Left with no soccer, tennis, or pretty much any other kid activity because of the Columbus Day holiday, we decided to do something other than go to brunch and regret not going anywhere. My lovely wife and I had talked for some time about a trip to Washington DC, given that our nation’s capital sits just a pinch away on the map and given that we have a hard time (and little history) with leisure. So we went to DC on what we called, just half-jokingly, a “learncation.”
Getting there proved absurdly easy: Amtrak runs from downtown New York (Penn Station) to Union Station, which sits (perpetually under construction) a few blocks behind the Capitol. The ride was a pleasant one; Q and The Boy especially liked the walk to the cafe car for pretzels as the train banked into corners, which felt like crossing a rope bridge in the wind. The free wifi was nice, too, when it worked.
Q and The Boy have been raised urban and feel at ease in cities, which makes cities easy. Besides, Q often gets car sick, so we usually opt for walking and public transportation over taxis and cars. (We chuckled at a chinaware foot in our hotel’s gift shop that read “I walked my feet off in Washington DC!” — the hotel we walked over a mile to from Union Station.) We ate in their Chinatown; we rode and compared public transportation. (The kids couldn’t believe that we had to wait 20 minutes for our Metro train and that at some stops the train lazed in the station for three whole minutes.) We also noted how the countdowns to cross DC streets started so much higher than in New York; 70 seconds seemed downright luxurious.
But we came for what only DC has. After checking into the hotel on Saturday, we walked down New York Ave. to the back of the White House and took pictures, like everyone else, of our president’s house. We circled around to the iconic front, and The Boy took some great shots of the lawn and fountain with my wife’s big camera while we talked loosely about Q’s moving into that place someday. After a little more walking around the White House area, we hit Georgetown, where we ate outside along the Potomac as the sun went out of session and jets etched the blue glass of the sky. An hour or so in the pool back at the hotel, and we were done for the day.
We kept the pace up over the next few days despite the rain and cold. We let the weather work itself out while we spent a good chunk of Sunday being amazed by the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum. We went to the Jefferson Memorial (which we end up calling, for some reason, “TJ’s Place”), and walked from there along the Tidal Basin up through the FDR and MLK Memorials, both big and heavy and more modern in design, to the Lincoln Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
That’s a lot of reminding. But the most memorable experience was visiting the Lincoln Memorial at night. The far west end of the Mall isn’t that well lit, and the cloud cover kept the sky from helping out. Everything was glossy in the wet dark. The Lincoln Memorial glowed gloriously, as did the Washington Monument, looking like an angel’s sword. The Reflecting Pool between the two structures made the sky and the ground a single thing. It was all by design, presumably — it’s called the “Reflecting Pool,” after all — but no less striking because of that, and that rectangle of water made clear why we use ‘reflecting’ to describe a kind of thinking. We all felt both small and a part of something larger than our largest selves.
That was the moment we came for. Q and The Boy, their minds already galloping forward, can now begin really grappling more with ideas. What is a government, and what does and should it do? What is democracy? What does it mean to be free (and enslaved)? What is a law and the rule of law? What obligations do Americans have to their nation (if any)? Ideas usually have facts and things as their biggest handles, so you go look at heavy buildings and statues, and you start learning the facts. Before the train home, you roll your suitcase past the Supreme Court building and the Capitol. You keep quizzing your kids on the three branches of government and their inhabitants until they reliably get it right.
We hope that they will, eventually, be able to take up these big ideas as ideas, and then look back through them at all the marble. We hope they see how this country, like DC, is such a hodgepodge of ideas — Greek, Roman, European, even an Egyptian-inspired obelisk visible from all points like an upturned nail. We hope that they can someday trace the fairly direct line from our cab driver to the Lincoln Memorial and the words cut on its wall. And we hope they will themselves pick up on the distance that can open up between these ideas and their instantiations, perhaps in the remarkable number of homeless people in the cold and rain, in the consistent differences between the drivers and riders of buses.
And so we begin by taking the train, standing under tall statues, reciting “legislative, executive, and judicial,” swimming in the hotel pool.
We begin by sitting in between the columns; we begin making columns of ourselves. And so we begin.