Museums flashback

Smithsonian castle
The Smithsonian Castle

Last year when I went to the East Coast on vacation, I started writing about all the museums I visited, but I was overwhelmed with material. Subsequently I ran out of steam and forgot to finish this post in a timely manner. But I want to take a moment now and share a few insights on my museum viewing back  in 2014.

First of all, I love the concept of free museums, which are ubiquitous in DC along the Mall. When you fork over $20 just to enter, you feel obliged to see everything, which makes for a less-than-leisurely visit. And planning is crucial. Otherwise, you end up not reaching that exhibit you’ve really looked forward to until ten minutes before the guards start ushering you out because closing time means closing time, dammit. It’s not that I begrudge museums reasonable entrance fees. But it did feel luxurious wandering in and out of several museums in one day without having to break out the wallet each time. So the whole chain of Smithsonian museums gets a big thumbs-up from me for being free.

dollhouse in Smithsonian
A doll house in one of the many Smithsonian museums
garden fountain
garden fountain outside Smithsonian

DC is nothing if not security conscious. At one museum, the guard had a wooden stick that he used to probe the innards of my bag, whereas at another museum the guard had a similar tool, but it was made of clear acrylic. The guard at the Phillips actually used his hands, though they were gloved. The Newseum guard just peeked into my crowded disorganized bag and sent me on my way, though I’m not sure what he could have seen. I suppose a saber or shotgun would have been hard to hide in there, but I could easily have hidden something dangerous in my little purple zippered bag that Kylie used to house her headgear back when she wore braces. (I had to re-purpose it as an organizational bag within a bag because on the first day of vacation, the strap broke on my cute little leather backpack).

The Phillips has an impressive permanent collection, but I particularly enjoyed the neo-Impressionists on exhibit there. By the way, you may think that Camille Pissarro was a woman because Camille is so obviously a female name. But he wasn’t. I’m only telling you so that you don’t make an embarrassing mistake, like gushing “Oh, Pissarro is one of my favorites— isn’t she great?” Because someone is likely to peg you as someone who doesn’t know any better. I’m just saying…

Sailboats on the River Scheldt by Theo van Rysselberghe

I was introduced to a painter I was unfamiliar with—Theo van Rysselberghe. (And although I do know a woman named Theo, I’m pretty sure this one is a man.) I’d heard of and seen works by other neo-impressionists—Seurat and the aforementioned Pissarro—but I’d never seen Rysselberghe’s paintings. Unfortunately, it was one of the places that did not allow photography of any kind, but through the magic of wikiart, I can give you a feel for it here, though this reproduction does it no justice…

garden path
a garden path outside the Smithsonian Castle

The Smithsonian, in all its forms, had some great exhibits, but one of my favorite spots was a garden, and the weather was perfect for casual strolling. (And I finally got to wear my summer clothes without feeling woefully under-dressed.)

The Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston was worthwhile, with some exhibits definitely more interesting than others. I quite liked The Visitors, which was a multimedia piece that included music and video.

Cherokee flag
Cherokee Nation flag



We arrived at Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian too late to see very much of it, but I did catch a glimpse of the Choctaw Nation flag displaying the seal.

In New York, I loved Sebastiao Salgado’s black and white photos from all over the world showing at the International Center of Photography. In contrast, I felt nothing for the Robert Gober exhibit at the MOMA, which featured sinks, chairs, and body parts, and not in a particularly interesting way.

In DC, I enjoyed Barbara Kruger’s Belief+Doubt at the Hirshhorn and the neo-Impressionists at the Phillips.

unabomber cabin
Unabomber cabin inside Newseum with sign that reads “Please do not touch the Unabomber’s cabin.”

The Newseum (or as Stephen Colbert calls it, the Newsoleum) is quite the spectacle. Before you even enter, you see the current front page of just about every major newspaper in the world posted outside—over 600 of them changed daily. The 50 Years of Civil Rights exhibit was well done, and the First Dogs photo gallery was fun to see. The chunk of the Berlin Wall and a portion of its guard tower (named the Tower of Death) was impressive, and the FBI wing was teeming with life-size photos, documents, and even the Unabomber’s shack.

Don’t bother with the 4-D movie though, unless you like bad acting and your chair moving around for no reason…

I brought home all these tickets and maps, fully intending to create a scrapbook of my trip. But I think this post will have to serve as my souvenir.

Go see Ada and the Memory Engine now!

Ada Lovelace
A portrait of the real Ada Lovelace

The advantage in seeing a production in previews is not only that the ticket is cheaper but that I get to help promote a show when there’s still plenty of time for others to see it.

I enthusiastically recommend Ada and the Memory Engine, Lauren Gunderson’s latest tour de force, playing at the Berkeley City Club in an intimate space. (I counted only 50 seats.) It’s the story of Ada Lovelace, who is raised by her mother to be a mathematician, mostly to counteract any possible genetic predisposition toward poetry. Ada’s father was the Romantic poet, Lord Byron, who was a bit of a ladies’ man, to say the least. Subsequently, mom and dad did not separate on good terms. Despite mama’s best efforts, Ada manages to connect with her late philandering father, most directly through his famous lyric poem, “She Walks in Beauty.”

Ada meets Charles Babbage, the person who first imagined the engine that became what we know today as the computer. She becomes not only his inspiration but is the one who translates his ideas to text and gives them some necessary structure along the way. Charles was big on ideas but not a man of action.

a difference engine, imagined by Babbage

It’s a tale interwoven with math, love, aspirations, family obligations, and even the old nature versus nurture argument. Kathryn Zdan plays the passionate Ada with gust–when Zdan is on stage, all eyes are drawn to her. Kevin Clarke portrays the complicated Babbage with finesse. The two other actors do wonderful jobs of portraying the four other characters distinctly, and Josh Schell’s turn as “the man” is particularly engaging.

Because the performance space is not a stage, the blocking had to be particularly inventive, and director Gary Graves came through with flying colors. Although Ada is not a musical, there is some singing and dancing. The singing was fine, and the song fit the mood well. Dance enriched the play both as a vehicle for formal Victorian courtship and for foreshadowing Ada’s relationship with her mentor. Where it was less successful on stage was at the end when it was trying to be a metaphor when none was needed. Perhaps the choreography was just not my cup of tea, but I felt the script was so strong that the dancing at the end was superfluous. But this was a tiny flaw that did not detract from my overall enjoyment of what was otherwise a scintillating evening of theater.

Co-produced by Central Works and the Playwright Foundation, Ada is showing through November 22. But if you want to go, you should reserve tickets now because many shows dates already sold out.

Omigod, I went to Hogwarts!

Hogwarts ExpressI confess: I’m a lover of all things Harry Potter. I was almost too embarrassed to go on “The Making Harry Potter” tour, but I’m so glad I did. We weren’t able to get reservations on the Hogwart’s Express bus from London to the studio, but taking the train and a shuttle was much cheaper anyway, and I had such a great time that I don’t care.

I felt a twinge of guilt because I knew my 22-year-old daughter, Kylie, would have loved to accompany us, but that didn’t stop me from going. On the shuttle from the Watford train station we saw two women in their early twenties all decked out in Hogwart’s school garb. One of them even wore Harry Potter glasses. We paid a little extra for the audio tour, which had lots of extras, including short videos on the handheld console. It would be easy to spend the whole day there, but we managed to see what we wanted in under four hours.

Privet Drive
The Dursleys’ house on Privet Drive


First we were ushered into a holding room where a tour guide told us where we were allowed to take photos and gave us a lay of the land. Then he asked for two volunteers, who were allowed to open the huge ornate doors to the Great Hall. Like magic, we were whisked into the Hogwarts’ famous dining hall to audible gasps of thrilled fans who were now living out their Harry Potter fantasy.

We got to walk down Diagon Alley, where Harry and the gang stocked up on school supplies before classes started. We got to see actual costumes and wigs that were used in the seven movies. We saw the room Harry and Ron shared at Hogwarts, Dumbledore’s office where the sorting cap lives, Hagrid’s humble shack, a potions class, and so much more.

Platform 9+We boarded the Hogwarts Express and pushed carts through the wall at Platform 9 3/4. Outside was the Dursleys’ home on Privet Drive and the purple bus used by witches and wizards to traverse London. Every inch of each set showed an incredible attention to detail.

And then when I thought I couldn’t be any more amazed, I entered the huge room that houses the model of Hogwarts itself. I actually gasped in sheer awe. Goosebumps formed on my arms as I approached the model. I know it sounds silly, but I almost cried. Of course dramatic music from the films played, and the lighting changed as I toured around the model so I could see it as it would have appeared in a day shot and at night. It was a beautiful architectural masterpiece that required thousands of hours of work to create.

Hogwarts modelIf you are a Harry Potter fan and are ever in London, treat yourself to this tour. You won’t regret it.

The Tower of London’s bloody history



IMG_0616The ominously named Traitors Gate is where Sir Thomas More and Anne Boleyn entered the royal palace where they were imprisoned and eventually beheaded. And that is only a few of the bloody events that occurred here.

The Tower of London is more than just a tower–in its long history, it’s been an armory, a prison, a royal residence, a mint, a torture chamber, home of the Crown Jewels, and a place of execution. And at one point, it was practically a zoo.

Commonly known as “Beefeaters,” the royal guards (and tour guides) have to earn their positions through many years of military service. They live with their families on the outer grounds of this famous tourist destination. Our guide (pictured at left) shared many gruesome tales of revenge, power, jealousy, and greed.

Lady Jane Grey was still a teenager when she was beheaded here. And once, when a traitor fled, his grandmother was sentenced to death in his place. Not one to give up easily, granny attempted to flee but was eventually overtaken by the executioner with an ax. But perhaps the saddest story involved the two young princes who were murdered there by their own custodian who had gotten used to the power and didn’t want to give it up to the king’s heirs when they became of age.


The palace was doubly protected: first, by outer walls flanked with archers, and second, by a moat, which also served as the palace’s sewer system. The idea was that the Thames would rush through the moat, cleaning it out. But the moat was deeper than the river, and the waste tended to sink to the bottom where it stank up the neighborhood. (Because even royal poop smells bad.) So I suppose that even though it was not an intended form of protection, the odor might make an enemy think twice before storming the gates.

On display are numerous suits of armor from throughout the ages, a sort of military fashion show. Henry VIII’s was indeed larger than the rest. I shudder to think of the poor creature who had to carry Henry when he was fully decked out. The heaviest set of armor weighed about 300 pounds, which certainly doesn’t make for a quick getaway. When I think how hard it was for me to stand up after I fell wearing snow skis, I can’t imagine what it would have been like for a king in full armor to get vertical again once he’d toppled.


It became the custom for foreign states to present monarchs with gifts of animals. Which is fine if it’s a parakeet or a hamster. But the palace became home to about 280 animals, including an elephant, baboons, three leopards, and a polar bear. The lions had their own tower, until one of them bit a soldier. Then the whole menagerie was relocated to Regents Park. Wire sculptures appear in various spots around the palace to commemorate this strange era of zoo-dom.

The IMG_0621sole permanent animal residents today are the ravens because of a prophecy connecting the tower’s ability to fend off attacks with the presence of six ravens. (But they keep seven just to be safe.) The ravens are allowed to roam the grounds, but their wings are clipped so they can’t fly over the high walls. We got to observe Marilyn, one of the ravens, enjoying an afternoon snack that she scavenged from a trash bin and then defended from a curious pigeon.



Thinking of Debby


I was at the grocery store buying a can of beans and happened upon Arturo, my dear friend’s son, who was managing a hand basket on his left arm and his 9-month old on his right. Because I’m old and lose track of time, I was thinking it was the baby boy I had met a few times. I asked how the older brother was doing, remembering the adorable preschooler I knew. He kindly responded by showing me a photo of all three of his children. The “baby” I recalled is now 3, and the oldest is 7. I hadn’t ever met this precious baby now in his arms.

I realized that time had slipped by so insidiously that I was off by two years. It was so good to see Debby’s son and granddaughter looking happy and healthy. (She did look a tad tired from having just come from the playground, which is at it should be.)

But then it struck me that this sleepy little girl never met her wonderful grandma. Debby died two years ago, so she wouldn’t even have known about her granddaughter, let alone meet her. And that made me sad.

How could it be that it’s been two years since I got that phone call letting me know that my friend had quietly succumbed to cancer?

But her granddaughter proves that life does indeed go on. Just as it continued for me and my daughter after my parents died. And one day, my daughter will still thrive after her father and I are no longer around. It’s just the way things go.

Today I take a few moments to remember and cherish my friend and try not to be sad for the granddaughter she never met.

London architecture: The old, the new, and the odd


The Cheese-grater and the Walkie-Talkie
The Gherkin








London is home to some oddly shaped structures with some great nicknames, such as the Cheese-grater and the Gherkin, but none is stranger than 20 Fenchurch Street, better known as the Walkie-Talkie, which was awarded Building Design magazine’s Carbuncle Cup (for the worst new building in Britain).

I suppose one person’s idea of beauty is another’s what-on-Earth-were-you-thinking?

It often struck me when bopping around London how much the old and the new live side by side. Among buildings that are centuries old are brand new glass and steel creations. There’s not one part of town that’s all new and one part that’s all old–they’re intertwined.

St. Paul's
St. Paul’s Cathedral
The Shard is 310 meters high.








St. Paul’s Cathedral, at 111 meters high, was London’s tallest structure in the 18th century, and it’s still the tallest church in the area. But the current title of tallest building in London belongs to the Shard, seen here against the walls of the venerable Tower of London.

And lots of construction is happening still. Just count the cranes in the above skyline panorama shot.

Peeking from behind the building below is a fairly recent tourist attraction called the London Eye, which for at least a few years was the largest Ferris wheel on Earth. It takes 30 minutes to make one complete circle. It didn’t IMG_0463appeal to me personally, but many love the view of Big Ben and the city from the large transparent pods.

Note: Big Ben is actually the name of the bell that chimes, but the clock tower has become so synonymous with the bell that everyone just calls the tower Big Ben.

London architecture spans centuries and I realized pretty quickly that it would take weeks to see it all. I guess I’ll have to go back some day…

Ireland: Birthplace of so many writers

Ross & me @ Writers Museum, Dublin

Our friend, Ross, who currently lives in Dublin (Ireland, not California, for local Bay Area folks) accompanied Dave and me to the Dublin Writers Museum.

The museum has a permanent display featuring Ireland’s most famous writers and also provides a more detailed audio tour that shares stories beyond what’s printed on the walls. It covers roughly 300 years of Irish literary tradition and includes such novelists, playwrights, and poets as Jonathan Swift, James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, and Samuel Beckett (who actually lived most of his writing life in France but was originally from Ireland).

Because it’s a museum that celebrates the written word, photos or paintings of writers hang above a scattering of artifacts, such as a typewriter (I don’t remember who it belonged to), letters, manuscripts, and journals.

I was intrigued with W.H. Auden’s romantic life. He pined for a particular woman for years and asked her several times to marry him, but she always refused. She had a daughter by someone else, and when that daughter became of age, Auden asked her to marry him. She also refused. Eventually he married someone else, so it’s not an unhappy ending.

One writer (perhaps Oscar Wilde or Brendan Behan?) had written something in which the naughty bits were edited out. So he proceeded to hand-write them back into already published books. The audio guide didn’t specify which volumes he was able to correct, but I imagine him politely knocking on people’s doors asking them if they’d purchased his book, and if so, did they mind if he made a few post-printing edits?

Lollipop ManWe wandered upstairs where there either had been or was going to be a children’s literature exhibit because there was no signage, and a few pieces were either yet to be constructed or had been taken apart–it was difficult to tell which. Nobody was up there at all, so I took the liberty of snapping photos, which was not allowed in the permanent collection downstairs. Truthfully, the children’s book area was more colorful anyway…giant board book

I should have had Dave or Ross stand next to the giant board book to provide perspective, but that book was almost as tall as me!


Theatre in London


Photo by BrinkhoffMögenberg

I attended two wonderful but very different plays in London.

I’ve already posted about “Showstoppers!,” a musical created on the spot based on audience suggestions on theme and style. (See London: Day 3.)

The second was the National Theatre’s production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time,” based on Mark Haddon’s book. The touring version was actually playing in the Bay Area earlier this year, but I didn’t go. I’m so fortunate to have caught it in London, especially since I bought tickets only the day before. It was the last row, but it’s not a huge theater. (And the house manager allowed us to change seats after interval,* so we got to see the second half a bit closer and out of the intrusive overhead house light.)

It was a sparse set that allowed efficient scene changes and supplied a blank canvas for some interesting projections on the walls, unusual lighting effects, and some supported wall-walking.

The story revolves around Christopher, an autistic teen who in the opening of the play discovers his neighbor’s dead dog. Through unconventional staging, loud sounds, and bright lights, the audience experiences the world the way Christopher perceives it. We hear his mother reading her letters to him, his father trying to explain why his mother isn’t there, and his teacher, who is a calm voice of reason. And we go on an amazing and sometimes terrifying adventure on London’s Tube.

Matthew Trevannion, Sion Dan Young, and Pearl Mackie (Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenberg)

It was the perfect play to see in London, not only because it’s set there but because I could completely relate to the main character, who is overwhelmed by London’s transit system. There were times in the Underground that I felt as if I may have been walking sideways on walls as well.

Sion Dan Young was believable as the autistic teen, and he had excellent comic timing as well. Although the piece is not a comedy, there are plenty of funny moments that may arise from–but never make fun of–his condition.

After the standing ovation, the Young returned to the stage in character to explain a concept that is mentioned earlier in the play. So if you do go, don’t try to duck out before the applause dies out or you’ll miss a very interesting addendum to the show!

I highly recommend this moving and innovative theater experience.

*Interval is the Brit’s version of  an American intermission.

Underground London street art tour



IMG_0478One of my favorite afternoons in London was spent in the borough called Tower Hamlets, which is east of central London. Reputedly the most diverse neighborhood in all of Britain, it is home to many former Bangladeshis (hence its nickname of Banglatown), the old Truman brewery (no longer in operation), many curry houses, and the popular Spitalfields Market. It was once considered a slum and was the turf of Jack the Ripper but is now a more transitional neighborhood with houses fetching millions of pounds. (Kiera Knightly has a house in the area.) It’s also gone through changes in its population, symbolized by one particular building that was once a Catholic church, then a Jewish synagogue, and now a Muslim mosque.

We took an unusual walking tour sponsored by an organization called Underground London, in which you reserve a spot but don’t pay until it’s over. Our wonderful tour guide, Kier (pronounced Kee-uh), holds out his hat at the end and you pay what you think the tour was worth.

A Jonesy creation on the top of a street sign
You have to look way up to spot this sculpture left by the “Mushroom Man.”











A street artist himself, Kier knows lots of other artists and many secret locations where most folks wouldn’t know to look. One such artist is Jonesy, who measures the dimensions of certain public poles that are open on top, creates artwork back at a studio somewhere, then returns and inserts mini-sculptures in these various spots around London.

Kier defined commissioned art (the artist gets paid) versus “permission art” (the artist is allowed to create the art but is unpaid). Mr. Hussein, who owns much of the property in the area, grants artists space on his buildings so they have the time to create beautiful artwork and not have to worry about getting caught in the act of what the authorities would label “vandalism.” Some art is done late at night when nobody is looking, though that’s becoming less possible because of the omnipresent cctv cameras everywhere. But artists are resourceful and wily–they find ways to leave their marks.

A sticker cleverly designed to create art out of a street sign

There is certainly a wide range of artwork–some political, some whimsical, some more aesthetically pleasing than others–but the diversity makes for a most colorful walking tour. And now that I’ve been made aware of the more hidden art, I find myself searching in places I wouldn’t have before, and this encourages me to be more observant of my surroundings. And that is a tour worth at least £15 in my book.

High above street level is this bow.
On the other side of the street are arrows.

Galway: Ireland’s left coast

across the inlet looking back at houses in Galway

It was our big road trip across the island and my first experience being a passenger in the car where the steering wheel is on the right side of the car and everyone drives on the left side of the road. Thank goodness I didn’t have to drive.

Dublin is on the east coast of Ireland, facing the Irish Sea and Great Britain. Galway is on the west coast on an inlet off the Atlantic Ocean. Galway is also the heart of Gaelic Irish, where natives are more likely to speak Gaelic than English as their first language. There’s a lot of wide open country between these two coastal cities, full of grazing cows, sheep, and horses, separated by stone fences. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of thatched-roof stone houses—the ones I’ve seen in calendars of the Irish countryside. But despite the stone fences and walls, nary a thatch roof was to be found, even when we detoured from the M6—which is the main cross-island motorway at that latitude—to a more rural route.

IMG_0569Galway was a delightful mix of very old and new. There are cafes, pubs, and all sorts of eateries; a small craft fair down one alley, where you can buy ceramic egg holders, handmade jewelry, and chocolate; a “Latin quarter”; a section full of colorful little shops with murals, as well as big, modern department stores; smaller churches and quite an impressive cathedral.

The Spanish Arch that we’d read about in the guidebook was much smaller than we’d imagined and right next to some major construction, and therefore a bit disappointing. But there was still a lot to see.

We ate lunch IMG_0576at the Skeff, a charming pub with many rooms that is part of a hotel. I can’t recommend the food, but the décor made it a fun spot to drink a pint of Guinness.

We discovered the cute little hop-on hop-off trolley too late in our visit to take advantage of it, but I enjoyed waving at the driver as it passed us.

Charlie Byrne’s children’s section

We walked through Eason, a very commercial chain bookstore that had fewer books than toys, snacks, and magazines. Then we found Charlie Byrne’s, a charming multi-room bookshop off the beaten path that had new and used books of all sorts, but particularly featured Irish literature. It also had a darling children’s section, but it had no books by Deborah Underwood, Mac Barnett, or Lemony Snicket, who in my opinion are the best writers for children in America. But they had an entire shelf of books by a local author, so I can respect that.

We ended our time in Galway with a walk along the windy promenade that hugged the long inlet, followed by a stroll along the small scenic canal that brought us close to the cathedral, where I took some photos, but we didn’t go in.

It was a lovely day trip and a nice opportunity to see a different coast of Ireland.

along the canal