November, 2011:

AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL

I like to watch morning TV as I eat breakfast and get prepared for my day of writing and editing. Yesterday, Nov. 29, was a study in contrasts, an example of American institutions and our way of life, especially in Los Angeles, home to about 4 million of us.

Regular shows had been pre-empted by the Michael Jackson involuntary manslaughter trial sentencing. Superior Court Judge Michael Pastor had quite a lot to say as he told the somber, stone-faced Dr. Conrad Murray that he’d be spending the next four years in LA County jail. Most of the local TV and radio shows were focused on the emotional event; it was a hometown happening, after all (the Jackson family compound is just a few miles from me). It was an example of the American justice system in action played out on the world stage because of Jackson’s fame and notoriety. I couldn’t help but think it was a kind of odd destiny: an extremely talented entertainer who was losing his grip on life meets a doctor who yearns for the buckets of bucks while forgetting his ethics.

If you believe in the continued cycle of life, whether physical or spiritual, then Michael Jackson is the winner. Dr. Murray has lost his career and he will have a devil of a time paying back the ordered restitution of over $100 million.

In another part of town, there was a different kind of celebration: 7,000 people were being “anointed” (my words) with U.S. citizenship. The local show on Fox, “Good Day, LA” was covering both events and switched between them. Jill Reynolds, a show regular originally from Canada, had been in the U.S. since she was 22. She was enthusiastically giving up her green card after 20 years here. She was definitely in the minority in the crowded facility; it was announced that most of this batch of new citizens were originally Filipino or Mexican.

 I’d never seen this ceremony before, and it was quite touching to see such an immense crowd holding and occasionally waving small American flags. Several uniformed U.S. servicemen were getting their citizenship. After being introduced, each one proudly marched to the front of the assembly hall and “spun” around in that unique military fashion before saluting the crowd. One of them was from India originally.

For me,  the most poignant part of the ceremony was when  these new citizens stood up, hands over their hearts to say the Pledge of Allegiance and  to take the Oath of Allegiance to their new country.  Although the camera didn’t reveal the talented woman, a professional voice then sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The camera did pan onto Jill as she recited those historic words of allegiance, and I could see she was crying. I didn’t need her inspiration, I was already in tears myself.

No matter what we go through as a country and despite the difficult times in the past few years, I am very proud to be an American!

FRIED PICKLES AND COWBOY HATS

For the past couple of years my immediate family has gotten together with my expanded family to celebrate Thanksgiving. We’ve become quite the “modern family” of ex-husbands, ex-wives, stepchildren, uncles, aunts, and various family connections that don’t even have a proper connotation, like my brother’s mother-in-law. I’ve always believed we’re all related in this world anyway, so why not get together and celebrate, the more the merrier?

Last year we banded together in Northern California with a slightly different cast of characters; this year it was Dallas, Texas, where my son Hans and his fiancée Jennifer live. Since they are getting married sometime next year, we all wanted to meet Jennifer’s expanded family. There were 15 of us for a feast the day after Thanksgiving at a wonderful Dallas hotel. No awkward pauses or long silences: Southerners (or shall I say Texans) are hospitable, have great senses of humor, and don’t hesitate to hug one and all.

On Thanksgiving Day, my son gave a few of us a driving tour of Fort Worth, a true Texas town with historical cowboy attractions, like the stockyards and Western themed restaurants and souvenir shops, mixed with a modern art museum and a Western museum. We drove around the downtown area looking for a place to eat, not too difficult a search since younger members of the family are always equipped with the most modern cell phones. While headed toward an IHop, we spotted a restaurant with a distinct Texas flavor.

 

Thanksgiving Texas Style

The Ol’ South Pancake House was adjacent to a freeway overpass and a rail line, and dated back to 1962. Nothing fancy, this was a reasonably priced place for just plain folks, especially those who were fans of the nearby Texas Christian University. There were groups of families eating as well as a few tables of male friends. At least a dozen of the men of all ages wore cowboy hats, including a grandfather next to us with his family. He’d come in with the aid of a walker, proudly sporting his chapeau.

The menu was far from gourmet: sandwiches, burgers and fries were popular, typical soft drinks and ice tea; a special Thanksgiving dinner with all the fixings was priced at $12.99. I enjoyed the Texas touches—most of the sandwiches could be served on Texas toast (thick slices with butter on both sides and broiled) and an order of this toast as a side dish was offered. The atmosphere took me back to the 1960s.

The South is known for its fried food: I’ve heard about fried butter, fried Snickers, and just about anything else that might be fried. My mother, who grew up in Virginia, had a knack with fried chicken in the days chicken pieces were dumped in a paper bag full of flour, shaken up and then placed in a large frying pan greased with Crisco.

I had never heard of fried pickles, but my daughter had and she ordered it. I had to have a few small slices. It was rather strange but tasty. “Well, I’ll be damned…” as an old Southern saying goes, or as I remember, “I swannee, but that’s good.”

The Bomb Squad Sets Off the Dynamite–No Big Deal!

It was close to Christmas and those of us from my evacuated apartment building and others nearby who hadn’t gone to work were waiting to see what was going to happen with the dynamite.

A plump young blond with her hair in a flip sat next to me on the flower garden wall, gently lowering her nervous white cat in his carrier. She grumbled about having to leave her car; she’d told the cop at her door, in the apartment building north of mine, that she’d been ready to leave for work but he’d insisted she had to evacuate and leave her car. “There are a lot of cops here because they’re worried about finding a crystal meth lab—those things blow up easily,” she explained and added,  “There have been several incidents with these crystal meth labs on Whitsett.”

Many apartment dwellers had gone to work, but in entertainment-oriented LA, people work all kinds of odd hours. My ex-Marine neighbor had been asleep; even though he was long retired, he was used to going to sleep at 4 a.m. and getting up after lunch. He was still groggy but managed a few gruff-voiced opinions. Although we’d been ordered out over a half-hour before, a few stragglers lifted the yellow tape and strolled over to join the small crowd.

I noticed a painfully thin young man, all in black, with dark glasses, dark closely cropped hair and tiny silver earrings dotted around both ears. Recognized by the blond with the cat, he sat next to her. In a heavy accent he gave us a cynical look and softly said, “They wouldn’t go to such trouble in Israel.”

It was fairly warm, but I was grateful I’d brought the extra sweatshirt; the brick wall hadn’t yet been warmed by the sun. Since we were blocked from the action and so many trucks obscured our view, most of us sat or stood and offered various opinions about what the Bomb Squad was up to. Lacking information, we chitchatted about what we were missing. An attractive but no longer young, long-haired brunette in sports shoes and leaning on a cane complained to a man and woman that she’d been set to entertain sick children at an LA children’s hospital and had to cancel.

A tall young cop with a friendly face and dark curly hair held the arm of an elderly woman with a placid, accepting face as he escorted her past the caution tape. “Does anyone here speak Armenian?” he asked as he directed her to a seat on the wall. In heavy brown stockings and slippers, her hair pulled back into a scarf, the woman reached for my shoulder as she gingerly sat down next to me. Moments later, a middle-aged woman walked over and began explaining in Armenian what was happening.

One of my neighbors, a handsome immigrant from Romania who owned his own limousine service, stopped and sat down next to me. I had always been curious about his business and who his clients were. He’d just returned from a week in Las Vegas taking care of members of the Saudi Arabian royal family, who required a whole fleet of cars to drive them around. His most consistent family, he said, was Kirk Douglas and his wife. When Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones were in town they also used his service.

“Who has been your most difficult client?” I couldn’t resist asking.

“Jennifer Lopez. She’s a bitch and I’d never work for her again,” he said firmly.

We’d been outside for over an hour when suddenly we heard a male voice shout. It sounded like, “Here it comes!” but I wasn’t sure. There was a loud blast as most of us stood up and headed for the caution tape to see what had happened. From up the street we could see black smoke rising. “So, that was the dynamite!” someone exclaimed. “At least we were out here for a reason,” another voice chimed in.

An overweight cop with a buzz cut and a freckled face stood at the tape and told us, “You’ll be able to go home in about a half hour. First we’ve got to make sure there are no more problems.”

I forgot to watch the news that night to find out more about the dynamite, but the following morning I heard something about dynamite on TV news. According to the report, about twelve hours after our incident, there was another one in nearby Van Nuys. The police had found a cache of old dynamite in an industrial building. The only way they could eliminate it was to call in the fire department to set it on fire and make sure it didn’t involve the connecting buildings. Their action closed down the 405 freeway for several hours in the middle of the night. I knew it was connected because the dynamite in the freezer was mentioned.

The adventure was the talk of my apartment building for a few days, but as Christmas neared and shopping plans became more frantic, it was soon forgotten. It would hardly match the feelings and discussions of September 11, a few years before.

A Dyno-mite Holiday Season – Life in LA

A strong fist pounded on my apartment door the week before Christmas a few years ago. Was I getting a UPS package I didn’t know about? I quickly checked my attire; it was only 10:15 a.m. and I worked at home in very casual dress, especially in the morning. In sweats, no makeup or bra.

When I opened the door I was astonished to see an LAPD cop and noticed several others across the courtyard, also pounding on doors. “You’ve got to evacuate your apartment immediately. There’s a bomb alert from the apartment building two doors away.  While we check it out, exit the building and walk down toward Riverside,” he commanded. “You can’t get your car in the garage,” he added as he walked toward my next-door neighbor’s door.

Time for the bra and thanking myself that I had already put on my eyebrows—I went nowhere without my Maybelline. Not knowing how cold it was, even though the sun was out, I grabbed an extra sweatshirt and headed out to join the small crowd a building away. It was obvious where we had to go—they’d already strung yellow caution tape across the street, both north and south to encompass about three buildings on each side of the street.

Normally a heavily trafficked street that connected with the nearby 101 freeway, Coldwater Canyon Avenue was as quiet as it might have been at three in the morning. The only noise came from the cops gathered around a police car; they looked like they were enjoying their job, a little excitement and possibly some rescue effort thrown in.

I found a short wall encompassing a small flowerbed in front of a nearby building, sat down and caught up on what might be happening as I watched the street fill up with a couple of fire trucks, an emergency vehicle manned by paramedics, and several small trucks with BOMB SQUAD painted on the side. A black truck, also labeled BOMB SQUAD, soon joined the other trucks in the danger area. Rather like a cement mixer, it had a round container (this one didn’t move) within a steel frame on the back.

As I scanned the crowd, I overheard many cell phone conversations—people changing plans, finding a ride somewhere, or notifying relatives and friends of the excitement. Two young men, pulling luggage, were making arrangements for a cab so they could make their holiday flight at one of the local airports. My cell needed a charge so I could only manage a short message to my daughter. I was still skeptical there was anything wrong.

Overhead, a helicopter scouted the area. Someone with good vision said it was the Channel 9 news. In the middle of the street a middle-aged man lugged a TV camera up to the yellow tape and started filming. Soon he was interviewing a policeman, but none of us was close enough to hear. Knowing that local news stations accepted photos from camera phones, an enterprising young man found an abandoned shopping cart, upended it and stood on it to get a photo.

“It’s that icky yellow apartment building near Magnolia,” said a skinny fellow with dark greasy hair standing close to me. He pulled back on the leash holding his tiny dog and continued, “Some old guy reported that his former roommate had left a stick of dynamite in his freezer.”

“That building has a lot of Section 8 residents,” offered the gamine-like gray-haired woman from my building’s first floor, puffing on her cigarette. When I looked blank, she added, “Those are people the county helps with rent money. The place doesn’t even have a proper gate; anybody can go in or out.”

Despite the chilly brick where I was sitting, it was exciting to observe the police and bomb  squad procedures. I was already taking notes in my head to write it all down at some point, never imagining back then that I’d be writing a blog!

(To be continued next week)

MELAYNIE’S MASQUERADE AMAZON DEBUT

Although my book, Melaynie’s Masquerade is already posted on Amazon as a fiction novel in both hard and soft cover versions, I consider “her” debut as an Ebook a debut to greater glory. Look it up and check it out. The story is in two volumes with a third volume due out next year. My grand opening special price, however, is worth the download—only 99 cents per volume! For those who read it and enjoy, please put your comments on the Melaynie’s  Masquerade by Victoria Giraud Amazon page.

What an educational and creative life process it is to write and publish a book. It’s almost like having a baby, especially considering there are generally years involved in getting it out there.

The germ (or sperm of the idea since I’ve mentioned birth) came from attending many Renaissance Faires and my love of history. James Michener wrote Caribbean, a long and involved historical fiction about that fabled sea and included the story of Sir Francis Drake, which intrigued me the most. As it turns out, Michener’s story about Drake wasn’t very accurate although he did convey the adventure and intrigue.

I was excited enough about Drake’s personality and amazing life from poverty to knighthood, that I wrote the screenplay Drake first. It’s incredibly difficult to make a movie if you don’t have a track record, so I decided to broaden my subject and make an historical fiction novel out of my script by adding a fictional heroine. Lots of research and five years of effort rewarded me with the daring romantic adventure of a teenage girl masquerading as Drake’s captain’s boy on one of his original voyages to the Spanish Main.

In promoting my book, at one point I wrote a brief teleplay for local access television in the Conejo Valley area. I would narrate and planned to have a couple of volunteer actors. I was fortunate to attract John Kilpatrick, the head of the drama department at Agoura High School, to my endeavor. Not only would he play Drake, but he composed the song below and sang it to the accompaniment of his mandolin.  I had reviewed plays put on by the local Young Artists Ensemble and found a young actress, Genna Allen, to play Melaynie. Turns out she had an English background and her father is a fan of Drake. It all turned out amazingly well, though there was no money and not much fame involved! In the photo below are: John and Genna with me in the middle.

Here is John’s wonderful and original song:

MELAYNIE’S LAMENT

A fair young maid in a house of men

Three brothers and a father dear

On whom she waited both hand and foot

All seasons of the year.

 

Yet none could know that in her dreams

Another life did call

Where lives were sold for Spanish gold

And a boy ain’t what he seems

 

The fair young lass had had enough

And signed on with a crew

With ringlets shorn, on a cold gray morn

She bid her world adieu

 

As cabin boy to Capt. Drake

For adventure she set sail

Her comfort sold for Spanish gold

And therein hangs a tale.

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE CREATIVE ENDEAVOR — WORDS, WORDS, WORDS

Why does one write? Although I believe we all have unique ways to communicate, who is inspired to put pen to paper, fingertips to keyboards to play around with words? It’s almost a primeval urge to share thoughts, feelings, experiences through the medium of those poor human concoctions called words. They can be misconstrued, misspelled, misinterpreted despite the sincerest of intentions, the bravest of hearts. That’s also the beauty of the effort, the mystery of life and interactions. Oh….ya know what I mean!!

In looking back to childhood, I think I turned naturally to the written word because I was an early reader and appreciator of stories, even my own personal story. Stories in books took me to a different place; they were a respite from unpleasant things in my life. “Children should be seen, not heard” is an old adage. Besides, what does a child say about certain things she or he doesn’t understand? Especially when it concerns an adult. Will the adult listen, understand or change their actions? We’ve all read and heard about these instances in current news of the day.

As one matures, if one is so inclined, it’s easy to fathom how expressing oneself on paper or on a computer, not to mention the scourge of texting (Emails are enough for me), can be a relief. I turned to diaries in high school and I’ve kept most of them. I’m amazed how mature I was and how expressive. When there’s no one to turn to, a journal is a spiritual and physical respite.

I learned the power of words early on: how to sell myself in sentences, see myself in sentences, and observe the world in sentences. In my head, I talk to myself in sentences. I imagine my sentence as never-ending, in my physical life, at least. I haven’t been at a loss for words since I learned to talk and write. Writer’s block? Are you kidding?

Although I don’t need an audience—I’ve done plenty of writing for myself alone—but it’s gratifying to know there are those out there in the Internet world who read my words, my sentences, and appreciate them.

I am going to be spreading my words even further as I self-publish Melaynie’s Masquerade, an historical fiction set in the 16th century  in E-book format and other smaller works as well. My other endeavors will eventually include:

A Teenage Army Brat in Libya — Memories of Tripoli in the 1950s

No Apologies Offered…Life Isn’t Handed to You on a Silver Platter

The Dark Side

A Novice’s Guide to Cross-Dressing

Pink Glasses

Sam’s Journey

The drawing below was done by my talented friend Sally Schneider:

 

 

 

 

 

 

A FUNERAL AT FOREST LAWN, HOLLYWOOD

Movie stars are people too—they live, enjoy some fame and notoriety and eventually die, like we all do!

Character actors, like Strother Martin, are oftentimes the more approachable kind of person in the movie trade. He and his wife Helen had lived near where I lived and worked in the Conejo Valley (Agoura Hills, Westlake Village and Thousand Oaks) for years.

Strother and Helen were active in the community. Helen was an enthusiastic member of the Topanga-Las Virgenes Resource Conservation District (TLVRCD), which dealt with preserving and conserving the cherished Santa Monica Mountains—the western boundary of the Conejo Valley. Coincidentally, Ronald Reagan’s first political job was his election to the Board of the TLVRCD: he was recruited to run because he had a ranch in the area in the 1950s . We all know what that position eventually led to!

Strother had an active career in film. Who can forget his famous words as the prison camp superintendent of “prisoner” Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke? “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” He and Newman did several movies together—Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Slapshot among them.

Strother Martin in "Cool Hand Luke"

Considering himself a participating member of the community, Strother volunteered to be part of the local chamber of commerce’s Christmas celebration at the Calabasas Inn one year. I believe he read something from Dickens, and we all felt honored to hear his dulcet tones.

I was the editor of the Acorn, a local weekly newspaper, in the early 1980s and had decided to do an interview with Strother. He was an interesting subject, especially since he had made a movie not long before with John Wayne and Katherine Hepburn: Rooster Cogburn. He gave me some publicity shots from the film and then mentioned he was due to host Saturday Night Live on NBC. It was April 1980 and it was one of his last jobs.

Shortly after my story was published, I got the news that Strother had had a fatal heart attack. He was only 61. Helen informed the members of the chamber of commerce about the funeral plans, and we were all invited to attend. As the local newspaper editor, I was an active member.

The service and burial were scheduled for the famous Forest Lawn Cemetery; this one is in the Hollywood hills, not the one where Michael Jackson was laid to rest. I distinctly remember following Ernest Borgnine’s expensive car into the cemetery. I knew it was him by the personalized license plate.

Sitting in the small chapel, we chamber members were surrounded by some of Hollywood’s elite. Trying not to stare, I noticed Lee Marvin and Jimmy Stewart, both favorites of mine. Paul Newman, I was told, couldn’t attend but had sent his daughter. It was strange to see the once vital and entertaining Strother in an open casket as we filed by for the obligatory viewing.

After the funeral, a few of us (no one famous) were invited back to the Martin’s house. Helen let us know she was surprised and honored when President Jimmy Carter called personally to give her his condolences.

For a few years afterward I would see Helen Martin, who kept herself busy with the community and the Topanga-Las Virgenes Resource Conservation District. One night I was invited to accompany her to a play at the Ahmanson Theater at the Music Center in downtown L.A. She drove us in her huge yellow Cadillac. At intermission, she introduced me to Strother’s former agent, whose name I don’t remember. I do recall he also represented Richard Dreyfuss, who had gotten married at the agent’s Beverly Hills home.

In Southern California it can be both odd and exciting to meet and perhaps be a small part of the lives of those you’ve admired on the silver screen.

LIBYAN CONNECTIONS

It continues to amaze me how my three teenage years spent in Tripoli has put me in touch with others who have lived there at various times over the years and even those who grew up there. The world, thanks to the Internet, is a very small one and very connected.

Mahmud Abudaber, a Libyan native of Janzour, a Tripoli suburb (essentially what used to be Georgimpopuli in the 1950s) Emailed me after reading my blog, and we’ve since become friends. He’s been living in Los Angeles since 1980, and it’s only recently that he can consider going home to visit his huge family—7 sisters and 6 brothers, most of them still in Libya with growing families of their own.

Mahmud’s got lots of fond memories of growing up in Libya in the ‘50s and ‘60s. His grandfather, who lived to be 104, was a very enterprising patriarch. As a young man he started with a few acres of palm, olive and fig trees. The money he collected from selling olives, olive oil, and figs went toward buying more land. Mahmud remembers the entire family pitched in to take care of the ever-expanding farm, which included all sorts of vegetables from spinach and peppers to onions and tomatoes, and a variety of animals: cows, horses, sheep, goats and rabbits, to name a few. Their house was originally an Italian military compound. As the family thrived, they bought a new house closer to the beach.

Gaddafi hadn’t taken over yet and the Tripoli area was full of Americans, British, Italians and even tourists. Mahmud, 14, his 16-year-old brother. and two cousins would use a wheelbarrow to sell melons and other fruits along the coastal highway to tourists or American military personnel. The teenagers were not averse to trying new things, like alcohol. One day they traded melons for a six-pack of beer, cooled it off in the Mediterranean and gradually sipped it, asking each other “How do you feel? Are you getting drunk?”

In those days, most Libyans spoke Italian fluently and Italian food was a favorite. “We had spaghetti twice a week and ravioli and I thought it was Libyan food,” Mahmud recalled.

Janzour High School gave him a good education with an emphasis on history and geography. “We had to study all the U.S. states and even learned to draw the shapes of each state.” He also had to know about all the civilizations that lived in and influenced Libya—the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, etc. “My brain was stuffed!”

Soccer was a passion for Mahmud, who played from the age of 8, eventually playing on the Janzour national team and in England in the late 1970s. About that time, Mahmud was taking college courses and Gaddafi’s infamous Green Book, which contained his philosophy, was a reading requirement. When he refused to read it, Mahmud was expelled and soon received a draft notice from the Libyan army. He took his $450 “big time savings” and eventually ended up in the U.S. He’s now a U.S. citizen but does plan to go home to Libya for visits. In the meantime he runs a web site for Janzour, now a tourist destination.

Mahmud in his younger days

 

IMAGINATION OR EXAGGERATION — THE PERSONAL ADS

A sucker for imaginative writing, I’ve learned that what you see, hear or read is open to interpretation.   Since I’m usually open-minded and not averse to taking a chance, I’ve had a few adventures with the personal ads. Before the Internet, there was the Singles Register newspaper in Southern California, and  it was probably easier to stretch the truth since there were no photos.  I answered an ad from a man who called himself a handsome, talented writer of energy and spirit. Poetically, he claimed that trumpets would blare and cymbals would crash when he met the right woman. When we talked on the phone (before the onslaught of Email), he told me he lived in Redondo Beach and had a view of the Pacific Ocean. He was the proud owner of some unusual decorations, like a six-foot hand-carved Polynesian alligator, but his prized possessions were a line drawing by Picasso and a Spanish bullfighter’s cape.

When we met, I discovered he was much older than I’d thought (he hadn’t admitted his age). He had difficulty walking, was hunchbacked and had prostrate problems. He told me he wasn’t expecting Dolly Parton, and I took that as a compliment–I was in shorts and a low-cut blouse. His beach apartment balcony did have an ocean view, but only if you leaned over and squinted through the buildings in front of his. The treasured wooden alligator was a tight squeeze in his little home, but it was one of the few mementoes that had survived five marriages and lots of alimony.

Turned out he was a child psychiatrist, a rival of the famous Dr. Benjamin Spock of Baby and Child Care fame. My blind date had written five books and claimed he’d coined the term “parenting.” I did find a couple of his books in my local library afterward.

He bought lunch after showing me all his treasures, but his conversation was a litany of complaints about all his former wives. He was looking for someone to take care of him and listen to all his misery. I wondered why I’d spent so much time listening to him. Was I too polite or just not savvy enough yet?

The most daring experience I had was flying to New Orleans to meet an Israeli biochemistry professor at Tulane University. He had read my ad and didn’t care that we were geographically challenged. We had had several interesting phone conversations and after he’d seen my photo, he was convinced I was the one a psychic had said was perfect for him. He made good money, evidently, and wanted to fly me to New Orleans for a weekend. I felt he sounded trustworthy and I’d never been to the “Big Easy.” One of my girlfriends thought I was out of my mind, but agreed to keep an eye on my kids.

The professor was fairly recently divorced and had come to the States to forget his troubles with his former wife, who had custody of their children and had remained in Israel. He was polite for the most part and did show me around New Orleans, but after he’d shared all his anguish with me, he soon realized he’d made a mistake and wasn’t ready for any kind of relationship. I left a day early, unharmed and a bit wiser.

It seems my psychic reading from a few years before was coming true. She had told me I would not leave any stone unturned in life. I hadn’t found the right stone yet, apparently.

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