Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Leaving And Arriving



This column was supposed to be a piece about a city girl in country mode. Some high minded reactions about leaving an environment populated by some 500,000 souls and finding yourself in a village of  500 people where  roads are too narrow for  traffic. What happens mentally and emotionally with such a change.
Well, self-deception mostly.
What some call vacation, others call escape away from and into other scenes. I chose Greece again for eight glorious September days in retreat from the usual  urban noise. The sun setting in the west over the Aegean from the terrace of the  Lagou Raxi Country Hotel on the Pelion Peninsula becomes  a revelation, an almost unnatural occurrence because of its too rare unobstructed views at home. Awe and wonder. Such  peace. I walk fifteen minutes into Lafkos village and sit in the central square beneath towering cypress trees - nature  overshadowing my minuscule self, putting my selfish wants in proportion. An elderly couple I meet along the way hand me an apple plucked fresh from their front yard orchard. And smile when I  thank them in fractured Greek. They reply as though I can understand their words. Except for delivery vehicles, the narrow streets are closed to traffic so the baker conveniently stacks the wood needed for his oven in giant piles outside. I pass Maria's taverna and see her seated in a cell phone trance beside a folded rack of aprons. These are souvenir gifts from patrons coming from foreign lands.
 I walk 45 minutes down hill on an ancient stone path hundreds of years old and stop briefly to admire the view and drink from a spring blurting pure water from a rocky surface. I've come to Milina village to swim in the salty blue sea and walk  a shoreline lined with small shops and cafes. Signs advertise fishing trips and evening entertainment though clients must be limited this time of year. The tiny tourist office is closed. September is already 'off season.' I banter with the only  tourists I see, a couple seated next to my table where I order a raki. They are  Roumanians  pausing on their  drive south, wide-eyed toddler in tow. Their English is perfect.
So, too, is my swim off a pebbly beach shaded by some wispy pine trees next to a cement wall.
And so should be the  Greek salad I choose for a late lunch at another seaside cafe farther down the road. My waiter, the owner,  is curious, courteous, and direct - Greeks at their best, by right the equal of any man.
"I can tell you were once a beautiful woman," he volunteers, putting before me my plate of juicy well-oiled tomatoes and peppers alongside a loaf of fresh bread. I'm  taken aback,  unsure whether to feel flattered or insulted. What else can I do but thank him?
He walks away before I can reply.
The past always catches up with you, I suppose.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Cruising the Anacostia One Fine August Evening

Any Washington DC person might recognize some contradictions here. How 'fine evenings' in August are all relative and even seldom experienced amid the downpours of late. But it was Eclipse Day so perhaps the gods were being merciful sending a breeze and later a delicious fan-shaped pink and blue sunset. Then, too,  who dares suggest a 'cruise' on one of the country's most reviled and, until recently, most polluted rivers - cursed as it is, too, by its reputation as a demographic dividing line. The Native Americans named the river but had nothing to do with that unfortunate sequence. Modern economic forces did. Anacostia is renowned as the 'poor side of town,' its residents perpetually struggling to be accorded their fair share of the city's wealth and services.  Until recently, the word itself was more beautiful than the river that borders the District of Columbia on the west. Now, according to biologist guide Trey Shepard, a reappraisal is taking place, in slow motion, along the waterway.  Climb aboard a free boat tour hosted most of the year by  nonprofit Anacostia Riverkeepers to see  changes and learn about nature's adaptability in the face of humankind's destructibility (largely the form of toxins). One of the most surprising facts: it's possible, except after heavy storms, to swim in the river  again without danger and, second, the DC 'tax' on plastic bags in retail stores that underwrites the tours is working. More funds are being collected at the same time that fewer plastic bags are being discarded.   Trey is a reliable walking/talking wealth of information about urban water issues and their effect on everyday life in burgeoning DC. He drowns his passengers with  information but doesn't forget to point out the wild rice growing on one patch and.  eagles flying overhead. That helps - somewhat - the miserable fact that, in the past, one an a half billion gallons of untreated water flowed into the Anacostia each year. The brown color is natural on this tidal vista that stretches for seven miles through DC territory but becoming more and more clean. (Odd but interesting fact: DC's 69 square miles contains two parks larger than New York's Central Park.)  Check out www.anacostiariverkeeper.org.
at left: sculpture of a heron named either Harry or Henry composed of discarded plastic materials found in the Anacostia River

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A 'Stink' in Washington - Bloom Time 8/17

 Get a whiff of this: the Corpse Flower  (yes, that's the name) exploding in all its glory for the first time in several years at Washington's U.S. Botanic Garden (an arm of Congress, dedicated to the natural as opposed to the political life). Unusual, too: Three Corpse flowers taking their own sweet slow time before these plants, native to Sumatra, unfold green and violet winglike outer covering (a spathe) to show the world just who is boss.
Note: The botanical specimen is really hundreds of little flowers making up what the professionals call its 'inflorescence.' Along with the explosion of color comes an intimidating scent that is compared to rotting meat.
Ah, go ahead, give it a try. It's free. So is the joke that, well, something 'smells' in the capital city.  Be it ever thus.
 One difficulty is the plant's ornery nature: it makes up its own mind when to perform and it does so without much of a warning.
Reputably as many as 20,000 people came by the building in a single day one year to gaze  at(and whiff)  the eruption.
Explanation: The huge size of the bloom (think man size and even higher) needs years - decades even - to store up enough energy to show its stuff.
Think lily with a giant ego, in human terms. The smell  is what attracts pollinators, such as carrion beetles and flies.
This humid greenhouse  can trace its origins back to an idea by George Washington - though an actual building didn't exist until 1850 when it  gained stature as the first such structure to be made of aluminum instead of steel. Where history is concerned, humble yourself before the cycads  - much smaller plants at the base of the corpse and much older. These particular ones date back to 1842, so said outgoing director Ari Novy - who has spent five years overseeing the 7000 species of plants found in this public place. (Including this much smaller  one, the scintillating green Cabbage on a Stick,, a rare species from Hawaii, marvelous to behold among the many towering wonders within the glass framed conservatory - all free for the looking.)

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Starting Over

Who hasn't thought - or even acted on - the notion that beginning life again in a new place would be beneficial. Usually the 'benefits' are not fully thought out. Just as well. It is enough to imagine how external influences and challenges will overcome an initial resistance to change. Surely, the thought goes, a change of geography can lead to a change of mind and habit. Having such impulses -whether or not turned into action - surely applies to every thinking person on the planet with the wherewithal to dream.
Thus it was, as stories are apt to begin, that a man we'll call Adam made a giant leap from big city to small city (or town, if you like). A man born in Maine whose academic career began in New England and flourished in Kings College in old England upped to start over with his wife and dog in Montana. As much as anything, he admits the lure was the power of myth - images in his imagination of a serene new lifestyle in a magnificent mountain setting. The very name Montana held him as neither of the Dakotas could.
He/they would buy a house - the first one they ever had purchased.
He would have to relearn how to drive. A car would be his lifeline since few people in his new home city ever walk outside, and daily and weekly chores were an immense burden on his time.
He would have to have a  job - tenure track, as it happens, having voluntarily given up tenure track at a large well-established university in one of the prime capitals of the world.
And he would have to relate to people in a new way, he realized. The people who were his colleagues and neighbors who might not immediately understand his effusive personality and talkativeness.
It clearly was an experiment. With his degrees - religion and art - he might press his case as an interdepartment  scholar in any number of other places. How he came to jump at a blind ad in a professional publication is part of his story; the rest has to be about his adjustment.
He would learn that the so-called relaxed laid-back western folk who appear outwardly so open welcoming have some built-in restrictions on relationships. The 'How're ya?' greeting is not expected to get a full response. And "Hope to see you around sometime,' or 'We must get together,' which - in many parts of the world - really aren't intended as goodwill invitations. People like Adam come West to get away more than to be found: to have privacy at their disposal at all hours. Someone who talks so fast might be suspected of having a 'line to sell,' rather than having a sincere interest in reaching out to another person.
This isn't to imply that the local scene is bereft of wit and wisdom of a worldly kind. Good humor doesn't stop at state boundaries. The subdivisions - plots of land with garages that often seem larger than the houses -  keep moving westward, an ever- changing combination of wood, stone, and stucco laced with green. A moving stream of  portajohns named 'urapeean' (yes, that spelling)  accompanying them. And everywhere for some reason basketball stands, as though every family to plays ball. Of some kind anyway. 

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Musings on the 2017 Solstice

I'm a bit off the Solstice, summer's return, but recently came across for a second time the title below  - prompting some thoughts:

The Muse of Urban Delirium: How the Performing Arts ... 

https://www.amazon.com/Muse-Urban-Delirium-Paradoxically.../dp/0997496290

This collection of essays seeks answers to the challenges of urban diversity, conflict, and creativity by examining the emergence of musical and theatrical originality in a series of specific cities at particular times. It does so by using various performing arts - opera, dance ...

This comes out of the Woodrow Wilson (Smithsonian) think tank and, however idealistic and even reverent the tone, it gave me pause regarding many aspects of the urban condition and how life in close-packed communities veers between the best and worst of worlds. I also was prompted by a recent afternoon session with an Apple, Inc., technician replying somewhere in the world to my appeal to figure a perplexing problem (hardly a major one): my Samsung printer, that only recently printed wireless, had gone on strike. No matter what options arose, two and a half hours later we had no solution - and the jinx was that I had no notion of why the machine suddenly balked and then why Apple could not make the laptop keyboard move at my command at some point. We were cut off at every corner: perplexed,  undone. Wasted time and effort and no wisdom gained. So, it seems, goes the presentThus seem the present perplexing questions of how high and low or no income people live together  where a tax base determines personal wellbeing. Without overriding federal programs to balance the extremes, where are we to turn in an effort to maintain the so-called democratic experiment?

Does the digital age have some built-in sermons to preach? That forget rational thought, maybe even instinctual thought, since nobody is in charge beyond random and bewildering efforts at change.
------------
And another way to scope the city scene: a visit to Washington's National Gallery of Art's current exhibit through early August (The Urban Scene), a showing of prints in many mediums done by master craftsmen and one lone woman. with a well -informed NGA employe of 39 years explicating in detail historic and technical details of works on view. A cursory look at artist's views of city life (New York especially but also Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles) many of them architects who turned to drawing - lithographs (prints) in many technical forms. A 'View of NY" in 1932 that is a tribute to the landscape of towers;  a study in patterns of light under the old El (elevated subway),  a view of Philadelphia at rush hour in 1950 and, my favorite, an 'aquatint' from 1932 titled "Civic Insomnia" - an affectionate portrait of a city in constant motion.  These are only a few of the 130,000 works on paper available to the public (individuals requesting on-site intimate views of the originals without glass cover). The exhibit gives a viewer a glimpse of how the artist saw the world around him/her as well as  insights into  society of the time - from 1920-1950.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

QM2 on the Ocean Blue

Oh Cunard, I can't get rid of you though I suppose I brought it on myself when I signed to cross the North Atlantic aboard the  Queen Mary2 (largest, maybe only, ocean liner to do these crossings - never a 'cruise,' heaven forbid). I am now considered a member of  a new tribe. A Cunardier, or something like that - the company's outreach is incessant. Emails  and flashy satin brochures arriving in the mail. The marketing hype is the most aggressive I've encountered since I last signed a political petition.


The ship - glamorous, the mightiest afloat - does pull rank. Aboard, however, is another matter.
With the QM2 you pay as you go and you go as you pay.  Everything above basics of food and shelter is charged. A basic fee is one thing  - it's possible to book an inside cabin (no view, poor you) for only hundreds - but 'tip money' is a required add-on for the stewards, and of course one is pressured to sign up for insurance in case something prevents you or the ship from sailing.
If you are in one of the more expensive cabins that allow you on the ship early, you are first in line for  'behind the scenes tour' and a mere $120 will be added to the credit card registered before you board. The official entry point is when, in exchange for a valid credit card, you are handed a personalized plastic Cunard card with your name and cabin number - an identity card of sorts for all out of pocket expenses.

(Personal note: many decades ago I came and went to Europe several times on student ships, so-called: bunk beds dormitory style, buffet meals only, guard rails everywhere to keep plates and glasses in place. A rock and roll time  when entertainment was what you made for yourself. I don't recall paying extra for anything aboard, so basic were the amenities.)

I managed to be waitlisted for a second QM2 tour that showered me  with such souvenirs as  a chef's hat, a chef's apron, a gold Cunard emblem pin, a diploma, a letter of appreciation and a photograph of our group that had my  face  obscured. The latter was hand delivered to my cabin following the afternoon we  spent three hours climbing and walking, talking and listening as various department heads explained their duties. Good performances, all.  We  had high tea and champagne flutes and an intimate encounter with the captain, a genial scarecrow  with impeccable social graces as might be expected of a Cunard super chief. Not snooty upper class inflected manners. Everyday pleasant relaxed ones. The captain stands at attention for a welcoming cocktail reception. He smiles throughout. White gloved waiters in gold buttons line up to greet visitors for the afternoon tea dance.

Three evening meals were listed as 'formal dress only' - long or else elaborate cocktail attire - though no one I saw was ushered out of the dining room if they had forgotten or ignored the rules.

Which was another surprise worth noting (apart from the complexities of operating this floating city where passengers and staff total well over 3000 each trip). Two upper decks  with private eat-anytime restaurants called grills were reserved for the high rollers and thus were the only parts of the ship officially off limits (except for the kennels where, in theory anyway, only pet owners were allowed). A top class French restaurant called the Verandah had a three course lunch for $20 open to all.

Likewise, a planetarium, an auditorium seating - truly? - 1,400, a library boasting 10,000 volumes was available (checking out only two at a time) and a modest store selling travel tales and history ventures. The entire ship had a nostalgic feel: walls lined with panels recalling Cunard's past, valiant service in wars of old, etc. The morning power point lectures touted old-time movie stars such as Fred Astaire and Cole Porter - blemishes and all.

 What memories remains from such an escape? Above all, it was communality - albeit an exclusive one allowing friendliness brought on by knowing we existed in a unique and temporary environment.  The short seven day journey brought passengers together in surprising ways no matter the difference in prices paid.




Wednesday, April 19, 2017

More On 'Urbia'

 Take note of the April 17-30, 2017 New York magazine -  a thoughtful article on 'Cities Vs. Trump," by Urbanities essayist Justin Davidson saying "the urban-rural divide is more significant.'
More significant than what?
Read on to understand his point in a five-page personal survey of an ever-changing relationship between the two worlds.
Main point, I gather, is that cities are instigators of the sort of change to benefit so-called rural areas (often the suburban ones) but the demographics keep shifting.
There's much to ponder in a piece that would probably never have any traction on TV - too subtle and complicated, requiring a bit more concentration than the average newshound is willing to exert.

Jump ahead to the Washington Post ("Democracy Dies in Darkness") for Sunday and Monday June 14-15/201. About the 'gap' between small and big towns (ie. cities, however they are defined). Stats and surveys galore. Fuzzy talk about "different values." Emphasizing how the present political divide is more cultural than economic. The word Christianity is in the first graf - as though contemporary Christian values were uniform and understood. "Estrangement" in the urban areas? I've just experienced the opposite during a short stint in New York City, and even on my own inner (albeit blessedly popular) Washington, DC. black. Could it be that old bugaboos such as 'the stranger, the immigrant, the other' always is and has been the hard-to-define devil in our midst that can account for suspicions, resentment, the unknown...leading to distrust and despair. Where is the blessed ability to think for oneself, outside the box, with some perspective? A failure of educational systems, of clergy, of family?

A note about a wonderfully predictable homily regarding the urban milieu: how when the word 'hip' is applied to a city or area in a city (as in "hippest neighborhood") - I speak fondly - look out for further  embellishments that seemed designed mainly to encourage foundation support. As in "an ecosystem of advocacy that encourages socially engaged creatives to free experiment.." (see Halcyon and Halcyon Stage in D.C.  Gestures in behalf of experimentation - but how many of these are truly experimental, radical calls to action? it may be that today we have to settle for any efforts in that direction. Note, too, an academic title worthy of consideration: The Muse of Urban Dilirium"  - confronting the chaos of choices in  a vibrant (beware that word) scene. Spoils of a kind.