Thursday, February 9, 2017

NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge 2017: To The Moon And Back

It's that time of the year again - and the new NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge starts spinning my creative wheels. Here is the assignment I got this time and my story. 

Genre: Crime Caper
Subject: An Invitation
Character: A surgeon

Image Credit: http://thaoski.com/category/photographic-stories/couples-in-love/

To The Moon And Back
If people are of one heart, even the yellow earth can become gold.
Chinese Proverb
Meifeng Lin had been waiting for the letter for one year and seventy-three days. It came with a return address in Beijing, in care of a Mr. Bingwen Yu, but she knew it was from Jian. She was about to open it when her sister, Meirong, came to call her for dinner. 
“Who’s this Mr. Yu?” she asked. She had obviously seen the letter. Maybe it was she who left it on Meifeng’s bed. “I’ve never heard of him before.”
“A friend of Jian’s,” said Meifeng, sliding the letter under the pillow. 
“Jian who? Jian who hasn’t written one letter since you came back home? What does his friend want?”
Meifeng kept her lips pursed, hiding a smile. What did Meirong, her twin, know about her and Jian? The three of them grew up together, of course, and Meirong witnessed her sister’s friendship with the boy grow into love. However, when Jian and Meifeng moved to Japan, it was suddenly only two of them, and when Meifeng returned to China, she was a totally different person, while Meirong stayed the same. Their bodies were still identical, with the same narrow brown eyes, thick shoulder-length black hair and sun-kissed skin (though in Japan Meifeng spent less time out in the sun and looked much paler), but their minds went different ways. Was Meirong insane to think that Jian could have abandoned her? Meifeng never doubted her lover for a moment. Well, maybe for a moment only. They were soul mates, two daredevils sharing the same ambitions - Jian’s ambitions. It was his plan to move away from their poor mountain village of Yihezhuang and begin a new life in a different country, where democracy and wealth promised endless opportunities. Meifeng followed. She would follow him anywhere as long as she could.
She opened the letter after dinner, and her heart bounced at the sight of familiar handwriting. Feeling her eyes get teary, she raised the letter to her lips and kissed it. Jian invited her to come back. He had finally saved up the money. Meifeng was to go to Beijing to withdraw it and visit Dr. Yu to mobilize their plan.
It was not only Jian she missed. She missed sleeping in a comfortable room with heat and electricity, which poor homes in her village did not have. The beds warmed up by the fire underneath were the only source of heat in their house. Food was scarce and had to be cooked on open fire. Meifeng longed for a better life for herself and her family. Back in Tokyo, she earned a good living working as a waitress and sent money back home every month. How could she eat good food while her family was nearly starving? Her dream had been to some day move the family out of Yihezhuang to a bigger town, or maybe even a city.
And yet, when she came back, she was not the daughter who helped, but the daughter who left. Both her parents and Jian’s mother, Mrs. Zhou, (his father died of dysentery when Jian was a teenager) seemed content with their life and called their children ungrateful and rebellious. Meifeng was glad it was she and not Jiang who returned. His mother’s condemnation would have broken his heart. She wrote him short, thankful letters, but told the neighbors he abandoned her for a woman.
“He’ll abandon you, too,” Mrs. Zhou once said to Meifeng. “One who abandons always abandons.”
Meifeng replied nothing. In her heart, she knew Jian was not one who abandons, but she would never dare to argue with an elder. She just bowed her head and walked away, like she often did in her own home. Oh, she was ready to go back to Japan, where she was a loved woman. In Yihezhuang, she was a stranger in her own home, an unloved, treacherous daughter. As far as Meifeng was concerned, it was easier to be unloved at a distance.
Without much hesitation, she packed a small bag and left for Beijing at 6:30 the following morning. Jian’s letter consisted of three separate pages. On the first one was a love letter, for her eyes only, in which Jian professed his love and asked her to fear nothing and come to him at any cost, along with several Western Union transfer numbers, for access to the money for all of her expenses. The second page contained directions to Dr. Yu’s office on Dashilan, the famous shopping street of Beijing, always noisy and full of tourists, and the details of the procedure Dr. Yu was to perform. On the third and final page was Jian’s Tokyo address and phone number, so that she could find him when she would arrive. Meifeng reread the letter multiple times on her way to Beijing.
Four buses and seven hours later, she was finally on Dashilan. It was a hot and humid summer day, and sweat appeared on her forehead as she maneuvered between the myriad of tourists and locals, who came here to buy hats, shoes, silks and anything else the Dashilan shopping center offered. She walked quickly and almost missed the medicine store from Jian’s letter. Only by chance did her eyes single it out, and she stopped suddenly, hearing nothing but her heartbeat for a moment. Denying herself the opportunity to panic, Meifeng pushed the door decidedly and walked into the shop.
“Hello, how can I help you?” the shopkeeper greeted Meifeng.
“Good afternoon. I’m here to see Dr. Bingwen Yu.”
“This is a medicine store, Miss,” the shopkeeper shook his head, giving her a suspicious look. “There’s no doctor here. You must be mistaken.”
Meifeng knew she was not. She learned the name of the store by heart before she got on the first bus and kept repeating it all the way to Dashilan. The shopkeeper’s eyes showed either cautiousness or disdain. Meifeng believed it was the latter. After all, she did look like a small-town woman in her old-fashioned linen dress that used to belong to her mother, and she spoke a different dialect of Mandarin, distinct from the way people talked in Beijing.
“I came on recommendation from Jian Zhou,” Meifeng insisted. The shopkeeper gave her a blank stare. “I have a letter here.”
She reached into her bag and showed him the envelope with Dr. Yu’s name and address on it and the page with instructions and details of the surgery. The shopkeeper read the letter, and Meifeng watched him intently, feeling her face flush and sweat even more.
“I see,” said the shopkeeper after a long pause. “Did you bring the money with you?”
Meifeng nodded. He motioned her to follow him to the back of the store and led her through a long corridor to an adjacent building, a small and shabby private house. The shopkeeper knocked on the door, and a short and hunched elderly woman in a greasy robe opened.
“How are you, Mrs. Chen? This young lady came to Dr. Yu with a recommendation.”
“Come in,” the woman said without a greeting, nervously looking around.
Are all people in Beijing as rude and terribly mannered? Meifeng wondered.
She followed the woman inside and saw that the house (or at least its back side) was furnished like a real doctor’s waiting room with four chairs and a wooden desk, cluttered with piles or paper.
“You can wait here. The doctor will call you when he’s done with the previous patient,” said Mrs. Chen and left Meifeng on her own.
“Thank you,” Meifeng replied. She sat down in one of the chairs and fanned herself with Jian’s letter. She was parched, but no one offered her a glass of water, and she was too polite to ask.  
Forty-five minutes later, Doctor Yu came out of his cabinet followed by a slim woman dressed in black from head to toe with a bandage covering her nose. The woman said goodbye without acknowledging Meifeng’s presence and walked right out of the door.
“Hello, and please excuse my patient,” Doctor Yu said, stretching out his hand to Meifeng. “People do not come here to socialize, and they certainly do not wish to be remembered. I’m sure you’ll feel the same way.”
Doctor Yu’s appearance and demeanor surprised Meifeng. He was not old and gloomy, as she had imagined, but a young man with a goatee and a smiley face. He wore jeans and a light blue dress shirt with a few drops of blood on the left breast pocket. The blood was the only sinister thing about him. Other than that, he was as talkative and likable as Jian.
“Good afternoon, I am Meifeng Lin, Jian Zhou’s girlfriend. He said you’d help me.”
“Sure, but please do tell me what it is I can help you with.”
Meifeng hesitated. She had never had to tell her story to anyone before, not even to her family. Meirong thought she came on her own will because she missed home. “I was deported from Japan for overstaying my visa, and Jian said I’d be able to sneak back in if you altered my fingerprints… so that they wouldn’t know at the border that I’d been deported.”
“I’ve had patients who came here with similar requests, and I was certainly able to help them. May I ask if you have the money to pay for this expensive procedure?”
“I’ve brought the money with me,” said Meifeng and gave him the envelope with $8,000 Jian sent her to pay the doctor. “It’s everything at once.”
“Good,” the doctor nodded. “Then we can start whenever you’re ready.”
Meifeng nodded her readiness. The doctor led her into his cabinet and gave her a pill.
“Take this and please lie down on the operating table with your arms by your sides and your palms facing up. The medication should relax you and prepare you for the procedure.”
He left her and came back in a few minutes with some tools Meifeng preferred not to look at. Slowly, she started growing sleepy. The doctor’s voice sounded monotonous when he talked to her, putting her even more at ease.
“I’ll give you thirty more minutes to ensure you’re completely relaxed and feel minimal pain during the procedure. I will then remove the skin from the fingers on your both hands, and then I’ll transfer the skin from the fingers on your right hand onto the fingers on your left hand, and vice versa. Do you understand?”
Meifeng nodded. Her tongue felt too heavy to answer. She drifted into the state between sleep and consciousness. She still understood what was going on around her and saw the doctor scraping the skin off her fingers, but she felt like an impassionate observer rather than a participant. She switched her thoughts to Jian, remembering the way dimples appeared on his cheeks when he smiled and the way his eyes light up every time he looked at her.
When she came back to full consciousness, all of her ten fingers were already bandaged.
“You’re all set. As I understand, you came from far away. You’re welcome to stay here for the night… for a small fee, of course.”
Meifeng agreed. She felt lightheaded from the anesthesia and could not imagine the long trip back to Yihezhuang right away. Besides, her fingers hurt as though they had been burned with acid.
“Thank you,” she exhaled, almost in a whisper. “I’ll leave tomorrow morning, I promise.”
“You’re welcome. You should keep the bandages on for at least a couple of days and please wear gloves to avoid damage. Your fingers will heal in about three weeks.”
“How long do you think it will be until I can safely travel?”
“I’d say wait for at least six months to a year to get your new visa. If they notice the scars on your fingers, they may become suspicious. But don’t worry. They usually don’t look closely. Just take my advice. Don’t rush and be safe.”
***
On the flight to Tokyo four months later, Meifeng remembered Doctor Yu’s words and wondered if she proceeded too quickly. Getting a new visa with her sister’s passport was a piece of cake. Meirong had never been abroad, and they did not have her fingerprints in the system in the Japanese Embassy. Meifeng was in and out within an hour. Anxious to get to Jian as soon as possible, Meifeng “Meirong” headed straight to a travel agency and booked her flight and hotel, as Jian instructed. For immigration officers in Tokyo airport, she would be a tourist visiting Japan, not a woman in love reconnecting with her lover after a long separation. Needless to say, she also mailed a letter to Jian with the details of her flight.
As soon as she got off the plane, she was placed in a line of foreign visitors. Having “her” passport and her ticket ready, she tensed her hands to prevent them from trembling visibly and took a couple of deep breaths to calm down the throbbing in her temples.
“Good day, Miss Meirong Lin. How are you?” the immigration officer smiled, piercing her with his eyes. He checked her passport and studied her face. “Please place your left index finger on the scanner right here. Oops. Something went wrong.”
Meifeng felt her heart stop for a split second. He found me out, she thought in panic. He’ll look at my fingers now and see the scars.
When the customs officer touched her left hand, it took Meifeng a great deal of control not to pull it back right away. He pressed her fingers to the scanner.
“Here we go,” he said. “And now the same with the other hand. You weren’t pressing hard enough, and the machine couldn’t read your fingerprints. Sorry about the delay and welcome to Japan.”
“Thank you,” Meifeng nodded as her heartbeat slowly returned to its normal rate.
She collected her luggage and went to the waiting area. Jian was not there, so she walked outside to hail a taxi. Then she saw him running across the street, panting, trying to pass before the streetlight changed to let the cars go.
Their eyes met, and she saw his face light up in a dear and familiar way.
“Hello, Mei Lin,” he said, taking her into his embrace. “I was running a bit late, and I was so worried I’d miss you.”
“I’ve missed you,” she whispered, “but I hope we’ll never miss each other again.”
“Me too,” he nodded, pressing her tighter against his body.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

A Jersey Fresh Experience at Alstede Farms


Though a few of my friends had told me about the opportunity to gather fresh fruit and vegetables at local New Jersey farms, only this summer did I get to try it out. Choosing from close to 100 farms, I picked out Alstede Farms for two reasons: it offered all produce I was interested in, and the farm's website was clear and informative, so I knew exactly what to expect when it came to assortment, activities and prices (some of the other websites I visited suggested to call them for prices and availability). As it turned out, I made the right choice. I went for a ride in a hay wagon, filled my containers with fresh fruit and vegetables, petted donkeys, goats and rabbits, saw other farm animals, babies and adults, shopped at the farm store, tried homemade farm food and even brought some recipes home! In other words, in addition to a car load of fresh produce, the trip also left me with great memories of an authentic farm experience.

As soon as I arrived at the farm, I paid the admission fee ($6.99 / per person on weekends) and had my containers weighed for picking. The website recommended to bring containers from home, and I did so, although they did sell quarts for 10 cents and boxes for $2 in case visitors didn't come prepared. After checking in, I was free to wander around the farm or get right to picking. The farm's staff was welcoming and helpful, answering any questions with a smile. There was also a table with homemade foods to taste for free near the entrance. All the samples I tried were delicious and came with recipes. Thus, not only did I have a good time, I also learned something new. 

Off the hay wagon!
Having snacked on the offerings, I lined up for the hay wagon ride. It was not just entertainment, as I had thought. The hay wagons took visitors around the farm, so they did not have to walk around the fields. Every stop had different crops the drivers announced beforehand. I cannot imagine getting around without the hay wagons. I would have gotten lost and most certainly felt tired, which would have spoiled my overall impression. Another great idea on the farmers' part was to leave metal carts around the farm. At first I thought they belonged to other pickers, but since they were often left unattended, I helped myself to one, especially that my containers were getting heavier with blueberries, raspberries, peaches and tomatoes I gathered on my way. 

Picking up raspberries, in particular, reminded me of my maternal grandfather. When I was little, he would often take me raspberry picking in his garden. He would always remind me to break up each berry to make sure no worms were hiding inside. Visiting Alstede Farms, I thought of my childhood and of all children who grow up in big cities and never experience nature, never know what raspberries are supposed to look and taste like. I also thought that even if one lives in a big city, he or she can always create opportunities. Nature is all around us, and, if we make the slightest effort, we can touch, feel, taste and smell it. 

Though picking was supposed to end at 6 pm, according to the farm's schedule, we were politely warned in advance that the last wagons are picking people up at 6:30 pm. With that said, the staff was pretty lenient about dropping visitors off at picking stops close to that time, so we did not feel pressured to leave. 

Having paid for all of my picked goods by pound (the prices for their stuff are pretty good, considering that one is buying organic, locally-grown produce), I still had time to walk around, take colorful pictures and buy a few more things in the farm store. In addition to fruit and vegetables, they also sold homemade jams, maple syrup, fresh eggs, milk, and even homemade wine from a nearby winery. Hence, I did all my grocery shopping for the following two weeks in one place and felt great about it, especially because I got to pick up most of it from the ground and the trees myself. 

To sum it all up, I'd recommend visiting Alstede Farms for a number of reasons. Eating organic, natural-sized foods would be the main one. Some of the peaches were thick-skinned, but they were the juiciest I've ever tasted. The flavor of raspberries reminded me of my childhood, the taste I had been looking for - in vain - in a box of Driscolls, even organic ones. In addition, whether you had been on a farm or not, you might still experience something new, like petting a rabbit, or sitting on a pile of hay. And, finally, it is always good to simply reconnect with nature and, through getting your hands dirty, feel liberated and more appreciative of the food you consume and the world you are living in. 


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Holtzman Gallery: An Art Haven in the Heart of Atlantic City


Image Credit: http://claridge.com/atlantic-city-art-gallery/


If you're visiting Atlantic City and you have curiosity - if not passion - for art, you should definitely visit Holtzman Gallery, located inside the historic Claridge Hotel. Though it seems tiny from the outside, the gallery occupies three levels (all of them wheelchair accessible) and exhibits a great variety of art works, including, but not limited to paintings and sculptures. 

As you walk inside, you're immediately captivated by portraits of famous people, recreated on canvas from photographs by the gallery's owner, David Holtzman. Bold colors the artist uses highlight the features of his subjects, among whom are Marylin Monroe, Muhammad Ali, Woody Allen and many others. There are two portraits of Marlon Brando, one in blue and one in pink. Though they're based on the same photograph, the use of different colors affects the impression each picture makes on the viewer. 

Having enjoyed these unusual portraits, keep walking - you're in for even more treats! The gallery's art collection includes giclĂ©es (digital prints of art works made on inkjet printers), abstract paintings by an 8-year-old boy from India, framed portraits of famous people done in pencil on matchboxes, paintings on Biblical themes, realistic landscapes, a couple of paintings in the style of French impressionists, some interesting sculptures and even works by John Lennon. In other words, there's something for every taste. Moreover, you're likely to discover at Holtzman Gallery at least one type of art you've never seen before, or, if you are an art collector, a fascinating piece you would like to hang in your house or apartment. 

For example, if you're into realism, you'll enjoy paintings by Marcos Monteiro. Among his pieces exhibited in the gallery are breathtaking seascapes and portraits of animals. Originally from Rio de Janeiro, Monteiro gained first-hand knowledge of the ocean and its inhabitants through diving, fishing, snorkeling and studying marine biology. Bright colors, attention to detail and the portrayal of life precisely as we see it in real life attract the viewers to his paintings. 

Another painter of realism exhibited by Holtzman Gallery is John Dzedzy, who was a student of Holtzman's when he began studying art. His oil-on-canvas portraits of Native Americans are based on personal research. Portraying his subjects, the artist aspires to stay true to Native American culture and history he has studied for years. Dzedzy also designs a unique frame for each of his paintings. The frames are grandiose and antique-looking and make the paintings resemble family portraits of rich landowners. 

If, however, realism doesn't appeal to you, check out Jon Allen's works. By painting on metal, Allen takes abstractionism to another level. Described on the artist's bio page on the gallery's website as "a marriage of industrial technique and visual grace," his paintings look modern, colorful and mysterious at the same time. Allen's work has been exhibited in over 200 galleries all over the world and will definitely be one of the focal points of any personal collection. 

Featuring a great number of artists who cannot leave the viewers indifferent, Holtzman Gallery also has Francis Mesaros Panctures. A combination of painting and sculpture, Mesaros's works are impossible to pass by, due to both their large size - they will surely occupy a large chunk of your wall - and the artist's unique technique. His abstract seascapes seem to be constructed of hundreds of painted seashells. In consequence, not only do we admire the final product, we are also amazed by the effort put into creating it. 

In addition to paintings, the gallery also displays photographs, sculptures, and even guitars, lovingly painted with lacquer or shellac by Peter Cree. As we learn from this section of the exhibit, painting guitars is more difficult than it seems, since it can negatively affect the instrument's sound, and the process takes "an average of 100 hours per top." Thus, Cree's art also overlaps with science and brings together painting and music. 

As you can imagine, the list of unique art works Holtzman Gallery has to offer can go on and on. Unexpectedly found in the East Coast's gambling capital, it is truly a gem for art lovers. If you consider yourself one, you should definitely check it out next time you're around Atlantic City. Visiting the gallery might just be the jackpot you've always wanted to hit! In the meantime, look at the gallery's website for the list of exhibited artists and examples of their artwork. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

5 Reasons to Start Juicing

Image Credit:
http://www.supernutritionacademy.com/juicing-benefits-debatable/#.V55YOmUbZok

If you are, like me, not a vegetable lover and feel concerned with your diet, you should consider juicing as a path to a healthier you. Note: by juicing I mean adding fresh juice to your diet, not replacing all of your meals with it. Here are 5 reasons why you should be drinking fresh fruit or vegetable juice:

1. It's nutritious. Fresh-squeezed juices have all the same nutrients fresh fruit and vegetables contain, but your body absorbs them easier and quicker. Drinking one large glass of juice equals eating all of the fruit it was made of (for example, two grapefruits, a kiwi and an apple). What's even better, as opposed to cooking vegetables, juicing preserves all the nutrients, so you don't miss out on anything.

2. It tastes good. By means of mixing various fruit and vegetables, you will be able to consume products that you don't like. I can't even think of eating beets, but if I add some beet juice to my fruit and veggie drink, I don't taste it and don't mind it.

Also, taste is a matter of habit. Even though you might not like the taste of fresh juice at first, you'll love it once you get used to it.

3. It is easy to prepare. Once you have your first juicer and you learn how to take care of it (cleaning etc.), you don't even need recipes to prepare your juices. Choose your fruit and veggies according to your taste.

Don't forget, however, that fruit contain lots of sugar, so make sure to mix them with some vegetables for even better nutrition.

4. It charges you with energy. Even if you decide to eat nothing and only drink juice all day, you will not feel hungry. Remember that drinking the juice equals eating all of its ingredients, so don't feel like you're depriving yourself of food. Quite the contrary, you're giving your body what it needs, instead of processed food and fats. Fresh juice is all natural, and it serves you better than a five-hour energy shot. After a while, you will see your nails become stronger and your skin glow, and you will feel less tired in the end of the day.

5. It speeds up your metabolism. When I was first introduced to juicing, I drank fresh juice for dinner and ate whatever I wanted for breakfast and lunch. As a result, I felt hungry every 3 hours. I felt that my body was processing food quicker. I'm sure that was the consequence of juicing. In combination with exercise, I was able to lose weight quickly and without giving up food I liked.

With all these aforementioned benefits, the only downside is that you need to buy a juicer, suitable for both fruit and vegetables. If you feel that it's too much of an investment (the one I have costs around $150), try buying fresh juice by glass first, but make sure they're squeezing it in front of you. Ideally, you need to drink the juice no later than 15 minutes after it is squeezed; otherwise, you will lose out on some nutrients. Buying fresh juice is also expensive, approximately $5-6 for a 16 oz. glass. Still, it's a good start if you're not sure you enjoy juicing as much as I do. 

Friday, July 29, 2016

Water Tubing? Thanks, But No, Thanks.

Image Credit:
https://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/06/73/e4/a8/delaware-river-tubing.jpg
Have you ever thought of trying water tubing? Perhaps, you should try it to find out you won't like it much. Having enjoyed it on the lazy river at Six Flags Hurricane Harbor, I thought that water tubing on Delaware River would be even more fun. However, it turned out to be a long, exhausting journey and quite a bore as well. 

What I expected when I booked this "adventure" at Kittatinny Campground's Adventure Center was a relaxing trip down the river. I even though 3 miles was too short of a journey, though the description did say it would take 2-3 hours. Well, it took me much longer than that. Overall, the current was pretty slow, and I often felt that the tube was not moving at all. In addition, since the river was quite shallow, my tube got stuck on the pile of stones every once in a while. 

But, perhaps, the most frustrating part of this "activity" was that I had little control over the tube. I could easily make a 360 degree turn, but I struggled with directing the tube wherever I needed to go. Using my hands and arms as paddles, I battled with the current, which brought me to one bank and then the other, while I wanted to stay in the middle and relax. In the meantime, people were passing me by in kayaks, and I felt like I chose the wrong transportation mode.

Clearly, part of my misery was that I didn't know what to do with the tube. In my defense, the adventure staff did not help, either. We were dropped off on the river bank and given our tubes without any instructions, except for, "In case of emergency, the best way to get help is to walk towards the road and find someone there." By emergency, they probably meant that, if we got bored and decided to quit, the road was over there. 

As I was leisurely brought forward by the slow current, I kept wondering if I got unlucky. Maybe on other days the current was faster, and the trip really took 2 hours only. Maybe I needed more practice, and I would learn to control my tube eventually (though even Google does not have any good tips on how to maneuver a water tube). Maybe the trip should have been shorter, in terms of distance. There were, indeed, a lot of pleasant moments on the way. At some point, the current sped up, and I was moving faster towards my destination. I also got to sunbathe on the water and enjoy some beautiful views.

Hence, if you do decide on going water tubing (which I probably never will), make sure the distance you go is no longer than a mile and a half, especially if it's your first time. An hour on the water is enjoyable no matter what. You get to see if you like this kind of activity and if you'd like to go for a longer trip. Additionally, ask if the company that provides the tubes can give you a paddle. That will make your trip faster and give you more control over the tube. Also, do not forget to wear sunscreen. They say you get tanned faster when you're in the water, and you won't be able to reapply your sun protection until you arrive at the finish point. And finally, if you like to be active and are not used to lying down for hours, you should go kayaking or canoeing instead. 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

9 Most Common Sleep Enemies

Image credit: http://m.huffpost.com/uk/entry/3827606.html?edition=uk

If tossing and turning becomes your everyday routine, don't run to a doctor thinking there is something wrong with you. There are a few "sleep enemies," eliminating which can help you fall asleep quickly and stay asleep:

1. Caffeine. While drinking coffee or soda in the morning helps you get a shot of energy for the day, it may keep you awake late at night.

2. Alcohol. A common belief that a beer or a shot puts you to sleep is a myth. Like caffeine, alcohol is a strong stimulant, and it is more likely to keep you awake than make you sleep.

3. Heavy dinner. Despite feeling sleepy right after a meal, you will not sleep well if you eat a lot right before bedtime. You need to give your body at least 2-3 hours to digest food before going to bed. Otherwise, it won't be fully relaxed and ready for wholesome sleep. Same applies to the consumption of liquids. If you drink a lot of water before bed, you will have to take bathroom breaks in the middle of the night.   

4. Hunger. This is another extremity. I don't like eating a lot late at night. At the same time, it is annoying to wake up hungry. Therefore, I try to eat something light, like yogurt or fruit if my stomach growls before bedtime. That usually ensures that I sleep better.

5. Irregular schedule. When you wake up and go to bed around the same time, your body gets used to this routine. You feel sleepy during the same hours. For this reason, having an irregular schedule is bad for your sleep because your body will not be able to quickly adjust to your ever-changing hours. Try to maintain a regular sleep schedule, and you will sleep better and deeper overall.

6. Uncomfortable temperatures. If your room is too cold or too hot, or your blanket is too thin or too thick, you have to make adjustments. There are even special blankets for couples that allow them to set temperatures on each side to help people who have different heat/cold tolerance from their partners sleep better. 

7. Worries. These are the hardest to get rid of. They often keep us tossing and turning. Try meditation or any other relaxation technique to put your worries aside. Tell yourself that you will take care of your problems when you get up. 

8. A snoring partner, or any other type of noise. If you're sensitive to noise and cannot stand hearing your neighbors' pillow talk, use earplugs. I prefer silicon ones, those that swimmers use. They cover your ears completely and isolate most noises. 

9. Lights. This might be a problem if you sleep during the day, or have a street light right by your window. If that's the case, try getting blackout blinds or an eye mask to keep the light out.   Keep in mind that you might not be sensitive to all of these sleep-disrupting variables. Therefore, you should listen to your body, take a note of what bothers you the most and work on eliminating it. Only you know what is the most comfortable environment for you, and it is up to you to set it up for better sleep. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Wondrous Power of Thank You

Image Credit:
http://www.awards4u.com/blog/difference-between-appreciation-and-recognition

Why is it that while we are growing up, we are consistently reminded to say "please" and "thank you," and when we become adults, we are so quick to forget these important words? A thank-you letter in response to one of my reviews (the first one I've ever got) made my day. It expressed gratitude for the time I invested into seeing the play and writing about it and touched upon a few things that worked well in my review. Consequently, it reminded me that I'm good at what I do and that what I do matters. Why are those pleasant moments of appreciation so rare?

If you ask me, I think it is because we tend to perceive criticism as a guide for improvement. Hence, we criticize freely. In many instances, we mean nothing bad. We just want the other person to look better, to achieve more, to polish his or her skills, and so on. When someone does something well, there is no need for improvement, and we feel that we have nothing to say. Except "thank you." Sometimes. Have you ever wondered why there are many more negative Yelp reviews than positive ones? Liking a restaurant encourages the customer to come back, while disliking it leaves no other option but complaining.

It is a shame, however, that we do not take advantage of the wondrous power of "thank you" and other words of appreciation. They do magic. They inspire people and bring them closer. They bring meaning into people's actions and put smiles on their faces. An employee who feels appreciated at his or her job will put in more effort and be more productive. Neglect and fear of failure often disable a person's talent, for he or she will be afraid or reluctant to go the extra mile, to make suggestions or put their soul into work. It damages both the employee and the employer.

Therefore, do not hold back the words of appreciation. Say "thank you" for good deeds and words that come your way. Elaborate on what it is that you find especially useful, well-done, or efficient. It is so easy and so harmful for everyone involved to make someone feel taken for granted. Do not hold back the power that will unleash the magic - and wait to see how much good comes out of it. 

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Shakespeare in the Park: "The Two Gentlemen of Verona"


A light-hearted comedy about two friends who almost became enemies because of love, William Shakespeare's "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" engages audiences of various ages and backgrounds. Like many other Shakespeare's plays, it has cross-dressing and plenty of intrigues. As the plot unravels with a great deal of humor, the characters mock and trick one another, making the viewers burst out laughing.

It only gets better under the direction of Hamilton Clancy for the Bryant Park Shakespeare series.

Preserving the classical verse and plot, the director makes a few memorable additions, introducing modern technology and New York City elements. For example, Silvia (Kristin Piacentile) videotapes her suitor's serenade on her cell phone, and banished Valentine (Andrew Gombas) takes South Ferry from Milan. These additions, like sprinkles on a cake, adorn the performance without taking away the play's essence.

Moreover, the characters wear modern clothing, and the way they dress indicates their social standing. For instance, while Proteus (Brian Patrick Murphy) and Valentine resemble typical Midtown waiters in their white shirts, black pants and black aprons with front pockets, the Duke (Ernest Mingione) appears in a suit and carries himself with the air of a mafia boss. Similarly, Julia (Tori Ernst) wears pants and flats, and Silvia, the Duke's daughter, walks around in a summer dress and high heels. In other words, they are as diverse as the crowds wandering the city's streets on a daily basis, and could easily blend in with the rest of New Yorkers.

As far as the setting is concerned, the crew does a good job switching locations without confusing the audience. By merely turning around the sign, which says "Cafe Verona" on one side and "Milan, the Emperor's Court" on the other, they teleport the characters back and forth. And when banished Valentine boards the ferry, he has the picture of the World Trade Center area in the background, which makes those viewers who recognize it laugh out loud.

Furthermore, due to the enormity of the space, actors come out from all directions and sometimes even walk between the rows of seated spectators. In the meantime, the city life goes on. Passers-by hurry to their destinations, occasionally stopping to take a picture or a video of the performers. And when one sees a man with the poster "Jesus Loves You," he or she instantly remembers that this is New York, a city where nothing surprises anyone - not even a classical play staged in the park.

Finally, not to forget the best part - the show is free and open to the public. Seating is limited, although there are usually enough chairs for everyone. Hence, the only thing one has to invest in the play is time, so if you have some on your hands, you should definitely give Bryant Park Shakespeare a shot.

Check out this video for the snapshot of the May 30th performance:

video





Thursday, November 13, 2014

Flash Fiction 2014 Review: Round 2, "The Night in the Lab"

Image credit: www.totallythomas.com
Thrilled to have advanced to the next level in the competition, I cannot wait to read your comments on this story. Here is my heat assignment:

Genre: horror
Location: a laboratory
Object: a toy train

Thank you for your feedback, and good luck to everyone competing!


The Night in the Lab

Ethan Brown swiped his employee card, and the lab door gave way to his shaking hands. The air in the laboratory was stagnant and dry. Coughing into his elbow, Ethan reached for the light switch to the right of the door. The light went on for a couple of seconds, and then the bulb burst. The glass shards sparkled in the darkness, like snowflakes, as they fell down on one of the lab tables in the middle of the room. Ethan’s desk stood in the corner, so he groped his way towards it to switch on the table-lamp. When he came near it, his left foot stepped on something, and he would have fallen had he not held on to the desk. 
“Shit.”
The dim lamplight revealed that the object Ethan stepped on was a two-car metal toy train painted in black with one red line highlighting the rows of tinted windows. Even the conductor’s window was tinted.
“What the hell is this doing here?” Ethan mumbled, scratching his hairless head.
His voice echoed in the silence, and the train vibrated in his hand. He shrugged, blaming it on his excitement, and threw the train into one of his desk’s drawers. He had an important experiment to conduct. If it went well, he would become the first person (and the first African-American) to find the cure for cancer, and if he failed, no one would know. As far as the security officer was concerned, he came to feed the rats and take care of some paperwork.
He felt the chills as he opened the lab’s refrigerator and took out the cure, which he had prepared a week prior, and placed it into a syringe. His shadow stood erect, like a monument, a gray cloud on the sterile-white wall and a bulked-up version of his emaciated body. Ever since he had been diagnosed with lung cancer two years ago, he lost his appetite and gradually turned into a skeleton, upholstered with skin. If the cure worked on the experimental rats, inflicted with cancer cells, it could also save his life. The lab was so quiet Ethan could hear his heartbeat.
In the meantime, through the outline of his silhouette crawled another shadow, a zoomed-in version of the toy train, this one as big as his palm, with three cars. Following invisible tracks, it semi-circled Ethan and struck him in the chest. Throwing the syringe into the right pocket of his lab coat, Ethan tried to catch the train, but it slipped out of his fingers. Sharp as the edge of a tin can lid, the wheels left deep bloody scratches on his palm. His chest felt heavy all of a sudden. Ethan rubbed it, smudging his blood on his lab coat. The appearance of the train was bizarre, but the pain was real. Ethan closed his eyes for a moment, then reached into the drawer where he had put the train, and found it empty. 
Even though Ethan could not see the train, he could hear the rumble of its wheels, which grew louder and louder, echoed by his coughing. In a moment, the train crept right in front of Ethan and sucker-punched him in the back of his knees. Ethan kept his balance and grabbed a chair, intending to hit the train or use it as a shield. But the train flew past him, ascending towards the ceiling, made a loop and, like a hawk, landed right on Ethan’s face. Ethan’s nose started bleeding, and he felt dizzy, following the train’s trajectory. The train grew in size as it picked up speed, and Ethan counted five cars, each as long as Ethan’s arm from shoulder to elbow. The thought that it would eventually become big enough to crush him terrified Ethan, and he began crawling on all fours towards the exit. His head pounded. The train continued landing new blows, spiraling and circling in front of his eyes. Overcome with fatigue, Ethan could not move anymore. He sat on the floor only a few feet away from the door, his whole body insulated with a thick blanket of pain. Reaching into his lab coat pocket, he found the syringe with the cure. As he ducked from the train flying at him at full speed, Ethan slipped the cap off the syringe and thrust the needle into his palm. A loud clap, resembling a bomb explosion was the last thing Ethan heard before he lost consciousness, burying his face in his lap.
***
The sun was rising when Ethan finally woke up. The blood on his face and hands had dried up, but bruises all over his body still hurt. Gasping for air, he wobbled towards the window, opened it wide and inhaled the fresh November breeze. The air circulated through him, filling his lungs with oxygen. Leaving the window open, Ethan walked back to his desk and noticed the syringe where it had fallen out of his hand the night before. A few feet away lay the toy train, reduced to its original size, crumpled in the front and mottled on the right side, where the paint chipped from the collision. Ethan picked the train up and threw it out of the window, watching it smash against the asphalt eight stories down.
“Not invincible any more, are you?” he said, with a smile of relief on his thin unshaven face.