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Sunday, October 28, 2012

13 Days to the Destruction That Wasn't

 In October, 1962, artist Judy Jashinsky was a freshman in high school. Her social studies teacher was one of her favorite instructors. She made her students check the newspaper everyday and also read The Weekly Reader. In the Reader, Jashinsky remembers the color red spreading across the surface of the Earth. America was in a Cold War against the real red Communists of Russia, whom it believed were on the march to take over the world. Fearing the worst, her school, like most others across the country, had been regularly holding drills in a "duck and cover" routine.  On October 22, President John Kennedy went on national TV, telling Americans in a chilling 17-minute speech that the Russians had installed nuclear missiles on the tiny  island of Cuba, just 90 miles off the Florida coast. Launching those missiles would bring destruction to America. It could also start a worldwide Armageddon. Kennedy was clear. The Russians had to dismantle the missiles or face the consequences. As the world held its collective breath, the president and his Soviet counterpart Nikita Khruschev frantically worked to come up with a solution to avoid taking the 1st step to the end of the world.

Back in Wisconsin, the teenage Jashinsky had her own thoughts. "I had seen the images of nuclear bombs and knew there was no way that we could be safe," she says. "But my mother would reassure my brothers and me that there was no reason to attack our small Wisconsin town. Little did we know that an Air Force base called Volk Field near us was under alert on Friday, Oct. 26. An alarm had been transmitted and pilots were preparing for a Russian attack. The F-106 planes were fully armed nuclear interceptors. But the alarm proved false. However, communications were so primitive that a jeep had to race down the runway to stop the first plane after receiving the message to cancel the sabotage alert."

Jashinsky, like so many others who lived through that terrifying month, never forgot her deep fears. This year, the 50th commemoration of the crisis,  Jashinsky decided to put together a creative exhibition entitled 13 Days + 13 Nights, 1962: The Cuban Missile Crisis which is now on display at the Civilian Arts Project Gallery in downtown DC.

The centerpiece of the show is a small TV set, painted in a bright mint green that was so popular in the 60s. On the screen is displayed a movie created by Jashinsky that captures the essence of each of the 13 days of the crisis. She mixes historical footage with snippets of TV shows and commercials. In a word, the juxtaposition of the cheerful images of time with the dramatic news footage is chilling.

On one wall, Jashinsky has displayed paintings of prominent scenes and people from the crisis including Kennedy, Khruschev and Cuban leader Fidel Castro. On another wall, she has hung likenesses of both famous and regular people coupled with their thoughts on those 13 days. Finally, a 3rd wall features a Cuban sea and 13 phases of the moon, each phase representing one day of the crisis. The moon imagery also appears in her film.

But perhaps the dominating feature of the exhibit is the steadily ticking clock sound which is part of the movie soundtrack. It reminds us that while the Cuban Missile Crisis ended well, time moves on and we still live in a world of hatred and war. In 1962, the countdown was silenced. But the ticking could resume at any time. And if it ever begins again, we can only hope that the outcome is the same. Any other outcome could leave us with no one alive to hear the ticking.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Like Jashinsky, I lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was 10 at the time and in 4th grade. I don't recall all of Kennedy's speech, but I knew from the tone and what I had previously read and seen on TV that the situation was ominous.  Now, I really don't think I could fully understand death. What 10-year-old can? But even then I was aware that the silly drills we were going though to supposedly protect us were meaningless. We practiced 2 types. In one, we marched single file out into the hallway away from the windows, put our arms against the walls in front of us, and placed our head on our arms. The 2nd drill made even less sense. We were asked to crawl under our wooden desks and remain there until an all-clear was sounded. My biggest concern at the time centered around my Mother and Father. They worked in a city about 15 miles from my school. I determined I wasn't going to let the world end and not be with them. So I came up with a plan. My teacher was Mrs. Dorothy Robinson. She drove an Oldsmobile. She always put her car keys in her large purse. She put her purse on the floor on the right side of  her desk. This was my plan. At the signal for any attack, I would dash from my chair, grab her keys, bolt to her car, and drive to be with my parents. Of course, there was a problem. I had never driven a car before. But I was convinced I could do it. Finally, on Oct. 26th it was reported that the Soviet Union had backed down. They would remove the missiles. For now, the world was safe. I didn't have to learn to drive during unimaginable destruction. Seven years later, I did get my license. And one year later, I found myself in college, learning academic ways to support my deep belief that peace is always better than war. I made a life-long commitment to trying to be a person of peace. I had many reasons for that decision, but none was better than this one - a wooden desk can't keep you safe and a 10-year old is way too young to drive a car.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Words That Could Have Ended the World

Tension filled the room. Fear was present, too. And it wasn't a fake fear engendered by the Halloween masks that kids would be wearing (if there still were kids and Halloween) in a few days. It was the terrifying reality that a misstep here could result in a horrifying rain of destruction that would unleash mass annihilation on an unimaginable scale.

The known facts were these. The United States was engaged in the Cold War with its adversary the Soviet Union. The Russians had been secretly placing nuclear arms on the tiny Communist island of Cuba, only 90 miles from the Florida coast. The U.S. had discovered the secret. It wanted the missile threat eliminated. President John Kennedy and his advisers gathered in a White House room. They felt they only had 4 options: (1) issue an air strike to take out the missiles (2) invade the island to take out the missiles (3) combine options 1 and 2 (4) begin a blockade of Cuba to prevent any further deliveries and order the Russians to dismantle the weapons they had already set up.

World War II hero and war hawk Gen. Curtis LeMay believed he had the answer. Use the military. Of course, there was the real risk of provoking nuclear war. But the greater danger to LeMay was appearing to be weak to the Soviets.

"This is almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich," LeMay said, trying to force the issue and knowing full well those words would nettle the president. The British had tried to reason with Hitler at the Munich conference at the beginning of World War II. Obviously, it hadn't worked. And Munich had greatly cost Kennedy's father, who had been a big proponent of that plan because he didn't believe America should get involved in a European war since it would be bad for business.

Kennedy began tapping the table with his fingers. He believed LeMay was essentially wrong. He was trying to figure out a way to make General LeMay and the other generals in the room who supported him irrelevant.  Kennedy, himself a World War II hero,  realized that he was now a nuclear president and he could no longer view war in the same way. He also was acutely aware that once armed confrontation started, he, as president, would have very little control.

Although Kennedy had initially favored some type of military intervention, he now believed the blockade and ordered removal was the only prudent way to go. While it couldn't eliminate the unleashing of a nuclear holocaust, it was the option that made that possibility least likely. After hours and hours of discussion, President Kennedy went on nationwide TV, revealed the situation to the American people, and announced his intention to blockade Cuba. While the world held its collective breath at the time, we now know how that decision turned out. The world was saved from the greatest single crisis it had ever known.

And obviously that idea of those 13 October, 1962 days on the brink of world destruction still fascinates, especially this month as we observe the 50th anniversary of what has become to be called the Cuban Missile Crisis. Last week, a distinguished panel of 3 historians and President Kennedy's daughter Caroline engaged in a program at the National Archives entitled The Fourteenth Day: JFK and the Aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The panel consisted of:
Excerpts from those tapes were played during the discussion, giving a sobering take on just how real the crisis was and how daunting the task of those trying to end it peacefully faced. Naftali said the tapes allowed historians to examine "presidential thinking in real time in one of our most dangerous moments."

"It was a lesson in leadership for business schools," Widmer said. "The conventional thinking is to make a crisp decision and stand by it. But that would have been wrong.  They were able to sort through the issue without pressure. They changed their minds. The slowness of the decision led to a much better decision."

Widmer credited Kennedy with the success. "He had a crucial ability to think like his adversary. He was creatively thinking - how can I give him (Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev) better options. He had just read The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchmann  which showed how European leaders had tumbled into World War I and he said he didn't want there to be a book entitled The Missiles of October," Widmer said.

In some ways, the historians agreed, the earlier fiasco of the Bay of Pigs Cuban invasion gave Kennedy a healthy skepticism of military advice and helped convince him to reject the military options.

But despite the fact that the world breathed much easier after the 13th day of the crisis, President Kennedy's Cuban troubles didn't end then. Although the Soviet ships had turned around, there was still a grave numbers problem. "There were 42 MRBMs, 42,000 Soviet troops, 42 airplanes that could carry nuclear bombs to America and 1 promise from Khruschev," Naftali said.

The American public didn't believe the Russians. Kennedy had to grapple with making sure that the Soviets actually followed through on their word. One way would be to continue surveillance flights. But, if he sent up planes, what if one of them was shot down? What would we do then? Where exactly should the line be drawn?

Once again, Kennedy rejected rash action. He also made certain that neither he nor any other American official gloated over the fact that they had forced the mighty Russians to back down.

In fact, the total handling of the crisis and its aftermath actually led to a strengthening of  personal ties between Kennedy and Khruschev and their 2 countries. "They realized that they had been to brink and basically had seen something that no one else had seen," Coleman said. "They had a common understanding  that they had together worked to solve the crisis."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Caroline Kennedy (by Bruce Guthrie)
Caroline Kennedy, whose voice as a tiny child could actually be heard on one of the tapes played and analyzed by the panel, introduced the night's program. "My father's time is becoming a part of history instead of a memory," Ms. Kennedy said. She said her father found studying history intriguing and engaging. "My father viewed himself as an international president in a new, televised world," she explained. "He believed he was a man for his times. He was convinced that politics was a way of solving problems and he called the nuclear test ban treaty (which came in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis) his most important accomplishment."

Friday, October 26, 2012

On Reading Your Reviews

Best-selling author Laura Lippman knows 2 things with certainty if she is appearing at a bookstore as part of a book tour. First, while she loves discussing books and her work, she won't be reading from her own writing. And, she adds emphatically, "I'm not going to come into a book store and not do some shopping."

Lippman, with the 2 books in hand she had picked up off the shelves after her arrival, appeared recently at Politics and Prose to discuss her latest offering And When She Was Good.

The author told her audience that her latest novel came from her fixation on eavesdropping, a skill she developed in her years as a Baltimore reporter. "I know it's not supposed to be polite to eavesdrop, but now, the way people talk on the phone, I feel they almost invite you into their world," Lippman said.

The idea for And When She Was Good actually began as Lippman was standing on the sidelines of a youth soccer field and overheard a discussion about a woman who "had to move away."

"That sounded so Peyton Place," Lippman said. "I asked why the woman had to move and they said divorce - she couldn't afford to live here anymore."

Lippman said she has always been intrigued by economics and jobs and money.  She began contemplating the woman who had to move away. "What (lone) woman could afford to stay in a suburb with expensive schools? She would have to have a high-paying job. And with kids, she would have to have flexible hours," she said.

Finally, Lippman created a main character for the story - Heloise Lewis. In the comfortable suburb where she lives, Heloise is a mom, the youngish widow with a forgettable job who somehow never misses a soccer game or a school play. In the state capitol, she's the redheaded lobbyist with a good cause. But in discreet hotel rooms throughout the area, she's the woman of your dreams—if you can afford her hourly fee. And now, the secret life she has carefully built is being threatened and therein lies the story.

"Money and economics. I think that's everyone's story right now. You know, if I lost this job right now, could I provide?" Lippman said.

The book became the best reviewed novel of her career. That is until a final "snarky" review in the prestigious Sunday New York Times. While not trashing the work, the reviewer found the story line wasn't believable. And this critique troubled Lippman, who was convinced similar stories (albeit without the prostitution angle) were being played out in communities across America..

"Usually, I just say about a bad review, well they really just didn't dig it," Lippman said. "I get to write all these words, so why shouldn't the (reviewer) person get the last word?" she said. "The debate in our world (of the writing business) is extremely formalized. You put out your work and then people reply to it."

But as she pondered the idea of the negative review, she couldn't let the idea go that her novel's basis might not be credible. "I still think she (the reviewer) missed something. This is basically an allegory of being a modern mother and having a son and having to support a family," Lippman said.

And being a modern mother is something that Lippman is learning about on a daily basis. She now has a daughter with her husband, David Simon, creator of the HBO TV shows The Wire and Treme.

"Everybody told me I would write differently when I had kids," she said. "It really hasn't changed how I write about children and how they wrestle with the question of good and evil, but it has changed how I write about parents," Lippman said. "It really does take a village to raise a child. I never realized how much I would rely on others. Suddenly you have this little person and you need so much help."

"But Heloise doesn't have this help. She stands alone and doesn't have anyone. That is the suspense of the novel. And that is what I think the critic missed," she concluded.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Lippman and her husband Simon were both Baltimore journalists. So who was the better reporter? Lippman is quick to answer. "There's no question it was David. He is a natural," she said. So do they help each other with their projects? Lippman joked that she used to let her husband read her novels in progress, but she got tired of seeing so many suggested changes. Well, what about David's projects - does he consult his wife? "Really, I've only made one major suggestion that appeared in The Wire. It involved the character Stringer Bell.  He was a major drug dealer, but I said he should be reading business books," she said.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Rolling with the Stones

Rock journalist Rona Elliot wants to make one thing very clear about her new enhanced E-book Never Stop: My Conversations with Rolling Stones. "It is not an expose; it's more like a love letter from a fan," Elliot says.

And Elliot was a fan of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and the rest of the Stones long before she became a noted music correspondent for MTV and The Today Show. In fact, she first saw the Stones, whose longevity has allowed them to stake claim to the title of the greatest rock and roll band in the world, in 1965 in California  She paid $5 for her ticket. On their last tour in 2006, she paid $400 for her Stones ticket. "Now that really shows you how much times have changed," Eliot says with a laugh.

With the Rolling Stones' announcement they will be playing 4 concerts (2 in London and 2 in New Jersey) to celebrate their 50th anniversary later this year, Elliot's recent appearance at the Newseum to discuss her new work was extremely timely.

The e-book is based, on large part, on interviews that Elliot conducted over the years with Jagger and Richards, who first met as British teenagers sharing a passion for American blues.

"Mick and Keith's relationship is different than whatever you think it is," Elliot said. "They're portrayed as having a tangled rivalry, but they'll go into a studio and have 3 songs by noon if Keith gets up by noon.

But there are basic differences in the ways the pair, who labeled themselves the Glimmer Twins, approach their stardom. "Keith always answers from the heart. Mick does seem to be more guarded and more wary of what people read into him. He has more of a wall," Elliot said.

But when it comes to their music, both are consummate performers. "Mick dances and practices 3 hours a day and Keith does the same thing with a guitar," Elliot said. "You can count on Mick and Keith to deliver a great performance."

Since their emergence in the early 1960s, the Stones have always challenged the Beatles for rock superiority. "But the Beatles and the Stones appeal to different body parts," Elliot said. "The Stones make you think of sex. The Beatles make you think of loftier things. But the Stones are right there with the Beatles. If you are a product of the 60s, there's the Beatles and the Stones and Bob Dylan."

Of course, the 60s are known as much for drugs as for great music. And no living musician is more associated with drug use and abuse than Richards, who a few years ago composed and released a best-selling autobiography. "The fact that Keith Richards remembers anything is amazing,"  Elliot joked. "But now he is the wise elder; the man who actually shows what rock and roll is and what rock and roll has to offer."

Rona Elliot and her new enhanced E-book
But what about people who contend that the aging Stones, all of whom are in or nearing their 70s, are too old to rock? "They don't need the money. They don't need the fame," Elliot said. "But they show us that the game isn't up if you're not 25. They prove you're not limited by a number.When people tell me 'well Mick Jagger looks like a prune' I tell them he's dancing 3 hours a day - what are you doing? The Stones serve as a reminder that we all can continue to make contributions. Long after we're dead and gone people will be listening to the Stones just like we are still listening to Mozart."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
The Stones will be busy between now and the end of 2012. In addition to the 4 scheduled concerts, they are also releasing a new documentary of their 50 years together titled Crossfire Hurricane. It will air on HBO. They will also be offering a new packaging of 50 songs, 48 hits and 2 newly recorded tunes.  You can hear the 1st of the new tunes "Doom and Gloom," the 1st single from the Stones in 7 years, by clicking here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

War Horse

Throughout history, there have been moments when a symbol of a passing age has come face to face with the embodiment of the next era. Such was the case in World War I, as sword-wielding cavalrymen on horses bravely charged death-spewing metal tanks on the muddy, bloody battlefields of France. You expect photos and films to capture the horror of that historic confrontation. But when it is depicted on the live theater stage, its poignancy is somehow heightened.

There are many powerful scenes in the current production of the Tony-award winning play War Horse at the Kennedy Center, which opened last night and will run until Nov. 11. But for me, none captured the magic and message of the play better than the brief stage-sharing moment when tank and war horse (both brought to life by brilliant designers and on-stage manipulators) met amidst the night-shattering blinding flashes and ear-splitting sounds of that most savage of man's creations, war.

It would be impossible to leave a production of War Horse without pondering 2 questions. The 1st involved stagecraft and would be some variant of  - exactly how did they do that? My wife, who is no theater critic, probably said it best when at intermission she posited: "Those horses are simply amazing." And amazing they are. To understand the process better, here is a recent article from The Washington Post outlining how the horses come to life on stage. 

But the deeper, and, to me, more important question, is why, given the inherent horror and senselessness of war, do we continue to encourage and wage it? In fact, I would go so far as to add War Horse to the impressive body of modern anti-war works such as Johnny Got His Gun (also about World War I), Catch-22, and Slaughter-House Five. 

During the play, you are confronted with all the human darkness that war exacerbates - misplaced bravado,  barbarity, violence, and wanton killing. But you also encounter those greatest human emotions - care, compassion, loyalty,and love - all best embodied in the faith-restoring relationship between young Albert and his horse Joey.

But it is not simply the relationship between Albert and Joey that lets us leave the theater with hope. There is the character of the doomed German Captain Friedrich Muller, who proves that even "the enemy" is capable of warm feelings "just like us." And then there is that scene near the end of the play when 2 "unknown" soldiers, one English and one German, try to save Joey from the barbed wire and bullets of the gruesome No Man's Land separating the filth and rat- ridden trenches. Working hard to overcome the fabricated hatred and the language between them, the pair come to realize during their horse-saving effort that working together is always a better solution than war.

In War Horse, all the true pro-life messages, magnified by some of the best staging in a major production I have witnessed, are there. Of course, as always, it is up to us to bring them to reality in what often appears to be an increasingly hostile world.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
In a way, it was ironic that we saw War Horse just one night after a presidential debate that produced the less horses, less bayonets confrontation between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. That exchange created quite a series of humor-filled postings on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media. (For the sake of full disclosure, as an Obama supporter, I have to admit that I participated in those postings) But sitting in a darkened Kennedy Center watching War Horse, it was impossible to disregard the fact that whether you are killed by a bayonet or a drone, you are just as dead and your death is just as tragic. In the 1960s, there was a slogan: "War Is Not Healthy for Children and Other Living Things." It was true then. It is true now. And if you want to fact-check that statement, don't watch a debate between 2 men who want to be Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful military nation on earth. See War Horse instead.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

I Ain't Gonna Not Use Ain't No More

It was decried as the end of civilization. It was denounced by organizations as prestigious and powerful as The New York Times and the American Bar Association. Conservatives detected it as yet another symbol of the permissiveness of society as a whole and the decline of authority. It created controversy and concerns in colleges and classrooms across the country. And just what was this threat? It was the 1961  publication of Webster's 3rd Dictionary, the so-called permissive dictionary.

But writer David Skinner believes that much of the consternation from that more formal era has proven to be unfounded. "Just because Webster's (3rd) contained the word beatnik, does not make it the beatnik dictionary," he says.

Skinner, the editor of Humanities magazine and a current contributor to The Weekly Standard, appeared recently at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research to discuss his new book The Story of Ain't: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published. 

If you were forced to choose the inclusion of one word that captured the controversy between those like dictionary editor Philip Cove who wanted to see the book be inclusive,and its detractors, who favored keeping linguistic exclusivity, it would be "ain't". Many were shocked to see the word "ain't" included in an authoritative work on words. The 1961 Webster's called ain't "a word used orally in most parts of the United States by cultivated speakers." That designation prompted many variations of newspaper headlines like "Ain't Ain't Wrong Anymore."

Skinner said Cove and his supporters firmly believed that a good dictionary must be descriptive, not prescriptive. After the release, they found themselves pitted against critics who they felt were word snobs who wanted to use the dictionary as a tool for keeping antiquated class and culture ideas.

So after his massive research for his book, where does Skinner, who works with words daily, stand? He believes that the purpose of communicating is using the proper word to best convey the meaning intended.  "A dictionary is not a bouncer, keeping people outside the ropes. New circumstances call for new words," Skinner says. "But this doesn't mean anything goes. You still have to choose."

As is clearly evident, the 20th and 21st centuries have been on a steady trajectory toward greater informality. That is true in fashion. That is true in customs. That is true in entertainment and education. And that is also true with words and speech. "I am a child of my generation and I have a weakness for well used vulgarity," Skinner said.

And since language changes both so rapidly and so greatly over time, usage rules are also getting more difficult to enforce. For example, the split infinitive. Isn't if you say "to be easily written" or "to easily be written" more a matter of style and communicative intention than absolute rule? Part of the problem is, as writer H. L. Menken noted years ago, the more common a usage error becomes, the closer it comes to acceptance.

Skinner also noted that pronunciation plays into the linguistic culture wars. Take the word aunt, which most Americans pronounce as ant. "It's hard to hear someone say aunt as "auhnnt"  without hearing Thurston Howell the 3rd (an exceedingly rich, snooty character in the old TV show Gilligan's Island which was airing right around the time of the Webster's 3rd controversy)," he said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
So what of future dictionaries? Well, Skinner believes that the trend toward increasing informality and ease of use will continue. Right now, the biggest call for English dictionaries is as basic texts for ESL (English as a Second Language). In an earlier edition of Webster's, there were 25 different ways to pronounce the word lingerie. "Today, with the ESL and the school markets, you don't need 25 ways to pronounce lingerie, you need 1 way to pronounce lingerie," Skinner said.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Armageddon Avoided

Anyone still alive today who was of age in 1962 probably has some extremely vivid memories of that frightening October 50 years ago. But no matter how scary those memories are of that period - which has come to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis - they may not reflect just how close the world as we know it came to annihilation.

"We came within a hair's breath of the destruction of the world," says Janet Lang, a professor of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo in Canada. "We look back on the Missile Crisis and it was peacefully resolved. But we didn't know at the time how it was going to turn out."

Lang and her husband James Blight, chairman of the the International Affairs department, appeared recently at the National Archives to discuss their new book The Armageddon Letters: Kennedy/Kruschev/Castro in the Cuban Missile Crisis. The authors are also responsible for an interactive website on their project which you can access by clicking here.

Blight agrees with his wife's terrifying assessment. "If you don't believe in divine intervention, this (piece of history) will really test you. We are fortunate to be here today and having this discussion," he contended. "It shows that a nuclear was is possible even if no one wants it."

The story involves 3 countries - the United States, the Soviet Union, and Cuba - and their 3 leaders at the time - John Kennedy, Nikita  Khruschev and Fidel Castro.

Blight said that while many people focus on 13 unbelievably stressful  days in October, 1962, the story actually begins 18 months earlier. Kennedy was then the new American president. He carried through with the authorization of a previously planned private attack on Cuba and its Communist leader Castro. That invasion, known as the Bay of Pigs, was an utter fiasco. However, it convinced Castro that Kennedy was intent in taking over his tiny island. And so he turned to his most powerful Communist ally, Russian Premier Khruschev. Khruschev ordered that nuclear missiles aimed at the United States be secretly installed and sent 43,000 Russians to Cuba to handle that task.

And it is really Castro and Cuba who drive the near-Armageddon tale. "Cuba's often overlooked, but it was the mouse that roared," Blight said. First, Castro was really wrong about Kennedy's intentions. Privately, the president was saying after the Bay of Pigs that he would never undertake any military operation against Cuba (even though there were many covert plots to kill Castro). And, for his part, while Khruschev wanted to back Cuba - which at the time was considered the crown jewel in the Communist empire since it was located only 90 miles from the U.S. mainland - he certainly didn't want to start a war with America.

But once America discovered the Soviet missiles, a showdown was set. In America, on Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. Kennedy delivered what Blight termed "the scariest speech that any president has ever given." Kennedy  ordered a blockade of Cuba, saying that if Soviet ships bound for the island didn't turn back and the missiles already on the island weren't removed, America would take action.

While Americans of all ages nervously awaited what would come next, low-level surveillance flights over Cuba continued. Cubans were convinced that such flights signaled an immediate American attack. In his mind, Castro was prepared for the inevitable, even if it meant possible world destruction.  He would allow Cuba to become a martyr for the socialist cause. "Cuba will matter. Cuba will make a difference," Blight said of Castro's thoughts at the time. The Russians had ordered no action taken against the planes. However, besieged by his people, Castro, after witnessing one of the ear-splitting jet flights in person, issued the  fatal order - shoot the planes down. The 43,000 Russians in Cuba were convinced that they would never return home, dying when the island "went up".

Meanwhile, in Moscow, Khruschev, when he was notified of Castro's intention, exploded. "This is insane. Castro is trying to drag us into the grave with him," he was to have said.

Finally, after days of negotiations, the Soviet ships turned around and the world breathed a collective sigh of relief. The options may have been few, but the right ones were chosen to avert a nuclear war. However, the mere fact that it didn't happened, doesn't diminish the fear that all should continue to hold, both professors maintained. "You take Kennedy out and put someone like Lyndon Johnson in and we're not here today," Lang said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Blight and Lang believe a study of the Cuban showdown has 3 major implications for today's world.

  1. Armageddon is possible. "You don't have to go to science fiction, you can just go to history," Blight says.
  2. Nuclear war is possible even if no one wants it.
  3. Big powers, for their own good, must empathize with smaller countries.
However, even if you heed these lessons, there are still inherent dangers in any nuclear showdown. "You can't prepare. There are simulations, but in real life people can crack and crumble under such pressures. You can only do something like this once," Blight says. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Barack by the Book

While many were shocked by President Barack Obama's performance in his 1st debate with his GOP challenger Mitt Romney, Obama biographer David Maraniss believes the outcome was "thoroughly predictable".

Speaking at the Newseum yesterday about the 1st of his 2-volume biography entitled Barack Obama: The Story, Maraniss said he believes there were both political and personal reasons for the president's lackluster debate presentation.

"Politically, the Obama team was playing defense. They didn't want to make any mistakes," Maraniss said. "And Obama has a natural inclination not to be confrontational. He has a certain ambivalence about (parts of) politics like sound bites. All of that didn't play that well in the 1st debate"

But Obama is also incredibly competitive. That's why Maraniss knew that Obama would be in a feisty, combative mood for the 2nd debate, which most believe he won. "So I guess the 3rd debate is the big question," Maraniss told the crowd that filled the Knight Studio to learn more about the 44th president.

Maraniss said at first he hesitated to write the Obama story. His role at the Washington Post has been to write major profiles about candidates and he had already written an acclaimed biography about former President Bill Clinton. "But the modern American political climate has become particularly toxic. I knew people would manipulate whatever I found," he said.

However, his curiosity about the private, introspective man that is Barack Obama eventually won out. "I had 2 obsessions. There was the complete randomness of Barack Obama's existence. And, given the contradictions of the world he was born into, it made it harder for him to figure himself out," Maraniss said.

Maraniss traveled more than 60,000 miles for his research, visiting and revisiting Kenya, Indonesia, Hawaii, California, New York, and Chicago, all areas that helped shape the man that Obama would become. "It was really trying to find the right people to help me get beyond the superficial and know the real story," he said.

A central theme in Obama's life was his search for personal and racial identity. In fact, Obama originally planned to call one of the 2 books he wrote Journeys in Black and White. "He was dealing with issues of race from the day he was born," Maraniss said of Obama, who had a white mother and a Kenyan father who was never part of his life. "The second half of my book deals with his search for racial identity."

Maraniss waited until he had completed all the research for his 1st volume before formally interviewing the president himself. "I always feel the more I know, the more productive an interview will be," he said.

"I knew Obama was a sports guy and I'm a sports guy," Maraniss, who has written biographies of legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi and Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Fame right fielder Roberto Clemente, said. So after an icebreaker about the Bears/Packers rivalry ("Man, those Packers were rough on me," Obama told Maraniss), the interview began. The talk came to books. "You called my book fiction," Obama said. "Actually, Mr. President, I complimented you. I called it literature," Maraniss responded.

The interview was scheduled for 45 minutes. Actually, it lasted 90 minutes. Obama appeared interested in what Maraniss had uncovered. "He'd leave periodically and say he had to check on the situation room. Then he would come back, say 'everything's cool' and we would continue," the author said.

Maraniss was asked what he thought Obama would do when his presidency ended. "I always said Bill Clinton, he'll keep running for president. And then he would try to out-Carter Jimmy Carter," Maraniss said, provoking laughter from the crowd. "With Obama, his first sensibility is as a writer. I think he will write. And I think he will teach. I talked to his (former) students and they said he was a good law teacher. He was not an ideological pedagogue."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Obviously, as someone who has spent years studying and writing about Clinton and Obama, Maraniss is considered an expert on the lives and careers of both men. He said that both embodied the American ideal of being able to overcome humble beginnings and rise to great success. "They both started in a provincial environment, Clinton in Arkansas and Obama in Hawaii. They both grew up without fathers. They both had dysfunction in their families," Maraniss noted. But each man chose to deal with his assent in very different ways. Clinton knew early on he wanted to be president. He began seeking top offices in high school. He was outgoing and loquacious. "Clinton believed in just plowing forward. He is an incredible survivor. He gets in and out of trouble. Right now, he is the most popular politician on the planet. So watch out, something will happen. You see none of that in Obama. Obama is much more introspective. He spent a lot of time trying to work himself out as a person. I think he somewhat naively thought "if I can figure out the contradictions in my life, why can't Congress."

Saturday, October 20, 2012

WWI and the Zimmermann Telegram

In 1917, Germany was embroiled with the Allies in what came to be called World War I. While engaged in fierce land and sea battles, Germany had also been quite involved in a global covert program aimed at mobilizing actions that would divert Allied attention and troops from the European battle front.

The Germans had focused on 5 areas. They were:

  • Canada, where saboteurs were recruited to blow up military supply installations
  • North Africa, where Muslims were being encouraged to declare a Jihad against the Allies
  • India, where Germans were helping Hindu nationalists in their struggle for independence against their British rulers
  • Ireland, where Germany played a role in the 1916 Irish independence uprising in Dublin
  • Russia, where Germany helped V.I. Lenin and other Communist leaders re-enter the country and create the Bolshevik Revolution
Even though most of the world had been at war for 3 years, an isolationist America had been officially neutral. But Germany was convinced that America would eventually enter the war on the Allies side and so came up with a secret plan to cripple the American military before it could became involved in Europe..

The Germans sent a coded dispatch to the Mexican government, promising to help Mexico and then return their former territories of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona if it would initiate a war with America. The dispatch came to be known as the Zimmermann Telegram after its author, Foreign Secretary of the German Empire Arthur Zimmermann.

Obviously, history reveals that the called for actions never happened, but the Zimmermann Telegram has provided historians with much study and speculation ever since it was discovered.

Recently, Thomas Boghardt, the former historian of the International Spy Museum and currently the Senior Historian for the U.S. Army Center for Military History here in D.C, appeared at the National Archives to discuss his new book The Zimmermann Telegram: Intelligence, Diplomacy, and America's Entry into World War I.

"Just like they did in other areas of the world, Germany was trying to exploit Mexican discontent," Boghardt said. "People say it (the sending of the telegram) was stupid, outlandish, and unrealistic, but it was in keeping with what Germany was doing in other places."

Ironically, the Americans were actually responsible for Mexican officials receiving the coded message since it was transferred to the American Embassy in London, then shipped to the Mexican Embassy in Washington, then finally forwarded to Mexico.

However, what the Germans didn't know was that the British were routinely intercepting and reading all incoming and outgoing American communication from the London Embassy. British espionage director William Hall ordered the Zimmermann Telegram decoded and then embarked on a complicated scheme that would allow him to divulge the contents of the message to the Americans without letting them know how he had obtained the information.

"He (Hall) was scared to death that the Americans would find out how he originally got the telegram," Boghardt said. 

The revelation of Germany's secret plans for a U.S. attack caused a quick response in the United States. Until that time, President Woodrow Wilson had been working to mediate a peace between the warring European powers, but he immediately stopped all such efforts.

"It didn't have as much impact as is often claimed. It's too simplistic to say that the Zimmermann Telegram prompted the United States to enter the war, but it certainly hastened its entry," Boghardt said. "Of course, it didn't really go anywhere and the moment it was made public, it was dead."

Boghardt said that while pro-war newspapers fanned the flames, many Americans never took the German-called-for Mexican threat seriously. "It didn't have the kind of impact as compared with Pearl Harbor or 9/11," Boghardt contended.

But Boghardt said the interception of the telegram did have much historical relevance. "It was an intelligence gathering watershed moment," he noted. Until that time, most espionage had involved flesh and blood spies. But this incident proved the value of communication interception. "It would repeat on a much larger scale during World War II and the Cold War," Boghardt explained. 

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Here is the actual wording of the intercepted telegram. "We intend to begin on the first of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The settlement in detail is left to you. You will inform the President of the above most secretly as soon as the outbreak of war with the United States of America is certain and add the suggestion that he should, on his own initiative, invite Japan to immediate adherence and at the same time mediate between Japan and ourselves. Please call the President's attention to the fact that the ruthless employment of our submarines now offers the prospect of compelling England in a few months to make peace." Signed, ZIMMERMANN." 

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Fight for Religious Liberty

Religion has always been a contentious issue in American governance. Every school child knows that the Puritans fled England to Plymouth Colony for religious freedom. But almost immediately, the Puritans banned the practice of any religion other than theirs, going so far as to banish dissenters and hang Quakers. Religious intolerance was evidenced in other areas, too. For example, in Catholic-dominated Maryland, Jews had no rights while back in Massachusetts, Catholics had to sign a pledge vowing that they were not working for the Pope.

Therefore, it's not surprising that the Founding Fathers struggled with many religious questions as they created the Constitution which would guide the new American Nation. In fact, in order to get the Constitution approved, the idea of God, church, and religion was left out of the document all together. But, the importance of the religion to America and a specific way to view it was never better demonstrated than in the adoption of the Bill of Rights, the first 10 Amendments to the country's approved laws of governing.

The words about religion were simple and they were few - 16 to be exact. But they were radical, revolutionary, and historically unprecedented. And no one can argue that their lasting impact has proven profound. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ..."

Pretty clear and simple, right? Well, not exactly, a panel of historians and First Amendment freedom experts contended last night in a wide-ranging discussion on historical and contemporary church and state issues at the Newseum.

The discussion followed the premiere presentation of a portion of the new PBS documentary First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty. The screening was sponsored by the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum.

The 3 panelists - Rice University history professor Douglas Brinkley; professor emeritus of American studies, history, and religious studies at Yale University Jon Butler; and Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project - agreed that Thomas Jefferson, who greatly feared that a state-ordered religion could exert "pernicious control and tyranny over the minds of man", should be credited with establishing the American wall of separation between the church and the state, the 1st of its kind ever created in the world. "Jefferson trusted that the truth would win out," Haynes said.

But what about our modern interpretations of such a division? "The Pledge of Allegiance. In God we trust. It's all politics," Brinkley said. "Atheists might argue, but it's almost as if we have a national belief in God. When we try denuding religion out of politics, the left and the right divide. We have become a more secular society, yet religion still matters."

Haynes and Butler concurred. "Politicians have to practice some religion," Haynes said. "We are quite a far distance from a time when having an atheist accepted as a president can happen." And, indeed, current politics supports that contention. For example, when is the last time you have heard a major political speech that didn't end with some form of the phrase "... and God bless the United States of America."

But our contemporary times do demonstrate a lessening of the importance of specific religious affiliations in many areas. For example, in 1960 John Kennedy had to alleviate concerns about electing a Catholic president by joking that he was "not that good a Catholic." Today, 6 Catholics and 3 Jews (which means no Protestants) sit on the Supreme Court. And the 2012 election - with President Obama, Mitt Romney (a Mormon) and vice presidential hopefuls Joe Biden and Paul Ryan (both Catholics) - marks the 1st time in American history than none of the candidates for the highest 2 offices in the land are white Protestants.

And in many ways, it is this decline in Protestant control that is causing much of the religious consternation, today. For the 1st time in the country's history, people calling themselves Protestants make up less than 50% of the country's population. Obviously, when Protestants dominated, their values dominated as well. But now  that is changing. "It was always assumed that the culture would reflect who we are. But now we have to rethink that. And people deeply want to hold on to a culture that they think reflects their values," Haynes said.

Brinkley pointed to another way that  despite the long-held legal separation politics and religion are mixing differently today. "For so long, Catholics were Democrats," Brinkley said. "But with Roe vs. Wade (the court case legalizing abortion) and a gay marriage, that status is changing."

Of course, the First Amendment not only prohibits the establishment of a state religion, but also calls for allowing any religion to flourish. But that too can cause problems. For example, after 9/11 a continuing wave of hatred toward American Muslims has continued to surface, most recently in Milwaukee where a lone gunmen entered a temple and killed members of the Sikh faith, mistakenly believing they were Muslims. All 3 panelists agreed that the Muslims are facing the greatest threats of any religious group in America today.

Finally, there are extremely controversial issues that seem to fall in under both the areas of state and religion. "We still have to ask - just what is religious freedom? With such things as Obama-care, contraception, and gay rights, what is one person's restrictions is believed to be another person's rights," Haynes said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
The documentary provided a perfect introduction for the engaging panel talk. It was produced by the Washington DC PBS affiliate WETA. It will be shown on that channel at 8 p.m. on Dec. 18. It will also be shown on PBS stations around the country. You can view the trailer for the documentary by clicking here.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Dancing to the Drums

With a trio of drummers pounding out a powerful, pulsating beat, the Campaigne de Danse Jean-Rene Delsoin demonstrated the dance culture of their native Haiti on the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center.

The exceptionally lithe 5-member dance troupe performed 5 dance numbers, each one portraying some connection to Haitian life and history. The final number, which forced the crowd to its collective feet, was entitled Drum Passion. During that performance, as the off-stage drum trio provided the rhythm, the 4 males and 1 female dancer alternately held their own drums high above their hands, then danced across the stage, and then balanced themselves on the percussive shells, only to resume their expressive dance again.

The dance was based on this excerpt from Haitian writer and activist Jacques Stephen Alexis: "In Haiti, all drums speak at night. One so wishes they would disappear forever, that they would croak; the sad drum, the sickly drum, the insistent and mournful drum, the drums that provoke a trance and hysteria, the drums, that beg life for mercy."

The other 5 dances were:

  • Divinely Guided - Two persons channel a force beyond their comprehension
  • Rhythms and Variations - A celebration of connections in the African Diaspora that juxtaposes Haitian, Afro-Brazilian, and African musical and dance rhythms
  • Haiti, the Second Chapter - A response to the questions Haiti, why do you wallow in this morbid dance, reeking of world's end? Two hundred years later, why not turn the page to a new chapter?
  • Gason Solid - Inspired by the music of Haitian composer Erol Josue, the dance tells the story of a shipwrecked man who finds courage and strength after a traumatic sea crossing.
Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
There is a performance at the Millennium Stage 365 days a year. The free performances begin at 6 p.m. All of the shows are filmed and placed on the Kennedy Center website for public viewing. You can see the Campaigne de Danse Jean-Rene Delsoin performance in its entirety by clicking here.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Wonderful Spirit of Woody

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking on that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
                                    -- Woody Guthrie

The incredibly powerful songs and indomitable spirit of Woody Guthrie filled the Kennedy Center this weekend as an all-star collection of musicians ranging from folk legend Ramblin' Jack Elliot, who babysat Guthrie's children, to Tom Morello, who in his current role as the musical voice of the Occupy movement perfectly embodies Guthrie's revolutionary principles, performed  3 hours of Woody songs at the special This Land Is Your Land - a Woody Guthrie Centennial Celebration Concert.

Obviously, the sold-out crowd was treated to many of Guthrie's best-known songs including "Pretty Boy Floyd," "Deportee" "1913, Massacre," "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You," "Do Re Mi," and "I Don't Have a Home (In This World Anymore)."

Guthrie, a socially committed progressive populist, has been one of the greatest influences on America's most highly regarded rock singer/songwriters. For example, even a cursory listening to Guthrie's impressive catalog demonstrates that Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen are his direct descendants.  As expected, several of the performers introduced their songs by talking about Guthrie's impact on them. British folksinger Donovan said he made certain he included Guthrie's childhood ditty "Riding in My Car (The Car Song") on his 1965 album, which he reprised for the crowd complete with several enthusiastic choruses of audience participation. John Mellencamp introduced his 2 selections as the first 2 songs he ever learned on the guitar. "Whenever they passed the guitar around, this is what I played," he said.

In his works, Guthrie frequently wrote and sang about conditions he found that didn't reflect the America he believed in. So it wasn't surprising that contemporary social commentary made several appearances at the concert. Ani DiFranco dedicated "The Jolly Banker" to "Mitt Romney, wherever you are tonight." In their version of  the bluesy "Vigilante Man" Ry Cooder and Dan Gellert included a newly written verse lamenting the senseless death of black teenager Trevor Martin at the hands of modern-day "vigilante man" George Zimmerman.

While most of the songs performed were written by Guthrie, there were some exceptions. In recent years, unpublished lyrics of Guthrie's have been discovered and, at the urging of the his family, new Guthrie songs have been created. Lucinda Williams completed a song called "House of Earth," which she debuted at the special concert. "That might be the first pro-prostitute song ever performed at the Kennedy Center," joked Guthrie's daughter, Nora.  Jackson Browne also performed an original song he had composed based on a lengthy love letter written by Guthrie. "And that just might be the longest love song ever sung at the Kennedy Center," Nora explained after Browne's rendition.

Most of the artists performed solo or with a single accompanist. However Guthrie's bluegrass roots and love of collective playing were fully explored by the Del McCoury Band and Old Crow Medicine Show. And DC's own Sweet Honey in the Rock testified that Guthrie's songs can easily fit a gospel format.

All the performers were warmly welcomed, but 2 of the most fervent receptions went to folk diva Judy Collins, who proved that at age 72 her voice is still one of the most beautiful in modern music, and Roseanne Cash, who channeled both her famous father and Guthrie in her rendition of the classic "Pretty Boy Floyd" which postulates that a man can rob with a fountain pen just as well as with a gun.

Of course, there could be no other show closer for a Guthrie concert than his great American anthem "This Land Is Your Land." All the performers crowded the huge Kennedy Center concert hall stage, swapping verses and exchanging musical licks. Fittingly, the rarely performed last verse of the song was given to Morello, who with his Rage Against the Machine and Occupy background, did Guthrie proud as he urged the mostly well-dressed crowd to sing, shout, and protest against injustice wherever it is found.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
The concert lineup was truly impressive, seemingly missing only Dylan and Springsteen, both of whom are  currently touring. Here is that lineup:

  • Jackson Browne
  • Roseanne Cash with John Leventhal
  • Judy Collins
  • Ry Cooder and Dan Gellert
  • Ani DiFranco
  • Donovan
  • Ramblin' Jack Elliot
  • Jimmy LeFave
  • Del McCoury Band with Tim O'Brien
  • John Mellencamp 
  • Tom Morello
  • Old Crow Medicine Show
  • Joel Rafael
  • Sweet Honey in the Rock
  • Tony Trischka
  • Rob Wasserman
  • Lucinda Williams
In addition, surprise guest Jeff Daniels, the star of the HBO series Newsroom. appeared to read several excerpts of Guthrie's prose writings in between musical changes. 


Sunday, October 14, 2012

Avant Music or Noise - You Decide

Medeski, Martin, and Wood
A problem with avant jazz is that it is not for everyone's taste. I was pretty sure I would be in trouble when I convinced my wife of almost 40 years to come with me to a late-night (9:30 p.m. start time) Medeski, Martin, and Wood show at the Kennedy Center. The evidence of a possible marital fiasco in the making was daunting.

  • I had just dragged my wife to a late-night Kennedy Center show featuring B-3 organ jazz virtuoso Dr. Lonnie Smith and his trio the previous Saturday, a concert which she tolerated but certainly didn't love the way I did. 
  • My wife enjoys music she knows and she knew as much about the music of MM&W as she knew about the sounds of the rarely-played Slovakian bassoon (which unfortunately, from my wife's perspective, John Medeski decided to employ at some length during the show.)
  • My wife likes songs with familiar lyrics that she can miss-sing and MM&W is exclusively instrumental (keyboards, bass, drum).
  • My wife likes music you can dance to and improvisational jazz rarely fits into that category.
  • My wife does not like jam bands and MM&W are regulars on that scene.
  • The MM&W show was coming less than 24 hours before an all-star tribute to Woody Guthrie concert at the Kennedy Center, which I had also convinced my reluctant wife to attend.
  • The MM&W show was also coming at the end of an extraordinarily busy 13-hour DC day in which we had worked 3 hours for the campaign to re-elect President Obama; attended a special program at the Newseum with long-time rock critic Rona Eliott about her new enhanced E-book celebrating the 50-year history of the Rolling Stones; gone to an engaging book talk with Laura Lippman, best-selling author and wife of The Wire creator David Simon, at Politics and Prose; and enjoyed a New Orleans po' boy with red beans and rice and sweet tea dinner at Bayou on Pennsylvania Avenue. (Translation, there was a good chance that my always energetic wife might actually be tired and she doesn't do tired well).
But despite the potential for disaster, I decided that the rewards (granted, probably only to me) were worth the risks.

But as soon as we entered the newly designed Supersized Jazz Club in the huge atrium of the terrace level of the Kennedy Center, I began to rethink that position. A young, mostly 35-year and under crowd, was milling around. They were milling because they were obviously quite social. They were milling because they wanted to see the stage setup and capture some pictures. But mostly they were milling because there were no seats, only a handful of couches in the back of the venue which had already been snapped up by the few people our age at the show.

"Wait, there are no seats?" my wife asked, giving me one of her all-time best I Can't Believe I Let You Drag Me Into Something Like This Again Faces. "You didn't tell me there weren't any seats. I've told you - I don't do standing concerts anymore. I'm 61 years old, I'm not 17 and you aren't either, even though you act like it most of the time."

I quickly adopted my often-used I'm Innocent This Time look and presented my best defense. "Hey, I didn't know there weren't any seats. I've never been here before." Which, technically was true. Although we've been to the Kennedy Center numerous times, this was the 1st time the center, whose jazz offerings are now under the curation of jazz pianist Jason Moran, was offering a Supersized Jazz Club show.

Defense exhibit 1: Wood on acoustic
Deciding I might as well take advantage of the lack-of-seating arrangements, I nudged my wife toward the stage. We were about 3 rows of people from stage-front when she stopped. "Wait, what are those?" she asked, pointing to the large bass amps and side speakers that were on the stage.

"They're amps," I said, noting the obvious.

"You said this was an acoustic concert," she replied. "Acoustic concerts don't have amps."

"Well, technically they do," I countered. "But see Medeski's 2 pianos there. They are accoustic pianos. And see Chris Wood's bass; that is acoustic. And look at Billy Martin's drum kit. There's not an electronic drum there."

I decided to press my advantage. "And it says right on the ticket An Acoustic Evening with Medeski, Martin, and Wood." I pulled my ticket from my jacket pocket and pointed to the words An Acoustic Evening with Medeski, Martin, and Wood.

My wife looked at the ticket. Then she looked at me. "I don't care. If there are speakers that big then it is not acoustic. You lied. And the Kennedy Center is lying, too." She pointed to a small space on the floor against the wall.  As she was placing the earplugs she always carries with her to any concert in both ears, she said she was going over there to sit. She told me to enjoy myself and not worry about all the people that were bound to step on her. I took her at her word and worked myself to the side of the stage where I would have the best view of John Medeski's playing.

In a matter of minutes the show started and for the next half-hour I was mesmerized as Medeski's fingers flew across the piano, his left hand playing unbelievably magic full chords while his right hand soloed over all 88 keys. The show started with an incredibly unique 11-minute version of the old Elvis Presley hit "Suspicious Minds." Wood plucked his base, exhorting it to new lows and highs. Martin provided the tie-together rhythm that allowed me to join the crowd in a kind of ultra-hip jazz sway. 

About a third of the way through the set, I felt my wife at my side. "There's some seats in the back. I'm going back there. Enjoy your show." I nodded acknowledgement and returned my gaze to the stage. I worked my way to the other side to get a different perspective. At the one-hour mark, I remembered my wife. I left my prized position and headed toward the back of the venue. I sat down on the empty couch seat next to her. 

"Listen, we can go if you want," I said.  

"No, it's alright we can stay," she said. "But this isn't an acoustic concert. I have a ringing in my ears and my chest hurts from the bass. I wouldn't have that if this were an acoustic concert. But hey, we can stay."

Medeski on mouth keyboard
"OK," I said, jumping up to again move closer for a better view. Medeski, Martin, and Wood, for the 1st time that night, had embarked on a psychedelic musical journey. Medeski was playing some sort of mouth instrument that was producing the alternating sounds of  a cat being strangled and a high-pitched bird squawking its last breath. Actually, I was kind of digging the fact that such a soul-jarring sound could actually make something that resembled music. But then I thought of my wife. And her earplugs. And the fact that if there is anything that she hates more than jam jazzing, it is psychedelic jam jazzing. I returned to the sofa and bent down close to her ear. "We can go. There's only 15 more minutes. I know you don't like this," I said.

Outside in the hallway, my wife told me she only had one thing to say. "That was not an acoustic concert. I don't care what you say. I don't care what the the Kennedy Center says. I'm never believing you again."

I turned my face so she wouldn't see my smile. I had taken my wife to a late-night show so I could hear Medeski, Martin, and Wood. And I had survived. I was golden. Or at least I was golden until 7:30 p.m. and the start of the Woody Guthrie tribute. You see, I had forgotten to ask my wife how she feels about banjos and hillbilly yodeling. 

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Apparently Judy wasn't the only person who wouldn't put this Medeski, Martin, and Wood show at the top of their favorite list. As we were waiting for the shuttle bus to take us back to the Foggy Bottom Metro, we were joined by a younger couple. The young man, seemingly in his late 20s or early 30s, smiled. "Did that sound get to you too? I like Medeski, Martin, and Wood, but that was a bit much. I kept seeing a crazed, dying cat." We struck up a conversation about music that ranged from Bob Dylan to Neil Diamond. He told us they were also going to the Woody Guthrie tribute. He promised my wife that there wouldn't be any crazed, dying cats there, just a lineup of musical all-stars like Guthrie's son Arlo and Jackson Browne, Rosanne Cash, John Mellencamp, Donovan, and Judy Collins. I hope he is right. Two nights of crazed, dying cat sounds might be a little much for even me. And then there would be the mess and cost of that divorce. So let's hear it for this land is your land, this land is my land. And please leave any crazed dying cats home. Woody didn't say anything about it being their land, too.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Jekyll and Hyde

Alex Mills on stage as Jekyll and on screen as Hyde.
It is a story as old as man himself. The battle between the duality of our nature - good versus evil. And few tales have captured that contest better than Robert Louis Stevenson's cautionary classic The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which the always innovative, always brilliant Synetic Theater has used as the basis for their latest production Jekyll and Hyde.

In Synetic's version, it is technology that brings out the evil side of the good scientist Jekyll.

"As a people, as a nation, even as a species, technology is in our bones, our blood, our minds, our very bodies. It has become more than just a convenience; it is something we can no longer live without," writes Synetic founding artistic director Paata Tsikurishvili in the program notes. "This process has become vital - sometimes dangerously so - to our comfort, security, health, defense, superiority - indeed to our very existence

"The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a perfect reflection of this condition. In his attempts to perfect himself by filtering all evil from his psyche, Jekyll ironically and unwittingly unleashes chaos - an agent of pure evil - onto the world. He has become one with his technological achievements, and like many of us today, is unavoidably linked to all their consequences, both the positive and the horribly negative," Tsikurishvili  adds.

There is so much to commend in the Synetic's retelling that it is difficult to know where to begin. First, there is the star, Alex Mills, who is mesmerizing as he contorts his body into almost unnatural positions as he undergoes his transformations on stage. As is only fitting in a play about the dangers of technology, Mills shares his billing with a contraption containing a giant screen with several smaller screens attached. With its ominous green lighting and its faded black and white images, the machine allows Mills to be on stage simultaneously as both Jekyll and Hyde and eventually serves as a prison for the lost goodness that was Jekyll.
The performance is done in a steampunk style which lets it recall the original Victorian setting of Stevenson's work while suggesting some Apocalyptic-like future. Indeed, in his mad-scientist laboratory, Jekyll is joined by 6 gas-mask wearing creatures resembling nothing so much as denizens of a futuristic dystopia like that portrayed in films such as Mad Max and The Road Warrior.

Jekyll's transformation to a creature of pure evil is hastened by his unwilling visit to a strip club urged on him by his cigar smoking best friend Lanyon. While Jekyll initially helps save a stripper from an attacker, he eventually succumbs to his evil impulses, brutally murders the stripper ( in a reflection of the Jekyll/Hyde duality played both provocatively and innocently by Rebecca Hausman), and turns into the all-evil Hyde.

As is usual for a Synetic production, the performance is wordless, the dancing is extraordinary, and the death count is high. The company uses body movement, acrobatics, facial expressions, dance, film, and music to tell its tale. And, as is also always usual for the highly awarded company, those elements blend in near perfection to provide a night of highly entertaining, thought-provoking theater. Once again - kudos all around.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Washington has much to commend when it comes to theater. There is the Kennedy Center, the Arena Stage, the Woolly Mammoth Company, the Taffety Punk group, etc. But our favorite is Synetic. Now granted, part of the attraction may lie in the fact that the theater is located in the Crystal City underground, which we jokingly refer to as our basement since, as residents of Crystal Plaza, we never have to go outside to attend a performance. However, despite the convenience, it is the quality of performances that has made us subscribers. If you haven't attended a unique, groundbreaking Synetic performance, you should. Here's the upcoming dates:

  • A Trip to the Moon - Dec. 6 to Jan. 6
  • The Tempest - Feb. 21 to March 24
  • The Three Musketeers - May 9 to Jun 9.

The Legacy of the Occupy Movement

You won't find the members of the Occupy movement camped out in America's cities this fall, but you can explore the legacy of the protesters by visiting the Occupy This! exhibition at the Katzen Art Center Museum at American University.

The exhibition, designed to consider the causes, actions, and representatives of the Occupy phenomena, contains more than 100 pictures, signs, and historical documents from the movement which a year ago had camps in more than 600 communities across the country.

"The exhibit tells us something about what the Occupy movement looked like at the end of 2011," guest curator Alison Nordstrom writes. "It may also help us visualize - to literally put a face on - issues of war, student debt, foreclosure, economic inequality, and corporate greed."

"The exhibition is intended to raise questions about Occupy past, present, and future, but also to consider the issues that inspired the movement," Nordstrom added.

As was so often the case in the Occupy camps, the featured site in the exhibit is a re-creation of an actual People's Library, with signs encouraging visitors to make and display their own protest signs, send grievances to government officials on postage-paid cards, and take any book from the carefully organized collection.

Videos also help tell the story. In one scene, Occupy protesters try to drown out GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney by shouting "Corporations are not people; we are people. Corporations are not the people; we are the people."

The dramatic pictures were set up in themes equally divided between shots of the protesters and scenes of conditions they were protesting. One of the most disturbing sections was a series of pictures of the poverty encountered in rural Troy, New York. In one shot, an exhausted  mother with a Hess Express work uniform shirt on falls asleep at her kitchen table, while one of her young children washes the dishes and 2 others share a bowl of ice cream. In another, an unsupervised 2-year-old in a diaper stands on a chair, a candy bar in one hand and a large bottle of soda in the other.

A  portion of the exhibit contained visual representations of other major protests in the United States to place the Occupy movement into a historical context.

While each Occupy site had a different focus, they generally agreed on these demands:
  •  a reduction of the influence of corporations on politics
  • a more balanced distribution of income between the 1% with extreme wealth and the remaining 99%
  • bank reform
  • an end to home foreclosures
  • forgiveness of student loan
Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
If you want to catch the Occupy This show, you will have to hurry. It closes Oct. 21.

Friday, October 12, 2012

In the Steps of John Cage

For a composer, especially one as innovative and avant garde as John Cage, the release of a new piece of music for performance produces a dilemma. While the composer is grateful for the public to hear his work, he is concerned about compositional fidelity.

In October of 1963, Cage wrote a letter to famed conductor and composer of the score for the musical West Side Story Leonard Bernstein, pleading with Bernstein to reconsider his plan to have the New York Philharmonic employ free-form musical improvisation in a unique work he had created.

"Since as far as I know you are not dedicated in your own work to improvisation, I can only imagine that your plan is to comment on our work," Cage wrote. "Our music is still little understood and your audience, for the most part, will be hearing it for the first time."

"It would be best if they could do so without being prejudiced," Cage added.

The letter to Bernstein was just one of dozens of typed letters, carefully hand-written notes, and actual music scores included in the exhibition John Cage's Steps: A Composition for A Painting, Selected Watercolors, and Ephemera now on display at the Katzen Art Center Museum at American University.

As the title implies, the central part of the exhibition is visual art, in particular 5 enormous watercolor works resulting from Cage's Steps project. Based on Cage's ideas, dancers under the direction of  noted dance instructor and long-time Cage collaborator Merce Cunningham, used their black paint covered feet to create the works on huge sheets of rag paper.

A film at the exhibition details the process of Cunningham directing his dance troupe's varied movements. At different points, Cunningham orders his dancers to stay on the balls and toes of their feet, move faster, move slower, dash corner to corner, or stay closer to the edge.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
If you want to see the Cage exhibition, the last in a 2-month series of displays in the D.C.area in honor of Cage's 100th anniversary, you will have to hurry. The exhibition closes on Oct. 21.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Is It Now the Best Election Money Can Buy?

Trevor Potter advises his SuperPac client Stephen Colbert
Trevor Potter has been called by the American Bar Association "hands-down one of the top lawyers in the country on the delicate intersection of politics, law and money".  He has served as chairman of the Federal Election Commission and twice as general counsel to GOP presidential candidate John McCain. But today he is probably best known as the legal adviser to TV political satirist Stephen Colbert and Colbert's SuperPac Making a Better Tomorrow Tomorrow.

As is completely in line with Colbert's satirical outlook, Potter also happens to be one of the nation's most articulate critics of the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision equating corporations with people and allowing the creation of SuperPacs, which can use unlimited sums of money to campaign for political candidates of their choosing.

Potter was joined recently by Time magazine White House correspondent Michael Scherrer and Mark Schmitt, senior research fellow for the New America Foundation, for a panel discussion entitled Beyond Sticker Shock: How Is Big Money Changing Politics in 2012 sponsored by the New America Foundation.

The essential question posed by the Citizens United ruling Potter says is "who gets to determine who our leaders are?"

"We want a Congress and a president who represent the will of the people," Potter said. "You don't want the Senator of Standard Oil; you want the Senator who represents New Jersey."

Potter said one of his greatest concerns is that the huge flow of money the SuperPacs can produce allows them to air a plethora of skewed, misleading, and sometimes blatantly false political ads that can determine an election. "You want an engaged electorate. What you don't want are voters dazed by the war of the airways," he contended.

Scherrer, who has been reporting on the financial part of the 2012 campaign, said the unleashed SuperPacs are definitely affecting this year's races around the country. "What does this mean for politics? Outside money makes easier access to the airways right before an election," Scherrer said. "I think the peak of the power was in the primaries. It really transformed the Republican primaries. They were much more prolonged than expected. Gingrich and Santorum couldn't have stayed in as long without a millionaire or a billionaire backing them."

He said that with an incumbent in President Obama, the Democrats didn't see that same effect since they didn't hold primaries. "But in 2016, it will be a concern for their primaries. It is difficult to see how any candidate can get into the race without a few wealthy friends," Sherrer said.

Even though the reliance on SuperPacs appears to lead to an increasing control of the political process by wealthy individuals and corporations with their own agendas, Sherrer said that there may be some drawbacks to relying too heavily on such funding in a presidential race..

"They have been shown to have clear weaknesses," Sherrer said. "Since the ads can't be coordinated with the campaigns, early on the Romney ads didn't follow a single narrative like the Obama campaign did. The FCC also charges SuperPacs more for ads, which means they are spending up to 6 times as much as a  (regular) campaign for the same amount of time. And small donors are giving more now as we get closer to the end."

But Schmitt, who has been studying the political financial picture for the New America Foundation, said that if the Citizens United ruling isn't changed by Congress, the Supreme Court, or a Constitutional amendment, then our political process of equal weights on votes is in jeopardy. "We're creating a system where a candidate can be wholly or largely dependent on a single donor," Schmitt said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
If you want to read more about what Potter has to say on campaign finance, here are links to 3 articles where he addresses the issue:


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