Saturday, June 30, 2012

It's Called a Derecho...

But I didn't know that late last night when I heard the wind roar and the boughs and acorns clatter against the side of our (newly resided) house and one very large thud which I realize now was a tree hitting our neighbor's roof. It didn't take long for the lights to flicker and go off, and it also didn't take long to realize that this was no ordinary storm.

It wasn't until recently, after 16 hours without power, that I was able to fire up the computer, check the Washington Post website and learn what hit us. A derecho (de REY cho) is a long-lived, widespread wind storm that rides along a line of thunderstorms. It's capable of tornado-like destruction, and one of its claims to fame is that it can hold itself together over hundreds of miles.

The derecho that hit us last night formed in Chicago and raced eastward, fed on the record-breaking heat (it was 104 on Friday). The wind was clocked at 80 miles an hour here last night, and the storm left three million people without power.

Like any blizzard, tornado or major weather event,  this one made me  realize how slender are the threads that connect us to the routine, modern life we live. We were lucky. We lost one tree and a large hunk of another, but neither hit our house or cars. Our gas stove meant I could make a cup of tea this morning, too. But with no power, little communication (phone service was disrupted),  downed power lines making driving difficult, and 100 degree heat barreling down on us once again, the day took on a survivalist tone.

I sit now in the stillness after the derecho, thrilling to the sound of the refrigerator's hum.


Friday, June 29, 2012

Home Alone

The house at rest. Counter tops are clear; cups, plates, books, important envelopes that need to be mailed — they all remain where I put them.

I fall into the quiet slowly. Silence becomes a place I long for. Because it's not really silence. Like the color black that is all colors, it is the presence of all sounds.

Our raucous family dinners on the deck; they are there. And so is last Thursday evening, when Suzanne and I  talked at the kitchen table as the room darkened around us. The girls' younger selves are there, too, flitting around like house sprites, keeping me company.

I'm home alone.

Or am I?

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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Meanwhile, in My Other Life

Today is the day. At 10 a.m., the Supreme Court justices will file into the Court and hand down their decision on the Affordable Care Act. For the last few weeks many of us here in our nation's capital, especially those of us who work in a law school whose professors have been  involved in analyzing the legislation, have been waiting impatiently for this moment.

Will the justices uphold the act or strike it down? Will they banish only the individual mandate, the part that tells us we must buy health insurance or pay a fine? And if they do that, how will the rest of the act stand (the so called "severability question")?  And what of the Medicaid part of the ruling? How will that play out?

This time last summer I was reporting and writing an article on this topic.  So I've followed the challenge through the lower courts and now to this ultimate one. Like much of official Washington, I was riveted by the oral arguments in March. The constitutionalism of health care legislation is not a specialty of mine, but after spending a month interviewing experts and writing about it, I learned  enough to understand and appreciate the issues.

Which makes me wish I had time to write about every major issue facing this nation. The more you learn, I think, the more you care.


Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Outdoor Performance

A summer evening at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts. Spreading a blanket on the lawn, sharing wine and conversation as the sun slants through the trees. Birds in the rafters, fireflies  in the air.

For all good suburbanites the experience begins with the drive there, and this one was better than average. Crowell, Brown's Mill, Beulah — back roads that made me feel like I was out in the country, which Wolf Trap once was.

Outdoor performance has a character of its own, the crowds diffused by the presence of grass and trees and the high steady murmur of the wind. At a certain point in the experience you almost forget what you're there for. But then the curtain rises, the lights come up, and the performance begins. It's then that you remember you're there for the dance, the music, the play. (Last night it was Ballet Hispanico, a beautiful and improbable blend of ballet, modern and Latin dance.)  It's then that the illusion and the reality merge.

Photo: Wolf Trap

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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Channeling Mr. McGregor

One sign that you have grown up: When you start identifying not with Peter Rabbit, but with Mr. McGregor. If it's been a while since you read  Beatrix Potter, this is the man whose garden Peter plunders, who chases Peter with a hoe after the errant rabbit sneaks under the fence and snarfs down lettuce, radishes and French beans.

When I read this book to the children, we identified with Peter, of course. Mr. McGregor was the villain, even though it was his garden that Peter ransacked. Peter, on the other hand, was devilish but brave. Willing to take on the world. And definitely a locavore.

It's not a rabbit but deer that have turned me into Mr. McGregor. The herd of deer who have watched and waited until our day lily buds are full to bursting and then moved in for the kill. The deer who have eluded the stinky Invisible Fence that we've doused our flowers with.

Now I know how Mr. McGregor feels. We looked forward to the day lilies all spring long.  We transplanted, fertilized and nurtured them. And then, just when we were preparing to enjoy them, the deer snapped them up.

It's not just disappointment I feel. It's humiliation: Deer 1, Anne 0.

Photo: Project Gutenberg

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Monday, June 25, 2012

Benin Bound

When we moved to Virginia, Suzanne was a six-month old baby. Today she flies to Benin, West Africa, to begin two-plus years of Peace Corps service. The room into which she's crammed two decades worth of books and photos, dreams and plans — that room is preternaturally tidy now.

I made myself go in it late yesterday, though I would just as soon have left the door closed. But as she begins her adventure overseas, we begin the adventure of living without her.

It's what you do as a parent and as a human being, learn to live without the ones you love.  This time the sadness has a fullness to it, though, a sense of life renewing itself. And that makes me grateful for it, in the same way that I'm glad for much-needed rain or the first crisp days of fall.

I don't know where Suzanne will be stationed in this strange new country. Will it be in the south, near the water, or in the north, near the Sahel? More likely somewhere in the middle.

All I know is that the map of Benin that Suzanne studied for months is now in my possession. I'm the one studying its towns and rivers; I'm the one dreaming about the day when I can visit this faraway place.


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Friday, June 22, 2012

The Walking Self

A cloudy, humid morning, the air a warm bath, out early before the day, and the thunderstorms, catch up with us. I spy a woman I've only seen walking — but this time she's in front of her house. I have to look twice to be sure that it's her. She looks far less jaunty pushing a lawnmower than she does striding along the street.

Which makes me wonder: Do we have a walking self? More confident and sure, a creature of motion not of pause.

I think that we do.

And if we walk far enough, and long enough, maybe the two selves merge.


Thursday, June 21, 2012

Longest Day

Tom and Celia head to Montana today, which means their longest day will be even longer. And which means that last night was the last time in a long time that we'll all be together.

We sat on the deck until well past 10, picking at what was left of the quiche I made for dinner, lighting candles, discussing everything from ESPN to circular time. At one point we stopped talking to check on Copper, who was tangling with some wild creature (a fox?) in the back of our yard. Our little dog can always be counted on for comic relief.

Eventually the conversation came around to Africa, to the trips we'll make there and what we'll do when we arrive. It was a good topic on which to land. It is the optimistic approach, the sunny approach, what you think about on the longest day.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Find a Place

... I watch them, the creatures of a city I have dreamed, the flowering
of an ache to be at home ...

These lines are from a poem called "The Flowering" by Glenn Shea, from a collection called Find a Place That Could Pass for Home, featured on today's "Writer's Almanac."  The poem caught my eye because it's about home and about London, where I've always felt at home.

I think of a city I have dreamed, and I see the canyons of Lower Manhattan, the hidden mews of the Village, the broad swath of Amsterdam heading north, the green lawns of Central Park, front yard of a nation.

I remember the grass there, its outcroppings of rock, the aroma of a summer subway, clanging of metal against metal, a fresh breeze from the river flowing across our roof. The haze of a summer Sunday, heading back to my little apartment, knowing I could never live in the city forever, that this place I loved would never be my home.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Rush Plus

As one who relies on the subway to carry me to and from the city, I'm often amused at Metro's public relations efforts. It must be a losing game, trying to put a positive spin on an aging, overcrowded, mismanaged transportation system. 

The most recent example is what Metro folks are calling "Rush Plus," which aims to ease overcrowding on the Orange line (the so-called "Orange Crush") by providing less frequent service on the Blue line.

You have to admire the spunk — since one man's "Rush Plus" is  another man's "Rush Minus" — even if the program is deemed a failure in a few months. I like it because it reminds me of other attempts to make do with less. The brave comb-over of the balding man. The tasty dish that emerges from an empty pantry. The worn out, discouraged person who keeps on going (because, really, what else is there to do?) — but who does it with a jaunty step, a clear eye and a naive belief that today, somehow, will be different.

(Making do with less is the beachcomber's way.)

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Monday, June 18, 2012

No Buffer

The rain was unexpected. It drenched our seat cushions, fell through my open car window. The last few days were such perfection I had almost forgotten there could be clouds and showers. But they were in the wings all along, waiting to come again.

This weekend we celebrated Father's Day and had a "bon voyage" dinner for Suzanne. With these events behind us there is nothing to buffer us from the departure itself. Our next big family gathering is more than two years away.

But these are rainy day thoughts. In general, I try not to think like this. I tell myself that our family is becoming international and virtual. It's expanding, not contracting. Most of all, I remind myself that this is what happens, what I always told our children they should do: grow up and make their own way in the world.

Perhaps I didn't mean for them to take the "world" part so literally. But there you have it.

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Friday, June 15, 2012

Last Day, First Day

Last day of school, first day of summer. The weight of the world would slip from my shoulders. Time stood still, and days were warm and without purpose. There would be cool shady mornings and long lighted evenings. There would be watermelon and iced tea and potato salad;  filmy cotton dresses and new Keds that I'd get dirty right away.

And later, when the children were young, there was their joy to witness, the shaving cream fights at the bus stop on the last day (see above), the creek wading and romps in the woods, the road trips to Kentucky and Indiana and Montana and Maine. Summer was a time to put the world aside. Now the world pushes its way into every season.

One daughter packs for Africa, another is about to be a senior in college, the youngest a senior in high school. Time didn't stand still after all.

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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Castle in the Clouds

I sit at a stoplight, one of several long ones I've already encountered on the way home. I'm running late and the light takes forever. I strum my fingers on the steering wheel, tap my feet, fiddle with the knobs of the radio and then fiddle with them some more. I look up, light's still red. 

It's then that I think that I have become Fairfax County. Its tempo is my tempo. Its impatience is my impatience.  I drive too close to the car in front of me as I listen too intently to public radio. I have come to believe that what I do every day is more important than it actually is.

What I need is a summer off. Humility Camp. In which people from the East Coast are sent to carefully chosen out-of-the-way burgs in the Heartland. Let us walk down empty sidewalks to the only store that sells the New York Times, only to find that there is no Times delivery today. The wireless in our rented two-bedroom will long since have fizzled. Our Kindle is out of charge.

There is nothing to do, then, but to lie back on the grass, look up at the sky and find a castle in the clouds.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Waking Up

Up and out early. Moisture fills the air and glows in the lamplight. I play some Gabrielli but it's too loud for this delicate time of day. I try Dan Fogelberg's "To the Morning." Ahhh; that's better.

I consider turning off the music entirely and listening to the birds. They're waking up and singing lustily. But the music is good, too. In fact, it sounds a lot like the birds, has the same gradual crescendo.

There are few cars on the street at this time of day, and the ones I see drive sleepily, as if they, too, are just waking up. The day seems to be holding its breath.

On the main road, cars are more numerous and faster. I ease into a trot. The tall grass is wet as I brush by it. Time now for louder music. "Day by Day," a sung prayer.  I'm fully awake now. Ready to come home, touch the keyboard, write.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Shade Seeking

I finished writing an article yesterday morning, which meant that I didn't walk until noon. But I found a trail with only dappled sunlight and fast-walked there. No sun. No sunscreen. No visor.

The summertime world is all about light, from the earliest gray dawns to the latest pearl twilights. But I'm trying to walk less in full sun this year, to choose my path carefully so that — at least at high noon — there will be blessed shade.

This is counter to every sun-loving bone in my body. But it's to preserve my body, well, most particularly my skin, that I've suddenly become a shade seeker.

I'm coming to appreciate the play of light on tree trunks, the wagging of oak leaves high in the canopy, the trails that wind along the stream. There are animals, plants — even ideas — more visible in the shadows than anywhere else.

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Monday, June 11, 2012

New Music

My musical life has languished for years, taken a back seat to raising kids and earning a living and making a home in the suburbs. It's not just the playing of music that's dropped away but even the listening. Being at least two generations behind in recording technology (pre-MP3, pre-CD — most of my treasures are in vinyl), I've contented myself with the radio.

The radio, of course, is potluck, taking what you're given and, in the case of D.C.'s current classical music offerings, listening to the same "greatest hits" over and over again.

But a couple weeks ago an iPod nano entered my life and I'm finding tunes I haven't heard in years, downloading show music and folk tunes and arias, mixing them all together and coming up with playlists that start with Mungo Jerry's "In the Summertime" and end with Gilbert and Sullivan's "He is an Englishman."

To paraphrase someone (Churchill?) who said, "It's not the end, nor even the beginning of the end ... but perhaps it is the end of the beginning," I say, It's not the revival of my musical life, or even a reinstatement. But it is, at least, the end of its dormancy.


Saturday, June 9, 2012

Small Critters

The baby chickadees look just like big chickadees only smaller. They are tiny replicas that flit and flutter in the bamboo that borders our deck.

I spotted one this morning perched on a twig so insubstantial as to bend slightly with his miniscule weight. The little guy made a "chick-a-dee-dee-dee" sound. Only it was higher and thinner than the mature chirp.

How darling are the small critters of creation. They train our eyes on the little things of life.



Friday, June 8, 2012

The Toll

Last evening, a walk I've never taken: A path between two houses to a woodland trail, and along that to another neighborhood. From there to a busy road, left past the shopping center and left again down a street where we once looked at a house to buy. It was faux Tudor and smaller than it looked outside.

I was deep into nostalgia, what-ifs. The yards were edged and tidy with fresh-strewn mulch. I noticed  the brave annuals planted by the mailboxes. The flower boxes and hanging baskets. The lawns were a proud, chemical green; most were new-mown and they sparkled in the slanting light.

Beyond the house life and the car life lies the curb life, the walker's view. This walker has become more sympathetic over the years. More aware of the toil — and the toll — of the suburbs.

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Thursday, June 7, 2012

Fighting Fire

Fahrenheit 451. The temperature at which paper burns; a novel by that name by writer Ray Bradbury, who died Tuesday.

Fahrenheit 451 was one of those novels I read as a kid and could never forget. It wasn't just the frightening dystopia of a future without printed books. That future is becoming more real for us everyday.

It was something about the heart of the story, the way the characters cared for each other and for ideas. It was the elegant and practical and timeless solution they arranged to keep books alive — they memorized them. They learned them by heart. They became the books.

As we've all learned recently, painfully, book burnings are alive and well. And Fahrenheit 451 was often under assault for the vigor of its ideas. "The real threat is not from Big Brother, but from little sister [and] all those groups, men and women, who want to impose their views from below," Bradbury told a Times of London interviewer (as reported in today's Washington Post).

The way to fight fire is not with fire. Or with water. The way to fight fire is to believe,  hold fast and, ultimately, to become the solution. 



Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Flow in Motion

"It is normally easy and actually quite pleasant to walk and think at the same time, but at the extremes these activities appear to compete for ... limited resources," writes Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow.  "My experience is that I can think while strolling but cannot engage in mental work that imposes a heavy load on short-term memory."

Without going into the nuances of Kahneman's theory (in large part because I've just started the book and am still figuring them out!), what he's saying here is fairly straightforward: There is only so much energy to go around, and it's difficult if not impossible to expend great mental and physical effort at the same time.

In my experience, walking promotes thought. The mental briars that entangle me when I'm sitting still aren't present when I'm skimming along a trail. Motion accelerates thought, enlarges it, shakes it free.

The explanation is, in part, speed. Were I to run I would think a lot less. But the answer also lies in something Kahneman discusses a few paragraphs later,  the concept of flow, "a state of effortless concentration so deep that [people] lose their sense of time, of themselves, of their problems."

What happens when we walk (or at least when I walk) is flow in motion. Which sounds redundant. But actually isn't.


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Grasping the Moment

There was a last-minute offer to grill, a request for chicken, zucchini and tomatoes, all of which I gladly supplied. And then there was transporting the grill, the real thing, the Weber, with its bag of charcoal.

The real grill takes time to heat up so there were games of catch with Copper, plenty of ins and outs through the backdoor. People appeared on the deck, talked on their phones and then vanished back inside. Earlier we had sifted through an album, found a black and white photo of Tom from his long-hair days. This was passed around and admired. We opened some hard cider, marveling at its tang and effervescence.

Two more friends appeared, and now it was an impromptu party. I bounced on the trampoline, listening to songs I'd just bought: "Teach Your Children Well," "September," "Your Song," "Morning has Broken."

My troubles left me alone for this blissful, golden evening. The late light glancing the trunks of the oaks, the hydrangea blooming, voices from inside, laughing. People, young people, talking about music and jokes and places we don't know and never care to find out. Someone could have pulled out a guitar, strummed a few chords, and I wouldn't have been surprised. Maybe next time. It was life renewing itself. And I was pulled along by it, glad for the ride.

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Monday, June 4, 2012

Escape Route

A few days of blissful low-humidity weather mean that at the highest point of my favorite walking route the foothills of the Blue Ridge swing cleanly, clearly, briskly into focus. I like to think of this as my "escape route," the one that gives me, better than any other, a glimpse of a world that lies beyond.

For the longest time the route — and for all practical purposes the view — didn't exist. The road was curvy, two-lane and treacherous. You walked it at your peril. And even if you did, you wouldn't have seen the mountains. They would only have been visible from the ridge above — and probably not even there, since the trees that grew along the brow obscured the horizon, too.

But when a new housing development shoved out the few remaining homes and a preschool, the view emerged. And the sidewalk supplied by the property developers opened it up to all.

I had to stop griping about progress then. For once it was on our side, the side of the walkers, the side of those who like to be reminded where they are in the world. The side of those who like their escape routes.

(This is not exactly what I see. My view is of the same mountain range, just farther east.)

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Friday, June 1, 2012

New House, Part 2

"Our house, is a very, very, very fine house
With two cats in the yard,
Life used to be so hard
Now everything is easy 'cause of you...."

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

They said it would be finished by June 1, and, except for some trim in the back, largely invisible to the untrained eye, it is.

Even though I was here for most of it — shuddered as the old siding was ripped off,
got a headache when the new windows were pounded in, took our poor beside-himself dog Copper for walk after walk to get him out of the place as the work continued — it still seems miraculous that from this

 ... there came this.

Perhaps there was some magic fairy dust involved...


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