DC at Night

DC at Night

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Shooting the President and the First Lady

It was one of Charles Dharapak's rare days off from his dream job, so he decided to do some shopping for his family. Instead of going to his regular Target, he traveled to the Target on Route 1 in Alexandria. After completing his shopping, he sat down in the food area in the front of the store.

He saw the group of buffed men and women enter. One of that group recognized him from previous dealings.

"What are you doing here?" the man asked

"Just waiting for someone," Dharapak responded.

The man left, joining the group which was carefully surveiling all parts of the store.

A short time later, Dharapak saw a woman entering. She was wearing a fashionable, brightly colored blouse. Her eyes were concealed by sunglasses and she wore a grey, Nike baseball cap. She was the reason why he was there.

Dharapak remained seated; he did not follow the woman as she shopped. He looked at the checkout lines, making sure he could see all of them clearly. He knew he would have to act quickly. Finally, the woman finished her shopping. She checked out and headed toward the exit.. Dharapak moved into position. As unobtrusively as he could, he aimed his camera and began clicking. He followed the woman out of the store, his camera at the ready. He watched as she and the entourage loaded up her possessions in a pair of SUVs and drove off. Finally, Dharapak smiled.  He knew he had an exclusive. He alone had captured pictures of First Lady Michelle Obama shopping at a DC-area Target.

But how had Dharapak, the Associated Press pool photographer for the White House, know to be at that Target at that time? Ask that question and he responds, "I like to think of myself as a journalist before I am a photographer. And journalists have sources."

Dharapak, who has been named this year's Still Photographer of the Year, appeared at an Inside Media program at the Newseum to describe in detail what it is like recording the official comings and goings of President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle on a daily basis.

As one of a group of  about a dozen photographers who are assigned regularly to the White House,   Dharapak travels with the President in motocades and on Air Force One. Those doing the job have a name for their situation - they call it life in "the bubble."

While the photographers relish their duty of capturing photos to document history, they are always looking for something a little more. "Sometimes, you'll get some real moments when you just don't get the president or the candidate, you get a glimpse of a real person," Dharapak said.

One of his favorite shots is one of President Obama reacting as he dropped his Blackberry phone on the tarmac after exiting Air Force One. "If I told you that was the 1st time I had seen him drop it, I would be lying," Dharapak said with a chuckle. "But this was serendipity. I was looking at the president and I saw his expression. I saw something (the falling phone) out of the corner on my eye and I began shooting. That's the type of image I really enjoy. It happens to all us."

How would Dharapak describe his work in the simplest terms? "You have to keep your eyes on the president at all times. My job is to keep my eyes on the president," Dharpak says.

Of course, while there is a sense of comraderie among the news photographers assigned to the White House, there is a sense of competition, too. "You have to be respectful of your colleagues, but you have to be mindful of the game. We have our favorite spots to shoot from. We say it's a game of inches. You don't want to be the guy that at the end of the day is the one who didn't get the photograph," he added.

Dharapak accompanied his talk with a series of photographs which he explained. One of the most interesting was a shot of Obama hugging and paying homage to noted writer Maya Angelou after he bestowed the American Medal of Freedom upon her. Dharapak credited the fact that he keeps a 5-foot ladder handy for just such instances for being able to capture that moving shot. "I anticipated the moment that was going to happen. I knew it would be hard to shoot straight on because of all the people taking pictures with their  iPhones and iPads. I got the picture because I had the altitude," he said with a laugh.

While there are great perks to working as a White House photographer, such as flying on Air Force One (and no, taxpayers don't pay that tab; news organizations pick up the costs), there are some down sides. Of course, there is the pressure to accurately record history daily. Then there is the actual press room in the White House. "If I had to describe it, it's like working in a submarine," Dharapak said. "We coined the phrase Still Country for our space." Then there is the constant need to keep abreast of the news and the people who make it. "We're not just taking pictures," he noted. "You have to learn the players and you have to keep up with the news."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Dharapak's talk served as an official kickoff to the Newseum's new exhibition entitled The Eyes of History 2012 which opened Sept. 28. Many of Dharaback's pictures are included. It will remain on view until March 29.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Voter Fraud: How Much Is There?

With all the clamor around the country for voter IDs, you might think that voting fraud is a huge problem. But you would be wrong. Since 2000, when 146 million were registered to vote, a nonpartisan News21 investigation has found only 10 cases of in-person voter fraud, the only kind of act that an ID would prevent, in all 50 states. That works out to be about one case for every 15 million voters.

Overall, the probe uncovered 2,068 reported voter fraud cases since 2000, almost all of them the result of unintentional voter mistakes or election worker error.

The findings of the News21 study were unveiled at a special New America Foundation program entitled How Much Voter Fraud Is There: A State-by-State Analysis Reveals the Answer - Almost None.

The series of articles and videos detailing months of reporting were produced by 24 college journalists under the direction of professional media advisers as part of the offerings at the Cronkite School of Journalism. Len Downey, former editor of The Washington Post, oversaw the project and introduced the findings.

"Voter registration is a mess. It's state by state and county by county," Downey said. "It's shocking that since the 2000 Bush/Gore election so little has changed. The system is riddled with complexity and ambiguity There is hypocrisy on all different (political) sides."

"Mostly we found mistakes by voters or election workers. Mistakes account for more than fraud," he added.

Critics of the push for tougher voter registration rules claim that it is an orchestrated effort by Republicans to make it more difficult for several groups - minorities, the poor, the elderly, and the young, all of whom often favor Democratic candidates at the polls - to vote. Supporters counter that since IDs are required for many other activities, they should be part of the voting procedure. There are currently 62 photo ID laws and bills in 37 states.

Joe Heinke was one of two young reporters involved in the project who appeared with Downey to discuss the group's work. Heinke's reporting focused on the role state secretaries of state, who are in charge of statewide voting, are playing in the controversy. "They're not being as quiet as we have seen them before. Pretty much, they're falling in line with their party views," Heinke said.

"This could be quite a scruffy election night depending on how people behave," Downey said. "We will continue to follow this through the election and the fallout because we think it is so important"

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
The other young journalist attending the New America program was Maryann Battle, whose specialty was the controversial issue of allowing felons to vote.  Battle said there are 5.85 million convicted felons in America, most of whom are prohibited from casting ballots. There is no national policy on what constitutes a felony, or on which felons, if any, can vote. "There is a difference state by state and the spectrum is pretty wide," Battle said. "These people want to have a say in their community and they are told they can't."  Supporters of allowing freed felons who have repaid their debt to society to vote, contend that not allowing them to be involved in that process:
  • creates a negative effect on recidivism 
  • minimizes the position of the ex-felon in his or her community
  • and does not only effect the individual, but also reduces the political impact of communities where large groups of former felons live.
To read Battle's interesting findings, click here.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The President's Czars

When you think of czars, you probably think of pre-Communist Russia. Well, there are a growing number of czars in Washington, D.C. too, most all of them based at the White House. There's the Auto Recovery Czar, not to be confused with the Car Czar. Then there's the Food Czar and the Healthy Food Initiative Czar. There's the Cyber Security Czar, the Health Reform Czar, and the Climate Czar. And that's just a small part of the list

Why would presidents appoint these czars? Basically, they are used to facilitate and coordinate attacks on problems and issues that go beyond the scope of one department of the Federal government to handle such as the Gulf Coast oil spill or the auto industry bailout. Reporting only to the White House, they also demonstrate that a president is taking serious action.

But there is a problem with this approach, says George Mason University professor and noted Constitutional scholar on executive privilege Mark Rozell. The position of a czar not vetted and confirmed by the Senate is not specified anywhere in the Constitution, making such appointments unconstitutional.

"They represent a growth of presidential powers far, far greater that the Constitutional framers would ever have considered or approved of. The framers were  suspicious of executive power and placed strong restraints on the president," Rozell contends. "These czars do not fit anywhere in the Constitution. They are individuals acting alone without any Congressional oversight. Presidents may find utility in having czars, but they are a Constitutional aberration. Merely because a position has utility, that doesn't make it Constitutional."

As part of a continuing series of lectures marking the 225th Anniversary of the U.S. Constitution, Rozell appeared at the National Archives today to discuss the new book he co-authored entitled The President's Czars: Undermining Congress and the Constitution. 

The idea of powerful presidential appointed problem solvers, which proponents say is simply a way to use Constitutionally approved presidential discretion to act in the national interest, is nothing new  There are scattered instances from the 19th Century. But the process really came into its own during  World War I and II, when America had to quickly mobilize and gear up to defeat its enemies. But the idea of czars seems to have exploded with the complex problems faced by the 21st Century presidents George W. Bush and Barrack Obama. "These presidents selected a number of people who are making significant policy, regulatory, and budgetary decisions with no power or (Congressional) balance," Rozell said.

So if these positions are unconstitutional, why hasn't there been more of an outcry? As with so many issues in Washington, the problem is partisanship. Rozell said outspoken right-wing commentator Glenn Beck has regularly attacked Obama for his czar appointments, but that issue has been lost in the constant tirades Beck levels against Obama and anyone else who doesn't agree with him. Senator and Obama opponent in the 2008 election, John McCain has been quoted as saying "Obama has more czars than the Romanoffs." But so far, all efforts originating in Congress to eliminate the presidential practice have fallen short.

Rozell said he is not surprised that presidents want to name czars. "Presidents are quite adept at taking advantage of crises to expand their power and Obama is acting according to type," he said. 

Tales, Tips, and Tidbits
The Archives will continue offering special programs on the Constitution, but October will mark a one-month series on the Cuban Missile Crisis, which put America on the brink of nuclear war 50 years ago. To see a list of special programs for the month of October, click here.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A Cartoon View of Campaign 2012

Unlike reporters who are supposed to remain objective in their writing, political cartoonists are expected to take a position on the issues they explore in their creations. But while they may have a political bent, they still have to find issues to write about. And where do those ideas come from?

"Sometimes it's a bolt out of the blue and sometimes Chris Rock writes them," says Lalo Alcaraz, the cartoonist for Pocho.Com who admits that one of his most popular cartoons originated as a Rock comedy routine.

Alcaraz was joined recently at the Newseum by fellow cartoonists Steve Kelley, formerly of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and Scott Stantis of the Chicago Tribune for an Inside Media edition entitled A Cartoon View of Campaign 2012.
From the mind of Alcaraz
From the mind of Kelley

From the mind of Stantis

Although it would be relatively easy to determine their leanings from the cartoons they draw, each of the cartoonists revealed their position on the political spectrum at the beginning of their talk. Alcaraz said he is a Chicano leftist liberal, while Kelley described himself as a conservative centrist, with Stantis labeling himself as a uber-conservative Republican.

But, despite their political stances, Stantis said that many times politicians who are supposed to be politically compatible with cartoonists often make out worse than opposing representatives. "We kind of expect Democrats to be silly and goofy, but when our guys do it we're much harsher," Stantis said with a laugh.

"Humor is a great way to express your opinion," he added "I just got back from the Republican Convention where the average age of the delegates was almost-dead. And that's not good for a party moving forward."

Kelley, who lost his job when his own paper downsized to a 3-times-a-week only publishing schedule, said he is concerned about the fate of news reporting and opinion in the digital age. "News is such a critical  part of our democracy. I work in New Orleans. It's bad now, but can you imagine what it would be like if no press existed to keep an eye on the S.O.B.'s?" Kelley said.

"Also, there's such a surreal news cycle" he added. "I mean Chick-fil-A; is that really what it's come to."

All 3 cartoonists agreed that they and the other members of their craft  are struggling to find a place in this new technological world of blogs, videos, and Twitter tweets. "We don't know where all this is going, so we're going in a zillion directions until we can come up with a new paradigm. I often have people reading a newspaper in my cartoons. Sadly, that's one of the last places you see people reading a newspaper," Stantis said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Not only are Alcaraz, Kelley, and Stantis editorial cartoonists, they also each create and publish their own comic strips. Alcaraz has La Cucaracha, Kelley draws Dustin, and Stantis produces Prickly City.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Fishing for Hidden Treasure

Every great tourist city like Washington D.C. has some marvelous places that, for one reason or another, remain pretty much for locals only. For example, nature lovers in the DC area know that they can find plenty of natural serenity on the usually deserted Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Island in the middle of the Potomac River.

And then there's the Maine Avenue Fish Market, also known as Fisherman's Wharf or just the Wharf.

Located in the southwestern section of the city, the market is situated just under the shadow of Interstate 395 and can lay claim to be the oldest continuously operating fish market in America. Opened in 1805, the local market is 17 years older than the famed Fulton Fish Market in New York City. And although it is located within sight of the Washington and Jefferson monuments and walking distance of 2 Metro stations, it is one of the few historic sites in the city where locals can browse without encountering mobs of tourists.

Now this is choice
The market, which features 10 different stores, is open 7 days a week, but the largest selection of fish is available on the weekends. As you stroll, you will find rows of crab, shrimp, clams, and mussels in a variety of sizes and shades. There are all kinds of local fish, as well as several more exotic varieties to appeal to DC's multi-ethnic population.

You can select seafood to take home with you in large paper bags. Or you can have your seafood prepared on site. But fancy isn't the way here. With the exception of a few tables, you will be required to eat your lunch or dinner standing up at high tables. And if you order crabs, it helps to be handy with a wooden mallet. Metal nutcrackers are a no-no.

Cleaning our crabs for dinner
The taste and quality of the Fish Market has been documented by no less of an authority than food writer and Travel Channel commentator Anthony Bourdain. You can check out Bourdain's take by clicking here.

But even though this a not a tourist designation, like other DC landmarks, the Fish Market has been a setting for some major Hollywood films. The most recent was the 2009 political thriller State of Play starring Russell Crowe, Rachel McAdams, and Ben Affleck. To read a blog to find out what it is a like to eat crab balls with Russell Crowe, click here.
Tales, Tips, and Tidbits
Oriental lunch is served
While we enjoyed the floating docks of the Fish Market and strolling along the walkways to check out all kinds of private vessels from small speedboats to large houseboats, we did have one problem. We were planning on buying a couple dozen crabs for dinner. But we came at lunchtime. We were hungry, but we didn't want to have America-style seafood for lunch and dinner. Fortunately, there was a solution. Right next to the market area is Jenny's Asian Fusion restaurant, which received 4 stars from both Urban Spoon and Trip Adviser. So what did we have? I had Jenny's special lo mein noodle soup with seafood and fresh vegetables. Judy had miso soup. We split the sampler plate which included spring rolls, cream cheese wontons, Oriental baked mussels, Chinese stuffed clams, crab pearls, and spicy salt and pepper calamari. So how was it? We both agreed 4 stars was about right.

A Day for Books, the Sequel

As I concluded the final day of the 12th annual National Book Festival sponsored by the Library of Congress, I realized that like so many of the books featured, my 2nd day had an identifiable theme. And that theme was - all 3 of the talks I attended focused on isolated outsiders and alienated misfits trying to cope in their society.  

My 1st stop was at the Fiction and Mystery tent to listen to Charlaine Harris. Haris saw her popularity skyrocket when her 12 steamy fantasy novels about a telepathic southern Louisiana waitress named Sookie Stackhouse (and her encounters with vampires, werewolves, shape shifters and other supernatural beings) was chosen to form the basis of the popular HBO show True Blood.

As expected, Harris, who with her gentle, affable manner and friendly southern drawl, seems to be the last person who would conjure up such deadly, other worldly characters, was asked how she feels about HBO changing her characters and story lines to better fit the creative considerations of television.

"Actually, when I look at my checkbook, I feel pretty good," Harris said, her answer prompting waves of laughter from the hundreds of fervent fans who packed the tent.  Harris told her followers that the next Sookie Stackhouse novel would end the series, an announcement that brought shouts of "no" from the audience. However, despite the best efforts of her questioners, Harris declined to reveal how the series will end. "It will end the way I always saw the ending when I began writing," Harris said with a smile. After her 45-minute talk, many of her fans rushed to the signing area to get Harris to sign the copies of the dog-eared books they had brought with them..

Next up, I headed to the Contemporary Life tent to hear novelist Christopher Bram discuss his latest nonfiction book, Eminent Outlaws: The Gay Writers Who Changed America. Before answering questions, Bram read a fascinating portion of his book detailing a televised 1968 confrontation between conservative mastermind William F. Buckley and his liberal nemesis, Gore Vidal. Buckley, frustrated and upset by Vidal's remarks, finally shouted "you queer," a term that was simply not used in public discourse then.

My 3rd and final stop presented the biggest dilemma of my 2 days on the National Mall. In the Contemporary Life tent, Eric Weiner was scheduled to speak.  I had just started reading Weiner's latest book Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine and I had missed him when he spoke at Politics and Prose earlier this year.

But Weiner inevitably lost out to a special discussion of the 1962 Newberry award winner by Madeline L'Engle, A Wrinkle in Time. That book has remained in my top 10 list since I 1st read it as a 10-year-old in 1962. The story features 3 young misfits who challenge the ultimate evil (The Black Thing - IT) in an ultimately successful attempt to restore a family and save the universe.

The panel, which extolled the virtues and legacy of the beloved classic, was led by Anita Silvey, the author of 100 Best Books for Children. She was joined by author Hope Larson, who was chosen to create a graphic version of the novel and Leonard Marcus, whose series of interviews with people who knew L'Engle well will be published this year.

"Many a book begins a journey but few continue it for 50 years," Silvey said. "I think A Wrinkle in Time is so revered because it shows that no matter who you are, you, as a young person, can make a huge difference in the battle of good and evil."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Just as it was yesterday, my final day at the National Book Festival really featured 3 related stories. First, were the authors I saw. Second, there were the authors that I passed over because I had heard them speak elsewhere. Today, that stellar list included David Maraniss, Thomas Mallon, John Lewis, and Bob Woodward. Finally, there were the authors that I couldn't see, either because of scheduling conflicts or the fact that I had to leave the festival 2 hours early to resume my volunteer work with the Obama campaign. Those authors included Avi, Junot Diaz, and Mario Vargas Llosa. Of course, the best thing about an annual festival is that there is always next year. Hey, if you love books the way I do, maybe I'll see you next September. I'll be the 61-year-old with a goofy grin of poor joy on his face and a schedule in his hand, trying to decide where I should go next..

Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Day for the Books

Standing on the platform at the Crystal City Metro station, waiting for the Blue line train to the National Mall, I thought yet again about what would be my 1st day ever at the annual National Book Festival sponsored by the Library of Congress. Two days. 20 tents. 125 authors. Thousands and thousands of book lovers. Having recently attended the Bonaroo Music Festival in Tennessee with my son and the Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans with my wife, I knew 2 things. I would need a plan and I was sure I would deviate from that plan. I had made a tentative schedule. I had studied the map and knew the locations where I wanted to be. I had the information I needed on my iPhone. I was ready.

On the train, I figured the woman sitting across from me was heading to the same place I was. The giveaway was the bag she was carrying. Inside the bag were 10 neatly arranged books she planned to have authors sign. I learned she was a middle-school librarian from Atlanta. Five of the books were hers; 5 were those of her 17-year-old son, who had just posted on his Facebook page: "My mom is headed to the National Book Festival and she didn't take me. Boo"

When the train arrived at the Smithsonian stop at the National Mall, all 6 of the cars emptied rapidly. Seeing that the line of festival-goers wanting to use the escalator for the main exit stretched along the entire platform, I opted for the alternate Constitution Avenue exit.

I arrived at the site about 5 minutes before the 10 a.m. event was to start. I headed directly to the Contemporary Life tent and found one of the last available seats. For the next 45 minutes I listened to Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandlebaum discuss their most recent book That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. (A Prices Do DC teaser: I will be writing separate blog posts on all the authors I mention here in the coming days).

I checked the program book I had picked up when I entered. We were only 45 minutes into the day and I was already making my 1st change. Despite weeks of careful scrutiny, somehow I missed that Mike Lupica, my favorite sports reporter and the best-selling author of sports tales for young adult readers, was next up at the Teens and Children Tent. So it was goodbye Paul Hendrickson and Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost and hello Lupica..

On my way to the tent, I dodged hundreds of enthusiastic young readers dashing to the author signing area to meet their favorite authors and get them to sign the books or the festival posters they were clutching in their hands. For his part, Lupica delighted the mostly young male crowd with the story of how he came to write his stories involving young heroes and heroines who encounter big challenges they must overcome, not so much to win, but to become better people.

Now while I love books, I also love to eat. Initially, I had feared that I would have to fore-go food from 10 to 6 p.m. (And, to any of my smart-mouthed friends, while it might be extremely challenging, I could do that if I absolutely had to). But thankfully, the food gods interceded on my behalf. As I had previously seen all 4 writers I was interested in at the 11:45 time slot, I could take an hour for lunch. My wife Judy likes books, but she hates the sun. Therefore, she had planned an alternate Saturday of activities. She was going to the American Indian Museum to see a new totem pole installation and a performance by a group of Whirling Dervish dancers from Turkey, part of a day-long celebration of Searching for the Divine through the Arts. She was then going to the Newseum to hear a talk by President Obama's White House videographer. Finally, she would return and try to fill the Book Festival 2012 big bag that C-Span 2 was giving away with free stuff for our grandchildren before joining me for the day's final book talk. We agreed to meet at the Mitsiam Cafe at the American Indian Museum for a quick lunch. (For the sake of full disclosure, I had the Plate of Color,  consisting of 4 side dishes from the South American section of the cafe selected personally by Chef Ken. I have no idea what I ate, but it was really good).

On my way back to the Festival, I struggled with the only author dilemma I had been unable to resolve. I wanted to see Jewel, the songstress who also writes books for young children, and poet Philip Levine, who had just completed a year as the Poet Laureate of the United States.  Again, fate decided for me. I couldn't get anywhere near the packed Jewel tent, but I was able to find a tiny space in the back of the Levine tent where I could see and hear. There, I heard Levine read from his common-man poems, a reading on the level of a solo Bruce Springsteen concert without the music. At the end of 45 fascinating, moving minutes, I had found a new favorite contemporary American poet.

Next up was the event I was most looking forward to - 45 minutes in the Fiction and Mystery tent with best-selling police/crime fiction writer Michael Connelly, the creator of both Harry Bosch and the Lincoln Lawyer. To the delight of his cheering crowd of fans (every seat was taken and I joined a large group of people who sat on the grass at the side of the stage) Connelly went into great detail about his forthcoming book, The Black Box, where the upstanding Detective Bosch will continue his struggle through the darkened tunnel of his life toward a light he eventually hopes to find.

After Connelly, I headed to the Contemporary Life tent to check out veteran Supreme Court analyst Jeffrey Toobin, whose recently released book is entitled The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court. In a talk featuring equal measure of revealing detail and humor, Toobin spent his 45 minutes explaining the complex inner workings of the court to the highly political crowd there to hear his views.

From there I headed back to the Fiction and Mystery tent to hear Sandra Cisneros, whose modern classic The House on Mango Street I had taught many times during my teaching career. There were no available chairs, so I again grabbed a grassy spot near the stage and prepared to be entertained and enlightened. Cisneros, who had just completed a book tour celebrating the 25th anniversary of Mango Street, read dramatically from a new book coming out in a few weeks Where Is Marie? While ostensibly about the search for a missing cat, it is really a tale about many of the different losses we have to deal with during various stages of our lives.  Followng her reading, which received a standing ovation from her legion of fans, Cisneros spent the rest of her time answering questions from teachers asking how they could get their young students to read more.

At the end of the Cisneros' talk, Judy met me, her bag packed with reading treasures and activities for our grandchildren Audrey and Owen. Together, we headed to the Poetry and Prose tent to hear my favorite contemporary American fiction writer, T. C. Boyle. Boyle, who always makes himself one of the most interesting looking authors writing today, showed up in a bright red jacket, a black and silver intricately designed shirt, and tight black pants that would be appropriate for an on-stage swirling Mick Jagger. To complete the rebel image, Boyle said he was going to ignore his publishing company's order to discuss his just released novel San Miguel and instead read a short story, "The Lie" in its entirety. Boyle briefly introduced the story by saying "This story is for everyone who has had a job you're not really crazy about and told a fib to get out of it. It's called 'The Lie' and believe me, there are personal consequences for that lie." For more than half an hour, Boyle, with his amazing prose, kept the crowd riveted with the story of 26-year-old Lonnie, his wife Clover, their infant daughter, and Lonnie's Slovakian boss Ratko and a sampling of Lonnie's fellow California production studio workers. Even with the introductory warning, given the rich humor which is Boyle's trademark, the abrupt, completely unanticipated  "tragic" ending caught the audience by silent surprise. But, in a second, they unleashed applause befitting a rock star. Boyle waved, exited the stage, and my 1st day at the National Book Festival was over.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Obviously, I was captivated by the authors I got to see. But, at a festival this large, there are many  authors you don't get to see. I divided them into 2 groups - a group I had already seen at previous DC book talks and a group I was disappointed to miss. The 1st group included:
  • Walter Isaacson
  • Tony Horwitz
  • Elizabeth Dowling Taylor
  • Stephen L. Carter
  • Linda Greenhouse
  • Colson Whitehead
  • Walter Dean Myers 
  • Douglas Brinkley
In addition to Jewel and Hendrickson, my disappointed-to-miss group included Robert Caro, Patricia Cornwell, Lois Lowry, and R. L Stine.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Who Stole the American Dream?

When he began researching his new book about money and the American Dream, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Hedrick Smith quickly discovered that the income disparity between the rich and the poor in the U.S. was beyond astonishing. It was greater than the gap in 16th century Spain. It was bigger than the divide in 17th century Holland. In fact, some social scientists were claiming that the world "has never seen such concentration of wealth since the Pharaohs of Egypt."

And Smith uncovered much compelling evidence that this enormously lopsided distribution of wealth was no random economic happenstance. "I found it hadn't happened to the middle class; it had been done to the middle class," Smith says.

The author appeared recently at Politics and Prose to speak to a large crowd about the details revealed in his latest work The Death of the American Dream.  

Smith said the new book he produced was not the book he originally planned to write. That book was tentatively called The Dream at Risk. As a reporter, he said, he, like his colleagues, tell "history by the salami slice on the fly. We don't have the time to fill in the gaps. I wanted to go back and take a look at these (economic) events, fit them together and show the big picture."

And the completed picture Smith portrays is discouraging, dispiriting and downright disturbing.

"When I came to find out that middle class families had suffered a 6 trillion (collective) loss in their homes before the bubble burst, the Dream at Risk was no longer an adequate title," Smith said. "This wasn't a trickle. This was a geyser."

Smith said that while Ronald Reagan often gets blame for beginning the rise of the rich, the most significant event actually occured in 1978, 2 years before Reagan took residency in the White House.

In that year, Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell wrote a memo that American business was under attack and in extreme danger from the AFL-CIO union, Ralph Nader's consumer advocates, and environmental and safety regulations. "He took his task seriously. He was in fact, a Paul Revere,"  Smith said. Alerted and energized by Powell's call, business and industrial powers banded  together to have a Consumer Protection bill then being considered in the Democratically-controlled Congress killed. 

"That was a pivotal moment, a watershed of American history" Smith said. "Business found they could get what they wanted. They tasted power and they knew the things they could get." Capital gains tax was reduced from 48% to 28%, meaning that the wealthy paid substantially less tax on their investment income. The bankruptcy laws were changed. A "disgrace to the human race" tax system was created and subsequently and regularly strengthened. The race for unlimited wealth was on.  And that race is still raging today. At the time of Justice Powell's memo, there were 175 registered lobbyists in Washington. Today, there are 17,000 lobbyists and public relations specialists in DC. "This is Powell's army," Smith said. And one result - the aggregate wealth of the 1 percent is greater than that of  Canada, of France, or of  Italy.

But what about the middle class and the poor during this time period? "With wedge economics to divide people, that dynamic has been taken apart," Smith says. "They're not getting their share. Everybody does not share equally. For them, it's been 3 decades of getting nowhere."

Tales, Tidbits, Tips
So for those who believe that the economic picture Smith draws in his book is as real as the environmental dangers and violence that threaten the very existence of our country, the question becomes - what do we do?  "Folks, we've got to get up off our seats," Smith answers. "We have to create pressure from the bottom. Lobbying is one of the great growth industries. It's very unrealistic to think that it is going to happen on Capitol Hill. There are fundamental things wrong. What's happening is not just not fair, it's not smart economics. It's altered and decimated the American Dream.  We need people working together rather than working at cross-purposes."

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Covering America

History is concerned with the past. For the most part, journalism focuses on the present. So what would happen if you combined the 2 subjects? Well, you would probably come up with something like the new book by former Washington Post reporter and Boston University Professor Christopher Daly.

Daly appeared at the Library of Congress to discuss his engaging, comprehensive work entitled Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation's Journalism.

According to Daly, the history of American journalism can be divided into 5 periods, each of them signaled by a change in the business model for the dissemination of news. "It's important to understand news as a business," Daly said. "A change in the business model forces a change in journalism."

The five eras in Daly's breakdown are:
  • 1704 - 1830.   News becomes political
  • 1830 - 1900.   News becomes commercial
  • 1900 - 1970.   News becomes professional
  • 1970 - 2000.   News becomes conglomerate
  • 2000 - until ?  News becomes digital     
For the first 75 years or so of colonial existence, America really didn't have its own papers as such. However, Ben Franklin in Philadelphia and others from the printing field began producing broad sheets and pamphlets in the 1700s. "Franklin pissed some people off. They thought he was knocking the local clergy. So he came up with a defense of his trade Apologies for a Printer," Daly said. In his credo Franklin wrote that when "truth and error have free play, the former is always an over-match for the latter."

"Publishers thought they could serve the public by opening their pages to opposing arguments. This became the bedrock statement of philosophy for  American journalism," Daly said.

The lead up to the Revolutionary War created a wave of writers such as Thomas Paine who "were at the center of the idea of self-government." However, after the British were defeated, the idea of political attacks in papers only intensified. "Sadly, they went a little crazy. There was politics of personal destruction we haven't really seen again," Daly said.

As an example, Daly cited writer James Callendar who launched a series of vicious personal attacks on Founding Father Alexander Hamilton and his Federalist ideas. He accused Hamilton of abscounding with money for personal gain. However, Hamilton said that actually he was having an affair with the wife of the man he was accused of  supporting financially, so the money was being used for blackmail, not personal gain. "I am a rake and therefore cannot be a swindler," Hamilton postulated. However, the damage had been done and Hamilton's bright political future was ruined by Callendar's written onslaught.

In 1833, New York publisher Benjamin Day, with his penny-paper The Sun, began redefining the meaning of newspaper success. "It became how many newspapers are you selling and how much money are you making doing that? Daly said.

"Day said his Sun shines for all, not just the literate, the elite, or a political party. Its goal was to reach everyone," Daly said. Of course, that meant his 1-cent a day product had to be interesting every day. Day is credited with hiring the 1st reporter George Wizner to find stories in New York and write about them. "Day proved that the oridnary life of ordinary people could be interesting to others.  He used sex, violence, and crime, of which there was no shortage in New York. It was a right idea, right place, right time," Daly said.

The Civil War propelled interest in news which became faster to deliver because of the telegraph and more visual because of the efforts of photographers like Matthew Brady. Later in the century, the battle for subscription supremacy between the papers of  Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph fostered Yellow Journalism (translation - fabricated news) and arguably to America's involvement in the Spanish-American War (War is tragic, but it is interesting). But it also brought many changes to newspapers which are still viewable today such as cartoons , women's pages, sports, and puzzles. "They tried all kinds of things. It was the test of the marketplace. If they (the new items) sold papers, they could stay. If not, they were out."

Between 1900 and the early 1970s, there was another shift as the news became more professional.  "News now served the public by presenting timely and useful information which had been verified. It became more responsible and serious, but sometimes it was duller," Daly said. "There was a move to elevate the position of journalism in the U.S."

Daly cited World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle's writing as "a masterpiece of the power of being there and the power of being a trained observer. News organizations (by now radio was involved and TV was soon to follow) began using their resources to raise their standards. They began to employ specialists. The high-water mark of this period came with the printing of the Pentagon Papers, the coverage of the Vietnam War, and the reporting on the Watergate  scandal.

Interestingly enough, the new success of newspapers made them attractive to bigger businesses. "There was a move from family-run operations to being part of larger and ever larger corporations," Daly said..

Today, Daly says news and related media are trying to find a business model that works in the digital age. "Not a lot of time has gone by and it's difficult to see with clarity. Everything has changed about our business. It will need to reinvent and adapt itself to changing times," he noted.

"I have better (reporting) tools in my pocket right now than at any time in history"' Daly said, showing his smart phone. "In the time I have been talking, you could have built your own website and been online by now. Indeed there is a future for journalism. It's just it's now online."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
If you want to see the future of journalism being practiced right now in the present, you might want to check out these 2 websites. The 1st is The Huffington Post., the internet only newspaper with news, blogs, video, and community. Then there is News 21, a journalism project prepared through the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.

Electoral Dysfunction

With election day fast approaching, here is a simple quiz for you. In America, is voting a right or a privilege? Let's handle the question this way. If you think voting is a right, raise your left hand. If you think it is a privilege, raise your right. OK. I see some of you have your left hands up, some have your right, and a lot of you haven't raised either hand, which means you either think it could be both or you're not sure.

To get our definitive answer, let's go to the Constitution and see what our Founding Fathers had to say about voting. And since that handwriting can be difficult to make out, we'll use a big magnifying glass. But no matter how hard we look or how big we make the words, there's a problem. That's because the Constitution, despite common misconceptions, makes absolutely no mention of voting. So I suppose you could say the rights/privilege question is a trick one. There is no answer.

Let's try an easier question. But this time, we'll narrow the field. Only those who voted for president in the 2008 election can answer. How many of you voted for Barrack Obama? How many voted for John McCain? Well, I have some bad news for you. You are all wrong. In actuality, no one in America votes directly for a presidential candidate. Instead, under our current Electoral College (not to be confused with the expensive college where you, your children, or your grandchildren may be going) system, you actually vote for electors, who in turn vote for the president of the United States.

Confused yet. Well, you should be. Our electoral system, with 50 states and 13,000 districts all handling voting in a different way, is a chaotic, confusing mess, controlled by archaic rules and nonsensical regulations which often lead to bitter, prolonged political battles. Which means it is the ideal subject for an irreverent, but non-partisan documentary film which should leave viewers whipsawing between hillarity, sadness, awe, and anger.

Tonight, we were invited to attend the Washington D.C. premier of just such a film, Electoral Dysfunction sponsored by The Center for American Progress.

The film stars former Daily Show with Jon Stewart correspondent Mo Rocco. Rocco's quest—set against the backdrop of the 2008 presidential election—leads him to Indiana, home to some of the toughest voting laws in the country. He meets two feisty Hoosiers, Republican Dee Dee Benkie and Democrat Mike Marshall, who take him inside their efforts to turn out every voter. Dee Dee, who worked in Karl Rove’s office at the White House and Republican National Committee member, has met her match in Mike, a savvy political consultant and former State Representative. As he progresses on his journey, Rocco investigates the heated battle over Voter ID and voter fraud; searches for the Electoral College; critiques ballot design with Todd Oldham; discovers a 90-year-old  nun who wasn't allowed to vote in Indiana because her passport had expired, and explores the case of a former felon who was sentenced to ten years in prison—for the crime of voting.

Following the showing of the 90-minute film which prompted periodic bursts of laughter and a few spontaneous waves of applause from the crowd at the Landmark E Cinema, one of the directors, Bennett Singer, and Judith A. Browne Dianis, a lawyer and co-director of the national civil rights  Advancement Project ,who was featured in the film, discussed the heated question of voting in America.

Singer said that original plans had called for the film to be finished and released by 2010. However, it is just being released now. "In some ways, the timing couldn't be better to take a big picture view of our electoral process," Singer said.

Singer said the major problem in making the film came from the difficulty of the subject. "How do you take this epic story and turn it into an 86-minute film," he said. "We were trying to look at where we are as a nation and how can we encourage people to think about viable reform."

"To me, the most eye-opening revelation is that we have this notion that voting is so intrinsic to who we are as a nation and voting rights are not universally affirmed by the Constitution," Singer noted.

Dianis, whose organization is currently involved in "an avalanche of laws that would restrict voting rights" around the country says "it is clear that there is a movement to restrict who can vote."

"I've been told there is no war on voting. I want to tell you there is. Our whole Democracy is being undermined. Election days is the 1 day when we all should be equal," she said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
If you carefully watch Electoral  Dysfunction with an open mind, it's virtually impossible to disagree with the contention that our election process is in desperate need of  reform. During the post-film discussion several reform options were advanced. One was a Constitutional Amendment eliminating the Electoral College and making the election of a president directly the result of national public vote. Another was creating a uniform election system for all 50 states. A 3rd called for the creation of a non-partisan election group to oversee elections in much the same way that the Federal Reserve Board oversees money issues.  

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

1812: A Nation Emerges

The Battle of New Orleans
 Most Americans believe the United States won the War of 1812 against the British. But the idea of an American military victory is more myth than reality. At best it was a draw. The British won most of the land battles. They successfully blocked all the important American ports. They stymied a main American objective of invading Canada. And, in the Treaty of Ghent which ended the war, the stated cause of the conflict - interference with shipping and the impressment of Americans into the British navy - was never addressed.

However, the aftermath of the war definitely set into motion many factors that propelled America to become a dominant nation. First, of course, the war ended British control or influence in any part of the new nation. It created a tremendous surge of nationalism and belief in the American experience. It allowed for western expansion. Perhaps, most importantly, it firmly established that the United States was a real country that would play a strong part on the world stage.

Both the war and its aftermath are the subject of the impressive new exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery entitled 1812: A Nation Emerges.

... what so proudly we hail ...
As is appropriate for a portrait gallery, faces of all the major players, both those for the U.S. and those from Britain, are on display. Some are well-known. President James Madison. First Lady Dolley Madison. Francis Scott Key. Andrew Jackson. Others are not so well-known such as White House slave Paul Jennings, who is credited with helping save the famous George Washington painting from burning by British troops.

One section features art dealing with spectacular American naval victories—Oliver Hazard Perry on Lake Erie, Isaac Hull with the Constitution (“Old Ironsides” - "We have met the enemy and they are ours), and Jacob Lawrence ("Don't give up the ship").

The war gave America 2 of its most lasting symbols - "The Star Spangled Banner" and Uncle Sam - and both symbols are explained and presented pictorially.

No battle better captured the American idea of victory than did Andrew Jackson's crushing of British forces at the Battle of New Orleans. Jackson's rag tag troops caused more than 2,000 casualties while sustaining only 71 themselves. Ironically the famed battle, which led to so much national pride, occurred more than a month after the 1815 treaty officially ending hostilities had been signed in Europe. However, word of the treaty signing had not yet reached the United States.

The political impact of the war was great. Jackson, William Henry Harrison, and Zachary Tyler, all military commanders during the conflict, were elected president with much of their initial popularity coming from their wartime endeavors.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Obviously, since 2012 marks the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the War of 1812, there are a host of exhibitions, programs, and talks here in Washington dealing with the subject. Few have the comprehensiveness of the one at the National Portrait Gallery. If you want to see 1812: A Nation Emerges you have until Jan. 27 when the exhibition closes.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Hail to the Burger Chief

In just 50 days, Americans will head to the polls to choose either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney as the next president of the United States. But, if you are willing to reveal your political taste early, you can demonstrate your preference for either Democrats or Republicans between now and Election Day at 2 DC eateries.

At Chef Spike Mendelssohn' 2 Good Stuff Eateries (one on Capitol Hill, one in Crystal City) they are cooking up a pair of politically themed burgers modeled after campaign surrogates (and real-life spouses) James Carville and Mary Matalin.

The Ragin’ Cajun looks every bit as menacing as its namesake pundit. The cholesterol bomb is outfitted with a thick, breaded “Creole” onion ring, golden cap of molten cheddar and vinegary pickle slices.  A zesty chipotle barbecue sauce completes the package .The Sharp & Sassy tastes more refined, even if properly appreciating it does require getting a little sloppy. Grilled portabellas tumble from the burger, exposing a patty enrobed in a froth of peppadew pepper-spiked mayo and rapidly reducing goat cheese.

Democratic and Republican strategists Carville and Matalin were both consulted about the signature sandwiches and were given final approval over each.

Meanwhile, at California Tortilla, the political battle is between the Obama's Chicken Teriyaki Luau Bowl and Romney's Mexican Mitt-loaf Bowl. The dishes were named after the candidates families home areas of Hawaii and Mexico.

The Obama dish features Mexican rice, grilled chicken, Teriyaki sauce, stir-fry vegetables, grilled pineapple spears, and chopped green onions.

The Romney dish contains grilled Mexican meatloaf, mashed potatoes, sauteed vegetables, sweet and savory meatloaf sauce, corn, salsa, and chopped green onion.

Tales, Tips, Tidbits
So who is winning the political cuisine battle? Partial results show that Obama is ahead of Romney at the Good Stuff Eatery sites by a 480 to 315 vote count. A press account says Obama's bowl leads Romney's dish 52% to 48% in the California Tortilla contest. For the sake of full disclosure, I have eaten the Obama Chicken Teriyaki Luau Bowl, but have yet to sample the Ragin' Cajun burger. I think I'll pass on the Romney Republican dishes. They are too rich for my taste.

Friday, September 14, 2012

1939: It Was a Very Good Year?

We all have a favorite year or two. For my mother, one of those years was 1939. It wasn't because she and her family lived on a New Jersey farm and, even though the country was in the midst of its worst depression, at least had plenty to eat. And it wasn't because of the impressive New York World's Fair which promised a brighter future, although she did get to go to that.

My mother's favorite movie
My mother loved 1939 for the movies. She always claimed it was the best year ever for film. And there is much support for that contention. Gone with the Wind. The Wizard of Oz. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Stagecoach. Wuthering Heights. Of Mice and Men.

So, it's not surprising that movies play a large roll in the special exhibit 1939, now on display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

If I only had a brain
In fact, the most popular display with all ages in the exhibit features the hat and boots that Ray Bolger wore as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. Interestingly, the Scarecrow items are a replacement for what is acknowledged to be the most popular item in the entire museum - a pair of the red ruby slippers that Judy Garland wore as Dorothy. The ruby slippers were moved  to anchor the museum's new American Stories exhibition.

As would be expected, there is a display case devoted to the 1939 World's Fair and a wall explaining the Depression and the WPA, the government's reaction to correcting the poverty plaguing millions of Americans.

Faces of the Depression
Despite, or perhaps because of, the Depression, the burgeoning entertainment industry played a large part in trying to take people's minds off the bleak economic conditions. One wall features all the covers of Life magazine for a year. There are display cases with the new comic book hero Superman, records and sheet music, and then state-of-the-art radios and phonographs.

If you would like to check out the special exhibition, you have about a month to do so. It will be closing on Oct. 21.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Although I was born 13 years after 1939, at least one remnant of the Depression helped shape my childhood. During the Depression years, frugality was the order of the day, so my grandmother Daisy (for whom I was named) came up with an inexpensive between-meals snack which she called Pep. And what was this Pep you ask? It consisted of one piece of white bread, smothered with butter and then covered completely with sugar.  When I was little, my Nana Daisy would never fail to feed me my Pep when I stayed with her. And while nutritionists today would cringe at the concoction, they might change their tune when they learn about the most special ingredient in Nana Daisy's Pep. She always served it with a large helping of love.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Golden Age of Muslim Civilization

In Europe, the period from the 6th to the 13th centuries has long been called the Dark Ages. But to the Muslim world, which at the time stretched from Egypt to China, the same dates have been recognized as a Golden Age of light, with many intellectual and scientific innovations that still resonate today.

Ben Kingsley explains
Now many of those inventions and creations form the basis for the new exhibition 1001 Inventions: Discover the Golden Age of Muslim Civilization, a fascinating show now at the National Geographic Museum.  The show, running until Feb. 3,  is designed to bring the Islamic contributions to a modern audience and demonstrate the enduring legacy of the older Muslim world..

For me, and I'm certain for you to, the learnings were many. For example, did you know:
  • a 1,000-year-old tower in Algeria was the inspiration for the towers and spires of Medieval churches
  • the luxurious spas we know today were popular in the Muslim world in the 10th Century
  • the ancient city of Cordoba had oil lamps to light the streets after dark
  • the 9th Century scholar Abbas ibn Firnas is said to be the 1st person to fly successfully when he leapt from the minaret of the Great Mosque in a contraption he had designed and landed more or less unharmed
  • the 10th Century astronomer Al-Sulim was the 1st astonomer to mention the Andromeda galaxy
  • the 1st large scale observatory in the world was built by the Sultan of Isfahan in the late 11th Century
  • scholar Al-Battran, in the 10th Century, measured the solar year as being 365 days, 5 hours, 46 minutes, and 24 seconds long
  • physician Ali ibn Isa in his Notebook of the Occular written in the 10th Century covered treatments for 130 eye diseases
  • patients in early Muslim societies took pills, syrups, and powders, underwent cataract surgery, and had their broken legs placed in casts
  • master physician Al-Zahwawi was the 1st person to use catgut in surgery, a procedure that is still used today
  • more than a 1,000 years ago, the city of Baghdad housed several libraries and dozens of book dealers
  • complex math symbols are hidden in many Islamic patterns and designs, some of which have only recently been discovered
  • Islamic inventions allowed communities to harness clean wind and water power
  • windmills, most often associated with Holland, actually originated in Afghanistan more than 1,000 years ago
Like this model of Abbas ibn Firnas, inventions let Muslim civilization soar
 The exhibition, which begins with a short special effects film starring Ben Kingsley highlighting contributions to the world from the Muslim Golden Age, finishes with an interactive exhibit displaying many common English words that come from Arabic including algebra (al-jabr), candy (qund), cotton (qutn), shampoo (champu), sofa (suffah), orange (nranng) and traffic (taraffaqa).

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
With the attack on our American Embassy in Libya and the killing of our ambassador and 3 others, the aims of radical Muslim sects once again threaten American freedom. The Islamic extremists claim that their outrage over an 11-minute film prompted the attack. After viewing the short piece of film, I can say it is shoddily constructed cinematic trash that makes absolutely no sense. However, it is not worth the taking of one single life.  But you should look at the film to make up your own mind. A warning, however, it is such a F movie that it's sure to make the worst movie you have ever seen seem like an Academy Award winner.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

African Cosmos: Stellar Arts

Gavin Jantjes, South Africa Untitled (1990)
Since the beginning of humankind, men and women have stared at the skies, trying to find meanings in the world above them to help them understand the world around them. And the awe and mystery those ancient sky watchers found in the stars, moon, and sun have been reflected in art since man first began placing designs on cave walls or clay pots.

Now, in the latest major exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art entitled African Cosmos: Stellar Arts, curators have put together an impressive showing of how African artists haved used the universal language of astronomical art to help explain:
  • the formation of creation stories and religion
  • the cycle of life, death, and rebirth
  • the forecasting and marketing of seasons and agricultural cycles
  • the planning of communities and navigating both on land and at sea
Egyptian tribute to the sun god
Divided into several rooms, the exhibition begins with the ancient Egyptians, who built many of their most majestic pyramids and other structures to align with the stars. One such example is found at Napta Playa in southern Egypt, where a structure was used for setting the summer solstice about 7,000 years ago, more than a millennium before a similar circular structure was completed in Stonehenge, England.

Tribes and cultures from many of the 55 countries that make up Africa today are represented in the comprehensive exhibition, which includes masks, figures, crafts, weavings, and more modern art forms such as painting and video.

Dogon stool
In many of the African creation myths, the 1st people descended from the sky. (Insert alien theories here, anyone?) The Yoruba people of southwest Nigeria envisioned the cosmos in the form of  intricate lidded containers, in which the upper half represented the sky and the lower half the world of the living.

Plank mask ceremony
The Dogon people of Mali pictured the cosmos as 2 disks forming the sky and earth connected by a tree. They captured that depiction in the ornate figured stools they created for special occasions. They also engaged in a special cosmic connection by using extremely tall plank masks in ceremonies "to reach to the heaven as a way to bridge earth and sky."

Ghana's Akan people used celestial sayings to convey appropriate behavior within their community. Such as this one: "Like the star, the child of the Supreme Being, I rest with God and do not depend upon myself [alone]."

The Nafana people of Mali were captivated by the moon,, contending that "without the moon there would be no life" and painting their faces in white designs and using round moon masks to symbolize the power of the moon over man's life.

Moon masks
While most of the exhibition focuses on older African cultures, there are representatives of modern art, too. The most recent, and indeed one of the most intriguing of those examples, is Deep Survey, a large screen piece of installation art created in 2007 by a South African artist who used video from an actual cosmic survey of African skies and added recordings of reversed nature sounds from outside his studio.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
If you are interested in the cosmos, the art exhibition here is just part of a real star-show here in the Smithsonian museums on the National Mall. You can also view Cosmic Collisions, Infinity Express, Journey to the Stars, One World, One Sky: Big Bird's Adventure, and The Stars Tonight at the National Air and Space Museum; The Evolving Universe and Eternal Life in Ancient Egypt at the National Museum of Natural History; and Our Universes: Traditional Knowledge Shapes Our World at the National Museum of the American Indian. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Chocolate Goes With (and on) Everything.

Its 1st documented use occurred around 1100 B.C. It has been called a cancer-stemmer, a brain stimulator, a blood pressure reducer and an aphrodisiac. A British study has indicated that it produces an increase in heart rate that can be more intense than that associated with passionate kissing.

And what is this wonder drug? It's chocolate, one of the most popular food types and flavors in the world.

And it's also the featured ingredient at the unique Co Co Sala Chocolate Lounge and Boutique here in D.C. In fact, virtually every item on the menu and many of the drinks include some form of chocolate.

So what do you try at such a restaurant? Well, you could have:
gruyère, parmigiano reggiano, roquefort, & cheddar / chipotle chocolate tomato cream sauce
orecchiette / four cheeses / crispy chocolate bacon
Or you could have:
pepper cheese & guava enchilada / cocoa nib cheese stuffed jalapeno beignet / guava & lime sauce
mango salsa / chipotle chocolate tomato glaze / avocado cilantro emulsion
Or what about?
chermoula marinade / fennel salad / aged pecorino / hazelnut coffee dressing
meyer angus / gruyere & crushed cocoa bean crust / chocolate shiraz reduction /
seasonal vegetables / garlic & goat cheese potato puree
Well, you get the idea. It's chocolate, chocolate, and more chocolate. 

Of course, at a chocolate lounge, I wonder what's for dessert? Why, something chocolate I suppose. We split a STICKY SITUATION - warm sticky toffee pudding cake with chocolate shavings, brown butter toffee sauce, and ginger caramel ice cream. But that meant there were 8 other equally intriguing chocolate-laced desserts that we didn't  have room for.    

So how did Co Co Sala make out on The Prices Do DC plate test? . I gave the meal 4 plates out of 5. My wife also gave it 4 plates. But she wanted an addendum. As the chocolate lover in the family, she gave the dessert 5 plates. 

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
We had been trying to go to Co Co Sala for some time. The 1st time we went (I guess I should have checked first) it was closed. We went for lunch. Co Co Sala is only open for dinner. The 2nd time we went (I guess I should have checked first) it was closed. They aren't open on Sundays. But tonight we got it right. And it was worth the effort. So there's the tale. Here is both tidbit and tip. If you are a passionate chocoholic who doesn't like to experiment with your food, you might consider going  straight for Chef Tiptur's 5-course dessert experience which consists of (1) chef's muse sucre (2) a main dessert selected from the menu (3) an inermezzo (4) a cheese plate with chocolate trimmings (5) petit fours.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Herblock Looks at 1962

Herblock at his desk
It is a tense political September. There is that huge question of medical programs and costs. Americans are concerned that their Democratic president is affording too much aid to welfare freeloaders. The pesky debt ceiling is hanging around. And, perhaps most threatening of all, there is a small foreign country at the center of a nuclear controversy that would threaten the existence of all humankind.

No, although all those problems sound familiar, the above conditions aren't describing today. The Democratic President was John Kennedy, the small country was Cuba, and the year was 1962. And, as is often the case, few captured those turbulent times better than political cartoonists. And, at the head of those cartoonists stood Herbert Lawrence Block, better known as  Herblock, who during his 55 years at The Washington Post won 3 Pulitzer Prizes for his work.

His pointed commentary and art offer an opportunity to reflect on the history and culture of his times and our times - how much has changed and how much has remained the same.

After he died in 2001, Herblock's archives were turned over to the Library of Congress, which offers a constantly changing retrospective of his cartoons. The most recent exhibition featured drawings from 50 years ago.

As a cartoonist, Herblock preferred to let his drawings speak for themselves. "A cartoon does not tell everything about a story,"he once said. "It is not supposed to. No written piece tells everything either. As far as words are concerned, there is no safety in numbers. The test of written or drawn commentary is whether it gets an essential truth."

Here are 4 of Herblock's 1962 cartoons. You can judge for yourself how close he got to those important essential truths.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
If you don't believe editorial cartoonists have a lot of influence and power, you need only to check today's headlines. Here is a Washington Post article recounting the story of an Indian political cartoonist who has been jailed for criticizing political corruption. While chilling, the story also makes us appreciate that marvelous freedom of speech that we enjoy as Americans.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Yo! It's Yo Sushi

Yo! It's circling sushi.
When I was little, I loved going to Philadelphia with my Mother. There was the lure of the big city. Big crowds of people. Big buildings. Big department stores filled with big and small toys. Big bookstores. Big restaurants.

A Horn and Hardart of days past.
And when it came to big restaurants, one of my favorites was the Horn and Hardart Automat on Chestnut Street. For those of you not old enough to remember Horn and Hardart  Automats, they were cavernous, waiterless establishments which represented a combination of fast-food, vending, and cafeteria-style eateries. By the 1950s, these restaurants, with their chrome-and-glass coin-operated machines, brought high-tech, inexpensive dining to more than 800,000 customers a day. In fact, you could consider these Automats America’s first major fast-food chain.

Well, what goes around comes around, although often in a modernly modified format.

Yesterday, we visited the new Yo! Sushi in Union Station for the 1st time. As its name implies, the eatery features Japanese food with an emphasis on sushi. But the unique thing is, the sushi and other food bowls are placed on a conveyor belt which loops around the dining area. Sitting on stools or in booths, diners simply grab what they want for their meal. The bowls are colored-coded by price so you know what you are spending.
Not sure what to do? Consult your placemat.
 But the choices are daunting. For example, there are more than 70 dishes to try including 26 hot Japanese classic meals, 4 salads, 5 desserts, and 42 different types of sushi. Unlike Horn and Hardart, there are waitresses present to explain the operation to you. You can also consult your placemat for how to proceed.  The waitresses will bring you drinks and soups. I would recommend the iced green tea and the Miso soup, since both entitle you to limitless refills. And I would strongly suggest  finishing your meal with the green tea custard. It is small, but really tasty.
Condiments such as chopsticks, soy sauce, ginger, and wasabi are located in recessed areas of the booths and countertops where you eat.
Everything you need for your sushi.
For anyone worried about freshness or desiring entertainment,  you can watch the sushi chefs preparing their creations in an open kitchen right in front of you.

The Washington DC eatery is the 1st Yo! Sushi in America. The British chain now has establishments in 8 countries including Dubai. The firm is planning to open a 2nd Yo! Sushi in the Chinatown section of DC before expanding to other U.S cities.
I wonder how you say, "this is like a future version of the old Horn and Hardart Automat" in Japanese? Oh, that would be これは古いホーンとのオートマットの将来のバージョンのようなものです.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
If you are visiting DC or you find yourself near Union Station, you might want to check out Yo! Sushi. It's a unique, fun way to eat a meal whether by yourself, a partner, or a group of friends. You can click here for the complete menu.

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