Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The sharing of faith, culture and savory food

The icon of Jesus the Pantocrator,
inside the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension,
in Oakland, California.

The wonderful aromas of souklavia and loukoumades wafted through the air. There were sounds of traditional Greek music and shouts of "Opa!" could be heard on the grounds of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension earlier this month during the 2013 Oakland Greek Festival, now in its 41st year.

"We are proud to live in a country which allows us to preserve our rich Hellenic culture and still be Americans," wrote Father Thomas J. Zaferes, Dean of the Ascension Cathedral, in a letter to friends and patrons of the Greek Festival. "Each year we offer this celebration to the Bay Area so that you may experience a culture that is not only historic and profound, but a culture which celebrates life." 

While Greece, a small country with only 11 million people, is half a world away from Oakland, its wonderful culinary and musical culture has spread over much of the world as well as its Orthodox Christian faith ~ not only in Europe, but also throughout Africa, Asia and, even, Australia. "These communities are united in a common heritage and a common faith, Orthodox Christianity," wrote Father Zaferes.

Each year in mid-May, through the Oakland Greek Festival, the Ascension Cathedral community shares some of the deeper aspects of culture, fellowship and faith. It can viewed and experienced through exploring the interior of the cathedral, which is located at the heart of the festival grounds in the Oakland hills (near where we live), as well as through the enjoyment of the vibrant music and, of course, the savory and delicious food.

My wife and I attended the festival's opening night. We enjoyed an a la carte dinner of souvlakia (chicken shish kebobs), spanakopita and tiropita (spinach and cheese quiche), loukoumades (yeast-risen dough puffs drizzled with honey syrup and sprinkled with cinnamon), and baklava (a rich, sweet pastry comprised of many layers of phyllo pastry filled with chopped nuts).

While walking the compact festival grounds (which afforded us a spectacular view of the Bay Area sunset), we delighted in the upbeat sounds of the bouzouki (a Greek musical instrument that looks like a banjo and sounds like a mandolin) that was featured in two different Greek and Mediterranean bands, and we also watched a group of enchanted Greek dancers performing traditional village dances on the cathedral plaza.

Finally, our evening included a few quieter moments inside the Ascension Cathedral. We sat in a pew in the middle of the nave and heard a selection of traditional Greek Orthodox hymns sung by the Ascension choir. As we listened, I couldn't help but admire the icon of Jesus the Pantocrator (or Almighty) above us and the rest of the interior art and beauty of this sacred space.

Indeed, for a couple of hours, we enjoyed participating in this annual celebration of Hellenic culture, Greek heritage and philoxenia (Greek for hospitality) in appreciation of the importance of keeping traditions and a trusting religion alive and strong.

To learn more about the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension, see:

To see a panoramic view of the interior of the Ascension Cathedral:

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A celebration of words: Sharing the stage to read and listen to stories and ideas

I read from Calvin Trillin's The Tummy Trilogy
during the fifth annual WriterCoach Connection's
Read-and-Write-a-thon at Longfellow Middle School.

Last Saturday morning, I participated in the fifth annual WriterCoach Connection Read-and-Write-a-thon at Longfellow Middle School Library in Berkeley.

I had never participated in a read-a-thon and, honestly, didn't really know what to expect. Would I be nervous? Would I be confident? Would my voice project adequately? Would the audience warm to my literary selection?

During the 75 minutes I spent at the WriterCoach Connection Read-and-Write-a-thon, which began my activity-filled Saturday (and, later, would include stops at two busy grocery stores, plus an evening birthday/bowling party on the other side of the Bay), I was both humbled and amazed. There was much generosity from the dozen-or-so supporters in the library at the time I read, who focused on my every spoken word for the 15 minutes in which I commanded their attentiveness.

For those who were inspired and dropped in at the Longfellow Middle School Library-cum-literary café between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., they were greeted with a comfortable and inviting setting as well as a nice selection of good, healthy eats in which to enjoy an assortment of non-stop poetry (lots of Emily Dickinson), prose (Henry David Thoreau and David Halberstam), children's literature (Dr. Seuss) and fiction (Téa Obreht and Flann O'Brien, among many) ~ even a reading of Abraham Lincoln's famous speech "The Gettysburg Address." The Read-and-Write-a-Thon was spread over 10 consecutive hours as an ever-changing cast of writing coaches and students shared center stage (actually, it was a comfy sofa) to read and listen to stories and ideas that give life and light to our world.

When it was my turn to read at 9 a.m., I calmly walked up to the front of the spacious reading room, immediately made eye contact with the audience, and enthusiastically read about food and travel from The Tummy Trilogy by the American humorist Calvin Trillin, who through his books American Fried; Alice, Let's Eat; and Third Helpings, established himself as, in Craig Claiborne's phrase, "the Walt Whitman of American eats."

In the opening chapter from American Fried, "The Traveling Man's Burden," I read aloud Trillin's written words and tried to inject some of his wry humor with just the right amount of wit, sarcasm, and the occasional pause for dramatic effect:

"The best restaurants in the world are, of course, in Kansas City. (pause) Not all of them; (pause) only the top four or five."

The opening paragraph drew nice laughter from the audience. Immediately, I realized I had made a good literary choice, and the polite-but-hearty applause I received at the end of my reading made me feel good inside.  I flashed a big smile as I returned to the table my wife and I shared, and enjoyed some fresh strawberries and cheddar cheese. Afterwards, I learned that Trillin had been a past donor to the WCC Read-and-Write-a-thon.

Indeed, my first read-a-thon experience was a positive one.

That night, on the WCC website, there was high praise to go along with an impressive list of donors who contributed to the Read-and-Write-a-thon. "Everyone who attended agreed that this was the best Read-and-Write-a-thon ever! In addition to inspired 15-minute individual readings, highlights included a large group of student readings, a spirited game of team Literary Jeopardy, and a moving group reading of "The Laramie Project."

This year, I have been volunteering with the WriterCoach Connection (WCC) -- a program of the non-profit Community Alliance for Learning -- that helps students become more competent and confident writers. WCC does this by matching middle- and high-school kids with community volunteers -- like me -- for one-on-one coaching during their English classes.

The WCC now has more than 600 volunteer coaches, from all cultures and backgrounds -- parents, grandparents, working and retired people, and recent college graduates -- working in 10 San Francisco Bay Area public schools. I have been a volunteer at Longfellow Middle School in Berkeley, where this year we've already held more than 2,200 individual coaching sessions.

My goal as a writing coach is simple and straight-forward, yet heartfelt: To help strengthen a student's writing skills and help them develop their ideas. And, through the use of positive encouragement and showing care, I believe I am making a difference in these students.

Some of my students have been easy to connect with while others have been shy and reserve in their demeanor. They include boys and girls, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, blacks and whites -- a microcosm of Berkeley's population. Sometimes, I sense discouragement when I sit down with a student. However, I try to convey hope and enthusiasm and, I always ask: "What can I help you with today?"

Volunteering as a writer coach has been a uniquely rewarding experience for me. I've enjoyed seeing my students become more critical thinkers and confident writers, and there's the satisfaction of giving them a quiet and positive space in their busy school day to thrive in. Of course, too, there's witnessing the gratitude of dedicated teachers whom we serve. It's an experience I look forward to repeating next school year.

As the current school term winds down, I sense that my students are becoming more confident in their abilities not to mention more competent in their writing and thinking skills.

After all, inside every student there is a writer.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Rembrandt and the richness of the print culture

Rembrandt Van Rijn / 
Arguably, the most influential
phic artist of his generation.

On the occasion of seeing Rembrandt's Century the other evening at the de Young Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, I was amazed by the wide ranging artworks from the Dutch Golden Age and the remarkable achievements by Rembrandt Van Rijn and his 17th century Dutch peers in this exhibition of works on paper.

Rembrandt's Century, which complements Girl With the Pearl Earring: Dutch Paintings from the Mauritshuisexplores an artistic era when printmaking gained in cultural importance, both in Holland and internationally. According to the exhibition's curator, James Ganz, writing on the de Young Museum's website, http://deyoung.famsf.org, "More than any other fine objects, prints circulation extensively throughout the 17th-century art world, broadcasting artistic, political, and scientific development far and wide."

This extraordinary exhibition of more than 200 engravings, etchings, woodcuts, ink drawings and watercolors, includes 60 etchings by Rembrandt dating from the 1620s to the 1660s as its focal point. Also, there are works by painter-printmakers such as Adriaen van Ostade, Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione and Jusepe de Ribera, as well as by graphic artists such as Jacques Callot, Wenceslaus Hollar and Lambert Doomer.

Through observing Rembrandt's etchings and prints, I learned of the richness of the print culture that existed during the era of the Dutch Golden Age. Not only was Rembrandt a student of art; he was also a teacher and a collector, too. His prints include many different genres: still life, natural history, the nude, landscape, and scenes of daily life.

One of his Rembrandt's most artistic landscapes regardless of medium is his "The Landscape with Three Trees," drawn in 1643. It represents Rembrandt's largest and most striking etched landscape and it's animated with many details, too. It drew a lot of attention and gazing on this evening.

"It's a print that's been loved by so many people, and there's so much literature on it, yet nobody to this day can agree on whether the storm is coming or going or what kind of trees those are," said Ganz, in a March interview with San Francisco Chronicle art critic Kenneth Baker.

"One of the conventions of landscape is that you have a draftsman sitting somewhere, but you don't put the draftsman facing out of the picture, which is what Rembrandt does here," said Ganz. "It's almost impossible to see under 5-foot candles of light, but there is a couple there cuddling in the bushes. And the three trees ~ are they the Three Crosses? Is it a political thing? We don't know."

One thing that's certain is Rembrandt thoroughly immersed himself in the vibrant print culture of the 17th century, both as a creator and collector, and he distinguished himself as arguably the most influential graphic artist of his generation.

Rembrandt's Century, the first exhibition to showcase the extraordinary holdings from the age of Rembrandt van Rijn in the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, runs through June 2, 2013 in the de Young-Herbst Exhibition Galleries at the de Young Museum, San Francisco.

(Photo for Rembrandt's Century courtesy of Exhibition Catalogue.)

Rembrandt's The Landscape With the Three Trees (1643)

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Laura Mvula: Singing to the moon with a beautiful heart, soul and voice

On her debut album, Sing to the Moon, the British singer/songwriter Laura Mvula not only taps into the sound of vintage '60s soul, she really stands out in the spotlight.

I learned of Mvula only last month when I heard Morning Becomes Eclectic host Jason Bentley rave about her music, which unconventionally pairs neo-soul with orchestral pop, and her voice, calling her a "revelation."

Soon, thereafter, NPR profiled the chanteuse, noting that her songs "sound like the whole world at once.

"Equally adept at radiating joy ("Like the Morning Dew"), articulating a socially conscious mission statement ("That's Alright"), and singing sweet ballads (the harp-infused "Can't Live With the World"), Mvula radiates the world confidence of a singer twice her age," wrote NPR's Stephen Thompson.

Mvula, 26, grew up in Birmingham, England as "a regular girl" in a musical family. She has two younger siblings who play in her touring band, which includes strings and horns. She is a classically-trained singer, who graduated from the Birmingham Conservatoire, and has sung in acapella choirs.

Mvula sings with a voice that is as distinctive as it is different. Think about the first time you heard Adele or Amy Winehouse or, for those of you old enough to remember, Nina Simone. How do I best describe Mvula's fantastic voice? Well, it is breathtakingly amazing ~ there's a neo-soul mentality to it, influenced by Erykah Badu and Lauryn Hill ~ and Mvula's gentle-but-powerful song lyrics are heartfelt. And, there are those infectious vocal harmonies found in many of her songs, such as "Like the Morning Dew," the first track on Sing to the Moon, that would do the Beach Boys proud.

Recently, Mvula gave her U.S. radio debut as she performed live on the Morning Becomes Eclectic show, which originates from public radio station KCRW-FM (Monday-Friday from 9 a.m.-noon Pacific Time / 4-7 p.m. GMT) in Santa Monica, Calif., and is simulcast worldwide via KCRW.com. For a limited time, KCRW offering a free download of the magnificent "Sing to the Moon."

"I love the version of "Sing to the Moon" that appears on Laura Mvula's debut album, but when I heard her perform it live at KCRW it became an intimate story performed so delicately that it's heartbreaking," KCRW host Anne Litt wrote on the station's website. "During her interview for Morning Becomes Eclectic, she revealed that this song was inspired by an autobiography of a 1950's jazz singer called Adelaide Hall whose father told her to 'sing to the moon, and the stars will shine.' "

Indeed, Sing to the Moon is a celebration of Laura Mvula's beautiful and soulful voice. The stars are shining tonight.

* * * 

Sing to the Moon is currently available digitally via iTunes and Amazon.com, and the CD and vinyl version debuts on May 14.

To see videos from the Sing to the Moon album, go to : http://www.lauramvula.com/video.

Video of "Sing to the Moon" courtesy of KCRW.com.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Out of the Park: The Art of Baseball

We Did It! / 2013, Oil on canvas 16 x 20 inches
By Jon Francis

Out of the Park: The Art of Baseball is a visual and artistic metaphor of the American pastime that reminds us that baseball is rich in art and literature.

Last Saturday, I visited the Out of the Park: The Art of Baseball exhibition at the George Krevsky Gallery of American Art, located at 77 Geary Street near Union Square in San Francisco. Seeing this year's exhibit brought back fond memories of the 2012 San Francisco Giants World Series championship as depicted through a painting of Sergio Romo, shown moments after striking out Miguel Cabrera to clinch the decisive victory, while his battery mate Buster Posey races to the mound to join Romo in celebration.

This year's 16th annual exhibition of baseball art includes iconic images of Jackie Robinson, Joe DiMaggio and Willie Mays, all which reinforced for me on this April afternoon why baseball matters ~ why it has an important purpose in my life.

Also, there's Oakland A's reliever Rollie Fingers illustrated in his prime, a collage of the outfield wall at Brooklyn's old Ebbets Field featuring the advertisement "Hit Sign, Win Suit" ~ even a gelatin silver photograph of Fidel Castro swinging a baseball bat.

Each work of art from the more than 40 artists in this year's exhibition, created through the use of a variety of mixed media ~ graphite on paper, oil on paper, oil on canvas, gelatin silver photograph, acrylic and marker on canvas board, hand-cut paper collage, and pastel on paper ~ cements our lasting memories of the game we've loved since we were children.

And, there's also a featured literary component, "Baseball Canto," by the American Beat poet and San Francisco resident Lawrence Ferlinghetti:

Watching baseball, sitting in the sun,
eating popcorn, reading Ezra Pound,
and wishing that Juan Marichal would hit a hole right through
the Anglo-Saxon tradition in the first Canto
and demolish the barbarian invaders.
When the San Francisco Giants take the field
and everyone stands up for the National Anthem
with some Irish tenor's voice piped over the loudspeakers,
with all the players struck dead in their places
and the white umpires like Irish cops
in their black suits and little black caps, pressed over their hearts
standing straight and still
like at some funeral of a blarney bartender, and all facing East
as if expecting  some Great White Hope
or the Founding Fathers, to appear on the horizon
like 1066 or 1776 or all that.

But Willie Mays appears instead,
in the bottom of the first,
and a roar goes up, as he clouts the first one into the sun
and takes off, like a footrunner from Thebes.
The ball is lost in the sun and maidens wail after him
but he keeps running, through the Anglo-Saxon epic.
And Tito Fuentes comes up, looking like a bullfighter
in his tight pants and small pointed shoes.
And the rightfield bleachers go mad
with Chicanos & blacks & Brooklyn beer drinkers
"Sweet Tito! Sock it to heem, Sweet Tito!"
And Sweet Tito puts his foot in the bucket
and smacks one that don't come back at all
and flees around the bases
like he's escaping from the United Fruit Company
as the gringo dollar beats out the pound.
And Sweet Tito beats it out, like he's beating out usury,
not to mention fascism and anti-semitism.
And Juan Marichal comes up,
and the Chicano bleachers go loco again,
as Juan belts the first ball, out of sight,
and rounds first and keeps going
and rounds second and rounds third,
and keeps going, and hits pay-dirt
to the roars of the grungy populace.
As some nut presses the backstage panic button
for the tape-recorded National Anthem again,
to save the situation.

But it don't stop nobody this time,
in their revolution round the loaded white bases,
in this last of the great Anglo-Saxon epics,
in the Territorio Libre of Baseball.

A special treat of this year's show is A Baseball Salon: Memories of the Game, an evening of baseball poetry and literature readings, music and short film that will be hosted by the gallery on May 2.

"Baseball has a new purpose in our lives," writes Dr. Marshall Ledger, a magazine editor, in the gallery notes for Out of the Park: The Art of Baseball. "We have discovered the sport in the visual arts and in literature, where artists and writers use it as theme or metaphor to draw us into their special, and often unexpectedly rich, creative worlds."

(Out of the Park: The Art of Baseball continues through May 25. Gallery hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m.)