Celebrating 100 Years

April 27th, 2016

Oh the things she’s seen, the places she’s gone.

In a bucolic early image, my grandmother strikes a heroic pose with a speckled friend in New York’s Catskills.

In a bucolic early image, my grandmother strikes a heroic pose with a speckled friend in New York’s Catskills.

My grandfather used to say that before 1916, the world was ruthless. My grandmother, Ruth Harris Adams, was born in 1916. If the world was ruthless before that date, I can only guess that afterwards it was ruthmore, ruthful? Ol’ granddad passed on before completing his silly pun. Grandma Ruth lives on.

She’s 100 now.

Grandma at Columbia University in 1936

Grandma at Columbia University in 1936

Think about that for a moment. She not only witnessed both World Wars, Lindbergh and Armstrong (Neal AND Louie), experienced The Great Depression, The Great Gatsby, The Greatest Generation and simply The Greatest in the guise of Mohammed Ali. Civil War soldiers were alive and well in her lifetime, as were warriors from all the wars in Afghanistan, 1878 to present.

It’s hard to fully fathom the scope and landscape of Western and Eastern civilization that she’s seen from the sidelines or actively taken part in. She’s lived in Beirut, Lebanon; Jeddah, Saudi Arabia;  Seoul, South Korea and has traveled almost everywhere else extensively. Her home bases have been Philadelphia, West Virginia, Arizona and her native New York City. And even though an unhealthy portion of her mind has forgotten much of what she once knew, she is a living, breathing historical marker of the 20th and 21st centuries. And we honor her for that.

Grandma was a female doctor in a profession dominated by men. She originally wanted to fight polio, but since that cure also happened in her lifetime, she changed her focus to pediatric liver disease, receiving her degree from Columbia University. Her daughters also graduated from the school decades later. This fall, her great granddaughter begins her graduate work there as well. We are all lucky to live in a family of amazingly strong, bright, courageous women.

Grandma was a doctor in a field dominated by men.

Grandma was a doctor in a field dominated by men.

A large contingent of family members flew out to Arizona in order to reverently shower her with love and well-wishes. At first, only a few of us planned on making the pilgrimage. Then it became a groundswell, finally a movement. A great grand who works miracles with the elderly signed on for the fun of it all. Another great grand asked for an extension from her professor in order to attend: final paper be damned. We kind of felt bad for my aunt and uncle on site and on the spot who had to cope with our invasion for three days. It was all for a good cause, family re-unioning and meeting new members who — in contrast to Grandma — are barely 100 days old. One wonders what wonders these newest born will witness in their lifetime?

Instead of major wars, will they bask in a worldwide outbreak of peace? Like their great great grandmother, will they see devilish diseases defeated? The technology, the revolutionary advances to come, nothing short of a planet and humanity-saving epoch is within their reach.

Sure, eventually the world will be ruthless again and we will all be sad for a time. But the world is already Wyattfull, Russellmore and packed with a whole bunch of other great great kids readily accepting Ruth’s torch, her baton, her legacy.

My brothers, cousins, Mom and I gather around Grandma on her 100th birthday.

My brothers, cousins, Mom and I gather around Grandma on her 100th birthday.

The Power of Solar

April 10th, 2016

If politicians tell you solar power doesn’t work in Michigan, feel free to tell them to stick it where the sun doesn’t shine!

For about the price of an average used car, we’ve decided to install solar panels on our garage roof.

I’ve heard many, many times that solar power just doesn’t work in Michigan. It’s too gray, it’s too cold, it’s too fill in the blank.

But if you can grow gladiolas, you can go solar. Putting it a little differently, Germany leads the world in solar production. Yet they get about the same amount of sunshine as Seattle, Portland and the Pacific Northwest — long perceived as America’s cloudiest climes. In fact, last July, Germany set a record by hitting 78% of their day’s electricity demands by using renewable energy alone.

Not to put too fine a point on it, as I wrote in an article a few years back, “Just how effective can energy from the sun be in the Great Lake State? Incredibly effective. To offer a comparison, Detroit has roughly 2,375 hours of sunshine per year. Sun City Center in Florida has about 2,927 hours. Those thousands of hours warm the state like a cozy mitten in winter and offer a tremendous source of free energy all year long.”

Over the years, as we’ve watched the planet get warmer and have seen the disastrous effects of climate change, we have wanted to go solar. But there have been obstacles set up in our path. Large energy corporations, coal and oil producers, rich, old, white men and their political allies have done their best to throw shade on solar power.

But our tulips have been blooming now about a month ahead of normal. And a storm is dumping inches of snow atop them and their daffodil sisters out front. At the risk of sounding too righteous, we wanted to do something about it. If there’s some small part we can play, we’re gonna play.

A federal incentive allows home owners to slice 30% off their income taxes as a solar energy credit. Plus, our electric company will give us credit for the energy we produce; it should take roughly a dozen years for the system to pay for itself.

Though we are convinced that very soon, all power companies will be forced to provide more incentives for alternative energy. They will also have to supply more green electricity. When our electricity supplier (DTE) briefly did that a couple years ago, they gave large incentives to individual customers to produce electricity. That program (Solar Currents) will definitely come back, but it will just be icing on the cake for us. If you live where Consumer’s Energy supplies electricity, they are currently running a solar incentive program for their customers. We think things will make even more economic sense very, very soon, though we aren’t calculating on that happening.

The best way to think about our panels right now is like this: we are just a tiny substation, generating electricity for DTE. The electrons we produce on our roof, shoot right back to DTE and the grid, for now. But only for now. There are whole home batteries being produced as we speak. Once the price of these batteries come down a bit, we will snap one up quicker than you can say Nicola Tesla. Estimates tell us that for $3,000 – $4,000 installed, these batteries will charge up during the day, then run our home at night. Any additional electricity we need will still be supplied by the grid. But in essence, we’ll be making our own electricity, then using our own electricity.

Yes, in the long run we’ll eventually save money. But for now, it’s an ethical/moral decision. I know it makes us sound like silly, high-minded liberals. But I guess we kind of are. I’ve repeated the fact over and over again that if only 1/4 of the world’s structures had solar panels, they would power the other 3/4 of the planet. When you think of it that way, saving the planet is a lot easier to envision.

I’ll end my proselytizing with a few more fun facts:

 

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Joe Nagle, from Strawberry Solar, looks down into our home from a rooftop “Skye”light.

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Joe Nagle and Connor Lark attach the rails which the solar panels will rest on.

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Joe Nagle surveys the roof as he plans the solar panel installation.

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Will Held’s shadow waves from the ladder as the sun tracks his work.

 

My Favorite Films of 2015

February 24th, 2016

The Big Short and Ex Machina vie for first in Rodney’s annual best movie list.

Welcome to my list of favorite films from last year. I’ve been compiling these since back in the 1990s when I used to just email them to friends. Before that, I had actual face-to-face conversations about movies. Thank goodness those aren’t recorded. I remember once telling high school pals Danny Baron and Jeff Dorchen (director and co-writers, respectively, of the upcoming Brie Larson musical comedy Basmati Blues) that I really enjoyed Olivia Newton John’s terribly maligned Xanadu.

“But guys, ELO did the music!!” 

Nope. It was so bad, Broadway did an actual play about how terrible it was.

Anyway, I had the toughest time this year deciding on just which film was my favorite. I set up a complicated algorithm on a spreadsheet which included such metrics as, “Hmmm, which film stayed in my brain longer,” and “It’s about time I wrote up my list.”

Using those sole data points, the calculus came up with my top two movies, separated by just a fraction of a percentage point. The other three of my top five were fantastic as well, but you just can’t argue with hard statistics.

So here they are. Let me know if you agree, disagree or if this is all just a Trainwreck.

(Sorry)

 

The Big Short

Jeremy Strong, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, Steve Carell, Jeffry Griffin and Ryan Gosling star in The Big Short.
Jeremy Strong, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, Steve Carell, Jeffry Griffin and Ryan Gosling star in The Big Short.

The Big Short starring Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling was based on real people who bet against the housing market bubble (or “shorted” it) before anyone else knew it was doomed to burst. Telling the story — in a comical way, no less — about the epic housing market crash that plunged us into the Great Recession was not easy. But the storyline clearly and concisely explained what happened in a humorous, step-by-step way. When the director (Adam McKay of SNL and Anchorman fame) felt the movie was about to bog down in too much detail, well, I have never seen the fourth wall broken so creatively. At one point, actress Margot Robbie sipping champagne in a bubble bath explains sub prime loans directly to the camera. She wasn’t in the movie or part of the story, they just cut away to her to keep us all interested.

They did the same thing later on with other celebrities, like chef Anthony Bourdain explaining Collateralized Debt Obligations as if they were leftovers in a restaurant and pop star Selena Gomez in a casino also explaining complex financial terminology.

This was a perfect movie. It had good guys, bad guys, lots of humor, tension and even real life monsters threatening to destroy humanity, played in the movie by Wall Street.

 

Ex Machina

Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaac star in Ex Machina.
Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaac star in Ex Machina.

Ex Machina could just have easily been my favorite movie of 2015. It was a very close second. It stars one of my favorite actors, Domhnall Gleeson (In videos of him pronouncing his name; he tells us to just say “tonal” but to use a D instead of a T). You’ve seen Tonal with a D everywhere. I mean everywhere. The Revenant? Sure, he was Leonardo’s captain. Brooklyn? He played Saoirse Ronan’s love interest back in Ireland. (By the way, she pronounces it “Ronan.”). Star Wars? Yup, he’s ruthless General Hux. He also starred opposite another of my favorite actors, Bill Nighy, in About Time, my favorite film on last year’s list.

I should probably give a quick plot summary, eh? Domhnall plays a young programmer in a near-future, near-Google-like empire. His reclusive boss asks him to his island (which seems a bit like Jurassic Park without all the CGI-nosaurs) to help him test the human qualities in a new robot he’s developing. That robot is played by Alicia Vikander, the very same Alicia Vikander who is nominated for Best Supporting Actress in The Danish Girl (spoiler, she’s really a robot in that one too).

The movie unfolds slowly, both in your brain and physically. I can’t say too much about it, yet I can’t say enough. Find this film somewhere and enjoy the underlying social implications, philosophical arguments and fantastic storyline.

 

Predestination

Sarah Snook and Ethan Hawke star in Predestination.
Sarah Snook and Ethan Hawke star in Predestination.

I guarantee you’ve never watched anything like Predestination before. Ethan Hawke plays a time-traveling agent on assignment to catch the one criminal that he’s never quite been able to collar. If you think Minority Report meets Looper or The Terminator you would be kinda/sorta on the right track. But then again …

It’s an unconventional, intelligent take on science fiction and thrillers. The fun part is fitting the puzzle together as this Australian film slowly meanders its way through an adaptation of a Robert Heinlein short story.

Newcomer Sarah Snook was fantastic throughout all the unexpected turns as the movie came to its “logical” conclusion. Internal consistency and paradoxes are big tropes in the time travel genre. You won’t be disappointed with how the plot twists in upon itself.

 

Trainwreck

Amy Schumer and LeBron James star in Trainwreck.
Amy Schumer and LeBron James star in Trainwreck.

This has been Amy Schumer’s year. She is everywhere, starring in commercials, an extraordinary TV sketch show and writing/starring in Trainwreck  with Bill Hader and LeBron James among others.

Schumer is best at turning convention on its ear and revealing, through hysterical comedy, our ideological shortcomings as entrenched humans. Yeah, that sentence sounded even worse when I read it aloud. Everything she does is funny, especially when she pokes fun at things society’s uncomfortable with, but doesn’t always like to talk about. Amy’s comedy is simply brilliant.

In Trainwreck, we watch as her commitment-phobic character grapples with finding an awesome somebody who wants to commit. Right, we get it, normally it’s guys in movies who are afraid to settle down. But that’s not the sole source of humor here. Bill Hader is perfect as her love interest (or like interest), but for my money, LeBron James steals the ball as one of the best supporting actors of the year. And he plays a role he was born to play, himself!

 

Spotlight

Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d'Arcy James, Michael Keaton and John Slattery star in Spotlight.
Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d’Arcy James, Michael Keaton and John Slattery star in Spotlight.

Spotlight makes me unreasonably happy. Having freelanced for The Boston Globe (both photos and writing) I feel like I’m six degrees of Kevin Bacon from their incredible work investigating abuses by Catholic priests. Nah, not really! I’m closer to a BLT than to this great combo.

The movie version of their in-depth reporting rounds out my top-five favorite films this year. It is an inspiring and horrifying story to watch. Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber and John Slattery headline the cast of characters based on the real-life Globe team that took down the secrecy and exposed the abuses that priests perpetrated on children.

This movie makes any journalist proud and slightly ashamed too. Not lost in the narrative is the fact that they had the story years earlier and did nothing to follow up on it. We’ve all been in that position, not realizing how big a story was until much later. Heck, The Flint Journal had been reporting on the water crisis in that city for more than a year until others picked it up and made it colossal. 

The Hollywood Reporter took this cool portrait of the creatives, real-life journalists and actors portraying them in Spotlight. Brian d’Arcy James, Matt Carroll, Michael Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer, Rachel McAdams, Tom McCarthy, John Slattery, Walter Robinson, Josh Singer, Ben Bradlee Jr., Liev Schreiber and Marty Baron.
The Hollywood Reporter took this cool portrait of the creatives, real-life journalists and actors portraying them in Spotlight. Brian d’Arcy James, Matt Carroll, Michael Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer, Rachel McAdams, Tom McCarthy, John Slattery, Walter Robinson, Josh Singer, Ben Bradlee Jr., Liev Schreiber and Marty Baron.

 

These next five movies are worthy contenders and easily make my top-ten list.

Tomorrowland with George Clooney and Britt Robertson is a fun, inspirational peek into parallel worlds. I wrote a lot about it last year and it’s stuck with me ever since. It’s hopeful and alarming at the same time. Before he retired, Tom Long of the Detroit News said it perfectly, “This is summer moviemaking at its best.”

The Martian was awarded Best Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy. No one on this planet agrees with such an odd categorization. Apart from that, it’s still worth seeing. Matt Damon is marooned on the red planet. A galaxy of stars, including Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig (who isn’t funny or supposed to be) and Jeff Daniels work to bring him back to earth.

The End of the Tour takes place back in the 1990s after late novelist David Foster Wallace becomes famous. It follows Wallace, played by Jason Segel, for several days before, during and after his book tour for Infinite Jest. Jesse Eisenberg plays the guy who interviewed him (David Lipsky, who wrote the book it’s based on). Jason Segel always makes my lists, it seems. He’s one of those guys you’d just love to hang out and sip a beer with.

Inside Out What? A cartoon makes my top ten? Absolutely. Do yourself a favor and track down this movie, starring the voices of Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling and many, many others. It portrays a young girl’s emotions as actual characters living in her brain and shows how they change as she does. Wow! I mean, I would watch this simply as a stage play with the actors just sitting on stools speaking their lines into microphones.

Spy stars Melissa McCarthy as a CIA analyst normally confined to desk work. When she is somehow picked to infiltrate an international arms-dealing cartel, all manner of mayhem breaks loose. Written and directed by Michigan’s own Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Office), Spy is just simple, silly fun.

 

“Rodney,” you may very well be saying …

“… what if we just want to plop on our couch, drop our faces into some popcorn on a weekend eve, and simply mindlessly watch something.”

To which I’d respond, “I’m glad you asked that question. Here are five more bonus movies you might want to check out.”

Bridge of Spies is obviously a good movie; it got nominated for Best Picture. When you get Tom Hanks in anything, you’re probably going to enjoy the ride (Well, maybe not The Money Pit or Dragnet). Mr. Wolf Hall, Mark Rylance, is a good understatement as usual.

The Intern with Robert DeNiro and Anne Hathaway is enjoyable and harmless fun. There are one or two plot contrivances that are just too cloying, though, to keep it out of my Top Ten.

Woman in Gold surprised me. The Ryan Reynolds, Helen Mirren movie about repatriating lost art stolen in WWII is a feel bad/then feel good movie.

What We Do in the Shadows with Jemaine Clement and Rhys Darby is a mockumentary that feels like 2/3 of The Flight Of The Conchords, except with werewolves and vampires.

I’ll See You In My Dreams stars Blythe Danner as a gracefully aging widow whose static life gets a little upended when Sam Elliott shows up. Her friends — June Squibb, Rhea Perlman and Mary Kay Place — almost steal the show. Martin Starr (Silicon Valley, Knocked Up, Freaks and Geeks) is waaaay understated and it works, even though you keep expecting him to burst out saying something incredibly inappropriate.

 

An addendum to my 2014 list.

I see miles of movies every year. But sometimes I miss something. If I were a professional movie reviewer, I’d scold myself with stern looks for missing 2014‘s The One I Love. It’s a trippy, cerebral Mark Duplass and Elizabeth Moss project where a couple goes off on a weekend retreat only to confront “themselves.” There’s not much more I can tell you, but if you’re like me — apart from feeling sorry for you — I think you may enjoy it.

 

Last and least …

… are the following five movies I kept notes on throughout the year, only to discard them at the end. In photo contests, these would be called “pauses.” The judges pause on a picture that they initially like, only to say “pass” in unison after a few seconds.

I really wanted to include Room with Brie Larson. I think it just felt too horrifying in the end. Yes, it’s well made, soulful, frightening, sad, then hopeful. But nothing resonated with me internally. Feel free to call me dirty names or curse my familial lineage. But like Birdman last year, even though I know I should have, I just didn’t love it.

love & mercy with Paul Dano as young Beach Boy Brian Wilson and John Cusack as the older version hit some nice, poignant notes. God Only Knows I kept trying to nudge it up the charts, but in the end I wasn’t feeling the Good … (sorry, can’t do it).

Yeah, Star Wars: The Force Awakens was cool to see, packed inside a theatre on its opening weekend. But every time I go back to it in my brain, all I think about is that awesome BB-8 bot. I wish I had one of those back when I was a young Jedi.

The previews for While We’re Young with Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts and Adam Driver looked so good and I couldn’t wait to see it. Sigh, unfortunately it just fell flat. And could’ve used about 20 minutes worth of slicing.

Infinitely Polar Bear was another film I had high hopes for. Movies about manic-depression or bipolar disorder are important and worthy of consideration. The fact that it was based on writer/director Maya Forbes’ life is important as well. Sure, Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana and the two young stars Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashly Aufderheide performed quite admirably. But the whole wasn’t as good as the sum of its parts. I hope more movies attempt to handle topics of this depth and magnitude very soon.

So after all of this, I’ve fallen behind on my 2016 list. Next up for me to see are Where To Invade Next and Hail Caesar! I’ll let you know what I think of ’em about this time next year. Here’s hoping it’s a memorable and less white Oscars in 2017!

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Saoirse Ronan’s name is actually pronounced SEER-sha.

Panama: A Vivid Vida

January 14th, 2016

Life in Panama is slow, humid, intense and vivid.

This cool gentleman playing an old, beaten up banjo was one of the best sights and sounds from our evening stroll around Panama’s old city.

This cool gentleman playing an old, beaten up banjo was one of the best sights and sounds from our evening stroll around Panama’s old city.

I’m going to miss the view, sitting on the 10th-floor balcony, looking out over the Pacific and the dozen-and-more ships lined up to enter the Panama Canal.

Enveloped in a humid wash of sound, temperature and flavor, there is no better word to describe the experience than vivid. Senses are assailed here with unknown variables, experiences that defy description, though surely they’re primal, continuous since the birth of time.

A particular mangrove copse down and to the left of the beach has called to me again and again. For some reason, maybe based in my reptilian first brain, I am drawn to it at high tide and low. During low ebbs, I’ve wandered among the rocks, plants, mud, lizards, birds and sounds. During the tide’s high flow, I’ve kayaked through looking for something perhaps unseeable, unknowable.

Beautiful, long and languid alabaster birds casually step further as I pass. Pelicans and other birds of sea inquire about the visitor, then they too wander away. There are sounds that scare me, probably deep bassoon frogs, hopefully so. There are steps not taken for fear of snakes or crocodiles. Sometimes I’m a real wussy.

Across the isthmus there are similar spaces, the whole country is teeming with a vivid vida I’ve never felt before. It’s January everywhere else; here it’s mid-August, Alabama.

We traveled along a jungle path the other day and saw a sloth hanging upside down, slowly collecting and munching on leaves. That sloth had it right; you live here, you sleep and hang out as much as possible.

We saw monkeys that shimmied down branches to our idling boat, putt-puttering off THE canal. My daughter spotted a baby croc, harmless in its infancy, while I looked for its mother. Birds of every color hover high or flap low, one of the greatest concentration of exotic birds anywhere.

My pictures feel vivid too.

Flying out, it takes three or four attempts over 48 hours for us to all make it home. I realize how privileged we are in our First World. Though I’ve dreamt of Panama since coming home. Maybe it’s Michigan in January; though maybe it’s something deeper.

 

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PANO-ma 1 : Looking out over the Pacific ocean as ships to the left wait to enter the canal.

 

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PANO-ma 2: Flowers and towers. The Old City built in the 1600s and the new city still being built.

 

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PANO-ma 3: A ship heads through the Panama Canal at the Miraflores locks.

 

Iconic Panama hats are sold everywhere, even though the majority of them are made in Ecuador.

Iconic Panama hats are sold everywhere, even though the majority of them are made in Ecuador.

 

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A white-faced capuchin monkey came within a few meters of us.

 

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Eduardo manned the helm while Alex looked for wildlife as we patrolled the backwaters of the famed Panama Canal.

 

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Reservoir Daughters (and wife and guide, Guibel).

 

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Mi familia es muy bonita!

 

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A newly married couple spent “literally” all their time together.

 

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Shadow play on a pillar along the old wall built in the 1600s around Panama’s old city.

 

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What’s the first thing I photograph when I get to Panama: the amazing scenery, the beautiful people or that canal thingy? None of the above when there’s a lizard down below.

 

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This one-year-old crocodile is actually a lot smaller than it looks, though I wouldn’t go petting it.

 

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Alex, a naturalist, also took us on a jungle walk through the rainforest.