August 27, 2009

When the lights go out…

Posted in Between Us column, Relationships at 2:05 am by dinaheng

Five kids were playing in the family room at Grandma’s house when the sound of thunder approached. Moments later, torrential rains fell outside the window and lightning began to flash. A sister and I began shutting down the air conditioning, television and computers.

The kids, oblivious to the storm outside, continued their game of rolling balls to each other across a table, laughing and screaming. Then the power went out.dinah-eng-21

Everyone rushed to the windows and watched as Mother Nature cleaned the landscape. Hurricane season is part of life in Houston, and last year’s Hurricane Ike is still fresh in people’s minds. I wasn’t here last September, but three sisters and our parents went nearly two weeks without electricity.

“The power better come on soon,” my mother said. “I don’t want to throw all the food out of the refrigerator again.”

Over the next hour, one by one, family members began arriving, bringing contributions of  food for dinner. The rain ended, but the lights remained off. As we dined by candlelight, throwing open the windows to let a breeze in, a sense of comfort emerged from the discomfort of the hot summer night.

My mom and the sisters sat talking around the table after dinner. A brother-in-law took the oldest nephew to the backyard to take a battery out of a car. The other kids played in the driveway as neighbors began moving outside to catch the night breeze.

The sound of crickets replaced the noise of the television. The power of electricity was replaced by the power of family.

No matter how far apart family members live, it’s good to know that we can always count on each other. Four years ago, when Hurricane Rita threatened the Texas coast, I was on my way back to Los Angeles from a trip to the East Coast. I had scheduled a stopover to visit family in Houston, and ended up flying in just before the storm hit.

As the city hunkered down for that storm, everyone took on different tasks, gathering supplies, shoring up houses, and taking care of the kids for three families. We may not be the kind of sisters who talk frequently about family issues, but we do know how to mobilize for storms.

In a way, that’s what families tend to do. We may argue, voice differing opinions, and gossip about each other, but when it comes to survival, we instinctively know that safety lies in working together.

By 9:30 p.m., the lights on the opposite side of the street were on, but the houses on our side were still dark. Two of the sisters, who live half an hour away, had electricity at their places and offered their guest rooms to the rest of us.

The supply of candles had dimmed, and we were down to one working flashlight. Clearly, being prepared for a blackout was not top of mind this week.

My mom and I decided to go with one sister, while four others opted to stay at Grandma’s house and wait for the electricity to come back on. Luckily, power was restored four hours later.

It wasn’t a hurricane, but the storm was a reminder that life can change in a heartbeat. No matter how much you try to anticipate problems, it’s the unexpected things that get you.

Just one of the ways Mother Nature teaches us to appreciate the value of family.


August 19, 2009

Behind the scenes in Hollywood…

Posted in Between Us column, Business, Employment, Television at 9:25 pm by dinaheng

Aaron LaPlante drives the tram around Warner Bros. Studios, sharing the story of how TV shows and movies are made to the tourists who have come for a behind-the-scenes look at the Hollywood studio.

I’ve been on a number of sets, watching the filming of movies and TV shows, but have never taken a tram tour, so am curious to see what it’s like.

LaPlante, a former tour guide in Seattle, rattled off bits of trivia at every turn. He tells us that the Burbank, Calif. lot sits on 110 acres, and that 10,000 people a day work there.dinah-eng-21

“The Warner brothers were originally exhibitors, and from 1923 to 1927, they started making silent films,” LaPlante says. “Their biggest star was ‘Rin Tin Tin.’ “

Ah, no wonder celebrities often complain as though they live a dog’s life.

It’s fun to see the make-believe streets, stores, and parks that stand in for reality on film. At  the “transportation department” stop, we get to see a number of familiar vehicles, including two Batmobiles, Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, and Scooby Doo’s Mystery Machine van.

Being a big Harry Potter fan, the best part of the tour for me was walking through an exhibit of Harry Potter memorabilia. Funny how much of our lives are spent imagining a life that’s different than the one we’re living.

As children, we learn from stories about others, and aspire to become like those we admire. As adults, we escape from the “ordinary” routine of our lives by watching TV shows and movies for entertainment. We live vicariously through some characters, learn empathy for strangers, and explore our values while discussing what we’ve watched.

As media companies have cut budgets, TV and movie critics have been among the first staff members to be let go or reassigned. News executives don’t see entertainment as being vital to society, but nothing connects people around the world like the TV shows and films that we watch.

Tourists flock to Hollywood in hopes of seeing celebrities, and tours like the one on the Warner Bros. lot give a taste of what it’s involved in creating fantasies on screen.

LaPlante walks us down Hennesy Street, originally designed with a Lower East Side New York feel for the movie “Annie.” He shows how various parts of the street were reused for the Batman films and other productions.

Getting back into the tram, we pass the set where “ER” was filmed for many years, and where the upcoming ABC series “Eastwick” is being made.

“No two tours are alike,” LaPlante says. “We go out with a trainer and drive the lots, learning about every single piece of equipment and building on the lot. So when I’m not walking a tour group through something, I talk about the history, or technical aspects of filmmaking.”

Tour guides go through 27 days of training, and are often young people looking to break into the entertainment industry. Given the amount of information that must be memorized, the guides no doubt learn more about movie making than they ever wanted to know.

They may not be able to say, “Lights… camera… action,” but who knows where they’ll end up. Today’s tour guide may well become tomorrow’s studio executive or star.

Dreams, after all, are meant to come true.

August 13, 2009

Managing anxiety in the age of uncertainty

Posted in Between Us column, Business, Employment at 3:54 am by dinaheng

It was nearly midnight when I got into the taxicab at Boston’s Logan International Airport. When I asked the driver to take me to a nearby hotel, he couldn’t help but express his frustration.

“I’ve been waiting in line for two and a half hours for a fare, and now I have to take you to the closest place I’m required to drive to,” he said, angrily. “Business has gone down to nothing since the first of August.”

Ten minutes later, after I paid the $25 fare and tip, he pulled my suitcase out of the trunk, dropped it in the middle of the street and drove off. The street was deserted at that hour, so I hurried into the hotel, glad to be away from his negative energy.dinah-eng-21

Every year, I attend the national convention of the Asian American Journalists Association, a gathering of professional colleagues in the news media industry. The topic on everyone’s mind is, “Am I going to have a job tomorrow?”

As the Internet has opened new channels of communication, traditional media companies have lost many print readers and broadcast viewers. Media companies, like many industries, have undergone massive reorganizations — laying off workers and consolidating operations — while searching for a new business model for their products.

Journalists, like everyone we write about, are worried about the economy and job security. As the Internet has forced us to deal with constant change, job security has become non-existent. Change is becoming the new “business as usual,” and for many, constant change has created constant anxiety.

In the current economy, anxiety has permeated most everyone’s life. Whether you’re a worried journalist or an angry cab driver, it’s important to deal with those feelings before you get overwhelmed.

Ron Brown, president of Banks Brown, a management consultant firm in San Francisco that specializes in developing strategies to manage changing organizational culture, says coping with unrelenting anxiety is a needed skill in today’s world.

“Anxiety is a hidden source of strength,” Brown says. “It forces us to make choices. Managing your anxiety is a key component of maintaining your equilibrium. The question becomes how do you live with anxiety and convert it to something positive?”

Brown offers several tips:

* Enrich and utilize your personal relationships for personal support. “This is a time to look outward, beyond the workplace,” Brown says.

* Every day, factor in some activity that gives you pure, personal pleasure.

* If maintaining your routine is reassuring, do that. If you’re in a routine rut, get out and explore some things you haven’t done. “It can be as simple as driving a new route to work,” Brown says. “Use your anxiety to vary your routine.”

* Plan moments of laughter. “Laughter is one of the greatest relievers of stress,” Brown notes. “Got see a funny movie, or rent a DVD of a comedy series. Make sure you get a steady diet of laughter, which creates more endorphins in the body to combat stress.”

* Manage your workload, and manage your time. “A lot of people who constantly communicate on their BlackBerries are just trying to manage their anxiety,” he observes. “Examine your assumptions about work, and realize that there’s an abundance of time.”

* Get 8 hours of sleep every night to ensure enough rest for the body to remain healthy.

* Be aware of your spirituality. “Whether it’s meditative yoga, church, synagogue or personal prayer, be mindful that there’s a Source in life greater than yourself,” Brown says. “You’ll be more patient with what’s happening around you. As things swirl around, it’s much more imperative to stay centered inside.”

As long as we are alive, we are always in transition to somewhere. We may stop now and then to breathe, thinking that things have finally ”come back to normal.” But the truth is, the next change is always around the corner.

We must learn to take deep, steady breaths throughout life, and remember to enjoy the journey, for now is all there is. Even when we’re dumped in the middle of a street at midnight.

August 6, 2009

Adventures in Disneyland…

Posted in Between Us column, Relationships, Women at 6:10 am by dinaheng

The minute Mark saw Ariel at the bottom of the stairs, his four-year-old eyes got huge. When the famous mermaid beckoned him closer for a picture with his sister Emily, 7, Mark ran over and hugged the undersea princess, totally certain he’d get a hug in return.

Magical moments filled a recent family visit to Disneyland and its neighboring California Adventure Park in Anaheim, Calif. When my mom, sister Linda, sister Boo and two of her children decided to visit me in Los Angeles recently, the highlight of the trip was our stay at the Disneyland Resort.

I’ve never been one for walking around in crowds, but I have to say that “The Happiest Place on Earth” really lives up to its name. When you’re used to working non-stop under stress, your body tenses up in ways you don’t realize.dinah-eng-21

As we walked into Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel and Spa, where we stayed two nights, everyday stresses disappeared. The sound of soothing piano music, a warm fireplace and smiling people just invite you to relax and rediscover the magic in life. A snack of cookies and milk takes you back to childhood, and I suddenly wish I had allotted time to laze around the pool or take in the spa as well.

In our family, get-togethers are few and far between. Being one of seven sisters, most of whom live in different cities, it’s rare when even two or three of us get together. Having three generations together was particularly special.

For the kids, the magic of Disneyland is in meeting beloved characters come to life, dancing with the Disneyland Band, or zooming down Splash Mountain. For the adults, the magic is in watching the kids play, and remembering what’s really important in life.

The first night, we arrived in time for dinner at Ariel’s Grotto in California Adventure Park, where “Disney Princesses” walked through the restaurant as we ate, signing autographs and posing for pictures with the children. The kids were so excited, they almost forgot to eat in anticipation of meeting Cinderella, Belle, Snow White, and Mulan.

After dinner, Emily and her mom tried a simulated hang gliding ride called Soarin’ Over California, then we watched Disney’s Electrical Parade, a sparkling procession of floats and marching musicians that closes California Adventure Park each night. As we walked back to the hotel, the magic of a shared fantasy lingered as fireworks exploded overhead.

Why is it that “reality” gets more respect than “fantasy”? So often, we look at life through eyes that see problems first and solutions last. But if we envision solutions first, the problems would never appear. And it’s in the most fantastic places that reality becomes what we usually only dream of.

The next morning, I sat with my mother on Disneyland’s Main Street, U.S.A. as my sisters and the kids ran after Mickey Mouse, Goofy and Pluto for autographs. Sitting on the bench next to us were three Iranians, speaking in Farsi. Strolling by were an African-American couple, an Hispanic family, a Caucasian family.

There were people of all ages, cultures, shapes and sizes around us, and they were all doing the same thing — smiling. It was a reality I wish we saw more often.

After the kids drove the course at Autopia, we all took a cruise on the Mark Twain Riverboat in Frontierland, then basked in the air conditioned Pirates of the Caribbean ride. Warning for parents — this is not for the little ones who get scared easily. We didn’t realize how frightening it would be for Mark, who cried throughout the ride.

After a late lunch, I took Mark and my mother back to the hotel for a couple hours rest. My mom had tried driving a rented Electric Convenience Vehicle (a motorized wheelchair), but got too nervous navigating the crowds, so we decided just to walk slowly and end the day early. My sisters and Emily took in Splash Mountain and the Haunted House rides before  meeting us for dinner at the hotel’s Storyteller Cafe, which has a great buffet and casual dining atmosphere.

Throughout the day — whether it was Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Chip ‘N’ Dale, or Cinderella — I wonder if the real people underneath those costumes realized how much joy they give to others through their work. No doubt there’s plenty of grousing among cast members behind the scenes, as there is in any workplace, but how wonderful it must be to bring smiles to people’s faces every day.

We grabbed our last half hour of magic at California Adventure Park by taking in the Grizzly River Run before the park closed. As my sisters and Emily emerged from the ride, laughing and soaking wet, my mind snapped the picture as another memory to treasure.

When I asked what they enjoyed the most, Emily said, “Next time, I want to ride Splash Mountain again, and again, and again.” For Mark, it was simply, “Princesses.” Ah, how quickly they grow up.

Life is indeed filled with magic. All we have to do is take the time to enjoy it.