Looking at family photos people post at this time of year and thinking about how we tend to believe the facades we see in the images instead of realizing that often much more lies behind the smiling faces and manufactured poses. We tend to ascribe happy, cozy narratives to other families’ images without considering the secrets, darkness, trauma, and pain that those images can never reveal…pain and rejection and heartache and histories that we might know personally but don’t see in others’ stories because we see the facade. We see the image. We see only what they’ve allowed us to see. Because images frozen in time? They can only say so much. And they can say whatever the figures in the image choose for that moment.
 
I guess that’s why I try to keep it real. I’m not advocating we put all our stories out there and air all our grievances and pain without using appropriate boundaries, but I’ve lived with facades for too many decades and they don’t interest me at all. I can’t do it. I’ve been the smiling kid for the family photos. The smiling daughter. The smiling sister. The smiling mom. The smiling granddaughter. And there was always so much hidden behind the smile. So much. But smile and say cheese and pretend for a moment in time. No thanks anymore.
 

 

I realize that some photos do indeed reflect reality (for example…I am really crazy about my husband, and while our marriage isn’t perfect, the smile you see when I’m with him is my most genuine), but before you assume that images do portray what is real, consider what you might not see. Consider that their lives might not be what the image suggests. Consider that the image is but a moment. And consider that your life might be more than normal, even with (or especially with) your story of pain and heartbreak, of family dysfunction and chaos and boundaries and separations and a history that no one know but YOU.
 
And whatever you do, do not give in to the temptation to need that perfect family photo to post or send. Take the pictures, yes, for posterity’s sake, but let’s all acknowledge these pictures are but facades. And facades never tell the truth. They only tell a story. An oft fictionalized story.
 
Now smile. Say cheese. And back to reality.
-heidi

{This is the third post in my year-long D.C. Museums Tour during my Gap Year before I start law school at the age of 40. THIS.}

So what’s been fun and surprising in the month since I started my quest to visit every single museum in Washington, D.C. in one year are the seemingly hole-in-the-wall places. Sure, the Big Name, well known museums are worthwhile, but I’m discovering that the less known places are rich with history, stories, and hidden gems and are even more fun to visit because they are quiet, less crowded, and full of surprises. (I’m sure there’s a life lesson in there somewhere.)

We live close enough here in D.C. to walk from our house to the White House and National Mall, something we love to do as a family to just chill out for a few hours. (I know. It’s truly super dreamy.) When we make the trek, we always go down Massachusetts Avenue, specifically a strip of it known as Embassy Row. Along the way, we pass dozens of embassies. (If you visit D.C. as a tourist, I highly recommend you walk this strip. Pointing out the different flags of each embassy never gets old. And some embassies are really interesting architecturally!) So, Embassy Row being already cool in and of itself, WHO KNEW that a gorgeous building tucked among them that we’d passed multiple times was not an embassy, but rather a gorgeous former home converted into a museum (with free admission, no less!)?

Have you ever heard of the Society of the Cincinnati? I hadn’t either. Anderson House? Not a clue.

Let’s start with Anderson House. First of all, the front of the building itself is beautiful. Grandiose and inviting. But the inside? Even more stunning. If you’ve ever been to Biltmore Estates in Asheville, North Carolina, you’ll appreciate Anderson House. Think Biltmore, but smaller. The Anderson House was completed in the early 1900s. Built by Larz and Isabel Anderson (a couple who had inherited great wealth) for their winter home, the house is rife with “souvenirs” from around the world, stunning pieces of art, furniture, and collectibles that the Andersons had collected during their many travels around the world.

Ms. Isabel Anderson.

The Andersons’ Sunroom. Stunning.

My own home decorating style is fairly eclectic, so I particularly enjoyed the eclectic taste of Isabel. (And I single out Isabel, because I imagine–based on what I learned of her personality–that she was the one responsible. Larz? Much stuffier.) That eclectic style is visible not only in the art and artifacts on display by the Andersons, but in the actual design elements: architecture, floor and ceiling tile, wall murals, columns, light fixtures.

I love floors and ceilings. They’re my thing. Isn’t this floor gorgeous? I want.

The Anderson family has connections to the Revolutionary War (which you’ll learn about when you visit), so several artifacts and art from that ear are also displayed throughout the house.

A Dot Ham.

I mentioned the pros of visiting the smaller, lesser known museums in D.C., and one of my FAVORITE bonuses of these places is that–because they are not very crowded at all—I’ve been able to get personal tours at many places! My husband, Kirk, took a vacation day and was able to accompany me to the Anderson House, and we were escorted (just the two of us) through the house for over an hour by a tour guide who happened to be incredibly knowledgeable, not only of history, but of Larz and Isabel Anderson. She pointed out dozens of aesthetic details of the residence while interweaving historical tidbits and tales. It was not only calming and enjoyable to be in such a stunning home, but the history is absolutely fascinating.

This photo of this ballroom does it such little justice. If I were getting married again, I’d want to have my reception in here.

My goal is to try to find a “lesson” in every museum I visit, but I’m discovering that the lesson usually finds me. At Anderson House I was reminded that wealthy people are not necessarily a bland, homogeneous group of people. Isabel Anderson was not only a woman with intellect and spunk and personality, but she spent years serving soldiers as a nurse and made herself useful to others in society. She didn’t have children of her own, but she wrote numerous children’s books (fellow children’s book author here! Hey hey!). She was a fascinating figure and at one time the wealthiest woman in America. (Who knew, right?)

I was also reminded that money certainly can buy happiness. Sure, we can’t find our sole satisfaction in money, but having means affords one a plethora of opportunities of which the average person can only dream. Travels, art, education, beautiful surroundings? Yes, please.

Also? I’m finding throughout my journeys and just in life in general that we humans will use whatever resources available to us to create beauty around us. Over my life, I’ve been welcomed into huts in rural Ethiopia and into the ballrooms of grandiose mansions, and I’ve discovered that it’s common to all of humanity–no matter the class–that we will make our living spaces places of beauty. Even in the dark rural thatch huts, women lay out beautiful hand-woven blankets on benches and hang leather paintings on mud walls. My seven-year-old tapes drawings to his walls. My teen girls hang pictures and string up lights. We humans crave beauty.

And if you visit Anderson House, you’ll be sure to find it.

This marble door threshold. You guys, it’s so beautiful.

 

As for the Society of the Cincinnati, Anderson House is (obviously) no longer a residence, so instead it serves as the headquarters the Society. Back in 1783, officers in the Continental Army formed the Society of the Cincinnati in order to preserve and perpetuate the memory of the Revolution. (You’ll hear all about that when you tour the House.) As when it was founded, it is still only open to men to join. (You’ll hear more about that, too.) Today the Society’s library is housed in the basement of Anderson House and is actually open to the public for research (appointment required).

You can learn a lot from the Society’s web site, but I hope you’ll take the opportunity to visit Anderson House when you’re in D.C. while you’re strolling down Embassy Row.

 

 

{This is the second post in my year-long D.C. Museums Tour during my Gap Year before I start law school at the age of 40. THIS.}

For my second museum, I chose the International Spy Museum on F Street in Downtown D.C. Now, to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much from it. I had in mind that it would appeal more to kids than to adults. But I was wrong. Actually, in my opinion, the Spy Museum caters more to adults than children. Why? Because it is heavily history-focused. Children under 12 would probably not understand or be interested in much of the exhibits, whereas adults—especially those who love spy movies—will find the real-life stories of spies and their tricks of the trade super fascinating. Also, this museum is not cheap ($21.95 +tax for adults; $14.95 for kids), so it’s only worth it if you are actually interested in learning about spies. I wouldn’t go just for the thrill of it.

In the beginning of the self-guided tour, you choose an identity—an alter ego—and memorize the details. After all, if you’re a real spy and get caught, you have to be able to quickly share information about your fake life. (Think: Jason Bourne.) Throughout the museum you answer questions on computers to test how much you remembered the details of your fake identity. So you better remember who you are. I’m Greta Schmidt. I’m 33 and an astronomer from Germany. And I aced this whole fake persona thing and could totally be an actual spy. OR MAYBE I ALREADY AM ONE. I’ll never tell.

My Post-Visit Recap & Response:

AND…

Other Rad Stuff in the Spy Museum:

  • James Bond exhibit (props, cars, costumes, etc). Cool trivia: Ian Fleming who wrote 14 James Bond novels was a British spy himself and modeled the title character after, well, himself. Apparently he also loved gorgeous women, fast cars, and gambling.
  • Dead Drops: You’ve seen this in movies. A spy walks by and drops an object to be picked up by another spy or passes it off discretely to another agent. This actual mailbox was used by Russian spies as a dead drop site just down the road from me here in D.C. RIGHT there in plain sight.
  • BUGS! A huge display of different ways rooms and people can be bugged. Did you know how often embassies and state departments get bugged by adversaries? Pretty often, apparently! And since I live right near Embassy Row and dozens of embassies, I am thinking that a lot secret intelligence is taking place all around me. YESSSSSSS.
  • Famous people who were famous for other things but who were actually spies on the side: Harriet Tubman, Julia Childs, and others
  • Spy gadgets, tools, weapons, technologies: This was SUPER cool. All the stuff you see in movies? Totally real. Lipstick pistol? Awesome. Umbrella rifle that shoots out poison? Yep.

    All of these gadgets are actually weapons that either shoot bullets or poison or eject a blade.

    The KGB killed a dissident back in the 1970s by shooting out a poison-filled pellet from a modified umbrella like this one. Say what???

    Um, yeah. This is a for real thing. You can read for yourself.

     

  • Artifacts from the actual Argo ordeal. Totally need to watch this movie again!
  • Valerie Plame Wilson and her blown cover. And now I need to read her book.
  • Pigeons! An entire room devoted to carrier pigeons. Who knew these flying rats (as my friend Emily calls them) were so über useful? Did you know that animals could win medals of honor? And that pigeons earned more medals of honor than any other animal? Yay, pigeons! You go, my feathered friends!
  • And THIS. We live just a mile up the road from the Russian Embassy. This house is on the street right behind it and apparently THERE’S A STORY THERE and no one is telling it. When the Russians were building their embassy on Wisconsin Avenue, the FBI bought this house right behind it and started building a tunnel so they could eavesdrop on Moscow. But Russian spy (and FBI agent…woops) Robert Hanssen let the Russians in on it and the tunnel-building was abandoned. Rumor now has it that this house is the location of the tunnel’s entrance. And I NEED TO KNOWWWWWW.
  • 21st Century threats. For example, what would happen if there were a cyber attack against our power grid, the mass chaos that would ensue, etc. Um, not encouraging. America has been given a D- for their readiness in infrastructure and cyber security.

So much to see and learn here.

I left this museum with a newfound appreciation of the complexities involved in protecting a nation both in times of peace and war, a realization that what we see in spy movies is pretty accurately reflective of reality (which, have I mentioned?, is WAY RAD), and a greater freaking suspicion of everyone I pass on the streets now. Here in D.C., it’s no exaggeration to say that there are countless SPIES AMONG US. In fact, my 2nd grader goes to school with diplomat kids and embassy workers’ children, which makes me think that he has classmates who are spy kids. BUT WE’D NEVER KNOW. Ooooooohhhh.

So there you have it. The International Spy Museum. Worth the visit. Quite intriguing. Allow yourself a couple hours. And then…Eat at Shake Shack right next door afterwards. Just be careful. WE’RE WATCHING YOU.

{This is the first post in my year-long D.C. Museums Tour during my Gap Year before I start law school at the age of 40. THIS.}

I left this morning ready to embark on my year-long quest to visit every single museum in D.C., and for my first stop, I chose the African American Civil War Museum. I wanted to start this tour of museums with a history museum, but one that I hadn’t visited before and one that would tell me something I didn’t know.

And from the moment I stepped off the Metro escalator at U Street and faced the African American Civil War Memorial in front of me, I realized how much I never knew. Why? Because history as it’s written and taught doesn’t teach us the whole truth, or oftentimes any of it at all. And it made me mad. Immediately.Because if you read the inscription at the base of the statue, you’ll see that 209,145 African Americans fought in the Civil War, and I bet you never knew that. I didn’t.

See this wall? It’s like the Vietnam Memorial. But smaller. And not on the National Mall. And on it are the names of every single one of those soldiers who fought for the Union. Literally, they saved our nation. And no one told us that in history class.

You’ll have to watch my post-visit response video (scroll to the bottom of this post) to learn more about all the ways we’ve been lied to when it comes to African Americans, Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Civil War (spoiler alert: I’m mad) and what that means for us Americans here in 2017, but here are some highlights:

  • 10% of the Northern Army were of African descent
  • 25% of the Navy was black
  • 25 Black soldiers received the Congressional Medal of Honor
  • George Washington signed a law forbidding blacks from enlisting, even though they actually accompanied him across the dang Delaware. #earlywhiteprivilege
  • Abraham Lincoln never mentioned a moral obligation to free slaves in any of his drafts or discussions of the Emancipation Proclamation. He insisted on “military necessity” as the compelling reason for the freeing of slaves. In other words, freed slaves = more soldiers in the Union Army = saved Union.
  • The Emancipation Proclamation did not free slaves in the entire nation. Only slaves in the 10 rebel slave states were freed (and those states ignored the proclamation). The EP did not apply to the five additional slave states who were NOT part of the rebellion. (Yeah, things we were never told, right?)
  • Because the Union needed more soldiers to win the war, the Union itself would not have been saved without freed slaves. (Hence the need for the Emancipation Proclamation…It’s all coming together now, huh.)
  • At the end of the Civil War, it was the 25th Army Corps—black troops—who captured Richmond. They literally saved the Union and freed themselves. WHAT?!? Yes.
  • Oh, and to put to rest those who claim that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery? Wrong. Their very secession documents clearly delineated that as the reason for leaving the Union. Woops.

And this is just a sampling, you guys. It isn’t a large museum at all, but I spent 2.5 hours in there, reading every word and watching every video. Because SO much was information I was never, ever taught.

Go. Visit this museum. And like the narrator kept repeating in the museum film today, the stories you will learn about are truly the best kept secret in American history. A shamefully kept secret, but the best kept as well.

 

My Post-Visit Response Video.

I might have ranted. I might have preached. I might have been a little mad.

Until next time, friends…