Friday, November 11, 2011

What I did on my autumn vacation

Visited my parents for a week at the end of October around the date of their wedding anniversary (and just learned it's my brother's and my responsibility to plan a party for their 50th coming up in a few years).  They live in Maryland, the suburbs of Washington D.C. I initially chose those dates because of some touring comedians that would be in town that week (Attell, Posehn, Cinematic Titanic) but as the time approached I realized:
1) I was broke, and 
2) my parents would appreciate me sticking around the house, as would I. 

So I didn't go out in the evenings, which would have been an awkward mix of driving, taking the Metro downtown, and doing the same in reverse, probably after a few drinks at a comedy club. In years past, vacation time spent there was stress filled, with me planning out activities for every day (movies, museum trips, seeing other relatives, etc.) often resulting in little to no quality time being spent with my parents. Another factor in my selection of dates was that the weather would be not too cold then, and it turned out to be perfect timing, as it dropped in temperature  some 20 degrees from the low 70's to the mid 50's by the end of my stay.

My father was able to cash in some miles for a free plane ticket for me so I flew Continental/United (now merged). Upside is that he was able to get me the same seats on each leg of the trip (30A) which is a window seat, in the back, far enough behind the wing that I could get some nice views. Desert lands in the Southwest were particularly nice in the morning, and some fascinating waterways and crop layouts in the vicinity of Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH). 

Downside is that there was a three-hour layover. Dad suggested I ask the United folks if there was an earlier flight to Baltimore-Washington (BWI) available that I could get onto. After looking at the "Departures" board I found a connection that landed in D.C. proper (Reagan Washington National Airport - DCA). With little effort, they were able to get me a seat on the earlier flight, and after asking them to check for me, were even able to get me a window seat (31A), which amazingly had a free seat next to me so I was able to stretch out.

I barely had time to buy a lunch and call ahead to let the parents know I would be arriving hours earlier and at a whole other airport. Thankfully my dad offered to pick me up rather than me having to take a Metro train closer to their home in MD.

The discomfort of coach/economy seats is only one reason I dislike flying. Post 9/11 security checks are annoying enough but on one trip years ago I was pulled aside and given the dust test(?) and had my bag unpacked and searched; I was mortified. But the biggest drag of flying for me is the whole "ear-popping" phenomenon. While the pressure change is often painful when landing, what's worse is that it usually takes a full two days for my hearing to return to normal. So I spend the beginning of every vacation feeling like I've got cotton in my ears and uncertain of how loud I'm speaking.  

Minor annoyances aside, this particular series of flights went well (I even had no line of people at the security check on my return flight from BWI Friday morning, the first time I've ever seen that). I may have to rethink my "I hate flying" stance.

Anyhow, here's what I did while on the East Coast…

• At her request, gave my mother a sales pitch for an Apple iPhone. She's in the market for a new cell, and thought the "Siri" function was cute. One of her sisters plays Angry Birds. She was already inclined to get one but just needed a little push. Turns out it's a lot harder to get one of the new 4S models than just going down to the nearest Apple Store, which we learned only after making the trip. Seems that there are so few out there you must make a reservation online (only after 9pm, and not all sizes or carriers will be available). The better option is actually to order one and have it shipped to you, which is a one to two week wait but less hassle than the reserving process turned out to be (UPDATE: mom ordered it and says it's more like 3 weeks: then Apple cancelled her order and she had to go to store again). After a bit of convincing it was worth the upgrade to a smartphone, my dad did get a 4, which Apple still sells. And by doing it at the store, in person, they were able to offer us a 16GB for $150, a model they don't even offer online. 

It was funny to see the different demographics at a suburban Apple Store compared to the SF locations I'm used to. This Montgomery Mall, MD store (right off the Beltway) had a few "older" sales people (our guy Dale was probably in his 30s-early 40s) and a much older clientele, many folks in their 50s and 60s shopping and attending in-store teaching sessions.

• Helped my father with some technical problems he was having with his 6-year old Dell "Discovery" PC. I know very little about Windows-based systems, but I was able to be of some use. The big issue is that their desktop tower runs very slow, and is nearing it's limit as to what software can be updated on it. Some botched hard-drive replacement done by Best Buy in 2008 has left their DVD drive unavailable. Add to this the fact that they use the cluttered looking AOL interface as their homepage, every minute spent on this dinosaur was painful to me. 

The whole time working on it I was urging them to make more use of their brand new Dell Inspiron laptop, which has a 17" widescreen, a trackpad, and runs Windows 7. After much prodding, I got dad to transfer files to the new Dell and to hopefully take advantage of their WiFi by using the laptop throughout the house.  I even managed to trim down some of the excess buttons and toolbars in their AOL browser, in addition to delete some useless app shortcuts on their desktop screen.

But I know that old habits die hard. My main advice was, "Allow yourself to enjoy the new technology; it can improve your quality of life."

• Simultaneous to this were conversations with my aunt who was shopping for a new Dell desktop and wanted some advice. For a second there I had her seriously considering a switch to Apple and a new iMac, but the conversion from PC to Mac seemed too intimidating. I later suggested she get a laptop for it's convenience but seeing as she doesn't have WiFi in her home, that would require even more upgrading. So we settled on a nice package Dell offered with a new widescreen monitor, that ended up costing almost half the price of an iMac (though not as pretty: while at the Apple store, she confessed to having "Mac envy.")

• Yard-work. Spent over half a day cutting off dead tree limbs and trying to salvage a decorative garden bed that was damaged in a recent hurricane. Also patched a hole in the chimney of my aunt with brick fragments and cement mix. Did this all with my dad, which was a pleasure. Funny how working in the yard was in childhood a chore, but feels more like a duty (or even a privilege) as an adult.

The tree that fell – gone by the time I got there

• Went to see Ides of March at the Old Greenbelt Theatre, then had Chinese food at the restaurant next door (very good, best General Tso's chicken I've ever had). I found the film engaging but inconsequential. Features a great cast (Clooney, Gosling, Giamatti, P.S. Hoffman, and Evan Rachel Wood is gorgeous), but is not particularly cinematic, and despite it's story potential not a lot really happened. Felt to me more like a PBS American Playhouse production, or an extended episode of the West Wing. I know it's based on a play, but as other critics have noted, it doesn't offer anything new to our understanding of the backdoor dealings of political campaigns. Worth seeing, but not required viewing in a theater. Rent it.

Half the appeal of this evening was going to Greenbelt itself which is a community I'll have to explore more in the future. It was started in 1937 during the New Deal era as a "public cooperative community," and is considered a National Historic Landmark (2012 will be its 75th Anniversary). BTW, inside this classic theater, it's a bit of a dump, a mere shadow of it's former glory.

• Took a trip to downtown Washington, D.C. with my dad to visit the National Museum of Crime & Punishment cheap looking website was not helping to sell me on it but this enthusiastic review (which questions the unsettling appeal of artwork made in prison by convicted murderers) and the following video did

In all, it was what I'd hoped, lots of fascinating stories and artifacts, but sort of haphazardly put together. A bit too loud and busy, as every themed section (Pirates, Gangsters, etc.) had it's own ambient soundtrack consisting of sound effects and dialogue running on a loop, that would often overlap when transitioning from one area to another. A bunch of the later displays on forensic science and police training were interactive and geared towards a younger, school-aged audience. At one point we could hear a gaggle of noisy school kids approaching and I feared for my sanity (crowded museums bug me) but they passed us in about ten minutes as they could not be bothered to read placards or study black & white photos and diagrams of old bank heists. One of the promotional materials stated you could go through the museum in about two hours, but we were there for about three and a half.

My favorite object was this Chicago gangland cartoon map from the 1930s

detail view
Now starving, we grabbed some lunch at Oyamel, an upscale mexican kitchen ("cocina mexicana" as they call it on their logo) which seemed a bit pretentious but turned out to be delicious. I'm not a fan of restaurants whose menu needs to be explained to me by the waiter. Gourmet food in general is wasted on me; I can see the point in spending lots of money on small quantities of unique food, especially as a social activity, but I just can't prioritize it. I would however recommend this joint for a larger group looking to have some drinks and share food together.

tacos, $4 apiece

Being in the "Penn Quarter" (a new term for an old neighborhood) just north of the National Mall, we only had to walk a few blocks to get to the National Gallery East Building to see a small show of Bauhaus publications which was closing soon. As we approached the modern structure I was shocked to see it sheathed in metal scaffolding, entire sections stripped of it's granite shell, revealing mundane brick-work underneath. I never knew that this how this building was constructed. I included a full frontal shot of it in my "Buildings" post a few days ago. Also there is an interior with sculpture in the foreground.

So while there we saw:

Bauhaus books (under glass in the study library)

Hugely imposing and meticulously crafted they are fine examples of political propaganda, enshrining the Portuguese conquest of Morocco. More here.
Andy Warhol "Headlines" screenprints & sketches

The definitive piece, which captures Warhol's casual graphic brilliance, and even better in person as it's about 4 feet high.
On our way back home, we visited the renovated National Park Seminary now selling condos in Silver Spring, which I'll have to write more about at some later date. 

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996) 

My mother and aunt have been on a kick of renting documentaries from Netflix based on a list compiled by Martin Spurlock and this was at the house when I got there (did they know in advance that I would love it?). I recall when it came out and was intrigued by the heavy metal connection, but never saw the film myself. My mother prefaced us watching it by telling me the three accused had recently been freed (on August 19, 2011 to be exact) and that this film was a key element in a nationwide movement to getting their convictions overturned. I had heard the phrase "Free The West Memphis Three" in recent years but had no idea what it referred to. 

The film-makers went into the trials not having any opinion either way about who was guilty; they merely sought to document the results of a heinous crime. But as they proceeded, they captured so many contradictory statements from the families, police, and lawyers involved that at the end, it seemed justice had not been served. A guilty verdict was rendered, but too many questions remained unanswered. So after watching this incredible documentary on one evening early in my vacation, I became curious to learn more about it. 

The Wikipedia entry is lengthy and gives a thorough account of the case and its aftermath. But one of the sites it linked to was this:

Murders In West Memphis
by Martin David Hill, an in-depth, scholarly examination of all the police records, locations, theories, and evidence implicating other likely suspects. It took me at least four evenings to read the whole thing. And while I share the authors opinion that the three teens were unfairly convicted with the facts as presented in court, I am unconvinced of both their total innocence or that any other person is clearly the true culprit.

The fact is that the crime is truly inhuman and hard to comprehend. Prosecutors invoking the names of both Metallica and Aleister Crowley to damn the accused during the trials resonated with me, as I was also, during my alienated, powerless youth, fascinated with heavy metal music and the occult. But that didn't make me, or anyone else, necessarily capable of murdering young children.

My last night in Maryland, the sequel Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (1999) arrived from Netflix. Already prepared for what it contained, I found it far less engrossing. It barely touches on all the case details available and provides little new facts. It does feature the eccentricities of one of the slain children's stepfather and the softening image of the three imprisoned teens, now young men. Also lots of scenes with the grassroots movement of citizens moved by the first film attempting to get them new trials. There is a third movie (PL3: Purgatory) currently making the rounds at festivals which will contain the recent event of their acquittals (itself a weird legal loophole in which they are not quite declared "innocent" but are freed from prison).

• On a personal hygiene note, I drank a few beers each night, but didn't smoke any cigarettes for the entire week, which was good. I also watched very little TV, due in part to my parents not having HD service on their cable. Immersing myself in the West Memphis Three case occupied my free time and was the equivalent of reading a long book. Oddly, I once again found sleeping on the couch downstairs more comfortable than the proper single bed provided, which is sadly a foot or two too short for my height.

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