Monday, February 28, 2011

Hooray for Hollywood

Once a year (at least!) I know I will stay up late on Sunday night, starting off the work week in a sleep deficit. Once a year I will listen to giddy stars telling us who designed their Size 0 gowns. But it will be worth it every year, too, because no matter how gaudy or self-involved or long they are, the Oscars are for me the original "must-see TV."

They remind me of the days when there were three networks and the annual airing of "The Wizard of Oz" or Mary Martin's "Peter Pan" dominated the television calendar. Yes, we were limited, so limited that we read books and made forts in the woods because there was little to keep us inside. But perhaps for that reason the movies seemed even more magical, and tuning in to the annual celebration in their honor became a habit.

In the weeks leading up to the awards ceremony I try to see as many "Best Picture" nominees as I can, a task made more difficult by last year's decision to increase the number tapped from five to ten. Even though I came nowhere close to seeing them all, I still feel cinema-besotted from my efforts.

Last night's Oscars ceremony was slightly shorter than usual and not as well hosted. But our favorites won, the "In Memoriam" reminded us who we have lost, and the dresses, well, the dresses are always divine.


Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Company of Writers

Today I travel around the Beltway to a little building in Bethesda called the Writer's Center. I have led essay and non-fiction writing workshops there for almost 10 years, and every time I do I know I'll be inspired. I will meet lawyers and accountants, caterers and dry cleaners — people from all walks of life with one thing in common — they all have stories to tell.

Sometimes we laugh together; sometimes we cry. But always we learn something about ourselves as writers and as human beings.

Writing is best done alone and in silence, so when writers gather to share their work there is an extra measure of relief and pleasure at being together. It is good to know there are kindred spirits walking this long road.


Friday, February 25, 2011

Drizzly Day

One of my daughters likes the rain; she sends me messages with happy faces on drizzly days. I grew up in what I now realize was a cloudier-than-average part of the country, so I love the sun. But I have come to terms with rain and have come to appreciate its power to inspire. Rainy days give me permission to stay inside, to think and write.

And if the drops should stop for a few minutes, a misty stroll is just the thing to set my mind to spinning. On rainy days I can pretend I'm in the British Isles, just back from a tramp on the moors, shaking my oilskin jacket, stomping my Wellies and pouring myself a cup of strong black tea. And speaking of tea, it's time for another cup.


Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Duet

I was carrying bags of give-away clothes to the end of the driveway, tip-toeing across the ice, when I heard a sound scarce around here lately, the faint "who-who" of a great horned owl. Moments later I heard another, similar call. This one was slightly lower in pitch and seemed to come from farther away.

I stopped what I was doing and listened to the duet. One owl was raspy, staccato, insistent; the other smooth, tawny, intricate. It was dawn and the sky was pink. I was enthralled with the wild sounds, felt my day grow larger and more filled with possibility because of them.

And though I would later read up on these owls and learn that they are some of the only creatures that eat skunks, that they prey on ospreys and falcons and are not only not endangered, but endanger others — this doesn't change the way I felt hearing the owls' song. It was if the houses and cars and driveways fell away. What was left was the world of wild things.

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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

In the Margins

Since we hoard books in our house, it is often likely that when a particular classic is called for in a high school English class, we already have it. Of course it is not a pristine copy; it is usually adorned with such "English majorisms" as "illustrates dichotomy between life in city and life in country" or "example of bildungsroman." While our children initially balked at taking such tomes to school, they began to see their advantage. There were answers in those margins!

Turns out that other people appreciate marginalia, too. I learned this several years ago when I wrote an article about the rare old books in the Georgetown Law library. And a new exhibit at Chicago's Newberry Library celebrates "Other People's Books" with marginal notes by the likes of Mark Twain and Thomas Jefferson.

A recent article about the exhibit in the New York Times points out that while it's possible to annotate electronically, it is not so easy to preserve those digital annotations. So add marginalia to the list of What We Have Lost with E-Books (along with, perhaps, paper cuts and Borders?).

Life on the margins: It may be better than we think.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Birthday Cake

Before there was President's Day there was Washington's birthday, and it was today. It was my grandmother's birthday, too, and when we were young and still had cousins, we gathered at the house on North Hanover to celebrate. The cake was the kind of densely, heavily iced ones you don't see anymore — maybe the ingredients have been outlawed — and my stomach would ache after eating a slice.

It's funny how you can remember some details from childhood, and I can remember those cakes. Because of the day, they were adorned with a cherry tree and a little axe made of mounded, brightly colored icing.

To a child the idea of a Washington's birthday cake seemed perfectly natural, but now I think about the confection and the story (which many now consider a fabrication) of our first president chopping down a cherry tree with his little hatchet and then admitting he did so to his angry father. It was a mild transgression, as presidential transgressions go; it was innocent and old-fashioned and as sugary sweet as the icing on those cakes. It was the sort of thing we believed in long ago.


Monday, February 21, 2011

Hard Scrabble

I've been meaning for several weeks to write about a book called Hard Scrabble. It's by John Graves, a Texas man — and (I was almost afraid to look because he was born in 1920) still a living one, a fact which buoys me, to know that someone like him (he calls himself an "Old Fart," "OF" or "Head Varmint") is still with us.

I'd had this book on my "to read" list for months and had hunted for it without success in the several libraries I haunt. Finding no free copies anywhere I was actually driven to purchase it. I'm happy to report that the book was worth every penny I paid for it — and then some.

Hard Scrabble is the name of Graves' farm, a place that he owns not because he holds the title to it but because he "owns it in his head" — meaning that he's lived on and worked it for many decades. His writing style is what I would call crunchy — not in the hippie granola sense of that word but meaning that it is full of texture. His surprising word choices and unusual rhythms and phrasing come not from sitting at a desk and looking out a window but from tending bees and building stone houses and finding lost goats. His writing is specific, as all good writing is, but his details are not just observed, they are lived.

And so, when you're reading Hard Scrabble and you're clinging to each phrase because there are only a few pages left and you don't want the book to end, you come across words like these:

" [W]hen past forty — in a period when by rights a man ought to be using what knowledge he has already acquired... did I start consolidating a store of rare knowledge with making a show in carpentry, with fences and humus and stumps and bugs, with the smell of rain on dung and drouthy soil, with how goats bleat when frightened ... with fields that are green and why and what flowers the bees work in August in the third smallest county in Texas."

And then a couple pages later, this:

"It strikes me as more than a possibility that archaism, in times one disagrees with, may touch closer to lasting truth than do the times themselves — that, for instance, the timbre and meaning of various goat-bleats may be at least as much worth learning as the music and mores of the newest wave of youths to arrive at awareness of the eternal steaming turmoil of the human crotch. Therefore, having at least the illusion of choice, one chooses for the moment at any rate isolation and an older way of life."

It is difficult in the suburbs to choose "isolation and an older way of life." But reading Hard Scrabble gives me hope that there is truth and beauty in the honest observation of the place one finds one's self.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Being and Doing

I left this morning early on a round of errands: library, post office, gas station, pharmacy, two grocery stores. By 10:15 I am home again, ready to write, edit and read. I wonder if I can summon the mood for creative work. It is true that a day's first steps can set its tone, and I began this day in efficiency mode.

But I have stumbled upon a cure — poetry podcasts. As I listen to the words read aloud, their cadences chase away the day's earlier rhythms, fill me instead with iambs and trochees, with the human voice in search of magic.

Inspired by the spoken words, I listen and I write. A day of doing may yet turn out to be a day of being.


Friday, February 18, 2011

Bare Feet

Warm weather outside means warm floors inside, so off come the two pairs of socks, the thin ones and the thick ones with non-slip soles. It has been months since I walked without socks or slippers, and I'm surprised by the textures, by the interesting news my feet bring me about the world. My toes dig into the carpet fibers as if they were sand on the beach. And when I step outside for the newspaper my soles are shocked by the cold hard surface. I had forgotten how bare feet feel.

This brings to mind a line from "God's Grandeur" by Gerard Manley Hopkins, a poem in praise of the creator and creation: "Nor can foot feel, being shod."

In bundling up for winter we numb the senses. We have to. And in spring comes an awakening not just of nature but of our capacity to appreciate it.

The next lines of the poem are: "And for all this, nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things." It is the way I feel today barefoot — that the elements I usually ignore are waiting to restore me.


Thursday, February 17, 2011

Setting Goals

She carried a flashlight, so I could spot the goal-setter a mile down the road. It was my neighbor, Nancy, another walker in the suburbs, though a more regular one. It was well before dawn but she was already pounding the pavement.

About 12 years ago Nancy started fast-walking in earnest. She started, she said, because she had to use it or lose it. She keeps going for the same reason.

I caught her late one afternoon on her second walk of the day and asked her why she was out again. "I was two miles short of my goal," she said. "Twenty miles a week."

We talked some more, about routes and roads, suburban stuff, but all the while I'm thinking about goals. Setting them, keeping them, how they work to keep us young. How goals of distance are more weighty and tangible than goals of time. Twenty miles a week is a thousand miles a year. That's from here to Kentucky and back. It's a lot of miles to walk, a big goal to keep.

I don't keep track of my miles. Maybe I should.


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Poetry at Noon

I almost didn't go, had too many papers on my desk to feel right about leaving them behind, but my friend Michele Wolf was reading from her new book Immersion so I walked 20 minutes to a building made of words, took a seat and let the images flow into my brain.

It was a good decision. The verse filled me full as any food. They were love poems — love for children, for parents, for spouse — and they trembled and soared; they skittered to the edge of the abyss, stood still and stared it down.

On the way home, my path was filled with light. All the buildings had softened edges.


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Unkindest Cut

Walks in the suburbs this weekend revealed the full damage from our recent snowstorm. Trees without tops, our own witch hazel decapitated. Large limbs littering yards and driveways. And in the woods, downed trees block paths.

The pears and fir trees took it hardest. They are bent and broken. But there is scarcely a yard that's untouched. The light brown of sheared wood stands in stark contrast to the silvery gray of weathered trunks.

This is nature's way of pruning dead wood. But unlike the gardener who trims kindly and judiciously, wicked weather takes what it wants. Its methods are ruthless not artful. The unkindest cut.


Monday, February 14, 2011

A Valentine

I had just started this blog last year when Valentine’s Day rolled around. It was Sunday, and though I hadn’t yet developed a six-day-a-week rhythm for Walker, I took that day off.

This, then, is my first Valentine’s post —and the first about my valentine.

You may have met him in these pages before. He flits through them often: steadying my nerves, buoying my mood, even helping me begin this blog. He might cringe a little when I tell him that I’ve used a photo of our messy garage to illustrate one of my posts, but not enough to make me feel bad. For more than 20 years we’ve been raising children, keeping house, drinking endless cups of tea on Sunday mornings— sharing our lives. He is always there for me. He is calm and happy and forever a good sport.

While I sit around musing and pecking on my laptop, Tom is fixing a door, balancing an account, building a fire. He has the enviable ability to lose himself in his work, chores and hobbies. He is, always has been and always will be his own indisputably unique self. And most important, he has a heart of gold. Is it any wonder, then, that he was born on Valentine’s Day?

Happy Birthday, Tom!


Saturday, February 12, 2011

House Dress

The house dress was a shapeless garment worn by grandmothers and great aunts. Simple cotton frocks in floral prints, they were what women wore when they didn't plan on going out, when the chores of the day kept them inside, when they would never consider wearing pants.

I heard a radio report the other day on the evolution of the modern home that included this numbing statistic: In the 1920s, the average woman spent about five hours a day in the kitchen. A house dress must have been comfortable attire for scouring the oven, baking bread or running clothes through a wringer. Shapeless and liberating. No girdle required.

No woman I know wears a house dress now, unless you count some modern iterations that have little in common with their frumpy forebears. But I haven't been home five minutes when I run upstairs, slip out of my blazer and trousers and pull on my sweatpants and sweatshirt. Comfortable and shapeless, perfect for cooking, cleaning or doing nothing, they are my house dress.


Friday, February 11, 2011

The Confession App

I'd thought about another post for today, but then my eyes fell on this headline:
"'Bless me, Father'
Going to confession? There's an app for that."

Apparently there is an new iPhone application that allows for a customizable examination of conscience. Don't remember your sins? Can't recall the Third Commandment? No problem. Just whip out your cell phone and it will walk you through the process.

It works like this: You enter your name, age, sex, vocation and date of last confession (I imagine that one is key) and the program takes it from there. The program provides three versions of the Act of Contrition, the prayer you say after receiving the sacrament, including one in Latin. (Venn diagram assignment: Map iPhone users with those who say their prayers in Latin. Hmmm.)

The device also acts as a digital notebook where you can jot down sins as you remember them. Of course, privacy is guaranteed. "Once you go to confession, all that information is wiped out," said one of the designers.

I think back to my first confession at age seven: my head swimming, clammy palms, the close smell of the confessional, the ominous sliding sound that meant the grate was open and my confession could begin, so nervous I could barely eke out the words, "Bless me father, for I have sinned."

Perhaps I was born a few decades too soon.


Thursday, February 10, 2011

Perpetual Student

Last night I went to a high school "electives fair" and chatted with teachers about psychology, marketing, journalism and more. Celia had visited the fair earlier and emerged with her own favorites (philosophy!). The number of offerings and the sophistication of the classes is further proof that high school is not what it used to be.

My high school electives included orchestra and a semester of typing (the latter a most essential, useful class). I had to wait to college to study philosophy, psychology and journalism. Who's to say which is the better model.

All I know is that wandering around the cafeteria, picking up class descriptions and reading syllabuses made me want to go back to school — not high school, but college. Nothing jump-starts a brain better than a reading list and a looming final.


Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Dream in Winter

Winter here has been less dramatic than in other parts of the country, but it has still bludgeoned and humbled us. Now in our third month of below-average temperatures, we turn up our collars, we pull on our gloves, we take our own warm bodies, all that we have, onto ice-slicked sidewalks, along frost-heaved roads. We push ourselves through the teens, the twenties, if we're lucky the thirties.

I know this sounds wimpy to you denizens of the north, to residents of Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas — but I want out of winter.

The thing is, persistent cold steels the soul, locks it up tight till springtime. Every year I try to play along. I walk through it and I read and write through it. I cook through it. I work through it. Most of all, though, I dream through it — dream of a sunny deck, the smell of highly chlorinated water on a summer day, a hammock beneath the trees as green leaves wag overhead.


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Classic Dilemma

Last weekend I decided to do something special for my blog on its first anniversary, a little facelift, so to speak. Blogspot has new templates so I experimented with some of those on Saturday. I fiddled with background pictures, fonts and shadows; with line rules of varying widths and thicknesses; with navigation bars in everything from chartreuse to puce. Then I became impatient, pushed some buttons I shouldn’t have — and in an instant the old familiar design was gone.

I will admit that a tiny moment of panic ensued. I didn’t want my blog to have an ugly green bar across the top. I wanted those clean spare lines, the thin rules around the title, the subtlety, the white space. I wanted my old blog back.

It took the better part of two hours to return to the “classic” template (Blogspot doesn’t make it easy for you), and once I did I had to re-install all the little extras I’d had there before — using HTML code no less. But I made most of the changes. So the blog that looks almost the same as it used to is actually not the same at all. It is new born.

And I add to the list of benefits A Walker in the Suburbs has brought me yet one more: to be less timid of technology. I’m still a Luddite, just not as much of one.


Monday, February 7, 2011

A Walker Turns One

It was Super Bowl Sunday 2010, which means very little to me but which anchors this blog's beginnings in my memory. We were going out later to watch the game, something we usually don't do but which good friends and neighbors had invited us for earlier in the weekend. Outside was two feet of snow; inside, the smell of yeast. I'd been baking rolls, big yeasty rolls, and we were taking them to our neighbors. There would be no work or school the next day; in fact, there would be no work or school the rest of the week. But I didn't know that then.

What I did know was that I'd wanted to start a blog and now I was doing it. Tom helped me with the technology part and the words flowed onto the screen. (For the first post, click here:

Had I known then that a year later I would have 315 posts under my belt I would have been surprised and pleased. Not so much by the daily writing — that was already a habit — but by the fact that I could eke out something I felt comfortable sharing with others. And also by the photography part — snapping pictures for the blog has been a fringe benefit I didn't foresee.

What gladdens me the most is how the blog has rejuvenated my writing life. In the last few years many essay markets have dried up, and freelance writing, while never an easy path, has become a darned near impossible one. As any suburban walker knows, when one road is blocked you must find another. This blog has helped me find my voice again.

As A Walker ambles forward I want to notice more, question myself less and never be afraid to explore the winding, circuitous path — the detour. Because often it's the road I should have taken all along. Thanks for visiting this blog. Happy Reading!


Saturday, February 5, 2011

Eyes Bigger Than Stomach

It's a gray, rainy day, perfect for endless cups of tea and a good book (or books). I have a pile of tomes beside me now: a memoir, a biography, a book of poetry and a novel. I keep checking books out of the library even though I already have a pile of unread volumes at home. And not just one library, either — I borrow from several.

All of this has brought to mind something my parents said to us when we were kids. Whenever we went out to eat, especially to cafeterias (those monuments to overeating that I still sometimes hanker for), the rule was you could take as much as you wanted from the line but you had to eat it all. Groans of "I can't eat another bite" were met with the adage, "Your eyes are bigger than your stomach."

I stare at my pile of books. I'd like to inhale them, to have an immediate transfusion of their knowledge and inspiration into my starving brain. At the same time I don't want to forgo the pleasure of savoring each page. I am sated but unbowed. My eyes are bigger than my stomach.


Friday, February 4, 2011


A Walker in the Suburbs was about a month old when a well meaning friend asked,"So how many people visit each day?" It was a good question and I didn't have the slightest idea how to answer it.

But I would soon find out.

This was before Google provided its own viewer statistics right on the blog, so I signed up with something called StatCounter, a very humane outfit out of Ireland that displays stats on page loads and "uniques" (as we cognoscenti call them!) and will break down results into days, weeks or "fortnights" (that and the fact that it's an Irish company instantly endeared them to me).

So I would check StatCounter in the evening to see how each post was doing. And then I started glancing at StatCounter once or twice during the day, too. It reminded me of the months after my book came out, when I visited daily (hourly?) to see where Parents Who Think Too Much was ranked. That became an obsession too, for a while.

As you might imagine, all this checking and re-checking did little for my creative fervor. In fact, it was completely counterproductive. I began Walker to shake loose the shackles of editorial judgment — and here I was imposing something even worse on myself, a minute-by-minute tally of the ether.

I don't check StatCounter or Google Analytics anymore. I write, submit and forget (or try to!). I hope someone is reading my posts, I hope many people are, but with billions of blogs in the world, I have no illusions.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Solar Power

Yesterday at lunchtime I took a 20 minute walk to clear my head. The rain had stopped, the sun had come out, birds were singing. I felt a bit guilty, thinking about friends and family shivering in the ice and snow elsewhere, but those feelings didn't last long. It felt good to be walking, not sliding. And the air had a freshness to it that was born of quick thawing and the faint scent of soil. The warmth drew people from their office buildings.

It reminded me of our trip to Vienna last spring when cold rainy mornings would give way to warm afternoons. The minute the sun appeared the Viennese would be eating ice cream cones. The two events were so simultaneous that advance planning seemed to be involved. How else could the ice-cream eaters have stood in line, bought their cones and already been enjoying them the minute the weather changed?

I never figured this out. But on my sun-splashed walk yesterday I decided it was further proof of human adaptability and the powerful influence of our nearest star.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Winter Sunrise

Some of these cold mornings the sun seems reluctant to rise. It is faraway and wan. But other days it reddens the horizon. It is the only color in a monochromatic winter landscape. Those are the days when I'm glad to have a camera.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

February 1

Ice, snow, freezing rain, bone-chilling cold — any one or several of these have kept Mom from celebrating birthdays with her family. “Can you imagine a worse day for a birthday?” she has always said. Maybe not, but neither can I imagine her with any other. The day and the person have become one. Which means that February 1 is a day of wisdom for me, a day of buoyant conversation. An incomparable and splendid day.

As the first day of the month, February 1 is a natural leader — and this is another way the day and the woman mirror each other, since Mom has founded two magazines and now, at an age when many people dwell only on what they cannot do, she is starting a museum.

One year when I was a high school English teacher with summers off, Mom and I traveled through Europe and the British Isles together. We took separate flights and Mom arrived ahead of me. She found her way into London, booked us into a quirky B&B and by the time I walked into Victoria Station was standing right where we said we’d meet, under the clock. I’ll never forget that glimpse of Mom; she was younger than I am now and looked so eager and hopeful, so completely herself. It was as if I had seen her as a young woman, before marriage and motherhood and grown-up cares. Though I’m a middle-aged woman with grown-up cares of my own now, I have never outgrown our closeness. I never will. Happy Birthday, Mom.
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