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Even the True Queen of Denmark

October 2, 2019
Faroe Islands Hike Hvíthamar

Faroe Islands Hike – Hvíthamar

I usually go for the seat in the middle of an airplane row. That means if I’m alone, I can sit pretty much anywhere on the plane. Or if I’m with Cake Man, he gets a people buffer.

One thing let to another on our flight from the Faroe Islands to Copenhagen, and Cake Man ended up in the middle seat next to a young Faroese woman wearing a perfect fuzzy white sweater. The woman looked very uncomfortable, and she was instantly chatty. I assumed she was afraid of flying. I could tell this was going to be one of those plane flights with a conversation that stretched from departure to arrival. Quietly, I tried to let Cake Man know we could switch seats before the plane took off, and I could sit next to her. But he is Cake Man, King of Chill, and he needs no assistance.

Faroe Islands Hike Hvíthamar Looking Back (Those White Things Are Cars)

Faroe Islands Hike – Hvíthamar Looking Back (Those White Things Are Cars)

The beautiful sweater being worn on the hottest week of the Faroese year actually was meant to remind our seatmate of home. She was headed to another part of Europe to begin her post-university life. Her plans were wonderful — the kind anyone would hope for.

We learned a lot on that flight, including that as the oldest descendant of a line that lost a battle with someone about a thousand years ago, our seatmate was the True Queen of Denmark.

I don’t begrudge anyone such a possibility. A very good friend claims to be related to basically every monarch mentioned in the Tower of London’s display of the Crown Jewels. Also, our seatmate was a great conversationalist who spoke several languages and had an impressive knowledge of world affairs and history. I could see how she might be the True Queen of Denmark by some reckoning. It wasn’t like she was asking me to give her a twenty for two tens.

She claimed not to be nervous about flying either. She seemed to know all the staff on the plane and several of the passengers. I felt like we were sitting next to a celebrity who was really big on a new social media platform that had not yet arrived in the United States. But I was worried for her and the way she kept pressing one hand into the seat in front of her and trying to strangle the armrest with the other hand.

Faroe Islands Hike Miðvágur Bøsdalafossur

Faroe Islands Hike – Miðvágur Bøsdalafossur

So we kept chatting with her, and we learned about:

  • the Faroese foster care system and which one of her parents’s behavior landed her in it
  • how up until the time of the True Queen’s grandmother, pirates (particularly French ones) were encouraged by Faroese husbands to have sex with their wives so as to diversify the gene pool
  • the acceptability of an all-cooked-meat art project in the shape of a baby
  • the enduring love of foster parents who eat said meat baby with you after your art project has been graded and found to be of the highest caliber

I wanted to hear everything the True Queen had to say. She was so interesting. But I needed to use the restroom at the back of the plane. Cake Man seemed to be having a good time chatting, and he appeared cognizant of the importance of being a good complete stranger to someone who obviously was nervous about flying even if they didn’t know it.

I returned four minutes later. The look on Cake Man’s face suggested I had missed something big.

Nix Statue, Faroe Islands, Near the Airport

Nix Statue, Faroe Islands, Near the Airport

The True Queen let me know what it was — a description of her menstrual cramps. She’d been having terrible ones ever since she went on The Pill. The cramps were particularly bad today, and the concerned observer might easily mistake her pained expression for fear of flying. To Cake Man’s unending credit, he had already offered her my Alleve. She wanted to tough it out though. Menstrual cramps might be bad, she said, but getting pregnant would be so much worse at this point in her life.

The True Queen of Denmark was unforgettable. She isn’t in the process of claiming her title, but it’s clear she’s going to do amazing things.

For me and Cake Man, the jury is still out on who sits in the middle seat during the next plane flight.

In a series of related notes:

  • A podcast of Connie Willis’s award-winning “Even the Queen” (a science fiction short story about menstrual cycle politics) can be found here.
  • A free, 60-page guide to hiking the Faroe Islands is here.
  • More about the Nix Statue is here.
Funningsfjørður, Faroe Islands, in August at 10pm

Funningsfjørður, Faroe Islands, in August at 10pm

Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths

August 23, 2019
Karagwe artist, Tanzania, Bovine figure, Mid-19th century, Iron

Karagwe artist, Tanzania, Bovine figure, Mid-19th century, Iron

The day I went to see the exhibit Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths, I also decided that fixing the diverter on my bathroom tub was beyond my skill level and above my home improvement tolerance threshold. If the workings of tub knob innards is a solvable mystery I don’t want to pursue, then the art of forging iron tools and other iron objects is unknowable magic. Striking Iron at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art has all the magic.

Note #1 to my devoted email subscribers, especially Dad: Yes, I’m embarrassed about calling the plumber. I know you could fix the tub yourself without a problem and that I could learn how to do the same.

Getting to the galleries of the Museum of African Art is like walking into a fantasy portal. The Museum of African Art is one of the few that acknowledges and utilizes the existence of what I’ve come to believe (without trying too hard to figure out if it’s true) is a vast underground concrete cave and tunnel system beneath the National Mall. On a day topping a hundred degrees, there’s nothing like opting for a museum that extends four floors to the subterranean.

I wasn’t trying very hard to get to the Striking Iron exhibit before all the other Museum of African Art exhibits. The pieces on display throughout the Museum are just too interesting. I wandered through the exhibit I Am…Contemporary Women Exhibits of Africa.

And the Visionary: Viewpoints on Africa’s Art exhibit.

And the Walt Disney-Tishman Africa Art Collection.

Striking Iron - The Art of African Blacksmiths
It was amazing. Because of 1) the twisty-corridors nature of the Museum and 2) my reluctance to ask the front desk for a map and then be asked where I was from only to have to admit I’m local and then try to establish my bona fides (exhausting work), I wasn’t always sure if I had entered the Striking Iron exhibit. Then I was completely sure.

Note #2 to my devoted email subscribers, especially Dad: Much of the rest of this post is going to continue to be far more pictures than text. No, I’m not “dialing it in” like you legitimately accused me of 4 years ago in the Southwest DC Artsfest post. No, I will not let that go. IT WAS A BUSY TIME!

Still from Forging Video - The Blacksmith's Tools, narrated by lead curator Tom Joyce

Still from Forging Video – The Blacksmith’s Tools, narrated by lead curator Tom Joyce

Above is a picture of a video of a forge in Africa. The alacrity with which I take a picture of a video comes from the same place inside me that calls a plumber to fix the tub.

I learned from the Striking Iron exhibit that after workable iron from deposits is extracted, a smith heats iron particles to form a bloom, which is then worked into an object. I love the imagery here (from an exhibit sign): “‘Birthing’ blooms out of iron ore and objects out of blooms is a ‘procreative’ metaphor used by many African peoples to describe these two transformative processes. Ironworking in Africa is a male-dominated technology that also must involve elements of female power to succeed.”

Blacksmith Tools

Blacksmith Tools – Click here for descriptions.

The bellows above was one of my favorite objects from the exhibit. A sign near the bellows says, “A talented Luba artist carved the four-chambered bellows…It is displayed vertically to draw attention to the face of its commanding female figure, suggesting the metaphor of creating life at the forge. The air chambers served as its lungs. They were once covered with leather bags attached to vertical sticks; these would have been grasped by men who pumped substantial volumes of air into charcoal-fueled fire to efficiently heat large-scale works.”

I also learned that the Mafa spirit pot pictured above ensured a successful smelt, and “Although Mafa women were excluded from iron production, wives of smelters made clay crucibles, conical tubes for furnace tuyères (nozzles), pots for bellows, and ritual vessels representing ancestors that were prominently placed at smelting sites.”

Note #3 to my devoted email subscribers, especially Dad: Aren’t those tools cool? Mom would love them. She would know all their names without having to look at the signs. She could tell us how many of each American-equivalent tool she has ever owned or seen at an auction or coveted or tried to talk someone out of. In this exhibit, she would be like a kid in a candy shop. Or like Mom in a candy shop.

Blades of Value

Blades of Value – Click here for descriptions.

Blades of Value

More Blades of Value. Click here for descriptions.

Striking Iron has a large portion of the exhibit devoted to knives and blades used as currency and other stores of value (see images above). That is something I had never considered! I get the idea of bartering, and I like to point out that the U.S. monetary system is built far more on trust than on the value of goods, but I had never stopped to consider that for currency whole societies might use iron objects in the shape of farm implements. That makes far more sense to me than many things about monetary systems.

Below are my two favorite excerpts from the currency signage:

“These currency forms stood as payment in the transactions that mattered most in life…Hoe-blade-shaped currencies were created as bridewealth tokens by many African societies, linking agricultural productivity to the reproductive power and labor a wife brings to a household.”

“Sara Madjingaye smiths forged currencies of a form derived from the sacred knife called Miya-bo, owned by Sara Madjingaye’s Supreme Being, who used it to bring rains. The value of these fragile, humanlike forms derived from cosmology and manly pursuits, specifically throwing knives in battle.”

The exhibit includes a collection of rainmaking wands (pictured above). I particularly liked the wand shaped like a serpent. From the exhibit text, I learned that the “spiraling composition of a three-headed python was planted upright to summon rains and protect people from lightning.”

And then there were these elaborate and beautiful show knives and staffs crafted by Ekonda blacksmiths.

Ekonda artists, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ritual staffs, Early 20th century, Iron, wood

Ekonda artists, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ritual staffs, Early 20th century, Iron, wood

Note #4 to my devoted email subscribers, especially Dad: Did you tell Mom yet?!?

Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths runs through July 2020. If you can’t make it in person, you can browse the collection online here.

Green Burial at Congressional Cemetery: One Way to Spend an Afternoon

May 31, 2019
Congressional Cemetery cherry tree in full bloom

Congressional Cemetery cherry tree in full bloom

April Fool’s Day was the perfect occasion to visit Congressional Cemetery. A free tour and an even freer (with snacks!) presentation about green burial was on offer. As a fan of shadows, cemeteries, uncommon perspectives and food I don’t have to pay for, I thought everything sounded just right. Of course, I invited a friend.

Although the cemetery’s permanent residents were not available to comment on their level of afterlife amusement, the  vast majority of Congressional Cemetery visitors and volunteer staff seemed to be having a good time. I counted at least six volunteers there,  four times as many human visitors, and even more canines than people.

Congressional Cemetery is a welcoming place. Lummi Poles at a crossroads indicate as much, but the cemetery’s “About Us” page is explicit. To be buried in Congressional Cemetery, only one requirement exists: “You just have to be dead.”

Anyone getting a cemetery tour from Paul Williams, President of the Association for the Preservation of Historic Congressional Cemetery, should expect many such frank nuggets of laughter-provoking honesty.

“Get your headstone before you die,” Williams told my group, “or your kids will take the money and go on a cruise.”

A recently-completed underground map of Congressional Cemetery showed that seventy thousand people are buried there. Thirty thousand of them lay in unmarked graves.

The Prinzessin Victoria Luise, first launched in 1900, is commonly believed to be the first purpose-built pleasure ship. Congressional Cemetery was established in 1807 — ninety-three years before the Prinzessin’s maiden voyage. That’s over nine decades of absconding with the inheritance but being unable to purchase a cruise ship ticket.

My friend Wikipedia tells me that the same year Congressional Cemetery was established, the first fare-paying passenger railroad service also began. Based on no evidence whatsoever, I posit that between 1807 and 1900, numerous drunken teenagers inheriting money from aged relatives celebrated their tombstone-free good fortune with wild railcar parties.

I call this "Awesome Cemetery Shadows." Nearby, Walt Whitman turned over in his grave at my non-poetic description of this beautiful scene.

I call this “Awesome Cemetery Shadows.” Nearby, Walt Whitman turned over in his grave at my non-poetic description of this beautiful scene.

Not only did mapping the cemetery reveal all the unmarked graves, the effort also helped the Association understand previous mistakes. Apparently, all Congressional Cemetery headstones are not necessarily placed near bodies. Whether that meant drunk teenagers one hundred fifty years ago instead decided to take expired Aunt Elspeth on a cross-country South American tour like she always wanted is beyond even my impudent calculations.

It turns out that less than a page of federal regulations exist on how to bury a body. On the other decaying hand, disinterring a corpse is highly regulated. That begs the question — should a body be buried before or after a cross-country South American tour?

On the off-chance that the modern Auntie El clarified in her will that the teenager’s inheritance was contingent on Auntie’s immediate interment complete with a headstone, a green burial might be the way to go. Congressional Cemetery permits them. All manner of corpse coverings are allowed like shrouds, wicker baskets and pine caskets purchased online and assembled at home, preferably in detached garages, where no one but you will know to worry about what all the leftover screws were supposed to hold together.

My companion for the afternoon mentioned one green burial method Williams didn’t touch upon. “The most organic way to get rid of a body is to feed it to pigs,” she said. “Pigs will eat the f^*k out of things. One pig equals 6 days. But 6 pigs equals 1 day!”

The afternoon continued to be full of other unexpected and delightful facts.

Tall cemetery tree picture that somehow contains no dogs running around

Tall cemetery tree picture that somehow contains no dogs running around

Most cemeteries wait 75 years before re-using plots. Congressional Cemetery waits 125 years to add more ingredients to the stew. When spots open in the cemetery, they go quickly, “like used cars,” the tour guide / comedian / non-profit guru Williams said.

Things were a little different in 1988, when Leonard Matlovich was buried in Congressional Cemetery. Matlovich’s grave anchors the LGBTQIA section of the cemetery. Christ Church, which owns the grounds, was one of the first churches to permit the burial of AIDS victims. Matlovich was a gay Vietnam veteran with an exemplary military record who, alongside the ACLU, officially tested the Air Force’s policies toward gay people. Matlovich’s story is worth reading about.

On the less serious side, Matlovich succeeded in being buried in the same cemetery row as Herbert Hoover and his long-time lover Clyde Tolson. Sometimes, the deceased make their own fun even without the help of a drunken relative.

Congressional Cemetery has 50 funerals each year, which is far more annual interments than when the cemetery was run-down and unsafe. Concerned citizens and neighbors helped turn it around. Along the way, in our weird culture that is captialism and civil-mindedness, Congressional Cemetery became a private dog park with annual dues, a long waiting list to join and strictly-enforced rules like “To maintain the integrity of non-dog walking events, the owner of any dog found to be on the Cemetery grounds during closure hours will have their membership/day-pass privileges immediately revoked.”

That’s badass. They don’t even refund the annual dues you paid.

The Association has a great page about the cemetery’s history including how dog owners helped turn around the space. For my part, I found the late-afternoon dogs racing through the cemetery surreal and entertaining. My group also got a sneak peak at the location of the future pet cemetery, which has since been announced. Competition is rife to be the first owner with a pet buried there.

Primo late-afternoon cemetery shadows

Primo late-afternoon cemetery shadows

At the end of the outdoor tour, my group was deposited in the chapel. We loaded up on free wine, chips and cheese, as if those would be sufficient to endure an hour of embalming scare tactics. Admittedly, most of the reason I was interested in the presentation was because of Mary Roach’s excellent book Stiff, which goes into extensive detail about all the interesting things that might happen to bodies after people die. Stiff has an intriguing chapter on green burials.

Congressional Cemetery takes its bathroom art very seriously

Congressional Cemetery takes its bathroom art very seriously.

I consider the talk a win for the fact I learned about the cryopreservation of Bredo Morstøl’s body. Since 2002, Morstøl’s continued and unexpected cryopreservation has inspired Frozen Dead Guy Days in Nederland, Colorado. The Wikipedia article does a great job of summarizing the journey of Morstøl’s body and the administrative headaches encountered if an individual is in possession of a frozen human body but not in possession of funds to pay the electricity costs of a people-sized deep freezer.

If I’m ever in Nederland, Colorado, on a Frozen Dead Guy Day, I am definitely going to try the official ice-cream — cream crushed oreos and sour gummy worms. That will be another interesting way to spend an afternoon.


Exploring Space Lecture Series at the National Air and Space Museum

February 25, 2019
Dying Young: Massive Dead Disk Galaxy Challenges the Picture of How Galaxies Evolve

Hubble Image about gravity, “dead” galaxies and MACS J2129-0741. Image Credit NASA, ESA, M. Postman (STScI), and the CLASH team.

Last year I stumbled onto one of the coolest free events in Washington D.C. — the Exploring Space Lecture Series at the National Air and Space Museum on the Mall.

In this case, “coolest” meant 1) related to space stuff and 2) occurring beyond regular Museum hours after all the Ben Stiller look-alikes have been shooed out of their bathroom stall hiding spots and booted onto the sidewalks of Independence Avenue. “Free” meant “sponsored by two private sector companies that build rockets and provide launch services.” Very D.C.

The theme of the Exploring Space Lecture Series changes every year. In 2018, the Series focused on all the amazing things the James Webb Space Telescope will be doing for astronomy and cosmology after its hoped-for launch in 2021. The massive new space-based telescope is a spiritual successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.

'Pandora's Cluster' Seen by Spitzer. Image credit NASA-JPL-Caltech

‘Pandora’s Cluster’ Seen by Spitzer. Image credit NASA-JPL-Caltech.

The Exploring Space presenters do not disappoint (mid-lecture references to spacecraft or services provided by one or more of the sponsors notwithstanding). But to discover the awesomeness, I first had to get through a ridiculously long and slightly troubling queue to enter the Museum. The line switched back-and-forth within the entry vestibule, spilled out of the building, and trailed down the exterior stairs.

In those 45 minutes of line shuffling, I had plenty of time to size up the other attendees of this first lecture of the year. Most of those in line looked like academics or engineers who had just been freed from their computers and anti-gravity workspaces a few blocks away at NASA Headquarters.

One man was mumble-practicing the question he planned to ask the lecturer. It was a very long question, the type that seemed to exist in place of the summary section of a dissertation that was never written. Looking at that guy, be-suited as he was, I thought I had identified the lecture’s most likely Off-Kilter Questioner (OKQ). I made an effort to sit far from him when I got inside the IMAX theater.

That first lecture was called “The Earliest Galaxies: Exploring Cosmic Sunrise with Hubble, Spitzer, and JWST.” The presenter was Garth Illingworth, professor emeritus in the department of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California Santa Cruz. I enjoyed everything about that presentation — the lecture, the slide, the jokes, the movie clips. However, I had not properly identified the most likely OKQ.

Audience question time arrived. Six seats away, which was far too close, in the calm sea of otherwise reasonable questions, the actual OKQ leaped to his feet. “What if someone already knows what dark matter is?” OKQ asked. He claimed to have arrived at this dark matter knowledge via spontaneous understanding.

Illingworth showed himself to be a seasoned presenter. His answer related to how peer review works. That was genius. OKQ scoffed. I learned so much that night, and it wasn’t all related to theories of the universe’s first galaxies.

Zeiss Star Projector on the Way to Retirement

Zeiss Star Projector on the Way to Retirement

The line to get into that first lecture put the fear of missing out in me, so I arrived in plenty of time for the early May Mars lecture, which was held in the Museum’s Albert Einstein Planetarium.

That’s right — FOR FREE!

The lights went down. I prepared to be wowed. I was. Before long.

Hoppy Price, Chief Engineer of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, offered a slightly surreal Powerpoint presentation at planetarium horizon level. The presentation addressed how humanity is in the process of getting itself, robots, and satellites to Mars. Next, the Museum’s curator of planetary science Matt Shindell shared vintage Martian landscape paintings. It was all very interesting especially from the perspective of “that’s really cool considering the human species has been around for 200,000 years and only 61 years ago did we first launch something into space.”

The more traditional wow’ing began when the regular staff of the planetarium took over the lecture.

The National Air and Space Museum is in the process of retiring its out-dated-yet-beautifully-illuminated Zeiss Star Projecter, which was given to the Museum in 1976. The Projector is headed to the Udvar-Hazy Center. The planetarium is going digital with, as its exuberant ad proclaims, “An 8K Full Dome System [that] projects ultra-high-definition visuals that are 16 times the resolution of your HD TV. Get ready to be immersed in brightness, clarity, and color that is out of this world!”

Sometimes, advertising is right on target.

The Exploring Space attendees were treated to a preview of the new digital system’s capabilities.

Mars Orbiter Missions and Natural Satellites. Image Credit NASA-JPL-Caltech

Mars Orbiter Missions and Natural Satellites. Image Credit NASA-JPL-Caltech.

The image above doesn’t convey the amazing experience of sitting in a comfortable recliner beneath a 77-foot dome, visually swooping toward and away from planets in our solar system, and following the myriad paths of natural and unnatural satellites of those planets. But it’s the best I could do.

With the new digital system, the views changed constantly and could be approached from any angle. It was dizzying. It was amazing. It was like flying.

It was the visual equivalent of me as a kid listening to a Walkman’s headphones for the first time. Suddenly, the music was everywhere around me. I couldn’t even feel the headphones on my ears. The air of the world was simply filled with music.

The Albert Einstein Planetarium’s new digital display was like that. The views were everywhere. I was transported. I was wowed.

University of Alberta Professor Robert Smith, Ph.D., whose excellent presentation was as entertaining as this gleeful picture suggests

University of Alberta Professor Robert Smith, Ph.D., whose excellent presentation was as entertaining as this gleeful picture suggests.

The last lecture I attended in 2018 was “The Historical Quest to See to the End of the Universe…Or Its Beginning.” Robert Smith from the University of Alberta was the funny, smart, engaging speaker with enlightenment to offer.

His task was to talk about the history of people trying to understand the universe’s size, its beginnings, and humanity’s place within it.

My favorite Smith quote of the evening was, “The most fascinating thing about the universe is that we think we can comprehend it to some degree.”

In a presentation that eventually wrapped back around to the James Webb Space Telescope, I learned so much.

There was Frances Burney, a patron of cosmology. Smith told a fascinating story about the contributions of this amazing woman who was born in 1752 and lived until 1840. My memory of that story was obliterated by this harrowing description of Burney’s mastectomy in 1810 that I found on Wikipedia. What a survivor that woman was! Smith also introduced me to James Hutton, who gave the world many things including the concept of deep time, the foundations of the modern study of geology, and Hutton’s Unconformity at Siccar Point.

Smith’s presentation was filled with information, laughs, eyebrows-raised-in-concern, and plenty of fodder for subsequent internet searches.

The Moon's North Pole. Image credit NASA-GSFC-Arizona State University

The Moon’s North Pole. Image credit NASA-GSFC-Arizona State University.

The Exploring Space Lecture Series for 2019 is coming up. It’s bound to be at least as good as the 2018 version. The focus in 2019 will be on the Earth’s moon and includes:

  •  March 28, 2019 – “Apollo Legacy” with presenter Farouk El-Baz who “was a guiding force in the Apollo lunar landing site selection process.”
  • April 24, 2019 – “The New Moon: Recent Advances in Lunar Science” with presenter Brett Denevi, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
  • May 22, 2019 – “Apollo Landing Sites Revisited: Modern Datasets at Familiar Locales” with presenter Noah Petro, a Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter scientist.
  • June 19, 2019 – “The Future of Lunar Exploration” with presenter Jim Green, NASA’s Chief Scientist.

More information about 2019 lectures, including links to sign up for them, can be found here. Tickets are free but must be acquired ahead of time and have been known to “sell” out.

One more neat thing about the Series: after each lecture concludes and as long as the weather cooperates, the Museum sets up a telescope on Independence Avenue. Anyone can have a peek through its lens for an extra-surreal, educational experience — getting a close-up view of the night sky while standing not only near a bright, busy street in the nation’s capital but also near all those Ben Stiller look-alikes.

Full moon photographed from the Apollo 11 spacecraft. Image credit NASA

Full moon photographed from the Apollo 11 spacecraft. Image credit NASA.


Expect the Enema Bag Sculptures: Rachel Whiteread at the National Gallery of Art

December 31, 2018

This exhibit is not what it seems
I’m told that art is supposed to provoke a reaction. My first reaction to Rachel Whiteread’s exhibit at the National Gallery of Art was surprise. As I walked from room to room, amusement followed. Soon, amusement was leading me, or more like pulling me, into each new part of the exhibit.

I don’t think amusement was what Whiteread or the curators at the National Gallery of Art were going for. Clearly, I am not their target audience. If there had been a pre-test to determine my worthiness to view this exhibit, I would have failed it.

This is what happens when museums are free. No-cost museums mean simply anyone can walk in, lured by what appears to be a photograph of a not-yet-hung door in a Caribbean home, and opinionate about the difference between what they expected after not reading about the exhibit ahead of time and what the exhibit actually contained.

I sincerely apologize to the art-loving community for my complete and utter lack of refinement. Usually, in situations where I just don’t seem to be “getting” the art or the lecture, or I don’t understand the “transitional elements in the Mark Rothko-esque moth-loves-lamp meme,” I lurk near other people. I listen to the appreciative, knowing things they say, and I try to learn something.

Eavesdropping for knowledge was not possible at the National Gallery of Art on the day I saw the Whiteread exhibit. It was a Wednesday morning right after the museum opened. The only ones to talk with were the guards. This being me, I talk with guards all the time, or at least I give them the wide-eye about odd human behavior going on in an exhibit. But it didn’t seem right to chat with the guards about this exhibit. The only questions I could come up with were leading ones, and I would have been fighting a chuckle or a snort. The wide-eye would have been about me, and the guards would have been giving it to each other.

Instead of chatting, I spent an inordinate amount of exhibit time taking pictures and contemplating the difference between what I guessed certain pieces should taste like and what they would most likely actually taste like. The tasting-thoughts portion of the exhibit did not begin until after I was beyond the enema bag sculptures. Thank the Maker.

Just because I don’t get Whiteread’s art doesn’t mean people who can’t visit don’t want to see it. I can only hope enough good comes of my posting these pictures (despite the internal dialogue I offer below) that all the negative karma I’m accumulating on this page is somehow abated.

If that’s not how karma works, I’m in big trouble. Regardless…

Untitled Domestic, 2002, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled Domestic, 2002, Rachel Whiteread

This exhibit is for me!

Untitled Torsos, 1992-1999, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled Torsos, 1992-1999, Rachel Whiteread

Oh. Oh, what? Oh, my. I did not know there were so many types of enema bags.

Untitled Twenty-Five Spaces, 1995, Rachel Whiteread 2

Untitled Twenty-Five Spaces, 1995, Rachel Whiteread 2

These jellies do not wiggle.

Various Pieces, Rachel Whiteread

Various Pieces, Rachel Whiteread

This furniture store is very disappointing.

Untitled Library, 1999, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled Library, 1999, Rachel Whiteread

Is it still a library if no one can read the books?

Untitled Yellow Bath, 1996, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled Yellow Bath, 1996, Rachel Whiteread

I do not want a bath in the yellow bath.

Untitled White Slab, 1994 and 2017, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled White Slab, 1994 and 2017, Rachel Whiteread

Tongue depressor for a whale.

Flap, 1989, Rachel Whiteread

Flap, 1989, Rachel Whiteread


Untitled Amber Mattress, 1992, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled Amber Mattress, 1992, Rachel Whiteread


Untitled Bath, 1990, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled Bath, 1990, Rachel Whiteread

I found one of the sinks Victor the Cleaner used.

Art is everywhere.

Study, 2005, Rachel Whiteread

Study, 2005, Rachel Whiteread

On Craigslist, I once gave away a desk like this for free.

Doorway 1, 2010, Rachel Whiteread

Doorway 1, 2010, Rachel Whiteread

Damn you, beautiful door of lies.

Night Glass, 2011, Rachel Whiteread

Night Glass, 2011, Rachel Whiteread

The buttons on this Nintendo controller do not work.

Untitled Hive II, 2007 and 2008, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled Hive II, 2007 and 2008, Rachel Whiteread

This jelly house would taste like the screams of dying insects.

Untitled, 2011, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled, 2011, Rachel Whiteread


The Art of Burning Man Compliments of the Renwick

October 11, 2018

According to Jason the Handyman who ultimately decided to stay in Atlanta after Season 2, Episode 4 of Queer Eye, Burning Man centers around fire, art and community. I already like art and community. And I’m okay with fire as long as I have sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat and I don’t have to be in a terrestrial conflagration or burned by invisible rays emanating from a fusion reactor in the sky.

But it turns out Jason the Handyman wasn’t giving me the full story. The Burning Man primer at the Renwick has a different take on what that summer week in the Nevada desert is about. The primer tells me that among Burning Man’s ten core principles are  gifting and decommodification.

Whoa. Hold on. Those sound I’ll have to give away my dark chocolate. That’s s big red flag that tastes of less than 40% cocoa! Even more terrifying, the primer also tells me that at Burning Man I may encounter the playa chicken — a legendary carnivorous poultry reputed to live in the Black Rock Desert.

I’m out!

The Renwick’s “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” is as close as I’m going to get. The exhibit is in three parts. The first floor features costumes and models. The second floor has the big installations. And a leisurely picture-taking-filled 30-minute walk around the Golden Triangle neighborhood reveals the 6 outdoor pieces.

I quite enjoyed trying to find the outdoor pieces. The Renwick does a great job of providing a map to where the pieces are. It’s just sometimes hard to actually see what you are looking at even when it’s a big metal “XO” by the Farragut West Metro or a giant golden pyramid at the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and K Street.

I’m always impressed by artists who are willing to put their works out in the unsupervised elements. Someday, these pieces will make their way to a museum, and only people with gloves and art degrees will be allowed to touch them. But someday is not yet today!

In honor of the Jason the Handyman’s Burning Man principles, I saw the indoor exhibit with family (my most immediate community). I gushed at numerous people about how cool the art was. And I saw the outdoor exhibit on a really hot, fireball-in-the-sky day. There was dark chocolate, too, but Jason didn’t say anything about my having to share it.

No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” is at the Renwick Smithsonian American Art Museum until January 21, 2019 and in the surrounding neighborhood until December 2018.

Batting 0.454 For Ward 6 Week

August 12, 2018
RFK Stadium From Kingman Island on the Anacostia

RFK Stadium From Kingman Island on the Anacostia

I live in the best Ward in the City – number 6. We have more coastline than any of the other wards; we stretch into all four quadrants of D.C.; and we were able to rebuild successfully from the ashes of urban renewal disaster in the 1950s.

Our bus is the P6. This mighty marvel of human conveyance roams free in Ward 6, unchallenged by any lesser buses.

Suck it, Ward 4!

Once a year, Ward 6 celebrates itself with a week of events all around the ward. Let me clarify — FREE events all around the ward.

I’m all in for free. This year, I set out to attend as many of the eleven scheduled events as possible at the least cost to myself. I managed to get to 45.4% of them. I reveled not only in the free-ness of it all but also in the diversity of events. I visited places I had never before been to. I ate a senior citizen’s boxed falafel lunch. I consumed strange cheese. I rolled around in a pool of plastic balls. I baked in the sun.

In short, Ward 6 Week was fantastic and exhausting.

Funhouse (by Snarkitecture) at the National Building Museum

Funhouse (by Snarkitecture) at the National Building Museum

My first stop was the National Building Museum’s Funhouse exhibit. Snarkitecture, the designer of the exhibit, made a bold choice in the use of white as their base color. Someone who was not me made a similar choice about the color of linoleum on my kitchen floor. I have #QuestionsAboutTheJudgmentOfSuchPeople.

Signs around the Funhouse reminded visitors that it was not a playhouse. HA! Half the people inside the exhibit were between two and seven years old, an age range not known for its ability to care about “reminders” or “guidelines” or “consequences.” The Funhouse exhibit was beautiful undistilled chaos. My favorite part of the exhibit was the room with the Willy Wonkafied steampipe-looking mess of tubes for marbles. Pictures cannot convey the amount of delicious noise caused by no less than twenty people constantly reloading marbles into the contraption.

A member of the community was nearly lost in the pool ball.

A member of the community was nearly lost in the ball pool.

Free ticket value: $16

Later that day was the National Night Out event at Potomac Gardens. I could not find it. I’m sure it was there. I just could not connect myself to its existence. I mean, I found Potomac Gardens. I just couldn’t figure out how to get into the complex or where the free chips and selfies with firefighters were going to be.

In defense of the event and Potomac Gardens’s layout, fencing, and access points, my path through the City was already a bit of a mess by that point in the day. It’s not like I haven’t been to the Potomac Avenue Metro stop numerous times before. It’s just that Metro-me (the version of me that takes the Metro) is convinced that the Potomac Avenue Metro is next to the Anacostia Metro station. I know the Anacostia Metro stop is on the Green Line. And I know the Potomac River meets up with the Anacostia River. So Metro-me for years has been unable to shake the belief that the Anacostia Metro and the Potomac Avenue Metro are right next to each other on the Green line.

Makes sense, right?

Wrong. But that doesn’t mean I’m not counting the National Night Out at Potomac Gardens toward my “45.4% of events attended” claim, because I am.

In lieu of a relevant picture, here's a picture of a mushroom grove in Eastern Market

In lieu of a relevant picture, here’s a picture of a mushroom grove in Eastern Market

One thing led to another, and I scooted along to the next Ward 6 Week event that night — Books and Wine at East City Bookshop, a women-owned independent bookshop in Eastern Market. I was visiting for the first time! For the event, the store offered a surprising array of wines. Each was paired with a suggested book. My favorite pairing was Elif Batuman’s delightful yet subtle The Idiot in the company of a rosé. The lower level of the bookshop looked and sounded like a great author reading space, so of course I signed up for their events listserv.

Value of cheese, crackers and wine consumed: $12

Number of friends I got to hang out with: 1 (the friend bought a book, so my guilt at having consumed and imbibed compliments of the bookshop was assuaged!)

Wednesday’s Ward 6 Week highlight was tour guide Alexander Padro’s Shaw neighborhood tour with a focus on local recovery since the 1968 riots.

Fifty years on from the riots, the neighborhood bustles with people and bursts with architectural variety. I’ve lived in D.C. long enough to remain utterly fascinated by the ever-changing 7th Street corridor. The diversity of buildings in Shaw speaks to the neighborhood’s fitful recovery over the last fifty years, but I’m glad this part of D.C. escaped the multiple-block-sized mega-developments that have come to characterize much of the rest of development in D.C. over the last twenty years. Shaw will be stronger in the long run for this architectural medley and for its ability to hold onto its identity.

For more information on the 1968 riots, here’s a link to a great interactive Washington Post article.

Value: Alexander Padro has offered this same tour for free in the past! On the one hand, I think that’s fantastic. On the other hand, I got dinner with a friend afterward, and that meant I incurred a cost for this event: $ -26! I do not blame Ward 6 Week for this. I blame delicious Italian food and a Peroni at Al Crostino.

Number of friends I got to hang out with: 1

Thursday of Ward 6 Week was a beautiful-not-sweltering day in August, and I received a free surplus ticket to a Nationals game. What luck!

Nationals Stadium in All Its Glory.

Nationals Stadium in All Its Glory.

I took the Washington Post’s advice about avoiding pricey Nats Park meals, and brought my lunch. It turned out I didn’t need to. In addition to organizing Ward 6 Week, Councilmember Charles Allen’s office had an extra boxed lunch for me — falafel! Okay, it seemed like the lunches were intended for seniors, and I don’t have an AARP card, but I was encouraged to take a meal. Twice. So I decided those were surplus senior meals that were otherwise going to go to waste.

Mine was delicious!

It included a package of chocolate chip cookies. I ate those free cookies two hours before the start of the game and the “normal” time people eat dessert. You never know when Yellowstone might blow its top. But I’m pleased to report the start of the game arrived without a mega-volcano wiping out half of the United States and plunging the other half into post-volcanic winter.

Reeking of sunscreen, I wandered the shaded areas of the Stadium, which has something for everyone.

I came to understand that going to a Nats game is about more than a free boxed senior lunch, a seat almost in foul-ball range and barely avoiding buying a $12 bottle of beer. It’s about being surrounded by the salty delicious smell of baseball stadium hot dogs and trying to hold back your giggles as someone else’s 6-year-old declares to their surprise that they like cotton candy. And it’s about appreciating the craft of the game when Daniel Murphy manages to round all the bases in one go and slide on his belly safely into home.

The crowd went wild. There was falafel everywhere.

Free Nationals ticket value: Priceless.

My last stop for Ward 6 Week was a visit to Councilmember Allen’s office hours on Kingman Island. Technically, Kingman Island isn’t in Ward 6, but the island is an Anacostia River fixture, which made it fair game our week.  Robbie O’Donnell, with Anacostia Riverkeeper, offered an hour-long discussion and boat tour of the river.

The Walk to Kingman Island on the Anacostia.

The Walk to Kingman Island on the Anacostia.

It was a beautiful day to be on the river. Some of my concern about the shocking cost of water bills across the City was assuaged by seeing first-hand all the good the sewer overflow tunnel has done for the Anacostia. D.C. officials hope to make the river swimmable full time by 2025. For now, Swim Guide offers information about how safe it is to go in the water. Robbie also noted that since the 5 cent per bag tax began to be levied in 2010, plastic bags are no longer the number one item in the river by volume. They’ve fallen to tenth or so on the list.

The number one spot is now held by ball toys. Go figure.

The Anacostia is Too Pretty for Words.

The Anacostia is Too Pretty for Words.

Value:  Impossible to say, but this was one of the coolest, most inside-D.C. things I did during Ward 6 Week, which means it was worth even more than “Priceless.”

Number of friends I got to hang out with: 2

By the time Ward 6 Week had exhausted me, there was still one day to go. I wasn’t up for it though, no matter how cute the animals at the Mt. Vernon Triangle Petting Zoo were alleged to be. Councilmember Allen was still going full throttle though, always in a long-sleeved shirt and pants while I sweltered in less. He attended from beginning to end all the events I went to. He probably even has a selfie with a firefighter and a bag of chips at Potomac Gardens.

Total number of friends I got to hang out with this week: 4

Total amount of money I saved this week: About a bajillion dollars, I think.

Thanks to Councilmember Allen and his staff for making it all happen!


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