Bait and Switch: Travel Style

Whimg_0608en I decided to escape from winter, I coordinated events quickly not certain if I wanted a sit-on-the-beach-sipping-fruity-drinks kind of experience, a cram-in-as-many-things-as-you-can experience, or perhaps somewhere in between. After a day or two of just relaxing in the sun, taking long walks on the beach, and playing in the surf, I decided it was time to stray from the tranquility of the resort.

I had heard great things about the Arenal volcano, so it seemed a reasonable place to start. Off to the tourist desk I went and signed up for a trip the following day to Arenal and Baldi hot springs. I paid little attention to the mention of hot springs. They seemed a side note to the majesty of the volcano. But I played along, wearing my swimming suit and packing a change of clothes and a towel.

The following morning I met Ronald, the driver and guide for the day, in the lobby and off we went with two other women. We turned our backs on the coastline and  headed northeast back toward San Jose and the interior of the country. The drive is 2.5-3 hours, depending on traffic, road conditions, weather. We made a single stop at some lovely gardens that naturally included a souvenir shop, bathrooms, and coffee samples – rather delicious, I must say.

As we headed further into the clouds, the once clear skies turned from fog and mist to an angry downpour. And that’s when it dawned on me why the hot springs are included in the trip…the chance of actually getting a glimpse of Arenal, much less a full, unencumbered view was relatively low. Somewhere between being hit by lightning and winning a Powerball.

The drive was great though. We went through a few small towns, so got to see homes, schools, bus stops, roadside stands, grocery stores – all the everyday sights that make traveling such a rich experience. Our drive was slow during some of the periods of heavy rain when navigating potholes ranked among the most steely-nerved of Olympic sports.

To their credit, the hot springs are lovely. There are 25 different pools, a few cool, but most warm. It was an excellent place to relax and imagine the skies lifting and Arenal making an appearance. During the few hours we were there, it looked like it could happen once or twice, but, alas, it was not to be.

It reminded me of my trip to Japan a few years ago when several of us piled into a bus to go to Mt. Fuji. About an hour into the trip, the guide mentioned that the mountain could only be seen once every three to four days. But then, we saw it. It was more amazing than I’d expected. At each level we stopped, we got a slightly different view. It was windy. It was cold. No one cared. Because on that day, our 25% chance had skyrocketed to 100% and it was like we’d been struck by lightning.

I should have known better than to think it might strike again at Arenal, but you don’t know if you don’t try, you always have the hot springs to distract you, and now there’s even more reason to return to Costa Rica!


Escaping Winter

So there I was on the first day of the year, contemplating life, holiday-induced cookie consumption, and the cruelty of single-digit temperatures, when it dawned on me that I didn’t have to passively watch the season take root. More importantly, I recalled that I had an airline credit that was about to expire and was generous enough to take me almost anywhere I’d like to go.

Within minutes, I’d booked a flight to Costa Rica for five days later, found a hotel right on the water, and secured transportation to and from the airport. For someone who’s general nature is to plan and research, and perhaps plan some more, this frenetic but focused activity was a bit of a jolt to the system.

Sometimes less planning is better though, and this happened to be one of those times. The less planning I do, the less expectation I’ve created that things will (must?) go a certain way. I’m more open to just take things as they come, play it as it lays.

And that’s how I found myself with nothing more than carry-on luggage (you have to love the low profile of summer clothes) and my passport on the evening of Epiphany, heading to the airport and putting piles of snow and ice in my rear view mirror. The flight, while delayed, was uneventful, other than it acted as a reminder to me why I try to avoid red eyes at all cost. I chose it because it was either that or arrive in Costa Rica quite late at night with an hour or more drive to the hotel in Puntarenas – not that I was going to do the driving, but since I’d never been to Costa Rica before, the better bet seemed to arrive early in the day, be able to see the surroundings while on the road, and have time to get my bearings rather than losing the day to air travel.

Nice hotel – check! Good food – check! Friendly people – check! I couldn’t have planned it better. Escaping winter has never felt so subversive, and I still have a few more days to explore, relax, do nothing, or do everything. Dealer’s choice.

What Is It About a New Year?

tomorrow-is-a-new-dayI ask myself this every time the calendar page turns and a new year is upon us. What is it about the ending of one year and the beginning of another that inspires the psyche so strongly? At turns, it has us infinitely hopeful about what’s ahead and similarly convinced that whatever didn’t go our way the previous year is well and truly behind us – close the door, turn the page, we can move on from that negative space and refill it with all the certain goodness of a new year. And even if the previous year was a good one, this one is bound to be great.

At no other time of the year, have we all agreed to this same delusion. Perhaps on someone’s birthday, we might momentarily embrace the idea, but then it’s just for the birthday boy or girl. At New Years though, we can all claim it.

Intellectually we know there’s nothing inherently magic about a new year, but emotionally we’re willing to believe. It’s the same leap-of-faith thinking that has us embrace egg-toting bunnies at Easter and delightfully charming bearded men at Christmas.

I’m not knocking it, by the way. In fact, I’m looking for a way to claim this optimism at will, at any point in the year when I think a little reframing or reinvention might be in order. For example, by the end of the first quarter of last year, family health issues had taken hold. Even months later, when things started to improve, it was hard not to think, “Well, there goes 2016.” One transformative event seemed to color the whole year. If we could just hold on till 2017, we could have another run at it.

Based on the above, you might imagine that I’m not much for New Years resolutions. And you’d be right. I want to only make one. My resolution is to adopt the idea that I can choose any day – all the days if I want – to start again. Any day will do for me to say, “Tomorrow will be better. Here’s why and here’s how.”

You with me?

24 Hours in Los Angeles


The Getty Museum

A few weeks ago, a friend and I decided to spend a cultural weekend in Los Angeles. We live in a relatively small town, and while it’s not completely devoid of cultural opportunities, town is definitely skewed toward outdoor activities rather than cerebral pursuits. Sometimes you just have to escape to the big city!

The focus of our weekend was two companion exhibits showcasing the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, famed and controversial photographer who died in 1989, just a few years after his work started to garner the attention he craved.

In today’s climate of selfies and Instagram, we’re inundated with photographs all the time. Everyone’s taking them, everyone’s editing them, and everyone’s an artist.We don’t question photography’s place as a legitimate art form. So it can be hard to fathom that as recent as thirty or forty years ago, photography, especially portraiture, was not widely accepted in the art world. Mapplethorpe’s seemingly innate understanding of composition, lighting, and perspective were undeniable – at least among those who were able to look past some of the shock-and-awe subject matter for which he became so renowned. But to dismiss his work at first sign of something that makes you uncomfortable is all too easy. It’s deserving of a second look, and then some.

The exhibits are at The Getty Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Each museum is worthy of a day-trip, but it’s possible to see the two Mapplethorpe exhibits in a day, if you’re able to pass up all the other art each has on offer.

We started at The Getty right at opening time (10am), followed by lunch in their beautiful restaurant. Make reservations beforehand if you want to ensure a table. The setting is so gorgeous that people come just for the restaurant. Entrance to The Getty is free, but parking will run $15.

The Getty exhibit featured work mostly from Mapplethorpe’s later years. The polish and perfection were evident. These weren’t works of an artist trying to find where he fits. While there are plenty of pieces that portray everyday subjects, there are several explicit pieces as well, all from his aptly-named X Portfolio. They are relegated to a separate room (something I understood, but quite frankly found a bit disappointing), and there’s a sign on the wall as you enter. So if you want to avoid them, certainly you can.

The LACMA exhibit costs $25 (includes their vast permanent collection and the Mapplethorpe special exhibit). It showcased more of what can be considered Mapplethorpe’s formative works – some early short films he directed, several works of collage, and even a few pen drawings from his student days at Parsons School of Design. Normally, I prefer seeing an artist’s work in chronological fashion, but in this case, I liked the order in which we experienced Mapplethorpe’s work. I felt a deeper appreciation for his earlier work after seeing the work for which he’s best known.

Both exhibits are on display until July 31, 2016. Get there if you can. If you want to do some homework beforehand, I highly recommend the recent HBO documentary “Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures”. For a slightly different introduction to Mapplethorpe, his work, and what living in Manhattan was like at that time, read Patti Smith’s National Book Award-winning memoir “Just Kids”.

Why The Bad Kids Aren’t So Bad After All

This morning I hoofed it to The Egyptian Theatre near the top of Main Street to see the documentary The Bad Kids. The movie follows the students and educators at Black Rock High School, in what feels like a forgotten part of the Mojave Desert in California. Black Rock is a last resort for many of its students, most of whom live in extreme poverty, with inconsistent parenting and living arrangements, where drugs and low expectations permeate the air.

The school is self-paced, giving kids who’ve fallen behind a chance to get back on track or perhaps even graduate early. The kids receive help and support that seems elusive in their home lives. Staff, led my hands-on principal Vonda Viland, phone students who don’t show up for school, offer rides if transportation is a roadblock, but perhaps most importantly, these dedicated educators hold the kids accountable while at the same time letting them know they are capable, worthy, and loved. The challenges are real. The road out’s not always so straight or clear, but this school provides a chance.

Filmmakers Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe have been making movies together for twenty years, but prior to the beginning of the film, they both said that following and crafting this story reminded them both of why they got in to film making, particularly documentaries, in the first place.

During the Q&A following the film, Fulton and Pepe seemed to have genuine relationships with the people they followed in the film. To me, this was exhibited even more by how they encourage the two students (both of whom have since graduated) and Principal Viland (far left in picture) to field most of the questions.

The story was well-crafted and the location in the desert made a real difference to the telling. You know those movies where they say New York (or some other iconic location) was a character n the film? Well, that’s the way the desert feels in The Bad Kids. It’s austere and isolated, angry during a storm, hopeful when the rainbows appear.

I left the film humbled and a bit saddened actually because I know this community is but one across the country where younger generations are plunged into adulthood at an early age, living each day wondering if they can bother to dream, wondering if they’ll be the one to break the cycle of poverty, abuse, and drug use.

The movie is a call to action. Take a few minutes to check out their website and learn about the story and how you might be able to help.

Documentaries, Music, and More

HooliganSundance started last night, and had its first full day of activities today. My first event was a movie in the World Documentary category titled Hooligan Sparrow. The original interest for filmmaker Nanfu Wang was to follow activist Ye Haiyan (Hooligan Sparrow) who had been making a name for herself with her advocacy work for the rights of sex workers. Ye Haiyan had a small group of activists working with her, and their efforts had gained the attention of the Chinese government, along with the international community.

Nanfu Wang, who no longer lives in China, travelled to Hainan Province to document Ye Haiyan’s latest protest of some young girls (as young as 11 years old) who were sexually abused by their principal.

This is where the story takes a turn. Early in to the experience, Wang realizes that perhaps the real story concerns the risks that human rights activists endure. Wang, along with Hooligan Sparrow and her group, becomes a target of intimidation and threats. In some cases, it’s clear the threat is from the government. In other cases, it’s unknown if it’s the everyday man sympathetic to the government or perhaps recruited by government officials.

The story is well-crafted, haunting, and educational about the changes that have been made in China, and those left to be made. Strikingly, Hooligan Sparrow is Nanfu Wang’s feature-film debut. It was a great way for me to start the festival.

In the afternoon, I headed to the ASCAP Music Cafe, relaxed and enjoyed some live music. My favorite act of the afternoon was Air Traffic Controller, an indie pop band fronted by Dave Munro,  a real-life air traffic controller for the US Navy. There were six people on the stage, but they played like a twelve-piece band, each member deftly moving from one instrument to the next, often within the same song. Listening was great, but watching was even better.

In the evening, I saw another documentary. This time it was NUTS!, a documentary by filmmaker Penny Lane entered in the US Documentary Competition. What a departure from the earlier film. The film tells the story of Dr. J.R. Brinkley, a small-town doctor with an entrepreneurial spirit who starts performing goat gonad transplants to solve impotency problems. Sounds like a guy you should have heard of, right? He lived in Kansas in the early 20th century, and in addition to his medical prowess, he also starts a successful radio station among other pursuits. I won’t give away the twists and turns in the tale – just know there are some.

Much of the story was told through animation, which was certainly unexpected. Some of the animated re-enactments are taken directly from available transcripts, but some were fabricated. This all adds up to a blurring of the line between truth and fiction, which ultimately is a bit of a parallel of Brinkley’s life.



#Sundance – 10 Days of Right Turns 

It’s that time of year again when Park City, a town of around 10,000 year-round residents grows four-fold to accommodate movie enthusiasts, film industry professionals, celebrities, and those on the brink of celebrity. And truth be told, not everyone’s happy about it.

The idea of it’s lovely, and there’s no doubt that it brings a boost to our local economy that doesn’t depend on Mother Nature the way the ski industry does; but it also means that everyday activities can become anxiety-inducing, time-wasting, patience-testing events. Think you’ll just run in to the grocery store to grab milk? Drop by the post office to pick up that package? Head to the gym for a quick workout? Not gonna happen! Try again in February.

If you watch Parkites prepare for Sundance, you would think you’d missed the warnings about an impending hurricane. Okay, so we don’t tape our windows or fill the tub with water, but we do stock up on groceries, fill the gas tank, and either fast track or postpone any upcoming appointments, errands, or chores. If you travel for work, now’s a good time to get out of town.

The other choice is to dive right in and play tourist in your hometown. This year the stars have aligned for me to do just that, and I’m giddy with anticipation. Tickets purchased. Credential secured. And to keep me somewhat sane, I’ve got everything in a spreadsheet, which might sound like overkill to the uninitiated, but it’s really quite essential if one doesn’t want to be in a panic trying to figure out how they could have double-booked two movies Thursday morning, how they’re ever going to get from the Library Theatre to Eccles in thirty minutes, and how they missed that hot new group at the Music Cafe that everyone’s talking about. Let’s just say, a little bit of organization can go a long way.