When I was seventeen years old, my Aunt Delores took me to see Kathleen Turner in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway. It was 1990; I was a junior in high school; and that was my first Broadway show. Kathleen Turner was a big deal. I knew that because I’d watched The Man With Two Brains and Romancing the Stone at least 100 times each, and I knew all her lines.
I didn’t normally go to Broadway shows. At that point, I didn’t even live in New York State. But I’d gotten an honorable mention in (I think) the Highlights fiction writing contest, and there was going to be an awards ceremony at (I’m pretty sure it was) the Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan. What I definitely didn’t realize at the time was that an invisible web of kindness surrounded me, even at South Side High School in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
South Side was my third high school. There would eventually be four of them. It wasn’t the kind of trouble it sounds like. It was actually pretty boring. I went to 4 elementary schools, one middle school and four high schools because my Dad was always looking for a better job. My parents weren’t in the military, which is what everyone assumed when I said we moved at least every two years. People were usually disappointed to learn the boring truth. So one time, I decided to say something different. Unfortunately, that “one time” was at South Side High School right at the beginning of my junior year, when I was supposed to figure out college and what I was supposed to do to get in. Let’s assume I could have been described as not-exactly-well-off-and-maybe-a-little-stupid-about-how-the-world-works, a.k.a. it sure would have been a good idea to have my high school guidance counselor in my court.
So my new guidance counselor asked, “Why do you move around so much?”
“My parents are running from the law,” I said.
“Really?” He suddenly looked concerned.
I laughed. “No, I’m just kidding.”
That was the first time I ever watched the look in someone’s eyes turn to instant hatred. Apparently, guidance counselors don’t like smart-asses. I didn’t understand at the time how badly I was screwing things up for myself. I thought that was the best answer I’d ever given to the same old question. I went home and told my family about the conversation. We laughed and laughed and laughed. It was pretty funny. For awhile. Nowadays, I tell people I moved around so much when I was a kid because I come from circus-folk. That’s actually pretty close to the mark.
Somehow, the powers-that-be at South Side High School forgave me my insolence. Word of the Highlights honorable mention got out, and I was offered a round trip plane ticket to Albany. Honestly, I didn’t understand it at first. I thought there was a catch. Someone like me without a foot-in-mouth-intercept-team did not have such luck. But there was no catch. I still don’t know who at South Side High School cared so much about me, but I am eternally grateful for what they did.
Aunt Delores picked me up at the Albany Airport. We drove the 2 1/2 hours north to her house through the Adirondacks at night. If you know where things are in Upstate New York, going north from Albany is definitely not in the direction of the Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan. But that didn’t matter to me. I was on an adventure! The next day, we drove south again, past Albany and all the way to Poughkeepsie. There, we got on the train to New York City!
We must have stayed 2 nights, though my memory is hazy. My cousin Adam came along, and he is always entertaining. There was sightseeing and the awards ceremony and a dozen other things we did. My Aunt paid for everything. I still don’t understand how she afforded it, but I knew she was doing something extra-special for me. She was adamant that we go out for a nice steak dinner at Smith and Wollensky. I’d never before been to a restaurant where you ordered the steak separate from the sides. And that one steak cost as much as dinner out for a family of five at the Red Lobster! I don’t remember anything about how the steak tasted. I’m sure it was great, but I was busy being overwhelmed by my Aunt’s kindness.
After dinner, my cousin went back to the hotel while Aunt Delores and I waited near the Eugene O’Neill Theatre box office for tickets to become available for the sold out Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Aunt Delores is a charmer. In no time, we had tickets and were seated inside. Just before the show started, the theatre went quiet. Someone walked in. Another celebrity! In her beautiful Upstate New York accent, Aunt Delores whispered “It’s Danny DeVita!” Not Devito. Devita. The show that followed was electric, though I was having a bit of trouble ignoring the brain in a jar that my mind conjured up every time Kathleen Turner spoke. Seeing that show was one of the coolest, most surreal things I’d ever been part of. Plus, I was so happy to finally be included in one of Aunt Delores’s adventures.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was [ah-hem] a few years ago. But I often think about those few days in New York and all the people who were looking out for me. I was especially thinking about all that while I waited for The Year of Magical Thinking, starring Kathleen Turner, to begin on Arena Stage’s Kogod Cradle last week. I’m particularly fond of the Kogod Cradle. The last time I was in that theatre, I was riding a Viking ship in my wedding. But from the moment I’d heard about the book The Year of Magical Thinking, I had no interest in reading it. Just too sad! I cried over summaries of the book! I didn’t need to spend 6 hours torturing myself by actually reading the tale of unhappiness. My nightmares are made of real things (I can’t even watch NCIS!), and Joan Didion’s tale was too true.
But it was Kathleen Turner. At Arena Stage. Really close to my house.
So I went to see the The Year of Magical Thinking. Though my mind was initially filled with thoughts of that New York trip twenty-six years ago, those thoughts only lasted until Kathleen Turner took the Kogod Cradle stage. She was amazing. I was in awe. For an hour-and-a-half, she told me this horrific true story I wouldn’t have been able to handle on my own. Yes, I cried a few times, but I also laughed. And I hoped other people were being looked out for, in good times and in bad, like I have been.
I went to Canada again. No, not because of this:
I went because every other driving vacation Cake Man and I have been on in Canada has been awesome. This time, Newfoundland was the destination, and we found what we always find – the magic of Canada.
The trip was not without its challenges. I can understand Canadian, but my pronunciation is so-so. As far as I can tell, Newfoundland is pronounced “New Finn Laand.” I was unable to properly pronounce Laabradoor though. That word contained more a’s and o’s than I felt comfortable attempting. But I think my pronunciation was progressing. At one point, I asked a Viking Trail gas station clerk if she could determine from my accent that I was from the United States. She looked at me for a full fifteen seconds without speaking. Finally, she said I sounded like I was Canadian, but not from Newfoundland. It’s possible she was just being nice.
Being nice is an affliction in Newfoundland,* but one I wouldn’t mind acquiring. In addition to being nice, Newfoundlanders luuuuuve to chat. I learned this over and over at every place Cake Man and I stopped. It didn’t matter if the Newfoundlander was someone staffing a remote gas station or Air Canada check-in desk staff at the Deer Lake Airport at 4:20am. The Newfoundlanders were always asking where I was from and where I had been in Newfoundland and am I enjoying myself and did I see the X, Y, and Z? And then they would tell me something about what they’d seen or done. And if we both felt like it, we could keep chatting. I learned so much.
I was overwhelmed by the kindness and genuine curiosity in all the Newfoundland faces. Newfoundland is a special place, one filled with Canada Magic.
I first felt the presence of Canada Magic at the airport, where prices at first seemed a little too high. But it was an airport. And I was on vacation. I silently figured that’s just the way things were going to be. Then Cake Man reminded me that the exchange rate is 1 U.S. dollar to 1.3 Canadian dollars. Suddenly, everything that seemed expensive was on sale! A Canada Magic miracle.Canada Magic manifested in many ways. The greatest Park Ranger ever, Paul [Last Name Unknown], was filled with Canada Magic. At L’Anse Aux Meadows (Viking settlement site!), Ranger Paul regaled the last tour group of the day with a rapid-fire 45-minute discussion about the settlement grounds. He let us walk where Leif Eriksson walked! He told us about sub-Arctic foliage! He made technical corrections to the film inside the Visitor Center! He described bog iron! And I suddenly felt a lot better about all the yellow water I’d been drinking in Newfoundland! Canada Magic makes everything nicer.
Objects were also affected by Canada Magic. Wood seemed to be particularly susceptible. For instance, in a non-magical setting, a person who was hiking might have to slog across muddy ground that would no doubt slop wet over the tops of boots and inside them as well. But because of Canada Magic, wooden planks assembled themselves in an orderly fashion throughout the hiking trails of Newfoundland and permitted a person to walk across them. Essentially, Canada Magic allows hikers to levitate.Only once did Canada Magic lead me and Cake Man astray – on our hike up Gros Morne Mountain, the tallest in Newfoundland. Gros Morne is beautiful and imposing but in that challenging and exciting kind of way for a person (me!) who really doesn’t like perilous stuff. There’s this rather persistent bit of the hike where the real work starts, and you have to walk from large rock to large rock or boulder to boulder, but that only lasts for an hour-and-a-half or so. Then you get to the fake top of the mountain and then to the real top of the mountain. All along the way, the views are fantastic. Plus there’s the exhilaration of making it to the top and knowing the downhill is the easy part.
Unfortunately, such a positive view of things doesn’t take the dark side of Canada Magic into consideration. This is where Cake Man and I learned the truth.
For every action, there must be an equal and opposite reaction. Every ounce of good Canada Magic must be balanced by an ounce of evil Canada Magic. Thoughtful Newfoundlanders had discovered a way to spread the good magic around and keep the evil magic all bottled up by putting it in a place where harm couldn’t come to whippersnappers who get up at the crack of Oh My God Do People Really Get Up That Early And Go On A Hike?!? For every happy roadside chat, every enthusiastic Park Ranger, every meadow with a beautiful wooden walking path through the flowers, there must be a lie in answer to the question “How long will this hike take?”The Gros Morne Mountain hike is listed in numerous places as requiring 5-6 hours. Cake Man and I started the hike at 11:25am thinking it would take 6 1/2 hours because I’m slow. That’s a fact. I like to have an energy reserve in case I need it, so I save up my energy by being a little slow the whole time. Plus, even though they are clean and pretty, I like to look up from my boots when I walk. And I insist on taking pictures. And hydrating. And snacking. The best peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a side of raw carrot will always be eaten on a hike! In short, the Gros Morne Mountain hike, according to all the guidance, should be completed at least 3 hours before sunset at 8:45pm Newfoundland time. The hike took more than 6 1/2 hours. The hike took 8 1/2 hours. The math wasn’t pretty. Neither were the recriminations aimed at the authors of the hiking book we’d bought that contained a map apparently drawn at random to indicate distances. At the summit, we were 1/3 of the way done, not halfway done. Though the last 2/3 of the hike were quite pretty, it just kept going on. And on. And on. Cue the reserve, or as Cake Man calls it, Robo-Andrea. The 80 minutes of the hike took 40 minutes on the return. No one was injured in the unleashing of Robo-Andrea. We were off the trail 30 minutes before sunset! And we learned a lesson for our next trip to Canada: good Canada Magic has an evil side that can be easily avoided by adding 40% to hiking times.
Canada Magic is worth it. Newfoundland is worth it.
* Okay, there was one person in Deer Lake who wasn’t over-the-top nice to me, but it was the middle of her Friday night dinner rush, and I had foolishly ordered a Molson, which apparently was not specific enough.
I don’t usually shell out for admission to D.C. museums – not when most of them are world-class and free – but I’m a sucker for buzz, and the National Building Museum has it. I’m easily entertained, so all my previous Building Museum visits were to see the free stuff. I didn’t understand those exhibits were gateway drugs to the good stuff. Then I watched the museum’s time-lapse of the construction of “Icebergs,” and I knew I had to see the insanity first-hand.
Before I go any further, I’m compelled to share an I’m-sure-unrelated thought:
ADULT ADMISSION TO THE NATIONAL BUILDING MUSEUM IS $16 PER PERSON THAT MEANS IT COST ME AND CAKE MAN A TOTAL OF $32 TO GET INTO THE NATIONAL BUILDING MUSEUM THAT IS A LOT OF MONEY FOR A MUSEUM IN D.C. THAT WAS BUILT BY THE GOVERNMENT BY 1887 AND SHOULD HAVE BEEN PAID FOR SOMEWHERE ALONG THE WAY SHOULDN’T THERE BE A DISCOUNT FOR PROXIMITY TO ALL THE FREE MUSEUMS FOR CTHULHU’S SAKE THE NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART IS A FIVE MINUTE WALK AWAY AND IT’S FREE AND THE ARTWORK INSIDE IS PROBABLY WORTH A BILLION DOLLARS YES I KNOW TAXPAYER DOLLARS AND LARGE DONOR FUNDRAISING UNDERPIN THE “FREE” MUSEUMS ON THE MALL BUT GEEZ AND YES I KNOW I COULD JOIN THE MUSEUM AND PAY LESS TO GET IN BUT ARE YOU SERIOUS?!?
So…ah-hem…as I was saying…
“Icebergs” at the National Building Museum is really cool, and I highly recommend it as a surreal, entertaining and unique experience at the National Building Museum. My visit was a lot of fun. On top of that, I’m intrigued by how museums innovate in ways that draw visitors and give artists space to do their work.
As part of the “Icebergs” exhibit, I enjoyed seeing this highly-accurate depiction of the inside of an iceberg.
I was entertained by Cake Man making faces at me for taking too many pictures while we were on the iceberg scaffolding viewing platform.
I contemplated the nature of reality, light filtration and the multiple uses of large sections of blue cloth.
I scooted down (cotton pants fail) one of these slides without having to pretend I was six years old. Adults are specifically allowed! Not pictured here are the hordes of children and their parents. The National Building Museum is something of a go-to spot for local families who can spring for an annual membership.
I marveled from below the blue cloth at the strange world above.
And because I actually paid to get in, I was sure to visit the all the otherwise-off-limits rooms, including the Raymond Kaskey exhibit, which was unrelated to “Icebergs.” The National Building Museum is currently displaying Kaskey’s model for Queen Charlotte, one of the coolest, most unexpected public sculptures I’ve ever seen. Queen Charlotte is supposed to look like she’s being supported by the wind. Kaskey’s model does a pretty good job of conveying that sense.
The final bronze statute outside the Charlotte-Douglas Airport is like an entirely different artistic concept though. The image below shows how the final Queen Charlotte looked 7 years ago when I saw her in person. At the time, I was surprised and amused that the airport would have such a creepy, weird sculpture on such prominent display. I figured it was just something I didn’t understand about the South. Having seen the original model, I still can’t say I understand why it became this weathered Queen Charlotte casting her evil spell, but I love her even more now as an example of the distance between plans and reality.
With a visit to the National Building Museum, you’ll get to see it all. To cover the price of admission, I recommend skipping the saving of pennies and going straight to the saving of quarters before “Icebergs” ends on September 5. Kaskey’s work is part of the Museum’s permanent collection, but the Queen Charlotte model might rotate out of display at any point, which will hopefully occur before she sips the same Wicked Witch of the West potion that bronze Queen Charlotte consumed.
For the most part, I remember the first time I read something by the favorite authors of my childhood. My reading of Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Tombs of Atuan dated from around age ten, after which point I walked around with my eyes closed as often as possible in order to find secret passages. (Number of secret passages since found in this manner: zero.) I remember Isaac Asimov from one of the years Mom was going to night school to get her college degree. She handed me a book, Foundation, from one of her classes and said I might like it. She was right. Frank Herbert’s Dune happened in middle school in California. I still associate him with endless summer and avocado groves, though Stilgar would not have approved of such water-fat on a vegetable. Firestarter was the first book by Stephen King I read at a time when I honestly wondered if I, too, might be able to start fires with my mind. (Number of fires since started with my mind: zero.)
Edgar Allan Poe was different. I don’t remember when he first showed up. He’s just always been there. It’s possible my father is responsible for that. Something in my deep memory says Dad read The Raven to me a very long time ago. I can certainly imagine him relishing making the cawing noises in a dramatic fashion, but I could just be making that up. By the time Mr. Preyss in 7th grade worked himself into a frenzy in front of the class with his rendition of The Tell-Tale Heart, I had already consumed many of Poe’s stories. I loved them. When I was a kid, the only other people I knew who read Edgar Allan Poe were adults, and they looked at me kinda funny when I said I had read lots of Poe’s stories.
So it was inevitable that on a weekend spent attending Balticon 50,* I would also visit Edgar Allan Poe’s house and his gravesite in Baltimore.** I’ve been wanting to do that for years! There was no way I was going to be disappointed. And I wasn’t! The house wasn’t much to look at. So I spent most of my time trying to imagine what that part of Poe’s life was like. It was a fascinating exercise, especially with one of two nearby Deathfest guys offering running commentary that was a little less Deathfest-y and a little more blowhard-y. I especially liked the Poe House’s loft room stairs. Twisting impossibly and ridiculously narrow, those stairs were the best Poe House example of how different life was in the 1800s.
Next stop: Poe’s gravesite about a mile away from the house. Yes, it’s cool to stand where Edgar Allan Poe may or may not currently be buried. Yes, it’s pretty exciting that I had a full five minutes by myself at the gravesite to get the most perfect picture I could. No, I’m not sure why a real-life scenic raven didn’t rise up from the earth to sit atop Poe’s tombstone, but maybe it was actually cooler in Hell that day.
As a history nerd, I quite enjoyed hanging out in the tiny graveyard and reading Wikipedia articles about all the other luminaries buried there. I couldn’t make out all the names on the tombstones though, like the ones of the dozen or so people whose eternal rest is now next to the sewer pipe under the breezeway between two church buildings. Yes, that’s what I said. To picture the breezeway area, think about what the space under a broad front porch looks like. You know, the dank, weird area where the raccoons and the wasps go to live in if you choose to dwell anywhere outside the limits of the City of Washington (this is what I’ve heard at least). Light shines into that under-porch space from weird angles and never fully illuminates the corners. There, now you’ve pictured the breezeway under which numerous people might now be surprised to find they are buried. Admittedly, that surprise would probably be secondary to the shock of cogitating 150 years post-burial. Anyway, seeing those graves under the breezeway and was an excellent surreal experience to have in Poe’s graveyard.
That was tops until this happened:
In my defense, I can’t resist answering questions posed by an eager Edgar Allan Poe devotee from Australia. Hannah Raven Smith is just such a Poe disciple, and the t-shirt I was wearing might have given away my own interest in the man. I also got a chance to chat with the Poe House curator from 1979-2013, Jeff Jerome, who seemed similarly incapable of resisting the enthusiasm of Ms. Raven Smith.
The Poe House and the gravesite were all a good time and everything I wanted them to be. I highly recommend visiting!
*Balticon was freakin’ awesome. George R.R. Martin was there doing his GRRM thing, AND I SPOKE WITH LARRY NIVEN!
**I recommend against walking the last half mile from the Inner Harbor to the Edgar Allan Poe House even in broad daylight if you are alone and wouldn’t appreciate getting your possessions stolen. It probably won’t happen, but the odds seemed higher than usual. Baltimore has Uber and taxis, and those worked just fine for me!
Eleven Things I Learned About Myself and D.C. After I Moved Here
1) D.C. gets up late. I don’t answer the phone before 9:00am, and I would never dream of calling someone that early. I understand suburban families with toddlers wake up at 5:45am ON THE WEEKEND and go to their fancy grocery stores and Target before I’m out of bed. That is unacceptable. In D.C., “morning” starts at a civilized time.
2) D.C. walks a lot. Partly, that’s because it’s a pain and costly to park a car. Also, the Metro isn’t exactly extensive. It certainly can’t keep up with D.C.’s dynamism and neighborhoods in a constant state of flux. Walking is fun though. And it provides a great opportunity to view D.C.’s schizophrenic architecture built up one layer at a time for the last 200 years. And flowers.
3) I have a “tolerate-the-heat-and-humidity” gene. It kicked in about a year after I moved to D.C. I had to help it along though. To start, I accepted the pure awesomeness of a D.C. summer. Then, I learned to line the insides of my clothes with paper towels. And finally, I had to slow down a little to a long-stride walk that achieved a nice balance between sweating and a breeze. I moved to D.C. with a well-exercised freezing-winter-weather gene. That gene has disappeared from my person. I am now a BIG BABY about the cold.
4) I love learning about history and random parts of other people’s cultures. In D.C., I’m surrounded by both, and I gorge on it. Other D.C. residents make that easy by being smart and having a lot of interests they want to share. I have thousands of ways to learn about history and culture – from government and private sector-run programs to non-profits and neighborhood interests groups. There’s free stuff like the D.C. Public Library’s constant stream speakers and programs. Every day, an author somewhere in D.C. is talking at a book store or a school or a coffee shop about something they wrote I might be interested in. If I feel like spending money, I’ll find a Smithsonian Resident Associates event or something that National Geographic is hosting. And of course, the offerings are endless from the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art, and the dozens of free and paid museum across the city. Eating out means taking in history and culture, too right?
5) D.C. is an expensive town when I’m not focused on doing free stuff. The first time I saw a $16 cocktail on a menu, I wasn’t tipsy enough to actually buy it. Apparently, D.C. is the most expensive place to raise a family, and the 5th most expensive place to live in the United States. For a long time after I moved to D.C., I had to actively avoid thinking about how my grocery bill used to be literally 25% lower. But I learned a lot from the part-time job I had to find to pay my bills because my full-time salary wouldn’t cover them. Fact: dinner and drinks at home with your writer friends are much cheaper than going out.
6) The glass shards in the gutter are from car windows being punched in so that something potentially awesome can be stolen from my front seat, back seat, trunk, etc. In a nod to D.C. metropolitan area egalitarianism, thieves violated my car in D.C. (purse stolen from the trunk, and my favorite glasses were lost!) and in Arlington, Virginia (installed cd player ripped from the console), and in Gaithersburg, Maryland (passenger side rear tire stolen, but on the upside, my reaction to the theft is one of my favorite stories to tell).
7) I really like giving directions to people who need them. At any given moment within half a mile of the National Mall, twenty-five percent of people are disoriented or slightly lost. They all have the same look on their faces, it’s just deeper for the people who got off on a Southwest Metro stop instead of a Northwest one. I’ve learned to approach only the people who look like they would appreciate the help.
8) It’s nearly impossible not to volunteer for at least three activities. The level of community engagement, whether in a close-knit quadrant like Southwest or elsewhere, is quite shocking. I’ve been pressured nearly constantly since I moved here to join clubs and boards and fund-raising groups or just come to events at which the last plea will be for me to join! People in D.C. are passionate about their volunteer jobs, so much so that they sometimes get shouty in meetings. I try not to be put off by that. One day I might be them and particularly concerned that someone wasn’t taking seriously enough my perspective on President Chester A. Arthur’s attempts to make merit-based job selections at the New York Custom House in the late 1800s.
9) Every two years, D.C. calls it citizens without felony convictions to jury duty. That’s every two years. On. The. Dot. Six times so far!
10) My skills at resisting pressure to volunteer are put to good use around the entrepreneurial panhandlers who flock to Metro station exits at tourist locations. With the right shoes and backpack and look in my eye, the businessmen willing to trade directions for a dollar or two generally understand I’m from D.C., too. But on the days I don’t quite have the right look, (do they not know I’ve rescued hundreds from the L’Enfant Plaza Metro exit abyss?!?) and a service provider turns toward me, I just smile a little and shake my head. It always works. I like to think they respect the fact I haven’t harmed any of their business with paying customers.
11) I can say “How y’all doin'” properly in D.C, the southernmost Northern city. “How y’all doin'” is a statement. Not a question. “Y’all” is one syllable. No hidden vowels should be inserted and pronounced. When I say “How y’all doin'” properly, my neighbors nod and wish me a good day even if I don’t know their faces or their names. Sometimes, they will comment on the beautiful weather or the flowers or the trees in bloom. I always smile because I know how lucky I am to live in the littlest big city in the United States.
People have been coming from all over the world to take in Wonder at the Renwick Gallery. The exhibit closes in a few months, and Cake Man said I really needed to see it. He even showed me some of the amazing pictures from his visit. Usually, I don’t need to be urged to go to museums. I already swing that way, but the Renwick Gallery is slightly beyond my National Mall stomping grounds.
So with only two months to spare, I gave into peer pressure and went to the Renwick Gallery to see what everyone was talking about. And there I found an amazing spectacle outside a non-Mall museum…
A LINE OF PEOPLE TO THE END OF THE BLOCK!
I was stunned. And impressed! The Renwick isn’t the Air and Space Museum every summer day from 11am – 3pm or the Natural History Museum any day in March when my tour guide twiend @beccagrawl visits with a group. It’s a museum of contemporary craft and decorative arts. Beautiful and interesting, yes. But typically the destination for hordes of people? Well, apparently – yes.
I couldn’t have been more pleased. I was having a first-rate, unexpected, non-dangerous, quite enjoyable experience in Northwest D.C. Yes, I had somewhere else to be in the not-too-distant future, but I’m no fool who turns down the opportunity to get into a free line with something phenomenal on the other end. Twenty-five minutes later, I found out I had entered the line at the 25-minute mark. I entered the building and saw…
I so knew I had done the right thing. Wonder was clearly the place to be.
I went to the Vatican once a few years back. I wanted to see the Sistine Chapel. It turns out, the Sistine Chapel is at the end of the Vatican tour. I think something like 200 billion people visit the Vatican each year, which means about 500 million visit every day. Or at least it felt like that many. Standing in the mile-long line to see the Sistine Chapel is the only place I’ve ever considered that people could actually feel claustrophobic in a series of gold tunnels covered in antique paintings.
Being at the Renwick for Wonder, I was vaguely reminded of the Sistine Chapel minus the gold and the guards yelling “Silencio!” every 10 seconds. (Note to the Vatican: The irony of yelling for silence is not lost on me.)
The line inside the Renwick Gallery was more like an eager line clump. Followed by another. And another. Et cetera. There were lines to get into each room of Wonder. The place was overflowing! Each new room was so cool and filled with large displays – sometimes unlikely objects, but other times impressive lighting.
At some point, I started trying to peek past the guards to see the different rooms without actually having to get into another line clump. But there’s only so far you can go with peeking before the guards start giving you the eye. And I did have somewhere to be that wasn’t the Renwick Gallery.
When I entered the room where the giant line doubled back on itself like some horrendous two hour Miami-Dade Airport Immigration and Customs nightmare, I finally gave up on going any farther. To be fair, everyone in the Renwick Gallery doubled-back line seemed to be having a good time watching the lights on the walls and ceiling change color. But I did have somewhere else to be. It seemed like the end for my relationship with Wonder.
Resigned, I headed to the restroom before the next jaunt. At which point I discovered just outside the restroom entrance…
SECRET VIEWS OF ALMOST ALL THE ROOMS I COULDN’T GET INTO!
Mine may not be the best pictures of Wonder, but they were taken in the most unexpectedly-rewarding of circumstances, which is to say – generally around the corner and leaning past the ropes that separate the restrooms from the art. Admittedly, not all those restroom vantage point pictures are worth sharing, but luckily I have access to other images (like the one to the right) even though it doesn’t seethe with the raw energy of thousands of people being in the coolest museum around.
Kudos to the staff of the Renwick Gallery for managing the flow of people so well and for setting up such an interesting exhibit that really is the place to be. I highly recommend going to the Renwick Gallery to see the Wonder crowds. The art was pretty awesome, too. Wonder closes on May 8, 2016. I’m told the weekday, mid-day lines are much tamer. But where’s the fun in that?
Iceland is one of my favorite places, which is strange considering how many times the island tried to kill me in a week of vacation.
Cake Man and I had already been in Iceland a few days. On a whim, we decided to drive the entirety of the ring road – all eighteen hundred kilometers of it. Our vehicle was a poorly-built Toyota Yaris with a creaking frame. The creaking was most noticeable when the car turned. Most turns were into and out of gas stations, the only reliable places to eat outside of Reykjavík. Luckily, all the gas stations served hot dogs wrapped in bacon and one hundred types of yogurt.
My first glimpse of death-by-Iceland was not in the presence of nitrates but on the Vatna Glacier flood plain. When volcanic activity warms the earth’s crust, and the Vatna Glacier, the second-largest in the world, sits atop the heat, a wall of water 4 meters high results. This is called a jökulhaups, a glacial outburst flood and an epic Magic the Gathering card. During the 1996 Vatna Glacier jökulhaups, hundred-ton icebergs cascaded toward the ocean via a river that was briefly the second-largest in the world.
In Iceland, the vistas seem endless, though Wikipedia tells me someone my height can only see 4.7 kilometers to the horizon. In Iceland, I could see far enough to know I wouldn’t be able to outrun a jökulhaups if another suddenly occurred.
The first time the island actually tried to kill me, Cake Man and I were outside of Hofn. The night before we set off, the wind howled without stopping. I couldn’t sleep. We’d already driven 400 kilometers past at least 40 soaring waterfalls framed by bright blue skies and ridiculously green vegetation hugging the ground. My subconscious, which had already gotten a taste of “no guardrails” and “100-meter sheer drops to the rocky beach below” and “rickety cars” and “hurricane force winds,” wasn’t fooled by the beauty. My subconscious was worried. And it let me know.
Still, we set out. I stopped before too long because the road’s blacktop had folded over on itself. Yes, that’s right. The wind off the glaciers is so strong it folds blacktop over onto itself.
My subconscious knew that was coming next – the seemingly-endless cliff-side portion of the drive along a road that was being rebuilt. Think rock falling from above on the left, one-and-a-half lanes of dirt road, wind, trundling construction equipment and guardrail-free100-meter plunges to the rocks below on the right. Oh, and rain – random, windshield smearing rain unabated by the Yaris’ pathetic attempt at wipers.
The drive was exhilarating. With my eyes focused on the dubious road, I didn’t see large parts of the drive, which Cake Man said was beautiful. In Iceland, it’s pretty easy to feel lucky to be alive when you see death so close up so often. The night after that drive, I slept well.
The second time Iceland tried to kill me that week was with a boiling geyser.
Here’s one of the many cool things about Iceland – you can get really close to the action. There’s no government regulation or park patrol officer to stop you. There’s only a little, trip-height sign that says “Danger, walkways are slippery.” And by “walkways,” Iceland means rocks slanted naturally toward the boiling geysers so water and people can easily flow toward the magma lurking somewhere far below. It’s an ingenious and subtle natural design to ensure only the most intelligent with the best rubber-soled shoes survive.
Through sheer luck, I remained unboiled though only just barely. But I came away from the geyser conflicted. I was happy to be alive, but I’d acquired a strange desire to visit future geysers whose viewing areas permitted me to be in the spray zone.
The third time Iceland tried to kill me was at Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall. To get to Dettifoss, Cake Man and I drove 37 slow kilometers in 2 hours along gravel road that seemed to be surrounded by misty moonscape as far as the eye could see, a distance considerably less than 4.7 kilometers given how low the Yaris sat when it drove through a divot in the road.
Once at Dettifoss, I could not see the waterfall. I literally could not get my raincoat hood away from my face. I could barely stand up straight. The wind was insane, and skin-piercing blades of ice filled it. I was no doubt standing near the edge of yet another cliff. I know I was on slippery rocks. Soaked, I fought my way back to the Yaris. Cake Man said Dettifoss was amazing.
The last time Iceland tried to kill me was with a non-contact fear incident. The trip was just about over. We’d listened to Early Days: The Best of Led Zeppelin at least a dozen times (Iceland doesn’t seem to have anything on the radio for most of the ring road, a fact we were unaware of.) We’d taken a lot of pictures. Being so close to death so many times, I’d bonded with the Yaris and felt more comfortable relaxing in her presence. Cake Man had bounded away to take pictures of some giant lava protrusion or something. I decided to sit this one out. In his enthusiasm, Cake Man had left his Yaris door open.
For some, surviving brushes with death can induce a calm that lasts days. Sitting in the Yaris, I was filled with this calm. I saw neither cliff nor rain. The wind gathered its strength elsewhere. The temperature was definitely at least forty-five degrees Fahrenheit, and I could feel all my fingers and toes. My calm was so complete that an outside observer might have mistaken it for laziness. I thought I was alone but only because a human, regardless of height, still cannot see through even the balsa wood doors of a Toyota Yaris.
Bottom line: I did not lean over to close Cake Man’s door.
A sudden bleating sounded from right near the open car door. And then the deadly ungulate from whom the horrible noise erupted bleated again! Shock almost killed me. Fear paralyzed me. I had only one defense: the stench emanating from the colon-killing bacon-covered hot dog and my person.
The nitrates worked their magic. My stalker retreated to his high tower, and I survived my last brush with island death.
Iceland is awesome. I strongly recommend visiting it and driving all the way around the ring road. The adventure may be the closest you come to death until the big day. If you survive Iceland, your life will be all the better for it afterward.
For a glimpse of Iceland without the danger, visit the Smithsonian Natural History Museum’s exhibit “Primordial Landscapes: Iceland Revealed,” compliments of the Embassy of Iceland and the Feo Pitcairn Fine Art Photography.