Category Archives: Films & Pop Culture

Filmmaker behind ‘Orphans of Apollo’ Film Shares Significance of SpaceX’s Historic Flight

This morning’s launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral marks a new era in space exploration. SpaceX’s bold move to rocket the first private spacecraft to the International Space Station brings new inspiration to space entrepreneurs around the world.
I had the honor to talk with one of those space visionaries – Michael Potter, a founding alumnus of the International Space University, who I recently interviewed while writing a story for Via Satellite Magazine.
“Orphans of Apollo” Filmmaker Michael Potter.
Potter brings a unique perspective to today’s events as the documentary filmmaker behind “Orphans of Apollo,” the extraordinary true story of a rebel group of entrepreneurs who seized command of the Russian Mir Space Station in what could be considered the boldest business plan the Earth has ever seen.
At the center of the film is ‘MirCorp’ — the very first entrepreneurial company to have a sole focus on the privatization of space with a fantastic vision of transforming the Russian space station into an outpost for what was intended to be the first phase of a trillion dollar business. The project was to include mining of asteroids, gravity-free laboratories, a space ‘hotel’, and a research facility. MirCorp was the ultimate start-up company.

“This film is an enthralling glimpse into space, and into the minds and hearts of people trying to get into it. Footage of rocket launches and of life on Mir is interspersed with interviews with the key players about the technical challenges, political wrangling, and business plans. We feel the excitement (and fear) of their project and get a sense of the mood in Russia and the U.S. after the collapse of the Soviet Union,” Janet D. Stemwedel, Ph.D., wrote on her blog, Adventures in Ethics and Science, soon after the film debuted.

Here, Potter talks candidly about the lasting dream of space born during the Apollo program, highlights while filming “Orphans of Apollo,” and the significance of SpaceX’s historic flight.
Q. Do you remember the Apollo space flights growing up? Was it a defining time, instilling in you a lifelong interest in space?
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface. Photo by Neil A. Armstrong, 1969.
I was eight years old when humanity journeyed to the Moon. I was definitely part of the Apollo generation. Kennedy sold the world on the need for space exploration and development. And when President Nixon shut down the Apollo program, and the U.S. government gave up on the space vision and dream, my generation became, “Orphans of Apollo.”
Q. Why did you decide to tackle this topic in the form of a documentary?
Because, I was one-degree of separation from all the key players in the story, I felt an extra inspiration and responsibility for curating the story and bringing the story to the world’s attention. I felt that it was such an important and iconic story it needed to be told.
Initially, I introduced the story to a well known documentary filmmaker, who was interested, but was keen that I do all the heavy lifting. So, I decided to embark on the film as a complete independent project.
Q. What was the most powerful moment for you personally over the course of making “Orphans of Apollo?”
There were a handful of moments of profound Epiphany in the making of the film.
  • The extraordinary openness and pride of the Russians. The great unshakable passion the Russians have for space exploration.
  •  The strong national security related issues connected to both the Mir space station and the International Space Station.
  •  An insight into the lack of sustainability and coherency of a great deal of NASA’s activities.
  •  Both the real and symbolic power that the new space companies have brought to the new race to develop space.
Q. This film has attracted quite a following in the academic world, within NASA and among space enthusiasts everywhere. What do you hope your documentary accomplishes?
Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO
One of the reasons for the following is because of the people who were included in the film, Elon Musk, Peter Diamanids, Richard Branson, Burt Rutan, Tom Clancy. Because of the media attention on the billionaires behind the project to mine asteroids, the attention on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and the news coverage of SpaceX, there has been a strong interest in “Orphans of Apollo.”
I was fortunate, because many of the people on Obama’s space transition team saw the film. The film makes a strong case for the importance of unleashing the commercial power of the marketplace in the development of space. While the Administration has not developed a powerful, clear, and compelling strategy for the development and exploration of space, they have taken positive steps towards broadening commercial enterprise as a driver in space exploration.
Q. What lesson/challenge did you glean from this experience that would benefit other budding filmmakers?
The critical importance of a meaningful and quite dramatic story. I consider myself to be a filmmaker who focuses on issues about the future of all of humanity – a new breed of humanitarian filmmaker.
The power of social network film distribution is really important for new filmmakers to understand and to develop.
Q. Are you working on any other film projects? Do you have plans to tackle any with a space focus?
I am an Executive Producer of the documentary film, “The University” about the Singularity University to be released later this year. (Based in NASA’s Research Park in the heart of Silicon Valley, Singularity University is cultivating future leaders who can harness the power of exponential technologies to improve the lives of a billion people within a decade).
Q. Lastly, how historic is the SpaceX mission from your unique vantage point as a space industry insider and documentary filmmaker?
Falcon 9 rocket lifts off at Cape Canaveral, Fla. (NASA / May 22, 2012)

The launch of the SpaceX Falcon 9 is easily the most historic launch in 2012 and will probably be viewed as one of the most historic space launch events of the decade.

With the shutting down of the Space Shuttle program, and the reliance on Russians to taxi American astronauts to space, SpaceX is really the only game in town.Other than the Falcon 9, the U.S. has no clear, compelling, sustainable path for man-rated launch capability.
When I interviewed Elon Musk for “Orphans of Apollo,” very few people on the planet would have imagined that SpaceX would have the chance to become the centerpiece of the U.S. manned space program.
Today if you walk into the gift shop at the Kennedy Space Center, the very first prominent display is the SpaceX hats, shirts, mission patches and other space memorabilia. This was unimaginable three years ago.
If you work at Kennedy Space Center, own a restaurant or a hotel in Cocoa Beach you are probably a fan of SpaceX.
Through the most important American institution of all, private enterprise, Elon is injecting creativity, excitement, passion, ingenuity, challenge, into space enterprise. If SpaceX continues to succeed, both tangibly and symbolically, Elon will have to be viewed as one of the most significant space leaders of the decade.

Five Movies that Inspired My Blogging

 
 
 
Given my blog’s focus on storytelling and writing, films are often a source of inspiration for my posts. After all, every memorable movie began with words on a page.  Some of the films that made it onto my blog since I launched it in 2009 include:
 
 
  • Casablanca – The holiday post titled, “Ways to nurture your writing spirit,” included the joy of listening to dialogue from this 1942 classic, which remains my all-time favorite film. I loved the Epstein brothers’ remarkable screenplay and the chemistry between not only Bogart and Berman but also between Bogie and Captain Renault played by Claude Rains. 
  • Water for Elephants – On day one of the blogathon last year I reviewed this film based on Sara Gruen’s bestselling drama. The story’s backdrop is a struggling circus in Depression-era America.  
 
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2earned an entire post last July where I discussed the lasting legacy of J.K. Rowling’s body of work. Through her seven-part fantasy series, Rowling made reading cool for millions of kids. 
 
  • Twilight Saga – A self-professed Twilight Mom, I shared the fun of heading to my local Cineplex with my girlfriends for the opening night of the film’s New Moon premiere. The post talks about the generational pull of the Stephenie Meyer series and how Twilight screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg translated the book to screen.
 
  •  The Avengers – I am adding this action flick to today’s blog. My husband and I saw it Saturday night, and he pretty much summed it all up when he said not even half way through the movie, “This is the best action movie I will ever see!” 

It didn’t surprise us that the film shot past even the Harry Potter finale in terms of opening night ticket sales. It’s not just the effects and the pace of this Marvel Studios’ tour de force; it was the genuine comedic moments and bantering among the characters. Director Joss Whedon (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angelfame) had an incredible lineup of star power at his command starting with Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man. Downey practically stole the show with his comedic and deadpan one liners.  Case in point is this testosterone-laced exchange between him and Steve Rogers (Caption America):

 
Steve Rogers: “Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?”

Tony Stark: “Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.”

 
Chris Evans continued his clean-cut All-American image as Captain America, while Chris Hemsworth was an eye-candy favorite as the demigod Thor out to contain Loki, his vengeance-obsessed adoptive brother set to destroy Earth. Scarlett Johansson, who played Black Widow, had some great action scenes, as did Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye. The movie wouldn’t have been the same without Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury. One of my favorite characters, however, was Mark Ruffalo, who alternated between a low-key but brilliant Dr. Bruce Banner and a crazed Hulk. I will never forget him smacking Loki around like a rag doll at one of the movie’s funniest and most satisfying moments (prompting spontaneous applause from moviegoers).
 
Of course, those who love these movies have been anticipating an Avengers “dream team” on screen for some time now. It couldn’t have come soon enough for this fan.

Poetry, Tolstoy and the Hard Work of Adapting a Novel to Film

Last weekend I attended the Crossroads Writers Conference in Macon, Georgia. The weather was perfect to gather with a group of like-minded writers. Macon’s downtown is charming, with a vital arts base. A long list of writers got their start in this gem of Middle Georgia.

 

Friday evening my friends and I attended a poetry reading and book launch for Writing on Napkins in the Sunshine Club. Edited by Kevin Cantwell, this poetry anthology was written in, around and about Macon, Georgia.

 

Several featured poets answered audience questions following the readings. Poet Anya Silver urged writers to find their voice and discover who they are.  “Don’t worry so much about publication; just write,” she said.
Georgia State University professor David Bottoms, the poet laureate of Georgia for 11 years, explained that what brought him to writing was a search for some significance – something of consequence. “I thought I could find it in the written world,” he said. Bottoms urged the aspiring writers in the room to “read fiction, read novels.” He especially recommended 19th century Russian writers such as Leo Tolstoy – “It gets no better than that.” Of all the translations of War and Peace, one of the most important works of world literature, the one by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is the best, Bottoms said.

 

A highlight on Saturday was meeting another Tolstoy admirer – distinguished novelist and biographer Jay Parini. Parini has chronicled Herman Melville, William Faulkner and Robert Frost, and wrote The Last Station: A Novel of Tolstoy’s Last Year. He shared his two-decade struggle to get his Tolstoy drama adapted into a movie. The first 10 years he collaborated with Anthony Quinn, who had planned to portray the famous writer. 

“We wrote 18 versions of the script,” recalled Parini, who commuted to New York from Connecticut on weekends to meet with Quinn.

The project lost funding support when Quinn died from throat cancer in June 2001. It took another four years to raise money for the film once Anthony Hopkins and Meryl Streep signed to play Tolstoy and his wife, Sofya Andreyevna. However, Streep pulled out because of timing with another project, Mamma Mia! In 2009, his tenacity was rewarded and the historical drama starring Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer came out, later garnering two Oscar nominations.

 

Parini said he originally intended The Last Station to be non-fiction. He was living in Naples, Italy, when he came across a copy of the diary of Tolstoy’s 25-year-old secretary. Parini learned that not only did Tolstoy and his secretary keep journals, but also did others in his inner circle, including his wife, his daughter, his personal physician and his publicist.  He wrote to the London Tolstoy Society and received copies of all the journals and they formed the basis of his book.

“I created the novel out of seven voices,” says Parini, who visited Tolstoy’s two homes and other key locales. With such rich first-person material, “the novel wrote itself,” he says, estimating it took six to seven months.
“It’s useful to travel,” says the author, who visited Tolstoy’s two residences and the famous train station where he died while researching the novel. Asked how much is he willing to stretch truth to tell his character’s stories in dramatic form, Parini said he doesn’t like to venture too far a field, preferring instead to do what he calls “hugging the shore.” “I don’t like to go out so far you can’t see the shore,” he explained.

Parini’s current projects include collaborating with Stanley Tucci on the film adaptation of his book, Benjamin’s Crossing, which novelizes the life and death of Walter Benjamin, a German Jewish intellectual who died fleeing Nazis into Spain.  He also is working with Paul Giamatti on the screenplay for his Melville novel, The Passages of H.M. Critics have called the work too contemporary.

“How do you know how people talked? You’ve got to make it available for contemporary readers,” noted Parini, who says that it’s a delicate balance and something that Giamatti and he are grappling with on the screenplay.  

Of the three biographies Parini penned, he was most attracted to the story of Robert Frost in part because he could identify with Frost as a fellow New Englander. Parini admitted that he strongly prefers writing novels to biographies.

 

At the conclusion of his presentation, I asked Parini what he was currently reading. Besides a book of poetry, he mentioned the FDR biography, Traitor to His Class, and Falling Upward, a book penned by Franciscan priest Richard Rohr that explores how one’s failings can be the foundation for spiritual growth.

Steve Jobs’ Legacy – Find What You Love and Pursue It

Steve Jobs (1955-2011)
Steve Jobs was an iconic visionary who transcended technology. He was both an out-of-box thinker and a creative genius.  Because of him, we are more connected than ever before with devices that feel like an extension of who we are.  Much of the revolution in entertainment and mobile communications was sparked by this Californiason, who was born the same year the first radio transistor radios came on the scene and the world first heard of Velcro and Lego.
In his all-too-short 56 years, Jobs envisioned and marketed the first personal computer, the iPad, iPhone and other innovations. His goal? To make products that were at “the intersection of art and technology.” He succeeded and along the way, helped transform Apple into the world’s most valuable company.
Jobs also bought a Lucasfilm animation property, and renamed the company, Pixar. In 1995, Pixar’s Toy Story became the world’s first completely computer-animated film, and sparked a new standard and market for CGI animation in films.
“Steve Jobs was an extraordinary visionary, our very dear friend and the guiding light of the Pixar family,” stated John Lasseter, Pixar co-founder and now chief creative officer at Pixar and Disney Animated Studios. “He saw the potential of what Pixar could be before the rest of us, and beyond what anyone ever imagined. Steve took a chance on us and believed in our crazy dream of making computer animated films; the one thing he always said was to simply ‘make it great.’ He is why Pixar turned out the way we did and his strength, integrity and love of life has made us all better people.”
“The world rarely sees someone who has had the profound impact Steve has had, the effects of which will be felt for many generations to come,” Bill Gates said in a statement today.
What can be said that hasn’t already been articulated about Jobs? An appropriate farewell is to listen to what the man himself wanted us to know, in his own words…

“No one wants to die,” Jobs told graduates at Stanford during his famous 2005 Commencement address. “Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”
Find what you love and pursue it…that is his legacy to all of us.

My DragonCon Wrap-up: A Genre Writer’s Dream

I am finally taking a breath after the long Labor Day weekend and work week to share some thoughts from this year’s DragonCon.  For the second year, I braved the crowds of avatars, wookies, Klingons and Death Eaters at one of the country’s largest sci-fi conventions to hear from some of the best genre writers in young adult and fantasy. Here’s just a few of the folks who made an impression this year.
Carrie Fisher
“I was never that great of an actor.”
 

Carrie Fisher and the six Leias.

Carrie shared – with self-deprecating wit – what it was really like playing the iconic Princess Leia (“it was cool being the only girl”), being engaged to Dan Akroyd and her at-times strained working relationship with director George Lucas, who she later collaborated with as a co-writer on “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.”
In her bestselling memoir and one-woman show, Wishful Drinking, Fisher said, “George Lucas ruined my life.” Her disgust with her Star Wars costumes (including having to wrap her breasts) are well documented, with her least-favorite being the infamous metal bikini in Return of the Jedi. “When I laid down, the metal bikini stayed up, so BobaFett could see all the way to Florida.”
Fisher played off the energy of the standing-room only crowd of fans, who heard her talk candidly about her struggle with bipolar disorder. Many fans thanked her for her openness, sharing that they, too, struggled with the condition.
Sherrilyn Kenyon
“I can’t write when it’s quiet – absolute silence makes me insane.”
So says the Dark-Hunter series author, speaking on a New York Times bestselling author tell all panel, fresh from signing a movie and TV series deal earlier this summer (look out, True Blood fans). The prolific author has made the #1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list 16 times in the last three years. She told fans during the  panel that she writes about 100 pages a day.
Kenyon says things were always chaotic growing up as a middle child with eight brothers. That’s not changed now that she has three active sons. She told fans how her 16-year-old son has decided to start writing, telling her, “Mom, writing is hard.” Her one guilty pleasure? Helping her boys find ways to kill off their Dungeon and Dragon characters.
She says making the the New York Times Bestseller List doesn’t change your life overnight. She had to work all types of jobs on her way to literary fame and found herself homeless with an infant even after writing six bestsellers.
In chatting with the author as she signed my copy of her newest book, Retribution, I asked her about the cable TV deal for her Dark-Hunter Series. No news yet on the lucky network that will take on the book series; however, fans can rest easy knowing that Kenyon will have a say on the adaptation since she will be a producer.
 
Charlaine Harris
“The most important message is tolerance.”
That’s what the author hopes readers get when they read her SookieStackhouse novels, which are the inspiration for HBO’s True Blood series.  She deliberately writes about characters with different sexual orientations for this reason.
During the True Blood Q and A she said how glad she is that fellow southerner Alan Ball got the job directing True Blood.  “It’s like they took my book and gave it steroids,” she says of the HBO adaptation.
Later, during the New York Times Bestselling author panel, Harris opened up about her addiction to Facebook(“it’s a terrible use of a writer’s time”) and her daily routine as a writer, saying she writes every day and doesn’t clean her house anymore but still does her family’s laundry.  Her guilty pleasure? Watching Project Runway.
She takes her writing deadlines seriously (“getting paid is a huge inspiration to me”) and recalls being late once – after her mother died.
You can access the full video of DragonCon’s first True Blood panel here.
Michael Stackpole
“Think bigger than one story.”

Aaron Alston and Michael Stackpole.

That was Stackpole’s advice to writers during one of the more popular sessions in his hourly Writer Workshop delivered over 14 hours with fellow New York Times bestselling author Aaron Allston. (Stackpole has said in a recent blog post that he and Aaron are returning in 2012 – this is GREAT news to writers who want to further their craft).
The session I attended, “Writing Careers in the Post-paper Era,” gave attendees an update on the growing E-book market for novelists, noting that the battle between traditional and digital publishers is not about sales, but about “control and access to audiences.” Stackpole urged people to write in packages that are friendly to consumers – instead of a 120,000-word novel, think in terms of three smaller 50,000-word novels. Instead of focusing on a single story, think about developing “a property” where you can tell more than one story in that world. “Series sell.  They breed loyalty – we always come back to them,” he says.  I will write more about Stackpole’s presentation in a future blog post.
Aaron Allston
“Die adjective, die!”
Allston – not unlike Ernest Hemingway – sees little value in adjectives or adverbs for serious writers, calling them “insulating layers,” that do anything but give the reader a sense of the experience being described. The phrase used to describe this practice is “purple prose.” He urges writers on their first editing pass to “look at every adjective and adverb and strike most of them out.”
Allston shared other advice during his workshop session — from the role of pacing to balancing exposition with dialogue to tell a story memorably. He advises writers to match the length of description to what their character sees.
He also says that you can fill in descriptive passages later after the first draft is crafted.  “Backfill motivation, description and foreshadowing. Vastly limit adjectives and adverbs. Participles are not good. Use active verbs. Keep it simple. Keep it short. I am for transparency – don’t be too stylized.”

Save

Save

Save

Lucille Ball Would be a Century Old Today

If Lucille Ball was alive today, she would be a century old. Born in Jamestown, New York, on August 6, 1911, Ball went on to become one of America’s most beloved comedic icons.

She was pivotal in creating the television series, I Love Lucy. The show co-starred her then-husband, Desi Arnaz and ended in 1957 after 180 episodes. But in the five decades since the show’s ending, it has continued to attract a new generation of fans through TV syndication and video sales globally.

As Entertainment Weekly’s Adam Markowitz says in his “Pop Watch” blog tribute today featuring some of her more famous I Love Lucy clips, “There isn’t much new to be said about Ball’s legacy: How she defined the modern sitcom, how she paved the way for every female comedy legend — from Mary Tyler Moore to Roseanne to Tina Fey — who came after her, how her show’s popularity has outlasted all its 1950s rivals (Gunsmoke, The Honeymooners) and is still a daytime TV staple around the world.”

Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau.
Lucy and Desi impersonators.

USA Today reports that her hometown’s annual Lucy Fest this weekend will attempt to set a Guinness World Record for the most people dressed as the comedienne in honor of her 100th birthday.

I am devoting today’s blog post to her words — quotes she has made about success and Hollywood, the TV series and her mantra to never give up. There is much wisdom in these insightful, self-deprecating and funny quips – enjoy!
___________________________________________

“Ability is of little account without opportunity.”

“How I Love Lucy was born? We decided that instead of divorce lawyers profiting from our mistakes, we’d profit from them.”

 “I am a real ham. I love an audience. I work better with an audience. I am dead, in fact, without one.”

“I think knowing what you cannot do is more important than knowing what you can.”


“I will never do another TV series. It couldn’t top I Love Lucy, and I’d be foolish to try. In this business, you have to know when to get off.”

“I’d rather regret the things I’ve done than regret the things I haven’t done.”

“I’m happy that I have brought laughter because I have been shown by many the value of it in so many lives, in so many ways.”
“I’m not funny. What I am is brave.”

Harry Potter Film Legacy – Great Storytelling that Made Reading Books ‘Cool’

Photo credit: Warner Brothers.
I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part II a week after its record-setting opening weekend, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The opening scene begins with Harry, Ron, and Hermione continuing their quest to find and destroy the Dark Lord’s three remaining Horcruxes, the magical items responsible for his immortality. The movie’s satisfying conclusion has the beloved main characters, now married with children of their own, sending off their offspring to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
 
It was the most anticipated film of 2011, according to a Fandango moviegoer survey, and smashed box office records, earning $168 million in North America alone. By far the best of all the Harry Potter films, Deathly Hollows II is getting early Oscar buzz and deservedly so.

But, for this muggle, the legacy won’t be the films so much as the inventive storytelling and rich color that was brought to life on the page by J.K. Rowling in her fantasy seven-book series.

I’m not alone in that view. I recently chatted with Lawson Cox, president of the Atlanta chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators, who weathered the long lines to attend a midnight showing of the movie with his two teenage daughters.

For him, the mania brought back memories of the original Star Wars movie that exploded onto the scene in 1977 followed by a series of hit sequels.
 

“When The Empire Strikes Back was released, people camped out for tickets and waited in line for hours to see the movies. But I never saw anything like that surrounding a book release until Harry Potter — especially the last book in the series,” recalls Cox, whose family attended a local Barnes and Noble book release party back in 2007.
 

“It was an even more enthusiastic crowd than the final movie. There were literally hundreds of people, mostly teens and younger, willing to wait in line for hours and fork over their own money…for a book! In today’s multimedia-focused culture, that is simply unheard of,” Cox enthuses, adding, “Harry Potter introduced a whole new generation to the excitement of reading, and proved that books are certainly not dead.”

When I think of the lasting legacy of the Harry Potter books, I don’t have to look any further than my children, who are avid fans of the book series (we are reading them together, one by one).
Here’s what one young person had to say about the book series’ impact: “To me, Harry Potter is a defining piece of culture for my generation’s childhood and teenage years. Many of us who read these books as kids and then went on to read them ourselves. Some of our first real novels were the Harry Potter books. Just like ourselves, the stories matured and grew with their audience,” writes Alex Corbett, a Canadian 12th grader on a Canadian online newspaper site, This Week.  
 
Rowling has done what another British-born author, C.S. Lewis, did with The Chronicles of Narnia — capture the imaginations of a generation of readers, young and old. Last October, the best-selling author told Oprah that she was open to writing subsequent Potter novels, though she quickly followed up by saying, “I feel I’m done, but you never know.”
Personally, I don’t think she could do any better, except perhaps to write a prequel that more fully shapes the stories of the boy wizard’s parents and their colorful contemporaries, including the complicated character, Severus Snape, played brilliantly by English actor Alan Rickman. Such a treatment would also give fans the chance to delve into the influences that drove the young Tom Riddle into becoming the villainous Dark Lord.
 
I, for one, hope there’s more to come.

Masterful Storytelling – Open by Andre Agassi

Good biographies chronicle a person’s life, serving as honest portraits that take you through the lows and the highs of a life well lived. 

Great biographies transport you there — moment by moment — making you laugh, smile and at times tear up as you experience the triumphs and tribulations of the person’s life.

In the case of Open: An Autobiography, by Andre Agassi, you experience it all — from Andre’s early years under the tutelage of his tennis-obsessed father in Las Vegas, to his rebellious teen years spent at junior tournaments and doing time at The Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, to his bumpy ride to tennis greatness, and finally, to his notable post-tennis career as a husband, father and education crusader.

You don’t have to be a tennis fan to appreciate Andre’s struggles with the physical and mental demons that dogged him as an athlete (the opening of the book is him waking up, disoriented and in unspeakable back pain, in a New York City hotel bed the morning of his last U.S. Open match in 2006.)

J.R. and Andre. Photo by:
New York Times

The book is a compelling read — filled with emotion and honesty, vivid personalities, lessons of forgiveness and acceptance and finding yourself.  It also is incredibly well written — the narrative is at times inspired, a credit to Andre’s collaborator J.R. Moehringer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Andre discovered and courted Moehringer for his book project after reading his memoir, The Tender Bar, about growing up fatherless in Manhasset, New York.

Andre winning the 1999 French Open.

One of the more dramatic parts in Open was Andre’s nail-biting final against Andrei Medvedev to capture the 1999 French Open. Andre recalls his lackluster playing early in the match and Brad Gilbert’s meltdown in the locker room during a rain delay. The experience jars Andre to get his game back, enabling a come-from-behind victory.  I love the minute-by-minute recreation of the match, where the changing weather and Andre’s mood are masterfully interwoven.

Here are a few of my favorite excerpts of Open. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

He steps up, well inside the baseline, sending me a message that he anticipates a softie, and when he gets hold of it he’s going to ram it down my throat. He wears a look on his face that unmistakeably says: Go ahead, bitch. Be aggressive. I dare you. 

This moment is the crucial test for both of us. This is the turning point in the match, perhaps in both of our lives. It’s a test of wills, of heart, of manhood.

the pivotal moment in the third set of the 1999 French Open final against Medvedev

She smiles. Off she goes. I go tearing after her. It feels as if I’ve been chasing her all my life, and now I’m literally chasing her. At first it’s all I can do to keep pace, but near the finish line I close the gap. She reaches the red balloon two lengths ahead of me. She turns, and peals of her laughter carry back to me like streamers on the wind.
I’ve never been so happy to lose.

— racing Stefi on a San Diego beach early in their courtship

It’s early evening. The sun is just disappearing behind the masts and sails of the boats at the dock. Perry and I are early, Brad is right on time. I’d forgotten how distinctive looking he is. Dark, rugged, he’s certainly handsome, but not classically so. His features aren’t chiseled; they look molded. I can’t shake the idea that Brad looks like Early Man, that he has just jumped from a time machine, slightly out of breath from discovering fire. Maybe it’s all his hair that makes me think this. His head, arms, biceps, shoulders, face are covered with black hair. Brad has so much hair, I’m both horrified and jealous. His eyebrows alone are fascinating. I think: I could make a beautiful toupee out of just that left eyebrow.

— the first time Andre and Brad Gilbert meet and begin working together

Reading, Writing and Tweeting – Not a Winning Combination

Judd Apatow’s appearance last week on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno prompted a thought-provoking Ragan.com PR Junkie post, “Is Twitter bad for writers?” 

Judd Apatow, courtesy of IMDb.

Apatow, a Hollywood screenplay writer behind hits such as Funny People and The 40-year-old Virgin told Leno why he’s so active on Twitter, explaining, “I’m looking for any distraction not to write.” 

Twitter has its place for connecting and even finding sources, but it also can be a huge time drain — especially if you are on a writing or work deadline. I have fallen prey to the lure of tweeting or online surfing …it’s even preferable to sleep sometimes (like right now as I write this post).  It’s documented that the internet has ‘rewired’ the way our brains absorb information. The reading experts at Reading Horizons blogged about the web’s role on people’s reading and writing skills back in February 2010:

“When you are searching the internet how long do you think you spend on a single page? (Hopefully you’re still on this page at this point!) Probably not very long. The internet offers so many gateways to other pages, that it has made it difficult for us to focus on one piece of information at a time. In other words: the internet is making us all a little more A.D.D.”

It also, writes the authors, decreases our ability to comprehend what we read.

Without question, we are in a time of digital overload, 24×7. The New York Times, in their 2010 article, “Attached to Technology and Paying the Price,” found that in 2008, people consumed “three times as much information each day as they did in 1960.”  

The constant interruptions in focus — from work to tweeting to whatever — leads to multi-tasking, which is bad for your mental health. “Excessive use of the internet, cellphones and other technologies can cause us to become more impatient, impulsive, forgetful and even more narcissistic,” writes New York Times “Well” blogger Tara Parker-Pope.

What can be done? We need to wean ourselves off our digital addictions — one medium at a time. For my family, we make a habit of reading. We also rid ourselves of one huge digital distraction — satellite TV — with all the myriad of channels (and God-awful commercials). Instead, we listen to baseball games on the radio. We read the newspaper.  We’ve gotten into the habit of going swimming as a family before bedtime. 

But we are not over the hump, yet — not by a long shot. With two computers, two smart phones, one iPad, a Wii game system, and a movie club, my family has plenty of ways to feed our digital addictions. The computers are here to stay (job requirement), but the others need to be managed in moderation — like other addictions like fatty foods and chocolate. I know we have a way to go, but we owe it to ourselves and our kids to set limits on technology’s place in our lives.

‘Yepisodes’ — Video as a Storytelling Tool

My blog seeks to celebrate examples of great storytelling. Without question, the explosion of social media allows many ways to tell your company story. 
 
One company that’s taken video storytelling to a fun new level is Yepser, a hip, Internet marketing company started 2 1/2 years ago in Atlanta that has grown quickly and now supports the social media presence of just over 100 clients.
 
Earlier today I caught up with Matt Gardner, Yepser co-founder and dream weaver.  Our discussion focused on a series of videos — dubbed ‘Yepisodes’ — that his team put together and posted on their Facebook page.
 
Inspired by the hit NBC comedy, “The Office,” the video snippets take you inside Yepser’s offices in north Atlanta to see what really goes on.  Their video treatment is a fresh, fun and engaging way to reach customers and show a lighter side of Yepser’s culture. Gardner agrees.
 

“That’s us,” says Gardner, of his company’s laid back culture. The videos gave his eight-person staff a chance to showcase their creativity, while providing customers and prospects a unique “inside” view of the staffs’ interplay and sense of humor.

“Our existing customer base knows us and knows our personalities and got a big kick out of it.”

Gardner was surprised when prospects who saw the videos contacted him, complementing the out-of-box approach. “It’s rejuvenated past relationships. Many of our clients says they want to be featured in the next Yepisode.”

With three Yepisodes released, Gardner says more are coming once the busy staff find the time and the right creative spark for the next installment. No doubt, they will take their lead from their fans and customer base who want to get in on the fun. 
    
For companies still unsure about whether social media is for them, Yepser’s success makes a compelling case for getting out there and taking a few risks. And using video — as the explosive popularity of YouTube attests — is one of the best ways to connect, engage and talk about your brand in a way that gets attention.

 “Social media is a requirement almost in order to communicate with your potential customers and keep your existing customers loyal to your brand,” Gardner says.