Saturday, February 27, 2010

Nature's First Green

"Nature's first green is gold, its hardest hue to hold," wrote Robert Frost. He meant that it is precious and fleeting. But it is literally true, too. Often the first green of spring is closer to yellow in color. I thought of this today as I stepped out back and noticed that while we were watching the snow banks dwindle, the old miracle of spring was starting to unfold amidst the whiteness. It is the witch hazel tree, the earliest harbinger of winter's end. It often surprises me in February like this, blooming long before I expect it to. Why don't I look for it? Because it is the first, I guess, and because at a certain point in winter spring does not seem possible. Warm breezes and green trees seem like a dream, like a life we once lived but can live no more. The witch hazel tree reminds me otherwise.


Friday, February 26, 2010

Play On

I had just finished reading "This is Your Brain on Music," in which I learned that "the story of your brain on music is the story of an exquisite orchestration of brain regions, involving both the oldest and newest parts of the human brain," according to the author Daniel Levitin, a musician and neuroscientist. I had read that the best composers intentionally violate our expectations and that this pleases the part of the brain involved in motivation and reward. We thrive on the melody that goes up when it should go down, on the sudden pause.

And then I got in the car and turned on the radio. It was Bach's "Brandenburg Concerto Number Four," the third movement, presto. I reached down and turned up the volume. I've listened to this piece hundreds of times. I can visualize the album cover of the complete Brandenburg Concerti (in vinyl, of course) that Dad bought when I was in high school. There's one note that has always shaken me to the core. The violin and recorders are skittering all over the higher registers and there is an almost runaway-train cacophony of sound – when the cellos boom in with their final version of the melody. They hold the first note of that run slightly longer than they need to, as if to say, this is how you do it, folks. This is it. It's not what we expect at this point in the piece, and that's why it's thrilling.

Bach has a few more tricks up his sleeve, though. Three times near the end of this movement the sound comes to a complete halt. You don't expect these caesuras. But there they are, and they add a humor and lilt to the conclusion. When the sound stops, I can feel the pulse inside the silence.

I enjoyed reading the book; it helped me understand why I love melody and rhythm and timbre. But better than the book is the music itself.


Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Train Stops Here

More snow is forecast for tonight and tomorrow. But that's not what I want to talk about. It's the morning light, the morning that comes earlier every day, pink tinged and proud. It's the rosy fingered dawn that Homer wrote about in "The Odyssey," still rosy, still here. And it's a guy I noticed this morning while waiting for the train, just an ordinary guy in a black pea coat, who thrust his right index finger up into the air and then very definitively pointed it down again as the old Orange Line cars lumbered into Vienna station. He looked as if he were delivering a downbeat to the New York Philharmonic or refereeing the Super Bowl, but what he was really doing was pointing to his place on the platform, saying to the great god Metro, "I want the door to open here. Right here where I'm standing." And, by golly, it did; a door opened magically in front of him. This is the wish of weary commuters everywhere, that the doors will open right in front of us, that we'll step into empty trains and find seats. The pantomimer was just more open about this desire than the rest of us. We can all use a little levity in the morning.


Monday, February 22, 2010

Behind the Pines

Astute followers of these posts will notice that for a blog that calls itself "A Walker in the Suburbs" there's been precious little walking going on. Let's blame that on the snow and on sciatica (perhaps shoveling-induced although its exact origin is a mystery) — both of which have kept me inside. But I did venture out yesterday and I noticed that one house I've always wondered about, a house obscured by thick evergreens, is now partially exposed due to a downed tree. This place was always a mystery. Because I couldn't see the house at all, I imagined it to be quite different from the other models in our neighborhood. Elegant and refined, with the whiff of an English country estate about it. But now its secret is out. It's just another house, I'm sorry to say. But if I know evergreens, the trees that remain will quickly spread and offer a blessed screen. And then, once again, we will have mystery.


Sunday, February 21, 2010

Opening a Window

I read today in the paper that Georgelle Hirliman died. She was known as "the writer in the window" because about 25 years ago when she had writer's block she came up with the idea of sitting in a Santa Fe shop window with her typewriter and a sign that read "Help me cure my writer's block -- give me a topic." People passing by would tape up their questions and on the other side of the glass, she would tape her answers. One question was "Where do ducks go when ponds freeze over? Her answer: "warm, chlorinated pools in Miami and Beverly Hills." You may guess where this is going. She never wrote the novel, but she appeared in windows all over the U.S. and Canada, and eventually collected all her aphorisms into a book called "Dear Writer in the Window: The Wit and Wisdom of a Sidewalk Sage." For her, the bypass became the new road. For her, when God closed a door he literally opened a window. Salvation often has a sense of humor.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Tissue

Like many people these days I've been mesmerized by the Winter Olympics--although I seem to have a knack for missing the most exciting moments. I was there for the first runs of the women's skeleton, for example, but missed Shaun White's Double McTwist and Evan Lysacek's long program Gold. But what stands out in my mind is a moment from last night's ice dancing program. I don't even remember which pair it was, but I watched the man blow his nose and then hand the tissue to someone — a coach, a relative? — before he skated off with his partner into Olympic glory.

It made me think about all of us who only stand and wait, who cheer on the sidelines, which is, let's face it, most of us. And it also made me think about how, despite their gravity-defying feats, these Olympians are just ordinary people after all. I'll remember the tissue long after I've forgotten the triple toe loops. It was a moment of humanity. Those always stick with me.


Thursday, February 18, 2010

In Design

The scene: a class on Adobe In Design. The characters: Seven people who know what they're doing and one who does not. The latter, an editor, works in words not in images, cannot find all the tiny buttons and tabs with which one works in this program, cannot even remember to use the mouse instead of the keypad. But she -- heck, I'll just come clean and say I -- press on, determined to get as much out of the class as possible.

I don't plan to become a designer; I just want to demystify the process. I repeat that to myself all day, a silent mantra, but there comes a time in mid-afternoon when I'm hopelessly confused. I don't know how to manipulate the image, I don't even know what layer I'm on. The class is moving fast and by the time I ask a question I'm six steps behind the others.

The secret to staying young, I've heard, is to keep learning. But learning is risky. It requires a willingness to appear foolish in front of others. I felt foolish today. Based on that, I should have lopped a week off my age. At least.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Black Ice

I'm not an ice skater, so when I hear the words "black ice" I don't think of a calm skate on a frozen pond. Instead I imagine the skid mark, the tire tracks off the road. What is it about black ice that strikes terror in my heart? It's the stealth, isn't it? Fearing something that you can't see. It's the ordinariness of the ice, the way it poses as a puddle but turns out to be something more, something sinister. Black snow isn't good either, of course, but at least you know what you're getting — the fumes of a thousand internal combustion engines, the grit of countless plow-gouged roads. Black snow coats the roadside mounds and stands in sharp contrast to lawns of untouched white. But black ice is invisible; it's felt before it's seen. I drive cautiously when black ice is about; the curves of Fox Mill that are normally such a joy to lean into, I slog through slowly these days. And let's not even mention how I shuffle along suspiciously shiny sidewalks. Black ice makes me walk like an old woman.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

In and Out

Today I woke early and blew my hair dry. Soon I will put on work clothes, drive to Metro, ride the Orange Line to Metro Center, switch to the Red Line, walk from Judiciary Square to the Law Center -- and return to routine. For 17 years I worked out of our house. Whole weeks would go by when I would only wear slippers. Last week's snow holiday was a brief return to that world. It was nice; I won't deny it. But there is something about getting up and getting out of the house that is good for creativity. So even though I long to spend today with my books and my laptop, a walk through the woods and a cup of tea after I come back inside, I will instead shoulder my bag and head out into the world.


Monday, February 15, 2010

Feed the Birds

We haven't fed the birds since we brought our dog, Copper, home from the Loudoun County Humane Society three years ago. Copper is part border collie, part basset hound. While he's never harassed our beloved parakeet Hermes (who's always in his cage, swinging from a hook in the kitchen), he does love to chase small critters in the backyard. But the snow and ice have been so brutal for wild birds that we've thrown some seed on the table and the deck railing. We've mostly had junkos, little gray things with a flash of white under their tails, so brave in the face of cold and ice, hopping the snowbanks on their little stick legs. As I watch them from the kitchen window, I think of how winter opens our eyes to what is usually hidden. It is, in that sense, the true season of renewal.


Saturday, February 13, 2010

Staying Put

I haven't left the house by car in more than a week. My only forays have been on foot. This has not been a bad thing. I've made soup, baked rolls, shoveled snow, read books, talked on the phone, hauled wood, watched movies, fed the birds and consumed an entire bottle of champagne (which is a lot for me). Most importantly, I've started this blog, which I might never have done had I not been handed this windfall of time.

Staying put has made me think about restlessness, what drives us to be out and on the go. It's often a sense that something more important is happening elsewhere. When I lived in New York, I felt like there was a little battery inside me that never wore down. I had to be out walking, meeting friends for dinner or drinks, running down the broad streets of Tribeca (sadly, one of my running destinations was the World Trade Center). God, I loved New York, but if I had stayed there I think I would have burnt out at an early age.

This is not a vote of confidence in the suburbs, by the way. But it is a paen to staying put. I wouldn't want to live behind a wall of white, but a few days here has slowed us down, has showed us what's essential.


Friday, February 12, 2010

Giving Way

As the big snow of 2010 becomes a part of history we on the ground are left with its aftermath. We are still digging, still shivering, still feeding the birds. We are also learning the etiquette of the yield. Our roads are plowed now, and for that we are grateful. But there is not enough room on the road for two cars side by side, so one must give way. This is true for pedestrians (and dogs!), too, and was especially noticeable before our street was cleared. The one-lane footpath that was Fort Lee Street was only wide enough for one person at a time, so if neighbors were coming toward each other, the one closest to the smallest snowbank (or mailbox "dig-out") stepped aside.

Seeing this ballet reminds me of a trip Tom and I took to Devon and Cornwall before we married. We stayed in a place called Old Walls and the roads we took to get there were the most impressively narrow ones I've ever seen. They were bordered by tall hedges and were barely one car's-width wide. As we crept slowly down them in our borrowed Renault, an Austin Mini (or whatever it was) would zoom toward us like a bat out of hell. Every time, I braced myself for a head-on collision. But every time, at the last minute, those narrow-road veterans would dip into some nearly invisible turnout in the hedge, and we would be saved. The local drivers knew about these places all along, of course. Playing chicken with the tourists was their favorite sport.

This was a lesson in how not to give way. I'd like to think we're adapting a more courteous approach here, that we're learning to read the intentions of the car coming toward us, that we're becoming flexible and patient. But then again, I've not left the house (except on foot) in a week. So it's easier to believe in fairy tales.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

Crystal Clear

Four days off work can set the mind to spinning, and one of the best ways to let it wander is to watch icicles as they drip and grow. Like the waves of the ocean they offer constant movement, but it is a quiet motion.
Some of the icicles are smooth and others striated. The ribbed ones glitter more brightly in the sun. I soon develop favorites. My eyes are first drawn to the largest icicle, the showoff, but to its right is a more demure pair, whose beauty now is purely positional – they are the best poised to reflect the sun. I'm also partial to the newest ones, the babies, slender and new and full of possibility.
As I stare out the window and ponder the nature of the icicle, Tom worries about our roof. Why do we have more icicles than our neighbors have, he worries. I remind him that we've had them before. We talk about ice dams and structural integrity and all that sort of stuff. Then he walks out of the room, and I'm back to musing. The icicle is a vertical feature in a horizontal world. It's a way to enjoy winter without leaving the house. As I've been writing, the sun has climbed higher in the sky. Now all the icicles are glittering.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

White Out

This snow comes in with a roar and a whoosh, as a fierce wind blows from the west and the flakes fly sideways. Last week's deluge was relentless but silent. Today's is loud and dramatic. It's a storm with more sound than picture, the kind where pioneers perished a few yards from their cabins because they'd lost their way. I have a sudden hankering to read Willa Cather, to tie a rope from our house to our car. I think of the power of the white out, not the correction fluid (which covered mistakes and offered a fresh start back before computers made it almost obsolete), but the white out of nature, which obscures and overwhelms.

As I sit here writing and listening to the sound of the wind and the trees beating against our windows, I hear another sound, a sound we've been waiting for these last five days but haven't heard. It's a snow plow, or, more accurately, a front-end loader, clearing our street (finally) in the midst of a blizzard. It's taking a while, since neighbors are offering coffee and breakfast and brownies. (We're a congenial lot here in Folkstone.) And it seems a fruitless occupation since the snow is blowing back over the road as quickly as they can move it away. Then again, maybe it's just wishful thinking. On some level I want to stay marooned. I was getting used to the isolation. The white out is fine by me.


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

On Foot

This morning a neighbor called us early. She lives on the corner and was going to the store to load up on groceries. Did we need anything? It's been four days since we've been out in the world so I asked for milk and bread and tea. Our food supplies may be dwindling, but neighborliness is in abundant supply.
So, too, is foot travel. With more than two feet of snow clogging our unplowed street and another ten to twenty inches on the way, hoofing it is the only way to go. So into our supercharged suburban world comes a much needed pause. We stroll, we trudge, we slip and slide. We take in the white world at three miles an hour.


Monday, February 8, 2010

Snow Path

Our wide suburban street has shrunk to a single footpath. Why do I find a curious freedom in this restriction? It is, of course, an adventure and won't wear well with time, but right now I find it liberating. This little path reminds me of how many major highways began, first a beaten trail, then a dusty lane, next a paved road that's widened to two lanes, then four, then eight. What began as a part of the landscape ends up destroying the landscape. I often try to imagine what our neighborhood was like a hundred years ago. The snow has made this easier to do.


Sunday, February 7, 2010

A Walker Begins

February 7, 2010
Blue skies today and people are stirring again. I went out early with the camera to capture the trees covered in white. Already the high branches are bare, blown clean of snow, springlike with swollen buds. The fir trees look like models from a miniature of the North Pole, their snowy covering like sugar icing. It’s colder today, about 15 when I woke up, and every so often a breeze blows the snow off the trees and creates a whirl of white, a brief flicker of snow fog. I think back two days ago to those first flakes in the Target parking lot. From those first flakes this white world was wrought. The snow has clung to every available surface. The most spindly branches of the forsythia have “Vs” of snow, and I can imagine the accumulation, patient and slow, crystal attracting crystal until little pockets formed. I hope this blog will be the same, a slow, patient accumulation of words.

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