Tuesday, September 19, 2017

But Seriously ... John McEnroe is back and ready to talk

During this month's U.S. Open fortnight, I began reading But Seriously by John McEnroe. It's honest, it's funny, there's no bulls–t. What's not to like, right?

Well, it's been fifteen years since McEnroe's international No. 1 bestseller You Cannot Be Serious, and in reading his new memoir, it's clear that the elder statesman of tennis is ready to talk, again.

McEnroe has alway been seen as someone who is both controversial and beloved. In But Seriously, the tennis Hall of Famer and commentator for ESPN and other American and European networks "confronts his demons and reveals his struggle to reinvent himself from champion and tennis legend to father, broadcaster and author."

As The Guardian wrote in its review of But Seriously, the book reveals McEnroe's "difficulty of living a mature life in the shadow of youthful achievement."

As a tennis player, McEnroe made his mark as a champion during the final two decades of the 20th century. He was always outspoken with his views about tennis and its players during his playing career. Now, he's combined the world of 21st century sport and celebrity through both his commentary and in his writing, too.

In But Seriously, among the many questions and themes which McEnroe tackles are: "Who are the game's winners and losers? What's it like playing guitar onstage with the Rolling Stones, hitting balls with today's greats, confronting his former on-court nemeses, getting scammed by an international art dealer, and raising a big family while balancing McEnroe-sized expectations?"

But Seriously is richly personal and McEnroe is brutally honest in what he shares with us.

"In 2002, when I ended my first book, I was just beginning the process of working out what I was going to do with my life now that I could no longer compete at the highest level as an athlete," writes McEnroe. "Would it still be tennis – playing on the seniors tour, commentating, a bit of coaching – or something else, like art-dealing, or TV, or film? Or something totally different? I had no idea which way my life was heading, but I knew if I wanted to have new experiences that would fire me up the same way being on a tennis court had done, I was going to have to take some major risks.

"I've always needed to feel challenged, to push myself, and I've tried out a lot of different stuff in the intervening fifteen years. Some of it's worked and some of it hasn't, but in life as in sports, it's often the big defeats that teach you the most. If you're too scared of falling flat on your ass, you'll never get out of your chair. And I hope that what I've learned from some of the more laughable calamities I'm going to describe for you on the pages that follow has given me a new perspective on the successes that came before."

Here are some candid excerpts from But Seriously:

On art:
"I love art and as a result know a little more about it than the average person, but I'm no expert. What I would say is that when you look at some of the biggest artists in the world right now, people like Damien Hirst, Takashi Murakami, Richard Prince, Jeff Koons – what's keeping them a step ahead of the competition isn't only their art, it's the fact that each and every  one of them is a brilliant businessman who knows how to maximize the return from their talents." ...

"Collecting art has become a lot more complicated over the years. When I first started buying, I did it on the basis of acquiring things that I liked – that I would want to put on the walls in my house. I thought that was my biggest strength – that I didn't have some kind of dogma I'd learned from studying art history holding me back. With hindsight, that probably hurt me quite a bit, financially. If I had listened to people that knew, who told me to buy certain things at certain times, pieces that I wasn't sure about, I would have done even better. I started to do that after a while, so I wasn't a total moron, but I'd still get stubborn sometimes. And that would cost me."

On commentary:
"Even while I was pursing other career options and interests at the start of the 2000s, I had no intention of turning my back on my work as a commentator. For me, being in the commentary box is an opportunity to have a voice in the game. It won't surprise you that I've got a few things to say  – on doubles, on the lack of serve-volleyers in today's game, on wooden racquets, on let-cord serves, on gamesmanship, on ... Do you want me to go on? As self-appointed 'Commissioner of Tennis,' it is my duty to do that.

"At first I would get upset when people told me I was a better TV commentator than I was a player – it took me years to realize they were paying me a compliment. I started behind the microphone back in 1992, when the dominant style of commentary was incredibly dry and boring (or at least, I thought it was). My timing was good, because tennis on TV was crying out for a change of style." ...

"When it comes to my commentating style, I try to be honest, though I'm always respectful – I hope – of the players I'm watching. Whatever the level of tennis, I know it takes guts to be out there. I don't make it about me, either, so I won't speculate about what I would be going through if I was on court, or compare what's happening on court with what I might have gone through in a similar match. I won't reminisce what it was like for me, say, in my final of 1980 – whatever, because half of the viewers weren't even born then. And anyway, who cares? Viewers want some insight into what they're watching, not some old fart going on about what he might have gone through thirty years before with his wooden racket. Which isn't to say I don't think what I did with that Dunlop wasn't pretty cool at times. I just don't want to keep reminding people."

On music:
"As a teenager, I remember sitting up and taking notice when the girls started screaming for Björn Borg in his first year at Wimbledon. It was like something out of Beatlemania. I began to take the sport I was playing a bit more seriously.

"Once I started going to Europe to play Wimbledon every year I went from being the kid who played the sissy sport to someone who was cool enough to hang out with the British rock stars who'd been my heroes. That was one of my greatest perks when it came to success on the tennis court. I'd never imagined rock guys like Robert Plant being into Wimbledon – that was the opposite of what I would've expected. But the Stones, Zeppelin, all these bands I'd grown up loving – even Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath – were telling me, 'You're great,' or 'Wow, I really respect what you're doing.' I was still only a kid at the time, and I remember thinking, 'Holy sh–t! This is amazing!'"

On artists:
"I have a special appreciation for artists – and stand-up comedians – because, like tennis players, they're out there by themselves. That's part of the reason I love art, because I realize artists have to expose themselves to criticism, just like we do on a court. There's always the potential to embarrass ourselves, and we have to learn how to deal with that. For tennis players, it's not about who hits the tennis ball better, because a lot of people can do that. It's about getting over jet lag, getting over the nerves, getting over fear of failure – and actual failure – among other things, because very rarely do things go the way you want them to.

"For artists, there's this constant process of appraisal and rejection, especially with abstract or conceptual art – 'What the hell is that? It sucks. My kid could do better.' That sort of stuff. So I respect them for putting themselves through that, I admire them for having the guts to put themselves and their work on the line, and as a result I'm interested in them as characters."

On Roger Federer:
"In the summer of 2003, I'd been back in the commentary booth at Wimbledon. No one knew it at the time – least of all me – but as I watched Roger Federer win the first of his seven Wimbledon titles, I was watching the dawn of a new era. What's incredible – with hindsight, and given who he has become – is that back then no one was totally convinced about Federer. Sure, people had been talking about him for a while as the next big thing, especially after he'd beaten Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001. But by this time he was almost twenty-two, and in the Slams he hadn't gotten further than the quarters, so there was a question mark over whether he was ever going to get it together to win one Grand Slam title, let alone eighteen (at the time of this writing!). No one was jumping up and down shouting, 'This guy is going to be the greatest player, just you watch!' Even so, I believe the expectation of what he might be capable of was getting to him. Yes, I know, Roger Federer."

On winning his first Grand Slam:
"Winning your first Slam is always a game-changer for a player – both in your own head and in the way other people see you. Suddenly you're on another level from the other pros, a potential title contender wherever you go. My own first Grand Slam title win was at the U.S. Open in 1979. I was twenty years old, and up against my fellow New Yorker Vitas Gerulaitis, who was four years older than me. This was the guy who had taken me under his wing and become my friend and mentor, and I was feeling uncomfortable about having to play him now in what was the biggest match of either of our careers. The crazy thing was, here we were, two guys from Queens, and we actually got booed by the New York crowd. Why? They'd wanted a Connors-Borg final and we'd gone and spoiled it for them. Too bad. I didn't care. I'd had a great run in the tournament, I'd beaten Connors easily to get to the final, so I felt like it was my year.

"On the day, I was able to put my relationship with Vitas aside and ended up beating him in straight sets. Now I had taken my place at the top along with Connors and Borg. Vitas could've held that against me, but he never did. In fact, he even took me out with him on the night I beat him. Straight after the final he asked me, 'What are you doing later?' I replied, 'What are you doing?' Because I knew whatever he was doing was going to be a hell of a lot better than what I might have planned! I guess there's more than one way to be a winner."

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

We didn't get Nadal-Federer, but we got Rafa at his best

Rafael Nadal / In celebration of his 16th Grand Slam title.

The U.S. Open fortnight ended Sunday with World No. 1 Rafael Nadal standing alone basking in the glory as the 2017 men's singles champion.

In front of a packed house inside Arthur Ashe Stadium with the roof open on a lovely and sunny late-summer afternoon, Nadal taught a master class in front of more than 22,000 fans with the 28th-seeded Kevin Anderson of South Africa as his chief pupil. That the Spaniard won convincingly, 6-3, 6-3, 6-4, to win his third U.S. Open title and the 16th Grand Slam singles crown in what continues to be a truly remarkable career, wasn't surprising to most of us. Surprising was Sloane Stephens winning the women's singles title a day earlier over Madison Keys in their highly anticipated all American final.

By winning the men's title, the top-seeded Nadal became one of only six players during the Open Era (since 1968) to win at least three U.S. Open men's singles championships. He joined the elite company of Roger Federer, Pete Sampras and Jimmy Connors, who have five each; John McEnroe, who has four; and Ivan Lendl, who has three.

Now, after securing Grand Slam No. 16, Nadal's first title in a hard court tournament since winning at Doha, Qatar, in January 2014 – which moved him to within three of Federer's 19 career Grand Slam titles – it's only natural to ask: How many more Grand Slams can Nadal win? I don't have an answer and I'm not sure Nadal does, either. Only time will tell, but it's certain that as long as he remains healthy and can compete, Nadal has the drive and the determination to keep fighting. And, it's only natural to reopen the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) debate that happens every time either Nadal or Federer adds another title to their respective Grand Slam portfolios.

Following a couple of forgettable years in 2015 and 2016, Nadal has rebounded extraordinarily well, winning five titles and achieving a 56-9 win-loss record – plus, he captured two Grand Slams out of four in 2017 (Roland Garros and the U.S. Open) with the others going to his 36-year-old rival Federer (Australian Open and Wimbledon). And, it should be recognized, Nadal continues to bring so many excellent qualities to tennis's biggest stages. He represents his sport so very well, both inside and outside the lines.

Looking back, while Nadal and Anderson, both 31, arrived at Sunday's U.S. Open final by taking different paths – you accept the way the draw plays itself out – each represented the spirit of true grit and determination. They played and won one match at a time. For Nadal, he expected to be there, chasing after his third U.S. Open men's singles title in his 23rd Grand Slam final. Although he lost a few sets along the way during the earlier rounds – all long since forgotten – he passed all of his tests. Meanwhile, Anderson, who is one of the nicest guys on the men's professional tour, was the lowest-seeded man at No. 28 ever to reach the U.S. Open final, and ranked No. 32, also the lowest-ranked man to make the final since the ATP began its system of computer rankings in 1973 – long before either finalist was born. Definitely, these statistical odds presented a tough challenge for the South African to overcome during his fifth career head-to-head meeting against Nadal.

As they readied to go on court, in their respective pre-match interviews, Nadal described Anderson as "a tough opponent I need to be ready for." Anderson countered by saying: "If you let him control the court, it's going to be very difficult."

As it happened, Anderson was correct in his assessment. Nadal did control the court throughout the duration of their two hour and 27 minute match that started under comfortable conditions with a 73ºF (22.8ºC) temperature and little wind. The first six games of the opening set were characterized by many long rallies that stretched into some very long games. Anderson played 13 deuces during his first four service games alone. However, the pressure continued mounting against him, and on the fifth break-point opportunity, Nadal broke the South African to push ahead 4-3. Then, after a quick hold, he broke again with a nifty drop volley to win the set in 58 minutes.

Although Anderson hit 10 more winners than Nadal did, he committed 15 more unforced errors than Rafa. As Sports Illustrated executive editor and Tennis Channel analyst Jon Wertheim tweeted, "Rafa at his Rafa-est, takes first set. ..." And, in doing so, it was widely noted that Nadal had won 23 straight Grand Slam matches when winning the first set – including 12-1 in major finals. This telling statistic proved to be a pretty good portend of things to come his way.

As Anderson sat down during the change over following the completion of the first set, he was observed re-griping his racquet. It was time for him to reset, too. The mental and physical pressure Nadal applied to him – stroke after stroke – had become painfully evident to everyone watching, both in Ashe and worldwide via television.

Early in the second set, Anderson held for 1-1, his first hold without being taken to deuce. Soon, though, Nadal owned a two-sets-to-zero lead as he won the second set by an identical 6-3 score in just 39 minutes this time. Though his first nine services games, Nadal had lost just seven points – seven! By then, it seemed a matter of time before the King of Clay would be anointed Hero of the Hard Courts. Time for ESPN to cue up Uncle Toni Nadal, Rafa's uncle and longtime coach, for one last Grand Slam interview from Rafa's box. "I'm feeling very good, very happy since it's my last time here," said a cheerful Uncle Toni.

Soon enough, the match would be over without any surprises at the end. When it was, in looking back at the final match statistics, there were some very telling results: Nadal never faced a break point; Anderson, who fired the most service aces during the U.S. Open, was held to just 10; Rafa won 84% (38 of 45) of his first-serve points. Additionally, he broke Anderson four times, hit 30 winners while committing just 11 unforced errors, and was a perfect 16-for-16 in net points won. He outpointed Anderson 102-78. It was a dominating performance.

During the trophy presentation in the on-court, post-match interview, Anderson handled his defeat very graciously. He said all the right things, and did so in a sincere tone of voice. There was nothing phony. "I congratulate Rafa," said Anderson. Turning to him, he said, "You are the greatest ambassador to our sport." He really meant what he said.

Before 2017, Anderson had never advanced beyond the third round in the U.S. Open. But, he rebounded nicely from a hip injury that caused him to miss the Australian Open and saw his world ranking tumble into the eighties. In other Grand Slams before the U.S. Open, he reached the Round of 16 at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon. With Anderson's confidence not to mention his ranking on the rise this summer, reaching the final at the U.S. Open represented his second hard court final to go along with one earlier this summer at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. In the second week lead up to Sunday, he beat unseeded Paolo Lorenzi in the Round of 16, No. 17 seed Sam Querrey in the quarterfinals and No 12 seed Pablo Carreño Busta in the semifinals. All went four sets. He gained confidence with each new victory. Then, it all came crashing down against Nadal. Truth be told, however I'm not sure anyone could have beaten Nadal on Sunday.

Anderson told ESPN's Chris McKendry during the on-court interview that he looks forward to coming back next year, building upon this season's achievements. "I can take away a lot of positives. It was a tough match today against a pretty good opponent, but I'm pleased how everything turned out these two weeks," he said.

Rafael Nadal clutches his third U.S. Open
championship trophy on Sunday.
Then, it was Nadal's turn to step forward and receive both his winner's trophy and prize money, and to address the appreciative crowd celebrating his latest glory in this, the 20th anniversary of the opening of Arthur Ashe Stadium. He said, "It's very special to win. I say congrats to Kevin. You came back better than every from your injuries."

Nadal called 2017 an "unbelievable year." He said, "Winning here is one of the events that brings me high energy. It makes me very happy." Then, McKendry asked Nadal what lesson he would take away from being coached for so many years by his Uncle Toni. "I can't thank him enough for all the things he did for me. He pushed me all the time and motivated me. He's the most important person in my life," said Rafa.

Finally, Nadal was given the opportunity to address his fans in his native Spanish language. He kept it simple, but showed much sincerity. Smiling to the crowd, he said, "Gracias todo el mundo!" Translated, it means "Thank you world!" That kind of says it all, doesn't it?

Looking back, Wertheim summed up the feelings of many, including yours truly, when he tweeted, "We didn't get Federer-Nadal at the U.S. Open, but if Rafa at his best – healthy, awash in confidence – is the consolation prize, sign us up."

Photos: Courtesy of Google images.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Connecting the Bard through words and paintings

We all know Shakespeare was a man of words. Over 400 years after the Bard magically wrote his word masterpieces, look all around us: his words continue to be spoken aloud, they are spoken through sign language, they appear in printed form, and they even appear on some very cool t-shirts.

Now,  in a celebration of 400 years of Shakespeare, the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. is taking a different approach by presenting Painting Shakespeare, a free exhibition that combines the power of Shakespeare as seen through his words and paintings, as well as Shakespeare-related art and memorabilia. It opened on May 13 and continues through February 11, 2018. This remarkable collection has been placed in a building space that's adjacent to both the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill, and includes space for researchers, as well as an intimate theater and a lovely exhibition hall.

The Bard
One afternoon recently, I visited this lively and thoughtful exhibition, where I was warmly greeted by the Folger Shakespeare Library staff as soon as I arrived. While I've always known about the impact of Shakespeare's words – think Macbeth, Othello, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet – inside this exhibition, I was invited to explore just how Shakespeare's words could be represented in pictures. I asked myself: Just how do you represent Shakespeare if you've never seen him with your own eyes?

Through nine different sections, from "Looking Back in Time" to "Imagining Shakespeare" to "Lost and Found," there were twenty-one selections from the Folger Shakespeare Library collection of paintings showcased in the exhibition hall that try to portray the Bard for our own eyes.

"It might seem unusual for a library to have a paintings collection, but Henry and Emily Folger knew that it takes more than books and manuscripts alone to understand Shakespeare and his era," I learned, reading an introductory panel that was displayed at the beginning of Painting Shakespeare. "They also collected scrapbooks, posters, programs, figurines, prints, drawings, and photographs."

I spent about an hour walking through Painting Shakespeare, carefully stopping at each area to observe and discover something interesting or unique about each painting – and to study their stories and glories. Let's see, among the memorable paintings I discovered were: Dexter Portrait of Shakespeare, a 19th century oil on canvas by an unknown British painter; The Awakening of King Lear, circa 1792 from King Lear (act 4, scene 7), an oil on canvas by the 18th century British painter Robert Smirke; and Macbeth Meeting the Witches, 1760 from Macbeth (act 1, scene 3), an oil on panel by the 18th century Italian painter Francesco Zuccarelli. One should also take time to look at Henry Fuseli's gothic masterpiece Macbeth Consulting the Vision of the Armed Head that was painted for the Irish Shakespeare Gallery in Dublin in 1793, and is presented in its original frame.

One of my own personal favorites was David Garrick Leaning on a Bust of Shakespeare. In this oil on canvas painting finished after 1769 by an unknown British painter styled after Thomas Gainsborough, I learned this from reading the description card: "David Garrick's devotion to Shakespeare and revolutionarily informal acting style comes across wordlessly here. Viewers familiar with Westminster Abbey will recognize that Garrick's relaxed poise echoes the life-sized marble statue of William Shakespeare in Poets' Corner."

Throughout Painting Shakespeare, visitors are encouraged to share their own personal experiences and connections with Shakespeare and his works. Just because the people in the paintings are standing still doesn't mean we have to, right?

Imagine, using a smartphone or other device to record and share short videos, answering one of these questions:

• When did you first read or see Shakespeare?
• Which words and lines from Shakespeare do you love the most and why?
• Which Shakespeare character speaks to you and why?

The power of Shakespeare allows us to connect with his works and, now, thanks to the Folger Shakespeare Library, through the art of painting, too.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

#NextGen star Zverev is so scary good, he's #NowGen

Sascha Zverev / The champion kisses the trophy.
The German writer and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said that personality is everything in art and poetry. Perhaps, it's possible to include tennis players like Sascha Zverev, too?"
The 20-year-old from Germany with the rockstar appeal and charming mop top hair-do, who is currently ranked at a career-high No. 8 in the Emirates ATP Rankings, Zverev has been his sport's hottest player. He's won four titles in 2017, including the Rome Masters. On Sunday, the ATP #NextGen star added his first ATP 500 crown to his C.V. with his steamrolling 6-4, 6-4 victory over Kevin Anderson in the final of the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. 
For an all too brief 69 minutes, Zverev played very focused and dominating tennis in dismantling Anderson. Coming into Washington, he'd won three titles in the past six months, including the Rome Masters over then-No. 2 Novak Djokovic. Now with his fourth 2017 crown secured, Zverev's total equals Rafael Nadal and trails only his idol, Roger Federer. 
"I don't know if this was my best tennis (today), but I got better and better every match I played," Zverev said after his victory over Anderson. "I'm just happy to win."
Alexander "Sascha" Zverev paints word pictures with his racquet and his ballet-like artistry on the court is a thing of beauty that's worth appreciating. He also inspires haiku poets:
His idol is Fed.
Like Roger, he's amazing.
He's Sascha Zverev!
Sasha Zverev faced no break points
in his final two matches.
Zverev, who improved his 2017 win-loss record to 41-13 and earlier in the week won his 100th career match, didn't leave any of the fans who packed the Stadium Court at the Rock Creek Park Tennis Center for the final feeling disappointed. The consistency and exactitude of both his right-handed forehands and two-fisted backhands were truly amazing and the payoff – $355,460 for winning not to mention the 500 ATP points he earned – indeed was handsome. Zverev hit 23 winners, committed just seven unforced errors, and he won 88% (30 of 34) of his first-serve points and 67% (10 of 15) on his second serve on the speedy hard-court surface.
A semifinalist last year at the Citi Open, the six-foot-six-inch Zverev broke Anderson once in each set, lost just nine points on his own serve, and he faced no break points for the second straight match. He dominated the baseline rallies throughout both sets.
To the 15th seed Anderson's credit, the tall (six-foot-eight-inch) and agile, 31-year-old South African fired eight aces and placed 70% of his booming first-serves in play, and he won 80% of his first-serve points. He also hit 27 winners, but committed 17 unforced errors. Against many others, those numbers would have been good enough for the 45th-ranked Anderson to capture the Citi Open or most any other ATP 500 title. On Sunday against Zverev, it wasn't – but not for a lack of trying. En route to the final, Anderson knocked off Malek Jaziri of Tunisia on Wednesday evening, then upset the tournament's top seed, World No. 7 Dominic Thiem of Austria late on Thursday night, following a lengthy rain delay. In the quarterfinals on Friday afternoon, he beat a surprising Yuki Bhambri of India, then looked impressive in his straight-set semifinal win over the last American standing, Jack Sock, on Saturday afternoon.
"The last few months have been tricky for me," Anderson said, during the trophy presentation. "This is my first final in a while. I congratulate Alex on a great week."
Anderson, who has been trying to get his career back on track after battling a variety of injuries last year, has now lost to Zverev in all three of their meetings, including a three-set loss in Washington two years ago when a teenaged Zverev was beginning to burst onto the World Tour scene.
Now, the young and mature tennis wunderkind affectionately known to all as Sascha is scary good – and he's still improving. He dropped just one set this week (against Australian Jordan Thompson) and made quick work of his other opponents before the final: American Tennys Sandgren, Daniil Medvedev of Russia, and World No. 9 Kei Nishikori from Japan. At times, his play looked effortless but it was always entertaining. Throughout the tournament, Zverev moved about the hard court surface with great confidence and authority, and he always played with a keen instinct well beyond his years.
Sascha Zverev on the TennisChannel set
discussing his Citi Open title. 
During a post-match interview with TennisChannel's Jim Courier, after he received the champion's trophy, Zverev gave props to the newest member of his team, former French Open champion Juan Carlos Ferrero. It was a decision to add Ferrero that Zverev made with the blessing of his father and longtime coach, Alexander Zverev, Sr. "He's a great guy to bring in and has brought a positive balance to our team," the junior Zverev said. "He's one of the smartest guys, a former World No. 1. He can teach me things, how to deal with pressure. We've just started, but we've done well so far."
The dividends are starting to show for Zverev. Now, not only is he in fourth place on the road to the this year's ATP Finals in London with 3,165 points, he's also far away the leader in the Race to Milan among the ATP's #NextGen players by 2,285 points over his nearest competitor, Karen Khachanov of Russia. Sascha's got a Masters 1000 and a 500 title under his belt this year, plus he made it to the second week of a Grand Slam, the fourth round of Wimbledon last month. What's next?
"The farthest I've been in a Grand Slam is fourth round. I would like to change that. I would like to go further and I still have to improve a lot. Honestly, that's my main goal," Zverev said. "I know that I have to keep working hard and keep improving my game to be able to go far in the big tournaments. I just want to keep improving and win these kind of tournaments."
In leading up to the U.S. Open later this month, the year's final Grand Slam, Zverev will be seeded fourth at this week's Rogers Cup in Montréal, and he will also be one of the top seeds at next week's Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, both Masters 1000 events. The media and fan interest has only just begun.
"My goal is to qualify for London this year," Zverev said. "I know I'm playing good tennis at the moment. I can win big matches. It will be a dream come true to play in the O2 Arena against the best players in the world. Obviously, this is something that is quite special for every player. For me to qualify at the age of 20 will be something amazing."

Photos: Trophy photo courtesy of Citi Open and ATPWorldTour.com; interview photo courtesy of TennisChannel.com; Sascha Zverev serving photo by Michael Dickens © 2017.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

New Deal Era murals depict a simpler county life

The Hyattsville Post Office, in Prince George's County, Maryland, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. On most days, hundreds of people come and go by the post office, depositing their stamped, outgoing letter mail in one of four sturdy, blue U.S. Mail boxes that flank both sides of the post office's front staircase. Then, they disappear just as quickly, going about their daily business, perhaps ducking into Vigilante Coffee around the corner for an espresso drink or a croissant.

However, it's worth slowing down for a just a moment – or three – to go inside the interior of this north-facing, rectangular Colonial Revival building that was constructed during FDR's New Deal Era and discover the rest of the story behind this remarkable, one-story brick structure located at 4325 Gallatin Street. To do so is like stepping back in time into a simpler era of county life during a different century.

One look around the Hyattsville Post Office lobby reveals six murals created by the American Regionalist artist Eugene Kingman (1909-1975), whose en plein style depicts the agricultural heritage of Prince George's Country situated in Maryland's 5th Congressional District bordering northeast Washington, D.C. A cornstalk stripe below each mural ties their composition together.

A large wall plaque dated 1935 honors the beginning of the Hyattsville Post Office building, which was erected "under the acts of Congress of May 25, 1926 and June 19, 1934 and was completed during the administration of Frank D. Roosevelt, President of the United States of America."

In researching the history of both the Hyattsville Post Office and Kingman's murals, I learned that they consist of vignettes depicting county life during the New Deal Era of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-37). Among the images are: horses grazing behind a fence, a rural church, frame structures along water with masts of sailboats visible in the distance, and ploughed fields. Several of these murals also reveal the appearance of rural delivery mail boxes in the foreground.

During the New Deal Era, Kingman, a native of Rhode Island, received commissions to create murals for two other U.S. post offices besides Hyattsville. His murals are still on display in post offices in East Providence, Rhode Island, and in Kemmerer, Wyoming.

It should be noted that credit for the architectural quality of the Hyattsville Post Office goes to Fourth Assistant Postmaster General Smith W. Purdum, who was a Hyattsville resident and lived nearby. Purdum spearheaded the engineering and research of the post office building and devoted great attention to its construction as well as to the design and execution of the murals.

Just after 8 o'clock one recent morning, as I stepped inside the Hyattsville Post Office to check my P.O. box for incoming mail – I was the only person inside the building's lobby before the post office windows opened for business at 9 a.m. – I looked around and marveled at both the beauty and artistry of this place and its murals. I tried to imagine what it must have been like when mailing a first-class letter cost just three cents. One thing that I find impressive today is the lobby has retained a remarkable degree of integrity. It has an old-fashioned look and feel, yet it also serves the residents of Hyattsville and the general public who also use it very efficiently.

(Learn more about the architectural detail of the Hyattsville Post Office here.)

Photos: Mural photos by Michael Dickens © 2017. Hyattsville Post Office photo courtesy of Google images.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Saturday road trip: On Maryland's Best Ice Cream Trail

Be a trailblazer! / Maryland's Best Ice Cream Trail
Last Saturday, my wife and I drove about 60 miles up the I-95 northeast past Baltimore to Bel Air, Maryland, in Harford County, in search of old fashioned ice cream at Broom's Bloom Dairy.

A lot of other Marylanders and tourists had the same idea as us.

On this summer afternoon, Broom's Bloom Dairy was a very popular destination. When we arrived about 1:30 p.m., there were plenty of cars lining the spacious gravel parking lot, and the line for food and ice cream was out the door. A sign near the entrance warned us: "Be patient – we are not fast food."

I learned that Broom's Bloom Dairy farm is named after the colonial land grand for the area and each year in late summer, there are lots of blooming sunflowers dotting the landscape. In 1997, as David and Kate Dallam began milking the 65 cows on their farm, one thing led to another and, more recently, they started making and selling old fashioned ice cream to go along with farmstead cheese and pork sausage. Their animals are fed a natural diet of grains and forages and they don't use artificial growth hormones.

Once inside, there were still at least half a dozen parties in front of us, but we were determined. The downtime gave us time to peruse the menu posted on a chalkboard, which consisted of variations on a main theme of quiche, mac and cheese, as well as Maryland crab soup, salads and sandwiches all featuring cheese. And, of course, there's the old fashioned ice cream – the reason why we drove to Broom's Bloom Dairy. We had a choice of about a dozen or so traditional (vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, cookies and cream) and eclectic (coffee, salted caramel, graham cracker cake batter, maraschino cherry and chips) choices, but I'm told that Broom's Bloom Dairy produces more than 100 different flavors – and it ranks in Trip Advisor's Top 10 Ice Cream Shops in America. While there may be a certain sadness when a choice gets erased from the chalkboard, soon it's replaced with another amazing flavor. Obviously, it will take plenty of visits for us to get through all of them – traditional and eclectic. Not to worry, though, the farm and the house have been around since the early 1700s, and it's now supporting its ninth generation of the Dallam family.

Welcoming sign to Broom's Bloom Dairy in Bel Air, Md.
I couldn't help but feel that being surrounded by corn fields and having the rustic family farm nearby gives one a feeling that everything at Broom's Bloom Dairy is fresh – and it is. Plus, there's plenty of seating, both inside and outdoors, live music on the weekends, and the big open field lends itself to a friendly, family atmosphere.

By the time it was our turn to order, both of us decided on a lunch of mac and cheese and I asked for mine to be covered in chili, which proved to be a hearty compliment. We pre-paid for our ice cream dessert – each of us chose "a very small size," which was actually a very generous, nearly-two scoop portion of our choice – caramel and cashew – and were given a couple of poker-chip medallions to use when were were ready to order our ice cream. This allowed us to skip the main line and queue up for the afternoon's main attraction. After all, ice cream was the real reason for our trek on Maryland's Best Ice Cream Trail.

There's a back story to our journey on the roads of Maryland's Best Ice Cream Trail:

Maryland has nine dairy farms that offer fresh, delicious on-farm ice cream sold directly to consumers. Together, they make up Maryland's Best Ice Cream Trail. Let's see, in addition to Broom's Bloom Dairy, there's Prigel Family Creamery in Glen Arm (Baltimore County); Kilby Cream in Rising Sun (Cecil County); South Mountain Creamery in Middletown, Rocky Point Creamery in Tuscarora, and Keyes Creamery in Aberdeen (all in Frederick County); Woodbourne Creamery at Rock Hill Orchard in Mount Airy (Montgomery County); Misty Meadows Farm Creamery in Smithsburg (Washington County) and Chesapeake Bay Farms, Inc., in Berlin (Worcester County).

"The Maryland's Best Ice Cream Trail is a great way to encourage Marylanders to get out and visit a real working farm," Maryland Agriculture Secretary Joe Bartenfelder said last month in kicking off the 2017 season. "Maryland is home to many outstanding dairy operations, and I challenge all residents to visit at least one of the trail's nine stops this summer."

Sunflowers dot the landscape at Broom's Bloom Dairy.
Now in its fifth year, Maryland's Best Ice Cream Trail – a joint production supported by the Maryland Department of Agriculture and the Mid-Atlantic Dairy Association, the local affiliate of the National Dairy Council – officially opened its 2017 season on May 26 and it runs through September 25.

Ice cream enthusiasts can become a "trailblazer" by having their ice cream passport stamped by all nine creameries. And, if they wish, they can mail it in to the state's agriculture department to be entered in a drawing for some cool food and dairy-themed prizes.

Knowing that the milk that goes into the ice cream served on Maryland's Best Ice Cream Trail comes from good places, the Maryland Department of Agriculture wants everyone to know that these dairy farmers take good care of their animals and the land that they farm. Not only are they active members of their respective communities, they contribute greatly to their local economies, which we witnessed firsthand on this sunny summer afternoon. In the hour or so we were at Broom's Bloom Dairy, easily 100 scoops of ice cream were dished up by the enthusiastic and friendly waitstaff. With lots of enjoyable and creative, home-made flavors, there was not shortage of good choices. My velvety caramel cashew ice cream – most definitely – was not only delicious, it was welcome relief on this hot summer afternoon.

Caramel and cashew ice cream at Broom's Bloom Dairy.
Think about it. What a great concept enjoying homemade ice cream on a dairy farm is – changing Maryland for the better, so the slogan goes. With one stamp in our Maryland's Best Ice Cream Trail passport, we hope to visit many more this summer.

Note: Broom's Bloom Dairy, 1700 S. Fountain Green Road (Maryland Highway 543), in Bel Air, is open Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sundays, noon to 9 p.m.; closed Monday. 


Photos: Courtesy of Maryland Dept. of Agriculture and Broom's Bloom Dairy. Ice cream photo by Michael Dickens © 2017.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Ways of Grace: How sports can bring us together

James Blake left Harvard to become a professional tennis player in 1999, playing until he retired at the U.S. Open in 2013. He received the Comeback Player of the Year Award in 2005 following a horrific injury, and was named the Arthur Ashe Humanitarian of the Year in 2008.

In his newly published book, Ways of Grace: Stories of Activism, Adversity, and How Sports Can Bring Us Together written with Carol Taylor (which I recently checked out from my local branch of the D.C. Public Library), Blake reflects on his experiences as a professional and shows how athletes have long been at the forefront of social change throughout our history. He pays tribute to those who were willing to raise a fist, take a stand or take a knee.

From Olympians Muhammad Ali to John Carlos and Tommie Smith; from trailblazing female athletes Billie Jean King to Brittney Griner; and from outspoken professional football players Chris Kluwe to Colin Kaepernick, many athletes have used their public roles not only to overcome adversity but also to effect social change and to advocate for a broader social justice. We learn through the stories Blake uncovers how athletes have used sports to unite rather than to divide – and how "simply being in the game," these activists fought against the barriers of oppression, discrimination, inequality and bias, in whatever form they might take.

In praising Ways of Grace, Wimbledon champion Venus Williams wrote that Blake "reminds us all of the power of sports." And John McEnroe said that in Ways of Grace, Blake "proves the vital role athletes have played in further discussion around society's most pressing issues. It is an inspiring and important work."

The 36-year-old Blake's journey to becoming an activist athlete – and the impetus for writing Ways of Grace – came to him when in August 2015, he found himself standing outside his high-rise hotel on a busy Manhattan sidewalk preparing to head to the U.S. Open – he's the chairman of the United States Tennis Association Foundation – and, soon, was tackled and handcuffed by a police officer in a case of "mistaken identity."

Although the feeling of rage would have been totally justified, instead, Blake faced the incident with a sense of dignity. He used this experience as an opportunity to raise awareness about the dangers of racial profiling.

James Blake
"It should not matter that I am a tennis star, or a public figure with access to the media, to be treated respectfully and not have my rights taken for granted by law enforcement," wrote Blake.

"All people, regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or perceived socioeconomic standing, should know that police officers will treat them respectfully and issue an accurate and timely report of any incident or altercation between them and law enforcement.

"That I have a platform and access to the media should not make what happened to me any more significant. No one should be manhandled without due process and definitely not because of a vague likeness to someone else."

In this age of social media, where 140-character tweets can have an immediate and lasting impact, many well-known professional superstar athletes such as LeBron James have not been afraid to further dialogue about our most pressing issues, "despite the risks that have often accompanied that self-expression." Rather, they are "leading the charge to preserve a diverse and tolerant world."

Not only is winning on the court and playing field important, but so is standing up for their beliefs off of it – and Blake wanted to use his voice and his role as an athlete to make a difference, to turn a very unfortunate incident into a catalyst for change in the relationship between the police and the public that they serve, "in a way that would be helpful to both."

In writing Ways of Grace, Blake was inspired by Arthur Ashe's memoir, Days of Grace. "Illuminating and insightful, his life story is a testament to how moments of adversity can actually move you in a direction of grace, and how you can respond to life in a graceful way as opposed to a reactionary, divisive way," wrote Blake. "Ashe showed us you can use adversity to heal and not hurt; we can use it to unite and not to divide."

As a Wimbledon champion, Ashe also fought apartheid, fought for those who were less fortunate, fought for those who were in bad situations. He had the ability and resources to help. Towards the end of his life, when he had HIV, when he contracted AIDS, Ashe was helping others who did not have the means to the same treatment he had, who did not have the money he had. Even as he struggled physically, Ashe sought to help the cause of HIV/AIDS research.

"Ashe taught me that despite the situation you are in, no matter how grave, how embarrassing, or how devastating, you can try to find a positive way to affect the world. As I considered Ashe and his profound impact on not only sports but also the world, I considered other sports figures who have sparked change, on the field and off," wrote Blake.

"I wanted to bring to light their stories of activism, advocacy, and courage even as they faced a harsh personal, societal, and financial backlash. As I researched, I was struck by how many athletes – past and present – have championed causes they are passionate about and have created change in positive and uplifting ways, publicly and privately. I want to tell their stories."

To read a sample of the book:

Cover photo: Courtesy of HarperCollins.com.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Words that built America: Thoughts on this Fourth of July

"Where liberty is, there is my country." 

– Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.

Today is Independence Day – America's birthday – the day the United States celebrates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, signed 241 years ago on July 4, 1776, and the separation of the original 13 colonies of Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut, Massachusetts Bay, Maryland, South Carolina, New Hampshire, Virginia, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island and Providence Plantations from the British Empire.

According to Garrison Keillor, broadcasting in his Writer's Almanac  this morning across National Public Radio stations from coast to coast, I learned this: "Thomas Jefferson wrote most of the Declaration of Independence; everyone else in the room thought he was the most eloquent and the best writer and he offered no dissent. It's said that John Hancock wrote his name in extra large script so that King George would be sure to see it; the king suffered from cataracts. Fifty-six men from 13 colonies signed the document. One out of eight of them had gone to Harvard. Two would go on to become presidents of the United States."

Now it can be told: The signing of the Declaration of Independence actually took place on July 2, not the Fourth of July, and, said Keillor, "this fact always irked John Adams, who decided to protest the date of the new celebration by never, not once, attending a July Fourth celebration as long as he lived."

Also, the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence took place in Philadelphia on July 18, 1776, in Independence Square. Bells were rung and music filled the air. Congress established the Fourth of July as a national holiday in 1870. It became a federal holiday in 1938.

Today, Independence Day throughout the United States is commonly associated with fireworks and parades, backyard barbecues and picnics in city parks and at lakes and beaches. We celebrate family reunions and go to baseball games, too. Indeed, Independence Day is our celebration of our National Day in the United States.

And yet, in recent days, out collective liberties and freedoms have come under attack, thanks to the actions of a few – but with far-reaching consequences. Robert Reich, Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies who served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, recently wrote that real patriotism "isn't about putting up walls, excluding Muslims and refugees, giving tax cuts to the rich, threatening freedom of the press and attacking the federal courts, or dividing Americans by race and ethnicity." In fact, he goes on to say, it's just the opposite. "Real patriotism requires sharing the burdens and sacrifices of keeping America going, paying taxes in full, cherishing democratic institutions, and bring America together."

Indeed, in this era of Trump, it is important that we remind ourselves what "We the People" truly stands for.

Here's one final thought worth sharing on this Fourth of July, 2017:

"When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."

– And, so began the unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, the statement adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, which announced that the thirteen American colonies, who were then at war with Great Britain, regarded themselves as thirteen newly independent sovereign states, and no longer a part of the British Empire. Instead, they formed a new nation – the United States of America.

Happy Birthday America!

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Welcome to my new life

The east side of U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. – T. S. Eliot

On April 22, after 21-plus years of enjoying the landscapes and rhythms of northern California, my wife, Jodi, and I waved goodbye to the San Francisco Bay Area and headed east on Interstate 80. Our final destination? None other than the greater Washington, D.C. area, our new home.

As it happened, over the next week, we drove 2,950.6 miles – covering 13 states starting from California. We crossed the finish line in Maryland on Saturday afternoon, April 29, after beginning the final day of our journey in Morgantown, West Virginia.

Our Passivhaus town home in
Mount Rainier, Maryland.
Our travel week was very busy for us, but one in which we both embraced. After all, we had purchased a brand new house, a Passivhaus town home, in funky Mount Rainier, Maryland, just a couple of short blocks across the District line from Washington and about 15 minutes by car south of the University of Maryland campus in College Park. And, on May 1, my wife began a dream job in research and development at the Library of Congress, which served as the impetus for our leaving California for the Mid-Atlantic east coast.

As we drove across our beautiful and diverse country observing – through the snow-capped Sierra Mountains of California and Nevada, across the massive and great Salt Lake of Utah, alongside the majestic Rocky Mountains of Colorado, across acres and acres of Kansas wheat fields, near the picturesque Gateway Arch of St. Louis, through the Big Ten country of Indiana University in Bloomington, beside the Great American city of Cincinnati and up and down the hilltops of Morgantown – I was reminded often of how Mother Nature often holds up a mirror to us so that we can see more clearly the ongoing processes of growth, of renewal and of transformation in our lives. Our hours and days on the road were also filled with an abundance of music CDs – Pink Martini, Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, Valerie June, Diana Reeves – a variety of NPR podcasts like "Make Me Smart," and we tried to limit our driving to daytime hours so we could rest and renew ourselves at night.

The scenic beauty of the Donner Summit as seen driving
along Interstate 80 through the California Sierra Mountains.
Fortunately, social media and the Internet enable us to stay more easily connected than ever before with family and friends and we still plan to follow and support our favorite Bay Area professional and collegiate sports teams – just from a different city and time zone. So far, we are enjoying the fine public radio offerings from WAMU in Washington, D.C. as well as reading the Washington Post and the national print edition of The New York Times. And, we've learned thanks to the University of Maryland, which won both the men's and women's national championships in lacrosse, that people in this part of the country do take their lacrosse seriously. We've got tickets to see a Washington Nationals baseball game against the San Francisco Giants, and already we've been to a WNBA women's professional basketball game, too. Yes, there's plenty of rich of history and culture that awaits us in and around the nation's capital city, through its many museums and monuments, parks and trails – and I'm sure our free summer weekends will fill up fast with things to see and do. Already, we've explored historic Annapolis (which I'll write more about in the weeks to come) – it's only about 40 minutes away by car – and I'm sure we'll be back, soon.

Our future looks bright – and it doesn't even have anything to do with the abundance of sunshine we've experienced during the past month. Indeed, as the French novelist Marcel Proust once said, "the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes."

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

This year, the City ruled the Land

With a near-perfect 16-1 postseason, the Golden State Warriors won their
second NBA Championship in three years on Monday night.

If you're a Golden State Warriors fan, like I am, you're probably in a pretty good mood today. After all, this is the year that the City ruled the Land.

Congratulations are in order for the Golden State Warriors on the occasion of winning their second NBA Championship in three seasons. On a late, spring Monday night at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., the Warriors defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers, 129-120, to win their best-of-7 NBA Final, four games to one.

Indeed, as Warriors fans know, there's strength in numbers.

The much-heralded Kevin Durant, who joined the Warriors family nearly a year ago on July 4, 2016, in search of his first championship, garnered the Finals MVP by pouring in 39 points in the clincher. Teammate Stephen Curry, himself a Finals MVP when the Warriors won it all in 2015, added 34. Together, they were virtually unstoppable. In defeat, LeBron James scored a game-high 41 points for the Cavaliers. After the final buzzer sounded, James found both Durant and Curry on the court and offered props to both. Very classy move.

Looking back, the Warriors won the NBA Championship for a reason – they had the best collection of committed players and a coaching staff who molded this group of highly talented and motivated athletes into a winning team. They played with joy and enthusiasm, beauty and unity. Throughout their historic 16-1 post-season run, there was always a sense of passion on display and their desire to achieve a common goal of winning the title was always in focus. On any given night, in any given game, the Warriors always hustled and more often than not, found a way to win.

Thank you, players: Matt, Ian, Stephen, Kevin, Draymond, Andre, Damian, Shaun, Kevon, James Michael, Patrick, JaVale, Zaza, Klay and David. Thank you coaches: Steve, Mike, Ron, Jarron, Bruce, Chris and Willie.

Long after the game ended but not before the celebration had waned, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, sporting a championship tee to go with his Champagne-soaked-and-spiked coiffure, reflected on the championship moment during a televised interview outside Oracle Arena, among a hearty group of blue and gold-clad Warriors fans. As always, with the right sense of thought and tone of voice – and with graciousness, too –  his words spoke volumes:

"There's so much joy, so much love. It's an incredible group of guys," said Kerr. "We know how talented they are. They are so committed to each other and to the greater good. That's ultimately what puts you over the top. We have the talent – obviously – to compete for a title every year, but what puts you over the top, I think, is when you have that level of respect and commitment to each other."

This year, it was the Warriors turn to win it all.

Friday, April 7, 2017

The time for advise and consent is now, Mr. President

Last night, while many of us throughout America were either sitting down to Thursday dinner or enjoying an evening of "must-watch" prime-time television, the U.S. made a direct attack of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Syria (where it was already early Friday morning) in retaliation for the gruesome chemical weapons attack against civilians by the Assad regime.

The attack represented the first direct American assault on the Syrian government and President Donald Trump's "most dramatic military order since becoming president."

The airfield strikes denoted a very big change in U.S. policy – and it was done without the President seeking congressional approval. "Assad's vicious brutality demands a response," said Congressman Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.) on his Facebook page. "But this country doesn't fight wars without giving the American people a say." Many others in Congress conveyed the same thoughts as Kennedy.

There's a lot to digest here and both American and international media are weighing in on this story of world consequences. It's front-page "real" news across this country and the video images have been splashed all over various American cable TV news networks almost continuously since last evening.

There's one little thing that I am just a little troubled by. Perhaps, you are, too. The President said during his speech to the nation Thursday, delivered from a makeshift podium inside Mar-a-Lago, where earlier he had been hosting a dinner for the Chinese President: "No child of God should suffer such horror." Hmm. ... So,  he sees them now as children of God, but not when they are trying to escape the danger of civil war and chemical weapons?

Air strike or not, Mr. President, we must welcome Syrian refugees into our country like our good neighbors to the north, Canada, have been doing with dignity and humanity for some time. The time to act, sir, is now.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A New Orleans diary: Why food matters in the Big Easy

Domilise's / Nothing fancy or elaborate.
Just one of the best meals in the Big Easy.

New Orleans takes its food seriously – gumbo, red beans and rice, and beignets come to mind – and it's been said that you can't come to the Big Easy and not eat a po-boy sandwich. So, why not try the best – even if it's made to order in a hard-to-find location up river from the French Quarter, where parking is difficult at best and getting a table (there are only five) or a seat at the bar (there's about 10 of them) is a matter of good timing. Yet, despite all of these obstacles, the locals swear by this hole in the wall kind of place.

Domilise's Po-Boy and Bar consists of a single-room bar
and dining area with five tables and about 10 bar seats.
Such it was on a recent Friday afternoon while visiting New Orleans that my wife and I dropped in at Domilise's Po-Boy and Bar, tucked away at 5240 Annunciation Street (corner Bellecastle), and treated ourselves to a po-boy sandwich for lunch. We had an hour to kill before we had to be on the highway headed west toward Lafayette in the Acadiana region of Louisiana to attend our nephew's wedding celebration.

We first visited Domilise's back in 2001 – pre Hurricane Katrina – and it was an enjoyable experience. So it was on our next visit to New Orleans earlier this month, we knew we wanted to revisit Domilise's.

Domilise's Po-Boy and Bar is an Uptown New Orleans restaurant known for its po-boy sandwiches. For the uninitiated, a po-boy is a traditional Louisiana sandwich served on baguette-like New Orleans French bread that's known for its fluffy center and crispy crust. The restaurant was founded in the 1930s by the Domilise family, who I learned lived in the house above the single-room bar/dining area. It was run by Sam and Dorothy "Miss Dot" Domilise for more than 75 years until her death in 2013. Although it was closed during Hurricane Katrina, since reopening Domilise's has been more popular than ever – acclaimed by many, including CNN's Anderson Cooper as well as Anthony Bourdain, who once filmed a spot on location for his Travel Channel program No Reservations.

My Domilise's meal /
A delicious ham and Swiss po-boy,
Zapp's New Orleans kettle-style chips,
Barq's root beer.
During our recent visit, my po-boy of choice a ham and Swiss cheese dressed with spicy Cajun mustard, shredded lettuce and pickles while my wife opted for a turkey dressed all the way. Both were made with love by the sweet ladies who manned the kitchen. The reasonably priced menu is full of excellent choices, including shrimp, oyster, catfish, roast beef and sausage, and come in two sizes: small and large. The small was plenty large for my appetite. Along with my fabulous po-boy, I complemented my "meal" with a bag of Zapp's New Orleans kettle-style potato chips and a bottle of Barq's root beer.

We sat at the bar sipping on our sodas and munching our chips – and soaking up the vibrant atmosphere – while our po-boys were being prepared with TLC, waiting for a table to open up. By the time our order was called, a table materialized by the back entrance. Nothing fancy, but plenty of space to spread out and enjoy our delicious – albeit sometimes messy – po-boys. Looking around as we ate, I couldn't help but notice we were likely the only tourists mixed among a crowded room full of white- and blue-collar locals who swear by this place for a great meal.

Domilise's Po-Boy & Bar /
Uptown at the corner of Annunciation and Bellecastle.
As Tom Piazza points out in his insightful 2006 book Why New Orleans Matters, "the real neighborhood places, tucked away usually in some unlikely corner of a residential street, animate the day-to-day grass roots culinary life of the city. There is nothing fancy or elaborate about these places to say the least, but also nothing humdrum or mass-produced, or even lackluster ... It is a point of honor to make food that tastes good – I don't think a New Orleanian would even understand the concept of turning out blah food so you could just eat and run.

"You can go into the most unassuming place – say, Domilise's, a sandwich shop with a hand-lettered sign in a very modest corner house a block from the river in a residential uptown neighborhood – and get a meal that you will remember for the rest of your days. Or at least for the rest of the day."

Indeed, you see food is a part of the rhythm and life of New Orleans, and it doesn't get much better than this. There's a reason that Domilise's is one of the best at what they do.

Photos: Cover photo courtesy of Google Images. All other photos by Michael Dickens © 2017.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Resolved: It's time to READ more books

We're a week into March – spring is almost here – and although I didn't formally jot down any New Year's resolutions for 2017, if I had, one that would have been near the top of my list is my desire to read more. "So many books ... so little time," reads the slogan printed on one of my tattered, well-worn navy-colored t-shirts that I bought a few years ago at The Elliott Bay Book Company, situated in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle, Washington. It happens to be one of my favorite independent booksellers in the entire country – and it's always on my things to do list whenever I visit Seattle.

When I say to you that I want to "read more," by that I mean read more books. While I stay abreast of current events by reading The New York Times daily, both in print and online, and give a good read to periodicals like The New Yorker and Monocle, the London-based monthly that covers world affairs, culture, food and design, now, every day is like engaging in an American Civics class thanks to the narcissist behavior and dystopian actions of our current president. And, I should mention that perusing my Facebook news feed has become a necessity in order to stay current on what's trending with POTUS 45, too.

But, what about books, you ask? Yes, books, remember them? Books are the foundation behind what made Amazon.com one of the most successful online retailers. Before Twitter, before Facebook, before Netflix, before texting sapped all of our intellectual energy, there were books. I have several bookshelves at home that are lined with hundreds of titles that I've bought or received as gifts over the years. Let's see, I'm proud of my collection of books by The New Yorker writers Roger Angell and Calvin Trillin, among many, and I enjoy reading books about baseball, my favorite sport. However, a few years ago, in a space-saving and budget-cutting effort, I trimmed back on the number of new titles I bought and, instead, decided to start making better use of my local public library.

Looking back on 2016, I can say without boasting that I made good use of my Oakland Public Library card. I checked out about a book a month. One thing I've learned about libraries is this: If you're willing to wait for a popular best-seller or a new title to become available, checking out library books is a good way to save money (and, I might add, bookshelf space) while also showing support for our public libraries.

Both Comedy Central's The Daily Show and the New York Times Book Review are pretty good indicators for learning about good books to read. Before he left The Daily Show, former host Jon Stewart always brought out the best in authors. You could judge by his interest in a book if it was worth reading. New Daily Show host Trevor Noah is carrying on the tradition begun by Stewart.

Among the books which I read during 2016 were:

Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few by Robert Reich.

• I'd Know That Voice Anywhere by Frank Deford.

Jackson, 1964: And Other Dispatches from Fifty Years of Reporting on Race in America by Calvin Trillin.

Goodbye: In Search of Gordon Jenkins and Shop Around: Growing Up with Motown in a Sinatra Household, both by Bruce Jenkins.

Indentured: The Inside Story of Rebellion Against the NCAA by Joe Nocera.

Federer and Me: A Story of Obsession by William Skidelsky.

Among the ties that bind these titles are my interest in non-fiction, memoirs, sports, and music. And, of course, good writing and good stories always garner my attention.

Looking ahead, I ask: Is it possible that I can increase my output this year so that I'm reading an average of a book a month? Let's see, I've already started Writings on the Wall: Searching For a New Equality Beyond Black and White by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and I'm nearly finished with the current Michael Lewis book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds. 

Also, I received Eat Drink Delta: A Hungry Traveler's Journey Through the Soul of the South by Susan Puckett as a Christmas gift from my brother, and I recently bought an autographed copy of Trevor Noah's Born A Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood. 

Finally, I've got Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, the acclaimed 674-page memoir by Elvis Costello that spans his almost four-decade music career left over from last year's reading list that I would like to start this year.

There's plenty to look forward to reading while trying to forget everything that's going bad with our democracy, thanks to a certain POTUS. Now, if I can just remember to stop turning on the TV.

Photo: Stained glass sign at The Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, courtesy of Google Images.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Stitches West: So much yarn and fiber = so much fun

Skeins and skeins of colorful yarn / The scene outside the Yarnover Truck,
a mobile yarn boutique, on Saturday morning at Stitches West. 

Last Saturday, my wife Jodi and I attended the 2017 Stitches West yarn and fiber exhibition in Santa Clara, Calif., where we connected with many of our fiber friends. When you're the husband of a knitter, like I've been going on nearly 20 years, you set aside the last weekend in February for the fiber arts – and embrace the creative experience.

Ball So Hard /
Neighborhood Fiber Company's slogan.
I've been Jodi's regular companion – and I'm proud to be her yarn enabler, too – at this annual gathering for more years than I can remember. Together, we've seen it grow into one of the West Coast's premiere fiber arts events.

Although husbands and boyfriends makeup a very small percentage of the ever-growing yarn and fiber crowd at Stitches West, I attend willingly and feel uninhibited, totally at ease. If you've ever been tempted by the fiber arts, whether it be knitting, crocheting or spinning, the Stitches West marketplace is the place to go see. After all, there's so much yarn and fiber, which can only mean one thing: So much fun.

Upon entering the Marketplace Hall, which we did when the doors opened at 10 a.m. on Saturday, knitters and their enablers are easily tempted by row upon row of booths filled with colorful and luscious yarn and gorgeous fiber that's not only attractive to look at, it's also lovely to touch, too. It's the place to plan the perfect sweater, find fiber friends, and gain new perspectives – even take an engaging class.

Miss Babs Hand-Dyed Yarns & Fibers /
Inspired by nature.
Our first stop of the day inside the Marketplace Hall was at Miss Babs Hand-Dyed Yarns & Fibers, whose booth is always an inspiration for lovely designs and colorful fibers. Miss Babs is Babs Ausherman, a hard-working, insightful fiber artist and online retailer of hand-dyed yarn and fiber and patterns based in Mountain City, Tenn. I've learned that she was raised in a family of creative types and entrepreneurs – and she believes that a good day's work is good for the soul.

I've had the pleasure to visit and talk with Miss Babs each of the past several years when she comes to California. I appreciate her sharp wit, artistic and creative flair, and her thoughtfulness. From her, I've learned that color ideas come from everywhere – especially when they're inspired by nature.

A Verb For Keeping Warm /
Beautifully decorated and inviting for knitters.
From there, it was on to see our dear friends Kristine Vejar and Adrienne Rodriguez, whose naturally-dyed A Verb For Keeping Warm yarn and fiber have made their bricks-and-mortar shop a haven for knitters and fiber artists close to home in Oakland. Their booth each year is always beautifully decorated and inviting. As always, whenever we drop by the AVFKW booth, it's abuzz with newly designed and naturally dyed yarn and fiber, and plenty of knitters perusing the yarn and fiber as well as patterns and project bags.

We also paid a nice visit to Neighborhood Fiber Co., based in Baltimore, whose uniquely hand-dyed yarn is inspired by urban landscapes.

After a leisurely lunch with a couple of fiber friends, it was time to renew our friendship with Robin Senour, a glasswork artist from Berkeley, whose witty Sacred Laughter artwork and philosophy ("Bring more art into your life") we admire and adore. On Saturday, we bought out tenth piece of Sacred Laughter, a badger from Senour's "Wind and the Willows" fairy tale collection. Over the years, we've made many friends among the yarn and fiber vendors and artisans at Stitches West – and it's always nice to be recognized like an old friend by them.

After one last pass through the aisles, where we renewed our acquaintance with Kira Dulaney of Kira K Designs – she shared with me the great news that she had just completed creating her 100th pattern in 10 years – and we also met the good folks from The Knitting Tree, L.A., it was time to make full circle by returning to Miss Babs to purchase some skeins of lovely and colorful yarn and say goodbye until next year.

Looking back, as my appreciation of the fiber arts continues to grow, I will always enjoy making time to explore the creative process and to find out what inspires these remarkable fiber artists.