Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Two Weeks from Today

If all goes according to plan, two weeks from today I land in Africa — first in Ethiopia, where I board a connecting flight, and then in Cotonou, Benin. It's a trip I've wanted to take for three years, since Suzanne learned she'd be joining the Peace Corps.

I've tried to imagine it, but I get only as far as stepping out of the airport into a steamy, tropical afternoon. The sights and smells and sounds — I've heard about them, but they're abstractions. So I've turned to ... a book, of course.

In The Shadow of the Sun, the late journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski writes that three things struck him on his first arrival in Africa: the heat, the odor and the people. Here's what he says about the aroma:

It is the smell of a sweating body and drying fish, of spoiling meat and roasting cassava, of fresh flowers and putrid algae — in short, of everything that is at once pleasant and irritating, that attracts and repels, seduces and disgusts. This odor will reach us from nearby palm groves, will escape from the hot soil, will wait above stagnant city sewers. It will not leave us; it is integral to the tropics.
 And here's how he describes the people:
How they fit this landscape, this light, these smells. How they are at one with them. How man and environment are bound in an indissoluble, complementary, and harmonious whole. ...  [They] move about naturally, freely, at a tempo determined by climate and tradition, somewhat languid, unhurried, knowing one can never achieve everything in life anyway, and besides, if one did, what would be left over for others?

I will have 19 days to meet the people, see the sights, sample the pace. To get a taste — just a taste — of a continent.

(Photo: Katie Esselburn)


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Birthday Boys in Red

Today we celebrate two indeterminate birthdays. Beethoven was baptized on December 17, 1770, which leads most scholars to believe he was born on December 16 of that year. Happy 244th birthday, Beethoven!

Also on this date, Copper the dog came to live at our house. It was 2006 and things were pretty busy. Arguably too busy to add a dog to the confusion. But add we did, and once the dust settled (that would be the dust left by Copper as he ran away from us), we were left with a lot of joy. Not knowing his exact birth date, we've always celebrated it today. Happy 9th birthday, Copper!

Can't think of much else Copper and Beethoven have in common. Unless it's their Christmas attire.

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Monday, December 15, 2014

Morning Happens

When I work at home I can see the morning happen, can see night peel off around the edges.

No dramatic sunrise today, just steadily less dark. A lighter shade of gray and the tall oaks emerging from it, first the trunks, then the large limbs and finally a crowd of branches at the top.

Only now can I see the houses, three from this vantage point — gray, tan and brick. Only now do I notice the dark fringe around the horizon, the woods on the far side of the road.

But I keep my eyes trained on the sky, on the vast ceiling above us that finally gives way to day.

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Saturday, December 13, 2014

By the Numbers

Today — 12/13/14 — is the last sequential date most of us now living will ever see. The next one won't occur until the year 2101. 

I learned this from the Washington Post. Had I not read the Style Section I would probably have passed through the day oblivious to it's being the last sequential day in almost a century. But reading the article, I realize how many other numerically remarkable days I've missed — 11/11/11, for instance, or 11/12/13. The 21st century has had a bounty of them!

I did note the numerical significance of 10/10/10 (in this blog, as a matter of fact). But that, too, was a matter of happenstance.

All I know is that 12/13/14 is less than two weeks till Christmas. And that's all the numerical significance I need for now.


Friday, December 12, 2014

Schedule Adjustment

Here are phrases that chill the hearts of Metro commuters — "car offloading," "single tracking," "track maintenance." The one I heard yesterday — "schedule adjustment" — elicited no ire, only a wry grin.

Come on! Is Metro running so smartly and speedily and easily that it needs to pause to avoid arriving early? Couldn't it just be ahead of time for once and put that anomaly in its karmic bank account against future late arrivals?

But no, we sat several minutes or more at some insanely early hour — doors wide open to the wind and to customers who dash into the car breathlessly thinking they'd just made it only to realize that they could have taken their time and sauntered in. It doesn't take long before they realize that this train isn't going anywhere for a few minutes — and that now they are part of a schedule adjustment, too.


Thursday, December 11, 2014

All Lit Up

The Christmas tree moves slowly from hillside to hearth. It spent its first week in a bucket beside the garage, not the most glamorous entrance but a respectable path to greatness. It's what happens to trees cut early. The old "hurry up and wait," yes, but something more — a tree chosen by all of us had to be chosen early.

We wrestled the tree into the house on Sunday but until yesterday it sat darkly in the corner, displacing the console, lamp and rocking chair that are usually there. But yesterday Claire visited, worked her magic, and now the tree lacks only ornaments.

As the tree evolves, I have time to contemplate its significant moment of passage. Is it the choosing, the cutting, the standing, the watering? It is, I'm convinced, the illuminating. The red, blue, green, orange and white bulbs (not the fairy lights, but the real thing, the opaque C7s) have turned a field tree into an emblem.

The lights are on, the corner is bright again. Christmastime is here.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014


We left warm dry homes to venture out on a cold, wet night. We left willingly, joyfully; we left to sing "The Messiah."

There are hundreds, maybe thousands of "Messiah" Sing Alongs held through the country — from the grandiose ones with full symphony orchestras to the most humble held in church basements and community centers.

Last night's concert featured four soloists, a conductor and a crack organist who didn't miss a note. The chorus was, well, us — people who've hung onto their old scores from the first time they sang the oratorio in college or choir. People who probably worked a full day and did no vocal exercises before arriving. The most enthusiastic and wondrous of choirs. 

We may not have hit every note — in "His Yoke Is Easy" it is doubtful whether I hit any right notes — but as we belted out "King of kings/Forever and ever/And Lord of lords/Forever and ever/Hallelujah! Hallelujah!" it didn't matter one little bit.

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