June 19, 2016

Random Acts… Meet three memorable men in Florence, Italy

Posted in Dining, Spirituality, Travel at 10:15 pm by dinaheng

Dinah EngThe best part of any journey, for me, is talking with the locals, who know the best eateries, the best shops, and the places that define the soul of a city. On a recent trip to Italy with my sister, we met three memorable men in Florence. Their stories reveal the three best reasons to visit the capital of Italy’s Tuscany region – the Renaissance artistry, the warmth of the people, and the wonderful food.

The Maestro of alchemy and jewels

Hidden amid the narrow streets of the Oltrarno neighborhood is an unusual artisan workshop that takes you back in time to the Italian Renaissance. Housed in the 15th Century Palazzo Nasi-Quaratesi, jeweler-sculptor Alessandro Dari’s atelier has been recognized by the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage as a Museo Bottega (museum workshop).

Walking into the small showroom, I’m dazzled by all the intricate pieces of handcrafted gold jewelry and small sculptures made of precious metals in the display cases. Collections called “The Keeper of the Soul,” “Alchemy & Magic,” and “Space & Time” tickle the imagination, making me want to meet the artist who created them.

After a few minutes, the maestro himself appears, clad in dark clothes and an industrial apron. Dari, who speaks little English, smiles with warmth and gives me a look at his workbench area. His fianceé Antonella, who speaks some English, serves as the interpreter.

“Alchemy was born centuries ago in China, Arabia, and Europe,” says Dari, pointing to various pieces around his laboratory. “In alchemy, the material has a soul. When you work with the material, you discover its soul.”

Alessandro Dari holds a sword designed to honor the practice of alchemy. Photo courtesy of Alessandro Dari.

Alessandro Dari holds a sword designed to honor the practice of alchemy. Photo courtesy of Alessandro Dari.

Dari, who made his first ring at age 16, studied chemistry at the University of Siena, intending to become a pharmacist. But a fascination with metalworking led him down another path. Today, his work is exhibited at the Silver Museum in Florence’s Palazzo Pitti and at the Cathedral Museum in Fiesole.

He teaches several students in the back of his workshop, using “sacred geometry” as the basis of his teachings. In other words, God created the universe with a geometric plan, and in the alchemic philosophy, he explains, “God and gold are the same. One lives in your soul, and the other in the material.”

Listening to him speak in Italian, I wish I could understand first hand what he was saying. One of the things that travel teaches you, though, is that when there is a will to communicate, there is a way. With each question I ask, the couple struggles to understand me, and shares the answers they think I am looking for.

Antonella explains that the techniques Dari uses stem from the Etruscan, Classical, Gothic and Renaissance periods. He takes particular pride in his “Collezione Castelli” (Castles Collection), where the architecture of castles was celebrated in his jewelry.

It’s amazing to know that everything from melting metals to engraving and the setting of stones is done in the tiny workspace behind the showroom. As I get ready to leave, the master goldsmith shares one last thought.

“Everything I do is about the elevation of the soul,” Dari says. “When the work is finished, I put every piece in a collection. I don’t know why themes emerge. It is something I feel inside. The point of life is to share emotion.”

Alessandro Dari’s museum workshop is at Via San Niccolo 115r, Florence, Italy 50125; Phone: +39 055 244747; http://www.alessandrodari.com/en/.

The Concierge

“Bene! Bene!” You can’t help but beam as Paolo Mori, concierge at the Hotel Lungarno, gives you an approving smile when you make a request, or take one of his recommendations. This is a man who could sell bottled sunshine because his heart is so open.

One afternoon, he tells my sister and me about an artisan workshop near the hotel. Rather than just give directions through the labyrinthine streets, he walks us through the neighborhood. Along the way, he shares the story of his life.

On one block, he points to the apartment building where he grew up. His father has passed on, but “my mommy is home now,” Mori says, happily. “I go to see her every couple of weeks, and she still cooks for me. She was a chef in a restaurant in Florence, so we ate well.”

The Oltrarno neighborhood of his childhood was a quieter place where he and his friends would play soccer in the street because there were no cars, tourists, or pollution to contend with. The cobblestone streets are still lined with small shops that the locals patronize. We stop in front of a local cobbler’s store.

Hotel Lungarno Concierge Paolo Mori. Photo by Dinah Eng.

Hotel Lungarno Concierge Paolo Mori. Photo by Dinah Eng.

“Here, they make handmade shoes,” Mori says. “When I was a kid, I would sit in that window, pretending to make shoes. It was great fun.” A few more feet and we cross the street. “And that’s where I went to church!” he exclaims. “On Sundays, we would visit the museums.”

He is proud of the neighborhood he calls home, and while he didn’t become a cobbler, he did try several other trades. He worked for a retailer, as a waiter, and tried plumbing before deciding to go into the hotel business. In 1997, he joined the Hotel Lungarno as a porter, was promoted to doorman, then concierge.

“I love my work,” Mori says. “Florence is my home, and I love to welcome everyone to my town. Every day is different because you don’t know who’s standing in front of you. It’s a universe of people from different countries and different perspectives.

“You have to figure out who’s in front of you, and what they’re looking for, in order to help welcome them. Florence is a warm town. It’s not Milan, where people are professional and stay cold.”

The oddest question he’s ever had from a guest? “One woman asked, where are the gondolas?” he says, laughing. “They are, as you know, in Venice. She was visiting so many different Italian cities that when we told her, she laughed, too.”

Mori has a fondness for America, having visited the United States on his honeymoon. He raves about the sights he took in at the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Los Angeles. “Bellisimo!” he says.

Today, his wife works at IKEA in Florence, and they have an 11-year-old daughter. The family lives in the city suburbs, but Mori still loves the Oltrarno neighborhood of his youth.

“I love every single corner, because every corner has a secret, or something particular that only those who live here see every day,” Mori says. “A lot of the historical shops have been replaced by tourist shops and commercial places. Fortunately, Florence is still a wonderful town. Perfecto!”

The Oltrarno (meaning “the other side of the Arno”) neighborhood, lies south of the Arno River in Florence. Known as a historic, working-class neighborhood, the area is filled with local restaurants, small artisan workshops, and antique shops. Hotel Lungarno, Borgo San Jacopo 14, Florence, Italy 50125; Phone: +39 055 27261; http://www.lungarnocollection.com/hotel-lungarno.

The Food Connoisseur

One rainy afternoon, it was time for lunch at Irene Firenze, the restaurant inside the historic Hotel Savoy off the Piazza della Repubblica, The menu is different than most places in town, so Paul Feakes, the restaurant manager, stops to chat and explain why.

“We designed a menu for women,” Feakes says. “Men enjoy it, too, but we were very aware that people’s tastes and needs have changed. So while the menu is authentically Tuscan, the dishes are lighter, healthier, and address a number of allergies and intolerances. Vegan, gluten-free, lactose intolerant, whatever you need.”

Irene (the name of hotel founder Sir Rocco Forte’s mother) was chosen to give the restaurant a feminine feel, rather than a masculine title that might suggest a bar.

“Tuscan food is traditionally very heavy and very meat-based,” Feakes explains. “Considering a female palate enabled us to get creative with the menu. As a result, we’ve seen huge growth in both Italian diners and new international faces.”

Paul Feakes, restaurant manager of Irene Firenze. Photo courtesy of Rocco Forte Hotels.

Paul Feakes, restaurant manager of Irene Firenze. Photo courtesy of Rocco Forte Hotels.

Feakes, who has lived in Italy for seven years, is a food connoisseur whose journey has taken him around the globe. Feakes started in the catering industry in Great Britain, moved to work in California, then to an ashram mountain community in India, two hours north of Mumbai, where he cooked for about 300 people.

Eventually, he returned to the UK, where he helped to grow catering brands and re-styled food operations in the House of Commons when he was recruited to open Portcullis House, a building in Westminster that houses members of Parliament and their staff.

After a slight detour to become a psychotherapist, Feakes, and his partner of 21 years, gave everything up to move to Florence in 2009, looking for a total life change. There, Feakes started a private cooking school and opened an art gallery in Northern Tuscany’s Pietrasanta.

“I devised a way to put my creativity, my love of food, and my need for another adventure together by teaching English through the medium of cooking,” he explains. “This led to teaching at the Savoy, and I returned to my roots of pure food and beverage when I took over as restaurant manager for Irene.”

Moving to Italy suits the food connoisseur, who learned to speak Italian gradually as he acclimated to his new home. “I make mistakes, of course, but I like to think that I make beautiful mistakes, or make mistakes beautifully,” he jokes.

He sees food changing in Florence and Italy in many ways, and dislikes the trend toward over-complicating traditional dishes. For his taste, Tuscan food should be simple, seasonal and flavorful. A simple bruschetta with wonderful fresh tomatoes under the Tuscan sunshine, he notes, is divine.

Yes, there are cultural differences between England and Italy, but Feakes is more than happy where he is.

“For me the Italian culture fits how I wish to live,” Feakes says. “I miss things from England — a great beer in a country pub and our sense of humor. But I just love life here – being outside under the sunshine, and the rhythm of the life. I feel like a new Florentine, not like a foreigner in a strange town.”

Irene Firenze, Piazza della Repubblica 7, Florence, Italy 50123; Phone: +39 055 27351; https://www.roccofortehotels.com/hotels-and-resorts/hotel-savoy/restaurant-and-bar/.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

June 1, 2016

Random Acts… Good reads for summertime

Posted in Books, Uncategorized, Women at 4:21 pm by dinaheng

Romantic suspense… science fiction… a sweet tale about an awkward, lovable creature. What more could you want for a good summertime read?

Dinah EngWhen Morgan Yancy, a covert team leader of a paramiltary group, is shot and nearly killed, his supervisor sends him to an isolated town in West Virginia to hide and recuperate. Little does Yancy know that his housemate, Isabeau “Bo” Maran, the part-time police chief of Hamricksville, is about to change the course of his life.

Courtesy of William Morrow

Courtesy of William Morrow

In “Troublemaker,” by Linda Howard ($26.99, William Morrow), romance and suspense combine for some fun summertime reading. Unlike many novels in this genre, the suspense takes a backseat to the romance. Most of the book explores how two wounded souls, brought together by the antics of Bo’s dog Tricks, help each other to heal.

The danger is muted in this tale, with the mystery of why Yancy was shot being solved almost as an after-thought at the end of the book. This is not a page turning thriller. But with a satisfying romance at the core of the story, who cares?

Fans of romance, mystery, and science fiction will enjoy “The Cold Between,” a debut novel by Elizabeth Bonesteel ($16.99, Harper Voyager) that sets up a universe where Central Corps engineer Commander Elena Shaw is determined to prove that her lover, Treiko Zajec, a former pirate, did not kill her crewmate on the colony of Volhynia.

Courtesy of Harper Voyager

Courtesy of Harper Voyager

After helping Trey escape the authorities, the two head into a wormhole, seeking answers to the murder, which may be tied to a government conspiracy that threatens the balance of power for all human civilizations. Galactic politics, it seems, is the same no matter which universe you hail from.

While the first third of the book starts slowly, the story picks up its pace and complexity with each page. Ancillary characters in the novel are well drawn, setting up the hope for more stories about the crew of the CCSS Galileo.

For younger readers, a charming picture book titled “Hello, My Name Is Octicorn” by Kevin Diller and Justin Lowe ($17.99, Balzer + Bray) speaks to anyone who has ever felt a little different.

Courtesy of Balzer + Bray

Courtesy of Balzer + Bray

Little Octi is half-octopus, half-unicorn, and more than a little sad because “when you don’t fit in, you don’t get invited to a lot of parties.” He shares his various talents – like being good at lots of sports, a good juggler, and a terrific dancer.

If others would only give him a chance, an octicorn would make a great friend “because in the end, we all want the same things. Cupcakes, friends, and a jet ski.”

Truer words were never spoken.

 

 

 

 

May 5, 2016

Random Acts… “War Hawk” possibilities all too real

Posted in Books, Politics at 8:20 pm by dinaheng

We live in a world where drones are capable of killing an enemy, and information cyber attacks are increasingly being used to blackmail corporations for money and more.

With that reality as the backdrop, James Rollins and Grant Blackwood have written a thriller that could be tomorrow’s headlines, putting a spotlight on the dangers of using technology without working out the moral consequences first.Dinah Eng

In War Hawk, (William Morrow, $27.99) Tucker Wayne, an ex-U.S. Army Ranger, works with the help of his military war dog Kane to figure out who’s killing cyber experts on a top secret project, and unravels a web of digital warfare that could end up toppling targeted governments.

Imagine a media mogul, manipulating the flow of information in publications and social media by using drones to secretly gather information and change what’s reported. Add in other drones to target and kill those who stand in the way of making profits to fund this man’s vision of a better world.

The tale reflects the military expertise of Blackwood, a U.S. Navy veteran who spent three years as an Operations Specialist, and the perspective of Rollins, a former veterinarian whose thrillers combine scientific breakthroughs, historical secrets and fast-paced action.

Beyond the taut suspense of a thriller, “War Hawk” explores the questions of who will control future drones, and the consequences of psychological warfare in an era where digital information spreads faster than our ability to discern the truth.

What’s frightening is that the technology cited in the story is already in play.

The concept of telling the story through the eyes of a former Army Ranger and his dog came from a two-week trip Rollins made to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2010 as part of a USO author tour.

“Since a lot of the military were reading thrillers, the USO asked five of us who were members of Thriller Writers International to visit some bases,” Rollins says.

"War Hawk" book cover courtesy of William Morrow.

“War Hawk” book cover courtesy of William Morrow.

“We talked with the men and women there, and tried to encourage them to write about their experiences – whether through journaling or recording thoughts — so that events would be preserved, even if it was for personal family histories.”

Prior to going on the USO tour, the authors visited the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. There, Rollins met soldiers who had PTSD and who lost limbs.

“Moral injury is something they’ve been talking about in the last couple years, and the treatment regimens are different,” Rollins explains. “When it comes to PTSD, treatment may include drugs and psychological therapy. With moral injury, the better treatment is talk therapy. It can become a manageable condition over time.”

As a former veterinarian, Rollins was curious about military handlers and their dogs. He researched the emotional connection between the two, and decided to create the Tucker Wayne and Kane duo, writing parts of the book from the behavioral standpoint of the dog, and giving Wayne the little discussed condition of moral injury.

After returning from the USO tour, Rollins founded Authors United for Veterans, a group that raises money for USA Cares and its efforts to support veterans. He also supports the US4Warriors Foundation, which helps veterans and their families who have specific needs.

While doing research for “War Hawk,” Rollins learned that drone technology has advanced to the point where drones can act autonomously, with the capability of shooting without orders.

“A lot of this is being developed by corporations who are becoming more involved in running wars and the military, which is disturbing,” Rollins says. “It has me worried because drones make it easier to go to war, and as killing becomes impersonal, the likelihood of choosing aggression over diplomacy grows.”

And that’s a headline none of us want to read.

 

 

 

 

 

April 24, 2016

Random Acts… Bridging cultures in ‘A Hologram for the King’

Posted in Diversity, Entertainment, Movies at 4:35 pm by dinaheng

When you’re divorced, depressed and about to be downsized, what do you do?

If you’re business executive Alan Clay (played by Tom Hanks), you go to Saudi Arabia to sell a deal to save your career. That is, if you can find a way to bridge the cultural divide.

Hanks’ portrayal of Clay’s journey in search of personal and professional salvation is what saves “A Hologram for the King,” in theaters this week, from being a disjointed mess. The Lionsgate film, based on the novel by Dave Eggers, makes an earnest attempt at showing the many differences that puzzle Americans about Saudi culture, but gives few explanations about the traditions that created those differences.Dinah Eng

Clay, alone in an unfamiliar land, befriends Yousef (Alexander Block), a Saudi taxi driver who takes him through the desert to “the King’s Metropolis of Economy and Trade,” a virtual ghost town of half-built buildings, where Clay hopes to sell a state-of-the-art teleconferencing system to the Saudi government.

Trying to set up a meeting with the King of Saudi Arabia, Clay must navigate the bureaucratic obstacles of a receptionist who gives no answers, a Saudi manager who leaves him mid-meeting, and his own stressed-induced panic attacks.

When a boil on his back sends him to the hospital, he is treated by the empathetic Dr. Zahra Hakem (Sarita Shoudhury), a Muslim physician who must navigate the complexities of a woman’s role in Saudi society while asserting her authority in a male-dominated profession.

As Clay builds a friendship with Yousef, and explores romance with Zahra, the businessman who came to Saudi a lost soul begins to find new meaning in life.

The movie, shot in Morocco, has sweeping desert scenery and offers a credible substitute for Saudi Arabia, which denied permission for filmmakers to film there. Writer-director Tom Tykwer, who visited Saudi Arabia’s ghost town “King Abdullah’s Economic City,” shot photos that served as inspiration for the movie’s ghost town.

For those who may never have the chance to visit the Middle East, the film shows realistic cultural challenges that Westerners face. Clay’s encounters with different people along the way, however, are often shown without explanation, leaving the viewer confused about what just happened.

How he finally gets to make his sales pitch, and what happens to his deal of a lifetime, is told with irony and humor.

What makes the film worth seeing is the message that regardless of where we come from, cultural differences can be overcome, for friendship and love truly know no boundaries.

 

 

 

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.

 

January 1, 2016

Random Acts… Newest “Star Wars” awakens nothing

Posted in Diversity, Entertainment, Movies, Spirituality at 3:48 am by dinaheng

I am a mild “Star Wars” fanatic.

I’ve seen the original three episodes more than a dozen times. (Sorry, George, but the prequels just don’t compare to your first three.) I’ve read “Star Wars” novels galore, and looked forward to seeing the newest film, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

Sadly, director J.J. Abrams’ effort was more a snoozer than a film that awakens the Force.

Dinah EngIn “Star Wars: A New Hope,” I’ll never forget Obi-Wan Kenobi, explaining what The Force was to young Luke Skywalker, sharing a vision of spirituality that touched a generation. That mythology inspired devoted fans to become Jedi knights, and even if you dressed up as Darth Vader for Halloween, you knew the difference between the Light and the Dark side of things.

This new narrative never explains what The Force is to viewers who have not seen previous “Star Wars” films. There are no climactic moments that give you the chills because the narrative is devoid of a storyline that is greater than a popcorn action flick.

And that is a shame, because we need reminders that the future is not doomed to become the dystopian society of young adult novels, which form the basis of most movies today.

The best thing about this newest film is the casting. By giving starring roles to a black man (John Boyega as Finn), a woman (Daisy Ridley as Rey) and a Latino (Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron) – all of whom are delightful to watch — diversity is now more than a passing nod in the “Star Wars” universe.

Obviously, Abrams wanted to pay homage to the original tale, but “The Force Awakens” is so derivative of the 1977 film that it does nothing to move the story forward.

“The Force Awakens” is the first feature produced by the Walt Disney Co., which purchased Lucasfilm in 2012. Its formulaic premise is clearly designed to drum up attendance at “Star Wars” theme park rides, sell merchandise, and increase commercial licensing opportunities.

The torch has been passed to a new generation of “Star Wars” characters, and Disney is sure to make big bucks off the franchise.

We can only hope that The Force inspires future filmmakers to do a better job of carrying on the true legacy of “Star Wars.”

 

 

 

November 29, 2015

Random Acts… Angels live among us

Posted in Health, Spirituality at 10:46 pm by dinaheng

When my nephew Mark was born, most friends would look delighted at the news. Then, when they learned that he had Down Syndrome, the first words they’d utter would be, “I’m sorry.”

After it happened two or three times, I started getting angry. I knew that people were trying to express sympathy for a child who would face many challenges in life, but they had no idea of the joy that lives in his heart.

As a toddler, Mark would stand and hold onto the side of the sofa, swaying to the beat of whatever music he heard. Before he could utter a word, he was dancing.Dinah Eng

Every holiday season, this is the child who reminds me that angels live among us. Down Syndrome can cause speech difficulties, and we can see Mark’s frustration when he’s trying to communicate and can’t get his point across to us. Many people just give up trying to understand others when there’s a communication gap.

But Mark rarely gives up. He keeps talking and talking, and usually finds a way to let us know what he’s thinking. When we just don’t get it, he just sighs and moves on to something else, forgiving those of us with “normal” speech for being too dumb to understand.

You see, Mark is one of the smartest people I know. At 11 years old, he understands sign language, English, Chinese, and a little Spanish. He loves music, and while he’s totally tone deaf, he sings everything with gusto. A couple of years ago, while sitting in a restaurant, he heard Idina Menzel singing “Let It Go,” one of his favorite tunes from the movie “Frozen.”

Without missing a beat, he stood up on the bench seat and starting belting out, “Let it go! Let it go! … Here I stand, in the light of day. Let the storm rage on. The cold never bothered me anyway!”

Everyone in the restaurant turned to watch, with a smile on every face. Living life with unbridled joy is something Mark teaches every day.

There is so much to admire in my nephew. He’s the kid who wears compassion on his sleeve, wanting to help Grandma put on her socks to stay warm. His sense of humor is constant, telling anyone who asks his age that “I’m 15.” When I asked why he wanted to be 15, he said, “So I can sit in the front seat in the car.”

That’s not to say that challenges don’t exist. When his cousins were younger, they didn’t know what to make of Mark, so would ignore him until an adult urged them to include him in their play. I could see the hurt on Mark’s face, and I hurt inside, too.

Over time, his cousins learned to accept Mark for who he is. Now they play and watch TV together without hesitation.

As he grows older, I know there will be others who don’t take the time to get to know Mark, and it will be their loss.

Angels have a lot to teach us, but only if we recognize them.

October 6, 2015

Random Acts… Fall reading for escape and inspiration

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:53 pm by dinaheng

My bedroom nightstand is stacked high with books that cry for attention. This month, I delved into two Young Adult (YA) novels and a memoir about a mother whose life path has been changed by two very special sons.

When it comes to YA novels, it’s rare to read stories with diverse characters who are easy for all readers to relate to. “On the Edge” by Allison Van Diepen (Harper Teen, $17.99) offers a compelling look at Miami’s underworld through the story of Maddie Diaz, a teen who dares to speak up and testify against gang members who have attacked a homeless man.Dinah Eng

Her secret ally is Lobo, an enigmatic leader of a rival gang who’s dedicated to freeing the victims of sex traffickers. In their world, navigating the challenges of random street violence is an everyday obstacle course that all too many experience.

While written for ages 14 and up, in many ways, this gritty series is more appropriate for those 16 and older. Its romance unfolds in a truly realistic setting with Hispanic characters who are fighting for the truth as they figure out where they belong in the world. But that, after all, is a struggle we all face every day.

On the other end of the YA spectrum is the captivating sci-fi fantasy “Ice Like Fire” by Sara Raasch (Balzer + Bray, $17.99), which takes readers into a world where access to magic is restricted to the rulers of various kingdoms and a lost chasm of magic has been discovered that could release its unrestricted energy into the world.

"Ice Like Fire" by Sara Raasch. Cover art courtesy of Balzer + Bray.

“Ice Like Fire” by Sara Raasch. Cover art courtesy of Balzer + Bray.

Meira, the teenage queen of Winter, believes that too much magic is dangerous. Theron, the son of Cordell’s king, believes more magic will cure everything. Mather, the leader of Winter’s resistance movement, just wants to save Meira and be free of Cordell’s oppression.

When Meira goes in search of allies, she discovers a web of political lies and unexpected help from Summer’s princess, a young woman who fights for a secret love. Fans of epic adventures will enjoy this sequel to “Snow Like Ashes,” though like all well written middle books of trilogies, it will leave you with unanswered questions, wanting more. Surely the sign of a good read.

Far from the imaginary escape that YA novels provide comes “Expect A Miracle” by Jenny Long with Bob Der (Sports Illustrated Books, $21.95), a true inspirational story about a mother’s journey as she overcomes life challenges while raising two special sons – one with special needs, and one who is just special.

Jenny Long lost her mother at the age of 12, and by 18, was a high school dropout, pregnant, and married to a convicted felon. With the birth of her first son Conner, the new mother decided to work toward a better life for her family. But it was the birth of her second son Cayden, two years later, that really changed everything.

Doctors recommended that Cayden, born with Spastic Cerebral Palsy, be placed in assisted living, but Long refused, and raised the boy at home. Older brother Conner, who must be an old soul in a young body, developed a strong, loving relationship with Cayden.

At age seven, Conner decided to enter the Nashville Kids Triathlon, with his five-year-old brother. So Conner swam, while pulling his brother in a raft; biked while towing Cayden in a trailer, and pushed that trailer when it was time to run. The two boys crossed the finish line together, and for their tenacity and spirit, won the 2012 Sports Illustrated Kids SportsKids of the Year award.

While most of the book is naturally written from Long’s point of view, I wish more had been shared from the children’s perspective. For as parents observing the race put it, “Look at what one brother can do for another. That’s what family is all about.”

The loving care and respect that Long and her sons share for each other are an inspiration, and in an age where families are often fractured, the real miracle lies in staying together – no matter what.

September 24, 2015

Random Acts… Customer service shouldn’t be a bonus

Posted in Business at 2:37 am by dinaheng

“At your service” is a phrase often used, and rarely fulfilled these days.

Whether it’s buying a dress at a department store, traveling on an airplane, or staying at a hotel, customer service all too often depends on whether the employee serving you is having a good day.

During a recent hotel stay in Las Vegas, I think every employee I spoke with was in a bad mood. While I’m not a gambler, my family loves to try their luck at slot machines, so I’ve tagged along with them, sampling many of the major Las Vegas hotels on the Strip.Dinah Eng

Last month, my sister Linda and I decided to stay at Bally’s Las Vegas, which touts a great location across the street from the fabulous fountain and light show outside Bellagio’s, and shares a parking garage with sister hotel Paris Las Vegas. Sadly, Bally’s clearly has gone downhill over the years.

The site, which first opened as the Three Coins Motel in 1963, has changed hands numerous times. Its current owner is Caesars Entertainment Corp., whose main operating unit was placed in Chapter 11 in January.

Unfortunately, our non-smoking room reeked of smoke and the walls were paper-thin. After checking in and leaving our bags, we went out for dinner. When we returned, someone had clearly been in the room, leaving hair in the bathroom sink and tub. When I sat down on a chair by the desk, it was soaking wet.

When I told the maid about it, she just laughed. I had to badger a manager into moving us to another room. Needless to say, we’ll never stay at Bally’s again.

Since good customer service starts at the top, it can’t be easy working for companies whose CEOs don’t understand that the bottom line is inevitably tied to the level of customer service provided.

When the news broke that Jeff Smisek, the bean counter CEO who engineered the problem-plagued merger of Continental and United Airlines, had resigned amid a corruption probe by federal investigators, no one was probably happier than United’s employees and frequent flyers.

It’s hard to understand why the airline, which is rated last in customer satisfaction among big carriers by J.D. Power, still reported second-quarter net income of $1.3 billion in July, a record quarterly profit for the company.

I wonder how cramped seats have to get before people actually refuse to pay any more of the nickel and dime charges airlines now routinely ask for. With fuel prices at such low levels, why are passengers not demanding lower airfares?

Everywhere you turn, industries are inventing “add-on” fees for services that used to be part of a normal sales transaction.

Take mattress specialty stores. My sister Linda, who lives in Houston, recently went shopping for a new queen bed, a process that’s akin to buying a car. You have to bargain for what you want, and settle for what you get, because salespeople usually won’t return complaint calls after the sale has been completed.

The mattress store websites may refer to “free delivery,” but once you’re in the store, you’re told the normal delivery charge is $79. However, if you buy the bed today, that charge will be reduced to $29. Same principle goes for buying the bedframe. Though if you want to take advantage of their financing options, the bed price may go down a little more. (Never mind that over time, the cost will be more.)

After looking through several stores, Linda was able to work with Gail, a friendly saleswoman at a Mattress One store, who just asked how much she wanted to spend. The saleswoman then massaged the numbers to seal the deal, without endless bargaining over each item.

Unfortunately, the difference between a low box spring and a high one was not discussed, so when the bed was delivered with a high box spring, Linda called to ask for the low one. The district manager, who said she should have asked for it at the point of sale, refused to send out a lower box spring unless Linda was willing to pay a $54-plus change delivery fee.

Linda decided against paying the extra charge, and was left with a sour taste after the sale. While Gail’s customer service would have resulted in referrals, the district manager’s decision ensured that Mattress One will not receive any from our family now.

Someone should tell that manager that it’s a lot easier to make a profit from repeat customers than continually trying to shortchange new customers.

August 5, 2015

Random Acts… ‘The Prophet’ offers food for the soul

Posted in Entertainment, Movies at 5:49 am by dinaheng

In a terror-filled world, the words of Kahlil Gibran are a balm to the soul.

The poetry of Gibran, a Lebanese philosopher and artist, is most often recognized in the classic book, “The Prophet,” published in 1923. Filled with thoughts on the meaning of love, work, freedom, prayer, death and more, the book – published in 40 languages — speaks to the heart of everyone, regardless of race or religion.

Now, Gibran’s words can be heard in an animated feature, produced and spearheaded by Salma Hayek, titled “The Prophet.” The film, in theaters on Friday (August 7), was written and directed by Roger Allers, whose credits include “The Lion King,” “Oliver and Company,” “”Beauty and the Beast,” and other Disney animated films.Dinah Eng

“The Prophet” is as far from a Disney production as you can get. The film combines Gibran’s poetry with animation and music, performed by Yo-Yo Ma, Damien Rice and Glen Hansard. While many scenes are beautifully rendered, the narrative itself is thin.

The poet Mustafa, voiced by Liam Neeson, is ready to leave a Mediterranean country for home, but is threatened by authorities who fear the truth in what he writes. The exiled artist is aided by Almitra (Quvenzhané Wallis), a troubled little girl who stopped speaking after her father’s death, her mother Kamila (Salma Hayek), Mustafa’s housekeeper, and other villagers who are inspired by the prophet’s words and drawings.

“I read ‘The Prophet’ in college, and it was very meaningful to me, so I jumped at the chance to work on this film,” Allers says. “There isn’t much of a narrative to the book, so I came up with the idea of his being under house arrest, and tried to have the poems flow out of his journey from the house to the ship.”

Allers remembers reading the book aloud with a college friend, and suddenly experiencing an intense feeling of connectedness to everything around him. He calls it a meditation that resulted in an out-of-body-like experience.

"Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet." Photo courtesy of GKIDS.

“Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet.” Photo courtesy of GKIDS.

“Poetry shifts us to a different part of the brain,” Allers says. “Maybe it’s part of the musicality of it, as opposed to listening to people just talk. Poetry helps us to let go of our usual perceptions.”

Through the film, Gibran’s words have the power to take your mind to another place, a world where wisdom reigns.

About children, the poet writes, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you, but not from you. And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”

About work, Gibran notes, “Work is love made visible.”

About death, Gibran shares, “”For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun? And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?”

This film may not be the most intriguing showcase for Gibran’s words, but any movie that explores the meaning of life with this poet’s inspiring message of unity and peace deserves our applause.

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