Friday, August 31, 2012

Long Distance

My vocation demands close work; I seldom have the opportunity to look at the horizon. Here I’ve done little else. Whether it’s wondering if it’s a ship I see on the last curve beyond the furthermost whitecap of the Atlantic Ocean or looking for an egret across vast tracts of swamp, one way or the other I'm casting my eyes to the faintest, most faraway speck I can see.  

Surely this must be good for one’s eyes — to say nothing of one’s soul.

Long distance — what the eagle spots from his perch on the highest dead tree in the refuge. 

Long distance — what the birder tries to obliterate with his binoculars.  

Long-distance vision — what the pilgrim hopes to bring back from the shore.

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Thursday, August 30, 2012


From childhood on, we are taught to distrust appearances. "Don't judge a book by its cover." "Beauty is only skin deep."

But in my few days at the shore I've thought a lot about the role beauty plays in our attraction to a place. Ruling out the way we feel about our hometowns (in which case, perhaps, the reverse is true — the beauty flows from the inside-out knowledge of the city, town or patch of land we call home) — don't we often choose to be somewhere because of the view out a bay window or the way the light colors the sky at sunset.

Something in these physical details speaks to us, calls our name, and we will spend the rest of our lives trying to figure out why.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2012


To belong to a place means that you feel tender toward it. You are concerned for its welfare. When you return to this place after an absence short or great, you are surprised by the feelings it evokes in you. You were not aware that you missed it, but you did.

The little things you notice now, the parade of ducks that create a traffic jam because motorists wait for them to pass (and this doesn’t irritate you), the sea grass that waves in the breeze, the antics of the sandpipers, the lugubrious horseshoe crabs (are they living or dead?), the egrets that look like an Egyptian hieroglyphic, the section of the beach that is sealed off by ropes to allow sea turtle eggs to mature in peace (and this doesn’t irritate you, either) — all of these familiars are made precious by repetition and knowledge.

And that view from the bridge, it still brings a gasp of delight. But now you look forward to it — because you know it is there.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Island Time

It's after 11 and I feel like I should be somewhere. The beach, maybe? Turns out I've already been there — to watch the sunrise early this morning. For most of my almost two-hour walk (I always do this — walk so far to one end of the strand that it takes me forever to get back) it was just me and the shorebirds.

And when I returned, a book beckoned. I just now finished it, looked up and noticed the time.

Remember, you're on "island time," the inn brochure says. But isn't "island time" absence of time? Or transcendence of time?

Today, I'll take either one.

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Monday, August 27, 2012


It was not an auspicious way to leave for a beach vacation, pelted by rain, a tornado watch blaring from the radio, wind buffeting the car — but it was what I could salvage of summer when my work was finally done, a few days at the rag-tag end of August.

But ah! It brought me here to the Refuge. Just me and a bag of books, a bike, a bathing suit and towels.

Refuge: a place of safety, a protected place, a sanctuary.

It is what we hope to find at the end of a weary year. Insects humming, surf pounding, gulls crying. But all of these sounds mingling somehow to a dull, peaceful background roar. A place of rest. Active rest, but rest just the same.


Saturday, August 25, 2012

Dry Season

We live in a part of Fairfax County laced with runs and rills. Last fall, torrential rains swelled these small streams into wide rivers that spilled across our narrow lanes, taking tree limbs and other debris with them.

You wouldn't know that now. Most creek beds are bone dry; the deepest are only a trickle of their former selves. This is not good news for the water table, but it is a boon for the walker.

Routes without bridges, paths that lead to narrow log crossings (or none at all) are now open for business. For the last two weeks I've been walking trails I hadn't walked since 2007, when, in an attempt to ford a stream, I pulled myself up with what turned out to be poison ivy vines. (I somehow grew up without knowing that the second half of the rhyme "leaves of three, let them be" is "only a dope would touch a hairy rope.")

But this summer I can easily cross that stream on a concrete spillway that is usually under several feet of water. And this opens up an entire network of trails through woods and along country lanes. 

 The dry season reveals worlds that are invisible under high water.

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Friday, August 24, 2012

Capitol Hill Walk

A lunchtime stroll up New Jersey Avenue to the Capitol, the grounds and plantings and pleasant vistas of which (I now realize) are thanks to Frederick Law Olmsted. Now that I've read his biography and learned this fact, I think of him often when I walk by. No wonder my eyes rest so easily on the west front, are led so capably to the dome. He planned it that way.

But the Capitol was not my destination. I walked around it to East Capitol Street, past the Folger and down the shady brick sidewalk to Lincoln Park.

If Mall walks are about the grandiose and the touristic (the grand edifices of the National Gallery, Natural History and American History Museums), Capitol Hill walks are about the domestic and the personal. Artful arrangements of zinnias and marigolds; the fluttering miracle of an overgrown butterfly bush; a fountain accessorized with a kitschy artificial deer (out here in the suburbs we have enough of the real thing, thank  you very much); and dry cleaners, markets and drug stores tucked away on inconspicuous corners (no tacky neon signs here).

My mind wanders: If we lived here, I could walk to work. We would mow our grass with a push mower, grow roses and herbs in large clay pots. And that balconied turret, that's where I'd write.

The Capitol Hill walk is also about fantasy.

A photo of the Capitol that is old and out of season and that convinces me to bring my camera along the next time I take a lunchtime stroll in the city.

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Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Year Ago Today

It was an ordinary late summer afternoon, silky air, the sort of day you wished you didn't have to spend inside. And, as it turned out, many of us didn't have to.  Because at 1:50 p.m. we were turned from our homes and offices onto the street by a 5.8 magnitude earthquake.

Though we later learned we should have sheltered in place under our desks (ignoring every protective instinct we had), we headed outside.  And for the next few hours the streets of D.C. were filled with panicked and then (once we got used to the idea) bemused office dwellers.

I had leapt from my chair without purse or cell phone but (strangely) with the Diet Coke I was holding when the building began to shake. For the next hour I frantically tried to reach family members on borrowed phones. At home I found broken china and a closet ankle deep in photos, papers and clothes that had been shaken off their shelves.

The earthquake happened a year ago today. A year of record heat and drought — with the occasional hurricane and derecho thrown in.

The tremblor seemed strange at the time. But strange is becoming commonplace.

The "D.C. Earthquake Devastation" photo that made the rounds on the Internet last year.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Picture Postcard

I am a sucker for the post card shot. The off-center, the too-close, the out-of-kilter — these do nothing for me.

When it comes to landscapes, I have a middle-brow sense of composition. Give me blue skies, puffy clouds (see yesterday's post), a road winding in the distance, fir trees in the foreground, and I'm happy. Even if there's a bit of blurring (because, say, the picture was taken out of a car window at 50 miles an hour).

This is a photograph of Glacier National Park, snapped on a vacation there  a few years ago. It made me catch my breath then. It still does.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Cloud Post

Though I'm sitting at a desk staring at a screen, in my mind's eye I'm surveying clouds. I'm lying on a deck chair, as I did on Saturday. My hands are laced behind my head, and I'm marveling at the puffy cumulus clouds that float across an impossibly blue sky.

Maybe I was just short on imagination that day, but I spied no particular shapes. No castles, dogs or sinister faces. I saw just the clouds themselves, and that was enough. I looked at them for what felt like hours but was only minutes. Still, it was long enough to get lost in their alabaster swirls, their tufted promises; to swim recklessly from one to the other across the fathomless blue.

The clouds were both companionable and regal. Looking at them long enough I wondered what it would be like to be a part of them. It would mean I'd be drenched, of course, but if by some miracle I could remain dry, and I could fly without fear to the outermost thin trails of cirrus, what would the green world look like underneath? How verdant? How insignificant? How much like home?

Photo: Weather


Monday, August 20, 2012

Caught in the Web

The woods are full of webs these days, spun silk across the path, invisible until breached (which of course is the point) and therefore impossible to avoid. Built by aerialists for aerialists, they don't bother our fern-high hound.

But for me, the biped, they are an annoyance, tangling themselves in my hair and sticking to my arms, legs and face. I tried swinging a stick in front of me as I walked, but felt ridiculous.

So I decided (without formally deciding) to accept the webs, to brush them off as I stroll, to apologize silently to the forest as I unravel its delicate stitchery, knowing this is just one way among many that I alter — just by moving through it — the woods I love.

Among webs' many annoyances is the difficulty of photographing them. At least I snapped the perpetrator in this shot.

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Friday, August 17, 2012


Once you look for them, they're everywhere. The giant oaks that give our neighborhood much of its character, that shade us in the summer and through whose branches the winter wind blusters and moans — these trees are dying.

We have two dead trees in our yard now; we're waiting for the winter discount rates to take them down. But we're not alone. On my walks through the neighborhood I spot more dead or dying trees than I can count. It's the drought, arborists say. Or it's simply their time.

Dead trees have been in the local news recently, too, since a 140-year-old oak with root rot blew down in a storm, crushed a car and killed its driver. This sparked a search for other ailing trees on state rights-of-way. And now chain saws are buzzing all over Fairfax County.

I drove past a work crew yesterday at an intersection where I often stop. What used to be closed and private is now open and exposed. It's safer now, that's true. But it has lost its character.


Thursday, August 16, 2012

What We Did on Our Summer Vacations

As one's children grow up and out, as friends and boyfriends become a center of gravity, as one's own career demands make travel difficult, there comes a point — often unknown till it's past — when the family vacation is over.

This does not mean it will never come again (she tells herself optimistically). But if it comes again it will be in a different form, often atomized (two of us visiting a third) and not all of us together again until people are older and more settled.

So for now, for us, the family vacation season is over and the just-for-two vacation season hasn't yet begun. It makes me sad to admit this, but I can't complain. We've had a good run. Together we've seen much of this country, have sampled Canada and even once ventured across the Atlantic. The glories of the Grand Canyon, Big Sur, Yosemite (where Claire turned 16) and the Maine Coast (where Claire turned 17 — ah, the inconvenience and the privilege of the summer birthday) were all ours to share.

This summer two of us went to Montana, another went to Africa and one is leaving today for the beach. We've made quick trips to Kentucky and Indiana. But all together, well, the last trip we all made together was going out to dinner at Reston Town Center. We sat on little chairs and ate our food off short tables. We laughed and talked about the "cougar bar" across the street. It was a good vacation.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Leaf, Blossom, Bole

The crepe myrtle blooms when other foliage withers. It adds springtime hues to a late-summer palate. It does all of this and more.

But only if you have sunlight to sustain it.

Our two crepe myrtles have decided this is not the case. So we have the leaves and in one case even the buds, but not the flowers.

But what is the essence of the plant?

For some reason I think of Yeats, who speaks of that and so much more:

O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance? 

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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Rooms Outside

It's raining this morning. Not a quick summer thunderstorm, but a steady, autumn-like rain that reminds me summer won't last forever. In spite of the heat and dryness, I'm in no hurry for the season to end. On days I'm at home I try to spend as much time as possible outside.

That's not hard to do, given that our backyard has several "rooms": the deck, the hammock, the trampoline, the garden, and (when we're set up for it) the fire pit. Each one with its separate functions and moods. The deck is where we hang out most, eating dinner or breakfast at the table under the pergola. It stays shady most of the day and is where I worked for several hours yesterday with Sid and Dominique beside me, taking in the air.

The garden is more a viewing spot than a sitting spot. But if you're weeding or planting you might spend an hour there happily occupied.

The hammock and the trampoline are the rooms I've used the most this summer. Nothing decompresses better than a half hour on the tramp, music in the ear, sun lowering in the sky, striking gold on the trunks of the trees, all of this viewed with a grateful blurring that comes from movement.

And when I'm too tired to bounce anymore I can flop in the hammock with a good book or the Sunday paper.

The fire pit is for those congenial evenings when one or two of the girls are at home. The flames create unfamiliar shadows and transform our ordinary yard into a place of mystery and awe. Which it is, to some extent, all the time.


Monday, August 13, 2012

Sunday Drive

A late summer afternoon, work and chores are done, the sky still light, the air still delicious, a car in the garage — and not just any car but the red convertible. We pop off the top, drag out the maps, find a route and head west.

For the first few miles we zoom along in familiar traffic, but then the road narrows and the scenery swells into hillocks and pastures. Fields are green and the hay is baled. The landscape soothes, as it always does when left to its own devices.

Half an hour later we cruise down a road we've never driven before. Trees arch overhead, stone walls line the lane. I lean my head back against the seat, trail my hand out the window. We could drive like this for hours; it would be fine with me.

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Sunday, August 12, 2012

Plane Spotting

A walk yesterday along the George Washington Parkway path took me to Gravelly Point, just shy of National Airport. It's where you go to see jets take off and land. I've heard of this place for years but never visited. September 11, 2011, made the sight of low-flying airplanes considerably less palatable for most of us. But once I  put those associations out of mind, it was hard not to be impressed with the power and the presence of the giant birds.

You hear them before you see them — the roar of their engines as they zoom in from the west. But more impressive even than the sound  is the surreal sight of them overhead, creatures of air approaching land. If you spot them when they're still miles away, you see them dwarfing the Washington Monument, which has been lessened by distance to an insignificant obelisk.

But quicker than seems possible, they are above you, and (if you are an inexperienced amateur photographer with a slow-shooting camera) you're trying hard to take the picture at just the right moment — when the plane is immediately overhead, blotting out the sky; when you, this puny earthbound human, are spellbound, filled with joy at the improbable sight.

Sometimes you catch it. And sometimes you don't.

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Friday, August 10, 2012

Genius of Place

I'm part way through a biography of Frederick Law Olmsted called Genius of Place, by Justin Martin, and already it has gone from being a book I was going to skim and return to the library to one I'm willing to pay to finish. (It's overdue and can't be renewed.)

Olmsted was not only a renowned landscape architect; he was also a farmer, writer, publisher, abolitionist and world traveler. Thanks to a loving and well-heeled father who supported his ventures both emotionally and financially, Olmsted evolved from a lost young man to an apostle of place. His medium was the landscape. His message was beauty.

I'm not even halfway through the book yet — Central Park is barely a gleam in Olmsted's eye — but I'm already looking for clues to what shaped him. One is that he knew places from the inside out.

"He'd walked all over Connecticut as a child; he'd walked all over England a few years back," Martin writes. "Now he was intent on completing his tour of the South; he didn't want to miss anything."

I'm with Olmsted on this one: When you don't want to miss anything, it's best to walk.

Above: A view that Olmsted made possible.


Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Stair Way

A recent escalator accident on Metro has made taking the stairs a more popular option. The trick is finding stairs to take. Because D.C.'s Metro system is so deep underground,  escalators are the conveyance of choice — and they are a finicky bunch. They grumble, they growl, they take months, even years, to repair. And then, a few days ago, a piece of metal tore off the side of one, struck some morning commuters and sent several to the hospital.

I wasn't anywhere near the mishap but I can imagine the crowding, the dim light, the bone weariness that most of us feel as we slog through our routines and then — without warning — a renegade escalator.

Contrast that with the spanking new stairway at Vienna. It is crisp, it is white, it glistens in the light. Walk up its broad expanse, ascend at your own speed and without the clatter of moving parts. It is the polished floor of a yoga studio, the silent hallway of an empty school at the end of summer. It is a Zen experience. Given a chance, I'll take the stair way.


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Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Judith Crist: 1922-2012

Four days ago, in my "morning pages" (my non-blog writing), I riffed about how film critic Judith Crist, who I had the pleasure to study with many years ago in journalism school, told me to limber up my prose style, to shake myself like a runner prepping for a race.

Yesterday, Judith Crist died. She had taught at Columbia for 50 years. Generations of students are mourning her death. She was a brilliant critic and a devoted teacher.

When I was accepted into her class, Personal and Professional Style, I was shocked and delighted. If getting into J School was the cake, getting into her class was the icing. “Crist’s class,” we called it. And it was nerve wracking. Never before or since have I had such a reliable stomachache. Every week, like clockwork, right before and during her class.  And no wonder: She had no tolerance for inelegant, insincere, pedestrian writing — and she would let you know it. 

But oh, when she liked your stuff, well, there was nothing better. And even more importantly, she  zeroed in on what was wrong with our prose (see above for what was wrong with mine!) and helped us start to fix it.

In Crist’s class, writing mattered.  In RW 1 and my other classes, reporting ruled. Good leads, snappy kickers, clean copy — yes, they were taught and idealized. But they were always secondary to the facts and quotations I managed to assemble.

But in Crist’s class tone and voice were the focus. We were writing editorials, for God’s sake, opinion pieces. We didn’t have to attribute everything. We could loosen up a bit. Never let down our guard and never, ever, do sub-par work, of course, but we could let our imaginations wander into metaphor. We could pull up the rug and study what was swept underneath.

Decades later, I'm still writing, still pulling up the rug, still trying to limber up.  Thank you, Mrs. Crist. Rest in peace.


Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Framing the Sky

Yesterday I looked up from page proofs long enough to notice how the hole in the sky left open when a large tree fell three years ago has grow a shaggy green border, enough to make a verdant frame for a patch of blue.

I stared at the "picture" inside that frame. It wasn't a static one, of course, because high up in the canopy a faint breeze was stirring and white clouds bobbed across the blue, like so many duck targets at a state fair booth.  I watched long enough until I saw a hawk glide across the frame. At night I do the same thing with bats, sit in the gloaming and watch for them to dart through the air. They're more visible when they cross our patch of sky.

It was a sad day when the great oak fell. But in the years since, I've grown fond of the space it left behind. Because of it, my eyes are more often drawn to the sky.

Above: a frame of a different sort. 

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Monday, August 6, 2012

To Be In Benin

Today Suzanne visits the town of Toura, Benin, West Africa, for the first time. It's in the far north of the country, in the Alibori region near Banikoara and close to an elephant migration route. She'll be teaching English to middle-school students there for the next two years. It's the first time a Peace Corps volunteer has served at this school.

The purpose of the visit is to meet people, visit her hut and see what she'll need to order or buy to make herself at home in Africa.  Then she'll return to Porto Novo for more language study and training before she starts teaching in September.

One of the big questions on Suzanne's mind is how far the well pump is from her hut. She'll have no electricity or running water so this is not an insignificant question. Already I've been turning on the tap less often, reusing sudsy water, thinking more about what goes down the drain. There's no way to ship it to her, of course. It's purely sympathetic. A futile attempt to be in Benin with her.

When I do a Google image search on Toura, what comes up most are pictures of wells (water portals) like this one. Image:

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Sunday, August 5, 2012

Utilitarian Pasture

My walk yesterday was far hillier than I expected. There was one moment when I stood still to appreciate where I was. The insects were buzzing and the heat was radiating from the dry grasses and the land rose and fell in such a way that I could barely see the swell of the earth around me. 

It was a rough looking pasture, with scruffy weeds, prickle vines and thistles. It could have been a Scottish moor, so remote and wild did it seem. But it was, in fact, a pipeline meadow or an electric transmission meadow, some sort of utilitarian pasture. Our open space is not for grazing but for the humming wires and busy pipes that bring us what we need to survive.  

Beauty, in this case, is a byproduct. 



Friday, August 3, 2012

Paper Cut

Injuries incurred while meeting deadline:

Eye strain

Neck pain

Paper cut

Yeah, I know, the last one sounds silly. But, as I said to myself when I sliced my hand (and right on the life line, wouldn't you know),  paper cuts don't happen in a digital world. Carpal tunnel syndrome maybe, or some other repetitive stress injury, but not paper cuts.

They are, then, a dying malady. A problem that will (it's safe to say) plague us less in the future.

Say what you will about the printed word, that it's being eclipsed by tablets and smart phones and bottom-line bosses — it can still make us weep and make us bleed. At least for now, we continue to live in a tangible, touchable, tactile world.


Thursday, August 2, 2012

Split Seconds

Into the torpor of a muggy Washington summer, where it doesn't much matter whether you saunter down the street in 20 minutes or 10, comes news from a place where every second counts.

"Americans miss out on a men's eight medal by 0.3 of a second," screams one headline, describing the time that separated the U.S. men's rowing team from a bronze medal.  Or, a more positive example, swimmer Nathan Adrian surprised everyone by pushing past the Australian, French and Brazilian favorites to win gold in the men's 100-meter freestyle — by .01 second.

We watch sports for the drama and the fun, to marvel at what the human body is capable of. But do we also watch because time is compressed? The slow-moving outcomes of our own sometimes tedious lives are sped up in the pool and on the playing fields. In competition, as in books and movies, we get to see how it all ends.

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Wednesday, August 1, 2012


August 1. A new month. And by any measure, the last month of summer. It hasn't been much of one for me. All work and little play. No mountains, no shore. The creative juices barely flowing.

I find myself studying maps of the country, looking for the best route to North Dakota. I could go through Chicago into Wisconsin and then up 94 into Minnesota. Or drive straight across Kansas to 29 and follow the Missouri River north.

It's armchair travel at this point, and the only map I could locate last night showed me just half the country — the eastern half. But there are other maps out there.

Even imaginary adventures require a little graphic inspiration.

Map: Info Please


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