Friday, December 30, 2016

Christmas 2016

Christmas 2016
To those we love and see each day
And other loved ones far away,
To friends whose friendship means so much
And those with whom were somehow out of touch,
We wish you a happy holiday and pray for peace on earth for all mankind.

We celebrated our 30th anniversary with a trip to Europe in September. Dan and I traveled with friends in Switzerland and Lake Como, and met up with more friends to share a villa in Tuscany. We spent the last three nights at Lake Molveno in northern Italy The Italian people, countryside, wine, and food are the best -- beautiful, simple preparations with fresh ingredients, nearly all organic. The Italians do it right!

Dan's 75th birthday with all the kids and grandkids was a special evening at a beautiful Mexican restaurant in Carlsbad. Mariachis played music and we celebrated Dan for all that he does to support our family, especially grandkids' sports at ballparks and beaches around the County, for soccer, baseball and surfing. Dane (22) gave the last toast, recalling special times with Popa Dan, for a heartfelt tribute.

The Bob Dylan Concert at the Berkeley Greek Theater was an extra-added treat for the birthday boy. Dylan turned 75 one month before Dan. What better way to take a stroll down memory lane than with the voice of our generation? The raspy voice still delivers. The twinkling lights of the venue created the perfect setting. We also visited my high school friends in the Bay area and Dan's brother/sister-in-law in Portland.

A devoted bridge player, Dan passed 1,000 points, which means he's been playing for a few years now and is doing rather well. We just returned from our December trek to Palm Desert where he played in the regional tournament and shot a couple of rounds of golf.

Tapping away on the keyboard, I'm close to completing a second novel, this one for middle grade boys. When Riley and Westin were 12 (now 19), I picked them up from school once a week at noon and we spent the afternoon together. They did homework and I wrote. Every week I read the latest chapter to them about three boys in Yellowstone. They offered comments. It was a great collaboration. Only recently, I went back to finish the book.  I can't wait for them to read the final story, and for me to land an agent and publisher. A poem I wrote last year was published in the 2015-16 San Diego Poetry Annual this year.

Grandkids are wonderful. Dane is a junior at San Marcos State, Westin is a freshman at Portland City College, and Riley is working for a couple of local restaurants. All four of the Beck and Brown kids are active in sports. Noah (15), Beau (12), McKinley (12) and Taylor (9) played on local soccer and baseball teams. Taylor wowed all of us with his batting. Dad, Craig, coached McKinley's soccer team to a regional championship!! Noah and Beau also played club ball, and Noah's soccer team went undefeated.

We stay busy with family and friends, movies, plays, concerts and lots of good books. I enjoy my work on the board of a community clinic and volunteer for Feeding America. The gym, walking, running, golfing and swimming keep us healthy. I'll have knee replacement surgery in January, but plan for a much calmer recovery than Dan's last year. We send our love and hope we'll hear from you soon.

Dan:                                          Lots of Love, Vicki and Dan    


Dan's 75th Birthday June 16


30th Anniversary Trip

Lake Molveno, Italy

Friday, November 18, 2016

Fall Harvest of Plays: October Sky

Generational challenges are among the most popular themes for conflict and drama in literature, as they are in everyday life. Such is the case in October Sky, the Old Globe premiere which opened the theater's 2016-17 season in October. The father-son relationship in the play is based on the the one in the Homer Hickam, Jr. book, Rocket Boys, published in 1998, and in the movie, October Sky, produced a year later. Set in coal mining country, the musical has even greater relevance today, with the carbon footprint of coal production credited as a major contributor to climate change. It does not bode well for the industry, which includes small towns and thousands of workers and their families who rely on coal for their livelihood.

Russia's launch of the spaceship, Sputnik, in 1957, gave birth to a new space age competition between the U.S. and Russia, and led many young people, including Homer Hickam, to become fascinated with rockets. When Homer rounds up a couple of friends to help him build and set off rockets in his Coalwood, West Virginia neighborhood, a small fire erupts on a nearby fence. The boys extinguish it, but Dad forbids Homer from pursuing more of this tomfoolery, and asks why he can't be more like his older brother who plays football and wins a scholarship to a state college. The truth is that Homer is in line to work in the mines, like his dad and granddad, not to set off rockets. But his talents and instincts, nurtured by a devoted teacher, don't fit the mold.

With help from a miner in the metal shop, and an instructional booklet from his teacher, Homer refines his technique and continues to light up the night sky with fiery rocket blazes that shoot for the stars. But as fortune would have it, Dad is injured at work and Homer is forced to go to the mines and support the family. Like "Billy Elliott," another musical about a boy from a British mining town, the ongoing struggle between father and son plays out against the time-honored tradition of mining. In Coalwood, young Homer yearns to be a part of the new world of space age exploration, while young Billy, in County Durham, aspires to a career in dance. In both plays, the fathers stand between the boys and their dreams.

A powerful song performed by an able chorus of male voices, "To the Mines" roots October Sky in a solid foundation of the blue collar culture. At the end of the number, the miners in uniform grasp their lunch boxes and step into a caged elevator to disappear below stage. Clinks and clanks from the descent foreshadow hard labor which puts the men at risk of injury, disease and death. A bystander until now, Homer's mother steps forward to support her son and confront Dad, who must face his own faults and recognize his son for who he is. Homer leaves the mines, with a burst of enthusiasm and optimism that sparks a stirring vocal performance in "Look to the Stars."

The striking set design of October Sky reflects the mining workplace, with elaborate chains, wheels and machinery built on facades above and beyond stage borders. The effect on the audience is one of immersion in the mining workplace. Rocket launches on stage must certainly require a degree of technical expertise to pull them off, especially as they grow larger with each of Homer's efforts, fascinating to watch. If Old Globe plays like Bright Star and A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder are any indication of the future, October Sky has its own shot at the stars. The first two shows left San Diego to enjoy Broadway runs in recent years, with A Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder winning the 2014 Tony for Best Musical. So it's onward and upward, October Sky!

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Fall Harvest of Plays: Oklahoma

The San Diego theater scene is a cornucopia of choices. In addition to traveling Broadway shows, a collection of community stages provides endless choices of excellent theater and talent. I make it a habit to scan the arts calendar and discounted Goldstar plays until something pops up that I absolutely have to see.

In late August, the New Village Arts Theater in Carlsbad produced the American musical classic, Oklahoma, to rave reviews, so I couldn't resist. The production featured a cast of seasoned professionals who were delightful in their roles, but the surprise performance came from a "promising baritone" named Jack French who won us over the moment he belted out the opening number, Oh What A Beautiful Mornin' in Aunt Eller's front yard. The impressive opera roles in his bio attested to his amazing talent, which filled the intimate theater with a commanding rendition of the song. I was mesmerized. The voice was undeniable in its strength and clarity, the winsome strut seductive, and the handsome actor ripe with confidence.

You know the story. The guy pursues the girl, who resists until she wakes up and realizes he's the one she wants, and all varieties of characters and complications interfere until it ends happily ever after. It premiered on Broadway in 1943 with a cast of unknowns and a world in which Nazism was eventually defeated and individualism and the human spirit won. Set in the early days of Oklahoma settlements, the play put a spotlight on the strong work ethic and can do character of America as the backdrop of the story. From now on, when I think of Oklahoma, I will only see Jack French singing the opening number on that stage. A recent graduate of Point Loma University in San Diego, he's on his way to a master's program in opera performance, so there's no question he'll continue to dazzle San Diego audiences, but even more likely, audiences far beyond our shores.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Fall Harvest of Plays: Beautiful

For my August birthday, I couldn't wait to see Beautiful, the play about Carole King that won Jessie Mueller the 2014 Tony for best female lead in a Broadway musical. In a rare appearance, King was on hand to give the award, and in a rare coincidence, Abby Mueller, Jessie's sister, snagged the role for the road show. How much better could it get? A Carole King fan after I discovered the Tapestry album, I was surprised to learn she'd written so many top forty hits. But could this production top or even match the raging success of Jersey Boys for sheer entertainment?

From opening curtain to closing bows, the story, the music and the outright production pizazz of Beautiful rock. Instead of four street wise guys flirting with the law, a spunky Brooklyn teenager (whose mother taught her all about music) flirts with an older boy she meets at Queens College. When they discover a mutual aspiration to write top forty songs, a collaboration is born, romance flourishes, and much more ignites. Carole King and Gerry Goffin write a large slice of American popular music from the '50's and '60's on, but the emotional arc of the show rises and falls with King. She's on top of the world, married to Gerry and raising two daughters as they pen hit after hit. But betrayal seeps in and delivers blow after blow. Divorce follows. A despondent King recovers and writes the next chapter of her life, collaborating with fellow musicians, but even more, emerging as a powerful independent artist. The result is six Grammys, including four for Tapestry, and countless other awards. King takes her lofty place among legends of American popular music.

The brilliance of Beautiful is the scope of the material, which captures what's happening in the recording industry during this period. The action pulses at the label in New York where King and Goffin work in the late '50's and '60's, in feverish competition with artists like Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, who write for the same label and pose the biggest threat for the number one spot on the charts. King and Goffin's top hits include So Far Away, Take Good Care of My Baby, Will You Love Me Tomorrow, On Broadway, The Locomotion, and One Fine Day, to set the tone of the play. Their breakthrough hit, Will you Love Me Tomorrow, crowns their success when Carole is seventeen. Performed by the Shirelles', it sparkles as bright as the group's sequined dresses for a show-stopping number in the first act. The second act reflects King's determination to forge her own identity after Goffin leaves, with more hits...It's Too Late, You've Got A Friend, (You Make Me Feel) Like A Natural Woman, and Beautiful. Mann and Weil produce toe-tapping tunes, as well...He's Sure the Boy I Love, On Broadway, Walkin' In the Rain, Uptown and You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin', for more magical performances.

As for birthday joy, Beautiful fit the bill. While the music carries the audience on a wave throbbing with nostalgia, the story renders the heartbeat behind the lyrics. King overcomes personal and professional challenges to emerge a true trailblazer, with more than 400 of her compositions recorded by more than 1,000 artists, resulting in 100 hit singles. Even though she famously said she had no desire to see the play, because it would bring back too many painful memories, Beautiful remains a triumphant celebration of a unique voice. Playbill described her impact best, with the artistic achievement of the Grammy-winning album: " was 1971's Tapestry that took King to the pinnacle, speaking personally to her contemporaries and providing a spiritual musical backdrop to the decade."  

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

As a press officer at UCLA Health Sciences from 1988-94, I responded to dozens of inquiries a month from health and medical reporters who requested information about a medical topic or asked to speak to an expert about a research finding published in a medical journal. Less often, a journalist might call to inquire about a patient complaint, an inevitable occurrence in a large academic medical center. In one instance, a UCLA patient named John Moore, a Seattle businessman and survivor of hairy cell leukemia, discovered his cells were being used to develop new cancer therapies without his knowledge or permission. He sued for the rights to his own tissue, which generated both legal and media interest in the case, spanning several years. But in the end, Moore lost the courtroom battle in appeals to the California Supreme Court. The landmark 1990 decision ruled that the patient does not retain the rights to tissue removed from their body. The court cited the defendants (Regents of the University of California, UCLA staff and two pharmaceutical companies) for not informing Moore about the  research.

This summer I picked up a book that took me right back to the UCLA press office and media calls about John Moore. When I first heard about The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks (2010) by Rebecca Skloot, I was intrigued because it tells the tragic but also fortuitous story of a poor black mother of five whose cell line led to an untold number of new therapies in medicine. Forty years before Moore, Lacks was a cervical cancer patient at the Johns Hopkins University Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland. Her cells were used after her death in 1951, and her husband and children were never informed. For decades, Lacks' identify was anonymous, then misrepresented, and finally known. Her cells proved to be so beneficial and prolific that they've been used worldwide for more than sixty years to develop therapies for problems like polio and AIDS. At least one expert considers the He-La (Henrietta Lacks) cell line to be one of the most important scientific discoveries in the past 100 years.

Science writer Rebecca Skloot set out to investigate the history of the woman and the family she left behind, and to understand how the cells were acquired and led to one of the most influential discoveries in medical history. A full decade later, the book was published to critical acclaim, received numerous awards, and became required reading for at least one freshmen class entering UCLA. The science is conveyed in easily understood terms, but it's Henrietta's family's story that tugs at the heart and won't let go, even after the book is closed. This is a saga of love, loss, poverty, ignorance, abuse and neglect which unfolds alongside an astonishing explosion of research and modern medicine made possible by Henrietta's cells. The medical establishment zooms skyward while Henrietta's heirs and extended family barely stay afloat in their downtrodden urban neighborhood.

Skloot's unrelenting persistence to seek out family members and understand Henrietta's illness and treatment, the research her cells launched, and the impact of all of this on the family makes for a heartfelt, compelling read. The human toll is most vivid in Deborah, who was a baby when her mother died. She struggles through life, a hole in her heart because she misses the mother she never knew, questions if her mother might still be alive since her cells live, and resents the medical establishment which never explained anything to the family or acknowledged Henrietta as the woman behind the cells. Her siblings share many of Deborah's feelings about their mother and what happened to her, and to them without her. Immersed in the family's conspiracy theories and confusion about the cells and her mother's immortality, Deborah eventually bonds with Skloot to come to terms with her mother's legacy, but the road she travels is littered with challenges.

Social justice themes weave an undercurrent of raw emotion through the pages of the book. Poverty, lack of education, poor access to health care, isolation, and racism fuel distrust among Henrietta's children. The reader rides along with Skloot to visit the people and places who comprised Henrietta's short life on earth. We witness the anger they feel because they're denied the medical care her cells created. We hear the unaltered dialect and voices of people wrought by grief and suspicion over Henrietta's death and immortality. But it's the honesty and beauty of this family Skloot reveals through her storytelling that remains at long last. Their wants and needs are not that different from our wants and needs, their emotions our emotions, and their tragedy becomes our tragedy.

To her credit, Skloot's decade-long journey resonates as an unforgettable and uncompromising tale in which she turns over every stone, lumbers down every dusty path, and exposes every piece of evidence to breathe life into the characters on both sides of the historical account. This is a ride worth taking because it speaks not just to one woman's legacy, but to society's ills in the face of unprecedented contribution and medical achievement.


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Outliers, the Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell

Lest we forget, our successes are the result of our times, our heritage, our parents' influence, and the opportunities that come our way. This is the premise of Malcolm Gladwell's 2008 book titled Outliers

A master storyteller, Gladwell weaves an astonishing tapestry from case examples in sports, technology, manufacturing, education, and other unrelated arenas to support his premise. Outliers is fascinating as a sociological study of those we might consider geniuses. But, upon further analysis, many are people who were just smart enough. What sets them apart is an obsession, talent, or interest they pursued until it led them to fame, fortune, and universes beyond their wildest imagination. 

Gladwell offers numerous examples of wealthy individuals, including early railroad barons and today's tech giants, like Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, who happened to be born at a time when their skills were needed and fostered. He describes their journeys, noting pivotal points along the way, to develop some of the world's biggest companies and most important innovations. In support of Gladwell's premise, Warren Buffet has famously declared in interviews that he was born into a society that takes advantage of his personal strengths to analyze and profit from stock market investments. He claims he would've been an average bloke in other societies geared less toward capitalism.

On the flip side of the coin, Gladwell tells the story of at least one true genius who's still on the farm, or very nearly. His situation in life limits rather than nurtures his talents. Circumstances such as poverty and a lack of educational development have failed to provide the fertile soil necessary to propel even a genius beyond everyday experience. In addition, ingrained practices can interfere and even set the stage for failure, as illustrated in the story of airline pilots whose cockpit communications were compromised by the unspoken dictates of cultural behavior. In this example, a series of tragic airplane crashes occurred before the common cause was uncovered and training could address it.  

From The Tipping Point and Blink to Outliers and David and Goliath, Gladwell entertains the reader with novel stories that could offer inspiration for your own pursuits. Even if you question the universal application of his premises and conclusions, they are thought-provoking. Gladwell's unique gift to take commonly accepted notions, turn them upside down, and look at them in new and refreshing ways can only encourage us to tap into our own human potential.  

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Sounds of Summer: The Dylan Concert

Bob Dylan at the Berkeley Greek Theater

June 16 marked a special day on our family calendar this year, since Dan would be celebrating his 75th birthday. But he wasn't alone. In May, Bob Dylan would also turn 75, so what better way to commemorate the two milestones than to attend a Dylan concert? And while we were at it, why not turn the event into a trip? That's exactly what happened when we bought tickets to hear the 60s bard at the Berkeley Greek Theater. It was the start of a summer of memorable music.

First stop, an AirBnB place in Santa Cruz, that island of 60s nostalgia along the Pacific shore an hour south of San Francisco where you're likely to spot a VW van painted in colorful psychedelic designs. Our sunny room opened onto a spacious deck that overlooked an outdoor aviary, rambling gardens bursting with exotic plants, and a circular paved labyrinth embedded with artistic tiles. After checking in, we meandered to downtown Santa Cruz where a Bernie Sanders group marched along a leafy commercial avenue, and street musicians sang and performed with steel guitars, a washboard, and additional instruments. A gallery opening beckoned us to admire beautifully crafted pottery, glass, and paintings while a more modest shop displayed healthy gourmet products and crafts produced by homeless people. Lillian's Italian Kitchen, in a converted warehouse with a modern vibe, served generous portions of fine dining cuisine, the nightcap to a perfect day.

The next morning, we flew from Oakland to Portland for a visit with Dan's brother, Tom, and his wife, Nickie. In June, their delightful home in the small town of Forest Grove features a double lot ripe with delicious summer harvest -- berries, veggies, and greens, which we were delighted to sample at every meal. Day two we visited Nickie's downtown condo, in the Portland walking neighborhood called ABC. The summer weather enticed us to wander and explore thrift stores in the quaint urban setting. The warm breezy night led us to a sidewalk cafe for a tasty dinner before we returned to Oakland the next morning.

Before the concert, Carlsbad neighbors Lynne and Paul picked us up from our AirBnB room at a lovely home in a tree-lined neighborhood of Berkeley to chauffeur us to the downtown Shattuck Hotel for a birthday toast and appetizers. The art deco landmark features arched, paned windows, rich wood carvings, and a black-and-white tiled floor. At concert time, we Ubered our way up the hill to the classical  outdoor amphitheater where the harmonica/guitar/piano-playing legend took center stage.

I first heard Bob Dylan during college days in Louisville, when he performed with the harmonica hung on his neck and the criticism, escapism, and politics of the 60s woven through his lyrics, i.e. The Times They Are A Changing and Mr. Tambourine Man. About ten years ago, he caught my attention again with a Grammy-winning album, "Modern Times," which we loved to play on the road, during cross-country and Canada RV travel. The more current selections reveal a maturity and spirituality that was unexpected, given the fate of so many 60s performers who've faded in and out of the popular music scene. The CD revitalized Dylan's career as a master storyteller and musician, this time with a wistful yearning and appreciation for all that life has given and taken. In a 2015 AARP article he offered as an exclusive, Bob Dylan: The Uncut Interview, he says passion is for the young; wisdom for the old.

That night in Berkeley, the old sage entertained with American songbook standards, What'll I Do?, Autumn Leaves, Love Sick; few old tunes, i.e. Blowin' in the Wind; and one of my favorites, Spirit on the Water, from "Modern Times." The raspy voice adds to the legitimacy of a man who's traveled the long and winding road to share the regrets and riches of a life lived fully. The stance is firm, legs stiff and feet far apart, to sink into the words of a song. You never get the feeling that Dylan is anywhere except in the heart of the music. At the piano, he seemed to relish countless numbers, giving an impression that he could go on forever. Who knew he could play so well and for so long, with a small band for backup? I'd been a casual observer, not a devoted fan, so this was a treat, especially on the slower Sinatra tunes, to whom and to which he pays homage in the AARP interview.

And who would've guessed he stowed away so much from a six-decade career, to document the arc of the artist? In March, before concert tickets were purchased, the New York Times ran a feature story and half-page photo about Bob Dylan's Archive. A very private person, he not only acquired a mountain of memorabilia, but he chose the University of Tulsa as its final resting place, alongside Woody Guthrie's archive. What better way to display the voice of the 60s generation than to couple it with the voice of the Dust Bowl era?

Dylan continues to draw flocks of pilgrims, old and young, to what has been called "the never-ending tour." How lucky were we, under the starry starry night of a Greek amphitheater in Northern California, to revisit our own history through Bob Dylan's music? A night to celebrate a special birthday, a seasoned artist, and a walk down memory lane, complete with the people and places of our own past that the music evokes.

February/March 2015 AARP Magazine