Saturday, July 16, 2016

Trip to Washington D.C.

We got to spend 4th of July weekend in Washington D.C. this year.  It's a place we've wanted to take the kids for a long time, but thought we should wait until they were all old enough to remember it later.  (My kids have been to Oregon and Texas and parts of New York that they have no memories of anymore because they were simply too little to retain enough of it.  We'll have to arrange a do over for much of that.)  We were there specifically for a cousin's wedding, but took the opportunity to have fun in a new place together and explore a bit.

Washington D.C. is a marvelous city.  It certainly helps as part of a family vacation that so many of the museums and monuments are free to the public.  We even managed to find free parking for every visit to the Mall.  The weather mostly cooperated; it never got too hot, and what rain we had didn't interfere with any plans.  On top of it all we got to spend time with both family and friends and the whole trip was great.

It's a long drive to Washington D.C.: Twelve hours (plus we lose one going that direction).  But my kids are excellent travelers who are content in the car, and I even go to read them all of To Kill a Mockingbird on the drive, along with a bit out of a weird book of Greek myths.  We left Milwaukee at four in the morning on Friday in order to make it in time for dinner at the home of the friends we were staying with.  (The same friends who commissioned the new violin I made so we got to bring it for them to try!  I couldn't leave it with them yet because I need it for an upcoming competition in the Fall, but it was still great to have them give it a test run and give me feedback.)

Our first full day in D.C. was fun, but a bit draining.  We parked several blocks from the Capitol and walked up the Mall toward the Air and Space Museum.  There is a great model of the solar system done to scale that starts near the building with the sun about the size of a softball and then petty much everything else on display was like looking at grains of sand.  (I think we eventually found Pluto way off near the Smithsonian castle.)

My kids loved the Air and Space Museum, and Ian loved giving them a tour.  He had just taken them the weekend before to the EAA Museum (Experimental Aircraft Association) in Oshkosh while his mother was visiting, and was excited to show them the real versions of some of the things they'd only seen copies of.  It's incredible to stand in front of actual space capsules and see drones up close and get to look at the real Wright Flyer.  (Plus I learned Orville played the mandolin!  Who knew?)
Orville Wright's mandolin
My favorite thing in the museum was decidedly silly, but hey, someone found it worthy of serious preservation and display so I'm justified!  Apparently the week we arrived they had just moved the model of the USS Enterprise used in the original Star Trek series from the gift shop to the main hall of flight.  It's big!  And a little cruder than I expected, but it was really fun to see.

Me and NCC-1701
After the Air and Space Museum we grabbed a snack from a food truck and continued along the Mall through a celebration of Basque culture going on, stopped briefly in the Smithsonian Castle, then spent some time in the Museum of American History.  We showed the kids the Star Spangled Banner (which used to be on display on the main wall when you walked in when I was a kid, but has since been moved to a more protected space behind that area), then on to Dorothy's ruby slippers, Elmo, the Bunker's chairs, Julia Child's kitchen....  The slippers are dimly lit but still fun to see (although my kids complain that in the book they were silver and being my children they are biased toward the book version of things).  I was hoping to find Kermit but Elmo is still amusing, and who knows what the kids made of the chairs.  All in the Family plays on one of hole-in-the-wall channels we stumble across when we're flipping around, and I find it unwatchable anymore.  I remember key episodes that made a huge impact on me when I was growing up so I get the significance, but I never liked all the yelling and I always hated how Edith was treated like a doormat and bigotry isn't cute and the whole thing is unappealing now.  My kids do like Julia Child, though, and we watch her in reruns on PBS and liked seeing all her pots.

The original lunch counter from the Woolworth's where civil rights protestors sat is on display, so that was pretty amazing to see.  We got to stop and listen to a tour guide explain how what started there spread across the South and helped change America.  And Michelle Obama's inauguration dress up close is stunning.  When we were in the hall of first ladies it was interesting to note Hillary Clinton's picture on the wall knowing she's running for the presidency herself.  We wondered if Bill Clinton would be expected to make decisions on dinnerware and the like if his wife is elected, or if someone else would be appointed to that duty.

After American History we popped into the Natural History Museum briefly.  It was incredibly crowded, but the kids got a peek a the Hope Diamond, and we got a sense of what the layout of the building was.  All the kids wanted to spend real time there, so we promised they could go back later and allow them to explore it at whatever pace they liked.

That evening we all dressed up to attend a wedding rehearsal dinner.  Aden is actually mature enough at this stage to understand why we dress up for particular occasions.  She has an appealing sense of style that is unique to her, and knows how to make it more formal when necessary.

Quinn and Mona...  Well, Quinn and I have a repeated discussion about tucking in his shirt for things like recitals.  Why is a tucked in shirt more formal?  No good reason, it just is.  You just need to be aware of what statement you are trying to make.  If you want to look like you don't have respect for the occasion, go ahead and be untucked, but if that's not the intention, just tuck in the stupid shirt.

Mona's dress we found at Goodwill the day before we left for our trip.  She outgrew all her formal clothes a couple of years ago and has been simply raiding Aden's side of the closet in sartorial emergencies, but I told her she really needs a few things that are hers.  She's uncomfortable having us spend anything on her, preferring usually to pay for things herself with any birthday money she has saved up, so Goodwill seemed like a reasonable option.  She didn't mind at all the extra time it takes to sift through what's available there to find things in the right size and we found a couple of outfits to finally hang on her side of the closet.  Mona is more of a jeans and t-shirt girl like I am, so I appreciate that, but it was still nice to see her dressed up for a change.  I think she looked beautiful.  (And my husband looked handsome, but he always looks handsome, and I don't have to remind him to keep tucking in his shirt.)

The rehearsal dinner ran much later than we expected, and between walking the Mall all day and the formal event my kids were completely wiped out.  They slept in, and we made it a shorter day with more down time.
We found parking right near the Lincoln Memorial so we started there.  It may be the most inspiring memorial site I've ever been to.  It impressed me as a child and it impresses me today.  The view, the height, all of it adds to it's place of prominence, and within its walls it feels both solemn and accommodating.  The sculpture itself by Daniel Chester French is so good, and commands the grand space it occupies.  It manages to be imposing and welcoming at the same time somehow, maybe because it conveys a strength that extends to us as citizens.  I read the Gettysburg address engraved on the wall aloud to my children.  As we left we paused at the marker for Martin Luther King Jr's "I Have A Dream" speech.  I marveled at how many people were there at the memorial and on the Mall in general, peacefully assembled, enjoying the day without incident despite the sense of imminent threat constantly thrust upon us by the news.

From there we walked down to the Vietnam Memorial.  Ian gave the kids a description of the causes and results of the war.  I described some of the early controversy about the memorial itself, about how the more traditional sculpture was added to appease people who were insulted originally by the idea of the wall's design thinking it would lack impact.  The kids agreed those people were wrong.  It remains an incredibly powerful experience to walk through that memorial.  I remember very clearly walking through it the first time being overwhelmed by the all the names as they began at your feet where it was easy to read every one to eventually being above your head and it's too much to take in.  It's like standing at the base of a pile of silent bodies and it's quite profound.

We walked next to the World War Two Memorial which I'd never seen before.  It's interesting.  It seems an appropriate scale and style for the generation in represents.  But I don't know if I found it particularly moving.  I wondered what my grandfather would have thought of it, if he would have found it a fitting tribute to his sacrifices and the loss of his brother and others he knew.  I hope it provides something people need.
After that we headed toward the Washington Monument, but Mona wasn't feeling well, so we decided to wind down for the day and head back to the house.  That worked out well because we were able to get the kids set up for dinner later and they settled into playing video games they don't have at home and were happy, and Ian and I had time to rest up a bit before attending the wedding.

The wedding turned out to be in a really interesting historic site.  "Lincoln's Cottage" is a place within D.C. where Lincoln and other presidents apparently liked to spend time when they were tired of working from the White House.  There were places where original wall colors had been uncovered so you could see what things had been like at different times, and there was even a hat with a hole from a bullet that had just missed Lincoln's head.

Me in the front entryway of Lincoln's Cottage during cocktails
Ian and mom outside Licoln's Cottage
The wedding was lovely (and I thought enhanced a little by the slightly rainy weather because it wasn't oppressively hot) and it's always interesting to see family that you only tend to see at important events.  We weren't seated with my mom which was too bad, but I liked being out and dressed up with Ian.

Quinn at brunch looking like rock star with a hangover.
The next day was the 4th of July, which seemed pretty amazing to be spending in the nation's capital.  We met with family in the morning for a wedding-related brunch which was a nice opportunity to spend time with a few more people, and then we drove back to the Mall with my mom along and dropped her and the kids off near the Natural History Museum.

The traffic was a little goofy because of the parade (at one point I looked down a street and saw a giant Tazmanian Devil balloon hoovering above the crowd), but it never got old to turn a corner and spot the White House, or the Supreme Court building, or the Capitol with all its scaffolding.
White House up ahead!
My kids spent the whole day at the Natural History Museum with their grandma and had a wonderful time.  They felt like they really got to see everything they wanted to, and my mom loved having a chance to be with her grandchildren.

Ian and I used the opportunity to have a day on our own, which is rare.  I'd almost forgotten how enjoyable it is to explore places just the two of us.  My kids are great to travel with, but it's different managing a crowd and all their moods and needs than it is to just trust one person and go.  It rained on us all day, and we didn't care.  I even decided to splurge on an America Umbrella from a street vendor, because it was useful and seemed like a good souvenir.

We parked the car somewhere near the Library of Congress and walked over to the Botanical Gardens by the Capitol.  From there we walked up the Mall through the Basque Folk Festival going on and into the Exposition Hall where they had crafts for sale.

We headed for the Holocaust Museum, got turned in an unexpected direction, and decided to walk to the Jefferson Memorial first which is a place I'd never been.  It surprised me a little.  Security was tight--like an airport where we had to empty my bag and they went over our bodies with a wand.  I don't know if that was normal or just for the day.  We had to go through similar security checkpoints to get back onto the Mall later because parts of that were closed down in preparation for fireworks later.  I can't imagine what it's like to be responsible for security over such a broad area with so many people.

The Jefferson Memorial is beautiful, but feels much different from the Lincoln Memorial.  It's isolated from everything else.  The space is beautiful, but strangely the statue at the center of it doesn't hold your attention very well.  You keep looking past it at the space itself.  The words on the walls are inspiring, but evoke more complicated emotions than the ones in the Lincoln Memorial.  Lincoln is a symbol of self-sacrifice, the desire for national unity, and the official end of slavery.  Jefferson's words are all about freedom and equality, and they are magnificent ideas, but reading them while knowing he owned slaves and fathered children by at least one we know of creates a cognitive dissonance which is hard to shake.  I'm glad I went, but I'm not sure how I feel about it.

Eventually we did find our way to the Holocaust Museum.  It's a place I think the kids should see, but really didn't want to put them through that on this trip.  Detroit has a prominent Holocaust Museum that I plan to take them to one day, but it kind of ruins your life for a while, and I didn't want that for them on their first visit to D.C.  I, however, felt I needed to go.  Particularly after spending time with my dad's side of the family at the wedding I knew it was someplace he would make the time for, so Ian said he'd go with me.

At first I didn't think we'd get in.  The museum is crowded, and it's free but you need to reserve timed tickets, which we hadn't done.  We asked about getting tickets at the desk, and the guy there said they were "sold out" for the day.  Unless! (he added) you are a member of the military...  Ian perked up and pulled out his wallet and then realized he'd left his ID card in his Army laptop at the house while doing work there, but the guy at the desk asked him where he served, Ian mentioned his two tours in Iraq, and the guy said that was good enough for him and handed us two tickets.  We walked right in.

It's a very good museum.  It's less graphic than the one in Detroit (which I've heard is less graphic than the one in Israel), but powerful in subtle ways.  There is no way to see all of it in a few hours.  You'd need days to absorb it all, and we didn't have more than maybe ninety minutes before we'd have to meet up with our family when the Natural History Museum closed, but we saw what we could.

You start off in an elevator that takes you to the top and you wind your way down several levels through the progression of history.  It begins in a hallway showing Hitler's rise to power and the beginnings of singling out the Jews.  It's dark, and cramped, and crowded, and that adds an uneasy hint of what the victims experienced being forced from place to place.  The dread is palpable as you move slowly with the silent crowd, observing the headlines of atrocities on the walls.

There are places to sit aside and read or listen to people's stories.  There is a cattle car to walk through that sits on actual tracks that led to Treblinka (where I've been told some of my relatives died).  There are maps and shoes and models and pictures of ovens.  It's sobering, if not soul crushing, but academic in a way.  It's not material that needs to be embellished because there is no hyperbole to match the bare facts in terms of sheer horror, so there is a simplicity to the layout that adds to the solemnity of the place.

One of the things I thought the museum did particularly well was to talk about the broader scope of the Nazi plan beyond just the Jews.  There is a section that explains how the handicapped were targeted for murder, and homosexuals, and Poles simply because the Germans wanted the space to expand into.  Whole towns and villages that were wiped out with no mercy are listed on panes of glass.

The museum also did a good job showing how the outside world failed on many levels, telling stories I hadn't heard before (or have maybe forgotten by now) about ships of refugees being refused entry to the U.S. and elsewhere, and eventually being forced back to where they began and were killed.  They answered questions about why we never bombed Auschwitz, and showed things that were new to me like a chart with eye color samples that were used in schools, etc., to determine who was good enough to be a real German.

When you walk into the museum you pick up an identification card of someone who was in the Holocaust.  Mine was for a Ukrainian woman named Machla Weiner.  She died in a mass killing in 1941.  I kept my card.  And I purchased a stone with the word "remember" on it in Hebrew.  I just wanted something I could hold.

We met my mom and kids in front of the Natural History Museum and by then the rain had tapered off to non-umbrella levels.  Mona and Ian ran ahead to find the car, and the rest of us took a leisurely walk back down to the Botanical Garden.  We could hear music coming from a concert on the steps of the Capitol.

After taking my mom back to her car we went back to the house to have a little dinner, rested up, and then headed back out to see the fireworks.  It had been touch and go all day about whether or not they would go on because of the rain, and we had no idea if we'd be able to park close enough to even bother going, but the kids really wanted to try.

It turned out to be a real high point of the trip!  It's hard to beat watching fireworks on the Mall by the Washington Monument and in view of the White House.  It was during a short gap in the rain but it was still cloudy, and even though the fireworks were obscured they were still amazing because they seemed to electrify the whole sky far beyond the typical reach of what fireworks can do.  Everything would glow red and green and it was beautiful in a way I'd never seen with fireworks before.

My kids were thrilled with the whole spectacle.  The show was shorter than what we are used to in our local park, but there was no way to beat the setting for a patriotic holiday.  The most beautiful part of the fireworks to me, though, was the sense of community that surrounded all of it.  It's incredible to stand in a crowd of that size for a shared event, and then have everyone happily stream home without a problem.

Again, I can't fathom trying to maintain security on such a scale, but everything seemed to run smoothly and well the whole holiday weekend.  There were bag searches at the entrance to every museum (the most extensive being at the Holocaust Museum where our bag went through a machine rather than simply getting poked through with a stick, we went through a metal detector and then they went over our bodies with a wand, and we were instructed to drink from our water bottle in front of them).  But we never felt unsafe or worried.  I'm struck a bit by a Congress that keeps voting on the side of people who insist that more guns make us safer, but who surround themselves with an environment that actively enforces the opposite philosophy to positive effect.

But then, Washington exists in a peculiar legal limbo of its own anyway.  Here are their license plates!  "Taxation without representation."  It's like a history lesson and a joke all wrapped into one small piece of government regulation on regular display.

Our last day in D.C. we went to the zoo.  It's a nice zoo, but smaller than I expected, and it was interesting to see it situated right in a busy neighborhood.  (A gorgeous neighborhood, by the way.  We parked our car a few blocks away where the houses all looked like something out of a fancy movie set.)

The main thing we wanted from the zoo was of course to see pandas.  It's one of the odd quirks of our modern lives that we are exposed to so much it can be hard to sort out what we've actually experienced ourselves sometimes.  I've always felt as if I'd seen pandas, but I knew that wasn't true since they are only in the D.C. zoo (and China).  Pandas are indeed cute.  Smaller than I imagined, and the ones we saw were all sleeping, but each one facing a different direction, so we've now seen pandas from all angles.

In the small mammal house there were several interesting displays, but my kids all got excited about a cockroach.  First of all, because it was loose (and loose beats caged every time), and second because it was new to them.  I'm actually feeling like a pretty good provider that my kids had to ask if what they were looking at was a cockroach.  When I think back to the apartment Ian and I shared in college when the people above us wouldn't allow the landlord to spray for roaches and so we kept ending up with a ton of fully grown roaches in our kitchen all the time no matter what we did, I'm glad this is something my kids have not encountered yet.

Admiring the roach
The zoo also had some good sculptures on display made from recycled materials (there was a reef as part of the same series at the Natural History Museum as well), and Mona's favorite was the puffin.

We found the world's coolest owl backpacks in the gift shop.  I got one for each of the girls (Aden's is purple, Mona's is black), and Quinn picked out a plush bald eagle as his souvenir, and then we were on the road again.

Quinn on the road and making lists.
We decided to stop in Ohio to break up the drive this time, having been offered my uncle's house while they were out of town.  We enjoyed a good night's sleep, then drove to Dayton to round up our tour of important flight museums.  The Air Force Museum in Dayton is impressive.  The Air and Space Museum in D.C. is certainly amazing, but the museum in Dayton has even larger things on display.  It's an odd place to be, though.  I'm unsettled by weapons of war, even as I'm grateful for people (like my husband) willing to make sacrifices to ensure our way of life.  The technological achievements are inspiring, but the focus on making mass death more efficient is grotesque.  In the distance beyond my family in the photo is the plane that dropped the bomb on Nagasaki.  Is it a good thing because it ended a war that would have taken millions of more lives and prolonged suffering, or is it a bad thing because it killed so many innocent people?  Is it both?  Neither?   Seems like there should be a flipped version of "schadenfreude" where you mourn a good act.

But despite my awkward musings the museum is interesting and we were glad we went (despite leaving the windows down in the car in the parking lot when the rainstorm hit causing Ian to get SOAKED retrieving it).  Then we were on the road until we made it back to Milwaukee.

A great trip!  I really couldn't have asked for it to go much better, and one more thing I can check off the list of things I want to do with my kids while they are still children.  I think 14, 12, and 9 were good ages for seeing Washington D.C.  I hope we get to go together again someday.


  1. Oh! As I was reading I was going to mention that you should someday see the Air Force Museum here in Dayton! I'm so glad you stopped there. We've been twice and still haven't seen the whole thing, partly because we have small children who can't walk that far in one day. I don't have the same conflicted feelings you express about weapons of war, I am mostly awed by the size and scale of the planes, but I'd also never given that much thought to what they truly represent. So thank you for that reminder to look beyond my surface fascination. Also, am I the only one who feels like I'm in a James Bond movie in that missile silo? Im glad you enjoyed your entire trip, I can't wait till my kids are old enough to appreciate DC.

    1. Yeah, the Dayton museum is huge. It must be incredibly tricky to move all those large things into the right places for display in those hangars! We plan to go back at the next opportunity and see more of it.

      It's hard for me to separate the war tools from their purpose, and I'm kind of glad I can't because it's not something to be taken lightly.

      I asked Ian if people are still allowed to paint pin up women on the sides of planes and he said no. I never know what to do with that either. I really liked the display they had up of the brave women who served as test pilots during the war.

  2. Wow, such a great trip!! I've actually never been to DC and would like to go with my kids at some point (obviously they need to be older). I like the pictures of the fireworks- what a cool effect!! And your kids all dressed up look so adorable and grown up all at once!!

  3. You were here and I missed you! But I'm glad to hear there is another family that makes a point of seeing every aviation museum they happen to travel near. There is a surprising number of them, that is for sure. If you come out this way again, try to hit the NASM Annex (Udvar Hazy). An entire space shuttle is in there!

    I love the Lincoln Memorial, but don't go there in the late afternoon. It is FILLED with tired kids and irritated parents who just climbed up a zillion stairs at the end of a long day of sightseeing. Amusing to listen to them, but detracts from the general awe-inspiring atmosphere of the memorial, that is for sure!