Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Remembering Yusor Mohammed Abu-Salha: 'She exceeded our expectations'

Deah Shaddy Barakat (23), Yusor Mohammed Abu-Salha (21), and
Razan Mohammed Abu-Salha (19) /
They were Americans just like you and me.

American Muslims make extraordinary contributions to our country every day and, yet, we are left asking ourselves why three young university students, who were American Muslims, were shot to death in Chapel Hill, N.C., earlier this month.

It has left many American Muslims across my country worried and afraid.

This brutal crime that took the lives of these kind, young and exemplary citizens -- a husband, his newlywed wife and her sister -- came just weeks after other recent anti-Muslim attacks in Europe that were carried out in an apparent response to the January murders (committed by Muslim extremists) of Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris.

Teacher and student /
Mussarut Jabeen (L) and Yusor Mohammed
Abu-Salha together in happier times.
"Growing up in America has been such a blessing," said one of the slain students, Yusor Mohammed Abu-Salha, during a 2014 NPR StoryCorps oral history project interview that resurfaced days after her death. Accompanied to the StoryCorps booth in Raleigh, N.C. along with her third grade elementary school teacher, Mussarut Jabeen, Abu-Salha explained: "Although, in some ways, I stand out because of the hijab, there's still so many ways that I feel so embedded in the fabric that is our culture. Here, we're all one ... Open, compassionate ... That's the beautiful thing here ... It doesn't matter where you come from. There're so many different people from so many different places of different backgrounds and religions. But here we're all one -- one culture."

Among my many Muslim friends from the North Africa countries of Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, whom I've become acquainted with over the past several years via Facebook, they are united by their faith and share in mourning the lives of their Muslim American sisters and brother half a world and many time zones away, too. They insist -- and I agree -- that no one should ever be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, or how they worship. 

Yet, I'm left wondering and I'm sure others are thinking: How do you convey a message of tolerance throughout a large country like mine that's comprised of so many different religious faiths and political attitudes, especially when certain cross-sections of the American public -- including certain American media organizations -- are not showing tolerance themselves and, worse, come across as Islamophobic? 

My Muslim friends are human and compassionate -- and they share many of the same hopes and feelings just like you and me. None of them are religious fanatics. However, they are very worried about the escalation of deadly violence shown by Muslim extremists, who seem to have taken their Islamic faith hostage through acts of terrorism across the world. 

Through dozens of conversations covering countless hours, thanks to my open-mindedness and being a good listener, many of my Muslim friends have shared in confidence with me things they might not ordinarily be comfortable in sharing with their friends or family. So, I can attest to their honesty, their compassion, their sense of wanting to have a better life than their parents and to pass along a better life to their children. Sound familiar? First and foremost, together, we've worked hard to build a sense of trust and, also, to share the love of our friendship. 

Yusor Mohammed Abu-Salha /
On the occasion of her 2014 graduation
 from her beloved North Carolina State
University in Raleigh, N.C.
I invite each of you to try reaching out to connect with a Muslim or somebody of a different religious faith than your own -- and truly get to know them and to learn about their faith. Take off your blinders and try to establish a dialogue and build trust. You'll feel better for making the effort.

During their StoryCorps interview, Jabeen recalled: "I remember Yusor as a little girl when she was in third grade. She had this sense of giving that really makes her different from other children."

In December 2014, Yusor graduated from North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C. 

In closing, Jabeen said: "I would like people to know and remember (Yusor) as a practicing Muslim, as a daughter and, above all, as a good human being. You know, when we write our comments on report cards, we say they exceeded our expectations. She exceeded our expectations."

Now, I hope you will take a few moments of your time to pause and listen to the voice of Yusor Mohammed Abu-Salha from her entire StoryCorps interview: 

I'm not ashamed to say that listening to Yusor's beautiful and loving voice -- so full of life and hope less than a year ago -- brought me to tears.

Photos: Courtesy of Facebook and StoryCorps.org.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Of shock and sadness: It was a bad week for journalism

Journalism has been called story telling with a purpose. The past week was not a very kind one for the craft of journalism, a profession I love dearly, or for its practitioners. It was a week filled full of shock and sadness. Unfortunately, there's not been much time for reflection.

"This week has just been overwhelming," said Betsy West, a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism, recently quoted by the website pix11.com. "Some of the most tragic news that just keeps happening one after the other, after the other."

Brian Williams
The week started badly when America's most trusted and honored news anchor, Brian Williams of NBC News, was found to have lied about an incident in the Iraq War in which he said that a helicopter that he was riding in was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade and almost crashed. In fact, it was another gunship that was downed.

Williams's "misremembered" past coupled with a less-than-satisfactory on-air apology earned him a six month suspension without pay from the peacock network.

Jon Stewart
Then, Jon Stewart, America's best media and political satirist, announced that he was leaving as anchor of the Emmy Award-winning -- and influential -- The Daily Show later this year, ending a wonderful 16-year run on Comedy Central. His announcement sent shock waves through social media, lighting up Twitter and Facebook

"It's been an absolute privilege. It's been the honor of my professional life, and I thank you for watching it, for hate watching it, whatever reason you were tuning in for," said Stewart in sharing his decision to leave The Daily Show.

Bob Simon
A day after Stewart's surprise, Bob Simon of CBS News and 60 Minutes fame, who established himself as one of America's heroic war correspondents covering difficult conflicts in all corners of the world, was killed in a tragic car accident in New York City.

On the night of his death, CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley, one of Simon's colleagues on 60 Minutes, tweeted: "One of the great writers of a generation has passed. Bob Simon was a journalist of extraordinary courage."

David Carr
Finally, David Carr, America's pre-eminent media columnist at The New York Times -- and a big champion of social media -- died in his own newsroom Thursday night after moderating a public panel hosted by his newspaper. Ironically, his last "Media Equation" column, published three days before he died, was about Brian Williams and focused on the trials and tribulations of being a celebrity journalist.

"I've never experienced a week where people were talking about journalism so much and about the importance of journalism," said West, formerly an award-winning member at 60 Minutes and a friend of Simon's.

Although the impact of all four events struck a chord with me, Stewart's surprise announcement and Simon's quick and sudden death -- in an avoidable car crash -- resonated with me the most.

It's not often that you get to leave something you're passionate about on your own terms and while at the top of your game, but that's what Stewart is doing -- leaving on a career high note. Since 1999, Stewart has informed us and entertained us in a way few have been able to do. He's championed causes, nurtured talent -- think Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver -- and turned his show into a vehicle for showcasing the best literary authors in the world, thereby rekindling the public's interest -- and my interest, too -- in reading books. And, what's not to like about Stewart's way he ends each broadcast with "a moment of Zen"?

While it's too early to speculate who will succeed Stewart as host of The Daily Show, one thing's certain: Stewart has set the bar awful high -- being "a comic genius, generous with his time and talent" in the words of Comedy Central's president -- and he will be dearly missed.

As for Simon, he was an esteemed broadcast journalist -- an award-winning storyteller without peer. The 73-year-old legendary CBS News and 60 Minutes correspondent, who started at the network in 1967, became renowned for his international coverage, including Vietnam, the Middle East and Israel. He covered many major news events and conflicts, both in the U.S. and throughout the world. As a war correspondent, Simon was captured by Iraqi forces near the Saudi-Kuwaiti border during the opening days of the Persian Gulf War in January 1991. He and his crew were freed after being held captive for 40 days.

I admired Simon's style and his ability to craft a story. For the past 19 years, he was a mainstay on the CBS Sunday night news magazine 60 Minutes and was equally outstanding narrating a serious or human interest storyThe most recent of his 27 Emmy Awards was a story he reported for 60 Minutes about an orchestra in Paraguay whose members made instruments out of trash.

Last Sunday night, Simon's last piece for 60 Minutes aired. It led the broadcast and told a story about a potential cure for the Ebola virus. The story was produced by Simon's daughter, Tanya. At the end of the show's broadcast, Simon's colleague, Steve Kroft, his voice trembling ever so slightly, looked at the camera and spoke these words: "All of us lost him -- his family, his colleagues here at 60 Minutes and all of you who have watched this broadcast over the years. We lost his curiosity, his unparalleled writing ability, his calm bravery under fire. And we lost his sense of justice and his sense of the absurd -- both of which he brought to so much of his reporting."

Indeed, Simon will be sorely missed. His legacy will endure through his storytelling.

Looking back, it has been a week when there's been both a greatness and emptiness in truth within the journalism industry.

Photos: Courtesy Google images.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Lessons in life: The Pianist of Willesden Lane

In her one-woman show, The Pianist of Willesden Lane, piano virtuoso
Mona Golabek chronicles her mother's escape from the Holocaust.

The Pianist of Willesden Lane is the true story of Lisa Jura, a 14-year-old Jewish musical prodigy who dreamed of becoming a concert pianist. Set in Vienna in 1938 and in London during the Blitzkrieg, this story of hope and perseverance includes some of the world's most beloved piano music. It has been turned into a one-woman play starring internationally celebrated pianist Mona Golabek, Jura's daughter, that is enjoying an encore run this month at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre following a critically-acclaimed New York premiere.

This poignant, 90-minute tribute is based on the book The Children of Willesden Lane, written by Golabek and Lee Cohen. It's a coming-of-age story of one young girl's survival and how music saved her life.

My wife and I attended a performance of The Pianist of Willesden Lane last Friday evening in Berkeley, Calif., in which Golabek slips into the persona of her mother at age 14 during the tumult of adolescence and war, and we both found it to be a very passionate and enriching experience.

Imagine if you will, being confronted with the horror of being Jewish in Nazi-occupied Vienna, and, then, being the chosen one among three siblings to be saved from the Holocaust with the one ticket your family had for the Kindertransport, a rescue mission that took place during the nine months prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. Lisa Jura's parents were forced to make a difficult family decision. They chose to send the gifted Lisa to London and safety.

In a hostel on Willesden Lane, Lisa fought to realize her musical dreams. Her music became a beacon of hope for the many displaced children of the war. From Grieg's "Piano Concerto in A Minor" to Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" to Debussy's "Clair de Lune", which Jura later passed down to her daughters, each represented the power of music to uplift the human spirit.

"My mother, Lisa Jura, was my best friend," writes Golabek in the play's program notes. "She taught my sister, Renee, and me to play the piano. We loved our piano lessons with her."

And, yet, they became more than piano lessons -- they were lessons in life.

"They were filled with stories of a hostel in London and the people she knew there," said Golabek. "Her stories were our folklore, bursting with bits and pieces of wonderful characters who bonded over her music."

Sitting at the piano as a child, Golabek recalled, "I would close my eyes and listen to her lilting voice and imagine her world. She always believed 'each piece of music tells a story.'"

The virtuoso Golabek performs a dozen different pieces of classical music plus a few light standards, sitting center stage with her Steinway grand piano as her co-star, during The Pianist of Willesden Lane. The play was adapted and directed by Hershey Felder. Throughout, there's an infusion of hope shaped by the life-affirming power of music. A classical piano repertoire has the power to do just that. The three movements of Grieg's "Piano Concerto in A Minor" serve as a beginning, middle and ending to Jura's story in The Pianist of Willesden Lane.

As Golabek appears center stage at the play's beginning, she says: "My name is Lisa Jura, and I'm 14 years old." Her voice has transformed into a girlish lilt with a slight accent. "It's Vienna, 1938, and it's a Friday afternoon. I'm preparing for the most important hour of my week -- my piano lesson."...

In the introduction to The Children of Willesden Lane, Golabek wrote: "My mother had lived an incredible journey and she had infused her music with everything she had experienced: her childhood with loving parents in Vienna before World War II; her escape to England aboard the legendary Kindertransport; her struggle to study her music while a war raged around her; and, always, her endless fascination with that ramshackle building at 243 Willesden Lane, the hostel in the London suburbs where she lived as a young refugee separated from her family."

As she boarded the train in Vienna, Lisa's mother told her: "Never stop playing and I will be with you every step of the way." Jura took those words to heart. Her legacy has inspired Golabek's music and her own life. "Music will give you strength," her mother reassured her. "It will be your best friend in life."

In each piece of music during The Pianist of Willesden Lane, there is a story. And, through Golabek's narrative and performance, we discover what those stores are and their importance. She says of her mother: "I pass along her story in the hope that it may enrich the passion and music that lie in each of us."

Indeed, as the audience stood and applauded Golabek at the conclusion of her heartfelt performance of The Pianist of Willesden Lane, there weren't many dry eyes on this rainy winter's night. What we had just witnessed was, indeed, a deeply moving and inspiring tribute to the power of a mother's love for her children.

The music played in The Pianist of Willesden Lane:
• Grieg: Piano Concerto in A Minor, op. 16; first movement.
• Beethoven: Sonata, op. 27, no. 2; "Moonlight"
• Debussy: Clair de Lune; "Moonlight" from Suite bergamasque.
• Chopin: Nocturne in B-Flat Major, op. 9, no. 1.
• Grieg: Piano Concerto in A Minor, op. 16; second movement.
• Bach: Partita #1 in B-Flat Major, BMV 825.
• Grieg: Piano Concerto, op. 16; first movement Cadenza.
• Bach: Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, BMW 147.
• Audition scene: Bach Partita #1 in B-Flat Major; Beethoven Piano Sonata #21 in C Major, op. 53 ("Waldstein"); Chopin Scherzo #2 in B-Flat Minor, op. 31; Scriabin Etude in D-Sharp Minor, op. 3, no. 2.
• Gershwin: "Strike Up the Band".
•Eric Maschwitz and Jack Strachey "These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)".
• Rachmaninoff: Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, op. 3, no. 2.
• Grieg: Piano Concerto in A Minor, op. 18; third movement.

Photos: Courtesy of mellopix.com and Google images. Videos: Courtesy of YouTube.com.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

2014: It was a very good year to be in my pictures

A selfie / It was a very good year to be in my pictures.

As many of you who follow me through A Tuesday Night Memo or via Facebook know, I'm an avid photographer. 

Whenever I travel across the country or abroad -- or even just to go to a University of California, Berkeley sporting event or out to eat, I make it a habit to bring my camera (a Canon PowerShot A570 IS) with me. And, thanks to getting an iPhone four years ago, I now have two sources for shooting photographs. 

Taking pictures has matured considerably as photography has morphed from film to digital, and it's become an easier and more affordable hobby. Once was the time when I worried about how many rolls of film to buy -- and what speed -- for a vacation. Then, making sure I didn't misplace any rolls after I shot them.

Once I became a digital photographer about 10 years ago, it allowed me to become my own editor. So, if I'm not happy with a picture, I can delete it and re-shoot it, then edit it for clarity. No longer do I have to worry about whether the film I shot of the Eiffel Tower or Westminster Abbey is in focus or not. 

Thanks to social media sites like Facebook, uploading and sharing photos with a large group of friends has become fast and simple -- and for me, personally, it's become a daily exercise in sharing my photography with others through my timeline: "It's what's on my mind."

Each year, I take more than a thousand photographs of people, places and things. In revisiting the photo albums I've shot over the past 12 months, I've pulled together a group of photos that I'm pretty excited about. They cover a variety of things important and interesting to me: Flowers and nature, sports, music and the urban landscapes of cities I've visited like San Francisco and Seattle. 

You may recognize some of these photos from appearing on my Facebook page or in my blog. Click on each photograph to see them enlarged.

I hope you enjoy the exhibit and I welcome your thoughts.

Cheers and Happy 2015!

Brittany Boyd and the University of California, Berkeley women's basketball team
face the USC Women of Troy at Haas Pavilion last January.

Mikayla Lyles (L) and Toni Kokenis / The Cal and Stanford basketball rivals
created a pair of panel discussions on support for LGBT inclusion in sports
that took place on the Cal and Stanford campuses last February.

A clash of mascots / The Stanford Tree and Cal's Oski Bear promote
a little school spirit for their respective teams during a Cal-Stanford
women's basketball game at Haas Pavilion last February.

Early morning beauty / A mid-winter sunrise as seen from my patio deck.

At Stitches West / A beautiful yarn display from A Verb For Keeping Warm
on display at 2014 Stitches West in Santa Clara, Calif. last February.

The home office / My MacBook Pro logged in to Facebook, a cup of French roast
coffee and a WriterCoach Connection tutoring assignment.

A rainbow of colors / Sharing the beauty of one of
our roses in our backyard garden.

All rise / A truly incredible spring sunrise as viewed from our patio deck.

Fun in the sun and sand / Cal's Joan Colairo (L) and Adrienne Gehan
playing sand volleyball  at the University's Clark Kerr Courts last spring.

Easter Sunday / The altar at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral last April.

Enjoying Bumbershoot / Listening to music at the Starbucks
Stage during the 2014 Bumbershoot festival in Seattle. 

On stage / Valerie June played a distinctive blend of rural roots and country
music on the Starbucks Stage at the 2014 Bumbershoot festival in Seattle. 

The Seattle Space Needle / The iconic Emerald City
landmark as seen on a cloudy Labor Day.

A summer night of sound / Enjoying Bumbershoot after dark as Neon Trees
plays an "upbeat collection of sleek, modern alternative pop songs powered
by singer/songwriter Tyler Glenn's bright melodies, huge choruses, and
witty lyrics about the challenges of finding love in the digital age."

A clear sky / Throughout the year, our clear skies over the Bay Area afford
us an opportunity for moon gazing.

Up close and personal with the Nutcracker / Celebrating
Christmas at the Fairmont Hotel, San Francisco.

The Tree of Hope / Celebrating Christmas
at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco.

A San Francisco treat / A cable car climbs Nob Hill on Powell Street
at the intersection of California Street.

Christmas in San Francisco / A view of the Union Square
Christmas tree.

My friend Joslynn Celestine Mathis-Reed's MFA thesis choreography notes
for her performance of "Narrowed Mind" at Mills College in Oakland, Calif.

A celebration of orange / Sharing a vibrant orange rose from
our backyard garden.

Connecting community with public space / Public, a San Francisco-based
urban bicycle design and gear company is making bicycle riding more
enjoyable, practical and chic.

Looking deep into the power and beauty of nature /
A eucalyptus tree near Shakespeare Garden in
San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. 

Dreaming my future / Enjoying a Peet's caffe mocha
at the Emeryville Public Market.

All photographs by Michael Dickens © 2014.