Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Columbia, SC

Us in Puerta Vallarta
Yesterday was our thirteenth wedding anniversary. After shopping for TV stands to eat on, travel mugs and other sundry items, we decided to head into town. Our plan was to ride the pontoon across Lake Murray to Liberty on the Lake for a nice dinner. The water looked choppy as we drank coffee on our deck, so we decided to wait and see how the day progressed. We "bagged" the idea later because we just wanted to eat early and get home to our little pups.

Rear View of State House
We headed to the SC Wildlife store on Assembly Street only to discover it's gone. But we noticed a sign on the State House grounds saying, "Public Tours Today". What a great idea, we thought. Neither of us have ever taken a tour of a State House, anywhere we've lived. So, we went in the Public Entrance, got through the security scanner where Larry had to leave his "sharps", and waited with several other people for someone to guide us into an auditorium.

There, a nice man with a thick SC accent, gave us a little lecture about the state seal and the state flag, especially the crescent moon. He explained that current beliefs about the crescent moon on the flag have changed. Experts now believe that instead of the moon being flown along side the Palmetto tree on our state flag, the crescent shape is instead a Gorget. Then he showed us a picture of young George Washington wearing one around his neck as an example. Next, he played a video about "The State House: Tempered by the past. Poised for the future." I thought that was a cool motto.

Before playing the video, though, he expressed another interesting fact. The Palmetto tree became the state tree after a major attack on Fort Sullivan on Sullivan's Island off the coast of Charleston during the American Revolution in 1776. Fort Sullivan was built with the only resource available: Palmetto trees. These trees are more grass than tree and very pliable. When the British shot cannon balls at the fort, the balls just embedded themselves in the log walls and caused no damage at all. Discouraged, the British moved on.

After the video, we began our walking tour of this magnificent building. Our tour began in the lower lobby where the Governor and Lt. Governor's office wings are located. He explained where Gov. Nikki Haley holds press conferences. This man obviously likes and respects Gov. Haley. He called her the "friendliest governor to date", and declared her very resourceful. He used an example of her friendliness as the time a third-grade class was on tour. She took time to meet the class and sign autographs. Nobody had paper, so she signed the backs of each of the children's hands with a pen as an example of her resourcefulness.

The architecture of this lobby was exquisite. SC blue granite columns supported a beautiful arched ceiling painted white and up-lit that was comprised of handmade, irregular red-clay bricks made close-by from river mud. There is a memorial by the Broad River dedicated to the Irish slaves who built the canal. I thought of these slaves making bricks that created this beautiful ceiling. I don't know if this part is true, but that's what I thought about while walking around. The floor was tiled in pink Tennessee and white Georgia marble squares. The completed work is just stunning.

We ascended a lovely iron staircase that I thought was also beautiful. Who sees an iron staircase anymore? Portraits of individuals who made a difference in South Carolina lined the walls. Lovely artwork depicting wars with Francis Marion, or "the Swamp Fox", were also prominently displayed.

A large sculpture of John C.Calhoun was the centerpiece of the fourier connecting the House of Representatives and State Senate chambers. Among other things, his most important role was that of Vice President to two different Presidents: Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams. During the reign of Jackson/Calhoun, the country was run by two SC boys. Although, it is said that only Andrew Jackson's Mama knows that he was really born in SC. Apparently, NC also claims he was born there. He declares his SC birth in his will, but the word of his Mama won out everyone else.

A wonderful painting was displayed outside the Senate chambers depicting what the guide said was the only painting showing a negro in battle. This young man was sixteen years old, and saved the life of his commander. He was also a free man.

We toured both chambers and heard all about the current building being the third State House built. It is completely made of stone because the other two burned down. It was begun in 1855, but when the Civil War broke out and ended, SC was broke. The current building was not completed until 1907. Sherman's troops fired Cannon balls at the building, but the holes were never repaired. Instead, it was decided that bronze stars placed over the holes would be cheaper than repairing them. The stars remain to this day.

There is also a bronze statue of George Washington in front of the State House building. His staff was broken by Sherman's troops too as soldiers threw bricks at it until it broke. Our tour guide explained that they must have thought the statue was of a local dignitary. Keeping with the no repair policy of the state, a bronze plaque placed at the base of this statue explaining what happened was deemed cheaper than repairing the staff.

The State House grounds are also quite beautiful and create a lovely, shady park in which to rest or read while visiting or take a lunch break. We enjoyed our visit, and were really glad we did it. A nice man in the gift shop stamped a State House Guide with yesterday's date for us as a memento because I said I was from Boston.

One empty granite base stood within site of the State House building. It's plaque stated that it once held a cannon from the Spanish American War that was removed in 1942 and contributed as scrap-iron for use in World War II. Interesting, huh?

After our visit, we decided to head to Five Points, a neighborhood mainly geared to the college crowd from the University of South Carolina. Our goal was to have a nice, fancy dinner at Garibaldi's, a restaurant frequented by Larry's old USC thesis advisor. But, it didn't open for another hour. We crossed the street to find another nice restaurant above Starbuck's, but that too would not open for another hour. So, in frustration, we headed to Delaney's for a pint and a snack to kill time until we could get our fancy-schmancy anniversary dinner. We found out it was BOGO night (By One Get One entree), so we stayed for dinner instead. We realized that we were more interested in saving a few bucks than splurging.

We dropped our Toyota Tacoma pickup off at the dealer and were driving a rental. The dealer called to announce that repairs for the U-Joint and Differential, etc. would cost several thousand dollars! Really? We said to fix it since we decided spending this money was still cheaper than buying a new truck. We had a great time at Delaney's and thoroughly enjoyed our day. After getting home to feed the pups, we each took a shot of Maker's Mark out to the deck to watch the evening descend upon us. What a lovely anniversary.

Friday, August 8, 2014

A Day in DC

My husband, Larry, and I are heading home to SC. As usual, though, we are spending the week in Annapolis, MD with our friend, Nancy. Larry also secured a new part-time job and made plans for his first work meeting with new colleagues. We also met old friends and colleagues now relocated in this area for dinner on "hump day". It has been a very busy week.

While he was at his work meeting at the Naval Research Laboratory, though, I asked him to drop me off at the New Carrollton Metro Station and headed into DC to wander around alone for the first time. I've been to our nation's capitol before, but never by myself. It was a fun little adventure.

My plan was to visit the Andrew Wyeth exhibit at the National Gallery. I'd seen a promotion for it on television the night before and I'd never seen his work in person. Once I arrived at the Smithsonian Metro Station, I exited onto The Mall. I am always in awe at how beautiful The Mall area is. The first thing I did on this beautiful, sunny day was to take yet another picture with my phone of the Washington Monument. The Monument is such a beautiful erectile into the blue sky. As I walked across the Mall towards the National Gallery, I passed several people taking photos of each other holding up their palms and posing as if holding the Monument in the palms of their hands. It was very cute to see them having fun with that illusion.

As I crossed Madison Drive NW at 12th Street, I once again took in where I was. I recently finished reading Citizen Washington by William Martin as well as the The Lincoln Letter by the same author. These two books as well as others authored by Martin forced me to look at and think about our nation's history with new eyes. I recently returned from a dream trip to the Celtic Isles, and was fascinated by their history. I have never been so drawn to our own. This year, maybe because I've finally reached the magic retirement age of sixty-five, I am thinking differently about history, especially that of my own family. History has suddenly taken on a new meaning for me. I am very drawn to learning more in a way that never intrigued me before.

As I walked towards the Gallery, I passed the beautiful Smithsonian Castle across the Mall from whence I had just come. I snapped the umpteenth picture of the place from which I retired. I still feel sentimental about it. I retired, as did Larry, from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, located in Cambridge, MA. But the Castle holds a special place in my heart. It was the best employer I ever had, and I am grateful for the opportunities it afforded me. I also love that all the Smithsonian museums are free to the public.

As I walked, I passed street posters of an IMAX butterfly migration film and an "African Voices" exhibit, both at the Museum of Natural History. I came to this building first, so I turned left "on a dime" and headed directly for the butterflies. I love butterflies. At the information booth inside, I discovered that the film was not for two hours. I was meeting Larry later, so I knew I couldn't see it. Disappointed, I walked through the Ocean room towards the Africa exhibit. I was especially intrigued by the Djenn√© mud builders of Mali. There were many photographs of these seemingly now famous builders, who travel the world and talk about their lives and their work. They discussed the horrible situation in Mali for their people now, and expressed the hope that "someone" would step up to help them.

Larry and I just had our SC house's exterior finished in stucco. So, I was interested in the art of building with mud. These men were quite fascinating. There was a short film of their interview, and the last line of one of the elder men went something like, "Follow your mentor. Everyone has a mentor in life. Follow that mentor and you will be happy." What a profound statement, I thought. And, I felt like he spoke directly to me. I spent some time thinking about who that mentor might be for me.

After admiring exhibit cases of beautiful metal work; tools both ancient and modern, and a lovely Somali hut, I left and entered the "Activity Room". I love to explore and investigate what educational activities various entities provide for children. I think I am truly a teacher at heart. Once I entered, the hostess greeted me, and told me it was mainly for children, but I was welcome to explore, touch and feel my way through the room. "Look through that microscope," she suggested. I did. It was of a sea shell, and was not very interesting. I picked up a magnifying glass to look at sparkly specks in rocks, opened a drawer or two, and quickly got bored. There was a large mirror with a dress-up corner, and a few children seemed to be enjoying themselves, so I decided to reserve judgement over the quality of the room and its entertainment/educational value. Maybe someday, I'll be able to bring my grandchild here and then see what (s)he thinks of it.

I found my way to the Butterfly Pavilion. I have always wanted to go to a butterfly zoo, and just never got there. Here was my chance. I paid for a senior ticket ($5.50), and investigated the Insect Zoo while I waited for the 11:30am entry time. The insects were interesting. I particularly like the ones who blend into the environment. It's a "Where's Waldo" for bugs. I really enjoy looking for them and feel a sense of success when I see them. The child in me was very happy.

I got in line for the butterflies and took out my phone to get ready for pictures, as I was instructed to do by the hostesses. Upon entering, we were first ushered into a prep room. There we were instructed to watch where we walked because butterflies will be on the floor. We also had to make sure we checked our clothing in the anti-room before leaving to confirm we had not picked up a winged hitchhiker.

Inside, the room was warm and humid. Misters were turned on intermittently, and the fragrance of all the beautiful and colorful flowers was just gorgeous. The main attraction did not disappoint. Winged beauties flitted all around. The big blue ones were attracted to the color turquoise and had just hatched that morning. They were very energetic and numerous. Their wing span was two to three inches on a side, and their color was beautiful. The pattern of their wings when folded, though, was more brown with lots of design. They were very pretty. There were also large white butterflies that had just hatched that morning, and they had their own special beauty. The butterflies came in many shapes, sizes and colors. It was spectacular. One beauty landed on my finger as I held up my camera. I just stayed still and looked at it, feeling its little legs gripping my finger.

Feeling the butterfly's little legs reminded me of the time a Tiger Swallowtail hatched in my house long ago. I told the hostess about the story and she confirmed many details. It was really fun to relay my story, which prompted me to write my first unpublished childrens' book. I stayed for about thirty minutes and was ready to move on. It was the best part of my day though.

I moved onto the National Gallery and the Wyeth exhibit. I got a map from the information booth and found my way to the opposite end of the long building. What a beautiful space! The building is old and ornate with huge, marble staircases and columns everywhere. There were lots of garden spaces with fountains and flowers as I walked, and one large rotunda with a huge, beautiful dome ceiling. Once in the Wyeth exhibit, I realized how many rooms were allocated to it. It was quite vast and lovely. The main event of this exhibit for me was, "Wind from the Sea".

Nancy asked me to search for a painting of his with a lovely window with flowing gossamer curtains and a comfortable-looking sleeping dog. It wasn't there. Windows are Wyeth's "thing". Apparently, he was obsessed with them. I also enjoyed his paintings of houses he enjoyed. They were old, scarred and frayed for the most part: old farm houses of friends. His work reminded me of that of my friend Marie Craig. She is a photographer, who spent some time years ago photographing aspects of old, historic houses.

After leaving the Wyeth paintings, I decided to explore Degas and Cassatt. I love Mary Cassatt, and really enjoyed how the curators did side-by-side painting comparisons of each artist. After that, I ventured into van Gogh with Renoir, Matisse, and all those guys. It was a really fun morning. I got hungry and my legs and feet were very tired and sore, so I wandered back to the National Gallery Sculpture Garden to the Pavilion for lunch.

I grabbed a delicious Southwestern cobb salad and a very nice Sangria, then sat under an umbrella at a table outside with a view of the National Archive building. As I sat and ate, I reviewed my pictures and tried to connect with Larry to see how his day was progressing and when we should meet. I didn't know if I should continue across the street or head back to the Metro. He assured me, I could continue on as a tourist for a while, and he'd entertain himself. I went to the Archives after lunch.

After seeing the movie, National Treasure, where a secret code was purported to be invisibly written in lemon juice on the back of the Declaration of Independence, I realized I'd never seen the great documents in person. After exploring the first floor exhibits displaying and explaining all the freedom articles: slavery, womens' rights, immigration, etc. I headed up one flight to the very dimly lit rotunda where The Constitution, The Declaration of Independence and The Bill of Rights were displayed. Before I say anything about them, though, I just want to remark how wandering through the freedom exhibit made me so sad my eyes welled up with tears. I felt so sad walking around because even though these documents declared freedom, that freedom did not come without a great cost to many human lives. I will never get over how cruel we humans have been and still are to one another. Will we ever progress beyond our seeming innate cruelty? I remain hopeful, but cannot think too much about it because I think the answer is probably, NO.

Once upstairs, I was taken aback by how dim the lighting was. There were signs explaining this darkness, and once I viewed our famous documents, I realized why firsthand. The ink was almost unreadable on the original documents. Over many years, they had been displayed in full light and that light over time destroyed the ink. I am so happy copies were made, because the originals are unreadable. I did see John Adams' signature quite clearly, though, and it made me think of Paul Giamatti's portrayal of the great man.

My trip was inspirational, even though I felt saddened by some of it. All in all, the butterflies lifted my spirit and the sun brightened my entire day. Who could ask for more?