Tuesday, December 27, 2016

"Fences" on film: rarely is it ever silent

Fences / Starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis
A holiday afternoon at the movies is always time well spent, and on the day after Christmas, my wife and I took in a matinee of "Fences," directed by and starring Denzel Washington and also starring Viola Davis. It is a tour-de-force adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play written by the late August Wilson.

Set in the late 1950s, "Fences" is the sixth in Wilson's ten-part "Pittsburgh Cycle." It's a family drama about a former Negro League baseball hero (played by Washington) whose personal bitterness over being slighted by the Major Leagues prevents his son from accepting a college football scholarship.

"Fences" is very much dialogue-driven and both Washington (whose character Troy is described by The New York Times as "a chop-busting raconteur") and Davis (as Troy's "plain-spoken counterpoint" wife, Rose) give powerhouse performances that are worthy of Academy Award consideration.

Fences / A play by August Wilson
After returning home from seeing "Fences," I wanted to find out more about the movie. Among the things I learned was that one of the key challenges for Washington as director was how to transform a play that takes place entirely in the front yard of "an ancient two-story brick house" in Pittsburgh, as Wilson described it, and make it come alive on film. Wilson is also credited with penning the screenplay. "The words are August's'; where we did them is different," Washington explained, in an interview with The New York Times. In the movie, there are interior scenes in the kitchen, living room and master bedroom, and some exterior scenes in the neighborhood streets.

"Beneath the bombast," wrote A.O. Scott in The New York Times, "'Fences' has an aching poetry." By turns, the film is both funny and provocative, and it is also inspiring and hurtful. Rarely is it ever silent. If it is possible to close your eyes and just listen to "Fences," you would be treated to a dramatic literary experience that is rarely matched.

In Washington's portrayal of the central character Troy, a sanitation worker, first embodied on the Broadway stage by James Earl Jones in 1985, Scott wrote: "There is plenty of brag and bluster in his speech, as well as flecks of profanity (editor's note: there's a lot of use of the N-word) and poetry. He tells tales and busts chops with unflagging energy, at times testing the patience of Rose, Bono and his other friends and relations. But mostly Troy, who makes no secret of his illiteracy, uses language as a tool of analysis, a way of explaining what's on his mind and figuring out the shape of the world he must inhabit."

Fortunately for movie-goers, "Fences" goes beyond being just a filmed reading. We are treated to Wilson's genius for dialogue and his examination of the African-American experience in America "from the standpoint of people intent on defying their exclusion from it," as Scott describes it.

For me, "Fences" was both a remarkable learning – and looking-glass – experience into what it must have been like being black in America in the 1950s, as well as an opportunity to study and appreciate both the brilliance of playwright Wilson and the quality of the acting performances given by Washington and Davis.

Photos: Courtesy of Google images. Video: Courtesy of YouTube.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

The day of joy returns: A prayer for Christmas morning

With Christmas 2016 upon us,
 once again, I would like to share a Christmas Day poem 
by the 19th-century Scottish poet and essayist, 
Robert Louis Stevenson 
reflecting our common humanity:

A Prayer for Christmas Morning
By Robert Louis Stevenson

The day of joy returns, Father in Heaven, and
crowns another year with peace and good will.
Help us rightly to remember the birth of Jesus, that
we may share in the song of the angels, the 
gladness of the shepherds, and the worship of the
wise men.

Close the doors of hate and open the doors of
love all over the world.

Let kindness come with every gift and good
desires with every greeting.

Deliver us from evil, by the blessing that Christ
brings, and teach us to be merry with clean hearts.

May the Christmas morning make us happy to 
be thy children.

And the Christmas evening bring us to our bed
with grateful thoughts, forgiving and forgiven, for 
Jesus's sake.


Wishing kind thoughts for a Merry Christmas. 
Although we are of many faiths,
it is important that our common humanity 
allows us to share a season of peace and goodwill.

Photo illustration: Michael Dickens © 2016.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Beyond black and white: searching for a new equality

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar / A great American thinker.

Growing up in the valley suburbs of Los Angeles in the 1960s, one of my childhood heroes was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Back then, as Lew Alcindor (his birth name before he changed it after converting to Islam), he was the dominating force in men's collegiate basketball in leading UCLA to three consecutive NCAA championships. I've always been fascinated by Kareem, not only as an athlete but as a human being because he's shown himself to be so much more than a basketball player. He's also a great American thinker.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's new book
focuses on many paramount issues
facing our society, including:
racism, war, death, love, hope
My current reading project is Abdul-Jabbar's latest book, Writings On the Wall: Searching For a New Equality Beyond Black and White. Co-authored with Raymond Obstfeld and published this fall, it's an insightful book that's full of wisdom and conviction and a must read as we transition from eight years of steady and thoughtful leadership by Barack Obama to the chaos-induced "post-truth" presidency of Donald Trump. In Writings On the Wall, Abdul-Jabbar explores how today's America "is a fractured society, sharply divided along the lines of race, gender, religion, political party and economic class." The book is filled with plenty of fresh reporting and serious thinking.

Writings On the Wall focuses on many paramount issues facing our society: racism, abuse of women, why politicians attack the media, war, growing old, death, love, hope. He approaches these issues with both insight and passion and draws upon his life experiences not only as superstar athlete but also as a scholar, celebrity, parent, education advocate, journalist, charity organizer, African-American and a Muslim.

U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, himself a former NBA basketball player, Rhodes Scholar and author, wrote that Abdul-Jabbar "brings his unusual and unique life story to bear on the issues of our day and adds insight for all of us in the process."

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar used his trademark
"sky hook" shot to help win six NBA
championships during his 20-year
Hall of Fame career. 
Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA's all-time leading scorer and a Basketball Hall of Fame inductee. In retirement, he has been an activist and an in-demand speaker, a basketball coach and the author of nine books for adults and three for children, including What Color Is My World?, which garnered the author the NAACP Image Award for Best Children's Book.

As an essayist for such publications as the Washington Post and TIME magazine, Abdul-Jabbar has written on a wide range of subjects, including race, politics, aging and popular culture.

In 2012, he was selected as a U.S. Cultural Ambassador. Last month, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a White House ceremony.

"My real passion for history is in using it as a critical guide to our future, both personal and cultural," writes Abdul-Jabbar.

"History illuminates the safest path in front of us by revealing the pitfalls of the past. It is a secular bible of cautionary and inspiring stories that distills the wisdom of thousands of years of human endeavor into practical lessons about humanity's morals, politics and personal relationships. It is the ultimate self-help book. And right now, given the political and social turmoil in America, we need all the help we can get."

Abdul-Jabbar integrates a lot of popular-culture references in illustrating his ideas. He's a fan of the many artistic ways that our society chooses to communicate both its darkest fears and its brightest hopes. "Pop culture visualizes the public discourse in myriad ways: through music, movies, TV shows, poetry, comic books, literary novels, plays, YouTube, graffiti and new forms of expression that come along every day," he writes. "It provides the embraceable melody of our cultural song – it doesn't matter how profound the words of the song are if no one wants to listen. Whether Tarantino or Truffaut, all points of view and creative presentations have a place. Popular culture is a language that bridges generations, economic statuses and ethnic backgrounds. It provides a common heritage-in-the-making that brings our diverse community closer."

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar spoke during the 2016
Democratic National Convention.
Why did he write this book? "For me, there would be no point in writing a book like this unless I had some hope that it might help improve life for Americans," writes Abdul-Jabbar. "I don't imagine anything grand, just that some contentious issues might be clarified, that some people might hear a reasonable voice that isn't from the same background as others they listen to.

"Maybe they will become a little more understanding. Mostly, I hope to expand the discussion about what America is and what it means to be an American. Not with waving flags and sentimental speeches but with a return to exploring the document that defines who we are and what we stand for: the U.S. Constitution."

With his book, Writings on the Wall, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
hopes "to shine a flashlight on the path back to the
Age of Reason and the ideals of the U.S. Constitution."
What does he hope to gain? "Many Americans, as evidenced by the 2016 presidential campaign, abandoned these founding principles of reason to voice their fear, anger, frustration and rage. They openly and proudly expressed their racial bigotry, religious intolerance and misogyny as if the past 100 years of history of incremental social progress had never happened.

"Without even knowing it, they have dragged the American flag through the mud by rejecting all the principles it represents. As cartoonist Walt Kelly said in Pogo: 'We have met the enemy and he is us.' With this book, I hope to shine a flashlight on the path back to the Age of Reason and the ideals of the U.S. Constitution."

Will it work? Abdul-Jabbar is hopeful. "Each generation has to confront these challenging ideas and find ways to incorporate them into their personal belief systems as they go about their daily lives. ... I hope people choose to answer the call and together we ring about the miracle and wonder."

That, I believe, is an American dream worth dreaming.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

'Little orchestra' Pink Martini – "Je dis oui!"

Pink Martini / "Utterly cosmopolitan yet utterly unpretentious."

I am not unabashed by my love of Pink Martini. The internationally acclaimed "little orchestra" from Portland, Oregon, founded by a couple of Harvard classmates, pianist Thomas Lauderdale and vocalist China Forbes, mixes glamour with their style of sophisticated, easy-listening music. After all, what's not to like about vintage French and Italian pop, American swing and standards, Latin jazz with an orchestral twist or classic Hollywood film and musical soundtracks?

Since 1994, the band that the Washington Post once called "utterly cosmopolitan yet utterly unpretentious," has amassed an impressive repertoire of festive songs drawn from around the globe, including many timeless classics and a few rarely heard chestnuts. Each new Pink Martini album and concert tour, I've discovered, pushes the boundaries of language and musical style.

A typical Pink Martini concert is both multilingual and multicultural, and at holiday time it's also multi-denominational. I speak from the experience of having seen the band perform a dozen times over the past decade in a variety of California settings: from a beautiful, summer outdoor evening at the Hollywood Bowl to the intimate, acoustically perfect Weill Hall at Sonoma State University. Above all, a Pink Martini show is inclusive – full of warmth and good cheer – and represents many human experiences. Through the energy and creativity of their music, Pink Martini brings joy to the world in these troubled times – something which should make all of us feel grateful and appreciative.

Pianist Thomas Lauderdale co-founded Pink Martini
with China Forbes in 1994.
"We're very much an American band," Lauderdale once said, "but we spend a lot of time abroad and therefore have the incredible diplomatic opportunity to represent a broader, more inclusive America ... the America which remains the most heterogeneously populated county in the world ... composed of people of every country, every language, every religion."

Pink Martini has performed on concert stages and with symphony orchestras throughout Europe and Asia, as well as in Greece, Turkey, the Middle East, Northern Africa, Australia, New Zealand, South America and North America. I have seen them perform both as a little orchestra as well as in concert with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. When his schedule allows, NPR "All Things Considered" host Ari Shapiro, also a Portland native, joins Pink Martini as a guest vocalist.

Last Wednesday, in the intimate, 842-seat Bing Concert Hall at Stanford University, about an hour's drive from home, my wife and I saw our most recent Pink Martini show. It was part of a two-week California/Nevada "Holiday Spectacular" bus tour that began in San Francisco and included shows in Reno, Modesto, Escondido, Palm Desert, Santa Rosa and concluded in Palo Alto. After playing shows in North Carolina and Virginia over the weekend, the "Holiday Spectacular" tour continues in New York City and Boston this week before wrapping up with a pair of New Year's Eve shows at Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

During their Palo Alto "Holiday Spectacular" show, the 12-member band delighted the audience by performing from their expansive catalog of pop, jazz, classical and holiday songs that were beautifully sung in many different tongues: German ("Ich dich liebe"), Spanish "Yo te quiero siempre"), Turkish ("Askim bahardi"), Croatian ("U plavu zoru"), Armenian ("Ov sirun sirun"), French ("Sympathique") Xhosa ("Pata Pata"), Chinese ("Congratulations – A Happy New Year Song"), Italian ("Una Notte a Napoli"), and oh yes, English, too ("Little Drummer Boy"). No matter the language, each song expressed a variety of human emotions – love, pain, joy grief – in an honest feeling.

Je dis oui! / Pink Martini's ninth album
features songs in no fewer than eight different languages.
Recently, the band's much-anticipated ninth album, Je dis oui! (I say yes), was released. It features Forbes and Storm Large sharing lead vocals, and includes Shapiro ("Finnisma Di") plus frequent collaborator Rufus Wainwright ("Blue Moon") along with the Harvey Rosencrantz Orchestra and the Pacific Youth Choir.

"To take in Je dis oui! is to experience a globetrotting victory lap across no fewer than eight different languages – English, French, Farsi, Armenian, Portuguese, Arabic, Turkish and, in a cover of Miriam Mekeba's glorious 'Pata Pata,' Xhosa – all tackled with cosmopolitan sophistication and the playfulness of pop, wrote NPR music critic Stephen Thompson in reviewing Je dis oui!

"Exploring just one language or genre, and doing a whole album like that doesn't interest me," said Lauderdale, during a recent interview with the Hartford Courant. 

Pink Martini's unique vision can be attributed to its inclusiveness of language, culture and religion, musically. The band wants anyone and everyone to feel welcome at its shows and, if they are so encouraged, to jump up and dance along with the music. And many did just that during their Palo Alto show. The evening was complete with an encore performance of the band's signature closing tune "Brazil" in which many in the audience, at Lauderdale's urging, formed a conga line that snaked its way around the stage while others danced at their seats and in the aisles.

If  you think about it, Large once said, "It's really the perfect recipe for 'Peace on Earth and Good Will' we hear about so often during the holidays, but sadly have witnessed quite the opposite in the world of late."

Pink Martini concert photos by Michael Dickens © 2016. Album photo courtesy of Pink Martini website.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Projecting an identity through fashion in flight

Everyday is a fashion show and the world is your runway. – Coco Chanel

Qantas c. 1986 /
Design by YSL
During a recent visit to the International Terminal at San Francisco International Airport, everywhere I looked there were colorful displays showcasing a history of airline uniforms worn by airline passenger-service and safety professionals – once called stewardesses and hostesses, and more recently flight attendants. This distinct type of fashionable attire – from haute couture to comfortable mix and match – has become a part of our popular culture. As I looked over the uniforms and learned more about them, I realized that not only have I been flying as an airline passenger for many years, but it made me nostalgic for travel when flying from destination to destination was fun and exciting instead of a stressful exercise in navigating from Point A to Point B.

Pan American c. 1975
Design by Edith Head
In Fashion in Flight: A History of Airline Uniform Design, on display in SFO's International Terminal Main Hall and the Aviation Museum & Library through January 2017, the seventy uniforms that comprise the exhibition date from 1930 to 2016 and include the work of a veritable who's who of more than thirty designers, including: Bill Blass, Piere Cardin, Oleg Cassini, Halston, Edith Head, Ralph Lauren, Valentino and Yves Saint Laurent. The long list of their clients includes past and present U.S. airlines such as American, Braniff, Continental, Delta, TWA and United, as well as international carriers Aeroméxico, Air France, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, Qantas and Virgin Atlantic.

The vibrant and colorful outfits and accessories in Fashion in Flight are designed to not only "signify a distinct role in the workplace," but they also project a sense of identity for each airline – and they reflect prevailing fashions of the times, too. Through the years as airline fashion evolves and hemlines lift up and touch down, the passenger cabin has become a different kind of fashion runway.

Fashion statement /
United Airlines c. 1968 by Jean Louis.
If style is primarily a matter of instinct, as the American fashion designer Bill Blass suggests, then decade by decade, one notices a transformation from the tailored-suit look of the late 1930s to WWII's military influence, from postwar Paris haute couture to stylish New York designs – even interstellar chic as the 60s space age takes off. With the age of jet travel booming, bringing with it highly expressive uniforms, flight attendant fashion takes center stage. By the late 1970s, I learned, "pluralism and neo-traditionalism are seen emerging" and continuing into the '90s.

Finally, the business-like look of uniforms we see today – especially on U.S.-based carriers such as American, Delta and United – "have allowed greater contrast and noticeability for airlines that continue to engage celebrated designers in order to present contemporary fashion as an important part of the air travel experience."

Cover photo: Braniff International Airways hostess in uniform by Emilio Pucci c. 1965.
Cover photo and United Airlines photo: Courtesy of San Francisco Airport Commission, www.flysfo.com
Qantas and Pan American photos by Michael Dickens © 2016.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Today's special, tomorrow ... who knows?

Trust Me / Aasif Mandvi stars in "Today's Special."
Reflecting upon our Thanksgiving 2016:

We were a couple of hours from sitting down to a quaint Thanksgiving Day meal for two in the comfort of our home last Thursday when we fired up our Roku and perused the Netflix catalog in search of just the right movie to fill our 36-inch LG flat screen TV for the early part of the holiday afternoon.

Soon, we came upon "Today's Special," a 2009 independent film starring Aasif Mandvi, formerly a correspondent for Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

Neither my wife nor I had heard of "Today's Special," but we are both fans of Mandvi. So, we decided to give the film a good look – and I'm happy to say we both thoroughly enjoyed it. "Today's Special" is about an Indian American sous chef in Manhattan (played by Mandvi) who quits his job on the spot at a French restaurant when he doesn't get the promotion he is counting on, then claims he has a job offer waiting for him in Paris. However, Mandvi's character, Samir, is forced to take over his father's run-down Indian restaurant, Tandoori Palace in Queens, when he becomes ill. In doing so, Samir, finds out a little about himself along the way. His world becomes transformed via cooking lessons – that is, cooking with the mind, the heart and the stomach – from an eccentric cab driver and gourmet chef, Akbar (Naseeruddin Shah), the magic of garam masala, and a beautiful co-worker, Carrie (Jess Weixler).

"I can't do what you did," cries Samir to Akbar in a moment of introspection. "Don't do what I did. Do what you do. Just don't think too much," replies Akbar.

Soon, with a little help from his friends and family, Samir transforms Tandoori Palace into the best little Indian restaurant in New York City with booming business and a positive newspaper review from The New York Times. And, just as importantly, Samir earns the respect and appreciation of his parents, Hakkim and Farrida (played by Harish Patel and Madhur Jaffrey, respectively).

The film opened the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival in March 2010 after making its world premiere at the London Film Festival in October 2009. It grew out of a one-man show Mandvi wrote and performed, the Obie Award-winning "Sakina's Restaurant" (1998), which he developed into a script for "Today's Special." The result is a heartwarming comedy with a culinary flavor that is both tasteful and rewarding to our palate.

By the end of this feel-good, 1-hour 39-minute film, Mandvi's character has rediscovered not only his Indian heritage, but also his passion for life through the enchanting art of cooking Indian food. Indeed, "Today's Special" put us in the right frame of mind for enjoying our own Thanksgiving feast.

Photo: Courtesy of Google images. Video: Courtesy of YouTube.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Opinions that matter: When these coaches speak ...

Gregg Popovich /
"Values are more important to me than
anyone's skill in business ... It tells us who
we are, how we want to live and what kind
of people we are."
It's been a week and counting since Election Day 2016. Dazed and confused, we've been trying to make sense of the new world around us. Many of us have felt sucker punched by Donald Trump's victory over Hillary Clinton. Yet, some who are prominent in our sports culture are taking a stand while demonstrating their political activism. When these coaches speak ... I listen. So should you.

San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich and Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, a couple of the best and brightest minds in sports, are among the many professional coaches and athletes who have shared blistering critiques following Donald Trump's election as President of the United States last Tuesday. As coaches in the NBA, where 75 percent of the athletes are black, their opinions matter.

In a recently published ESPN interview, Popovich spoke out in frustration of Trump, who will become the 45th President of the United States when he is inaugurated in January.

"I'm a rich, white guy. And I'm sick to my stomach thinking about it," said Popovich, a graduate of the Air Force Academy. "I couldn't imagine being a Muslim right now or a woman or an African-American, a Hispanic, a handicapped person, and how disenfranchised they might feel." He went on to say that for any one in those groups that voted for Trump, "it's just beyond my comprehension how they ignored all that."

On the day after the election, in an interview with The New York Times, Kerr said: "All of a sudden you're faced with the reality that the man who's going to lead you has routinely used racist, misogynist, insulting words. I didn't think this was The Jerry Springer Show." 

Over the past four years, I've had the pleasure of informally meeting Kerr on several occasions. He is a parent of University of California women's volleyball player Maddy Kerr, and my wife and I have season tickets to Cal volleyball. Kerr is warm, friendly and outgoing – and never one to shy away from societal discourse. As the son of an American academic who specialized in the Middle East, Kerr spent much of his childhood in Lebanon and other Middle East countries before returning to the U.S. to study history and sociology and star as a basketball player at the University of Arizona, then embark on a fruitful professional career in the National Basketball Association.

Steve Kerr (right) with Draymond Green /
The Golden State Warriors head coach is not one to shy
away from societal discourse.
"I didn't think this was 'The Jerry Springer Show.'"
"People are getting paid millions of dollars to go on TV and scream at each other, whether it's in sports or politics or entertainment" said Kerr, a five-time NBA champion as a player who coached the Golden State Warriors to a championship in 2015 in his rookie season as a head coach. "I guess it was only a matter of time before it spilled into politics."

Before a recent home game against the Detroit Pistons, whose own head coach Stan Van Gundy also spoke critically about Trump, Popovich admitted he's sick to his stomach, "and not basically because the Republicans won or anything, but the disgusting tenor, tone and all the comments that have been xenophobic, homophobic, racist, misogynistic. And I live in that country where half the people ignored all that to elect someone. That's the scariest part of (the) whole thing to me.

"It's got nothing to do with the environment, Obamacare and all the other stuff. We live in a country that ignored all those values that we would hold our kids accountable for."

Popovich believes that Trump's words and actions cannot be overlooked or forgotten. He went on to say this: "Everybody wants him to be successful. It's our country; we don't want it to go down the drain. Any reasonable person would come to that conclusion, but it does not take away the fact that he used that fear-mongering and all the comments from day one. The race-baiting with trying to make Barack Obama, our first black president, illegitimate. It leaves me to wonder where I've been living and with whom I'm living."

The Spurs head coach also showed empathy for minority groups which might be adversely affected by the President-elect's remarks made during his campaign.

"What gets lost in the process are African-Americans, Hispanics, women and the gay population, not to mention the eight-grade developmental stage exhibited by him when made fun of the handicapped person," Popovich said. "I mean, come on. That's what an eighth-grade bully does, and he was elected president of the United States. We would have scolded our kids. We would have had discussions and talked until we were blue in the face trying to get them to understand these things. And he is in charge of our country. That's disgusting."

Popovich's frustration with the President-elect goes beyond partisan politics.

Gregg Popovich /
A Trump presidency, he said, is on the same path as the
Roman Empire. "My final conclusion is, my big fear is,
we are Rome."
"Values to me are more important than anybody's skill in business or anything else because it tells who we are, how we want to live and what kind of people we are," he said. "That's why I have great respect for people like Lindsey Graham, John McCain, John Kasich, who I disagree with on a lot of political things. But they had enough fiber and respect for humanity and tolerance for all groups to say what they said about (Trump)."

Popovich continued, by saying "One could go on and on. We didn't make this stuff up. He's angry at the media because they reported what he said and how he acted. It's ironic to me. It just makes no sense. So that's my real fear. And that's what gives me so much pause and makes me feel so badly, that the country is willing to be that intolerant and not understand the empathy that's necessary to understand other groups' situations.

Popovich was finished – or was he? As he ended his remarks, he had one final thought. He said he was concerned that the United States under a Trump presidency is on the same path as the Roman Empire. "My final conclusion is, my big fear is, we are Rome."

Photos: Courtesy of Google Images.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Stronger together: Let's make some history today

Hillary Clinton / She would be Madam President 

I woke up this morning on our nation's Election Day feeling hopeful and inspired. Like four years ago when I voted to re-elect Barack Obama, today I feel inspired, ready to move forward.

In California, I am registered to permanently vote by absentee ballot. I filled out my ballot in the comfort of my dining room on a recent Sunday afternoon, taking my time – hey, it's not a closed-book exam, so I looked over many different fliers I had received in the mail, studied the voter guide and I perused the recommendations of The San Francisco Chronicle – then, I dropped off my completed and sealed ballot at one of many convenient and secure drop boxes near where I do my grocery shopping. Across the country, more than 42 million Americans voted early. 

Since then, I've been encouraging all of my friends through social media via Facebook of the importance to get out and perform their civic duty and to vote their conscience today. This has been an election campaign unlike any we've experienced. Now, it is time for America to render its decision.

Not only are we voting for the 45th President of the United States, in a highly contested election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, but throughout America, there are also many important "down ballot" races that will decide the future makeup of the Senate, the House of Representatives, as well as local races for city councils and school boards, and here in California, there are many state-wide propositions and local ballot measures to be voted upon, too. 

Using our voice to speak out by exercising the right to vote is one of the great tenets of our American democratic society.

Hillary / Where everyone knows her name
This is a consequential and important Presidential election for the future of our country, and it has Americans engaged for many different reasons. I'm excited about the possibility of my country having its first female head of state. The battle lines in the Clinton-Trump race for the White House have been drawn for many months. On one side of the political spectrum is a positive message for America filled with love and hope. On the other side, it's been a dystopian vision filled with a pessimistic tone of hate and fear. In this age of vitriol, in which social media are giving voice to prejudice and drowning our politics in anger, it has caught the attention not only of my Facebook friends in America, but also in Europe, Asia and North Africa, many who are keenly following today's election outcome with hope and patience for a brighter future. After all, as British author J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame said of Donald Trump: "When a man this ignorant and easy to manipulate gets within sniffing distance of the nuclear codes, it's everyone's business."

On the night before the election, Mrs. Clinton aired a two-minute advert spot during prime time in which she framed the election as a choice between a country that is "dark and divisive or hopeful and inclusive."

Hillary for America / A slogan with value
Our core values are being tested in this election. However, I am supporting the election of Hillary Clinton not only because she is uniquely qualified as a life-long public servant and has the right temperament, but also because she best represents the issues and values that I support as a Democrat: Equal rights for women, children, minorities, and gays and lesbians; a strong and improving economy; sound environmental protection; the protection of Roe vs. Wade and women's health; the appointment of Supreme Court justices who believe in equality for all; a clear and comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIS and radical jihadism to keep our country safe; and I know Mrs. Clinton will never stop speaking out about the need to prevent gun violence. I could go on and on about what I value in Hillary Clinton's candidacy. At the same time, there's nothing in Mr. Trump's candidacy, which has been marked by lies, racism, bigotry, misogyny, sexual abuse and bullying, that I can believe in or support. He is arguably the least-qualified person ever to run for President of the United States. This is not reality television, Mr. Trump. This is real life and you've more than abused your 15 minutes of fame. If this were an election based solely upon the character trait of empathy, Clinton would win hands-down in a landslide. 

America is already great for so many different reasons. I believe Mrs. Clinton's vision for the United States provides our country with the best hope for its future. If America hasn't figured it out now, they're not going to. 

"I'm will work my heart out as president to make life better for you and your family," Clinton pledges. "We won't always get it right, but you can count on this: I've never quit and I never will." 

I'm inspired by Mrs. Clinton's message – and I'm ready to move forward, knowing that our country's best days are still ahead of us. I hope everyone will join me in supporting Hillary Clinton for President. Love trumps hate.

Indeed, we are stronger when we're together.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Reflections on a Halloween night

When black cats prowl and pumpkins gleam,
May luck be yours on Halloween.

Reflecting upon my childhood, one thing I looked forward to each year was Halloween. 

Last night, over the course of two and one-half hours, kids – white, black, Asian, Hispanic – were out in great enthusiasm, if not in great numbers, in our Oakland, Calif., neighborhood celebrating Halloween. They represented a microcosm of the city at large. They came full of enthusiasm, and they dressed in wonderful, creative – even traditional – costumes. 

One of my favorite Jack O' Lanterns
Some reflections on this latest Halloween evening:

• Dressing up as a ghost or witch, as traditional a costume as you'll see, is still quite popular as well as going trick-or-treating decked out as a super hero like Batman, Spiderman or Superman. Years after their motion picture debuts, Darth Vader and Harry Potter still garner a lot of attention, no doubt thanks to their movie-star appeal – and both remain among my favorites. As a kid, I remember dressing up as a NASA astronaut back when kids aspired to be astronauts and fly to the moon. Simpler times, I guess.

• This year, my favorite surprise was a tiny three-year-old girl who dressed up as a beautiful hand-knitted farm hen.  Of course, it's always cute to see little kids dress up as lovely and cuddly tigers and dinosaurs, too. Whether homemade or store bought, imaginative costumes are what make Halloween special.

• In recent years, there's been more and more parental chaperones present on Halloween evening – many in costume – and it's always fun to see a few toting their pet dogs and baby strollers for the littlest ones, too. While some youngsters are very eager and outgoing, ready to shout "Trick or Treat" at the top of their lungs, every year there's always a few kids who are quite timid and shy, especially the youngest ones. Parents do their best to coach their little ones, standing by the bottom step of our porch, whispering "trick or treat," then "thank you."

• Halloween has definitely turned into a family event -- a sporting event, maybe? -- and this year, we budgeted for 200 mini chocolate bar candies to give out! With rain in the forecast and temperatures in the low 60s, some kids got an early start on their trick-or-treating to beat any precipitation. (Around 7 p.m., there were a few sprinkles and out came the umbrellas. Fortunately, it was short lived.) Our first trick-or-treater came knocking at the door at 5:43 p.m., just before sunset, a young grade-school girl dressed as a fairy princess. By 6 p.m., we had greeted five, including a little toddler dress up as the Big Bad Wolf while his mother accompanied him as the Little Red Riding Hood. 

• Soon after and for the next couple of hours, a steady group of youngsters came knocking on our door, dressed as teenage mutant ninja turtles, robots, skeletons, assorted royalty, Hello Kitty, Pokémon, soldiers in camouflage, softball players, Raggedy Ann, Batgirl, Elsa from "Frozen," the Mad Hatter, assorted zombies from "The Walking Dead," the Cowardly Lion from "The Wizard of Oz," the Grim Reaper, "the Scream" (based upon the Edvard Munch painting), a couple of preppy middle school girls in white sweater dresses and matching black Urban Outfitter canvas bags, a beautifully attired Cleopatra, and on and on. Our best estimate is we greeted about 100-120 trick-or-treaters this year. 

A basket full of pumpkins / Happy Halloween!
• By 8:30 p.m., once the crowds had thinned, we turned out the lights, shut the front door, and treated ourselves to a few pieces of leftover candy. I love a good Kit Kat bar.

Looking back, the festiveness of Halloween left me in a happy, reflective mood. Indeed, it was another Happy Halloween – one of the most enjoyable evenings of the year – and I look forward to the next one.

Photos: Cover image, courtesy of Google Images. Pumpkin photos © Michael Dickens.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Soaring above the fray with Sir Richard Branson

Sir Richard Branson /
The Englishman fancies hot air balloons and space travel.

Sir Richard Branson is an English business magnate, investor and philanthropist whose heart and soul are in the right place. He is best known as the founder of Virgin Group, which benefits more than 400 companies. He's dabbled in a variety of media, including print, film and television; opened a chain of record stores, and started an airline.

Branson, 66, who was knighted by the Queen in 2000 for "services to entrepreneurship," is a fancier of hot air balloons and space travel. He's an avid fan of Star Trek. There is a highly competitive nature to him, but he doesn't seem to be in-your-face about it. And, when the man with the brilliant mind speaks out, people listen to him.

"My interest in life comes from setting myself huge, apparently unachievable challenges and trying to rise above them ..." Branson wrote in his autobiography.

Sir Richard Branson / He founded the Virgin Group,
which benefits more than 400 companies. 
When Branson hasn't set his sights on breaking world records for travel, he's been focused on humanitarian activities. For instance, in the late 1990s, Branson and musician Peter Gabriel discussed with Nelson Mandela an idea for a small group of leaders working in unison to solve difficult global conflicts. In 2007, in Johannesburg, South Africa, Mandela announced the formation of a group called The Elders, which included Nobel Peace Prize laureate Kofi Annan and former director-general of the World Health Organization Gro Harlem Brundtland. The Elders, funded by a group of donors, including Branson and Gabriel, describe themselves as "independent global leaders working together for peace and human rights." With almost 1,000 years of collective experience between them in the group, The Elders have worked on solutions for seemingly insurmountable problems such as climate change, HIV/AIDS and poverty.

More recently, in 2014, Branson joined forces with African Wildlife Foundation and partner WildAid for the"Say No" Campaign, which was an initiative designed to bring public awareness to the issues of wildlife poaching and trafficking.

With just two weeks until Election Day in America, Branson has shared access with both major-party candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald J. Trump. In a recent article for BusinessInsider.com, Branson expressed a lunch encounter he once shared in Trump's apartment as "bizarre" and revealed a "vindictive streak" he noticed in the Republican Party standard bearer, which he admitted "wouldn't bode well for a president who should be more concerned with global affairs than personal vendettas."

Sir Richard Branson and Donald Trump /
The two business titans fundamentally disagree on
what makes a great entrepreneur.
Branson and Trump, I learned, fundamentally disagree on what makes a great entrepreneur. Branson believes it involves being a good listener, putting others before oneself, being an effective delegator and striving to make a positive difference to the world. "Great entrepreneurs build businesses with purpose at their heart and always treat people with respect. These are not characteristics I see in Mr. Trump – neither in his previous dealings, nor in this campaign."

In a recent blog post, Branson wrote about his meeting with Trump: "I left the lunch feeling disturbed and saddened by what I'd heard. There are a lot of frightening things about this election, not least that policy has been pushed so far down the agenda. "

Branson called Mr. Trump's temperament "irrational, aggressive and he lacks informed ideas on how to grow jobs in America. An entrepreneur president would put that at the heart of his plans and yet his fear-based campaign blames immigrants and open borders."

By contrast, Branson also broke bread with Clinton in which the two discussed a variety of important issues such as women's rights and education reform. He noted that the Democratic Party nominee for president was both a "good listener" and "eloquent speaker."

Branson wrote of Clinton: "As she understands well, the president of the United States needs to understand and be engaged with wider world issues, rather than be consumed by petty personal quarrels."

Earlier this month, in a blog post on Virgin's website, Branson endorsed Clinton over Trump for president. "I would like to see an entrepreneur become president one day," Branson wrote. "I believe entrepreneurial thinking is incredibly valuable in leaders, and there are many entrepreneurs who I would be delighted to see in power – just not this one."

Sir Richard Branson weighs in on the U.S. Presidential race.
While Branson is not an American citizen, nonetheless, he has been a keen follower of the U.S. election because it 'will have major implications on the rest of the world."

Branson gets it.

Indeed, the whole world is watching.

"The U.S. is faced with a monumental decision: whether to vote for Hillary Clinton – a safe pair of hands and a leader of supreme experience and know how. Or to vote for Donald Trump," wrote Branson.

"America was built upon a collective embracing of diversity and openness – not division and close-mindedness. There are too many examples of Mr. Trump's lack of empathy and respect to name. I agree with many on both sides of America's political aisle that he is unfit for office."

Photos: Courtesy of Google Images.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Minnesota folksy appeal: A Prairie Home Companion, 2.0

New APHC host Chris Thile (left) and Nashville-man-about-town
Jack White share a music jam. 

The brilliant musician Chris Thile, tapped as the new host of public radio's "A Prairie Home Companion," made his debut last weekend. As the successor to creator Garrison Keillor, it will be Thile's task to maintain the radio show's Minnesota-folksy appeal while also drawing a younger audience.

Over the course of his first two-hour APHC, Thile gave props to all things Minnesotan in praising many of its sports teams – the Vikings, the Lynx, even the losing Twins – and also praised Prince and Bob Dylan, apple cider and autumn leaves.

During a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Thile (pronounced Thee-lee) admitted that with the upcoming presidential election that's less than three weeks away, everyone needs a means for escaping the rancor and madness that's been brought on by Donald Trump. "People out there need a break, man," he said. "Our fall has been hijacked by a presidential election. It's a very important election, and I will certainly be addressing that on the show, but hopefully I can provide people with a little bit of relief, too. Music and laughter: those are top-shelf forms of relief, I say."

During his debut show, Thile wasted little time taking jabs and poking fun at both major-party candidates, Trump and Hillary Clinton, while admitting that he, too, had once used an unsecured e-mail account and had not paid income taxes for 18 consecutive years – "after that I graduated high school."

The 36-year-old Thile, a Grammy Award-winning mandolin virtuoso, singer and songwriter who cut his chops in bluegrass music with the progressive acoustic trio Nickel Creek and the acoustic folk/progressive bluegrass quintet Punch Brothers, has the unenviable task of replacing the legendary and literate Keillor.

Mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile, shown at the 2015
Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco.
He wants to preserve the appeal of APHC, but
also "really blow the doors off on the musical front."
Thile made his first appearance on "A Prairie Home Companion" in 1996, at age 15, and he's been back numerous times – as a solo artist, with Nickel Creek, and with Punch Brothers. Twice in 2015 and on two occasions earlier this year, Thile was the show's guest host.

While the 2012 MacArthur Fellow not only wants to preserve the appeal of "A Prairie Home Companion," which made its public radio debut in 1974, Thile also has been charged with revising its structure and broadening its reach to a younger demographic (the average listener of APHC is 59 years-old). If his first show is any indicator, there will be less talk and more music.

Admitting that he wants to "really blow the doors off on the musical front," the music guests for the first weekend included "Nashville-man-about-town" Jack White, whom the New York Times Magazine once called "the coolest, weirdest, savviest rock star of our time," and Brooklyn-based hip jazz-soul vocal combo Lake Street Dive.

As for Thile's own music tastes, they range from Bach to Bill Monroe to hip-hop. So, anything seems possible and it's likely that Thile will welcome folksingers, jazz musicians, soul revivalists, roots-rockers and bluegrass bands. This week's guests include folk-based singer/songwriter Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats, evocative American singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell, and comedian John Hodgman, formerly of Comedy Central's The Daily Show.

"I want the show to be a home for the breadth of the good music being made in the world," Thile told Rolling Stone. "My musical output has been consistently acoustic, but my taste has not. I love everything. As long as it's good, I'm in."

While A Prairie Home Companion is a very well-known and established public radio brand whose name is easily recognized – both in Minnesota and beyond – indeed, Thile has big shoes to fill. Yet, I like his youthful energy and enthusiasm – it's different than Keillor's – not to mention he's a better singer. I think given a chance, he'll do just fine – especially in expanding the depth of the musical offerings. If Thile brings in a younger audience as it is hoped he will, that's a plus that I'm sure will please everyone.

Note: A Prairie Home Companion is broadcast live from the Fitzgerald Theater in Saint Paul, Minnesota, produced by American Public Media, and airs via National Public Radio (NPR) on Saturdays from 5-7 p.m. Central Time (10 p.m. GMT) – and at various other times – and selected shows are streamed live at www.prairiehome.org. APHC is available to listen via podcast, too.

Cover photo: Courtesy of twincities.com, Google Images.
Photo of Chris Thile at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass by Michael Dickens, © 2015.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 16: The sounds of autumn

Gathering at the Banjo Stage for Hardly Strictly Bluegrass
in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

Each year, as my wife and I map out our cultural calendar, we reserve the first weekend of October for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco. There's no better place to be than in the natural beauty of Golden Gate Park for this annual admission-free festival, which has become one the country's premiere music events.

Somehow, the autumn weather at the beginning of October always seems to be just right for the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, the late Warren Hellman's music gift to The City. Although the Bay Area billionaire investment banker and benefactor – himself a spirited banjo player and a lover of bluegrass music – died in 2011, he left an endowment to ensure its existence for many years to come. There are no corporate sponsors. In 2012, one of the meadows was renamed Hellman Hollow to honor the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass founder's memory.

Valerie June performed on the Banjo Stage
at the 16th Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival.
As the 16th edition of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass returned from Sept. 30-Oct. 2, spread out over seven stages with its usual eclectic mix of talent, there were over 100 live acts – including Mavis Staples, Jackson Browne, Cyndi Lauper, Boz Scaggs, Cake, Buddy Miller, Conor Oberst, T Bone Burnett, Kris Kristopherson, the Dropkick Murphys, Roseanne Cash, M. Ward, John Doe, KT Tunstall, Steve Earle and the Dukes, and perennial closer Emmylou Harris – which delighted the hundreds of thousands of music revelers who packed into the western half of Golden Gate Park over the festival's three days. The fans filled the meadow lawns, crowded onto the park's hills, and a few adventurous types could be seen dotting treetops, too There was a little something for everyone's music palette: traditional bluegrass, progressive bluegrass, country, folk, surf rock, Americana and roots rock. Plus, there was pop and soul, and even Celtic rock. It all added up to a delightful treasure trove of great music riches.

Steve Earle
This year, my wife and I welcomed to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass our longtime friends from Seattle, whom we had shared many Bumbershoot music and art festivals together in the Emerald City over the past 20 years. On Friday, we arrived at the festival site just past noon and camped out in Hellman Hollow about a hundred yards back from the Banjo Stage, where we enjoyed a soulful bluesy set by Americana singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Valerie June from Memphis, Tenn.

Shawn Colvin
Then, we walked a few hundred yards west arriving at the Arrow Stage to catch Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle, who played a spirited set of mostly acoustic chestnuts, including the Everly Brothers' "Wake Up Little Susie," "Ruby Tuesday," by the Rolling Stones and a beautiful and melodic duet of "You Were On My Mind" by the We Five. Colvin and Earle's vocal harmonies were spot on and delightful.

The Rebirth Brass Band
We stayed at the Arrow Stage where we were met with the lively arrival of the Rebirth Brass Band, known for combining traditional New Orleans brass band music – including the New Orleans tradition of second line – along with funk, soul and hip hop.

Mavis Staples
Finally, we returned to the Banjo Stage for an outstanding set of old favorites and recent solo recordings by the raw and rasping voice of an American original, Mavis Staples, which closed out our first day. Staples called Hardly Strictly Bluegrass "my favorite, favorite festival." By the conclusion of the gregarious Chicago singer's set, culminated by "I'll Take You There," the sun had faded out over the nearby Pacific Ocean, and it was time to return home.

Vince Gill with The Time Jumpers
On Saturday, we eagerly returned and camped out at the Banjo Stage for much of the afternoon, soaking up some sunshine and good sounds provided by Laurie Lewis, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Vince Gill and the Time Jumpers, and the Dave Rawlings Machine, featuring Rawlings and his longtime musical partner Gillian Welch, playing bluegrass classics and originals. Throughout the afternoon, the Banjo Stage featured lots of fiddles, banjos and mandolins.

Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch
On our way out of the festival, we paused for a few minutes at the very packed Rooster Stage in Marx Meadow to catch the beginning of Jackson Browne's late-afternoon set, just one of many unforgettable moments of our weekend. Then, we ventured further west along the festival's main boulevard to catch the end of Glen Hansard's set on the Tower of Gold Stage and, finally, the start of Chris Isaak's show with his band Silvertone on the Swan Stage.

As Hardly Strictly Bluegrass turned 16 this year, once again, the HSB festival organizers out-did themselves to make it one of the most outstanding – and uniquely satisfying – music festivals in the country. Somehow, it keeps getting bigger and better without becoming too commercial. It remains joyously unwieldy. There's a carefree vibe and a sense of inclusiveness to go along with the clear blue skies and beautiful weather. While admittedly crowded, everyone seemed to have a good and fun time without becoming rowdy or obnoxious. Each day, we packed a gourmet picnic complete with California red and white wines and a variety of cheese and crackers and other satisfying snacks to enjoy. The music and the atmosphere is what makes us look forward to returning next year and doing it all over again.

To see a complete list of artists who performed at the 2016 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival as well as to link to the webcast archive of selected performances:


All photos: By Michael Dickens © 2016.