SOS Children’s Villages’ priority is to keep siblings together, and also provides day care, family support services, counseling and vocational training to neighboring communities.

There are three SOS Children’s Villages in the United States based in Broward County, Fla., Lockport, Ill. and South Chicago, Ill.

“The first U.S. village opened 17 years ago in Florida, where a family court judge was saddened by children falling through the cracks,” Paul says. “She knew someone who’d heard of SOS Children’s Villages in Europe, and helped to open one here. SOS was started in 1949 by a young medical student who had lost his mother when he was young. He was struck by the devastation of orphans at every turn after the war, and started the first village in Austria.”

In the United States, SOS Children’s Villages serve roughly 400 children in Florida and Illinois, all of whom are foster children in the system.

“We do our best to stabilize them,” Paul says. “The average stay is two to three years. They leave because of adoption or family reunification. For those who stay with us until they become adults, we insist they get a high school degree. Since the backbone of all SOS Villages is the trained surrogate mother, we thought it was important to recognize all ‘Other Mothers.’ ”

Donated prizes for The Other Mothers Contest include a family of Schwinn bicycles, a 4  day/3 night getaway to one of Marriott’s Residence Inns, Amway gift baskets, Barnes & Noble NOOK Color Reader’s Tablets and Love Quotes scarves.

If you’d like to read about the nominees and vote for your favorite, check out www.Sos-Usa.org/OtherMothers.

It’s one vote that is sure to matter.