Morning in America

June 18, 2013


-The recent bed bug epidemic suggests we’re headed for the developing world, but not on the glamorous Orient Express. In fact, as those ever-richer nations show off the new transport and trappings of wealth, we sink further into poverty.

For two years the media has compared America’s woes to the worst periods in history, but two recent books suggest the nation’s plight raises the specter of much poorer nations. In “Third World America: How Politicians are Abandoning the Middle Class and Betraying the American Dream,” Arianna Huffington documents the deteriorating infrastructure and the travails of formerly middle-class workers. “Winner-Take-All Politics:How Washington Made the Rich Richer – and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class” explains how 30 years of tax cuts and regulatory inaction have led to the hyperconcentration of wealth in the richest one percent. Both advocate for broad initiatives focused on the concerns of the middle class. Given our unfair past, unpleasant reality, and painful prospects, we agree.

“It’s morning in America,” as President Reagan’s ad announced. But it’s shaping into a lousy day. Many of us aren’t going to work – almost one in five are under- or unemployed, including a record number of youths. For those with jobs, the commute is going to be a drag – for one in eight it starts by 6 a.m. One in four bridges we cross are deficient. We aren’t stopping at Starbucks – one in nine families can’t make a minimum payment on a credit card, unless perhaps they’re taking food stamps. An all-time high of one in eight families collect them each month.

Tonight will be rough too. For the almost one in seven losing their homes or late with their loans (and one in fifty homeless children), finding somewhere to sleep could be challenging.

Historically, the status quo is horrific. Real income sank over the last decade and home prices nearly went flat. Each grew little since Reagan was president. But things look much better if you’re much bigger.

American companies save $100 billion in taxes through offshore havens each year. Companies with appalling safety and compliance records get off lightly. Investment banks are posting high profits
doing the same risky things, now in the name of clients. Known bad-actor BP paid only $580,000 in penalties over a decade and fought safety measures that might have prevented the devastating Gulf disaster. Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine, cited for 515 violations and closed more than 60 times in 2009, exploded last spring. Yet after wrecking lives and economies, these companies and industries successfully fight changes to head off future calamities.

The Republicans and Tea Partiers look forward to taking over Congress, but look back for inspiration.
The right wing is resurrecting Reagan’s rhetoric. They are again selling “supply side economics”
– cuts to taxes, services and regulations – and enormous military expenditures. Republicans are again pushing hard to return money to the wealthiest over those who’ve just lost their wealth.

Almost 40 cents of every dollar gain of household income, from 1979 through the eve of the recent
recession, went to the wealthiest one percentThe top 300,000 people (one-tenth of one percent)
enjoyed about one-and-one-half times the growth of the bottom 180 million (60 percent) between 1979 and 2005.

Despite Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s sympathy for the rich, cutting taxes is one of the least efficient ways to create jobs. The Congressional Budget Office ranked extending Bush tax cuts as the least effective option to promote growth. Cutting taxes for the rich, who can already afford to spend and tend to save, makes even less sense.

The right wing also rails against “big government.”They attempt to eliminate the logical answer as to who might protect the houses, credit safety, and jobs of Americans jeopardized by this crisis. Instead, they advocate trusting in the market, companies, and environment that created it. These trickle-down economic policies benefit well-rewarded companies and the wealthy, while harming the middle class.

Since 2008, Democrats have proposed broad solutions to safeguard the pocketbooks, cities, and futures of working class Americans. The right wing has either stopped or watered down many of these initiatives. Republicans are expected to assume the mantle of Congressional leadership in January. With it will come even greater accountability to all Americans.

The right can adopt broadly endorsed defense cuts, infrastructure investment, recession relief, and regulation expansion. If not, Republican and Tea Party candidates must create other credible and comprehensive solutions. Otherwise, a deepening economic crisis could send our income and home values back to the 1980’s.

And those of us who lived in the “best country in the world” will want to wake up somewhere

The Mama Grizzlies Are Coming – But Will They Eat Their Young?

August 10, 2011


-Grr. Swat. Intimidating pose.

A new political animal may be coming to a town and statehouse near you: mama grizzlies. They combine a protective maternal instinct with the power of a large angry animal.

This could be excellent news for kids who have suffered greatly in the recession. Their college funds have been decimated, their homes foreclosed and taken away, their families impoverished from extended periods of under- or unemployment. The innocence of these citizens does not earn them the power to vote, so champions for their wellbeing (beyond their mothers) are more than welcome.

Throughout history Moms have symbolized compassion and self-sacrifice, from renaissance images of the Madonna to the life and works of Mother Teresa. Through their collective efforts to help the world’s children, mothers represent a bridge from a present replete with potential (and problems) to a bright future.

So, Moms log millions of unpaid hours volunteering in schools. Despite incredible hardship, impoverished mothers choose daily to prioritize the health and education of their children and receive a helping hand from microfinance organizations and charities. Neighborhood moms organize drives for disaster victims. Personally and collectively, mothers are a driving force in transforming their communities and the world at large.

This emergence of a potentially powerful and committed ursine species should bode well for kids struggling from the effects of this recession. Republican and Tea Party Senate candidates Carly Fiorina (California), Sharron Angle (Nevada), and Christine O’Donnell (Delaware), as well as South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley – and all of the others anointed “Mama Grizzlies” by Sarah Palin and her followers – claim they will fight for children in their states.

But these “mama grizzlies” seem more like their cousins the black bears, a species known to sometimes abandon their cubs.

“Mama grizzlies” aren’t making children’s health a priority. Many advocate repealing a deficit-neutral
health care reform package that specifically targets benefits for the nation’s youth. The new law prevents insurance companies from excluding preexisting conditions for children and adults alike, extends the period youths can stay on parents’ insurance, and funds state programs for poor children. Advocates of repeal fail to say how they will replace the many provisions that promise to keep kids healthy.

“Mama grizzlies” also support businesses that have been responsible for recent recalls of poisoned
peanuts, spinach, and eggs, as well gross negligence in allowing toxic chemicals into toys. And beyond even these deplorable business practices, our children’s future employment is imperiled by the exodus of manufacturing jobs overseas (one-third alone left during the Bush presidency). But generally these mamas are avidly pro-business. Haley has described placing private sector executives into state regulatory agencies as “a beautiful thing” and suggests wiping out the corporate income tax. These candidates have fallen short in describing how the candidates would build the next generation of jobs and ensure kids eat and play with only what’s safe.

These mamas do not seem particularly concerned about childhood’ education. America has dropped from first to twelfth in college attainment and ranks in achievement close to the bottom of Western nations in math, science and reading. Senate hopeful Sharron Angle once called for abolishing the Department of Education. Others call for performance-based pay and more private schools – piecemeal and ineffective approaches to our children’s education crisis.

These same “mama grizzlies” rarely discuss environmental and public health considerations, despite the asthma and obesity epidemics. One telling example is that Angle dismissed the escrow account for BP’s spill, a monumental disaster that has wreaked havoc on children’s mental health, breathing, and bodies, as a “slush fund”.

The approaching election offers a prime opportunity for moms with a grizzly bear’s strength of will to rise up and whack the oversized bullies that have left our children less healthy and poorer. This is an opportunity to do what Mothers should do: set up strict rules and punishing consequences for those who prey on their brood.

But insurance corporations, Big Oil, and too-large-to-fail banks seem to have co-opted the protective instincts of these potentially influential politicians. These “mama grizzlies” rise up. They grab a microphone to speak to the public, but they have little to say on the issues affecting our children. More than anything their message is, in effect, “Hey! Hands off the big guy.”

Voters have the duty to campaign for and elect candidates who put our kids first, who demonstrate
that they will fight to ensure a better future for the children of the country. While the roar of the mother grizzly is deafening, be sure not to mistake its tenor with the lesser snarl of the black bear.

The Player: Richard Goldberg

August 8, 2011

Dr. Richard Goldberg is a 21st Century Renaissance Man. The Georgetown University Hospital President explores next-generation technology and psychiatry by day, rides motorbikes on his vacations, and reads the classics for fun. At RIS last week, he shared insights that he has gained during 42 years at Georgetown.

From Psychiatrist to President

When asked about his career path, going from mind doctor to hospital president, he gave a sigh of appreciation. “It’s an interesting journey because psychiatry is frequently at the bottom of the food chain,” he said.

His choice of a psychosomatic specialty brought him to other hospital physicians and their patients, aiding a progression from resident to faculty member to department chair. And in the financially challenging times of late 1990s he became (simultaneously and for the same salary) dean of clinical affairs, dean of graduate medical education, chair of psychiatry, and president of the 450-doctor faculty practice group, the last that lay the groundwork for promotion.

His practice area may not have the reputation as a hospital power broker, but it often confers leadership ability. “As a psychiatrist—as long as you don’t behave like a psychiatrist—you have a certain degree of emotional intelligence about people and how they best work together…It’s very helpful in managing a hospital, managing a physician, managing people.”

In 2000, Medstar bought the Georgetown University Hospital and faculty practice, and Goldberg began overseeing hospital quality and safety as vice president of medical affairs, a position he jokingly compares with serving as an assistant principal in a high school with wayward physicians. He’s held the hospital presidency for two years.

Over the last decade the hospital has changed deficits into surpluses, gained leverage with equipment suppliers through Medstar, and earned the number 3 ranking among the 57 DC Metropolitan hospitals, as well as the only “Magnet” status (for nursing excellence).

Goldberg’s DC life is a far cry from his childhood along the New York shore. The Long Beach resident played basketball and baseball with Billy Crystal (who showed Oscar promise even as high school variety show MC) and frolicked by the bay, but according to him the island life was insular. “I thought everyone was from Brooklyn. It turns out that’s not the case.”

Along with his worldview, this city and hospital have transformed over several decades. Visiting DC in the 1950s, he admits being shocked by the Washington Monument’s separate restrooms and water fountains for blacks and whites. Georgetown Medical School in the late 1960s was likewise wholly different from today: 98 men were paired with two women per class, there were no CAT scans and head scans, doctors mixed their own IVs, and psychiatry focused on psychotherapy. He relishes many of the changes, describing 50/50 student ratio as “humanizing” and new technology and drugs as “outstanding” in their potential impact.

The Future of Health Care

Goldberg believes computers will shape our future through nanotechnology, robotics and genetics, trends emerging in medicine. In a new era of personalized medicine, he explains, doctors will use genetics to identify the likelihood of developing a disease and the best medications for an individual. It will be possible to inject patients with nanorobot sensors, which will float around the blood system and organs, giving feedback to detection devices to indicate if an illness has occurred or tell about a treatment’s progression.

Robots like the da Vinci Surgical System will allow doctors to operate easily and intuitively for prostrate and thoracic cancer, and other ailments treated at the Lombardi Cancer Center.

Viruses packed with chemotherapy will use receptors to find and join cancer cells and release the chemotherapy while sparing normal tissue, increasing the survivability for a broad range of cancer disorders.

Yet there is a huge paradox in health care. The underserved population and Jesuit traditions contrast with a depersonalized and potentially costly high-tech future.

The hospital relies on its heritage for guidance. While Jesuits, a Catholic order that stresses lifelong education, are less visible than in the past, they guided the mission adopted in 2007. “Cura personalis” (meaning care of the whole person) is a reminder that pills and technology must serve the broader goal of satisfying emotional, spiritual and physical needs.

The giving nature of the order also prompts charity care for the poor. A children’s van goes out to the most underserved areas of Washington DC, treating kids who wouldn’t ordinarily get medical care, and the hospital offers free cancer screenings to adults.

Goldberg sees many gaps in the health care system but says he is optimistic that a country as great as ours can meet them.

“We need to have more accessible care for individuals,” he says. “We need to cover more individuals. We need to have more emphasis on wellness than sickness.

“We need to be more aware of care as not just a single episode, but a continuity of care. We need to be safer and higher quality in terms of or care.”

But as with most things, he understands that progress will be incremental. “I don’t think can be created de novo out of somebody’s head. It has to, like any good system, evolve.”

From Motorcycles to Mahatma Gandhi

One way he deals with work pressure is to exit his element. For 25 years—starting with a Harley Sportster, now on a BMW 3 Touring Bike—he has cycled the country. His fascination with human narrative is given broader play, meeting people like those recently out of prison that would otherwise be unlikely confidantes. He also enjoys communing with the environment, whether the national parks of the Southwest or the seascape of Key West.

“There’s something about being on a motorcycle that is relaxed concentration,” he says. “You have to concentrate all the time, but you’re in this zone, you’re participating with the road and nature rather than observing it.”

If motorcycling is a social and spiritual quest, his literary projects are an intellectual journey. His free time is not occupied by friends, restaurants and movies. Rather, he has taken on a sort of literary project. He reads classics and listens to biographies (currently Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography) while he exercises on his Octane seated elliptical machine. The biographies have provided personal instruction, including two major life lessons.

“Every person no matter how successful or how much we idealize them has incredible unevenness. They can have great contributions in some areas and weaknesses in other areas,” he says.

“And they have been down and out at various times in their life,” he adds. “The path to greatness is not a straight line. Its really enduring and learning how to get out of those troughs in your life, whatever they are.”

“Aging well is about being adaptable, learning how to find meaning in activities that you might not have been interested in before, but that you can now do.”

He summarizes with a common phrase given deeper resonance by his inspiring example in psychiatry, literature, and leadership. “That’s what life is about – meaning.”

To Listen to interview, click here

Bed Bugs: Learnings from the Little Ones

July 26, 2011

A teenage George Washington quickly abandoned an infested bed in the Shenandoahs more than 250 years ago. Today, area residents of all ages are jumping in their jammies. This region is already among the top ten areas hit by the recent bed bug infestation, and it’s predicted by an exterminator president to approach the notoriously overrun New York City in a year or two. Denizens disturbed by the news, a.k.a. “Attack of the Blood Sucking Bugs,” should take something FROM the creatures for a change.

A Little Perspective: Tell a formerly infested acquaintance that you might have bed bugs. She’ll gasp in horror and drop urgent work and needy kids for you, her new top priority. Bed bug crises were likely atop her and many others’ list of the year’s “Ten Worst” as they lost time, health and sleep in taxing bug battles.

In the past, those pests were more common. But they were less commented upon. Poverty, war and acute hunger relegated bed bugs to a smaller part of the daily struggle for those in World War II concentration camps, Toronto homeless shelters and Freetown refugee camps in Sierra Leone.

Even now bed bugs strike everyone, but they have a penchant for the poor despite their infrequent travel. So, for many of us, appreciation is in order.

Commitment to Fight for Freedom: As horrifying as the experience is, the bugs disappear from many Washingtonians’ homes in just weeks with proper treatment. For many, the hundreds to thousands of dollars – explicitly excluded in home insurance policies – is costly but affordable.

Not so for others. One third of DC children live in poverty (defined by a family of four earning
less than $22,000 a year). Sixteen percent of kids live in families earning half that, leaving no money to spare, according to Children’s Law Center Executive Director Judith Sandalow. The DC government and private landlords are usually responsible for vermin issues, but often unresponsive. Many of those families devoutly scour and clean – an approach woefully ineffective in wiping out rodents, rats, and roaches from multi-unit housing.

Ridding bed bugs may pose an even tougher challenge. Given the cost and complexity of eliminating them from apartment buildings, two kinds of property managers could emerge, says American Pest President Matt Nixon: “People who knock bed bugs back enough to rent the unit and those people who want to completely eliminate the problem.”

Legislation pending in New York, like requiring landlord disclosure and mandating home insurance options, seems to solve only part of the problem. So stay informed and active on the issue.

Save Your Stigma – The intense secrecy surrounding bed bugs may be true to the city’s huge defense presence.

Tenants don’t disclose to landlords fearing reprisal, and infested individuals are silent with schools, offices and friends for fear of the stigma. Landlords sign confidentiality agreements with exterminators and may not confide in their tenants and shoppers, fearing lost revenue and liability.

But such secrecy might speed the spread and deepen the shame.

Destigmatization comes from awareness, education and time. The DC government has launched a public service announcement and held training. More effective than such campaigns is often the coming out and commitment of a celebrity, like Magic Johnson with AIDS.

The infestation affects places more than people, so maybe the insect icon will be a building. Victoria’s Secret temporarily shuttered a Manhattan store, and high-end Bergdorf Goodman is being patrolled by bed bug-sniffing beagles. Until then (and after), be open and accepting.

Plan to Declutter: Bed bugs – and all vermin – love the dirtier living conditions and hiding places that come with clutter. While cleaning up won’t prevent or reduce an infestation, it could slow the spread and facilitate treatment.

Americans accumulate piles of paper and mounds of mish-mash. Adorable tchotchkes and a “really great deal” make them weak in the knees.

Abroad, a more minimalist aesthetic often prevails despite less space. And in Europe, biking and walking to stores often eliminates overloading as an option.

Shopping and splurging makes sense, of course, but be smart about it. Professional organizers
would advise such strategies as ditching one clothing item for each purchased, and cleaning different home areas periodically.

Avoid the graphic pictures of teeming bed bugs. But think about the how we can protect our sanity and our community to create constructive change from the critter crisis.

‘New’ New Years Resolutions

“Ask not what your city can do for you,” said DC Mayor Vincent Gray at his inauguration two weeks ago. “Ask what you can do for your city.”

Gray’s reiterating of President Kennedy’s famous speech reminds us that 2011 cannot only motivate personal improvement, but also inspire contributions to our community. Adopt five New Year’s resolutions to do just that:

Donate Food – Hunger is a huge problem in Washington. A down economy and high unemployment have left over 600,000 DC residents hungry, including an estimated 200,000 kids. The Capital Area Food Bank collects and delivers food to 700 partner agencies. “It’s life’s most basic need,” says communications manager Shamia Holloway.

But for the primarily “working poor” population who struggle with child care, transportation and rent expenses, “it’s the easiest budget item to cut.” Ironically Americans waste, on average, a half a pound of food daily. So donate produce or nonperishable items to the Capital Area Food Bank, Martha’s Table, or another worthy organization that serves the city’s hungry.

Volunteer in the Schools – More than half of DC public schools’ third graders read below grade level. Mount Pleasant resident and Obama canvasser Mark D’Agostino saw this as a challenge. After the 2008 election, he and a few friends used their volunteer list and free weekends to start the Grassroots Education Project. About 60 volunteers help Tubman Elementary School students learn to read on Saturday mornings, often searching for books that target kids’ interests. “It’s really inspiring to see the initiative they show and how much they enjoy working with the kids,” says D’Agostino. It’s effective too; twice as many children in the program achieve grade-level reading compared to those not in it. DCPS certifies volunteers who want to work with kids and e-mails them opportunities, suggesting they then coordinate with local schools.

Green It Up – Exposure to nature has been linked to stress reduction, a longer attention span and more creativity. But many in the US are getting out less. Residents in one of America’s greenest cities have no excuse not to visit and live off the land. Bike on the Rock Creek Park or go hiking at Great Falls. Sign up for a plot in one of over 50 community gardens in DC or the suburbs, or build a backyard vegetable garden. Compost. The benefits? Relaxation, fresh vegetables, camaraderie and, of course, keeping DC beautiful.

Appreciate the Arts – DC’s cultural scene is thriving on the whole, but some organizations are struggling. Fortunately, Washington will have especially compelling historical, political, cultural and literary offerings in 2011. Bring a friend to enjoy the city’s many scenes. Glance at Richard Avedon’s pictures of President Kennedy or immerse yourself in India during The Kennedy Center’s March festival. Watch the civil rights movement unfold at the National Museum of American History, or listen to indigenous voices speak about climate change at the National Museum of the American Indian. Laugh through the Folger’s “The Comedy of Errors,” or contemplate the cost of your iPhone at Woolly Mammoth’s upcoming production of Mike Daisey’s “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”. The result is a spiritual yet paradoxical reward: “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time,” said monk Thomas Merton.

Tip Well – DC had the greatest income inequality of large cities, according to a DC Fiscal Policy Institute study that analyzed census data from 2000. Since then, the city has seen stock of low income housing drop and a tremendous influx of high-income neighborhoods, says DCFPI Director Ed Lazere. Help out by emulating New York, which has a culture of extensive and generous tipping. Tip staff members who keep you glamorous, fed, healthy and safe – and don’t forget the workers mostly behind the scenes. The benefits will accrue to overqualified staff, underemployed citizens and those otherwise struggling.

Enrich others as well as our schools, theaters, museums and parks in 2011. Keeping DC growing and green will benefit both Washington and Washingtonians.
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The Player: Linda Levy Grossman

Linda Levy Grossman is reviewing photos for this article with WTOP’s Bob Madigan and me at RIS restaurant. Grossman, the Helen Hayes Awards president and CEO explains one of them.

“We wanted the recipients of the awards to have something that would distinguish them,” she says. “One of the staging assistants brought out Victoria’s Secret bags and I said, ‘I’m going to tell you right now, on behalf of the Helen Hayes awards for all you recipients: you’re all going to get lei’d.’”

Winners received, “lovely 68 cent leis from Oriental Traders – no expense was spared,” she says, as we laugh. “The Victoria’s Secret bag cost more.”

The night when the organization bestows awards on the finest actors in DC – this city’s answer to the Tony’s – is one of Grossman’s most inspiring and challenging ventures. “Immediately after the presentation the curtain comes down and I’m wandering around and hearing people say, ‘Gosh. I wish I had seen that,’” she recalls. “And I ask myself how can we lasso that energy and get them to the theater?”

The evening brings out the verve and creativity with which Grossman pilots the organization at the helm of the region’s performing arts. But it also demonstrates her demanding mission. While she sees more than 100 shows each year, she strives to ensure others also invest their money and time.

The Evolution of Helen Hayes

For the last year and a half, she has been working with consultants on a Compass foundation grant to identify the 27-year-old organization’s true potential. A major focus: to translate her oft-quoted challenge of putting “butts in seats” into a loftier goal of branding. The CEO of two years wants to define Washington theater like Broadway or the West End.

“Before you go to London or New York you think: What am I going to see when I get there,” she says. “Imagine visitors coming here to go to the theater.”

The evolution will encompass changing the communications, strategy, governance, programming, staffing, funding and name of the organization (although the award’s will remain unchanged). It will build on the core functions that have helped expand Washington’s 20 niche theaters to today’s vibrant 79 since she joined Helen Hayes.

Grossman has spent more than two decades supporting the group, including 13 years on the leadership team. Yet she is modest about her accomplishments, unlike her friend and sometime co-worker, Olney Theatre Centre Producing Director Brad Watkins.

“The Helen Hayes Awards have really created the engine for the expansion and growth of the theater industry in Washington DC,” Watkins said in a phone call. “It is that sort of a central linchpin that has given such focus to the arts that allowed companies of varying size to flourish.”

In its new guise, the organization will continue to promote a culture of theatrical excellence and provide a stamp of achievement to those who shine. The $1 million organization will expand their advocacy for the arts, cultivating new audiences and building on an education program that has already introduced 40,000 children in District public schools and Boys & Girls Clubs to the magic of the theater. That project has special resonance with Grossman.

“I respond to that program so personally and am so enthusiastic about it because I was one of those children whose life was literally turned around by a teacher,” she says.

Childhood Dreams

The Baltimore resident aspired to become a pediatrician in the 11th grade, approaching it with trademark, if misdirected, enthusiasm.

“I was the poster child for future doctors of America,” she announces. “I volunteered in hospitals, I was a candy striper, I audited classes in medical school, I saw surgeries.” Yet despite flagging interest and dropping math and chemistry grades, she didn’t know how to alter her ambition. That changed when one class she enrolled in was filled and she was reassigned to a speech class.

“That was a pivotal moment in my entire life,” Grossman says. Ms. Ann-Michelle Bennett, the speech and drama teacher, saw potential in the shy and awkward teenager. She assigned Grossman to stage manage all the year’s productions. The newly directed and confident Grossman followed her idol to Emerson College, graduating with a degree in theater.

She came to DC after graduating, joining Harlequin Dinner Theatre a few years later. She worked long hours as she promoted the local touring company, living in a Germantown condominium development on a cul-de-sac with three coworkers.

“Linda was a culinary genius,” Watkins recalls. “Every now and then she would make wonderful, incredibly complex dinners that were far beyond what our unsophisticated palates could appreciate. We thought we were Knot’s Landing.”

The Harlequin led to other jobs, and she eventually ended up freelancing at the Helen Hayes. Over the years, Grossman has done virtually every backstage task—building sets, running light boards, stage managing, hanging lights and sewing costumes—as well as all deskwork, from communication to development.

Not surprisingly, Grossman exposed her son Benjamin to the theater at an early age. But her aspirations for him revolved around her desire for devoted care and the continued status as the most important woman in his life.

“I wanted him to be a gay dentist,” she quips. “He assures me he’s going to be neither, to which I say take a knife and stick it in my heart and turn it.”

Four years ago, after stage managing Shakespeare productions at Imagination Stage, Benjamin applied to the Baltimore School for the Arts, making his ambitions clear.

“I thought he would be an audience member,” she says. But Benjamin corrected her misconceptions.

“You’ve been taking me to the theater since I was two,” he told her. “You honestly think it wouldn’t have taken?”

True Appeal and Potential

To make it ‘take’ for others, she has to win time from popular and often heavily marketed pursuits like Facebook, television and movies. As she puts it, a theater ticket is “a purchase that is perceived to be risky, that is perceived to be expensive, that’s perceived to be something that ‘if I don’t like it, it’s two hours I am never going to get back.’”
However, she is working to combat this stigma. “There are phenomenal ticketing opportunities. It’s incredibly accessible. It’s two hours – take a risk. It’s not electronic. It’s alive, it’s real and it’s true.”

For some people, plays already hold huge appeal. Surveys show that theater and art attendance tends to be shaped like an hourglass: more shows in the later teens and 20s, a drop as people raise families, and a resurgence as they come back in their 50s and 60s. The graying of the audience is a helpful trend for theater.

But young audiences are a challenge, as education programs demonstrate. “When we talk to kids, we say, ‘Who has been in a theater?’ All the hands go up. Great. Tell me what you saw…and they refer to various movies.

“Then we ask, ‘Who’s seen live theater with real people on a stage acting out a story, a play, a musical?’… Not one.” But programs that go behind the scenes generate long-term enthusiasm from these first-time audiences.

Grossman would rather “under-promise and over-deliver” on the new organization. Yet she dreams about its potential impact.

“It could double the number of people who are currently in Washington theaters from 2 million to 4 million,” she says. “It could provide health insurance for actors and artists. It could more efficiently connect the about 130 education programs that are offered by area theaters with kids in area schools through the region who desperately need them.”

She pauses as she searches for a sufficiently dramatic word. “It could be dazzling.”

Click here to listen to the interview with Linda Levy-Grossman
February 23rd Interview with The Player Linda Levy-Grossman by Bob Bob Madigan, WTOP Radios Man About Town 103.5 FM

The Power of One

It’s been 10 days since the astounding ouster of President Mubarak. Many Egyptians who adopted Tahrir Square as their makeshift home embodied the dignity and resolve that epitomizes human potential. As they abandoned fear and committed their lives to democracy, freedom rang in the streets of Cairo.

Their ripples of hope became a wave to wash Mubarak from banks of the Nile, a peaceful but forceful tsunami overflowing the shores of the Mediterranean and Arabian Seas.

Every day, our screens are filled with images of thousands of youths whose courage evokes great spiritual leaders. They recall Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent movement for India’s freedom and Martin Luther King’s rallies for a united America. These heroes of humanity set remarkable examples, as may be true of the current demonstrators in the Middle East, whose goals may take years to fully achieve.

Still, these movements have unprecedented speed and impact. Middle Eastern youths are re-branding their region from violent terrorism to peaceful activism. They have achieved the near forgotten prophecy of technology to lift up humanity. And they have created the incredible phenomenon of rolling revolutions as individuals become fully empowered.

The vibrant energy of the Arab states recalls the campaign and inauguration that transformed D.C. two years ago. But these Middle Eastern movements, which represent the overthrow of systems rather than the unlikely outcome of one, may be a more powerful inspiration.

They remind us that vast and growing inequality has tangible consequences. In America, the wealthy bask in greater luxury while the poor struggle for food and shelter and the middle class lose rights and income. Workers, galvanized by a plan to end to collective bargaining for most Wisconsin public employees, are taking to statehouses around the country in an unprecedented statement of solidarity.

They remind Washingtonians that demands for fair representation can be taken from the back of our cars to the front of the Capitol.

They remind us that more important than the clothes or houses we live in are the ideals we live by. That the hunger for opportunity, justice, and democracy is universal. And according time to struggle for these cherished ideals, despite daily demands, is to seize the chance to write history.

They show us the power of one and the importance of living life by example. To many in the Middle East, the difference between democratic leadership creating broad economic opportunity and the status quo was the contrast between virtual slavery and exalted freedom. And they won it after one person rose up fearlessly, then another, then another, and many more.

Individually, it is important to champion causes with the power to transform our communities, be it healthy and affordable food, safe and effective schools, greater equality or sustainable industries.

By singly living out our values we can, together, create a brighter future for our country.

Speaking with Jaylee Mead

We last spoke to Jaylee Mead in June 2006. Players Jaylee and husband Gil Mead were then thrilled their $35 million gift to the Arena Stage – the largest donation ever to a regional theater – would be announced in less than a week. The retired NASA scientists inspired us with their deep commitment to the arts, and to each other.

Jaylee Mead was widowed in May 2007 when Gil Mead died. But she has plunged forward with her trademark enthusiasm and smarts. She expanded her contribution to a theater scene second only to New York.

The 2.5-year renovation of the Arena Stage has finished. Possibly the Meads greatest legacy, it has added a beautiful glass wave to the waterfront as three spaces (including the new Mead Center for American Theater) have been integrated in architect Bing Thom’s acclaimed design. A three-year, live-in writer program and an expanded schedule promise an even deeper artistic impact.

The Arena opened with Oklahoma! This highest grossing play, which has drawn rave reviews, is another Mead contribution—the two inspired Arena Artistic Director Molly Smith to embrace the musical genre.

But Oklahoma! is just one offering in a season that takes on contemporary social and cultural issues through riveting drama: plays about war-torn Congo (Ruined) domestic dysfunction (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), and homophobia (The Laramie Project) all play in 2010-2011.

Jaylee believes this range is important. “You expand your own outreach or horizons, and being exposed to different kinds of theater helps you do that,” she says. The Meads have supported numerous spaces, establishing themselves as a top contributor to DC’s artistic transformation.

Helen Hayes award founder Victor Shargai has known her for decades. He accompanied her to the interview and now the two go to many shows together.

“She can be seen at almost every theater in city,” said Shargai. “Whatever she’s doing, she wants to be involved. She doesn’t want to just give money.”

Mead serves on the boards of the Arena Stage, the Studio Theatre, and the Helen Hayes committee. She helped pick David Muse to replace Joy Zinoman and is very active in selecting the top players in DC theater.

But her artistic involvement has sprung from humbler origins.

Mead became the first woman to join NASA Goddard after she earned a mathematics degree from the University of North Carolina. “I had a lot to learn because most of the men had been to places like Harvard or MIT so they had very strong training,” she remembers. “My background was less strong, I’d say, but you make up for it by doing more reading and more talking to people.”

She also went back to school, earning a PhD in astronomy from Georgetown University. She established the Goddard Astronomical Data Center to study stars and galaxies, ultimately earning the Women in Aerospace Lifetime Achievement Award and the 1986 NASA Medal for Scientific Leadership.

NASA was also important personally. There she discovered deep, abiding loves of theater and of Gil Mead. She joined the theater group Music and Drama productions, often being directed by him. Nellie Forbush in South Pacific and Vera Charles in Mame are two of her favorite roles.

The couple wanted to see how professionals handled every aspect of shows, so they went to the Signature Theatre, a space that showed several musicals each year. Sometimes they organized their cast of 50 to attend.

The two soon became deeply enmeshed in the Signature. They sponsored shows and underwrote a scholarship for three high school students to attend an intense two-week musical theater camp with Broadway actors.

Their Signature involvement led to the pioneering Arena Stage. One of the first regional theaters and theaters in the round, it was also the first locally to integrate. And Gil Mead soon achieved his dream to sit on the board.

Beyond their artistic contribution, theaters have helped transform neighborhoods. The Signature in Shirlington is a cultural anchor that draws in restaurants and retail for show audiences. And the Shakespeare Theater has been cited as a reason for the Verizon Center’s development in Penn Quarter.

“I’m very pleased whenever I see a theater help develop the neighborhood. For example the Studio Theater on 14th has made a big difference up there with the kind of businesses that have moved in, the people it brings to the neighborhood,” says Mead. “That’s what I hope will happen down at the waterfront.”

The Meads invited casts of different productions to their Watergate apartment, hosting dinner parties that turned into impromptu sing-a-longs. The cast of Oklahoma! has been invited over later this month.

“Nothing makes her happier than sitting around the piano just singing show tunes,” says Shargai.

She is equally comfortable in front of audiences and is one of the few people without notes at the local awards ceremony.

“When she gets on stage and presents the tribute award for the Helen Hayes, she absolutely sparkles,” says Shargai.

Her participation is appreciated by theaters that experiment with new mediums and formats.

“She always finds good in anything,” says Signature Theatre Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer, who has known her for 15 years. “It is great for us artists because someone is supporting our efforts.”

Mead often sits in the front row, immersed in and encouraging the production. Seeing her close by is an incomparable experience for actors, says Schaeffer, one of her many great creative fans. “She’s always giving back. She does it from the audience and she does it through her philanthropy,” he says. “She has this great spirit which is so enthusiastic.” [gallery ids="99583,104905,104903" nav="thumbs"]

‘Greener’ Gas: Where Should We Fuel Up?

Washingtonians live in an environmentally friendly city. New buildings meet green standards, transit ridership is very high, residents use a mix of renewable energy and recycling to increase sustainability. Locals, who value their health and the environment, shop at bustling organic grocery stores and farmers markets. D.C. residents are leaders in “green” living.

They are also horrified by the ongoing oil spill that has shattered lives and the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico. President Obama and environmental leaders have embraced this leadership moment, calling for an end to foreign (or all) oil dependence in as few as two decades — a reversal of a 15-year trend of more driving, flat fuel economy, higher greenhouse gas emissions, and more complicated and risky oil extraction. Local residents must also channel their outrage into better choices for our planet.

In the short term, Washingtonians can reduce their carbon footprint by carpooling or grouping errands by location. In the long term, they can choose to live in walkable communities or buy more energy-efficient cars. When they fill their gas tanks, they must not decide, as usual, on the cheapest or closest option. Instead, they must select an oil company based on its environmental, employee, and regional impact. They must also disregard oil company “greenwashing” efforts, such as BP’s “Beyond Petroleum” campaign, which overhyped small renewable energy efforts, and Shell ads showing a pristine marine sanctuary supported through only a few thousand dollars.

A wealth of truly relevant public information on environmental, safety, lobbying, and spill records can help consumers pick a pump. There are some excellent sources:

– One of the most comprehensive is the Sierra Club’s 2007 article called “Pick Your Poison,” which records human rights or environmental abuses, companies’ stances on global warming and green initiatives. The information is shocking — it details huge pipeline and tanker spills, murdered activists, large fines and contaminated water. It also ranks the oil companies on their environmental impact, with Sunoco coming in first (“Top of the Barrel”); Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, Valero Energy Company, and Citgo next (“Middle of the Barrel”); then ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips (“Bottom of the Barrel”); and BP (dishonorable mention, as of 2010).

– Federal government records from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Minerals Management Service, and the Coast Guard forecast and track the impact of oil company activities. Consumers generally can’t easily search these Web sites and compare companies. But a handful of nonprofits are doing the dirty work. For example, a Center for Public Integrity study showed two BP refineries of the 55 that are now federally inspected accounted for almost all (97 percent) of the past three years’ flagrant workplace violations.

– Community stakeholders and environmental groups communicate on the Web about local issues with oil extraction, processing, and transportation at sites such as and

Sorting through this information will likely become even easier. Web and iPhone applications that point consumers to the cheapest and/or closest gas stations are being released to give consumers access to this information. These apps might also have consumers check priorities — such safety records over renewable energy initiatives — and push out rankings or more information.

Washington area residents care about the environment, but still drive an average of around 22 miles per day. They must think twice before they fuel up. Local drivers must read through available oil company information and stay up to date on Web and phone applications. It’s one of many critical ways to care for people, pelicans (other wildlife too!) and our planet.

Turn up that ‘Stat, Stat!

For D.C. residents wilting in 90-plus-degree days, stepping out of the heat can be a welcome relief. But chilly stores and restaurants are bringing winter back at great harm to our budget, bodies, and planet. Crank up your thermostats, Washingtonians, and rack up these benefits:

#1 An Accidental Bikini-Ready Bod — Georgetown saleswoman Durban Clarke is on an unintentional diet. “Normally I have a big ol’ sandwich for lunch,” she sighs languidly, withering in an 84-degree store with broken air conditioning. “Today I could barely finish a pear.” Not surprising: eating less and lighter is typical when hot. That’s useful information for locals trying to shed a few pounds before lounging in swimwear as well as others aiming to drop more. And the evidence is beyond anecdotal. A study in a 2006 International Journal of Obesity cites air conditioning as an important, often overlooked contributor to the nationwide obesity epidemic. It’s time for Washingtonians to warm up — and slim down.

#2 Eliminating the Implicit Instruction: “Bring a Jacket, It’s 95 Degrees” —
Many workers must dress both for inside temperatures in the 60s or low 70s and sweltering outside air or suffer the consequences. For one Georgetown worker keeping warm starts at her core. “I wear a padded bra every day to work,” she confesses. But avoiding frequent battles over thermostat settings with her male coworkers requires even more — her chair holds a jacket and a sweater while her desk hides a space heater. Numerous other locals use their props in winter and summer with little basis. Four of five people around the world are comfortable between from about 76 and 89 degrees at a 92-degree outdoor temperature, according to analysis in the air conditioning book “Losing Our Cool” by Stan Cox.

#3 “It’s How Much?” (or Avoiding Statement Shock) —
It took the last seven summers to bring two 100-degree days but the mercury’s already reached 100 three times this year. And June featured more than twice the usual count of 90-degree days. The soaring heat is sending electricity bills skyward. Boosting the thermostat can keep them in check. Pepco recommends setting air conditioning to 78 degrees and using energy-efficient fans. “Every degree you raise your thermostat can result in a 5 percent savings on the cost of cooling your home,” says Clay Anderson, spokesman for the electric company which serves more than 750,000 Maryland and D.C. residents.

#4 Conserving Energy: It’s In Again — Conservation may not be as hip as it was in 1979 when solar panels topped the White House and jumpsuit-clad residents pored over electric bills. But the reasons to cut back are just as compelling. Local provider Pepco’s fuel mix relies much more on carbon-emitting sources (three-quarters overall, including 40 percent coal) than carbon-free (about one-quarter nuclear and renewables). And using carbon-producing energy can contribute to a nasty cycle where greater greenhouse gas emissions bring warmer temperatures which prompt more a/c use. Turning down the thermostat — particularly during hot daytime hours — can also help avoid electrical equipment failures. Make it warmer to shrink carbon footprints and lessen grid stress.

#5 (No More) “You’re Hot Then You’re Cold” —
So sings a furious Katy Perry afraid of being jilted at the altar. Frequent temperature hiccups might be easier on the emotions but they’re uncomfortable physically. In fact, a year after central air conditioning was installed in the U.S. Capitol, Rep. John Rankin rose to complain that the 15 to 20 degree temperature differential was too much. “This is a regular Republican atmosphere,” said the Mississippi Democrat, “and it’s enough to kill anyone if it continues.” In fact, surrounding temperatures rarely varied by 30-plus degrees until this century, and many signs show we aren’t made to duck in and out of cold spaces. The quick switch stresses out bodies that have to adjust their internal thermostat, which can bring on headaches and chills and lower immunity to colds.

Of course, the usual cautions apply. Stay hydrated. Be alert for symptoms that might indicate heat illness, particularly in vulnerable populations like seniors and children. But generally, boost those temps as an act of consideration for your coworkers and clients, and for people everywhere.