This is summer in Washington. The wet-blanket heat outside, the mummified air inside, the hypotenuse formed between the Botanical Gardens and the Museum of the American Indian as determined residents lead expeditions of Midwesterners across the dusty plains of the District of Columbia. Everyone smells like Coppertone. Everyone is strappy tank tops and sunburned shoulders and iPad cameras, and the sticky purple residue of melted red-white-and-blue patriot popsicles.
Here, at this intersection of hostly duties and resident exhaustion, an unstoppable force meets an immovable object:
I understand that you want to see the Hope Diamond before you die. I will die if someone makes me see the Hope Diamond again.
Immune to awe
I am sitting in a theater in the National Air and Space Museum. It is small. It is dark. Instead of seats, there are only carpeted risers. I am watching a clip of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle,” which is a 1939 musical about a vaudeville comedian who becomes a World War I fighter pilot. I am alone.
Everyone else in the museum is crowded around the Wright brothers’ airplane a few doors down, where a middle-aged guide tells a tour group about the birth of aviation. Downstairs, huddled in front of the Apollo 11 command module, are several baby boomer patriarchs. A dissertation could be written about baby boomer men and the Air and Space Museum: the nostalgia, the longing, the hero worship and quieted dreams.
But I have reached this theater — this serene, tourist-lite zone — at the suggestion of Isabel Lara, the media relations manager for Air and Space. I e-mailed her and said that I needed a new set of must-sees: a quiet corner of the museum, far away from the crowds. Lara told me to visit “Knights of the Sky,” a theater dedicated to showing old-time Hollywood clips about aviation.
Patrons occasionally wander in, but they leave after a few minutes once they realize that nothing is happening here but black and white snippets introduced by Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
Since I am alone, it is time to ponder the meaning of awe.
It is easy to have awe the first time you see the Wright brothers’ airplane, or a Renoir painting, or Seinfeld’s puffy shirt. It is even easier, though, to become jaded. Blind to wonder. Immune to the embarrassment of riches that is automatically provided when you live in a major metropolitan area.
The same sensory dulling that leaves one unimpressed by bountiful ethnic food and same-day dry cleaning will eventually lead one to walk past the Lincoln Memorial, an impressive and meaningful piece of architecture, and go, “Eh."