Modern art decorates Washington, D.C.'s spacious, publicly owned spacesWashington, D.C., can take you from the completely eclectic to grounded down-to-earth in no time flat. Take this piece: one of several hulking red metal constructions spaced out around the publicly owned parks leading to the National Mall, it could clash or scream against the landscape. But, set as it is near a fountain where children are running around and adults are scarfing salads and sandwiches under some generous tree foliage, it seems to fit right in. There is something about the way this sculpture is plopped down, along with several other pieces of outdoor art, seemingly at random, that gives visitors a gentle introduction both to the massiveness of the National Mall and the sheer weirdness of the Hishhorn Museum of modern and contemporary art.

When we visited D.C., the Hirshhorn was dedicating an entire floor to the work of artist Louise Bourgeois. The exhibition is centered around huge spider sculptures that evoke a “creepy fascination.” They’re punctuated by “Arch of Hysteria,” a life-size bronze sculpture of a skinny human arched backwards into a near-circle. The artist says this piece, which at first glance reminded me of some of the more difficult yoga poses I’ve attempted, is meant to evoke the feeling of “bending over backwards,” the stress of always trying to do your best.

That idea fit right in with this quote from Louise Bourgeois: “It is not so much where my motivation comes from but rather how it manages to survive.” Well said.

Hirshhorn Modern Art Museum in Washington, D.C.: "Last Conversation Piece," sculpture by Juan MuñozI usually have to enter a modern or contemporary art museum with a completely blank mind, no assumptions. Because the truth is I really don’t get it. I don’t get the art, the artists, the point, or the attraction. But every now and then something speaks to me, tapping an inner bell of recognition (of what? who knows) or evoking a laugh of delight. The latter was the case with Juan Muñoz’s “Last Conversation Piece,” (pictured here), set just outside the museum’s entrance. A miracle of movement, it hints at forthcoming violence, or the possibility of peace. I wonder what they’re saying to each other, what prompted the confrontation among these creatures.

So you go from weird, to mundane but pleasant at the National Portrait Gallery (which is enormous and requires much more time than anyone has in a given afternoon), where the most popular rooms are the wide-open spaces given over to portraits of all the U.S. presidents. It’s a pretty remarkable collection, the faces of these men always fascinating and some of the more recent art unexpected, like the life-size de Kooning piece of John F. Kennedy and riveting images of a young Abraham Lincoln.

I’m looking forward, however, to seeing a woman up there someday.

And from the pleasantly mundane to the down-to-earth at the National Zoo. I love it that we have a National Zoo. When you have this exchange – “And it’s free!” “No, it isn’t. We pay for it with our tax dollars.” – you’re given a nice little uplift of democracy. Something that reminds you that the power still does lie in the people, even if we choose to fritter it away. Which is nice, because I’ve always been conflicted about zoos and always will be. All those gorgeous animals stuck in cages, no matter how large or open-aired.

Giant Panda at the National Zoo, Washington, D.C.Unfortunately, none looked sadder than the zoo’s biggest success stories: two adult giant pandas and their cub. The outdoor space given to the three awe-inspiring creatures is gracious, with plenty of room for privacy, but we happened upon them when they were inside during feeding time, with hundreds of tourists (yes, me, too) snapping photos through mucky glass. With only about 1600 wild giant pandas left in China, though, who can criticize?

The National Zoo’s outdoor orangutan cables (set up high above visitors’ heads for the delightful long-armed creatures to swing on), and the new boardwalk bridge for the elephants being built throughout the park speak volumes for care and conservation of animals in captivity. Nice to know my tax dollars are going to something worthwhile.

Kids' Prairie Dog Maze at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.But what’s really cool are the play spaces for children: in addition to the house-sized pizza puzzle (with bouncy bits and climby bits and all bits in between) and a petting zoo, the prairie dogs have graciously allowed a kid-sized prairie dog maze to be built next to their habitat. After a day of mind-bending museums, scrambling through its tunnels can bring both you and your kid right back to earth.