Aretha Franklin

I had a choice on Thursday night to watch Anderson Cooper on CNN and Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, or go to SIFF, our independent film theater here in Seattle, to see a documentary about a young Aretha Franklin. I chose the latter.

The documentary Amazing Grace, which shows Franklin performing at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts, Los Angeles, in 1972 is described by reviewers as “transcendent”, and indeed it is. The film, recorded by director Sidney Pollack, sat in the can for all these years due to technical problems with the original recording. Pollack failed to synchronize image and sound, making it impossible to watch the film. Contemporary digital technology allowed correction of that original error, and now, all these years later and months after Franklin’s death, we have Amazing Grace.

If you want to see the Queen of Soul singing black church music at the height of her vocal power, unadorned by a glitzy set and with a community black gospel choir as her backup, this is your film. I don’t know if it will be in wide distribution, but go wherever you need to. This is an incandescent experience.

One of the reviewers commented on how tired Aretha Franklin looked, in that hot church, singing her heart out. She did look tired. She was just thirty in the documentary. She was the single mother of four children, on tour, already a Grammy winning vocalist, already with the title Queen of Soul. This album took her back to her church roots. When she sang Amazing Grace, title song of the film, the backup choir was beside themselves in ecstasy. Reverend Cleveland, who was accompanying her on the piano, slid into a chair, put his head in his hands, and sobbed.

In case you’ve never been to a black church worship service, they are all in with gospel songs. Black church singing is a whole body and soul experience. That’s what you see here.

Don’t miss this.

If you can’t see Amazing Grace, at least revisit Franklin at the end of her career, at the Kennedy Center Honors in 1994.

Things People Forget While Flying

Like a baby, in the gate waiting area for a departed flight?

Apparently so. A Saudi flight on the way to Malaysia had to turn around and return to the airport when a passenger realized she’d forgotten her baby. No information on how old the baby was, or whether anyone was attending to the baby during the time it took for the flight to return.

Um, I don’t quite know what to say. Neither did the pilot or the air traffic controller. But the flight was given permission to return, and baby and mother are presumably now back together.

Would You Like to Hear “You’re Dying” from a Robot?

Telemedicine is a wonderful thing, extending the care available at top flight hospitals to people too far away to access that care in person. The applications of telemedicine are many: my UW health system offers a video chat with a physician if I’m not able to get in the car and drive to a neighborhood clinic or urgent care.

But is it a suitable way to tell an old man that he is dying?

Granddaughter Annalisia Wilharm, 33, was alone with Quintana when a nurse popped in to say a doctor would be making his rounds. A robot rolled in and a doctor appeared on the video screen. Wilharm figured the visit was routine. She was astonished by what the doctor started saying.

“This guy cannot breathe, and he’s got this robot trying to talk to him,” she said. “Meanwhile, this guy is telling him, ‘So we’ve got your results back, and there’s no lung left. There’s no lung to work with.”’

Wilharm said she had to repeat what the doctor said to her grandfather, because he was hard of hearing in his left ear and the machine couldn’t get to the other side of the bed.

“So he’s saying that maybe your next step is going to hospice at home,” Wilharm is heard saying in a video she recorded of the visit. “Right?”

“You know, I don’t know if he’s going to get home,” the doctor says.”

Well, that feels terse.

Apparently the elderly man, who subsequently died, did receive his initial diagnosis from a live physician in the room with him. But this news, that nothing more could be done, came from a robot.

I think it’s tacky, and dehumanizing. You?

What Men Do When Women Catch Up

In professional cycling, as in marathons, the men’s race goes off first, there is a time gap, then the women are given the start flag.

In a cycling race in Belgium, the gap of 10 minutes was just about closed by the lead female racer. Race officials were concerned that she’d get entangled with the support vehicles traveling behind the men. What did they do? Wave aside the support vehicles and let her race on?

No. They stopped the women’s race until the gap had opened up again. The lead female rider was able to start off first among all the riders who’d caught up with her during the halt, but her rhythm had been thrown off and she quickly lost her lead, finishing overall 74th.

Can you imagine race officials stopping the male racers because they were catching up with the women?

I hardly know what to say, except that in microcosm, it reflects to me male discomfort with women closing gaps of any kind. In marathon running, the fastest women are now very close to equalling the fastest men. The male record is 2:03.38. The fastest female time is 2:15:25. Professional sporting didn’t used to allow women to run marathons at all. The stress of the long race was thought to be too much for our womanly bodies. We now know that with proper training, equipment, financial support and access to the most challenging races, women do just fine.

The Tour de France, the premier professional cycling race, is still male-only. I can’t wait for that barrier to fall.

I’m reminded of RBG’s famous comment that we aren’t looking for special privileges. We just want men to get their feet off our necks. Or to have male race officials to remove the actual impediment — the support vehicles — and not stand in the way of the racers.

Michael Jackson’s Defenders

Michael Jackson apparently has a legion of zealous defenders, and they are coming down with a vengeance on social media against the two men — Wade Robson and James Safechuck — who were interviewed extensively in Leaving Neverland. The claim is that those who allege wrongdoing on Jackson’s part are simply exploiting and mischaracterizing behavior that reflected Jackson’s naivete and child-like innocence.

Please. A seven year old taking advantage of the naivete of a 30+ year old man? A child doesn’t lure a man into bed, and then initiate sexual activity. Hurling that accusation is as bad as Jackson’s abuse in the first place.

People refused to see what was right before our eyes when Jackson was flaunting his pedophilia, and a segment of his followers are continuing to explain away his visibly kinky behavior.

Two points in the documentary were most compelling to me. We now know much more about “grooming behavior”, in which pedophiles single out vulnerable children then cultivate not only the child but the family, progressively making deviant behavior feel more normal. That grooming pattern was evident in Jackson’s approach to both boys.

The other is the turnover in the boy at Jackson’s side. Pedophiles apparently have preferences for boys of a certain age, and when their target continues growing and developing, they ditch that child and acquire another at the “right” age. That pattern was also visible in Jackson, who changed boys about once a year.

Interesting to me, the actor Macaulay Culkin was one of Jackson’s boys. Culkin has denied every being sexually abused during his run at Jackson’s side.

The interesting question is what great talent and great deviancy mean for those who love Jackson’s music. I’ve never been an MJ fan, so I haven’t much skin in the game here. But for me, the Ick Factor, and the knowledge that while recording these favorite songs Jackson was also abusing little boys, would make the sound irretrievably tainted.


Leaving Neverland

I was never a fan of Michael Jackson, or the Jackson Five out of which he emerged as the superstar. I wouldn’t have bothered to watch Leaving Neverland, the HBO documentary, except for all the buzz. I did watch the first two hour segment on Sunday night, and it was stomach churning.

Two things struck me. One is that normal parental caution seems to evaporate when celebrity is involved. If you take out the name “Michael Jackson”, what sane parent would let a seven year old boy sleep overnight in the same bed as a 30+ year old man who wanted to be the boy’s “friend”? What parent would willingly be in a different bedroom in another part of the house or even in another building? I suppose it isn’t just celebrity, but also power or status. I imagine the boys that were abused by pedophile priests came from families who were initially proud that their child was the one drawing the favor of “Father So-and-So”.

The second observation is that Michael Jackson’s classic predatory behavior took place in full view of the children’s parents, Jackson’s extensive entourage and his house staff, the entertainment media and the public. On what planet is it normal for a grown man to be constantly trailed by a young boy, holding hands with the boy, dressing the boy in the star’s childhood clothing or a facsimile of the star’s glittering adult outfits, hugging and kissing the boy? Didn’t anyone wonder why these children weren’t in school, playing with other children, going home at night with their families? What in the world did those who watched Michael Jackson think was going on?

Michael Jackson was born in 1958, and died of an overdose in 2009. The two boys profiled in Leaving Neverland were under Jackson’s spell in the 1980’s, and there apparently was a new boy just about every year thereafter. I don’t think it’s enough to say we saw things — or failed to see them — with different eyes back then. I think this story is horrifying.

I suppose I’ll watch Monday night’s segment too, even though the Ick Factor is off the charts. Shame on Michael Jackson, and shame on everyone who covered and is still covering for him. All the talent in the world doesn’t excuse years of sexually assaulting little boys.


Gaga and Bradley Cooper

Social media is abuzz with speculation that Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper are an item. The buzz exploded after their torrid rendition of the love song Shallow at the Academy Awards.

I don’t follow Lady Gaga and don’t know if she’s usually politic or more candid when responding to that kind of buzz. But apparently someone asked her about her possible relationship with Cooper, and her four word response was like a dash of cold water to the most romantic of her fans.

“It’s called acting, people.”

52 Places for the New York Times

Those of you who read the New York Times may be aware that they send a travel journalist to the top 52 places to visit for that year, and publish weekly travelogs from that person. Here’s the new guy for 2019, Sebastian Modak.

Before you swoon over how wonderful it would be to travel the world on someone else’s dollar, think about being in a new place every week, and having to endure the travel to get from one place to another. This is not an easy job.

Something Modak said rings true for me: you could only do this successfully if you have a fluid sense of “home” and the ability to make yourself comfortable very quickly in new places.

I do feel like I’ve been working toward doing something like this my whole life. I was born in the United States to a Colombian mother and an Indian father, but we left for Hong Kong when I was 2 years old and continued to move every few years. My brothers and I didn’t really grow up with the concept of “home,” because we understood every place was temporary. It made travel the only real constant in our lives. January marks five years in New York City, though, and that puts it in a joint first-place spot for the longest I’ve stayed anywhere — tied with Indonesia and India.

For me, travel is all about immersing yourself in the unfamiliar, and embracing the feeling of humility that comes with that: There’s always something to learn from someone else, from somewhere else. That’s what made me choose a career in multimedia storytelling. I was a Fulbright-mtvU fellow in Botswana, where I spent a year documenting the local hip-hop scene. I was a producer on an MTV series that looked at the role of the arts in protest movements around the world. Most recently, I was an editor and then a staff writer at Condé Nast Traveler, where I was often sent on assignment to find and report stories that resonate with a global and globally curious audience. I think the thread that connects all of these experiences is an insatiable sense of wonder at the world around me.”

When Matt rode his bike across country the year after Jerry died, completing his father’s goal to celebrate the 60th birthday he never reached, Matt called me from a little town in the heartland where his biking group was spending the night. He said, “Mom, do you know there are people who’ve never been more than a half hour from where they were born?” I said I did know that. A job like Modak’s would be torture for such a person, stressful and not fun at all.

I don’t think I’d manage a year of travel very well, although, like Modak, I enjoy travel for the delight of new places and for the experience of finding strangers unexpectedly kind. But I’ll follow his journey, and wish I could also follow his steps.

Trapper John

I’m always fascinated by what people find fascinating — like how to trap and remove wildlife from urban areas. My latest salvo in the battle with the raccoons is Trapper John of Pathfinder Wildlife Services.  Trapper John arrived with a bit of a Crocodile Dundee vibe. While John was examining the yard to see where the raccoons were entering, I was picking his brain — just out of curiosity. According to John, a remote forested area will contain roughly 3 raccoons per square mile. In the city of Seattle, the number is 70-90 per square mile. Food, shelter and water are easy for raccoons to find in the city, and so here they are.

This is the kind of trap John uses, although the trap isn’t placed yet. He put two traps along what he determined were the pathways for the raccoons, and threw marshmallows around.  Inside the trap is food congenial to raccoons. I have to check the traps every 24 hours, per Seattle law. If we catch something, John will come and deal with it. Apparently any number of things, including rats, skunks, and squirrels, might get caught up in my raccoon vendetta. John basically filled me in on everything he knows about raccoons, including how hard they are to catch. He has a three week long process, flat fee, to catch and remove as many as he can.

John promises that we’ll prevail, one way or another. I live in hope.