Sunday, November 3, 2013

From Godot to Glover - Eight Days in The City That Never Sleeps...

New York, of course, is a theatre lover's mecca.  From the splashy stages of Broadway to the far-reaches of Brooklyn, there is always a show for someone to see and an event for another to create.

That the performances and opportunities are never limited to traditional plays or confined to regulated spaces is what makes this city's offerings so vibrant.  For those of us who live here, the options are (honestly) endless.

In the past eight days I have seen a masterful dress rehearsal, one lavish Shakespearean tragedy, a dance showcase that left me breathless, and (while making my way home from the dentist) I found myself surrounded by costumed characters at the West Village Halloween parade and on a crowded subway train.  

If you are visiting the Big Apple on October 31st, you don't need to spend $100 on a plush Broadway seat.  Just cough up $2.50 for a Metro card and watch the drama unfold.

Brandon Stanton's subway shot best summarizes the Halloween
street theatre of New York.

If you do have time and money, however, there are some performances that are well-worth your investment.

Photo: Tristram Kenton

One of the standout moments of my unscripted and inspiring week was attending the dress rehearsal of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot". Under the direction of Sean Mathias, this version of the absurdist play stars Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart.  The two "Sirs" (who are pals off-stage) are fun to watch, but Mr. McKellen's charming interpretation of a vaudevillian hobo seems to echo the true spirit of the playwright. The actor who really held my attention, however, was Billy Crudup. Playing the slavish role of Lucky, the 43 year old actor was unrecognizable and seemingly ageless. He disappeared beneath a bowler cap and a mop of sheet-white hair, and he nearly stole the show. 
If you are in Manhattan and you want to see a worthy production of a masterpiece, get your tickets here:
I was less impressed with Ethan Hawke's turn as Macbeth.  His shouts a murmurs overwhelmed any nuance the actor could have brought to the role. I attended Jack O'Brien's interpretation of the bloody spectacle with 100+ students, parents, and teachers from the school where I work.  On the whole, I think we were collectively impressed with O'Brien's clever re-imagining of the witches (men playing women who manipulate and shape-shift their way through the drama) and Anne-Marie Duff's aggressive Lady Macbeth. The play is in previews at the Lincoln Center.


Last night I took the 2 Train to Flatbush for a one-night dance showcase at Brooklyn College. Savion Glover, a tap phenomenon since his childhood, is now the reigning master of the form and with a resume that includes lead roles on Broadway and in film, he's a seasoned star.  In a show called Stepz, Glover shared the stage with a group of talented tappers, but his subtle prowess was mesmerizing. He doesn't seem to have a center of gravity - he simply floats and pounds and skips and shuffles and sweats and smiles his way across the stage.  He's taking the hoofers on tour this month, catch him if you can!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

One Year Later...

One year ago, Hurricane Sandy brought high waters and devastation to many parts of New York and New Jersey.  
On the evening of October 29, 2012, I documented the rising waters as they engulfed the piers and and trails of Brooklyn Bridge Park in the entry Mother Nature and the Metropolis.

This is the same view of that park on the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy:

I do love the riverfront park and the New York attitude of get up, go on, get better - but I also wonder what steps have been taken to protect those newly planted trees and freshly carved trails when the next storm rises up to test us once again.

We are confident, but are we ready?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

9/11 + 12

My view tonight from Brooklyn.

Today during our second period class and shortly after observing a moment of silence, my 12th grade students reminded me that the attacks of September 11, 2001 took place during their first full week of school.  They were kindergartners. 

Every year of their academic lives has been marked by war.  
Every year.

We've taught them how to read and write, we've encouraged them to grow and change, but we've handed them a violent legacy of uninterrupted conflict.

And yeah, they're a bit cynical.  They see no end to the saber rattling and airport pat-downs and they don't pretend believe that these battles will ever be won.  

But they aren't defeatists. These high school seniors pay close attention to political possibilities and have little tolerance for platitudes. They don't want to talk about Miley Cyrus because they are much more concerned with Syria. 

War makes them sad and resilience makes them proud.  

The Class of 2014 just seems to be totally unimpressed by the drama of fear.  

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Mt Rainier and the Berry Explosion!

In late August I joined an intrepid bunch of campers (9 adults and 10 children) for a weekend camping trip in Mt. Rainier Park in the state of Washington.
The following images were taken on a hike that revealed endless bushes of huckleberries.  
It's always nice to find a few of these yummy berries along the trail, but the abundance of them on this particular day stopped us in our tracks for over an hour.   
After a while, we were competitively shoving as many berries as possible into our mouths.  
You judge the winner:

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Sitting on Top of the World

Often I find myself packing too much into one little summer; running from airports and projects to picnics and jobs, I often slam into Labor Day weekend exhausted and unfocused.
But this year I made very few summer plans.  
I just let the season unfold.

As a result, I spent a lot of time surfing in the Pacific Ocean. 
I paddled with old friends, new acquaintances, and one adorable seal. The summer of 2013 taught me to slow down and appreciate the power of wind and tide and silence.  I fell down more than I stood up, but I learned to relax - both on the waves and off. 

By late August my body was exhausted but my mind was totally at ease.
Goodbye summer! 
See you on the other side...
Uncredited photo found on Pinterest

"But more wonderful than the lore of old men and the lore of books is the secret lore of the ocean." 
- HP Lovecraft

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Seamus Heaney

"I rhyme
 To see myself, to set the darkness echoing"

In 1997, while sitting in a crowded Dublin church awaiting the start of my friend's wedding, I leaned over to fix a disobedient strap on my new sandal and accidentally head-butted the man in front of me.  When he turned around to see who had smacked his skull, I greeted him with a dumbfounded stare.

On that day, Seamus Heaney was the only Nobel Prize winner I had ever met.  He'd been honored with the award in 1995 and he's likely to remain the only Nobel recipient I will ever literally go head to head with in a church or anywhere else.

Later that night, while the reception marquee slowly sunk into the rain-soaked lawn of the bride's family estate, people danced and drank and Seamus Heaney held court at his table.  As I was sitting across from him, he heard my American accent and asked me where I was from.   When I said I was a native of Missoula, Montana he inhaled from his cigar, stared for a moment at the smoke, and then recited from memory this Robert Bly poem about my beloved hometown:

There has been a light snow.
Dark car tracks move in and out of the darkness.
I stare at the train window marked with soft dust.
I have awakened at Missoula, Montana, utterly happy. 

With his rich Derry accent and deep voice humming through each word, everything around me dissolved. I forgot to breathe, I babbled a series of "thank you's", and then I took a long drink of Guinness.  It was my 27th birthday.  I had no idea it would be so special.   

I've had a crush on Seamus Heaney ever since.

He was a poet who gave private moments power and reminded his readers that history is always personal.

On Tuesday I will begin teaching a class of 12th grade Literature students selected poems from Heaney's remarkable body of work. Having led classes through the study of his intimate sonnets and some of his longer and more political pieces for almost a decade, I am often astonished at how fully his words resonate with teenagers.  When he critiques tribalism, teens understand the real implications of inherited animosities and when he links childish imagination to adult longing they recognize the nostalgia that comes with aging.  

Even a difficult poem like "Personal Helicon", one that requires a bit of research and explanation, opens itself up to 9th graders who sometimes want to believe that poetry is beyond them.  It is my favorite poem, and this is a link to Heaney's lovely reading of it:

A few years after my momentous birthday celebration, I read the poem "Scaffolding" at a different wedding.  It's a gentle tribute to the sovereign power of love:
Masons, when they start upon a building,

Are careful to test out the scaffolding;

Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points,

Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints.

And yet all this comes down when the job’s done

Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.

So if, my dear, there sometimes seem to be

Old bridges breaking between you and me

Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall

Confident that we have built our wall.

"Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun"
Seamus Heaney
April 13, 1939 - August 30, 2013

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

An Artist from Here and There

 This fascinating painting is actually a massive mural hanging high above India Street in San Diego's hip neighborhood of Little Italy.  Created by Mee Kyung Shim, the narrative face is a sample of the work this Korean born visual artist, who now calls San Diego home, sells in her local gallery. 

Check out her website to get a sense of her talent and what she is hoping to express at:

I Kicked a Rock.

Today I kicked a rock
While surfing 
Without a board.

I was playing
in the waves
Avoiding stingrays
By shuffling my feet.

The rock was sharp
My skin was soft
And the tip of my big toe
Was sliced.

Pain surged
As salt water and sand 
Dug into my nerves.

Like a wounded sea creature
My angry body
Hobbled across the beach.
Wincing. Mumbling. Breathing.

Eyes trying not to look 
At the blood
On my flip-flop.

Tourists smiled.
Joggers pranced.

In my car, 
I honked.

Sometimes yelling
Nasty words
At the knives
Stabbing inside my foot.

Better now.  
   Medicine applied
      Pills popped.
         Ice pack melted.

Going back out tomorrow 
With a board.

Feet won't touch the ground.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Flower Power in San Diego's "Little Italy"

Sunny San Diego lends itself to an abundance of colorful flowers and plants all year long, but summer brings out an amazing bounty of typical and exotic displays.  It's hard not to walk away from a farmers' market anywhere in this city without buying a bunch to take back to your home or to your hotel room.

Yesterday I visited the Saturday market in the trendy and lovely neighborhood of Little Italy.  Located just north of downtown and not far from the airport, this part of town is home to pricey condos and authentic Italian shops and restaurants.  It can be a bit challenging to find parking, but once you've done that you can stroll the streets listening to great music (seriously, the bands are terrific), sampling local produce and buying handmade crafts. The weekly market runs from 8am-2pm.

The Banksia flower was the source of much fascination. It looks a bit like an artichoke flower, but it has an attitude all its own!
The choices at Little Italy's Farmers' Market are plentiful and affordable!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Adventures Begin...

The New York Times has an interesting photo series in yesterday's issue that highlights college students who have decided to live and study at universities far from their hometowns and even their home countries. Some make huge sacrifices to travel far from friends and family in pursuit of education, while others have simply hopped state lines to pursue specific degrees or vague adventures.

The pictures and comments are mostly loaded with optimism and hope:

The same paper has also recently published two essays by young men who are attending Ivy League schools, but came to their lauded universities from less than privileged backgrounds.  These two entries offer a blunt set of perspectives on the hurdles some people must leap in order to go after their goals:

It's nice to see a little bit of balance in the representation of young people who go away to school.  It's always exciting to start the journey, but sometimes staying the course is a challenge.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Baby Days

My friend Jenny, who recently accepted the job as principal of the high school we both attended, traveled from San Diego to Boston a few weeks ago.  Pregnant and in the company of her two young daughters, she went into early (too early) labor and was immediately hospitalized. 

She and her doctors hoped to hold off the premature baby until mid-August, but the little girl had other plans.  Born on Sunday, Jenny's third child is fighting infections, but beating all sorts of odds.

Jenny has documented this emotional journey in her blog, and it's the site worth following this week:

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Montauk: The End is Near!

Montauk is New York's sleepy surf town.  

It's been a sizzling summer in New York City, and while it's not always easy to escape for long vacations, one of the best ways to find relief is to make a weekend journey to the shores of Long Island.  Many of the infamous Hamptons retreats are over crowded and over priced, but the little village of Montauk offers calm and often affordable options for those of us seeking some time at the shore.

I recently spent a weekend exploring Montauk and I came away charmed by the town's unpretentious, but sassy attitude.  It's an East Coast surf destination with a reputation for good-sized waves and chilly waters, but Montauk is also a quaint little town where the food is hearty and the beer is cold.  The lighthouse that is perched on the edge of the Atlantic is well-worth a visit and I recommend getting there by bike rather than by car.

If you are in the New York area and you want to make the trek out to Montauk, you can hop on the Long Island Railroad at Penn Station. The journey takes about 3 hours and the view from the train is gorgeous.  

Montauk's serene beach can get a bit crowded during the summer, but it's a a great place for a morning run or a long sunset walk.

The Montauk Lighthouse was the first official lighthouse in New York State. It's a little over 3.5 miles from town.

When you climb to the top of the lighthouse, look up and check out the handiwork.

During my weekend visit I rented this happy beach cruiser (I called her Twyla) from Air and Speed Surf Shop and cycled up to the lighthouse.  The ride from town does offer up some challenging hills, but it's the best way to go.
In 2009 Surfer Magazine declared Montauk to be the 8th best surf town in the U.S.  The surfing is great, but the icy cold water is not for sissies!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Seeing South Africa: An Interview with Dan Forti

This is Part II of our conversation with Dan Forti.

Today is also the 95th birthday of Nelson Mandela, the first black president of South Africa.  

We open with Dan's thoughts on Mr. Mandela and his life.

Here in the United States we hear and read a lot of news stories (often conflicting) that give dire reports of Nelson Mandela’s health.  How are the people of South Africa reacting to his illness? 
First, it is natural and appropriate that Mandela’s decline in health is a focus of the world’s attention. Mandela is a remarkable individual and was paramount as a lawyer, liberation leader, armed revolutionary, symbolic figurehead, reconciler, President, elder statesman, and mediator both within and outside of South Africa. I am trying to recall some quasi-scientific study conducted earlier this year or last year (if I remember correctly) that attempted to assess the world’s most influential individuals across the entire history of mankind: Mandela, ranked 18th or 19th, was the only living individual on a list that contained the likes of Jesus, Da Vinci, Gandhi, and Buddha, among other historic figures. So it is by no means a surprise that he remains a fixture of the world’s eyes.

Having said this, I think the media (both inside and outside of South Africa) fail to accurately capture the realities of the situation. First and foremost, Mandela is 94, and is an elder statesmen who has lived a long and challenging life. This fact alone contextualizes his decline in health – few individuals, under any circumstances, are able to live until 94. Mandela also suffered severe damage to his eyes and back during his 26+ years on Robben Island, and has been in and out of the hospital over the past few years. Mandela’s last public appearance in South Africa was during the 2010 World Cup, and has all but remained out of the spotlight since then. As a result, his decline in health cannot honestly be described as any sort of surprise or shock.
My personal opinion of the situation is that the majority of South Africans have already come to terms with his eventual passing. What the media seems to be perpetuating now, unfortunately, is an expropriation of his name for increased viewership. What they should be focusing on instead is an acceptance of the realities of his health and a much larger celebration of and reflection upon his legacy and values, which have undoubtedly transformed humankind for the better.

What is life like in South Africa right now?  What were the easiest and what were the hardest things about attempting to assimilate into the society?
Life in South Africa is quite similar to life everywhere else: there are positives and negatives, opportunities and challenges, and the complexities, hypocrisies, and inspirations that make this world so special. Durban, a beach city most similarly equated to San Diego, is obviously a world away from NYC. It's a much slower and more relaxed lifestyle, and although the country’s third largest city, is most certainly not metropolitan. What is similar to New York, however, is the infusion of cultures and peoples. Durban is located in the heart of the Kwazulu-Natal Province and is the heart of the traditional Zulu Kingdom (the Zulu’s are South Africa’s most populous ethnic group); Durban was also a key British harbor during the early colonial years, and thus retains many British aspects; perhaps most interestingly, Durban has one of the largest metropolitan population of Indians outside of the Indian subcontinent (millions of Indian immigrants were brought to Durban during the 19th century as indentured servants on the region’s sugar cane plantations, and was also the place where Mahatma Gandhi began practicing law). Mix all of these together, thrown in South Africa’s unique political/socio-economic history and the influences of today’s globalized society, and I personally believe it’s among the most fascinating places.

In terms of assimilation, I’m not convinced I’ll ever fully assimilate. I like to believe that I will always retain some blend of the USA in my life, even if that has obviously become secondary to my personality here in SA. The fact that English is the prevalent language throughout the country made the transition to life in Durban very straightforward. And given South Africa’s reality as perhaps the most developed country on the continent, I have not been forced to sacrifice too many of the trappings of home while living here.

Do you ever feel lonely, and if so, what do you do about it?
I’m lucky to have a great group of friends and colleagues here in Durban, so loneliness does not often factor into my day to day. However, there is no escaping the realities that I am very far from my family and friends back in the States, and this is an ever-present challenge of life here. I’m also lucky to have an incredible group of people in my life back in the US who remain supportive of me and are always there to remind me that home isn’t too far away (especially with Skype, Facetime, and Facebook). Most importantly, my parents keep me grounded and are always there for me, no matter what time of day or night.

I know that something like 11 different languages are spoken in South Africa, are you learning any of them?
True, South Africa does have 11 official languages, an acknowledgement of the plurality of communities that make up the country. Unfortunately I have not had any successes in learning any of the languages besides English. The dominant language outside of English in Durban is Zulu. I’ve taken a few Zulu lessons before and understand basic greetings, vocabulary, and sentence structure. However given that my working language is English and that the vast majority of individuals in the area speak English, there has not been the necessary language immersion to facilitate this process.   

Are you reading any good books right now?  What influences your choice of reading?
I have to admit that I am not reading as many books as I’d ideally like. Given that one of my primary responsibilities at work is to constantly monitor political situations throughout the world, I find myself reading something like 50+ news articles a day. As a result, my motivation for extracurricular reading isn’t too high. However, I have found my reading tastes gradually shift towards African literature. I’m incredibly thankful for my Kindle, which allows me to sift through Amazon’s massive collections instead of exclusively relying upon the surprisingly limited shelves of bookstores here in SA.  I do have a few great books lined up. I’m currently working my way through the professional autobiography of Nigeria’s Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, which is turning out to be a fascinating but extrmely technical overview into national economic policymaking. The next two books on my list are Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah and Teju Cole’s Open City

Bunny Chow
Photo from:

What are your favorite local food choices?

Thankfully Durban is a culinary hotspot. My absolute favorite local dish is called the bunny-chow. Born out of Indian-South Africans’ experiences as indentured servants in Durban, the bunny-chow is simply a meat or vegetable curry served inside of a hollowed-out loaf of bread. The bunny-chow is eaten without silverware, but instead, by using the bread bowl as utensils to dip, scoop, and eat the curry. The curries in Durban are unbelievable and the bunny chow is one of the experiences I can’t wait to bring home with me!