Monday, February 22, 2010


Deep in the shady sadness of a vale
Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn,
Far from the fiery noon, and eve's one star,
Sat gray-haired Saturn, quiet as a stone.
-- John Keats, "Hyperion"

I'm killing time at D.'s house, on a Monday when I normally would be at work, waiting for a tow truck to come take my 1995 Saturn, which I'm donating to a public-radio station. The clutch gave out in late November, and because my father's 2002 Saturn (with fewer than 18,000 miles) was waiting for a new home, I decided not to have my car (with nearly 110,000) fixed, as it would cost at least half of what the car was worth. But I couldn't find the title, so I had to order a replacement, which turned into a nearly three-month ordeal with DC's Department of Motor Vehicles. The car has been sitting in front of D.'s house the whole time. Now I have the title, the donation has been arranged, and it's time to say goodbye to a good, mostly reliable car that I've owned since 1998.

Meanwhile, I bought Dad's car. But last week, before I'd even made all the payments to my sister, I punched a hole in the front of it while trying to turn my way out of the narrow entrance of a downtown parking garage that was, at the time, attendant-less. The attendant, of course, appeared as soon as I drove off in frustrated rage -- at myself. (No other car was involved.) So now I have to get body work done on the new Saturn (manufactured by a company that, as of a few months ago, no longer exists) as soon as my other -- frankly, beloved -- car is donated and on its way.

I helped Dad buy this car, aided by Saturn's no-haggle policy, and he himself put a couple dents in it during the relatively short time he drove it (all since repaired). I realize that the material things we own have no expectations of us. And my father doesn't know about my accident, let alone remember that I've bought the car (he continues to think I borrow it, with his blessing). But I can't help feeling I've already failed at my stewardship of this object entrusted to me, corporate orphan that it is: a vehicle in need of greater care, cooler emotions, a gentler hand shifting it into drive.

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Mother, Child

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a preview of the exhibit "Turner to Cezanne: Masterpieces From the Davies Collection, National Museum Wales" at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. It's a very nice show, even if its modest scope and content seem almost at odds with the grandiosity evoked by the word "masterpiece."

One work by a painter unfamiliar to me stood out among all the rest: "Maternity (Suffering)" by Eug
ène Carrière. It's markedly muted, nearly monochromatic, amid the vibrant colors of Renoir, van Gogh, Manet, and the rest. I don't think I've ever seen a painting quite like it from that period (1896-97).

In a way, it's not surprising that I was drawn to it because it reminded me of a 19th-century photograph -- not a particular one, but the photographer who immediately came to mind was Julia Margaret Cameron. (It's relevant to note here that one of my favorite activities in the world is wandering through a museum exhibit of black-and-white photographs -- far more enthralling to me than any collection of paintings.)

In refreshing my memory of Cameron's work online, I see that most of her photos don't have the haziness of the Carri
ère painting, as I thought they did: that blur of half-recall, like one's first mental imprint of a private time with a parent -- the smell of the skin or breath, the motion of a rocker, the mysterious warmth of a hand on one's head.

I don't remember seeing the exact photograph of Cameron's at left before, but I very well might have -- why else would she have come to mind? Could I be reliving an encounter with it in a gallery from long ago? Or a moment from my own childhood? Are both of these pictures echoes of countless mothers and children through the years -- one brush, one lens, one memory after another burnishing an impression on canvas, on paper, on the farthest reaches of our eyes?

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Sunday, February 07, 2010

Winter Weekend

I didn't have to do any digging out during the snowstorm, because I'd taken my car in for service Friday morning and was allowed to leave it there after the work was done (though how and when I'll be able to get it home from the suburbs and find a space to park in my neighborhood, I'm not sure). Others in my condo beat me to the shoveling on and around our property (about which I feel somewhat guilty). My ventures outside have been mainly to walk the dog -- multiple times a day -- so I've seen the snow's nature, in the air and on the ground, change over the last two days, like a a body blooming, coming into its own, slowing down, then yielding to the onslaught of footprint and tire.

I baked and cooked -- pancakes, muffins, bread, pasta with avocado and tomatoes, Irish oatmeal with apples and cranberries. And I ate.

D. and I have been apart, separated by the weather, like lovers on separate continents, though we're only a handful of miles away. He's finally on his way over as I type, having braved the roads, the Metro, and the icy streets.

Mom and Dad's phone service and cable -- their only connections to the outside world unless one of us is visiting -- were out for a time, but they're back up. This weekend I had a good excuse to have no obligations to them, other than checking in (when it was possible). So I had that rare thing: a weekend at home, where I got to walk and sit and doze through full cycles of sunlight and dark; scents of breakfast, lunch, dinner; the intermittent scrape of shovels on pavement, like an animal's insistent pawing to be let inside.

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Thursday, February 04, 2010

Next Door

While this will interest only a small segment of my already minuscule audience (if that), I have started another blog to chronicle and reflect on a recent change in my life. Feel free to pay a visit. Or not. Who knows, I may build a whole different audience there: the neighbors next door.

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Now Boarding

When I was in Prague in November, I bought Me, Myself & Prague: An Unreliable Guide to Bohemia by Rachael Weiss in an English-language bookstore. It's a memoir about the Australian author's first year as an expat in the Czech capital a few years back -- easy to read, not as funny as it wants to be but often winning, and pretty informative about a fascinating and somewhat mysterious city, if about 100 pages too long. What it does very well is evoke the disorientation and struggle that often accompany moving to a foreign country, as well as the pride in coming to call a once-strange place home.

For me, it also awakened reflection on the subject of adventure-taking, which I tend to shy away from. Specifically, it made me think about 20 years ago when the Iron Curtain fell and the subsequent flood of Americans and others who moved to Eastern Europe to teach English, set up businesses, have a part in the establishment of budding democracies -- and just live an adventure during a ripe time in an inviting place. (Even though that's not the period in which the book I was reading takes place, it was on my mind because, by chance, D. and I were in Prague for the 20th anniversary of the velvet revolution of November 1989.)

I started asking myself, "Why didn't I ever do something like that?" I lay awake more than one night thinking about the good it would have done me to up an take off for Prague or a place like it in the early 1990s, put down stakes for a year or two or more, and see what happened.

In fact, that period in history coincided with a time in my life when I was unencumbered, somewhat lost, and utterly available to being shaken up. I had finished graduate school in the fall of 1989 as the Berlin Wall was being torn apart. In the winter of 1990, at age 28, I was working in a bookstore making $5 an hour. A romantic relationship with a woman, a dear friend, was disintegrating from the corrosion of my as-yet-unspoken gayness. (She was actually in another city attending to her dying mother as I, to my eternal shame, remained paralyzed by my confusion and fear over what I'd gotten myself into -- no balm to her grief whatsoever.)

If only someone had said to me (after I made things right with my friend, of course), "I was reading about how English teachers are needed in Prague -- you'd be good at that." Or "Look at this article about Americans helping to bring the former Soviet countries into the 20th century -- why don't you think about doing something like that?" Or "Billy, I'm going to go travel around Eastern Europe for a while -- I don't have a plan, but I think it would be fun. Wanna come along? (And hey -- my dad has a few thousand dollars in the barn we can use to finance the trip!)"

That's what it would have taken: someone prodding me, essentially forcing me into adventure. I never would have thought of it or done it on my own. I was certainly aware of what was going on in that part of the world at the time (I remember it quite clearly). But it never crossed my mind that this could have anything to do with me or have any practical bearing on my life.

That was the most telling and sobering realization.

Of course, in the pre-Internet age, it would have been harder to find out about such opportunities, let alone make arrangements for them, find a place to live, etc. I know all that. But this is a what-if fantasy.

And here's the thing about this fantasy: Like some sort of alternate-reality travel agent, I found myself trying to arrange when it would have worked out best in my life: I wouldn't have wanted to be in an unfamiliar country when I came out of the closet (in the summer and fall of 1990). I really needed that support group I took part in -- and that shrink I saw for a year was lifesaving, too. So it wouldn't have been a good idea to go to Prague (I told myself) until I'd laid that psychological groundwork. Oh, and it would have been nice to have my first relationship out of the way before moving -- he was such a nice guy.

"So here's what I can do for you, Billy," the travel agent in my head told me. "I can fit your Prague fantasy in from the middle of 1992 until, say, 1995 -- how's that? I think about three years in Prague would do you a lot of good and you could still return to America in time to get on track to become who you are today."

That says it all -- I can't even have an adventure fantasy without assuring myself that I can be back in time for the me-train to arrive at the present-day station as scheduled.

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