Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

The older woman was driving slowly, opening her window as she rolled to a stop. She probably needed directions, I figured, so I walked up to the car.

But no, she was shaking her head and wagging her finger even before she spoke.  "You're going to make yourself sick out here. It's too hot to be walking," she said. "Take care of yourself." And that was all. I nodded and smiled, mumbled something like, "It's hot today, isn't it?" She closed her window and drove away.

And I had just been thinking what a pleasant day it was. High humidity, yes, but breezy and bearable. So I steadied my pace a little, thinking again about the time of day (yes, it was 1 p.m. — not the best time to be out) and the simple neighborliness I'd just witnessed. In all my years of walking through the neighborhood, this was the first such interaction I'd had.

Suddenly, I was feeling all warm inside. And it wasn't from the walking.

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Monday, July 30, 2012

The Poor Woman's Library

The Writer's Alamanc tells us that today is the anniversary of Penguin's first paperback editions. Apparently, publisher Allen Lane was looking for something to read on the train and found only magazines and Victorian novel reprints. At the time, quality books were thought to deserve only quality bindings, which made them expensive to acquire and not very portable, either.

Lane remedied that by publishing Agatha Christie and Ernest Hemingway paperbacks in the summer of 1935; the books cost the same as a pack of cigarettes. The publisher then expanded into other titles (classics, nonfiction and children's literature genres) and had soon sold more than 3 million copies.

I have a few Penguin classics in my collection; more to the point, I have a lot of paperbacks. Long ago I had to make a decision: I would either buy a lot of paperbacks or not very many hardcovers. I chose the former, figuring that what's important is the content of the books, not their durability. It's what you might call a poor woman's library. But when I take down one of the volumes, and read the words on the (perhaps now yellowing) page, I couldn't feel richer.


Saturday, July 28, 2012


Claire arrived two weeks later than we thought she would, waiting for a break in the heat wave (back when heat waves meant temperatures in the 90s instead of the 100s) to make her debut.

She was a cuddly baby, a tempestuous toddler and, well, we'll just say a lively teenager.  Now she's a lovely, caring, accomplished young woman heading into her senior year of college. And today she turns 21.

Back when I wrote parenting articles and the children were younger, I would routinely mine their antics for anecdotes. I don't do that anymore, of course. But on some days I can't help but note how proud I am of them, how they continue to amaze me, how very grateful I am to be their mother.

Today is one of those days.

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Friday, July 27, 2012

Olympic Stories

The warm-up visualization our yoga instructor led us through last night took us to London. "Flow east across the ocean. Look down, see the Thames as it curves through the city. How do you know it's the Thames?" he asked. And then, with laughter in his voice, he quickly answered: "It's the only dark thing you see."

"It's late there," he continued. "But the pubs are still full. The eyes of the world are on this city."

Maybe it was the drama in his voice, maybe it was the mid-summer doldrums, but whatever it was, it made me very excited that the Olympics are starting today.

I remember writing about the ice dancing event in Vancouver in in one of my first posts in this blog. Have I really been writing almost daily here for that long?

The Olympics, like any event that happens every two years (or every four) helps us measure time. The music, the uniforms, who wins and who loses, where we lived and who we watched it with — all these wrap themselves into our memories and become part of the experience. Watching the Olympics unites us in a good way. We are riveted by competition, not by tragedy.

It's eight hours until the opening ceremonies. Let the games — and the stories — begin.

Anthony Page holds the Olympic torch in front of Big Ben. Photo: London 2012 Olympics Official Site.

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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Just a Couple of Crazy Kids in Love

Sid and Dominique, our rescue parakeets, had been chirping to each other for days, but it wasn't until yesterday that they met beak to beak. Early reports are positive and confirm our initial impression that Dominique is, in fact, a girl.

I wasn't there to witness the first date (which quickly led to cohabitation), but it's worth noting that they ended up in Sid's cage. Dominique has seemed a little more interested all along.

This is all new to us. Our sweet Hermes, who died in January, 2011, was a coddled only bird. I'm not even sure he knew he was a parakeet, so thoroughly did he join our flock (he talked, he sneezed, he went to sleep each night with a bedtime story, Goodnight, Moon).

Sid and Dominique, on the other hand, are pure bird. They will be each others mates and best friends, we hope. We humans are just along for the ride.

Photo: Claire Capehart


Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Meadow Music

A walk through the meadow. I pull out my earphones to hear the rustle of grasses in the wind, the sound of children playing, a ball bouncing. Past the pond, where a family fishes. The mother is veiled, the little boy intent upon his lure.

Along the ribbon of pavement that bisects a field, I breathe in the scent of pine and cut grass. The Queen Anne's lace is nodding, the tall weeds waving. Insects buzz, the backdrop noise of summer.

But soon enough, I dart into the woods. There was a place there where I had to duck under a tree that had collapsed upon itself in the storm. But only a bare patch remains. Already I smell autumn in the air, the acrid aroma of dry leaves. I shiver as I stride.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Night Swim, Again

It was almost nightfall. The air was balmy, and a crescent moon grew brighter with every stroke.  I've been swimming a lot this summer but never this late. Our dinners have been long, our evenings full. Last night was the first chance to paddle through the mysterious waters of the suburban pool after dark.

There was the same dignified man I remember from last year, doing his quiet breast stroke. He hasn't changed, though the guards have grown younger. There too was the windmill slowly spinning and the faintest breeze ruffling the leaves in the high branches of the oaks. The thwunk-thwunk of the tennis balls in the adjacent court was the only sound I heard, other than an occasional splash.

I end the day tired and calm. An advantageous combination.

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Monday, July 23, 2012

Belonging Matters

We will never understand evil and yet, since last Friday's horrific event in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, we have been trying. Alleged mass murderer James Holmes amassed a large cache of weapons and ammunition, all of which he acquired legally. How can we use existing laws and safeguards to stop such madness? Should we reinstate the ban on assault weapons that expired eight years ago? Is there a way to catch incipient insanity through a more rigorous and well funded mental health network? And what about the culture of violence; to what extent did that lead to Columbine, Virginia Tech and now Aurora?

There is one potential cause I've heard little about, though, one that might be considered with the others. Holmes was a native of California living in Colorado. Like many of us (and in some places most of us) he wasn't living in a place he knew well or that knew him.

"The news reports you hear about him, it's as if people are talking about one person in San Diego and one in Colorado. Who he is now is not who he was in San Diego," said William Parkman, 19, who went to school with Holmes' younger sister, in USA Today

This, of course, doesn't provide an immediate explanation for Holmes' actions, but it does provide an underlying one.  The "lone wolf" exists on the fringes of society; he is not part of a community. The people he kills aren't known to him; they are characters in a movie, props in his own demented play.

Holmes sought notoriety. He wanted to be known, to set himself apart in a society of malls and mega-theaters and anonymous, empty suburban bustle. He wanted to set himself apart as a scientist, too, but that accomplishment was apparently eluding him.

We have only begun to plumb the mysteries of his psyche, of the mental illness that may have driven him to such unspeakable acts. But even patients with schizophrenia seem to do better when they are part of a family and a community. The World Health Organization's International Pilot Study on Schizophrenia tracked 3,300 patients in a dozen countries and found that patients in poorer countries did better than those in more well-off ones. Families and communities in countries like India and Nigeria are more likely to care for patients, to give them jobs, to include them in day-to-day life. The human touch, it appears, is more important than we think. And it seems to be more readily available elsewhere than in the U.S., where individual autonomy and accomplishment trumps social and family connections.

But what happens when we fail? When accomplishment isn't enough? When autonomy forces us deeper and deeper into our own misguided thoughts?

Tragedies force us to take stock of ourselves and the world we have created. The random violence abroad in this land (and which, unfortunately, we seem to have exported) makes me think there is more to place than how we feel about where we live.  For the more than the last half century, moving up has often meant moving out.  We're beginning to see what a culture of anonymity looks like. Yes, we are free. No one knows our business. But what have we become?

Belonging matters.

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Saturday, July 21, 2012


The summer stroller finds much to appreciate in an occasional rainy day. Along moisture-blackened creek bridges and past the errant sprig of sagging bamboo, today's amble left me with wet hair and soggy shoes but other than that none the worse for the wear.

Today's rain is slight, slender, sparse enough to walk through. When the trail is canopied, as mine was, you can slip through the drips and drops as if sidestepping them.

I passed people weeding, walking and running in the rain. The wet day didn't bother them either.


Friday, July 20, 2012

Meet Sid

His name is Sid and he has a noble profile. When I saw a picture of him in yesterday's paper I knew I had to meet him. Luckily, Tom agreed.  We briefly considered and then dismissed memories of the last time we'd done something like this.

It hasn't really been so bad, I said.

What do you mean? Copper is a jerk.

This is just talk, of course. Tom loves Copper, rambunctious and ill-behaved though he is (Copper that is, not Tom).

So we jumped in the car and drove to the animal shelter, and there was Sid, noble profile and all. We knew right away he would be our little birdie.

What we didn't know for a few minutes was that two cages away was another parakeet, a canary yellow bird with banded leg and of unknown gender (under "sex" the word "unknown" was crossed out and "male" scrawled above it, though the final paperwork said "female"), and that she would be coming home with us too. Her given name was "Taylor," but we are trying "Dominique" on for size.

Both budgies were strays, so we figured they are scrappy and familiar with the world. And they (in the two cages they came in) are now perched on our kitchen counter, listening to Saint-Saëns' Organ Symphony. They are still shy and quiet and getting to know each other through the bars of their  cages. We don't expect them to be anything like our beloved Hermes, who's been gone more than a year and a half now, and we don't pretend to be their all or nothing (hence the pair). But they have already begun to fill our house with twitters and chirps. It's good to have birds again.

This (obviously low-res!) shot of Sid is what got my attention. Look at that noble chin!


Thursday, July 19, 2012

"Look on my Works"

Gray clouds part as I drive across the river, which is smooth and still. The familiar monuments rise in the foreground. It's early morning and already cars are jockeying for the center lane on Constitution, the only lane I trust to take me where I want to go.

Entering the city above ground I'm suddenly aware of its heft, its stone edifices, the Corinthian columns of the National Archives Building. The trees that grow beside it, the rich old magnolias and oaks — they seem a construct too. And the words carved on its pediment, Archives of the United States of America, look ancient and proud.

For some reason (the hour? the light? the mood?), these words of Shelley's "Ozymandias" come to mind:
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Photo: Wikipedia


Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Pssst ... Want to Hear Some Gossip?

"Candor has been greatly, perhaps too greatly, heightened in our day. With the stakes of candor everywhere raised, the premium is on the new and edgy. People who write autobiographies or memoirs must have something at least slightly shocking — better of course if it is powerfully shocking — to convey."

In his newish book Gossip, essayist Joseph Epstein brings his elegant prose style, his wit and his erudition to bear on a subject with which many of us are all too familiar.

A couple of years ago, I tried to give up gossiping for Lent. It was even more difficult than forgoing chocolate, no easy feat itself. Reading Epstein's book I realize why I had trouble. Gossip has been with us from the beginning. It is part of the human condition. At times it even serves a moral purpose.

But in "these times" (oh, how my children hate to hear me talk like this!) — that is, in a celebrity culture where rumors travel at the speed of, well, whatever speed the Internet operates, which is pretty fast — gossip has morphed into something much more insidious and tricky.

Epstein tells some juicy tales in this book, but he also analyzes how society has become more gossip-riven and gossip-tolerant. How it has created a "change of social tone, an accumulation of many bridges being lowered ... [ which has ] helped to bring down the decorum that was a strong feature of — let us call it — square society. Not too many people around today to defend square society, with all its rules and inhibitions."

Thank God there are a few, Joseph Epstein, of course, being among them.

Full disclosure: I took a class from Epstein in college. It was under his tutelage that I wrote my first real essay.


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Red and Blue

It's the middle of the summer, with mountains of work to do and no relief from the heat. My Metro car was offloaded before 7 a.m. to fill the platform at Ballston with even more perspiring bodies clinging valiantly to some semblance of morning cool.

It's time for . . . a virtual vacation.  What will be, I imagine, the first in a series.

My brother- and sister-in-law are visiting Tom's cousin Dan and his wife, Ann-Katrin, in Sweden now. So I'm taking myself there today, to their lakeside bungalow with the terraced yard and the charming little guest house in blue and red. To the back porch with the deck chairs and lake view, to the pansies and the pumpkin plants, and, in the distance, the cuckoo bird — the real thing, not our loud clock replica — sounding faintly, faithfully, through the woods.

On a walk from their house the first day there we came across these two boats moored companionably next to each other. I snapped a shot. It's still one of my favorite pictures.

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Monday, July 16, 2012

Dogs and Cats

Over a fun dinner out last night, a conversation about cats and dogs. Celia, who adores our canine Copper, still prefers cats because she's never met two that are alike, she says. Dogs, on the other hand, are always the same. Panting, licking, looking for love.

I can't say that she isn't on to something, but given how much attitude I have to accept in people,  I'm looking for something a little less complicated in pets. Loyalty. Obedience. Unconditional love. Or at least two of the three.

Above, a cat with attitude and a loyal, loving (but disobedient) dog.


Sunday, July 15, 2012

Downed Trees

As I walk on familiar trails once again the extent of last month's storm is evermore clear. Limbs down in almost every yard, the sound of chain saws and chippers and, what I noticed especially today, the tall trees in the forest that have been completely uprooted, whose roots lie exposed and bare.

With what deep tentacles do these oaks cling to their soil. Ferocious dedication to their plot of land. They didn't give up without a fight, but 80 mile-an-hour winds make it difficult for even the hardiest to hang on.

In the long run, it was largely a matter of angle and placement. The downed trees are laid out in one direction. The wind came sweeping in from the west and the trees most directly in its path toppled down to the ground. But they still cling to the earth, even with their roots exposed and their trunks strewn across the forest floor.

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Friday, July 13, 2012

The Severn on Fire

I'll admit. These words are just an excuse to display this photo of the sun setting over the Severn. I spent a few days beside this river recently and am thinking how my life would be different if I had such regular contact with natural beauty.

Would I become ho-hum about it? Would they cease to amaze me, these fiery skies, this merging of river and cloud?

Or would I routinely fill my camera as I did night before last, snapping shot after shot after shot — and finding, after I reviewed them, that many of them were exactly the same?

Grandeur is like that. It turns our heads.


Thursday, July 12, 2012


The walk home on a no-car commute day: Leaving the park-and-ride lot on foot — on foot! — as everyone else starts up their cars. The jolt of uneasiness at first. Did I forget something? Did I forget to drive?

No. I arrived here on shank's mare and will return that way, too. I have everything I need: sturdy sandals on my feet, a body that's been sitting all day and needs to move, a carry bag where I stash my purse and book.  My two legs will carry me wherever I need to go.

Down the trail I glide, insects humming, bikers blasting past. The trail is much busier at 6 p.m. than it was at 5:30 a.m., so I stay to the right, pick up my pace. The thoughts of the day swirl in my head. The longer I walk, the more they make sense. How many souls through the ages have used their walks home (from the hunt, from the well, from the village) as a way to sort things out?

Walking home: The original way of decompression.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Moderation in Motion

I begin the morning on foot. Down the suburban street, across a tiny wooden bridge over a culvert and through a parting in the trees. It's where we walked last night, a short and winding path that leads to the wider rail-to-trail that runs between Baltimore and Annapolis. The spiders have been busy overnight and I brush the sticky webs off my arms.

Once on the main trail I hit my stride. I haven't walked to work since I lived in New York more than two decades ago. And I'm not really walking to work now. Only making my way to the commuter bus. But there is no car involved, and that means I start the day in a calm and ancient way. With movement and foot fall and time for thinking as I stroll.

The downed trees I see make me think of our recent storm, our erratic weather, of global warming and what we're losing with it, which is moderation. I ponder moderation for a minute, the peace it brings and the difficulty of achieving it these days. Walking is itself a moderating activity, isn't it? It's not the stop and go of vehicular locomotion but something that — because it's limited by blood and bone and muscle — keeps us true to ourselves. Walking, then, is moderation in motion. It's the temperate response to these extreme times.

What I used to see when I started the day on foot: the East Side glimpsed from the reservoir path.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Matter of Direction

This morning I enter the city from the east, the sun an orange disc behind me. Across a broad river and along a flat plain, the bus takes a route I don't understand and scarcely notice.

For me, a car/Metro Orange Line/Metro Red Line commuter who enters and exits at least three vehicles before I walk into the office, this seems easy. Board a bus in one place, exit in another.

I think about approach and perspective, how the angle of light, the placement of shadows, can make such a difference.

I have arrived at the same destination from a different direction. And this has made an old place seem new again.

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Monday, July 9, 2012

Whistle and Wheels

Early morning, twenty degrees cooler, I'm out early before a long drive.

The day is moist and full of bird song. In the distance, the sound of a train whistle, long and low. I can even hear the clatter of wheels on rail.

It's the sound of leaving.


Saturday, July 7, 2012

Walking to Bedtime

It stays light until almost 10 here on the western edge of the eastern time zone. Which means that if you take a stroll after a late dinner, you are walking until (almost) bedtime.  Cicadas give way to katydids and bats dart from tree shadows into a still bright patch of sky.

It's cooler now, only 95 (!) with a hint of a breeze.  The hum of air conditioners is punctuated by the shoosh-shoosh of sprinklers. Roosting birds chirp as they dip into the short-lived puddles.

The evening is so calm and inviting that I stay out longer than I'd planned. Longer than my shoes are meant to go. But I'm drawn farther by the sight of orange-lit houses opening their windows to the street and by tree trunks darkening into nightfall.

I walked from day into evening; I walked to bedtime.

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Friday, July 6, 2012

Sweet Charity

Her name is Lois. She works at the McDonald's where Dad's coffee group convenes. Always cheerful and friendly, Lois didn't like to smile. She would hold her hand in front of her mouth to cover up  her missing front teeth.

A few weeks ago, the guys (and the few gals) who meet to solve the world's problems over a cup of senior coffee (the same as regular coffee but it costs only 59 cents) took up a collection to buy Lois a new set of teeth. Lois accepted the gift, got the teeth — and a new life to go with them.

I didn't meet her, but I did read the thank-you note she wrote to her customers and friends. She said she can't express the happiness she feels now, being able to smile without embarrassment, without wondering what everyone is thinking when they see her "ugly teeth." "You gave me back my life, my joy, my confidence," Lois wrote.

The note was photocopied so that everyone could read it. But they have already received all the thanks they need — it's right there every time they buy their coffee. It's right there in Lois's smile.

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Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Brown Grass

Lawns are parched here in Kentucky, the grass crunches underfoot. I get thirsty just looking at the scorched fields, as if in hydrating myself I can somehow freshen the air. "We're not the Bluegrass anymore," Dad jokes. "We're the Brown Grass."

While the Independence Day fireworks display wasn't canceled, the Lexington mayor banned everything else.  No firecrackers, sparklers or Roman candles. It's a hot, mean summer here, 99 degrees in the shade.

Maybe it's just wishful thinking, but the storm that's been teasing us for hours seems more likely now.  The sky has darkened, and, at their higher elevations, the oaks and maples bend with the wind. Will we soon be drenched in sheets of rain, will rivulets run down the driveway and into the streets?

Or is it like those tarmac puddles that shimmer on the summer highway and disappear as soon as you draw close to them?

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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

First Race

This morning, Claire competes in her first road race. She's been running for a couple of months now, and she's ready to compete. And I'm excited she's doing it. Running meant a lot to me when I was her age; it gave me confidence that I, a klutz, could actually do something athletic.

Claire has never had that problem. She is naturally coordinated; she makes ice skating and rollerblading look easy. But this is still a big deal because it is such a disciplined and regulated activity. It is the sort of thing one does to push one's self. And as such, is a good illustration of the kind of person Claire is becoming.

So this morning when the race begins, and Claire feels that little flutter in her stomach that's reserved for the new things we do in life, I'll be feeling it with her.

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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Long Afternoon

Midday walk, less hot than the day before.  White clouds emerge in the sky, meaning there is less haze. I take a familiar route in the opposite direction, which is strangely disorienting. The pond is on my left, the woods on my right. I have to remind myself where I am.

I have to remind myself, also, who I am. I pass kids on their way to the pool. A pair of boys, eleven or twelve, pad by in flip flops with towels around their necks. All I hear of their conversation are the words "post traumatic stress." A strange utterance; they look like they should be talking about the cannonballs they'll do at the pool.

Still, they remind me of the great long afternoons of childhood,  the slow-moving stillness of the hour after lunch. I remember the smell of that hour, the hot sun on the swing, the grape candy stick, plans for later in the day, a trip to the park, wading in its cool creek.

I feel like a kid again for a few minutes, though it's only because I was walking on my lunch hour, pretending for a few minutes that I have no responsibilities, only miles to walk and books to read.

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Monday, July 2, 2012

PIcking Up Sticks

Here in the leafy suburbs, when a storm whips through it leaves a trail of sticks behind. This is in addition to crushed roofs, smashed cars and downed trees. Compared with these, of course, twigs and leaf clumps mean little to nothing. Think of them as the comic relief of cleanup. What you do after you've drug the large limbs out of the garden.

And yet, once I started picking up sticks, I found I could do little else. There is the Zen-like rhythm of bending and grabbing and stuffing them in a bag. There is the way that spotting them trains one's eye on what's just ahead, nothing more, nothing less.

But there is also, yes, the obsessiveness of the hunt. I no sooner rid the yard of sticks of one diameter than I notice the next largest sort. Before long I realize that I'm grabbing what usually lies undisturbed in our yard, that I have long since rid our lawn of anything that could clog a mower. That I have, in short, become a bit compulsive about the task.

That's when I stop dutifully bundling and tying the sticks with twine, or stashing them in recycling bags — and instead dump them in the trash with the rest of the garbage. It's my own little clean-up rebellion.

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