"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Why I should replace Charity Nebbe on Michigan Radio

If you have ever had a favorite radio station, you will understand what I am about to say. For over two years I have been a daily listener of Michigan Radio. During that time, I have come to rely on several program hosts, even drawing comfort from the familiarity of their voices. One of my favorite on-air hosts is Charity Nebbe. She does the local segments of NPR’s All Things Considered.

Every weekday evening, Charity takes world-weary commuters like me through a stimulating mix of news, interviews, and attempts by political analyst Jack Lessenberry to make Governor Granholm cry. Charity’s voice, like the program’s content, has a rejuvenating quality. One could call her the Beneficent Muse of the Evening Commute. I won't, because that would be mawkish and tacky. But I digress.

Last week, I learned with great sadness that the Beneficent Mus...excuse me, that Charity Nebbe is leaving Michigan Radio. She has taken a position at a station in Iowa that I will not name. One could call the managers of this Iowa-based radio station rapacious jerks for stealing Charity from us. But I won't because that would be mawkish and tacky.

In any case, as Charity’s departure grows closer, I find myself increasingly fretful about the prospect of learning to trust a new voice during evening drive time. Bear in mind I commute on I-94. Between drivers yapping on cell phones and farmer’s dogs hunting the shoulder for discarded snacks, my drive home is hair-raising. Yet Charity’s calm and erudite reporting style remains an auditory balm against the rush hour anxiety.

This begs the question, “Can anyone replace Charity Nebbe?” It’s like asking, “Can anyone replace Larry King?” Except the answer to that question is “Of course.” But replacing Charity Nebbe? Likely impossible. Still, in lieu of freshly dead air, someone should continue on with the work of inspiring evening commuters. And amidst the dregs of my sorrow I confess smelling a hint of opportunity. So I hereby announce my willingness to replace Charity Nebbe on WUOM 91.7 FM in Ann Arbor.

Instead of providing a standard resume and MP3 samples, I've listed below the 13 most compelling reasons I should be appointed Charity’s successor:

1. As with every other job opening on the planet, my English Degree counts as being “in a related field.”

2. Thanks to occasional part-time work at University of Michigan, I am already set up for Direct Deposit.

3. I have famed NPR broadcaster Carl Kasell’s voice on my home answering machine.

4. After attending volunteer training last year, a station intern recorded me for one of her projects. She said I did “very good.”

5. At 6’2”, sporting a husky build and mama’s boy charm, I would bring a certain hugability to stressful staff meetings.

6. As a Pledge Drive Volunteer, I have a proven track record of only taking one sprinkle donut during my shift. And I hereby call on all other candidates for this position to disclose their Pledge Drive donut intake.

7. When describing my latest “driveway moment” to a staff member of The Environment Report, I can keep a straight face while saying, “Of course I turned my engine off.”

8. When in the studio, I promise never to step on Morning Edition host Christina Shockley’s toes—literally or metaphorically.

9. Over hundreds of listening sessions, I have heard Charity stutter as many as four or five times while reading news copy. So obviously perfection is not a job requirement.

10. With practice, I know I can learn to say “Michigan Radio dot org” in a voice that melts butter.

11. On a recent stroll, I saw several apartments for rent within walking distance of the station. I could raffle off my Staff-Only Parking Spot to U-M students for a fundraiser. I got ideas people!

12. Even with Curtis Granderson gone to the New York Yankees, and now Charity leaving too, I remain committed to the state of Michigan. I certainly wouldn’t leave Michigan for Iowa . . . wait, is Iowa where the Field of Dreams is located? (pauses to google) Hey Charity, can I bum a ride?

13. Finally, seriously and sincerely, like Charity I would drop in and offer thanks and encouragement to the volunteers during Pledge Drives. This I believe is one of many reasons Michigan Radio members are posting scores of farewell messages to Charity online. She is a true friend to the station, its members and the cause of responsible journalism. I wish her well. And now, coming up next on All Things Considered...

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

D.C. Visit Part Three: A Chance Reunion and Lincoln's Vista

A Chance Reunion

A week before visiting Washington D.C., I received an e-mail from a dear college friend named Cassie. Though we correspond, we have not seen each other in about a decade. She now lives on the West Coast. In her e-mail, Cassie mentioned she'd been thinking of me because she was going on a business trip to Washington D.C. As it turned out, her and my trips coincided right down to the evening we both had free. It was a joy to hang out with her again after so long.

I had hoped to lead us on a patriotic stroll down to the Mall, but sheer distance, aggravated by me losing my bearings, caused us to run out of time. We resorted to taking a photo in front of some nondescript federal building that totally blocked our view of the Washington Monument. Annoying.

The National Mall at Night
The CRLT Players performed at the Society of Neuroscience on our second night in town. Following the gig, I split off from the group and headed on foot to the National Mall. My plan was simple: traverse the monument-rich west half of the Mall, ending my trip with a finale stroll past the Washington Monument. I began this 2-mile walk at around 9 pm. I figured that would give me enough time to see it all and catch one of the last subway trains out of downtown. (Note to hasty readers, the preceding sentence was an eerie foreshadow.)

At night, the National Mall shimmers with Greco-Roman mythos. New since my last visit is the World War II Memorial. Here are the two best images I could capture with my cellphone camera.

As seen below, something about the pillars adorned with wreaths struck me as perfectly appropriate. There is one for each state in the union.

By the time I reached the Lincoln Memorial I had already walked about five miles that day. By 10 pm, my face was a bit pink and my legs were quite sore. Thus it was with some dismay that I remembered this monument has steps.

Visiting at night I was struck by how, of all the monuments in D.C., the Lincoln Memorial most exemplifies the term shrine. After reading the Gettysburg Address, inscribed on a large section of the inner wall, I walked around the backside of the memorial to get a peek at the nearby John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. In terms of quantity of memories, that building holds the most personal significance for me of any in D.C. I'll spare you the blurry cellphone shot and invite you to try out the virtual tour link above.

Coming back around to the front side, I nabbed the below shot of my next destination: The Washington Monument. It's about a mile away, and by this point it was well after 10 pm.

Before I left the Lincoln Memorial I sat on the front steps and took in the panorama. Above me, a badge-like collection of reddish clouds was drifting eastward toward the capitol. And the sky beyond was a deep blue dome accentuated by stars. My cell phone couldn't capture this. No bother. I'm an English Major! As I walked back along the famed Reflecting Pool, I started working on a poem in my head.

Of course, when you are brainstorming a poem, you walk slower. The clock ticked past 11 pm as I arrived at The Washington Monument. This towering obelisk is impressive day or night. Plus, there are no fences around it. With the Park Police doubtless rolling their eyes nearby, I walked right up to the base, leaned my chest and chin against the cold marble, and stared over 500 feet up to the blinking red lights near the pinnacle. Here is a better shot from further back.

The Tired, The Poor, The Huddled Masses
It was approaching 11:30 pm when I finally came within sight of the Smithsonian Metro Station. From a hundred feet away, I heard a subway train passing beneath the ground. I sat down on a park bench and breathed deep, wanting to drink the nostalgia and patriotic feelings in a while longer. On a neighboring bench, a homeless gentleman started bedding down for the night. It was at about this time that a potent sense of calm filled me. It was strange. All I can say is I felt very peaceful, as if I was in the right place. I felt no hurry to leave. I honestly think I could have sat there quietly till dawn without getting bored, just breathing and contemplating. Practicality prodded me to head back to the hotel. I walked quietly past the homeless man toward the subway escalator. The gate was down and locked.

It was now approaching midnight, and I was standing just over two miles from the hotel. My 35-year-old knees were aching, so I found another bench to sit on. I knew other stations were still open, the final trains snaking through downtown tunnels before making their end runs for the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. But I made the decision to hoof it. The obvious dangers of walking alone in D.C. late at night granted, half my route involved well-lit avenues crawling with federal security. Actually, considering my appearance--clutching a carry-on bag next to my untucked shirt in concert with a dazed expression--I initially worried more about appearing suspicious to security than I did about seeming vulnerable to potential muggers.

The final image Washington presented to me was one of homelessness. There were so many indigents, ciphers bedding down in corners and beneath building overhangs. At one point I approached a few garbage bags stacked neatly outside a storefront. But when I came within a couple of paces, I saw a face peering out from them. Passing through Farragut Square just before midnight, I watched a tall mendicant preaching a thundering sermon to no one in particular. It was disconcerting to watch, but not terrifying. Almost uniformly, the homeless disregarded me. Instead of making a conscience-soothing call for charitable giving, I'll simply acknowledge their dismissal of me for what it was at the time: a fair bit of turnabout.

Of course I made it back to my room fine, albeit hobbling past the hotel's bar still bustling with the liquored well-to-do. It took a couple of days for my legs to forgive me. But by the next weekend, I wished I had enough play money for a road trip back to Washington D.C. And as the sobering encounters with poverty mingled profoundly with the images of inspiring monuments and government edifices, I savored my reinvigorated love for our nation’s capital.
I'll close this three-part blog with the poem I started during my night walk on the National Mall. It's written in a form I have consciously blown off since elementary school. But in trying to capture that evening panorama, with its serendipitous color scheme, a haiku seems the perfect choice. I hope you enjoy it. I call the poem "Lincoln's Vista at Night."
Crest of garnet clouds,
Set in starry cobalt blue,
Capping marble's gleam.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

D.C. Visit Part Two: City Birds, D.C. Cabs, and Boyish Pleasures

The Birdman of Dupont Circle
True Story: While volunteering at the Kennedy Center during high school, I once got a Washington D.C. bird to eat from my hand. He was a persistent little fellow, not content to wait for accidentally dropped crumbs. So I tore a piece off of my hot dog bun and held it out to him. He plucked it from my finger, gobbled it down, and promptly flew away. Like so many D.C. residents, he was eating on the go. The bird in the center here, similar in size and attitude, stayed close for my entire breakfast at Dupont Circle. He wouldn't eat out of my hand, but fearlessly hunted for crumbs near my size 13s, speaking his hunger with cocks of the head and extended eye contact. I love city birds. They always entertain.

Would that this Baroque City Could be Fixed

My second major goal on this trip, just behind fulfilling my duties as a professional actor, was making a circuit of the National Mall on foot. It's a round trip of about 5 miles. And like every previous trip I’ve made to D.C. since age 8, it began by trying to get my bearings. You may ask, how does one lose his bearings standing on the edge of a grassy rectangle with easily distinguished landmarks at either end? Simple!

Washington, D.C. boasts a web-like street layout with crisscrossing avenues superimposed diagonally on top of the conventional compass-oriented grid. The city, not unlike the Oval Office, is virtually designed to make visitors lose their bearings. Now any NPS Park Ranger, and several pompous tourists you didn't ask, will explain D.C.'s layout as an ingenious way to defend the 18th Century capital against an invading army of horses and buggies. But to a modern visitor it's an assault on one's sense of direction.

The city's complex layout takes its toll on cab drivers too. In New York City, a cabby will veer across three lanes of traffic to pick you up. In D.C., cab drivers avoid picking up customers because they have the audacity to expect speedy transit to specific addresses across town. Case in point--on the first day of our trip, the bellhop at the Hilton tried to hail us a cab. What takes two flicks of the wrist in the Big Apple requires frantic two-armed waving and a referee whistle in the District.

The first cabby to take an interest pulled up, took one look at me and my colleagues walking toward him, honked spitefully, and then drove off. I'm not joking. Now granted, it was a cramped hotel driveway, and we sorta crowded him in our eagerness to get a ride. But really? Honk and drive off?

A second cab did pick up our trio. We asked him to take us to our performance venue located at 1121 14th Street--a distance of about a mile. The cabby replied with a sheepish "Okay." Silently and with white knuckles, he proceeded to navigate through several 5-way intersections, one tunnel, three traffic circles, and past a pedestrian who violently slapped the cab's trunk when we failed to let him jay-walk. Fifteen minutes later, our cabby pulled to a merciful stop in front of 1421 11th Street. We applauded him for finding an address quite similar to the one we'd requested. The rest of the trip, we walked.

Why Love a Crowded, Noisy City? The Nooks!

Here I am passing the National Theatre, which sits in a pleasant nook on Pennsylvania Avenue about three blocks from the White House. The theatre's marquee faces a cozy public square embraced by neighboring federal buildings. Here I thrice saw Les Miz in my teens, along with Michael Crawford in concert. I got off the subway two stops shy of the Mall just so I could take an encore gander at this nook.

Humoring my Inner Boy

Regardless of your attitudes toward Congress or the President, the first time you step onto the National Mall you will feel patriotic. It is a grand and stately sight. I dedicated my second and final free afternoon in town to visiting the east half of the Mall. This allowed me to make a delightful return visit to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Every time I go, I watch an IMAX film. I also spend at least a full minute gazing with boyish fascination at the X-15 hanging from the ceiling.

The theme of this visit was the Hubble Space Telescope. Here is a photo of me standing next to a life-size replica. I also watched the incredibly awesome and remarkably affecting IMAX film Hubble 3D. Indeed, it was so affecting that I almost passed out trying to stand up after the film. Calling on my Boy Scout training, I treated my light-headedness with freeze-dried astronaut ice-cream and a sports drink. Given the brevity of my visit, stopping for a real meal seemed a nuisance.

Coming Soon: D.C. Visit Part Three--A Chance Reunion and D.C. at Night.
Or check out my post on visiting the National Cathedral.

Washington, D.C. Visit: Part One

Shortly after arriving in Washington, D.C. last Wednesday, I took a bus up Massachusetts Avenue to the National Cathedral. Even having lived in the D.C. area for a decade in my youth, there is a list of prominent places I have never been. And the list grows longer each year. Heading into this trip, the National Cathedral was at the top of my list.

Though I tried to keep myself open to a contemplative experience, I couldn't escape the primary feeling of checking off a box on a "Been There, Done That" list. Still, the Cathedral offered a rejuvenating and generally inclusive atmosphere. Though a distinctly Christian edifice, much of the building's artwork and sculpture celebrates Americana. For instance, after being greeted at the main entrance by the Biblical figures of Peter, Adam and Paul, upon entering the spacious nave I found myself flanked by the politically sainted Presidents Lincoln and Washington.

Employing my typical self-guided tour approach, I attempted to stay between larger tour groups. This worked well in the main hall, but proved impractical in the comparatively cramped byways and chapels of the Crypt Level and 7th Floor Pilgrim Observatory Gallary (visible just above the center archway in the above photo). As on the National Mall the next day, I was reminded to my vexation of how bustling even the most sobering edifices of Washington, D.C. are during the day. It's all for the best I suppose. There was a time I was the light-minded kid on a field trip. Look how nostalgic I've turned out!

Seen in this shot, The Crossing area of the Cathedral is being prepared for the funeral of civil rights leader Dorothy Irene Height, which took place the following day. Further on, the High Altar at the east end of the Cathedral is visible.

With sincere respect for a departed civil rights legend, the next day's funeral resulted in no less than a half-dozen chances to witness motorcades up close. And in terms of musing on citizenship and government, I think witnessing a motorcade is thought-provoking beyond mere novelty. In this and other ways, Ms. Height's passing served to underscore the great historical, political, and cultural significance of Washington, D.C.

UPDATE: I neglected to mention that a key reason I went out of my way to visit the National Cathedral was a marvelous episode of The West Wing called "Two Cathedrals". The Season Two finale has several sequences taking place inside the cathedral. If you ever get a chance to watch this episode, amongst many other attributes, it does a marvelous job of showcasing the edifice.