Sunday, December 9, 2012

In a monument state of mind

"The Washington Monument is big, and I supposed it could be also be classified as impressive or noble or something along those lines; symmetrically presidential might be the ideal term. But what is this 550-foot masonry structure supposed to tell me? What is is supposed to make me understand?"
                                           -Chuck Klosterman, Killing Yourself to Live

Chuck goes on to discuss whether he's supposed to think about George Washington, the nation's capital, and compares going to the Grand Canyon to seeing the monuments. Ultimately, the monuments do nothing for him and he concludes that "It's just...tall."

Oh Chuck! You know that I love you and your books but I just don't agree at all. I love monuments and historical sites and historical markers. Monuments and historical markers give us the sense of the historical "us" of living in the US. How else would we know about all the random things that happened right outside our doors or along the way to visit famous rock and roll death sites (like Chuck)?

Honestly, my ideal road trip across the US would involve stopping at every historical marker that I saw along the way (and it would culminate in going to Frontier Days in Cheyenne, WY). That road trip just screams awesomeness. I could start by driving just around Virginia; I probably wouldn't make it 10 feet without finding one. In fact, I saw a school group walking around my neighborhood a few weeks ago checking out the markers in the area. Maybe I'll start there.

My family moved to Virginia when I was in the 7th grade.  I've been to all the monuments, the Smithsonian museums (and the zoo), the National Gallery of Art, the National Archives, the White House, the Capital, the Supreme Court, and a lot of other historical places and spaces multiple times since every single family member and several of my parents' friends came to visit us over the years. I was a tour guide at the Newseum before I moved to California. The DC area appeals to the history nerd side. I love a plaque on the side of a random building and I love telling people the bizarre historical facts I've collected over the years. Fun fact: Wok and Roll in Chinatown is in the building that was Mary Surratt's Boarding House (yep, where the Lincoln conspirators met). Enjoy that food and check out the plaque next time you're in the area.

My friend Amy is in town this week. Amy is an ideal partner in crime - up for adventures, having fun, and a good laugh. She hasn't been to DC since the 8th grade so we decided to spend Saturday visiting the monuments. The National Mall is one of my favorite places. When I was an information desk volunteer at the Freer & Sackler Galleries, I used to cringe every time someone would wander in and ask where all the stores were located. The National Mall is not that kind of mall. It's an English mall - meant for walking and promenading (and picture taking, so much picture taking).

If you exit at the Smithsonian Metro station and you walk to your left, you'll eventually come to the Washington Monument. You can't really miss it - it's a 555 foot tall obelisk. It's the tallest building in DC and it's sort of sad to see all the fencing up around it. The monument sustained damage in the 2011 earthquake and it not currently open to the public. You can at least take pictures and bask in its awe-inspiring glory. Fun fact: the monument is different colors because of construction delays (due to lack of funds and politics as usual) and the inability of later builders to find stone from the same quarry. Amy and I heard some people criticize the different colors today as we were walking back. Researched that one for you, Island readers.

As you walk past the Washington Monument and cross the street, you enter into the World War II memorial. This is a newer addition to the monuments opening in 2004. There's construction going on around the World War II memorial and the Reflecting Pool. It's not as nice and tranquil as it normally is but I guess that's progress or something. We made our way along the Reflecting Pool and heard a mom say to her son, "Remember that part in Forrest Gump when Jenny ran across the pool?" The mom said Jenny exactly like Tom Hanks in the movie. Amy and I laughed about this throughout the day especially since I had also mentioned the movie but without the flourish of a Forrest Gump impression.

We finally made it to the Lincoln Memorial. Lincoln is my favorite. I probably bored Amy to death with my random Lincoln facts (more to be shared later on when we went to the American History Museum and I mentioned embalming and the fact that there was a challenge in transporting the President to Illinois for burial). I loved Manhunt but haven't seen the new Lincoln movie yet. You can read both the Second Inaugural Address and the Gettysburg Address while visiting with Abe. The Lincoln Memorial screams presidential to me. You can't help but think of the awesomeness of the job of the President and the challenges Lincoln faced while in office. I'm also sort a Civil War nerd too so I read about Lincoln a lot. I can't even imagine being the President and daily thinking about what was happening on those battlefields and across the country. Lincoln is also beautiful at night. Hollywood occasionally gets something right when they film here.

We also went to the Korean War Memorial (which I had never been to before) and to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. These two memorials are the most difficult to view (I think). I've seen people at the Vietnam Memorial overcome with emotion. It's one of those moments you don't want to see but you totally understand. Amy was able to find the name of her relative who was listed as MIA in 1970. It's was an emotional end to our memorial/monument tour.

What I find most interesting about all the monuments is that they're all controversial to someone. Whether it's the design or the location or the exclusion or inclusion of one group or another, no one is ever happy with a monument. It's disheartening to think about that when you're actually standing in front of the monument or memorial. How does one even decide who gets to be memorialized?

Here are a few tips from Amy and I about truly enjoying your day on the Mall. Ladies, let's discuss footwear. I don't know about you but when I walk at least two miles (the distance from the Smithsonian to the memorials and back), I don't want to wear high heels. I barely wear high heels in my normal life but really? We saw countless women in very high heels walking along the paths to the Vietnam Memorial (which is partially cobblestone) and up the stairs (so many stairs) to Lincoln. This is more than likely why fashionable tennis shoes were invented (I can't be certain of this but it's a pretty good guess). Even if you drove over to the monuments and parked, I don't want to be you at the end of the day.

Also, let's discuss decorum at and around the monuments/memorials. I will give you your space if you are protesting something or whatever, but driving past the Vietnam Memorial is not a time to blast really loud music (rap in this case but it would apply to any music) while stopped at the light. Show a little respect for the people on that wall and turn the music down or off. It's not that hard to know when you're right there - you can see it from your car.

And how did we finish our day? Discussing First Lady fashion and seeing the flag that inspired The Star-Spangled Banner and of course, seeing the dinosaurs. What trip to the Mall would be complete without seeing the dinosaurs? And the Hope Diamond (we did that too).

So Island readers, especially those of you in the greater DC area, get out and visit our lovely city. Go see a monument or two. Go visit your favorites at the Smithsonian or the National Gallery of Art. It's another thing you can do to be a good citizen without being political. We have so many amazing opportunities here to see so many great things and we never do it. Or we only do it when the company is in town. There's nothing wrong with being a tourist in your own town. I'll help you plan your day if you'd like. I'll even throw in some unnecessary historical facts so that you can impress (or bore) your friends and family. Because I care.

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