Movies that make you believe in God

My people like our Christmases dark, especially when it comes to the movie portion of our celebration.

An all-time favorite Christmas Day screening was Quills, starring Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis de Sade. Two years ago, Black Swan was my favorite Christmas movie.

During the past week at my mom’s, I read Gone Girl (Marriage can be a real killer) and watched the entire last season of Dexter (America’s Favorite Serial Killer).

So I consider The Life of Pi to have been a rather mainstream choice of Christmas movie. After all, its premise is that Pi’s life story “will make you believe in God.”


Warning: I am not about to spoil the ending of the movie as much as this interesting post, but if you haven’t read the book and want to remain spoiler-free, skip the next couple of grafs. I don’t think what I’m about to write will actually ruin the MOVIE for anyone, but I’m more sensitive to spoilers in books, it seems.

I didn’t like the ending of The Life of Pi when I read it. It felt like an “it was all a dream” cop out. Armed with this information when I saw the movie, I saw an early clue that Pi might not be a completely reliable narrator.

Our hero describes the day he got his classmates to start calling him by the nickname Pi. We see him writing the decimal out to a bazillion places on a chalkboard. I thought to myself, “No way he memorized ALL those places. He’s exaggerating.”

Which might lead one to believe that he exaggerated other parts of his tale.

Cut to the ending, when Pi asks his listener which version of a story he prefers: the whimsical and improbable one, or the more likely, sadder one.

Everyone likes the improbable one better, right?

Pi says, “And so it goes with God.”

Interesting. Both stories tell of overcoming incredible adversity, but the improbable one goes down better. Like all those stories in the Bible? Like, probably Noah didn’t really have an ark with two of every animal on it? Is that what Pi is saying?

In any case, Pi’s story didn’t make me believe in God. (It’s a really good movie though. Friends of mine worked on it. You should see it.) I said to my mother, “I don’t think there’s any story that can make a person believe in God. People who already believe in God already believe in him.”

The next day, we saw Les Miserables and as the credits rolled, I whispered, “That story kind of makes me believe in God.”


Warning: For some reason, I assume that anyone who wants to see Les Miserables already knows who lives and dies, so there be spoilers ahead. 

Consider the following lyrics:

“My soul belongs to God I know, I made that bargain long ago. He gave me hope when hope was gone. He gave me strength to journey on.”

I mean, wow. That’s powerful. So we know that Valjean believes in God, and without that belief, he never would have overcome his horrible adversity. For sure I believe in Valjean’s belief… but does that make me believe in God?

“To love another person is to see the face of God.”

Again. Wow. GoodReads tells me that’s straight from the source material.

But really, here’s what does it. As miserables as their lives are, people’s prayers come true!

Fantine tells Valjean, “My daughter’s close to dying. If there’s a god above, he’d let me die instead.”

Guess what happens?

Then, Valjean sings of Marius, “If I die, let me die. Let him live. Bring him home.”

Guess what happens?

(It’s a really good movie. You should see it. I like Hugh Jackman as Valjean as much as I like him as Wolverine. Anne Hathaway is breathtaking in closeup singing I Dreamed a Dream in one take. Amanda Seyfried sings like a Disney princess.)

You know what else these movies have in common, besides God? Yep. Tigers.

Give doggies the gift of mental stimulation

I celebrated Christmas with my babies this weekend because I leave tomorrow for my traditional Los Angeles festivities.

the tree

I showed a lot of restraint by only buying the kids one present. To Share. Am I stingy or what?

Since it’s so dark, wet and cold around here, I’ve had to find creative ways to keep the dogs entertained. I’ve been feeding them their evening meal in puzzle toys. Based on the concept that our dogs’ ancestors used to spend a lot more time hunting for their meals, food puzzles make domesticated doggies work for their food.

According to Marty Becker, DVM, “Eating out of food puzzles takes memory, skill and manipulation, all of which help our dogs find healthier, less-destructive ways to release pent-up energy.”

Nina Ottosson’s are highly regarded. The plastic ones are durable and easy to clean. I consider $30 to $50 to be pretty expensive for a “dog toy,” but my judgment may be clouded by the fact that regular toys don’t last very long in German shepherd mouths. We’ve had the Tornado and the Brick for a few years now, and I consider them well worth the price.

Recently, we acquired the less expensive, but equally durable and easy-to-clean Dog It Mind Games, which can be played three different ways. The spin-a-whirl version seems to exercise my dogs’ minds the best.

After a few weeks of feeding them in the same three puzzles, I worried that the novelty had worn off and my kids weren’t reaping the same stimulating benefits. So I bought them a brand new puzzle for Christmas. Made by Aikiou, it’s shaped like a paw! I picked it up at our local PetStop, and was so excited about it, I told the salesgirl that I might even give it to the dogs that night. “They don’t know when Christmas is,” I explained.

Again, I showed restraint, wrapping it and putting it under the tree. This is the first Christmas that Leo’s had free roam of the house. Could he be trusted not to mess with wrapped presents under the tree? After all, he’s been surprisingly tolerant of all our decorations. He only pulls ornaments off the tree when I’m sitting right there and he wants my attention.

Turns out, no, he can’t be trusted. How could I have thought otherwise? Within two minutes he had a corner of wrapping paper and the cardboard box underneath torn open. I confiscated the present and waiting patiently until tonight, when I gave him permission to tear it open tonight. He sniffed it and wandered away.

Typical. Last night he proved that he only wants what he’s not supposed to have when Grandma gave both doggies Crunchkins edible cards. Mia enjoyed hers immediately.

mia crunchkins

Leo wasn’t sure what to do with his, and abandoned it in search of some dirty dishes to lick. Later, he pawed through the cardboard box of used wrapping paper to find the plastic wrap that the rawhide card came in, because that’s what he wanted to chew. When we got the dogs home, Leo took a renewed interest in the edible card, running around the house, looking for a place to hide it so that Mia couldn’t take it from him.

“Leo, just eat it! That’s the only way to keep it safe!”

In the middle of the night, Mia got a hold of it and noisily ate it on the bedroom floor.

So. After I unwrapped my dogs’ gift myself, and filled it and the other puzzles with their dinner, they enjoyed their shared Christmas gift. I especially like this one, because, like the Dog Tornado, it holds a lot of food.

Leo puzzleChristmas really is all about the children, don’t you think?


Is it December yet?

Happy to see we weren’t the only ones getting our Christmas trees last weekend, even though Thanksgiving came a little early this year.

Also tickled to find a dog blogger across the country who has the same tradition as we do: Taking the dogs to the tree farm.

Our tradition goes back to 2006, when Isis was a mere Muppet Baby.

9-week-old Isis, 2006

Our visits to Red Mountain Tree Farm in Everson grew more complicated after Isis became reactive, but in front of the camera, she was a supermodel. Look carefully at the two photos to see my technique for getting her to smile.

Same tree farm, but in 2008, they had inflatable snowmen.

Christmas 2009

As devastatingly handsome as Leo is, he was camera shy during his first visit to the tree farm. I tried to encourage him by smooshing my face against his.

Leo’s first Christmas, 2010. He’s 9 months old.

My heart breaks over Christmas 2010 because we couldn’t have both dogs in the same photo. And it was Isis’s last Christmas.

Christmas 2010

A year later, we had Mia, and could photograph the doggies together.

Christmas 2011

This year, we didn’t have Rob’s mom with us to take our picture, and hardly anyone was at the tree farm when we were there, except an unattended black Lab who likes to pee on the trees. (Leo only peed on one tree, and we bought that one for the martial arts studio). So we have photos of each of us with the dogs, but none of us together.

Christmas 2012, beside the tree Leo didn’t pee on.

Leo’s still very handsome, still a little blank behind the eyes. Maybe by next year we’ll have him “smizing.”

Howloween Horror: Death by Undercoat

The instrument of your death is familiar, always just under the surface. As it spreads, you grow accustomed to its coating your furniture and car upholstery, gathering in tumbleweeds on the floor, and surrounding you like an aura. You feel like Pig Pen from Peanuts, if he owned a German shepherd and instead of dirt, he walked around in a cloud of dog hair.

Golden tufts poke out from beneath her sleek outer coat, coming out easily in your hands, leading to an obsessive-compulsive grooming ritual reminiscent of pulling the spines off a shedding pet iguana.

The undercoat is pervasive. Annoying, but harmless. Comes with the territory of loving your dog. Why not let her lie on his pillow? She fills the void when he gets out of bed.

While sleeping, you open your mouth for an intake of breath and draw in a wispy mass, once part of her. Gasping for air, you suck the undercoat deeper into your lungs. Without breath, your scream is silent and the dog beside you remains unaware that the world grows darker until finally you lay dead beside this precious creature who filled your heart with joy beyond measure, and your last thought before you die is, “No dog should ever outlive her person.”

Happy Halloween from Leo and Mia!

Angry Bird

Attack of the Angry Bird

Circus Bear

Lessons from St. Petersburg

When you’re used to visiting cities the scale of Florence or Prague, you look at a map of St. Petersburg and think it’s an easy walk from your B&B to the Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood.

It is not. Take the metro.


I’d forgotten, but that was the advice I gave in a travel story I wrote 11 years ago.

When I tried to reread it a few months ago during trip planning, I was embarassed by my lead that let on how challenged I felt.

Reading the rest of the story this morning, I think it’s a pretty awesome travel piece, if I do say so myself, especially how I conveyed what I learned from my tour guide about St. Petersburg culture.

Because I forgot my own advice, we took a long walk around the “neighborhood” last night, and happened upon a supercharming place called Soviet Cafe Kvartirka. Usually, when you’ve walked a long way in a new city and are cold, and coming down with a cold, you pick the first place you find and feel let down.

Not the case. I drank cherry beer and ate Ukrainian dumplings stuffed with potato, and soaked in the kitschy decor, music and old Russian movie on the TV. We expect to return to Kvartirka over the next few days.


Today we walked to the Troitsky (Trinity) Cathedral, metroed to St. Isaac’s and the Bronze Horseman, then metroed to the Church of Spilled Blood.


My favorite souvenir I have ever purchased came from St. Petersburg. I bought it at a stand near the Church of Spilled Blood. It also happens to be my favorite Christmas decoration. Shaped like a nesting doll, but sealed, it’s painted like Santa Claus, and jingles when it rolls. Today I learned that they’re meant for children and the nicest ones NOW cost upwards of $100. None could be had for less than $30. I almost convinced myself it was worth it, then remembered I already had one. Sort of. It’s in my mom’s custody, so I see it every Christmas.


Today is my birthday! I selected a restaurant for dinner that sounded as fun as the place we went last night. Turns out, it seems to be part of a small chain of Soviet Cafes. While Kvartirka has an urban Soviet vibe, Dachnika is decorated like a Russian cottage. The sound of a rooster crowing greets you as you open the door and make your way downstairs. Frogs croak in the bathroom.

I ordered potato pancakes and Rob ordered pork with potatoes. Sadly, they had no chocolate cake, so I had birthday cheesecake.

Continuing on the theme of me posing with statues that remind me of my dogs, here I am with a lion, posed with her foot atop her ball, just as Mia likes to do.



Mia’s first birthday (as far as we’re concerned)

A year ago this weekend, we met an angel whose muzzle was grayer than I expected. My first thought upon seeing her was, “This isn’t the dog for us.” But she hopped into our car so willingly that she instantly was ours.

She changed our lives. We were still pretty much in a pit of despair after losing Isis. Mia brought balance and joy, and became the big sister Leo never knew he always wanted.

Mia is nearly a perfect dog. She destroys her toys, but not the furniture. She only barks at other dogs when she is in the car. She never lunges at anything when she’s on a leash. She comes to work with me and sleeps quietly at my feet the whole day. Until 4:30, when she starts to whine: This is boring, can we go now? 

Her anxious whine sounds like, “Squeak squeak whistle whistle,” and she doesn’t like to be left alone. I never took her to daycare with Leo, because in my imagination, she would think she was being abandoned again. Of course, she’d probably get over it after the first time, but I can’t bear to put her through that. I’d rather take her with me or leave her with Grandma.

She’s pretty much guaranteed to steal whatever toy or bone Leo’s working on and not give it back, but that’s Leo’s fault. He should keep a closer eye on his things.

She has two potentially annoying habits.

1) She likes to sit in the backyard so much that sometimes she doesn’t come in when we call her. That’s fine, we can just leave her out there. But when we try to play with her, she stands with one foot on a ball and barks at us, refusing to give us the ball, or let us catch her, or put funny hats on her for a birthday photo.

2) She steals Rob’s spot. I actually find this hilarious. Rob less so. Whenever Rob gets up in the night, he can be sure to find Mia on his pillow when he returns. Once she was in the kitchen when Rob got up, and we heard her nails screech across the floor as she scrambled to jump up on the bed beside me. It takes both me and Rob to spin her around so there’s room for everyone, and Mia usually moans and growls dramatically at the disruption.

These are bad habits with can live with.

Mia does not approve of the party hat.

Leo has really grown as a model this past year. Here he shows Mia how to do Blue Steel.

“Leo! Take off that stupid hat!”

June 4 is the day we observe Mia’s birthday. It’s her first birthday with us, but let’s say she’s 8. Happy 8th birthday, Mia!

A love letter to Rob and Disneyland

Rob loves Disneyland. I grew up in L.A., so Disneyland always has been as familiar to me as the county fair. We discovered Disney’s California Adventure, the theme park next door, on our first visit to Los Angeles together. Since then, we’ve been to the pair of parks in Anaheim a bunch of times and in 2007 we spent 5 days at Disney World.

A magical place. The Happiest Place on Earth.


During our first visit in the summer of 2004, we swung circles inside a giant citrus on a ride called Orange Stinger at California Adventure. We hadn’t yet been dating a whole year. I had moved 2 1/2 hours away to Olympia, but our relationship had continued to grow. I flew with the cartoonish sound of bees buzzing in my ears, wind in my teeth from smiling so big and I couldn’t remember ever feeling so happy.

Orange Stinger has been replaced with the Silly Symphony Swings, which has better music, but feels much shorter. I miss the orange.

I was recovering from a cold during our most recent visit to the Happiest Place on Earth, and though I flagged a bit after a lunchtime glass of sangria, I was reminded of how much I love Disneyland and how much I love Rob at Disneyland.

My midday energy slump gave Rob a chance to show off his resourcefulness, cheerful easygoing nature, and irritating ability to fall asleep anywhere. At 3 p.m., we entered Disneyland proper for the first time of the day, having spent the morning at Cal. Adv. The lines for the renovated Star Tours and Ghost Galaxy Space Mountain were prohibitively long and they weren’t giving out any more Fast Passes.

At that moment, there wasn’t another single thing I wanted to do at Disneyland and felt like we might as well go home. Rob suggested walking to Critter Country and as we passed a display of carved pumpkins, I didn’t even think I could make it there.

Trying not to be a buzz kill, I suggested a quick trip on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. I’d been losing my voice, so I didn’t want to scream, but the ride was exhilarating as ever. Even with a head cold, I love a roller coaster. The 15-minute line, though, was brutal. I suggested that we find a place where I could just rest while Rob ran around Critter Country or wherever. He said, “No, I’ll rest with you.”

We found a nook next to Davy Crockett’s Canoes, which weren’t running. I was tempted to duck the rope and nap ON a canoe. Rob took off his shoes and used them for a pillow, laying down on the concrete behind a boulder. I tried variously to relax by resting my head on his belly, on my shoes, and sitting with my back against the boulder. Earlier, when I struggled to put one foot in front of the other in Adventure Land, I thought I might actually be able to fall asleep if I just closed my eyes for a minute. Not so. Rob, on the other hand, was snoring.

Still, I was rejuvenated by the brief respite. With 20 minutes until we could use our Fast Pass at the Haunted Mansion, we strolled over to the bridge to Sleeping Beauty’s castle and sat on a bench watching waves of costumed families arrive for Mickey’s Halloween Party. This was a highlight, just sitting together smiling at baby Wolverines and Captains America. Entire groups dressed as the cast of Peter Pan. Heavyset teenage girls dressed in short, corseted dresses invoking Sexy Minnie, Sexy Cinderella, Sexy Wicked Queen. (I can mock, I own the Sexy Wicked Queen costume.)

Because we’ve been to Disneyland and California Adventure so many times and will go many more times, we can shrug off disappointments like not getting to ride Star Tours or Space Mountain. I didn’t even realize until this minute that the only rides we went on at Disneyland were Haunted Mansion and Big Thunder Mountain. At California Adventure, we hit The Little Mermaid, Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (twice), Silly Symphony Swings, California Screaming and Soaring Over California. Rob always wants to go on Tower of Terror more than once, and I always feel a little bit like, “Really? Again?” But the rises and falls of that haunted service elevator are randomly determined, and the combination during our second ride may well have been the best. ever.
On our way out, we discovered the Wilderness Explorer Camp at the Redwood Creek Challenge Trail, which I compared to a dog park for children, where parents can take their kids to run out all their energy on ropes courses, rock walls and tire swings. We cut through the Grand Californian Hotel to get to the tram and discovered a lovely, enormous lobby with cushy chairs and a live pianist. We mentally bookmarked the spot for a future midday nap.
Disneyland brings out the best in us. I love Rob’s sense of wonder at discovering two new places we haven’t seen before. My feet were aching, but his enthusiasm is contagious. I said, “Yeah, let’s have a look. Let’s find out what my animal totem is.” (First try it was beaver, but I did it again until I got the salmon.)
We used to stay until closing, but we were ready to go at about 9. As the tram pulled up to the Mickey and Friends parking structure, we heard the first explosions of the fireworks show. We disembarked and sat beside each other at the tram stop, watching the fireworks light up the theme park, a safe distance from the crowds, just the two of us.

Boxing Day

And Rob still hasn’t opened any presents. He gave me one of mine Thursday before I left. I opened all of mine from my mom, etc., on Christmas Eve. I was supposed to get home last night in time to open presents with Rob here.

Nightmare air travel stories are so trite, aren’t they?

To attempt to sum up: My flight from Burbank was mega-delayed, so the airline shuttled passengers to LAX for a flight that would get in only an hour later than the scheduled arrival time. This is not the first time this has happened to me, and wouldn’t even be worth mentioning (except in a phone conversation to my mother on the way to LAX, so she’d know what airplane I was on, should anything dire happen).

However, the twist here is that the lady at the counter who rebooked me asked if I wanted to share a taxi with the dotty lady standing beside me. I said sure. They gave me the taxi voucher. I went to retrieve my 50-pound suitcase and Dotty (let’s call her) went to the ladies room. She was supposed to meet me at the ticket counter, but did not arrive in what I deemed to be a reasonable amount of time.

So you know what I did? I ditched her! Not before I walked back in the direction of the gate and glanced in the ladies room, of course, but time was of the essence here. I had no idea how long it was going to take to check my bag and get through security at LAX.

I felt bad about it until I saw Dotty on the plane, and then averted my eyes. What’s the harm? She made it. No idea how much it cost her in stress and tears, but whatever, she made the flight.

Alas, karma is a bitch.

Upon arrival in my home port, I again retrieved 50-pound suitcase, went to the courtesy shuttle curb and called the place where I had parked my car. And called and called and called. It rang and rang and rang. I called Rob, who found an 800 number, called it, yelled at the jerkhole who decided to stop answering the front desk phone at 8 p.m. on Christmas, and summoned the shuttle.

For some reason, even though I kept my zen all day, passing through security lines, getting rerouted, being told to wait at the wrong luggage carousel (They always do this! Why do they post one carousel number only to change it at the last minute? Why not wait til the luggage is coming out, folks?) … through all that, I’m Susie Seasoned Traveler. But standing for 40 minutes on the curb, with my hands freezing, so eager to get home to Rob and the dog, was more than I could take.

Fortunately, I had a two-hour drive to regain my calm. About 10 miles from our house, the rain turned white and coated the freeway. Snow on Christmas night! Could anything be more beautiful? It came at my windshield like stars in the windshield of the Millenium Falcon in warp speed.

I had to slow down substantially, but even this I enjoyed. I wondered why Rob hadn’t mentioned that it was snowing when I talked to him 87 times from the curb at the aiport. Maybe it hadn’t started yet.

Or maybe it never did, because about a mile from our house, it was raining again. There was still a fair amount of snow and ice on my car though, so I planned to show that to Rob when he came outside to carry in my 50-pound suitcase.

Which I’m sure he would have done if he were awake.

At least Isis was happy to see me.

Think I’ll go bake some cookies, light some candles and turn on some Christmas music so it’s festive around here when Rob gets home from work.