07 Oct

South Florida – Five Years Already?!


Wednesday 7 October 2015.

FLL 5Sitting here in my bedroom in South Florida in the late evening (just about past my bedtime…) and listening to the hard rain as it comes down the gutters and the side of the house. I love hearing the rain like this. It reminds me of my time in Cape Town, when I had rented that little apartment at 159 Waterkant Street with the tin roof and when it would rain it would be impossible to ignore the insistent patter of the rain drops. Here in Florida I am excited by the rain because it is good for the plants–the plants that I have planted and have wished to grow and thrive. Yes, a heavy rain in the late evening (not during the day) is just fine with me.

We have had some spectacular days since I arrived last Friday. I think the weather has been absolutely perfect. In the low seventies in the morning, getting up into the mid-eighties in the afternoon, and then some rain scattered throughout the day. It is still hot in the middle of the day in the sun, but not unbearably so (like it was in late August). The humidity has come off and the sky has been beautiful.

But even down here in the land of endless summer, I can tell that autumn is here, just by looking at the long face of the paler clouds in the sky. I have talked to people back in New York and they have told me that it is perfect weather. I beg to differ. They have to put on coats in the morning. And closed toe shoes. And there is a chill in the morning and evening and it is not possible anymore to wear shorts and a tank top. No, in the north it is fall definitely. And I am now a warm weather person. That is what five years in South Florida will do to you. I listen to them tell me how beautiful it is in New York, and I don’t say anything.

So yes, I am coming up on my five-year anniversary of my house in South Florida. I have spent a lot of time and effort in this house and garden and a part of me is surprised that it is only five years. But then I look back through time and remember where I started five years ago. Time will pass here and I will just have to go along with it.

Because I am coming up on the five-year anniversary, I am also coming up on another bill for hurricane insurance. And because this is South Florida, the bill is not exactly inexpensive. For five years I have dutifully paid the bill and thus have slept well through the nights knowing that if a hurricane came through I would have insurance to rebuild the house if the hurricane took it out.

But since I have been in South Florida, I have experienced two hurricanes, both of which have been in New York. My house in Florida has stood the same. Even this year, we had Hurricane Erika threaten us, but she eventually petered out before she even got close. And then just this past week, Hurricane Joaquin missed Florida but set all of the Northeast coast into a tizzy. Why, I wonder, am I paying hurricane insurance in Florida when all the storms are hitting New York?!

I called my real estate agent for his thoughts. He has lived down here for thirty years now and also has many properties to worry about so I think he will have some good advice. “It’s all about your risk tolerance,” he wrote back to me.

“Of 2012-04-02 15.13.43course,” I think, when I read his response. “Risk tolerance. That’s not just about the hurricanes coming to South Florida or New York. Risk tolerance – that’s essentially life.”

It’s a good problem to have. Sitting down here in South Florida listening to the rain, and contemplating my risk tolerance for hurricanes and whatever else may come through in my life…

04 Oct

Review: The Martian: Mark Watney – Phone Home!

The Martian: Mark Watney – Phone Home! 

Several weeks ago when I picked up the best selling book, The Martian, I wasn’t sure whether I would take to it since space exploration and sci-fi has never interested me that much. However, I was curious to see if it could interest me, and I was also very interested in seeing what a best-selling sci-fi book was like. To my surprise, I found myself hooked on the first line (one of the best first lines, incidentally, that I have read in a while, and which, to my great dismay, did not make it into the movie!). This is uttered by Mark Watney, the main character (played by Matt Damon in the movie), who happens to be accidentally stranded on Mars. And while the book contained a lot of highly technical discussions and descriptions, those technical passages are worth slogging through because once the rest of the characters have been introduced and Watney makes contact with earth, the story demands to be read. In short, this was a book I couldn’t put down. I had to know whether Mark Watney, an astronaut for NASA, would ever make it back to Earth alive.

Once I finished the book, I couldn’t wait for the movie. Typically story lines where there is a ticking time bomb (or the equivalent) make for great Hollywood fare, and I thought this one would be a prime candidate. It was hard to imagine that this would not be a great movie. Admittedly, there there was no love interest in the story, but I really believed that there was enough story to overcome that deficit.

You can already guess how this review is going to go. Unfortunately, I was not critical enough in thinking through the book to movie adaptation. This one did an ok job but it slogged on a little too long and never created the heart-stopping type of suspense that a great dramatic film deserves. It’s not a bad movie. It’s just not a great movie.

I’m perfectly willing to admit that I may have inflated my expectations too much. So…note to future The Martian movie-goers: set expectations low and you will most likely come out at least satisfied. Maybe you will even be pleasantly surprised. (Also, be prepared for the length. Skip the 20 minutes of previews, go to the bathroom before sitting down, and if you are at a dine-in cinema, I would not recommend any wine or reclining all the way back in your seat as that may make it easier to fall asleep in the less exciting parts.)

Ok – a few more details. Mark Watney and his fellow astronauts were working a mission on Mars when a sandstorm hit and they evacuated. Unfortunately Watney was struck by debris during the evacuation and assumed dead. His crew members aborted the mission and headed back to earth, a journey that will take would take then over 12 months. But against all odds, Watney lived. The entire story is devoted to exploring whether, against all odds again, how and if he can successfully live on Mars until NASA can come rescue him. There are serious problems. Actually very serious problems—including the fact that he’s relying on an oxygenator, a water reclaimer, and a building that provides the only protection between him and the highly pressurized Martian air. If any of these fail, he’s dead. Oh, and also, he has a limited supply of food and will surely starve to death before any mission can get back to Mars to rescue him.

As the supporting cast (his fellow astronauts and the scientists and managers at NASA) come together, we are treated to a variety of amusing scenes and quips as everyone tries to get Watney back to earth alive. In fact, many of these quips come from Watney himself who maintains an unnatural optimism given his very bleak situation. There are some great action scenes in space and beautiful wide-angled shots of earth and the moon and the Martian landscape. The scenes down on earth are crisp and the conversations are populated with rocket science calculations punctuated by public relations disaster management speak, which also makes for some pretty funny scenes.

The Martian is a story of survival (cue the comparison to Robinson Crusoe). It is also about geeky technological ingenuity (cue the comparison to MacGyver). Add in the lonely and dramatic landscape of Mars and the star power of Matt Damon, along with Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, and Kirsten Wiig, and this movie had all the right ingredients for a blockbuster. But sometimes great movies don’t come together even when all the right ingredients are there (cue the comparison to baking a cake with all the right ingredients, and the cake still ends up flat). This Martian fell just a little bit flat.

I can guess at the reasons. First, it’s very difficult to pull off a one-man show, which, in essence, this is. Much of the book is a long monologue about his extremely ingenious thought processes. And even though there are other characters to help provide interaction and other drama, this is still essentially about one man and his quest to get off Mars. The most interesting parts of that monologue are in the initial days of his survival, and those are well represented in the movie. But sustaining that momentum through the entire movie proved to be problematic. Second, the book was highly technical but a necessary part of the escape. But the writers and filmmakers had to incorporate those highly technical discussions into the movie. The problem is that it can be sort of boring to watch an astronaut or rocket scientist solve complex intellectual problems…in much the same way that it can be sort of boring to watch grass grow or a cake bake. That intellectual firepower is great for getting off of Mars, but not terrific for creating great drama (unless of course you are Shakespeare writing Hamlet). Finally, the intersection of time and gravity just seemed too distant to create any sustained tension. Watney was stranded on Day 6 of the mission and his final rescue day took place over a year and half later. Both in the book and in the movie there was an extreme urgency to get things done so that Watney could be saved, but somehow that urgency didn’t translate very well into tension in the film. Moreover, the physical urgency and difficulties in a zero-gravity environment just didn’t feel that visceral. Even though we know the astronauts need to float to each other in a precise movement, those sequences feel a bit foreign and the urgency is lost. I don’t know if this is because it is difficult to convey the zero-gravity environment or if it was just a bad visual translation. (I also felt the same way about the highly acclaimed but overrated movie Gravity a few years back). Whatever the reason, this and everything else contributed to the flatness.

One wonders how well the writers and filmmakers would have done with Watney in a more earthly circumstance, say stranded on an island with a nuclear bomb hidden in the ground and timed to go off within 36 hours and destroy all of humankind. Would the writers and filmmakers been able to create better sustained tension with that story rather than one that takes place some 100 million miles away from earth? Perhaps, more importantly, one wonders in that situation if Mark Watney would be as good at saving humankind as he is himself?

And maybe this question is the key to the movie. Outside of the fact that he is very intelligent, resourceful and optimistic and has become a public relations icon/nightmare for NASA, is there any other reason to care about Mark Watney? I hate to say this, but the answer is no. (By the way, for whatever reason, it worked in the book, but the screen directors took on a more ambitious task and so they will be held to a more ambitious standard.) And so here I am going to argue for a little more humanity. Maybe the writers should have taken a little more leeway and added in a love story, perhaps an unrequited love between him and the commander who left him behind? Or perhaps some flashbacks to his early days, playing with his parents and now his father, who has always wanted him to be an astronaut, has cancer and is dying in the hospital, watching along with the rest of the world to see if he is going to make it off of Mars alive. I can picture the scene now: NASA patches Watney in to his father, “Son,” he says in a raspy voice, “I knew you would call as soon as you could.” Yes, I hate to admit it, but a little more human element to Mark Watney might have helped the story in the Martian.

But the story we have in front of us is of Watney trying to escape Mars. It’s not Watney in unrequited love with Commander Lewis who left him behind and then went back to rescue him only to leave him again on earth by choosing to go back to her husband. It’s not Watney trying to get back home to say goodbye to his father before he dies. And it’s not Watney stranded on a desert island trying to prevent a nuclear bomb from going off with all the heads of state calling each other in distress at the eleventh hour in case he can’t disarm the bomb. Instead, it’s Watney, a super geeky, incredibly intelligent, creative, resourceful astronaut trying to save himself and only himself. We can care about him, but in an non-emotional way, amidst our bathroom breaks and checking our texts and emails to see if we missed anything from the people that we love.

29 Sep

29 Sept 2015 – Super General Assembly!

2015-09-27 19.31.12
2015-09-27 19.31.12

Super, Blood, & Harvest Moon just waiting to be eclipsed.

The super, blood, and harvest moon has come, been eclipsed and gone. And, coincidentally this year, so has the UN General Assembly, which was also supercharged this year. More so than I can remember in past years, and so much so that I might even go out on a limb and call it a super, blood, and harvest UN General Assembly year, only to be repeated ever 30 or so years. Ok, I exaggerate (probably on account of the fact that I just finished Bossypants by Tina Fey today and I have just this little desire to be as funny as she is). But this year still carried extra weight with the Pope making an appearance and then a big deal seemed to be made of President Obama’s speech followed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech and then their agree not to agree meeting that followed.

Ok – let me be clear. The only reason I am talking so much about the UN General Assembly is because it intrudes upon my life every September since I live half a block away from the UN complex and every September for three days I have to show an ID to walk down my street to my apartment and undress and get into bed.

2015-09-27 15.44.54

Hard to see, but believe me, it is hard to walk down my block to my apartment during the UNGA!

Tons of barricades and policeman descend on my neighborhood, as well as hoards of people with lanyards and cameras looking very important and also waiting to show IDs to walk down my street, the only difference being that they only come here once a year and walk over to the UN whereas I live here. And because of this (yes, I will admit this now) I feel a little superior. I may not be a world-traveled journalist or an important country VIP with a special pass to the UNGA, but I am a bona fide New Yorker who resides on 46th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues, half a block away from the UN. I have a right to be here!

But…let’s be honest. If I were living only 5 block north or west or south (not East because then I would be in the East River) I would have no care for the UNGA because it would not impinge on my lifestyle at all. Somehow due to random luck and chance, I ended up on this block. And so here I am, every September, forced to contemplate the UNGA, simply because I must remember to bring ID to enter my street to go home. It is a gentle reminder every year that life is an odd combination of your own making coming into contact with lives of other people’s makings. It is not a bad thing. In fact, it is quite good. Random encounters of our pre-planned lives with other unknown pre-planned lives are what move us out of our expected trajectory and propel us into a new direction. Change is sometimes not welcome, but change, ultimately, is a good thing. We must adjust and adapt or risk being left behind.

Today was a tough day at work. Letting someone go, even if it is completely justified performance-wise, it is never easy to do. I wanted to go run during lunch to get everything out of my mind and come back with a clean slate. But I bagged it all. As I was getting ready to go run, I realized I had too much work to do. Also I told myself that I this is my off-season, so it’s ok to back down to one workout a day! (Oh! I know how idiotic that sounds!) But it’s true. Sometimes I have to tell myself to back off from the workouts. And that’s what I did today. And that’s what I will continue to do until the new year. And that is good for me. This is a time of finding balance and moderation. Next year as I gear up for the next swimming season, there will be plenty of times to do double-workouts!

And also, I have been tired from my idiotic sleeping schedule, so I was also physically tired from having gone to bed at 11p, and then woken up at 12:30a, 2a, 3:10a, 4:05a, and then finally with the alarm at 5:30a. Needless to say, after the day and the highly interrupted sleep, I was also ready to bag the swim workout after work. But I had promised Andrey, my trusted swim partner in NYC, to swim tonight. So that was that. Even though I wanted to completely flake out, I went. And in the process, I ran into Patrick, my old swim coach on the subway. What I nice surprise! (Or maybe coincidence?) Horrible subway system and delays aside. It was great to catch up with him.

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Andey & I – after finishing a good workout!

I got up to the pool deck at 6:34 and managed to jump in at 6:40p. Andrey was actually early at 6:50p. I had hoped to get at least 1,600 before he arrived, but I was only at 800 when I saw him stroll out on deck. I was having a terrible time in the lane. The age groupers were doing stroke and they were kicking up quite a wave. And then the fast lane was populated with wanna-be fast swimmers who had some idea of lane etiquette, but nevertheless were still reeking havoc with my workout. When Andrey finally showed up, I told him I was done!

Of course I wasn’t. He got in. Warmed up. Then we started on our no-breathers. Another thing I would never do on my own. So tonight is a thanks to Andrey for getting me to the pool and getting me to do eight no-breather underwaters! And yes, tonight is a thanks the UNGA for keeping me abreast of public and world affairs! And a thanks to the super, blood, and harvest moon for providing a beautiful image to experience without any thought. No thought, just emotion.

2015-09-27 22.06.23

Super, blood, and harvest moon just about eclipsed…

Tonight’s workout. Warm-up was 400 free, 400 pull, 400 kick. (Andrey showed up after my 400 pull). Then it was 2x (4x [25 no-breathers, 25 easy on 1:00], 200 breathe every 5 strokes). Then we stopped and kvetched about the lane swimmers, especially the obnoxious one who seemed determined to sit at the end of lane and only go on the heels of someone else. Andrey and I had a good laugh about that. And then I suggested 4×125: 75 stroke or IM/50 free. That would get us another 500. With a 200 warm-down, that would get me to 2,700 and Andrey to 2,000. Not a bad workout for two somewhat reluctant swim partners, neither of whom had wanted to go to the pool at all.

22 Sep

The Autumnal Equinox

by Erica L. Moffett

Today is the Autumnal Equinox. I only know about this because the Writer’s Almanac reported that “today marks the autumnal equinox in the Northern Hemisphere, the first day of fall and the point in which the Sun is directly above the equator and the hours of day and night are nearly equal. In the Southern Hemisphere, today marks the vernal equinox, the first day of spring.”

So first I have to say to all my friends in the Southern Hemisphere (John, Otto, Lewis, Herda, Adrian, Ryan…), Happy Spring!! I am jealous already!

I learned later that today is technically not the Autumnal Equinox. I went out for drinks with my boss after work and told him that we should toast to the Autumnal Equinox. But he corrected me. “The autumnal equinox actually occurs at 4:22a this morning,” he said. “So officially today is not the Autumnal Equinox…” Normally I am a detail-oriented person, but I decided that I would let this one slide.

Perhaps the most distressing thing to me about autumn and the quickening of days and the chilling of temperature is the uncomfortable feet. Today it was 58 degrees when I woke up. I got dressed. I put on my open-toed, broad-footed summer sandals. Then I thought better of it. I took them off and looked around my closet for appropriate shoes for the Autumnal Equinox. All that faced me were 2 3/4-inch grey and black-heeled pumps and boots. Very nice (and somewhat costly I might add!) grey and black-heeled pumps and boots. Unfortunately all of which smushed my forefeet and caused great bouts of pain while walking in them.

“No! I thought. “It can’t already be here! That’s not fair.”

Alas, it was already here. Back in NY (not Florida), pushing my foot down into an alien shoe that had no care whether my foot was comfortable.  And believe me, my foot was not comfortable. The nerve ending that had been aggravated several years ago when I had trained for and completed two and a half marathons in two weeks suddenly came back. The shoes were too tight. My soles couldn’t breathe. And moreover, they didn’t even match my outfit. So on top of incredible foot discomfort, I didn’t even get the benefit of feeling dressed to the nines! Instead it was a nonchalant blasé feeling that pervaded. “Not exactly,” I thought, “the way I want to start off the Autumnal Equinox!”  

But there I was. Shoes or no. Autumnal equinox and all. The sun and moon would move forward (or rather around). I could choose to move forward with them. I could perhaps decide not to move forward with them at all. But that was an absurd thought. The sun and moon and stars would move forward regardless of whether I was ready or not.

So then the question was whether I would go willingly or unwillingly. Would I choose to be swept up and away into their larger cosmic rhythms or would I choose to stay and stand stubbornly here on earth, mired in an uncomfortable shoe debate?

I looked wistfully at my beautiful, beloved open-toed wide-soled sandals. I smushed my feet into those autumnal shoes and gingerly stepped forward into the world. Oh! Pain in the foot there is!

Oh! Pain in the foot be gone! Spring Equinox!

Save me as quickly as you can!

18 Sep

Review: Everest: At the Top of the World & Yet…Still Left Wanting

Movie Review: Everest

At the Top of the World & Yet…Still Left Wanting

Just back from seeing the movie Everest (yes, back from the movie, not from climbing the mountain itself!), and I want so much to report that it was a great movie. Alas…

It pains me to say that it is not a great movie. Because I was really really wanting it to be a great one. And it’s not that there aren’t great things about it. In fact, the IMAX/3D experience happened to be one of the best 3D movies I’ve seen. In my previous 3D movie ventures, the glasses have been bothersome and the 3D seemed caught somewhere between 2D and 3D so that the special effects were ultimately more distracting than enhancing. No such thing in this movie. The picture was as sharp as reality and the foreground and background were so entirely natural that I felt as if I were there (versus in a movie theater seat with some terrifying digitally manufactured animal suddenly emerging out of the background into the foreground and onto my lap). No, this was majestic, mountainous grandeur at its best. I heard that most of the movie was filmed in the Dolomites, certainly not a mountain range to sneeze at, and here the movie makers certainly made you feel as if you were in the very high foothills of Mount Everest, beginning with base camp at some 17,000 feet above sea level and then at all four camps along the way to the summit at 29,029 feet (some 5,000 feet short of cruising altitude of the Boeing 787). So first point in favor of the movie: the scenery. But then again, this is a movie called Everest. If you are going to create and title a movie Everest, that’s just a given. In fact, that’s just the entry level ticket price.

What next then? Acting, for sure. An all-star cast of characters including Josh Brolin, who plays a great Beck Weathers; Jake Gyllenhaal who does an absolutely wonderful job portraying Scott Fisher’s “Hey man” personality, and Jason Clarke who does an equally good job at playing Rob Hall and showing exactly how opposite in style he is to Gyllenhaal’s Fisher. For clarification purposes, Rob Hall was the expert mountaineer who had summited Everest five times previously (the most ever at that time for a non-Sherpa) and then opened up his own company to guide people to the summit. Scott Fisher, another acknowledged great mountaineer, but was also a friendly rival of Rob Hall in competing for clients to guide up Everest. Beck Weathers, a stereotypical outspoken Texas doctor, was Rob Hall’s client.

Yes, the movie is based on a true story and there have been multiple accounts written about that ill-fated 1996 climbing season. The most well-known and commercial account was Jon Krakaeur’s book, Into Thin Air, published within a year after the tragedy. In addition, David Brashears, acclaimed mountaineer and  filmmaker was on the mountain that year with his team, filming for an IMAX movie which was released in 1988. Anatoli Boukreev, the lead guide for Scott Fisher’s company, later published his own memoir of the tragedy, countering some of the criticism that had been leveled at him in Krakaeur’s account. Beck Weathers, who was reported dead (and his wife and children were actually informed of that), somehow under miraculous or amazing odds managed to survive a night in the snow and then with frostbitten feet and hands, walk down to Camp 2, stunning everyone there including Jon Krakaeur who had in some accounts, left him for dead in order to save his own life.

But that gets away from the actual movie. Or does it? The movie is supposed to portray the events of what happened. And in the space of two hours it generally does that. In a nutshell, we see how that season was set up for disaster because the guiding business to the top of Everest had blossomed and there were numerous guide companies at base camp that year, with clients who were paying a lot of money to get up that mountain. That was the primary issue, and the issue from which all other issues stemmed: too many people trying to get up to the summit within a very narrow band of opportune time; the inter-guide company negotiations (or lack thereof) about who could take their clients to the summit and when; and also the very practical need to secure ropes and place oxygen tanks all before any guide company could take their clients to the summit.

The movie portrays all of that. And it is convincing in its detail of the mountaineering, the cold, the precipices, the labored movements and misjudgments that occur when breathing very thin air at twenty-plus thousand feet. The problem with the movie is in what it doesn’t portray: a good story that gets you invested in the plot and the characters.

This isn’t for lack of plot, which at its most basic is a group of people, gathered at the base of one of the most dangerous mountains in the world, who try to summit the mountain and get down safely before anything happens to them. Will they get to the top? Will they get down safely? If they don’t, why don’t they? And once they get down, what happens to them?

In this case, the screenwriters stuck so closely to the script that they portrayed reality to the tee. And in doing so, they took all the story out of it (and I admit that it is completely ironic that I am complaining about adhering to reality since I am usually the one complaining about embellishment in book to movie conversions!). But in this case, I wish they had searched for some additional angles to enliven the real, and what could have been, very dramatic story line. Instead we have a beautiful movie without a point, partly because they took a bird’s eye view and never came down deeply enough into one or two stories that would have made it both real as well as compelling.

Now, not to be stingy, the movie did try to incorporate story lines. The first major one was Rob Hall and his pregnant wife (also a climber and knew exactly what would happen what Rob Hall’s fate was their last conversation). The second was Beck Weathers and the relationship to his wife and children back in Texas. But neither of those stories takes wing. This in spite of Keira Knightly and Robin Wright desperately wanting another moment with their husbands on screen.

And so, what we are left with is a beautiful movie, a beautiful mountain, and a lot of dead and devastated people at the end. Wow! That sounds like it could have been the summary of a Shakespearean play, and indeed one wonders what the bard would have done with that story. William Nicholson and Simon Beauty wrote the screenplay; Baltasar Kormakur directed the movie. Everyone here has done yeoman’s work with this movie, but unfortunately one leaves the theater wishing for a little more bard.

In his poem Sunday Morning, Wallace Stevens says, “Death is the mother of beauty.” Everest (both the movie and the mountain) are a great reminder of the truth of that statement. It doesn’t matter whether you are a mountaineer in search of that beauty or a filmmaker seeking to capture that beauty. Everest will attract and, in the end, death will have us all.

12 Sep

Weepy at the U.S. Open Finals…

I have just finished watching the 2015 U.S. Open Women’s Championship match and I am hunting around the apartment for tissues because I am just a little bit weepy. Weepy for the oldest first-time grand-slam winner. Weepy because she won when she was not supposed to, and weepy because she announced her retirement on court right just after accepting the tournament prize. But most of all weepy because this was a real-life Cinderella story.

How refreshing is that? Especially—or rather most of all—because these two weeks were supposed to be all about Serena Williams. And if it wasn’t going to be Serena, it certainly wasn’t supposed to be Flavia Pannetta and Roberta Vinci. Who?

Exactly. That’s the Cinderella story. Two players, with just about zero chance of getting to the finals of the U.S. Open get to the final of the U.S. Open. A dream come true.

This was Flavia Pannetta’s 49th grand slam. She had never made it to a final in all those 49 tries. Her previous best result was the semifinalsin the U.S. Open in 2013. She is 33 years and six months old. She was the #23 seed. No one even picked her to go to the final, much less carry away the trophy.

As for Roberta Vinci, one year younger and very close friend to Flavia. Roberta wasn’t even ranked! And she got to the semifinals to play against Serena Williams. A match that had her at 300 to one odds of winning. She had never won a set against Serena in the prior four times they had played. But then. Suddenly she wins a set. Then she holds her nerve. And then it’s two sets and she’s now in the final. An improbable all-Italian final for which the Italian prime minister even had to fly over to watch.

So there it was. The 2015 U.S. womens final—one for the old ones. But it’s not just about the old ones. It’s actually more about the underdogs. These were underdogs like you couldn’t even imagine. And the fact that they went out and won is enough to make me weepy. Weepy with happiness for them, and weepy with excitement for the possibilities of all the other underdogs in the world.

Let’s not discus the odds or the luck or whatever other reason you want to attribute for their improbably success. This is solely about their heart and guts and ability to seize the chance when they had it presented to them. And it’s about our ability to embrace them as they allow us to see the possibilities in ourselves.

It’s hard to imagine a better U.S. Open final (especially when we will see the number one and number two male players fight it out tomorrow for the Men’s title). But today, it is all about the old Italian women and the tenacity of the underdog. Let us all weep with joy!

27 Jul

Review: Bug Bite – Whatever Bit, Be Gone!

Review: Bug Bite – Whatever Bit, Be Gone!


In the opening scene of Bug Bite, a woman, Liz Sipes (played by Lizabeth Sipes) arrives on stage weighted down with a plethora of shopping bags. She is making her way through a crowd of people and is exasperated with the crowd as well as herself for subjecting herself to this irritation. Someone named Charlie is in tow, and she is exasperated with this person, too. “This is supposed to be bonding time,” she mutters to herself while pushing forward through the crowd. She is trying to exercise patience, even though there is very little to be had.

It takes a few minutes to work out that the person she is supposed to be bonding with is her daughter. We don’t know how old she is but she is old enough to have her own cell phone, which turns out to be very useful when she and Charlie get separated in the crowd. While Liz was taking a phone call, Charlie passed by the Kidrobot store and found it more compelling than following her mother around on the streets.

Watching this initial scene, it is hard not to sympathize with Charlie. We haven’t seen a lot of Liz Sipes at this point, but we have seen enough to know that she is someone who likes – actually more probable, needs – to be in control. We don’t know, but are highly suspicious that this is why she seems so disconnected with her daughter. And we will have the rest of the play to find out.

The phone call that Liz took on the street leads to a doctor’s visit and a diagnosis of Stage 4 breast cancer. The woman who needs to be in control is now seriously out of control. Over the next fifty minutes, we watch her come to grips with this new order. Or rather, non-order.

Bug Bite is a one-woman show, but it is inhabited with a ton of characters and scenes. Ok, not literally a ton, but in addition to Liz, there are at least 15 other characters. That’s a lot of characters and scenes to act out in 50 minutes and Sipes does a great job of acting and making sure the audience knows exactly who she is playing at any time. The characters are diverse, and often very funny (one of the most enjoyable things about the play): her doctors; her other two daughters; her husband; two very different energy healers; a homeless man outside the subway; two shopkeepers in a wig shop, three people in the treatment center; a pot-smoking superintendent…I may have forgotten a few others, but you get the picture. In her quest to rid her body of the cancer, she meets lots and lots of colorful characters.

The play is billed as a “journey to stay alive, understand the choices [she has] made and either accept or change them.” This is a fair description, but actually, the play seems to be more about her relationship with Charlie rather than her relationship with cancer. This is not to diminish her fight against cancer. As she copes with the diagnosis and chemo treatments, we glimpse the fear of someone who may not be living that much longer. (Unfortunately it is just a glimpse as the the play is too short to fully develop her fear of death.) We also see that the cancer is changing her in a good way.

But it is her relationship with Charlie that we see the most and, consequently, are the most invested in. It opens the play, it ends the play, and it occupies several episodes during the play, in between all the doctor and energy healer visits. The good news is that there is real, honest-to-goodness, positive change. By the end of the play, we feel very confident that the opening scene will not be repeated. Mother and daughter have arrived at a much better relationship.

What is most frustrating about the play is the opaqueness about her other relationships, notably her husband and her other two daughters. Was Charlie the most difficult, or was she simply representative? We are given a hint that the relationship with her husband improved for the better. While this makes us feel good, it only makes us wonder what that relationship was like before the diagnosis. Was she as disconnected with him as she was with Charlie? One would hope not, but without any explanation, we are only left to wonder.

To be fair, it would be impossible to develop all those relationships in a 50-minute play. But given that, it would have been more satisfying if they had been explained more fully (even as statement to the audience, which was a technique used for other explanations in the play) rather than dangling them out there without any way to reel them in.

All that said, receiving a diagnosis of Stage 4 breast cancer is a terrifying thing. That Sipes is alive and well to re-tell her story is a good thing. That she has a much better relationship with her daugher is even better. In some ways, it is a shame that it took Stage 4 breast cancer to get her there. But life never follows a straight line. If Liz Sipes can relay that message and allow the rest of us to think about changing our lives for the better without the Stage 4 diagnosis—well then that is a very good thing for everyone.

Bug Bite, a one-woman show written and performed by Lizabeth Sipes and co-directed by Christine Renee Miller and Peter Sprague, played at 59E59 Theaters on July 25 and 26 as part of its East to Edinburgh Festival. The play will also take place from August 17-29 in Edinburgh, Scotland as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festivals.

22 Jul

Review: A Thousand Miles To Freedom – My Escape from North Korea

A Thousand Miles to Freedom: My Escape from North Korea

In 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Council announced a commission to “investigate the systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea…including the violation of the right to food…torture and inhuman treatment, arbitrary detention…violations of freedom of expression, violations of the right to life, violations of freedom of movement, and enforced disappearances…” (Source: United Nations Human Right Council Resolution 22/13.)

A year later, the commission published its findings which, not surprisingly based on all the anecdotal evidence that had been seeping out over the past fifty years, accused the North Korean government of being involved in systemic, widespread, and gross human rights violations. The chairman of the commission compared the North Korean government to the Nazis, presumably not a comparison that most governments would want to have made about themselves. But North Korea, and more specifically—Kim Il-Sung and his descendants, Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Eun—really don’t care about the comparison. Kim Jong-Eun continues to rule in the spirit of his grandfather. Because of this, North Korea continues to be one of the most caricatured countries, but also one of the most egregious abusers of human rights. It is no wonder then that there are thousands of North Koreans who want to escape this regime and many are risking their lives to do so.

Within the past ten years, more and more North Koreans are choosing to defect (interestingly, the majority of them are women which is somewhat unusual in the history of defections). And more and more of them are coming forth to bear witness about their treacherous escapes from their native country, mostly in the hopes of raising international awareness and to bring help to their former country people. And it now seems that this is their time. There is a spate of memoirs being published this year by successful North Korean defectors, including: In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park; Under the Same Sky by Joseph Kim; and The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee. A Thousand Miles to Freedom: My Escape from North Korea by Eunsun Kim is also on this list.

Kim’s escape was not literally a thousand miles, but figuratively it seems much more than that. More than anything, her journey to freedom is a sobering reminder to those of us living in a “free country” to be grateful for our country, our rights, and our freedom. As much as we complain about the current issues plaguing our country (and let’s not sugarcoat it, there are many), the life we are afforded here should never be taken for granted.

A Thousand Miles to FreedomThe structure of Eunsun Kim’s story is straightforward enough. When we first meet her in December 1997, she is eleven years old and starving to death in Eundeok, North Korea, a small town close to the border to China. Her father died a month ago. She believes her mother and sister have abandoned her. She has just enough energy to write her final will and then she falls asleep, “sure that [she] was never going to wake up again.”

When we see her in the next chapter, fifteen years have passed and she is on the subway in Seoul, Korea, heading to Sogang University where she is taking classes. Clearly she did not die of starvation, and the rest of the book is devoted to filling in the details.

While the structure may be straightforward, the story is not. The details of her escape to freedom are harrowing, almost unbelievable, and stretch across nine years. Reunited with her mother and older sister, the three escape to China, where they were befriended by a woman who spoke Korean and fed them well. She then sold them to a peasant farmer who wanted a wife to give him a son. They left for the country and their new home where they were treated like second-class citizens—forced to sleep in the stables, work in the fields, and be beaten by the family. Kim’s mother eventually bore the farmer a son, but that did not change their status within the family. Someone then turned them into the police and they were sent back to North Korea as per the arrangement between the two countries (China treats North Koreans as illegal economic migrants, despite requests from the UN to reconsider this policy.) But, by a stroke of luck, they narrowly miss being sent to prison. They chose to flee to China again and went back to the peasant farmer. It was the best option that they had at the time.

Eventually, they decide to escape from the farmer’s family and gradually make their way to Shanghai, where Kim starts to think about escaping to South Korea. She saves up enough money to pay a smuggler to get them to Mongolia where they can seek asylum at the South Korean embassy. This is the final destination as South Korea offers citizenship to all North Korean defectors, provided that they aren’t proven to be spies.

The final part of the book recounts Kim’s integration process into South Korean society, her quest to get her sister out of China and into Korea, and her return to education and decision to become a child psychologist. Adjusting to life in the bright, shiny, bustling capitalistic city is not easy. But Kim is resilient and it is not difficult to believe she will be successful.

A Thousand Miles to Freedom is a memoir with a mission. Kim, in addition to her studies, works for The Citizens’ Alliance for North Korean Human Rights, an NGO based in Seoul. She wants to raise awareness about the plight of all of her country people who were, unlike her, unable to escape.

In that mission, she has been successful. She has an amazing story of escape (though sadly, it is not a unique story; most North Korean defectors have similarly amazing tales of dangerous escapes). She does a credible job in showing how North Koreans are indoctrinated and why it is virtually impossible for North Koreans to think any differently. She also represents well the challenges of integrating into South Korean society and the conflicting feelings of having to shed her former views of North Korea as the supreme motherland and South Korea and America as the evil enemies.

One very minor quibble: the story is easily read, but it is not great literature. Her story is told to Sebastien Falletti, the Korea correspondent for the French newspaper Le Figaro, so it is natural that the writing is not fully developed. At times though, the language and style were distracting, and I wished that there had been a little more editing. But it feels ungracious and overly nitpicky to complain about that, especially after all that Eunsun Kim has endured to get this book into print. The story is clear and her mission is being accomplished.

Don’t look here for beautiful writing, but do look here for a must-read, first-hand account of what it is like to grow up in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and what one must endure in order to escape to freedom.

18 Jul

Review: Reclaiming Vietnam – Not At All What You Would Think

Reclaiming Vietnam – Not At All What You Would Think

The half-Asian, half-Caucasian woman who jauntily bounds out on stage—handbag and smile in hand—at the beginning of the solo play Reclaiming Vietnam is in Vietnam to volunteer at an orphanage. She is meeting up with a friend to explore the country before her orphanage work starts and she excitedly relates her travel plans to the audience.

This woman has a wonderful smile, an infectious energy, and a bubbly attitude that is impossible to resist. Except that…well, except that she is so bubbly and so energetic that you wonder whether there isn’t something larger and darker lurking underneath the surface. And guess what? There is.

Initially, it seems that what lurks underneath is an identity crisis. Her name is Kim (played by Kim Chinh who also wrote the play) and we learn that she is estranged from her parents. Her father is Vietnamese, her mother Caucasian. She hates being Vietnamese, and yet, here she is in Vietnam. As the title suggests, she must be in Vietnam to reclaim her heritage.

But the title is disingenuous. Soon it becomes painfully clear that the danger lurking underneath is not at all about her Vietnamese identity, but instead, about the sexual molestation that she experienced by her cousins growing up. Oh wow! Talk about a huge sleight of hand! The play suddenly demands to be dark. And yet, Chinh manages to keep it light. Or at least, light alternating with some pretty dark revelations.

ReclaimingVietnamIt could be a criticism that Chinh never allows the play to go to a dark place and stay there. It’s as though she straps you onto her back and then drops down into a deep and dangerous well, but on a bungee cord that immediately bounces back up to the surface lightness. You are with her on her journey, which is a constant bungee jump between light and dark, Vietnam and America, and her ability to confront those members of her family who sexually abused her. It is a constant see-saw, and as an audience member, you see that she is dealing with everything, but you wonder whether she is really dealing with everything. That is a question that will linger after the play is over. After you have gone out for coffee to think about everything you have just seen.

Chinh is a terrific actor: expressive, versatile, and able to inhabit all the characters in her play with extraordinary believability. Especially notable were her impersonations of her male cousins and brothers, whether smoking while in denial of their actions or dunking their heads into a pool out of anger. Reclaiming Vietnam is worth going to see just to see her.

What trips the play up is the structure. Reclaiming Vietnam feels like two distinct plays, both of which have incredible potential, but both of which are still in embryonic form. There is the play about the sexual molestation (closer to gestation), and there is the play about the Vietnam identity (less close). I don’t think this was intentional and suspect that the two stories are intricately related to each other. Unfortunately, this does not come through in its current form.

Having said that, what feels most intriguing about Reclaiming Vietnam, is the potential to birth two very powerful plays. Within this play are two exceptional kernels ripe for development. The sexual molestation story would benefit from seeing more of the backstory and how she worked up the courage to confront her relatives rather than just seeing the final meetings. The story about identity had a lot of missing pieces and would benefit from being fleshed out more fully.

As it stands now, Chinh has written a very good play. In the last scene, she is surfing with her brothers in California. She acts out going to the beach in her wetsuit, heading into the cold water, paddling to catch a wave, and then getting pummeled by that same wave. She gets pummeled by another wave. She is ready to quit when her brother tells her a secret about surfing and she finally puts everything together.

This last scene is absolutely wonderful and it brings us back to the beginning of the play when we first encounter an energetic young beautiful woman bounding out on stage ready to take on life. After all that she has suffered, it is encouraging—even uplifting—to see her balanced on the water and ready to take on life again.

Reclaiming Vietnam written and performed by Kim Chinh and directed by Elizabeth Browning played at 59E59 Theaters on July 9 and 11 as part of its East to Edinburgh Festival. The play will also take place from August 17-19 in Edinburgh, Scotland.

16 Jul

Review: The American Soldier – Three Good Lessons

The American Soldier – Three Good Lessons

No matter how critical one feels towards war, it is virtually impossible to fault the journeymen soldiers who have to carry out that task. They are generally good kids, enlisting at a young age to protect, defend, and yes, ultimately kill for country. It turns out that the military machine is very good at taking them at a young age and teaching them to kill. But it is much less good at helping them return home to normalcy after the killing is done.

The above could be said of any soldier, but the soldier in study here is the American soldier, serving both as title and subject of Douglas Taurel’s compact, but questioning, solo play about war and its affect on the everyday soldier.

Over the course of an hour we meet eight soldiers, two fathers of fallen soldiers, and one wife and son of a soldier who has just deployed. We also glimpse most of the major wars America has fought since the Revolutionary War. (Ironically, the one major war that is missing from this panoply is the Korean War, generally dubbed “The Forgotten War.”) Taurel is both writer and actor and it is clear he identifies deeply with his subject matter—not as a soldier himself (he admits he has never served)—but as a compassionate and very concerned observer.

vertical_image_blue_nosubtitle300Taurel isn’t covering any new ground. There have been countless books, plays, movies, songs, and even poems written about the soldier returning home, severely traumatized and unable to figure out how to live a non-killing, non-military life. Just to name a few: StoryCorps’s “Military Voices Initiative;” The Matterhorn, a novel by Karl Marlentes; Basetrack Live, a documentary theater production by En Garde Arts; Clint Eastwood’s film American Sniper.

But the fact that these and many many other accounts exist doesn’t make Taurel’s play any less meaningful. Even now, without conscription, we have over 1.3 million people on active duty and still, we don’t have an adequate method of returning our soldiers to civilian life. We are getting better at it, but the more reminders we have, the easier it will be to make the case for help. And for change.

As a solo show, Taurel inhabited every character and some he inhabited better than others. He was especially good when inhabiting soldiers in the field, whether freezing in Valley Forge, smoking a joint in Vietnam, or killing the enemy at Iwo Jima. Two of the most poignant episodes were of fathers talking about their deceased sons. The play showcased only one woman—the wife of a soldier who had just re-deployed. Not only did that portrayal feel less convincing, but it also highlighted the absence of the woman’s perspective, whether of the wives or the mothers. Sometimes the accents felt a little forced, as if he was trying to differentiate character by physical voice, and occasionally the costume changes felt as though they might have been more effective if done offstage. But overall, the weaknesses, while sometime distracting, shouldn’t spoil the overall effect. The American Soldier is tightly crafted and effective.

Part of the effectiveness comes from the first soldier we meet. He is the only one who reprises his role throughout the play. In military dress, he marches out on stage, turns and faces the audience, and announces that he learned three things in the army. Over the course of the play, we learn what those three lessons are, and they all involve decent, good, and human qualities.

Whether those are the three universal lessons that soldiers retain coming back from active duty is debatable. But give credit to Taurel in finding positive qualities to leave us with. He wrote this play based on letters from American soldiers all the way back from the Revolutionary War, so there must be some kernel of truth in the three lessons. Yes, they may be illusory, or just for show. Even so. If those qualities can serve as pillars of strength for the returning soldiers who have risked their lives and killed for our country…well then, ultimately that can’t be such a bad thing.

The American Soldier, written and acted by Douglas Taurel and directed by Padraic Lillis played at 59E59th Street Theaters on July 8 and 9 as part of its East to Edinburgh Festival. The play will also take place at the Zoo South Side Theater from August 7-22 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.