April, 2013 Archives

The Camera Obscura

April 23rd, 2013

Long before Canons, Nikons and Kodaks, camera obscuras were all the rage.

Knock on the senior citizens center door and a woman will answer you with a question: Salsa aerobics or camera obscura? Sounding a bit cryptic — almost like there’s some code or Latin phrase required for entry — it turns out, all that’s needed is some form of ID in exchange for a key to the darkened room up a flight of stairs.

Nothing untoward is happening up there. In fact, what occurs has been described for millennia, as far back as Aristotle’s day. In the middle of that room is a large, flat, white disk. And the picture on that disk is never exactly the same thing.

Welcome to the camera obscura, housed incongruously atop the Santa Monica Senior Recreation Center. Built way back in 1899, the room-sized camera projects a view of the surrounding beach onto a circular screen. It’s like an enormous pinhole camera, except that no images are recorded for posterity. Imagine closed-circuit security monitors, generations before there was TV or video.

Another way to think of obscuras, the precursors to modern day cameras, is like submarine periscopes. There’s a lens up on the roof of the building and you rotate it with a miniature captain’s wheel, like you may find on an ocean-going schooner. It turns in a 360 degree radius and shows you what’s outside of your little darkened room.

We saw several couples walking along the palm-lined promenade, a little kid playing on a cannon guarding Santa Monica from marauders, but were disappointed not to see senior salsa swingers.

The Chinese philosopher Mozi, from 400 BC, referred to the device as a “collecting plate” or “locked treasure room.” As a professional photographer, I like the treasure room description. There was a certain sense of quiet awe in the decidedly low tech chamber. My brother Dean gradually steered the lens around its orbit, collecting ever-changing images of seas and trees. And since no one was banging on the door, demanding their turn at the wheel, we could take our time as well as some photos. As incongruous as the camera atop a senior citizen center was, imagine me snapping pictures of it with my iPhone.

There are many camera obscuras around the world, including the first one I ever visited in Edinburgh, Scotland. The one in San Francisco is a pretty fun one too. We finished our 360 degree spy tour of Santa Monica and casually strolled back downstairs. I think I saw the lady who leads the dance classes. Dean grabbed one of her brochures.

People On Planes (or dancing with Rodney)

April 19th, 2013

On an airplane to LA, you may just meet a star, or maybe even one that dances with them.

Sometimes the people you meet on a plane just want to sleep and ignore you. That’s cool: I’ve been that guy. But sometimes you somehow get upgraded to the Economy Comfort section when what you really thought you were doing was just asking for an aisle seat. For 30 bucks I got a great seat and an even better story.

When Allen Genkin walked by me originally, I thought he may have made a mistake. Somehow—and I don’t claim to know why—I knew he was supposed to be in the middle seat next to me. He returned back up the aisle and with a sheepish grin, took his proper place.

Already, I dug the guy. My recent bouts with late onset Chemo-brain have caused me not a little consternation (I’m surprised, actually, that the word “consternation” came to me: word retrieval lately has been… has been… uhhh…)

I’m not as gifted at meeting people as the ladies in my family are. On our last trip, Taylor became fast friends with a 65-year-old woman who had just re-entered the dating scene and Skye was recently witnessed comforting an elderly man who was crying on the subway. Marci, always one to make a connection, figured out within 30 seconds of showing up for jury duty that the gentleman behind her in line also had a daughter in tiny Northfield, Minnesota, four states and several inches of snow away.

So when Allen and I got to chatting, I was first impressed by his appearance on Dancing With The Stars. We were delayed on the tarmac and spent the time watching videos of him on the show. The dude’s a crazy-good ballroom dancer. If you’re familiar with the show: No, he wasn’t dancing with one of the stars. Allen competed in the 2012 “Ballroom Battle,” a part of the ABC series in which a few rising ballroom stars from across the country are chosen to compete on the popular prime-time series.

As I met him, he was flying back to Cali to prepare for the Main Event on a cruise ship. I was flying west to attend another bone marrow conference which surely made him jealous. Sorry Allen, you’ll have to wait a little longer before you can live the glamorous life like me!

You’ll have to go through Hell and back before you can purchase a ticket to my kind of stardom.

Hell and back? Allen had a permanent address in Hell. The simple fact that he was here sitting next to me was miraculous. But that doesn’t even begin to cover it. To be a solid gold dancer and be on the cusp of super stardom is one thing. To do it when you’re only 22 is yet another. But try this challenge—after being obese as a child.

Yeah, obese. At the age of 13, the kid had a size 48 waist. Dreams of dancing were about as far away as the rich and caloric Russian food he was raised on was near.

This is the same person who was sitting right next to me and turning down my offer of a supposedly healthy half-a-tomato-and-cheese sandwich. A dancer’s diet is strictly adhered to. I didn’t, therefore, disturb his nap when the peanut, pretzel and pop cart trollied down the aisle.

Big deal, right? We’ve heard that narrative before; an overweight kid gets in shape and pursues his dreams. Yawn. Wake me when the next cart comes by.

Uh, okay, did I mention that his mom died a few years later when he was still only 15? It was a sudden loss, a drowning, but I had pried enough and didn’t want to ask for more specifics.

So now there’s this smiling, warm, gracious kid who overcame childhood obesity and a horrible tragedy only to go on and become one of the top ballroom dancers in the world. Yeah, they have worldwide competitions for that sort of thing. His was in London, but dancing has taken him all over globe, even at the amazingly young age of 22.

But I feel like something’s missing in this story. I feel as though my Chemo-brain has left something out. Once he dropped all that weight and somehow got over his mother’s drowning, life was golden for him, right? His father abandoned him, did I tell you that? But there was something even worse.

I don’t want to disturb him to ask; he’s still napping. Professional dancer’s need their sleep. So do cancer survivors. Oh yeah, that’s it. At age 20, this incredible kid—this future star of stage and screen—suffered through The Big C, testicular cancer.

God, I swear life couldn’t have been any more shitty for him. But he made it through Hell, became a world-class dancer then there on national TV, his former dance partner and one-time girlfriend dumped him just before the biggest competition of his young life. His coach had to scramble and within mere days, my current seatmate on this bumpy cross-country flight appeared on national, network TV vying for the ballroom title on Dancing With The Stars.

Oh, and then—he won. After all that, yes, he won.

I think any of his struggles should have qualified him for a life on Easy Street. He told me, before nodding off, that cancer changed him. Immediately I was the jealous one. Even though people around me say I’m changed, I don’t always feel as though it’s for the better. Allen’s change most assuredly is for the better, even though I didn’t know him back when things were rotten and am definitely not an authority on his life, even after we shared this flight. His desire to one day open a dance studio to help kids like him is proof positive that this guy deserves all the amazing things life has in store for him.

But don’t take my word for it. Watch the video or watch the future as he lights up the firmament. Of all the past, current  and future stars out there, this one shines with a special, deep, internal fire. Allen Genkin wins the ballroom dance competition on Dancing With The Stars.

And damn, the kid can dance!

Four Days, Four Plays

April 13th, 2013

A quick trip to Broadway can be inexpensive if you’re willing to work for it, or you’re traveling with my wife.

If our family had a coat of arms or a crest, written underneath it — probably in ancient Scottish Gaelic — would be the phrase, Never pay retail. I’m referring, of course, to my wife’s obsession with always finding a deal. This is never more evident than when we go on vacation.

I can’t remember the last time we went somewhere and didn’t stay with someone, get there on the cheap or find deep discounts on entertainment. Our recent barnstorming tour to NYC fulfilled all three of those check boxes. Our incredibly gracious friend Peter let us crash at his place, even moving out for three nights. We drove there instead of flying and then there were those Broadway tickets.

My wife and daughters are huge Broadway fans; they would’ve long ago excommunicated me from the family, taking my last name with me, if I didn’t convert. So nowadays, yes, I dig musicals, straight plays and even random performance pieces that spring up in Lower Manhattan (some of you call them traffic jams, but I like to imagine them as Automobile Flash Mobs all pretending to storm the Holland Tunnel on rainy Sunday evenings).

We saw four plays in four days and we didn’t ever pay the full asking price for any of them. Sometimes that can lead to, shall we say, interesting consequences. For the wonderful Tom Hanks, Nora Ephron play Lucky Guy, we got fantastic last-minute tickets, after standing in line for about an hour and a half at the box office. The problem was, we didn’t have what you might call, ummm, seats. For a very reasonable rate, less than $30 per ticket, we got to stand, or lean against a 4 1/2 foot partition for the duration of the play. When Mr. Hanks came out of the theatre (after we stood again waiting for him) my daughters told him the show’s story, about a journalist with cancer, was sort of like their father’s. He asked if it hit too close to home and they said it didn’t; Tom Hanks is much better looking than me.

Next we saw Once, which is a play based on the 2006 movie by the same name. I’ve never experienced a performance like it. When we arrived, there were audience members up on stage, buying drinks at the pub, which was part of the set. My daughters and Skye’s boyfriend went up to look around. Gradually, some musicians came out onto the stage and started playing Irish pub music. Slowly, the audience members went back to their seats and the musicians picked up the tempo a bit. After a while, a few of the musicians stepped forward and they were the main actors. Without any formal beginning, the play just sort of happened in front of us. It was an amazing, organic experience to be part of.

Oh, and our seats were obstructed-view tickets, purchased the day of the show at the discount TKTS booth in Brooklyn. Retail prices die under Marci’s withering embrace.

Our next show, Peter And The Starcatcher, was billed as “a grownup’s prequel to Peter Pan.” Originally co-written by humorist/columnist Dave Barry (I’m not making this up), I had a special place in my heart for the play after reading the book.

The energy on that stage was incredible. Little kids loved the show; grownups laughed at the jokes and creative staging. Since it was a matinee performance (cheaper) and since we purchased the tickets at that TKTS booth (cheaper still), my wife’s reputation was intact. We also had honest-to-goodness seats to sit in. Life was grand!

It was shocking to all of us in the car when my wife purchased the tickets for our final performance a few days ahead of time. What was her problem? Was she ill? No, it turns out she survived the harrowing experience by ordering us matinee tickets. Even more Marci-ish, we “got to” sit in stools, up in the balcony along the side of the audience. We were all relieved that she hadn’t taken leave of her senses.

The play was called The Last Five Years and was told in quite an unconventional way. Only two characters were portrayed and they were only on stage together briefly.  It’s about a couple telling the story of their relationship over the last five years, but she tells it starting from its end, and he starts from the beginning. The songs were beautiful and the staging was sparse but perfect. Sitting where we were, we had a bird’s eye view from our precarious perches on the stools.

Driving home from the play, and sitting amongst the unpaid actors portraying busy New York commuters, we complimented Marci on the successful defense of her title as Discount Diva. The jam up of extras and chorus members all attempting to cram themselves into the Holland Tunnel didn’t really bother us; at least we got to sit for awhile in some comfy seats.

Hey, Rodney’s not just some blogger; he’s an author too!

April 9th, 2013

Wouldn’t it be great if you could find more Rodney in a book?

You can find out more about his first book, Spiritual Wanderer.   Or his next book, A “cute” Leukemia.    Or coming soon, Getting Laid (off).