Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Washington, D.C. 24.10.2009: Luminous Turners and Fake Gelato

Steve had two meetings today near the National Gallery of Art, so after the meetings were finished, we walked to the museum. Didn’t have any particular objective in mind in going there. That is, there wasn’t a current exhibition that had particularly caught my eye.

If anything, I wanted to have another look at the Turner seascapes, which never tire the eye. And it occurred to me that I had never tried to find the few Winslow Homers that are at the National Museum. I don’t have a thing for Winslow Homer. But I realize as I age that I haven’t done as much to familiarize myself with American painters over the years as with European ones, so I wanted to fill in some of those gaps.

We found the Winslow Homers, and they were nice to look at. But what really caught my eye in the same series of rooms in which the Homers hang were Thomas Eakins’ paintings.

He hasn’t been on my radar screen, though now that I know a bit more about him, I realize he did the famous homoerotic “Swimming Hole” work that has appeared—I think—on some editions of Whitman’s poetry. In fact, Eakins and Whitman were friends, something I surely must have known already somewhere back in my mind, since I’ve read a number of Whitman biographies.

“Swimming Hole” isn’t in the National Gallery. But several other of his works there rang a bell for me—to be specific, a homoerotic bell. I’m not sure what it was in the sensibility and composition of these works that said “gay” to me, but something did, and I wasn’t surprised, as a result, to see in the Gallery bookstore a number of biographies of Eakins noting a debate about his sexual orientation. I bought one of these, William McFeely’s Portrait, and have begun reading it with great interest.

We did happen on the Judith Leyster exhibit, and I am glad to have seen it, though I can’t say I was bowled over by her work. It’s technically superb, but derivative in a way that most of the Dutch old masters seem to me—derivative, in particular, of Rembrandt and Vermeer, though Rembrandt was almost precisely Leyster’s contemporary and Vermeer somewhat younger than she was, so she can’t have been imitating their work.

That’s not precisely what I mean by “derivative.” What I mean is that when you’ve seen what Rembrandt and Vermeer excel at—the play of light and shadow in precisely drawn, evocative portraits of people posed in interior settings—any other painters of their time and place employing similar techniques seem less imposing. Worth looking at; technically astonishing. But not world-shaking in the way Vermeer and Rembrandt are.

Leyster reminded me, strangely enough, of some of her Spanish contemporaries—Velasquez in particular. I don’t believe there was any intersection of influence between her and Velasquez or other Spanish court painters of their period. But something about the way that they pose their subjects and then study the play of light on their countenances seems similar. Not surprising, I suppose, to find interplay of Spanish and Dutch cultural influences in this period, given the political ties between the two countries.

What will long remain in my mind, though, from this visit are Turner’s seascapes, with their luminous, gloriously transcendent blues. I will never grow weary of looking at them.

After our stroll through the American and British 19th-century galleries and the Leyster exhibition, Steve and I had coffee and gelato in the café below the museum. As we sat near the waterfall that cascades down outside a window there, it struck me how essential places like this are to the human spirit—how they ought to exist in every city.

Places to sit amidst and look at art in various media, to hear and watch the play of water and light, to have coffee and pastry, listen to music, talk, dream. Humane cities and towns build such spaces into their cultural landscapes as a matter of course, as essential needs of the human spirit.

I wish I could recommend the gelato that accompanied this restful, soul-building experience. It was horrific, though. Without my prompting him to comment on his raspberry-cherry choice, Steve exclaimed, after tasting a spoon, that it was totally artificial. As was my dulce de leche choice, with its cloying synthetic (and probably petroleum-based) rum flavoring.

Why, I have to wonder, do we Americans produce such monstrosities and then try bill them as “authentic” culinary compositions? Why try to pass off what is so screamingly fake as the real thing? Why do we not demand better—especially in our national capital, in a place people from many different cultures will be visiting in the expectation of having an iconic American experience?

I have to conclude that we don’t ask for better because we don’t know better. And because sham often attracts our attention more than the real thing does.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Washington, D.C. 23.10.09: Crabcakes and Ginkgos

In D.C. these days for a short trip. Steve has several business meetings and I’m tagging along. The first two days we were here were beautiful fall days, with crisp temperatures and lambent golden light unimpeded by humidity—a wonderful time of year to see the monumental architecture of the city, its wide, tree-lined avenues, and the brick townhouses of Georgetown. Since then, the weather has turned back to Indian summer and things are a bit overcast. Still, it’s nice to be here after the muggy heat of summer, which can make D.C. so intolerable, has broken. And such a treat to see the beautiful ginkgo trees that line so many D.C. streets as they turn bright yellow in the fall weather.

We’re staying at an unmemorable hotel in Arlington, the only place available after Steve had initially made arrangements in town and his first plans had to be changed due to schedule alterations in one of the foundations with which he’s meeting. We asked the first evening in town about nearby places to eat, and the lady at the hotel desk directed us to a French-Italian bistro behind the hotel.

But when we found it, we saw that it was beside a Vietnamese pho restaurant, and we went there instead, and were glad we did. The pho was wonderful, with its fragrant broth spiked with star anise and five spices. It came with a large plate of bean sprouts, lime, sliced jalapeños, and sprigs of basil. We couldn’t have had a supper more to our liking.

One of Steve’s meetings took us to Bethesda on our second day in the city. We drove up Wisconsin Ave. to get there, enjoying the sight of the shops of Georgetown and Tenley along the way, the sight of the national cathedral at the top of the hill as one climbs away from downtown. On our way back into the city, we stopped at the cathedral and visited its gift shop, where we found a new hedgehog for Mary.

Very nice woman staffing the shop that day. She told us she had worked there over 20 years, and is delighted with the change in the federal government in the last election. She also told us of a book recently translated from French to English, featuring a hedgehog—in its title, at least. I think by someone Burberry? Will have to look for it and tell Mary about it.

We also spent some time in a thrift shop on Wisconsin operated by some group called something like the Christ Child Society. Fascinating, if a bit pricey, junk, including lots of sets of old china, discarded oil paintings, many of them of the ilk that Landrum used to call “something one’s great-aunt might paint,” and lamps galore. The latter were being snapped up by a woman from Virginia, shopping with her reluctant and seemingly in-tow husband, who was apparently footing the bill for her purchases. As she said, they left the shop in darkness, since she was buying lamps that were in use to light the wares.

That evening, we once again ate near the hotel in Arlington, this time at a highly recommended New Mexican restaurant that was truly awful. Nary a green chile in sight. The food was mediocre Tex-Mex at best, and left my stomach roiling all night long. The manager-owner and waiter couldn’t have been nicer. But, clearly, this place has seen better days, or those who have reviewed it so highly don’t have a clue about authentic New Mexican cooking.

After that, a long, tedious day at the National Archives, made more tedious by the bewildering bureaucracy, which seems to have proliferated nonsensical regulations since our last visit. I had found references to a collection of documents about the history of the cemetery at Pittsburg Landing from 1866 to 1870 in a published history of the Shiloh Cemetery. Bill Russell and I think it’s possible—likely, even—that somewhere in the National Archives, there may be documents indicating how Dr. Wilson Bachelor got the appointment as physician in charge of the cemetery’s construction in 1867, and why he left in 1870. We also think those documents may contain some indication of his medical education and qualifications for the position.

I sent the document numbers for this collection to the National Archives in an email prior to our visit, and they confirmed that the documents were, indeed, in their D.C. holdings, and I could access them while in D.C. What they didn’t tell me—what I didn’t see anywhere at all on the very user-unfriendly, bureaucratically top-heavy website of the NARA—is that they now have a system whereby documents are pulled at only certain hours of the day.

We arrived right after the 11 A.M. pull and before the 1:30 one, which meant a long wait for our documents to begin arriving in the reading room after 2:30. And though some of the staff members who tried to help me fill out forms to request the material were well-meaning, not one was really knowledgeable about this collection, or even about how one goes about researching the early history of a national cemetery. All had that bureaucratic tendency to try to shuffle you to the next desk, to bark peremptory answers to questions that require thought and expertise if they're to be answered adequately.

It’s a shame that public research facilities like this are so often so badly inefficient and so hostile to the public they’re meant to serve. There is no overall guide anywhere—including in the NARA itself—to the extensive holdings of the National Archives. Finding materials is a hit-or-miss affair that requires the use of many tattered old typewritten indices that could easily be collated in one online collection, and updated and made comprehensive with new digitalized additions to these indices.

But creating government institutions that serve the public has hardly been the objective of recent federal administrations, has it? And when you visit a place like NARA now, you see the end result. Many of our central government institutions now function at a level about comparable to that of developing nations.

That evening, back to the pho restaurant, since we had enjoyed it so much two nights previous. This time, I tried their chicken option, knowing that pho is traditionally beef, but wondering if the chicken might be seasoned differently. It wasn’t. In fact, it wasn’t so tasty as the thin slices of beef. It was dry, roasted chicken sliced and added to the broth of the beef pho—but wonderful at that. It’s a treat to have the kind of good, home-style Vietnamese food we remember from New Orleans and from our Vietnamese friends in Little Rock in the 1970s. It’s impossible to find at the Vietnamese restaurants in Little Rock now, which cut corners and cater to middle American tastes.

Before the pho supper, we browsed a bit in a little Italian deli near the hotel, and found it marvelous. Bought hefty chunks of good parmesan and pecorino at prices we don’t see at home, as well as two panfortes, one to eat now and one to give as a Christmas gift, a box of torrone, a bottle of San Giovesi red wine, and a sandwich of mixed Italian meats, cheeses, and salads. We split the latter as a midnight snack later in the evening, with a glass of the San Giovesi.

Yesterday, another meeting up in the Chevy Chase area, after which we drove to Annapolis for several hours in the Maryland Hall of Records. I had a specific record I wanted to find—rather, a series of specific records, with one citation of a particular document in the series. I was looking for any and all estate records of Thomas Hodgkin, who died in Charles or Prince George Co., Maryland, in 1756.

My previous visits to this research facility have been hair-tearing ones. This was slightly better, due to the kind help of a noted Maryland historical-genealogical researcher, who was staffing the research desk at the archives when we visited. He helped me a bit to steer my way through the maze of finding aids and bewildering designations by which Maryland files its documents. As he noted, one of the complexities of Maryland research in the colonial period is that documents were often filed simultaneously (or indiscriminately) at both the county and the state level.

He also pointed out the good work that he and others have done to survey all that seems to be known of some of these early colonial families. Even so, that “all” often overlooks key tidbits in the documents, if one can locate the original documents and read them carefully.

For instance, I found the inventory of Thomas Hodgkin’s estate compiled in Prince George Co. in 1756 signed by two of his children, both of whom noted beside their signature that they were children of the deceased. These two children—Philip and Lucy—appear in no published works about this family that I’ve seen. And this is an important lead, since the name of the son Philip seems to connect Thomas Hodgkin to the Philip Hoskins who died in Maryland in 1716, and who was part of the same kinship network to which Thomas Hodgkin’s family connects—the Brookes, Dents, Hansons, Contees, and so forth.

After several hours of work in the Hall of Records, made more exasperating by some of the officious and rude young men assisting the noted Maryland genealogist, we decided to drive across to the Eastern Shore to look for a restaurant we’d read about on Kent Island, at the Narrows. The restaurant is called the Narrows.

We got there around 3: 30 and were surprised to find we weren’t the only folks having a late lunch or early supper—a lupper?—beside Chesapeake Bay. The restaurant was wonderful—unpretentious but elegant, with an old-fashioned porch across the back where one can sit right on the water.

We had crabcakes with a side of garlic mashed potatoes and another of cole slaw, and found them wonderful—full of big pieces of what the restaurant advertises to be local blue crab meat, barely held together with mayonnaise, and lightly sautéed on both sides. It was a heavenly meal, with good bread and butter and real, well-brewed ice tea.

I don’t know if I’ve ever driven to the Maryland coast at this time of year. It was interesting to do so yesterday. I particularly enjoyed seeing how the state uses wild native plants, as one nears the coast, to line the roadside. I’m not sure of the identity of all of these plants, but I recognize them as native plants that often grow in old fields and that either flower or go to seed in the fall.

One is a bit like life-everlasting, with pearly, slightly translucent, nacreous small flowers in big bunches at the top of tall stems. The other is a native grass like broomsedge, which turns a handsome shade of gold-brown this time of year. I saw this planted along a dark brick wall lining the road as we got near the coast, a striking combination of colors.

Light always shifts slightly or dramatically as one nears a seacoast. The shift is less dramatic in the mid-Atlantic states, where colors are more muted everywhere than in more tropical areas, and where the interplay of light and dark is more temperate.

Still, it’s there, and it lures the eye. And the heart.