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Monday, December 31, 2012

Monkeys Grasp for the Moon

If you visit the Sackler Gallery, a Smithsonian museum of Asian art on the National Mall which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, be sure to check out the massive metal sculpted piece to the left of the information desk. The work by Chinese artist Xu Bing, especially commissioned for the facility, towers from the small pool at the bottom of the museum to the artistic main skylight.

Basically, the piece, entitled "Monkeys Grasp for the Moon," is Bing's interpretation of a classic Chinese folktale. In his creation, Bing uses word shapes from 21 different languages including English, Chinese, Hindi, Urdu, and Braille. The word shapes resemble monkeys, stretched at the beginning and the end, to form long tails that link them together. You can walk down the winding staircases to determine which word shapes represent which of the languages.

In the original Chinese story, a group of monkeys want to try to capture the moon's reflection in a shimmering pool of water. Linking arms and tails to form a chain, they reach down from a high tree branch to touch the moon's form as it shimmers on the water's surface.

To their dismay, the moon always vanished at the very moment they tried to grasp it. And the moral of the tale - those things that we most desire to achieve may prove to be nothing but an illusion.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
One of the great things about revisiting museums regularly is you get a chance to discover artifacts and art works that you previously missed. Such was the case for us with "Monkeys Grasp for the Moon." We were actually in the museum to revisit the incredible, one-week-only 3-D exhibit Pure Land, a virtual reality trip to ancient Chinese Buddhist caves now closed to the public (profiled elsewhere in this blog). While we were standing in line for the 3-D exhibit, my wife noticed the sculptured piece which we obviously had missed on our previous trips to the Sackler. So, after leaving the Pure Land showing, we returned to check out the unique monkey sculpture. Just another reason why we are so glad to live in the DC area. We can pop in to events and exhibitions just about any time we want.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Zoolights Make for Bright Nights

Light monkey welcomes zoo visitors
If you want to extend the Christmas season and you don't mind bundling up against the cold, a visit to Zoolights at the National Zoo is a great choice.

We headed there tonight to take in the light displays, many of them shaped like animals, as well as watch beaming youngsters participate in activities like viewing Panda Claws dance inside a giant snow globe or zoo tubing down Lion/Tiger Hill...

Most of the visitors first headed to the zoo's train station to check out the special model train exhibit featuring a replica scale model of the Smithsonian castle made out of  Legos. Also on display there were all the entries in the Gin-Grr Bread Contest, where participants designed animal habitats out of gingerbread.

In the Lemur Island area, youngsters could take a ride on the newly installed Conservation Carousel, where all the animals appear on the endangered species list.

Smithsonian Castle made from Legos
But the big highlight was the lighted displays made up of 500,000 LED lights.. The zoo lanes were lined with Christmas trees made out lights. Icy dripping lights cascaded down real trees. Some of the displays featured changing lights to seasonal music. And, in some cases, the light displays made it seem as if the snakes, frogs, and lizards were moving.

If you haven't seen Zoolights yet, you will have only one more chance. The lights will be off on New Year's Eve, but will shine one more time on New Year's night. But, since the event is annual, you will always be able to view it once again beginning late next November.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Several of the zoo's animal exhibits were open and none was more crowded than the Great Apes habitat. And the star of that exhibit was Lucy, who decided to show how gorillas fake sleep by curling up in a blanket. Zoo worker Chris said Lucy's antics were simply designed to make sure visitors paid attention to her. "Gorillas do sleep that way in the wild," Chris said. "But the don't use blankets, they use leaves. Watch. Lucy's not sleeping. She'll look up periodically to make sure people are still  watching her and going 'ah, how cute.'" Chris said Lucy will turn 40 next year, but no one is reminding her of her age. "We just tell her she looks fabulous. That's what she wants to hear," Chris said.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Dining in DC: We, the Pizza

The way I figure it, if it's good enough for the president of the United States, it's good enough for the Prices. That's why, when we're in the Capitol Hill neighborhood and want pizza, we head for We, the Pizza on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Now let me explain something about my pizza preferences. I know there are people who are concerned about the sauce, about the crust, about the cheese. But when it comes to pizza, I like variety. And that is where We, the Pizza shines. There are 12 varieties of pies. Then there are 5 more types in the special Pizza on Tour category where pies capture the flavors of different regions of the United States and Mexico. All are available by the pie or the slice, which allows for some creative taste combinations.

Let's deal with the tour category first. Here is the current list:
  • Mortadella Pico de Gallo from Albuquerque, New Mexico
  • Honey Ham and Pineapple from Maui, Hawaii
  • Cajun Chicken  and Andouille from New Orleans, Louisiana 
  • Regal Pepper Farm from St. Augustine, Florida
  • China Poblano Spicy Mexican Pie from Puebla, Mexico.
I have tried and enjoyed all but the Regal Pepper. Pressed to pick a favorite, I would have to go with the Honey Ham and Pineapple (roasted fresh pineapple, Virginia ham, ginger, honey, lemongrass, mozz, and a  hint of tomato sauce.

From the 12-pie regular list my 3 favorites are Coletti's Notorious BBQ (slow roasted pulled pork w/BBQ sauce, cheddar, and crispy onion), Buffalo Chicken Pie (spicy boneless chicken wings, creamy blue cheese, mozz, and Miguel's hot sauce) and Forrest Shroomin' Pie (wild forest mushrooms, truffles, mozz, and fresh thyme). The next time we visit I'm going to sample the For the Greeks in Us (tomato sauce, feta cheese, mozz, tomatoes, red onion, kalamata olives, fresh oregno, sprinkled toasted sesame seeds, and Spike's Kefalonian olive oil).

As you can see, I really do crave variety. But my wife is completely different. For her, pizza is basic. The most daring she gets is extra cheese. But fortunately for me, she gives a big thumbs up to the Simple Cheese Pie here.

We, the Pizza is under the direction of chef Spike Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn first came to prominence when he participated in Bravo’s Top Chef in 2008, then Top Chef All Stars two years later. His other Capitol Hill establishment, the hamburger and shake Good Stuff Eatery is located right next to his pizza shop.

Now what about that presidential thing we mentioned? We the Pizza is on the list of the 44 places in the DC area Barack Obama has dined since taking office in 2008.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
What others say:
The Prices Do DC Rating
**** 4 out of 5 pies

Friday, December 28, 2012

Kennedy and King Coming to Newseum in 2013

President Kennedy, Caroline, and Jackie relaxing
As a sort of early holiday present, the Newseum annually holds a special showing in December of artifacts to be included in the upcoming year's exhibitions for its members.  This year, members got an early look at some of the items that will be included in 2 main exhibitions in 2013, one on President John F. Kennedy and one on key events of the Civil Rights Movement in 1963.

Actually, the Kennedy exhibition will consist of 3 separate productions. One, called Creating Camelot, will feature intimate photos, some of which have never been seen in public before, to capture that unique feeling of the Kennedy presidency. The second, entitled Three Shots Were Fired, will detail that tragic Nov. 22, 1963 day in Dallas when President Kennedy was assassinated. The 3rd, A Thousand Days, will be a Newseum-produced film shown on a 100-foot-wide video screen. It will use original footage and interviews to examine Kennedy's presidency and family life in the White House.
President Kennedy with some of the younger members of his clan
While curators discussed all the items, members were able to examine 3 large tables of artifacts including photos, news accounts, and journalistic tools which will appear as part of the President Kennedy story. One of the most sobering items for anyone alive during those days were the hat, drum, and drumsticks that a military drummer used as part of the sad funeral processional down Pennsylvania Avenue, the same street where the Newseum is located today.
Sign of those times

Notebooks from Civil Rights reporters
Also planned for next year, is a major exhibit on key events in the Civil Rights Movement during 1963. Items for that and a special exhibit on the 1964 Freedom Summer (that time on which the movie Mississippi Burning was based) which is scheduled for 2014.

Much of next year's exhibition will detail conditions African-Americans had been facing earlier and were continuing to face in the early 1960s. Again, as is always the case, the items on early view also had journalistic importance. Displayed items included the Frank Leslie illustrated magazine story about the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision and part of a series of 11 articles noted black journalist Carl Rowan wrote about the separate but unequal education in the South just prior to the Brown vs. Board Supreme Court decision.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Of all the items on display, I found an actual Aug. 11, 1761 ad from a Maryland paper placed by George Washington to be the most intriguing. The ad promised a 40-shilling reward for 4 slaves - Peros (35/40), Jack (30), Neptune (23/36) and Cupid (23/26) - who had escaped from Washington's Mount Vernon estate. The ad said that 2 of the escaped slaves spoke English poorly, but 2 spoke the language well. The ad closed with these words: "If they should be taken f(s)eparately, the Reward will be proportioned."

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Dining in DC: Scion

One of the best things about living in a large metropolitan area is the great number of food choices. Of course, there is a downside. You have to figure out where you want to eat. Well, in DC, there is a unique way to narrow your choices. You can eat where President Barack Obama has eaten. In his 1st term, Obama gained a reputation for dining out more than his recent predecessors at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. So far he has shown up at 44 eateries. Sometimes, it was a special occasion dinner with Michelle. Sometimes, it was a staff treat or a working lunch with a foreign dignity. And then there were those break bread with the President fundraising contests during the 2012 campaign.

To date, we have eaten at 16 of the dining establishments that President Obama selected for one purpose or another. The latest was Scion, located a few blocks from Dupont Circle. In 2010, Scion was named best new restaurant in DC by the Washington City Paper. We were aware of the restaurant's pedigree. It is owned and operated by Joanne and Julie Liu. Their parents, Jenny and Henry Liu, immigrated to the United States over 35 years ago and started Jenny's Chinese Restaurant, a DC restaurant that we like.


Scion bills itself as serving American cuisine that is sophisticated comfort food. Now usually, my food choices are pretty exotic, but on this particular night comfort food sounded right. Judy had 5-cheese house recipe mac and cheese and a spinach salad with crispy chicken. I opted for turkey meatloaf w/ wild mushroom gravy, mashed potatoes, and white bean succotash. We split pumpkin walnut creme brulee for dessert.

So how was our meal. It was good, but as usual I find a problem with comfort food. To me, I judge comfort food against all the family cooks in my life. Maybe its the love, but I usually find the comfort food in a restaurant pales when compared to my Mother's chicken pot pie, my mother-in-law's liver and onion or my wife's meat loaf. But I will put in a special word for the white bean succotash. And, as for the dessert, the fix was in. I don't like creme brulee, but it was Judy's turn to choose our meal-ender.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
What others say:
The Prices Do DC rating
  • *** 3 out of 5 plates (would have been 2-and 1/2, but the white bean succotash moved it up.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Very Like a Whale

In Hamlet, William Shakespeare's classic play about illusion and reality, there is a great scene where the mentally-tormented Hamlet is talking to that old windbag Polonuis about clouds, trying to convince him about shapes. It ends with Polonius agreeing that one of the clouds is, indeed, "very like a whale." Well creators and curators Rosamond Purcell and Michael Witmore have chosen that name for their exhibition of related books, objects, natural artifacts, and surrealistic photographs now on display in the Great Hall at the Folger Shakespeare Library. 

The intriguing Very Like a Whale exhibition is an outgrowth of the book Purcell and Witmore previously collaborated on entitled Landscapes of the Passing Strange: Reflections from Shakespeare.  In that work, Purcell features her pioneering technique of capturing reflections in antique mercury glass apothecary jars, resulting in haunting images that seem to move with the liquid quickness of ideas. These images she says are an attempt to capture Shakespeare's expansive imagination in action. Witmore then paired each photograph with a short passage from Shakespeare's plays with an uncanny sense of the playwright's intent.

Much of the same method is used for the expanded Folger display. Here's how the pair describe their project in a promotional brochure. "We searched out rare books and borrowed treasures from friends. On the walls are natural marvels: a narwhal tusk, a crocodile, and a shield made of hippo hide. In the cases, books commingled with objects become small thematic collections. In 'All the Whale's a Stage,' for example, the animal becomes a rock on which a sea-borne bishop says Easter Mass or a site to explore by Dutch monks or men in kilts.

Each of the showcases use a quotation from a famous Shakespeare work. While some of the showcases have broad themes, others refer to specific Shakespeare characters like Caliban or Prospero from The Tempest.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
You still have some time to see the special exhibition.  "Very Like a Whale" runs until Jan. 6.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Will Hoge at Jammin' Java

Will Hoge at home on stage
When he was 7, Will Hoge's family moved to a larger home in Tennessee. Hoge's 2nd-floor bedroom was so far removed that his parents gave him a transistor radio for company. At night, he would tune in the stations he could pick up. Country stations with Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. Soul stations with Otis Redding and James Brown. Rock stations with the Beatles and the Stones.But for the young Hoge, there were really no musical distinctions. "I just knew that there were some great songs on there with some great songwriters," Hoge says.

Today, many decades later, Hoge no longer lives in that Tennessee home and his prized, old transistor radio long ago found its way to the dump. But the diversified music he listened to lives on as he tours the country, playing his pleasingly hard-to-categorize songs for appreciative audiences such as the one he found last week at Jammin' Java in Vienna, Virginia.

Hoge's performance was the next to last stop on his Let Me Be Lonely 2012 solo tour. It came just a few weeks after he was nominated for his 1st Grammy for Best Country Song "Even If It Breaks Your Heart," a song that appeared on his 2008 album and was re-recorded by the Eli Young Band and released this year.

Hoge performed several songs from his latest CD American Protest Music (which I rate as one of my 10 favorite CDs of 2012). They included "Folded Flag," "Times Are Not Changing," and "Jesus Came to Tennessee." He also drew from his extensive catalog with renditions of such fan favorites as "Fool's Gonna Fly," "The Highway's Home," "Baby Girl," and, of course "Even If It Breaks Your Heart." Hoge even played a couple of-yet unreleased songs including one about a gambling man and the love of his wife.

Promising songwriter Erick Baker, accompanied by the upright piano and amazing fiddle work of Donnie Reece, opened the show. During the middle of Baker's performance Hoge surprised his fellow songwriter by presenting him with a birthday cake on stage. "It Erick's birthday. So if you are only going to buy one CD tonight .................. make it a Will Hoge CD. But if you are going to buy 2 CDs tonight, then pick up one of Erick's," Hoge joked as the enthusiastic crowd shouted its approval.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
As I indicated above, Hoge's songs are hard to categorize. Is he country? Rock? Country/rock? Alt country? A Tennessee Bruce Springsteen? Well, labels are just restricting conveniences. The best thing is to check out the music. So for those of you who don't know him, let me introduce you to Will Hoge. Just click on the links below. I think you will like the music. I know I do.
He played these:
He didn't play this but it is my favorite Will Hoge song:
And if you want even more:


Monday, December 24, 2012

Ways to Keep Christmas Lasting a Little Longer

One of about 300 White House ornaments
For some, the yuletide season ends when, after a Christmas Day of unwrapping gifts and other holiday festivities, the tree lights are turned off and everyone gets snuggled up warm in their beds. Others try to extend the Santa season to, at the very least, New Year's Day. If you are in the second category and can make it to downtown DC, the historic Willard Hotel is a good place to continue Christmas.

The Willard Intercontinental has been observing the season in grand fashion since 1986 and has become a part of the holidays for thousands of DC-area families and visitors from all parts of the world.

The famous Willard tree
The center piece of the hotel's presentation is its grand 14-foot tree, which is dotted with more than 300 official White House Christmas ornaments from the past 30 years. The collectibles are issued each year by the White House Historical Association. This year's trinket, a charming classic car, honors the Taft White House, which was the 1st to embrace the automobile.

Good enough to eat 
Also in the lobby is an impressive edible recreation of an outdoor Willard scene created with great craft by Willard pastry chef Gary Hanlon.  And yes, you can lean close and smell the sweetness of the icing. You will also want to tour the rest of the 1st floor of the ornate Beaux-Arts building, where columns are encircled in greenery and ornaments and small trees line the halls.

Now you can experience the Willard's take on Christmas for free, but if you want something a little more memorable, you can pretend to be part of the cultured, formal wealthy set (unless you really are and then you don't have to pretend) and indulge yourself with a British-style high tea. The Holiday Afternoon Tea will be offered daily with the exception of New Year's Eve. Guests will experience elegant harp music throughout their tea experience. The price for Holiday Afternoon Tea is $42 for adults and $22 for children (ages 4 though 12). And for $56, you can add even more spirit to the adventure. That is the price for the Champagne tea.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
The Willard Hotel is only one suggestion for extending your Christmas in DC for free. Here are a few others.
  • Season's Greetings at the Botanical Garden features Holiday Magic, a unique exhibit including model trains, woodland fairy folk, and incredible replicas of some of Washington, DC's most famous buildings and monuments
  • From 5 until  9 p.m.,the National Zoo presents a seasonal display of thousands of sparkling animated lights, winter-themed crafts, ice sculpting demonstrations, choral groups, and storytellers.
  • The Washington, DC Church of Jesus Christ of Latter–day Saints, also known as the Mormon Temple, is open to all during the Christmas season. This impressive church and its surrounding grounds shine brightly with more than 450,000 sparkling Christmas lights. Each night, a different local musical group performs a live concert in a state-of-the-art theater. 
  • Christmas at Mt. Vernon and Mt. Vernon by candelight 



Sunday, December 23, 2012

Roy Lichtenstein: The Art World's Prince of Pop

Lichtenstein's Look Mickey, 1961
In 1961, at the urging of a fellow Rutgers University art professor, Roy Lichtenstein loaded up a station wagon with a few pieces of his new art work, and, accompanied by his colleague, headed across the river to New York to try to convince an influential gallery owner that his work should be exhibited. Among those paintings was "Look Mickey, 1961." On a first look, the gallery owner was impressed and Lichtenstein was on his way to sharing billing with Andy Warhol as the 2 most noted artists in the school of visual creation that came to be known as Pop Art.

But as art historian Avis Berman points out, Lichtenstein was no overnight sensation. "His life was divided into 2 roughly symmetrical halves: 38 years of obscurity and 36 years of permanent fame," Berman says. "He hung in and hung on."

Berman's remarks came during a lecture entitled Roy Lichtenstein: Voices from the Archive she recently delivered at the National Gallery of Art as part of that institution's major retrospective of Lichtenstein's work now on display.

As consultant for the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, Berman has conducted more than 200 interviews with the artist, his family, and those who knew him. One of the most unusual aspects of her talk was that it was punctuated more than a dozen times by the actual words recorded from Lichtenstein himself. "Call it an art historian's version of a Tony Bennett duet," Berman joked before she began her talk.

Berman said Lichtenstein, best known for his trademark use of benday dots that he used to create works lifted from cartoons and comic strips, was constantly intrigued by the question - what is art? As Lichtenstein put it, "I was always baffled by why are these few marks art and these few marks are not art? Why is one valued and the other one isn't?"

On Pop art, Lichtenstein said, "Part of the intention on Pop is to mask its intentions with humor. But Pop should also tell you something you didn't know."

Berman said the oral interviews have greatly expanded the understanding of both Lichtenstein and his work. "He had no impulse to accumulate documentation and he lived in a time when the telephone was replacing the letter as the means of communication," she noted. "The more we can understand the background of an artist the more easy it is to understand the art."

For example, her interviews revealed that despite his fame, Lichtenstein was extremely generous. "He gave anyone who did something nice for him or anyone who worked for him some of his art work," Berman said.

Much of Lichtenstein's reputation rests on the fact that he upended virtually every prejudice of high art that existed at the time he began his Pop work. However, Lichtenstein admitted that his breakthrough was really unplanned. "My ability was way above my awareness. The rationales came later. I guess anyone can become a crazed genius for a second," he joked during one of his interviews."

Lichtenstein definitely believed that all art isn't really new, but is based on the art of the past. "It takes a lot of generations of artists looking at other artists to produce new art," he said.

Berman said she doesn't agree with the contention that Lichtenstein was simply aping work others had originally created. "He didn't just copy. He changed and strengthened the original completely. He looked at what had been overlooked," she said.

The art historian maintains that Lichtenstein and Warhol will remain significant figures in the history of art. "Pop was denigrated but it has come to be recognized as a legitimate school of art. It captured the zeitgeist of the 1960s," she contended.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
You still have time to see the Lichtenstein retrospective. It will remain on view until Jan. 13. If you go to the show, you will visit themed rooms of Lichtenstein's works. They are:

  • early Pop
  • black and white
  • romance
  • brush strokes
  • war
  • landscapes
  • modern art deco
  • art history
  • nudes
  • landscapes in a Chinese style

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Dining in DC: The New Big Wong

If you like to eat as much as I do, you are always looking for tips on new eateries to try. So recently, when we were in Chinatown, I decided to check my iPhone for recommendations. I came across an article from The Washington City Paper discussing where top DC chefs like to eat in Chinatown after they close their own establishments.

One of the chefs mentioned was Mike Isabella, an alumnus of the TV show Top Chef. I think Isabella's Italian small plates at Graffiato's are among the best in DC. I also enjoyed his Mexican small plates at his recently opened Bandolero in Georgetown. I was pretty certain if Isabella said a place would be good, it would be good.

He recommended New Big Wong. He also singled out 2 particular dishes. The 1st was Wong’s pan-fried noodles with pork and salt and pepper shrimp. The 2nd was dried scallop fried rice.  Isbaella was quoted in the article as saying "when you get it right at Big Wong, that’s the shit.”

It was settled. This was a night for the new. We had eaten at several places in Chinatown, but never at New Big Wong. Also, I had eaten salt and pepper shrimp before, but had never tasted dried scallop fried rice.

So what was the verdict? Isabella was right - the New Big Wong was really good. And the dried scallop fried rice (in addition to the dried scallop there were bits of several types of shellfish, egg, green onions, and Chinese seasonings) truly was "the shit."

But the night provided 2 even better surprises. In my wife's family, I am known for my ability to eat large amounts of food. But the bowl of scallop rice was huge. I barely finished a 3rd of it. That meant 2 more meals at home.The other was the great Facebook post our dining created for me. "Just ate at New Big Wong in DC's Chinatown. And as you know, you can't go wrong with a new big wong."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips:
What others say:

The Prices Do rating:
  • **** 4 out of 5 stars (and maybe thrown in a pair of chop sticks, too)

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Trip to the Moon

What would happen if you let talented DC director, writer, and illustrator Natsu Onoda Power create her take on the silent French classic 1902 film Le Voyage dans de lune, a 10th Century Japanese moral fable about the moon, A Tale of a Bamboo, and an imagined tale of Laika, the Russian space dog; combine all 3; and then let the talented members of the Synetic Theater company perform the weird, yet often wildly entertaining theatrical triptych?

You would have A Trip to the Moon, the Crystal City-based Synetic's latest production which blends drama, music, off-stage voice-overs, live drawing, projections, and other visual effects. Although words fail to capture the visual impacts of the performance a brief, linear synopsis would read something like this:

The head of a committee of scientists proposes a plan for a trip to the Moon. Interlude. An old man finds a shining stalk of bamboo in the forest, which contains a baby the size of his thumb. She turns out to be a princess from the Moon. Return. The scientific group lands on the Moon. They encounter the Selenites, the Moon's inhabitants. Interlude. Laika, a stray dog living on the streets of Moscow, gets captured by a group of humans and sent into space, where she dies after dreaming of the Moon. Conclusion. The scientists, due to the sacrifice of their leader, escape the Selenites and return to Earth.

In her director's notes, Power points out that much has changed since George Melies wowed audiences with his Moon film. "Stories of lunar travel no longer connote fantastical fiction. Scientists and politicians seem a little enamored by the Moon," Power says. "Still some things have stayed the same. The Moon still serves as a source of inspiration to many artists."

But what is the message? "The show is a tribute to all the humans and animals that have reached the Moon, literally or figuratively. It is about attaining the unattainable and what happens after," she says.

If you do decide to see the production, make sure to arrive early. That way you can check out the fascinating film-like curtain, practice your knowledge of French (now how do you say "turn off your cell phone" again?)  introductions, watch the sole musical accompanist burst into flames, and hear a soundtrack of Moon songs by artists like The Beatles and REM.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
A Trip to the Moon runs until January 6. You can read what critics are saying about the production by clicking here, and here, and finally here. You can see the YouTube trailer by clicking on the image above (or, if you are reading this in email subscription) by clicking here.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Newtown: What Do You Say?

Earlier this week, my wife and I headed to the Smithsonian Museum of American History to see a dedication ceremony where institution officials would be accepting one of the witches' costumes worn in the celebrated Broadway musical Wicked. Given the play's close connection to the classic children's story The Wizard of Oz, it wasn't surprising that we were joined by dozens and dozens of 4 and 5-year-old pre-schoolers, squirming in anticipation of what they were about to see. But despite the wonder and innocence that emanated from their smiling faces, I couldn't help but look at them differently than I would have just a few days ago. For this was post-Newtown, a name sure to join Columbine and Virginia Tech and way too many other American sites as a scene of evil personified - a place where young people were gunned down, victims of our society's growing propensity  for levels of violence that are almost incomprehensible for a rationale mind to comprehend.

As they entered the Smithsonian's huge main hall and approached the stage, the little ones, as little ones have been doing since the beginning of time, were holding hands with their partners. Instead of smiling at the warming sight, I kept flashing back to early news reports from Newtown that described how the surviving elementary students, shocked and shakened, were told to close their eyes and hold each others hands tightly as they slowly left the horror that had unfolded in their hallways.

Like you, I am struggling to come to grips with what happened last week in that Connecticut community. It hits home because I am an American. It hits home because I am a  father. It hits home because I am a grandfather to 2 precious grandchildren, who with their mostly Mom-, but sometimes Dad-packed lunches and young dreams, head off daily to their Atlanta area pre-school. And it hits home because for 34 of my 60 years, I was a teacher of the young, both as a high school English teacher and a journalism teacher at college.

As we waited for the Smithsonian ceremony, I wanted so much to rush to those kids and hug them. Of course, I didn't. As it should, society has strict prohibitions against strangers hugging children. And anyway what could I tell them as I held them tight? Don't worry, you will be OK. Such things will never happen to you. It may not seem that way now, but evil never triumphs over good. With the help of a strong mind, a loving  heart, fearless courage, and maybe even a wise wizard or a good witch, you will always be able to slay the wicked witches and safely find your way home.

Like you, I am struggling with ways to reduce this insane level of violence that is threatening to destroy America. I think we must look at many avenues. But I draw the line at one. This is how I put it on my Facebook page:

I continue to read comments from what I am sure are concerned, well-intentioned people contending that arming teachers and administrators is a way to stop school violence. As an educational professional with 34 years experience in teaching, 27 years of that time in inner city schools, I am no stranger to school violence. Obviously, it is a horrific problem and my thinking has evolved over time. So, today I say yes to any classroom instruction that helps show students violence is not a solution. I say yes to lessons that demonstrate the harm in bullying and promote tolerance and empathy. I say yes to units that require students to explore the negative effects of video games, song lyrics, TV, and movies. I say yes to in-school physical and mental health clinics. I say yes to locked doors and bullet-proof glass. I say yes to metal detectors. I say yes to well-trained, armed police professionals in the building daily. But I say no - in fact I say a thousand times no - to arming teachers and school administrators. That is an answer I must mark as wrong. 

Even though I am a committed opponent to all violence, I will readily admit that if I had a weapon, I would use it to save the lives of any of those little ones sitting before me on the Smithsonian floors. That decision would be even easier if it were my grandchildren. But here's the thing. I don't like living in an America where I have to consider that as an option. And I certainly wouldn't want to teach in an America that made killing one of my duties. I believe that there are other solutions. And those solutions aren't somewhere over some rainbow. They are right here in this American land we call home. We just need to use our heads and hearts to find them, and then have the courage to put them into action.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
I have always had a fascination with words. I loved when my Mother read to me. As soon as I could read, I devoured DC comics and Classics Illustrated. In high school, I wrote for the school newspaper. In college, I was an English major, studying the great words of the world's greatest writers. I spent 10 years as a newspaper writer and editor. For 5 of those years, I taught news reporting at a South Jersey college. After that I spent 20 years as a high school English teacher, 5 years as a language arts/literacy coach, and 2 years in DC as an educational consultant. During those years, I had many responsibilities, but one of the main ones was helping students become better readers and more proficient writers. But even with all that training, words often fail me. I have learned that when that happens, I still can find someone who can express those views I believe need expressing, but am unable to say myself.  Here are 3 recent articles that fit that category. If you have the time, I hope you will read them.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Impact of Social Media on Journalism

from left, Johnson, Augenstein, Beaujon, and Bond
In his early years as a radio reporter in Washington, DC, Neal Augenstein had to carry an arsenal of news gathering tools with him: a tape recorder, a computer, a phone. But in 2010, Augenstein drastically changed his news gathering - he decided to do all his field reporting on an iPhone.

"I was always juggling all these devices. I was looking for a way to speed up the news gathering process. I found I could do it all on a single device," Augenstein says.

WTOP reporter Augenstein was joined by Poynter Online media reporter Andrew Beaujon and Newseum program producer Frank Bond at the Newseum recently for a wide-ranging discussion of how social media such as Twitter and Facebook is impacting journalism.

All 3 agreed that speed of reporting is probably the biggest change. A tweet is virtually instantaneous. "In the old days you would wait for the whole story until you reported it," Augenstein said. Now, however, many stories begin with a tweeted lead and then are fleshed over subsequent filings. A typical listener might be alerted by a tweet, then turn to the radio or TV for information and then finally to a computer article or newspaper account for more detail.

Beaujon said news organizations are using social media in 2 very different ways. They are using Twitter and other techniques to broadcast what they are doing. But they are also using those same ways to listen to their audience and respond more directly to them. With social media, news organizations are "a lot more in touch" with their readers, Beaujon contended.

"I think Twitter is as important as the wires (services like AP and UPI) that newsrooms used to follow," Beaujon said.

He added that with the quick feedback offered by social media, reporters are notified much more rapidly when they have made a mistake in a story. "You learn about your errors very quickly. It's best if an organization just says 'yeah, we messed that up' and correct it. It used to be a lot harder to do (make corrections). Now it is taking place in public," Beaujon said.

Augenstein agreed that social media allows reporters and news organizations to better "engage with the public."

"They know how to reach you at any minute," he said. "I've never felt more in touch."

Bond said the idea of the public being able to take pictures (often referred to as twit pix) has altered reporting and publishing. Now, you no longer need to have a journalist present to document news. He pointed out that the 1963 assassination of President John Kennedy, which was captured by the famous Zapruder film, was probably the greatest historic example of "citizen journalism." Thirty years later you had public video of the Rodney King beating. Today, with most everyone carrying a cell phone equipped with a camera and with video capability, that process is even easier.

"As the tech comes into the hands of the citizens, the relationship (between audience and media) has to change," Bond said. "But it still takes professionals to put news in context."

All 3 cautioned that sources still needed to be verified and unchecked reports can lead to problems such as  what happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Area tweeters tweeted wrong information, some of which was reported by the media as fact.

However, all 3 journalists said they believe that social media is more helpful than harmful. "Shaking the castle walls has been pretty positive for journalists. We were too isolated. Information has moved into the cloud and people expect and demand accuracy," Beaujon said. :I'm all for blurring the lines."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
It was a 1st for the Newseum at the social media discussion. The talk was moderated by Kelley Johnson, a student at School Without Walls in D.C. Ms. Johnson, who is planning to study political science and communications in college, is a member of the student advisory board who helps the Newseum plan exhibitions and programs. "We ask their opinions. They give us feedback and we incorporate that into the program. As part of her school assignment, Ms. Johnson is actually writing a 15-page paper on the impact of social media on journalism. She asked Bond, who is mentoring her, if she could do more. So she was chosen to moderate the program. And how did she do. Well, as a former teacher I would have to give her an A. And as a former journalist I believe she can have a promising career in journalism if that is the path she chooses.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Shame on the NRA

Today, as the tragedy-saddened Connecticut community of Newtown prepared for the somber task of burying its dead children and educators, about 200 sign-carrying gun-control advocates staged a protest rally in front of the National Rifle Association's lobbying offices near Capitol Hill, claiming NRA pressure on legislators makes it too easy to obtain firearms in the United States.

"Shame on the NRA, shame on the NRA, shame on the NRA," the vocal crowd shouted again and again. Many of the attendees waved signs, some handmade and some provided by CREDO mobile, which organized the noontime rally. "Teachers stand up to gunmen but Congress won't stand up to the NRA," one read. "Arms are for hugging, gun control now," read another. "Those 20 children didn't weigh much each, but collectively they MUST weigh heavily on the nation's CONSCIENCE," said a third. "Another Mother (or Grandfather or Teacher) AGAINST (a picture of an assault rifle)," proclaimed dozens of others.

The rally began at the Spirit of Justice Park, where attendees received brief instructions. "We will be chanting but this is a solemn occasion. Keep that in mind," one of the organizers said. Carrying their signs and continually calling out "Shame on the NRA," the group then marched by twos the 2 blocks to the NRA’s Federal Affairs Division, which is responsible for the organization’s lobbying efforts.

After arriving at the NRA site, the crowd was led in a long moment of silence to commemorate those killed when a lone gunman apparently shot his way into a Newtown elementary school last Friday and opened fire with an assault rifle, killing 20 students between the ages of 6 and 7, and 6 of those charged with educating them.

As dozens of TV and media photographers jostled each other and the protesters to find the most dramatic pictures, CREDO organizer Josh Nelson directed the protest, which was based on an actual questionnaire that the NRA sends to all Congressional candidates. "Today we say enough is enough," Nelson proclaimed.

All 6 NRA questions were handled in the same format. First Nelson would read a name and the age of the victim. He would then read an explanatory introduction and the NRA acceptable position. Then the crowd, using previously prepared and distributed guide sheets, would answer with a dissenting response, followed by "Shame on the NRA."

Here is an example of what it sounded like if you were there:
Nelson: In memory of (.......................), age 6.
Intro:  In 1994, Bill Clinton signed the Omnibus Crime Act, imposing a 10-year ban on the manufacture for sale to private citizens of nearly 200 models of semi-automatic firearms. The law also prohibited the manufacture for sale to private citizens of ammunition magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition (that law expired in 2004 and hasn't been renewed).
The NRA-desired Response:  I agree with the NRA and would oppose legislation banning the manufacture, sale, or transfer of commonly-owned semi-automatic firearms or ammunition magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds.
The crowd: I disagree with the NRA and would support legislation to ban the manufacture, sale or transfer of semi-automatic firearms and ammunition magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Shame on the NRA!

The rally was briefly interrupted when a lone dissenter began calling "If one teacher or one principal had been armed ..."  The crowd silenced him with vigorous shouts of "Shame, shame, shame, shame, shame."

Before concluding, organizers and crowd volunteers also read 5 citizens questions for the NRA. Those questions asked if the NRA:
  • agrees that it is time to stand down and allow Congress to pass common sense gun laws that will save lives
  • agrees that combat assault rifles should not be available for legal purchase
  • agrees with academic research and common sense position that we should reduce murders and killing from guns by restricting access and increasing regulation on some types of guns
  • agrees with the majority of Americans and even a majority of NRA members that we should enact common sense gun control measures to save lives
  • agrees that it is time to rethink (gun) policies to save lives
On this day, the questions went unanswered. There was no one at the NRA lobbying office. But it appears there will be a day of reckoning for the NRA on its positions. "We'll be back. We'll be back. We'll be back," the crowd chanted as it dispersed.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
We prepare to let our voices be heard
I am a vocal supporter of stricter gun control laws. I find it interesting that the NRA and its most influential backers have maintained complete silence since news of the horrid mass murders first broke Friday morning. The NRA has even shut down its Facebook page, posting a message: "To avoid uncivil debates breaking out on its Facebook Page wall in the wake of the tragic shooting in Newtown, Conn., the National Rifle Association has unpublished its Facebook Page." Pro-gun rights senators aren't talking either. David Gregory, host of NBC's "Meet the Press," noted on the show Sunday that pro-gun rights senators in the new Congress had declined to go on the show to discuss guns. "We reached out to all 31 pro-gun rights Senators in the new Congress to invite them on the program to share their views on this subject this morning," Gregory said. "We had no takers." Of course, silence can mean many things. I hope the silence means that the NRA and the senators are rethinking their positions and will join in the movement to bring sanity to our gun policies. That would truly be the best of what we call the American way.


Sunday, December 16, 2012

Season's Greetings from Ronnie Spector

Ronnie Spector on stage at the Howard
In 1963, Ronnie Spector, then the main voice behind the Ronettes, one of the most talented and popular girl groups of the period, performed 3 songs on the record A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. "Frosty the Snowman." "Sleigh Ride." "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." Over the years, those songs have become perennial favorites on radio and internet stations that play holiday music. And last night, Ms. Spector brought her annual Ronnie Spector's Best Christmas Party Ever show to the Howard Theater here in DC.

Ms. Spector, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007, was supported by a rollicking 6-piece band and 2 female backup singers who worked diligently all night to provide the famed "Wall of Sound" that was so much a part of those early Ronnette's record.

Of course, Ms. Spector performed quite a series of Christmas classics, including the 3 from the 1963 LP, as well as "Rocking Around the Christmas Tree" and a rendition of John Lennon's "And So This Is Christmas."

To the great delight of the audience, the holiday hits were interspersed among many of the classic rock songs the Ronettes made famous such as "Baby I Love You," "I Can Hear Music," and my all-time Ronettes favorite "Be My Baby."

Ms. Spector also choose to perform some of the early doo-wop songs which helped her establish her vocal stylings. "My mother didn't have money for singing lessons, so I would come home from school, throw these records on, and listen to them over and over," Ms. Spector said. She also allowed the band to stretch on the Ray Charles' classic "What I Say," which Ms. Spector said she used to perform before the Ronnette's had any hits.

Two of the most interesting selections in the 90-minute set were covers. Ms. Spector performed the late Amy Winehouse's "Back to Black." From its plinking piano intro to its powerful chorus, Ms. Spector's version definitely demonstrated how much Ms. Winehouse was influenced by early 60s girl singers like the Ronettes, the Crystals, and Darlene Love.

Christmas present, Christmas past
Ms. Spector introduced the 2nd song of the night as a tribute to her friends since the 1960s, The Rolling Stones. "They're playing just up the road in New Jersey tonight," she said. "This is a song I used to play for them when we toured together in 1964." She then broke into a torrid version of "Time Is On My Side," which the Stones made one of their early singles and played live on stage for years.

During each number, a giant screen behind Ms. Spector and the band displayed pictures and home movie clips that tied rock n' roll's past with the on-stage presentation. For example, when Ms. Spector performed the Stones' hit, the screen displayed a newspaper clip and pictures with the headline "Those Ronettes set the Stones rolling!"

In the night's only somber note, Ms. Spector dedicated her song "I Wish I Never Saw Sunshine" to the suffering children, families, and community of Newton, Connecticut. Visibly shaken and tearing up,  Ms. Spector said she lived only about 10 minutes from the scene of the tragic school shooting. "This goes out to the community there. It is the least I can do. They were just babies," she said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Who says there's no Santa Claus? During the last song of her 3-song encore, Ms. Spector reached into a large Christmas bag and pulled out rolled up Ronnie Spector T-shirts, each decorated with ribbons and a bow. We were seated center-stage, just one table from the stage front. Ms. Spector tossed the 1st T-shirt  at me, but a woman to my right reached in front of me. The T-shirt bounced off her hands and neither of us got it. But later in the song, Judy was able to grab one of Ms. Spector's tosses and I now have a free Christmas present from Ronnie Spector. And no, I didn't steal the shirt from my wife. It was an extra-large.  So to Ms. Spector I say thanks for the music, thanks for the memories, thanks for the T-shirt, and I hope your holiday is truly the best ever.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Merry Tuba Christmas 2012

If you were asked to choose the perfect Christmas instrument, there's a strong possibility you might name bells. The seasonal hints are everywhere. Carol of the Bells. Silver Bells. Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way. Chances are few people would choose a tuba. But, based on an annual concert at the Kennedy Center last week, that oversight might be a mistake.

More than 200 tuba, sousaphone, and euphonium players from all over the Washington, D.C. area packed (and indeed overflowed onto the floor) of the Millennium Stage to perform the Merry Tuba Christmas 2012 concert.

The idea for the unique, mellow brass-instrument-only holiday concert was conceived 30 years ago by tubist Harvey Phillips as a way to honor his tuba teacher William Bell, who was born on Christmas day in 1902. The 1st concert was held in 1974 at the ice rink at New York City's Rockefeller Plaza. Since then, it has spread to more than 250 cities and communities all over the United States. The 2012 concert here marked the 22nd time the Kennedy Center had hosted the event.

The concert setlist included renditions of almost all the best-known Christmas carols. According to format, the  horns would play the 1st verse and chorus of seasonal favorites from "Oh Come, All Ye Faithful" to "Joy to the World" and then repeat as the huge (it ran the entire length of the great hallway) audience sang on the second go-round.

The musicians, who had only rehearsed for an hour in the afternoon, included both amateurs and professionals. There were members of elementary, middle-school, and high school bands, military ensembles, and Kennedy Center performers. The youngest tubist was 8; the oldest, 76. Many performers decorated their tubas with wreaths, lights, and other symbols of the season. Most wore red and green Christmas colors and several sported Santa hats. The audience even learned how tuba players acknowledge applause. Instead of standing and bowing, they remain seated and hold their instruments high in the air.

Oh, and one final thing about that Christmas bell thing. With the sounds emanating from the bell of their instruments, the one-day only tuba, sousaphone and euphonium orchestra performed a unique, low-note- loaded version of "The Carol of the Bells."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
I imagine most of you (if not) all of your reading this post didn't have an opportunity to see this unusual performance live. But, as they do with all their free 6 p.m. Millennium Stage shows, the Kennedy Center placed it online. You can view it by clicking here. And, as an added bonus, there are links to Tuba Christmas concerts all the way back to 1999 if one performance isn't enough for you



Friday, December 14, 2012

Shock of the News

Newspaper Reader (1909) by Lyonel Feininger
It is a painting at once timed and timely. Lyonel Feininger's "Newspaper Reader (1909)" is the introductory visual visitors encounter when they enter the exhibition Shock of the News, now at the East Gallery of the National Gallery of Art.  In the painting, pedestrians of Weimar, Germany stride the streets perusing their papers, as oblivious to their surroundings as smart-phone users are today.The curators believe the image captures a common symptom of mass media modern culture - a heightened desire to stay on top of unfolding events, to be "in the loop."

Recently, gallery official Will Scott conducted a walk-and-talk tour of the exhibition, which explores more than 60 artists' responses to news and newspapers over the past 100 years.

The Dali News
Scott said that those connections basically fall into 3 categories. First, there are examples of how artists "used newspapers for their own purposes and take advantage of their popularity."  On display is a copy of
Dali News, a takeoff on the term Daily News, in which surrealistic artist Salvador Dali published fanciful, made-up articles about himself  "to keep his name in front of the public."

A second category features works by artists who "transformed newspapers and newsprint and disregarded the main purpose of communication," Scott said. For example, Pablo Picasso used fragments of real newspapers in his collages. One of the interesting side effects of such an approach is that newsprint is ephemeral and not made to last. Thus, over time, the newsprint gradually yellows, creating a different image than the one first constructed.

The Critic by Arthur Dove
In addition, art critics and viewers can debate the reasons why artists included the pieces of text they did. "Did the text have meaning? That's fun to ferret out," Scott said.

Finally, there are examples of where artists created works to "utilize the status of newspapers to make social comment," Spark said. "They raise large questions about mass communication and society. Or they can ask how do we understand our world through media and mass communication?"

One of the more intriguing examples of that category was "The Critic (1925)" by Arthur Dove. In that work, Dove used an article actually published by art critic Royal Cortisonne as the body for a figure with a top hat, but no head, who is on roller skates and holding a vacuum cleaner. The accepted interpretation of that work is that Dove was spoofing Cortisonne for being an empty-headed critic, speeding from New York art gallery to gallery to get rid of what he had called "the waste of modernist art."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
If you have any interest in journalism or in how artists from Picasso to Andy Warhol treated the idea of the print media, you should check out Shock of the News. The exhibit is running until Jan. 27.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Presidential Race Goes to the Dogs

Let the Barking and Biting Begin
Mitt Romney puts Seamus on top of the car.
("He liked it up there, and we weren't going far.")
Obama, in boyhood, while in Indonesia,
Once swallowed some dog meat without anesthesia.
Though dog lover's wouldn't be either man's base,
A dogfight seemed what was in store for the race.
And people were saying, "We wonder which dude'll
Emerge as the pit bull, and which as the poodle."

When Calvin Trillin, long-time New Yorker magazine writer, humorist, author of 30 books, and America's deadline poet, began thinking of a title for his verse book on the 2012 presidential race, he didn't have to ponder long. "Dogs were prominent right away," Trillin told the fan-filled crowd which packed Politics and Prose recently to hear him talk about his latest book Dogfight: The 2012 Presidential Campaign in Verse. Trillin may be America's deadline poet (he claims to be the only one and he's probably right), but his in-person persona is perfect comic deadpan, a cross between Bob Newhart and Bob Dole. And speaking of Bob Dole, Trillin says he always loved him as a candidate. Bob Dole. Old King Cole. Sauteed escarole.

In between cascades of high-brow and low-brow laughter, Trillin described his work as a long poem, "let's not be afraid of the word epic here," interrupted by shorter poems and what he calls pause prose.

Trillin, who produced a similar work in 2008, said initially he was fearful of the project because only the Republicans would be having a 2012 primary. But that concern soon evaporated when the GOP field began uttering some of the most inane remarks ever heard on the national stage. "I mean this was a field where Michelle Bachmann was actually leading in the polls," Trillin said. He immortalized Ms. Bachmann in his work by parodying the Paul McCartney/John Lennon tune "Michelle" (with apologies to the Beatles).
Michelle, our belle,
Thinks the gays will all be sent to hell.
That's Michelle.

One of the best titled short prose pauses of all-time is "Calixta Gingrich, Aware That Her Husband Has Cheated on and Then Left Two Wives Who Had Serious Illness, Tries Desperately to Make Light of a Bad Cough." Then there is the outrageously hilarious prose pause "President Romney Meets Other World Leaders at His First G-8 Summit," which creates the absurdity that ensues when Romney employs his strange, awkward habit of trying to guess nationalities and personal weights on the leaders of the world.  When Trillin read the short piece, most of the Politics and Prose crowd convulsed in spasms of laughter.

Asked if he had any favorite political figures, Trillin quipped that he liked iambic characters such as Ross Perot or Herman "The Heminator" Cain. He also lamented that he used up many of his best rhymes for Obama (like slap your Momma) in his 2008 pieces. He also appears to have some strong feelings about at least one possible member of the 2016 field. "I always refer to Bill Clinton as the orange (as in no word rhymes with orange) candidate. As for Mrs. Clinton (the current favorite to run on the Democratic ticket), Hilary has strong points, but rhyming isn't one of them," Trillin said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Like many of the authors who appear at Politics and Prose, Trillin is on an around-the-country tour to promote his latest work. And for famous authors like Trillin, that tour usually includes appearances on popular TV shows like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or The Colbert Report. You can check out Trillin's recent performance on The Daily Show, by clicking here.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Dining in DC: Ray's to the Third

President Obama eating at Ray's
Many restaurants are known for their large menu. But the list of extensive offerings at Ray's: To the Third in Rosslyn is unique. It is the combination of the choices at 3 other eateries in the popular Ray's family - Ray's Hellburgers, Ray's the Steaks and Nice N' Greasy Steak N' Cheesy, all operated by Mike Landrum.

Landrum's enterprises are known for offering great food at good prices. At the time of Ray's 3 opening, Landrum told Zagat "We call it an American steak bistro – it’s a French bistro that doesn’t know how to speak French. Instead of coq au vin, we have fried chicken; instead of pike quenelles, we have Cajun catfish. And of course we major in steak frites."

Ray's Hellburgers is probably the most noted of the eateries. Food and Wine magazine has placed it on its list of the 25 best hamburgers in America. It has been praised by President Barack Obama, who has eaten lunch there with both Vice President Joe Biden and Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Mendedev. By the way, for the record, if you would like to get a Ray's hellburger the way President Obama likes them, ask for cheese, lettuce, tomato, and spicy mustard.

For our Ray's: To the Third dinner, Judy began with a cup of sherried crab bisque. I opted for Ray's signature devilishly good eggs which were outstanding. That appetizer is hard-boiled eggs filled with hand-formed steak tartare topped with hollandaise and accompanied by sieved egg yolk, capers, chopped red onion, and cornichons.

We both chose steak for our main course. Judy selected the petite filet, while I chose a full filet. The steak meals come with Ray's famous mash potatoes and creamed spinach, both of which are solid side choices. However, since she is not a fan of cooked spinach, Judy substituted a house salad.

The meals were excellent, but when you consider the cost they become an even a greater value. We had a very similar meal earlier this year at Morton's Steakhouse. The cost for that outing exceeded $200 (with no drinks). We paid $88 for our meal at Ray's (and that includes tip and $5 for the hostess that was kind enough to seat us on a Saturday without a reservation).

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
What others say:
The Prices Do DC rating:
***** 5 out of 5 stars (3 and 1/2 for the food, another 1/2 for the devilishly good eags, and 1 for the extreme value)

Spelunking in Downtown DC



Can a person stand in a tent on the grounds of the Sackler Galllery on the National Mall in DC on a December day in the 21st Century and simultaneously explore an ornately decorated Buddhist cave in northwestern China in the 6th Century? Well, if you were one of the fortunate few who got to witness the brief (only 8 days) North American debut of the impressive exhibit Pure Land: Inside the Mogao Grottoes at Dunhang, the surprising answer is yes. And how was that accomplished? Using groundbreaking technology, Pure Land digitally recreates such a cave and immerses visitors in a 360-degree panoramic projection theater that gives a true-to-life experience of actually exploring the site.

The experience mimicked both the physical and visual explorations of the cave. After putting on special powered 3-D glasses, visitors initially encountered a darkened chamber. Next, it appeared as if the chamber were lit by torchlight, which is the only way any of the caves that remain open today can be seen. 

Suddenly, the lights were turned on, and Cave 220 appeared in all its restored glory. For the rest of the 15-minute visit, 5 projectors, a network of computers, and a state-of-the-art sound system allowed visitors to see (and even hear) the faded frescoes in all their brilliance that has not been seen in thousands of years..

You saw the 7 medical Buddhas that were the highlight of the mural. You saw the faces of the Asian silk road merchants whom Buddhist monks had immortalized on the walls for financing the project. But the pioneer virtual reality techniques allowed for even more, enhancements inconceivable until recently. Instruments depicted leapt from the walls and spun in front of amazed eyes. Dancers performed ancient dances as if they were actually in the room, not mere painted representations.

The astounding display, powered by a sole iPad, was conceived and designed by the Applied Laboratory for Interactive Visualization and Embodiment (ALiVE), City University of Hong Kong in partnership with the Dunhuang Academy.

The more than 700 caves in the Magao Grottoes, which are included on UNESCO's World Heritage List, are located in Dunhuang, a small town in northwestern China that was a gateway on the ancient Silk Road that carried trade between China, western Asia, and India.

Today, Cave 220 is closed to the public to ensure its preservation, but now, with the new technology, visitors will be able to enjoy it for the centuries to come.  And they won't even have to visit China to do it.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Thoroughly impressed, we visited the exhibition twice, the 1st  time we had ever done that with a one-week show since coming to D.C. Each time I couldn't help but think of rock music critic Jon Landau's famous quote about his 1st witnessing a performance by Bruce Springsteen. "I have seen the future of rock n' roll and his name is Bruce Springsteen." Landau said. I believe Judy and I were witnessing a virtual reality experience that will dramatically reshape museum presentations.  And we weren't the only ones captivated by the one-of-a-kind experience. Washington Post arts and culture writer Philip Kennicott called the  presentation "the coolest thing" in town. Claiming that to date, 3-D has mostly proven to be underwhelming, Kennicott said the Sackler exhibit was different. "Although it is only a prototype, it points the way forward, demonstrating how an immersion environment can be used to let visitors actively explore and understand complicated cultural objects. The results are stunning."

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Civil War and American Art

Harvey deepens viewers understanding
When Eleanor Harvey began planning the major Civil War and American Art exhibition now on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, she wanted to try to answer 2 questions. First was, how as an artist, would you grapple with the war without the benefit of historical hindsight? Then there was the question,  since the focus of the show would be on landscape painters, how would the war be reflected in such works?

"I have been thinking, breathing, and hallucinating the Civil War," Harvey recently told a large group of art enthusiasts who joined the senior curator for a gallery walk and talk about the new exhibition.

Harvey said landscape painting was a central focus in pre-20th Century American art. "It was a case of we know God loves us because we have Niagra Falls and the Natural Bridge and nobody else does," she said.

The Civil War introduced almost unimaginable daily horrors into American life. So that posed a particular problem for painters. "There was no market for paintings of Americans killing other Americans over the fireplace," Harvey said. "It was so horrific the artists wanted to hold the carnage at arms' length."

In addition, the Civil War was the 1st war to be photographed from start to finish. Since cameras weren't fast enough yet to capture battle action, photographers like the famous Matthew Brady were reduced to producing images of the aftermath of bloody battles. "And after you have seen that, there is nothing to romanticize about war," Harvey noted.

So the artists adopted a whole realm of visual symbols to portray their take on the times. "They had to find a vocabulary in their idiom. They were riffing off what was going on in the war. These paintings wouldn't have been painted at any other time," Harvey said.

The curator explained that in the 19th Century "people went looking for the meaning in art." And for more than an hour, Harvey introduced many of those veiled meanings portrayed in the works she had selected. For example, a pre-Civil War painting entitled "The Coming Storm" was actually "a universal metaphor for the inevitability of war." Then there was an artist's rendition of an actual meteor that was visible over New York for 35 seconds. That was tied in to both the rise of abolitionist John Brown and the emergence of Abraham Lincoln as a great American leader.

The exhibition is arranged in themed sections. One contains a series of paintings by a Union soldier and a series of similar works by a Confederate. Another is devoted to war photography.  Yet another deals with the issues of black life and slavery. Then there are sections on the war's aftermath and Reconstruction.

The final work in the exhibition is also the largest. It is a huge portrayal of land in the American west. "This was the next new Eden. People were hoping at the end of the war that we had not lost God's blessing. They wanted to leap over the blood-soaked East. The new hope was in the West," Harvey said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips.
There are many ways you can enhance your understanding while viewing an art exhibition. You can read the posted information. Some exhibits offer guided audio tours. Now, there are even audio tours you can access from your cell phone. But there is no substitute for the give and take of a tour conducted by the actual curator who put the project together. We have been fortunate while in DC to have had the opportunity to undertake such tours. Harvey's was one of the best we ever encountered. In a word, it was brilliant and the information she provided was invaluable to truly understanding the work before us. You can have a chance to repeat our experience. Harvey will be conducting another gallery walk and talk on April 11. If you will be in the DC area then, make sure to mark that date on your calendar.

Friday, December 7, 2012

A Look at the Wide World of Sports

What do you think are the biggest changes in the field of sports you have witnessed in your lifetime? Well, for 2 veteran sports journalists, who between them have more than 100 years of experience on the subject, there are 2 answers. First, is the fact that sports are now ubiquitous - they are everywhere and permeate so many parts of our lives. The second is that sports is now a huge business - one that may soon approach a trillion dollars in revenue.

Recently, George Solomon, former sports editor at The Washington Post and current professor at the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at the University of Maryland, and John Walsh, a former editor of Rolling Stone magazine and current executive editor at ESPN, held a wide-ranging discussion on the world of sports at the Newseum. The discussion was moderated by Shelby Coffey III, a national newsman of note and the vice chairman of that museum.

"When it comes to differences you have the ubiquity of sports," said Walsh, who in the ESPN role he has held for 25 years has played a large part in the growth of interest in the subject. "And then you have sports as a business. I don't think it will be long before we will be be using the 't' (for trillion) word. It's a whole different game now."

Solomon concurred with that assessment, but said that there are downsides to the changes, especially the emphasis on money. "Tradition is no more," he said.

Walsh said that when he arrived at ESPN in 1987, he was part of the push for the now key network program Sports Center. "We wanted to put our best people on it. We wanted to make it a gathering place for sports fans for every night of the year. We wanted to improve the experience for the sports fan," he said.

The ratings, and the power that comes with such an audience,  proved Walsh right. "ESPN is a sports giant. It sets the table. It can do anything it wants," Solomon said.

Obviously, personality plays a huge role in sports, whether you are considering the players on the field or the sports reporters who cover them. Solomon said that during his time as sports editor for The Post he tried to cultivate top columnists to bring their take to DC's sports scene. By most accounts, when you consider such writers as Sally Jenkins, Tony Kornhesier, and Michael Wilbon, he was successful. "The voice of the town sportswise are your columnists. They make the (sports) section," Solomon said.

Like all journalism, sports in the paper and on TV is being altered by the explosion of social media such as blogs, Facebook, and, perhaps most of all, Twitter, which allows for almost instant reporting of any event in 140 characters or less.

"In the old days, reporters were told to keep their opinions to themselves. But that's completely changed," Walsh said. "The best writers are encouraged now to have an opinion and share it. We live in an opinion universe. I looked the other day and we (ESPN) have more than 50 people with more than a million followers (on Twitter)."

Both veterans lamented the fact that in differing ways ratings lead to over-coverage for some sports and athletes and under-coverage for others. "Editors see the clicks (of people reading stories on the internet) and act accordingly," Solon said.

"Today, too much is based on focus groups, audience and ratings instead of vision," Walsh concluded.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
As narrator, Coffey had the 2 veteran journalists engage in a lighting round discussion of a series of sports history questions. Here are the the questions and responses
What is the greatest sports event you witnessed?
Solomon - Ben Jonson beating Carl Lewis in the 100 meters (Jonson was later disqualified for using performance enhancing drugs) and the fights of Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard
Walsh - as youngster seeing Don Larsen of the New York Yankees pitch a perfect game in the World Series
What about the biggest chokes?
Solomon - "What athletes do is very hard. I don't pinpoint chokes, I like to say surprising failures."
Walsh - again, as a youngster, watching his then-favorite baseball team the Phillies lose 23 straight games and then, just a few years later, blow a seemingly insurmountable lead and not get into the 1964 World Series. "I still have my tickets for that series (that wasn't)."
Best individual athlete?
Solomon - Muhammad Ali
Walsh - Bill Russell
Best team?
Solomon - the Red Auerbach-led Boston Celtics basketball dynasty of the 1960s
Walsh - the Pittsburgh Steelers football teams of the 1970s

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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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