Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Washington Leftovers

On some days during our time in Washington, I would get up early and walk around by myself in the neighborhood around our hotel, which stands at the corner of 15th St. and Rhode Island Ave. I was among other walkers, joggers, bicyclists and dog-walkers and their dogs, and I passed shops, restaurants, the embassies of various nations, foundations, nonprofits, trade associations, churches, gardens and small parks. But more than any of those, restored row houses and mature trees gave the neighborhood its charm.

The still-blooming flowers helped, too, even this riot of past-prime sunflowers.

Just down the street from the hotel on 15th was Grace Reformed Church. While in Washington as vice president and president, Theodore Roosevelt was a member of this church, often walking to Sunday services from the White House, presumably in the company of barely necessary bodyguards, considering TR's big-stick personality. I passed by the church often, but never saw it open.

Neighborhood details, such as the green fire alarm boxes, were easier to access.

A sign on the box said, "Fire alarm boxes such as this one (originally painted red) were installed in the District after the Civil War. Telegraphs transmitted the box number (top) to a fire alarm center. This system was used until the 1970s, when the boxes were converted to a telephone system. By the 1990s, the callbox system had been replaced by the 911 system and was abandoned." As recently as that?

Not all statuary in Washington is of the memorial or monumental variety. This fellow exults across the street from Grace Reformed Church.

Still, some of our area's statuary was quite traditional, down to frequent visits by pigeons, which I saw atop the heads of Daniel Webster and Winfield Scott, both of whom have statues at Scott Circle. Also near the circle is this monument -- a highly aesthetic one, I thought, even if it honors an odd choice: Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), father of homeopathy.

I'll give Herr Dr. Hahnemann the benefit of the doubt, since standard medicine in his time was dodgy at best. "Like cures like" was probably as reasonable as most medical ideas of the time. In our time, there's no excuse for homeopathy. There might as well be an aesthetic memorial in Washington to Franz Joseph Gall for developing phrenology.

On one of my walks I discovered Trio, which is at the corner of 17th St. and Q St.

Make that re-discovered, because I'd eaten lunch there on May 8, 1982. There were few other eating options on that particular stretch of 17th at the time. I had veal, served by a waitress with intensely white hair. While not top-notch, the meal had satisfied me as greasy spoons often do.

In 2011, I recognized Trio instantly. The memory rushed back all at once. I hadn't remotely expected the place to still be there after almost 30 years, or even thought about looking for it before I chanced upon it again. The next day we all went there for breakfast, eating al fresco on a flawless summer morning. I had tasty French toast and felt a little of the old satisfaction return. As we were leaving, I spoke to the owner, a gentleman somewhat older than I am. His father, a Greek immigrant, had opened the restaurant in the early 1950s, and it had survived the decline of the neighborhood and later its gentrification -- no mean feat in either case.

"You know, I ate here almost 30 years ago," I told the proprietor.

"You ought to come back more often," he replied.

Early on, I also discovered an upmarket grocery store in our temporary neighborhood, part of a successful national chain. We foraged there a fair amount. One day as I was looking for a small container of milk at this store, standing there in front of a refrigerated case with one of the doors open, a face suddenly appeared in one of the gaps left by removed milk cartons. "You got everything you need, son?" said a man, visibly older than me. I was startled, but said I did. It was a retail experience unlike any other.

We often exited the Metro at Dupont Circle and walked back to the hotel from there. The area around the circle been gentrified. Or, as a native of the Washington area told me, it's "less stabby" than it used to be. But there still seem to be comedians roaming the area.

I like that post, but I don't think I was the first one. Note the building behind the post. It's the embassy of Iraq.

On the whole, the Metro proved reliable for getting around town, though I only speak as a tourist, not a long-time commuter. I'd forgotten the waffle-iron ceilings inside the stations and how often one changes at Metro Center, but it all came back to me. We noticed fairly quickly the high number of down escalators (and a few up ones) that weren't working -- broken due to deferred maintenance or off due to energy costs? Either way, it was annoying.

The voice of the people says so too. This was on a bench at I forget which station.

Dupont Circle's north entrance had the worst of the bum escalators -- 188 feet deep, with the down escalator not working. It's just a down escalator, right? What's the problem? Going down that many steps, especially steel-grooved escalator steps, was mesmerizing, and not in a good way. So we avoided that entrance for boarding the Metro from then on.

While walking around the Tidal Basin, the bottom of one of my shoes came loose. Not completely off -- but enough that I suddenly had a long rubber flap hanging from the bottom of the shoe, making walking a tricky business. Lilly lent me a hair band and I wrapped that around the shoe. It was a temporary fix. Every few hundred feet, the flap would come loose and I would have to re-wrap it. But I managed to see the Jefferson Memorial, the FDR Memorial and the line of cherry trees around the Tidal Basin in that condition. The next day I went to the posh retail nexus at Connecticut Ave. and L St. and found one of the street's non-posh retailers, Filene's Basement, where I scored some new and very comfortable shoes for $38.

Though famed for their brief flowering -- as they should be -- the Tidal Basin cherry trees are also remarkable in summer. The oldest ones are near the new MLK Memorial. Seldom have I seen such gnarled specimens in such profusion, almost blocking the path in places, hogging their patch of the ground tenaciously. It looks like the Park Service long ago planned for the time when these cherry patriarchs, a 1912 gift of the Japanese Empire to the United States, die off. In a lot of places I saw younger cherry trees planted a little further from the edge of the water.

The Reflecting Pool and much else besides between the World War II Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial is currently fenced off for renovation. The sun had already gone down by the time we headed toward the Lincoln Memorial, so the area beyond the those fences was dark and forbidding. But at one point I could see the outline of the District of Columbia World War Memorial off in the distance.

I stumbled across that memorial on a previous visit to Washington. Dedicated to the 499 residents of DC who died in World War I, it was forlorn and in bad shape when I saw it. But maybe someday it will be the national memorial for all the Americans who died in the Great War. The doughboys should have one. Go ahead, sign the petition.

Abner Doubleday is buried not far from Arlington House at Arlington National Cemetery. There's no mention of baseball on his stone, since that story was made up some years after his death. Elsewhere, we saw Audie Murphy. I told Lilly who he was.

As I've said before, pay attention to the famed of a cemetery, but don't ignore the obscure completely. While at the national cemetery, I took a look at some headstones at random. It's good for a moment's reflection, if you're in the right frame of mind. What was this soldier's story? I hope someone knows. He survived the war, but died young anyway.

We spent some time in Washington's Union Station, either buying things or eating things. It's a splendid beaux-arts structure by Daniel Burnham, mostly refashioned in our time to be a mall, though it's also Amtrak's main Washington terminal and connects with the Metro. Much history has passed through.

Because I'd read about them beforehand, I knew about the station's Roman soldiers. "The Main Hall... features a 96-foot high, barrel vault with a decorative, coffered plaster ceiling," notes the station's web site. "Standing around the ledge of the balcony is 36 figures of Roman legionnaires hollow cast in plaster with sand finish. The figures were originally cast as nudes, but railroad officials, fearing the public would be offended, ordered shields be strategically placed on each statue. The shields remain in place today."

Indeed they do.

Speaking of statues, there's a mess of them at the U.S. Capitol. We got in for the last tour of the day on a Saturday, which means we saw the crypt, the rotunda, the old House of Representatives chamber and a few other spots, but not the House or Senate chamber, which are closed on weekends. Getting in at all required a timed ticket, a pass through a metal detector and a bag inspection. Future generations will probably have to submit a DNA sample or undergo a retinal scan. I dimly recall passing through a metal detector and wandering around the U.S. Capitol on my own in 1982, as if it were a state capitol.

Among the National Statuary Hall Collection -- each state gets to place two, except Virginia, which gets an extra one for Washington -- I spied Ronald Reagan, Jack Swigert, Caesar Rodney, Kamehameha I, Dwight Eisenhower, Ephraim McDowell, Huey Long, Hannibal Hamlin, Samuel Adams, Gerald Ford, William Jennings Bryan, Po'pay, John Burke (of North Dakota), James Garfield, Andrew Jackson, Sam Houston, Washington and Jefferson. I looked in vain for Philo T. Farnsworth, since who wouldn't want to see him?

On a whim, I took a picture of Lilly at the foot of the John Burke statue. Now she's probably one of the few teenagers in America to have her photo taken with both Burkes, since I took one of her and Burke at the North Dakota Capitol in 2006. Looking at these pictures side-by-side, I see that they are the same statue.

In the Old House Chamber of the Capitol -- called Statuary Hall these days -- there are small plaques on the floor identifying the location of the desks of House members in the chamber (1807-57) who later became president: J.Q. Adams, Tyler, Polk, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, Lincoln and A. Johnson. I found a few of them and had the satisfaction of standing where Millard Fillmore occasionally sat.

It's likely the only memorial in Washington to the 13th President of the United States. Sign the Compromise of 1850 and send Perry to Japan, and that's all you get. Whatever its other seductions, high office doesn't guarantee immortal fame.


Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The National Sculpture Garden

I forgot to mention that the West Building of the National Gallery of Art now occupies the site formerly occupied by the Sixth Street Station (Pennsylvania Station) of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad, built in the 1870s and demolished in 1908. On July 2, 1881, President Garfield went to that station to leave town, since anyone with any sense leaves Washington during summer, but instead was shot by Charles J. Guiteau there.

While the station stood, a plaque marked the spot. As I knew from reading Assassination Vacation (Sarah Vowel, 2005), nothing marks the spot now. But near the U.S. Capitol, Garfield has a statue. I didn't see it this time around.

Across 7th St. from the West Building is the National Sculpture Garden, bounded by 7th St., Madison Dr., 9th St. and Constitution Ave. It's a part of the National Gallery of Art, and relatively new, opening only in 1999. At its heart is a large fountain. Not an ornate one -- you might expect a little sculpture at such a place -- but still a great place to sit and soak your feet. Dozens of people were doing that on the warm late afternoon we visited. We all did too.

The garden has 17 works installed in the landscaped area around the fountain. Below is probably the best known of them, "Typewriter Eraser: Scale X" by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen (1999), with an orange traffic cone for scale. I don't think I've seen a regular-sized one in years. A typewriter eraser, that is. I suppose that's part of the charm.

These are two views of the stainless steel and concrete "Graft," by Roxy Paine (2008-09).

Next is "Moondog," by Tony Smith, who died in 1980. The painted aluminum work was created posthumously in 1990, based on versions done in 1964 and 1970.

Finally, "Thinker on a Rock" by Barry Flanagan (1997).

The rest of the works can be seen at the National Gallery's web site, except that it needs to be updated, since "Graft" seems to have taken the place of a work called "Cluster of Four Cubes," which is still listed.

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Monday, August 29, 2011

The National Gallery of Art

The old copy editor within me is always looking for mistakes in news stories. CNN published an article this morning called "Luxury, horror lurk in Gadhafi family compound," the gist of which is the shocking (shocking, I say) revelation that families of tyrants tend to live in gaudy palaces and abuse whomever is handy whenever the urge strikes, which is often. Anyway, the vanguard of the current Libyan regime change reached one of these palaces, and CNN was there to film it. "We filmed them quixotically studying the labels of Cristal champagne and fine St. Emilion Bordeaux, apparently not realizing each bottle is worth hundreds of dollars," the author wrote, referring to rebels ransacking the palace.

Quixotically studying? In the manner of Don Quixote? Waving the bottles at windmills, maybe? I think "quizzically" is what the writer needed here. I won't be too hard on the writer, because I do this kind of thing often enough -- think of one word and then write a similar one that's completely at odds with the meaning I wanted. But I will be hard on CNN because it's supposed to have someone to catch that kind of mistake. Then again, I checked the same story a few minutes ago, and an editor had removed "quixotically" all together, so someone caught it.

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, isn't part of the Smithsonian. Yet it's housed in two large buildings on the National Mall and doesn't charge admission, so for tourist purposes, it might as well be. The museum also has a feature that many other large institutions of its kind should have more of: places to sit in the galleries with backs. Maybe it's a mark of my increasing age, or just that we walked a lot in DC and appreciated the National Gallery's seating more than backless benches, which seem more common in museums. Of course, the benches can be too comfortable. In one room I noticed a well-dressed middle-aged woman sitting on a bench, fast asleep. A few minutes later, a guard wandered in and gently woke her up.

Comfy benches or not, we didn't spend quite as much time at the National Gallery as we wanted (a persistent theme on this trip), but managed to take note of some noteworthy works, including items I remember seeing before, such as David's "The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries," and others I must missed before, such as "Ginevra de' Benci," which has the distinction of being the only Leonardo da Vinci painting in the Americas. No albino dwarfs in the service of Opus Dei attacked me while I was looking at the painting.

"Gallery of the Louvre" by Samuel F.B. Morse is also currently on loan to the National Gallery, and I spent a while looking that. Morse's backstory is just as interesting as the canvas. Not long ago I read "Henry, Morse and the Telegraph," a chapter in The Heroic Age of American Invention by L. Sprague de Camp (1961), which mentioned Morse's career as an artist, which was notable but not tremendously successful. So he made a career change. As an inventor, de Camp wrote, "Morse was not so much an outstanding inventor as a promoter of an invention and a manager of inventions." There's something to be said for that. It's Morse code, after all.

Done in the 1830s and newly restored, " 'Gallery of the Louvre' depicts masterpieces from the Louvre's collection that Morse 'reinstalled' in one of that museum's grandest galleries, the Salon Carré," says the museum web site. That is, he painted the salon like he wanted it to be, not like it was, and stacked it with paintings he admired.

It's an odd subject to modern eyes. Why paint a painting of paintings? But we're awash in instantly copied and transmitted images. They were not. Paintings of galleries weren't so unusual then, a time of greater scarcity of manmade images, and neither was the hanging of paintings floor-to-ceiling in a gallery, or for that matter, in private homes that could afford them. That was a detail that made me smile, the cluttered museum wall. We imagine that our way of doing things -- such as the spare, uncluttered formality of an art museum -- are timeless practices, but it isn't so.

Also temporarily on display at the museum, in its spacious West Building rotunda, is "The Capitoline Venus," on loan to the United States for the first time. I was glad to see her. She had her own guard, looking a little bored there in the rotunda because mostly people were wandering past the statue and not showing any interest, much less an urge to deface it.

For a statue 1,800-plus years old, the Venus in fine shape. Usually on display at the Capitoline Museums (Musei Capitalolini) in Rome, the work made me ponder certain questions, such as why the hell didn't I visit the Capitoline Museums? Just look at the "Gallery" section at the Wiki page. I've seen most of those works used to illustrate histories or other works about Antiquity, but not with my own eyes. I was right there in the Piazza del Campidoglio, surrounded by the Capitoline Museums, although that was during the evening and I guess they were closed. I did notice that the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius wasn't in piazza; air pollution had been eating at him, I think, and he had been taken inside the museums.

Just another reason to go back to Rome, though I suspect the clock might run out on me before I can make it. But if I do go back to the shores of the Mediterranean, maybe Leptis Magna will be easier to visit too, provided things have settled down in Libya. Mrs. Quarles, my Latin teacher in high school, told us of visiting the site in the days before Gadhafi came to power, and somewhere in my head ever since has been a synaptic-based index card reading LEPTIS MAGNA: GO THERE IF YOU CAN.

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Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Church and the Basilica

Two weeks ago we attended 10:30 a.m. services at St. John's Episcopal Church, which happens to be on Lafayette Square in Washington. It's an elegant church inside and out, originally designed in the 1810s by Benjamin Latrobe, Surveyor of the Public Buildings of the United States and the architect who oversaw the restoration of the U.S. Capitol after it burned, among many other projects.

It's also a church steeped in presidential history, counting a number of sitting presidents since James Madison as members. It's been customary since the time of Madison for each president, whatever his denomination, to visit at least once during his term. According to the National Park Service's "A National Registry of Historic Places Travel Itinerary," that even includes William Henry Harrison. Maybe he was heard to be blowing his nose and coughing more than usual during a service in March 1841. There was a presidential visit as recently as this July.

Pew 54 is called the "President's Pew." When the service was over, I went to look for it. Not only is it so marked with a small brass plaque, the kneeling cushions at Pew 54 and a good many other pews in front of it -- there are no built-in kneelers -- have the presidential seal as part of their design, along with the name of an individual president. I suppose they're all represented, from Madison to Obama.

On our last full day in Washington, we rode the Metro to the Catholic University of America and crossed the campus to reach the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. It was either there or the National Cathedral, and the basilica won out because we could reach it without the extra bus ride that reaching the cathedral would have entailed. So the National Cathedral remains a sight to see, should I ever return to Washington.

The basilica is enormous. That isn't really the measure of a church, but it's striking all the same, even if you've read about it beforehand. At about 76,400 square feet, the basilica is the largest Catholic church in the United States. A cursory look at Wiki's "List of Largest Church Buildings in the World" puts it at 21st in the world and third in the United States, after the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York and the National Cathedral, both of which are Episcopalian. Other sources say it's the 10th largest church in the world. Another way to describe it is about half the size of the interior space of St. Peter's in Rome.

Done in a blend of Byzantine and Romanesque styles, and without structural steel, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is also mind-bogglingly intricate, with dozens and dozens of chapels and side chapels and a few oratories on the main level and down in the crypt level too, many completed with funds from Catholic congregations around the world, such as Mary, Queen of Ireland; Our Lady of Guadalupe; Our Lady of Czestochowa; Our Lady of China; Our Lady of La Salettel; Our Lady of Siluva; Our Lady of La Vang; Our Lady of Bistrica; Our Lady of Lourdes; Our Mother of Africa, and more. Other chapels take their inspiration from the many and varied titles of Mary, such as Our Mother of Good Counsel, Mary Queen of Missions, Our Lady of Hope, Mother of Perpetual Help, Mary, Help of Christians, and more. All the various chapels are ornate, but so is pretty much every surface, nook and cranny of the basilica.

Vaulting overhead are large mosaics. Only one dome remains unfinished in this regard, and I understand plans are afoot to complete a design for it in some future decade. Among all the building's impressive mosaics, the most striking (fittingly) is the depiction of Jesus in north apse. According to the basilica, it measures 3,600 square feet and contains nearly 3 million tesserae. "Christ in Majesty has an apocalyptic nature," the basilica's web site says, "Jesus' strong youthful face and expression is consonant with the earliest images of Him in the Roman catacombs."

Even Roadside America has a take on this image, calling it "Mortal Combat [sic] Jesus." This is a good image of it -- better than on the basilica web site -- as well as a thoughtful blog posting. Jesus does have an unusually fearsome expression, at least to modern eyes, who are used to more placid views of the Savior. It reminded me of that bumper-sticker religious wisdom, "Jesus is coming, and boy is he pissed."

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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Arlington National Cemetery

I quote from the Arlington National Cemetery web site at some length because it's a flawless description of what we saw in the early afternoon of August 15, 2011, while standing on the balcony above the Tomb of the Unknowns, also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, though there's more than one set of remains there.

"An impeccably uniformed relief commander appears on the plaza to announce the Changing of the Guard," the site explains. "Soon the new sentinel leaves the Quarters and unlocks the bolt of his or her M-14 rifle to signal to the relief commander to start the ceremony. The relief commander walks out to the Tomb and salutes, then faces the spectators and asks them to stand and stay silent during the ceremony."

Everyone did so.

"The relief commander conducts a detailed white-glove inspection of the weapon, checking each part of the rifle once. Then, the relief commander and the relieving sentinel meet the retiring sentinel at the center of the matted path in front of the Tomb. All three salute the Unknowns who have been symbolically given the Medal of Honor.

"Then the relief commander orders the relieved sentinel, 'Pass on your orders.' The current sentinel commands, 'Post and orders, remain as directed.' The newly posted sentinel replies, 'Orders acknowledged,' and steps into position on the black mat. When the relief commander passes by, the new sentinel begins walking at a cadence of 90 steps per minute.

"The Tomb Guard marches 21 steps down the black mat behind the Tomb, turns, faces east for 21 seconds, turns and faces north for 21 seconds, then takes 21 steps down the mat and repeats the process. After the turn, the sentinel executes a sharp 'shoulder-arms' movement to place the weapon on the shoulder closest to the visitors to signify that the sentinel stands between the Tomb and any possible threat."

More on the impressive ceremony and guards is here. They guard the Tomb all the time, which made me wonder whether their duty is suspended during a major emergency -- such as Hurricane Irene, which is at the gates of Washington even now. Turns out there's a recent precedent, Hurricane Isabel in 2003. Snopes says that "a contingency plan had been established that if winds reached 120 mph the guards could retreat from their usual exposed-to-the-elements posts in the tomb plaza to take up positions in the trophy room, which is above the tomb plaza and has a clear view of the sepulcher. This plan was not put into effect."

I added the italics above. To show my amazement. Winds of 100 mph? No problem. 110? Still no problem. But you might want to consider coming in out of the wind at 120 mph.

I'd expected to come to Arlington alone, because cemetery tends to be off-putting for the rest of my family, but somehow I persuaded them how important this place is. It was a clear, hot day, so we decided to ride the tourmobile that makes three stops in the cemetery. First is at the Kennedy graves; then the cemetery's amphitheater, which includes the Tomb of the Unknowns; and then to Arlington House, also called the Custis-Lee Mansion. Since the tourmobiles come by each stop every 15 minutes or so, and you can board one when you please, we didn't have to hurry along at the stops. In fact, I insisted that we linger in some places.

The Kennedys still draw a crowd.

President Kennedy is there, of course, but so is Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and a son and daughter of theirs who did not live long, on either side of their parents. Not far away are Robert and Edward Kennedy.

In a section down the hill from the Kennedys are a number of Supreme Court justices. I spied Oliver Wendall Holmes Jr., Thurgood Marshall and William Rehnquist. I later found out that they are in Section 5, which also includes William O. Douglas, Potter Stewart, Warren Burger, William Brennan and Harry Blackmum. All together eight of the 12 members of the high court interred at the cemetery are in Section 5. Why it's popular among prominent jurists, I couldn't say.

The Kennedys have a nice view. Uphill is Arlington House, while downhill looks toward the Washington Monument on the other side of the Potomac.

There are a lot of fine vistas at Arlington National Cemetery, somber and beautifully landscaped at the same time, as the best cemeteries are.

After the seeing Changing of the Guard near the amphitheater, we made our deepest foray into the cemetery, and were well rewarded for our efforts. Among other things, we saw the mast from the USS Maine that's the centerpiece of a memorial to the sailors who died on her in 1898. The remains of 228 of the 266 men who died on the Maine are near the memorial. Remember the Maine, I say. Not as an example of Spanish perfidy, but because history isn't bunk.

From there we made our way to the Confederate Memorial, which isn't a legacy of the Civil War, but of sectional reconciliation in the early 1900s. It's an elaborate work by Moses Ezekiel, a prolific artist who had the distinction early in life of being the first Jewish cadet at Virginia Military Institute and a participant, as a VMI cadet, in the Battle of New Market (May 15, 1864). He's buried next to the memorial.

While at the Confederate Memorial, we witnessed a funeral procession go by on a nearby road. I could tell that the deceased had been in the Air Force. The band passed by, then his horse-drawn caisson.

Arlington House has a terrific view of Washington. In the midground is the tomb of Pierre Charles L'Enfant, designer of Washington DC, who died in 1825 but wasn't interred here until 1909. In the background, the Washington Monument again. It's visible from a lot of places, as I'm sure it was planned to be.

The mansion is undergoing restoration, but you can still walk through it. I spent some time talking with one of the docents about an exhibit in the mansion depicting the early 19th-century family relations of the Lees, Custises and Fitzhughes, and more generally the First Families of Virginia. It isn't something I know a lot about, except that I'm descended from a Taliaferro. Countless thousands of North Americans can probably say the same.

While my family cooled themselves at the cemetery's visitors center, I had one more place to see, near the main gate, before I left: the grave of William Howard Taft. President and Mrs. Taft have a tall stone in a shady spot, along with markers bearing their initials only.

Unlike at the Kennedy grave site, no one else was there but me. Until a family of Germans ambled up to look at the grave, that is.

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Friday, August 26, 2011

I've Been Around the World and in the Washington Zoo

Actually it's the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, as mentioned on the banner at the Connecticut Ave. entrance on the warm afternoon of August 16. The prospect of an earthquake and then a hurricane wasn't on anyone's mind, I can assure you.

We didn't spend quite as long as we wanted for various logistical reasons, but we did take a look at a number of large animals and some smaller ones, especially in the Small Mammal House -- naked mole rats, meerkats, golden lion tamarins, lemurs, etc. -- where we lingered because of air conditioning.

We also experienced the full force of the zoo's panda cottage industry. Panda marketing begins with this innocuous bronze.

Since the zoo charges no admission, I'll cut the Smithsonian a little slack regarding its eagerness to sell panda gewgaws and gimcracks. But only so much slack. A panda shack near the entrance to the panda exhibit offered some panda merchandise, such as these panda umbrellas.

Stranger still, the shack also sells a t-shirt with the Hello Kitty character wearing a panda suit. For saccharinity, that's like putting honey on sugar cubes. But the shack was small potatoes compared to the indoor Panda Store across Panda Plaza. Pretty much all your panda needs can be met there.

In case shopping for panda merch makes you hungry, and willing to pay $10 for a hot dog with fries, there's always the Panda Plaza Grill.

Finally, the zoo is home to a couple of actual pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian. Unlike the late Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling, which I believe played ping-pong (well, maybe not) and were given to the United States by the People's Republic of China in the early '70s, the current pandas are only borrowed from China under an agreement that runs until 2015, unless it's renewed.

As leisurely as a panda's life might seem, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian have to breed or risk being returned. "If... either panda is found unsuitable for breeding, the two institutions will discuss the possibility of exchanging them with breeding pandas from China," the zoo's web site says. So the bears need to get it on. Again. They had a cub about five years ago that was sent to China last year to do stud duty for the pandas there, in as much as that's possible,

The National Zoo pandas were visible during our visit in separate indoor spaces. They were doing what I understand pandas do most of the time, eating bamboo. None of our pics turned out even remotely well, so I'm not going publish them and pretend they're Hipstamatic. But the bears looked well. A lot better than the dirty, flea-bitten pandas we saw at the Beijing Zoo.

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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Grazing at the Smithsonian

I seem to remember reading, or hearing, years ago that if you spent 10 seconds looking at each item the Smithsonian has in its collection, to the exclusion of doing anything else, you still couldn't see everything in a normal lifetime. Of course, that mass of holdings probably includes warehouses of specimen boxes collected during long-ago decades that no one has looked at since they were hastily cataloged -- after all, who would want a long look at 100,000 kinds of beetles?

Still, even the items on display stagger the imagination. How come there's so much stuff in the world? Do philosophies either ancient or modern deal with this important question? Well, maybe. In any case, the Smithsonian seems to have a sizable fraction of all that stuff.

That was a long-winded way of saying that despite the hours we devoted to the Smithsonian last week, I came away with the feeling that we'd only grazed on a negligible sample. The fact that we were roaming the Smithsonian halls with children added to that feeling. It's good to take your children to such places, but you can't to expect them to appreciate much of it in quite the way you do. They will weave what they see into their own selves according to their own lights. They will also pull you onward through the exhibits whether you're ready or not to quit examining those rare beetles.

"Lilly, look at this," I said. There in front of me at the National Museum of Natural History was some rai money from Yap -- the enormous stone doughnuts from that island that prove that just about anything can be a store of value. "It's stone money from Yap. Yap's a little island in the Pacific. They used to use these big stones as money."

Uh-huh, she replied. But I have to be fair about this. I'm not certain that a rai would have impressed me much in the summer of 1974. I would have gone looking for the collection of gold and silver coins. It helps to have heard about stone money occasionally over the years, to know someone who's actually been to Yap and sent you a postcard with a rai on it, and to have read about them -- including an article that told me that even though one such stone had fallen into the ocean near Yap, it still counted among the wealth of the owner, because everyone else still accepted it as a store of value (note to Ron Paul: that's how all money works, even gold).

Anyway, I'd never seen a rai before. I was impressed. Nearby was a smallish moai from Easter Island. I'd never seen one of those in person either, unless I saw the one at the British Museum and had forgotten about it. That's another thing about stuff. A lot of it gets lost in the tangled byways of memory.

The Hope Diamond is also at Natural History. Yuriko was keen to see that. Apparently it's famed among the Japanese for having passed through the hands of Marie Antoinette and maybe being cursed, though I suspect that Pierre Cartier made up the curse for marketing purposes. Whatever the truth of that, it was a lovely stone and surrounded by admirers the day we visited. We stuck around to see other gems as well, including the world's largest flawless quartz sphere (242,323 carats). Marie Antoinette could not have worn that.

Years ago I made the mistake of visiting the National Air and Space Museum on the day after Thanksgiving. The crowds were enormous and completely distracting. This time around we went on a Friday, and the crowding was significant but tolerable. Exciting things have been added in 20 years! (I told my family). Old friends are there, of course, such as the Wright Bros. plane, The Spirit of St. Louis, Friendship 7, the Apollo 11 CM Columbia, and a spare LM that never went on a one-way lunar mission.

But look! An SS-20 Soviet missile. Next to a Pershing II. Those couldn't have been there in the 1980s, since in those days they were probably fueled up and awaiting orders to destroy the world. There's also SpaceShipOne, the gondola of the first nonstop balloon flight around the world (Breitling Orbiter 3), and a lot of other machines of exploration.

I can see why the place is always so crowded. The collection is beyond cool. And while the rest of my family might not have been quite as impressed as I was, I'm sure they took something important away from the experience.

At the National Museum of American History I got to see another old favorite. One of my favorite presidential statues anywhere, in fact.

Yes, it's the 12-ton, 1841 Horatio Greenough marble of George Washington in Classical garb, offering his sword -- his military power -- to the people after his victory, as Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus did. People find the statue strange, but they haven't read their Livy. Actually, it's still a little strange. All the more reason to like it.

Elsewhere in the museum is a presidential history display, so I had to see that. Ann was much impressed, maybe even more than me, by the top hat Abraham Lincoln wore to Ford's Theater. The exhibit had a lot else besides, such as Lincoln's rifle (not something you picture him carrying around, but he surely did at times), a trout fly that belonged to Grover Cleveland, a bowling pin from the Truman White House bowling alley, part of Eisenhower's coin collection, Bill Clinton's sax ("on loan," the sign said) and much more. None of these things are elegant enough to be on display at the White House, but they are just as presidential as the paintings and marbles there.

Another intriguing object at American History, a floor below the toga'd Washington, is the Vassar Telescope, a fine example of the 19th-century telescope-maker's art. It could also be a feminist icon, for any feminists who concern themselves with the history of science. "On view is the telescope used by Maria Mitchell (1818-1889), the first professional woman astronomer in the United States," says the museum's web site. "She gained recognition in scientific circles through establishing the orbit of a new comet in 1847. The following year, she became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and from 1865 to 1888 she served as professor of astronomy at Vassar Female College." More about her and the telescope is here.

We left American History to find lunch -- the Smithsonian cafeterias always looked crowded and expensive -- but before going I made sure everyone saw the Star-Spangled Banner. "Why is this flag so important?" Yuriko asked. A fair question. Because it's the Star-Spangled Banner, that's why. That wasn't quite a satisfactory answer, not if you didn't grow up hearing "that our flag was still there." But she has heard the National Anthem, and I told her that Francis Scott Key wasn't writing about flags in the abstract or in some poetic sense, but about this flag right here.

The flag is no longer hanging on a wall behind glass. I think it was the last time I saw it. I know that since 2008, it's been behind a new glass wall, dimly but visibly lit, at a slight angle. No rocket's red glare, but it is a luminous presentation.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The White House

On May 7, 1982, I saw the White House in person for the first time. But only from the outside, since I also saw a long, long line to get in for a tour, and decided to put off seeing the inside for another time. That other time turned out to be August 17, 2011.

Tourists no longer queue up for White House tours outside the property. These days, citizens query their representative in the U.S. House well in advance for a time to get in. This we did about six weeks ago, by e-mail. I will give my Congressman, or at least his staff, credit for getting us into the White House last week, even though as a member of Congress, I consider him a bonehead -- one of those who was fully prepared recently to see the United States of America default on its debt, and who in fact voted for that outcome.

Never mind. To enter the White House, you arrive a little before the appointed time (11 a.m. for us) at the Southeast Gate at Alexander Hamilton Pl. and East Executive Ave., which sound like streets, but have long been closed to public traffic. First a Secret Service agent makes sure you're on the list, and that the name on the list exactly matches your identification. Then you proceed to a room with metal detectors and another Secret Service agent who eyes your ID once again. After that, you're in.

A long list of items are verboten. These include cameras and video recorders; handbags, book bags, backpacks, and purses; food and beverages, tobacco of any kind; "personal grooming items," such as makeup and lotion; strollers; "any pointed objects" (I took that to mean pens, too); aerosol containers; and "guns, ammunition, fireworks, electric stun guns, mace, martial arts weapons/devices, or knives of any size." It's remarkable that the White House would feel the need to specify those last items, since any fool ought to know that trying to carry a weapon into the executive mansion would, at the very least and if you're very lucky, mean a long spell of detention for questioning by the Secret Service.

It isn't a guided tour. Once you enter, you can move along at your own pace, and look at whatever you want to within the carefully circumscribed path through the building. Secret Service agents occupy each of the rooms along the way, presumably to watch for mischief, but also to answer questions about the room. After listening to most of the agents talk, and asking a few questions myself, I got the impression that some of them considered this an excellent assignment ("l love the history of this place," one of them said), while others were grudgingly following their orders, but really considered this talking to tourists business beneath the dignity of a Secret Service agent.

One of the agents told me something I knew was wrong. Benjamin Harrison added electric lights to the property in 1891, and TR fully electrified it during the major renovations of the early 1900s. I asked the agent when gas light had been brought to the White House, and he told me that before electricity, only candles had been used. This is nonsense. Later I looked it up, and it turns out Washington Gas added gas lights to the White House in 1848, during the Polk administration. But I didn't call him on his mistake. I might have been wrestled to the ground for my trouble.

The tourist path through the White House begins on the ground floor at the East Wing and then proceeds through the East Colonnade -- a good many interesting photos of presidents doing things at the White House are displayed there -- to the executive residence proper, where visitors get glimpses of the Vermeil Room, the China Room, and the Library, which house vermeil tableware, china and books, respectively.

Then the path goes upstairs to the "State Floor," into the spacious East Room, the largest room in the White House, and currently undergoing a little repair work. Displayed there is the only artifact at the White House from before the 1814 fire, the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington famously saved by Dolley Madison. From there you go through famed rooms of various colors: Green, Blue and Red. The State Dining Room is near the end of the path, after which you go downstairs again and out through the Entrance Hall, but not before passing the White House's Steinway, an ornate gift from that company in 1938 that's often in the East Room, but not at the moment. I asked the agent standing near the piano whether Truman had ever played it, and he said maybe, but it was impossible to know for sure. Later I read that he and Margaret preferred Baldwins, but that doesn't exclude presidential noodling on the Steinway.

I could go on about each and every room I saw -- the presidential portraits, the other artwork, the furnishings, the historic events associated with the various rooms -- but the details are easily available elsewhere. Enough to say the place was poshly gorgeous and a focus of American history. It was a highlight of the trip.

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A New Generation of DC Memorials

Washington DC felt an earthquake today and we missed it? A shaking but non-deadly sort of earthquake? Dang. I would have like to have been there for that.

Ah, well. One reason to visit DC, for me anyway, was to see its "new" memorials, though some of them aren't that new anymore, since it's been more than 16 years since my last visit. Still, a lot has happened in those recent years, such as the transformation of the Rainbow Pool -- I don't remember that name, but I do remember walking past it, there between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial -- into the National World War II Memorial, dedicated in 2004.

I'm not lacking in admiration for the critical part the United States played in defeating fascism, nor for the men and women who fought for that purpose, but I wasn't all together taken with the memorial. It's a pleasant plaza with a fine water feature, but the ring of columns seemed a little odd. They number 56, each with a 1945 U.S. state or territory name inscribed on it. Could be that's supposed to evoke the idea that soldiers from every part of the nation fought, but why is that fact so overwhelmingly emphasized? Seldom has the United States been so united as during World War II. The war required, and got, the blood and treasure of one nation, not a loose collective of 56 entities.

Maybe I was underwhelmed because I'd seen a different World War II memorial recently that I liked very much, namely the one at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield, Ill. Compared to the memorial in Washington, the Springfield one is simple, but it still conveys the worldwide scope of the war by naming the major battles in which Americans participated and pinpointing them on a globe. The Illinois memorial encapsulates the geography of the war and places American fighting men where they fought, thus managing to be a testament to the individual men as well as the Herculean effort of the entire U.S. armed forces and the nation that sent them to such far-flung locations.

Still, the National World War II Memorial was worth a visit. Among all its various elements, I was struck most by a wall marked by thousands of gold stars -- 4,048, I later learned -- with each star representing 100 Americans who died in the war, or more than 400,000 out of a population of about 132 million (using the 1940 Census). The equivalent proportion of the current U.S. population (2010 Census) would be more than 930,000 war dead.

We entered the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial from the fourth "room" end, at what might be considered the end of the memorial. It took me a while to figure that out, but once I did, I began to like the work. Rather than concentrate the memorial in one structure, designer Lawrence Halprin, a landscape architect who died about two years ago, made the memorial an outdoor, horizontal array of stones, waterfalls and other features. It's roughly organized into four "rooms," each corresponding to one of FDR's terms in office, and each with a broadly appropriate theme, such as the president's death in the fourth "room" (since he really didn't get much of a fourth term) and the New Deal vs. the continuing misery of the Depression during his second term.

One of the sculptures in the second "room" in particular caught my attention, "The Breadline" by George Segal.

Behind the bread-line men in this image is "Rural Couple" by the same artist, which is a grim portrait of rural poverty of the time. Nearby is "The Fireside Chat," also a work by George Segal, which depicts a fellow clearly listening to his radio, supposedly to a Fireside Chat. But I thought, how do we know he really isn't listening to Amos 'n' Andy?

The third "room" includes a nine-foot statue of FDR by Neil Estern. Note that countless visitors have, since the memorial's opening in 1997, worn the president's index finger shiny. We did our little part to keep it shiny.

Next to FDR is Fala. I was glad to see he hasn't been forgotten, and very likely he's the only presidential dog represented at a presidential memorial (though a stuffed Liberty might be at the Ford Museum; I forget). Looks like people have been petting the bronze Fala.

Eleanor Roosevelt has her own bronze in the fourth "room," complete with symbols of her association with the United Nations. Nowhere in the memorial itself is there a statue of FDR in a visible wheelchair, though one was added near the entrance in 2001 after money was privately raised for that purpose. I was a little disappointed that I saw no bronzed depiction of Mr. Roosevelt holding a smoke in a long, aristocratic cigarette holder. He was careful not to be photographed in his wheelchair, but had no qualms about holding a cig for all the world to see. Time flies, things change.

A discussion of the various "rooms" is here. At the memorial's web site, the National Park Service answers the question, "What's with all the water?" in a FAQ section. "Water was an important aspect of President Roosevelt's life," it says. "As a young man growing up along New York State's Hudson River, he enjoyed swimming and sailing. During the First World War, he served as Assistant Secretary of the United States Navy. Following his polio diagnosis, he established the Warm Springs Institute in Georgia to help rehabilitate others combating the same disease. As president, FDR pushed for the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority and supported other water power projects. So this theme was incorporated into his memorial."

On the north edge of the Tidal Basin is the site of the spanking-new Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. Draw a line from the Lincoln Memorial to the Jefferson Memorial and MLK is right on that line, about halfway between them. When we walked by last week, a fence still blocked access to the almost-complete memorial, so we couldn't get a really good look at it. We missed its opening by a few days. In fact, I read that the memorial opened to the public just yesterday, with the dedication slated for Sunday, the 48th anniversary of the "I Have a Dream" speech.

I was able to capture an image through the fence: A Determined MLK Jr. and an Orange Traffic Cone. I expect the cones have all been removed by now.

Two women were looking through the fence at the same time we were, talking about coming back for the dedication. They might be among the half-million or so who do. "He's got some prime real estate," one of the women said. Yes, indeed.

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Monday, August 22, 2011

Here a Memorial, There a Memorial

The best map of Washington DC that I found during our trip -- unfortunately late in the game, on the second-to-last day -- was a federal government folding map called "Seeing the Nation's Capital." It's a National Park Service publication (GPO: 2011 365-615/80616) with distinctive black borders, a detailed map of central Washington on one side and some historic notes on the other. I enjoy just looking at it. Besides streets, railroad lines and bodies of water, the map features government buildings of all kinds, including the Smithsonian museums, greenspace and parks, easy-to-read street names, Metro stops in their precise locations, and of course memorials.

Washington is lousy with memorials. It's also one of the few places in this country where memorials get their due. Or at least the major ones do in the peak summer tourist season, though I recall a fair amount of tourist interest even during previous visits in November.

The ride to the top of the Washington Monument is so popular in the summertime that early in the morning the Park Service runs out of the free tickets it allots for each day. We stood at the base of the monument in the gathering dusk last week -- a literal and figurative golden time to do so -- and admired the 555-plus-foot obelisk, the tallest stone structure on Earth, but couldn't get in. A lot of other people were doing the same.

"Can I touch it?" Lilly asked when we arrived at the base of the monument. "Of course you can," I said.

Lilly thought of and executed that gag shot. I'm reminded of a photo I saw recently of three or four people posing for photos to look like they're holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, except that the photographer caught them at a completely different angle, so it looked like they were simply holding out their arms at random.

After dark, the Lincoln Memorial glows with soft light from the interior spilling out past the columns. Daniel Chester French's giant Lincoln looks down from his chair, as he always does. People look up at him. More people course up and down the steps. Even more people sit on the steps or wander around the front of the memorial. Under the main level of the memorial is a lower-level museum. A lot of people were there as well. I suppose the crowds thin out during the wee-est of the wee hours, but how many other memorials anywhere attract visitors well past the dinner hour?

Here's the crowd at the foot of Lincoln. It's a blurry image, but the best one I took. So let's call it my Hipstamatic shot of the Lincoln Memorial crowd, even though I don't have that app -- that way the picture's technical shortcomings are really just part of its retro charm.

Around the banks of the Tidal Basin, the most visible structure is the Jefferson Memorial. I walked up to it in the summer of 2011 trying to remember whether I had, in fact, visited before. You'd think I'd remember something like that, but no. It wasn't as crowded as any of the memorials on the National Mall, but still hosted a healthy contingent of sightseers, seen here admiring the central bronze statue of Jefferson, towering figure of the Enlightenment, or reading his words inscribed on the walls.

The 19-foot figure of Jefferson, I was interested to learn, wasn't present at the memorial's dedication on April 13, 1943, the bicentennial of his birth. It weighs about five tons, and not even a project so strongly supported by President Roosevelt could get that much bronze in the face of wartime restrictions. The statue, by Rudulph Evans, was finally installed in 1947.

John Russell Pope, who designed the memorial, apparently took inspiration from the Pantheon and, appropriately, the Jefferson-designed Rotunda at the University of Virginia and maybe Monticello too. Some sources (besides Wiki) note that when the memorial was new, its neoclassical design wasn't popular among critics besotted with modernism, but I shutter to imagine some modernist excrescence on the site instead.

I liked the fact that the Jefferson Memorial is open on all sides, which allowed a cooling breeze to waft in. The Lincoln Memorial, open only on one side, had no such amenity, and in fact felt extra stuffy during our summer-night visit, probably because of all the bodies generating heat.

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Sunday, August 21, 2011

DC '11

I pulled up the online Rand McNally mileage calculator the other day and entered our address here in the northwest suburbs of Chicago and an address on Rhode Island Ave. NW in Washington DC to see just how far it is between those points. The result: 732.2 miles or "12 hrs 08 min." Rand McNally doesn't explain its methodology that I can see, but I'll take the answer as close enough to correct.

That's a driving result, presumably the time if you don't made any wrong turns or hit a traffic jam or get distracted by a tourist trap. Maybe you also need to drive nonstop like a diapered astronaut mad with jealousy. We traveled from our house in metro Chicago to a hotel on Rhode Island Ave. in Washington on Friday, August 12, and made the return trip on Friday, August 19, but we didn't drive. Instead we flew, the first time we've all flown together as a family in about six years.

The trip had one focus: Washington DC. Since we didn't have a car, that focused things even more. We went everywhere either on foot or by Metro, the DC-area subway system. Given a week, a Metro pass and some good walking shoes, you can cover a fair amount of ground, even if it's hot and sticky, as it was -- there's a reason Congress always recesses in August.

The trip encompassed places so iconic that it's a little strange to be in their physical presence, such as the White House, the U.S. Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial. Everywhere you turn in DC, lesser memorials pop up too, and we chanced on some of these -- what's a memorial to Samuel Hahnemann, father of homeopathy, doing near Scott Circle in the company of Winfield Scott and Daniel Webster? -- while others remained intriguing spots on maps.

We also wandered through a number of the Smithsonian's enormous museums and one of its smaller ones. One day I persuaded the rest of my family to come with me to Arlington National Cemetery, despite their usual aversion to visiting graveyards, and they didn't regret it. But they declined to walk through the heat with me to the lonely grave of President and Chief Justice William Howard Taft, preferring to rest at the cemetery's air-conditioned visitors center.

Our hotel, a comfortable Holiday Inn at the intersection of Rhode Island Ave. and 15th St., was a little too far from the nearest Metro stations to be ideal for our kind of non-car tourism. Still, the place had a rooftop pool to jump into on warm afternoons after long walks. It also had proximity to a lively, gentrified neighborhood sporting shady sidewalks and restored row houses, and including a grocery store that provided us with the raw material for a number of meals around the small table that hotel rooms always provide. Not far away stood a restaurant that I re-discovered nearly three decades after my last visit there, and which provided us with two memorable breakfasts.

It wasn't my first visit to Washington by a long shot, but for everyone else in my family, it was. Still, the last time I came to town was so long ago that the tiff between President Clinton and Speaker Gingrich had shut down the federal government just before I arrived. After such a long span, any place as interesting as DC is a fresh destination again. I did my best to revisit the place by putting one foot in front of the other.


Monday, August 08, 2011

Dog Day Songs

Time to knock off posting for a while. The Dog Days are here, after all. I'll pick it up again around August 21 -- probably still doggish, but much closer to the top of the long slide down into ice and snow.

Sirius is high, so we get Dog Days. Or so goes the learned explanation. But there's some charm in thinking that this is time when dogs lie around even more than they usually do, because the weather's so steamy hot. Not that we can see the Dog Star at the moment, so cloudy has it been lately. But I know it's there.

Here's a version of "Summertime" you don't hear much any more. But fitting for the weeks when Sirius is riding high.

Link for Facebook readers.

And what would summertime be with the Flying Lizards' cover of "Summertime Blues"? Pretty much the same, since the song's an acquired taste, and if you haven't acquired it by now, it's probably too late.

Link for Facebook readers.

Finally, what would we do without the Internet? How would we learn about lightweight one-hit British pop songs of previous generations, such as the borderline novelty "Luton Airport"?

Link for Facebook readers.

Best not to think too much about the song. But talk about peculiar. She was in Majorca for what, two weeks of vigorously shagging the bloke? And he didn't mention once that he was an airline pilot?

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Sunday, August 07, 2011

Item From the Past: Schwarzwald Saturday Morning

August 6, 1983, Freiburg.

After Frühstück Rich & I hit the trail and soon made our way into the Black Forest, which is dark indeed. Tall pines and firs lord over the paths, cutting off the light below, especially in the small hollows. We didn't see many other walkers out on the winding trails, something of a surprise on a Saturday morning. We did see a number of strange, shell-less snails with orange skin on the trail. If they hadn't been so orange, we might have stepped on some of them.

At one point, the trail wound up to the crest of a hill. It was a rare bit of open space. One of the slopes took the shape of half a bowl, and all of its large trees had been removed -- except for a stand of ancient pines at the base of the hill. Dotting the rest of the hillside were much younger, much smaller pines. It was a Greek theater with an audience of young pines watching their elders perform a very, very slow play. Beyond the pine-theater, the rest of the vista was terrific. We could see Freiburg nestled in its valley and the array of Schwarzwald hills behind the town, far in the distance.

We arrived back in town, hungry, in early afternoon. It was a Long Saturday, so the Stadtmitte was full of people. We each ate an enormous salad and bought food for tomorrow at "Schwarzwald City," a tiny, glittering shopping center. We ambled around after that, full of greens. Remarkable how much a salad can fill you up. Spent some time watching street musicians preform and rail against U.S. involvement in Nicaragua. They claimed -- in German and English -- that the money they were collecting in a hat was "in protest" of that involvement. Uh-huh.

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Thursday, August 04, 2011

The Fleas of a Thousand Camels

I had a lot to do today. So naturally I spent some time watching clips of Carnac the Magnificent on YouTube. There seem to be a lot of them posted. As brilliant as Johnny Carson was, the humor is aging fast, and not just because most of the jokes were topical. The tone of the humor is also aging. So it goes.

I'm reminded of a visual gag from a long-lost era that hung in my grandmother's bathroom, which I always saw when I visited her before her death in 1971. It was a small wooden box with a glass window. Attached to the box by a small chain was a small hammer. Behind the glass was a small corn cob. The lettering on the box said, IN CASE OF EMERGENCY BREAK GLASS.

I also spent a minute or two wondering whether the Smithsonian has possession of the Carnac costume, or at least the headgear. A simple Google search didn't answer that question, so I'm going to leave it alone. But the institution should have it.

It was a treat when Carson did Carnac. The prospect of it always kept me watching the show a little longer. The sketch might have been the first time I ever heard of Funk & Wagnell's, since we didn't have that brand of dictionary around the house that I knew of, and it was already old-timey even in the 1970s. But maybe I heard of it on Laugh-In before that. ("Go look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls.")

Ed McMahon's introductory shtick is easy enough to find.

I hold in my hand these envelopes. As a child of four can plainly see, these envelopes have been hermetically sealed. They've been kept in a #2 mayonnaise jar on Funk & Wagnell's porch since noon today. No one knows the contents of these envelopes, but you, in your mystical and borderline divine way, will ascertain the answers to these questions having never seen them before.

I also spent time reading an interview with Marshall Brickman about writing for The Tonight Show.

Brickman: One of the things that I’ll go to my grave having to apologize for is having invented the Carnac Saver.

Interviewer: Which was what?

Brickman: Every time Johnny’s character Carnac the Magnificent told a joke that bombed, he would have a line that would save him. Like a “heckler-stopper.” And we would give Johnny a page of these jokes: “May the Great Camel of Giza leave you a present in your undershorts.” I can’t believe we were paid for this.

It's been almost exactly 30 years to the day since the Siss-Boom-Baa gag by Carnac the Magnificent. That's got to be a pop culture milestone of some kind, along with a better-publicized 30th anniversary this week.


Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Popeye Goes to War

I found Popeye the Sailor 1941-1943 at the library not long ago and I had to take a look at that. It's the third volume of the Warner Home Video release of Popeye cartoons made from 1933 to 1943. It includes two disks and 32 cartoons. I didn't have time to see them all in one week, so for my own viewing I picked those that sounded the most interesting (or strangest).

The collection is interesting for a number of reasons. For one thing, it covers the transition from Fleischer Studios to Famous Studios. It also features the last of the black-and-white Popeye cartoons. And of course many of them are World War II cartoons, some of which are every bit as racist as you'd expect when depicting the Japanese. More on these matters can be found in this detailed Wiki article on the collection.

I thought Bluto had the best line among the ones that I saw. In "Seein' Red, White and Blue," he receives a letter that turns out to be from his local draft board, but before he opens it, he looks at it and asks himself, "Who do I know that can write?" It's also an unusual cartoon in that Popeye and Bluto, in the end, team up against a common enemy -- Japanese spies disguised as orphaned babies (don't ask). At one point Popeye actually feeds Bluto some spinach so that he can help Popeye vanquish those minions of Hirohito. I don't think I've ever seen Bluto access spinach the way Popeye does. You'd think he would have tried that some other time.

Much more information about these particular cartoons is at the last three subpages at this web site, "Popeye in Black and White: The Fleischer and Famous Studio Cartoons." The writer(s) obviously had more time to think about Popeye than I do. But they're well-written reviews. I like this description of one of the worst cartoons I saw in this particular collection, the God-awful "Spinach Fer Britain."

"There is a curious lack of detail in 'Spinach Fer Britain,' a short in which a Nazi submarine attempts to keep Popeye from delivering his boatload of spinach to No. 10 Downing Street," the site says. "For a series that always prided itself on distinctive backgrounds and painstakingly detailed textures, 'Spinach Fer Britain' often resembles one of the careless and shoddy Popeye television cartoons from the 1960s. There is not a single label on any of the cans of spinach in Popeye's rowboat, the clouds are just blobs in the background, and half the time, Popeye doesn't even look like Popeye but rather like the third runner-up in a Draw Popeye Contest for six-year-olds."


Tuesday, August 02, 2011

The Idea of Stromatolites

We had a yellow-sky dusk today. Mostly cloudy with rain predicted but not yet happening. The light begins to fade at around 8 now, a mark of the declining summer. I sat on the deck for a while just after 8, admiring the sky and listening to cicadas and crickets. They were almost loud enough to drown out the ambient traffic noise. Good.

Recently I finished reading In a Sunburned Country (2000) by Bill Bryson. I liked it a lot. (And I recommend A Walk in the Woods, too, which I read a couple of years ago.) It's clear from his writing that he enjoys the pure pleasure of setting out to see what he can see, and he takes his well-honed descriptive and interpretative skills with him. I also liked the book because its subject is Australia, a place Bryson's very fond of. Me too.

Toward the end, he describes a marvel that should be on educational flash cards (see yesterday), but never will be. Bryson traveled to Shark Bay on the remote west coast of Australia north of Perth, where he sought out a formation found only there and and a few other places in the entire world. "Nowhere in any direction was there a sign of human intrusion except directly ahead, where a nifty wooden walkway zigzagged for 150 feet or so out into the bay over some low, dark, primeval-looking masses that didn't quite break the water's calm. I had found my living stromatolites..." he wrote.

"Stromatolites are so primitive of nature that they don't even adopt regular shapes. The just sort of, as it were, blob out... In fact, they are shapeless gray blobs, without character or luster. It has to be immediately conceded that a stromatolite formation is not a handsome or striking sight.

"It's not the sight of stromatolites that makes them exciting. It's the idea of them -- and in this respect they are peerless. You are looking at living rocks -- quietly functioning replicas of the very first organic structures ever to appear on Earth. You are experiencing the world as it was 3.5 billion years ago -- more than three-quarters of the way back to the moment of terrestrial creation. Now, if that's not an exciting thought, I don't know what is. As the aforementioned paleontologist Richard Fortey has put it: 'This is truly time traveling, and if the world were attuned to its real wonders this sight would be as well-known as the pyramids of Giza.' Quite right.

"If you peer, you can sometimes see tiny bubbles of oxygen rising in streams from the formations. This is stromatolite's only trick and it isn't much, but it is what made life as we know it possible... For two billion years this was all the life there was on Earth, but in that time the stromatolites raised the oxygen level in the atmosphere to 20 percent -- enough to allow the development of other, more complex life-forms: me, for instance. My gratitude was real."

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Monday, August 01, 2011

How Places Get to Be Iconic

I flatter myself that I don't make a lot of impulse buys, but there's only so much accuracy in that notion. Recently I came home with Landmarks, a set of A+ brand flash cards. Only $1 at a certain big box retailer, which is a steep discount off the list price of $2.95 -- a sum I wouldn't have paid. The sense that you're getting a deal is an important factor in impulse purchases.

Still, I'm out a dollar, so what did I get for it? Thirty-six flash cards picturing famed places around the world. Distributed by Dalmatian Press of Franklin, Tenn. (a suburb of Nashville) but -- I love the precision of the label, right on the box -- "Printed in Ningbo, Zhejiang, China."

Each card features a picture on one side with no description. The other side has the name of the place and a canned description. Wherever it was printed, I assume that Dalmatian Press created the deck, so American landmarks are heavily represented: 11 of the 36 are fully within the United States, with one more, Niagara Falls, being shared with Canada. Nine are in Europe, six are in Asia, and three are in Africa, and I'm counting the Suez Canal as Africa. Three are also in South America, if you count the Moai of Easter Island, and I do. Two are in Australia and one is in Mexico -- count that as North America.

How many did I recognize without looking? The places are so iconic that it wasn't that hard. I suppose that repeated exposure is the real secret of achieving iconic status (or clichéd status, take your pick). Anyway, there were only two that I couldn't name: Kuwait City Towers, because -- what's it doing on this list? Also, Diamond Head on Oahu, because I'd never seen it from that particular angle. It looks like it could be any number of islands in a warm climate. I didn't recognize the Suez Canal immediately, but was able to guess correctly. Likewise with a card with shot of Kilimanjaro.

I've seen 20 of the 36 sites in person, probably because it's weighed so heavily in favor of U.S. sites -- I've been to all of them. I could have taken the pictures myself except for that oddball shot of Diamond Head.

But the cards aren't really for my edification. I showed them one at a time to Ann, then Lilly. They showed age-appropriate familiarity. Ann didn't know many names, except for the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower. She said she recognized more by sight than that, however, such as the Alamo, Mount Rushmore, the Gateway Arch, the White House, Big Ben and the Pyramids of Giza. Except for the Alamo and the Gateway Arch, which she has seen within the last few years, I figure she's seen the others on cartoons or other TV shows.

Lilly knew more places, both recognition and by name, though I didn't keep count. Yet for a fair number of them, the cards were clearly an introduction to the place for her -- the likes of Angkor Wat, Ayers Rock, Christ the Redeemer in Rio, the Dome of the Rock, Hoover Dam, Kilimanjaro, Machu Picchu, the Moai, Petra, St. Basil's, St. Peter's and the Sydney Opera House.

I could go on about this, such as wondering where some of the omitted iconic places are (Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, the French Quarter of New Orleans, the Grand Coulee Dam, the Panama Canal, Angel Falls, the Brandenburg Gate, the Arc de Triomphe, Pompeii, the strange manmade islands of Dubai, Graceland, etc., etc.) but I have work to do. Still, for all the food for thought we got, I'd say my dollar was well spent.

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