U.S. Capitol

The tiny little people at the very center of the fresco at the top are 17 feet tall.

Reading this week:

  • To the Central African Lakes and Back, Vol II by Joseph Thomson
  • African Europeans by Olivette Otele

Yesterday, both as I am writing this and potentially as you are reading it, my super amazing fiancée had managed to get us tickets to go on a tour of the U.S. Capitol and so we went! She got the tickets three months in advance but it seems like if you’re lucky enough you could just walk in as well. She also learned on a recent training she did that it turns out you can just wander into the office buildings and harass Congresspeople(‘s poor underpaid staff) at will (democracy!), and even though I am under the impression you see less artwork that way that might suit your particular needs better than a guided tour.

Anyways let’s get some of the technical aspects out of the way. First off as a preface I had an excellent time. We have been trying to be diligent about being good DC tourists and seeing all the historical stuff in the area and the U.S. Capitol building is certainly historical and entirely stuff. This leaves us with only the Supreme Court to visit, but as we all know the Supreme Court sucks. The tour begins with an extremely uncritical video of the general history of the Capitol building and the U.S. Congress. Then you head out and go on the guided tour. Our tour guide was very chill and immensely knowledgeable. His former job was as a schoolteacher and he later mentioned some tour guides have their Ph.D., which, you know, interesting comments on the U.S. school system there. The tour is about 45 minutes long but not very extensive. You start in the crypt, which is a little lame because unlike other places there are no actual dead people there (that we know of). Then you head up to the rotunda, admire the extremely tall ceiling (see top photo) and the paintings, and then it is over to the National Statuary Hall. The tour ends after that, though you can visit the small museum they have before exiting via the gift shop, where you can satisfy all your candle snuffing needs.

Hall of Cancleables

There are two major points I want to make about the Capitol tour, the first more general and the second more specific. As we continue to view all these sites important to the U.S. historic canon, it is increasingly a little bit weird to me the specific sorts of things and time periods we elevate. And more specifically how we like to keep them absolutely stuck in these particular moments in time. Both the White House and the Capitol were built in the 18th century, and as far as the public tour goes at least both are mostly monuments to themselves. The Statuary Hall used to be the House of Representatives, and the tour guide informed us that in a structurally questionable decision the original and literal House floor is preserved under the current marble. Into that marble are plaques where former Presidents sat when they were Representatives. Like I said the intro video to the tour is as uncritical as you can be, using scenes of Congresspeople chatting amongst themselves to portray an unbroken line of thoughtful, critical debate of laws on their theoretical merits. But what do you get when you crystallize and elevate all this as the core memory of American society, to the near exclusion of the next two centuries of development? The peaceful, independent, agrarian society that Jefferson dreamed of but which never existed becomes the norm and everything else – the lived America of the vast majority of its citizens – is a deviation that can and should be corrected. It gives a concept like Originalism moral weight as though divining the intentions of white enslavers for a society they could not have conceived is a good thing to do. Every time I see these set pieces I think we need new monuments so we can let the old ones whither.

What a loser.

Which brings me to my second point about the Capitol tour. When I say we need to let the old monuments whither, hoo boy do I have some very specific ones in mind. I was peripherally aware there have been ongoing discussions about what statues are in the Capitol, but man actually looking at some of these things is shocking. There I was, having a pleasant time seeing some cool folks like Norm Borlaug when suddenly I find myself face to face with fucking Jefferson Davis. He is there courtesy of Mississippi. And man. Just what a fucking loser move. He is there of course because of the successful effort in the first part of the 20th century to repaint the Confederacy as a noble lost cause that somehow wasn’t about slavery. So Mississippi sends a statue of Jefferson Davis to the Capitol. Jefferson Davis, you will recall, was a lame-ass loser that became President of the Confederacy because everyone was suspicious of everyone else and they all agreed Davis was too unambitious to pose anything resembling a threat. And then, you will also recall, the rebellious, un-American, entirely racist Confederacy lost their war which killed more Americans than any other conflict in history. And so when the Capitol asks the states to send up some statues to decorate the Capitol, the absolute best person Mississippi could put forward from their long history is this loser to the nth degree Jefferson fucking Davis? What does that say about Mississippi? Clearly Mississippi could do better than this (their other guy was a Confederate loser as well). One rule is that the person has to be dead, but they have Harry Cole! Oh or you know Elvis! Mississippi could have a cool-ass statue of Elvis strutting his stuff in the Capitol (or any number of Black musicians!) and yet they send not one but two pompous-ass racists. There is an angle here where it is oppressive and offensive to Black people, but for one last time I want to emphasize that it is just such a lame, sad, loser move, Mississippi. But not to just pick on them, an arguably even lamer move is sending the Vice-President of the Confederacy (Georgia), John “Slavery is a Positive Good” Calhoun (South Carolina), more random Confederate losers (South Carolina again, North Carolina, Alabama), or even Ronald Reagan (California). We gotta do better as a country in deciding who we look up to. In the meantime though, the Capitol is still probably worth the trip. It is a very impressive building.

Historic Ships of Baltimore

After a hearty lunch to replenish ourselves from a morning spent touring the National Aquarium in Baltimore, the next adventure my super amazing fiancée and I went on was to tour the historic ships of Baltimore! I suppose Baltimore probably has a large number of historic ships, being an historic port and all, but this specifically refers to four boats and one lighthouse scattered about the Inner Harbor, which you can tour all for one low low fee of like $20 (except for the lighthouse right now, which was closed when we were visiting).

The big draw today, as it should be every day, was the USS Torsk, which is a Tench-class submarine and bills itself as the last US submarine to sink an enemy ship in WWII. So pretty neat! I used to be a submarine officer, as I think we are all aware, and so I am a big fan of submarines, but my super amazing fiancée had never been on a submarine and wanted to see one to get a glimpse into that past life of mine. A WWII diesel boat is not a Los Angeles-class nuclear submarine, but it’s still a submarine and an astonishing amount of the stuff looks pretty much the same.

I think I did a pretty good job as a tour guide. Being a submarine it was pretty cramped and there were other tourists coming through so I only had so much time to point at things and you’ll have to ask her how I did but she seems to have enjoyed herself. She is now ready to fire torpedoes from both the forward and aft torpedo rooms to decimate enemy shipping in furtherance of the war effort. Hooyah!!!

Besides the Torsk, we also visited the light ship they have along with the Coast Guard Cutter, but the other highlight of the Historic Ships was the USS Constellation. The biggest thing I learned on this trip was the Constellation’s participation in the Africa Squadron, chasing down slave-runners, so that is pretty neat! Good job Constellation. It is a large and impressive ship, with a great number of detailed display placards and a lot of interesting stuff to look at. Her claim to fame is that she is the last all-sail ship the Navy ever built, with all of the subsequent ones having at least auxiliary steam power. Of course, the biggest thing that should actually draw you to the Constellation is all the hilariously spicy drama over what the ship actually is. You see there was a Constellation that was one of the original six frigates on the US Navy, and for a while they thought that this Constellation might have been that ship. The confusion stems from the name obviously but also that for fun 19th-century accounting purposes they built this Constellation out of “maintenance” funds, using a polite fiction to scrap the older Constellation and then have this Constellation replace it though on the books it would be the “same” ship. They also reused some (very small) amount of timbers, either for accounting purposes or sentimental reasons. This is all laid out in a lively report titled “Fouled Anchors” which is linked to here under question #12. However there is a group of people who are invested in the idea that the Constellation in Baltimore Harbor is the same Constellation that was launched in 1797 and they will go to great lengths to try to explain how the 1797 ship was stretched out to become the 1855 ship instead of just admitting it is a new ship, which leads to extremely exasperated historians writing rebuttals on official if little-visited US Navy websites. Absolutely fantastic.

One other point that is neat to consider. The Constellation was launched in 1855 and represents a pinnacle of wooden sailing warship technology. One of the other ships you can visit as I mentioned is the Coast Guard Cutter Taney, itself launched in 1935, only 80 years after the Constellation. But it is powered by high- and low-pressure steam turbines and actually overlapped in service with the Constellation by 20 years, as the Constellation was technically only finally decommissioned in 1955 having served as a flagship during the WWII years, which is absolutely mind-blowing to me. And then only six years after the final decommissioning of the last all-sail warship the US Navy bought, they launched the world’s first nuclear-powered cargo ship, the NS Savannah!

The NS Savannah was the last ship we visited that day, though it isn’t a part of the Historic Ships of Baltimore. You can’t actually tour it right now either, except maybe once a year, though that all has been a little unclear to me. I had wanted to see the Savannah for a while, and every time I drove south on I-95 I was trying to look for it but never spotted it. It is parked across the pier from the SS John W. Brown. I must have seen it before because I’ve been on the John W. Brown before, but maybe I missed it? Hard to miss, it is a pretty big ship. Anyways if you’re brave enough to drive into the industrial zone that abuts all these piers, you can go onto the pier and admire it. My super amazing fiancée was kind enough to indulge me in this, and I think it was really neat. The Savannah represented a unique time in the world of nuclear power, which was “what if we made nuclear power look really cool?” and the result was that it was very uneconomical but man is that a pretty ship. My super amazing fiancée especially liked the giant atom symbol on the side. We walked the length of the ship and then finally packed back up in the car and drove home. A wonderful day in Baltimore!

National Aquarium

Reading this week:

  • The Beginnings of Nyasaland and North-Eastern Rhodesia 1859-95 by A.J. Hanna

My super amazing fiancée and I are big aquarium fans. So of course we can’t live in DC without eventually making our way over to the National Aquarium in Baltimore and on a lovely President’s Day Weekend we finally made it! I have many fond memories of the National Aquarium. I grew up between Baltimore and Annapolis so it was within easy reach and as kids we were of course big fans. I always thought it was really cool how the Blacktip Reef is designed, where it is kinda the bottom floor of the aquarium and you ascend upwards, gliding over the reef from higher and higher altitudes on cool escalator thingies. This is what I thought was cool as a kid and I still do.

The aquarium also has particularly impressive shark displays, which absolutely delighted my super amazing fiancée because she is super into sharks. Besides the sharks in the reef they have Shark Alley where you descend through a bunch of sharks and that is absolutely a hoot. Though I did notice (because she shared her pictures with me) that in addition to shark photos she took multiple pictures of jellyfish, which as is custom on this blog I have diligently turned into a gif:

I will also pause to highlight the aquarium’s tank of cichlids from the world-famous Lake Tanganyika! Lake Tanganyika is the second oldest lake in the world and therefore has a huge number of endemic fish species, most famously its cichlids, which used to be exported all over the world though I now I understand the market is not what it used to be. But anyways always nice to see some hometown heroes represented at the National Aquarium:

But my personal absolute favorite part of the museum is the rainforest exhibit at the very top. The aquarium just spent some time renovating all the glass and so it was all very light and airy. The rainforest exhibit was the whole reason I went to Brazil as my trip right after graduating from the Naval Academy and it was as cool as I remember it despite them no longer having the very dire-looking display showing rainforest deforestation that prompted me to go to the rainforest while I still could. This visit was probably my best visit ever to the rainforest at the aquarium actually, because we got to see sloths! The sloths I think are probably the biggest attraction in the rainforest area (though I also like the piranhas are also very cool and also acceptably good eatin’). Every time I go I try to spot them and I think I rarely if ever do. You see they are usually napping somewhere inaccessible, but this time all both sloths were napping very close to this observation platform they have, so it was possible to admire them in all their glory. This is there glory:

Fantastic isn’t it?!?!?! Anyways I was excited to see them. There were more visible animals as well, such as a large variety of birds:

The most interesting thing we learned on our visit to the aquarium is that they no longer have a dolphin show. I remember going to the dolphin show many many times in my youth and it was always the same and I always tried to sit in the splash zone. With evolving policies on the keeping of large marine mammals in aquariums they no longer have the dolphins regularly put on shows though they do apparently do regular training with the dolphins which you might be lucky enough to catch. Also interesting to learn is that they have been trying to build, for at least a decade, a new outdoor sanctuary for the dolphins. This does not seem to be going well, from what I can tell? I mean their last update was like two and a half years ago. I think I can see why though. They want a large swath of prime beachfront real estate in the tropics where they can also build a research facility and I have to imagine there can’t be too many places like that left let alone for anything resembling an affordable price, and they also note that all the likely places are also likely to be wiped out by climate change in the near future. I hope they find a spot before those dolphins just die off of natural causes though. It would be very nice for them. And I assume a very nice place to work.

So that was our day at the National Aquarium. It is an extremely nice aquarium and has lots of very educational displays and is an extraordinary way to see sharks and rays and jellyfish and cichlids and I can also say from personal experience and from our observations that day that it is extremely popular with children. But this was only the first part of our adventures that day, because we spent the whole afternoon looking at boats!!!!

Monster Jam

Reading this week:

  • Christian Missionaries and the Creation of Northern Rhodesia 1880-1924 by Robert I. Rotberg

This past weekend my super amazing fiancée and I went to Monster Jam! In doing so I achieved a bit of a childhood dream, which was to see Monster Trucks doing Monster Truck things and it was indeed pretty awesome. The genesis of us going to this particular event was because I got free tickets from Vet Tix, which is an organization that gives veterans (which includes me!) free tickets to various events. “Various events” seems to include in large part local standup comedy nights, but when the email came across my transom saying there was a chance to get free tickets to see Monster Trucks I was all about it. Since I had never asked for tickets before they gave me tickets, and we had a date with destiny.

The first most surprising thing about the night was my fiancée’s utter unfamiliarity with Monster Trucks. After much prodding she vaguely recalled seeing ads as a child. Now look I don’t know anything about Monster Trucks, but I am extremely aware of Monster Trucks, and am especially aware that they are big and loud and drive around doing things like jumping over things and maybe crushing smaller cars. I mean this is America! And Monster Trucks are the very loud beating heart of America! Plus I knew like, Grave Digger was a thing (which we saw that night!). Helpfully though Monster Jam has a Monster Jam 101 page with tons of useful information, which they not-so-helpfully emailed me only after we went, but nonetheless I now know the trucks run on methanol and generate 1500 horsepower!!! Neat!!!

But the second most surprising thing was how family friendly it was. There were tons of little kids and whole families out for a night of bonding over the smell of burning methanol. In retrospect I think this makes perfect sense since it was my inner 9-year-old that really wanted to see Monster Trucks. Monster Jam also seems to have leaned into this, because in addition to Grave Digger there was a truck that was shaped like a Dalmatian (a monster Dalmatian but still, more info on the extremely extensive wiki) and another shaped like a Megalodon:

We were of course rooting for Megalodon. However despite our earnest support she didn’t do so well:

Can’t win ’em all.

But yeah anyways the point is that Monster Jam was awesome!!!! They started off by racing around and that was really cool, and then they had the coolest event of the night which was all about two-wheel tricks, like wheelies or even making the Monster Trucks stand on their nose which was extremely impressive! I mean seriously the things they make those trucks do can’t be easy, even when you have all that torque. The technical skill is what impressed us the most, but maybe my fiancée and I are not the typical Monster Jam fans. But maybe we are! There is art in any endeavor in which you put your time and effort! Also at halftime they had motocross which was also very impressive and undoubtedly actually vastly more dangerous (no rollcages on these bikes):

After the intermission they had the donut competition which I think mostly illustrated the vast power of the exhaust of the trucks. And also the “flair” move most of the drivers did was take of the steering wheel as they were in the middle of the donut and hold it out the window which um I guess the steering wheel isn’t that important? But the front and rear steering of the trucks was a sight to behold. Anyways it all ended with the freestyle competition which was also an impressive display of skill, but focused way more on the raw power of jumps which made for the best pictures but some of the least interesting watching. When it was all finally over we were so revved up by all the revs and also the ups that we went out and got some fries before heading home for the night.

Monster Jam!!!!

Rubell Museum

Reading this week:

  • The Story of my Life by Sir Harry H. Johnston

Every once in a while I get annoyed with myself for not being rich. I think I can rightly say it is entirely my fault. Mostly it’s just that like, look, I am a mediocre white guy so not only do I have that going for me but also I went to Yale. I am also, I sometimes like to think, a fairly smart guy, and have you seen the people out there who are rich? Do you really think they are all that smart? Like so much smarter than you that they get to have a billion dollars and you, and more importantly I, don’t? It is ridiculous to think so. So it’s gotta be my fault I am not fabulously wealthy. Besides me whining about not using my privilege to the utmost, I also have to admit I have made several career moves that were explicitly bad money-wise, not entirely but definitely in part because a buddy of mine, in response to me saying I didn’t care about money, said I did care about money, and I kinda just wanted to prove him wrong. And more firmly than being annoyed about not being rich personally is that I am annoyed at all the very silly things the fabulously wealthy do spend their money on. 44 billion U.S. dollars for Twitter??????? I can think of so many cooler and more fun things to spend even a paltry $100 million on and these people are out here blowing the GDP of Cameroon on things that very obviously don’t even bring them joy!

Which brings us to the Rubells. They are a rich couple with a penchant for buying a lot of contemporary art and then building museums to put it in. They seem nice! I’m not going to verify if that is true or not and it in no way reflects a change in the soft policy of this blog that the rich should be eaten (not me though, don’t eat me when I achieve the fabulous wealth of my idle ponderings). But man if I was rich this is what I would do! This and a lot of other things, let me tell you. Like funding local journalism and showering infrastructure on the village where I was a Peace Corps Volunteer and look I haven’t totally gamed out how I would spend $100 billion or whatever but not only would I fund so, so many cultural institutions but I wouldn’t even ask them to put my name on it. That last sentence was not a dig on the Rubell Museum DC (their other museum is in Miami) because it is a very nice place and I recommend you go.

My super amazing girlfriend and I visited the other weekend, making a whole day of it by eating some fried chicken beforehand and going to two bookstores afterwards. We got in for free because I used to be in the Navy and also the Rubells are very nice about only charging the tourists to see their art. The coolest part of the museum, it slowly dawned on me as I visited, is the space itself. It used to be a school and the news articles will tell you all about how Mera Rubell made sure to highlight the vaunted windows and it was a very, very neat thing that they have an exhibition of Keith Haring’s Untitled (Against All Odds) which was inspired (loosely) by Marvin Gaye’s album What’s Going On and they had it playing in the background and the significance here is that Gaye went to this very school. Like that is such a cool thing to do! But even without the Gaye connection I loved how the building itself affected how I viewed the art. The first room you enter is this gigantic cavern of a hall with four monumental artworks displayed. Then you traverse into the rest of the museum which is split over three floors with different halls and hallways connecting in a few different ways. The more open halls felt more like a regular art museum, but then you also had these tiny hallways where you couldn’t get very far away at all from the art, especially when it was crowded with other visitors. It forced you to get up close to the pieces even when they were large enough to ask for perspective that just wasn’t given to you. And since the rooms are put together somewhat mazelike you filter in and out of the exhibits in a very non-linear way and I hope the curators have a lot of fun thinking about what it means to put art in a space and spaces like that.

Another aspect of the museum is that it feels unfinished in a pretty exciting way. The walls are all brick but certain portions are covered with like drywall in what fells in spots to be done very randomly. You sort of float in and out of regular ole’ art museum walls and then these old bricks, some replaced by wooden blocks that are falling out. It makes the whole space feel more exciting and the art even more exciting by association. I noticed the floors would be updated in spots and then old in others. And the final space you wind up visiting is just sorta the basement and it feels like a basement with graffiti still on the walls in some spots and painted and unpainted brick and unfinished, low ceilings and twisty passageways with art just sorta stuck in there. It’s great! We should never design an art museum ever again and instead just stick art in repurposed buildings.

Chalkboard Drawing #3 by Gary Simmons

Anyways here are some of the pieces I liked. I liked the above piece, Chalkboard Drawing #3, because it is a chalkboard and the museum used to be a school and so I liked how that all fit together. They didn’t mention anything in the description about putting a chalkboard in a school which was a very hip move, if you ask me. Anyways that’s why I liked this piece.

Big Black Rainbow (Smoky Eyes) by Vaughn Spann

The next piece, Big Black Rainbow (Smoky Eyes) was one of the four pieces in that first gigantic hallway. My photos don’t convey the scale but it is huge. What I found really interesting about this piece is that it was painted on terrycloth, which is not a painting medium I would have ever thought of. I have documented my interest in impasto and this picture for me was all about the impasto. So that was very neat.

Existing in Rose Thoughts by Jamea Richmond-Edwards

The final piece I wanted to highlight is Existing in Rose Thoughts by Jamea Richmond-Edwards and I hope to be in enough with the art crowd someday to own one of her artworks. This one reminded a lot of the painting/collage Vendor by Prudence Chimutuwah with the use of different media to highlight the themes of the painting and the fact they both center similar figures. It’s just such a beautiful piece with so many layers.

So that was my experience at the Rubell Museum DC. Maybe we’ll make it to the one in Miami someday.

Emily Dickinson’s House

Reading this week:

  • Water, Wood, and Wild Things by Hannah Kirshner (beautiful)

The very same day that we visited the Green Mountain Spinnery we also visited Emily Dickinson’s house! In fact we visited it first but because I was so worried about forgetting the steps to spinning I wrote that first to ensure I got everything down. So it got published first. But now we are here to revisit the morning.

You may think that it was my super amazing girlfriend’s idea to visit Emily Dickinson’s house. You would not only be stereotyping the both of us, but you would also be wrong. It was my idea. In fact, the house is in Amherst, and my super amazing girlfriend had gone to college there, and never even been! You see what had happened was that while I was goofing off at work I read an article in the New York Times about the pandemic remodel they did to bring the house back to its “Technicolor 1850s glory.” I am a big fan of color, and pattern, and boldness, and this is a trait I share with the Victorians and Emily Dickinson. And Emily Dickinson is a famous literary person so I am right in my aesthetic opinions. Also like I don’t know much about Emily Dickinson nor am I sure I have ever actually heard one of her poems (though I did read another article about her baking so that is nice), so this was probably the only thing that was going to draw me to this house, and boy did it deliver:

I also really liked the bevy of rocking chairs. I should get a rocking chair. I could be a rocking chair kinda guy. Anyways the house tour. It was really nice! Our tour guide was obviously a huge fan Dickinson and really tied together the different experiences that Emily had in the house with the imagery and themes and language that came through in her poetry. Given that Dickinson wrote a lot of her poetry in the kitchen while waiting for bread to bake, etc, it is probably a little unfortunate that the house’s kitchen is now the entryway and gift shop, but there were plenty of other parts of Emily’s personality. One nice coincidence is that in the car on the way up I was reading American Eden, which talks about among other things the rise in popularity of botany as a pursuit in the early United States only to arrive and discover that Emily was a huge fan of botany and had a conservatory in the house where she spent a lot of time. The conservatory they have is rebuilt but with the original windows, and is a lovely spot that yeah I could see being the inspiration for a lot of poetry:

Besides the conservatory, the tour takes you through her dad’s office, which had a lot of neat furniture and a selection of the books she owned (the originals are at Harvard, apparently), to the entryway which had a very neat shellacked canvas floor covering, and into the parlor where the Dickinsons entertained guests and did other parlor-type things. There the tour also highlights the people who labored in the house, both Black and Irish servants. From there it is upstairs where there is a short lecture with some fun visual displays that talks about how Dickinson labored over the word choice in her poems and how she never titled any of them. An interesting perspective into an artist’s work. Apparently they date some of her poems by her handwriting. A particular highlight of our tour is there was a brave little boy who got volunteered to man a lot of the visuals and also play the piano in the house. A very talented fellow, that kid.

After that you go into Emily’s room where she spent much of her time especially in the later years of her life. The room included a recreation of her writing desk which looks like a nice little desk indeed. Her nieces and nephews would apparently play pirate games outside under her window and she would lower them booty in the form of cookies and the like, which is very fun. After this we were led outside to the back of the house where you can see an oak tree that was there in Dickinson’s time and could contemplate the span of nature that she also contemplated as inspiration for her poems. It was a touching and serene moment only punctuated by a poor lady who was walking through slipping and falling. She was fine but that poor lady. After that we bought souvenirs and then got some noodles for lunch. All in all a wonderful visit and I can’t wait to redecorate our house with the exact same wallpaper and carpets that she used because they are beautiful and historic and as long as we avoid the arsenic ones it’ll be fantastic.

Green Mountain Spinnery

Reading this week:

  • Slaves for Peanuts by Jori Lewis
  • The Brutish Museums by Dan Hicks
  • Blockade and Jungle, edited by Christen P. Christensen from the Letters, Diaries, etc. of Nis Kock

For Thanksgiving week my super amazing girlfriend brought me back up north to her family’s ancestral home. We had a lovely time, I assume for the whole week, because it is actually Thanksgiving when I am writing this but will be the deep dark depths of winter by the time you read this (for the record it has snowed twice here already so maybe the Deep Dark Depths are already upon us). Anyways what I am driving at here is that to get out of town and to feed, irresponsibly for not, my super amazing girlfriend’s yarn passion/obsession we went to Green Mountain Spinnery!

It is a lovely place. It was started a long long time ago (the ’80s) by a group of knitters who were in a book club and the book that week was Small is Beautiful. Inspired to get into small business they started a small spinnery in a gas station. The small factor here is important because what they mostly specialize in is spinning the output of relatively small flocks of sheep (or other fiber-producing animals). Bigger spinneries have much larger minimums so the boutique flocks can’t get their yarn spun. I am gleaning all this information from the tour they took us on. Turns out you can just show up and ask for a tour and the extremely nice lady behind the counter will take you on one along with the other nice patron who happened to have also travelled up from the same town as you which is also where the aforementioned counter lady got married. New England is a small world, apparently.

Anywho it is a very interesting process involving a lot of old machines. When Green Mountain was setting up shop a lot of other shops were taking down shop and so the founding knitters travelled to and fro across the land buying the requisite machines. The process started in a rather large sink where the lanolin on the wool is removed via a good long soak in a mild soap. Then comes the tricky part, which is rinsing and drying the wool without turning it into a large lump of felt. That is the specialty of the above machine, which rinses and presses it firmly but gently before it is moved into the oldest machine in the shop (not pictured), a washing machine from 1898 which spins it right round baby right round. Then it goes into a regular ole’ dryer.

After being dried it then goes into a picking machine which opens and blends the fibers (so the website tells me, I missed that bit during the tour) and also moistens them nicely. The wool can go through this process a few times and this, I am to understand, is where you can figure out the colors so they’re all nice and stuff. The spinnery apparently goes through a cycle where they start with natural colors and gradually move to darker or bolder colors over the course of a few months. The day we were there it was clearly a bit early in the cycle as you can see from the pictures. How long it takes to go through the cycle depends partially on how often the machines break down. They are old and worked hard and there are also little bits of wool flying everywhere so I can imagine the works get gummed up regularly. When we were there two guys were working on fixing this neat-o conveyer belt that goes between the two carding machines and as you can see above there is an in-house mini machine shops decorated with extremely twee hand feed lever covers.

But like I mentioned the carding machines. These things were impressive. I imagined at one point making a tiny little one because even the tiny little ones can cost like several hundred dollars, but seeing this on an industrial scale, even if that industrial scale is relatively small, is extremely impressive. All the chains and belts and stuff! It comes out of this carding machine in a sheer layer of wool. That neat-o conveyer belt I mentioned gathers it up and spins it 90 degrees and then feeds it into another carding machine. This apparently makes the fibers extra strong and cross-linked and stuff which is cool.

The output of that second carding machine are these “pencils,” which are approximately pencil-width bundles of yarn. These get put on giant bobbins and then finally these bobbins are put on the actual spinning machine. The spinning machine takes these relatively fragile pencils and spins two or three of them together to finally produce the yarn. It is just a little bit more steaming from there before the yarn is finally split into skeins and then either distributed back to the people who sent them the wool (70% of their business) or else sold directly by Green Mountain (the other 30%).

My super amazing girlfriend threatened at one point to do this whole process in our spare bathtub, and I am disappointed that she hasn’t carried through with this threat both because I think it would be extremely neat and also because I would be excited to brag about our in-apartment sheep to shawl process to all the yuppie friends I would make specifically to brag about my super amazing girlfriend, not that I need an excuse. But if my bathroom fantasies can’t come true seeing it in person all the way up in Vermont is a very nice (if distant) second-best plan. My super amazing girlfriend of course bought a few (four) skeins of yarn from the shop they had there and we had a lovely time touring the place. I highly recommend a visit if you are in town even if you don’t like yarn. I forgot to mention the place smells like sheep. That isn’t really apropos of anything besides the artisanal authenticity of the spinnery. They are nice people who think a lot about their craft and hopefully if my super amazing girlfriend ever lets me raise a flock of sheep in our apartment I can use their services. Until then I will simply have to admire the shawl she’ll knit from the yarn.

One with Eternity

Reading this week:

  • Out of the Corner by Jennifer Grey

The other weekend, which will be a while ago when this post finally hits the presses (which I now note will be Christmas, merry Christmas!), my super amazing girlfriend and I went off to see the special exhibit at the Hirshhorn, “One with Eternity” about the work of Yayoi Kusama. The exhibit is remarkable for a variety of reasons which are helpfully detailed in the exhibit itself, but the most amazing one for the purposes of this post is just how absolutely instagrammable it all is considering that she started doing this stuff half a century ago! Extremely prescient. Or maybe humans have just always enjoyed mirrors

Anyways the upswing of it being instagrammable is that it has been in our friends’ instagram feeds for quite some time now. Doing some googling for this post I am discovering the Hirshhorn had a much larger display of her work back in 2017, but this smaller exhibit has been up since April. We hadn’t been able to go, because you had to show up early to get tickets and we just weren’t about that life, but now you can get them online and my super amazing girlfriend did so. So we arrived at the extremely reasonable hour of 1:30 in the afternoon and got to admiring.

It was a much smaller exhibition than I had thought given the density of instagram photos, but the major things on display were the pumpkin at the top (titled Pumpkin) which was very nice and vibrantly orange, and then the two other big things were infinity rooms. My first observation is that infinity is pretty tiny, fitting nicely as you can see into a large box of a small room with a door and a short pathway for you to enter. You are not allowed to bring bags or unworn coats inside, but there are cubbies for your convenience. There were not that many people in the exhibit the day we arrived so the Disney-esque lines they had set up were not really in use, but each group of two adults max got to see the art for 30 seconds. This was an interesting way to experience art, in regimented 30-second chunks where you are shut into the box that is the art with just yourself and your one other adult. I don’t think this was part of Kusama’s intention but it was a lot to fit all the desired contemplation into so short of time.

Also a major thing I hadn’t realized from the instagram posts is that this piece is titled Phalli’s Field, so this is a field of dongs, and an infinite one at that, all lovingly (I assume) sewed by Kusama herself. Fantastic. I hope she told the person at the fabric store what she was up to.

Anyways from the first infinity room you proceed to the next infinity room, which despite the fact it is just as infinite as the first it is about twice as big. This one you walked through instead of just into, both tricky things to do with infinity under normal circumstances, but since it was twice as big you got twice as long, a full minute to contemplate the uncontemplateable. My super amazing girlfriend liked this one, titled My Heart is Dancing into the Universe, a lot more because the big space balls meant you couldn’t see yourself as readily, though I perhaps disliked it by an equal amount for just about the same reason because I was also much less able to see an infinite number of her. For my camera it was moot in any case because the best picture of it I was able to capture is the below one, which is still a great picture though doesn’t manage to capture it exactly:

And so that was Yayoi Kusama, by far the most popular artist of the modern era if we only go by, as I have mentioned, my friends’ instagram feeds. I was glad we saw it. Worth the wait!

Harpers Ferry

Reading this week:

  • The Creation of the American Republic 1776-1787 by Gordon S. Wood

The other weekend my super amazing girlfriend and I went to Harpers Ferry! We had been meaning to go for a while. I have fond memories of Harpers Ferry. There are a number of hiking trails in the vicinity, not to mention the Appalachian Trail itself, and it is a convenient middle distance away from where I grew up (over by Annapolis) which made it an excellent destination for hiking back when I was in the Boy Scouts and I did that sort of thing more often. Meanwhile my super amazing girlfriend wanted to go because we both enjoy day trips and she is trying to go to as many states as possible. However she has strict rules for when it counts as to whether or not she’s been to a state; she has to do something substantial in that state in order to tick it off her travel to-do list. Spending the day in Harpers Ferry, which is conveniently in West Virginia, is substantial enough to count.

Back in my Boy Scout days we didn’t spend a whole lot of time in the museum portions of Harpers Ferry, not that I really had enough American historical context to really appreciate the message they convey anyways. Being young Boy Scouts who by the time we were visiting the town would have been hot off the trail, we were more interested in the touristy candy shops and the like. I therefore learned a whole lot on this visit. Harpers Ferry is a very old town (in American terms) and I was surprised to discover what a center of industry it had been, being one of the major producers of weapons for the United States. There is little evidence of that today, given that they tour down all the gun shops, though just by the geography it is evident there is a lot of potential for water-powered works. If you haven’t been it is an extremely picturesque town on the point of land bordered by the meeting of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers, surrounded by the Appalachian hills and exposed bedrock that speaks to the ancient nature of the site. Plus we managed to time it so we arrived on perhaps the peak fall day of the year, as I am sure the picture at the top attests to.

Within its long history the main claim to fame for Harpers Ferry is all the ties it has to specifically Black history. This is probably the aspect I’ve only relatively recently acquired to the tools to grasp. The single most well-known event is of course John Brown’s Raid. The “museum” portion of Harpers Ferry is actually a number of different buildings all focusing on different things, and they have an entire building dedicated to John Brown. I learned a good chunk about the raid. For example, I had always imagined it has John Brown as the only white guy along with a handful of formerly enslaved people, so I was surprised to discover he had a relatively sizeable group with him. I think that goes to show that for all the discussion about the abolition of slavery being a difficult choice for so many people in the United States pre-Civil War, there were always a lot of people who knew the right answer and were willing to act on it. Violence is usually an ineffective way to promote political goals, as I think actually the history of the Civil War shows, and I condemn it, but people like John Brown and his compatriots willing to do what they did shows that moral clarity was to be had even in that era.

A lot of the museums displays are probably ripe for an update or at least a sprucing up, but Harpers Ferry also does an excellent job I think of contextualizing the history it presents. A good example is the above stone that is displayed on the street in Harpers Ferry with a sign next to it. The stone is a monument erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy that tried to rewrite the history of slavery (as all these monuments try to do), claiming that Black people were somewhere between content and happy with being enslaved. The sign next to it calls out their bullshit. I know it is hard to read in my picture but it talks about a woman named Pearl Tatten speaking up during the ceremony to say that the story was untrue and the enslaved people were always fighting for their freedom, to the astonishment of the people there to celebrate slavery. Probably still better to take the stone down entirely but it is an excellent moment to explain the false narrative these monuments try to impose on American history as part of a political project.

A final note on the Black history on display at Harpers Ferry was a large exhibit on Storer College, a school and college founded originally to educate those recently emancipated in the Civil War which found a home at Harpers Ferry. It was a pivotal institution and I was extremely interested to learn about it during our visit.

Besides the national park site we also explored the environs of Harpers Ferry. There is a place called Jefferson’s Rock, which is a rock that Thomas Jefferson stood at, and in the above picture I am standing near the ruins of St. John’s Episcopal Church. I liked it because it reminded me of Niamkolo Church. Our biggest adventure of the day was hiking up to Maryland Heights for the view. To get there you have to hike a fairly easy but unfairly steep trail which takes about two hours round trip. It was a gorgeous day as I mentioned and maybe even a little hot for fall and we utterly failed to bring any water with us. We pressed on though and were rewarded with a stunning view of the river confluence and the town itself and that Appalachian fall foliage which my super amazing girlfriend would never admit is anywhere as good as what you get up in New England. It was great though and after we managed to get back down we quenched our thirst at one of the local bars which also had a pretty excellent spinach dip. Then we drove home, happy to have had a wonderful day and learned not a little about history.

White House Garden Tour

Reading this week:

  • The Voltage Effect by John A. List (Chicago school…)

On the appropriate day my super amazing girlfriend and I got to go on the White House Garden Tour! It was interesting. We arrived in the line at the appropriate time and waited to be let in. The Secret Service had set up some metal detectors in the middle of a field and a dude in gloves carefully looked at my phone and keys to decide they posed no threat to the Rose Garden. Then we were on the tour!

Branded traffic cone. I had to take a picture. Who decided they needed branded traffic cones? Why weren’t the orange ones good enough? Who is in charge of the traffic cones? How many did they order? When do they order new ones? Who approves this?

What the tour was, specifically, was a self-guided thing where you walk along the paved ellipse (Secret Service agents were on-hand to tell anyone who strayed to get off the grass please sir) and then to the fountain they got there. I had previously gone on the interior White House tour so this was a whole exciting new perspective on the place. The outside perspective, specifically. There was also music, provided by an Air Force band on the portico. They alternated between light jazz and military marches.

Most of the highlights of the tour were various trees planted by various presidents and/or first ladies. This is a thing that you do, apparently, when you’re president, at some point you plant a tree. And then forever afterwards twice a year on the garden tour days they have a sign with a picture of you planting the tree for people to look at. I am writing this to sound very silly but I took several pictures of trees. The oldest trees they have were planted by Andrew Jackson in 1830 and are held up by wires. The other exciting part is looking at the kitchen garden that Michelle Obama planted, and the coolest part about that was the White House Beehives, in which there are Presidential bees. Besides the sign, however, they did not get special branding:

Anyways I was going to not write a whole blog post about this but then I noticed in the booklet they gave us that the south lawn is designed to create “a setting that gives the impression of a rural landscape, with winding paths and private spaces.” There are some other design features, like “a series of low hills that appear natural, but were created to provide security” and how a lot of the trees are planted in order to hide and further secure the perimeter, but I want to focus on the rural setting thing. That’s weird, isn’t it? I mean isn’t it? Here is the President in the very heart of Washington, DC, surrounded by a whole dense city full of people, and the White House is designed so the President can pretend he is in a bucolic setting somewhere? I mean the hills I get, that makes a great esplanade so you got a nice field of fire, but why are we going for rural? What I am getting at here is once I read that the view outside the White House reminded me of James Madison’s Montpelier, which was built at just about the same time and most importantly here was a plantation house. So is the White House going for a plantation vibe? Not great! Very ick. I didn’t like it.

But like I said the tour was fine. Besides the bees and the music and the trees, they also had “the Beast” out on display, which was probably the single most popular thing on the grounds judging by how it held up the crowd as people were taking pictures. It does indeed look pretty nice and I assume that no one ever minds that it is parked right across the road. After we had checked everything out we exited via the open-air gift shop, where my super amazing girlfriend got a bookmark and an exclusive Christmas ornament, and I got the exact same Christmas ornament, but for her mom. Then we hiked back around the White House to visit the White House Visitor’s Center where they had the centerpiece of my dreams.