Tuesday, February 09, 2016

TV Tuesday: Colony

Months ago, when the first previews for the TV show Colony were shown, my family was eagerly awaiting this new USA show. Josh Holloway (Sawyer from Lost) plus post-apocayptic alien invasion? We're sold! We've watched the first three episodes of this intriguing show so far and can't wait to see more...

Holloway plays Will Bowman, who is married to Katie, played by Sarah Wayne Callies. They have two kids at home and in the first episode, are visibly upset over a missing third child, Charlie. The Bowmans live in a post-apocalyptic LA, which is eerily similar to current-LA...only different. There are no cars on the streets, only walkers and bicycles. Things seem quiet and peaceful on the outside, but just under the surface, it is clear that people are scared and nervous. And the peace is occasionally shattered when robotic drones fly overhead, shooting at people who committed some unseen crime.

LA has been invaded by an outside force, presumably alien, that has taken control of everything. There is a wall around LA, and the Bowmans worry about their older son, who was caught outside that wall when the invasion happened and is now working in a "factory" and unable to contact them. In the first episode, desperate to find their son, Will stows away in a truck headed outside the wall, but his plans are foiled when a Resistance force blows up the gateway to the other side.

In the aftermath of the explosion, Will is offered a job in the controlling government - and this is not an offer he is at liberty to refuse. To keep his family safe, he takes the job, even though he and Katie sympathize with the Resistance. They both realize that Will must take this job, both in hopes of finding their lost son and to keep their remaining children safe. Bit by bit, as the episodes continue, viewers learn more about both the Resistance and the new order that is in charge, as Will and Katie end up in some precarious positions, trying to balance their real feelings with Will's job, and their need to keep their family safe.

Even just 3 episodes in, we are all hooked on this exciting new show. It's classic sci fi, with lots of action and suspense but also plenty of human drama, too. The acting is excellent - Josh Holloway is just as charismatic here as Will as he was as Sawyer on Lost! Peter Jacobson (who starred as Taub on House) is also featured as the man who hires Will (and who has decided that siding with the invaders is the best way to benefit himself). The show is well-written so far and fast-paced. We can't wait to see what happens next! And...breaking news...Colony was just renewed for a second season, so it sounds like we're not the only ones enjoying it!

Colony is available On Demand on cable and online at the USA Network website. Episodes are also available starting at $1.99 on Amazon Prime (see link below).

Monday, February 08, 2016

Movie Monday: Books Coming to the Big Screen in 2016

Rejoice, book lovers! The trend of transforming books into movies continues to ramp up in 2016, with everything from classics to YA novels to recent best-sellers being adapted for the Big Screen.

Here is BuzzFeed's List of 19 Books to Read Before the Movie Comes Out in 2016. Goodreads has its own list, with over 100 books being made into movies (but notice the caveat at the top of the page - the list was made by Goodreads' users, so not all of those listed will actually be released in 2016).

Of the list of 19 movies listed at Buzzfeed, I have read three of the books:
All of these will make good movies. I know my husband and I will enjoy seeing the first two together. But the one I am most looking forward to is Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk because it was such an incredible, moving, funny book. It was a finalist for the National Book Award, and I can't wait to see how they adapt it for film - it will have to be really good to meet the standards of the book.

The 5th Wave is one we have here at home, but none of the three of us have read it yet! It just came out in the theaters, so we better get busy.

From the Goodreads list, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (my favorite book read on 2012) and Looking for Alaska by John Green are favorite books of mine, and both will make great movies...but the latest updates show they won't be released until 2017. Similarly, my husband and I both LOVED Wool by Hugh Howey and can't wait to see that on film, but it is still only in the very earliest stages of development. Same with Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer, an outstanding middle-grade series. American Pastoral by Philip Roth, however, is due out in 2016 and should be good (probably more to my liking than my husband's, though!).

11/22/63 by Stephen King is another favorite of ours, but it has been made into a TV mini-series that will be airing soon on Hulu (we must find a friend with a Hulu subscription!) The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is also slated for the small screen but is still in early stages of development. I'd love to see that one, too - it's such an epic novel that it will make a wonderful TV series.

Wow, so many great movies and TV series to look forward to for us book lovers!

Which movie adaptations are you most looking forward to in 2016?

Friday, February 05, 2016

New Study: Difficulty of Diagnosing POTS

A new study confirms what I have heard from hundreds of ME/CFS patients: Testing for Orthostatic Intolerance (OI) is not fool-proof and often shows a normal response even when OI (in this case POTS) is present. This is great news for those who have the symptoms of OI but whose doctors dismissed it when a single test came back negative. There is a summary at this link that you can print to share with your doctor (and he or she can access the full article).

As a quick recap for those new to these terms:
Orthostatic Intolerance (OI) is a group of conditions where the patient has trouble maintaining a steady blood pressure (BP) and/or heart rate (HR) while upright.

OI is an integral part of our disease, occurring in over 97% of ME/CFS patients and about 75% of those with fibromyalgia (and many of those with Lyme Disease).

The two most common forms of OI in ME/CFS are Neurally Mediated Hypotension (NMH), where the BP drops while the patient is upright, and Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), where the patient's HR gets higher when he or she is upright. Most ME/CFS patients have NMH, many have POTS, and quite a few of us have both conditions.

OI underlies much of what we think of as ME/CFS and fibro symptoms - brain fog, low energy, lightheadedness, post-exertional crashes, and more. The good news is that treating OI often brings dramatic improvement to ALL symptoms. You can read more about OI and how to treat it in this excellent article by an expert on OI in ME/CFS, Dr. Peter Rowe from Johns Hopkins. This article is also perfect for printing and sharing with your doctor. Here are links to a webinar Dr. Rowe did on OI, along with some Q&A.

So, what does this new study mean? It clearly shows that a single OI test (typically a tilt table test or an in-office standing test) is NOT always sufficient to show POTS (this study focused only on POTS but the same applies to NMH).  The study showed differences depending on the time of day the test was administered and concluded that the diagnosis can be missed with only a single test. For this reason, they conclude that multiple tests at different times of day (or in the morning when their study showed POTS showed up more clearly) are best. While tilt table testing is expensive (and really unnecessary), any doctor can do a simple standing test in his or her office in under 30 minutes. Dr. Rowe can provide instructions and a form for this (or you can e-mail me).

Bottom line? If you have ME/CFS, you have some form of OI, so don't draw conclusions based on a single OI test. Further, if you have the symptoms of OI but your test says you don't have it, then additional testing or just treating would be advisable.

If you are in that situation, where a single OI test did not show either POTS or NMH, then show this study to your doctor and request another test...or list your symptoms related to OI and ask to try treatments. That's what Dr. Rowe suggested when we were having trouble testing our 8-year old son many years ago - he said that kids that young just can't stand still enough for a valid OI test (especially true for our son!), so he advised our pediatrician to try treating his OI based on his symptoms. After a month on Florinef, he was mostly symptom-free (his ME/CFS was milder), much as treatment with Florinef allowed our older son to go back to school full-time. Florinef works less often for adults, but my older son and I have had excellent results with beta blockers, which have greatly reduced our post-exertional crashes and allowed us both to be much more active.

One more note from personal experience: I have had clear NMH and POTS ever since I got ME/CFS, and my doctor has seen my BP drop many times, even with just a few minutes of standing up. However, when her office did an "official" OI standing test for me for my Social Security Disability appeal, the POTS showed clearly (I was actually scaring the tester because I looked so bad within 10 minutes of standing!), but my results did not meet the official criteria for NMH. Fortunately, my doctor recognized the limits of a single test and explained in the letter she wrote for me that she had witnessed the BP drop on many other occasions. So, I was glad to see this study and that someone finally confirmed what experience has shown!

Have you been tested or treated for OI yet?

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

TV Tuesday: Orange is the New Black

Even though it is likely we are the last people on earth to have seen it, I still feel compelled to tell you about Orange is the New Black because it is such a great show! We got Netflix about a week ago (just before the huge snowstorm coincidentally). My husband and I were watching the first episode when my son and his girlfriend came in the room. They watched the rest with us, we went up to bed, and the next morning, they told us they ended up watching the first 5 episodes in a row! It's just that addictive. We are now about 8 episodes into the first season.

So, just in case we aren't the last ones on the planet to see this show, it is set in a women's prison. Piper, a very white, wealthy, WASP-y young woman, is heading to prison because ten years ago, she got involved in carrying drug money for her lesbian girlfriend who was involved with an international drug cartel. Key members of the cartel were arrested, and Piper's name got thrown in the pot by those hoping to turn in others for a reduced sentence. So Piper, who is now engaged to her cute Jewish boyfriend, is going to prison for 15 months because of her youthful mistakes.

As you might imagine, Piper doesn't quite fit in with the prison community. They are roughly divided into the blacks, the Hispanics, the Golden Girls (older inmates), and the Others (real misfits). Many of these women are very tough (or have become so to survive), and most have lives lives entirely different than Piper's. Other inmates include Crazy Eyes, who takes a not-appreciated liking to Piper, Red (played by Kate Mulgrew), who is in charge of the kitchen and a lot more, and "Pennsatucky," a scary Christian-zealot who takes an instant dislike to Piper.

As I said, this show is incredibly addicting! I dare you to watch just one episode. You really care about what happens to Piper...and, as the show goes on, some of the other inmates, too. Piper is trying to figure out how to walk a thin line between being a "good citizen" for the warden and fitting in with her fellow inmates. She wants to stay out of trouble but is also astonished at some of the injustices she sees there. Orange is the New Black made awards-show history by being nominated for - and winning - awards in both drama and comedy categories. That's appropriate, as it melds comedy and drama into each episode. The acting is top-notch, and the plots are compelling. It is also, as you might expect from a prison show, quite graphic at times, with lots of nudity, sex, and some violence.

Orange is the New Black is available only on Netflix, since it is a Netflix original program. It might be worth the Netflix subscription fee all on its own! There are three full seasons available now on Netflix, and Season 4 is premiering on June 17 this year.

Have you seen Orange is the New Black yet? Are you addicted, too? What other TV shows are you enjoying now?

(NOTE: This is an older trailer that mentions the start date for season 3 at the end - I didn't want to give away any spoilers for earlier seasons!):

Monday, February 01, 2016

Movie Monday: Favorite Movies Watched in 2015

I decided to try something different and made a list of all the movie we watched in 2015 - you can see the full list here, including links to all my reviews. I'm so glad I did this and took a look back - we saw so many amazing movies last year! I had forgotten about a lot of them, so it was great to revisit them. Just remember, this is a list of movies we watched in 2015, not necessarily those that came out last year (though we saw more new releases than usual!). We watched 54 movies all together, and my list is organized alphabetically, within genres.

Besides the full list, here are some superlatives to whet your appetite:

Best Movie of the Year
Chef  - hard to choose just one, but I loved this warm, funny, uplifting movie

Favorite Suspense/Thrillers
Before I Go To Sleep
Dark Places 

Favorite Dramas (so many good ones to choose from!)
Hector and the Search for Happiness
The Imitation Game
The Judge
Still Alice
The Way

Favorite Comedies
St. Vincent
This is Where I Leave You

Favorite Sci Fi Movies
12 Monkeys
Guardians of the Galaxy
The Martian
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Favorite Documentary
Without a Home

Favorite Family/Animated Movie
Shaun the Sheep           

Best Uplifting Movies
Hector and the Search for Happiness
Redwood Highway 
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 
The Way
What were your favorites movies you watched in 2015? 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

First-Ever Population Study of Teens with ME/CFS

Big news was announced this week from the University of Bristol in the UK: the first-ever population study to estimate the number of teens with ME/CFS was published in the journal Pediatrics. Even better: this new study is some exposure in mainstream media.

The reason this is a big deal is that there has NEVER been a population study done to estimate the number of children and teens with ME/CFS. The U.S. CDC has undertaken two huge population studies in the past decades - one in the Quad cities in Iowa and a more recent one in the Atlanta area - however, both of those studies included only adults, over age 18. Incidentally, those studies estimated 1 million adults in the US with ME/CFS and 4 million, respectively (most people feel that the second study used criteria that was too loosely defined).

To be accurate, this new study out of the UK is not a full-blown population study. It relied on self-reported surveys from teens and parents. A real population study - like the two conducted in the United States - use multiple phases to identify and confirm diagnosis of ME/CFS. They start with a phone survey, then a more detailed paper survey (or vice-versa), and finally identified potential patients are actually examined by a doctor to confirm that they do indeed have ME/CFS. So, this is more of a population estimate...but it is still the first time EVER that any attempt has been made to count children and teens with ME/CFS - a very significant event, especially for those of us with children with the disease.

So, what did the study show? It reported that 2% (1 in 50) of the teens studied self-reported symptoms that matched ME/CFS, lasting more than 6 months, and 3% had ME/CFS symptoms lasting at least 3 months (the UK definition). It also reported that past age 13, girls were more likely than boys to develop ME/CFS (I'm assuming the numbers were similar for the genders in younger children). Finally, they found greater numbers of ME/CFS in children from poorer economic status, hopefully putting to rest the "yuppie flu" moniker forever!

The study is being reported in mainstream media outlets:
  • Science Daily article - pretty good, mentions the lack of real treatment in the UK and the huge lack of awareness and understanding of ME/CFS - taken directly from the University of Bristol's press release.
  • Newsweek - eh, not so good. They do report on the study, but their background "facts" are very limited, focusing on "tiredness" and the CDC definition, with absolutely no mention of immune dysfunction or infectious agents. I left a comment, filling in some of the gaps.
One final note: though this is the first attempt to quantify total children/teens with ME/CFS, it is not the first study to show that ME/CFS is very prevalent in teens. Earlier studies that focused only on ME/CFS following infection with the Epstein-Barr Virus (EBV) - aka mono or glandular fever - showed a significant prevalence of ME/CFS in kids who's had mono. You can see some of those earlier study results from 2009 here and an article from 2014 here.

Please share this study widely to help spread awareness of just how common ME/CFS is in children and teens! (I would use the Science Daily link to share).

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

TV Tuesday: Younger

One of my favorite new shows from 2015 has just returned for its second season: Younger, a TV Land original comedy series.

The premise of Younger seems a bit iffy at first, but it is perfectly executed. Liza Miller, played beautifully by Sutton Foster, is a 40-year old single mother suddenly back in the workforce after her divorce. Her daughter is studying in India for a semester, so Liza finds herself at loose ends. She searches for a job in the publishing industry, where she used to work, but the 15-year hole in her resume causes a lot of questions and no job offers. Liza notices that most of the people in the kinds of jobs she used to do are young, in their 20's. When a 20-something guy in a bar thinks she is in her 20's, she gets the idea to pretend to be younger, so she can get an entry-level job in publishing and start her career over. Her best friend, Maggie, played by Debi Mazar (a favorite), convinces her to give it a try and helps her with a makeover. Armed with a made-up resume and her new 20-something hair, make-up, and wardrobe, Liza successfully lands an assistant job at a publishing house.

Her new boss is the demanding Diana Trout, played by Miriam Shor, and Liza soon has a new BFF, 20-something Kelsey Peters, played by Hilary Duff, who helps her find her way at work (with Maggie still by her side at home), as she transforms from suburban Jersey mom to fashionable young Brooklyn-ite. Soon, she is dating the gorgeous 26-year old Josh, played by Nico Tortorella, who works as a tattoo artist. No one knows her secret except Maggie. Hilarious situations ensue, and much of the humor comes from the clash between generations, as you might expect.

As I said at the beginning, this sounds like a shaky set-up, and it is a bit unrealistic that a 40-year old mom could so easily masquerade as a 26-year old (I wish I looked like that! There is no way the actress has had kids, let alone c-sections). That said, this show does everything right - great acting, excellent writing, wonderful cast - and the result is smart, fresh, sexy, and very, very funny. Besides its comedic allure, the characters are also warm and appealing and quickly won my heart. It pulls you in like a well-done drama but with plenty of laughs and a clever script about women succeeding in business. I absolutely loved the first season of Younger and binge-watched the first three episodes of season 2 as soon as they appeared!

You can watch all of season 1 of Younger and the beginning of season 2 On Demand through your cable company or through Amazon for $1.99 an episode (or $14.99 for the entire first season) or  iTunes. The season 2 episodes are also available through the TV Land website. Younger is not available on Netflix or Hulu.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Progress in 2015 & Goals for 2016

Image: Clker.com
Long-time readers of my blog know that I am a data freak (ex-engineer!). Every year in January, I take a look back at the past year to see how I did with the goals that I set for myself, and I set new goals for the new year.

Actually, to be accurate, I have 6 Lifetime Goals that never change (listed in my 2015 Goals post), then more specific objectives for each, and each year, I set very specific, measurable targets for each objective. For instance, one of my lifetime goals is To Be Healthy (a real challenge with a chronic illness!). My objectives under that goal are:
  • Improve mine & my son’s health by trying new treatments
  • Improve stamina & become more active
  • Reduce stress & rest more
  • Make time for myself

And then, I set measurable targets (baby steps!) for each of those objectives.

You can look back at my 2015 Goals blog post to read more about my health-related targets for last year. In this post on goals from 2014, I explain the simple way I track how I am feeling, using a 1 - 5 scale each day for overall and another 1 - 5 rating for level of exertion. That way, I can look back each year to see what my year was like. This is helpful because I find that overall impressions are often misleading, usually colored by my most recent experiences.

Progress in 2015
Overall health-wise, 2015 was a little worse for me than the previous two years, which was depressing to see. My average overall rating was 2.5 (with 1 being great and 5 being badly crashed), versus an average of 2.3 the previous year. I was badly crashed 14% of the time in 2015 versus just 8% the previous year. And my exertion level dropped a bit (measuring how active I was able to be) dropped from a high of 3.7 in 2014 to 3.5 last year. Those changes don't sound like much, but it is only a 5-point scale.

On the surface, that's all a bit depressing, but the downturns are explained by just two months in the fall. I had my annual bout(s) of bronchitis that knocked me out, as usual, but this past fall was even worse than previous years. In October, I was badly crashed over 70% of the time - that was my worst month since the very early days of my illness.

On the plus side, I made progress on quite a few targets last year:
  • I made more time for myself, a constant struggle for me (though much of that tended to be TV time, and I tend to multi-task while watching!)
  • I did very well with my writing, not only meeting my goals for sending pitches to old and new markets but actually earning some (small) income for the first time in a couple of years! Yay!
  • I exceeded my weekly walking and yoga goals and improved on muscle building, so I did succeed in being more active for most of the year.
  • My husband and I had two trips alone together (though less vacation time with our growing, busy sons).
  • I spent more time outdoors and was able to get out for a short hike or kayak paddle more often.
  • I meditated more often, recommitting in the fall to daily meditation.
  • I did better at resting when I felt bad...though there is still lots of room for improvement!

2016 Goals 
So, some of my health-related goals for the new year include:
  • For time to myself, I revised my targets to at least 2-non-TV fun things a week and at least 2 quiet fun things for myself (without multitasking) each week. So, TV can count but only if I'm not also checking e-mail, Tweeting, and looking at Facebook at the same time. Hopefully, this will also encourage more reading time - I really need more downtime built into my days.
  • I added new targets for connecting with far-flung family & friends (just one letter, card, or phone call a month)
  • Walk 4 times a week (vs. 3) - I try to take short walks whenever I am able to.
  • Continue yoga stretches every day.
  • Muscle building 4 times a week (vs. 3) - these are usually just 10 minutes, lying on my back, but it really adds up.
  • Renewed targets to rest more & reduce stress by:
    • Meditate at least 10 minutes a day
    • No computer after 7 pm (forces me to chill out & completely relax in the evening)
    • Rest when symptoms flare (rating a 3 or more)
    • Take one "day off" each month - a real struggle for me!

I won't bore you with the rest of my targets, related to writing and family, but those are the major ones related to health and wellness.

It has felt like a rough start to 2016 so far. I haven't felt well (not terrible not not good either), and I feel overwhelmed and behind on just about everything. So, I hope that some of these goals related to reducing stress, resting more, and having more fun will help remind me to slow down and take care of myself.

If you are new to the blog and interested in how I improved enough to be able to do these bits of exercise and get more active, check out this summary post on Effective Treatments that helped both my son and I.

I realize most people aren't this detailed, but what are YOUR personal goals for 2016? What would you like to improve this year or how do you hope to improve your health?

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

TV Tuesday: How To Watch?

Image from 123RF
We spent much of this weekend online with Amazon LiveChat, trying to figure out how to better optimize our Prime accounts so that we could afford to also sign up for Netflix...which we finally managed (allowing both of my sons to spend the rest of the weekend binge-watching!). Since we learned some new things about the different services available, and it seems like a lot of people are trying to make these kinds of decisions, I thought I'd devote today's TV Tuesday to an overview of the different options for TV watching.

Cable TV
Even now that we have both Amazon Prime and Netflix, we still watch most of our TV using our cable On Demand service. We all like to keep up with current shows, and this is the perfect way to do that. We almost never watch TV when the shows actually air anymore (other than sports events or my few minutes of the Today show each morning while I get dressed), but On Demand has the latest episodes of pretty much all of the shows on all of the networks, plus some of the older stuff, too.

Yes, cable is expensive, but many people don't realize you can negotiate a better price. A few years ago, we added our home phone (yup, we still have one of those, too) to our cable service, and the combined offering of phone, TV, and internet cost us $30 LESS than what we had been paying for just TV and internet. Go figure. We had that great deal for a couple of years and since then, the price has been inching up, bit by bit. I noticed it went up by another $10 last month, so it's time to call the cable company again. Ask to speak with customer retention and see what kind of a deal they can get you. Tell them you are thinking of getting rid of your phone or cable TV (as many people are these days), and they will usually give you a better price to keep you as a customer. It's worthwhile for us, especially since the cable company is still our only option for internet and we use On Demand so much.

Amazon Prime
A subscription to Amazon Prime costs $99 a year, which might seem like a lot at first, but consider several things. First, it is cheaper than Netflix for most families (see below). Also, unlike other streaming services, Prime gives you other services, like borrowing e-books for free, many free e-books available, free music streaming, and FREE 2-day shipping on all Amazon orders (most items are included but some are not, like items coming from other vendors). For us, that last item in itself easily pays for the service. We take a lot of nutritional supplements, herbals, probiotics, etc. for our chronic illnesses, and I order all of them through Amazon - their prices are generally cheaper than competitors, they have an amazing selection, and shipping is free! My husband and I are endlessly amazed by the variety of things you can order through Amazon and have at your door in 2 days - last week, I ordered denim patches for my ripped jeans, tamarind paste (used in Thai cooking), hard-to-find supplements, and children's books for a new baby, all in one order. Our Christmas shopping is almost entirely done on Amazon now, with free 2-day shipping for everything.

As for video streaming, Amazon Prime has a large library of movies and TV shows and some excellent original shows, too. Admittedly, their video library isn't quite as large as Netflix's, but it's pretty big. We have watched old episodes of Glee, all seasons of The Wire (currently on season 3 and loving it), and the first two seasons of Orphan Black on Prime, along with other shows and lots of movies. With a single Prime account, you can stream video on up to 3 different devices at once.

We have found the Amazon original shows to consistently be of very high quality. Some of our favorites include:
  • Catastrophe
  • Transparent (just started a few weeks ago and I am totally hooked)
  • The Man in the High Castle
  • Bosch (based on the popular Michael Connelly novels)
  • Red Oaks
These are some of our favorite shows, among everything we watch.

Amazon Prime now offers a brand-new Household option that allows you to put two adults and up to four children in your family under one Prime account. This is a great new option that we took advantage of this past week. Previously, we had 3 Prime accounts in our household (totally unnecessary, as we discovered): my husband and each of our sons. If I wanted free shipping or to watch Prime videos, then I logged into my husband's account. Now, my own existing Amazon account is linked to his Prime account, so I can log into my own account to watch Prime video, and I can order stuff from my own account and get his free Prime 2-day shipping (very handy to be able to order from your own account when birthdays and holidays roll around!). Having your own accounts also allows you to each use your own gift cards without the confusion of who is using whose credit.

It's a little trickier for older kids/teens. You can add up to 4 children to your Household on Prime, but you can't link their accounts in, the way you can with the second adult in your household. So, our 18-year old son (who still qualifies as a "child" until he turns 19) has his own Amazon account with a large library of videos he has previously purchased - there's no way to connect that account to my husband's Prime account. So, for the next 8 months, he will just log into my husband's Prime account when he wants to use Prime video or get free shipping.

Amazon also added a new Student Prime Account designation.  Young adults enrolled in college are eligible to join, and the price is $49 instead of the usual $99, with all of the benefits of a full Prime membership. We are switching our 21-year old son's full Prime account to a student account, and will get one for our younger son when he heads off to college in the fall. Of course, you can also do what our friends' family does and just all share one Prime account, all logging into that same account when you want to use Prime.

Finally, I saw a few days ago that Amazon had a limited-time offer of $73 for the first year of Prime instead of the usual $99 - I'm not sure how long that will be available.

We are new to Netflix, as of 2 days ago, so I don't know as much about it. We'd heard from everyone that it was "only $8 a month!" but that was a bit misleading. We learned that $8/month only gets you video streaming on 1 device at a time - not enough for a family with young adults! $10/month gets you streaming on up to 2 devices at a time, and you have to pay $12/month to get what we needed - streaming on more than 2 devices at a time. So, do the math - that brings the price up to $144 a year for a family, which is quite a bit more than Amazon Prime (and without the free Amazon shipping and other Prime benefits, like e-books and music).

On the plus side, Netflix is well-known to have a larger library of TV shows and movies to choose from. Netflix and Amazon each have their own agreements with production companies, so you will find that certain shows are on Netflix, others are on Amazon, and some are on both. Same with movies. My older son and I were pleased to find that Netflix has NCIS, a show he and I have been watching (on DVDs from the library) from the beginning and are up to season 3 so far. My husband was happy to see Netflix has The Walking Dead, and our son and his girlfriend watched all seasons of New Girl on Netflix this weekend! As for me, I am looking forward to catching up on Girls and and Gilmore Girls (another oldie I've been watching on DVDs from the library), and my husband and I both want to see House of Cards. So, you just have to check both services for the shows that are important to you.

Netflix also has its own original programming, also of a very high-quality, many of which - like the Amazon originals - have been winning all kinds of awards. Some of the Netflix originals I am looking forward to trying include:
  • Orange is the New Black
  • Grace and Frankie (starring Jane Fonda & Lily Tomlin)
  • Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt
  • Master of None
In fact, having just added Netflix to Prime and Cable On Demand, we are feeling a bit overwhelmed by so many great shows to watch! We may need to hibernate on the couch and recliner all winter - see you in the spring!
I know the least about Hulu, except that it used to have a free section and a pay section called Hulu Plus, and now it is all pay, with a model similar to Netflix. Hulu's promo page says that plans start at $8/month, so I imagine the pricing is also similar to Netflix.

So, bottom line is to consider how your family watches TV shows and movies and which shows are the most important to you, then make your choices.

How do YOU watch TV? Which service(s) do you use? Let me know if there are others that I didn't mention here or if you have any favorite Netflix shows we should add to our list!

Movie Monday 1/18: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Big event for my husband and I last week - we actually went to the movie theater to watch a movie on the big screen while it was still new! My husband's group at work has been patiently waiting for him to see the new Star Wars movie, but they said they were only giving him one more week, and then they just had to talk about it during lunch! So, we took advantage of our local theater's $5 movies all day on Tuesday, I rested in the afternoon, and we watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens on the big screen - it was well worth the wait and the exertion.

Unless you have just moved to our planet, I will assume you know something of the previous Star Wars movies (or at least the original)...but don't worry, no spoilers here!

The new movie takes place about thirty years after the last of the original six ended (chronologically, not when they were released, so I mean Return of the Jedi). As you might recall, the good guys won and the evil Empire, with Dark Vader at its helm, was vanquished. But, evil doesn't stay away for long. In this new story, 30 years later, a new evil power, The First Order, has arisen from the ashes of the old Empire. Don't worry, though, because the Resistance still carries on its noble work of fighting evil.

As the movie opens, one brave Stormtrooper with a conscious, a young man named Finn, played wonderfully by John Boyega, manages to escape from The First Order while on a mission and meets up with a young Resistance fighter named Poe. Meanwhile, a tough young woman named Rey, played to much acclaim by Daisy Ridley, lives on a desert-like planet and tries to earn a living scavenging for scrap metal and parts. Rey discovers a hidden message in a droid she finds that seems to be a partial map for finding the elusive Luke Skywalker, who disappeared and hasn't been seen in decades. Rey and Finn cross paths and help each other to survive, as both get pulled deeper into the affairs of the Resistance and the mystery of what happened to Luke. Then, there's the whole good versus evil thing, blah blah blah - you know how that part goes!

I don't mean to be facetious with that last line because this is a really great movie that manages to do what the original Star Wars did - transport you to another world, into an epic battle of good versus evil, peopled by great characters. It's that same mix of adventure, action, and drama, with a bit of romance and a great sense of humor, too. I thought the new movie was a perfect mix of the old and the new.

It's no spoiler to say that many of the old characters return here, since there were so many promotional photos of them together! I expected the audience to cheer out loud when each appeared on screen - perhaps we had an unusually sedate audience at our theater, but I said, "Yay!" and clapped my hands when Han and Chewbacca walked onto the screen! It was like greeting old friends to see each of the old characters and to hear what they've been doing. The newer characters are just as interesting and charismatic as the old ones (though, as usual, Han Solo gets all the best lines - or maybe that's just Harrison Ford's own charm). Rey and Finn are both amazing characters who I definitely want to see more of. And of course, there is a new villain in charge of The First Order.

The movie also blends the old and the new in terms of plot and cinematics, with Rey's planet looking an awful lot like Tatooine, where Luke grew up, the obvious parallels with the young people finding the hidden data in the old droid, and the opening battle scene with Poe and Finn back to back that reminds you very much of the original. There is plenty that is new here, too, though, and it obviously ends quite open-ended...ready for the next sequel. I heard J.J. Abrams say he will continue making more Star Wars movies for as long as people keep coming to see them, so I suspect this world will be with us for a long time. That's fine with us - my husband and I both thoroughly enjoyed this new saga in the journey. Pure fun that put big smiles on our faces!

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is now playing in theaters. The DVD release date is tentatively set for May, and it will likely become available for streaming around that time, too. If you can manage a rare outing to the theater, this is a good one to see on the big screen!

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Weekly Inspiration 1/17: Online Learning Communities

Whew - a very busy week, with my son's 18 birthday, which made for one very hectic day and then needing time to recover! I have several blog posts planned, and I hope to have the time/energy to write some of them this coming week.

In the meantime, I wanted to share this fun, entertaining, and interesting TED Talk with you. A parent in our online Parents' group shared it, as inspiration for our sick kids who can't attend school, but I think it will be of interest to all of us with chronic illness (and anyone who is healthy, too, for that matter).

The speaker is renowned YA author John Green, who wrote such best-sellers as The Fault in Our Stars and Looking for Alaska (link is to my review) and whose books are being adapted into great movies, which is making him even more of a celebrity (I love when authors become celebrities).

In this TED talk, Green is talking about how he missed the interactive learning environment in school once he graduated and became an "adult." He says that this hole has now been filled with interactive learning communities online, and he provides several examples of hugely popular video series on YouTube (including his own, called Crash Course) that are educational, entertaining, and encourage their viewers to learn and discuss the content together. Many of these educational series - on physics, higher math, history, and more - have millions of viewers. It's all pretty fascinating. I'd heard about online classes and college courses you can participate in online, but this was new to me.

Here's Green's talk - and if you've read his books, you know to expect a good sense of humor:

While this is very, very useful for young people who are too sick to attend school (I wish I'd known about some of these more fun video series when my own son was struggling to get through high school from the couch), they are also a great source of education and entertainment for adults. Did you have to leave school early due to illness? Would you love to take classes at a local college but can't manage it? Or do you, like John Green, simply miss the intellectual stimulation of learning and discussing things together with other people? In any case, check out John's talk and some of his suggestions on YouTube, which are especially wonderful for those who are housebound and missing out on social interaction.

Here are some of John's examples of educational (and entertaining) video series available on YouTube:
  • Smarter Everyday, featuring Destin Sandlin
  • Crash Course, John Green's own educational video series produced with his brother (they also produce the very popular & entertaining video series NerdFighters aka Vlog Brothers)
  • Minute Physics - quick explanations of everyday physics examples
  • Doodling in Math Class - short, fun explanations of complex mathematical concepts in simple terms, through notebook doodles

How about you? Do you have some favorite websites or video series online for learning?

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

TV Tuesday: Transparent

I just started watching Amazon's original series Transparent last week, and I've been so excited to write about it here. It's an amazing show, which all the critics have been saying for over a year (it was just nominated for 3 Golden Globes) - I'm not sure why it took me so long to discover it.

As you may have heard or noticed from its promos, Transparent is about a transgender person, transitioning from man to woman and coming out to her family. But the show is so much more than that. It is a family drama that is both poignant and often laugh-out-loud funny. Jeffrey Tambor stars as Mort, now known as Maura, who has known his whole life that he is really a woman but who just got up the courage to live as one, at the age of 77.

But Maura's not the only one in the family with long-buried secrets. The show is just as much about her three adult children who is each dealing with his or own issues. Oldest daughter Sarah, played by Amy Landecker, seems normal on the outside - married with two children - but she has her own secrets from her past which soon come bubbling into the present. Brother Josh, played by Jay Duplass, is in the music business, but both his career and his love life are in danger of falling apart when he falls in love with the latest of his many female conquests. Youngest sibling Ali, played by Gaby Hoffman (who was on Girls), is at loose ends, unemployed and unsure what to do with her life. The siblings' mother (played hilariously by Judith Light), long divorced from their father, is now married to Ed, a man with fairly advanced dementia.

Into this mix of oddball, dysfunctional family members comes Mort, now Maura, gradually telling each family member that, at age 77, she is actually a woman. Maura actually seems the most stable of the family members, as each deals with their father's news plus their own rapidly unraveling lives.

I have watched 6 episodes from the first season so far (season 3 just started), and I am totally hooked. All of the characters are interesting, their problems and issues are complex (and often somewhat extreme), and I often find myself laughing out loud at the absurdity of the situations they find themselves in. One warning, in case this sort of thing offends you: there is quite a bit of explicit sex in this show.  It is not, as you might expect, on the part of Maura - her sexual preferences haven't come into play yet - but the three siblings each find themselves in some pretty wild and varied sexual situations. Seriously, the transgender person on the show probably has the least turmoil in her life!

If you like funny, warm dysfunctional family dramas, this is the show for you! I am thoroughly enjoying every episode and can't wait to see more. From its continued award nominations, I am guess that season 2 was just as good as season 1.

Since this is an Amazon original program, it is available exclusively through Amazon, free to Prime members and $1.99 an episode (or $16.99 per season) - you can use the link below to access it.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Movie Monday 11/11: The Intern

My husband and I watched the recently released The Intern this weekend and enjoyed the light, funny movie with a fantastic cast.

Robert De Niro stars as Ben Whittaker, a 70-year old retired widower. Ben is happy with his life and tries to keep busy, but he's a bit bored and misses the feeling of purpose he got from working. He sees a sign for a "Senior Intern" program and decides to sign up. The company running the program is About the Fit, a fast-rising internet start-up selling clothes online that was founded and is run by Jules Ostin, played by Anne Hathaway. Jules is used to doing everything herself and isn't too thrilled when her second-in-command, Cameron, assigns Ben to be her intern.

In fact, at first, she just ignores him. But Ben quickly becomes popular among the company's very young staff - he's polite, friendly, and has a lot of experience in business. He finds plenty of ways to make himself useful, until Jules finally recognizes him and begins to let him help her. Jules needs help. Her company has grown lightning-fast, and she tries to do everything herself, so she is seriously overwhelmed and hardly sleeps. She is also trying to juggle her marriage to stay-at-home dad, Matt, and being a mom to her adorable little girl, Paige.

Besides De Niro and Hathaway, the movie has a fabulous supporting cast, too. Rene Russo and Linda Lavin both appear as potential love interests for Ben. Adam Devine - one of our favorites from Modern Family (where he plays the "manny" Andy) plays Jason, another employee at the company. Cameron is played beautifully by Andrew Rannelis, who I enjoyed briefly in last year's sitcom The New Normal. And JoJo Kushner is just achingly adorable as Jules' daughter. While De Niro is a bit low-key in this movie, Hathaway's character faces some serious problems and the actress does a great job with the wide range of emotions.

The Intern has the tone and feel of a typical romantic comedy, without the romance (at least not between the leading actors). It is light, enjoyable, and often very funny, with plenty of jokes comparing Ben's generation to the hipster youth he works with. There are some serious issues at play here, too, but the film never gets bogged down in them. Overall, it's a warm, fun journey that we both enjoyed.

Warner Brothers

Blu-ray Combo Pack available on January 19.

Currently available to buy on Amazon. It will be available on Demand through cable companies January 19, on Netflix January 26, and through Redbox February 16.

NOTE: I received a copy of the DVD from Warner Brothers for the purpose of review. The opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

The Paradox of Vacationing with ME/CFS

Tropical vacation - Friend or Foe?
Last week, my mother treated our entire family, ten of us all together, to a lovely week-long vacation at an all-inclusive (and very expensive) resort in Jamaica. It was incredibly generous of her. The rest of my family - and everyone else who heard about the trip - thought it was the most amazing vacation ever. As you might have guessed, I struggled mightily with the trip and felt pretty awful for most of it.

It is much worse to be feeling awful in a gorgeous tropical paradise where everyone else is deliriously happy than to be stuck on your own couch in your own home where you can be sick in peace. You just feel out of place and out of synch with your surroundings and everyone around you.

I KNOW that all of you will understand, but I still feel horribly guilty even mentioning - even here on my chronic illness blog - that I did not love this generous vacation.

Worst of all, I am still not sure WHY I felt bad the whole week. Granted, we left on December 27 at 5 am, barely 24 hours after Christmas, and I was already exhausted and overwhelmed from the holidays themselves. And, of course, the 12-hour travel day through cars, airports, planes, and shuttle buses totally wiped me out.  Still, even with all that, I expected to feel better after a few days...and I didn't.

One of the upsetting things about this trip was that my mother treated us all to the exact same vacation 5 years ago. I was in worse shape back then, not yet on beta blockers so more prone to post-exertional crashes and with less physical stamina. Yet, I remembered feeling fairly well and being relaxed and enjoying myself once I recovered from the travel day. In fact, as soon as we got home this weekend, I went through my closet and found my 2010 journal, where I track how I feel, thinking I must be remembering it wrong. No, I really did feel pretty good and enjoyed that trip.

So, what was wrong this time? Well, that's the maddening thing, isn't it? This illness defies logic much of the time. I proposed one explanation after another to my ever-patient husband after we returned home: "Maybe it was because of the timing, just after the busy holiday season" (the last trip was Thanksgiving week), "Maybe it was more crowded this time because of the time of year," "Maybe the yeast overgrowth was still flared up, even though I thought I had it under control," and on and on, until he finally said, "Stop trying to figure it out! After 13 years, don't you know you just can't figure these things out!" Sigh...yes, I know that, but I hate it, so I never stop trying!

It was extra crowded this time and very noisy - our room was on the edge of the resort, right along the fence that separated our resort from the one next door - a Couples resort that had live music playing just over that fenceline every night until 10:30 pm! (and 12:30 am on New Year's Eve) One night, they had drummers featured, and it was so loud and so absurd that my husband and I just had to laugh. Another night, our 21-year old son came back to the room just as the band next door was playing Lionel Ritchie at 10:30 pm and he joined in with the chorus as he opened the door to our room: "All night long..." Sometimes, you just have to laugh.

My husband & I at dinner
Dinners were 7 - 9 pm every night, with all ten of us. I usually eat dinner between 5 and 6 pm and am flat on my back on the couch, with my feet elevated, by 7 pm (and up to bed by 9:30) - sitting up at the table for these 2-hour late-night dinners was torture. I pledged at the start of the trip to take care of my own needs - and I did often grab a snack at the dinner buffet at 5 pm to hold me over - but I didn't want to miss out on family time with everyone (of course, I should have).
Kayaking with my husband

Even though I wasn't feeling well, I did go on a short kayaking ride with my husband and on a snorkeling trip with the whole family the last day. Fun at the time, but again, I probably shouldn't have. Just walking from our room, on the far side of the resort, to meals or to the beach was probably too much exertion for how I was feeling.

I became very depressed on my second day there and realized it was that familiar biochemical depression that sometimes accompanies a crash. I switched from my dark, foreboding novel to a light, funny one, rested and read a lot, and waited for it to pass, reminding myself of my very own recent advice in my article, Riding the Chronic Illness Rollercoaster. Often, I was in a bad mood (that seems like such an inadequate unfair term when you feel so sick) by those late dinners, and I knew from my sister's eyerolls and snarky comments that she thought I was being negative. Healthy people just can't understand what it's like - like being on a resort vacation & trying to have fun when you have the flu. All the positive attitude in the world can't fix it, and sometimes it is just impossible to smile and pretend everything is OK.

My mother was incredibly supportive and kind to me the entire week. She was empathetic and caring, frequently checking to see how I was doing, encouraging me to take care of myself when I needed to, and just wanting me to relax and enjoy myself. So, I felt horribly guilty that I wasn't enjoying it more and that it wasn't relaxing for me.

The trip ended with a horrible crash. The combination of a late-day snorkeling trip (I usually only do active stuff in the morning because my heart rate is higher in the afternoons) and yet another formal, 2-hour, late-night dinner completely did me in. By the time I excused myself at 9pm (I never should have stayed so long, but the main dishes didn't come out until just before then), I was shaking and barely able to walk. I burst into tears as soon as I left the restaurant and was sobbing so hard as I shuffled back to our room, barely able to walk, that an alarmed employee stopped me to see if she could help me.

An old friend was also in Jamaica!
I don't want to give you the impression that the whole thing was awful (just check out the photos). There were definitely some good times too. I loved all the time with my niece and nephew (hence, those long dinners!) and spending time with our own two sons, whom are usually too busy now to spend much time at home anymore. My husband and I enjoyed reading in the shade on the beach. The ocean water was gorgeous and soothing to float around in. The food was excellent and plentiful. I told my husband today that I was missing my mid-morning Jamaican meat pie that he often brought to me at my beach chair when I got hungry! The snorkeling was absolutely amazing. I tried not to swim much - just floated above a huge coral formation and watched all the colorful fish coming and going, like a busy city street.

But I was incredibly relieved to finally get back home. I managed it and am grateful to my mother for being so generous and giving us all that time together. But it is so lovely to lie on my couch in the evenings!

Have you experienced these kinds of "vacations" that are more stressful than relaxing?

The whole family on a snorkeling trip - me in stripes

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

TV Tuesday 1/5 - Legends

I am back home after some time off and trying to get back into the blogging routine. This is kind of a dead period on TV, in between fall and winter seasons and with most shows taking a break for the holidays, but we are thoroughly enjoying a show that came back for its second season (and was completely revamped) in late fall:

Legends stars Sean Bean, an actor my husband and I both like very much, as Martin Odum, a CIA agent who has lost himself. The title refers to a term for deep-cover operatives - a "legend" is the persona they take on while undercover - their character's full story, life details, etc. The best undercover agents, like Martin, can pull on their legend like a second skin, living in an alternate universe. The agency guards their operatives' legends and true lives from everyone, even other agencies. In Martin's case, this has worked too well - he was so good at becoming someone else that he's forgotten who he really is.

My husband and I enjoyed season 1 of Legends last year, but in an odd twist, TNT kept the series and its basic concept but completely revamped it and started over with a fresh story for season 2. So, I'll start with season 2, the current season. As it opens, Martin is stumbling around London and very confused. He is wanted by the FBI for murdering a top U.S. official - a crime he didn't commit - and has completely lost his memory prior to an accident and head injury. His only contacts are a couple of old friends in the CIA, who are trying to help him covertly.

It comes to light in the first episode of season 2 that one of Martin's past legends was Dimitry, a Russian gangster who is still being sought by the FBI and the Czech police for crimes he committed while in that persona over a decade ago. The CIA never gave up Martin's cover as Dimtry, so those who still seek him have no idea that the criminal they are after was actually a CIA agent. The action moves back and forth from Czechoslovakia in 2001 to the present day in London, as Martin desperately tries to find someone from his past who knew him, and an FBI agent named Curtis Ballard relentlessly searches for Dimitry, both then and now.

It's a fast-paced and action-packed story but with plenty of emotional depth, as Martin struggles to find out who he is and has to face some of what he did in the past as Dimitry, including the mother and daughter whom he adopted as his family - and loved - back then. Sean Bean is excellent in it. We really love this intricate, compelling story, as does our 21-year old son.

Since TNT restarted the story fresh this season, you can start with season 2, episode 1 and not miss a thing. All 10 of the season 2 episodes are currently available for free On Demand or on the TNT website (though you have to log in with your cable ID and password). Legends is also available for $1.99 an episode or $14.99 for the season on Amazon Prime.

Oh, no! In looking to see if Legends was available elsewhere online, I just discovered that it was canceled two weeks ago! So, I guess it won't be back for a third season, but it is still well-worth watching season 2, which provides a complete story.

What TV shows have you been enjoying this past month?