Week 25: Mt. Vernon

Locations: Alexandria, VA


Dates: 2/2/97-2/8/97

Sunday, Barbara drove me all over the area. We took the Parkway into the District, drove along the Mall; she pointed out a variety of places I wanted to see, I followed along on a map, and I got a much better feel for central DC in one afternoon than I did for central Boston in three months. Very nice of Barbara to do that... It was odd to see the Washington Monument, the Capitol, and other buildings that I'm completely familiar with from decades of pictures, but which I didn't remember seeing in person before. (Though I'm sure I must've seen at least the Washington Monument the last couple times I was in DC; it's hard to miss.) We parked by the Vietnam Memorial and got out to look at the monuments and memorials there.

The Vietnam Memorial wasn't quite as powerful for me as I gather it is for most people (odd feeling when I realized I didn't know any names to look for), but it still brought tears to my eyes. All those names... It's a beautiful design, the stark black granite (?) reflecting the viewers as they search for names. More effective in person than in pictures and descriptions, definitely. (Though I kept remembering a song called "Long Black Wall" about the memorial, which I seem to recall I found very moving when I first heard it. Don't remember who it's by.)

The Lincoln Memorial was kinda cool to see up close. Lincoln has weird square-toed shoes. Interesting choices of excerpts from his speeches on inside walls of the Memorial; really heavy focus on the "Lincoln single-handedly freed the slaves" idea.

Way cool view from front of L.M. along Reflecting Pool, which reflects most of the immense Washington Monument at its far end.

Interesting new item in that area: the Korean War Memorial. Consists of two parts: a bunch of 8-foot statues of soldiers (looking miserable in raingear) slogging through greenery that I think is supposed to be symbolic of rice paddies or something, next to a black granite wall much like the Vietnam Memorial wall only with etched pictures of people's faces instead of names. We asked a ranger; the pictures were based on photos from the war, but with all identifying characteristics (names on uniforms and such) removed to make them more representative of the soldiers in general. I was surprised at the emphasis on the number of countries that participated in the conflict, and on the number of UN troops who died there (far more than the number of Americans).

Near the Vietnam Memorial on the way back we stopped to look at a statue of three young male soldiers (one black, two presumably caucasian). A little way further on, there was a statue of three young female soldiers (nurses, apparently) trying to help a wounded man (one of the nurses was looking up into the sky, trying to spot a rescue helicopter). Apparently put up in memory of all the American women who served in Vietnam, a group you (or at least I) don't hear much about.

I (as a lifelong avowed pacifist) had a lot of mixed feelings about the memorials, as I always do. I think they struck a good balance between honoring the memory of those who died, and not implying that the war itself was a good thing. Particularly odd, for me, being there with someone whose husband fought in Vietnam; definitely made me think about things a little more than I might have otherwise.

Afterward, Barbara drove me to Arlington National Cemetery (heavy focus on dead soldiers that day). I was fascinated by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where they went to great lengths to choose an unidentified soldier's remains at random, from each major war the US has been in this century, to inter (presumably at least in part so that anyone with a MIA relative could think, maybe that's him who they're honoring so much; and I guess it also means "this honor is symbolically accorded to all of our dead soldiers"). I was particularly struck that due to advanced identification techniques, they couldn't find an unidentified body from Vietnam to use until 1984. Also interesting that being chosen to guard the Tomb (marching back and forth across a thirty-foot strip nearby, in full dress uniform) is considered a great honor. I hadn't really understood before what the Unknown Soldier idea was about.

Barbara quoted a line from Cronkite (?) on the way out of the cemetery, something like "I don't understand all this business about chanting 'anti-war' slogans. It implies that they think someone is actually pro-war." A bit facile (you don't have to be in favor of war in general to believe that war is a viable means of trying to resolve problems), but a good reminder not to demonize those one sees as being on "the opposite side" of any given issue.

We went by the Pentagon on the way home. I was amazed. It has glass windows all over it! There's a bustling freeway a couple hundred feet from it! It doesn't look at all like a fortress from the outside; more like an office building. Not remotely what I expected from pictures.

Stopped in Old Town for a late lunch or early dinner; yummy veggie chili. Then home to spend the evening working on email and Words & Stuff column.

Tree at Mt. Vernon
Tree at Mt. Vernon

Monday Barbara pointed out to me that it was a great sunny day out and that it would be a good time to see Mt. Vernon, all of ten minutes away by car. I drove over and spent the nearly five hours there. I've never been a big George Washington fan (nothing against him, just not in awe of him), but found a lot of this stuff pretty interesting:

  • A slave-life tour, showing where the slaves lived and talking about what their lives were like (the guide for which presented GW as a consummate businessman, and made the interesting suggestion that several of the humanitarian and ecologically sound things GW did were done largely because they were good business).
  • The "necessaries," privies with removable drawers so the excreta could be used as fertilizer (dunno how sanitary that is, but an interesting waste-reduction principle).
  • Fake expensive building materials: outer walls made of boards beveled, painted, and covered with fine sand to produce a semi-convincing illusion of stone blocks; inexpensive wood paneling whitewashed and then painted over in brown with fancy grain patterns to produce a semi-convincing illusion of expensive wood paneling.
  • Mt. Vernon slave memorial
    Mt. Vernon slave memorial
    A memorial to the slaves, built in the midst of the otherwise unmarked slave burial ground.
  • A reconstruction of a sixteen-sided barn designed by GW to greatly improve threshing (horses run around and around inside, stomping on the stalks of wheat and shaking the grain loose to fall through the slotted floor into the collection area below).

I was surprised by the number of places where signs said, usually roundaboutly, "This well-preserved item actually had nothing to do with the Washington family or Mt. Vernon, but it was in use at the time, so it may be vaguely similar to an item that the Washingtons may or may not have used." I thought those displays were a little misleading; I guess I expected everything to either be the real item used at Mt. Vernon or a reconstruction of the real item, rather than a period-authentic item that had nothing in particular to do with the place. But I'm nitpicking.

Tuesday evening I came close to finishing a story, then got my mail and found a form rejection slip (for another story, of course) from Realms of Fantasy. I hate these form rejections that say, effectively, "There are three possible reasons we might've rejected your story: (1) lousy spelling and grammar; (2) unoriginal idea; or (3) just not good enough." It seems to me that a story that's nicely formatted and has impeccable spelling and grammar, from someone with enough exposure to the genre to be pretty sure the idea isn't old hat, deserves a little bit better than that. I'm not asking for a personalized rejection letter from every editor, but I find it insulting that they don't even have separate rejections for "doesn't suit our needs at present time" and "clearly can't write worth a damn."

So I sent off another story to them. That'll show 'em.

Tuesday afternoon I went to the movie theatre for a matinee. Odd to see a movie in a big theatre with only three or four other people. Afterward I wandered through the lobby and saw promotional materials for a bunch of upcoming films, including two that caught my eye:

  • Con Air, which doesn't look remotely interesting except for the cast: Nicholas Cage, John Cusack, John Malkovitch, Steve Buscemi, Ving Rhames, Colm Meaney.
  • Men in Black, which has a delightful two-sided poster ad: one side shows Will Smith in a suit and shades, with the heading "Mr. Smith"; the other side shows Tommy Lee Jones in a suit and shades, with the heading "Mr. Jones." Both sides have the acronym "MIB" at the bottom. Apparently based on the comic book.

I spent the rest of the day planning itineraries for touristy things to do in DC, and talking with Steph on the phone, and trying to catch up on the mountains of email I've been getting lately.

Wednesday I started calling around about passports, then checked the Web site for details. Discovered that to get a passport, you have to provide not only picture ID, like a driver's license, but a certified copy of your birth certificate to prove you're a citizen. Notwithstanding the fact that you need to have a birth certificate to get a driver's license, at least in CA. I may have a birth certificate lying around somewhere, but I don't want to count on being able to find it while back in CA next week, so I determined to send away for it. As it turns out, if you mail in a request (with a check) it takes 6 to 12 weeks; if you fax a request (with a credit-card number; costs $5 extra for credit-card processing), it takes 3 weeks. I can't imagine what the difference would be... But 3-9 weeks is enough of a savings to get me to install and use my fax softwre for the first time ever. Went very smoothly.

But I'm skipping ahead; I didn't get the birth-certificate request in 'til Friday. On Wednesday afternoon I decided I had all the info I needed to do my taxes except one not-arrived-yet 1099 (for which I'm nearly certain I know the right info anyway), so I installed MacInTax and spent the afternoon telling the program that no, I didn't have kids, and no, I didn't want to take a tax credit for them, and no, they weren't legal dependents, and so on. Went pretty smoothly; I didn't get nearly as much in the way of deductions as I did last year (~guess I need to have some kids after all~), but due to reduced income from only working 2/3 of last year, ended up with a refund. Cool! I'm not looking forward to doing my taxes next year, though; the situation's gonna be significantly more complicated.

Wednesday evening I bit the bullet and called the last known number for Cathy P, whom I've been out of touch with for something like 6 years. I left a message at that number, and Friday morning (jumping ahead again) she called me back! I was thrilled. We decided to have dinner next week.

Wednesday and Thursday were kinda distressing email days, for reasons I won't go into except to say that nobody should ever expect a reply of any kind from me in less than two weeks. I wish I were a good correspondent, but I'm not; as those I've corresponded with on paper will tell you, I was far worse before I had email (it took me three years to reply to a letter one time; I think that friend has forgiven me, but I still wince to think about it).

I stayed up 'til 4 am Weds night/Thurs morning for reasons mostly unrelated to email; in particular, I finally found the tiny side note buried in the home page for YVV (my problematic service provider, now known as AAAA) that explained that their main news server doesn't work and customers should be using a different one. I sent an irritated note to their customer support email address, 'cause last week when I asked why I couldn't connect I got back a snobbish note from customer support saying, in essence, "if you're too stupid to configure your own newsreader, you sure won't get any help from us." So I wrote to suggest that it might perhaps not have killed anyone to give me the actual answer, seeing as how it was a known problem and all (and my original problem report was quite polite, simply asking whether it was a problem at my end or theirs). In this second note I also mentioned that I was fed up with YVV and was switching to another ISP ASAP, and was recommending that all my friends avoid YVV as well. Thursday I got a reply from a different customer support guy, who said that (1) YVV doesn't exist, it's now owned by AAAA, a national service provider (which ignores the fact that YVV was always a national service provider; that's why I picked 'em in the first place); (2) he was sorry that some of the old YVV people were still lying around being obnoxious to customers; and (3) he could have shut down my account "for libel," but he was going to be nice and not do so. I rather snidely explained to him that it's only libel if it's not true, and threatening to shut down someone's account for reporting a customer support problem is a really lousy way to do business. He apparently realized that there was no point in arguing with me further about it, 'cause I haven't heard back from him.

At any rate, the upshot of all this was that I could finally read news, so I spent far too long Wednesday night reading rec.puzzles, the one newsgroup I can justify reading (on the grounds that it's relevant to my column), and posting a note about the column to said newsgroup.

On the up side, the early part of the week had brought me a couple of very encouraging and supportive enotes. And the continuing YVV problems got me to finally call the Earthlink people back—the customer-support manager there had offered me a free month of service if I decided I wanted to give them another try at some point. I decided it was time. On Friday she reinstated my account, and I tried it out Saturday; it was marvelous, like laying down a weight I didn't know I'd been carrying. Connections were much solider (I can rarely maintain a connection to YVV for more than about 20 minutes, and was worried that it was my modem's fault), and (at least from my perception) at least three to four times as fast on the same speed line, due to using data compression (which YVV used to do but doesn't any longer). It's too early to say for sure that I'll become a loyal Earthlink customer, but so far I don't see any conceivable reason to go back to YVV. I'll keep both for the duration of the month just in case, then drop YVV.

Thursday evening (I'm really jumping around a lot this week, aren't I?) Barbara and I went to see a new musical at the National Theatre in DC, which was a lot of fun despite a few problems with the show's structure and the fact that we nearly needed oxygen masks to legally sit at that altitude. I sorta made dinner before we left—I'd been a little worried about freeloading the past week, with Barbara cooking dinner for both of us nearly every night, so I made a salad and heated up some frozen Nancy's quiche, which I was delighted to find is available on this coast. Good stuff.

Thursday night I was up 'til 3:30 am dealing with half a dozen emotionally draining pieces of email, and slept very poorly afterward, so was groggy and out of sorts all day Friday. Bleah. Though that was the day Cathy called me back, which kept me in a good mood through most of the day, which was just as well 'cause there was more draining email to write that night.

Saturday it snowed. The bare branches of the trees turned to magnificent ice sculptures. Barbara let me tag along to a Washington Romance Writers meeting, 'cause the featured speaker was giving a talk on recent Jane Austen movies. (The talk was pretty good, though a tad long. The speaker had written her dissertation on the endings of Austen novels, so she knew whereof she spoke. I agreed with almost everything she said about the movies of Sense & Sensibility (Emma Thompson version) and Pride & Prejudice (A&E/BBC 6-hr version), but she loved the recent Persuasion (and the novel), while I thought both were only middling.) Saturday evening Barbara and I talked about writing, then happened across a Katherine Hepburn retrospective (All About Me, 1992 I think) on TV (I only saw the second half). She's marvelous. I b'lieve she turns 90 on 5/12 this year.

Some of the email stuff got resolved Saturday night, and the rest wasn't continued, so I slept well, and even got up relatively early (for me) on Sunday in hopes of preparing for getting up early next week to do tourist stuff.

Movies, Books, etc.

Fierce Creatures
Second outing from the A Fish Called Wanda people (though not a sequel) is thoroughly enjoyable and often laugh-out-loud funny, despite some accent-comprehension difficulties in the opening minutes and a slight overemphasis on Jamie Lee Curtis' cleavage and Freudian-slip jokes. (Notes: Nice to see Ronnie Corbett (of The Two Ronnies) onscreen again, albeit in a small part; also, the woman who looks a bit like Connie Booth (Polly from Fawlty Towers) is Cleese & Booth's daughter. Also, Fred Schepisi, the guy they brought in to direct the revised ending, also directed Six Degrees of Separation, which I just saw last week...)
Whistle Down the Wind (musical)
Latest Andrew Lloyd Webber show has lots of great catchy tunes, superb (but not overblown or flashy) sets and effects, and some appealing characters and situations. It's also got several structural problems (missing scenes without which certain plot points make no sense, overextended dance numbers that contribute nothing to the overlong story), but since this was a pre-Broadway tryout I suspect it'll be significantly improved by the time it opens to a general audience.

(Last updated: 10 February 1997.)

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