Paint By Number

Just Another Brick in the Wall

The first time I participated in a national election I cast my vote for George McGovern.

I believed in him and his entire platform. Some people may remember him only as the man who suffered a crushing defeat against Richard Nixon in 1972, but McGovern was so much more than that. A lifelong advocate for peace and justice, he was also a former war hero who flew 35 missions in Europe in World War II, including several during which his plane was so shot up he barely managed to fly it to a safe place to land, feats which earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Yet his remarkable resume wasn’t enough to overcome the slander and innuendo heaped upon him during the 1972 campaign in which he ran as the anti-war candidate, determined to end the bloodshed in Vietnam. Nixon’s team branded McGovern as a pacifist sissy.

A proud liberal, McGovern spent his long life working to promote peace, to end hunger around the world, and to implement tax reform and better health care. He didn’t get a lot of respect for his efforts until late in his life, long after the corruption of Nixon’s campaign and the machinations of the Republican Party  had been exposed.

I was sorry he lost in 1972. It was the start of trend, for me. The candidates for whom I voted rarely won, and if they did, they usually didn’t last long. Jimmy Carter was in and out of the White House so fast it barely registered. Then came the Clinton triumph, and I thought for a while the jinx was over, until he revealed that he was only a man, even in the Oval office.

When Obama won I was far away, on the west coast, in the other Washington, where the constant clanging of partisan swords and sound bites that provides the ambient soundtrack inside the Beltway seems pleasantly remote. But as I watched the gathering on the National Mall during Obama’s inauguration, I felt a wistful pang of homesickness. At last, I thought, the tide was turning, and I wasn’t there to enjoy it.

Now, the stage is set for another showdown. I’m not confident. I’ve seen enough of these things to know that money matters far more than it should in our political system. And the poorest among us, the ones who can least afford to lose more, are the ones who stand to lose the most.

Still. There’s hope.

On a wall near Calvert Street in Washington, D.C., a striking mural covers the side of Mama Ayesha’s restaurant. Completed in 2009, the painting by artist Karla “Karlisima” Rodas depicts the last nine presidents, from Eisenhower to Obama. In the center is Mama Ayesha herself, a petite yet powerful woman whose Middle Eastern restaurant began serving to Washington notables in 1960, as the Calvert Cafe. After Mama Ayesha’s death in 1993, the name of the restaurant was changed to honor her. Born in Jerusalem, Mama Ayesha came to this country in 1940 and began her career as a cook for the Syrian Embassy. Her enduring success (the restaurant continues as a family business) is a tribute to all that America stands for – opportunity, freedom, social justice and the dignity of the individual. It is fitting that her portrait is included among all those powerful presidents.

But the question remains: Will there be a new face in the mural line-up after November 6th? Maybe the artist has no plans to update, no matter what happens. There’s no telling, after all. Polls and maps and surveys toss numbers around like confetti, but in the end it will come down to hard numbers.

How much is your country worth to you? There’s a number out there.

October Blessed

Mellow Fruitfulness

Here in D.C. where the locals don’t even look up when the Presidential chopper thrums over the rooftops, the glory of autumn is sometimes enough to make even the most jaded policy wonks take a moment to inhale the elixir of crisp leaves and hushed fog that signals a tilt in the planet.

It’s time to stop and smell the apples.

And, as far as I’m concerned, you can keep your Golden Delicious, your Galas and HoneyCrisps. MacIntosh is better as a computer, and Romes aren’t worth the seizing any day.

The richness of Virginia’s apple heritage is sometimes overlooked, especially now in these days when Big Agra dictates an algorithm for marketability based on ease of production, transportation and storage at the expense of taste and texture.

Yes, I’m talking about Stayman. Not the new-fangled Stayman-Winesap hybrids, which ruin the best features of each of those two honored heritage cultivars, but the true old Stayman apple, which grows on a tree a little too big for the practices of modern mass fruit production. A Stayman tree has character, like the apples it produces. It’s a taste once acquired never forgotten.

During the last six years while I was living in the Pacific Northwest, a region that takes pride in its apples, I despaired of finding a true Stayman apple. They simply don’t grow them out there. And when I came back to Virginia to visit, I was alarmed by the disappearance of the roadside stands where I used to be able to count on finding Staymans and Yorks for my pie baking. I was told that times had changed and no one was planting the old varieties anymore.

But this week the farmer who drives up each weekend from Ruckersville and sells his produce at the corner near our building had a big bin of Stayman apples.

I do believe in Virginia, Santa.

This year, my October runneth over. The D.C. area has a lot to be excited about.The Nationals, with the best record in Major League Baseball, are in the playoffs, the first time D.C has had a baseball team advance so far since 1933. And Baltimore, our sister city, not to be outdone, earned a wildcard entry into the playoffs. Football still dominates the sports pages here, but local baseball is finally enjoying some respect.

And of course there’s that election year buzz, crackling and spitting like a downed power line across the road. That never gets old.

The slanting light spilling through the golden tree canopy that remains a defining  feature of the city in spite of the damage from the June derecho casts an enchantment that, to those susceptible, redeems the abrasive jangle of political agendas.

After all, in a few weeks the election will be over, and we can get on with our pies.

Where Hot and Cool Are One

How to be hot and cool simultaneously.

Steamy? Check.

Blazing heat? Check.

Chance of thunderstorms? Check.

D.C. in the summer? Yes indeed.

Strollin' By The River

Heat wimps need not apply. If you can’t take the heat, get out of the District.

But for those insaniacs who actually feel more alive when bathed in a fresh glaze of sweat, few places  rival our Nation’s Capitol for bringing it on.

And when the going gets sweaty, the sweaty dance.

Sometimes in the parks, sometimes in the streets, sometimes in the fountains while sharing their tweets.

It’s a good life if you don’t melt.

The Beat Goes On

Moonrise Over M Street

When I was a child growing up on the rim of the Beltway, D.C. was as exotic as Paris to me.

Okay, maybe not Paris. Let’s say London.

In any event, it was the place to both lose and find yourself. No one knew you there – you could be anybody. In the early ’60s freak flags weren’t common in D.C., but it was still a good time to rebel, explore, go a little crazy.

And in all of D.C., no neighborhood offered a more magnetic opportunity for the budding eccentric than Georgetown. It had a funky offbeat atmosphere in which the very well-to-do and the ne’er-do-wells shared the same bumpy brick sidewalks. It seemed magical to me as a teenager. I thought it would always be.

In the forty years since, as the current of my life has taken me further from that time and place, the memory of it remained unchanged. Now, having returned to my hot steamy hometown, I find it altered in many ways, some great, some not so much.

This is only natural, of course. Cities rise and fall, humans come and go. But the changes in Georgetown – at least along the main commercial arteries – seem more insidious – sort of like the malling of New York City, where the once affordable districts of warehouses and artists’ lofts, seedy bars and pawn shops, the gritty soul of the city, seem to have been dispossessed, replaced by trendy eateries, high-end shops, expensive hotels. The poets, musicians and artists appear to have relocated to Brooklyn. Wouldn’t Walt Whitman be pleased?

A similar shift seems underway in Georgetown. The M Street I remember from my wild youth was filled with bars where live bands played late into the night. The Shadows, which later moved down the street, is where I heard the Mugwumps, a short-lived band whose members included Cass Elliott, before she became a Mamma, and Zal Yanovsky– before he became a Lovin’ Spoonful.

There was the Crazy Horse, the Shamrock, and, a couple of blocks below M, the old Bayou, where primal rock bands like The Telstars tore it up.

The classiest of all the old Georgetown clubs, The Cellar Door, where I once had the great good fortune to hear Miles Davis when Keith Jarrett was in his group, is boarded up. Judging by the sign in its window it ended its days as a Philadelphia Cheesecake Factory.

And no list of D.C. rock venues would be complete without The Emergency, at the far end of M Street, the little all ages club that could and did change the world, at least for me.

D.C. is a city dense with history. You can’t throw a brick without hitting some spot where somebody famous once did something. And Georgetown has its share of that revered legacy.

But the Georgetown I remember, that scruffy eccentric neighborhood with deep roots, has been subjected to a corporate takeover, upscaled into near Disney-esque quaintness. The live music venues have been replaced by cupcake franchises. Lines form outside Georgetown Cupcakes and Sprinkles.

I love a good cupcake, but it’s no substitute for rock ‘n roll.

Ah well. I hear the kids these days do their reinventing and rebelling over in Adams Morgan. Times change. The moveable feast relocates. The repast goes on.

Thinking Outside the Mall

You don't need to be royalty to enjoy this lawn.

What does your front lawn say about you?

Stay out, or come on in?

In the Big Picture, the National Mall serves as our national red carpet, our welcome mat to the world.

It’s where we gather as a nation to air our grievances and grieve for our errors; where we celebrate our victories and honor our heroes. It’s where we mingle with our countrymen and reweave the fabric of our society. No matter how frayed or stained it may get in the heated battles that come with free speech and the rule of law, at the end of the day, we all value the concepts which launched this bold young nation.

Sometimes we lose sight of those original lofty dreams – the speeches fade from memory. Sometimes we need to be reminded of how we came together and why we’re stronger together than we could hope to be apart. Most of us came here to get away from something – religious persecution, harsh political regimes, unfair social systems, stagnant economies. Some of us were here before the newbies arrived in the 1600s. Others were brought here against their will, but fought to gain the freedoms we all hold dear.

Sometimes we forget that this was, and still is, the land of opportunity.

And that’s where the National Mall comes in.

The Washington Monument points upward for a reason.

Each year more than 25  million  visitors pass through  the National Mall to gaze at the exhibits  and treasures inside the museums which flank the majestic sweep of space surrounding  the Capitol and the adjacent  memorials. The National Parks Service,  which oversees the maintenance and development of the roughly 1,000 acre public  site, is currently working toward another revision of the National Mall’s design.

Although some may resist change,  the dynamic nature of the National Mall reflects the dynamic nature of our country. We’ve changed a bit since 1776. And the National Mall is a great place to get a sense of how far we’ve come, and how much we’re still learning.

Unlike shopping malls, which  leave me with a feeling of being buried alive – like being trapped in an elevator  with a food court – I love the National  Mall. Even when it’s mobbed with tourists. I like to see enthusiasm for education, and that’s really what the National Mall is all about.  No matter what you’re interested in – history, science,  art,  human  nature, music,  or simply fun – the Mall has something for you.

A classic moon gate leads to a tranquil oasis on the Mall.

For me,  the difficulty is in choosing which place to visit. But in the spring time, when the clouds skitter above the Washington Monument and the merry-go-round is filled with laughing children,  I like to stroll through the 180 acres of gardens which  soften the edges of all the impressive architecture.

This  year the American Horticultural Society will honor the Smithsonian’s garden staff  in June with the 2012 Urban Beautification Award. Everywhere you look on the Mall you can see reasons why they deserve  it.

The new National Garden is just beginning to fill in.

Next time you visit D.C., take a break from the wonders inside, and enjoy the gardens that belong to all of us. Sure, our tax dollars pay for all of it, but when you spread it all out it’s pennies a day from each of us. And we don’t have to do the weeding.

A dazzling display of orchids casts enchantment steps from the Capitol.

And that’s a better deal than you can find in any other mall.

Tickled Pink

Bloomin' Love

Black is the color of my true love’s suit.

Suits – black, serious, ‘don’t mess with me’ suits – crowd the sidewalks of downtown L Street in Washington, D.C.

It’s April, Easter week, normally bloom-time in our nation’s capitol, where this year marks the 100th anniversary of the planting of the cherry trees that frame the Tidal Basin – trees which launched a million postcards and a few haiku.

But not this year.

Pods of tourists, easily identified by their sneakers, backpacks, baseball caps, and bewildered expressions, wander uneasily behind the suits, perhaps wondering where have all the flowers gone. The blossoms came and went before most of the tourists arrived. So now they’re branching out, exploring D.C.’s other options. They take photos of buildings, landmarks, the few Occupy D.C. tents still hanging on in Farragut Square.

The suits are too preoccupied for festivals or protests. The Occupy movement, like the cherry blossoms, is so last month.

Some thoughtful observers wonder if the record-smashing heat in March, which accelerated the cherry blossoms’ bloom and drop, might be another symptom of global warming, like the monster tornadoes in Texas, earthquakes in Central Virginia and the skyrocketing stinkbug population.

Don’t ask me. I just came for the cherry blossoms.

Fluffy, pink, fleeting.
They’re gone. And soon, so am I.
Adios, black suits.

A Taste for History

Abe Still Looms Large in D.C.

On President’s Day, while bargain hunters flock to malls and mattress warehouses, a different crowd responds to the historic roots of the occasion.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Washington, D.C., where on the recent sunny holiday a steady stream of tourists eddied around the wax figure of Lincoln posed on a bench outside Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, providing a ready-made, free, and apparently irresistible photo op in these point and shoot times.

Nearby, long lines waited patiently outside Ford’s Theatre, where an enterprising mobile cupcake vendor in a hot pink van was doing a brisk business sustaining the multitudes.

Every place on Earth has history, and every state and city and small village contributes a share to the feast. But compared to the rest of our nation, Washington is an all-you-can-eat buffet. You can hardly escape the history here.

Locals who live and breathe this high-octane historic atmosphere every day can get a bit blasé. But everyone knows that history is the icing on Washington’s cake. It’s the reason most people visit. To feel that thrill of walking the streets Lincoln walked. To stand on the steps where Roosevelt spoke. To see the glory of the Capitol lit up at night. And maybe even to get a taste of Lincoln’s waffles. Who knew he liked them?

Dine like a president.

History is full of surprises.

Signs and Wonders

Is it a warning or a cry for help?

Things look bad, some say.

Others insist everything’s been done before, it’s all cyclic, we survived the Great Depression we’ll survive this, etc.

For many of us addicted to the 24/7 news feed, the signature tune of this dawning century, it’s hard to find hope. Unless you turn away from your TV, step away from the computer, recycle your newspaper and look to the sky.

There, the clouds roll by, as they have for millennia. The sun rises, shines and sets, as it is wont to do. If you live around here, rain comes with the territory. But never so much rain that we have to flee to higher ground, except for the few who choose to live along the rivers. Sometimes our decisions affect our lives. Other times, our lives take shape due to forces and decisions far removed from our sight or control.

The disturbingly unsettled economic miasma currently oppressing much of the planet came about through the machinations of a tiny portion of the population who, having much already, decided that having more would be even better. For them.

Now, as the rest of us struggle to readjust the balance, it’s important to remember that for a huge segment of the world’s population having almost nothing is the norm. They don’t have Black Friday sales in Uganda, for instance, where an entire country was decimated by the ruinous misrule of a corrupt leader for decades.

War, terrorism and civil unrest are inevitable until we can wipe out hunger on the planet. It’s a huge goal. So huge most of us give up after a few attempts to make a dent in the wall of indifference. But for this very reason, the small successes of determined efforts by various international aid organizations should be celebrated and honored.

Heifer International offers a chance to give a life-changing gift to the poorest people on the planet. As the holiday season bears down upon us here in the land of good and plenty, it’s worth considering. If instead of lining up on the day after Thanksgiving we sat out Black Friday and put just a fraction aside for those far less fortunate than the activists who can afford to wear Gore-Tex while protesting the iniquities of Wall Street, it might signal a turn in the tide.

Sure, it wouldn’t change the whole world overnight. But stranger things have happened from small beginnings.

Let Them Eat Cake

Those clouds aren't made of frosting.

Halloween plays differently in our nation’s capital.

In a city where politics is the dominant industry, wearing masks and acting out in public are commonplace. But even so, the sidewalk palette shifts a bit from the usual red, white and blue to a range more orange and black. The police loom on every corner in Georgetown on the eve of the annual parade and party. It wouldn’t do for any rowdy goblins to disturb the carefree tourists jostling for camera angles in front of Georgetown Cupcakes.

Meanwhile, a few city blocks away in McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza, the indefatiguable participants in the Occupy DC movement continue to demand justice and jobs for all.

As much as Congress seems to care, they might as well be trick-or-treating.

But it’s too soon to count them out. Big waves grow from small drops, even teardrops if enough people are hurting.

Corporate chains shackle more than office workers.

When the ones being shut out of the political dialogue begin to make some noise, the well-fed folks in the comfy chairs by the fire may eventually feel compelled to respond. Whether they decide to work toward a more equitable society remains to be seen.

For now it seems the fat cats are content to follow in the well-worn path of earlier aristocrats and over-privileged classes. While jobs vanish and the ranks of the poor swell, the number of cupcake businesses shows no sign of decreasing.

On Halloween night, as the sidewalks filled with with carefree young people dressed as psychopaths and pixies, no one seemed concerned about politics. Many Americans worry about terrorists, rare diseases and higher taxes. This seems a bit short-sighted to me. Historically, the big issue has always been hunger. As Bob Marley and many others have pointed out, “A hungry man is an angry man.” And cupcakes just aren’t going to cut it.

No one goes hungry in Cupcake Nation.

Jobs matter. Even if we have to raise taxes to create them.

Free For All

Dark storm clouds were getting their game face on, tossing lightning back and forth as I walked across Key Bridge, the one named for Francis Scott Key, who gave us “The Star Spangled Banner,” the world’s worst national anthem, when I saw a driver execute a sudden, and I would guess, highly illegal u-turn in the middle of the bridge.

The traffic around him braked and swerved to avoid him as he whipped a u-ee and took off back to Georgetown. Perhaps he’d forgotten his wallet. Or suddenly realized that the only girl he ever loved was back there, soon to be lost to him forever (cue soundtrack). Or . . . maybe he just figured, “What the hell, why shouldn’t I?”

Well, setting aside issues of public safety, general adult responsibility and civil order, it could be argued that there was no actual sign forbidding the maneuver. And it could be further argued that creative driving is as much an inherent right in this country as the right to pursue pursue happiness – in whatever insane manner one chooses.

In truth, in this country, the right to be reckless, ridiculous, and a little bit nuts is one of our more cherished notions. Although our nation is founded on a firm platform of law, we began as revolutionaries, and the call of the wild card remains potent in our deck. We are a nation of innovators, risk takers, rule breakers. It runs in our genes to admire outlaws and thieves, as long as they accomplish their feats with flair and without hurting the innocent.

Perhaps we’ve all watched too many movies. And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that, until some fool tries to drive as if he were in a Hollywood chase scene, forcing the rest of us to be his expendable extras.

Ah well. It’s the Fourth of July. Time to celebrate our freedoms, which apparently, in the minds of some, includes the right to act like idiots.

So here’s to you, USA. Long may you wave, strike up the bands, set off fireworks, play ball, etc., etc.

But maybe go easy on the crazy.