Wednesday, November 25, 2015

'Anything Goes': Cole Porter's World

Another Washington, D.C., November note:

For a farm boy, Cole Porter has to be considered one of the most 'urbanized' of men.
As the New York Times noted at the time of his death, age 72, in 1964, he and his wife were unstinting in their embrace of a grand lifestyle that took advantage of what every major city could offer, Paris, Venice, etc:

Their home on the Left Bank in Paris had platinum wallpaper and chairs upholstered in zebra skin,  and Mr. Porter once hired the entire Monte Carlo Ballet to entertain his  guests. For a party in Venice, where he rented the Palazzo Rezzonico for $4,000 a month, he hired 50 gondoliers to act as footmen and had a troupe of high-rope walkers perform in a blaze of lights.
 Unusual taste for  a man born on an Indiana farm. His talent showed early and later garnered him  enormous success and admiration across the board for a sophisticate who knew how to entertain the masses with such jazzy tunes as those in 'Kiss Me Kate' now playing at Shakespeare Theatre Company's Harman Hall. The production is loud and brassy -  starting with the opening sequence (the familiar "Another Op'Nin, Another Show") on a Baltimore backstage. (More city references follow: Padua, Mantua, Verona, etc., introduced in the show-within-a-show.)  What the revival lacks in subtlety, it makes up in a joyful display of acting and dancing talent. This is a show for a new generation hooked on instant feedback and sound bites, aiming for the solar plexus rather than the brain. Musical numbers come and go with crackerjack timing and breathtaking gymnastics. the

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Cartoonists Without Their Pens

It wasn't surprising that a public symposium at the National Archives called "Drawn from the Headlines: Communication & Political Cartoons" would draw (!) an overflow crowd. Four top 'drawer' names in the field spoke off the cuff with moderator David Sipress, the longtime New Yorker magazine artist: Keith Knight, Jen Sorensen, Tom Toles and Signe Wilkinson. This took place only days after ISIS' carnage in Paris, less than a year since the Charlie Hebdo massacre, so it was a bit of a surprise that only later in the evening a question was asked about what limits the panelists impose on themselves, given first amendment rights to 'speak truth to power.'
But whose truth and what kind of power?
"As a functioning cartoonist I'm extremely conflicted. it's a real quagmire. In the history of political cartooning there have been shameful chapters - viciously anti-Semitic and extremely racist  work- that have had serious consequences," said Toles (a Pulitzer Prize winner  with the Washington Post ). It's not that he would refuse to consider mockery but in what context, he seemed to say. To what end?
The balance, always the balance, was the answer to another question about the best way to get a point across: not to be too obscure'; not to be 'too clever.'
"You want [the point or message] to be like the viewer thought it up himself," said Sipress, whose introductory remarks included guidelines the New Yorker follows. (You can't advocate for a cause, or support any one party. Caricatures are forbidden, so he sticks to archetypes. I.e a politician who rants like a king can be portrayed in royal robes. Witness a recent drawing of his showing two kings in the midst of opposing armies saying, one to the other"On the other hand, we could join forces and attack the media." Which of the presidential candidates haven't hinted or proclaimed this outright?
Signe Wilkinson, best known for her work with the Philadelphia Daily News, one of two women panelists ('today there is woman who is a full-time paid cartoonist"), batted off any suggestion about a 'woman's point of view' as did Jen Sorensen, who called herself a 'generalist,'  open to the world. "The first goal is to make a point," in any piece. "The second is to be funny." Comedy chops are required above all or who would bother. " Knight, creator of (th)ink and other columns, keeps in mind "the guy in the bar." He told of the rise of 'niche' cartoonists, even one who deals solely in sex toys - a symbol of the  ever-divisible media world where the cartoonist has maybe have a thousand followers, receiving maybe $75 from each. An audience but not much of a living...

Monday, November 9, 2015

Urban Lady's Allure

November 2015
The French-American artist Louise Bourgeois was certainly an urban lady. She had all the family dysfunction  you could imagine but instead of taking out her hurts on others, she turned to art and the art world followed -  slowly. But it finally found and embraced her sculptures and later prints and drawings, although the latter  may not be as familiar to contemporary fans as her provocative and commanding sculptures. She is the spider woman, known best for the graceful but intimidating immense form she composed in many guises. (See it in the National Gallery of Art's Sculpture Garden, among other places.)
NGA currently offers a fine new exhibit of some of these lesser-known works in the West Wing, nearly all real and promised acquisitions for their Bourgeois collection. Curiously, one of the most arresting pieces on show is a small white sculpture (kept well protected so not to tempt prying fingers) illustrating the thrust of several fingers through a round base angled on its side.There is a suggestion of lusciousness in the shape, as NGA curator Judith Brodie  pointed out in a press preview, saying, coincidentally, how "Chocolate (for itself and as a subject) is very popular with artists." There's much to see in these two small rooms about variety of LB's creative impulses and their relation to the times. She grew up in the 'age of anxiety' so-called, a time when a existentialism was in flower thanks partly to Jean Paul Sartre. "No Exit," however , wasn't entirely a negative in her mind. It had also to do with free will  - the ability to choose one's life. Bourgeois did that to the end of her life, making freedom and positivity her hallmark, staying active and engaged until her death at 98 in 2010. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Boom Boom Town

Praises be, the District of Columbia and a few - very few - of its suburban 'hoods, are being hailed as hot. With hot goes hype and high prices. And the hordes coming through.
While earnest informed voices offer free insights into relationships between art and literature at the National Gallery of Art these days (thanks in part to integration of Corcoran collection of American painting), a few blocks away the redoubtable Harrington Hotel and Harriet's restaurant soldiers on to accommodate the 'foreign hordes.' (Yes, increasing numbers of tourists coming all seasons to DC).   Notably, according to our chef source, a stutterers' convention came to dine,  as often do  FBI  employees having celebrations since the restaurant can guarantee no direct shot into its dining room from any outside protagonist. And recently, the entire body of a Caribbean island high school, plus  sons and daughters of some of Mexico's richest families who matriculate and travel with bodyguards in tow. Improbably enough, they were seated next to a group of solidly right white offspring from the  South, and never the twain did meet - or even talk together.
Such variety is the stuff of life. The Mexican kids - no surprise - opted for spice and more spice; the offspring of alleged KKK boasted of a rib eating contest - up to 12 and then 24, as though this were an initiation into manhood. Eat and compete; grow bigger, die sooner.

Monday, October 5, 2015

On a Greek Island: So Near, So Far

Chios is one of several islands in western Greece nearest to Turkey that  represent salvation after migrants' uncertain journey across the sea in smugglers' boats that invariably are overcrowded and unsafe. Chiostown, like Mytilene on Lesbos, becomes their home while they wait for a ferry to take them to Athens and the start of a much longer journey north..
Because Lesbos is closer to Turkey - a bare three miles on a good day - many more of these voluntarily displaced persons (migrants and refugees are often interchangeable in purpose and methods) end up there. Media has made known many of their faces and stories  and many if not most migrants are  equally familiar with media.; cell phones are as ubiquitous as ponchos and backpacks - their only real home being what they carry with them in their pockets and on their backs.
I was in Chios recently,  staying in a small secluded settlement with a clean pebble beach that has excellent swimming. This particular  area draws locals and tourists alike but not in great numbers since there is no through road, and the island itself is not known as a tourist mecca. On my first morning I and a few  others were in the sea, enjoying weightless freedom in clear temperate water when one of the boats was approaching within a hundred yards.
It is an unsetting disconnect to be physically present, to witness  the sight of such desperate travelers that they probably have come almost by accident to a place they cannot name. Navigation never is a sure thing in these waters, where winds  change quickly, and it's even worse when the craft is so fragile. They may not be able to control their direction - which ideally would be closer to  the main port. Arrival time is equally guesswork. (One dingy turned up the next day at 4 in the morning,  only yards away from our bungalows. Someone woke up and greeted them and they immediately apologized, saying in English they they hoped they didn't disturb anyone.)
To see in the distance a flimsy black rubber dingy topped by indistinct orange blobs - life jackets of  devious quality on human forms - is to forever change your sense of what is means to scan the horizon. The group drew near in silence until they felt the crunch of something solid  underneath and knew the dingy has made it to shore. Then shouts and cheers went up. They had touched land at last - Europe, their real goal. This group was made up of some 40 adults and children, stepping gingerly out of the vessel, helping one another  and then sitting down to rest. The dingy  is immediately disabled, so no one can force them back to sea; it then becomes a crumbled eyesore surrounded by discarded inner tubes and life jackets. It takes a few days but eventually most of the detritus is carried away by locals.  The first to go is the small outboard motor; if it still is operational,  fisherman from a nearby harbor  will grab it.

Tourists are citizens with up to date passports welcome in nearly every country; they  represent what migrants hope to be and have - stability and personal recognition.
This gap, the one between them and 'us,' is huge; awareness of it stings the conscience. There is only so much you feel you can do, you say, except pick up a camera and document the scene. Or is there? My heart goes out to them, and guilt ensues.The same tug at the heart one feels reading remotely about the phenomenon of hundreds of thousands of people from the Middle East and Asia in search of new life.
 Before leaving Washington  I solicited donations from a neighbor for some 'gently worn' me's shoes that he generously provided me in a almost-new backpack that I had in my room barely a hundred yards away up the beach that day.  Their own shoes would be soaked, I reasoned; anything dry in the moment might be welcome.
I  ran to change out of swimwear into 'decent' clothing, grabbed the bag  and walked hurriedly to where  two young men from the dingy were  happily showering  - the sort of simple cold water facility used by day swimmers to freshen up. They looked up and smiled, slightly surprised no doubt by a stranger suddenly dropping  by barelegged in a flimsy dress. It probably wasn't their first  experience being given handouts this way; Turkish people reputedly had been very generous, although Turkish officials were no longer inviting 'foreigners' to stay. The name of one of them was 'Ali' and the only English he knew was 'thank you, ' though we tried to talk more. I asked where they were from, how long was their trip. Aleppo they said - Syria. And they wanted to go to Germany.  Of course. "Not America?" I asked.Ali shook his head.
A large bus eventually came along , charging each passenger 3 Euros to go some 10 miles into a central plaza in Chios town where the UN Refugee Agency has erected  tents - but never enough tents, especially in a storm. The plaza is large and accommodating, attractive even, with  room for children to play on grass. There are  public washroom facilities - the men set up an informal barbershop outside one of them -  and nearby markets have food.  Another day I watched another group milling around the port.  This was a foul smelling dissolute place by a busy street where lines had been set up - presumably  in order to be registered. But, again, the men I spoke with - women kept to themselves, minding children for the most part - were friendly and eager to talk though our exchange was limited. "Journalist?" they said while I proceeded to try to interview a few of them. But again I wasn't able to find anyone able to say much in English. "Why don't you speak Arabic?" asked one, introducing himself as a math teacher. Another asked my age  and where I was from. 'America' only elicited another question: "How you like Assad?"
On my last day I saw another dinghy that had steered its way to a smaller beach near my lodging. This group had taken refuge around a chapel  by the road, as though they knew was this spot  where a bus would come for them. They took advantage of some trees and had strung ropes between them  to dry  wet clothes while waiting. I didn't see any locals around; no one offering help. (A cafe owner on the bigger beach  below always brought new arrivals bottles of water. ) One man I stopped outside his house said he had already given clothing earlier in the season and didn't appear ready to extend himself any further. I raised my hand in greeting as I walked by,  saying "welcome' and ' hello'  and 'congratulations'  - whatever that might mean to them at this point.The children waved back. Then  a tall gaunt  man came forward and put out his hands  in an imploring gesture.  "Shoes," he said. He couldn't have known about my earlier supply, could he?  I had no more to give except the flip-flops on my feet. Did he want those? I  wondered, feeling helpless and trapped. Trapped by feelings of despair on his behalf, dismay of my own, since what could I do at that moment? All I knew to do was to keep walking, shaking my head in sorrow that I had nothing to give.
Awkward, like I said. Awkward to be the observer, a spectator, hiding behind her photo lens, photographing The Other. But not nearly as 'awkward' as creating a new life in an unruly unknown world.
The word awkward hardly suffices but what word will do for the complexity of their world to date.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

New York/August 2015

A  high and mighty iconic New York symbol: a water tower looms up within view of the new Whitney Museum on Manhattan's west side. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

A Lot of Croc?

Add to the list of urban myths - alligators live in Manhattan's sewers, etc. - the one that might actually be true about the man in Washington, D.C., who  chose to live for two years in a homeless shelter so that he might spend every day reading (for free, of course) in the Library of Congress. Needless to say, the library does not normally cater to unemployed people without a fixed address but there is no reason why a determined soul can't apply for a card allowing him access. At least to access books that do not circulate. There is no information about his choice of subject matter. Presumably he was boning up or catching up, hoping to get ahead in the world.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Booked or Spooked

No, not booked as in jailed - but ordinarily someone leaving a bookstore without paying for an item might end up that way. This is rather a story that might be labeled 'morals for a modern city' - when a customer discovers that by mistake she has walked out of the store with a book she didn't pay for.
And then returns the book she didn't pay for. (She had bought another one, paid for one, and then found there were two different titles in the bag.) Understandable perhaps; it can happen if a clerk who is processing the credit card puts two books in the bag but in a moment of forgetfulness only remembers to charge one of them. It can happen...
When later the 'free' book got returned, the clerk minding the register remarks he never has had such a thing happen in all his years on the job. Never has someone voluntarily returned an item that wasn't paid for. So think about this: that it must be very easy in some independent book stores (not willing to pay for surveillance) to lose a lot of stock that way. Think harder: what are today's morals if someone decides to keep the (accidentally) stolen goods?

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Wild in Wausau

Ever think about skyscraper windows? Where they are born and how they are made? Without them  would anyone ever consider going into such a building, much less live in one? Wausau, in north central Wisconsin, is where many of these highly engineered products are created. Wausau Windows and Walls sends customized windows on the company's own semi vans regularly all over the country, including such prestige campuses as Notre Dame and Stanford and beyond.  What the company won't agree to handle are private homes, even those of a lavish sort, where owners are apt to take the word 'custom' to lengthy ends. A load set out  recently for the highest building currently under construction in lower Manhattan  - 99 Church St., a Four Seasons Residence with multi-million-dollar pied-à-terres that are virtually castles in the sky.
The city of Wausau offers a lot more than cheese curds and craft beer for anyone wanting to live in or visit a well-planned  urban space by a river  called the Wisconsin, which flows  eventually into the Mississippi. A nearby mountain, whose granite rocks are a billion years old, has numerous ski trails. Lakes in winter offer curling and skating. The downtown center square can boast one weekend in summer of creating what could be the world's largest sidewalk art painting done by locals. A Calendar of Events for summer months takes up two pages single-spaced in a free  - "Wausau works for you!" -bulletin. It's a friendly environment, blessedly free of gentrified inner Washington,DC's blight of what seems like an invasion dry cleaners and nail salons on every block.
Most unusual of all perhaps is the unlikely location on a hillside of a railroad stations that copies almost to perfection an older one more conveniently placed on operating tracks below. Both were built decades ago by what was then the Wausau insurance corporation, famous for its iconic symbol advertised on 'Sixty Minutes.'  The station in the sky was built for its entertainment value. To add to its veneer of authenticity a few yards of track were added along with an aged caboose. No telling what adventures were possible there; it might make a great children's play park now.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Metro Etiquette continued

After the recent horrific killing - a knife! an everyday object! - in daylight in a crowded Washington Metro train perhaps the struggling transportation authority in charge should institute public advisories on how to handle such events. Do we collectively, in whatever car we find ourselves, go in a group to dismember (excuse me, disrobe...or overcome....) the assailant? Obviously if anyone on the car that day had a knife of his/her own perhaps it would have been useful to try a fencing match. But something in the way of rules could be posted: Start screaming all at once (as well as text 311 and 911 and anywhere else you can think of),  start running and kicking and acting up - acting just as crazy as the literally crazed attacker seemed to be. Be prepared for the worst.
Perhaps this: bring with you each time you enter the system a small concealed tube of pepper spray and use it judiciously when necessary. But aim carefully.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

What's In A Word?

There's no telling where the word urban will turn up these days. Fashion powerhouse Donna Karan now seeks a niche with something she calls Urban Zen.  Turns out (Business pages say) it comes with a foundation attached and may be the compensation for giving up the name brand that the French luxury empire LVMH once acquired for $143 million, according to reports.
Here is her pitch, if you can decipher the print.  It's mindful living with a wardrobe attached:

Urban Zen is a philosophy of living by Donna Karan. It is the calm in the chaos of life. A way of giving. An effortless dance of emotion, personality and lifestyle. Timeless. Seasonless. Endlessly expressive. A connection of mind, body and spirit. Touched and inspired by cultures and craftsmen from around the world.
Our stores offer a unique collection of luxurious women and men’s apparel, one-of-a-kind jewelry, handcrafted leather pieces, artisan furniture and home decor, as well as other soulful objects of desire. Urban Zen’s products are developed in partnership with artisans who align with our soulful economy mission.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Painter's Eyes

The handsome Gustave Caillebotte wasn't your usual artist. He was rich, for one thing. He was also - among other things - a balladeer in paint of  modern urban life in 19th century Paris. The National Gallery of Art through October 4 is giving a fresh view of the man whose initial offering for the prestigious government-run Salon in 1875 was rejected out of hand.  The picture, prophetically enough, shows three shirtless men, their bodies highlighted by window light, scraping the floors of an empty room. We see little of the men's faces; the work is a cacophony of lines - long strong arms, circles and rectangles on walls and window, straight markings on the wood. Facial expressions and the human form are subservient to his  theme, which is almost architectural in spirit. A gorgeous display of fruit for sale on a market stall is a formal composition, as is the picture of a man and woman shown in an interior space and the view of pedestrians outflanked by the girders of a steel bridge over the Seine. Umbrellas seem more important than the people in one of his most famous works: 'Paris Street, Rainy Day.' And just as striking is the highly evocative scene from above of a traffic island on the Boulevard Haussmann. The latter is  'modern' enough as to be abstract art.
These impressionist painters always had their eye on the future when drawing portraits of contemporary life. 

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Urbanism on the March

If if isn't enough that Google wants to take over the digital world, consider the latest (as of June 2015) of their many ventures - a department to 'update' the wellbeing of cities. According to the New York Times' business page, former New York City deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff (and former Bloomberg official) has signed on to run Sidewalk Labs, a so-called "urban innovation company." Technology is at the heart of the move, of course. The ambitions as described are enormous. nothing less than 'quality of life' will come under its umbrella.
Will Silicon Valley itself next have a seat in the President's cabinet, maybe even at the United Nations? 

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Tartuffe No Pouf

Moliere's Tartuffe now playing at Shakespeare Theater's Harman stage,  is a tribute to the human body as much as it is to the malicious wit of the 17th century sage. How leading actor Seven Epp manages to sustain such control simultaneously of both contorted movements and full voice is a sight to behold. It isn't for lack of experience, as he is a co-artistic director of the Moving Company responsible for the production. A viewer seeing him on his back on the floor commanding attention of all with both head and legs raised in the air has to wonder how many years of core training it took to acquire such wiles. And to sustain them. Is there a Pilates teacher  in the background getting full credit?

Friday, June 5, 2015

Ode to Oman

I went to Oman the other day and didn't even need a suitcase. Such is life in an international city.
I'm not fussy. I'll go just about anywhere if there is a promise of learning something new or seeing something old in a new way.  Going to the opening of the new Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center at the corner of L and 16th Streets in Washington's Northwest was a no-brainer. No ticket needed (free admission) and certainly no luggage since this was local and certainly novel. I actually was in Oman (the Sultan's home and, you might say, his kingdom). The newly renovated building - once belonging to Arts for the Aging as well as Planned Parenthood - is officially that country's territory, albeit far  removed from its striking location on the southeastern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.
These days, there could be no more vital spot in the Middle East with Yemen and Saudi Arabia for neighbors and Pakistan and Iran not far away. But politics played no part in a program devoted to historic and cultural matters designed to impress visitors circulating throughout ts pure white walled rooms. Women lined up all evening to get a jeweled henna design on their hands and arms (and learned that lemon juice helps preserve the pattern).  An instrumental trio played 'typical' background music to accompany typical Middle Eastern hors d'oeuvres. (Nothing like an oud to set a mood.) The Lebanese Taverna catered; an Iranian-born calligrapher translated signatures - first name only - into Arabic script. (Mine  resembled either a ghost in flight or a gourd with a stick. So much for easy translations.) It was almost worth negotiating the day's deluge of rain that felt like more than Oman might get in a year to inspect the model showing the country's water filtration system. Take a look, Los Angeles.
Take me back anytime. There's actually some lush green space out there in the desert kingdom. Plus real frankincense that you can both drink and burn. It cures nearly all your afflictions, or so the sample handouts said.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Breathing Room

Not your everyday concert, and you probably had to be there to believe it because seeing or reading about it isn't enough.
The performance of "Sila: The Breath of the World" that took place in  three disparate sites in  Washington recently was a communal event, bringing audiences and musicians together in more ways than one. Composer John Luther Adams, a Pulitzer-prize winner (the accolade always necessary to quote), had been commissioned by both New York's Lincoln Center and the Washington Performing Arts Society to present an outdoor hour-long piece involving singers, brass players, percussionists and strings. It was as much a meditative exercise as, well, music of a kind far different from the norm. The  U.S. Air Force Band did the honors in Washington, minus singers, though a few 'civilians' of assorted stripes wearing plain white shirts and dark trousers were included. Band members turned out in summer gear: short sleeves, long blue trousers, insignia on their sleeves. Saturday afternoon's event - scheduled originally for the Thomas Jefferson Memorial - was moved at the last minute under threat of storms to a second floor open area at the Museum of American History that featured a balcony where a host of musicians stood with blue horns and various  woodwind and brass instruments.
 Two tubas were on the floor below next to a wild array of percussion and strings.  Everybody was in motion, or appeared to be. At one point,  violinists pulled bows across metal bars. Other violinists strolled among the onlookers engaged in the action.. Onlookers walked freely among  musicians engrossed in a complicated computerized score. What appeared to be a spontaneous outpouring of sounds in various registers was actually a carefully calculated score. Each performer was wired to receive instructions about what they should do and how long. Most audience members stood watching in amazement - the ones who weren't seated on the floor with their eyes closed in serene repose. Adams himself sat to one side in a folding chair, hardly moving at all, until the finale signaled by a gradual elimination of instrumental sound, leaving only  public noise in the museum corridors.
"It makes a nice change from John Philip Sousa," remarked one of the band's cellists. i

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Tiny Free Library Gets Tagged

 Darren DeStephano of Washington, DC,  has been charming  passersby this year with an esoteric  collection of books left in a handmade wooden  structure next to the sidewalk outside his Capitol Hill home. It sits atop a heavy  post like a birdhouse with a squeaky  glass door, its flat roof an assemblage of green plants.  The interior is a spontaneous library of sorts, filled  serendipitously and often with a raft of reading material available  for free with the understanding that 'you take one, you leave one.'
 His creation is part of a trend, one of several so-called original little free libraries  around town - and around the world, according to the website that has taken the trend to heart and turned it into a cause.  Its heart worthy mission being to redistribute books  to people in need.  In May a Little Free Library Big Book Access Campaign was on Kickstarter soliciting $50,000 in funds.
Alas for noble deeds, however worthwhile.   Ingenuity does not always square with city rules for "Beautification of Tree Spaces." Mr. deStephano  one day found a note posted in his name on official stationery attached to the door. John Thomas,  associate director of the D.C. Urban Forestry Commission wasn't pleased with this bit of folk art; he considered it a transgressor on public ground, defacing the area around and under the young tree growing beside it. He judged it "Not in compliance with the D.C. Municipal Regulation Chapter I, Title 24, Section 109." What constitutes a better more useful urban tree box is anyone's guess but it certainly does not include candy wrappers, empty bottles and assorted other detritus that ill-mannered citizens often toss into those weed-infested lots.
Mr. Thomas suggested moving the library behind "the back edge of the sidewalk in the parking dimension of your property. This will not require a permit." Parking dimension? Is that another rule we need to know about to live civilly in the city? Does that mean Mr. deStefano can apply for a permit to keep the library in its present position?
The result was a petition of redress by the community. Signatures and email addresses to 'Save Your  Library" filled sheets of paper inside in protest, next to works by William Golding, Machiavelli, Alexander McCall Smith, J.D. Salinger, and others, as well as  old copies of National Geographic and a 2015 calendar labeled a Consumer Guide to Pasture Based Meats and Dairy.
The public had spoken. No further word  from Mr. Thomas. The structure was still in place in mid-July.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

A Heavenly Venue for the Arts

So you thought you knew Washington's National Cathedral... but did you see the life-size statues of  Lincoln and Washington in black and white respectively, near side entrance doors, with appropriate symbolic stories in stained glass high above the door?

See a tiny piece of the moon in a very contemporary styled glass window? Fnd the gargoyle of Darth Vader from "Star Wars" among the many stone faces carved by hand throughout? Know that the organ has - truly - 10,000 pipes (ever try to find them all?)?  Estimate that the bell tower  weighs 9000 tons? That all the limestone used comes from Indiana? Learn that the only president buried in the Episcopal Cathedral was a Presbyterian - Woodrow Wilson - whose grandson Francis Sayre ( born in the White House) became one of the institution's longest serving Deans?

Among the many arts on show throughout are priceless examples of wrought iron done by American master blacksmiths,  whose work -  especially gates of great individuality -  are of astounding skill and delicacy? (Among them is the "Good Shepherd" gate by Albert Paley, a very contemporary sculptural piece on the lower level. ) The metal work finally is being honored in a lavishly illustrated book on sale in the Cathedral shop as well as in the National Building Museum. One of the  authors is Barry Bem, a volunteer guide  who wears a gold tie with a delicate design representing the iron and metal work that he proudly shows off to visitors.

Needlepoint  also is found in abundance, including a wall-size needlepoint tapestry illustrating the seals of all 50 American states. The variety of handiwork on the kneeling cushions (" kneelers"), includes one done by Great Britain's Queen Mother in homage to America's role abroad in World War II.  Don't expect Mr. Bem to show it to you, since one, this like some other prized possessions, are hidden away in what he refers to as 'the Cathedral collection."

This stone palace is not just a place for prayer...

Friday, April 10, 2015

Cherry Season's Hidden Helpers

Of all the often peculiar jobs that Washington DC is prone to (esoteric and mind-numbing in their specifications), the one of translator for a chef in charge of large numbers of tourist hordes  must rank as one of the least appreciated.

 But given the surge of outsiders during the spring season, including 'foreigners' from outside our borders,  it should not surprise people to hear about young Marc, of Senegal and London,  a student at Howard University.

Student by day; translator by night - or, rather, the dinner hour, when chef-manager Rob Gilson at Harriet's Family Restaurant (a first-in-class  graduate of the C.I.A. recently employed at the Blue Duck Tavern) handles such large groups of French speakers that he requires from one to three translators. They explain dishes available and answer the usual tourist questions. Groups like these are usually staying at the modestly priced Harrington Hotel, an historic building now in its 101st year.  Dating back to 1914, it is three blocks from the White House, one block to Ford's Theatre, and one block from the F.B.I. Government staff parties take place there in 'off season.'. The Harrington probably is one of the most famous tourist 'sites' that  few locals know about. A timeline of events in American history adorns one of the hotel lobby walls.

One night not long ago, a loud-mouthed French Canadian let go a derogatory  comment  when Gilson happened by the man's chair and, as a favor, picked up the man's jacket that had fallen to the floor. Out came in French a rude expression - something like "get away you American dog"  - no doubt a misunderstanding but nevertheless a shocking retort for a simple act of charity. (Did he think someone was stealing his coat?) Up stepped   19-year-old handsome Marc, a Gilson hire (paid minimum wage plus generous tips),  who  told the man in so many words in French to cool it.

On a better day, chef Gilson in his kitchen whites is prone to tell  waves of French visitors in a joking mood "welcome to the oldest dive in Washington." Nothing too romantic about the place: brown and beige, TVs rattling overhead. But 'dive'? He means it fondly. The French look puzzled, as does  Marc who asks the chef how to translate the word so customers will understand it.

Harriet's and the Harrington get all kinds and always a typical kind of tourist. Recently,  a seven-member jazz band, called Susita,  composed of 10th grade students at  Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts in Israel, were invited to take part in a 'Big Band Jam' in DC.  They perform solo, compose, arrange - and, while in Washington, played the Israeli Embassy  but also Blues Alley,  and on their last night took over Harriet's dining room to give a free  concert open to anyone passing by. Another time an English girls' rugby team was in the house - and, hungry after the day's outing, ate everything in sight.

According to a recent report, the past year was been a banner year for visitors to the nation's capital.  More than 18.3 million, an increase of 5.2 percent, buzzing in swarms around our fabled buildings and monuments. That's a lot of tee-shirts.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

DC Kitchens Confidentially

My friend Rob is a sleuth, a  C.I.A. man (graduate of the Culinary Institute of America). Having been both a cook and manager in many  high -end culinary spots in the capital, he knows  secrets - the kind that restaurant critics don't usually  see or write about. Sexism, racism - all the isms at work under pressure backstage where the public is never invited. The beefy Southern Senator who backs a black waitress against the wall for a tryst after dessert in the Senate dining room for instance: whoever sees that?. The same Senator asking that none of his food be 'touched by the niggers in the kitchen.' Mr. Big more or less controlled my friend's job  so should my friend have interfered, talked back, rescued his colleague?

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Scene in Georgetown

Isabelle Goetz, owner and chief attraction at Izzy's Salon on M St. in Georgetown, can give you the lowdown on personalities that pass through her fingers. She could if she wanted to but she is basically diplomatic and polite and smart enough to stick to the positive and ignore the negative experiences of her, admittedly highly personal trade.
Sitting under her scissors the other day was the Canadian Ambassador to the US: a tall good-looking man with a gorgeous show of graying hair. Izzy and Mr. Ambassador spent the time laughing together. He seemed to enjoy this time away from what must be the big office desk, the bureaucratic business back on Pennsylvania Ave. It could be why, in part, he comes across town for the experience. The talented Ms. Goetz sweeps her fingers through his hair and then snips and snaps in carefully considered  fashion. How had he heard about this salon and why do many men of his standing seemingly want to come here? It wasn't through his wife, she says; she doesn't know, can't recall a Canadian ambassador's wife on the premises. "Just someone mentioning something," she says, brushing off the VIP allegiance to her handsome well-appointed quarters. Because such a "nice man" as the Canadian isn't alone. The director of the National Gallery of Art has been seen in Isabelle's ("Izzy's") chair., among other titled gentlemen of note.
So what is the secret of her charm not to mention her talent, enough so that prospective US President Hillary R Clinton has been and continues off and on to be another of her clients? Through whom Isabelle met Queen Rania of Jordan when she was in Washington. The queen took a shine to her, hearing that the comely stylist was a passionate motorcyclist like her husband the king. That led to an invitation for Isabelle to travel Jordan's roads on wheels with a friend. And more recently  Ms. Goetz  (known as either Izzy or Isabelle to many others, including Father O'Brien, one of Georgetown University's vice presidents, another regular ) went on vacation for a week in Vietnam where she has a friend with a Harley so she didn't have to bring her own with her.
As a teenager in Belfort, France, she was encouraged early to consider hair styling as a career and started apprenticing as well as schooling in the profession. Determination helped, as did the chance to work in Paris and then soon after with French-born Cristophe who had the Clintons under his hands for a while in California. "Twenty two years in France and 22 years in the US," amazingly she remarks. She is as dual a citizen as you can get.
Some of her skill must have to do with her discretion as well as an ability to create a family on the premises. Her father was one of her helpers when she designed and renovated the salon. At least two other stylists (and colorists) come from the her home town in France and have been with her through the years.  She says she calls herself Izzy to downplay the pretension of a profession that is as competitive and peculiar as they get  - especially in Georgetown.  

Monday, March 9, 2015

Metro Musings, contd.

One never knows what a Metro ride can offer.  While frantic scrambling goes on at the top of the managerial chain, lamentable and sad confusion over who is to run the country's second largest under/overground train system, passengers take what pleasure they can in the offbeat moments during a trip when the greatest mystery may be whether they will get to their destination without mishap. Sitting across the aisle from me on a crossing from Virginia into the District recently was a very distinctively dressed gentleman in a riotous patchwork costume, jacket and trousers, the epitome of creative fashion daringly applied. An original!
It helped that he had a totally free head of white hair, Afro style, and sat plugged into music that kept his multicolored shoes bouncing along in tune to  rhythms only he could hear. He carried a backpack with appliqués, much like his suit; both were composed of dozens, if not hundreds, of different textures and textiles in roughly square shapes and patterns. There was, in addition, a sort of white fur trim around the cuffs. It obviously had been custom made, a miraculous invention. Was he an actor trying out for a part or just someone on a roll? He was most definitely 'comfortable in his own skin' as the expression goes, a nonconformist in a city of buttoned-down blue two-piece suits, joyous and happily unselfconscious in his selectively original mode..

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Tango Nights in Buenos Aires

Gloria was glorious. And glamorous. A tall 48-year-old Argentine-born beauty with a bum foot (ligaments went awry while stepping off a curb), she seemed the epitome of  why so many people think of  Buenos Aires as the epitome of South American sophistication. Her 24-year-old daughter  translates French for a living, she said: how much more European  - i.e. cosmopolitan - can you get I told myself while reveling in a first-time acquaintance with a native of a city as reviled politically these days as it is valued romantically.
 I had requested help - a guide -  to see something of night life in a town that famously comes alive only after dark. Hence, my trip with Gloria to the Portenito Bailarin at rue Batiba 345 where I understood I could have a tango lesson as well as witness  Portenos  dancing the night away. (The name for Buenos Aires natives comes from the fact they live next to a river port, the Rio de la Plata separating their city from Uruguay.)
Gloria had striking dark hair and eyes set off by a black top and sparkling earrings and the proper languor and know-how appropriate for a professional guide who has chaperoned outsiders (non-Spanish speaking souls such as myself) around for years: enough to know that, in her opinion, Brazilians can be too rough, too bold, too boorish to bother with. Older Americans like myself are perhaps more cowed, hence better behaved. She knew the town; she knew Luis, a former porter at the Plaza Hotel turned tango professional who, she said, had introduced actor Robert Duvall to his Argentine-born bombshell wife Luciana many years ago.
 It could have happened at just such a milonga as this one where we sat on a recent February evening.The Duvalls are avid  dancers, as is Gloria when she finds men tall enough to be partner.
An hour or so into the evening, when the place was getting crowded, she introduced me, a  tourist from Duvall's home country,  to Luis. I received a warm hug when I told him of my Washington background. (When they are home, the Duvalls live on an estate in the Virginia countryside, an hour or so away. ) Luis had come late to this twice-wceekly dance spot  in BA's Centro district  at about the same hour the Duvalls were being seen worldwide on TV in Los Angeles at the Oscars.
Luis, tall and burly with a wide smile, will be a judge at a tango competition in August but on this night he was shepherding a group of Japanese tourists who said they had met him in  Tokyo. (Cosmopolitan people roam the world.) It was nearly midnight by then; the room was astir with dancers changing into proper shoes, exchanging greetings, claiming tables. Champagne bottles appeared on the neighboring table where milonga regulars sat together taking a break from the dance floor. The place had a neighborhood feel to it; a large number of people seemed to know one another as they surged through the entrance doors. It was a simple unadorned room with a bar in the back.

Ostensibly I had signed up - with guide and driver - to take a tango lesson, but what I really wanted was to immerse myself in a local crowd, to feel myself temporarily a part of the scene. Just off a hiking trip in the wilds of Patagonia, this was my chance, superficially anyway, to compare Chilean and Argentinian personalities. To feel I belonged somewhere  and not just another tourist on the trail or waiting in line for MALBA (museum of Latin American art in BA).

Milonga, technically, is a modern form of the tango: a faster version, Gloria explained. The name also applies to gatherings occurring several times a week at various venues around the city. A tango show is another affair, more or less commercially driven with tourists the main audience - slick and effervescent, bracing and nearly surreal in its captivating expression of sexual play. Tango parlors are decorative and expensive where milonga in contrast is a lively exchange among friends and strangers  welcome to take part by paying a mere 70 pesos, or roughly 7 dollars a time. Wine, water, champagne all extra.
In spite of myself,  I flunked my  lesson. It wasn't the fault of my teachers who took me in hand with commendable compassion: first the young woman in eye-catching high heels and strapless full skirted dress and then her formally suited male colleague who smiled the whole time while patiently instructing me in  proper comportment -my  left arm resting on the middle of his back, not his shoulder  ballroom style- and outlining the basic steps. There were six of them: under, over, under again and a step backward with the left foot while he did what appeared to be a shadowing routine.  The dance, done right, is juxtaposition of opposites. The upper body  stays firmly under control while  legs whip sideways and back and forward again like flashing swords. High heels with straps over the instep are necessary equipment for the woman; soft leather shoes for the man. I was told to look up, not down at my feet, to concentrate on  balance - achieved only on the ball of the foot.
I wasn't in tune,  neither mentally nor athletically.  And certainly not sartorially. All I had to wear were either my hiking boots or grungy ballet slippers to go with loose black wash-and-wear slacks and a polyester print blouse. The dancers costumes swirling around me, by contrast, were short and sexy.  I was shamefaced, smiling and sweating until it seemed best to claim my seat again and take a long drink of water.
Gloria had sat by observing,  giving me encouragement with a upbeat tilt of her head. What else could she do?  My muscle memory wasn't up to the challenge. My feet felt too far from my head.
Recorded music surged continually through the hall under bright lights. A tango requires a pair to have three  dances together, after which partners can change hands if they don't agree to continue. An interim bit of modern pop  and then the familiar insistent rhythmic beat returns. Teachers merge with  the pupils who come faithfully each week, on a Tuesday and Sunday. Other nights the hall is used for salsa. All ages are welcome; no judgment rendered about either status or attire.
 I joked with the manager that maybe the reason Portenios came out at night was to escape creeping global warning temperatures of the day. He laughed appreciably, giving me a sign of approval for my lame wit,  hugged me in farewell and asked me to return in two days' time, for the next milonga.
Glorious Gloria: a guide for hire. You could do the same (anyone reading this). Website for reliable informed guides in BA is You never know what fate has in store. I've since been reliably informed that actor Matt Dimon also fell under the spell of an Argentine beauty in similar circumstances and is now the happily married father of three. Portenos come in all sizes and flavors...

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Bus Rider Blues

Today, Feb. 10/15, the New York Times publishes the sad truth about why some public transport projects seemed doomed:

Because riders 'perceive a train as better than a bus' - even though buses often are faster.
The writer quotes a 2009 Federal Transit Administration report but gives updated examples. 

Friday, January 30, 2015

Botanical Wonders at My Doorstep

The U.S Botanic Garden at the foot of Capitol Hill - improbable creation when you think about it  but more of its history later - can cheer a cold city person in an instant. Not only  immersion into a tropical (nearly fantastical) world of sights and smells but  of a host of lectures and exhibits to take a person's mind off wintry woes. The banana plant currently is showing off two multi=colored sinuous bloom at one entrance to the conservatory. A kindly docent not far away sits behind a desk in front of a cocoa tree explaining the varied uses of that plant's product with display items to touch and smell. Lo, the wonder: nuts from the shell of the bean that makes cocoa, soap and delicious chocolate. In a lecture hall at that moment a guest ethane-economic botanist from New York is giving a slide show about medical uses of tropical  herbs and plants - starting with the Sumerian age 2500 years ago when cannabis and opium were known. Then to the papyrus rushes of Egypt that became bandaids with the use of honey.  An hour's worth of exotic information, a trip on the screen to healers in Micronesia. The surprise of the day: kava taken in cupfuls by that area's natives does as well or better than valium. Who dares think modern medicine knows it all?

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Miami Deco

The third weekend of January in Miami this year was Art Deco Weekend coinciding neatly with Miami's year-long 100th anniversary, though it is difficult sometimes to relate the beach island with mainland Miami. Two different worlds, beyond which are other smaller worlds, such as 'Little Havana' where conversation must have been more heated than usual, given the latest  US-Cuba 'rapprochement.' Congregants on Miami Beach, where much of Ocean Drive was closed off to traffic on two days, were more interested in good times and good shopping, it would appear. See, Mamma, the acrobat on stilts, a Carmen Miranda lookalike throwing kisses into the crowd. Lincoln Road as usual awash in commercial offers, a slog of familiar brands along the palm-bedecked strip. The blessings of sunshine cover the shady side of life. 'Welcome to the capital of South America' ocean banners might have read in tribute to the investment offshore citizens have made in the city. One of Sunday afternoon's highlights: a bandstand erected just behind the dunes on park land, complete with bar and dance floor. A couple maneuvering with aplomb to the rhythms of the Robert Rodriguez jazz orchestra attired in sport shirts and dark shades against the waning afternoon sun. Folding chairs for audience members, among them a  comely lass in a bra of fake leaves and long shirt. Farther south on the beach a manicured park with a  newly-completed fishing pier  that has a stone sink with hose for cleaning the catch, such as it is. A man with a fishing pole on the channel side calling over to his wife some 50 yards away: their lines had caught in the water. A dog tethered to a post at the entry since NO dogs, etc., were allowed on the walkway. So goes a Sunday afternoon in Miami, languorous and deceiving.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Metro Notes: Etiquette

Take a look:
This is what is known as man spreading. The empty seat or half empty seat beside him might have welcomed the woman standing on the right, but in his present pose I don't suppose she would want to try invading his space.
Woman spreading also occurs on Washington's Metro: women too large to fit comfortably in one seat or women with too many packages who don't want to share.
Why harp on petty things when Metro management can't seem to get its signals (all kinds) straight. When riders must now wonder every time they board a train what mishap or worse might occur.
Regarding the smoke fatality: Didn't anyone think that inhalation in the cars might be dangerous and mandate emergency measures as soon as possible? Doesn't Metro want to own up as quickly as possible to its relations with the DC Fire Department who, in last reports, delayed evacuation due to poor coordination of information on whether 3d rail circuit turned off? Didn't someone (who?) need to tell firemen that another rail line was operating safely and to ignore it?
Where is Mayor Bowser in this? Why isn't she being more outspoken about the service problems of Metro? How many members of the Metro board ride trains or buses?