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.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

'Coming of Age...'

 Becoming 84 on the charts is difficult to believe, embarrassing to relate. At this stage of life, I suppose I should be researching nursing homes, if not actually residing in one. The actuarial tables are against me. More likely I should be dead as so many are  when coming into their 8th and 9th decades. How can I explain why I own the number but most days want to disown it because I feel only half that age.? The world does not want me or expect me to be alive.
"You're 84? Impossible," said a young woman at a party recently, "You look 70." She thought she was giving me a compliment.
I could have protested, argued, insisted I really did not feel 70 although I suppose I looked all of 70 and more in her eyes.
What does 70 look like? In her eyes and in others?
What does 84 mean - really?
How can people survive to what is described as 'a ripe old age'? Don't ask anyone who fills the bill. Was it not ever having had (please, lord, don't listen)  to spend time in a hospital for some organ failure or bone break? Was/is it all a lucky break in the gene pool? I tripped yesterday on an upturned brick and my ankle wiggled..oh so worryingly that I thought at once (before going upright again) of the pair of    in the gazebo. Would that be my fate? And end a planned vacation in Hawaii?
The luck of the draw. Someone (and plenty others have done it) has to challenge the charts.
Keeping enemy bugs (viruses, etc.) at bay is  beyond most people's control. We're always being reminded that the enemy is all around us, especially on door and toilet handles, the sneeze in the subway, the over-extended shelf life.
That's me - over-extended, not quite sure of my place.  Because I cannot  really function as a 42 year old, given some inevitable decline - whether environmental or self-inflicted. I must remind myself of daily failings - names of people and places coming and going in an out of instant recall; the eyes resisting driving a car alone at night in unfamiliar terrain; the thinning skin that can't be easily repaired.
Ah, please, end such foolish meandering with a few boring snoring rules. Tell some tales out of school. Admit that I didn't plan much in my life, got caught up in too many good moments, had no role models to speak of. But I caught on to Pilates before it was too late to care - in my 70s - building on earlier efforts at strenuous exercise, divining that such habits are good. I only drink good coffee and refuse foul tasting spirits (but not expensive ones). Read at length without guilt. Try to do one favor for somebody  a day. Look left and right on street corners. Watch out for loose bricks.

 Found myself entangled with wire fencing that had blown across the brick walk right outside my front gate. recently. What could have ensued would have been  disaster but I somehow managed to steady myself, not to fall,  breathe deep and thank the gods watching over.
Age is just a number - famously said by Joe Biden on his endless trail to claim another title.  So what DOES make 84 seem more ominous than any other?  Shades of George Orwell ("1984")? The harsh sound of 'four' ? A belated need to update one's personal slightly imperfect and probably distorted image of oneself?

Sunday, December 29, 2019

A Dawdle Day

 Call it an unsentimental journey, tripping around Manhattan at New Year's end, looking past and thinking forward. There is no reason these days to suppose the scene has changed much on in decades the subway. Except  still maybe an occasioal throwback to times when a sense of community was uppermost and mattered. When the perennial inward look of subway patrons was never without cognizance of Those Others around them in the metal tube sweeping them upwards and onwards in  their journey. Still, early on the night of December 29, 2019, somewhere along the northbound IRT #1 from Penn Station to upper west side, a weary shape of a man, eyes closed,  bent over in a seat with a long white chord extending from his ear. He could be asleep, unconscious or otherwise out of touch except for an iPhone/smartphone connecting to the world. He is immobile,  shoulders bent, seemingly lost to strangers around him. Otherwise, how would he not know the phone had slipped to the floor of the car.  He doesn't notice until a stranger in a seat opposite him leans over to touch him on the shoulder, to alert him in to the fact that he has put his phone/iPod in danger. The man looks up in alarm, then gives a nod and a smile of thanks. The exchange is momentary, unheralded. Maybe unexpected, but valued. No further recognition necessary: I'd do it for me if  you had found me in the same position.

Strangers in the city hide behind a facade of indifference until challenged for a reason, I conclude.
It's easy to engage, but one has to be prepared to reciprocate in some measure.
I ask at the Joyce Theater (strictly dance performances) why so many security guards are around at the show, on the outside mainly but possibly also in the lobby. Everywhere these days patrons are asked to  uncover the insides of their shoulder bags and purses. (Heaven forbid they should have backpacks, which have to be stored.) I ask one of the casually garbed guardians why it seems to be more of a custom than in Washington, DC., where I've come. He says = offhandedly - "we're more high strung."

Friday, December 13, 2019

Great and Lesser Divides

           Much is made of  late about political and social divisions in American life  - old/young, rich/poor, red/blue, etc. The long standing rural/urban  categorization is  real, too and may go back even further in our history. A recent experience inside a Washington public high school made me see how   such labels can be subdivided, even turned upside down. This happened to me as a volunteer in a program called Writers In Schools run by the prestigious PEN/Faulkner organization (a nonprofit) associated with Washington, D.C.'s Folger Library. The program invites published authors to read and speak to small groups, at the invitation of individual school authorities. It also occasionally offers help to students writing the personal application essay usually required for entrance into another, possibly more highly rated  public school, or for college. Students willing to enter their essay in a competition sponsored by the PEN chapter might find themselves winner of a $100 for the one judged best among the submissions.
           Locals know how real is the split among the District's Wards in terms of income and educational opportunities. Overall, one half of all public  school children in DC are said to be 'at risk,' requiring help of some kind (food stamps, housing, etc),  17 percent  of whom are 'special needs' children having either physical or mental (emotional?) handicaps. Going into a class of 11th grade essay writers in  newly established high school in the area across the  Anacostia River (Wards 7 and 8), I had little notion of some of the very real everyday barriers the students face in light of those dismaying statistics. Barriers that are individual, sometimes familial.
            For an exercise intended to get students to express feelings on paper, they were asked to write  out nonstop in longhand or by computer about a conflict in their lives and how they had or were trying to overcome it. The idea being, of course, a way for admissions counselors to know a student's character in a positive light. How much gumption and determination they had. Their degree of maturity.
           Anacostia is full of rolling hills and an abundance of trees - topography often associated more with suburbs and small towns  than with a bustling urban milieu that downtown Washington represents. Restaurants, groceries, stores of any kind are far-flung. Streets and sidewalks generally are devoid of people in the middle of the day. Any notion of 'community' is difficult  for a stranger to comprehend. I had to stretch my own imagination to understand how a young woman could write - and then explain to me in a private session - how her parents  simply do not understand digital communication - can not see why she isn't able to write school papers in longhand the way "they always did." How  the parents will have nothing to do with computers, and, further, that she had no concept of anyone in their 60s (her definition) ever using a computer.
              "Do people over 65 use computers?" she asked me.
              This is within a few miles of one of the most highly computerized governments in the world.
               She said she had had a summer job to earn money to buy herself a modest computer and now struggled in the essay how to tell about the life she is living inside her home  as student that consumed most of her days - one whose expectations and requirements were beyond what her family would understand. She had  a challenge: to show her  interests and initiative without undermining either her respect for or relationships with her parents. The split, and possible shame, was keeping her from writing what could be one of the best and most important essays of her life. Might it help her get into the college of her choice, set her on a path of her own?
                If she seemed 'naive' about such matters, I could be considered equally innocent. Why would I assume she had contact with older people outside her own milieu? Is it possible, I wondered, that she never had been associated with such people and perhaps even had not ventured often, if ever, into the city itself?  There was no fundamental religious issue behind her parents' viewpoint, she said; it was simply their own disapproval of a fast-changing world - the one that would undoubtedly require their daughter to embrace one way or another.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Women On the Rise


   Yes, they have risen all the way to the top in one of Washington DC's most treasured and historic institutions - the Smithsonian. All cheers, to find now how many  of the most fabled  buildings in the city have women directors.
    Count them: Air & Space, National Museum of American History, Museum of American Art  and the Renwick Gallery (teamed), the National Portrait Gallery, and National Gallery of Art (which is part federal and part private), the US Botanic Garden and director of the Smithsonian Gardens.
I( may have missed a few, but a program at the Portrait Gallery on 12/17 is highlighting such leadership with a public roundtable session honoring Women Leaders at the Smithsonian alone.
     Not only in renown government centers are women making their mark. The new chairman of the National Geographic Society, headquartered in down town DC, is Jean Case - first such female to hold the job. It's probably no accident that she comes out of the ever encroaching digital world, having had a hand in making AOL (remember that one?) popular in the early internet age.
      Note, too, the recent announcement that the"former CIA official" who has just been named second person in charge at the Smithsonian's central office is a woman. She is Meroe Park, the first deputy head to be named in many years and the first major hire under Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III, founder of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.