Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Walk from One World


This winter's mild weather means it's not too cold for a walk before dawn. I've taken a few of these lately, mostly brisk strolls to the train.

To walk to Metro is to walk east, toward morning. So in all of these ambles I aim toward a slight strip of red along the horizon, the earliest sign of daylight. The only folks I see are just like me, dressed in black or gray, shouldering packs and briefcases and gym bags, purposefully striding to the ribbon of track that will whisk us from one world to another.

These last few months I have come to appreciate even more the benefit of such a separation. It is good to have a place that is not home, a cool, quiet, unemotional place in which to produce solid, if unimaginative, prose. So, I move fast on these morning walks to Metro not just because I'm scared to be stirring in the darkness, but also because I'm genuinely eager to leave the turbulent, heartfelt, almost full to bursting world for a leaner, calmer one.

I have no illusions, though. My best and deepest work always comes from acknowledging and confronting the turbulent world. I walk fast in the morning, but never fast enough to leave that world completely behind.

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Monday, January 30, 2012

Proportion and Scale


A trip through the suburbs this weekend helped me see our corner of the world with fresh eyes. Yes, we have congestion here, and within walking distance are large houses on small lots. But our neighborhood has a wooded, tucked-away feel, and my shoulders relaxed as we drove home under low clouds and a gathering wind.

What makes the difference in Folkstone is having a sense of the land we lie on. The houses work in tandem with topography rather than trying to overwhelm or undo it. We are an older subdivision, too, with houses in the 2,000 to 2,500 square-feet range rather than double that amount. How much easier it is to harmonize when you have room to do it in.

There is a sense of proportion and scale here that soothes the spirit. It's good to be reminded of this.

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Friday, January 27, 2012

"An Absolute Beauty"


Today is the birthday of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose grave we visited in Vienna (though due to the burial practices at the time, we can't be sure his bones rest beneath that soil) and whose melodies have been in my head since I was a kid (of that I am sure).

When I was in high school, I played his sonatas on the piano and his 40th Symphony on the string bass (along with the Central Kentucky Youth Symphony Orchestra, of which I was surely the proudest and least musical member). The 40th opens with the tune that children still learn to sing with the phrase "It's a bird, it's a plane, no it's Mozart." (For an interesting rendition, click here.)

I listen to Mozart now and I feel as Salieri did in the film "Amadeus," amazed at the sounds one mortal can produce, in awe of the genius so evident in his music. "Displace one note and there would be diminishment," Salieri says, "displace one phrase and the structure would fall. ... Here again was the very voice of God. I was staring through the cage of those ridiculous ink strokes at an absolute beauty."

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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Google to User: I Spy


Today, before I signed in to write this entry, I was taken to a page where the new Google privacy policy was on display. I was assured that life would be easier with the new ease of transference between YouTube, Google searches and Gmail. These changes will take place March 1, Google explained, and there will be no way to opt out of them.

I had already noticed the ads Google tailored to my blog posts. They're often funny. I might be reminiscing about our trip to Vienna two years ago and up will pop a Danube River Cruise. Doesn't Google know that we're still paying off our 2010 trip? (That it doesn't is good news, actually; apparently Google does not yet have access to our bank records.)

Surely, though, it's only a matter of time. Google has already been collecting information from my searches and YouTube viewing and from the blog posts I write here. And in little more than a month — in the name of creating a "seamless" environment — Google will be able to share all the bits of information it has collected to serve (and plumb) our deepest selves.

It's enough to drag me back to the 20th century — or maybe the 19th.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Cities Behaving Badly


In a survey by Travel and Leisure magazine that ranks cities in terms of rudeness, Washington, D.C. came in number 3. That's two spots ruder than it was last year. Boston and Los Angeles were slightly less rude — and New York (in the number one spot) and Miami slightly more so.

I don't know much about the methodology of the survey, whether it includes the suburbs of these metropolitan areas or just the cities themselves. But whatever the case, this got me thinking about the rudeness of cities versus suburbs. One seldom hears a suburb described as "rude," perhaps because there's not enough interaction to provoke contentious encounters. But there is one way we Northern Virginians excel in obnoxious behavior — and that's in our cars.

We cut, we swerve, we tailgate. We run yellow lights and red ones, too. We are so rushed to get where we're going that we act as if there are no human beings behind the wheels. My driving etiquette has deteriorated significantly since I've lived here. I don't need a magazine article to tell me that.


Photo: SoMd Expert

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Fields


The other day, on a tip from another book, I picked up The Fields by Conrad Richter. I wanted to read Richter's depiction of frontier life — not the frontier of buttes and canyons and wagon trains, but the "new lands" of what was then Ohio territory, a closer and older frontier.

I'm only about halfway through the book, but I already have a feel for the place that was long-ago Ohio. It was dark, smokey and unrelievedly claustrophobic. The thick woods that blanketed much of the eastern United States must have seemed impossible to tame. I try to imagine a life without clearings and openness, the sky a distant square of light. It is gloomy, all right. But the people who live there are what make it bearable. To each other and to the reader. They are funny and wise and strong beyond imagining.

There are three books in this series: The Trees, The Fields and The Town (which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1951). I hope to read them all.

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Monday, January 23, 2012

Frozen Fog


Out this morning early to move one car and help scrape another, I skittered over the icy driveway and marveled at the cold fog that envelops our neighborhood. It looks like frozen fog to me, but then I wondered, is there such a thing?

There is, I learned, but we don't have it this morning. Frozen fog appears only in very cold conditions (minus 40 degrees) or in very rare ones (with 100 percent humidity and very quick freezing). I also learned that in the western United States early settlers called this ice fog pogonip, a variation of the Shosone word for cloud.

I will keep calling it frozen fog, though. I like the alliteration — and the crow-cawing loneliness of the scene outside my window. I am also most grateful that I don't have to go out in it this morning. Frozen fog is best viewed from inside.

Photo from an earlier, snowier winter.

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Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Find


The forecast wasn't good. It would snow, sleet and then, later in the day, turn to freezing rain. When the going gets tough, the tough go to the library. I picked up an armful of local history books — This Was Vienna; Fairfax County Virginia: A History; Falls Church: A Virginia Village Revisited; Historic Northern Virginia; Reston: New Town in the Old Dominion and a book called Talking Tidewater: Writers on the Chesapeake.

I perused a couple of these tomes last night but was most drawn to an essay from Talking Tidewater, an excerpt from a memoir by Anne Jander called Crab's Hole: A Family Story of Tangier Island. In the late 1940s a family moved from Connecticut to Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay. Their house had no electricity or running water when they moved in but the family made do without it for years. I read just enough to make me want to read the whole book — and just enough to make me want to have an adventure, too. Though preferably one with electricity and plumbing.

An old house in Chincoteague, which as close as I've come to Tangier Island.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Connector


This morning I walked on a path called the Fairfax Connector. There are many of these trails in our area. "Connector" is the default name for a trail that leads from a neighborhood into a park, or that connects one path to another.

As I trudged through the cold, past dog walkers and tennis players and a couple of workmen mulching Nottoway Park, I thought about how the foot traveler has more opportunity to connect than the driver. Here in my neck of the woods there are precious few cut-through streets. We like our cul-de-sacs and circles, our cloistered neighborhoods away from the fray.

But walkers know that getting out of the houses, slipping on our shoes and walking from one neighborhood to another makes us feel more alive. It's the connector. It's the connection.

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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Remembering Hermes


It's been a little over a year since we lost our parakeet, Hermes. We raised a glass to him on Sunday, and then, on Monday, we found ourselves web-surfing parrot videos. There are some very cute bird-dancing videos out there, with the little guys bobbing and weaving and strutting their stuff.

Of course, we are biased, but we think, ounce for ounce, Hermes' brainpower could not be beat. He could say "Hermes," "I love you" and "Good night, moon" — among other things. He knew every sound of human approach (the garage door opening, the toilet flushing) and would chirp hello accordingly. And his sneezes were a dead ringer for the human variety.

Hermes left a hole in our hearts, one we haven't rushed to fill. But now that it's been a year, we are thinking about birds again.

When I was at a wake last fall I noticed a cage of finches in the lobby of the funeral home. Is there a better reminder of the sweetness of life than a bunch of small birds chirping?

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A Stairway Grows in Vienna


It rises beside the escalator, a concrete skeleton, incomplete but unmistakable. This will not be another complicated contraption, something that can break because an errant candy wrapper gums up its works. This will be a simple pedestrian-movement enabler, stationary, providing additional caloric expenditure. This will be, in short, a stairway.

It has been in progress for months now but I've only just noticed it recently. And yesterday, as I rode up the escalator, I saw the risers in place, saw the sawtooth concrete waiting for its tread.

So I googled the project, learned that it is called the Vienna Station Mezzanine Stairs, that it was approved more than two years ago and that $2 million has been allotted to complete it. Two million? For a flight of stairs?

Then I think about it for a minute. As the quick, electronic and virtual become more prominent, the slow, the low-tech and the real will become more valuable. Way more valuable, if the Vienna stairs are any indication.


These stairs are from the Prague Castle. They have lasted centuries. They did not cost $2 million.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Google Travel


Last night we had a full house, and before dinner we talked about the Occoquan Reservoir and the roads and bridges and houses around it. Claire's boyfriend, Stevie, grew up a stone's throw from the water. He fishes it all summer and knows ever cove and inlet. My brother Drew, who is moving back to Northern Virginia after almost two years in St. Louis, wouldn't mind living in a house near the reservoir.

So commenced one of those delightful (modern) conversations that is part talk and part Google maps. We found the house, looked at the terrain around it, figured out how wide the creek would be that flows beside it. Then we looked at Facebook photos of fish Claire and Stevie have caught and released back into the lake, largemouth bass and catfish.

There are things we couldn't have done a few years ago; so, in a way, we plumbed the place more. But, I also wonder, did I see just enough to make me less likely to see it — for real — for myself?


Photo: Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries

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Monday, January 16, 2012

Hollowed Out


It was about 20 degrees this morning when I went for my walk.For an hour I took paths I hadn't taken in years, some never at all. There were hills and bridges, slight dips and a bounty of backyards to overlook and enjoy.

At the end I tried a shortcut that I thought would bring me out on the main road. It lead, instead, to a tall fence I couldn't scale. So I retraced my steps at a run to return to the parking lot where I'd left the car. I was tired by the end.

Along the way the ground crackled beneath my feet as the frozen earth resisted my steps. There was a feeling of renewal in the cold, of being hollowed out and made whole again by it.

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Saturday, January 14, 2012

Moving the Couch


Last weekend, in a fit of home-improvement fervor, we went couch shopping. There had been a near fatal injury to the old futon in the basement, and if it goes, I reasoned, then we can move the office couch down to the basement and buy a new couch for the office.

So we found a couch last Sunday. It was a rich chocolate brown, comfy for sitting or lying down — and within our price range. We didn't buy it right away, though. We wanted to measure the basement stairway angles. "It will be tight," Tom said.

Today, we decided to see just how tight it would be. And the answer is: impossibly tight. But it was interesting to see our old sleeper sofa upended, and it gave us a marvelous excuse to vacuum and dust.

Meanwhile, the futon in the basement may have life in it yet. And the sofa in the office is once again ensconced in its tatty old slipcover. We're back to shabby chic.

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Friday, January 13, 2012

Perihelion

The perihelion is the day that earth is closest to the sun. This year it occurred on January 5.

That we are closest to the sun in the winter throws my nonscientific mind into a tailspin. If we are closest to the sun, then why is it cold? Because earth's distance from the sun is not what causes the seasons. It's the tilt of the earth on its axis that does that, and in winter the northern hemisphere tilts away from the sun.

Ahh, I get it. Sort of. Anyway, it's the metaphorical aspect of this that strikes me most. That all through the cold, dark months we're closest to the star that gives us life — I like to think about this. It gives me comfort.

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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Christmas Revels


One special holiday memory — which I'm writing about only now because I finally pulled the photos from my camera to my computer — was when the Christmas Eve carolers came to our house. We heard them first, when they were across the street, and lured them over here.

Our neighbor Nancy led the others with her lovely soprano, but every one of the singers held his or her own. They crooned "O Come, All Ye Faithful," "White Christmas" and other selections, with plenty of whooping and hollering and toasting in between. (Conveniently, they carried their own wine glasses.)

Some of us stepped outside and joined them. All we lacked were the funny hats. But we knew the words, and we had the spirit. And we remember an earlier time on our street, when there were bonfires in the meadow and progressive New Year's dinners. A time of greater camaraderie and cheer. The carolers made it seem as if those days were back.

After the revelers traipsed off to the next house my Dad turned to me and said, "That's all I need. That made Christmas for me." I had to agree with him.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Aldo Leopold




I was already writing another post this morning when I learned from "The Writer's Almanac" that today is the birthday of Aldo Leopold. I had never heard of Leopold until I took the class last fall. Now I can't imagine not knowing about him. Here's an excerpt from a review I wrote of his book A Sand County Almanac:

At first glance Aldo Leopold’s book A Sand County Almanac (1949) seemed to be like other evocative writing about place — books by Annie Dillard or Henry David Thoreau, for example, books that shed light not only on cities or rivers but also on the author or the human condition, books in which the landscape is a vehicle to the self. I was to learn otherwise.

I scanned the bio of Leopold on the back of the book before I started reading it, and I learned that he grew up in Iowa, graduated from Yale Forestry School and worked with the U.S. Forestry Service in New Mexico and Arizona before becoming a professor of game management (a field he is credited with creating) at the University of Wisconsin. Leopold bought some poor, down-on-its-heels farmland near Baraboo in south-central Wisconsin, rehabbed an old chicken coop on the property and lived there with his family on weekends and vacations. It was there that he wrote the essays that became his masterpiece, A Sand County Almanac, a book that encapsulates the philosophy of place that makes him one of our earliest prophets of ecology and wilderness preservation. This book, like the twisted little apples of Winesburg, Ohio, is the hard-won fruit of the deep thinking Leopold brought to the land on which he chose to live.

Sand County was not as conversational or as revelatory as I first thought it would be. It was not a book about the transformation Leopold and his family underwent as they lived in the “shack” and fixed up the farm. It was so much more.

“There are those who can live without wild things, and some who cannot. These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot,” writes Leopold in his introduction. But from such big pronouncements the work quickly becomes more specific: the winter awakening of a skunk, the trail of a meadow mouse, the fate of the passenger pigeon, the life of a downed tree, the difference between a shovel (which makes us givers) and the axe (which makes us takers).

Eventually, Leopold does share a few personal details: “To conclude, I have congenital hunting fever and three sons. … I hope to leave them good health, an education and possibly even a competence. But what are they going to do with these things if there be no more deer in the hills, and no more quail in the coverts? … And when the dawn-wind stirs through the ancient cottonwoods, and the gray light steals down from the hills over the old river sliding softly past its wide brown sandbars – what if there be no more goose music?”

So there is a place for the personal in Leopold’s ruminations after all, a subtle place and an effective one. But the most important lesson I learned from reading this book is to let go. Let the place teach me.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

First Flakes


They were barely more than specks in the sky when Copper and I stepped out for our walk yesterday. Bits of fluff from an errant dryer vent, I thought at first, or airborne ash from a fire. I didn't know that snow was coming. I should have. All morning the earth had that gray stillness it does before the weather changes, a pause, a turning from one element to another.

As we walked, snowflakes dotted Copper's shaggy back. This would make a good picture, I said to myself several times — and every time I did he did his little doggie shake and they would all be gone.

When we came inside, I still thought the snow shower was a fleeting one. But it flurried the rest of the day and left us with a thin coating, our first of the season. In winter, the world looks better in white.

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Monday, January 9, 2012

A Muted Palette


I'm making my way through Bill Bryson's oddly titled At Home: A Short History of Private Life (oddly because it often reads more like a history of building materials and inventions than of private life) and learning about the Crystal Palace at the Great Exhibition of 1851, gas lighting, Palladian architecture, falls down stairs and the quality and hues of 18th-century paints.

What the book makes abundantly clear is just how recent the comfortable home of today actually is. How not too long ago people slept on mattresses full of vermin, huddled around a single candle and bathed once a year.

A passage I read last night mentions that in the second half of the 19th century the world still lacked two very basic colors — "a good white and a good black." So "all those gleaming white churches we associate with New England towns are in fact a comparatively recent phenomenon" and the glossy black front doors, railings and gates of London are new, too. In fact, Bryson writes, "If we were to be thrust back in time to Dickens's London, one of the most startling differences to greet us would be the absence of black-painted surfaces. In the time of Dickens, almost all ironwork was green, light blue or dull gray."

What was missing, then, was contrast, at least in a decorative sense. What a soft, muted palette that world must have had. What would it have been like to live in that world, to see those colors, rather than the ones we have now?

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Saturday, January 7, 2012

Unseasonable


Yesterday I passed three bikers on a four-lane road. Walkers clogged our neighborhood streets. There was a lightness in the air, a feeling of lift and brightness. This is the fun side of global warming, a walk in short sleeves, the smell of mud in the air, bushwhacking through the woods and leaping over the creek.

Will we pay for this soon? Probably. But it's nice while it lasts.


It's not warm enough for this. But close....

Friday, January 6, 2012

Parfait


No epiphany today, despite the date. In its place, some sights and sounds. On my walk this morning the eastern sky was streaked pink and orange, a parfait of dawn. As the sun rose and the sky lightened, contrails made lacy white stripes through the blue.

Birds were active today, jays and robins and crows all chirping and hopping and flitting about. I decided that bird song in the morning is a sure-fire way to improve the day.

At the end of my walk, I heard a strange bark-like noise and turned my head just in time to see a plump red fox trot through the meadow. He moved like our dog Copper does, with pluck and verve and a bit of a waddle. When he reached the woods he turned and posed, then ambled on. I felt his wildness in my bones.

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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Uptown View: An Elegy


Yesterday I learned that a friend I'd corresponded with for years, the editor who hired me at McCall's Magazine, passed away in May. I hadn't seen her in years, but I was always fond of her. She was the second person gone on my Christmas card list this year (the other my old boyfriend Gerry, who I eulogized seven months ago in this blog) and I was so sad to learn of her death. Sad for her family above all, but sad also for the passing of an era that she represents.

Lisel was first an agent and then an editor. She was smart and funny and wore her hair in a simple page boy style. She was the one who called me after I dropped off my resume and clips a few days after finishing up a graduate program in journalism. "Well, you're sort of old to be an intern," she said, with an endearing New Yorkish bluntness I was just beginning to understand. "But we'd like to have you for the summer."

The summer turned into five years, and I went from editorial assistant to articles editor. Lisel became executive editor. She was always the calm heart of the magazine, which (like all the "Seven Sister" publications at that time) was edited by a man. I can still recall her big-looped script and her slightly distracted air. She was an intellectual, as many women's magazines editors were then, and though we had our share of "Lady Di" covers, inside McCall's you could still find splendid fiction, elegant essays and controversial reports.

The magazine offices were housed at 230 Park Avenue, the ornate building which straddles that great thoroughfare. It was the dream office from heaven for me when I first started there. The elevators had painted clouds on their ceiling. I've thought a lot about that place and those people since hearing the news about Lisel, about the long hall where she and other top editors had their offices. They all had an uptown view of Park Avenue; the whole world was at their feet.

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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Beating the Cold


When temperatures hit the teens, running is better than walking. This morning I skittered to my office, shortening the seven-minute stroll to less than five. The sun wasn't up yet and a dreary light filled the void. Cars belched clouds of visible exhaust and the few commuters I passed kept their heads burrowed in their scarves.

I tried to keep it loose but when I'm cold my shoulders bunch and my grip tightens. I cinch in my coat, turn up my collar and dash down the sidewalk. This is not the way to deal with winter, I know. It's easier when you relax. But today I'm moving quickly, still trying to beat the cold by moving through it as fast as possible.

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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Right Back Where We Started From


Tom showed me a chart in the newspaper on New Year's Eve, a chart that recorded the highs and lows, the improbable multiple dips and rises of the stock market in 2011. Funny thing was, it ended right where it began at the end of 2010.

There is cause for celebration in this. For the patient investor, obviously, who finds that — yes! — he still has a retirement fund. But for all of us who think we have fallen far when really we're stuck in the same place.

I don't like being stuck, stuck isn't good. But it's better than the alternative. So here's a toast to all of us who, for whatever reason, find ourselves this year right where we were last year. We know what we have to do; now we just have to do it.

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Monday, January 2, 2012

Hitching a Ride


Winter came in with a vengeance last night. I didn't feel it as much as I heard it. It hitched a ride on a wild west wind and galloped into our neighborhood in the middle of the night. It roared and growled, set the bamboo a rat-tat-tatting against the house and drove the wind chimes into overdrive.

It's Arctic air, the weather folks say. I say it's Winter and it's angry, ready to take back its time. Enough of this balmy rain, this blooming-time air. This is the real thing. It keeps us inside and drives newly landed birds deep into thickets, where they fluff themselves up to wait it out.

I wait it out, too. Maybe I'll walk at noontime, when the sun has some power over the cold and the wind has subsided, even a little.

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Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Year


The balmy temperatures of the last few weeks mean that cherry trees are blossoming and daffodils are peaking through the soil. Worries about global warming aside, it's a nice way to greet the new year — with new growth, new life.

As I write, sun pours through the kitchen window making rainbows through a prism. We still have the holiday place mats, candles and poinsettia on the table and the Christmas tree lights up a normally dark corner of the living room. There is, then, a feeling of fullness.

I just came in from a brisk walk through the neighborhood. Resolutions are wafting through my head. I'm surrounded by people I love. So all is well this first morning of 2012.

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