Sunday, December 29, 2019

A Dawdle Day

 Call it an unsentimental journey, tripping around Manhattan at New Year's end, looking past and thinking forward. There is no reason these days to suppose the scene has changed much on in decades the subway. Except  still maybe an occasioal throwback to times when a sense of community was uppermost and mattered. When the perennial inward look of subway patrons was never without cognizance of Those Others around them in the metal tube sweeping them upwards and onwards in  their journey. Still, early on the night of December 29, 2019, somewhere along the northbound IRT #1 from Penn Station to upper west side, a weary shape of a man, eyes closed,  bent over in a seat with a long white chord extending from his ear. He could be asleep, unconscious or otherwise out of touch except for an iPhone/smartphone connecting to the world. He is immobile,  shoulders bent, seemingly lost to strangers around him. Otherwise, how would he not know the phone had slipped to the floor of the car.  He doesn't notice until a stranger in a seat opposite him leans over to touch him on the shoulder, to alert him in to the fact that he has put his phone/iPod in danger. The man looks up in alarm, then gives a nod and a smile of thanks. The exchange is momentary, unheralded. Maybe unexpected, but valued. No further recognition necessary: I'd do it for me if  you had found me in the same position.

Strangers in the city hide behind a facade of indifference until challenged for a reason, I conclude.
It's easy to engage, but one has to be prepared to reciprocate in some measure.
I ask at the Joyce Theater (strictly dance performances) why so many security guards are around at the show, on the outside mainly but possibly also in the lobby. Everywhere these days patrons are asked to  uncover the insides of their shoulder bags and purses. (Heaven forbid they should have backpacks, which have to be stored.) I ask one of the casually garbed guardians why it seems to be more of a custom than in Washington, DC., where I've come. He says = offhandedly - "we're more high strung."

Friday, December 13, 2019

Great and Lesser Divides

           Much is made of  late about political and social divisions in American life  - old/young, rich/poor, red/blue, etc. The long standing rural/urban  categorization is  real, too and may go back even further in our history. A recent experience inside a Washington public high school made me see how   such labels can be subdivided, even turned upside down. This happened to me as a volunteer in a program called Writers In Schools run by the prestigious PEN/Faulkner organization (a nonprofit) associated with Washington, D.C.'s Folger Library. The program invites published authors to read and speak to small groups, at the invitation of individual school authorities. It also occasionally offers help to students writing the personal application essay usually required for entrance into another, possibly more highly rated  public school, or for college. Students willing to enter their essay in a competition sponsored by the PEN chapter might find themselves winner of a $100 for the one judged best among the submissions.
           Locals know how real is the split among the District's Wards in terms of income and educational opportunities. Overall, one half of all public  school children in DC are said to be 'at risk,' requiring help of some kind (food stamps, housing, etc),  17 percent  of whom are 'special needs' children having either physical or mental (emotional?) handicaps. Going into a class of 11th grade essay writers in  newly established high school in the area across the  Anacostia River (Wards 7 and 8), I had little notion of some of the very real everyday barriers the students face in light of those dismaying statistics. Barriers that are individual, sometimes familial.
            For an exercise intended to get students to express feelings on paper, they were asked to write  out nonstop in longhand or by computer about a conflict in their lives and how they had or were trying to overcome it. The idea being, of course, a way for admissions counselors to know a student's character in a positive light. How much gumption and determination they had. Their degree of maturity.
           Anacostia is full of rolling hills and an abundance of trees - topography often associated more with suburbs and small towns  than with a bustling urban milieu that downtown Washington represents. Restaurants, groceries, stores of any kind are far-flung. Streets and sidewalks generally are devoid of people in the middle of the day. Any notion of 'community' is difficult  for a stranger to comprehend. I had to stretch my own imagination to understand how a young woman could write - and then explain to me in a private session - how her parents  simply do not understand digital communication - can not see why she isn't able to write school papers in longhand the way "they always did." How  the parents will have nothing to do with computers, and, further, that she had no concept of anyone in their 60s (her definition) ever using a computer.
              "Do people over 65 use computers?" she asked me.
              This is within a few miles of one of the most highly computerized governments in the world.
               She said she had had a summer job to earn money to buy herself a modest computer and now struggled in the essay how to tell about the life she is living inside her home  as student that consumed most of her days - one whose expectations and requirements were beyond what her family would understand. She had  a challenge: to show her  interests and initiative without undermining either her respect for or relationships with her parents. The split, and possible shame, was keeping her from writing what could be one of the best and most important essays of her life. Might it help her get into the college of her choice, set her on a path of her own?
                If she seemed 'naive' about such matters, I could be considered equally innocent. Why would I assume she had contact with older people outside her own milieu? Is it possible, I wondered, that she never had been associated with such people and perhaps even had not ventured often, if ever, into the city itself?  There was no fundamental religious issue behind her parents' viewpoint, she said; it was simply their own disapproval of a fast-changing world - the one that would undoubtedly require their daughter to embrace one way or another.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Women On the Rise


   Yes, they have risen all the way to the top in one of Washington DC's most treasured and historic institutions - the Smithsonian. All cheers, to find now how many  of the most fabled  buildings in the city have women directors.
    Count them: Air & Space, National Museum of American History, Museum of American Art  and the Renwick Gallery (teamed), the National Portrait Gallery, and National Gallery of Art (which is part federal and part private), the US Botanic Garden and director of the Smithsonian Gardens.
I( may have missed a few, but a program at the Portrait Gallery on 12/17 is highlighting such leadership with a public roundtable session honoring Women Leaders at the Smithsonian alone.
     Not only in renown government centers are women making their mark. The new chairman of the National Geographic Society, headquartered in down town DC, is Jean Case - first such female to hold the job. It's probably no accident that she comes out of the ever encroaching digital world, having had a hand in making AOL (remember that one?) popular in the early internet age.
      Note, too, the recent announcement that the"former CIA official" who has just been named second person in charge at the Smithsonian's central office is a woman. She is Meroe Park, the first deputy head to be named in many years and the first major hire under Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III, founder of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Here and There: Observations

I'm old enough to be proudly curmudgeonly when the occasion calls for it - taking refuge in my status as elderly to lean on younger Comcast customer relations personnel and not mind when they refer to their grandmothers as 'being capable of learning.' That  happens even when they don't know my age; they are judging on the phone by the way I ask question.
Such questions that, to them I gather, are ridiculous.
Such as why is there not a detailed outline of how your service works - in print - so that I don't have to bother you to find out on the phone.
Why am I expected to rely on my remote and the Guide to scroll for each day's events when I might otherwise be able to plan far in advance what I'd like to watch? Say even two weeks ahead, so I can get my calendar ready...
What are those letters doing on the remote?  ABCD. Why did nobody tell me when I bought your service? I know I am expected to learn by doing - teach myself - but I've found questions arise beyond what is offered in an explanation on the screen? C, I believe, is the sports info option - assuming the whole world, females included, dote on sports. And why isn't D working at all? (This was confirmed in our conversation.)
The two times I had this conversation with admittedly quite polite (if sometimes impatient) personnel, I was struck by their resistance to being stuck. One of them had to concede I had no choice in the matter of how to plan more than two weeks ahead - that I could not.
This assumption that people no longer read print instructions or use paper guides is old-fashioned, in my opinion.  It is comply common sense to rely on the simplest easiest form at hand - the more portable printed page.


Hard times are upon us, most  people agree. The world is crashing down, all standards becoming erased.
Well not all of them, it turns out. Not if you  consider the plasticized card issued by Washington DC's 'elite' private Cosmos Club to its members.
"Dress Code At the Club" it says under a little red imprint of the club's seal.
Over all, the club hopes its members will know such rules by heart, though it can be confusing since  the codes change according to season: Labor Day through Memorial Day and 'Summer Dress - Memorial Day through Labor Day."
Refreshing to see some hard and fast attention paid as well to  computer and phone usage "in the clubhouse." Five permitted areas are listed where digital communication  is allowed. Takes a bit of time to look them over so I suppose members have to carry the card around to be sure.
Guests apparently to not have to adhere to the rules. A Sunday brunch in the dining room was attended by a young man in wrinkled shirt and pants, minus a tie (as required "only in the Garden Dining Room at Sunday brunch, and at lunch and dinner."
"Ladies" take note.  Their attire requirements follow after those for the 'gentlemen,'  as it is written. "in an equivalent fashion."  But no leggings or tights (unless worn with shirts, dresses, or long jackets), please.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Washington A Woman's Town?


         A remarkable time in the capital city, a trend of amazing proportions that has yet to be given much attention. How it has come about that the heads of many major museums and government institutions in town now are women. Suddenly, it seems. Notably the Kennedy Center, the Hirshhorn, the National Gallery of Fine Art, the National Air and Space Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and its neighbor the American Art Museum, as well as the often overlooked US Botanic Garden (NOT the often mentioned Arboretum) are being so capably managed by career professionals  whose credits do not include (at least unproved as such) simply being a woman in a time of @metoo.
          Not to forget the private institutions such as the Phillips Collection, founded by a man and now run by Dorothy Kosinski.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Oh those terrible service calls - ie people, their annoyance - finally reversed

         I write to save the reputation of some 'folks' called upon to get us through life but who are often resoundly cursed. The  infamous forever on holds, survey questions, rude and brusque exchanges  for no discernible purpose other than to cause unnecessary friction in our lives.
         Because the opposite also can be true: really competent experts who do their job and are seemingly pleased to do so. Take Tyler, the Miele dishwasher repair man come to rescue me from my incompetence with the beautiful piece of German machinery I own. A staple that has been stable for a decade or more - probably more - then suddenly shifts moods. He is the son in a family designated by Miele to resolve all such company complaints in the greater Washington area. Or so I figure when I can find no other resource. He was seven years old when he set out to learn his trade, and has kept at it under the tutorship of his father. His mother generally answers the phone; his father takes messages and I think then consults with his son on scheduling. I hear Truths from Tyler that doubtless no other professional would offer: Miele really is  better than Bosch (and both are owned by the same company) but developers, etc. put Bosch appliances in new luxury buildings because they are less expensive Miele can stand up under the assault I have been handing it - my way of repair was to shove, push harder to get the thing to start. All in vain. It is an item meant to last. Just be sure to give it a cleansing periodically -  buying online the curious little canister needed to run with a single empty washington.
     How happy I am when my Miele is humming quietly, doing its job, a reassuring sign that my house is in order, at least for the moment.

        Another 'service provider' of unusual talent very worthy of mention. I'd give him a prize if I could find the right trophy. That is the man distinguished for his  loving, longtime care and concern for hair. You won't find him in any advertisement, though he once ran a downtown DC salon called simply 2000 because he opened it that year. Previously he had been boosted up the competitive ladder of styling professionals by his association with the late Londoner Vidal Sassoon. He was to be made a 'hairdresser to the stars' in Hollywood, invited to live the wild life in the town of angels, but something (much of which was his wife) pulled him back. He didn't need the call of fame and fast living he decided - abandoning tinseltown in favor of the Virginia suburbs and then eventually a roost of his own on the first floor level of the Westchester  housing complex on Cathedral Avenue in DC. There he caters for men and women, often many of advancing age, giving them loving attention and a bevy of charm.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Who is Emilie?

My welcome to Emilie's the night before dining there:

Cancellation Policy
If you need to cancel your reservation, please do so before 7:00 PM on Tue, Oct 15 or your card may be charged a no show fee of $100.00.
        The newly anticipated restaurant in my Capitol Hill neighborhood is named Emilie's for no reason that I can see. Nothing on the menu, or rather what passes for a menu, which is a handful of  prettily printed pages listing an array of dishes. The pickled things on one. Side dishes on another, then 'family' items or maybe all that is just how I remember the jumble of instructions and staffers coming by. Emilie is every one of these smiling folk, apparently, the first  choice being the usual  question of plain or sparkling and soon wine selections by the glass. We're offered a sample of two temptations, no problem to reject one in favor of another. The wine steward is an especially vivacious woman - talkative and smiling. She drops by, answers a few question and soon flits away. This is a large ground floor operation spreading over, it seems, half the block of Pennsylvania and 11th with a round inviting colorful bar in the corner entrance room.  The place is full, buzzing at 7 p.m.on a week night. We were no doubt lucky to find a spot open at the last minute the day before -- but, as is the custom I find, reservations could be made only online and only for one month ahead. 
       I'd come in person the day before "as a neighbor," hoping to score, thinking 'local' was the winning word.  It took some time before I was told I had some luck for the next night though I couldn't book on the spot. A multitude of digital communications followed. I had to leave a credit card number to vouch my interest, with the warning each member of my party would be charged $25  - on my card -if we didn't show up. We were in danger of losing $100 on a night of wretched traffic, with three of us coming from far away. Confirmation had to be definite by 7 p.m. the evening before.. Reminders began: to confirm please reply confirm. To cancel use cancel. The next day I was told that my party was due in 30 minutes. It seemed  no excuse was acceptable: the computer was holding us hostage.
branzino collage
      Such is the new norm in these high-end establishments where the bread (shockingly) can cost $9 for a single piece a person and have nobody complain. Where so-called main courses can resemble fine art rather than memorable - if 'interesting'  visually - food. Where, in small print, is the notice that 4 percent is added to the bill for the sake of staff's  health needs. Entertainment at least is free: the chefs working hard behind a counter that takes up half the room. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

City Life (cont'd)

    Hard to predict what brings about spontaneous conversations between strangers on a city street. Most likely, I'd wager, they occur after inadvertent physical contact, say between bicycle (or scooter) and pedestrian. Such are the joys of a busy pathway, scene of a recent close encounter when the two headed in the same direction, scurrying along unawares. The young woman perched on an extra wide handle two-wheeler whizzed past within inches. "Whoa,"  was all I could think to say. Which brought her to a stop and a look of annoyance on her face . "Would you consider maybe putting a bell on your bike, or some device to help warn people?" That wasn't what she expected  - someone slowing her right to  ride. "You could hurt someone and then have a nasty lawsuit on your hands." I hurried to say I wasn't criticizing her choice of the sidewalk - it's free for everyone after all.
"That's what the children I care for have on their bike," she said, thoughtfully, agreeing - a compromise on her part, I could tell. My suggestion at least made her pause and consider the idea and left me pleased (deceived?) thinking that at least civility had won the day. I walked on imagining she might actually purchase a whistle, horn or bell. She rode away, happily free.

 Sometimes it only takes a quick look at a bulletin board to be content that citizens are indeed monitoring public spaces. Above in small type, carefully printed out warning to random folks coming to a car wash to observe some underserved common courtesies. Protect the public realm, the note implores. Let others enjoy the intimate silence of their own smartphone conversations without having to listen to strangers blabbing aloud rudely in the waiting room. Off to the side was another printout, of names of those who fled the scene without paying a dime - the damned forever unwelcome. And the humorous notice posted above the entry way, before customers give up their keys, about what could be  carelessly lost and forgotten in their vehicles so that they dare not charge the employee with pilfering....


Saturday, September 28, 2019

Hirshhorn Plaza Pleasures in Autumn

Without a doubt, 'Open Dimension' best describes the spirit - and latest exhibit - of the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum.

Unusual among the many attractions on the Mall, this rotund building, which opens out into a sculpture garden,  is offering free public programs and sketching sessions on two more early October evenings in and around the 4.3 acre open air plaza. Drinks and tasty bites are also available. Such enticements are in line with the installation of ten stone and steel sculptures by Korean-born artist Lee Ufan.  Hirshhorn director Melissa Chiu is shown above talking  with Lee Ufan  in front of his Box Garden, a labyrinthine fountain piece directly under the sky.
The tension between seemingly unrelated materials is deliberate, as was the choice of each individual stone - heavy granite shapes weighing hundreds of pounds. Each boulder was chosen to be part of what he terms a dialogue that is up to the viewer to construct for him or herself.  The simplicity of the designs, which fall under a single title "Relatum," is disarming and is intended to provoke. What could be more  different than the contrast between natural stone and manmade industrial steel, up against the slippery elusive flow of water? A media release states that the show, to continue into September 2020, is the artist's largest 'site-specific outdoor sculpture project in the U.S., the first exhibit of his work in Washington, and the first time in the museum's 45--year history that an artist has been invited to take over the entire plaza space.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Tree Talk at the US Botanic Garden

 Here is a very happy man, an arborist exclaiming with his arms telling us urbanites in the U.S.Capitol's Botanic Garden why trees may be more adaptable in the world than people. Why  trees often have amore choices in how to live than most human beings. Not surprisingly, he is author of several books on the subject of trees ("Sprout Lands" is the latest), promoting the  idea of how man and these big plants can best get along.
Quoting from the preview outlining his tour, cleverly titled "Tree Jazz" (for good reason), his message gives one hope.

Human beings have 78 organs; trees have only 3—root, stem and leaf—but trees live longer and are far more resilient than are human beings. Much like a jazz player, a tree lives by first stating its ancestral pattern, and then by repeating that pattern in every way possible for the rest of its long life. The branches that form on the tree as it grows are literally reiterations of the original form, and in fact, most of them begin life with their own root systems, which are linked to that of their parent tree. In the meantime, whenever damage, insects, diseases, bad weather, pruners or other misfortunes strike the tree, it responds with new repetitions of itself, creative reiterations, like a jazz player’s improvisations on a theme. In this way, out of only three organs and 24 patterns, trees are able to grow an infinity of unique forms. 

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Big Town or Little City (contd)

  I took a photo of this defrocked mail truck when I saw a stranger doing the same thing.  Observing offhand as I was, thinking the vehicle a remarkable sight on an unremarkable street on Billings, Mt., north (i.e. less impressive, older) side. What's striking is the rainbow decor, of course, a statement of defiance perhaps.  It wasn't a coincidence that the empty truck was parked next to the grassy arena where a community celebration of gay pride and people was taking place. And what a scene there: all ages and costumes. Clever how the repurposed truck's rainbow colors parallel the staid red and white stripe of the estimable U.S. Postal Service. What would happen, I'm wondering, if any of the mail delivery men or women wore those same  multicolored ribbons on the job? How fully regulated are they? Imagine a rainbow printed bikini on really hot day  with the mail carrier's bag slung over his/her shoulder...
 Recent graffiti targeting gays on downtown streets brought out more people than usual to this Sunday afternoon parade and festival happening in the state's largest city (or its biggest small town).   Think what you might: times are a'changin in ways great and small, even in Trump country.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Noted In Passing on 8/19/19 and 8/31/19

What is a cosmopolite? A cosmopolitan person? Someone who looks outward perhaps (i.e. the cosmos...) in every sense of the word?

A word to play with, especially for those of us who tend to associate the adjective with an urban mentality. A city person is bound to look out and around just by virtue of being surrounded by other human beings on a regular basis. As in shoulder to shoulder in the public arena.

Anyone curious about how far to carry such matters should look to a new book by philosopher/professor Martha Nussbaum (University of Chicago) titled "The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble But Flawed Ideal" who plays with the question "Is There Such a Thing as the Ethics of Cosmopolitanism?" (Harvard University Press). Count on some historic references and inferences. An excerpt can be found in today's BookMarks web, as noted in Lit Hub Daily today....


The day a report was issued by a somewhat obscure agency (the Economist Intelligence Unit) naming Washington DC as 'one of the safest large cities of the world, ' the local paper (Washington Post) wrote of a 'rash of violence' in and around the District. Of course, such things are relative, but maybe the 110 people slain to date this year don't exactly tally as a crime wave. The city was the only U.S. city in the top 10 cited, and only one of two in North America along with Toronto.
The Economist's index publishes biannually, ranking 60 cities across six continents. Tokyo, Singapore and Amsterdam were rated higher on this somewhat obscene scale.
Hong Kong - no surprise these days - dropped from 9th to 20th. The District had risen from 23rd two years ago.
It all depends on how the data is compiled. Violent crime in the District 'has been steadily declining' while homicides have gone up 13 percent since last year. What helped bring DC up  in the ratings was said to be the city's concentration on "intense disaster preparedness.'
Relative, you have to say. One person being killed and six wounded in a 24-hour period doesn't amount to a hill of beans. It's just a 'rash.'

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Notes From Afar: An Editorial

           From the Economist magazine, August 3/19: This curiously named 'Charlemagne' column datelined Europe that plugs the rise of the electric scooter fad as perhaps less folly than welcome phenomenon. The anonymous writer reflects on how the trend might herald the eventual demise of the car in urban milieus - hence, an end to traffic jams,  pollution, all manner of inconveniences now menacing those of us who relish inner city living.
           Well, nice if you can get it as the saying goes.  Obviously, many cities have risen to the challenge by construction of bike lanes, increased parking and operating charges, encouragement of commuter routes and services. The writer sees a 'gradual retreat of the car from the European city,' indeed, across the entire continent. How far such moves extend on the American continent has yet to be tested, because local governments are what determine  the urban profile and so consistency is rare.
New York is doing an exceptional job up against formidable challenges. A full page in the Friday Aug. 9 New York Times print edition is headlined "Cars No Longer Welcome on Busiest Stretch of Manhattan's 14th Street."  The inspiration apparently came from our northern neighbor Canada's Toronto, which tackled its busiest thoroughfare with restrictions - i.e. blocking cars on a 1.6 mile street. Streetcars could then speed up and do the job they were intended for.  The average speed of buses on New York's 14th Street has been 4.5 mph, 'among the slowest of any American city,' according to The Times.
       There is only so much one can do to choose Metro service in the greater Washington, D.C. area when the three area jurisdictions in charge seem always to be feuding over who owes how much and why to make the system operate. Let your representative - whoever answers to the name - know how you feel about such matters. Put feeling into your message. 

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Update: The City in Summer

Some advantages to note:
Metro - Washington's subway - is less crowded. Tourists often are the crowd, especially Europeans whose August traditionally is their travel time. Locals can feel superior when they see strangers puzzling over iPhones, looking for directions that are not always clear. One very buttoned up man with briefcase took time from his stride to counsel such a group alighting recently at Pentagon City mall and looking stranded on the platform. He stopped voluntarily when he saw their dilemma and asked to help.
The huge glass Mall hub above them hummed with activity - an obvious place to hide from hot air and sun.
Festivals are everywhere, and free entertainment of a high and low sort flourishes. Author readings continue nonstop at bookstores are  since most authors these days must rely on personal appearances to spread the word. They offer the best antidote to warmed over TV shows, often still in repeat mode until September. Among the best of these lately was Ocean Vuong, a slender young man, sitting in conversation with poet Jenny Chang at Solid State on H St. NE. It was the last of these on his current schedule another standing room only audience drawn to his novel and its remarkable title: On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous.  He was 'gorgeous' in manner and mind.
 First, by praising the audience before he had even said a word about his book, pointing out their attendance as solid value to the community, of which the store is a vital part. That produced a round of clapping from his admirers who, not surprisingly,  included a great variety of so-called minority faces. They rushed to hug him at the end, grateful to be acknowledged and impressed by his theme: survivorship may mean hardship but is at the same time "an incredibly creative act." Immigrants such as himself  - the son of an illiterate Vietnamese mother - often grow up in harrowing circumstances and still learn to fashion themselves in original ways. For him, language was the tool; his early  public school teachers  showing him how to use it. 

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Summer in the City and Beyond

Stay alert! The temperature is climbing! Nobody could be happier than the prognosticators calling forth the danger ahead. Who else gets full attention when records are apt to be broken? Who knows better how atmospheric pressure affects the human body and has the authority to offer advice?
Whatever the reason, Metro subway riders were hard to find at the near end of the morning rush hours. At 8:15 or so, the car I was in felt empty. It was opportunity to study fellow citizens morning attire, to sneak peeks at skin. A serious looking slim blonde woman carrying a Chanel bag on one shoulder and black work bag on the other was making do with gold flip-flops that could not hide a twisted baby toe. A shortened piggy curled upon the fourth digit. I wanted to give her immediate aid - perhaps a suggestion where she might remedy her plight.  But these days, perhaps, a little piggy is the least of a pretty woman's woes.
We weather things well in the city, to judge by the preponderance of festivals and songfests taking place in all sorts of venues. Free movies everywhere. A vegan feast for the masses. Not that Washington ranks high in quirky innovative celebrations of a kind. A photo of  Paris' Eiffel Tower shown in the free Wash Post handout called Express showed sheep being led past the giant edifice by shepherds from Seine-Saint-Denis. Blithely. More tourists than shepherds I'll wager. Animals are erupting in the strangest places this season. A brown bear went missing in Italy's Alpine forest and scaled a 13-foot barrier.  A 250-pound tortoise was found wandering  along a highway 100 miles north of its Long Angeles home. A human - a barefoot woman from Nebraska - reportedly scaled Mount Rushmore for fun, making it nearly to the top before being arrested.
My method of endurance is finding cultural attractions that don't require physical labor and are ultimately more distracting than the heat.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Monk's Merriment

DC'S National Museum of the American Indian
The tiny woman standing up front in this tiny photo contains a very large store of energy and emotion, and she does most of it through sound coupled with minimal gestures. Meredith Monk is an innovator in the arts world, active since the 1960s, performing what she sometimes calls 'sound sculptures' and what erudite admirers call "extended vocal technique" coupled with "interdisciplinary performance." The sounds she and her small five-woman troupe make cannot be totally divorced from their motions, minimal as they are. The body is an instrument as much as the voice. The resulting original work  is very nearly indescribable since it is the compilation of so many sensations in what appears to be sacred space for an experience akin to churchgoing.
Not coincidentally, the Hirshhorn Museum  chose to present Monk and her vocal ensemble in a space often interpreted as sacred to Native Americans -  Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. It was a one time event, called "Cellular Songs: Concert Version." Solemn for the most part,  the mood was broken during an encore when the 'chieftain' of the tribe - the formidable 80-some yearly Ms. Monk - broke into a rollicking imitation of an elderly woman happily, joyfully, telling a story. The Hirshhorn  institution has been breaking ground in many ways of late. This time the program was under the direction of the curator of media and performance along with Monk's own House Foundation for the Arts. All the arts. She uses incorporates film as well as visual design.
Curious how merriment can be felt even when performers' tones are solemn, almost dirge-like. Their actions resonate with joy, empathy, compassion. Especially when all are huddled together (yes like a football team) at the end.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Civility, Please!

         A Need for Manners in the Modern Age    

It happens almost daily during morning rush hour. A bicyclist zooms past on the sidewalk, a missing me by inches. “Is there a bell on that bike?” I call out, thinking that he might apologize for failing to warn me. No go. I’m just an obstacle on his way to cross at the green light ahead.
Of course, he has his rights - just like any other citizen hurrying off to work. It’s public space, after all - the same one claimed by electric scooter fans charging along so insouciantly that I wonder if they ever look for any defenseless pedestrians in their path.  Such innocent names: Lime and Bird.  The Washington Post recently nailed the issue on its health page, saying worldwide calls grow for bans.
But  just where is this happening outside New York City, Paris and the United Kingdom, I would like to know. Nashville’s mayor at least gave scooter operators a month to “clean up their act,” the report says. What then?
Likewise, the compulsive smartphone user. Head down, oblivious to everything around and ahead. Never mind that green has turned red. The oft-proclaimed dangers of cell phone usage in public places is well documented, citing how presumably otherwise good citizens insist on their right to communicate no matter what. Has the rate of pedestrian deaths risen dramatically in part because drivers insist on their right to give and receive messages anywhere they please?
Speed is king these days in an urban milieu. Ambling is passe. The rules of the road are unspoken, even when they are - vaguely - written into law. Heaven help the denizens of Washington, DC, and other cities who face an invasion of even more wheeling wonders. The city has apparently given in to pressure from who-knows-where to allow several hundred more of these take-it-and-leave-it -where-you-will mobile devices. 
Yes, they cut down on automobile usage, save  on pollution, provide cheap and convenient transport. But what’s the limit, and why aren’t there more protests about the numbers and the dangers they invite both to themselves and others? Am I in a  minority - a hapless two-footer who prefers to walk even when I can drive or ride?
Don’t even mention how few bikers or scooter users bother with helmets. Maybe in the future it will be up to the pedestrian to arm him or herself with some protection. Grouches like me are caught up in the quaint notion that everyday manners are at stake here. We see a need for new rules of civility in the age of hyper technology that go beyond (or maybe alongside) the current fixation on what constitutes privacy in a digital world. 
Likewise, (a slight digression) consider what are ‘proper’ use of communication methods along the nearly unfathomable internet road. Who is to say what are the rules? To text or not to text versus overwhelm one another with emails that can pile up by the hundreds without blocking devices that may or may not be effective. Does the texting person expect an imminent response  and how should the person on the other end react? Doesn’t this put unreal pressure on people to be constantly monitoring their phone for messages? Surely, many misunderstandings occur with the expectations assumed in the exchange.
Machines can help maketh the man ( literally so for Crisper technology and DNA manipulation or for procreation via In Vitro Fertilization) but they seem equally capable of killing him off. Robots and other AI devices, it’s surmised, promise to make many  human activities (even some body parts) irrelevant.
If only that fast disappearing bicycle guy had thrown a ‘sorry’ in  my direction, I probably would not be writing these words. I might instead be  seeing fresh hope in the ability of a stranger to be sensitive to the needs of another and act accordingly. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Under or Over, the Book Is Good

    Hardly a single word has been raised to counter the critical praise for writer Robert Macfarlane's latest book -  "Underland: A Deep Time Journey." It's long at 488 pages, and deep (literally) from both a physical and philosophical perspective.  The British writer goes subterranean, on a mission that he calls "the subculture of urban exploration," which he defines as "adventurous trespass in the built environment."
   Among requirements for participation he cites "claustrophobia, lack of vertigo, a taste for decay, a fascination with infrastructure, a readiness to climb fences and lift manhole covers and a familiarity with the varying laws of access across different jurisdictions."
No limits, in other words.
   This is obviously not your everyday travel book. W.W. Norton & Company. $27.95. Should keep you engrossed when it doesn't 'gross' you out, so vivid are his encounters with some terrifying terrains.

Monday, June 17, 2019

CUSP What?

 The letters CUSP are short for New York University's Center for Urban Science and Progress so a person is inclined to write - they are on the 'cusp' of a mission. But what would that be, exactly?
  To see from their statement online, the Center is an 'interdisciplinary research center dedicated to the application of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in the service of urban communities across the globe."
Whoa - no small ambition. No single program is listed, beyond the fact that a Master of Science in Applied Urban Science is offered by the institution. That invites another question: just what is such a science, beyond development of even more digital tools to apply to the vastly increasing numbers of city dwellers (i.e. more than half the world's population now lives in urban areas)?  And then - what is 'urban'? What improvements to their lives do most urban dwellers want?
  CUSP considers itself a 'laboratory' so perhaps some answers will be forthcoming. Eventually. Mayor Bloomberg and his money has a lot to say about it, apparently. He announced the institute's launch way back in April 2012.
  Stay tuned.
  But be watchful. According to  May 26, 2019, article in the Washington Post , "any attempt to make a clean break between urban and rural will look arbitrary" -- due to ongoing absorption into greater metropolitan areas of previously so-called rural areas. The character of a place doesn't necessarily change with a new designation, the reporter notes.  Is urban a 50,000 or more resident mark? he writes. He sites many useful and important statistics, many due to changing definitions and who or what organization decides them.
  Always try to read past the headlines and the first few paragraphs of any material in print form. But please keep reading print.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Love's Labor Never Lost

DC citizens, unite. If not, you have nothing to lose but your sense of humor - the most valuable armor you possess these days.
The current production of Shakespeare's early comedy on the intimate Folger Shakespeare Library stage is beguiling enough to shake off - temporarily anyway - any gloom caused by ongoing political hijinks in the capitol. Vivienne Benesch, making her directorial debut, has  produced a thoroughly engaging show (running through June 9). Her initial impulse - to use as the setting a model of the august building's  much -vaunted reading room. Wherein  a play takes place within the play -- and a lot of fast paced repartee between characters sumptuously dressed in 1930s attire.  The Folger was built during the Great Depression, hence the director's inspiration to 'copy' a serious interior space.
No labor was spared in setting forth an entertaining spectacle, in vaudevillian style. Send your angst-ridden teenage children to get them out of their navel gazing. Turn their sights onto these articulate and agile actors in peak form. Nothing lost, everything gained in the process.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Civitas: Manners for a Modern Age

 Civility as it's commonly understood - behavior that goes beyond 'good manners'- is linked to civic life. Consider what is  the meaning of 'citizen's responsibility.' Not just the matter of voting-as-privilege (why isn't voting mandatory in this country anyway?) but in everyday occasions that mostly go unnoticed because they are perceived as minor. The little courtesies that mean a lot, but which help in some way to bring people together, reminding them (us) of community and its value.

Yes, this is a theme that columnist David Brooks has taken up of late. I maintain I have been mulling the subject over far longer.

Consider those people who voluntarily stand to give a seat to a lame, pregnant or much older (obvious signs are obvious!) passenger on a bus or subway and do so with no ostentation, not even the expectation of  'thank you.' Those automobile drivers who stay watchful about the behavior - not only moves - of other drivers around them. Who  give a smile, a nod, or a wave when they (we) get a signal to  pull ahead in a line of traffic.  Doesn't that help relieve the stress of congestion in a simple way - a quick connection between strangers who are at that moment in confined space, frustrated and powerless?

The effort to reach out, even silently,  to an impatient driver in your path, or beside it,  helps prevent an accident - possibly to your own car. Altruism, while stoic, also has its selfish side. Helps make you - the saintly one - so that much better a person, or make you feel a superior one.  A spontaneous gesture is its own reward at times.

Strange how some people refuse to recognize - yes, see - the existence of strangers in public places, especially  crowded spaces. Surely, the effort to acknowledge that everyone is in 'it' together has a positive effect, even a downright practical one.That extra large backpack that a fellow passenger is carrying while he/she is reading a cell phone can be a huge nuisance in a tight space. For the bearer not to be aware of this is rude because invariably that innate object will collide with an irritated animate being.

What about those double, maybe even triple, seat baby carriages taking up all that room on the sidewalk? What's protocol? Should the baby minder give way to the lone pedestrian in his/her path?  At least show some sign of embarrassment that such a vehicle is  something of an obstruction and offer a modest but humble acknowledgment of that fact? Stop the carriage long enough for the pedestrian to pass?

Then there are those infernal bikes blitzing  along with the scooters that almost literally sail by the  hapless two-footed  creature minding his/her own business and hoping not to have to hop (yes) out of their way. What can be done to them except to try putting out a stick, a cane, or some immovable object  that might visibly deter them? But that wouldn't be very civil, would it?

The  subject  on the table at a Mother's Day gathering I attended was civility, with a small c.  I had just come from watching  "Knock Down the House," a documentary about the efforts of four public-spirited female candidates gunning for U.S. House seats in the last election, only one of whom - the now famous "A.O.C" - won. The film rightly but not exclusively highlighted her campaign and how she took on the longtime Congressman in her district with seniority who never before had been challenged in a Democratic primary. (This was New York, where the primary winner is almost always assured of a seat.) The older  white incumbent exhibited obvious bad manners: not showing up for a debate early on, rarely bestowing 'thanks' on a public he was courting (and counting on), or even seeming to listen to them. AOC on the hustings was impeccably generous with her time and emotions, holding nothing back in  her ability to connect with people in their homes or on the street. She was social media savvy to be sure, but in-your-face contact was even more effective. Polls showed her opponent in the lead. So much for media polling.

These are indeed strange times concerning 'proper' usage of communication paths along the  nearly unfathomable internet road. Who is to say what are the rules? To text or not to text, when and why, versus emails that can pile up by the hundreds every day without blocking devices that may or may not be effective. Does the texting person expect an imminent response just because he/she chose that method? Doesn't this put unreal pressure on someone to constantly monitor the phone for messages?  What is sanity in the worldwide digital revolution taking place around us?

 Plenty enough has been written to date about digital natives versus the so-called laggards or 'immigrants' trying to catch up.  Technology as the enemy has suddenly taken hold.
Enough so that books (yes, print) are being published about the advantage of not paying heed to the fast tracking overwhelming stream of words coming at us every microsecond. The need to sometimes be silent, to turn off the machines, to let the mind re-create on its own. Not to put up a wall but to put one's own sanity in first place.  Its a paradox for sure, but didn't the tortoise win over the hare in that fabled race?

Society is just  now is tackling issues on Facebook about what constitutes privacy and who decides. If that isn't a question of manners, I don't know what is.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Further Thoughts on Urban Angst

A former head of a formerly ranked top Washington museum is asked why he chose to stay in the city after leaving his director's post. He is a New Yorker by birth and inclination and, presumably, could have settled anywhere he chose. His ties to New York still are solid. He pauses for quite a while, then answers 'Washington is exotic.' Hardly the most common qualifying statement about out capital city. What can he possibly mean - apart from the presence of so many international representatives in residence, offering a multitude of cultural choices for anyone so inclined to seek them out?
"Trees," he says.
Surprise but no surprise. A favorite slogan of DC is 'city of trees,' that by contrast with Manhattan streets he points out, is true. Of course he happens to live in one of the most leafy upscale sections of the city, well away from commercial invaders. He tries to explain how he does miss the intellectual life of New York, as he knew it well and then dismisses that city by saying "it's all business." Yes, the financial capitol of the world, a haven for the moneyed rich, squeezing out anyone with less than a million to spare.
Take your compliments any way they are given.
A recent survey published last December found that, while Americans are more and more driven to life in urban areas, at heart they hanker for rural enclaves. Jobs and other necessities create cities. Rural life offers solitude - privacy. A conundrum. By rural, they mean rustic - not the suburbs. Quixotic - hah, exotic! - this yearning for what might have been or could be. Typically the restless populace, a storied tribe in our still young history. Always washing for what might have been or could be. Pushing westward for escape.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Back and Forth

    To travel between big city and little city (a town?) within the short period of  a week,  invites comparisons that may be  shallow but  inevitable.
    City mouse, country mouse,  I go between Washington, D.C. (730,000 more or less) and Billings, (109,000 and growing) several times a year to see family. Each visit brings to the fore an ever sharper sense of contrast, large and small, between two worlds. The move requires wearing a mask in each place - the comic one, that shows both a happy and sad face.   Billings, the largest city in Montana, is composed mainly of casinos, banks and shopping malls, (one of which is home to a "Christian Automotive" garage).
    Washington, by comparison,  at least the part I inhabit, is given over to monuments, offices, and - surprisingly  - trees.It's nickname is, in fact, City of Trees. Nary an obtruding neon sign.  Commerce is undercut by convention. And if excess curiosity and courtesy  among strangers is rare, it does happen sometimes on the subway (Metro) when the offer of a seat is made to an obviously old or pregnant woman. The New York subway exists to entertain. There is no shame in staring, no crime in making noise. Panhandlers alight at several stops, with or without instruments.
    In Billings I am given a friendly and totally unexpected "thanks for coming" from one of the attendants in the vast Goodwill store where I've gone to look for a used lamp. When my car overheats to a dangerous degree on a downtown street, a Mexican-American woman rushes out of a nearby restaurant to offer me a jug of water and finds on the spot - her husband, possibly - a mechanic to assess the situation. He is sure that I've sprung a leak in a hose that he can't quite find and urges me not to drive in case I harm the engine. The car is 20 years old with 120,000 or more miles on it but worth saving. The woman, who may be the owner of the restaurant I spy outside the film theater, tells me to keep the jug. When I attempt to pay the mechanic, he waves me off and walks away with a warning to watch the heating gauge. Delayed, I go inside to see a movie halfway through and the ticket taker tells me not to bother paying and suggests I stay after the intermission for the second half of the feature.
    A Billings' Lyft driver is a fair weather construction worker with a specialty in roof repair. "People here are mean," he says giving as an example the indifference of citizenry to others down on their luck. He mentions the sick man on a sidewalk whom he one time tried to help by hailing passing cars.  And what can explain the sight of casino parking lots full of cars every afternoon but an emptiness, a longing for company at whatever price? More suicides in Montana than almost anywhere else, I read.
   Washington offers a bustling street life as substitute for a social life every person needs.
 Then consider the metropolis - New York. Teeming masses in the millions yet somehow. possibly because of vast numbers, individuals often strive  to connect  on the spot.   Two minutes out of Pennsylvania Station recently, I was standing around noon near a bus stop leaning out into the street to see if my bus was coming. "You waiting for the M120," I heard a woman say to me. Maybe she just wished to confirm that she would have company on the bus. Maybe she wanted to help a stranger, as often happens there in public.  I felt instantly in tune with the rhythm of the street, overrun that time of day with hungry citizens. This would be no less the case inside the train station  when I was leaving. A man waiting for a track signal to come up on the board was observing the scene beside me - the ultimate diverse parade  that included an aggressive panhandler whose efforts soliciting were in vain. We stood together, watching the action and commenting back and forth on whether he would score. Then our track was announced and we hurried off separately to get in line for our train back to DC.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Gung Ho to the Galapagos

        The New York Times' travel section on Sunday Feb. 10  mixed editorial opinion along with a single writer's impressions of the fragile semi-protected world of the Galapagos - those wildly diverse idyllic islands some 600 miles off Ecuador's western shore. The writer implies that a crisis is brewing there - dangers to the habitat brought on by careless tourists and overseers, though who really is at fault is difficult to determine without more thorough analysis.
        I visited for a week in mid-January with a small group of eight on a catamaran that carried a lively crew of six or more, in addition to an expertly trained guide who displayed our daily schedule on a bulletin board much like would happen at any well organized training facility. This was vacation but it was more pointedly education with side indulgences like swimming and kayaking. Weather seldom interrupted the plan. As an example of much-ballyhooed luxury ecotourism, the time spent could not have been better overall.
       We even have a chef talented and humorous enough to carve for each dinner buffet table the replica of a familiar icon (Mickey Mouse) or aquatic animal out of fruit and vegetables.
But when a friend inquired casually what were the strongest impressions I had of Ecuador - the group had on the previous week been transported by canoe to an indigenous-run resort located in the Amazon river basin - I had to confess most of the recurrent images in my memory were of that expedition. Maybe because signs were evident in Galapagos of the country's strong effort to preserve the islands character by limiting visitor numbers to some extent - charging $100 each - and restricting carefully the movements of boats (and ships) to anchorages.

 Momma and her baby sea lion on the beach. Offspring can nurse 10 years or more.

In each place we were incontrovertibly 'far away from civilization,' enjoying the comforts of home while exposed to the most 'exotic' of primitive sites. Somehow, traveling upstream in a motorized gondola on one of the Amazon''s largest tributaries, we also were exposed to the pernicious invasion of industry and made to see inroads of commerce - oil extraction basically - on the shoreline. The ever increasing danger that indigenous culture will be wiped out - those that don't 'conform' to civilization's greed.
Galapagos is symbol of a wilderness contained - so far. Our adventure inland was a reminder of the conflict ahead for a country - the smallest democracy in South America. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Close Encounters Of A Special Kind

Maybe it could only happen in Washington DC, that self-styled bastion of international cognizance.
Dutiful volunteers assisting a State Dept. funded program bringing young people from former Soviet Republic countries to live for a year in the US are listening to a feisty woman student from Romania say that one of her favorite memories of Albuquerque, New Mexico, had to do with rugby.

Of all things. Maybe the audience expected to hear about the glories of the sunset.

It had to do with her playing rugby on a high school team and what that taught her about teamwork. "It's not about being rough," she says emphatically. "You learn skills."

Maybe no one even imagined that rugby for women was being offered today in US high schools. In any event, it was easy to see that the sturdy well spoken  self-confident woman had taken full advantage of her time in the US.

She also learned a lot about this country, she said,  from taking a class in American feminism (how many knew it was a subject?) when asked what else inspired her to advocate for women's rights so publicly on returning home  to Romania? She ended up being nominated by the U.S. Embassy for a 'woman leader of the year' award.

Which she didn't dare tell her parents about, and almost didn't tell them at all about many of her other empowering activities on her return, even though she still lives at home. Maybe she will and maybe she won't.

"Well, you have to understand I come from a military family. Very conservative. They may not understand." Her family didn't even know until the last minute that she had won the scholarship to live with an American family of strangers in the West. She worried they might think it was dangerous since for them, there was a war on everywhere and probably that was happening in America too.

"When I tell them, they have to agree that it was a done thing."

She had first been  exposed to such @metoo ideas from the  galvanizing women's march of 2017 that brought women together all over the world to stand up for their rights. Back home she was attacked and vilified; the backlash against her efforts was strong and even extended to her family.

She stood firm, unruffled, and decided on  a pragmatic tack. "Well from the bad comes the good. I got a lot of publicity out of it and that helped what I was ultimately trying to do," she said.

Sometimes a person can learn more about his or her own country by listening to a foreigner living there.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Check out Folger Theatre in DC this month for a comedic escape

The latest work on this stage is an energetic reenactment of the life of 17th century heroine  Nell Gwynn, a new role model for our time.
 Move over, Nancy Pelosi.
"Heroine" from Webster: 'a woman admired and emulated for her achievements and qualities..." Also a "legendary woman ...having great strength or ability."
 Recall, if you will, that this woman was famously a prostitute and later an actor who became mistress to a king of England. She was also famously perhaps the first woman of her time to perform female roles on stage previously all done by men. Actors at the time were considered lesser folk all around. The talent and spunk - there can be no better word - of ingenue Nell provoked a revolution. Her antics were legendary indeed. She succeeded through her wits and wiles to be a decisive influence on England in that long ago century.
Playwright Jessica Swale and director Robert Richmond have turned her story into a comedic romp: the acting is uplifting in every sense. The performance provides a perfect escape from the dreary politics of our time and the performance of Alison Luff as Nell will lighten your heart.
True, Speaker Pelosi's rise to prominence came up through a far different route. She was an educated  woman,and some might say' indoctrinated' into politics by her mentor father.  Whereas Nell, if history books are to be believed, was a 'My Fair Lady' find - diamond in the rough discovered on the streets of London by a member of a leading acting troupe. Both women, I bet, knew early on how to get the best of men. As the Folger drama shows, gestures matter as does a subtle mind at work conniving for advantage. And sometimes broad vaudevillian antics play well, too.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

January 1-4/ 2019

Keep  habits alive, stay alert, sleep as  much as possible.
Such are the fulminations of a lazy time between the religious and the civil winter holidays.
Conversation and  interaction with people seem ever more important in a politically uncivil time.
Walking out with a new pair of leather shoes on my feet, testing their feel and adjusting them to my gait, is important, too, and even moreso when it could lead to any spontaneous chat I might originate. Say, talk to the 'shoe dogs' when I go back to the store to find out what ergonomic inserts I need in my stylish new pair that looked just fine but didn't quite yet offer the comfort I wanted.  A side glance at  some ornately packaged socks that turned out to be compression socks brings  a confession from one of the clerks how his job depended on wearing them. Keep chatting in a lighthearted way and I come away with two pair.  The toes were nicely padded so my nails would not break through - so annoying in today's consumer throwaway world. The wool promised breathability -  no smell. Handsome footwear has it all over a new hairdo in long-range satisfaction.

Focus on a stranger's most attractive feature and let the words flow.
Ms. Yvette at the local post office came to work this week with her long sharp nails done up in a strikingly colorful polish: sparklers almost, to match the generous collection of gold bracelets on her wrists that dangled in time to the large thin metal hoops hanging from her ear lobes that swayed with each  practiced motion she made attending to a customer's wishes. A small comment, maybe an ordinary one, but she said thank you, have a good one anyway. We had time to exchange a few sentences in spite of the long line waiting behind me. The price on the envelope was preordained I learned because a skilled clerk such as herself knows the ready price set for anything below a few ounces. Standard rule around the country. $3.50 and no more until the ounces turn into a pound plus and then cost is calculated according to a zip code.

At the bank, too, a Customer Service Representative seated up front had a moment to enlighten me with further valuable information - as if you never needed or wanted to know. How each U.S. Treasury bill has in very very fine print the date of its creation - by year. And how many clients insist on only having bills in their possession above year 2009  because, when traveling, many countries using  or handling U..S. currency will not accept them, consider them to be of less value either because they are old and withered or out of some insistent prejudice that the money is worthless.

So that leads onto another quest: why -  and what countries are they? Unfortunately, I forget to ask.
Walk anywhere on city streets and a wealth of impressions emerge. Such as the strangeness of seeing so many strangers with what appear to be cigarettes sticking out of their ears. Digital tricks to 'keep in touch.'  Is that a way of plugging into the world or escaping out of it? Who would dream of striking up conversation with someone who was already shielded himself (mostly men) from it.