Monthly Archives: May 2013

The new “Kon-Tiki” – a review

Kon TikiI recently saw the film Kon-Tiki, a retelling of the documentary by Thor Heyerdahl, who in 1947 sailed with a crew of five from Callao, Peru, 5,000 miles across the Pacific to Polynesia on a balsa raft to prove that people from South America could have made the same trip in earlier times.

It’s a really good movie! The directors of this 2012 Norwegian film, Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, have put together an outstanding package of fine casting, excellent directing, high drama, chilling special effects, and superb photography. It was nominated for an Oscar last year in the category “Best Foreign Language Film,” and in fact the movie had two scripts: the actors played all the scenes twice, once in English and once in Norwegian.

Heyerdahl was one of the great explorers of the twentieth century. He was also controversial. He saw himself as a scientist, and he spent decades doing field research in zoology and ethnography. But he was largely self-taught, and many mainstream scholars have questioned his lack of scientific credentials and his unwillingness to look at facts that might disprove his theories. Some have seen him as arrogant. Others, like me, have admired him immensely for his brilliant mind, superhuman determination, and the stark bravery it took to embark on this voyage with only the materials that were available to ancient Peruvians. He had a point to prove, and he did.

His daily Morse code reports from the raft, his book (translated into over 70 languages), and his documentary film of the journey electrified the imagination of millions and turned him into a hero in the 1950s.

Hagen in Kon Tiki

Pål Sverre Hagen

Actor Pål Sverre Hagen re-creates Heyerdahl exactly as I have imagined him. He skillfully captures the man’s unswerving determination and his understated emotions, ultimately belied by the expression of raw triumph on his face when he wades to land in Polynesia. While holding our sympathy throughout, Hagen also shows us how Heyerdahl’s fight for his belief against all odds could be misread as arrogance, or at least indifference to the thoughts and feelings of others, and we begin to understand why he had detractors.

At the beginning of the film we learn that Heyerdahl nearly died from drowning as a child. It left him with an abiding fear of water, and he didn’t even know how to swim, which inspires even greater respect for his daring accomplishments at sea.

The narrative then fast-forwards to 1937, ten years before the Kon-Tiki crossing, with Heyerdahl on an entomology expedition on the island of Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas Archipelago. He hears a local legend that one of the natives’ forefathers was a light-skinned priest with red hair, Tiki, who came across the ocean from a mountainous country in the east where the sun rises. Hearing this story, he wonders if some of the people in Polynesia had ancestors in South America. He begins to look for New World evidence to back up his theory and soon narrows his quest on Peru, where mummies had been found with long faces and red hair. As he continues his research, he becomes excited when he discovers the perfect counterpoint to the legend he heard in Fatu Hiva: the tale of a fair-skinned people living in the Andes near Lake Titicaca who were nearly wiped out by a rival group. Their high priest, Kon-Tiki (Sun-God), managed to escape with a few of his closest followers, travel down to the coast, and disappear into the ocean heading west. Even the name is the same.

Now Heyerdahl is not only convinced, he becomes obsessed. He does more research and adds details to fill in the logical scenario. The ultimate test, he believes, is to replicate the means and route by which these early people could have traveled across the Pacific. If he can do that, his theory will be proven beyond a doubt.

One might think it would be difficult to turn 101 days on the open sea into a cohesive, exciting movie for today’s audiences, but it has plenty of action, thanks to a school of sharks that follow the raft, and many other thrills and spills. I was on the edge of my seat every minute.

Just as I was when I saw the original documentary 60 years ago. Yes, I have to confess that I have had a Kon-Tiki-thing going for the better part of my life. I read Heyerdahl’s book three times and have been following his adventures ever since. I even paid homage to the raft itself at the Kon-Tiki museum in Oslo. I am now reading the book once again and seeing it in a new light. This time I’m appreciating, aside from the story and the drama, how beautifully it’s written and how far ahead of the times Heyerdahl was in his zeal to preserve the planet—“the system we have wounded.”

The movie opened my eyes to some of the criticism of Heyerdahl’s work. But whatever his faults, his accomplishments and determination boggle the mind, and he has stories to tell that will give tantalizing food for thought to future generations of scientists and armchair explorers.

The film succeeds in every way. Even though it isn’t showing in many theaters, I’m hoping its audience will grow. It deserves to become a classic.


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In defense of the IRS

What this ruckus is really all about

IRS w haloI never intended to go political in this blog, and I certainly never thought I’d see that day I’d be defending the United States Internal Revenue Service. But I can’t sit still and see the IRS pilloried in the press when the current outrage is a big smokescreen for what’s actually going on. We all love to hate the IRS, but in the kerfuffle over using Tea Party keywords to search for tax exemption abuse, the real issue has gotten swept under the rug, and I will explain what that is later below.

In the meantime, it’s safe to say that the IRS’s initial motive was understandable, even though they acted like Keystone Kops. While it was really dumb to instruct employees to search for specific politically loaded keywords, it wasn’t criminal, and I daresay there was no political bias intended.

We still don’t know whole story, but I’d like to think that the IRS was equally interested in going after left-wing groups and may have lacked the stand-out catch phrases to hone in on them. The facts aren’t in yet. The media have whipped this issue into a frenzy when hardly anyone seems to know what they’re talking about.

The process at issue is applying for tax exemption, which is a privilege rarely granted. Having experienced the application process for 501(c)(3) tax exemption for two different organizations, I can attest that it’s a lengthy and tedious ordeal, with a lot of forms to fill out and questions to answer, and it can take at least a year. Then once the status is granted, the organization is monitored on an ongoing basis. The IRS is entrusted with upholding the law, and I know from personal experience that the laws about tax-exempt status are complex and confusing.

I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on this subject, but I have done a little research on the Internet, and what I’ve come up with is a real eye-opener. I started at the site and then checked the sources it referred to. Here’s the deal.

The category in question, 501(c)(4), is for groups organized exclusively for the purpose of promoting social welfare, and their net earnings may only be spent for charitable, educational, or recreational purposes. These groups must be primarily engaged in promoting the common good and general welfare of the people of the community. They are allowed to participate in political campaigns and elections as long as their primary activity is the promotion of social welfare. However, if they advocate for a particular candidate in an election, that money is taxable. They are not allowed to participate directly or indirectly or to intervene in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.

Now listen up, boys and girls, because here’s what’s at stake, and what the media should really be awfulizing about:  501(c)(4) organizations are not required to disclose the names of their donors. This loophole has led to extensive (ab)use of 501(c)(4) status by groups that are actively involved in lobbying. According to the Wikipedia site: “Criticized as ‘dark money’, spending from these organizations on political TV ads has exceeded spending from SuperPACs  — and the donations are tax-exempt! In 2012, these tax-exempt groups outspent SuperPACs by a ratio of 3 to 2. That’s what this whole deal is really about.

Obviously Congress has no interest in changing this law, any more than they want to abolish the filibuster, and as long as it remains on the books, we should be encouraging the IRS to be on everybody’s tail, whether the groups are on the right, left, or middle of the spectrum.

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More reviews of my book

Cover - thumbnailHere are three more reviews of my book. A full summary of the reviews so far can be seen under the tab “Reviews.” In the present batch, the following lines stand out:

“A moving, transcendant personal statement of the very meaning of existence.”

“More than invincible, her summer is triumphant.”

“She draws the reader into her story and never forgets that those reading her words could find comfort – and, believe that miracles can happen.”


Finding My Invincible Summer is a remarkable memoir

By José Neistein  

Written in clear, transparent, elegant English, Finding My Invincible Summer turns out to be not only a vibrant and candid portrait of the author, but also – and above all – a moving, transcendant personal statement of the very meaning of existence. This is one of the reasons, if not the main one, why this book is appealing to so many readers, coming from all walks of life.

It tells us the basics about the mysteries and the trade of living, of conquering the right to rejoice by overcoming grief, injustice, pain, and frustrations with the help of determination, understanding, discipline, discernment, awareness, and love. Much love. It is a convincing lesson in how circumstances can make us sink into deep despair, but then by standing up for ourselves, by relaxing and letting go when necessary and acquiring the tools to reemerge forever whole.

This fascinating account of the author’s life, fears, loves, passions and ordeals tells us also how she made peace with destiny and herself by dispelling her ghosts, and finally looking into the sun’s eyes. But Muriel Vasconcellos’ book is more than the story of her journey: it is the journey of mankind. I think that her major merit is that she had the courage and generosity of putting them candidly down on paper. We can all identify with her book. More than invincible, her summer is triumphant.


An inspirational story

By Queta

As a narrator of her life story, Muriel did not get lost in a cathartic tale that some authors seem to fall into. She wrote a compelling book of amazing love, devastating health, overwhelming grief and finding her personal joy. The special events that shaped her life were certainly not ordinary or boring. She draws the reader into her story and never forgets that those reading her words could find comfort – and, believe that miracles can happen.


I will recommend this biography to my book club

By Pat B.

Finding My Invincible Summer is an inspirational memoir by Muriel Vasconcellos. It is a compelling story of enduring love and devastating loss. Muriel overcomes overwhelming challenges with courage and determination. Her persistence and fortitude in facing so many difficult situations eventually leads to great personal growth and self realization. The reader feels involved in the story and ultimately uplifted by Muriel’s triumph over the great obstacles that she has faced.


(The book is available in softcover, hardcover, and eBook format through all online booksellers, including and my publisher’s website,

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Tony – my mechanic

TonyTony Sawaya can fix anything that runs on wheels. He has been taking care of my 1996 Mercedes C-220 since 2007, when the dealership refused to maintain it any longer and tried to persuade me to buy a new car. Owning a Mercedes-Benz is normally way out of my reach, but this car (a bare-bones model) came into my life 13 years ago through a series of fortunate events. I would have to win the lottery to buy another one. The factory stopped making parts for it long ago, and Tony has kept me going with great care and concern for the last six years.

I’m not the only one who has benefited from Tony’s wonderful service – by far. The bulletin board in his office is plastered with dozens of thank-you cards from his fans, and if you look on, you will see 156 reviews averaging 4½ stars, with comments like:

“Tony is the man. If you are looking for someone who does good work for a fair price… just go here and talk to Tony.”

“Wow!!! What can I say?!  We just found Tony and boy are we glad we did.”

“Tony Sawaya is the best mechanic you will ever meet and the only one you’ll ever go to again.”

Econo Lube and TuneIn fact, Tony’s Econo Lube N’ Tune franchise won a national prize a few years ago. The picture shown here is misleading: the lot is always jam-packed with cars.

One of Tony’s customers organized a surprise party on his birthday a couple of years ago, and everyone had an amazing story about how he had helped them in a bind.

At the party, Tony told us about his childhood in Lebanon. He has always been fascinated by cars. At the age of  5,  he asked his parents for a set of tools for his birthday. When he opened the package and saw that the “tools” were only toys, he wailed:

“I can’t work with these!”

As he grew up, his father taught him that diamonds are created under pressure: the harder the challenge, the stronger a person’becomes. When he was old enough, he traveled to the United Arab Emirates, where he worked as a mechanic for the rich and famous. After a series of adventures too complicated to go into here, he eventually landed in San Diego.

Fast forward to the end of last month. Tony had warned me that my car was at the point where repairs were going to be increasingly expensive and challenging. He had started to help me find a replacement. He knew I was worried about my car situation, and I had also told him I was anxious about passing the tests for my driver’s license, due to expire on my upcoming birthday (which is today, and luckily I passed). On top of everything else, my car, nearly as old as I am in car-years, was up for a “star” smog inspection, which means that they check for “functionality” as well as emissions. It flunked.

Tony and his mechanic fixed the problem, but when I took it back, the inspectors found yet another do-hicky that wasn’t working. A tiny hose was loose, and I needed a small connecting part that’s no longer being made (and if it had been available, it would have cost $195). Tony figured out a way to take care of it. He also changed the oil and topped the fluids.  One of his boys took the car back for re-inspection, and finally it passed. I reimbursed Tony for the smog inspection, but when I went to pay the rest of his bill, he said:

“Can’t you read English?”

At the bottom of the invoice he had written: “HAPPY BIRTHDAY DISCOUNT.” He had canceled out all his other charges. I was so touched that I had to turn my head so he wouldn’t see the tears in my eyes.

So I’m set for a while at least, and Tony has promised to keep my car running even if he has to make the parts. I am immensely grateful that Tony Sawaya is in my life.


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