Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Oscar de la Renta: Celebrating a global fashion icon

Oscar de la Renta / The Dominican-born
American designer celebrated the best in us.
"Beauty, optimism, confidence." Three words that define how Dominican-born American designer Oscar de la Renta celebrated the best in us through his remarkable and colorful fashion. De la Renta (1932-2014) dressed women for modern life, and he was one of the most beloved and influential fashion icons whose career spanned both the 20th and 21st centuries. 

De la Renta's knowledge of literature, art, music and social history influenced his fashion design, and "his work was admired for its contemporary sensibility, romantic artistry, and traditional workmanship." 

His fashion has been worn by distinguished women and celebrities, including First Ladies Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan, Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton, actress Sarah Jessica Parker, and singer Rihanna.

Oscar de la Renta / He was deeply
influenced by the people, history and
customs of Spain.
Last week, I had the opportunity to see a world-premiere retrospective of de la Renta's designs with my wife that opened less than two weeks ago at the de Young Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. "This is the first major survey to celebrate the life and career of one of fashion's most influential designers, examining his craft and technique, the historical and cultural influences on his work, and the clients who wore his designs," according to Fine Arts magazine.

The colorful exhibition included more than 130 ensembles spanning de la Renta's remarkable career, beginning in Spain where he first gained his initial commissions to his formative years that were spent in some of the world's most famous and iconic European fashion houses, and finally to his role as a designer for many influential and celebrated personalities. 

Oscar de la Renta for Pierre Balmain
Evening ensemble; coat and pants,
Spring/summer, 2000.
"Today, people – clothes – are international. Frontiers are non-existent," de la Renta once said. He broke a barrier in becoming the first American designer to head a French couture house when he joined Pierre Balmain.

André Leon Talley, former American Vogue editor-at-large and the exhibition's curator, said of the iconic designer: "Oscar carried with him the warmth of paradise, surely drawn from the sheer happiness of his childhood, growing up in a tropical environment in a huge family, surrounded by love." 

Throughout the 1970s, Oscar de la Renta's
collections included his hallmark sophisticated
take on daywear.
Further, Talley said: "Throughout his life, there was always love and laughter and it infused everything he took to task, be it the designing a simple cashmere coat, a suit, or a gorgeous evening dress; preparing a lovely dinner party; or tending to his gardens. Oscar loved life, and the light from within him beamed out to his world."

It became clear to me as I walked through the exhibit rooms that de la Renta's designs were full of beauty and color, and filled with elegance. It is evident that he had a true desire to make all of his women look and feel beautiful.

The special exhibition celebrating the fashion of Oscar de la Renta continues through May 30 in the Herbst Exhibition Galleries at the de Young. 

If your travels bring you to the San Francisco Bay Area between now and the end of May, I highly recommend you treat yourself and see this enjoyable exhibition – and bring your camera along to take photographs as non-flash photography is allowed in this exhibition.

Learn more about the Oscar de la Renta exhibition:

Photos: Oscar de la Renta courtesy of Fine Arts magazine and FAMSF. Exhibition photographs by Michael Dickens, © 2016.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Exploring my options: A good job is ... (fill in the blank)

Your's truly sporting the familiar red
SpoonRocket t-shirt.
A good job is more than just a paycheck, it's been said. Choose a job you love and you'll never have to work a day in your life. Sometimes, however, unfortunate circumstances prevent us from being able to maintain a good "working" thing.

At 9:12 a.m. last Tuesday morning, the e-mail which would decide my immediate employment future arrived in my Hotmail inbox. I was unaware of it or its contents until nearly two hours after it was sent because I was busy mentoring a group of seventh-grade students at my volunteer "job" as a WriterCoach Connection tutor in Berkeley, and my iPhone was stored in my backpack so as to not distract me or my students.

After arriving at my parked car outside Longfellow Middle School, I paused for a moment and opened the e-mail from my employer, SpoonRocket, the Berkeley-based on-demand food delivery service that was started with much fanfare in 2013 by a couple of entrepreneurial University of California graduates, enterprising engineering major Anson Tsui and social engineering major Steven Hsiao.

The e-mail began:

"SpoonRocket will cease all our operations effective immediately. We set out to build the next generation of food delivery network and we are proud of what we were able to achieve in a short period of time. However, as competition for on-demand food delivery has grown, it became clear that  we could not continue to compete. Over the last few months, we've been exploring our next options and unfortunately came up short. ...

"Thank you for being amazing ambassadors for the SpoonRocket brand. Good luck with all your future endeavors."


The SpoonRocket Team

SpoonRocket debuted in 2013 with $13.5 million raised
in venture capital funding.
Just like that, I found myself newly unemployed. While it's easy enough to say I was surprised, the folding of the start-up tech company I had come to enjoy while being an "amazing ambassador" came as a bit of a shock. In the 19 months I worked for SpoonRocket, we delivered a pretty amazing brand of product – fresh and healthy meals created by our own group of talented chefs and cooked in our own kitchens.

Menu choices ranged from smoked gouda mac and cheese with pulled pork to Thai red curry chicken to grilled tri-tip steak salads, most priced under $10. Each day our customers could choose from 4-5 different hot meal options and from 7-9 cold items (salads, sandwiches, desserts, beverages) using the SpoonRocket app downloaded on their Android or iOS smartphone, or by ordering online through the company's website, and expect delivery to their home or office within 10-15 minutes – often faster if a driver was nearby, sometimes slower if a popular choice created greater demand than expected.

Customers prepaid for their orders – which meant no money exchanged hands – and they met their driver at the curb of their home or business address to receive their food and drink which was maintained by the driver in hot and cold bags, respectively. I never had to leave my car except to return to our University Avenue distribution center in Berkeley to reload my bags.

As a SpoonRocket driver, I earned a flat fee for each lunch delivery I successfully completed plus all tips from the customers whose meals I delivered. A typical three-hour, mid-day lunch shift for me might include delivery of hot and cold meals throughout various Berkeley neighborhoods, as well as in Emeryville, Oakland and West Oakland. Sometimes, I even ventured into Albany, El Cerrito, and Piedmont. I usually logged about 30-40 miles per shift. I loved delivering in Emeryville because I knew the city's street grid like the back of my hand – my wife works in Emeryville for a library software company – and the tech workers there tipped well, too. On a good day, I could make upwards of $30 per hour. On a slow day, it was still about $20 an hour. As a contractor, my schedule was flexible. I didn't have to work nights or weekends, but many of my co-workers chose to as well as to work multiple shifts each day. Whether by necessity or not, I never asked.

My 2013 Toyota Camry was my "office" on wheels.
My 2013 Toyota Camry with the easily-recognized red SpoonRocket flags attached to my car's back windows, was my office. My SpoonRocket driver's app directed me to whom and where to deliver orders, and my Waze GPS ensured that I never got lost driving from Point A to Point B. My customer base was friendly towards me and always appreciative when I pulled up to the curb with their deliveries, especially on rainy days. Honestly, I can't remember every delivering to an angry "SpoonRocketer." In fact, most complimented me on my friendly demeanor and professionalism, and many took the time to ask me how my day was going. Some even sought menu recommendations from me. Because most of my customers were repeat ones, it became easy to be on a first-name basis with many of them. I only wish I had the time to thank all of them personally.

Unfortunately, as innovative tech giants like Uber have continued to grow and expand and thrive (now with UberEats) – and Silicon Valley venture capital has thinned in recent months – even the San Francisco Bay Area isn't immune to tech fallout.  There's only so many ways to re-engineer the on-demand meal delivery wheel and be cash-flow positive without pricing yourself out of the range of your mainstream customers. It's unfortunate because on-demand early adopters such as SpoonRocket, which debuted with $13.5 million raised in venture capital funding, have suddenly found themselves edged out by more recent or newer start-ups like Sprig, Munchery, and Caviar, with deeper financial pockets.

Fortunately, the overall employment outlook out here appears good and I view my new-found unemployment with optimism. There's no time to dwell on the negative. I have already been contacted by some rival on-demand delivery companies to consider coming to work for them. For now, I have an opportunity to regroup and brush up on my skills – update my resumé and hopefully network with professionals – and, who knows, maybe even reinvent myself. I love to write, I love to learn, and I love to interact with others. Plus, I excel both independently and as a team player. While I'm not sure what the future holds for me, I look forward to the journey that lies ahead.

Photos: © Michael Dickens, 2015. SpoonRocket logo courtesy of SpoonRocket Facebook page. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The truth or consequences of a Donald Trump presidency

Donald Trump / Same as he ever was: Boastful, volatile, misogynistic,
race-baiting, willfully and strategically ignorant, exploitative fear-monger.

While listening to NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday and perusing the Sunday New York Times, the recurring themes of rage, violence and chaos at Donald Trump's campaign rallies caught my attention – jumped out at me. At nearly every event during the past week, from North Carolina to Illinois to Ohio to Missouri, non-violent protesters have been violently beaten, shoved, kicked and verbally abused by Trump supporters. The abused are often blacks, women, gays, immigrants. The abusers are always white. Candidate – and bully-in-chief – Trump has encouraged his supporters to do his bidding by attacking protesters, then claiming that his and his supporters' First Amendment freedom of speech rights are being trampled upon. It should come as no coincidence that this kind of incendiary behavior isn't seen at rallies by any other candidate running for president, Republican or Democrat.

"There's been nobody injured at my rallies: zero, zero. You're making it sound like everybody's broken down and injured. Give me a break," said Trump over the weekend, appearing on CNN. I guess The Donald's selective memory doesn't take into consideration the young North Carolina protester who was sucker-punched in the face by a Trump supporter – the same Trump supporter who later said afterward that maybe he'd have to "kill him" next time.

"While we have witnessed many divisive campaigns and candidates before, we've never seen such a volatile, social regressive political crusade as Trump's in modern American politics," writes Lincoln Blades in Rolling Stone. "Trump is giving all these hateful people a voice. He's done damage to the country that cannot be undone be merely losing this election."

Throughout many cities in America – among them Fayetteville, N.C., Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City – people are not standing passively while demagogues like Trump encourage violence against dissenters and advocates for the U.S. to commit war crimes. The protesters are peacefully speaking out against Trump's hateful and divisive rhetoric and extremist politics. It is Trump whose vitriolic comments have set the tone of conflict for his vile campaign. It is Trump who must own up and take responsibility for his actions. "Trump's base is so damn scary because it's not so much made up of people with shared policy ideas – it's more of a battalion filled with angry, mostly white folks who've been hungry for emancipation from the supposed scourges of political correctness and diversity," added Blades in his Rolling Stone article, "What Happens to America If Trump Loses?"

"Everything about Trump's campaign can be explained in terms of substance abuse: He's addicted to attention, demanding regular fixes and going to ever greater lengths – in terms of reckless statements and provocative acts – to get them," wrote Frank Bruni in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times this week. "Imagine what that would mean for a Trump presidency. His agenda wouldn't be conservative, moderate, liberal or for that matter coherent. It would be self-affirming and self-aggrandizing: whatever it takes to remain the focus of everyone's gaze, the syllable tumbling from everyone's lips. Trump, Trump, Trump."

Trump, in the words of New York Times Op-Ed columnist Ross Douthat, "is cut from a very different cloth. He's an authoritarian, not an ideologue, and his antecedents aren't Goldwater or McGovern; they're figures like George Wallace and Huey Long, with a side of the fictional Buzz Windrip from Sinclair Lewis's It Can't Happen Here. No modern political party has nominated a candidate like this; no serious political party ever should."

Nothing makes Trump more acceptable today than yesterday or last week – or six months ago, writes Kathleen Parker, who pens a twice-weekly political and culture column for the Washington Post. "He is still a boastful, volatile, misogynistic, race-baiting, willfully and strategically ignorant, exploitative fear-monger who is guided by profit over principle and whose hair-trigger temperament has the world on edge."

Day after day, Trump has proven time and time again that he isn't like any other candidate running for President of the United States. Instead, the loud, rich and famous Trump marches to his own drummer and plays by his own rules while pathologically spewing lies and untruths to suit himself. He's leading us down a dark, hateful road. That's not leadership folks. That's tyranny.

Dignity for the highest office in the land and decorum be damned, Trump – the ultimate narcissist – doesn't possess an empathetic bone in his body. And, it's become quite obvious that he's no student of public policy or constitutional law, either. As Douthat notes: "A man so transparently unfit for office should not be placed before the American people as a candidate for president under any kind of imprimatur save his own."

Talking points memo to Mr. Trump after watching him – unscripted – spew out poll numbers and other unfettered nuggets of bigotry during a Monday afternoon campaign stop in Tampa, Florida: 1. Stop saying you're going to make America great again. America never stopped being a great nation. And, under President Obama's vision and leadership, it's been done without the hate and feat-mongering your tone of voice and actions exemplify. 2. We aren't going to send ground troops into a war against ISIS. I don't think you're going to find any military advisors who would advocate this ill-thought out strategy. By the way, just who are your military advisors? 3. For goodness sake, we don't need to build a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border to divide us from them. None of the other candidates are advocating the building of a "beautiful wall" that you want to stiff Mexico for the bill. Forget about it, Mr. Trump. Our borders are fine just the way they are now. Walls are for isolationists, and the U.S is certainly not going to enter into a 21st-century cold war with the world and become an isolationist country.

Trump has proven time and again to be a divider and not a uniter. His brand of demagoguery is dividing the U.S. by race, ethnicity, religion, and gender, barriers that Americans have fought hard to overcome during the past 50 years of our nation's history. Funny thing how Trump's bigotry and hatred are not being condemned by the Republican National Committee or Republicans in Congress, or for that matter by former Republican leaders, Republican governors, Republican CEOs and Republicans on Wall Street, as former U.S. Secretary of Labor-turned-academician Robert Reich pointed out on his Facebook page over the weekend.

On Monday, on the eve of key presidential primaries in Florida, Ohio, Illinois and Missouri, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) spoke out against Trump, saying: "There's a history of demagogues calling those they disagree with 'terrorists' and using that as justification for intimidation and violence – and that history is ugly and dangerous. There's also a history of people staying quiet for too long, hoping for the best but watching silently as the threat metastasizes. Donald Trump is a bigger, uglier threat every day that goes by, and it's time for decent people everywhere – Republication, Democrat, Independent – to say 'No More Donald.' There's no virtue in silence."

The bottom line is this: Fascism has no place in America and, yet, those who support Trump – primarily uneducated, lower class white Americans – appear to be completely blind to this. C'mon, you can do better than be trapped in a sleazy reality TV show. Don't believe any politician who constantly says "Believe me" or tries to sell you raw meat or wine with his name branded on it. Mr. Trump is a terrible choice for our country and, by extension, the world.

We are defined by the choices we make. God help us all.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Who lives, who dies, who gets to tell your story?

Lin-Manuel Miranda /
Writer, composer, star, genius of "Hamilton".
It's been said that works of art have long informed how people understand the past, and Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton is no exception.

As the writer, composer, and star of the Broadway smash-hit Hamilton, Miranda is changing the way that people consider one of the Founding Fathers and the era he lived in. It puts him in lofty territory, alongside how Shakespeare transformed Richard III, and how the author Leon Uris romanticized the founding of Israel in his novel Exodus.

The recipient of a MacArthur "Genius" grant, the 36-year-old Miranda relies on the core elements of hip-hop and R & B-inspired music as well as jazz, pop and Tin Pan Alley – plus a racially-diverse cast – to make history as relatable as possible. Hamilton has become a certifiable Broadway box office hit – tickets are sold out into early 2017 – and the musical is centered around a story arc that related Hamilton's life story, from his orphaned upbringing in the West Indies to his death in a duel at the hands of Aaron Burr.

"This is a story about America then, told by America now," said Miranda, a native New Yorker, in an interview with The Atlantic, "and we want to eliminate any distance between a contemporary audience and this story."

The real Alexander Hamilton (L) and Lin-Manuel Miranda,
who portrays the First U.S. Treasury Secretary in "Hamilton".
"Hamilton, then, has the potential to strongly influence the way Americans think about the early republic. For one thing ... it understands Thomas Jefferson to be a deeply flawed individual. It presents an American history in which women and people of color share the spotlight with the founding fathers. The primarily black and Hispanic cast reminds audiences that American history is not just the history of white people, and frequent allusions to slavery serve as constant reminders that just as the revolutionaries were fighting for their freedom, slaves were held in bondage," wrote Edward Delman in a September 29, 2015 essay for The Atlantic. 

"Perhaps the most significant lesson the show might teach audiences, and one particular relevance today, is the outsized role immigrants have played in the nation's history. Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant – a fact that Miranda repeatedly emphasizes throughout the show – and the musical also prominently features the Marquis de Lafayette, a French nobleman who played a crucial role during the revolutionary war."

Lin-Manuel Miranda / The artist at work.
The process which Miranda translated the history of the unlikely rise and untimely fall of the first U.S. Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, onto the stage is a fascinating one. The origin of
Hamilton dates back to May 12, 2009, when Miranda performed "The Hamilton Mixtape" before an audience that included President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House Evening of Poetry, Music and the Spoken World, accompanied by pianist Alex Lacamoire.

Lin-Manuel Miranda (center) translated the history of the
unlikely rise and untimely fall of the first U.S. Treasury
Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, in "Hamilton". 
In a February 2015 feature about Hamilton, Rebecca Meade of The New Yorker wrote: "It does not seem accidental that Hamilton was created during the tenure of the first African-American President. The musical presents the birth of the nation in an unfamiliar but necessary light: not solely as a work of élite white men but as the foundational story of all Americans. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington are all played by African-Americans. Miranda also gives prominent roles to women, including Hamilton's wife, Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo), and sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler (Renée Elise Goldsberry). When they are joined by a third sister, their zigzagging harmonies sound rather like those of Destiny's Child. Miranda portrays the Founding Fathers not as exalted statesmen but as orphaned sons, reckless revolutionaries, and sometimes petty rivals, living at a moment of extreme volatility, opportunity, and risk. The achievements and the dangers of America's current moment – under the Presidency of a fatherless son of an immigrant, born in the country's island margins – are never far from view."

The original cast recording, produced by The Roots' Questlove and Black Thought – which has been a constant companion of mine in my car stereo the past couple of weeks – recently garnered a Grammy Award, and Hamilton most assuredly and deservedly will clean up at this summer's Tony Awards.

"I don't know how many really good ideas you get in a lifetime," Miranda recalled in a December 2015 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, "But the idea of telling Hamilton as a hip-hop story was definitely one because you get to do everything: love and death and a war and duels and revenge and affairs and sex scandals."

One thing's certain: thanks to Miranda's genius, Hamilton is having a positive influence in altering our perception of American history, and the role in which artists are helping shape the historical narrative.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

A narcissist, a liar, and a robot, all in search of power

Donald Trump /
His response is always denial and attack.
A narcissist, a liar, and a robot walk into a Houston debate hall last Thursday night. They are joined by a couple of wallflowers who can barely get in a word edgewise. The evening turns messy and muddled. There's little restraint. Definitely, there's no civility, and no issue is ever really settled.
"When we think of a debate about public policy, we assume facts, arguments, and logic," Robert Reich, Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the Univerisity of California, Berkeley, and former U.S. Labor Secretary, wrote on his Facebook page the morning after the latest Republican debate. "But Donald Trump uses none. ... Trump demonstrated once again that he has a handful of slogans and potted remarks on every subject, which he repeats time and again, interspersed with blather about how wonderful he is. When questioned about anything personal – his tax returns or a civil lawsuit against him or whatever – his response is always denial and attack."
I agree with Dr. Reich's common-sense thoughts and support his opinion. Trump has become the antipolitician, a misogynist whose racist, bigoted, and xenophobic campaign has appealed to his party's base. Trump would think nothing of governing by clobbering everyone who disagrees with him. 
In "A Governing Cancer of Our Time," published Friday, New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks wrote: "Over the past generation we have seen the rise of a group of people who are against politics. These groups – best exemplified by the Tea Party but not exclusive to the right – want to elect people who have no political experience. They want 'outsiders.' They delegitimize compromise and deal-making. They're willing to trample the customs and rules that give legitimacy to legislative decision-making if it helps them gain power."
Brooks continues: "Ultimately, they don't recognize other people. They suffer from a form of political narcissism, in which they don't accept the legitimacy of other interests and opinions. They don't recognize restraints. They want total victories for themselves and their doctrine."
And so you have it, thanks to Messrs. Trump, Cruz, and Rubio, Republican politicians have, in the words of Dr. Reich, "descended into the muck of bigotry, hatefulness, and lies. They're splitting America by race, ethnicity and religion." Further, they are making soaring promises and raising ridiculous expectations. They are all power hungry, yet each wants to deconstruct the U.S. government and isolate us from the outside world at large. Collectively, they love the sound of their own voices – mind you, each is void of any empathy – and those three voices are filled so full of hate and cynicism. To hear each of them during a debate or on the stump, the U.S. has gone to hell and been one big failure over the past seven-plus years under the Obama stewardship of the presidency. They are preaching fear instead of hope to the masses. Their bashing-style rhetoric makes coherent conversation impossible. During Thursday's Republican debate in Houston, candidates Kasich and Carson might as well not even shown up. Their voices were drowned out by the louder and more boisterous voices belonging to Trump, Cruz, and Rubio. Very soon, I wouldn't be surprised if Kasich and Carson become the latest to "suspend" their presidential campaigns.
Survival of the fittest? More like, it's survival of the loudest. All that's missing is Trump's boisterous "You're fired!" that he made famous on his own reality TV series "The Apprentice." Memo to Mr. Trump: This is not reality TV, this is real life. Thanks to demagogues like you, in the words of Dr. Reich, "the moral authority that America once had as a beacon of democracy and common sense is in jeopardy."
"Trump's style is bashing and pummeling," writes Brooks. "Everyone who opposes or disagrees with him is an idiot, a moron or a loser. The implied promise of his campaign is that he will come to Washington and bully his way through." 
Donald Trump /
Do we really want an authoritarian for president?
So, we should ask ourselves: Do we really want an authoritarian for president – a fascist in bespoke suits with a hairstyle that Vanity Fair once described as an "inanimate object that straddles his scalp like a dead, furry lobster" – who would think nothing of insulting world leaders by calling them idiots, morons or losers, and who loves to quote another fascist, Mussolini, because he loves to associate himself with great quotes? Or, for that matter, can either Cruz or Rubio – both very ineffective and unpopular legislators in the U.S. Senate, who lately have been notably absent from their Capitol Hill duties – be worthy of our vote or trusted to carry the "nuclear football" as commander in chief? I truly would be very scared – not to mention very, very much disappointed in my country – if any of the three leading Republican contenders is elected as our next president. It's important to remember that with opportunity comes responsibility.
Thank goodness, on the Democratic side Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, despite their perceived flaws, are discussing issues of substance and importance that really matter in our lives – health care and climate change, among them. Neither of them is an idiot, a moron or a loser – and I would be very comfortable, not to mention very much relieved, with either Hillary or Bernie as our next president. Both of them would be a worthy successor to Barack Obama.
Today's Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses will further define the Republican field. Or will it? God help us all.