October 30, 2013

Hallmark’s ‘Countdown to Christmas’ begins

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Movies, Television at 7:52 pm by dinaheng

The holiday movie season on the Hallmark Channel starts this weekend with the premiere of “The Thanksgiving House,” a romantic comedy starring Emily Rose as a Boston lawyer who inherits a Plymouth house that may be on the site of the original Turkey Day feast on Saturday, Nov. 2 at 8 p.m. Eastern.

When attorney Mary Ross (Rose) tries to save her childhood memories by keeping the house, she battles local historian Everett Mather (Justin Bruening), who is trying to prove the house’s historical significance. Their battle turns the place into an unexpected tourist attraction, and when legal mediation is needed, attorney Parker Mather (Bruce Boxleitner) steps in to help.Dinah Eng

“LIndsay Wagner and I play Everett’s parents,” says Boxleitner, a veteran actor known for his roles on TV shows like “Scarecrow and Mrs. King” and “Babylon 5” and the “Tron” movie franchise. “It’s all about the conflict over the house, when romance blossoms between the two young leads. My job is to look like I know what I’m saying as the lawyer who represents Everett. I also carve a mean turkey.”

Boxleitner says the Thanksgiving-themed movie is a good reminder to be grateful for what we have in a busy world where we often take so much for granted.

“There are a lot of places in the world where people haven’t eaten in a while,” he says. “Thanksgiving should be the most important holiday in our iPhone/iPad culture, which is   supposed to make lives easier, and doesn’t. People are the most important part of life, and Thanksgiving is a time for everyone to get together with loved ones and be thankful.”

Photo from "The Thanksgiving House." Copyright 2013 Crown Media United States, LLC/Photographer: Alexx Henry

Photo from “The Thanksgiving House.” Copyright 2013 Crown Media United States, LLC/Photographer: Alexx Henry

The actor, who also stars in Hallmark’s hit series “Debbie Macomber’s Cedar Cove,” (Saturday nights at 8 p.m. Eastern), plays a patriarchal character named Bob Beldon, a recovered alcoholic who runs the town’s B&B with his wife Peggy (Barbara Niven). The network’s first original scripted series, based on the best-selling author’s books about the residents of the picturesque town of Cedar Cove, Wash., has topped the rankings for non-sports cable shows on Saturday night.

“You don’t have many shows like ‘Cedar Cove’ on TV now,” Boxleitner says. “Instead, we have serial killers, vampires and zombies. ‘Cedar Cove’ is a little town with a big heart, where we talk a lot about life with people who are relatable. It’s a place where people are trying second chances.”

Boxleitner is working on another second act as co-creator and producer of a sci-fi project called “Lantern City” that he describes as “Game of Thrones” and “Boardwalk Empire” steam punk (www.lanterncitytv.com).

“We’re going to the fans first to bring a built-in fan convention base to the buyers,” he explains. “I’m trying to bring on the next ‘Babylon 5.’ Sci-fi used to have a bright, optimistic future that stemmed from the Kennedy era. Now, it’s darker. Shows reflect the times we’re in, and we’re not in that bright, optimistic time anymore.”

He says that’s why Hallmark’s programming is so appealing, bringing a more hopeful view of the world to audiences.

This year, the network’s annual “Countdown to Christmas” will feature 12 new movies about Christmas, a Walden Family Theater Original Movie, and holiday programming including The 125th Tournament of Roses Parade and holiday movie favorites from the past.

Following “The Thanksgiving House” will be Hallmark Channel original movie premieres of “Pete’s Christmas” (a Walden Family Theater film, November 8), “Snow Bride” (November 9), “A Very Merry Mix-Up” (November 10), and more.

For a complete schedule of movies and specials in the network’s “Countdown to Christmas,” check out http://www.hallmarkchannel.com/christmas/movies1.

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October 25, 2013

Fall books full of fun reading

Posted in Between Us column, Books at 5:26 pm by dinaheng

If we are what we read, I guess I’m guilty of being a closet adventure seeker, enthralled with fantasy tales, romance, and stories that remind us of the goodness in life and each other.

Three Young Adult novels caught my eye recently. Each is part of a trilogy that shares the story of a young woman who grows to find her own strength, and leads others toward a more positive future. And while the circumstances surrounding the heroines may feel like every other dystopian novel, the characters hold a distinct light, saving the tales from conventional darkness.Dinah Eng

In Rae Carson’s “The Bitter Kingdom” (Greenwillow Books, $17.99), we learn the fate of Elisa, Godstone bearer and queen of Joya d’Arena, who leads a rescue mission to save Hector, Lord Commander of the Royal Guard, from the enemies who would take her kingdom and her one true love.

The book, which concludes “The Girl of Fire and Thorns” trilogy, is a fast-moving adventure story, filled with allegories that question why religious beliefs and racial prejudice so often lead to war. Elisa’s transformation from an overweight teen to a wise and regal queen is a journey every girl will relate to, and every woman will wish she could make.

"Deception" by C.J. Redwine

“Deception” by C.J. Redwine

C.J. Redwine takes fans of “Defiance” to a deeper, darker world of emotions in the book’s sequel, “Deception” (Balzer + Bray, $17.99), as Rachel, a warrior in a world where women are expected to be meek, struggles with the aftermath of losing her father and other loved ones as she goes on the run with a group of rebels into the Wasteland.

This book, the middle tale of the trilogy, is relentless in exploring Rachel’s anger and grief, which complicates her relationship with Logan, the young leader of the rebels. But as anyone who’s ever suffered a broken heart knows, you have to work through (not gloss over) the pain, in order to truly love with a full heart.

Tapping into a different cultural mythology, Lesley Livingston’s “Starling” series combines modern day life in Manhattan with characters descended from Norse mythology. In “Descendant” (Harper Teen, $17.99), Mason Starling is stranded in Asgard, home of the Norse gods and goddesses, while her true love, Fenrys, tries to rescue her before she takes the Spear of Odin, a relic that will set a terrible prophecy in motion.

At its heart, this is a story about a dysfunctional family, a battle between powerful, greedy humans who have lost their way, and a star-crossed romance that you’re bound to cheer for.

"Fortunately, The Milk" by Neil Gaiman

“Fortunately, The Milk” by Neil Gaiman

For the 8 to 12-year-old reader, there’s a charming new tale by the prolific, bestselling author, Neil Gaiman called “Fortunately, the Milk” (HarperCollins, $14.99). The book shares the adventure of what happens when a father runs out to buy milk for his children, gets kidnapped by aliens, meets a time-traveling Stegosaurus, and well… you get the idea.

Illustrated with wacky drawings by artist Skottie Young, this imaginative tale from the mind of a man who’s clearly picked up his share of milk will amuse both young readers and parents alike.

Since it’s nearly Halloween, the youngest readers will enjoy “Lulu Goes to Witch School” by Jane O’Conner (HarperCollins, $16.99), part of the “I Can Read – Level 2” series. Illustrated by Bella Sinclair, this sweet story teaches some important lessons about acceptance and friendship.

The little witch in all of us is guaranteed to smile.

October 10, 2013

Friendship drives day-trip to Nashville

Posted in Art, Between Us column, Dining, Travel, Women at 10:34 pm by dinaheng

Take two girlfriends who haven’t seen each other in a couple of years, one day together, and where do you go?

My friend Christine and I decided to spend that day in Nashville, Tenn., an hour from her home and a four-plus hour plane ride from my home in Los Angeles. For two women who love to talk about everything, it was a sweet, albeit brief, reunion of two kindred souls.Dinah Eng

Arriving on Friday afternoon, we checked into the Loews Vanderbilt, a contemporary haven in Nashville’s Midtown, a charming and bustling area west of downtown by Vanderbilt University (2100 West End Ave.). The hotel, which has completed a $17 million renovation, features a new lobby, new guest bathrooms, a new Mason’s restaurant and Mason Bar, and an updated outdoor patio space.

The lobby has a definite masculine feel, with straight, square lines reflected in the furniture and dark wood paneling. A floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace adds warmth to the space, along with The Rehearsal Room, a group gathering space off the lobby. In the great room, a Hank Williams mural wall is a clever nod to country music singers, whose faces make up the little squares in the mural. Seating includes connectivity for those who need to stay plugged-in online.

Lobby fireplace at Loews Vanderbilt Hotel in Nashville. Photo courtesy of Loews Hotels.

Lobby fireplace at Loews Vanderbilt Hotel in Nashville. Photo courtesy of Loews Hotels.

After checking in, Christine and I made our way up to our room, stopping for a sip of “welcome fruit punch,” which was a great idea, but unfortunately, tasted like watered down Kool-Aid.

Upstairs, however, we were delighted with our room, which was both spacious and beautifully decorated in rust and beige colors. We were impressed with the layout of the room, which featured two comfortable beds, a side table with two lounge chairs, a desk and entertainment center. The wall by the bathroom door was angled, giving easier access to one of the beds, and a place to hang a full-length mirror, a creative use of space. The bathroom, which featured Lather Inc. toiletries, a walk-in shower, and tiles that looked like washed white Birchwood, was well-appointed and stylish. (Our room ran about $239 plus tax for a Friday night.)

After unpacking, we headed out to see The Parthenon in Centennial Park (2600 West End Ave.), just a few blocks from the hotel. The Parthenon, the world’s only full-scale replica of the famous Athens’ temple in Greece, was an impressive sight. The structure houses the city’s art museum and Athena Parthenos, a massive sculpture of the Greek goddess Athena by Nashville sculptor Alan LeQuire that stands nearly 42 feet tall, making it the largest piece of indoor sculpture in the Western World.

The Parthenon in Nashville.  Photo courtesy of Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The Parthenon in Nashville. Photo courtesy of Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“I love it that a city known for country music decided to call itself the ‘Athens of the South,’ “ Christine said.

Before long, it was time to head out to Cheekwood Botanical Garden & Museum of Art (1200 Forrest Park Drive), a beautiful 55-acre estate in West Nashville built by the Cheek family, owners of a wholesale grocery business that invested in Maxwell House Coffee and made a fortune. Cheekwood offers lectures, special events, exhibitions and more yearround.

We were fortunate enough to catch part of Bruce Munro’s “Light At Cheekwood,” an amazing large-scale light-based installation that covered the grounds, along with a more intimate exhibit in the Museum of Art, a 30,000-square-foot Georgian-style mansion that was built for the Cheek family.

Inside the museum, we walked through works that Munro had designed, inspired by personal experiences, childhood memories, literature and popular culture. Each piece played with light, and as we walked past the word “Light” in different languages (“Lumiere,” “Luz” and “Licht”) on the wall above us, it was a reminder that when we see the light in everyone, we will understand that inside, we are all One.

Bruce Munro's "Light" exhibition at Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art. Photo by Kyle Dreier.

Bruce Munro’s “Light” exhibition at Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art. Photo by Kyle Dreier.

“So often, people don’t take the long view,” Christine said, looking at Munro’s pieces of light. “They’d rather talk about terrorists than who’s going to grow their food when the land is a desert because of climate change. People don’t want to change their behavior even a little because it’s inconvenient.”

After an all-too-short walk through the gallery, we returned to the hotel to rest and have dinner in our room. We talked about our lives, the need to make time for relaxation, and the blessing of our friendship. Before long, it was time to go to sleep.

The next morning, we decided to have breakfast at Marché Artisan Foods, a small cafe and marketplace in East Nashville (1000 Main Street). A popular neighborhood eatery, the place was filled with people waiting for a table. As diners waited, they could peruse the bakery case or look through cabinet shelves filled with items like Drew’s Brews, hand-roasted coffee made in Nashville and Apple Jams from the midwest.

The restaurant, which does not take reservations, has both individual and community tables. While it’s a charming space, be warned that the crowd is noisy and there are no acoustic features to dampen the din.

The breakfast menu runs the gamut from pastries and oatmeal to crepes and omelettes, with entrees reasonably priced around $10. I ordered an almond croissant ($2.75) and the Anson Mills Organic Oatmeal with plums and cream ($5). Christine had the Crepes du Jour ($10), made with roasted chicken, spinach and goat cheese, with roasted red pepper tomato sauce. We both ordered the Noble Blood Orange Juice ($4).

Sadly, the food was nothing special. My almond croissant tasted like it had sat in the case overnight. The oatmeal was fine, but not memorable. Christine called her crepes “ordinary.” We were both disappointed to discover that the orange juice was not fresh-squeezed, but was packaged.

All too soon, it was time to head out to the airport, and to say our good-byes. Nashville was a great rendezvous point, and as we hugged each other farewell, we promised that it wouldn’t be so long before we got together again.

That, of course, is the way all good visits should end.

October 1, 2013

Buying a new mattress no bed of roses

Posted in Between Us column, Business at 8:11 pm by dinaheng

I was so looking forward to buying a new bed.

Having a 15-year-old mattress that had started to sag, I began looking at various options — department store sales, online offerings, and local mattress stores.  I eliminated the online option because I couldn’t see buying something to sleep on that I’d not tested out in person.

The department store prices seemed high, with no room for negotiation, so I went to several area mattress stores. In the Los Angeles area, that meant Sit ‘N’ Sleep, Leeds Mattress Stores, Ortho Mattress and Los Angeles Mattress Stores.Dinah Eng

While the sales staff at the Los Angeles Mattress Store and Ortho Mattress in my area were pleasant, the prices were on the steep side. Sit ‘N’ Sleep and Leeds Mattress had better deals, but the sales tactics were all aimed at upselling.

While you’d think a mattress store wouldn’t sell flimsy bed frames, one Sit ‘N’ Sleep salesman said I could either get “the standard” so-so frame with my bed “for free,” or pay a little more to get a sturdier frame that would last. I ended up going to Leeds Mattress, where one patient salesman let me lie on bed after bed, without offering any opinions.

Once I decided on a Stearns & Foster Tonya Luxury Plush at Leeds, I ordered a queen size mattress set, which comes with a 25 year warranty. The retail price at the time was $1,699. I haggled it down to $1,000, plus tax. (Retail prices change all the time, and mattress stores put things on sale at every holiday, so if you can, start shopping before you really need to buy to determine a pricing strategy.)

This column would have been about how to choose the best mattress and price strategies, except…

Within a week of delivery, I was changing the sheets on the bed when the phone rang.  I answered it, sat on a corner edge of the bed, and fell to the floor. Fortunately, the carpeting saved my rear end and nothing was injured.

I went around the three exposed edges of the bed, sitting on them, and discovered that one side and one corner were firm, while the other side and other corner immediately gave way  when I sat down. Not long after that, the bed started sagging underneath my body, and I’d wake up with backaches.

When I complained to the Leeds store manager, he said if it was defective, it could be exchanged at no charge, but to be frank, it would be very hard to prove that the mattress was defective because the industry standard is to measure the dip (without a body in the bed), and the sag must be at least 1 1/2 inches deep.  You can forget about edges that don’t hold up — the inspector won’t sit on the bed — so you’re stuck with that problem.

He insisted that customers must sleep in a new bed for at least 30 days, so that the body has time to adjust to the new mattress.  I can understand giving it a couple of weeks, but why give yourself a continual backache when you know the cause is the bed you bought?

Another option, he said, would be a “comfort exchange,” where I could give up the warranty claim and just pay a 20 percent restocking fee, a $50 delivery charge, and oh… any difference in cost between what I paid and the one I’d prefer (at the list price, not the sales price). As you can imagine, I hit the roof.  While the first two requirements  had been explained before the sale, no one mentioned having to also pay a difference in cost at the list price, making a “comfort exchange,” in essence, paying double for a new mattress set.

So I called Sealy — the manufacturer of Sealy, Sealy Posturepedic, Optimum and Stearns & Foster — to discuss the issue, and ended up filing a warranty claim.

Allen Platek, vice president of marketing for Sealy, explained that warranties are based on mattress defects, and are not based on the product being worn out over time.

“We rarely see defects beyond the first year,” Platek said. “The main reason products are returned are due to body impressions (that 1 1/2 inch sag). Stitches could have been missed when sewn, or come loose and become unraveled; an edge blows out.”

When it comes to choosing a new mattress, Platek offered some simple recommendations:

* Go online before you shop to see what’s on the marketplace. Read blogs and mattress reviews before you set foot in a store.

* Lay on the mattress for at least 10 minutes to see if it’s comfortable to you. Never buy a mattress based on how many springs are in it. One may have 1,000 springs made of light wire gauge, and another with 600 springs that are made of very heavy wire, making the latter the one with better quality.

* Do look for the quality of the foam and its density. The standard average density is 1 1/2 lb. per cubic feet.

* Comfort is king. You need to find the mattress that allows you to sleep the longest without waking up. For some people, that means sleeping on a plush or pillowtop mattress. Others may prefer a firm or ultra firm mattress.

Stephanie Sheron, supervisor of consumer support and contract at Sealy, says comfort is sometimes hard to determine because there may have been 300 to 400 people who have lay down on a floor model, making the mattress seem softer than a new one will be.

“We have some consumers who purchase online from Walmart or Amazon, who are getting a good price, but they’re not laying on it and touching it,” Sheron said. “When it comes to breaking in a new mattress, we ask people to sleep on it at least a couple of weeks. You can make a firm mattress softer with a bed topper, but you can’t make a soft mattress firmer.”

She says Sealy warranty replacements are less than 2 percent a year across all its brands.

Going through the warranty or comfort exchange is an extremely frustrating process. Since the retailer doesn’t want to lose money, customers are put through every hoop imaginable. What happens to the mattresses that are returned in “comfort exchanges”?

“We can resell a return if it’s sanitized and tagged,” said Mike Moshiri, a regional manager for Leeds Mattress Stores, “just like we can sell floor models where people have lay on them, but they’ve not been taken home and perspired on.

“For us, it’s a tax write-off when the mattress comes back. The 20 percent restocking fee covers the cost of buying you a new mattress and the profit from the first mattress sale. If you want a different mattress, it will cost you.”

As for my mattress, Leeds waived the inspection fee, and a third-party inspector came out to measure the sag in my Stearns & Foster bed. He found a one-inch sag on one side (the side I slept on) and a half-inch sag on the other side (where no one had slept). While it didn’t meet the 1 1/2 inch warranty standard, Sealy replaced the mattress as a courtesy.

The replacement mattress is great. The edges hold up, and after the first month, there’s been no sag and no backaches. Fingers crossed that it stays this way.

The bed buying nightmare is over, with a big lesson learned — it’s not just buyer beware of what you’re buying; it’s buyer beware of the retailer and manufacturer’s return policies.