Thursday, January 4, 2018

Washington Weekend

As promised, here is a description of our 36-hour trip to DC.  We always go to DC for a quick trip, rarely stay longer than 36 hours or 2 nights.  This time it was for the Vermeer (last time, for the Pre-Raphaelites; then twice for the pandas.) We really should go down for an extended visit; we leave so much that we don't see.  This time, we wanted to see the Spy Museum across the street from our hotel but didn't have time.  No doubt we'll go again.

Saturday evening
Mitsuwa:  This huge Japanese grocery store in Edgewater, NJ is now one of our favorite stops when we head south.  Not only does it have some of our favorite ramen, sesame ginger dressing, Calpico and Yakult drinks, and jasmine iced teas, it has an amazing food court.  Sis had "hamburg steak" with dumplings; I had pork katsu don; Bud had a big sushi bowl; and Mama had tempura and sushi.  She also got a delicious black sesame shake while Sis got macaroons.  We didn't go to the Japanese bookstore this time, with all its manga, Pokemon, and Studio Ghibli items, but I did get a nice photo of NYC across the river.

Lincoln's Waffles:  This diner is located across from Ford's theater, where Lincoln was, of course, shot.  They were out of their famous chicken wings, but we liked their waffles, corned beef hash, grits, blueberry pancakes, salmon cakes, scrapple, and such.  A good way to start of the very, very cold day.

Vermeer:  We were in line for the show in the 5F degree weather about half an hour before the museum opened; thankfully, they let us in early because of the extreme cold.  And the Vermeer show was beautiful.  We'd seen some Vermeers a few years ago at a Dutch genre painting exhibition in Boston.  But there were more this time.  To prep for the exhibition, we had watched the documentary Tim's Vermeer, about a Texas digital systems mogul and inventor who theorized about the kind of optics Vermeer used to create his painting.  The documentary was intriguing--with Tim building a replica of one of Vermeer's scenes and then minutely painting what he saw using a mirror and a lens (which he ground himself!)  Interspersed were conversations with Penn (of P and Teller), artist David Hockney, and an art historian.  I don't believe anyone now argues against the idea that Vermeer used some kind of lens to create his paintings--and they were teaching that in my art history classes long before Hockney's book.  We just don't know which and to what extent.  Tim Levinson seems to suggest that the majority of the effects in Vermeer's painting are due to a lens-mirror combo.  And while the documentary was persuasive, I didn't find it compelling as I stood in front of the paintings.  Vermeer was not a fijnschilder, painting everything the eye or lens could see (as Tim did with the seahorse swirls on the virginal), but created a mood using color and light--keeping some details in (some of the stitches on the Persian rugs), but eliding others, especialy in the foreground.  There is just much more artistry, and a lot less replication, than the documentary argues.  And the paintings are beautiful--the muted tones, the quiet stillness, the symbolism overlaid on the scenes of daily life.  We all loved looking for Vermeer's re-use of objects such as the pearl earrings, yellow ermine jacket, lion chair, globe, etc.  And we liked the other paintings in the show, particularly the Ter Borchs (including the one compared so unfavorably to Vermeer in the documentary--and I think that is owing to the unfortunate yellow wallpaper negatively casting its pallor throughout the painting), de Hoochs, van Meirises, and a few Jan Steens.  I love Dutch 17th-century art--and, even Tulip Fever, which was a pretty mediocre moving, was fun to see for the recreation of clothes and interiors.  After the exhibition, we perused the other 17th-century Dutch galleries--with the Lady with the Red Hat and several Rembrandts.  We ran through the Italian galleries, just to see the one Leonardo in the US, but weren't up for staying long.

Freer/Sackler:  We saw two exhibitions at the Freer-Sackler, the first being a show on Egyptian representations of cats that Mama wanted to see; it was small but delightful.  I liked the permanent exhibition on depictions of Buddha throughout Asia, with Chinese, Tibetan, and Indian versions present. It even had a recreated Tibetan shrine, complete with chanting audio.  We also wandered through the exhibition of Chinese bells and even got to play a replica.

Museum of the American Indian:  By now, we were cold, tried, and hungry, so we cabbed it over to the MAI, where we love the food.  Biscuits with salmon gravy, curried butternut soup, white bean soup with chorizo, lomo saltado, Jack Daniels-brined turkey, stuffing, scalloped potatoes, cranberry sauce, passion fruit aqua fresco, cranberry aqua fresco.  So good.  Just what we needed.

"Nutshells of Unexplained Deaths":  Lunch gave us the energy to see another exhibition, one that Mama had just read about.  Entitled "Murder was Her Hobby: Frances Glessner Lee and the Nutshells of Unexplained Death," the exhibition included several of the dollhouses Lee had made depicting unexplained deaths in minute detail. (She knitted table runners on straight pins and wore the fabrics for clothes until they looked worn; one was made from the 200-year-old timbers of her barn so it looked weathered.)  See, though an heiress (her house is an architectural gem and museum in Chicago! Mama and I had been 20 years ago), Lee was interested in legal medicine and founded a department at Harvard; she was even the first female police captain and is called the godmother of forensics. In fact, even now, the dollhouses are used to train investigators in observation, so that the answers aren't given as to whether a given scene was homicide, suicide, accidental, or natural death.  We were fascinated not just by the craftsmanship, but by the mysteries.  And so we stood debating them and trying to figure out the narratives.  Some of our favorites, with clues gathered from observation, discussion with the guards, and articles we found online.  We don't know if we're right, of course, but we're satisfied (well, mostly.)

  • Barn:  the broken crate was our clue.
  • Three-Room Dwelling:  this was the hard one, which Bud discussed with a young man at length.  We came to a conclusion based on all the blood.
  • Burned Cabin:  the murder weapon is still in the house! (A guard pointed it out.)
  • Pink Bathroom:  our clue was the location of the fire escape and some fibers we only later spotted in photos.
  • Two-story porch:  apparently, the guard said, this is the only one without the clue to the answer in the picture (it's supposedly based on a true story of two boys who discharged a rifle in a field, killing the woman on the porch) and it's not used in training anymore.
  • Woodman's shack: the temperature was our clue, as was the covering of her face.
  • Unpapered bedroom: there was a didactic label allowing us to turn the pillow over.
  • Attic:  the position of the chair and the mess were our clues.
  • Parsonage Parlor:  the reported daily temperature was our clue.
  • Sitting Room and Woodshed:  we believed the doctor.
  • Red Bedroom: we don't believe the "boyfriend."
We were stumped by (either what--murder/suicide/accident--who, how, or why)--
  • Saloon and Jail:  Where's the lunchbox? Where's his hat? How did he die?
  • Garage:  We can't see why it's not suicide except Bud wondered where the broken window was.  And the wife does have a motive.
  • Living Room:  why were there so many cigarette stubs?  
  • Log Cabin: we read that the hard-to-find bullet in the rafters set someone free.  HOW?
  • Dark Bathroom: such an odd angle of the body of the woman in the tub and why was there alcohol here?  
  • Striped Bedroom:  what is going on in that basin?
The Kitchen--we all seemed to skip this one!  No one saw it, but we're pretty sure it was there.  And that it was murder.

I admit that when the victim was a woman, especially as these mostly happened in a domestic space, I suspected the man involved, even if I couldn't prove it or find conclusive evidence.  Statistics bear me out; women are usually killed by husbands or lovers.   

The show has definitely stayed with us; we've talked about it off and on for days.  I wish we could go back and look again. 

Hen Quarter:  We celebrated New Year's early with dinner at a Southern food restaurant, where we actually spent most of the time discussing the nutshells!  And the meal was delicious--pimento cheese fondue, fried chicken skins, deviled eggs, fried pickles, biscuits with honey butter and fig jam, brussels with balsamic glaze and parmesan, crab cakes, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, collard greens, succotash, roast chicken, grits, and sweet tea and Peach Fizzy!!  So good.  We didn't manage to stay up to watch the ball, really, though we had it on--we kinda opened our eyes, said "Happy 2018," and then turned off the tv to go back to sleep.

Pandas at the National Zoo:  This was our fourth time to see the pandas.  We'd seen baby Tae Shan, when both he and the twins were a year old.  Then we went back in 2010 and 2013.  It was so very cold at the zoo, which was practically empty.  The pandas were inside, trying to get treats out of their enrichment toys, eating their bamboo, and then napping.  So cute!  I stayed watching the pandas when the rest went to see cheetahs, ponies, betongs, and other critters; I just wanted to stay in the warmer enclosed panda viewing area.

Chap's Pit Beef:  We headed back home around noon, stopping in Baltimore at this dive for beef sandwiches.  Kinda like the real version of Arby's or perhaps the Maryland version of barbecue.  But I think I liked the french fries with gravy the best.

It was a long drive home, with lots of traffic congestion, but well worth the trip.

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