Monday, May 6, 2019

Love's Labor Never Lost





DC citizens, unite. If not, you have nothing to lose but your sense of humor - the most valuable armor you possess these days.
The current production of Shakespeare's early comedy on the intimate Folger Shakespeare Library stage is beguiling enough to shake off - temporarily anyway - any gloom caused by ongoing political hijinks in the capitol. Vivienne Benesch, making her directorial debut, has  produced a thoroughly engaging show (running through June 9). Her initial impulse - to use as the setting a model of the august building's  much -vaunted reading room. Wherein  a play takes place within the play -- and a lot of fast paced repartee between characters sumptuously dressed in 1930s attire.  The Folger was built during the Great Depression, hence the director's inspiration to 'copy' a serious interior space.
No labor was spared in setting forth an entertaining spectacle, in vaudevillian style. Send your angst-ridden teenage children to get them out of their navel gazing. Turn their sights onto these articulate and agile actors in peak form. Nothing lost, everything gained in the process.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Civitas: Manners for a Modern Age



 Civility as it's commonly understood - behavior that goes beyond 'good manners'- is linked to civic life. Consider what is  the meaning of 'citizen's responsibility.' Not just the matter of voting-as-privilege (why isn't voting mandatory in this country anyway?) but in everyday occasions that mostly go unnoticed because they are perceived as minor. The little courtesies that mean a lot, but which help in some way to bring people together, reminding them (us) of community and its value.

Yes, this is a theme that columnist David Brooks has taken up of late. I maintain I have been mulling the subject over far longer.

Consider those people who voluntarily stand to give a seat to a lame, pregnant or much older (obvious signs are obvious!) passenger on a bus or subway and do so with no ostentation, not even the expectation of  'thank you.' Those automobile drivers who stay watchful about the behavior - not only moves - of other drivers around them. Who  give a smile, a nod, or a wave when they (we) get a signal to  pull ahead in a line of traffic.  Doesn't that help relieve the stress of congestion in a simple way - a quick connection between strangers who are at that moment in confined space, frustrated and powerless?

The effort to reach out, even silently,  to an impatient driver in your path, or beside it,  helps prevent an accident - possibly to your own car. Altruism, while stoic, also has its selfish side. Helps make you - the saintly one - so that much better a person, or make you feel a superior one.  A spontaneous gesture is its own reward at times.

Strange how some people refuse to recognize - yes, see - the existence of strangers in public places, especially  crowded spaces. Surely, the effort to acknowledge that everyone is in 'it' together has a positive effect, even a downright practical one.That extra large backpack that a fellow passenger is carrying while he/she is reading a cell phone can be a huge nuisance in a tight space. For the bearer not to be aware of this is rude because invariably that innate object will collide with an irritated animate being.

What about those double, maybe even triple, seat baby carriages taking up all that room on the sidewalk? What's protocol? Should the baby minder give way to the lone pedestrian in his/her path?  At least show some sign of embarrassment that such a vehicle is  something of an obstruction and offer a modest but humble acknowledgment of that fact? Stop the carriage long enough for the pedestrian to pass?

Then there are those infernal bikes blitzing  along with the scooters that almost literally sail by the  hapless two-footed  creature minding his/her own business and hoping not to have to hop (yes) out of their way. What can be done to them except to try putting out a stick, a cane, or some immovable object  that might visibly deter them? But that wouldn't be very civil, would it?

The  subject  on the table at a Mother's Day gathering I attended was civility, with a small c.  I had just come from watching  "Knock Down the House," a documentary about the efforts of four public-spirited female candidates gunning for U.S. House seats in the last election, only one of whom - the now famous "A.O.C" - won. The film rightly but not exclusively highlighted her campaign and how she took on the longtime Congressman in her district with seniority who never before had been challenged in a Democratic primary. (This was New York, where the primary winner is almost always assured of a seat.) The older  white incumbent exhibited obvious bad manners: not showing up for a debate early on, rarely bestowing 'thanks' on a public he was courting (and counting on), or even seeming to listen to them. AOC on the hustings was impeccably generous with her time and emotions, holding nothing back in  her ability to connect with people in their homes or on the street. She was social media savvy to be sure, but in-your-face contact was even more effective. Polls showed her opponent in the lead. So much for media polling.

These are indeed strange times concerning 'proper' usage of communication paths along the  nearly unfathomable internet road. Who is to say what are the rules? To text or not to text, when and why, versus emails that can pile up by the hundreds every day without blocking devices that may or may not be effective. Does the texting person expect an imminent response just because he/she chose that method? Doesn't this put unreal pressure on someone to constantly monitor the phone for messages?  What is sanity in the worldwide digital revolution taking place around us?

 Plenty enough has been written to date about digital natives versus the so-called laggards or 'immigrants' trying to catch up.  Technology as the enemy has suddenly taken hold.
Enough so that books (yes, print) are being published about the advantage of not paying heed to the fast tracking overwhelming stream of words coming at us every microsecond. The need to sometimes be silent, to turn off the machines, to let the mind re-create on its own. Not to put up a wall but to put one's own sanity in first place.  Its a paradox for sure, but didn't the tortoise win over the hare in that fabled race?

Society is just  now is tackling issues on Facebook about what constitutes privacy and who decides. If that isn't a question of manners, I don't know what is.




Saturday, April 27, 2019

Further Thoughts on Urban Angst



A former head of a formerly ranked top Washington museum is asked why he chose to stay in the city after leaving his director's post. He is a New Yorker by birth and inclination and, presumably, could have settled anywhere he chose. His ties to New York still are solid. He pauses for quite a while, then answers 'Washington is exotic.' Hardly the most common qualifying statement about out capital city. What can he possibly mean - apart from the presence of so many international representatives in residence, offering a multitude of cultural choices for anyone so inclined to seek them out?
"Trees," he says.
Surprise but no surprise. A favorite slogan of DC is 'city of trees,' that by contrast with Manhattan streets he points out, is true. Of course he happens to live in one of the most leafy upscale sections of the city, well away from commercial invaders. He tries to explain how he does miss the intellectual life of New York, as he knew it well and then dismisses that city by saying "it's all business." Yes, the financial capitol of the world, a haven for the moneyed rich, squeezing out anyone with less than a million to spare.
Take your compliments any way they are given.
A recent survey published last December found that, while Americans are more and more driven to life in urban areas, at heart they hanker for rural enclaves. Jobs and other necessities create cities. Rural life offers solitude - privacy. A conundrum. By rural, they mean rustic - not the suburbs. Quixotic - hah, exotic! - this yearning for what might have been or could be. Typically the restless populace, a storied tribe in our still young history. Always washing for what might have been or could be. Pushing westward for escape.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Back and Forth



    To travel between big city and little city (a town?) within the short period of  a week,  invites comparisons that may be  shallow but  inevitable.
    City mouse, country mouse,  I go between Washington, D.C. (730,000 more or less) and Billings, (109,000 and growing) several times a year to see family. Each visit brings to the fore an ever sharper sense of contrast, large and small, between two worlds. The move requires wearing a mask in each place - the comic one, that shows both a happy and sad face.   Billings, the largest city in Montana, is composed mainly of casinos, banks and shopping malls, (one of which is home to a "Christian Automotive" garage).
    Washington, by comparison,  at least the part I inhabit, is given over to monuments, offices, and - surprisingly  - trees.It's nickname is, in fact, City of Trees. Nary an obtruding neon sign.  Commerce is undercut by convention. And if excess curiosity and courtesy  among strangers is rare, it does happen sometimes on the subway (Metro) when the offer of a seat is made to an obviously old or pregnant woman. The New York subway exists to entertain. There is no shame in staring, no crime in making noise. Panhandlers alight at several stops, with or without instruments.
    In Billings I am given a friendly and totally unexpected "thanks for coming" from one of the attendants in the vast Goodwill store where I've gone to look for a used lamp. When my car overheats to a dangerous degree on a downtown street, a Mexican-American woman rushes out of a nearby restaurant to offer me a jug of water and finds on the spot - her husband, possibly - a mechanic to assess the situation. He is sure that I've sprung a leak in a hose that he can't quite find and urges me not to drive in case I harm the engine. The car is 20 years old with 120,000 or more miles on it but worth saving. The woman, who may be the owner of the restaurant I spy outside the film theater, tells me to keep the jug. When I attempt to pay the mechanic, he waves me off and walks away with a warning to watch the heating gauge. Delayed, I go inside to see a movie halfway through and the ticket taker tells me not to bother paying and suggests I stay after the intermission for the second half of the feature.
    A Billings' Lyft driver is a fair weather construction worker with a specialty in roof repair. "People here are mean," he says giving as an example the indifference of citizenry to others down on their luck. He mentions the sick man on a sidewalk whom he one time tried to help by hailing passing cars.  And what can explain the sight of casino parking lots full of cars every afternoon but an emptiness, a longing for company at whatever price? More suicides in Montana than almost anywhere else, I read.
   Washington offers a bustling street life as substitute for a social life every person needs.
 Then consider the metropolis - New York. Teeming masses in the millions yet somehow. possibly because of vast numbers, individuals often strive  to connect  on the spot.   Two minutes out of Pennsylvania Station recently, I was standing around noon near a bus stop leaning out into the street to see if my bus was coming. "You waiting for the M120," I heard a woman say to me. Maybe she just wished to confirm that she would have company on the bus. Maybe she wanted to help a stranger, as often happens there in public.  I felt instantly in tune with the rhythm of the street, overrun that time of day with hungry citizens. This would be no less the case inside the train station  when I was leaving. A man waiting for a track signal to come up on the board was observing the scene beside me - the ultimate diverse parade  that included an aggressive panhandler whose efforts soliciting were in vain. We stood together, watching the action and commenting back and forth on whether he would score. Then our track was announced and we hurried off separately to get in line for our train back to DC.
     

Friday, March 22, 2019

Gung Ho to the Galapagos




        The New York Times' travel section on Sunday Feb. 10  mixed editorial opinion along with a single writer's impressions of the fragile semi-protected world of the Galapagos - those wildly diverse idyllic islands some 600 miles off Ecuador's western shore. The writer implies that a crisis is brewing there - dangers to the habitat brought on by careless tourists and overseers, though who really is at fault is difficult to determine without more thorough analysis.
        I visited for a week in mid-January with a small group of eight on a catamaran that carried a lively crew of six or more, in addition to an expertly trained guide who displayed our daily schedule on a bulletin board much like would happen at any well organized training facility. This was vacation but it was more pointedly education with side indulgences like swimming and kayaking. Weather seldom interrupted the plan. As an example of much-ballyhooed luxury ecotourism, the time spent could not have been better overall.
       We even have a chef talented and humorous enough to carve for each dinner buffet table the replica of a familiar icon (Mickey Mouse) or aquatic animal out of fruit and vegetables.
But when a friend inquired casually what were the strongest impressions I had of Ecuador - the group had on the previous week been transported by canoe to an indigenous-run resort located in the Amazon river basin - I had to confess most of the recurrent images in my memory were of that expedition. Maybe because signs were evident in Galapagos of the country's strong effort to preserve the islands character by limiting visitor numbers to some extent - charging $100 each - and restricting carefully the movements of boats (and ships) to anchorages.

 Momma and her baby sea lion on the beach. Offspring can nurse 10 years or more.

In each place we were incontrovertibly 'far away from civilization,' enjoying the comforts of home while exposed to the most 'exotic' of primitive sites. Somehow, traveling upstream in a motorized gondola on one of the Amazon''s largest tributaries, we also were exposed to the pernicious invasion of industry and made to see inroads of commerce - oil extraction basically - on the shoreline. The ever increasing danger that indigenous culture will be wiped out - those that don't 'conform' to civilization's greed.
Galapagos is symbol of a wilderness contained - so far. Our adventure inland was a reminder of the conflict ahead for a country - the smallest democracy in South America. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Close Encounters Of A Special Kind




Maybe it could only happen in Washington DC, that self-styled bastion of international cognizance.
Dutiful volunteers assisting a State Dept. funded program bringing young people from former Soviet Republic countries to live for a year in the US are listening to a feisty woman student from Romania say that one of her favorite memories of Albuquerque, New Mexico, had to do with rugby.

Of all things. Maybe the audience expected to hear about the glories of the sunset.

It had to do with her playing rugby on a high school team and what that taught her about teamwork. "It's not about being rough," she says emphatically. "You learn skills."

Maybe no one even imagined that rugby for women was being offered today in US high schools. In any event, it was easy to see that the sturdy well spoken  self-confident woman had taken full advantage of her time in the US.

She also learned a lot about this country, she said,  from taking a class in American feminism (how many knew it was a subject?) when asked what else inspired her to advocate for women's rights so publicly on returning home  to Romania? She ended up being nominated by the U.S. Embassy for a 'woman leader of the year' award.

Which she didn't dare tell her parents about, and almost didn't tell them at all about many of her other empowering activities on her return, even though she still lives at home. Maybe she will and maybe she won't.

"Well, you have to understand I come from a military family. Very conservative. They may not understand." Her family didn't even know until the last minute that she had won the scholarship to live with an American family of strangers in the West. She worried they might think it was dangerous since for them, there was a war on everywhere and probably that was happening in America too.

"When I tell them, they have to agree that it was a done thing."

She had first been  exposed to such @metoo ideas from the  galvanizing women's march of 2017 that brought women together all over the world to stand up for their rights. Back home she was attacked and vilified; the backlash against her efforts was strong and even extended to her family.

She stood firm, unruffled, and decided on  a pragmatic tack. "Well from the bad comes the good. I got a lot of publicity out of it and that helped what I was ultimately trying to do," she said.

Sometimes a person can learn more about his or her own country by listening to a foreigner living there.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Check out Folger Theatre in DC this month for a comedic escape

The latest work on this stage is an energetic reenactment of the life of 17th century heroine  Nell Gwynn, a new role model for our time.
 Move over, Nancy Pelosi.
"Heroine" from Webster: 'a woman admired and emulated for her achievements and qualities..." Also a "legendary woman ...having great strength or ability."
 Recall, if you will, that this woman was famously a prostitute and later an actor who became mistress to a king of England. She was also famously perhaps the first woman of her time to perform female roles on stage previously all done by men. Actors at the time were considered lesser folk all around. The talent and spunk - there can be no better word - of ingenue Nell provoked a revolution. Her antics were legendary indeed. She succeeded through her wits and wiles to be a decisive influence on England in that long ago century.
Playwright Jessica Swale and director Robert Richmond have turned her story into a comedic romp: the acting is uplifting in every sense. The performance provides a perfect escape from the dreary politics of our time and the performance of Alison Luff as Nell will lighten your heart.
True, Speaker Pelosi's rise to prominence came up through a far different route. She was an educated  woman,and some might say' indoctrinated' into politics by her mentor father.  Whereas Nell, if history books are to be believed, was a 'My Fair Lady' find - diamond in the rough discovered on the streets of London by a member of a leading acting troupe. Both women, I bet, knew early on how to get the best of men. As the Folger drama shows, gestures matter as does a subtle mind at work conniving for advantage. And sometimes broad vaudevillian antics play well, too.