2012 – Will the Tug of War Continue?

I don’t believe we can think about what 2012 might hold for us without first reviewing what took place during 2011. It seems we have been caught in a tug of war of sorts between positive and negative forces over the last several months and it is likely that this tug of war is not over and will continue well into 2012.

First let’s look at the positive side. Despite all the negative sentiment out there, it is not all bad news when it comes to the economy and the financial markets. I would consider some of the following as positives to keep in mind:

  • The U.S. economy has been fairly resilient and it does not appear that we will slide back into recession.
  • We have a very accommodating monetary policy. The Fed is expected to keep interest rates low for a considerable period of time.
  • Corporate earnings continue to be very strong.
  • Stock valuations appear very attractive by many measures. P/E Ratios are at the low end of their range the last 20 years. Many high quality stocks pay dividends that are higher than long-term Treasury bonds.
  • As of this writing in early December, retail sales have been strong during the holiday season.
  • Nobody is buying stocks. According to ICI data, investors have pulled money from equity funds for seven straight months. Fund flows tend to be a pretty good contrarian indicator. When everybody is buying stocks they are usually headed for a fall and periods of outflows tend to be indicative of market bottoms.

But don’t get too excited. There are a number of negatives counterbalancing the positives:

  • The European debt crisis is far from over. It will almost certainly throw Europe into a recession this year and it poses a severe threat to the banking system.
  • The majority of the developed world countries have massive debt issues and an aging demographic problem.
  • 2012 is an election year and we already have a massive amount of political discord and uncertainty. The super committee was a total failure.
  • Unemployment is expected to stay high. Even though the U.S. economy is growing, we are simply not growing fast enough to create enough net new jobs to solve the problem.
  • The Fed, as well as other central banks worldwide, may be running out of options to combat our economic malaise.

Nobody knows for sure how all this will play out. Maintain balance in your portfolios. Stay diversified. Most importantly, stay patient. It may take a while for this tug of war to end.

Damien helps individuals invest and manage risk. He is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional and a principal of Walnut Creek Wealth Management. These are the views of Damien Couture, CFP® and should not be construed as investment advice. All information is believed to be from reliable sources; however we make no representation as to its completeness or accuracy. Not all recommendations are suitable for all investors. Each investor must consider their own goals, time horizon and risk tolerance. Your comments are welcome. Damien can be reached at 925-280-1800 x101 or Damien@WalnutCreekWealth.com.

The Skinny On Background Checks

I call it, “The Myth of the One Button.”

Television shows, movies and internet hype have planted the notion that all you have to do to gather information on a person is log on, press one button and out spits reams of accurate data, like water gushing from an open fire hydrant. The detective or hero or heroine then has an informational submission-hold on the subject of his inquiry.

Numerous on-line background check services have been launched in the last few years on the internet; some have even become I-Phone applications to give “instant” criminal records information. I have found, however, that, in the best case scenario, you might get “some” accurate information with these searches. But I would never use one and put my name behind it. What’s the saying? Oh yes: “Good, fast and cheap never go together.”

As one critic said of the rise of on-line background providers, “This is a trap for the unwary. These data dumps are really data junk. The data is of very little use to someone on a date, etc, because of all of the holes in the databases used, but of great value to stalkers and sexual offenders.” The on-line background checks harness the power of aggregating, or collecting information quickly, and disseminating it.

It’s apparently not just singles checking up on the latest love interest who use the on-line services. One woman at a cocktail party told me that her 18-year-old son was denied a job at a major sports retail chain because the on-line background check turned up that he supposedly had an armed robbery conviction. However, the background check was wrong because they had someone with the same name but a different date of birth. The Wall Street Journal reviewed the leading on-line background check providers and found they frequently made mistakes, such as saying a subject had a bankruptcy when in fact the person did not.

I will give you a few local examples of why on-line background checks don’t work and why you often need to go to the courthouse in person to search the records. California has a “fractured” records system, meaning that not all the counties handle criminal and civil records in the same way. Some counties make records available on-line while some don’t.

The most glaring example of possibly missing information on-line in a criminal background check is in San Francisco. Why? The county does not make its criminal records available on-line. You have to go, in person, to the Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant Street, take a seat and start scanning the old-school printed ledger books. If you think you have a hit, you then have to order the record(s) from the warehouse.

A competent private investigator will make sure the identifiers, i.e. date of birth, middle name or a Social Security Number, match for the subject and for the record in order to verify it’s for the same person. In Contra Costa County, the on-line searches lump traffic and criminal records together so you have to go the courthouse to actually see the file.

My advice for a good background check is to first gauge what’s at stake. If it’s for a key position in a company or for someone who might be taking care of your loved ones, then don’t cut corners. Hire a professional private investigator for the job.

New Year Beauty – Smooth and Beautiful Skin Starts With a Good Skin Care Routine

The New Year brings us a new beginning and a fresh start. When the New Year approaches, people promise themselves that this is the year they’re going to take charge and replace bad habits with good routines. This year it’s time for a new skin care program and if you’ve never had one, now is a good time to start. A good skin care routine will improve your skin and give you years of youth for the future. Find out what will make a difference treating your skin with new technologies in serums and scrubs. It is simple: start replacing the old habits with healthy choices. Stop going to bed with make-up on; cleanse the skin nightly; apply a good eye cream and face cream. The benefits are outstanding and will improve the skin for a smoother beautiful complexion. Thanks to the new innovations in skin care “Aging Is Optional”!

The first step is going to a licensed skin care Aesthetician. An Aesthetician is highly trained in the care of the skin and is state board certified in analyzing the skin and to advise you on what to use for your specific skin type. Many Aestheticians work with Dermatologist offering facials and specialized skin treatments in their offices. Most Dermatologist do not provide skin care programs, they supply skin treatments such as medications. Below are some skin care options to consider adding to your daily routine.

Facial Cleansers:

You want to avoid the “one-size-fits-all” skin cleansers. If you have dry skin use a cleanser that will help nourish, protect, and re-moisturize the skin. If you have oily skin use a cleanser that will help balance the oil production and reduce acne. For sensitive skin, use a cleanser that does not have herbs or a scent, but that deep cleans the surface and eliminates skin irritations.

Facial Toners:

Face toners are essential for beautiful skin. They help the moisturizers work better, bringing the skin back to its natural PH balance, and help remove residue left over from make-up. A good toner will also help exfoliate the skin and re-texture the surface of the skin so the complexion is firm and smooth.

Eye Creams:

Eye creams are essential to avoid pre-mature aging and wrinkles and one that is specifically made for the eye area. The skin around the eye is very thin and delicate and must be treated differently than the rest of the face. You cannot use face moisturizers around the eye area because they are too thick and will not moisturize or hydrate.

Face Creams:

When it comes to face cream you need to have guidance and find a cream that is best for your skin type. There are so many face creams on the market today, and some can get really expensive, you don’t need to spend a lot of money on a great skin cream, but you need the right cream to work for your specific skins needs. Look for creams with vitamins and peptides in them. Research has shown when applying peptides with anti-oxidants and vitamins will reduce fine lines, firm the skin and stop the formation of wrinkles.

We invite you to stop in to The Rouge to sample our skin care products and treatments from Ongrien Advanced Skin Care and we would like to help educate you on a proper skin care program. Let this year be the year you love your skin. It’s Easy, simple, and beautiful: Protect your skin’s future.

Privately Running on Good Intentions

I really thought the treadmill would change things … mainly my thighs. Instead, I now have a new $300 clothes rack with cup holder (for my chocolate shakes), parked strategically in front of the TV.

Good intentions quickly convert into ‘not intended for those purposes’ real quick-like in my pad.

I see myself getting up, mummy-style, before the rooster crows (or the upstairs neighbor starts showering). I do 10 minutes of brisk walking, then five of running at 3.2 miles per hour. Sweat begins dripping three minutes in, excessive gasps for air rapidly replace the garbled snoring just 15 minutes earlier — then I wake up, treadmill still cold from non-use. Do you burn calories while you dream of running?

Just weeks old, fresh from the big, bulky box (resembling my body) it had been yanked from, this apparatus, this melter-o-flab machine, this torturous hunk of metal with indicator knobs and a circulatory floor mat, bring tears to my eyes and guilt to my conscience. Yes, I pay happily and willingly for infliction of pain. I pay for self-chastisement too. But at least I envision the pay-off. Who doesn’t?

See, what I’m really doing is paying for privacy and good (stuffy) apartment air. Unlike the gym, at home I can run 24/7, with or without make-up, and watch “real” women on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

Added bonus … I don’t have to chat with a complete stranger – dude who doesn’t know that turning 10 shades of red coupled with extremely heavy panting is biological charades for, “I really can’t talk right now, bozo.”

Treading at home means I can wear my cute outfits (that don’t fit cute anymore), without having to don an extra-large cotton tee shirt to cover up what I’m trying to lose. And, I could run, hop, skip and jump (off the unit) with no threats of annihilation from a trainer-slash-salesperson wanting me to get on a “program,” down protein powders (now sold in Costco-sized containers) and pop meal metabolizing pills with the healthy foods I’m supposed to be eating. Back off junior-experts with commission checks, I only down Mexican food in those large quantities.

In my humble who-cares-what-I-think-anyway opinion, working out in public (without the trim, fit, you must be starving yourself-bods) is like performing a comedy set without using words or worse yet, in underwear-only. I’d rather go on stage “fit” and prepared (and fully clothed), than vulnerably exposed. The Full Monty, in this case, is just not my idea of weight loss.

Meanwhile, back at the apartment, my newfound dust-collector piece of furniture has potential. It promises me a thinner tomorrow, a private adventure towards a more energized me, and a healthier, cardiovascular circulatory system just begging to challenge any 10-year-old to a race … to the nearest ice cream shop.

Charleen Earley is a freelance writer, humor columnist, comedienne, and high school journalism teacher. She can be reached at charleenbearley@gmail.com.

Making the Grade: A Fresh Start to Tackling Homework

For parents arguing nightly with their children over doing homework, the idea of a fresh start to the year is an exceedingly appealing one. As a primary grade educator I have worked with parents and students to come up with solutions to this exhausting cycle. Here are some general practices, that when implemented, can aid many situations and help bring peace to the household in time for 2012.

1. Know Your Child’s Academic Ability
Above all when analyzing the root of the tears and tantrums, it is important to first look at what is asked of your child and if you feel she is struggling with understanding the concepts and skills. If there is concern of a possible learning disability or need for a tutor, have a discussion with the teacher or learning specialist at school to set up a plan of action for help.

2. Create a Routine

As an elementary teacher I learned how necessary routine is in a classroom. When a daily schedule is mapped out there is no anxiety or chaos around what to do and when to do it. This applies to homework time as well. Having your child work in a public space in the house, like the kitchen, allows you to monitor her progress and be there when she has questions. Make it the same time, the same place everyday.

3. Organize

Give her the tools to be a successful, independent student by showing her how to organize homework assignments on a calendar or in a planner. Make it part of the routine you do together. Your child can learn to manage her time effectively and not panic about doing a project last minute. “Break down bigger projects into smaller pieces and help her avoid procrastination- this is the biggest culprit of tears,” says Keely Rollings, Clinical Psychologist and mother of three, “small goals make an easier time and no tears!”

4. Create Expectations and Stick to It

It is so easy to make exceptions to the rules you have set, but unfortunately this says to your child the rules can be broken. Let her know in very clear terms what the expectations are during homework time and enforce them. For example, “all homework must be finished before you can play outside with your friends.” It may be difficult to uphold the expectations, but it is far more painful to deal with negotiations and arguing when she pleads to bend the rules.

While these tips may not solve every homework issue between parents and children, they are realistic strategies to implement into a daily schedule and can be done so in time to start the New Year off on the right foot. Remember, the more independent and self sufficient your child becomes by learning how to use these tools and routines, the more pride and ownership she will take in her work, which ultimately is the best lesson of all.

Welcome – New Horizons

Fireworks
I am encouraged and excited as I look forward to the New Year ahead, as 2012 holds the promise of better times. For the most part, it’s the same promise every year holds of course, but this one feels different on account of several important points.

First off, we begin the year with an historic, important event. While it is controversial as many regard it’s timing as ill-conceived, the withdrawal of our troops from Iraq is reason for celebration, if only for the reason of once again uniting families that have been painfully and fearfully separated by war.

We must all hope and pray that the return of our troops is completed in an appropriate, successful way that will be honorable and long-standing. Our nation, the liberated people of Iraq, and the entire free world must recognize nothing less than an enormous obligation to the men and women returning, and more importantly to those who will not return, that the sacrifices they made will not have been made in vain.

Next, it is an election year, which brings the opportunity (and responsibility) to all citizens to support or oppose candidates and policies that impact us collectively and individually. Regardless of the candidate or position, just the fact that we have this opportunity reminds us to breathe in the air of positive expectation, and feel encouraged that we have another chance to do what we can to get things moving in the right direction.

I join the rest of our crew here at ALIVE in wishing you all the best in the New Year ahead. May you rejoice in what we hope are many positive, fond memories, and may you be empowered to shake off anything that might stand between you the joy that is yours for the taking!

Eric Johnson

Stamps in My Passport – Galapagos

Galapagos

We inhabitants of this delicate world are in a constant struggle with our environment. Let’s face it – we occupy a flimsy planet which circles an average star in a minor galaxy of this gigantic universe. We need to take care of it.

 An ex-Vice President beats a drum on global warming, and Congress struggles with clean air acts. Often when we stop at scenic turnoffs, we find the view littered with cans, bottles, and used sandwich bags. It appears to me at times that we are losing the battle – that sometime in the future our world will be so littered with junk that nothing will survive.

 Recently I had a brief respite from the pressures. I visited a place dedicated to reviving endangered species or at least prolonging the status-quo. Animals and humans share space without fear. There are rules about littering, about waste, about protecting the environment. No one drops a candy wrapper or would think of not picking one up if discarded. Where? The Galapagos Islands, of course.

I could not believe the wildlife we were immersed in. We checked into the second floor of our ocean-front room just before dusk. I stepped out onto the balcony, overlooking a pool between our room and the Pacific Ocean. As I stood there taking in the view, a sea lion waddled out of the surf, climbed the short stone wall, and slid into the pool. He did a lap or two, then crawled out and hoisted himself onto one of the chaise lounges, curled up on the thick blue pillow, and promptly went to sleep.

On our way to dinner that night I wandered over to the outdoor bar and found myself stepping around another sea lion. The waiter told me this one was pregnant and that the entire staff was on alert for the pending occasion.

Over the years I’ve shared a joke or two about the blue-footed booby but never thought I’d see one. Wrong! Just after breakfast the first morning, I strayed to the local rock pier attracted by a huge pelican preening himself and managing to ignore the black marine iguana next to him. Before I could even get my camera out, guess what! A blue-footed booby elbowed her way into the middle of my picture four feet away, with those absolutely unbelievable blue feet. When I think about it, most of our ducks have yellowish-orange legs, so why should some birds not have blue spats? By the way, they also have blue rings around the whites of their eyes.

Later I stood transfixed while a pelican, only about three feet away, preened itself. Under the wings first, then the breast – the long neck straining to cover the back and legs too. An audible “click” each time the bill finished an area and found a treasure. At last, clean and handsome, head held high, neck outstretched, he looked at me and said, “Ain’t I the most handsome dude you’ve ever seen?”

Before we leave the Galapagos, I have a quick little boy/girl story to share. The frigate, one of the most beautiful birds in the air, has an interesting mating practice. The males get a large red wattle so that the uninitiated can tell he’s a boy, not a girl. The next step is for the males to build a suitable nest in order to attract the female frigate. But, this one poor, unsophisticated guy attempts to attract the attention of some classy babes by building what was most definitely not a nest – only a pile of three small sticks. Now the girls check out the various “houses” these guys have built, and choose their mate – not by his handsome features or his” abs”, but by the nest he provides.

The little inexperienced frigate just sat there, waiting. An enormous collection of female frigates selected one after another of the more ornate nests, leaving my hero to sit patiently by his two or three crossed sticks. I felt bad for him. I hope there was a sensitive female who took pity on him and overlooked the meager habitat he had to offer.

I could go on and on about the general neatness of these islands and their tight relationship with the animals, but I’ll save some for a later story. In the meantime, I will not toss a candy wrapper or any waste material onto the streets of Danville. I can assure you of that.

2012 Honda Civic: The Next Generation!

Honda Civic

In 1973 Honda introduced a tiny little car called the Civic. Thirty-nine years later, Honda launches the ninth generation of one of the company’s most popular vehicles in the all-new 2012 Civic. The 2012 Civic was originally scheduled to grow in length, but with fuel prices on the rise, Honda decided to keep this generation to a similar size as the past version. This decision delayed the launch of the ninth generation which was not helped by the devastating earthquake and tsunami occurrences.

Consumer Reports for the first time did not place the Civic on its Recommended List sighting cheap interior and other issues compared to some of its latest competitors. However, my impression was that even though some of the touch-points of the dash were a little harder than I would have liked, the overall interior of my test Civic HF featured an attractive design, quality materials, and a colorful, futuristic instrument cluster. Knowing Honda, they will seriously review the comments from Consumer Reports and make any necessary modifications to future model years.

The model lineup for the 2012 Honda Civic consists of DX Coupe ($15,605), LX Coupe ($18,455), EX Coupe ($19,705), EX-L Coupe ($21,955), Si Coupe ($22,205), DX Sedan, LX Sedan ($15,805), HF Sedan ($19,455), EX Sedan ($20,505), EX-L Sedan ($21,955), Si Sedan ($22,405), Hybrid Sedan ($24,050), and Civic Natural Gas ($26,155).

New features on the 2012 Honda Civic include intelligent Multi-Information Display (i-MID), USB Audio Interface, Bluetooth® HandsFreeLink®, and a Satellite-Linked Navigation System with voice recognition and FM Traffic.

Even though the 2012 Civic is classified as all-new, the overall sheet metal hasn’t changed much compared to the eighth generation. The differences show themselves in redesigned fascias, expressive mono-form exterior styling with clean and flowing lines, and an updated rear end. The sedans get a side profile that is less cab-forward looking, while the coupes carry on with the more shapely style. The sporty SI trim is tricked out in spoilers and a body kit.

Honda describes the body styling as a futuristic and distinctive compact. However you want to portray its unique look, the Civic draws buyers from high school graduates to young families to baby boomers and retirees.

The interior is comfortable and continues with some of the previous generation design cues. The seats are firm, nicely bolstered, and easily adjusted. Thinner windshield pillars improve the forward viewing area. A new I-MID or Intelligent Multi-Information Display allows the driver to rotate through a variety of vehicle information. The optional satellite navigation system now includes a voice recognition function.

Under the hood you’ll find a re-engineered 1.8-liter I-4 engine with enhanced fuel economy, a larger and more powerful 2.4-liter I-4 Si powerplant, and a new Civic Hybrid powertrain that delivers higher overall performance and improved fuel economy. If you are not interested in going for a Hybrid, the HF is equipped with a specially tuned 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that generates slightly higher fuel economy ratings at 29 City and 41 Highway. There are two transmissions that are available on the 2012 Civic – 5-speed manual and 5-speed automatic with overdrive.

The 2012 Civic delivers a contemporary driving impression that you would expect from a small family car. It is quick off the line, but don’t expect race car acceleration. The handling is what we expect from a Civic – confident with excellent ride quality. The overall length is about the same as the 2011 model; however, the wheelbase is slightly shorter.

Room for improvement:

  • Considerable body roll during hard cornering

Cool Features:

  • Dual Winged lights in dash indicating the driving eco mode
  • Voice recognition function on the optional satellite navigation system

The standard safety equipments for all the 2012 Honda Civic includes the Honda-exclusive Advanced Compatibility Engineering™ (ACE)™ body structure for frontal collision energy management and vehicle-to-vehicle crash compatibility, side curtain airbags, driver and front passenger side airbags, Vehicle Stability Assist™ (VSA®) and anti-lock braking.

In Summary – Between 1973 and 2010, Honda has sold 8.8 million Civics in the United States and will continue to sell more with the new 2012 Civic. Its slick styling, durability, comfortable interior, and great fuel economy will keep the Civic as a top-selling model on the Honda dealership showroom floors. With its wide variety of trims, I’m sure there is a version that will meet the qualification of folks looking for a smaller, yet fun vehicle.

Specifications

2012 Honda Civic HF Sedan

Base price: $19,455 as driven: $20,225 (including destination)
Engine: 1.8-Liter 4 cylinder
Horsepower: 140 @ 6500
Torque: 128 foot pounds @ 4300
Transmission: 5-Speed Automatic with Overdrive
Drive: Front Wheel-Drive
Seating: 5-passenger
Turning circle: 35.4 feet
Cargo space: 18.4 cubic feet
Curb weight:  2698 pounds
Fuel capacity: 13.2 gallons
EPA mileage: City 29 / Highway 41
Wheel Base: 105.1 inches
Warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles bumper to bumper
Also consider: Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Festiva, Hyundai Sonata, Kia Optima, Mazda MAZDA3, and Toyota Corolla

Dirt Gardener – Roses and Yellow Flowering Oxalis


Q. I have rose planted in an extremely heavy stone pot that is impractical to move and drains very slowly. The cause of the drainage problem is that the roots are blocking the drainage holes. Is there such a thing as a drainage helper that can be worked into the holes to unplug them?

A. I’m not aware of any commercial product that would unplug the drainage hole of a container. You’re going to have to employ some type of manual solution to solve this problem. One option is to tip the pot on its side, and unblock the drainage holes with a screwdriver or electric drill. Once the holes are clear, upright the pot and with a soil auger drill downward through the root ball within close proximity to the holes and fill the cylinder with rock. This will not be a long-term answer, as the roots will eventually clog things up. Instead, I’d prefer to remove the rose from the container, root prune it and then replant it back in the original pot. I wouldn’t be surprised or concerned if you bare-root the rose in the process of removing it. This might be easier than trying to remove the root ball of a root bound plant. Root pruning is a technique used to grow plants in the same container for an indefinite amount of time. A bonsai is an example of this; however, it’s done on a wide variety plants, such as Citrus, Camellias, and Japanese Maples. Roses are very resistant and will with stand this harsh or radial treatment without any ill effects. To prevent this from reoccurring, you would repeat the root pruning every two to three years.

Yellow Flowering Oxalis

Q. The yellow flowering Oxalis has invaded my lawn. Can I kill it by spraying the Oxalis with Weed-B-Gon or can I use a “Weed and Feed.”

A. There are many desirable varieties of Oxalis in the Bay Area. They are planted in perennial gardens or in containers because of their unique leaf color and shape; however, two varieties are particularly troublesome. Generally, one is a bulbous type that invades landscape areas and another is found in turf. Weed-B-Gon and “Weed and Feed” turf products are effective and recommended in grass lawns. They’re applied late March through October. All too often, gardeners are frustrated by their lack of success in controlling Oxalis. Besides the actively growing plants, you must control or kill the dormant seeds waiting to germinate. The dormant seeds are controlled with a pre-emergent herbicide during the winter months. Scott’s Super Turf Builder with Halts or similar product kills the Oxalis and Crabgrass seeds while fertilizing the existing turf in one application. In April and May, I’d apply a ‘Weed and Feed’ turf product to the existing Oxalis. All ‘Weed and Feed turf products are not the same when it comes to controlling the actively growing Oxalis. You need to double-check the label to be sure, that Oxalis is listed as a controlled weed.

Buzz Bertolero is Executive Vice President of Navlet’s Garden Centers and a California Certified Nursery Professional. His web address is www.dirtgardener.com and you can send questions by email at dirtgarden@aol.com or to 360 Civic Drive Ste. ‘D’, Pleasant Hill, Calif. 94523.

The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner

The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the CornerThe World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner is a stand-out film on several levels. The story line could be described as simplistic but the richness of its characters and clean cinematography, as directed by Stephan Komandarev, give this movie an attractive warmth—a simplicity that works.

The film stars Carlo Ljubek as Alexander (Sashko) and Miki Manojlovic as Alex’s grandfather, Bai Dan. The opening scene is Sashko’s birth in 1975, followed by a flash forward to today, where Sashko is a young man, riding in a car with his parents.

He sustains a life-altering injury as the automobile crashes. His parents are killed and he is struck with total amnesia, not remembering anything of his life or identity before the accident.

Defying the strict, disinterested and impersonal grip of the medical establishment’s institutional approach to Sashko’s treatment, his grandfather, Bai Dan, takes control of the situation and convinces his grandson to leave the hospital in order to join him in a mission to recover Sashko’s past.

Bai Dan happens to be a renowned backgammon champion, and the game he made for Sashko when he was only seven years old is the touchstone first employed to connect Sashko with his earlier life. The film uses flashbacks of Sashko’s childhood and his family’s dramatic struggle to emigrate from Bulgaria during the waning years of Soviet block domination as vehicles for revealing to Sashko the rich yet difficult odyssey that his life has traveled thus far.
With the expected warmth and gentleness of a grandfather, and a firmness of conviction and wisdom learned, having lived under the spectre of a totalitarian state, Bai Dan takes Sashka under his wing as the two embark on a tandem bicycle journey across Europe, from Germany, back to their roots in Bulgaria.

The film adeptly weaves the young man’s personal journey and struggle within the cultural and historic one that his parents and grandparents ultimately survived. As Sashko’s memories return, the grand story and import of his heritage is artfully portrayed through the story.

Throughout the film, Bai Dan offers a steady hand to both Sashko and the audience, often through his knowledge and life application as a backgammon sage, as he tells his grandson, “life is like the dice in our hands; fate is determined by the skill and luck of the player.”

The simplistic first impression of this film gives way to the realization of a more complex, rich storyline—the hallmark of well crafted cinematic expression. The performances are solid and believable and you are left feeling very good, indeed, at the end of this film. Four out of five stars — you won’t be disappointed!