Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Congohead Goes to Washington

Well, I had a great time in DC over the weekend. To start, I'm going to tell you how this post is going to go. I'm going to write about my trip, and in bold parentheticals that will come in the middle of my overarching trip story, I'll describe the accompanying photos. The parentheticals won't always come with the picture (too hard to make them go together, sorry), so you'll have to follow along best you can. So, to start: a parenthetical description of the first photo. Yayyy!!

(The topmost photo was taken on Saturday morning on the streets of downtown DC. If I'd known how dorky I looked with my top button buttoned, I probably wouldn't have buttoned it -- nah, I guess I still would have -- it was damn cold that day, and especially that morning.)

After I arrived I was met at the airport by my sister Shannon, her roommate Staci, and their friend Beth -- I've known these girls back since we were all in high-school in Raleigh together, and now, in addition to my sister, they're both professional women working in our nation's Capitol, Beth as a sign-language interpreter (I'm sure there's a better way to put that), and Staci as a, well, I'm a still a little fuzzy on that -- something important having to do with the environment. Which is great.

(The second photo was taken at a "sandwich" place called Cosi. It's all the rage in DC. They serve flatbread sandwiches as far as I can tell, and since I prefer real bread, I wasn't that into it. But I took this picture and you would have sworn by the reaction I got from the sandwich artists that I was either taking pictures for a future, (and utterly ridiculous), terrorist attack, or I was trying to steal their souls.)

Anyway, so from National Airport (I will not call it Reagan National), I'm quickly whisked away to a bookstore attached to a restaurant called, and I may be remembering incorrectly, Kramer's. The resturant was very good, but the bookstore was even better. It was as if Barnes and Noble had to pick their best titles and jam them into a space about a sixth of their usual size. One has the feeling of being in a place surrounded by piles and piles of books they'd actually like to read. Not a Daniele Steele or a Nicholas Sparks in sight. I had the catfish at the restaurant, but I didn't buy any books at the bookstore. No discounts.
(The third photo was taken just moments after I stepped out onto the Washington Mall for the first time. It was fantastic to see at the end of one swath of trampled lawn the Capitol, and down the other the Washington Monument. Call me a rube if you will, but it was kind of exhilirating. I wanted to run up to the Capitol as fast as I could, and then back to the Monument. Of course, we did walk to both but even just walking, by the end of the day my knees were wanting to bend the other way, Arrival-style. Running, I would have gotten a hundred or so feet before my out-of-shape heart exploded.)

(The fourth photo was taken about twenty minutes after the third one, the twenty minutes comprised wholly of walking. The Capitol is impressive and stately, just like the city planners wanted it to be, but boy does it seem desolate on a Saturday. Certainly not any Senators or Congressmen walking down the steps, talking to one another, gesturing importantly with one hand while the other rests casually in their pants pocket. I didn't see anyone near this thing except for bored guards with big guns.)

My sister lives on the 7th floor of an apartment building in the city. It's a nice place with a clear, panoramic view of another high-rise apartment building -- their view of hundreds of balcony windows sort of reminded me of an amped up version of Rear Window, except no one could be viewed as up-close and personally as they were in the movie. No buxom dancers practicing in view anywhere. Also, no dastardly deeds in evidence, even after hours and hours of looking. Hard looking. Shannon has two cats, one fat cat named Meena, and a little kitten named Baxter, named after Will Farrell's dog in Anchorman. Both are very cute but only Baxter was interested in playing. In fact, that was ALL Baxter was interested in doing. When you pick him up, he doesn't pay you any attention; you can see his little kitten-eyes scanning the room, looking for other, more interesting playing opportunities, butthe one thing in the whole room he's definitely not interested in, is you. Kittens are like that. My own domestic cat/cougar hybrid was also like that as a kitten, but has since calmed. Baxter will too.

The next day we set out to see the sights. Lots o' walking in DC. Next time I'm using a Segway. We went to the Capitol (already pictured), and then to the Smithsonian, where I got my hat.

(The fifth photo is me, sitting in the Smithsonian, in mid-yawn. This was not a comment on the museum, but maybe more a comment on my already-pronounced level of physical depletion. I had to sit on these benches to rest -- just around the corner was a full-scale model of Julia Child's kitchen, which was pretty cool.)

Smithsonian was cool. More on that in another post, or maybe not. Not sure. Anyhow, afterwards, we walked up to the Washington Monument (sixth photo). For me, seeing it for the first time in person was a little like seeing the St. Louis Arch for the first time. I was simultaneously surprised by how small it was, and by how huge it was, if that makes any sense. Small in that when you first come into its vicinity, it doesn't seem near as towering as you expect it to be -- something that looms so large in the imagination must be at least as large in real life, right? But the closer one gets to the structure itself, the larger it does seem, larger even than you thought it was. You start to think about the scale of the project and for how many years how many workmen toiled to build it. It's impressive. Shannon and I laid down next to it, resting our feet on one side of the great commemorative marble spike, (copying some college kids doing just that), and I did so hoping I might feel like I was on some kind of Silverstein-ian sidewalk to nowhere, and the sensation would be both strange and transportive, but self-consciousness and the feeling of the hard ground on my back, pulling me down, cancelled out the whole thing, so while I was struck by how blue the sky was against the stark whiteness of the monument, I mostly just felt like a 28-year old, laying down on dirty cement in front of a national landmark trying to be youthful. After that, we got up and headed towards the Lincoln Memorial because the sun was coming down.

(This seventh photo is of me on the phone with Peggy just outside the perimeter of the Washington Monument's lawn. She'd been skydiving that day and was telling me how it went. I was hugging myself in disbelief.)

Recently, some folks got together, Tom Hanks and Bob Dole among them, and built themselves a WWII Memorial. It sits at the opposite end of the reflecting pool from the Lincoln Memorial.

(This, the eighth photo, is a photo of me being maybe a little too jovial (I'm in mid-softshoe here) on the site of a memorial commemorating the deaths of countless American soliders. But then again, everything's a memorial around here, so unless they want everyone to associate DC with moping, cheerless people, they're going to have to get used to goofballs like this one yucking it up. And yeah, I just had an argument with myself.)

I didn't get much time to sit with the WWII Memorial and take it in, but my first impression of it is that they might have done better going back for just one more draft. The concept seemed a little muddled. Especially when compared with the far more iconic and affecting Vietnam War Memorial. You feel that one.

(This, the ninth photo, is of me in front of the Lincoln Memorial. This was my favorite one.)

After the WWII, we walked along the reflecting pool (which was pretty gross, by the way, as it has no filtration system -- they just drained it and dredged it and already it's disgusting again), and then up to the Lincoln Memorial. Going inside was like walking into the back of a penny, except without that gross coppery, finger-grease smell. The National Parks people were obviously doing some renovation inside as there was scaffolding up throughout, but the clutter couldn't take away from the hushed solemnity of the place. (Warning: what follows may be a little grandiose -- apologies in advance.) It may be that no person on the planet has ever been memorialized as perfectly as Abraham Lincoln. The sculpture of a sitting Lincoln suggests a kind of depthless reverence for the man. Lincoln sits on an un-presidential but King-ly throne, staring dispassionately out into the middle distance, thinking thoughts of Justice and Truth, unbowed by his unlimited Wisdom. Sitting there, calm but resolute, he is unassailable. The building and the sculpture, it seems, were designed less to pay tribute to Lincoln for keeping the country together during the Civil War, and more specifically to deify him. His words seem chiseled into the stone walls around him like Commandments. It is a shrine to the idea of Lincoln, as much as the man himself, and, for my money, is absolutely the most effective, most affecting memorial/monument in the city. So says me anyway. It seems almost the luck of the draw who gets what memorial. I shudder to think of what a Reagan Memorial might look like, let alone a George W Memorial.

(The tenth photo is of my sis, Shannon. I hope she doesn't mind my posting it up here.)

(The eleventh photo is of the sculpture itself. Shannon told me an interesting tidbit that everyone else I've told already knew, but I didn't. The sculptor of Lincoln's statue had a deaf daughter (correct me in the comments, Shannon, if I'm telling it wrong), and, as a kind of tribute to her, he formed in Lincoln's hands the two letters that make up her initials. I thought that was a great, and kind of moving bit of trivia.)

(The twelfth photo is the reflecting pool during "magic hour".)

Not far away from here, (to the left if you're looking at the photo of the reflecting pool), is the Vietnam War Memorial. I was most struck by how quiet the Memorial is. The Wall is situated like a deep cut in the ground, starting shallow at the edges and gouging deeper into the ground as you walk down into it. As one walks to the midpoint of the Wall, which is its highest point, the traffic noise and all ambient sound drops significantly until it's very still and very quiet. The whole thing seemed to have a power all its own -- I thought to myself, somewhat worriedly, "Am I going to cry now?", as if I'd have no say in the matter, as if the Wall had the power to extract manly (or womanly in this case) weeping against my will. As it was, I felt too self-aware and too respectful (it still seem like here, more than anywhere else, is where people come in this part of DC to have private "moments"), to say more than a few words to Shannon, much less take digital photos. I left there happily. What the Wall implies about war isn't comfortable, and I felt uneasy while I was in front of it, which is probably one of the reasons it's considered the gold standard of modern memorials; when it comes to creating a place designed to remember something horrible that needs remembering, they don't come much more powerful than the Wall. Hopefully, what they come up with for Ground Zero will be similarly affecting.

Anyway, that was the end of Saturday. I was hobbling by the time we finally got to the nearest Metro station. The next day, we went to the White House, to the Supreme Court, and to the Library of Congress. What I have to say about them is this: our government should be a lot more accessible. I think we're in a period of security-centric thinking, and it's so pervasive that it's starting to seem a little looney. I think we may look back on the security measures we've taken in the wake of 9/11, and wonder, "what the hell we were thinking? Were we really that scared?" Across the street from the Supreme Court is the front of the Capitol Building. It is inacessible to all visitors because of a massive construction project they're doing -- what they're building is an underground visitor-receiving area of sorts, designed to collect tourists, show them some Congressional memorabilia I guess, and then send them on their way thinking they've visited the Capitol. They are not. What our government is doing by building this thing, is taking our representative government that much farther from the people it's supposed to be BY, according to the Declaration of Independence anyway.

This feeling was reinforced when my sister and I were at the White House. Standing in front of the place, at the far end of the beautiful White House lawn, we were kept away from our president by a tall, black-iron fence. Looking up at the White House, what was most eye-catching to me was not the house itself, or the landscaping or the fountain, but rather the 6 or so men-with-guns milling about on the roof, sometimes congregating, sometimes not. I found myself looking for motion detectors hidden under the boughs of trees on the other side of the fence, wondering if I'd be shot if I climbed the fence and laid down next to it, only on the other side. And I wasn't the only one thinking about security measures. A couple came up to the fence from the side pointing up at a bird. I looked up and saw a brown hawk-looking thing flying on the White House side of the fence. "Is that a falcon?" the man asked. Then he smiled. "Or is it just some bird-robot with a camera in it?" It's almost all we can think about, and it isn't just because those 18 men flew those planes into those buildings 4 years ago. It's because fear absolutely works for this administration, and they for damn sure use it. Fear works for any president, true, but never before has it been used for such purposes (war, winning elections, changing the subject away from stories that give the Bush White House bad press, etc.) as with this president. Granted, the fear of attack isn't entirely baseless, but the intensity of it in this country, reflected in the projects the federal government's undertaken domestically since 9/11, gets pretty close to either unspeakable cynicism or straight up governmental hysteria. Maybe a bit of both. By contrast, at the beginning of the last century, Teddy Roosevelt used to stand outside the White House on the morning of each New Year's Day he was in office, and shake the hand of anyone who came out to wait in the cold to meet him. Now this wasn't some sepia-toned, more innocent time, like some might have you think (I imagine 'some' to be Republican hacks). Anarchists, men who didn't care about their own life and limb, much like today's bomb-wearing terrorists, had already assassinated TWO presidents in the twenty years prior to T. Roosevelt's own presidency, but still he insisted on the new tradition. Could anyone LESS embody this kind of openness and accessibility than Bush? Than our entire federal government? Is it even possible to envision a shift in the direction we're headed in, towards a total separation of our government from its people? And one last thing on this subject: White House tours and Capitol Building tours all require advanced planning and a group of so many people. These seem to me less like just persnicketty National Parks policy, and more like just two more obstacles keeping the citizenry the hell away from the places our government makes the decisions that effect us. That's it on that.

Anyway, after me and Shannon discovered that, in addition to being inaccessible generally, everything we wanted to see is totally shut down on Sunday. So we fled DC and drove through Georgetown, pulled into a gas station and then walked up and then back down, the Exorcist steps. Very steep, very creepy, wish I'd gotten a picture. Next time. Though seeing it in person, I got the sense that if you were to fall from the top, or even from midway, you'd have to be going at a really fast clip to get past one of two wide landings that interrupt the stairs. So you might still die from falling down these steps, but you probably wouldn't get all the way to the bottom.

(This, the thirteenth photo, is of Baxter, the Unstoppable Playing Machine. Here he is with his favorite toy: a long wire with bits of folded cardboard attached to either end.)

That night I Metro-ed it over to Peter's Metro station in White Flint, MD. He picked me up and we went to his and Daniele's fourth-floor apartment, which is very nice. Lots of stairs and no elevator, but the roomy interior makes up for all that horrible physical activity required to get there. Craig Moorhead and his wife, Keyeung (I'm butchering the spelling, I know) came over and we all played poker (which Peter won --bastard.) Craig hasn't changed a day since we graduated from NCSA, but he has in the intervening years gotten himself a lovely wife who is very charming and whom we all liked.

Afterwards I slept.

(This, the fourteenth and final photo, is one I took of myself waking up at Peter's on Monday morning. Yeah, I usually look this bewildered in the morning.)

The following day (I know, almost done), I hung out with Peter, visited his folks' house, his dad's office, ate at a pancake place, watched Bill Maher on the computer, flipped through Peter's old comic books, and ate chicken fingers at Dave and Buster's. Not a bad day. After dinner, Peter drove me back to Shannon's and the next morning I flew back to Atlanta.

I am spent. Before I sign off, I want to say thank you to mom for buying my plane ticket and sparing me an ugly, ugly drive back and forth; thanks to Shannon for putting me up, driving me around, and tromping all over DC with me seeing stuff you've already seen, all on very short notice (thanks also to Staci for putting up with a houseguest for a couple nights), and thanks to Peter and Daniele for letting me crash there for a night also on short notice. After all that flying and walking, I don't think I'll have a hankering to travel for some time. Anyway. Even though this is an hour and seven minutes late, I'm going to make the time read Wednesday. Yeah, I'm a cheater -- to all of those who slogged through this whole thing: I'm out.


Anonymous said...

you are welcome, thanks for the rundown, it was good. Just erase the congohead, you must have spent time with Shannon

Shannon said...

Who is anonymous person, her name must be mom. And I'm glad you came up to D.C. I was so excited and then so let down when you finally showed. Kidding. Congohead, that's funny. Who came up with that? Feel free to visit anytime, you're the easiest houseguest in the whole world.

blankfist said...

Phenomenal post, Crane. I had some genuine laughs reading it. Now that I've finished with the praises, let me get down to dissecting this fervent turd. Just kidding. Very funny and interesting read. I can tell you’re writing has become nearly faultless and incredibly enjoyable for the reader. You did, however, fail to include the fourth photo. I’m just saying.

The sandwich shop guys, or ‘sandwich artists’ as you called them although I’m not sure what about their jobs make them an artist over, say, an artisan (that is to say if they’re even that good to be considered a true master of the sandwich making art which arguably isn’t an art at all), were probably fearful of a competitor taking snapshots of their popular sandwich stand for research. Once, I was sent out by my old company to take pictures of various ‘point-of-sale’ merchandise stands in various retail stores like Best Buy, Circuit City and so forth. The first store I went to was Best Buy. I walked in and started snapping photos. Within moments a blue-shirted posse encircled me. I had to delete the photos, one-by-one, from my digital camera before I left. By the time I reached Circuit City, I decided to ask permission. They of course said ‘no’, so eventually I figured out that I needed to lie, and my story quickly morphed into me being a college kid needing to take pictures of retail store ‘point-of-sale’ merchandise stands for my advertising class. After that, they let me take any picture I wanted. It’s amazing how receptive they became once they thought I was just a kid in college.

On any account, dude, you have to call it the Reagan National. Come on. Stop being a silly Democrat. Reagan did some good things, although he’s not what I consider all that understanding when it came to gays and AIDS, but he wasn’t an out-and-out criminal like Dubya. Call it Reagan National. Do it for Mr. Jellybean Fantastic himself. Do it for freedom. That is, of course, unless you hate freedom. Terrorist. And, what’s up with saying ‘I shudder to think of what a Reagan Memorial might look like, let alone a George W Memorial.’ There you go again with your hating. Liberal Terrorist. What would Jesus do? Seriously. He’d build a monument for Dubya, right? I think he would. He was a carpenter, and because the bible is so, er, infallible I think it reinforces my idea… whatever idea that may be. What am I talking about? I don’t even know. But, yeah, the Licoln memorial is stunning. I remember it distinctly. Too bad they had all that scafolding work around it. Did that detract any from your visit? Probably not.

I’ve never seen the Vietnam Memorial. It sounds amazing. If they do erect a Ground Zero Memorial, or rather I should say ‘when’ as opposed to ‘if’, I don’t think it will be that well thought out. I saw some ‘concept’ designs, and all of them seemed grand in size but really without any substantial thought. I hope it improves. Also, the two lights they have up are retarded. They need to get rid of them. What are they called? Freedom lights? Who knows. But, it was kind of cool to swing past them in the ‘Spider-man 2’ game. Yeah, I know, I’m a nerd, but at least I didn’t use the term ‘softshoe’. Wow! I can’t believe you used that word. That’s both impressive and incredibly geeky. I had to look that one up.

‘What our government is doing by building this thing, is taking our representative government that much farther from the people it's supposed to be BY, according to the Declaration of Independence anyway’. Amen! It’s incredibly sad. Maybe you Dems are Americans too. You Liberals seem to make sense sometimes. But, shouldn’t it be ‘further’ instead of ‘farther’, being that ‘further’ represents metaphorical distances whereas ‘farther’ represents physical distances. Hmmm… I guess both could be correct in this sense being that there is a physical distance being implied as well. Nevermind. Anyhow, great post, as I said. It was great to read it. And, now, I will leave you with one final comment:

‘After the WWII, we walked along the reflecting pool’… Didn’t we all, brother. Didn’t we all.

Anonymous said...

Brian's Comment Page= Heath's Blog

Anonymous said...

Anonymous poster = nerd

JudgeHolden said...

Thanks for the nice comments guys. I tried to post photo four, but Blogger gave me an error, so it is lost to history, or until I email it to folks. Like that's ever going to happen. All right. Gotta finish my blog for Thursday before midnight.