Archive for December, 2011

Holiday Networking

December 28th, 2011

Used to be that for many companies, the holidays were a time to call on clients and thank them for their biz or throw parties to impress prospects. It also gave people a chance to catch up with business contacts, and put out feelers for other career opportunities or job openings. For years, I've been sending Hawaii Christmas cards to Hollywood connections, just to remind them I'm still writing screenplays (usually with a note about what I'm currently working on to see if they'll nibble).

With so many people out of work or looking to make a career change, what surprises me is how few actually take advantage of the holiday season to do some networking. It seems like fewer and fewer people send out Christmas cards, while company parties have become a thing of the past. Sure, I understand the need to cut expenses and avoid lawsuits resulting from inebriated employees doing inappropriate things. But I still think it's nice when companies arrange little get-togethers or mixers for workers and clients to share positive feelings at least once a year.

I also look forward to getting short handwritten notes from friends who send cards. Frankly, the Facebook postings aren't really very personal and tell me more about what that person wants others to think of them, than what they actually think about things or how they're doing. And if that person has time to post mostly trivial stuff on Facebook, yet "doesn't have time" to send cards or write notes to friends, what does that say about them or your relationship?

Anyhow, if you're looking for work or new job opps, this is the time to reach out and call someone or send them a personal email/card/letter to tell them you're having a rough time. Even if they can't help you at the moment, it might lead to something down the road should that person hear about an opening somewhere. More importantly, it's a good excuse to get together with old friends IRL -- in real life -- instead of skimming through their Tweets and FB wall posts.


You can still catch our December episode of Career Changers TV until next Thursday (click here for daily viewing times on OC16). One of the segments is about Argosy University's commencement ceremony last month at the Hawaii Convention Center. For those who aren't familiar with the school, you'd be surprised at how fast they have grown in the past three years... and there's an inspirational story within the segment about a former meth addict, who has turned her life around. For the low resolution YouTube video version of that segment, click here.

While we were shooting that piece, I had some words of advice for graduates based on my own ill-advised attempt to emulate a commencement tradition: do NOT toss your cap in the air at the end of the ceremony. Those things have sharp corners and are potentially lethal. I tossed my hat high in the air -- and it came down hard and fast, hitting a young woman in the face right behind me. Nearly took her eye out. She was angry, and I felt like a fool. Bad move.

Speaking of caps and gowns, the Argosy commencement program included interesting background on the symbolism of colors and designs used. Did you know the sleeves of bachelor's and master's gowns are differently shaped? Or that the doctoral hood attached to the gown identifies the wearer's academic heritage? Here's the Wikipedia link for more info on that.

Not addressed in the piece is the question of what to wear under the gown. When I graduated from grade school, the boys wore blue gowns and the girls wore white. All the guys in my class wore dark pants -- except me. I had white slacks on, so when you look at the group photo, it was easy to pick me out by my white pant legs.

Have a safe and Happy New Years!

Lost in Venice

December 24th, 2011

This is actually a rerun of a column I wrote for the old Star-Bulletin that appeared in their print edition on Christmas Day in 2008. An earlier version had been entered in the old Advertiser Christmas story contest, but wasn't among the finalists... so I reworked it and think it's one of my better pieces. Of all the things I've written over the years, this one best sums up the story of my life and why I feel so grateful to be here still. Mele Kalikimaka!


A Wrong Turn Leads to the Right Place

By Rich Figel

Like many people, my wife and I collect Christmas ornaments as souvenirs from places we’ve traveled to. My favorite is a delicate piece from Venice made of green, white and red glass shaped into candles. It’s missing one candle though. That’s why it holds special meaning for me.

In recovery, we’re taught to live in the present because we can’t undo the past. I try not to dwell on the wrong turns I made. But I can’t minimize the wreckage alcohol and drugs caused in my life either. My flame could have been snuffed out by two drunk driving accidents I had when I was a reporter in New Jersey, fresh out of college. I was lucky. No one was injured by my reckless disregard for others. Instead of giving up drinking, however, I gave up driving and moved to New York.

All of that was a distant memory when Isabel and I took our first trip to Italy in the summer of 1999. This was a reward of sorts for living sober. To make the most of it, we studied guidebooks, listened to Italian language tapes in the car and carefully planned our itinerary months in advance. Nothing was left to chance — or so we thought.

After nearly 24 hours of flying economy class and long layovers in Newark and London, we arrived in Venice. Our luggage did not. Wearing smelly clothes, we checked into our hotel on the Lido, a small island across the lagoon. International movie stars flock here for the annual Venice film festival. But when we opened the door to our room, my wife’s face dropped. It looked dingy and rundown, nothing like the charming photographs on the website. The trip of a lifetime was off to a disappointing start.

Things began to look better the next morning. The hotel’s breakfast room had a a glorious view of San Marco, where the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica are located. We hopped on the vaporetto, an unglamorous water bus, and as we cruised down the Grand Canal, I became oblivious to the stifling heat and the B.O. of tourists crowded around us. I only saw the fading grandeur of this dream of a city.

Venice on foot is a different matter. The guidebooks are useful as long as you stay close to the major tourist sites. Venture into the heart of the city, and you soon discover that streets often go by two names, smaller canals and bridges don’t correspond with maps, and many passageways are dead ends. We got completely lost, which can be fun if you’re in the right frame of mind. But we were like those couples on “The Amazing Race” TV show, who blame each other for every mishap. When we returned to the hotel and saw our luggage had been delivered, I thought we had turned the corner.

Wrong again. The next day was even hotter. Shorts and bare shoulders are forbidden in Italy’s centuries-old churches, so we had to dress appropriately and sweat it out in line with hundreds of others who were waiting to get into St. Mark’s Basilica. You’ve probably seen pictures of it: the Byzantine domes in the background while lovers embrace amid flocks of pigeons. Since we were quarreling, the grubby birds were merely a nuisance to us. We came to see the church treasures — not for romance.

A group of German tourists were ahead of us. They seemed to know where they were going, so I followed them. Awed by the marble geometric designs under our feet and the ornate ceilings above, I missed the entrance sign for the museum where the church relics are displayed. Before we knew it, Isabel and I were back outside the Basilica. Despite my pleas of ignorance, a guard told us we had to stand in line again if we wanted to reenter.

Screw it, I said. We decided to move on to a less famous church. According to our map, Santi Giovanni was a short walk from there. But I made a wrong turn somewhere. What should have been a 10-minute stroll became another frustrating excursion that stretched into an hour of wandering around in a steamy maze.

Finally, we found Santi Giovanni. It is huge. Inside, the soaring vaulted arches resembled the bow of a gigantic wooden ship turned upside down. The stained glass windows and altars were works of art. Yet it felt strangely empty to me. We walked over to another section that was like a small chapel. As we were leaving, a priest walked past us with a beatific smile on his face.

Back in the main area we saw the German tourists again, standing in the center of the church. The men had cameras around their necks and their heads were bowed. They stood in a circle, holding hands, and began to sing a hymn in perfect harmony. Their voices filled the church. It was the most beautiful sound I have ever heard.

Tears streamed down my face. Perhaps it was their devotion, or the acoustics … or maybe it was the collective effects of being weary and flustered, but the church that seemed cold and dead to me was brought to life by their singing. I looked at Isabel and she was crying too. Neither of us is religious, but I felt blessed to be there with her. Had we not gotten lost and taken so many wrong turns, we would not have been here to witness this moment. I held my wife’s hand and listened in rapt wonder.

When the men finished, they simply smiled at each other — the same smile I saw on the priest’s face as he walked past us. Then the Germans quietly left and we never saw them again.

That was in 1999. Two years later, after the devastation of 9/11, we went through the ritual of decorating our Christmas tree. It was a somber time. Isabel’s business, which depended on tourists visiting Hawaii, was struggling. I worried about the future, and stopped writing. What was the point? Nothing made sense.

A couple of days later, the tree toppled over. It was a mess. The strands of lights were tangled and twisted. Ornaments were strewn about. A glass candle from the Venice piece had broken off. Isabel was at work, so I asked a neighbor to help me stand the tree back up. I restrung the lights and was able to glue together some of the broken ornaments, but the glass candle wouldn’t hold. I couldn’t fix that one.

While I was washing my hands and thinking to myself that the tree didn’t look quite as nice as it did before, I heard a commercial on TV. It said it was all right to grieve for the victims of the 9/11 attacks, but the best way to respond to terrorism is to live.

I broke down and cried. There I was, fretting and cursing earlier because our tree fell over and some ornaments broke. It was nothing compared to what happened three months before. I thought about the church in Venice, and how lost I felt at different times in my life. I can’t say if it was chance or fate that I survived the car wrecks and alcoholism, to wind up here with Isabel in Hawaii. I can only wonder, and be grateful for what I have.

So each year when I unwrap that ornament, I remember how fragile life is. I think about the missing candle, and it puts everything in perspective.


Thanks for reading. For daily viewing times of Career Changers TV, please visit our website. You can also watch videos from past and present episodes on the CCTV YouTube Channel. Mahalo for watching!

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Paris Hilton's Shoes

December 20th, 2011

PH shoesCelebrity sightings in Hawaii are as common as whales in winter. They're out there, but you have to be in the right place at the right time to spot them. I'd much rather see a humpback breaching though, than encounter a celeb up close and personal. However, this story involving my friend Mark Bell was pretty funny so I wanted to share it with you.

Mark is an inventor and gadget guru, who we've featured on Career Changers TV twice (the MP3 Toilet Paper dispenser music player and Cooler Scooter segments). He's currently working with SeaBreeze Water Sports on marketing their Jetlev water-propelled jet packs and a new invention created by the SeaBreeze owners. I'll be telling you more about both in future blog posts and in video segments on my show.

Anyhow, Mark was at their Hawaii Kai location when they got a request from Paris Hilton to rent out their activities operation for the afternoon so she'd have privacy. Mark was out on the platform where they launch from, and asked her boyfriend if it would be okay to take photos of Paris while she was jet skiing. He said, yeah, no problem. When she got back on the deck, however, Paris yelled at him to stop and grabbed the camera out of his hands. She berated him, saying she didn't want paparazzi shooting unauthorized photos of her -- especially since she didn't have any make-up on. Mark said she quickly reviewed the photos on his camera and stopped when she saw his picture of her shoes, which she had left on the platform deck. "My wife is really into shoes," he explained. Paris laughed and said he couldn't be a paparazzi since they wouldn't have bothered to take that kind of photo.

Then she asked Mark to take pictures of her with her own camera... after she fixed herself up and applied make-up, of course. Later, Mark got her to pose with him. As for the Paris photos he took with her camera, Mark said he saw them on the paparazzi TV show, TMZ, a couple of days later. Someone "leaked" those pictures to the media... gee, who do you think did that?

Paris and Mark

For daily viewing times of our December episode of the Career Changers TV show on OC16, please visit our website. You can also check out video segments on the CCTV YouTube Channel.

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A Simple Gift

December 13th, 2011

While it's tempting to post a commentary on idiot celebs who flaunt their wealth by carrying around scads of cash in $5,000 purses, I'd rather tell you about an act of kindness that touched me deeply and reminded me what Christmas is supposed to be about.

As mentioned in this blog before, I'm producing videos about human trafficking in Hawaii. Our first one, which can be viewed at, focused on the sex trade and how local organizations are helping survivors rebuild their lives. The second video will be about trafficking related to Hawaii agriculture. However, it was difficult to interview actual victims for a couple of reasons: they were fearful of being deported if they went public, and many do not speak English.

Through Nora at the Pacific Gateway Center (Andy South's mother) we were able to sit down with a Thai farm worker named Samian. His tale is similar to many trafficking victims. They had a simple plan. Come to America through recruiters, make enough in the first year to pay off the fee ($15K to $20K each), then send back money to their families during the second and third year. Considering they were making less than $2K per year in Thailand or Laos or Vietnam, you can see why it seemed like a good idea on paper. But there was no way they could ever pay off the recruiters' fees and make a profit because they also had to pay for food and housing in an expensive place to live.

Samian's odyssey began over six years ago. He left behind a wife, a toddler and a young son. I'm not sure of exact ages and dates because much was lost in the translation -- even Samian had trouble recounting the details. Through Global Horizon, the company that imported these foreign laborers for farm owners, he was sent to Florida... Colorado... New York... Washington state... then he worked in California before he wound up on the Big Island. Of all the farms, he said conditions were the worst in Hawaii. He lived in a 2-room shack with eight men sharing one bathroom. They often went hungry because they weren't paid what they were promised or only given small increments.

It took years for him to be certified as a trafficking victim. But with the help of immigration attorneys and the Pacific Gateway Center, he was reunited with his two sons in Hawaii. By then, his wife had divorced him, and the boys had grown up in his absence. Can you imagine being separated from your kids for five or six years while they were so young? Yet many of these foreign laborers are willing to leave for two or three years just to provide a better life for their families. That kind of sacrifice is not unusual for them.

My cameraman and I drove up to Samian's farm on the North Shore last week. Through Nora and PGC, he was given a small loan to raise and sell fish (tilapia and giant catfish). Unfortunately, it hasn't been making much money, so he's attempting to level out the hilly farm land and intends to plant lemon trees and grow bananas. When we first arrived at the farm, Nora wasn't there to translate and we had a hard time communicating. He would gesture and speak a word or two of English, but to be truthful, I really had no idea what he was saying.

He picked up a folding table, carried it across the field he's been trying to level by hand (no tractor), then carried over four white plastic chairs to the spot. We just needed to pick up some b-roll shots of Samian and Nora walking around the farm -- background stuff. I guess he thought we were going to do another sit-down interview though, so he was trying to find a good spot for us in the shade with a nice view of the valley below. He brought over a plastic wash basin in which he had bottled water for us. I sat and waited for Nora, but she got stuck in a typical North Shore traffic jam.

After awhile, I walked over to Samian's house on the farm. It's really a shack, but he doesn't have to share it with a bunch of other men, and he has a satellite dish, plus running water and electricity -- unlike some of the other places he lived in over the past few years. I noticed he had a stalk of apple bananas propped against the front wall and a green coconut next to it. Probably tomorrow's breakfast, I thought. When I turned, I saw Samian was moving the table and chairs over to the area where I was now standing. I tried to tell him it wasn't necessary since we we didn't need the chairs or table. But he just wanted to accommodate us and make me feel comfortable while we were visiting.

Finally, Nora arrived and began translating to Samian what kind of shots we wanted to get. I asked if he had photos of his family from before he left Thailand. He went inside and rummaged around. Five minutes later, he emerged with a broken picture frame that had some photos of the boys. Nora explained to me that the oldest son (age 18) is living in town now. The 8-year-old is living with Samian on the farm, which is difficult because Samian speaks no English and the boy is trying to adapt to school here. I kept thinking to myself how hard it must be for him and his sons...

After we finished filming, I was about to get in my car and Samian waved at me. He picked up the banana stalk and coconut to give them to me. There had to be at least fifty tiny green and yellow apple bananas on that stalk, and I don't know how to crack open a green coconut. But I couldn't say no to his act of generosity. I'm not sure if he had intended to give them to me from the start, or if it was just a spontaneous gesture.

When I got home, I shared the bananas with my neighbors and told them they came from a farmer in Kahuku. They have no idea how many miles that man has traveled, how many hours he's toiled in fields all over the U.S., or how many years he was separated from his children, relatives and friends in a faraway country. Yet he wanted to give me something of his for no other reason than kindness.

It made me think about how fortunate I am. It is a gift I will always remember.


If you know someone with a used or old tractor they might want to donate or sell cheap to Samian, please call me at 262-5073.

For daily viewing times of my Career Changers TV show, please visit our website or check out videos from past and current episodes on the CCTV YouTube Channel. Mahalo for watching!

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The Mystery of Li Ling-Ai

December 1st, 2011


In this month's Career Changers TV episode, which premieres Thurs. night at 8:30 pm on OC16, we have a fascinating story about a local filmmaker whose interest in old mystery novels set in Hawaii, led to the discovery of a missing Oscar-winning documentary from the 1940s. The movie, KUKAN, introduced many Americans to a China they had never seen before, which was at war with Japan. But after winning an Academy Award -- the first feature-length documentary to earn that distinction -- it seemed all traces of the film itself had disappeared... until Kailua resident Robin Lung found a copy.

I first heard about the project awhile back from my wife, who plays tennis with Robin. As it happens, Robin is actually the reason I started producing the CCTV show. She had been making videos for local families -- sort of like oral histories captured on tape. That led to other projects, which is how she began working with Ron Darby, an experienced videographer (he produces the OC16 shows, Island Driver and The Pet Hui). When her documentary about Washington Place -- Hawaii's historic governor's mansion -- aired on PBS in 2008, she had a small premiere party at her home. Which is where I first met Ron. A couple of months later, we got together for coffee and I pitched him the idea for CCTV.

Back to Robin's real life detective story: as you'll see in the segment we did, her background in the publishing biz and love of books was the catalyst for the FINDING KUKAN film. A friend from her Random House days sent her some old novels that featured a Chinese-American female detective in Hawaii, who Robin suspected was inspired by a real person... and she was right: Li Ling-Ai was a very unconventional, independent-minded lady. Somehow, this exotic, enigmatic woman wound up being listed as "Technical Adviser" on the KUKAN documentary. But Robin had a feeling that Li may have played a much more significant role in the movie than she was being given credit for. Was it possible she was shortchanged because she was a Chinese-American woman? And just who was Li Ling-Ai?

Robin is still searching for answers, so FINDING KUKAN is a work in progress. What many people don't realize is that documentaries such as this one rely on grants and donations to get produced. They rarely receive any Hollywood studio financial backing. She's already gotten some grant money and interest from people on the Mainland and in China. If you'd like to know more about the project, please visit the Finding Kukan website or become a Facebook friend by clicking here.

Here's the links for the low-res YouTube version of the segment about Robin and the trailer for Finding Kukan. Talk about coming full circle -- she introduces me to Ron Darby, who became the co-creator of Career Changers TV, and now Robin is being featured on my show. Cool, huh?

For daily viewing times and other useful links, go to www.CareerChangers. TV or check out the CCTV YouTube Channel.

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