Preventive Mastectomy

joliepaintingI have been wanting to write about preventive mastectomy ever since Angelina Jolie announced that she had both breasts removed because her doctors told her she was at high risk for developing cancer. While I understand that women with inherited BRCA genetic mutations are at increased risk, there is also the possibility they will not get cancer. I strongly believe in focusing on the positive and living in the moment. What you focus on expands.

In this post I will be referring to the patient as “she,” even though men can get breast cancer, because the factors that promote fear around the disease mainly affect women.

Women worry about their families, especially what will become of their children, if they die. Cancer is a threat not just to them personally but to all the people they love who depend on them:  they worry more for others than for themselves. They want to do everything possible to keep the worst from happening. But worry and fear are close conspirators, and excessive fear lowers the body’s natural defenses.

Dying to be MeIn her book Dying to Be Me, survivor Anita Moorjani writes that freedom from fear cured her of terminal cancer. She believes that her fear of cancer contributed to her disease in the first place and gave it momentum up until the day she was expected to die. Her near-death experience taught her that there was nothing to fear, and she healed spontaneously. (I will be posting my review of her book in the near future.)

I had a similar epiphany myself, though on a smaller scale. In my book Finding My Invincible Summer I write about my breast cancer journey from fear to freedom. I also write about the trend toward less invasive surgery and recent studies showing that most invasive mastectomies done today are unnecessary: a lumpectomy or partial mastectomy would suffice.Cover - thumbnail

In following up after the first cancer treatment, the doctors’ intention is to protect the patient and catch any changes before the situation gets out of “control.” However, this follow-up creates a “system” in which woman are constantly living in fear, always wondering what’s going to happen next. In my case, I refused to be followed – but that’s another story, told in detail in my book.

A new study shows that when women with breast cancer had their second breast removed as a precaution, the surgery had almost no effect on whether or not they had a recurrence. Meanwhile, the patient had weakened her body’s defense against disease by exposing it to the stress, trauma, and risks of major surgery.

No one can promise that a woman won’t get breast cancer, but they can’t promise that she will get it, either. My advice to Angelina would have been to forget about preventive mastectomy and live each day present in the moment without fear of the future.


Filed under General, My book

Mr. Gifford and My Trip through the Panama Canal

When I was working on my book, Finding My Invincible Summer, my editor encouraged me to write about the people in my life without any thought of including the material in the final version. It was a great exercise that added depth to the book. Here is one of my unpublished portraits.


I was two months short of my fourth birthday when my mother left my father and moved to California to join my Aunt Muriel and start a new life. To save money, Mother had booked passage on a freighter, the SS West Notus, which

West Notus

carried cargo from New York to San Francisco by way of the Panama Canal. It was a 30-day voyage, and I remember much of it vividly. The passenger list was very short: in addition to Mother and me, there was Mrs. Bickers and her two children, who had accommodations on the bridge, and Mr. Gifford, whose cabin was across the mess hall from ours. Mrs. Bickers was seasick the entire time, and she and her children never came to meals. That left the three of us. The mess hall had only one large table and we ate with the ship’s officers.

Mother often told the story of her first encounter with Mr. Gifford. At dinner the first night out, she and I were the only passengers at the table. She therefore assumed that the cabin on the other side of the mess hall was empty. She was curious to check it out and see if it was any larger than ours. After the galley closed, she sneaked across the mess hall in the dark  (my mother was nothing if not adventurous) and went to try the door of the cabin to see if it was open. Just as she was about to turn the knob, a dark form filled the passageway, a firm hand clapped on top of hers, and a hearty voice boomed:

“Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania!!!”

An English major, she immediately recognized the quote from Shakespeare. She ran back to our cabin, laughing so hard she thought she’d never stop. The next day there were formal introductions and Mr. Gifford became part of our lives. He never let Mother forget about her attempt to break into his cabin.

At 6-foot-4 and over 300 pounds, James Noble Gifford was a presence that could not be ignored. His mother had been an opera singer, and he had been trained since childhood to follow her path, but stage fright had kept him from pursuing his intended career. He still had a powerful tenor voice, and he was comfortable keeping the two of us, the officers, and the cabin crew entertained with concerts in the evenings after dinner. When he wasn’t singing, he told wonderful stories, drawn from a rich cultural background. He was always jolly and knew how to make people laugh, including me.

He had booked passage on the freighter because it was cheaper than the cost of room and board for a month, but he had no particular destination in mind. During our days on the open sea, he spent a lot of time with me and gave me the kind of attention I had never had from my father. He taught me silly songs, limericks and other poems, and how to play Canfield solitaire. He treated me as an equal and made me feel that it was us against the world. We were in cahoots. I felt very special. I adored him.

He earned his living writing pulp romance novels under his own name and a variety of pseudonyms—Emily Noble, Warren Howard, John Saxon, Ross Sloane, Gerald Foster, Gay Rutherford, Griffith James, Carol Holliston, Eliot Brewster, Roy Booth, and possibly others. James GiffordHe also ghost-wrote books for other authors of the genre, including Peggy Gaddis. Each “author” had a specialty: Warren Howard, for example, wrote romances set on Maryland’s Eastern Shore that featured the local area and its people, while John Saxon’s books were what they now call “vintage sleaze.”

His publisher expected him to produce a book a month, for which he was paid just a couple of hundred dollars, and he was always behind, living off advances against books he hadn’t written yet. I remember watching him as he wrote page after page in longhand. I learned later that he was required to introduce racy passages at designated intervals, but the job of writing them went to a “specialist” in steamy prose. He would leave a blank space where they were supposed to be inserted. His role was to set the scene, create the characters, and spin the tale. Over the years, he dedicated several books to my mother and two to me—the tamer ones. My research on the Internet brings up more than 140 titles that I’m fairly certain were written by him over a period of 28 years. Many have become collector’s items, selling for as much as $125 a copy. I doubt  my mother knew about the “hotter” ones—he made sure we didn’t know all the hats he wore.

Other memories from the trip include our passage through the Panama Canal. We reached the first lock early in the morning, and I recall the eerie feeling as I watched its gray concrete walls rise through the portholes, turning everything dark inside as the ship “sank.”

My favorite memory by far was Easter morning. We were in port at the other end of the Canal, near Panama City, and I woke up to find white “footprints”—made with three fingers dipped in flour—leading all over the ship to nests of shredded green stuff that the cabin boys and crew had hidden. The fellows had gone ashore to buy the materials, and they also brought back a gigantic a carnival-sized stuffed bunny. They cooked and dyed the eggs in the ship’s galley. The big bunny was waiting for me in the center of the table at breakfast. Mr. Gifford had gotten me a smaller bunny and felt outdone.

Golden GateI also recall the excitement when we arrived in San Francisco Bay at sunset and sailed under the newly completed Golden Gate Bridge. Looking up at it from underneath, it was the most spectacular thing I had ever seen.

We settled into our new life in Berkeley and I quickly fell in love with California.  Mr. Gifford came to visit us more than once. One of my favorite places was John Hinkel Park, with its woodsy glens, views of the bay through the trees, and the amphitheater carved out of the landscape. Once Mr. Gifford climbed up on the stage of the amphitheater and sang arias to Mother and me as we sat on the stone steps. His visits distracted me from thoughts about my father’s absence.

He became a fixture in our lives. He would show up wherever we were. He claimed that when he was around my mother he felt inspired to write. When space allowed, he stayed with us. He joined us on all our vacations. When there was distance between us, he wrote long letters to both Mother and me. And poems. When I got older, I called him “Uncle Jimmy.”

Mother appreciated his quirkiness, the fun that he brought into our lives, and all that he did for me. Though he never told us his age (and Mother wasn’t about to tell hers), it turns out that he was only a year older than her. I don’t know if they loved one another in a romantic way, but turning their friendship into a committed relationship would have been difficult. Both were strait-laced and preferred jokes and teasing over talk of personal feelings. Mother remained married to my father for many years, as divorce would have been a disgrace to the family. Neither had enough money to make a home. Also, Mr. Gifford was restless. I don’t think he wanted to settle down. Aunt Muriel resented him a bit, though she tried not to show it. I think she saw him as a threat to the family unit she had created. She thought he was too “bohemian.” Mother, however, had the wisdom to accept him the way he was and welcome him into our lives. At the very least, as far as I was concerned, he filled the shoes of my absent father and made me feel happy, loved, and important. For that, my mother was deeply grateful.

When I was in my teens, he was diagnosed with diabetes and lost a lot of weight. In 1959 he was found dead in a rented room at Sloane House in New York City, having slipped into a diabetic coma.

The SS West Notus had predeceased him: she was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Cape Hatteras in 1942.

The gateI still have the following books by Mr. Gifford, all of them autographed: Emily Noble, The Game of Hearts, New York: Gramercy, 1940 (dedicated to my mother); Warren Howard, The Gate, New York: Arcadia House, 1942 (dedicated to me); Warren Howard, Tidewater, New York: Arcadia House, 1945 (dedicated to my mother).


Filed under General, My book, Profiles

Translating My Book into Portuguese

Cover - thumbnailI recently mentioned to a friend that I’m working on getting my book translated into Portuguese. Her immediate response was: “Why not Spanish? So many more people speak Spanish.”

My main reason is that I want my husband’s daughters, their children, and others in the family who may have some difficulty with English to read my story in comfort.

Also, the book has many references to Brazil and Portugal, and I believe there’s an audience for a Portuguese version. My husband’s story of life under Brazil’s military dictatorship in the late 1960s and 1970s should not be forgotten. Many intellectuals lost their jobs and were arrested, imprisoned, deprived of their income, and made to suffer in other ways. It was unquestionably the blackest period in the nation’s history.

The number of Portuguese readers is not to be sneezed at. While it is true that Spanish tops the list of speakers of European languages, followed by English, Portuguese is a close third, beating out Russian, German, French, Italian, and the others. According to my arithmetic, it is spoken by at least 250 million people. Based on data from Wikipedia, I see that, besides Brazil (population 193,946,886 in 2012) and Portugal (10,562,178), Portuguese is an official language in Angola (20,609,294), Cape Verde (491,875), East Timor (1,066,409), Guinea-Bissau (1,704,000), Macau (582,000), Mozambique (23,700,715), and São Tomé and Principe magellans_travels(187,356). Total: 252,850,713 and counting. The widespread use of Portuguese is the heritage of Magellan and his compatriot voyagers in the Age of Discovery, who covered much of the globe and left their country’s language and traditions behind.

imagesIn my work, I am increasingly asked to translate documents from countries that I know little about. Each new country has been an eye-opener to me – and an adventure. So far, I have “adopted” Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea-Bissau, and I recently had a job from East Timor (Timor-Leste). I took the opportunity to research its turbulent history and read about its charismatic leader Xanana Gusmão and his activist Australian wife, Kirsty Sword. These adventures keep me entertained. They are also humbling: they remind me how vast the world is and how much I have yet to learn.


Filed under General, My book, Translation

Happy Birthday to Sunshine and Snow!

S&S reversedToday my twin Malt-Tzu (or Mal-Shi, if you will) pups turned 9 years old. They share a birthday with President Barack Obama. That day in November 2004 when they captured my heart and I brought them home seems like yesterday. The occasion inspired me to re-read parts of Sunshine’s online diary. She hasn’t made any entries lately, but the link is

I was reminded that she had a rough time in 2011. She pulled through, of course, and she’s fine now. Below I’m sharing a couple of her entries on her milestones that year (with her permission, of course).

 January 23: Home from the Hospital

Sunshine after surgeryOh my! I have been through so much, I don’t know where to begin. The bottom line is that I am finally home, lying next to Sis on a cushion beside Mom’s desk. I have a big long seam in my belly, with my skin stapled together, and I’m exhausted. In fact, I have to dictate this to Mom because I don’t have the strength to type.
It all started because I couldn’t pee. We went to our regular Doc on Friday around 2 o’clock because no pee had come out since the day before. Still nothing. He said to come back Monday. Back home, Mom watched me for the rest of the afternoon and evening. I would squat and squat, but nothing came out. Besides that, I was vomiting and I couldn’t stop shaking. Around midnight she got really worried and took me to the Emergency Room for dogs. The doctor sucked up some of my blood into a glass tube with a needle on the end of it, and we waited and waited. Then he took a picture inside my belly – it’s called ultrasound. It showed more than 10 stones in my bladder! Seriously: real stones. One was stuck and keeping me from peeing. I was really, really sick. Mom was very nervous and she was crying. The doctor told her something had to be done right away; I could die if he didn’t act soon. So she agreed to let him go ahead and cut me open to take out the stone that was stuck – and the rest of them, too, of course.
The next thing I remember I woke up in a cage in the hospital. I was groggy and sore, but the people were very nice to me. Mom came the next day and brought me home. I was glad to be home, but so tired and sore that I couldn’t really show it. At least I can pee. It feels like I need to do it all the time, but I’m being careful not to do it in the house. It’s all so hard.
I hope I get better soon!

June 28: Bees!!! Yikes!!!!!! Bee sting!!!! Oooouuch!!!!!

Oh my. Why does everything always happen to me? When we woke up this morning, the house was full of bees! Yes, BEES!! Thousands of them. They were all over the windows, the floors, the walls… It was a big mess and very scary. The whole house was buzzing with the noise. Mom took pictures, but they’re too gross to show here. 
I ran upstairs to get away from them, but instead I stepped on one. OOOOOUUUUUCH!! I let out a big scream. My paw got all red and the pain was AWFUL. My leg started to swell. I kept crying and gnawing at the spot. I couldn’t put my foot down. Mom gave me a homeopathic remedy, Apis mellifica, and a couple of Snow’s antihistamines. And she put an ice pack on it, but that didn’t help much.
A man was on the way to remove the bees, and as soon as he came, Mom took me to see the Doc. He pulled out the stinger, and I screamed the whole time. I am NOT a good patient. Then he gave me two injections, and I calmed down. I’m sort of zoned out now, exhausted from the whole ordeal.
8 Tech in his bee suitBy the time we got home, the bee man (shown here in his bee suit) had sucked up most of the bees in the house with a huge vacuum cleaner and was removing a hive from under the deck on the patio. It was GINORMOUS!! About 4 by 6 feet, spreading out under the deck, attached to the planks. Mom took a picture of the hive (also too gross to show here), and then SHE got stung!!
This day will go down in history.

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Mayor Bob Filner and the Enneagram

Enneagram my colorsLast January I posted a basic introduction to the Enneagram, an approach to understanding why people do the things they do. The system identifies nine basic personality types and characterizes them with piercing accuracy. Some experts attribute the differences in the nine types of behavior to brain chemistry. Whatever the explanation, there is truth to the Enneagram that cannot be dismissed lightly.

The ancient message behind today’s understanding of the Enneagram is that we live by defensive behaviors that wall us off from realizing our natural potential. The ways in which we do this are essentially predictable, and awareness of these patterns may, if we’re lucky, help us minimize some of our habits and traits that are not helpful or else learn to channel our behavior so that our style works for us in better ways. Within each type there’s a ladder to emotional health, but climbing the rungs is a lifelong challenge and very few people reach the top.

The Enneagram is about working on ourselves – not judging others. However, public figures are fair game. That entitles me to make some comments about San Diego Mayor Bob Filner, whose aggressive, lecherous, and overall clueless behavior has drastically undermined his effectiveness in office.Bob Filner best cropped

I’m going to guess that Filner is an Enneagram type Eight.

Eights are hard-wired to relate to the world primarily through the body. “Doing” (making the world just, bluntness, high energy, spontaneity) is preferred. Their thinking minds support their “doing,” and they repress their true feelings.

To quote experts Don Riso and Russ Hudson, “Eights are self-confident, strong, and assertive. Protective, resourceful, straight-talking, and decisive, but can also be egocentric and domineering. Eights feel they must control their environment, especially people, sometimes becoming confrontational and intimidating. Eights typically have problems with their tempers and with allowing themselves to be vulnerable”

Does this ring a bell?

Riso and Hudson offer an extensive description of the Eight at the link above. Here are some of their points that I think can apply to Filner:

“Swaggering, boastful, forceful, and expansive: the “boss” whose word is law. Proud, egocentric, want to impose their will and vision on everything, not seeing others as equals or treating them with respect.”

“They possess a powerful connection with their instinctive drives.”

“Much of their behavior is involved with making sure that they retain and increase whatever power they have for as long as possible.”

At the unhealthy level, they “develop delusional ideas about their power, invincibility, and ability to prevail.”

If Bob Filner is an Eight, it’s going to be difficult for him to change. Getting him to resign would be a major challenge. He is not going to walk quietly into the night. Eights rarely eat humble pie, and they tend to avoid therapy and self-questioning because they don’t believe they need it. Bob says he wants to be a “better person.” That’s what San Diegans want, too. His best hope for a fast track to transformation would be a therapist trained in the Enneagram.


That said, my friend Douglas Holbrook (long-time San Diego attorney and fellow student of the Enneagram) has come up with another solution that’s worth considering. Check out his video below.



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Filed under General, Personality

Pitching My Book in Hollywood

Cover - thumbnailLast weekend I traveled to Los Angeles to pitch my book, Finding My Invincible Summer, to Hollywood studios. It was a bold move and took a lot of effort. My publisher “invited” me to take part in the event a few months ago – for a fee. Officially, it’s called the Book-to-Screen PitchFest Los Angeles 2013, and it’s sponsored by Author Solutions, a division of Penguin Books. I figured I’d never know if my book was screen-worthy unless I gave it a shot, and I also thought it would be a chance to sharpen my skills at talking about my book. So I signed up.

I was not disappointed. It was a fantastic experience. Ours was the third event of its kind. It was attended by over 100 authors and representatives from at least seven Hollywood studios. We were told that several authors’ works had been tapped for consideration at the previous two PitchFests.

Getting there, however, was an ordeal. During the month running up to the event I spent most of my time talking myself into a nervous tizzy: fretting over the content of my pitch; consulting a hypnotist to calm my nerves; looking for appropriate clothes; getting my car serviced (I hadn’t driven to LA alone in six years); having my hair done—and on and on. I even ordered a satin pillowcase to protect my ‘do while sleeping in the hotel. Yet it seemed as if nothing went the way it was supposed to. The items I ordered on line either came in the wrong size or color or never arrived at all. My dogs, picking up on my trepidations and the open suitcase, got visibly nervous and started acting out. And the coup de grace was a blow to my shin two nights before my trip that sent me to the ER—possibly a clever subconscious attempt on my part to get out of the trip.

Pitchfest 2But I did it. As I drove up, I practiced my two-minute pitch in my head for nearly four hours. My husband’s niece Vanessa was waiting for me when I arrived at the hotel (the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza on the Avenue of the Stars). She lives in LA, and I had invited her to be my guest at the reception. Being with Vanessa calmed me down enormously, but I was still quaking in my boots as we walked to the reception. I was sure I was going to either faint or do something really embarrassing. At the reception we met several fellow authors and I began to feel more at ease.

The speakers at the reception talked about what we could expect from the studio representatives. The first step in the development of a Hollywood project is an option to explore the idea. The author may receive as much as $500 in exchange for exclusive rights over a fixed period of time, typically 18 months. If the project moves forward, there will be further compensation down the road, but that could take years. They said that the “gestation” period for a Hollywood project can be as long as a decade. I had no idea.

The good news is that studio reps are looking for ideas and asking to come to the event. As I mentioned earlier, they optioned several titles at the previous two PitchFests.

Our registration packet contained an article by a Disney executive emphasizing that the best way for studios to turn a profit is to skip the mega-budget movies and focus on “high concept” ideas that can be developed into “stories that make us care.”

“Most important . . . is the need to create one or more central characters who confront something elemental about themselves by the end of the film. This applies to the whole enormous and extraordinary range of film experience. Name any truly successful movie and you will find that this is the case.”

PitchFest 3After citing several films, the author concludes:
“These films didn’t just involve transformation . . . they involved transformations that were affirmative and uplifting. More than anything else, I believe that these are the feelings that audiences seek out when they go to the movies. These are the feelings that audiences want to take home with them and treasure.”

I began to feel more reassured, because my book certainly fits the desired model. I also heard that they’re looking for true stories. They want authenticity. So I wasn’t in the wrong place after all. I went to bed more relaxed, telling myself that it would all be over this time tomorrow night.

Brringgg!! At 5:30 a.m. four different bells went off in my hotel room to make sure I’d be up, packed, and ready for the breakfast meeting by 7:00.

Over breakfast we listened to more advice and met more fellow authors, and then we broke up into groups to practice our pitches. I liked that part the best. As we watched, the facilitator listened carefully to each pitch and skillfully pinpointed the elements that deserved the most focus while gently suggesting the parts that could be eliminated. Everyone’s story was interesting. The variety of concepts was amazing. The facilitator’s comments to the other authors gave me ideas about where I could refine and change my own pitch. When my turn came, he told me to drop my log line (one-sentence summary) and start immediately with my scene, and he made a few other good suggestions as well.

After lunch, we were on our own to refine and memorize our pitches until our appointed time with the studio reps. It was also a chance to chat with some of our fellow authors. We bonded instantly – we knew that we shared a huge experience in common. They all loved my title.

My pitch went well. I delivered it at seven different tables, four with one rep and three with two reps sitting across from me.

If there’s any interest in my story, I will be contacted in about two weeks. I will also receive feedback on my presentation; each of the reps was asked to fill out a quick form on each of the authors.

Whew!! It was finally over. I drove home relaxed and satisfied that I was richer for the experience. And I had faced and conquered my fears.


Filed under General, My book

Independence Day at the County Fair

San Diego County Fair 2013

San Diego County Fair 2013

Thursday was closing day at the San Diego County Fair. It always ends with a bang on the Fourth of July. I decided to take a break from translating and join my friend Suzanne to celebrate our nation’s independence. The weather was perfect, with that silky summer humidity that I love when the temperature is just right. We had fun!

Our fair happens to be one of the biggest in the world, with total attendance this year exceeding 1.4 million. The last day is always the best and the most exciting, culminating with fireworks on the Del Mar Racetrack infield. There was no sign of a recession as more than 92,000 people lined up to buy extreme food, tickets to thrill rides, chances at games of skill, gadgets they never knew they needed, and a gazillion other treats and treasures.

The food was mind-boggling. This year’s theme appeared to be bacon, with wild boar bacon kabobs, bacon truffle fries, cheesy bacon bombs, jumbo bacon corn dogs, bacon-wrapped turkey drumsticks, bacon cotton candy—and even bacon beer! Turkey drumsticks (with or without bacon, or dipped in chocolate) were everywhere. People gnawing away at them make me think of life in the seventeenth century and the famous Tom Jones eating scene (—genteel by comparison. I settled for run-of-the-mill squid and garlic-battered artichoke hearts, and Suzanne was even less venturous with a meatball sandwich. For dessert we resisted the deep-fried cookie dough and opted for cream puffs, which were actually five-inch towers of whipped cream (available in red, white, and/or blue) with caps of pastry on top.

The gardens are always a must-do for me, and this year they were especially creative, though possibly not as vivid and lush as they used to be when water conservation wasn’t on everyone’s mind. I photographed a number of ideas for my latest client (a condo association looking to redo their courtyard). The gardens were also the setting for a series of same-sex weddings. We watched one of them and were very touched.

The main drag blared with sound and light, yet we decided to have chair massages at one of the “Relaxation Stations.” What a cool trip that was, going into deep relaxation with thousands of people milling around!

Fireworks from the Ferris wheel

Fireworks seen from the Giant Ferris Wheel

We managed to see a number of exhibits. My one tangible souvenir is a snazzy pair of wrap-around shades, but I also came home with lots of photos, as well as memories of experiences that I only get to have once a year.

The high point, literally, was the Giant Ferris Wheel. As luck would have it, we were aloft when the fireworks started. Boom!!! What an awesome spectacle! Yessssss!!!! I love the Fair!


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Billy Pearson: Never Look Back

Billy PearsonYesterday I received feedback from a person who had read my 2010 review of the book Never Look Back, by jockey Billy Pearson. Pearson, famous in his day for 826 wins on the racetrack, was also an art dealer, and back in the 1950s his knowledge of art won him over $170,000 on the television quiz shows The $64,000 Question and The $64,000 Challenge. In The $64,000 Challenge, he matched wits against Vincent Price, and the competition eventually ended in a draw because neither one could be stumped.

Thanks to his wild ways, these winnings and the rest of his wealth slipped easily through his fingers. He boasted that he squandered a million dollars, and in an interview in Parade magazine (Jan 1959) he declared, “I am reconciled to the fact that I will never get out of this life alive, and while I’m still breathing, I’m going to live it up.” Indeed, he smoked, drank, gambled, married six times, and was always up to some kind of mischief. At least a remnant of his flashy lifestyle remains: one of the 17 homes that he bought and filled with his art went on the market last year for $15 million

My interest in him was sparked in 2010 when I was talking with my friends Silvia and Nena, who told me they had just attended the funeral of their cousin, Queta, who had been married to Billy Pearson. While Queta’s marriage to Pearson didn’t last, she shared his interest in art and helped him prepare for the game shows. She also bore two of his four children.

I went home and headed straight to the Internet, where I discovered and purchased his autobiography Never Look Back. As luck would have it, my copy was signed by the author himself, which made him even more real to me.  Pearson tells his story up until 1956, with his first win on The $64,000 Question. I can’t remember ever having had so much fun reading a book. Its pages are filled with amazing and preposterous stories. They stretch credulity, but even if one-tenth of them are true, he was arguably one of the most fascinating men of his time.

Here is the review that I posted on back in 2010:

What a blast!

Never Look BackFor those who don’t know (and I was one of them), Billy Pearson was the professional jockey—also daredevil, high school dropout, and reform school graduate—who soaked up everything he could learn about art in his spare time between horse races until he became one of the most knowledgeable art historians and collectors in the world. He won the top prize on The $64,000 Question in the category of Art and Artists and was quite the phenom in his day. The book is autobiographical and tells his story up to his famous first win on television. It ends before his rematch with Vincent Price for The $64,000 Challenge, when millions of viewers were glued to their television sets as the two answered question after question over a period of many weeks and finally split the jackpot.
Billy (with the aid of co-author Stephen Longstreet) reports on his wild younger days with refreshing honesty, no holds barred, and no regrets in a delightful self-deprecating style. He tried just about everything, won and lost money like drinking water, and hobnobbed with the rich and famous of his day. He tells of pranks pulled on his good friend movie director John Huston, and of Huston’s delicious revenge. Did it all really happen? Some of the stories are hard to believe, but who cares? This book is a page-turner, and every page is fun.

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The lengths I go to for my dogs

S&S cut-out croppedI don’t anthropomorphize my dogs. I don’t dress them in clothes, paint their toenails, or put ribbons in their hair. I’m fully aware that kisses often mean “I’m hungry” rather than “I love you,” and that “home” to them is essentially a food palace—an elaborate silo designed exclusively to shelter them and protect their source of sustenance.

Still, I go the extra mile to make sure that Sunshine and Snow are properly cared for. Humankind has rendered them helpless. They depend on me to make the best decisions on their behalf, and I take that responsibility seriously.

My dogs eat a fully balanced moist grain-free diet supplemented with dollops or “real” food–meat, poultry, fish, green tripe, egg, yam, cooked carrots, squash, pumpkin, or other nutritious goodies—all of it laced with chicken broth or some other delicious juice. They get four outings a day, at least one of which is a mile-long walk. I minimize prescription medications and vaccines. I subscribe to the Whole Dog Journal and follow its advice almost religiously.

But with all this fussing, if you had told me three years ago that they would be getting a monthly massage and that I would consider it a good investment, I would have laughed out loud.

In January 2010, after a series of events that I will go into some other day, our vet prescribed massage for the two of them. That was the beginning of our relationship with Ann Montalto, canine massage therapist (

Ann & Sun C - smallAnn is a graduate of the Lang Institute for Canine Massage, a 675-hour program of study in massage techniques and acupressure for dogs that includes courses in canine anatomy, physiology, orthopedic pathology, breed characteristics, and gait and movement. In addition, she has years of experience using both cold and thermal lasers, dating back to her days as a registered nurse. She has been practicing canine massage for eight years.

At first my girls were skeptical, but soon they learned to love their monthly appointments. Now when I say “We’re going to see Auntie Ann!” they rush to the car and beg to get in.

The massages have transformed their personalities. They are more affectionate and relaxed. They are calm, easy-going, obedient, and rarely bark. By the end of the month, they begin to get a little antsy and I can tell they are ready for a tune-up.

So why do I go to all this trouble? They warm my heart and teach me about life. They are endlessly patient and forgive all my lapses. They are never mean-spirited. Their antics make me laugh. Their tongues heal my tears. They cuddle up beside me when I read or watch TV, and the heartbeat in those little bodies is one of the sweetest sensations I have ever felt. And who else on the planet would be so thrilled to see me when I come home?

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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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