Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Washington, DC

The White House. We were surprised that tours were self-guided. We were allowed to peer into, but not enter, many rooms. Others we could loop through. Karen and I were both struck by how small everything seemed. Still very classy and grand, with beautiful woodwork, decoration, and architectural detailing, but intimate. Even the East Room, which runs from the front to the back of the White House, and the State Dining Room, are not the awesomely grand spaces you might expect. That alone gave me some perspective on how 19th century Americans saw the work of governing, which was only reinforced when we later saw the surprisingly grand-but-intimate spaces of the Capitol building. 

Karen and I are home from a five-day vacation to Washington, DC that we took to celebrate our anniversary! Karen has been to DC a few times for work but I, a West Coast guy, never have. I think it's a pilgrimage every citizen should make, and mine was long overdue.

We hit many museums and monuments. The cherry trees were fully abloom, drawing throngs (plus us) to the Tidal Basin. We took a self-guided tour of the White House and, thanks to our U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman and his intern Charlie, got a personalized tour of the Capitol. We went to the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, both under renovation, and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM), likewise renovating. Toured the National Portrait Gallery, U.S. Botanic Garden, Library of Congress, the National Zoo, and more. We walked nearly everywhere; took the easy and convenient Metro everywhere else.

I won't list all the places we went because one thing I've learned about visiting DC is everyone says, "OMG, do not miss the National Barbed Wire Museum, it's the best thing there!" If anyone posts a comment like, "Hope you didn't miss the National Barbed Wire Museum!" I will reply, "It sure is terrific, isn't it?" Maybe we did, maybe we didn't. We did the best we could in five days and couldn't have seen it all in another ten. 

The White House. My general impression of security throughout DC was that it was appropriate and maybe lighter than I would have expected in these insurrectionist times. While the White House is certainly a fortress, the Capitol and Supreme Court building were approachable.

The Washington Monument through the trees. 

Our timing on the cherry blossoms was perfect--as was many other people's. Depending on the time of day, the major cherry blossom walks ranged from pleasant to impassably crowded.

The Jefferson Memorial across the Tidal Basin and through the blossoms.

We made a special effort to find the celebrity cherry tree nicknamed "Stumpy" (I'll save you the trouble of asking a bemused park ranger like we did: it's near the Jefferson Memorial). Stumpy is a stunted "Charlie Brown Christmas Tree" of a cherry tree that is due to be chopped down, along with 140 other trees, so that the wall surrounding the Tidal Basin behind it can be rebuilt. There are petitions demanding that Stumpy be saved. I'm not optimistic but was happy to make its acquaintance.

My favorite thing about traveling is assembling my own mental map of a place--especially a famous place, where I've seen all the landmarks individually but have no feel for how they relate. You can study maps, but nothing beats walking for tying things together. We were on Day 4 when Karen and I realized we hadn't seen the Supreme Court building and had no idea where it was. Turns out it's behind the Capitol, and if we'd walked another 20 feet when we toured the Library of Congress on Day 1 we would've stumbled right into it.

I know: yokels from the sticks. But I'm not too proud to play tourist when I actually am one. You can learn a lot by asking simple questions, and some of our favorite interactions came from talking to folks like groundskeepers and docents who were more than happy to share. 

Trust me when I say this photo dump only skims the surface. We took hundreds. It was a great trip. Five stars, would recommend!

The Library of Congress, a space genuinely too large and awe-inspiring to photograph. This is the reading room, where specially vetted researchers get access to the library's resources. We were not vetted. The building is vast, with many displays ranging from a Gutenberg Bible (ca. 1455) to Steve Ditko's original art for the first Spider-Man story. Not to be "the barbed wire guy," but the LOC is worth a visit.

You may know that the Library of Congress began when Thomas Jefferson sold his personal library to the nation. Those books are housed in a special gallery. If it's not obvious, the shelves have glass on both sides so visitors can see both the spines and edges of all the books. Ribbons denote whether a particular book was actually Jefferson's or an identical substitute of a book known to be in his collection. The depth and breadth of Jefferson's prodigious intellect is displayed here, especially since there's little doubt he actually read all of them. History, philosophy, religion, fine arts, science, logic, reason. I was struck by one volume I wish I'd taken a photo of: it was titled "The American Revolution," published in London in something like 1790, and I thought, "Dude! You WERE the American Revolution! Why do you need the book when you were there?!" Maybe he appreciated an English perspective. Probably griped about everything they got wrong. 

At the National Portrait Gallery with an unfinished portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. It's widely considered the best likeness of Washington ever painted, including by Martha Washington herself, and was the model for the etching made for the $1 bill. I very much appreciated its sketchy "work in progress" quality, much more interesting to me than the other finished portraits around it. 

I found a new favorite artist at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which is in the same building and intertwined with the National Portrait Gallery: Alma Thomas. It's risky to say that, because there's a possibility that everybody else already knows about Alma Thomas and I'll come off like, "Hey, this Rembrandt guy is pretty good, ever heard of him?" But she's new to me, and I'm not afraid to admit that I don't know everything but can be taught. Honestly, a lot of modern art leaves me confused at best and cold at worst, but there was something about her work that really excited and spoke to me. You could see the thoughtfulness and deliberation in every brush stroke. I thought she was just terrific, and the Smithsonian has the largest collection of her work in the world. 

Through all the landmarks, monuments, and museums we visited, there was only one time I turned a corner and said, "Hey! I know her!" Not the subject of this piece in the National Portrait Gallery, cartoonist Alison Bechdel. I've never met her. Rather, I know the artist, Riva Lehrer. She's a friend through graphic medicine. Riva is obviously a great artist; she's also a kind, friendly, compassionate person and disability rights activist, and it was a real thrill to see her work hanging beside Everett Kinstler's, Elaine deKooning's, and Gilbert Stuart's. 

An unusual angle on the Lincoln Memorial, I think. When I'm in a place like this, I like to look in the corners and edges. Like, everyone knows that the Lincoln Memorial has the famous statue of Lincoln with his speeches carved into the walls around him, but what does the ceiling look like? Now you know, too. 

The Vietnam War Memorial. I don't have anyone close to me who served in Vietnam. I was way too young, and my parents' generation was a bit too old. Even without a personal connection, this memorial is deeply moving, especially with the addition of little notes and mementos left for loved ones by visitors. A beautiful design free of the typical bombast you might find at, for example, the nearby World War II memorial, which is all towering columns and gushing fountains. It's great for what it is, but it was a different war. 

Cherry blossoms weren't the only flowers a-poppin'. Tulips were everywhere, and made beautiful picture frames. 

The National Air and Space Museum (NASM). Many of my friends probably know that NASM has, and recently beautifully restored, the studio model of the USS Enterprise from the original "Star Trek." What fewer may know is that you never saw the port side of the Enterprise because that's where the electrical wires protruded from the model. On the rare occasion they had to show that side of the ship, they shot the starboard side with reversed decals and flopped the film. This is me peering into the corners and edges again. BTW, the Enterprise was lit up when we arrived (they turn on the lights for a few minutes at the top of every hour) and I took about 300 photos of it but will not bore you with any more of them. 

The Apollo 11 Command Module "Columbia." I teared up. What a privilege to see this craft. I don't even know what to compare it to. It's as if you could visit the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria without the taint of colonialism, just the pure heroic spirit of discovery. To me, this ship is the embodiment of the greatest thing humanity has accomplished in its couple million years as a species, and I was alive to witness it. How lucky I am! 

At NASM still, with Neil Armstrong's spacesuit, which was recently conserved because some of the layered materials used in its construction are already breaking down. I can only repeat what I said in my notes on Columbia. I am standing three feet away from Armstrong's suit, which still has Moon dust ground into its knees. Armstrong's actual honest-to-God suit. What a time to be alive. I teared up again. 

At the Jefferson Memorial, where Karen noticed a nifty alignment with the Washington Monument between its pillars. 

Intern Charlie from Congressman Jared Huffman's office gave is a fine tour of the Capitol, including passes to sit in the House and Senate galleries--less than riveting since Congress is not in session, but still very cool. The Capitol rotunda itself is a towering cathedral to the ideals of freedom and democracy, and the view up into the dome is breathtaking. But, as with the White House, we were struck by the intimacy of the 19th century approach to government, the twisting maze of corridors and tiny rooms where important things happened. Even the chamber of the House of Representatives seems much smaller in person than it does during the State of the Union address on television. It's hard to imagine how they fit 435 people in there for regular business, let alone hundreds more for that address. I appreciated the perspective. 

While there were many visitors throughout DC and the Capitol grounds, there were also many moments like this, where Karen had the east steps of the Capitol entirely to herself. Well, almost entirely..... 

.....As you'll notice this armed officer keeping an eagle eye on her to make sure she's not an insurrectionist fascist who's about to vault over that barricade. 

Probably my favorite unexpected find of the trip was the U.S. Botanic Garden, part of which is housed in that greenhouse to the left. We just wandered past it and decided to check it out. Smart decision. 

George Washington advocated the establishment of such a garden to promote the importance of plants and collect flora still being discovered throughout the continent. Established in 1820, it's been located in various spots throughout its history and is the oldest continuously operated public garden in the United States. 

The U.S. Botanic Garden has areas representing different ecosystems: tropical rainforest, desert, Hawaii, etc. We walked into one little space and both said, "Hey, this looks like our yard." We were in the Mediterranean garden, in which you'll find weather and plants like those around the Mediterranean (naturally) and that little orange patch in California, which is where we live. It was funny to see our ordinary landscaping represented as some rare and exotic ecosystem, but sometimes you've got to go someplace else to appreciate what you've got. 

The view of the National Mall looking from the Capitol toward the Washington Monument. 

The National Zoo has a carousel. Who doesn't love a carousel? All the animals were different. Karen rode a bison and I rode a bear. 

Tamarins at the National Zoo. I like Tamarins. They seem less impressed with me. 

As I mentioned, this was an anniversary vacation for us: 40 years. I hesitate to mention that because people tend to say "Ooo!" and applaud. Don't applaud. We're not that adorable and I, frankly, am something of a curmudgeon. But we do clean up all right. 

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