Daily Archives: November 23, 2015

Washington DC

DSCF6162When we started this trip in September, Greta had three main goals:  Yellowstone, barbecue, and the Smithsonian.  So our five days around DC were overwhelmingly biased towards museums.  I spent a reasonable amount of time in DC in the 80s and 90s, and I knew that with winter closing in I couldn’t do a comprehensive survey of what was now going on in this big city, so I just went with the flow.  However, I did manage to trick Greta into walking around Georgetown and Northwest on our way to and from museums.

I probably hadn’t been in Georgetown in 30 years, and staying there with our friends Bob and Susan provided a good excuse for wandering the neighborhood, and back and forth to the Dupont Circle Metro stop.  DSCF6093

As has become the norm in older cities on this trip, the experience of architectural quality, neighborhood walkability and overall urbanity was remarkable.  DSCF6096It was also strange realizing that this is a neighborhood of the rich and powerful, and probably many of the houses we passed were occupied by people of whom we had heard.  (Bob did point out the black SUV in front of John Kerry’s house, which meant that he was home.)   I was totally enamored of the area, until one evening I decided to run out to pick up a couple of beers before dinner. Two miles later, nothing. Georgetown is a place where real estate values and rents are so high that normal businesses have been squeezed out by high-end clothing retailers and home design stores.  You can’t run down to the corner to meet any need of day-to-day life, so you probably just send your staffers out to run errands in the black SUV.

Downtown DC has never been known for its quality of modern buildings – too much respectful timelessness, height limits, classical obsessions, conservative tendencies, etc.  But even with that low a bar, this building is a standout.  DSCF6099

There is some nice street furniture / bike racksDSCF6166

David Adjaye’s museum is getting close to completion, but is already quite noticeable as not your typical building on the Mall.DSCF6172
But the Metro is still my favorite architectural space in the city.


We spent most of a day at the Air and Space Museum, which is memorable for one of the most legible partis in a museum.
and also for meeting my main criterion for a great museum:  have lots of real stuff.  Not an interpretive center, not solely didactic, not creating a programmed visitor experience.  Have cool stuff that can’t be seen anywhere else, and all the other considerations are secondary.  The Air and Space may be the best example of this – Greta was constantly amazed that these were the real objects.

Another aspect I really enjoy is having Very Large Things Inside Buildings.  Liverpool has a great, low-key museum called The Large Object Collection, and the A&S illustrates this principle nicely.DSCF6130

The American History Museum was much better than I remembered;  I think the new approaches to exhibit design of recent decades have been spectacular.  We checked off some iconic pieces, such as the Star Spangled Banner, the display of which unfortunately shows some of the same grandiosity and obsessive fetishism of objects which ruined the experience of Mt. Rushmore and the Liberty Bell.  We also caught the greatest of the slightly-nutty representations of a founding father as a Roman republican:

Like the A&S, the display of really cool actual stuff is paramount:DSCF6207

The partially-reconstructed display of an 18th century house from Ipswich is superb, detailing not just the technology of the building, but tracing its social history through the different households that occupied it for 200 years.

The ability of the installations to show the social, economic, technological and political context of the objects was really sophisticated.  The section on transportation clearly demonstrated the interactions between the changing transportation systems and the economy, making connections that I’d never fully understood (such as why the textile industry was able to shift to the south when it did).  And strangely enough, the section on post-war car culture focussed on Sandy Boulevard in Portland, with this tableau of cruising through Hollywood.  DSCF6243

The food section was great, especially Julia Childs’s reconstructed kitchen.

I started the Natural History museum with Greta, but my willingness to look at taxidermy animals is much lower than hers, especially when some of the greatest paintings in the world are across the street.  So I ditched her for the afternoon and went to the National Gallery.  Back in the 80s and mid-90s I’d always enjoyed business trips to DC, as I could spend the day in meetings and then run out to late hours at the art museums.  So an afternoon at the National Gallery was similar to my day at the MFA – a chance to revisit familiar and beloved works, plus notice a few things that were either newly displayed or had escaped my notice.

Highlights included one room full of large portraits by three of my favorite painters -Whistler, Eakins and Sargent – and being able to look back and forth amongst them rapidly, thinking about how different their approaches were.  The Italian Renaissance collection is the best in the country, how can such familiar works just knock you out every time you see them?  One new favorite is this piece by Jacopo Bassano, which seems to be Maritime Mannerism;  to the impossible poses, proportions and colors of Mannerism, we can add the unlikely stability and balance of figures leaping around on tiny boats.  DSCF6290

John F. Peto has always been quirky and entertaining, but I find this painting more satisfying than most:DSCF6422

And what can you say to a room with four Vermeers?  One of the Vermeers in the permenant collection was on loan to the MFA, but they had thankfully replaced it with a loaner from the Rijksmuseum.  DSCF6284
Seeing them reminded me of the time that there was the big Vermeer retrospective in 1995, and the one weekend I was able to see it, Newt Gingrich shut down the Federal government and that was it.  There are many reasons to loathe what has happened to the Republican Party in the past 20 years, but that one tops my personal list.

Moving outside, the relatively new sculpture garden has some fun things, including this Lichtenstein 3-D optical illusion.  DSCF6454

Or you can travel underground, heading towards a galaxy far, far away. DSCF6321

The galleries of the East Building are being remodeled, and an extra floor added on one of the corners, but the atrium remains open.  It is still one of Pei’s best buildings, perhaps as it avoids the usual gypsum board abstract detailing.  In this case, the Washington penchant for marble and grandiosity does pay off.  DSCF6346DSCF6372

And being to see a few Calder mobiles, of varying scales and ages, is great; although as usual, the guards freak out when you blow on them.  DSCF6375DSCF6354

It was wonderful seeing these amazing museums, but we had far too little time, skipping about a dozen other museums I wanted to visit.  When I was planning this trip, I realized we really needed two years to do it right, and that was very evident in Washington.

Smithsonian Natural History Museum

Beware of tigers

Beware of tigers

If you enter from the National Mall side of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, the first thing you see is a mounted bull African Elephant. It is the largest taxidermied specimen in the world, of the largest land animal. On your left continues the Great Mammal Hall. In its entrance, a Bengal Tiger is posed to pounce on you, and a giraffe waves his tongue in greeting through a window. Though the entrance is not laid out in any order I can find beyond looking cool, it quickly segues into being arranged by continent or environment. The region about Australia, being the only continent to house all three subclasses of mammals, explains the differences between placental mammals, marsupials, and monotremes. I’m a big fan of being allowed to poke stuff, so I liked in the polar area where they had a chilled squirrel statue that you could touch, and feel how cold an animal’s body might get during hibernation.

Giraffe in the window

Giraffe in the window

For protection against being pet by small children, porcupines have developed spines

For protection against being pet by small children, porcupines have developed spines



Echidna, one of only two remaining monotremes

Echidna, one of only two remaining species of monotremes

Highly Skilled Indoor Predator

Highly Skilled Indoor Predator

And boasting a giant squid over ten meters in length and a multitude of whale skeletons hung overhead in the two story space, the Ocean Hall of the Smithsonian Natural History museum is an impressive sight. In its section about prehistoric marine animals, it had a Dunkleosteus skull, and the jaw of a shark that basically had a hacksaw as a tongue. I’d say between a quarter and a third of the exhibit was about how humans are destroying the ocean, and how pretty soon it’s just going to be inhabited by massive swarms of jellyfish, which is kind of my worst nightmare.

Ocean Hall

Ocean Hall

Human history, even ancient stuff, has never been a great interest of mine, but the Hall of Human Origins presented the information (and I know I sound like a textbook critic here) in a clear and compelling fashion. The hall had recently been re-done, and incorporated videos and technology efficiently. They even had a booth where you could have your picture taken, and then modify it to see what you might look like as another species of hominid. Much more detailed than what you might learn in school, instead of just talking about Neanderthals and Australopithecus Afarensis, the direct ancestor to us, Homo Sapien Sapiens, it had models and statues of others, like the hobbit-sized people of Polynesia.
The third floor, usually home to the dinosaur exhibit, was closed for renovation, but they had a smaller Dino hall set up near the mummies. It only contained a few full skeletons, and was obviously aimed towards young kids, but for a temporary exhibit it was rather well put-together. Like at the Carnegie, they had a fossil lab with large windows, so visitors could look in at how fossils are prepared for exhibits.
The Geologic exhibit held the world-famous Hope Diamond. Not being the kind of girl who’s interested in jewelry, I liked the crystal ball better. A large sphere of clear polished Quartz, when you looked into it, it showed the room and everything in it upside down, like a spoon does when you hold it the right distance from your face. Even cooler than this though, was the large piece of naturally magnetic rock. Not behind a glass case (yes!), it was covered in paper clips that you could experiment with sticking to it.

Magnetic Rock

Magnetic Rock



But surprisingly, my favorite exhibit didn’t contain any taxidermy. The temporary show, Nature’s Greatest Photography, was simply a gallery filled with large prints of the winning photos from the Windland Smith Rice International Contest. One of my favorites in it was a picture of two Bush Rabbits playing, where they are touching noses, with one flying high in the air. To me it seems like a cartoon, where the pretty girl finally kisses the awkward boy, and he’s so surprised and happy he literally jumps. The exhibit actually prompted me to buy a catalogue of its photos in the gift shop.
Unlike the American Museum of Natural History in New York, it’s free. It also will let you in by yourself if you’re under 16, which is why you won’t see a blog post about that museum. I didn’t go into the insect exhibit, but I’ve been told that you should go see the butterflies, if you’re ever in DC.

College friends

As I was planning this trip and listing all the old friends we’d be able to visit, I discovered, to my amazement, that Greta was actually interested in meeting more of my college friends. She knew Dan and Mike and Bob, and she found them really entertaining – smart and funny and very offbeat, so she assumed the others would be the same.

I met Isadore Katz because he went to prep school with Bill, one of my freshman roommates. I distinctly remember this very intense person showing up during freshman year, complaining about Rochester and its miserable weather, where he had made the mistake of deciding to go to college. The next year Iz rectified this by transferring to Wesleyan, and he would stop in to visit us when he was back in Boston. He lived with members of our crowd sometimes in summers, and back in 1977 he and I spent a week together hiking the ridgeline around the Pemigewasset Wilderness in the White Mountains.peeps019

Isadore moved back to Boston to work as a consultant after college, so we hung out for a couple of years until I moved to New York for grad school. Isadore started at the Sloane School at MIT at the same time, and when I asked him how business school was, he said, You’d be surprised at what passes for a concept around here. He lived with us in NY during a summer internship in 1983.  After school Iz worked in the expanding computer industry, and met his wife Chris, a very cool and laid-back architect who had the good sense to not marry another architect. They moved off to Silicon Valley in the mid-80s, and after I moved to Oregon in 1990, I would see them whenever I went down to the Bay Area. Iz and Chris raised three wild and crazy girls, who have now grown up to be in law school at Berkeley, working in tech in Silicon Valley, and in college at Barnard. (One of the secondary goals of this trip has been to reconnoiter the terrain on how smart and independent girl-children turn out.)

Isadore has always had another one of those jobs where we can never quite figure out what he does, although in this case it’s not due to the vagueness of the job description, but rather to the complexity of the technology involved. He’s mainly been in the management end of the high tech industry, although after the Crash, he spent a couple of years working as a consultant at the Veterans Administration, essentially reconfiguring their database operation. About a decade ago, back in Massachusetts, he started a company that, as far as I can tell, designs software for chip manufacturers to help them model real, versus theoretical, chip performance, before they put a design into production.DSCF4787Is and Chris live in Harvard, Mass, out in the woods past I-495, a short walk from Fruitlands, the transcendentalist utopian community started by the Alcotts and others.  Staying with them felt like being home – a modern house with lots of windows looking at the trees, a few days eating and drinking, and relentless storytelling and joking with two of the cleverest people I know. Isadore’s brother Seth, another friend from long ago, dropped in from his home in Florida, and we all got to reminisce about crummy apartments in Somerville and life before we became middle-aged.DSCF4791


Bob Beckman was one of my freshman roommates. I walked into our five-person suite, and saw that half of one room was already occupied, by someone who had left an olive-drab, gigantic filing cabinet, with a bar and padlock across the drawers. I immediately decided to take my chances on the other double room. Bob showed up and confirmed my take on him – a serious science nerd from the Philadelphia area, whose career orientation had been jumpstarted by his technocrat father (who had also supplied the government surplus file cabinet). In high school Bob had been a Westinghouse science competition national finalist with his research into sleep patterns, and this direction continued with his advanced standing concentration as a pre-med.

Bob’s seemed to conform to the absent-minded nerd stereotype: incredibly brilliant and relatively incompetent in dealing with the real world (manifested in such incidents as his first attempt to cook a hamburger, when it became clear he had no idea that you had to flip them). But contrary to type, Bob was one of the wittiest and most social people around. After graduating from college early, Bob worked in a lab for a year, and had weekly gatherings at his apartment for his college buddies, featuring endless guitar jams and truly awful spaghetti dinners.   He also began his association with a lab at UW, furthering his research into a mathematically-based approach to understanding cancer. (Yes, Bob has another one of those careers I can’t understand, despite his repeated efforts to explain it to me.) Bob then entered the Harvard-MIT joint MD-PhD program, sharing an apartment with Isadore throughout this period, as his cooking skills marginally improved after determined effort.  Bob moved off to California for his residency, where he met his wife Susan, a medical social worker from Rhode Island, whose good sense, unflappable disposition, and extreme competence have provided the bedrock upon which Bob could continue his stereotypical scientist life.DSCF6265Bob worked as a pediatric oncologist, but finally gave up on the clinical career when the unique American medical insurance situation made it impossible for him to practice medicine in the way he knew it should be practiced. He went to work on the East Coast for a succession of pharmaceutical companies over the next two decades, designing cancer drug trials, and trying to survive the corporate politics, while he and Susan raised two great kids, Daniel (now working for the NPS at Saguaro, whom we plan on visiting next month) and Laura, an artist in New York. Bob was appointed a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, where he furthered his continued interest in cancer research, while still holding down his day job.

A few years ago Bob mentioned that with the kids grown and retirement money stashed away, he’d like to return to research full time, using the last decade of his career to consolidate his theoretical approach to cancer. I warned him that the institutional nuttiness of academia was different from, but not necessarily any better than that in large corporations, but he didn’t listen. So last fall Bob got an appointment as a professor at Georgetown. He works with some graduate students, but his main job is to secure funding and pursue his unique direction in cancer research. We stayed with Bob and Susan in the little rowhouse they’re renting in Georgetown, where they are thrilled with the possibilities of urban life, after a few decades in suburbia in the northeast.DSCF6267


Norman Rave was another resident of our freshman dorm of misfits and savants. He arrived as a relatively conservative graduate of a Jesuit high school in Cincinnati, and along with us other lapsed Catholics, left the trapping of that life behind fairly quickly. Going off to college allows you to reinvent yourself, and Norman took advantage of this in the best possible way, combining his academic interest in biochemistry with his other strong predilections for literature and philosophy. Long rambling conversations with Norman about the meaning of life were some of the highpoints of college for me.

Norman always wore a weirdly wide range of eclectic tee-shirts, which I at first took to be the expression of an extremely ironic viewpoint, but it turned out that he just shopped at a store in Cincinnati which sold remaindered and misprinted shirts really cheaply.  When this sartorial approach combined with Norman’s decision to stop cutting his hair or his beard, his appearance became the quintessence of the mid-70s college student, and he was known as Troll thereafter.
redwood021Norman got into grad school at Berkeley, so the summer after college, he and Dan Rabin and I drove across the country together, packed into an old Datsun B210 with all of Norman’s possessions. The person riding in the backseat was unable to move at all, and our overall appearance was such that we were shocked at the laxity of US law enforcement in that no one ever pulled us over. This was the first cross-country drive for any of us (I am in the middle of my 11th right now), but it just started a trend for Norman. He decided he didn’t like grad school, so he drove back to the east, and then back and forth a few times as he tried to figure out what to do with his life.

At some point he stumbled upon a position working in a lab at Princeton, which was of little long-term professional import, but where he met Ginny, a post doc in the lab, who would later become his wife.  (I didn’t get  a good photo of Norman and Ginny, but they still look remarkably like they did 35 years ago, except for the hair length.)  RavesThey lived in Boston and then DC, as Norman decided he was more interested in the policy side of environmental issues, and he attended Georgetown Law School. Norman eventually ended up at the DOJ, while he and Ginny raised three kids in Rockville. Ginny spent years as a full-time mom, but began teaching high school science about ten years ago, and recently led a group of students on a field trip to the Amazon (she is nothing like any of the science teachers I ever had.)

We got to meet Kate, who is living at home while considering grad school (maybe in Oregon), and Will, who attends George Washington University. (Greta realized she had picked up yet another member for her cool nerdy posse when Kate opened the front door wearing her Welcome to Nightvale tee shirt.) Helen is off at Harvard Law, where she has actually studied environmental law cases that were argued by her father. Greta and I had a great time hanging around with all of them; most of my friends are now empty-nesters, and eating family dinners and spending time with a crowd was a nice change on our trip. And Norman and I got to sit around drinking bourbon and yacking, which we hadn’t done in 20 years.

At one point I asked Greta what she thought about all these friends she’d now met. She said it was fun, but strange. Little kids largely grow up in the world their parents construct for them, listening to the stories their parents tell. Greta had heard stories about these people throughout her life – Bob Stories are an especially iconic category among my people – and long ago they had assumed almost mythical status in her cosmology.  So while it was nice to meet the real people, the legends were somewhat diminished now.  Greta enjoyed getting to know Norman, but she’ll never have the same innocent fascination with Troll that she had before.