October 28, 2010

Mummies give amazing glimpse into past

Posted in Between Us column, Spirituality, Travel at 3:23 am by dinaheng

Many people think of mummies as scary creatures in horror movies, or funny costumed characters that come out at Halloween, but when you walk among real mummies, life and death take on a whole different meaning.

“Mummies of the World,” the largest traveling exhibition of mummies and related artifacts ever assembled, is now on view at the California Science Center in Los Angeles, sharing an intimate look at both naturally and intentionally preserved mummies from various cultures until November 28.

Twenty one museums provided mummies for the exhibit, curated by the Reiss-Englehorn Museums of Mannheim, Germany in association with American Exhibitions, Inc.

“People are fascinated by mummies because they’re such an anomaly,” says Diane Perlov, senior vice president for exhibits at the California Science Center. “Why did they survive, and other things decomposed? People can see themselves in these human mummies.”

Perlov explains that mummification happens everywhere, even in Antarctica, from the ancient past to current times. Natural mummification can happen in caves, ice, bogs, wherever the environment stops decomposition after death.

In ancient Egypt, mummies were intentionally preserved as a way to reach the Afterlife. Listening to the process is not for the faint of heart. In short, embalmers would cut the body open on the left side, take out the organs, and place them in special jars in the tomb. They’d put a hook through the nose, take out the brain, and leave in the heart.

In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, which was buried with the mummy, it says that when you die, the soul leaves the body, but you have to pass gatekeepers and overcome challenges to get into the Afterlife. In the end, your heart is weighed against the Feather of Truth.

“If your heart is too heavy, it’s devoured by a creature, and you don’t go to the Afterlife,” Perlov explains. “It’s very reassuring, in a sense. You do the right thing, and you’ll get to the Afterlife.”

After all, when our hearts feel heavy in real life, they’re telling us that we’re not doing the right thing. We, after all, are the only ones who can really know whether we’re upholding our values or not.

In South America, mummies were buried upright in a sitting position, and were naturally mummified by the environment. These figures look particularly eerie, as they are not lying down in peaceful repose.

The oldest mummy in the exhibit is a 6,500 year old child, thought to be about 8 months old at death, who was buried in a crouched position. The figure is 3,000 years older than King Tut, and we can only wonder what life was like back then.

Many of the figures look like petrified wood. The hair on some heads and the teeth seem perfectly preserved. In one display, a South American woman holds the mummified bodies of two children, one of which was placed with her 100 years after the boy’s death. Why was that done? Was she thought to be a special guardian of children, or a long-dead relative?

“Doing the scientific analysis on the mummies answers some questions, but raises others,” Perlov says.

That, I suppose, is just part of the mystery of life… and death.




October 21, 2010

International sounds speak to the heart

Posted in Between Us column, Diversity, Entertainment at 5:02 am by dinaheng

Whenever I sit for an extended period of writing, I like to have music playing in the background. I don’t know why, but somehow, the murmur of music helps to get the thoughts from brain to fingers on keyboard.

Sometimes the sound of instrumental music wins the moment. Other days, it’s a vocalist, or the cast of a Broadway musical. This month, I’ve been enjoying a new Sony Classical CD by Vittorio Grigolo titled “The Italian Tenor.”

As you might expect, Grigolo’s album features famous Italian arias and lesser known operatic works. The tenor, who began singing solos as a young boy in Vatican City’s Sistine Chapel Choir, attracted the attention of Luciano Pavarotti, and starred alongside him in “Tosca” at the Rome Opera. From there, it was on to a debut at La Scala, Milan, and the world opera stage.

“Music communicates what’s inside of us,” Grigolo says. “When I sing, I feel like it’s not coming from me. Music is in the air, and you feel it inside. It’s special to make people happy, or to make them cry. I sing to people who were in the hospital, and they laugh afterward. Maybe I’m not good in talking, but I’m good in singing.”

Grigolo says appreciating opera may be a matter of cultural experience. Growing up in Italy, opera was an art form everyone was exposed to from childhood. A popular form of entertainment in 18th and 19th Century Europe, operas featured dramatic stories, dazzling effects and stirring music.

In the United States, he notes, most Americans are likely to get their first exposure to opera by seeing it in a movie.

“If you saw ‘Pretty Woman,’ you listened to ‘La Traviata,’ “ Grigolo says. “It just needs more media attention to bring opera out of the opera houses. Operas are stories that you may see in your own life. They were written so people wouldn’t do the same bad things. It was a way for the public to leave reality, and never go out and kill someone, or have an affair.”

He says there are few operas written in English, but to him, the musical “West Side Story” is an American opera.

“Why is opera wonderful?” he says. “Why is love so wonderful?”

“L-O-V-E” is the title of another great new album by Cuban music legend Issac Delgado, who’s been referred to as the “Frank Sinatra of salsa.” Delgado’s CD features 12 sultry Spanish recordings originally sung by Nat King Cole.

Between 1958 and 1962, Nat King Cole released his first three albums in Spanish, and among his fans was Delgado, who grew up listening to the recordings. Eight of the 12 songs on “L-O-V-E” can be found on Cole’s three Latin albums, and the remaining four are Cole classics that Delgado reinterpreted in Spanish.

In many ways, I suspect that most songs written are about, or stem from, stories about love. I remember walking past a shop in Paris and hearing the sound of Lara Fabian singing “je t’aime.” I had no idea what the words meant, but I had to buy the album, “Pure.”  (A close second is Patricia Kaas’ “Scene De Vie.”)

There’s something intoxicating about listening to sounds in foreign languages. While I don’t speak French, Spanish or Italian, I love imagining the words that are being sung. Music, after all, is a universal language that speaks to the heart.

Thankfully, it’s also a language that really needs no translation.



October 14, 2010

Discrimination hurts teens more than we know

Posted in Between Us column, Diversity, Relationships at 4:22 am by dinaheng

When it comes to acceptance in a multicultural society, we’ve come a long way on many fronts. We live in a time where our country has a multicultural President in Barak Obama, a woman is our Secretary of State, and kids see diverse characters in children’s programming on television.

But a new UCLA study shows that adolescents from Latin American and Asian backgrounds experience more discrimination than classmates from European backgrounds, and that the discrimination came from adults, as well as their peers.

The study ran from 1993 to 1996, when the students were in high school, and continues to follow the participants to assess discrimination every two years.

“A lot of our work deals with culture and ethnicity in adolescent development,” says Andrew J. Fuligni, professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, who conducted the study with graduate student Virginia W. Huynh. “Latin American and Asian groups have been understudied, yet they dominate the vast amount of immigration coming into the United States.”

The study included 601 high school seniors, who were asked to maintain a daily diary for two weeks to record discriminatory comments or events experienced, and to record physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, or general pain.

Results showed that the levels of discrimination impacted the teens’ grade-point average, their health, and was associated with depression and lower levels of self-esteem.

“We found that kids who reported a high frequency of feeling discriminated against reported a lower self-esteem,” Fuligni says. “It creates another challenge on top of the challenges all  teens face in fitting in, deciding on a career path, belonging.”

The kids with European backgrounds also reported feeling discrimination, but at a lower frequency than the Latin American and Asian teens. Clearly, being mistreated because of who you are hurts — no matter what your background is.

The number of gay teens committing suicide because of constant bullying is bringing attention to how far we still have to go to teach not just tolerance, but acceptance, of everyone.

Those of us who grew up in schools where we were in the minority know what it feels like to be treated differently because of the color of our skin, our religious or political beliefs, our sexual orientation, the clothes we wore… you name it, there’s always something that people use as an excuse to separate themselves from others.

Prejudice stems from fear, so the more we make a concerted effort to get to know people who are not like us, the less we will have to fear. It’s a simple formula for making new friends, and ending discrimination.

The challenge lies in practicing what we teach.


October 6, 2010

“Secretariat” wins on many levels

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Movies, Television, Women at 10:34 pm by dinaheng

Those who know nothing about the world of horse racing are going to love the new Disney movie “Secretariat.” Those who are horse racing fans may nitpick at some of the details, but they’re going to find plenty to love, as well.

More than a sports film, the movie that opens October 8 is the story of Penny Chenery Tweedy, a Denver housewife whose faith in her big chestnut-colored horse changed the face of horse racing. Set in the early 1970s, the tale chronicles the struggle of a woman to be recognized and respected in a male-dominated sport during a time when the nation was struggling to find hope in the quagmire of the Vietnam War.

When Chenery (played by Diane Lane) takes over her ailing father’s stables, she works with veteran trainer Lucien Laurin (played by John Malkovich) to groom Secretariat, a seemingly laid back runner, into the 1973 Triple Crown winner that became recognized as one of the greatest race horses in history.

Director Randall Wallace — whose writing credits include “Braveheart,” “Pearl Harbor,” “We Were Soldiers” and “Man in the Iron Mask” — has given the film a joyful, uplifting tone that says when you follow your heart, you will win more than success.

“I’m sometimes asked why I make war stories, and I don’t,” says Wallace, sitting in a restaurant at the Santa Anita Race Track in Arcadia, Calif. “I make movies about love. War makes us look at what do we love enough to sacrifice our lives for.

” ‘Secretariat’ has the same theme, but it’s not layered with a sense of loss. It’s layered with a sense of glory and victory. We need stories that say courage works, and love prevails.”

Wallace, who grew up in Jackson, Tenn. and put himself through a year of seminary before turning to the entertainment industry, is a Southern gentleman whose spirituality clearly shows in the film’s opening use of Biblical text and musical choices. It is a spirituality rooted in Christianity, but not dogmatic in delivery.

“I grew up in an extremely observant household, full of fun and life, but really stringent rules,” Wallace says. “We had powerful codes of behavior and honor. In this movie, I get to express everything that’s good about faith, hope and courage. It’s about the experience of the heart.”

He shares a story about being asked to teach once at the Catholic University of Milan. Wallace, a Protestant, had gone to see Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of The Last Supper with a Catholic priest who was a member of Opus Dei, and a friend from Afghanistan who was a devout Muslim.

“I love church architecture, and asked to see some,” Wallace says, explaining that the three then went into a beautiful cathedral. “We walked in together, and I asked if it would be all right if the three of us prayed. So we all knelt and said a silent prayer. Later, I asked what my friend, the Muslim, had prayed.”

Wallace says his friend answered, “I prayed to thank God that there are people who made a building so beautiful and dedicated to God.”

Finding common ground in spiritual beliefs, or in any aspect of life, lies in listening to what is in our hearts, and Wallace has extended that message to “Secretariat.” Chenery’s journey from traditional housewife to businesswoman shows how the wife and mother bridged differences with her husband and male colleagues to become a successful woman in her own right.

Unfortunately, in real life, the story didn’t end there, as Chenery and her husband Jack Tweedy divorced the year after the Triple Crown win. Her second marriage to Lennart Ringquist also ended in divorce.

Nevertheless, the story Wallace tells is inspirational and a pleasure to watch.

“It’s been the most joyous film to make,” Wallace says. “When Penny’s at her darkest time, and everyone’s failing to support her in the movie, she declares, ‘We’re going to live  rejoicing.’ And that’s what the movie says. It’s okay to rejoice. It’s a form of cowardice not to accept joy in your life.”

So if you’re in the mood for some joy, “Secretariat” is a sure bet.

October 4, 2010

Swing plays pivotal role in “Phantom of the Opera”

Posted in Between Us column, Business, Entertainment at 6:49 pm by dinaheng

Michael Scott Harris has had 11 debuts with the third national touring company of “Phantom of the Opera,” playing a different character each time in the Broadway musical that has generated the longest continuously-running tour in U.S. history.

You might call him one of the unsung heroes of the show, as Harris is a swing — responsible for covering any one of 11 roles in the musical whenever another cast member is unable to perform. The job requires not only versatility in voice and quick thinking, but also the ability to handle going to work every day, not knowing if or when you’ll be called to go on stage.

This month, his performances will be somewhat bittersweet, as the musical juggernaut that has grossed more than $1.5 billion in box office sales on the road is ending its historic run.

Three national tours have played in 77 U.S. cities since the First National Tour (Christine Company) opened in Los Angeles in May 1989. The Second National Tour (Raoul Company) had an eight-and-a-half year run, and now, the Third National Tour (Music Box Company) will play its final performance on Halloween, Oct. 31, at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles, ending its nearly 18-year run.

“I had never done a swing job before,” says Harris, who worked in regional theater and opera productions before joining the “Phantom” Music Box Company three years ago. “If everyone’s healthy and in the show, the swings sit backstage and wait in case there’s a last minute cast change. It can happen mid-show when someone’s injured, or can’t finish the show because they’re ill.”

The challenges are many, but Harris says dealing with constant uncertainty has kept him on his toes and kept the show fresh for him, as a performer. Among the biggest challenges are the “combo shows,” when more than one cast member is out, due to sickness or vacation time.   Harris will swing into multiple parts, wearing one costume on top of another, peeling one off in the wings to run on stage for the next scene as someone else.

When several actors are out, the most essential parts of the roles are played. Harris has improvised as many as four characters in one show.

He has 75 different costumes and 12 wigs for the his various roles, which range from Joseph Buquet, the chief stagehand, to generic ensemble parts. Harris, a tenor who can sing a high C, is also the understudy for the principal part of Piangi, the opera singer.

“Most people who see the show don’t remember anyone except Christine, Raoul and the Phantom,” Harris notes, “but there are nine principal parts, 23 ensemble cast members and four swings who add the layers to create this world on stage. The goal is to ensure that the audience doesn’t notice the show is different in any way, so that the story can be told well every night.”

The story, based on the French classic, “Le Fantome de l’Opera” by Gaston Leroux, is the tale of a masked figure who hides in the catacombs of the Paris Opera House, terrorizing its inhabitants. When the Phantom falls in love with Christine, an innocent young soprano, he becomes obsessed with making her a star, both nurturing her talent and threatening to bend her to his will.

Harris, who turned down a contract to join the New York Metropolitan Opera Chorus to sing in the “Phantom” tour, has no regrets.

“I like telling a story and connecting with people,” Harris says. “People love ‘Phantom’ because the melodies are sweeping and lovely. People love the dichotomy of what Christine feels — being attracted to what seems beautiful on the outside (in Raoul), and yet inspired by what’s beautiful on the inside (in the Phantom).

“In the end, when Christine kisses the grotesque Phantom, everybody who’s ever been made to feel less — because they’re short, they stutter, or they’re nerdy — is transformed by that kiss, and knows that they are worthy. We all look at the Phantom, and see ourselves.”

Harris says he’s enjoyed life on tour, which has taken him to 40 cities in the United States and Canada, stopping in each for a month-long run, enough time to get to know each city and its people. While this has required living out of suitcases, he sees the experience as a dream come true.

“When I moved to New York in 2000, I did all sorts of survival jobs,” Harris says. “I bar tended, waited tables, did catering. I substitute taught because I have a teacher’s degree. Being part of a show that’s touched millions of people has been amazing. I knew in seventh grade that music was what I wanted to do, so when you get to this point, you really have to savor it.”

When the tour ends, Harris plans to make Los Angeles home, and looks forward to having a steady routine and rhythm to life again.

“We all start getting itchy feet that fourth week in a city, but this month will be different,” Harris says. “All of us are feeling anxiety about the unknown. Many of us are anxious to start a new chapter of our lives. Many have been on the tour for a decade, and it’s home and our family that we’re leaving.

“The unknown is both exciting and scary. We’re thankful we get to end the show in Los Angeles, which is such a great city. The Broadway world is small, though, so we know we’ll see each other again. I love doing new things, and materializing what’s in my head. I’m looking forward to having a sense of home again, and whatever comes next.”