Curtis' Botanical Magazine, London (1808). Courtesy of The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.


Panem et Circenses

"… Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses..."

- Juvenal, Satire X, circa 140 B.C.


With Purposes Long Forgotten

We were up at Johns Hopkins this morning for M.'s graduation. After a wonderful lunch in Little Italy at a place whose name I've forgotten, we headed over to one of my favorite salvage shops---Housewerks. Corbels, finials and column capitals in every style abound. Radiators, stained glass and religious effigies intermingle with old gas station signage, a fortune tellers booth from a carnival, fireplace mantles representing the major American architectural styles.

All of this is arranged in a beautiful late-Victorian building that was formerly the Chesapeake Gas Works. The tableaux are presented in a consciously haphazard manner around an airy space that, in my mind, may have appealed to a 21st-Century John Soane.

The items pictured are mundane--trash to some. They are anonymous and rigid, almost frantic in their need to convey information for purposes long forgotten. Their beauty lies in the composition and makes me think about our cultural definition of art---who defines it and how it is assigned.


All Water Has a Perfect Memory

Windbreak of trees still standing at the site of The Ankerage, Loudoun County, VA.

Mine was a characteristically suburban youth.

The smell of Summer is the perfume of chlorine and swimming lessons, of cut grass and gasoline, of the neatly mown lawn. My father remains exact on this point, so that one row builds upon another; perfect circles around hemispheres of thick-cut mulch forming the base of a weeping cherry. Smells that are the product of our human attempt to control nature. It is a neighborhood where men take pride in cutting their own grass.

We were one of the first to move in on our street. We spoke to, or at least my parents interacted with, very few of our neighbors. Anyone who knows my parents would realize this is not from a lack of friendliness on their part, but rather an indication of the dysfunctional reality of some of those living immediately around us. A family from Baton Rouge lived behind us, and it was they who introduced the habit among the neighborhood children of addressing our elders in the community by Mister or Miss followed by the individuals first name. To this day Miss C- is still Miss C-. But then of course there were Mr. and Mrs. M--no use of first names for them.

The M--'s lived to the east-- I couldn't even begin to tell you their first names despite they fact they resided mere feet away for nearly 2 decades, for they came and they went silently each morning. That strange dance of the automatic garage door opening, the sedan pulling out ever so quietly and like a tango with a motion forward then back, the car would return after 6:00, the garage would open, swallowing the car for another evening until the alarm rang once again and the tempo of the sad dance was declared by metronome in the form of brewing coffee. At night, Mr. and Mrs. M--they had one son--would go for walks around the neighborhood. I imagine on these walks they may have talked about the yards of houses much like their own. They would occasionally raise a careful and reserved hand in a gesture of hello, but that was all. I was terrified of their son. He rode a skateboard and had strange hair and once asked me, unmercifully, what I was, that I wasn't an American, because look at my father who was a shade darker than myself.

I recall when the house directly to the west of us was the Chestnut Run Sales Center, staffed by a woman who I imagine smoking cigarettes behind the lilac. The garage was the office. I was fascinated by this. In place of a garage door there was a continuous line of french doors that opened into a finished space, a tall vaulted ceiling with skylights. samples of hardwood floor finishes and grades of carpet hung from the wall. The first occupants of the house left it that way, until a naval officer and his family bought it in the late 80's--after the old people with the talking parrot named Crakers departed. Later, in moved a Baptist minister from--another neighbor from Louisiana-- whose daughter used to tell me that "southerners were friendly until they were mad enough to kill you." I don't know if that was her quote or someone else's. She was older and in high school, and thus commanded a certain reverence. During the age of the sales office, a large display case rendered the geography of the neighborhood. It was the community in miniature, color coded to indicate those houses for sale and those that had become the embodiment of someone's American Dream materialized in brick and wood and aluminum siding. Behind our house--our model was called "The Dandridge"-- with its hipped roof and dentil molding that faintly whispered Post-Modern Georgian Colonial, were rolling hills of red Virginia clay that looked more of Mars than of the lower Piedmont. In my grandfather's childhood, this had been a meadow where dairy cows produced milk for the breakfast tables of Washington. I can distinctly remember sitting at the dining room table and watching a consturction worker hang siding in the late summer sun. In the evening we would walk with my father across newly paved streets, the skeletons of housing rising to the right and left. We collected discarded pieces of lumber which we fashioned into pistols and among the dusty red clay streets, with construction as temporary as faux facades in a Western, we reenacted scenes from histories that never happened.

Behind our house ran a trickle of water, almost completely forgotten in an attempt to reshape the face of the earth. It was a stream that appeared only after the heaviest rain. "All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was" wrote Toni Morrison. And in my experience, be it in Charleston or New Orleans or on Constitution Avenue, I've always found this to be the case. That stream connects with a larger body of water that ultimately merges with the Potomac. Horse Pen Run, named by my Great-Great-Great Grandfather---or at least the Gospel According to Grandfather's Family tells us--formed the boundary of what had been our farm from the early 19th-Century up until the 1970s. The Ankerage. This is what they called it in birth announcements and invitations and obituaries, simply The Ankerage. A perfectly neat, white clapboard farm house, with a gracious porch and a mansard roof, the black louvered shutters that closed tight during hot months, reaching into some deep imagined and pretentious past of English Manor houses and castles identified by proper names. My grandfather told stories of his grandfather, as a child during the Civil War, being told to get away from the window for fear of a bullet grazing his head as General Mosby played hide-and-seek across the Northern Virginia countryside. In the evening, if you stand at the same spot where that window would have been--The Ankerage, in its first incarnation, burned in 1917--you would look out at a tired line of bureaucrats making their way in from Washington, the entire scene lit by the the red bulls-eye of a Super Target, the sun setting over the hills of western Loudoun County, far off in the distance. This is the amnesia of the modern south, where the ghosts of history often cross into the reality of a homogeneous culture--unknown to the people who inhabit this space, who come from all places, whose language and diction has solidified so that we speak like men on the television selling cars or promises of international peace.

Whenever I hear someone say northern Virginia is not the South a bizarre combination of relief and sadness washes over me. The relief: an indication of thanks given for a certain disassociation with the modern political reality and the historical social inequity, the ghosts of past and present, that continue to haunt our national conscience. The sadness: for what has passed, the thought that in a few decades a place could become so unrecognizable as to have it's memory completely erased.

Nearly every spring my father's yard is a palette of pinks and whites, beginning with the weeping cherry and the Bradford Pear, transitioning into hyacinth and jonquil, ending in an obscene display of color from at least 10 varieties of paeony. He refers to it as his festival. I generally don't like Bradford Pears. To begin with, there is that smell which I needn't describe here in graphic detail. Second, there is their shape, I suspect , which makes them so susceptible to collapse due to top-heaviness and is probably the result of man's genetic interference. A few years ago, the largest of the Bradford's split right down the middle during a spring storm with a surprising ferocity. Without any hope of it coming back---at least not in any shape that could be called ornamental--my father cut it down. Mr. M saw this from the adjoining yard. He went to the garage and pulled out a chain saw and joined my father at the fallen tree. I wasn't there, but I imagine few words were exchanged. A few months later, Mr. and Mrs. M sold their house and moved away as quietly as they had lived in it.


The Rudeness of Strangers

"I can't stand a naked light bulb, any more than I can a rude remark or a vulgar action."
-Tennessee Williams

Let me preface this by saying, yes , I know it was an ill-advised, if not entirely stupid, thing to do.

Despite an impending snow storm, which will be remembered as one of the largest since they started tracking such things, I went to the grocery store Friday afternoon as I was determined not to let some frozen molecules of water ruin my 30th birthday. I had scheduled the day off previously and thought I would be alone in my foraging at the Harris Teeter on Pennsylvania Avenue, SE. I arrived at the parking garage and suspected nothing unusual, as I immediately found a parking space. Little did I know what fresh hell awaited inside.

As I made my way through crowded aisles of shoppers frantically buying bread and toilet paper, I witnessed 2,000 years of cultural progress dissipating like so many snow flakes on a salted side walk. It is amazing that, in the face of a little inconvenience, how quickly the glue of societal order dissolves. The bread aisle was mostly bare. There may, or may not, have been a few multi-grain, flax encrusted hot dog buns left, but that was about it.

Now, this commentary isn't so much about human psychology and its relationship to pre-snowfall grocery shopping as it is about the rudeness of (some) strangers. It's a societal trait that, for whatever reason, I've noticed more and more lately as I go about my daily business. Take for instance, the woman on the metro the other morning. Early 20s. Seated in an aisle seat, while leaving the seat on the interior empty. An elderly man enters and asks to sit down. A wave of emotion crossed her face that would leave one to think he had asked her to massage his bunions.

Back at the Harris Teeter, where the grocery lines snaked through the store, past Crest Whitestrips, ending somewhere by the meat cases, a mother allowed her toddler to push one of those miniature carts they have for children, barely large enough to hold a head of cauliflower, a bottle of cold-pressed olive oil and a container of humus, completely oblivious to the obstacle this created---or if she wasn't oblivious, she didn't care. It's a sense of entitlement, particularly in families where the parental units have more education than common sense, that leads to this self-absorbed, my child is perfect and all the world should pause to witness this perfection. It's particularly rampant in DC. It is a fact: obnoxious people raise obnoxious children. It's a vicious cycle, you know. "Oh, honey look, Bella made a pretty design with her spaghetti noodles on the floor of the restaurant!", turning to the waitress, who will be on hands and knees scrubbing a proto-Picasso, saying "She is so talented."

Respect and consideration are instilled early in life, that in the absence of such instruction, you end up with the annoying colleague who always interrupts or the individual who insists on cutting in line at the exit ramp, despite the long line of cars waiting to do the same.

By 1:30 I had been in the checkout line for at least an hour. To my right, just over the paper products was another line. Unbeknownst to its occupants, it ended in a closed register. One woman, who probably read too much Howard Zinn at her liberal arts college (and, for the record, A People's History of the United States happens to be one of my favorite books), decided she was going to engage in a little community organizing. This nearly resulted in a reenactment of the Southern Bread Riots. The nastiness directed at the employees was appalling--it transcended all levels of class and socio-economic background. The employees of the Harris Teeter were doing the best they could with the situation, yet the customers (and this gets back to this concept of entitlement) were angry about the circumstances in the face of an overwhelmed system. You see, folks, we are all in this thing together. Whether it is pulling ourselves out of a recession or buying toilet paper and Wonder Bread pre-blizzard.

Love each other. And, Lord, oh, Lord, how I try.


Love in a Warm Climate

“Life gets exaggerated the closer one gets to the equator.” So said one South Carolinian. Personally, I’m not sure what hope there is for me, being of a capricious mix of Virginian, North Carolinian and Ecuadorian. But, if anyone understands the complexity of the southern personality, it’s the documentarian Ross McElwee. I first encountered his film Sherman’s March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South During an Era of Nuclear Proliferation in 1997 during my junior year of high school. Home sick on the sofa, I settled in to watch what I thought, in the manner of Ken Burns, would be a little review on 19th-Century military tactics. While there are reverberations of southern history and culture throughout the film, there is more Woody Allen than War Between the States in this piece of cinéma vérité. The North Carolina raised, Brown educated McElwee presented what was then, in 1986, a freshness and almost voyeuristic account of his infatuations and failed attempts at love. McElwee closely examines “southerness” in a modern context, without the sacchrine sentimentality and faux historicism of a Gone with the Wind Convention. The film covers, what is for me, personally familiar geography—North Carolina; Charleston, South Carolina and nearby Sullivans Island to name a few locations (I had no idea at the time I would end up at the College of Charleston). Like a good piece of Southern Gothicism, it’s replete with characters. There is the first object of McElwee’s fascination—the aspiring actress Pat, with her unique (uhhumm) exercise regimen and her cinematic visions of space aliens and Burt Reynolds; the magnified personality of Charlene Swansea—you are immediately struck by the feeling “This woman must come for cocktails”--a reformed Southern Baptist who once exchanged letters with the imprisoned poet Ezra Pound.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen a few of McElwee’s other documentaries--Time Indefinite and Backyard. None should be approached without seeing Sherman’s March first. So net-flix it. It even comes approved by the folks down the street at the Library of Congress—deemed culturally significant and worthy for preservation in the National Film Registry.


Good-Bye to All That

One may as well begin at the end.

The last day of 2009. Woke to the sound of sleet on the window this morning. Began with the ritual of the coffee press. Turning on the radio, the noise of news, I heard a commentator refer to this decade--this age of mischief, of grown men (and women) behaving badly-- referred to as the "Naughties". I suppose that doesn't begin to describe it.

I mentioned to M.--over dinner and periods of boredom while watching "500 Days of Summer"-- that I needed a hobby, that perhaps I should start a blog to channel my creative impulse which seems to be called upon less and less these days. He responded with a look of confusion. "I thought cooking was your hobby?" he said as he dunked a Trader Joe's frozen dumpling into store bought sauce. (In my defense, I used Soy Vay and I mixed in a little siracha and green onion, which is a tasty accompaniment to the spice of the pork filling). You are already so busy and engaged. It's not like you just sit around." True.

But I miss the written word. I miss poetry and I miss reading things other than Inspector General Reports and GAO studies. (And I miss feeling like it's perfectly acceptable if I don't define GAO for my reader). And I'm embarrassed by the increasing size of my "TO READ" pile.

The catalpa tree--some call it a cigar tree for the cylindrical pods that hang from it's branches-- has this fantastic, fresh green, almost prehistoric foliage and flowers like orchids arranged in a Victorian grandmother's (or my father's) picture window. (Note to reader: there is a beautiful specimen on the north side of the Pan American Union Building across from the Ellipse. Look for it in bloom around Memorial Day.) I love that the name is the result of a mis-transcription. Catalpa should be Catawba, after the tribe, but so it was written and so it has stayed.

So what to expect in the coming year? I'm going to start lite. A post a week. And then we will see where it goes. The Catalpa Review is like those cigar-shaped pods, filled with little seeds that end up where they will. So will my ideas. This is my magnifying glass (brass handled, sitting on a desk of strewn papers and letters). I will inspect whatever fascinates me at any given moment: Art, Politics, History, Music, Culture. Plenty of commentary. Plenty of morsels that no one may find interesting other than myself (or those who know me). Some entries will be long, others no more than a few sentences--or a simple photo of something that grabbed my attention. I've started at least a half-dozen blogs in my life and none of them have matured.

That I am getting started before the clock strikes 12 is a good sign already.