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Expect the Enema Bag Sculptures: Rachel Whiteread at the National Gallery of Art

December 31, 2018

This exhibit is not what it seems
I’m told that art is supposed to provoke a reaction. My first reaction to Rachel Whiteread’s exhibit at the National Gallery of Art was surprise. As I walked from room to room, amusement followed. Soon, amusement was leading me, or more like pulling me, into each new part of the exhibit.

I don’t think amusement was what Whiteread or the curators at the National Gallery of Art were going for. Clearly, I am not their target audience. If there had been a pre-test to determine my worthiness to view this exhibit, I would have failed it.

This is what happens when museums are free. No-cost museums mean simply anyone can walk in, lured by what appears to be a photograph of a not-yet-hung door in a Caribbean home, and opinionate about the difference between what they expected after not reading about the exhibit ahead of time and what the exhibit actually contained.

I sincerely apologize to the art-loving community for my complete and utter lack of refinement. Usually, in situations where I just don’t seem to be “getting” the art or the lecture, or I don’t understand the “transitional elements in the Mark Rothko-esque moth-loves-lamp meme,” I lurk near other people. I listen to the appreciative, knowing things they say, and I try to learn something.

Eavesdropping for knowledge was not possible at the National Gallery of Art on the day I saw the Whiteread exhibit. It was a Wednesday morning right after the museum opened. The only ones to talk with were the guards. This being me, I talk with guards all the time, or at least I give them the wide-eye about odd human behavior going on in an exhibit. But it didn’t seem right to chat with the guards about this exhibit. The only questions I could come up with were leading ones, and I would have been fighting a chuckle or a snort. The wide-eye would have been about me, and the guards would have been giving it to each other.

Instead of chatting, I spent an inordinate amount of exhibit time taking pictures and contemplating the difference between what I guessed certain pieces should taste like and what they would most likely actually taste like. The tasting-thoughts portion of the exhibit did not begin until after I was beyond the enema bag sculptures. Thank the Maker.

Just because I don’t get Whiteread’s art doesn’t mean people who can’t visit don’t want to see it. I can only hope enough good comes of my posting these pictures (despite the internal dialogue I offer below) that all the negative karma I’m accumulating on this page is somehow abated.

If that’s not how karma works, I’m in big trouble. Regardless…

Untitled Domestic, 2002, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled Domestic, 2002, Rachel Whiteread

This exhibit is for me!

Untitled Torsos, 1992-1999, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled Torsos, 1992-1999, Rachel Whiteread

Oh. Oh, what? Oh, my. I did not know there were so many types of enema bags.

Untitled Twenty-Five Spaces, 1995, Rachel Whiteread 2

Untitled Twenty-Five Spaces, 1995, Rachel Whiteread 2

These jellies do not wiggle.

Various Pieces, Rachel Whiteread

Various Pieces, Rachel Whiteread

This furniture store is very disappointing.

Untitled Library, 1999, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled Library, 1999, Rachel Whiteread

Is it still a library if no one can read the books?

Untitled Yellow Bath, 1996, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled Yellow Bath, 1996, Rachel Whiteread

I do not want a bath in the yellow bath.

Untitled White Slab, 1994 and 2017, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled White Slab, 1994 and 2017, Rachel Whiteread

Tongue depressor for a whale.

Flap, 1989, Rachel Whiteread

Flap, 1989, Rachel Whiteread


Untitled Amber Mattress, 1992, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled Amber Mattress, 1992, Rachel Whiteread


Untitled Bath, 1990, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled Bath, 1990, Rachel Whiteread

I found one of the sinks Victor the Cleaner used.

Art is everywhere.

Study, 2005, Rachel Whiteread

Study, 2005, Rachel Whiteread

On Craigslist, I once gave away a desk like this for free.

Doorway 1, 2010, Rachel Whiteread

Doorway 1, 2010, Rachel Whiteread

Damn you, beautiful door of lies.

Night Glass, 2011, Rachel Whiteread

Night Glass, 2011, Rachel Whiteread

The buttons on this Nintendo controller do not work.

Untitled Hive II, 2007 and 2008, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled Hive II, 2007 and 2008, Rachel Whiteread

This jelly house would taste like the screams of dying insects.

Untitled, 2011, Rachel Whiteread

Untitled, 2011, Rachel Whiteread



The Art of Burning Man Compliments of the Renwick

October 11, 2018

According to Jason the Handyman who ultimately decided to stay in Atlanta after Season 2, Episode 4 of Queer Eye, Burning Man centers around fire, art and community. I already like art and community. And I’m okay with fire as long as I have sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat and I don’t have to be in a terrestrial conflagration or burned by invisible rays emanating from a fusion reactor in the sky.

But it turns out Jason the Handyman wasn’t giving me the full story. The Burning Man primer at the Renwick has a different take on what that summer week in the Nevada desert is about. The primer tells me that among Burning Man’s ten core principles are  gifting and decommodification.

Whoa. Hold on. Those sound I’ll have to give away my dark chocolate. That’s s big red flag that tastes of less than 40% cocoa! Even more terrifying, the primer also tells me that at Burning Man I may encounter the playa chicken — a legendary carnivorous poultry reputed to live in the Black Rock Desert.

I’m out!

The Renwick’s “No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” is as close as I’m going to get. The exhibit is in three parts. The first floor features costumes and models. The second floor has the big installations. And a leisurely picture-taking-filled 30-minute walk around the Golden Triangle neighborhood reveals the 6 outdoor pieces.

I quite enjoyed trying to find the outdoor pieces. The Renwick does a great job of providing a map to where the pieces are. It’s just sometimes hard to actually see what you are looking at even when it’s a big metal “XO” by the Farragut West Metro or a giant golden pyramid at the intersection of Connecticut Avenue and K Street.

I’m always impressed by artists who are willing to put their works out in the unsupervised elements. Someday, these pieces will make their way to a museum, and only people with gloves and art degrees will be allowed to touch them. But someday is not yet today!

In honor of the Jason the Handyman’s Burning Man principles, I saw the indoor exhibit with family (my most immediate community). I gushed at numerous people about how cool the art was. And I saw the outdoor exhibit on a really hot, fireball-in-the-sky day. There was dark chocolate, too, but Jason didn’t say anything about my having to share it.

No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man” is at the Renwick Smithsonian American Art Museum until January 21, 2019 and in the surrounding neighborhood until December 2018.

Batting 0.454 For Ward 6 Week

August 12, 2018
RFK Stadium From Kingman Island on the Anacostia

RFK Stadium From Kingman Island on the Anacostia

I live in the best Ward in the City – number 6. We have more coastline than any of the other wards; we stretch into all four quadrants of D.C.; and we were able to rebuild successfully from the ashes of urban renewal disaster in the 1950s.

Our bus is the P6. This mighty marvel of human conveyance roams free in Ward 6, unchallenged by any lesser buses.

Suck it, Ward 4!

Once a year, Ward 6 celebrates itself with a week of events all around the ward. Let me clarify — FREE events all around the ward.

I’m all in for free. This year, I set out to attend as many of the eleven scheduled events as possible at the least cost to myself. I managed to get to 45.4% of them. I reveled not only in the free-ness of it all but also in the diversity of events. I visited places I had never before been to. I ate a senior citizen’s boxed falafel lunch. I consumed strange cheese. I rolled around in a pool of plastic balls. I baked in the sun.

In short, Ward 6 Week was fantastic and exhausting.

Funhouse (by Snarkitecture) at the National Building Museum

Funhouse (by Snarkitecture) at the National Building Museum

My first stop was the National Building Museum’s Funhouse exhibit. Snarkitecture, the designer of the exhibit, made a bold choice in the use of white as their base color. Someone who was not me made a similar choice about the color of linoleum on my kitchen floor. I have #QuestionsAboutTheJudgmentOfSuchPeople.

Signs around the Funhouse reminded visitors that it was not a playhouse. HA! Half the people inside the exhibit were between two and seven years old, an age range not known for its ability to care about “reminders” or “guidelines” or “consequences.” The Funhouse exhibit was beautiful undistilled chaos. My favorite part of the exhibit was the room with the Willy Wonkafied steampipe-looking mess of tubes for marbles. Pictures cannot convey the amount of delicious noise caused by no less than twenty people constantly reloading marbles into the contraption.

A member of the community was nearly lost in the pool ball.

A member of the community was nearly lost in the ball pool.

Free ticket value: $16

Later that day was the National Night Out event at Potomac Gardens. I could not find it. I’m sure it was there. I just could not connect myself to its existence. I mean, I found Potomac Gardens. I just couldn’t figure out how to get into the complex or where the free chips and selfies with firefighters were going to be.

In defense of the event and Potomac Gardens’s layout, fencing, and access points, my path through the City was already a bit of a mess by that point in the day. It’s not like I haven’t been to the Potomac Avenue Metro stop numerous times before. It’s just that Metro-me (the version of me that takes the Metro) is convinced that the Potomac Avenue Metro is next to the Anacostia Metro station. I know the Anacostia Metro stop is on the Green Line. And I know the Potomac River meets up with the Anacostia River. So Metro-me for years has been unable to shake the belief that the Anacostia Metro and the Potomac Avenue Metro are right next to each other on the Green line.

Makes sense, right?

Wrong. But that doesn’t mean I’m not counting the National Night Out at Potomac Gardens toward my “45.4% of events attended” claim, because I am.

In lieu of a relevant picture, here's a picture of a mushroom grove in Eastern Market

In lieu of a relevant picture, here’s a picture of a mushroom grove in Eastern Market

One thing led to another, and I scooted along to the next Ward 6 Week event that night — Books and Wine at East City Bookshop, a women-owned independent bookshop in Eastern Market. I was visiting for the first time! For the event, the store offered a surprising array of wines. Each was paired with a suggested book. My favorite pairing was Elif Batuman’s delightful yet subtle The Idiot in the company of a rosé. The lower level of the bookshop looked and sounded like a great author reading space, so of course I signed up for their events listserv.

Value of cheese, crackers and wine consumed: $12

Number of friends I got to hang out with: 1 (the friend bought a book, so my guilt at having consumed and imbibed compliments of the bookshop was assuaged!)

Wednesday’s Ward 6 Week highlight was tour guide Alexander Padro’s Shaw neighborhood tour with a focus on local recovery since the 1968 riots.

Fifty years on from the riots, the neighborhood bustles with people and bursts with architectural variety. I’ve lived in D.C. long enough to remain utterly fascinated by the ever-changing 7th Street corridor. The diversity of buildings in Shaw speaks to the neighborhood’s fitful recovery over the last fifty years, but I’m glad this part of D.C. escaped the multiple-block-sized mega-developments that have come to characterize much of the rest of development in D.C. over the last twenty years. Shaw will be stronger in the long run for this architectural medley and for its ability to hold onto its identity.

For more information on the 1968 riots, here’s a link to a great interactive Washington Post article.

Value: Alexander Padro has offered this same tour for free in the past! On the one hand, I think that’s fantastic. On the other hand, I got dinner with a friend afterward, and that meant I incurred a cost for this event: $ -26! I do not blame Ward 6 Week for this. I blame delicious Italian food and a Peroni at Al Crostino.

Number of friends I got to hang out with: 1

Thursday of Ward 6 Week was a beautiful-not-sweltering day in August, and I received a free surplus ticket to a Nationals game. What luck!

Nationals Stadium in All Its Glory.

Nationals Stadium in All Its Glory.

I took the Washington Post’s advice about avoiding pricey Nats Park meals, and brought my lunch. It turned out I didn’t need to. In addition to organizing Ward 6 Week, Councilmember Charles Allen’s office had an extra boxed lunch for me — falafel! Okay, it seemed like the lunches were intended for seniors, and I don’t have an AARP card, but I was encouraged to take a meal. Twice. So I decided those were surplus senior meals that were otherwise going to go to waste.

Mine was delicious!

It included a package of chocolate chip cookies. I ate those free cookies two hours before the start of the game and the “normal” time people eat dessert. You never know when Yellowstone might blow its top. But I’m pleased to report the start of the game arrived without a mega-volcano wiping out half of the United States and plunging the other half into post-volcanic winter.

Reeking of sunscreen, I wandered the shaded areas of the Stadium, which has something for everyone.

I came to understand that going to a Nats game is about more than a free boxed senior lunch, a seat almost in foul-ball range and barely avoiding buying a $12 bottle of beer. It’s about being surrounded by the salty delicious smell of baseball stadium hot dogs and trying to hold back your giggles as someone else’s 6-year-old declares to their surprise that they like cotton candy. And it’s about appreciating the craft of the game when Daniel Murphy manages to round all the bases in one go and slide on his belly safely into home.

The crowd went wild. There was falafel everywhere.

Free Nationals ticket value: Priceless.

My last stop for Ward 6 Week was a visit to Councilmember Allen’s office hours on Kingman Island. Technically, Kingman Island isn’t in Ward 6, but the island is an Anacostia River fixture, which made it fair game our week.  Robbie O’Donnell, with Anacostia Riverkeeper, offered an hour-long discussion and boat tour of the river.

The Walk to Kingman Island on the Anacostia.

The Walk to Kingman Island on the Anacostia.

It was a beautiful day to be on the river. Some of my concern about the shocking cost of water bills across the City was assuaged by seeing first-hand all the good the sewer overflow tunnel has done for the Anacostia. D.C. officials hope to make the river swimmable full time by 2025. For now, Swim Guide offers information about how safe it is to go in the water. Robbie also noted that since the 5 cent per bag tax began to be levied in 2010, plastic bags are no longer the number one item in the river by volume. They’ve fallen to tenth or so on the list.

The number one spot is now held by ball toys. Go figure.

The Anacostia is Too Pretty for Words.

The Anacostia is Too Pretty for Words.

Value:  Impossible to say, but this was one of the coolest, most inside-D.C. things I did during Ward 6 Week, which means it was worth even more than “Priceless.”

Number of friends I got to hang out with: 2

By the time Ward 6 Week had exhausted me, there was still one day to go. I wasn’t up for it though, no matter how cute the animals at the Mt. Vernon Triangle Petting Zoo were alleged to be. Councilmember Allen was still going full throttle though, always in a long-sleeved shirt and pants while I sweltered in less. He attended from beginning to end all the events I went to. He probably even has a selfie with a firefighter and a bag of chips at Potomac Gardens.

Total number of friends I got to hang out with this week: 4

Total amount of money I saved this week: About a bajillion dollars, I think.

Thanks to Councilmember Allen and his staff for making it all happen!


Clarion West Write-a-thon Meets Mount Kilimanjaro

June 26, 2018
Mount Kilimanjaro Photo by Muhammad Mahdi Karim - June 1, 2009

Mount Kilimanjaro (Photo credit: Muhammad Mahdi Karim – June 1, 2009)

I’m pretty sure no one in the history of the Clarion West Write-a-thon has made this offer to potential sponsors: I will take a picture of your picture on Mount Kilimanjaro in exchange for a sponsorship pledge.

You must have questions. Or maybe you don’t. Maybe your mind just filled with the thought of having your picture travel to Africa and be carried in my backpack at least most of the way up Mount Kilimanjaro. You’ve thought of all the interesting sights your picture will see without any negative high altitude effects. Now, all you can think is GIVE ME THE LINK TO THIS AMAZING OPPORTUNITY.

Here’s the link to my Clarion West Write-a-thon sponsorship page including sponsorship levels.

I attended Clarion West in the summer of 2017. Clarion West is a 6-week residency program for science fiction and fantasy writers. Every year, eighteen people attend the program. At least a hundred others, many of them volunteers, make it happen. Clarion West students are taught by a different science fiction and fantasy author each week. My teachers were Daryl Gregory, Kij Johnson, John Chu, Connie Willis, Daniel José Older, and Pat Cadigan. They were amazing! There’s a special place in my heart for each and every one of them.

Clarion West Class of 2017

Clarion West Class of 2017 Featuring Kij Johnson (Photo credit: M. Huw Evans, June 2017)

The lessons were wide-ranging. My writing shifted and clarified in a positive way that otherwise might have taken me many years to accomplish. The friendships I formed were numerous — with classmates, teachers, administrators, volunteers, sponsors, and anyone who was a friend of Clarion West. The kindness of the Clarion West community was overwhelming. I had never felt so supported and encouraged by so many strangers for so long a time period as I did in those six Clarion West weeks during the summer of 2017.

Now, I feel supported and encouraged in the same way, except the other members of the Clarion West community are no longer strangers. Meanwhile, over the last year, my classmates have published many dozens of short stories and non-fiction pieces. They’ve been nominated for awards, including a Nebula and a Hugo! Several are in the process of getting novels published. Master of Fine Arts degrees are in the process of being acquired. Others are teaching and studying and reading and otherwise improving their craft.

Andrea and Nunataks in Alaska

Andrea and Nunataks in Alaska

Clarion West administrators say they operate on a shoestring budget. I looked at that budget, and I was amazed to see that the whole operation costs just $200,000. That’s everything Clarion West does throughout the year, plus a 6-week residency program for eighteen students! Ten percent of the Clarion West budget comes from the Write-a-thon, which I’m participating in this year to help future students attend Clarion West and to give back to the community.

I’ll be on a trek up Mount Kilimanjaro during Write-a-thon time. The novella I’m working on should be mostly done before I start the trek (it better be!) so I’m offering some Kilimanjaro-related sponsorship levels:

  • For a $10 pledge, I will take a picture of your picture chilling at Mount Meru camp before the hike begins. 
  • For a $25 pledge, I will take a picture of your picture at either Shira Plateau (elevation 13,000 feet) or on Mount Meru (elevation 14,977 feet) with Kilimanjaro in the background. 
  • For a $50 pledge, I will take a picture of your picture at all 3 locations listed above. 

There’s more information including picture acquisition details on my pledge page.

Sponsor me, and give a picture of you the opportunity of a lifetime.

No Sharks Were Harmed in the Making of this Picture of a Picture

No Sharks Were Harmed in the Making of This Picture of a Picture


Charm City Spec: My Kind of Reading Series

May 31, 2018
Three awesome authors

from left: A.C. Wise, Leah Cypess, Fran Wilde

Speculative fiction runs in Baltimore’s blood. Edgar Allan Poe must have started it percolating when he first moved to the city in 1829. Dashiell Hammet, who lived in Baltimore in the early 1900s and worked as a Pinkerton, must have kept speculative fiction on life support by adding a dose of mystery. Fast forward to the 1960s, and the Baltimore Science Fiction Society was born in the back of a Trailways bus. Or so I’m told.

Roger Zelazny, Joe Haldeman, Jack Haldeman, and Gardner Dozois were some of the more famous names associated with early efforts to put Baltimore on the speculative fiction map. Fifty years on, speculative fiction in Baltimore is going strong.

In 2018, the Charm City Spec Reading Series joined a long tradition of speculative fiction in the city. The series aims to spotlight not only Baltimore-area speculative fiction writers, but also those from out-of-town. Past readers have included Katherine Locke, Sunny Moraine, Catharine Asaro, Ariel S. Winter, Malka Older, and Tom Doyle. In April, Leah Cypess, A.C. Wise, and Fran Wilde joined their ranks.

I was lucky enough to get rockstar parking across the street from cafe-bookshop Bird in Hand, where Charm City Spec happens. There’s nothing like a bookshop that lets me eat vegetable soup and drink hot chocolate right next to the brand new books for sale. Bird in Hand’s relaxed atmosphere and independent spirit make them easy to love. They’re the perfect setting for the Charm City Spec Reading Series.

Leah Cypess reads

Leah Cypess

After a bit of chatting and the distribution of tarot cards for a later book giveaway, Leah Cypess kicked off the night. She read from her novel Mistwood, the tale of an ancient shapeshifter trapped in the body of a human girl. Cypess pulled from chapter 2, and I was immediately hooked. Mistwood is just one of Cypess’s four published novels. The author’s second reading was from On the Ship,” one of her many pieces in Asimov’s Science Fiction. That story is about an intergenerational ship making landfall for the fifth time after four unsuccessful attempts. During Cypess’s question-and-answer session, she talked about how Asimov’s editor Sheila Williams sent Cypess a series of encouraging notes to accompany rejections before Williams eventually bought a story. It was a heartening tale for writers.

A.C. Wise reads

A.C. Wise

A.C. Wise read from her novel The Ultra-Fabulous Glitter SquadronThe Glitter Squadron and I go way back. I fell in love with them three years ago as I prepared to interview Wise for Weightless Books. I’d never heard Wise read her work before, and she brought as much personality to the ass-kicking, monster-fighting group as I imagined when I read her debut novel in 2015. The Glitter Squadron superheroes use the full force of their extra-chunky heels, rayguns and spaceships to root out evil, especially when it comes in the form of eels. Wise is more than a novelist, too. Since 2004, over 100 of her short stories have been published. Like Leah Cypess and Fran Wilde, A.C. Wise offered the Bird in Hand audience an engaging, well-delivered taste of her work.

Fran Wilde reads

Fran Wilde

Fran Wilde read the entirety of her Uncanny Magazine short story “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand.” Wilde’s stage presence is compelling. Teeth filled her chilling reading. Introducing the piece, Wilde said, “I should tell you I was fairly angry when I wrote this.” That was clear from the reading, but it was still wrapped in a layer of awesome. “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” has been nominated for a Nebula award and a Hugo. Those aren’t Wilde’s first nominations. Her work has been recognized several times over the last few years with numerous nominations, and her debut novel Updraft won the Andre Norton and Compton Crook awards. The third book in her Bone Cycle series was published in 2017.

Yes, the reading series is awesome. Yes, the talent on display is impressive. Yes, I had soup and a hot chocolate for dinner. Yes, I still went to Insomnia Cookies across the street afterward for the sustenance I required to drive the 39 miles back to Washington D.C.  I cannot resist cookies or readings by great speculative fiction authors. The Charm City Spec Reading Series was everything I hoped it would be.

Alan Smale, Justina Ireland and Bryan Camp are next up for Charm City Spec. The authors will be at Bird in Hand to read and take questions on July 18, 2018 at 7pm for an evening that promises to be amazing.

Charm City Spec can be found at, on Facebook, and on twitter @CharmCitySpec.

Frederick Douglass’s Cedar Hill Home

February 28, 2018

I had to make a reservation to get into Frederick Douglass’s Cedar Hill home. Okay, that’s over-stating things. I wanted to make a reservation. Otherwise, what if I showed up and all ten spots on the National Park Service tour were taken? One thing would lead to another, and I’d be drowning my sorrows in cabbage and a patty at Caribbean Citations just when my waistline would be saying that’s not such a good idea.

Horned Hat Rack of Awesomeness

Horned Hat Rack of Awesomeness

Pie Cabinet. Yes, Pie Cabinet.

Pie Cabinet. Yes, Pie Cabinet.

But it turns out I was the only one on the Cedar Hill tour. That was super-perfect for me but unfortunate for the nine-person group that also reserved spots but didn’t show up. They missed out on that amazing feeling of being surrounded by a sense of history and actual objects that participated (at least peripherally) in events. Cedar Hill was never gutted as so many other historic homes and buildings have been. (Spoiler alert — the interior of Ford’s Theatre is a re-creation!) Seventy percent of Cedar Hill furnishings were in the house when Frederick Douglass lived there.

Mr. Barnes was my personal tour guide through Cedar Hill. What a treat! And what an effort on my part not to touch the furnishings!

A few years ago while I was consuming book after book of Civil War history, I read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The book was published in 1845. Connecting with the horror Mr. Douglass describes in his first autobiography has always been hard — not hard to imagine, but hard to want to imagine. Plus, I don’t like to think about how the United States Constitution once legalized enslaving people or how in the 150 years since that changed, people in the U.S. still have to fight for basic rights.

Photograph of Anna Murray Douglass (1813–1882), the first wife of Frederick Douglass

Anna Murray Douglass (1813–1882), the first wife of Frederick Douglass

I prefer to think about how good people make the world a better place. As one of those people, Frederick Douglass surrounded himself with other bold thinkers also bringing about positive change through sacrifice. When I read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the person who really stuck out to me — after Mr. Douglass, of course — was his wife, Anna Murray-Douglass. In 1838, the future Mrs. Douglass gave the man she loved sailor’s clothing to disguise himself and part of her own savings so that he might escape enslavement, which he did. I was glad to see that the importance of the first Mrs. Douglass was clear at Cedar Hill even though she only lived there a few years. (Rosetta Sprague Douglass wrote an article about her mother, and it’s an interesting read.)

The visit to Frederick Douglass’s home helped me understand there was a at least a bit of whimsy in the man. One example: I quite enjoyed the idea of his rounded-lid traveling trunks. They would always have to be placed atop the trunks of others when he traveled, thus giving Douglass easier access to his things and quicker unloading. No doubt, they were banned on various modes of transportation. People would have seen those rounded lids coming for a mile, and Mr. Douglass clearly didn’t care. That makes me smile.

The Growler

The Growler

Mr. Douglass’s Growler (or “man-cave” as Mr. Barnes suggested in the more modern vernacular) was another bit of fun. The Growler was a tiny brick shack set a couple hundred feet back from the main house. I love the idea that a world-renowned figure like Mr. Douglass might set up a small space just for himself — maybe to write, maybe to have a quiet moment, maybe to read — who knows? The Growler reminded me of my favorite cube-farm desk. My colleagues at the time thought that cube was ridiculous. It had just enough room for me and one other person but only as long as that other person kept their legs outside of the cube and in the cube-farm hallway. I loved that space. It was perfect for keeping out the riffraff, and I didn’t even have to physically eject them. Even the haters knew that my cube was only big enough for one person. Maybe Mr. Douglass was writing in his Growler. Maybe he was thinking. Maybe he was reading. Or maybe he was just trying to keep out the riffraff.

Cedar Hill View with Capitol

Cedar Hill View with Capitol

My favorite bit of fun had to do with why Mr. Douglass chose to build Cedar Hill where he did. I could appreciate that the view was spectacular and that the breeze might have helped with the heat and the bugs. But a two-mile commute into work including a river crossing must have been more than the average well-off man of the 1880’s was interested in tolerating. I asked Mr. Barnes if he knew why Mr. Douglass chose the location. The twinkle in Mr. Barnes’s eye was unmistakable. He said the answer lay in the fact the locals didn’t want Mr. Douglass in their neighborhood. That made me smile, too. Building a house atop the highest hill in a neighborhood that tried to keep you out sounds like the kind of fun I appreciate.

Women in the World of Frederick Douglass by Leigh Fought

Women in the World of Frederick Douglass by Leigh Fought

My Frederick Douglass questions came at a price. I left Cedar Hill with homework from Mr. Barnes, who strongly suggested I consult numerous additional resources like the Library of Congress’s Frederick Douglass collection, Douglass’s three additional autobiographies, and Leigh Fought’s Women in the World of Frederick Douglass. My local library had a copy of Fought’s book, and I snatched it up. But worry not! The D.C. Public Library has twenty more copies for everyone else!

More information about Cedar Hill and Frederick Douglass can be found here on the National Park Service website. Reservations are only required for groups of ten or more. The only way to see the inside of Cedar Hill is to join one of the tours, and I highly recommend a visit.




Detroit Institute of Arts: The Most Loved Museum

January 31, 2018
Officer of the Hussars, 2007 - Kehinde Wiley

Officer of the Hussars, 2007 – Kehinde Wiley

Detroit in January has a lot going for it:

  • Ease of access with $126 roundtrip flights from BWI. For any time travelers just arriving from the 1800s, $126 is not as much as it might sound.  For that price, a metal tube in the sky delivers you after 1.5 hours to your destination hundreds of miles away without you having to fight bears or forge rivers.
  • Car rentals at $26 / day including taxes and fees. Yes, that’s right. You can rent a car in Detroit in January for the entire day for less than the cost of an Uber ride from Georgetown to Navy Yard.

    Kate Elliott and John Scalzi, ConFusion, 2018

    Kate Elliott and John Scalzi discuss the writing life, their favorite dog breeds, and other random interesting stuff, ConFusion, 2018.

  • The ConFusion Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention. It’s like the big, crazy SF/F conventions with all the people I wanted to see and with all the panels I wanted to attend, but without the crowds. It was perfect. Plus, my Clarion West 2017 class decided to have a reunion there. Go Team Eclipse!
  • The Detroit Institute of Arts. Admittedly, of the four items in this list, only the Detroit Institute of Arts is available outside the bounds of January. But it was the presence of the other three items that made it inevitable that I would finally go to the Detroit Institute of Arts this year. That was even before I knew I would see Kehinde Wiley’s awesome Officer of the Hussars, 2007 (see above, and click here for a close-up of the signage that explains the painting). Kehinde Wiley has been commissioned to paint President Obama’s official portrait for the Smithsonian. SQUEE!
Watson and the Shark, 1782 - John Singleton Copley

Watson and the Shark, 1782 – John Singleton Copley




I’ve been casting around for an excuse to visit the Detroit Institute of Arts since I saw the movie Frida and learned how, in 1932, Frida Kahlo came to Detroit with her husband Diego Rivera. He had been commissioned by Ford Motor Company to paint twenty-seven murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts. I was intrigued by what kind of city commissioned a famous Mexican artist in 1932 for such an undertaking. I wanted to see the murals first-hand, and I wanted to get my eyes on the rest of collection that had caused so much controversy.

Detroit Industry Murals, 1932-1933 - Diego Rivera

Detroit Industry Murals, 1932-1933 – Diego Rivera

Over the last few years, the DIA has had a rough time of it. They almost lost their artwork. The City of Detroit, which owned the DIA, went bankrupt and started making moves to sell the art collection to pay for city pensions. That caused a kerfuffle, to say the least. One thing led to another, and in 2014, the DIA was returned to its non-profit status (independent of the City of Detroit) with its collection intact. That was less than four years ago.

Girl Reading, 1938 - Pablo Picasso

Girl Reading, 1938 – Pablo Picasso

Visiting in January 2018, I expected a somewhat rundown museum that needed love. I was so wrong. The Detroit Institute of Arts is the most loved art museum I have ever visited, and it’s exhibits satisfy a range of tastes.




Art museums that can afford to do so redesign their interiors to enhance the presentation of their artwork. From my visitor’s perspective, adjustments to interior design normally seem to consist of repainting walls, adjusting lighting and optimizing the location of partitions between and within rooms.

DIA Church Alcove Replica, 2018

DIA Church Alcove Replica, 2018

But at the DIA, they’ve gone far beyond those surface adjustments. Attention has been paid to the crown molding in each room, the height of the ceilings, the type of flooring and the aesthetic necessity of built-in wall recesses.

Each room’s flooring was unique. The most striking example was in the Medieval and Renaissance Room, which contained cobblestone in some places, wooden slatted floors in others plus stone tile and brick. That room even held an alcove set up to appear like it was within a church. A stained glass window lit by a courtyard completed the look. I was amazed.

Setting aside the wonders of flooring, I was struck by the feeling that each piece of art at the DIA had been carefully curated and lovingly placed on display. In addition, the staff was friendly and helpful, and the courtyard was filled with the sound of children’s voices. The DIA is free to the local community, and on the day I visited, an after-school group was setting up a couple dozen tables to play chess.

The Moods of Time, 1938 - Paul Manship

The Moods of Time, 1938 – Paul Manship

Seeing all the kids inside the museum after school was what did it for me. Of course, Detroit residents and art patrons in the 1930s would commission the most famous Mexican artist of his time to paint twenty-seven giant murals representing the city that they loved. The DIA was part of the community and an expression of it as it continues to be. I’m so glad I visited. The DIA is truly a special place.

In addition to the artwork above, below are more photos of the pieces I most enjoyed at DIA. I’m pleased to report I inadvertently missed the third floor of the museum. That can mean only one thing: Detroit in January 2019, here I come!

Self-Portrait, 1962 - Beauford Delaney

Self-Portrait, 1962 – Beauford Delaney

Nativity, 1954 - Jacob Lawrence

Nativity, 1954 – Jacob Lawrence

The Piper, 1953 - Hughie Lee-Smith

The Piper, 1953 – Hughie Lee-Smith

Mosquito Nets, 1908 - John Singer Sargent

Mosquito Nets, 1908 – John Singer Sargent

Girl and Laurel, 1870 - Winslow Homer

Girl and Laurel, 1870 – Winslow Homer

Dripy, 2013 - Mitchell Schorr

Dripy, 2013 – Mitchell Schorr

Hardball III, 1993 - Robert Moskowitz

Hardball III, 1993 – Robert Moskowitz

Variability of Similar Forms, 1970 - Nancy Graves

Variability of Similar Forms, 1970 – Nancy Graves

Portrait of a Collagist, 1989 - Benny Andrews

Portrait of a Collagist, 1989 – Benny Andrews

Something You Can Feel, 2008 - Mickalene Thomas

Something You Can Feel, 2008 – Mickalene Thomas

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