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Saturday, May 27, 2006

MT. VERNON--Virginia




Temperatures in the 60s, birds happily heralding “Spring,” and the wide Potomac gloriously flowing past George Washington’s back porch create a terrific way to spend a day at Mt. Vernon, the home he loved, nourished and tended in all its intricacies for fifty years.

Historic homes are often interesting, but seeing period furniture and room design begins to wear after a while. The interesting journey at Mt. Vernon is one in perspective. I get to know Washington in his own time, and if I look deeply enough, I gain insight into his 18th century character.

As an example, Washington installed “The Necessary,” an outdoor privy. No question about the selection of name. These privies collected wastes in central locations and provided fertilizer for the fields. Washington understood the efficacy of personal hygiene, the lack of which provoked his intense disdain for the sloppy and dirty New Englanders he met in the early days of the Revolution. While disease and fever plagued the American Army, the Red Coat camps were virtually free of camp fever because of stringent sanitary practices. Washington understood, having served in the highly regimented British Army.

How did he become a farmer? Washington fought in the French and Indian War, but as a colonial he was repeatedly denied advancement in the British Army. His resignation led to farming, marriage and to building Mt Vernon into an 8,000 acre business. When he first inherited Mt. Vernon, it was little more than a cabin, but the mansion he left is impressive and reflects a profound knowledge and creativity.

The exterior of the mansion utilizes a technique called rustication: the wooden exterior takes on the look of stone. I won’t go into the method here, but I will show you what it looks like. It reminds me of a Garden State Brickface fa├žade, but in the 18th century, rustification was sophisticated and extraordinarily labor intensive.

Don't mistake Washington for a "home grown" American boy. Aristocratic George looked to Europe for fashion. His elaborate gardens, farm, and orchards were managed by gardeners trained in Europe but able to take advantage of the abundance of America.

Inside the mansion, the 18th century male prevailed. George Washington had ultimate control, a characteristic he had to grow into during the early days of the Revolution where mistakes were made because of indecision. The only rooms decorated by Martha Washington were their private living quarters, removed, for privacy, from the main part of the mansion. Everything else was chosen by Washington, and much of the decoration follows a farming theme. Most of the furniture and decorations were imported from Europe.

Mt. Vernon is beautiful. The piazza overlooks the Potomac, and the views are stunning. A tour demonstrates the way labor was divided in order to make this business run smoothly and well. The farm demonstrates Washington’s uncommon interest in modern agricultural methods as well as his foresight. The same foresight echoed in his presidency. Consider:

  • In his will he freed his slaves, although he used slave labor throughout his own life
  • He refused to serve a 3rd term, feeling the need for change. It took the country 200 years before that became law

    In 1858 for $200,000, the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association purchased about 500 acres, including the mansion, from a Washington descendant . I asked one docent about the condition at that time, fewer than fifty years after Washington's death. The building was in total disrepair. The association continues to restore, do archeological research and bring Washington’s eminence to the public. Under construction is a complex that will become a museum and learning center for the Father of our Country.

One point to consider when visiting Mt. Vernon—there was a long waiting line to take the mansion tour. A docent told us that the length was unusual for a weekday but not for a weekend. So be prepared. Try to visit on a weekday and come early. Schools visit, but the preponderance of school busses seemed to arrive around noon. We arrived at 11:30 and there were relatively few busses then. Other busses are charter tour busses.

There is an admission charge, but you will find touring Mt. Vernon well worth the price.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

LET'S EAT--Four Courts-Arlington, VA.

Even in the AM there’s the lingering aroma of beer, but not the stale beer of bottles left from the night before. Rather it is a fresh, attractive pungency that makes walking into Four Courts a pleasure.

Four Courts is a beautiful Irish Pub in Arlington, VA. It is a dark, wainscoted place where the walls are painted dark green. Hanging above the long, heavy bar are the mugs of regular customers. Signs reading Cead Mile Failte!, a hundred thousand welcomes, are in beautiful stained glass dividing the bar area from the pub area. Cheery Irish music plays in the background, and I can’t help smiling. There are great posters on the walls, my favorite being one saying accompanying an obviously sympathetic and listening bartender: “You’re in good hands. Your publican is a professional.” Beats the Allstate commercials by a mile!

At one end of the room is a fireplace. The area is decorated with dark, heavy woods, sofas and tables. This is the James Joyce room. On the wall is a plaque in honor of four magnificent Irish writers: Brendan Behan, Sean O’Casey, John Millington Synge, and James Joyce—playwrights and novelists extraordinaire. If I were coming in for the evening, this is exactly where I’d want to sit. As it is, we are here for a traditional Irish breakfast.

Just a quick aside; I’ve been here before and can absolutely vouch for the artichoke and crab dip, the Shepherd’s pie, and the Irish lamb stew. The menu is extensive and caters to any taste and any meal. There's music and entertainment throughout the year, and an Irish harp accompanies Sunday Brunch. Wonderful.

How does Four Courts define a traditional Irish Breakfast? It consists of two eggs cooked to your liking with Irish sausages, rashers, black and white pudding and served with O’Brien potatoes. It’s hearty, and it’s delicious. Rashers is a kind of bacon, very tasty. I think you should google black and white pudding; it’s good, but you may be wary of the ingredients of a real traditional pudding. I don’t know Four Courts’ recipe.

At any rate, this was a different breakfast in a different setting. Do go to their website. It’s attractive, and if you’re anywhere near this restaurant, you’ll see it is worth a visit.

BOOKS: Talk to the Hand

A few short years ago, an unexpected best seller arrived from England like a firestorm—Lynne Truss’ Eats Shoots and Leaves, a LOL funny compendium of the rules of punctuation. If you missed it, you might be knitting your eyebrows right now, but here’s the skinny: “A panda walks into a restaurant and eats shoots and leaves” has one meaning. Throw in some punctuation and meaning becomes something very different: “A panda walks into a restaurant and eats, shoots, and leaves.” Kinda murderous, heh? And so punctuation is, after all, important. But that’s another book. Her follow up is Talk to the Hand, (subtitled The Utter Bloody Rudeness of the World Today, or Six Good Reasons to Stay Home and Bolt the Door). We’re not talking about The Nanny and her hand motions here, but about changes in the way we treat each other that simply drive us crazy!!!!!

The book was panned by some critics. Truss was called an old curmudgeon and a hermit who couldn’t tolerate the modern world. In reading, I learned she’s younger than I am! Old curmudgeon, my eye! And I am horrified by the same things she is! The New York Times Book Review, however, put things in perspective--"Without knocking anyone down on the way, hurry to the bookstore for a copy of Talk to the Hand. . . . Long live the Queen of Zero Tolerance. And heaven help the rest of us.”

The way I look at it, the panners are part of the “younger” crowd who haven't a clue! I remember my parents refusing to let me sit on the subway or bus as long as adults were standing. There were no excuses for bad manners!

What ticks you off the most? Impolite store clerks? People who don’t say thank you when you’ve held the door for them? Automated voices saying, “Your call is important to us. Please stay on the line for the next customer service representative”? The use of the “eff” word as noun, adjective, and verb for almost any circumstance? The end of deference for any reason—age, gender, position, etc.? People who are incredibly PC? (Allison just told me about a woman she knows who refers to a wintry, white “snowperson.”)

If any of these gaffes bother you, read what Lynne Truss has to say in her funny, self-deprecating manner. You’ll recognize her references too—books, movies, TV shows, famous people etc.—and you’ll get a kick out of thinking about them.

I was laughing out loud so often in companionly recognition that I HAD TO keep interrupting Rob to read sections aloud to him. He probably does not have to read the book now, but even the selections I chose made him laugh in empathy. This is a good book, a fun book, and I’d bet money that everyone who reads it will sit there nodding in appreciation and agreement.
BTW, I went to The Urban Dictionary for a definition and history of the phrase “talk to the hand.” "A saying used to ignore and disregard a comment or an insult when you can't think of a way to counter it. When this phrase is used, it is customary to raise your hand, palm facing out, and place it almost touching your adversary's face. This can make even the most civil person raging mad. Another variation is "talk to the hand 'cause the face don't give a damn'."

Wanna have some fun? Follow this link and play the punctuation game. See how you score. While you’re there, read some of the “acclaim” notices on some of her other books. You might become a Lynne Truss fan too.

LET'S EAT--Bandana's--St. Louis, MO.

We drive up to Bandana’s in St. Louis, MO—you know, The Show Me State—and the air is rich with a smoky barbecue smell! Show me the barbecue!

It had been a long, late-night weekend, wedding reveling, catching up with long-lived friends and meeting new ones. The rainy, chilly day has been spent talking, and we arrive at the restaurant ready for dinner. Our friends take us to Bandana’s, a bit sorry for us after we whine that we just don’t get good barbecue up north (actually Missourians refer to our part of the world as up east).

Bandana’s is a neat-looking place—lots of wood and with that great, friendly atmosphere we always experience in the Midwest.

As an aside – In the ladies’ room, a woman commented on the weather. I said that I found St. Louis almost balmy as we were initially delayed at Newark Airport by an iced jetway. That led to a discussion of September 11th. How far, she wanted to know, did I live from NYC? Was I impacted by 9/11? When I acknowledged that our town lost eight people, she squeezed my hand in commiseration. “If only we could get Bin Laden,” she said.

We walked out of the restroom together, and as we passed her table, she held out her hand to shake mine, and she introduced herself; I did the same, and I walked back to my table with a smile on my face. This was a really nice moment.

Anyway, back to Bandana’s. Bandana’s Barbecue’s registered slogan is “Smell that Smoke.” You can because they use a real wood pit smoker. Some of their meats cook for five hours, and some cook for fourteen hours. The meat emerges with a reddish color—and a magnificent taste. For you barbecue lovers, Bandana’s uses a “dry rub.” You can add your own special Bandana’s sauces ranging from their original to a spicy.

Much as we would have enjoyed combination platters so we could sample several meats, that was an impossibility. The platters were huge. Rob and I ordered different luncheon platters and then split the meats.

I ordered the Bar-B-Q rib plate: four hefty ribs, succulent and meaty. My two sides were a sweetish BBQ beans with pieces of pork and a great sauce, and something I’ve never had before—fried corn on the cob served with skewers so I didn’t get any of the buttery covering on my fingers. Also included were two huge slabs of delicious, buttery garlic toast. The price-$7.29.

Rob ordered the Bar-B-Q pork plate with the same sides. Two ribs to him; some pork for me.

Our friends went their own ways with chicken, but Robyn ordered a dinner platter, Bar-B-Q white meat chicken that came with that mouth-watering garlic bread, fries, and cole slaw. It was humongous! She packed half home to bring to hubby, Eric. Great gal! He loves this restaurant too, but he just couldn’t join us.

According to their take-out menu, you can Smell the Smoke in fifteen different locations! Love that mid-western air!

BOOKS: The Kalahari Typing School for Men

As The Kalahari Typing School for Men leaves me but one more novel in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, I am beginning to miss them already. Where else will I find delightful passages like this: “Roads…were a country’s showcase. How people behaved on roads told you everything you needed to know about the national character.” Makes me ruminate on California car chases, road rage, and the guy who drives on the shoulder to move up in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Nevertheless, this novel, a little slower in pace than the previous ones, continued the good sense, good feelings and great development of character.

Star of this novel is Mma Makutsi whose ambition and talent has her grow in independence. Needing more money and desiring more recognition, she decides to open her own business. The managerial skills she demonstrates at the No. 1 Detective Agency and the Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors lead her on new paths and to new relationships. Mma Makutsi finally comes into her own.

Precious Ramatswe’s most intriguing case reiterates her faith in the basic goodness of people and in traditional values. Plagued with a guilty conscience, a client seeks to right the wrongs of his youth, and it is up to Precious to find the victims, explain, and to help the anxious sinner select appropriate ways to repay those he wronged.

Her kid-glove treatment of each participant reinforces the warm feeling I have for this character. Her wisdom is inherent, but she is smart enough to know when she needs help.

Remember, she has two orphaned children living with her, and she has no experience as a mother. She returns to the orphanage for advice from the woman dedicated to doing her best for these children, and as a result, Mma Ramatswe and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni make the moves to lovingly correct a potentially bad situation.

Even in a small country like Botswana, competition can make life tough. A chauvinist male opens a competing detective agency and derides the women as incompetent. He advertises that a man can do it better. Not only did he raise Mma Ramatswe’s ire, but also he raised mine. I was anxious to see how this bit of trouble resolved itself.

I’d like to leave you with this thought. While Precious Ramatswe & Co. extol the “traditional values” of their country, they are, by far, the most modern and progressive characters one can imagine. In moving forward, one need not leave the past behind. Therein lies the utter charm of this series as well as a multitude of reasons to smile at the thought of Botswana and Africa.

I hope that when I read the final book of the series, I find Alexander McCall Smith has tied up all the loose ends—happily. Precious Ramatswe, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, Mma Makutsi, the children, the two apprentices—all have entered my heart, and I will hate to let go.

TRAVEL TIPS

We took Tide to Go. They invented this for people like me; the more careful I am, the more I spill on my blouse! On this trip, the test was marinara sauce that attacked a brand new white top. Tide to Go passed!

One thing to remember is this product goes on wet. It dries rapidly, but it is not something to whip out of your pocket and dab while you’re sitting at the table. It is like carrying a pen, and it’s worth having close by.

We also took a dry spot cleaner, Janie Dry Spot Cleaner. I actually bought this POP at the supermarket checkout. You might have to go online, but it’s sold in many places, including Amazon. It’s pocket sized and goes on dry. Just use the stick to rub it on, wait three minutes, and then use the attached brush to brush off the powder. Rob used this after his soy sauce splattered his yellow polo. It worked!

DC's CORCORAN GALLERY vs THE NORMAN ROCKWELL MUSEUM

On the old Third Age Traveler website, I wrote about the Corcoran Gallery and its Banjo exhibit. One of the paintings on display was by Norman Rockwell, depicting an African-American man playing the banjo to the utter delight of a young white boy using sticks to beat an accompanying rhythm on the floor. It was an interesting painting disturbingly interpreted as racist by the exhibition’s curators, and it piqued our interest in Rockwell’s view of Americana. So here in the Berkshires, Rob and I were going to check it out ourselves.

Rockwell’s history hardly reveals racist tendencies. In fact, he left a position with a major magazine because it only allowed African-Americans depicted in servile positions. Rockwell’s strong civil rights drawings showed an opposite view. Seeing some of these famous illustrations in the exhibit reminded me of their strength when I first saw them many years ago.

Additionally, a recurring motif in Rockwell’s work is the older person sitting in a superior position to a younger person and instructing him in some way. Generally, Rockwell portrayed adults in relationships of instruction or closeness with younger people to demonstrate the importance of intergenerational relationships. This is the way we saw the illustration—the older man entertaining and teaching, much to the delight of the youngster who could not resist joining in the music. It was positive, not negative.

The curator of the museum concurred and showed us numerous examples of Rockwell’s social comments—all positive!

Our docent was a woman whose son had posed for Rockwell. She regaled us with anecdotes and insights we never would have heard elsewhere. Rockwell was a real citizen, using the townspeople as sitting models until he finally switched to photographs. She identified many of the people he depicted in his illustrations, and she knew them well. How often can one be treated to this kind of experience?

If the Rockwell exhibits had been the singular focus of the museum, that would have been enough, but there also was a National Geographic exhibit—illustrations detailing the process by which National Geographic retains illustrators as well as its intricate process of meticulously checking for accuracy before an illustration, whether a soon-to-be-unearthed ancient city or a possible new solar system in space, appears in its publication. Absolutely fascinating.

We lingered so long at these two exhibits, we didn’t have time to see the third exhibit—of another illustrator. We left with added knowledge and a tremendous appreciation and respect for Norman Rockwell and his fellow illustrators. This is a museum to which we will return.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

LONG WEEKEND IN THE BERKSHIRE MTS. OF MASSACHUSETTS

We wake up, a heavy fog clinging to the mountains and trees, blanketing the snow in thick, grey mist. On our winter vacations we normally wake to the lovely sound of waves washing up a pristine beach. It has been many years since we’ve taken a winter vacation to a winter site, but this short sojourn to Massachusetts’ Berkshires was just the ticket.

Why write about it in May? The Berkshires truly is a four-season area. In the fall there’s antiquing and foliage; winter brings phenomenal skiing; summer is lakes, music (Tanglewood), fishing, hiking and cycling; and spring is awakening nature and art galleries. The area boasts museums—many of literary fame: Edith Wharton’s, Robert Frost’s and Herman Melville’s homes. There’s also the Hancock Shaker Village. This is just a smattering of the possibilities, and the area’s accessibility from urban areas makes it even more attractive. Rob and I are here to relax, unwind, and to visit, in particular, the Norman Rockwell Museum.

We stay in Pittsfield, MA, in the Patriot Suites Hotel, and have a very comfortable suite including a kitchenette, an oversized bathroom, a great master bedroom and king-size bed and TV, and a nice, big living room with a convertible sofa, a TV armoire and dvd player. There’s plenty of dresser space as well as two big closets. Included is a continental breakfast served in a big, centrally located lounge. Lenox is located near Jiminy Peak, one of the Berkshires’ premier ski areas, and it that works well for us in late January.

We no longer ski, but the hotel literally empties out during the day, leaving us with the outdoor spa and indoor pool all to ourselves! There’s nice, soft background music playing and we alternate between heating up in the spa despite the cold weather and snowy mist, cooling off and swimming laps in “our” pool, and reading and writing in between. We’ve already used the nicely equipped exercise room, and we feel wonderful.

This is an area to visit regularly, and that’s just what we intend to do.

Our sleuthing at the Norman Rockwell Museum is yet to come…