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Friday, September 30, 2011

Laughter Gives Hope for America

The one and only Bob Hope
Fueled by tremendous advances in communications, one of the major trends of modern America has been the interweaving patterns between politicians, performers, and pop culture. And an ongoing exhibit entitled Hope for America: Performers, Politics & Pop Culture does an enlightening, engaging job of demonstrating those powerful connections.

While ostensibly built around the career of comic icon Bob Hope, all the great political humorists from Will Rogers through the Smothers Brothers to the stars of Saturday Night Live to Jon Stewart of The Daily Show are represented here.

The exhibit is arranged in 3 sections, each further broken down into numerous stations.  The areas are:
  • Political Humor
  • Causes and Controversies
  • Blurring of the Lines
Several of the exhibits provide interactive choice.  My 2 favorites were a clip of  the old Rocky and Bullwinkle satiric cartoon show and audio/video jukebox where you could select from a variety 
of politically themed songs.

As a teacher of more than 30 years, I am always tempted  to grade exhibitions that I see. And I would give this an A. Of course, for the sake of full disclosure, I must report that I knew I was in the right place when we were welcomed by a special video message from Stephen Colbert, who along with the already mentioned Mr. Stewart, provides the best political perspective offered anywhere in America today.

Travelers' Tip:
When visiting an exhibition, it can be fun to give different awards for the different sements that you view. For example, best of show. Or the most surprising. My wife and I have been doing this for years. Today, I would have bestowed most unique on a 1967 poster showing then President Lyndon Johnson and his wife Ladybird as the lead characters from the movie Bonnie and Clyde. Think about it ... if you believed Mr. Johnson was promoting too much violence, what better way to get your point across.

Cartoons as Art, Cartoons as History

Timely and Timeless, a new exhibition at The Library of Congress, is designed to highlight the library's growing holdings in political and social satire, comic strips, and caricature.

The exhibit also responds to recent trends in the world of cartooning, which includes the growth in mainstream and alternative comic book industries and the related rise in importance of graphic novels and narratives.

Travelers Tip:
Speaking of the power of cartoons, if you visit the Library of Congress be sure to check out the Herblock Gallery, which features editorial cartoons by Hebert L. Block - better known by his pen name Herblock. 
 The gallery, which contains 10 cartoons, will change drawings every 6 months to demonstrate the broadest view of the work of this Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post political satirist and champion of "the little guy."  The Library is well-equipped for the task since the Herb Block Foundation donated more than 14,000 finished cartoons to the facility in 2002.

They Had Rhythm,They Had Music

The Gershwin Bothers
Summertime. Someone to Watch Over Me. I Got Rhythm. You Can't Take That Away from Me. A Foggy Day. Let's Call the Whole Thing Off. The Gershwin brothers created some of the greatest songs in the catalog of American popular music. And now they have their own exhibit in the Library of Congress.

The Gershwin Legacy is designed to showcase the immense contributions of piano playing composer George and his lyricist older brother Ira. The exhibit contains music scores, original lyrics, and other memorabilia.  One of the highlights is the piano that George used along with the table and typewriter that Ira employed to finalize his lyrics, which he first wrote in long-hand as his brother wouild compose the catchy melodies.

" Composing at the piano is not a good practice," George once said. "But I started out that way and it has become a habit."

To further understand the Gershwin importance, and more importantly, to hear some of the world's leading artists perform their songs, you can access the official Gershwin Brothers website by clicking here.

Travelers' Tip:
We've said it before and we'll say it again - flexibility and spontaneity are 2 traits needed for a great travel experience. We arrived at the Library of Congress only intending to see 3 exhibits. But when we learned that a guided tour of the facility would be offered, we jumped at the chance.  I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of Defeat

And in the end ... there's always another season
In this modern era of spoiled superstars, greedy billionaire owners, and crazed, alcohol-fueled fans  who think it's OK to assault someone simply for wearing the jersey of an opposing  team, it's difficult to remember why I once made sports such a cornerstone of my life. Then something happens to temporarily restore that lost magic, the idea that that anything - even the impossible - can occur on an athletic field. And tonight provided one of those times.

It began with a call from my former college roommate Steve Ferrara, who, like us, lives in the DC area. Now for the purposes of this story, there are 2 things you need to know about Steve - he pronounces a sentence like park your car in Harvard yard as "pahk your cah in Hahvard yahd" which, of course, means he is a die-hahd Boston Red Sox fan

Steve's Red Sox were  going to to be playing the Baltimore Orioles in that most exciting of sports situation - win or be done: capture the last game of the season and they would still have a chance to be in the Major League playoffs; lose and they could be going home to live with the stigma of the greatest collapse in baseball history. So when Steve suggested that Judy and I join him in Baltimore at the game, I readily agreed, especially since he said he would pick up the tab for the tickets.

My warm feelings for my former roommate soared when he asked if  we would mind, since the game meant so much to him, sitting directly behind home plate in the $99-a-ticket section. Object to those seats? Yeah, right.

So that's how I found myself sitting in prime home plate seats on a night that would make baseball history. Although all the 6 divisional championships had been decided, there was still a question of who would be the wild card teams. In the American League, it would either be the Red Sox or Tampa Bay, who were playing the Yankees in New York. The National League wild-card would be decided in games between the Philadelphia Phillies (my team) and the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis and Houston. In short, the setup meant that fans across the country would be watching the action on the scoreboard as intently as they would be watching the action on the field.

In Baltimore, the action on the field see-sawed; first the Red Sox were up, then the Orioles, then the Sox again. Initially, the scoreboard story was a different matter.  The Yankees stormed to a seemingly insurmountable 7-0 lead over Tampa Bay.  It looked Steve's Sox were headed to the playoffs. But then, as can happen is sports, the baseball gods decided to change the story line.  Miraculously, Tampa tied the Yanks, sending  the game into extra innings.

And just to prove that their powers were not limited to 1 city, those same gods decided to intervene in Baltimore, too. The scene was set. The Red Sox were 3 outs away from victory. Their ace relief pitcher was on the mound. First batter; 1 out. Second batter, 2 outs. Steve, along with the 1000s of other Red Sox fans in Camden Yards, jumped to their feet , shouting, pleading, imploring their team for just 1 more out. Next batter.  A double to center. That's OK, no harm. Next batter ... oh NO, back to back doubles, game tied. Still, it's OK. One more out and we'll go to extra innings and win there.  The pitch ... the batter swings ... a sinking drive ... the left fielder, glove extended, flys toward the ball ... he'll get it ... he'll get it ... he's got it ... no, he doesn't ... a single ... the winning run scores .. game over ... Sox lose.

Stunned, slumped, but still standing, Steve listened to the explosion of joy from the Orioles players and fans.  He looked at his dejected Red Sox as they slunk off the field and back to the locker room.  It couldn't happen this way; it shouldn't happen this way. But it did. No matter how many televised replays, the outcome would always be the same - Orioles win. And, in a manner of minutes, it got even bleaker. Word began circulating around the stadium - Tampa Bay had accomplished the impossible; they had come back to beat the Yankees in extra innings.  The Rays, not the Red Sox, would be playing another day.

So, for Steve and the rest of the Red Sox nation, there was only one option - wait until next year.  But then that may be the true lesson of the night.  In sports, unlike life, there is always a next year.

Travelers' Tip:
If you ever attend a season-ending game at a stadium and you plan on eating, you should be prepared to amend your foot choices. When we ordered hot dogs, we found out that the dogs were fine, but the concession stand had run out of rolls. No problem - we switched to burgers. Then we ordered sodas and discovered the stand was out of diet drinks, but did have root beer. And, by the end of the night, there were no cups. Oh well, there is always next year for those first-food choices.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Cheezeborger, Cheezeborger, Cheezeborger, No Fries Chips

If you have ghosts you know who to call - ghostbusters. But if you are in Iowa or Idaho and want a great hamburger, who you gonna' call? Well, you might considering contacting George Motz, who has been called both America's leading hamburger expert and the "Indiana Jones of hamburger archeology."

Motz came to the National Archives today to screen his 2004 James Beard Award nominated documentary Hamburger America. Interestingly, Motz said his real passion is filmaking, not hamburgers. "Now I always liked hamburgers and I thought the people behind them would make a good film," Motz said. "I blame the media for the hamburger expert thing."

The film tells the story of 8 distinctive hamburger palaces and the people behind the burgers. Each of the locations had been around for at least 40 years at the time of filming and ranged from the Memphis eatery where the hamburgers are fried in 91-year-old grease to the Billy Goat in Chicago, immortalized in the "cheessborger, cheezeborger, cheezeborger, no fries, chips" skit in the early years of Saturday Night Live

Travelers' Tip:
Good traveling involves thorough research.  So if you like hamburgers and you're planning any kind of cross country trip, you might want to consider grabbing a copy of Motz' companion book to film Hamburger America: A State-by-State Guide to 150 Great Burger Joints, a move endorsed by some great food experts. "When you travel across the United States take this guide with you," says Martha Stewart. "Hamburger America should be a staple in anyone's travel bag," adds chef Bobby Flay.

What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?

Due to a timing mixup, we were able to complete our tour of the What's Cooking Uncle Sam? The Government's Effect on the American Diet special exhibit at the National Archives today

We arrived at the Archives at 10:30 a. m. expecting to attend the showing of the documentary film Hamburger America, a part of the America Eats series, at 11 a.m.  Upon finding out that the film was actually not starting until noon, we decided to use the extra time to go back to What's Cooking, which we had briefly looked at earlier this summer.

Here is some of what we found:
  • Thomas Jefferson smuggled rice out of Italy in his coat pocket, a crime that was then punishable by death
  • In 1776, a Broadside heralded that each Revolutionary War soldier would get 1 pint of spruce beer daily.  Historians have noted that generous food rations may have been just as attractive to volunteers as cries of freedom
  • In 1803, the Lewis and Clark expedition carried with them a recipe for portable dried soup
  • Does this sound familiar? In the 1890s, W. O. Atwater warned that Americans were eating too much fat and sweets and were not getting enough exercise.
  • In 1906,  Upton Sinclair, the muckraking author whose book The Jungle made sure that people would never look at packaged meat products in the same way again, wrote a 7-page letter to then President Teddy Roosevelt urging much-needed food reforms that are still going on today.
  • America's fascination with backyard barbeques was sparked by President Lyndon Johnson's love of both barbeque and Tex-Mex food.
  • Richard Nixon's last meal in the White House before he left in disgrace consisted of pineapple rings, cottage cheese, and milk.
  • When current First Lady Michelle Obama started her White House Garden to help teach school children the value of healthy eating, it marked the 1st First Family garden since Eleanor Roosevelt planted a Victory Garden during World War II.
Travelers' Tip:
If you are planning to visit What's Cooking Uncle Sam? the exhibit will be closing Jan. 3

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Presidential Hopefuls Should Face Constitutional Test, Panel Says

American voters would be better served if presidential candidates were required to take a test on their knowledge of the United States Constitution and how that governing document lays out the duties, powers, and responsibilities of the highest office in the land, a distinguished panel contended tonight.

The idea that candidates should  "go into a room and fill out a blue book" (those ubiquitous small blue notebooks that college professors use to administer essay tests in their classes) was first advanced by former U.. S Senator and Democratic candidate for president Gary Hart, who said the current media reliance on soundbites doesn't provide enough information about candidates' real understanding of the Constitution.

Hart was one of 3 members of a panel on A Voter's Primer: Presidential Politics and the Constitution held tonight at The National Archives. The standing-room only event was sponsored by the Center for the Constitution at James Madison' Montpelier and the Archives.

A second panel member, Mickey Edwards, a former 16-year Republican Congressman from Oklahoma, agreed that the hypothetical testing would be beneficial for voters' enlightenment, but he expressed a major concern. "I don't think many of them (the proliferation of current candidates for president) would pass," he said, a remark that elicited large pockets of laughter from the crowd.

The third member of the panel, noted Constitutional scholar and Yale University Professor Akhil Amar, who opened his remarks by pointing out that the "we, the people" on his tie denoted his Constitutional leanings, said that voters needed real information about the candidates' ideas and should treat the election process as a job interview, with the highest prerequisite a detailed, complete, accurate understanding of the Constitution and its amendments paramount for employment.

"If you were hiring a nuclear power plant operator, you would want to make certain he knew something about nuclear power. He has his finger on the button," Amar said. "Well, the pressident has his finger on all the buttons."

One of the funniest exchanges of the lively, yet respectful, insightful, and at times downright brilliant back-and-forth came between Hart and panel moderator Diane Rehm, NPR newswoman.

"I don't think some of the candidates are smart enough to be president," Hart said.

"Do you really think that or are you just saying that," Rehm responded.

"Really, have you watched any TV lately?" Hart retorted.

Travelers' Tip:
Flexibility is a must-have trait for the successful traveler.  Today, we had planned to go back to our apartment after the NPR radio broadcast at the National Geographic, but realized we wouldn't have to get back to the Archives on time for the start of the Constitution panel. Our change of plans led us to discover Hill Country, which the Wall Street Journal heralds as "one of the 10 best places in the country for barbeque," not to mention an additional hour of walking through previously unexplored parts of DC.

The World of the Teenage Brain: Maybe Not So Wild Afterall


Why do teenagers do the wild and crazy things they do? Well, for a long time, parents, teachers, and others who have to deal with 13-to-19-year-olds on a regular basis have suggested, only half-jokingly, that it may be because teenagers are simply brain dead. No, not brain dead, answers new advances in neuroscience, but simply decidedly brain different.

In fact, with an eye of evolution, it may be those almost unfathomable actions summoned from the brain that actually allow teenagers to become successful adults. And those findings were the subject today of an NPR edition of Talk of the Nation radio show which aired live from the National Geographic auditorium. NPR host Neal Conan directed questions to David Dobbs, author of October's National Geographic magazine story "Beautiful Brains" and brain researchers Dr. Jay Geidd and B. J. Casey.

Dobbs says science now is able to show that the teenage brain is dominated by three tastes. "The teen brain is not broken," Dobbs said. "But teenagers are driven by a taste for risks, a taste for peers, and a taste for novelty."

The writer added that it may a reliance on those 3 areas that allow a teenager to leave the comfort and safety of his or her home and independently begin making a way in the world. Admitting that almost all teenagers, including his own, appear reckless and moody, it may these and similiar characteristics that actually help teens "negotiate their surroundings."

Dobbs says research has dismissed the often-held idea that teenagers act the way they do because the believe they are both invincible and invulnerable. "Teens know that they can die, but they perceive the rewards (of certain actions) outweigh the risks," Dobbs said.

Geidd says teens reliance on peer opinion, while not always the wisest course of action,  makes scientific sense. "Teenagers realize this is the cohort you will live with as an adult," Geidd said. "It also shows the absolute importance of human connection."

The researcher also pointed out that advances in technology have complicated the maturity process. "(With the internet) we have had more advances (in available information) in the past 10 years than we did during the previous 570 years since Gutenberg (invented the printing press)," Geidd said. "You have these Stone Age tendencies intersecting with these modern marvels."

So, with brain functioning a scientific fact, what are the parents of teenagers to do? Geidd said that the key is instilling responsibility in young people for their actions. "It's a question of when to intervene and how to intervene," Dobbs added. .

All 3 panelists agreed that modeling and leading by example are the best ways to get teenagers to act responsibly. Carey cited an example from her own life. When her teenage son wanted to get a tattoo, Casey didn't rant and rave.  Instead she told her son, "I'll go with you and I'll get the same tattoo." And did that work, she was asked? "Well, he didn't get the tattoo," she replied.

Travelers' Tip:
Obviously, one of the reasons to travel is to do things you haven't done before.  Now, as both a journalist and an educator, I have had the opportunity to participate in radio programs, but I had never witnessed a live broadcast with a large studio audience. And with its multiple laptops, many monitors, and orchestrated applause breaks, it was an entertaining exercise.  If you would like to hear the broadcast its entirety, you can click here.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Let The Debate Continue

When Jim Lehrer, then the co-anchor of the PBS' News Hour, first prepared for his initial time moderating a presidential debate, an experience he compares "to walking down the blade of a knife," he became anxiety-ridden, fixated on the pressures and potential terrors of the task.

"I whined and whined and whined," Lehrer said. "But my wife (Kate) said, and I'm paraphrasing here, Hey, hey. If it's that bad for you, think what it must be like for those 2 candidates - 1 bad move and they lose the presidency of the United States"

Lehrer, who went on to moderate 10 additional presidential or vice-presidential debates, appeared at the Politics and Prose bookstore tonight to discuss his new book Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain.

From a writing standpoint, one the more interesting stories of the night, told by Lehrer in his straight-forward, yet humorous style, was how the book came to receive its current title.


"The book was completed and all through the process, we had been calling it Moderator," Lehrer explained. "Then I got a call from my editor who said, 'Jim, they don't like the title."

When Lehrer pointed out that the book had always been called Moderator and questioned the last-minute change of heart, his editor responded, "Well, would you buy a book titled Moderator?"

Charged with coming up with the new title, Lehrer remembered a remark former President George H. R. Bush had used to describe the process of participating in a presidential debate - it was like working in "tension city."

Even though the debates come near the end of the grueling election campaign process and most voters
have already decided who to vote for, Lehrer said they still perform a vital function. "I believe, and you can cue the music in the background here, that the people are just as smart as I am.  They can look at the 2 (or more) candidates side-by-side, hear what they say, and decide - do I want this guy to be president," Lehrer said.

Travelers' Tip:
If you are planning to attend an event that is expected to be crowded (or if you're not sure how crowded it will be) and you really want a seat, get there early. We did. We got seats and found that, with still a half-hour until Lehrer's book talk, every seat but the one directly in front of us was taken. For about 10 minutes, we were privy to a monologue from a sometimes vitrolic, sometimes teary-eyed woman who demanded the seat, which the gentleman next to it quietly said he was saving for his brother-in-law, for her husband, who she pointed out on at least 2 occasions, "was a veteran." Now while the etiquette of holding a seat at a crowded event can be debated, there is something to be said for the adage first come, first served. And then there is the you snooze, you lose maxim. And, while I am extremely grateful for all our veterans have done for this country, I'm not sure their benefits should include the guaranteed right to a chair at a book talk.

Friday, September 16, 2011

It's The Economy,Stupid

OK. Here is today's economic question - who is receiving more Google hits - Leonardo DiCaprio or John Maynard Keynes? Well, if you answered Mr. Keynes give yourself an A+ in economics. "For someone who has been dead for 65 years, John Maynard Keynes is certainly in the news," says award-winning author, former economics writer for the New York Times, and current professor at The Columbia Graduate School of Journalism Sylvia Nasar.

Keynes, an extremely (some might argue the most) influential economist of the 20th Century, looms large in Nasar's new book Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius, which begins in the London of Charles Dickens and follows the making of modern economics to India of the late 1970s.

So with the current fears that the American Dream is dead and economic Armageddon is upon us, what would Keynes, known for "radiating optimism when things look the bleakest," do about current conditions, Nasar, whose previous book A Beautiful Mind won the National Book Critics Award for Biography, was asked at her appearance at the Politics and Prose bookstore here in DC.

"I suspect he would go shopping," she said.

Nasar said her years as an economic correspondent and all her research for her new book, has lead her to believe that America will weather this current economic unraveling. "If what is happening now is a Category 1 (hurricane), then The Great Depression was a Category 5," Nasar said, noting that there was full recovery from that dark period.

But Nasar acknowledged that with so many out of work, with so many suffering, with fears so high, faith is difficult to come by. "With so many scared in the middle of the night, it's hard to believe that the nightmare will pass with the morning," she said.

Travelers' Tip:
One of he great things about traveling is you get to meet people who you would never otherwise encounter. So with Sylvia Nasar in front of me last night, I just had to ask her a question, a question which turned out to be the last one of the forum. "Your book is about economists. And our son is an Economics Professor. Now I don't understand what it is that he does. So here are my questions: a) will your book tell me exactly what it is that he does? and b) how come we will still pay when we go out somewhere?" Laughing and explaining that she was answering as the mother of 3 adult children, Nasar said "maybe yes to the first, but no to the second."

Small May Be Big, Too

Physically, he was diminutive, standing only about 5 feet tall and weighing only 100 pounds.  He was a hypochondriac who really did suffer from debilitating digestive diseases. But when it came to  establishing America and creating its constitution, tiny James Madison truly did stand tall.

As part of its Constitution Day ceremonies, the National Archives hosted a presentation from eminent historian and senior editor for the National Review Richard Brookiser, who dramatically read the opening segment of his new book James Madison and then answered questions about Madison's life and legacy.

Brookhiser began by noting that Madison often becomes the forgotten Founding Father. To illustrate his point, he noted that while most of us in the audience would have pictures of Washington and Jefferson in our pockets, and some might even have a Franklin or two nestled somewhere, few would have a Madison since the 4th President had been relegated to fronting the $5.000 bill. "Not great product placement," Brookhiser quipped.

In his opening chapter, Brookhiser presents a 63-year-old president on a borrowed horse with 2 borrowed guns riding out on a sweltering August 1814 day toward the advancing British troops, which by nightfall, would have overrun Washington and sent the president into exile.  "He was a man of words, not war," Brookhiser said. "He had never fired a gun in battle.  But he had the moral courage to do what needed to be done."

Present at virtually every stage of the development of the United States and universally recognized as the father of the US Constitution,  Madison also made another major contribution - he should be considered the father of the modern American political party system, Brookhiser contended. "Madison (who helped found the original Republicans who later transformed into the current Democratic party) realized that ideas needed to be translated into action, and that those actions could be rough and tumble," Brookhiser said

Following Brookhiser's scholarly talk, a talented and quite believable actress portraying Madison's wife, Dolley, hosted an ice cream social and spent time setting the record straight about her White House years, "My Jimmy," and the scandalous tales their enemies told about her husband and her.

Travelers' Tip:
As a post 9/11 traveler, you have to be prepared for increased security. Sometimes, the results can be interesting. Last night, we attended a talk at the National Archives and I passed through the scanner with no problem.  However today, at the Archives, I sounded the alarm.  The culprit - my belt, which just happened to be the same belt I was wearing the night before. Maybe you need tighter security for day events than you do at night.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

It's More Than Food; It's Faces Too

Diana Kennedy says she likes "the real thing"
When 88-year-old Dianna Kennedy first arrived in Mexico in 1957, she never envisioned she would become known as the Mexican Julia Childs, the person most credited internationally with bringing Mexican cuisine to the world and teaching generations of Americans and even Mexican cooks how to prepare and savor the delicious, subtle, varied tastes of her adopted land.

"Well, you have to like to eat and I like to eat," the fiesty, dynamic octogenarian says in her still distinctive, very proper British accent.

Last night, Kennedy was joined by DC chef legend Jose Andres as the pair delivered a wide-ranging, often funny, always informative discussion on Mexican food as part of the National Archives America Eats Series, much of which was centered around Kennedy's latest cookbook Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy 

Mrs. Kennedy quickly established herself as a woman of distinct taste and distinct opinions. For example, she objected to The Washington Post calling her cookbooks "pop anthropology."

"You know," she told the capacity crowd at the McGowan Theater, "The Post reported that I was dead a few years ago. And they never apologized.  I had to run around telling people I was still alive. They said I was dead and they've never even said they were sorry."

Andres said it was Kennedy's forthrightness, frankness, and integrity that made her such a treasure to the culinary world.  To substantiate his point, Andres recalled an encounter at one of his restaurants. He said Kennedy contended that the chefs were using the wrong chilies. When asked why, Kennedy said they were dry. Andres said that the recipes called for dried chilies and Kennedy responded, "there are dry chilies and there are dry chilies and these are the wrong kind of dry."

In fact, chilies are very much on Kennedy's mind these days.  She says she finds it unconscionable that Mexico is importing chilies from places like China when the country produces some of the most flavorful chilies in the world. Kennedy blames the young technocratic leaders who establish food policies for the problem, which is driving Mexican farmers away from the land, and, in many cases, away from the country itself. "Those young technocrats, they don't travel. They don't know anything," she said.

Throughout the evening, both Andres and Kennedy kept coming back to the concept that food is culture, food is history, food is central to a country's identity. "Some people say it's just food," Andres said. "But food is faces, is people, is legacy."

Travelers' Tip:
When you travel, you owe it to yourself to try the local food.  You can get a Big Mac anywhere, but maybe only in Oaxaca can you sample those live protein-packed insects that scuttle around in your cheeks as you crunch down on them.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Synetic Macbeth: Silent, Stunning, Sensational


To Shakespeare purists, presenting Macbeth without the Bard's words would seem to be sacrilege. How could any Shakespeare play be silent? Well, tonight The Synetic Theater, which is being heralded  as the nation's premier physical theater group (a claim I highly support), produced a performance that should silence such thinking.

Now, you rarely think of a play in mathematical terms, but, if you were, a simple review formula for Synetic's Macbeth now being performed at their Crystal City theater might look something like this ... movement + music + mime - words = a marvelous, magical Macbeth.

For anyone who isn't familiar with the story or has chosen to forget high school English all together, Macbeth involves some witches, a good man gone bad, a witchy wife, some knives, some killings, a ghost, a suicide, some more killings, an outed candle, some more killings and finally, a final killing which produces a severed head and a new king.

Now, it may seem ironic to be reviewing a play without words with words, but let me at least try, even if the old adage you've got to see it to believe definitely applies here.

Macbeth was the 1st of 3 Shakespeare plays in Synetic's (a combination play on the words synthesis and kinesthetic)  Speak No More: The Silent Shakespeare Festival.  In the playbook, Synetic Theater founder, CEO, and artistic director Paata Tsikurishvili addressed the silent Shakespeare problem thusly: "For me, Shakespeare's plays are written in a universal language. In fact, the text serves a basis for all our work: it provides us not only with the story, but with the incredible imagery, archetypes, and metaphor, all of which are heightened to create an immersive stage experience that we feel in our bones."

Well, Mr. Director, not only was your stellar cast's performance immersive, it was downright mesmerizing.  In fact, I found so many hallucinatory highlights that I will borrow from the Bard and single out just 3 (you know, 3 witches ... 3 highlights).
  • the innovative, modernizing opening scene where 3 white-clad religious leaders (1 Catholic, 1 Jewish, 1 Muslim) pray and cradle a giant globe of the Earth until they are permanently dispatched (read that throat-slit) by 3 black-clad witches who emerge in smoke and darkness from under the stage. By the way, I am still trying to figure out how characters can slither like snakes while standing. Kudos to the choreographer. 
  • the brilliant suggestion/seduction scene where Lady Macbeth (the director's wife, Irina, who also serves as company choreographer) convinces Macbeth (Irakli Kavsadze) to kill King Duncan and take his crown. Here was definitely a case of the eyes have it.
  • the juxtaposition of mimed comedy and violent action that vividly captured the swaying moods of Macbeth's oncoming madness in the Banquo's ghost banquet scene.
Finally, let me list 3 images from the Scottish play (and yes there were bagpipe tones in the superior soundtrack lest we forget that fact) that will remain with me for a long time:
  • the use of bullets to represent the points on the king's crown
  • the cigarette holder wielded by Lady Macbeth during the banquet scene
  • and, most chilling of all, the perverted, inverted downward thrust Zieg Heil-like hand signs used to pledge loyalty and fealty (however temporary) to the 3 kings.
This is a repeat performance staging of Macbeth.  When it was originally presented, Synetic captured  scads of Helen Hayes awards.  And, based on opening night, if this version doesn't win additional accolades, then life truly may be "a tale told by idiot."

Travelers' Tip :
If you are reading this, get to DC to see a Synetic production. As far as Silent Shakespeare is concerned, Macbeth runs until Oct. 2.  It will be followed by Othello from Oct. 19 to Nov. 6 and Romeo and Juliet from Nov. 25 until Dec. 23.

Monday, September 12, 2011

George Pelecanos: The DC King of Crime Writers

You aren't always lucky enough to meet your favorites in any field, but tonight we heard a book reading and talk by George Pelecanos, my favorite crime writer, who also wrote for HBO's heralded The Wire, which happens to be my favorite TV series of all-time.

Pelecanos, a DC native who uses the streets and seedier sites of the nation's capital as the setting for his best-selling novels, was appearing at The Politics and Prose Bookstore as part of a  tour supporting his new novel The Cut, which features Spero Lucas, a young, just-returned-from-Iraq investigator as its protagonist.

Pelecanos said that he came up with ideas and settings for much of the novel in his bike rides around the city.  His new characters, which include 2 teenage drug dealers and a social studies teacher at a real-life Washington high school, sprang from  real-life encounters from research for previous works.

For about 30 minutes after his reading, Pelecanos answered questions about his books, the writing process, and particularly about using real-life DC as a basis for his works. He said the research he has undertaken  for his writing has helped him form many of his social stands. For example, he is for the legalization of marijuana, noting that the jails are full of young people involved in possession and sale. "Now, I don't smoke weed, but I've ridden with a lot of officers on domestic calls and every time there was a strong smell of alcohol around," Pelecanos said. "Alcohol is legal, but I can tell you, you're not going to beat your wife up if you're smoking pot."

Pelecanos said he was grateful  for the opportunity to have written with David Simon, Richard Price, Dennis Lehane and the other talented writers on The Wire.  "I never went to writing school and I thought that what I did was instinctual.  But I learned a lot from them; I learned there was a method to what I was doing. Of course, that being said, I did write the best episodes of The Wire," he said to hearty laughter from the standing-room only crowd.

Travelers' Tip:
When you travel, you never know when you are going to get an unexpected bonus and tonight I got 2. First, Pelecanos announced that he will have a new book out in January which is set in the 1972 DC Watergate summer.  And, each of us who purchased a copy of The Cut, received a free copy of the short story "Chosen" which details the beginnings of Spero's unique family.  And, for those of you who might be interested, I broke my ban on autographs and got Pelecanos to sign both copies.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

US at Nadir, Nader & Panel Claim

America again in jeopardy, Ralph Nader says
There is huge lesson for the USA from the fall of the Roman Empire, according to legendary consumer activist Ralph Nader - a lesson best captured in the words of noted historian Edward Gibbons. "The Romans wanted freedom, but more than freedom they wanted security and they lost both," Gibbons wrote of Rome's destruction.

Nader, who last week wrote article published in USA Today concerning lessons from 9/11, was the anchor on a 4-member panel which discussed the deleterious and ongoing impacts of American decisions made after the 9/11 attacks in a session held today at the Busboys and Poets Bookstore.  Joining Nader on the panel were:
  • Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powel
  • Bruce Fein, attorney and former executive editor of World Intelligence Review and
  • Mike German, a former FBI agent who is now policy counsel  on National Security, Privacy, and Immigration at the ACLU
Although the 2-hour presentation was both bleak and chilling, Wilkerson did inject some humor in opening remarks when he noted that "when I was in the military, it never crossed my mind that I would be sitting on a podium with Ralph Nader."  However, he felt it was his duty to speak out about his belief that America was in jeopardy for horrendous decisions being made by an elite handful in government.

"Where is it written that the American empire will not expire?" Wilkerson asked. "In fact, the signs are legion today that we will expire."

Wilkerson continued to detail a litany of wrong decisions made in the wake of 9/11. Using the false claim of Saddam Husein's Weapons of Mass Destructions and other examples, Wilkerson said the information presented to the military and other government leaders was "at best flawed, and, at worst, a complete lie. Everything that flowed from that was destructive to the United States." Wilkerson added that in his military leadership career he received "not one piece of credible info from the CIA."

Gen. Powell's former assistant said that unwarranted and unwise military actions were producing a huge drain on American taxpayers and further hastening the country's demise. "Bin Laden spent about $500,000 total for his operation, and we've spent more than $2 trillion trying to counter him."

Wilkerson said he is most fearful that a small band of wrong thinkers could propel America into a war with Iran, an action that has virtually no, if any, support in the military.

German said he had seen a dramatic dropping of essential American rights since 9/11. "Surveilance laws have been turned on their head and the weapons of war are now being used against the American people," German said. "The ratchet only turns in one direction. It's difficult to get rights back again."

The ACLU counselor said a shroud of secrecy surrounded unconstitutional moves undertaken by the Bush regime and, for the most part, continued by President Obama. "Even some Senators have said that there are secret and ongoing operations that if Americans knew about them they would be shocked, but they can't say anything because of national security claims," German said, contending that improperly classifying information as secret leaves workers (even workers as powerful as US Senators) fearful of losing their jobs or facing severe retaliation.

Fein, probably the most impassioned in his remarks, contended that "illegality in the executive branch is chronic, institutionalized, and recurrent."

"They are ignoring 200 years of legal framework," Fein said, adding that he feared even the threat of a 9/11 or worse attack could find America on the verge of despotism. "There are people in the executive branch that believe the Constitution is outmoded. You just need to trust us to keep you safe."

"These are violations that go to the substance of who we are as an American people," Fein said. "We are in a struggle for the soul of the United States."

Traveler's Tip:
If you travel, there is always a chance you will bump into someone who is famous.  Most people, myself included, never really know what to say nwhen that happens. Today, before the panel discussion, I was sitting at the bar at Busboys and Poets with my wife, sipping an iced tea, when I felt someone bump into my elbow. I turned and was face-to-face with Mr. Nader. Since he was talking to someone else, I didn't say anything.  However, after the talk, I saw him standing alone in the room and went up to him. He looked and said, "hey, what did you think?  That went well ..." showing that even the most famous are human and need affirmation, too.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Osama bin Laden: From 2 Who Talked to Him

Bin Laden and Bergen in 1997
His small tent in the secret, arid Arab wasteland was sparse. True, he wore a military jacket over his robes, had a loaded AK-47 propped at his side, and unleashed a scathing verbal diatribe decrying the infidels of the West, most especially the United States. But he spoke his words of hate in a monotone. Despite the impassioned nature of his rhetoric, he remained calm and collected.  There was much more cleric than killer commandant about him. In short, there was little evidence to believe in the late 1990s that Osama bin Laden and his handful of Al-Qaeda followers would ever be able to pull off a massive attack like 9-11, 2 veteran news correspondents who personally interviewed bin Laden told a standing-room only audience at The Newseum today.

In a wide-ranging, hour-long discussion, CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen and ABC News Correspondent John Miller, who were 2 of the only western correspondents to ever interview bin Laden, revealed details of those interviews and talked about their take on conditions in a post-bin Laden world.

"People who say bin-Laden's death means the end of terrorism are wrong," Miller, who interviewed bin-Laden in 1998 said. "But people who say his death is meaningless are also wrong."

Both correspondents said that America's focus on Al-Qaeda and recent killing of its spiritual leader have drastically weakened the organization's ability to mount significant attacks in the United States. "So much has changed since 9/11," Bergen said, noting that, for example, where the US then had about dozen agents sorting out terror signals that group numbers more than 2,000 today. "Or take the TSA. It may be a mixed blessing, but with the TSA, those box cutters wouldn't have gotten on board."

Both correspondents pointed out the difficulties in originally securing their interviews with bin Laden. First there was the substantial costs of such an operation.  Then, at the time, America and American news organizations were more concerned with the the O.J. Simpson trial or the President Clinton/ Monica Lewinsky  scandal than they were with an unknown bearded leader from a little-known part of the word.

And then there were the conditions imposed by the ultra-secret, always paranoid bin Laden and his followers.  There were countless questions of intent. And more questions of motive. Locations were set and locations were  moved. Guns were produced. And guns were fired. But Bergen said he believed there was never any real danger and the benefits to be gleaned from his 1997 interview far outweighed any risks."They (bin Laden and Al-Qaeda) wanted to get the story out and I didn't think they would do anything to jeopardize that," Bergen said. Miller concurred, but noted that not everyone was blase about the danger. "After the interview aired, I got a call from my mother. I thought she was going to say what a good job, but she said 'don't you ever go to Afghanistan and do something like that again.' "

Of course, one of the great questions for any leader of hate is how do you justify the taking of innocent lives in your struggle, no matter how right you believe your cause to be.  Miller said he asked bin Laden that question and the Al-Qaeda leader, ever the master of manipulation and rationalization, matter of factly answered: "We learned from you.  Did not the Americans kill women and children at Hiroshima and Nagasaki? We are simply doing what you taught us."


Travelers' Tip:
Although the special speakers program centered around the 10th anniversary of 9/11 has concluded, there is still much to learn about that day if you visit The Newseum.  For example, there is a separate 9/11 exhibit with artifacts and news footage, as well as a section of the FBI exhibit that deals with the agency's handling of that day.

Cartoonists Pay Homage to 9/11

 Tomorrow, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, more than 90 Americans cartoonists will see cartoons they created dealing with their current thoughts and feelings concerning the impacts of that day published in newspapers around the country.

Today, at the Newseum, Jim Toomey, the creator of the cartoon "Sherman's Lagoon,"  spoke about how the first-of-its-kind project came to be.

Actually, Toomey's talk was divided into 3 parts.  First, he briefly described the history of cartooning,  which can actually be traced to story panels crafted onto ancient cave walls. From there, Toomey took the audience on a time trip from The Bayeux Tapestry to Guttenberg's invention of the printing press to Ben Franklin's chopped snake Join or Die image (often called the 1st American cartoon) to The Yellow Kid (the 1st newspaper comic strip) to Peanuts and Doonesbury.

Next, Toomey explained that his own cartoon career sprung from a combination of his early love of drawing and his abiding interest in the natural environment of the seas. "When I was about 11, I discovered sharks and they fascinated me," he said.  "And then Jaws came out and that was it.  I was probably the only person in the theater rooting for the shark"

In fact, the main character in Toomey's nationally-syndicated cartoon is a shark named Sherman.  And to the delight of the youngsters (and the young at heart) Toomey used an Apple laptop to draw several sea creatures that were displayed on the monitors in the Knight Studio.

Toomey said the 9/11 project originated when officials at the King Syndicate discovered that the 10th anniversary of  9/11 would fall on a Sunday this year and suggested that cartoonists use that strip to commemorate that historic day. Toomey created a simple, yet powerful one-panel portrayal of the night-time New York City skyline with two towering beacons of lights. Toomey has his main character proclaim "Seems like yesterday," while his more philosopical turtle friend answers "I'll always seem like yesterday."

"At first, humor might not seem like the most appropriate response to 9/11," Toomey said. "But cartoons can be much more than just humor.  They can convey the whole range of human emotions - anger, sadness, gratitude, hope."

Travelers' Tip:
If you visit The Newseum, make sure to stop in the facility's bathrooms.  There, displayed on the walls, you will find humorous newspaper corrections collected by The Columbia Journalism Review.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Authors Revisit Horror, Heroism of 9/11

A damaged Pentagon ... a resilient nation
With the 10th anniversary of 9/11 only 2 days away, we attended a spellbinding special program at the National Archives today where 3 noted authors of books about that terrorist attack provided inside details of both the heroism and the horror of that fateful September day.

Prompted by questions from Gordon Peterson, Emmy-award winning anchor of DC Channel 7 news, the 3-member panel led the audience on a chronological trip through the initial hours of 9/11.

First, aviation expert Lynn Spencer explained the chaos air traffic controllers experienced when they realized that America was under attack from hijacked American planes being used as missiles, a chaos she had more fully described in her book Touching History: The Untold Story of the Drama that Unfolded in the Skies Over America on 9/11.

The narrative was picked up by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jim Dwyer, who recounted hair-raising details from 102 Minutes: The Unforgettable Story of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers which he co-authored.

Finally, Chief Business Correspondent for U. S. News and World Report Rick Newman, added vignettes from The Pentagon which he had unveiled in his co-authored book Firefight: Inside the Battle to Save the Pentagon.

Each of the authors singled out stories of incredible heroism on the part of ordinary people. Dwyer told of 2 NY transit workers, who, armed only with crowbars, led scores of trapped people to safety only to perish themselves when the tower collapsed. Newman recounted the actions of a 6'5'' Navy SEAL seal who, despite being injured, served as a human net to catch female workers jumping to safety from upper Pentagon floors. Newman read a passage from his book which said the SEAL, when he realized that one of the plunging women was extremely large, noted "man, this is going to suck." Spencer singled out the courageous action of an FAA official, who, on the very first day of his job and with no higher authority, called for the grounding of all American planes, an action which may have saved countless more lives since there is belief that additional terrorists may have been planning to commandeer other planes and strike other targets.

"He said I may not have a job tomorrow, but I am going to do this today," Spencer told the audience.

Travelers' Tip:
Even if you are going to see a particular event, always check to see what else of related interest might be at the site.  For example, we learned today that 2 speeches, the one then-President George W. Bush delivered immediately after the attack and the one President Barack Obama delivered after the recent killing of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, were on special display elsewhere in the Archives building.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

What's for Lunch?

Tonight, we headed to the National Archives to screen the documentary Lunch Line and then listen to an informative discussion of the history and the future of the American school lunch program.

Prompted by questions from moderator and James Beard award winning Washington Post food writer Tim Carman, the 3-member panel: Dan Glickman, a former U.S.Secretary of Agriculture and a 18-year Congressman from Kansas; film co-director Michael Graziano;  and Director of Nutrition Policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest Margi Wooten detailed the trials and triumphs in trying to change the American school cuisine from french fries to fresh fruit.

This informative, yet highly entertaining documentary, the 1st part of which is kind of a Hoop Dreams for culinary students, definitely should be watched by anyone who has children in American public schools.

Travelers' Tip:
Speaking of lunch, if you do find yourself on the National Mall and you don't want to leave the area for a noontime meal, many of  the museums have very decent offerings.  According to food critics, the best Smithsonian lunch can be found at the Native American Museum, which features different authentic Native American meals daily.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It's (Again) Off to Work I Go

Dunbar High School Then ...
When I retired from 25 years of teaching last June and moved to the DC area, I really had no plans to ever seriously work again.  I considered myself fortunate; I had enjoyed 2 careers - newspapers and high school English teaching.  But despite 37 years of employment, my attitude about work had always best been reflected by (and I am really going to reveal my age here) Dobie Gillis' beatnik buddy Maynard G. Krebs, who whenever there was the merest mention of the word work would yelp "WORK? WORK?? WORK???"

However, when my former Johns Hopkins University Talent Development associate Paul Smith learned I was moving to Crystal City, he asked if I would be interested in rejoining him as a consultant to DC's Dunbar High School, once one of the most prestigious Black high schools in the country, which had seen itself leveled by problems associated with urban poverty and city living.

... and Dunbar High School Now
Looking at Paul's out-of-the-blue offer as some kind of sign from god, karma, kismet, fate, or any other controlling beliefs out there, I told him I would be interested if the conditions (read that #1 time and #2 money) were right, and so, after a summer of  negotiations, I found myself reporting to Dunbar today to begin yet another new school year.

Of course, this year will be much different than my 25-year stint at Bridgeton High School. While I will be a language arts/literacy coach (a position I held for 5 years at BHS) I will not be full-time.  In fact, the favorable time element was the main reason I accepted the job. I am expected to work 8/9 hours a week, but  I set my own schedule.  I can work one full day, or 2 4-hour sessions, or 3 3-hour visits, or 4 2-hour takes.  The choice is up to me and the task at hand. And I think even Maynard G. Krebs could dig that.

Travelers' Tip:
In traveling, or anything else in life, you can't ever say never.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Speak No More: A Silent Shakespeare

Too much blood on their hands
Tonight, we attended the annual free Page to Stage Festival at The Kennedy Center to see preview scenes from the upcoming Synetic Theater performances of Macbeth, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet, all 3 of which we are planning to attend this Fall.

Prior to staging scenes from 3 Shakespeare classics which will comprise Synetic's  Speak No More: The Silent Shakespeare Festival which begins with Macbeth on Sept. 14, members of the company demonstrated samples of dance warmups which they do daily, sometimes for as long as 4 hours at a stretch.


Afterwards, artistic director Paata Tsikurishvil, his wife and resident choreographer Irini, and members of the troupe, answered questions from the audience about performing in what is hailed as America's premiere physical theater. For the those who don't know exactly what physical theater is (and I was one of those until I arrived in Crystal City), it is a form of performance which uses no words, but instead employs drama, dance, movement, music, acrobatics, and mime to tell a story.

A Briefcase, A Squegee: The Objects of 9/11

Today we attended the National Museum of American History's September 11: Remembrance Reflection, a very special, limited-run exhibit of about 50 everyday items recovered from the 3 sites attacked that fateful day.

Artifacts ranged from a squegee which was used by workers to free themselves from a stalled elevator at The World Trade Center to United Flight 93 airplane fragments recovered at a field in Shanksville, PA to a Pentagon map from the building's 1st floor to recent acquisitions from the. Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

In what was a first for Smithsonian museum, the objects were displayed on tables rather than bewhind glass to provide a moe intimate experience and the actual curators were on hand to personally answer questions.

You can click here to see a Smithsonian Channel video about the exhibit, which is running from Sept. 3 until Sept. 11. 

Travelers' Tip:
Because of demand and the special nature of this exhibit, we had to stand in line for about and 90 minutes.  Instead of complaining, you can use this time to find out about the people around you.  For example, we learned that the California couple behind us was making their 1st trip to DC, and, he, like me, had been playing in classic rock bands since the 1960s. Not only do you learn, but the waiting time passes much faster.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Come Together ... Over Them

The English Channel at Abbey Road on The River: Check out the go-go boots.
Today, we attended Abbey Road on the River, a 5-day celebration of the music, lives, and legends of The Beatles at the Gaylord National Resort  at DC's National Harbor.

At this festival, the emphasis was on the music, as more than 100 bands performed during the festival.  I  gave the top Beatles band tribute to the young Abbey Road Live band, while my top performer award went to the Richmond band The English Channel, who, in addition to stellar performances of The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" and "I Am the Walrus," unleashed a captivating take on Queen's anthem "Bohemian Rhapsody."

Inside the convention center were a series of Beatle-themed programs.  One highlight was provided by Fred Gretsch, the great-grandson of the founder of the Gretsch music company, who presented the  tale of his family company and its ties to Beatle guitarist George Harrison.

Travelers' Tip:
The Beatles might have sung "all you need is love," but if you go to one of these festivals you better bring some cash. First, there is the issue of entrance. It cost $35 a person to attend from noon until 8 p.m. If you wanted to stay for the 8 until 2 a.m. performances, you had to shell out another $35.  And that doesn't count the cost of souvenirs. While I did pick up (and then put back) a $20 event T-shirt, I passed on spending  $395 at the Beatlesuits booth on either a replica of the suit The Beatles wore on their 1964 introduction to America performance on the Ed Sullivan Show or the one from their famed Shea Stadium concert. Instead, I opted to spend $10 at the DC Slices food truck for 2 pieces of Hawaiian pizza and, with apologies to Sgt. Pepper and the boys in the band, a Dr. Pepper.

The National Symphony Gets Down & Gets Funky

Tonight, at its annual free Labor Day performance on the West Lawn of the Capitol, the National Symphony Orchestra featured the music of 3 DC musical legends - march king John Philip Sousa, jazz legend Duke Ellington, and go-go funk master Chuck Brown.

First, the NSO prodded the crowd's patriotic side with a series of Sousa's stirring marches, concluding with his most famous, "Stars and Stripes Forever."

Next, came a string of famous Ellington compositions including "Take the A Train" and "Satin Doll." Ellington's granddaughter, Mercedes, added personal vignettes about the tunes.

Finally, the NSO revealed its funky side by playing a mash-up of the classical Theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey combined with Brown's breakout hit "Fee l Like Bustin Loose" (which was sampled by Nelly for his hit "It's Hot in Here" and is the officials song for the Washington Nationals Baseball team).

Following the symphony performance, Brown, who just turned 75, and his band took the stage and kept the crowd bobbing and bouncing for another hour.

Travelers' Tip:
In today's post-9/11 world, if you're going to a crowded event, be sure to leave ample time to pass through security.

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I am a retired educator and journalist who is enjoying his new life in DC. So much to do here and so much for free.

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