Masters of the Everyday

On Thursday, in the hours before we left the US to return to Edinburgh, Carol and I made time to visit a remarkable exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Having cleverly orchestrated a winter weather calamity on the east coast, we were able to suppress visitor turnout to the museum, so that when we arrived at the west wing we were able to walk directly in without a wait.

Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting: Inspiration and Rivalry is a show the likes of which I dreamed of when I was a grad student in Art History. It not only assembles the world’s greatest Vermeer paintings under one roof — an astonishing achievement, given their value and rarity — but also establishes them in the context of other great 17th century Dutch genre painters whose work informed, and was inspired by, Vermeer’s. Gabriel Metsu, Gerrit Dou, Caspar Netscher, Frans Van Mieris, and the divinely talented Gerard ter Borch are all superbly represented here.

Genre painting is simply the depiction of scenes from everyday life. In Netherlandish art of the 17th century, genre images are most often scenes of women doing things in their homes, people interacting in taverns or brothels, or occasionally men going about their professional activities. Often there is a humorous or moralizing aspect to the pictures. The image at top, for instance, is an excerpt from ter Borch’s Young Woman with a Soldier and an Onlooker, c. 1650, from the collection of the Musée Fabre. It probably takes place in a brothel, though if you’re wondering what the young woman is up to with the sleeping soldier, I haven’t the faintest idea. Whatever it is, both she and the onlooker find it pretty entertaining. It’s impossible to miss the absolutely dazzling technique the artist shows off here with his depiction of surfaces — the woman’s dress, the sheen of the soldier’s breastplate, the sparkling highlights of the brass ewer. More subtle, but no less masterful, is the composition, with its rhythmic massing and diagonal momentum that draws your eye directly to the woman’s left hand.

I absolutely loved this show — not only because it pulled together such a remarkable haul of iconic paintings from Vermeer, but also for its prominent inclusion of equally brilliant artists and pictures that are not as universally known. Gabriel Metsu’s Man Writing a Letter, for instance, is a flawless gem, as good as nearly anything else in the exhibition.


Ironically, having had the opportunity now to see the greatest works of Vermeer’s sublime oeuvre together in the same place, I believe the very best of them is the one I’ve seen so often in Washington’s permanent collection: the Woman Holding a Balance (above) from about 1664.

Notwithstanding the poor photo quality from my phone camera, it is, simply, a perfect painting. We see a young woman holding a jeweler’s scale, with gold, pearls, and other valuables spread out around her. Her scale’s empty pans hang at equal height, in the moment before she adds weight to one and breaks the equilibrium. In keeping with the theme of balance, the scene is divided into halves of light and shadow, while the floor is half white tiles and half black.

The painting-within-a-painting dominating the wall behind the woman provides the key to the full meaning of the picture. Vermeer liked to include paintings within his compositions, and they often add a layer of meaning. In the Woman Holding a Balance, the background painting is a Last Judgment, wherein the risen Christ judges the souls of the dead to separate the elect from the damned — the saved to our left and the damned to our right. Last Judgment scenes in medieval painting and sculpture often included a figure holding a balance, in which the souls of the dead were weighed — a motif with which Vermeer would no doubt have been familiar. In his painting, the protagonist herself holds the scale, and it is her own soul in the balance.

17th century Dutch painting is rife with examples of “vanitas” imagery — beautiful objects, luscious foods, lovely flowers presented to the beholder as a sort of test. Don’t be led astray by such things, they whisper, when your true treasure awaits in heaven. In Vermeer’s picture, the woman straddles the border between light and shadow; tempted by the golden blandishments of earthly life, she is tellingly framed between the saved and the condemned in the Last Judgment, standing directly beneath the celestial judge.

Beyond its intellectual content, the painting is just achingly beautiful. Unrivaled in any age as a painter of light, Vermeer washes the room in velvety shadows, deftly highlighting the hand holding the balance. He eschews his customary lemony palette in favor of cool grey, sumptuous cobalt, rich brown — suitable to the contemplative mood. The young woman regards the scale with an unreadable expression; her left hand rests on the table as she hesitates before loading the pans.

Poised at the crossroads between dark and light, which path will she choose?


Year in Review: 10 Peak Experiences of 2017

Given the fact that both my birthday and the year’s end arrive on the same day, this seems like an excellent time to look back over the past 12 months and raise a glass to the most memorable moments. Here then, in what I hope will be an annual feature, is a quick sprint through my 10 peak experiences for 2017.

The Great Mosque, Córdoba


What: A brilliantly designed mosque begun in the 10th century, expanded and enhanced over hundreds of years; later converted to a Christian cathedral following the Reconquista, and modified to encompass a sumptuous Renaissance church.

Where: Córdoba, Spain

When: February 20

What made it special: Wandering from one architectural marvel to the next with my mouth wagging open in awe; imagining generations of worshipers, Muslim and Christian, walking among these arcades for the first time.

Great Mosque Gallery »

Tossa de Mar


What: A sun-washed Spanish town with cobblestone streets, a medieval castle, and a handsome crescent of beach on the Costa Brava.

Where: Catalonia, Spain

When: March 25

What made it special: Reveling in the first fruits of spring with a bright, warm beach day; climbing the winding path to enjoy spectacular views at the top of the cliffs.

Tossa de Mar Gallery »

Valley of the Temples


What: A sprawling archaeological site in southwestern Sicily, featuring beautifully preserved Greek temples.

Where: Agrigento, Italy

When: April 24

What made it special: Warm ochre columns towering into brisk blue skies; a group of tourist women about my age giggling over a fallen bronze statue sporting a heroic phallus.

Agrigento Gallery »

The Blue Lagoon


What: a sheltered cove of otherworldly turquoise waters, off the island of Comino.

Where: Comino, Malta

When: May 18

What made it special: Swimming the chilly waters from the beach to the cliffs; climbing up to sun myself like an iguana, while taking in the view over the Maltese islands and the blue Mediterranean; leaving a bit of myself in the lagoon (when my wedding ring slipped off my finger and was lost).

Blue Lagoon Gallery »



What: Excavated shell of the wealthy Roman city of Pompeii, buried by the volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE.

Where: Campania, Italy

When: May 30

What made it special: Imagining how a Pompeiian would have felt in the moment his doom was upon him — knowing that neither his wealth and sophistication nor all the power of Rome could save him.

Pompeii Gallery »



What: Remains of an ancient Greek colonial city (Posidonia) just south of what is now the Amalfi Coast in Italy. This UNESCO World Heritage archaeological site features three of the best-preserved Doric temples in the world.

Where: Campania, Italy

When: May 31

What made it special: Quiet, contemplative grounds where you could explore the temples and house foundations without barriers.

Paestum Gallery »

The High Tatras


What: Day hiking the stony uplands of the High Tatras, the roof of Slovakia, with our Airbnb host family.

Where: Štrbské Pleso, Slovakia

When: June 22

What made it special: Climbing from warm lowlands to frigid alpine lakes and snowfields, and back again; austere cliffs crowned by immaculate azure skies; the high-spirited antics of our excellent host and guide, Jan.

High Tatras Gallery »



What: Backpacking the Mist Trail, Little Yosemite Valley, and Clouds Rest at Yosemite National Park.

Where: Yosemite, CA

When: October 11-14

What made it special: Unparalleled views from the summit of Clouds Rest; flawless weather, with air so crisp it almost crunched in your mouth; sharing one of the earth’s most beautiful places with both my sons.

Yosemite Gallery »

Sailing School


What: Sunshine Coast Adventures‘ week-long sailing school for couples, teaching ASA courses 101-104.

Where: Indian Summer II, a 41-foot Morgan ketch, based at Tavernier, FL

When: November 1-7

What made it special: Waking up to sun-washed skies; working hard through a day of Captain Jenn’s meticulous tutelage; relaxing at anchor with a cold beer; falling asleep to the rocking of gentle swells. Times seven.

Sailing School Gallery »

GardenFest of Lights”


What: The annual festival of Christmas lights at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.

Where: Richmond, VA

When: December 19

What made it special: Arriving in the gloaming, and watching the lights wax and blaze brightly as the night deepened; the softly-colored shadows of the forested footpaths. After a year in which politics and distance often kept us apart, Mom and I were able to re-bond in the Christmas magic of the gardens.

GardenFest Gallery »

Flashback: The Charms of Czechia

Taking an astrophysics conference in Prague as our excuse, Carol (the astrophysicist) and I (the average dude) spent several weeks of June and July, 2017, in Czechia.

Based on the experience of a week there, I’d have to declare Prague near the top of my favorite cities list. For one thing, it’s drop-dead gorgeous. If you love Art Deco — and I do — you’ll find a veritable feast for the eyes in many precincts of the city, including the majestic esplanade of Václavské Náměstí. If pastel-hued 18th and 19th century monumental architecture is more your taste, or splendid churches and synogogues, or jaw-dropping squares full of enticing outdoor cafes, Prague will punch your ticket.

Want to talk about food? The city is chock-a-block with reasonably priced restaurants covering cuisines from around the world. Every kind of libation you require is available in plenty, with top-end absinth being a particular strong suit. And if you’re a beer lover, you’ll find the best pilseners in the world on tap for less than a can of soda.


Culturally, Prague is one of the greatest destinations in Europe, and English is widely spoken. Performing arts in the city are world class. History is compellingly on display, in everything from the splendor of the Lobkowicz Palace and St. Vitus Cathedral to the somber eloquence of the Jewish Quarter and cemetery. Museums run the gamut from the encyclopedic (National Museum) to the just plain weird (Torture Museum, Museum of Sex Machines, and Museum of Historical Chamber Pots and Toilets).

Get the full immersion with a stroll through our Czechia gallery »

After Carol’s astro conference was over, we headed out to spend the next two weeks in the Czech hinterland. Czechia made this year’s Conde Nast Traveler list of the world’s ten safest travel destinations; and as you might expect from such a designation, the nation feels everywhere quite welcoming and warm. While the countryside is not spectacular — mostly a landscape of gently rolling hills, forested flats, and quiet rivers — there are towns in each region that are beautiful and historic. One of the most famous of these is Český Krumlov, a stunning little city in South Bohemia with roots going back to the 13th century. A UNESCO World Heritage site flanking the Vltava River, the old city center is adorned with Renaissance and Baroque buildings, all sheltered beneath the diligent overwatch of its medieval castle (visible in the photo at the top of this article).

Another historic town, Kroměříž, was our base while we explored the Moravian (eastern) region of Czechia. The heart of Kroměříž is a lovely, broad square ringed by cafes, restaurants, and boutiques. The old town also hosts high-towered Baroque churches and the Bishop’s Palace with its magnificent gardens. The palace was the location for scenes from both Amadeus and Immortal Beloved.

If, like us, you have a thin tolerance for cold weather, you might want to forego a visit to Czechia in the brutish winter. But if you think your next summer vacation should feature a beautiful, sophisticated, and safe capital city, or historic towns with friendly people and a laid-back vibe — all without breaking the bank — you might want to start booking your accommodations now.

Season of Light

Richmond, Virginia is not my favorite city. RVA — as it’s known to the fashionable many who find it just too exhausting to go those extra syllables — is host to too much violent crime, too much blight, too much strip mall desolation for my taste. But it is not without some delightful attractions, such as Agecroft Hall, an authentic Tudor manor house removed piece by piece from England and reassembled on the bank of the James River; Maymont, a Gilded Age mansion set in a sprawl of beautiful gardens and grounds; and my favorite of all, the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden.

Established in 1984 on Lakeside Avenue, Lewis Ginter is much younger than other prominent US gardens, such as Longwood or the US Botanic Garden in Washington. What it lacks in years, however, it has made up in energetic development and innovation. While the garden is beautiful in all seasons, a special treat arrives at Christmas time when Lewis Ginter mounts its GardenFest of Lights — decking its many paths, nooks, and byways with over a half million holiday lights. This year, the displays also interweave characters from children’s tales and other folklore: Hansel and Gretel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Thumbelina, and many more.

Take a walk through the pretty lights! »

Mom and I made sure to get to Lewis Ginter early, as dusk was falling, in order to ensure a decent parking space. That turned out to be an excellent decision; when we left around 7, the line of cars waiting to get in stretched for several blocks along Lakeside Avenue. We also got our GardenFest tickets online, which allowed us to skip the ticket line and get quickly out to the garden.

It seems like GardenFest gets more spectacular every year, and this edition was an absolute stunner. As we entered the garden before sundown, the lights were playing a soft, subtle accompaniment to the rosy dusk. The deeper the evening fell, the more brightly waxed the many-hued strings and clusters, until the whole place was ablaze with color.

Lewis Ginter conservatory entrance with light cluster insects

A great glass conservatory serves as the focal point for the overall garden grounds. Occupying the highest eminence, it lies directly opposite the entry building along the axis of the main fountain, and overlooks most areas of Lewis Ginter. During GardenFest, one wing of the conservatory hosts a full-sized, rustic stable, and another features a magnificent, immense Christmas tree of flowers. The tall atrium fountain is festooned with hanging stars and baubles, while outside the doors hover a swarm of giant, jewel-like insects.

Kids love GardenFest, and they make up a large part of the crowd, especially in the densely-lit section around the Children’s Garden. While I very much enjoy that part of Lewis Ginter, though, I suspect most older adults join me in preferring the quieter surrounds of the Japanese Garden. Lit mostly in blues and purples, the crepuscular paths, pools, and cataracts around the Tea House wear a lovely veil of mystery.

If like me you find the Christmas holidays more glitter than gold, and if you happen to find yourself near Richmond this season, consider gifting yourself with a restorative visit to Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. The GardenFest of Lights continues until January 8th (closed Christmas Eve and Christmas Day), and runs from 5 PM until 10. Just remember to get there early.

Flashback: Malta

Beginning in late April of 2016, Carol and Pip and I spent a month in Malta. The presence of His Fuzziness ruled out the easy route to get to the island nation (flying). Instead we packed up our redoubtable Skoda and took an overnight ferry from Genoa down to Sicily, then a high speed ferry from Pozzalo to Malta.

Only about 60 miles due south of Sicily, Malta nevertheless feels surprisingly remote. Its two next closest neighbors are Tunisia and Libya to the south, and Arabic and North African influences are evident in the architecture and language of the islands. While its official first language is English, the native Malti is widely spoken and found on signage. With roots in the speech of the ancient Phoenicians who came to the islands around 750 BC, Malti has been shaped over the centuries by the many peoples who have fought over and inhabited the land since, including the Arabs, the Crusaders, and the English. It is the only Semitic language written with Latin characters, which is cool if you’re a language geek like me.

Malta encompasses three inhabited islands. At an overall length of about 17 miles, the largest island, also called Malta, hosts the national capital, Valletta. A short ferry ride to the northwest is Gozo, about 9 miles long; and between them is the tiny island of Comino, whose glorious main attraction is the enchanting Blue Lagoon. In total extent, the country is about twice the size of the District of Columbia — but surrounded by over 250 miles of spectacular coastline.

Visit our extensive Malta gallery! »

It’s astonishing how much history and architecture you can shoehorn into such a pint-sized place. Beginning as early as 3600 BC, settlers in the islands were erecting megalithic temples and monuments that would survive the ages. The millennia thereafter saw restless cycles of conquest, settlement, consolidation, and re-conquest. As late as World War II, Maltese under British dominion were still making their imprint on history — sticking a thorn in the side of Nazi military dominance in the Mediterranean, while withstanding constant attack from sea and air.

The most famous episode of Malta’s history was the Great Seige of 1565. 700 Knights of Malta (the Order of St. John, also known as the Knights Hospitaller) and about 8000 Maltese footsoldiers fought off 40,000 invading Turks commanded by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. It was a near thing, the defenders suffering cruel losses and barely hanging onto their last few fortifications before outlasting their exhausted foes. In the decades after, the wealthy Order of St. John healed the country, pouring money into magnificent churches and other public works, including the sumptuous Co-Cathedral of Saint John. The city of Valletta takes its name from Jean de la Vallette, the Knight commander of the Maltese forces that faced down Suleiman.


[Above] Nave of the Co-Cathedral of St. John. In addition to its rich decoration and stonework, the cathedral features two paintings by Caravaggio, who was briefly a brother of the order until he fled after spilling the blood of a prominent knight.

Today, Malta is a thriving, friendly business hub and tourist destination. It is also a surprisingly reasonably priced place to live, where you can find a furnished two bedroom apartment in a nice stone building — practically everything on Malta is built from the lovely local stone — for under 100,000 euros. That won’t buy you waterfront; but given that you almost have to try hard to find a place farther than walking distance from the sea, it’s not much of a hardship. Mediterranean warmth means that you pay little for heat in Malta, while the cool stone buildings and ubiquitous swimming pools help you chill in the hottest months.

I should mention that if you want to buy a detached house, you’ll need to bring along a truckload of money. In a country as small and populous as Malta, land comes at a premium, if at all. The overwhelming majority of homes are apartments, townhouses, and maisonettes. (Where you see a “farmhouse” advertised for sale, it’s nearly always an attached house with a tiny yard.) New construction is virtually all multi-family or attached dwellings, and existing detached homes, when they come on the market, go for an order of magnitude beyond an attached home of similar square footage.

Medical services on Malta are excellent, and out-of-pocket payment for routine office visits is cheap compared with the US, though buying into the national health service as an expat is unfortunately not so inexpensive. The country is also statistically one of the world’s safest refuges from violent crime. With regard to food, despite its tiny acreage, Malta manages to produce a nice variety of gorgeous local produce, and grocery prices generally are about average for Europe. Eating out is quite reasonable, and usually very good.

You will pay a lot for a liter of gas. That, along with the narrow, congested roads, is why most cars on Malta are tiny. If you’ve ever wondered why you rarely see any Suzuki Sidekicks on the American road anymore, it’s because they and their older siblings, the Suzuki Samurai, all emigrated to Malta. Maltese owners love their tough little Suzukis not only for their parsimony with gas, but also because they stand up to the potholes, ruts, and washboard ripples of the infamous roads on the islands. In any case, between the small scale of the country and the daunting aspect of most backroads, you won’t be blowing through a tank of gas very quickly.

Quality of life in Malta can be quite good, though where you choose to live will depend a lot on what you enjoy. If you want world-class culture, thriving night life, great shopping, and fantastic multicultural cuisine, the main island is your huckleberry. Just be prepared for lots of traffic, a very high population density, and a dearth of quiet places to get away from it all.

On the other hand, if you value a slower pace of life, less congestion, and more opportunities to explore the outdoors, you’ll opt for Gozo. You’ll still be able to enjoy plenty of fascinating history and beautiful architecture, as well as outdoor cafes and local color — but you’ll also enjoy wide-open vistas out to the sea, and long, quiet walks on deserted trails. And if you buy a place there, you’ll have peace of mind knowing that those lovely open spaces outside the villages will remain unbuilt by law; the Maltese government has wisely recognized the value of maintaining its remaining green spaces, and so it protects them from development.

It would be overselling Malta to say it’s a place that “has everything.” It’s too small for that. If you’re looking for downhill skiing, or theme parks, you’re pretty much out of luck. Golf begins and ends with the 18-hole Royal Malta course. But if you’re looking for the kinds of things Malta offers in abundance — sailing, hiking, fishing, history, culture, beaches, and the rest — you’ll be hard-pressed to find them better anywhere else that mortals can afford.

I can’t wait to go back.

Flashback: The Crags of the Cathars

One of the chief sightseeing delights of southern France is visting the Cathar castles.

The Cathars, also called Albigensians, were a renegade branch of the Christian church in Europe early in the second millenium CE. Though at one time they could be found in many places, including Italy and eastern Europe, the fullest flowering of Cathar religious and architectural expression came in the 13th century in the mountain fastnesses of what is now the French region of Occitanie.

Visiting a Cathar castle always makes for a good cardio workout. Because their faith was more or less constantly under siege from the mainstream church, wealthy Cathar lords built their strongholds high atop the most unapproachable crags they could command. It’s a testament to human will and ingenuity that these fortifications could be built at all. Whether you’re a medieval soldier in chainmail or a tourist lugging a backpack and camera, you’re wheezing by the time you make the outer gates.

During our months living in Reynes, Carol and I explored three extensive castle ruins associated with the Cathars — Queribus, Peyrepertuse, and Montsegur.

Famous among the Cathar castles, Montsegur, seat of the Albigensian faith, is most remembered for the manner of its downfall. After a nine month seige beginning in the spring of 1243, the garrison surrendered to Catholic crusaders dispatched by French religious and civil authorities to crush the heretical movement. Roughly 500 Cathar knights, dependents, servants, and other believers were caught in the crusaders’ net. More than 200 of them refused to renounce their faith and were burned to death in a field at the foot of the mountain, beneath the walls of their erstwhile stronghold.

In the aftermath of the seige, the Cathar fortress was pulled down and few traces of it remain. Later medieval fortifications were built on the site, and it is those ruins that you see when you climb the hill of Montsegur. They are impressive in their own right; but it is also still possible to see foundations and other traces of Cathar dwellings that clustered on the slopes skirting the original castle.

Wander the ruins of Montsegur with Carol and Pip »

When Montsegur fell, many of the survivors fled to the castle of Queribus. Originally constructed in the 10th or 11th century as a Spanish possession, by 1244 it was held by a knight with Cathar sympathies. Ultimately, Queribus in turn fell 11 years later when the residents abandoned it ahead of an attack by the crusaders. It is regarded as the last bastion of the Cathars in France.

Queribus is the smallest of the three castles we visited, and my favorite. Its white bones bleaching atop a lonely eminence, the ruin provides glimpses of a citadel that must have been lovely in its heyday. Because of the confined space on the hilltop, the castle is piled up vertically upon itself; after climbing from the parking lot to the front gate, you continue to ascend the various levels of the site until you reach the top of the keep, earning a spectacular view far down to the valley floor.

Our friend Sherry joins us for an assault on Queribus »

Just visible from Queribus on a clear day, the castle of Peyrepertuse is the most extensive of the Cathar fortresses we explored. It was built in the 11th century by the kings of Aragon, and was never attacked by the crusaders. Instead, it was surrendered voluntarily multiple times between French and Albigensian forces as local allegiences shifted.

Tapering to a point on its narrow ridge, the castle’s curtain wall looks for all the world like a tall ship, cresting the heights like a prow carving the ocean swell. Perhaps because it was spared the deadly strife that afflicted other Cathar strongholds, there is a spirit of peace that infuses Peyrepertuse. You feel it in the warm hue of the stone, the wide-open space of the yard, and the contemplative quiet within the chapel walls.

Tamsyn helps us investigate Peyrepertuse »

Remarkably, the afternoon we visited Peyrepertuse, we ran into our friends Mari and Greg and their son Ayden, who had hosted us months earlier in Toulouse. (In fact, in one of the last pictures in the photo gallery, you can see Greg [light green jacket] and Ayden in the background, seconds before Carol and Tamsyn recognized them.) Together, they numbered about half the people we knew in France at the time.

France. It’s a small place, really.

The Ghost of Christmas Past

Today I visited Williamsburg, Virginia, to enjoy the colonial Christmas splendor and visit my Alma Mater. Nothing unusual in that, of course: Williamsburg is a magnet for visitors this time of year, especially beginning with Grand Illumination day. And who doesn’t enjoy going back to visit their old college from time to time?

For me, though, visits back to the Colonial Capital have been rare, and usually undertaken with reluctance. Since graduation, my relationship with my old school has always been a bit fraught.

It was the sort of crisp, gorgeous late autumn day you often get in Virginia: sunny, with immaculate blue skies and temperatures in the 40s. Duke of Gloucester Street, the main street running from Merchant Square to the old capitol building, was bedecked in its traditional livery of Christmas wreaths and decorations — featuring red and green apples, evergreen boughs, magnolia leaves, cranberry sprays, and a host of natural accents including even cotton boles and oyster shells.

The vast indoor/outdoor museum that is Colonial Williamsburg pulsed with life in afternoon sunshine. Eighteenth century servants greeted ticket holders to attractions like the Governor’s Palace and the powder magazine, while horse-drawn carriages plied the streets, and drink stands did a brisk business in coffee and hot cider. (Incongruously, signs throughout the area pointed the way to “cold drinks” — a reminder that for much of the year, the Tidewater region of Virginia bakes in blistering heat and marinates in humidity.) Near the junction of DoG Street and Merchant Square, skaters glided around an ice rink.

Visit our Williamsburg and W&M gallery »

As I passed through Merchant Square, I recognized many of the same retailers and restaurants that were there four decades ago: The Scotland House. The Trellis. The Christmas Shop. Binn’s Fashions. All the years fell away, or at least fell back, and past their edges I could glimpse the sights and sounds of my life as a young man.

A moment later, I was across Jamestown Road and standing before Lord Botetourt on the William and Mary campus.

I stopped by the statue, and swept my gaze around the triangular yard at the President’s House, the Brafferton (long ago a school for Native American children), and the broad backside of the Wren Building. Named for the renowned English architect Sir Christopher Wren, the Wren Building is the oldest college building in America. As an English major I had many classes there.

Statue of Lord Botetourt with Wren Building in the background

Although it’s the nearest precinct of the College to Merchant Square and Colonial Williamsburg, that triangle of lawn is usually deserted and nearly always quiet. It seems designed as a place for reflection; and as I paused there I found that the lightheartedness I had felt earlier, walking up Duke of Gloucester Street, was now alloyed with melancholy. In a few weeks I’ll be leaving the country again for Europe, and while I expect to return to Virginia from time to time, when or whether I’ll get back to this place is anyone’s guess.

I realized then that I hadn’t come up here just to see the place. After nearly 40 years, I had come to make peace.

When I entered W&M as a freshman in 1975, I felt with some justification that I was a young man with promise. I had excelled in one of the country’s best school systems, performed with distinction in nearly every academic discipline I’d concentrated on, and scored highly in my college board tests. I was ready to make a mark.

By the time I left four years later, life was a lot more complicated.

I’d married a William and Mary girl in our sophomore year, and through her school friends we became involved with a rural, evangelical church that had largely turned its back on the world. The church subsumed our lives for two years after graduation. After we finally struggled free, I drifted from one job to another, never really catching fire anywhere. I took a shot at graduate school, but fell short of my doctorate when my first marriage fell apart.

I finally managed to eke out a career in computing at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville; but it never felt like I came close to fulfilling my potential. With a buyout from UVa, I retired early with Carol to pursue our dream of traveling. But I was followed by a lingering sense of bitterness that I’d never stretched myself. I had failed through an uninterrupted string of paltry successes. I’d never risked the heights.

And in my heart, I heaped much of the blame for that failure on the place that had once seemed to promise so much, but where instead my life started unraveling: William and Mary. Whenever I thought back upon my years there, it was the bad things I remembered. Feeling awkward at social events. Constantly getting sick in drippy Williamsburg winters. Getting mocked for my faith by a snarky Writer in Residence. Working dismal jobs to stay afloat in the early years of my marriage.

On the occasions when someone would ask my opinion of the College, I would airily reply that it was the sort of school that took big people and made them into small ones. From time to time when, as an alumnus, I would get solicitations to donate to the W&M endowment, my dormant hostility toward the school was sharpened by my embarrassment at feeling that I wasn’t successful enough to afford a donation. Finally I responded back angrily — in words that would probably shame me, if I could recall them now — that I had no intention of ever giving them a dime, and they may as well stop trying. I haven’t gotten a solicitation since.

These past few months, with less traveling to do I’ve had more time to reflect on my life, more opportunity to examine the long train of missed opportunities, early exits, unpressed advantages and ill-considered decisions that have marked the turning points of my passage so far. More and more I’ve been entertaining the suspicion that William and Mary was never to blame for my inability to live the life I had envisioned.

Today as I walked from the triangle, around the Wren Building and into the wide-open space of the Sunken Garden, I remembered my first impressions of the place as a new student. Over the years, When I’ve thought back on my W&M experience, my recollection has been that I was mostly detached from the world around me — more of an outsider and an onlooker than a participant. But my walkabout this afternoon brought back unbidden memories of the many ways I participated in the vibrant life of the school.

I was a cheerleader. A JV cheerleader, but still. The captain, Linda Bresee, was my partner. She was a dreamboat, and way out of my league.

I danced in an original theater production commissioned by the College to celebrate the US Bicentennial. Which will no doubt come as a great surprise to anyone who has tried to dance with me since then.

I worked for the campus police on the student security patrol. It was usually a sleepy job, though occasionally things got weird — like the time when some genius scheduled a Grateful Dead concert at W&M Hall during Parents’ Weekend. I remember packs of dangerous-looking but very happy (and completely baked) concertgoers weaving their way past alarmed parents back to their Harleys. Later that night, in the pitch dark of the Wren triangle, I found two completely perfect cream pies sitting abandoned on a bench. I took them back to the police station and we debated whether to dare eating them. Were they left by the Dead fans? Who knew? Finally a passing sergeant who didn’t know the backstory noticed the pies. “Okay if I have a slice?” Absolutely, we assured him. When he didn’t immediately have a psychotic episode, the rest of us grabbed forks.

I got married (the first time) in the Wren Chapel, one of the two wings of the Wren building. A couple weeks before the wedding, male members of the wedding party and some of my other student friends kidnapped me and carried me to Crim Dell, the lovely body of water with the fairy tale bridge near Landrum Hall, and threw me in. It was late February, and patches of ice were still floating on the water; but the dunking of engaged bachelors in Crim Dell is an ancient practice at the school, and mere mortals don’t flout the Old Ways at William and Mary (unofficial motto: “Three hundred years of tradition unimpeded by progress”). Fortunately my groomsmen had taken the precaution of sounding the Dell first, to find a spot where I wouldn’t be splashing down onto a submerged bicycle or dorm fridge.

Revisiting the scenes of my student life today, and seeing in a host of beautiful new buildings how the College has gone from strength to strength, I was overwhelmed with the realization: this is a great school. It wasn’t the comfortable epiphany you might imagine. The taste of failure is never quite so bitter as the moment you realize you have wrought it upon yourself. It would be easier if I could lay my shortcomings at the feet of my Alma Mater; but like any other great school — indeed, like life itself — William and Mary can only offer distinction, not confer it. The rest is up to the pupil.

Self awareness comes, if it comes at all, for different people in different stages of their lives. For many of us, the best we can hope is that we finish growing up before we grow old. I’m 59 and the bulk of my life is behind me. Much of what I might once have accomplished with my life is now just a regret. But tonight as I write this, I feel a sense of lightness at having shrugged off an old, debilitating grievance.

William and Mary, I apologize to you both.

Hark upon the gale.