Saturday, December 8, 2018

On style: An eco-friendly, eclectic and enduring look

Fashion designers are resourceful types. Often, they’re inspired by the spirit and trends they discover while exploring big urban cities – all the while keeping their focus on enduring styles. Good ones even show respect for our planet while exercising a little bit of social equality.

During a recent, Friday evening visit to the month-long Holiday Market in Washington, D.C., located in front of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery (8th St. NW & F St. NW)– and just a quick slap shot from Capital One Arena, where the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals were playing – I happened upon the “Naturally Forward” collection from Aria Handmade, an eclectic artisan series of handcrafted apparel inspired by eco-consciousness.

Based in High Point, N.C., Aria Handmade uses hand-harvested seeds from the Amazon rain forest as well as recycled metals and fibers in which to create a variety of apparel, jewelry and recycled handbags. It has designed a line of accessories that incorporate recycled tire tubes into eco-friendly fashion.

As I perused the holiday merchandise displayed in Aria Handmade’s booth, I became smitten by its Optimus Collection men’s wallet. Upon first glance, I realized it’s both fun and practical – and, let’s face it, its urban look definitely gives it a fashion-forward look.

The product details incorporated into the Optimus Collection men’s wallet are impressively cool:

• Made from recycled rubber from truck tire inner tubes and synthetic vinyl from repurposed car seat upholstery.
• Interior water resistant nylon fabric.
• Two interior sleeves for bills.
• Six credit card slots.
• Three multipurpose pockets.
• Zippered coin pocket.
• Clear plastic ID display.
• Snap closure.

According to Aria Handmade’s website, the blending of recycled tire tubes and reclaimed leather together “culminate into stylish, affordable eco-friendly designs that stay true to our commitment of promoting sustainable, eco-friendly accessories that are aesthetically beautiful and functional to use.”

Looking back, it didn’t take much convincing from the very polite and observant salesperson. He picked up on my interest in the wallet as well as a small tote that would be a perfect fit for either my iPad or camera. Let’s face it, the Optimus Collection men’s wallet is just what I had been searching for. After all, for the past half-dozen or so years, I’ve been sporting an Etsy-designed wallet by Prix-Prix created out of fabric from an old men’s necktie mixed with a men’s wool dress coat interior – and lately, it’s started to wear a little thin.

You see, I’ve always had an appreciation for something a little bit different.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

On film: Cuarón’s Roma is a very personal project

In Roma, Academy Award-winning director and writer Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, Children of Men, and Y Tu Mama Tambien) has delivered an artful love letter to the women who raised him. Presented in Spanish with English subtitles, this immaculately photographed 135-minute film presented in black and white is a beautiful ode to his Mexican childhood. It draws upon Cuarón’s early life experiences growing up in a middle-class family in Mexico City’s Colonia Roma district to create both “a vivid and emotional portrait of domestic strife and social hierarchy amidst political turmoil of the 1970s.” It’s a film about resilience and survival.

As Roma begins, one critic describes its opening as “a mesmerizing four-minute credit sequence – the mopping of a courtyard – the flow of foamy water establishes a rhythm as well as a cleansing metaphor about life and memory.”

The film follows its protagonist Cleo (portrayed by first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio), a young live-in domestic helper, and captures both her devotion to Cuarón’s family as well as detailing her personal problems. She becomes the focal point of the film in what becomes a collection of childhood memories about Cuarón’s family, the house he grew up in, and his neighborhood.

As the film’s writer, Cuarón wrote the script as a stream of consciousness. So, we see a combination of personal and social issues unfold in front of us. It seemed that because Cuarón allowed his emotions to play out, some of the scenes run long without tight editing. However, as the film unfolds it becomes its strength and not a liability.

Roma is meant to make us think. It’s an art film not an entertainment movie. Because Cuarón chose to film it in black and white, we gain more intimate details – and it lends itself toward recalling memory. After all, memory can be subjective – but it can also be objective, too. There is a lot of subtlety, a touch of humor, and plenty of honesty. Several things that are foreshadowed play out later in the movie such as an earthquake, a massive fire and the Corpus Christi massacre of 1971 that is shockingly detailed and restaged by Cuarón.

Roma opens in theaters just in time for the holidays and it’s sure to gain momentum as the awards season comes into full view. It will also be released simultaneously on Netflix, which will allow the film to reach a wider audience. However, Roma is best seen on a large screen and preferably in a classic, single-screen cinema like I saw it on a recent Sunday morning in northwest Washington, D.C. Its directionality of sound is truly amazing. Recently, one critic described Roma’s sound as a “bewilderingly intricate tapestry of distant street sounds, ambient noise and close-up conversations.” It’s a film that you can definitely watch with your ears, but you’ll want to see it with your eyes, too.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

No Passport Required: Still connecting with food and having a conversation about it with Marcus Samuelsson

Earlier this year, chef Marcus Samuelsson of Food Network Chopped fame took an inspiring journey across the United States in which he explored – and celebrated – the wide-ranging diversity of immigrant traditions and cuisine woven into American food and culture.

On “No Passport Required,” a six-episode PBS/Eater series which first aired across the U.S. during the summer months, Samuelsson visited Detroit, New Orleans, Chicago, New York City, Miami and Washington, D.C. An immigrant himself, who was born in Ethiopia and raised in Sweden, Samuelsson discovered dynamic and creative ways in which a particular community thrives – making its mark, so to speak. He spoke to poets and musicians, business owners and community leaders, as well as artists and home cooks – each who have contributed to enhancing our nation’s culture and its cuisine.

In Detroit, Samuelsson gathered with Middle Eastern immigrants who call the Motor City home and in New Orleans, he learned how the culinary traditions of the Vietnamese have been fully integrated into the fabric of the Big Easy, which has its long-established French and Creole influences. Samuelsson gathered with Ethiopians in Washington, D.C., and with the Indo-Guyanese in Queens, New York. He discovered how Chicago’s Mexican neighborhoods have impacted that area’s food and culture, and in Miami, he was welcomed by the city’s proud Haitian community.

The bottom line in Samuelsson’s adventures – and what I learned from watching – is this: there are many wondrous global food traditions that are waiting to be discovered throughout the United States. Sometimes, we just need a little bit of encouragement. After all, as the title of Samuelsson’s show reinforces, there’s No Passport Required.

 • • •

There’s a great back story about chef Samuelsson I blogged about six years ago that's worth sharing, again. Back in July 2012, he wrote a memoir, Yes, Chef – an incomparable story – about what it means to be an American. Through his cooking, he told a story that in the words of former President Bill Clinton, “reached past racial and national divides to the foundations of family, hope and downright good food.” Gabrielle Hamilton, the bestselling author of Blood, Bones & Butter said that Samuelsson exudes “a quiet bravery, and a lyrical and discreetly glittering style – in the kitchen and on the page.”

Thus, an opportunity to meet chef Samuelsson in person, hear him wax poetically on his life’s passion and get a signed copy of his memoir was too good an opportunity to pass up.

“It begins with a simple ritual: Every Saturday afternoon, a boy who loves to cook walks to his grandmother’s house and helps her prepare a roast chicken for dinner. The grandmother is Swedish, a retired domestic. The boy is Ethiopian and adopted, and he will grow up to become the world-renowned chef Marcus Samuelsson.” His memoir, Yes, Chef, became his love letter to food and family in all its manifestations.

As Samuelsson shared his fascinating life’s story at Book Passage’s intimate San Francisco Ferry Building store, he said, “Sometimes, the worst situation can become the best situation.”

In a chapter of Yes, Chef devoted to his grandmother, Helga, Samuelsson wrote: “Mormor (the Swedish word for mother’s mother) treated her house like it was her own little food factory. She made everything herself: jams, pickles, and breads. She bought large cuts of meat or whole chickens and game animals from the butcher and then broke them down into chops and roasts at home. It’s so funny to me how, today, we celebrate braising as some refined, elegant approach, when it’s the same slow cooking method Mormor used. Her menus followed a simple logic:

“You have bread today because it’s fresh. You have toast tomorrow because the bread has gone stale. You make croutons the next day, and whatever bread is left after that gets ground into crumbs that you’ll use to batter fish.

“I don’t think I saw a rib-eye steak until my late teens when I started working in restaurants. At home, we ate mostly ground meat that was rolled into balls and stretched even further by ample additions of breadcrumbs. We ate our own Swedish version of a hamburger: pan beef, a patty topped with caramel iced onions. Sometimes we ate beef Lindstrom: a hamburger patty mixed with onions, capers, and pickled beets before being seared in butter. That’s comfort food where I come from, and it’s damn good.”

• • •

At times, it’s been a struggle for Samuelsson to find his place, both in the kitchen and in the world. At least now, he has the appearance of a man who’s found peace in all the right places – and he’s always with a smile on his face.

“I am an immigrant, not a refugee,” Samuelsson reminds us. “There is a big difference. I am as a patriotic as any American. I am determined and grateful.”

As a chef, Samuelsson states that inside the kitchen or out, “it’s a matter of luck and the belief in others.

“Cooking has changed, but the core values remain the same. It’s about expressing a journey and culture. What better way than through food,” he says. And, besides, as Samuelsson playfully shared with his San Francisco audience on that summer night six years ago, “My fried chicken is better than yours!”

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Vrijeme je za slavlje, Hrvatska!

It’s time to celebrate, Croatia! 🎾

Croatia are the Davis Cup champions for the first time in 13 years – and just the second time in this proud nation’s history. The country’s president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, is the team’s biggest fan.

On Sunday, playing on a red clay court set up inside Stade Pierre Mauroy in Lille in northern France, before a mostly partisan French crowd of 24,144 loud fans, Marin Cilic played steady and ruthless tennis for two hours and 19 minutes – owning his French opponent, Lucas Pouille, who was France’s last hope and inserted into the French line-up as a replacement for Jeremy Chardy. Perhaps, it was fitting that Cilic should be the one to clinch the crucial point in the best-of-five rubber tie for Croatia that earned it a well-deserved 3-1 victory over France in the Davis Cup by BNP Paribas Final. (By ITF rules, the final rubber was not played since Croatia clinched the title after the fourth rubber.)

Cilic, a former U.S. Open champion, who was leading by two sets against Argentina’s Juan Martín del Potro in the 2016 Final before his game collapsed, with Croatia leading by a 2-1 margin at home in Zagreb, lofted an inch-perfect winner that landed just inside the baseline on championship point. Soon, he was mobbed by his captain, Zeljko Krajan, and his teammates, one whom draped him in a Croatian flag, as the celebration began in the middle of the court.

Marin Cilic
“I’m happy I played so well this weekend,” said Cilic during an impromptu on-court interview shortly after his victory. Looking back, he and Borna Coric gave flawless performances during their singles rubbers than enabled Croatia to celebrate winning the 2018 Davis Cup title. Between them, they won nine out of nine sets on the red clay and neither player’s service was broken. Not once. This time, there were no meltdowns by Cilic. He took control of his destiny.

“It’s not every day that you become a world champion, an excited Cilic said after he beat Pouille, 7-6 (3), 6-3, 6-3, in the tie-clinching fourth rubber. “For us, it’s a dream come true. We are so passionate, you can see the fans are enjoying themselves. I feel that in Croatia, it’s going to be incredible, too.”

Later, in assessing his Sunday performance, which was his 29th career Davis Cup singles win and 39th overall (which includes doubles), Cilic said, “I thought Lucas started well in the first set and just a single point made the difference. After that, I played better and served better. I’m extremely proud of my performance.”

Krajan called this year’s championship squad “one of the best teams we ever had; it’s like a dream team.”

En route to lifting the Davis Cup trophy, Croatia began the 2018 season with a 3-1 first-round victory over Canada, and followed it with a 3-1 win over Kazakhstan in the quarterfinals. Then, the Croatians went the distance against the United States as Coric proved the difference by winning a five-set, fifth rubber that beat the Americans 3-2 in the semifinals. It advanced Croatia to face defending champion France in the finals.

After seven years, said Krajan, “it’s an honor for me to be here. My singles players not only didn’t lose a set, they didn’t lose serve in three matches, which is an unbelievable achievement. It shows you the quality that we produced.”

Meanwhile, France’s team captain, Yannick Noah, who closed the book on his third and final term at the helm of the French, was complimentary of Croatia despite being on the losing side in his last Davis Cup Final. Just a year ago, it was Noah and France who were lifting the Davis Cup trophy. This time, however, he said, “We lost to a better team. We did everything we could to be at this level with the Croatian team.”

Borna Coric
The difference makers during this year’s Davis Cup Final were Croatia’s Top 20 duo of Cilic and Coric. Each remained calm and cool – and, just as importantly, in control of their French opponents. Cilic mastered both Pouille and, earlier, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, while Coric set the tone for the entire weekend with an impressive straight-set win over an ineffective Chardy. Perhaps, winning it all provided Croatia some solace after losing the FIFA World Cup final to France last summer.

“The three matches Borna and I played shows how well we played and the level we produced,” the 30-year-old Cilic said. He kept his focus all the way to end when he finished off Pouille in straight sets, which ended any chance of a fairytale ending for France, trying to come back from a 2-1 deficit. “We were both in great form at the right time.”

Before he left Stade Pierre Mauroy for the last time, Noah congratulated Krajan and each Croatian player personally. It was a nice touch of sportsmanship. While it must have hurt deep down that he didn’t go out a winner in his last Davis Cup Final as France’s team captain, Noah remained upbeat and maintained a smile on his face. “We just went to their locker room to congratulate them,” he said. “I think they’re beautiful winners and they deserve it.”

Next year, the Davis Cup will enter a new era and be contested like a football World Cup during a one-week, 18-team tournament in Madrid, Spain, in November. The International Tennis Federation, the governing body of the Davis Cup, believes the new and overhauled format, with best-of-three-sets matches, will be more attractive to elite players – read: Djokovic, Nadal and Federer – who more often than not decline to represent their countries, citing a crowded schedule. For now, though, Croatia is the last team to win a Davis Cup Final in its historic home-and-away format.

Vrijeme je za slavlje, Hrvatska!

Photos: Courtesy of Google Images.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Thoughts on art and travel: Revisiting an artistic interior

An artistic interior /
Interior of the Church of Saint Bavo
by Dutch artist Pieter Saenredam
As I ready to visit Europe next month for the first time in six years, I am reminded of the last time I crossed the Atlantic Ocean. It was during a spring holiday in 2012, and my travel included visits to Amsterdam and Brussels, with a quick day trip by train to Paris. As I recall, I spent part of a Sunday afternoon visiting the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. For me, spending time in art museums is always time well spent. And, if you're lucky like I was on that day, you just might learn something new, too.

In an exhibit featuring a retrospective of Dutch artists, I came across a 17th-century painting depicting the interior of the Saint Bavo Church in Haarlem, the Netherlands, by Pieter Jansz. Saenredam.

Saenredam (1597-1665), who was the son of a printmaker and draughtsman, painted this oil on panel of the light-filled interior of Saint Bavo Church in 1636. Saenredam painted no fewer than six "portraits" of Saint Bavo, considered by many as one of the finest Gothic buildings still in existence today. Each time, he focused on one of the organs. Here, he depicted the Resurrection of Christ on the open shutter of the organ. He mixed gold powder with his paint to represent the gold in the painting. In describing the ornamentation of this painting, the Rijksmuseum website wrote: 

"At the time Saenredam painted the Saint Bavo Church, leading music-lovers were campaigning for more organ music to be played in church services. Calvinist ministers object to organ music. Little music was played in church and psalms were sung unaccompanied. The ministers would rather have had no organs at all in church because they felt the beautifully decorated organs were evidence of ostentation and excess. Haarlem's music-lovers handed a petition to the town council, in which they asked to be allowed to use the organ, 'the ornament of the church', everyday. It is possible that Saenredam gave the organs a prominent position in his painting in support of this campaign."

(As an aside, the interior of the church, which was originally Roman Catholic, was stripped of all of its embellishments, including statues and paintings, by the Protestants following the iconoclasm of the Protestant Reformation.)

What I learned in researching the artist and the painting is this: Saenredam was the first Dutch painter to specialize in church interiors. His precise on-the-spot observations and detailed perspectives helped us to have a better understanding and appreciation for these architectural marvels. And, through the addition of including tiny figures, he helped to emphasize the height and immensity of the church. Finally, in some of his interior paintings, the artist used a central perspective: All the lines in the painting disappear in a single point.

The Getty Center in Los Angeles, California, which owns one of Saenredam's interior paintings of Saint Bavo, commented on his work in its website:

"The overall impression is one of strong verticality, soaring space, and penetrating light, a spiritual reference to the heavens above. The inclusion of small figures accentuate the viewer's experience of exalted interior space. Saenredam described architectural elements in great detail: vaulted ceilings, moldings, decorative capitals, clustered pillars, and clerestory windows."

Saenredam made his first drawing of the interior of the church of Saint Bavo in 1626. From then on, he devoted himself almost exclusively to painting church interiors, always using precise perspective. Of his fifty surviving paintings, almost half show the interiors of two churches, Saint Bavo and the Mariakerk in Utrecht.

What can we learn from Saenredam's sacred interior spaces? For one, they were designed for contemplation. Unlike others whose paintings evoked a certain type of pomp, pageantry, and theatre that was usually seen in Roman Catholic churches, Saenredam's surprisingly modern paintings evoked "the whitewashed austerity of the Dutch Reformed church," says the Getty Center.

In describing Saenredam's style and viewpoint, the Getty Center said: "There are no processions, no clusters of worshippers at shrines. He adopted a very low viewpoint and a palette restricted to the palest of tones, and allowed few people into his bare interiors. He concentrated on depicting light, color, and space. Many Dutch artists continued his tradition, but few equaled his inventive vision." 

Indeed, Saenredam's painting of the interior of the Church of Saint Bavo owes its poetry to his desire to paint a faithful rendering, one that is careful and accurate.

Note: An original version of this blog post was published on July 10, 2012.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

On art and fashion: Contemporary Muslim Fashions

Thanks to social media, I have become Facebook friends with several Tunisian women, all whom are Muslim. Some of them cover their heads in colorful headscarves, known as hijabs; most do not. Each have become individuals of style within and beyond their communities in this North African country bordered by Algeria, Libya and the Mediterranean Sea, as I’ve learned firsthand through many thoughtful online conversations. While the nature of the Muslim dress code worldwide is a complex and diverse one, like it or not, Muslim fashion has become part of the mass-media’s attention drawn to contemporary Muslim life.
Currently, the deYoung Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco is examining Contemporary Muslim Fashions by “spotlighting places, garments, and styles from around the world,” in a show that began in late September and continues through January 6, 2019.

Contemporary Muslim Fashions is the first major museum exhibition to explore “the complex, diverse nature of Muslim dress codes worldwide” by bringing together different religious interpretations and cultures of Islam. The creativity and diversity – and politics – of modest dressing is celebrated.

I’ve learned that this exhibition considers “how Muslims define themselves – and are defined – by their dress and how these sartorial choices can reflect the multifaceted nature of their identities.”

Contemporary Muslim Fashions crosses through many different religious interpretations and cultures, featuring spectacular creations from a dynamic fashion scene by designers from both the Middle East and Southeast Asia – think Malaysia and Indonesia. From street wear to couture, the exhibition includes “high-end fashions, such as those by Malaysia-based Blancheur; street wear, such as modest designs from London-based Sarah Elenany; sportswear, such as the burkini; and commissioned garments from both emerging and established designers.”

The exhibition also includes the use of social media as a primary material – an agent of change. Muslim voices and personal narratives are framed by using runway footage of fashion shows and news clips as well as documentary and fashion photography.

As visitors to Contemporary Muslim Fashions will learn, while Islam is a multicultural faith, the dress of its followers is “shaped not only by religious principles but also by local customs and traditions and global fashion trends.” Thus, a woman from Tunisia is more likely to be contemporary in her fashion attire than a woman living in Saudi Arabia.

In her review of Contemporary Muslim Fashions for The Hollywood Reporter, critic Celine Semaan wrote, “Because of the current political climate from which it is rising, the show carries a message of hope and acceptance. The act itself of organizing this exhibition is nothing if not a peaceful demonstration of the American values written in the First Amendment: freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of religion.”

Laird Borrelli-Persson of Vogue, in reviewing Contemporary Muslim Fashions, quotes curator Jill D’Alessandro, who believes, “Fashion can be an agent for positive change, for understanding, and breaking down barriers; they (fashion designers) want to exhibit in the United States and in Europe because they want their cultures to be understood.”

One thing’s for sure: There’s a diversity in Muslim fashion that is strikingly beautiful, both for its modern aesthetic and for its street-style appeal.

Photos: Cover – Mary Katrantzou skirt and shirt (silk and polyester), and Malone Souliers shoes.  Bottom – Flight jacket with U.S. Constitution written in Arabic on the back and First Amendment written in English inside, by Slow Factory (Courtesy of deYoung Museum and Google Images). Video: Courtesy of

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Thoughts on Elvis Costello: Look Now and Then

Elvis Costello / The master storyteller at the
DAR Constitution Hall, in Washington, D.C.

Elvis Costello knows how to charm the pants off an audience. He’s done it successfully for more than 40 years as one of his generation’s greatest songwriters and performers. He’s worked diligently at his craft to attain a special place in the music world. Whether with a simple wink, a friendly smile, or just the right choice of words and upbeat tone of voice, the bespectacled and iconic English musician, who was once described by a critic as a “pop encyclopedia,” has become a master of the craft of storytelling.

Now, healthy again after recovering from surgery for a small but very aggressive cancerous malignancy, Costello once again is delighting crowds with his good-natured manner and geniality of performing. He’s taking great care not only of himself, but also the stories he’s sharing with his audiences, through their lyrics and unusual combination of musical instruments.

On November 4, at the DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., in just the third night of his current 20 city “Look Now and Then ...” tour – and in what was my 12th Elvis Costello adventure – I saw a show like no other he’s given, and I’ve seen Elvis perform solo; with his various backing bands, including the Attractions, the Imposters, and the Sugarcanes; in a duet show with his longtime keyboardist Steve Nieve; accompanied by the late extraordinary New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint backed with a brass horn section – even dressed to the nines in a black tuxedo performing with the San Francisco Symphony.

Musically, throughout the evening’s two-and-one-half-hour performance, accompanied by the always sharp and in-form Imposters (Nieve on a variety of keyboards, drummer Pete Thomas, and bassist Davey Faragher) and joined by vocalists Kitten Kuroi and Briana Lee, who added soulful backing harmonies to new songs such as “Unwanted Number” and the classic “Alison,” the 64-year-old Costello moved freely between introducing 10 new “uptown pop” songs from his recently-released album ‘Look Now’ such as “Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter,” which he co-wrote with Carole King; “Don’t Look Now” and “Under Lime.” There’s a little bit of swagger in Costello these days and as one critic recently remarked, the new material is “full of rich characters loaded with desire and heartache.” Costello also dug into his vast catalog of spinning-wheel classics to share “This Year’s Girl,” which has been remade into the theme song for the HBO series “The Deuce;” “Clubland,” “Green Shirt,” “Watching the Detectives,” (performed as a spacey solo under a green spotlight for full visual affect); “Pump It Up,” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.”

Truly a music fan, Costello delights in championing the works of other musicians, from country star George Jones to rock guitarist and producer T Bone Burnett to influential Philadelphia hip-hop band The Roots – even former Beatles icon Paul McCartney – to name just a few whom he’s collaborated with over the years. Whether immersing himself in pop, rock and roll, country, Americana, soul or jazz, among the many genres that he’s mastered over many years, in concert Costello shares many of the lessons he learned and we’re rewarded with songs that are as literate as they are artful.

On ‘Look Now,’ Costello has revisited his partnership with Burt Bacharach, himself a master songwriter, on three impressionistic tunes, “Don’t Look Now,” “Photographs Can Lie,” and “He’s Given Me Things.” Bacharach’s piano lines, as interpreted and performed live by Nieve, are both poignant and beautiful – and reminded me of some of Bacharach’s brilliant late ‘60 pop collaborations with lyricist Hal David.

Throughout the show’s 27 songs, Costello showed he can be acerbic and witty, as well as lamenting and sad. There’s a fine balance between rock and balladry in a Costello performance. As his Washington, D.C. concert reminded us, his shows have become more than an exercise in nostalgia and pastiche. I have no doubt that this tour will be a triumph for Costello, providing him with an opportunity for enlivening his mastery of the songwriting form – and with a keen dramatist’s eye, too.

Because of Costello’s desire to showcase his new songs, his show is now very much of the present. Collectively, his body of work is that of adept storyteller who’s learned more than a few things from the past. On this night, Costello took his mostly baby-boomer audience on a musical journey through his expansive songbook that was not only intimate and entertaining, but also humbling and inspiring.

Elvis Costello’s DAR Constitution Hall, Washington, D.C., set list:

Main set: This Year’s Girl / Honey, Are You Straight or Are You Blind? / Clubland / Don’t Look Now / Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter / Green Shirt / Photographs Can Lie / Temptation / Brilliant Mistake / Why Won’t Heaven Help Me? / Under Lime / Watching the Dectectives / Deep Dark Truthful Mirror / He’s Given Me Things / Unwanted Number / High Fidelity / Alison / Everyday I Write the Book.

First encore: Stripping Paper / Suspect My Tears / (I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea / Mr. and Mrs. Hush / Pump It Up.

Second encore: A Face in the Crowd / Blood & Hot Sauce / American Gangster Time / (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.

All photos: © Michael Dickens, 2018.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Thoughts on books: Leadership in turbulent times

Today is Election Day in the United States and throughout America, the mid-term elections serve as a referendum on the direction of our country under President Donald J. Trump. Are we content with the everyday chaos coming out of the White House or do we hearken for something better?

We’re reminded that when the U.S. has been at odds with itself, a born leader has come along to remind us of the common causes we share – and just as important, of our shared humanity. Think back to when Barack Obama became the first black elected President of the United States 10 years ago this week. It seems like such a long time ago, that chilly Election Night victory speech in Chicago’s Grant Park, when one voice changed the world.

However, with the U.S. becoming more deeply divided by the hate, fear, deviciveness and lies that have characterized the first two years of the Trump presidency, it’s worth looking back to some of our country’s past presidents – Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson – all of them leaders, to see if they have something to teach us about the challengers we face as a nation today.

In Leadership in Turbulent Times, published by Simon & Schuster in September, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin draws upon the four presidents she has studied most closely – Lincoln, both Roosevelts and Johnson – to show how each recognized leadership qualities within themselves and were recognized as leaders by others.

Seven questions are explored in great detail in Leadership, which form the foundation of Goodwin’s book. They are: Are leaders born or made? Where does ambition come from? How does adversity affect the growth of leadership? Do the times make the leader or does the leader shape the times? How can a leader infuse a sense of purpose and meaning into people’s lives? What is the difference between power, title, and leadership? Is leadership possible without a purpose larger than personal ambition?

The blogger meets the author.
According to Goodwin, “No common pattern describes the trajectory of leadership. Although set apart in background, abilities, and temperament, these men shared a fierce ambition and a deep-seated resilience that enabled them to surmount uncommon hardships. At their best, all four were guided by a sense of moral purpose. At moments of great challenge, they were able to summon their talents to enlarge the opportunities and lives of others.”

In a recent interview with The History Channel, Goodwin said that leadership is elusive because one size does not fit all. “In my book, I have sought to make the concept of leadership less abstract and more practical through specific stories that can provide a guide and inspiration to show how – with ambition, self-reflection and perseverance – leadership skills can be developed and strengthened.

“Through my study of leadership these past five years, I found a family resemblance of traits and patterns of behavior – among them humility, empathy, resilience, courage; the ability to replenish energy, listen to diverse opinions, control negative impulses, connect with all manner of people, communicate through stories and keep one’s word. ... They remind us of what is needed today.”

On Abraham Lincoln, Goodwin characterized the 16th President by writing: “Confident and humble, persistent and patient, Abraham Lincoln had the ability to mediate among different factions of his party, and was able, through his gift for language, to translate the meaning of the struggle into words of matchless force, clarity and beauty.”

We should be grateful for Goodwin’s book – she offers heartening examples of leadership from the past in the hope that “we will not accept our current uncivil polarization as the norm.”

Goodwin hopes that Leadership will provide reassurance through the study and stories of “my guys,” who set forth a template of shared purpose, collaboration and compromise – “the best of our collective identity in times of trouble.”

Leadership in Turbulent Times is timely – very timely – and it’s timeless at the same time.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Thoughts on food: Fix me a plate, please

On “Fix Me a Plate,” world-renowned chef Alex Guarnaschelli’s weekly web series, the quintessential New Yorker shows us in delightful four-and-five-minute bites that she knows just where to go for a truly New York food experience.

Guarnaschelli, a Food Network star recognized for her work as a "Chopped" judge and an "Iron Chef," has selected old-school cafes and restaurants throughout New York’s five boroughs to highlight on “Fix Me a Plate.” These are places where one can still get fresh and authentic, quality-made dishes. Most of these are no-frills establishments – hangouts, if you will – that are filled with longtime traditions and plenty of charm.

In each episode, Guarnaschelli explores a different iconic New York eatery “that has built its success on a confidence and connection to doing things the way they’ve always been done.”

In the first six episodes of “Fix Me a Plate,” Guarnaschelli visits Lucali – think best pizza in Brooklyn – then, follows it with soulful chicken and waffles at Amy Ruth’s in Harlem. Need we say more? She also stops by Tanoreen in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, for traditional Middle Eastern cuisine, and Nom Wah Tea Parlor, a Chinatown delight that serves a variety of treats from egg rolls to almond cookies. Finally, there’s Indian samosas at Dhaka in Queens, and Russ and Daughters on the Lower East Side for bagels piled high with cream cheese and lox.

Recently, “Fix Me a Plate” returned with a new season of shows that so far has served up Polish pierogi at Krolewskie Jadlo in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; tacos at Rockaway Beach Surf Club on Long Island, and doughnuts at the Donut Pub in Chelsea. Also, there’s been Thai at Brooklyn’s Pok Pok, the knock-out combo of Sicilian-style square pizza and Italian spumoni ice cream at Spumoni Garden in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn; and chopped liver at Sammy’ Roumanian in lower Manhattan. This week, “Fix Me a Plate” introduced viewers to the Original Crab Shanty in City Island by the Bronx for a family-style portion size of pasta with crabs and lobster.

Asked via Twitter if she has a favorite episode of “Fix Me a Plate,” Guarnaschelli tweeted, “Spumoni Garden obviously. Also love Sammy’s Roumanian and a couple of others that haven’t aired yet.”

New episodes of “Fix Me a Plate” debut weekly on the show’s Facebook page on Monday evenings.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Ambition with talent: Costello is back with “Look Now”

In a recent Q & A with the London-based Financial Times, Elvis Costello was asked: Which matters more to success, ambition or talent? The 64-year-old English troubadour answered matter-of-factly, “Once upon a time, I would have said ambition without talent was worthless. Now I’m not so sure.”

Earlier this month, the ambitious – and extraordinarily talented – Costello released his first new album with his band The Imposters in 10 years, the cohesive Look Now, on Concord Records. One critic mused that “it’s not just craft but touch, not just energy but sensitivity. On Look Now, Costello and The Imposters have both.”

After Costello revealed earlier this year he had survived a bout with a “small but very aggressive” cancer, word of a new album was very welcome news. Produced by Costello and Sebastian Krys, the songs comprising Look Now represent some of Costello’s best career work. His sophisticated and transforming songbook runneth over with simplicity and immediacy. 

Elvis Costello
Whether immersing himself in pop, rock and roll, country, Americana, soul or jazz, among the many genres that he’s mastered over many years, Costello shares many lessons learned and we’re rewarded with songs that are as literate as they are artful. The gifted storyteller has returned in fine form.

Costello, who paired with Burt Bacharach on 1998’s Painted From Memory, has reunited with the master songwriter on three impressionistic tunes, “Don’t Look Now,” “Photographs Can Lie,” and “He’s Given Me Things.” Bacharach’s piano lines are both poignant and beautiful – and reminded me of some of his brilliant late ‘60s pop collaborations with lyricist Hal David. Costello also penned “Burnt Sugar Is So Bitter” with another songwriting giant, Carole King, that is soulful with its female choir. Throughout the album, Costello can still be acerbic and witty, lamenting and sad in his lyrics. There's a fine balance between rock and balladry in Look Now.

As one critic noted, "Look Now is much more than an exercise in nostalgia and pastiche. As the title implies, it’s very much of the present, and the work of a master storyteller who’s learned more than a few things from the past.”

In a recent Pitchfork review, its critic concluded, “As a collection of tunes, Look Now is a triumph for Costello, a showcase for how he can enliven a mastery of form with a dramatist’s eye. But as an album, Look Now is a success because of the Imposters. ... They are a sharp, supple outfit that can swing and sigh, sometimes within the same number, as when they effortlessly pivot between boss’s nova verses and a radiant chorus during 'Why Won’t Heaven Help Me?' This subtle sophistication and palpable flair make Look Now more than a mere set of songs – it’s a record worth getting lost within.”