April 27, 2014

April 27, 2014

Jingle All the Way

Since I first visited it in 2007, the National Cathedral has remained my favorite hidden DC attraction. Granted, it’s ridiculous to get to (you need at least one mode of transportation in addition to the Metro) but totally worth the trip. Unless you live in a town with a cathedral. And even if you do, really. Because ours has Woodrow Wilson buried in it.

Every person I’ve taken to the Cathedral has walked in a skeptic (sometimes literally) but has walked out with an appreciation for the soaring ceilings, the magnificent stained glass windows, the Darth Vader gargoyle, etc. Cathedral tours are given regularly (though no longer free), and special tours of places like the bell tower are given periodically. I scored a spot on one of these recently, and you GUYS.

I got to watch the Washington Ringing Society practice ringing the tower bells. Like something out of Victor freaking Hugo.

Though you can climb a number of spiral staircases to get to the top of the tower, we were able to ride a couple of teeny elevators (the kind with the door you have to pull closed). En route, we passed a storage area:

A collection of champagne bottles decades of New Year’s parties (held by the stone masons, not the religious staff) (probably):

And views. Views for days. Views for miles.

(Admittedly, now that I live in a high-rise that faces the District, these views are a teensy TEENSY bit less surprising.)

But back to the ringers. At the request of the neighbors, they are allowed to practice with unmuted bells on Tuesdays from 7 to 8:30 pm. (You never really think about the logistics of living near a Cathedral, do you? Like a business, it brings crowds, screws up parking, and makes a lot of noise.) Outside this time, they dampen the bells and use a computer program that sounds the notes in the ringing room without bothering anyone outside the Cathedral. Win-win.

We watched the bell ringing for a while. As a musician I found it doubly-impressive: not only do these people have to play giant bells…they have to play giant bells that don’t sound until a second after the rope is pulled. It’s unlike almost every other instrument (bagpipes sorta  excepted). Cognitive dissonance.

And let me not forget the carillon bells, which can play actual songs and stuff. (The tower bells are called change bells, and ring too slowly to do any rhythm or lay down a funky beat.)

Washington National Cathedral: Strong recommend.

April 17, 2014

April 17, 2014

Oatlands Plantation

Does the name “King Carter” ring a bell? He was extraordinarily powerful and wealthy in Colonial Times, hence the royal moniker. He was also a Virginian, so your familiarity with him may vary depending on where you grew up and how thorough your US History teacher was. (House of Burgesses, anyone?) I myself had heard of him only in passing, until I saw a Groupon* for discounted admission to Oatlands Plantation. (As a native daughter of Wisconsin—home to zero plantations—I try to take advantage of these sorts of opportunities.) Oatlands was built by some of King Carter’s descendants, and today is part of the National Trust.

Your first stop is the Carriage House, which now houses the ticket office and a tearoom of some sort. The staff had surprisingly little trouble with the Groupon* vouchers; typically I feel like I’m trying to use counterfeit money when I redeem one of those things. I didn’t stop for any tea, though, since I was underdressed and about 40 years too young. It was no Madam Puddifoot’s.

House tours are given each hour on the hour. We had about 45 minutes until the next one, so we decided to check out the grounds and outbuildings. If you’ve ever visited a large estate, you know that the main house is just the tip of the property iceberg. Oatlands has a couple of outbuildings closed to the public:

But a greenhouse—one of the oldest in America—that’s open:

As soon as I walked in, the lenses in both my camera and my glasses immediately fogged up. It was in the 50s outside the greenhouse but in the 150s inside (approximation). I snapped a few quick shots of the plants before the heat exhaustion could melt the flesh from my bones.

The house itself wasn’t as large as some I’ve been in (it’s not like the guy was President or anything), but it was decent. Our tour guide spent most of the time explaining the men, women, children, seniors, and animals depicted in paintings and photos on the house’s walls. Meh. But what she lacked in Focused Tour Giving Oratorio, she made up for in enthusiasm.

(No pictures allowed in the house due to funky National Trust rules.)

The gardens, though, were my favorite part. Full of hedgerows, bird baths, sundials, statues, and a koi pond. A proper garden, which would be right at home in any Lewis Carroll novel.

NB: Oatlands Plantation is in Loudoun County, one of Virginia’s richest. If you do go, prepare to see a lot of pro-fox hunting license plates and meet people who own multiple horses.

* Technically, Amazon Local. Same diff.

April 15, 2014

April 15, 2014


The spring TV shuffle this year is not just about Mad Men, Cosmos, and Game of Thrones. It’s also about Call the Midwife, Mr. Selfridge, and The Bletchley Circle. That’s right, baby: I’m talkin’ ‘bout some PBS. It’s not just Mr. Rogers and Downton Abbey. (I love Mr. Rogers and Downton Abbey. Please, no letters.)

Let me start with my favorite of the three: The Bletchley Circle. As you may or may not know, Bletchley Park was home to Britain’s codebreakers during World War II. Some of that nation’s greatest minds dedicated their time to man’s greatest achievement: kicking Nazi butt. Fast forward a few years. Four former BP lady codebreakers, who’ve maintained various degrees of contact, come together to solve a mystery. They’re uniquely suited for it; one’s good with maps, another has a photographic memory, etc. Last season involved some of the tensest scenes I’ve seen this side of Sherlock S2. The show also highlights the difference between postwar America (barbecues and lawn flamingos for everybody!) and postwar Britain (tea, tweed, and weariness).

Mr. Selfridge is about the American (!) who moved to Britain (!!) to start one of the very first department stores. Selfridge’s still operates today, though I’m not sure how it compares to the opulence of its 1910s heyday. Because shopping was GLAM back then, people. The guys on the loading dock dressed better than I do. Mr. Selfridge falls rather on the soapy side, though, so I give it a moderate recommend. Jeremy Piven plays the title role, though I can't speak to any similarities between this character and whoever he played on Entourage (Ari?).

You know Call the Midwife is good if someone as opposed to children—both in theory and in practice—can enjoy it. Granted, there are a lot of graphic childbirth scenes. I mean, a LOT. I guess having a baby is hard enough even in modern times. In the East End tenements of 1950s London, it was unbearable. The nuns and midwives of St. Nonnatus house did what they could, though, and the show includes the ups and the downs of that life. One of my aunts is a nun, so I like seeing what convent life is like. It’s also interesting to see how the midwives live; they’re in sort of a dorm setup. And, of course, the patients. Oy, the patients. The patients who range from happy-but-poor to down-and-out. Some make the best of what they’ve got, and others wallow in their misfortune. I was so intrigued by these Eastenders that I read the trilogy of books on which Call the Midwife is based. (Not necessarily the best idea, because the graphic childbirth scenes are even more so in print.)

You may not have the time or ability to watch these shows live. But they’re also put on the PBS website, which is on the very same internet as this blog. You can do this. You have the technology.