A second glance, a closer look –

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I continue to be amazed by the human urge to explore and create, and by the depths of empathy, love, and service to others that we often exhibit.  No matter how things change in our world, some creations and accomplishments will always be worth a second glance, a closer look.

This blog is my humble thank you to all those who spread joy and laughter, love their neighbors, and strive to make a positive contribution.   It is also my daily prayer for those fighting against ignorance and oppression.

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Co-ops, Communes, and Love in Venice

Venice at an earlier time – peeling paint on the wood and stucco buildings and the old wooden bridge.

I met my husband in a community whose core is no longer what it once was—a haven for the poor, a second chance for the out-of-sorts, space for the disaffected. It was a fabled community, in the same way as Greenwich Village or Haight-Ashbury, only it sat along the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Elderly men and women found shelter in cheap hotel rooms by the beach and sunned themselves on benches along the boardwalk. Young people came looking for answers, exploring alternatives, finding themselves. It was the antithesis of the high-end homes and glitz that are its hallmark today—Venice, California.

A younger Frank.

It was serendipity that Frank and I both stumbled into Venice, a year apart, unaware that it was already a mecca for questing youth of our generation. Venice, with its algae-clogged canals, cheap housing, and clean beaches, was a center of counterculture—tie-dyes, candles, long hair, homemade bread. We were both pretty straight, but there was room to be different, and all were welcome.

Originally built in 1905 as a planned resort for the wealthy, Venice had gone to seed long before World War II. By 1970 the neighborhood was being reshaped by the transforming cultural wave of the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the coming of age of the baby boomers.

In one way the community was sort of a hippie heaven—dazzling wide beaches, available dope, and various places to crash at night. But it was also a place of intense political discussion about changing the status quo to end the oppression of women, minorities, and people in third world countries.

The living room of my converted garage. My father found a discarded sectional and reupholstered it with fabric pattern that was popular. I sewed the window curtains myself.

Everything was on the table. Were large institutions like B of A working against humanity? What was the best way to fight Jim Crow–the politics of the Black Panthers or the principles of Dr. Martin Luther King? Was it vigilantism if women went out in groups at night, looking for would-be rapists? Did you need a male doctor to take charge of your own gynecological health? Sad to say, the problems that prompted these questions are still with us.

Neither Frank nor I knew any of this about Venice (its politics or its hippiedom) when we moved to the neighborhood in search of affordable housing.  As a new graduate student in astronomy at UCLA, Frank had arrived from Boston with his wife. I was single, also enrolled at UCLA, trying to get my life back on track after a failed marriage. (No, I was never the “other woman.”)

My Place

I inhabited a converted garage that was connected to a traditional 3-bedroom home built in the 1950’s. My rental was definitely spacious, if a little funky, with eleven-foot ceilings, a kitchen and bathroom created in what once must have been a breeze way, and a long, skinny bedroom added along one side. It looks like someone still inhabits it today. I deeply regret that I have only one Instamatic picture of the place.        Continue reading “Co-ops, Communes, and Love in Venice”

A Gift From Julian

Kaleb Alexander Roberts starring in “Invincible Boy”

For local film-maker Julian Park, the season for giving is every month of the year, not just December.  He doesn’t wrap his presents in shiny paper or bind them with jaunty bows.  He tells stories through film.  Some are fictional, some are documentaries.  You can see them all on the internet for free.

L-R Director Julian Park with cast members from “Invincible Boy”, Nathan Kim, Anna Garcia, Kaleb Alexander Roberts

His body of work reflects themes of optimism, kindness, and following one’s passion, and I urge people to watch his films this Christmas season.  Not only will the stories lift your spirits, your added “clicks” to the “number of views” are a way of way of saying Thank You to Julian for believing in and celebrating human virtue.

Julian’s self-described high school hobby of making movies has become his passion.  He poured a lot of sweat equity into making his earlier films.

“I want to tell meaningful stories,” he says.  For this latest one, Invincible Boy (Video), he hired a professional crew and actors, financing it through his day job as a web designer.

He wrote, directed, and edited this 20-minute story about two young boys wanting to make a difference in the world.  The young protagonists, Vincent and Barney, played by Kaleb Alexander Robert and Nathan Kim, are perfectly cast.

A rewrite was required after Julian first approached city officials for a permit in his hometown of Downey.  They told him that he couldn’t block off the streets.

Filming “Invincible Boy” in Downey

“My initial ideas were too expansive,” he says.   Filming in Downey, where he grew up, was an advantage for the rewrite.  “I know it [the city] so well, that at least when I wrote the sequences, I knew where it would take place in my mind.”

He managed to convey a dynamic chase scene even without blocking any streets, and the city refunded most of his deposit when he finished the five-day shoot.  Local streets are recognizable for those who live in Downey, and the multinational cast reflects the neighborhood.  I even recognized some of the “extras” in the bus scene as my friends and neighbors.

Road Trip

Julian’s mother must be a lovely lady to have raised such a thoughtful, reflective son with empathy for others.  But I would think that his generous heart must make her anxious over the risks he takes for some of his films.  In 2009, after studying creative writing in college, he left home with a backpack and Handycam, only telling his mother that he was going on a road trip.

“I wanted to find adventure,” he says in the film.  “I wanted to see America.  I wanted to witness kindness.”  The result is a 53-minute personal and compelling documentary about the people he encountered in his travels across the United States,  Only Kindness Matters – hitchhiking across the USA (Video) 

Documentary in Kenya

Scene from the documentary “Standard 8” shot in Kenya.

In 2010 Julian filmed a 30-minute documentary Standard 8 (Video)   that would make any professional proud (even the likes of Steven Spielberg or Ron Howard).   A high school friend, Eddo Kim, had started a non-profit, The Supply, to serve children in African who have little or no access to education.  The organization’s particular focus at that time was assisting a public elementary school in the slum of Lenana, Nairobi, Kenya.

At Eddo’s invitation, Julian flew to Nairobi to help publicize this educational effort.  He and an associate spent a week filming students and their teachers.  The documentary is titled after the exam the students must pass.   Continue reading “A Gift From Julian”

An American Hero in Paris

American Ambassador to France, Elihu Washburne, who was known for his direct manner, frugality, hard work, and bravery during the Franco-Prussian War.

Hats off to the lush production values in many of the new Netflix and Amazon series, such as The Crown, Peeky Blinders, and Marco Polo.  I use the Pause button often, pausing in places to study clothes and settings for authenticity.   I would bet money that real Mongolian musicians were used for a festival scene in Marco Polo.

Recently I came across another perfect subject for a series based on actual events – the heroic service of American Ambassador Elihu Washburne (and his family) during the siege of Paris by Prussia (1870-1871) followed soon after by the gruesome insurrection of the Paris Commune.  Washburne’s exploits during these ten months read like a romance novel.  It’s hard to believe the story is not made up

Guided by a personal sense of integrity and service, Washburne was the only diplomat from a major neutral country who chose to remain in the fabled city as it faced starvation, artillery shelling, and roving mobs of insurrectionists.  His courage made a difference for thousands of foreign nationals, even those from other countries, caught behind city walls.

19th Century Paris.

Washburne in Paris is an ideal TV series because there is no end to the number of subplots and episodes.  There are lovely ladies in distress, people reduced to eating rats, the capture of Emperor Napoleon III, and the escape of his Empress Eugenie to London, escorted only by a famed American dentist and his colleague.  Who could ignore this compelling story of bravery and honor in beautiful Paree?

Even more, Washburne is the perfect foil to the gay Parisiennes.  He was a straight-arrow known for his direct manner, frugality, hard work, and integrity.   He didn’t smoke, drink hard liquor, or gamble – virtues which are not always assets in politics.  Even though he spoke French, there were many who thought he was “coarse, uncultivated” – unsuited for the position.

I came across the Washburne story in David McCullough’s book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, about the artists, scientists, and businessmen traveling to Paris after the country had recovered from the French Revolution.  Washburne’s adventure is so epic that McCullough gives it two long chapters.  Much of the rich detail comes from Washburne’s daily journal.  Don’t be afraid to pick up McCullough’s book.  It reads like a novel.  This is a social history about Paris and its allure.

Washburne’s Roots

Washburne’s backstory is like Abraham Lincoln’s, only with a happier ending.  He was the third of eleven children, born in 1816 to a struggling farmer in Maine.   At the age of twelve he was “hired out” as a farmhand and two years later went to work as a printer’s apprentice.  Making use of public libraries, Washburne got what education he could and was admitted to Harvard Law School in 1839.  A year later he sought his fortune in the wild west of Illinois and was soon earning enough as a lawyer to send money back home.

The Washburne home in Galena, Illinois, before the family went to France. It is now a historic site.

He was friends with both Grant and Lincoln and was elected to Congress in 1853 as a Republican opposed to slavery.  His stature during the Civil War was such that he was with Grant when Lee surrendered at Appomattox.  When Grant was elected President in 1868, he appointed Washburne as ambassador to France in the following year.  (Washburne’s family actually spoke French as a second language because his wife Adele had been educated by French nuns in St. Louis.)  Continue reading “An American Hero in Paris”

Aretha Franklin & “Classical Music”

Classic – of acknowledged excellence, having enduring worth,

             Representing an exemplary standard,

     Traditional and long-established in form and style

Aretha on the cover of Time Magazine in June 1968. She was 26.
Aretha Franklin

The most eloquent, and accurate, assessment of Aretha Franklin’s impact on American life and music was written by a man who was born a generation after her – President Barack Obama.  In a Tweet he wrote, “Aretha helped define the American experience.  In her voice, we could feel our history, all of it and in every shade – our power and our pain, our darkness and our light, our quest for redemption and our hard-won respect.”

Aretha, who had her first smash hit in 1967, “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Loved You),” followed in the beats and sounds of earlier rock ‘n roll/R&B performers such as Fats Domino, Sam Cooke, Tina Turner, Smokey Robinson,  etc.   Her overall musicality, in writing and arranging as well as performing, made her a prodigy, but she earned the title “Queen of Soul” because of the way she could touch our hearts with her marvelous voice – we feel our history, our darkness and our light.

Video: Aretha at the Kennedy Center singing for Obama

At the Kennedy Center Awards 2015

Other singers have described listening to Aretha as going to church, and I nod in agreement for so many reasons.  When she performs it is not only her gospel training that you hear; her singing can also evoke feelings of profound joy, even rapture, as well as empathy with songs about loss and grief.  People feel her.  Every performance is a moment of high art.  And it is not only Americans who love Aretha.  She is revered around the world.

Influence of American Music Worldwide

I’m a rock ‘n roll girl to my core – I grew up with a transistor radio tuned to Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Richie Valens, The Shirelles, Little Richard, etc.  As a teenager, I never would have guessed that this popular music I enjoyed would grow to have the world-wide impact that it does.    Iconic performers from other countries, such as the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, all studied this music, made it their own, and gave something unique back to the world.

Korean boy-band BTS on sold-out tour in United States.

The popularity and influence of American music is not limited to western countries.  Fans abound throughout Asia as well.  I was amazed by a video of a Jason Mraz concert in Thailand – his throngs of fans knew all of the words and were singing along in English!  Korean popular music, K-Pop for short, grew from the exploration of American genres – R&B, hip-hop, emo, etc.  The upcoming Korean boy band BTS is now on a sold-out North American tour that includes Staples Center and Citi Stadium in New York.

Not only does the soundtrack of the groundbreaking movie Crazy Rich Asians feature covers of well-known American pop songs – the lyrics are often in Chinese.   The movie closes with a sizzling cover of Barrett Strong’s 1959 hit    Money (That’s What I Want) by 22-year-old Cheryl K from Malaysia.

American Music in the Land of Mozart

I had my own personal experience with the ubiquity of 20th century American music in obscure places around the globe, and it left me with much to think about.  Let me set the stage.

Our train to the spa town of Marianski Lazne. No other tourists arrived this way.

During the scorching summer of 2006, Frank and I traveled by train from Germany to Prague in the Czech Republic, with a two-night stay on the way at the fabled spa town of Marianski Lazne.   This locale was once favored by European royalty and celebrities for its mineral water.  Guidebooks told me that it was still a tourist attraction with many international visitors.

I started having second thoughts about this plan after we crossed the border at Cheb and transferred to a Czech train.  The number of passengers kept dwindling.   Most of our fellow travelers were just local commuters, coming home from work or school, visiting family or friends.  By the time we reached Marianski it was clear that we were the only tourists arriving this way – dragging our suitcases across blacktop that could fry bacon and trudging up stairs to enter the station.   What were the guidebooks not telling us?

The Singing Fountain in Marianski Lazne which is reported to have been the inspiration for the Belagio fountains in Las Vegas.

Things got worse when we didn’t see any obvious taxi service outside the station – few vehicles of any kind were on the street.  Our dismay grew with the language gap.  Only Czech was spoken – not even French or Spanish which had worked so well elsewhere.  We felt we had lost connection to the modern world.

At last an older black car with a Taxi sign in its window pulled up to park ACROSS the street.  After the 15 minutes of near panic, no sound could have been more unexpected than what we heard when the driver started the car and turned on the radio.

Here, in this remote Bohemian town, so hard to get to from the United States, we recognized the Beach Boys singing “Help me Rhonda, help, help me, Rhonda.”  In this country known for its rich tradition of “classical’ music with violins and cellos, the first music we heard was a 40-year-old song from Brian Wilson!         Continue reading “Aretha Franklin & “Classical Music””

Sailing, Seafood, and the State of Maine

Frank’s boat for 5 days – the 130-yr-old Grace Bailey, home port Camden, Maine.

If you live in the west and you’re looking for an exotic vacation, forget Tahiti – consider the coast of New England.  For now, the state of Maine is everything that Southern California is not – lush, wooded, a sailor’s playground with its myriad coves and islands, and a source for some of the most delicious seafood on the planet.

Harbor of Camden, Maine.

I ate fresh bay scallops (huge) and lobster every day of our trip this summer.  Some days I bought scallops at the supermarket and prepared them myself.  Locals told me that it was the cold water of the northern Atlantic that accounted for this plethora of succulent seafood.

My husband grew up in New England and learned to sail on its lakes and rivers.  This summer he signed up for something he always wanted to do – cruise Penobscot Bay, Maine, on an authentic wooden schooner.   His boat was the historic, 85-ft. Grace Bailey, 130 years old, and for five days he crewed to his heart’s content – hoisting the sails, weighing anchor, and taking the helm.

Galley of the Grace Bailey. All meals for 30 people were cooked on the wood-burning stove.

It was a glorious experience, but a little bit primitive for my tastes – you had to pump something and pull a lever at the same time to flush the toilet.  On the other hand, the 24 passengers were pampered in a way that you would never experience on a Carnival Cruise. Frank said the cook rose at 4:30 AM to prepare three phenomenal meals from scratch every day on a wood-burning stove!  You can imagine the heady effect of the smell and taste of fresh-baked muffins mixed with salt air.

Frank and First Mate in the common area just off his cabin. Notice the piano. This used to be the family quarters for the captain.

Penobscot Bay is huge, extending 35 miles inland, with no end of islands and inlets to explore.  Captain Chris promised the passengers they would enjoy a lobster bake one evening.  Otherwise, there was no fixed itinerary.  Their voyage would be guided only by whim.   Frank is ready to do this again.

Frank at the helm.

Video – Weighing Anchor

Video – Anchor Finally Up

Video – Open Sea

See Frank’s Story About His Trip

While he sailed, I explored Camden and Rockport.  I absolutely was not bored and am ready to do this again as well.   Camden is small and walkable with dress shops, art galleries, and restaurants tucked into old buildings along the waterfront.  It even has two bookstores!  Its elegant public library overlooks the bay.  On the Fourth of July live bands played in the nearby park all afternoon and evening before the fireworks.  My AirBnB hosts invited me to join their “soiree” that evening.

I walked the mile into town every day for exercise, and on one return trip I saw several young men load a couple of surfboards in the back of their pickup.  One good aspect of getting older is diminishing shyness.

Paddle-boarding on Megunticook Lake.

“Excuse me!” I yelled as the driver go into his truck.  “Where do you surf around here?”

“Megunticook Lake,” he smiled back.  “Stand-up paddle-boarding.”

I drove out to the lake that afternoon and discovered a favorite recreation area.  There were small beaches in between the wooded shoreline , a boat launch, and girls in bikinis getting tan as they stood on surfboards paddling through the water.

Continue reading “Sailing, Seafood, and the State of Maine”

Pelé, World Cup Soccer, and “ginga”

Pelé (yellow shirt) against Juventus 1959.

We watched a Netflix movie last night, “Pelé: Birth of a Legend,” that is a must-see during this World Cup season – whether you’re a soccer fan or not.  It’s a biopic about the childhood and first World Cup appearance of 17-year-old Brazilian soccer player Pelé in Sweden 1958.  The outcome was a profound upset for the Swedes and European soccer.  The film is family-friendly, informative about Brazilian culture, and Pelé deserves this tribute.

Pelé not only helped his team win the Cup that year, he won two more World Cups after that, 1962 and 1970, and is considered the greatest footballer of all time.  Brazil declared him a National Treasure and the International Olympic Committee named him Athlete of the Century in 1999.

Don’t be put off by the critics’ low rankings of the movie on Rotten Tomatoes.  They’ve got it completely wrong.  Audiences liked it three times as much.     Video:   Watch the movie trailer for “Pelé”

The soccer-playing children are mesmerizing.  Where did they find these kids who could do bicycle kicks as well as act?  The story never lags and the movie gives insight into what Brazilians call “ginga” – qualities of rhythm, grace, creativity, having fun.  The origin of the word and what it represents is attributed to the traditions of the kidnapped Africans who were brought to Brazil as slaves.  There is so much footage of the ball-handling skills that reflect “ginga,” that I now understand what the Brazilians mean by “the Beautiful Game.”

The film is a little bit clichéd in places, especially with the overuse of slo-mo to indicate moments of revelation.  But this small weakness did not interfere with the essence of truth about Pelé’s story or my enjoyment of the film and what I learned.       Continue reading “Pelé, World Cup Soccer, and “ginga””

The Tehachapi Loop and Gov. John Gately Downey

Tehachapi Loop from the air. The black engine is just above the letter P. The tail of the train is near the top, right of center.

We loaded the car for a road trip to see something that is rather close as the crow flies, but just far enough away to require a special trip.  We were off to see the Tehachapi Loop – an engineering marvel and magnet for train-spotting fans in the mountains a hundred miles north of Los Angeles.

The Loop is a section of railroad track near the top of a 4000-ft pass linking Bakersfield and the produce of the Central Valley with Los Angeles and the rest of the country.  Built in 1876 with the help of over 3,000 Chinese laborers, this section of rail line is a major pillar of California’s economy – averaging over 36 freight trains a day.

We’re up on the hill, off the road. The yellow arrow shows where the train will go under itself.

Trains are an efficient form of transportation, but crossing mountains is never easy.  The Loop was conceived for a section of grade that was too steep for the track to just snake back and forth.  Instead, the ground was reshaped so that the track rises more gently and circles over itself after passing through a tunnel.  This section is roughly eight miles west of the Tehachapi depot at the summit.

We had passed the turnoff for Tehachapi every time we went to the Sierras.  The Loop was only 35 miles from us as we drove through Bakersfield on our way to Yosemite, and only 29 miles away as we drove through Mojave on our way to Mammoth, but there were so many reasons why a detour was never feasible on our family vacations.  The only thing to do was make a dedicated trip.  As is often the case, our weekend exploration brought surprises and rewards.    A little road trip music (Dwight)

Maria, wife of John Downey, who died in a tragic accident at Tehachapi.

We also pondered the irony that this was the terrain where former Governor John Gately Downey’s wife Maria died in a tragic train accident in January in 1883.  Downey was a leading figure in the transition of Los Angeles from sleepy pueblo to growing commercial center.  He campaigned hard for rail connections that would expand the southern economy, and he presided over the celebration when final golden spike was driven in this rail route linking San Francisco to Los Angeles.   His wife’s death was a cruel trick of fate, given Downey’s vision and influence.

The Tehachapi Loop

We approached Tehachapi via Hwy 58 (a beautiful drive) from Bakersfield so we would have some idea of the climb made by the freight trains.  Our destination was the lookout point on the Woodford-Tehachapi road where people watch the freight trains (sometimes a mile in length) loop over themselves as they chug along.  If a train is long enough you will see the engine and most cars traverse the entire circle while the end of the train is still going through the tunnel.  The best view is higher up a hill and reached by a dirt road closed to vehicles.  I was willing to trespass if we had to, but a hand-lettered sign on a chain invited train fans to hike in.  

My awesome video of a long train at the Tehachapi Loop!

A plaque at the lookout point acknowledges the contribution of the Chinese laborers to the construction of this iconic section of track.  The disciplined and organized Chinese worked under their own leaders, crushing rock, digging tunnels, and dying in double-digit numbers from terrible accidents.

What’s not on the plaque is that in 1882, when all of the major railroads linking the Pacific coast with the Atlantic were completed, Congress passed the shameful Chinese Exclusion Act.  Given today’s political climate, the plaque is a sobering reminder that, despite our country’s goals of equal opportunity, we continue struggling to do the right thing.

An earlier steam engine with coal tender.

We heard that the trains run often but with no certain schedule – the high volume of freight requires frequent maintenance – so we took our chances and hoped that the track was open.  We arrived on a Sunday and found the tracks empty.  We stayed two nights in Tehachapi (actually a great place) and it took us three visits to the Loop (30 minutes via backroads from town) before we saw the trains.

Continue reading “The Tehachapi Loop and Gov. John Gately Downey”