Saturday, April 25, 2009

high tech low tech

One more day in DC. I spent the morning being wishy-washy about what I wanted to do. A couple of people had recommended the Udvar Hazy Air and Space Museum, a sister museum to Air and Space on the Mall, but out past Dulles Airport in Virginia, so it's a bit of a commitment to get to, plus I'm not really all that interested in planes and flight. I wasted time drinking coffee and changing my mind every few minutes. I finally committed. There was only one other thing I wanted to do before the day was out, so I may as well spend a few hours in transit. Plus, it meant not having to walk anywhere.

Udvar Hazy doesn't do a good job of letting people know how to get out there. I knew because I asked someone at the Mall museum, but that had been the day after I arrived, and I did some online snooping to find more info, and found some Virginia transportation timetables posted in 2007, so who knew if they were current, and further, the buses weren't running as frequently as I had expected. To cut a long story short, my pain is your gain, and here's how to get to Udvar Hazy from downtown DC:

1. Catch the 5A bus from L'Enfant Plaza to Dulles. It costs $3.10 one-way, and is a one-hour drive. I took a nap.
2. Once disembarked at the airport, wait on exactly the same platform (2E) for a short, white shuttle that has a LED destination sign of either Dulles to Dulles or Air and Space Museum. And when it does show up, double check with the driver which direction they are going. This shuttle costs 50 cents, and takes you directly to the museum in 15 minutes.
3. If you're smarter than me, you'll do more timetable research to time the transfer, and be more travel-efficient.

When I got out at Dulles there was nothing telling me where to wait for the shuttle, so I went inside to ask the info desk, who knew exactly where it stopped, and had a printed schedule to give me. Unfortunately, I was talking to them at exactly the same moment the shuttle was stopping outside. The guy told me to hustle, so I turned and hustled, but missed it by a couple of minutes, which meant waiting on a bench for 45 minutes.

When I left the museum I stopped at the info desk to tell them about the problems I had getting there, and suggested that they list some more descriptive info on their website, rather than just the link to the Virginia transit site. All four guys behind the desk were all ears. I think their museum suffers from low attendance; probably from a combo of factors - their far-removed location, because people may think they have seen it all after going Air and Space on the Mall, and because most visitors probably don't stay in DC for more than a few days, and a several hour trek out to the boonies to visit a museum doesn't fit on the agenda. I'm quite used to spending several hours in a museum, but I suppose a lot of others maybe only visit for an hour or less.

And after all that - bus transfer misses and an inkling that I didn't really want to look at more flying machines - Udvar Hazy is totally worth going to. It's in a massive hangar, all white on the inside, with smaller craft suspended from the ceiling and swooping around the larger craft on the floor. Even though I don't love airplanes, it's a really cool space to be in.

My ill-timed transportation adventure may have worked in my favor, since a free, 90-minute, docent-led tour was starting right after I arrived, and I figured it would be the best way to spend my time. Our docent was a Vietnam chopper pilot who had been a professor at GWU (or GU?), with a healthy sense of humor and gift of gab and storytelling. He led us through the exhibits, detailing the development of flight, airplanes, and science, beginning with the first balloon flight and its passenger list of a duck, a chicken and a goat, up through the space race - "In 1957, the Russians did something naughty. What was it? Sputnik! They sent up a dog, we sent up a monkey. They sent up a man, we sent up a man. They sent up a woman, we sent up another man because we didn't have any women." He was a hoot. Since he is a veteran, he also included some thoughtful comments and questions about war, right and wrong, and love and hate. The museum displays quite a few war planes from all nations, including the classic kamikaze plane, looking all the world like a bomb with a tiny cockpit, little short wings, and no wheels, since they weren't intended to land. The Enola Gay is at this museum, and draws a protest each August 6th. There's also a Concord, and a Blackbird recon plane, which increases in length by five inches when it reaches high speed. Since the fluid systems need to move enough to compensate for this expansion, it leaks more than than a British automobile when parked. It's enormous, has a skunk painted on the tail (it was developed by the Lockheed Skunk Works), and flies only with one pilot and one operator. If the pilot goes out of commission for any reason, the operator is in big trouble. The Space Shuttle Enterprise is here, but my fave is a little acrobatic plane nicknamed The Little Stinker.

Thinking it would take me two hours to get back to DC, I left after only two hours, back on the shuttle to Dulles. I took the opportunity to go get my boarding pass for the flight home the next day, and finally did something right with my time. I got off the shuttle, found the Southwest desk, got my pass, and made it back to the bus platform in less than ten minutes, and just in time to catch the 5A back to town.

The last thing to do was to go to the annual Smithsonian Craft Fair, being held in the National Building Museum. In two weeks in DC, it's the only entry fee I had to pay. According to the experts and the word on the street, the exhibitors and their wares are supposed to be the few molecules of cream floating on top of the rest of the cream that's floating on top of the bucket of milk. For sure there was some quality goodies, but I really expected more and better. I don't know what process decides who gets in - evidently competition is stiff and fierce - but if there's any lesson from the museum glut on this trip, it's that art, beauty, and worth are all subjective and in the eye of the beholder, and that I have a constitutional right to speak my mind. You have a constitutional right to tell me I'm looney tunes and full of it, so go right ahead if you want. To me, some of the craft on display wasn't of a better quality or more innovative design than other craft I've seen, by both pros and recreational players. I mean to say a lot of it was Good, but I couldn't divine what made it Better Than The Rest. Still, I bought a ceramic bowl, because I thought it was pretty.

No evening stroll that night. I just went back home. As if to underscore my previous comment about the number of fire calls in this town, there were six fire engines at the intersection of U and 14th. It was almost an exact replay of the 18th Street fire - a ladder was extended to the roof of a restaurant, this time the Seafood and Crab joint, and a fireman, maybe the same one, was scampering down. There didn't appear to be any actual fire, and by the time I got there most of them were taking off, no doubt to other fire calls, questionable or real, in this fine city.

The last bit of random amusement arrived in the unlikely form of Jim, who cycled up to me while I was waiting for the bus to the airport.

"Is this your blue bag? Hi, I'm Jim."
"Hi Jim." I was clearly looking as confused as I felt.
"Are you the person I'm buying diapers from?"

Turns out Jim was meeting someone near the HUD Building with a blue bag and a red shirt to buy some reuseable diapers for his newborn. What were the chances there were two of us? We had a laugh and he cycled off to meet his supplier.

Goodbye Washington DC! I'm writing this on the plane from Chicago to my transfer in Las Vegas. Libations are flowing, and everyone is getting plastered and noisy. People keep walking to the back galley and returning to their seats with multiple cans of beer and those mini bottles of liquor. I think they should just save their time and effort and give me all the money they are no doubt going to lose. I need to start funding my next trip to who knows where.

putputputtering around

What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of George Washington? Freemasonry!

The Temple of the Scottish Rite, with its huge expanse of steps, sphinxes, and columns (DC loves columns) has firmly staked out its place on a corner just down the street from where I'm staying, and cruising by one day I noticed they had a Visitors Welcome sign outside. I was hoping to learn or see something scandalous, but it's all quite tame - at least, what they present is all quite tame. Feigning ignorance, which is partially true, I was shown a short film on freemasonry, and then guided around the building by an intern. The most titillating thing not on display are the bodies of some bigwigs interred in the walls, vertically, behind their busts. I was shown a couple of meeting rooms, draped in purple and tidied up to within an inch of their lives - probably using a large mason's layout square - and the library, which includes a copy of the The Hungry Hungry Caterpillar for when kids visit. I resisted the urge to ask about conspiracy theories, unsolved murders, and world domination, and left with a handful of souvenir coins. They have this bizarre mishmosh of emblems and symbols - masonry tools, I get that part, but also Greek and Egyptian gods and imagery, numerology, sun rays, and who knows what else. Not that I have a problem with borrowing gods, imagery, or ideas from other cultures and mixing them up, I just couldn't figure out how they all synthesized into the masonic creed. If I had been on my toes a little more on the tour, I would have asked, but I think i was the only visitor in the entire building, which was almost empty, so it felt a little weird.

By this point I had knocked off most of the items on my Must See list. There were still a number of Might Be Nice To Sees, but I wasn't feeling hugely motivated. I returned the the National Portrait Gallery to try to get a glimpse of the conservators in action, and found out there was a conservation talk later in the day, so decided to come back. I went to Ford's Theater, despite a fair warning it wasn't worth it, because I was told the Peterson House across the street, where Lincoln finally expired, was worth it. Ford's Theater gets a big fat red F in the sightseeing grade book. They tell you you can only see the house after attending the theater talk, which consists of being hustled into the renovated theater, and subjected to a 20-minute retelling of Lincoln's assassination, which you already know about because you (a) went to school, (b) know how to read, and (c) were probably exposed to the entire story at another Lincoln exhibition in town. By the time I realized what was happening, it was too late to escape. They do a really swell job of trapping their audience. I was told that the elevator ride to the permanent exhibit in the Holocaust Museum is supposed to instill a sense of being trapped and disoriented before being released into the exhibition, which really does have a whammy introduction of a wall of steel plate with the words The Holocaust cut out in stark, block letters - I'm getting off track. I didn't feel trapped or disoriented at the Holocaust Museum. I felt totally trapped at Ford's Theater.

We were finally freed from bondage, and everyone moved across the street to the Peterson House, like a big herd of brainless sheep. Imagine a theater full of people waiting in line to enter a standard-sized doorway, at the top of a small flight of stairs. It was almost time for the conservation talk, so I just bailed on the house, but popped back into the lobby of the theater to see Lincoln's very fine overcoat on display. And they couldn't even get this right - the glass on the case is reflecting so much light and shiny surfaces of the lobby you can't even see the coat. Thoroughly disgusted, I went back to the Portrait Gallery (they are only two blocks apart), and had my faith in interesting and quality things for tourists restored. Turns out the Portrait Gallery is the only museum that is exposing its conservation labs, and somewhat as an experiment, since no one has done it before. We saw a couple of conservators hunched over work tables, doing their stuff, and our guide talked about the mission of the museum's conservation efforts, as well as the conservator's code of ethics; even though they may restore a piece, structurally and cosmetically, everything they do is designed and engineered to be undone, should it become necessary to do so. If a cosmetic fix is applied, it may not be visible to the naked eye, but under advanced means of scrutiny, their work can be easily identified and distinguished from the original work, as they always use different materials. Fascinating stuff.

After that I finally got a proper look at the National Gallery's East Wing, after a swing through their sculpture garden (more questionable "sculpture", including one work that's a big square of one-inch thick steel that's being allowed to weather. Whatever). There's an Andy Goldsworthy installation that's so huge I only realized by accident that it was art, and not part of the building. I wasn't dazzled by their collection. For contemporary art, I prefer the Hirshhorn.

I didn't want to waste daylight hours sitting inside, so for an evening stroll I took the Metro to Foggy Bottom/GWU and walked to the Potomac, passing the Watergate Building, famous for, oh yeah, Watergate, but also because up close it's the ugliest building in DC. It's uglier than the Slovenian Embassy. If you find yourself by the water behind the Kennedy Center, it's sort of hard to find a place to cross the street without being reduced to a smudge on the road, so I kept going until I hit the back of the Lincoln Memorial, and then cut back up to Foggy Bottom. And then it was time to go home.

A quick word on home - home is a room in a private apartment. I don't mind staying in hotels, but they always cost way more than I want to spend, especially for two weeks. I briefly investigated, but the few profiles I read asked that surfers not stay more than a couple of days, and I didn't want to bother having to pack up, move, and resettle every few days, even if it was free lodging. craigslist wasn't turning up any decent sublets. Then I stumbled on Airbed and Breakfast. It's sort of the compromise between couchsurfing and a hotel. I think it's a good idea, and worked really well for this trip, so I wanted to give it a plug. Also, part of the purpose of this blog is to document travel tips, information, and discoveries, just in case they help someone else out in the future.

Friday, April 24, 2009

degrees of silence

I saw the Supreme Court for five minutes. Was it worth the four-hour wait? I dunno. But I did it. Check.

For the second attempt to get into the court I got up earlier and arrived earlier, only to find a bigger line than the day before, and press camped out. The first case of the day was Safford v. Redding, which generated a lot of interest because it deals with the constitutionality of strip-searching a public school student in order to search for drugs, and I believe the school where this occurred is in Maryland, so it's local, which generated even more interest. At least it was sunny. I decided to chance it and stood in line. I wasn't expecting to get into the first case, but decided the second might be within reach, since, according to one law professor who was present, it was a boring technicality case.

When the 10am session closed, I was so far back that I didn't notice the line split into two, and found myself in the five minute line. Gamble and hop over to the one-hour line? I decided not. The first session ended with lots of people in suits exiting, and the press swooping in. My patience was running on fumes, and I was antsy from standing still for so long. But I was within a sure thing to see the second session, and to leave at that point would have been a waste of time. If you told me that standing in line for four hours to catch a glimpse of a session was a stupid idea to begin with, I probably wouldn't argue.

Finally I was in. For five minutes I expended so much energy concentrating on just being in the present, taking in the details and atmosphere, that I barely remember anything that was said. I do remember the Chief Justice asking, "What's the big deal?" Other than the arguing attorney and the justices asking questions, it was utterly silent in that room, and not just because the ruby red drapes might have been deadening noise. After enduring museums full of eye-popping shrieking and eyebrow-raising antics from tots and teens, it was sort of unusual to see a room full of people behaving themselves. Or maybe it was because of the bailiffs, scanning the audience with eagle eyes and looking ready to pounce on the first suggestion of inappropriate deportment.

And five minutes later I was out. I got lunch at the court cafeteria on the ground floor. I picked up the fried chicken and plantains because the plantains sounded interesting, but they were kind of dry and bland. I assumed they were packed with protein, like bananas, so decided they were good enough. The Supreme Court also has a rather unusual elliptical, self-supporting staircase. You can't walk it, but you can look.

I returned to the Postal Museum afterwards, because I wanted to see the Alphabetilately exhibit, and to get more postcards out of the postcard machines. Since each stamp is an itsy-bitsy work of art, it's sort of like seeing the contents of the National Gallery contained within two rooms, in miniature. If you're really into stamps, I'd recommend taking a magnifying glass with you. I'm not a collector, but I do like them as pieces of cheap, everyday, accessible art, and the demise of the traditional letter makes me sad. I picked up a habit from my dad of buying lots of different stamps, and decorating envelopes with multiple denominations and designs. It's been a long time since I've done that for anyone. One of the docents was floating around, and pointed out a few items of interest, but her best suggestion was to look at the 1893 Columbian Exhibition stamps, a series of sixteen engraved stamps, each printed in a different color, housed in the permanent collection. The permanent exhibition is one room, lined with vertical panels that pull out and swivel to either side. The engraved stamps really are the prettiest, and some consider the Western Cattle in Storm to be the most beautiful US stamp ever produced. I have a few of these from the 1998 centennial re-issue. I used a couple, but am hoarding the rest, at least until they are reissued again, if ever. I'm glad I made the time to go back to this museum. The Alphabetilately exhibit is well-designed and presented, and the level of minutiae wasn't nearly as intimidating as I thought it was going to be.

Next up - the Daughters of the American Revolution's 7 Deadly Sins exhibit, a light-hearted and whimsical look a the foibles and temptations of early Americans. Using objects from their collections, they presented each sin, such as a painting of an author, displaying copies of her book in her hand and on the bookcase behind her (pride), rifles (wrath), a fancy sofa (sloth), a full set of china for a several-course meal (gluttony), high fashion (lust), a comparison of finely made, expensive crafts vs. their inexpensive, not-so-finely made counterparts (envy), and silk purses with steel closures (greed). It's not very big, and only took me about a half-hour to work through.

There were still a few hours of daylight left, so after sitting on a bench, flipping through guidebooks, and attempting to regain focus with an ice cream sandwich, I decided to go to Arlington Cemetery. There was no way I was walking around, since it's huge and I only had a couple of hours before it closed, so I bought a tour bus ticket. It's a good deal - only $7.50, it has three stops (Kennedy's' with the eternal flame, Tomb of the Unknowns, and Arlington House). You hop off and back on as suits you, and in-between stops the guides feed you facts, trivia, and other bits of assorted knowledge. At the Tomb of the Unknowns I watched the changing of the guard. I was in exactly the wrong spot to see the rifle inspection, but saw enough to realize that I don't get it. I get that it's guarded and the guard has to change, and the new guy has his rifle inspected, but not the ceremony that goes along with it. It seems - strained. Inflexible. Do they do it differently in the middle of the night when no one is watching? Maybe someone who knows can explain it to me.

In general, I don't get military codes of conduct and bearing. For example, at most of the monuments, including Arlington, they equate respect with silence. I don't know if this is a military thing, a government thing, a Miss Manners thing, a religious thing, or what, but to me silence and speaking in low tones doesn't equal respect. How can you celebrate someone if you can't raise your voice? I prefer memorials and remembrances that are colorful and brassy. Sure, death is a somber event, but bottling it up isn't going to help anybody. Even more baffling than asking everyone demonstrate respect by being quiet, is the attempt to guilt people into staying off the lawns by implying that equals respect. I'm not buying it.

The afternoon at Arlington ended with a thunderstorm, which passed by the time I had to walk to the Metro. Night was just falling, so I took an evening stroll around embassy row. Embassy row is lined with tony homes and luxury cars, and it's fun to admire the different architecture, test your knowledge of national flags, and marvel at how upscale it all is. Or, maybe only the front room with lit windows, showing off gorgeous furniture is upscale. The sore thumb standout is the Embassy of Slovenia. Their embassy looks like the SoCal condo I grew up in, except with more glassy bits stuck on one end. Strange that a country with so much natural beauty built such an unappealing building, especially given the aesthetic of the surrounding neighborhood. Slovenian Embassy aside, this is a fab walk, although next time I'll do it during the day, the better to see the lovely environs.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

sunday drive

Shortly before I left home I met this guy Mike via another friend. Mike lives in Alexandria, and on Sunday I Metro'd to King Street, piled into the van with his lovely wife and three boys, and went for a Sunday drive. My feet were singing with happiness all day. Mike is well versed in early American, Alexandria, and Civil War history, so he could point out all sorts of fascinating places and things that I would have otherwise missed, including the local crazy Masonic temple. I don't really have an excuse for not seeing this on my own, other than my back was to it when I walked out of the Metro station.

We grabbed breakfast at the local diner, everyone getting some version of eggs and toast, took a short tour of Alexandria, and headed to Teddy Roosevelt Island. TR Island is a small nature preserve and memorial to Teddy, is one of the few undeveloped places left in this area (other than the memorial itself), and I think still has the ecosystem that existed before the cities were developed. When the trees are in full bloom, they hide the defense contractor highrises looming over Arlington. I spotted a cardinal (Virginia state bird), the first time I've seen one in the wild, maybe the first time I've seen one at all. After that it was a drive along the George Washington Memorial Parkway, crossing back to DC, and stopping for lunch in Adams Morgan at Amsterdam Falafel. Amsterdam Falafel is a dinky shop that accepts only cash with a menu of about four items - falafel, frites, beverages, and brownies. They serve plain, piping hot falafel balls in toasty pillowy pitas, which you then load up with whatever you want from an extensive condiment bar that includes raw veggies, roasted veggies, and sauces. So yummy. If your dressings haven't reached the bottom of the pita, you can go back as often as you want to reload. I got a regular sized falafel and small frites, and it was too much food. Strange, because I'm usually able to eat everything in sight. Not here.

Back in the van for a drive down to Chinatown, the Mall, and the Capitol, then a detour through Maryland to find the 495 freeway, and back to Alexandria. The boys were antsy from sitting in the back of the van all day, so we all walked to a park to burn off energy. The falafel and frites had put me in a dozy stupor, so Mike and I stopped off to get coffees along the way, and then at the local fire department to peer through the window at their antique water wagon, and to admire beautiful colonial homes, some more saggy and tilting than others. Mike showed me how the walls of some of the older buildings are around two feet thick, since the Potomac will occasionally flood and rise several meters. And we got to see the aftermath of a police chase that ended in a car crash, which we heard happen from a few blocks away. By the time we showed up on scene what must have been the entire Alexandria police force had showed up. There weren't any casualties, except a few tires and the front end of another car. Evening was coming on, and we wandered back to King Street, which is Old Town's main drag, and runs in a straight shot from the Potomac to the masonic temple. There's a free bus that runs the length of the street from the water to the Metro, but it's also a nice, and not very long stroll. Alexandria has a lot of charm. The town is stuck in bygone eras, obviously with a heavy dose of the colonial, but also the 50s, as evidenced by this wig shop.

On my way back to the Metro I found The Fromagerie - I'd be neglect in my cheese skipper duties if I didn't investigate. I bought a mini baguette, a grapefruit soda, and two sort of local cheeses for dinner - a mini round of strong goat cheese from Maryland and a raw cow's cheese from Virginia, ending the day on a nummy note.

raining on my parade

Great Jiminy Crickets. What a day. The gods conspired against me on Monday. What did I do to deserve this? Cold rain, long lines, running in circles. But it all ended well enough.

The Supreme Court meets October through April, in two week segments (I think) hearing two one-hour cases Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday morning. The public is free to watch the arguments, but lines form early in the plaza outside the courthouse. The last two weeks of this term are this and next week - there was nothing last week - so I have three short windows of time to get in and see them. Realizing there was a chance I wouldn't get in, I decided to go at the first opportunity. Getting up early, I Metro'd to the courthouse, eavesdropping on very boring, career-minded young men in suits, and being glad I wasn't like them. More on DC's demographic as witnessed by me later. It was raining. Rainingrainingraining. I almost never use an umbrella. The only two umbrellas I've owned in the last decade are one I found and one that was given to me. Approaching the courthouse sometime around 8:45, I spied a big long line. The decision I had to make was, stand outside in the rain and chance getting into the court, or skip the court and go see the Capitol? Thinking that the rain may keep some potential court-attendees away, I went for the former. I'm not sure if my guess about the number of people who showed up was correct, but I made the wrong decision.

The literature will tell you that the doors to the court open at 9:30. What isn't so clear is whether people who get in for the first argument have to leave after it's done, or if they can stay for the second argument. They can stay. Which means that if you don't get in for the first argument, but you're sort of near the front of the line, you are not necessarily guaranteed to get in for the second. It all depends on the number of people who leave. I don't know how many seats are available to the public, but people other than the ones standing in line are also going to be in the courthouse, so no one in the plaza outside, including the cops, know how many seats are available.

For some reason or other not known to me, they didn't open the doors to the court until almost 10am. It was still raining. And raining and raining. The line started moving, but not far enough. The 10am session was closed, and I was still cooling my heels outside on the plaza. At least there were some pleasant people in line to shoot the breeze with, either lawyers, law students, or government interns. I was the only oddball. After the 10am session is closed, the cops divide the line in two - those who want to hold out and try to get into the 11am argument, and those who want to just listen to the session for three to five minutes (I'm not sure how this is handled). I don't think listening for three to five minutes would be gratifying at all, so I stayed in the 11am line. Still raining. Trousers soaked. Growing cold. Socks wet. Even the people with umbrellas were soaked and cold, so I didn't feel bad about not having one. When I was packing to come here, I erred on the side of too little. Mostly it's been okay with layers, but there have been a couple of chilly days. A small scarf would have made a bit of a difference. I just finished knitting a nice one before I left, but left it at home because it's sort of lacey and I didn't want it to get wrecked. I was too obsessed with packing light, which wasn't necessary on this trip. Still, I was wearing four layers, including a thermal shirt, a jacket, and a waterproof splash jacket, and I was starting get chilly. At some point it stopped raining, and then started again. The line inched forward as a few people at a time were allowed in. And then around 11am one of the cops, for some reason wearing a big smile, told every that the 11am argument was full. I wanted to go buy a large hot chocolate and pour it over my feet, but then they would have been wet and sticky, so I just jaywalked to the Capitol.

The Court has pretty strict rules about what they allow inside, so I had left my day bag behind, and all I had on me was my wallet, lodging key, small notepad and pen. My hands were so cold and wet by the time I got to the entrance of the visitor center that I had some problems teasing them out of my pocket to pass through the x-ray machine. Once in, I breezed straight into a tour, almost without having to stop walking. The tour first shows a short film about what Congress is and stands for, and then everyone is divvied up to tour guides. My guide was a smooth talker with a good patter, but, eh, I'd give the official tour a pass. Armed with either a Capitol building specific guidebook, or prepared with solid research, you could probably give yourself just as good a tour. I don't think you need to be part of an official tour to walk around - during a short recon mission to the Capitol a few days ago, I managed to wander into the room where the tour ends, and no one stopped me or gave me a second look. I did learn that Senate was in session starting at 2pm, and that tickets to the gallery had to be obtained from one's senators. I looked up where Feinstein's and Boxer's offices were, and tromped over to the Hart Senate Building, just one building away from the site of my previous failure, the Supreme Court. Keep in mind that, while these buildings may all be within a couple blocks of each other, they are so huge that one block feels like two, longer if you need to walk around looking for a visitor entrance, and there's usually some expansive landscaped plaza with a fountain between them. Pretty, but time consuming. The Hart building is utilitarian and nothing fancy. But there is an enormous, commissioned Alexander Calder sculpture rising up through the middle of the floors, and, of course, senators' offices. Each office has Old Glory and their state flag outside, so I could see Feinstein's from down the hall. Inside were three staffers or interns, all in suits and on phones, sitting at desks that were kind of cute because they were mini versions of the big, power executive desks. As soon as one got off his phone call, he gave me a couple of Senate Gallery passes, and on was on my way again. The passes are good for the entire term, not any particular day.

They only start letting people into the Senate gallery one-half hour before the session starts, so I decided to get lunch. There's a cafeteria on the top floor of the Madison LOC building. I recommend it if you are in the area and need food. It's not too expensive, they have a lot of options, and it's a cafeteria, so you don't need to stand on manners. You can bolt your food (bowl of turkey chili and mac'n'cheese) and run, just make sure you don't get in the line that's reserved for LOC employees. Then you get booted out to the other line. From what I could tell, most people up there were workers, not a lot of tourists. Plus, if you sit by the windows, you get a bit of a view. Fueled up and slightly drier by this point, I went back the Capitol, once again through security, this time having to take my belt off, and into the line to get into the gallery. No electronics are allowed, except ones that are keeping a human alive. When I got to one checkpoint, the staffer didn't seem to believe I had neither a cell phone nor a camera. Not that it got me in any faster. Back in line. In an elevator. Back in line, which snaked around corner after corner. At least it was moving, unlike the Supreme Court line. Finally into the Senate Gallery.

With the exception of AP American History, I recall government lessons in school being snoozers. I don't know if it was the subject matter or the teachers, but I have no memory of actually being interested. The Senate action I saw only confirmed that. In a sea of empty desks, there were about two senators. There were more people/officials facing the room, and if I had paid more attention in school, maybe I could tell you who they were. One guy was addressing them as I walked in, and then the Senator from Vermont (I think Patrick Leahy) took the floor. Not a clue what he was holding forth on. The gallery is constantly being interrupted by people leaving and new ones filtering through the narrow seating to take their place, and it's can be hard to hear. There was no fiery oration. There was a steady droning sound, some business with swapping one glass of water for another glass of water, a big chart was pulled out, and I was ready to leave. A small girl had dozed off, and her parents were told to wake her up by the staffer. The recorder was fun to watch - he had some sort of contraption, I'm guessing the same thing as a court stenographer uses, but it was around his neck, and he would wander a bit, maybe to better hear what was being said. I don't remember him ever looking at his hands.

I was done with official, working government for the day. What I didn't get to see and then what I saw was a letdown. If I had more time to spend in DC I would have called it a day, but I don't, so I walked over the the Smithsonian US Postal Museum. At each museum I've gone to, I've looked in vain for interesting postcards. I don't get it. The collections are full of weird and beautiful things, and there's barely a postcard to be had. The situation at the museum shop wasn't much better, but they do have nifty postcard machines where you plug in a name and address, and it spits out a printed card for you. The different machines have different images, and by chance I chose the machine with a card of Owney, a stray dog who became the mascot of Railway Mail Service. Owney, one and the same, in all his muttly glory, with his custom-made jacket and collection of baggage tags and trinkets from his years of travel, is on display at this museum. Since there was barely anyone else there, I had all the time I wanted at the machine, and printed out a stack of cards. For the most part, this museum was too much minutiae for me to handle at this point on this particular day. I wandered around for a bit, but didn't take in too much. There is a funny bit of info in the exhibit on the Rural Free Delivery, about how the delivery guys were on occasion asked to do other things than just deliver the mail; including one note from someone who had "gone visiting", and needed the postman to feed and water the livestock, and "if the bees have swarmed, move them to a new hive." If the bees were swarming on my route, I'd just stop delivering the post.

I debated what to do after the Postal Museum. I thought about trying to look at the stamps again, but my brain was having none of it. It was past 4pm. The National Archives are open until 7pm, and every time I've gone by there's been a line out the door and down the block. I decided to give it a try. It's about 7/8 of a mile from the Postal Museum to the Archives, or a Metro ride that requires one line transfer. I decided to walk. The line was out the door and down the block. I thought maybe if I came back later the line wouldn't be there, and backtracked to the East Wing of the National Gallery, entering through the West Wing, and walking through the underground concourse. There's a plaza with a fountain (see?) between the two, and the glass bottom of the fountain is the roof of part of the concourse, and is directly over their cafe. I might have thought it was more interesting if I hadn't spend over two hours standing in falling water earlier in the day. I thought it was open until 5:30, but it was only open until 5pm, which I only realized after I was in the Manuscript Illuminations exhibit. So I saw about six minutes of that before I was out on the street again. The only thing left to do at that point was the Archives, so back in line for the third time.

After about ten minutes, a guard came out and explained that both the x-ray machines were down, so they were hand-searching bags, and everything was taking longer. I pointed out that I didn't have a bag, hoping it would get me in faster, but that didn't work. Fortunately the rain had stopped. The line was out to Constitution Avenue, which evidently doesn't allow curbside parking after 5pm. and we were able to pass the time watching a guy get into a yelling match with a tow truck diver and parking enforcement officer because his car was on the verge of being towed. They were there the entire time I was in line, and not far from the door the cops showed up on the scene. Suddenly everyone didn't want to get into the Archives, so they could see the resolution of chubby angry guy vs. mustachioed tow truck driver vs. DC Metro Police. He ended up being let go, which was disappointing since he was being a jerk. There was a very pleasant family from Boston right behind me, and the parents explained that they had just been to the Newseum, where the kids had learned that capturing the news depends on being in the thick of the action, so they were very interested in keeping tabs on each new development, and reporting it back.

The Archives displays the three docs that upon which American ideology built - the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. The Declaration is so faded it's almost illegible, including most of the signatures. The three words that still stand out are "free and independent", since they were written essentially in bold, in heavy blackletter. I found one line near the end of Article One in the Constitution where the word "the" was omitted, then neatly careted in. Inevitable when copying by hand. Each page of these docs enjoys life in their own solid titanium frame plated in gold, resting upon a perforated aluminum bed, humidified with argon gas, monitored by sensors embedded in the base of the frame, under no more than two footcandle light. Before proceeding into the Rotunda to see these, you can look at a 1297 copy of the Magna Carta, one of only four copies. There's much more to the Archives exhibitions, but after seeing those I figured my time in line had paid off. I wandered around a bit looking at some interactive displays, but it was really time to head home, and the Archives were closing up anyways. After picking up my journal and laptop, I walked over to the Adams Morgan neighborhood with the intention of spending the rest of the evening with a beverage in a cafe, and arrived on 18th Street to see four fire trucks, assorted other emergency vehicles, everyone standing on the street, and no fire in sight. Turns out the fire was in the cafe I was headed to, so they were temporarily closed. The girl who told me this didn't seem to concerned, since she was singing to herself and calmly puttering about taking care of small business. I didn't want to wait for them to reopen, and decided I deserved another falafel from Amsterdam Falafel. I cruised by another cafe on 14th Street, but it was too crowded, so I just went home for a cup of tea. About an hour later, an oversensitive or malfunctioning fire alarm vacated the building. Me and Antonia joined everyone else in the lobby to wait for someone to figure out how to shut it off. Antonia took Gatsby's cage, and a number of other people had their cats in nice cat carriers. Cat carriers have evolved since I last had a cat. They sort of look like gym bags. I remember the cardboard boxes with holes. The fire department in this town stays on their toes. I've seen at least one fire engine, en route with sirens on, each day I've been here.

So it was kind of a rough day. I got wet and cold, didn't get to see exciting government action for my troubles, and stood in three long lines. I lost track of how many metal detectors I passed through. My feet hurt. I wish a couple of wombats would massage them with their large, soft noses. I don't really know if a wombat has a soft nose, but it looks like it does. But I made lots of temporary friends standing in lines, scored a pile of free postcards, saw the Charters of Freedom, and had a double scoop of fire alarm excitement randomness. It could have been a lot worse.

I haven't written about Sunday yet, since Monday was begging to be chronicled. It's coming soon...

Monday, April 20, 2009

don't bother trying to see it all

I may have missed the cherry blossoms, but tulips are out in full force. I didn't know DC was known for tulips. This isn't a good picture of them, I was just trying to take a more interesting shot of the Capitol at dusk. They are absolutely everywhere, in all colors.

I probably would have benefitted from some more research before getting here. I showed up with two guide books, barely cracked open, and a laptop. After a couple of days I had a scribbled list of things I wanted to see, based on readings and conversations, and have knocked off a couple items each day, but I've been deciding what to do over coffee each morning, and this only after waking up sort of late. I suppose sleeping in isn't awful, since this is a vacation, but the museums are only open for so long.

Saturday I decided to go to the Holocaust Museum. You need a ticket to get into the permanent exhibit, which is free, but has a timed entry. I had about two hours to kill before my 2:15 entry, so I took in the State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda exhibit - it includes some historic videos and recordings, but is mostly printed matter, both text and graphics. Even after taking my time and reading all the blurbs, I had time to kill, but not enough to hit another museum close-by. The entry line had also grown, so I didn't want to go outside to eat lunch (you're not supposed to eat inside the museum), and then get stuck in a line coming back in. I just parked it on a bench for a bit, and tried to ignore the starting-to-get-hungry feelings I was having.

The permanent exhibit takes up two-and-half floors, and from the top down moves fairly chronologically through through WWII, and ends with a look at modern-day genocide. It's excellent, but wasn't grabbing my rapt attention. Partially because I was exposed to most of the same material fairly recently when I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau; in some cases, literally the same exhibits, or part of, that were on loan, including piles of shoes and personal belongings. Some of the photos from the propaganda exhibit were also repeated. And, not to be a complete ice queen, but when reflecting on these events as a whole, I've been desensitized by overexposure to both history and current events. It doesn't surprise me that humans are monsters and do terrible things. It rarely stirs a visceral reaction. I regard them with an almost clinical detachment. Exhibits and aspects that focus on individuals and personal stories are more compelling, and the museum understands this. To get to the start of the exhibit, you need to take a ride in a small elevator, and on your way in you pick up an identity card which has the story of one individual. Midway through the exhibit, there's a three-story tower lined with 50 years of photographs from Jewish community in what is now Lithuania, and another section closer to the end that lists the names of all known rescuers, and highlights some of their stories. I wanted to take some time to look at the photographs, but the tower is designed with a narrow bridge crossing the room, and there's nowhere to stand to the side to get out of the way of the clog of people coming up behind. You walk through the room again on the floor below, which has more space, but then the bridge is above you.

If I could do it again, I would do this museum in stages. Propaganda exhibit one day, permanent exhibit another day, in particular a day when I have lots of time and energy to take the time to read an absorb details. I sort of wish I had skipped the permanent exhibit this time round, since there's a bunch of other things I want to see, and my time here is running out.

It was closing in on 5:00 by the time I left. Finally, food. I stuffed down a cream cheese and avocado sandwich and a bag of Sun Chips in record time. If I had just crammed the chips inside the sandwich I could have eaten it faster. Most of the food I've eaten on this trip is fuel food. I don't care about fine dining, I care about not being hungry and having the energy to get through whatever I have planned next. I'm even making myself eat breakfast, in which I normally never partake. After dusting the crumbs off my lap, I walked to the Archives, but the line was out the door and down the block. The only other free museum open later than 5:30 is the Smithsonian American Art and National Portrait Gallery. It's a few blocks north of the Mall, and I'm not sure which percentage of DC tourists/Smithsonian hoppers actually venture the short walk uphill to find it. It wasn't empty, but there was plenty of breathing room. I think I only made it through a little more than half before it closed. I hadn't bothered to pick up a map when I came in, and off the third floor, quite by chance, wandered into the Lunder Conservation Center. Glass walls allow visitors to look right into the conservation labs, which look like a mash-up between a chemistry lab and an art studio - large tables, big rolls of paper, moveable air vent ducts snaking out the ceiling, cameras or other electronic equipment on articulated arms also coming out of the ceiling, easels, stuff like that. Regrettably, since it was Saturday, no one was at work conserving. I had to content myself with a few videos. I'm going to try to make it back sometime during the week. At some point after college, I considered going back to study for art restoration. Not sure why I didn't - most likely apathy - but I don't think I have the disposition to carry out that kind of work. I wonder if conservators ever fear they are going to ruin whatever they are working on. I remember one conservator, I can't remember where, talking about the importance of knowing chemistry, and what solution will have which effect, citing as an example the story of another conservator who wiped out an artist's signature by mistake while cleaning a painting. He probably didn't mean to clean it that much.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

hapax legomenon

Everyone I've spoken to about DC has put the Library of Congress on top of the list, so off I went. The LOC is now in three buildings, the main one being the impossible to miss Thomas Jefferson temple behind the Capitol. After the Brits burned the Capitol during the War of 1812, toasting the existing library, Jefferson sold his library to Congress to start the new collection. You can get there via an underground tunnel from the other buildings. The tunnel reminded me of every university science building I've been in. My degree isn't in science, but I grew up hanging around my parents' labs, playing with pipettes, parafilm, and lab mice. Coming in through either the Adams or Madison building and taking the tunnel lets you skip the line at the front of the Jefferson building, and also makes for some fun wandering around being minorly lost and checking out the various departments. There's even a machine shop, and a mason shop.

The visitor attractions of the Jefferson building are the building itself, which is liberally decorated inside with marble carvings, mosaics, and painting, all celebrating knowledge and education, and the good things that come out of those, and various exhibitions. Since it's the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, there's an exhibit of his life and letters, to describe it in a vague manner. Included are many manuscripts and letters penned by the historically famous, so fans of antiquated, heavily right-slanting penmanship can geek out, including a letter by an eleven-year-old girl suggesting that he would get more votes if he grew a beard. Which he did, shortly thereafter.

Being exhibitions in a library, they all include heavy doses of printed matter, so it's a lot to take in. I don't recommend doing it in one shot. I spend most of my time in the Lincoln exhibit, and just cruised through the others. Other heavy hitters from the various collections are Martin Waldseemüller's map from 1507, which is the first map upon which the word America appears, on a very un-America looking continent; it's more of a coastline. And, one of the Gutenberg bibles, displayed opposite a giant handwritten bible from Mainz that took over a year to copy. I suppose Gutenberg's is more historically significant, but the hand-scribed one is prettier.

The LOC employs at least a couple of cheeky old men in various tourist relations positions. The first was my docent tour guide and amateur comedian, Gene. Gene went on at enthusiastic length extolling the virtues and beauty of the building, the institution, and its holdings, drawing attention to small details in the endless embellishment, as well as the many luscious ladies bedecking the walls and lunettes. He went into so much detail that the guards had to kick us out of the reading room (which is closed to other individual tourists and groups when one group has entered), almost to the point of yelling at him, despite repeated instructions to the tourists to keep our voices down. Then there was Ray, who was staffing the info desk in the Adams (or was it the Madison?) building, where I surfaced after a return wander in the tunnels. Ray attended Berkeley in the sixties and regaled me with stories of protests, student arrests, tear gas, and how you couldn't lie down on the lawns back then because they were covered in dog poo because all the female students owned dogs but didn't pick up after their pooches. He pulled out a map and started circling points of interest; when I told him I had already been to the Eastern Market, he said, "Oh, you're a smart little rat." Which isn't far from the truth, since I am a Rat, in the Chinese lunar cycle. Quite proud of it, too. I'm very glad that I decided to stop at Ray's info desk, even though I was on my way out, because if I hadn't, I wouldn't have scored my very own Library of Congress reader card:

Unless you're way up the government food chain, you can't actually borrow anything from the LOC, but you can go in to read and research whatever. Anyone over 16 with an ID can get one. After the tour I had asked Gene about it, but he threw a big cold wet blanket all over that, telling me that "you can't just go get one." Actually, yes, you can. Mid-conversation with Ray, he asked if I had gotten my reader card yet, wrinkled his nose at what Gene had told me, and told me to go get my card. I was a little concerned that I would have to prove that I was researching something, anything, but Ray assured me that it would be a breeze. And it was. Observe the process:

Found the Reader Card Registration and Cloak Room room. Someone very very bored was sitting at the Step 1 desk.

"Hi, I'd like to register for a reader card."
"Are you researching?"
"Have you had a reader card before?"
"I need to see your ID." (Driver's license handed over). "Please proceed to the computers at Step 2, and then to Step 3."

Five minutes later - one Library of Congress reader card in hand. There was a gentlemen on the way out, at Step 4, who offers research and catalogue help, but he snagged the girl who was walking out just steps ahead of me, so I skirted by without having to convince anyone that I was a scholar. I triumphantly showed my trophy to Ray, and felt rather good about myself. After I graduated from Berkeley, I paid ~$500 (in installments) to join the alumni association. It was a fairly exorbitant fee at the time, for my dinky bank account, but it got me two things - unceasing junk mail from UCB asking for money and a library card to the entire University of California system. With both of these in hand, I feel invincible in my quest for knowledge.

After spending the rest of the afternoon in a cafe, I spent a few hours after dark strolling around the WWII Memorial, Reflecting Pool, Lincoln Memorial, and Vietnam Memorial. At 10pm there were still throngs of people, including lots of kiddies up way past their bedtime, The white marble of the bigger monuments lit up is striking against the night sky, and the Vietnam Memorial is peaceful and ghostly, all black stone bathed in low light. Everyone seemed happy to be there, enjoying a warm day cooling down to a brisk night, including one little girl jumping towards the LM and chanting "Lincoln, Lincoln, Lincoln!" Lincoln is big in this town right now. Almost every museum has some exhibit about him, and everywhere you look he's looking back at you from a poster.

And in closing - a hapax legomenon is a word that appears only once in a language. That's at least one thing I remember from medieval French literature classes because I've always thought it was a very cool term. The English example offered at the time was "tuffet" (Little Miss Muffet's), but I don't think that's true. Now with my swanky new reader card, I should have no problem finding the materials to research that.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

lazy day

Yesterday was cold and rainy, and today the sun was shining through a cloudless sky and it was warm enough for shirtsleeves. I decided to take a break from the Mall and go to Georgetown for a meander. To get there, I caught the GUTS bus at Dupont Circle, one of several routes between the university and various neighborhoods. It's free, but if you don't have a university ID, you have to sign the visitor log, on a clipboard. Who know what they do with it at the end of the day. I wrote that I was going to visit the Literature department. I figured if anyone chased me down for questioning, I could wave my BA in comparative literature in their faces. I might have to find it first; I really can't remember where I put it.

Lots of red in Georgetown. Red buildings, red-faced joggers somehow not twisting their ankles on the uneven red brick sidewalks. I walked through the Healy Building on campus, which has a grey brick exterior, but a red brick interior. It also has an interior courtyard with a fountain, which was gushing pink water. No idea why, but there were a couple of maintenance guys with their maintenance golf cart standing by and poking around in it. I really didn't do much other than amble around. First on campus, then along the C (Chesapeake) & O (Ohio) Canal, then around the town itself, and then down Q Street back to home. The campus has lots of green grassy areas with benches, for people like me who haven't done their research before arriving and need to sit and read for a bit. It was such a nice day I kind of wanted to just take a nap on the lawns. Instead I got a cup of homemade ice cream (mocha chip), and then found a dollar bill on the street. Seemed kind of appropriate to place.

Georgetown is full of historic homes, but I wasn't really interested in looking at any of them. The only touristy thing I sought out were the Exorcist Steps - where Father Karras meets his end. I haven't actually seen The Exorcist, but wikipedia told me what I need to know. It's a pretty steep flight of steps - and if the horrid gaspy wheezing squeaky noises being emitted by GU's most motivated athlete after she crested the last step is any indication, coming up them is just as murderous as going down.

Hungry after all the walking, but too lazy to make anything, I went back to Ben's Chili Bowl for dinner (veggie burger topped with veggie chili and a cherry milkshake). Chili is the great equalizer. Ben's is full of pretty much every strata of society, happily noshing away, elbow to elbow, and a surprising number of them very well-dressed. I don't think there's anything healthy in there, either for humans or the environment, since the only non-disposable item appears to be the red plastic baskets food is served in. Doesn't seem to stop anyone, me included. The line was going out the door when I arrived, and the woman in front of me remarked, "Yeah, it can be hard to get in to Ben's." The place operates on chaos, behind and in front of the counter, yet everyone is served in due order, and in good humor. There's different rules for ordering food and paying for it, depending on where you sit. The easiest thing to do is find room at the counter, because you can order directly there, without bothering to stand in the interminable line at the front used by both others dining in and taking out. Plus you get to watch the behind the counter madness, with an army of workers working the food stations, dishing up red baskets of greasy grub, communicating over the dull roar with customers standing behind those seated at the counter, all the while managing to not crash into each other. While I was waiting for my food one of them made some small chit chat asking how I was doing while he was filling some drinks. Turned out it was the owner himself, which I didn't find out until later. I ended up chit chatting in turn for a bit with the guy next to me. He had recently moved to DC from NYC, so we discussed Louise Bourgeois and shared some tourist tips. I knew more than he did, but I find that's usually the case. Someone visiting Oakland could most likely tell me all sorts of stuff I don't know about.

Phew. I'm pooped out tonight. I'm supposed to be researching the Library of Congress, but all I've ended up doing is reading about 1970s horror films on the wikipedia.

yeah baby, hold it right there

Smithsonian, round 3.

I decided it was time to hit American History, so went down sorta first thing in the morning. Mildly alarmed by the crowds of descending school children, I got to the door and saw that they also had extended hours until 7:30. I decided to come back later.

What to do until then? The nifty thing about the Mall is the amount of free museums to see, all within walking distance. And did I mention free? All the Smithsonians, and a few other non-Smithsonian museums are free. Free free free. I haven't dropped a dime for admission anywhere. DC residents, you don't know how lucky you are to have this. I surveyed my options:

The Holocaust Museum has lines coming out of every orifice.

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing tours were fully booked for the day.

I dropped in briefly at the Museum of African Art. African art doesn't stir any passions in me, but according to their website, there is one Yinka Shonibare piece in the collection. I stopped at the info desk to see if it was on display, and the woman there didn't know offhand, but started calling the docents to see if they knew. No one knew about it, which didn't bode well. I wandered around for 15 minutes while info lady Rosalie did some more research for me, and most of those 15 minutes were spent finding and walking the stairs. It isn't a very big gallery, and half of it was closed of for installations. I can't recommend it, except for the information desk service.

Seeing as it was cold and rainy, the next closest museum on the list was the National Gallery of Art. I totally recommend this. Art and sculpture from everywhere, predominantly (if not all) Western. Starting out in the medieval and renaissance galleries, I amused myself by picking out oddball details in religious and allegorical painting, since they are always loaded with imagery and symbolism, most of which I don't understand and only read about afterwards. Is this supposed to be a cherub? If one of these came fluttering up to me I'd probably reach for the nearest rolled up newspaper. And check out the chompers on the happy horse from c. 1500.

It took me over three hours to wander through. I realized near the end that my shoes were squeaking really loudly every time I crossed a gallery.

Best in show - Jan van Eyck's Annunciation (for superb technique, not subject matter).

Museum of American History - I finally got there around 4:00, and it was still an utter zoo. As if every middle school within ten miles was having a field trip day. I made an attempt to escape into exhibits less attractive to teens (Jazz Composers), but really, it was lost cause. I just had to endure sweaty screaming bedlam for a couple of hours before it cleared out enough to wander freely. I don't know what's up with the newer museums here, but they all suffer from poorly-designed layout. I felt like I spent more time than I should walking between exhibits. Granted, I was moving around to avoid the crowd, but I lost track of how many times I went up and down the escalators, then crossed from one wing to another. Going late is really the way to do it. When I first arrived, long lines were waiting to get into several of the more popular exhibits (Lincoln, First Ladies), but biding my time in the less crowded exhibits allowed me to waltz straight in after most of the tweeners and families had left. There really are bunch of fine items to see - the Star Spangled Banner, displayed in low light to slow its deterioration, Lincoln's top hat, the be-sequined ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, engines enough to put a sparkle in any steampunk's eye. Some of the exhibits, or certain aspects within, are obviously geared more towards the kiddies, and I suppose American History, Natural History, and Air and Space more than the other museums have an inherent appeal to the masses of all ages, and the curators need to find balance between displaying what they have in their collections, displaying what they have in their collections in the context of a themed exhibit, being educational, and being fun. I don't think they always succeed. But should I really complain? It's all free. And...

Best in show - Oscar the Grouch!

Yesterday was tax day. I walked by the IRS a couple of days ago. I bet it's a feeding frenzy in there today. They probably hand out celebratory cupcakes.

perfect imperfect

Back to the Mall and the Smithsonians. I stopped walking and just started taking the Metro. I wish BART could be like the Metro. Cheap, roomy cars that don't have seats upholstered in grimy cloth, and trains that run fairly frequently. I don't understand why the Bay Area, which claims to be so very progressive and environmentally conscious, has such a shoddy public transit system. Even Ukraine has better public transit systems that the Bay Area.

I'm a perfectionist when I make things. I want it all to be perfect, which means I spend hours figuring out how to knit backwards out of mistakes I don't realize until two rows later, hacksawing apart welds that weren't put together at the correct angle, taking years to finish other pieces because I can't settle on the right design of one aspect or another, and spending way too much time writing blog posts trying to get the wording just right (and then correcting misspelled words as I find them later). But, what defines perfect? If the knitting mistake doesn't cause my scarf to unravel, why don't I just leave it it? I've been noodling on this recently. Striving towards what I consider perfection makes me waste a lot of time and energy. It makes me afraid to try things because they won't be right, won't be what I want, or won't be good enough. I get hung up on an outcome that hasn't even happened yet. I'm afraid to try. I'm trying to stop doing that, trying to muscle my way past my hang-ups about what might be, and just do. Just do and if it isn't right, just do over. I don't have an answer yet. Maybe there is no perfect. If there is no perfect, is everything perfect? I wouldn't go that far.

Freer Gallery of Art - Mostly Asian art, and a few rooms of American painters. The objects that prompted my musings on perfection were broken bowls and vases that had been mended in the Japanese style of using silver, gold, and lacquer to highlight the mend, rather than try to conceal it. It adds character, and in some cases, value to each piece. And, gorgeous. Better for its imperfection. If I hadn't caught the docent's explanation, or read the signage, I probably would have thought the mends were just freehanded designs in the glaze. This wasn't the best example, but it was for photographic purposes because of the contrast.

The ceramics were the kicker of the collection, not for their shapes, but for their exquisite glazing, both on repaired and unbroken vessels. To me, glazing is a black art. Where to even begin - to control heat, chemicals, compounds, and who know what other factors to get the range of effects that were on display. And further, to be able to deduce which ingredient and action had which effect, and then to reproduce it. If I were given the job of glazing a bunch of pottery, those Japanese repair artists would have a lot of work on their hands.

Sackler Gallery - more Asian art. The Freer and the Sackler are both part of the Asian Art collection, and are connected via a tunnel since most of the Sackler is underground. I was starting to lose track of things a bit by then, both which country I was in, and whether it was B.C. or A.D.

Arts and Industries Building - Closed for Renovation. Boohoo! Cue hound dogs baying mournfully.

Hirshhorn Museum - Every arachnophobe's worst nightmare is squatting in front of the Hirshhorn, bigger than life and with really pointy legs. It's Louise Bourgeois' Crouching Spider, and it looks like it's facing off with the Hirshhorn itself. Bourgeois' mother was a tapestry weaver and restorer, so her spiders represent maternal protectiveness. I once had a daddy longlegs living in my bathroom, up in the corner, and one day a little egg sac appeared in the web with what was now established as a her. Despite the fact that nothing else was ever in the bathroom except me, she sat in the web all day, egg sac firmly in her clutches, abandoning it only for short periods of time, until one day it spawned a bunch of barely visible baby spiders, and that was that. I don't know what happened to them because they really were very teeny. That daddy longlegs changed my view on spiders; before then I would simply tolerate them in my apartments, but after that I started liking it when they showed up.

But my daddy longlegs are wispy and insubstantial, and Bourgeois' look like they could crush a Mini Cooper like I would crush a soda can, skewer it onto one of its pointy feet, flick it into the Hirshhorn fountain, and then skittle off down the Mall to climb the Capitol dome. Which led me to more pondering on the perfect. My brain frequently equates perfect with neat. Which means messed up stitches and blobby welds are not perfect, and need to be fixed. The spiders are all of metal, and the legs are made it of pieces of metal tube. If you step back a few feet, the irregularities in the construction make it appear as if they are rippling with muscles. If you go up close, all that metal is put together with really messy welds - big, blobby, uneven, and splattered. Step back again, and all that non-neatness, on top of the sinewy metal, gives the legs an bumpy organic texture which make it more interesting and alive than if it were a smooth surface. Not that it's more perfect or imperfect either way, it's that looking at this piece up close made me think of what I might be missing when I strive to make something perfect, according to my own system of values. It made me want to go be messy. And it reminded me that I really need to get out more to see Art.

Museum of Natural History - meh. The animal mummies are neat. I suppose the big attractions are the other animal displays (live, stuffed, and floating around decomposing in jars), but what was unexpectedly cool was the minerals and gem display. Not the ones fashioned into jewelry, except the Hope Diamond (more on that in a sec), but the ones in their natural state. It's Nature at its most punk rock, cabaret can can showgirl kicking up her legs and showing frilly underthings flamboyance with wacky shapes, wacky colors, and wackier molecular formulas (scapolite = (Na,Ca)4(Si,Al)12O24(Cl,Co3,So4). There will be a quiz tomorrow).

I couldn't get close enough to see any of jewelry gems, so I just skipped that room. I did make a point of checking out the Hope Diamond. I don't care for diamonds, They just look like bits of glass to me, and I don't particularly care for glass objects, either, although I enjoy watching it being blown and shaped. The diamond is a lovely shade of midnight blue, but more interesting than the diamond itself are nifty and confounding facts surrounding it. Such as:

- It was originally over twice as big as it is now. Why anyone, Louis XIV included, would cut it down isn't addressed. Isn't the point of owning a really big fancy diamond to own a really big fancy diamond?
- One of its 20th century owners, Evalyn Walsh McLean, would stash it in the sofa, and reputedly modeled it on her Great Dane, Mike. God I really hope both of those are true. But who names their dog Mike?
- It phosphoresces a red-orange after being exposed to ultraviolet light.
- When it was donated to the Smithsonian in 1958 by Harry Winston, it was mailed - mailed! - from New York to Washington. The postal insurance cost $145.29, which I'm sure was more than the cost of a round trip ticket. I guess people were a little more trusting in those days.

I still don't know what perfect it, but I think I'm not so obsessed with it anymore.

Monday, April 13, 2009

need more craft, fewer artifacts

Visiting DC started out as wanting to visit the Smithsonian, so without further ado I hoofed it down to the Mall to start my excursions. First stop:

Renwick Gallery. Home of American Art and, more of interest to me, Craft. It's gotta be in one of the smallest Smithsonian buildings, a house from 1861 that was DC's first art museum. The downstairs was devoted to an special exhibition of the architecture and decorative arts of Henry and Charles Greene, which is quite good - lots of furniture, right up my alley. Bits of the permanent collection are displayed upstairs, and the best in show is i am no one by Beth Cavener Stichter. holy moly. It's unsettling to look at, yet I couldn't stop. It's not Craft, at least not in the manner that I think of as Craft, but I've been mulling over whether or not it's Sculpture. I suppose technically it is, but it's not the first term that comes to mind when I look at it. I'm content to think of it as Art. Whatever it is, it's riveting. Tucked into one corner of the room, it made everything else in that space not matter. I took a bunch of photos, but will be violating some copyright law if I post them, so you'll need to go look at her website. The pictures there are better, anyway.

Museum of the American Indian = information overload number one. Stymied perhaps by my admittedly limited-to-high-school education of the Native American, I had some trouble grounding myself anywhere in the exhibit. Objects from 10,000 years of Native heritage in both North and South America, from all tribal affiliations, with descriptive and historical literature splashed everywhere, and multiple television screens broadcasting interviews and videos, over speakers gently pumping out Native recordings left me lost. And the layout of the exhibits follow curving walls that separate different points of interest, but also make it sort of hard to navigate with any sense of order. Maybe you're not supposed to. I think I spent almost three hours in there, which was a bit too long, although some of that was at lunch. It's actually sort of hard to find food on the Mall, unless you want a hot dog from a cart. All the buildings are hulking, federal institutions, and anything not one of those is at least one block away. I think this is actually a good thing, because the architectural presentation of these freaking huge buildings isn't interrupted by some food joint. Instead, lots of the museums have cafes, and the one here is the best, featuring foods from different Indian cultures. It's typically overpriced, but worth at least one meal. I might even go back for another some day. You grab a tray, browse what the various sections have to offer, and pick up what you want, cafeteria style. I got fry-bread with berry compote and a rather delicious veggie tamale. Sturdy vittles. Fortified, I went back to the exhibits, by which point things were making a little more sense, or else by then I had stopped caring about my fragmented viewing experience.

One of the current temporary exhibitions is Comic Art Indigène, which explores storytelling through comics and comic-inspired art, mostly focusing on contemporary art, but there are a few examples of ancient rock and ceramic art. I liked the women superheroes by skater chick Jolene Nenibah Yazzie, because women superheroes are always badass, and also because Jolene received early inspiration from Wonder Woman's long luxurious black hair. But, there are at least two glaring oversights in this exhibition; first, not a scribble from the Hernandez Brothers. How could an exhibit on comics + Native Americans not include Palomar? Second, an issue of The New Mutants is in the Stereotype Cavalcade (reflecting both good and bad stereotypes). I'm not sure if the curator thought Psyche/Dani Moonstar is a good or a bad stereotype, but what they really should have included is Bill Sienkiewicz's cover art for the Demon Bear run, because, damn, that's one amazing cover.

Other than the comics, the random object of interest was a pair of bull-roarers, and only because I made a bunch of these for a sound designer a couple of months ago. Before then they wouldn't have turned my head, because I didn't know what a bull-roarer was.

Museum of Air and Space = information overload number two. I sorta only went there because it was (a) right across the street from the Museum of the American Indian and (b) open late (seeing as it was past 5pm). I think I would have gotten more of a kick out of this if I had visited when I was twelve. Rockets, planes, capsules, astronaut fecal matter bags, missiles, stewardess uniforms, lumps of lunar rock, you name it, anything that can fly, anything that has flown in a manmade contraption, and anything related to flying is probably there in one form or another. Eyes glazed over by all the shiny surfaces, I found the more vintage displays more to my taste. In WWII, airmen were distinguished by their soft caps, which had to be that way to allow headsets to fit around their heads. Hats repeatedly jammed into bags and pockets would crumple them at an accelerated rate, allowing the wearer to appear more veteran than they perhaps really were. I'm not sure if this was to impressive senior officers or dames. I'm guessing dames. Those dashing white parachute silk scarves didn't do anything to hurt the cause, either. Plus they kept necks warm and prevented chafing otherwise caused by the constant swiveling of the head to scan for enemy fighters. Who woulda thunk that something so simple would be so multipurpose? I'm pretty sure those high tech fecal matter bags had only one purpose.

sometimes you just want a popsicle

First two days in DC were spent wandering around and burning off extra fat I've acquired from long hours of (paid) sloth behind a computer. Plus after spending a day on a plane, I wanted some fresh air. I'm staying in the U Street Corridor, and seeing as how I'm a big believer in seeing things other than the main tourist attractions, walked down 16th Street until I ran into the White House. It's a white house with a fence and nice green lawn - and lots of not-so-Secret Service hanging around outside in Secret Service Vans and wearing Secret Service wind-breakers (it was raining). There were a handful of lackluster protesters for various causes across the street, but overall there wasn't a whole lot going on, so I skirted around it and made the mistake of walking around to the front, which has a really narrow sidewalk in front, or maybe it just seems really narrow when full of tourists. After jamming my way through I made a beeline for the Tidal Basin, but the cherry blossom bomb had mostly fizzled by then. The rain was keeping the hordes away, but it and the wind had blown down most of the blossoms. A few were still hanging on, and the ground was an expanse of pink polka dots.

Moving back in time, I stopped at the memorial monuments to FDR, Jefferson, and Washington, by which time it had cleared up. I hung out for a rest at the base of the Washington monument, watching the illusion of the tower swaying against the sky. I couldn't look for too long. I don't like heights, and that goes both ways. Looking up at tall buildings makes my insides do funny things. Kind of like bits of me go off balance to compensate for the vertigo, but they all do it in different ways.
Heading down the Mall to the Capitol Building, I stopped at the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden. I'm not a huge fan of sculpture, especially modern, abstract sculpture - I just don't get it. If someone wants to explain it to me, I'll listen and try to understand. It's not so much that I don't like it - I just don't understand what makes it valuable as a piece of art, and I can't appreciate it as a connoisseur or art history major would. But I can appreciate publicly displayed art, no matter what the form, so the garden as a whole I found quite nice. I suppose the one cheesy sculpture, if you want to call it that, is Yoko Ono's Wishing Tree. Which is a live, very branchy little bush with scraps of paper skewered on the branches, upon which people have scrawled wishes. I read a few that were still hanging on, the others having blown off and littered the garden (it's okay, it's Art). Lots were sappy wishes for world peace, healthy children, prosperity, and happy, dull relationships, so I was pleased to find one utterly selfish wish, no doubt posted by some cranky kid.

Took a break on the steps of the Capitol, walked to the back (or the front? there's a statue representing freedom on top of the dome, and her back is to the Mall), circled around the Supreme Court and Library of Congress, by which point it was dark and most of the tourists had presumably staggered back to their hotels, exhausted by an excess of American history and bickering with one another (I like eavesdropping on the bickering). I rambled back home along Pennsylvania Avenue and up 13th or 14th, catching part of a fireworks show over the Potomac while standing on 7th Street. No idea what the occasion was, and I could only see the ones that shot over a building which was in the way, but it was still a good show. Stopped at a Whole Foods to pick up a dinner of crusty bread, nice cheese, an assortment of olives, and red grapes. I could happily eat some variation of that for dinner every day of the week. Vacation from work is also a vacation from cooking; I like to cook, but rarely want to spend the time it takes to make a meal. I prefer food to appear in front of me, ready to eat. And if that doesn't happen, something simple and delicious is the next best thing. By the time I got home it was after ten. I thought about doing some reading to plan the next day, but after eating, all I did was fall asleep.

Which meant Easter Sunday wasn't too well thought out. Sort of still on California time, I dragged myself out of bed past nine in the morning. Two steps out the bedroom and Gatsby flies over to my shoulder. I didn't really realize until now that birds make a lot of noise when flying. Gatsby approaching is heralded by a fluteyflutteringwhirry noise, and then you don't really feel him land because, well, he's as light as a little bird. It's more like you sense his presence. My host Antonia make me coffee - it's that appearing food thing I like so much!

I walked to the beaux arts Union Station down Massachusetts Avenue. DC is a very airy town. Lots of the buildings are low, the streets are quite wide, and the sidewalks are really roomy. And maybe because it was Sunday, and Easter to boot, there was almost no one around. For some reason I rather enjoy deserted neighborhoods full of imposing structures. After kicking up my heels in Union Station, I headed to the Eastern Market for a drastic change in scenery - large, institutional structures and ugly modern condos replaced by rowhouses. The neighborhood was equally attractive for exactly the opposite reasons. The Eastern Market was a bust - the Market itself burned a couple of years ago, and the temporary location was closed, maybe because it was Easter, and I wasn't interested in any of the other vendors, except the crepe cart, which was doing brisk business. The pretzel guy next at the stand next door must be seething in bitterness and large salt crystals all day. After a cursory wander about the neighborhood, I hopped the Metro to Smithsonian, and walked down the Reflecting Pool to the Lincoln Memorial. I didn't realize that a tribute concert to Marian Anderson's 1939 Lincoln Memorial concert was happening, and showed up just as Denyce Graves took the podium to belt out a few tunes. Talk about serendipitous timing. There was also a guy walking a ginger tabby on a leash, but my timing there wasn't so good - I missed the picture because I was fumbling with my camera.

After listening to Denyce, I toured the four war memorials in proximity to Lincoln - the Vietnam War Memorial, Women's Vietnam War Memorial, Korean War Memorial, and DC WWI Memorial. So, I don't know anyone who died in a war, either personally or via any degree of separation, and I hardly know anyone who has served in the armed forces. I don't have any personal connection to these events and monuments. I can only appreciate them as memorial to the event itself, and as a commentary on war in general. I didn't like the Korean War Memorial at all. I found it garish and ugly. War is garish and ugly, but I don't think that was the point. Maybe I'm just spoiled by all those Berninis and Michelangelos I saw in Italy, but I thought the sculptures were amateurish, and the whole thing just far too literal. Same goes for the Vietnam Women's Memorial, but on this day it was set off by the presence of several lilies bearing Happy Easter wishes to several women from one Doc Spresser. The Vietnam Memorial, on the other hand, while literal in quite another sense of the word, I liked. It's simple and elegant, quietly making a poignant statement, and is a lot smaller than I for some reason thought it would be. The DC WWI Memorial is a Doric temple buried in the trees, and almost no one goes there. Dedicated in 1931, the inscription refers only to The World War, since only one had happened by that point.

Today - it's time to hit the Smithsonian.