June 15, 2016

D.C./Outer Banks Trip Log

MONDAY: Livin' the dream! Bathed in wonder. It's been too long since a good ol' fashioned sight-seeing vacation. Who can't love a pretty monument on a monumentally summer day? I stare fondly at the fountain outside the Library of Congress and I think how refreshing this is, this simple thing of outdoor statuary. It feels so Roman, like Trevi.

It reminds me how I'm probably the only person ever to have gone to Las Vegas for the architecture. Gambling? Pshaw!

I walked 12k steps, starting at the local Catholic churches that looked unbearably quaint and antique. Both locked up, alas. One overtly Italian and the other Chinese (Chiesa Italiana Holy Rosary and Saint Mary Mother of God.) Gothic churches built in the 1800s. A painted mural on the brick of the church is half-peeled off, leaving a sort of gauzy pointillistic effect.

Outside the Italian church were statues of national figures like Giuseppe Verdi and Michelangelo; apparently there aren't enough Italian saints to warrant being featured. (In fairness, it looks like a completely separate building from the church called “Casa Italia”.)

Walked past the National Building Museum; I wished they'd called it the National Building Building. That would be so much cooler.

Walked by the Supreme Court with its sadly untrue motto etched in stone: “Justice for All”, notwithstanding blacks pre-Civil Rights and babies in the womb to this day. Thought about going in but wasn't sufficiently motivated.

Instead, wandered over to the Folger Shakespeare Library and gorged on exhibit celebrating the Bard's influence in America. You haven't lived until you've seen Herman Melville's marginalia on “The Tempest”. Not to mention a real, live Abe Lincoln letter on his favorite plays (Macbeth, Lear, Richard III, but mostly Macbeth). Feminist Jane Smiley on the sad discovery that Shakespeare wasn't a feminist. There were clips of Shakespeare in TV comedies like Gilligan's Island and a clip of Cybil Shepherd doing a Shakespeare gag on Moonlighting. Man she was otherworldly pretty. And the chemistry between her and Willis as electric as I'd recalled.

Felt a good dollop of wonder too walking around the Globe Theatre they've recreated in there. Could imagine Shakespeare speaking his lines as in merrie olde England.

Next up: Library of Congress. Walked into the John Adams building but that's not where the fun is. The Jefferson building is the place of the glorious reading room. Alas by the time I walked around the gigantic building it was 4:34 and they stop letting people in at 4:30.

After the aborted Library effort, I headed to one of the renown DC bookshops. It was a far piece on foot, or at least it felt so, but the Capitol Hill Bookshop had the cranky atmosphere of a curmudgeon who makes no bones about his politics: he has a sign “wacko stack” next to Sarah Palin and Laura Ingraham's books. He also had a sign above a survivalist book that said: “read this for post-Trump America”.

He'd ask customers if they wanted a bag for their books and when one young lady hesitated he sighed sarcastically and said, “I know it's a big decision.” He asked a customer with a Russian accent who said he'd forgotten something, and the owner asked if maybe he had too much vodka last night. “You drink it?”. “No, not anymore. Only in Russia. Over here nobody drinks or smokes, they just exercise.”. “And do yoga,” the proprietor responded.

 I took pictures of the signs, including the t-shirt “I Got Used at Capitol Hill Books”. Also bought William Least Heat Moon's River-Horse about his travels along the Ohio River. Copped some free books from the free table though I don't know how I'm going to get them home given bag weight restrictions.

TUESDAY: Enjoyed a vivid bit of River-Horse by the great William Least Heat Moon, he who changed his name to reflect his something like 1/8th American Indian heritage. I think if Elizabeth Warren wasn't such a fake she'd do the same. If you're going to try to trade on affirmative action privileges like her you should at least go all in.


Well the vacation is on all cylinders. Am currently iPading on the steps of Saint Mary's church, the only available place to sit in this very urban locale, drinking a beer out of a coffee thermos. It's 7:15pm and a full day was had.

It started with a visit to St. Mary's, only to find it shut tight. I wended all around it, finally finding an unlocked gate to the St Francis garden topiary just next to the stone church. An lady in perhaps her early 60s was knitting. I asked the lady why Mass wasn't being said. She showed me a bulletin and it appeared 8am Mass was only Wed-Fri, so I was a day early. She was loquacious; at one point she asked if I was of Irish and I said partially, and what my birthday was and she opened a large datebook and scribed my name on the entry for 6/22, saying she prays for folks on their birthday. Nice!

She was previously a nurse, and told me she was asked to be a Third Order Carmelite but always had a love for St. Francis - in fact, she had lit up immediately when I approached her because I had a shirt that happened to have “St Francis school” on it, a thrift shop find. She asked if I went to St. Francis parish and pointed me eagerly to the St. Francis statue near us.

She gave me a St Faustina Divine Mercy card, saying this is the time of Mercy and when Jesus comes again it will be in Justice and Judgment, so this is the time to take advantage of.

Later I went to Mass at Shrine with 300 nuns and holy young women and I thought: “Wow, if God was ranking people in this assembly I am dead last in holiness.” [I just had a word from God and he said, “that happens every time you go to daily Mass!”]

Later, at the Shrine I went through the big front door but it turned out not to be the Holy Door (as proclaimed by Pope Francis), so I went out and came in again through that one.

But that's skipping ahead. I wandered around in the morning sun, through Chinatown, trying to make it “my own”. My three-day residence. Later I would hit the only tiny grocery mart and it felt very authentic. The smell in there was very Asian, mostly noodles and fishy though I didn't immediately see any noodles or fish. There was American craft beer, but the newspapers (USA Today and another one) were all written in gibbly-gook letters, those crazy Chinese symbols. I felt like commenting to cashier how impressed I was by how Chinese this place looked and how it could be a movie set. But I held my tongue.

After the phone call decided to make the hike down 6th street to National Gallery of Art and it wasn't that far at all, less than a mile. Gorged on art for a couple hours then gorged at the buffet in museum. $22 but it was good nutritious food: salads and herb-baked chicken and cheese and soup. My body was keening for the outdoors since the weather was golden, literally, and the museum cold and overcast. Art likes shade and cool, me not so much - the a/c was so strong that I could've used a sweater.

So I went outside and enjoyed some of the strong 85 degree sun. Sat next to a fountain so big it was deafening.

I got to the Basilica (National Shrine) about 3:30 and walked around the astonishing church - easily the most beautiful I've seen in America. It has the power of continual surprise since it's really a collection of a dozen or more churches since the side altar nooks contain feasts for the eyes. I wondered what the point of taking pictures would be, because simply everything was picture-worthy and yet pictures couldn't do it justice.

A flock of nuns came by and sang afternoon hours at 4:45pm. At first I thought it was a choir practicing, a pleasant sound, until I walked the football-field distance to the one side altar among so many that actually had a Blessed Sacrament. Those nuns know where the real action is - not in art, but in Presence.

It was grounding; paradoxically by soaring (prayer) we are grounded (in reality). Yet I am amazed how art has the capacity to teach as surely as words, especially in one artwork at the National Gallery neatly showing Mary had the dual role of caretaker and adorer of Christ.

Soon it was time for 5:15 mass, which I errantly thought was one of those 30-minute quickie daily masses. It was in the crypt church, which I didn't even know existed. I had to track it down by the music to find it, so big was the whole huge crypt area.

And whoa, was I ever surprised to find a decent-sized church, and yet one completely packed. I had to stand in the back along with a couple dozen other standing room onlies, including a couple nuns next to me.

The cause of the big crowd was immediately obvious when the priest mentioned the 300 young women (about a quarter were nuns) who were at a conference/retreat this weekend – this was their big mass apparently. Big as in long too - a healthy hour fifteen minutes. But I felt really like God was in that room.

Now it was after 6:30 and I called on Uber again. This time I had a driver within 5 minutes and found out later, with appreciation, that it was a free ride. The Google Maps promise turned out to be true, that you do get your first Uber ride free.

The black driver was a marvel, talk-wise. He gave me an education on DC politics on the ride to the hotel. So much so that I was sorry to reach the destination. Said DC is growing by leaps and bounds, mostly millennials who are “different” because they come here bringing jobs, mostly start-ups. Older generations go where the jobs are, these kids want to live here first and worry about jobs second. He said DC used to be pretty small but now is a true big city.

He told me all about how the current mayor has done more for the city than any major in history but probably won't get a lot of buildings named after him because he's a “nerd”. Very effective, but not the wild, outgoing type like previous mayor Marion Barry. He said Barry finally got let go by voters because he embarrassed the city too much due to the drug use and such.

I felt bold and comfortable enough to forego the cumbersome term “African-American” and say, “How come blacks don't like Bernie but support Hillary?”. (At least I didn't, like Donald Trump, say “the blacks”.) And he said he, personally, wouldn't allow either one of them in his home let alone vote for them, but he said you have to understand Bill Clinton's “orientation” to understand why blacks like him so much and thus Hillary by association.

I said Bill's orientation is obviously heterosexual, and he laughed obligatorily and said in that department Bill's in a world of his own and added that what he meant is that Clinton went to Georgetown as an undergrad when he was poor and from a disreputable family, and Georgetown at the time was 50% black and it was only the blacks that had anything to do with him due to issues of class. So he became very close to them, and was mentored by elderly black men who worked on campus. So that's how he became the first white black president.

At the end I told him this was my first Uber and if I had to sign anything and he said no, I was done. And then I asked if I was supposed to tip and he said, “I take donations! I have an ex-wife!”

Back at the hotel, I filled my thermos with beer and went on a writing escapade in the pleasant summer night on the steps of Saint Mary's, then later couldn't resist the lure of walking the blocks around me. Very stimulating and the diversity was off-the-charts: rich, poor, black, white, Chinese, hipsters, tourists, young. “The stranger filleth the eye” is an Arab proverb.

I headed down the more populous streets and it was a party. Two live bands separated by a block or two each drew a dozen or so onlookers. New Yorky feel in the density of architecture, the brownstones and the many glitzy stores.  Also went by Shakespeare Theatre and felt a pang of regret for not buying tickets (7:30 performance) but … there's always tomorrow!

WEDNESDAY: As a bona fide sun-craver, this vacation wasn't perfectly suited to meet that need being necessarily heavy on museums.

The day started with a cheap Uber ride to the august Library of Congress. Unfortunately they make you jump through hoops to get on the Reading Room floor, but given my lack of sitting still this trip it probably is for the best. Instead I enjoyed the wonder of the picturesque castle that surrounds it. I wandered through the exhibits on the second floor, primarily that of the Spanish coming to the Americas in the 16th century. Columbus and Cortez. But then I was thrilled to find the “room of rooms”, the genesis of it all: Jefferson's original library! The books were arranged in a circular fashion in clear bookcases rising eight feet high. They had ribbons to mark whether it was the original book held by Jefferson, or whether a duplicate copy was acquired later (some were sold or destroyed by fire). His library was about 6500 books and of those 2400 survive; he said it was his selection was what made it great, not quantity. That's what we all say.

Holy of Holies
I observed that he had a multi-volume set of Thomas Scott's commentary on the entire Bible. I wonder how much he used it.

Of course it was light on Catholic apologetic works, so pooh-pooh, haha. I thought about how his “Jefferson Bible” (sold in the gift shop) was dumbed-down to include no miracles, displaying that greatness of intellect can be as much an obstacle of faith as being wealthy in financial terms. God loves the poor, be it the spiritually poor (“blessed are those who have not seen but still believe”), financially poor (the widow's mite), or intellectually poor (“Let the little children come to me”).


The Capitol tour a fail. Fun to get in and hunt down my congressman's office, but Congressman was arriving later and the group I was with was missing two members, so we sat with interns making small talk for 20 mins. Then over to Capitol for a long security line wait, then another long wait for one of interns to get us tickets to enter. A byzantine process that involved long security lines to entering the visitor area and then more long lines to acquire a sticker to replace the pin you got for making it to the visitor area.

The interns said you'd have to wait in another endless queue if you want to actually get into viewing area of the chamber, aka “the gallery”. This part is an optional part of the tour, although I made the whole thing optional by punting.

Yes I blew it off after waiting an hour and 15 minutes. Figured I'd cut my losses since I'd rather see where Lincoln died than where our dysfunctional Congress perpetrates it's “business” on we the people.


Headed to Ford's Theatre and much smaller theatre than expected! And homely, banal farm stage props for the “Our American Cousin” play.

Unreal a president could be that close. “You can feel his presence here,” said the ranger, who gave an instructive talk. Lincoln tried to slink in late, but hard to do when you're 6'4'', so the actor who spotted him stopped and said to the orchestra, “Play 'Hail to the Chief'” and they did and the crowd gave him a huge ovation for winning the war.

I wondered how Booth could get injured jumping from the modest leap from the presidential box, but learned he got his boot spur caught in a flag. Foolish to wear boots to an assassination. I've seen pictures of Ford's Theater, but nothing compares to actually seeing it in person. I assume the same of those who go to the Holy Land compared to those who read of it in the Bible. It comes alive and you gain a new perspective.

The thing about Ford's is that it all happened recently enough that you can see the bed he died in and where he was shot. Ford's Theater is recreated though, but still at least we know what to recreate. With Lincoln's birth, there's no “bed where he was born”. After you become famous then things become saved for posterity, much like there isn't much know about Christ's early life compared to his death and resurrection.

The theater immediately went out of business due to the taint of tragedy and fell into disuse until it became an office building and the upper floor caved in killing twenty. Then it really fell into disuse, doubly cursed, an abandoned warehouse until 1968 when it was restored to look like the day Lincoln was shot. “That horrible house,” said Mrs. Lincoln.

Then over across the street to the Peterson house, where Lincoln died at 7:22am the next day. Saw the anteroom where Mrs Lincoln agonized, awaiting doctor reports in between visits, the room where some of his cabinet gathered, and finally where he died. Very small room, but there were eight or ten people in there at a time.

At the gift shop they had a three-story tower of Lincoln books, showing just how much has been written of the man. 15,000 books and counting. Like the Bible, Lincoln needs constant new translations to tell his story again I guess.


Then walked to the MLK library near my hotel and am sitting in glancing sun. Big plate windows open to urban avenue. I later walked out of the library with a book I'd intended to read inside! Walked back in and returned the book but it was interesting to see how easy it would be to take one. I think book-lovers aren't the stealing kind. (Although the Bible being the most frequently stolen book doesn't give one too much confidence on any front.)

Coming back to the hotel from MLK, I wanted to walk forever. Every path looked intriguing, especially lit up by a needed sun (it being a high of about 72 today and chilly when windy). What was that ancient looking building that way? Certainly stasis hasn't been my thing out here, especially when it comes to reading. I've built up a decent reading deficit, but it's hard to read when a city so alive thrives right outside the window.

Walking around has its downsides though. I saw a young black man in a parking lot with a shotgun in his hands. I walked back to take another look and again it damn sure looked like one. I was glad when I was out of the line of fire.


(Later): Well one has to try a few new things on vacation, like a spur-of-them-moment purchase of a production of Taming of the Shrew at the Shakespeare Theater without reading a single thing about it. As I learned belatedly, this play was a bit unusual. All male cast, which soon became apparent to me, the men in drag showing in greater or lesser ways something was just “a bit off”. It's perhaps a tribute to womanhood that men can't play them too well, and presumably a tribute to manhood that woman can't really play us.

It started with a bad vibe, a bishop doing a disco dance. Glad to see the crowd wasn't amused either. And it turned out to be partially a musical, with three songs in the first hour. I bolted after that hour because of my short attention span and the thought that I could be reading.


Part deux of the trip - headed to Nags Head to join my in-law's vacation, already in progress.

A different kind of beachly beauty here: a tinge of auburn in the sand when wet by waves, a mix of different hued shells, unique seaweed and most of all sand dunes, something you don't see in the flats of Hilton Head.

When I got there two of our members had left to visit the “Lost Colony”, the English settlers who'd disappeared without leaving their bones or pottery or anything besides a mound and a fence.

I get stuck tomorrow with the wild horses of Corolla, only there's hope it will be quashed as even my wife doesn't want to spend a day driving in the car to get the rather remote area.


This is a place of natural beauty but one not without its costs: misquotes at night are so thick that even quickly entering and exit bedroom door to deck last night let in about a half-dozen.

This morning a gust of wind shears off the top of a nearby sand dune. Feels almost like a California ghost town with the strong wind and dunes and wood buildings up on stilts looking like neglected ruins. Fine sparkling view of the sea beyond.

Hope the gang isn't too disappointed with our not going to see the wild horses of Corolla, which is a 90 minute drive one way and a 2-hour tour, one that doesn't guarantee you'll see the horses. But since my wife doesn't want to go I joked that “wild horses couldn't drag me away from this balcony!”


Walked to the quiet, pool-like sound side (we're on a strip of land so thin you can walk to the sound, or bay, on one side and the Atlantic on the other). Very peaceful, mostly noise-free. Our house sits right next to a road with constant loud vehicle traffic. But the bay is far enough away. We spent a good hour or two there, then I headed for 20 minute run (saw an art show, a turkey and a rooster in the yard next door to show).

Seagulls look sharper down here, like miniature penguins, snow white with black heads, white tail feathers, and a light grey wing-tops. Perhaps different variety than Hilton Head.


SUNDAY: 6:30am alarm bell, to accommodate mass at the inner city Basilica of Our Lady in Norfolk, a 2hr drive from the rental house and only 15 minutes from our eventual destination, the Norfolk airport.

According to the bulletin this is the “only African-American basilica in the United States and the cornerstone of Catholicism in the Tidewater.”

Given how good the preaching and the music I felt like they knew what they were doing and were serious. Even the lectors were excellent - the second reading was delivered by a man who sounded like James Earl Jones.

It was odd and inspiring to see all these enthusiastic black Catholics, who looked for all the world like Southern Baptists, gathered. They were dressed to the nines as is their custom and the lady in front of me followed the readings in an old black missal of some sort.

We made it about 5-10 mins late and walked into a standing room only church vestibule, but eventually got seated by an usher. Normally I don't go for the amplified band sound but I couldn't help but enjoy it here. Wonderfully moving homily by the deacon. There was loud applause after the sermon, which I can't recall happening in a Catholic church before.

The homilist said that he knew of a young white man, who grew up hating blacks because that was what he was taught. He had on his left wrist a Nazi tattoo, and every day he went to a shop for coffee or donuts. And the woman behind the counter was black. And at first he was cold, but then they eventually exchanged small pleasantries.  Then small talk.  And then about their jobs and families.

He'd always kept his tattoo hidden from her, but one day he slipped when he went to grab the coffee with his left hand and she saw it.

She didn't recoil from him or chastise him.  She said simply, "You know you're better than that."

And that's what God does with us.

I could tell immediately when the the Kyrie song went five minutes that we weren't destined to finish this mass, and indeed they hadn't even taken up the Offertory yet after 50 minutes, so I'm guessing they were on a 90+ minute pace. We headed out then in order to make the flight to Columbus, but found someone had just about blocked us in. I moved some red pylons and we went “off road” a bit to get out. Dodged a bullet there!

Epilogue:  And now back home I see first lightning bug of season and timely given our proximity to the fabled summer equinox, that begetter of midsummer night madness. The fireflies rose from the ground like tiny lanterns until poof and vanish. We fly smack dab into the width and breadth and height of summer magnum. I want to do a cameo in Edwardian summer with English gardens and frolicking Emma Thompsons.

Surreally tired, presumably from the fatigue-cocktail of too much exercise, drink, and social conviviality. I feel the economy of motion of an athlete without any of the athlete's athleticism. So Calgon take me away!

No comments: