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.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

January 1-4/ 2019

Keep  habits alive, stay alert, sleep as  much as possible.
Such are the fulminations of a lazy time between the religious and the civil winter holidays.
Conversation and  interaction with people seem ever more important in a politically uncivil time.
Walking out with a new pair of leather shoes on my feet, testing their feel and adjusting them to my gait, is important, too, and even moreso when it could lead to any spontaneous chat I might originate. Say, talk to the 'shoe dogs' when I go back to the store to find out what ergonomic inserts I need in my stylish new pair that looked just fine but didn't quite yet offer the comfort I wanted.  A side glance at  some ornately packaged socks that turned out to be compression socks brings  a confession from one of the clerks how his job depended on wearing them. Keep chatting in a lighthearted way and I come away with two pair.  The toes were nicely padded so my nails would not break through - so annoying in today's consumer throwaway world. The wool promised breathability -  no smell. Handsome footwear has it all over a new hairdo in long-range satisfaction.

Focus on a stranger's most attractive feature and let the words flow.
Ms. Yvette at the local post office came to work this week with her long sharp nails done up in a strikingly colorful polish: sparklers almost, to match the generous collection of gold bracelets on her wrists that dangled in time to the large thin metal hoops hanging from her ear lobes that swayed with each  practiced motion she made attending to a customer's wishes. A small comment, maybe an ordinary one, but she said thank you, have a good one anyway. We had time to exchange a few sentences in spite of the long line waiting behind me. The price on the envelope was preordained I learned because a skilled clerk such as herself knows the ready price set for anything below a few ounces. Standard rule around the country. $3.50 and no more until the ounces turn into a pound plus and then cost is calculated according to a zip code.

At the bank, too, a Customer Service Representative seated up front had a moment to enlighten me with further valuable information - as if you never needed or wanted to know. How each U.S. Treasury bill has in very very fine print the date of its creation - by year. And how many clients insist on only having bills in their possession above year 2009  because, when traveling, many countries using  or handling U..S. currency will not accept them, consider them to be of less value either because they are old and withered or out of some insistent prejudice that the money is worthless.

So that leads onto another quest: why -  and what countries are they? Unfortunately, I forget to ask.
Walk anywhere on city streets and a wealth of impressions emerge. Such as the strangeness of seeing so many strangers with what appear to be cigarettes sticking out of their ears. Digital tricks to 'keep in touch.'  Is that a way of plugging into the world or escaping out of it? Who would dream of striking up conversation with someone who was already shielded himself (mostly men) from it.


Monday, December 24, 2018

23 December 2018



 This happened around holiday time when wallets and perhaps personalities are loosened, when  even conscientious retail workers might leave their jobs a little early. I'd gone in search of a vegetable - Belgian endive, in fact - using the need as an excuse for a walk in the fading afternoon.The  Harris Teeter outlet in Yards Park, SE DC, fit the bill - over and back with a few diversions comes to about three miles.  Enough to compensate for a leisurely morning spent reading in bed.
  Post-Solstice can do that to a person:  dark enough in the morning to allow for dawdling when others are up and about, off to jobs or shopping.
  The endive was one of a number of oddly mixed ingredients needed for a Christmas Day salad,  earning me dinner at a friends' house across the river ('and through [very sparse] woods') in Virginia.
   The fresh vegetables shelves were unattended - and many of the offerings looked tired. Still, if a store stocks a full regiment of greens, common and not, might not the endive lurk there somewhere? The greeter desk (or whatever was the spot just inside the door) was empty, too, so I went hustling after an official Customer Service person when I was waylaid by a uniformed Security Guard. He was a genial looking operative, smiling, and obviously on my tail.
'Do you mind if I ask you a question?" he said. I was still walking, intent on my vegetable quest. In normal times I might have stopped to ask what sort of question - when he continued:
'How old are you?'
Not the sort of query you get every day unless the airport TSA official wonders why you didn't take off your shoes.
 Needless to say, I was caught off guard. Not breaking my stride, I asked him in turn 'How old do you think I am?" Thereby giving up a golden opportunity to start a conversation out of the blue with a stranger on Facts of Life, Mortality or some other momentous subject.
 He might have been intending a compliment, but he felt compelled to relate to me how his mother, or maybe it was his grandmother, was 100 and 'still full of beans'
  'Ah, well, it's luck of the draw. Energy. Metabolism,' I muttered stupidly, still moving.
   What the real puzzle was, I thought later, not why I was being singled out but that the same question never is asked of a man. 

Thursday, November 22, 2018

What's a Pittsburgher?

Nothing edible but plenty lovable this proud citizen of southwestern Pennsylvania's comeback city.
So proud that if  a visitor dares say jokingly he's 'in the pitts,' he might get hit with a rebar. Metaphorically, that is. Steel made the place, remember. NFL Steelers seem to own it, so plentiful and prolific the black and yellow brand. Yellow is the color of one of the more prominent bridges that pop up everywhere. Hundreds of them.Twelve so-called downtown bridges alone. Nothing to sneer at when coursing up down and across three rivers (Ohio, Allegheny, Monongahela) and  the innumerable hills and valleys that dominate the terrain
"People don't leave Pittsburgh." (I.e. We're loyal. We don't often move.)
"People here pretty much take care of themselves." (On why there is no public transportation to and from the city's 'international' airport an hour from downtown.)
A 60-hour visit reveals much to love in this quirky city full of colorful  local neighborhoods.  Pie For Breakfast  ( vinegar pie, custard based, a tribute to the Depression era when fancier versions weren't available) is a perfectly plausible name for an eatery as is the existence of a distillery (bourbon, gin, what have you) called Wigle. The riverfront area  known as the Strip has ethnic options  galore: Italian coffee and pastry; Polish sausages made on site.  The 'ultimate' P-burgh  food offering is a sandwich from Primanti Brothers -a layered  mix of meat, fries and coleslaw, just right for people on the go.
"Pittsburgh Is Everyone," a t-shirt boasts.
A  city of some 300,000 people - an amazingly low number relative to its offerings - seemingly lacks nothing.(Especially not rain.) First rate educational and cultural institutions.  Famous, often infamous,  citizens of renown.  Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick, Andy Warhol, Billy Eckstine,  the Heinz family,  to name a few. Some left to live elsewhere but came back home to be buried.
 An advertisers pamphlet called the Urbanist bills itself as "Authentic Pittsburgh." Tough word to live up to. I'd point to  'Lincoln's P&G Diner' in Millvale - cash, no cards (no advert in the Urbanist either) - also known as 'Pamela's.' Featured photo displays of beloved neighbors, past and present.  Hot cakes  that are thin-like crepes so good the Obamas brought the owners to cook a meal for them in the White House.


All this from a grim history of industrial warfare and pollution before environmental controls came along: foul air, treacherous working conditions, labor strikes. A capitalist roller coaster writ large.
The borough of Braddock, a suburban backwater on the 'Mon,' is an example of ongoing change over time. Braddock's population of nearly 21,000 in 1920  is down to some 2,000 today - 900 of them employees of the U.S. Steel Corporation mill that  throbs day and night with a low-key hum, its giant electrical grid resembling a sonic fairyland on some faraway moon. Progress and dissolution and now, slowly, fresh hope. The plant's predecessor, built by Andrew Carnegie way back in 1873, was one of the first mills to use the Bessemer process that refined cost and quality of  steel production. Braddock was home to the first of Carnegie's public libraries; it included a tunnel entrance for millworkers that lead to a bathhouse in the basement. The site also had a swimming pool, billiards tables, indoor basketball court, and music hall. The building was rescued from near-death  in the late 1970s and remains in operation (without the recreational facilities).
 Braddock's  burly mayor, John Fetterman, became something of a national TV star based on his good works and ambition. He was recently elected  the state's  Lt. Governor after a long career in the nonprofit sector spent helping the local community. He keeps house across from the plant and next door to the trendy Superior Motors restaurant that he created out of the premises of a  former Chevrolet dealership.
 He's a Pittsburgher, what else.


Friday, November 2, 2018

Who Would Have Thought: Darwin in the City

Mosquitoes are proving more adaptable than humans, at least in some quarters.
Note a piece by science writer David Quammen in the recent New York Review that the so-called London underground mosquito has evolved to a new form. What's more, the populations that have taken root below are genetically different according to the different tube line where they now live.
The world changes. Grows more urban by the minute. By mid-century,  six billion of the earth's nine billion people will live in cities with consequences too enormous to contemplate.
A few other species shifting their character as a result, Quammen points out in his book review,  are house crows of Singapore, coyotes of Chicago, ring-necked parakeets of Paris and a few others learning to tolerate new environments.
 What changes will the human make, apart from turning (conveniently or not) into a robot?

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Washington Biography Group at 25



A club of sorts without members that welcomes anyone, even without credentials. An interest in biography is enough, The group begun casually by former National Portrait Gallery head Marc Pachter has flourished for 25 years, meeting monthly, except in summer, in a stately wood-panelled  room loaned for the evening by Washington International School, a private high school on Macomb St. NW.
This model could be duplicated in any community where book lovers congregate. All that is required is a firm conviction  that books matter and anyone writing or thinking about memoir, biography or associated genres will profit from friendly group discussion of themes related to such an effort.
A newsletter produced by the titular leader or organizer goes out to as many as 500 people monthly - those who sign on to learn about meetings, celebrations, advice, article links, etc.
The only dues are voluntary and minimal for a token payment annually to the school for its use of a room. Parking is free.