Sunday, February 23, 2020

Fighting the End of Light

        He walked stiffly to the small round chair, as if uncertain where his body should go. He talked carefully, sometimes hesitantly, often slowing to silence. Was he collecting his thoughts, or was this  a way to emphasize what he was saying? Because he said a lot, this pioneering stage director now in his 78th year appearing before a large rapt audience in DC's Hirshhorn auditorium. It was difficult to believe that he had already that day been in two other cities and would fly to Bulgaria - BULGARIA? (no explanation) - in the morning.  Apart from the arts center established under his direction in Water Mill, NY, where, he proudly remarked "there are no doors," he would seem to have no real home. His home was in the interstice between the horizontal and the vertical - within the realm of light that he calls the secret to all good design. Though it seemed that his own light  was fading - he had to be helped to stand erect before an easel holding a large pad of white paper and then ushered back to the chair.
       Trained as an architect at Pratt in New York, Robert Wilson have been a pioneer in theater and opera since the 1950s putting his faith in such statements as "without light there is no space" and quoting Einstein saying "light is the measure of things. Light is structural." Movement enters in, too, in abstract  but geometric ways.  "Time is the line that goes through the center; space is horizontal.And "it's always the space in back of you that makes the space in front of you strong." He is unconventional, to say the least - if that word has any meaning at all in the aesthetic realm. He once created a play using the texts done by a young autistic boy  named Christopher whom he met in a facility supposedly dedicated to helping the so-called developmentally disabled. Or handicapped in ways most people did not understand. Wilson could decipher much of what the boy wrote in terms of patterns that were the boy's language.
        He didn't try to explain the meeting of abstraction, taking for granted a sense of acceptance in how he viewed the world.  The title of the talk - a conversation between Wilson and Hirshhorn director Melissa Chu - was "Re-Setting the Stage."   Revising a person's perception of art and how it is made and received on stage as well as life.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Keep On Moving

Step Afrika came to Apple's most recent Washington area campus on Sunday February 16, for the first time,  offering free their high energy percussive art form that is unique in this country.
The appearance of eight black African-American dancers stomping and slapping  under the renovated Carnegie LIbrary's hard white floors  drew crowds, as expected, and  were in turn given a short history of the tradition and background going back to the 18th century when drums - the African drums - were outlawed.  Performers turned to their own body for expression, using all appendages  and rhythms to create a wholly original means of communication. Stories are told without words . The ensemble of  highly trained, regimented dancers are all college graduates (arts and science) cementing  a history that began with competition between in the sororities and fraternities of traditionally black universities and colleges. To see is to believe....the compulsive creation of community Now in its 25th year, the company is based most of the year on H St. NE in the Atlas Theatre.  Give it up to their infectious movement, and their slogan 'We are better when we step together," between pyrotechnical  seemingly inhuman feats of motion by individual members..
So why an Apple store, of all places?
 The company says it is celebrating Black History month by offering this and similar programs, hoping to attract a wider audience than might usually be found in that austere white building in the middle of a green park. Apparently it worked. Onlookers were stretched over the atrium on upstairs balconies. Small children were captivated on the ground floor. The upbeat, solid steps of these highly disciplined irrepressible  eight performers -- all different in physical styles - were contagious in their call outs (giving instructions to the audience on when to participate) and facial expressions. The lesson to children in the crowd: keep moving! But it wasn't lost either on a feisty woman with purple hair named Heather raising her hand during the Q&A to request "do something for seniors." In other words, think of offering classes (which the company does when they aren't traveling) for an older generation as well.
You go, girl!

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Washing UP

And now this, just in from Mineola, NY, uninvited - the so-called Homeland Security newswire, whoever they are.

Handwashing will save us.

A study (I could not dig up) reasons that if people were more careful with their habits, the virus might get delayed. And it targets ten of the world's busiest airports, most likely in some of the world's largest cities. There it is, in cold print, the evil ones among us who have no consideration and refuse to take due measures at the sink after using toilet facilities. Because the advice says go slow, 15 seconds minimum, use soap and water. (Be aware, too, the need to avoid handles or buttons - hardware the virus likes. Protect yourself with paper when using handles.)

Odd how commonsense can easily evade us.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Incidental Notes to Note

On urban life and all its permutations....culled from print sources  (often thought too expensive to make reading them a habit).

Two books as references. "City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age," from Bloomsbury Publishers.
Relatively more recent, for Big Apple (NYC) fans: "Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas" edited by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro. (The latter surname is fascinating to contemplate.) A treasure in handsome vertical binding, enclosing essays by writers of note (Solnit for one), published by the University of California in 2016. Almost defying a category this combination of graphics, maps, essays. Something to learn on every page and wonder at.

A common sense study out of Brandeis University based on 72,000 census tracts telling "how a child's neighborhood influences his/her opportunities over time."  As reported in the Washington Post on Saturday 1/25/20.  The focus was on 100 of  America's  largest Metro areas, said to be home to 67 percent of the country's children.

The New York Times' Business section on 1/27/20 tallying numbers to prove a rising number of older city dwellers - those people 'of a certain age'  moving into urban settings. The implications are vast when demands for housing and services are taken into consideration since more of us are growing older in greater numbers than ever.

Ever onward with the Samaritan spirit, New York style, as caught by CBS-TV when a woman who got dragged under an SUV on a busy Broadway street recently was rescued at once by dozens of strangers coming together to lift the car high enough to free her. She was pictured immediately afterward, on her back using a cell phone. Calling an ambulance maybe?
A day or so later another woman  sitting alone late morning in a subway car at a lower Manhattan station was assaulted by a man who grabbed the cellphone in her hand. and ran off. She followed, yelling , but to no avail. A passerby saw her and called 911 at once, without having to bother asking what had happened.

In Case You Missed It Department:
Though the subject applies to anyone driving any kind of vehicle on any road in these United States...from Smithsonian magazine for March 2020. How it happened that we Americans drive on the right side of the road  with the steering wheel on the left when, in yesteryear before automobiles became a necessity and not an extravagance, the wheel was on the right-hand side (and drivers stayed on the right side of the road).
According to a curator of road transportation at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History (who would have thought such a title existed), the Ford Model T was responsible in 1909. The idea was to allow passengers better exit at the curb and give drivers better views of oncoming traffic. The history of what and why, says Roger White in the magazine's blurb upfront answering reader questions, goes back to pre-automobile era year 1792 when the new Pennsylvania turnpike required buggy or wagon drivers to keep right. Presumably for orderly behavior on public land. New York City only in the early 1900s is said to have instituted the world's (!) first traffic code. Kudos to historians who keep us duly informed!

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

What Is DC Culture

                    That was the question the 21-year-old graduating student at San Diego State had to find out for herself. Born in Colorado, A. (to allow her some privacy) never had much reason to visit, much less live, in an East Coast city. The U.S. capital was likely to provide more than the usual  urban challenge. She knew that, and she also knew that - in her words - "I could afford to try anything for one year." The problem for the young AmericaCorps teaching assistant was to stick the course, once she knew exactly what she was up against.
                      DC public schools are enormously complex, based in large part on the city's geography. The majority (African American) of its citizens reside across the Anacostia River, a strict divide both in income  levels and topography - factors of history and economics (a way not to mention racial prejudice through the years). The neighborhoods east of the river have tribes of their own - often, she found out, based simply on  where a person lived. Boundaries can be staked out in defensive mode, strictly because 'being different' is dangerous. Being different in skin color and different ivy a street number. Taking refuge as cover for slights elsewhere.
                        She never had thought of becoming an education professional (her mother is  an elementary school teacher in Colorado). She was an international business major with thoughts of somehow eventually getting a job in the non profit sector. Striving daily up front and personal with  a small team of other paid assistants like her to help middle school students would teach her lessons she hadn't anticipated - such as how to react when fights break out on school grounds. The worst one she witnessed was between the mother of a student and her daughter's classmate. The daughter had lost a fight a day earlier with another student so the mother got friends to come with her to beat up the 'winner.'
                    She'll work hard by whatever means possible just to get a young student to apply his talent - 'and they are really bright talented kids" - so he can move on to the next level. To get him up to C level, to keep him interested in subject matter - in anything. "So many parents are young and disadvantaged themselves. There are children having children." Sure, support staff is impressive at the school but A's job - which includes free Metro pass and food stamps  - isn't one that can be described except within context of particular classes and children. She and her cohorts, who include young people of color, receive several weeks' training in advance of the school year. But how to prepare for the ten-hour days full of stress and frustration over what can't be readily controlled.

                      The usual explanation for the term DC Culture is Go Go - hip hop and rap combined. Joyous upbeat vocal and physical manifestations of  energy. But there is a dark (often held to be derogatory ) side too often overlooked where problems exist that can take months, even years, to solve.

Monday, January 20, 2020


        Yes, I know, escapery is not an everyday word. Webster explains it as as "a garden plant or pet animal that has gone wild and (especially in plantsbecome naturalized."  Dare we apply it elsewhere, in other forms? 

. Its sound has a slight derogatory relation to the more established 'frippery' - as in a frivolous motion or action of little or no consequence. Let the imagination ponder possibilities - that this word could have real bearing, and need, given today's ponderous momentous political chicanery taking place in our midst. And no more so than in Washington, D.C. where actions of consequence hang heavy upon a largely frustrated populace. More than ever, citizens here - and far - attuned to daily miseries of the world order require diligent escape modes. I.E. escapery, which is lightening the load on your conscience by practicing pure enjoyment as either active or passive participant.

         Films of late have been (Fred Rogers the exception) somewhat down, however sanctified by raising consciousness of viewers, or outright insulting with their concentration on violence.
It's time to revolt and seek out pleasures such as one being offered this month and next (until March 1) at Folger Theatre and its sublime presentation of one of Shakespeare's shallow comedies - The Merry Wives of Windsor. It's not the shallow side that is so compelling - in fact, one can make the case for the play as a moral lesson in how not to treat your fellow man and woman, especially women - but the thrilling adaptation of a 15th century play into a 1970s romp.  There are familiar costumes, original music, top flight actors - a total delight. Live theater at its best, complete with last minute substitution one recent evening by an understudy for one of the production's main characters. (His first time actually playing the role.)

         Ah the show must go on and the world is a better place for it.But if theater isn't your thing, consider more participatory actions of escape. Try roller skating at one of the city's indoor rinks. Or curling during public hours at The Wharf. Immerse yourself into offbeat corners of the Smithsonian and who knows what surprises may await you.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Urbanist As a Title

Just thinking, how often the word urbanist gets tossed around and how vague is the reference.  Doubtless it applies to someone able to make a living writing about or directing studies of city life. But also a city planner,  trained in bureaucracy? Even a dim association with the concept/character of the flaneur ?(yes, I know, odd French word and not used often in everyday discourse....the person who loves walking around, suggesting a superficial somebody  who lives for him or herself alone).
To know an 'urbanist' ,  someone who refers to him/herself that way is rare, and unfortunately one of these souls recently passed away  at age 87 in Washington, D.C. He was Neal R. Peirce, an 'urban affairs columnist," as the New York Times obit calls him. He was a full fledged fully qualified reporter on metropolitan affairs, state and local, committed to the notion that cities can reinvent themselves, that politics is not always dirty. Especially if the nonprofit sector is involved. Wisely, he made sure to get experience early on as legislative aide to a Congressman so to learn firsthand about government from the top down.
Reading a short report on his life I reflected how the so-called urbanist also could refer to people who love walking city streets, often with no particular goal. The opportunity to observe what isn't readily seen from car windows. Purple pansies blooming  in winter. The layout of bricks on a sidewalk - how and why a certain design applied, and how much better the idea of a design can be.  Taking in whatever is on view through windows of buildings. Reflecting on the existence and variety of finials. What ever they are...
Of course to do this requires fortitude:  putting away the phone, forgetting your own and other people's existence - at least for a while.