The list of interesting things to do and see in our nation’s capital—indoors and out—is endless. A lightning trip there last week gave us the chance to see temporary exhibits featuring Rosa Parks and Laurie Anderson that we greatly enjoyed.
Performance artist Laurie Anderson’s work has taken over the entire second floor of the Hirschhorn Museum, and it’s thought-provoking and entertaining by turns. Titled “The Weather,” the exhibition is on view until the end of July 2022, the largest-ever US exhibition of her work. There are soundscapes (using the instruments she’s designed), fascinating visuals (including photos of her sleeping in various unlikely places), and works large (entire rooms) and small (tiny holograms of people).
Not to miss are her written statements about the work, which add immeasurably to the experience. One room, walls and floor painted black like a chalkboard, is emblazoned with hand-drawn figures and sayings that are by turns full of pathos, humor, and insight (video here). In that room also is an enormous crow made from shiny black plastic and a parrot intoning nonsense.
If I had to sum it up, I’d say it’s a homage to creativity.
A second highlight was a visit to the main building of the Library of Congress, now open again to the public. Docents are scattered around (and available on screen) to explain the building features, which are nothing short of spectacular!
We also spent time in the temporary exhibit, “Rosa Parks in Her Own Words,” and had the good fortune to be guided by an exhibit curator. When Rosa Parks would not give up her bus seat to a white man on December 1, 1955, and catalyzed the 381-day Montgomery Bus Boycott, she was no stranger to Civil Rights activism. Her work to free the Scottsboro Boys and with the NAACP and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters extended from the 1930s up to that fateful day.
Her own letters to friends and family and Civil Rights leaders give a well-rounded picture of this dedicated American. Though she lived many years in extreme poverty, she eventually garnered many honors and honorary degrees. After her death in 2005, she became the first woman to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.
Taking a trip to central Indiana? Consider a detour to the two-stoplight town of Fairmount, Indiana, boyhood home of actor James Dean. Maybe he’s not the household name he was fifty or sixty years ago, but even younger generations know about—or through the magic of video streaming—have seen the three movies where he had a leading role: East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant.
It was near the end of the Giant filming that he had the car crash that killed him at age 24. Filming of Giant was still under way when Dean died, which devastated his co-star and friend, Elizabeth Taylor, a year younger than he was.
Fairmount hasn’t forgotten him. When we visited in mid-September, the town was gearing up for the annual James Dean festival. Although he graduated from high school in Fairmount, he soon relocated to California attended Santa Monica City College and UCLA, majoring in theater, then to New York and the Actors Studio. The James Dean Gallery (a private museum in town) shows clips from the several dozen live television dramas where he had small parts. He also appeared on Broadway.
A certain amount of mythology grows up around someone who dies so young, so tragically, and many people believe he wrecked his car by driving way too fast. Not exactly true. Late afternoon, Friday, September 30, 1955, he was driving his new rear-engine Porsche Spyder to a race to be held the next day. In the car with him was his mechanic. Yes, he was driving about ten miles over the speed limit, but who hasn’t? A 1950 Ford Custom Coupe in the approaching lane turned left just in front of him. Dean was killed. The mechanic was thrown clear and survived.
Sedans in those days were not the aluminum and plastic vehicles we have today. Steel, baby. One and a half tons of it. Engine in the front, of course. The Porsche never had a chance.
You can visit the Gallery, see the farm where he grew up, the cemetery where he’s buried, and other modest sites, all in and around Fairmount, 70 miles north of Indianapolis. Take the country roads. One reason we went is because James Dean is my sixth cousin, with our common ancestors being our 5th great-grandfather. I had the list of intervening generations with me and asked the historian at the museum whether it looked right to him. “Those are all familiar names,” he said. A certified genealogist wouldn’t be satisfied, but I am!
Last week’s Killer Nashville was a satisfying excursion on the whole. Not only were the speakers/attendees/lunch buddies great and the panels interesting, I arrived in Nashville several days early and spent them at Tennessee’s beautiful new State Library and Archives downtown. Accomplished a lot, genealogy-wise.
The meeting was at a hotel about twenty miles south of the city in a county whose citizens have been notoriously anti-vaxx. According to information I pried out of the organizers beforehand, mask policies were set by the hotel (there weren’t any or they weren’t enforced), so that only about forty percent of the attendees wore masks. The conference website and Facebook page were surprisingly mum on the subject; it was as if covid (and people’s understandable worries about it) didn’t exist. Perhaps it was repeated questions like mine that prompted a very last-minute letter from organizer Clay Stafford to attendees, but by then quite a few people had cancelled or decided not to attend. The planners’ cavalier attitude is summed up in the conference title: “Killer Nashville: Unmasked.” Stafford made a convoluted argument attempting to justify this choice, but it fell flat, with me at least.
Nor, unless I missed it, did the pre-conference materials mention that restaurant in the conference’s hotel venue is closed. Breakfast only. The bar was open, but not a peanut, not a pretzel stick in sight. Caterers must have brought food in for the two lunches and one dinner that were part of the three-day meeting. Attendees needed a car to get to any restaurant that wasn’t fast-food, chain-type.
Aside from these lapses in planning for attendee comfort and safety, the program was excellent and diverse. Ironically, despite covid concerns, this was the largest Killer Nashville attendance to date! There were right around 300 people, desperate to chat up their friends and fellow authors. People were upbeat, happy to be together, and grateful to Killer Nashville for making it possible. And, of course, when I saw that the bookstore would send my purchases home, at no charge if I bought more than $100-worth, I “saved” myself that mailing fee with no trouble at all!
A recent trip to Scottsdale prompted a return visit to Western Spirit: Scottsdale’s Museum of the West, at 2d Street and Marshall Way—a fine place to spend a couple of hours. There’s a permanent exhibit of Western “stuff,” ranging from saddles to signage to six-shooters, plus special exhibitions.
On view until August 2020 are more than 300 works from the man called “the West’s greatest artist,” Maynard Dixon. Born in 1875, he lived during the time the frontier American West began to disappear.
When he was a child, the wars between Indians and European settlers still raged, Texas cowboys herded cattle north long distances to railheads, and “civilization” was as flimsy as the frontier town stage sets in Blazing Saddles. Dixon not only painted hundreds of notable landscapes and portraits, he was a prolific illustrator, producing cover art for magazines and illustrating popular novels.
Artists gave Easterners their first glimpses of the beautiful and dramatic West, but they were less appreciated on their home ground. Said Dixon, “In those days in Arizona being an artist was something you just had to endure—or be smart enough to explain why. . . . If you were not working for the railroad, considering real estate or scouting for a mining company, what the hell were you? The drawings I made were no excuse and I was regarded as a wandering lunatic.”
Also at the museum, we had the chance to see a one-man show, “Wyatt Earp: A Life on the Frontier,” in which one of Earp’s descendants gave the true “not-what-you-learned-from-Hollywood” story. It was a lot of fun (tickets best ordered beforehand, though I don’t believe the website makes that clear). While this program may not regularly repeat, the museum offers frequent special events, noted on its website.
By coincidence, on this trip I was reading David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, which puts a tragic twist on the story of the “conquest” of the West. In the 1870s, the Osage tribe had been driven into an unpropitious area—“broken, rocky, sterile, and utterly unfit for cultivation,” according to a Bureau of Indian Affairs agent. The Osage bought the land, located in what became northeast Oklahoma, thinking it so undesirable they would not be evicted again. Maynard Dixon’s works even evoke this suffering.
But the new reservation held a surprise. Oil. For a time in the 1920s, tribe members accumulated dollars in the millions, becoming the wealthiest people per capita in the world. Then the murders began.
It’s a riveting yet almost forgotten real-life tale of greed, corruption, and betrayal that reads like a novel. There’s even a bit part for J. Edgar Hoover, who intuited that solving this case would catapult his little agency—and himself—to national prominence.
Alas, we cannot look back at those days and think the exploitation of our beautiful West ended there. We are still losing it.
Or maybe this post should be titled “Small Museums: Part 2.” (Part 1 here.)
It’s easy to love The Met, the Smithsonian, Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, the Getty, and the nation’s many other Major Museums. But really? Are you always up for eight or nine hours of that? You don’t have to visit one of these demanding (time, energy, and $$) enterprises to have a rewarding museum experience. Smaller, more manageable, typically less crowded museums throughout the country have impressive offerings. Here are east-of-the-Mississippi examples from recent travels.
Studebaker National Museum, South Bend, Indiana
OK, granted, you may have to have a thing about cars to fully appreciate the Studebaker National Museum. Old cars, that is (Studebaker stopped manufacturing its vehicles in the 1960s). But an appreciation of history can serve every bit as well. Before it manufactured automobiles, Studebaker produced prize-winning wagons and carriages. On display is the carriage that President and Mrs. Lincoln used for their ill-fated trip to Ford’s Theater. And the carriage used by Indiana native son, President Benjamin Harrison.
There are early “station wagons,” carriages designed especially for traveling to and from the train station (luggage outside). Among the farm wagons is a miniature version for children, with a sign reading “Propulsion provided by goat, large dog, or younger sibling.” Aww.
America’s Packard Museum, located in a restored Packard dealership in Dayton, Ohio, is equally impressive, carwise, BTW.
Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio
I remembered that the Butler Institutehas Winslow Homer’s famous “Snap the Whip,” but I hadn’t recalled that its collection, devoted to works by American artists, includes so many other notable works, as a recent visit revealed. Some of the paintings from the Hudson River School and other mid-19th century artists are truly spectacular. There are some fun contemporary works as well, including a large painting of a dramatic scene from To Have and Have Not.
Butler—one of the few museums of its caliber that does not charge an admission fee and relies solely on community contributions—has an “Adopt-a-Painting” program in which donors can contribute to the restoration of specific works of art. That’s an exciting possibility, which may intrigue some of the museum’s 100,000 annual visitors. Maybe other museums have programs like this, but they have escaped my notice.
Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio
We visited the Taft Museum of Art in 2016 and liked it, but what caught my eye recently was the announcement of an upcoming exhibition (February 8-May 3, 2020) of the works of N.C. Wyeth. The passionate early 20th century works of the patriarch, N.C., appeal to me more than those of his son Andrew and grandson Jamie. I’m drawn to their swashbuckling energy and storytelling power. The exhibit will include his illustrations for Treasure Island, The Last of the Mohicans (Hawkeye, pictured), and The Boys’ King Arthur, as well as standalone works of equal vivacity.
Alas, I won’t be in Cincinnati during the run of this show, but I hope you will be and that you’ll see it and tell me what you liked best.
Visiting the sights near Cairo, we
criss-crossed centuries even more than we traversed the local geography. Yet, as
ancient as the Egyptian civilization is, its legacy can be found in our own
The tour took us first to the
Egyptian Museum near Tahrir Square, a few short blocks from our hotel. There are
collected some of the finest examples of the ancient culture’s sculptures and
artifacts, though they are crowded together with little contemporary museum
curation and context-setting, so that it’s hard to keep straight what relates
to what. This situation will be remedied with the opening of the huge new Grand
Egyptian Museum, expected next year.
Gradually over the course of the
tour, when we saw other monuments, the treasures from that first day began to fit
into place. My favorite room in the museum was the one containing likenesses of
Pharaoh Akhenaten. Husband of Nefertiti, he was such an interesting character (and subject
of a Philip Glass opera). His elongated features and sensuous lips are markedly
different from the typical square-faced, mildly benevolent expression of most pharaonic
The oldest monuments near Cairo
that we saw were at Sakkara and Memphis, the Old Kingdom capital of Egypt.
Sakkara is an ancient burial ground for Memphis—Egypt’s capital 4500 years ago.
(The Tennessee city was given the same name because it too, is on a great
The area includes a beautiful
temple and the famous “step pyramid,” the world’s oldest major stone edifice,
built during the Third Dynasty for the pharaoh Djoser. It was the Egyptians’
first foray into this pyramid shape, something they later perfected with
different building methods. The step pyramid’s architect was Imhotep, and there’s
an archaeological museum there dedicated to him.
In Memphis are the beautifully
detailed remains, if you can call them that, of a massive limestone statue of
Ramses II, who ruled 3300 years ago, in the 19th Dynasty. Standing,
it would be over 30 feet tall. He may be old, but he’s still impressive! (His
statues inspired Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”: “ʻLook on my works, ye Mighty and
Highlight of any Egypt trip is a
visit to the pyramids of Giza, a Cairo suburb. You can be gazing at the
pyramids, turn around, and there’s a city. They are the perfection of the
pyramid form, used as tombs by the Old Kingdom Pharaohs. The largest is that of
Khufu (Cheops), the second largest is that of his son Khafre, and the third
largest that of Khafre’s son, Menkaure. Smaller pyramids for wives are nearby.
From a distance, the pyramids look smooth, like the pyramid on the back of the US $1 bill. But up close, their profile is jagged because of the stepwise layers of stone. Each of these stones is enormous, weighing several tons.
Theories still conflict about how
the pyramids were constructed, but our guide emphasized that they were not
built by slaves. Evidence has been found that during the limited
construction season, workers came from all over Egypt to fulfill their one-time
obligation to their ruler and were advised to consider it a privilege. I hope
It’s Khafre’s pyramid that has the unfinished-looking top. We learned that all the pyramids at one time had an exterior limestone layer that did make the surface smooth. Alas, thieves looted the limestone for other construction, and that bit at the top is all that’s left. Amazing as they are, they must have been even more so in those days. You can go inside Khufu’s pyramid, but it’s a very confined passageway and you have to crouch down to get through it. I declined. The taller men who went came back with skinned scalps. Treasures from inside are all in the museum or looted long ago.
We were told that one of the huge limestone blocks used in creating Khafre’s pyramid turned out to have flaws, so he directed his architect to make a statue out of it. From that block the Sphinx was carved, an animal with the body of a lion and head of a human–an Egyptian mythological invention. Repeatedly over the millennia, the Sphinx has been covered in sand, including when Napoleon Bonaparte came to Egypt in 1798, an encounter memorialized in a famous painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme that, amusingly, cuts the grand Napoleon down to size.
What to wear? Inevitably, some
American tourists did not get the message that conservative dress is preferred
in Egypt—no shorts, no tank tops, no short skirts, no excessive display of skin.
While this standard is pretty much adhered to in Cairo and, certainly, in
mosques throughout the country (where you are expected to show the skin on your
feet), near the monuments in the blazing desert sun, Bermuda-length shorts are
more the rule, especially for men tourists. Many women wore capri pants. Jeans,
which tend to be too form-fitting, were rare among women tourists. (I should
add that most visitors, on our tour and others, were “of a certain age.”)
Although I wouldn’t have
expected it, my shirts with three-quarter, loose-fitting sleeves were just as
comfortable as short sleeves, because they protected my arms from the sun. I
got a last wearing out of my somewhat battered hat from Hawai`i with the wide
brim. Women tourists were never expected to cover our hair, although most of us
had scarves or shawls that could have served that purpose.
But what about the Egyptians? In
Cairo, the men generally wear Western dress. The women wear long sleeves, long
pants or skirts, and cover their hair with the hijab, usually a colorful one.
Occasionally you see a Cairo woman wearing the enveloping abaya (almost
always in black; it looks suffocating) and wears the veil. The farther south
you travel, the more women are so attired. Wearing the faceveil (the niqab) is
seen by many as a political act in support of Islamism, not a religious duty, and
the country’s leadership has tried to
In the south, many men wear the
long garment called the gellabiya. Most often, as I remember it, the
gellabiya is gray, as it is in the photo of workmen at a construction site
outside the Temple of Dendera. As every woman knows, a skirt is often cooler
than slacks, because its movement creates a little breeze—automatic air
conditioning. Many southern men wear a small turban. These keep the sun from
beating down directly on their heads and are common among farmers in their
Our tour guide told us that in much of the 20th century, Egyptian women did not cover their hair. But in the 1970s, when satellite television came to Egypt, there were many broadcasts by imams of Saudi Arabia’s conservative Wahhabi sect, who claimed that to be a “good Muslim” and go to heaven, women should cover. Eventually, our guide said, the authorities stopped these broadcasts, but the seed was sown. With about a third of Egypt’s population being Coptic Christian, you wouldn’t expect that headscarf-wearing would appear so near-universal.
The first question almost everyone asked when they learned I
was traveling to Egypt had to do with safety. So let me tell you what has been
done to protect tourists—vitally important to the country, as tourism is a
multibillion-dollar source of revenue and a huge employer. Tourism is on the
rise again in Egypt, and our guide estimated it’s reached about 80 percent of
pre-2011 levels. It’s an odd balancing act, really, with concerns about safety
on one hand and wanting to see these popular monuments sans crowds on the other.
Friends who visited Egypt shortly after the Arab spring had
the Valley of the Kings almost to themselves. By contrast, we visited it on the
same 95-degree day as the vice-premiere of China and his many perspiring,
black-suited minions, big video cameras, and hangers-on. That was a special
case, but you could see how a crowd affects the experience.
There is a big police presence in Egypt, and wherever you
drive, as you enter a new jurisdiction, there are knots of police, road
barriers that must be negotiated—drivers cannot just barrel through—and
elevated sentry posts, most of which have six or eight inches of a rifle barrel
sticking out of them. If the young man inside sees you driving by in your bus,
he smiles and waves.
As I understand it, whenever 10 or more tourists travel anywhere, they must be accompanied by the Tourist Police, and several times our three buses had to await the arrival of our police escort. Usually that escort consists of a police car in front or behind. In one rural area, the accompanying officer was so energized by this assignment that he gave us lights and sirens—charming and embarrassing in equal measure. Traveling to some sites, our security detail also involved a plainclothes policeman (always a man) traveling with us inside each bus. Yes, they were armed. Once when I lagged behind the group to take a picture, I noticed one of our accompanying officers discreetly hanging back to make sure I got back with the group. The tour company also had staff keeping track of us, especially in crowds, watching out for turned ankles, falls, over-insistent hawkers, and the like. Probably the right word here is teamwork.
On the boat there were police, but they were invisible to
us, and a guy whom we’d occasionally see coming in from deck patrol carrying an
AK-47. Our itinerary did not include the Red Sea or the Sinai Peninsula, where
security is likely much tighter, as that’s where most of the trouble has
All this is separate from the well-armed security personnel
working at the monuments themselves and not specifically for our tour. When we
were at the pyramids, I even saw a policeman on a camel!
The Semiramis Hotel in Cairo has two public entrances, each guarded by a clutch of uniformed police and a sniffer dog that walks around every car, even checking the trunk. It’s next door to the British Embassy and adjacent to the US Embassy, and security around those blocks is extreme—piles of big, ugly concrete block the streets, police everywhere. The US embassy is capped by something that looks like a rural water tower—stuffed with listening gear, I suppose—and has asked the hotel to confiscate guests’ binoculars. Our guide advised us of this in advance and suggested simply, don’t bring them. They are returned on check-out.
Any well organized, reputable tour company and hotel probably provides these levels of security. Was it oppressive? Not at all. I viewed it as a preventive measure. I was never made uneasy by anything or anyone I encountered, even on a post-tour day-trip to Alexandria with only a guide and a driver. And, at the major sites we always had generous “free time” to wander where we wanted to, take pictures, soak in the atmosphere. Probably when we were on group outings our escorts kept an eye on us, but it wasn’t obvious. When we struck out on our own from the hotel or boat, we were unaccompanied (and the hawkers knew it!).
In a much-anticipated 17-day trip, I finally went to Egypt
this month. To see in person the legendary monuments and all the evidence of a
4000-year-old civilization was, of course, thrilling. The whole experience was
enhanced by the skill of our Grand
Circle tour guide, Gladys Haddad, who, despite her name, is Egyptian. The
overwhelming friendliness of everyone we met was heartwarming.
As you probably know, but may not have thought about, Egypt
is basically a desert. Almost all the country’s 100 million or so people live
in the narrow strip of arable land along both sides of the Nile River. Egypt’s
Western Desert, which extends to Libya, and its Eastern Desert, which extends
to the Red Sea, flank this fertile Nile valley. We were well aware of this in
Cairo, because of the tremendous amount of dust in the air and on anything not
moving, like a parked car or building. Check your plate when you sit down to
In some places, that fertile strip is miles wide, in others,
mountains encroach. There’s a sharp line between where palms, crops, and other
greenery will grow and where they will not. Here we have plants; here we don’t.
For millennia, the north-flowing Nile predictably and massively
flooded every June, bringing a thick layer of silt to the valley and recharging
the farmland soil. In the 1960s, the Aswan High Dam was built to control this
flooding, which has enabled much enlargement of the area available for farming
and building where it was impossible before. If you’ve seen old photos of the
Nile with the pyramids in the background, those were taken during the flood
season. In fact the river channel is many miles away.
In ancient times, several fingers of water flowed to the
Mediterranean, but over the centuries, many of them were blocked off, and now only
two form the Y of the delta at Alexandria.
I didn’t know or had forgotten that Sudan was originally
part of Egypt and was not an independent country until 1956. A tricky political
problem to watch is whether Sudan pursues a plan to build more dams on the southern
reaches of the Nile, closer to its headwaters. Such an act would be
catastrophic for Egypt, which has no groundwater and depends totally on the
In Cairo, our lovely Intercontinental
Hotel Semiranis overlooked the river, and, surprisingly, in this generally
conservative country, the party on the corniche 15 stories below seemed to go
all night. That I did not expect. Neon bedecked motor cruisers, water taxis,
and traditional feluccas are always out.
For a week on this trip, we were on the lovely MS Nefertiti, pictured below, cruising from Luxor south to Aswan with stops for the sights in between. 220 tourist boats (capacity 100-200) are licensed to use the river. About 80 percent of them were on the water this month, as Egypt’s tourism industry continues to recover from the dip after 2011. They dock six to nine abreast in the major ports. If we thought we were spoiled by the hotel staff, imagine 75 Americans on a ship with 63 crew! One night they set up a movie for us—what else, but Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile.
With only three counties and less than a million residents—including
one 2020 presidential candidate—Delaware is tucked into the Atlantic coast, at
the confluence of New Jersey, Maryland, and southeastern Pennsylvania.
Interstate 95 cuts across the top of it, giving travelers between Washington,
Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston access to the state’s largest
city, Wilmington, but missing the
capital, Dover, by nearly 50 miles.
Maybe that semi-isolation is what has allowed Dover to stay
modest in size and allow its central area to suggest you’re stepping back into
colonial history, an impression magnified by the brick sidewalks, the green
squares, and the federalist architecture—all red brick and white paint. A
plaque marks the location of the tavern where, in 1787, Delaware’s delegates were
the first to sign the new U.S. Constitution, inspiring Delaware’s nickname, “the
Last week we spent two days there and, yes, we found plenty
to do and see in the historic downtown area. We started with the Biggs Museum of American Art, which has
a small collection expertly displayed in period rooms that include art,
furniture, and appurtenances, plus some bold wallpaper! The current Legislative
Hall, where you can visit both chambers, and the Old State House, which even Delaware
outgrew, are worth a visit and offer tours. We did Legislative Hall on our own,
but had a docent for the old statehouse and for the governor’s house, Woodburn, where you can arrange a
private tour. Portraits of the state’s first ladies fill its reception hall.
We visited a French bakery (only once), located near the Johnson Victrola Museum with its fine display of the machines that brought music into the homes of millions. Lots of representations of Nipper, too, listening to “his master’s voice.” Excellent early example of branding.
Finally, we drove out to Dover Air Force base to visit the Air Mobility Command Museum, which has exhibits indoors in a converted hangar and, outside, a mind-boggling airplane parking lot. Latch onto a guide, who can take you up into some of the planes. Most amazing was walking inside the cavernous C5 cargo plane, which is big enough to hold six full-size buses or a couple of giant tanks. The Museum is preparing a special D-Day exhibit which we were sorry to miss.
All that, and we didn’t get to the beaches or the area’s several wildlife refuges!