Saturday, March 26, 2011

Fly! Be Free!

The view from above
I pulled back on the wheel amid the roar of engine noise and directed us up onto a wave of air -- that is, into a little bit of empty space. That hang moment, when I realized nothing solid connected me to the ground: pure delight. 

In a Talking Heads song, one line always stuck with me: "I can swim, but I should fly." Now I know why.

My friend Christine and I, under the guidance of our instructor Bob Gardner, went up in a Cessna 172 today, on a discovery flight through Navy Annapolis Flight School out of Lee Airport in Edgewater, MD. Bob has been flying for over 30 years, since his brother got him hooked taking him up into the skies when he was a teenager. As he said, "I figured if he could do it, I could too," and so he's been flying for decades.  He teaches through NAFC -- one of his former students was landing as we were taxing toward the runway -- and also runs charter flights. 

To start, Bob and I were in the front at the controls and Christine (and her camera) in the back. After some seat adjustment so I could see over the dashboard, and checklist run-throughs to check the fuel, lights, radio, and so on, we were rolling in short order. 

For those that remember my driving lessons, where each member of my family took me out precisely once, returning back pale, shaky and grayer of hair, my spacial relations in new machinery remains initially, umm, challenged. In the Cessna, I slowly taxied (weaved) down the runway using the foot pedals that steer left to right. Having (eventually) mastered driving a car so thoroughly, having a steering wheel in front of me that I, on the ground, ignored felt a wee bit unnatural.  Having breaks at both feet, so that you can really dig both heels in, had its appeal though.

Always choose the window seat
I loved take off. I really did feel the plane responding to my maneuvers there (although Bob, of course, had the other wheel, ready if I should suddenly flake out on a rather important part of the lesson). The amping of the engine, brake release, and leaping speed culminated in the gentle glide from ground to air. The landscape widened out in front of us as our altitude increased, providing a three-dimensional scope of land and water not possible during landlocked living.  Unlike a commercial jet, the sense of flight and air is much more immediate in a propeller plane, the difference between, say, driving a motorcycle (sans wind) versus riding in a bus. 

We cruised up to about 3,000 feet, flying into a glorious sunny day, mostly calm, the hum of the motor and tower chatter filling our ears. My feet stayed off the pedals in the air (Bob took charge of that), but I got to handle the steering wheel and so kept us lined up with the horizon. As when sailing a boat, planes respond with a small lag time, the feel of which I never quite got synced up with, but I latched onto the general idea. Partly, I was distracted just gawking at the view.

Go ahead, look down...when not flying the plane
We flew over the Bay to Easton Airport, landing there after checking with the tower. I learned that the four landing lights appear different colors based off of our altitude. Bob adjusted the throttle (less thrust, thereby slowing us down; obviously, those pedal brakes only work on the ground when there is something solid for them to grip against), eased us down to the a smooth landing. A quick chat with the tower clarified on what we were doing and where we were doing it (swapping seats off a corner of runway 4). Christine took my spot and I dug out my camera in the backseat.

Christine at the controls
As I did, Christine participated in take off and steering once airborne, and demonstrated more efficient bonding with the dynamics of the machinery. We hit a little turbulence on the way back to Lee, and heard automated warning through our headsets about cross winds as we were landing. 

Back on the ground, we taxied back to our plane parking spot, engine off and officially land-bound again.

Our brief flight, an intro only, left me exuberant, and my stomach mildly unsettled (turbulence lurches? glee? hard to say).  

Definitely, if I win the lottery, you'll see me taking to the friendly skies. And if my power ball number doesn't pop up, I may consider other scenarios to see how I could finance my private pilot's license. 

With the Cessna
As the website points out, in the US, only about 800 airports serve commercial airlines, but 5300 airports are open to general aviation. That's a lot of happy take-offs to scenic views while hopscotching across the country.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Death & Art: Rock Creek Church Yard

Allison Nailor, Jr
1836 - 1908
He was tired and lay down to rest
Art and death pair up in a sometimes flowing, sometimes awkward dance. In art, we search for our immortality, that which will live on beyond us; faced with the death of our loved ones, we pretty up the occasion with the art of remembrance, spiritual connection, and expressions of longing.

Two weekends ago, on Saturday and again on Sunday, I walked through Rock Creek Church Yard, a cemetery dating back to 1719, and wandered into the bits of story that its markers highlight. In the unfolding horror of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters in Japan, a graveyard on a sunny day in early spring ended up being strangely comforting. 

In graveyards, at first sweeping view, the numbers of dead demand attention. Acres and acres of markers go in the distance at Rock Creek, and the numbers have impact. The uniformity of Arlington Cemetery draws on this, with its sea of carefully spaced gravestones in the same way that the Vietnam Memorial, the listing of thousands of names, highlights the scope of  tragedy and sacrifice. Rock Creek Church Yard has rolling hills and deep-rooted trees that change the landscape, has diverse grave markers based off the tastes of family and the historical era of the death, but there is no escaping the message of the graveyard size: everybody dies, and we've been doing it for a long, long time.

Grass, shadows, trees, gravestones.

Once you get beyond the long historical view, however, death is personal.


Baby Paul
Aged 26 days

Those buried were individuals part of a web of people, family and friend, and when that string is broken, the whole framework changes, shifts and trembles as weights are carried differently by those left behind.

Our rituals surrounding death, like any other societal, cultural tradition, reflect out own take on the world. The pretentious in life may very well be gaudy in death.  The simple may opt for plain speak in death. And there is no way of knowing if someone's aunt Martha chose some strange angel because her dead nephew loved angels, hated them, laughed at them, or because she chose something to her own liking or budget without considering the deceased view on how his eternity would be labeled. 

An era of mausoleum design.

Stained glass


Undoubtedly, some of the dead saw Martha's work and rolled over in their graves so they didn't have to look (not photographed - I only shot that which I found appealing).  And some rejoiced that their loved ones chose something so apt or so lovely or so unusual. Obviously, rolling or not, they're not talking.

Angel with book
That's what a lot of grief is, that you turn to ask someone who is no longer there to answer. The classic comment of the recently bereaved when they say they picked up the phone and dialed a number only to realize no one would be picking up. We forget and re-remember over and over. 

And that homage to grief shows up on graveyards. Some markers have benches, the suggestion being, sit and stay a while, tell the departed what you want to say even if they're no longer there to hear. In a way, sitting with grief helps carry us through to the other side, a point clearly illustrated by the Kaufman Memorial.  Also known as Seven Ages of Memory, the artwork was created by William Ordway Partridge.

Kauffmann Memorial
The life-size sculpture of a woman on the bench is disconcertingly warm, a person to be with you in sadness, with a hand left open enough that, should you be inclined, you could sit and hold hands.This is the sort of thing the grieving do, or try not to do. 

There are not a lot of places where crying in public is acceptable. A graveyard makes that list. In a cemetery, you get quiet sympathetic looks; in Kmart, you get folks shuffling away, with nervous backward looks as they ponder your mental and physical health. 

The Mystery of the Hereafter and The
Peace of God that Passeth Understanding
If you prefer privacy at Rock Creek, I recommend the Adams Memorial designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Stanford White. The bronze sculpture of a hooded figure rests behind high hedges. The grave marker is for Marian Hooper “Clover" Adams and was commissioned by her husband Henry Adams after her suicide. Sometimes referred to as Grief (which apparently irritated Henry Adams no end, as he wrote, "Every magazine writer wants to label it as some American patent medicine for popular consumption—Grief, Despair, Pear's Soap, or Macy's Mens' Suits Made to Measure"), Saint-Gaudens entitled it The Mystery of the Hereafter and The Peace of God that Passeth Understanding.

Henry Adams never spoke his wife's name again after her death and omitted her from his book The Eduction of Henry Adams, details that tug at me.

While wandering the graves, I came across a gravestone on which someone had left Mardi Gras beads.

Dalrymple and Mautner grave markers

The story there -- Who left the beads? Had they gone to Mardi Gras together? Had they always talked about it but never gone? Was it some private joke about the inappropriateness of plastic as daywear? -- I have no way of knowing. 

I can tell you, courtesy of google, that Helen W. Dalrymple was a researcher at the Library of Congress for most of her career and co-authored several books.

Buried next to her is Mary-Helen Mautner. After her death, her partner started a nonprofit to support lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals and their families when dealing with life threatening illness. An activist in life, Mautner's death also promoted a cause.

In personal and public ways, the deaths of Clover Adams, Helen Dalrymple, Mary-Helen Mautner and the many other people buried at Rock Creek Church Yard changed people and changed society. A nonprofit helps other people suffering. A statue at a grave marker adds to our cultural understanding and provides solace in its beauty. I'm sitting here writing about women I never met and the universals and particulars of mourning. And someone went to Mardi Gras.  

Family tree, roots running through graves.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Artomatic Takes Flight

Alas, I missed the opening reception of Artomatic Takes Flight, but I journeyed out to Ronald Reagan National Airport last weekend to check out the exhibit, on display until June 25th in the hallway connecting Terminal A.

Artomatic, a 12-year old DC art nonprofit, is known for the non-juried exhibits they've put on in empty buildings that transform blank spaces into creative wonderlands. More than 1,000 visual artists and 600 performing artists participated in the 2009 ten year anniversary festival. 

Artomatic Takes Flight is a smaller event, with 83 artists displaying their work. Selection was made on a first come, first serve basis. The art will perhaps offer solace to travellers waiting for delayed connections.

A selection of favorites: 
Jeff Chyatte
High Carbon Steel

David Hagen
Carrot Ride
Acrylic on Canvas

Liya Sheer
Acrylic on Cavas

Yelena Rodina
Bottle City

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Filtering History: McMillian Sand Filtration Plant

North Capitol and Michigan Ave NW
Inevitably, when driving down North Capitol with out-of-towners (or local DC-ites who seldom venture east of the Capitol) and we pass the odd towers lurching up from the rolling hills near Washington Hospital Center, they turn to ask: what the heck is that?

Sand Bins
While I've long known the structures are connected to the water system, I recently looked up the full scoop on wikipedia, and can now provide a name: McMillan Sand Filtration Plant. From its completion in 1905 until its decommission in 1986, the jokes about the DC water supply came back to roost on those twenty-five acres. During its active use, McMillan eliminated typhoid epidemics in DC, so if I grumbled about brown water from old pipes in my childhood, all I did was grumble, not fall ill. The slow sand filtration system was a milestone in its time.

Barbed-wire topped fences have surrounded McMillan since WWII, as its use as a public green space eliminated when concerns about the safety of the water supply sprang up. Currently, the area is owned by the DC government, who bought it from the federal government in 1987. Plans for redevelopment have, so far, stalled.

Staircase to abandoned
What does this have to do with art, you ask? Aside from an excuse to play with photography, the art in public spaces (as McMillan used to be) contributes to community in urban life - we gather around beauty. The more I look for art in DC, the more impressed I am by its arrival in unexpected places, from graffiti by the Metro to sculptures commissions by fancy institutions. As human beings, our instinct to detail, arrange, express, beautify, to imprint our style as individuals caught in our particular intersection of time, culture, circumstances, that comforts me. Even the decay of that art into a different form, the beauty of ruins and times past, lends meaning to a walk down a city street.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Renovation of Engine Company 12 Firing Up

Old fire house on North
Capitol St. NW
Work has begun in earnest on the renovation Engine Company 12, the old fire house at the corner of North Capitol and Quincy Place NW. Slated to be an restaurant with outdoor seating, roof deck and valet parking, opening is tentatively scheduled for Independence Day, according the information on the Bates Area Civic Association blog, DCist has followed the project saga for some time, as deals were struck and then turned to ash:

Building detail
On my daily commute by the building, I've seen workmen cleaning the brick, painting the facade details gold, moving scaffolding in and out. This weekend, I had time to stop and take a few photos. A gorgeous building, built over a hundred years ago, I'm thrilled to see it restored and repurposed to beauty and usefulness -- and hope the recent activity is a sign that it will really all come to pass. 

No, I didn't break in. There is a camera-sized hole in the door.  Large signs proclaim that the area is under
video surveillance, so my photo nosiness is probably documented somewhere.

Building detail

Engine Company 12

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Circle 1, Circle 2
David Smith
Recently, I've been more deliberately customizing my life to my quirky needs.  You'd think I'd have thought of that before, but no, I tried to customize myself to fit into some mythical ideal that, being neither mythical nor ideal, made me feel crummy when I didn't match up. Feeling contorted and uncomfortable seldom moved me forward.

Now I'm working within my own odd little framework, and happy with my hops and skips into changes and fun.

A few examples of how to skirt around some roadblocks:
  • Bring a friend. As the interviews and collaborative poems on this blog suggest, I do more when I have someone nudging me forward, if I feel accountable to someone else. How did I finally get over the threshold anxiety of actually taking a class at the yoga studio? Asked a friend to come along. And it was a great class complete with a teacher with a fabulous New Zealand accent, and now that the seal is broken, I'll go back easily. How did I decide to finally commit to the expense of trying a discovery test flight flying lesson in a small plane? Asked around and found another budding pilot enthusiast (test flight still pending as we had to reschedule because of high wind).
  • Go with your gut. Rather than slog forward with the first hospital I talked to about volunteering (where, for a laundry list of reasons, rational and not, I got a bad vibe), I said, you know what, there are options. I talked to another hospital volunteer coordinator yesterday at a place that is a much better fit on levels both practical and personal, and now I'm looking forward to diving into the experience.
  • Details matter; change approach. After roundly ignoring my oil paints all winter, I finally admitted oil painting fails the smell test of fun activity, particularly if you live in as small a place as I do. So I sold some of the paints, and invested the proceeds into buying more acrylic paints, a more straightforward medium for me. They don't smell, they're easy to clean up, and woohoo! I'm painting again, in the brief fits and starts that acrylics allow way more easily than oils.
  • Ask the experts. Obviously, in the interviews I've been posting, I've been asking about expertise in arts, and learning from others' art talents. In the future, in more of a healing arts bent, I'll be working with a friend who does nutritional coaching professionally (more on that later). Notably, however, her first point of advise was, work within who you are. I'm just not an eight-course meal vegan raw food chef with nine food processors and unlimited funds. That doesn't mean finding ways to eat a few more veggies wouldn't make me feel better.  
  • Love that Calder
  • Just go! Last weekend, it poured rain all day on Sunday, and by 4:30, I'd run out of steam for any creative project at home. Claustrophobia was setting in. Sunday has traditionally been museum day for me, and so a quick check on hours led me to the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art. I could have decided it wasn't worth driving downtown in the rain for 45 minutes in the museum. But the thing is, having hustled out the door and gone, it totally was. Having default places that are quick, easy, free and inspiring -- that's a fantastic resource. If it's your local coffee shop or a garden or a museum, making the effort to push out into the inspiring space means meeting inspiration half way, meaning a happier Muse. As it turns out, the Gauguin exhibit had opened, and had I not zipped out, I might have missed all those self-portraits of a very unusual man. 
So today's summary: find ways to take small steps in the direction of your dreams. And if you need to reconsider the details of that path, that's just fine too. Small steps allow for course corrections and clarifications. 
No photos allowed at the Gauguin exhibit, but I got to visit one of my favorites, Kandinsky.

Improvisation 31 (Sea Battle)
Wassily Kandinsky