Saturday, December 2, 2017

Customers' Custom Service

Oh hail the notion of personal service - any kind, anywhere. Motives to provide satisfaction may vary but consider the alternative: no connection with the human being buying your goods, especially in the retail arena.
Retail is suffering mightily in the face of express digital services, the story goes. At the same time, people are again drawn to buying books - clinging to ownership of physical goods for their very ephemeral value. Maybe the seesaw is becoming balanced: more appreciation of such items to make a person feel more grounded, less ephemeral than the slippery act of tapping some keys. And don't forget the value of face-to-face (not with the intolerably impersonal Facebook) - people talking to one another, using our instinctual senses that come out of a different part of the brain. The positive sense of 'making contact' using eye, ear, nose and 'gut.'
The very real value of engaging a very real human. Avatars may have their place - seemingly best for shut-ins.
It's difficult bargaining down a giant such as Comcast using algorithms the company had designed, compared to diligently, patiently discussing that last outrageously high bill..Far better to impress with a stern tone of voice, the voice of reason emphatically expressed so that one's determination can be more instantly understood. Just try it and see the price drop. (Something a friend of mind did recently over two days taking on a Best Buy clerk and then the Customer Service Agent or whatever they are called at Comcast.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

City Girl's Gardener's Guide

Yes, it exists - a fine commercial-free booklet from Baer's 'Agricultural Almanac & Gardener's Guide,' just what the compensatory would-be outdoors woman needs: all the information required to live a second life indoors as a successful outdoors person. The latest 2018 edition is out in its 193rd year, from its original home in Lancaster, Pa. The tips and blips are more than worth the $6 price. Fine reading, too. Who doesn't want to know the best dates for killing briars (not bears, not a misprint), poison ivy, weeds and pests. How surprising to learn the dates to come of such practical wisdom. Little bits of history and handsome black and white illustrations, who wouldn't love to be distracted by the basics of how to grown Zinnias in space. (Ask Astronaut Mark Kelly, who flew high and wide in 2015.) January Lore includes a weather summary by region. Cold in the East, normal (whatever that is these days) west of the Continental Divide.
A perfect Christmas gift for anyone devoted to distraction in the midst of political pollution.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Hither and Yon

Within less than a half mile of my house, not far from the U.S. Capitol, some memorable scenes  unfold that speak in different ways  to the variety that is the spice of city living. Not always uplifting but always energizing.

A: A disheveled  mentally disturbed woman 'of a certain age' (is a man ever that same age, I wonder) walks out suddenly to a popular street corner near Pennsylvania Avenue SE and begins shedding her clothes. All of them. It is a warm day for sure but one that hardly calls for going naked in the streets. She chooses - of all places - a spot opposite young Marines who are guarding their base, home of the Marine Corps commandant. Two witnesses reported this to me - and how quickly one of them dialed 911 to alert police, or an ambulance. Doubtless, she was quickly hustled into a private space and either taken away for confinement (i.e. an examination) or simply told to dress. These same witnesses now see her frequently roaming the streets - it is autumn now - mostly covered. Freedom from constraining garments must have felt wonderful while it lasted.

B: An Eastern Market vendor  regularly hauls a load of every imaginable sort of goods for sale in his tent along 7th Street SE, closed off to traffic on weekends. On this particular day, he brought used furniture that caught the eye of a strolling shopper (i.e. tourist) who inquired about prices. Savvy vendor saw the chance to bargain - if only to be able to sell off heavy items he would then not have to pack up and take back to storage. His customer, eyes brightening, loved the deal and asked if vendor had more of the same to bring him the next week and possibly deliver the goods to an address on Chain Bridge Road, just the other side of the Potomac River, in Virginia. That section is known for extremely lavish and expensive homes. Lo and behold, a large amount of cash was paid; a personal card produced - exciting the vendor who recognized the place. What he didn't at first realize that the man was likely a Saudi Arabian prince, if not the ambassador himself, whose wife and friends were seen, well covered, farther  up 7th Street.  On delivery day, vendor passed through two gates manned by guards with guns who then escorted him up to the front of the mansion.
Vendor now awaits - perhaps - an invitation to tea.

C: At a recent open house sponsored by my local Firehouse (Truck No. something, I forget), coaches stood outside the open door hailing passersby to learn 'Hands-Only CPR For Witnessed Sudden Collapse." First on the (English and Spanish) printed list of instructions was a warning to 'check the scene' - ie. be careful you, the observer, are not part of some personal feud that might involve bodily harm to yourself. Only then, check the person. Ask/shout 'Are you okay?' after a shoulder tap. Next, if no response, call 9-1-1. (This supposes your own emotional and mental state equips you to do so...) Ask others to help call. The Chest Compression lesson most surprising of all: Remove all clothes from the person, including underclothes Yes, a bra or whatever conceals the center of the chest above the heart. No more offering mouth-to-mouth. Keep arms straight, intertwine fingers and push down hard and fast - at least two inches. At least 100 times a minute. Keep going until the professionals arrive. If the patient shows signs of life and starts breathing, turn him/her over on his side away from you.
 Good luck is you are inebriated yourself when you come across this stricken soul.
Oh, and try to have some disposable gloves handy for the procedure.
Modern living is so very complicated.

Famed architect Rem Koolhaaas - a true urbanista (male division),in his perch called Office for Metropolitan Architecture, is as cool as they come. His latest definition posted of the countryside is 'anything that is not the city.' Trendy guy, yes? Seems he has caught up with the populist movement, for better and worse, how small-town America (try defining that one) made such  a difference in the last American election.

Consider another definition: The city is a place where public libraries post Behavior Rules - 10 pages in booklet form - as the DC public library did this past August.  DCPL feels the need to say that no bare feet or bare chests are allowed on the premises. Large bags in excess of 9/14/22 inches are not permitted. And prohibits 'odorous' patrons who annoy others from six feet or more away.

And then, and then: perhaps we are too often eager to draw lessons from the mix of people and backgrounds that get thrown together in a city. Today (apologies to participants), I had the son of New York cops over for Irish coffee with the emigrant wife of an entrepreneurial El Salvador  husband, sitting together and - in a way - comparing notes. Notes on how to make your way and sustain your goals in a chaotic indeterminate political scene. Patricia, smart and self-effacing, across from Sean,  talented garden expert. What decisions for each of them justify staying on in America? How else would either of them ever have met, since she is in Virginia and he makes a base in Maryland for clients in DC. Her husband's business has been suffering, she says (dump trucks); his choices narrowing by virtue of a deadline for health insurance application. How to move, what to do? Each with barriers in a way.She never would return home to El Salvator where gangs extract   protection money; he thinks moving to Ireland an option. The insecurity is frightening for both. Sean worries about health insurance in the future; Patricia, for the welfare of her grown children.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Leaving And Arriving

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

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Cruising the Anacostia One Fine August Evening

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

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

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

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

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Starting Over

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

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Musings on the 2017 Solstice

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 3, 2017

QM2 on the Ocean Blue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

More On 'Urbia'

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

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

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

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Rainbow Beckons

Big money  creates Big dreams. If you have three billion to spare, why not aim high.
Such is the plan of the  Chan Zuckerberg Science Initiative - Dr. Priscilla, a pediatrician, and her husband Jeff, the founder of Facebook (who have said they intend to give away 99 percent of their money eventually). Their goal is to line up support from basic science and technology sectors  to  manage,  prevent or cure all major diseases by the century's end. Not a small feat, as outlined in the recent AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy  in Washington, D.C. by the project's leader  Dr. Cori Bargmann, a neurobiologist and geneticist who carries several heavyweight titles around on her attractive blonde head. One of the other officers, a 'president of policy,' is David Plouffe, perhaps best known as former advisor to Uber and better known for his leading role in President Obama's 20008 election.
The gamble certainly is worth every penny, but the trick is coordinating among the many busy researchers in the field. (Remember Obama's BRAIN Initiative, still ongoing.) Any Human Cell Atlas has to be almost unimaginably extensive, considering that there are an (estimated?) 30 trillion cells in the human body and about 3,000 papers are published daily in the biomedical field. How to keep up? Start charting, use artificial intelligence, think of those suffering today from incurable neurodegenerative and rare diseases.
A far cry from an afternoon session on the "Opioid Epidemic" that brought together a San Francisco primary care doctor and epidemiologist and his message that the number of heroin overdose victims  has doubled since 2010 with an especially dramatic rise in New England; the deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse saying that pain reliever fentanyl, made in China, is distributed by mail since its high potency means it can be shipped in small dosages and that up to 70 percent of people in state prisons are addicted to one drug or another; and an Ohio Court of Common Pleas judge working to raise public awareness and prevention noting that in 2016 alone there were 35,000 deaths from opioid overuse, versus 55,000 American deaths in the entire Vietnam war. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

NGA Super Stars

 No, not a mistake - neither NBA nor even NFL but National Gallery of Art.  And while art stars are  often less heralded than athletes, their actions are no less eye catching. (Literally. ) Two of them  caught the eyes of many people this week at the NGA in Washington - Alexander Calder in his 'tower' and Theaster Gates in another tower, both in the East Building. The museum celebrated both in different ways. Calder's grandson, Alexander "Sandy" Rower, appeared in a 'tete-a'tete' conversation with NGA curator Henry Cooper on Sunday afternoon for a wide ranging discussion focused generally on the issue of preserving his grandfather's memory. A press preview of  Theaster Gates'  first solo exhibit in Washington -  titled 'The Minor Arts' - took place Tuesday ahead of Sunday's March 5 opening (due to run through September 4).  Both men were proudly schooled  long ago in the art of craftsmanship by their fathers  but the connection between the two might seem to end there - at least outwardly, although both are associated with large installations. Even so, a remark by Mr. Rower that as head of the New York-based Calder Foundation he is still 'trying to figure out what' his famous relative was trying to say - almost an offhand comment, possibly meant to quiet any discussion of the subject. (After all, what an artist communicates can be different for different people at different times - and talk of this kind can get to sound very pretentious.)
 If  Calder and his grandson let the artist's work speak for him, Theaster Gates seemed to welcome the opportunity to tackle the challenge. He proved to be an articulate explainer, giving of himself in a manner both direct and theatrical. His work  on show includes a discarded high school gym floor, a pitched wall of slate from a demolished church (each single piece viewed up close could be a painting),  a 'canvas' of naugahyde, copper, and tar, and a stacked library of bound Ebony magazines plus several fetish objects - all reclaimed  first-hand. He spoke of the meaningful "relation between art history and social history"  - messages that are obvious when he mentions his devotion to the craft of roofing, calling it "my MFA."  All objects that "refer to the decline of urban institutions and traditions" - as NGA literature explains it. There is something ominous in the room, some warning notes: witness the axe pinned to an entrance wall and a steady chopping sound in the background.
Calder similarly used everyday materials in his creations, but was he any less 'serious' and solemn even in his so-called playful approach?

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Baggallini Broads

It's not for nothing that the savvy merchandizer tags this product "life's a journey."
And this notice really is not an advert for the most-conspicuous item that many women travelers carry with them in foreign climes, though of course it sounds that way. Baggallini does the job: a  lightweight  medium sized strap bag, easily slung over the body and leaving hands free. The cost is relatively low and the shape is somewhat anonymous - call it lack of any real style. Nothing  to entice  thieves who  know real Chanel from a fake. (Women hoping to hide jewelry in their Chanel never would have a Baggallini on their body - unless they were smart.)
We are a club of sorts: owners of the humdrum practical accessory that never fails to do the job of holding just the right amount of items needed during a day on the road or in the air.  It comes in small and larger sizes, in bland gray or smart black. The lining is the bright spot: mine is pink with a detachable change purse within.  I've jammed more goods inside one of these than I thought possible and never lost a single thing. Zipper pockets are a natural organizer. Little pouches that can hold different kinds of money. That are cosmetic carriers. Big enough for notebooks and iPhone. Good looking enough to suffice on an evening out.
 Let's hear it for other traveller tips. Like the savvy experienced adventurer who never fails to turn up in silk blouses that are normally a bother to pack. She rolls them in plastic and on occasion uses steam from a shower to undo wrinkles. Silk can be both warm and cool and it always feels good and looks chic. Plus they are lightweight compared to most cotton. 

A City On the Sea

Dry Tortugas - a real city on an ever-changing sea that was a thriving hub of humanity during the Civil War. As many as 2000 people made a home inside the walls of Fort Jefferson - one of the nation's largest masonry forts - built atop a fragile atoll 70 miles west of Key West, Fla. It is now one of the most unusual National Parks you may never  have heard of and its location one of the strangest, the setting being amidst the third largest reef system in the world. . Named after endangered green sea turtles - loggerheads, to be precise - native to the area, the park is actually a cluster of seven islands made up of coral reefs and sand that once stood as a bulwark protecting valuable shipping lanes between the Gulf of Mexico and the US mainland.  At one time 420 canons were in place around the sides.
Begin in 1846, the fort was made of 15 million bricks in an area first discovered and named by Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon in 1513. It only became a US protected park in 1992. Visitors today are strictly regulated and, while swimming, birding and snorkeling are permitted, numbers coming ashore at any one time are small. There is a camp site and a beach landing spot for seaplanes. A catamaran leaves early morning from a Key West marina with as many as 200 customers paying $150 minimum for a return trip. Breakfast and lunch are included, with drinks - even alcoholic concoctions sold late day for $5 each on the mid-afternoon run. That is a total of nearly five hours aboard for the experience of having a guided tour of the historic fort as well as time  to splash and explore around the rough white sandy beaches. Showers and changing rooms are available as well as a hose to wash away the offending sand.
The former city's population consisted of military personnel and their families living in close quarters with slaves and a group of prisoners that included the doctor who had treated President Lincoln's assassin - John Wilkes Booth. The doctor was believed to have been among the sympathizers with knowledge ahead about the event. What's left today is whatever the imagination can supply from empty caverns in the fort (including a chapel) and outlines in the center yard of former living quarters. Uniformed park rangers are on duty ten days at a stretch before promised relief time in Key West - a thriving village-cum-city known for easy living where there is a theater, a movie house and two fine bookstores scattered among a multitude of restaurants and bars.
The  park also is home to a ten-year-old salt water crocodile not thought to be aggressive. But beware: this is a wildlife refuge. Native creatures have priority! No wonder Ernest Hemingway wrote about the place.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Astride the Big One

How much does an Asian elephant weigh? The question isn't irrelevant, not when you are riding bareback stop one of them as I recently did some 10 miles outside of Luang Prabang in Laos. Sitting there, a dozen or more feet in the air, plenty more goes through your mind as well. Such as: what happens if I fall?  Will this giant mammal - maybe the second largest on earth after the African elephant - even know I am no longer astride her? After all, it's my puny 100-plus pounds up against her many tons. And the seat, such as it was, is the large bumpy exterior of her very grand head.
Why should she care what happens to me?
My legs were trembling, my throat was dry. The experience was unsettling - the surreal somewhat unnatural quality of it all . I was engaged in pure touristic thrill mongering, of course, though our guide (not the mahout fellow who was actually in charge of my ride) explained nicely that the 17-year-old was merely doing her job. Previously she had been a member of a chain gang of sorts, forced to carry logs out of the forest for a commercial company that had no special regard for her welfare. The non-profit Elephant Village where we were visiting is a rescue operation helping the aged and injured beasts live out their years under better conditions. In return, the 14 elephants in their care take gawkers like me for brief excursions around the settlement - earning their keep so to speak - before being put out to graze. Did I hear it correctly? Each one needs 250 kilos of vegetation  daily?
In exchange, each one receives premier care under the protection of a vet and handlers dedicated to their care.
I had been visiting the toilet for morning ablutions when I was called = come quick = to the staging platform. Others in the group had already taken up their positions with  a mahout riding astride each one. I saw a line of incredibly large animals moving slowly off in a line with my pygmy-sized friends sitting nervously aboard .
We had been told that we would be given an education in elephant lore and learn about handling them, but there was no time for instructions. "Climb up," I was told. I scrambled up the ladder to the platform where the i patient animal waited. "Put your right leg over her neck. Lean forward and put your hands on her head."
I didn't know what to expect. I'd never had the privilege of touching an elephant's head before. I knew virtually nothing about the beasts except their reputation for being famously intelligent and loyal. It was difficult to imagine how my slight frame would communicate anything at all to the three - maybe four - ton creature. My hands touched two hairy humps with a slight indentation between. My feet swung free unless I chose to cling to the side of her body behind those flapping ears. Head and body swayed. I moved in rhythm with them as best I could. I had no idea what was going to happen next. There were no overt commands that I could tell. The mahout did all the 'talking' in ways I found difficult to understand.
I did learn how the trim Laotion guide managed to get up and down so quickly: he tapped her front leg which she then lowered so he could step on the knee, grab one of the great big ears and pull himself up and over. At one point - after we had walked slowly down a steep incline to the river and out into the water - he jumped off (or so it seemed), directing me in gestures to give him my iPhone so he could take a photo of me sitting singularly high and mighty.  Not a bad picture to send home, as the mahout knew well.
We crossed the river for several hundred yards  and climbed up a bank. I was tense, leaning forward, heart in my throat, nervous that I might somehow be conveying a wrong signal.  I  felt the texture of her head, then her ears, both rough to the touch. Our movements were not always aligned but it didn't seem to matter. I couldn't help but think that at any moment she could decide - a joke perhaps - to lower that large gray-brown head and send me packing. Or toss me in the air. I was helpless and knew it, , my inner thighs aching as I sought to stay balanced. Tourist materials usually show people enjoying such a ride while seated in a howdah - the wooden seat holding two people that is strapped beneath the elephant's belly. But not here - the howdahs still are commonplace but the Village forbids them since they are thought to  rub and irritate the animals' skin.
The  trip didn't last long -  20 or 30 minutes at most. I  lost track of time. All I could think was how wondrous was the experience, happening during the month when Ringling Bros. would announced a decision to stop traditional tours. (Already, animal rights protestors had won the battle to keep elephants from performing.) We dismounted  and were asked to buy some bananas and  to feed the elephants = their tip perhaps. It was a relatively short journey but I had already bonded with my lady. She wouldn't mind your caressing her forehead, I was told. I looked into her left eye - a large unblinking saucer outlined with large lashes. She released her trunk - that magnificent feeding machine - and took in all I had to offer.
We would later visit the quarters where records are kept on each animal, having mostly to do with their medical care.  Upstairs was a pictorial display upstairs about the elephants' long and troubled history as indentured servants. But then didn't  elephants also help build Cambodia's Angkor Wat, too?
Our  trip had taken us  from the frenzied and fascinating street life of Hanoi to the relatively serene Buddhist haven of Luang Prabang and  on to Cambodia's tourist-centered Siem Reap  -   key cities in each of three main South Asian countries. Each place  a distinct culture in transition. We had exemplary custom- planned exposure to three different worlds gravely impacted by United States past foreign policies. At no time did we feel hostility though of course negatives are likely to be hidden behind the superlative promise of tourism.
 If such a crash course  by necessity allows only superficial impressions, it also builds strong memories. And even  casual contacts can be lasting .