Christy Tennant

Christy Tennant is a writer and musician who also still acts every once in a while. She has contributed to Discipleship Journal, Pray, Bible Study Magazine, and Comment, and she blogs on ConversantLife.com. She holds (loosely) credits at two different colleges, which she hopes will not expire before she manages to graduate, probably in her next life. She takes the Staten Island ferry several times a week to get to her job on staff with International Arts Movement and lives in "the forgotten borough" with her dog, cat and a steady stream of visitors. You can read/hear/see more at www.christytennant.com.

The Forecast: A Counterfeit Memoir
About Everything You Know is True

“Religious novels make me uncomfortable, so I decided not to write one.”

So reads the first page of Caroline Ferdinandsen’s first novel, The Forecast, available this month from Conversant Media Group. Usually, when any form of media starts out with this type of disclaimer, I am immediately biased against it. Many people who call themselves evangelical Christians are falling all over themselves these days to deny that they are religious.

Honestly, I’m a little sick of it, because usually it’s not true. In fact, it has been my experience that the people who say they’re not religious are among the most religious; they’re religious about not being religious. It’s exhausting. Me thinks thou dost protest too much echoes through the cavern between my ears.

Any misgivings were quickly dismissed, however, as soon as I got into the first chapter. In The Forecast, Ms. Ferdinandsen has succeeded in crafting an alluring tale. The protagonist, Willow Clandon, is a 33-year-old wife and mother, active in her church and community and, by all accounts, devoted to her husband and children. However, Willow is engaged in an internal heart-battle common to many women. While her husband is toiling away all day at a job he loves, sharing jokes and meals out with his co-workers, Willow is overseeing potty training and homework. While Conner is being mentally stimulated and promoted, Willow is brokering sibling spats and failing to achieve perfection as a homemaker. Her marriage to Conner is predictable and their communication is shallow. In short, Willow’s discontentment, boredom, and curiosity are the perfect setup for a modern tragedy.

I am not a married mother in her thirties, but I know many women who are some variation of the consummate “soccer mom.” I have heard confessions of fantasies including everything from flirting with a co-worker to getting in the car and leaving everything – husband, children, house, church, life. The drama of middle-class lukewarm boredom is played out in homes all across America, and this book explores what happens when one such woman gets too close to the fire of temptation.

As the title suggests, each chapter is headlined with a weather forecast, which Ferdinandsen effectively uses to foreshadow the twists and turns of this engaging story. As the drama unfolds, there are many instances when the reader is totally swept into the narrative. Ferdinandsen’s strongest trait as a writer is that she is an excellent storyteller, and while the specific details of her novel’s characters are unique to them, most readers will identify strongly with them on some level.

Going back and forth between childhood memories and present-day circumstances, Willow’s life arouses both empathy and disdain. I predict that for some, reading The Forecast will enable them to experience vicariously through Willow a fantasy that many women have. However, thanks to Ferdinandsen’s mature spiritual insight, they will also experience the fallout from realizing that fantasy, which is what makes this book so important. Many will identify with her, and upon seeing themselves in her story, will be horrified at what they see, both in Willow, and in themselves.

Occasionally, when I am reading a novel where characters face a strong temptation to do something truly dangerous, I experience frequent adrenaline rushes as I read faster, willing the character to walk away. (Sometimes I act like my grandmother when she’s watching her soaps, and talk to the characters aloud. Don’t go there, I say. Don’t take another step! Turn around! Walk away! Flee! Flee! Flee!) It happened while I was reading A Thousand Splendid Suns and The Poisonwood Bible, and it happened while I was reading The Forecast. The temptation creeps up, and with each page the character moves closer and closer to it. Everything in you wants her to repent, and eventually . . . well, you’ll have to read it to find out what happens. Far be it from me to ruin the surprise.

The Forecast is everything you want a novel to be. Ferdinandsen gives us a cast of well-developed characters whom readers will grow to love, despise, judge, and root for, all at the same time. The story will make readers consider their own way of life, and their way of dealing with their own “weather forecasts.” The journey depicted in the Clandon family is true, painful, redemptive, messy, hopeful, costly, and timeless; readers will know themselves, and possibly God, a bit better by the final page.

The book’s introduction foreshadows the main character’s journey perfectly:

Things were never very sunny until the day I lost my hand… But when the tree branch crashed through the ceiling of heaven during a downpour, snapping both of our limbs in one sick, sovereign gesture, the skies opened up and I found out the world was bright again. Now when I pray, it looks like I’m giving God a high-five. It was the first of many tragedies to rearrange the atmosphere. I watch the sky now for surprises, for the anticipation of salvation, for the beauty of dark, gathering clouds.

If you are still looking for a great summer read, The Forecast by Caroline Ferdinandsen should be on your list.


The Forecast: A Counterfeit Memoir About Everything You Know by Caroline Ferdinandsen is available July 2009 from Conversant Media Group.

A Novice’s Approach to Viewing Art
and Thrust Projects’ UNHEIM


A view of UNHEIM,
currently on view at Thrust Projects in New York City.
See more views here.

I recently concluded that looking at art is a lot like visiting Staten Island: it really helps to have a guide. Like Staten Island, art does not disclose its secret loveliness to the casual tourist, breezing through the gallery like a Brooklynite through Staten Island en route to the Jersey Shore. To learn to appreciate art – or Staten Island, for that matter – one needs a docent, a guide who knows the lay of the land. I am a docent for Staten Island, but when it comes to art, I need help.

Through my work with International Arts Movement, I have the benefit of knowing many artists and creative catalysts who are willing to give of their time and expertise to help me grow in my approach to viewing art. I have no background in the visual arts, but friends like Mako Fujimura, Dan Siedell, Alison Stigora, Jay Walker and many others have taken time to patiently guide and instruct me in the art of viewing art.

(In addition to these conversations, Fujimura’s books River Grace and Refractions, and Siedell’s book God in the Gallery have been tremendously helpful.)

I have developed for myself an approach to viewing art that makes my trips to galleries and museums a source of delight and stimulation. I hope that, by sharing it here, I might help my fellow art novices have a more meaningful experience the next time they visit an exhibition.

First, I’ve learned that it is important to go into a show humbly. Decide before you walk in the door that you are not going to make quick judgments or dismissals of the works. I find that this is especially important with a lot of modern and contemporary art, which can often give a pedestrian primacy bias. (Warhol’s Soup Cans, for example, might have this effect. It’s easy to think you’re seeing it immediately.) Artists have spent time, energy, contemplation, and resources to create what you are about to see, and curators are deeply invested in what they place on the walls of their spaces. Give them the benefit of the doubt. I was that person who would actually say, aloud, while gazing at a late Jackson Pollock, “I’m not impressed. I could do that. What’s the big deal?”

Listen to me when I say that this is the height of arrogance. Don’t say that. Don’t ever say that.

The second point follows closely on the first: take your time. Do not meander quickly through a gallery or museum and think you have seen the art. If you have meandered quickly, you have not seen the art. Rather, stop in front of the work and gaze – gaze – at the work. Let your eyes rest on the piece for at least a few minutes. Scan it. Stare at it. Tilt your head to the side and stare at it again from a different angle. As in tasting fine wine, swishing the wine around your mouth and across your taste buds, viewing art requires giving your eyes some swishing time. Your eyes are your taste buds when it comes to art. Swish away.

Also, while I encourage people to attend exhibition openings, it is important to point out that the opening of a show is not the time when you will look at, or have a meaningful experience with, the art. The opening is for celebrating the artist. If you want to see the art, go back another day.

Thirdly, make notes. Bring a small notebook and note what you see. For me, this starts with noting the obvious. At my recent visit to Thrust Projects gallery, for example, where I viewed the current UNHEIM exhibition, I wrote in my notebook while standing in front of Valentin Hirsch‘s works on paper, “Elephants. Broken tusks. Multiple trunks. Realistic, but not real. Split, motion, splash. Precise. Landscapes. Mirror image of life and death. Black cloud. Black rain. Tragedy.”

I was describing what I was actually seeing on the paper. Looking at Daniel Domig‘s work in the same exhibition, I wrote, “Human images. Various details – some details, some amoebic. Copulating. Boxing. Violence. Human and skeleton dancing? No, having sex against a wall. Shrouded head. Woman performing fellatio on a man’s very large – phallic – nose, as an idea in a man’s head. Erotic. Uncomfortable.”

On the Subject

• UNHEIM, featuring works on paper by Valentin Hirsch and Daniel Domig, runs May 29-July 19, 2009, at Thrust Projects, 114 Bowery, Suite 301 in New York City. For more information, visit www.thrustprojects.com.

‚Ä¢ See a previous Curator article on Daniel Domig’s work.

This is not yet getting into what the work is saying. This is just what I am seeing. But as I wrote what I saw, I began to “see” more. Getting beyond the obvious discernible images, I began to draw some conclusions (which may or may not be what the artist intended, but by this point the artist is no longer in the picture; it’s about the art itself and the viewer’s experience of that art, or so Dan Siedell tells me.)

The last thing I do during a gallery visit is to walk back through the art one last time and do word association, writing down every word that comes to mind as I view the art. It was during this stage of my time with UNHEIM that the collaboration between two very different artists came together in a unified way: the words I was associating with each of their work were the same. Surreal… destruction… violence… haunting… tragedy… conflict… struggle… These words describe the “story” I “read” during my visit with both Domig and Hirsch’s work.

At this point, I have engaged with the art on a deep level. I am ready to describe my experience. The story I read went something like this:

The work is deeply disturbing. Hirsch’s work makes me think of how elephants are so regal and strong, yet vulnerable. The landscapes remind me of Africa, and the poaching of elephants going on there. This reminds me of the bigger issues facing global humanity, where the stewarding of the land that was mandated in Genesis 1 and 2 has become badly perverted. Looking at one particular portrait of an elephant head, drawn very regally, but with broken tusks and eyes that are indiscernible, lost to shadows, I was stirred to sadness, in the same way I am when I see an elephant in a circus. This was not what elephants were created for. They were made to be kings; instead, we have made them clowns. These pieces speak to me of destruction and tragedy. But Hirsch is not talking about elephants here. Elephants are a metaphor for something else, I’m sure. As I think further about the kings/clowns idea, I think of humanity. Is humanity what it was created to be? Not by a long shot. We were made in God’s image to be kings and queens. Instead, we are clowns. Worse, we are slaves.

Domig’s work is likewise evocative of sadness and longing, but not in quite the same way. In his work, there is a wrestling match between reality and the psyche. Some images remind me of a passage in the Bible, where St. Paul says, “Who will save me from this body of death?” There is a sense of being weighed down by an unseen burden, or enslaved by something intangible, yet very real. I see in many of the images a clear man, a central character of the piece, but with ideas or fantasies or struggles that inhibit him from being fully alive. He, too, is a slave, perhaps to his past, or to his memories, or to his unfettered animal instincts that threaten to dehumanize him. He is haunted by something he can’t quite shake.

Both artists’ work caused me to think deeply about the human condition – and not just humanity in general, but my own humanity. Am I living as the royalty I was created to be? Or am I living as a slave? Do I have a monkey on my back, or have I managed to throw aside everything that has entangled me? Do I continue to dance with a “body of death,” or do I take my thoughts and imagination captive to that which is good, true, and beautiful?

Viewing art is a very personal experience, if you will let it be so. But like many vessels of beauty or truth, there is no Reader’s Digest version. Without spending time with the work, you might walk gaily through the gallery, muttering to yourself “I don’t get it,” because you simply didn’t give the art an opportunity to give “it” to you. I spent nearly two hours with approximately thirty small works on paper, and the experience I had was profound. What a gift art is, if we will receive it as such.

The Dehumanization of
Sasha Grey


Adult film star Sasha Grey is appearing in Steven Soderbergh’s
The Girlfriend Experience, which opens this month.

Until last week, I had never heard of Sasha Grey; but, apparently, her star is on the rise. According to the May 14, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone, this 21-year-old is the “adult industry’s reigning princess of porn.”

And Grey has a message to young women: “It’s okay to be a slut. You don’t have to be ashamed. People think that young women can’t understand sex, that there will be consequences for our actions, but we can be as analytical as anyone.”

I wonder if Grey has analyzed consequences like – oh, I don’t know – infertility, perihepatitis, septic arthritis, septic abortion, and complications during pregnancy and blindness? Those are some of the consequences of being infected by gonorrhea (she’s caught it twice) and chlamydia (she’s caught it once)? Mmmmmm, that’s sexy.

That’s also a lot of sexually transmitted disease for anyone, let alone a girl barely out of her teenage years. Displaying an astounding ignorance, Grey says that catching an STD is “like getting the common cold.” Lucky for her, she has “a good enough reputation” that she can “demand tests” from her onscreen partners. (I do wonder, though, whether she is aware that some of the most serious STDs can go undetected for months, while still being communicable?)

Could it be that people think that there will be consequences for their actions because, well, there are consequences for our actions?

It’s hard to know who is ultimately to blame for the dehumanization of Sasha Grey, but certainly Rolling Stone is now at least partly implicated. And while I have never looked at Rolling Stone to be a moral compass for culture, with this piece, they have reached an all-time low.

Rolling Stone, you should be ashamed of yourself.

Speaking of moral compasses, there is a great irony in the magazine’s decision to run this article. The cover story for this issue, “Bob Dylan’s America,” features an artist who is arguably the antithesis of Sasha Grey. Says Dylan:

“I like the morality thing. People talk about it all the time. Some say you can’t legislate morality. Well, maybe not. But morality has gotten kind of a bad rap. In Roman thought, morality is broken down into basically four things: wisdom, justice, moderation and courage. All of these are the elements that would make up the depth of a person’s morality. And then that would dictate the types of behavior patterns you’d use to respond in any given situation.”

And then, a few pages later, there’s the article on Sasha Grey, where there is no wisdom, justice, moderation or courage to be found.

At 21, Grey thinks she is in control of her life. Little does she realize that she is but a pawn in a chess game where the kings are porn producers (who can’t move very far in any one direction, but wield too much power) and the queens are journalists-without-consciences who sweep carelessly across the board, writing more for shock value than for the good of humanity.

The journalist who presents the porn-star-as-feminist-hero contributes more to the destruction of humanity than customers of porn, and everyone knows that the producers who are making a mint off her will forget Sasha Grey as quickly as you can say “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome” (which is just as easy to contract as gonorrhea, but unlike gonorrhea, is impossible to cure and can go undetected for months).

Third-wave feminism, be damned!

This article is one of the most irresponsible pieces of journalism I have ever seen. Like the “journalism” of Nazi Germany circa 1935, which convinced good people that killing Jews was good and right and helpful to society, porn propaganda sends a consistent, subtle message to otherwise decent human beings that watching someone perform violent sex acts on film – and even by porn standards, Grey is considered “vulgar” and “aggressive” – is pretty much harmless, and is in fact empowering for women.

Tell that to the woman married to the man addicted to porn. Tell that to the wife whose husband’s appetite for violence in bed leaves her feeling degraded and dehumanized. Tell that to the woman who cannot satisfy her husband any longer, because he wants her to do things she simply cannot do without losing her own humanity.

In her article, author Vanessa Grigoriadis calls Grey’s frankness about her business sense, self-awareness, and choices “appealing” saying, “Though she says it a bit too loudly, she has me convinced that she is not a victim.” To which I say, You, madam, have been snowed.

Of course Sasha Grey is a victim who is blind to the fact that she is the product of a broken system built by demented individuals who are using her now, but will forget her in no time flat. I predict that like most of us, by the time she’s thirty, Sasha Grey will be second-guessing her youthful indiscretions. And then she will be left to live with her memories.

In a shocking and horrifying revelation, Grigoriadis says that the idea of Ms. Grey being relegated to an office job (as opposed to living out her destiny as a porn star) is just as tragic as a sorority girl “trapped” in a dorm room with a boyfriend who expects her to “act like Grey,” who is known for her sadomasochistic practices from which people have died – choking, for example.

Are you kidding me?

The world cannot be both Bob Dylan’s, which celebrates morality, and Sasha Grey’s, which despises it. This is not a yin and yang type of situation. The two cannot peacefully coexist. Both are not right. One or the other has to give.

Which leads me to the conclusion that Rolling Stone is insincere and duplicitous, and doesn’t give a rip about the message it massages into the minds of its readers. From what I read in this piece, Rolling Stone would like its readers to believe that Sasha Grey is a hero to be admired. From what I read in this piece, Rolling Stone would like its readers to believe that it is possible to have violent, degrading, dehumanizing sex on camera and feel empowered, rather than ashamed.

To which I say: Rolling Stone, you are publishing dangerous lies.

In fact, you know what? The Emperor is not wearing any clothes, and Sasha Grey is not a hero to be admired. She is a tragic individual to be pitied and prayed for.

Ten Things To Do During the
Recession Besides Getting a Nose Job

In early April, the front of AM New York, the free paper I read on the days I commute to Manhattan, bore this headline: “From NO JOB to NOSE JOB.” The accompanying image was a beautiful woman whose face was marked up with dotted lines and arrows, a blueprint of sorts for the construction project to come.

The premise of the article was that there is an increasing number of people in today’s economy who are getting plastic surgery in order to compete for jobs. Afraid of being passed over for a younger applicant, both men and women are hoping that a little nip and tuck will increase their likelihood of getting hired.

While I can certainly appreciate the unfortunate plight of the recently unemployed mid-lifer, this is horrifying to me. Feelings about plastic surgery for vanity’s sake aside, I am troubled simply because this is a lie. People are not more likely to get hired by having plastic surgery. I happen to know a dirty little secret that HR professionals don’t want you to know: though hiring managers are not supposed to consider (or even know) a potential candidate’s age, they have very simple ways of finding out. Plastic surgeons have duped desperate clients into spending thousands of dollars they don’t have for procedures that are not going to fool anybody.

How do I know this, you ask? At more than one time in my life, I worked closely with the HR departments of a few large corporations. I participated in several grueling hiring processes, and I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt: if your age matters to them, they will find out how old you are. You will not know that they know, but they will know. From the simple act of verifying that you graduated from college (“Why yes, I can verify that Ms. Jones graduated with her BA in 1977.”), to Googling your name, to tracing your employment history, your age is as much a secret as Eliot Spitzer’s sex life. You like to think it’s all behind you, but you ain’t fooling anybody.

I beg you: don’t take the bait. If you are one of the desperate forty-somethings who is considering plastic surgery in hopes that it will hide your true age and increase your hireability, listen to me now: you are mistaken. Trust me. They will know how old you are, and they will figure out that you’ve tried to hide it, and they will be even less likely to hire you (no one wants to hire someone who begins their professional relationship by trying to pull a fast one).

So, with that said, what are some of the things you could do during your season of unemployment instead of having plastic surgery? I’m so glad you asked. Here are a few of my suggestions:

1. Take advantage of Facebook.
For networking? Heck no! I’m talking about all those great personality tests and “should” tests (like “I should be named Shakkataneeya,” or “I should have been a lion tamer”). People pay big fees for such life advice, and now, thanks to Facebook, you can find out whether you should have had that third child or not. Sooooo helpful as you contemplate your job search (might want to cross “daycare worker” off the potential job list, for example).

2. Start exercising. If your desire is to look younger, why not try the old-fashioned approach of actually getting into good shape? With all the time you have on your hands for plastic surgery and recovery, you could be Zumba-ing your way to S-E-X-Y (or at least Y-O-U-N-G-E-R) in no time flat!

3. Go back to school.
That way, when you’re applying for new jobs, you can truthfully sell yourself as a “student,” and to most people, student = young (and ambitious). Also, hanging around a bunch of co-eds makes you feel younger. A couple of years ago, I took a 200-level course and hung out with “kids” fifteen years my junior. They assured me that I did not look or act my age. I took that to be a good thing.

4. Start your own company.
Everyone knows it’s harder to get a job when you’re unemployed. Solve the problem of gaps in your employment history by being a little entrepreneurial. Doing what, you ask? It doesn’t matter! Just make a business card, give yourself a title (Chief Founding Officer of Operations and All Things Important, for example), and you’re all set.

5. Increase your word power.
Actually being smart is way more important than looking young. Check out Dictionary.com’s Word of the Day and start peppering your conversation with such locutions as feckless or sanguine. That way, when you do get an interview, you can say something like, “I was feeling rather feckless in my efforts to find a new job, but then I got your e-mail inviting me to come in for this interview, and now I am back to my old sanguine self!”

6. Volunteer somewhere.
Remember that time you said that you were so busy with work that you didn’t have time to “give back to society?” Well, it’s time to pay up. Perhaps you can tutor at an after school program for high-risk kids, or offer professional advice to women in a welfare-to-work program. Homeless shelters, churches, and food pantries always need help. Don’t be shy. It’s always a good idea to sow good seeds in life. I just spoke with someone who got laid off last fall. He started volunteering at the non-profit his mom works for, and last week, he was offered a paying gig there.

7. Go to museums. Rather than becoming some plastic surgeon’s piece of art, check out actual works of art. Every town has at least one art or history museum (if my hometown of Clawson, Michigan had one, your town has one – guaranteed). It’s a lot cheaper and less painful, and you will feel more inspired looking at a beautiful painting than looking at your own face after it’s come out from under the knife/needle.

8. Visit the elderly. You want to feel younger? Want to feel better about yourself? Visit people living in a nursing home. Suddenly, you will have some healthy perspective on what really matters in life, not to mention the joy you will get from seeing the toothless grin of a man or woman delighted to have someone to talk with.

9. Take the vacation you’ve been thinking about. It’s a sure-fire way to get called for an interview. You’ll have to cut your trip short, of course, because Murphy’s Law never fails, but there ya go – you want to get called in, right? Go out of town. You’ll get called.

10. Invite a friend who is at least ten years older than you to accompany you to your interview. You won’t need surgery to look younger. Perspective is everything – if you’re sitting in the lobby beside someone who is older, you will look younger and more energetic by comparison. It’s just a fact.

There you have it – ten things to do during the recession that are way better ideas than getting a nose/cheek/brow/chin/butt job. Will these guarantee employment? No. But, honey, niether will that Botox. And these suggestions are so much more fun than going under the knife.

Nielsen Festival Seeks to
Rehumanize Piano Competitions

If playing the piano were an Olympic event, the kids in the Vladimir Nielsen Piano Festival would be among the top contenders. The Nielsen Festival and Foundation brings promising young pianists from all over the world to Long Island each summer. These students live together for one month, practicing on one of the grand pianos provided by Steinway and Sons, official sponsor of the Festival. Each week in August, the community is invited to a recital given by the students, culminating with a gala concert and clambake on the final week. Through the Nielsen Piano Festival, the Long Island community is exposed to the joys and wonders of pre-college-aged pianists.

At the heart of the Festival is the artistic legacy and teaching philosophy of the great twentieth-century pianist Vladimir Nielsen, whose life was deeply connected to the musical culture of Russia, especially to the city of St. Petersburg. The Festival provides an opportunity for aspiring and highly talented piano students to pursue intense music studies in a friendly, nurturing, family environment.

For both the domestic and international students, the Nielsen Festival is a once-in-a-lifetime cross-cultural opportunity. Since its inception two short years ago, children have come from China, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Georgia, Canada, Persia, and all over the United States to take part. Ranging in age from eleven to eighteen years old (with an occasional college-aged young adult in the mix), the students are encouraged and supported in their pursuits of musical excellence. Indeed, musical excellence is a top priority for participants in the Nielsen Festival.

However, it is not the only priority. Rob and Ali Maimone, founders of the Nielsen Festival, believe in a second bottom line, in which the humanity of each unique child is cherished, as well as their performing prowess. “Performance is a high priority, but not higher than each child’s heart and experience of childhood.” Like the Olympics, where children are singled out at an early age for their superior promise in the area of sports, many children who are identified for their musical talents early on are cut off from the carefree experience of a typical childhood.

While many children get up at 7:00 in the morning, down a bowl of Cap’n Crunch and race out the door to catch the school bus, competitive musicians are not quite so carefree. Often as early as fourth grade, they maintain grueling practice schedules along with regular schoolwork and studies. Depending on their academic environment, students in the Nielsen Festival put in several hours of practice each day – more if they are preparing for a competition. Matthew Maimone, Rob and Ali’s son, is homeschooled. “During a competition season, Matthew might practice up to eight hours a day, six or even seven days a week,” says Rob. For kids who are in school, their days begin at 6:00 or 6:30 a.m. After school, they do homework, then two to four hours of practice just to maintain their skills.

According to Rob Maimone, “most of them enjoy it… but sometimes the kids are pressured by their families.” In fact, Maimone points out that to be a serious and competitive musician, the whole family is involved. “The level of time commitment and financial investment is great… you’re doing this together (with the whole family).” Part of the second bottom line for the administrators of the Nielsen Festival and Foundation is to foster the unique personalities of each student, helping them to be seen as more than just child prodigies. They want the children to also feel like… well, children. While competitive musicians often do not experience a typical childhood, the Nielsen Festival environment is geared toward making sure the children have fun in addition to all their hard work.

The Nielsen Festival and Foundation not only serves students once they are here in the United States, but also helps both the international students and their parents get the necessary travel and student visas to come. Partnering with educational institutions, the Nielsen Festival and Foundation works on the whole scope of bringing students and their families to the United States. They also help internationals with transitional and cross-cultural needs.

Another interesting dynamic the Nielsen Festival deals with is the challenge of fostering a healthy spirit of competition. While they want the kids in the Festival to be motivated to do their best, Rob Maimone says that they also want to help students “rejoice in the success of others.”

“The more they are taught and exposed to the values we hold, we see that the embodiment of love provides comfort. The children are freer to relax in that environment,” says Maimone. “They still work very hard, but their identity is not based solely in performance.”

At a recent Nielsen Festival recital, held one freezing night in February at the National Arts Club at Gramercy Park, the unique personalities of each student shone through their exceptional performances. They all seemed fairly mild-mannered and unassuming until they hit the keys. Then we saw the excellent technique, confidence, and showmanship each has developed. More than anything, each student appeared to enjoy him/herself and genuinely want to be there. “We work hard to create a nurturing and loving environment,” says Rob. “We do not want these kids to feel exploited in any way.”

For competitions, the students in the Nielsen Festival are mentored and taught by top Julliard teachers, including Festival Co-Founder and Artistic Director Victoria Mushkatkol. An internationally recognized teacher, Ms. Mushkatkol was on the faculties at the Interlochen Arts Academy and the Oberlin Conservatory. She has performed at, and taught in, numerous summer festivals, including the Puigcerda International Festival in Spain, the Festival Soesterberg in The Netherlands, the Taiwan Music Festival in Taipei, the Hamptons’ Pianofest in New York, the Piano Master Classes in Prague, Czech Republic; the Julliard-in-Korea Summer Festival Casual Classics, the Eastern Music Festival in North Carolina, the International Conservatory Week in St.Petersburg, Russia; and more. She is currently on the faculty of The Pre-College Division of The Julliard School.

Rob Maimone hopes that the students in the Nielsen Festival will develop, above all, integrity, loyalty, honesty, dedication, and selflessness. Through mentoring not only students, but their families as well, and through fostering a culture of generosity within their small summer community, the Maimones and Ms. Mushkatkol hope that their students will feel cared for, informed, and served.

The Vladimir Nelson Piano Festival will include recitals on August 1, 8, and 15, with a Concert Gala on August 22 (including a clambake following the performance). All performances are at 64 Laurel Trail in Sag Harbor, NY. If you are interested in supporting the work of the Nielsen Festival and Foundation, or for more information, visit www.nielsenfest.com.

Does Professional Journalism Matter Anymore?

A couple of weeks ago, a plane landed on the Hudson River, just a stone’s throw from where I was sitting at Space 38|39. I did not learn about it from CNN or MSNBC. I found out about the “Miracle on the Hudson” from Facebook, just minutes after it happened. My friend Peter’s status read, “Did a plane really just land on the Hudson?” and I immediately went to work trying to find out what he was talking about.

I went to all of the news sites I trust – CNN.com, NY1.com, MSNBC.com, and even NPR.org – to get the story, but none of them had anything about a plane landing on the Hudson. Finally, about an hour later, there it was, on all of these sites – complete with live video streams. But the scoop was on Facebook long before it was on any of these professional news sites. I learned about the Miracle on the Hudson from a minister sitting in his living room in Corona, NY.

Interestingly, just two days prior to this extraordinary event, I attended a dinner at the Harvard Club sponsored by the Committee of Concerned Journalists. The evening was centered on a panel discussion moderated by journalist and living legend Tom Brokaw on “lessons from an historic campaign.” The august panel included Nina Totenberg (NPR), Dan Balz (The Washington Post), Dean Baquest (The New York Times), and several others who have been covering the world’s news for decades, and one of the main points that kept coming up again and again throughout the evening was the changing face of journalism. Several times, the question was posed or intimated, does journalism, as we’ve known it since pre-Facebook days, still matter?

I had decided to attend this event at the last minute; I’ve been a member of the CCJ for several years, but rarely do I get to actually go to their functions, and I wasn’t even sure whether I belonged at this event. After all, I am not a real journalist; in fact, I like to say I’m an “accidental journalist.” Like a surprise pregnancy, my journalism career “just sorta happened,” but when I saw my first byline, a tiny little heartbeat on the ultrasound of a budding career, I was in love. Of course, I’m generally covering faith and artsy cultural things, like noteworthy leaders in the Christian community or photography exhibition openings. Politics is not my bag, and I wrote very little about November’s historic election (a few blog posts notwithstanding).

Still, the invitation came, and I felt curious. So I went. And I discovered upon entering the very crowded cocktail hour that I had been correct: I did not belong there. I perused the framed and autographed political cartoons up for auction (to benefit the CCJ) and had one very poignant conversation with a man in a suit and tie that went something like this:

(Me) “Where’d you manage to score that glass of wine?”
(Him) “Right over there.”
(Me) “Thanks.”

I sat down and checked my email about thirty-five times on my iPhone, trying to look like I was a very serious journalist on deadline (I was, in fact, typing on my friend Frank’s wall). The truth was, I did have a hard deadline, but my research was over and it was time to actually be sitting at my laptop writing, not scanning through my inbox on my iPhone at an event I really should not have been attending.

When they finally dimmed the lights – our cue to move into the banquet hall – I was so relieved; this was why I had come. My table was filled with fascinating people with long legacies in politics and journalism, and I enjoyed hearing them dish the inside scoop on the Madoff scam, foreign relations, and of course the election. A few times I got to give some input and I was delighted (and surprised) by how much I actually knew about these topics. (Though I admit, there were a few times where I pulled the old, “well, you know when he… yeah…” Nodding, wide-eyed, eyebrows raised, waiting for my counterpart to fill in the blanks and then, when he did, followed up with, “…exactly…”

Works every time.

The meal was delicious (mmmm, crab cakes), and as I was sipping my second cup of decaf, the lights once again dimmed in the banquet hall, and the panel discussion began. Tom Brokaw did a great job as moderator (I took notes, since moderating is one of my roles at IAM). The panelists went in several different directions, even, at times, disagreeing with him (like the time Tom Brokaw made the statement that “all reporting is investigative journalism to some extent” and then Dean Baquet took the microphone and said, “I totally disagree.” That was fun.)

Throughout the evening, I sensed a simmering discomfort beneath the surface of much of the conversation I heard. Those whose careers have been built on the tried and true elements of journalism are now frightfully aware that their skills may be irrelevant if they’re not first on the scene. It is getting harder and harder to be the first to report the news, because whichever Tom, Dick or Harry is closest by when news happens is going to scoop even the most ardent first-responders in the media with his cell phone images and Tweets.

The face of journalism is not just changing; it has changed. And from what I could see that night at the Harvard Club, the pros are aware that there is no more “business as usual.” In the old days, reporters showed up at newsworthy events or press conferences with a notebook and pencil. Now we have digital voice recorders, video cameras, and cell phones. We can research stories in seconds, thanks to Google and online archives. We can post our stories within seconds of the event happening, assuming we have the freedom from our editors to do so.

Of course, while we’re running spell check, Joe Blogspot is liveblogging in the corner, and by the time Professional Reporter has run his piece online, Joe has already blown their punch line on his personal post.

But with all this said, it is still vital for journalists to be there, fleshing out stories, getting the bigger picture, researching backgrounds, even if they’re not breaking the news. Even though I had already moved on to other news by the time all of the “Miracle on the Hudson” stories emerged in mainstream press, it was good to get some more specifics about the captain of the plane and the survivors on NPR’s Morning Report. As a frequent flier, it matters to me why the plane went down, and it will take good journalism to discover whether it was really a collision with an unfortunate flock of low-flying geese or something more sinister. If US Airways is letting planes with bum engines take off, I want to know about it. I am counting on journalists to let me know whether I can trust US Air; their reporting will influence my comfort level the next time the pilot tells the flight attendants to “prepare for takeoff.”

So back to the big question: is professional journalism obsolete?

Not by a long shot. The world still needs real journalists, but not necessarily to report the news first. People with iPhones just might start taking over that responsibility. But it will still fall to journalists to get the full story, and to report the meat of the matter. All I learned from Facebook was that a plane had landed on the Hudson. But an hour later, on a major news web site, I learned that all of the passengers had made it to safety, that they thought it was caused by birds flying into the engine, and that Capt. Sully was a highly respected pilot and, in general, salt of the earth type of guy. These are things the public wants to know.

At the Harvard Club, the general consensus was that the face of journalism is, indeed, changing, but the people who mattered – the big guns of the evening – did not seem scared in the least. In fact, they seemed totally at ease with the fact that their professional lives as they knew them were in flux. I think true journalists thrive on flux. Journalists are some of the most creative, innovative, resourceful people I know.

Gone are the days when the public would first hear the news from the six o’clock network news. Gone are the days of superstars anchoring the eleven o’clock p.m. hour. Instead, news is flowing 24/7, and with everything that is happening in the world, the world needs people to tell them about what is happening.

The whole story of what is happening.

And that is, and will always be, the responsibility of those who bear the title of “journalist,” a breed of professionals the world will always need.

Top Ten Reasons Real Books
Are Better Than e-Books

The Amazon Kindle and iPhone apps like Stanza are beginning to make inroads in the e-Book market. But nothing will ever really replace paper books. Why, you ask?

10. No need to wait until the pilot gives you permission to use personal electronic devices.
9. It’s OK if you forget to charge your real book.
8. Unwrapping a download is so anti-climactic.
7. Speaking of which, it’s hard to wrap a download.
6. Eye strain caused by too-small font is way better than eye strain caused by too-few pixels.
5. You’d look silly burying your head in your iPhone.
4. Real books give you tactile pleasure; e-Books give you carpel tunnel.
3. You can’t judge an e-Book by its cover (because it doesn’t have one)
2. A real book will dry out and still be functional if you accidentally drop it in the toilet.
1. Curling up with a cup of tea and your e-Book reader is completely uninviting.

Green Ogres and Other
Unfortunate Trends on Broadway

New York City. The culture capital of the world. If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere. New York City is where it’s at, because when New York sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold.

Yet, as I walk from the subway to my office a few blocks from Times Square, I see billboards that make me shake my head in utter dejection for the “culture” we are putting out. Am I referring to the lingerie models twelve stories high? No. How about the nauseating ad campaign for last season’s Gossip Girl, depicting teenagers in the throes of hot, mind-blowing sex (complete with the tag lines “OMFG” and “Every Parent’s Nightmare”)? Ironically, this is not what has my knickers in a knot today.

As sorry as I am to see such a lack of creativity in Hollywood that producers are resorting to really awful television revivals (like the embarrassing latest incarnation of Beverly Hills 90120), I’m lamenting a different unfortunate trend as I read the NY Times and wander past the billboards in Times Square.

I’m actually talking about Broadway.

My first love. The Great White Way. The place where the rubber hits the road for actors. Broadway was once the pasture where the sheep of the stage were distinguished from the goats, the field where the wheat was separated from the chaff. People relied on Meisner or Stanislavski or even Hagen for technique and inspiration, taking lines that were actually conceived and written for stage and acting them out.

Sadly, a leisurely stroll through Times Square shows that the boards are being increasingly clogged up by hit films, cartoons and revivals being adapted for (or remounted on) the stage. When they did it with Beauty and the Beast, it was cute. “Oh look, that’s fun. They’ve adapted a cartoon for Broadway,” I thought to myself. But now we’ve got The Little Mermaid and Shrek (I don’t count The Lion King, because it was such a creative departure from the film). Not to mention stage productions of films like Billy Elliot, Mary Poppins, Young Frankenstein and -in case you missed the memo – 9 to 5.

I’m not even kidding.

That’s right. Workin’ 9 to 5, what a way to make a livin’, there’s no getting by, it’s all takin’ and no givin’ . . .

Besides these adaptations, we have revivals out the wazoo. A Man For All Seasons, All My Sons, Equus (a sure hit, what with Harry Potter doing his own revival of The Full Monty), Grease, Guys and Dolls, Gypsy, Hair, South Pacific, The Seagull, West Side Story and White Christmas.

Are you telling me, Mr. Broadway Producer, that there were so few new shows worth mounting this year that you had to sink to so many revivals of tried and true hits?

Don’t get me wrong – I am all for reviving great plays. I love some of these shows, and have performed in several of them myself (from the list above, I’ve done A Man For All Seasons, Gypsy and West Side Story). But as I look over the list of what’s playing now, and I see mostly film adaptations and revivals, I get a bit bent out of shape. Broadway should be bringing the world new work, showcasing the incredible talent out there.

Now, before I get carried away, there have been some excellent new shows produced in recent seasons. In the Heights and August: Osage County were blips on Broadway’s heart monitor, giving hope that all innovative creativity has not been lost, and that new shows are still being produced. But with more people than ever earning MFA’s in playwriting, is it too much to ask to see some new blood next to the “written by” credit in Playbill? Where are the Anton Chekhovs and Arthur Millers of the twenty-first century?

Well, since you asked, I have a few suggestions. If you’re thinking of investing in a Broadway show, I happen to know that Stephen Schwartz is looking for funding to finally mount his musical Children of Eden, which, despite a successful regional theater run, has yet to appear on, or near, 42nd Street. This show has been in development for over twenty years (ironically, I was offered a role in the North American premiere production of this show, but had to turn it down). I also know a few excellent composers and librettists who have developed new works for stage, including David Kirshenbaum (whose Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus would make a welcome addition to the Christmas show buffet table, where traditional titles are growing a bit stale) and Gary Pozner (with whom I collaborated on Nautilus, a family-friendly musical produced by Walden Media that premiered in Denver a few years ago).

Am I suggesting these works would be the next Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera? Not at all. But then again, neither is Shrek, The Little Mermaid or 9 to 5. Yet there they are, defining a new age of Broadway, when a show’s pre-fab marketing plan makes it more viable than its creative ingenuity, book & lyrics or, heaven forbid, incredible acting. (I salute the cast of August: Osage County, who acted their butts off and deserve to be on Broadway. Johanna Day and Estelle Parsons, namaste).

In our effort to contribute to the creation of new culture, International Arts Movement has decided to create a space to showcase emerging playwrights, directors and actors. In April 2009, IAM is producing a weekend of one-acts, featuring three directors and three one-act plays. Melody Erfani, Luann Jennings, and Brie Walker will be the directors, and we are accepting script submissions through the end of January. If you or someone you know is interested, please contact me for more details – my email is christy(at)InternationalArtsMovement(dot)org.

We need new theatre. We need new live stage works. And, call me a big, fat, green ogre, but we need to drastically reduce the campy stage productions of cheesy musicals that belong on DVD, not the boards of Broadway.

Reflections on Norman Jean Roy’s
Traffik Exhibition Opening

After nearly ten years as a New Yorker, and having worked in the entertainment and prestige beauty industries before entering the arts world where I now reside, I have learned that there is no point in trying to predict what will happen to me each day – whom I will meet, where I will end up, or what I will see. A couple weeks ago I met my friend for Vietnamese food in Chinatown, where, over sour vegetable soup and two pots of tea, we talked at length about the intersection of art and social justice. This friend, a sculptor, is deeply devoted to helping humanity’s most needy, and this devotion is born out of an intense closeness with God and healthy sense of mysticism that enables her to see angels where the rest of us might only see mere men.

After dinner, we headed to Chelsea to attend the opening reception for Traffik, an exhibition by fashion photographer Norman Jean Roy at MILK Gallery, open to the public November 21 through December 8. MILK, located at 450 W. 15th Street, is considered to be New York City’s most prestigious photography gallery, and Roy is one of the most prominent high fashion photogs, under contract with Conde Nast to shoot exclusively for Vogue, Vanity Fair, Men’s Vogue, Allure, and Glamour.

With a resume like that, it’s no wonder that as we neared the gallery, we felt like we had walked onto the set of Entourage. Entering MILK and passing the hefty team of security guards, we were immediately swept into 6,000 square feet of models, agents, creative directors, managers, editors, and other photographers. The walls were hung with nearly fifty images, approximately four feet by five feet each. They were portraits of Cambodian prostitutes and other victims of the sex trafficking industry. The images were beautifully shot and the small placards posted beside each one gave a brief history of each subject featured. For anyone interested in the plight of victims of sex slavery, it would seem that this was a very important exhibition to attend.

However, the evening left both my friend and me deeply unsettled, because walking into the gallery, we entered what looked and felt, for all intents and purposes, like a house party. Club music was pumping, with a bass boost that reverberated through our ear canals and pulsated through our bones. The several hundred people bumping into one another throughout the huge room were talking so loudly that I could not hear my own words, and, from all appearances, very few of the people present were engaged with the art.

Interestingly, this was my second event dealing with sex trafficking in the past few weeks. On November 6, International Arts Movement hosted a screening of the film Branded, a documentary about the sex slave industry in Phoenix, Arizona. Following the film, I moderated a panel discussion with the filmmaker, Chad De Miguel, and a representative from Food for the Hungry, a non-profit organization committed to rescuing victims of the sex industry. I was surprised at the show when a woman came up to me and shouted through the noise, “You’re from International Arts Movement, right?” Trying to place her face (and failing), she quickly rescued me by explaining that she had attended the Branded screening, and I finally recalled meeting her briefly that night.

She works full time for a non-profit that is devoted to helping put an end to sex trafficking, and we tried to engage in meaningful conversation, but the atmosphere made it virtually impossible. I was yelling at the top of my lungs, and still couldn’t hear myself, or her. We exchanged cards and agreed to meet sometime in the future to discuss how IAM and her organization might partner together.

As I made my way around the outside parameters of the room, reading the placards and studying the artwork, I was increasingly ill at ease with the scene I was smack dab in the center of. As I watched people laughing and mingling and networking and scanning the room for who was there, eager to see and be seen, the paradox before me became increasingly obscene. I felt like I was looking at a room full of sex industry workers surrounded by images of sex industry workers; both the industry represented in the flesh, and the industry represented on film used sex to sell their wares.

At one point I pulled out a pen and began making notes about what I was experiencing. Shortly after I had started writing, a man with shoulder-length blond hair bee-lined for me, a full glass of white wine sloshing around in his hand. I didn’t need to hear his slurred speech to know he was drunk; his red eyes and dopey smile spoke volumes. “What’cha writin’?” he asked in a singsong manner, which was creepy coming from a man who appeared to be approximately fifty years old. I stared down at him and managed to dodge him for a bit, but quickly became the unwitting audience to his editorial of the event. “We can’t look at this from an American perspective, with an American standard,” he blathered. “These girls . . . what else do they have? This is all they have. We shouldn’t judge them. This is all they know. This is their life. They’re not asking to be anything other than what they are.”

I was dumbfounded. Was he serious? I’m afraid he was. I contemplated trying to reason with him, trying to somehow get past the incomprehensible ignorance of one who could stand in front of a picture of a woman with deep scars all over her body and filthy, infected lesions on her feet, who barely earned her living by servicing men sexually, and think this way. But I was not up to shouting, and I knew that nothing I could say would make any difference. As I excused myself and walked away, he said something about the self-righteousness of expecting people in other countries to live up to our American standards. I actually did say something to him about them not being “American” standards, but rather basic humanity standards, but he dismissed me.

With the paradoxical scenario of serious subject matter and a party-like atmosphere, I was very curious about the background of this exhibition. According to the press materials I managed to procure, the project came about when Norman Jean Roy was on assignment for Glamour‘s “Women of the Year” portfolio. Roy was introduced to Somaly Mam, a former Cambodian sex slave who was being honored for her work rescuing women trapped in the sex industry and helping them reintegrate into society. Overwhelmed by her story and haunted by the faces of the women Mam had worked with, Roy decided to spearhead a project that would expose and elevate the grave reality and gross injustice of their experiences.

So last January, Roy returned to Cambodia to photograph the victims, gaining access to brothels with the help of Mam and her organization, AFESIP. He was able to observe and document the harrowing lives of working adolescent and child prostitutes, as well as those who have been rescued and are now in rehab at AFESIP centers. The book that resulted, which was the center of last night’s exhibition, was Traffik, which captures the powerful stories of young women who were beaten, starved, raped and tortured as sex slaves. Several of the women talked about being sold by their mothers and being raped as children as early as age four.

As I watched the professionals in one sex industry mingling and drinking wine while being surrounded by larger than life sized images of professionals in another sex industry, the pungent odor of sick irony filled my nostrils, and I wanted to scream. The very publications that use sex to sell their wares were, I guess, ostensibly mourning for victims, half a world away in a physical sense, yet in a totally different universe in the social sense.

Except they weren’t mourning. Honestly, it would have been a very noble scene if they had been. High-profile fashion and beauty professionals in a prestigious New York gallery, stepping out of their party-hopping and schmoozing for one night to examine the horrors of sex slavery? It would have brought a tear to my eye – seriously.

But, from what I could tell, a relative few people were even looking at the images, let alone showing any sort of deep emotional reaction to it. And while the images are very well shot and are effective in capturing the essence of prostitution in the impoverished developing world, set in the context of loud music and a well-stocked open bar, something just felt icky. One image was particularly disturbing in light of the environment we were in. A young girl was dressed in sexy shiny panties and grown-up jewelry, lifting her shirt and looking at the camera with an almost seductive expression that was totally incomprehensible in light of the fact that she could not have been older than four. She was labeled as a child of a prostitute, but it was not much of a stretch to imagine her entertaining clients herself. At the very least, she had to have observed the business her mother was in. The image might have been simply a snapshot of a little girl playing dress up, except that she was living in a brothel, where, according to the press materials available, men pay more for sex with girls between four and seven years old, believing them to be less likely to carry STD’s. (They are, unfortunately, mistaken in that assumption).

Yet, in the milieu of pulsating club music and a plentiful supply of wine and liquor, I wondered at whether there might be people in the room with pedophiliac tendencies who, rather than being correctly horrified by it, would instead be turned on. The music, which was fine by itself, and the wine, which I appreciate regularly, simply did not belong together with images of four-year-olds dressed in sexy lingerie. For everything there is a season – a time to dance, and a time to mourn. But when people are (figuratively) dancing in the midst of such a painful exhibit, it becomes almost a mockery of the tragedy.

When IAM screened Branded, we were very mindful about the context in which the film was shown. We sold no concessions that evening. No wine, no beer, no popcorn. Our intent was that, from the time people entered the space to the time they left, we would foster an environment of concern and soberness about the issue at hand. We hoped that the film would inform our audience, inspiring them to leave the space and look for ways to engage with the issue of sex trafficking, to help change the destiny of the victims and create the world that ought to be. Indeed, there is a time to dance, and Space 38|39 has seen plenty of playful reverie. But when it’s time to mourn, it’s time to mourn.

Unfortunately, this was not the case at the opening reception for Traffik. The project is important, and I hope people will attend the exhibition, buy the coffee table book (whose proceeds will benefit Somaly Mam’s Foundation) and leave more informed about this blight on humanity. Norman Jean Roy’s work in this project is excellent, and I applaud his use of his talent and opportunity to bring this awful situation to light.

However, I am not hopeful that many people at last week’s reception – people of great means and influence who, if engaged, could make a world of difference – will. People who actually hear a call for action are more likely to respond by doing something about it. Unfortunately, it was hard to hear anything above the roar of the electronica that blared through MILK that night.

Wax On, Wax Off: Reflections on The Karate Kid

This week, I’m sick and tired. Not in the figurative sense, e.g., “I’m sick and tired of the way you keep talking about the election outcome as if Obama’s victory is the end of the world.” I am literally sick and tired, with a terrible chest infection, cough, and head cold, and since my fever and cold medicine are having a clouding effect on my mental capabilities, it is imperative that I steer clear of anything that makes me think too hard.

Which is the perfect condition for browsing through Hulu.com‘s cache of free movies, where I found one of my favorite 80’s flicks, The Karate Kid. Along with ET, the Star Wars trilogy, and the Rocky movies, The Karate Kid is a benchmark film in my book, representing everything that goes into making a classic movie: it has the “there’s no way this could ever happen in real life” factor, the “underdog gets the trophy and the girl factor,” the unlikely leading man, the emotion-manipulating soundtrack and, as an added bonus, the 80’s factor, which captures the clothes, the hair, and the requisite line that seemed to be written into every screenplay of that decade, “Hey, it’s the ’80’s,” as if, with the hair and clothes, we needed that clarification.

If you are under the age of thirty, The Karate Kid probably wasn’t part of your formative years. But if you were like me, and you taped it when it was shown on television (this was long before TiVO) and watched it (edited for television) over and over, you’ll appreciate this little trip down memory lane.

It has been years since I’ve seen this movie, but as I sat in my pajamas at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, high on NyQuil and hot from fever, I felt oddly comforted by the familiar soundtrack as the opening credits rolled. As a single woman who lives eight hours from her parents, being sick stinks – no one rubs Vick’s on my chest or comes in to make sure the covers are tucked in and devoid of air holes. So watching this familiar favorite took me back to a time when my mom was right in the next room and it was still very possible that I would marry Ralph Macchio (I still have the “autographed” postcard I received when I wrote him a fan letter).

I remembered every line like it was yesterday, and the valiant and honorable Mr. Miyagi (played by Noriyuki “Pat” Morita, one of the hardest working actors in show business) made me wish – again – for my own wise sage and mentor, who would see my potential and take me under his wing, teaching me how to overcome the hardships of junior high. You see, I had my own experiences with bullies and mean popular kids, which is why, to this day, I am very moved by their relationship. I get chills whenever I watch the scene where Mr. Miyagi comes to Daniel’s defense on Halloween night, when the skeleton-clad meanies are about to destroy him. I, too, had my share of unfortunate school dance experiences, but sadly, in the absence of my own Mr. Miyagi, I had to endure the taunts of the baddies in my class on my own.

There are many other great scenes in The Karate Kid, but the best one of all comes, of course, toward the end, when Daniel has just been injured by the young miscreant instructed by his evil karate sensei to “put him out of commission.” He is lying on the table in the locker room with his teacher, Mr. Miyagi, standing next to him. The medic on call at the competition has declared him unfit to fight because of his injured leg, and his mother (played by Randee Heller) and girlfriend, Ali (played by a young Elisabeth Shue), have left to tell the judges he’s out. Daniel looks up at Mr. Miyagi and asks him to use the ancient method he used during Daniel’s training to heal his injury so he can have a chance to win the competition. Mr. Miyagi argues gently that Daniel has already succeeded, simply by being in the competition and getting this far, but Daniel protests. “Every time those guys see me, they’ll know they got the best of me. I’ll never have balance this way,” he says, utterly dejected. “Not with them. Not with Ali. (Dramatic pause). Not with me.”

What comes next is, for me, the epitome of a classic “movie moment.” I don’t know, from a filmmaking perspective, if The Karate Kid is considered a “good” movie. But, for my money, this scene is golden. Remember it with me (and tremble with delight):

Mr. Miyagi instructs Daniel, “Close-a eye.” Your heart starts pounding. Yes, Mr. Miyagi, you think to yourself, Do that thing you do and fix his leg! Miyagi claps his hands together, while simultaneously the orchestra bursts into your ears, sforzando strings trembling as the scene flashes back into the competition arena, full of hysterical amateur karate fans. Ali runs out just as the judge is about to pronounce Evil Johnny the winner, interrupting him. “Daniel Larusso is gonna fight!” he announces, and the crowd goes wild.

Weak, injured, lithe Daniel hobbles out to the ring. He bows to the referee and bows to his stocky beefcake of an opponent, and the defining karate match of all matches begins. He gets in a punch or two, but anyone with any sense at all can see he’s about to get creamed. Then, by some miracle, they are tied! The winner of the next point will become the new National Champion! The Evil Sensei instructs his brainwashed pupil to “sweep the leg,” and we see a glimmer of horror on Johnny’s face as the fullness of his instructor’s rancorous rage dawns on him. But his conviction doesn’t last long. Johnny sweeps the leg, and Daniel is just about finished. “Get him a body bag,” one of Evil Sensei’s minions shouts.

And then, it comes. The trumpets blare triumphantly as Daniel assumes the position of . . .

. . . the Crane.

If excellence is marked by cultural longstanding, The Crane move from The Karate Kid is enough to place this film up there with such twentieth century icons as Mr. Spock’s Vulcan salute and Rocky pumping his fists in the air after climbing all those steps. As the anticipation grows to feverish proportions (and not just because I actually have a fever), Daniel raises his arms, standing on one leg. He’s nervous. He’s afraid.

And he’s determined. With one switch kick, he makes contact, taking out his opponent and winning the championship. The crowd goes wild, and Evil Johnny, who three minutes before had said, “You’re dead,” experiences a sudden and dramatic change of heart. Taking the trophy from the judge, he is the one to present the award to Daniel, shouting through tears, “You’re all right, Larusso. Good match!” The good guy wins, the bad guy is converted and everyone is happy in the end.

Well, folks, movies come and movies go. But some movies, like The Karate Kid, stay with us forever. And as I mentioned, for some strange reason, this is what I crave when I am sick: familiar childhood favorites. Wiping a tear from my eye, I click through to my next trip down memory lane: Ghostbusters! With some Campbell’s Tomato soup on the stove and a new box of tissues at my side, it’s just as if I’ve clicked my ruby slippers and am back in my bedroom, right across the hall from my parents’.

Except for the fact that I’m watching these things on a laptop, which didn’t exist when I was a child, thanks to high speed Internet, which I just got last year.

Don’t you just love the aughts?

Never Underestimate The Power Of Cartoons

I started reading the newspaper as a child when, every morning, I would pour myself a bowl of cereal and then wrestle the Extra section of the Roanoke Times and World News from my dad. Both Dad and I enjoyed reading “the funnies,” and for as long as I can remember, I’ve started my day by crunching cereal and slurping milk from the spoon, eyes glued to the paper held perpendicular to the kitchen table. In those early years, I stuck with Family Circus, For Better or For Worse, and other innocuous fare. My brother had a collection of Garfield books, which lived (I’m not ashamed to say) in the bathroom, a perfect way to pass the time in there. To be sure, comic strips were an important part of my formative years.

By high school, I had added the somewhat more mature Funky Winkerbean to my daily reading and, eventually, Doonesbury, whose political humor, I’m sure, was not appreciated by certain mavericks in our midst. I also started reading Bloom County, and while I did not always get the jokes, I read them anyway; I’ve always had a tender place in my heart for Opus.

Somewhere along the way, perhaps because of a civics assignment on current events, I stopped beelining for the funnies and started actually reading the front section. While I soon developed a keen interest in keeping up with the news, the real reason I kept coming back for more was found in the back of the front section, where I discovered another type of cartoon. These were not mere entertainment; these drawings, sometimes accompanied by captions and sometimes with no caption needed, stirred me deeply as a youth. I have strong memories of being very touched by a certain cartoon depicting starving Black African children and fat white politicians in bulging suits, with big cigars protruding from cinched lips. That cartoon pricked my innate sense of justice, and I felt angry.

While I did not realize it at the time, those political cartoons in my hometown paper were birthing something in me – a deep and abiding appreciation for the oft-dismissed art of cartooning.

The cartoon is an art form that comes in many shapes and sizes, from comic strips to editorial cartoons and political satire. To be a successful cartoonist, one must not only be gifted artistically – i.e., able to draw – but also highly intelligent, with a keen eye for the ironic and an ability to see the humor, albeit sometimes sardonic humor, in current events. Today, for example, cartoonists are as influential as any political strategists in how people see Barack Obama – as either a messiah figure or a terrorist. (The New Yorker learned firsthand that is it, in fact, possible to go too far, with its July 21, 2008 cover, showing Obama, dressed as Osama Bin Laden, in the Oval Office with his wife, Michelle, portrayed loosely as Black Panther activist Angela Davis and adorned with an automatic weapon. The cover, drawn by Barry Blitt, set off public outrage, resulting in canceled subscriptions and irate media coverage.) Cartoonists are skilled illustrators offering at once either a humorous or mordant take – or sometimes both – on the state of current affairs.

In short, cartoons play a very important role in shaping culture and should not be underestimated or dismissed.

Think I’m exaggerating? Consider this: cartoons were one of the key items of propaganda splayed across newspapers worldwide in the early twentieth century. Whether it was Uncle Sam pointing at you for military service or Adolf Hitler hovering menacingly over a globe, cartoons shaped peoples’ thoughts: patriotism, good; evil Nazi dictators, bad. In this case, it could be argued, cartoons served a good purpose.

On the other hand, Nazi spin doctors used cartoons to help convince millions of otherwise decent human beings that Jews were intent upon taking over the world and should be be feared, loathed and exterminated. In fact, Anti-Semitic cartoons were among the evidence introduced at the Nuremberg trials to show how Germany was “turned to Jew hating.”

Less than a century earlier, cartoons were used to help shape public opinion during the Civil War era. In fact, Ian Finseth notes in Scartoons: Racial Satire and the Civil War that “American visual satire,” i.e. political cartoons, developed tremendous cultural significance during this era. He writes, “Increasingly sophisticated, extremely popular, published cartoons reflected the most wrenching episode of American history in a light at once humorous, tragic, and disquieting. Beyond the political and economic dynamics that underlay the war, racial issues provided cartoonists with a rich and easily accessible source of material. Abolitionist, pro-slavery, and just plain racist sentiments were expressed and disseminated in popular images of African-Americans.”

While certainly cartoons are usually entertaining, even when they are serving as tools of persuasion, the truly good ones are also very intelligent. For example, Gary Larson, creator of The Far Side, started out with scientific ambitions, particularly in the field of biology. He never intended to become a cartoonist, but somewhere along the way, cartooning became the language he used to reconcile his scientific mind with his somewhat sardonic sense of humor. (His anthology, The Prehistory of the Far Side: A Tenth Anniversary Exhibit, comes with a warning for the humoristically squeamish. It contains not only some of the his most loved cartoons, but also some that editors refused to run because of their questionable content, i.e. potty humor, cannibalism humor, and potentially offensive religious humor.)

My own generation has witnessed the power of political cartoons and the seriousness of their effect on public opinion. No one over the age of twenty can forget the violent reaction Muslims worldwide had to the satirical depictions of Muhammad run in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. In all, over one hundred people are said to have died in protests and riots erupting as a result of those cartoons. One group of offended Muslims, however, decided to fight cartoons with cartoons by publishing their own heinous images denying the number of Jews said to have been killed during the Holocaust and depicting Anne Frank in bed with Hitler, enjoying a post-coital cigarette. One only needs to experience the intense disgust that arises at seeing such an image to appreciate the power of the cartoon.

Indeed, of all the art forms being created today, it could be argued that cartoonists impact public opinion more than any other art form. Sometimes it can happen without a person even realizing it. A quick glance at Muhammad wearing a turban with the sparkling wick of a bomb protruding from it subconsciously reinforces the assumption that Muslims are terrorists in a matter of seconds. An image of George W. Bush’s exaggerated ears sticking out, drawn to closely resemble Alfred E. Newman, reinforces the opinion that the President is an imbecile. A sketch of a Supreme Court portrait, depicting Clarence Thomas goosing Sandra Day O’Connor, influences the opinion that His Honor is, and always will be, a pervert.

The more I think about it, the more I believe that cartoonists are incredibly powerful culture shapers, and while some are not careful to use their powers for good, many are intentional about doing just that. In 1994, the Sacramento Bee ran a cartoon showing two Ku Klux Klansmen, one hooded and one reading a quote from Louis Farrakhan, which said, “You can’t be a racist by talking, only by acting.” The caption depicted the non-hooded klansman as saying, “That nigger makes a lot of sense.”

Needless to say, there was tremendous public outcry when it ran. The NAACP called for a boycott of the paper, and many (between 1500-3000, depending on who you ask) subscriptions were canceled. Taylor Jones, whose work is syndicated via Tribune Media Services, recalls another cartoon from around the same time that addressed the same issue. This one was by “Herblock” (real name: Herbert L. Block), a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner for editorial cartoons who, at 85 years old, was still working for the Washington Post. “I’d have to see the cartoon again to recognize it, but it was a clear example of how to handle a hot topic (Farrakhan’s tirade against the Jews) deftly, very pointedly and with superb wit.”

And without using the “N Word.”

According to Jones, “Editorial cartoonists all turn out tasteless clunkers now and then, but usually editors catch these before they ever go to print.” In fact, Jones goes on to divulge that “the American Association of Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC) even hands out an annual ‘Golden Spike’ award for the ‘best’ cartoon rejected by editors.”

Another artist who uses his powers for good is New Yorker cartoonist Matthew Diffee. As with any good cartoonist, his drawings and captions reflect a very intelligent and insightful panorama of current trends. While not political in nature, some of Diffee’s work is very thought provoking, and some of it is, well, just funny. But usually, it is somewhere in the middle. For example, his image of Che Guevara wearing a Bart Simpson t-shirt immediately crumbles the image of the hard guerrilla leader, reducing him back to the human being he was (however questionable his approach or philosophies). Truly, Diffee, like Larson and other talented cartoonists, has a gift for pairing the weighty with the whimsical – a band of outlaws riding vespas, for instance – resulting in a clever mix of deconstructionism and rehumanization, whether intentional or not.

Diffee also has a way of making thoughtful statements about culture that serve to at once entertain and hold a mirror up to readers. In one of his cartoons, he depicts an all-American family sitting around a table for a “family meeting.” But in the caption, the father invites everyone to introduce themselves, revealing the sad state of most families today, who spend very little time together. Does Diffee intend to be so sagacious? Honestly . . . no. “When the idea came,” he says, “I wasn’t sitting there trying to think of a way to communicate the sad state of family affairs in America. I just thought it was funny. Of course, once I finished it, I recognized its potential to ‘make a statement.’ But that wasn’t my mission – it was more like a happy accident. I just draw things that I think are funny.”

Indeed, with all their propensity to influence and coerce, at their core, many cartoonists simply want to make people laugh. In fact, it could be said that trait is the “special something” that all good artists possess – the talent for doing what they enjoy and what comes naturally to them, which, at the same time, affects their audience on many levels, from making them laugh to making them think.

From the funny papers to The New Yorker, cartoons say more in a glance than many editorials say in eight hundred words. With all its forms and functions, when it comes to shaping culture and the way people think, we would do well not to overlook the importance of the cartoon.

After all, one quick glance at the editorial page, and soon we’ll all be putting lipstick on our pigs, with a sudden urge to rent Top Gun and vote Republican (I always did love that “Maverick”).

Found Objects: One Person’s Trash . . .

I did not inherit my affection for found objects from my parents. The home I grew up in was a veritable showcase for All Things New. My parents bought their dishes new, furniture new, clothing new. We never took family outings to go “garage sailing” on Saturday mornings like my friend Heather’s family did, and when clothes wore out, we only ever “dropped off” at the Goodwill – we never shopped there.

Points of Entry
‚Ä¢ Read about the history of “found art” and “junk art”.
‚Ä¢ FOUND magazine is full of “found stuff: love letters, birthday cards, kids’ homework, to-do lists, ticket stubs, poetry on napkins, doodles – anything that gives a glimpse into someone else’s life.”

But somehow, somewhere along the way, I became a lover of other peoples’ castoffs, and in fact, I actually developed a disdain for many things new. I much prefer used books – it seems to me such a waste to buy them new. And I feel that way about a great many other things. In a day of consumerism on steroids, I am drawn more and more to appreciating the old. The used. The discarded.

It probably started with a neighbor whose daughter was a few years older than me. About twice a year, she would call my mom and ask if I would be interested in looking through a bag of her old clothes. Neither of my parents looked too excited about it, but I was like a kid at Christmas. We would drive up to her house, load up large garbage bags full of brand-name clothes that you couldn’t find at Hill’s Department Store and then haul them in to the living room, where I would spend the rest of the evening going through them, squealing with delight when a sweater I had wanted last season from Esprit or jeans from The Limited would pop up. Even now, I can remember the exhilarating feeling of all of those free, brand-name clothes.

Yes, those garbage bags of clothes awakened something in me, and when I discovered Saturday morning garage sales in my neighborhood, the addiction began to grow. Some of my favorite childhood finds were a Cabbage Patch Doll for a dollar, a rabbit fur coat for five, and a middle school letter jacket that was eventually adorned with the pins I earned for lettering in volleyball, track and field, cheerleading, and band.

So the garbage bags and garage sales were where it started, but I think it was really my friend Heather’s influence that took it to the next level. Her family lived in a small house surrounded by land that had been in her family’s possession for generations. When I stayed over at Heather’s house, we would trudge through the woods, studying the gravestones in the family cemetery plot, telling ghost stories and running, squealing, back to her yard. It was Heather who taught me how to test an electric fence – always with the back of your finger, not the inside part, because if it does happen to be charged, your finger can’t bend involuntarily backwards. And it was Heather to taught me that, unless you’ve grown up with them and they know you really well, you will never successfully pet an un-tethered cow.

But even with all of the adventures we had outside, one of my favorite things about playing with Heather was that her house was full of found objects, including used books she had gotten at a church basement sale, notebooks that we would journal in and write stories, and clothes – oh, the clothes – from some yard sale they had gone to. Some people would call it junk, but to me, it was a world of discovery. Certain memories have grown fuzzy through the years, but I remember playing with costume jewelry that probably belonged to some octogenarian who had sung in the sanctuary choir her whole life before dying and leaving the contents of her closet to her church, and an easy-bake oven that had the price written on it in magic marker, a sure sign that it had come from a garage sale.

Heather was my only home schooled friend, and when I imagined her life, I expected that her days were filled with fun adventures to flea markets and thrift stores and church basements filled with long tables laden with junk, and that she got to just sit around reading all the great books she had bought for ten cents a piece. I loved playing at Heather’s house.

When I grew up, I worked for a year at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, and it was there that I met another found objects aficionado, Linda Rae. Linda Rae was a grants administrator, and her office was the cleanest I had ever seen. She was fastidious about being on time, starting on time, working her full day, ending on time, and leaving on time (4:45 p.m.) Each day, Linda Rae would wipe down her desk and keyboard with alcohol swabs, leaving nary a scrap of paper or wayward manila folder on her desk. Everything had its place, and when she locked her office door at a quarter to five (on the nose), the doctors down the hall could have performed surgery on her desk. Having started years ago in an entry-level secretarial position, Linda Rae had worked hard, earned the respect of her peers and superiors, and had risen in the ranks to a good, secure position in the university.

But really, Linda Rae was an artist. Every weekend, she took to the back roads of Virginia in her compact SUV, newspaper in hand, scouting out flea markets, estate sales, and garage sales. On Monday, we would chat briefly at the coffee pot on our floor, and she would tell me about her excursions and exciting finds. As our friendship developed, she invited me over for dinner at her condo, which was every bit as clean and tidy as her office, and I was elated to discover that it was beautifully, masterfully decorated nearly exclusively with found objects.

A beautiful arrangement of antique hats hung along one wall, accented with picture frames containing black and white photos of her family. “Honey,” she’d say in her strong southern drawl, “I paid twenty-five cent for that entire stack. The frames were all dinged up, so they gave those to me for free. But I just took some pretty buttons I picked up a while ago and glued ’em on, and now those picture frames are as good as new!” Better than new, I would argue, marveling at the creativity before me. Linda Rae wielded a glue gun like Michelangelo wielded a chisel, and her handiwork always left me with a sense of admiration. A stack of old hat boxes in a corner provided a perfect stand for a small lamp that was probably older than she was, “but, Honey, with a little polish, that brass is shiny and bright!”

I knew the first time I visited her home that I had found in Linda Rae another soulmate. She took the art of found objects to a new level, and to this day remains the finest example of a thrifty (but not cheap), classy lady with great taste.


Barry Krammes. Of Calamities, 2006.
30 x 19 x 13 inches. Mixed media. Photo: Kurt Simonson.
From Image Journal.

I thought I had found the apex of found object appreciation, until I discovered that there was even more. It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I discovered actual artists whose media was found objects. There are many I could mention, but one of the first I came to know was Barry Krammes, whose was featured on the cover of an issue of Image Journal last year. One of his pieces, entitled “Of Calamities,” is constructed of old, dinged up bits and pieces that, when fused together, form a scene of . . . well, a calamity.

Starting with an old, mangled, rusted out toy carousel, Krammes placed among the displaced horses and wheels unrelated miniatures of people and what appear to be circus animals and other small things I can’t quite even make out. The fence encircling it is likewise mutilated and bent, and altogether the sculpture gives the appearance of what it might be like to ride a carousel during an acid trip. Or, perhaps more innocently, what a carousel might look like after being relocated by a tornado.

I love it.

I love seeing someone take a bunch of unrelated junk – in this case, old, worn out toys that could have come from a garbage dump – and assembling them in a way that tells a story – in this case, a story “Of Calamities.” There is something so wonderfully redemptive about what was once trash becoming, now, a treasure, simply by way of its context and placement.

I wonder how much of life is like that. How many things do I see as trash, simply because of context? How many things do I treasure, simply because of the company it keeps?

Sitting in my living room, I look around and see a painting I found on the street in Brooklyn, lying atop a pile of black garbage bags. It was someone’s trash.

But now it hangs on my wall, adding color to my home and beauty to my soul.

And I treasure it.

The Redemptive Power of Forgiveness

SPOILER WARNING: This article is rife with plot spoilers. Consider yourself warned.

Last summer, my landlord, who often recommends movies to me by leaving DVDs in my mailbox, passed along a film I had never heard of. “You’re going to love this,” she said, and when I began watching it, I knew immediately why she gave it such a hearty endorsement. Pat is fascinated by the fact that three summers ago I spent two months in China, and my affection for that country, with its incredible topography and five hundred-plus different people groups, is deep. As the opening credits move along the screen, subtle images of microscopes and rice fields occupy the background, which, underscored by anxious violins, hint at the story about to unfold.

The Painted Veil, starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, was released in 2007. While it did not enjoy much box office success, the film garnered a Golden Globe Award (Best Original Score, Motion Picture) and two Independent Spirit Award nominations (Best Male Lead, Edward Norton and Best Screenplay, Ron Nyswaner), among other critical acclaim. Directed by John Curran (We Don’t Live Here Anymore, Praise, Down Rusty Down) and filmed predominantly on location in rural China, the cinematography immediately transported me back to the 72-hour long train ride I took from Beijing to Kashgar, where I saw a green so green that it made me feel like I was watching the passing rice fields and landscapes in Technicolor. Set in the middle of a cholera epidemic during the volatile era near the end of the Chinese Revolution, Ron Nyswaner’s screenplay, based on W. Somerset Maugham’s novel of the same title, draws from the historical context without requiring a thorough knowledge of the history.

Dr. Walter Fane (Norton) is understated and mild mannered, yet he skillfully evokes a calm strength that betrays his apparent meekness. He is bold at times, though quietly bold – the slow and steady nature of one who devotes his life to studying microorganisms in search of a cure for disease. For fans of Norton, this role highlights his wide range – it couldn’t be further from his characters in Fight Club, American History X, or his breakout role in Primal Fear. Watts, as Dr. Fane’s wife, Kitty, transforms seamlessly from bored housewife to unrepentant adulteress to humble helpmate. The storyline is helped along tremendously by an eclectic soundtrack combining European instruments and themes with traditional Chinese intonations, creating an audio mirror to the eastward journey the main characters make.

As their only neighbor in China, Mr. Waddington, Toby Jones gives a strong supporting performance. A major departure from his turn as Truman Capote in Infamous, Jones deftly achieves the delicate balance required to keep his relationship with Wan Xi, his much younger Chinese paramour, from being creepy. The affection he has for her is believable and, as the back-story of their relationship unfolds, acceptable, in light of the times they’re living in. The girl, portrayed by Chinese actress Yan Lu, utters only a few lines, but when she does speak, it is poignant. Kitty Fane wants to know why she loves Waddington so much. “Because he is a good man,” Wan Xi answers in Mandarin, and this summarizes the journey Kitty finds herself on as she, too, falls in love with a “good man.”

Without a doubt, the film is depressing, but that is part of what makes it such a strong story. It’s not melodramatic or indulgently depressing. Rather, it depicts betrayal of the worst kind, and the effect that betrayal has on a marriage, with raw, painful honesty. Too often, marriage is treated in film as disposable, and adultery is a necessary component of finding true happiness. Onscreen, adultery is rarely depicted as the evil it is, but in real life, the demise of a marriage is tragic.

However, while the initial betrayal that occurs between the Fanes sets up a clear protagonist and antagonist, as the film rolls along, the roles seem to reverse – the betrayed becomes the punisher, and the villain becomes the victim. This is another aspect of reality that comes through in this film: when a person, even a truly “good” person, is hurt, the innate human inclination toward revenge is ignited. The human condition is full of multitudes.

That said, the journey this couple embarks on, while at times painfully raw and bitter, is ultimately one of hope. Forgiveness never comes easily, and never without a great cost to the one who was wronged. However, when forgiveness happens, its power is tremendous, and that is what makes this film so strong. In it, the audience sees that forgiveness and restoration are possible and beautiful, and not only that, but when forgiveness happens, it can make a relationship stronger than it was before the offense was committed. Of course, in order for it to work, forgiveness must be offered and accepted, but when this transaction takes place, a beautiful restoration follows.

A French lullaby at the end of the film will haunt viewers for days after seeing it – a nod to the French nuns running the orphanage-cum-infirmary. Because of the cholera epidemic, the nuns suffer illness and death alongside their young Chinese charges. The Mother Superior, played by Diana Rigg, is a sympathetic character who has lost many close relations to the epidemic and all but forgotten why she devoted her life to God in the first place. Describing her relationship with God, she likens it to a husband and wife who have settled in to a quiet indifference toward one another, an honest admission that, sadly, is not uncommon among people devoted to Christian service.

A cholera epidemic is no trivial matter, and there are plenty of difficult scenes involving patients in rustic conditions, slowing dehydrating to death. Corpses line the streets, wailing is heard from within fragile huts, and hands poke out of shallow graves, fueling a sense of helplessness during an epidemic, which effectively makes an unlikely hero out of a mild-mannered, even-tempered bacteriologist, face set like flint as he pores over his notes, tests water specimens, and treats patients night and day in an effort to find a cure.

The film is redemptive and hopeful, to be sure, but it is not happy. When the credits roll, there is sorrow and sadness, though not the sort that accompanies regret. Instead, it’s the sorrow that fills one’s heart at the stark reminder that this is a deeply flawed world, with much to mourn. Yet mourning without regret is a gift in itself, and it is that hopeful reminder, along with excellent performances from the film’s leads, a beautiful score and powerful visual imagery, that makes The Painted Veil a definite “should see.”

The Painted Veil is rated PG-13 and is available on DVD.