Sunday, May 29, 2011

Notes from Vacation, Part 2

So what exactly did we do on this sightseeing trip? Good question, that. There's so much to see in DC that you are wise to make lists of "what we have to do" vs. "what we'd like to do." Then you still have some whittling in front of you, but you are far less likely to wear yourselves out. That's worth considering - we were lucky with the weather in that it was overcast (even a little drizzly here and there) which kept the heat down. I worked for a year in DC and the heat can be oppressive. It tends to get very humid as well, which can make for unpleasant "hiking around" weather.

While we didn't manage everything even on our "cut down" list, what we did see, we can say with certainty that we saw at our own pace and saw thoroughly as opposed to "hurry, hurry - snap our photos, back on the bus." (Aside - don't do those tours. There are so many "virtual tours" you can take through the technology of the Internet that if you're just taking a trip to say you saw some particular piece of art - be that David in Florence or the Hope Diamond in DC - skip the crowded tour, get yourself a cool drink and call it up on a good-sized computer screen and visit as long as you want to.) Sightseeing is about seeing the sights you didn't expect to see, so allow time for unexpected discoveries. For example, on our way to the Holocaust Museum, I spied a five-foot wooden cutout of Smokey the Bear and decided it would make a cute photo. An amused man outside informed us that the scaffold-covered building was actually the home of the U.S. Forest Service and that we should duck inside and see what was what. He was right - it was a side trip that we never would have made otherwise. And let's just say that the animatronic Smokey in his office was clearly designed to talk to the small fry. His eyes were set at the right height for children, but when talking to me - well, the focus of his gaze seemed a little risque.

We spent a lot of time in both the Natural History and American History museums - the first was always a favorite of mine (but really - re-setting the Hope Diamond? I felt old and curmudgeonly when I wanted it to be the "old" way) and it's been re-done and updated. I liked the old, 1950s diorama feel of it before, but I must say it's cool to have so much out from behind glass cases. (Interestingly, inside a glass case in the middle of the dinosaur bones is a room full of working scientists. Odd, I thought. I didn't try to feed them and I didn't even tap on the glass, tempting as it was.) In the "bug room," I got to hold a live Lubber grasshopper (which is horror movie big) and chat with volunteers (who were of regular size). So much to discuss - just go to the Website here and make plans to spend several hours in this place when you go to DC.

The American History museum was likewise a feast. They had an especially nice exhibit on Abraham Lincoln's presidency. The most shocking part was seeing the difference between the two "life masks" of Lincoln. Made only about five years apart, the aging of Lincoln is obvious; clear evidence of the wear the Civil War had on him. There's also a nice (and soon to be expanded) exhibit of popular culture items in this museum, with items ranging from Dorothy's ruby slippers to Archie Bunker's battered easy chair.

We made a special trip to both the Grant Memorial and the WW2 Memorial, neither of which I'd ever seen. Both are worth the short hike. They are on opposite ends of the Mall, so keep that in mind. We went to one a day. The Grant Memorial is a great place to sit and think. Grant is astride his magnificent warhorse Cincinnati (the pair of them are at the top of the post) and seems to be a calm presence with chaos swirling on both sides in the side sculptures of artillery and cavalry. Go see it.

The plaza-like WW2 Memorial is also a calm place that manages to speak to the sacrifices and cost of war. Most striking to me is the reflecting pool which shimmers with the double image of gold stars, each one representing 100 fallen Americans.

We had gotten tickets to the Holocaust Museum early in our trip planning and I cannot encourage your enough to visit this museum. Without a doubt, it is the most carefully designed museum I've ever been to. Exhibits are thoughtful and horrifying. We lingered so long that we didn't have time to thoroughly explore the museum shop (I know - a gift shop seemed faintly disrespectful, like a hot dog cart at Dachau, but it was done thoughtfully and I wish we'd had more time there). It's not a light, carefree experience, but it's one I'm very glad we made time to have.

That's the quick rundown. Now we're both back and both deeply immersed in our respective summer schools - all the more reason to be glad we had the trip!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Notes from Vacation, Part 1

FryDaddy and I spent most of last week on a sightseeing trip to Our Nation's Capital. While both of us had been to DC before, we'd never gone together and neither of us had been there in the recent past. Knowing that it was useless to attempt to see everything, Fry was in charge of the "what to see" portion of the trip, which we decided to approach as An Adventure. Keep in mind that the following only represents our own experiences; your mileage may vary and contents may have shifted during transport.

First off, we decided to travel via Megabus. While the return trip was closer to the advertising (which indicated a near-rockstar tour bus experience - lots of room, WiFi, heck, probably someone there to entertain the kids with creative balloon animals!), the trip up was rough. Surly driver, shabby vehicle and I had a sinking feeling about this trip. It's not always best to go cheapest. Consider that you're dropped off in an uncovered parking lot a few blocks from Union Station. Yep. Just a parking lot. I'd suggest re-thinking this part - it was cheap, but it also felt cheap. Thanks are due to Victorian Marxist who not only dropped us off and picked us up, but kept his opinions about the wisdom of our travel plans to himself (mostly).

Rather than a hotel (which can be criminally expensive in DC), we booked the downstairs "mother-in-law" suite of a schoolteacher's house in northeast DC. We had plenty of room, lots of hot water, a comfortable bed - really, there was no downside here. I'd heartily recommend booking through anytime you plan on travelling. Accommodations range from "hey, I've got a blow-up mattress on the floor of what's usually my study!" to entire houses.

For the actual sightseeing, we had decided to stick mostly to the National Mall. That meant we needed to figure out both the bus system (to get to the Metro) and the Metro itself. Piece of cake and we were both bowled over by the kindness of people to obvious tourists in the city. A Metro agent came out of his cubicle to walk two NC hick types through the ticket machine process (rechargeable SmarTrip cards are the way to go, baby!) and a bus driver actually waved us by when we were fumbling with the cards.

I have to mention our first night in town. We were bushed from the ride on CrampedBus (to the point we paid way too much to a gypsy cab driver to get to the house. He was very nice - who wouldn't be to the rubes who got so willingly rooked? - and we just were beyond caring at that point. We got suggestions for a nearby place to eat (we later bought groceries at the neighborhood bodega, but weren't up to it at that moment) and hot-footed it down the street to a Tex-Mex place. It was dark by the time we got finished eating and my ankle was making its still healing presence known. We were discussing what was best - hail a cab or puzzle out the bus system? - when I leaned over to the couple next to us and just asked for help.

The lesson is: Always ask for help.

Turns out the couple runs a Website devoted to publicizing all that is good to see, eat, hear, etc. in DC and they both see themselves as unofficial ambassadors of the city. They listened to our question and then said, with utter sincerity, "We live in the neighborhood. We can help you figure it out, but would you rather us just give you a lift?"


Remember the lesson: Always ask for help. Most people like being asked and some will go way beyond the call.

Next post - museums, monuments and some moments that stopped us in our tracks.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Five, Six, Se-ven, Eight!

For about a week, I'm in that lovely in-between time that occurs when one semester is finished before another one begins. It's especially pronounced between spring and summer, since my summer teaching load is so light (only one class, since I taught over my contractual requirements in spring) and yet such a concentrated class. (Seriously - I warn my students on Day 1 not to confuse my summer college class with Vacation Bible School. If they want three college credits, they're in the right place and shall continue to be there for the next five weeks every day class meets and they will come prepared. If they want to learn about everlasting love and watch a bean seed grow in a Styrofoam cup, they ought to hie themselves elsewhere. Enrollment tends to drop after Day 1.)

But that's next week. Since last we spoke, papers, tests, and projects were graded, grades were calculated and then posted. (Within two hours, I had the first complaint, but that's another story.) Graduation was held and the rain even held off from drenching the outside ceremony. I always rather enjoy commencement, despite the heat and the hard aluminum bleachers. Our students have accomplished something - and often something big that other people had mistakenly told them they couldn't do, and that's worth some noise and a sore behind. (Note to students coming up - it's also worth learning the value of subject/verb agreement and coherent thought. Just sayin'.) I spent the last half of this week cleaning the office and decompressing from a long, tough slog through the spring semester. Some of that involved getting out of town and doing some light hiking (the right ankle still goes "ow!" sometimes, so I pretty much just strolled in the woods), eating food that was deliciously bad for me, getting to know my faithful dog again, browsing in a book store or two, and spending time with the man who knew my moods, yet married me despite them.

The latter is something we intend to continue this week as he finally receives his Christmas present, which is a short vacation spent sightseeing without conferences, medical appointments, or anything else other than "hey, you want to tackle the Natural History museum or that place with the spatter paintings?" (He likes Jackson Pollock way more than I do.) There will be adventures galore to relate to you, as we're making this a Vacation on an Academic Budget, which is to say we're traveling only slightly higher up the food chain than when I was a student staying in the cheapest of hostels and traveling on a ticket stamped "cattle class." (I regret none of that, by the way. You meet very interesting people and gain a sense of freedom and curiosity.) We're traveling by Megabus (sounds like a horror movie, doesn't it?) and staying in a place we discovered through a Website that's a house, not a hotel. (Hey - before you knock us for traveling by bus - no two hour early check in, no baggage fees, free Wi-Fi and more leg room. I'll tell you what it was like, but I just might turn into a fan. And don't even think of that "they're gone. I'll break into their house and take all their academically-oriented books to resell on eBay!" Three words - "big dog" and "house-sitter.")

FryDaddy and I may have finished our respective academic dances for the semester, but we spent a chunk of yesterday at a dance recital. Our goddaughter, Ramona, takes lessons in dance and gymnastics (also karate - she's testing for her yellow belt in about a month) and it was her time to show off a year's worth of work. Also, her mother, Barefoot, was in an adult tap class (that sounds dirty, but it isn't. Just a class for over-18s.) along with Librarian Who and another friend of ours. Wow. Not having grown up with the dance recital culture, this was eye-opening to me. We went last year for the first time, so I knew a little bit of what to expect (I packed a snack, for instance.) While many of the numbers were distinguished by cute-as-proverbial-buttons outfits (especially the "Mary Poppins" and other little kid numbers), a few stood out, such as the annual "Daddies & Daughters" number, which featured large, often burly men, gamely strutting about with bright pink socks that matched their daughters' tutu-esque dresses. The little girls couldn't have been older than four and the overall effect was one of charm and adoration.

The same could not be said of a couple of other numbers, about which I shall be silent other than saying three things. 1 - Please pay attention to costuming, especially your high school aged girls. 2 - Listen to the lyrics before choosing the music. 3 - Resist cheap sentiment. It makes it look like you don't trust your dancers to communicate the basic ideas of the piece. I feel like a curmudgeon, but if I'm going to pay to be there for 3 plus hours with no way to use the ladies' rest room, I get to snark.

Dance shoes were in evidence yesterday - ballet, jazz, tap. I even got into the act with my latest present from FryDaddy. For years, I'd wanted these and had always talked myself out of getting - they just weren't practical. Then I saw that high-top Chucks have gone way beyond plain canvas. Mine are at the top of the post - double tongued, black-with-lavender. Do they probably look silly on me? Yep, and what's it to you? Much better than charging the cost of the mortgage for a pair of strappy sandals. I'm not really a "shoe hog," but I have to admit, these make me smile.

Off to the office - must get prepped for the first day back so craziness can be kept at a minimum when I actually get back.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mother's Day

So today is Mother's Day - a day set aside to honor our mothers and the difficult job they took on when we came into their lives. Face it, we're all born uncivilized little ego-machines and (to use a horribly overworked cliche) it takes a village to transform us into reasonably useful, compassionate citizens. While we're facing things, face the fact that most of the village goes home at night, leaving moms with the night shift - and often the day shift and swing shift.

The date of Mother's Day varies from country to country, but a few things remain constant. More phone calls are placed today than any other day, and boy howdy! it's flower day! Restaurants also love this day - it's actually the most popular day to eat out.

Although we won't be together today (end of semester grading is a pain in more ways than one), my mother is still very much a presence in my life. I appreciate that, for many people, this is a day that may be bittersweet or downright painful. Mothers are incredibly important to our development and to have a lousy childhood due to neglect, indifference, or abuse from our mother is something that I (thankfully) can only imagine. Further, I don't have children of my own (I occasionally borrow, but I always return), so I still have pretty much a grown child's perspective on the holiday.

So I think it's appropriate to look back on that upbringing with a first draft of a list of Things Mom Taught Me:

1. It's correct to address people older than you with "ma'am" or "sir," although once you know them, Miss ____ or Mister ____ can be substituted for people outside the immediate family circle. Hence, "Miss Lucy" might teach your Sunday School class.
2. Know how to cook. The food you create doesn't have to be fancy, but it's better for you and much, much cheaper. (True. I even know how to make jellies and can vegetables. And once I learned that "start in a cold oven" really means it, I learned how to make a pound cake that will knock your flip-flops off!)
3. A clean house is nice, but it's better to step on the occasional Lego or crayon and have happy kids. (Overheard: "I'd rather raise kids than grass.")
4. Playing outside is a good thing - how else will you learn that drinking from a garden hose not only won't hurt you, but also actually tastes really good if the day is hot enough?
5. When currying a horse, brush with the grain there at the end.
6. Read whatever you want to read, but make sure all homework is done first.
7. Not all adults are right all the time, but we're going to be polite about it. And persistent.
8. Pets are pretty much a necessity, but once you have them, you have agreed to take care of them. (I think this is probably good training to have children.)
9. School matters (quite a bit), but never make the mistake of thinking that makes you better than someone who didn't walk that path. When you need a plumber, you don't need an English major.
10. Being "ladylike" is not a bad thing. People may think that it's out of style or determined by the wearing of hats and gloves, but people are often wrong, and here's an example. Little is less ladylike than snootiness and a disdain for work. The need for compassion and grace remains constant and improving society, whether in the raising of a good child or the planting of an iris bed, generally requires a willingness to get one's hands dirty.

I haven't always lived up to all of these (frozen dinners are my friend, especially during the semester) and like most kids - even the grown ones - I haven't always appreciated the advice. But I do today.

Thanks, Mom! For absolutely everything.

Sunday, May 1, 2011


Sorry for the unusual delay between posts, Readers Mine, but things have been hectic here at the Nest. The end of the semester is always rushbusyrush, but on top of that, I had the wonderful opportunity to present at the National Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association conference which was recently held in San Antonio, Texas. I maintain another blog for such professional activities (observations from my film class, writing projects - that sort of thing) and I was busily posting there about that conference and rather neglected things over here. I'm not going to recap here, but if you want to read details about that conference - which really was fabulous - click here then scroll down to April 2011. The pertinent entries are there, titled with imaginative monikers such as "Day One," "Day Two," and so on.

Today is May Day. As one of my friends has pointed out, the first of May is one of those "supernatural hotspot" dates - just about everybody attaches some significance to it. It's an important day for Celts, laborers, lawyers, communists, military leaders, spring lovers, Christians, and the Norse - and that's only naming a few! It also happens to be my and FryDaddy's anniversary of entering into the state of wedding bliss. It's been quite the first year and we look forward to many, many, many more.

Since he's a student, we celebrated yesterday rather than today. (He's on his way back to school for his final exam tomorrow. Latin. "Romance language," my foot!) It was a pleasant celebration, though. There was a spring festival here in town, so we went out to nose around craft stalls and exclaim over the work of artisans - jewelery, woodworking, painting, ceramics, textiles - all sorts of items were there, along with the first farmer's market of the season. (Strawberry bread. Who'd've thunk?) We had a fabulous candlelit dinner at home and exchanged gifts.

Now, among my people, the first anniversary gift is supposed to involve paper. We're both book people, so I figured that was the appropriate way to go and my gifts to FryDaddy were well-received. However, FryDaddy is a creative romantic. He worked with the minister who performed our ceremony and got his original hand-written notes on our wedding readings. This is what the minister used to craft his personalized wedding message to us. He took the readings, complete with gloss, to a framer and I think it's one of the most delightful, unique, and flat-out wonderful gifts ever! (Aside - it would seem that FryDaddy likes to make me cry on May 1. He's done it three years running now.)

So although we're not spending the whole actual anniversary day together, well, life is like that sometimes. He's off studying verbs and such and will be back tomorrow after the exam is finished. I, meanwhile, will still have stacks of end-of-semester grading to do for another week and a half. But I have those readings hanging by the door where I'll see them every time I leave this house we're busily working to turn into a home.

(stops typing to glance at the glossed readings)

Yeah. It's been a good year.

PS - For a great read about "gloss," click here.