Monday, January 31, 2011

Comic Relief

My brother Phillip and I were talking about the mood-altering power of a good laugh when something I said reminded him of a scene in the movie "This is Spinal Tap." He popped the movie into his DVD player. We watched, chuckling so hard we almost doubled over. I think of the medicinal power of "Seinfeld" episodes (we all have our favorites, the Soup Nazi, the marble rye) and of the long-ago experiment of Norman Cousins, who kept cancer at bay by making himself laugh long and loud.

This photo makes me laugh whenever I look at it. There's a street in Lexington, Kentucky, called "The Lane." It's a very exclusive enclave, the sort of place that sniffs at actually needing a street name. Until recently the city went along with it; the street sign simply said "The Lane." But the new signs require some sort of designation to be printed in small type beneath the name. And that means that The Lane, that once la-de-da thoroughfare, is now a street called "The."

Every time I see this picture I have to laugh. Comic relief on a cold, gray morning.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

A Book, A Namesake

In a few days this blog will be a year old, so the other day I picked up my copy of A Walker in the City by Alfred Kazin. The name of my blog was a conscious tip of the hat to this title, but I hadn’t read the book in a while and I had forgotten that it begins with Kazin’s walk through the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, where he grew up. “Every time I go to Brownsville it is as if I had never been away,” he says in the first line,echoing a feeling so many of us have when we return to our hometowns. He admits that he has not moved far from home. “Actually I did not go very far; it was enough that I could leave Brownsville.”

As he walks through his old neighborhood, he recounts the sour smells, the shapeless old women sitting on stoops, the “dry rattle of old newspaper,” the end of the line. Brownsville is a place to leave, and even though it’s no more than an hour from Manhattan, it seemed like the middle of nowhere to the young Kazin. He describes the tiring subway ride back home after a day in the city. “When I was a child I thought we lived at the end of the world.” He knows every station, “Grand Army Plaza, with its great empty caverns smoky with dust and chewing gum wrappers,” Hoyt, with its windows of ladies’ clothes, then “Saratoga, Rockaway, then home.” Kazin is lucky in that his new life and his old one lie so close together — they are miles yet worlds apart.

Re-reading A Walker in the City surprised and encouraged me. Writing about place, in particular those places we call home and those we call hometowns, is something I plan to do more of in this blog. Kazin has set my mind to spinning.

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Friday, January 28, 2011

A Pot of Soup

A few days ago I chopped two onions, peeled three potatoes, assembled a soup bone and stew beef, canned tomatoes, celery, carrots, beans and corn. I set about making vegetable soup the way I learned to as a girl. It takes the better part of a day to do this — but it's not concentrated time, of course, just whenever you can edge it into whatever else you're doing. When you're done, your refrigerator may look a bit like ours above, empty and used up.

I boiled the meat and the bone first, skimmed the broth, then added vegetables according to texture and flavor — onions and celery for seasoning, potatoes, then tomatoes, carrots and so on. It takes a couple hours before it's bubbling on the stove and the vegetables begin to soften and blend into each other. To become less themselves and one with the soup.

Because I started making the soup in the evening I knew we wouldn't eat it till the next day. And more importantly, I knew that the soup wouldn't be at its best until we'd cooled and reheated it several times. There must be a chemical or gastronomical explanation for this but I don't know what it is. I do know that vegetable soup is at its best about three days after you make it. And in fact, soup is one of those slow foods, and making it harkens back to an earlier time when things worth doing took time and patience.


Thursday, January 27, 2011


It came in with a whoosh and a bang and a crackle of light. At 2 p.m. it was raining, at 3 it was glopping (gobs of slush falling from the sky) and at 4 the snow was falling sideways at two inches an hour.

Through the quick-darkening afternoon and evening we heard claps of thunder, saw lightning flash. By midnight it was over. The west-facing flanks of trees were smeared with white, as if from a wayward paintbrush. Our bamboo was bent with the weight of the heavy snow. Today it is quiet, no plows, no cars. Just the whiteness of a spent world. Until yesterday we'd had a cold, dry winter. The thundersnow made up for it.


Wednesday, January 26, 2011


The house is so still without our little bird, so quiet and ordinary. It lacks the ambient sounds of a parakeet in motion. I don’t turn on the radio as much as I used to, because it reminds me of him, too, and so the quiet is compounded.

Into this void has come the winter fire, which lights the hearth, opens clogged sinuses and fills the house with smoke. (We need our chimney cleaned, I think.) What it also does, I’ve noticed recently, is provide some much needed noise.

The fire roars and crackles. It provides some of the background sound I’ve been missing so much since Hermes died. It doesn’t replace him, of course, not in the least, but it is a slight consolation.

Sitting beside a fire is like keeping company with a wild animal; there is a hint of danger in the sudden shifting of wood, the burning log that falls from the grate. Outside the temperature falls, the wind sighs. Inside, our hearth is bright — rhe consolation of a winter fire.


Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Winter Stream

The winter stream is a study in contrasts. In some places a layer of ice like the skin on just boiled milk stretches from bank to bank, puckered and wrinkled and vaguely flesh-like. The current pulses beneath that thin shell, and water pushes out a few feet downstream where the creek is not yet frozen. The flicker of life as the stream erupts there reminds me of the play of tiny insects on the summer surface.

In other places a ripple of white ice has formed and it bobs beside logs and patches of leaves. The flowing water rushes past it like a dark, living thing, like a large, furtive fish. The creek is shallow at this point but the banks are steep. If you look down you can see in the winter current a hint of the riotousness of spring.


Monday, January 24, 2011

Single Digits

Snow has been scarce this winter, but frigid air has been plentiful. Many days it's been served up with a stiff northwest breeze. I've kept walking along the frost-hard trails and through the grit that accumulates along the side of the roads. I've done it for my sanity, to thumb my nose at the season — and to soak up whatever mood-altering sunlight I can.

It was 7 degrees this morning when I woke up. Seven! Seven makes a lovely time, age or chapter. But not temperature.

These chilly days remind me of my years in Chicago. Seven degrees above zero was balmy in that city. One day I learned after I'd already left for work that the school where I taught was closed for the day. It was 21 degrees below zero (actual temperature, not wind chill). I'd grown so accustomed to the cold that I hadn't wondered why everyone was running, not walking, down the street.

It was winter that drove me from that city. Winters can do that, you know.


Saturday, January 22, 2011

Looking Out Windows

I often walk to music — radio music, that is. I have an iPod but it's old and barely holds its charge a half an hour. Besides, I haven't loaded much music on it. In fact, I never really made the switch from LP to CD. Much of my favorite music is on vinyl. So for years I've contented myself with whatever our classical station serves up. This is probably just laziness on my part, or perhaps a willingness to be surprised, to take what fate hands me, aurally speaking.

I was thinking of this in terms of what I wrote about yesterday, the "Big Sort." Not only are we segregating ourselves into homogeneous clubs, churches and communities but we are also reading custom-tailored news and listening to carefully selected music.

The world is big, complex, confusing. We need the comfort of sameness and exclusion. But trying a new activity, listening to unfamiliar tunes or chancing upon an article in the hard copy of a newspaper gives a necessary eclecticism to our lives. It means we're looking out windows instead of into mirrors.


Friday, January 21, 2011

Sorting Ourselves Out

In The Big Sort author Bill Bishop writes about our tendency to live in evermore like-minded communities, worship in evermore homogeneous churches and vote in evermore polarized elections. The subtitle of his book is "Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart." People who associate with people just like themselves tend to become more extreme and lose their ability to compromise. The middle disappears. What you have left is a lot of people on the fringes, shouting at each other.

Demographic data show that people who live in the far suburbs or exurbs tend to be conservative, while people who live in cities tend to be liberal. As a walker in the suburbs, I pay attention to the cars in the driveways and the bumper stickers plastered on them. And I know that, while northern Virginia has trended Democratic in recent elections, our neighbors are a congenial mixture of political types. Gun-toting NRA folks happily loan their snow-blowers to environmentalists who only own shovels.

One of the things that slows or stops the Big Sort is devotion to place. When we don't vote with our feet, when we stay where we've landed — or (even rarer these days) where we're born — we deny the Big Sort the demographic movement it requires. Census data released earlier this month shows that the share of Americans who made a long-distance move dropped to a record low of 1.4 percent. It's the lowest level since the government began recording this statistic in 1948.

Maybe there's hope for us after all.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

Morning in the City

This morning I write from my office, overlooking the alley I described yesterday. My desk is positioned so that I look out not only into the alley but into the street beyond. On this cold day walkers scurry in and out of my line of sight. A man with a hand truck crosses the street, a bike messenger zooms along with the traffic, pilgrims shuffle to Starbucks. Everyone is hooded, gloved and booted. There is little color in this world; it is monochrome this morning. But it is moving. A world of swirling shapes in gray and black.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Appeal of Alleys

I've always liked alleys. It may simply be a continuation of my love for narrow streets. Or it may be because alleys are alternative universes, passages that take you behind the scenes. The front of a house or store is what the owners would like you to see; the alley provides another glimpse — the dirty laundry (sometimes literally). In an alley you see the garbage cans, the old car, the rusty rake or shovel (or, in the case of the photo above, a window on moving day).

Unlike wide thoroughfares, alleys are cozy for the walker. You feel nicely held in by them. They are comforting. Unless they are dangerous, which of course they sometimes are.

My office window faces an alley. It's a broad, well-lit alley, as alleys go, a working passage with a small loading dock. When my office suddenly goes dark I know it's either because the sun has gone behind a cloud or the UPS truck is making a delivery. My alley isn't dangerous, but questionable characters have been known to wander there and do things they wouldn't do out in the open.

In other words, alleys are never dull.


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

When the Going Gets Tough

Ice coats the streets, sidewalks and cars. Schools are closed. It's time for fantasy travel. Today we visit Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia. It's a misty July afternoon and the roses are still blooming. Daylilies and larkspur are thriving. The air is so perfumed and moist that walking through it feels like an instant facial.

After a stroll under the rose arbor into the Japanese garden, you find a little tea shop, sip a cup of Earl Gray and sample a scone or two. Then you wander some more. You snap photos, lots of photos. You gather all sorts of ideas for your garden back home — then you realize that none of them will work because you don't live in the Pacific Northwest. But you feel good just for imagining what might have been.


Monday, January 17, 2011

For Hermes

Some religions have household gods, mostly beneficent (occasionally mischievous) beings who look over the house and bless it with their presence. For nine years we have had such a creature in our house — our parakeet, Hermes, who died Saturday. He had never known a day of sickness and lived a most happy life. And because of him, we were happier, too.

When we bought Hermes for $17 from the local pet store, Suzanne was in seventh grade and had hours to spend with the baby bird. She coaxed him gently onto her finger, moving her hand ever so slowly up to her face so she could look at him eye to eye. His little striped head bobbed up and down as he sidestepped back and forth on her finger. Suzanne liked to mother Hermes and every night would read him the story “Goodnight Moon.” Before he was a year old, Hermes began saying the words “goodnight” and “moon.” Later, more confident, he strung together “goodnight” with “Hermes.” Soon he added new words to his repertoire, “I love you” and “good morning.”

Our house was livelier in those days. The phone was forever ringing, the radio was blaring, children were bouncing balls and skating through the kitchen. All was chaos and Hermes was in his heaven, bobbing above it all in a wire cage suspended from the ceiling.

The children grew up and entered their own lives, but Hermes remained, talking, singing and sneezing (he learned to mimic a human sneeze — apparently we sneeze so much that he thought it was our call). Hermes chirped when he heard the garage or front door open, or when the water was running in the sink. All these noises he knew intimately, because they brought people to his side — his flock, his family.

Maybe it's because he could talk, but there was just something about Hermes, the way he cooed when we were close together, his intellect and his emotions, that made us love him all the more. And he was such a plucky little guy. Even his last day with us he was still chirping and sneezing and ringing his bell. Hermes weighed only a few ounces but he filled the house with his love. It is quiet without him.

Because of Hermes, I have a higher opinion of all animals, especially parakeets. Because of him, I listen carefully to the sounds of our house. Because of him, I have developed the habit of looking up. Hermes lived longer than I ever dreamed he would. But he didn’t live long enough. He didn’t live forever.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Writing About Snow

Most mornings I sit down to write a post with very little idea of what I will say. But last night I decided to write about the snow cover, how this week only one state out of our 50, Florida, did not have it.

But when I started to write this morning I thought about the sad events of last Saturday, what our country has been through this week, the questions we have been asking ourselves. I make it a point not to cover political and social topics in this blog, but still, with all this on my mind, did I really want to write about the weather?

So I sat and I thought, and I moved to a quiet corner of the house where I could think better, and I decided ... to write about the snow cover. About the planet that looks so serene and blue from space, and how it would look if a large chunk of it was gleaming white.

I know the snow is sparse in some of the southern states (including our own). I know it would barely make a difference if viewed from on high. I also know that our lovely blue planet is anything but placid.


Friday, January 14, 2011

Bird Bath

Many remember to feed the birds; Tom remembers to water them. He rigged up a bowl of water on top of a covered light bulb, which provides just enough heat to keep the water from freezing.

The birds vote with their feet, er, wings. They fly here from all over the neighborhood, mostly junkos and jays this morning, but other types on other days. Our backyard is an avian watering hole, with all the chirps and flappings and quiet busyness that entails. So much for suet and thistle. In this frozen season birds need liquid sustenance, too. They cannot survive on seed alone.


Thursday, January 13, 2011

Harder to Pretend

On a late afternoon walk against the wind, I see the forested section of Folkstone with bleak clarity: the trees beside the houses, the tall trunks, the unrelenting verticality of the winter woods.

In the summer you can lose yourself in green; in winter the gray limbs do not hide the split-levels and center-hall colonials. You are in a neighborhood, all right. You are not in a forested idyll. The trees are a slim buffer, a thin no-man’s land between property lines. In the winter it is harder to pretend.


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Sound of Tea

One of our most coveted possessions is an electric tea kettle (not pictured; it's too grungy to photograph) that automatically shuts off once the water has boiled. And one of my favorite sounds of the morning is the steady crescendo of boiling water the kettle produces. It's barely perceptible at first, a quiet hiss, but 20 seconds later, it's rumbling enough that I can hear it from the top of the stairs.

It's a friendly, promising sound. It doesn't demand immediate attention, as a whistling tea kettle does. The boiled water will stay hot for several minutes if you don't reach it right away. Or if you're a purist (as I am), you simply switch it on again to heat the water to the proper just-boiled temperature before warming the pot and making the tea.

I could pick our tea kettle's sound out of a aural lineup any day. It says: you are not alone on this cold winter day. Soon you will curl your fingers around a mug of hot tea, sweetened with a splash of milk and way too much sugar. You will sip, you will wake up, you will take on the day.


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Snow Hype

You'd think we were preparing for Snowmageddon: The Sequel. The sidewalks are crunchy with "pretreatment," plows are at the ready and cheerful meteorologists discuss the latest models with barely restrained glee.

I first heard about this storm last week when I bought a cup of tea from Betty in the cafeteria. "Keep your eye on Tuesday. There's a storm brewing for Tuesday." At that point no one else I knew had heard about this potential nor'easter. I'm not sure where Betty got her information, but she was spot on.

Since then I've heard much talk about winter weather advisories and storm warnings, states of emergency declared in southern states and dire predictions for the northeast. Once again, it looks like D.C. will miss the brunt of it. But until it does, we can look and listen and pretend.

The snow hype is better than the snow.


Monday, January 10, 2011

Upstairs, Downstairs

Watching the new Masterpiece Theater production of "Downton Abbey" last night I marveled at the number of servants a family of five required: a butler, housekeeper, valet and ladies' maid, a cook and assistant, several footmen, scullery maids and numerous others.

That this imaginary family of two parents and three daughters is the same configuration as my own sets my mind to spinning. What sort of servants would I like to have? A chauffeur would be nice, as would a cook and scullery maid. Perhaps we could find a servant who specializes in the throwing out of junk and the organizing of basements (an indentured closet organizer?). Seasonal assistance would be most welcome: a gardener in the spring, summer and fall; a personal shopper for the holidays.

The only problem with such a large staff is finding a place to house them in our snug house. But then, one doesn't have to worry about such things with fantasy employees.


Saturday, January 8, 2011

From Small Town to Big City

"Our literature is filled with young people like myself who came from the provinces to the Big Cave [New York City], seeking involvement in what one always thought from the outside was a world of incomparable wonder, hoping for some vague kind of literary 'fulfillment,'" writes Willie Morris in his memoir North Toward Home.

I've meant to read this book for years, and now that I've almost finished it, I'm itching to read his sequel, New York Days. Morris grew up in Yazoo City, Mississippi, and his description of driving home from Texas through Natchez, Port Gibson and Vicksburg is some of the loveliest writing I've ever read about returning to one's hometown:

"I had the most overwhelming sense of coming home, to some place that belonged to me; I was not merely stunned by its beauty, for this was not new to me; I was surprised to feel so settled inside, as if nothing, no matter how cruel or despairing, could destroy my belonging. It was the last time I felt so strongly about a place."

Morris became the editor of Harper's magazine, its youngest ever, and set about chronicling a tumultuous time (the 1960s) in its pages. He edited and befriended many writers, wrote numerous books, was writer-in-residence at Ole Miss and died of a heart attack at age 64 in 1999.

As someone who also came to New York City in my youth, I find the words Morris wrote about the big city absolutely on the mark: "Coming to New York for the first time, the sensitive outlander might soon find himself in a subtle interior struggle with himself, over the most fundamental sense and meaning of his own origins. It was this struggle, if fully comprehended, which finally could give New York its own peculiar and wonderful value as a place, for it tested who you are, in the deepest and most contorted way."


Friday, January 7, 2011


Yesterday was the Feast of the Epiphany, a day I've always liked, though not so much for its liturgical meaning as for its philosophical one: "a sudden, intuitive perception; an insight into the reality or essential meaning of something."

When I was younger I considered epiphanies the "ah hah" moments in life, grandiose and breath-taking. But as I've grown older I've realized they are more common than I once thought. They are part of the wisdom that comes with age. They are moments when I say to myself, "Oh, so that's what it's all about." They are not always pleasant, but they are always true.


Thursday, January 6, 2011

Walking in Circles

Yesterday afternoon after work I walked to the containment pond. It was cold and calm, and once I reached the pond, I pulled the earphones out of my ears. I wanted to walk without distraction.

The pond was so full of life in the spring and summer, buzzing with insects. Now it is clogged with cattails that have dried and turned brittle. There was a seasonal lesson here I could better contemplate in silence.

I've always thought it would be boring to exercise on a track, to walk in circles, but yesterday I saw the point of it — because each round brings a new revelation. There is a peacefulness that comes from such repetitive movement, a cleansing.

I only made one loop yesterday. But I'll go back to the pond soon to search for its quiet center.


Wednesday, January 5, 2011


With two kids in college and one in high school, hanging out together is a matter of timing and luck. Someone goes out later than she had planned; another stays in. Tom and I go to bed later than we would otherwise. Eventually, we all end up in the kitchen.

We don't do anything special: We laugh, complain, roll our eyes, hug, nag, eat a bowl of cereal and go our separate ways.

But these moments are what I remember when we're apart.


Tuesday, January 4, 2011


There is, first of all, the hour. In the holiday house, 5 a.m. is firmly in the "night" category. Now it is unequivocally morning.

Next are the clothes. I can't pull on a pair of black stretch pants and an old sweatshirt. There are skirts and boots to consider, makeup to wear.

And now, in a few minutes, comes the commute. It, above all, separates days off from days "on." I often think how different my life would be if I jumped in a car and drove 15 minutes to an office, parked and went in. Instead, I drive, park, walk, ride Metro, switch to another Metro line, ride two stops and then walk some more. Total time: one hour 10 minutes on the way in and one hour 30 on the way home.

The commute has a life of its own. It is a force to be reckoned with. Especially on re-entry day.


Monday, January 3, 2011

Remembering Christmas

I've always thought January 2 a less than savory date. The universal going-back-to-school (and work) after the holidays date. This year most of us got a one-day reprieve, so today is the day of reckoning.

Suddenly the world seems dark and cold again. Holiday lights are down, boxed up till next year. Christmas trees line the street, stripped of their decorations, with only a few forlorn scraps of tinsel or a forgotten ornament or two as evidence of their former glory.

It seems a good, contrary move then to post a Christmas photo, a shot of our kitchen table, the sun streaming in, the warmth of the season captured.


Saturday, January 1, 2011


I look for fresh starts throughout the year, so when I'm handed one as obvious as New Year's Day I'd rather downplay the thing. It's hard to this year, however, with such a splendid date to contemplate — this string of ones, nice tidy digits, straight arrows pointing us toward the future.

And that's what today is about, of course — the future, moving ahead whether we're ready to or not. Moving ahead with optimism and purpose, with a list of resolutions tattered from folding and unfolding, one we drag out every year and check off an item or two a year if we're lucky.


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