November 26, 2013

Kids Vision for Life gives eyeglasses to needy students

Posted in Between Us column, Business, Health at 11:41 pm by dinaheng

If a student can’t see the blackboard, it’s likely to affect his or her ability to learn.

Through Kids Vision for Life, a project initiated by the Essilor Vision Foundation, students in a growing number of states are getting access to free vision screenings and free eyeglasses, which educators say is making a difference in the classroom.Dinah Eng

The project, which launched in 2008, is backed by Essilor of America, a division of the world’s largest eyeglass lens manufacturer, the Alcon Foundation, Safilo, Lions Clubs International, and other partners.

“It’s incredible to see the need,” says Patrick Esquerré, a board member of Kids Vision for Life and founder of La Madeleine, a chain of French bakery-restaurants in the United States. “People make the connection between literacy, good education, a safe society, and a productive economy, but few people make the connection between having good vision and literacy. You have to be able to see to read.”

According to a 2002 report by the American Optometric Association, 20 percent of all school age children in the United States needed glasses, and 90 percent of those who needed glasses, didn’t have them.

Esquerré says he was tapped by Hubert Sagnieres, chairman and CEO of Essilor, to help launch the student outreach project because of La Madeleine’s involvement in various community volunteer efforts, ranging from support for PBS to local food banks. Today, Esquerré, chairman of the development and expansion committee, travels the country, putting together local coalitions with community and vision-related organizations under the Kids Vision for Life umbrella.

Kids Vision for Life mobile clinic. Photo courtesy of Kids Vision for Life.

Kids Vision for Life mobile clinic. Photo courtesy of Kids Vision for Life.

The project began operating in Texas, with local partnerships organized in Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, San Antonio and nearby areas, then expanded to include Southern California and the Atlanta and St. Louis areas. A push to establish a cluster of communities in the Washington, D.C.-Baltimore corridor is also underway.

“We go to schools with mobile clinics, which have two optometrists who take care of the children at the schools,” Esquerré explains. “After their exams, the kids can pick out cool frames for their glasses. We make 60 percent of the glasses in the mobile clinics, and 40 percent go to a lab, which makes higher prescription glasses.”

In some areas, community centers may host an event, where 10 to 15 area optometrists will be on-site to examine the children’s vision. More than 56,000 pairs of eyeglasses have been distributed to needy students to date.

Esquerré says the effort has been praised by educators, who notice that getting eyeglasses benefits more than just the student who sees better.

“The principal at an elementary school in Dallas noticed that fourth grade test scores went up two years ago after students received their eyeglasses,” Esquerré says. “In most schools, nurses screen the kids for vision problems, but parents can’t always afford the eyeglasses. We’re excited about bringing this project to everyone who needs help.”

For more info on Kids Vision for Life, check out


November 18, 2013

Courage found in ‘The Burning Sky’

Posted in Between Us column, Books, Women at 10:35 pm by dinaheng

Fantasy, romance and a touch of reality blend nicely in a new young adult novel that author Sherry Thomas calls the beginning of a reverse “Harry Potter” series with a cross-dressing heroine.

In “The Burning Sky” ($17.99, Balzer + Bray), Iolanthe Seabourne is the most powerful mage of her generation, prophesied to defeat the Bane, a dictatorial mage who controls The Realm. To protect her, Prince Titus of Eberon cloaks the girl as a fellow teenage student in his very all-boys boarding school in southeast England, present day.Dinah Eng

In J.K. Rowling’s series, the adventures of a wizard and his friends unfold in a magical realm where they take joy in escaping, for a time, the muggles’ world, where ordinary beings don’t have magical abilities. In Thomas’s series, the magical characters take refuge in our reality as they try to fight the wrongs in their magical realm.

“The Burning Sky” is the first teen novel for Thomas, author of historical romance novels including “Private Arrangements” and “Not Quite a Husband.” She says she had never thought about writing for teens, but her agent had talked with an editor at a publishing house who suggested that her voice would work well in a young adult novel.

“The third time the publisher asked whether I was working on anything for young adults, a sentence fell into my head,” says Thomas, who lives with her family in Austin, Texas. “ ‘On the night I was born, the stars fell.’ I was walking into a Costco when it happened, and when I got home, I did some research and found that the last meteor shower happened in 1866.”

Thomas was familiar with life in the 1880s because she’d researched and written novels  set in that time period, so started creating a fantasy romance series that became The Elemental trilogy. The series chronicles a secret revolution brewing in the Mage World, led by a girl and a boy who join forces to overthrow the tyrannical overlord.

Cover photo of "The Burning Sky" by Sherry Thomas, courtesy of Balzer + Bray.

Cover photo of “The Burning Sky” by Sherry Thomas, courtesy of Balzer + Bray.

Science fiction and romance novels have always appealed to the author, she says,  because their stories are all about overcoming challenges and succeeding in life.

“I think of readers as falling into two camps — one likes to read about the world as it is, and the other likes to read about the world as they’d like it to be,” Thomas says. “I fall in that second camp. In genre fiction, it’s about whether you do what’s right. If you take the right path, do the hard work and follow your heart, everything will come out all right in the end.”

Things have turned out well for Thomas, a Chinese American who immigrated to the United States when she was 13 years old and learned English by reading numerous science fiction and romance novels in her youth.  She attended English as a Second Language classes in middle school, and by 9th grade was placed in regular classes.

Thomas was a 23-year-old stay-at-home mom when she read a historical romance one day as her son was napping.

“As I read it, I thought, I hate this book,” Thomas recalls. “I was so angry at how bad the book was, and how it had stolen my time. So I told my husband, I think I can write a better book. It took eight years, and I discovered how hard it was to write even a bad book.”

Thomas went on to win two RITA Awards for outstanding published novels from the Romance Writers of America, named for the RWA’s first president, Rita Clay Estrada.

“The theme that appeals most to me in fantasy and romance is finding your courage,” the author says. “It’s about that place when you start something, and you’re not sure you have what it takes to do something you’ve not done before. Courage is not the absence of fear. It’s the willingness to do the right thing, even though it’s difficult and you’re afraid.”

It’s also what Iolanthe Seabourne and Prince Titus must do if they are to save the Realm and each other in “The Burning Sky.” For a suspenseful and sweet tale, this book is well worth reading.

November 1, 2013

Steenburgen shines in ‘Last Vegas’

Posted in Between Us column, Movies, Women at 10:58 pm by dinaheng

Life and art mesh beautifully for Academy Award-winning actress Mary Steenburgen in the new CBS Film “Last Vegas.”

Steenburgen, who’s started a second act as a singer/songwriter in real life, plays Diana, a tax attorney who’s started a second career as a singer in a run-down Vegas lounge, fulfilling a lifelong dream. When four friends from Flatbush come to town for a bachelor party, Diana manages to attract two of the guys, changing the lives of all in the process.Dinah Eng

What was it like working with her iconic co-stars — Michael Douglas, Robert DeNiro, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline?

“They were all guys who were on my short wish list of people I admired and dreamt of working with one day,” says Steenburgen, sitting down to talk at the ARIA Resort and Casino, where part of the movie was filmed. “Then boom, it happened. I got to have wonderful, meaty scenes with them.

“It was fun being with grownups, talking about life, different people we had worked with, our dreams, and things we wanted to do and haven’t done yet.”

Steenburgen, who has won numerous awards for roles in films like “Melvin and Howard,” “The Help,” and “Ragtime,” says a lot of her dreams are musical. The actress now writes for the Universal Music Publishing Group, and recently co-wrote music for Grammy Award-winning country artist Tim McGraw.

“I love to write jazz and blues,” she says. “There are a lot of people I’d like to write for. I just took up the accordion this year, and would like to get better at it.”

Living life fully is a lesson her character Diana embodies. She doesn’t hesitate to tell the guys who have come to town to party that she’s divorced, was bored, and gave up a stable career to sing.

Mary Steenburgen sings a song she composed herself on "Last Vegas." Photo by Chuck Zlotnick, courtesy of CBS Films.

Mary Steenburgen sings a song she composed herself on “Last Vegas.” Photo by Chuck Zlotnick, courtesy of CBS Films.

“There’s something interesting about a woman who’s honest,” Steenburgen, 60, says. “So often, when you see attraction on the screen, it’s for young women. There’s a lot of coyness and lies told. It’s interesting to see a woman speak her truth and share who she is. It’s disingenuous and silly in a woman my age. Diana’s earned the right to say who she is, and what she wants.”

So what do Baby Boomer women know that Millennial women don’t?

Steenburgen says Millennial women are afraid of the word feminism.

“My reason for calling myself a feminist is that I want every woman and girl on the planet to be safe, educated, and the best she can be,” Steenburgen says. “Feminism doesn’t have anything to do with not loving men. I have a husband and son I adore, and I worship my father. Young women have bought the bad PR that being a feminist makes you less attractive to men.”

As the film “Last Vegas” shows, society has placed a little voice in older people’s minds that says, “You’re too old to do this.” Steenburgen, who has several business ventures,  ranging from a restaurant in Little Rock, Ark. to a candle company, says it’s important to ignore that thought.

Parents will stand on the sidelines of soccer fields and tell their children, “You can do it,” yet don’t allow themselves to try new things, she notes.

“If you’re not living, you’re dying,” she says, “so it’s vitally important to grow. Singing in the movie was terrifying for me. But I knew I had to stare that down.”

Steenburgen and Diana have another thing in common — both find the love of their lives… the second time around.

“When I met the love of my life (actor Ted Danson), it was after I’d looked at some hard truths in myself,” Steenburgen says. “I had to stop blaming others, and focus on measuring my own strengths and weaknesses. Being honest about what I’d done wrong in relationships let me be more open to finding him. If you find that person, stay in gratitude about it. It’s blessed to find your person in life.”

Spoken like a woman who knows the art of living fully.

‘Last Vegas’ wins on many levels

Posted in Between Us column, Movies at 10:57 pm by dinaheng

Put five Academy Award® winning actors together in a crisply written comedy set in Sin City and you’ve got more than a sure-fire hit. You’ve got “Last Vegas.”

All bets are off when the Flatbush Four — four lifelong friends played by Michael Douglas, Robert DeNiro, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline — head to Vegas for a bachelor party to celebrate the marriage of group’s avowed bachelor to a woman half his age. When they meet a charming lounge singer named Diana (Mary Steenburgen), the weekend gets complicated.Dinah Eng

The film — which celebrates the power of friendship and love — is funny, touching, and unexpectedly wise because its insights into human relationships are spot on.

“In any group of friends, you’ll have an enormous lack of commonality,” says director Jon Turteltaub, sitting in a meeting room at the ARIA Resort and Casino in Vegas , where part of the movie was filmed. “There’s the guy you love and the guy you can’t stand, yet somehow you still love him. Friends share faith, and the sense that you’re safe with the other person.

“It’s almost more unconditional love than you get in a marriage because it’s not important to be attractive to the other person. You’re allowed to get fat.”

Turteltaub, who has directed such hits as “National Treasure” and “While You Were Sleeping,” says male friendships are marked by how horribly guys treat one other, as men bond by teasing and ripping on each other. This contrasts with the friendships of women, who are more prone to validate each other, he notes.

“Men would have to share an emotion first,” Turteltaub says, laughing. “The emotions shared at the beginning of this film are resentment and anger. It takes the whole movie to get to the fear and regret beneath those emotions.”

Another theme explored in “Last Vegas” deals with living life to the fullest at all stages of life. Sam (Kevin Kline) is lost in too early a retirement in Florida, while Archie (Morgan Freeman) is itching to break out from under the confines of an overly protective son in New Jersey. Paddy (Robert DeNiro) is mourning the loss of his wife in Brooklyn, and Billy (Michael Douglas) is a wealthy Malibu attorney who finally proposes to his girlfriend. When the four get together, the good old days are here again.

Jon Turteltaub directs "Last Vegas" scene. Jon Turteltaub directs scene in "Last Vegas." Photo by Chuck Zlotnick, courtesy of CBS Films.

Jon Turteltaub directs scene in “Last Vegas.” Photo by Chuck Zlotnick, courtesy of CBS Films.

Living life fully and acting your age, the director notes, is not easy.

“Sometimes it’s about not giving in to your age, and sometimes, it means growing up and not going out to chase the girls,” Turteltaub says. “Growing means you have to leave a perceived age behind. The signs are saying, ‘Death — five miles ahead,’ and you have to leave behind the things you love and feel safe with, which is scary.”

Not knowing when the end of our lives will be makes it hard to “pace ourselves with misery,” he adds.

Turteltaub says while members of the Baby Boomer generation may not want to act their age, the generation that followed may be worse, in another respect.

“We stay young at the beginning part of our lives too long, rather than at the end,” he says. “Your body doesn’t let you mess around with getting old, and we struggle with acting our age.”

Turteltaub was contacted by Amy Baer, then president and CEO of CBS Films, who asked him to consider directing “Last Vegas.”

“She sent me the script and said, ‘It’s a really small budget, around $27 million, and we’re not going to pay you a lot, but…’ ” Turtletaub recalls. “Given that, I didn’t read it right away, but when I did, I loved it.”

He says it took about six months to get the leads signed on because everyone was so busy, but once Douglas agreed, the others quickly followed. One of the most important characters in the film may not get screen credit, but Turteltaub puts it this way…

“Vegas is an important character, and may be the antagonist in the movie,” he says. “It’s a city that’s extremely seductive, inviting, and when you get here, extremely intimidating. It’s there to be conquered.”

And that, of course, is just what the Flatbush Four do.

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 (

“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

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.

September 17, 2013

Poignant family film explores civil rights movement

Posted in Between Us column, Books, Diversity, Entertainment, Movies, Television at 3:12 am by dinaheng

The civil rights movement may have occurred in the 1960s, but the importance of standing up for equality for all has not ended.

In “The Watsons Go To Birmingham” — a film based on the 1996 Newberry Award-winning novel by Christopher Paul Curtis — the poignant and powerful story of an African-American family’s summer in Birmingham, Ala. during the height of the civil rights movement is explored. The movie, which premieres on the Hallmark Channel on Friday, Sept. 20 at 8 p.m. Eastern, is the latest offering in a series of family-friendly films featured in the Walden Family Theater on Friday nights.Dinah Eng

Making history relevant to youngsters isn’t always easy, but those who watch this film are bound to identify with the closeness of the Watson family, and be moved by the their  efforts to deal with a society in which they are not fully accepted.

“Getting this film made took almost 10 years,” says Tonya Lee Lewis, the movie’s producer and screenwriter. “We were told that doing a period piece around civil rights with a predominantly black cast would be an uphill battle. Now, it’s the 50th year anniversary of the March on Washington and the Children’s March in Birmingham.

“On the one hand, there’s been an incredible amount of progress. My parents grew up in the segregated South. My children, who are 16 and 18, know where they are in the world. And yet, as much progress as we’ve made, other complications have arisen. It’s difficult to have honest conversations. A lot of people don’t understand the history of the country, and who we are as blacks, Latinos, Asians and whites.”

"The Watsons Go To Birmingham" Photo by Annette Brown, courtesy of Crown Media, Inc.

“The Watsons Go To Birmingham.” Photo by Annette Brown, courtesy of Crown Media, Inc.

Photo of Tonya Lee Lewis by Keith Major of Keith Major Photography.

Photo of Tonya Lee Lewis by Keith Major of Keith Major Photography.

“The Watsons Go To Birmingham” is told through the eyes of Kenny, a 10-year-old boy who’s the smart kid bullied at school (portrayed by Bryce Clyde Jenkins). His 13-year old brother Byron (Harrison Knight) is an “official juvenile delinquent,” and little sister Joetta (Skai Jackson) has a heart open to all. When Byron’s pulled one stunt too many, their parents (Wood Harris and Anika Noni Rose) decide to drive the family from their home in Flint, Mich. to visit Grandma Sands (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) in Birmingham.

The culture shock of being in the segregated South forces the Watson children to face what it feels like to be treated as second class citizens.

“I hope audiences come away from the film realizing that when teenagers are going through their changes, and challenging their parents,” Lewis says, “that parents can make a difference and encourage their children to be all they can be. I hope people recognize that just as those who marched 50 years ago in the Children’s March on Birmingham, young people today can make a difference in their world. For in the end, love will overcome evil.”

Celebrating the rewards of virtue is at the heart of movies produced by Walden Media, including films like “The Chronicles of Narnia” series, “Charlotte’s Web,” “Bridge to Terabithia,” and “Holes.”

Michael Flaherty, president and co-founder of Walden Media, says the idea for the  company came to him several years ago after designing educational software for IBM and working on education reform issues as a speechwriter for William Bulger, then-President of the Massachusetts Senate and Tom Reilly, former Massachusetts attorney general.

“I used to tutor kids on nights and weekends in Boston,” Flaherty says. “When I asked what they did last night, the icebreaker was always watching movies and television. I noticed that after the movie ‘Titanic,’ came out in 1997, the kids started reading books about that period of history.”

So Flaherty reached out to a college friend, Cary Granat, who was producing films like “Scream” and “Children of the Corn” as president of Miramax’s Dimension Films division. The two decided to produce movies that would entice children to learn, and co-founded Walden Media.

After searching for financial backing, and getting thumbs down at every turn, the two met with billionaire Philip Anschutz, who decided to back their venture, which also has a publishing imprint, Walden Pond Press, with HarperCollins.

Photo of Michael Flaherty by

Photo of Michael Flaherty courtesy of Walden Media, Inc.

“When Philip said he’d fund the company, he asked what movies we wanted to make,” Flaherty says, laughing. “My wife is a teacher, and she quickly read me her summer reading list, which included ‘Bridge to Terabithia,’ ‘Charlotte’s Web,’ and the other films we went on to make.”

Flaherty says unconventional thinking led to the filming of “The Watsons Go To Birmingham.”

“I had a great conversation with Bill Abbott (president of Crown Media Family Networks), and Hallmark became a partner,” he says. “We financed it with ARC Entertainment, P&G and Walmart. It took people coming together from different walks of life, working with the biggest retailer and biggest consumer products company in the world to get it made.”

Walden Media has developed school curriculum to accompany the film, and Flaherty hopes both will be used to teach about the civil rights period in schools.

“The Watsons Go To Birmingham” joins other Walden Family Theater features, including “Return to Nim’s Island,” “Space Warriors,” and “Dear Dumb Diary,” which have already aired on the Hallmark Channel. Coming this fall are “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium,” “Pete’s Christmas,” and “The Hunters.”

“We’ve decided to keep our eye on family-friendly movies,” Flaherty says. “We don’t worry about what others are doing. We’re big believers in emotional intelligence, asking the kinds of questions that make children think. ‘What would you do in this situation? What is truth? What is love?’ When you use movies this way, the process of learning can be highly enjoyable.”

For more information, check out and

September 16, 2013

AquaKnox features seafood treasures

Posted in Between Us column, Dining, Travel at 4:24 pm by dinaheng

The soothing sound of a waterfall cascades down the wall at the entrance to AquaKnox, hinting at the peaceful culinary treasure tucked away amidst the noise of Restaurant Row in The Venetian Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

Seafood may not be top of mind for all diners, but the offerings in this fine dining establishment go beyond the typical fish and shrimp menu. Executive Chef Steve Aguglia calls the concept “global water cuisine,” prepared with influences from Asian and Latin cuisines.Dinah Eng

“All our seafood is fresh, flown in from places like New Zealand, France and Hawaii,” Aguglia says. “Our branzino comes from Greece. Our scallops are from the Georges Bank. We go around the globe to get the best fish, which must also be sustainable.”

Aguglia, whose restaurant experience started with washing dishes and working the tray line at UMC Hospital in Las Vegas, moved to Chef Joachim Splichal’s Pinot Brasserie at The Venetian Hotel, and gained experience in various stations before being named sous chef at the French eatery.

When AquaKnox beckoned, Aguglia accepted a position as line cook and helped open the seafood restaurant in 2003. Over the years, he worked his way up from kitchen manager to sous chef, then executive sous chef to executive chef. The Korean adoptee, who grew up in an Italian-American family, strives to create menus with a variety of tastes.

“We change the menu with every season,” he notes. “Everyone will find something to love here.”

Rob Menefee, general manager of the restaurant, says since AquaKnox is not a celebrity chef-driven restaurant, the food and the dining experience are the star of the show. The restaurant was recently awarded the 2013 Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Award, which recognizes AquaKnox as being “an outstanding establishment, offering guests a truly exceptional level of luxury and service” in the Las Vegas upscale dining scene.

“We’ve cultivated a great staff, with culinary chefs who have stayed through the years, which is unheard of on The Strip,” Menefee says. “Our average dinner is usually around $100 per person, but you can have an amazing meal here if you’re frugal, as well.”

Appetizers here range from $15 for the Lobster Bisque Soup to $18 for the Prince Edward Island Mussels. Seafood entrees range from $32 for the New Zealand Ora King Salmon to $46 for the AquaKnox Fish Soup, a Mediterranean tomato-saffron broth, with Maine lobster, John Dory, mussels, clams, prawns and Sardinian couscous.

AquaKnox Wine Tower.  Photo courtesy of AquaKnox.

AquaKnox Wine Tower. Photo courtesy of AquaKnox.

For land lubbers, the U.S.D.A. prime steaks are mesquite charcoal grilled, with shishito peppers, grilled onions and potato puree, with prices ranging from $49 for the 14 oz. New York Strip to $56 for the 20 oz. Bone-In Ribeye.

Vegetarians will find a nice selection of entrees, salads and sides.

On a recent evening, we sampled the Tuna Tartar “Gangnam Style,” ($18), which featured the taste of Korean chili vinaigrette, Asian pear sesame, shiso and tempura crunch, creating an interesting kick for the palate. For a salad, we had the Sweet Shrimp and Lump Crab ($18), which was served with a lovely combination of Asian greens, cantaloupe, and avocado with sesame-citrus vinaigrette.

When it comes to seafood, the New England John Dory ($45), served with lobster succotash, fava beans, sweet corn nage and summer truffle was superb. The fish was nicely done, and its slightly sweet accompaniments were wonderful. The Pacific Blue Prawns ($35), with golden pearl couscous, lobster cream, and cherry tomatoes in scampi garlic butter, was also delicious.

The dessert menu seemed a little pedestrian, compared to the rest of the menu, with standards like Ice Cream & Sorbets ($8) and Flourless Chocolate Cake ($12).

Service here is truly impeccable, with an attentive wait staff, and nice touches like getting warm towels after handling messy crab claws or lobster legs.

The nautical decor feels a little dated with blue portals (filled with bottles of liquor) behind the bar, and a dining room meant to evoke the feeling of sailing, with sheer drapery above the intimate booths that sway a little with the air conditioning. Menefee says a $1.5 million renovation is slated for next summer, which hopefully will retain the Wine Tower of 2,000 wine bottles at the entrance that doubles as a very private (and chilly) dining room for small parties.

For a quieter table, ask to be seated in the rear of the restaurant, where a peaceful looking curtain (made of intricate chains, patterned with aqua circles), separates diners from the open kitchen and the noise of Restaurant Row.

If you’re looking for a wonderful seafood meal in Vegas, AquaKnox is not to be missed.

For more information, check out on the Internet.

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