The Pianist of Willesden Lane Uses Music to Cope with Tragedy of War

The Pianist of Willesden Lane Uses Music to Cope with Tragedy of War

This weekend, I went to the Lyceum and saw “The Pianist of Willesden Lane.” It’s the kind of play that slowly draws you in, exquisitely conjuring up the elegance and artistry of Vienna on the brink of World War II, as well as the heartache and loss of war. I soon found myself riveted by world-renown pianist Mona Golabek and her one-woman show. Continue reading

‘We Were Expendable’

‘We Were Expendable’

The Montford Point Marines are a little known part of U.S. military history. Born out of necessity, when African American men were first drafted to serve in World War II, the legacy of the Marines who trained at Montford Point in North Carolina is a mirror of the times, back when segregation and discrimination were par for the course. Continue reading

Ken Follett and John Lee: Master Storytellers

It finally hit me, beyond a shadow of a doubt.  I’m in love with Ken Follett.  And, for that matter, John Rafter Lee, too. So, consider me the Number One member of their fan club. In fact, I am officially declaring myself a Ken Follett/John Rafter Lee groupie.

Ken Follett

Ken Follett (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yes, I’m obsessed! Though, you may be thinking, why? Why swoon over the likes of Ken Follett, an author who describes himself on his website as a, “Master Storyteller and Best-selling Author?”  And, who the heck is John Lee, anyway?? Well, more about him in a moment.

First, Ken Follett really is a master storyteller. He spins a darn good yarn. Clearly, the man does his research, whether writing about five families whose lives are intertwined during World War I and World War II, or the building of a cathedral in 12th century England.  Do you have any idea how long it took those guys back then to build one cathedral? We’re talking decades. Maybe even centuries!

So far, I have read two of Follett’s books and am halfway through a third. Though technically, I haven’t really read any of his books at all. It’s because I listen to them on audio! On average, the number of pages in each of his novels ranges from 1,000 to infinity. Talk about epic! There are only so many hours in a day, which is why, without the audiobook, I would be missing out on Follett’s tomes.

These are the ones I’ve listened to: Fall of Giants and Winter of the World, Books One and Two of his Century Trilogy (which, if I interpret this correctly, means that there is one more book in the series that I can look forward to!).

And, the book I’m currently listening to is Pillars of the Earth, which Follett wrote way back when. It’s a riveting account, detailing all the drama, politics and double-crossing involved in building a cathedral. I mean, really. Who thought building a cathedral could be so intriguing, and so enthralling?

John Rafter Lee, actor and professional narrator.

John Rafter Lee, actor and professional narrator.

In audio form, each of these books is between 30 and 40 hours long. Goodness. I’d lose my voice if I had to read aloud just one chapter! Which brings me back to John Rafter Lee.

I love Lee!  And I only know him by his voice! You could say, he had me at, “Hello.” I have listened to many an audio book, but none has kept me as rapt as Lee. He narrates all of Follett’s books, and while Follett might write the books, it is Lee who truly brings them to life. I cannot say enough good things about this man’s voice. It’s clear and crisp. Best of all, Lee, who has recorded the audio for other books as well (Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak and Tai-Pan by James Clavell), is able to capture every accent and nuance of the gazillion characters or so that are to be found in a Follett saga.

Take his most recent, Winter of the World. The main characters are Russian, British German, American, and Welsh. He does all the accents pitch perfect, as far as I’m concerned. Sure, Lee is an actor first, but he’s made a solid career out of recording audio books, and now I’m determined to listen to them all.

By the way, if you happen to run into either of them, please let them know they shouldn’t be frightened of me. Not in the least. True, I’m obsessed enough to stalk them, if not for the fact that they’re in England and I’m on this side of the pond.   So, let them know they can relax. For now, that is. One of these days, they might spot a crazed woman peering at them from behind a tree, in a very clandestine sort of way. You just never know.

Finally, I want to thank Anne and Don, a very sweet couple who were kind enough to introduce me to Ken Follett. After all, if not for them, I wouldn’t be hanging on to every word he writes and Lee utters.

Now, what are you reading?

Hawaiian Eye

I’ve known my friend, Keoni, who hails from Hawaii, for a long time. We’re talking over a decade, actually. We work together, though in different departments, but I don’t get to see him everyday. Though when I do, he always cracks me up. Keoni has an offbeat, off kilter, quirky way of looking at life, and I just adore quirky. If you ask me, having a great sense of humor goes a long way.

But in all the time I’ve known Keoni, turns out I didn’t know one thing—the man has talent! I learned this recently, when I had the opportunity to pop in his office, located on the floor below mine. I’m not normally in that area. Make that, I’m NEVER in that area. It’s kind of out of the way, and akin to me swinging by Vancouver, B.C., on my way from Southern California to New York.

Anyhow, here’s what happened when I walked into his office:

My jaw dropped.

Turns out, in addition to his office job, he’s a painter and a photographer. And, if you ask me, he’s got an eye for both!  A Hawaiian eye, that is. A few of his paintings hang in his office and they are breathtaking. Keoni works with acrylics and bold colors in a style that is truly modern.

After “oohing” and “ah-hing,” over his art, he showed me his photos. There are so many, and each has a story. I asked Keoni to choose his top five so that I could post and share with you. Here they are, along with a sixth one that I added. The accompanying stories are in his own words. I hope you enjoy as much as I do.

Title: America Goes Green

Photo #5: The above photo was taken at San Diego Mission Bay against a gorgeous blue sky. Between Hawaii and San Diego, I have lived under beautiful baby blue skies my entire life. So, I decided to change this one to green.

Title: The State of America

Photo #4: A floor display in an Apple retail store. My brain associates this image with such diverse things as: Communism, the media, mind control, drones, Big Brother, space aliens, billiard balls and eggs.

Title: Lucifer's Shade

Photo #3:  Why this shot? Because some look for the devil in everything, including pretty trees.

Title: Family Values 2.0

Photo #2: You wouldn’t know it, but an abandoned World War II bunker hides in the shallow hill above the sprinting, shin-guarded keikis; echoes of Pearl Harbor too faint for the little ones to hear.

But I do.

On this very spot in Kapolei, my nephew, Kainoa (far right), gives everything he has to prove his mettle to his teammates (and possibly show off to his uncle, back visiting from ‘The Mainland’). But fútbol, in my pre-Internet, matching sunny days, would have been impossible for me.  Back then, this area was caked with patches of sugar cane, deep, red powder dirt, deformed rock, and infinite mixed brush, bickering ruthlessly with one another, each trying to edge the other out.

And I loved every acre of it.

My finger gun pointed upward, the humidity of Oahu’s Leeward side, ignored and time uninvented, I spent what seemed like two school years trudging through the denseness on one too many weekends.  It was only when keawe thorns pierced my skin that my critical role of “Child Soldier, U.S.A — Defender of The Islands!!” … momentarily dissolved.

Title: Katrina Killed the Klown

Photo #1: I took this photo in 2010, by sneaking into an abandoned Six Flags amusement park in New Orleans, compliments of 2005′s Hurricane Katrina. A park that, at one point, sat beneath 8 – 10 feet of flooded waters. Sometime after drying out, someone spray painted, “Six Flags 2012 coming soon” on the wall above the downed, and dearly departed, clown head. But they were clownin.’ Six Flags will never rebuild there.

AND ONE MORE (Editor’s prerogative!):

Title: Dog Peer

The dog’s owner says that he and his wife bring their Bull Terrier here nearly every day at sunset. The dog goes wild, running back and forth between either end of this short, shallow pier, just past the San Diego Mission Bay Visitor Center.The dog is looking for fish that occasionally jump out of the water. A couple of times in the past, this here dog dove in after the fish, but never had luck catching any. Each day, this dog can’t wait for his trip down to the pier. Goes crazy over the jumping fish.

Word has it that Keoni is a poet, too! So maybe, just maybe, he’ll let me share some of his poems here soon. In the meantime, Keoni has all his photos posted on Flickr and welcomes their use by any blogger. Just let him know and include a link to his page.

I’d love to know what you think of his photos, and what thoughts go through your head when you look at these.

This is Chávez Country: Path to Tyranny

Part Two: Cousin Marisol (names have been changed) is a freelance journalist who has carefully planned our itinerary, to make the most of our stay in Venezuela. Today, we are going to the Teleférico on the top of Mt. Ávila.  It is one of the highest points in Caracas, overlooking the city which is located in a valley.

The bell captain at our hotel hails us a cab. Like most hotels in the U.S., there are taxis waiting outside for the guests.  These cabs, however, have been carefully preselected by the hotel. They are driven by trustworthy drivers and, for added security, they are unmarked and have tinted windows, which helps to ward off drive-by shootings. The thinking being that if a gunman doesn’t know who is in the car, they will be less likely to open fire.

One of the murals I came across, located by the entrance of the Central University of Venezuela.

As we ride to the Teleférico, I see more signs of  Hugo Chávez’ rule:  billboards and posters that thank him for the changes he has made. Some make the case for socialism by depicting people smiling broadly, walking hand-in-hand. I also see colorful murals lauding Chávez and his policies and  denouncing American Imperialism. As we drive along, I make a game of it by counting the pro-Chávez propoganda, but soon I lose count.  There are just too many.  Some of the slogans I notice include:

Apoya el Gobierno (Support the Government)

Ooo-Ah, Chávez no se vá” (a common chant, indicating that Chávez will not leave office)

“Contra el Imperialismo UNIDAD de Nuestra AMÉRICA” (Against Imperialism, unite for our Latin America)

I wonder how many find this display convincing. How long does it take to become indoctrinated? Just how many have become mesmerized by Chávez’ PR machine? As I ponder this, I can’t help but feel relieved that my parents are no longer around to see what is becoming of their country.

We arrive at our destination. I remember visiting the Teleférico as a child, but in recent years it has gone into disarray.  The government has taken over operations, though the Hotel Humboldt, located on the top of Mt. Ávila, and once one of Venezuela’s crowning achievements, remains closed.  Marisol has pulled a few strings so that today we will get a private tour.

Marisol has brought with her two of my mother’s siblings:  Tío Francisco, Marisol’s father, who is a retired pediatric doctor; and Tía Olivia, who now lives in a home run by nuns.

I remember that Tía Olivia once lived just a few blocks from the Palacio de Miraflores, the home of the Venezuelan President, much like our White House.  I ask her whether Chávez is living there now.

“No.  No one really knows where he lives or where he is on any one day,” she replies matter-of-factly. Marisol adds that this is, presumably, a security measure, and that Chávez lives in constant hiding. Apparently, he is fearful of lurking assassins.

Chavez' military patrols this tourist attraction.

We prepare to board the cable car that takes us to the top of Mt. Ávila. Once there, I notice the soldiers.  I’d already seen a few in Caracas.  But here they appear everywhere, carrying their rifles and wearing their red berets. Red being the color of the Socialist revolution. The soldiers are pacing or standing at attention as lookouts—protecting the Teleférico from what, I don’t know.  All I see are Venezuelan families and a few tourists. It is the soldiers themselves that seem threatening.

After our tour of the Hotel Humboldt, we lunch at one of the restaurants located on the mountain and are seated next to a table of soldiers celebrating a birthday.  As they sing “Cumpleaños Feliz,” many restaurant patrons join in, but, to me, the singing feels forced. Perhaps I’ve seen too many World War II movies, for I am associating this moment with a scene from “Casablanca,” in which German soldiers in Rick’s Café Américain sing their patriotic anthem and French loyalists drown them out by singing La Marseillaise. It is one of the most stirring, powerful moments of the film. Nervously, I consider standing up and singing the Venezuelan national anthem, which I learned as a child: “Gloria al Bravo Pueblo” (Glory to the Brave People). But fear prevents me, as there’s no telling whether the other patrons will join me in drowning out the soldiers. Where is Humphrey Bogart when I need him?

Time has stood still in the lobby of the Hotel Humboldt.

In the evening we go to Tío Francisco’s house. I lived in this neighborhood once, when I was attending private school here.  But now it’s different.  Walls with barbed wire have been built around the community’s periphery. There is a security guard at the entrance and each home has locked gates. The walls around my uncle’s house have broken bottles with jagged edges along the top, making forced entry unlikely. I wonder if I could live like this and accept what has become the new normal. And yet I know the answer. We are human after all, capable of doing anything to survive.

More cousins have joined us. We reminisce about the idyllic days of our youth. The conversation soon turns to politics and I sense that my cousins have resigned themselves to enduring life under Chávez. To them, he is an annoyance. A burr in their shoe. Quietly they pray that the U.S. intervenes and stops him. We change the subject and talk about the upcoming family reunion.

The anticipation of the reunion excites me. Though, these feelings are tempered by what I am beginning to see as Chávez’ path to tyranny. The signs are everywhere and there’s no escaping them.

At the reunion, I will find out more of what my family is feeling. Those that are preparing for uncertain times, and those that fear for their children’s future.  I will also learn that one of my cousins is a “Chavista” (pro-Chávez).