Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Surb Is a City?

Well, a good question to ask in light of musings in the real estate world about what exactly constitutes a city anyway - when the suburbs surrounding some of our major cities are becoming increasingly populated. With condo and apartment buildings, of all things. With manufactured 'centers' (of sorts). Often with the help of some business lingo hoping to make sense of the sense of a community.

Because many if not most cities as we usually know them have the advantage of recognizable centers, a 'downtown'. What's downtown in an area full of high rise 'homes'? Ideally living spaces that are near good transportation. I'm looking at page 10 of the New York Times for Sunday Dec. 18/16, headlined The New Suburbia. (Real Estate section of course). It puts the rose on such developments occurring largely in the outlying New York Metropolitan areas and points to a 'shift' in attitudes towards such options.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

the uber pool

Not a swimming pool, of course but Uber 'group' transport - depending on number of people calling in on a single route. The price is right (half the UberX rate I found one recent morning at 10 a.m. in Washington, DC, if your patience is in check. Young Wanda showed up in minutes in a clean Chevy Malibu, taking her car out  for the first time after a bureaucratic hassle with the DC MVB inspectors she said . GPS is her guide/god and I didn't quibble (though I later found the GPS slightly off my destination point).  The only other rider turned out to be a Georgetown Medical Center resident named Peter from Phoenix, just coming out of his gym with coffee cup in hand. He uses the pool all the time and claimed he seldom has more than one sharing. The mood of the day was sunny (after a long previous day of rain), conversation was easy. I found myself wishing the business of sharing rides was the rule rather than the exception. The system crosses income and residential boundaries - and such an opportunity often is rare. Because a ride takes longer for each person, there is time to converse, to learn something about the life of a stranger. What other current transport service encourages that? A chance to share life with a stranger from another background, to compare views. Pie-in-the-sky thinking perhaps but what is the harm in trying this way to breach the walls that contain most of us, traveling paths of least resistance.

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Jazz Painter

Stuart Davis may never have performed an instrument as a jazz musician,  but he could certainly improvise - do a few riffs - on cardboard and canvas. The National Gallery of Art is celebrating this ultra American artist  ("Stuart Davis: In Full Swing" with a large exhibition beginning Sunday November 13) exploring his work after 1921  drawn from 50 different sources - a fully realized show tracking his influences and output through three decades.
 (The image to the left is typical - albeit the work of a culinary artist who provided small edible cookies at the press preview - an exact replica,  a digital photo copy, minus the frosty sugar frame of his "OWH! In Sao Pao, 1951" on loan from New York's Whitney Museum of American Art. Notice the bright yellow background, the play of words - inverted for the title - and sense of energy and joy.)
Oddly enough, I haven't found many of my contemporaries who are familiar with him but I would encourage everyone to go who feels a sense of impending gloom  whether caused by external or internal revel in the profusion of color and style. It was partly to be provocative that I asked NGA curator Harry Cooper if my embrace of Davis made me a 'lowbrow.'  He answered easily, diplomatically, enough: "low and high" at once.  Wash Post critic/commentator Philip Kennicott goes to great lengths to tell just how complicated the man and his art really are. A complicated review in which he seems to see contradictions - the most basic of course could be the complete contrast between sight and sound - the 'music' of paint vs notes played for the ear. PK is not entirely a fan.
Still it's possible to delight in the contrast - how Davis 'riffs,' thrills to variations of form and mood. The result produces unique sensations, worth many ruminations. Put on some Earl Hines (closed circuit audio) while viewing the show.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Be of good cheer (in spite of all)

In this November 2016 season of our discontent (politically anyway), a little humor is advised. Any possible distraction. Follow the words of the song that begins "Smile though your heart is breaking."
Too soon for endless tears but the habit of cheer is worth adopting. Take advantage of escapist living.
Recall - some people really will - when a lighthearted soul named Harvey Wallbanger got 7 % write-in votes for President in 1972 (Nixon-Magovern). At the time HW was the name of a fashionable drink promoted by the distributors of the Italian liqueur Galliano, a golden syrupy sweet potion layered atop orange juice and vodka. I know a sporting fellow who says he banged down snowy mountains in Colorado with no pain after many Wallbangers and even lived to tell.  It may speak to the good humor or crazy ways of the American public that so many voted for a man named after an alcoholic drink instead of a man. Whoever he is, the Web says he is back in the 2016 race, however belatedly. And the drink may be coming back in favor again if distributors have anything to say about it. The push was on recently in Washington DC's Union Market. A blitz of "Elect Harvey Wallbanger" buttons and the sale of several  concoctions using the liqueur in novel ways were on tap  all afternoon.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Cities on the Move

Surprise! Urbanists are no longer defined only as 'city planners' - though plenty of people have known this for a while, anyone who cares about civilization and its discontents especially in cities. The New York Times' architecture critic, Michael Kimmelman, this past Sunday (10/30/16) devoted his column to a short summary of a recent gathering in Ecuador of Habitat,  a UN 'global cities summit meeting' that convenes only once every 20 years. That is hardly believable given that the world's populations are ever more steadily moving from rural to urban areas (habitat). Who even blinks an eye anymore reading about 'millions upon millions' living in major capitals. Kimmelman is positive overall,  noting how at least  young and idealistic movers and shakers are creating a "generational shift" - even "a worldwide sea change" - when it comes to improving attitudes towards city living. This has happened over the past 40 years, he says. Cities "are being recognized increasingly as opportunities for economic and social progress, density as a response to environmental threats; the automobile as a big problem, " etc.  (He overlooks the plight of poor towns in the so-called American rust belt; maybe they aren't the 'cities' he means and maybe there is even hope for them in years to come...And he isn't blind to problems of cities in many countries, especially in the developing world, led by "older leaders.")
Aha: the millennials strike again! He credits the energy of  leaders in many municipalities, as opposed to "federal  authorities."
Nice to think so. At least to read some encouraging news and views.


All of which begs the question: what is urban (city) and what is rural (country? small town?) anymore?
The issue arises post-November '16 election, with the Electoral College giving what appears to be unbalanced power to so-called rural areas/communities.  And that has to do with how people identify themselves. A person can feel like a big city person living in a small town and have little in common with residents in outlying areas (farmers, etc., if they exist). States with just 17 percent of the American population theoretically can elect a Senate and House majority - according to the New York Times' report on November 21/16. Rural voters put Trump into the presidency. It's a confusing time - and a confusing identity. The Times refers to a 'rural bias' in our democratic electoral process.  What does that mean? Does it have to do with the diminishing power of so-called mainstream media's fact-checkers - the relative power of offbeat radio and TV not inclined to fact check much of anything?

Monday, October 17, 2016

Soul Searching

What does it mean to talk about a city's 'soul' ? Is there any such thing?  I'll go overboard and say yes, that most people understand the concept -even though they are inclined to think in favorable terms, often pre-set terms articulated by others.
Visiting the city of Billings, Mt., recently, I put the question to a politically minded (i.e. aware of the world around them) group at a cocktail party.  Almost all agreed without asking me to define my own terms. Almost to a one I was referred to a recent article in Outside magazine calling Billings one of  the best places to live in the US. To live actively, that is, since the article described all the wonderful 'outdoor' activities available there, uniformly portrayed under clear blue skies. Implied: available to people active enough to participate. People willing to go to meet the city's soul (the magazine never used the word) more than halfway.
But what is there in a city that reaches out to people rather than making people seek out 'best things' on their own? The magazine made a great deal out of craft breweries as well.
Externals guaranteed to catch the tourist eye.
How to define the more complicated aspects of soul that has to do with the character of  its residents, and the larger matter of culture. How to comprehend the 'culture' of a city of 110,000 that has casinos in almost every block of one of the main thoroughfares leading into town? That seems to have more banks - the largest buildings in sight - than gas stations? A spread of homes and industry (oil, services, endless chain stores) across a vast plain?

Monday, September 19, 2016

Be Sensible!

And be wise.... don't miss Folger Theatre's latest offering, the new stage adaptation of Jane Austen's novel 'Sense and Sensibility' - actually her first published book. The super-energetic production conceived by New York's Bedlam Theater plays through the end of October (2016). Furniture moves around on wheels. Actors play several roles, even sometimes within the same scene. Scenes of tears and joy. Madcap characters and misunderstood emotions. An entirely different take on British gentry you won't see anywhere else, the very opposite of 'Downton Abbey' and sure to influence future takes of other of her literary creations.
 The connection between this most beloved author and Shakespeare  is not as far-fetched as you might imagine, though some 200 years separates the two.  Folger Shakespeare Library is celebrating them both with a comprehensive exhibit to honor Austen's 200th anniversary coming up in 2017. See: 'Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity' that will remain long after the Bedlam production has gone.
Some thoughts: The meaning of 'sensibility'  refers not to common sense but to the capacity for being sensitive. Two of the three sisters involved in the mating game represent  two quite opposite personalities characterized by those words.
Director Eric Tucker calls the play 'actor driven' for good reason. It's difficult to ever take your eyes off them.  And while the staging is modern in concept, settings and costumes are definitely  of the period (the book was published in 1811). Speaking to Folger supporters one evening, he pointed out ice advantage that theater of this kind offers in contrast to TV and film  - 'boundaries can be stretched and even broken.' Compelling stories remain the same, however: 'it's all about relationships and people, gossip and changing lives."
Notice! tiny little wheels on the legs of the chairs.

Monday, September 5, 2016

At Brixton's on U Street

A Sunday night Jazz Jam on U Street  - no-cover scene on the second level Lodge Bar, musicians of all stripes playing in front of a  print of one of Cunard's greatest ships (I'll bet on the Queen Mary and its lively voyages of long ago) and, even more improbably, under antler lights in the high ceiling.

Audience members can sign up to play - amateur or professional. The atmosphere is as convivial as one would hope for (sometimes a little much so, among groups more prone to talking than listening.). The M.C. musician of the evening passes the red-fired glass carafe for tips. An older man in tie, cream white suit and  hat takes to the microphone to sing the blues  -  generations talking together.

Sunday, September 4, 2016


Oh, woe, the latest study (see the New Yorker dated Aug. 25/16) suggests that major cities in the USA anyway have grown too expensive and are  losing their charm...becoming little more than high-priced country clubs for hgh incomers. That only people with already high salary levels are flocking to inner city domains - to work for the prestigious high-paying jobs such as info technology.
 People who need jobs, the theory goes, are outclassed if they can't already afford to come. An odd assumption one might think, given that the tech sector especially seems to be graduating more potential employees than ever.
And another trend - retirees giving up suburban homes to become urbanites hoping to be closer to city services (transportation, delivery, health aids etc.) Are these only wealthy well-off retirees???
Rental property for mid or low income is at an all-time low. Anyone wishing to rent property, say a house, must deal with some complicated local licensing laws and red tape if they want to play by the rules.
 Note The Washington Post article Sept. 4/16 titled 'The high cost of D.C.'s restrictive licensing.' How discouraging it can be for creative enterprising people to do 'try outs'  in the District: to get started is a nightmare trip through   legal land. (Note also the author works for the Chamber of Commerce, conventional opponent of government regulation). The usual excuse for excesses "to benefit community health," but I'll wager no study has been done to show the impact of such rules...and yes, there is a move afoot by two Republican members of the House (but not District Council members) to scale back  laws (such as requiring a barber to take nearly a full year's worth of training before earning a living legally, where an emergency medical technician  needs none).

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The City of Light Loses One of its Stars

HOMAGE to Sonia Rykiel, who died August 25 in Paris, age 86.

Odd name, Rykiel. And an odd looking woman, Sonia Rykiel, with her orange-red hair exploding in straight lines around her  stark looking features. Why that white face? A statement for sure. She made a lot of  women feel capable of such individuality in less dramatic ways. I remember how, during several months’ stay in Paris in the late 1960s, I felt emboldened by her very initials- but more so by the clothes under her label sold in a little boutique on the Left Bank. 
I remember buying two  long wool dresses, one black and the other a patterned brown number. that I could barely afford at the time when I was living in a tiny maid’s room  six floors up and freelancing for what was then the  International  Herald Tribune. Or if they weren’t her label, they might well have been since such styles went against the grain of excess current during a rebellious era.
When my somewhat-boyfriend at the time asked me on my return to New York what I had done during my time in the City of Light, I replied ‘I bought some clothes.’ He was the one-in-a-million who seemed to understand and not question my answer or think it frivolous. Because my purchases meant something more than additions to a wardrobe. They identified me with a time and a movement, still nascent, called feminism for lack of a better word. There were no marches or bra-burnings in those days on behalf of women’s rights, although there were riots aplenty among students in Paris, ship workers in Gdansk Poland and anti-Vietnam war protesters at home. It was up to every woman to distinguish herself by whatever lights she chose and not expect anyone to agree or offer support.
She made her name with colorful knitwear, some of it tight-fitting but meant for comfort as well as for show. The so-called poor boy sweater decorated whimsically with graphics and rhinestones wasn’t so much a political statement as a way of having fun with clothes and maybe even poking fun at them as well..
In this way, she gave women the right to be ‘bien dans sa peau,’ literally to be at home in one’s own skin. To be comfortable with oneself under any circumstances. That is a defiantly French phrase with ramifications going beyond the word ‘comfortable.’
I chose two loose simple easy-wear long-sleeved dresses of no particular surface distinction. At least not in terms of crazy let-it-all-out trends erupting in the world.  Except they were distinctive for being so well cut and dramatic in their very simplicity. I bought a long black flared wool coat to wear over them. These ensembles and a pair of black lace-up black boot shoes were all I needed to be and feel a la mode, to have made my own statement about my  own confident sense of self. 
Sonia Rykiel wasn’t a bad role model, given her colorful personal life and range of talents. She married, divorced, raised two children, wrote novels (a clever one about the lives of a dress), built a business that began, according to the Washington Post obit, when she couldn’t find anything she liked to wear during pregnancy. Clothes for the mother-to-be then were  meant to hide a burgeoning shape that she felt ought to be celebrated not hidden. Granted, Coco Chanel had preceded her with ground-breaking easy-to-wear styles for women but that was another era, and Chanel’s styles grew into a brand that today only the very rich can afford. I like to think that Rykiel had her mind on integrating fashion into everyday life, as mirror of the life around her. “Fashion should be a kind of bouillon de culture,” she is quoted telling the New York Times in 1998. “To be modern is to be aware of what is going on.”


Whither the Urbanist

Ever wonder what the word urbanist means? In most dictionaries, the term applies to a person involved in city planning. A reasonable update, however, would assume it  embrace anyone who wholeheartedly embraces life in a city. A person who might  call him or herself an 'urbanite.' Who knows how to take advantage of the positives in any city and can argue its benefits.
Cities around the world are by and large swelling in population, putting huge demands on housing stock - little of which exists that is safe and affordable.  Then along comes entrepreneurial souls who are in business producing so-called micro-houses, self-sufficient apartment-like homes - maybe better call them cabins - little more than 300 feet square or less. Virtually trailers, with or without wheels, dressed up to appeal to buyers (renters?) willing to compromise on space for the sake of their sanity up against problems of space and income.
 How far this trend will extend is anybody's guess but the market might include retirees downsizing (and wanting to live on a single level),  young ambulatory job seekers, even couples possibly 'trying out' life together before investing in full partnership or marriage.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Going and Coming: Notes

        Coming home on the plane to DC I meet a couple just out of high school going rock climbing in South Africa. Why South Africa? Why go all the way from Bozeman, Montana, their home, to such a faraway place to hoist yourself up a sheer rock face?
Because 'it' is there - sensibly enough. And their planned activity somewhere outside Cape Town represented a higher challenge in a country than what they had, or had conquered, at home. Ambition strikes in strange ways. One was taking a gap year, presumably to do more climbing, the other was planning a first year in college. Boy and girl; man and woman. Both dressed 'down' with backpacks full. The larger pack had been held up briefly in security while the uniformed agent tried to figure out the pieces he had found of a drone.
No problem hauling a disassembled drone through the airport apparently. Except that isn't the usual object detected under high resolution x-ray machines.
They would take a record of their expedition on video. They were meeting up with a coach and a few others. This was serious business.
I was struck by the coincidence - Olympics coming up in a month and these young hopefuls already training for when the IOC recognizes rock climbing as sport worthy of medals. The pair felt sure it would happen eventually. Meanwhile, they were getting ready.
     A chance encounter between cities. Perhaps a point worth making: Use time aloft to learn and never give up the chance to engage.
Going and coming on several airplanes a few weeks later: In  Athens  headed home to DC via NYC (coming hours earlier from Chios), I meet two enterprising middle-aged American women - friends traveling together. I initiate talk and immediately hear  dulcet deep-south Southern speech, a wide smile, and  immediate connections. They are  from Shreveport,  La., a nurse and a teacher,  seeing Greece for the first time: three days in Athens, three in Santorini, and an 11-hour cruise tour of Hydra, Paros and Aegina. All fine - wonderful. "Everybody friendly. No difficulty with language." They booked the tour themselves. Their husbands 'don't like to travel,' one says over a cola and a bag of oregano-flavored  potato chips. "Mine went golfing in Scotland once. He might consider going there again, but.."her voice trailed off. The two got to swim, walk the Acropolis, love  the food.
Had they worried about news of terrorist attacks in Europe? Not at all. "We were told not to worry because Greece is neutral." (That isn't a description I've heard before about the country.)
Then on leaving, headed to their gate and flight home, they turn over to me the rest of the chips and wish me a "safe journey."
Later, I realized that I had encouraged them to tell me their adventures to avoid asking them  their views about Trump vs Hillary at home.
Safety certainly wasn't my concern on my ten day sojourn  on a beach in Chios. Rather, it was the errant habits of airlines under pressure in high season. Computer glitches (caused on Delta by malfunctioning circuit breaker switch of some kind...), thunderstorms, etc. Take your choice and chances. Take books. Drink water. Smile a lot and say thank you often, since the people in charge of the journey are inevitably overworked and overstressed.
"Safe" in fact might be the best word to use to describe the not-quite-a-village of Agia Fotini - a small community  20 minutes from the port of Chiostown on an island famed for its production of mastic resin used in the manufacture of many everyday goods. (Lipstick, gum, etc.) As islands go, and as Greece goes in a time of general  economic hardship, Chios is relatively prosperous though the tourism sector has suffered a severe blow recently with the  loss of   Turkish visitors following the aborted coup in that country. (Anyone with any affiliation with any government agency being rounded up...even jailed.)  Turkey's landscape- and some sort of wind farm - is visible from my beach where last year migrants fleeing war-ravaged homelands turned up daily in fragile overcrowded dinghies hoping to win asylum in Europe. These aren't the 'tourists' that Greek needs at the moment though the country is sheltering thousands in camps on the mainland due to a breakdown in relations between Turkey and the EU (which, ironically, Turkey hopes one day to join).
     A weathered sign in English spotted high on a lamppost by Chios' domestic bus station near outdoor cafe tables where locals play backgammon with ferocious intent : "We're all migrants. No one is illegal."
      Another different kind of sign on a dead end lane bordering Agia Fotini's beach reads 'Theoxenia,' name of a complex of studio apartments owned by hosts Maria and Dimitri Pelandis. The word in Greek means that visitors are gods in disguise and must be treated as such.  ( Greek hospitality at its finest. ) The beach itself is a welcoming sea of pebbles, with clean cool waters of exceptional  clarity. Who wouldn't want to fly thousands of miles to swim there? Though the sensation is complex. The sea is both boundary and road, a watery link between two worlds. Immersed in water, a person is suspended - thoughts adrift like the body that feels nearly weightless in its salty balm. I strike out to do  laps (it's Olympic week in Rio) and then stop, aware of such a fruitless endeavor: why make the effort - to what end? Better to enjoy a heightened awareness of this privileged place. Meditation in situ, a whole lot better than turning bicycle pedals in the gym.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

All rise for Tippet Rise

The name alone is unusual enough to attract attention. But to witness what the words represent is  astonishing even when experienced on a chilly rainy Saturday outside Fishtail,  a small town in southeastern Montana one hour from Billings, the largest city in the state and not a place known for larger-than-life cultural attractions.
Tippet Rise is an ambitious new arts center -  possibly unique  - that opened mid-June on a 11,600-acre working ranch that is about as remote as any city sort can only imagine in a movie. The center features musical performances of a high caliber  as well as large site-specific sculptures in commanding locations across the landscape. Owners and instigators of the project are Peter and Cathy Halstead, a couple in their 70's - visionaries with the money to make real their dream. Cathy has a Grey Goose Vodka fortune behind her; Peter, a poet and pianist, other income sources allowing them to hire and inspire top performers as well as architects and acoustical engineers. It's one of those  gotta-see-it-to-believe-it creations.
Perhaps most remarkable  is that they were able to bring it off to such high standards seemingly without compromise. But then Montana, praises be, often surprises the die-hard urbanite. Locals know not to be surprised - or act overly impressed - by heavy professional credentials worn with panache. Caterers in charge of the $10-per-person late afternoon barbecue that  rainy Saturday afternoon included a Fishtail man who had trained at the Cordon Bleu in Paris. The buffet was scheduled to feed patrons who had come to attend both an afternoon and  evening concert dedicated in turn to the music of Beethoven, Schubert and  Messiaen.
Many in the audience had bought tickets - priced at only $10, with persons under 18 free of charge - for both Friday and Saturday events and every other weekend to come. through a final week in August. The opening season sold out quickly, Billing residents being among the most avid subscribers.
GPS will get you there but mobile phone service wasn't available (on purpose?) in the hall, called the Barn and named after Halstead family members like other equally well-planned structures on the grounds. Low-key garbed Mr. Halstead provided introductory remarks outlining the two Messiaen pieces, his long white hair and beard peeking out under what looked a cross between an Australian bush hat and a Canadian Tilley.
"City people have everything brought to them," noted Chicago Symphony clarinetist John Yeh, taking part in the second half of the program. "Here people have to go to it,"  he said approvingly. (It also helped that he found the acoustics in the Barn "perfect," and was impressed by Tippet having no less than 12 Steinway pianos on the premises.) An attentive, appreciative audience numbering no more than 100 sat in canvas-back director chairs under a large silver Calder  sculpture hanging overhead. Another Calder, an arresting black steel stabile, greets visitors near the entrance of the site - on loan   for five years from the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Chautauqua Chic

The storied Chautauqua Institution has such a golden reputation for its P.C. outlook, its prim almost precious profile, that it can be difficult to see its crazier - let's say whimsical and wondrous - side.
A recent trip (theme for week one, late June into July 2016: "On Creative Expression") very nearly convinced me the handsome lakeside gated community was for many reasons about to become chic. As in 'sought after,'  'popular,' 'a model of its kind.' The current demographic definitely skews 'senior' - as might be expected of a place where families have been coming for years and only reluctantly give up property - mirroring the national trend. (Oldsters staying older longer.) That doesn't diminish individual capacity for good works and inspirational activities. A very retired ob-gyn doc named Herb is a fine example of this. He makes lemon tarts and sells them to benefit the Chautauqua Foundation. Tarts made with such finesse that any professional chef would applaud. So Herb, who hand delivers tarts to a buyer's fridge, wrote a book about them that is sold in the very well stocked bookstore on the premises. The organist who plays what is said to be the oldest and largest 'outdoor' organ in the world cheerfully steps up  between numbers to talk about being adopted and how he came to find his talent. He performs at noon in the open-air (on the sides) amphitheater that seats as many as 7,600 thousand at a go. On the same commanding stage where 80-year-old Alan Alda and his wife sat recently talking about their lives to a capacity audience.
Think any of this unusual? Try putting together a daily schedule of such varied events - and more - and find anywhere else that can match it. A 'resort' that has as a central feature a vast green lawn banked at one end by a stately up-to-date library.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Aussie Life

How unusual is it to find a public transportation system that refunds money when a customer mistakenly chooses a wrong entry?
Though the Opal card (named for Australia's top selling gem) in use for nearly all Sydney ferries and trains does just that, and does it automatically.
Wonders abound in this city down under, as well as across the country at large. Australia is a better America, a warmer Canada,  boosters never blush to say. Who can resist a country that harbors such place names as Woolloomooloo.  So-called aboriginal/indigenous names atop Veddy British ones - streets named after central London, for instance. Paddington, Oxford St., etc. In conversation, there is apt to be a hint of formality  atop the matey-by-crikey manner. A delightful mix.
I'm a booster after a mere three weeks walking Sydney's streets and bouncing around the outback, moving across the northern border from Broome (world's major exporter of cultured pearls, among other odd and unusual facts concerning that town) in WA ( Western Australia, the state), NT (Northern Territory) and a piece of Q (Queensland), by planes big and small, canoe, jeep, and a camouflaged made-in-Australia Humvee-like vehicle known as the Oka. (Pronounced, strangely as is often the case with many sounds down under, AH-ka) foraging streams and rutted roads deep enough to hide a wallaby.

What makes up the special charm of the place - a country as large as ours with only 24 million people? A contagious open-hearted friendliness, for one. At least as a foreign visitor sees it. Maybe the relatively small population in so large a continent creates a certain degree of trust, between friends and  strangers alike. Credit the country with mandatory voting, a government-run health service, strict gun control laws, and one of the highest minimum wages in the world and no wonder the goodwill about.
Of course, a tourist necessarily wears blinders - and bears images distilled from such unreliable sources as the film "Crocodile Dundee," a Paul Logan franchise about handsome bushwhackers winning over city slickers. A population up against indisputably dangerous critters (death adder snake, salt water crocs, etc.) naturally sticks together when necessary. (At one resort outside Broome the management is said to hire  no fewer than seven snake 'catchers' to be sure guests don't encounter the wrong snake at the wrong time. The resort also has a Buddhist temple on its grounds. A little Zen might provide some perspective in such surroundings.)
Attention to basic needs of travelers for another. Toilets are frequent and clean and not called evasively and absurdly 'rest rooms.'
Language itself, at least in the wild, is inventive in many ways. Guides in the outback term senior travelers 'gray nomads,' the really infirm using walkers are 'zimmerframers,' and do-good environmentalists are 'hairy armpits' - touching affectionate words for the most part. A meal is bush tucker, a damper is a baked bread-and-cheese combo. The Bark Inn (why bark? no dogs around that I could see - but the paperbark tree is everywhere) offers 'croc, buff and barra' - short for crocodile (not worth it), buffalo burgers, and barramundi - local fish found in profusion.
Being of English/British extraction for the most part, other phrases and customs are only slightly different but plentiful, such as a reminder to 'drive on left.'
Australia has two seasons: wet and dry. In wet seasons (our winter, their summer) rivers gush wildly and can strand the unwary for months in a remote location.Extremes seem the rule when it comes to tackling country roads. Witness the measuring stick, meters high, found on either side of a river to warn oncoming cars just how high the water is  trending. A crocodile went sailing over one such low lying roadway before we could cross in our 4WD.
But I digress.
This ramble was meant to be a hymn to Sydney's grit and glories, as well it might be given its sensational location by the sea. A toast to its native charm. Where else is there a zoo across the water that takes visitors to the entrance on a vertical gondola. A modern condo-office building with a horizontal overhang 20 or more stories high that is engineered to respond to changing daylight and avoid throwing shadows on the garden below?
In Sydney the first time I stayed at a friendly boutique hotel called HarbourRocks, the site of the city's first hospital way way back in convict days (settlers having been shipped there from England, though first foreign visitors to the country are said to have come in the late 17th century way before Captain Cook on the Endeavor did a century later). Smart restoration included scaling back to the original walls and then decorating hallways with photographs of the job. My last night I spent at Accor's Mercure Airport Hotel where the friendly check-in-lady pronounced the 'le' in Le Club as 'lee," perhaps imagining that I would prefer to pronounce it that way. Such is the way of many courteous thoughtful Australians I met in such public venues as trains, hotels and restaurants. A nation of happy people? Well, not entirely. Immigration is a sore issue, a harsh one.Treatment of aboriginal peoples  has a long sorry history, now only slowly being rectified.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Dear T.J....

Our love affair is teetering, the romance has cooled in spite of your seductive charm. Friendly faces. Colorful shirts with their tropical motif, a service philosophy that is generally very good. How many  such boutique groceries exist these days? TJ's is the quintessential urban foodie lure, except.....except...
Maybe it's because I have begun to worry you think more about packaging than content, that the corporate mojo is winning out over customer needs.
I have tried for a long time - ever since anyone stopped wondering about the origins of your name - to embrace the full range of your products, many of which could have no other  home.  I am a faithful responder to the tasty temptations employees dish up for passing shoppers. I appreciate the gesture, but somehow the goods never taste the same when I am trying them out at home. And I wonder: Is it some secret cinnamon scent waffling throughout the interior that goads me to buy? Some subconscious come-on? Or do I just like tiny portions and am too hungry to have any perspective when I sho?
A few big and little quibbles: That the chicken pot pie - ostensibly  a bargain since who could afford to make the dish at that price at home - has little chicken bits, not enough carrots and no taste of home. Offered for three, it is barely enough for two hungry people.  The chicken chunks are not flavorful. What is the problem with not employing more flavor - some herbs, red pepper?
When I asked for bulgur wheat over a long period, I was told it wasn't available. Then one day I found 'instant bulgur - surely an abomination. There is abundant quinoa but none of the old-fashioned tabouli ingredient I so love.
And cinnamon sticks: I was told at one store that it wasn't around until 'the season' = presumably when bakers make cakes. But that is any season, not just Christmas. Should I persevere?
The take-home salads in their square plastic box, so tempting but then so sad to find the promised cabbage in the 'low fat' chicken, etc., salad barely exists and the dressing is sugary. Really, the promise fails the reasonable price. I'm left wanting..
Taste matters. Really. I fear your reluctance to err on the side of boldness. Or on the side of the customer who wants his/her cantaloupe to taste like more than orange gelatin. Are these and many other fruits picked too early to ripen fully - doubtless a  product of the distribution system - and offer up the distinctive aroma and flavor.
And must you package parsley in tiny plastic envelopes that are an affront to the eye? Especially when most of the contents are stems.. Some vegetables have slightly brown edges when I get them home.
PS Note on Friday, Nov. 4/16 today's New York Times business section, front page. How some of those  TJ employes' happy-go-lucky smiles have turned to frowns in at least one Manhattan store. The rules on how hired hands should behave at all times indicates a  bit of a Dickensian  mode.  Enforced cheer and low morale. Complaints about such practices, along with some safety issues, are now being aired publicly by at least one former longtime member of the TJ 'crew' who was fired.  The article cites both sides - of course - but weighs in mainly on gripes from others, some of whom requested anonymity. There now more than 400 stores, mainly on the East and West coasts, since the chain began in 1967  in Pasadena, CA. Let the criticism fly. Helps the consumer in the end.
UPDATE Nov. 22/2017 -
Can a written complaint from a consumer about a certain product to the high and mighty TJ authorities carry any weight? I deplored in public (online to TF) a product labeled Panang vegetable curry with jasmine rice, a colorful little package for one person that can be microwaved in a jiffy. But so few vegetables and so tasteless overall. An insult...
UPDATE Dec. 4. Back comes a 'Hello Ann' email to me from 'Hazel, Trader Joe's Customer Relations' (see most recent post on blog re 'custom service'), in which I am thanked, am guided to the company's 'Product Guarantee' whereby I may return any product, even an empty package, even just a receipt, to any 'neighborhood' store - and get a 'full refund.'  This would help TJ 'complete a Product Incident Report' - and I would thereby be exchanging favors. Lots of 'want to assure you that we truly believe that quality and integrity are both essential to good value, and that's what we are all about!'  The word apology appears in the second sentence thanking me, in the first sentence for my 'valuable feedback.'
How any of this matters is beyond my knowledge.  I can only tell others within vocal range: beware.

Thursday, April 21, 2016


CV: A splendid bird preying on the delights offered best in large urban settings.
This week in DC, April 17-23 for instance - Filmfest (International scenes and themes); play reading and discussion about Jews and Catholics in a Corner Store arts center (donation basis); jazz at Library of Congress by 82-year-old South African pianist marvel Abdullah Ibrahim with brilliant 'sidekicks'; lecture on plants in NY's Central Park at US Botanical Garden; Shakespeare's birthday at The Folger..
Enough  to make my point? Washington DC no longer the city with Northern charm and Southern efficiency - except, dear readers and commiserators, ayr Metro and that is partly a problem stemming from our dependency on the US Congress which fears giving us the freedom to vote Democratic...

Now just for fun, notes about the plants of Central Park , that bountiful city treasure - 843 acres, 2 1/2 miles long by  3/4 mile wide with five bodies of water, numerous woodlands and wetlands and meadows and 40 million visits a year. Think plantings (not trees) and you have 1148 specimens among 554 species: native, non-native and waifs Some of their names are a song or maybe characters in an old-fashioned drama: honesty, patience dock, trout lily, fox grape. Even cantaloupe and fig leaf gourd. Who knew or could have imagined the variety now being compiled by botanists in that realm.
Don't expect to go picking up fruit for your next meal, however. Many are elusive, some shy. 

Metro Soundings #2

 Never say never... but the squabbling  over DC Metro funding seems to be the ultimate long sad story about transportation hubris. A never ending pass-the-buck between and among the various government parties involved. I beg those interested in the subject to look at the New York Times article today  - April 21/16 -on page A24 regarding New York's moves to shore up and improve  M.T.A. Lots of chest pounding, of course, amid uncertainties but overall  there is the notion of progress lurking in comments about action on a capital funding plan by the innumerable agencies involved.  
Meto DC currently offers riders the chance to fill out surveys while the violins are playing....

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Woe Upon Woe Upon Woe...

How much evil is sustainable, endurable? Is it even possible to know?
Two shows currently running this spring under DC Shakespeare Theatre Company's umbrella are, in  what seems a coincidental way, exploring just such a theme. With the ultimate question: is human nature  open to change?
There is racial  and gender prejudice, domestic violence and state-sponsored terrorism - not to mention murder - on full display across the Lansburgh and Harman Center For the Arts stages through early April .(See If nothing else -  if your emotions can stomach the display - both '1984' and 'Othello'  are epic illustrations of mankind's most depraved ambition for power. Curiously, both are standard reads in high school English classes but what  effects they have at a singularly  impressionistic age is impossible to know. Both are  cautionary tales that apply to present day events: the overreach of government intelligence agencies investigating civilian correspondence as brought to light by Edward Snowden and  the unthinking paranoia exhibited in attacks on Muslims and on migrants both here and abroad.
In the George Orwell epic, set in some presumed future day that could be now, Big Brother in the form of masochistic overlords subverts the core values of democracy, using torture to achieve its ends. (The U.S. government's sanctioned behavior towards prisoners in Iraq.)  Shakespeare's classic tragedy relentlessly drives home the corrupting influence of envy and jealousy, as Iago sets out to destroy Othello, the dark-skinned Moor,  whose wife Desdemona becomes the victim. (One among many.)
 Rumor and suggestion alone turn Othello into a mad man obsessed with revenge to satisfy the aspirations of Iago. But to what end? Truth and justice are employed too late. Similar manipulation occurs regularly in the halls of Congress, where powerful interests are endlessly competing for influence. Similar disregard for truth reminds a person, too, of behavior  by some candidates  in the current presidential contest hoping to sway the voters by whatever means at their command.  

Monday, March 14, 2016

Eighth Street SE - the new weekend White Way

 The more famous  White Way, the Great one, is Broadway where the night light show is incomparable around Times Square. theater district.  Our DC SE strip hardly compares in color although in fair weather on weekends a few blocks are thronged with enough evening crowds to resemble a tourist invasion....even if there are no comparable theaters here  and the sole entertainment venue soon to open is a Miracle movie house for "family fare."

The landlady hoping to rent the gorgeous gray Victorian structure that is Shakespeare Theatre Company's present headquarters says she is having a hard time finding a new tenant for when STC moves on to the planned Bard complex being built in Southwest DC next to Arena Stage. She happens to be - longtime Capitol Hill residents take note - daughter of the man who owned District lock and hardware store, now occupied by Ted's Bulletin. Now THERE's a very good tenant, she says of the latter.

What does  this  portend for future businesses in the area? Do small family owned operations have no chance?    When is enough enough? Hard to predict when property taxes keep going up and local residents keep  hyping the advantage of a TraderJoe's coming next year- another chain store enterprise. Will TJ pretend to have neighborly feelings or faith and should they?

Friday, March 4, 2016

Keep On Truckin' DC!

     One year ago this month the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities put out an open call for artists to submit proposals for truck art - yes, large murals to wrap around the sides of recycling trucks. (
 Yes, Movable Art! Beauty amidst waste! 
(At left: "French Trip" by artist Erin Curtis.)
Ten of these colorful murals have been rolling (and clanking) through the streets of Washington and are expected to be there for two years as another example of public   art work funded by DCCAH. (Remember the elephant and donkey sculptures that still may be found occasionally, mainly in residential spaces.) You have to be lucky to catch a sight of one of them, as even the chosen creators themselves have found, but they make a dazzling display when you do. Large dimensional mainly abstract designs covering all sides of these monster vehicles - a reason to stop and pause while  hard-working collection men (any women?) drag and tip the blue recycling bins into back bins that  open and shut  automatically like a mighty maw.
Artist Pat Goslee submitted a dream-like painting entitled 'Tale of Three,' inspired by some recycled fabrics in keeping with the general theme. (She found detritus such as netting on city streets.) "The fabric of life as a field of interconnected energies," she writes. "Three small seed forms - each representing significant family roles: parent, child, sibling...." intended to 'invite the viewer to dream and to make imaginative associations." 
 Recycling is "'a key part of the cycle of life' she adds A digital image of the original painting was printed large on vinyl material similar to what is used for ads on Metro buses.
She felt honored to be selected, she says, calling the project "an interesting way to use an existing work of art. Its public art, it addresses an important environmental issue." Those chosen received $2500 for their effort.
   Only problem is Goslee has yet to see hers in action...

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Easy Times in The Big Easy

Also known as Crescent City, NOLA,  but NOT the capital of Sportsman's Paradise as license plates dub the state (Louisiana)..
And what a city it is, especially  between seasons, as I and my friends found it the second long weekend of January, starting on the 6th - officially the first night (Twelfth Night, Epiphany, if you follow church calendars) and first parade of Mardi Gras with a casual ambulatory march honoring Joan of Arc, New Orleans' patron saint (she liberated the citizens of Orleans, France, from the British in the 1400s) , that included bagpipers in Scottish dress, great numbers of costumed folk heroes (cardboard, foil, fanciful touches of all kinds), horses with knights aboard, and  even angels fluttering their wings. Brassy and solemn at the same time. Spontaneity on every side of the evening procession witnessed by residents and tourists in equal number. This was  a legitimate 'crewe' or Krewe as the traditional celebratory groups or clubs are known. Mardi Gras itself is Feb. 5-9, with Fat Tuesday the last of Carnival before the first day of Lent on Ash Wednesday.
Famous if seemingly unlikely folk of all sorts put down roots in past days, including the French  painter Edgar Degas who lived  here in 1872 visiting the American branch of his family for five months at a key time in the city's cultural history. And British architect  Benjamin Latrobe,  (designer of the U.S. Capitol among other significant American buildings) who ended his life here, a victim of yellow fever in 1820
How to resist a city where a  funky restaurant with the odd name of Jacques-Imo advertises itself in neon as having "Warm Beer Lousy Food Poor Service." Not yet on the wholly Discovered list except to locals and friends. Paintings on the ceiling, Watermelon mojitos. duck breast with - what else? - pecans and mushrooms. Louisiana has plenty of all these.
The high point for visitors is being identified as  locals. Our party of four sat in Mr. B's bistro on Royal St. drinking our wine and Sazerac (rye whiskey, absinthe, bitters and an orange peel, no ice) when two women interrupted to comment  with words to the effect "oh you all must be natives." Because we were, if nothing else, wholly engaged in the ambiance and they were a pair of visiting physicists from the state of Washington, coming to town for a convention.
In NOLA, it's easy to pass for legitimate, since the mix of insiders and outsiders is  throughly blended. And make note too: the streetcars work - oldest continually operating trolleys in the world, going back to the early 1900s.