Watch Out, Jonas Bros!

July 16, 2009 by  
Filed under Music, Reviews

Is he the next rising teen star?

Is he the next rising teen star?

A friend of mine recently sang at the infamous open mic night at BlueBird Cafe in Nashville, TN.  While there, he met many musicians, wanna-bes, producers and agents.  One person that struck a chord was 16-year old Casey Lee Smith who came down from Arizona to sing at the BlueBird.  While my friend claimed Casey was amazing, I was skeptical being that he is 16.

Always looking for the opportunity to review, I paid a visit to Casey’s web site, www.caseyleesmith.com.  The second I clicked on his music, I was touched.  In fact, it’s playing in the background as I blog and four of his songs are already on my ITunes (and I’m a discerning downloader).  Heartfelt lyrics, friendly vocals, and harmonious instruments leave your toes tapping and heart smiling.  Casey’s style is part country, rock, blues all fused into one unique sound.   But don’t let his age fool you – he appeals to teens, adults and everyone in between!  The younger crowd will appreciate his blue-eyed, curly -haired charm and the more mature audience will connect with his spot-on lyrics.

My favorite song is “Losing You,” a song about a broken relationship.  As Casey writes:  “When you’ve screwed up your relationship, there’s nothing to do but point to where the blame belongs. Me.”  “Losing You” is a ballad for anyone who’s felt that regret after a hard-to-get-over break up.  Grading Girl predicts this will be number one on the charts someday soon!!  “Chasin’ Tin Cans” is a fun, raucous, rock song written about, of all things, running barrels.  Any woman, however, will feel empowered singing along to the lyrics “She’s moving like a rocket ship, blood surging through her vains.”  A country “Barracuda” song!  “Never Stood Taller” is a celebratory song about his grandfather being baptized as an adult and proclaims “He never stood taller than when he’s on his knees. He never was stronger than when his head is bowed.”  Very spiritually powerful . . . and what a beautiful subject to write about.  That’s what is amazing about Casey’s songs – the maturity in his lyrics shine through so that we learn something after listening.  His songs help us reflect on our own experiences, misgivings, and triumphs.

According to his site, Casey has been singing and playing instruments at a very early age . . . piano, banjo, guitar are among those he brings to life.  He attends the Arizona Conservatory for Arts and Academics.  It takes dedication, persistence, and discipline to harbor your talent from very young on.   Grading Girl gives Casey Lee Smith an A for remarkable early talent and an undoubtedly bright future.  Sounding this polished at age 16, I dare imagine what he will sound like in a few years.  Casey Lee Smith –  memorize that name.  You’ll be hearing it again.

October 26th update:  Grading Girl just received word that Casey Lee Smith won the Colgate County Showdown.  Now it’s on to Regionals and then Grand Ole Opry, here he comes!   Like I said, “Watch out, Jonas Bros!”

GG Reads – Change of Heart

July 3, 2009 by  
Filed under Books, Reviews

A Provocative Picoult Portrayal

A Provocative Picoult Portrayal

Change of Heart by Jodi Picoult did not receive quite the notoriety as My Sister’s Keeper or 19 Minutes but not for lack of a compelling story.  The controversial topics of religion and capital punishment are what kept this book off of some people’s nightstands – but not mine!!  Picoult is my favorite contemporary author and she does not disappoint with this one; she carries her characteristic twists to the end once again.

Within each of her 16 novels, Jodi Picoult delves deep into the most troubling contemporary social issues.  In Change of Heart, she examines a convicted killer on death row, Shay Bourne, who has taken the lives of Officer Kurt Nealon and his young stepdaughter, Elizabeth.  When Shay discovers that his victim’s living daughter, Claire is desperately in need of a heart transplant, he sees his only chance for salvation – donating his own heart after his death sentence.  Standing in his way, of course, is the law and a mother filled with anger.  On his side are three unexpected allies:  a Catholic priest (who had a hand in Shay’s sentencing!), an ambitious attorney who is determined to see Shay die on his own terms, and a community that sees Shay as a messianic character who gives them hope.

Picoult’s research never ceases to amaze me.  Her meticoulous portrayal of death row laws along with the book’s attention to Christianity, Judaism, and the Gnostic gospels gave me new insight.  This story is told from four different points of view:  the Catholic priest, the attorney, another death row inmate, and the mother of the victims.  Through their thoughts, the reader is given some very deep food for thought . . . “There’s a big difference between mercy and salvation” . . . “Would you give up your vengeance against someone you hate if it meant saving someone you love?” . . . “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.  If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you” . . .  quotations such as these make for a very provocative book.  In fact, Picoult uses several famous quotations here from some of the greatest thinkers in history including Lewis Carroll, Mother Teresa, Albert Einsten, the Dalai Lama, Woody Allen, Albert Einstein, etc.

I enjoy books that make me think, challenge my philosophies, and offer new perspectives.   Change of  Heart does all that and more.  In the story, religion seems at times to bring characters together and at others to drive a wedge between them.  All the while, what defines “justice” is continually challenged.  We all know it’s wrong to execute someone innocent, but what about someone who is guilty?  The book never screams one side or another.  Rather, through the completely varied characters in Change of Heart, the reader is left with perspectives on all sides of these compelling issues so that one closes the book exploring one’s own values and beliefs.

Grading Girl gives Change of Heart a B+.  While this did not make me outwardly cry like My Sister’s Keeper did (something I never normally do when reading), this did leave me with some deep, concerting thoughts.  It’s a captivating story of redemption, justice, and love.

On to more books off of my very high summer reading pile . . . Picoult’s Handle with Care is one of them and I look forward to exploring more thorny moral and ethical issues with this compelling author.

ZEVIA – The Natural Soda

June 11, 2009 by  
Filed under Food, Reviews

ZEVIA - The Natural Soda

ZEVIA - The Natural Soda

Can the words natural and soda co-exist or is “natural soda” an oxymoron? After reviewing the newer natural sweetener, Truvia, the good folks at ZEVIA sent Grading Girl samples of this surprisingly delightful, unindulgent indulgence.  Admittedly, I all but eliminated soda from my adopted clean-eating diet a few years ago.  But when I unzipped the compact cooler containing the soda (thank you, ZEVIA!) and opened my first can, I was surprised at how light, fresh and tasty the bevarage actually was.  ZEVIA comes in six varieties – ZEVIA Natural Cola, ZEVIA Natural Orange, ZEVIA Natural Twist, ZEVIA Natural Root Beer, ZEVIA Natural Black Cherry, and ZEVIA Natural Ginger Ale.  The first flavor I opened was the Natural Cola as I wanted to see just how similar to the leading diet sodas this tasted.  This flavor tasted so close to Diet Coke that I had to run to my closest grocer to grab a can and compare the two side-by-side.  The result:  ZEVIA had a lighter, more refreshing taste whereas Diet Coke left me feeling full.  Zevia was, in fact, just fractionally sweeter – not too sweet, but enough to satisfy my taste buds more than the average soda.

Now they had my curiousity.  Next, I tested the Natural Orange . . . this one tasted better than the Orange Crush I used to drink as a kid.  Maybe it was because I hadn’t sipped flavored soda in years, but I finished the whole can rather quickly (unusual for me).  Here’s a rundown of my taste test on each of the ZEVIA flavors:

ZEVIA Natural Orange Ingredients

ZEVIA Natural Orange Ingredients

Natural Cola =  Lighter, more refreshing than the leading Cola

Natural Orange = Tasted as if a bit of juice from an orange was squeezed into it (made with natural orange oil)

Natural Twist = Almost as light as my lemon water

Natural Root Beer = Very authentic, old fashioned root beer taste (this coupled with fat free ice cream would make a guiltless root beer float!!!)

Natural Ginger Ale = As with the Natural Cola, more refreshing and light than the originals.  I’m buying a case of this to keep on hand when my daughter’s home sick and won’t drink anything else.

Natural Black Cherry = My favorite (as are all things cherry!)  Just sweet enough.

So are these tasty treats too good to be true?  Grading Girl did her research on the few ingredients found in the sodas.  The main ingredient, Stevia, is found in all six flavors.  It’s a natural herb native to South and Central America.   For centuries, native Americans of Paraguay and Brazil called it “sweet leaf” and used it to sweeten native foods. The extract from the stevia leaf has no calories, no effect on blood sugar levels, and is much sweeter than sugar.  This would explain how it can be so pleasing to the palette without the unwanted side effects.  The next ingredient found in all six flavors is Erythritol, a natural sugar alcohol found in fruits and vegetables, also with no calories or effect on blood sugar levels.   Here is a bonus for those of us who remember those 2nd grade experiments where the teacher leaves a tooth in a glass of soda to quickly decay – Erythritol does not promote tooth decay!  In fact, the caramel coloring found in the Natural Cola is only from real caramel.  The other ingredients found in a few of the flavors are just as natural: tartaric acid occurs naturally in many plants, particularly grapes, bananas, and tamarinds, and is also found in wine (Most colas use cheap, harmful phosphoric acid for flavor.   Phosphoric acid is used in fertilizers and detergents! Yikes!); kola nut extract naturally occurs in caffeine (which is only found in the Natural Cola flavor, by the way); annato is the only existing natural orange coloring (the ZEVIA team searched far and wide to find this as they refused to use any unnatural coloring); and, ginger root is found in the Natural Root Beer and Natural Ginger Ale flavors.

The correct answer is no, this is not too good to be true; and, with ZEVIA, the term “natural soda” is not an oxymoron.  The 0 calories, 0mg sodium, 0g sugar, 0g fat equals one thirst-quenching, crave-curbing soft drink.

Grading Girl gives ZEVIA an A for pleasingly refreshing taste without the bloated filling afterward that sodas usually leave me with.  This is one type of soda – no, let me correct that, the ONLY soda – I will be happy to stock my fridge with and not feel guilty about sipping myself!!  Thank you, ZEVIA, for creating a seemingly too-good-to-be-true product into something that just about everyone can consume within their clean-eating lifestyles.  My daughter especially thanks you since I’ve been refusing to buy other sodas.

Addendum to original post:  Thank you to Zevia for sending the 6-pack of soda.  My family enjoyed every last drop!!

It’s True – Truvia is the Healthy Sweetener

May 31, 2009 by  
Filed under Food, Reviews

Truvia - The Natural Sweetener

Truvia - The Natural Sweetener

Two representatives of a new natural sweetener were at my gym the other day. When they found out about my website, they gave me many samples to try. I just used one sample in a Sunday late afternoon fruit salad ~ what a pleasant addition.

As I’ve already revealed in my Shake the Sugar post, sugar is my vice. Before I discovered the benefits of clean eating, Suzy Qs and Twinkies used to be normal staples in my breakfast menus. Naturally, my interest peaked when I was tempted last week to try the Truvia lemonade at the gym. Not only did it taste sweetfully sugarful, but it didn’t waste the couple of hours I just spent upstairs working up a sweat because it contains 0 calories. What’s more, one little packet is equal to two teaspoonfuls of sugar. That means if used as a replacement in recipes, half the amount of Truvia will be needed in comparison to the original amount of sugar.

So what is in Truvia that makes it so tasty yet healthful? Grading Girl did her research and found out Truvia contains three ingredients: Erythritol, Rebiana, and natural sweeteners. Erythritol sounds like a chemical but it is actually a naturally fermented sugar alcohol found in pears and grapes. It’s made by a culture much like making yogurt from milk. It is then filtered, dried, and crystallized into a dry ingredient that is 99% pure. Rebiana is what gives Truvia its sweet taste. It comes from the best part of stevia leaves. What makes Truvia different from other sweeteners is that the other sweeteners are a mixture of components from the Stevia leaves; Truvia is made from the strongest component only, Rebiana. Finally, the natural sweeteners are used “much like salt and pepper is used to taste,” as the Truvia website tells us. This is the only part that has Grading Girl wondering – what exactly are the “natural sweeteners?” This is the smallest portioned ingredient and I’m impressed with the natural way this sweetener is produced, but it would still be satisfying to know exactly every morsel that makes up the final product.

Overall Grading Girl gives Truvia, “Nature’s Perfect Sweetness,” an A- as a quality natural sweetener to use in coffee, lemonade, baked goods, cereal, yogurt, etc. I plan on using the rest of my samples in baked goods and oatmeal, and I can’t wait to get some during my next trip to Whole Foods. Half the amount of Truvia is equal to a full amount of sugar (1/2 cup Truvia = 1 cup sugar).  This means your baked goods will have less sugar and less calories.  Extra credit to Truvia for being non-caloric and having no effect on the glycemic index! This means it’s a safe alternative for diabetics and people trying to lose weight.

Thank you, Truvia, for satisfying this girl’s strong sugar cravings!!  Double thank you for the free samples!!!  I used every last crystal with confidence!

Part Time Cowboy, Full Time Rockstar

May 5, 2009 by  
Filed under Music, Reviews

What makes a person true to himself, truly authentic, is when he takes his passion and acts on it.  It’s when he isn’t trying to be who he thinks others may want him to be but, rather, he expresses himself creatively and freely.   Furthermore, he takes great fulfillment in sharing that expression.  There is an up-and-coming musician who is that person.  With his searing lyrics, soaring vocals, and driving rhythms, the passion is evident.   Strums of an acoustic guitar, harmonica, drums, and piano all stream seamlessly together.  Harmonies lift hairs and bring up gooseflesh. Unexpected chord changes cause you to stop and LISTEN.  Creative accompaniments such as loose change or leg slapping add unique, dimensional elements.  This is what you hear when you listen to the music of Darryl Markette.

Darryl Markette

Darryl’s first release, “Rain on Thee,” on iTunes.  Check out all of his releases!

 

I can’t help but listen to his latest release, “She Wants Love,” over and over. His sound has a part rock, part country, even part bluesy feel that projects what Darryl does best – take a bad situation and pour it out for the world to absorb and commiserate. His songs tell real tales of love and loss, but they’re sung with such passion and commitment that the message becomes more about learning and living than losing.  The songs leave you with something to ponder over rather than something to pine over.

Singers and songwriters are expected to be deep in a cliched caricature of anguish. Somehow, Darryl goes beyond that to a deeper place. Each song is musically individual enough so that he escapes a cookie-cutter oh-woe-is-me sound. “Never Said Goodbye” is a jaunty tribute to his beloved dog, Hunter. “Lost in Time” is an alternative ballad with piano and harmonica tracks that crescendos gradually until it pierces the heart. Completely opposite, “Rockstar” has that sing-along, nothing can stop me now mood everyone can relate to. You hear a crack in his voice in the haunting “Have Faith” as he sings “How do you forget your biggest regret when all you can do is weep.” What makes his music not just good but perfect for soothing the soul is during moments, such as in the “I Keep on Waiting” finale, when the toe-tapping whistling will have you humming for hours afterward.  DMarkette’s music makes your heart sing.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Darryl is tenaciously taking his musical message across the country.  He recently performed at Gold Pan Saloon in Colorado and made his much anticipated Los Angeles debut at Hollywood’s Whisky A Go-Go.  See GG’s post “Part Time Cowboy Full Time Rockstar Rides to L.A. Better yet, visit Darryl Markette’s website,  dmarkette.com, to experience his original music firsthand, sample his covers that include a handful arguably better than the originals, view past concert videos, and find out about upcoming performances.  Example performances include Darryl’s annual event on his birthday, May 5th.  But rather than a birthday celebration, Darryl raises funds to fight breast cancer.  Pinko-de-Mayo, as he cleverly termed it, has proven a ravingly popular success over the past four years.  [See GG’s press releases for details for Pinko de Mayo :   Chicago’s Most Promising Rocker, Darryl Markette, Holds Pinko de Mayo and Chicago’s Hottest Rocker Paints ChiTown Pink for Pinko de Mayo and Darryl Markette Paints ChiTown Pink.] (2012 was his best Pinko yet, with 500+ guests.  His efforts just keep growing!) Darryl’s very last Pinko, Pinko V of 2013, was a very different yet just as successful fest – an outdoor fest – with all proceeds generously going to his countless contributions to the Susan G. Komen foundation.  

A pic I shot of dmarkette @ Pinko 2012

Darryl singing at The BlueBird Cafe in Nashville!! He drove 900 miles and worked his way on stage that night!!

Darryl Markette in Concert

Darryl Markette in Concert

Grading Girl gives Darryl Markette’s music an A+ for touch your heart lyrics, sear your soul vocals, and seduce your ears guitar chords.

And here’s my very favorite cover by Darryl Markette!! I love this . . .

 

Yum Yum Time

April 18, 2009 by  
Filed under Fun, Reviews

Yum Yum Bowls

My first set of Yum Yum Bowls

Feeding my all-things-mini obsession, I purchased my second set of these adorable bowls. Yum Yum Dishes™ measure four ounces, the perfect size for portioning snacks. They come in a set of four, one of each color. In this American “Super Size Me” society, it’s hard to stop munching after one serving, let alone even know how much one serving really is. Many parents purchase these adorable servers for children’s snacks, but they’re perfect for any size person. For instance, fill a bowl with chips and, magic, you have an actual serving instead of the whole bag temptation. Life is too serious for us to take our snacks seriously, so the cheery message at the bottom of the bowl, “Yum Yum Time is over,” is our extra credit for eating healthy portions. Of course, I haven’t only used these for snacks. I serve condiments in them because who wants an ugly ketchup bottle sitting on the table?! One or two of these little guys has been known to sneak on my desk, holding paper clips as well. The price of $22/set is as miniature as the bowls themselves.

Tracy Adler first introduced The Yum Yum Dish™ at her former restaurant, Café on the Square in Asheville, North Carolina. There, she served appetizers and desserts in these adorable bowls to help her customers portion control. Amen! GG wants to know when others will catch on!  I purchased a set of these for my bro and sis-in-law long before my little niece was born.  They loved the bowls for snacking themselves and, as you can see in the picture below, they’re perfect now for feeding the newest member of the family complete meals:

Yum Yum bowls make mealtime fun!!

On a serious side note, Tracy sold her restaurant in preparation to move her family to Atlanta to live closer to a major university hospital.  Her eight year-old son, Elliot, was diagnosed with CMT –  Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease.  CMT is one of the most common, incurable neurological disorders that affect 1 in 2,500 people.  Elliot’s nerves are dying beginning with his toes, and there is desperate need for a cure.  To read more about Elliot’s courageous fight against the disease and/or to donate to H.E.L.P., Help Elliot Live Proud, visit his blog at Elliot’s Corner.  Tracy graciously gave Grading Girl one set of Yum Yum dishes for a poetry contest last year.  Check out the winner and deets of that contest here:  GG’s First Giveaway.     Additionally, discover the whole story behind the Yum Yum dishes at www.yumyumdish.com and pick up your own set.  They are worth every penny (and they’re not too many pennies, at that!).

Grading Girl gives these bowls an A for adorableness and practicality, plus bonus points for excellent customer service.  Grading Girl gives Elliot and the Adler family an A+ for their courageousness in fighting CMT!!  My thoughts and prayers go out to the family.

T.L.C. first review!

April 10, 2009 by  
Filed under Fashion, Reviews

First T.L.C. review!

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Body Language Sportswear is my latest workout attire obsession. A self-described gymrat, I arguably wear workout clothes more than street clothes – particularly in the summer; consequently, I’m constantly on the lookout for durable yet stylish sportswear. A couple of weeks ago, I paid a visit to the small but lively Body Language boutique on Cedros and Ventura Blvd. in Sherman Oaks, CA. With the help of the very cheerful co-owner, I spent over an hour trying on nearly half the store and had trouble eliminating. The cuts are feminine enough to wear outside of the gym (sorry guys, they don’t have a men’s line yet) and the patterns are vibrant and rival the usual blacks, blues, and whites usually spotted at the gym. Granted, their prices may be little higher than some lines (full price pants average $80, full price short tops $40) but it is true that one gets what one pays for. They have frequent sales too.  More significantly, Body Language is made with the strong Supplex material that never fades or shrinks. My older pieces still look new a year later when I’ve since literally thrown away my cheaper versions. When all was said and done, I walked out of the boutique armed with eight pieces . . . and I never looked back.

Grading Girl gives Body Language an A+ for unique style and durability!

August 2012 Update:  I am a fan of BL more than ever.  It’s true the items I purchased three years ago are still like new (unlike many of my favorite cotton yoga pants), their pieces are more stand-out noticeable than ever, and the personal customer service is UNBELIEVABLE!!  Stop in and say Hi.  You just might leave with something fashionably fun in your hands.

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