December 16, 2016

Random Acts… Finding “My Christmas Love” a Joy

Posted in Entertainment, Movies, Relationships, Television, Women at 3:22 am by dinaheng

When it comes to holiday movies, Hallmark Channel’s Countdown to Christmas is a sure bet for films that convey the nostalgia and true meaning of the season.

This weekend, a sweet tale about a children’s book author who’s always searching for – and never finding — the perfect love, unfolds in “My Christmas Love,” which airs Saturday, Dec. 17 at 8 p.m. Eastern.Dinah Eng

In the movie, author Cynthia Manning (played by Meredith Hagner) returns to her family home for her sister’s wedding, and invites her illustrator and best friend Liam Pollak (Bobby Campo) to join her for the holidays.

When a series of presents, reflecting each day in “The 12 Days of Christmas,” is delivered to her father’s doorstep, Cynthia is convinced that one of her former boyfriends is behind the deed.

Jeff Fisher, the director of the film, was hooked by the premise.

“I love romantic comedies,” Fisher says. “If you go on a journey with someone in the film, and they find love and happiness, you’re along for the ride. Romantic comedies make people happier when they leave the theater, their TV or their phone.”

Fisher, who has produced reality TV shows (“Keeping Up with the Kardashians”, “Flip It to Win It” and others), says “My Christmas Love” is a return to the genres he loves best – romantic comedies and musicals.

Bobby Campo and  Meredith Hagner star in "My Christmas Love."  Copyright 2016 Crown Media United States LLC/Photographer: Fred Hayes

Bobby Campo and Meredith Hagner star in “My Christmas Love.” Copyright 2016 Crown Media United States LLC/Photographer: Fred Hayes

“My first short films were in those genres,” Fisher says. “To pay those films off, I got some reality TV jobs, then my first movies (“Killer Movie” and “Killer Reality”) were off issues from the reality TV shows.”

“My Christmas Love” is probably as far from horror and reality TV shows as audiences can get. The importance of celebrating Christmas with family is central to the plot, as Cynthia’s dad, Tom Manning (Gregory Harrison), is a new widower who must be encouraged to get out into the community to enjoy the spirit of the holidays again.

As Cynthia searches for her “true love,” her father reminds her that life’s answers are often right in front of our noses.

“I liked Cynthia’s Nancy Drew personality, looking for who sent the presents,” Fisher says, “and I loved the twist of who’s behind the gifts.”

The film, he says, was shot in various cities in Utah, which offered a good tax incentive to the filmmakers.

Shooting the film in Utah, however, may be the reason why the film lacks diverse casting. The only minority face in the movie belongs to actress Yolanda Wood, who had a brief speaking role in the beginning of the film playing Sandra, the hostess of a café that Cynthia often patronizes.

“There can always be more diversity in films,” Fisher says. “I don’t know how diverse Salt Lake City is, since a lot of our supporting actors came from there.”

Regardless, love is a universal language, and the holidays are meant to be celebrated. To see whether Cynthia finds her true love, tune into “My Christmas Love.”

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February 4, 2016

Random Acts… Sweetest words need to be spoken

Posted in Books, Diversity, Relationships at 5:29 pm by dinaheng

I was in line at the post office behind a woman holding her 20-month-old daughter. The little girl smiled shyly at me, then hid her face in her mom’s jacket.

I smiled back, and hid my face in my hands. A fast game of peek-a-boo ensued, creating lots of giggles until we parted at the counter, going to separate clerks to mail our letters.

We are surrounded by words of fear, indifference, prejudice… words that make the world narrow and small. But those words can be vanquished by a smile, a laugh, a game of peek-a-boo.Dinah Eng

Some of the sweetest words are uttered by children, who haven’t learned the words that reflect darkness and negativity. So it’s no surprise that words of love are the essence of the stories we love to read to them.

Three endearing children’s picture books are out for Valentine’s Day, but even if you don’t have a little one to read them to, read them for yourself, or someone you love.

“I Love You Already” written by Jory John and illustrated by Benji Davies ($17.99, Harper) is the comic tale of what happens when Bear wants to spend a pleasant day alone, but Duck wants to hang out… with his buddy Bear.

"I Love You Already" by Jory John and Benji Davies." Book cover courtesy of HARPER.

“I Love You Already” by Jory John and Benji Davies.” Book cover courtesy of HARPER.

The lesson, of course, is that no matter how much someone irritates you, all will be well if the Bear in you admits how much you love the Duck in the other.

Continuing on the animal theme — since adults seem to understand truths better when the characters are not people – “Worm Loves Worm” written by J.J. Austrian and illustrated by Mike Curato ($17.99, Balzer + Bray) is a charming story about what happens when a worm meets a special worm, and the two decide to get married.

Their friends want to know all the typical details… Who’s going to wear the dress? Who’s going to wear the tux? How will you wear the rings if you don’t have fingers? What are we going to do if things have always been done a certain way?

As one wise Worm answers, “…we’ll just change how it’s done.”

One thing that never changes is what happens when you “Plant a Kiss,” as the sweet story written by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds ($7.99, Harper Festival) reminds us.

In this tale, Little Miss plants a kiss in the ground and watches it grow and grow. For no matter how small the gift, each genuine kiss is destined to result in endless bliss.

So smile. Giggle. Say the sweetest words you can imagine.

Love is sure to find you.

 

May 29, 2015

Random Acts… Much ado about something

Posted in Dining, Relationships, Women at 11:22 pm by dinaheng

It was a Friday night at Umami Burger in Los Angeles. The restaurant was full of diners, chattering over their meals. A friend and I were seated in a booth when the couple on the other side of our booth started arguing. Let me rephrase that – the man in the other booth started yelling at the woman.

Cursing up a storm, he berated his companion for not appreciating the food that he, apparently, was paying for. No one seemed to be paying attention to his tirade except me, as I was looking straight at him.Dinah Eng

Then, he picked up his water glass and threw it toward his companion.

The glass shattered, half on the booth next to his companion, and half in our booth. Conversations immediately ceased, and anyone who was pretending to ignore the fellow turned to see what he would do next.

The man continued to curse at his companion, who remained silent through his tirade. Three waiters walked up to the man and asked him to leave. I kept thinking, “Please leave peacefully. Please don’t have a gun.”

After arguing with one of the waiters, the man left, declaring his right to use profanity in public, while continuing to swear at his female companion. A few seconds later, she got up, uninjured, and embarrassed.  Then she followed him out the door.

Once the couple left, people began talking again, as though everything were back to normal. I’m sure the conversations were about what had happened, but it felt eerie to see people laughing, as though the scene had just been a made-up moment from some TV show.

I had never witnessed such a tirade, tinged with the threat of violence, in a restaurant before. I was thankful that neither my friend nor I were cut by any of the flying glass, and I was sad that the man’s companion had left with him. She had said not one peep during his screaming rant, and that spoke volumes.

 

March 20, 2015

Random Acts… You are a blessing

Posted in Business, Relationships, Spirituality, Women at 4:59 pm by dinaheng

My friend Christine is an angel. No matter what happens in life, she invariably thinks of the feelings of others.

One day, she thought about an old Reader’s Digest article that talked about a teacher who had a somewhat unruly class. To change people’s attitudes, the teacher had everyone write the names of all the students in the class on separate pieces of paper.Dinah Eng

Underneath each name, the assignment was to write down something you liked about that person. Each person then got the slips of paper with their names on it. Imagine how good each student felt to read all that positive feedback. And yes, doing that exercise changed the entire class’s demeanor – toward each other and, no doubt, toward themselves.

Christine decided to do something similar to brighten the lives of the people she meets.

She printed up some business-size cards with the message, “Thank you! I appreciate you and the way you have helped me today. Life is full of blessings, and you are one of them. Christine.”

“I give them out to waiters, people who hold the elevator open for me, anyone who’s done a good deed,” says Christine, a former space biologist for NASA who lives outside Nashville, Tenn. “I carry them in my wallet, and try to spread them out as much as possible. I just thought it might help people who are having a bad day.”You are a blessing card

The responses she’s gotten are more than gratifying.

“I gave one to the receptionist at a doctor’s office, and she clutched it to her chest with tears in her eyes,” Christine says. “She must have been having a really bad day, and needed it.”

Christine’s act of kindness is a reminder of how much we all need to be valued and appreciated, whether it’s through a smile, a kind word, or the gift of a blessing card.

We all have the power to affect the attitudes and behavior of those around us. We can set a tone of respect around ourselves that ripples out into the world.

Imagine, as Christine does, a business environment where managers and employees take the time to verbally appreciate and thank each other for the things they do every day. How would that change people’s attitudes about their colleagues? How would that change attitudes about going to work every day, and the quality of customer service then provided?

Imagine a Congress and White House where government officials looked first at what they admire in other people, rather than judge others by nothing more than a party name.

How would the world change if churches, mosques, and synagogues respected the highest values in each other’s faith, without trying to make everyone else adhere to their beliefs?

Christine’s friendship is a cherished blessing in my life. If her blessing card inspires you to pass some kindness along, please write and let me know. The more good stories we share, the more the world will change… for the better.

February 14, 2014

Random Acts… Be a Valentine for someone

Posted in Movies, Relationships, Women at 6:07 am by dinaheng

Valentine’s Day is a celebration of love. If you have someone special in your life, there’s no excuse for not celebrating your love. If you don’t have someone special in your life, there’s no excuse for not celebrating the love in your heart.

Yes, the love in your heart. Not someone else’s heart. Yours.

This, after all, is the challenge everyone faces… how to express the love within, whether or not we’re feeling loved by another.Dinah Eng

Here are some things to try on Heart Day…

* Think about a relative (parent, aunt, uncle, cousin) you haven’t talked to in a while. Call them and tell them you’re thinking about them.

* If you have a child who’s learning how to talk on the phone, teach him or her to say these words before hanging up — “I love you.  Bye.”

* Bake (or buy) some cookies and give them to an elderly neighbor.  Better yet, take them out for coffee or lunch.

* If you’re at work, include a compliment in every e-mail you send to colleagues.

* Give a verbal compliment to strangers in your path.  A simple, “Great tie” or “Love your     purse” will lift their spirits.

* Take someone to see the movie “Winter’s Tale,” a romantic fantasy about faith, love and miracles. The critics may not like it, but the romantic in you will.

* Treat yourself to something special — a relaxing massage, a sinful dessert, beautiful flowers, or whatever you’d love to receive as a gift.

* And if you’ve got your eye on someone, but haven’t had the courage to ask him (or her) out, seize the moment and do it now.  It doesn’t matter if the answer is yes or no.  What matters is that you express the love in your heart.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

February 13, 2013

‘Beautiful Creatures’ explores life’s choices

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Movies, Relationships, Spirituality at 11:55 pm by dinaheng

“Beautiful Creatures” may look like a film for teenagers — yes, it’s based on a best-selling series aimed at teenage girls — but the story has so many wonderful things to say about life, your brain would have to be dead not to appreciate it.

The film, which opens in theaters on Valentine’s Day, February 14, is set in fictional Gatlin, S.C., a small conservative Southern town where 17-year-old Ethan Wate (played by Alden Ehrenreich) has recurring dreams about an unseen girl on a Civil War battlefield and the danger that awaits them both. Dinah Eng

When Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), the enigmatic niece of powerful recluse Macon Ravenwood (Jeremy Irons), shows up at school, Ethan is smitten. What unfolds between them is a tale of past and present, love and fear, and the battle to determine one’s own destiny.

“For me, the teenage years are the bridge between childhood and adulthood,” says Oscar® nominee Richard LaGravenese, who wrote and directed the screenplay adaptation of the book by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl. “It’s a period of transition, hormones, questions, and desires, but you’re not able to realize them yet because you’re confined to high school and family. Our two characters are teenagers who are pushed into adulthood sooner.”

In the film, Ethan has to take care of the house and family because his mother has died, and his father has withdrawn from life. Lena is a supernatural being called a Caster (whom some might call witches), approaching her 16th birthday, when she will be claimed by the forces of the Light or the Dark.

“The more I wrote and was shooting, it became clear that the movie is about the strength of humans,” says LaGravenese, whose writing credits include “The Fisher King,” “The Bridges of Madison County,” and “P.S. I Love You.” “We, who are powerless in the face of chaotic elements, have the power of empathy and compassion. And we get in touch with our strength when there’s a crisis.

“A lot of our modern life is about comfort, and as technology gets more powerful, our brains are activated less and less. If there’s such a thing as superpowers, we have more that we can access than we realize. I’ve experienced what I consider miracles. It’s about perceiving beyond the norm and accessing the part of the brain that sees beyond what we normally see.”

Most of the folks in Gatlin are frightened by what they don’t normally see and understand. Their reaction to Lena and what they perceive as dark powers results in a church meeting to cast out the evil girl within their midst.

“Part of being human is fear of the unknown and the things we can’t control,” the director notes. “The more we can accept what we don’t know, the more we can accept the spiritual experience. The Latin root derivative of ‘religion’ is to ‘bind back.’ We once needed certain rules and laws, but as our consciousness evolved as human beings, people still maintained literal interpretations of the rules, so you get fanaticism and literal interpretations of laws that don’t apply to our current life.

“I have no tolerance for intolerance, and was a devout Catholic growing up. I think the sacrifice in this film is a Christian principle. If anyone takes umbrage at that, it’s intolerance about something they don’t understand. Spirituality is about being able to live within the mystery of what we don’t know.”

The mystery involving mortals and Casters in Gatlin is known by Amma (played by Viola Davis), the town’s librarian and a seer with connection to both worlds.

“Viola is a great actress who plays a loving, wise character who’s been set with a burden she inherits from her ancestors, and does it with acceptance,” LaGravenese explains. “She’s a surrogate mother to Ethan, and is a bridge between the real world and the supernatural.”

Davis, an award-winning actress best known for her performances in “Doubt” and “The Help,” says she chose to do the role because Amma is a complex, layered character.

(L -r) VIOLA DAVIS as Amma, ALICE ENGLERT as Lena Duchannes and ALDEN EHRENREICH as Ethan Wate in Alcon Entertainment's supernatural love story “BEAUTIFUL CREATURES,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

(L -r) VIOLA DAVIS as Amma, ALICE ENGLERT as Lena Duchannes and ALDEN EHRENREICH as Ethan Wate in Alcon Entertainment’s supernatural love story “BEAUTIFUL CREATURES,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.  Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

“She’s the keeper of secrets,” Davis says. “She’s a keeper of history and a channeler. At the same time, she promised a woman who’s passed that she’d care for her son Ethan. I hope audiences are entertained, and on a deeper level, I hope they get the message that you claim your future and your path. Your future isn’t decided for you. You choose it.”

Davis says teenagers are often in turmoil because they’re in a period of self-discovery when family members don’t always understand their angst. The dysfunctional family dynamics in Gatlin can be found anywhere, she notes, as well as the prejudice in its townspeople.

“I grew up in a small town named Central Falls in Rhode Island,” Davis recalls, “and I didn’t see anything unique about it. So I loved that the writers imagined this gateway to another world underneath Gatlin, a small, provincial town.

“Central Falls was filled with some of the best memories, and friendships I still have. I moved there in 1965, when I was a baby, and we were the only black family in town, so my family was ostracized. Wanting to fit in and still maintain my own individuality was a physical and a spiritual fight.”

The actress says the biggest fight we all wage is the battle against rigid mindsets and behaviors that have been passed down to us.
“I did a lot of research, in terms of my African-American ancestry and the Civil War, Post-Reconstruction, and who we were before that,” Davis says. “I was born on Singleton Plantation in St. Matthews, S.C., and I believe in the supernatural because that was how I was raised.

“You believed in witches who visited you in your sleep. You couldn’t sweep over your father’s feet because it meant he’d go to jail. To this day, it’s inherent in my psyche. I believe in the spiritual realm. I want to believe I have a way to connect with my father and other loved ones who have passed on. I’m also a woman who prays.”

For a supernatural tale filled with allegories and wisdom about our times, go see this film. It will remind you that no matter how much fear we hold inside us, human beings still have the capacity to be beautiful creatures.

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

December 7, 2012

‘Finding Mrs. Claus’ a holiday treat

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Movies, Relationships, Women at 4:07 am by dinaheng

Behind the ho-ho-ho at the North Pole is a woman whose name isn’t often mentioned, but she’s the one who has put the twinkle in Santa’s eyes for… oh, at least 500 years now.

Yes, dear viewers, it’s Mrs. Claus, a wise and loving woman who deserves more attention than she usually gets. This week, Santa’s wife decides to help grant a child’s wish herself in “Finding Mrs. Claus,” an original TV movie that airs on Lifetime this Friday, Dec. 7 at 10 p.m. Eastern. (Check local listings for repeat showings through December.)Dinah Eng

When a tired Santa falls asleep on the couple’s 500th anniversary, the neglected Mrs. Claus (played by Mira Sorvino) goes back to work, reading the piles of letters that kids have sent to her husband. When she finds a note addressed to her — rather than the Big Guy in the Red Suit — her heart is touched by the words of a little girl who just wants a new husband for her mother Noelle (Laura Vandervoort).

With a touch of magic, the elderly Mrs. Claus transforms herself into an attractive younger woman, and heads for Las Vegas, determined to help Noelle find the right man.  Missing his missus, Santa (Will Sasso) heads to Sin City to find his bride, but can he make things right before Christmas Eve arrives?

“I loved the idea of examining their marriage and turning the story into a romantic comedy,” says Bruce Johnson, the film’s executive producer and head of Foxfield Entertainment. “We’re so busy with things in our daily lives, and as the holidays approach, there comes a time to just sit back. Christmas movies make people feel good about life and relationships.”

Johnson, an Emmy Award-winning producer, says we all want to believe in stories that have mythological characters.

“Santa Claus is the kindest, most loving person in our world,” he says. “That mythology is a part of our culture, and much of the world shares that in different expressions. For the child, it’s about waiting for Santa and receiving presents.

“I grew up in Minneapolis, which isn’t far from the North Pole. We always left milk and cookies for Santa, and there would always be a note back from him on Christmas morning.”Finding Mrs. Claus

Johnson remembers that his family would make an annual holiday trek to a local department store, where an entire floor was decorated as Santa’s Village. That memory helped to inspire the opening scene of “Finding Mrs. Claus,” where Noelle takes her daughter Hope (Aislyn Watson) to see Santa Claus in a village-like setting.

With Las Vegas as the backdrop, there’s bound to be some mischief, corruption, and greed in this tale, not to mention a cute bartender named Myles (Andrew Walker), who becomes part of Mrs. Claus’s adventure in matchmaking.

“ ‘Finding Mrs. Claus’ is about marriage, and the relationship two people have who are committed to each other,” Johnson says. “For the two younger characters in the film, it’s about finding that love, and seeing that it takes work and commitment to succeed. Santa and Mrs. Claus show us all that, ‘We have this, and you can have it, too.’ “

For more information, check out http://www.mylifetime.com/movies/finding-mrs-claus.

Dinah Eng is a freelance columnist in Los Angeles, and can be reached at betweenustwo@earthlink.net.

September 19, 2012

It’s not just about baseball…

Posted in Between Us column, Movies, Relationships, Women at 11:32 pm by dinaheng

If there’s one kind of story most people will relate to, it’s a father-daughter tale. Every woman, after all, has a father, and while not all men are fathers, they know what it’s like to have one.

“Trouble with the Curve” is not only a terrific father-daughter story, it’s spun around the business of baseball in a way that everyone can relate to, whether you’re a fan of the sport or not. Because at its heart, this family drama is about dealing with change — changes in life’s stages and changes in the world as we know it.

Clint Eastwood stars as Gus Lobel, one of the best scouts in baseball, who is starting to deal with the physical affects of aging, and the technology that is changing the way players are rated and picked. His daughter Mickey, played by Amy Adams, is a high-powered lawyer who’s never been close to her dad, or any man.

Helping to bring the two together is rival scout Johnny Flanagan (Justin Timberlake), who’s grappling with his own career changes, as well.

“All our priorities change over time, so it’s a constant process of maintaining the right balance,” says director/producer Robert Lorenz, a prolific filmmaker who’s earned two Academy Award nominations as Eastwood’s producer for “Mystic River” and “Letters from Iwo Jima.”

“There’s an ongoing battle between the new way of doing things, and the old way of doing things. We have to learn to balance technology with wisdom and experience.”

In “Trouble with the Curve,” Gus tries to hide the changes in his health and prefers to scout potential players the old-fashioned way, paying no attention to what computerized stats indicate. When his boss and longtime friend Pete Klein (John Goodman) asks Mickey if her father’s okay, she decides to take some time off and join Gus on a scouting trip, putting her own career promotion in jeopardy.

“One aspect of their relationship that’s timely to what’s happening in society today is the role reversal,” says Lorenz, who’s making his feature-film directorial debut with this film. “Your parents have taken care of you, and the time will come when you’ll have to take care of them. This applies to both men and women. If you maintain an open line of communication, it’ll be an easier transition than if you haven’t addressed issues between you before.”

Throughout life, we struggle to balance health, career, and relationships. Throw in factors like changes in technology, world events, and politics, and the only status quo that exists is constant change.

“Life throws you a curve, and you’ve got to deal with it,” Lorenz says. “We’re constantly re-evaluating how we’re doing things. You find a comfortable place to be, then you have to change, which makes life challenging.”

The characters in “Trouble with the Curve” face their challenges in ways that just might give you some ideas on how to meet your own. Now wouldn’t that be a home run?

August 23, 2012

Spa time makes getaway special

Posted in Between Us column, Dining, Relationships, Travel, Women at 11:14 pm by dinaheng

Like many family reunions, our recent sisters (plus Mom) getaway weekend to Las Vegas revolved around food and relaxation.

After losing more than we’d like to slot machines, roulette and Black Jack tables over two nights, we started our last full day with breakfast at Serendipity 3, a cheerful rendition of the famous New York eatery, started in 1954 by three friends who wanted to be in show business and ended up opening New York’s first coffee house boutique instead.

Today, the popular Upper East Side restaurant offers a full menu that still features its trademark “Frrrozen Hot Chocolate” drinks, and has been the scene of several movies, including the 2001 romantic comedy “Serendipity,” which starred John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale (well worth renting if you haven’t seen it).

The Las Vegas Caesars Palace location, adjacent to the fountains on The Strip, is a charming old fashioned ice cream parlor that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, and along with a kids’ menu. Its bright pink and teal color scheme brings a smile to the face, with a bar offering on one wall for the adults and a Hello Kitty gift counter on the other wall for the kids.

For breakfast, we chose two orders of “Lucky 7’s,” which included two pancakes, three eggs, two sausage links, and breakfast potatoes ($16 each), a Breakfast Quesadilla ($16), Balsamic Strawberry Cream Waffles ($16), and an Egg White Shrimp Frittata ($18). Even though we were all stuffed, we couldn’t resist ordering an Amaretto Almond Frrrozen Hot Chocolate ($11) with five straws.

Everything was delicious, and if you’re a family on a budget, the large size portions can be easily shared. The only criticism we’d make is that there’s nothing on the menu that’s sugar-free. The eatery doesn’t even offer sugar-free syrup for the pancakes and waffles, which is crucial for diabetic diners.

As we tasted each other’s items, we shared memories of past Vegas trips. My sister Linda and Mom were the first ones to visit Sin City.

“The first time we came, I bought a package deal that included plane fare, hotel and a tour of Vegas,” said Linda, who couldn’t remember how many years ago that trip was. “We stayed at the Imperial Palace, and they used to have trolley cars that went up and down The Strip that you could ride for $1.”

Mom said she learned to play the slot machines by sitting next to Linda in the casinos and just watching.

“On one trip, I put a quarter in a slot machine, and a ton of quarters came out,” Mom said, laughing. “That’s when I started gambling. You’d have to have buckets to hold the coins that came out of the machines. At first, I’d only play the nickel ones.”

“Now she plays the dollars,” Linda teased.

My sister Jane and her husband soon followed, as did Wendy and her husband.

“Mike and I came and stayed in Harrah’s when he was in law school,” Wendy recalled. “The second time came on the tail end of our honeymoon. We were so excited to see everything on The Strip, and would take pictures of all the casinos.”

This afternoon, the excitement centered around going to Qua Baths and Spa at Caesars Palace. I was surprised to learn that two of my sisters have never had a massage or facial in a spa, so that made our girls getaway even more special.

Waterfalls, mood music, and soft lighting set the tone in a spa that plays on the Roman Baths concept with multi-temperature pools of mineral-enriched water for relaxation. Before our treatments, Wendy and Linda sat for a few minutes in a Cedarwood dry sauna, designed to detoxify the body and encourage muscle relaxation.

Qua Roman Baths

I’m not one for sweating, so I joined them after their dry sauna in the Arctic Ice Room, a room where the air is kept at 55 degrees to stimulate the heart and healthy circulation while tiny flakes of fake snow fall from the ceiling. It was definitely a cool experience (ha ha).

The spa offers a range of services, including massages, chakra balancing, body wraps, hypnosis for wellness, facials and more.

Jane and Karen opted to try the Coffeeberry Yoga Facial ($200 for 50 minutes), while Wendy chose the Fountain of Youth Massage (($170 for 50 minutes). Linda and I had the Qua Signature Hourglass Treatment ($200 for 60 minutes), a customized treatment that allows you to design your own hour of relaxation.

Those who think of spa treatments as a decedent luxury would be right, but when you realize you can stay in the spa all day for the price of one treatment, it becomes more than a fleeting moment of relaxation. I love spas because they take you out of the everyday world, allowing you to unwind, reflect, and release stress, which is the underlying cause of many illnesses.

My Hourglass Treatment included a massage, a mini-facial, chakra balancing and energy work with Carole, a very intuitive therapist. Chakras, in the yogic traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism, are areas of the body thought to collect energy tied to major organs or glands. Balancing the chakras leads to a healthier body, aligned with the mind and spirit.

The treatment was totally calming, and the therapist reminded me to slow down and connect more with my own intuitive self. She then took the time to write down some wellness tips for me after the treatment.

The others enjoyed their treatments as well, with those getting facials saying their skin felt pampered and smooth as silk. For Wendy, who had never experienced a massage, the jury was still out.

Qua Treatment Room

“I’m glad I did it, but I’m not sure if I want to do it again,” Wendy shared. “I had so many knots in my shoulders, it hurt for the therapist to work on them. But I can see why people would want to spend their whole day here.”

After our treatments, we picked up Mom from her room and headed for some comfort food at Beijing Noodle No. 9 downstairs. Since we wanted to save room for dinner, we choose mostly dim sum items from the Northern Chinese cuisine menu. Dim sum, which translates to “treasures of the heart,” refers to hors d’oeuvre-size portions of specialty dishes often served as teahouse snacks.

Mom wanted to try the War Wonton Noodle Soup ($16.99), and the rest of us ordered a Seasonal Vegetable Plate, with asparagus, bok choy, Chinese broccolini and choy sum ($15.99), Green Onion Pancake ($7.99), Pork Fried Dumplings ($10.99), Shrimp Dumplings ($10.99), Beef Dumplings ($10.99) and Spring Rolls ($6.99).

While the quality of the food was high, like many casino restaurants, the prices were nearly double what you’d pay at a good Chinese restaurant elsewhere. Eating in the dining room, which lacked acoustical dampening, was authentic in another way — it was as noisy as any typical Hong Kong restaurant, with a dour wait staff and cooks who banged away while cooking in the open kitchen.

That afternoon, we tried our luck at various gaming tables and slots, then rendezvoused at Paris Las Vegas for dinner at Gordon Ramsay Steak, which features upscale steak and seafood dining at its best. Ramsay, a TV personality who’s known for shows like “Hell’s Kitchen” and “Master Chef,” has fans around the world, so the offering of a four-course tasting menu (signed autographed photo included) for $135 per person for the table was not unexpected.

If you’re not inclined to try the tasting menu, you can expect an average check of $85 per person in this trendy, disco-pounding restaurant that features alcove tables in the mezzanine and a main dining room floor that includes an open kitchen and bar.

Gordon Ramsay Steak at Paris Las Vegas

Our waitress brought an iPad to the table, which could be used to order cocktails, wine and beer, then wheeled out a cart with an artful display of the various cuts of meat offered on the menu.

Since we’re all tee-totalers, we went straight to the food. For the six of us, we ordered two, 24 oz. Bone-In Rib Eyes ($56 each), Beef Short Ribs with Potato Puree and Wild Mushrooms ($40), Fish and Chips ($42), Sauted Spinach ($11) and Fingerling Potatoes ($11).

While waiting for the entrees, we enjoyed a selection of breads that was outstanding — Lemon and Thyme Focaccia, Brioche Pinwheels with Roasted Pancetta Fig and Truffle Mushroom, and Walnut Stilton Bread with English Devonshire Butter and Volcanic Sea Salt.

For foodies like us, the meal was the capstone to a girls getaway we’ll long remember. And like all great slumber parties, we chose to take dessert from the casino’s Cafe Belle Madeleine patisserie back to our rooms to enjoy with a last, late night gabfest.

All too soon, our long weekend came to an end, and we headed out to the airport the next morning. There were no jackpots to brag about this trip, but the memories from our time together will no doubt grow even more valuable as time goes on.

Family getaway totally rewarding

Posted in Between Us column, Dining, Relationships, Travel, Women at 11:13 pm by dinaheng

In a family of seven sisters, there isn’t a lot we all agree on. But when it came to planning a family reunion, most of us agreed that the best place for our girls’ weekend was Las Vegas.

Four of my sisters and our mom — who love to gamble — flew in to Sin City recently from Houston, Dallas and Austin, Texas. I took a short flight over from Los Angeles. While my gambling limit is usually $25 a day, their penchant for playing slots and table games usually scores us “free” hotel rooms and comp meals.

Some of my sisters participate in Caesars Entertainment’s Total Rewards program, a loyalty reward program that credits you for gambling, dining, buying tickets to shows, or staying at nearly 40 resorts and casinos around the country.

A quiet perk of having a Total Rewards membership is being able to work with their in-house concierge service, which offers complimentary trip planning and VIP access for groups staying at any of the nine Caesars Entertainment Las Vegas resorts. The trip planning is tailored to the occasion — whether it’s a wedding, girls getaway, or family reunion — and designed to fit your budget.

For our family reunion, we were upgraded to VIP rooms at Caesars Palace, which opened its new Octavius Tower, the resort’s sixth hotel tower, in January. Two of us stayed in Octavius, and four of us had connecting rooms in the Augustus Tower. Both towers share a private valet entrance and separate registration area.

The Octavius rooms (starting at $169 a night), are done in contemporary decor and are outfitted with the latest in tech toys, such as an auto-switching MediaHub that lets you stream direct from any smartphone, tablet or game console to the room’s 42-inch HiDef television. A mobile app lets you order room service, request amenities, and other fun things from your cell phone.

The Augustus rooms (starting at $159 a night), feature a plush chocolate brown and green color palette, and offer similar upgraded amenities in the bathroom, with a flat screen TV off the dual sink vanities and separate jacuzzi tub/shower.

Caesars Palace Las Vegas

With any girls weekend, the action starts… in the bedroom. Arriving on a Thursday night, we gathered in Mom and Karen’s room. Picture five women sprawled across two beds, a couch and a couple of chairs, kicking off their shoes and uttering a collective sigh of relief to be on vacation.

Karen, who left four kids (all under the age of 9), at home with her husband for the weekend, said the little ones weren’t upset at all that Mom was leaving for a few days.

“Hannah said, ‘Good, then we can have fun with Dad,’ “ said Karen, laughing. “I don’t know why they think they’ll get away with more things with him.”

Jane, who left two kids at home with her husband, shared a more serious story.  Her son Max, 9, had been playing baseball earlier in the week when a larger boy knocked Max down while running toward a base.

“Max got a concussion, and we had to go to the emergency room,” Jane said. “He’s going to the neurologist tomorrow to get more tests.”

It’s not easy being a mom, and as Wendy (who joined us the next morning) noted, getting away from the kids is essential to parental health.

My sister Linda and I, the single ones in the family, were happy to get away from the routine of work for a weekend. Mom was just happy to see most of her daughters together (two were unable to join us).

For dinner our first night, we went down to Rao’s, a delightful Italian restaurant modeled after its famous New York parent, a 100-year-old restaurant in East Harlem, which was once a legendary Italian neighborhood.

“They have 10 tables there, and it’s a two-year wait to get in because the regulars ‘own’ their tables and are accustomed to eating there on certain days and times,” explained our waitress Rebecca. “It’s a real family-type place.”

Rao’s at Caesars Palace

Apparently, back in the 1950s, when Uncle Vincent took possession of the restaurant in March, the Christmas decorations were still up. He decided to leave the tree and decorations in place, declaring it would be Christmas all year at Rao’s. The Yuletide theme is maintained in the Vegas establishment as well — from garlands over the bar to a tree in the foyer — making a cheerful statement about the importance of family, faith, and joy.

As for the food… it was wonderful. Being Chinese-American, we like to eat family-style, so we ordered Fritto Misto, otherwise known as deep-fried calamari ($22); Caesar Salad ($15); Spaghetti Marinara ($23); Meatballs ($16); Veal Picatta ($38); a special of Seared Shrimp over Linguine with Fresh Cherry Tomato and Basil Sauce ($36), and Peas and Prosciutto ($15).

“The peas are so good,” said Jane. “I could eat this as a dish by itself.”

Dessert was a shared order of Tiramisu, New York Cheesecake with Mixed Berries and a Peanut Butter Tart ($12 each). Needless to say, we rolled out the door more than satisfied.

Having never stayed at Caesars Palace before, we were surprised to discover how large the property is. The resort sits on 85 acres, has eight swimming pools (which range from family-friendly to European style, tops optional), and The Colosseum, which features performers like Celine Dion, Jerry Seinfeld and coming later this year, Shania Twain. We hit the casino for an hour of gambling, then gave in to jet lag and the need for sleep.

The next morning, we gathered in Mom’s room again. The talk this time was about our childhood in Houston, where we were one of the few Asian families in our largely white and Hispanic school district.

“You girls used to get picked on at school all the time,” Mom remembered. “With you older girls, we’d always write a letter to the teacher, telling them that kids were harassing you at school. With Dinah, the boys would stick bubble gum in her hair.

“With the others, they would constantly poke your legs under the table with a pencil, hit you, or pulled your hair. When Jackie got to kindergarten, she told the boy who poked her with a pencil, ‘Don’t poke me with that again. It hurts. If you do, I’ll tell the teacher on you.”

When the boy poked her leg with a pencil again, Jackie told the teacher, “If he does it again, I’m going to hit him.” She sat back down, and sure enough, the kid poked her with the pencil again.

“So Jackie hit the boy in the nose, and his nose bled,” Mom said. “The boy ran to the teacher, saying, ‘Jackie hit me.’ The teacher said, ‘Well, you deserve it.’ The next year, Jackie told Jane, ‘If anyone bothers you, you tell me and I’ll hit them for you.’ After that, no one bothered the rest of you.”

We all laughed, and Jane shared that when her son Max went to camp recently, one kid teased him with constant chants of “Ching-Chong,” until Max exploded and told him to “Shut up!” When the kid complained to the counselor, she said, “That’s what you get for calling people names.”

It’s sad to know that racism still lives, but at least — in this instance — pencil stabbing has given way to name calling.

After that discussion, we decided it was time for some retail therapy and headed for The Forum Shops. While many casinos now include shopping venues, we learned that Caesars Palace was the first one on the Strip to have retail attached to its casino.

The Forum Shops, owned and operated by Simon Property Group, is a mall of 160 shops and restaurants that boasts the world’s largest H&M. Originally featuring luxury  boutiques like Louis Vuitton and Gucci, the shops expanded to include more moderate offerings like Victoria’s Secret and Banana Republic.

Fifty of the stores participate in the Total Rewards program, offering discounts or VIP service to shoppers, as well. For shoppers with kids, there’s a free animatronic show, recreating the Lost City of Atlantis, every hour at the top of the hour near The Cheesecake Factory.

My sister Linda, who loves to shop, found a pair of silver earrings for our sister Boo (who couldn’t make the trip) at Judith Ripka with the help of client specialist Antonietta Bonfitto. “I told her I didn’t want to spend much money, and she spent a lot of time helping me,” Linda said. “She looked through everything, and was so understanding about shopping on a budget.”

After dinner, we ended the evening by popping in to see Matt Goss perform in The Gossy Room at Cleopatra’s Lounge (tickets are $40 plus fees). Goss, a singer from the U.K., riffs the legendary Rat Pack performers, wearing a Frank Sinatra-like fedora and performing standards like “I’ve Got the World on a String” and “Luck be a Lady.”

Accompanied by a 9-piece band and Vegas dancers, his show gives a taste of old Las Vegas to a crowd in an intimate, packed theater. Be warned, this show is general admission, so show up early, or you’ll be left, as we were, sitting behind a column that blocked the view of the stage.

Pretty soon, it was time to hit the casino for one last round at the slot machines before going up to bed. Mom was already in bed when the rest of us trooped in. She asked if Jane, who was staying in the other tower, had gotten back to her room all right.

That’s the thing about families — no matter how old you get, Mom never stops worrying about you.

Next: Spa time makes getaway special

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