June 24, 2013

It’s all a matter of ‘Perception’

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Health, Television at 5:34 pm by dinaheng

How we see the world depends on our point of view. On TNT’s hit drama “Perception,” Dr. Daniel Pierce is a professor of neuroscience and a paranoid schizophrenic, who sees the world in ways that help the FBI solve crimes.

Pierce, played by Eric McCormack, has a brilliant mind, able to see patterns that most of us don’t. At the same time, he experiences hallucinations that cause him to behave in odd, irrational ways.Dinah Eng

“Initially, the challenge for me was to get it right, to portray the mental disorder with its symptoms correctly, and to get the neuroscience right,” says McCormack, perhaps best known for his roleas Will in NBC’s “Will and Grace.” “I also wanted to make the character someone you want to spend time with. Reading Elyn Sach’s book, ‘The Center Cannot Hold,’ really helped me achieve that.”

The show, which starts its second season at 10 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday, June 25 has been acclaimed for bringing the issue of schizophrenia to light, and putting a human face on a condition that is not easily understood.

Through the character of Pierce, viewers have met an intelligent, unpredictable crime solver who has an underlying vulnerability and warmth that all can relate to. Despite the professor’s fears and need to cling to his Sony walkman, inside, he wants the love and approval we all want.

Eric McCormack plays Dr. Daniel Pierce on TNT's "Perception." Photo courtesy of ABC Studios/Trae Patton.

Eric McCormack plays Dr. Daniel Pierce on TNT’s “Perception.” Photo courtesy of ABC Studios/Trae Patton.

“Mental illness is the great unknown,” McCormack says. “It’s one of the last taboos —  after race, the sexual revolution and sexual orientation — the one thing we’re afraid of. To the guy on the street, muttering to himself; in his mind, someone exists. He could be your father or your brother.

“When someone picks up a gun and kills several people, we say he’s crazy, like the act  couldn’t have been avoided. But it could have been, with more attention. We need more compassion for those who are mentally ill.”

The audience drawn to this show is an intelligent one, he notes, wanting mysteries that have an extra twist and turn. The hero, in this case, is not just a damaged man, but a complex, passionate person whose battles often mirror our own.

McCormack gives some clues to what’s in store for Pierce this season beyond solving more crimes with FBI Special Agent Kate Moretti (Rachel Leigh Cook), who’s also his  former student. At the end of last season, Pierce struggled with whether to take medication for his disorder, and discovered that his imaginary best friend Natalie Vincent (Kelly Rowan) was based on Dr. Caroline Newsome (also played by Rowan), a  woman he’d developed an infatuation with while in college who is now Pierce’s psychiatrist.

“Beyond solving a crime, Pierce is now navigating a love life with his disorder,” McCormack says. “A lot of people have responded to the Pierce/Moretti relationship, but it’s a risk with the teacher-student relationship. Now that he has Caroline, he’s facing that question of ‘What if you could have your fantasy girl? Which would you choose?’ “

Tune in to “Perception” on TNT to find out.

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June 12, 2013

Unique bowls remind us of life’s beauty

Posted in Art, Between Us column, Business, Women at 10:50 pm by dinaheng

Ellen Bartfeld, formerly an educational therapist, owned a stained glass overlay franchise in Santa Barbara, Calif. until her son started eighth grade. After her mother died, she and her husband moved Bartfeld’s father into their home, caring for him until his death in 2000.

“After he died, I needed to go back to work, so I started doing pressed flower things, and took them to a local art fair,” Bartfeld says. “Being around other artists, you get lots of ideas. I had done some stained glass work in the 1970s, and decided to make little bowls. So I went to the bead store, and made a few bowls for the art show.”Dinah Eng

When a customer immediately bought the bowls, Bartfeld stopped doing the pressed flower items and started taking the uniquely decorated bowls to more art shows.

Today, her work is sold through the Uncommon Goods catalogue, and at gift shops around the world. Sold under the banner Gravity Ranch Designs, her stained glass bowls, edged with copper foil, are customized around various themes, including Butterflies and Dragonflies, Four-legged Friends, By the Water, Birds and Bees, and Plants and Flowers.

What is striking about the designs is the pairing of the stained glass colors with beads, charms and vintage jewelry. Images from nature are used, as well as elements of Asian design, with Chinese letters for love and friendship, Buddha charms, and symbols for Om and the Tree of Life.

The number of small U.S. businesses owned by women is growing by leaps and bounds, and by 2018, one-third of new jobs are projected to be generated by female-owned companies, according to The Guardian Life Small Business Research Institute.

Like Bartfeld, many of these businesses were started by entrepreneurs who created  their own niche in a field, and who wanted to work on their own terms. Starting a new venture requires courage, particularly when you’re a one-woman company like Gravity Ranch Designs, and as Bartfeld notes, many things have to be learned along the way.

Stained glass bowls by Gravity Ranch Designs.

Stained glass bowls by Gravity Ranch Designs.

“You have to put yourself out there,” Bartfeld says. “You have to be willing to fail, and wipe out your savings while you’re trying. If you don’t, nothing will happen. That’s the hardest part. Not everybody will make it, even though they have the talent. The second part of the process is pushing through, and making it happen.”

Bartfeld’s leap of faith was entering the New York International Gift Fair, where retailers from around the world look for wares to sell in their stores. Fortunately,  the orders started rolling in. In this spring’s show, she got a giant order from a store in Kuwait. The entrepreneur says she learned to discuss payment and shipping specifications ahead of time, as her e-mailed questions received no response. Instead, the Kuwaiti store requested an invoice and just did a wire transfer payment with no discussion.

“I remember when I did my first show, I asked another vendor, ‘What do you do if you get a huge order?’ “ Bartfeld says. “She said, ‘You just figure it out.’ Instead of stressing out about things that may or may not happen, it’s so much easier to just deal with it when you need to. Otherwise, you’re just putting obstacles in your own way.”

Advice that makes sense in business, and beyond.

For more information, check out http://gravityranchdesigns.com/index.htm on the Internet.

June 7, 2013

Jury duty sobering experience

Posted in Between Us column, Politics at 1:17 am by dinaheng

Every year or so, a jury summons comes in the mail. Most of us dread getting called for this civic duty, resenting the interruption to our daily lives, our schedules, and… well, our daily lives. We dream up excuses why we can’t serve, and accept the sympathies of others who are just glad it’s not their turn to go to court.

Each time I’ve been summoned, I‘ve sat in a juror assembly room for the Superior Court of Los Angeles, reading until I was dismissed at the end of the first day. It was always a total bore. But this year was different. I got picked for a jury, and the experience was not what I expected.Dinah Eng

The Monday I reported for duty, it wasn’t long before the first group of 35 prospective jurors were called to a courtroom. We were sworn in, and introduced to the judge, the prosecutor from the city attorney’s office, and the defense attorney from the public defender’s office — all women. Clearly, we were not on the set of “Law & Order.” I was curious to see how things would unfold.

The preliminaries… Not surprisingly, one by one, jurors asked to speak to the judge in private, offering reasons why they should be excused. What was surprising was that 18 of the 35 prospective jurors asked for an audience before the judge put a stop to the parade of pleas. She called us all in and gave a lecture she’s no doubt given many times before.

To paraphrase her point, we live in a free country where people are not drafted to serve in the military. The only civic obligation we must fulfill, other than paying taxes, is to be available to serve as a juror once a year. Our system of justice depends on trial by a jury of our peers. If you think your schedule is too important to accommodate this, shame on you.

Her words apparently didn’t sway everyone. As we started the process of voir dir, where the attorneys ask questions to determine the backgrounds and biases of jurors, a few whiners still tried to get themselves dismissed. The worst was a former TV writer for “Desperate Housewives,” who said his sister was an attorney who’d been a prosecutor, then changed paths to become a defense attorney. SInce he’d heard horror stories from her, he didn’t think he could be an unbiased juror.

Again and again, the judge asked if he could be fair.  The best he could manage was, “I can try.” Clearly, he wasn’t interested in trying. When the attorneys dismissed him, you could hear his triumphant whisper of “Yes!” as he left the jury box. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who was glad he was dismissed.

Now for the case…  (All names have been changed to protect people’s privacy and reputations.) Walter, an African-American male, and his wife Sara, a Korean immigrant nurse, were live-in caretakers for an elderly man in Los Angeles. Also living in the home were Patty and Cindy, Sara’s two teenage daughters from a previous marriage. Visiting them that day was Henry, a Caucasian college student and Patty’s boyfriend. Walter and Sara were arguing, and Walter didn’t feel like talking. That evening, Walter took his spaghetti dinner to the couple’s bedroom to eat in front of the TV. That didn’t set well with Sara, who wanted to talk, so she started throwing clothes out of Walter’s closet at him. He ignored her until she decided to leave the room.

As she walked out, she turned to go back into the room, and Walter, a strong heavy-set fellow, closed the door on her arm. When Sara couldn’t get her arm out of the door, she screamed for help. Her daughters and Henry came running. It took 11 minutes or so for four people on one side of the door to push it open. Walter ordered Henry to leave the house. Henry refused, fearing that the women could be harmed. Walter pushed Henry, and in the ensuing tussle, Henry was slammed into a wall, leaving him with a bruised neck and bloody back before Sara screamed at Patty to call the police.

The charges… There are three misdemeanor charges against Walter. Count 1 is simple battery committed on his wife Sara; Count 2 is a lesser battery charge committed against Sara and Count 3 is simple battery committed against Henry. Reaching a verdict required unanimous agreement by the jury.

Fast forward to the witnesses… Henry’s testimony is consistent with the photos of his injuries at the crime scene. Sara denies that Walter did anything wrong. The only thing she confirms was that Henry was trying to help her. Patty says she doesn’t remember what happened, but confirms that Henry was trying to help. Walter says he was strong enough to hold the door open against four people without the door ever touching his wife’s arm, and that he had every right to defend his space against Henry’s intrusion.

The jury… Our jury of seven women and five men is a cross-section of ethnicities (Caucasian, Hispanic, Asian), professions (secretary, veterinary tech, executive director of a non-profit) and economic backgrounds. The trial concluded on Thursday afternoon, and as we sat down to deliberate, Gary, a boat repair business owner, volunteered to be the foreman. We took a vote on the three counts to see where we were. It was 6-6. The room was shocked. Here we all thought we’d be on the same page, and it would be easy to reach a verdict.

The deliberations… You can learn a lot about people after sitting with them in a room for a day. As we discussed the case, some of the guys thought Sara was to blame for her own injuries by pestering Walter to talk when he didn’t want to. David (bless his heart) insisted that there was no reason, ever, for a man to lose his temper and injure a woman. Half of the women thought Walter was guilty, and half voted him innocent of the charges.

The next day, as we all shared our opinions, some changed their minds, and the votes against Walter moved to 9-3, guilty on Counts 2 and 3. In order to get those guilty votes, the group agreed to find him not guilty on Count 1, the more serious of the charges against his wife, voting 11-1 not guilty, with David, the lone holdout. As we talked, disagreements emerged about various points, and the court reporter read back testimony from the transcript for us. More questions emerged, and the judge’s response was, “You have all the information you need.”

The frustrations… When it comes to standing in judgment of another, we can never really be totally objective. Regardless of what evidence may show, our judgments of others are really a reflection of who we are, what we have experienced, and what we believe. After a day and a half of deliberations, the votes against Walter climbed to 11-1 guilty on Counts 2 and 3.

The holdout was Gary, the foreman, who insisted that Walter had acted out of self-defense, protecting his space. Gary said that he, too, had once been the victim of an unprovoked attack, but as another male juror noted, “Come on. Walter was defending a bowl of spaghetti.” Even if the defendant was guilty, Gary argued, “I don’t think this should go on the guy’s record.” The more Gary talked, the more evident it became that he had probably done something in his own life that he had not taken responsibility for. To admit that Walter was guilty would mean admitting to himself that he had been wrong, too.

As Gary pushed the idea of self-defense, two young women began to agree with him. Both believed that if you were pushed, you should push back. Never mind the idea that there are instances where pushing back is not necessary or justified. One of the women said she found the defendant “funny,” laughing at Walter’s one-liners on the stand. In the end, we could not reach a unanimous vote, deadlocked at 11-1 not guilty on Count 1, 9-3 guilty on Counts 2 and 3. We had no idea that that 11-1 vote would be interpreted by the judge as meaning the majority leaned toward acquittal for Walter, when it was actually the opposite.

The judge… Judges try so many cases, it must be hard to bring a fresh perspective to each one. Our judge clearly had no patience with jurors trying to get out of jury duty. She also seemed to have no patience with jury questions. Instructions were read to us in a bored monotone. When we asked for clarifications, she gave few. We had no idea that we would have had to find Walter not guilty on the first count in order for the second, lesser charge to apply.

After hearing that we could not reach a unanimous decision, the judge declared a mistrial. Two months later, at a trial review, she threw the case out, over the objections of the People. It would have put the family through more turmoil, and it would have cost more money to try it again. But if the judge had given better instructions in the first place, the jury could at least have sent the message that most of us believed Walter was guilty.

Serving on a jury was not fun, but it was an important reminder that we live in a democracy where people hold differing opinions, and the only way to reach a common goal is to work together. We all tend to hang out with people who think and believe as we do, creating cocoons of comfort in our everyday lives. But it’s only when a cocoon opens that you really see the world.

Rather than dreading that jury summons, be grateful that you’re not the one on trial. We all have private lives that we don’t want to put on hold. But if we want a justice system that’s as fair and impartial as possible, we all must participate. In the process, we may just learn that other people’s opinions matter as much as our own.

June 1, 2013

Magical thrills found in ‘Now You See Me’

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Movies at 12:23 am by dinaheng

The world of magic takes center stage in the heist thriller “Now You See Me” when an elite squad of FBI agents and an Interpol detective chases “The Four Horsemen,” a team of professional illusionists who pull off a series of spectacular heists.

But who are the good guys and who are the villains? Like all great illusions, this film will lead you down several deceptive paths while the answer to its mystery is in plain sight all along.Dinah Eng

Following in the path of films like “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Fast & Furious 6,” the team of super-illusionists in this story each have special skills and come together for a common goal. There’s Michael Atlas (played by Jesse Eisenberg), a slight-of-hand specialist; Merritt Osbourne (Woody Harrelson), a mentalist; Jack Wilder (Dave Franco), a street hustler pickpocket, and Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), Atlas’s former assistant who is now an escape artist.

Chasing them are FBI Agent Dylan Hobbs (Mark Ruffalo), Interpol detective Alma Vargas (Mélanie Laurent), and Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), a specialist in de-bunking magicians.

“In my everyday life, I was a little of a fraidy cat, and hoped that some of Henley’s brave, ferocious abilities would rub off on me,” says Fisher, who began acting at the age of nine. “I’m quite proud of the stunt that I did in the film.”

Fisher’s character has a signature trick of getting out of a 100-gallon, piranha-filled water tank while shackled hand and foot. The actress, who was in the tank for three days filming the segment, says she didn’t know she could have opted out of doing the stunt herself.

(L-R) Isla Fisher, Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco; Photo courtesy of Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.

(L-R) Isla Fisher, Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco; Photo courtesy of Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.

“On the last day, I couldn’t free myself of the grate for a minute, which was scary, but I didn’t alert anyone that it was an emergency,” Fisher says. “The tank can drain in 75 seconds if there’s a problem, and there was a quick release on the handcuffs. I was able to get myself out, and learned that I can hold my breath for three minutes.”

Working in an action thriller was a new experience for Fisher, whose credits include “Wedding Crashers,” “The Great Gatsby” and “I Heart Huckabees.”

“It was slick and exciting to see a camera whipping around the stage,” she notes. “It’s not a character-driven picture, so it was more fun. I was in awe of Michael Caine (who plays shady industrialist Arthur Tressler), who’s such an inspiration. It was an honor to be working with him, and please God that I have a career as lengthy as his.”

Fisher says while Eisenberg, Harrelson and Franco got to do a lot of the magic, she didn’t want to be the girl relegated to the sidelines.

“Henley has an unbridled, feminine spirit, and I wanted her to be the brains of the operation, even though you didn’t see her that much,” Fisher says. “After working on this film, I learned that I, too, could be brave.”

For some fast-paced action and magical thrills, don’t miss “Now You See Me.”