A Moving Monument

This weekend is a big weekend here in the DC area, and not just because of the likely appearance of lovely Ms. Irene and her hurricane force winds and torrential rain.  Unless you have been living under a rock, or a giant granite monolith for that matter, you know that Sunday is the official dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in downtown Washington DC.

This monument is a beautiful addition to those already in our nation’s capital.  As guests approach the memorial from Independence Avenue, they are greeted by a massive stone wall, representing the “mountain of despair,”  which has its middle cut out and pushed forward into the center of the memorial space.  The middle piece is a physical manifestation of the “stone of hope.”  It is on this slab of granite that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is carved in a spectacular fashion.   This nod to his most famous speech, “I Have A Dream” is not necessarily subtle, but it’s obvious reference doesn’t create a feeling of amateurism either.  Many visitors will be coming to this monument after having walked up the National Mall, through the series of monuments that ends with Abraham Lincoln’s, where a tile is set into the steps commemorating that same speech.  People can go from standing on the exact spot where the speech was given to then venturing  across the road and literally stepping into the words of that stirring oration, bringing not only its author, but its message to life.

Once inside the monument, the sides of the walls facing the Tidal Basin are covered with quotes, in chronological order, from MLK Jr.’s lifetime.  Visitors move around the monument in a counter-clockwise direction, working their way through Dr. King’s experiences as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement. This loop passes back by the “stone of hope,” where guests have a chance to really take in the majesty of the thirty-foot statue of Martin Luther King, Jr.  The visage of the statue is one that is both prideful and stern at the same time.  It seems to radiate a sense of pride in how far his fight has come since the early 1960’s, but there is also a feeling that there are battles to still be fought when it comes to people being judged by their character, which they choose and create, rather than on traits with which they are born and have no control over.  It is standing at this grand effigy that is bursting forth from a slab of granite that my favorite allusion to King and what he stood for is quietly played out. King’s sculpture looks out over the Tidal Basin, right into the Jefferson Memorial.  As a major player in the writing of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson’s words “…all men are created equal” are perfect reflections of what King was trying to accomplish through his works.

While the monument doesn’t official open until Saturday, with the dedication taking place Sunday, I had the magnificent opportunity to go down and volunteer on Tuesday, the preview day.  My volunteer duties were very much like what I did at numerous Red Cross events back in Idaho.  I, along with Earl, my wonderful partner for the day, stood on the sidewalk offering commemorative bookmarks, free water and a chance to rest to the heavy stream of people headed towards the monument from the National Mall. We were there to not only pass out our goodies, but help by providing directions, information and help when needed.  Earl and I started out duties at 8AM and had a really great day together.  It was sunny and warm (I was chastised numerous times by old women who wanted to know why I wasn’t wearing a hat!), but we did our best to great each person headed up towards the monument and welcome them to DC’s newest addition. (It was also wonderful to talk to these same people as they made the return trip.  I loved asking them what they thought after their visit. Out of the hundreds, probably thousands, of people I spoke with on Tuesday, I have to say that well-received is an understatement when it comes to public opinion of the memorial!)  After  hours of sunshine and no lunch, there came a moment when my head started spinning and my initial thought was, “I’m about to pass out!”  Having experienced a rather unpleasant case of heat exhaustion in Cambodia a few summers ago, I thought I recognized the signs.  It took me all of about two seconds to realize that no, this was not heat exhaustion, but another sensation with which I have experience- an earthquake!

My initial awareness of the earthquake was quickly followed by a scan of the area.  I looked up and saw the light post and Washington Monument, both in motion. I looked down and could see the grass smoothly rolling under my tennis shoes.  As I glanced over my shoulder, the previously glass-like Tidal Basin had some lovely whitecap swells on it.  The quake was short, lasting only a matter of seconds.  Even as the quake was taking place, people were still streaming towards the entrance of the memorial.  Some people stopped to look around and to discuss if it fact they had just experienced an earthquake (a first for many long-time DC residents) and then calmly headed back on their way.  As our tent and area seemed undamaged, people nearby not in need of any assistance, Earl and I went right back to handing out bookmarks and chatting with those headed to the memorial.

One of the fabulous parts about working the tent on the main pathway to the memorial was the really great people I got to meet. I was able to speak with a man who walked with Dr. King in Montgomery, another who was in jail with Dr. King in Birmingham and at least a dozen people who were in the crowd on August 28, 1963. I heard women tell stories of participating in the bus boycott in their hometowns and men talk of sit-ins at local businesses. These were suddenly not just chapters of a history textbook being read to me in sophomore history class by Mr. Cooper, but real people, real events, real soldiers in the fight for equality.

Before volunteering at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument on Tuesday, I don’t think I had a very good grasp on how important this opening was. I understood that his leadership was invaluable in changing the racial landscape of America; I understood that he was a man who deserved this recognition, but  I think I understood these things strictly in an academic way.  A day in the sun, greeting visitors, talking with people who experienced history in a way I can only imagine brought that understanding into a much more human, realistic realm.  The pride was palpable on Tuesday.  Countless people were in their Sunday best for their first visit to the memorial.  The respect and admiration Dr. King’s leadership, his hard work and his life were unmistakable.   While the earth may have moved me physically on Tuesday, my opportunity to serve at this historic event moved me intellectually and emotionally.

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Awkward Moments Avoided Thanks to Inaugural Gowns

One great perk to living in our mo-partment is the weekly housekeeping that is part of the arrangement.  Coming from someone who didn’t know where our vacuum was stored for the first several years of our marriage, this is quite a boon! Each Friday I am treated to beautifully folded white towels, a tightly made king-sized bed and all the dusting that is possible in 600 square feet. This is all fabulous, and I don’t want to be one to look my government-supplied gift horse in the mouth, but I have yet to become comfortable with the actual process.

In theory, someone else doing my chores is superb, but the reality is just awkward. While I tended to fake my way through any assigned chores as a child, knowing if I did a semi-terrible job they would be reassigned to my much more capable older sister, I still had a list for which I had to at least pretend responsibility. Having someone else, usually a woman not much younger than my own mother, come and clean for me has been a tad bit disconcerting. For this reason, I spend my Fridays trying to outwit the maid and her schedule and be conspicuously absent when she arrives.  The challenge comes in that I am pretty sure the housekeeping services department throws the key of each scheduled apartment into a bag and then randomly draws the order in which they will be cleaned.  Since we’ve been here, housekeeping has shown up anywhere between 8:30AM and 4:00PM.  The unreliable schedule means finding an all day, out-of-the-house activity to occupy my Friday hours.

Today’s planned field trip was to Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.  At first thought, this seems like a terrible place to visit while Thad is slogging his way through hours of Chinese class, as it is one of his favorite places to visit.  In reality though, going without him was a necessity.  Rather than slowing walking around the Gunboat Philadelphia, reading each and every placard in full, I was able to scurry right to the heart of what I wanted to see- the exhibit based upon America’s First Ladies.

Originally, this ongoing exhibit was based on the personal fashion and household style of the women who stood behind their elected official husbands, but as the role of women has evolved, so has the role of the first lady.  Now, the exhibit includes not only the dresses and jewelry of these fashion icons,but  there is also a large portion dedicated to the causes embraced and espoused by these powerful unelected, yet highly visible leaders. The public service agendas put forth by these women are important and note-worthy, but let’s tell it like it is: I want to see the dresses!

Michelle Obama’s beautiful one-shoulder white inaugural gown was the centerpiece of the showroom, complete with her jewelry and Jimmy Choo shoes worn during the festivities surrounding a new president in Washington.  Mamie Eisenhower gets props for her fabulous rose-colored ball gown that has withstood the test of time in terms of keeping its timeless fashion. The shoes and purse she paired with the dress would look extraordinary on any red-carpet event three quarters of a century later.

While I loved looking at the details on each and every dress, I do have to say that fashion is definitely a personal thing and several of these ladies and I are not on the same page! There were three women in front of me throughout the majority of the exhibit who just couldn’t stop gushing about Rosalynn Carter’s chiffon evening gown, which I thought  looked like a gold bedazzled housecoat. One woman drawled in a thick southern accent, “Well, I am sure Georgia never saw such a gown before Ms. Carter showed up in that!”  I’d have to agree, but probably not with the same connotation. While I give Mrs. Carter credit for her economical ways for wearing the same gown she wore when her husband became governor of Georgia, the dress was just not worthy of one, let alone two high level events;   with less money spend on gold beading, she could have gone with a second look!

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Having sufficiently held up the line of tourists at each new outfit and gotten an eye full of handmade shoes, hand-painted silk dresses and handcrafted jewelry, it was time to go people watch on the National Mall.  Talk about a U-turn in the fashion world!  I went from designer gowns and cocktail rings to mom-jeans and joggers.

Joggers.  They are a dime a dozen in the DC area.  We hadn’t been living here a week before I noticed this baffling dichotomy: joggers are everywhere all the time and there is always a Dunkin’ Donuts store within two hundred yards of any given location.  What is the correlation?  Is the jogging because of the donuts or are the donuts in spite of the jogging?  These are the questions that occupy my mind during semi-temporary retirement.

Back to the joggers.  It was nearly noon, 90 degrees outside and a relatively uncomfortable amount of humidity, and yet, there they were.  I can’t help but ask myself about who these people are.  Are they recently unemployed congressional pages?  Who else has time to go jogging in the middle of a work day? As I whiled away more time on that bench nearly smack in the middle of the Capitol and the Washington Monument, avoiding the possibility of an awkward run-in with the housekeeping services women, I was treated to a myriad of runners.  There were a few middle-aged/older gentlemen that while obviously in good shape, should refrain from sharing their man-boobs with visitors from other nations.  This is not the image we want our foreign friends to take home with them. At some point, boobs sag.  This is a fact of life.  Men, embrace it!  When you reach the point where you feel jiggling when you jog, it is time to wear keep your shirt on.  Most runners were solitary in their late-morning pursuit of fitness, but there were a few pairs and trios running together, either providing mutual encouragement or as in one case I overheard, mocking their companions in a rather frat-boy manner.  I guess as long as your pulse rate is up, it counts as exercise!

Feeling like it might be safe to return to my newly cleaned Crystal City apartment, I made my way across the Mall towards the Smithsonian Metro station, dodging the occasional Segway Tour (helmets required, buckling them optional), the ubiquitous family photo-ops and the massive crowd just spewed forth from the subway stop congregating around the visitors’ map/information signs.  A day in the heart of the capital left me thinking I should have gone into the fashion industry or at least that I should stop and buy the latest copy of Vogue.

$8 and 6 Years Later…

Just a little over six years ago, on a sunny June afternoon in 2005, I innocently made an $8 purchase, not knowing that my small investment would end up informing my vacations for the foreseeable future.

After climbing Big Kill Devil Hill and witnessing where the Wright brothers conducted their famous glider tests, checking out full-scale reproductions of both the 1902 and 1903 flying contraptions and wandering the dunes surrounding the national park area, it was time for our party of four (Mom, Dad, Thad and me) to hit the road.  As Thad and Dad went to use the restroom, Mom and I decided to check out the gift shop.  While there, I saw a National Parks Passport book.  Now, apparently these things have been around for a long time, but this was my first introduction to them.  Knowing how nerdy Thad is about history (we were actually on the East Coast because he was taking a summer AP History course for teachers at Wake Forrest University), I thought it would be fun to get him one of these little books.  Little did I know I what I was getting myself into…

Jump ahead six years: with nearly all of the northwest stamps added to the passport (with the exception of Alaska),  a cross-country move was just what was needed to continue adding to the collection of ink on the book’s precious pages.  With that in mind, it was time to go on a stamp-hunting expedition.

Last weekend, we rented a car and headed for a series of US National Parks in Virginia.  Our sightseeing included deserted parks where we were the only visitors, like the Thomas Stone National Historic Site, as well as well-known, high-traffic parks such as Appomattox.  While the passport has dictated many trips over the last half decade, the best part about it is seeing things we never would have seen without its lead. Would I have sought out the pencil General Robert E. Lee used to sign the official surrender of the Confederates to the North?  Nope!  Have I seen it?  Yes!!  Would I have sauntered through the halls of Maggie Walker’s 5000 square-foot Richmond home?  Nope? Have I seen the elevator she had installed in her modern-era home?  Yes!

While these trips do lead to a wealth of knowledge, they are not nearly as serious/scholarly as one might think.  I tend to look at them as a great chance to play dress-up! One recent trip found Thad and friends snickering after I popped around the corner of a display case in full Civil War era soldier garb, announcing I was headed to war.  (This was followed by my expert translation of a sample Morse code message.  I’m pretty sure it was asking for crunchy peanut butter and no crusts on all future sandwiches.) I’ve also donned a metal helmets and sword as a member of a conquistador party in Florida and a hoop skirt and bonnet as a Civil War era plantation owner’s wife.

While I am off playing make-believe in a fashion that would make Mr. Rogers proud, Thad is usually chatting it up with the park rangers, filling his noggin with obscure facts and stories about each site.  We’ve come to discover that US National Park rangers are a unique breed.   They tend to be overflowing with minutia about their given site, spinning tales of the people and times that created the setting where they work.  Most have a passion for the preservation of their site and the education of their visitors. In short, they are history nerds.  (I’m pretty sure that if Thad didn’t work for the Department of State or wasn’t a teacher, he would be a park ranger!)

When I dug eight wrinkled dollars out of the bottom of my purse at a small gift shop on the coast of North Carolina six years ago, I had no idea that the gift that I bought more in jest than seriousness would become a central player in the planning of our future stateside travels!  Thrill seekers plan their vacations around amusement parks, foodies around culinary experiences and high rollers around trendy spa/golf resorts.  The Ross family?  We plot ours around our dog-eared National Parks Passport!

(Photos from various stamp gathering expeditions.)

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Taking the Field

Juice boxes… lunchboxes… lunchrooms… homerooms… homework… workbook… book bag… duffle bag.

This August is the first time since I was five years old that I am not going through the rituals of the back to school season. First it was twelve years of public school, defined more by the people and events than the books and papers.  While I managed to pick up the facts along the way, when the fine line between adjectives and adverbs became clear in my mind or the differences between stalagmites and stalactites attached themselves to my brain aren’t nearly as vivid as the memory of the check Miss Stritzke wrote to me for the Christmas tree stand my dad built for her when I was in the second grade or the dangly skeleton earrings sixth grade teacher extraordinaire Mrs. Reece got for me on her vacation because she saw them and thought of me.

Next came four years of private university. There semesters were nearly the opposite of the years before.  I can’t recall a single professor’s name.  (Wait.  That isn’t entirely true.  Professor Shakespeare taught, what else? Shakespeare!  But he wasn’t even my teacher for the course.  I had some stodgy older lady that possibly based her doctoral research on personal primary source materials- her attendance at the Globe!) Student-teacher relationships slipped away as school became about books and facts and papers. The learning happened, but I was connected more with the books and notes and ideas than the people who fostered them.

After ten semesters in four years (summer terms are neither more lovely nor more temperate than traditional ones)it was time to change the school dynamic one more time.  This reincarnation of the theme came with a twist- me being on the other side of the desks, assignments and relationships. It was time to mesh the memories of those teachers that really took the time to connect with individual students and the notebooks I’d compiled during college that were filled with pedagogy.

Eleven times I’ve experienced the sleepless nights leading up to the first day of a new school year.  Eleven times I’ve spent hours fretting over new bulletin boards, new class syllabi, and new seating arrangements.  Eleven times I’ve heard that first bell of the school year ring, taken a deep breath, plastered on a smile and energetically welcomed a fresh group of students to the school, as my stomach knotted with nerves unseen by students.

I’m sitting on the bench as this new school year begins, but as my team of fellow teachers takes the field, I wish you the best of luck!  May your year be filled with consistent forward progress, few turnovers and the successful hail-Mary when needed!  GO TEAM, GO!

“Home” is a Flexible Concept

Getting to Idaho was a bit chaotic, but after having survived United Airlines and their ridiculous connections, I did finally make it home, just twelve hours after the original ETA!  (A two-page, single spaced complaint letter did prompt United to offer me a travel coupon worth $150.  While it forces me to fly their lovely airline again, it will be nice to be able to subtract that from a future excursion!)

My Idaho visit was a whirlwind.  The trip started with Matt and the kids and I showing up to Dad’s Rotary meeting , to the utter astonishment of my mother! Two and a half weeks were quickly filled with picnic lunches in the park, a birthday party for my dad (happy 63rd!)  visits and dinners with friends, two county fairs and a rodeo, a bit of yard work, a bit more shopping and a trip to Roaring Springs Water Park.

Really though, the best parts of the time home were the ones spent just hanging out with family and friends.  While dinners and planned activities are always fun, just sitting around outside on a nice summer evening is about as good as it gets.  My driveway basketball skills were put to the test on one such evening.  Dinner at Fuddruckers was followed by an impromptu game of HORSE to break in Matt’s new hoop.  After letting the kids take a few shots, we ushered them out of the way to make room for the real game!  Mom, Melyssa, Kristina and I were the starting line-up.  It didn’t take more than about seven rounds before I had earned my five letters, but luckily bedtime for the littlest ones came and I subbed in for Kristina.  I apparently have much better basketball skills as her than I do as myself.  Regardless of whose name I’m playing under, all my shots had a style that left the others green with envy!!

After getting home from being home for a few weeks, I think I’m really coming to see that the concept of “home” is going to become much more pliant in the future.  Idaho is always going to be home. It is the place where I was born, attended twelve years of public school, met and married Thad and then taught for a decade.  There is no replacing that “home.”  But, home is also always going to be wherever we are currently posted. That house will have to be home if we are going to be successful in the Foreign Service lifestyle.  One thing Peace Corps taught me was the necessity of making whatever dwelling we are placed in a home.  That means that this time when we head out for China (and then the following postings!), I will not only take the clothes and daily necessities that constituted my measly PC weight limit, but I will also be shipping an abundance of cozy additions like throw blankets and pillows, Scentsy products and ALL of the framed travel pictures we had hanging in the Nampa house.   As cheesy as it sounds, the truth is that home really will be wherever Thad and I are together, whether that be our beautiful suburban house in Nampa, a hotel-like apartment outside of Washington DC or the mystery places that await us abroad!