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Museum Hours

August 2, 2013 | by

John_Constable_-_Wivenhoe_Park,_Essex_-_Google_Art_Project=1000

The city is our best shot at escaping the city. Within the big, frantic city, we find places to breathe. Twice in the last month, dozens of times in the past year, I have taken refuge in the National Gallery of Art. Washington has beer joints. Washington has baseball. But when money is tight and the stress intolerable, there are few luxuries like strolling along a wall of Modiglianis for free.

Often the museum has been a family retreat. My wife goes for Whistler’s Symphony in White, a rather suggestive portrait of the artist’s redheaded mistress perched at the end of a corridor that has the feel of a wedding aisle. Beckett, our three-year-old, digs the dragon figurines in the gift shop. Of the galleries, the eighteenth century British, flush with gundogs and lapdogs, are the ones he hates least. Beckett wants a dog, preferably a beagle, for Christmas. A dog or a razor scooter, of which there are no paintings on view.

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Getting Caught

January 31, 2013 | by

toilet-paperBefore our fathers lost their jobs, before the kid at school collapsed on the practice field, before our grandmothers forgot our names, before the first big uprooting, the tug of bourbon, and the crises of faith, there was a shameless season along the cattail-flanked pikes of northeast Nashville, a season as tough to fathom now as it is mortifying to confess, when our biggest concern, at least on weekend nights late, was whose house to roll with toilet paper.

We were restive, brother. We were hemmed in by hills. There were no wars to fight. High-speed Internet had yet to invade the South. So under cover of catching a movie or playing pickup in the church gym, we pooled pocket money and raked the grocery clean of twelve- and twenty-four-packs of tissue. The cashier women could have tipped off the cops. There was no mistaking our intent for a collective case of irritable bowel syndrome. Still they shooed us through the sliding doors, perhaps wagering we might repay their clemency by passing over their cul-de-sacs.

We rolled Laura, the sweetest girl you ever met, and Tyler, the most likely in our class to find a cure for cancer. We rolled whole blocks of strangers. We rolled our next-door neighbors. We rolled Laura again. And in one ballsy feat not likely to be bested this millennium, we rolled our high school basketball coach, a Brobdingnagian who, when he got to shouting, sounded like Darth Vader passing a kidney stone in an echo chamber. Read More »

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Refusing Heaven

November 14, 2012 | by

The fall I moved to Washington from Nashville, Tennessee, the poet Jack Gilbert gave a reading at the Library of Congress. During my first days in the city, Gilbert’s Refusing Heaven had become for me something of a vade mecum. On wobbly Metro rides to and from work (my first experience with public transportation), I read and reread the book, drawn to its fierce, lapidary verses as a kind of antidote to homesickness and the political blather emanating from Capitol Hill.

The poems trembled in my hands on the train yet somehow steadied me. Gilbert’s lines might have come from any continent in any century. They wouldn’t have seemed so out of place scrawled on papyrus or etched in stone.

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