15 July 2012

George Washington's Shoes

I always imagined that the nation's capitol would have a pronounced character, something akin to that of Colonial Williamsburg, with a pinch of Athens, some hubris, and an overwhelming sense of responsibility. It is, after all, the government heart of one of the largest and strongest nations on earth.

When I got there, it seemed to me that Washington, D.C. is not really a city on its own: if you take the average of the rest of the country, you end up with Washington. (To be fair, I was in the tourist area.) One brochure I glanced at made reference to a strong African-American heritage of the city; probably that is what gives it character. But I had not left time to see anything but Georgetown and the Mall.

I mentioned the strange nature of tourist-area Washington to my father-in-law, who attributes it to careful city planning.
In other words, Washington is a suburb at heart.
I take this to mean either that the heart of America is a suburb, or that the Mall is just where all the Federal buildings are parked and the heart of America is really somewhere else.

My first stop was the Old Stone House, which is a nice place to stop into on the way to somewhere else - it is so tiny, and sparse on explanation, that it did not make me as deliriously happy as other Little Old Houses of my acquaintance. But it is a sweet little pre-colonial house, with a nice little garden in which to stroll around and pretend to be pre-colonial. The rest of the neighborhood, Georgetown, has shed most of its old-fashioned character.

Walking from there by way of the Mall, I stopped into the first Smithsonian that crossed my path, the hall of US History. The Smithsonian is not a museum that tells a story; it is a collection of artifacts. I saw George Washington's clothes and camp kit, and Capt. Clark's compass; and, what is quite striking and awful, the great wooden wheel used for the Civil War draft.

My toddler, who is a real people person, was getting antsy with all these things; so I took her to see the famous statue of George Washington as a Greek hero. She pointed excitedly to the part of the statue at her eye level and exclaimed, "Shoes!"
Yes, dear, George Washington is wearing shoes.

When my toddler looks at George Washington, she is excited to see shoes; my thoughts are more sophisticated, but they don't come up to those of a scholar of US history.
It would be a pity to go through life looking at George Washington and seeing only a pair of shoes.
Each in his own way, we allow ourselves to do this. We don't know what we're missing. How many people go through life thinking Judaism is about guilt and gefilte fish?