Sunday, April 8, 2018

Lyfting on 4/7/18

Among the more rewarding happenstance encounters in Washington are conversations with Lyft/Uber drivers who appear like magic on the digital grid at one's bidding (most of the time). The names on your screen are a hint of sorts of their origin, but often the names are too inscrutable to be real clues.  The young father of two who responded to my call on early Saturday evening turned out to be from Afghanistan - a place I had lived for several months in 2009. Beyond that tiny fact, we had little in common but sympathy for a country under perpetual siege. He had been an interpreter for the U.S. Marines for 7 years, both in the field and in office jobs, before obtaining a visa to settle in this country in a small town an hour outside Washington, with his Afghan wife. (I can't give his name since I did not ask his permission.)  His day job was with Coca Cola  - up from driving trucks to working in an office -  but he had done the gamut of 'recent refugee' jobs, mostly menial ones, such as helping care for developmentally disabled children aboard school buses. Strapping them in, being sure they are safe, etc. That was only one of a list he rattled off before he told of his time alongside the Marines living in some of the most critically engaged provinces, fighting the Taliban and Isis. He was Hazara, the 'despised minority' in the eyes of the dominant Pashto tribe. He had only three years of formal schooling but somehow managed to learn English, Urdu, and Pashto along the way. His wife had taken odd jobs that required little English speaking ability before their second child was born, a daughter. He drove for Lyft and Uber on Saturday, spending Sunday with his family.  They speak Dari at home while his three year old son is learning English from cartoons on TV. His small Toyota was new. A practicing Muslim, he had no complaints about how his religion was viewed in this country but he deplored attitudes he sees on television. His time with the Marines showed him how little religion really mattered when he came to getting along. "Jews, Christians, it wasn't important.  We looked out for one another."






Thursday, March 22, 2018

Washington ladies lunching well

   On an obnoxiously weary first day of spring, several dozen women and a few men gathered for a reception, program and lunch at what is believed to be the largest private estate in Washington, DC. proper. Which is, surprise, the Peruvian Embassy - some 24 hilly acres in the District's Northwest, with an open gate and driveway leading slowly to a handsome mansion containing splendid examples of that country's art. forms: painting, pottery, textiles.  Why surprise? Because in the hurly-burly of social-diplomatic Washington, with nearly 200 such entities competing for attention, whoever thinks about Peru? Shamefully enough, whoever spends much time at all pondering South America, our  prominent Southern neighbor and how one of its countries owns so much handsome property?The event was a goodwill assembly: the PEN/Faulkner Founding Friends, a Folger institution-based nonprofit that, among other  projects, supports writer visits to DC public schools. Peruvian-born author/ critic/editor Marie Arana was featured - discoursing  Q&A fashion on her life and work at the behest of the Ambassador's wife Consuelo Salinas Pareja. Toughest question: explain differences and likenesses between so-called Latin and Western temperament and character. Marie Arana hedged, fudging a bit, saying the answer could best be found in her latest book, 'Bolivar,' about the complicated, controversial South American 'liberator.' Latin America "has brought so much to the world," she pleaded in an elegantly polite manner.No one present  offered a challenge.
"Is anyone here a writer?" asked a supremely well-groomed woman seated at one of the round tables set up in the glass-enclosed patio for  a buffet lunch.  (meat, corn, potatoes basically) A tall modest man in the group did somewhat reluctantly manage to confess he wrote in the line of duty: he had been a negotiator under several presidents dealing with such foreign governments as North Korea. Thus does politics in many guises inform and energize - ah, even dominate - the social side of Washington.A city often dedicated to navel-gazing. At that moment, an upheaval  of sorts was taking place in Peruvian government politics taking place: the likely impeachment of the country's president and what that would mean for its citizens. It never figured in the conversation.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Trader Joe continued

Of course this fine retail establishment tries to be upright and careful about how it takes responsibility for products it sells. Nothing is made by them but nearly everything is labeled by them. Contracted out.
'Trader Joe's Chicken Tikka Masala'.  (gluten free, if you care to note).
A well documented box of Indian spiced chicken pieces (so few!) in a partition next to the "cumin-flavored basmati rice" ( I quote from the box).  Made for a single serving. Calories 360 of which half come from Fat, also plainly stated.) The sodium content is way up . List of ingredients are over the top, and few are visible on the plate.
Adjectives abound, the worst of which  is 'robust" - don't we see this everywhere today in political analyses. Here it goes with Robust Cream Sauce (though really not very far up on listing of ingredients).

My gripe is that a pretty package does not prepare one for a disappointing meal. Serving size is for a single but surely not anyone with an appetite. The rice has a few flecks of the promised cumin. I pick and swallow. I have a feeling of fulness if not of satisfaction. The box will go directly into the trash  -cardboard with plastic, and I'll be pleased to have had a bit of protein in my system, plus the exalted (tiny) bit of turmeric (way down on the list). I'll call it dinner, more or less.

Friday, March 2, 2018

"New City' - What It Might Be



 Always a good topic for discussion. Extremely current in light of  unending squabbles over gentrification, traffic congestion, restoration and preservation issues. A New York Times essay  on Sunday February 25 took it on anew under the headline -Tech Eyes the Ultimate Start-Up: An Entire City. Utopian city building as only the talented Silicon Valley upstarts can imagine it. Worthwhile in every way as exploration if not illumination, beginning with admissions that  such schemes in the past rarely have succeeded. Every solution is a contradiction.  So Uber and other ride-sharing operations might start to work as delivery services, hand in hand with Amazon Prime.  Does that mean fewer people using their cars as delivery vans and thus takes more vehicles off the streets?
Or will that simply expand the number that clog arteries everywhere?

Another somewhat related article to recommend. An essay commenting on two books about Istanbul, in Feb. 22nd issue of New York Review of Books. All about the many quirks and wonders of that most incredible city, crossroads of two continents (Asia and Europe) and religions (Christian and Muslim), between two civilizations as well if East and West can be summarized so neatly.  A troubled place under its current leader/self-style sultan Racep Tayyip Erdogan whose latest scheme is to build this year a new $10 billion canal across the Bosphorus - how such  a project is both far-reaching and backward looking.  He already has managed to dig for an underwater tunnel across the Bosphorus. And always the story of a great migration building up a city - Turks from the countryside.

Some gorgeous city views figure as backdrop to a recent  violence-soaked movie  - 'Red Sparrow,' notably a few splendid hotel interiors and street scenes in London, Moscow and Budapest. But none of the exteriors make up for what seems like gross and gratuitous murder and mayhem in the plot. The only, slimmest excuse is  to show women characters behaving both absurdly well and badly - usually at the behest of men.  

Monday, January 15, 2018

DC the 'new' dining metropolis, etc.; an update on trends

The greater Washington area of late has been heralded as a major theater destination - witness the growing number of companies offering live entertainment on stages large and small. This was said to mirror the town as a 'vibrant' arts center, though much of this reputation stems from the existence of such  institutions of merit as the Smithsonian, the Corcoran and the Philips. But wait - look at recent developments : Discovery's plans to relocate from Silver Spring, Md., to New York; the sale of National Geographic's downtown headquarters.  Arts in a broad sense, claiming a local presence, seems to be declining. The Corcoran, of course, shut down years ago and merged uneasily with George Washington University. Few people ever felt pride and even claimed much participation in National Geographic - nothing compared to the loyalty inspired by the Nationals baseball team.

Another trend, often remarked upon, could be the emergence of DC (especially inner city and close-in suburbs) as a dining destination. Chefs are the new celebrities, replacing even politicians in their ability to capture audiences 'voters' competing for places at increasingly upscale tables.  How else explain a January 18, 2018, event called 'Live in D.C. With the New York Times' advertised in a full-length page, focused on current stars of the edible firmament in discussion of  - what else? - 'The Future of Restaurants.'
 Jose Andres (Puerto Rico's helpmate), New York's Danny Meyer (of a soon-to-be Union Square Cafe location), and local-boy-made-good Aaron Silverman. (The latter's empire is growing and who knows where next he might expand - a TV show, a documentary, etc.,  offshore sites beyond three stellar Capitol Hill emporiums that started with fabled Rose's Luxury?)

Notably current, too, in line with this sold-out ninety-minute show is the Women's Voices Theater Festival happening in Washington that has Hollywood's own Allison Janney (she of the Golden Globes win) as honorary chair.  Three cheers for inspirational experiences such as Mosaic's one-woman "Queens Girl in Africa" starring Erika Rose and  Folger Shakespeare's update of the Way of the World.'  Writer-director Theresa Rebeck does a no-holds-barred revision to bring contemporary events into the classic Restoration comedy. (Drinks rather than food play a minor role, featuring celebrity cocktail lure of the moment.)  How curious to see an insert in Folger's program an auxiliary offering on three Friday nights of the Festival hosted by Chef Jamie Leeds after 10 p.m. at Hank's Oyster Bar in Dupont Circle. "Stimulating conversation, drink specials, and appetizers" -  and a chance to "mix and mingle' with Festival casts and crews.
Eat your heart out. That's the new way of Washington's old world.

Speaking out is certainly trendy, too, especially among women whose versatile multiple voices were heard across the ages during the festival. Doubtless, the youngest among them were the teenage  characters portrayed in Studio Theatre's sold-out production of "The Wolves."  The  ribald talk-a-thon was a captivating show of emotional split ends, the enduring angst of late adolescence. A hip-hop over-the-top representation of a team of high school indoor soccer players by playwright Sarah Delappe at just one of 25 theaters in the region taking part this year in the month-long festival. The cast not only had to learn fast-paced lines but learn to stay within artificial turf lines that separated them from the audience seated on either side of the 'field.' Only one member ever had played the game before so the University of Maryland women's team pitched in as coach.  Skills that acting school never taught you...dribbling a ball with your feet while your mouth is moving a mile a minute.

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Eve: 2017 sliding into 2018

Of all the improbable encounters, I get into a taxi with a "Cash Preferred" sign strapped to the back of the front seat facing the passenger. A call to arms: independent minded driver here, one with a passion to play word games with strangers.
We have already established a sense of humor between us when, at the airport taxi stand, I hand him my heavy bag and say I will keep the smaller one - containing my laptop - with me.  I don't want to risk having the big one topple onto the smaller. No problem, he replies; your choice.
We move along quite friskily, a bit of small talk about weather conditions and his observation that business is down in spite of the crowded airplanes. Hardly anyone was in line waiting. But he must be bored with the usual chitchat. He drives mercilessly.
What is the meaning of spat? he  calls out suddenly in a heavy accent that may or may not be Italian.
I say that the word has two meanings and  ask which  does he prefer.
Aha, he gloats. You know! (I offer 'argument' and 'article of man's clothing in olden days'.)
He doesn't concede if he knows whether I am right of not. Maybe he is taking a casual vocabulary course, by way of entertaining himself.
What about dissident?
The word comes out sounding slightly dizzy - like indigent. But I guess that he has a personal interest here - that he may have been or even now be one.
Again, his voice lights up in approval.
Nobody knows these words, he says. Nobody ever seems to know them when I ask at random. He is pleased to meet a word fiend. He never has found anyone who has had the right answer.
How about: lucrative?
I tell him he is probably going to find me a lucrative ride since I may honor his request for cash.
He hits his hand on the steering wheel in surprise. I've won the contest. He wins the prize.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Customers' Custom Service

Oh hail the notion of personal service - any kind, anywhere. Motives to provide satisfaction may vary but consider the alternative: no connection with the human being buying your goods, especially in the retail arena.
Retail is suffering mightily in the face of express digital services, the story goes. At the same time, people are again drawn to buying books - clinging to ownership of physical goods for their very ephemeral value. Maybe the seesaw is becoming balanced: more appreciation of such items to make a person feel more grounded, less ephemeral than the slippery act of tapping some keys. And don't forget the value of face-to-face (not with the intolerably impersonal Facebook) - people talking to one another, using our instinctual senses that come out of a different part of the brain. The positive sense of 'making contact' using eye, ear, nose and 'gut.'
The very real value of engaging a very real human. Avatars may have their place - seemingly best for shut-ins.
It's difficult bargaining down a giant such as Comcast using algorithms the company had designed, compared to diligently, patiently discussing that last outrageously high bill..Far better to impress with a stern tone of voice, the voice of reason emphatically expressed so that one's determination can be more instantly understood. Just try it and see the price drop. (Something a friend of mind did recently over two days taking on a Best Buy clerk and then the Customer Service Agent or whatever they are called at Comcast.