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The first writing assignment in our Cultural Exploration class was to read David Renmick’sKing of the World” about the life and career of Muhammad Ali. The book takes us beyond his career as a boxer to portray his life within the context of the turbulent cultural tapestry of the 1960s.

We are confronted with Ali’s role as a civil rights advocate, a Muslim and a draft resister. A flawed husband to several wives, a conflicted friend of Malcolm X and a constant fascination of the press and public. Ali pursues peace, while thriving at violent sport. He speaks for the rights of blacks, while ignoring those of women.

He begins the book a near-perfect athlete – strong, fast, intelligent and intimidating. Yet as he deteriorates physically, his character grows. Ali’s story is really a dozen stories woven into the life of one man. A cultural potluck with a little something for everyone.

Most of all, Ali is a hero.

Like all heroes, from Hercules forward, he is not without his flaws, but the strength of his conviction and the triumphs of his life will long outlast the frailties of the man.

This weekend I saw Woody Allen’s new “Vicky Cristina Barcelona“. Though I’m an ardent fan of Woody Allen‘s work, my expectations weren’t high based on the trailer’s I’ve seen. Fortunately, I was pleasantly surprised to find Allen in great form and surrounded by a group of talented actors. None more-so than Penélope Cruz who’s passionate tantrum’s proved to be the funniest moments of the comedy. The film is a must-see for Allen fans and lovers of cinema.

In their first cultural exploration of the year, my VCU Brandcenter students roamed Richmond’s popular First Friday’s ArtWalk. The monthly event features hundreds of artists and dozens of galleries. This month, it also featured art involving light and even a light-themed fashion show. Maybe the best part of the event was the music. The Hot 8 Brass Band flew in from New Orleans to give a spectacular performance…or did they?

Actually, the band flew in from a variety of places, since they were evacuated from New Orleans and forced to move in with relatives. Cheers to Curated Culture, the organizers of the ArtWalk for working through the complicated arrangements to get Hot 8 members to Richmond and cheers to the band for sticking it out. One final cheer to my brother, Steve O’Keefe, who is also a New Orleans evacuee for giving me the scoop on the band’s travel. Steve was cruising the walk yesterday while sulking about having to sit out another hurricane at my home. Then someone with a Creole accent shouted “Hey Steve…Is that you?” It was the band’s manager, who works across the street from Steve in New Orleans. Steve exchanged greetings and hurricane stories with the band, making for a pleasant taste of home on a stormy Richmond night.