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.