Monday, May 26, 2008

New York, New York

This past weekend, I got the chance to see New York City up close and personal like. Just a few thoughts and observation, complete with appropriate music to go with it.

Got on the train at 6:30 or so and headed on into Penn station. (Queue Chattanooga Choo Choo lines about leaving the Pennsylvania Station) Down to the subway. What a mess! Most complicated blasted thing I’ve ever seen. A spaghetti of different routes, some of the worst signage I’ve seen and, to boot, on weekends they like shuffling things around for line work. Also pretty dingy in the stations. THIS is supposed to be the famous New York subway?

That notwithstanding, made it down to Battery Park to take the ferry to Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Lady Liberty was quite a sight. It seems sad that she is too often draped in a flag and used to sell patriotism. Then headed to Ellis Island. (Queue Neil Diamond’s “They’re Coming to America”) The whole experience puts you in the mood: approaching on a crowded ferry having stood in line. You are surrounded by families and rowdy kids and are in the midst of hearing about a half a dozen languages. How appropriate! Ellis Island was quite moving and well done as an exhibit—even if my ancestors came through Baltimore.

After that, up to see the World Trade Center. What was striking was the lack of patriotic schlock that the event gets back in Kansas. The big sign on one store said “Remember….Fathers Day.” Then to Wall Street. (Queue theme to “Wall Street Week in Review”). It was striking that this “city that never sleeps” had a lot of businesses closed for the day.

Following this, saw one of the truly great museums of the city: the Tenement Museum. Check out the web site at A recreation of life on the Lower East Side up close and personal. It showed how dark and crowded the places were, but how they also offered hope. Also showed how urban life in New York is a process of constant change. An emersion into the complex, unsettling life of the tenements and the families who lived there.

Back on the subway to Times Square (Queue “Give my regards to Broadway”—the subway stops were various points in the song). Got a sandwich from a deli and ate it outside by Madison Square Garden. (Queue theme to “Sex in the City”) and then headed on back.

Monday, May 19, 2008

So how was your last dinner party?

Yesterday, had the fun of attending a dinner party of a friend of mine, Paul Cassedy. Paul grew up in the Alexandria/Washington area but is now in Baltimore. He says that he is called one of the last of the Edwardians in that he loves the tradition of the formal dinner party. This “modest” event took place at his home, a 1910s-era row house. There were 16 guests so it took the parlor and dining room both to hold the long table that we set up. Talk about breaking out the china and the glassware! Each place setting had seven utensils and four wine glasses. Among the Edwardian features that Paul continues as a love of pickled items so the first course were all homemade pickles of various veggies along with spring sausage of meats like elk and bison. At this point, the music arrived. The duo,“Zephyr,” consisted of a lute player and a singer who serenaded us with Renaissance songs. Then came the turtle soup, which traditionally has an accompanying pickled hard boiled egg. Then a salad. Then the entree, a roast of wild boar with a mole sauce and saffron rice. By this time, we are on our third different wine. To cleanse the palate, we had a sorbet of lemon and vodka graced with basil and sage. Then came the cheese course of various types of cheeses and then a mixture of berries soaked in Grand Marnier . Paul is surprised when people say this is a lavish affair. This is just a group of friends getting together. I’ll let you be the judge!

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Cheeseburger in Paradise

They say confession is good for the soul. Last night, while heading back to the Cathedral, I stopped into a restaurant called Mediterra in Adams Morgan. I ordered, I am ashamed to admit, a cheeseburger. Consider the irony: this is an upscale, trendy restaurant in one of the most cosmopolitan neighborhoods in one of the most internationally-oriented cities in the country. Embassy Row is within walking distance and the Islamic Center's minaret is visible on the other side of Rock Creek Park. I order the most Mid-American of foods.

Upon reflection, it occurred to me that I had not had a hamburger in quite a while. This whirlwind of a research trip has been one of ethnic cafes with cuisine ranging from Korean to Indian to Thai to Afghani to Mexican to Ethiopian. Lots of salads and pastas. Local fare has included Philly cheese steaks, Canadian poutine, and Cincinnati-style chili (with a hint of chocolate and cinnamon, served on spaghetti with a heaping mound of shredded cheese). A lot of the meals have been delightfully vegetarian. It is striking that the humble cheeseburger, in this environment, IS exotic foreign fare. Sometimes you just hanker for the basics.

Yes, the burger, by the way, was wonderful. Having not had one in a while, it was quite rich and satisfying, even decadent. Somehow, it even seemed appropriately Mediterranean in that cafe's setting with subdued lighting and reproductions of 1930s French travel posters. Yes, I did have to make one concession to the region: an appetizer of hummus. Hummus and cheeseburgers. Now there's a combination for the 21st century!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

So you want to research at the Library of Congress, do you?

The Library of Congress is one of those hallowed places in academia. For a scholar, doing work there is almost a rite of passage. Few activities seem more “scholarly” than researching in rare materials underneath the great rotunda of the Jefferson building.

Hold on there, cowboy! (queue sound of phonograph needle screeching across record) Before you do that, there are some things to consider so that your trip there is as pain free as possible. The good news is that the Library of Congress is one of the world’s greatest collections of published works housed in one of Washington’s most stunning buildings. The bad news is that the Library of Congress is one of the world’s greatest collections of published works housed in one of Washington’s most stunning buildings. You see, the massive collection and sheer popularity of the structure tend to draw vast numbers of people, the very things that make the “LOC” a rather tricky critter to use.

The LOC is really two entities, one a showcase for exhibits and programs that draw thousands of visitors. The other is a research area. Going up the great steps into the great lobby are for the visitors and anyone entering will have to go through the security checkpoints to have bags checked etc. I am coming to believe that the security checkpoint should be the official Washington, D.C. symbol.

Before that fun begins, however, researchers need to go across the street to the south to the Madison Building to room 140. Fortunately, this is the most painless part of the process. You do need to register on the computer (and bring a photo id). They give you an id card with a number to use. The folks who do this are among the friendliest in DC so this is not too much of an inconvenience. By this point, you should have a sense of what you want to research (visit ahead of time). Not all research areas are under the great rotunda in the Jefferson Building. Depending on your topic, you may be directed to another research area such as the Adams Building or the Madison Building. If, as was my case, your intended destination is the Jefferson Building Rotunda, you go back through a true maze of tunnels and corridors to check in your bags and head to the reading room. By the way, no cameras allowed in the great rotunda. A bit of a bummer, but I can see why.

At this point, a minor diversion into architectural history is appropriate. For centuries, really important rooms in a major public building were on what Americans generally call the 2nd floor and what much of the rest of the world calls the first floor. It was the piano nobile (noble floor) of the Renaissance. That is the case with the great reading room in the Jefferson Building. The ground level has the service corridors, restrooms, and minor reading rooms, etc. You then go “up” to the “first” floor to get to the main reading room.

Now you are ready to research. Sort of. Go to the great circular desk in the center of the rotunda and hand them a filled out call slip, blanks of which are found at various points around the desk. If you have just the right reading desk picked out, you can have materials sent there. Otherwise, you can pick them up. This is very, very much a closed stack process so staff get the materials for you. This will take about 45 minutes to an hour, depending on the material. If you are really industrious, you can check out various reference materials in the alcoves -- or you can do what I did and get something to eat. It is a little bit of a hike but I recommend the cafeteria at the National Museum of the American Indian—really upscale food representing different regions of the Americas.

Assuming the materials are there when you get back, you are now ready to research. About the only issue to consider is that the reading desks are sloped and topped with glass so things have a really nasty tendency to want to slip off.

Let’s say, for grins and giggles, you want to make a photocopy. You go to Alcove 7 to the copy room. You have to purchase a copy card. This costs 40 cents but takes a dollar to start the process so do have one ready. Copies are 20 cents a piece. About the only warning I have on the copy machines is that it is really, really easy to inadvertently press the keypad to call for multiple copies when you only wanted one. Keep alert and you’ll avoid some of my costly mistakes.

Returning items is pretty straightforward—just turn them into the front desk. I didn’t need to hold items for use the next day so cannot speak to that procedure. When leaving, if you go out the front entrance of the Jefferson building, go left by the Madison Building and that takes you to the Capitol South Metro stop. Busses are also quite frequent along Independence Avenue.

Hope this helps. The LOC is a majestic location with a lot of good people and good resources. It also makes me appreciate interlibrary loan a whole lot more.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Reflections on the National Cathedral celebration

Now That’s a Service

Today, I had the pleasure of attending the Pentecost service at the National Cathedral. It was also Mother’s Day and the crescendo of the structure’s 100th anniversary celebration. Needless to say, they pulled out all the stops—and seem to have special ordered extra stops just to be able to pull them out as well.

Here is the rundown. Before the service, there was a choral concert from an African American choir singing a combination of traditional and modern pieces. By this time, the place was packed. Half an hour before the service, most seats in the nave were taken.

Then came the processional with flags, streamers, banners, and dignitaries. Trumpet fanfare from both the choir loft and up front. Once everyone settled in up front, the service began. One could sorta see the activities on flat screen tvs along the columns but even those were hard to access if you happen to be vertically challenged such as myself. It also got me to thinking about the cathedral space and how, in days before those tvs, your experience of a service, unless you were one of the mucky-mucks up front, was of glimpses of activity way off in the distance—assuming you could even see it at all. In an age before amplification, chances are that you couldn’t hear things, either. No wonder it has been hard getting the congregations to grasp the message! I am now appreciating more the sloped seating and auditorium arrangements of the Calvinist and Evangelical traditions!

Anyway, back to the service. The second reading, the Pentecost story, was acted out on front, complete with song. Then the liturgical dancers came in and a very powerful singer, representing Peter led the congregation with a song about being filled with the spirit. Was hard not to get caught up in things.

The sermon was good and even the dean of the cathedral admitted that he had not quite prepared for the extravaganza taking place around him. After the sermon, Rt. Rev Schori spoke for a short time, amused that the ancestors back in 1907 would have been horrified by a service like this, just as we will be, if things go right, with a service in 2107. Schori led the prayers and consecration for the next 100 years, inviting various people with the congregation and the diocese to receive their call to service. She concluded with having the visitors rise (which was most of the place) and we were told to spread the message of what we had seen and heard as well, hence this post.

The hymn “Send down your fire of Justice” followed. Another spirited piece with the dancers, culminating in the congregation being showered with red, orange, and yellow rose petals cascading down from the clerestory! The explanation was that during the Middle Ages, cathedrals celebrated Pentecost with cascades of rose petals. During the rest of the service, kids and adults alike periodically darted from their seats to collect a few petals as mementos. I doubt the cleaning folks had much to pick up.

Following that, the celebration of the Eucharist commenced. There was something powerful about a whole cathedral of people reciting the Lord’s Prayer together. I was toward the back so was part of the group who went back towards the narthex to receive communion. Sorta strange taking the elements with my back to the altar but the great rose window above was a good experience.
The final blessing ended the service with a great recessional, again with banners, streamers, booming brass, and great fanfare. With the dismissal, people started out and to the tent adjacent for refreshments. By this time, it was after 1:00 and many people darted off, no doubt heading to Mother’s day reservations. The dean of the cathedral was right—it was a service few would forget.

National Cathedral

The National Cathedral is celebrating its centennial with its "Lighting to Unite" program. The event consists of several stages where bright lights project patterns from colored slides onto the cathedral surface itself. The result is a very powerful spectacle. Check out for more information. Here are two photos of just two of the patterns that one could see.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Welcome to Hogwarts

Actually, it isn't really Hogwarts, just the Cathedral College at the National Cathedral. Great spot. Still, it DOES feel like it is something that should have Harry Potter walking around. It turns out to be the 100th anniversary celebration of the Cathedral so lots going on. This is also a first attempt to put a photo on this so we'll see what happens.

Collections of Previous Posts

From time to time during this trip, I sent updates. Now that I am in the blogosphere, I can put them all in one place.

April 18,2008
Just thought I'd keep you updated on how thing are going. The research trip is going really well. Am learning lots. Great materials for the book and other research projects. People have been really nice. The people at the Southern Baptist Archives, Disciples of Christ Archives, UCC Archives, Wilberforce University (with AME records), American Jewish Archives, and Cushwa Center at Notre Dame could not have been nicer or more helpful. Have also had a lot of sightseeing and adventure. I am coming away really impressed with a lot of places including Nashville, Louisville, Cincinnati, and Cleveland. Have tried some local cuisine, such as the unique chocolate and cinnamon laced chili served on spaghetti in Cincinnati. Had bourbon-flavored sauce over cake in Bardstown KY. Great fried chicken and homestyle cookin' outside of Nashville. Also lots of events and visuals. Got to see the Thunder, the opening of Kentucky Derby season. It is a major fireworks event where fireworks are shot from a bridge over the Ohio. Then there were the little things. Am learning that I am right now in Cuyahoga county, which locals pronouce something akin to Kai-a-ho-ga. I saw an ore steamer navigating a turn in a very narrow river outside of Cleveland. The ship must be about 600 to 700 feet long and the "river," is a canal that is about the width of the Arkansas is in Wichita--with a sharp turn. This is an old ship with no bow thrusters so this took some real skill. And you thought parallel parking was a challenge!

April 18, 2008

One other adventure I had was when I got to visit the creationism museum in northern KY. You can check out the info at
Let's see...I guess the best way to put it is if you follow their premises (that the Bible is literal and their understanding of it is correct), then the rest follows logically. The crux starts out as God's Word (the Bible) vs clearly inferior human reason. Again, a lot of the interpretation is more about how man's refusal to accept God and his plan for us is the root of our problems, the belief in evolution simply being a major symptom. That said, it sometimes gave the notion that if we just abandoned this silly belief in evolution, that all our social problems would go away. No mention of how the Bible was used to uphold slavery. But I digress.
The Flood plays a big, even central role in the interpretation as it underscores 1) humanity's sinfulness and subsequent punishment and 2) shows up in the fossil record, as they see it, in the form of masses of fossils together. They posit that the flood was the cataclysmic event that pushed even the continents apart, rather than slow geologic processes. They also argue that dinosaurs survived the flood by being taking on the ark as young animals. How they got the T -Rex to behave on the ark without eating the rest of the passenger list is not a detail they chose to explore.
There are some subtle messages that put their interpretation within a particular framework within the creationist worldview. For example, dinosaurs did exist, but existed alongside with humans (reinforced with displays showing people in the Garden of Eden with dinosaurs in the nearby bushes). The bones were not just put there as a way to trick people into not believing in God, which had been a common creationist argument at one time. The six days were six literal days, not eras, another distinct viewpoint. An additional point was that Adam's sin condemned animals to killing and eating meat and dying etc. That meant that before Adam and Eve sinned, all animals, from humans and sheep to lions and velociraptors, all ate plants. No real mention how they did that with sharp teeth. No real mention of how aquatic animals survived or did not.
Again, it's not really designed for the evolutionist or change minds. It is designed to reinforce existing belief systems, which, let's face it, a lot of museums do on a variety of issues. I will say that the first part, about major themes and questions and setting up the issue, was one of the better framings that I have seen. Geared toward kids and having them ask questions--to which the rest of the exhibit tries as much as possible to provide a distinct set of answers.
On the whole, a very entertaining museum. The dioramas and animatronics were first rate. A HUGE gift shop. One of the biggest that I have seen in a museum. In fact, there is a whole arcade just for food and other facilities.
Just thought you'd find it of interest.

March 25, 2008
Well, folks, just letting you know I made it as far as Notre Dame. Drove back through St. Louis without much problem. I elected to stay at pretty cheap university lodging accomodation here on Notre Dame campus. Turns out that I am staying in a former convent. Bleak. It just looks like the stereotypical institution that they drop the little orphan onto to go live with the stern nuns. I've included pictures! My room is on the third floor just out of view of this photo Has the bathroom down the hall. Old, old woodwork and layout. I mean, if this place isn't haunted, I don't know what is. Plus, I get the fun of staying here pretty much alone tonight. We'll see. Got to eat on campus at Legends, a great little sports bar that is university run and on campus and has great food. What a novel concept--good food on a college campus? Can't be legal. So far, my impression of Notre Dame: Now THIS is a college campus!
Now we'll have to see how their archives are. It's supposed to be rain/wintry mix for the rest of the week. Good time to be indoors at an archives.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Cities. What works. What Doesn't

One of the side benefits of a research trip like this has been the chance to see how a lot of different cities function.

Some of the cities that surprised me in livability were Nashville, Philadelphia, Toronto, and Louisville. Some of the things that they had in common were:

- A functioning downtown with mixed use with residential and business together. Large numbers of classic row houses seem to work for this.
- Lively, diverse neighborhoods that were close to each other. Philadelphia really shows this where neighborhoods have lots of regular, ordinary people living there. It wasn't just gentrified yuppiedom with plaques that talked about what was there years ago.
- For Toronto, esp., public transportation (read streetcars) was a major plus.
- The grid system!!!!!
- Local restaurants
- Funkiness. Am increasingly convinced that funkiness is a sign of health. It we don't handle the funky side of things, we probably aren't really open to a lot of other innovations.
- Local markets, including farmers' markets.
- Places where people can walk and be out and about without having to drive.
- A central waterfront that is accessible and walkable. This could be a lakefront, like Erie, PA, or a riverfront like Philadelphia and Louisville.
- A concentrated area of activity, including activity that is covered, like Cleveland's arcades.

Some things that may not work as well:

- Loooong traffic lights (Nashville is one of the worst. Philadelphia, one of the best)
- Downtowns that are so over-planned that all the life is organized out of them (Camden, NJ is a good example)
- Downtowns consisting of a handful of major, big facilities but little else. (Downtown Cincinnati is an example)
- Illogical highway systems (western New Jersey a negative example, Louisville a positive one).