Thursday, April 30, 2009

Zimerman Speaks his Mind

For those who haven't heard, reknowned Polish classical pianist Krystian Zimerman announced last week that he is refusing to play in the United States.  The message boads in and out of the classical music sphere have been alight with the pro and con of KZ's remarks. 

KZ is a sensitive artist. Notice I used the word sensitive, not eccentric or crazy. He is not an assembly line pianist like Ashkenazy. He is driven by perfection and not compromise. Part of that perfectionism is that he likes to take his own piano with him. (Horowitz - who would have agreed with KZ politically - did the same thing, but in an era when Steinway would foot part of the bill and take care of transportation.) As a former tech, I admire the fact that KZ has taken the time to learn about his instrument. Most pianists don't know beans about how pianos actually work.

As for the political statements: I happen to agree with most of what he said, although I'm baffled by the timing since the recent election was a repudiation of those policies. However, even if I had disagreed (for example, if he'd made some kind of rant against President Obama) I'd have either silently left the concert or stayed and not gone to hear him again. Entertainers, along with everyone else, have the right to say what they want, and we have the right to patronize them or not. That's one reason I don't watch Mel Gibson's films.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Return Home from DC

I decided this morning to skip a tentatively planned trip to Mount Vernon and go directly home. With the price of admission, the limitations on photography, and the delay in getting home, it just didn’t seem worth it. I could tell Danny was disappointed, so I decided to award him a consolation prize – more on that later.

After carbo loading at a nearby IHOP, we were on our way. Unlike the trip to DC, the weather was cooperative and within four hours we were pulling in to the IKEA at Robinson Towne Center, much to Danny's surprise and delight. I wasn’t planning on buying much much. Of course, we wound up getting quite a bit. We were home by late afternoon, and were relieved to find the house had been unmolested and no appliances had been accidentally left on.

As soon as the car was unpacked, we were on our way in Danny’s Yaris to the West Side to pick up Mason. It was a joyous reunion and a fitting conclusion to an eventful, but exhausting trip.

Friday, April 24, 2009

DC: Day 5

Despite being out on our voyage to nowhere last night, Danny and I awoke early. After an uninspiring meal at the hotel restaurant, we hopped the shuttle to Rosslyn (where we bought all day passes), and hopped on the Metro to Arlington National Cemetery.

Despite the early hour, it was busy and filling up fast. We walked past the rows of simple headstones marked with crosses and Stars of David, and followed the signs to John F Kennedy’s grave. Buried next to him are his wife, and their first child, who was stillborn, and Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, who was born in 1963 and died two days later. The Eternal Flame burned stubbornly, despite the windy day. Though the crowd was quiet, many were snapping photos of the grave, which I thought inappropriate.

After a few moments of contemplation, Danny and I headed up the path to a grave marked by a simple wooden cross, painted white. Robert F. Kennedy was buried here less than five years after his brother was laid to rest. Few were present, but I was more moved here than at JFK’s grave. Because of the growing crowd, Danny and I decided not to view the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns, and headed back to the Metro.

From there, we went to Pentagon City, which is a four story mall located next to the Pentagon. It’s similar to Beachwood Place, meaning it has a lot of specialty stores with grossly overpriced merchandise – like $25 pens. Danny and I were getting bored, so we were soon back on the Metro to DC.

It was a hot day, so we took a leisurely walk up 17th Street, stopping at a park and observing the hustle and bustle before stopping at Annie’s Paramount Steakhouse in time for a late lunch. After arriving there, I realized I’d been there with Mark during our visit in 2001. Our flirty waiter didn’t rush us, and we enjoyed a quiet lunch with some of the best Fish & Chips I’ve ever tasted.

Then we headed to 16th Street and walked off lunch, heading back to the White House. While sitting in Lafayette Park, we observed a protest and listened to a street preacher who was apparently high on something. Then we headed down 17th Street on our way to get a second look at the Memorials.

By now, I was feeling the pull of home. We were both missing Mason, and I was looking forward to getting back to work on the house. Perhaps that’s one reason for vacations, to help one appreciate simple blessings. Our lives may not be monumental or important in the grand scheme of things. But after a long and winding path, I’ve found a measure of happiness.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

DC: Day 4

Danny and I took a break from DC today and headed to Monticello.

It was only a week ago that I realized Thomas Jefferson’s estate was only two hours from DC, and I’ve been curious about it for years. Since my childhood, I’ve heard the word Monticello mispronounced frequently, as I
grew up two blocks from a street by that name. For the record, it’s pronounced: MON-ti-CHELL-o, and it means "little mountain".

Programming my handy GPS, we headed southwest from Arlington, stopping at a McDonald's once out of the DC metro area. There had been word of traffic accidents on the beltway. Fortunately, we were heading in the other direction and the ride was pleasant – especially after we got onto a country road. Danny and I were greatly amused to see a large sign at a local shop: WE HAVE CRABS! I wanted to stop in a recommend Kwell.

We rode up a winding road toward the visitors’ center, only opened a few  weeks ago. While on the way in, my cell phone rang with a call from Mark about putting on Mason’s special harness. Mason has been doing well, and not giving Mark too much trouble, although Mark’s dogs are not used to being herded like sheep.

The tour begins with a 15 minute film about Jefferson’s life and Monticello. It pulls no punches, and notes Jefferson’s contradictions and flaws, especially regarding the fact that Jefferson, who wrote eloquently
against slavery, kept slaves himself – and even fathered at least one child with slave Sally Hemings. As if that weren’t enough, apparently Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife (who died when Jefferson was only
39). Unlike, say, the Reagan Library – which conspicuously fails to mention the Iran-Contra scandal – Monticello gives the unvarnished truth. The private organization has even gone so far as excavating the slave
cabins and other structures where slaves and some paid laborers worked.

After the film, we headed via bus up a steep path to Jefferson’s home (it has been featured on the back of the US. Nickel.).


The house tour is scheduled to prevent overcrowding, so we looked around outside.
The main house is bracketed by two large semi-underground wings which were called dependencies. The South wing included a kitchen, smoke house, and quarters for the cook and for domestic slaves (including Sally). At the end of this wing was the original one room house where Jefferson and his wife lived while the main house was being built. The North wing included a laundry room, horse stable, and ice pit which was large enough to keep food cold well into the hot Virginia summer. Both wings contained a privy. The wings were connected via an underground passage that ran underneath the main house.

The kitchen was especially well designed, with four charcoal burners and an oven. Rather than having a waiter serve the food to guests, the cook would bring the prepared dishes to a room underneath the dining room, and raise them via a dumbwaiter hidden behind the dining room fireplace. Jefferson and guests would serve themselves.

Our tour time approached and we headed toward the house. The entry room was filled with artifacts from Jefferson’s time, including many Native American items sent by Louis & Clark. The entryway was crowned by a clock which told not only the time but day of the week. From there, we toured several rooms, the most interesting being Jefferson’s combined bedroom and office, where there were numerous gadgets. It was there I was surprised to learn that Jefferson had only one patent to his name, for a special plow. Many other items credited to Jefferson, like the polygraph, were improvements on others’ ideas.

After completing the tour, Danny and I headed down Mulberry Row toward Jefferson’s grave. Actually, it’s a small graveyard which is owned by Jefferson’s descendants and fenced off.

We then headed down the path back to the visitors’ center, spending too much money at the gift shop before going on our way.

On the way into Monticello, we had spotted a tavern, and decided to go there for lunch. Michie Tavern is a 225 year old restaurant which serves buffet style dishes as they were prepared in the 18th Century. I had no
idea fried chicken was available back then. But it was, and Michie’s beats the hell out of KFC. There were also baked beans but I like the Boston variety better. The only modern item on the menu was Pepsi, but I’m not
complaining. Emily, our charming waitress, gave the history of the place and insisted on getting us more food from the buffet. We were well filled!

By the way, Michie’s is situated in a recreated Colonial village, but Danny and I skipped that and headed back to the hotel for a nap.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

DC: Day 3

Danny and I were tired of the hotel restaurant, so we explored around Arlington and found the Silver Diner. We arrived a few minutes before 7am and they weren’t yet opened, but the wait was worth it. Our server was a nice lady named Mama D and the food was delicious!

We caught the 8am shuttle to Rosslyn and by 8:30 we were in downtown DC. As we were heading down 10th street, the buildings looked familiar, and I soon realized we were standing across the street from Ford’s Theatre.

Late in the evening of April 14, 1865, the actor John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln while the President was watching the hit play Our American Cousin. The impact of the bullet, which entered Lincoln’s head behind the left ear, shattered the bones in Lincoln’s face, and nearly dislodged the President’s right eye before coming to rest. While Booth fled the theater, a doctor assessed Lincoln’s wound and determined the President would not survive.

Looking behind me, I saw we were standing next to the Peterson house. The dying President was carried there, and had to be laid out diagonally on the bed due to his great height. At 7:22am, April 15, Lincoln died.

After the saddening tour of Ford’s Theater, Danny and I decided to lighten up, and headed up the street to Madame Tussaud’s Wax museum. We’ve been to the Niagara Falls branch, but the DC location is appropriately focused on American historical figures. The pictures say it all:

It was rather chilly and damp outside as we headed toward the National Archives. A long line indicated we were in for a wait before we saw the Charters of Freedom - and the staff only allow a limited number of people in the building at once. A light drizzle had been falling, and five minutes before we entered the Archives, the skies opened up. Fortunately, we had an umbrella. Once in the building, we headed for the Charters. The parchments are so faded by now as to be illegible. The room is dimly lit to prevent further deterioration, and flash photography is of course forbidden. I was deeply moved even though we have a long way to go before we’re truly free.

There’s much more at the Archives than the Charters. We viewed several displays along with a film about how the Archives can help people trace their genealogy. I know but little about my family history past my grandparents.

Near the National Archives is the Natural history museum we abandoned on Tuesday. We went to the second floor to view the gemstone display which culminated with the Hope Diamond. I must confess that diamonds, gold, silver and the like do not impress me. They have no intrinsic value, beyond appearance and rarity. Unlike music, for example, they are passive and don’t “do” anything.

Far more interesting to me was the display of various skeletons, including a Collie who may well have been an ancestor of Mason.

The afternoon was racing by, and by the time we headed next door to the American history museum, we were getting hungry. We caught a display on Lincoln and another on the Presidency, then a moment of relaxing in the café before heading back to Arlington.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

DC: Day 2

Danny and I awoke early Saturday morning and had breakfast at the hotel restaurant. The food is as non-descript as the place’s name: “The Restaurant.” Denny’s style food but at a higher price.

We then caught the hotel shuttle to the Rosslyn Metro station and it was there that I was glad we stayed in Arlington. The DC Metro system, which includes both rail and bus, is the finest I’ve encountered - it even eclipses Boston’s. The stations are clean and the staff and security helpful and friendly.

After emerging in DC, I was in familiar territory. So, I casually walked south toward Lafayette Park. The trees were in full bloom, so the North Portico of the White House was obscured until we were on the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue. The vista presented itself to a surprised Danny. Even at this early hour there were hordes of tourists outside.

Shortly afterwards, we were pushed back toward the east gate by security. Apparently, the president was preparing to leave because barricades were set up by the east gate to allow his limo to pass. We waited for a while, but eventually left before seeing him.

We then headed south, passing by the Washington Monument on our way to the World War II memorial. This was not in place the last time I was in DC. It’s an extremely well planned memorial, and appropriately, well, monumental for a conflict which claimed 405,000 American lives.

Then we took a circular route encompassing the Vietnam War, Lincoln, and Korean War memorials. At the Lincoln memorial we saw the ugly side of modern tourism, and confirmed that certain national stereotypes are entirely earned. Despite the signs which encourage silence and respect, people within the memorial were chattering away with each other and on cellphones. But not everyone was yakking. The Asian tourists were respectful, even reverent. I heard two languages being spoken, English and French. Since “Silence” is spelled the same in French as it is in English, I can only assume there is a mass epidemic of illiteracy in France, as there is in the United States.

I am not a tight-ass, but there are times when respect is warranted and this was one of them. It put me in a bad mood while we walked through the Mall to the Smithsonian museums.

After noshing on hot dogs served by a cute vendor, we partook of the Smithsonian Air & Space museum. There are so many artifacts of humankind’s journey into the heavens that describing them would be lengthy. Suffice it to say, however, that no visit to this museum is complete without seeing the original model of the Starship Enterprise, which is located in the gift shop.

Next door is the museum of the American Indian. This museum is new, so it may explain why there are relatively few artifacts there. There was an introductory film, which was presented in a circular room on multiple screens. The exhibits were not well presented and mostly unlabelled.

By now, we were getting tired and my feet were hurting. Nevertheless, we took in the first floor of the Natural History museum. Cleveland own museum is very similar to this, in layout and content. There are the usual sections on dinosaurs and early marine life.

Now exhausted, and with rain approaching, we headed to the Metro for our ride back to Arlington, dinner, and sleep.

Before closing this entry let me relate how impressed I am with Arlington. I’m not fond of the South, but Arlington is diverse, bustling, and interesting. It’s really more an extension of DC than a part of Virginia. Perhaps because of its proximity to DC, the recession does not seem to exist there.

Monday, April 20, 2009

DC: Day 1

We awakened at 5am. We had already packed on Sunday, so all that was left was to have breakfast, close down the house, and drop Mason off at Mark’s. The last part was the most challenging. We took Mason in Danny’s car arrived at Mark’s place around 7:15. Mason was so busy playing with Buster and Honey (who Mark inherited from his uncle) that he didn’t notice when we left. Danny and I, however, were weepy within a few minutes of our departure. We raced back to the east side, double checked that the heat, lights, and appliances were off, boarded my car, and we were on our way.

The drive itself was not too eventful, except for some bad weather which put us behind schedule. The route took us through some dreary towns. There are parts of Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio that I can’t imagine anyone wanting to live in - where the local economy revolves around the rest areas and restaurants.

We’re staying at the Days Inn in Arlington. I basically chose this hotel because it’s the cheapest I could find and it provides a shuttle to the Rosslyn Metro station, which can get us to any place in DC. All the hotels in DC proper were hugely expensive, and charged extra for parking.

After settling in, we crashed for a while before hopping into my car and heading to DC. We parked on Ohio Drive and I showed Danny the FDR memorial.

We were unable to walk along the Tidal Basin because it was flooded over. So, we took the upper sidewalk and headed for the Jefferson Memorial. Thomas Jefferson was a complex man who fascinates me - full of contradictions and for all his greatness, deeply flawed.

After driving back to Arlington we grabbed a late dinner at Astor’s Mediterranean restaurant, where I had a delightful vegetarian dish and tea. After a day of burgers and Pepsi, it hit the spot.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Home Improvement

Danny and I began work on the exterior - our summer project.  We're keeping the wood siding for now.  We plan to keep the colors mostly the same, except the grey shutters will be painted Navy Blue, as will the trim around the door.

Front of the house.  I took down the eagle - multiple layers of paint obscured the details.  After the house is repainted, the eagle will be restored and remounted.

The North Wall.  This is the unfortunate view people heading down the road have when approaching our house.  Since it's the tallest house on the block, the wear is painfully obvious.

The South Wall.  This will be the first section to be completed.  The branches from a small tree rubbed against the front corner.  The tree was severely trimmed last week.

Preparing the south wall.  Work had to be abandoned Saturday due to high winds.