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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Getting Down with Go-Go

It's the live sound of the Chocolate City. It's been called the history of the culture of D.C. masquerading as party music. It's virtually unknown outside of the Washington Beltway, but it's so big in the district and adjacent communities that the death of its creator last Spring sent thousands into the street to mourn and flags to fly at half-staff throughout the area.

It's Go-Go and last night Washington Post contributing editor and Georgetown University Journalism Professor Natalie Hopkinson appeared at Politics and Prose to discuss her new book Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City.

Go-Go not only has been vital to Black D.C. as music, but it has proven over 4 decades to be a major economic provider to that community, Hopkinson says.

"It's a local thing. It's part of the culture; it's part of the blood, but it's also a huge, multi-million dollar industry," Hopkinson said. "The music has created Black businesses selling stuff from tickets to tapes to T-shirts. Imagine if New Orleans got to keep jazz or the Bronx got to keep hip hop? Here you got to create a music with the culture and history on your own terms and not have to answer to anyone else."

So how did Go-Go originate? The credit goes to Chuck Brown, who was so idolized by D.C.'s Black community that his viewing last May had to be held at The Howard Theater and his funeral at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. In the 1970s, right before the advent of disco, Brown, affectionately known as the "Godfather of Go-Go" took elements of African call and response, spoken word, jazz, funk, and heavy Latin/Caribbean percussion and came up with Go-Go. From its 1st days, the music was meant to be experienced live. In Go-Go, the dancers and the audience are as much a part of the performance as are the musicians providing the music.

Hopkinson said one of the recurring motifs in her book is the intersection between Go-Go as music and its influence in politics.

As an example, she cites not only the impact of Brown's death, but that of "Little Benny," one of the founders of Rare Essence (another huge Go-Go band), a few years earlier. At that time, then-Mayor Adrian Fenty, who was trailing badly in the polls, was trying to use Go-Go as a way to spur his staggering re-election campaign. He began making Go-Go a staple of his stump speeches and, at Little Benny's funeral, the crowd of more than 6,000 fans, disgusted that politicians were trying to ride the coattails of their beloved indigenous music,  booed the mayor "as if he had just sung off-key at the Apollo," Hopkinson said.

Another example Hopkinson explores in her book is the story of Club U, one of the most legendary of the Go-Go venues. Located at the intersection of U and 14th Street, the site functioned during the day as a government office filled with bureaucrats. At night, however, for 12 years until it was closed, it turned into one of D.C.'s most packed Go-Go dance venues.

But today, Washington is undergoing an ethnic change. In the 1970s, the city was 71 percent Black (thus, the name Chocolate City). In 2001, however, the percentage of Black residents dipped under 50 percent, a reduction that has only grown in the past decade.

So what has gentrification meant for the music? Hopkinson said the scene has moved - from U Street to 8th Street to Branch Avenue (a Maryland suburb). "The Chocolate City is still alive. It's just been pushed over the line."

Not a native of D.C., Hopkinson says she 1st experienced Go-Go music and Chocolate City culture during her years as an undergraduate at historic Howard University. She became an ardent fan, leading to a doctorate in the subject and her latest book. "When you live in a world that's not designed for you, it's very delicious when you discover one," she said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
As with all Black music, race and racism play a part in Go-Go. Not everyone is a fan. An incident last night just before Hopkinson's talk underscored that point. To set the stage, Politics and Prose began playing a related P-Funk tune to be followed by some classic Go-Go tracks as a warmup to Hopkinson's talk. However, at least one patron, apparently offended, complained and demanded that the music be silenced. Hopkinson began her presentation by commenting on that incident. Obviously, there are some people who want to obliterate the entire idea of Chocolate City, to make it a thing of the past. The safe assumption is that the majority of those people are white. The woman who complained might have been objecting to the vocal stylings of  George Clinton or the rhythms of Chuck Brown, but I doubt that. Chances are pretty good that she objected on racial grounds.  "There's no greater reminder of that than just what happened 5 minutes ago," Hopkinson said. "The music isn't hateful. It's a celebration."

Monday, July 30, 2012

Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart
The death last week of Sally Ride, America's 1st female astronaut, saddened flight enthusiasts everywhere. But before there was Ms. Ride, there was Amelia Earhart, arguably the most famous female flyer of all time.

The life of Earhart, who although her body has never been recovered was legally ruled to have died in a 1937 flight over the Pacific, is the subject of a new exhibit One Life: Amelia Earhart at the National Portrait Gallery.

She was not the 1st woman to fly, but Earhart's well-publicized exploits during the age of The Great Depression made her one of the most popular figures of her day and continue to keep her firmly established as a role model for women today.

"I choose to fly the Atlantic because I wanted to," Earhart wrote in one of the 2 books she published in her lifetime. ""It was, in a measure, a self-justification, a proving to me and anyone else interested, that a woman with adequate experience could do it."

In addition to photos of Earhart at every stage of her short, but illustrious life and career, the exhibit includes artifacts such as a leather flyer helmet she wore and a copy of her pilot's license.

Assistant Curator Frank Goodyear says that Earhart is worthy of the special exhibit, especially timed for the 75th anniversary of her death. "She made evident to the larger world that women - when presented with the opportunity could accomplish feats not previously imaginable, " Goodyear says "She confronted numerous challenges as a woman and as a pilot, but she found ways to surmount them without compromise."

"To me," he added. "She represents the unlimited possibility of human achievement. Her desire to lead made her the face of the age."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
You have plenty of time to make it the Portrait Gallery to take in the Earhart exhibit. It will not be closing until May 27 of next year.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Just Say No to Fracking

The signs told the story. "Frack is whack." "West Virginia Wild and Fractured." "Frack Attack. ""Jail the Frackers"


With the Capitol of the United States and self-constructed Frack Attack tower replicas as a background, a sign-carrying  crowd, which organizers claimed exceeded 5,000 protesters, yesterday staged the 1st ever national protest of fracking. a process that employs drilling to extract natural gas from shale rock layers deep within the earth.

Opponents say fracking poses threats to human health, water supplies and ecosystems. Yesterday, busloads of people impacted by fracking in their communities joined forces with national organizations and DC-area environmentalists to call on Congress to halt fracking and keep Americans from the dangerous impacts of the process.

"We are afraid to drink the water. We are afraid to breathe the air," a mother of a family already living in a processed area said to sustained cheering from the crowd.. "You (the energy companies) are not welcome in our communities. We are afraid of living with you, but we are not afraid of you."

Other speakers said that while the big energy companies are willing to expend large sums of money to promote fracking, the voice of the people will not be silenced. Following their remarks, the speakers led the crowd in rousing choral cheers. "Frack, no! Frack, no, Frack no," they exhorted.

Rally speakers included Bill McCibben, co-founder of 350.org, a global grassroots movement to solve the climate crisis. "As the increasingly bizarre weather across the planet and the melting ice on Greenland makes clear, at this point we've got no choice but to keep fossil fuels underground. Fracking to find more is the worst possible idea," McCibben said.

Participants of the rally, which concluded 3 days of events and workshops to launch a national campaign, listed 3 demands. They wanted:
  •  an end to dirty and dangerous fracking, 
  • closure of the seven legal loopholes that let frackers in the oil and gas industry ignore the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Clean Water Act and
  • full enforcement of existing laws to protect families and communities from the effects of fracking.
Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
The rally also drew a number of the curious, drawn to the site by the colorful signs and the sharp rhetoric. Not all the observers were convinced of the rightness of the frack attack. Overheard from one: "It's ironic that the protesters came on buses. What do they think those buses run on? When they holler 'Ban Fracking Now!' it makes me want to shout 'Drill, baby, drill.'"

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Fleeting Structures for Festivals

As the Olympics get underway in London, we will be barraged with continual images of just how the city has spruced itself up for the international athletic extravaganza. Urban cities around the world often find themselves being revitalized and beautified for festivals like the Olympic Games or national holidays.

But the phenomena of the erection of impressive, yet often temporary structures for honorary events isn't restricted to just modern cities.

In early modern Europe, state visits, coronations and royal weddings provided cities with a reason to stage lavish productions. Prior to the invention of the printing press, the temporary structures built for these events were lost forever. But soon after Gutenberg's introduction of hand-press printing festival books describing these celebrations began to appear.

Samples of these early books, printed in Latin, French, and German, were included in the exhibit The Fleeting Structures of Early Modern Europe at the National Gallery. The exhibit was timed to close just as the London Olympics were beginning.

The exhibit, drawing from the rare book collection at the National Gallery of Art Library, was divided into 4 sections. They were:
  • The Triumphal Arch
  • Display of Power
  • Stage and Ampitheater
  • Building Decorations
As was pointed out in the brochure for the exhibit, these events allowed artists and architects to design innovated structures which afforded "the chance to experiment with new ideas or encourage city officials to consider new uses of public space."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
While you can't view the Fleeting Structure show any more, there are still 2 major exhibits now at the National Gallery. First is Joan Miro: The Ladder of Escape. The exhibit of the Spanish painter's works will close on Aug. 12. There is a comprehensive exhibit of works from American painter George Bellows which is running until Oct. 8. We plan to visit both soon. If you like art, you should consider a visit, too.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Jazzin' It Up at Blues Alley

From left DeFrancesco, Cobb, and Coryell
If there were a king of the Hammond B-3 jazz organ players, you would have to give the crown to Jimmy Smith, who died in 2005. The legendary Smith, who claimed he tried to pattern his playing after the sounds of John Coltrane, has influenced virtually every organ player who came after him. In the 1960s, he joined with influential jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery, who died in 1968, to record a pair of jazz albums considered classics today.

Now Smith and Montgomery may be gone, but the sounds they fashioned live on, most currently in a collaboration between Hammond master Joey DeFrancesco, a friend and student of Smith, and noted contemporary jazz guitarist Larry Coryell.

In their current worldwide tour, DeFrancesco and Coryell are joined in their trio by 83-year-old Washington D.C. native Jimmy Cobb, who played drums on Miles Davis' Kind of Blue album, believed by most to be the quintessential jazz LP of all time.

The trio are billing their current tour as "A Tribute to Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery" and last night they played the 1st of 8 shows at the Blues Alley jazz and supper club in the Georgetown section of DC.

At the opening of the set, DeFrancesco told the crowd that the trio had just arrived back in the United States that day after playing a month of dates "all over Europe." But the trio showed little jag lag as they plunged into several songs off their latest CD including the title track "Wonderful, Wonderful," and "Five Spot After Dark," "Wagon Wheels," and "Joey D."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
The New York Times calls Blues Alley, which opened in 1965, "the nation's finest jazz supper club." It is literally located in an alley. Inside, the club is dark with small tables crowded together to better create the ideal atmosphere for an intimate night of jazz. Well there was no question last night that the jazz fashioned by 3 masters of their instruments was impressive. But what about the food? Each of the items on the menu are named for a jazz great that has played the club. For example, there is the Les McCann pork chops or the Nancy Wilson barbeque chicken creole. For the record, I had Maynard Ferguson's shrimp and pepper pasta. It was very good, not as good as the jazz providing the background for dinner, but given the tasty sounds of the 3 musicians on stage it really wasn't a fair competition.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The 2nd Amendment: What Does It Really Mean?


A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

On the surface, these words, which constitute the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, seem simple enough. On closer look, however, the meaning becomes less clear. Do these words guarantee a right of militias, as the 1st clause seems to suggest, or a right of the people as the 2nd clause seems to say?

That question is at the heart of the argument between gun supporters and groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) and gun controllers and their groups like the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Unfortunately, the gun issue has once again exploded to the front of the American agenda in the wake of the tragic theater shooting in Colorado last week which resulted in 12 deaths, the youngest a 6-year-old girl.

So how do you go about trying to determine the truth of the 2nd Amendment? Well, it might prove instructive to begin with what is known about the thought processes of those who framed the Constitution and the First 10 Amendments, known collectively as the Bill of Rights.

Most historians agree that the 1st Americans viewed the idea of the right to bear arms for these purposes:
  • deterring tyrannical government
  • repelling invasion
  • suppressing insurrection
  • facilitating a natural right of self-defense
  • participating in law enforcement
  • enabling the people to organize a militia system
If you agree with that list, then it seems the Founding Fathers were looking at collective, not individual, rights when it came to bearing arms, which is, by very definition of the phrase, related more to military terminology than hunting or gun collecting. That view was born out by Alexander Hamilton, who in 1788 said: "If circumstances should at any time oblige the government to form any army of any magnitude, that army can never be formidable to the liberties of people while there is a large body of citizens, little, if at all, inferior to them in discipline and the use of arms, who stand ready to defend their own rights and those of their fellow citizens."

So where did this idea of Daniel Boone gunning bears, not Minutemen bearing guns come from? You need look no farther than the ethos of the frontier and the related American myth of the Wild West, with men like Davy Crockett and Wyatt Earp credited with dispensing justice at the end of a single-bore rifle or a six-shooter. Geographically, the strongest anti-gun restriction power resides in the South and the West, which is not surprising given the history of the gun in their settlement.

In fact, the passage of history raises a large impediment to understanding exactly what the Framers had in mind when they wrote the documents which created our nation. I can't imagine that Thomas Jefferson or James Madison, despite all their wisdom, could envision an assault rifle that could hold a 100-round clip and fire more than 60 shots a minute or an internet where you could somewhat anonymously purchase 6,000 rounds of ammunition.

Noted constitutional scholar and Yale professor Akhil Reed Amar agrees that elapsed time and ensuing change pose problems with Constitutional interpretations. "What makes the 2nd Amendment so slippery today is that the legal and social structure on which the amendment is built no longer exist," Amar says. "The amendment's syntax seems odd because modern readers persistently misread the words 'militia' and 'people,' imposing 20th Century assumptions on an 18th Century text."

So after his years of study, how does Amar see the issue?

"Virtually no one today is seriously arguing to take away all guns from homes. To do so would be a nightmare for anyone who cares about liberty and privacy," Amar says. "Instead, most proposals seek to regulate rather than prohibit - limiting the amount and type of ammunition, restricting the number of guns one can buy in a week, and so on."

"Requiring the registration of guns and even licenses with practical and book tests, sends some gun lovers up the wall - it is a 1st step toward confiscation they predict in dire tones. But this is hard to take seriously," he adds. "The authors of the 2nd Amendment. after all, were perfectly comfortable knowing that the government would know who had the guns - every voter - and also perfectly comfortable requring those who owned the guns to be properly trained and monitored for their use."

"Realistic gun control today may not be exactly what the Framers had in mind when they said that the armed citizenry should be well regulated. But - at least in a world that is so distant from the Founders - it's close enough," Amar notes.

OK. So that's how Amar feels. But he is only a legal scholar. What does the Supreme Court - the ultimate legal authority - have to say. Well, again we find opinion divided.

In 1990, ex-Chief Justice Warren Burger said:

"Americans also have the right to defend their homes, and we need not challenge that. Nor does anyone seriously question that the Constitution protects the right of hunters to own and keep sporting guns any more than anyone would challenge the right to keep fishing rods and other equipment for fishing - or to own automobiles. To 'keep and bear arms' for hunting today is essentially a recreational activity and not an imperative of survival as it was 200 years ago."

"Saturday night specials and machine guns are not recreational weapons and surely are as much in need of regulation as motor vehicles," Burger added.

But what about today's Supreme Court. In its last major case on the issue, the court, by a 5-4 vote, ruled against handgun laws adopted by the District of Columbia, a decision hailed by the pro-gun forces as the constitutionally correct one.

Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia stated:

"Nowhere else in the Constitution does a 'right' attributed to 'the people' refer to anything other than an individual right. This contrasts markedly with the phrase 'the militia' in the prefatory clause. The 'militia' in colonial America consisted of a subset of 'the people' - those who were male, able bodied, and within a certain age range."

"Reading the 2nd Amendment as protecting only the right to 'keep and bear arms' in an organized militia therefore fits poorly with the operative clause's description of the holder of that right as 'the people'

However, writing in dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens countered by saying:

"The Amendment's text does justify a different limitation: the 'right to keep and bear arms' protects only the right to possess and use firearms in connection with service in a state-organized militia. Had the Framers wished to expand the meaning of the phrase 'bear arms' to encompass civilian possession and use, they could have done so by the addition of the phrases such as 'for defense of themselves.'"

So with even the Supreme Court divided in its opinion, where does that leave us in our search to answer our initial question - what is the real truth of the 2nd Amendment? While an ultimate answer will prove difficult, no one should be able to stifle discussion. We need a free-ranging and vigorous examination of all the issues surrounding weapons and their improper uses. I found it unconscionable that there was a movement immediately after the Aurora killings to stifle such a debate. It's not the right time, it was said. Well, to anyone who believes that, I respond, if not now, when? Silence is not an option. That will never solve the issue of gun violence in America. Only reasonable talking followed by appropriate action can do that. Let's start now. It's a matter of life and death. 

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
We all have our own opinions on the gun issue. You have yours. I have mine. Sometimes we can articulate our ideas clearly. Sometimes, not so much. And, every so often, someone else captures exactly what we are thinking and feeling better than we ever could. That happened to me last Monday with John Stewart's segment on gun control. Click here to see what The Daily Show host had to say.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Your First Rights

With its deadly weapons and 6,000 rounds of ammunition, the tragic shooting in Aurora last week has once again left America focused on the nature of gun ownership as specified in the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution. Of course, before there was a 2nd Amendment, there was a 1st Amendment which established the rights we have as citizens to discuss and take action on controversial issues such as gun laws.

The freedoms outlined in the 1st Amendment are explored in a newly renovated exhibit at the Newseum.

One of the many stars of the exhibit is the Simpson family, those fictional cartoon residents of Springfield on the long-running Fox show The Simpsons. 

The exhibit postulates that significantly more Americans are able to identify the 5 members of the Simpson family than they are the 5 freedoms named in the 1st Amendment. According to the results of a national poll, 20 percent of Americans were able to name Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie as the Simpsons. When asked to name the 5 rights in the 1st Amendment, that number dropped to 3 percent.

Don't believe it. Give yourself a quick test. And then try that same test on your friends. OK. Now name all 5 1st Amendment freedoms. (Don't cheat. The correct answers appear below). If you do get all 5, consider yourself a Constitutional scholar of the 1st order. However, you may find more answers like those contained in the short, but thorough, video appearing on a large screen as part of the 1st Amendment exhibit. Here are some sample wrong responses:
  • "Uh, there's the freedom to ... uh ..."
  • "the pursuit of happiness?"
  • "something about guns?"
In addition to the Simpsons, the video includes words about rights from luminaries ranging from former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to rapper/actor L.L. Cool J.  Howard Stern is there as is Martin Luther King, who contends "the greatness of America is the right to protest for rights." Real life presidents like Richard Nixon share the screen with actor Martin Sheen, who portrayed a popular president in the TV series West Wing.

The 2nd part of the exhibit contains 5 large, multi-level display cabinets, each focusing on one of the freedoms. Each of the cabinets are divided into 3 sections: Origins, Pivotal Issues, and Modern Issues. For example, here are some of the contents (documents, posters, artifacts, etc.) of the Freedom of Speech cabinet:

Origins
  • Sedition Act of 1798
  • The Espionage Act of 1917
Pivotal Issues
  • the 1965 school decision to suspend 5 high school students for protesting the Vietnam War by wearing black arms with the peace sign on them. In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled that the suspensions were illegal, citing the court's belief that students "don't shed their constitutional right to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse door."
  • the attempt at banning the Kingsmen's version of the rock song "Louie Louie."  In February, 1964, an outraged parent wrote to Robert Kennedy, then the Attorney General of the United States, alleging that the lyrics of "Louie Louie" were obscene. The Federal Bureau of Investigation investigated the complaint. The FBI laboratory obtained a copy of the Kingsmen recording and, after two years of investigation, concluded that the recording could not be interpreted, that it was "unintelligible at any speed," and therefore the Bureau could not find that the recording was obscene.
Modern Issues
  • movie censorship
  • comic book policing
  • video violence
Oh, and before we conclude, here is the list of the 5 freedoms we promised.
  • freedom of religion
  • freedom of speech
  • freedom of the press
  • freedom to assemble peacefully
  • freedom to petition the government for redress of grievances
Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
One of my favorite parts of the permanent exhibit is the backing soundtrack for the video which includes snippets of many of the greatest protest songs of all time. Here are just some that are included:
  • "Fight the Powers That Be" by Public Enemy
  • "Rockin' in the Free World" by Neil Young
  • "Dirty Laundry" by Don Henley
  • "Get Up, Stand Up" by Bob Marley
  • "For What It's Worth" by Buffalo Springfield

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Farewell, Glen Campbell

Galveston, oh Galveston
I'm so afraid of dying
                               --- Glen Campbell

Glen Campbell with daughter Ashley by his side performs
When I first heard these words, I was a 17-year-old senior in high school with the spinning 45s of AM radio forming a soundtrack for the uncharted life ahead of me and Glen Campbell was in the midst of a string of hits that would make him one of the legends of modern music. Gentle or not, living, not dying, was on our minds. Dying was the province of ancient grandparents and elderly neighbors.

However, last night at the Birchmere music hall, those same words took on a much different tone. For now, I'm a 60-year-old grandfather and retiree living in D.C. And Campbell, now 76 and diagnosed with worsening Alzheimer's Disease, is in the midst of what will certainly be his final farewell tour.

Campbell's performance, the 2nd of 2 consecutive sellouts at the Birchmere, enthralled his fans who came to hear favorite hits and pay tribute to the man who made them. Despite some missed notes here and there, the crowd rose after every one of Campbell's guitar solos, clapping, cheering, and calling "we love you, Glen."

As for the hits, consider this. Campbell opened with this trio - "Gentle on My Mind," "Galveston," and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," and closed with this 3-pack - "Wichita Lineman,"  "Rhinestone Cowboy," and "Southern Nights." (To see the complete set list, click here).

At several points, Campbell made light of his malady. Encroaching age made him leave the stage in the middle of the set for an unscheduled bathroom break. But it was clear that Campbell was enjoying this chance to say goodbye. His enjoyment was heightened by the fact that 3 members of his 6-member backing band were his own children. "I'm up here playing with my kids and it doesn't get any better than that," he said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Many people believe Glen Campbell should be enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, if not on his own then as a virtuoso session guitarist. There's no doubt that some of Campbell's songs rank with the best on the music charts.  "Wichita Lineman" was named one of the greatest songs of the 20th Century by Mojo magazine. "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" has been recorded and released by artists as diverse as Isaac Hayes, Reba McIntyre, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. But before his own hits, Campbell was a session guitarist who played on some of the all-time biggies. Here are 6 that make him eligible for rock and roll hall consideration:
  • Viva Las Vegas - Elvis Presley
  • Strangers in the Night - Frank Sinatra
  • Good Vibrations - The Beach Boys
  • You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' - The Righteous Brothers
  • The Sound of Silence - Simon and Garfunkel
  • I'm a Believer - The Monkees

Monday, July 23, 2012

Jack 1939

The year is 1939. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is trying to prepare America for a war with Nazi Germany which he believes is inevitable. But, with no foreign intelligence agency, he needs a way to determine true conditions in Europe. He begins asking associates to secretly spy for him. In that same year, 22-year-old Jack Kennedy is planning a trip to Europe. Now what if Roosevelt met with the young Kennedy and recruited him for his informal spy ring?

That what if propels the plot of Francine Matthews' newest novel, Jack 1939.  Matthews, who spent 4 years as an analyst/writer for the Central Intelligence Agency, appeared at Politics and Prose yesterday to discuss her new book.

"I love 'what if moments,'" said Matthews, pointing out that Roosevelt did have his spy ring and young Kennedy did tour Europe. "There are those moments in life where events could have gone another way."

Matthews said she did extensive research for the novel to give it a feel of authenticity, pouring over Kennedy letters and government documents. She also populated the novel with real characters like J. Edgar Hoover, members of the Kennedy clan, and even one of JFK's professors.

She said the idea for the novel came to life when she ran across a picture of Kennedy as she was doing research for another book. "The photo just grabbed me," Matthews said. "It was a person I had never seen before. He was wearing mismatched clothes. He was bumming his way through Europe. He was so thin, grinning and juggling oranges. I thought 'Oh my God, he was a kid'. I think for us Kennedy is frozen in the amber of the 1960s. I really wanted to know who that kid was."

During her research, Matthews said she was struck by the massive degree of illness Kennedy faced growing up, He was forced to drop out of school on several occasions for long periods of hospitalization and convalescence. "There's certain costs to that kind of isolation when you are young," Matthews said.

But where did JFK, young spy come from? Roosevelt did ask for volunteer spies and "it occurred to me Jack Kennedy would be perfect for that," Matthews explained. "He was a risk taker who wanted to live every day with intensity and he did."

Obviously, as with all speculative historical fiction, Matthews' book contains real people and real places and is sprinkled with actual dialog taken from  records. But there are fictional people, conversations, and actions, too. But what is real and what is fiction in her book? "I think you can try to figure that out for yourself," Matthews said with a laugh. "I'm hoping some people will return to the actual record to see when it differs from what I wrote."

In the end, any novel about Europe in 1939 must include some speculation. "It's an act of imagination to visit Europe in 1939. Most of World War II Europe is gone. But I think there were these kind of losses that makes that war period interesting and energizing for a writer," she said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Jack, 1939 is Matthews' 20th novel of history, mystery, and suspense. She says she had been writing since her high school days, but her actual career came as the result of a kind of bet with her husband. She was writing analytical pieces for the CIA. "I didn't want to have to be somewhere everyday at 8 a.m. I wanted to be able to stay home and write in my sweats. I thought about Jane Austen (Matthews has written about the British author frequently). I wanted to be like her. My husband said 'OK, try a book and if you finish it and get it published, we'll see." Matthews has some advice for beginning writers. "They say write about what you know. That's crap. Write about something you want to learn about and then teach yourself to write about what you now know," she said.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Happy Birthday Nam June Paik

With Nam June Paik's massive Electronic Highway: Continental United States and Alaska and Hawaii installment piece flashing and blinking behind them, 3 associates of the famed video artist - a museum curator for media arts, a former student and now visual artist himself, and a nephew - shared background and personal stories about Paik here at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art last night.

The special program was held on the anniversary of what would have been Paik's 80th birthday. The artist, called the father of video art who is credited with coining the term "information superhighway," died in 2006.

"He was the most original thinker I ever met," said John Hanhardt, senior museum curator and a long-time friend of Paik's. "When you talked to him, you could almost see ideas being processed in front of your eyes. He was a visionary. He anticipated the internet; he anticipated our video world. He once said we would see 'TV Guide as thick as a phone book'"

Electronic Highway is one of 3 of Paik's works on permanent display at the SMoAA. Highway is a map recreating the United States made out of neon and video display monitors. It consists of 336 TVs of various sizes, 509 DVD players, 3,750 feet of cable and 575 feet of bright, multi-colored neon tubing. On the screens, videos representing Paik's takes on each of the states constantly play in differing combinations. For example, you can see skiing in Colorado and surfing in Hawaii. Or scenes from the Wizard of Oz for Kansas and Gone with the Wind for Georgia.

German artist Kota Ezawa, who describes his art as video archeology, said his time as Paik's student greatly influenced his work.

Ezawa said Paik was an uncoventional teacher. "He rejected the traditional label of teacher. He was way out there. He didn't want to tell us what to do. He wanted to start a conversation," he said.

The artist recalled one time when Paik took all his students to a casino and gave them each some money to gamble with.  "That may seem not to have much to do with art, but I think he wanted to show us that creating art is a gamble," Ezawa said.

Paik's nephew Ken Hakuta said he always jokingly referred to his uncle as "crazy."  Hakuta remembers his uncle telling his mother that she should let her son watch more TV. Hakuta also said his uncle helped him end his unsuccessful piano career. Paik used the piano that Hakuta used for practice for a taped performance. "He destroyed our piano and that was the end of my piano playing," Hakuta said.

As a teenager, Hakuta was able to visit his uncle in New York. At that timer, Paik was working with a female cellist who wore a TV bra as part of their performance art.  "She was a former homecoming queen from the University of Arkansas and my job was to help her off with her bra. Her breasts were the first breasts I ever saw and I have to thank my uncle for that," Hakuta said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Last night's program could be considered a precursor to an extensive, retrospective exhibition of Paik's works at the museum which is scheduled to open in December of this year.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Addams Family Comes to DC

When it comes to expectations, life constantly provides surprises. What we think will delight can disappoint and what we dread can instead prove delightful. Case in point: our plan last night to dress up for a nice dinner and then take in a musical at the Kennedy Center.

The dinner at Cuba Libre was my call. All week, the restaurant was offering a special menu in honor of American writer Ernest Hemingway, who spent many years living and writing in Cuba. The menu  consisted of some of Papa Hemingway's favorite Cuban dishes. The former Broadway show, The Addams Family, was Judy's choice. I was looking forward to the dinner. The musical, not so much.

The Addams Family, based on the cartoon characters originally designed by Charles Addams for The New Yorker magazine, didn't start until 7:30 p.m. so I figured that if we arrived at the restaurant by 5:15 we would have plenty of time for dinner and still make the show.


Our dinner began well. I started with the Crema Floridita (lobster veloute soup with seafood medley) and Coctel de Camarones de Golfo (fresh Gulf shrimp, poached and chilled in Nuevo Cubano cocktail salsa). Judy had the shrimp. All were quite tasty.

For my entree, I ordered Pargo Ambos Mundos (red snapper stuffed with malanga-crusted crabmeat with sweet onion sauce). Judy had a version of Cuban surf and turf (petite filet mignon with culantro bernaise and lobster rings with enchilado sauce).  We had a choise of dessert - either an Alaskan tropical or a Hemingway sorbert - which we could order later.

After finishing our appetizers, we waited for our main course. By 6:35, it still hadn't arrived. I signaled our busy waiter and explained that we had tickets to the Kennedy Center for 7:30.  He arrived with our dinner about 5 minutes later. Maybe it was the rush to eat or the fact that I had looked at my watch too many times (I didn't want Judy to think I had planned dinner this way to delay our arrival at a show she had chosen), but the entrees were way below the quality of a normal meal at Cuba Libre. I handed the waiter our credit card, told him we would be skipping dessert, and asked directly for the check. To Cuba Libre's credit, manager Tsvetomir Hristov immediately came to our table, apologized for the delay, and gave us his card which would be good for a drink and a dessert at a later time.

By means of swift walking and good luck with connections to the Metro and the free shuttle bus to the Kennedy Center, we were in our seats before the musical started. We even had time to go to the bathroom.

As the curtain opened, I was fully prepared not to like the play. (I still remembered the last play at the Kennedy Center that Judy had chosen. That was Billy Elliot and I didn't care for that at all). But during the opening number, a strange thing happened. I began really liking the production. My liking only deepened during the 1st act. The banter was timely and witty, the songs and dancing entertaining, and the themes of love, lying, and normality were presented in an interesting way. By the closing curtain,  I thought the 1st act was superior to the 2nd, but I would still give the play 2 thumbs up. The Addams family might be creepy and be kooky, mysterious and spooky, but their play performance certainly was not ookie.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
We are already scheduled to see 2 former Broadway productions at the Kennedy Center next season. Judy picked War Horse and I chose Book of Mormon. If they are up to the standard of The Addams Family, we will be fine. But I think we will go somewhere other than Cuba Libre for any pre-theater dinners.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln

When it comes to his new alternate history novel The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, best selling author and Yale law professor Stephen Carter says readers shouldn't spend time looking for moral lessons. "This book is not a message book. It is not a history book. It's a thriller. It is a novel, not an argument. It was fun to write and I hope it will be fun to read," Carter says.

Appearing at Politics and Prose to discuss his latest work, Carter said the closest his  new book comes to a message is in its exploration of the question: what lines do you cross to do what you believe is the right thing?

Obviously, as the title suggests Lincoln survives the attempt to assassinate him. Two years later, Lincoln is brought up on impeachment charges, charges that although never leveled do have a basis in history.

In order to win the Civil War, Lincoln suspended the guaranteed right of habeas corpus and allowed dissenters to be imprisoned without judicial review. He refused to abide by court orders, saying "that's their opinion, I'm going to follow my opinion." He also stifled the rights of free speech, ordering opposition newspapers to be closed and reporters jailed.

"The president was very unpopular in his time, especially among members of his own party. Just months before he ran for re-election, they were looking to get him off the ticket and run somebody else." Carter said. Much of that criticism centered around Lincoln's handling of the war and his clear disregard for the documents of the founding fathers.  Lincoln justified his actions by saying that he had to take draconian measures to win the war and preserve the Union.

Despite the title, Lincoln only appears in 6 scenes of the novel., Carter said. However, he said the president was "the hardest to craft because I admired him so."  In fact, during the course of his extensive Lincoln research, Carter came to increase that admiration. "He was faced with decisions that were impossible," Carter said. "He really underwent a remarkable evolution of his views."

Much of the book centers around the story of  21-year-old Abagail Canner, a young black graduate of Oberlin College, who wants to become a practicing lawyer and finds herself drawn into the intrigue of Lincoln's impeachment proceedings.

Carter said he created Canner because he wanted to view the Washington D. C. of the 1860s through the eyes of someone who was the ultimate outsider. "There is the story of where she could go and where she couldn't go. For example, she couldn't go on the Senate floor, not because she was black but because she was a woman," Carter said.

As for the Washington D.C. setting, Carter said he "did a lot of work to get that right," pouring over documents, accounts, and photographs. People familiar with D. C. will see similarities and differences with the contemporary city.  For example, Georgetown, today one of the most affluent sections of D.C., definitely didn't have that reputation in the 1860s. "It was so dangerous the cops wouldn't even go there," Carter said. "Civilization stopped at about 19th Street."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Carter signs Sarah's copy
Politics and Prose is one of the greatest independent book stores in America, sponsoring more than 450 free book talks from some of the country's greatest authors. Following the hour-long program which always includes questions and answers, the authors sign and personalize their works for anyone who has purchased them. Many, like Carter, appear to take a real interest in their readers, answering their questions and dispensing other information. While we were waiting for Carter to sign a copy of his book for my grandniece Sarah, we learned that Carter's next book of fiction will center around the 1960s Cuban Missile Crisis. We also learned that he had viewed the new movie Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer and, despite his initial misgivings, had enjoyed the film as entertainment.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Titanoboa

At 48 feet, it's longer than a school bus. At 2,500 pounds it's heavier than 10 professional wrestlers. Living 60 million years ago, it was able to crush and devour giant crocodiles and turtles the size of pool tables. It's the monster snake Titanaboa and it's the newest exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

The replica of the giant serpent was created after scientists discovered an actual vertebrate from the extinct snake in a Columbian coal mine in what was once a South American rain forest. 

Its closest relative living today would be the green anaconda, which can grow to almost 30 feet and weigh up to 550 pounds.

Titanoboa cerrejonensis, the proper scientific name of the snake which is thrilling visitors brave enough to visit the special exhibit, comes from combining the words titanic, boa, and the name of the mine where the fossil was found.

Scientists can't determine from the fossil if the snake now displayed was a male or a female. However, since females in the boa family are larger than males, if the replica does represent a male, it is quite possible that fossils indicating even larger snakes could be uncovered. The scientists are fairly certain they do know how the snakes reproduced. Several males would wrap around a female in a mating ball. Females then would give birth to as many as 100 snakes at a time.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Of course, we don't have to worry about titanoboas today. Unless ... Scientists say that for such large reptiles to develop the rain forests of the Paleocene epoch would have had to have been warmer than those of today. A 5 degree increase might be enough to create the 84 to 89-degree range scientists believe existed back then. But what could cause such an increase? Hey, global warming, anyone?

Monday, July 16, 2012

I Spy: Photography as Street Theater

One of Evans' shots capturing subway alienation
Most of us are familiar with the kids' game I Spy. Given the nature of that game, the National Gallery of Art has appropriately appropriated that name for their new exhibit which is officially entitled I Spy: Photography and Theater of the Street 1938-2010.

The exhibit features several series of photographs and films, some in color and some in black and white, by noted photographers taken on the streets of large cities such as New York and Chicago in attempts to capture everyday life in urban environments.

For example, Walker Evans contribution to the show is a series he created in the 1930s by hiding his camera from his subjects who were sitting across from him on New York subway cars. "Even more than in the bedroom, the guard is down and the mask is off," Evans said of the subjects of his project.

Evans captured the wide range of actions subway riders perform when no one is looking: reading, chatting, resting, staring. There is even a shot of a man serenading his fellow passengers with his accordion.

In the spring of 1980, New York's massive subway system was plagued with rampant crime, graffiti-covered trains, and dark, dank stations. Photographer Bruce Davidson set out to capture the scene.

"In this grim, abusive, violent often brutal reality of the subway, we confront our own mortality, contemplate our destiny, and experience both the beauty and the beast," Davidson said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
If you would like to spy I Spy for yourself you have until  Aug. 5 when the exhibit closes.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Books That Shaped America

The Library of Congress wants you to consider its new exhibition a starting point - the beginning of what it hopes will spark a national conversation about books and the way they have shaped our nation.

"This list is not a register of the ‘best’ American books--although many of them fit that description. Rather, it is intended to spark a national conversation on books written by Americans that have influenced our lives, whether they appear on this initial list or not," says Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. "We hope people will view the list and then nominate other titles. Finally, we hope people will choose to read and discuss some of the books on this list, reflecting our nation’s unique and extraordinary literary heritage.

Eight-eight books were chosen for the exhibition, which is titled Books That Shaped America. You can see an annotated list of the books by clicking here.

Copies of all 88 books, many of them 1st editions and all part of the Library's vast collection, are displayed in cases for viewing. You can hear people talking about the books as they wander through the exhibition, often singling out books that they first read in school and then reread many years later.

You can also learn about the history of the books. For example, I had no idea that the extremely popular children's book Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, which I first experienced in a scene from the HBO TV series The Wire, was actually written in 1947.

The books are grouped 4 or 5 to a case. You can play a fun game of trying to decide which case holds the most important or influential or interesting books. For me, that case contained 5 modern classics. They were:
  • The Cat in the Hat
  • On the Road
  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Catch-22
  • Stranger in a Strange Land
The comprehensive selection spans the entire history of the United States. The first titles are Experiments and Observations of Electricity (1751) by Benjamin Franklin and Common Sense by Thomas Paine (1776). The most recently published are And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts (1987) and The Words of Ceasar Chavez by Ceasar Chavez  (2002)

You can offer your opinions about the books on the list or suggest titles for future lists by clicking here.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Obviously, before they shape nations, books first shape the individuals who read them. It was appropriate that this post was published on June 11, as that date marked the 52nd anniversary of the publishing of To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee's classic, and, in particular her memorable character Atticus Finch, has had, and continues to have, a tremendous influence on my attempts to develop and sustain my own personal character. Consider these lines from Atticus:
  • You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view - until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.
  • The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience.
  • There's a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep 'em all away from you. That's never possible.
  •  Courage is not a man with a gun in his hand. It's knowing you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.
Some great words to live by. After 50 years of reading, re-reading, and teaching To Kill a Mockingbird, I know I am no Atticus Finch. But that doesn't mean I can't keep trying.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Where They Stand

Who is America's greatest president? George Washington? Abraham Lincoln? FDR? Who was the worst? James Buchanan? Andrew Johnson? Warren Harding? How about Richard Nixon?

If you are thinking about your answers, then you are playing what author Robert Merry calls "the great White House rating game." And last night Merry appeared at Politics and Prose to discuss his new book Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of the Voters and Historians.

Merry says his book actually resulted from a phone call from an editor at The New York Times. The editor wanted Merry to write an article about a comment President Barack Obama had made. He said "I would rather be a really good one-term president than a medicore 2-term president." Merry said his research showed that there had never really been a good one-term president. He expanded his look to see how historians and the electorate had viewed all the U.S. presidents, research which formed the basis for his new book.

There are 6 presidents who seem to consistently fall into the truly great category. They are Washington, Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Theodore Roosevelt. Merry said the 6, whom he calls "leaders of destiny," demonstrated 3 common characteristics. They all:
  • had high ratings from voters at the time they were president
  • have continually held favorable ratings from historians and
  • they understood their times and used that knowledge to send the country on a new course
Does Merry believe more presidents will eventually belong in that category? The answer is yes. The author believes that some day Ronald Reagan will be given that standing.

So if they are the best, who is believed to be the worst? That category appears to fluctuate much more during the years. The names most often bantered about have included Ulysses Grant, A. Johnson, Buchanan, and Nixon.

Merry said he thinks his book shows that American voters have done well in deciding who should run, and then continue to run, the country. "Americans have elected liberals. They have elected conservatives. The election of a president is largely a referendum on performance. They have been hiring and firing these guys in 4-year increments," Merry said.

In the end, there really are no absolute answers to "the great White House rating game." It's just fun to play, Merry said. "Unlike a horse race, there is no finish line so we can talk about this endlessly," he added.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Last night marked the 1st time that we witnessed C-Span filming a book talk at Politics and Prose in the year we have been coming here. The C-Span Book TV channel is to book lovers what ESPN is to sports lovers - everything books, all the time. You can check out the Book TV website by clicking here.  And if you happen to catch the show on Robert Merry, you can see me. I asked the 1st question of the evening. Hope they filmed my good side.

Monday, July 9, 2012

A Summer Olympics 2012 Preview

With the opening ceremonies in London little more than 2 weeks away, what can we expect from the 2012 Summer Olympics which will feature more than 10,000 athletes from 200 countries? Well, there should be titanic swimming efforts from U. S. stars Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. Then there is the expected emergence of U. S. high school swimmer Missy Franklin, the 1st woman ever entered in 7 Olympic swimming events. On the international front, China and the U.S. will be locked in a struggle for medal supremacy, especially in gymnastics..

Oscar Pistorius
But, according to USA Today sports columnist and TV commentator Christine Brennan, who will be covering her 15th straight Olympics counting both summer and winter games, the story with the most impact might focus around South African runner Oscar Pistorius.  Pistorius embodies a phenomenal human interest story. Born without fibulas, he had to have both his legs amputated when he was 11 months old. Eventually, the legs were replaced with carbon fiber prosthetic devices, garnering him the nickname "Blade Runner," getting him placed on the South African Olympic team, and propelling him into an international controversy.

Brennan, who appeared at an Inside Media event at the Newseum yesterday to discuss the upcoming Olympics, said that Pistorius' "j-shaped cheetah legs" have prompted a long look into just what constitutes artificial athletic enhancement and raises new questions about the role of science and technology in sports. "People worry - is this going to be a precedent setter?" Brennan said.

But Brennan is convinced Pistorius, who she has written about, should be allowed to compete and credits South Africa with naming him to their squad. "This is a tragedy that has turned into something beautiful and inspiring," Brennan said. "He (Pistorius) is not going to win. There are 56 times better in the world this year than his. But think of the message this is sending. Think of all the people who have physical issues and they will watch this man and will be feeling different the next day."

Brennan said it is the relative purity of the Olympics that places it in its special position in the sports hierarchy. "Are there jerks in the Olympics? Of course there are," she noted. "But most of the athletes are doing it (competing) for the right reasons."

Another factor is the concentrated "lifetime" of Olympians. "For 2 weeks, they come into our lives and then they are gone and they never come back," Brennan said. "It's not like with the pros. We all say 'I'm done with this guy or I've had it with that guy.' These (Olympic) athletes never overstay their welcome."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Brennan at the 2008 Olympics in Bejing
During the question and answer portion of the program, Brennan was asked about the process of how sports are selected, and in some cases deselected, as Olympic events. "It's as haphazard as you can imagine" she said. "Whatever your worst nightmare is, that is what it is." As an example, she cited baseball and softball, which are no longer Olympic sports. Since both sports are recognized as American, part of the answer lies in anti-American feelings on the part of Olympic officials. "They love the corporate dollars, they love the TV audience, but they don't necessarily love us," Brennan said. She said the dropping of softball, an all female sport, borders on the idiotic considering the Olympic Committee is trying to obtain an equal number of male and female competitors. (This year the percentage will be 58% male, 42% female.) So why was softball dropped. "This is how dumb it is," Brennan responded. "They (the voting officials) got all confused because they don't know anything about baseball and thought softball was the same thing. The last amateurs in sports are the people running it."

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Story Behind Political Cartooning

Politico cartoonist Matt Wuerker, who won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartoons,  has a theory about people, presidents, and political cartoons. It goes like this. When presidents first get elected, they are given a honeymoon period by the cartoonists who will spend the next 4 (and, in some cases, 8) years drawing them. At first, all the new presidents look like strong-jawed, young John Kennedys. But quickly, the exaggerations creep in. It may be the ears. Or the eyes. Or the nose. Cartoonists study fellow cartoonists. Soon, a consensus develops about how the president should look, a consensus that becomes embedded in the popular mind.

With pen in his left hand and plain white drawing paper on an easel in front of him, Wuerker, who appeared at the Newseum yesterday to discuss his art, tested his theory on the crowd that had come to hear him. In less than 4 seconds and with only a few strokes, the audience correctly identified Bill Clinton. George W. Bush took slightly longer. It was about 6 seconds until it was obvious that Wuerker was sketching Barack Obama.

"Isn't that weird," he said, pointing to the few strokes he had made on the paper. "You get from here to Barack Obama. But we've all been trained, right?"

A Sample of Wuerker's Work


Wuerker said simple pictures of cartoons do seem to have a deep effect on people, often more than the word-filled news stories, columns, and editorials that surround them. He said that may have something to do with the primal  power of the visual. Contending that cave painters were really the first cartoonists, he said "what I do today is not that much different than those guys."

He added that good political cartoons might also benefit from their simplicity. "People can get these really fast," he said. "It doesn't require a lot of reading."

The cartoonist, who has been working in the field for 25 years and describes himself as old school, said he is concerned about a modern media that seems to be providing "a lot of heat and not much light."

"I sort of miss the old days of Walter Cronkite. The shouting and the noise (in political rhetoric and on the internet and cable news) has completely overshadowed the calm, the cool, and the rationale," Wuerker said. "When people go to the circus, they want to see the freak show and that seems to be working really well right now with news."

Wuerker displayed several of his creations, including one entitled Ye Olde Fearmongering Shoppe, which poked fun at "a media driven by fear and anxiety."

There are hot button topics that Wuerker said he knows will draw response from viewers such as Israel, abortion, and Pentagon spending. Weurker said changes in technology have made it easy for readers and viewers to reply to what they object to. "When I started (with the administration of Jimmy Carter) you had to type out a letter, then get a stamp, and then mail it. Now, with the internet, comments are fast and furious," he said.

Wuerker said although his final product is visual, much of his time is spent reading widely to determine both his subject and his approach. "I have a noon deadline and panic starts to set in around 10:30," he noted.  He added that, like all cartoonists, he would like to create work that would last, but sometimes it's better to try "to put your finger on the thing that everyone is thinking about that day. Often, it's a subconscious process."

Even as a youngster, Wuerker enjoyed cartoons and cartooning. He began editorial cartooning in 7th grade with some really rudimentary offerings. "One of the best things about getting the Pulitzer is that I got a letter from my 8th grade journalism teacher," Wuerker said.

A self-described liberal, Wuerker said that he is expected to take a stand in his work. "I don't need to be fair and balanced. I have a point of view and my cartoons are when I get to express it," he said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Of course, Wuerker was asked as a cartoonist if he hoped Obama or GOP challenger Mitt Romney would win in November. He declined to answer. "It's strange," he said. "There's what's good for the country and then there is what's good for the cartoonist. Let's say if Newt Gingrich had been elected, the next 4 years would have been really easy."

At the Beach

An Italian beach scene
When oppressive heat waves like we have been experiencing strike, thoughts often turn to the refreshing breezes and cool waters of the ocean. Well, if you can't get to the shore, the Corcoran Gallery of Art is providing a vicarious day at the beach with its new exhibition The Deep Element: Photography at the Beach.

Featuring more than 40 works, the show includes both color and black and white photos from the 19th Century until today.

The exhibit takes its title from a poem about the complex nature of the ocean by Adrienne Rich:
The sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone to turn my body
without force
in the deep element.

There are shots from many of America's most famous beaches - Coney Island, Venice Beach, Key West, Palm Beach, Martha's Vineyard. Europe is represented with beach scenes from England, France, and Italy. Noted artists such as Andy Warhol and Gordon Parks have contributions.

Swimwear gets revealing
Most all the favorite beach activities are pictured. Sun bathing, sand burying, surfing. The photos can also serve as pop history lessons. You can see the evolution of beachwear over the years. In a photo of a snack stand at Manhattan Beach, food prices stood out. Don't think you can find a hamburger for 90 cents or a soda for 30 cents today. As former residents of South Jersey, a shot of a crowded 8th Street beach in Ocean City propelled us back to happy summers spent in that seaside resort.

But the exhibit also featured several shots capturing the natural beauty and majesty of the ocean and its beaches even when humans aren't present. One such work was the mist shrouded crags of Torbjen Rodland in Norway. Another was a large work of 3 photos by Rentae Allen, who has been picturing the same single site of the coast of Long Island for years.

"The ocean is a point of reflection and meditation ... We, as spectators, on the scene are here, yet we are able to project ourselves somewhere else," Allen writes.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
The Beach Bumz blast Barbara Ann
Normally, the Corcoran charges an admission fee, but in the summer the gallery is free on Saturdays. The institution also schedules special programs for its Summer Saturday series. Yesterday, the band Beach Bumz performed sets of Beach Boys classics which definitely added to the experience as we viewed the beach scenes as a creative way to escape the 105 degree temperatures outside.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Sister Corita: Love in the Heart, Love in the Art

Peace. Love. Understanding. These were the words that formed the theological trinity behind the actions undertaken as a nun by Sister Corita. The same verbal trio appeared as a driving force in her 1960s and 70s art.  And ironically, given the teachings of Jesus, they were also the words that forced Sister Corita to renounce her vows and continue her art as Corita Kent.

Sister Corita's art is the focus of the exhibition R(ad)ical Love: Sister Mary Corita at the National Museum of Women in the Arts., which features silk-screen prints she made from 1963 to 1967.

Best known for adopting designs from advertisements and refocusing them to create her vibrant, colorful work, Sister Corita's works are similar to those pop pieces created by her contemporary Andy Warhol. But where Warhol's work was cynically worldly, Sister Corita's took on a spiritual dimension. Much of her work centered around 2 of the hottest topics of the time, the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. In her art, she called repeatedly for love, justice, and generosity.




In 1964, she created a piece "The Juiciest Tomato of Them All," which she said could be used to describe Mother Mary. Certain conservative Catholic Church officials began calling her work too flippant, controversial, and in some cases, even dangerous.  Four years later, she left the California order and moved to Boston, but continued to make her socially activist posters.

Some of the works contained in the exhibition show how she upended popular advertising slogans of the time. For example, one heralds that "Love Is Here to Stay and That Is Enough to Be a Tiger in Your Tank." Others show her political side. In one, she combines a front page of The Los Angeles  Times about the Watts Riots with the text of a sermon by Rev. Maurice Ouellet which begins: :"The  body of Christ is no more comfortable now than when it was hung from the cross" to create a powerful indictment of the state of race relations.

In the late 1960s, her colors and word forms previewed what would become the psychedelic concert poster art forms of the Fillmore West, the Fillmore East, and other rock venues.

Corita Kent died in 1986. Her work is still being carried on by the Corita Art Center in Hollywood.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Controversies between socially activist nuns and more conservative Catholic Church male leaders are nothing new. Melinda Henneberger, author of the She the People column in The Washington Post recently discussed Sister Corita's stands in light of last month's Nuns on the Bus campaign. To read the column, click here. You can learn more about Nuns on the Bus by viewing this video clip from The Colbert Nation.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

In Vibrant Color

Louis Armstrong
Today, with our glossy magazines, large HD TV screens, and high-resolution iPhones and iPads, we are used to seeing our celebrities in full color. But, of course, this wasn't always the case. In the mid-1930s, most people had never encountered a color photograph, much less a color film. Harry Warnecke changed that with his revolutionary photographs for The New York Daily News,  New York’s first tabloid. The Sunday paper featured Warnecke’s brilliantly colored prints of beloved celebrities as they had never been seen before.

Now, 24 of these photographs from the 1930s and ’40s line the walls of the National Portrait Gallery, creating an exhibit entitled In Vibrant Color: Vintage Celebrity Portraits from the Harry Warnecke Studio, which is running until Sept. 9

Lucille Ball
You can see Lucille Ball's blazing red hair. And speaking of red, you can see that famed Boston Red Sox hitter Ted Williams actually did wear red socks. Ball and Williams are joined by many other of the biggest stars of the era. General George Patton is there. Laurel and Hardy are there. There is even a young Orson Welles.


Cowboys (and cowgirls) are often thought of in terms of white (hats) and black (hats).  And a more colorful wild west is represented in the show with full-color portraits of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Dale Evans.


At first, the exhibition can be somewhat unsettling to those who grew up in the black and white only American times. The celebrities just don't look right.The best way to describe the effect is the sensory contrast between the opening black and white scenes of The Wizard of Oz with the burst of color that explodes on screen when Dorothy and her home plummet to Munchkin Land. For the record, that film debuted in 1939 and ushered in the color era. By the mid 1960s, almost all the rainbows were in color.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Two of our nation's greatest newspapers are The New York Times and The Washington Post. Both battle for journalistic supremacy and often cover the same events in DC. Here you can compare the 2 papers coverage of In Vibrant Color. Click here to see The Times review of the exhibition. Click here to check out The Post review.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Burger Battle Bash

It was about 20 minutes until the competition started. The competitors were spread throughout the room. TV crews and reporters were everywhere. The Mouth of the South, doing his best to live up to his nickname, was delivering a lively interview to a female Japanese news team. The shining symbol of his last victory was draped over one shoulder like a championship wrestling belt.

Outside, in the near 100 degree heat, the competition arena was being carefully prepared. Eight small glasses of water were placed near each of the 13 large, white name cards.  Red and blue balloons fluttered in the slight wind. The super-heated crowd swelled, finding the best place to watch their favorites. With about 8 minutes to go, the final filled aluminum trays were brought out and placed on the tables. This was brash. This was big. This was the annual Independence Burger Eating Championship, sponsored by Z-Burger and this year being held at the Z-Burger in Washington DC's Tenleytown section.
Furious Pete wolfs down a burger bite as The Mouth of the South, on left in overalls, watches.

Most of the cameras and the largest section of the crowd was directly in front of the center table where 24-year-old Pete "Furious Pete" Czerwinski from Ontario, Canada, would be trying to win the DC national burger competition for the 4th consecutive year. Czerwinski had finished first in more than 50 eating competitions around the world, including the Pizza Eating Championship in Rome Italy. He was also famed for eating a 72-oz steak in 7 minutes.

Next to him was his stiffest competition and the best American hope to capture the DC crown. That seat belonged to Dale "Mouth of the South" Boone, a 300-pound, 41-year-old competitor from Atlanta, Georgia. Boone had starred in the made-for-TV movie Gutbusters in Alaska. He had also appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Weakest Link and about half a dozen other shows. Boone, who has been competing as a professional competitive eater for 11 years, had finished 2nd to Czerwinski for the past 3 years. Many in the largely American crowd hoped this was Boone's year to bring that title back across the border.

The basic rules of the competition were simple. The winner would be the eater who could devour the most plain hamburgers and their buns in 10 minutes. All must completely finish a hamburger before they could start on the next one. The eaters could use or drink the water at their tables, but they would not be permitted to regurgitate any of the food back into the cup and then re-eat it.

Most of the enthusiastic crowd was prepared to witness serious eating. But several members of PETA circulated around the grounds, passing out literature urging spectators to go vegetarian or vegan.

With rousing sports-arena music blaring in the background, Metro DC DJ Jarrod Wronski took to the mike, employing his best ring announcer's voice to introduce the one female and 12 male competitors. Once seated,  they finished their last pre-task, unwrapping the 20 hamburgers in the tray. Behind each competitor stood a specially-chosen female wearing a tight red top and extremely short black shorts. These girls would hold up numbered cards as their competitor completely consumed each hamburger. That way the crowd could keep an unofficial tally of results.

"Crowd are you ready?" Wronski shouted. "Competitors are you ready? OK, begin."

Watching this contest revealed several different styles. Some of the competitors stood. Some sat. Some altered positions. Some drank sips of water before they ate bites. Others after. Some dunked the hamburger in the water and then ate. But for all, the eating was fast and the eating was frenzied.

With the song parody "Eat It" by Weird Al Yankovic as background, the contest approached the half-way point. "With 5 minutes to go, it's 9 for Furious Pete with the Mouth of the South at 7," Wronski explained, before exhorting the crowd to unleash an "Eat, eat, eat" chant.

"There's 1 minute remaining. Go, go, go, go," Wronski said, the crowd picking up his chant and the song shifting to Bruce Springsteen's "Hungry Heart." "Let's count it down. 10 ... 9 ... 8 ... 7 ...6 ..."
At 1, the competitors dropped any bits of uneaten burger to the table. However, the contest was not concluded. In order to be eligible for cash, prizes, and the title, the competitors had to refrain from throwing up for 2 full minutes.

Several minutes later, Wronski began announcing the top 5 finishers. With only numbers 2 and 1 to go, neither Boone's nor Czerwinski's name had been called.  "At number 2, with 13 burgers eaten it's Dale 'Mouth of the South' Boone," Wronski exclaimed. "And our winner, with 15 hamburgers, once again it's Furious Pete Czerwinski."

Wronski brought Boone to the mike. "Will you be back next year?" he asked.

"Of course," Boone responded.

Then it was the champion's turn. He said it felt "awesome" to win the DC title for the 4th time. He, too, pledged to return to defend the title. He finished by saying that he would be competing in a New York City July 4th eating competition the next day. "But right now, I don't want to think about food until tomorrow," he said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
As part of the Independence Day holiday promotion, Z-Burger offered a free burger, fries, and drink to everyone who witnessed the competition. As we stood in line for our free food, I noticed last-place competitor, 23-year-old Washingtonian Mark Rosenberg, joining a large group of his friends who had come out to support him. "The meat was so dry, so dry and I stink," Rosenberg, who finished only 2 hamburgers said. "But you had the most friends here," one of 2 females in the group said. "You know, you're right," Rosenberg replied. "I would much prefer that to any title." Now what was that about winning that Vince Lombardi supposedly said? Of course, he was talking about pro football, not professional eating.

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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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