The Art of Looking Up

These perfect end-of-summer weekends require outdoor activities, so this weekend we made a return trip to the National Cathedral (its doors are wide open on Sundays) and signed up for a gargoyle tour.  The tour started on the seventh floor, itself replete with views of the city from all angles and nearby framed and labeled images so you can identify common sights.  From the small auditorium, we learned the difference between a gargoyle and grotesque, identified the architectural details we would need to know outside, and viewed several of the 112 gargoyles from their most advantageous angles.

View from the 7th Story

The gargoyles appear on three of the four sides of the Cathedral, the newer sides.  They date from the fundraising stage, where patrons of a certain amount could commission a gargoyle, and several commissioned pairs – such as the good and evil grandsons.  Others depict typically businessmen, from the lawyer to the dentist.  The politician is present, as is the elephant and donkey.  Others immortalize the real-live stone carvers in caricatures, and one gable remains a blank slate, or stone in this case, still in block form as a memorial to the one person who died during construction of the structure.  The elaborate carvings range from the traditional dragons and mythical creatures to the common lizard, snake, and frog.  The scariest shows a skeletal creature being devoured by a serpent, its coils visible from the underside.   The cutest takes the shape of a dog, modeled after its real-life counterpart and curled tightly on the edge as if scared of heights.  The most unique, and possible most elusive to find, is Darth Vader.

We signed up for the tour upon reading this unique detail, but even after adjusting my binoculars, I still couldn’t be sure that I had focused in on this unique character.  Fortunately, the lower gargoyles are easy to spot from the grounds, even with the chain-link fence still in place from last year’s earthquake.  The damage from this event remains visible – from a twisted turret to a headless gargoyle.  That was part of the tour too.


Obscure Sports and Spots

In honor of the Olympics, I attended a profession soccer match this weekend – a sport that I’ve had little interest in previously and one that I still profess little knowledge.  The invitation to see Liverpool v. Tottenham came from my brother-in-law. Fortunately, his heckles from stands provided the most entertainment. The soccer players in the exhibition game put in less effort, wilting in the same heat that forced me to abandon my perch in the metal stands and take refuge in the shade of the concession area.  I watched more than half of the game on the TV screens there, finding the breeze and the commentators more enjoyable.

To round out the day of sitting, in traffic and in the stands, we set off into the soul of D.C. for dinner, ending at the National Cathedral and Cleveland Park.  After waiting a few minutes for a table at 2Amy’s, we settled into the bar area to devour whole pizzas.  Instead of taking up valuable seating for dessert, we ventured across the street to Sweet Stuff for delicious ice cream.  This we carried to the cathedral, which lit up under a stormy sky.  The structure was closed for the day, so we walked the grounds to admire the construction, particularly in the grotesque details of the gargoyles.  I spotted a flying pig or boar, but missed the Darth Vader that guards one of the towers, so now I’m determined to go back to pay more attention.

A Change in the Currency

Today I encountered an older man waiting for the bus, Subway sandwich in hand, clutching a dollar bill the way that only paper money can be held.  No matter how many times we wrinkle it into our sweaty palms paper bills recoil back, a material reminder of how many germs it probably carries.  Needless to say, even in its current curl, the money would still be accepted by the bus meter.  With the new rates, he would need two dollar bills to pay the $1.80 fare.

“You could save money by using a SmartTrip card,” I offered.

“I prefer using cash,” he replied.

I inferred the rest of our conversation, starting with the premise that he didn’t believe in using cards.  But he must believe in them, because seeing is believing, and I had a SmarTrip card in my hand.  A better statement would be that he didn’t put value in the card, preferring instead the familiar currency of our forefathers, appropriate given the day-before celebration of our independence.

Our brief interchange brought up so many questions though, starting with the usefulness and over-use of cash, the idea that one-day we will all use cards or smartphones to make payments, and the encompassing recession and inflation that will challenge our worth as well.  For more information on the cost of riding the metro or on these other topics, see the sites below:

WMATA Fares in Washington D.C. and the reasons to use SmarTrip cards

Why Cash is Losing its Currency – as examined by CBS Sunday Morning

NBC Washington Reports that D.C. Cabs will Accept Credit Cards

The Sunday News

Comics Gallery at the Newseum

A funny little hallway at The Newseum

On a typical Sunday morning, you’ll find me watching the Sunday Morning Show, with The Washington Post at my side, and the laptop open in front of me with tabs for Facebook and Twitter.  I get my news from multiple sources.  However, the two specific to Sunday: the TV news magazine and the ad-filled Sunday edition of the paper have been my favorite for some time now.  I recently expanded my newspaper subscription to all seven days of the week, and I’m still muddling through that stage where I forget to pick it up in the morning.  As a result, I tend to read select print stories at the same time that I’m catching up on the day through the nightly news broadcast.  Stories on the TV suck me in but provide a few fleeting moments of entertainment or information.  Printed stories pull me in and must be worthy of being read.   On Sundays, they still come second to browsing through the ads and the coupons.  Fortunately, earlier in the week, I discovered a coupon for half off admission to the Newseum this weekend.  With that great offer, we decided to expand our news options today.

The Newseum displays newspapers from all 50 states and several foreign countries, each printed to scale.  We stopped briefly to catch the headlines in neighboring Virginia as well as South Carolina, the two states we have called home, before stepping into the air conditioned, six-story museum.  The building design resembles and Ikea, stark white, industrial with homey accents, and several different paths and staircases between exhibits.  A large screen and scrolling news stories greet visitors inside, and friendly staff directed us to begin downstairs at the orientation theaters.  We preferred to browse everything at our own pace and admittedly did not sit through the eight and a half minute film.  The Berlin Wall exhibit caught our eye first, followed by a less serious hallway filled with the timeline of comics.  Considering that the comics are one of the first sections shared from our newspaper, this early detour was appropriate for us. We spent our first hour examining sports photos and Pulitzer Prize photos, along with a chronology of presidential pups that lined the otherwise open walkway between the gallery sides.  The museum organizes these galleries by event, such as the FBI exhibit, or by time, such as the gallery of front pages through history or the evolution of Internet, TV and radio.  Interestingly enough, the social media information hides in an almost static corner labeled digital news.  HP sponsors a new media gallery elsewhere in the building, but our path did not take us there.

Instead, we took time to watch the lighter side of the news, a collected clipshow from SNL, Jay Lennon and other night-time talk shows that caters to our demographic.  This theater-showing exemplified the kind of TV we would be watching at home, if it hadn’t been the middle of the day on a Sunday.  We settled into Tim Russert’s office from Meet the Press, admiring the way that he worked and raised his family.  We trekked to the top level 6 to an exhibit entitled Every Four Years, which shows the connect between media and politics.  A thick-painted line on the floor shows the steps to office, but the exhibit itself demonstrates the blurred lines between the two.  The many factors of influences included the farce and fashion, from the suits that SNL cast members wore when impersonating the candidates to the suit that Katie Couric wore when interviewing the vice presidential nominee.

The sixth floor also features a great veranda, with views of the city and views of international newspapers.  It’s worth the steep price of admission,  although not as much when compared to the free Smithsonian museums that are almost visible from that height. We caught the news as it roared by on the street below.  The city hosted Rolling Thunder, an annual motorcycle rally today, and that’s the kind of action that is missing in the Newseum.  The exhibits show the news through history, but only quietly leads into the current-day technology, such as blogs and new media that will completely change the way we produce and consume news. Next week, you’ll find me back in the comfort of my own home, with the media that I adore, a little wiser about how we reached this point but still wondering what’s the story and how will it be told.

Open City

I spent early Sunday morning at one of my favorite places in the city, aptly named Open City.  With outdoor eating areas, that fill up even on 100 degree days, and the unmistakably smell of fresh coffee, it beckons even from across the district.

Perhaps part of that calling came from the street performers, whose electric violin and bass rendition of Pachabel’s Canon greeted me before I emerged from the lengthy Woodley Park escalator.  I could hear the music almost to the front door of Open City, though the rhythmic sound of spoons stirring colorful mugs quickly drowned out other sounds.  Each cup of coffee comes with two animal crackers, and I added a Earl Gray muffin, which turned out to be not only delicious, but as flavorful as some of its more famous muffin-cousins.

This breakfast location provided the perfect counterpart to my morning reading, Who’s Your City, by Richard Florida, which explores the important of place within economics and as an individual choice. So far, D.C. has welcomed us with open doors.

Exploring the Unnatural

826DC storefront

The Museum of Unnatural History - an open door into the creative genius of 826DC.

Rather than spend an overcast Sunday afternoon at one of the Smithsonian Museums, I ventured in a different direction toward the Museum of Unnatural History in Columbia Heights.  This museum, as it calls itself, is no bigger than my living room, but creatively arranged to showcase the imagination of author Dave Eggers and the 826DC branch.  The retail store fronts the writing center and sparks the interests of adults and children.

Among the curiosities are posters of the splendiforous and unimaginable and a species ID chart, as well as cleverly re-labeled household items, like Primordial Soup cans, Sabertooth Dental Floss the size of rope, and dry socks, literally.  For a few dollars, you can walk away with an artifact, including the missing link in a jar.  Amazingly, the chain links aren’t even rusty.  Everything is well designed, down to the t-shirts and onesies, as well as  the fictional creature skeleton in the middle of the room.

Though not located at 826, the Museum of Unnatural History opens to a friendly plaza, where children took a break from the summer heat in the interactive fountain.  Across the street are plenty of restaurants and larger retailers, including a Target, Best Buy and Bed Bath & Beyond.  However, if you are looking for something beyond the ordinary Columbia Heights stops, this unique space should not be missed.   If you aren’t in the area, you can visit the online store at

Hiking Mountains from the Metro

The Woodley Park metro station has 234 moving steps to the exit.  I didn’t count them as I rode the steep incline toward the daylight.  I looked up the trivial fact later, on a trip advisor website, curious to see how deep a descent I had taken as I burrowed under the city in an effort to reach the National Zoo.  The zoological park resides between two metro stops, but its name only occurs on one: the Woodley Park/Zoo/Adams Morgan stop. Obviously, several other attractions reside here as well, but it’s the zoo that draws the crowds and their strollers on a weekend morning.  Ironically, because of the long escalator ride out of this metro stop, visitors would be better served to take the next stop at Cleveland Park, resulting in a downhill jaunt to this family-friendly, free destination, rather than the half-mile uphill walk from Woodley Park.

The pedestrian entrance to the National Zoo unfolds onto Connecticut Ave. with two large lion statues guarding the double gates.  Similar statutes appear throughout this area, often flanking bridges, and guarantee a close up, non-moving view of the animals visitors come here to see.  The zoo itself tries to be lush and exotic from the entrance, with large trees overlooking benches and thick stands of bamboo lining the Asian exhibit.  From that point to the end of the main trail, everything goes downhill, literally and figuratively.

At the opening hour, most of the animals still are still asleep or slow to come out to play. Some of the birds perched on the trees in their individual enclosures, studying their first visitors of the day, and their colorful plumage makes them easy to spot.  Thanks to their large size and larger habitat, the elephants are visible from the upper part of the Asian trail as well. The elephant house is closed for renovations, and another nearby trail is under construction to build a new home for the seals and sea lions.

Fortunately, one of the animals, the orangutan, came to me, directly crossing above my path through a series of crisscrossing cables. Additional ape species can be seen in what the zoo calls the Think Tank, urging visitors to think about our evolution and what this distant cousins are capable of.

The big cats are next are the main path, and the park provides an indoor reptile discovery center complete with outdoor alligator viewing.  Lemur island is tucked away so well that I missed the sign, but the outdoor prairie dog exhibit stands directly on the path, and the raised bed of dirt cannot be missed.  However, the only heads I saw popping over the edge were the small children trying to catch a glimpse of something they had only seen on TV before.

The end of the trail turns further downhill and turns into a hands on petting zoo, gift shop and restaurant area, and the best way out for pedestrians is the same way you come in. According to the map, Olmstead Walk is a .8 mile walk, but it feels longer going back uphill.  Luckily, the return trip to the Woodley Park metro station is downhill, even on the lengthy escalators, which had stopped working as they are prone to do.  By then,  I had felt like I had climbed mountains to see a small piece of other countries and enjoyed it most when the animals walked to me.

Finding a Way

I didn’t expect to find myself living in Washington D.C., but at the same time that the small Southern city that I previously lived in decided to uproot our small garden to install new water pipes, I had an opportunity for career growth that was enough to uproot our family and make the move to a large city.  Now I’m finding my way around a new neighborhood, incorporating alternate modes of transportation into my daily routine, and exploring a new part of the city each week.  This blog will chronicle those adventures for fresh and seasoned residents, alike.

This wayfinding, in the experience of choosing a path in an urban environment, usually starts with the Metro, bus or rail, and often turns into long treks through the city streets, with frequent stops at interesting shops, restaurants, events and exhibits. I can already attribute much of the successful travels to the ease of use of the public transit system here, and to the Metro map design of Lance Wyman.  Interestingly, he is currently revisiting and revising that design to extend to additional stations, as explained in this Washington Post article.  I can’t wait to see the design and where the new routes lead.