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.

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