just so you know


I write about a lot of things — whatever’s going on in my life at the time, whether that’s traveling, getting in shape, reading, etc, and sometimes thoughts about where I’m headed, or where I’ve been. As a former librarian I’m a little obsessed with books, and as a tech geek I love all things Apple, Kindle and in-between. I love food more than it good for me, and my viewing habits range from “Downton Abbey” to “Modern Family”  to “Game of Thrones” and back around again. I have two cats, a wonderful husband, and the rest is subject to change without notice.

the happiest place on earth

PhotoPass_Visiting_Magic_Kingdom_Park_7472505237Last week Dave took me to Disney World for my very first visit. It really is the happiest place on earth, though in full disclosure, it’s also one of the busiest, most hectic and somewhat expensive places out there too. We had a magical time, but Disney World is a marathon of a vacation, and not for the faint of heart.

We took a Disney cruise for our honeymoon and loved it, but the ships are relaxing — there’s a limit of how much running around you can do, that limit being the ship itself. Disney World, on the other hand, is enormous. It’s the size of San Francisco (not quite as fabulous, but it tries). Twice the size of Manhattan. It’s 25,000 acres and 40 square miles. I think we walked all of them in the four days we were there.


It’ll always look like a giant golf ball to me. I’m surprised Dave didn’t run screaming.

As an aside, we rented a car instead of relying on Disney transportation. This was a last-minute decision based on me coming down with a thankfully-not-appendicitis abdominal infection two weeks before the trip. The Disney transportation system of buses, monorails and ferry boats is impressive, and I think mostly works well. But we weren’t sure I’d be up to waiting even a short amount of time, when I needed to get out of Dodge. I did okay — just one or two rough patches — but better safe than sorry. We still used transport to get to the Magic Kingdom from the parking area, since you have to. Mostly we used the ferry, which is a nice way to float up to the park, Cinderella’s castle looming into view.

PhotoPass_Visiting_Epcot_7465377710Because I’m a geek, I had as good a time planning our vacation as I did going on it. We made our food plans — ADRs, Advanced Dining Reservations — right away, 180 days out. We didn’t get every restaurant we wanted right away, so I spent the next few months stalking out that elusive Be Our Guest dinner and the pre-park opening breakfast at Crystal Palace until we had everything just right. Then at 60 days out you get your FastPass+ selections — we were able to get one for everything we wanted since we’re not big thrill-riders. And then I found a fantastic group on Facebook for people visiting Disney in September. With slightly over 1600 members, the group was an amazing resource for shopping tips (disposable ponchos are at Dollar Tree! The new Disney Vans are out!), advice about getting around the parks, and trading hard-to-get reservations. I bought a pair of Cleo Crocs on a recommendation from the group, and wore them every day of the trip. Walked about 35 miles in those shoes in 4 days, and no blisters, no pain, no problems.

I was proud of how well I did walking. A couple of years ago, after my back surgery, I couldn’t walk around the block without terrible pain for days. But I’ve been swimming and exercising and getting stronger, and I did okay. For me the hard part is standing, not walking. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of standing (in line) at Disney World. I had some bad moments. But I made it!


The view outside our room at dawn.

The trip was great. We stayed at the Port Orleans – French Quarter resort, which is small, quiet, and quaint. We liked the pool and we liked our room, but we felt a little too “away from it all”. Next time we’ll probably stay at one of the popular Value resorts. You don’t spend that much time in your room regardless, and the resorts all have great pools when you want to take a break and cool off. (I don’t know how people afford the Deluxe resorts, which look awesome — but some of those places are $500 a night. We’re not poor, but sheesh!)

We went to Rope Drop at the Magic Kingdom on our first day. Just before the park opens, the train arrives carrying Mickey and his friends. Along with Disney Cast Members (CMs) they give a welcome show and the park opens. You have to get up really early to get there (it’s crowded) but I’d heard a lot about it and I wanted to see it at least once. I didn’t know that they sing the “Good Morning” song from “Singing in the Rain”. Well, I lost it. My mother used to sing that to wake me up on special days — birthdays, picnics, field trips at school. I was all blubbery. I so wished I could call her at that moment, but it was a happy moment because of it.


The “Tree of Life” in Animal Kingdom.

We were in the Magic Kingdom every day, but we also visited Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom. I loved the Magic Kingdom, of course, but also really enjoyed Hollywood Studios. Toy Story Midway Mania is a blast, and Star Tours more fun than I could have imagined. The safari ride in Animal Kingdom was a lot of fun, as well as the Kali River Rapids ride — we got soaked! I wasn’t a huge fan of Epcot, though Soarin’ alone was worth visiting and I can’t say enough good things about Nine Dragons, a terrific Chinese restaurant in the World Showcase. All in all, I think we used our time really well — all that pre-planning helped. Dave will agree that for a girl on her first visit to Disney, by the time our trip took place I had our four days planned to pretty-near perfection, and we made the most of a short visit.


It was so humid I was seriously envying that snow cloud.

We purchased the Memory Maker package and got a lot of great pictures. They have PhotoPass photographers throughout the parks and you walk up and have your picture taken. Sometimes there’s a little extra magic in the finished shot. :) You can buy the photos online individually for $15 each, or you can buy the package for $199 ($169 in advance) and get all of them. We ended up with a couple hundred photographs, about 75 of which we definitely would have wanted — so it was worth it.


Later he kissed my hand and I blushed. I love Sulley.

We met a lot of characters — having my picture taken with Sulley from Monsters, Inc. was a Disney bucket-list item for me.  I have a thing where I don’t really like meeting “face” characters. I mean, the princesses and all. I can’t get over the fact that I’m a grown woman and this is another grown woman pretending to be Sleeping Beauty. But Sulley, Pooh or Donald Duck? That’s totally different.

EPCOT_CHRCON2_7465493566The characters were great on the whole. Minnie and Daisy Duck make kissy noises when they hug you. Buzz challenged Dave and then danced an impromptu rumba with me. Goofy took one look at Dave’s Goofy shirt and then tried to quit work for the day, figuring this guy had his costume on and could take over. A lot of people think Disney’s just for kids, but it’s not true. We’re grown-ups, but we still love Disney, and we still wanted to have fun and goof around. The characters all understood that.

We shopped a lot. A LOT. The beauty of going to Disney with no kids and not being broke is that when you want things you get them, without worrying about whether you should or not. I got a new Pandora bracelet and charms, we cleaned up at Bonjour Village Gifts (for Beauty & the Beast fans) and Dave got very into pin collecting.


Hidden Mickeys in the fireworks!

All good things come to an end, though. Eventually it was time to leave. In the moment we were so wiped out, we didn’t think we’d mind. But it didn’t take long for Disney Depression to set in. No one takes our Magic Bands as payment. No one’s told me to “Have a Magical Day” all week. And there are no FastPasses for skipping long lines anywhere. It’s sad.

Good thing our next cruise is in 94 days. :)

probably not cancer

daymammoSo while I haven’t mentioned it much of anywhere, or to too many people, I’ve spent the past six months in various states of anxiety over my last mammogram. To give away the end of the story, everything is fine. The problem is, everything was always fine, and those six months of panic could have been avoided by a better system.

I’ve had mammograms before, so this wasn’t my first trip to the rodeo — but it was my first time having one here on Long Island. Back home in Buffalo, I used a particular lab group that had a different way of doing things. We’ll get back to that later. Here, I made my appointment, showed up, put various bits of me in a machine to be squeezed (while it’s not something I’d do for kicks, I don’t find it all that painful), and that’s when the technician said, “Oh, looks like you’ve got a cyst.”

“A cyst?!” I asked, instantly freaked out.

“Or a nodule or lump or some kind,” the tech replied, as if we were talking about a weather system moving in later that day, or a sale at Target. She didn’t elaborate, and I was ushered into the ultrasound room. A different technician directed me to lie on the table. She was taciturn and didn’t respond to my questions. I asked what this all meant, and she told me to hold still and not talk. At this point I started crying, silently as ordered. When she finished she left the room, came back, and said I should get dressed and go home. I asked, again, what was going on. She said my doctor would contact me. I asked to see the radiologist. She said he wasn’t available.

I went out to my car and cried out loud this time. I called my husband at work — something I *NEVER* do in tax season — and talked until I was calm enough to drive home. This was a Friday afternoon, of course. There was no reaching my gyno all weekend. By the time I finally spoke to her on Monday, it wasn’t really much help. She said she hadn’t had a chance to look at my report but had it in front of her now. She rattled off a lot of medical terms that made no sense to me and did say she wasn’t worried so far. I should go back for my recheck in six months and then if there was anything I’d be referred to an oncologist (which is one of the top ten most frightening words in the English language, imho).

And that was it. That’s all the information I got. For six months all I had to hang my ramped-up worried, concerns, fears and panic on was that and a form letter from the lab that said, “We found something abnormal on your last mammogram that we believe is probably not cancer.” There’s something not very reassuring about that phrase. I mean, of course it’s better than hearing “it probably IS cancer”, but it’s not exactly the kind of thing to make you sleep well at night either.  “You’re probably not going to have a fatal accident on the way home tonight.” “You probably won’t fail your final exam.” “The guy who just moved in next door probably isn’t a serial killer.” It’s technically positive, but it whiffs a bit too much of the possibility of the negative.

For six months I worried, I fretted, I told myself it would be okay, I told myself it wouldn’t. I clenched my jaw so hard I gave myself shooting headaches. Dave was there when I was up and when I was down, of course, always, reassuring me everything would be okay. And of course it probably would be, but I still worried. I couldn’t help it. And that worry and anxiety colored everything I did and everything we planned.

Last Tuesday, I went back for my recheck. I started off the day doing relatively alright, but as the morning wore on, I got scared. I spent a half-hour in the waiting room with a locked jaw, focusing on the boring repetitive news reports on the TV, afraid I would throw up if I lost focus for even a second. Finally, they called me in. I apologized to the technician — a different one than last time — in advance, and said I was so anxious I was shaking a little, and would try my best to hold still. She asked why I was so concerned. I told her about the cyst or nodule they’d seen on my last scan, and how worried I was. She frowned. “You didn’t have a cyst, or anything,” she said.

I’m going to make what’s already a long story short and skip past the next 45 minutes, where we did the recheck and I put my foot down and insisted on seeing the radiologist this time. He was actually very nice and did, in fact, bring me in to look at all of my scans, went over everything with me, and answered all my questions. I’m fine. I was always fine. I don’t have a cyst or a nodule or a lump or anything. There was a spot on my mammogram six months ago, so they checked it with an ultrasound. The ultrasound showed there was nothing there. This happens because of something called overlapping tissue. In blunt layman’s terms, when they squish your breast in the machine, sometimes you’ve got a flap of skin or some tissue or something that makes a spot on the mammo. They do the ultrasound to see if there’s anything there. When there’s nothing, they send you home. You have to (and by have to, I mean by law they are required to tell you you should) come back in 6 months  for a recheck, just to make sure they see the same thing.

The nice radiologist told me that yes, he saw the exact same nothing this time. I made sure I understood him correctly and asked the same question every way I could think of. He didn’t waver. But I also asked a lot of apparently unanswerable questions about why this happened this way. Why did the first technician use a word like “cyst” or “lump” to me at all? Why didn’t the ultrasound technician tell me that the radiologist said they’d found nothing? Why didn’t the radiologist himself just explain this all to me six months ago? And this is where I’m giving Buffalo one, Long Island zero, because at the lab I went to in Buffalo, you ALWAYS spoke to the radiologist before you left — unless you didn’t want to. So the person reading and analyzing the scan was the one who went over it with you. The best we could make out what happened here six months ago was that someone wrote a report somewhat badly and then sent it to my gynecologist, who clearly didn’t understand what she was reading and therefore conveyed the information to me very badly, if not incorrectly. I was scared and terrified and confused unnecessarily. The system let me down. Mind you, I’m VERY grateful for my results. I’m lucky, and aware of that. But I’m still downright pissed about the negative effect this bad process had on my life for half a year.

To maybe turn that negative into a positive, thuogh, I’d like to share two articles I found that every woman should read — the first is a PDF about “The Dreaded Callback“, and the second is titled “Abnormal Mammograms Often Terrify Women Unnecessarily“. Neither of these articles minimizes the importance of regular breast cancer screening — it’s incredibly important. But there’s often no reason for it to be as frightening a process as it is. I wish I’d read them before all this happened, but at least from now on, I’ll be informed, and possibly someone else reading this will be too.

Periscope is my new time-waster

periscopeLately it seems like I find out about every great new thing from the Facebook group I belong to for our upcoming Disney trip in September. These ladies (and gentlemen) know about every deal, sale, neat trick and cool new gadget out there. The other day one of them mentioned that you can watch the Wishes fireworks at Disney World on the Periscope app, almost every night.

What’s Periscope?

Apparently Periscope’s been around for months, but I’m just finding out about it now and I don’t think I’m alone — according to Social Media Week, lots of people are on Twitter asking what the heck it is. Periscope (owned by Twitter, and tied into that network) lets you broadcast live video to the world — and lets everyone else watch broadcasts anywhere, in real time. Your Twitter followers get a notification that you’ve gone live, and anyone else can find you through keyword searching or — here’s the magic, in my opinion — by geographic location.

Florida on PeriscopeSo by looking at the map, I can check to see who’s broadcasting from the Happiest Place on Earth, for example. Last night Dave and I watched the Wishes Fireworks, and we had our choice of three or four “scopes” to get the best view. We were watching a scope from the Golden Nugget pool in Las Vegas the other day and heard about the fire at the Cosmopolitan. I keep looking for scopes from the Buffalo area, or Niagara Falls, so I can get a taste of home, but so far just one guy broadcasted for a few minutes while he was waiting in line for the Superman ride at Darien Lake.

That’s the thing, there’s a lot of random stuff on Periscope. A lot of “here at Amy’s party” or “walking my dog” or “hanging with my girls at the bar”. And I hope you all are having a great time, but I can’t say I’m interested in watching. I’ve also got to assume there’s a huge potential for more-than-G-rated scoping going on, but I’m going to steer clear of that entirely and would imagine you’d do the same. (Unless that’s your thing. No judgement.)

people I followBut there are also people who broadcast regularly, and once you follow them, you get notifications every time they go live. (If you find notifications pesky, you can turn those off, of course.) Apparently some people are in the Magic Kingdom every day. I can’t join them, but through Periscope I can pop in where they are any time. You can tweet to the user while they’re broadcasting, and if they choose, they can answer verbally. So if you ask how the weather is, or if there’s a long line at Haunted Mansion, you get a real-time answer.

I’m not much of a content sharer. If I used Periscope to broadcast, there’d be a LOT of video of George not playing with a toy mouse, since he invariably stops whatever he’s doing as soon as you point a camera at him. But most people these days LOVE to share, not to mention the potential for brands, marketing and celebrity publicity. So I think in the future there’s going to be a lot to watch on Periscope, both mundane and exciting.

You have to excuse me now, though. There’s someone riding the WInnie the Pooh ride RIGHT NOW and I have to stop what I’m doing and watch.

Periscope, my new favorite time waster. :)


The Amazon Echo (finally): Alexa, what’s the meaning of life?

Amazon Echo So, we ordered an Amazon Echo in February. It finally came about two weeks ago.

First, I should explain what the Amazon Echo is. Basically, it’s Siri (or OK Google) for your house. You plug it in, and ask it things, and it responds. It also can coordinate with smart home devices, so once you’ve got those all hooked up, you can walk around feeling a little like Jean-Luc Picard. (“Alexa, lights. Lower. Damn you, Alexa, that tea is cold!”)

Second, the wait. Amazon released the Echo in 2014, but on an invitation-only basis. In other words, you had to request an invitation to buy one. I’d claim it was a marketing ploy, but I honestly think they haven’t got that many of them manufactured yet. As a Prime member, I requested my invitation sometime last year, and was finally able to place an order in February. It arrived in the first week of June, which was about two weeks sooner than had been predicted. The question is, was it worth the wait? And, was it worth the price? The Echo was initially $99 for Prime members, but that deal has ended. Currently the the Amazon Echo can be ordered by anyone for $179. (estimated ship date as of this writing: July 14th)

Set up

Setting the Echo up is ludicrously easy. You plug it in — and as an aside, the plugging in is kind of nice. As in, there’s no battery concerns with this thing, because it doesn’t run on batteries. You need an outlet, but most homes still have those, so it’s actually nice for once to not be worrying about one more thing to recharge. There’s a quick wireless setup via an app you download (iOS, Fire, and Android both available, or the desktop). And that was it. Again, I appreciate that there weren’t a lot of hoops to jump through.

Questions and Answers


In order to talk to the Echo, you use a “wake word”, which is not at all like a safe word for robots though it sounds like it is. Your “wake word” choices are limited to “Alexa” (the default) and “Amazon”. It’s impractical for us, at least, to use “Amazon”, since we talk about Amazon all the time (as in, whether an order arrived, or whether a movie we want is on there, and so on). They’ve said something about adding new “wake words” eventually, and we very much wish they would. I’d prefer something like “Agnes” or “Beelzebub”.

So, the Echo hears the “wake word” and then listens to what you ask it, and replies. Simple, but not really, because — look, this thing is new. There’s stuff it can do, and stuff it can’t. It can tell you the weather and the news and what year “Avatar” was released, but it can’t tell you when “Jurassic World” is playing in your area, and it can’t tell you when the Tony Awards are on. It can read you entire Wikipedia articles, can tell you knock knock jokes, and has a few smart answers to some trick questions. It can sync with your Google calendar and add things to it, but can’t tell you if you’ve got something scheduled on the 19th. You can order things from Amazon that you’ve ordered before (and you can turn that function off, if it seems too fraught with possibilities for error, which it does to me — “Who ordered fifty jugs of cat litter?!”). You can make lists, you can get traffic updates, you can get recipe help, set timers, and hear sports scores. But there’s a lot, a lot, a lot it can’t answer. Which is kind of a pain, but because all of the Echo’s technology is in the Cloud, I’m willing to be patient about it.

There’s one other advantage for the truly lazy among us. With Siri, my iPhone has to be plugged in for it to automatically answer “Hey Siri” queries. Either that or I have to, ugh, actually pick it up and touch a button. So tiring. But truthfully, sometimes my phone’s in another room, not plugged in. The Echo takes all of that out of the equation.


The Echo is a Bluetooth speak, so you can pair devices — your iPhone, for example — with it and listen to music that way. To be frank, I don’t have any use for this feature. We have other speakers we already use. I’m told that in the world of Bluetooth speakers, the Echo’s sound quality is so-so. You’d be silly to buy it for just that reason, though.

We have used it to listen to Prime music, though. As Amazon Prime members, we have free access to the Prime music library. While there are some glaring omissions (no Prince! no Maroon 5!), there’s a lot of great music there. I can say, “Alexa, play George Michael” and she’ll shuffle through his catalog. There are some ready-prepared stations and playlists, too. It’s Amazon’s version of Pandora, essentially, and since we’re getting it for free as Prime members already, it’s a nice feature.

(Side note: You can upload all of your music to Amazon, too, and listen to it through the Echo. But right now you’re limited to 250 songs for free, and $24.99 a year for 250,000 songs. Frankly, that’s crazy. I’m not paying a yearly fee to listen to my own music. Google Play lets you upload all your music for free. Amazon, get with the times on this one.)


Supposedly you can shop through the Echo. On Amazon, of course, and (I think) items you’ve ordered before. I can’t say that’s too useful for me, since we don’t tend to order the same things over and over again on Amazon (or if we do, we subscribe to them).

But you *can* make a shopping list through the Echo. Any time you say, “Alexa, add Fiddle-Faddle to the shopping list”, she does. You can access that list through the app. You wouldn’t think this would be a big deal, but it’s a good 75% of what we use the Echo for. Running low on eggs? Tell Alexa. Need to add more mushrooms to the FreshDirect order? Tell Alexa. Realize that you’re about to eat the last Hostess cupcake? Tell Alexa. She won’t judge. Seriously, it sounds stupid, but this is hugely useful for us. We tried keeping a plain old pen & paper list in the kitchen, but half the time when I realize I’m out of something, I’m busy cooking, or just on the couch and too lazy to move. And since Dave and I both have the app on our phones, when we’re at the store, one or both of us, we’ve always got the list with us.

Things to Come

The Echo really is just a slightly stupider Siri for your house, at this point. But the reason I’m still a fan is that since its hardware is basic and all of its functionality comes from the cloud, there’s no knowing what it’ll be able to do in the future. Since it was released last year, they added voice control for Pandora, Spotify and iTunes, a funny Simon says feature, and integration with home automation devices. Rumor has it they’re releasing an SDK for third-party developers, and at that point, things could get really interesting.

When All is Said and Done…

I like our Amazon Echo. It’s a fun gadget. The problem, though, is that I can’t recommend it at the price. $179 is just too steep for something like this — at least now. Maybe when home automation become more prevalent, then I could see it being justifiable. But I wouldn’t have paid $179 for this. I’m not sure I would have shelled out $99 for this — I bought the Echo myself, but used some gift cards I had to do so, so it wasn’t like shelling out hard-earned doubloons. Still, a hundred bucks for something to keep a shopping list on and tell us whether or not tomorrow is going to be a pool day? That seems silly. Basically I’m saying it was a great thing to get, as a gift, but I wouldn’t in good conscience say — as it is now — it’s worth the price tag.

Color your own Red Wedding – Game of Thrones coloring book out this October


Khal Drogo, From the online Game of Thrones coloring book.

Given my recent return to coloring, this caught my interest — coming October 2015, a “Game of Thones” coloring book. From Daily Dot:

Forget the Red Wedding and the Purple Wedding. Thanks to the newly announced Game of Thrones coloring book, you can make sure all of your infamous nuptials are hued in Jazzberry Jam, Purple Pizzazz, or Razzle Dazzle Rose.

The new coloring book for adults will feature 45 images based on characters and scenes from the series. Presumably, the activity will be a particularly vital form of therapy for stressed-out fans of the series. Now you can finally give Joffrey his royal due by coloring him a nice shade of Eggplant, or imbue all of the Three-Eyed Raven’s visions with a hue of Robin Egg Blue or Granny Smith Apple.

Until October rolls around, Westeros fans can play with this unsanctioned online coloring book instead.