Category Archives: Reviews

An Appalling Failure of a Great City

I just posted New York City is Back! And it is.

But I remain astonished and appalled that New York City, whose history is bound so closely to the subway system used by millions of people to get around the vast city every year, has failed to address the problem of access for the elderly and physically limited traveler in any meaningful way after all these years.

The passenger-use data tells an interesting story – the subway system consists of more than 6,455 cars that collectively traveled about 331,000,000 miles in 2021 through 472 stations on 665 miles of track. Too big to comprehend but not too big to fail. In 2021, the first year of post-pandemic recovery, about 760,000,000 people rode the rails. While that is an amazing figure, it is less than half the volume that rode in 2016 (nearly 1.8 billion)!

I was forcefully reminded of this on our Memorial Day weekend trip, when, already worn out, we approached the 30thStreet Station in Astoria to find an elevated platform. The only observable means of getting to the train platform was to climb not one but two flights of stairs. I did it but I cannot imagine that many people my age or with other physical limitations could do so.

The 30th Street Station in Astoria is not the only such problem site. Only 98 of the 472 stations (covering all boroughs but not counting the Staten Island Railway) are ADA-accessible. Many stations counted as ADA-accessible meet that test in only one direction, or only for some subway lines or only at some times of day.

I understand that adding escalators and elevators would be very costly and, given the physical constraints, could result in reducing stairwell access in some cases. Given the substantial reduction in ridership since 2016, there is no better time to fix this problem than now. I am astounded that the people of New York City put up with this situation for so long and that New York politicians have been able to escape accountability for their failure to require the MTA to act.

I have read that a Judge Approves MTA Deal to Make Subways 95% ADA-Compliant by 2055 as part of a class action settlement [] but, seriously, by 2055? No doubt this was a victory of sorts, but that deadline, even if met, is 32 years away. The number of New York City residents with some form of disability is close to one million and more than 15 percent are 65 or over. It is unconscionable that their transportation needs have been ignored for so long and still are.

No Way to Run a Railroad

Disclosure: Despite what follows, there is no way I would travel to New York City from Washington, DC except by railroad. Yet, Amtrak remains an extraordinarily unreliable organization.

We booked our Memorial Day travel on the Acela train from Washington, DC Union Station to New York’s “new” Moynihan Penn Station terminal on January 22, 2023, a full four months before the trip. Having had enough of listening to people yelling into their cell phones, oblivious to the disclosure of their personal and business information, we were determined to get into the Quiet Car and to sit next to each other in regular seats, not at a table with two strangers.

Thus, we (my wife actually) booked Acela 2170 departing Washington on May 26, 2023, at 3:00 PM and arriving in New York City at 5:49 PM, enough time to make it to a dinner engagement and then to a jazz show at Dizzy’s Club. The confirmation returned by Amtrak took us out of the Quiet Car. After several changes online, consuming some hours, we received a fourth confirmation showing we were in the Quiet Car and, we thought, not seated at a shared table. We had the same seats assigned in both directions. The return train (Amtrak 2155) was scheduled to depart New York City at 11:00 am on Monday, May 29 as we had seen in the schedules on the Amtrak app.


For reasons that defy understanding, Amtrak sent us a new confirmation on January 27, changing our seats on the return trip to DC to 8A and 8C. The message sending the PDF of the ticket simply said:

Thank you for choosing Amtrak.
Your travel documents are attached. Please print and bring them with valid identification to show the conductor aboard the train.

Concerned about the implications of this unexplained change, I tried to locate a seat map to be sure we were not seated at a table on the return trip. I could not find a seat map on which was not recognizing our reservation number, so I engaged the Amtrak “chat” feature to be sure we had the seats we wanted. There ensued a 779-word “chat” with “Desiree.” I will spare you the details of this agony of miscommunication. Suffice to say that Desiree assured us that our new return seats were not at a table and were still in the Quiet Car. Exhausted, I accepted her assurance.

On February 16, my wife, but not me, received an UPDATED confirmation from Amtrak indicating a “modified” reservation, but in fact the details were the same as we had previously received. Puzzlement.

On April 5, we received another Amtrak unexplained email (labeled Change Summary), showing an issue time of 7:09 am PT, changing our return train to a different train number, later departure (11:20 instead of 11:00) and …  and … changing our seat assignments to two different cars!!!!

Car 2 Quiet Car – Seat 4D

Car 3 – Seat 10A

No explanation provided.

We called Amtrak yet again and succeeded in getting reassigned to adjacent seats in the Quiet Car:

Car 2 Quiet Car – Seats 4F, 4D

The confirmation, labeled Sales Receipt with PDF ticket attached, issued on April 5 and, curiously, also at 7:09 am PT.

Also, on April 5 at 7:09 am PT, Amtrak issued yet another email moving us out of the Quiet Car on the return trip:

Car 3 – Seats 10A, 10C

Followed by another email also at 7:09 am:

Car 2 Quiet Car – Seats 4F, 4D

I am not making this up.

In the chaos, I failed to record the change of train number and departure time. My bad. But not just me. How can Amtrak explain this turn of events? Wait.

As reported in my previous post, we had a truly remarkable weekend in New York City. We departed our hotel in plenty of time to make what we thought was our 11:00 am train to DC.

When we arrived at the Red Cap station in the Moynihan terminal, we noticed our train number (the original number on which we had been confirmed) was not listed on the departure board. I inquired.

We were informed that we had the wrong train number and that we were not in the Quiet Car and not seated together!!!!! Neither of us had any record of this change. Fortunately, the Red Cap was very polite and helpful and in a few seconds, using the Amtrak app in my cell phone, was able to change our car assignment to the Quiet Car in adjacent seats.

So, all’s well that ends well, right?

True enough, I suppose, but how can the above sequence of events be explained or justified? Amtrak’s technology and “self-awareness” of what it is doing seem to be mythologically screwed up. This is not the first time our trains and seats have been changed without being told. It happened on a previous New York trip and, when discovered at the last minute, could not be changed. We ended up traveling in different cars, each seated adjacent to a stranger and not in the Quiet Car.

Amtrak is the only feasible alternative to flying to New York, especially on a holiday weekend when the roads are packed with cars and huge delays are commonplace. Surely this is not the best Amtrak can do. In a real sense Amtrak is a monopoly – at least in the sense that it is the only way to travel to NYC by train. Obviously, there are options – driving, the dreaded airlines (one to two hours taxi/Uber/Lyft ride into the city) but for many of us there is no real choice. Knowing its position in the hearts of many travelers, we would hope Amtrak would be better at its job. It’s not. A mystery.


New York City is Back!

You may recall that when the pandemic struck in 2020 with its epicenter at New York City, people, especially the well-to-do, fled the city in droves. Like many other predictions about the long-term effects of the pandemic, many observers declared the city permanently “dead.”

Turns out, like many a political poll, those doomsayers were wrong. To paraphrase the misquote attributed to Mark Twain, the reports of New York City’s demise were exaggerated. Recent data indicates large in-migration to the great city. While it’s not scientific, we can testify that the Big Apple is indeed back in business.

We took Amtrak from Washington for Memorial Day weekend and what a weekend it was! We arrived late Friday afternoon and were confronted with the usual late afternoon bedlam around the no-longer-new Moynihan Penn station. We rushed in a bone-jarring taxi ride up 8th Avenue to our hotel to change, met a dear friend for dinner at PJ Clarke’s, then walked with her to Dizzy’s Club to see the 9:30 performance of the Bill Charlap Trio. Because we were among the first to arrive, they seated us in the second tier of tables directly in front of the piano (the first row of tables is reserved for couples).

We have seen Charlap several times, and considered him the quintessential New York piano jazzman, playing tunes like Autumn in New York with somewhat mellow tones redolent of a moody late-night experience in the one of the world’s greatest cities. His music typically creates a sense of leaning into the vibe of the city, a kind of calm within a storm.

This night, however, Charlap was in a different zone, on full tilt from the first note and usually ending each song with a dramatic crashing of the keys, reminiscent of the great Cyrus Chestnut. It was a spectacular virtuoso performance from start to finish, accompanied by two of New York’s most in-demand sidemen: Peter Washington on bass and Kenny Washington on drums. We’ve seen both many times with different leaders, and they never disappoint. We were blown away by the power and musical drama of a world-class jazz trio, one of the greatest nights of jazz we’ve ever seen.

An additional treat we didn’t expect – Charlap rose from the bench several times to talk about the history of the music and the composers, something rare among jazz artists who mostly just want to play.

The final surprise occurred in the men’s room as I was leaving. Charlap and I ended up there together. I could not avoid engaging him, so I told him how spectacular we thought the performance had been. Characteristically, I think, he seemed genuinely moved and, after asking my name, thanked me profusely. No sign of artistic hubris, just happy that he had succeeded in making us happy.

We stumbled back to our hotel and collapsed, wasted, over-stimulated and completely thrilled by what we had seen.

Saturday arrived with some of the most spectacular Spring weather New York City has ever experienced. We met another friend at the Tavern-on-the-Green where the walkers, bikers, scooters, pedi-cabs, and runners were thronging on the main road around Central Park. People were everywhere soaking up the sun and blessedly mild temperature and humidity.

After brunch, we subwayed to Astoria and visited the Museum of the Moving Image, a surprisingly interesting place where my wife practiced her puppetry skills with one of the Muppet characters. The place is like many specialty museums – overwhelming in its scope and depth. Three learning experiences stood out to me: (1) most of the dialogue in movies is added after the filming of the (typically) multiple takes of each scene; (2) in televised baseball games, the camera shots (and dialogue of the broadcasters) are coordinated by a person who constantly directs which camera is live on the TV screen, often changing every few seconds, and the announcers have to keep up extemporaneously; and (3) the technology behind the Muppets is extraordinarily sophisticated and complex, remarkable to see in action.

We highly recommend this museum to everyone interested in how things work and the illusions that television and movies create.

We taxied to 31st Avenue for the Asia & Pacific Islander Festival, a smallish gathering on a closed-off street where my wife’s New York hula troupe was performing. She had a joyous reunion with some old friends not seen since 2019, before the pandemic shut everything down. The aloha was strong in this group.

We raced back to Manhattan on the subway, changed clothes, had dinner at The Smith and walked across the street to the always spectacular Lincoln Center. We had great orchestra seats to what became one of the most exciting ballet evenings we have ever experienced.

New York City Ballet never disappoints and often just takes your breath away with the precision, stamina and virtuosic moves that are their trademark. This night was no exception.

Fancy Free was first up and surprised me with its energy and interest. The concept is that a trio of sailors are in town at a bar looking for companionship (it was in fact Fleet Week in NYC, so this made sense). A competition ensues when they meet just two women and, after a brief encounter with a third, end up with no one. The ladies are simply not having it. The contest for the females’ allegiance is sometimes intense, but in the end the young men are drawn back to their comradeship. Fancy Free is not my favorite style of ballet, but the dancers were amazing, and the choreography kept my attention throughout.

The music is by Leonard Bernstein with choreography by Jerome Robbins, whose work is, of course, brilliant. The musical and dancing style connection with West Side Story soon became very clear. Familiar but not distracting.

We knew this was the teaser for what followed: Agon, which means “struggle” or “conflict” in Greek. Music by Igor Stravinsky, choreography by, who else, George Balanchine. We did not know what to expect but had seen a video about the famous pas de deux narrated by Maria Kowroski [] that helped us understand what was going on. Agon was described in the Playbill this way:

The dance critic Alistair McCauley says that many who saw the first performance of Agon were struck by how the music and movement created an impression of “shapes, phrases, rhythms and sounds that hadn’t been encountered before, but embodied New York modernism itself.” The ballet is more than 60 years old but seems completely modern in style and costumes. Remarkable in every way, and, as usual, NYCB was at the top of its game. We both were entranced by the spectacle.

The evening was completed with Brandenburg, music by Johann Sebastian Bach and choreography by Jerome Robbins. Performed to excerpts from four of the Brandenburg Concertos with a large ensemble, the dancing was joyous. We were delighted to see Mira Nadon, who was promoted to the rank of soloist dancer in January 2022, and to principal just a year later. She is the first Asian-American female principal dancer at NYCB and a delight to watch. Brandenburg is long, maybe too much for us, although we were exhausted after our busy Friday and Saturday. There is, however, no denying the exceptional quality of the dancing throughout.

The next morning, we subwayed to Brooklyn to have brunch with another couple, also dear friends, and enjoyed, as always, a lively discussion of many things New York and beyond. We then walked together to the riverfront where the view of the Statue of Liberty was stunning in the late morning sun.

Sunday afternoon was, for me, yet another wonderful surprise. We had front row tickets at the Shubert Theatre for the matinee performance of Some Like It Hot, the updated adaptation of the Tony Curtis-Jack Lemon 1959 movie. Two down-on-their-luck musicians witness a mob hit and must flee for their lives. They disguise as women and join a newly formed, also struggling, all-female band.

I had given little thought to this show and expected an overly loud rock-music-based show. Wrong in every aspect. This was one of the funniest shows we have ever seen, and we’ve seen most of the great Broadway musicals. The music, dancing, acting were spectacular in every way. We both thought sitting so close might be problematic, but it was fascinating to see the dancers so close, performing incredibly high-energy moves in a somewhat constrained space and never missing a beat. Each dancer attending to his or her own space and actions with the result reminiscent of whirling dervishes. I noticed particularly the racial expressions and eye contact the dancers had with the audience – subtle but essential to the overall effect of the action. Perfect synchrony and stunning to see up close.

Each of the primary actor/singers was exceptional but note must be made of the role of Sugar played this day by the understudy, Kayla Pecchioni, who was remarkable in every way. Returning to my earlier mention of an updated adaptation, for this show, one of the two musicians is a Black man, played to perfection by J. Harrison Ghee. His facial expressions alone were worth the price of admission, but the man can also sing, dance and act. The updated show touches issues of race and gender, both handled with great humor in, for example, the song, You Can’t Have Me (If You Don’t Have Him), that gave the show a modern relevance.

While obviously presenting a very different vibe than masterpieces like Miss Saigon that have moved me to tears, Some Like It Hot is one of the most entertaining shows I have ever seen. It was, we both thought, flawless. If you get the chance to see it, don’t miss the opportunity. You will not be disappointed.

Our weekend escapade ended that evening with dinner at a wonderful New York style red-sauce Italian restaurant called Il Corso at 54 West 55th Street. The waiters were extremely attentive and helpful, and the food was phenomenal, especially the soup of the day, a puree of chickpeas and potatoes with some special spices. Remarkable and highly recommended.

Overall, then, our weekend in New York City was a smash hit in every way. Spectacular weather and phenomenal entertainment by the best-of-the-best. Unforgettable. Can’t wait to return.

Bonanza Weekend with the Friendly Bird People

On Saturday, a sunny pleasant spring day, we ventured down the road a short way to the Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve that runs beside the Potomac River for about a mile. The trail is fine gravel and dirt, a level walk that ends at a short boardwalk overlooking the Potomac. There are some picturesque views of boats at anchor but usually not much wildlife beyond the Red-winged Blackbird habitat at the far end of the trail.

However, on recent trips there we have seen gaggles of photographers with the birders’ favorite tool – the tripod mounted very long lens mounted on a full-frame camera body. These cost many thousands of dollars but the serious birders at Huntley Meadows and elsewhere must have them.

The long-lens folks were out in force on this visit to Dyke Marsh because the owls were there. Perched high in the trees on the short road leading to the river, they are very hard to see even when you know what you’re looking for. But, as my wife says, once you see one, you can’t unsee it.

We joined the gaggle and finally got a few shots on my low-range Nikon, the cropped results of which are set out below. This is the Barred Owl:

We knew from a prior trip that about a third of the way down the Dyke Marsh trail, there was a cluster of trees beside the river in which an owl mother and baby had been resident but invisible to us on a prior trip. We walked there next and, sure enough, another gaggle of birders with long lenses was already staked out. As usual, birders are very helpful and friendly, so they immediately set about helping us spot the owls so perfectly camouflaged by the dense leaves in the upper branches. Those shots are below. This is the Great Horned Owl:

After a good time in awe of these magnificent birds, we started back down the trail to the car. But what to our wondering eyes appears but a lone photographer with his long tripod-mounted lens, pointed up to the non-river side of the trail into a tall tree in which was lodged a cluster of dark sticks. An eagle’s nest, we are told, with two or three large eaglets almost ready to fledge.

We are transfixed by this as I try to take some shots that I hope can be cropped and brightened into something worth having.

Then, without warning, it happens:  mom appears out of nowhere with food for the eaglets. Here is the nest and the arrival of mom, the time between her appearance in our view and arrival on the nest being only a few seconds.

Apologies for the quality problems but my camera lens is just not up for this kind of photography.

We finished the walk in something of a daze. The owls were great. The eagles almost too much.

Sunday dawned cool and overcast but in the afternoon we ventured out to a familiar spot: the National Wildlife Refuge at Mason Neck State Park, on Belmont Bay of the Occoquan River. We walked the Bay View Trail, a relatively flat mile-long walk through the woods bounded by bogs with many frogs clicking and singing their mating calls. Eventually the trail opens to the Bay and passes along it.

As with Dyke Marsh, we usually don’t see much wildlife on this trail, but this turned out to be a two-snake day that made all the difference. Photos follow:

The moral, if there is one, is I suppose that one should not prejudged the day but just go and see whatever turns up. Some days, not much, just a walk in the woods, and others a bonanza of amazing sights that lift the spirits and nourish the soul.

StubHub – Total Fail

Apparently the breakdown of American business order has now spread to the secondary market for tickets to events. I have bee trying for two weeks to get StubHub to list two orchestra seats for the Ballet Flamenco Sara Baras: Alma show at the Kennedy Center tonight. I called at least give times, was repeatedly assured the request to list the event (prerequisite to selling tickets) has been “escalated,” only to find on the next call that there was no record that the escalation had occurred. Finally, I did get an escalation ID number but when I called about that, StubHub said they could only send another message to yet another group who were supposed to respond to escalations. They never did. The event was never listed and the tickets were not sold.

The event was Sold Out, so it’s very unfortunate not only for me in having wasted the money on tickets we could not use, but unfortunate that someone else who might have wanted to attend could not do so because StubHub never gave them a chance to buy the tickets.

Total failure of performance by StubHub.

PayPal Updated

I recently reported on this blog an issue involving  the use of PayPal to perpetrate sophisticated scams.

Since that post, two things have occurred. An article in the UK’s Telegraph reported that PayPal was joining other large tech companies and firing 2,000 staff. Second, I checked my PayPal account again and discovered that the bogus charge and fake American Express security phone line are still listed in my account. This is so many weeks after I reported the problem and was assured that PayPal was hard at work fixing it.

I must wonder how many other phony transactions are showing up on PayPal accounts with bogus phone numbers to call to cancel the transactions. Why is it still possible for foreign actors to post false information in individual PayPal accounts and have them remain for weeks or longer?

I can only repeat my warning to everyone with a PayPal account. Beware.

A Night to Remember

Long before the final curtain dropped, you could sense what was coming. It was in the tone of the applause that broke out periodically In appreciation of virtuosic solo performances, not unlike the applause of knowledgeable jazz audiences for solos in the middle of longer pieces.

Last evening, we were privileged to witness the stunning performance of Giselle by the United Ukrainian Ballet company in its United States premiere. The core story, set in medieval times, is simple enough. A peasant girl with a weak heart is fooled by a desirous nobleman passing himself off as an ordinary man. The man is already engaged to marry the daughter of the Prince. A woodsman, also smitten by Giselle, discovers the nobleman’s sword and reveals his identity to Giselle. The girl cannot believe the revelation at first but, as the truth sinks in, she descends into despair and dances herself to death as her heart gives out.

In Act Two, the nobleman finds Giselle’s grave in the woods. He too is in despair at the loss of his love. The Wilis then appear, all in white. They are apparitions of girls who have died when betrayed by their lovers on the eve of their weddings.Any man caught by them between midnight and dawn will be forced to dance until he dies.  Giselle is now one of them, but she saves the nobleman, whom she still loves, by delaying his death until sunrise forces the Wilis to withdraw. She, of course, disappears with them.

Last night, Giselle’s (Iriyna Zhalovska) descent from joyous dancing maiden into overwhelming grief was portrayed with astonishing changes in her appearance and demeanor as she danced furiously in the growing realization that she had been betrayed. The stage presence of Kateryna Derechnya was stunning as the cold-hearted Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis. The corps de ballet created a perfect illusion of joyous country dancing in the village and later as the ethereal and intimidating Wilis.

As said at the beginning of this post, the momentum to inevitable conclusion grew as the ballet unfolded. When the curtain fell, there was a short period of silent anticipation. When it rose again, the audience went crazy, immediately on their feet, yelling, whistling, and applauding with enthusiasm appropriate to the remarkable performance we had seen.

First on stage were the two principals. They produced a now familiar blue and gold Ukrainian flag. Then as the entire cast and crew assembled on stage, there was mostly silent respect as they dancers and crew sang, hands on hearts, the Ukrainian national anthem.  One of the flags they held had writing on it: Make Dance Not War. When they finished, more extravagant applause.


Tragically, the genocidal attack by Russia on Ukraine continues. The appearance of the United Ukrainian Ballet company in Washington is nothing short of a miracle. You can, for a short time, read about the company and its dancers, its history, and their extraordinary survival story here: Don’t skip over the “Message from the Producers” that tells the story of the company’s escape from the Russian attack.

Other reviews are here:  Unfortunately, by the time you read this, there likely will be only one performance remaining at the Kennedy Center and it is, I am happy to note, Sold Out, as well it should be.

I have not found a list of future performances but surely there will be more. If you can, don’t miss it. It may break your heart as it did Giselle’s, but you will be better for it.

T’was the Night Before the Night Before

And all through the land, everything was frozen. Bear with me. This is a happy-ending story. It is not satire, however. Every word is true.

Undeterred by predictions of a weather Armageddon (a “bomb cyclone” predicted for the East Coast – plunging temperatures, rain, snow, rapid freezing of everything – great!), we see that the remarkable jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut is playing in DC at the Carlyle Room (not to be confused with the shuttered Carlyle Club in Alexandria which still appears on the internet as a live venue). We have seen Cyrus probably a dozen times over many years in New York, DC, Reston, and Maryland (a concert at his former high school). He remains one of the premier if not the best, living jazz improvisors in America.

We reserve tickets and amazingly the site lets us pick our table. We get Table 14 directly in front of the stage.

Seeing the food prices are somewhat high and there is a limited menu, we make the fateful decision to eat elsewhere. After making and canceling at least one reservation, we settle on a new place that looks great on the internet and is close to the music venue:


Dine in a bright expansive warm filled space, where glam and modern design highlighted by bright color palettes with deep rich wood finishes.

Weather be dammed, we have a plan. I will not name the restaurant, however. It’s Christmas Eve and I’m feeling generous.

We should have known better by seeing this on the reservations portion of the website, following a long warning about the dress code (“Guests that arrive in t-shirts may not be allowed access into the venue and no refund or credits will be provided. Make sure to inform ALL guests!”) followed by this:

There will be a minimum $350.00 cleaning fee for tables/groups which require excessive cleaning due to the party’s inappropriate conduct such as, but not limited to, vomit, cake fights, intentional pouring of liquor on the table/carpet.

But as noted the place was very close to the Carlyle Room. How bad can it be?  We decide to go boldly where …. you know.

As predicted, the night is frigid beyond imagination and street parking is almost non-existent. We finally park several blocks away from the restaurant. Our new theory is that we walk to the restaurant, walk from there to the music venue, then walk back to the car. It immediately apparent that this plan is preposterous. The wind is blowing and temperatures are already in the mid-teens and falling. Nevertheless, we’re here and we’re going.

The restaurant is, well, noisy. Really really noisy, with multiple large TV screens everywhere. Evidently, this more night club than restaurant. But who wants to go out to a club, pay high prices for drinks and watch TV? Many people it seems. The place is packed. Everyone is talking loudly because they can’t otherwise be heard over the blaring music.

But I digress. We are told by the very polite gentleman tending the door that he will call the elevator to take us to the restaurant upstairs. I mention that I hope it’s not as noisy up there and he assures me not to worry, they will be happy to lower the volume of the music. Uh huh. We go up and … it’s just like downstairs. We order what turns out to be mediocre food, but it is promptly delivered by our very polite waitress. We eat. The bill comes.

I stare disbelievingly at the check where there is 20 percent “service charge” added. Since this is what I would have tipped anyway, I am only mildly alarmed, though still concerned whether this is a “forced tip” or something the restaurant planned to keep, hoping that we would tip the waitress independently.

We didn’t. The automatic surcharge was never disclosed on the restaurant website, so I decided this was indeed the substitute for the tip, notwithstanding that the charging bill arrived with a space for Tip to be added. I remain hopeful that the service charge” was given to the wait staff. I am assured by someone familiar with the DC bar scene that it is almost certain the charge did go to the staff. If so, good. If not, well, they should have disclosed the practice on the website.

We leave, hoofing back to the car in temperatures that now feel like single digits. I’ve been alive a long time but don’t recall anything like this. Nevertheless, we make it to the car, and after I stop shivering, drive around to the Carlyle Room to discover there is no valet parking. But then a Christmas miracle occurs.

There is parking space less than 50 feet from the front door. It has a confusing sign about a time-restricted loading zone, but this is not unusual for DC which is famous for bizarre and inexplicable parking signage.

We gamble and park there. We have an hour before the planned show time so the very polite lady at the door escorts us into the adjacent Brennan’s Bar, which is practically empty. Fine. We wait.

Finally, well after the 9:15 show time, we are admitted to the Room and our front table. This is what we see:

Now the second miracle occurs. Cyrus appears with his trio members, a female bass player and drummer. As with every other performance we have seen, Cyrus is a powerhouse on the piano, improvising tunes from Charlie Brown’s Christmas, throwing in Beethoven’s Für Elise (with the warning “this is not the Für Elise you’re expecting”—wasn’t) and generally making new music at every turn. His bandmates seem constantly bemused by what he is doing but they keep up. Overall, it is an extraordinary performance, as we have come to expect from Cyrus Chestnut. Sadly, it was witnessed by only a handful of people. The earlier show had been sold out, so we have to think the “weather is frightful” was largely responsible.

The Carlyle Room has no minimum beyond the ticket purchase which is highly unusual. The room is huge, more than 80 tables, widely separated, and as noted earlier you can pre-reserve where you want to sit, also very unusual. The Room has been open four months and with better promotion should have a permanent place in the DC entertainment scene, which could use another good jazz venue especially following the demise of Twins. We had dessert, a great chocolate cake slice — with whipped cream and raspberries. Keep an eye on this place.

All in all then, an extraordinary evening. We persevered through the weather, the noisy crowded restaurant/club with mediocre food and ended up front & center at a great jazz performance. A metaphor for the entire year. Don’t give up. Happy Holidays!!!!!

The Root of All Evil

A Biblical quotation worked its way into the popular vernacular a long time ago: the love of money is the root of all evil. The quote is often abbreviated to “money is the root of all evil.”  I have no idea whether the attribution to Apostle Paul is correct, but I also don’t care. I don’t believe either version of it is true.

The love of money, like the love of many other things, both physical and otherwise, can certainly lead to problematic outcomes. But the opposite of love can equally lead to problematic outcomes. There are just too many problematic outcomes to assign all the blame on love of money or just on money. When I think about this, I am reminded of the wonderful Robert Frost poem, Fire and Ice:

Some say the world will end in fire,

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

In my view, ignorance is the real root of all evil. Donald Trump once said, “I love the poorly educated!” He knew something that had apparently escaped the notice of even experienced political analysts. It’s not that the “poorly educated” are unintelligent. Many of them are quite intelligent and can perform many tasks effectively. They can be successful in many lines of commerce and in life generally.

On the other hand, the “poorly educated” may be susceptible to believing misinformation/false information because they have not been exposed to the discipline of education and have not undertaken to study on their own. But they are not alone in that, so being poorly educated is neither explanation nor excuse, despite Trump’s claimed admiration for them. During the height of the pandemic, we saw nurses and doctors embrace conspiracy theories, promote quack remedies for COVID and resist vaccination. And many members of Congress who support insane conspiracy theories and engage in traitorous and illegal activities are highly educated.

The problem is more complicated than the simple explanation that the “poorly educated” mistakenly thought Trump as president would be good for them. In trying to understand this, I have read numerous books, articles, theories, and studies. Most recently I discovered Strangers in Their Own Land, by Arlie Russell Hochschild, professor emeritum of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of many notable books. The book was a 2016 Finalist for the National Book Award. This work is based on her personal research conducted in post-Katrina, post-Deepwater Horizon coastal Louisiana. The date of publication, 2016, was just before Trump was elected president and all that ensued. The book nevertheless seems wholly predictive of everything that followed.

Hochschild defined her mission at the outset as an effort to explore feelings, the “emotion in politics.” Strangers at 15. Some of those feelings were disturbing – she notes that “reminders of the racial divide were everywhere.” Strangers at 20. She did not draw much on that fact of coastal Louisiana life but indirectly seemed to acknowledge its abiding and broad influence on political life there.

Strangers focuses on what Hochschild calls the Great Paradox, stated roughly as the massive disconnect between the economic and life interests of the local people and their devotion to the Tea Party which was in full flower in the period covered. The locals were adamantly opposed to regulation, especially federal regulation, that might help restore the opportunity to continue the livelihoods they had pursued for generations in fishing/hunting/farming the abundant natural resources of coastal Louisiana.

One of the Tea Party’s darlings was Bobby Jindal. As Hochschild notes at the end of the book, Louisiana was left a “shambles” after eight years of Tea Party-style leadership by Governor Jindal. Yet his support among locals never waned. They bought into the capitalism mythology completely. Such devotion also led to support for Republican congressman David Vitter who opposed all federal environmental intervention, voted to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency and more. Strangers at 48.

The author said she was struck by what political candidates avoided in their pitches to voters: “that the state ranks 49th out of 50 on an index of human development, that Louisiana is the second poorest state, that 44 percent of its budget comes from the federal government – the Great Paradox.” Strangers at 59. People with little to begin with worried more about what others were getting (“non-working, non-deserving people”) than about destruction of the environment or years lost to bad health conditions.  Somehow this was seen as a loss of “honor” and that was more important than more tangible issues. Strangers at 60-61.

They knew that Big Oil and Big Chemical had undeniably wrecked the local environment, but they adhered to the mythology that the companies also brought jobs and other economic benefits that could not be secured under any form of regulation. They concluded that the honorable thing was to muddle through, accepting their fate while continuing to assert their” principles.”

Hochschild notes three paths by which Tea Party believers arrived at their profound dislike for the federal government:

their religious faith (the government curtailed the church, they felt),

hatred of taxes (which they saw as too high and too progressive), and

the government’s impact on their loss of honor …. [Strangers at 35]

They bought into the belief that taxes went to lazy welfare cheats and “government workers in cushy jobs.” Id. They thought climate change was bogus science. They resented what they perceived to be bias against the “little guy,” meaning mainly the little white guy, and interference with the role of God in overseeing humanity. Strangers at 52. Those are easy myths for resentful people to embrace without having to make the effort to understand complex systems and ideas. Indeed, for many, the outcome was in the hands of their God and humans thus had little responsibility for outcomes.

In portents of things to come, Hochschild notes that at the Republican Women of Southwest Louisiana meeting,

I heard a great deal about freedom in the sense of freedom to – to talk on your cellphone as you drove a car, to pick up a drive-in daiquiri with straw on the side, to walk about with a loaded gun. But there was almost no talk about freedom from such things as gun violence, car accidents, or toxic pollution. [Strangers at 71]

The perplexing reality is that people living with more pollution are more likely to believe in less regulation and more likely to be Republicans. Strangers at 79. This mental orientation set them up for manipulation and exploitation.

The initial tip to the problem of the book’s analysis comes at the beginning. Hochschild observes that the reason for population shifts in the United States had changed: people moved less to find better jobs, housing or (she didn’t mention this) education but rather to align more closely with people of similar political views. The sharpening of political division is, she says, attributable to the ‘right moving right.’ Strangers at 6-7. She recounts the dire economic conditions afflicting the southern states, Louisiana being among the worst of the worst:

Given such an array of challenges, one might expect people to welcome federal help. In truth, a very large proportion of the yearly budgets of red states – in the case of Louisiana, 44 percent – do come from federal funds. $2,400 is given by the federal government per Louisianan per year.

But Mike S_____ doesn’t welcome that federal money and doubts the science of climate change. “I’ll worry about global warming in fifty years,” he says. Mike loves his state, and he loves the outdoor life. But instead of looking to government, like others in the Tea Party, he turns to the free market. [Strangers at 9]

He turns to the same “free market” exploited by Big Oil and others to wreak havoc on the state that Mike purported to love so much. Thus, again, the Great Paradox.

The other major theme in the book is the Deep Story, the myths by which social groups, or tribes, are developed and sustained. Strangers at 135. Here perhaps is the core principle at work. In coastal Louisiana the Tea Party promoted, and locals accepted, the idea that undeserving people were cutting into the line ahead of hard-working “true Americans.” While their perceptions of race are complex, older whites interviewed by Hochschild saw Blacks especially as a problematic class afflicted by special issues not shared by most white people.

Economic class distinctions tracked race and distinguished between “makers” and “takers,” with the latter being the “line-cutters” supported by the federal government, those people unfairly getting ahead of everyone else. This grievance was at the root of many white Louisianans’ attitudes unrelated to the reality of local social and economic standing. Strangers at Ch. 9, and at 157-159.

Despite noting the data showing that “the higher the exposure to environmental pollution the less worried the individual was about it” [Strangers at 253], Hochschild concludes that the continuation of the Great Paradox is not the result of ignorance. [Id.] But that view is remarkable because it’s not supported by most of the data cited in the book. One of dozens of examples is the belief that 40 percent of all U.S. workers are employed by the federal government. The actual figure at the time was 1.9 percent. Strangers at 161.

Such ignorance of economic reality was at the root of many local people’s vigorous resistance to all forms of regulation. Such interventions could have helped to restore the balance of nature and, along with it, the jobs and environment they claimed to cherish. Yet, by and large, they wanted none of it. Hochschild was aware of this because data in Appendix C to the book was often interspersed in the text to illustrate how the real facts refuted the central myths on which the resistance depended. Peoples’ explanations of their views were rife with classical political myths and massively wrong factual beliefs.

Locals that Hochschild interviewed appeared to believe that a woman’s role was to be completely subordinate to her husband. Strangers at 174. This attitude is consistent with the analysis of “what makes a Republican” in George Lakoff’s 1996 Moral Politics that, controversially, applies principles of cognitive science to politics. As summarized in Wikipedia:

Lakoff argues that the differences in opinions between liberals and conservatives follow from the fact that they subscribe with different strength to two different central metaphors about the relationship of the state to its citizens. Both, he claims, see governance through metaphors of the family.

Conspiratorial thinking was also rampant among Hochschild’s subjects. Few people believed science had made the case for global warming. Strangers at e.g., 183. They did not understand what the lives of the seriously poor were like, rejected much historical truth, adopted phantasmagorical solutions dependent upon the “free market” and adopted what has come to be known more recently as “replacement theory.” Strangers at Ch. 14.

In the end, it seemed to me that the author was profoundly fooled by the mannered façade she experienced in her research with the locals whose “good-hearted acceptance” of her, their “great personal warmth and famous Southern hospitality,” misled her to conclude that

in human terms, the [empathy] wall can easily come down. And issue by issue, there is possibility for practical cooperation. [Strangers at 233]

There is nothing in the buildup to the end of the book or in the data set out throughout it that would support such a conclusion. And, of course, the history under Trump’s presidency is the most profound refutation of the “we can all just get along” thesis. The author’s starry-eyed belief in future harmony and progress was, I believe, a grievous error by a researcher whose approach to her study was primarily based on just talking with locals, eating meals with them, and looking at the surrounding conditions that determine their lives and livelihoods.

The book confirms my suspicions in its treatment of the rise of Trump as a political power.

Three elements had come together. Since 1980, virtually all those I talked with felt on shaky economic ground, a fact that made them brace at the very idea of “redistribution.” The also felt culturally marginalized: their views about abortion, gay marriage, gender roles, race, guns, and the Confederate flag all were held up to ridicule in the national media as backward. And they felt part of a demographic decline; “there are fewer and fewer white Christians like us….”        [Strangers at 221]

Economically, culturally, demographically, politically, you are suddenly a stranger in your own land. The whole context of Louisiana – its companies, its government, its church and media – reinforces that deep story. [Strangersat 222]

Trump, consciously or otherwise, fed this sense of disaffection and loss.

His supporters have been in mourning for a lost way of life Many have become discouraged, others depressed. They yearn to feel pride but instead have felt shame. Their land no longer feels their own. Joined together with others like themselves, they now feel hopeful, joyous, elated … in a state of rapture… no longer strangers in their own land. [Strangers at 225]

Rapture indeed. This degree of magical thinking is beyond imagining: a Pew Research Center 2010 study reported that “41 percent of all Americans believe the Second Coming “probably” or “definitely” will happen by the year 2050.” Strangers at 125. Hochschild labels them “victims without a language of victimhood.” Strangers at 131, a missing element that Donald Trump readily supplied.

My overall conclusion about this book is that the people it discusses suffer from a central fatal flaw: they mistakenly believed that the land belonged to them in the sense that the whole of it was their natural right. Anything that challenged that idea was alien, undermining their sense of “our land.” This, I think, is about as un-American a concept as you will find. It ignores history, economic reality, and the nature of democracy. The root concept that “this land is ours then, now and always,” meaning us God-fearing white people who have an entitlement that others are unjustly trying to steal, fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the country, its origins, and its development.

This issue may be connected to education, but I suspect it’s much deeper than that. The possessory and superiority components of these cultural beliefs leave these people vulnerable to the “it’s ok to hate” message from a demagogue like Donald Trump who lacks any core value system of principles except greed. These people have less to fear from interlopers than from their own ignorance.

The problem, however, is that someone so ignorant is usually unaware of his ignorance and simply feels put upon by the forces of change. He just wants what he thought he had before, notwithstanding that the oil-based economy was a complete fraud on coastal Louisiana society, wrecking the environment while failing to deliver the economic benefits that locals were sure existed. It’s also often true that the ignorant are unwilling to learn; they lack empathy and see others’ gains mainly as their losses.

I don’t want to be told I’m a bad person if I don’t feel sorry for that [sick African child on TV with Christiane Amanpour]” Strangers at 128.

But even those who fancy ourselves as “not ignorant” are capable of delusional thinking. I have confessed multiple times to having fundamentally misunderstood the degree of disfunction in the country. I thought the election of Barack Obama was a sign that, overall, the country had changed. That was wrong.

The essential proof is that despite his record of lies, incompetence and corruption, Trump received 74 million votes in 2020. Joe Biden received many more, of course, but the thinnest of margins remains in both houses of Congress. People with short term concerns about things like inflation, and no or limited understanding of its causes, may drive the country back into an abyss from which democracy may not re-emerge. It can happen here. Only the voters can prevent it.

I heard recently from a reliable source that many young people, in their 20’s and 30’s, may not feel they are much affected by what is happening in politics. That absence of perceived impact often makes them indifferent to the outcome of critical issues. If that is true, we are in even more trouble than I imagined.

Republicans are highly motivated by their grievances and can be expected to turn out in large numbers in the 2022 mid-terms. If Democrats stay home, it’s game over. You have been warned.

Trump Crimes Report

Apologies for the late arrival of this but it couldn’t be helped. I just wanted to call to everyone’s attention a new report released a few days ago from the Brookings Institution entitled, Trump on Trial: A Guide to the January 6 Hearings and the Question of Criminality.

The Guide is like a study aid for the hearings that begin tonight at 8 pm on multiple channels (but, of course, not on Fox News) to present the findings thus far of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. I was working as fast as possible to highlight key passages, of which there are many. But time has run out, so I’m sharing the link to the original report. In a later post I will provide a method to receive the marked-up report for those interested.