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Friday, November 30, 2012

Now Please Don't Try This with Your Tree

Merry Black Christmas
 It had to be one of the most unique Christmas tree lightings in D.C. history. As hundreds of spectators stood on the National Mall outside the Sackler Gallery and snapped pictures yesterday, Cai Guo-Qiang, the Chinese artist known for his Olympic pyrotechnics display and gunpowder art, used a 40-foot Christmas tree to stage an Explosion Event based on Christmas tree lighting ceremonies across the country.

Actually, the event, which Guo-Qiang labeled "Black Christmas Tree," was a series of 3 quick, separate  explosions. In the first, the tree was enshrouded in black smoke. In the second, the explosion made it appear that Christmas lights were twinkling all over the tree. The 3rd explosion sent a black cloud (I kept thinking of the smoke monster in the TV show Lost)  in the shape of a Christmas tree skyward until it dissembled into something reminiscent of a Chinese ink painting and eventually dissipated. Guo-Chiang used more than 2,000 custom-made fireworks in his presentation.

The tree back to normal
Just prior to the show, Sackler officials said the event had 2 purposes - it was part of the celebration of the institution's 25th anniversary and also marked a half-century of the State Department sponsoring its Art in Embassies program.

Earlier, Allison Peck, the Sackler's head of public relations, explained the multiple meanings to The Washington Post. "The work itself is not necessarily about Christmas. It has the spirit of a sparkling holiday tree, but it's more than that. It references his (Guo-Qiang's) past work; it references Chinese brush drawings and it's in honor of our anniversary," Peck said.

And any environmentalists concerned about the impact of the special event  need not worry. The smoke was made of charcoal, which is environmentally friendly and the tree was unharmed and will be replanted in a new location.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Dining in DC: Ben's Chili Bowl

Welcome to Ben's
When my knowledgeable foodie friends visit here in DC, they want to forego the fancy restaurants and head straight for Ben's Chili Bowl, arguably the most iconic and historic eatery in Washington. Opened in the summer of 1958, the landmark on U Street is visited by neighborhood regulars, tourists, celebrities, and world leaders. Its most popular item is its original chili half-smoke, a one-quarter pound half-pork and half-smoked beef sausage on a warmed steamed bun, topped with mustard, onions, and a spicy chili sauce from a family recipe that has remained the same for 54 years and is recognized worldwide as DC's signature dish..

While the eatery is filled with pictures of famous diners who have eaten at Ben's, none of them are more essential to the history of the place than regular customer Bill Cosby. Cosby says he 1st began coming to Ben's when he was in the Navy and stationed at nearby Bethesda, Maryland. Cosby's most noted appearance occurred in 1985 when he held a national press conference at Ben's to celebrate the success of his #1 TV show.

Outside mural completed this summer
The eatery also received a tremendous boost in January of 2008 when then president-elect Barack Obama 1st came to Ben's for lunch just days before his inauguration. To honor the pair, visitors encounter a sign near the register that says "People Who Eat Free: Bill Cosby, President Obama/Family, And No One Else."



But from the initial days the eatery was opened by Trinidadian-born immigrant Ben Ali and his wife Virginia, the site was populated by some of the biggest black entertainers of the time. U Street was home to so many clubs that it earned the nickname "Black Broadway." It was not uncommon to see such luminaries as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Nat King Cole, Redd Foxx, Dick Gregory, and even Dr. Martin Luther King eating or just hanging out.

But in 1968, rage over the assassination of Dr. King ignited a wave of violence that devastated much of the city. Most of the city closed, but Ben's remained opened. Ali wrote "Soul Brother" in soap on the front window in the hope that looters and arsonists would not strike his establishment. The owner received special permission to allow Ben's to stay open after curfew to feed the policemen, firemen, activists, and public servants who were trying to restore order.

The half-smokes are a'  grillin'
There is even D.C. history behind the building before it became Ben's. Built in 1910, the edifice housed Washington's 1st silent theater, the Minnehaha. Today, history can be found throughout the eatery. In addition to the hundreds of photos, much of the furnishings are the same as when Ben's opened in 1958.

The restaurant has been featured on several Food Network shows and the Travel Channel's Man v. Food. It has been written up in almost all noted dining publications. In 2004, the James Beard Foundation named Ben's one of the "down home eateries that have carved out a special place on the American culinary landscape." In January 2009, food magazine Bon Appetit named Ben's one of the country's 10 best chili spots, asserting that "no reasonable discussion of great chili joints can take place without mention of this U Street institution."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
What Others Say:

The Prices Do DC Rating:
***** 5 out of 5 plates (4 for the food and service, 1 for the history)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Barbary Pirates and the Shores of Tripoli

For Chipp Reid, his new book was really an outgrowth of the resurgence of interest in pirates prompted by the success of the movies The Pirates of the Caribbean,  the series of Johnny Depp films based on the popular Disney ride. A few years ago, Reid, now a technical writer and editor with the National Archives and Records Administration, was crewing on a tall ship in Connecticut. One of his duties was entertaining young students who visited the ship.

 "They were really interested in pirates, but I didn't know much about the Caribbean pirates like Blackbeard and Henry Morgan. But I knew about America's involvement with the Barbary pirates in Tripoli. So those were the stories I told the kids. I wanted to entertain them with something factual and these were some great sea stories," Reid says. A father of one of the students was so impressed with the impact of Reid's stories on his son that he suggested Reid should write a book about Stephen Decatur, Richard Somers, and the other heroes of that campaign which really established America as a naval power.

Yesterday, Reid appeared at the National Archives to discuss his book entitled Intrepid Sailors: The Legacy of Preble's Boys and the Tripoli Campaign.

Reid said he used primary sources such as letters and notes from those involved to tell his story. "This is not a textbook. To me, history should live. It should have oomph. I used the words of the men who were there. If they wrote it, I found it and used it," he explained.

While the problems with the Barbary pirates commenced in 1801, the background for the story actually goes back to the foresight of President George Washington, who realized that if America was to maintain its hard-fought independence, it would need a navy. So in 1794, Washington convinced Congress to authorize the building of 6 frigates.

However, when the Boshaw of Tripoli cut down an American flag pole in May of 1801, signaling an all-out piracy attack on American ships and shipping, the fledgling Navy hadn't been tested. "The pirates of the 1800s were not the Somali pirates of 2012. Piracy was the economy of Tripoli. The Mafia would get jealous of the protection racket the Tripoli pirates set up," Reid said. Basically, the pirates would stop any ship sailing in their area and demand tribute. If their demands for "chests of money" weren't met, they would capture and confiscate the ship. At the time, American shipping was a huge part of the country's economy, taking in $25 million, which is today's figures would equal about $2.6 billion.

Obviously, Americans were upset with the pirates' actions, and President Thomas Jefferson ordered the Navy to stop the piracy. The first 2 attempts proved futile, but that changed when 43-year-old Edward Preble was put in charge of a 3rd attempt. "Actually he and his officers like Stephen Decatur, Richard Somers, and Charles Stewart formed a bond on what the Navy and Marines still base their officers' traditions today," he said.

Initially, Preble didn't think much of his young, untested officers, whose average age was 21. "They don't want to listen. They don't want to work. They won't do anything I tell them," an exasperated Preble wrote to his wife. For their part, the men hated Preble, who forced them to drill repeatedly. Once, Preble ordered them to spend 72 straight hours drilling without sleep. However, when, in their 1st encounter, Preble forced a British ship captain to capitulate, the men began to change their opinion of their leader and saw the benefits of the training he had put them through. "That episode changed every officers idea of their commander," Reid said.

While the Navy under Preble had many successes, the pirates were able to capture the U.S.S. Philadelphia and its crew of 312 men. One of the best stories in the book, Reid says, are the escape attempts of captives. "It makes Steve McQueen and Richard Attenborough (2 of the stars of the award-winning World II movie The Great Escape) look like amateurs," Reid joked.

Another riveting story in the book concerns the ship Intrepid, which the Americans renamed after capturing it from the pirates. Despite the American success, the Boshaw refused to capitulate. Finally, Somers agreed to load the Intrepid with 15 tons of explosives, sail the ship into the harbor, and deliver a crippling blow to the Boshow.

Somers realized that if the Intrepid was captured, the munitions on board could restock the pirates. Rather than let that happen, Somers said he would blow the boat up. "Nobody comes on this boat unless you're willing to die by your own hand," Somers told his men. All 12 agreed to the plan. The boat sailed into the harbor, was discovered by 2 pirate ships, and exploded, destroying the Intrepid and both pirate ships.

But the heroism of Somers, Decatur, and the others became part of legend and history. And the legacy of the professionalism they forged still  resonates in the Navy today.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Even though the Tripoli campaign occurred more than 200 years ago, there is still one order of business to complete, Reid maintains. The remains of Somers and the others on the Intrepid have never been returned. And apparently a major stumbling block is the U.S. Navy and Congress. To learn more about the issue, check out the websites Bringing Richard Somers Home and The Intrepid Project.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Poetic Likeness

Langston Hughes portrait
When National Portrait Gallery historian David Ward agreed to curate the show Poetic Likeness: Modern American Poets he had one major concern. "The people have to be entertained," Ward says. "I was concerned it would be visually dull. You don't want to have a snoozer."

Last week Ward conducted a personal tour of the exhibition he put together, which features the likenesses of more than 50 of America's 20th Century poets, almost all the famous and a few of the lesser-knowns.

Ward said his goal was to create an exhibition that would merge words and images to create a cultural show highlighting American poetry and poets who were creating in the years between 1900 and the 1970s.
The curator said that there were 2 qualifications for inclusion into the exhibit. 1) the poet had to have a particular impact on the world of American poetry and 2) there had to be a visually interesting portrait of the poet available to be placed next to the snippet of poetry and brief biographical sketch that would introduce each writer.

The exhibition begins with Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound, 2 very different poets whom Ward contends created the foundation of American poetry. From Whitman came the idea that American poetry should express the aspirations of common people in a distinctive voice appropriate to a democratic culture. Pound emphasized that the new poetry should use well-crafted language that was innovative and captured the present moment, but at the same time, was responsive to poetic traditions.

The Allen Ginsburg inclusion
Other significant poets, which Ward called "makers", also receive multiple portrait treatment. They include Hart Crane, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, and Marianne Moore. All the other poets are represented by a single portrait. "All these poets were forcing their way through because they were so good," Ward said.

Ward says his interest with poetry started when he began reading the collective poetic writings of Robert Penn Warren, who is best known for his political novel All the King's Men. He said that while the exhibit definitely reveals some of his bias, he tried to let poetic reputation, not personal like dictate who got included. "I felt we should put in Gertrude Stein though I don't even like her," Ward said.

Ward was asked why people should explore this exhibit and the poetry that it is based on. "While challenging, poetry embodies a cultural moment in a way that other disciplines can't," he said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
If you like poetry, poets, or intriguing portraits, you should check the Poetic Likeness show at the National Portrait Gallery. It will be on display until April 28.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Picture Perfect

Don't think chance plays a role in career choice? Consider the cases of these 2 award-winning Washington DC photo journalists.

As a young woman, Nikki Kahn wasn't even interested in photography. A friend who wanted to take a photo course at a local community college called and begged Kahn to take the class with her because it wouldn't be offered if enough people didn't enroll. "I fell absolutely in love with it as soon as I saw that 1st image developed in a dark room," says Kahn, now a Pulitzer Prize winner for The Washington Post. 

Then there's Bill Clark, who shoots politics and Capitol Hill for Roll Call. Clark was a political science major in college. He gained an internship with U.S. News and World Report. As an intern, he was able to procure free gear, free film, and free processing. He was hooked.

Kahn and Clark appeared at the Newseum yesterday to discuss their work in a special Inside Media program scheduled as part of the annual Nikon Photo Day. Both photographers have award-winning work in the annual Eyes of History 2012 photo contest which is now on exhibit at the Newseum.

For Kahn, the trick to being a top photojournalist is always being mentally prepared. "You never know when the great assignment is going to be. It could be in your neighbor's back yard," she said. Kahn discussed an especially emotional photo image she captured of President Barack Obama in Iowa on the last night of his campaign. The shot shows tears streaming down Obama's cheek at the end of his final campaign speech in the state where his presidential aspirations began 2 campaigns ago. The picture appeared on the front page of the Post on the day Obama won re-election. "I try to find shots that accentuate the human moments," Kahn said. "This was a nostalgic moment for him"

Clark says he prowls the Capitol and DC looking for "found moments" that allow him to capture things that "are a little bit off." One of his award winning shots this year shows financial reserve chairman Allan Greenspan standing alone on a Washington street corner using his cell phone unaware that nearby is a protester with a sign bearing the slogan "Standard and Poors Gives Congress a YOU SUCK."  Clark came across the scene on a walk back to his office. "I quickly worked to frame the shot because I didn't want to spook Alan Greenspan," he explained.

Kahn was honored for both a series of portraits of Civil Rights leaders taken to be displayed as part of a series on the new Martin Luther King Memorial and shots commemorating the 25th anniversary of the nuclear accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant. "I wanted to see how people were coping and I found a haunting desolate landscape," Kahn said, an observation that was clearly supported by the eerie, chilling black and white photos she captured.

Both photographers agreed that new innovations have greatly changed photojournalism. For example, Clark said that when he started his career in Georgia, on a Friday night he would have to shoot 2 or 3 high school football games. But he couldn't stay at any game past halftime. He had to dash back to the office and process his photos before deadline. Today, those photos could be transmitted instantaneously anywhere in the world right up until the moment of publication.

But despite the technological advances, the human element still plays a role. ""Having a great eye and working to be good at what you do can make a big difference," Khan said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Inside Media program moderator John Maynard asked the 2 photojournalists what would be their dream assignment. Clark joked that he was trying to convince his editor to let him tour Europe doing a series on all the legislatures there. "So far, he's not falling for it," Clark said. "I'd like a little beach assignment," said Kahn with a smile, who won her Pulitzer for her work capturing the death and destruction of the last massive earthquake in Haiti.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Mexico and a Failed Drug War

Somebody blow taps. The American war on drugs has been lost. This year, $25 billion was spent on enforcing the failed drug war, and that total doesn't include money for prosecutions and incarceration. Yet, as 2012 ends, and after decades of such expenditures, the U.S. finds itself with drug use levels ready to exceed the former highs of the 1970s. One of every 3 black males between the ages of 18 to 35 are either in prison, awaiting trial, or on parole. If you removed non-violent drug offenders from that total, the number would plummet by 80 %.  Finally, just this week, a new Rasmussen national poll shows that only 7% of  Americans believe that we are winning the war on drugs, while 82% are sure we are losing it.

And if you think conditions are bad here, you should look to our neighbors to the south. In Mexico, 50,000 people have died from drug violence in the last 10 years. Last year, Guatemala seized $12 billion in drugs, money, and weapons, a figure which represents 2 years of that country's budget. In Honduras, there is genuine concern that the country might be turned into a Narco state. In fact, the ultra-violent drug cartels in the Latin American countries are being labeled a fast-growing national security problem for the U.S.

"There are bribes, intimidation, terror, torture, and killing," says Cato Institute Latin American policy expert Ted Galen Carpenter. "The cartels have a saying plata o plomo. Silver or lead. Go along or die. The drug war started by (President Richard) Nixon hasn't worked and there have been drastic consequences."

Carpenter appeared at the Cato Institute this week to discuss his new book The Fire Next Door: Mexico's Drug Violence and Its Danger to America.

The root of the problem, Carpenter says, is that there are such vast sums of money to be gained in the illegal drug trade. Last year, drugs brought in an estimated $100 billion worldwide, with $40 billion of that in Mexico.

And no group better demonstrates the futility of the drug war than the Zetas. Several years ago, special elite army forces were financed by Mexico and given special training from the U.S. military. However, once dispatched to combat the drug cartels, the Zetas quickly discovered they "could make a lot more money taking their skills to the other side," Carpenter said. The Zetas began providing protection for the very cartels they had been created to destroy. Then they realized they could make even more money if they took over entire operations. Today, the Zetas are Mexico's 2nd largest cartel.

When possible, the cartels use money to cement protection for their operations. Some government officials in Mexico City were caught taking $400,000 a month bribes to look the other way. Of course, when money doesn't work, intimidation and killing are introduced. Beheading appears to be the most popular form of  execution. Both the violence and the extreme nature of it are increasing, Carpenter said. For example, police recently found a headless body. Nearby they found the severed head. But the head had no face. The face, sewn to a soccer ball,  was found in another area a short distance away. "It's sadism run amok," Carpenter said.  "You're seeing the kinds of things you have never seen before in economic killings before. These are the kinds of things you see in wars from an ethnic, religious, or racial basis." And the cartels don't just target opponents; they go after entire families. "You have black SUVs  trailing school buses and armed toughs at basketball games," Carpenter explained.

So what is the answer? Carpenter says there really is none if the U.S. continues to outlaw the use of drugs. "Prohibition didn't work in the 1920s and it doesn't work today. Prohibition only empowers gangsterism. There is a tremendous demand (for recreational drugs). I'm not saying they are good. But would you rather have all that in a legitimate government bureaucracy or in the hands of violent criminals?" Carpenter posited. He said he believes marijuana should be treated just as alcohol is now. Other drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and meth could be treated the same as legally prescribed drugs. "Those other drugs are tougher, but we need to debate what to do," Carpenter said.

Citing the just-released national poll showing the failing nature of our current policy and the victories for legal marijuana use in Colorado and Washington, Carpenter said public opinion on drugs is shifting. But why will no politicians acknowledge that the drug war has failed and legalization may be warranted? "Politicians want to follow. They want to know where the crowd is going before they lead the parade," Carpenter said.

Carpenter saved some of his harshest words for President Barack Obama, who has remained silent on the drug issue. Obama has admitted that he smoked marijuana and used other drugs as a young man. "What if he had gotten caught?" Carpenter asked. "Would he have gone to college? Would he have gone to law school? Would he have become president of the United States? I don't think so. But to his shame, Obama has shown no aversion to seeing others suffer severe criminal penalties for things he did in his youth."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Carpenter is not alone in his call for legalization as a way to end a failed drug war. Time magazine printed an article this summer offering 10 reasons why the U.S drug policy should be revisited. You can read that article by clicking here.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

To The Brink


John Kennedy looked down at the single pen on the desk.  Even though he had been president less than 2 years, he was used to signing milestones with many pens, then giving them away as mementos. But this signing would take place with a single pen. Never in the history of the world had an American president signed such a document. It called for a quarantine of the tiny island of Cuba where the Soviet Union was placing nuclear missiles aimed at the U.S. Everyone in the silent room realized that Kennedy could be signing a call to action that could trigger thermonuclear war and worldwide destruction.

Kennedy completed the signing and slipped the pen into his pocket. "I am going to keep this one," he said.

Today, that pen in one of the key artifacts included in the To the Brink: JFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis exhibition now on display at the National Archives.

After an introductory section giving the back story on the 13-day October, 1962 stand-off, the exhibit proceeds with 6 chronological stations where visitors can hear excerpts of actual White House tapes made of crisis participants discussing the challenge and options. Each station contains a quotation from the terrifying ordeal as a thematic organizer. They are:

  1. "We do not believe they are ready to fire." Sandy Greybeal of the CIA
  2. "Is there anyone out there who doesn't think that we to do something [about the missiles]." JFK
  3. "You're talking about the destruction of a country." JFK.
  4. "If we go to Cuba we are taking a chance that their missiles which are ready to fire won't be fired ... is that really a gamble we should take?" JFK
  5. "OK, let's proceed." JFK.
  6. "Time's tides are on us." JFK
Finally, on Oct. 28 Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev said "Remove them. As quickly as possible before something terrible happens." On Nov. 20, after more than a month of the world holding its collective breath,  the quarantine was lifted. The leaders of the world's 2 greatest powers had been to the nuclear brink. This time the world survived.

But even today, the exhibit demonstrates the terror and horror of the Cuban Crisis. One of the most chilling reminders of the real possibility of annihilation is a simple, one-page declassified CIA document. The document contains 3 red circles, showing the nuclear destruction capabilities of the 3 types of missiles the Russians could have used. The 1st, at 630 miles, would have meant the end of all of Florida and the southern cities of Savannah and New Orleans. The 2nd circle would threaten San Antonio, Dallas, Atlanta, and Washington D.C.  The last circle at 2220 miles demonstrated that the Soviets could have destroyed any continental city except Seattle.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Whether you want to relive your own experiences of October, 1962 or come to understand them for the 1st time, you should check the To the Brink exhibit out. It will be open until Feb. 3, 2013.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Women Who Rock

In 1963, fledgling record producer Quincy Jones teamed with Teaneck, New Jersey high school junior Lesley Gore to create one of the great pop singles It's My Party. "I remember when I heard It's My Party I had an immediate relationship to it," Gore said years later. "What was it about that song? Probably the little middle-class rebel in me trying desperately to get out"

The young Gore quickly followed up with one of the catchiest answer songs in rock and roll - "Judy's Turn to Cry." But it was her 3rd Top 10 hit - "You Don't Own Me," credited with being the 1st rock feminist anthem, which really unleashed that middle-class rebel. The song is even more revolutionary when you consider its lyrics such as:
And don't tell me what to do
And don't tell me what to say
or
I'm young and I love to be young
I'm free and I love to be free
To live my life the way I want
To say and do whatever I please
were written at the same time when another popular hit urged:
Oh, Johnny get angry
Johnny get mad
Give me the biggest lecture that I ever had
I want a brave man, I want a cave man
Johnny show me that you care, really care for me

But Gore soon faced a decision. She was graduating high school. She could continue to record and tour full-time or she could go to college. She opted for Sarah Lawrence University. Soon the Beatles and the other British bands invaded and Gore, although she still performs today, never achieved such great heights again.

But her early success and influence was enough to assure her a prominent place in the Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power exhibit put together by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame which is now on display at the National Museum for Women in the Arts.

The showcase devoted to Gore and her career is typical of those of the more than 50 women represented.  There is a dress that she wore for her debut at the Plaza Hotel in New York City which was so heavy she could only wear it for one number. There is a special music score touring case given to her by Jones and hand-painted by a fan. There are copies of both lyrics and 45s.

The extensive, informative, visually and historically interesting exhibit is divided into 8 chronological themes. They are:
  • Suffragettes to Juke-Box Mamas: The Foremothers/ Roots of Rock
  • Get Out of That Kitchen, Rattle Those Pots and Pans: Rock Emerges
  • Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow: The Early 1960s/ Girl Groups
  • Revolution, The Counter-Culture & the Pill: The Late 1960s
  • I Will Survive: The 1970s Rockers to Divas
  • Dance to the Music: Punk and Post Punk
  • Causing a Commotion: Madonna and the Pop Explosion
  • Ladies First: The 90s and the New Millennium
All the ladies are represented from Lady Day to Lady Gaga. There are the queens from Aretha to Latifah. Bessie and Ma Rainey are in the house, as are Janis and Gracie.There are the too-soon departed like Donna and Whitney. The great groups from The Ronettes to Bikini Kill. The fashions from Cher's elaborate Bob Mackie special creation to bassist for Sonic Youth Kim Gordon's "Eat Me" black and white T-shirt with a bright red Rolling Stones tongue. The personal instruments which produced the soft sounds of Judy Collins or the hard-edge songs of Joan Jett.

The exhibit ends with Lady Gaga's (then known as Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) upright childhood piano, which she received from her grandmother. On the top are candid shots of Stefani and her beloved piano, which her mother says she loved from the first time her tiny fingers smacked down on the keys. Looking at those shots, it's had to imagine the Lady Gaga she would become. But for women who rock, with their vision, passion, and power, anything is possible. 

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
You have plenty of time to check out the Women Who Rock exhibit. It isn't scheduled to close until Jan. 6.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Dining in DC: Pho 75

Noodle soup. My grandmother's belief in its medicinal power was persuasive. That's why for the past 6 decades be it cold, flu, or sinus, I've made chicken noodle soup the meal of choice. But this week I developed a sinus problem that seemed impervious to Doctor Daisy's certain remedy, so I decided to vary the recipe. I headed to Pho 75 in Rosslyn, thinking that perhaps this particular strain of illness might respond better to an Asian treatment.

Pho is a traditional Vietnamese beef and noodle soup and Pho 75 has the reputation of producing some of the best pho in the DC area. And when you are sick, you want simple, but you also want the best.


At Pho 75, 2 ingredients are standard - a savory beef broth and a large heap of vermicelli noodles. You choose from one of 8 cuts of beef. That all comes in either a regular or large bowl. The bowl is accompanied by a side plate that includes bean sprouts, spicy green Vietnamese pepper slices, lime wedges, and fresh mint leaves so you can customize the taste of your soup. In addition to the napkins, plastic spoons, and chop sticks you need for your pho, you can also spice up the dish with heapings of Asian red chili sauce. 

So how did the pho at Pho 75 make it as a food? In a phrase, the place's reputation is clearly deserved. A few words of caution if you are a fussy eater, however. It is impossible to be neat and look cool while eating pho. It is a food made to be slurped and sucked. Also, don't expect pleasantries from your Vietnamese servers. They are serious about getting you seated, taking your order, and getting your food to you amazingly fast. And don't expect them to bring you the check. That remains at the counter where you pay. Oh, and bring cash, since they don't accept credit cards.

And pho as medicine? I did feel better after lunch. But just as with any medical trial, we'll need a few more tests before we can give it grandmom's seal of approval.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
What others say:
The Price Do Dc Rating:
****^ - 4.5 out of 5 bowls (usually we use plates, but this is pho you know)

Friday, November 9, 2012

The 2012 Election: How Come It Turned Out That Way

The 2012 Election is over. (And if that statement leaves you feeling a little low, you can take solace in the fact that it is only 1,457 days until the 2016 vote and GOP potential presidential candidate Marco Rubio is already speaking at a fundraiser in Iowa this weekend). But now it's time to figure out how the winners won and the losers lost last Tuesday. Was it money or message? Data mining or dollar finding? Old standby media like TV or new social media like Twitter? Personality or policy?

Last night, at the National Archives, a distinguished panel of 2 former Democratic Congress members, 2 Republican ex-members, and 2 working journalists began examining those questions during a frank, sometimes feisty program entitled Communicating the Message: Election Results and Ramifications.

This election, with its Super PACS, dark money, incredibly whopping contributions like $70 million from billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson (all of which went to the Republicans) and exceedingly small contributions, some as little as $3 (most of which went to the Democrats), was clearly the most expensive in history. Panel Moderator and veteran TV and print journalist Steven Roberts got the night off to a rousing start with his 1st question - Much of that money was spent on old media like TV. Was that money wasted?

"The money was wasted," Tom Davis (R-VA) said without hesitation. "I think much of it was just put in the trash can." Davis added that overexposure in a swing state like Virginia can actually hurt a candidate. "We saw more of Mitt Romney than we did of Bryce Harper (a sensational rookie on a Washington Nationals team that made the baseball playoffs for the 1st time in 78 years)," Davis said.

Anne Meagher Northup (R-KY) contended that nothing can be more effective than a candidate articulating his or her positions, something she felt GOP candidate Romney failed to do well enough. "Ads can only reiterate those positions and I think the independent ads seldom melded well. An ad must be effective to work," Northup said. She supported her contention by pointing out that she believed the 3 debates did more than all the ads to influence voters.

For the Democratic perspective, Bart Gordon (D-TN) said you needed to examine how the campaigns utilized their money. "There's smart money and there's dumb money," Gordon said. "Obama really had no business winning. Unemployment is the highest since Franklin D. Roosevelt. But the Obama campaign spent wisely."

Albert Wynn (D-MD) concurred. He said that while Romney and his supporters poured millions into ads and robo-calls, the Obama campaign spent funds for election coordinators in key communities across the country. "You get this picture of volunteers running around in sneakers and tennis shoes. But there were a lot of knowledgeable people involved," Wynn said, supporting his contention by pointing out that in Columbus Ohio, Obama workers outnumbered Romney people by 3 to 1.

But Wynn added that he thought the real difference in the election was that Obama's message resonated with more groups of voters - women, blacks, Latinos, gays, and young people. "The difference is the message," Wynn said. "It doesn't matter about the media, it's the underlying message."

Davis somewhat agreed, but said he still believed the Obama campaign was far more effective in using new social media, which in turned reached more people in their 20s and 30s. "In my father's time we did everything in mail. My generation, we did it by phone. For today's younger group, it's the internet," he said.

David Plotz, editor of Slate magazine, said the Obama campaign brilliantly used social media "to create a sense of intimacy and relationship". That fact, coupled with a relentless ground game of registering voters and knocking on doors definitely provided a huge political difference, making the Obama operation a model for current 21st Century national elections.

But Northup argued that the use of modern media like Facebook doesn't matter if the candidate can't deliver. "No matter what Facebook he used, John Kerry (Democratic candidate in 2004) wouldn't have been elected," she said, provoking laughter from the audience. She said that while Obama is a perfect social media candidate, the same can't be said for Romney, who in ways was much more Kerry-esque. "He didn't have a hip side. He should have used dinner table conversations (with his wife, Anne, and their 5 boys). That   could have shown a human side that could have swayed hearts," she contended.

Wynn said he believed the most effective tool the Obama campaign used was finding out information about potential voters (a sophisticated computerized process called data mining). "Today, you can know so much more about your constituents," he said. "You can target your message to a group or even an individual. You can specify to them the thing they are most concerned about or should be concerned about," Wynn said.

Plotz said the converse was equally true. ""You don't want to waste time on someone who isn't going to vote for you," he noted.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
In the end, the 4 former Congress members agreed that it came down to story. The majority of Americans were more interested in the Obama narrative than they were the Romney tale. Roberts asked each what they thought was the single, most effective part of the Obama story that led to his victory.
from Wynn
"The most effective story was told by Bill Clinton for Barack Obama. After Clinton spoke at the convention, people said 'Oh, I get it now.' That was the ball game."
from Northup
"I think it was when Obama talked about his growing up as a child and the challenges he faced. And those of his wife.  He really made it seem like the (American) dream came true for them."
from Davis
"He had to go after Romney. He had to savage him. He did a tremendous job. But Romney (also) helped savage himself."
from Gordon
"It's like I said earlier. The most important road in the county is the one that runs in front of your house. Obama was able to micro-target his messages and figure out the one message that was most important for that person. Then, he delivered it."

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Dining in DC: Something Stuffed

Food in foreground; our complex in background
One of the best things about living in a major metropolitan area is the large number of dining options. In fact, if you can't go to the food, the food can come to you. Literally. By the truck load. Make no mistake about it, even though the days are getting colder, food trucks are still a hot item in the DC area.

Some of the trucks, say Pepe for example, are operated by world-renown chefs like Jose Andres. Others, like Something Stuffed, are operated by less famous culinary entrepreneurs. But you can get great, tasty, relatively inexpensive meals at both types.

Today, I chose Something Stuffed for lunch. I really didn't have to walk far for my choice. The colorful purple and bright green truck was parked less than 100 yards from my Crystal City apartment complex.

I opted for the day's lunch special. The special included chicken chili, a choice of empanada and a selection of 3 steamed dumplings. First, some words about the chili ,which featured white beans, green peppers, curry, and a smothering of shredded cheese. One Yelp reviewer said he was so taken with the concoction that he "contemplated eating the styrofoam container the chili came in." Now styrofoam isn't on my diet, but  I do  agree that the chili was really good, especially if you enjoy it spicy like I do.

For my empananda, I picked the #1 (of 4 choices) nicknamed the HIS. It consisted of free range chicken w/potatoes, onion, and red curry. The 3 pork dumplings, which were steamed while I waited, included bits of carrot and shiitake mushroom. The empanada and the dumplings provided an interesting Mexican/Oriental fusion of tastes.

While I waited a few minutes for my freshly prepared order, I chatted with the operators. I learned that the Something Stuffed truck had been cruising the DC area for about 7 months. Business has been good.  A schedule is prepared for 2 weeks at a time. The food choices change daily. This was the 1st time the truck had been in Crystal City. I hope it is not the last. Of course, I can follow the truck's stops on Facebook or on Twitter.
The bottom yum, yum eat 'em up line is this: the company's logo, as seen above, says Savor the Bite. I did.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
What Others Say:
The Prices Do DC lunch rating
**** 4 cardboard take-away boxes and 1 extra plastic spoon (we usually use plates, but that just doesn't fit a food truck)

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Covering Randy Newman in a Jazzy Way

I have always preferred the live performance of songs over their recorded counterparts. I think artists covering the tunes of others often make the new versions more interesting than the originals. I am a huge fan of singer-songwriter Randy Newman. And I'm trying to expand my exposure to jazz.

That's why I was so eager to see New Jersey jazz singer Roseanna Vitro on her The Randy Newman Project tour last weekend at the KC Jazz Club at the Kennedy Center.

The tour is titled after Vitro's last CD, on which she performed jazz versions of 10 of her favorite Newman songs.  She was joined by  her long time accompanists drummer Tim Horner and bassist Dean Johnson; keyboardist Mark Soskin, who arranged many of the live Newman tunes; and violinist extraordinaire Sara Caswell, whose incredible leads provided a dynamic counterpoint to Vitror's vocals.

Vitro opened her 90-minute set with "Baltimore," which just happens to be my favorite song and has been performed for years by singer Nina Simone. In stark, simple lyrics with a haunting melody, "Baltimore" tells the story of the sad fall of a once vibrant city. Vitro prefaced the song with dialogue about the effects of Hurricane Sandy. She said she had escaped damage, but was still without power. After dedicating the entire night to those suffering from the storm and its aftereffects, she jokingly thanked the Kennedy Center for bringing the entire band to Washington, D.C. a day early so they could get showers and sleep in warm beds.

A second highlight of the night was a medley of 2 of Newman's best known songs, "Short People" and "You Can Leave Your Hat On." Vitro told the audience that the medley didn't appear on the CD, but the band liked the way the songs worked on stage. The crowd also appeared to enjoy Vitro's version of Newman's "Mama Told Me Not to Come," which was a hit for the chart-topping rock group Three Dog Night.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
A musical performance should be personally experienced, not written about. Click here to see and hear Vitro and her quartet perform songs from the Newman CD. You can click here to see Randy Newman performing some of his tunes.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Dining in DC: District Commons


This posh, sassy addition to the Foggy Bottom dining scene (from the Passion Food Hospitality group) updates the tavern concept with a cool, modern look featuring huge windows, plus a cheeky menu that reimagines American comfort food. Service hits the mark. The real issue is that when it gets busy, it can really put the "din" in dinner.    (from Zagat)
If you are looking for good dining before a night at the Kennedy Center, District Commons is a great choice. It is located only one block from the Foggy Bottom Metro station where you can catch the free shuttle bus to the Kennedy Center.

Pretzel baguette w/ beer mustard butter
Based on the recommendation of our waiter Miguel, we decided to splurge for $2 and order the restaurant's signature hot pretzel baguette.  It proved to be a great investment. Don't miss this if you go. For an appetizer, Judy ordered Saturday's selection from the Daily Pig Board Showcase of America's Artisanal Hams. The ham slices come with Acadiana biscuits, Vermont creamery butter, and pickled cherries. I couldn't decide so I ordered 2 starters - butternut squash soup w/ keffir lime, creme fraiche and toasted pumpkins seeds and also the crispy fried oysters w/ blue cheese slaw and Frank's Red Hot remoulade

This is what tasty duck looks like
For an entree, Judy chose pork rack chop blue ribbon w/Benton ham, mozzarella, eggplant chow, and johnnycake and a side of a small crock of mashed potatoes. She said it was tasty, but the pork was a bit dry for her taste. Based on Miguel's recommendation, I tried the low and slow roasted duck w/wild rice-sweet potato hash and sorghum chili glaze. Now, I am not a duck fan, but this was some tasty duck.

We were going to decline dessert, but when I saw that there was Boardwalk funnel cake with butterscotch and whipped cream I convinced Judy to share a plate. Being that we were from South Jersey and had spent many days at the Jersey shore, I thought that was the least we could do for our old Summer playground given the destruction from Hurricane Sandy.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
What others say:
The Prices Do DC dinner rating
(****) 4 out of 5 plates

Saturday, November 3, 2012

A Look at Abraham Lincoln and 1862

It is one of the most interesting questions in American history. Why, despite such opposition from not only the South, but also the North, was President Abraham Lincoln so intent on saving the Union? Well, according to writer David Von Drehle, the reasons for Lincoln's  save-the-Union-at-any-cost position began to be formulated early in his life.

First, there were the circumstances of his birth.  Moments after he was born, Lincoln was wrapped in animal fur and placed on a bed of corn husks on the mud floor of his parent's one-room cabin. "But Lincoln was able to lift himself from that mud floor to the most powerful position in the country," Von Drehle said. "He knew that couldn't happen anywhere else (other than America). It was an important story and worth preserving. He called America 'the last, best great hope of Earth.'"

Secondly, as a westerner Lincoln was keenly aware of the crucial role rivers played in the development of the nation. "Before the interstate highways, these rivers were the essential means of transportation in the United States," Von Drehle said. "Lincoln recognized that having a country with a slave economy on one side and having one without slavery on the other side of a river was impossible. There was going to be a conflict. He also realized that once secession got started there was no end to it."

"Because he came from the West, he knew the future of the country was in the West," he added. "Why was California going to stay in a Union with Philadelphia? What did they have in common? Lincoln realized that union was not just symbolically important, but the key to the nation."

If Southern secession succeeded and other areas followed, the United States would become a nation of petty powers with potentates fighting generation after generation. "He recognized the toll that would have to be paid to reunite the country, but he was convinced it was worth it. There really wasn't a choice. Something precious was going to be gone if the United States could not be saved," Von Drehle said, noting that Lincoln was firmly convinced that a truly united United States could be more powerful and prosperous than all the nations of Europe combined.

"And today, we live in that country that Abraham Lincoln envisioned and ennobled," Von Drehle maintained. "He arrived with a purpose to save the Union and said he would do anything to do that."  Nowhere is that commitment more evident than in Lincoln's initial position on slavery. Pressed by abolitionists on that issue,  Lincoln famously retorted that if he could save the union by freeing all the slaves he would do just that. But if he could save the Union by freeing none of the slaves he would do that. However, if he could save the union by freeing some of the slaves and not others, he would choose that action. Of course, as history notes, Lincoln decided it was necessary to free all the slaves and wrote the great Emancipation Proclamation.

Von Drehle's remarks came as he recently discussed his new book Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America's Most Perilous Year at Politics and Prose.

Von Drehle's book focuses on just one year, 1862. In January of that year, officials feared that Lincoln didn't have the power or personality to lead the country, his main general refused to tell the president his plans, the North and its government was in serious financial jeopardy, and European powers were convinced that there was no way the North could force the South back into a union and were prepared to act to get cotton moving again. But, by the end of 1862, Lincoln had mastered the military, the Congress, and his cabinet, signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and was recognized as a leader who could indeed restore the Union.

But how did he accomplish that feat? "He was able to adapt himself day by day to whipsawing conditions, but, at the same time, keep in mind where he was attempting to go," Von Drehle contended. "He transformed himself from a fairly ordinary man into the 1st great commander-in-chief and the greatest politician president of his time. He not only saved the Union, but gave it its new birth of freedom."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Von Drehle's book talk was extremely timely. You can expect Lincoln to be in the news quite a bit in the upcoming weeks. Next Friday, Steven Spielberg is releasing his newest epic Lincoln. The movie stars Daniel Day Lewis in a performance that is already producing serious best actor talk. Above is the trailer for the new film. If you receive posts by email, you can click here for the trailer.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Killing bin Laden

When best-selling writer Mark Bowden heard reports that the Obama administration was leaking details of the raid which killed Osama bin Laden to make itself look better, he had to chuckle. "They sure as hell didn't leak anything to me. I just had to wait and wait," says Bowden, who recently appeared at Politics and Prose to discuss his new book The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden.

Bowden said that his new book, while about the actions of war, is very different from his most popular book on that subject, Black Hawk Down. "Black Hawk Down was all about the action, but The Finish is really a 10-year story with a very exciting 40-minutes at the end," he noted. "It's the story of a long, careful, relentless search over years. Ninety-five percent of the story takes place in Washington, DC. The success of this story is a bureaucratic success."

Essentially the story is about 2 men - Osama bin Laden and Barack Obama - who "make a decision to kill," Bowden said.

"But they could not have been more different," he contended. While Obama was born as an international person and spent his life moving in an outward direction, bin Laden, fueled by hatred and walled off by his narrow views of Islam, continued to withdraw until finally his whole world consisted of 2 small floors in a compound in Pakistan.

Bowden said he wasn't surprised that the hunt for bin Laden took as long as it did. "It's actually more surprising that they did find him," he said. "Here was a guy who knew how to hide. There were people living in the compound (that bin Laden was living in) that didn't know."

When U.S. officials finally came to believe that bin Laden was probably housed inside the compound, Obama was faced with 3 choices:
  1. don't do anything but wait and seek more information
  2. fire a small, deadly missile from a drone at the person who was believed to be bin Laden
  3. send a squadron of highly-trained SEALS into the compound to capture or kill the Al Qaeda leader. 
Despite much advice to the contrary, Obama chose option 3. He was fully aware that sending an armed team into Pakistan could enrage leaders there, but he insisted that the finding of bin Laden, which he had made America's national security priority since his early days as president, was worth the risk. He also rejected the idea that if the SEALS were discovered, they should wait inside the compound until America could diplomatically negotiate their release. "If you're going in, I want you to be able to fight your way out," the president declared.

Bowden said that it is clear that in today's war against terrorism a president is much more directly involved in the fighting. "It becomes the president's decision to pull the trigger. It's like he is at one end of what is basically a sniper rifle," he maintained.

The long hunt and killing of bin Laden demonstrated the 3 crucial areas of the conflict against terrorists, which the military has called the 3 Fs - finding, fixing, and finishing, Bowden said. First, there is the ability to conduct raids. The bin Laden raid was just 1 of 1,000 of raids American teams have undertaken. Then there is the drone technology that allows suspects not only to be terminated, but also to be under surveillance 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And there is the use of super computers with innovative software designed especially for the military. 

Bowden did have 1 concern after working on the book. Currently there are no approved guidelines for such actions as the bin Laden campaign. "I think it may be too easy to go after someone," Bowden said. "We need well articulated procedures in place. The whole thing needs to become a little more transparent.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
While Bowden began his writing career as a journalist, he jokingly described himself as "a lousy reporter"  whose primary interest has always been story telling. "You don't just empty your reporting on the page, you  tell a story," he said. "You ask yourself - what is this story ultimately about? Where does this story begin and where does it end? Who are the key players involved in all this? You might think it is self-evident in nonfiction, but it's not."

Thursday, November 1, 2012

From DC to Russia with Love

The Synetic cast of a previous production of King Lear
For Paata Tsikurushvill and his wife, Irina, it will be a grand homecoming. Paata, founding artistic director of the Synetic Theater, and Irina, choreographer and cast star, have not been back to their native country of the Republic of Georgia (formerly part of the Soviet Union) for 2 decades. Now, not only are they going home, but they will taking almost 20 members of their award-winning theater company with them.

Synetic will be performing 2 shows in Georgia. The first is their silent adaptation of William Shakespeare's classic King Lear. The second is Host and Guest, a play based on an epic Georgia poem written by Vazha Pshavela.

Recently, Synetic hosted a special rehearsal of selected scenes from both productions for season subscribers at the Crystal City theater. Afterward, cast members discussed the upcoming 2-week tour.

"It's scary to be performing an actual Georgian play in front of a Georgian audience, but it's exciting, too," said actor and fight choreographer Ben Kunis. "Ever since I joined the company, we have been talking about going to Georgia and now we are actually going to do it."

Irina expanded on Kunis' enthusiasm. "Host and Guest is a traditional [show] about the Georgians’ roots,” she said “I know the Georgian audience is going to be so emotional to see Americans performing something Georgian, with Georgian blood. And it’s a huge responsibility in front of my people for me. It’s kind of nerve-racking!”

"My friends and family will be there. My ballet teacher will be there, It's like I am going back to school and this is my final exam,' Irina said.

Synetic will be the 1st American Theater troupe to perform in Georgia. The performances are scheduled for the Rustaveli State Theater, which is the national dramatic theater of Georgia. The facility seats 800 people and has 5 balconies, making it much larger than the intimate space Synetic occupies in the Crystal City Underground. Even though the troupe has performed both plays before, the immense size of the Rusteveli stage caused several of the scenes to be reworked and the dancing expanded.

Synetic, which annually captures several Helen Hayes awards (DC's equivalent of Broadway's Tonys) calls its brand of theater, which minimizes, and, in many cases, entirely eliminates dialogue, physical theater. They combine movement, dance, music, video, and mime to propel their innovative storytelling.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
As I've said before, it is difficult to describe Syntetic's unique brand of theater with words. So here are 2 additional images, one from Lear and one from Host and Guest,  that will give you a glimpse of what the productions might look like to the Georgian audiences.

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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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