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One of the pleasures and plagues of academic life is a plethora of conferences (how’s that for alliteration.)  Like  food pictures in gourmet magazines, these gatherings inevitably promise more than they deliver.  But when my wife asked me if I would drive her to Washington, DC for yet another conference, I didn’t put up much of a protest.

We had friends who had offered to accommodate us  and even have dinner on the table when we arrived.  I could see my old physician, get together with a friend I haven’t seen in six years, and revisit old haunts.  Our sabbatical rental here in Durham includes an ancient little Toyota, but I hesitated to take that on the road for a journey that would take at least eight hours.  DC is the Eastern equivalent of Los Angeles.  Traffic can turn nasty while you are tuning in the radio.

The rental agent had just the thing for the trip, the automotive equal of a cabin cruiser, a Mercury Grand Marquis.  It was a Sunday afternoon and everything was going smoothly until about an hour outside of DC.  Then all those cars congealed, like fat coming off a sausage.  Half an hour later we crept passed the fender bender that had triggered it all.

In between Manila and Gainesville, we lived in Washington DC for three and a half years.  I look upon it as a transition between the exotic aspects of Asia and the laid back, kooky state of Florida.  We followed that up with the big move down under, which combines the exotic with the kooky in a way that can only be Australian.

For reasons that have little to do with the city itself, I do not remember our sojourn in DC with fondness.  We enjoyed living in the Village of Chevy Chase, and we reveled in the long walks we took along the Potomac.  But it was a difficult time for our family.

Our home base for this visit was Bethesda, a chic mecca for beltway denizens looking for a large choice of restaurants in a small area.  Bethesda is a pleasant place to walk, which makes it very attractive to people who spend hours commuting from home to work.  The town core must have more restaurants than any other city, including New York and San Francisco.  Unfortunately, Washingtonians have a high tolerance for mediocrity, and not just in politicians.

At the suggestion of our host, I wandered down to the Mall to see a new exhibit at the Museum of Natural History on the evolution of man.  You can check it out on-line at:  http://humanorigins.si.edu/  It was interesting, but hardly comparable with the rooms in the vast museum dedicated to the exploration of the ocean.

The Mall is quiet this time of year, and you can see what a grand notion it was to create an urban space on such a scale. Up near the White House, I stumbled across some wonderful wood sculpture at the Renwick Gallery.  On a previous stopover in the Spring, I had spent a good part of a day at the National Gallery.  The pics are from both trips.

On September 11, 2001, my wife and I were both at our respective workplaces, each within a few blocks of the White House.  I remember noticing my co-workers slow down as word spread of the attacks.  Someone found a T.V. and turned it on.  We all stared at the images, horrified and transfixed.  It wasn’t long before the Pentagon plane shattered whatever notion of distance that we thought we had from these events.  The Pentagon was only a few miles away.  What next?

The subway had stopped working.  When the CEO gathered us together for a talk, it seemed more baffling than anything else.  He had a condo nearby and offered to put people up who were stuck without any way to get home.  I looked around at the three hundred faces and thought:  too bad I didn’t bring my walking shoes. Amazingly, I was able to call my wife and our Metro line did start up again.  Maybe 9/11 is why the exhibit on evolution didn’t grab me.  The words “human evolution” don’t seem to belong together anymore.

Our Bethesda friends cooked up a wonderful meal and we caught up with our old friend from Capitol Hill and I passed my physical with flying colors.  We sailed back to Durham in record time.  It may be true that you can’t go home again, but you can visit. And that may be just what the doctor ordered.

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