Meb Byrne

Archive for the ‘historical’ Category

Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear

In dc, event, historical, inspiration, performance, photo op, politics, recommended on October 31, 2010 at 10:01 pm

The Rally To Restore Sanity, held by Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, and the March to Keep Fear Alive, hosted by Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report, collided on the National Mall Saturday. Attendance estimates range from 215,000 to 250,000 people, all of whom conducted themselves with moderate enthusiasm. (Buh dump chh.) Though the pacing of the three-hour-long event was inconsistent, the great positive energy of the crowd and the raison d’etre of the rally made it an overall success.

The guest list was extensive, eclectic and generally crowd-pleasing. As an opening act, the Mythbusters Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman conducted experiments on The Wave and seismic tremors with their largest sample size ever. Sam Waterston delivered an amusing poem penned by Colbert, bookended by Law & Order’s famous “dunk dunk.” Musical acts included John Legend and the Roots, who provided backup throughout the rally; Tony Bennett; Kid Rock and Sheryl Crow, performing a brand new and under-rehearsed tear-jerker; and a disappointing set by Mavis Staples and Jeff Tweedy. The best set was a dueling trio: Yusuf Islam sang a moving rendition of Peace Train; Ozzy Osbourne screamed and leered his way through Crazy Train; and the O’Jays, clad in matching white suits, brought both ends of the musical spectrum together with Love Train.

The weather was sunny yet pleasantly cool, the crowd’s age demographic surprisingly broad and race demographic homogeneously Caucasian. Most impressively, the throng comported itself with, well, moderation. Extremists from both ends of the spectrum stayed home, allaying my fears of screaming slogans and vicious signs. Arguing, complaining, and even fidgeting were kept to a minimum. The only animus shown throughout the rally came from the people in the cheap seats, who repeatedly sent up chants of “Louder! Louder!” until the microphone system was turned up.

Stewart was an capable ringmaster, handling himself expertly both as a professional and as a comic. Many segments of the rally mimicked Sesame Street parables, with Stewart teaching Colbert that, say, not all Muslims are terrorists and not all robots are evil, aided by the onstage appearances of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and R2D2. Stewart even sang an educational duo with Colbert. Entitled “There’s No One More American Than Me,” the song celebrated the right of all citizens to be patriotic, and gave shout-outs to everyone “from gay men who like football to straight men who like Glee.” The repartee between the two men often grew tiresome, though, and by the end of the rally, with Colbert’s fear finally defeated, I was not sad to see him leave the stage.

Stewart’s closing keynote was the most serious moment of the afternoon, but also the most meaningful. He spoke calmly and passionately about the need for moderation and thoughtful reasoning, not abject, irrational fear, in today’s society, quipping that “we live in hard times, but we do not live in the end of times.” The audience hung on his every word. Although Stewart did not prescribe methods of achieving this moderation as we move forward, the sheer fact that so many people from so many places turned out for his cause deserves great commendation.

For more photos of the rally, check out the Flickrstream of my buddy Andy Richardson, whose seat was much more VIP than mine.


Sterling Renaissance Festival

In fashion, geek, historical, photo op, recommended, renaissance, smile-inducing, syracuse, theater on July 27, 2010 at 12:50 pm

When I was eight years old, my mother took me to the Sterling Renaissance Festival (or Faire) for the first time. The Faire recreates the town of Warwick in the county of Warwickshire, England, in 1585, celebrating a visit from Queen Elizabeth I. The food, the shops, and especially the performers captured my young imagination, and have drawn me back year after year. This summer, I traveled upstate to celebrate the Pirate Invasion, one of Sterling’s theme weekends. Many things have changed since that first visit, but at its core, the Faire still retains its wonderfully magical appeal.

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The Sterling Renaissance Festival runs Saturdays and Sundays in Sterling, New York, rain or shine, until August 15.


Bannerman Castle

In historical, nyc, photography, tour on July 23, 2010 at 10:01 am

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When you step off the MTA train in Beacon, NY, an hour north of Manhattan, you enter another world. A small brick path with well-labeled signs leads you from the train station to the edge of a lake of molten glass, lapping a green-tinted wooden dock peacefully and bordered by an immense sky. After a short wait on the dock with your fellow out-of-town travelers, mostly middle-aged and sweating in their T-shirts, a low, flat-topped boat arrives and everyone piles in. The vessel glids you through the waves, with the sun glinting off the dingy aquamarine depths.

Bannerman’s Island divides the waters of the Hudson River, with sloping, viridian mountains on the surrounding shores. Bannerman Castle , built in the late nineteenth century, is tucked away on the northern shore of the island, mixing darkly with the distant foliage. The castle is all rust-colored brick and greige cement, topped with tall turrets and the phrase BANNERMAN ISLAND ARSENAL embossed on the northern side of the structure. Originally seven stories high, it is now an empty shell and a safety hazard; visitors must keep their distance, and if the wind picks up, must back away even further.

Upon docking, our merry band was met by volunteers dispensing cheery-colored hard hats. Our mud-splattered tour guide was a fast-talking font of information, and jumped into his rambling, repetitive spiel with little preface on the castle’s history or purpose. The hour-long tour was an explosive mashup of US  and world history (some of which was factually questionable), Mr. Bannerman’s life, and fun snippets of information. Our guide randomly displayed period photographs taped to Styrofoam boards. Once, we were treated to a basic zoological history of the cormorant.

I’ll spare you the details of the castle’s past (military surplus warehouse, trading point) and its creator (jack-of-all-trades businessman, novelty purveyor). The castle is in severe disrepair, thanks to explosions and fires over the past century, and, most recently, two bouts of nasty winter weather that took down two thirds of the castle walls. When you become lost in your guide’s exposition of the island (and you will), focus instead on the natural beauty surrounding you. The space is remarkably quiet, but for the tromping of feet on dirt paths and the occasional speedboat. Subsidiary buildings, built in the same style as the castle, dot the rest of the island, along with small gardens and a covered flowering grotto. Try to stay out of the sun; the heat can be oppressive if the tour is in the middle of the day.

The Bannerman Castle Trust hopes one day to restore the island’s structures to their original grandeur. After the poorly planned tour, I was left unconvinced that such a restoration would be worth it without several big changes. The Trust needs a clear mission statement, a lot of organization and a few wealthy backers to supply the millions needed to stabilize the castle. The Trust is planning several innovative events for later this summer, including a Victorian tea party in August, and a dinner for forty guests in September, prepared by the former chef at the Governor’s Mansion. I wish them well; they have much work to do before Bannerman Castle can really shine.

The Star-Spangled Banner

In dc, historical, museum on July 15, 2009 at 3:58 pm

The National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, recently reopened after extensive renovations. One of its most famous pieces, the giant “star-spangled banner” made famous by Francis Scott Key, has been treated to a complete makeover. Too fragile to ever hang again, the flag now lies on display in the solid, smart exhibit, “The Star-Spangled Banner: The Flag That Inspired the National Anthem.”

The exhibit begins, as many popular Smithsonian exhibits do, with a long line. Don’t let the wait put you off: the line moves quickly. A darkened ramp acts as both crowd control and excitement-builder as it leads upwards into the blackness. One side of the ramp’s hall is lined with a mass of information, covering the buildup to the Battle of Baltimore on September 14, 1814, and Key’s subsequent penning of the Star-Spangled Banner.

As you turn the corner, the flag comes into view and takes your breath away. This flag is HUGE, measuring at thirty by thirty-four feet, cut down over the years from its original thirty by forty-two feet. The enormous banner is luminescent in the black room, accentuating its size. The darkness imparts a sense of spectacle, and the awe which Key must have felt, spotting the flag in the breaking dawn.

The most unique feature of the exhibit is an interactive viewing station: a giant screen displaying a slowly shifting image of the flag, located at the end of the exhibition hall. By touching the screen, you can control how the flag moves. As well, you can open various tabs of historical information by touching blinking circles on the screen. The display is a little difficult to decipher, but a good effort on the Smithsonian’s part to incorporate new media and a younger generation into its exhibitions.

The outgoing ramp features the history of the flag’s maker, Mary Pickersgill, and her lineage. Fascinating photos of how the flag was preserved and displayed over the centuries hang above various artifacts, including a fabulous silver punch bowl shaped like a British mortar, with matching cups and ladle. In a final burst of patriotic fervor, the importance of the American flag and “The Star-Spangled Banner” through the ages are highlighted with a montage of famous individuals and groups singing the anthem.

“The Star-Spangled Banner: The Flag That Inspired the National Anthem” is simple, direct, and focused, qualities which often elude the Smithsonian Institute in its quest to successfully impart its gigantic store of artifacts and knowledge to the public. This is one Smithsonian exhibit worth checking out.

Old Stone House

In dc, garden, historical, museum on June 21, 2009 at 10:15 pm

I stumbled across a historical treat in Georgetown the other day. Built in 1765, the Old Stone House is the only remaining pre-Revolutionary War building in Washington, DC. For decades, it was believed to have been the meeting place of George Washington and Pierre L’Enfant, the famous architect, when they sat down to plan the layout of the city of Washington. (Research in the 1950s proved that the two men actually met in a tavern down the street.) The House now serves as an example of a typical 18th century home, since so few survive.

The House has a sitting room, a dining room, two bedrooms for the parents and children, and a kitchen on the ground floor. Small plaques give you historical tidbits about the building. For a more comprehensive history, talk to the National Park Service staffers who greet you at the kitchen door. Interesting details, like the rare presence of a closet in the children’s bedroom, can start conversations about American history with young children or students.

I was initially drawn to the Old Stone House by its garden, located behind the building. A substantial green lawn is bordered by flowers, weeping willows and brick foot paths. A wooden bench at the bottom of the garden evokes the simplicity of colonial courtship, as do hidden paths which wind behind the flowerbeds.

The House’s one problem? Location, location, location. To get to Georgetown, you quite literally need to go over the river and through the wood, only these woods can give you malaria. The House is small, and I wouldn’t recommend it as a sole destination for a trek to Georgetown. My suggestion is to slog the twenty minutes from the Foggy Bottom metro to the House in the mid-afternoon. After you’ve seen the House, relax in the Barnes & Noble across the street, or stroll along Georgetown’s main street and find a cute spot for dinner.