Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Halloween

A gunman shooting at Marine installations, explosive packages bound for the U.S., a local terrorist plotting to bomb the Metro system — all in all it hasn't been an easy week to live in Washington, D.C. — or anywhere in this country, for that matter.

Which is why I'm glad it's Halloween — the holiday that puts fear in its place. Of course, Halloween is mostly about getting dressed up and eating candy and watching scary movies. But at its root it's about thumbing our noses at fear and death. It's about looking the other way. It couldn't be here at a better time.


Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Time for Irony

A word about today's gathering on the National Mall, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear." It's clever and it's funny and lots of people I know are going, but I don't want my daughter to be one of them.

She's young enough that I'd like her first experience of such an event to be an actual and not an ironic one. It would take much more than a single blog post to describe how I feel about kids and irony. In short, I think it's an attitude toward life best developed slowly and with experience. Best to at least start off life with some sense of purpose. There will be plenty of time later to become jaded.

I was heartened to read an op-ed in the Washington Post last week on this topic. In "A Like-In for Generation I," Alexandra Petri, a self- described member of the Millenial generation, says, "To Generation I [that's "I for irony, iPhones and the Internet," she writes], for whom life exists so we can put as many things as possible in quotes, this 'rally' is the closest we will ever get to a love-in. It's a 'like-in.'"

At the risk of sounding earnest and old-fashioned and absolutely square — give me a love-in every time.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Out of This World

I walked outside this morning onto the darkened deck. A cool, steady wind was blowing and the moon and stars shone bright and clear. I thought about the worlds that exist beyond our world, about possibility and eternity. Then I walked inside to read this headline: "Galaxy may have gobs of Earth-size planets."

In a paper published in the journal Science astronomers posit that there are "tens of billions" of planets the same shape and size as Earth in the Milky Way. This conclusion is based, among other things, on measuring "the minute wobbles [I love that phrase] of stars caused by the exoplanets that orbit them." And also by a method called "transiting," which looks for reductions in light coming from the star and planets being observed. Fascinating stuff, for sure. Also fascinating is the discovery of a rocky planet in a "habitable zone" around a star close to Earth.

It's too soon to know for sure of course, but it seems increasingly likely that we are not alone in the universe.


Thursday, October 28, 2010

Unseen Connections

In The Whistling Season, by Ivan Doig, Paul Milliron pauses for a moment to muse outside his one-room schoolhouse:

"There at the waiting pump I could not sort such matters out totally, but even then, I am convinced, began in me some understanding of how much was recorded on that prairie, in those trails leading to the school. How their pattern held together a neighborhood measured in square miles and chimneys as far apart as smoke signals."

This passage makes me think about all the connections that are stitched into a community, often invisible and tenuous but there just the same. These connections are particularly hard to discern on the outer edge of a major metropolitan area. But I figure if Doig could see them on a prairie I ought to be able to feel them — and to sing them — in the suburbs.


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Tree Aglow

I waited weeks for the leaves to change, and now they seem to have done it overnight. I drive home from Metro through tunnels of green and gold and that familiar acrid scent. Back home, I rush out with my camera to photograph the most beautiful trees in our neighborhood. The shimmering maples, the burning bush, and behind it all a wash of brilliant yellow from the turning oaks. We're expecting wind and rain later this week and the leaves that are now on the trees will soon be on the ground. It is good to acknowledge the fleeting nature of beauty — and of cameras.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Mind of their Own

I have a theory about inanimate objects; I believe that sometimes they fix themselves. This belief has been roundly ridiculed by my family. But I write about it today because it has happened once again. My trusty Kodak Easy Share camera broke over the weekend, took odd wavy pink-tinted photos (see above). And today, now that I'm no longer in scenic Holmes County with a buggy in every parking lot, it is once again snapping fully tinted photos.

This — or something like it — has happened with radios, CD players, iPods, toasters and more than one computer. It has happened enough that I've begun to think these objects have minds of their own. They are like balky wayward children who when left alone will finally come to their senses. They want to be good. But as the parenting books say, they need to develop their own autonomy.

Just as the nonbeliever can always find a scientific explanation for miracles, so too can the skeptic poke holes in my theory. I realize that beneath this personification are loose circuits, faulty wires, software glitches. But I hold fast to my theory. I wait a day before calling for repairs. I believe that there is much about this world that we do not understand.


Monday, October 25, 2010

The Quiet Life

On Saturday we toured Holmes County, Ohio, home to the world's largest Amish population. We passed buggy after buggy, and after a while I noticed there were different models. Some were like sedans; others resembled little trucks. All were pulled by beautifully sleek black horses.

In the village of New Hope, Amish men with long white beards rode their bikes up to the hardware store. A few miles outside the village, past the small school, a woman named Lavina met us in her home and showed us the quilts she and her sister, Mary, had made. The quilts were piled on a double bed and she flipped each one over to reveal the varying patterns and colors of the one beneath.

A few miles away we bought stainless steel cookware at the Yoder Bargain store. A young girl with head scarf and long dress browsed the sewing notions. An Amish family looked over the baby clothes. We found an entire small room devoted to rubber stamps. The store was dark and quiet, and when we left to get in our car I glimpsed a fall tableaux: red-leaved trees, corn crib, white-hatted Amish grandmother tending the mums, a buggy in the distance. No electric wires or telephone lines in sight.

This is a quiet world, one without radio music, car horns or text message beeps. I couldn't live in it, I certainly couldn't blog in it, but I could enter as a visitor and savor the stillness.


Saturday, October 23, 2010

Cross Country

The birth of a first child is also the birth of a family. So today, as we celebrate Suzanne's birthday with her, I think about all the places our family has taken us. Not just the states and the countries we have traveled to but the kind of people we have become because of each other.

Suzanne loves to run, and yesterday we stood on a crisp, windy course and watched as she and her teammates raced across the green grass, through the yellowing trees, and up an agonizingly long hill.

The wonderful thing about cross-country is that even the spectators participate. To see the race properly you must trot from one vantage point to another. So at the end of the race the runners aren't the only ones who are exhilarated. Everyone is.

It's kind of like a family.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Spirit of the Season

It's the time of year when scarecrows lean on lampposts, monster spiders scuttle along rooftops and corn stalks cluster near hay bales. Halloween decorations have always seemed a little redundant in our house, though. Without even trying we have cobwebs in the corners, a squeak in the stairs and a haunted lamp in the living room. We usually put up other decorations too, witches, ghosts, even some fake cobwebs a few years ago. But those seemed rather silly. This year we may go “au natural.” We’ll let our house speak for us.


Thursday, October 21, 2010

Life Among the Savages

I've been reading Shirley Jackson's memoir of raising kids in an old house in a small Vermont town and marveling at how well she captures the endearing chaos of family life. "Madcap" is a word that comes immediately to mind, an "Erma Bombeck'ish" word that describes a certain style of postwar mothering that is loving but off-handed. And Life Among the Savages is certainly madcap. "Surprising" is another, because Jackson is known for her horror stories (she wrote the short story "The Lottery").

Some of my favorite scenes in the book are set around the dinner table — one child demanding, another pouting and still another floating around in her own imaginary world. There's a rise and fall to the dialogue that is exactly like the real thing. It makes me nostalgic for our own madcap days. Most of all, though, it makes me smile.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Importance of Terrain

One thing that cyclists, walkers and new drivers have in common is a renewed appreciation for topography. In our house we have one of each of these — a cyclist, a walker and a new driver — and we are all feeling the hills.

The long slow grades are the toughest for cyclists and walkers. But for the new driver it is the unexpected dip, the unanticipated downhill.

When you’ve been driving for years you forget that vehicles move even when your foot is not on the gas pedal. Cars can zip backwards down a driveway before you know it; they can pick up enough steam on a slow descent to push you quickly over the speed limit. Lesson one, I say to Celia, my voice wavering just a bit from the passenger seat: The brake pedal is your friend.

To myself I think: It’s good to remember the importance of the terrain. Topography keeps us humble.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Autumn Rose

There is a shade that appears this time of year in leaf and twig and flower. It isn't russet or rust; it's more of a rose. Not the vivid rose of spring but the faded rose of fall, a purplish rose. It's an elegant hue, subtle enough to show up on a runway or in a fashion magazine. But not pretentious either. It's a quiet color and you won't see it first when you gaze at a stand of trees. But go for a woods walk as I did yesterday, or do some weeding in the flower beds, and you'll find it.


Monday, October 18, 2010

A World of Books

A few weeks ago, at back-to-school night, I saw the list of books our high school sophomore will read for English this year. I had to bite my tongue not to say “Oh, we have those, somewhere...” — because usually I can find every other book but the ones we need. Someday we will discover a box in the basement containing every missing selection on the high school curriculum: All Quiet on the Western Front, The Jungle, The Scarlet Letter.

Meanwhile, the books that I do find are distressingly yellowed and priced at 69 cents. You must open them carefully, so that their bindings don’t crack and their pages fall out. Along their margins is such English major scrawl as “obsession with the body shows the importance of the physical” and “dichotomy of city and country echoes Romantic themes.” But I’m proud of these books, and of the occasional comments the girls have reported back to me from their English teachers: “I used to have that edition when I was in college” or “I can see your family holds onto things.”

The late Susan Sontag said of her library of 15,000 books: “What I do sometimes is just walk up and down and think about what’s in the books, because they remind me of all there is. And the world is so much bigger than what people remember.”


Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Small House

I read today that Builder magazine has come up with its concept home for 2010. It's called a "Home for the New Economy," and it's 1,700 square feet. Previous concept homes have been as large as 6,000 square feet, so this is quite a departure. The article goes on to say that it will take time before homeowners embrace the smaller-is-better concept of this concept home. And certainly where we live, McMansions still rule (see above).

But the "Home for the New Economy" makes me feel vindicated. We live comfortably in a 2000-square foot house with a room for every child, a cozy former dining room that long ago became our ersatz family room and a kitchen where we —— and most people who visit us —— spend most of our time. There isn't as much house to clean or pay for and, best of all, the small house keeps us together. Where we belong.


Saturday, October 16, 2010

Living History

Yesterday I met a 98-year-old man who is still practicing law, the fifth generation of his family to do so in his North Carolina hometown. He and his (slightly) younger wife had driven five hours to attend a reunion, and after a luncheon for 50-year (and 50-year-plus!) graduates, the man took the microphone and sang the Georgetown fight song in a strong, clear baritone.

As it turns out, the man is the great grandson of Stephen A. Douglas, of Lincoln-Douglas debate fame. My recall on this being a bit shaky, I just read the Wikipedia entry on these debates. There were seven of them, held in various towns in Illinois, as Lincoln challenged the incumbent Douglas for the U.S. senate seat. The debates covered big topics, especially slavery, of course, and they were so important that newspapers sent stenographers to take down every word the men said. But the newspapers that were for Douglas edited his words and left Lincoln's in rough form — and vice versa for the newspapers that supported Lincoln. After he lost the election, Lincoln cleaned up all the text of the debates and published it in a book. The book's popularity helped lead to Lincoln's nomination as Republican candidate for president of the United States.

And just to think, I learned all this because of a little old man at a luncheon.

Friday, October 15, 2010


The woods are balding and purpled. Trees are thinning. I can see farther now into the thickets, which are no longer as thick. I bounce on the trampoline (Bouncer in the Suburbs? nah!), and when I'm tired I lie down on it and watch the leaves fall. So slowly, spiraling down, taking their time, an eternity of empty air beneath them. They fall singly or in pairs. Sometimes they are caught on an updraft, and then they soar. At this point, a falling leaf is still a novelty. I can observe it and think poetic thoughts about it. Soon leaves will fall so fast and in such number that I won't have that luxury. I will be too busy to notice their progress through the sky. I will be raking.


Thursday, October 14, 2010


We have no vivid reds and oranges here yet (maybe we won't at all). What we do have is an autumn glow, a gradual shading of our leaves from green to lighter green to burnished copper. The trees are tired and thirsty. It's been a rough summer for them; maybe they don't have the energy for a full display.

We still have time for a fall worthy of New England. That's what I always hope for. But if this is all we get, this polite curtsy of an autumn, this thinning and deepening of color, that will be fine, too.


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Cottage

Last evening I walked by this house. It's my favorite in our neighborhood and, as I just learned from a real estate circular, it "SOLD in 7 Days!" It's one of the smaller models in our subdivision and has an ordinary lot. What makes this house special are the window boxes, the white picket fence, the wrap-around porch and the English cottage garden. In other words, details. Put enough of them together, though, and you have a place that is charming and comfortable and old-fashioned. Ah yes, I have a crush on this house.


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Dash

Six years ago today I went to work in an office again after a 17-year freelance career. It was 2004, the girls were all in school (grades, 4, 8 and 10) and I needed a change. Some people can spin stories out of their imaginations and never need the rough and tumble of the world to push them along. I do. Plus, the steady income was a definite lure with college tuition looming on the horizon. So when I heard about a writing job for a university alumni publication, I signed on.

Some days I know I did the right thing; other days I’m not so sure. It would take more than a single blog post to explain how much I’ve analyzed this decision and its impact on our family and my career. In moments when I'm ruminating about this a little too much, I call to mind the last lines of that famous poem by Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Dr. James Ferguson of Hanover College, my favorite professor of all time, said it is the dash that makes the poem great. The dash, which stands for the hesitation, for all the decisions of life when we do not know, cannot know, if we did the right thing.

Today I celebrate the dash.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Trouble with Bubbles

Yesterday we went to an Oktoberfest celebration at Reston Town Center, where I tried (with very little success) to photograph the bubbles that were flowing out of a bubble machine at one of the booths. In the process a security guard stopped me. "You're not allowed to photograph the buildings," he said. I told him I wasn't shooting the buildings but the bubbles. He didn't care. The bubbles were in front of the buildings. That's all that mattered to him.

Bubbles are difficult to capture for other reasons, too. They flow and float and, worst of all, they pop! They are winsome and ephemeral and fickle. Photographing them is perhaps best left to the experts. But I had fun trying.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


A brief post on numerology: There are scads more weddings today than there were on this equivalent Sunday last year. The reason, of course, is the date -- 10/10/10. Not only a "perfect 10," but when the digits are added up (1+0+1+0+2+0+1+0), they equal 5, which stands for love.

But don't believe me. Consult any numerologist. I heard a numerologist interviewed on the "Today Show," which I watched this morning to see my friend Carla interviewed about hypochondria and her book Phantom Illness. (Go, Carla!)

The numerologist was on earlier in the show and she suggested that on this auspicious day, we should light a white candle and meditate on what we still hope to achieve this year.

I have a stub of a white candle on my kitchen table. I think I'll give it a try.


Saturday, October 9, 2010

Harvest Time

Last night we were visited by a woman named Maud. A couple weeks ago she had offered to take the large logs in the back of our yard, what's left of the grand old oak that fell from the sky more than a year ago, and sell them to her customers as firewood. We hadn't found anyone else who would haul them away without charging us a lot, so this seemed like a good arrangement. And then the rains (finally) came, and the ground was too soggy. She's been busy delivering firewood and hasn't had time to replenish her supply. Hence the nighttime visit.

So as we sat in our snug house and tried to calm the dog, Maud and two helpers worked by the light of a Coleman lantern. They cut the large logs, hauled them to the front of the house and threw them in a truck. It was a strange sound, chainsaws in the darkness, and made me feel part of an ancient drama. The frantic work of fall, of harvesting late crops and cutting the last field of hay.


Friday, October 8, 2010

Meadow Grass

I took the path along the Fairfax County Parkway the other day, a road that didn’t exist when we moved here but is a major thoroughfare now. A road we first heard about from our sheepish real estate agent, who only acknowledged it when we asked her about those ominous-looking orange-flagged stakes at the corner.

It was a house off Thompson Road, a lane that retained a hint of its country charm then but one I’m glad we don’t live on now, so close is it to this busy highway. I like how our neighborhood is tucked away from the traffic and surrounded by woods. I appreciate the quiet of the place, the birdsong.

Walking along the parkway I studied the different varieties of meadow grass. One is cattail-like, another is taller and skinnier. I should know the names of these grasses, but whatever they’re called, they look good together, waving in the wind. Their movement was like so many flags flapping, a brave and jubilant salute.


Thursday, October 7, 2010


Yesterday's landscape reminded me of Scotland: bleak and bare and beautiful. There's a stretch of road between Petersburg and Moorefield, West Virginia, that runs along the edge of a broad valley. A light rain was falling (unlike the photo above, taken on the trip out). Dark clouds filled the sky but a thin band of clear sky beckoned at the horizon. It was a battle between dark and light. There was plenty of autumn color in the highlands, and thin curls of smoke rose from the chimneys of houses perched on the ridgetops.

What must it be like to live in such beauty? To open a door, to step out on a porch and see a broad valley spread out below. Does it make for an open mind? an open heart?


Wednesday, October 6, 2010


I've been thinking lately about falls. Not falls as in autumn or as in water (despite the photo). But falls as in tumbles, collapses, sudden drops from vertical to horizontal. A sign at the hospital yesterday: "Let's be fall free on 3B." Something I seldom think about at all, strolling down a corridor or stepping off a curb, is quite an achievement for others.

It is a gift, this upright posture, these legs that can stride and arms that can swing. The simplest motions of the day are the product of countless neural firings, of muscles expanding and contracting — a complicated calculus of movement and balance. Of defying gravity.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Home Place

I grew up hearing the term — they live at the old "homeplace," meaning a country home that had housed several generations of the same family. It might have been ramshackle and heavily mortgaged, but it had a history.

Split up that compound, though, into home and place. That's what I've been wondering lately. Are certain places more likely to be "home" than others. Such a complicated question. It requires definitions and qualifications of all terms. All I know is that in some deep and improbable way, Kentucky is a place that still feels like home to me.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

A Day's Drive

When our girls began looking at colleges, one of our rules was that the school be no more than a day's drive away. Of course there were questions: Why just a day? And what do you mean by day? We explained that we didn't have a 24-hour marathon in mind. Just a normal seven- or eight-hour drive. When you live where we do, this covers a lot of ground. From Boston to Charleston to Ohio — and plenty of places in between.

I was thinking of this yesterday as I drove to Kentucky to help out my dad, who had fallen the night before and broken his shoulder. I could leave Virginia at noon and be in Lexington by dinner time.

Air travel has changed our view of space and distance, has made it possible to stay close to friends and family in a way that would have been impossible a generation or two ago. I know that jobs, education and other circumstances of life may not always allow for such proximity. But I do know that yesterday, I was glad to be only a day's drive away from these people I love.


Saturday, October 2, 2010


Sure, we've had it all summer, but today's sunlight is different. It's slanting in from a different angle and hasn't yet reached the deck. There's a chill to it. It is both bright and thin. It is the beginning of autumn, of a new relationship to our closest star. No longer our enemy, now our friend.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Starting Over

Maybe it's just the optimist in me, but I relish every fresh start I'm given. The first entry in a new journal or the first day of a new month. Finding an excuse is easy; cultivating enthusiasm is hard.

September has seemed longer than usual this year. I've been waiting for days to flip the calendar. Now that a new month is here, I feel the faintly anxious drumbeat of opportunity. There's a magazine to finalize, essays to write, books to read and closets to clean. But right now, there is just the first day of a new month and a blank page before me.


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