Yes, I’m back from Washington DC (back Monday at Midnight, worked 12 hours on New Comics Receipt Tuesday, then worked New Comics Wednesday, so… kinda bushed. Plus I got a not-quite-a-cold?) – what follows is a kind of a travelogue. It has very little to do with comics; it has a lot to do about America. And Ben.
Every year I try to take a boys-only father-and-son trip. These have usually been to Disneyland and Legoland, but this year I pitched the idea of Washington DC, and Ben seemed super receptive. I also pitched it to MY dad, and HE liked the idea too, so it became a father-and-father-and-son trip (which, score! He paid for, too!)
(Not only that, but it solved a lot of logistical problems, since I’m not a driver, and while I have an aunt in VA, and thus a free place to stay, they are all the way up in Great Falls, so it would have been very problematic to try and use public transportation on a steady basis)
I wanted to take Ben to DC because, at eight, he’s right at the proper age, I think, to start learning to be a Citizen. I, for one, take Citizenship very seriously, and I think understanding how our system works (or, at least, is supposed to work) is a pretty solid thing. Eight is a great age for it because (Ben at least) he’s deadly passionate to learn, but he is only just starting to solidify actual beliefs. He parrots me a lot, but I’m really working on him to form his own thoughts and opinions. A couple of years from now, he’s likely to think he knows it all (until his 30s teach him otherwise), so, yeah, we were right in the right range to do it.
Ben, I should also add, is the World’s Greatest Traveler. He Goes With The Flow, he almost never Complains, and he’s perfectly fine with flying 6+ hours without batting an eye, or need a ton of special attention. This is exceedingly rare in an eight year old.
Let me also add that my dad, Barr, was also a World Class trooper on the entire trip, willing to ferry us around almost anywhere with a great deal of calm equanimity that *I* would never have if I was driving unfamiliar streets. (if I, y’know, knew how to drive)
So, yeah, Civics 101 was the name of the game, and every topic was on the table – we talked freely about slavery and race, about Justice and Truth, about working together to solve common problems, and standing on Irresolute Principles, and Free Speech and hell, everything inbetween.
Here’s an example: It’s the Cherry Blossom Festival, and lots of tourists are in town, and so on come the fundamentalist Preachers on many corners on the weekends in the National Mall. They’re preaching their view of the world, how they have the only true religion and everyone else is going to hell, and so on, and you need to understand that my son is a Jew, and a reasonably proud one at that (I’m agnostic, myself), and so, this is kind of disconcerting, yes?
These cats have like hand-decorated pickup trucks, emblazoned with pictures of Obama with like flames in his eyes, standing over (and I swear I am not making this up) mutilated aborted fetuses, with gore dangling from their destroyed limbs, and the trucks say things like “Stop Obama’s destruction of Freedom of Religion and Speech!”
I mean, doofus, wake the fuck up, NO ONE has taken away your freedoms, here you are shoving your worldview down everyone else’s throats, saying in front of my child that he’s going to burn in hell, and no one is arresting you, or, hell, even asking you to stop. THAT’s America, right there. You have the right to your beliefs, to express those beliefs, that stand on a street corner and yell through a megaphone and show horrifying images, and no one would even consider asking you to stop.
So, we talk about this, Ben and I, and I we both decide that this is really a pretty cool thing – it is good to be exposed to things you disagree with, because that helps you figure out why exactly you do, and makes your own beliefs that much stronger.
So, yeah, the afternoon we walked from the Korean War Memorial, with “Freedom is never Free” inscribed large, to the Lincoln Memorial (where I teared up, like a little girl) (Come on, seeing the Gettysburg address inscribed in Marble like that sure should move anyone with a soul), then down a few steps to where MLK gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, then cross over to the left and to walk among the names of the dead on the Vietnam War Memorial, and to talk about what these things mean to us, and about war and slavery and freedom and which wars are just and which aren’t, and how you support the people fighting those wars even if you disagree with the war themselves… well, that was one of the best afternoons of my entire life, I have to say, and hopefully it will be one of Ben’s fondest memories as well.
Ben took a rubbing from the Vietnam Memorial wall, and I think that touched him (thanks so much for the volunteer on duty [in the rain!] who encouraged Ben to do so, even when Ben said “but I don’t know anyone on this wall” and he said “You don’t need to, to do them honor”), and I think we were both pretty astonished by the stark beauty of “reflections” of the soldiers at the Korean War memorial. That’s a really really powerful piece, and we kind of just stumbled on it, rather than planned on going there – I can’t say that I’ve really ever heard anyone talk about it, it certainly doesn’t have the cultural touchstone that Vietnam Memorial does.
Conversely, I thought the WW2 Memorial was a little too “Will To Power-y” with its wreaths and eagles and towering “look how butch we are!” vibe.
We took in as many of the Smithsonian museums and Public Institutions as we could bear – Air & Space, including the branch out at Dulles (Dude, it has a space shuttle AND Enola Gay, good lord!) – though on the latter, I have to say the $20 parking charge when you can’t park elsewhere and walk is a little bait-and-switchy – Natural History, American History, American Art, National Archives (it was hard, standing in front of the Constitution, not to burst out with "What you. call. 'E Plebnista', we. say. 'We. The. People." in my best Shatner, nerd that I am), The National Zoo, Library of Congress, we sauntered through the statue garden, and toured the Bureau of Printing and Engraving. We drove around Embassy Row (there are some crazy beautiful buildings there… and someone needs to do a coffee table book of the Embassies, I think?), and spent an afternoon at Mount Vernon, and had lunch in Old Town (cobblestone streets? The Building that’s narrower than I am tall? Neat!), and another dozen things that I’m totally blanking on right now, and the remarkable thing is that almost everything is both non-partisan, AND almost all of it is free. If you took your time and were very thorough, I’m sure you could spend three weeks just in Smithsonian run buildings.
God bless James Smithson, y’know?
We (thank you, the offices of Nancy Pelosi!) toured Congress, and heard a whisper across the room. We even sat in on a session of the House of Representatives, but it was something really really boring about derivatives or something; and walked in front of the Supreme Court on the first day of the Health Care trial, and while there certainly were protesters and copious media, the sheer power and size of the building made it seem less crowded than Haight street on a weekday (that is, touristy-busy, but not swamped). And we learned and we talked and we laughed and we downright thrilled at this maddening, wonderful country we live in, where we should never ever take our freedoms for granted.
God Bless America, I say.
I’m crazy proud to be an American, and I did my level best to install that same wonder and joy that I hold for my country, into my young son. The American experiment certainly isn’t perfect – and what you’re presented in museums and monuments absolutely reinforces all of the mistakes that America has made over the years! , but every day, as we folk of good will strive our best to make it better than we found it? Well, all I can say is that this trip did a whole lot to reinforce that sense of hope in my heart. My faith and belief in my country, not just in what we were and what we are, but what we can be, has never been stronger…
And I think the same is now true for my son.