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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Cold in California

Dear Northern Virginians:

When you go outside tonight and you think, "Gosh, it sure is cold out here," I want you to pause for a moment and remember this:

They will be colder in California than we will be here.  This coast has better housing insulation and warmer clothing readily available.  I'm pretty sure it's only snowed twice, in the town I grew up in (in NorCal), during my lifetime.

on the other hand...

Dear Northern Californians:

When you go outside tonight and you think, "Man, it's hella cold out here," I want you to pause for a moment and remember this:

The DC Metro Area is home to people from all over the world.  And not a single one of them seems capable of driving in rain or snow.  You're safer in California.

Love and warm wishes to you all,

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Brief Visit to Monticello: Grounds & Gardens

"I am savage enough to prefer the woods, the wilds, and the independence of Monticello, to all the brilliant pleasures of this gay capital [Paris] . . . . for tho' there is less wealth there, there is more freedom, more ease, and less misery."                                                                       - Thomas Jefferson (to Baron Geismar), 1785
The front of the house at Monticello (top right of the collage, below) looks a lot like the back of the house.  The major differences are the drive in the front and the brick path in the back that winds around the West Lawn, a huge expanse of green.  

The "winding flower border" that encircles the West Lawn is filled with a variety of exotic-looking flowers, with a host of trees waiting on the periphery.  The entire flower garden behind the house was inspired by the English gardens Jefferson visited in the late 1700s - informal, open and balanced with the natural landscape.  Between the narrow flower beds on both sides of the winding walk and the oval flower beds directly behind the house, Jefferson had what he described as "abundant room for a great variety" of flowers - over 100 species according to his Garden Book.

What we see in this garden today is thanks to the work of those who restored, as well as those who now preserve, the gardens.  They have remained as true as possible to not only Jefferson's original garden plan, but also the flowers and plants that he was known to have grown therein.  I cannot begin to do justice to this part of the tour - our guide (pictured in the bottom right of the above collage) had a wealth of information on Jefferson and she thoroughly enjoyed discussing all aspects of the gardens with the tour members.

"...There is not a sprig of grass that shoots uninteresting to me..."                                                                        -Thomas Jefferson (to Martha Jefferson Randolph), 1790
The part of the tour I had most looked forward to was of Jefferson's "revolutionary garden," which is about two acres of a great variety of fruit and vegetables.  I had only recently discovered that Thomas Jefferson was not afraid of a little experimenting when it came to horticulture (the adventurous landscaping has already been noted for the flower garden, but it is found here, as well).  

The recreation of this garden has, of course, varied somewhat from the original.  However, according to Monticello,org, the garden is still maintained with organic fertilizers, natural pesticides, branches used for staking growing vegetables and a fair amount of composting.  As impressed as I am with Jefferson's plant experiments and near-vegetarian lifestyle, I am amazed that this part of Monticello is kept intact and treated with the same care that I imagine it was given in Jefferson's time.  

This is not meant to downplay the use of slavery in its 19th century maintenance, but Jefferson's views on that were quite paradoxical and I haven't done enough research to speak to it.  That said, and regardless of taking things in the context of the times, it is no less disturbing that the man who drafted the Declaration of Independence owned people and that this declaration did not extend to a large part of the population (slaves, indentured servants, and women, for example).  If you are interested in learning more about this aspect of Jefferson and Monticello, the Smithsonian has an online tour about Liberty & Slavery.  And Monticello is rebuilding Mulberry Row, which was the hub of that plantation, and home to free people and slaves alike.

Once the garden tour wrapped up, we were allowed to either head back to the Visitor's Center, or take a walk down to the Monticello Graveyard.  Of course, we chose the latter.

Before we go on - a quick note from Seth:  "It is worth mentioning that it took Jefferson a little over forty years to complete Monticello and that the resulting exorbitant cost of the project left him deeply in debt.  Our house tour guide made a point of telling us this and one of Jefferson's most famous quotations, 'Never spend your money before you have it.'  In fact, he was incredibly proud of the fact that he had significantly reduced the national debt while President.  Unfortunately, he was unable to adhere to this ideal when it came to his own finances and his family had to sell Monticello after his death."  To learn more about the factors that contributed to Jefferson's lifelong struggle with debt, see the Research & Collections section of Monticello.org.

The original part of the Monticello Graveyard is reserved for direct descendants of Thomas Jefferson and his wife, Martha, and those descendants' spouses.  I believe the descendants of Dabney Carr (Jefferson's boyhood friend, then brother-in-law) are included in this, but there seems to be conflicting information.  In any case, the most recent burials in this graveyard go up to the late 1990s.

Thomas Jefferson was quite particular about a lot of things.  He may have appeared more relaxed because his flower garden looked a bit wild, but every placement of flower or herb was carefully planned.  He was no less clear about the epitaph to be written on his gravestone - in particular, which of his accomplishments he wanted to be remembered for.  Jefferson supplied not only the words ("...and not a word more..."), but a sketch of the obelisk they were to be carved on.  

We know Thomas Jefferson as a former Governor of Virginia during the Revolutionary War; as a member of the second Continental Congress (when he wrote the Declaration of Independence); the first Secretary of State (under George Washington); Vice President under John Adams (through a flaw in the Constitution that he eventually amended); and the third president of the United States, during which time he sent Lewis & Clark on their famous expedition, and then negotiated the Louisiana Purchase with Napoleon.  

While Jefferson did not stop slavery in the United States, it is important to note that he did end the importation of slaves from outside the U.S. during his presidency.

However, in the end, Thomas Jefferson wanted to be remembered for only three things: authoring the Declaration of Independence, authoring the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and creating the University of Virginia.

"I am as happy no where else and in no other society, and all my wishes end, where I hope my days will end, at Monticello. Too many scenes of happiness mingle themselves with all the recollections of my native woods and fields, to suffer them to be supplanted in my affection by any other."                                                                                            - Thomas Jefferson (to George Gilmer), 1787

Monday, November 19, 2012

A Brief Visit to Monticello: The House

I have an announcement to make (quasi-proclamations are fun, you guys): I have been overthinking and putting off this post for too long.  Seth and I took this trip back in August, when it was still unbearably hot here in Virginia.  We didn't get to spend a lot of time in  Charlottesville or at the Monticello plantation, so I had endeavored to make my way back there before posting anything.  Or, at least, to do enough research to feel like I had an idea of what I was talking about.  In the end, there is just so much to learn about Monticello and Jefferson and far too many interesting things to write about the man, his ideas and the times he lived in, to do justice to any of the above.  Of course, since I also forgot my camera and had to use my cellphone for pictures, this isn't the ideal photojournal of the trip, either.  Thus, I am resigned to just enjoy writing what I do know and sharing with you the few decent pictures I managed to take.  I offer you a wealth of rainy-day cell-phone photos and my first impressions of/lingering thoughts about the places we saw, to start with.  As time allows, I will definitely be going back to Monticello to explore and do the other tours (hopefully, with a decent camera next time).  

If you are in the area and have the opportunity, the tours of Monticello are fascinating and the tour guides are extremely knowledgeable, patient and somehow manage to keep their senses of humor intact.  That last one is notable, considering how few people pay attention to their requests (don't sit on the furniture, don't touch the paintings, don't wander away from the tour, etc).  They really deserve some kudos.


We were dismayed to find rainy weather on the day we were set to go to Jefferson's Monticello, but it turned out to be a light rain and it cut the heat down, so we took our umbrellas and enjoyed a tour of the bottom floor of the house, some of the grounds, and Jefferson's revolutionary vegetable garden.

life-size statue of Thomas Jefferson hangs out at the top of the visitors center stairs, looking toward the shuttle loading area as if to say, "What the hell are you people doing on my land?!"  At least, that was my first impression.  I believe you have the option of walking up, instead of taking the shuttle.  I imagine Jefferson would approve.

The shuttle dropped us off a short walk away from the front of Monticello, but we all thought it was the back, because so many shots of the house and grounds are from the other side (more on that later).  However, it is entering from this side, the East Portico, that brings you into the Entrance Hall.  

Here is where I tell you all that I can remember about the inside of the house, because no photographs are allowed - links to images are provided.  Here is the tourable link to the house's floorplan:  ROOMS.

In Jefferson's day, visitors were left to wait in this Entrance Hall, off the East Portico, where they could marvel at Jefferson's collection of souvenirs from the Lewis and Clark Expedition (courtesy of friend, fellow local and future private secretary, Meriwether Lewis).  From Monticello.org: "The Entrance Hall served as a reception area and waiting room for visitors and a museum of American natural history, western civilization, and American Indian cultures."

Although the Entrance Hall and the Parlor (off the West Portico) are magnificent rooms, Jefferson's library (which contains mostly titles he would have had, but not the originals he owned) and his bedchamber (including the alcove bed in which he breathed his last) were the most fascinating to me.  I also enjoyed the guest bedroom, which the Madisons so often used, called the North Octagonal Room.  I admit to liking alcove beds and oddly shaped rooms, for some reason.  Oh, and the closet over the alcove bed in Jefferson's room (note the three elliptical windows above the bed in his room, they ventilate said closet), which was accessible by ladder.  Lovin' the use of space.

Tomorrow's post will conclude our Monticello visit with many photos of the grounds and gardens, as well as anything Seth and I can remember that may be of interest to you.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

A Little Something from Andi

I want to put out there how much I appreciate Andi, of Once in a Lifetime Travel, for posting something related to Hurricane Sandy.  The particular blog she posted it on is usually about Italy, which is why I love reading it and checking out her Featured Photo Friday posts.  But yesterday Andi's post was titled Simple Kindness After Hurricane Sandy.  I love everything that the photo she selected stands for.  Please stop by and check it out for yourself here.

Check out Andi's coverage of the flooding and recovery in Vernazza here.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Few Hours in C-ville

Seth came for a visit in August, to celebrate my birthday with me, and we decided to take a brief trip to Charlottesville.  Neither of us had been to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello (our adventure will be detailed in the next Lost in DC post) and wanted to spend most of a day there.  But first we wanted to check out C-ville (as it is evidently referred to by the locals).  

Charlottesville is located in the Piedmont Plateau, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with the Rivanna River running through.  The city has been independent (not part of a county) since 1888, but serves as a cultural center for the surrounding area.  You will not only find Thomas Jefferson's mountain-top home, Monticello, but the home of learning he founded, the University of Virginia.  

When people speak of Charlottesville, my first thoughts are always of Jefferson, but the area is also known for two other Founding Fathers, both of whom were close friends with Jefferson.  In fact, our 3rd (Jefferson), 4th and 5th presidents all resided in the same part of Virginia. 

Montpelier, located just 25 miles from Charlottesville in Orange, was the home of James Madison, our 4th president who was often called the "Father of the Constitution" by his peers.  And his wife Dolley, who was our first "First Lady."  The Madisons were particularly close to the Jeffersons, and in touring either estate, you are bound to hear about the other.

Ash Lawn-Highland, also located in Charlottesville, was the home of James Monroe, our 5th president and last of the Founding Fathers to take office.  Originally, the estate was called "Highland."  It was changed to "Ash Lawn" after the deaths of Monroe and his wife Elizabeth, but today both names are used.  The estate is operated by the College of William and Mary, which has continued to work on its preservation and restoration.

Many people know that Jefferson had mixed views on slavery, so it is not surprising that his friend James Monroe might feel the same: "Monroe himself was torn between his belief in the 'evil of slavery' and his fear of the consequences of immediate abolition."

One of the things you learn on the tour of Monticello is that both Jefferson and his longtime friend (and then political adversary), John Adams, died on the same day: July 4th, 1826.  What I hadn't heard before was that Monroe was the third former president to die on Independence Day, but five years later.
City Hall, in Downtown, with bas relief statues of Madison, Jefferson and Monroe
Since we only had a few hours to see Charlottesville itself, we stuck to the Downtown Mall and surrounding streets, which kept us pretty busy.  This would have been a better post if I had not, yet again, neglected to bring my camera.  This is not helped by the fact that some of the pictures are lost somewhere on my computer presently, but that's another story.  
Jefferson-Madison Regional Library
Charlottesville is a hearty mix of art, culture and history.  The Downtown Mall has street vendors and small businesses that remind me somewhat of Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, CA (though the similarity ends there).  Before we tooled around to see the sites in the pictures below, we stopped at The Nook for lunch.  I had a moment to wonder if I would regret ordering the Big BLT instead of something more fun (like the Bistro Mac n' Cheese).  Then I bit into a perfect, red, juicy roma tomato and forgot about all that regret nonsense.  This place is a traditional casual American diner - no frills, good food, great service - but with a bit more flexibility in the menu, in addition to standard diner fare.

McGuffey Art Center is a community arts center in downtown Charlottesville.  It is open to the public with no charge for admission - "If the studio doors are open, please walk in to view artist’s work space and their art."  McGuffey also participates in Charlottesville's cultural "First Fridays."  On the first Friday of every month, the Center shows new art exhibitions.
On our way back to the Downtown Mall, we passed Lee Park (statue of Robert E. Lee on his horse, Traveller, pictured), which was playing host to a music festival that I still insist was all about the funk, though Seth refuses to agree.  It was also unbearably hot, which is why the man crossing the street in this photo has a towel over his head.  

I thought you might ask.

In any case, this is a pretty little park with plenty of shade and seating, on a little over an acre of land that is raised above street level.  It also hosted the first Charlottesville Pride Festival this month.  Unfortunately, it looks like it won't be held there next year.  But only because they had so many people there and so many sponsors who wanted to participate that they could not all fit and will need a larger venue next time.

Our last stop took us back to City Hall, where we paused to look around at the First Amendment Plaza (we had no idea that's what it was, of course).  The plaza contains the Community Chalkboard and Podium - an interactive monument to the First Amendment.  From the Thomas Jefferson Center site:
"The monument’s greatest strength lies in the fact it is both a fixed symbol of the right of free expression and a venue for the exercise of that right. Individuals use the chalkboard to express ideas both political and whimsical, to respond to ideas already on the wall, to convey messages to members of city government, and to create temporary works of art."
If I hadn't gone to Monticello and already decided I wanted to go back again, I would come back to the area just to hang out in Charlottesville again.   The city is beautiful, just walking around is diverting enough.  And they have good Mexican food.  I'm just saying.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

National Portrait Gallery in DC

When I'm not busy planning outdoor adventures for stormy days, I like to plan poorly for indoor activities.  Which is why the photos in this post are such crap (I forgot my camera and had to use my phone - remember that one time I went to the NY Met?  Yeah...) and there are so few of them (we left really late and didn't get to explore the whole museum before it closed).  So instead of telling you all about the fabulous National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum in Washington DC that I didn't really get to explore for very long, I'm going to share with you some of my favorite pieces currently on display that I did get pictures of.  I plan on going back to this one soon - definitely worth a visit.  It's also free and open till 7pm (a lot of the museums close around 5pm).
Banyan Tree, by Peter Blume, oil on canvas, 1961
The security guard got us good with this one, "Guess what that horse is made out of?"  We guessed driftwood.   Monekana, by Deborah Butterfield, bronze, 2001.  
Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, by Nam June Paik, 49-channel closed circuit video installation, neon, steel and electronic components, 1995
NorCal, represent!  Or something.  San Francisco West Side Ridge, by Wayne Thiebaud, oil on canvas, no date.  
I'm really going back just to play this (part of The Art of Video Games exhibit).
Luce Foundation Center for American Art (visible art storage and study center)
Rosalind Krauss, by Kathleen Gilje, oil on linen, 2006
Abraham Lincoln, by George Peter Alexander Healy, oil on canvas, 1887
Descending Night, by Adolph A. Weinman (born Karlsruhe), bronze, 1915
 On the left, Jessica, by Moses Ezekiel, marble, 1880.  On the right, I was sneaking up on my friend Jessica.  Little did I know that I was a Jessica taking a photo of a Jessica taking a photo of a Jessica.  Wild.  Or?

Before I forget - I got a Smithsonian membership while I was there for about half what it usually costs.  It's usually $29, so if you haven't already bought one, get on it now (the embedded link gives you all the highlights).

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Great Falls Park

You could go to Great Falls, one of the National Parks in Northern Virginia, on a nice, sunny day.  You could go early in the morning to avoid traffic and crowds, even.  But wouldn't it be more exciting to go on a rainy day?  Especially if one of your companions is already sick?  

In April, I planned a trip to Shenandoah National Park on a foggy day and we couldn't see two feet ahead of the car once we were halfway up the mountain.  And just wait, I went to Monticello this month on a rainy, foggy day.  Best of both worlds, right?

I really have the worst planning skills.  I just shouldn't be allowed to plan things.

In any case, we didn't let a silly little thing like a downpour get in the way of our traipse through the park last week.  Most of the rain came down while we were heading entirely in the wrong direction, but quite a few interesting photo opportunities came up because of that.  Aside from having my jeans soaked through from the knee down with lukewarm water, it was pretty nice out there.  But take my advice - no matter where you park, head back toward the guardhouse/entrance to see the falls.  There is a huge picnic area, a visitor's center, bathrooms, a snack hut and three overlooks for the Falls themselves.  If you've walked for several minutes and haven't seen the visitor's center, you're going the wrong way.  Or you could do what we did and walk all the way until the trail ends and then realize you're in the wrong place.  You have options!

If you do decide to go away from the Falls, you will be walking along part of the Patowmack Canal, one of George Washington's projects to improve trade in the area.  Somewhere around there are also the ruins of Matildaville, a town that rose up because of the construction on the canal.

To get a full view of the Falls, go straight to Overlook 3.  But to get the best pictures, you'll probably want to go to all three.  Be warned, Overlook 1 is part overlook/part rock climbing, so you won't want to take anyone down there who can't do the latter.  The other overlooks have a nice, flat viewing area.

Also, when they tell you not to lean over or sit on top of the railings, they mean it.  It's for your own safety.  They have cameras.  Cameras that they actually pay attention to.  You'll get yelled at by the Park Po-Po if you do it.  Or maybe just glared at with great hostility.  It's not worth it either way.  Don't say I didn't warn you.  Ignorance of the law is no excuse.  At least, that's what my mother is always telling me.

Another tip: Don't mess with the fawns.  Their moms will be back soon to pick them up.
Maybe it won't rain... 
Cancel. It's totally raining on that heron.
Those falls are really unimpressive...wait a minute...

 Maps are only helpful if they're correct.  My friends said the map on this sign was misleading, but the map you get at the guardhouse will lead you in the right direction.  So just...you know, ignore those signs.  But not the ones at the overlook.  Let me rephrase that: Pay attention to all the posted signs that warn you about possibly dying, but ignore the ones that tell you where to go.  And check out the Canada Geese.
It was worth the long walk in the rain to see this little guy.
Oh...yeah, this makes more sense - an actual overlook.
I now understand why the area I live in is called Cascades. 

Check out the high water marks pole (at Overlook 3).

Looking away from the Falls.
Look - Marylanders! (Over at the C&O Canal National Historic Park in Maryland.  There should totally be a suspension bridge...)