Archive for March, 2010

Dan-Dan Noodles!

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

I came onboard the National Endowment for the Arts in 1982, when we were at Columbia Plaza, just down the block from the Magic Gourd Restaurant at Virginia Avenue and 23rd Northwest DC. That was 28 years ago, and if you believe some of the current online reviews, it’s not changed much since then. I ate there often; there weren’t a lot of other nearby choices; still aren’t.

The dish that stuck in my mind through all these years is their Dan-Dan Noodles, an appetizer. I may even have dreamed about it! Warm noodles drenched in a sauce that’s mostly smooth peanut butter, with hot oil and some more sesame or peanut oil added for consistency. Mmmmm!!! I LOVE it! Makes me feel all warm inside, kinda like being wrapped in an electric blanket.

I wangled a recent lunch there with a State Department employee, partly ‘cause she knew where it was, but mostly because of the Dan-Dan Noodles!

I ordered one serving, and she ordered another, on my recommendation. Each was about two cups worth; I managed to finish mine. It was just as I remembered: one of the best uses for the lowly peanut, a bit hot and spicy, and comfort food of the first order.

As for the second order, I asked for a serving to “take out,” because I was going to take it to Grace Garden. This is a tiny out-of-the-way Chinese restaurant on Maryland’s route 175, AKA Odenton’s Annapolis Road, and opposite Fort Meade (just down from a tattoo parlor, and in the Colonel’s shadow).  My wife and I were taken there by the head of the Asian Division in the Library of Congress; his wife, like mine, is an Anne Arundel County Master Gardener.

Grace Garden’s chef and owner, Chun Keung Li, and his wife Mei, serve all the regular stuff, but also authentic Chinese dishes I’ve never seen elsewhere. I get there about once every other week, and I’ve been trying to find something I don’t like. I’ve been unsuccessful. So far. I’ll keep trying.

Chef Li will make any recipe you bring in, and will also happily use ingredients that you bring him. And after 34 years in the business, my guess is that if you can name it or describe it, he’ll make it and you’ll love it!

So I wanted him to try the Dan-Dan Noodles, and maybe even put them on their menu. I arrived at about 2:30PM, long past the lunch hour, to find the entire staff — Chef Li, Mei, and a helper — eating lunch at a table in the empty restaurant. What luck! I opened my takeout bag, and started talking about Dan-Dan Noodles, and how much I loved them. Mei poured them out on a plate, and Chef Li looked at the pile and said “Too much sugar!” He tasted them, and said again, “Too much sugar!”

We started talking about “proper” Dan-Dan Noodles, and after a minute Chef Li got to his feet, went into the kitchen, and started chopping and mixing. Mei told me that Dan-Dan Noodles, to be done “right,” required their own special noodles. These came in large packages, and they don’t have room in their small restaurant for all possible noodles, much less all the other ingredients they could be using. Sigh.

She said that if they used the wrong noodles, their Chinese customers would blog about it, and they’d be in trouble. I of course said that their American customers wouldn’t care, and would buy the dish by the bucketful, given the affection that we all feel for peanut butter. I even suggested putting up a sign advertising “Special: Crazy Dan-Dan Noodles” to give themselves an “out” with their Chinese customers. No go! [See why I love the place?]

At about this time, Chef Li returned with a plate of warm noodles (the wrong kind, but delicious) and a PINT of freshly made sauce! He insisted that I try it – not a difficult sell. Using chopsticks to move the noodles from the dish to my plate, but a fork to eat them, I dug in.

The sauce was aMAZing! Instead of two flavors, there were so many I lost count! I was then told that the sauce included not only peanut butter, peanut oil, and hot oil, but garlic, scallions, Chinese vinegar, and various peppers. (I think there are some ‘secret ingredients” too, and given their proximity to Fort Meade and the National Security Agency, this is unsurprising.)

The total effect was like a fireworks display! Mei told me that the proper dish includes thinly sliced fresh cucumbers, celery, or zucchini, under the noodles. That’s not food, that’s a symphony!

Chef Li said that Dan-Dan Noodles is really a family plan dish, with noodles in the middle of the table, and a variety of toppings around it. Diners get to choose what toppings they want – not everyone wants the hot sauce! Who knew?

He also said that making the sauce was “simple!” I asked Mei if he’d measured ANYTHING as he made it, and she said “No.” I then said that I MIGHT be able to learn to make it, but it would take at least thirty years, and I might not have the time! We all laughed.

After some more conversation, and Mei’s agreement that they’d make the dish for ME without the right noodles, if I’d call a day in advance, I left – with almost a pint of the new sauce, some noodles, and a bottle of Chinese vinegar. I promised to call, identify myself as “the crazy man,” and ask for the non-standard Dan-Dan Noodles. You do what you can.

I know I’ll go back to the Magic Gourd for their noodles when I have the opportunity, but…

Warm blanket or fireworks display? Hmmmm….

Eulogy for Will Simmons, Esquire

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

[ I wrote this a few weeks after receiving word that Will Simmons, one of Annapolis' best attorneys, had virtually closed his practice. I knew that Will had had colon cancer, and that it was not responding well to treatment. I delivered it to his office on February 12th, only to learn later from one of his associates that Will had died on February 9th. Will was only 53 years old. Sic transit gloria mundi. ]

February 12th , 2010

Dear Will;

Susan and I were talking about you, wondering how things were going, not long before we got your letter. We understand your cutting back on your practice, and we’re crossing our fingers for you.

As you know, I graduated from Georgetown Law in 1972 and joined the DC Bar in 1973. That’s over a generation ago, and of course I knew lawyers before I went to law school. I worked elbow-to-elbow with many during a thirty year career in the Federal government.

In the few years we’ve known each other, you have become my exemplar of the lawyer for three very simple reasons. First and foremost, because of your unflinching and unquestioned probity. I cannot remember a single instance of your bending, shading, or evading the truth in the slightest, or proposing anything but the ethically correct thing to do. I could ask no better model for every law student and lawyer in America.

Second, because of your consummate skill as a lawyer. As you recall, you took virtually the same fact pattern into two cases about subdivision restrictions. The cases were heard in the same county, much less the same state. And in the second case, you found yourself arguing against the precedent you’d set in the first case! And yet you won! As your colleague said, you earned SIX Mogen Davids with that one.

Third, and perhaps most memorably for me, are your efforts at resolving controversies – clearly as important to you as winning cases. I will never forget the day that you insisted that I shake hands with Bob Foster, one of our adversaries in the disputes over the easements etc. here on Old County Road. And even though Bob had earlier attempted to run me down, or at least brush me off, with his vehicle, and you knew that, you were emphatic that resolution was possible, and that neighbors should learn to live with each other, and that I must shake his hand. Only a very few lawyers look beyond the ‘case or controversy’ at hand, and fewer yet look to resolve the underlying issues. That brings you at least within the penumbra of being a “philosopher-king.”

You will be pleased to know that a degree of neighborliness has returned to Old County Road. Most of us are nodding, if not speaking just yet. And a few days ago while I was digging my truck out from under our first big snowfall of 2010, Mark Aiello came up the hill running his snow blower and volunteered to help keep the snow from blocking me in. And I said, “Thank you, Sir!”

There is hope for us all.

And I thank you, Sir!

Birthday Message!

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

Dear L&L;

One of my clearest memories of your childhood days is asking if you’d done everything you wanted to do that year – on the evening before your birthday. It was a ritual, remember, but it was also my way of focusing our attention for a moment on your past, as well as on the year you’d begin the next morning. Google can’t find the person who said “time flies like an arrow,” except for Groucho Marx, who famously followed up with “…and fruit flies like a banana.” But time does fly, and pausing for a moment to reflect on its passage is a habit you’ve well begun, and one that I continue.

And so, you might ask, the night before you turn seventy, Dad, have you done everything you’ve wanted to do? And the question might be extended to all sixty-nine years, and not just the sixty-ninth. This is a harder question to face, especially as there’s no turning back – and no eraser, either, in this Internet-laden era.

On the grander scale, I was reflecting recently that I was sorry I’d never made it to Eagle Scout – I lost interest and enthusiasm while no more than Second Class. Successful men often have “eagle scout” on their resumes. Upon further reflection, however, I did recall several marks of success. I’ve (too) often told the story about calling my father from Choate and asking what colleges he’d recommend, and proudly telling him that according to the counselor I could go to “any college I wanted.” And of course in due time I stepped up to the challenges of “my” Marine Corps.

You also may (or may not) remember that I received a Distinguished Rank Award as a senior civil servant in 1997, an award given annually to only one percent of the 6,000 career Federal executives. And was first listed in Who’s Who in America in 1984. (And that my favorite title ever was “Night Vice President of the Student Bar Association at Georgetown. What better title than “Night Vice”?)

But on the personal, and more important scale, I am more proud than you know of my two kids. Both of you have graduate degrees, are happily married, and have full time jobs with health insurance! In today’s world, and today’s economy, these are no small feats (or feet, either!).

I have wonderful memories of the steps each of you took along the road to adulthood. One that comes to mind is listening to Luciano Pavarotti in La Boheme on the American Legion Bridge, coming back from Sidwell, and having you ask me to stop the CD and replay his singing “esperanza,” inche gelida manina. The perfect moment in the opera, the perfect moment in my memory.

And when you asked me what car you were going to get to drive, and I told you, oh so subtly, that it was the old pickup, and you asked for the (goddam) keys and came back in thirty minutes, all flushed, and proudly said that now you could drive “stick!” One giant step for Laura, and one giant step for fatherhood!

You have also heard me say that the goal of parenting is to raise children who are ready to go off into the world to make their way and not look back. This is perhaps the hardest job of a lifetime – because while you’d love to wrap your child in your arms, away from the hazards and disappointments, the insults and injuries of childhood, that’s not what’s needed. After some small consolation, you must set them on their feet and aim them back at the prize. It’s not what your heart tells you to do, but it’s what you must do.

So that’s what I did – and it seems to have worked! So as I look back as I turn seventy, I’ve done what I wanted to do – and what needed doing – and now my most important job is done. The world is in your hands. Enjoy.

Lots of love, Daddy

March 18th, 2010

I Love Libraries!

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

[I wrote this when I was president of the board of McLean's Langley School, the largest independent elementary school in Virginia. Yes, it's part of a fund raising effort...]

I have loved libraries since the fourth grade. The Charleston (South Carolina) Public Library was less than a mile from home. Children could only get four books, but very soon Miss Janie Smith let me take out the adult’s ration of ten. She was as much an institution as the Library itself, and her obvious approval was hazardous to my ego. Letting me take out so many was also hazardous to my health; ten books are a lot harder than four to balance on a bicycle when you are eleven.

So I grew up thinking that libraries are special, which they are. Newton once said “If I have seen so far, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” We are all standing on the shoulders of our ancestors. Humans accumulate, record, and store information; that’s what we do best. Libraries are the repositories of human thought and achievement.

So you’ll understand why I consider the destruction of the Library at Alexandria (Egypt) the greatest disaster yet to befall the human race. The fall of the Library really caused the dark ages; mankind did not begin to recover for a thousand years.

The Library was over 600 years old when it was sacked by the Christians, and almost 1000 years old when it was finally destroyed by the Moslems. During its early years every Hellenic conquest brought more scrolls to Alexandria. Mark Anthony captured 200,000 from another library and sent them to Cleopatra as a gift. It was said that the library held a copy of every known literary work in Western civilization. It held complete texts of the pre-Socratic philosophers, of which only scraps survive. Aeschylus is known to have written 28 plays; we know him from three or four. What if we know Shakespeare only from his comedies? As tragic was the loss of most Hellenic science. We know the Greeks invented the steam engine and discovered cybernetic feedback; where could we have been if mankind had built on this base for 1500 years, instead of having to reinvent it 500 years ago?

Alexandria had at least 500,000 volumes at its peak. In the seventh century, according to fable, their burning heated the water in the public baths for six months. By comparison, the Fairfax County (Virginia) Public Library today has 1.7 million titles, and its Dolley Madison branch about 60,000. The Library of Congress was started in 1802 with a thousand volumes; in 1814 the British used it for kindling when they burned the Capitol. In 1850 a fire destroyed 35,000 of the Library’s 55,000 volumes. Not until one hundred years ago did the Library of Congress exceed Alexandria in titles. Twelve hundred years later.

The Library of Congress now has 25 million titles, and 83 million items. For years I lived three blocks away; within five minutes I could be seated amidst the world’s largest library. This was before the James Madison building opened, however, and the stacks were so crowded the staff couldn’t find half the books requested.

The explosion of knowledge in the century since the Library of Congress overtook the Library at Alexandria beggars the imagination. Ten items are now added to the Library every minute. No professor and few graduate students can keep abreast of their colleagues without the aid of computer searches. Children now in elementary school will need automated searching to do their college-level work, and today’s infants will be using CompuServe and Dialog in high school — and not for extra credit, either.

Information around the world will be stored and linked electronically. Nexis can find every reference to any person mentioned anywhere in the New York Times during the past 20 years — in minutes. Increasingly, libraries are not where information is stored, but where one can gain access to it. This requires a terminal and a printer, but it also requires expertise. Just as we all learned the Dewey Decimal System, our children will learn to manipulate search strings and descriptors.

At some point, however, there will be too much information to sort through “by hand”. The Japanese are focusing enormous resources on exactly this problem: can  artificial intelligence help us search the world for information we could never find unaided? Their answer is yes; by the mid-1990’s they expect to have a “fifth generation” of computer hardware and software, optimized for searching global data bases. Such a system will know what the student knows (or at least has read), and with minimal instruction will be able to find what the student needs, nosing about with the speed of electricity in files maintained from Stamford to Sydney.

The good news is that it is now impossible to destroy mankind’s accumulated wisdom — it is stored in too many places, available to too many people. The bad news is the accumulation of ever-increasing quantities of information (can you imagine having instant access to every episode of “Ozzie and Harriet”, or to every article printed in America containing “Washington Redskins”?). The problem of too much information rather than too little will still be solved the old way — by asking a librarian for help.

I view librarians as “keepers of the flame,” and I think most people do too. Librarians fill us with awe: they either know or can find out everything. The librarians in my life have all stayed with me. I treasure Miss Janie Smith, forty years ago in Charleston; Miss Anderson at the Choate School — a special friend to all the boys who didn’t quite fit; and of course Pat Bush, a part of Langley’s bedrock. Even Meredith Willson’s treatment of Marian in “The Music Man” pokes only gentle fun at an American institution.

Librarians now stand watch over an enormous, ever-increasing, indestructible, and invaluable resource: human knowledge. Information technology is now linking libraries together, and librarians will soon be helping readers sift through the accumulated wisdom of our species (except for what was lost at Alexandria). Librarians have only one problem: America is running out of readers.

I haven’t the time nor the energy to list the studies cataloging the ills of American education and industry, comparing our students with those in other countries, and anticipating our national decline. The problem is now a given. We have all seen the headlines and watched the talk shows. I’m sure some of us have actually read the studies. Langley parents are very concerned about the education of children; why else are we here?

In the next century America will need leaders (a) who understand the  breadth of human knowledge and human experience, (b) who know how to search, collect, and focus it on the problems then facing society, and (c) who find the searching itself as comfortable as old clothes.

The time to teach these skills and encourage this familiarity is in elementary school. Using a library well is akin to having an “ear” for foreign languages: starting early helps. The place, for our children and those who follow them, is the new Langley library. It is no accident that our first capital campaign is addressing this need.

So far, 117 donors have recognized the importance to our children of access to, familiarity with, and reverence for, the world’s knowledge. This small band has pledged $465,000 to the Library Campaign. There’s still room for you. We need $600,000 in pledges to get underway, and more would be better. Our goal — yours and mine — is to get the pledges in hand by the end of April. There is a lot of work to be done before some lucky future Board President cuts another ribbon, and we need to get on with it.

In the weeks ahead you will be asked by fellow Langley parents to give generously to the new Library. Please take time to listen and give what you can. Langley’s children — to whom so much has been given, and from whom so much will be expected — must above all learn to love libraries.

Good night, Miss Smith — and thank you.

Robert A. Knisely, President of the Board

The Langley School, McLean, VA 22101

January 15th, 1988