Whose baby is it?

Over the Labor Day weekend, Lori and I ventured out to our neighborhood theater for what has become a rare experience — seeing a first-run movie on the big screen.

In this age of streaming, which allows viewing virtually anything anywhere anytime, it’s still a treat to see a motion picture as it’s meant to be seen. Especially when the film is good enough to justify the steep cost of admission.

“The Light Between Oceans” isn’t a perfect movie, or even a great one. But I liked it well enough that I’d recommend it to anyone who’s drawn to a story centered on vulnerable characters and compelling moral choices. Add in lustrous cinematography and a talented, international cast and you’ve got a winner.


The movie is based on a novel by M.L. Stedman, an Australian author. I was unfamiliar with the book, so I walked in with no expectations. I left pretty impressed, though a review in The New Yorker I read a few days later faulted the film for being “nonsensical” and “rather prim.”

Michael Fassbender, the Irish-German actor who played a sadistic slave owner in “12 Years A Slave,” plays the lead role of Tom Sherbourne. Alicia Vikander, the Swedish actress who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in “The Danish Girl,” plays his wife, Isabel. Rachel Weisz, the British actress who won in the same category for her work in “The Constant Gardener,” plays Hannah, a young widow. The director is Derek Cianfrance, whose previous films include “Blue Valentine.”

The story takes place just after the First World War. As a veteran of that conflict, Tom has seen too much death, so he welcomes the opportunity to accept a position as a lighthouse keeper off the coast of Australia, a job that would seem to guarantee isolation and ample time for introspection and possible healing.

Before leaving the mainland, however, he meets Isabel. He goes off to work on the fictional island of Janus, but they correspond and when Tom returns to the village where Isabel lives, they quickly fall in love and get married. The couple move to Janus, where they are the only humans, and agree to start a family. Poor Isabel has not one but two miscarriages.

lightoceansSo when a small boat comes ashore one day bearing a dead man and an infant girl, with no sign of who they are or what brought them there, the couple must decide: Do they keep the child and pretend it is theirs? Or do they make an effort to return the child to its mother? That is, if the mother is even alive?

Isabel argues strongly for keeping the child. Tom acquiesces. They name her Lucy.

Four years later, on a visit to the village, Tom figures out that Hannah is the biological mother and that she believes her daughter Grace was lost at sea. His conscience tells him that returning the child is the right thing to do.

But is it? Doing so would crush his wife and thoroughly confuse the little girl they’ve raised as their daughter. Isabel, too, must decide. Can she bear to part with the little girl who came into her life, seemingly as an act of providence?

And what about Hannah? Initially incensed upon learning that Tom and Isabel made no attempt to reach out to her, she now can see how tightly bonded her daughter has become with the couple.

Whose baby is it? With whom does the child truly belong? Is the morally correct action the best option?

These are gut-wrenching questions, and the answers have life-changing consequences for all three adults as well as for little Lucy/Grace. Fassbender, Vikander and Weisz all deliver excellent performances as they convey pain, heartbreak, confusion and sacrifice. Husband and wife are pitted against each other as are the child’s biological and adoptive mothers.

It’s a gripping film. Moral choices are never easy and in this film, you can feel the tug-of-war within each character’s mind and heart. Go see it and consider what you would do in their situations.

Mitt: The movie

When Mitt Romney ran for president, his critics painted him as a flipflopper on policy issues and a wooden figure whose tremendous wealth put him out of touch with ordinary Americans.

I’d agree with that critique. But after watching the 2014 documentary “Mitt,” I have to say my view of Romney has softened substantially.

It’s not that I’ve gone back and decided he was right after all on health care, gun laws and climate change. No, it’s nothing like that.

Rather, it’s having had the opportunity to glimpse his private, personal side in unscripted moments spanning six years, I can better appreciate the tremendous strain and sacrifice involved in running for the nation’s highest office.


In this 90-minute Netflix documentary produced and directed by Greg Whiteley, the pressures on Romney and his family are conveyed in scenes shot in their home, in hotel rooms, on the road and in the air, and on numerous campaign stops.

We see the former governor of Massachusetts in his bathrobe, eating takeout from a plastic takeout container, riding in the back of a van, sleeping on the floor of an airplane, playing with his grandchildren in the snow.

We see him in prayer with his wife and children, consulting with his family about whether he should run back in 2008, and asking for their suggestions on what to say in his 2012 concession speech.

There’s a surprisingly intimate feel to the film, one that made me view Romney with greater respect for his willingness to go all in, not just once but twice, out of a belief that he could steer the country in a direction he thought was the right course.

Frankly, “Mitt” is a refreshing change from the sleazy tactics and schoolyard taunts we’ve seen from Trump, Cruz and other wannabes who’ve since dropped out of the Republican presidential campaign.

We are so used to seeing politicians as one-dimensional creatures who stick to rehearsed lines and strive to keep up a facade that it comes as a welcome change to see the mask come off.

“Mitt” isn’t so much about campaign strategy as it is about portraying the man as a flesh-and-blood individual. We see Romney dealing with doubt and disappointment as well as the frustration of being typecast.

“You’re not going to convince people Dan Quayle is smart. You’re not going to convince people Gerald Ford isn’t a stumble-bum. I guess I’m destined to be the flipping Mormon,” he says.

Later, he muses that he had to “steal” the 2012 nomination. “Our party is Southern, evangelist and populist and (I’m) Northern, Mormon and rich.”

Without a doubt, the film’s most tender moments come when Romney and his wife Ann are alone. He asks for her advice before high-stakes debates. She pats his arm. He leans into her embrace. She gives her unequivocal support despite dealing with her own challenge: multiple sclerosis.

It’s interesting to speculate how a similar film would have portrayed Barack Obama or John McCain — or how it might portray this year’s crop of candidates. Getting a better feel for who these people really are would help voters make an informed choice.

In that vein, I tip my hat to Whiteley, a 46-year-old, Emmy-nominated filmmaker who, like Romney, is Mormon. He’s succeeded in presenting a public figure in a new light and without making a blatantly partisan film.

Regardless of what you think of Romney and his politics, this is a film worth watching if you want to gain a deeper appreciation of the stresses in running for the White House.


In praise of student journalists


Like every other working, retired or aspiring journalist out there, I did a fist-pump when “Spotlight” captured the Best Picture Oscar at the Academy Awards.

Maybe I’m delusional but I’m hoping this kind of high-profile validation of the film might prompt Americans to reconsider the importance of a free press and the impact of first-rate investigative journalism in holding the powerful to account.

“Spotlight,”  of course, tells the inspiring story of The Boston Globe’s exposé of the Catholic Church’s years-long cover-up of priests who molested boys and girls in the Boston archdiocese.

Lord knows our profession could use some help in opening some eyes and unlocking some minds. (Pun intended.)

The latest public opinion I’ve seen ranking the honesty and ethics of people in various fields shows journalists just above the middle of the pack.

We lag far behind nurses, pharmacists and medical doctors but ahead of bankers, lawyers and car salespeople. At the very bottom? Telemarketers, members of Congress and lobbyists.

See results of the December 2015 Gallup survey here: “Honesty/Ethics in Professions”

Maybe there’s hope.


Steve Duin, my former colleague at The Oregonian/OregonLive, cited “Spotlight” in a recent column praising the achievement and ambition of Grant Magazine, a monthly magazine published by and for students at the Northeast Portland high school that two of our three children attended.

N Word-largeLaunched in 2011 by a former principal and another former colleague, friend and neighbor of mine, David Austin, who serves as adviser, the magazine has gone after controversial topics with gusto. This month’s issue explores the history of the N-word and recent incidents of racial slurs at Grant. Previously, these student journalists have “fearlessly tackled drug and alcohol abuse, sexting, divorce, bullying, and homophobia and misogyny on social media,” Duin said.

Last week, I saw the same seriousness of purpose as I judged a national contest for scholastic journalists. I was the sole judge of a new category — the Profiles Division of Quill and Scroll’s Writing, Photo and Multimedia Contest.

From about 90 entries representing public and private schools from California to the Carolinas,  I selected three winners and a half-dozen honorable mentions. The stories explored issues involving depression, adoption, homelessness and sexual identity as experienced by the writers’ peers.

quill & scroll logo.As a high school journalist, one of the first signs that I was on the right career track came in the form of a graduation honor cord from Quill and Scroll, an honorary society for high school journalists founded 80 years ago at the University of Iowa. Later, as a professional, I served for many years on the organization’s board of trustees.

I stepped down a few years ago to give the same opportunity to others younger than me, but I was glad to step up as a judge, as I’ve done many times before for other professional and student journalist contests.

When the Quill and Scroll winners learn of their awards, I hope they will react as I did years ago. The recognition that someone already in the business thinks your work is pretty darned good not only is gratifying but it helps build self-confidence. Believing in yourself is a powerful asset moving forward into college and a career.

As “Spotlight” reminds us, we need journalists with top-notch skills and the highest ethical standards for the sake of our democracy and our communities. Here’s hoping some of these student journalists at Grant and elsewhere will rise up and become professionals too.

Word cloud: fairfaxnews.com

Magazine cover: Grant Magazine


piff cinema 21

Cinema 21 in Northwest Portland was one of three venues where I volunteered this year.

My first year as a Portland International Film Festival volunteer has come and gone, and it’s time to do the math.

6 movies + 3 theaters + 4 jobs = 1 positive experience.

As a new retiree, I wanted to do something new and fun this year, something that appealed to my interests and would fit easily into my “schedule.” Volunteering at PIFF struck me as an ideal situation, considering that movies rank high on my list of favorite activities. All the better that I could choose from among films produced in 48 countries, ranging from Albania to Kyrgystan to Venezuela.

piff tickets

Each time you volunteer, you get a standby ticket to attend another movie.

In exchange for volunteering my services on days and nights that I chose, I would see a handful of films for free and maybe meet a few new people.

Well, that’s just how it turned out.

I saw six films at three venues — World Trade Center, Moreland Theater and Cinema 21 — in three parts of town.

I did four jobs: line control, seating, ticket-taking and tallying (tracking the number of people who entered with festival passes or smartphone tickets). All were completely manageable tasks and gave me a new window on the PIFF experience.

The festival, in its 39th year, offered 97 feature-length films and 62 short features during a 17-day run from Feb. 11-27.

Under the guidance of PIFF staff members who sold tickets and managed each screening, I worked alongside fellow Portlanders, some of whom were rookies like me and others who were veteran volunteers accustomed to making the most of free admission. One woman said she anticipated seeing at least 34 films this year.

I can’t say I made any new friends, but I can say I enjoyed two or three conversations with other volunteers, including one a couple nights ago with a fellow parent I met years ago when our kids were attending Grant High School. Like any group of people, you have some folks who are outgoing and others who are more private. No one made introductions at any of the venues, so it was up to you to engage or not.

piff staff

Two nights in a row, I worked with PIFF staffers (from left) Nevada, Rebecca and Zoe at Cinema 21.

Last night at Cinema 21, the experience seemed to capture Portland’s essence — a mid-sized city with a friendly vibe where odds are high you might run into someone you know.

Two quick anecdotes:

— A guy entered the lobby, approached the cashiers and said he had an extra ticket he wouldn’t be able to use. He wanted to leave it with them to give to someone else.

“That happens a lot,” said Rebecca, who was in charge of the PIFF crew that night. Once, a man took a free ticket but insisted on buying another so he could pay it forward.

— I was holding a clipboard and chatting with a woman from France named Gigi, who like me was awaiting the start of a Mexican film, when the audience began exiting from the earlier screening of a movie made in Italy. Sure enough, I spotted two of my neighbors, one of them German-born and accompanied by her daughter-in-law. It was a PIFF moment, for sure.

As for the movies I saw?

Four thumbs up. Two thumbs down.

My favorite: “The Thin Yellow Line” (Mexico), which won the Audience Award at the Guadalajara International Film Festival. It’s a lovely story about five misfits who are hired to paint the center stripe of a rural road connecting two villages.

Thrown together as strangers in the sweltering summer sun, they battle heat, isolation, each other and their own demons as they walk the entire 130-mile route. Along the way, they deal with issues of trust, respect, forgiveness and acceptance. In my book, this film by Celso Garcia was every bit as good as any of this year’s Oscar-nominated movies.

Also very good: Two documentaries, “Sonita” (Iran) and “Landfill Harmonic” (Paraguay), and a drama, “Fatima” (France).

“Sonita” is the story of a teenage Afghan refugee who uses rap to speak out against her country’s tradition of forced marriage. (See previous post.) “Landfill Harmonic” is the uplifting story of children who are given the gift of music, playing instruments made from recycled materials taken from the landfill near their home. “Fatima” offers a window in the struggles faced by a single mother, an Algerian immigrant living in France with her two daughters.

Not so good: “Nahid” (Iran) and “Schneider vs. Bax” (The Netherlands).

Looking ahead to PIFF 40, I anticipate I’ll be volunteering again.




Volunteering at the Portland International Film Festival

George at PIFF

A new volunteer at the 39th annual Portland International Film Festival.

When the year began, I resolved to try new things.

My weekly urban hikes certainly qualify. But I’ve just embarked on another new-to-me experience — volunteering at the Portland International Film Festival.

2016 marks the 39th edition of the festival and this year’s lineup offers me the opportunity to not just give back to my community but also to enjoy free admission to a handful of movies among the nearly 100 full-length features and 60 short films from three dozen countries.

I’ve signed up for seven volunteer shifts during the Feb. 11-27 festival and had planned to wait until I had done two or three of them before writing anything. But that plan went out the window after Sunday’s amazing experience.


PIFF volunteerArriving at noon in downtown Portland, I picked up my volunteer badge and then positioned myself at the entrance to the World Trade Center, where I greeted people and directed them to the movie on the third floor. Pretty easy stuff.

When my work was done, I hustled upstairs to catch the start of the movie — a documentary titled “Sonita.”

I loved it. Going in, I had no idea I’d be seeing a film that won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

“Sonita” is the unlikely true story of an Afghan teenager who dreams of becoming a rapper. Sonita Alizadeh was a young girl when she and family members fled to Iran to escape the Taliban in her native country. Years later, she was still living in Iran as an undocumented immigrant when an Iranian filmmaker learned of her through a relative who worked for a non-governmental organization that helps Afghan refugees.

Sonita cleaned bathrooms for the NGO and learned to read and write, but when she was 16, her mother visited and said she must return with her to get married. As a bride in Afghanistan, she would be worth $9,000.

But Sonita doesn’t want to go back.

Learning the basics from watching music videos by Iranian rapper Yas and Eminem, she writes her own lyrics, speaking out boldly against forced marriage, against the subservient role of females in traditional Muslim society, against the war in Afghanistan.


Afghan teenager Sonita Alizadeh uses rap to speak out against forced marriages. (CNN)

It’s an audacious, even dangerous, thing to do in Iran or Afghanistan, where it’s against the law for females to sing solo. Yet, Sonita’s dream is to give voice to other young women like her who are forced into marriages arranged by their families.

The movie tracks her emotions as she flips back and forth between hope and disappointment, trying to raise money for a recording session while also confronting the stark challenges posed by family, bureaucracy and cultural traditions. It seems like an impossible dream.

But in telling Sonita’s story, director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami tells the story of millions of girls whose talents and ambitions are stifled by the practice of forced marriage. Along the way, the director faces an ethical dilemma herself: Should she pay the mother $2,000 to buy more time for Sonita to pursue her dream? Or should she refuse to do so and confine herself to telling the girl’s story?

This is one of those films that draws back the curtain on places and people that we Westerners rarely see, including the interior of a Tehran apartment, street scenes in Herat (where Sonita grew up), government offices in Kabul, striking vistas of the rugged Afghan landscape.

More compelling, though, is Sonita herself — a devout Muslim, yet a strong-minded young woman determined to blaze her own trail.

When the lights came up, movie-goers applauded loudly. When they learned the director was in attendance, they rose to their feet. It was truly a Portland moment: a standing ovation and 15 minutes of Q&A with Ghaem Maghami, who said of Sonita: “I’ve never seen a child with so much ambition.”

Spoiler alert: My former Oregonian co-worker, Deborah Bloom, now at CNN, wrote a terrific feature story about Sonita last year, chronicling her struggle and inspiring success.  Sonita’s “Daughters For Sale” music video has captured more than 350,000 views on YouTube and ultimately brought her to the United States on a scholarship to study at a private high school in Utah.


Tonight I’ll do the second one of my volunteer shifts. I expect to see a variety of dramas and comedies made in France, Paraguay, Argentina, Mexico, Iran and The Netherlands.

If they are anywhere near as good as “Sonita,” I will be thrilled.

(Thanks to my friend Lakshmi Jagannathan, whose own volunteering for PIFF years ago inspired me to do the same when I got the chance.)


Twenty Fifteen

New Year Wallpaper.


We’ve just flipped the calendar to a new year. But before embarking on new adventures in 2016, it’s time for the annual look back at the year just finished.

Happy to say there was a lot to like about 2015. Here are a few of my favorite memories, in no particular order:


Can’t name a single favorite but I can say the year started and finished with two stellar novels — “The Lowlands” by Jhumpa Lahiri and “Let The Great World Spin” by Colum McCann.


Jhumpa Lahiri, master storyteller.

In between, there was a lot to like:  Jess Walter’s collection of short stories. “We Live in Water”; “The Last Flight of Poxl West” by Daniel Torday; the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Orphan Master’s Son” by Adam Johnson; and  “The Four Words From Home” by my former Oregonian colleague Angie Chuang, based on the parallels between two immigrant families — her Taiwanese parents and an extended family of Afghan Americans.


How lucky was I to see all these performers? Jackson Browne, The Doobie Brothers, Lyle Lovett and His Large Band, Florence + The Machine, London Grammar and a future star, Liz Longley.


The amazing Florence Welch.


It was a stellar year for motion pictures. Those I liked best included: “Birdman,” “The Theory of Everything,” “The Imitation Game,” “Still Alice,” “Amy,” “Spotlight,” and “The Martian,”


Best Actress: Julianne Moore.


They are the spice of life and, increasingly, I seem to be in the company of those with salt and pepper hair. A quick shout-out to my new bowling team, the aptly named Mediaocracies, with John, Tony and Brian. Likewise, to my newest poker buddies,  Beth, Erin and Ellie, who’ve come over a couple times on Ladies’ Game Night to play cards with Lori and me.


Card sharks: Erin, Beth, Ellie & Lori.

In the fall, we had a great visit here in Portland with our dear friends from  Santa Barbara, Al and Elizabeth. They scheduled their trip so they could be part of the 5th annual Voices of August meetup for guest bloggers who contributed to R&R II.


We celebrated as many birthdays and other special occasions as we could with our kids and their spouses/partners. It’s harder than you’d think all getting together given that two of the three couples live in Portland. But we take what we can get.


George, Lori, Nathan & Simone at the hot dog throwdown.

Two highlights: The 6th Annual International Hot Dog Competition, a backyard bash hosted by Simone and her wife Kyndall, and the weekend I got to see Jordan here in Portland during a bachelor weekend when Lori was in San Francisco attending a high school reunion.


Lunch with Jordan at Tilt


We made three visits to Heaven on Earth — also known as Orcas Island. Once in the spring, twice in the summer. Did all the usual things. Golf, kayaking, hiking, lots of reading, board games and just chillin’. No better place for it.


Outside the White House gates.

Our big trip came in September, when we marked our 40th wedding anniversary with a visit to Washington, D.C. We were part of a Road Scholar group that saw the sights in the nation’s capital from the seat of a bicycle. Hot and humid, but fun.

Work and career

Finally, it was a milestone year for both of us. Lori moved her personal training business from the place where she’d been for nine years to a newer, larger space a couple miles away. And I turned in my laptop and walked away from the newsroom after 30 years at The Oregonian.


Covered workplace issues during the 2015 Oregon Legislature. No more.

Fortunate to take early retirement at 63 but looking forward to the next few chapters in his charmed life that I lead. I have food, shelter, heat, health, a wonderful wife, three pets that bring me joy and now lots of free time. Who could ask for anything more?

So long, 2015. You were good to me.

2015 image: MyCityWeb

Spotlight on a scandal

Spotlight_(film)_posterAnother Sunday matinee. Another feel-good experience at the movies.

Two weeks ago, it was “The Martian.”

This time it was “Spotlight,” a riveting film about a dogged team of journalists in Boston who start out investigating allegations that a single disgraced priest molested more than 80 boys and wind up exposing proof of a cover-up of widespread abuse within the Roman Catholic Church.

Oh, sure. You’d expect a journalist to like a movie about other journalists.

Well, I’d like to think that as a journalist, I bring a more nuanced view to a movie like this one. That being the case, I’m happy to say the director, screenwriters and actors all got it right.

“Spotlight” is a well-crafted, well-acted film that pulls back the curtain on The Boston Globe’s investigation of the Catholic Church — quite possibly the most powerful institution in a city whose Catholic population is matched only by New York and Pittsburgh at 36 percent.

The movie accurately depicts the methods and challenges of reporting a sensitive, complicated story over a period of months. Checking the morgue (the newspaper library) for previous stories to get started. Meeting with both cooperative and reluctant sources and winning their trust. Locating experts and mining their insights. Meticulously recording and tracking known facts. Gaining access to key documents that are sealed under court order. Connecting all the dots to see a bigger, more explosive story emerge.

The main characters — an editor and three reporters who make up The Globe’s investigative “Spotlight” team — are presented as caring, committed, conscientious and even courageous, while also portrayed as ordinary and imperfect. They’re not over-the-top superheroes, just dogged, resourceful professionals dedicated to telling ugly truths about a church that allowed dozens of priests to abuse vulnerable children and then sought to cover up their unconscionable, criminal behavior.

Michael Keaton — who was so, so good in “Birdman” — is again superb in his role as Spotlight editor Walter Robinson. Others in an outstanding cast include Marc Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams (as reporters Michael Rezendes and Sacha Pfeiffer), Liev Schrieber (as Globe Editor Marty Baron) and Stanley Tucci (as attorney Mitchell Garabedian).

spotlight (scene)

Clockwise from top right: Michael Keaton (Walter “Robby” Robinson) in a scene with reporters Brian d’Arcy James (Matt Carroll), Rachel McAdams (Sacha Pfeiffer) and Mark Ruffalo (Michael Rezendes).

Two things are worth keeping in mind as you watch this film — and,  by all means, you should go see it.

One: The Globe managed to keep its focus on this story in 2001 and 2002  even after the 9/11 terror attacks dominated the news for months on end. It didn’t rush a half-baked story into print. It showed patience and perspective in giving the “Spotlight” team the time it needed to discover and deliver the bigger, more impactful story. Deservedly, the Globe won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its work.

Two: Old school print journalism is on full display here. Reporters take notes by hand. They literally thumb through directories of Catholic churches and priests. They knock on doors to get interviews. They make photocopies of court documents. Blockbuster stories appear in the morning paper. Readers respond by calling the newsroom.

It’s a far cry from today’s run-and-gun digital age, where vast amounts of data can be downloaded, stored and manipulated on spreadsheets; where morgues have given way to Google; where court documents can be accessed online; where stories appear online and then in print.

That’s not to say that important, investigative journalism has fallen by the wayside. It hasn’t. I know this because I see the great work of my colleagues week in and week out, holding public officials and government agencies accountable, and shining a light — a spotlight, if you will — on issues like domestic abuse, race and diversity, housing and gentrification.

“The Martian” was a welcome escape from reality. “Spotlight” makes you ask, who needs a fictional narrative when the drama of a real life detective story is compelling enough in its own right?

Poster: Open Road Films

Photograph: Kerry Wells, Open Road Films


Escape to Mars

A welcome escape from reality.

A welcome escape from reality.

If movies are an escape from the banality of ordinary life, then the timing could not have been better to see “The Martian.

As the weekend neared, Lori and I had already planned to see a Sunday matinee. After the carnage in Paris, we could not have made a better choice.

In contrast to the real-life hatred and religious zealotry responsible for the bloodshed in France — and let’s not forget Beirut, Lebanon, either — “The Martian” presents an enthralling glimpse of a world united in rooting for the safe return of an American astronaut left behind for dead on a mission to Mars.

Implausible? If we’re talking about the plot, yes. At least, in this point in time. The notion of a manned flight to the Red Planet remains the stuff of science fiction. And to think that a single astronaut could survive for more than a year there with limited supplies stretches the bounds of imagination.

But that’s the beauty of an engaging story that’s well told on the big screen. Director Ridley Scott and a great cast led by Matt Damon ask us to suspend our belief in service to an engaging narrative, one fraught with tension that builds with each scene.

There’s much to like about the movie, not least of which is that Damon, as astronaut Mark Watney, must solve one problem after another to stay alive and, later, to communicate with NASA and his crewmates. As a trained botanist, Watney figures out how to grow vegetables on Mars, but then also has to confront other challenges involving chemistry, biology, physics and astrophysics. It’s fascinating and inspiring.

Implausible? If we’re talking about international cooperation between the United States and China or about moral choices pitting the survival of an entire flight crew vs. the survival of a single crew member, no.

In real life, we’ve seen the world come together in support of Chilean miners trapped underground and other people victimized by catastrophic accidents and natural disasters. Would it happen under the circumstances presented in “The Martian.” I’d like to say yes.

I’d like to believe that despite the spilling of innocent blood late last week, people around the globe would recognize the humanity in a desperate situation and rally together.

For 2 1/2 hours, I was all too happy to leave behind the reality of wanton violence and escape into a captivating sci-fi flick. Thanks, Hollywood.

“The Martian film poster” by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

Friday the 13th: A good day gone bad

french flagGiven the horrific events in France last night, I’m not so sure I should even be writing this — a summary of a positively upbeat day darkened by another crime against humanity.

Social media posts are filled with shock, fury and disgust at the terror attacks in Paris while news organizations strive to answer the questions of who these cowards are and why they continue to slay innocent people.

Unfortunately, we know the answers. These shootings and bombings are the bloody work of religious fanatics engaged in a cultural war against Western values that embrace diversity, democracy and personal freedoms.

I leave it to Facebook and Twitter to capture both the outrage and sadness so many of us feel at a time like this, even if we’ve never come close to setting foot in Paris.

That said — and with apologies to anyone who might find this post too trivial or too self-centered — here’s a quick look back at a day whose simple pleasures made me glad to be alive and at an uncanny coincidence as evening fell.

My editor surprised me recently when he told I still had four more paid time off days to use before the year ends. I took the first of those yesterday and was reminded again how much I enjoy a weekday off.

Mid-morning goodness in the Sabin neighborhood.

Mid-morning goodness in the Sabin neighborhood.

Started with breakfast at a new-to-me restaurant about a mile from home featuring Southern comfort food. A wonderful discovery and a great place to finish reading a magazine profile about a Texan who’s leading a push to take “open carry” laws to the next level — no restrictions anywhere at any time.

Portland's newest bridge over the Willamette River opened in September.

Portland’s newest bridge over the Willamette River opened in September.

Took a mid-day run over the Tilikum Crossing, my first time doing so on foot. I’d previously only ridden my bike over Portland’s newest span — a pedestrian and mass-transit only bridge that opened this fall. It was a nice change of scenery, running east to west, then along the South Waterfront District.

Molly Holsapple: Friend and fellow lover of books.

Molly Holsapple: Friend and fellow lover of books.

Met for coffee with my friend Molly, a fellow bibliophile. She and I and a friend of hers had attended a talk two nights earlier on the Black Lives Matter movement, but we didn’t have the chance to immediately discuss what we heard because I wanted to keep a dinner date with Lori. Molly and I started there, with a critique of the BLM program, but then moved on to books, with her telling me about her experiences at this year’s Wordstock and me sharing a couple of recommendations of books I’ve recently read.

Kyndall: Celebrating her Halloween birthday  two weeks late.

Kyndall: Celebrating her Halloween birthday two weeks late.

Had Simone and Kyndall over for dinner, featuring a delicious cioppino made by Lori. We hadn’t seen them for a while and it was a chance to belatedly celebrate Kyndall’s Oct. 31st birthday. It’s always fun to be around these two and I am grateful that we live in the same city.

vie en roseGot things cleaned up and the dishwasher going before we sat down to finish watching a movie we’d started the night before. Coincidentally, it was “La Vie en Rose,” a 2007 French film about the singer Edith Piaf.

Marion Cotillard won an Oscar for Best Actress for her portrayal of Piaf, whose rise from poverty to international stardom was marred by personal tragedy, drug addiction, multiple affairs, severe arthritic and early death at age 47.

How eerie, how sad that we would be watching a film about a woman so revered by the French at the end of a day when so much innocent blood was spilled in her country.

“When one thinks of Edith Piaf, one thinks of love, sorrow and music. One did not breathe without the other two,” her IMDb bio says. “Piaf remains the epitome of the French singer in heart, soul, style and passion; for many Piaf IS France.”

May she rest in peace. And may the French find comfort and support from the worldwide community.

Bridge photograph: oregonlive.com

Too much, too soon

Troubled relationships and addictions combined to doom Amy Winehouse

Troubled relationships and addictions combined to doom Amy Winehouse.

A co-worker at The Oregonian/OregonLive previewed the new film “Amy” with this gem:

“Amy” opens with a home movie: Amy Winehouse at 14, singing “Happy Birthday” to a friend. She is happy and healthy, and that voice! Rich and soulful, sweet and lowdown, with a wink and a swing.

It’s all there, bursting out in full force, ready to change the world, and it did.

Winehouse wasn’t ready, though, not for the fame that came with her gift and not for the betrayal of loved ones whose greed destroyed her when she needed them most. She wasn’t strong enough for what life threw at her, and she knew it.

“I don’t think I’m going to be at all famous,” she said in 2003. “I couldn’t handle it. I think I’d go mad.”

A former co-worker saw the movie this past weekend and summarized it in a single paragraph in a Facebook post:

Before Amy Winehouse’s death in 2011, I refused to buy her music in fear that I would be a contributor to her eventual fate (I now have nearly every recording). A friend even posted “why do we celebrate a freakin’ drug addict”? Today, after watching the documentary that bears her name, I know now what I knew then: she was brilliant, gifted, lost, funny, sweet, beautiful, dramatic, shy, GENIUS.

I couldn’t agree more.

Amy Winehouse was a shooting star, her prodigious talent streaking across the sky, only to burn up and disintegrate, leaving us to mourn yet another musical superstar gone too soon.

At 27, Winehouse died at the same age as Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison and Cobain.

Each of them had substance abuse issues. And I imagine each of them succumbed, in part, to the pressures of dealing with stardom. That was certainly the case with Winehouse.

Success brought destruction for Amy Winehouse, who won five Grammys in 2008 and died three years later.

Success brought destruction for Amy Winehouse, who won five Grammys in 2008 and died three years later.

In the documentary by Asif Kapadia, we know how the story ends. What we don’t know is how and why Amy went from precocious teenager, a lively Jewish girl from London, to a drug-addled, heavy-drinking young woman.

Her talent is easy enough to see. Hearing some of her songs again, whether demos, live club performances or polished studio tracks, made me realize again what a tremendous singer she was. Tony Bennett, one of her idols and someone she would sing a Grammy-winning duet with, said she was born with a spirit for jazz, and compared her to Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday.

Less obvious were the forces pulling her down. The people who should have been most protective of her were instead the ones who used their proximity to her to enjoy the fruits of her financial success. And here I’m talking about her ex-husband, her manager and, most despicable, her father.

Amy tried to cope but her choices only made things worse. Crack cocaine, heroin, alcohol, bulimia. She was a mess.

She tried to get back on track and succeeded for a time. She was clean in 2008 when she won five Grammys, including for Best New Artist, on the strength of her superb album “Back to Black” But she had a relapse and died in 2011 of alcohol poisoning in her London home.

Amy was an arresting figure, with her pile of raven hair and ubiquitous tattoos. Underneath that exterior, she was more vulnerable than her fans could ever imagine. She seemed genuinely surprised at her early success, then overwhelmed by it as her popularity soared around the globe.

I loved her voice, loved her style. After seeing this film, I have a small window into the pressures that can suffocate a young person who’s unprepared for it.

Too much too soon, for sure.

Read Jeff Baker’s excellent review:  Amy Winehouse’s beautiful, heartbreaking life

Photographs: A24

Amy performing at age 19: