Thursday, January 16, 2014

2014 Oscar Nominations: An Embarrassment of Riches

Like an eager child on Christmas morning, I got up and turned on CNN at 5:37 a.m. today to watch this year’s Academy Award nominations. After Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and actor Chris Hemsworth finished announcing the nominees in the major categories, I noticed several surprises and major snubs.

Two big ones: No Tom Hanks for best actor in “Captain Phillips.” (What?) No love for indie “Fruitvale Station.” (Boo!)

OK, here are some of the major categories with surprises and snubs:

Surprise: “The Wolf of Wall Street” getting in because it’s such a divisive film. Although the American Film Institute named it one of the top 10 films of 2013, audiences rated by CinemaScore gave “Wolf” a “C” grade.
Snubs: A sour note for “Inside Llewyn Davis.” “Blue Jasmine,” director/writer Woody Allen’s take on “A Streetcar Named Desire,” was also left out, as were “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and “Saving Mr. Banks.”

Leading Actor: Christian Bale, “American Hustle”; Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”; Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”; Matthew McConaughey, “Dallas Buyers Club”; Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Surprise: DiCaprio, who won the Golden Globe for best actor in a comedy or musical.
Snubs: In one of the most competitive leading actor races in years, there were bound to be egregious exceptions. The last time Hanks received an Oscar acting nod was in 2000 for “Castaway.” Robert Redford, whose last acting nod was for best actor in 1973’s “The Sting.” He performed most of his own stunts in “All Is Lost.” Joaquin Phoenix, whose character had a love affair with a computer operating system in “Her.” Idris Elba, who portrayed antiapartheid leader and South African President Nelson Mandela in “Mandela:Long Walk to Freedom.” Up-and-comer Michael B. Jordan, who played the ill-fated Oscar Grant in “Fruitvale Station.” Forest Whitaker, who gave a subdued but strong performance as Cecil Gaines in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler.”

Leading Actress: Amy Adams, “American Hustle”; Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”; Dame Judi Dench, “Philomena”; Meryl Streep, “August: Osage County”; Sandra Bullock, “Gravity.”
Surprise: Although critics were split over “August,” hey, she’s Meryl Freaking Streep! She has earned her 18th record acting nomination.
Snubs: To make room for Streep, Emma Thompson’s portrayal of cantankerous author P.L. Travers in Disney’s “Saving Mr. Banks” was overlooked.

Supporting Actor: Barkhad Abdi, “Captain Phillips”; Bradley Cooper, “American Hustle”; Michael Fassbender, “12 Years a Slave”; Jonah Hill, “The Wolf of Wall Street”; Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club.”
Surprise: Two, actually – Cooper and Hill.
Snubs: It would have been nice to honor the late James Gandolfini for “Enough Said,” whose gentle character closely matches his real-life persona. Also left out: Daniel Brühl for Ron Howard’s “Rush” and “Saturday Night Live” alum Will Forte for “Nebraska.”

Supporting Actress: Sally Hawkins, “Blue Jasmine”; Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle”; Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”; Julia Roberts, “August: Osage County”; June Squibb, “Nebraska.”
Surprise: Hawkins, who wasn’t nominated for this year’s Screen Actors Guild awards.
Snub: Oprah Winfrey of “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” who was nominated for a SAG award.

Director: Alfonso Cuarón, “Gravity”; Steve McQueen, “12 Years a Slave”; Alexander Payne, “Nebraska”; David O. Russell, “American Hustle,” Martin Scorsese, “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
Surprise: Actually, none.
Snub: The problem with having up to 10 best picture nominees is that not all the directors can be nominated. No Paul Greengrass for “Captain Phillips.” No Spike Jonze for “Her.”

Surprise: I hadn’t heard of “Ernest & Celestine,” the story of a destitute bear who befriends an orphan mouse, until today. The film is in French.
Snub: “Monsters University,” one of the few instances that a Pixar animated feature was left in the cold.

Documentary: “The Act of Killing,” “Cutie and the Boxer,” “Dirty Wars,” “The Square,” “20 Feet From Stardom” (Yay!)
Surprise: Can’t say because I’m unfamiliar with the first four films.
Snub: No “Blackfish”?! The documentary about the capture of killer whales for amusement parks was both heartbreaking and chilling. I saw the trailer and was enraged.

The 86th Academy Awards, hosted by Ellen DeGeneres, will be held March 2 at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Duck, Duck, (Jim) Crow

I don’t watch A&E’s “Duck Dynasty.” Frankly, I avoid most, if not all, “reality” shows. When I heard that Duck Commander Company founder Phil Robertson made disparaging comments against the LGBT community an interview with GQ magazine, I shook my head at his uninformed outspokenness. But when he said that African-Americans were happy before the Civil Rights era, I took offense and felt that I had to take Robertson to task.

“The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them,” Robertson told GQ. “I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

The A&E cable network suspended Phil Robertson “indefinitely.” While he is on suspension, I suggest that Mr. Robertson take some time to research the effects of Jim Crow laws on African-Americans and the United States as a whole.

Mr. Robertson can start by reading The Warmth of Other Suns by Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson. The book chronicles the Great Migration of blacks from southern to northern and western states. Most African-Americans living in the oppressive Jim Crow South left to find better jobs and build new lives. Even during the period from 1915 to 1970, they found covert, institutionalized racism in jobs and housing.

If reading is too time-consuming or even difficult for Mr. Robertson, then I suggest talking to people who lived through the Jim Crow era. My 88-year-old father, for example, fled his boyhood home of Gould, Arkansas, in his late teens to escape the mental and physical oppression of the Deep South. He traveled to California, served in the Navy during World War II, and worked in Northern California for most of his life, retiring in his late 80s. He can share his experiences, as can his younger brother, whom I’ll call “Uncle G.” Uncle G, a retired real estate agent, saw his best friend lynched by a white mob when they were boys. He shared this story with me as part of a family history project. He was clearly traumatized by the memory.

So, I ask that Mr. Robertson take the time to educate himself before spewing uninformed comments from his mouth and shooting A&E’s cash cow “Duck Dynasty” in the foot.

Writing Diva

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Back to Life

Exactly 20 years ago today, I died.

Not of embarrassment, but of complications from double pneumonia.

For less than a minute, I suffered cardiac arrest, and my medical team from John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek performed CPR and shocked me back to life. During this life-saving effort, I "dreamed" that I was floating above my body, feeling peaceful. I don't think it was a dream, though.

Backing up three weeks: I had worked on a three-day series of articles for the San Ramon Valley Times on "AIDS in the San Ramon Valley." The reports were among the best I had ever done. But the work took its toll on my body: I came down with the flu.

After a week of coughing and not taking full breaths, I consulted my physician, who diagnosed me with pneumonia. I asked him, "Shouldn't I be in a hospital?" Instead, he prescribed antibiotics and sent me home.

Bad decision.

I went home to Sacramento to allow my parents to care for me, and my physician called me back for another exam. By the time my parents and I arrived in Walnut Creek, I was short of breath, and my heart was beating erratically. My physician finally had me admitted on July 31 to John Muir Medical Center, where my attending physician was a cardiac surgeon I had interviewed for a news story.

After my family left my hospital room, I realized the difference between me and my parents and siblings was that I could not leave the hospital without risking my life.

The next day I underwent a procedure that involved putting a scope down my trachea to view my lungs. I woke up in the intensive care unit with a breathing tube and a feeding tube down my throat. My first thought was the equivalent of "WTF?"

Although I couldn't speak, I could write, barely. I motioned for the nurse to bring me a pen and pad of paper. I wrote, "Me die?" She responded that the medical team was doing what it could to keep my alive.

During my morphine-induced state, I saw an Episcopal minister pray over me. I thought, indignant, "I'm not dying yet!" I was tested for hantavirus, which I didn't have. I was awakened by nurses to cough.

What does dying feel like? As if your soul is a candle, and its flame is flickering to just a glowing ember before finally going out.

Three days after my near-death experience, I left the ICU and returned to a regular hospital room. I learned from a nurse about my almost meeting my Maker. I was stunned. My siblings told me that the night before my near death, Dad was crying and praying nonstop. I have never seen my father cry. Still haven't.

I spent 16 days in the hospital, 8 of them in ICU. I was out of work for a total of seven weeks. I didn't regain my full speaking voice until two months after I left the hospital.

Often I wondered why I lived when others have died in similar circumstances. It may be that I still have a purpose in life I have to fulfill before I die for the last time.

Writing Diva

Monday, July 29, 2013

Hot Fun in the Summertime

There are times when a single life can be fun. A hot summer Friday night was a great example.

Last Friday I was coming off a long, stressful work week. I wrote on my Facebook page, "I'm in dire need of getting my groove on." I had planned exactly that: I was going to a "Meetup" with some acquaintances to see the R&B/dance band the Time Bandits in Andrews Park in Vacaville. The gig was part of a summer series of "Creekwalk" concerts.

I met several members of the Meetup group seated in their camp chairs under the shade of a sycamore tree about 75 feet from the Creekwalk stage. The Time Bandits from nearby Fairfield were playing some infectious soul and dance music ranging from the 1960s to present day. I strutted and bumped to songs ranging from Kelly Clarkson's "Walk Away" to The Temptations' "I Can't Get Next to You." I think I fulfilled my daily dose of cardio in front of that stage.

The only guy in the group, whom I'll call "Gary," arrived with his camp chair. We met each other in late December during a meetup at a downtown Vacaville karaoke bar. The last time I saw Gary was in January at a dinner for another group. I found him to be a laid-back, solid person. He's probably 5'9", slim, and shaved bald. We greeted each other before he set up his chair next to mine.

The group members would chat among themselves despite the deafening music. I asked Gary why he wasn't dancing yet.

"I don't feel comfortable dancing with people I don't know," he replied.

"You know me," I thought but kept to myself.

Gary finally got up the nerve to get on the dance floor and ask a woman to dance. I shrugged and enjoyed the evening from my camp chair. There had to be at least a thousand people there of myriad races and ages, from a 7-month-old girl smiling in the arms of her dancing mother to a grizzled war veteran rolling in his wheelchair with his date. The heat subsided as the delta breeze picked up slightly. Everyone was friendly and encouraging of each other.

Later, the band started playing "My Girl." Gary stood and extended his hand to me. "Would you like to dance?" he asked.

I took his hand, stood, and said, "Sure."

We danced to song with a crowd of maybe 200 people under a waning moon.

After the dance, Gary thanked me and left shortly thereafter. I left a short time thereafter.

The evening gave me a sense of joy. And neither the arthritis in my right foot nor the plantar fasciitis in my left bothered me, even when I was boogieing.

So, if you see me with what I call "happy cheeks," you know why.

Writing Diva

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Nelson Mandela: Bittersweet Birthday

Today, anti-apartheid leader and former South African President Nelson Mandela is marking his 95th birthday in a hospital bed in Pretoria.

Although his doctors say his health is steadily improving from a lung infection, at the risk of sounding pessimistic, I sense this may be the last birthday that he and his family celebrate.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner spent 27 years in prison after being convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government. Following a successful international lobbying campaign, Mandela was released in 1990. Shortly thereafter, he embarked on a world tour, which included a visit to U.S. cities, including Oakland, California.

As a reporter for the Fairfield-Suisun City Daily Republic, I covered his final stop of his U.S. tour at the Oakland Coliseum. I pestered my city editor, saying that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event and that all San Francisco Bay Area media needed to cover this, especially since I knew several Solano County residents who would attend Mandela’s visit. My city editor relented.

When I arrived at the Coliseum on Saturday, June 30, 1990, I was surrounded by 58,000 people and media crews from throughout California and other countries. I worked the stands and interviewed two Vallejo residents and Seretha Jefferson of Fairfield, who wore a broad-brimmed straw hat and flowery dress to see Mandela. Once on the ground, Mandela appeared onstage, as music played and the chorus sang: “Freeeee Nelson Mandela!”

I admit at that point I lost all objectivity and danced and cheered on the field. Epic journalism fail.

Quoting The New York Times story of his Oakland visit, “the deputy president of the African National Congress smiled broadly and told the crowd, ‘Despite my 71 years, at the end of this visit I feel like a young man of 35. I feel like an old battery that has been recharged. And if I feel so young, it is the people of the United States of America that are responsible for this.’”

My story ran in the Daily Republic on page 1 as a sidebar to Associated Press coverage on Mandela’s visit. I was humbled to have been half a football field from greatness.

My prayers are with Mr. Mandela, his family, his friends, and his country.

Writing Diva

Monday, February 25, 2013

Back Away from Quvenzhane!

I will be brief. A post from The Onion's Twitter account referred to 9-year-old best actress nominee Quvenzhane Wallis as the unspeakable "c-word."

I will not reprint the post or link to it. That post, along with Academy Awards host Seth MacFarlane's tasteless joke about her during the awards ceremony, made me want to write.

Leave Ms. Wallis alone! Even if she is a best actress nominee for "Beasts of the Southern Wild," she is a child. Also, as an Oscar nominee and the tenth African-American actress nominated for a leading role, this poised, beautiful, intelligent young lady deserves greater respect than she received last night. And that silly reporter from the Associated Press who would not pronounce her name correctly and referred to her as "Annie" (For her upcoming role in the Broadway play) should be disciplined.

Although the Academy Awards is a melting pot and has been for the past few years, some reporters and even a certain Oscar host have yet to enter the 21st century. As Oscar-nominated screenwriter and director Spike Lee would say, "Wake up!"

Writing Diva

Thursday, February 14, 2013

How to Woo a Writing Diva

Happy Valentine’s Day, readers! If you have a significant other, I hope you’re spending a relaxing, splendid day (or evening) with your sweetie. If you’re single, I hope you treat yourselves well this day and all year long.

Although I’m sitting out this Valentine’s Day, listening to Jermaine Stewart’s dance song “We Don’t Have to Take Your Clothes Off” on my way to work reminded me what it takes to woo me. I am a cerebral, sometimes snarky being with a tender heart that needs to be protected at all times. If I were dating someone, the best way to my heart on this day is a love letter.

I do not respond well to a box of chocolates, especially because I’m allergic to chocolate, especially the dark kind. Although I would not look down my nose at a one-carat diamond ring or pendant, a love letter would do in a pinch. ;-)

If my guy were to send me an e-mail love letter or card, I would look at him as if he were freshly made poop and walk away. When it comes to love letters, I’m old-fashioned – I like handwritten letters on stationery. Period.

A man I had dated in the late 1980s (Yes, readers, I’m that old.) wrote me 15 love letters. I still have them in storage. To me, love letters are the most tangible evidence that someone loved me.

A few suggestions:
  • Do not type a love letter using a typewriter or word processor on 20-pound white paper. How clinical! Write using print or cursive letters in dark ink.
  • Use stationery.
  • Although I’m an editor, I will overlook spelling, grammar, and usage errors in love letters. I figure if my man is making the effort to write, I can compliment his content.
  • Try to avoid explicit sexual references. If I want to read porn, I know where I can find it. I want to know what’s in the heart, not the loins.
Yes, I’m well aware that some men aren’t into reading, much less writing. But a love letter is what works for me. Find out what works for your heart this day and every day.

Writing Diva