Thursday, December 25, 2008

Welcome Home

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7)

Last night something uniquely wonderful happened - I got the chance to welcome someone to the Kingdom of God.

Lest you think I had anything to do with it, let me dispel any notion of my being an evangelist - at least not in this case. No, it was at the Christmas Eve service where I attend church that I got to witness this miracle.

Our pastor had preached a sermon about the Magi who searched for - and found - Jesus. Often times the Magi (or the three kings) are pictured as being at the manger in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. The Gospel of Matthew does not bear that out. Matthew writes that the Magi from the east appeared about two years after the birth of Jesus . That's why Herod the Great ordered all the boys in Bethlehem under the age of two murdered.

But that's beside the point of my story.

As I said, our pastor preached a message about the visit of the Magi and made an appeal for anyone who would like to invite Jesus to be born in them - the Bible calls it being 'born again' or 'born from above' - to raise their hand. Several people did, though my encounter was with only one of them.

At our church we give what's called a "New Believer's Toolkit" to people who have just come to faith. The kit includes a Bible, a Bible study, a notebook, a pen, and some other resources. I saw a teenager and her mother carrying one of these kits as the crowd - of about 600-700 people - made its way out of the church. I asked "did you just give your heart to the Lord?"

The young girl looked at me shyly and said "yes."

"Congratulations!" I said. "Welcome to the family of God. We are so glad that you are here. We have been waiting for you!" And I gave her a hug.

As I held this girl, I could feel her crying. I don't know her; I don't know why she was crying other than she was feeling the release of some emotion. But when I let her go, I saw her face was pink and a tear was running out of her right eye. I felt blessed to see the newness of life that I believe she was experiencing. Her mother had a great big smile on her face. Her younger brother looked like he just wanted to go home.

But I wanted to greet her and welcome her to faith. Jesus said that there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents that over 99 righteous people who don't need repentance (Lk 15:4-7). The word Jesus used for joy includes the idea of rejoicing greatly, of being glad. It's the same word the angelic messenger used when he told the shepherds he brought 'good tidings of great joy'.

So I wanted to make a big deal out of someone coming to faith. I don't know why I did it. I just did. Then I went home and had an argument with my wife over something stupid - like what to have for dessert. Thank God for His grace, huh?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Up Close and Personal

Visitors view Martin Schoeller's images of Barack Obama and John McCain at the National Portrait GalleryI got to do a report this week on Martin Schoeller's 2004 photographic portrait of President-elect Barack Obama.

The photo - which is huge by the way almost 62" tall x 50" wide - was shot in 2004 just as Mr. Obama was beginning his national political career.

It was taken with a Mamiya RZ 67 Pro II Camera using a 140 millimeter lens and was shot on film. The photo is what is called a digital C-print, which uses a special process that allows more detail and color variance that normal paper.

The photo is hanging in the National Portrait Gallery here in Washington. It is part of an exhibit called “Portraiture Now: Feature Photography." I interviewed the photographer - Martin Schoeller - as he was returning from a photo shoot of Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank on Tuesday.

The Eye is the Lamp

Schoeller told me he wanted to use film because digital has too much depth of field and gets everything in focus. He said he wanted to focus on the eyes and the mouths of his subjects, which he called the most expressive parts of the face. The Obama photo definitely draws you into the eyes.

Schoeller, a former assistant to Annie Liebowitz, told me that he shot this frame as part of an assignment for the QG Men of the Year issue in December 2004. The image is one of the 'in between' shots from that shoot - one of the moments when Mr. Obama is not realizing that he is in front of a camera.

Ironically, the image chosen for the magazine was another of Schoeller's photos - but it has Obama smiling .

"Often times he smiles," Schoeller told me, "because he has a great smile and people often put themselves into poses that they think they look good in." But the photographer said that this shot felt more natural and was a good image.


Anne Goodyear lectures on the Obama PhotoI attended a lecture by Anne Goodyear, one of the curators at the National Portrait Gallery. She said that she thought this image conveyed more of the strength and determination that Mr. Obama brought to the political campaign.

"We want future generations to come into contact with these traits when they come to the portrait gallery," she said. Ms. Goodyear said his determination and confidence are the traits the museum wants people to think about when they see his image.

Vince Aletti is the photography critic for the New Yorker, and he told me that Schoeller's images offer a much closer glimpse than we could get in real life. No one, not even our closest friends, get that close most of the time.

"I think Schoeller's work invites us to really kind of nudge in closer than we might normally do," he said. Aletti said that Schoeller's large format images give their subjects "a sense of nakedness in a away." He said there's nowhere to hide in a photo that large.

Covering this story was a real shot in the arm for me. I got to do some real reporting that didn't involve sweaty athletes or someone dying in a plane crash. Martin Schoeller was a joy to interview. There is something about creative people that fires my jets - it gets me out of the mundane work-a-day crud that I usually have to wade through. I look forward to more of it. I hope to do a TV report on the Tuskeegee airmen and their attempts to make it to the Inauguration.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Take the Train

Virginia Railway Express - VRE - is warning riders who want to take its trains on Inauguration Day that they need to buy their tickets in advance. The special Inaugural tickets are available by mail order only. Anyone who does not have one of these tickets will not be allowed on the train.

Riders will need to pick three choices on either the Manassas or Fredericksburg Lines for January 20th.

Tickets are $25 and are round trip only. No regular tickets will be accepted. There is a whole set of regulations on VRE's website. There are no refunds regardless of the reason and you can only use the tickets for the trains you choose - no substituting and no exchanges. Don't even try to buy a ticket on the platform - they will not be for sale. Also, expect security to be high - bomb sniffing dogs and stuff like that.


The first rain leaves Broad Run in Manassas at 5:05 am and reaches Union Station at 6:18 am. The last train from Broad Run leaves at 7:50 am and reaches Union Station at 9:05.

The last train out might put a damper on your Inaugural celebration plans - it leaves Union Station at 6:50 pm and arrives at Broad Run station at 8:03. Again the time of arrival is an estimate, because it is highly likely that all these trains will be full.Manassas Line VRE Gallery Car (C)

For the Fredericksburg line, the first train leaves at 5:15 am and reaches Union Station at 6:52. The last train in leaves Fredericksburg at 7:50 am and reaches Union Station at 9:19.

The last Fredericksburg train leaves Union Station at 6:40 pm and arrives in Fredericksburg at 8:08 pm. (Note: These downtown arrival times are estimates at best. Depending on how long it takes to load the respective trains at each station there could be delays. Also if there is inclement weather or if there is a mechanical problems, obviously arrivals will be later ).

When you arrive

The closest station to the Mall - to the West side of the Capitol - is L'Enfant. If you leave the platform on the 6th street side, you will see the Holiday Inn and the Federal Center in front of you and the Air and Space Museum is down 6th street to your left. Walk towards the Air and Space museum, past the Department of Education building and you will reach Maryland Avenue. Look to your right and you should see the Capitol.

Do not confuse this station with Metro's L'Enfant Plaza Station. They are not the same. VRE's L'Enfant station is between 6th and 7th streets SW and has visible railroad tracks above the street. You have to climb stairs to get to it. Metro's L'Enfant plaza is close by - Maryland Avenue and 7th street - but you have to go underground to get to it.

All VRE trains run what are called Gallery cars, which are double-decker cars. The Fredericksburg trains tend to have the newer cars, which have better seats, better lighting and better bathrooms. The Manassas Line tends to have refurbished older gallery cars, which are adequate, but have older seats, poor lighting and fewer bathrooms. Fredericksburg Train interior

But for all the special steps necessary it is still better than trying to drive - one local radio station is reporting that the Potomac River Bridges in DC - the Roosevelt Bridge, the Memorial Bridge from Arlington Cemetery, and the 14th Street Bridge - the one that was hit by the Air Florida plane in the 1980s - will all be closed to traffic. Also several streets around or near the Mall in downtown DC are expected to be closed.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Smell like the Man

There is a cologne being marketed by a group called My DNA Fragrance that purports to smell like Barack Obama's DNA. I am not making this up. The product is called POTUS 1600 Obama 08 - POTUS stands for President of the United States - and the selling point for this stuff is that it uses the subject's DNA to make the cologne.

According to their website, POTUS 1600 Obama 08 is a "clean fresh blend of citrus, green leaves and marine notes." The cutline below the name on the website says it is a limited edition, historically commemorative fragrance that highlights Hope for Men and Women.

This fragrance purports to use the buyer's specific DNA to form the basis of the cologne. You swab the inside of your cheek, send the sample in, and they use it to make a fragrance that is uniquely yours - no one else on the planet will smell like that.

My question is - how did they get Barack Obama's DNA? Did some ambitious staffer send it to them? Did they get it off a coffee cup after the California Primary (did I mention this company is in California?) Did they get his used toothbrush or something?

Anyway, it would almost be worth the $39.99 - plus shipping - to smell this stuff. Maybe it would make us all a little more hopeful. Or maybe the lightness we would feel is in our wallets from being ripped off.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Make Room for the President

Destination DC, formerly the DC Convention and Tourism bureau is reporting that an additional 4,500 hotel rooms have become available for the inauguration weekend. News reports and the bureau's website say that since contracts were not finalized, the rooms were not sold and now have been put back on the open market.

They are NOT cheap - starting rates are about $650. And you WON'T find them on Travelocity or Expedia or any of the travel sites. The best bet is to call Destination DC, (800-422-8644).

Also many of the Inaugural Balls are beginning to take shape. The National Conference of State Societies has a list of some of the goings on and some of the balls that are already sold out. The NCSS blog lists some of the celebrations from January 18th to the 21st. Some of the plans include operating rush hour service - trains about every three minutes - for 15 hours on Inauguration Day.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority - which runs Metro Rail and the Metro buses - has announced some of its plans for January 20th.

Metro also plans to stay open until 2 am January 21st to allow people to get home on the trains. Parking at all Metro lots will be free for the entire weekend - including MLK Day on the 19th and Inauguration Day on the 20th.

For those who plan to take Metro to the Mall for the Inauguration the closest station to the Mall itself is Smithsonian. Unfortunately the Mall exit will be closed that day, so you will have to go to the Independence Ave. side. This puts you out at Independence and 12th st. SW. Cross Independence to get to the Mall. The Smithsonian Castle will be on your right and the Washington Monument is on the left.

Also, L'Enfant Plaza is a good place to get off, particularly since it is a transfer station for four lines - Yellow, Green, Blue, and Orange. The Yellow and Green lines come in on the top level of the station and the Blue and Orange lines come in downstairs. Make sure that you get off on the Maryland Avenue exit of L'Enfant. It takes you to - of course - Maryland Avenue. The other exits take you to D St. SW, which is the wrong direction. As you emerge from the Metro station on Maryland Avenue, you will be able to see the Capitol Building and part of the Museum of the American Indian.The National Museum of the American Indian

If you want to continue on the Orange Line to Federal Center SW, you will need to take the escalator to the top to 3rd St. SW and turn left. The Mall is about 2 1/2 blocks down the street. You will be at the intersection of D and 3rd St. SW. There is a Starbucks Coffee and a Potbelly Sandwich Shop to the right as you come up the escalator. The Mall is to your left. As you approach Independence Ave., you should see the Capitol to your right as you pass the Department of Health and Human Services at 3rd and C St. SW. The Museum of the American Indian is the windswept looking yellowish building on the left at Independence.

Also, Metro's Red Line takes you to Union Station, the main rail station in DC. It is about three or four blocks from the Capitol depending on whether you are going straight to the Senate side or if you are going to the West Lawn. Union Station is also the terminus for the VRE, the MARC trains and Amtrak. (It is an impressive building, particularly the grand hall with stone carved warriors lining the top of the walls. It also has a food court on the bottom level as well as shops and restaurants on all levels.)

If you want to come in from the North side of the Mall, Federal Triangle would be the best Metro Station to get off the Orange and Blue lines. It is near the Reagan Building, the Old Post Office Pavilion and the FBI headquarters. It is also the closest station to Pennsylvania Avenue. The Archives Navy Memorial Station will be closed all day because it is right on Pennsylvania Avenue. The Secret Service has designated Inauguration day as a special national security event, so that station is closed for security reasons. Judiciary Square on the Red Line is another option.

Expect to see a LOT of police that day. DC Police Chief Cathy Lanier has said there will probably be an additional 4,000 officers - in addition to all of her 4,000 - working January 20th. Backpacks, strollers, thermos bottles, etc. are not allowed on the Capitol grounds - along with the obvious dangerous items like knives, guns or explosives. Expect to stand long hours in the cold. Even if the estimated 4-5 million people show up, even that much body heat might not help. The temperatures average 30 degrees in January - and it rains. However, there are exceptions to the rule - last January 8th, it was 73 degrees! More inaugural prep later. Stay safe.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Inaugration Prep

The Inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States is about six weeks away. Washington is getting ready, with the inaugural stage on the West Portico of the U.S. Capitol almost finished. The Capitol Christmas tree is on the West Lawn, but that will be gone as soon as the holidays are over.

Only 240,000 tickets are available to attend the actual swearing-in ceremony at the Capitol. I say only because as many as 4-5 million people are expected to travel to Washington for the inauguration and parade. The National Park Service and the Obama transition team announced this week that the entire National Mall in Washington will be open for the ceremony. That is unusual because often parts of the Mall are closed as staging areas for the parade. Giant television screens will be erected so people can watch parts of the President's swearing-in and speech.

Hotel rooms are still available for the ceremony. Friday, the Washington Tourism Bureau, Destination DC, said more than 1,000 rooms are available in the metro DC area. However, there are restrictions - including a four-day minimum stay at some hotels - and rates are from $100 - $1,000 a night.

Construction also continues near the White House, with the reviewing stand for the President and other dignitaries under construction.

If you have never been to Washington, DC before, remember that L'Enfant designed it to frustrate an invading army. It does that every rush hour for those of us who live here, so patience will be needed on Inauguration Day.

The city is served by three main public transportation lines - the Metro, the Virginia Railway Express, and the MARC trains (from Maryland). Metro is debating whether to stay open 24 hours a day for the inauguration. They do not plan to have the escalators running at the busiest stations, which means the stairways will be locked in place and you will have to walk.

VRE - which runs from outside Manassas, Virginia (to the West) and from Fredericksburg (to the South) to Union Station in Washington - plans to run on its modified "S" schedule. That means there will not be as many trains.

Both lines - Manassas and Fredericksburg - operate double-decker cars. The Fredericksburg line tends to have the more modern cars, though Manassas is catching up. Tickets vary in price based on how far from downtown you are. There are ticket machines at the stations, and they do accept credit cards, but sometimes they do not work or have difficulty reading the magnetic stripe on your card. It is best to try to get tickets ahead of time if you can.

The MARC lines operate between Perryville, Maryland (Penn Line - which goes to Penn Station in Baltimore), Martinsburg, West Virginia and Frederick, Maryland (Brunswick Line) and from Camden Station in Baltimore to Washington, but they - like the VRE - do not operate all day.

For the Inauguration, they say "Penn, Camden and Brunswick lines will operate between 5 AM and 9 AM and between 4 PM and 9 PM. MTA monthly and weekly passes, 10-trip tickets and previously purchased one-way tickets will not be accepted. All trains will be reserved and tickets must be purchased in advance. For the Penn Line, there will no service north of Penn Station."

Look for more updates on this blog as the Day draws nearer. We will try to post as much information as possible and give an everyman's view of the celebration.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Capitol Christmas

Tonight was one of those cold, bracing nights in Washington that make you walk faster and hunch against the wind. I walked through Capitol Hill from the Library of Congress past the new visitor's center that opened earlier this month. It is quite impressive. It reminded me of the approaches to the Palace of Versailles in France - only in that it was a long, paved expanse that leads to an impressive building.

Venus and Jupiter were clearly visible in the Southwestern sky. They are not as close to the moon as they once appeared, but both were visible. Part of their visibility was due to the sub-freezing cold in DC. And the wind was blowing.

The Capitol Christmas tree is illuminated. It was as about as attractive as any they have had there, but the cold made me rush for my car and warmth. The inaugural preparations continue, with the stage nearly completed. There have been reports that as many as five million people are coming for the inauguration. That would fill the mall all the way to the Lincoln Memorial. Radio reports here are asking where the city plans to accommodate the tour buses that are planning to deliver thousands of tourists.

I hope for the people's sake it is not as cold then as it was today.