Monday, November 01, 2004

Five days in DC

Random thoughts on a fabulous family trip to the cradle of American history:

Getting there
Thanks the miracle of the Internet, my folks and I were able to book our flights to DC in separate cities and still manage to sit by each other on the plane. How cool is that? But first, we had to survive …

A woman whose name was only barely pronounceable was NOT going to let me go through security because my ticket was issued to a man named Jake and my driver’s license had my real name on it, which has one different letter and one added letter. Summoning information from her vast knowledge base of Anglo nomenclature, she INSISTED these were two separate names and that I couldn’t possibly be the Jake on my ticket, even going so far as to suggest that I’d found the ticket on the ground and—seizing the vast opportunities afforded by the lucky coincidence that it contained my exact first and last name with the exception of two letters—hatched a nefarious plot to break through security and wreak a level of havoc never before seen in the world of aviation. I told her that I fly twice a month—often on this very airline—and nobody’s ever said a thing about my name before. I showed her a wallet full of credit cards and other documents with both names on them. (She countered—in all seriousness—that I could have stolen that wallet. Will magical coincidences never cease?) TWO of her supervisors told her she was nuts. Undaunted, she held her ground—and I was singled out for a thorough search of my person and my belongings … which, I must point out, produced nothing to clarify the whole Jake issue. But somehow a pawing-through of my toiletries and my car keys satisfied her that I was, in fact, Jake. Because nothing confirms your identity faster than your preferred brand of travel shampoo.

The Washington Monument
It’s perhaps my favorite monument in D.C.—and, judging from the way the other monuments and statues all face it, I’m not alone. The views from its tiny windows are breathtaking, and the accomplishment of reaching the top to take in those views is profoundly satisfying.

It’s been closed to the public the last three times I’ve been in D.C. The last. three. times. The gods hate me.

The National Museum of the American Indian
This soaring, month-old structure occupies the last available plot of museum-size land on the perimeter of the Mall. And, from the outside, it adds a refreshing twist to the visual menu of Victorian, Greek Revival and Terribly, Terribly Modern architecture that populates the rest of the Smithsonian complex. But the museum itself offers nothing but endless disappointment. We explored two floors of the place and came away with nothing more than questions and negative comments. The exhibits paint Native American history and culture in broad, meaningless strokes: images of old women sewing together panels of wet whale flesh, displays of unlabeled arrowheads arranged in funky geometric patterns, movies showing guys in football jerseys riding horses … you get the (incomplete) picture. The technological elements of the museum are at times pretty spectacular, which is a sadly ironic way to celebrate—and not educate anyone about—the lives of a simple people who lived simply off the land for generations.

The Library of Congress
I have a new fascination with the Declaration of Independence—which I remember was always housed in the National Archives, but we were told it was on display in the Library of Congress, which I’d never visited. So we headed to the Library of Congress to see it. But it wasn’t there. It was in the National Archives, just like it had always been. We decided to explore the building anyway, and we were rewarded with a tour of the Great Hall, one of the most stunning interior spaces in the history of American architecture.

The National Archives
Warning: Show tune reference ahead! I’d recently seen the musical 1776, which tells the stories of the epic struggles and sacrifices involved in declaring our independence from the British almost 230 years ago. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin et al. literally risked their lives to write—and then sign—the Declaration of Independence, and I wanted to see it again with a clearer understanding of what they’d gone through to create it. Tragically, the ink on the document has faded to almost nothing. But as I stood before that humble but magnificently historic parchment, I openly wept—over the unfathomable bravery those men displayed in the simple act of signing their names, over the uncanny prescience they had in crafting a document that would endure and remain relevant for so long, and over Thomas Jefferson’s soaring language, which continues to stir the hearts of Americans generations upon generations after it was crafted.

Ford’s Theater
We spent our entire vacation under the watchful eyes of the gods of good timing, and our tour of Ford’s Theater was no exception; we arrived minutes before the final presentation of the day was to start, and we were rewarded with front-row seats to a fascinating monologue about the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Southern fury that transformed popular actor John Wilkes Booth into a cold-blooded murderer, and the events both epic and mundane that led to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. If you go, don’t miss the museum in the basement, which contains an exhaustive collection of sometimes gruesome artifacts from the murder.

The Lincoln Memorial
There is nothing like the view from the top of the steps of this venerable monument—especially at dusk. You can stare—with Lincoln himself looking right over your shoulder—out over the entire length of the Mall, past the Washington Monument to the majestic Capitol. Not even the most jaded, Bush-beleaguered American could sit there and not feel profound stirrings of history and patriotism.

The National World War II Memorial
This brand-new memorial has been criticized for being bland, lacking in educational content, and even misguidedly celebrating the austere architectural styles favored by Hitler and Mussolini. It is guilty of all three things, but it’s still a beautiful, moving and apt monument to everyone involved in the second world war. With its broad, people-friendly spaces, its magnificent fountains, and its majestic views of the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, it invites both congregation and contemplation. And while it offers very little in the way of education, it still helps you understand the separate battles fought on the Pacific and Atlantic fronts, and it helps you appreciate the supreme sacrifices made by the men and women who fought in the war.

The Korean War Memorial
See it at night. Be prepared to shiver.

The National Symphony Orchestra
Oh. My. Goodness. What a spectacular orchestra. What spectacular acoustics in the Kennedy Center—even in our nosebleed seats. And Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. It’s like a 20-minute orgasm.

Unfortunately, as I was packing in relative darkness for this trip, I found a dress shirt that decidedly did not go with my funky dress pants, which are a color that’s so hard to describe, I’ll just call them goldgrayblack. The shirt I packed, which was supposed to be black, turned out to be a rich midnight blue—the exact wrong shade no matter how hard I tried to rationalize the matchup in my head. Fortunately, the NSO attracts the cataracts-and-macular-degeneration crowd, so nobody noticed what a hideous excuse for a homosexual I was. I hope.

The Capitol Steps
Always funny. Always clever. Always up-to-the-minute topical. We celebrated Dad’s 65th birthday laughing our patriotic little butts off at skits and songs with names like “You’re so Vague,” “Duke of Oil” and “House of the Right-Wing Son.” Go here for info on tickets, tours and CDs.

The following are hereby considered acceptable grounds for being slapped repeatedly, locked in an overflowing porta-potty with a tribe of angry bees and/or sitting on the receiving end of a very messy execution: Wearing a T-shirt or sweatshirt bearing a stupid saying (e.g., “Age is a number, and mine is unlisted.”). Talking during a presentation on something Historically Important. Being involved as a participant or chaperone in a junior-high bus tour. Being in junior high school. Wearing shorts, sandals and pantyhose. Being a very sexy buzz-cut-coiffed participant in the Marine Corps Marathon and parading around with impossibly muscular legs sticking out of short running shorts and showing no sexual interest in me whatsoever.

Our secret little hideaway
For years (decades, even) my family has stayed at a completely overlooked but ridiculously convenient Holiday Inn just blocks away from the Capitol every time we’ve gone to DC. Well, guess what? It’s been discovered. And it’s undergone a fabulous transformation from frumpy 1970s housefrau to sleek 2004 sophisticate—with jacked-up prices to match. But it’s still amazingly close to everything, and it’s still a pretty good deal. Check it out on your next visit.

The National Cathedral
But Jake, you’re not religious. Why would you go to church when you were on an otherwise delightful vacation? Um, because it makes my mother happy. And because have you seen this place? It’s freakin’ amazing. If the grounds around the building don’t give you an inner peace, the soaring cathedral itself—with its radiant stained-glass windows and catacombs and statues and flying buttresses—is guaranteed to stir something in your soul. And the organ often achieves bone-rattling levels of gloriousness. We try to go to a service at the National Cathedral every time we’re in DC. You should too. Really.

The impending election
Just as I’d guessed, there was no real election hoo-ha in the DC area while we were there in the last few days of the campaign. But did you know that DC, not being a state, has no Senators and no Representatives … and therefore no Electoral College and NO voice in the election? It’s just one of the many, many reasons the Electoral College is a terrible, pointless, insulting, anachronistic load of crap—one of very few such anomalies in the otherwise thoughtful, historic and richly American legacy our Founding Fathers left us to enjoy centuries after the birth of our great nation.

So go out and vote. Educate yourselves on the candidates. Educate yourselves on the issues. Make your voice heard. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams didn’t risk their lives so you could sit on your butts and watch musicals all day.


onlineguy said...

Oops, sorry, we don't have a rep or a senatron, but we have 3 (count 'em) three whole votes in the Electoral College. We've been able to vote for president since the late '60's. Ain't democracy beeyutiful?

Thanks for mentioning our national shame. Even my colleagues were unaware that we pay federal taxes but have no voice in how they're spent. And I work in the DC suburbs.

-- Andy

iPhil said...

Your Cathedral is beautiful. The choral reportoire is doing well, continuing in the great Anglican musical tradition.

Now: imagine, if you will, the same building, with minor differences, in every reputable "city" in Britain (some smaller than most "towns"). And 900 years old.

Yeah. You heard me. For example, Durham - where I am now at Uni - has a Norman cathedral built in 40 years! It's virtually all still there, and there is some woodwork (in the choir) that remains from the 17th Century.

Now that's impressive!


P.S. I get to have organ lessons there as well. Yay!