Thursday, July 18, 2019

Summer in the City and Beyond

Stay alert! The temperature is climbing! Nobody could be happier than the prognosticators calling forth the danger ahead. Who else gets full attention when records are apt to be broken? Who knows better how atmospheric pressure affects the human body and has the authority to offer advice?
Whatever the reason, Metro subway riders were hard to find at the near end of the morning rush hours. At 8:15 or so, the car I was in felt empty. It was opportunity to study fellow citizens morning attire, to sneak peeks at skin. A serious looking slim blonde woman carrying a Chanel bag on one shoulder and black work bag on the other was making do with gold flip-flops that could not hide a twisted baby toe. A shortened piggy curled upon the fourth digit. I wanted to give her immediate aid - perhaps a suggestion where she might remedy her plight.  But these days, perhaps, a little piggy is the least of a pretty woman's woes.
We weather things well in the city, to judge by the preponderance of festivals and songfests taking place in all sorts of venues. Free movies everywhere. A vegan feast for the masses. Not that Washington ranks high in quirky innovative celebrations of a kind. A photo of  Paris' Eiffel Tower shown in the free Wash Post handout called Express showed sheep being led past the giant edifice by shepherds from Seine-Saint-Denis. Blithely. More tourists than shepherds I'll wager. Animals are erupting in the strangest places this season. A brown bear went missing in Italy's Alpine forest and scaled a 13-foot barrier.  A 250-pound tortoise was found wandering  along a highway 100 miles north of its Long Angeles home. A human - a barefoot woman from Nebraska - reportedly scaled Mount Rushmore for fun, making it nearly to the top before being arrested.
My method of endurance is finding cultural attractions that don't require physical labor and are ultimately more distracting than the heat.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Monk's Merriment

DC'S National Museum of the American Indian
7/13/19
WHEN A PICTURE DOESN'T DO JUSTICE
The tiny woman standing up front in this tiny photo contains a very large store of energy and emotion, and she does most of it through sound coupled with minimal gestures. Meredith Monk is an innovator in the arts world, active since the 1960s, performing what she sometimes calls 'sound sculptures' and what erudite admirers call "extended vocal technique" coupled with "interdisciplinary performance." The sounds she and her small five-woman troupe make cannot be totally divorced from their motions, minimal as they are. The body is an instrument as much as the voice. The resulting original work  is very nearly indescribable since it is the compilation of so many sensations in what appears to be sacred space for an experience akin to churchgoing.
Not coincidentally, the Hirshhorn Museum  chose to present Monk and her vocal ensemble in a space often interpreted as sacred to Native Americans -  Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. It was a one time event, called "Cellular Songs: Concert Version." Solemn for the most part,  the mood was broken during an encore when the 'chieftain' of the tribe - the formidable 80-some yearly Ms. Monk - broke into a rollicking imitation of an elderly woman happily, joyfully, telling a story. The Hirshhorn  institution has been breaking ground in many ways of late. This time the program was under the direction of the curator of media and performance along with Monk's own House Foundation for the Arts. All the arts. She uses incorporates film as well as visual design.
Curious how merriment can be felt even when performers' tones are solemn, almost dirge-like. Their actions resonate with joy, empathy, compassion. Especially when all are huddled together (yes like a football team) at the end.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Civility, Please!



         A Need for Manners in the Modern Age    


It happens almost daily during morning rush hour. A bicyclist zooms past on the sidewalk, a missing me by inches. “Is there a bell on that bike?” I call out, thinking that he might apologize for failing to warn me. No go. I’m just an obstacle on his way to cross at the green light ahead.
Of course, he has his rights - just like any other citizen hurrying off to work. It’s public space, after all - the same one claimed by electric scooter fans charging along so insouciantly that I wonder if they ever look for any defenseless pedestrians in their path.  Such innocent names: Lime and Bird.  The Washington Post recently nailed the issue on its health page, saying worldwide calls grow for bans.
But  just where is this happening outside New York City, Paris and the United Kingdom, I would like to know. Nashville’s mayor at least gave scooter operators a month to “clean up their act,” the report says. What then?
Likewise, the compulsive smartphone user. Head down, oblivious to everything around and ahead. Never mind that green has turned red. The oft-proclaimed dangers of cell phone usage in public places is well documented, citing how presumably otherwise good citizens insist on their right to communicate no matter what. Has the rate of pedestrian deaths risen dramatically in part because drivers insist on their right to give and receive messages anywhere they please?
Speed is king these days in an urban milieu. Ambling is passe. The rules of the road are unspoken, even when they are - vaguely - written into law. Heaven help the denizens of Washington, DC, and other cities who face an invasion of even more wheeling wonders. The city has apparently given in to pressure from who-knows-where to allow several hundred more of these take-it-and-leave-it -where-you-will mobile devices. 
Yes, they cut down on automobile usage, save  on pollution, provide cheap and convenient transport. But what’s the limit, and why aren’t there more protests about the numbers and the dangers they invite both to themselves and others? Am I in a  minority - a hapless two-footer who prefers to walk even when I can drive or ride?
Don’t even mention how few bikers or scooter users bother with helmets. Maybe in the future it will be up to the pedestrian to arm him or herself with some protection. Grouches like me are caught up in the quaint notion that everyday manners are at stake here. We see a need for new rules of civility in the age of hyper technology that go beyond (or maybe alongside) the current fixation on what constitutes privacy in a digital world. 
Likewise, (a slight digression) consider what are ‘proper’ use of communication methods along the nearly unfathomable internet road. Who is to say what are the rules? To text or not to text versus overwhelm one another with emails that can pile up by the hundreds without blocking devices that may or may not be effective. Does the texting person expect an imminent response  and how should the person on the other end react? Doesn’t this put unreal pressure on people to be constantly monitoring their phone for messages? Surely, many misunderstandings occur with the expectations assumed in the exchange.
Machines can help maketh the man ( literally so for Crisper technology and DNA manipulation or for procreation via In Vitro Fertilization) but they seem equally capable of killing him off. Robots and other AI devices, it’s surmised, promise to make many  human activities (even some body parts) irrelevant.
If only that fast disappearing bicycle guy had thrown a ‘sorry’ in  my direction, I probably would not be writing these words. I might instead be  seeing fresh hope in the ability of a stranger to be sensitive to the needs of another and act accordingly. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Under or Over, the Book Is Good

    Hardly a single word has been raised to counter the critical praise for writer Robert Macfarlane's latest book -  "Underland: A Deep Time Journey." It's long at 488 pages, and deep (literally) from both a physical and philosophical perspective.  The British writer goes subterranean, on a mission that he calls "the subculture of urban exploration," which he defines as "adventurous trespass in the built environment."
   Among requirements for participation he cites "claustrophobia, lack of vertigo, a taste for decay, a fascination with infrastructure, a readiness to climb fences and lift manhole covers and a familiarity with the varying laws of access across different jurisdictions."
No limits, in other words.
   This is obviously not your everyday travel book. W.W. Norton & Company. $27.95. Should keep you engrossed when it doesn't 'gross' you out, so vivid are his encounters with some terrifying terrains.

Monday, June 17, 2019

CUSP What?

 The letters CUSP are short for New York University's Center for Urban Science and Progress so a person is inclined to write - they are on the 'cusp' of a mission. But what would that be, exactly?
  To see from their statement online, the Center is an 'interdisciplinary research center dedicated to the application of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in the service of urban communities across the globe."
Whoa - no small ambition. No single program is listed, beyond the fact that a Master of Science in Applied Urban Science is offered by the institution. That invites another question: just what is such a science, beyond development of even more digital tools to apply to the vastly increasing numbers of city dwellers (i.e. more than half the world's population now lives in urban areas)?  And then - what is 'urban'? What improvements to their lives do most urban dwellers want?
  CUSP considers itself a 'laboratory' so perhaps some answers will be forthcoming. Eventually. Mayor Bloomberg and his money has a lot to say about it, apparently. He announced the institute's launch way back in April 2012.
  Stay tuned.
  But be watchful. According to  May 26, 2019, article in the Washington Post , "any attempt to make a clean break between urban and rural will look arbitrary" -- due to ongoing absorption into greater metropolitan areas of previously so-called rural areas. The character of a place doesn't necessarily change with a new designation, the reporter notes.  Is urban a 50,000 or more resident mark? he writes. He sites many useful and important statistics, many due to changing definitions and who or what organization decides them.
  Always try to read past the headlines and the first few paragraphs of any material in print form. But please keep reading print.

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.