Tipple the Hitch

Glass of Scotch

April 13th marks the 65th birthday of the late Christopher Hitchens, perhaps the most prominent polemicist and essay scribbler of his generation. Hitchens was a rakish provocateur in the model of Dylan Thomas’ style, George Orwell’s indignation with a command of English all of his own.

When working in the DC area, I discovered that Hitchens would stop off at the bar in my office building—Johnny’s Half Shell—before and after his appearances on C-SPAN, Fox and NBC News. At that time in my nascent career, I didn’t quite recognize the rumpled, khaki-suited man in the elevator, perfumed in eau de Nicotine. Sadly, that is my only memory of the man in the flesh.  However my co-worker—an intense analyst we dubbed “Lattimer”—was a passionate media junkie and celebrity hound. Lattimer was the kind of guy who’d stop off to offer up unsolicited recitations on his intense weekends.

“Hey.”

                “Good morning, [Lattimer].”

Hwaet! What’s with the trench coat and penny loafers, G. Gordon Liddy?”

                “Funny. Don’t you have an education policy to ruin this morning?”

“You won’t believe who I drank with yesterday at Johnny’s”

                “No, I probably won’t.”

“Christopher Hitchens.” he said, allowing the name to resonate in the cube farm. “There he was, and I sat down and ordered him a Scotch.”

                “Expensive date, Lattimer.”

“Worth it.  Worth it. He talked to me for a full half-hour.”

While usually I’d dismiss this as a big fish tale, there is a kernel of truth in this retelling. Hitchens was known for his generosity of time with people, not just fellow intellectuals, but anyone, who could carry a conversation. He was also known for his love of Johnny Walker Black Label. Lattimer was no dumb jock—he knew policy and he knew people. I am sure Hitch would have dismissed him early on if he were boring (which was Hitch’s existential fear, boredom). For the fan-boy Lattimer, he engaged in near pick-up artist tactics to capture a leading mind of our time for a moment.

Hitch’s preferred poison was Johnny Walker Black, cut with Perrier. Like getting into Wagnerian Opera, Slow Foods, and Baseball, Scotch requires patience and perhaps a bit of personal tragedy to enjoy. I tend to look at my own preference for Scotch through the lens of honoring my Scots and Scots-Irish ancestors, as a communion over time, enjoying the same taste experienced by each generation. For Hitch though, Scotch provided inspiration and bestowed panache.

And how should one tipple like the Hitch? Only his own words will suffice the explanation:

“I work at home, where there is indeed a bar-room, and can suit myself. But I don’t. At about half past midday, a decent slug of Mr. Walker’s amber restorative, cut with Perrier water (an ideal delivery system) and no ice. At luncheon, perhaps half a bottle of red wine: not always more but never less. Then back to the desk, and ready to repeat the treatment at the evening meal. No “after dinner drinks”—most especially nothing sweet and never, ever any brandy. “Nightcaps” depend on how well the day went, but always the mixture as before. No mixing: no messing around with a gin here and a vodka there.”—“Hitch-22

 

Martin Amis, Hitch’s best friend in the world, advised him that “making rules about drinking is a sign of an alcoholic,” but nonetheless, rules there were:

“Of course, watching the clock for the start-time is probably a bad sign, but here are some simple pieces of advice for the young. Don’t drink on an empty stomach: the main point of the refreshment is the enhancement of food. Don’t drink if you have the blues: it’s a junk cure. Drink when you are in a good mood. Cheap booze is a false economy. It’s not true that you shouldn’t drink alone: these can be the happiest glasses you ever drain. Hangovers are another bad sign, and you should not expect to be believed if you take refuge in saying you can’t properly remember last night. (If you really don’t remember, that’s an even worse sign.) Avoid all narcotics: these make you more boring rather than less and are not designed—as are the grape and the grain—to enliven company. Be careful about up-grading too far to single malt Scotch: when you are voyaging in rough countries it won’t be easily available. Never even think about driving a car if you have taken a drop.” –Hitch-22.

Perhaps too much thought has been given here to something delightful. I don’t particularly find rules and relaxation to go hand in hand. However, for those in the production of the arts—whether essays, music, craft or other culture–letting the rules go and indulging too much has led to exquisite cultural touchstones (The Beatles, Picasso, Oscar Wilde) and conversely I suppose, death (Kurt Kobain, Ernest Hemingway, Tchaikovsky).

Perhaps rules are a good thing, at least for the mixology. What is it about Scotch and soda that works exactly? For me anyway, bubbles are the difference between drinking a glass of motor oil or experiencing something transcendent. Think about it, like wine, Scotch sits a long time in a barrel, aging and growing grizzled, adding complexity where there was none before. Scotch develops character in the dark, dank underworlds.

(An aside: a few years back, I got to perform a stage production of Beethoven’s Fidelio. There is a moment in the opera where the prisoners are given a chance to see the sun for the first time in what must have been decades for them. I often think of Scotch’s liberation from the barrel with this music in mind.)

Water alone cannot help the Scotch along to breathe again in the sun. Bubbles—by way of club soda—is an accelerant. But the problem here is that club soda is just cheap carbonated water, cranked off in a factory, pumped through a bartender’s nozzle into a glass of finely crafted elixir. This is where Hitchens steps in, to champion an alternative solution—natural carbonation. And Perrier? Seems snobbish at first, but those natural bubbles and minerals seem to dance with the Highlanders, like French mermaids. In fact, when trying to think of an historical context where the French and Scots have aligned before, I think of Mary, Queen of Scots—the Scots-born Queen Consort of France and pretender to the English throne too. If not for Hitchens, we might think of the combo of Perrier and Scotch ordering up a “Queen Mary” instead.

So, in homage to Hitchens, and perhaps Queen Mary and (if I must), Latimer too, think of cutting your Johnny Walker with Perrier, the up-scaled Scotch and soda of our time. And on April 13th, remembering days of Auld Lang Syne, I join other Hitch fans in honoring the man of letters with his favorite restorative (Of which, several posts of “Henry’s Eclectic” have been aided tremendously.).

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Photo credit: dvanzuijlekom / Foter / CC BY-SA 
Hitchens by Paintings on the Side by Cara and Louie: An original painting of Christopher Hitchens. Ink and Paint on Panel Original available for sale on Etsy.com
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A Crystal City Renaissance

Crystal City

When I lived in the Washington, DC area, Arlington’s Crystal City was not a place where I’d spend my free time. After all, the thin strip of corporate offices and street side eateries offered very little by way of the “authentic” experience in DC. Crystal City was a place near the airport, where the hotel chains lined the main drag, the restaurants were a sampling of every place USA, and the apartments housed Senators and Representatives who’d bed there just to keep close enough to the airport so they could dash off. Crystal City was a company town–housing Department of Defense and other governmental offices, providing a labyrythine underground to keep denizens connected from office to shops to apartment. Some people could go days without ever leaving the stale air of sealed towers, tunnels and throughways.

Yet in the past few years, as housing becomes more and more expensive in the DC area, the once waystation convention land has become a bit more vibrant since my last visit. While you won’t strain to find the Green Mermaid or a “Chik’in” sandwich from the national chains, you will also find local restauranteurs have opened sister stores on this side of the Potomac, offering some of the best and trendiest DC dinner places to Northern Virginia.

My most recent trip back to the region found me snowed into my hotel, unable to meet with my company and clients due to another “polar vortex.” I found myself stranded in Crystal City, and reliant upon whatever good cheer I could find. And of all the times in the areas recent history, to be stuck in Crystal City in 2014 was not the worst thing that could happen to me.

The area is one of many “unincorporated” business districts found in Arlington, Virginia–the expansive corporate answer to Greco-Roman Washington’s gallery of temples. Arlington is the business end of the nation’s capital, where contracting firms have snuggled up against the edges of the Pentagon for warmth and fat federal contracts. (Bureaucrats call these folks “Beltway Bandits.” They prefer to be called “Parkway Patriots.”). Crystal City was developed to be a “downtown” of sorts for the area, on the Metrorail system, near National Airport and the Pentagon.

Planned utopia aside, The very name of  “Crystal City” is enigmatic. In a town of marble and limestone, having a corner of glass and steel seems refreshingly  20th century. While the creators of Crystal City claimed to have come up with the name in their own right, DC history buffs will know that it was Frank Lloyd Wright who proposed building a “Crystal City” north of DuPont Circle in 1940. His concept included a vast hotel/residential/commercial expanse that would have had commanding views of downtown DC, but was never realized. (The Hilton in DuPont now sits where FLLW wanted to put his shining city on a hill). What came after Wright’s vision was in name only, as Crystal City would rise out of the abandoned rail yards along the Potomac, far from the iconic DC buildings, and far less grand in design.

Good Stuff Eatery

What spawned this revival was not goodwill and a sense of civic altruism. The Congressional “Base Realignment and Closure Commission,” or BRAC, was charged with reducing the Department of Defense presence in communities around the country, to reflect the change in warfare and preparedness from the old fort system of WWII to the modern military. And so, Crystal City lost its largest occupant, the Department of Defense. Faced with a glut of empty office space, the Crystal City owners got creative, and called for a grand plan to make Crystal City a residential community with complete redevelopment. Local pundits panned the proposal as “Crystal Pity”–an impossible dream. Yet two years on, Crystal City is renewing, and well.

The recent business improvements to the Crystal City core have attracted a gallery of some of my favorite DC eats–Gallery Place’s Jaleo for Spanish tapas, Spike Mendelsohn’s “Good Stuff Eatery” and “We the Pizza.” Upscale chains, like Bar Louie and Ted’s Steakhouse sit alongside smaller fare, like BW-3’s. And, if you tire of Starbucks, there is an Illy coffeehouse in the new Renaissance hotel. Culture through the Synetic Theatre brings modern spin to Shakespeare’s classics. These businesses arrived not to cater to the conventioneer or business road warrior–who traditionally crave the foods and hotels they know. The arrival of foodie favorites in the region proves that Crystal City has moved from being the banal everyconventioncenterland to a growing community. Over six thousand people call this area home now, and over 60,000 work there. It is a a small town that’s developing a culture against the granite and glass boxes that define its space.

Now, I do not recommend spending three nights in Crystal City if you are new to DC. However, if you are looking for safe launching pad mere moments from downtown, and a refuge from the weather and bustle, Crystal City can shelter you.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Crystal City Photo Credit: http://mopostal.tumblr.com/post/387653168/crystal-heights-mixed-use-development-proposal

Crystal City Moonrise Photo credit: Chris Wieland / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Good Stuff Photo credit: jpellgen / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Strip http://www.theeisengroup.com/projects/crystal-city/

Senate Bean Soup

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One of the great cliches in Washington DC goes something like this:

“You can tell Congress is out of session.”

“How?”

“The weather has cooled off…no more hot air coming off the Hill.”

(cue Rim-Shot, Cymbal)

If you ask me, while bloviating and grandstanding may be the source of the hot air, there is also the possibility that the favorite lunch chow of Congress could be to blame. Bean Soup, an olde-timey bowl of beans and ham, has been on the menu in the Senate and House cafeterias for over 100 years. In the Senate, it is known as “Senate Bean Soup,” to add distinction to a dish that is otherwise as bland as the institution.

Each side has official recipes, resolved perhaps by a conference committee. Like all good ideas, the soup originated in the House of Representatives.

Jos. G. Cannon, 4/3/14  (LOC)

The story of the arrival of Bean Soup on the permanent smorgasbord of the House and Senate would be laughable if it was not so sad. Speaker Joe Cannon, a powerful political boss in his day, had a hankering for the steamy bowl of ham hock and white beans. Being August in Washington, the chef that day decided to perhaps pull the thick, pasty napalm from the menu, for fear of causing hyperthermia in the already sunsoaked staffers. Cannon, upon arriving in the cafeteria and discovering his favorite food missing, erupted:

“Thunderation!” he bellowed. (What a phrase!)

From that moment on, the Speaker decreed under his personal privilege in such matters, that Bean Soup would reign on the menu for eternity. Imagine his modern successors making such a declaration. What (more) contempt might we hold if Speaker Boehner declared every day “Cincinnati Chili” day, or if Mitch McConnell in the Senate side of things demanded that his native Kentucky Fried Critters be served every day! Not to be outdone, the US Senate followed suit shortly after Cannon’s decree, adding the dish to the menu as well.

If you wish to dine as a Senator or Speaker, any citizen can find their way to the soup. The most posh way to enjoy the soup is with an invitation to the Senate Dining Room, reserved for Senators, VIPs, and campaign donors (who make the request, of course.) A bowl of the soup will run $6.00 in the dining hall. If you are not a crony or lackey, fear not, the soup is still accessible to the plebeian class. In both the Capitol Visitors Center, the Longworth House Cafeteria and the Senate Dirksen Cafeteria, a bowl can be had for $3.25.

As for my own partaking, I took mine usually in the bowels of the Dirksen Senate Building, near Union Station. The Senate and House Office Buildings offer numerous services to the staff who work long hours wrecking serving the American people. Long before the development of the food court, food truck or shopping mall, the basements of the office buildings provided every need to the staff–printing services, barber shop, banking, postal services, and cafeterias. They still do, in fact. Walking first through security in the nearby Russell Senate Office Building (hilariously shortened to Russell, SOB on the signage) then though the corridor, past the barber shop, through a subterranean tunnel and then into the Dirksen Dining Hall. Technically for staffers, it is open to the public.

And how does this manna taste? The soup is now produced by some contractor, set alongside tomato bisque, chowders, and chicken noodle. It is a dated, old fashioned food concept. Bulky, protein-laden. Swampy and steaming like a DC summer. The antidote to the winter doldrums, but only a sadist would eat this density in summertime. The soup is simple fare. White beans, some mashed to thicken the broth, float in cloudy water. Smoked ham, thoroughly boiled and deracinated from the hock, join the party. Onions, mere onions, add depth. Like a Japanese dish, the construction is elegant in its simplicity, but that simplicity may be taken as boredom by the modern palate. Nonetheless, eating Senate Bean Soup is like learning history through your taste buds.

On a more spiritual level, I am convinced that Senate Bean Soup is a symbol, a metaphor worthy of Dan Brown. How? It is approximately 100 old white farts (or 435 on the House side) rolling in pork fat.

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Senate Bean Soup in the Dining Room: Photo credit: saikofish / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Speaker Joe Cannon Photo credit: The Library of Congress / Foter.com

http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2506&dat=19640421&id=r2FJAAAAIBAJ&sjid=SQoNAAAAIBAJ&pg=2861,3906677

Senators in the Bowl by TJ Kozak at http://greatlakesgazette.wordpress.com/2012/01/16/recipe-file-senate-bean-soup/

For All Faiths and None: Washington National Cathedral

Glowing Nave

The flightpath and descent into Washington Reagan National Airport have a cinematic quality. The plane traces the Potomac, coming in above the snaking Capitol Beltway, the rolling hills yielding to urban sprawl. Washington DC is remarkably park-like–nearly 1/4 of all the acreage are parks. Atop the highest rise in the district sits a distinctly out-of-place Gothic pile amid the government buildings in Roman orders, Greek Temples to men of marble, and brick rowhouses in Georgetown. That building is the Washington National Cathedral.

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The cathedral sits atop Mt. St. Albans, nearly the highest point in the District. You can see the Cathedral from Georgetown, from the airport, and from most points along the Potomac. The edifice dominates the skyline in some cases more so than the familiar Washington Monument or Capitol dome

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When living in DC a few years ago, I lived in the shadow of the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul—the official name of the Dom. Once a week, I’d head up Wisconsin Avenue to a smaller chapel on campus, where my chorus would practice under the shadow of the spires. Around 7 PM, the great bells of the carillon would ring for about twenty minutes over this corner of DC–proclaiming the close of the vespers within. I’d wander in the bishop’s English gardens facing out toward the Capitol. The placement of this Cathedral was no mistake–as the house of worship gazes downward on the secular state at its feet–the Capitol dome and Washington Monument appearing as miniature tourist baubles below.

National Cathedral (Washington DC)

Despite the frequency of my visits to this place, I have always found a new revelation in these aisles–whether aesthetic or spiritual. Of the latter, this building was designed as a house of worship first. Yet since the founding of the Cathedral in 1907 by bishops of the Episcopalian church, the nation has changed around it. While still administered by the Episcopal Church (as it always has been–the building is not government owned, nor has received government support), the cathedral offers itself as a national house of worship for “all faiths and none.”

All faiths and none. I find that mission to be rather compelling. Why would a person of no faith need a cathedral? This big church represents the formal “high church” movement of its founders. The cathedral was begun in 1907 and finished in 1990—lightening speed for a cathedral built in the medieval style—almost as fast as American “progress.” In 1907, most Americans were protestant or Catholic. And if an American worshiped something else, that American was not visible in the nation’s capital. By the time the final finial was placed on the tower, America was a lot less WASPy and a lot more diverse. The largest growing denomination in America is “None.” Old Protestant sects like Episcopalians and Methodists are hemorrhaging membership to independent, non-denominational Christian churches. Those churches seemingly scorn the opulence of a cathedral, opting for a stadium and a charismatic preacher in the manner of Joel Osteen instead. The Mormons established a large temple of their own in the DC region in the 1970’s, and the Catholics have their own enormous basilica near Catholic University in Northeast Washington. Amid this splintering, the Washington National Cathedral searches for an open approach.

1969-03-State Funeral for President Eisenhower-09

This is the house, after all, where Presidents and great citizens are given state funerals. The cathedral, perhaps by virtue of being the first big house of worship in DC, is the unofficial “prima inter pares” among her neighbors. And for those with no faith, the cathedral houses art and history and inspiring moments appreciated in their own way.

sunshine on stone through glass

As for the aesthetics of the cathedral environs, the church art progresses from severe to abstract. In doing so, the art reflects the expansive mission of the Cathedral as a national sanctuary. Walking the nave, one can observe the stained glass move from a modern abstraction of color to a severe, formal British Gothic representation in glass. This is because the cathedral’s oldest end is at the altar, and as the century rolled on, the aesthetics changed as well. Old symbolism yield to ecumenical representations of spirituality, rebirth and renewal. Where the older part of the cathedral houses mosaics of the Resurrection, near the front door, tourists find chapels dedicated to George Washington, and stained glass with the moon and the stars as themes.

North mosaic 02 - Resurrection Chapel - National Cathedral - DC

Moon Window at the Washington National Cathedral

Certainly the cathedral founders could never have conceived of the Dalai Lama lecturing in the transept or Crosby, Stills and Nash singing their controversial song “Cathedral” in the nave. The magnitude of change, of cultural acceptance and understanding has weathered the original purpose of the cathedral—diluting it for some and enriching it for others.

Frederick Hart\'s Ex Nihilo, National Cathedral

As a result, the house of worship has a spiritual quality that transcends one interpretation of gospel and creed if one is willing to explore it. Compared to a truly ancient cathedral in Europe, the church is missing saintly relics, imagery, incense, and monks. Yet the church has the relics of secular Americans, like Helen Keller and President Wilson. The open spaces compel a sense of eternity, the high buttressed ceilings create a lofty space where spirits might dwell, the weight of Indiana limestone might persuade you to take a knee or bow a head in reflection.

Woodrow Wilson tomb 04 - South Nave Bay F - National Cathedral - DC

My last experiences in the grand space were over a year ago. On the last Tuesday of each month, the Cathedral places a large labyrinth on the floor of the transept. The labyrinth is drawn on an untreated natural canvas. While the labyrinth maze predates Christianity, the concept of walking a path to sort out one’s thoughts is sympathetic with Christian thought. The Cathedral’s labyrinth is based on the same design found in the Chartres Cathedral in France. A lone flautist plays a chant-like meditation over the long hall, her random pitches and tones resemble no traditional chant and are wordless, but create serenity as the tones dance among the stone carvings and dissipate into the endless spaces in the hall. Here, is spirituality for all faiths and none. And yet despite the diversity of worldviews, the wars fought among the forefathers of our denominations and faiths, here, in this abstraction, people find a bit of what they seek.

Whether the path-takers view is of biblical inerrantcy or ecumenicalism or no view at all, I have yet to witness anyone in the labyrinth who did not leave the maze with a sense of serenity.

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For those seeking less serious inspiration, the Cathedral’s exterior offers a collection of whimsical grotesques–or gargoyles. Some follow the design of those ancient gargoyles found in Europe. Others take their inspiration from homegrown monsters. Lying on the grass with a set of binoculars, gazing at the carved marble, has its own reward.

Cat gargoyle

Gargoyle

Darth Vader Gargoyle

Washington National Cathedral has found a niche in the spiritual heart of the nation. Its leadership have found ways to appeal to an increasingly diverse country, whose search for meaning can still be found in these cloisters. Where the founders of the Cathedral seemingly desired to use grandeur and heft to impose a particular view, the Cathedral has become a cipher–where the pilgrim sees what they want to see in the limestone and stained glass. That sentiment is better captured in the Tao Te Ching:

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore benefit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.

–Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter 11 [emphasis added]

The National Cathedral Hofstetterized

Lightshow Photo credit: stevehdc / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Aerial Photo credit: Barbara.K / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Nave Photo credit: mikeygibran / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

West entrance Photo credit: ~MVI~ (thesis stressed) / Foter.com / CC BY

Stained Glass Light Photo credit: McBeth / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Hart’s Ex Nihilo Photo credit: AlbinoFlea / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Cathedral Fog Photo credit: dbking / Foter.com / CC BY

Gargoyles Photo credit: bobosh_t / Foter.com / CC BY-SA, Photo credit: vpickering / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND, Photo credit: MollaAliod / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Woodrow Wilson Photo credit: Tim Evanson / Foter / CC BY-SA

Labyrinth walkers Photo credit: A Look Askance / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Resurrection Mosaic Photo credit: Tim Evanson / Foter / CC BY-SA

Moon Rock Window Photo credit: ehpien / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Eisenhower funeral Photo credit: Old Guard Museum / Foter / CC BY-SA

The Adams Enigma

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Pardon me, dear reader, for punning the atrocious naming device that both Robert Ludlum and Dan Brown employ for their book titles (The Cassandra Compact, The Ambler Warning, The Bourne Supremacy, The Da Vinci Code, ad nauseam). However, in this instance, the vehicle works. Nestled in the ambling necropolis of Washington DC’s Rock Creek Cemetery, a masterwork of Augustus Saint Gaudens remains undisturbed as a nameless tribute–from a mourning and brooding husband to his unhappy wife. And that memorial—commonly known as “the Adams Memorial”–is among the most intriguing, contemplative and inspiring places in Washington, DC.

I had long known of Henry Adams’ grave and its statue in DC as well as the man who conceived it. Henry Adams was the descendent of the Presidents Adams—John and John Quincy. He found his own path as a society man—a write, commentator and brooding bon vivant in Gilded Age Washington. He invented the anonymous tell all political novel—Democracy— well before Joe Klein’s Primary Colors. Adams most famous and enduring work—The Education of Henry Adams—remains among the best autobiographies ever conceived.

Adams married Marian “Clover” Hooper, a socialite and gifted photographer. While every indication showed their DC life to be happy and vivacious, Clover had a dark side. Three years into her own acclaim as a shutterfly, she poisoned herself with chemicals that she used to touch up her portraits. Adams commissioned the memorial to honor his wife after her suicide. And while Henry Adams put much thought into her memorial, he refused to mention her name in public after her death. Her grave does not bear her name–or any. And  she is never mentioned in his autobiography.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens

Henry Adams

 Above  Saint Gaudens, Below: Henry Adams

By the 1890’s, Adams was a global citizen. He had traveled the world, and the experience left him a mystic. Adams was deeply influenced by eastern philosophy and art at a time when most Americans had never heard of the Buddha. Adams was also alive at the apex of Victorian aesthetic, where mourning was a high art itself. The confluence of those circumstances inspired Adams to commission a wholly unique memorial to his wife, and for the place where he too would repose.

The Boston Brahmin commissioned New England sculptor Augustus Saint Gaudens to design a statue that would fully challenge the viewer’s sensibilities about life and death. Saint Gaudens had enjoyed fame as an American Michelangelo, his most famous work being the Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial on Boston Common.

Boston - Boston Common: Shaw Memorial

Adams had the work installed on a marble plinth designed by Stanford White. The large grave marker was surrounded by bushes, with a modest pathway leading up to the hexagonal patio. A stone bench faces the statue, providing a contemplative oasis amidst the tombstones in Rock Creek Cemetery.

The cemetery’s off-the-beaten path locale makes its visit by out-of-townees a bit impractical. (However, it is a two-mile residential walk from the Fort Totten Green Line METRO station.) To improve the tourist’s access to this work, the Smithsonian commissioned a cast reproduction of the work for its American Art Museum. I first saw the work there, in an alcove at the end of a bland marble corridor. The wall was dressed in outdoor-print wallpaper to attempt to create the mood of the cemetery. The statue sat on a reproduced platform on a marble floor with a museum bench before it.  While the art itself was well-rendered, the piece lost all meaning, antiseptically preserved within the museum. Ripped from its deathly context, I felt nothing of the intention of the work coming through. If I wanted to experience what Adams and Saint Gaudens were trying to express in this work, I would need to go to Rock Creek Cemetery, and experience the memorial in situ.

Wandering through a boneyard is not for everyone in every city. Yet most tourists to DC will find their way to Arlington National Cemetery to gaze over its historic pantheon of Americans—JFK, L’Enfant, and thousands of others. DC’s other cemeteries—for the civilians–offer a similar experience. Old Congressional Cemetery houses vice-presidents, J. Edgar Hoover and John Philip Sousa. And Rock Creek Cemetery, in northeastern DC, became in some ways the reward of the literati and high society of DC—with Alice Roosevelt Longworth, Gore Vidal and Henry Adams. Rock Creek captures the aesthetic of the Victorian age, where cemeteries were designed to feel like a park, with arboretums and funerary art becoming haute couture. Artists as varied as Louis Comfort Tiffany, Gutzom Borglum (of Mt. Rushmore fame), and others designed works that at the time, would have been appreciated by many a visitor to these remembering places.

One hundred years later, the American public’s relationship with death has changed. Death is not a constant companion. Death is sanitized, commercialized even. Tombstones are uniform. Modern “memory gardens” are corporate enterprises, with cheap art among the bronze plates. Places like Rock Creek are themselves a memorial not to individuals, but to an entire ethos. Cemeteries like Rock Creek house powerful art within their stone walls and wrought-iron fences. Those places provide an opportunity to step back in time to a different era, preserved, quiet and serene.

I am more Epicurean on those matters–as I imagine most Americans are. Death is not an American’s constant companion. It is an annoying neighbor on the other side of the fence. We will tolerate Death in mixed company, but have nothing to do with on a daily basis. Modern Americans focus on things livingly–in the now. Boneyards are on the other side of the fence.

I decided to visit Adams in the spring, that resurrecting time of year so apt for an avatar of Buddha among the reposing fields. I had no idea where the statue was among the thousands of memorials in the cemetery. I allowed myself first to wander through, allowing the names on the granite to surprise me as I searched. Nearly giving up, I went to the cemetery’s office, where I asked the clerk where I might find the Adams Memorial. Offering up a map of the famous—akin to the maps that celebrity hunters might use in Hollywood—the clerk pointed to the spot. I found my coordinates quickly. As an aside, I asked about a missing name:

“Where’s Gore Vidal?” (who died in 2012)

“He’s not here yet,” the clerk replied.

“Not here yet? He died a year ago!”

Wondering in what purgatory the remains of Gore Vidal might reside, I left that thought to go back to my main goal, to find the statue.

March Feef Gone Old Cam 2008 052

The Adams Memorial was a trendsetter at Rock Creek. Other DC upper crust wanted something similar to Saint Gaudens achievement. Artists also took advantage to add their interpretation of high funerary art to the collection. I found other works that expanded upon the idea of allegorical grief.

cemetario

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After a modest search, there before me was the copse of bushes where the statue hid from plain view. No names are on the memorial. I imagine what the casual ambler might think of this memorial, hundreds of years from now. In acres filled with names carved on rock, here was a blank slate. No information. Only your senses will be your guide from this point onward. The experience is one of confusion. I took the footpath into the memorial and came face to face with the Saint Gaudens.

The allegorical statue is based on motifs that appealed to both Adams and Saint Gaudens. Adams was particularly fond of Kannon, or Guan Yin—the Bodhisattva of Compassion. The statue has no official name, however to the consternation of Adams, the public called the statue “Grief.” The statue has no gender either. It is designed to answer nothing, to give no solution to the question of death. The statue only begs more questions.

Many in DC have sought counsel from this work. Eleanor Roosevelt used to sit here and gaze into the face of the avatar. I took a seat on the bench, knowing that many have done so, and sat with the statue. I know that I came to find this work with a lot of information in hand. What of the lay visitor with no knowledge of Henry Adams, of Buddha, of the master Saint Gaudens? What was the message that Adams and Saint Gaudens trying to convey beyond this grave? Is there hope? Is there justice? Is this just a monument to materialism—the excess of a wealthy man? Or, like Epicurus, does the statue admonish “that death should not concern us, for as long we exist, death is not here. And when death does come, we no longer exist to know it?”

Perhaps all of those things. In fields adorned with Christian motifs, this monument is revolutionary. It is also ironic—Clover Adams didn’t much care for monumental art. Why would her husband go to great lengths to create a monument? Did he use her demise as pretext for his own monument building? Then again, the monument isn’t of her or even about her. It isn’t about Henry Adams either really, save for his aesthetic.

March Feef Gone Old Cam 2008 044

Parting company with the statue, I feel not confusion, but calm. I am reminded of the first verse of the Chinese Tao Te Ching:

The Tao that can be told
is not the eternal Tao
The name that can be named
is not the eternal Name.

The unnamable is the eternally real.
Naming is the origin
of all particular things.

Free from desire, you realize the mystery.
Caught in desire, you see only the manifestations.

Yet mystery and manifestations
arise from the same source.
This source is called darkness.

Darkness within darkness.
The gateway to all understanding.

March Feef Gone Old Cam 2008 049

Adams Memorial Shrouded Photo Credit: Photo credit: A.M. Kuchling / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Adams Memorial In Situ Photo Credit: The Author, 2008

Shaw Memorial Photo Credit: wallyg / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Saint Gaudens Photo Credit  Smithsonian Institution / Foter.com

Henry Adams Photo Credit: Foter.com / Public Domain Mark 1.0

Funerary Art of Rock Creek Photo credit: Night Heron / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND, Photo credit: IntangibleArts / Foter.com / CC BY

Adams Memorial Out of Place Photo Credit:Isara / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

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Tomorrowland: DC’s METRO

Washington DC metro station

Washington’s METRO is ranked by many tourists as iconic–among the gems of the subway systems of America. The American Institute of Architects list it’s vaulted stations among the best of American design. That is proof to me anyway, that Americans do not get off the continent very often.

Every season is tourist season in DC, however, from the time the cherry blossoms bloom to the last days of summer, America’s denizens will take the trip to DC for one iteration of the “Great American Summer Vacation.” I can’t blame them. Most people who live and work in DC were once tourists themselves–whether tugged by dad along the Mall’s two-mile expanse or hauled on a charter bus as part of a school trip. The entire city is designed to strike awe in the first time visitor. And so it its METRO rail system.

Living here, of course, conjures up different emotions, of a Dr. Strangelove quality. DC residents have a love-hate relationship with their subway system. I have spent, to my calculation, about 125 days of my life on METRO. Career DC people have spent many more days, years of their lives in fact. And like any love, the intensity and passion of those first days in the relationship fade. Sometimes all we can do is find every last fault, remark on every defect, and become passive aggressive until the day comes when you buy a car, and leave. (I am still talking of the METRO, dear reader!) And while the DC system is fairly clean and can be aesthetically pleasing compared to older systems along the east coast of the US, there is something irritating about the dysfunction of METRO, in a city known for its own dysfunction. Locals vent their frustration with METRO on other blogs, such as “Unsuck DC Metro.”

A cousin of mine was visiting for his annual sojourn to a political action conference. He loathes METRO in the same way many in Congress do–a colossal government project that never seems completed, rife with inefficiency, and as polite of an experience as being a fan of the away team at Yankee Stadium. METRO was a product of the LBJ “Great Society” era. To address the needs of the growing national capital, LBJ and Congress passed the National Capital Transportation Act in 1965. The act called for the funding of a mass transit system in DC–with federal dollars. The reasoning for Congressional action was that this was the nation’s capital after all. London had its Tube, Paris its Metropolitan. Even the Soviets had immense subways with chandeliers. America was “behind.” And so, a regional authority would be formed to govern this new system.

Founded in 1967, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) is a bureaucracy so convoluted that it can only be called a “beautiful wreck” or a “hot mess” depending on your decade’s parlance. WMATA is governed by a board whose members are appointed by the liberal governors of Maryland, the conservative governors of Virginia, the federal government’s General Services Administration, and the socialists of the District of Columbia. They pick a sacrificial lamb to serve as administrator–some career whiz kid administrator in the DC area–to manage this four=headed beast. And how does the system sustain itself? Ticket sales only get you so far, as do tax revenues from the member jurisdictions. Remember that Congress created the system. Thus, Congress gets a say too. And because of that, a senator from Kansas can hold up spending on fixing a train car in Washington, DC.

The cousin knows all of this. And since the very air of DC is charged with political polarity, we loudly discuss our mutual loathing of LBJ’s Great Society METRO, riding the continent’s largest escalators into the belly of Hades. His loathing is more political, mine more aesthetic.

“The system cost $78 billion dollars?” he choked.

“Yup, don’t you like what liberals buy for you, cuz?”

“Sure, they buy great stuff with my money,” he sarcastically offered.

My argument is not really with LBJ, it is with the very idea of underground transportation. We continue to ride the moving stairs into the maw of the cavernous netherworld.

“The only time people should be this deep underground is when they are dead,” I gravely suggest.

“Geez. Kinda dark there”

“Its kinda dark down here. Not to mention, do you know what they call this kind of architecture? Brutalist.”

“Sounds Soviet,” he quipped as we joined the great proletariat on the platform for the next train.

USSR or USA?

That part we can agree upon–the METRO was designed and built in perhaps the worst decade for American style in her history–the 1970’s. Despite the Cold War, some building and design in the US looked downright Soviet during this ear. Starting with the railcars, the color palate was shades of orange pleather with tan plexiglass seats. The cars were not Made in the USA but in Italy. Gramsci would have been proud. The designers of the cars splashed down orange-red carpet, to try to appeal to the DC businessman to treat this system like his personal livery. Clearly the Italians didn’t consult say, Ferragamo or Versace for design, but Mussolini (okay, I am mixing metaphors. But as Keynes observed, the line between Stalinist-socialism and fascism is very thin) Now, there were other designers in the 1970’s. Imagine if instead, the DC overlords channeled Disney. How much more fun would METRO be as Space Mountain:

Disney - Space Mountain Blue Space Shot Tunnel (Explored)

But instead of Disney, the stations themselves are Brutalist in their vocabulary. Brutalism was the style in 1950’s through 1970’s architecture, defined by its stripping bare of decor and artistic style down to the core elements of a building–cement, steel, stone. The feel of one of these buildings is totalitarian. Heaping piles of geometric, cold cement can be found in Boston’s city hall, the FBI building in DC and yes, the METRO. They have not aged well, as the concrete withers in the weather. They do seem to be Soviet–stripped of all embellishment and humanity–and not built to last. They are brutal. And intriguingly, the federal buildings in DC closest to the neo-Classical dome of the Capitol–the Health and Human Services Building and the Labor Building are also in this style. As for METRO, like any good bureaucracy, by the time Washington decided to build, and had chosen its architect in Harry Weese, the style was already on the way out.

10th Street NW facade - J Edgar Hoover Building - Washington DC - 2012

However, METRO, for all of its political and aesthetic warts, is still a very cheap way to commute into DC. And for tourists, the stations link most sites together well enough to make for a decent travel tool around the Capital. DC workers forget what it is like to be a dreamy-eye tourist from the small town, marveling at the marble, granite and bronze city on a hill. We get temperamental when the tourists are unaware of the unwritten rules of etiquette that only a seasoned DC resident knows:

  • Stand on the Right–Caffeine crazed staffers will bolt up and down the left side of the escalator, in the fast lane. All too often, tourists used to riding an escalator (its actual function) are aghast and the rude and curt huffing and puffing of a rube in a hurry. Do yourself a favor, and don’t be, as the locals say, and “escabump.”
  • Let people out of the car first–DC is rude but it isn’t New York. There is a basic expectation that those exiting the train get priority. Only when the last human has passed through the door may you then enter. Cramming in is just rude.
  • Don’t eat on the cars–Do as WMATA says, not what it does. While plenty of cops and train drivers will eat on the train, it is illegal. Teens do it all of the time, stinking up cars with Eau de Big Mac. And well-appointed bureaucrats will get chided for carrying their latte on board.
  • Avoid Orange cars—This is a helpful hint. If you see a car with a number 1000 on it, or it has vintage orange interior, it will smell awfully and will not have a functioning air conditioner.
  • Don’t try to keep the doors open–They are fragile enough to break all of the time, yet strong enough to bruise and maim you. They are not like an elevator door. They will not stay open. They will crush you.
  • One seat only–Do not expect to have a whole bench to yourself when the cars fill up. And don’t think if you sit on the outside seat that no one would dare ask you to make room for them to squeeze into the window seat. They will.
  • Bring a bottle of water. More often than not, these trains break down. And in the summer, the internal temperature of a car can get hot–over 100 degrees. I pack a little water in the summer, preparing for the inevitable–a free sauna with 100 strangers wearing wool suits.

To the tourists credit, they do not seem to be too bothered by offending this secret knowledge. And the tourists make a game of it, assigning blame. They see the busybody Hill staffer or self-important “deputy assistant to the deputy assistant secretary” scurry by on the escalator, and the tourist assumes the bastard must be a member of the other party. Tea party tourists see the rude DC denizens as Obama people. The Moveon.org crowd sees the rude staffer in navy suits and red ties and thinks “Young fascists.” And some tourists say it out loud, and I laugh. Good for them. Rage against the machine!

Metro Train

While DC may have some of the most educated, snarky and professional workforces in the world, the criticism is not undeserved. METRO has to to do its part too. The system is run by a tired workforce, beleaguered by testy travelers and oppressive summer heat. In most metropoli, the announcements are the car are in clear English, impersonal and automated. On METRO, it is a daily occurrence to be accosted by a driver, threatening to off-load the train if the riders are not compliant. DC is a power town–and every bit of power is coveted. I find the scolding to be an embarrassment.

The system is old and was ill-designed. The entire system is like a dual monorail–if one car breaks down on your side of the tracks, the entire system is stopped. And at rush hour, with the teaming angry bureaucrats trying to get home and perplexed tourists wondering how the greatest country in the world could have such an inefficient subway, the masses get cramped and angry. METRO rarely apologizes for its mistakes, creating more passive-aggressive anxiety between the proles and their transportation vanguard.

L\'Enfant Plaza platform

METRO serves more than the political working class and the tourists. An inevitable outcome of a massive public space is that it is a place for all– rush hour and at night. Teens spill McFood on the pleather. Drunks get home from the bar at the witching hour. METRO serves a home for the homeless too. One would think that the cramped METRO cars could be a great leveler. Imagine, the fly-over state tourists coming face to face with urban realism. The congressional staffer looking the poor in the eye. The bleeding hearts seeing protestors on the way to the Supreme Court to defend the 2nd Amendment. And yet, most people have found ways to insulate themselves even in this public space. Ipod ear-buds create a personal inner space even when a stranger is jammed in a seat next to you. Barriers are on the micro level.

In the socioeconomic stew of METRO, there is the complete lack of conversation, the quietude, interrupted by out-of-townees or the rude idiosyncrasies of fellow travelers–music too loud, big talk by little interns, teenagers. I will say, that I think the older generations are more likely to strike up conversation. I sometimes find myself talking to strangers in those tourist months, popping out of my own iTunes universe to answer a basic question on how to get around my adopted town, its METRO and our shared love-hate relationship with DC’s ersatz “Tomorrowland” train.

White House

METRO Photo credit: o palsson / Foter.com / CC BY

Soviet/USA Photo Credit: ford / Foter.com / CC BY

FBI Building Photo Credit: dctim1 / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Speeding Train Photo credit: chrismar / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Teaming masses Photo credit: owash / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Homeless Photo credit: nevermindtheend / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Space Mountain Photo credit: Express Monorail / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Visiting Abe

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Every once in awhile, I will take a moment to walk the National Mall and mingle among the tourists. I do this to dull the jadedness that is inevitable when a former tourist makes Washington, DC their home. Tourists bring all of the joy and whimsy and awe that once inspired the migration of countless policy wonks, civics nerds and political science majors to move here. When I start to feel a bit of that idealism fading, I know it is time for that reminder, and I usually start at the feet of Abe.

The Lincoln Memorial is never without visitors. I have been there at the early AM, when the morning light moves like a long spotlight from behind the Capitol dome, illuminating the long green miles from one end, past the Smithsonians and the Washington Monument, through the recent World War II Memorial, and onward down the reflecting pool to Abe’s end of America’s front yard. At that hour, the ducks sleep in the reflecting pool as bureaucrats go for their morning jog in bad shorts and old tees around the Mall, and the homeless wake and work their way to the National Park bathrooms for a private morning scrub.

I have ventured mid-day to see Abe, with the throngs of tourists not only from every corner of America but the globe. The cacophony of America’s dialects–Bostonian, Creole, Valley Girl, Twang, Chicagoland and Pittsburghese–blend with Chinese, Russian, German, Spanish, and languages foreign to even my ear. You can’t get close to the big man in his chair, tour groups cram in and on the grand staircase, taking in the long vista back toward the Capitol and in their mind’s eye, to Old Europe and the infancy of civilization.

Years ago, in the late evening and before the security cameras drooped like acorns off the edges of the temple, I would go very late to see Abe in solitude. Many tourists–the drunk 2 AM variety–have scaled Abe’s lap for that defiant kind of facebook photo. (Your author will not admit to those shenanigans).

Why do we flock to Abe? Do we ever take a moment to ask why a nation, founded on secular principles, deified a human in a Greek Temple? The Mall is rife with this kind of history–the Great Man theory–of Washington (the warlord), Jefferson (the hypocrite who owned slaves), Grant (another warlord) and so on. The few times the common American is honored is for his sacrifice in war–Vietnam, World War II, and Korea. As you might already suspect, no monument built on the Mall was ever finished without controversy. The Civil War and near-bankruptcy of the nation during Reconstruction kept the Washington Monument from completion for nearly 80 years. The Lincoln Memorial was challenged as pagan, then extravagant, then too far removed from the city core. The Jefferson Memorial–the last of the temples–was interrupted by depression and war and was considered stylistically derivative by the time it was finished. Not to mention the gnashing of teeth by the conservative city planners over Maya Lin’s masterstroke–the deep wound in the earth, the black marble, and the names of every fallen common man that collectively comprise the Vietnam Memorial. The Mall takes on the look of a book written by committee–the National Capitol Planning Commission–who dithered over FDR’s memorial, closed the Mall forever to new monuments after the controversial Martin Luther King Memorial, and are today embroiled over building a tribute to Eisenhower either in the approved modern mode by Frank Gehry or another stentorian temple as promoted by the Eisenhower progeny.

That sort of thinking is what I hope to shelve when I wander among the tourists and see Abe with eyes anew. There is nothing really unique about the style–you recognize the Greek temple, the Doric columns, the god at the center. The style is not all that important as the idea it enshrines.

As many authors have said, before Lincoln, the way you would describe our country’s name was “The United States are.” After Lincoln, we write “The United States is.” The Civil War settled the idea of states’ rights, no matter the modern claims to that idea. Lincoln of course is remembered for the end of slavery, however, history may have glossed over Lincoln’s political pragmatism. People forget Lincoln did not favor integration, just emancipation. That is what I think people get out of visiting Lincoln, aside from the selfie that WILL appear on facebook. Lincoln is enigmatic. People get out of him what they see in him. Some see the pragmatist. Some see the Emancipator. Some see a universal symbol of America.

A family approaches me. They always do. They are the sort looking for a friendly enough face, a face that after years of jovial Midwestern nurturing will meet expectations.

“Can you take a picture of me and my family?” asks the stranger, in a mild accented English.

I oblige. Sometimes, if I can detect their native tongue, I will aim the camera, and count to three in their language before offering up the “cheese” and the click of the button. (The Chinese always awkwardly giggle. The Germans and French are annoyed. The Turks? They might buy you lunch.)

Camera returned, and image approved. I ask “…and from where are you visiting?”

“Denmark.”

Mission accomplished. A tourist interaction. And a good thing I didn’t try Danish, as I don’t think I could even wing it.

Sometimes I might ask why they visit. They may respond with a general love of American spirit, energy, and freedom. They might just want to tick off the tourist attractions, just as Americans do with the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, or the Sphinx. Sometimes they ask me from where I am visiting. They sometimes seem shocked that I am a local, especially if I am wagging from my job and enjoying a sunny, cool, humidity free day in the District. I never tell them that it is their energy and awe that I am looking for, as it sounds a bit Pollyannaish, or eccentrically stalker-like.

Of the monument itself, years of visiting Abe have clued me into some more interesting curiosities about the monument.  First, there is the mistake in the carved words of the Second Inaugural Address, on the right wall. Urban legend holds the carver was so distraught that he killed himself for the mistake. You can easily find it with good vision on your future visit (hint).

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More fun are the urban legends that have grown over time. The National Park Service debunks them, but I can’t help but perpetuate the legends. When it comes to the sculpture, most people believe that Abe sits on the flag and that he seems to form his initials in sign language with his hands. Another urban legend says that if you lean against the wall on Abe’s left side, as close the rear as you can get, you can see the silhouette of Robert E. Lee, the confederacy’s general, carved into Abe’s hair. Lee is looking longingly toward Virginia, and his childhood home–the Custis Mansion–that was confiscated by the Union and was turned into Arlington National Cemetery. This is the stuff of urban myth, but I look for the face every time.

Visiting Abe is about our shared cultural history and experience. Kids learn the Great Man version of history in school. Many people visit DC with family or school as a child and perpetuate the experience with the next generation. Washington is still a tourist venue, attracting every American at one point or another. It is a secular Mecca for the American idea, an actual shining city on a hill, designed for the maximum aesthetic impact, and the repository (and reliquary) of our national history. Abe gets the top billing on the marquee and rightly so. And as many Americans were reintroduced to Abe this past year in 7-to-15 dollar matinees through Speilberg’s lens and in cinematic glow, for me, the illumination of the marble Lincoln by the breaking golden dawn, for free admission, and his words etched into stone and memory are good enough.

Lincoln Memorial Photo credit: rolfo87 / Foter.com / CC BY

Second Inaugural Photo credit: Wknight94 / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Post-Script. The Chinese Photo-op would go something like “Eee, Are, Sun….CHEEZ-UH!” You should know a hello and some numbers in several languages. Knowing helps to break down barriers and more importantly, kills the stereotype of the “Ugly American” who is ignorant of the world. In our increasingly global world with more and more upwardly mobile citizens from Russia and China, you don’t need to travel to meet new people. They are coming here.