Sunday, July 21, 2013

DC Destinations

I lived for about three years in Washington, DC. Although I decided to transfer to back West Virginia, I have periodically made both business and pleasure trips to DC. During the time I was a resident of DC, I played “super-tourist” and tried to do as much as possible while there, and continue to make the most of my visits to our nation’s capital. As such, I have my own recommendations when people ask about what to see and do in DC.

I try to promote some of the lesser-known attractions, because they aren’t as crowded as icons like the Smithsonian museums, the White House, the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the National Zoo, etc. All of the aforementioned landmarks are nice places, and everyone should try to see them at least once, but sometimes you must weigh, for example, whether the time spent in line to go up in the Washington Monument (when it is not closed due to earthquake damage, as is currently the case) is worth the view you get from the eight extremely small windows near the top.

This is why I steer folks to the tower at the Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue. The large openings at the top of the tower provide a panoramic view of the entire area. It isn’t quite as tall as the Washington Monument, but you can get a better understanding of “the lay of the land”—with much shorter lines. It is also an interesting old building with a huge atrium.

Speaking of interesting old buildings with huge atriums, the National Building Museum is beautiful. Original built as an office building to handle pension benefits for Civil War veterans, this red brick structure has interesting architectural features both inside and out. Plus, they have fascinating exhibits related to design and architecture. You can walk inside for free, but they charge a small admission fee (currently $8 for adults) to go into the exhibit areas. [Note that this admission is a lot less than some of the new private attractions charge, such as the Newseum, the Spy Museum, the Crime and Punishment Museum, Madame Tussaud’s, etc.]

My favorite building of all is still free—the Library of Congress. I highly recommend this shrine to learning! This place is fantastic, whether you are in the breathtakingly beautiful main building in the front, or gazing down on the round library reading room in the back. The exhibits housed there are always engaging, with permanent displays like the Gutenberg Bible as well as traveling exhibitions.

Another impressive edifice is the National Cathedral in northwest DC. This non-governmental building rivals the majestic cathedrals in Europe, but with an emphasis on America. It even contains a stain glass window featuring a piece of moon rock.

The museums of the Smithsonian are fantastic, and I highly recommend all of them (including the new annex of the Air & Space Museum at Dulles Airport and the Postal Museum next to Union Station). However, there are a few other museums that are well worth visiting, and may not be as crowded or (because of their smaller size) as intimidating. The headquarters of National Geographic magazine always maintains entertaining and educational displays. Ford’s Theater is a great place to learn about Abraham Lincoln. The National Archives contains great exhibits beyond just the original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The U.S. Botanical Gardens have all sorts of plant life, and the warm greenhouses can be a nice place to visit in the winter.

There are also some great art galleries on the mall and around town. Of the ones on the mall, I think it is fun to walk the tunnel between the National Gallery of Art and the East Building. However, I’m partial to the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum/National Portrait Gallery near the Verizon Center. I also like the beautiful old mansion housing the Renwick Gallery near the White House. The nearby Corcoran Gallery has a small admission, but a great collection.

Just outside the Beltway are a few other lesser known attractions—the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center at nearby Greenbelt, Maryland and the National Rifle Association’s museum come quickly to mind (regardless of whether you agree with everything the NRA does politically, the quality of their exhibits tracing America’s history is top-notch). Of course, a trip down to Mount Vernon is a great way to honor our first president.

Washington also has a large number of interesting statues and memorials. Most folks know about the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial, but the newer FDR and Martin Luther King memorials are also interesting. My favorite statue is probably the larger-than-life bronze Albert Einstein, gazing down at a large map of the universe on a marble floor, in front of the National Academy of Sciences.

Einstein is located near the famous memorial to the war in Vietnam, which is quite a moving experience as you descend through the thousands of names killed there (often seeing items left at the memorial in tribute to those lost). However, I think the troops on patrol at the Korean War Memorial on the other side of the reflecting pool is the best of the war memorials—even better than the new WWII memorial or the 9/11 memorial at the Pentagon. However, if you get the chance to see the Iwo Jima Memorial near the top of Arlington Cemetery at night, I highly recommend it. In fact, I think the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials are best viewed after dark.

Few people know about the statue of Teddy Roosevelt, located on an island named after him in the Potomac (across from the Kennedy Center, another interesting place). From the Virginia side of the river, a bridge allows pedestrians and bicyclists to access what seems to be a wild, forested island, but it opens into a large clearing with a towering statue of “T.R.” surrounded by some of his most famous quotes. It seems fitting that this rugged outdoorsman commands a thickly forested island that prevents his statue from seeing the surrounding urban environment.

Another way to escape the urban environment is to visit Great Falls National Park, on either the Virginia or Maryland side of the Potomac. Just upriver from the bridge carrying I-495 over the Potomac, the river makes its final plunge down to the tidal regions of the Chesapeake Bay. The woods, rocks, and whitewater makes one think they are somewhere in the rural mountains, instead of just outside the District of Columbia boundary.

Finally, one of my favorite destinations in the DC area might not be as thrilling for others, but I find it fascinating. There is a park at the end of the Reagan National Airport runway, where lots of people like to gather and watch the airliners fly over their heads—a rare view indeed! These are just a few of the many unique tourist experiences in our nation’s capital! What are your favorites?

Friday, July 19, 2013

Me and My Janis McGee

My uncle died a few years ago, but one of my many fond memories of him is how he turned me on to Janis Joplin back in the late ‘60s. I can still remember him excitedly describing this woman who could really belt out a song. She had such a distinctive voice! She wasn’t just simply a singer—her voice was like a mechanical instrument, and when the song called for it, she used it like a sledge hammer in a china shop. She wasn’t inclined to fake it or simply “mail it in” when she performed—she really gave you her all. Unfortunately, like some other celebrities, she spiraled into substance abuse and died. Just like an actual giant star, she went supernova prior to extinguishing herself, before I ever had the chance to see her.

I discovered long ago that Anna also admired Janis. When we travel together on long car trips, Anna and I have enjoyed listening to audiobooks. One problem is that I have always preferred non-fiction (why not learn something while reading?), while she is a fan of fiction. We have to work to find books that both of us are interested in committing several hours to, and I must admit, most of the time she allows us to end up with non-fiction books. On a trip over ten years ago, one of the audiobooks we had agreed to listen to was Janis Joplin’s biography that her sister Laura had written, because we both have an affinity for her music and that era. It was quite a tale!

Many of you know that we are big fans of the performers at Shadowbox, a unique sketch comedy and rock’n’roll theater in Columbus, Ohio (it is a bit like Saturday Night Live). A few years ago they created a musical based on the real-life events that took place at Woodstock, entitled “Back to the Garden” ( We’ve seen this show at least half-a-dozen times over the years, and it is fantastic (especially when performed outside, as it was this past Memorial Day weekend in downtown Columbus). One of the highlights for me was the part of the show where Janis Joplin performs. I thought that Shadowbox’s “Back to the Garden” would be my closest opportunity to get the experience of seeing Janis perform a song—but I was wrong.

It turns out that there is a new show called “One Night with Janis Joplin” which is being performed at the Arena Stage Theater in Washington, DC. It is set to premiere on Broadway later this year, but they are perfecting the final version on the road in DC through August 11. Fortunately, we were able to get tickets for the Saturday night show of the weekend when we were going to be in our nation’s capital.

After a full day of sightseeing around downtown DC, as well as dinner at a nearby waterfront restaurant, we settled into our seats for the show. However, we didn’t stay in our seats the whole time. I’ve never been to a show that received so many standing ovations during the performance!

Describing this show is not a simple task—it is a combination of a show as well as a concert. I guess you could call it a “show-cert.” Besides singing her best music, “Janis” often reminisces between songs, and other very talented singers take the stage imitating some of her artistic influences like blues singers Etta James and Bessie Smith. There is even a bit of dream sequence where the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, performs with Janis at a live concert. You also get to see some of Janis’s paintings, as well as her fashion sense. Plus, did I mention that the on-stage band really rocks?

We really enjoyed seeing this show-cert! I never got to see Janis Joplin perform in real life, but this is probably the next best thing. The actress who portrays Janis can belt out a song just like she did (and on this particular night, the understudy replaced the normal star and did a fantastic job).

I hope that “One Night with Janis Joplin” does well on Broadway, but I know that the Great White Way can be a tough place to succeed. We visited New York City a few years back, and a new musical based on the life and music of John Lennon had just opened. We didn’t get to see it that trip, but I thought maybe we’d catch it the next time we were there, because surely that would be a popular show. However, it folded pretty quickly, never to be seen again.

I must admit that I worry about the impact on the vocal cords of the women who portray Janis. The constant performing schedule required by Broadway could be tough to survive (no matter how much Southern Comfort you swig from the bottle to soothe your throat). But it is incredibly exhilarating to listen to that voice while it lasts! So if you like Janis Joplin, or even if you just want to be transported back to the ‘60s for a night, I highly recommend this show-cert. And remember, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…”

Shown above is the poster for this memorable show.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Appreciating Albert’s Award

Retiring employees with more than 20 years of service to the Treasury Department and whose record reflects fidelity to duty are granted the Gallatin Award. It is named after Albert Gallatin, the longest serving Treasury Secretary, whose bronze statue graces the front of the main Treasury building next to the White House. This year is the 200th anniversary of his departure from the Treasury Department.

As my own retirement looms, I thought it would be good to learn more about Albert Gallatin by visiting his home at the Friendship Hill National Historical Site. It is located at Point Marion, PA, a few miles above the Mason-Dixon Line, just north of nearby Morgantown, WV. Friendship Hill was the name Gallatin gave to his estate on a bluff overlooking the Monongahela River, which is now maintained by the National Park Service (

The house is a museum to this fascinating man, who was heavily involved in many key moments of our nation’s early history. Gallatin emigrated from his native Switzerland in 1780, and after a stint teaching at Harvard (among other jobs), he eventually built his home on what was then the western frontier. He played a pivotal role as a mediating influence on the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. Later during the 1790s, he served in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, and when Thomas Jefferson became President, he selected Gallatin to be his Treasury Secretary.

Gallatin was known for his understanding of the government’s budget (he had helped to set up the House Ways and Means Committee), and he worked hard to pay off the national debt, while still finding ways to fund the Louisiana Purchase and other investments. In recognition of his influence, the Lewis and Clark expedition named one of the three rivers that form the Missouri River in his honor (a high tribute indeed, since the other two were named after Thomas Jefferson and James Madison).

He stayed through both of Jefferson’s four year terms (1801-1809), and through the first term of President James Madison (1809-1813). Madison then sent him to Europe to negotiate with British representatives the treaty that ended the war which had begun in 1812. From 1816 to 1823, he lived in Paris where he served as the U.S. Ambassador to France. He later served a two-year stint as Ambassador to Great Britain.

He eventually returned to New York, where he helped to found what today is known as New York University. He also served as the first president of the Bank of New York, a leading financial institution of its time. In his spare time (?), he was known for his work in translating Indian languages—he wrote two major books on the topic and founded the American Ethnological Society. He died in 1849 at the age of 88 (a long life in those days!), and was the last living member who had served in Congress during the 1700s.

Albert Gallatin was a real renaissance man, who demonstrated a true love for public service. His preserved home is a worthy shrine to his career, and the view looking down on the Monongahela River from his “backyard” is beautiful. If you ever have the chance, I’d recommend getting to know Secretary Gallatin better by visiting Friendship Hill. I now have a new appreciation for what the Gallatin Award means.

This is a view of the back side of Albert Gallatin's house. The original stone house is on the right side, with the additions that were later built extending closer to the camera.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

A Lake Floyd 4th

I enjoyed an old-fashioned 4th of July this year. My long-time friend from WVU grad school lives with his wife at Lake Floyd, which is west of Clarksburg, WV. It reminds me a lot of Lake Washington, below my hometown of Parkersburg, WV. I had a great-aunt (she was great in both ways—she was my mom’s aunt plus she was just plain great!) who had a wonderful home at Lake Washington, where all her extended family liked to visit. I can still remember all the details of her house, as well as the small fish pond in the rock garden, the majestic tall trees, and the lush green grass under my bare feet in her lawn.

Lake Washington was a lot like Lake Floyd. Both lakes were probably built in the 1920s by developers, who then sold lots around the lake. A common swimming area and clubhouse were developed for the residents to jointly own. I fondly recall the swimming area at Lake Washington, because that’s where I learned to swim and to dive.

Lake Floyd has a very nice clubhouse and swimming area, which becomes the focus for their 4th of July celebration. The first event I witnessed was the Irish Road Bowling competition. This is a “sport” that has been growing, and even earned a feature story on the TV show “CBS Sunday Morning” from the little town of Ireland, WV. Contestants roll a metal ball (about 3” in diameter) to see who can get to the finish with the fewest throws (see for more information).

Then it came time for the parade to the clubhouse. There were no marching bands or elaborate floats, but there were plenty of decorated bicycles, some interesting vehicles, a beauty queen, and Uncle Sam. Once everyone gathered around the clubhouse grounds (and after the National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance), the organized games began.

First, it was the obstacle race, with two parallel courses consisting of a tunnel constructed of hay bales, followed by some inner-tube obstacles, then a jump through a kiddie pool, before turning around a traffic cone and running back to the starting line, all while getting sprayed by a guy with a water hose.

Next came the sack race (individuals hopping to the finish inside a big burlap sack), followed by the three-legged race (pairs of contestants who each have one of their legs connected to the other’s leg), and finally the wheelbarrow race (one person uses only their arms, while their legs are carried by their partner).

Once the races were done, it was time for the tug-of-war competition, using a long, heavy nautical rope. All of these competitions were divided into successive age groups for the youngsters, ending with an open competition for everyone. On the final session of the tug-of-war (which was split by gender), the rope snapped with a loud crack, sending a crowded string of men on one side and women on the other side backwards and to the ground!

The final competition was the egg toss, where pairs of contestants threw raw eggs to each other over successively longer distances. By the time this game had ended, some of the contestants needed to go swimming to get the egg off their faces.

All these festivities have been a long-standing tradition within the Lake Floyd community. It was a grand celebration, but by emphasizing these simple games, it replicates how our ancestors celebrated Independence Day generations ago. With the clubhouse and its grounds all festooned with red, white, and blue decorations, and countless American flags fluttering in the breeze, it was a wonderful way to commemorate our nation’s 237th birthday!

A morning view of the clubhouse from across the lake prior to the big festivities.
[By the way, be sure to read the earlier essay I posted on this July 4th.]

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Twice the Independent Spirit!

This July 4, 2013, I am thankful for both sets of my founding fathers—those of my state and my country. As West Virginia celebrates its sesquicentennial year, it is worth noting the similarities in our quest for independence as a state and as a nation.

The American colonies were thoroughly British before 1776, and it was a big step for them to disavow their national identity. In fact, a lot of colonialists refused to get swept up in the revolutionary fervor, and stayed loyal to the King of England. Often referred to as “Tories,” many communities and even families were torn apart by the Revolutionary War. For example, Benjamin Franklin signed the Declaration of Independence, but his son William remained loyal to the Crown, going into exile to London after the war, never to see his father again.

150 years ago, West Virginians faced a similar situation. All their lives they had thought of themselves as Virginians—residents of one of the most revered states in the union. However, those Virginians in the sparsely populated western mountains knew that the political elites in Richmond were taking advantage of them. The injustices they felt were similar to the list of grievances against King George III of England that were outlined in the Declaration of Independence.

Since early in our history, there had been a recognition that perhaps Virginia’s western frontier should be its own state, because it was so different from the lowland plantations nearer the seaboard. Indeed, there was at least one proposal for it to be known as Vandalia, hence the festival at the West Virginia Capitol grounds each year known as the Vandalia Gathering.

It took the long simmering issue of slavery and the eventual outbreak of the Civil War to be the catalyst for the independence of Virginia’s western counties. When the slave-dependent eastern Virginian’s cast their lot with the Confederacy and withdrew from the Union, many of those in West Virginia preferred to stay allied with our nation’s government rather than the Richmond government. First, we disavowed the secession vote, and declared ourselves to be the loyalist state of Virginia. However, the ultimate goal was to establish ourselves as an independent state—the state of West Virginia.

It was a big decision for Congress and President Lincoln to approve our unique request for statehood in 1863. In normal times, the Constitution would prohibit such actions, but the Civil War provided a one-time opportunity for our freedom. We are the only state who revolted against our oppressive mother state, just as our country revolted against its oppressive mother country.

I’m grateful that my forefathers took a brave stand against the inequities they faced. Had the British quelled our rebellion, our nation’s founding fathers would likely have been hanged, and the patriots who formed George Washington’s rag-tag Continental Army would have faced serious consequences. Similarly, had the Confederacy won the Civil War, the mighty state of Virginia would have rejected the notion of our independence, and the leaders of our statehood movement might have faced the hangman’s noose as well.

Exactly two weeks ago, West Virginians celebrated our 150th birthday as a state. Today, Americans celebrate our 237th birthday as a country. All of this is thanks to the strong sense of independence that flows through our veins, as passed down from our brave founding fathers. I am deeply appreciative!

The golden dome of West Virginia's Capitol reflects the fireworks set off to celebrate the state's sesquicentennial celebration, as I viewed them from the riverbank at my alma mater, the University of Charleston.