September 17, 2013

Poignant family film explores civil rights movement

Posted in Between Us column, Books, Diversity, Entertainment, Movies, Television at 3:12 am by dinaheng

The civil rights movement may have occurred in the 1960s, but the importance of standing up for equality for all has not ended.

In “The Watsons Go To Birmingham” — a film based on the 1996 Newberry Award-winning novel by Christopher Paul Curtis — the poignant and powerful story of an African-American family’s summer in Birmingham, Ala. during the height of the civil rights movement is explored. The movie, which premieres on the Hallmark Channel on Friday, Sept. 20 at 8 p.m. Eastern, is the latest offering in a series of family-friendly films featured in the Walden Family Theater on Friday nights.Dinah Eng

Making history relevant to youngsters isn’t always easy, but those who watch this film are bound to identify with the closeness of the Watson family, and be moved by the their  efforts to deal with a society in which they are not fully accepted.

“Getting this film made took almost 10 years,” says Tonya Lee Lewis, the movie’s producer and screenwriter. “We were told that doing a period piece around civil rights with a predominantly black cast would be an uphill battle. Now, it’s the 50th year anniversary of the March on Washington and the Children’s March in Birmingham.

“On the one hand, there’s been an incredible amount of progress. My parents grew up in the segregated South. My children, who are 16 and 18, know where they are in the world. And yet, as much progress as we’ve made, other complications have arisen. It’s difficult to have honest conversations. A lot of people don’t understand the history of the country, and who we are as blacks, Latinos, Asians and whites.”

"The Watsons Go To Birmingham" Photo by Annette Brown, courtesy of Crown Media, Inc.

“The Watsons Go To Birmingham.” Photo by Annette Brown, courtesy of Crown Media, Inc.

Photo of Tonya Lee Lewis by Keith Major of Keith Major Photography.

Photo of Tonya Lee Lewis by Keith Major of Keith Major Photography.

“The Watsons Go To Birmingham” is told through the eyes of Kenny, a 10-year-old boy who’s the smart kid bullied at school (portrayed by Bryce Clyde Jenkins). His 13-year old brother Byron (Harrison Knight) is an “official juvenile delinquent,” and little sister Joetta (Skai Jackson) has a heart open to all. When Byron’s pulled one stunt too many, their parents (Wood Harris and Anika Noni Rose) decide to drive the family from their home in Flint, Mich. to visit Grandma Sands (LaTanya Richardson Jackson) in Birmingham.

The culture shock of being in the segregated South forces the Watson children to face what it feels like to be treated as second class citizens.

“I hope audiences come away from the film realizing that when teenagers are going through their changes, and challenging their parents,” Lewis says, “that parents can make a difference and encourage their children to be all they can be. I hope people recognize that just as those who marched 50 years ago in the Children’s March on Birmingham, young people today can make a difference in their world. For in the end, love will overcome evil.”

Celebrating the rewards of virtue is at the heart of movies produced by Walden Media, including films like “The Chronicles of Narnia” series, “Charlotte’s Web,” “Bridge to Terabithia,” and “Holes.”

Michael Flaherty, president and co-founder of Walden Media, says the idea for the  company came to him several years ago after designing educational software for IBM and working on education reform issues as a speechwriter for William Bulger, then-President of the Massachusetts Senate and Tom Reilly, former Massachusetts attorney general.

“I used to tutor kids on nights and weekends in Boston,” Flaherty says. “When I asked what they did last night, the icebreaker was always watching movies and television. I noticed that after the movie ‘Titanic,’ came out in 1997, the kids started reading books about that period of history.”

So Flaherty reached out to a college friend, Cary Granat, who was producing films like “Scream” and “Children of the Corn” as president of Miramax’s Dimension Films division. The two decided to produce movies that would entice children to learn, and co-founded Walden Media.

After searching for financial backing, and getting thumbs down at every turn, the two met with billionaire Philip Anschutz, who decided to back their venture, which also has a publishing imprint, Walden Pond Press, with HarperCollins.

Photo of Michael Flaherty by

Photo of Michael Flaherty courtesy of Walden Media, Inc.

“When Philip said he’d fund the company, he asked what movies we wanted to make,” Flaherty says, laughing. “My wife is a teacher, and she quickly read me her summer reading list, which included ‘Bridge to Terabithia,’ ‘Charlotte’s Web,’ and the other films we went on to make.”

Flaherty says unconventional thinking led to the filming of “The Watsons Go To Birmingham.”

“I had a great conversation with Bill Abbott (president of Crown Media Family Networks), and Hallmark became a partner,” he says. “We financed it with ARC Entertainment, P&G and Walmart. It took people coming together from different walks of life, working with the biggest retailer and biggest consumer products company in the world to get it made.”

Walden Media has developed school curriculum to accompany the film, and Flaherty hopes both will be used to teach about the civil rights period in schools.

“The Watsons Go To Birmingham” joins other Walden Family Theater features, including “Return to Nim’s Island,” “Space Warriors,” and “Dear Dumb Diary,” which have already aired on the Hallmark Channel. Coming this fall are “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium,” “Pete’s Christmas,” and “The Hunters.”

“We’ve decided to keep our eye on family-friendly movies,” Flaherty says. “We don’t worry about what others are doing. We’re big believers in emotional intelligence, asking the kinds of questions that make children think. ‘What would you do in this situation? What is truth? What is love?’ When you use movies this way, the process of learning can be highly enjoyable.”

For more information, check out and


September 16, 2013

AquaKnox features seafood treasures

Posted in Between Us column, Dining, Travel at 4:24 pm by dinaheng

The soothing sound of a waterfall cascades down the wall at the entrance to AquaKnox, hinting at the peaceful culinary treasure tucked away amidst the noise of Restaurant Row in The Venetian Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

Seafood may not be top of mind for all diners, but the offerings in this fine dining establishment go beyond the typical fish and shrimp menu. Executive Chef Steve Aguglia calls the concept “global water cuisine,” prepared with influences from Asian and Latin cuisines.Dinah Eng

“All our seafood is fresh, flown in from places like New Zealand, France and Hawaii,” Aguglia says. “Our branzino comes from Greece. Our scallops are from the Georges Bank. We go around the globe to get the best fish, which must also be sustainable.”

Aguglia, whose restaurant experience started with washing dishes and working the tray line at UMC Hospital in Las Vegas, moved to Chef Joachim Splichal’s Pinot Brasserie at The Venetian Hotel, and gained experience in various stations before being named sous chef at the French eatery.

When AquaKnox beckoned, Aguglia accepted a position as line cook and helped open the seafood restaurant in 2003. Over the years, he worked his way up from kitchen manager to sous chef, then executive sous chef to executive chef. The Korean adoptee, who grew up in an Italian-American family, strives to create menus with a variety of tastes.

“We change the menu with every season,” he notes. “Everyone will find something to love here.”

Rob Menefee, general manager of the restaurant, says since AquaKnox is not a celebrity chef-driven restaurant, the food and the dining experience are the star of the show. The restaurant was recently awarded the 2013 Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Award, which recognizes AquaKnox as being “an outstanding establishment, offering guests a truly exceptional level of luxury and service” in the Las Vegas upscale dining scene.

“We’ve cultivated a great staff, with culinary chefs who have stayed through the years, which is unheard of on The Strip,” Menefee says. “Our average dinner is usually around $100 per person, but you can have an amazing meal here if you’re frugal, as well.”

Appetizers here range from $15 for the Lobster Bisque Soup to $18 for the Prince Edward Island Mussels. Seafood entrees range from $32 for the New Zealand Ora King Salmon to $46 for the AquaKnox Fish Soup, a Mediterranean tomato-saffron broth, with Maine lobster, John Dory, mussels, clams, prawns and Sardinian couscous.

AquaKnox Wine Tower.  Photo courtesy of AquaKnox.

AquaKnox Wine Tower. Photo courtesy of AquaKnox.

For land lubbers, the U.S.D.A. prime steaks are mesquite charcoal grilled, with shishito peppers, grilled onions and potato puree, with prices ranging from $49 for the 14 oz. New York Strip to $56 for the 20 oz. Bone-In Ribeye.

Vegetarians will find a nice selection of entrees, salads and sides.

On a recent evening, we sampled the Tuna Tartar “Gangnam Style,” ($18), which featured the taste of Korean chili vinaigrette, Asian pear sesame, shiso and tempura crunch, creating an interesting kick for the palate. For a salad, we had the Sweet Shrimp and Lump Crab ($18), which was served with a lovely combination of Asian greens, cantaloupe, and avocado with sesame-citrus vinaigrette.

When it comes to seafood, the New England John Dory ($45), served with lobster succotash, fava beans, sweet corn nage and summer truffle was superb. The fish was nicely done, and its slightly sweet accompaniments were wonderful. The Pacific Blue Prawns ($35), with golden pearl couscous, lobster cream, and cherry tomatoes in scampi garlic butter, was also delicious.

The dessert menu seemed a little pedestrian, compared to the rest of the menu, with standards like Ice Cream & Sorbets ($8) and Flourless Chocolate Cake ($12).

Service here is truly impeccable, with an attentive wait staff, and nice touches like getting warm towels after handling messy crab claws or lobster legs.

The nautical decor feels a little dated with blue portals (filled with bottles of liquor) behind the bar, and a dining room meant to evoke the feeling of sailing, with sheer drapery above the intimate booths that sway a little with the air conditioning. Menefee says a $1.5 million renovation is slated for next summer, which hopefully will retain the Wine Tower of 2,000 wine bottles at the entrance that doubles as a very private (and chilly) dining room for small parties.

For a quieter table, ask to be seated in the rear of the restaurant, where a peaceful looking curtain (made of intricate chains, patterned with aqua circles), separates diners from the open kitchen and the noise of Restaurant Row.

If you’re looking for a wonderful seafood meal in Vegas, AquaKnox is not to be missed.

For more information, check out on the Internet.

September 13, 2013

Intuitive shares insights into people’s lives

Posted in Between Us column, Spirituality, Women at 5:00 pm by dinaheng

Intuition is inside everyone, but we don’t always listen to what our inner knowing says to us. For Joan Marie Whelan, helping others to tap into their intuitive selves and heal at the core of their souls is a personal mission.

Whelan, who graduated from Lynchburg College in Lynchburg, Va. with a triple major in broadcast journalism, psychology and Spanish, was in a head-on car collision in her 20s that left her with severe anxiety attacks, short-term memory loss for six months, and a hairline fracture to her spine.Dinah Eng

“I was in physical therapy and cognitive development therapy for three years,” Whelan recalls. “The experience brought up every issue I had, and a fear of being out in the world, which was not who I was. I’d been an outgoing, adventurous person, yet I withdrew from the world for eight years. My body didn’t tolerate any medicines. I believe the accident happened so I could heal my soul at a deep level.”

Whelan began studying past life regression, inner child work, and the relationship between body, mind and spirit.

“I’m perfectly fine on the physical level now, after a very long journey,” says Whelan, 46, who resides in Sarasota, Fla. “Through it all, my intuition and awareness came full throttle. I could be standing next to someone, they wouldn’t say a word, and I could see everything going on in their head. I had to learn how to create a boundary between seeing people and going on with my own life.”

The intuitive woman went on to become a business intuitive coach, life coach and consultant for individuals, writing “Soul Discovery… 9 Principles for Revealing Your Sacred Gifts” ($24.95) — also available as a Kindle download for $9.48 — and “My Sacred Journal” ($21.95), a companion journal.

Whelan says she helps clients with emotional, physical and financial problems, encouraging them to grow and heal on deep levels by understanding their soul’s purpose.

“Everyone has the choice to open up their intuition,” Whelan says. “I’m a believer in meditation, listening to the highest manifestation of Divine Love, whatever that means to you. Your vibration is a like a light bulb, and it’s up to you to develop higher wattages.”

She notes that we are living today in a masculine society where the mind dominates, shutting down the feminine side of ourselves, which is heart-centered.

“A lot of people are not comfortable with their emotions, so they become fearful of their intuitive side,” Whelan says. “But intuition is your truth. It’s about seeing your greatest needs, and allowing them to be met.”

When it comes to working with businesses, Whelan’s clients may hire her to help identify the best people to work with on various projects.

Photo of Joan Marie Whelan by Joe Henson.

Photo of Joan Marie Whelan by Joe Henson.

“I helped to negotiate a $1.3 billion deal with a client who brought different companies together to pool their money to buy real estate and create other projects that would bring many new jobs to the economy,” Whelan says. “My client wanted to get the right people involved, so consulted with me on who was greedy, and who could be trusted.

“People didn’t know I was involved in any way. I do help people become multi-millionaires — but my goal is not to just help someone make money. My goal is to help people build a solid foundation, build a successful team, and come from a place of wholeness — not a place of greed, doing things only to make money.  If our only goal was to be rich in money, we would be very poor in spirit.”

When it comes to personal growth, Whelan says it’s important to honor the wholeness of who you are.

“So many people are bruised or hurt because of something someone said or did,” she says. “They go around striving externally to be something. Yet what you’re seeking to be is yourself. It’s tough not to feel unworthy in life. Being vulnerable is where the shame is dissolved. Becoming more intuitive and allowing ourselves to forgive others is what leads to our healing.”

She notes that there are many skeptics in the world who call intuitive people “crazy” or “witches,” but what critics are really doing is denying the innate wisdom within themselves to avoid facing their own fear of the unknown.

“Certainly, there are times when predictions don’t come true,” Whelan says. “We have free will, and sometimes, the timing of predictions are off because an individual might not be ready to have something happen. I’ve had people tell me I’m going to be married with kids for the last 10 years. So where is he?”

She laughs, adding, “Sometimes, we’re not supposed to see everything.”

For more information, check out on the Internet.

September 8, 2013

La Brea Tar Pits full of scientific wonder

Posted in Between Us column, Travel at 3:04 am by dinaheng

The bubble slowly rises from the dark slime, growing larger and larger, giving a graphic reminder that the Earth we live on is alive and kicking.

Here at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, visitors can still see what the land looked like 30,000 years ago, complete with native plants and fossils from the Ice Age in the Page Museum on its grounds.Dinah Eng

Researchers have figured out that hardy bacteria, embedded in the natural asphalt, are chewing away at the petroleum and burping up methane.  Underneath all that gunk, they’ve unearthed the bones of mammoths, saber-tooth cats, and more, making the area the richest late-Pleistocene site in North America.

The natural asphalt acts as a preservative, so the tar has preserved fossils ranging in age from 11,000 to 40,000 years old, explains Ashley Fragomeni, gallery interpreter at the Page Museum.

“Back in 1913, the Hancock family had an asphalt mining base here, used for paving,” Fragomeni says. “As workers were digging, they found lots of bones that were determined to be Ice Age fossils. Researchers from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County came in and dug 96 pits. The oil field, which is 1,500 feet below us, accounts for the preservation of what we’ve found.”

The Hancock family donated the land to the County of Los Angeles, and today, paleontologists from the Page Museum continue to excavate the site, discovering new things every day.

If you walk through the museum, you’ll not only see an extensive collection of Ice Age land animal fossils, you can watch researchers in the Fishbowl Laboratory, cleaning the bones found in the tar pits.

“From selective carbon dating, we know that not all the deposits formed at the same time,” explains Shelley Cox, laboratory manager at the  museum. “We’ve found large bones, like a saber-tooth cat hip bone, and small things, like freshwater snails, beetle leg segments and a mouse toe in the sediment.”

The big specimen in the lab, affectionately dubbed Zed, is a 35,000-year-old Columbian mammoth, whose  skull sits in a plastic jacket in the lab, oil still leaking from the bone into the soil around it.

“There were lots of freshwater snail shells around him, so one possibility is that he may have washed here in a river,” Cox notes. “We know he was in his late 40s, early 50s, when he died — from the teeth — in elephant years. He was a robust individual who would have had 12 to 15 years to go if he hadn’t stepped in a tar pit.”

Excavation site at La Brea Tar Pits.  Photo by Dinah Eng

Excavation site at La Brea Tar Pits. Photo by Dinah Eng

Behind the scenes, researchers and volunteers are digging away in sheltered excavation pits on the grounds, explains Aisling B. Farrell, collections manager for Rancho La Brea, who notes that “the typical LaBrea asphalt deposit is jumbled with bones. We use dental picks to dig them out.”

While you can’t watch them work, you can visit the viewing station at Pit 91, where you can see one of the sites that was excavated, with goo still bubbling up to the surface.

Don’t worry about stepping into the muck, though. The museum’s grounds are immaculately landscaped.  If you walk around the Lake Pit, though, you might just see a life-sized mammoth family and American mastodon.

For more information on the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, check out