Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Beginning of Things

"It's a great way to celebrate the beginning of things." So goes a line (as well as I can remember it) from one of my favorite movies, "A Thousand Clowns." Murray and Sandra are throwing confetti to pretend friends on an ocean liner (shouting "Bon Voyage, Charlie, have a wonderful time") to celebrate their new romance, a romance that (among other things) will eventually lead Murray to re-enter the 9-5 world he loathes. ("You've got to live in the real world," says another character to Murray. His response? "I'll only go as a tourist.")

While beginnings seem to belong more to the crisp days of fall than the swelter of mid-summer, there are exceptions to the rule. Many fiscal years begin tomorrow; medical residencies, too. And here at Georgetown Law, where I edit the alumni magazine, we meet our new dean today. So this is a beginning, pure and true. But even if it wasn't, it could be a day to celebrate. I take beginnings wherever I can find them.


Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Clearing the Air

Yesterday we had the first big thunderstorm of the season. The sky darkened, lightning flashed, the wind came up. There was that last-minute dash to bring in laundry air-drying on the deck. I can remember rushing to rescue an entire load from the clothesline when I was a kid. Pulling off the pins and tossing them into a bag, then running into the house, my arms full of sun-crisped sheets, just as the first fat drops fell. I had to leave for an appointment yesterday in the middle of the downpour so I missed the mid-storm coziness, being safe in the dark house while sheets of rain sweep the street. The thunderstorm is the central drama of summer. The air afterward so fresh you want to gulp it.


Monday, June 28, 2010

Battle of the Books

This weekend I held the enemy. A woman I sat next to was reading on her Kindle. Yes, she likes it, she said, but it's not as light as it looks. She thrust it toward me. I reached out, a little hesitant. If I touched it, what would happen?

Nothing, of course. The kindle was a bit heavier than I thought it would be. But books are heavy, too. It's not the weight of the thing that bothers me. It's the mutability. Is it Virginia Woolf or Barbara Kingsolver? Is it a comic book or a cook book or an ancient record book like the ones from Prague Castle pictured above? In books, the ideas get all mixed up with the paper they're printed on and that's how they become (for me, at least) almost holy things.



Saturday, June 26, 2010

Sound of Summer

Of course there are cicadas -- we call them summer bugs -- whose steadily rising chorus means that summer has truly arrived. And there are crickets, the warm nights full of their singing. But on sultry mornings or evenings, nothing says summer like the sound of a pulsating sprinkler. Tick, tick, tick, tick, spraaaay. Tick, tick, tick, tick, spraaaay. Listen to it long enough and it begins to sound like another insect. It is the mechanical side of summer, proof that we are parched, in need of moisture, that we can, in some limited way, make our own rain.


Friday, June 25, 2010

Doves in Love

Says one mourning dove to another: "You're plump and cute; Let's get married." Or at least that's what I thought he said, though his words came out a bit garbled, more like like "Oooh eee, oooh, oooh, oooh." We watched this pair yesterday afternoon and I just saw them this morning as they continued their courtship dance on our deck railing.

Mourning doves like our house. Maybe it's the silvery weathered wood, which makes them think they're in the forest. Or maybe the railing is the right height for them. Or maybe they know that bird lovers live inside. We've had dove families here before. One year we watched babies take flight. They toddled along the planks, then spread their wings and soared to a nearby bough. As we stood earthbound, holding our breath, they became creatures of the air.


Thursday, June 24, 2010

76 Trombones

It's how we've welcomed summer for at least a decade: Every year on the last day of school we make fudge and watch "The Music Man." We started the tradition when the girls were in elementary school and there were shaving cream fights at the bus stop. We've toned down the clamor some, but "The Music Man" remains.

It's a perfect summer film: 4th of July pageants, picnics in the park, barbershop quartets, one of my favorite movie lines: "I always think there's a band, kid." And of course, there's the music.

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Labor Saved

This morning I opened up our new dishwasher after its inaugural run and found scoured bowls, gleaming glasses, spotless plates. All of this accomplished not by my hand but by the miraculous innards of our new machine. Six months of washing dishes by hand has made me appreciate what I used to greet with a shrug. And I've made a new resolution: no more pre-rinse. The dishes go in dirty and come out clean. That's the deal we made.

But we've made another deal, too, a more subtle one. Using a dishwasher again saves time. What will I do with this windfall? It can't involve another machine. It must be pure activity. Read more, write more, walk more, declutter more. Labor saved.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

In Honor of Solstice

On the longest day of the year I went swimming after dinner. I did a few laps until almost 9, when it was time for adult swim. The pool was almost empty and the lights were on. I did the side stroke, aqua-jogged and floated on my back. I didn't want to miss anything: the pool with the lights on, my hands all lit up in the yellow glow, the moon above, almost full and struggling for equal time -- a losing battle last night. Yesterday belonged to the sun.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Conspicuous Consumption

On Saturday, about three weeks after returning from our European vacation, Tom and I -- in one day -- bought a car and a dishwasher. We're doing our part to revive the world economy. But let me explain: The car is used and the dishwasher is mid-range. We've been washing dishes by hand since January and getting by with three or four drivers, two cars and a bike for weeks now. The combined mileage of the cars in our driveway is over 600,000. It's time. But that doesn't make it any easier. Spending money is hard for me. But I have noticed something. The more I spend, the easier it gets. Once the wheels of consumption are greased, they spin quite nicely. Maybe there's a lesson in this?


Sunday, June 20, 2010

Fathers and the Faraway

Fathers, I've read in child development books, bring the outside world to the young child. They are the "oh" of surprise, the gasp of delight. I think today of my own father, who traveled every week for work when I was young. Friday night we'd wait for the crunch of his tires on our gravel driveway. He brought with him a whiff of the faraway, of Columbus or Chicago or even, sometimes, New York.

When I first met Tom, he was just back from a student backpacking trip through Europe and he told me stories about living in England with his family for a year. He was (and is!) cosmopolitan!

Families thrive on a combination of the cozy and the wide-open. When kids (including grown kids) know they're loved, they're free to venture out into the world. The two most important men in my life have always done that for me.

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Friday, June 18, 2010

Mood Medicine

Walking helps me think, helps me create, helps me stay in shape. Most of all, walking helps my mood. How many days I've left the house in the doldrums, mentally pacing, worry-logged, going nowhere. But once out the door, motion takes hold. Whatever I was fretting about before recedes. In its place are suburban sights and sounds, some familiar, others not. Today a fox stood his ground as I approached along a Franklin Farm path. When I was about 20 yards away, he turned and ran. I wish I could have followed him, lived a bit of his day. Was he a she hunting for food? A mother with babies in the woods? On the way home I passed a last stand of honeysuckle and caught a whiff of its perfume. It's the last Friday of spring, still and clear. The medicine has worked, once again.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Hats Off

Today about 500 Oakton High School seniors will parade through the doors of George Mason University's Patriot Center on their way to the future. "Pomp and Circumstance" will be playing, video cams will be whirring and I think I can safely say that about midway through the commencement address a few students will reach into their robes and slip out inflatable beach balls, blow them up and toss them into the air. Red-faced administrators will scowl, wave their arms and maybe catch a ball or two. But soon more beach balls will appear, kids tapping them with their finger tips, sending them up into the air, laughing and playing. The rules of school are no match for the exuberance of youth.

What the kids don't yet know is that the rules of school are replaced with the rules of life -- tougher, less forgiving. But for now, they can pretend there are no rules at all. For now, they can whip off their hats and throw them up in the air. For now, there is only joy.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


It's Bloomsday, the day James Joyce lovers gather to celebrate the novel Ulysses and its protagonist Leopold Bloom. A day named for a book -- it gladdens my heart to know this is possible. The power of the written word. Especially the word "yes." Here are the novel's famous last lines: "and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. "

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Yesterday was Flag Day, which got me thinking about love of country -- or at the very least, appreciation of country. Traveling abroad made me think about this, too. The openness, the lack of reserve, the Americaness of Americans. So much more obvious when seen from afar. I wasn't gone long enough to miss it this time, but when I was a 20-year-old student, returning from my first trip abroad (two months on less than $5 a day), I certainly did. And apparently a lot of other people did, too. When the small Icelandic Airlines jet landed in New York, the (mostly American) passengers burst into applause. I hadn't flown much at the time, didn't know that sometimes people clap at the end of a long flight, relieved to be back on the ground. For me, the applause will always be a show of patriotism, a rare chance to give a hand to a nation, a place, an idea.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Night Walk

It's tempting with the long light of almost-solstice to think the sun will never go down, that there will be no night. So last evening we took a woods walk that started at 8:30 and ended when we could scarcely see the path in front of us. We walked on instinct, our feet as sensors, the knowledge of the trail in our heads and in our soles. Soft darkness rolled in, the ferns and ivy blurred, our vision shrunk to the brown outline of the path we walked on. Birds settled themselves for the night. I fell behind the others, listening for the moment when day became night. I thought for a second that I heard it. But I was wrong. It had already happened; it was too quiet to hear.


Saturday, June 12, 2010

Living Like a European

As I pine away for what I've seen (and I expect no sympathy -- come on, I just had a European vacation) I decide to absorb the vacation, to swallow it whole, so it becomes a part of me. I want to eat like a European (smaller portions, more mineral water), shop like a European (every day? with a basket on my arm? this part I know I won't manage), walk like a European (briskly with purpose but not so obviously for exercise), dress like a European (more heels, please) and de-clutter like a European (this is very crucial). For inspiration, a photo of daily life from one of my favorite European places, Czesky Krumlov.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Brief Encounter

Summer mornings are kind to the suburban walker. They are cool and quiet and they arrive a few minutes after 5. This morning I was out before the sun, and at the end of our neighborhood I saw three deer. They were young and thin, their faces impossibly narrow. I'll admit: They look much cuter bounding through the woods than they do up close. For a minute all three of them froze, a self-protective device, I imagine. But then two of them ran back into the brush. Only one -- the brazen one? the curious one? -- stayed where she was. She looked me up one side and down the other. She took my measure, and I took hers. I think she could tell I meant her no harm. I was just another fellow creature taking the morning air.


Thursday, June 10, 2010


Sometimes I finish a book, go right back to the beginning and start reading it again. This doesn't happen often, but it happened with Driftless by David Rhodes. The book was recommended by an old friend, so it's a word-of-mouth read, the best kind. It didn't disappoint. Driftless tells the interlinked stories of the residents of Words, Wisconsin. One day Pastor Winifred Smith has a spiritual encounter with the Divine. Here's how she tries to explain it to another character, a pivotal one, July Montgomery:

"Words are meaningless," she said. "The truth dies before it fits into them. Language lacks the capacity to hold anything real. It serves an utterly different master. What's really real is a home words can't get into or out of."

Reading the book for the second time, I realize how significant these lines are, because they apply not just to words themselves but to the town of Words, a "tiny town, which sits at the dead end of a steep valley."

One of the things I like about the book is that it isn't afraid to tackle the big topics -- a belief in the beyond, why we live where we live, how impossibly lovely it is when one soul touches another. Many modern books shy away from these topics, take a much narrower slice of the pie. Rhodes cuts off a great big hunk of it. But he does it through Words, a place few people go. "State maps no longer include Words, and though Q [county trunk road and the only way into the town] is often pictured, the curving black line simply ends like a snipped-off black thread in a spot of empty white space. Even in [the nearby town of] Grange, most people don't know where Words is." Read this book, though, and Words will always be with you.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A Remedy

A return to routine requires an antidote; in this case, flowers. Impatiens for the shady stoop and in between the ferns. Begonias for the deck. Zinnias for the garden. Weeds have gotten the upper hand. I pull them out by the fist-full. I find one red rose almost covered in the side yard. I plunge my hands into the earth and think about the summer, how it's just starting. Last night I planted until I couldn't see my hands in front of me anymore. Lightning bugs flickered around me.


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Back on Track?

The first of what will probably be several (I hope not too many) postings on Things I Notice Upon My Return:
I'm back on the Orange Line. In a way, it's like I've never left. In another, it's like I've never been on it before. I see more texting, more phoning, more fiddling with buttons. The Swedes were the most plugged-in Europeans I saw; the Viennese scarcely seemed plugged-in at all. But we Americans are earnest about our technology. We stare and scowl at tiny screens. We tap away vigorously. Our thumbs glide across touch-pads. We seldom look at the world around us.


Monday, June 7, 2010

A Book of Stones

The second day home we drove to Indiana for Aunt Mary Ann's funeral. So much has happened since we've been gone, so much has happened since we returned. Sadness and grief, yes, but also the healing salve of family. Our own three girls together again for the first time in five months. Giggles from the backseat on the nine-hour drive home yesterday, just like the old days.

We've seen many cemeteries in the last three weeks, most recently the bucolic Crown Hill in downtown Indianapolis. The photo above is from the Jewish Cemetery in Prague. Crowded in death as they were (in the ghetto) in life, these people clung to each other, to learning and to their own good names. Some of the graves here are 500 years old, said the audio tour guide, but if you know what to look for, you can read this graveyard like a book. A book of stones.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Back Home

Yesterday I flew home. Claire was at the airport with a bouquet of flowers, Celia was back at the house, just home from school. The best part of being back: seeing their sweet faces. Tom flies in today; he took the slow way back to Stockholm, from Vienna by train.

This morning I woke early--traveling west will do that to you--and for a moment I didn't know where I was. The funky hotel near Arlanda Airport outside Stockholm? the Simony Guesthouse overlooking the Hallstatt Zee? the thickly walled medieval Pension Adelbart in Czesky Krumlov? the hotel on the Weiner Haupstrasse only a few minutes walk from Suzanne in Vienna? the hostel in Prague (the less said about that, the better--we're too old for hostels, we've learned)? the lovely lakeside home of Dan and Ann-Katrin? None of those, but our own familiar room in our cluttered two-story colonial.

It was early enough that I had time for a walk before staring the day. It was just lightening when I left the house and bats darted across the sky in search of their last snacks before bedtime. The Virginia air hangs heavy. It is summer in the suburbs. I'm home.


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Pedal Power

A few hours in Uppsala, Sweden, before heading home reminds me that I'll soon be returning to a commute downtown. In Uppsala, a university town north of Stockholm, here's how they arrive at their local train station. It's the end of my trip and Ill be glad to get home. But I'll miss the beauty, the ways of living, the quaint and the practical.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Moving On

Today I leave Vienna, a city where time seems to have stopped. Time didn't stop for me, though. I celebrated my birthday here yesterday. But as I move on into another year, it's comforting to know that Vienna remains. A place of smokey cafes, quaint customs, careworn dignity. I'm looking for a picture that sums up this place -- and of course I can't find just one. Would it be St Stephansdom in the sunlight? An ancient walkway at the edge of the First District? A busy shopping street off Mariahilferstrasse? As I write these words, bells chime the hours. I'll miss the bells, too. You can hear them no matter where you are.
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