Welcome Me to the Green Thumb Club – FINALLY!

MiracleGrow Aerogarden 71j7cfahexl-_sl1000_

My Aerogarden available at Amazon for $69.95  

(5/5)

Pros: Fool-proof results           see my photos at the end of this review

Cons: My dill stopped growing after my first harvest, but it could have been my fault since the basil and parsley are over-the-top happy.

My “green thumb” leaves a lot to be desired. Since early childhood, my efforts to make things grow were met with rotting roots, brown leaves, or nothing at all. My daughter got me a “lucky bamboo tree” nearly ten years ago. It lost one of its three trunks about four years ago and is only now starting to look less like an ICU patient. The orchid plant she bought me about 18 months ago now sports dead blooms and one new leaf (the new leaf is courtesy of an ice cube watering trick). The bright blue hydrangea she bought me this Mother’s Day shriveled within a couple of days. Up until now, the only exception to the death toll has been my cactus plants grown from seeds.

This year my son bought me an Aerogarden hydroponic garden by Miracle Gro for Mother’s Day. The kit includes three seed pods, a three-ounce bottle of Miracle Gro plant food, and the contraption (for lack of a better word). When I thanked him for the gift, I asked him if this was to encourage me to grow medicinal pot. His response was “yeah, sure.” This is his “Mom thinks she’s funny” reply, the point of which is to pretend he didn’t know I was joking. That’s okay. My sense of humor never impressed my husband and kids.

Set up was fairly easy. I picked a logical place for the garden – the raised counter that surrounds my sink and separates the kitchen from the living room. I cleared off my decorative things, placed the Aerogarden on the counter, filled the chamber with water, poked the seed pods into the three cradling holes, plugged it in, and waited. Actually, I didn’t really wait so much as left town. The day I set up the Aerogarden, was the day before we went to Las Vegas for the State Democratic Convention. I had no idea if the water chamber would stay filled enough while we were gone. I just took it on faith.

I made a couple of mistakes when I set things up. My first mistake was not noticing that the plant food should have been added to the water when I first filled the chamber. The second one was thinking that something was wrong with the LED grow light or the electrical outlet I used. When I read that the light goes on and off, I thought the instructions referenced the “add plant food” light, which lights up when it’s time to feed your plants and has to be reset to light up again in two weeks. After seeing the LED grow light go out twice, I called the service center. An incredibly sweet woman explained that the LED grow light simulate night and day by being on for 16 hours and off for 8. Once she explained it, I realized the instructions said the exact same thing. Reading further, I discovered that the light can be set to match one’s day and night. I prefer letting it be on at night and off during the day. In addition to facilitating photosynthesis, it serves as a nightlight.

Does it grow plants? Absolutely! When the seed pods are first inserted, they need to be covered with a clear plastic dome to create a little greenhouse effect. Since my son asked me what seeds came with the Aerogarden, it’s apparent that the company encloses random boxes of seed pods that should be compatible with each other. My Aerogarden came with basil, parsley, and dill. I was overwhelmed when we returned from Las Vegas four days after starting the Aerogarden and found seedlings waiting for us! The dill came in first, then the basil, and finally the parsley. At the end of this review, I posted photos I took on a weekly basis during the first couple of months.

Within a few short weeks, I had to trim the herbs so they wouldn’t block each other’s light. I now add basil to my pasta sauce and can’t wait to have home-grown parsley on our Seder plate next Passover. I can’t describe the feeling of using regular scissors to cut a few basil leaves off the plant and snip them over roast chicken and various sauces. The aroma when the leaves are cut off suggests a number of Italian dishes. The dill, which grew the fastest, didn’t last very long. I took the trimmings and used it in a pickle recipe. I added too much kosher salt, but the dill still had a good, strong flavor. I think the basil just crowded it out. The parsley looks so delicate that it can fool you into thinking it won’t last, but leaves keep coming in on a near daily basis.

One of the features of the Aerogarden is the telescoping mast that supports the LED grow light. It telescopes from about three to nine inches. It should be kept as close as possible to the growing plants, so it only needs to be raised when the plant touches the LED grow light.

I thought of getting another box of seed pods and starting a new dill plant, but the instructions don’t include anything about replacing one plant. However, there are detailed instructions for starting over with three new plants. My instinct is to wait until it’s time to replace all three plants.

My verdict: If I can grow a viable herb garden with the Aerogarden, anyone can!

Weekly Photos taken from May 10, 2016 to July 13, 2016
Week 1

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Week 2

Aerogarden on counter

Week 3

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Week 4

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Week 5

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Week 6

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Week 7

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Week 8

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Week 9

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Week 10

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“Wouldn’t stop it if we could it’s a hood thing”

2Pac-Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z.

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$8.39 at Amazon 

(4/5)

Pros: A handful of classics and some other good songs, improved production from his first album

Cons: Repetitive in spots, not as good as Me Against The World.

(This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on Epinions.com)

Tupac Shakur is easily one of the most widely debated characters ever in the history of popular music. Brilliant MC or overrated average one who simply got elevated to the level he did because there were bullets in Vegas with his name on them? A good argument can be made for both sides. Was he the greatest MC ever? The G O A T? No way. His flow wasn’t always the best and his rhyming could be off at times. Plus there were times where his lyrics could be a tad too generic. Even his rival Notorious BIG was a better MC. But was Tupac talented. He certainly was.

But I came here to praise the fallen brother and my personal favorite album by him: 1993’s Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. Notice I said personal favorite. This does not mean that it is his best (that honor goes to 1995’s Me against the World, which has better production and songs). But it does mean that it is the one Tupac disc I would take to a desert island.

Strictly was Tupac’s second album after 1991’s 2pacalypse Now. That album spun off a couple minor hits with “Trapped” and the poignant teenage pregnancy number “Brenda’s got a Baby”. That album was inconsistent, yet the good moments (including the aforementioned singles) showed that there was talent at work.

Strictly represents a major improvement. There’s more stand-out songs here and the production, while still inconsistent and not that distinguished, has gotten better, pointing in the direction he would take on his next two albums.

At the time it was released, Strictly was one of the angriest rap albums on the market. The fact that it managed to come out on the heels of Ice Cube’s The Predator and Paris’s Sleeping With The Enemy and beat both in terms of pure fury should offer some indication as to how pissed off Tupac was.

And he had good reason to be angry. At the time of the album’s release, he had come off of some run-ins with the police; specifically the Oakland PD. Plus there was also the matter of being attacked by then VP-notorious misspeller Dan “Potatoe” Quayle. Apparently VP Potato Head felt that the lyrical content of 2Pacalypse had inspired a Texas 19-year old to shoot and kill a state trooper. That was later proven false. But Quayle went on TV and pronounced the album as having “no place in our society” and demanded that it be pulled off of record store shelves. This was of course around the same time that Mr. Potato Head went after Murphy Brown for having a baby out of wedlock. But I digress.

Strictly opens with the hard-hitting “Holler If Ya Hear Me” Complete with a sample from George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog”, this song announces that Tupac’s back and it’s no more Mr. Nice Guy. This song has a high level of energy that will get you moving and the lyrics show off his toughness quite well. No, the punk police will not fade him. This is one of his more forgotten ones (why it got left off his “Greatest Hits” I’ll never know) that should be better known.

After the skippable interlude “Pac’s Theme”, we continue on with Tupac taking the finger pointed at him and flipping it right back at his detractors in “Point The Finger”. In fact, that’s the prominent theme of this album, Tupac taking on everyone who tried to keep him down and showing them that he’s never going down.

Highlights in that regard include “Souljah’s Revenge”, the excellent Ice Cube-Ice-T collaboration “Last Wordz” and parts of the all-star jam closing track “5 Deadly Venomz”.

Lest you think this album is all unbridled rage at cops and the government, guess again. There are moments of genuine vulnerability scattered throughout the album. On “The Streetz R Deathrow” (not a reference to the label) he reflects on the hellish aspects of growing up in the inner city over a Barry White Sample. “Papa’z Song” is an angry rant at the absentee father he barely knew that lets you feel the pain of parental abandonment.

Then there’s “Keep Ya Head Up”. One of Tupac’s most emotionally affecting songs, this ode to black women shows off the caring side of Shakur the best. Over a slow funk sample, he warns his fellow men against mistreating women and offers encouragement to the single mothers and women on welfare. If you ever have someone claim that rap is all nihilistic violence and misogyny, have them listen to this song. Along with “Dear Mama” it is probably Tupac at his most vulnerable.

On the other side of the equation, there’s “I Get Around”, which shows off the other side of Tupac: the player side. Easily the most purely fun song on this grim album, this one will always sound great at a party. Yet it also works as a study in contradictions: in the last song discussed he was urging that women be treated with respect, here he’s treating them as sex objects.

Not to say that Strictly is strictly perfect. There are a couple of forgettable tracks (“Peep Game” and “Guess Who’s Back”). Some of the themes (bad cops, censorship, and bad government) do get repetitive at times. Also, the two unnecessary interludes should’ve been ditched.

Those complaints aside, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z works well as Tupac’s toughest, angriest album. It’s better than the under produced 2Pacalypse and the filler cluttered All Eyez On Me (although that one is better produced). It may be harder to find these days. But it’s definitely worth the search.

Visions In Death by J.D. Robb – not the best

Visions In Death by J.D. Robb

 

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See it at Amazon 

(2/5)

Pros: the series, in general, is pretty good

Cons: not much that’s new here

In general, I enjoy J.D. Robb’s In Death series.  But Visions In Death is not one of the better ones.

Like all of the books in the series, it’s the mid 2000’s and we follow NY Police Lieutenant Eve Dallas as she gets dragged into one case after another.  In this case, women are turning up dead, with their eyes removed.  The women all fall into a similar physical pattern, but are otherwise unrelated.  The killer is careful, never leaving a clue behind.

Eve and her partner Peabody do an admiral job trying to chase the bad guy down.  But they get help from an unlikely source – a seer.  A woman with a “gift” of visions.

Now I don’t want to get into a whole thing about whether people really have such power.  Perhaps they do.  I’m not here to argue.  But I don’t appreciate when detective novels rely on this type of assistance to solve their cases.  I prefer to watch the authorities use good old fashioned smarts and skills to solve the cases.

On top of everything else, we have a case of “been there, done that” with this book.  If you’ve read several others in the series you’ll recognize a lot of what happens in here.  Eve’s past causing her nightmares, Eve giving an exclusive interview to Nadine putting them in danger, someone close to Eve being attacked and Eve feeling responsible (even though she isn’t).  The list goes on and on.

It’s not all bad, though.  There is a nice twist at the end, something that is definitely “different” from the other books.  But it comes at lightning speed and is over in a blink.

Basically, the In Death series is terrific, but Visions In Death can be skipped.

Other books in the In Death series

Born In Death
Betrayal In Death
Celebrity In Death
Ceremony In Death
Concealed In Death
Devoted In Death
Divided In Death
Festive In Death
Glory In Death
Haunted In Death
Immortal In Death
Indulgence In Death
Innocent In Death
Interlude In Death
Judgment In Death
Midnight In Death
Missing In Death
Naked In Death
Obsession In Death
Origin In Death
Rapture In Death
Reunion In Death
Salvation In Death
Strangers In Death
Survivor In Death
Treachery In Death
Vengeance In Death

Wheel Of Hearts Paint By Number Kit from ArtYouCraft – fun and gorgeous!

Wheel Of Hearts Paint By Number Kit from ArtYouCraft

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(5/5)

Pros: Beautiful pattern, fun to do, detailed instructions

Cons: None!

Take a look at this very pretty, very “different” paint-by-number kit.  Isn’t it adorable?  It’s called “Wheel Of Hearts” and it’s available in six different color combinations.  All of them are gorgeous.  Or, maybe this design isn’t your thing.  That’s Ok – they have seven other styles, in a total of 40 color combinations.

What makes this kit so different from other paint-by-number kits?  Well, the biggest difference is that you’re painting on wood, not on a canvas.  So when you’re finished you have a beautiful, sturdy piece of artwork.  You can hang it on a wall, or display it flat on a table.  Varnished to a high shine, it’s quite stunning, no matter where you place it.

The other thing that makes it different is that there are some spots purposely left unpainted.  In this case, it’s the four wheels and their spokes, on the sides.  Those are left unpainted, allowing the wood to show through.  It makes for a very attractive, and unique look.

Where does one find this kit?  On http://www.artyoucraft.com .  Take a look, you’re sure to find something that strikes your fancy.

What comes in the kit?  In this case, seven numbered paint canisters, plus an extra canister of black paint, used for touch-up work.  The 8.5″ by 11″ wood canvas with its black lines and circles, defining the pattern.  Two paint brushes, a paper template with the numbers filled in to show you which color goes where, a small piece of sandpaper to smooth the edges, a small color graphic showing the completed project, a small canister of varnish and a brush to apply it, a hanger, and an instruction sheet.

As far as the instructions go, these are the most complete and detailed instructions I’ve ever seen in a paint-by-number kit.  They explain everything you need to know.  How to maintain the consistency of the paint, how to care for the brushes, and how to apply the varnish.  I’ve done a lot of paint-by-number kits and have learned a bunch of tricks along the way.  But these instructions even taught me a thing or two.

In the end, if you use a steady hand and take your time, you can end up with a gorgeous finished product.  Teens through adults will enjoy doing these projects.  The spaces where the paint goes are pretty big, it’s not like there are thousands of tiny little spots to fill in.  Even some kids might enjoy doing a project like this.  You might just want to help them with the “touchup” portion of the project, where you correct any spots where they painted outside the lines.

I am thrilled with how this project came out, and I really enjoyed doing it.  I think the price for the kit is fair, given everything that comes with it.  And the website’s customer service has been impeccable.  I had some questions, and they were answered very quickly.

 

How did mine come out?

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Other paint by number kits:

Afternoon Nap by Dimensions
Distelfinks
Bengal Tiger by Schipper
Japanese Garden by Bucilla
Siberian Tiger by Plaid
Taj Mahal by Schipper

“You wanna play rough? SAY HELLO TO MY LITTLE FRIEND!!!!!!”

Scarface

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Multi-Format $19.99 at Amazon 

(4/5)

Pros: Pacino, De Palma’s direction, classic line

Cons: Giorgio Moroder’s synth score.

(This review originally appeared in different form on Epinions.com)

In 1983, Brian De Palma was offered the opportunity to direct Flashdance. He declined. Instead, he chose to direct a 1980s re-make of a 1932 Howard Hawks film starring Paul Muni. De Palma made the right decision. While Flashdance has moments (most of them involving Jennifer Beals) that make it worth watching, it hasn’t gone down as a full fledged classic the way the movie De Palma decided to do instead has.

That movie of course turned out to be Scarface. Starring Al Pacino, with De Palma in the directors chair and a script penned by Oliver Stone, the result is a gangster movie that none too subtly comments on the decade of excess.

Scarface begins with some documentary footage of the Mariel boatlift. It is revealed that when Castro allowed Cubans to migrate to the United States in 1980 he didn’t just allow the innocent people who wanted a chance at freedom and opportunity. No, he emptied his jails and mental hospitals. Among those criminals who migrated to the US is a fictional one named Tony Montana (Al Pacino).

We first see Montana scheming his way past some immigration officials. He ends up in a refugee camp with his best bud Manny (Steven Bauer). Opportunity comes his way when he is offered a chance to get a green card for himself and Manny by killing a Cuban who worked for Castro. He agrees and soon has the card. However, his first job is working as a dishwasher at a Cuban sandwich stand. Tony wants the American dream. But he has no desire to do any real work for it. So when offered a crack at the South Florida drug trade he takes it. Before long, he’s risen through the ranks and rules the roost (apologies for mixing metaphors).

Scarface is (like Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas) a portrayal of a man who so desperately loves material wealth that he’s willing to go to any length to get it. But it is way less subtle about this than Scorsese’s film was. It is probably the most over the top studio gangster movie ever made. That alone makes it a classic. The movie is three hours long. But I’ve never been bored while watching it.

If the over the top aspect of the movie is what has made it a classic, it also keeps it from reaching masterpiece status the way the aforementioned Goodfellas has. In that film, Scorsese knew when to go over the top and when to reign it in. De Palma does not know when to reign it in. Subtlety was not in his vocabulary (nor in Stone’s for that matter) in 1983.

Pacino gives what may be the most iconic performance he’s ever given. What makes it work is that he knows when to dial down. He goes over the top 90% of the time and the film calls for that. The other 10% in scenes where he refuses to kill an innocent woman and child and scenes involving his younger sister (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) helps make Montana a real character, not a comic book caricature.

Like I said earlier, De Palma’s direction here is not subtle at all. But that’s not a criticism per se. Unsubtlety is what Scarface needs to really work and he gives it his all. It’s a film about the excesses of the 80s sure. But it still holds up today for a couple reasons. One is the influence the movie has on the hip-hop culture of today, particularly the gangsta rap element. The other is that Tony Montana is not much different from the white collar thieves of today. Take the guns away from Tony and you’d have Bernie Madoff.

The one part of Scarface that has become dated is Giorgio Moroder’s score. The synth beats immediately scream 80s.

The direction, characters, acting by Pacino, Bauer, Robert Loggia and Mastrantonio and Stone’s script combine to make Scarface the classic that it is. Even though it may be a great movie instead of a full fledged masterpiece, it’s still worthy of its status.