Wednesday, December 30, 2009

One Year in the Blogosphere

It’s been a quiet December at Cal State LA’s College of Arts and Letters. With the winter break, furlough days, and the always cold and silent week before winter quarter begins, I look forward to students, faculty, and staff returning to enliven the atmosphere.

This year it was nice to stay home for the holidays. My break started off with a cheery evening at Disney Hall with the wonderful singers of Chanticleer. This year, I sat up close (the fourth row) and it was interesting to hear more of the individual voices than two years ago when I sat way in the back of the hall. I showed some visitors our campus and had lunch twice at La Serenata de Garibaldi, my favorite Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles. Great sauces, fresh food, friendly service, near downtown, and cheap valet parking—what more could one want?

Staying in town, I also had time to see several films. Up in the Air has a strong, oh too contemporary storyline about laying off people en masse and the camera just loves George Clooney. I also enjoyed Pedro Almódovar’s latest film, Broken Embraces, but I’m certain you’d appreciate the film more if you have seen Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and others of his films that this latest references. The camera, by the way, also loves Penelope Cruz, one of Almódovar’s persisting muses. An Education was well worth seeing, particularly for any young high school or college students thinking of dropping out of school.

In this short post I can’t do justice to A Single Man, surely one of the worst adaptations of a novel I can recall. It’s one thing to make artistic choices necessary in any case for adaption, another to betray the very meaning of a text. I’m working on a short, separate piece just on that unintended disaster flick. Tonight I’m off to see an English-themed film, either Young Victoria or Sherlock Holmes.

I also did lots of cooking this holiday season! Several pairs of friends came over throughout the last two weeks and for Christmas I did a full turkey dinner with an overabundance of trimmings. It’s good that the food court is shut down here this week; I’m bringing leftovers from home, mostly little cuties and Harry and David pears I need to finish before they go bad. Despite my progress, I still will need to find room in the freezer for all that turkey soup I made.

And so I wind down towards New Year’s Eve, once my least favorite holiday—until I let go of great expectations. I’m going to a friend’s party this year, but no dancing! January 1st I’ll likely toddle down three blocks to Colorado Blvd to watch some of the Rose Parade.

Happy new year to you (whenever your new year begins)!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

No Turkeys Here!

The last ten days has been another whirlwind of events as we begin to wrap up Fall Quarter 2009 and the first decade of the 21st century. December 31st is the 10 year anniversary of Y2k. I spent the millennium celebration at a favorite hotel in the small town of Collias in the South of France, near the 2000 year old bridge and aqueduct, le Pont du Gard. The past two New Years, I’ve seen the Tournament of Roses Parade right here in Pasadena. This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for all the opportunities I’ve had—that I have a job, a house, and health insurance.

November 21st brought over 800 audience members to hear Dr. Paul De Castro conduct our Afro Latin Ensemble in a series of works by guest artist, Larry Harlow, including Mr. Harlow’s La Raza Latina Salsa Suite, adapted for our ensemble by another guest artist, José Arellano. Memo Acevedo and Adonis Puentes also contributed significantly to this event. Last year we created the Larry Harlow Fund to support our Afro Latin Ensemble and Cal State LA’s unique master’s program in Afro Latin music.

Way back when I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, Thanksgiving meant opera. Friends and I would gather for an early afternoon meal, digest, then cross the Bay Bridge for another feast of music. I remember one magical performance of Massenet’s Cendrillon with Fredericka von Stade, a perfect fairy tale ending for my favorite holiday. During the past few years I’ve bee equally lucky to attend an LA Opera opening on Thanksgiving weekend. This year was a twin bill! After hearing the gorgeous Tamerlano I want to rush out and buy the CD. Sarah Coburn as Asteria was highly impressive, as was countertenor Bejun Mehta in the title role.

Sunday’s Barber of Seville proved a delicious end to Thanksgiving weekend. The initially black, white, and grey production gets a sudden color blast in the last act; the soldiers’ chevron sleeves and different colored gloves looked like a row of Crayola crayons. This production offered everything an opera standard could offer—an engaging cast who archly played their comic roles, a visually engaging and inventive production, and some fairly fabulous singing. At the end of the show, Juan Diego Flórez brought down the house with an extended aria in which he seemed to delight in his own vocal talent and play while appearing only comically arrogant. Not the biggest voice, but beautifully supple and subtle—magnifico! This was the first time I remember hearing Spanish intonations in an opera (sung in Italian) that takes place, obviously, in Seville. Joyce DiDonato (Rosina) and Nathan Gunn (Figaro) joined Flórez in wowing the audience in the major roles and every other lead singer earned well deserved applause.

To round out my week of thanks to the arts, I made my first visit to the Palm Springs Art Museum on “Black Friday” and listened to Susan Boyle’s new CD. The first three selections make it worth the effort—the rest, not so much. I love her version of “Cry Me a River;” she sounds like a 1950’s soubrette, a working class Doris Day.

This week brings a series of ensemble concerts and Theatre Arts and Dance’s “Moving Dance Images.”

See you @ the next event!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Invigoration & Exhaustion

I rarely pick up and leave in the middle of a quarter, but this year was an exception. My parents wanted to return to Hawaii, where we had lived from 1963-67. I’ve been back several times but my father had just flown in and out in 1969 and my mother hadn’t returned since we left 42 years ago. She and my brothers lived on the island of O’ahu for almost four years without leaving, so I wanted to show my parents the Big Island, Hawai’i, which I had explored several times.

There’s something quite mystic about the Big Island; the volcanoes have an overshadowing presence and at times I would swear that I feel them growing. Snorkeling at Kahalu’u Beach Park was one of the highlights. I spotted the neon blue lips of the state fish (humuhumunukunukuapua'a), watched multiple turtles float by, and identified angelfish, butterflyfish, needlefish, and others. I even observed one fish (still unidentified) building a nest by biting on and spitting out sand, then watched her entice a male fish over where she laid eggs which the male fish fertilized.

Whenever I have any vacation time, I like to catch up on back issues of the New Yorker but this year I added several novels into the mix. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was somewhat amusing but it’s a difficult task to add anything to the already stylish and compact prose of Miss Jane Austen. I also read John Hamamura’s The Color of the Sea which actually begins in Hilo on the Big Island, lingers in California and Japan, and ends in post-war Hiroshima. Since I was in the midst of reliving in part my childhood journeys to Hawai’i and I had also lived briefly (before Hawai’i) in Japan, Hamamura’s novel was a topical tie-in to the vacation. Finally, I read Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, a sad novel about the loss of home and displacement of emigration/immigration.

Returning to Cal State LA, Saturday, November 14th, was a marvelous evening for the arts. I passed the Music Hall, where many were gathering for a student recital, on my way to the opening our master’s thesis show in the Fine Arts Gallery. This show lasts a short time so come out and see it soon. The work is very strong and engaging, including an interactive piece that lets one push the art around the room.

Next was Evita which I hadn’t seen since the first national tour WAY back in the last century. I had forgotten how challenging it is to sing the role of Evita and our two students who played Evita did wonderful work. The staging of the two Evita’s in introspective conversation and evolution from a young to mature character was handled wonderfully. There are several showstoppers that you really must get out to see if

you have the opportunity—this weekend (the19th-22nd) only!

This Wednesday, the Center for Contemporary Poetry and Poetics had a good crowd for its major fall event but I had to pass it by to attend the new media discussion panel hosted by the American Communities Program. This evening, I get to speak at the “Attire for Hire” program co-hosted by students from the College of Arts and Letters and the College of Business and Economics. Having just been to the Los Angeles Textile Association’s annual scholarship lunch where several of our students were awarded scholarships, I naturally feel that I have much to offer in the way of fashion tips. Alas! Tonight is the final night of this season’s Project Runway. While I’m looking forward to the finale, I’ll have to arrange another Thursday evening activity for the next several months.

This Saturday I’m looking forward to our second Larry Harlow concert at the Luckman main stage. Mr. Harlow is already here providing workshops and rehearsals for our Afro Latin Ensemble. Please come out this Saturday at 8 pm for a sizzling world premiere of Harlow’s “Salsa Suite.”

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Midterms Come and Gone

October has flown, midterms have come and gone, and I’ve hardly had a chance to sit down and share. Now it’s November and ninety degrees (again); time to report the not so latest in Arts and Letters.

Our welcome party for the first exchange students from Korea University was a smash. Several officers of the Korea University Alumni Association, including the President of the chapter for the Americas, honored us with their presence. Faculty from several colleges, administrators from International Programs, and Cal State LA students who have studied in Korea came to welcome our three KU undergraduates. We wish them luck in their studies and hope to bid them farewell at the end of their stay.

On October 17, I attended the 12th annual Billie Jean King dinner, a fundraiser for Cal State LA Athletics. As usual, student athletes from Arts and Letters were among those honored at the dinner. This year Dora Kiss of Theatre Arts and Dance not only won a scholarship, but a walk-on during Saving Grace, Holly Hunter’s award winning television series. Another student athlete in Arts and Letters, Vivien Wadeck (Communication Studies ) was honored along with Gabriela Bulawczyk (Business and Economics) and Chris Matzner (Charter College of Education). Ms. Hunter served as a guest MC (matching the absent Patricia Cornwell’s $20,000 bid for the final live auction item), briefly taking over from regular MC, Mary Carillo. I last saw Ms. Hunter live in 1982 in Crimes of the Heart during my first trip to New York City — seven plays in two weeks.

Last year Billie Jean was ill and couldn’t attend. This year, she seemed in particularly good spirits—perhaps because in her 12-year legacy she has raised $2 million for Cal State LA Athletics. A good friend, Chris Freeman, attended, found a new tennis partner and walked away (after a suitable donation) with the table centerpiece.

Last weekend was packed with activities. Friday night the 23rd, the Department of Music, along with Cal State LA and its Luckman Performing Arts Complex, hosted “The President’s Own” US Marine Corps Band. It was great to see the Luckman packed for this free concert and a wonderfully diverse audience from our surrounding communities with many excited elementary students admiring the band from the front rows. Professors Belan, De Castro, and Ford joined Chair DeGraffenreid in trying to interest the young musicians present in coming, one day, to Cal State LA’s music programs.

The next evening, Saturday the 24th, I attended a production of Tea produced by our Department of Theatre Arts and Dance. We were lucky to have playwright Velina Hasu Houston attend. After the performance, Dr. Houston, a Professor and Associate Dean at USC, stayed to take questions from actors and the audience with Dr. Pamela Dunne (Director) and I joining her to converse with the audience. Every now and then I meet a truly lovely person with a wonderful, genuine and generous presence; Ms. Houston is one of those individuals. During the Q&A she briefly praised the set design (Dr. James Hatfield) and our actors’ performances as they played the characters, their husbands, and their daughters. The playwright described other productions of Tea that had involved non-traditional casting citing the benefits for the actors and the audience as well as the reasons why university theatres may want to or need to cast actors across gender, ethnicity, or “race.” We heard that she writes several plays at once and now and then takes out an older piece to see if she can rework it for new purposes.

This past week the schedule didn’t let down. Humanities and Social Sciences Deans of the CSU met at Cal State Fullerton to commiserate on the budget, explore ways to collaborate across our campus boundaries, and to learn how CSU students can get involved in the 2048 Project ( towards full enforcement of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I topped this past week by wishing farewell to Ben Phan of Extended Studies, then attending our Charter College of Education’s Outstanding Educator of the Year Awards. Somewhere in between these activities, I completed my WASC white paper on the Introduction to Higher Education course, met with Department Chairs to do more painful budget planning, and met with our ASI representatives to begin to plan next quarter’s events.

Spring forward, fall back; I was glad to have an extra hour to recuperate this weekend. More fantastic events await!

For more info about The Salsa Suite, visit
For more info about Evita, visit

Monday, October 12, 2009

Mixing it Up

Now that the school year has begun, it’s time for mixers. Not the kind that some use to make cheap margaritas, but mixers that bring together people, ideas, exchanges of information, and in the case of our college mixers, iced or hot tea. Despite our budget woes, there is much to celebrate this year, so I’ll give you a quick rundown of some of the social events of the past ten days.

First there was a reception on October 6 to honor the recipients of the Outstanding Professor Awards. This year’s President's Distinguished Professor, Dr. Roberto Cantú, is joint faculty shared by the Department of English and the Chicano Studies Department. Both are proud to share in Professor Cantú's accolade. Arts and Letters is also proud of the Department of Art’s, Dr. Manuel Aguilar Moreno, who received an Outstanding Professor Award. Last year’s President’s professor, Dr. Domnita Dumitrescu, was our host for the afternoon.

On October 8 we really mixed it up. At noon there was a gathering of international students as well as staff from the Office of International Programs, Cross Cultural Center, Associated Students and others who support international programs. I chatted with Professor Sachiko Matsunaga, Chair of Modern Languages and Literatures, who enjoys recruiting students for language classes and cultural events. Later that afternoon we had a welcome event for our first year freshmen in the courtyard of the Music Building. Professor Rebecca Davis, who teaches Fashion in the Department of Art as well as one of our sections of Arts & Letters 101, was there to greet some of her students. Our Associate Dean, Dr. Bryant Alexander and I were pleased to see so many freshmen turn out for pizza and conversation on a beautiful afternoon. I was a bit chagrined to learn that some of our first time freshmen still don’t enroll in a course related to their chosen major during their first quarter and I hope we can correct that in the near future.

On a different note, the LA Philharmonic had quite a mixed plate on Saturday night, the opening of my season ticket. The debut piece featuring Chinese mouth organ was challenging for the harmonically inclined but I could imagine a striking modern dance set to the varying music of composer Unsuk Chin. Two things about the evening were exceptionally fun. First, I enjoyed watching Dudamel bounce and fly during his extra-energetic performance. Frankly, I worry about whiplash, although I’d encourage him to cash through selling workout tapes, “Batonicize with Dudamel!” Second, I talked to a couple of ushers when I overheard that one was a Cal State LA student and the other, a Los Angeles Community College student, was considering transferring to us. During intermission I conducted an impromptu counseling session with the potential transfer student.

Many of the new tenure-track faculty in Arts and Letters came to mix chez moi this past Sunday on a beautiful afternoon in Pasadena. Several came with spouses or partners and one even brought three delightful children. On fall faculty day it was striking to hear how many faculty had overlapping interdisciplinary interests and, as I had hoped, it appeared that some of our new faculty members were forming intellectual and social alliances that might last for some time.

Today, October 12th-- Another mixer! Our very engaged and competent Associated Students representatives Kristine and Ana organized and hosted an open forum for students at the Music Building patio, our College back yard. Dr. Suzanne Regan and Dr. Matsunaga (who also attended the freshmen mixer) got to meet students studying in their departments. While it was grey and gloomy, the much expected rain had not yet hit and we had a good turnout of students, including a small contingent of new MA students in Theatre.

This week will end with one more mixer, a small party to welcome our first exchange students from Korea University. I’m very excited to meet our three KU students, coming in exchange for the students we are sending to Korea University each summer as part of our Strategic Language Initiative in Korean. Also, we’ll be welcoming the U.S. President of the Korean University Alumni Association.

More mixers are in your future. Come. See. And be stirred by another Arts and Letters mixer.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

University Professors Underpaid, by Terry L. Allison

From the Pasadena Star News:

Through a Scrim Darkly

How often do you wake up in the morning and say to yourself, “I better hurry and get ready for the opera?” Well, when Wagner’s monumental nearly five-hour Siegfried is on the bill, you’d better get your daily ablutions out of the way early enough to enter the temple of music, properly cleansed with mind and senses awake. A double espresso also might help, especially when said Siegfried is an afternoon performance, 1-6 p.m. on an Indian summer day in Los Angeles. Sadly, I observed one person collapsing from heat outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

The third in the cycle of LA Opera’s gloomy Achim Freyer production of Der Ring des Niebelungen, this Siegfried doesn’t make it easier to stay awake on a hot day—the backdrop is pitch black for most of the opera and a dark scrim shades the audience’s perspective throughout. One neighboring spectator, alert and laughing at Graham Clark’s “Mime” in the first act, was asnooze by the third.

Siegfried is as chat driven as the rest of the Ring Cycle but Freyer seems to want to distance us doubly from any action, making it all darkly cerebral. The Director/Designer literally takes the blue fluorescent light sword “Notung” from the hero’s hand, giving it to a brown body suited cipher who otherwise, in butoh style, crosses and recrosses the stage throughout the entirety of the production. (In the third act, with the similarly suited Norns suspended overhead, I finally wondered whether their grounded, pacing brethren also were Norns endlessly weaving?) Freyer seems to want to deconstruct action to get to some deeper IDEA but I would venture that during the five hours we have plenty of time to reflect without the production’s insistence that we must STOP and THINK. The ugly costuming is crudely symbolic, underlining Siegfried = “Man,” Brünnhilde =“Woman,” Erda =“Mother,” etc., and Siegfried’s transition from blue to red action hero (don’t ask) was rather clumsily handled. I’m all for new interpretations of standard works; for example, after one too many cherry blossom fests I loved Robert Wilson’s minimalist Madame Butterfly. This Ring just seems over thought and messy, with Siegfried frantically trying to undo his guide wires and the butoh Norns tearing Velcro-attached black ribbons from the floor to reveal a painted light spiral.

Luckily for the audience, a sizable number of whom booed Team Freyer, the singing was mostly very strong. Clark was clearly the crowd favorite and rightfully so, an evil yet comic Mime, with delightful wheezes and snickers as well as convincing, character-driven gesticulation. Vitalij Kowaljow (bass) was a forceful, deep Wanderer/Wotan, and the brief appearances of Oleg Bryjak (as Alberich) and Eric Halfvarson (Fafner) proved equally compelling. Stacy Tappan was a delightfully chirpy Woodbird. Jill Grove, whom I found the weakest of last season’s cast of Das Rheingold was in much better voice as this opera’s Erda, though hampered somewhat by a giant Cher/Diana Ross wig as was Linda Watson’s Brünnhilde. While not the most powerful Wagnerian, Watson approached the ringing metallic quality that the role demands. Still, she and John Treleaven’s Siegfried could have blended better in their ecstatic finale, their timing—and presumed partnership—was definitely off.

And finally to our Siegfried. While of a certain age, Treleaven pranced convincingly as a naïve young hero in a Halloween hero costume. He acted through his Joker make-up, raising the brows and curling the carved lips convincingly. After Act One I said to my friend, upon his first Siegfried, “You can hear how demanding this role is, but isn’t he doing well?” By Act Three the test of the voice was a bit more apparent as Treleaven for brief moments barked and gasped only to recover for some more forceful singing. All in the (long) day of an international Heldentenor and a clue why there are so few left.

The opera orchestra under James Conlon’s conducting was also significantly and deservedly cheered. Musically, this was a strong Siegfried, an A-. Dramatically, a B for effort and C- for execution. But I’m a tough grader so you’ll want to go and bring your own scorecard.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Terry’s Top Ten List of To Do's (or Not To Do's) on Furlough Fridays

Terry’s Top Ten List of To Dos (or Not to Dos) on Furlough Fridays

Trying to make the best of a bad situation, your Dancing Dean has come up with his top list of things to do on his unpaid furlough. He can’t be Dean these Fridays but he sure can dance!

  1. Take an extra long walk through my neighborhood looking for haiku inspirations.
  2. See if I can make this Friday a non-gas consumption day. If not, try to get to a beach or a park as part of my day.
  3. Invite a friend to dinner and cook for a change.
  4. Don’t shave!
  5. Send out another op-ed promoting universal health care, higher education, or humanities.
  6. Chat with a neighbor I would rarely see otherwise, send a card to Mom & Dad, or do both.
  7. Catch up on Facebook.
  8. Rewind highlights from last night’s Project Runway.
  9. Sit down, concentrate, and read a book and/or work on a long delayed research project.
  10. Watch Ellen and dance along with her.

After a full day of such fulfilling tasks sleepy Saturday is sure to follow.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Shakespeare, et alia

During three of the past five summers I spent a week at the Santa Fe Opera, watching the dramatic, distant lightning backlight the stage and enjoying some wonderful productions of La Somnabula (with Nathalie Dessaye), Tea: a Mirror of Soul (composer Tan Dun), and last year’s beautiful Billy Budd and Le nozze di Figaro. This year’s main attraction was La Dessaye in Traviata but having heard an excellent La Traviata at LA Opera this spring I decided to skip Santa Fe and its tempting art galleries to join the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. Although I was attacked by hornets and fell in Lithia Park, I still had a splendid time.

Apparently I had not been in Ashland since 1993 when I saw wonderful productions of Lips Together, Teeth Apart, The White Devil, A Flea in Her Ear, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and Richard III. Where had the time gone? Mostly in Europe, I figured, as I traversed the Atlantic a good 15 times in the 90’s and 2000’s. So to catch up, this year’s goal was eight plays in eight days, and I just fell (literally) short.

I had an inspiring journey to Ashland, flying into Oakland where longtime friend, Gary K, picked me up and whisked me northwards. Our first stop: the California Maritime Academy. Why? You may well ask. The Maritime Academy was the last stage of my CSU pilgrimage; I now have visited each of the 23 campuses in our system! Next, on to Redding! Why (again), you might ask? We stopped to view the Calatrava designed footbridge, a contemporary architectural triumph, a taut harp strung for our pleasure.

Once in Ashland, we immediately set out to see plays but Henry VIII was an inauspicious beginning. While Vilma Silva was a strong Catherine of Aragon and delivered a powerful, impassioned defense of her wifely devotion, the play is one of Shakespeare’s weakest. Henry comes across as a vapid lightweight with barely sinister overtones. The second day we saw a quite timely Depression era story, Clifford Odets’ Paradise Lost, followed by a delightful new production of Don Quixote. On subsequent days and evenings we enjoyed convincing productions of All’s Well that Ends Well and Servant of Two Masters in the New Theatre (anxiously awaiting a patron’s name). We were unfortunate witnesses to a noisy, shouted Macbeth wherein for the very first time I heard an audience laugh, YES, LAUGH, at Macbeth’s “She should have died hereafter. There would have been time for such a word.” Luckily, we previously had enjoyed Bill Cain’s new play, Equivocation, which invokes “the Scottish play” while addressing contemporary anxieties about freedom of artistic expression, state-sponsored torture, and religious strife. Especially within the context of a “Shakespeare festival,” Equivocation touched nerves, stroked the egos of knowing Shakespearian connoisseurs, and left probing, unanswered questions; in short, a decent evening at the Theatre.

And speaking of connoisseurs, we also found time one afternoon to see Julie and Julia, a cinematic sonnet to Julia Child in which I reveled. While I have seen very few programs from her television series, I learned to cook by reading From Julia Child’s Kitchen. I never deboned a duck or baked one in puff pastry, but I did learn to make that puff pastry, and gateaux, mousse, and other gourmandises thanks to Chef Child. Bon appétit!

After a few weeks of work apparently my taste for drama had not been whetted, nor my taste for fresh air. This past weekend I fled the smoke and Station/Morris fires, heading down to San Diego for a long weekend at the Old Globe and catching up with old friends and familiar places. After a pilgrimage to Bread & Cie and Peet’s Coffee on University Avenue, I met Karen K for dinner at a French bistro in downtown San Diego. Then, off to The Mystery of Irma Vep, Charles Ludlam’s play that ran most of the time I lived in NYC in the mid-80’s but that I never saw there. (Way back then, I did enjoy his Ridiculous Theatre Company’s production of Galas: A Modern Tragedy, naturally starring Ludlum himself.) Irma cuisinarts a variety of genres to create a satisfying comic shake with flavors that cinema, theatre, and comic fans will enjoy identifying. Karen and I wanted to recommend, then were vexed to learn that Sept 7 was its final showing. Then to a Coriolanus with a hulk-like hero dripping in bloody sweat. How had I missed this play? And how could Shakespeare, once again, remain so topical in a tragic state tragedy in which everyone is wrong? Finally, a delicious Twelfth Night set in the 50’s on the Italian Riviera. Yes, it worked, exceedingly well, and the Viola (Dana Green) as well as the Feste/Fool (James Newcomb) worth the drive to San D! I met up with other dear friends during the weekend, whom shall remain to you mysterious, and then buzzed home early to beat the traffic to enjoy lunch and dinner in my own back yard, smoke and ash free. Somehow I squeezed in the end of Melanie Oudin’s match and ascension to the quarterfinals of the US Open as well as Federer’s balletic leap into that selfsame round.

Sometimes, amid smoke, ash, and furlough Fridays, life can be grand and we can be so lucky!

Photo of Oregon Shakespeare Festival available under GNUFDL1.2.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Suddenly, It's Summer

Unfortunately, my home office has a magnificent view today. Giant clouds like peachy brown cotton candy roil a placid sky and swell like sudden thunderheads. These billows grow to fantastic heights and move so quickly in one direction then another, it’s like watching one of the those fast motion science films from elementary school about how storms form and dissipate. Some of the ridges look like rims of volcano calderas with neat rows of white smoke down slope then sudden leaps of giant flames along the ridge. I look past and above a street lined with hundred foot palms, extending the impression that I’m actually on the Big Island. Instead, I’m watching the Angeles National Forest burn.

Yesterday (a non-furlough Friday) from the Music Building where I work, I could see across the San Gabriel Valley to the smoking hills but even then one could see occasional leaps of flame. Here in Pasadena I’m that much closer and sometimes on a mountain peak I’d swear the flames shoot two hundred feet high. We hit at least 104 degrees yesterday and the Morris fire to the east, not visible from my window, was blowing smoke our way, drizzling ash. Today the air is clearer and the smoke clouds appear to blow west or north so I can see more clearly where the fires are creeping. Just now I spot two orange flame towers on either slope of a ridge and hope they’ll meet and die for lack of fuel but then other ridges below and above suddenly glow.

I’m sad that I’ve never been up Highway 2 on the Angeles Crest Highway to look down on the valley where I live. It seems odd that I could have skipped that ritual but perhaps stranger still that in my three years in the Los Angeles region I’ve only been twice to the beach, both times this summer after I finally decided that I could have a little vacation without leaving town. Until these past few days, I was thoroughly enjoying our unusually cool summer, sitting in my lightly watered garden and enjoying the evening cool. Now I’m raspy from ash and having a little cabin fever wondering when the smoke will clear. I shirked my civic duty plan to attend a pro-universal health care rally this afternoon, too hot, and instead e-mailed my congressman.

Writing this blog I was sorely tempted to draw analogies or formulate metaphors. For example, how like us all to sit in impotent fascination, huddling in air conditioned comfort as California burns before our eyes. But why belabor the obvious?

Until next time, then, I’m dancing on the hot coals of our sudden summer and watching these false and glorious clouds as the sun begins to set.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Two Misses and a Hat Hit

As my beloved California self mutilates and summer strikes its first vicious blows naturally my thoughts turn to the world of entertainment. What better remedy for a bout of budget blues than a musical, a film, and…a musical?! Perhaps it’s mood, maybe it was bad choices, or then again it could be things used to be much, much better in the past because so far my summer has not been sizzling with hits.

Let’s start with Spamalot. I received a sudden call, “Would I like to go to opening night?” Well, ye-ess! And who else did I spy walking in to the theatre? Billy Crystal, Ed Begley Jr., the ubiquitous Joanne Worley and even Eric Idle. Unfortunately the star sightings were the highlight of my evening. Comedy, as someone once noted, is all about timing and this whole production seemed off. Or maybe it’s that jokes about body gas and poking fun at the French (who strangely had Scottish accents) no longer make my grade.

One very hot Sunday I tried to calm the aftershocks of Spamalot by seeking culture of a higher brow, the new Stephen Frears film, Cheri, based on two novels of French author, Colette. Of course Colette actually was the Jacqueline Susann of her time, churning out potboilers and what passed for soft pornography at the time. Since the sixties they have matured into literary classics. But what a dreadful film! Frears achieved the worst performances ever from Michelle Pfeiffer and Kathy Bates, the stiffest delivery and most clichéd expressions imaginable. The choppy editing and a voice over framing device ruined the occasionally intriguing beauty of the landscapes and interiors. I suppose the film was educational—how not to convert a novel.

This evening, however, I had some slight reprieve from the summer blahs, attending Regina Taylor’s
Crowns at the Pasadena Playhouse. This very musical although not quite “a musical” play features African American women and their relationship with their hats, usually their church hats. Sure, it was yet another recent play in which characters tangentially interact while facing the audience and telling their histories. Still, some moments of dialogue and soliloquy were moving while a pleasing array of spirituals took me back to childhood choir practice. The play also reminded me of my own grandmother’s hats and hat boxes, costume jewelry, and her fox stole and alligator purse, both featuring mouth clamped on tail.

Three weeks back from Seoul and somewhat adjusted to the mixed plate of LA arts, I once again hit the summer trail. It’s on to Fresno and CSU Summer Arts where I’m certain to be aesthetically refreshed if bodily wilted. Will I be cool enough to dance?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

I’m a Seoul Man, Shiatsu-phile, and Sauna fan

And now the wrap up of my June trip to South Korea.

After our tour at Seoul Institute for the Arts (now located in Ansa, not far from Seoul) our Fulbright group returned to Seoul on Friday, June 27. We met in the hallway at the Sangnam Institue to devise our final gift-giving protocols and then headed back to the Fulbright House for a program wrap-up, evaluation, lecture by one of the Fulbright Junior Researchers, and then a buffet! The two charming Fulbright Junior Scholars, Katherine Lee (our Samulnori music guide) and Aimee Lee (our guide to hanji paper making) accompanied us to Myeong-Dong, a lively district full of tens of thousands of young people on a Friday night. Saturday a.m. we had a final coffee and farewell; a great experience with my colleagues Kenya, Wes, Richard, and Magid!

Then my first free weekend in a month! Thanks to our Theatre alum, Jooyoung Song, I had a wonderful, relaxing time, visiting the “Happy Sale” at Korea’s version of Macy’s, Shinsegae, and eating at a wonderful Japanese/Mediterranean fusion restaurant in the Itaewon district. Ms. Song is working with our students who are completing their intensive advanced Korean program for four weeks at Korea University. On Sunday, we had one of several other Cal State LA reunions as Professors Hae-Kyung Lee and Susan Mason (the latter on a weekend visit from her Fulbright teaching fellowship in Japan) met with Jooyoung, as well as one of our current MA students and her mother. Our student’s mother had studied dance at Ewha Women’s University just ahead of Professor Lee, and several decades later we were all sitting around the same table. As Professor Mason said, “I just love being so international!”

I was thinking “much fewer than six degrees of separation” and my musings were verified just a few days later. Sitting in a coffee shop near Korea University (okay, there’s a theme here), a young woman approached me and asked if by chance I was a professor at Cal State San Marcos teaching film and women’s studies. Jeannine was a former student of mine teaching in Korea with no connection to Korea University—she just happened to be in the neighborhood (in this extended city of 20 million or so). In my official missives I’ll write more to students and faculty about all the opportunities in Korea these days, a great place to teach English or other subjects in English while having an international experience.

In the meantime, there was more shopping (another theme), this time at Insadong and a couple of other shopping, café, and gallery areas in Seoul over the next few days, where I followed my usual gift buying practice, “One for you, one for me.” I also paid a return visit to Mamma Kiki’s, the wine bar of another Theatre alum, Shin Lee.

Of course my business wasn’t quite over as I scheduled further university visits to Ewha Women’s University and I was able to talk about extending our student and faculty exchanges with our partners at Korea University.

On Wednesday, the first of July, I hosted a welcome dinner for our 11 Cal State LA students, Professor Lee, and Ms. Song. It was exciting to meet again the students we had welcomed to our intensive Korean program just one year earlier, now in Seoul to complete their program at Korea University.

On this, my final evening, I had to pay my respects once again at Mamma Kiki’s where we had a small alumni gathering. I thought we had ended at 1:30 a.m. only to learn that Karaoke must follow! Your Dancing Dean actually danced, and sang, and sang, and danced, and sang… I thought the demand for new numbers would never end, but I really need to take that healthy singing course that our Music faculty offer, as I’m still hoarse. Of course others did ballads while I had to sing “Proud Mary” and—by mistake (wrong number punched in)—“Born in the USA,” among many others.

I wish that I had more time to describe my painful but necessary shiatsu treatments and the delightful spa culture of Korea but perhaps after my next trip to Seoul I can enlighten you more about gold rooms, ice rooms, exfoliation, dining, doing e-mail in the sauna and other similar important matters. In the meantime I say Annyonghee kay-sayo (Good-bye) to my sisters and brothers in Seoul.

Photos provided courtesy of Magid Sherzadegan.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Travelogue Lite

My last blog left me on my Fulbright trip to South Korea in Gyeongju, the capital of Silla, one of the three ancient kingdoms that formed on the Korean peninsula, the Buddhist center of Korea, and once the center of fabulous wealth. We visited a serene mountain Buddha, a temple complex at Bulguksa, huge burial mounds, museums and institutes in a muggy heat. Another rain cooled our visit to two universities in Daegu, Keimyung University and Kyungpook National University, and then we were off to visit the world’s largest auto plant, the Hyundai factories at Ulsan.On to Busan and the beach (AKA 'Pusan'—there have been two major transcription methods from Korean’s Hangul alphabet to our Roman one and I understand yet another may be adopted)! Korea’s second largest city has grown from a sleepy fishing village to about 4 million people. Stretched along the beach and bays with skyscrapers poking through the mountains Busan reminds me of Hong Kong. Not that I’ve ever been to Hong Kong but after years of National Geographic and who knows how many films I seem to have a strong mental picture of it anyway. It was great to stroll along the waterfront near the APEC building, get sunset views of the magnificent bay bridge, and feel the cool sea breezes. I thought that Cal State LA students would love to visit, study, or teach in our sister city. And speaking of teaching, we met one of the Fulbright English Teaching Assistants and visited his school (Namsan High School) as well as Pukyong National University.
Busan is also famous for its fish market. While we didn’t buy anything at the market (it’s not easy to cook flounder on a field trip), we did have a great restaurant seafood lunch hosted by the kind people at Pukyong including spicy soft shell crab and varieties of fish I did not know. Keimyung University also had fed us very well the day before in their university restaurant, wonderfully fresh Korean fusion.
Last time I promised to speak of food (and shopping), so here are a few quick rules:
  • 1) if it’s red sauce, it’s spicy;
  • 2) don’t resist MOST unknown fish—they may look as strong as pickled herring but they might be (mostly) mild and delicious;
  • 3) but Do ask if the fish has been fermented and then be prepared to inhale ammonia;
  • 4) I’m used to crispy calamari; prepare for chewy squid;
  • 5) if at a traditional restaurant eat slowly and judiciously—they keep bringing more dishes and then more, finally ending with rice as the last savory dish before the dessert, usually fruit, arrives. I could go on and on about food but my last advice is this—Korean food is much more than just BBQ!
Heading back towards Seoul we crossed the persimmon capital of Korea (dried persimmon duly bought and consumed) and stayed two nights in Daejeon, visiting Daejeon University (in a spectacular wooded setting) and its downtown College of Oriental Medicine. Then very near Seoul, in Ansan, we visited the specialized Seoul Institute of the Arts, which is quickly becoming the Cal Arts of Korea collaborating in multimedia projects throughout the world and turning out many of Korea’s finest actors.
You’ll have to watch for the next iteration of “The Dancing Dean” to hear more about shopping, saunas, Cal State LA students’ arrival in Seoul, and Korean karaoke, including my own hit song and dance numbers. It will be worth the wait!

Friday, June 26, 2009

From Commencement to Korea

The last weeks of the spring quarter, always a whirl of events and emotions, became more hectic and unsettling as I readied myself to leave for South Korea on the US-Korea International Education Administrators Program. That I had to bring my luggage to Commencement and leave directly from the ceremony only heightened the inevitable tension of leaving work at a time of great budget upheaval, this year a good 7.0 on the Richter scale of California's frequent economic earthquakes. We had excellent Commencement speakers, and a deeply settled June gloom was a welcome change from the last two years' sun burnt ceremonies. All else went smoothly and before 2 pm I was in the air on my 12 hour flight from LAX to Incheon.
After a couple of rough days of jetlag I adjusted nicely to our taxing schedule of visits to universities, cultural institutions and performances, industry, and historical monuments. This Fulbright program's purpose is to advance our understanding of South Korean higher education and culture, so we have a number of visits to universities inside and outside Seoul. We first stayed at the Sangnam Institute on the campus of Yonsei University, part of a nexus of higher education institutions. I saw tens of thousands of young people roaming the streets on the last pleasant days before the monsoonal summer sets in and wondered once again how we can get more of our students to study abroad so they can experience the exhilaration of global exchange. The California State University International Programs Office has a system-wide agreement with Yonsei so I could see our campus name on their board of partnerships in the Yonsei international programs office.
On Wednesday we had a fascinating briefing at the US Consulate which, added to our Monday a.m. lectures gave many insights into how South Korea may have achieved its economic miracle and what North Koreans and their neighbors may be thinking about the latest missile launching crisis. Thursday's visit to the DMZ frankly gave me the creeps. There's an elaborate ritual to visits, showing passports through two checkpoints, filling out forms absolving the UN if you just happen to be shot dead or kidnapped (one is given the release form as a souvenir), issuing of UN visitor badges, and the eerie sight of facing a large capped North Korean soldier from about 50 yards away. I'll soon be posting my photo standing in North Korea, in front of the South Korean guard who prevents defections or anyone opening the door for North Koreans to snatch one into oblivion.

But don't get the wrong impression. Visiting South Korea is not so different than visiting West Germany in the 60's through the 80's. It's a very safe country and much more beautiful and forested than I had imagined. And even the DMZ, which has become a de facto nature preserve, provides pleasant surprises. We saw one tree weighed down with about 50 nesting cranes!

After an interesting visit to the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies featuring their translation and interpretation program and our very warm visit (literally and figuratively) with our hosts at Konkuk University on Friday we ended our sojourn in Seoul with an array of Korean folk songs, opera, drumming, and dance. We hit the road on Saturday morning visiting a firm where traditional handmade Korean paper (hanji) is fabricated. Then, just as the monsoon rains began to fall we visited Hahoe Village with both tiled roof (nobles) and thatched roof houses some original to the late 15th century, most built later in the same style.
On my next blog I'll discuss equally significant matters like food and shopping. In the meantime your dean is dancing to the beat of salmunori and the kitschy pop American hits sung nightly in the lobby of my hotel in Kyeongju.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Jurple Daze

Last Wednesday evening the light was transcendent, finely filtered through a lifting mist, a Millet or Monet brushed to life. A surprising thunderstorm had passed lending a new quality to the atmosphere, charged yet caressing. The storm wind had shaken the fully blooming jacaranda leaving a dazzling blue purple carpet on my front lawn. Jurple, the name I’ve given to jacaranda’s brilliant, messy shedding, covered whole streets as if a royal tropical wedding had just passed.

For those who have never seen a jacaranda in its glory, the sight can be oddly jarring, great swaths of light bright purple amazingly consistent in color, at rooftop level, welcome but unexpected. Now that they’ve been blooming for two to three weeks I’ve grown re-accustomed to the shock of pastel, but that first week rounding a corner I’d still flinch from their sudden beauty.

In academia spring is also the time of year for re-acquaintance with joys almost forgotten in the press of work, a time to revel in student accomplishment. The year can grind down one’s bones and molars, sweet optimism and gentlest trust. In other words, three quarters of preface, start up, midterms and finals punctuated by outbursts of ego, drama, caviling and sniping is thrust to the background to focus on what matters most, the education we’re trying to provide to largely worthy, talented, and sympathetic individuals, our students.

A week ago Saturday I attended one of two Master’s recitals of one of our Arts and Letters students, the multi-talented Madelyn Washington. Ms. Washington lectured on Afro-Latin music and sang several works to illustrate her points. I enjoyed speaking with her mother, whom I’ve met at several of Madelyn’s performances including our French “Bonnet Day” concert in the Luckman where she sang a world premiere (November 2007), the Larry Harlow concert (November 2008, Professor Paul De Castro conducting) and performances of the Women’s Trio coached by Professor David Connors.

That particular Saturday I attended four events including the launch of Statement magazine. This past two weeks has been packed with many happy celebrations of student work, the Cinematic Visions student film festival, “Short Order,” the Cindy Bernard collaboration with Art students at the Luckman Gallery, student Weslie Brown’s composition recital, the Jazz Ensemble concert, the first world dance concert (and the first dance recital for many participants), and the Munitz lectures in English.

But in this whirl of events my thoughts return to Madelyn, and all the students who have completed their degrees and will be moving on. That’s the bittersweet note in this late spring jurple daze; our students always leave.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Living with a Skunk

If a recent well-known author learned a lot from his kindergarten experience I suppose that I’m learning equally from watching quietly my own backyard. Now that the light stays later I’ve been trying to rush home to find some contemplative moments (oxymoronic irony noted).

At dusk I’m often sitting or standing at the edge of my garden in a semi-meditative state reviewing the day’s events when a neighborhood skunk waddles by. Skunks, when non-rabid, seem largely oblivious, going about some unknown evening task, sometimes ambling under my outstretched legs unheeding of the much larger mammal that could pounce in an instant and wreck its twilight idyll. When finally the skunk sees me, she? he? (I couldn’t say) hides cautiously under the deck stairs, finally pokes its nose out, and then on unnaturally short legs scurries away. Even more curious, I’ve several times seen Ms. or Mr. Skunk slinking under the hedges towards my neighbor’s two black cats who don’t arch or hiss or growl but stroll idly by as the intruder shuffles into their territory. Three species watching, learning in mutual co-existence with no struggle, no threats, and no stinking mess at the end. There’s got to be a university metaphor here but I refuse to search for it.

Instead, I’ll turn to the last ten days of exciting events. The wrap-up of Reel Rasquache was a sensation. If only there had been an East LA Society Page present…Edward James Olmos, Esai Morales, Lupe Ontiveros, Jesus Treviño y otros were present to pay tribute to Zoot Suit legend Luis Valdez. Earlier that day graduating vocal senior Josh Diener had given a rousing recital and in between I almost finished this year’s faculty reviews so my mood was grand. And luncheons, we had luncheons! Monday, the university scholarship donors and recipients, Tuesday high school and community college counselors. I say at Honor’s Convocation that “It takes a village to make the Dean’s List.” It also takes a village to get our students to the university and I’m very thankful that individual donors and hard-working staff support students at every step. This next week…on to the Scholar-Athletes’ banquet!

And speaking of villages…this week I also visited Urinetown. Several faculty, staff, former staff, students, and former students told me that they were THRILLED at the production, the quality of student performance, and the audience, the Audience, and the AUDIENCE. Hey kids, we put on a SHOW! After a long hiatus of musicals, Cal State LA is coming back strong. Look for next year’s schedule soon.

On Memorial Day, after thinking of all the flags I have planted as a Boy Scout at Punchbowl National Cemetery (Oahu), I met the Fulbright staff and future fellow Fulbrighters in a Koreatown restaurant before the opening of the NAFSA international Educators Association conference. That’s right, this June immediately following commencement I’m off on a plane to Seoul to participate in the US-Korea International Education Administrators Program fulfilling a lifetime dream to become a Fulbright Scholar and proudly joining Arts and Letters Professors. Mohammed Auwal (Qatar) and Susan Mason (Japan) who will be returning from their respective Fulbright experiences this summer. Over a Korean BBQ lunch at So Hyang restaurant we mapped out our upcoming visit and the all-important gift giving strategy. I have the right shoes for the trip (for rain, dancing, the DMZ) but mustn’t forget the umbrella.

This report ends with an uplifting event having nothing to do with skunks or Urinetown. Muhammad Yunus , economist, professor, businessman, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate served as NAFSA’s opening plenary speaker. Many of the Dancing Dean’s readers may not know that I was an Economics-Political Science undergrad before turning to literary studies and I idolize Dr. Yunus’s creativity in creating microlending programs that have raised millions out of poverty. Dr. Yunus was perhaps an indirect inspiration for the Quinceañera Project that I created several years ago to give scholarships to young Latinas to steer them towards university education before marriage. I was misty-eyed during Yunus’s uplifting talk, feeling that I was in the presence of a Mahatma, a great soul, one who has written that: “All human beings have the inner capacity not only to care for themselves but also to contribute to increasing the well-being of the world as a whole. Some get the chance to explore their potential to some degree, but many others never get any opportunity, during their lifetime, to unwrap the wonderful gift they were born with.” (Creating a World Without Poverty, 247).

Unless you’re a skunk, please unwrap your gift now!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Garden Party?

The Good News:
It’s been a busy few weeks, dear readers, and I’m just catching my breath (and icing my back) to write about one of the many arts and letters events that has me dancing, if stiffly, towards the academic year end deadline.

On Saturday May 2, I hosted a book party for Josefina López. To date, Ms. López is known for her screenplay, Real Women Have Curves, which became the 2002 film that introduced many of us to America Ferrera, the star of Ugly Betty. Now, Ms. López may become equally known for her saucy novel, Hungry Woman in Paris.

When publicist Steve Rohr learned that another potential book-party house had fallen through, he and friend, Chris Freeman (Love, West Hollywood), asked if I would open my house and garden in Pasadena for the gathering of literati. It was a great chance to meet Josefina and also have her meet some of the faculty from Cal State LA and USC, where Professor Freeman teaches. Better yet, I didn’t have to cook or rearrange the furniture; Steve was going to take care of that! The only task I assigned myself was to dress up my garden a little with some spring planting… more later on the follies of gardening.

One interesting fact I had not known about Josefina López—she attended Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, right on the Cal State LA campus.

The afternoon culminated in a moving reading by Ms. López, who described herself as an actress as well as author. Her reading of the different voices—of the mother and the father of the narrator, for example—demonstrated the power of voice and ear for conversation that also made Real Women Have Curves a delight. In short, a beautiful afternoon in Pasadena.

The Bad News: Three Important Rules
1) Never garden without warming-up
2) Bags of potting soil weigh more than you think
3) Add two days of recovery for each decade when you don’t follow Rules 1-2

Into my 10th day of recovery, my friends, I remain your wincing but still dancing dean!