Trying to be an extra on ‘House of Cards’

Ready for Season 3 of House of Cards? To get you in the mood, here’s my Huffington Post piece on my big chance to be an extra.

More on what it’s like to be in on a casting call.

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Thanks for fighting for me, Ricky Gervais

So there I was, setting out on another journey.

U.S. 30, the highway that links Atlantic City to Oregon, had just turned 100. My travel assignment was to write about the part of it that was in my Pennsylvania back yard. To pan for historic or quirky gold, the kind of neat stuff the average motorist would be too rushed to ever pick up on.

For me it was all fresh. I’d never been down that road before.

Jim Mack's sign

Not that long into the ride, I found myself on a taste trip back to my childhood in the um, 60s. An old-fashioned ice cream shop that took me back to my days at the Jersey Shore boardwalk.

Jim Mack's miniature golf2

The supposed homemade ice cream was so-so. Like the shore, there was miniature golf. But there was no beach. And no rides. The big attraction was an honest-to-goodness caged bear.

Jim Mack's bear1

The sight was so unexpected, it took my breath away. If this had been a real zoo, I still wouldn’t have felt good about it, but she might at least have had some playmates and better digs.

“Little Ricki” wasn’t so little. But her cage with concrete floor was. She barely had room to move.

What was even more shocking was, no one else seemed shocked. A few stopped to look in, on their way to the golf.

Little Ricki

According to the sign on her cage, she had been there for much of her life. (When I met her, she was 16.) Like it or not, she had to be used to it. And the sign was so upfront about it. Was I the only one there who thought this was all wrong? And if not, how could this have gone on for so long?

So I asked her owners what the deal was.

I was told it was perfectly legal. She was born in captivity, they said. It’s all she knows and she has a good life.

Where else could she go? Would she be any happier? What could I do, at this late date? I touched on it in passing in the story and then let it drop.

I’m glad some other folks — like actor Ricky Gervais — didn’t. Because of their efforts, Little Ricki is now out of solitary and at a wildlife sanctuary in Colorado. She’s said to be doing a lot better.

As least she has more of a life for the rest of her days.

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Lets’s Paws/2: Behind scenes of aww-inspiring Super Bowl ad

I’m not one for beer (chocolate’s my vice), and you already know my feelings on the Super Bowl.

But that Budweiser dog-and-pony show — the commercial everyone’s been talking about — sure got my attention, too.

Well, not technically a pony … actually a Clydesdale horse that’s BFF with a Lab who wanders away from home and almost becomes a wolf snack.

Here’s a look at some of the players.

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Let’s Paws: Pup’s journey from hell to Puppy Bowl stardom

If you know me, you know I just loathe football. Here’s why.

I’m gearing up for the only game that matters this Super Bowl Sunday — the annual Puppy Bowl.

If you’ve ever wondered where all those hunky contestants come from, here’s a tail for ya with a happy ending. And a reminder that there are a million more critters out there in the game of life that could use some helping paws.

Gotta go grab some delectable Aldi (yes, Aldi!) chocolaty biscuits for humans. Almost time for the game.

gingertoysGinger, the ancient rescue dog found on I-95, is watching with me. But she’s only in it for the dog-appropriate snacks. No chocolate for her. Which means more for me.

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Only three weeks late with that new year’s resolution

hbgh scale

So it’s been a month of traveling and eating. (No new year’s resolution for me; I never keep them.) Lots of walking, but not enough to offset the tidal wave of calories.

I was passing through my local airport and thought I’d better get a reality check on this old-fashioned scale.  For me, this is weigh too much. No, that stint at The Biggest Loser Resort didn’t last. Surprise. I’ve joined Weight Watchers online and now have to record everything I consume. Only way I’ve found to keep myself accountable these days.

About that old-fashioned scale. It fits right in to with the airport, which is in Harrisburg, Pa. In a part of the Keystone State called  the T — everything that’s not Philadelphia or Pittsburgh territory. James Carville once compared it to Alabama. About right.

MDT — as this airport is known in aviation parlance — boasts a Starbucks. But the sound system hearkens back to the debut of Mr. Coffee. A great place to sing along to Three Dog Night, and other red-hot groups. If this were the middle of the last century.

If you’re interested in visiting, Harrisburg is a gateway to Amish Country, and you’ll find the handicrafts mixed in with the Hershey chocolate — another big local name — at the souvenir shop …

hbgh quilthbghcivil2

… and the Gettysburg battlefield.

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Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and Christmas season, in Ireland

Feel like a turkey doing the same thing every Thanksgiving? Here’s some food for thought: Go elsewhere next year.

For a radical change of pace, we left the country. For about twice as much as it would cost to fly to visit relatives in North Carolina, we decided to go to Dublin, Ireland, for the long holiday weekend. Said relatives were not offended.

Dublin was a part of Europe that was relatively easy to get to from our perch on the east coast of the U.S. Subtracting two days for travel left us with three full days to see what we could see.

After snow toyed with our departing overnight flight and our nerves, we made it there Thanksgiving morning. Extremely sleep deprived and cranky because our seats didn’t recline, and the seat backs were minus movie screens. That U.S. Airways – American Airlines merger seems to be working out well. Not. But that’s a story for another day.

Day 1: Bleary, collapse into a nap at the home of Hans and Deirdre Geisler, courtesy of Airbnb. They have grown children and a fabulous place within walking distance of downtown Dublin to themselves, a historic townhouse straight out of House Beautiful. With the proverbial wood floors you could eat turkey and stuffing off of. In the bathroom, no less.

dublin bathroom1


 I discover the candles scattered around the house are for more than show. Hans, a meticulous and caring sort, makes it his business to light them every morning. He says it gives each day purpose. I like that.

A caressing shower with carrageenan moss soap — made from Irish seaweed — gently revives me. Armed with maps and a crash-course in Dublin neighborhoods from a real local viewpoint, we’re off to find some semblance of Thanksgiving dinner in what’s left of the holiday.

We go in search of what passes for real Irish fare, which means heading down to the tourist area, where they pour it on. A place called Boxty’s doesn’t disappoint.

thanksgiving dinner2


We go all out, ordering Irish stew and corned beef and cabbage. With a side of the most decadent mashed potatoes I’ve ever had. So wonderfully good you know they’re wickedly bad. Topped off with so-so chocolate cake and ice cream.

Not the usual, but still, we stuck to tradition. The tradition of feeling like beached whales by the time we were done.

We walk off some of the spuds.

dublin gaelic decorations

It might not have been Thanksgiving here, but Christmas season had definitely begun. Downtown was adorned with decorations in Irish Gaelic, which I’m told is still taught in schools.

Then it was off to Dublin’s famed Abbey Theatre, sort of the equivalent of the city’s Broadway. A  big part of Ireland’s personality that I’d read about in Leon Uris’ Trinity.

(I’ll admit everything I knew about Ireland was based on that over-the-top novel that romanticized every little thing about the nation’s history. Most of it focused on the bloody struggle to break away from Britain.)

dublin abbey

Turns out the original Abbey burned down in a fire, replaced by what looked like an office building. And the play, which I didn’t realize when I booked it, was  an experimental work relegated to a lesser stage at the Abbey — think way off-Broadway. It was college level theater at best, and I was trying not to nod off.

What kept me awake was, it was still Dublin and The Abbey. With the ghosts of famous playwrights past. I was loving it.

dublin hans

Day 2: Knowing we have but one full day in Dublin, Deirdre and Hans ply us with enough fuel at breakfast to last the entire day: scrambled eggs on toast, scones, fruit, yogurt.

Hans saves us the public transit hassle by dropping us off at the first must-see on our list, especially having read Trinity …

dublin jail easter uprising

.. The Kilmainham Gaol, a museum that was once a notorious prison, home to a cross-section of society from bread thieves to  revolutionaries whose executions sparked the uprisings that hastened Irish independence from Britain.

dublin statue

The rebels linger everywhere in spirit, tucked in between Starbucks and H&M.

dublin jail cell

Anyway, as you’d expect, the gaol cells were sufficiently bleak.

dublin jail cross

This cross marks an execution spot. We’re told one revolutionary leader was allowed to marry just hours before receiving his punishment (bullets strategically aimed at a piece of cloth taped over the heart). Another too weak to stand for his send-off was allowed to sit.

dublin medieval

More walking past lots of cathedrals and such dating back to medieval times.

dublin bagel and lox

Lunch was fairly respectable bagels and lox at the kosher Bretzel Bakery, itself the crumbs that remain of what was once Dublin’s Jewish Quarter – Little Jerusalem.

dublin irish museum

Down the street is the Irish Jewish Museum, which has limited winter hours and was closed when we were there.

dublin irish museum protest

Its expansion in the subject of some controversy, with many neighbors claiming it’s going to change the neighborhood and hurt property values.

From there, off to the James Joyce Centre in the middle of an emerging Asian neighborhood, because how can you go to Dublin and not have an encounter with some of the literary Irish greats?

The place was an attempt to make something big out of not much. It was a strung-out version of his life, with some rooms full of furniture, knickknacks  and some of his books.

I think a better use of the space would be to explain what the heck his books — particularly Ulysses — are all about. I bought a T-shirt to help get me in the mood to write. I’m still waiting…

After endless hours of walking, my body turned on the brakes. Couldn’t go another step.

This just so happened in front of an adorable little ice cream shop: Murphy’s, straight from Dingle, in County Derry. “Dinner,” I told Mitch, dragging him in with me.

dublin ice cream1

Mitch held out for real food. But I was tangled in a web of marketing spiel. When I heard the milk came from rare, indigenous Kerry cows, (even earned a rave from National Geo!) I was a goner. Sorry, National Geo, but basic vanilla and chocolate didn’t do a darn thing for me. I felt so … cowed.

Day 3: On our last day, we hop a train before sunrise to the other side of Ireland — Galway, on the Atlantic Ocean. Touted as a pretty place with lots of personality.

It could have been Amtrak, except the stops were announced in Irish Gaelic and English.

galway train station

galway farmland

I told myself that the countryside, which went by at a crazed clip, looked greener here than home because this was the Emerald Isle. Uh-huh.

Another U.S. tradition followed us: Black Friday. Yep, even though there was no Thanksgiving Thursday. Go figure. Galway, a wee place in comparison to Dublin, was mobbed.

galway protest

They say there’s always something going on in Galway, and there was. A protest over water rates collided with a dancing for cancer benefit.

spanish arch

We snuck off, making our way toward the ocean. On the way was the Spanish Arch, a remnant of the old walled city.

galway wolfe tone


Which also had its brushes with the English crown.

galway ocean


Just beyond is the Claddagh, meaning shore, the part of Galway said to have started out as a fishing village with its own king.

And according to legend, its own logo, which stands for friendship, love and loyalty. Step into any jewelry store there and you’ll find it in abundance.

Christopher Columbus supposedly passed through and prayed at a church that’s been going strong since the Middle Ages. One of the parishioners was a Jane Eyre. Best as I can tell, this Jane didn’t inspire the novel.

galway eating oysters

Back to the present, amazingly fresh raw oysters at one of the neat weekend markets made a fabulous breakfast. Really.

galway boychik donuts

Along with a homemade doughnut from a guy who said he was Jewish and from Manhattan’s Upper West Side. What was he doing there? What else, he asked, in a manner that suggested he wasn’t fibbing about his roots. A relationship.

Next day, back to Philadelphia, barely making the flight. As it turns out, Dublin is one of a handful of airports outside North America that requires U.S. customs and immigration clearance. Saves time back in the states, but means going through security not once but twice.

So if you plan to visit Dublin, be advised: There’s a reason they tell you to be there three hours before the flight back to the U.S. You’ll need all that time.

Onboard, same highly unimpressive plane. But thankfully, our seats were close to the loo. And there were many visits. Overindulgence, no doubt.

Which means it was your typical Thanksgiving weekend. Mission accomplished.

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You don’t have to be George Clooney to marry in Venice

It doesn’t hurt, though, especially since it looks pretty steep, even if you’re not going for the movie-star treatment.

Funny, when I think of dreamy places to tie the knot, Venice, Italy, doesn’t spring to mind.

I guess I’m way in the minority on this, but it just seems so crowded; so problematic; so ordinary for the likes of jet-setters Clooney and his international attorney wife, who could go anywhere.

(Apparently it’s one of Clooney’s favorite hangouts; he has an understandable thing for the Venice Film Festival.)

I confess my my reaction also stems from the vicious case of food poisoning I got there during my junior year abroad in college. Minutes after downing a burger at a bar, it refused to stay put.

So I got hitched in Venice, too — to a toilet. Actually a hole in a tiled floor closeted off from the rest of the bar. With indentations in the tile for better foot placement. No matter. I sank to my knees (mostly because I couldn’t get up), grateful to have it all to myself.

Anyway, the Clooney nuptials apparently are clocking in at around $1.6 million. I have to admit it all looked divine; and at that price, why not?

If you have your heart set on the place for your big day, it’s doable. But, again, not cheap by any means.

You don’t need a three-day Clooney wedding extravaganza, but of course it would be nice to have a few days to sightsee.

No matter when you go, expect to pay over $1,000 round-trip a person from say, New York to Venice. You might be able to shave a bit off by flying to London and then taking a budget flight on Ryanair or easyJet to Italy.

The Hotel Cipriani, where some of the Clooney party stayed, will run you at least $2,500 a night. Thankfully, I’m told you don’t need to stay there to have a meal or a drink.

The Aman Candal Grande Hotel, where the symbolic wedding was held, is $1,000 a night in the off-season.

That was followed by an official ceremony at Venice’s city hall, apparently a popular option with regular folks. Here’s what caught my eye — looks pretty expensive. There are services that apparently can help. But they look pricey, too.

For more on where to stay and what to do, click here.

More reasonable lodging ideas are here and here.


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