December 29, 2011

Resolve to make meaningful connections

Posted in Between Us column, Business, Employment, Entertainment, Health, Relationships at 6:04 pm by dinaheng

The future may be filled with technology-driven toys, but nothing will connect us more than personal interactions.

As the holiday season wanes, the kids are out of school and I’m working at Grandma’s house with a little babysitting thrown in. Today, I’m writing this on a laptop while my 7-year-old nephew Mark is watching a movie on an iPad, and his 10-year-old sister Emily is playing Angry Birds on her iPhone.

Yesterday, Emily and I spent much of the afternoon playing Monopoly on an old-fashioned board while Mark tossed a ball with me in between my dice throws. Whatever form the entertainment takes, we’re all hanging together in the same room, which is the real key to connectivity.

In an uncertain economy, adults are working harder than ever — to make ends meet and to stave off the fear of losing the jobs we have. People neglect their health and well being, going to work when they’re sick in order to “get things done,” no doubt infecting  co-workers in the process.

Co-workers and bosses e-mail colleagues when they’re on vacation, giving no real break from the work world. We may love our jobs, but what is the point of taking time off, if we can’t get away from the office?

Having little time to take care of things at home adds to the stress of everyday living, and cuts down even more on the meaningful connections in our lives. When there’s no time to return calls to friends, or lend a helping hand without feeling stressed, the heart is squeezed even more.

At the same time, kids are asking for more and more expensive toys, in the form of electronic devices that run the gamut from tablets to smartphones to video games. They love texting more than talking on the phone, and have to be told to put their phones away at the dinner table.

If using electronic devices becomes more interesting than spending time with human beings, we really need to look at the way we’re connecting — or not connecting — with others. There will always be new tech toys to buy. But you can’t buy lost time with the people you love.

As we ring in the new year, resolve to make more time for yourself. Eat healthier foods,  exercise more (even if only a little), get offline, and spend more face time with people. Your heart will feel the difference.

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December 17, 2011

Gift card shoppers beware

Posted in Between Us column, Business at 5:31 pm by dinaheng

The great thing about giving gift cards is they’re easy to mail to folks in other cities, they give the recipient the opportunity to buy whatever he or she wants, and the good ones  usually don’t have an expiration date.

The bad thing about gift cards is that they’re vulnerable to theft in ways we rarely think about.

I was at a Los Angeles-area Macy’s recently, ready to use a Macy’s gift card that one of  my sisters had given me for Christmas last year. Yes, it was purchased in December 2010. I kept forgetting to take it with me whenever I went to the store, one of the downsides of getting gift cards.

Anyway, when I got to the register to check out, the sales clerk rang me up, scratched off the PiN code on the back of the card… and the gift card registered a zero balance.

I had never used the card, and had a gift receipt for its purchase.  The adhesive holding it to the gift card enclosure was still on it. But when a sales supervisor looked up the gift card number, records show that two purchases had been made on the card in February 2011 at a Macy’s in the Torrance area, where I’ve never been.

The sales supervisor looked at me askance, saying I could follow up with the store where the purchases were made if I wished. I pointed out that the two items purchased equaled $75 — the exact amount of the gift card — and that the clerk in his store was the one who scratched off the activation code. When I said I’d be looking into the matter further, he decided to call Macy’s gift card fraud department.

He discovered that the card had, indeed, been used fraudulently by someone who had keyed in the right numbers. How did that person get the gift card number and PIN code? Common sense would indicate the culprit had access to store information, and might have been an employee, or in collusion with an employee.

There are numerous ways to scam gift card numbers, ranging from stolen receipts that show the gift card number and value, to copying or scanning unsold gift card numbers and checking websites to see when a card is activated.

An estimated $97.2 billion in gift cards were purchased during the 2010 holiday season, according to research done by the Mercator Advisory Group.

“As with other types of cards, gift cards are not immune to exposure to fraud and theft,” says Beth Charlton, director of issue management and special projects, corporate communications for Macy’s, Inc. “The gift card owner should monitor the balance of the
card regularly to ensure its value.  If an owner suspects a problem, immediately contact the store or store’s customer service center to report any concern.  Owners should always keep a gift card in a secure place.”

The sales supervisor I dealt with immediately gave me a new gift card, apologizing for the inconvenience. Given the prevalence of gift card fraud, I didn’t blame him for looking at me with suspicion at first.

Clearly, retailers don’t want to call attention to this issue because it could cut into their sales, especially during the crucial holiday season. But since stores seem unable to completely outwit gift card thieves, the best advice anyone can heed is “buyer AND user beware.”

December 9, 2011

‘New Year’s Eve’ brings much to celebrate

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Movies at 7:50 pm by dinaheng

Love, forgiveness, hope and new adventures beckon every time we turn the calendar page to a new year, and director Garry Marshall’s ode to “New Year’s Eve” reminds audiences that at any moment, we all can create our lives anew.

A multitude of Hollywood’s A-list stars can be seen in the film — now out in theaters — that weaves a montage of storylines together around the countdown to the ball drop in New York’s Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

While there are two or three storylines too many in this film, the romantic romp and reminder of love’s importance in our lives — no matter how young or how old we may be — is worth seeing.

One character that many will relate to is Hailey, a 15-year-old played by Abigail Breslin who longs for independence and her first kiss in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, rather than sitting at home, as usual, with her mom (Sarah Jessica Parker) watching the festivities on TV.

“Hailey loves her mom and never wants to be mean to her,” Breslin says. “Her parents are divorced, and she wants her mom to have a life, so she’s wise in that way. But Hailey tries to show that she’s not a child anymore, and ends up pushing it too far.”

When her mom nixes Hailey’s request to hang out in Times Square with her friends, the rebellious teen sneaks out anyway. What she sees when she catches up to her classmates breaks her heart… for the moment.

Breslin, now 15, has been acting since age five, and is perhaps best known for her role in the irreverent comedy “Little Miss Sunshine.” “New Year’s Eve” marks her first on-screen kiss, and she says actor Jake T. Austin “was very nice” in their scene together.

Her New Year’s Eve will probably be spent watching the ball drop in Times Square on TV with her family, and while one New Year’s resolution may or may not be to stop biting her fingernails, “I really want to learn bar chords on the guitar next year,” she says.

“I’m in a band with my friend Cassidy Reiff called CABB, and we wrote a song called ‘Well Wishes’ that’s on YouTube,” explains Breslin. The song, in honor of a terminally ill girl named Alice, urges fans to get tested to become bone marrow donors (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K6bg-eFig5A).

When she’s not working on music, she enjoys being on set, learning about different personalities as she prepares to play different characters. This is her third Marshall film, making her part of the cast and crew that the director uses regularly in his movies.

“Getting to work with Garry three times is such an honor,” Breslin says. “It’s like having another grandfather.”

She’s also a fan of Hector Elizondo, a longtime member of the Marshall repertory who’s appeared in every one of Marshall’s 17 feature films.

“I never got to be in a scene with Hector, but he’s really cool,” Breslin says. “He came in on one of my scenes with Sarah Jessica Parker, holding a piece of cake, as a joke. I’ve talked with him a little bit, and he’s a fantastic actor.”

Elizondo, an eloquent man at ease with everyone, plays a gifted engineer named Kominsky in the film, a part written specifically for him.

“We invented Mr. Kominsky, who brings the light to the darkness,” says Elizondo, a native New Yorker who relishes his collaborations with Marshall. “My character is a man who lost his job because he was a whistleblower. He told them the ball wasn’t going to drop one day, and when he was proven right, they brought him back and made him head of the department. Without the ball and no light, no movie.

“Garry and I have made movies like this forever. The only rule we apply is that my character must help the narrative along. It’s not how long the character’s in the movie, but if the character makes a difference.”

For example, while Elizondo was on screen for less than 10 minutes in the film “Pretty Woman,” anyone who saw the movie would instantly recognize him as the discreet hotel manager Barney Thompson. Or they might remember him as Joe, the bodyguard to Julie Andrews’s character in “The Princess Diaries” franchise.  Or his role as Edgar in “Valentine’s Day.”

“Garry and I are both about the same age; we’re from New York; we love comedy, music, and we have a tendency to like happy endings because we know that life doesn’t guarantee anything,” Elizondo says. “But we also have differences. Part of my psyche is still in the past, thinking about what might have been better. Garry looks back for a moment, then says, that’s enough. Let’s move on. We are a good marriage. I  make him think about things he might have skipped over, and he makes me move on.”

“New Year’s Eve,” Elizondo says, asks the question, what is success? And like all Marshall films, the answer that is given is that success is the capacity to love.

“It’s all about love and connection,” Elizondo says. “This movie is a wonderful contrivance about starting over. I don’t have to be a dummy. I can make up for some of the stupid things I did. I can get a sense of gratitude, and do things better next year.  Art changes you. Otherwise, it’s just entertainment, which doesn’t change the way you  make human connections. Good music makes you listen, and good movies lift you.”

“New Year’s Eve” is a feel-good-movie that will make you want to do more, appreciate  more, and love more in the coming year. Now that’s something worth celebrating.