HBO documentary puts spotlight on Seva, a Berkeley nonprofit that restores sight to the blind

Manisara with the granddaughter she has never seen. Photo: HBO Films
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At a time when so much of the world’s news seems so dark, HBO is airing a documentary featuring a Berkeley nonprofit that is literally bringing more light into the world. Open Your Eyes focuses on the work of the Seva Foundation, which helps restore sight to blind and visually-impaired people by helping fund cataract surgeries, glasses, medicine and professional training in clinics around the world. The 25-minute documentary is being aired this month as part of HBO’s summer documentary series, and is also available on HBO Go.

“In the early days our tagline was ‘compassion in action,” said Seva Executive Director Jack Blanks. “Our current tagline is ‘a solution in sight’.”

The roots of the organization go back to the ideals of the 1960s, and its original co-founders include icons such as Ram Dass, Wavy Gravy and Dr. Larry Brilliant, who was part of the World Health Organization’s team working to eradicate smallpox. Steve Jobs, who studied for a time at the same India-based ashram as Brilliant, served on the advisory board for a few months just before Apple took off, and gave Seva its very first grant. Many Berkeleyans may be familiar with Seva through the groups’ benefit concerts featuring musicians such as the Grateful Dead, David Crosby and Graham Nash, Jackson Brown and Bonnie Raitt.

The documentary subtitled “A Journey from Darkness to Sight,” doesn’t focus on Seva or its colorful Berkeley roots. Instead, it focuses on the equally compelling story of two Nepali grandparents who have been blinded by cataracts and regain their sight after a surgery funded by Seva. It was filmed by the Portland-based Irene Taylor Brodsky, who had a long-time interest in both Nepal and Seva. She asked to accompany some Seva outreach workers on their rounds doing eyesight screenings in remote mountainous area, and the story we see unfolded during that three-day journey. … Continue reading »

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The Berkeley Wire: 07.21.16

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Lies, love, sacrifice in Shotgun Players’ ‘Grand Concourse’

Cathleen Riddley as Shelley in Grand Concourse. Photo: Pak Han
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Why do people volunteer at soup kitchens? Is it so that they may selflessly serve others? Is it to make themselves feel worthy? Satisfy religious commitments? Or is it to forget their own problems? These questions and themes of friendship and falseness are presented in the stimulating and entertaining Grand Concourse, well directed by Shotgun’s Joanie McBrien. Playwright Heidi Schreck is a two-time Obie Award-winning actress and author of There Are No More Big Secrets, Creature, and Showtime’s Nurse Jackie.

Fresh from its New York and Chicago runs, Grand Concourse is set in the kitchen area of a soup kitchen (and soup is the only meal on the menu) in a Bronx Catholic church basement, run by the habit-less nun Shelley (great work by Cathleen Riddley). Shelley arrives early each morning so that she can scrub the dining room after the night janitors have finished cleaning it. Shelley is having trouble concentrating on her prayers, however, and has taken to lengthening her prayers by timing them with the microwave timer. Watching her look into the microwave as she prays is charming, as well as spiritual — in a 21st-century kind of way.

Shelley’s calm, caring and conscientious demeanor seems too good to be true, and it turns out that it is. She is suffering from the burnout common to the self-sacrificing. We see her question whether her work is actually helpful and learn that her reasons for joining her religious order more closely resemble an act of teenage rebellion than true religious conviction. … Continue reading »

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Former UC Berkeley staffer sentenced for stealing $400K

Lawrence Hall of Science. Photo Wikimedia Commons
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A former UC Berkeley staffer has been sentenced to 18 months in prison and ordered to repay the nearly $400,000 embezzled from the educational program she worked for, federal prosecutors and the FBI said.

DeSondra Michell Ward admitted in February to stealing $389,948.57 while working at the university’s Lawrence Hall of Science, and was sentenced Tuesday in Oakland by district magistrate Jeffrey White.

As part of the plea deal, Ward admitted to gaming the university’s travel system (an Expedia- or Priceline-like online travel booking website) to buy airplane tickets for friends, family, and herself — for personal purposes — as well as selling the tickets for a profit to others, according to a statement from federal prosecutor Brian Stretch and FBI special agent John Bennett.Continue reading »

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30 new East Bay restaurants, bars for you to try now

Dishes from Burma Bear in Oakland. Photo: Chloe List, courtesy Postcard PR
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Something’s in the air this summer. It’s not even August, and we’ve already covered the openings of 30 East Bay restaurants and bars since Memorial Day. With all of this excitement, it can be hard to keep up.

Here at Nosh, we’ve decided to do the hard work for you and compiled a running list of all the new spots. Of course, with restaurant openings invariably come restaurant closings, and so we’ve included our tally of those below. Click on the restaurant’s name to read more about each spot on Berkeleyside. And if you need more dining inspiration, don’t forget to check out the Nosh Guide for all of your breakfast, lunch and dinner needs. … Continue reading »

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Berkeley actor Matt Ross can do more than scowl

Matt Ross has written and directed 'Captain Fantastic' which opens Friday in Berkeley. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
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Matt Ross had a smile on his face. Maybe it was no surprise, as he was at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in San Francisco for a long string of press interviews about his movie, Captain Fantastic.

The smile, and accompanying open demeanor, are not how most of the world usually sees Ross, who lives in Berkeley. He is best known for his roles as Gavin Belson, the competitive and ruthless tech tycoon on the hit HBO TV show, “Silicon Valley,” and Albie Grant, the controlling Mormon polygamist who represses his homosexuality in HBO’s “Big Love.” Both of those parts require Ross to purse his lips and scowl — a lot.

But the world is now about to see another side of Ross, one that brings out his smile. Although he is a classically trained actor who went to Juilliard, Ross has been writing movie scripts and making short films since he was 12. His first feature movie, 28 Hotel Rooms, was decently received. Captain Fantastic has been enthusiastically embraced. John Seal, Berkeleyside’s film reviewer, called it “frequently excellent (if periodically absurd).” This reporter loved the film for its intelligent and unpredictable script. Ross won Best Director in the Un Certain Regard category at the Cannes Film Festival in July.

Ross will be doing a Q&A in Berkeley this Friday, July 22, after the 7:05 p.m. screening of Captain Fantastic at the California Theatres on Kittredge Street.
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Gillian Margot brings Black Beauty to Berkeley (and Geoffrey Keezer)

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The musical partnership of vocalist Gillian Margot and pianist Geoffrey Keezer is still in its infancy, but the two extraordinary musicians have already forged a creatively charged connection. The San Diego-based duo make their Bay Area debut 8 p.m. Saturday at the California Jazz Conservatory, though Keezer has performed dozens of times in the East Bay, from his teenage stint in the hard bop cauldron of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers to his well-documented three-year run with legendary bassist Ray Brown (Margot and Keezer also give a CJC workshop Saturday afternoon “The Art of Accompanying a Vocalist”).

One of the most celebrated pianists of his generation, the 45-year-old Keezer even lived in San Leandro briefly about a dozen years ago, in the midst of a Grammy Award-winning stint with bass maestro Christian McBride’s electro-acoustic band. These days he spends much of his time writing music for various projects and commissions, and can be found on stage working as an accompanist for masterly jazz vocalists like Dianne Reeves, Denise Donatelli, and Oakland’s Kenny Washington (who joins Keezer’s trio as a special guest Sunday afternoon at Jazz at Filoli).

“One thing musicians like to do is keep working,” he says. “As a pianist, I like working with vocalists, and singers value what I bring to the table. I’m not much of a singer myself, but I like writing songs, and with my own trio gigs I’ll invite Gillian or Kenny to come up.” … Continue reading »

Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Captain Fantastic;’ ‘Breaking a Monster’

Captain Fantastic
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Three-quarters of the way into Captain Fantastic (opening at Landmark’s California Theater on Friday, July 22), I thought I might be watching one of 2016’s Best Picture Academy Award nominees. One implausible plot development later, I wasn’t so sure — but I am convinced that Viggo Mortensen is likely to receive Oscar recognition for his lead role in this frequently excellent (if periodically absurd) new feature.

Mortensen plays the film’s title character, an off-the-grid Noam Chomsky admirer known more prosaically as Ben. With wife Leslie (Trin Miller, seen only in flashback) Ben has raised his six children in the middle of a Pacific Northwest forest, training them in survivalist techniques and teaching them about great literature, political theory, and the Bill of Rights.

What he hasn’t taught them is how to live in the ‘real world’, a problem that quickly becomes apparent when the family leaves the wilderness for a funeral in suburban New Mexico. Conflicts rapidly arise between the insular Fantastics and their ‘normal’ relatives, including Leslie’s sister Harper (Kathryn Hale), brother-in-law Dave (Steve Zahn), and father Jack (Frank Langella).

Written and directed by Berkeley resident Matt Ross, Captain Fantastic is careful not to pass judgment on these competing visions of ‘the way things should be’. (Ross will be doing a Q&A in Berkeley this Friday, July 22, after the 7:05 p.m. screening of Captain Fantastic at the California Theatres at 2113 Kittredge St.) Ben is clearly a loving father, but he’s also a martinet whose parenting techniques sometimes border on child abuse; Jack has the best interests of his grandchildren at heart but is willing to use social status and wealth to make life for Ben thoroughly miserable. … Continue reading »

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The Berkeley Wire: 07.20.16

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UC Berkeley acts after concrete falls at Edwards Stadium

Edwards Stadium. Photo: Hank Chapot
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After chunks of concrete fell from under the bleachers of Edwards Stadium causing safety concerns, UC Berkeley has closed part of the building and initiated plans to install a temporary fix for the aging facility, according to a university official. Cal employees with offices under the bleachers have been ordered to vacate by today, Thursday.

Starting Monday July 25, construction will begin on nets designed to catch any further falling concrete — the chunks being the result of years of water damage, real-estate division spokeswoman Christine Shaff told Berkeleyside.

“The netting installation should start next week, and in preparation for the installation we’re moving equipment and staff out of the tunnel,” she said.

Rated “poor” by the university’s Seismic Action Plan for Facilities (SAFER) — meaning expected to sustain “significant” damage that will have deadly consequences in case of a severe earthquake — the stadium is on the university’s list of structures to receive seismic retrofitting. But the university does not currently have the funding necessary to complete the fix.

Falling blocks of concrete and the water damage that has caused them are a distinct, unrelated problem from the potentially life-threatening susceptibility to earthquakes, Shaff said. … Continue reading »

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Recipe: Fish taco lettuce wraps

Fish taco lettuce wraps. Photo: Marisa Westbrook
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My love for tacos runs deep — each bite brings back memories of sitting down with my family to an assortment of taco toppings spread out on our dining room table. Did anyone else have taco night growing up?

Today’s recipe uses mild-flavored rockfish, a perfect addition to your taco spread, along with crisp romaine lettuce wrappers. (You can, of course, use corn tortillas if you’d like.) For a more filling meal, I’ve enjoyed these fish taco lettuce wraps with a side of black beans and rice or baked plantain chips. … Continue reading »

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Real estate

Proposed in Berkeley: 5 stories, 39 units on San Pablo

The proposal for 2720 San Pablo Ave. Image: Devi Dutta Architecture
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A new proposal has come in, on the former Jered’s Pottery lot, for a 5-story, 39-unit building on San Pablo Avenue in West Berkeley.

The pottery shop, at 2720 San Pablo Ave. between Carleton and Pardee streets, closed last year and moved to Richmond. The property at that time was on sale for $1.4 million; a 4-story 18-unit building had already been approved there.

The major transit corridor has been the focus of much development in recent years, with more changes potentially coming, including a large urgent care facility and hundreds of new apartments approved and proposed.

Scroll down for a round-up of more projects on San Pablo.

A 1-story garage (later used as the pottery studio) would be demolished to make way for the new building, designed by Berkeley-based Devi Dutta Architecture.

According to the applicant statement, the former gas and auto service station would be replaced by a “mixed-use and transit-oriented infill project” that includes ground-floor commercial space under four stories of apartments.  … Continue reading »

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The Institute of Mosaic Art in Berkeley to close Aug. 30

Ilse Cordoni, the owner of the Institute for Mosaic Arts, teaching an andamento class at IMA.  Andamento is the art of laying tiles with a sense of flow and design, rather than just putting broken pieces of glass next to each other. Since this was a one-day class, she taught the class using paper (easier to cut) rather than glass. Photo: Daphne White
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By Daphne White

The Institute of Mosaic Art (IMA), an East Bay institution that is one of the oldest and largest mosaic centers in the U.S., will close its doors on Aug. 30 unless someone steps up to take it over. The school, which has offered classes to more than 1,000 students in the past three years, is a victim of its own success, according to owner, Ilse Cordoni.

“When mosaic artist Laurel True opened IMA in 2005, there were only two mosaic schools in the U.S.: IMA, and the nonprofit Chicago Mosaic School,” said Cordoni, who purchased IMA in 2013. These two schools helped spearhead a mosaic renaissance across the country. “Now that mosaic has become very popular, there are half a dozen mosaic schools in California alone, and many more nationwide. Students no longer need to travel from all over the U.S. to take introductory mosaics in Berkeley.”

Unless a buyer can be found, the school and its associated mosaics store and gallery on Allston Way will close its doors as of Aug. 30, Cordoni said. This announcement has left the East Bay mosaic community reeling.

“IMA has been an enormous part of the mosaic renaissance in Oakland and beyond,” said professional mosaicist Rachel Rodi, whose mosaic career began at IMA when the school first opened. “IMA and its students and teachers have created community murals and public art throughout the Bay Area in places such as the Martin Luther King Middle School, Jefferson Elementary School and Mission Creek in San Francisco.” … Continue reading »

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