(Last modified 27 February 1997.)

Wanderjahr: Week 26

Locations: Alexandria, VA; Washington, DC; Mountain View, CA
Dates: 2/9/97 - 2/15/97

Sunday I worked on SWAPA and Words & Stuff, and did little else 'til evening, when we had Scotty & Jack (friends of Barbara's) over. Good conversation, though I'm still not quite in the right conversational rhythms around here, and good food. I was a tad underdressed, but that's nothing new...

Monday I drove to the local Metro station (stopping first to pick up my watch (the one that belonged to my great-grandfather) from the jewelers; they'd ignored what I told them was wrong and had tried to fix another problem, with the result that it still doesn't work and now may need major surgery to ever run again) and headed into DC. I spent much of the day at the Library of Congress (even got my (free, easy to obtain if you're over 18) LoC library card, so I could do serious research there if I so desired!), gaping at the stunning interior of their first building (the Jefferson building), and examing several exhibits (Feiffer, children's books, and copyrights) in the third and more staid building (the Madison building). Also gaped in awe at the Gutenberg bible (one of three extant perfect vellum copies; looks like a modern facsimile, no signs of age) in the Jefferson building. (I was baffled by one of the hundreds of quotations adorning the Jefferson interior: "The true shekinah is man." What the heck is a shekinah?) (Note for potential visitors: right now you can't see most of the cool parts of the Jefferson interior without a guide, but starting 5/1/97, those regions will be open to the public.) Stopped by the copyright office just 'cause it was there, and picked up their catalog of copyright circulars. Ate lunch in the 6th-floor cafeteria -- too much fried fish. Eventually decided there were a few other things I wanted to do that day, so headed north.

Walked by the front of the Supreme Court, but I'd earlier learned that they're not hearing any cases this week, so I just took a picture and moved on. Spent a couple hours window-shopping in Union Station, which is big and nice but essentially a mall built into a train station. (Almost bought a cool business-card case at Appalachian Spring, store of Appalachian crafts & woodwork, but finally decided way too expensive & I'd never use it. Made me feel very grown-up to snap it open & closed, though.) Decided, on a whim, to have dinner at an Ethiopian place that Barbara's tourbook had recommended. Called them for directions, but one or the other of us got muddled, 'cause I thought the restaurant person had implied it was about five minutes' walk away from the DuPont Circle Metro station, but it took me about half an hour. I kept my spirits up by wondering whether I was going through any of the neighborhoods that the guidebook had said tourists were not under any circumstances to enter on foot or alone, even during the day.

I had my first-ever Ethiopian food in DC, back in '90 or so, so I had high expectations for this place (Meskerem, if that means anything to anyone). I was rather disappointed. The honey wine was too sweet (which shouldn't have surprised me, as I don't much like wine and the only place I've liked this stuff was at the Blue Nile in Berkeley); the injera was not only cold but oddly colored (dark grey) and more or less tasteless; the amount of food was fine (as was the flavor of the shurro wat, sort of a chickpea curry) but not a particularly great bargain; and the waitress laughed at me when I asked about combining two entrees, then got very surly when I asked for (gasp!) three whole water-glass refills during the course of the rather spicy meal (she compensated by filling my glass mostly with ice). Not at all impressed.

But the walk was probably good for me. Wandered back to DuPont Circle, decided it was time to go home, but on the T realized I needed a bathroom. So I got off at Metro Center and used the Marriott's public restroom (very nice of them to provide such, I must say), then realized I was fairly close to the White House and decided to go see it, since I hadn't yet done so (at least not this trip). Was amazed when I got there at how tree-covered the grounds are -- it was impossible to get a clear view of the entire front facade. Bizarre.

Then I saw how close the Washington Monument was, and recalled that the tourbook said there's no wait to go up in its elevator at night. Cool! Only when I got there the sign said they closed at 4:30 pm. The dangers of using a three-year-old tourbook... I thought at least I'd get a nice photo of the monument reflecting in the pool, but forgot that reflections go two ways; from the monument, the pool reflects (poorly) the Lincoln Memorial. Oops.

So I bagged it, walked to the Smithsonian Metro station, and came home. An awful lot of walking for one day, but a pretty good day nonetheless, and my feet seemed to be holding up okay so far. I kinda like this tourism-on-my-own business; no need to worry about whether others are enjoying what we're doing, or others' eating schedules or others' tiredness levels, or my getting cranky at others. Doing things other people want to do often results in seeing/doing cool stuff I'd never otherwise encounter, but it's nice now and then to be able to focus entirely on what I want to do.

Discovered, btw, that the Library of Congress security system isn't (from what I saw of it) terribly good. But security is pretty tight everywhere else in the city, as I saw over the next couple days.

Tuesday I went to the Holocaust Museum. Fortunately, Barbara had warned me not to try to take in everything at each step, 'cause it's big, so I skimmed through some parts. I'd heard about some specific parts, like the place where you walk through a boxcar of the same sort used to take prisoners to the camps, so they didn't hit me quite as hard as they otherwise might've. On the other hand, Steph had told me about the place where there's a huge pile of shoes from camp victims, but it made me cry anyway. The other place where I completely broke down was the room filled three stories high with photos, taken over the course of fifty years, from a town that was pretty much annihilated by the Nazis.

The whole place is a very intense, very upsetting, very moving experience, and I strongly recommend it to anyone who can stand to go there. It made me feel angry, sad, helpless, horrified, and, in the end, a tiny bit hopeful, because the last part of the exhibit talks about those who risked their lives to help save the Jews. I was particularly delighted by a story about Raoul Wallenberg, Swedish ambassador(?) to, um, one of the Eastern European countries, fooling a German general into thinking that Eichmann had left town, and convincing said general that he therefore didn't actually have to carry out the order to slaughter the 70,000 Jews remaining in the city. And there were plenty of others, tiny acts of heroism from ordinary people...

Of course, there were also plenty of ordinary people who participated in the boycotts of Jewish businesses, who refused help when it was asked of them, or who did nothing either way (and thereby gave tacit approval, whether intended or not). I kept asking myself, what would I have done in various of these situations? How does one respond in the face of such insanity? What would I do if something similar were to happen today, here?

...And I don't believe that it couldn't. I watched the videos about Hitler's rise to power. The hatred, the scapegoating of some identifiable Other in our midst -- these are not relics of some bygone pre-enlightened era. They still go on, all over the world.

On a related note, I was appalled at the number of people who died in the camps after the camps were liberated, and at the number of people who died trying to find a new home after leaving the camps (because no nation wanted a huge influx of Jews, and those who tried to return to their homes were sometimes subject to further pogroms. Can you imagine surviving a concentration camp and then being killed when you tried to return home?). I never really understood the atmosphere in which the modern nation of Israel was founded before...

One other note for those intending to visit the museum: I had a great (though expensive) focaccia sandwich for lunch in the Museum Annex cafeteria.

By the time the museum closed I was completely drained, emotionally and physically. Everything nearby was closed anyway, so I headed home. Had dinner, did some email, spent the evening finishing up my taxes and printing and mailing 'em.

National Cathedral photoI went to bed early (for me) in order to get up early to go to the National Cathedral next morning. Still didn't get there 'til about 11 am Wednesday, given hour-and-a-half drive from here.

Now, last Friday I called to explicitly ask (a) whether there were any big events going on this week that would preclude my touring the cathedral, and (b) whether there would be an organ demo Wednesday at 12:15 or 12:30, as there is most weeks. The answers, after the receptionist checked a calendar, came back no and yes, respectively. So I was kinda surprised to arrive at the cathedral on Wednesday and learn that (a) an American ambassador's funeral was happening there the next day (so there were techies setting up klieg lights all over the building, making photography a little problematic), and (b) it was Ash Wednesday, so there was a noon service, so the organ demo was not in fact happening. Both of these items were apparently known to the cathedral staff last Friday. Sigh.

groin photofan photoNonetheless, I found enough there to keep me occupied all afternoon. Magnificent architecture; I used up a whole roll of film. And I got a one-on-one tour of the place from a friendly tour guide (who I assume had some sort of status in the Episcopalian hierarchy, but I wasn't clear on that). Attended part of service (so got to hear a little organ music after all) but didn't really want to be daubed with ash, so went and had lunch at an okay Mexican place a couple blocks away. After the service, looked at all the accessible stained glass windows (a couple of really lovely abstract ones, with the main Rose Window being the loveliest and the Space Window (which showed the path of a spaceship between the Earth and the moon) also very pretty. Wanted to spend more time resting in the Chapel of Joseph of Arimathea, which was under the crossing of the cathedral and so had huge stone pillars at all corners, and was also nicely warm and oddly comforting. But noisy tours kept coming through, so I gave up on that. Nice view from the 7th floor, but I'm afraid Washington is not really a great city to look at from up high. Was amused at various modern touches in stonework -- most notably, a kid won a design contest with plans for a stone Darth Vader head, which was incorporated among the cathedral's gargoyles and grotesques very high on one tower (I couldn't pick it out, having not brought field glasses).

NatCat glass photo 1 NatCat glass photo 2 NatCat glass photo 4 NatCat glass photo 3 NatCat glass photo 6 NatCat glass photo 5

floor photoSo anyway, the cathedral is awfully impressive, especially knowing that it took 70 years to build (and was only finished in 1990). Still, I get more of a sense of the divine in a beautiful natural setting; the cathedral inspired me with more awe at human achievement than awe at the grandeur of God.

Left with an hour and forty minutes to drive the (estimated) forty minutes to Cathy's place. And a good thing, too, as I missed an important turn; eventually found the street I was supposed to be on, but ended up going the wrong way on it. (If only my car compass hadn't stopped working way back when! And if only I'd not managed to somehow misplace my DC-area map!) Didn't realize my mistake, despite numerous clues, for over half an hour. Still, I think I ended up not more than 15 minutes or so late... (I'd know just how late if my watch hadn't stopped working...) This always seems to happen on the rare occasions when I leave significantly earlier than I have to. On the plus side, I listened to a lot of Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America (on audiotape), which besides being frequently hilarious is very relevant to my current US history tourism binge...

Seeing Cathy was marvelous. I've missed her a lot. Despite six years of little or no contact, we were immediately comfortable talking with each other; none of the hesitancy or awkwardness I associate with such reunions. I left her place happier than I've been since leaving Boston, or possibly longer.

That cheerful mood lasted 'til early the next afternoon. I stayed up late updating my journal Weds. night, so got a late start Thurs. morning; spent an hour talking on the phone with a woman who wants someone to read and critique her writing (someone at the Washington Romance Writers meeting connected us because we both write science fiction), then another hour talking on the phone with Steph, and finally headed off toward the National Archives in the early afternoon. Decided to stop at CVS and pick up my developed photos, and possibly drop off another roll of film to be developed (depending on whether it would be ready before I left for CA on Saturday). Got the photos, asked the clerk how soon the new roll would be done if I left it then. Her answer to this simple question did not match the information on the nearby sign describing how long development takes. The discussion rapidly devolved into a shouting match, in which she was heard to utter (among other things) the phrase "It's really not that complicated!" In the end, I yelled "That's not what it says on the sign!" and stormed out of the store. I hate people implying that I'm an idiot; I particularly hate it when clerks in stores, and other people supposedly in the customer-service business, do so.

I got in my car, slammed the door, and decided to calm down by looking at the photos.

Which were a disaster.

For the first four or five something had gone wrong and the developing machine had cut them in half, so that half of one negative and half of the next were on the same print. When I checked the negatives to be certain they were okay, I found four or five more negatives that hadn't been printed at all.

I went back into the store and asked to speak to a manager. Only it turned out the person I'd just had a run-in with was the manager.

She said she could give my money back or take the negatives and try again. I said there wasn't time to try again, and took my money back. She took the prints, which I was annoyed by (what was she gonna do with 'em? Besides, there were a few that came out okay), but was not about to fight her on. She apologized, in a kind of aside midway through this transaction, for her earlier behavior, but not as though she particularly meant it.

So, my mood having gone through a 180-degree swing in ten minutes, I stomped off to the Archives. It was a cold and grey day out. I hadn't gotten around to signing up for a reserved tour, and there's only one room you can visit without a reserved tour. The room contains the Declaration of Independence, part of the Constitution, and a sampling of other much less important documents from American history (such as George Washington's meticulous list of his expenses incurred during the Revolutionary War). The Declaration and Constitution look (due to their enclosures and lighting) a murky green in color, and are largely unreadable. The most visually impressive document in the room, though still unreadable, is the Magna Carta; there are three or four original copies extant, and this is the only privately owned one, belonging to none other than... you guessed it: H. Ross Perot. The only other thing I particularly liked in that room was the small display about Rosa Parks.

Anyway. My mood only marginally improved, I wandered up to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, which turns out to be a branch of the DC public library. I figured during Black History Month there'd be some sort of special display, but if there was I didn't see it. (Though there was a nice, if small, display of African-American women currently in positions of authority and/or doing cool stuff.)

Discouraged, I braved the chill once again (stopping to give a dollar to a homeless guy who said he wanted to buy a Valentine's Day card to send to his mother) and walked to the Old Post Office, which turned out to be much like a miniature version of Union Station: big open space, mini-mall, food court. Also the offices of the NEA and NEH and (I think) National Forestry Service, but those weren't publicly accessible. Nice view from clocktower, cool bells, but overall not terribly thrilling. Talked briefly with the guy running Juggling Capitol, a nice little juggling store; had quite good falafel and couscous at the middle-Eastern place in the food court; headed home.

Somewhere in late afternoon I cheered up somewhat, but shortly thereafter my legs started really aching. I'd been surprised at how well my legs were holding up to all the walking I've been doing; apparently they were just trying to decide when to surrender.

(And the above was my last update here for two weeks. Oops. I didn't even update my journal for about a week...)

Friday temperatures were a little low, and there was already snow on the ground (though most of it melted during the day), and my legs still hurt some, so I decided to save the Air & Space Museum 'til after I got back from CA... Spent Friday lounging around, and preparing for the trip to CA.

Friday evening had dinner with a couple of Barbara's friends, who turned out to know Michael's parents.

Saturday Barbara dropped me off at National Airport. I checked a bag through, then realized I'd forgotten to sign up for a vegetarian meal, so I bought an overpriced banana and put it in my coat pocket. When I went through the security checkpoint, I put my coat on the conveyor belt to be x-rayed. The security guard who looked at the x-ray said to me, "I saw that banana..." in a mock-threatening tone. We joked a little about sophisticated banana-detection technology. The first time an airport security guard has ever displayed a sense of humor in my presence. I'm always pleased at that sort of thing.

The flights were smooth, fast, and half-empty. The flight attendants were great. On the second leg of the flight (Chicago to San Jose), they served dinner, and of course the guy next to me got the last non-steak meal. I grumpily decided to eat my banana instead of dinner -- and then the flight attendant, without being asked, dug up a leftover meal from lunch which turned out to be some of the best food I've ever had on an airplane. We arrived in San Jose ten minutes early; Arthur met me at the gate, and my bag was on the baggage carousel by the time we arrived to claim it. United gets very high marks from me for the whole experience. (All this on top of their flights for this particular trip being noticeably faster and better-scheduled (for my purposes) than any of the other airlines...) Btw, it was 70 degrees in SJ when I arrived; a big change from snow on the ground in Alexandria...

Had some yummy Tony & Alba's pizza for a late-night snack (which for Arthur was normal-time dinner, of course). I met Mya. Got to sleep at my usual late hour, made worse by the three-hour time shift... Sunday morning went to brunch with Arthur.

Movies, Books, etc.

Star Wars
Fun on a big screen, but not as spectacularly thrilling as I'd half-expected. A couple of the new additions are pretty good, but the Jabba scene should've been left on the cutting-room floor, especially since most of the dialogue is identical with that of the Solo/Greedo scene just prior...

Always Coming Home, by Ursula K. LeGuin
I've been reading this for two or three months now; because of its structure and content, it felt a lot like nonfiction in many ways, and took as long to get through as nonfiction always takes me. I felt it was overly heavy-handed in places, implausible in others, and didn't go far enough in emulating an anthropology book; but much of it is fascinating and compelling nonetheless.

Girl 6
Possibly my favorite Spike Lee film so far: little or none (depending on interpretation) of his usual sexism; some great characters, some interesting situations, and several very funny scenes (as well as a couple of quite disturbing ones). Much better than most of the critics indicated, and makes me very interested in seeing his latest (Get On the Bus?) if I'm correct in thinking this film shows a growing maturity.

Jed Hartman <logos@kith.org>