Tuesday, March 31, 2015

A sense of space: Thoughts on where I write

In a perfect world, I would have a garden shed reminiscent of George Bernard Shaw or a Key West cottage replete with cats like Ernest Hemingway in which to creatively write and do a little divining. Instead, I have our modest-but-comfortable 1927 California-style bungalow in the hills above the flatlands of Oakland's Dimond District, which has been my home since 1999.

While having a huge chunk of time to focus on writing would be great in that perfect world, finding a good rhythm while writing -- and a sense of space -- is something that challenges me all the time.

A winning combo /
My MacBook and a mug of French roast coffee.
Surrounded by the clamor of everyday life, I do most of my writing sitting at our dining room table. It's me and my MacBook. While there may be nothing special to this space which I reconfigure each day -- after all, it's not a dedicated room but a pop-up work space -- I am surrounded by a variety of photographs, artwork and family mementos. Best of all, when I write -- often during the morning hours -- there's always room at the table for a mug of my favorite French roast coffee. And, I usually have my iPhone and the national edition of The New York Times at arm's reach.

Sometimes, when I write, it's tempting to look out the dining room window that faces the cul-de-sac and do a little curative daydreaming while also observing and absorbing the sights and sounds of the neighborhood. I love hearing the noise of chirping birds that visit the big tree outside. Drawing open the dining room curtains just a little bit allows the sun to freely shine in. It's a bonus if there's a gentle breeze, too.

I like to listen to music and create an ambient soundtrack to fit my creative space. If I'm writing on a weekday between nine and noon, chances are good I'm connected via my iPad to the "Morning Becomes Eclectic" program airing on KCRW.com.

While writing can be a sedentary experience, if I need a change of scenery, sometimes, I merely pick up my laptop and move into the living room and take up space either on the sofa facing the fireplace or plop down in my comfortable Ikea Poang chair.

At the end of the day, I pack up my MacBook and set the dining room table for dinner.

Photograph by Michael Dickens © 2014.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

As close to the bone as filmmaking gets: Ken Burns Presents "Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies"

A biography of cancer / First the book,
now the film
Imagine the problems that would be alleviated if a cure for cancer were found.

In the spirit of learning and understanding, last week my wife and I attended a screening of the new Ken Burns Presents "Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies," a film by Barak Goodman, at the invitation of KQED, our PBS affiliate, in San Francisco.

The film, a three part, six-hour documentary, will debut next week from March 30-April 1 on PBS -- and I highly recommend you see it.

After all, convening dialogue in the pursuit of lifelong learning can only lead to a better understanding of our world, right?

We saw a 45-minute preview that included portions from all three parts, followed by an interview and a Q & A session with Barak Goodman. The Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated film director reminded us how we are all impacted by cancer and noted how some of us will die because of the deadly disease.

"Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies" is based on physician, researcher, and award-winning science writer Siddhartha Mukherjee's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, which examines cancer with "a cellular biologist's precision, a historian's perspective, and a biographer's passion."

Through Goodman's direction, the film tells the complete story of cancer, "from its first description in an ancient Egyptian scroll to the gleaming laboratories of modern research institutions," according to the program's website. "At six hours, the film interweaves a sweeping historical narrative; with intimate stories about contemporary patients; and an investigation into the latest scientific breakthroughs that may have brought us, at long last, to the brink of lasting cures."

The film combines science and case studies with history -- more than 100 people were interviewed and 700 hours of film were produced over a two-year period -- and, after previewing "Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies," it's easy to see the influence filmmaker Ken Burns had on the project as executive producer. Call it the Ken Burns effect, if you will, of panning and zooming from still imagery and using lots of talking heads on camera to tell the story.

"There's a lot of Ken Burns stuff (techniques) in it," said Goodman. "While his finger prints are all over it, the really great thing about Ken is he gave us the space to make the film."

Much of the film took place at the The Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, Md., and at the Charleston Area Medical center in Charleston, West Virginia.

The film tugs on a lot of heartstrings and emotions. "It was extremely emotionally challenging because we got very, very close to the patients we filmed, some of whom didn't survive their cancer," said Goodman.

In a PBS promo for the film, Burns said that "Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies" is "about as close to the bone as filmmaking gets for me. Cancer has been a huge part of my life. There is never a moment in my awareness as a human being that I didn't know that something was desperately wrong with my mother, at 2 1/2 to 3 years. She was sick with cancer. She died when I was 11, almost 12 years old.

"The reason why I do what I do comes from this illness and this death and watching it  happen," he said.

After a 10-year struggle with the disease, Burns' mother died of breast cancer.

Cancer is a monumental and difficult but solvable problem, says Goodman. "We hope the series makes people hope; to not shy away from the disease."

To learn more:

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Revisiting: A History of the World in 100 Objects, and the importance of protecting our past during troubled times

Talking points: If great art and architecture belongs to humanity, do we have a responsibility to save it during wartime? If so, should the recent barbaric destruction of Iraq's ancient artifacts by Islamic State militants be treated as a war crime?

What began with the shocking videos that went viral showing Islamic State militants destroying priceless Iraqi antiquities at a Mosul museum has escalated into the wholesale destruction of Iraq's heritage as ancient archeological sites in Nimrud and Hatra lay in ruins. Nimrud is an ancient Assyrian city while Hatra dates to the first century B.C.

Reading about these recent disturbing events brought to mind a book I read a few years ago, A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor. It is a book which upon further review has given me a renewed appreciation for our past and made me realize why we should care about preserving it for future generations. 

From the handaxe to the credit card /
There's a lot we can learn through ordinary objects.
A History of the World in 100 Objects is based on the popular BBC Radio 4 series, and in the book the author "takes a dramatically original approach to the history of humanity" by using objects left behind by previous civilizations -- often accidentally -- and describes them as "prisms through which we can explore past worlds and the lives of the men and women who lived in them."

Imagine a book that is both an intellectual and visual feast, and allows you to travel back in time and across the globe to see how the human experience has shaped the world and been shaped by it over the past two million years.

In February 2012, I wrote about A History of the World in 100 Objects. 

In light of the tragic destruction of antiquities in Iraq, it is worth revisiting what I wrote three years ago so that we may appreciate the heritage of art and its humanity:

A History of the World in 100 Objects begins with the story of a chopping tool from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, Africa, a relic that is between 1.8-2 million years old and is one of the earliest surviving objects made by human hands. This hefty, 707-page book, which we recently checked out from our local public library, concludes with a story about an object from the modern, twenty-first century: a solar-powered lamp and charger manufactured in Shenzhen, Guandong, China, that is representative of the world we live in today.

A History of the World in 100 Objects /
Exploring world history from two million years ago to the present.

According to the book's dust jacket, Neil MacGregor's aim "is not simply to describe these remarkable things, but to show us their significance ~ how a stone pillar tells us about a great Indian emperor preaching tolerance to his people, how Spanish pieces of eight tell us about the beginning of a global currency, or how an early Victorian tea set tells us about the impact of empire."

MacGregor, who has been the director of the British Museum since 2002, writes: "The story is told exclusively through the things that humans have made -- all sorts of things, carefully designed and then either admired and preserved, or used, broken and thrown away. I've chosen just a hundred objects from different points on our journey -- from a cooking pot to a golden galleon, from a Stone Age tool to a credit card, and each object comes from the collection of the British Museum."

Through these 100 objects, MacGregor describes history as a kaleidoscope -- "shifting, interconnected, constantly surprising, and shaping our world today in ways that most of us have never imagined."

At the time of the book's publishing, Carol Vogel of the New York Times wrote: "These objects, some humble, some glorious, embody intriguing tales of politics and power, social history and human behavior."

The British Museum / As I saw it in 2005.
During a 2005 spring vacation trip to London, I took advantage of the opportunity to explore the British Museum. What's truly remarkable about this museum, replete with its Greek Revival facade and first opened to the public in 1759, is that its holdings do not including any paintings. However, what this museum does include is an impressive collection of antiquities. As it turned out, my visit to the British Museum was one of the most enjoyable afternoons I have ever spent at a museum.

Among many things that stood out for me in the breadth of the museum's collections was seeing the Rosetta Stone up close and personal. Like the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris, everyone crowded around, wanting to catch a glimpse of the Rosetta Stone and photograph it.

The Rosetta Stone, found at el-Rashid, Egypt in 196 B.C., is the 33rd of 100 objects whose story is told by MacGregor and, among visitors to the museum, it is definitely a must-see attraction.

"Every day when I walk through the Egyptian sculpture gallery at the British Museum there are tour guides speaking every imaginable language addressing groups of visitors, all craning to see this object. It is on every visitor's itinerary, and, with the mummies, it's the most popular object in the British Museum," writes MacGregor.

The Rosetta Stone /
The most popular object in
the British Museum.
"Why? It's decidedly dull to look at -- a grey stone about the size of one of those large suitcases you see people trundling around on wheels at airports," adds MacGregor. "The rough edges show that it's been broken from a larger stone, with the fractures cutting across the text that covers one side. And when you read that text, it's pretty dull too -- it's mostly bureaucratic jargon about tax concessions. But, as so often in the Museum, appearances are deceptive."

MacGregor continues: "This dreary bit of broken granite has played a starring role in three fascinating and different stories: the story of the Greek kings who ruled in Alexandria after Alexander the Great conquered Egypt; the story of the French and British imperial competition across the Middle East after Napoleon invaded Egypt; and the extraordinary but peaceful scholarly contest that led to the most famous decipherment in history -- the cracking of hieroglyphics."

What matters now, writes MacGregor, "is not what the stone says but that it says it three times in three different languages: in Classical Greek, the language of the Greek rules and the state administration, and then in two forms of ancient Egyptian: the everyday writing of the people (known as Demotic) and the priestly hieroglyphics which had for centuries baffled Europeans. It was the Rosetta Stone that changed all that; it dramatically opened up the entire world of ancient Egypt to scholarship."

What I find truly amazing after reading the chapter about the Rosetta Stone is that it survived unread through 2,000 years of various occupations, including the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Persians, Muslim Arabs and Ottoman Turks. Eventually, the 1798 Napoleon-led French military invasion of Egypt ("they wanted to cut the British route to India") yielded the Rosetta Stone. "The French seized the stone as a trophy of war, but it never made it back to Paris. With his fleet destroyed by Nelson at the Battle of the Nile, Napoleon himself returned to France, leaving the French army behind. In 1801, the French surrendered to the British and Egyptian generals. The terms of the Treaty of Alexandria included the handing over of antiquities, among them the Rosetta Stone."

Soon, the stone found its way to Great Britain for good after its capture by the British Army where it was presented to the British Museum by King George III. The Rosetta Stone has been displayed in the public domain at the British Museum since 1802.

Today, the Rosetta Stone is freely available for the world's scholars to see. Ironically, it was a French scholar, Jean-Francois Champollion, who finally cracked the stone's hieroglyphics in 1822. For the British Museum's many visitors, who wait patiently like I did on a Sunday afternoon in March 2005 for a fleeting glimpse, seeing the Rosetta Stone is a thrill of a lifetime and a chance opportunity to photograph it for posterity.

Photographs of the British Museum and the Rosetta Stone by Michael Dickens, copyright 2005. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

2015 Question Time: Let's ask the "Memo" blogger

Question Time / Ask the Blogger
As many of you know, I enjoy the art of conversation with my friends on Facebook. I find it to be a great way to get to know this diverse and inclusive group of people better, and I can do it either from the convenience of home or while sipping a cup of coffee at a favorite café.

If you think about it, what's not to like about enjoying a cup of French roast coffee, creating an ambient music soundtrack to fill my chat room, and catching up on the world events around me that my Facebook newsfeed sees fit for me to read? And, best of all, I can learn what's on the minds of my friends near and far.

Add to this mix, I occasionally text with a select group of friends via WhatsApp and, sometimes, I like to share conversation by using Skype video, too. It's the kind of multi-tasking I truly enjoy and derive a tremendous amount of benefit from.

Often, I am asked a lot of personal questions, especially by newer friends who want to get to know me better -- and I'm cool about this. Some of these questions are about my blog or other writing projects I may be engaged in at the time. Other times, I'm asked about what I majored in at university (the answer: American History) and, especially from friends where English is their second or third languages, they ask me about how to improve their English-language conversation and writing skills. I don't mind because I'm usually the one asking a lot of questions of my friends. I guess, it's the natural reporter's instinct in me. And, it's only fair to turn the tables every once in a while.

So, here are my answers to five questions I'm often asked:

What book is currently on my bedside table?
The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love and Survival by Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen tells the inspirational true story of Lisa Jura, a child prodigy pianist ---- and Golabek's mother -- who escaped Nazi-controlled Vienna for London on the famed Kindertransport during World War II. It's a coming-of-age story of one young girl's survival and how music saved her life. I began reading this wonderful book after seeing Golabek star in her one-woman show The Pianist of Willesden Lane last month at the Berkeley Rep Theatre -- and I haven't been able to put it down. 

What is an unforgettable place I've travelled to in the past year?
In the past calendar year, my out of Bay Area travel has been limited to a summer trip to Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn., and two visits to Seattle -- Labor Day weekend and Christmas. I love visiting both cities. If I could re-phrase the question to "An unforgettable place I'll be traveling to in the next year is," I would definitely say my upcoming trip in mid-June to Vancouver, B.C. to see the U.S. women's national football (soccer) team face Nigeria in the 2015 Women's World Cup. I've visited Vancouver several times over the past 20 years -- including a week's stay during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games-- and I love walking through Stanley Park and shopping and dining on Granville Island. 

What are my favorite comfort clothes?
A pair of Land's End traditional fit medium indigo blue jeans, Uniqlo black long-sleeve t-shirt, a Land's End half-zip black fleece top and a pair of classic Stan Smith Adidas sneakers. Sometimes, I'll switch out and wear navy blue instead of black for the long-sleeve t-shirt and half-zip fleece, but I think you get the picture of what I love to wear: comfortable casual clothes.

What is my favorite guilty-pleasure snack food?
My favorite go-to guilty-pleasure snack food that always puts a smile on my face is: Chicago Mix popcorn from Trader Joe's. For those not familiar, Chicago Mix is part salty cheese-flavored popcorn, part classic caramel-flavored popcorn. Throw them together and mix 'em up and you've got one great guilty-pleasure snack food that tastes wonderful.

What kind of music always puts me in a good mood?
I love to listen to music by Pink Martini. This Portland, Ore.-based "little orchestra" is fronted by bandleader and pianist Thomas Lauderdale and it features the vocalists China Forbes and Storm Large. The band's music crosses many genres, including: classical, latin, jazz and classic pop. I've seen Pink Martini perform in concert here in the Bay Area on numerous occasions and their shows are like urban music travelogues. A typical concert includes songs sung in English, French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese and Turkish, among many. As an aside, another reason I like Pink Martini is because they are supportive of liberal political causes such as: civil rights, affordable housing, the environment, libraries, parks, education and public broadcasting.