Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Great Debate


The new movie starring and directed by Denzel Washington, The Great Debaters, is a stirring, heartfelt depiction of the struggles of the esteemed poet Melvin Tolson and his students (the ones at his college's debate team) at Wiley College during the mid-1930s. In lesser hands, this fictionalized account of the trials of the teacher and his charges could have been boring, but the fine performances of veterans like Washington and (Forest) Whitaker are as affecting as the stellar turns by the younger actors Denzel Whitaker (no relation to either Mr. Washington or the other Mr. Whitaker), Jurnee Smollett (best known for her work in Eve's Bayou), and Nate Parker.

Three of the younger actors were at a (packed!) screening of the film at the historic Lincoln Theatre in Washington, DC this past Sunday, answering questions from the audience after the screening. Applause broke out several times during the movie, as well as after (most often after one of Ms. Smollett's scenes). The youngest actor, Denzel Whitaker, portrayed a young James Farmer, Jr., a few years before he founded the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the other debaters portrayed were composites of other people. While there were a few liberties taken to make it based on a true story, and the mention of the anachronistic Willie Lynch (hoax) could have been left out, it was otherwise a fine rendering of conditions during the Great Depression, and how it afflicted the nation, especially black Americans.

Although the screening was free, I intend to pay to see it a second time! The Great Debaters opens on Christmas day.

* * *
Although I was intrigued by Denzel Washington's performance as Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas in American Gangster, I prefer his performance in The Great Debaters; however, I would not be surprised to see him nominated for either movie.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Washington's Local Flavor...

Not only are we Washingtonians fortunate to have excellent restaurants and farmer's markets, but other excellent local food purveyors and providers, a fact which can save your bacon this holiday season, when you can't, or don't have the energy, to prepare food.

Henry's Sweet Potato Pie (from Henry's Soul Cafe in Oxon Hill) is a fantastic, homemade tasting dessert. (Persnickety alert: Like my mother's sweet potato pie, Henry's is properly flavored, with nutmeg, not overpowered with cinnamon as most other pies are. The same is true of the heavenly nutmeg-scented peach cobbler from Gist Family Caterers in Washington, another local soul food provider.)

The gluttony regarding Henry's pies followed another glutton extravaganza, a (free!) year-end tasting at Biagio Chocolate on 18th Street. Sweet! Attending such an event (which was primarily attended by the fit and trim, who were served by the even more fit and trim) was possibly an example of a flash mob in action, as there were only a handful of folk in the choco-boutique before 6:30 pm, and near pandemonium only ten minutes later. The occasion? The introduction of new flavors from local chocolate-maker extraordinaire, Christopher's Confections. While the vanilla rum was fine, the margarita packed a wallop, and the peanut butter caramel was delightful, the almond chocolates were swoon-worthy--possibly the best chocolate I've ever had. (Next to Christopher's own citrus caramel chocolates, of course.) Unfortunately, I haven't yet had the pleasure of tasting food from the catering company, Basikneads, whose commercial kitchen Christopher uses to create his chocolate masterpieces, so I must attempt to rectify that situation!

Even mom-and-pop businesses like Scrumptious Entrees Catering and Cakes help in the important work of making life sweeter, especially with the party favor cakes made by Maria Smith, which resemble large petit fours (if such a thing could exist). Not only are they moist, but the fresh citrus used in the fondant pops out at you, giving a refreshing tang to the treats.

A relatively new, but already famous, food purveyor that I haven't yet had the pleasure of visiting is Uncle Brutha's Hot Sauce Emporium. Samples of some of his sauces were recently offered at the Whole Foods Market on P Street, and were remarkably thick and rich, as well as providing the necessary heat. The green sauce was almost chunky, and had a wonderfully complex flavor. Can't wait to head to Capitol Hill to try and buy a few of his bottled heat treats!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Sound and fury

Lively. Intelligent. Contentious. From all quadrants of the District, as well as Maryland and Virginia, came a professor and scientist, a Sierra Club spokesman, students, workers, activists (this being D.C.), and other commuters to the hearing at Metro headquarters regarding the proposed fare increases, a standing-room only affair last night. Oh, and Metro General Manager John Catoe and D.C. council member Jim Graham attended, with Graham moderating; to their credit, both stayed the entire time, almost three hours.

Considering the number of activists from the ANSWER Coalition who spoke (one of whom, Ms. Mills, patiently held a banner until it was almost time for her to speak), and the heated emotions and differing viewpoints present, the proceedings were surprisingly orderly, with fifty (count 'em) people altogether, including moi, who gave testimony.

And what testimony it was! Included with the complaints regarding fare hikes were shoehorned criticism of the war in Iraq, as well as pointed remarks about the appointed, unelected nature of the board. One interesting fact that was justly thrown back in Metro's face was that Metro riders pay the highest percentage of the system cost for rail relative to passengers in other North American cities, so there should be some consideration of that fact in any fare increase that comes down the pike. Mr. Greenberg of gave testimony to the generous indirect subsidy for highway driving as opposed to more meager funding for public transit. A number of speakers spoke to the need for the future, for Metro more aggressively pursuing greater funding from the federal government, as Metro transports many of these employees to work, as well as the need for a dedicated funding source, as Metro is the only major city transportation system lacking one.

Of course, I knew the evening was going to be cooking when, before it even began, one guy from in Montgomery County, MD was passing out flyers which pointed out that it's unfair to raise Metro rates without increasing the gasoline tax as well.

Whew! I'm just coming up for air now...

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Sparks will fly...

After complaints by Metro that the first of its meetings regarding proposed fare increases was sparsely attended (what did it expect when it scheduled one in Reston, a location which barely has Metrobus service?), it has publicized tonight's meeting at Metro headquarters, near the Verizon Center. This one should have reasonable attendance, with the extra publicity boost; I might attend just to see if it's better attended than one I went to earlier this year. (Metro frankly doesn't publicize its hearings far enough in advance, and could use a communications department that knows how to use eye-catching graphics in its posters and other methods of communication.)

The need for rate increases because of rising costs must be balanced with Metro's goal of getting some suburbanites out of their cars; if the price rise is too steep, many current riders may decide to drive into town, which would be a tragedy all around.

Can't Tell Me Nothin'

What a shame about Kanye West's mom's untimely death, all for cosmetic surgery, for someone who didn't appear to need any, as she appeared youthful. (And the weeks in recovery from plastic surgery are the same number of weeks that hitting the weights in the gym might have toned a tummy up instead of getting a tuck.) The irony is that this incident spotlighted a trait which served Donda West well most of her life, her stubbornness (which Kanye obviously inherited), but which turned on her in her insistence on having surgery even after her initial (apparently honest) surgeon balked at performing it at the time. (So, apparently Kanye's not the only one in his family who can't be told nothin.')

Some good may yet come out of this tragedy, if only because it may snap folks into remembering that plastic surgery is actual surgery, with all its attendant risks. Also, it's bizarre that Dr. Jan Adams could have a Beverly Hills practice, and programs on cable, but not be board certified? (Which means that much of his affluent clientele and cheerleaders never bothered to take a close look at his credentials, such as they were, even boosters such as Oprah, who's having a run of problems herself lately.)

* * *

Unfortunately, such focus on the death of a celebrity's mom has eclipsed reflection on the lives of luminaries who have recently deceased, such as the late Congressman Augustus "Gus" Hawkins, one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus and a champion of civil rights, who recently passed away. (He had recently celebrated his 100th birthday.) Oh, the things he must have seen and experienced in this past, free-flying century.

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Green Capital?

Like many other areas, the Washington, DC region is its own set of paradoxes. By some measures, the area is one of the "greenest" in the nation, with the greatest number of Prius owners, etc. (although the high Prius ownership is due, in large part, to the ridiculous [and now former] Virginia law which permitted hybrid vehicles to use the high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes, even when the driver was the sole passenger, which negated the purpose of having HOV lanes)!

Other environmental factors typical in America are true for the D.C. area. Our notorious air quality problems, for instance, partly stem from the fact that, like the rest of the nation, much of our electricity comes from coal. (A peek at the periodic PEPCO statements, which inconspicuously mention the sources of the electricity generated, tells the story.)

The traffic conundrum will take many steps to fix, and attitudes to change. Certainly, Metro's management needs to return to its senses and remember that one of Metro's original goals was to encourage suburbanites to leave their cars behind; thus, its proposed rate increases must not be too drastic, so as not to drive us away.

Another piece of the traffic puzzle, proposed for a different city might help D.C. if proposed and approved. (Dream on!) Bloomberg's suggestion of a congestion tax for Manhattan might work in D.C., if...only because the number of lone drivers coming to D.C. to work from Maryland is staggering. When I used to take the marathon 30-bus route into D.C., countless times I noticed, almost to a car, individual drivers sitting in traffic, which can't be a good thing for air quality. As many of these folk are headed to a relatively small geographical area, and Washington is a city with a huge percentage of suburbanites coming into the city, second only to New York City, our current traffic situation is a tragecomedy. More realistic proposed solutions, such as extending the Maryland Rail Commuter line (MARC) to weekend hours--a long overdue change--might take a decade or more to implement!

Sure, events like the recent Green Festival are fantastic, and a great starting point for getting ideas and encouragement in living a more environmentally friendly fashion (this year's unofficial green festival theme seemed to emphasize local living, with panels on subjects such as funding local businesses, which had Cakelove owner Warren Brown sharing the stage with local lenders, how to install your own green options, etc.), but it's everyday living patterns that will improve the quality of life, and make everyone's space greener.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Solar Sprint (the Solar Decathlon, or Green Festival part deux)

As you might have imagined, there was quite a crowd at the Solar Decathlon, when I meandered to the Sunday session of the event. With all the information, as well as being able to tour the demonstration homes that 20 university teams trucked to Washington was impressive.

However, I only bothered to see the insides of three of the five homes that I was interested in viewing. One of them, built by Team Montreal of the Lawrence Technological University, was closed. Nonetheless, its friendly bilingual guide, Sylvain, tried to explain some of the external features of the home, including the plants growing from the side of the house, which are used to supplement the insulation! (Now, the University of Maryland's home had a similar feature, but had a different use for its plants, which appeared more vigorous.)

Carnegie Mellon's house had a spacious kitchen, which, like many of the others, had a range that used magnetic energy, which is supposedly the most efficient way to cook. (It came from KitchenAid.) It could have been more spacious in feel, had there been more fortuitious decorating choices. The container plants at the backwall help shore up the insulation, as well as collect rainwater (or, at least that's the future intention).

MIT's house had a great design, inside and out. Its panels didn't "look" solar--they look almost like plain shingles. Its living room had a glow wall, composed of layers of superinsulated material, as well as tubes in the front of the house to heat the water. (The tubes themselves were cool to the touch, however.) One feature that had us gawkers intrigued was the grass growing in the containers surrounding the house, which the docent explained was the Ecolawn, which only needs to be watered to establish itself, and then doesn't require any more, nor needs to be mowed, as it only grows to 9" tall, and flops down. The Ecolawn is quite green, with thin strands, which flop over like someone's hair.

Penn State's house, the Morningstar, had an even roomier vibe than MIT's, if that were possible, and is the one with the glass dairy jugs to help control the amount of light that comes into the living area.

By the time I wandered over to the home built by the University of Maryland team, I had a feeling not unlike being at an amusement park, after standing in line after line and you're at the point of dropping...which was unfortunate for me, as I really wanted to see it, along with apparently 200 other people at the time. It looked nice from the outside, and its plant panel is used to help keep down the runoff into the Chesapeake Bay, not insulation.

Oddly, with all the high-, low-, and medium-tech technologies and material, such as the Pennsylvania black slate used on part of Penn State's house, none of the windows of the houses I peeked at seemed to have the simple low-tech feature of screens for the windows. In this context, I think of screens as being environmentally friendly, as they keep me from having to kill critters!

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

We're Number One!

There are some lists that, well, you don't want to be at the top of. Unfortunately, America is at the top of one such heap, in that Americans own more guns than citizens of any other nation, according to a study by the Small Arms Survey. Woo-hoo! Considering the historically high levels of violence plaguing this country, to which guns contribute more than a bit, I regret not being able to make a rally at a local gun store, just over the line from D.C., a store which is a source of many of the guns used in shootings in Washington. (As handguns are illegal in D.C. itself.) I wonder, do county police stake this store, to see, and stop gun buyers with D.C. license plates that return to D.C.? Greater city-county police cooperation might reduce the amount of crime in this part of the Washington metropolitan area. (Or at least, better police cooperation might have saved me from having to waste time in D.C. traffic court, in which I finally beat a ticket stemming from a license plate stolen from my car, which someone was seen driving in D.C.)

Not a pretty shade of green...

Here we go again--another bagged spinach recall, but this time, the microbial culprit is salmonella, generally associated with subpar chicken. Now, I haven't eaten bagged spinach since the last recall (hate to be so blase!) because, when you think about it, eating a raw food that's been sealed in the condensation-producing environment of the plastic bag is, frankly, an open invitation to the microscopic beasties to party in your intestines.

"America in miniature"

The contrast in incomes in the state of Maryland, whose slogan is "America in miniature," proves the truth of that slogan, as it has now been found the state whose overall income is the highest in the nation, albeit with persistent pockets of poverty. Such income disparity, unfortunately, is just like America--for better and worse.

Things are the same--no magnified, just across the line in Washington, DC, where white Washingtonians earn well over the national average, while the average income of black Washingtonians trails far behind.

Plus ca change...

Thursday, August 23, 2007

London Bridge--It's not what's falling down...

After the agony of waiting to find out the fate of the trapped Utah miners comes word that mine management may have been cutting corners when it comes to getting coal out of the ground. (Gives new meaning to the environmentalist slogan, "Coal is the enemy of the human race.")

* * *

In a disaster of a different kind, the aftermath of the earthquake in Peru brought on the unfortunate, yet predictable scourge of looting. No wonder--most of Peru is extremely poor to begin with, and the quake made a bad situation worse. The hand wringing over the pilfering brings to mind the kerfluffle over the looting that resulted from Hurricane Katrina's unwanted visit.

* * *

The next wave...

In addition to the widespread havoc and suffering caused in the Caribbean by Hurricane Dean, as the maelstrom slams into Mexico, some of the Gulf of Mexico's oil platforms have been shut down temporarily. This could mean another breathtaking, nausea-inducing ride on the petroleum price roller coaster!

A few weeks back, as a result of a stroll to the used-book emporium, Second Story Books, I happened upon a practical guide called Apocalypse Chow, which purports to be a cookbook for "How to Eat Well When the Power Goes Out," but it's chock full of emergency preparedness tips, as the authors, Jon and Robin Robertson, are veterans of four (count 'em!) major hurricanes. However, they caution that their book is intended for "...survivors who merely have to struggle without electrical power for days or weeks. It's for people whose houses are still safe to live in or those who have fled to the safety of a distant motel." For most of us, there are enough safety tips within to help in case of such an emergency, but of course, it's best to browse this book before a storm actually hits!

* * *

A lack of funding, which state and federal governments are now scrambling to uncover--and even Governor Pawlenty of Minnesota, who vetoed two generous transportation bills, has now had a change of heart. Hmm...this would amount to how much per body?

Adding to the general disgraceful state of the infrastructure is the American penchant for the new over the true, our addiction to the flashy and shiny, but not to borrrrrrrring upkeep... Senator Charles Schumer, recently quoted in the New York Times, aptly said, "...routine but important things like maintenance always get shortchanged because it's nice for somebody to cut a ribbon for a new structure." Of course, this affliction affects how we choose to fund transportation projects.

However, I've also wondered about the wisdom of allowing a bridge to remain open while it's under construction. Sadly, I have my answer with the Minnesota bridge collapse, so I'll quit complaining about the temporary closure of the Douglass Bridge in DC.

* * *

Another type of infrastructure has gained increasing attention of late--the increasing unnetted high-wire act known as the American health care "system."

The latest casualties of this crazy quilt are young adults, the largest single group of the uninsured in America, according to the Commonwealth Fund. The excuses that insurers offer is that young people feel they don't need insurance because they think they're invincible. This is nonsense, because in every other industrialized nation, everyone is covered, regardless of age--coverage is mandatory in those countries. (at least for for people under certain income brackets, such as in Germany).

When will the excuses about not providing universal health coverage in America come to an end?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Totally Tubular

The erstwhile CNN-YouTube debate certainly helped keep my attention, with its viewer-generated questions--although I don't know how I managed to miss the gun-totin' gent waving his metallic "baby" about! The big letdown was the host's (mediator?) softball approach, which made the "debate" fuzzier than necessary. In any case, I have a feeling that the Republicans' turn under the YouTube spotlight in September will be unintentially hilarious, uncomfortable, and revealing.

What in the ???

In case you've been Rip Van Winkle and need confirmation of the importance of the upcoming Presidential election, think about this: Have you ever heard of a sitting member of Congress, especially a senior member of the House Homeland Security Committee, being denied access, by the White House, to classified material concerning government plans in case of a terrorist attack? It's not a joke--it recently happened to Rep. Peter DeFazio (D) of Oregon. This situation is triply ridiculous, as he was recently tapped by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to help negotiate an anti-terrorism bill!

How can a President denying access to a member of Congress, to government plans in case of a terrorist attack, be good for the country? Of course, this is just another episode of the unhealthy obstinance, arrogance, and obstructionism that President Bush pummels and promulgates at every turn. The 2008 election can't come soon enough!

Yes, Your Vote Does Count...

Another reason that it's important who's in the White House and the Congress is the upcoming (today! right now!) vote on the Hill for DC's right to vote. A bill that would give DC's 600,000 residents their first voting Representative is up for vote, and this time, the votes needed are within reach! It's about time, as DC residents pay enough federal taxes and have troops sent overseas, currently without any say in the matter. (However, why not go all the way and present a bill that would also provide DC with two voting Senators? Well, one can dream... I would really be dreaming if any Republican presidential candidates were in favor of DC having a vote in Congress--Jack Kemp, who was at a recent DC voting rights march, comes to mind. Oops, he's not in the current Republican crop! Never mind!)

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Cherry Surprise!

Those delightful Yoshino cherry trees (show-offs!) nonfruiting though they are, turn the mind to all things cherry nonetheless. Like so many other things, though, les cerises can leave a bad taste behind if not properly handled, delicate as they are. Cherry products that do right by me include:
  • McCutcheon's whole cherry preserves (the fruit-sweetened variety). This Frederick, MD-based company believes in truth in advertising, as you'll find many whole cherries, as well as large fruit pieces, in every jar of this fantastic, chunky spread.
  • Boylan black cherry soda--the best cherry soda ever! Full of old-fashioned fruit flavor, not medicinal in the least (the bane of many products that purport to contain cherry flavor).
  • The Republic of Tea's spring cherry green tea. I have one caveat about this one--it must be brewed properly for green tea. This means that its water must be kept just below boiling before pouring over the tea bag, and the bag must steep for less than three minutes. Otherwise, the brew, like the critters from Gremlins who munch after midnight, turns ugly.

* * *

You may have heard (or not) that cherries can relieve aches and pains. Jean Carper, in her book,
Food--Your Miracle Medicine, relates that cherries are one of the foods that are extremely high in natural (and legal!) painkilling substances, in the book subchapter titled, "Salicylates: How Foods May Work like Aspirin." (Perhaps this lends credence to the decades-old belief that cherries can relieve the pain of gout.)

Obviously, Carper is not the only one who's heard that the rouge fruit can come to the rescue, as scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture have performed preliminary investigations (ooh!) of whether cherries can relieve aches; the initial results are promising.

* * *

In honor of cherries, and in time for Easter, local chocolate manufacturer (in the original sense of being handmade) Christopher's Confections held a (free!) tasting at the fine chocolate proprietor Biagio last night.

Now, this foray was justified, as it was held around dinnertime, dark chocolate is a good source of antioxidants, and Biagio is stocked with plenty of this form of the 'food of the gods.' Frankly though, the new cherry offering, Ying Hua, is among my least favorite from the aforementioned confectioner, because I'm not particularly fond of the cherry-chocolate combo. Sorry!

However, most of Christopher Blume's (the owner of Christopher's Confections) other chocolates blew me away, and the master himself was on hand to explain aspects of the chocolate-making process, as well as to bring out more samples! My favorites are the juniper cassis, raspberry, and the butter + scotch flavors. Runners-up are the pistachio, macadamia, and the gingerbread. Now I no longer need to rack my brain to come up with gift ideas, 'cause I only need to boogie down to Biagio to purchase some of its glossy, delicious offerings, and my shopping is done!

Thursday, January 04, 2007

New year, new order of business?

Already, 2007 is the best and worst of times! To have a music icon bid a final farewell over the holidays--for Soul Brother #1 to leave us at Christmas, is poetic. (And, personally, odd, as my relatives were on a James Brown vibe Christmas Eve, spinning his records and not letting them go. Wonder if my cousin knew something I didn't; probably not, as she's not the one in the family who claims to have premonitions, and the one who does, didn't see this one coming.) Not to be too morbid, but you knew that his service was going to have an open casket, so that people would believe that JB was no longer in the land of the living. (Imagine the conspiracy theories that would have occurred otherwise...)


To hear of former President Gerald Ford's passing added to the post-holiday damper. While I was unable to view his body, the Ford family did the country proud in honoring his memory. I have the sinking feeling that the Ford children are as dismayed as I am by the current President eulogizing the deceased gentleman, who obviously was not one to shirk his duties, unlike the current Commander in Chief, skipping Vietnam and all.

* * *

Political high notes for 2007, in addition to the Democratic control of Congress, include John Edwards announcing his candidacy for President.

Not only is Edwards charismatic and gutsy, it's obvious that his priorities are correct, as his website mentions that he is campaigning to "provide moral leadership in the world, strengthen our middle class and end poverty, guarantee universal health care for every American, lead the fight against global warming, get America and other countries off our addiction to oil"--ambitious goals all, the only ones worth having!

The confluence of these political waves means that now is the time to work toward obtaining universal health care insurance for every American, as the newly elected Congress is composed of men and women who were (and hopefully, still are) listening to the people and our pain. The plain fact is that in every other industrialized, capitalist nation, health care insurance is universal-all citizens and legal residents are covered, and health care insurance costs are less in these countries than in the United States, both in total and on a per capita basis! Every such nation, including Switzerland, which has the second highest health care insurance costs, has much lower health care costs. Even Japan, the land of MRIs and other gadgets, has, percentagewise, a larger elderly population, and a total population approximately half that of the United States, and still pays much less, per capita and in total, in health care costs than the United States!

A practical plan toward the goal of securing universal health insurance coverage in the United States is proposed in the online publication, Black Commentator. The must-read article, "A Strategy for Seeking A National Single-Payer Healthcare System That Will Cover Everyone in the United States," by Marilyn Clement of Healthcare-NOW, handily lays out the details of organizing to reach that milestone.

* * *

In the political marketplace of ideas, it's no longer business as usual. The old lines are being blurred, a good thing...anytime you have an evangelical Christian resign from a politically based organization, as Joel Hunter did when he stepped down from leading the Christian Coalition because its focus is too narrow, that's a bellwether that the political winds are shifting in unexpected ways.

OK, maybe not so unexpected. After all, 2006 was the year in which global warming was finally being taken seriously, with the unlikely success of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth (wonder if it's up for a 'Best Documentary' nomination at Oscar time?).

Another gentleman ringing the warning bell against global warming and the environment is former emergency room physician J. Matthew Sleeth, who, like Mr. Gore, has been criss-crossing the nation to warn Americans about the seriousness of global warming, and let us know what we can do about it. He writes from an explicitly Christian perspective, but has a homey, practical, yet optimistic bent in his book, Serve God, Save the Planet, which I gave a relative as a Christmas present.

Sleeth and other Christian leaders (though he would probably eschew being referred to as a leader of any sort) recently led a prayer-protest against the proposed building of more coal-fired power plants in Texas. Way to go, preacher man!

Here's to more of the same in 2007--more good people with the guts to work for what is right!