April 28, 2015

Why I'm Still Proud to Live in Baltimore

Yesterday, my office shut down early for the second time in light of protest events. I got home, walked the dog, then Sean and I spent the evening, like I imagine many of our neighbors did, with one eye on the TV news and one on facebook.

We watched cars and businesses looted and burned from neighborhoods nowhere near ours to neighborhoods much closer to ours. We packed bags "just in case" and barricaded our front door and window before finally going to bed.

We woke up to a beautiful day. You could hear a pin drop in our neighborhood, but others aren't so fortunate.

These events are as sad as they are disgusting, but they don't represent the city we decided to call home last year. I'm not suddenly sorry that we moved to Baltimore. In fact, I'm still proud to live here. I don't know what the national news outlets showed people outside of the area, but here's what I saw yesterday that reaffirmed my Baltimore pride:

I saw a family keep it classy. The family of Freddie Gray has more reason than anyone else to be upset. They've lost someone very close to them and they don't have the answers they need for closure and healing. If anyone is "entitled" to act in the manner that we saw yesterday, the Gray family would have the least of my judgement if they'd chosen to do so. Instead, they kept it classy. They asked for no protests yesterday, the day of Gray's funeral. They asked for this unacceptable behavior to cease. They seek not revenge, but what is right.

I saw a mother hold her child accountable.  Yesterday's riots (let's clear this up now, these were riots, not  protests, fueled by selfish desires that had nothing to do with seeking justice for Gray) began with teenagers. Children, really, running around and destroying their communities. This video of one mother's reaction has received a lot of attention, and for good reason:

I saw all faiths unite for the good of the community. While waiting for the Mayor to speak out, the most newsworthy detail of the night was brought to our screens: over 100 Baltimore clergy of all denominations marching together against the violence in the midst of the riots.

I saw restoration beginning before the riots (still ongoing) ended. I woke up this morning to sunshine and hope that we could move forward, starting now. Stores are still being looted and plans for more destruction are still afoot, but community members are already hands-on working towards cleanup of our city. In this morning's feed was this gem that I didn't see last night:

This just caught my eye, and I think this gentleman should be known to his city and his country. This guy with the broom just started cleaning up the street in the middle of the riots, and his POSITIVE and productive behavior was immediately imitated by countless blacks and whites alike. We need so many more good people like him. Please share this so he can get the credit he deserves.
Posted by Brian McCarthy on Monday, April 27, 2015

Posted by Brian McCarthy on Monday, April 27, 2015

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April 23, 2015

re•view: Redemption of the Commons + Giveaway!

Disclosure: This review contains affiliate links to a product which I received in exchange for review. 
All opinions are my own.


You know a film is going to be emotional when it opens to someone's trailer home burning a soundtrack not of suspense or sorrow, but of a man singing old-fashioned gospel music.

"God's got a plan for you," he croons while people's faces drop as they arrive home to find they no longer have one.

It's a hard pill to swallow, but it's something I appreciate about fan-funded movie Redemption of the Commons (really, there was a kickstarter!): it shares Christian messages in an honest fashion. Life isn't perfect. It never will be. But God does, in fact, have a plan for your life.

The film synopsis centers on Victor Clay in a classic "prodigal child reluctantly returns home and finds peace in the process" story with a faith-based twist. The prodigal story is highlighted a notch with an embittered older brother. Clay is joined by several other supporting characters in a story that is filmed in the style of an ensemble piece.

The audience first meets Clay, who we realize is homeless and struggling. Upon arriving home, there's no pity or easy solutions: the family and friends he left behind in "The Commons," their trailer park homes, face similar struggles as they fight to make ends meet and handle other personal trials.

Like many Christian films, production can feel choppy at times. There's lots of foreshadowing in the first half that was difficult to pick up on, and I feel like more emphasis were placed on problem and solution with less on the journey between. Despite that, we end up with a feel-good piece capable of leaving smiles and perhaps a few watery eyes.

Unlike many Christian films, the cheese factor is kept at a minimum and no room is made for cliches: no David and Goliath setup, no excessive preachiness, and most importantly to me, no prosperity gospel.

The whole point of the film is that God has a plan for our lives. Let me repeat that. God has a plan for us. Not the other way around. I bet it would have nicely fit into the character's plans if they all inherited millions and no longer faced struggles of any kind. There is one inheritance in this film, and, spoiler alert, it's probably not what they planned.

Commons could have taken the easy road in this film. They could have wiped everyone's debt and placed them in McMansions by the film's end. Thankfully, they didn't. My review would be over and I would tell you not to waste your time watching. Thankfully, wealth isn't only material and while that isn't a popular message, Commons delivers it and I respect that.

I won't spoil the story, but I will say it's worth watching; it is relevant today regardless of one's faith or lack thereof. Commons wasn't produced to convert, but to encourage. With or without faith, we all have questions and times of discouragement. We all have plans that may or may not be fulfilled as we expected. We all need encouragement sometimes.

Thanks to The Blythe Daniel Agency, I have a copy of Redemption of the Commons on DVD to give away. Enter below!

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April 22, 2015

how to start a crack garden

This title sounds ridiculous and I'm absolutely fine with that. (Really, though, I googled "crack garden" to find that it clearly is a term and nothing terribly new. Lots of cool pics)

We moved into our first house last July when everything was in full bloom: vegetables, flowers, weeds...yes, weeds. The homes on our block are 100 years old and things deteriorate over this time. In this case, some cracks had formed in the concrete steps and weeds had spring out. Ugly, you guys. So ugly.

Except for Ms. Vicky. Two doors down from me, I noticed something. Springing from her cracks (again, sounds lovely, huh?) were not weeds, but flowers. It was unique and beautiful. As she came outside to water her potted plants (she has lovely flowers everywhere), I asked her how her crack flowers came about (in a much more polite fashion).

"They just happened," she insisted. Right.

That July and the remaining warm months were spent settling in, painting, cleaning, decorating, furnishing...all that new home stuff that we still haven't completed nine months later. Gardening was not on my radar. Next year, I promised myself. Next year I will have lovely crack flowers rivaling Ms. Vicky's.

(Who am I kidding? Her thumbs are clearly green and mine are black. I'll be thrilled if anything I grow this year comes out half as good as her plants.)

But, a promise is a promise, so on top of the veggie growing, I've begun my attempt at a crack garden. And since we all know they don't "just happen," I gave it my best guess. Here's what I did:
  1. Get rid of the nasty weeds (I'll spare you all the true before photos). I put on some gloves, tore and dug out what I could, then doused the area with homemade weed killer (thanks, Pinterest). No icky chemicals here.
    The biggest of the cracks (technically my neighbor's), de-weeded and treated
  2. Wait a day.
  3. Mix soil in a container with water to a muddy consistency. I used a disposable plastic bowl and fork.
  4. Scoop the soil mixture into the cracks.
  5. Press flower seeds into the soil mixture (I used the seeds that came in the pitiful excuse for greeting cards that I reviewed back in March. Glad they're good for something!).
    All filled in. Can't wait to see beautiful flowers instead of ugly weeds!
  6. Water as needed and wait for growth!
Unfortunately taking pictures wasn't on my radar last summer, but I promise I'll follow up. If my crack garden fails, I'll at least show you Ms. Vicki's and you can ooh and ahh with me at how pretty and cool-looking it is.

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April 20, 2015

Ava Shower Filter: by far my most interesting review!

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links and mention of a product I received in exchange for review. 
All opinions presented are my own.

I have a confession to make: I've assumed that my move to the city meant that the tap water must be filthy in comparison to what I'm used to. I use my Brita religiously and I've been lusting over tub and shower filters for awhile now. They can be rather pricey, meaning research is needed before ordering one at random.

As you can guess, I was pretty excited when I was given the opportunity to review the Ava Shower Filter, which claims to "Filters 99.9% of Chlorine, Algae, Dirt, Fluoride, Lead, Chloramine, Bacteria, Arsenic, Chromium, Zinc, Copper, Selenium, Mercury and Heavy Metals and many more chemicals. Shower filter also reduces scum build-up using kdf." Amazon lists the retail as $99.99 with a current "sale price" of $69.99.

The Ava Shower Filter
The installed filter

In this case, I got the filter for free, but I did spend money to make sure this review was done right. I purchased a $15 Digital TDS-EZ Water Quality TDS Tester (total dissolved solids) to test the water before and after (you can read more about how that works here). Here's what I learned:
  1. The water in Baltimore ain't bad at all. I'd read some other Amazon reviews challenging the filter's effectiveness. One user said his water tested in the 400's before using any sort of filter. Yikes! When I tested all our home faucets and showers, everything was between 170–190 ppm (parts per million_. Not bad! Our tap water when filtered through our Brita was only 110 ppm. I shared my surprise on Facebook and with co-workers to find out that Baltimore (and Maryland) are known for having some of the cleanest tap water. Nice!
  2. The Ava Shower Filter doesn't do squat. Sean installed the filter, I took a quick shower, and measured the water. Many Amazon reviewers complained the ppm stayed the same. For me, it increased. It was over 200 ppm. I thought maybe it just needed some time to run through the filter (after all, you do have to soak those Brita cartridges before using them) I continuously tested the water post-shower for 5 days only to consistently get higher ppm readings. So, not only does it not work, it made things worse!
Normally my reviews are based on both fact and opinion: i.e., it's not to my personal taste, but it's not a bad or ineffective item. In those cases, I contact the company and discuss whether they'd still like me to publish my feedback . Sometimes they say yes, sometimes no, sometimes they send a different product for comparison.

In this case, fact is fact. Numbers show that the filter is ineffective and nothing gets my blood boiling like a blatant lie. This product already had negative Amazon reviews for the same reason and it's clear to me that bloggers were being solicited for reviews in hopes of boosting their ratings...which is exactly what has happened. The star rating has increased and the factual reviews containing numbers have been buried by the "yay, free stuff!" reviews citing opinions that the reviewers may or may not really believe: "I feel cleaner, my hair feels softer, etc. ..."

Bottom line? Yes, I have an opinion. My opinion is that this product is falsely advertised crap. That opinion happens to be backed up by fact. For that reason, I skipped my usual courtesy of talking with the company in favor of exposing the truth.

Free stuff is great, but I value ethics more.
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April 13, 2015

Lilly Pulitzer? Target? Go get you some [$40 giveaway!]

Happy Monday! I'm happy to join a few of my favorite bloggers for a great giveaway! Are you a fan of Target? Lilly Pulitzer? If you haven't heard, Lilly Pulitzer's collection is on it's way to Target! Let us help you get some!

Good luck! 

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