Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Passengers stand out as characters on a stage because the platforms are so dark for anyone or anything to be recognized except on the interior of cars. What's with the obscure lighting of stations?

Of men and hair: from the back of one with braids tight to the head and flowing down the neck, I could not tell the gender. (From the large leather jacket I guessed a man.) Across the aisle a man with copper-colored sneakers and a head full of rasta braids in full flower.

 Sights to behold: The immaculately made-up woman in the wheelchair, stylish throughout, with an artificial leg swinging from rear handle of her motorized wheelchair  complete with high heel shoe. And the very self-absorbed woman who spent at least three station stops brushing with a dark pencil, over and over  on a single brow to form a perfect arc. Not to mention the abundance of intriguing and inventive hair styles on African-American women.

Ok, ok, I know this is redundant even patronizing talk, and Chris Rock did the subject a queasy favor with his "Good Hair" film. When the irony is how self-mutilating much of the 'creative' styles can be; the insane use of harmful chemicals to promote - freedom?  Ironic, too, how much of the money in the hair trade stays out of the country. Isn't there a pushback of sorts? Yes and no. It seems to be too profitable for too many people, and attitudes change too slowly. Rock wimped a bit at the end, showing off his kids and saying that what is important about their heads is what is inside... yah,ok.

And what is the sense of this nonsense, on a poster far up on a Dupont Station wall: "When you believe more, you sleep less."A Verizon post, I found hidden among squiggles in the background. This line was followed by the words "Powerful Answers." Oblique intrigue. The person who spends her time trying to parse the sentence will undoubtedly lose sleep.

'Time keeps on slippin'' is the refrain that the lavishly overpaid Metro establishment uses to excuse its inexorably bad performance regarding upgrades on the system. So the poster promising that Dupont Circle's repairs would be completed by July 11/11 has a black notice attached in the corner of the original saying that April 12 is now the estimated completion date. 'Better Hurry up' was written underneath the slogan, presumably by one of DC's frustrated commuters. A polite request, under the circumstances. Graffiti is the only defense method a rider has...
There is some value to the Metro platforms besides their use as holding pens  - perfect performing venues.
Perhaps  overpaid system managers could hire musicians to entertain between long waits and delays, especially on weekends. One distraction available has been a group at Metro Center turning up ad hoc with their doo-wop a cappella songs providing much-needed charm and cheer. The be-hatted men with rhythm belt out harmonies so smoothly syncopated  they might as well be under stage lights instead of the lusterless bulbs of our once reputable public transportation system.

Mind Your Brain

Leave it to the American Association for the Advancement of Science  - www.aaas.org - to tackle one of the most debated questions of the moment: "Are We Only Our Genes?", sponsored by the AAAS Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion. It was a call-and-response scenario between Dr. Denis Alexander of Cambridge, England, and  American author-journalist Steve Paulson, known for his public radio program "To the Best of Our Knowledge,"  the respondent.

Dr. Alexander's wry approach included some subtle disclaimers about the plausibility of any sort of dichotomy. Genes, the blueprint of life, are so integrated into our environmental surroundings and inheritance that he felt 'driven' to create a new slogan he calls DICI - for Developmental Integrated Complementary Interaction. (At that point, the audience was warmed up enough to laugh along with him, because of the seemingly limitless implications of those word.) New mutations constantly change the original blueprint, he asserted. He also tackled the word 'heritability' by saying this "relates to variation in the traits but is not what causes traits themselves."  No single gene encompasses any single form of behavior and the there is  also the issue of  RNA, the switching mechanism whereby "genes function according to the company they keep."

Determinism is a very slippery concept, indeed. The gene stew is just that, a nearly indecipherable melange. Bacterial genes in our bodies also influence us.

Who are we, after all? And what is the mind - if not "consciousness' and a property of nature? Mr. Paulson is producer of a forthcoming series on just that subject. Stay tuned.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Italian Hoopla in 2013

How else to describe the upcoming festival of all things Italian that will take place in 70 venues in 40 US cities except as a veritable pageantry of promotion?
But first, a timely segue from the Madagascar post (see below): that  both Italy and Madagascar have the same red, green and white colors in their national flags, blocks of each in different positions. (Italy vertical; Madagascar, horizontal). Otherwise, the civic and cultural traditions of the two countries could not be more different.
Back to the hoopla: '2013 - The Year of Italian Culture' had its announcement party December 12 at Washington's National Gallery of Art  with its splendid mascot - Michelangelo's David=Apollo statue in place in the West Building through March 3. The diminutive gold-hued marble piece is on loan from its home in Florence for only the second time in the museum's history. David up close is a 4 foot 7 inch piece of sinuous perfection that has a mysterious history not even NGA's chief European sculpture curator can fully explain.
And as if to underscore the range of activities promised in a variety of  (mainly) urban locations next year under the cultural year banner, a splendidly attired Italian man (in a stunningly beautiful blue velvet suit) walked among the preview crowd holding a hand-carved wooden Pinocchio figure. Ah, yes, there is a relationship to the David statue, he said: the texture, the quality of the material, the loving hands that carved them both. (The performer will be at the Kennedy Center in January.)

Saturday, December 8, 2012

A City Down Under Lost in TIme

No, I'm not writing about the Australia zone. Have yet to go there. But being recently returned from Madagascar ("Le Grand Isle" as it is known by its most loyal residents) I can comment about its somewhat urban capital, Antananarivo, whose 'urbanity' is a special one .

I say that having observed the patience of its drivers and the peculiar insistence of the city fathers (whoever they may be) not to post many street names  nor bother  with traffic lights. Consider that there are millions in and around the city, many  more flocking in daily to find some subsistence, out of a country's population of roughly  22 million. In spite of  blocked roadways, mere like country lanes, NOBODY USES THEIR HORN! It is strange to be part of long rows of cars and trucks waiting patiently to go a few yards at a stretch.Traffic is so deplorable that the illegal government's free newspaper even publishes stories regarding the mayhem of its so-called urban transportation system. I recall that news- in French and Malagasy - was second to the day's announcement that fresh lichees could now officially be sold for export and a warning to readers not to eat too many mangoes then in season lest they incur digestive disorders.

The musical sound of the nearly unpronounceable name Antananarivo - Tana for short - tempts a first-time visitor to relate the native Malagasy language to the strikingly mellow personality of the Malagache people. Outwardly easygoing, friendly, gentle, it would seem. But this hides a very mixed political history and range of extraordinary social customs in a country that only achieved independence in 1960. For long years before that, Madagascar was more or less a French colony  plundered for its valuable wood and mineral products in just the way it now is being exploited by outsiders - China among them - and mismanagement by its own citizens. (A former radio disk jockey helped mastermind a military coup three years ago and is now president; the coup inspired western democracies to institute sanctions against the country - US included - thereby harming further the economic wellbeing of its people.)

Lost in time because Tana has lost a great deal of time catching up to the 20th century, much less the 21st. Rice paddies provide a gorgeously green and brown carpet practically right up to the city center - wherever the hills permit. Its most famous historical monuments are closed; apparently there is no money or willpower to repair and guard them. Geniality exists, possibly, due to the fatalism required to endure deprivation. Still, there is great promise here. One of the most underdeveloped countries in the world, Madagascar at least has a relatively high literacy rate, said to be upwards of 60 percent in the capital. People look busy and energetic, by necessity in  most cases since public services such as fresh water and trash collection barely exist. They have to make do with manual labor. Crime is up, as expected  - but then what capital city doesn't suffer this way.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Not Just For the Birds

Never mind the humdrum moralizing behind Folger Theatre's latest offering, "The Conference of the Birds, " taken from a 12th century Persian fable.  The creative team behind the work - first reinterpreted by director Peter Brook and actor Jean-Claude Carriere in 1971 - provides a mesmerizing display that is a delight for the eye whenever the ear tires. The text takes second place to the action directed by Aaron Posner. Rough brown fabric panels and mirrored posts cover the theater's small stage in front of which a talented cast of 11 actors improvise various bird and animal forms. Choreography and costumes are  top-notch.  Literally rising above the action is musician Tom Teasley, appropriately outfitted a colorful Arabic/Persian cap on a platform and accompanying the players with a range of traditional instruments. Kudos to the Folger (www.folger.edu) as well for their equally imaginative exhibit on view in the Great Hall called "Very Like A Whale," showing the Renaissance mind at work combined with original photography of the present day.
The play runs through Nov. 25, 2012.

Matching Up

Maybe the stigma has gone out of online dating, but what's the proof that it has gone from the idea, or image, of really older people (especially women) wanting dates?
It just seemed a lot easier in the olden days for women and men seeking a companionable relationships: families took care of such matters. Jane Austen famously outlined  stratagems at play in class-conscious  early 19th century England. The situation between the wars in early to mid 20th century America perhaps was different only in the relative lack of hypocrisy and deceit. A 91-year-old  widow recalls how, at the unfashionably single age of 28 as one of five daughters, four of them already married, found herself - thanks to parental maneuvering - in the company of a single man newly returned from service overseas.
'So you are the sister who needs to get married," is how the returned soldier introduced himself to the eligible daughter. Needless to say, she wasn't very impressed  - not until he turned out to be a very able fourth hand at bridge. Marriage soon followed.

 The nonagenarian recounted her story in the company of her 99-year-old friend, both now widows and members of the Washington Club, the first women's organization to be incorporated in the District of Columbia. (Men were 'accorded privileges' in 1979. The current 'clubhouse', on Dupont Circle, is the only intact example in D.C. of the work of Stanford White.)

Update to the early 21st century and matchmaking  in the digital era. A willowy Washington, D.C.,  'woman of a certain age'  (a recent 70 but looking 20 or more years younger) signs up with OK Cupid on the Internet, hoping to meet a compatible man but not necessarily anyone set on marriage. Like many self-sufficient  contemporary women, she cherishes her independence as well as her social skills. Now semi-retired and busy with a number of civic  organizations, she has been divorced and widowed and is, as the French say, "very much at ease in her own skin." But, taking precautions, she lists herself under a fake name and gives her age as 64, on grounds that few men ever want women older than 65.

 A 67-year-old local lawyer responds, explaining that he was divorced "after a long marriage," is a Princeton grad "who used to be athletic," and is currently involved in filmmaking and his old college's Triangle Club productions. Though wary, she  agrees to meet for coffee. (Why does he stress his 'former' side? she wonders.)

He was nice enough though "paunchy and said he needed a hip and knee replacement, walked with a limp and was blind in one eye," she reports. Curiously, he seemed concerned  about he called "a cougar trend - older women wanting to go out with younger men." Upon learning of her arts background, he sends her a long email as a follow-up to their meeting. "It was all about him. What is it with these guys who never ask you about yourself ?" The email asked for advice about his unsuccessful film career to date and, only secondarily, said he hoped they would meet again.

 No concrete offer was forthcoming so she dismisses his appeal in favor of broadening her scope. Her stepdaughter, who lives in New York, has a friend who is a professional matchmaker charing men a steep price for introductions "to very special women." She finds herself quickly paired in quick succession with an economist from Chicago who has a daughter living in DC, a  Manhattan-based French photographer, and a nonprofit executive living part of the year in Rome. The economist  puts a ten-minute limit on their initial phone calls but eventually concedes control, saying how much he enjoys their conversation. The photographer mistakenly misses their appointment time and place by calling her home phone rather than her cell, then claims that she "stood him up."

 The executive, after several hours spent talking by email and phone, suggests she meet him in Rome but doesn't offer to pay part of her way. They compromise with an invitation from him to come to his country house in Rhode Island. A weekend by the New England shore can't be a complete waste, she tells herself, even one involving a long round-trip by train. He meets her on arrival and within minutes she realizes there is 'no spark' - no physical attraction, and probably no future for them as a couple. Over the next three days, he confesses that he has been married three times and is "feeling drift, moving sideways," unable to make commitments. "It's not you," he tells her as she is leaving.

  A classic line that is so confusing because it is so often true.

Luckily, another OKCupid option suddenly is open to her - a New York real estate entrepreneur  who wants to meet "special women no younger than 50." The man claims to value experience and the wisdom that comes of age claiming that "anyone younger is apt to be spoiled."

 By now she is becoming  hardened and  keeps going by insisting that she is as intrigued by the process, if not by the men. Yes, she says, she would be glad to see the latest possibility on her upcoming visit to the city. One of her favorite spots is the fountain at Lincoln Center where they agree to meet. She will be the short-haired brunette wearing red-rimmed glasses, she tells him.  He is  dark-haired, tall and thin, he replies.

They retreat to the cafe across the street and she senses at once they are "in sync," They find they have much in common; in addition, both are upbeat and energetic. They decide to take a long walk, during which he asks if she wouldn't mind coming with him to his apartment so he can drop off his briefcase. She dismisses what to some women seems an obvious ploy, preliminary to a sexual advance. "I knew by instinct that I could trust him."  Besides, she is curious to see how he lives and is becoming convinced they may have a future together. The well-appointed apartment confirms it: carefully chosen modern furnishings and art on the walls - her favorite surroundings.

 "I can't believe what is happening to me," she tells herself. "I have been hit by a thunderbolt. It is an out of body experience." He seems to share her emotion. They have dinner and agree to spend the next day together. Before leaving the restaurant he kisses her lightly by way of goodnight. She hails a cab and immediately texts him: "Is it possible I have just kissed a man  whose last name I don't even know?"

He calls  the next day, ostensibly to make arrangements to meet. Instead, he is apologetic. He "can't go through with it," he says. He feels he has been tricked; he looked her up on the Internet and discovered that she is not the age she pretended to be. He can't trust a woman who would lie. He is sorry because she is smart, funny and sexy and they had got along so well. She naturally is  devastated and tries to explain, to make him see the reality - to understand why she did it: that most men never would call, much  look twice at, a woman who is 70 or older. Such women are perceived as washed-up, sexless. She desperately wants him to see her point of view, but he is adamant and insists that he needs a few weeks to sort out his feelings.

"The problem isn't you, it's me, " he says.

She never hears from him again but decides to correct her age on the OK Cupid site. Months go by. The only man who contacts her is the ex-boyfriend of a good friend of hers. He has recognized her photo  - she  uses a flirtatious pseudonym in place of her real name - and asks her out "for old times' sake." Over dinner, he asks her advice on how to attract women.

Several months later the Rome-based executive with the Rhode Island manse calls her out of the blue to ask her for dinner on his forthcoming trip to Washington. No explanation for the long silence. She acquiesces to the extent of agreeing to meet him for lunch - at her house, along with his Washington-based daughter. (Update: he gave her a kiss on the cheek upon leaving and asked her to tell him when she was next in New York. She felt nothing, she said, and hide from him her travel plans.)

 In the interim, the 'friend' who had had a long relationship with one of her woman friends confesses he has "romantic feelings" towards her. They had been spending casual evenings together - outings to cultural events, etc. She claims she had no clue. Never mind his slightly awkward method of confession, it had the desired effect.

"I was apoplectic," she says. She doesn't say she was entirely surprised; nor does she reveal what are her true feelings about the man although in retrospect she will admit she once had thought 'how good it would be to meet a man like him.'

 She tells him what are her doubts, relaying what she had heard about him from her friend. He gives his side and asks her to spend a week with him to celebrate his birthday in Mexico. She agrees to go knowing that first they would be spending most of the Christmas and New Year holidays together at various social occasions on the same platonic plateau. Still the plateau has shifted. Irony abounds. Online messaging has made possible a relationship after all. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Not So Shocking 'Shock of the News'

As purposefully noted here, the latest enticing show at Washington's National Gallery of Art is a gem - not only because of its play on words and the fine representation on museum walls of a dying tradition. Recall the playful slogan of yesterday, "What's black and white and read all over?" - the old phrase linked to, of course, the habit of reading ( holding in one's two hands a folded bundle) a newspaper. The exhibit is a take-off and send-up as well as a sentimental recollection of a time when newspapers mattered.  "Just chimney soot on chopped up trees" is the adage posted above artists' interpretations, or, rather, "manifestations" of the newspaper phenomenon from 1909 to 2009, in curatorial words on the flyleaf of the handsome  book accompanying the show.

The phrase Shock of the New is attributed to the late culture critic Robert Hughes from his 1980 BBC TV series. A timely note: Mr. Hughes only died recently. A pity he couldn't witness this witty assemblage of work on view through January 27. For more, see http://www.nga.gov. You might even weep with joy at the familiar form now in the process of being consigned to history. An extra touch (literally) : Visitors can take away a sheet of paper that is actually a work of art by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. You might find the  quoted text printed on the front and back of each sheet less shocking than beguiling.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Washington Walkaround

Can a city offer too much -  to the point of making its citizens immune? Joys of an early autumn weekend brought this sober, unquantifiable thought to mind in inner city Washington. Not only were the two  'red' sport teams in full flower on their respectively well endowed turfs but the Library of Congress and other Congressionally-endorsed institutions were sponsoring shows of note. The seldom heralded Washington Navy Yard keeps its museum open on a regular basis, so it isn't correct to call their permanent installation a 'show.' But it is a spectacularly well endowed history (and hagiography) of the U.S. Navy. Beyond its doors is the scenic walk -  the Yards Park and beyond - along the Anacostia River. The boardwalk stretches from the Nationals door to the 11th St. bridge, past several water works (all notably free of much signage except for the usual legalese, although thankfully under cover). Several long tendon-tingling blocks away northward lay the LOC's annual Book Fair. Long live the oral tradition! But before that came the appeal of  coffee and croissants in the Paul Cafe (801 Pennsylvania Ave. NW ) while viewing the tumultuous marvels of a Latino heritage parade celebration, as colorful a sight as any that could ever be seen on that avenue of presidents.  Banging clashing drums and cymbals, horns and high heels.The  spoken words of authors standing at podiums under high white tents calmed itchy minds and cellphone fingers: this was a celebration of civility. With so many citizens engrossed in literacy, it was easy to slip away underground into the blessed cover of silence at the Smithonian's Museum of African Art full of mosaics, photography, and sculpture.  All worlds covered in a few miles distance from home.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Nice Notes

The reference, of course, is  to the city in southern France, almost a kingdom unto itself: special history, special food, and certainly special seafront. That Nicoise je ne sais pas salad coming foremost to mind  and stomach. Can it really be universal, and what really is its origin? I tried in a few days recent stay in several Riviera towns (though, come to think of it, I'm not really sure about  the correct geographical terms for that long lovely coastline between Spain and Italy) to understand the recipe. It's a grand melange...with canned tuna of distinction at the core, along with the cornucopia of fresh Provencal provisions. One restaurant  - the cafe at the Rothchild Efrussi palace on Cap Ferrat - felt compelled to give it a fancy name, after the artist Tiepolo who was on show there. But I suspect more humble associations apply. At a seaside table in Villefranche, a Nicoise salad appeared in a charming edible basket. A real cornucopia.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Fly By Miles

Try to claim miles for a flight and  you might find yourself talking in the ether to an anonymous gent in Cincinnati saying, sorry (after the best part of an hour) but Air France doesn't allow a customer to use those miles for flights 'over water.'  This is Air France that flies from the US over, presumably, several waters and nowhere else in this land. So what if Delta, KLM, Air France are merged, accumulated miles supposedly shared; there is no mercy for the disenfranchised. A nice young man tried his best, and admitted he was at odds with his employer in more ways than one. Because he never has flown and never intends to. He is scared of flying. 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Heroines of Note

Remember these names: Nasrine Gross and Mary MacMakin. Privileged in a way, sure: educated, enlightened, engaged. Nasrine through www.kabultec.org runs a program in Kabul that teaches Dari to illiterate (false word) couples, often bringing together couples who would otherwise not have met. The idea is a novelty in the mud-brick homes of Kabul. She spoke at a gathering in her Falls Church, Va., home recently about the husband of a couple taking part in a ceremony at which they would receive a certificate for completing the course - but he was unable (some thought 'unwilling') to sign his name to the certificate. It turns out he was deaf and blind (his wife said) but he had participated in order to be sure his wife had some education. She revealed this when he struggled to find a way to put his thumbprint down on paper. Support this Afghan-born woman and her efforts, much of which is possible only through her own funding. On November 9, there is a bazaar that will feature Afghan crafts with proceeds going to the program. The costs of helping raise the literacy rate in that country are astoundingly low.
Mary MacMakin, an American in her 80s, was imprisoned for four days in July 2000 by the Taliban for her efforts in helping widows and orphans to support themselves through an organization she launched called PARSA, Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Support for Afghanistan.  (The program teaches women how to be physiotherapists, among other good works.) The Stanford University graduate first went to Afghanistan in 1961 with her husband and got engaged in various humanitarian projects. Tough ladies doing tough stuff. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Summertime Angst

Is the high decibel count in some  DC's eateries and drinkeasies meant to cover up our inability to actually converse? What we most often get is surround sound and talking twitter heads on speed. Shouting is the skill you need most of all when dining out where tables are stacked too close together for comfort and noise abatement doesn't exist.  Even a restaurant critic's effort to list decibel levels doesn't hit home until too late. One person's tolerance can be another's terror.  Often the only quiet time is at the stroke of the opening hour.
With the  building boom going on apace, street noise can be equally lurid. But outdoors a  walker can remove himself by counting steps and checking views. Go with grace, there's much to see high and low. Look up at midday at 21st and New Hampshire NW and see a man sitting on the top floor balcony of a renovated downtown mansion painted a brilliant white. Look down and see 'Democracy Tree,' a sturdy American Elm at New Hampshire and 21st NW.  A small bronze plaque buried in the ground  says the tree is dedicated to  District vets, taxpayers, and citizens all who are denied their representative voting rights in Congress, a gift from Foundry United Methodist Church because "Taxation Without Representation is Tyranny." Why there, so low, and why this particular tree? Across the way another redundant glass and steel edifice is under construction next to, miraculously enough, a tall gloriously green seemingly healthy tree that reaches beyond the fourth floor.
This treat for the vertically inclined:  the variety of finials, those ornaments peaking out of older  domestic structures (Historic Preservation treasures, many of them) "like the screw on top of a lampshade," as  Webster's puts it aptly enough. Why were they put there in the first place? There's no questioning the rods that poke up like a forest of stalagmites from roofs on more contemporary buildings. A virtual virus of security and communication apparatus taking root overhead. 

Saturday, August 4, 2012

City in a Village

 The iconic  institution of Chautauqua, begun long ago to give spiritual and educational instruction to teachers, is a little village with big city ideas. Where else within one week for several hundred dollars  can you find lectures about Effects of Trauma  on the Body (or words to that effect), the Absurd Necessity of Reading,  etc., plus  five days of delirious thoughts about digital identity, not to mention art, theater, dance, music, film and sport? A schedule bursting minute to minute with temptations of every conceivable kind guaranteed to drive a couch potato off his rocker.

The digital theme was just one of many weeks' topics in a summer schedule taking place annually  below the national radar at this lakeside community of several thousand in the sleepy precincts of upstate (i.e. the far western corner bordering Penna. and Ohio)  New York. The earnestness of this educational enterprise is as all-American as its inclusiveness. Inspiring to the point of pretension except there is little pretension anywhere: no dress code, no outward declaration of ethnic or religious upbringing, no rules except common sense and common courtesy. Like much else that undergirds the country's origins, a religious bent is ever present although designed  to stimulate rather than propagate.

That is just the passing view of a casual guest taking part briefly like some Martian - dropping in from the more humid harried urban center of Washington, DC, for a few days of deliciously eclectic living.  Check it out: www.ciweb.org.  And especially check out thoughts spoken and written by Sherry Turkle, of MIT's "Initiative on Technology and Self" as well as Braden Allenby of Ariz. State (a lawyer and engineer) on "The Slow Sunset of the Self." Allenby left Freud in the dust when talking about the future Darwinian drift of the human species, courtesy of developments in electronic technology. Warrior robots are coming and who knows what else.

Caveat: Chautauqua is a gated community with ID tags so there are  rules and restrictions. Bohemia it is not.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Agism Agonies

When is old? American society can't  decide.  Nor can it decide on the value of age and worthiness of revealing the number. We stumble by with a cliche that says You are only as old as you look/act/think? Hah! Tell that to the TSA (the latest acronym to bedevil us all). Signs at security airport lines for the past few months state that a person need not remove his/her shoes if she/he was born before 1937. The Magic Number Declaring One No Longer A Security Risks. But what is the reasoning here? A person is too old at 75 to bend over and untie shoes? A person is unlikely to be a terrorist by actuarial charts? Who makes up such charts anyway? (The very young - 12 and under (some of whom I could see quite able to hide a bomb or participate in nefarious deeds of all kinds) - are also excused, I was told by the agent whom I asked. She seemed unable to explain such matters. "Courtesy?" Oh, well. So try makeup if you labor to avoid the cumbersome task: only one agent wanted to know my real age when I sashayed through but he didn't ask to see proof.
Meanwhile, at the famous Chautauqua, NY, institution - a summer camp of sorts  for the mentally fit of all ages - rules that a senior "90 and older " can visit for free. ("BUt must obtain a complimentary pass.") Likewise, children 12 and under.  Are the 90-plus folks considered too hard of hearing to make sense of the lectures?
Courtesy makes strange bedfellows.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

City Rhythms

The temperature was more like 100 degrees plus when the tall imposing woman customer in my local FedEx asked to speak to the manager. There was no refusing such an innocent request on the part of Jennifer, the clerk who had been helping her. An equally determined looking manager - short, medium build, male - came out of the back office and asked, in turn, 'how can I help you?'' It was more a dare than a request. "I just want to compliment the woman who was helping me," came the reply. "I wanted to make that clear to management."
The smiles began. "Well we can help you make it all the way to headquarters," said the manager, upping the ante. So he passes on a phone number to call so that 'team member' Jennifer would be properly cited wherever such matters matter. Indeed, a call to the 800 number brought forth eventually a live body in public relations who was stumbling over the request. "We don't get many of these," said PR lady, name unknown. She scurried around to take down the info, offering - per bureaucratic custom - a "case number". Make note: 0718736603. Maybe first and last time for 'usa1810@fedex.com.

City summers produce some curious behaviors. In Franklin Park near Macpherson Metro, hippie renegades sat beside the burbling fountain, backs to the meagre spouts where pigeons flocked to keep cool. Their long-haired dog lay sprawled beside them, properly harnessed, with a tiny leashed cat clinging to its back.  A cool scene. Really.

Metro had its own cast of characters on show. Besides  talented Doo Wap performers, travelers made their own appearances known. A black woman dressed in white - hat, trousers and top - hailed me as I descended, in a friendly gesture meant to acknowledge my own all-white garb of the day. As though we two were among the smart folk like MiniCooper owners giving a mutual wave on the roadway. But we were nothing up against the woman guiding her wheelchair among rushing Metro hordes who had on stylish clothes and perfect makeup and one matching artificial leg complete with shoe hanging off the back.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Washington DC Artists on Show

Contradiction is the artist's fate. To persist in the face of indifference, to paint because - well, you feel you have no choice. And do this in DC, a power town "where artists are the ugly stepchildren," as painter Michael Clark aka Clark V. Fox calls it - at the same time he calls DC "way underrated" in terms of the art produced here. "This art has soul, and only DC could produce people like this."
 Does he mean that artists in the nation's capital are beyond being corrupted? No, he says at the July 7th reception for "The Constant Artist" exhibit at AU's Katzen Arts Center, just one of the city's many mainly-free stimulating venues to tease the eye and mind. He thinks the inspiration of these places helps keep the senses alive, the artist in touch with his/ her soul.
So goes wishful thinking in the summer of 2012. although the exhibit itself defies any such pessimism. The fulcrum for the exhibit is photographer Paul Feinberg and portraits he has done through the years of nine of the city's leading artists, then and now, accompanied by some of their representative work. The walls are alive with stories, mainly of good times past when Feinberg, a "double dipper" of sorts like many in DC who lead dual lives (he trained was an engineer and worked at NASA), made sure to tape interviews with his subjects "as a way of knowing them, the better to photograph them."

A central figure for him in the '70s and '80s - "the scene then had a generosity of spirits, real camaraderie" -  was the late artist Manon Cleary, a legendary hostess who introduced him to the demi-monde of that era, a more dynamic time than now. "Buyers aren't out there as much now but artists still paint, and I was interested in why they continued, why they were so intent in the pursuit of beauty and creativity." Cleary, he says, "enhanced whatever she saw; she saw beauty in whatever she saw. She had so much to say and never minced words. She was very generous but tough if you crossed her."

Fred Folsom agrees that the rich trove of museums here make the difference, even if few  of them ever bother to celebrate the talent underfoot. "I always assumed the National Gallery of Art was there for me alone," he tells the audience wistfully. Folsom's seldom displayed giant  1987 triptytch "Last Call (at the Shepherd Park Go-Go Club) is just one of the special pieces on view through August 12. It's a living portrait in motion of good times and bad, a real place "pitch black when I went in and sat down, the music so loud that nobody could hear anyone else and had nothing to do with anyone else. I've got a lot of old friends here; I have stories about everybody." Soul brothers and sisters, many of them, a remembrance of things past still current.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Aging Brain

 Aging isn't pretty. Nor is the June 13 report from the field by scientists working on research and policy matters. (Marilyn Albert of Johns Hopkins; Dr. Reisa Sperling from Harvard and beyond;; Dr. Richard Hodes of NIH's NIA.) Alzheimer's  or AD, as it is known, is 70 percent of dementia in older persons, either alone or in combination with other diseases. Populations are aging; numbers will go up. Among so-called normally aging people  65 years and older, some 32 % show a 'significant amount' of the brain's amyloid plaque associated with the disease. And there is evidence the proclivity for getting AD begins much earlier since 15 years can elapse between the time when signs are discovered and the disease becomes full blown. One third of the current generation of baby boomers now turning 65 have AD or are at risk. At age 85 or older, nearly one half of them will "most likely" have AD. The burden on society is practically incalculable.
The panel speaking at AAAS  indicated that research is way ahead of treatment, and the policy field is up for grabs. There is no cure for AD at the moment, so the best advice is to pursue the same-old same-old health preventative regime : move a lot, eat less, stay mentally and socially active. Delaying onset for even 5 years would reduce Medicare costs by as much as 50 %, the estimate goes. But how we do that is, of course, open to question. More clinical trials are needed, and they are expensive, and the money isn't there unless chair of a key committee has a relative affected. Or so it would seem.  Ronald Reagan can't carry the banner anymore.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Write What You Know

The nonprofit 826DC organization is inspirational: in addition to providing after school tutoring in its Columbia Heights office, it turns young people into published writers and gives them proof their personal lives matter. George Pelecanos is inspirational: his conscience drives him. The two joined up a while ago after a simple appeal from an 826DC board member waiting in line for the noted author's autograph on his umpteenth book about Washington's underworld (for lack of a better term).
At a June 7 fundraiser for 826DC, GP repeated his mission - to write about what he knows best (just like 826DC students do). In his case, a special best as son of a Greek diner owner where he began working at age 11 and then ran the place when his father got sick. (The diner became today's C.F. Folks on 19th St. NW next to the Palm, a lobbyist and politicians hangout.) GP isn't much interested in politics, he says. Not cynical, just that he "doesn't like to write about them." He has more feeling for the characters he knew during the years he spent working  blue collar jobs to pay the rent. His first book came out when he was 31. It was the first book he ever wrote.  His latest, "What It Was," out in January, was written "in secret - outside my regular contract. I just wrote it and sent it up to New York." 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

George Bellows Isn't Only About Boxing

  George Bellows? You mean that guy who did those famously ferocious paintings of boxers fighting it out in the ring? No, I mean Bellows the author of many stunning portraits, especially of women and especially the commanding oil of his wife Emma at the piano. A nude in purposeful imitation of Manet. And the "Little Girl In White.' Isn't that one a bit reminiscent of Sargent's austere lady in white?  Think again. Look carefully to find out she was a child laborer who did the laundry in his New York building. She is a young beauty who might have been posing prematurely for her debut.
Bellows died in 1934 - of appendicitis at age 42 -perhaps too soon for his reputation to be established as one of the country's great artists on a par with his friend Edward Hopper. He may even have been more versatile - certainly more accessible - than Hopper, both of whom, curiously enough, portrayed some of the more sober and dispiriting sides of urban life while finding personal solace in rural and oceanside retreats. The National Gallery of Art is doing its best to make amends with the first comprehensive collection of his work in decades now on its walls from June 10 to October 8.
 The banner advertising the West Wing show should rightly puzzle anyone who thinks of Bellows as mainly an 'illustrator' of fight scenes, masterpieces though they may be. His social conscience was as remarkable as his skill. He did many large groupings of the 'lower classes' at work and play -  yet he insisted that art should not be formed by political activism. He drew and painted what he saw around him with a refreshing intensity, the chattering (upper) classes - so prominent in his day - be damned.   For sheer empathetic horror, reflect on works illustrating the horrors of racism and war.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Living It Up Among the Dead

Think a cocktail might raise your spirits? Or any spirits abiding in Congressional Cemetery in Southeast DC? Corpse Reviver #2 was the featured drink served up recently on the historic grounds at an evening reception for Garrett Peck's book THE POTOMAC RIVER.(The cemetery sits along the Anacostia River, once called the Eastern Branch of the Potomac.) Gin, Lillet vermouth,  orange liqueur and a touch of absinthe. (The cemetery always promises some lively if entirely sober and silent company, including  J. Edgar Hoover, John Philip Sousa, Tip O'Neill, and a philanthropic brothel owner named Mary Hall who once conducted business on what is now the Museum of the American Indian at Independence and Maryland Avenues.) I was hoping to meet some of the people with whom I might be buried someday, being a purchaser of space in the Cemetery's so-called Green Section that features a biodegradable finale. (No metals, no chemicals, only a wooden box.) www.congressionalcemetery.org still has openings...and a new book available from Arcadia press.

Friday, April 27, 2012

What the octopus knows....

...and what we humans can learn from nature about how better able to defend ourselves in the world. No small order but one tackled by marine biologist Rafe Sagarin in his book "Learning from the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters, and Disease." Apparently, the skin cells of this creature are attuned to externals threats in the environment similar in ways to methods employed by the humble ground squirrel. The squirrel can audibly signal enemies that it is on to their game so beware. (In the case of rattlesnakes, which can't hear but  are sensitive to heat, the squirrel can heat up its tail as a warning device.) The lesson for humans is to ramp up methods of perception by deploying multiple sensors  - to be proactive rather than reactive. "We focus too much on failure," says the author/lecturer Sagarin. Animals have built-in warning systems that humans ignore to our peril (ie.animals changed behavior in advance of the Katrina disaster ).DARPA - the Defense Department research arm - smartly issues challenges asking leaders ahead of time how to solve a problem before it arises. Like Steve Jobs apparently managed to do to get results that have made Apple perhaps the 'safest' investor stock on the planet... All this and more at  AAAS April 5. Just another 'harmless' discussion of high quality on DC's daily calendar. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Reading For Professionals

So what are you going with yourself these days? Ah that old refrain tossed out to the recovering journalist and part-time loafer. Suppose I say that "I read." Then my polite interrogator undoubtedly asks what I am reading while thinking  that he/she had better go refill her/his glass. The luxury of having time to read, to pick among the great choices available and know at the same time you are helping support a worthy profession, even helping keep public libraries alive. Could the decision by the Pulitzer jury this week not to award a fiction prize  have helped in a perverse way to  raise the profile of the rejected candidates? Every book is a journey, the cliche goes. Author Darin Strauss had a strenuous personal journey writing his memoir "Half A Life" about how an accident as a teenager changed his life. He was driving a car that killed a high school classmate when she seemed to deliberately turn her bicycle into his path. You will have to live your life on the double to make up for her, the girl's parents told him afterwards. He is now father of twin boys after writing an earlier book about the famous Siamese twins Cheng and Eng joined at birth. The New York author-educator (a teaching post at NYU) spoke at a benefit function April 18 on behalf of 826DC (see www.826DC.org), the local branch of the national urban nonprofit started by Dave Eggers (McSweeney's, etc.) to tutor young people and encourage creative writing at all levels.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

DC's Ambidexterous Dentist

Dr. Steven Kaufman, a specialist in the periodontal trade, has talents well beyond preserving and implanting the oral outcropping of our precious skeleton. When in rhythmic fashion  he picks his way through uppers and lowers at exam time (3-4-2-6 etc), he might just be counting notes since he is also an accomplished trumpet player. (Ambidexterous can mean "exceptionally dexterous") One of his venues outside his jazz-infused downtown Washington office is Maryland's Glen Echo Park where he sometimes toots his horn on Saturday nights. Check info@glenechopark.org. He once was one of four trumpet players in a band called the Doc Dikeman Jazz Ensemble that recorded a CD labeled "Swing Session" - the Doc being a graduate of the Georgetown University School of Dentistry and, according to record notes, a performer during his Duke University years with the "famous" Duke Ambassadors. This was a band that Les Brown had directed five years early, say those same notes. (See line drawings of famous jazz artists here on my blog.)  Kaufman says this particular band is no more but the memory lingers on..as does fame by association. After graduation from Duke, 'Doc's band had performed one time alongside Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald. Not to brag but yes to relish-the-memory-of, I was able on best behavior to 'sketch' live up close DG as well as many others in the  pantheon.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Pilates Pilgrims

Yes, we trek regularly on the road to well being - acolytes of 'Father Joe P,' Joseph Pilates, founder of what he called Contrology with its not-so-startling premise that 'physical fitness is the first requisite of happiness.' Maybe that was new (even revolutionary) back in the 30s and 40s. To give the guru credit, his 1934 book was called YOUR HEALTH and drew on the Greek idea of 'a balanced body and mind.' The RETURN TO LIFE THROUGH CONTROLOGY published in 1945 had a co-author and set out principles and philosophies as well as a list of exercises pertinent to his regime. The latter are best done under supervision of trained personnel, one of which in Washington is Pure Joe Pilates Studios (a satellite studio is in Reston, Va.) www.purejoe.com. One woman who has been coming here for "oh, 10 or 11" years began with a bad case of scoliosis, a spinal condition. The studio also has treated an 18-month-old child with a muscular condition (the muscles needed loosening), an 81-year-old man in good health, and Parkinson patients. The secret to success for most participants, needless to say, is concentration and constant repetition. No 'medicine' other than exercise seems guaranteed to prolong life these days...or so experts seem to attest.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Not so Strange an Interlude

Good - even amazing - theater can keep Washington patrons in their seats beyond the normal 10 p.m. rush to the door as proven by the current offering at Shakespeare Theatre Company's presentation of Eugene O'Neill's 'Strange Interlude.' It was Michael Kahn's stated gift to himself to tackle what was originally a nine act play - first shown in 1928 - and get permission to edit it down to three and a half hours. "For me it is a search for happiness," MK said in extensive remarks at a dinner preceding the April 2nd formal opening. "O'Neill explored theater the way Shakespeare did,' influenced by  Freud, Jung and Joyce. Characters speak to one another and then in a masterly directorial way say aloud what is in their mind. 'You get to know characters inside and outside; the texture of the play is thought...' Guess what? Program notes say that O'Neill was undergoing psychoanalysis and reading Joyce's Ulysses during the writing of the play. Never underestimate the power of the unconscious and, for readers interested in understanding the psychodynamics of the creative mind (and biology's input), order up Eric Kandel's new book, 'The Age of Insight.'

Sunday, April 1, 2012


That's how Ari Roth, indomitable artistic director, referred to the recent spate of highly popular Spinoza-centered events at Theater J, including a sold-out day-long symposium on the philosopher who dared think for himself across the grain of an orthodox society in 17th century Amsterdam. Spinoza was the forerunner of Darwin, an independent thinker ostracized from his (Jewish community) society for daring to question. The April 1 Sunday morning chamber reading of "Spinoza's Solitude," a play-in-progress, showed the splendidly self-effacing man living alone with only a dog for company. Recall Harry Truman's line about 'if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog,' to imagine (granted, a stretch) an updated message. Special note: That production had some terrific actors all including two graduates of DC's graduate Academy for Classical Acting - Daniel Flint and Will Cooke, class of '09. (theaterj@theaterj.org)   

a National Museum of Language

With all the babble that goes on in Washington in the name of language, perhaps it isn't  surprising that such an institution  should exist here. But as museums go, it is something of a misnomer. Located in three small rooms in an office building at 7100 Baltimore Ave. in College Park,  Md., NML is a part-time volunteer-run place, open Tuesday and Saturday and the first and third Sunday afternoon only. (See http://languagemuseum.org). Go in the side door and look opposite a dentist's quarters. Admission is free.  There is an indirect connection with the nearby University of Maryland campus (example: the donation of some costume dolls from a faculty member to help represent Spain in a section on Romance languages). Ah, but the aims are high: "to promote a better understanding of language and its role in history, " etc. Come touch a piece of real papyrus (early form of paper); spell words in different languages on a computer; try your hand at Chinese calligraphy. Annual memberships available. ($20 for a student or senior).
We went on a whim, my friend and I, and chanced upon some other whimsical operations along  Rte 1: an Art Deco Unisex Barbershop (in the plainest of plain buildings on that decidedly eclectic highway; a trompe l'oeil Gothic-style architectural mural; the "Taste" restaurant, which we didn't try, opting instead for Plato's diner, advertising "best" crabcake and most "famous" everything else on a menu that incorporates as many cultures as can be found (it seems) in the NML. Leave it to the Greeks, this is the hangout of local politicians and it claims to stay open 24 hours on weekends (for cops AND robbers no doubt). Good homemade soups; five-inch high cheesecake; top-notch service with outsize servings.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Eartha Kitt

Secretary Sebelius off the cuff 3/12/12

Through the good graces and smart marketing of Capitol Hill Village officials (more about this organization another time), some 18 people could sit around in a sort of informal way with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius last evening at the home of her former Trinity College roommate. Yes, chalk up another stellar achieving graduate of that DC institution (ie Nancy Pelosi - and the host herself, Peggy O'Brien, education consultant of note and 33-year Hill resident). What's to learn?
-The Secretary, no mean slouch in political life (former Democratic Governor of a Republican state and a business woman by training, not a lawyer though her husband is), likes and watches Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. Went on the show with advice 'don't try to be funny' and 'remember he likes the Mets.' Stephen Colbert,being 'faux,' is a different and more difficult encounter.
-She jogs/runs when she can, even in the dark before dawn in Central Park when in New York, and lives - coincidence? - near Results Gym on Capitol Hill.
-No trouble getting choice time with the Prez, whom she first met in Chicago in '04, endorsed him early, though full Cabinet meetings only take place every two months. Lots of subgroups.'
-Optimistic and philosophical about pending Supreme Court ruling on the administration's health care legislation.(But keep in mind the pressure to retain the Affordable Care Act, however indirectly delivered - that, as she says, Medicare reaches 49 million people, and is the largest insurance care program of its kind in the world.
- Her sprawling department represents 17 l/2 percent of the GDP with the Food and Drug Administration regulating 25 cents of consumer dollars.
On and on then, with a Q&A by members of Cap Hill Village who paid at a recent silent auction to have dinner 'with a mystery guest.' Public employes of rank can't legally advertise themselves on behalf of private non-profits - though there is no doubt she is also upbeat about the existence of Villages (a rapidly growing movement intended to help people 'age in place' and retain community ties) and her friend Peggy OBrien.


Monday, March 5, 2012


Ed Gero at Tunnicliff's 1

Freedom is just a word for nothing left to lose.
It seems unclear who first said this. The message can be interpreted in any number of ways. Like the sense of freedom itself, what it is and who enjoys it. The concept can change with each person and each person’s time of life. Take the life of painter Mark Rothko, most recently interpreted on stage by Washington-based actor of note Ed Gero. Freedom in the play RED, about Rothko and his young challenger assistant, might well be the creative artist’s stand to pursue a vision at the expense of almost everything else in his life. He is tempted by lucre - and his pride – but withdraws in favor of the greater need to be his own man, set his own terms. If the idea of having your splendidly wrought outsize paintings hang in a setting (the Four Seasons restaurant in NY’s Seagram building) compete with the food on plates (quail eggs in aspic in the play) then withdraw them and feel, well, free…

Ed Gero at Tunnicliff's 3/4/12 after RED

This is pensive Ed Gero talking
about the experience of being Mark
Rothko (see www.geroasrothko.wordpress.com)
and reaction of Washington audiences,
which he says is remarkable - especially
for its silence in the right places.