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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Steve Jobs: Angel or Demon?

Sometimes a biographer finds a subject. And sometimes a subject finds a biographer. In 2004, Steve Jobs (in case you have been spending the last decade on Uranus, Jobs is the head of Apple) contacted Walter Isaacson, who, still basking in acclaim from his previous biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Isaac Newton, was considering possibilities for his next book.

"He called me and said, 'why don't you do my book?,'" Isaacson notes. "I thought Franklin, Einstein, Steve. What an arrogant little guy."

Isaacson was no stranger to the 2 powerful sides that were Jobs. He first met the Apple head in 1984 at the office of Time magazine, where he was then employed as editor. "That first day I got to see both sides of his personality," Isaacson says, noting that at the same time he was explaining the beauty of the new Mac computer, Jobs was hurling invectives at Times staffers since they had not chosen him to be their annual Man of the Year. "It was all there... the passion, the drive for perfection, the prickliness," Isaacson says.

After further reflection, Isaacson decided that Jobs would be his next subject and today, with his book Steve Jobs affixed as the #1 best seller in book lists across the country, the decision has proven to be beyond wise.

Tonight, Isaacson appeared at a packed Politics and Prose bookstore to shed more light on Jobs, who died just weeks before his biography appeared in print, a death that marked a worldwide outpouring of passion for and against the man credited with revolutionizing so many aspects of our digital age.

"Steve Jobs was able to connect the artistic with the engineering. That is the key to what Steve was all about," Isaacson said."He realized simplicity is at the heart of sophistication."

First and foremost, Jobs was a driven perfectionist who would not accept anything less than that from those around him. "That sucks" was a phrase he applied to anything or anyone that didn't meet his standards. He mastered the art of the blinkless stare to intimidate those around him, yet another way to bully and coerce them into doing his bidding. "Don't be afraid, you can do it," Jobs would say with that unsettling, unblinking stare fixed upon his listener.

To emphasize the perfection aspect of Jobs personality, Isaacson told a story from his book. Just as the first Macs were getting ready for distribution, Jobs discovered that  all the circuits in the circuits boards were not lined up perfectly in a straight line. He called the engineering staff together and told them of the problem, a problem they dismissed because the Mac was designed so that no one could take it apart and therefore no one would be able to see the non-aligned circuits. "But I will know and you will know and that is what matters," Jobs said. The circuit boards were aligned. Jobs called all 22 engineers back together and had them affix their names to the inside of the machine. Jobs signed as well. "Real artists sign their work," Jobs told his engineers. 

"People call him an asshole, but he was an asshole who got things done," Isaacson said.

Isaacson said that Jobs always viewed himself as a misfit. That was definitely true in his early family life.  From his years in California, he always "had one foot in the counterculture hippie camp and one foot in the computer geek camp," Isaacson says. Also, there was much of the mystic in Jobs, a trait not normally associated with computer geniuses and great business leaders.

In the year of his death, Apple was named the most valuable company on earth. But as the man responsible for the 1984 Ridley Scott Mac introduction commercial (which aired only once and is still recognized as the greatest TV commercial ever produced), Pixar, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad, Jobs still struggled with his human side.

Bill Gates, whom Isaacson called a basically decent human being (a title never given to Jobs) came to see his Apple counterpart to say farewell and end their often stormy relationship on a  positve noted. They had a 4-hour conversation. Gates told Issacson that the meeting went well and both had agreed that although they followed very different paths, both of their ultra-opposite business models had worked well.

However, in one of his final conversations with Isaacson, Jobs told quite a different story of the last meeting between the two giants of the digital age. "What an asshole," Jobs said of Gates. "He didn't give a shit. All he did was  make crappy products all his life."

Tales, Tidbits, and Traveling Tips
Great writing can be great for sales. But great timing can help, too. And, as was pointed out tonight, few writers have ever benefited from such great timing as Isaacson as with his new book. First, you have the writing of Isaacon, already established in his previous best-selling books. Then you have a captivating subject like Jobs, whose company has just achieved the ranking as the #1 in the world.  Then your subject dies just weeks before publication. And then you have the fact that the book is being published right before Christmas, which is always the time of the greatest book sales. And, finally, as if to emphasize all of the above points, you had tonight's crowd, which was clearly the largest we had ever seen and was called one of the largest in the long history of the store.

In Search of Sasquatch

Sasquatch? Or something else?
When I was 10, I read Stranger Than Science by Frank Edwards, a book that detailed unexplained events from throughout history and around the world. That reading sparked a life-long interest in the bizarre, the strange, the weird. and the inexplicable, a passion my wife claims helps to explain my choice of friends.

So that's why it wasn't odd to find us in the auditorium of the National Geographic Museum at noon today for a showing of the documentary The Search for Bigfoot, another film in the ongoing  Mysteries of Science series.

Bigfoot, or Sasquatch, has supposedly been making appearances, mostly in the far western mountain parts  of the United States, since the first settlers appeared. Sightings and footprints are unclear. Is it a large ape or  some unknown giant species. Is it science? Is it science fiction? Or is it simply a hoax?

For the documentary, a large number of scientists used their differing skills to try and resolve the issue. They created and then scrutinized a new digital copy of the most known piece of Bigfoot evidence, a grainy 1967 film that purports to show Bigfoot sloughing through a forest creek bed. They retraced tracked ground. They studied footprints. They used the latest DNA research to examine hair and fur samples. They trained a 7-foot actor to walk like the captured image, then compared it to computer generated models. They even studied Hollywood makeup artists to see if a creature such as the one seen on the film could have been artistically engineered.


And the result of all that work? The evidence is still inconclusive. So it appears that until Bigfoot shows up for a nationally televised press conference, the controversy can continue.

Tales, Tidbits, and Traveling Tips
Obviously, the legend of Bigfoot was included in Edwards' writings. But it was the story of the strange disappearance of David Lang that really got me hooked. Lang, a native of Tennessee,  vanished forever in 1880 while walking in a field in full view of his family and an area judge. His voice, calling faintly for help until it faded away forever, was heard by his children 1 year from his disappearance. A great story, guaranteed to generate sleepless nights, or at least an aversion to walking in fields. There was only 1 problem. It wasn't true. A check of local records showed that no David Lang had lived in the area in the 1880s. But even though it was only a hoax, it still makes for a great campfire tale today. And, who knows? Maybe Bigfoot will stop by to listen.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

At Home at the White House

Dinner plate designed for President Hayes
After 9/11 it is difficult to tour the White House. However, if you would like to see something of what life is like in the nation's first home, you can visit the Renwick Gallery just a few blocks away and view the current exhibition Something of Splendor: Decorative Arts from the White House.

Some of the items are extremely personal. There is a crocheted bed cover created in 1927 by First Lady Grace Coolidge, who hoped to encourage all subsequent First Ladies to leave a memento of their own making. (Aside: Good plan, but no takers. To date, only Mrs. Coolidge has left such an item).

Some are historic such as a Chinese box left by Dolley Madison. The box is lined with the original pink wallpaper she had installed in the White House just before the British burned it down during the War of 1812.  Then, there is a Gothic Revival chair which was one of those in the room when  President Abraham Lincoln first read his Emancipation Proclamation to his cabinet.

Others are opulent and true works of art like the custom designed purple, pink, and gold oyster, dinner, and ice cream plates from the administration of Rutherford Hayes.

White House decor has often been a subject of discussion. Especially during America's early years, many people were concerned that presidents not live like kings, but have their furnishings more in line with the common people.  But that view eventually faded away. As inventor Samuel Morse said in 1814: "Something of splendor is certainly proper about the home of the Chief Magistrate for the credit of the nation."

Tips, Tales, and Traveling Tips
Many teenagers believe their high school prom was memorable. But for President Gerald Ford's daughter, Susan, her prom truly was - it was held in the White House. Susan is just one of the residents of the White House who discuss their lives in the film "At Home in the White House" video which is being shown as part of the exhibition.

For All the World to See

Sanitation workers at a Memphis, Tennessee demonstration
The 1960s was a particularly turbulent time in America. Assassinations. Student protests. Riots. Racially motivated killings in the South. Many believed it was an undeclared war. Black photographer Gordon Parks employed an unusual "weapon of choice" in his battle for equal rights. In a 20th century twist on the adage "the pen is mightier than the sword," Parks weapon was a camera and his pictures did indeed help change our country..

In the CBS News documentary The Weapons of Gordon Parks—broadcast in 1968, at the height of the civil rights movement—the celebrated African American photographer and filmmaker engaged in what was for him an empowering act: loading his camera and aiming it at shocking sights for the world to see. In the program, Parks advanced an idea that was unusual in mainstream culture at the time: that photographs could be forceful agents of social change.

Today, Parks work is an essential element of For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights, which we viewed at the National Museum of American History.


Parks was not the only one with the opinion that pictures could make a difference.  "If you give me a television station we won't need a revolution," said black poet and activist Amiri Baraka in 1966.

For All the World to See documents the gradual, sometimes bloody path African Americans were forced to take for equal standing under the law. There are samples of a Little Sambo viewmaster and big-lipped  Zulu Lulu swizzle sticks from the 1940s. There are photos of the 1947 protest of the opening of Walt Disney's The Song of the South for its racist elements. On one wall of the exhibition, For Colored Only signs are juxtaposed with Rockwell-like posters of  white young boys under the slogan "This is America ... where every boy can dream of becoming president."

There are pictures of non-violent protesters being hosed. And, of course, pictures of snarling dogs containing marching children, some as young 8. But eventually those images become replaced by shots of black entertainers, athletes, and intellectuals making huge contributions to American culture.  Finally, in the eyes of the law at least, more than 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, equality had been achieved.

Tales, Tidbits, and Traveling Tips
For All the World to See can no longer be seen in DC. It closed Nov. 30. However, it is on-line and you can view it by clicking here.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

And So It Goes: The Life of Kurt Vonnegut

Like so many of his generation, award-winning biographer Charles Shields became fascinated with the writings of Kurt Vonnegut as a college student in 1969. He says Vonnegut's most known novel Slaughterhouse-Five "broke over our heads like a storm."

"It captured the bewilderment and confusion that so many of us felt as we were trying to make the 1st moral decisions of our lives," Shields told the crowd assembled tonight at the Politics and Prose bookstore to hear him discuss his latest work And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life

Searching for a subject after completing Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, Shields, a former English teacher, decided upon Vonnegut. After some initial reluctance, the author agreed.  "Kurt felt he was under appreciated," Shields said. "He was a little miffed that no biography had even been written about him."

On their first meeting, Shields said Vonnegut greeted him at the door of his New York residence and said, "'Hey. You want to come up and see my room.' It was like a thing one boy would say to another." Vonnegut and Shields then left to have dinner at the author's favorite neighborhood Italian restaurant. Shields was ready with a few questions to break the ice, but Vonnegut immediately launched into a "litany of grievances" against his family. "Even after all those years, it was like he was an aggrieved adolescent seeking vindication," Shields said. "If the voice were higher, I would have thought I was talking to a 13-year-old."

After years of studying Vonnegut, Shields believes this adolescent anger, spread throughout his writings, may be one of the chief reasons Vonnegut continues to be popular with college-aged readers who are coming to grips with the fact that authority figures are not always right.

Over time, Vonnegut warmed to the biography project. He would call Shields late at night and ask "Hey, how's my biography coming?" Or he would introduce Shields as "This is my biographer."

However, after 3 lengthy interview sessions, Vonnegut took sick. He died a few days later. But even without the author's first-hand accounts, Shields was able to draw upon more than 1,500 lengthy letters the author had written. "I think he used letters as a warmup for his writing," Shields said.

During his early years as a writer, Vonnegut struggled and his writing was consigned to science fiction pulp racks. In 1965, he was a last-minute choice to head the Iowa Writer's Workshop, "It all  congealed for him there," Shields said. "He realized that he didn't have to be constrained." In 1969, Slaughterhouse-Five became a success, bringing with it the fame and financial security Vonnegut had so long sought. "He moved to New York. He bought into the life he had always wanted. If a writer can achieve the American Dream, he did," Shields said.

But personal happiness was to remain elusive. There were long bouts with depression. There was an attempted suicide. Shields said he found Vonnegut to be an extrovert who couldn't maintain friendships. Near the end of his life, he would sit alone on a street bench. When someone would approach and ask "Hey, aren't you Kurt Vonnegut?" Vonnegut would dismiss them with a gruff  "not now."

The author constantly fretted about his place in literature cannon, steadfast in his belief that he deserved more serious acclaim than he was receiving. Finally, he rationalized that it was his simplistic writing style and his "and so it goes" fatalistic universal outlook that was the cuplrit. "Anything that seems simple can't be worthy," Vonnegut reasoned.

But Shields believes Vonnegut's legacy will last. "He belongs in the cannon. He brought post-modernism into the mainstream. He made it popular," Shields says.

Tales, Tidbits, and Traveling Tips
In the afternoon, just hours before Shields' talk at Politics and Prose, The New York Times announced that And So It Goes had been placed on its list of the 100 Best Books of 2011. Click here to see the complete list. Shields also had his own announcement. Director Guillermo del Toro is preparing to direct a new movie version of Slaughterhouse-Five.


Sunday, November 20, 2011

It's All Happening at the Zoo

Just grin and bear it.
There are some things best seen through the eyes of a child. Christmas morning. Disney World. And zoos of any type or size.

Today, on a weather-perfect November Sunday, we visited the National Zoo with our grandchildren Audrey, 5 weeks short of 4, and Owen, who is 2 and 1/2.

While the National Zoo has hundreds of animals, it is probably best known for its giant pandas, fixtures there since President Richard Nixon normalized relations with China in the early 1970s. In fact, the zoo has become one of the world's leading research institutions on pandas.

Given Grandmom's great love of all things monkey and ape, we spent time in every enclosure housing our nearest relatives on the circle of life. We saw a great silver back male gorilla lope and strut as he eyed an infant tentatively practice chest-thumping before losing his balance and tumbling down a hill. And we joined a large crowd to watch an orangutan balance across an O-line about 50 feet in the air as he headed from The Think Tank area (where apes work on computers) across a large section of the zoo back to his habitat.

Sipping and seeing animals on a Sunday afternoon
Of course, when your main traveling companions are 4 and 2, there are a lot of activities in addition to animal watching. There are juice boxes to sip and bags of goldfish to devour. There are rocks to climb and sculptures just perfect for hanging on. There are painted elephant steps on walkways to follow, as well as leaves to pick up and use as tickle feathers.

In the end, when it came to rating the day, Audrey gave her biggest thumbs up to the zebras, her favorites of the animal kingdom. For grandmom, it was the soaring orangutan. And for Owen, I think it was the tickle leaf, with a climbing rock a close second.


Tales, Tidbits, and Traveling Tips
You don't have to be a card-carrying member of PETA to appreciate the close connections we share with animals. When we weren't visiting zoos or creating art projects or playing Peter Pan or reading Disney tales, we were watching multiple showings of Audrey's new favorite old film The Wizard of Oz with its flying monkeys and "tigers, and lions, and bears, oh my." Then there was the book I was reading as soon as we tucked the kids into bed - The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age, which details how scientists are intently studying wildlife around the jungles of the world to find out more about viruses that threaten our survival. And then there is the best of animal behavior itself. A mother lioness guarding her cub. Or a chimpanzee appearing to be hugging its partner as it picks lice off of his back. Of course, just like there are expected animal behaviors, there are specific natural laws for grandparents and their grandchildren.  While there are many variations, those rules basically center around the time-honored concept of spoiling. When we arrived at the Zoo, Audrey and Owen's mother established a simple rule: the kids could ride in the double-stroller or walk, but there was to be no carrying. About midway during our visit, Audrey and I became separated from the rest of our party. "Carry me, Grandpop," Audrey pleaded. So of course I did. And I was even ready with an excuse if Mom discovered us. "Hey, I bet old orangutans spoil their grandapes by carrying them, too," I rationalized. "It's nature's way."

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Swingin' Texas Style

Asleep at the Wheel in concert
When I was growing up, Sunday mornings always had a reassuring sameness to them. While my Mother and I would prepare for church, my Dad would shave (the smell of Old Spice still transports me back to my childhood) and then prepare our family stereo for his weekly dose of country spirituality - a playlist consisting of artists such as Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, and because he was born a Texan, a large measure of the western swing sounds of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.

Of course, it being the 1950s and 60s and me being a natural rebel, I had to reject my Dad's musical choices. Rock was my thing. It wasn't until a couple of years after my Dad's death that 2 long-haired country boys - Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings - finally made me realize what my Father found in those regular Sunday concerts of his.

Thoughts of those long-ago Sundays came back tonight as we attended a concert by the most noted practitioners of Texas swing today, 9-time Grammy winners Asleep at the Wheel. The performance was part of  Swing, Swing, Swing; A Celebration of of the Rhythmic Beat That Still Drives Jazz Today, a 2-week free festival on the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center.

For those of you not fortunate enough to have a father introduce you, Texas swing is simultaneously  simple and complex. You start with drums and an upright bass for rhythm, throw in a boogie-woogie piano, and top it all off with the twang of guitar, fiddle, and pedal steel.

As for the music itself, it winds all over the place as the song selections by the Wheelers showed.  Cowboy songs like "I'm an Old Cowhand (from the Rio Grande) ... check.  Pop classics such as "Route 66" and "It's a Better Day" by Peggy Lee. Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings represented ... Willie by "Sittin' on Top of the World" and "Hesitation Blues" and Waylon with his tribute "Bob Willis Is Still the King." Of course, you need 3 or 4 tunes by Willis himself like "Ida Red". Then there's 1 of my Dad's favorites "Beat Me Daddy, 8 to the Bar." Why you can even throw in a masterpiece by guitar virtuoso Django Reinhardt if  you want to really slam home your musical prowess.

Asleep at the Wheel was formed in 1970 and its 1 constant has been guitarist and lead vocalist Ray Benson, who provides a lot of the pickin' and almost all the grinnin'. In his introduction, Benson noted "we've got a crowd to cut rug. But I don 't think we've ever had a crowd sitting on the rug (a reference to the large number of audience members on the Kennedy center carpets around the stage)."

Several times throughout the night, Benson referenced that the last time Asleep at the Wheel played  the Kennedy Center they were performing in A Ride with Bob, a musical tribute in which Mr. Benson, playing himself, encounters the ghost of Bob Willis on a tour bus. "We'd like to do that again," Benson said with a sly Southern grin. "I'm not sure which Kennedy is a runnin' this place now, but if you write him maybe he'll have us back."

Well, Mr. Benson, thanks to some musical schooling by my Daddy, if you and the Wheelers do come back, you can bet I'll be there. That is "Lord willin' and the crick don't rise," as both my Daddy and Hank Williams used to say.

Tales, Tidbits, and Traveling Tips
They say retirement is the perfect time to try out new things. Well, in my wildest imagination. I never envisioned myself getting swing dancing lessons at the Kennedy Center. But that's exactly what I found myself doing for 1 hour before the Asleep at the Wheel show. Now I know many of you who know me are saying "Just can't see you doing that; I think you are telling us a tall Texas tale." But I have proof. Well, at least I thought I did. Our instructors claimed they were taping the lessons. But they lied. So you can't see me kicking 28 of my 28 dance partners as I stumble around the Kennedy Center dance floor. But you can check out one amazing  Asleep at the Wheel performance by clicking here.

Nixon and His Court: How Supreme?

No where is the legacy of a president more lasting than in his (and someday her) power to appoint Supreme Court justices who serve for life. And no one was more cognizant of that fact than Richard Nixon, who appointed 4 justices in his time in office to the 9-member court. In fact Nixon called his judicial appointments "the most constructive and far reaching impact of my presidency."

This afternoon, The Richard Nixon Foundation and the National Archives presented the program Nixon and the Court: The Story Behind President Nixon's Supreme Court Appointments, another in a series of the 37th president's legacy forums.

Five distinguished panelists, all prominent political and legal players during the Nixon era, took part in the forum at the Archives. Fred Fielding, who served as counsel to Nixon, moderated. Panelists were headed by former Nixon speechwriter, 3-time presidential candidate, and uber conservative Pat Buchanan. Buchanan was joined by Robert Blakey, former Chief Counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee and later of the House Select Committee on Assassinations; Wallace Johnson, former Associate Deputy Attorney General; and Earl Silbert, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney.

The mid 1960s, when ex-Vice President Nixon re-emerged politically, were turbulent times. The Vietnam War. Racial unrest. The Black power movement and the Black Panthers. Student riots. Police engaged in street war with protesters on almost a daily basis. "It seemed like the country was coming apart," Buchanan said. "For Middle America and the Silent Majority, it seemed the country they grew up in was disintegrating before their very eyes."

Many conservatives blamed Supreme Court leader Earl Warren and his court for issuing rulings that, according to Buchanan read "their own (liberal) ideology into the Constitution." Nixon made his view of restoration of law and order a cornerstone of his campaign. And, once elected, he used his power to appoint philosophical conservatives to the nation's highest court, including then 47-year-old William Rehnquist, who ended up serving 33 years, several of those as Chief Justice.

The panelists agreed that the legal world is constantly trying to the balance the rights of the individual with public safety. Johnson said Nixon's appointments "moved the pendulum." According to Johnson, it was "a major, major triumph" for the president, who, ironically given his law and order stance, was driven from office by the outgrowths from the Watergate break-in.

"There was a perception (when Nixon took office) that things were tilting more toward protecting the rights of individuals who had been accused or indicted than public safety," Silbert, agreeing,  said. "Some thought it was leading to an explosion in crime. I could not myself make that connection, but many did."                                                                                                                                                     

Blakey contended that the Nixon era was "the golden age of Federal Criminal Law." This was especially true in the area of organized crime. For example, Blakely said when Nixon took office, there were about 5,000 members of the Mafia distributed between 22 families nationwide. Today, that estimated number stands at about only 1,500 members with only 2 strong families both based in New York. "Nixon gets a bad rap," Blakely, now a law professor at Notre Dame, said. "But he said 'go get the crooks.'"

Tales, Tidbits, and Traveling Tips
One of the recurring motifs in today's wide-ranging, 90-minute presentation was the fact that despite a sharply divided country, political leaders in the 60s and 70s were often able to agree to and implement plans for the country.  Problems prompted a true bi-partisanship, an attribute that appears to be missing today as Congress and the White House seem hopelessly gridlocked. "People were doing things because it was the right thing to do for the United States, not what should be done for the next election," Blakey said.  "People were looking at a problem, deciding what needed to be done, and then doing it. I wish they would do it now."

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

You Really Got Me

Ray Davies: He's Not Like Everybody Else
In 1964, the songs of the British Invasion began forming the soundtrack for my life. I was never big on The Beatles. Instead, I opted for a trio of the Rolling Stones (for swagger and attitude), the Animals (for the soulful sounds of Eric Burdon's singing and Alan Price's organ playing) and Ray Davies and The Kinks (for satire and social commentary).

Last night, accompanied by my old Villanova University roommate Steve Fererra, I had a chance to relive a portion of my past, as Davies performed at the new Filmore in nearby Silver Springs.  Davies is on tour supporting his latest CD See My Friends, which contains14 re-recorded versions of his songs by artists ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Metallica to Mumford and Sons.

At the Filmore stop, Davies was backed by his long-time live collaborator Irish guitar master Bill Shanley and The 88, a young LA Band who performed on 3 tracks - "Long Way from Home," "Till the End of the Day," and "David Watts" - on the well-received Friends compilation.

After a strong opening power-pop performance by The 88, Davies and Shanely took the stage for a 7-song acoustic set starting with the lesser-known "I Need You" and including "I'm Not Like Everybody Else" (my all-time Kinks favorite), "Sunny Afternoon" "Dedicated Follower of Fashion," and "Waterloo Sunset," along with a verse and chorus of "Victoria" thrown in for good measure.

The all-black-clad The 88 then joined Davies and the enlarged ensemble delighted the graying, but enthusiastic crowd with more than 90 minutes of hits and pleasers like "Till the End of the Day," "Lola," "Celluloid Heroes," "Misfits," "All Day and All of the Night," and one the greatest show closers in all of rock n' roll history "You Really Got Me."

As has long been his practice, Davies, a devout fan of the British music hall tradition, extorted the crowd to join in on several sing-alongs. "You should know the words to this one," he said at one point. "If not, you should learn them."

Davies also provided a witty, running commentary between most of the songs. "Well enough of this joviality. Let's get down and depressed," Davies deadpanned..  As an introduction to his classic of modern alienation "20th Century Man," he read a lengthy passage from his 1996 book X-Ray which he said would help understand both him and the song. In a continuing reference to the acrimonious ending of The Kinks, Davies jokingly kept assessing himself a $5 fine every time he mentioned the name of "my old band."

Introducing one of his earliest, lesser known compositions "Nothin' in the World Can Make Me Stop Worryin' 'Bout That Girl," which is an artistic take on a first serious love gone bad, Davies said "It was my first girl friend. I was convinced she was cheating on me, a fact that was confirmed by my best friend, which was who she was cheating with. I was devastated. And after all these years (a long pause) I can't remember her name."

Before ending the memorable show with "You Really Got Me," Davies described the origins of that essential rock anthem. "In 1964, I was told I had to write a hit. So I came up with these notes (The 88's keyboardist then plays the notes, prompting Davies to say 'He had to play that for the audition.') I played it for my brother (Dave, the original guitarist for The Kinks) and he asked 'what the fuck is that.'  I told him it was our hit. When we got in the studio my brother, who was 16 at the time, said "I'm not going to fuck this up.' He didn't. And here we are, all these years later, still not trying to fuck it up."

Tales, Tidbits, and Traveling Tips
I had always known that I liked The Kinks, but until reflecting after last night's show, I never realized just how interwoven Ray Davies' lyrics and music are to the core of who I am. I adore satire and social commentary, Davies' lyrical strong suite. "I'm Not Like Everybody Else" is the perfect theme  for how I view my life. And it's 2 Kinks songs that really form the bookends for my rock performing career. In 1966, my Mother and Father agreed to buy me a Farfisa organ so I could join a rock n' roll band. In the spring of that year, I played my first live job, a house party less than a 1/2 mile from my home. To say I was unprepared is the grossest of understatements. I probably knew 3, maybe 4 chords. The call to perform at the house-party came about 3 hours into my 1st rehearsal with a local band "The We Gents." They played "Till the End of the Day." Not only did the song seem to have a hundred chords, the changes came really quickly. When they decided to play it at the party, I employed my only logical option ... I turned my keyboard off and faked it  Now fast forward 42 years. My guitarist brother Jimmy Overstreet asked if I wanted to join the band he was in and within a week Final Vinyl was on its way to becoming the house band for Philadelphia classic rock station WMGK. And the song we had to play to win the title - "You Really Got Me." Then followed a year in which we played pre-concert openings for Genesis, Bruce Springsteen, Van Halen, and The Eagles. So you can see, in many ways, I am just like Ray Davies. Except for his talent, his money, and his fame. But I have amassed a few fans along the way. Unless you count my wife. When asked if she is going to hear me play, she often responds. "Why? I heard him in 1966. He hasn't gotten any better, he's only gotten louder."

Monday, November 14, 2011

Cuba: A Case of Problems and Promise

Cuba: Where the old is new
Cuba is only a 45-minute plane ride from Miami. But for the past 50 years, our Communist island neighbor might just as well have been located on another planet. U.S. citizens were prohibited from traveling there. Trade was embargoed. Contact of any type was mostly forbidden.

Recently, however, restrictions have been easing, both here and in Cuba. Overall, this is extremely promising, but, as with any significant change, problems are sure to ensue. And, tonight at Busboys and Poets, a Washington-based group which had recently traveled to Cuba informally discussed their findings about the issue of race relations on the island.

The 4-day trip was put together by the the Center for International Policy. Most of the group were advocates for minority positions here in the U.S. and around the world, especially Africa and South America.

The group noted that Cuban officials seemed particularly guarded about discussing the race issue, continually noting that it was complicated. Part of that problem centers around the fact that the Cuban Revolution lead by Fidel Castro was supposed to be for all people. To acknowledge that any group was in some way not fully included, is to admit that the revolution was not a complete success. "It would be a bit of blot on the revolution," said group member and Black leader Gary Flowers.

However, the group did see evidence of needs for racial improvements. The island population is approximately 60% Afro-Cuban and 40% Euro-Cuban. However, the group said the only beggars they encountered were "brown and black-skinned people." In housing, the group found a complex that was designed for 14 families which is currently home for approximately 70 families. These economic inequalities may only worsen with new changes. For example, Cuban-Americans can now send money to family members in Cuba, money which can be used for the first time to buy property. Since most of the Cubans here in the U.S. are of Euro-Cuban descent, there is a fear that economic disparity along racial lines will only grow. "It's a question of who will be able to access that property," Flowers noted. "It could further marginalize the communities of color."

There are extremely strict laws in Cuba banning discrimination. "The Revolution was supposed to have taken care of that," Flowers said "But you can't change this type of situation (hundreds of years of deeply held prejudices) just because you pass a law."

Despite problems, the island has much going for it. Races seem to intermingle freely in jazz clubs and restaurants. Vibrant art is valued and on view every where you go. As a society, Cuba is extremely literate. The will of the proud people as "the little island that has been under siege for 50 years and stood against Empire" is strong.

Group members noted that the most impressive quality of the outgoing Cuban people they encountered was a strong sense of  spirituality and dignity. "The Rev. Jesse Jackson used to say that too many Americans were suffering from DDD, dignity deficit disorder," Flowers said. "We didn't see any of that."

Tales, Tidbits, and Traveling Tips
I have long been fascinated with Cuba.  Among his many interests, my Father was a professional gambler. Before the Revolution, his favorite gambling spot in the world was Cuba. There is a picture of he and my Mother, along with 2 other couples, sitting along a sea wall in Havana that has been stoking my interest since I was about 7 years old. Like most of my generation, I still vividly remember those tension-filled Fall days in 1962 when so many were convinced that the Cuban Missile Crisis was leading directly to Armageddon. I believe that the utter insanity of the crazy notion that my crouching under a wooden desk or putting my head in my arm and leaning against a cinder-block wall would save me from nuclear annihilation plays a large role in my distrust of all authority to this day.. And finally there is the face of Cuba itself - Fidel Castro. Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Kruschev, all those names from my early indoctrination into the world of politics are gone. Only he remains. Well, it appears I am going to get a chance to scratch my Cuban itch. Judy and I scheduled to join National Geographic on a 10-day trip to Cuba in February. And you can bet I'm taking that fading photo of my Mom and Dad with me. Who knows? Maybe I can actually find that sea wall that has been one of the main pictures in my mind for 50 years.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Covering the Military

Christopher Lawrence on the scene
At first, CNN military correspondent Christopher Lawrence thought the scene was funny. But, on further reflection, he came to realize that the absurd situation captures the difficult job the U.S. military  has in Afghanistan.

Lawrence was embedded with a group of soldiers in Afghanistan. Inside a remote village, the official military translator was talking to a village leader. The translator began laughing. Asked what was so funny, he replied that the elder, observing the American military men, had told him "I didn't know the Soviets were still here."

Lawrence said the simple vignette captures the difference between operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. "In Iraq, change can have a cascading effect," Lawrence said. "But in Afghanistan, a mile down the road, the people there have no idea what is happening."

Lawrence, current CNN news Pentagon correspondent, appeared at a special Veterans Day Inside Media presentation at the Newseum today to discuss modern news coverage of the military and the Pentagon.

He said the biggest fallacy about the military is that there is such a thing as a military position on any given issue. Like the non-military world, there are always several agendas in play at any given time.

"This idea that everyone thinks as one mind isn't true. You can't even get consensus in the Pentagon , much less all the military all over the world," Lawrence contended. "When I go on a program like Wolf's (Blitzer) there are generals saying I'm not going on if he (another military leader) is going to be on. They say things  like "I don't even want to be in the same room with him." 

Lawrence says he believes the military is getting better at releasing information. For example, during the Vietnam War, all access was strictly controlled and news was often delayed.  "We don't live in that world anymore," Lawrence said referencing the modern 24-hour news cycle. "While you do lose a little bit of perspective, they (the military) are realizing getting the story out early is better than waiting. The Taliban has PR (public relations) people ready to give their side immediately"

Another positive note is the relatively recent decision to allow reporters to travel with engaged troops, a process called embedding. "The walls start to come down," Lawrence said. "You can't help but sympathize. It helps humanize the war and the warriors."

But news gathering problems still exist, problems often centered around the disconnect between commanders and those they command. To prove that point, Lawrence cited the reaction to a story he did on the impact of a proposed military shutdown. "I got a phone call from an admiral who said it was the worst piece of journalism he had ever seen. When asked what was wrong, the admiral said that I had talked to an E3 (a low military rank). I thought - what makes her opinion as an E3 any less than that of an admiral."

Tales, Tidbits, and Traveling Tips
Lawrence was asked what was the most surprising thing he had found in covering The Pentagon.  He said that given the military's long-standing, necessary preoccupation with fitness, it was the food choices offered at the massive Arlington complex. "There's McDonald's.  There's Taco Bell. There's every kind of fast food imaginable. There's really not a lot of healthy eating options," Lawrence said.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Andy Warhol: By Sight and Sound

In the hip, psychedelic 60s, superstar pop artist Andy Warhol often combined his 4-minute, 1-character films called screen tests with live performances by his favorite band the Velvet Underground for the multimedia happenings at his New York studio The Factory.

So when the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh authorized a new performance commission for Warhol's screen tests, it seemed fitting that they chose Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, whose dream pop music with their previous bands Galaxie 500 and Luna had been favorably compared to that of the Velvet Underground, to compose and perform the song cycle for the project.

And this afternoon, Dean and Britta, with Warhol's short films on a giant screen in the background, performed live all the selections from their creation 13 Most Beautiful ... Songs for Andy Warhol's Screen Test at the National Gallery of Art as part of the events surrounding the museum's current exibition Warhol: Headlines.

Some of Warhol's 13 subjects such as Dennis Hopper and Lou Reed and Nico went on to find national fame. Others such as Paul America, Billy Name, Ingrid Superstar, and Jane Holzer, saw their moments in the cultural spotlight remain contained in that brilliant period when Warhol's world dominated the New York scene.

Judy's favorite song from 13 Most Beautiful


Wareham and Phillips, who are husband and wife, composed all of the songs for 13 Most Beautiful except 2. For the Nico film, they chose Bob Dylan's "I'll Keep It With Mine," which the singer recorded for her 1st album. The Reed short is accompanied by Dean & Britta's version of "Not a Young Man Anymore," a long-lost Velvets number that recently surfaced as an internet bootleg.

My Favorite Song from 13 Most Beautiful 


Wareham gave a brief explanation of each song before it was played and, following  the captivating hour-long performance, Wareham and Phillps came back out on stage to describe their involvement in the project which began with viewing most of the 272 such films Warhol had created.

"The more we looked at these, and the more research we did, the more we became interested in the people who were at the Factory on a daily basis," Wareham said. "So we decided to focus on them."

Some of the songs were written to evoke the essence and mood of the filmed subject, while others were created to provide a more direct homage, Wareham noted.

Tales, Tidbits, and Traveling Tips
Sometimes what seems bad at first turns out to be a blessing. Originally, before heading to the art museum, we had intended to attend the Inside Media program at the Newseum entitled The Mirage Man: Bruce Ivins, the Anthrax Attacks, and America’s Rush to War,” where Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Willman would  talk about the story of the hunt for the anthrax killer he details in his new book.  However, when we arrived at the Newseum, we discovered that the auditorium there was already filled to capacity. We then walked to the National Art Museum, where we found that an incredibly long line had already formed for the Warhol show, which was still more than 90 minutes away. There's no way we could have gotten into the show had we arrived after the Newseum book talk and I am absolutely certain that of the 2, we saw the more magnificent, one-of-a-kind performance.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Forever Young: Discovering DC with My Grandnephew Devin

 Devin with his new friends at the Crime Museum
Two of the best things about having your 15-year-old grandnephew as a running buddy is:
a) if you let him pick the itinerary, you get to do a lot of things you wouldn't ordinarily do since it has been many decades since you were 15 and
b) you get to do some things that nobody else in your circle of family and friends want to do because  as my wife puts it - "I'm 60 years old and I'm not doing that."

For example, I took Devin to see Roger Waters perform Pink Floyd's "The Wall" last year in concert. Then Devin returned the favor by letting me take him to see The Black Eyed Peas. And, of course, there was Devin's 1st rock festival experience last summer's - the 3-day Dave Matthews Caravan in Atlantic City.

So when Devin visited our new Crystal City home for the 1st time, I told him to design a day of choice. While his mother and infant sister would spend a day with Aunt Judy, we would spend a boy's day in DC.

Since he wants to be a firemen/EMT and is actually planning to study that career in vocational/technical school, his 1st choice was a museum I didn't even know existed - the D. C. Firemen and EMS Museum, which Devin had discovered and researched on line. When we arrived at the site, which is housed on the 3rd floor of the Engine Co. 3's fire station on New Jersey Avenue, we found a sign that said to ring twice for entrance and then "be patient. We are coming from the third floor." And so we rang. And rang again. And rang a 3rd time. When it became apparent that the museum wasn't open (it was Veterans Day), I promised Devin we could explore it on his next visit.

Asked what he wanted to do next, Devin said lunch, and since we were only a few blocks from Chinatown and knowing that he likes Asian food, I suggested Chinese. As we neared the Verizon Center, we began noticing large trucks parked along the side streets. I remembered that the Foo Fighters were in town and surmised that the trucks were being used to transport the group's stage and equipment across the country. After Devin snapped a picture of the parked caravan, I asked him if he  liked the Foo Fighters. He said yes and so we headed to the box office to see if tickets were still available. As I had expected, the show was sold out, but in the lobby a scalper offered us seats on the floor. Now while I like my grandnephew, paying $500 to see the Foo Fighters wasn't in my price range so I demurred.

For lunch we headed to my favorite Chinatown restaurant, whose Chinese characters translated mean Eat First, which I believe is a grand motto for living. Knowing that Devin is relatively experimental, I hoped to introduce him to such delicacies as shredded jellyfish, fried pig intestine Chow Cho style, or squid, pig's skin, stomach and peanut congee. However, Devin played it conservatively by ordering General Tso's chicken, and, since he wanted to share, I settled for sesame chicken.

After lunch, Devin had chosen the National Crime and Punishment Museum, which The Washington Post lists as a 4 and 1/2-star attraction. I had never been to the museum, and, although unlike so many other DC attractions, the museum costs, I had previously obtained 1/2 price tickets from a Living Social deal.

I really didn't expect to, but I was surprised by how much I liked the museum, which is divided into 5 sections on 3 floors:
  • The Notorious History of Crime
  • Punishment: The Consequences of Crime
  • Crime Fighting
  • Crime Scene Investigation
  • America's Most Wanted Studio
Since the museum is the city's 2nd newest major attraction (the 1st being the recently dedicated memorial to Martin Luther King), there are numerous interactive exhibits. For example, I learned I didn't know as much as I thought I knew about celebrity crime by playing a match the celebrity with their crime game. I also learned that Devin would probably be a wiser companion than me in the event of a terrorist attack. At the computerized shooting range, he was able to fire 7 shots with 3 hits and 2 kills in the seconds allotted. I got off 5 shots with 3 hits and 1 kill. However, I think I am a better driver since Devin crashed his computerized car in a driving test.

After the crime museum, we headed up and across the street to the temporary exhibit and gift shop for the proposed National Law Enforcement Museum, which is scheduled to open in DC in 2013.

For our final stop, we boarded the Metro and headed to the 4-story Fashion Centre Mall at Pentagon City so Devin could check out the stores and Uncle David could buy him a replacement battery at the Verizon store for his Android phone.

Tales, Tidbits, and Traveling Tips:
Since my wife and I have such different tastes, we have, for years, scheduled what we jokingly call his or her vacations on alternating years. And I have come to value her choices (Alaska, Africa, Tahiti etc.) more than my own since it brings me to places I wouldn't choose.  The same was true with Devin's plans today.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

To Teach Is to Learn Twice

Every non-rainy afternoon, walking back to the Metro station after consulting at Dunbar High School, I would come across the elderly black gentleman with a white beard and colorful baseball cap sitting on the bench outside his 4th Street row home. Sometimes, he would be holding court with 1 or 2 others. Other times he was alone. But there was always a smile and some kind of friendly greeting. 

Today's salutation was "have a great rest of the day."  I paused and, without planning, a lengthy conversation ensued, a 2-way talk that ran all the way back to 1922, the year that native Washingtonian Larry Bird was born. You mean like Larry Bird the basketball player? "Yes, just like that except that I'm older and darker," Bird said with a smile.

Wanting to show my respect, I asked Bird if I should call him Mr. Bird or Larry. "Larry's fine," he said. "Sugar costs both of them just as much."

Putting aside the trio of books he was holding, Bird explained that he had lived in his present location for 10 years. He had moved back to Washington at the request of his son, who didn't like the quality of life his father was experiencing in New Rochelle, New York. Bird's son, who owns an impressive bed-and-breakfast inn just across the street, said he would feel better if his father were closer.

There's something about Bird's appearance that is remindful of an older, more sagacious Garret Morris, the former Saturday Night Live star who now has a recurring role in the new CBS's comedy 2 Broke Girls. He's a survivor. He has survived 2 wars, 2 wives and 89 years of living. He says he is legally blind, an impairment that is the result of diabetes. But he considers his diminished eyesight a blessing.  "No pun intended but it allows me to look at life through a different lens," he said. "I know more about myself now."

He also credits diabetes with directly saving his life.  Several years ago, he attended a health fair at the nearby convention center. Given that he was used to working with large groups of people, he helped the nurses organize the people at the event. "When it was done, the nurses asked 'Mr. Bird, what can we do for you?' I said well could you give me the name of a doctor you would want your father to go to if he had diabetes. I went to the doctor. He gave me a stress test. He said 'Mr. Bird, don't plan on going home tonight.' I had a quadruple bypass and here I sit today."

Bird is acutely aware of those pivotal moments which can sway a person's life. Sometimes it is an action. Sometimes it's something someone says. Sometimes, it is message in a piece of writing. For his part, Bird says he has been living his life for many years around the advice contained in Max Ehrman's poem "Desiderata." "I've given 100s of copies of that poem to people," Bird said.

He hands me the paperbacks at his side. The complex titles hint at religion, philosophy, helping others, and self-awareness. "That's what I'm reading these days," Bird explains.

Bird says that when he got back from the war he realized he had to consider a career. He thought about becoming a fireman or a policeman. "I saw myself sliding down a pole or riding in a police car and I didn't see that fulfilling me," he said. Someone suggested education. Bird began classes and a an early instructor didn't think Bird had what it would take. "I wanted to prove her wrong. For 3 years running, I was the number one student in the program," Bird said, a hint of deserved pride in his voice.

After finishing schooling, Bird began teaching geography in DC for about 20 years. ("Didn't really need any books. Geography is about people and what they have around them and how that shapes how they live"). That was followed by several years working with dropout youth in New Rochelle. ("People came from all over to see how we were running the program").

"You know to teach is to learn twice," Bird said.

In the early 1950s, Bird became active in the DC chapter of the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Color People). At the time, there were about 300 members. He helped swell that number to 300,000 during the Civil Rights Movement.

So, as a pioneer for racial equality, how does Bird feel about the fact that in 2008 America elected a black President. "To be honest, I'm awed and amazed," Bird said. "There's still a lot of prejudice."

But racial conditions have improved during his 89 years, right? "For some yes, for others no," Bird says. "These middle class black people are so busy leaving the city and leaving the poor people behind.  They forget that everybody needs some help sometime," Bird said.

And what about his feelings for the Washington he has seen for almost 9 decades. "I had more friends in New Rochelle. All the people I knew here are either dead or don't know ol' Larry's back in town. But I'll stay here. Washington's my home."

Tales, Tidbits, and Traveling Tips
Larry Bird is a special person. He sits on his bench like a modern-day Socrates, absolutely convinced that the unexamined life is simply not worth living. He dispenses great advice. He asks perceptive and provocative questions. He reads daily, knowing that you can't ever know enough. He is honest, open, and trusting. During our conversation, he asked me "Is that door open." I said it was. He said, "go in and look at what's on the wall in the room on the right." Inside, I found a finely calligraphed, framed poster with a series of dozens of words - warm, bright, a great person, giant. The words,  Bird says, came from a group of people who were honoring him years ago. "I have to admit I'm kind of fond of that," Bird said.  I agree. He should be. It's a fitting tribute to an 89-year-old man who sits on his bench, still trying to reach out to others and still believing that "to teach is to learn twice."

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Gazing on a Sunny Afternoon

The current Dunbar High School: Ground to be broken next week for a new building
Normally, when I finish my consulting day at Dunbar High School, I walk the scenic urban 6 blocks to the Washington Convention Center Metro Station, board the Yellow Line train, and head back to our Crystal City apartment.

But on this particular beautiful, warm November day (and all too aware that more such days won't be coming again until next Spring), I decided to extend my walk through DC.
DC's Chinatown Gate

So I strolled down 7th Street through the Mt. Vernon Square district that borders the massive convention center. Continuing on, I entered the Chinatown section, passing the ornate gate that symbolizes the area. Past the Verizon Center home of the Caps and the Wizards and the National Portrait Gallery.

Next up, Penn Quarter and a section of 7th Street that features 3 of my favorite DC restaurants, Jose Andres' Jaleo and Oyamel, and Hill Country Barbeque. (Side note here: It's not the best idea to walk past 3 of your favorite restaurants when you are really hungry).

Turning right, I walked through the fountains of the Navy Memorial and past the National Archives, the depository of America's founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Crossing Constitution Avenue, I kept the car-crowded underpass for 395 on my left and headed for the National Mall, emerging directly across from the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

In the middle of the Mall, I paused to take in what is one of my favorite views in all the world.  The Capitol Dome to my left; the towering Washington Monument to my right, surrounded by all the marvels housed in the Smithsonian Museums. As I watched, a plane on its way to a landing at Reagan National Airport continued its descent directly behind the Monument.

Pushing on past the National Carousel (which I first rode as a young child on a visit to DC with my parents), I headed down the escalator of the Smithsonian Metro Station to pick up the Blue Line train which would take me home to Crystal City.

My 2.5-mile walk took about 40 minutes. You know trains, and cars, and buses, and planes may be faster, but whenever possible I still think walking is the best means of transportation ever invented. And besides all the sites I encountered, my walk would allow me to enjoy a second helping of the mashed potatoes my wife had prepared for dinner.

Tales, Tidbits, and Traveling Tips:
When you visit DC (or any big city for that matter) park the car. Take public transit if you have to go far distances, but walk whenever you can.  That's the best (not to mention the cheapest) way to really take in the sights, sounds, and smells. 

Revolutionary Reading

It was a beautiful, warm American Autumn day in DC. At McPherson Square, the Occupy DC protesters were going about their daily tasks. Some were cleaning up the area.  Others were engaging visitors in spirited talk about the group's aims and the state of the nation. Some were simply sunning themselves as they watched a professional film crew and several of the curious capture the growing, bright-tented encampment in pictures.

At the camp's large main tent, a trio of Occupiers sat behind a long table lined with information and handouts, ready to answer questions from the curious.

A young, well-dressed couple approached. "What are you going to do when winter comes?" the young man asked. The response came from the oldest of the trio, who, with his open-necked dress shirt and sports jacket, resembled a casual college professor prepared to deliver an informal out-door lecture.

"Ah, what do they call it in rugby? Oh yeah,  a scrum. We're all going to pile together one on top of the other, huddle close, and then get covered with a big tarp and wait until spring. Hopefully that will keep us all all right," he said with a chuckle.

Then, turning more serious, he added, "Something like this has never been tried in Washington before.  But we're staying. The people are with us. And that gives us hope."

Tales, Tidbits, and Traveling Tips:
No where is the planned staying power of the Occupy DC movement demonstrated more dramatically than in the growth of the group's impromptu library. A couple of weeks ago, the library consisted of a one table and a small 3-shelf bookcase. Today, the library is housed in a large tent and consists of numerous tall bookshelves with the books contained in labeled sections like philosophy, politics, and war and peace. The reason for our visit today was to donate to that library. I had brought a bag of books including my dog-eared collection of Kurt Vonnegut novels and several dystopian paperbacks by British writers like Orwell, Huxley, and Wells. Those books had informed my thought processes during my college years and now I wanted their ideas to be internalized once more. Immediately after thanking us for the donation, the bright-hatted young librarian turned to one of the members passing by and asked "Did you get your daily reading yet?" Now I don't know about you, but the idea of well-read radicals pleases me. Armed with the humanism of Vonnegut and the healthy skepticism of Orwell who knows what they could do?  Maybe restore a dream or even reform a country?

Monday, November 7, 2011

A New Look at Black Power

It was one of the most disturbing art images I had ever encountered, chilling in simplicity, large in scope, horrifying in its implications, powerful in its message.

Hanging from the 40-foot high ceiling of the brightly-lit rotunda was a piece of huge, thick rope. At the bottom end was a tightly wound noose. The rope was dropped in the middle of 9 oak stools formed in a perfect circle. On top of each of the stools was a white pointed hood like those worn by the Ku Klux Klan. The 2 eye holes for each KKK hood were pointed inward creating a circle of eerie, blank, vacant stares forever focused on the dangling noose. The only words in the room were on a card that explained the installation, created in 1992, was entitled Duck, Duck Noose (an obvious play on the children's game "Duck, Duck Goose") by Gary Simmons.

"What makes good art is when you take something that exists, something familiar and twist it, turn it. distort it and create something new with it," Simmons said in his explanation of his work. "What I am making is giving form to these ghosts that haunt us in the way we define certain racial constructions and stereotypes."

Equally provocative were the large photos entitled "Strange Fruit" (the title of a Billie Holiday song about lynching) created by Hank Willis Thomas, all of which were designed to question the idea of black freedom in modern America. On one wall, was a giant vertical photo of 2 young, muscular black youths at the playground, one trying to dunk a basketball through a noose and the other trying to stop the move.  Nearby was the work entitled "From Cain't See in the Morning to Cain't See at Night" in which a hunched-over cotton picker in a field of white cotton finds himself head to head with a prepared-to-rush football lineman in an almost identical posture.
Thomas' thought-provoking "From Cain't See ..."
These are just some of the featured pieces in the Corcoran Gallery's latest exhibition 30 Americans,
a wide-ranging survey of work by many of the most important African American artists of the last three decades now on view until February 12.

"Often provocative and challenging, 30 Americans focuses on issues of racial, sexual, and historical identity in contemporary culture. It explores how each artist reckons with the notion of black identity in America, navigating such concerns as the struggle for civil rights, popular culture, and media imagery. At the same time, it highlights artistic legacy and influence, tracing subject matter and formal strategies across generations," the program website explains.

Tales, Tidbits, and Traveling Tales
The Corcoran is well aware of the provocative nature of its current exhibition. A sign at the entrance desk states" "Visitor discretion is advised. Some content in 30 Americans may not be appropriate for all audiences." Now I clearly understand why the Corcoran felt compelled to issue its warning. But I think this is one of those must-see exhibits. A major role of art is to make us think.  30 Americans definitely forces us to do that as painful as that process can be.  30 Americans makes all of us examine where we are, where we were, and where we are headed.  But don't take my word for it. See the exhibit for yourself. But be prepared for some powerful thinking prompted by some powerful images.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

One Name, Two Fates

Two boys named Wes Moore. Both black. Both from the streets of Baltimore. Both raised without fathers. Both finding trouble in school and with the police. Yet one winds up a Rhodes Scholar, decorated veteran, White House Fellow, and business leader. The other ends up serving a life in prison for his felony murder conviction.

How does something like that happen and what can we do about reshaping a system that allows, and too often even preordains, such tragic dichotomies?

That was the question on the floor tonight at the Politics and Prose bookstore as a 3-member panel discussed The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore, this year's selection as the book all of Washington is being encouraged to read as part of the DC Reads program.

Moderating the discussion was Kurt Schmoke, former Mayor of Baltimore and current Dean of the Howard Law School. The other 2 panelists were the author Wes Moore's mother Joy and his older sister Nikki.

If there is a moment when the 2 Wes' stories took its most divergent turn, it is probably when Joy made the difficult decision to send her son to the Valley Forge Military Academy in an effort to save him from himself and the streets.

"We'd never even let him have a toy gun," Joy said. "But at the time, there was no other alternative."

Strong, loving family support was a theme interwoven through both the book and the night. Joy's eyes welled with tears as she recalled her parents pitching in financially to help pay for the military school. "My mom said "I know there is a window in every child's life when you have to make a move or the child is lost,'" Joy said.

Another point of digression between the 2 Wes' paths  occurred in their first encounter with the law. As the book points out and Joy reiterated, one of the 2 policemen who nabbed her son as he and his friend were tagging (spray painting graffiti) on buildings "took the time to talk to him. He showed that there were people who cared."

As her son consistently maintains, the biggest tragedy in the entire narrative is that occurred by the family of the off-duty policeman slain in the robbery gone wrong perpetrated by the other Wes Moore. Even though he did not pull the trigger (that was his brother, Tony), Moore was found guilty of  participating in the robbery and, under Maryland felony murder law, sentenced to life in prison without parole for his part in the crime.

But the fate of  the other Wes Moore is still tragic, Joy said. "There is no reason that a guy with this kind of talent should be wasting away in prison," she said. "He should be sitting right here, right now contributing to society."

Joy said she believes the story of her son and his name twin dramatically illustrates the importance of "opportunities and where you go and the people you meet along the way."

"If there could have been another title for the book it could have been called choices," she added.

While her son's star continues to rise, the other Wes Moore sits in prison, each day the same as the one before it and the one yet to come.  Asked by a member of the audience how that Wes Moore feels about the book, Joy responded that he told her son "I've wasted every opportunity I've ever had. If this book helps save even one person, go for it."

Tales, Tidbits, and Traveling Tales:
While most of the focus was on Wes Moore's  mother and sister at the Politics and Prose discussion this afternoon, the moderator, Kurt Schmoke, also was directly involved in Moore's rise. As mayor, Schmoke hired him as a political intern and began mentoring the young man, a process which  continues today. During his years as Baltimore's mayor, Schmoke became famous (or infamous depending on your view) for seriously suggesting that the only way to end the failing war on drugs was to legalize some of them. His insistence on legalization caused at least one U.S. Congressman to label the scholarly Schmoke "the most dangerous man in American," and also led to the ex-mayor getting a bit part in HBO's fantastic series The Wire, ironically as a critic of a plan named "Hamsterdam," which provided a sanctioned drug-law-free zone in creators David Simon and Ed Burn's fictional Baltimore. To learn more about then mayor Schmoke's visionary view that people are not only addicted to drugs, but to the money that drugs bring, click here.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Get on Up and Dance to His Music

Sly and his family get down and get funky
When David Dorfman first saw Sly and the Family Stone as a university freshman in 1973, he probably never expected to create an entire modern jazz show around Mr. Sylvester Stewart' music. But more than 30 years later he did. And tonight, Dorfman and his talented 8-member national dance company performed that show to a sold-out crowd at the American Dance Institute here.

The show, entitled Prophets of Funk, sort of impressionistically hints at the story of Sly and his group from their first 60s hits to their explosion on the stage at Woodstock (Sly exhorting the crowd to "let me take you higher" is one of the seminal moments of that period) to his tragic slide into the wasteland of heroin addiction.

But tonight's performance was not about the down side of Sly's story; it was a celebration of the force of one man's music - a man who for a magical period of time created music powerful enough to force people to dance, but introspective enough to make them reflect on the rapidly changing world around them. Indeed, it was a high time. Sly's hair, styled in a massive Afro, was high. Sly himself, fueled by chemicals rather than the soul inherent in his music, was constantly high.  But, despite those personal demons, Sly was still able to make much of America, even those who rejected drugs, high on his music.

No where was that more apparent last night than in the 2-song encore where cast members  plunged into the audience to grab members to share their booty-shaking moves on stage to the beat of "Dance to the Music" and "Everyday People."

Talking about any modern jazz performance, even one I liked as much as Prophets of Funk, is tough. Dance is meant to be seen, to be experienced, not to be written about.  So suffice it to say that Dorfman's production is a much more funkified version of the Age of Aquarius play Hair, with more dancing and less singing. And, oh yeah, there are clips of Sly and his Family displayed on the giant screen behind the dancers. But, with all the energy and talent moving enthusiastically and entrancingly on stage, I must admit that the screen support was reduced to an enhancing after-thought.


Tales, Tidbits, and Traveling Tales:
As a classic rock musician for more than 40  years, I am fascinated with set lists. Here is the music (all written by Sly) in order from tonight's performance.
  • Underdog
  • Stand
  • Love City
  • If You Want Me to Stay
  • I Want to Take You Higher
  • Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey
  • In Time
  • Luv 'N Haight
  • Somebody's Watching You
  • Let Me Hear It from You
  • Turn Me Loos
  • That Kind of Person
  • Dance to the Music
  • Everyday People

Dancing the Degas Way

If you turn 90 in DC, how do you celebrate? Well, if you are The Phillips Collection art museum you have Mayor Vincent Gray proclaim a special day in your honor. And then you throw a giant free 90th Birthday Bash.

You have cupcake party favors, special gallery talks, and musical performances ranging from a Persian accordionist to a classic jazz quartet to a contemporary DJ.

And, since you are an art museum of course, you don't forget the art. A showing of the famed black artist Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series 1940-41 since you have all the odd numbers from the 60-piece series. (The Museum of Modern Art in New York has the even-numbered pieces).  A re-creation of the Klee room, which opened in 1948 and marked the first room in a museum dedicated to Paul Klee's captivating work. And, of course, your current masterpiece, an exhibit entitled Degas's Dancers at the Barre: Point and Counterpoint.

Now a quick word or 2 about Edgar Degas. While I recognize his talent, he is not one of my favorites. I much prefer Klee and especially Lawrence. I've always found Degas' bachelor fascination with ballerinas a tad creepy. And besides, being a thoroughly  modern fellow, I quite prefer my scantily-clads and nudes gyrating around vertical poles, not gracefully balancing on horizontal ones.

Tales, Tidbits, and Traveling Tips:
Free is one of the great 4 letter-words beginning with the letter F in the English language. Free is good. But when a museum that normally charges, opens free of charge you have to expect some entrance lines and crowds around exhibits. But just keep in mind - it is all free. We could have avoided today's crowd, but then we would have to pay. And, as I established before, free is good.

Coping with a Before and an After

The dead walk,but do they make great literature?

Wherever he goes these days, award-winning literary favorite Colson Whitehead, who The Chicago Tribune has labeled "one of the country's finest young writers," is asked some variant on the same question - why write a zombie novel?

"Monsters are just a rhetorical device to talk about people," Whitehead told the audience who gathered at the Politics and Prose bookstore here this afternoon to hear him discuss and read from his new novel Zone One.

The book jacket describes the story this way:

"A pandemic has devastated  the planet. The plague has sorted humanity into two types: the uninfected and the infected, the living and the living dead. Mark Spitz is a member of one of the three-person civilian sweeper units clearing lower Manhattan building by building, block by block. Alternating between haunting flashbacks of Spitz's desperate flight for survival during the worst of  the outbreak and his present narrative, Zone One unfolds over three surreal days in which Spitz is occupied with the mundane mission of straggler removal, the rigors of Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder (PASD), and the impossible task of coming to terms with a fallen world. And then things start to go wrong ..."

Now for more on those why-zombie questions. Some come from newspaper, radio, and TV interviewers. Others come from Whitehead's own literary friends. "They say I don't like zombie stories. I don't like zombie movies. So I ask them what zombie stories have you read that you don't like?  And they say I haven't really read any.  And then I ask well, what zombie movies don't you like? And they say, well I haven't seen any."

"I think people are hung up on labels," Whitehead said. "Really, there's just shit you like and shit you don't like."

Recently, zombies have become a growing subculture (Walking Dead, anyone?) embraced by a  burgeoning legion of rabidly devout fans and purists. And how has that subculture taken to Whitehead's high-brow take?. For the most part, reaction has been positive, but there have been some aficionados of  more blood dripping and brain munching who have been somewhat lukewarm. "Some say it's so slow. All he (the main character) does is think. I  guess if you like Cormac McCarthy's The Road maybe you'll like this," Whitehead said with a laugh.

Perhaps, given his early years, the real question for Whitehead is not why a zombie novel now, but rather how come it took you so long to write a horror-plotted novel in the first place. A self-described loner who didn't ever want to go outside and play with other kids, Whitehead says he spent his formative years devouring horror movies and sci-fi  stories. There were innumerable watchings of The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, countless comics, and an adoration for the master himself, Stephen King. Whitehead, who says he had extremely permissive parents, got hooked early. He remembers watching A Clockwork Orange when he was about 10 and when he asked what was happening to that (victim of extreme violence) lady, his mother telling him "oh, that's social commentary." And not every family would be comfortable sitting down at a nice restaurant for a family dinner after viewing the latest Night of the Living Dead saga.

Ever since he was a youngster, Whitehead admits to being plagued by "zombie anxiety dreams." In fact, it was one such dream that lead directly to Zone One. On July 4th, 2009, Whitehead had invited a bunch of friends to come stay at his New York home. "They were all downstairs cooking bacon and having a good time and I was upstairs by myself in a bad mood. So I willed myself back to sleep and had a dream where I was in the city, but I wasn't sure they had swept up the zombies. I guess you could say the book came out of a dream and a weekend of despair."

So, in the end, what does Whitehead hope his readers take away from their reading.

"Well, the genre allowed me to write about what's living about the dead and what's dead about the living," Whitehead said. "It's really about surviving a calamity. How do we cope with a before and an after?"

Tales, Tidbits, and Traveling Tips:
If Whitehead, who told me he has always loved joking, were not a first-class writer he would make a fine comedian. I could easily see him in standup or as a featured correspondent on The Daily Show. I can't remember ever howling so hard and literally being in danger of falling off my seat at a book talk before. Whitehead's bits on why be a writer (you don't have to wear clothes and you get to make stuff up) on how he kind of missed the writing point in college (I wore black all the time and I smoked cigarettes, but I didn't bother to write anything), his early years in the publishing world at Village Voice (he opened books submitted to the publication for review), the lack of job possibilities for slender-fingered, thin-wristed individuals like himself (pianist, hand model, surgeon, President of the United States) and his passion for Twitter (140 characters pretty much sums up how much interaction I want to have with people) were truly funny. But his capper came as he dead-panned that his early writing rejections did allow him to truly understand the elusive meaning of the song "McArthur Park." To prove his point, Whitehead produced his I-Pad and played part of the song for the audience, recounting line by line how it described his rejection years. I think he said something about leaving his cake out in the rain and something about never finding the recipe again. But I'm not sure. I was laughing too hard.

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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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